Everybody Wants to Talk to Lincoln Riley

The Oklahoma coach’s schemes and coaching style have impressed the NFL—which is why plenty of folks around the league have been visiting Norman this offseason. Plus, inside the Cowboys’ youth movement, the Rams rookies get an immersion, first look at the scouting grades for the 2019 draft seniors, and more
June 25, 2018

Lincoln Riley doesn’t need a reminder. He saw it, just like you did: Quarterback takes the snap near the goal line, flips it to the back, who flips it to a receiver, who presses the goal line, steps back and floats the ball to the waiting, and open, quarterback for a touchdown, just before halftime.

Philly Special? Nope.

This was actually at the Rose Bowl, a month earlier. And it was Baker Mayfield, not Nick Foles, carrying it out, then making the catch. So when the Oklahoma coach saw Foles and Corey Clement and Trey Burton pull off something similar (the biggest difference was a direct snap to Clement) in Super Bowl LII, he could laugh a little, and watch his phone light up with others who made the correlation.

Now, here’s the really interesting part: It was far from the only thing out there on the US Bank Stadium turf that rang a bell for the 34-year-old offensive guru who has captured the imagination of the NFL.

“There were a couple in that game that looked a little familiar, which was good,” Riley said from his office on Thursday. “But hey, we’ve taken things from people too. I’m not saying anyone took it directly from us. There aren’t too many brand-new schemes out there. It’s how you package it, put it together. There’s only so many things you can do with 11 guys.

“But yeah, it was fun to see. The Super Bowl looked like one of our games on a Saturday. It’s kind of fun to see the gap really narrow between the two levels.”

There’s an evolution (not a revolution) happening in the NFL, and one that’s been on the come for a while. You saw it with option concepts installed by Kyle Shanahan in D.C. and Greg Roman in San Francisco and run by Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick a half-decade ago. Chip Kelly’s hire in Philadelphia was a part of the evolution, to be sure, and a lot of Kelly’s concepts are in the NFL now to stay.

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And now Riley is to NFL coaches what Kelly once was—the guy so many of them want to meet, talk ball and trade info with. So chances are that come fall, what you see on Sundays across the league will look a little more like Oklahoma.

In this week’s summer vacation edition of the MMQB, we’re going to jump into the Cowboys’ rebuild-on-the-fly of the last two years, dig a little deeper into Jameis Winston’s suspension, explain how the NFL’s new rookie transition program works for one team (and that’s actually really cool), and get you an early look at how the 2018 college seniors are being graded by the national scouting services.

But we’re starting in the college town that’s become an unlikely destination travel spot for NFL people over the last six months: Norman, Okla.

Thirteen months ago Riley wasn’t even a head coach there yet. In 14 games since, his Sooners are first nationally in total yards (8,114), yards per play (8.29), touchdowns (80), yards per game (579.6) and passing efficiency (202.67 college passer rating), while averaging 5.6 yards per rushing attempt. And since Riley arrived as Bob Stoops’s coordinator in 2015, OU is first in passing efficiency, completion percentage, points per game and total offense.

We’ve seen cartoonish numbers at the college level before, though. What’s separated Riley is the way he systemically and aggressively stresses defenses at every level, marries his passing game to his running game, and makes something that is simple enough to allow players to play at breakneck speed at the same time so complicated for opponents.

When I asked one NFL head coach about OU’s system, he answered, “I like it a lot. His players know what they’re doing, and his plays complement each other. He gets the quarterback lots of easy yards and completions.” Another head coach added, “The way he mixes tempo and attacks people, love it.” And so guys like these have come to campus, either as part of normal scouting or on special recon trips, with questions.

“You do see the difference in the interest, a dramatic difference,” Riley said. “I’d say in all the years at Texas Tech, all the years at East Carolina and the first couple years here, I had a true football discussion with maybe one NFL team. The interest in people reaching out to do that has changed a lot. And that’s probably due to some of the players we had, and how much they were studied.

“But also, you see what’s going on around the league, and offensively, it’s trending a lot more towards what you see on Saturdays.”

What have they picked up? Well, Riley was careful to say that he’s gotten as much as he’s given: “As long as there’s been ball, coaches have shared with guys they trust or guys where they feel like they can get something out of it as well.” But there’s no question that NFL people have benefited from these visits, and in a few very clear ways.

Making the most of your time. That whole thing about making the easy look hard? It’s especially important in an era when NFL coaches’ time with players is limited, a dynamic college coaches have dealt with forever under the NCAA’s 20-hour rule.

“The thing we’ve found here is you can’t have too much in schematically,” Riley said. “You’ve got your time you feel like you’ve got to spend on fundamentals, you’ve got your time you feel like you’ve got to spend on schematics. And when there’s less time to work, you’ve got to decide what your priorities are, understand if you add something from somewhere you’re probably taking it from somewhere else.

“It just makes you nail down your priorities. And as you go through the season, you’ve got to be willing stick to them.”

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Implementing and defending RPOs. Here’s something that’s been happening all over the country this offseason: NFL coaches visiting and talking to college coaches to learn more about run-pass options. And it’s not just offensive coaches wanting to crib concepts. It’s also defensive coaches looking for ways to slow them.

“We’re not a huge RPO team here at Oklahoma,” Riley said. “There’s a lot of teams collegiately that do it much more than we do. But the RPOs, you never saw it, not nearly as much in the league as you see right now. You watch the Super Bowl, and a good majority of what the Eagles did was RPO-based. Some of the run schemes have carried over, some of the tempo has carried over, and the aggressiveness in play-calling and schemes, just from a general standpoint, has carried over.”

Making fewer routes add up to more. This goes back to getting players playing fast, and making the most of the time coaches have with them by shifting the burden from the players to the coaches—with players getting really good at a smaller number of things, then weaponizing those elements creatively by dressing plays up in different ways through formations and motion.

One way Riley sees that approach coming to life with NFL coaches is in how they teach their receivers routes.

“I think route-wise, you see it a little bit more, kind of what we’re doing here, maybe teams are trying to narrow down and focus in on a few routes, where they get more comfortable, as opposed to what it was,” Riley said. “In the past when you had damn near unlimited hours with these guys from an NFL perspective, your play sheets, the amount of stuff you put in, you’d have all the time in the world to do it.”


There are differences between the two levels, of course. We wrote last summer on the explosion of the read-option, and how it had settled to maturity as an NFL concept. It can be a very powerful club in your bag—it just can’t be the only club in your bag. The same goes for the RPO game and other concepts long derided as “college.” They can be very effective pieces of what you do, but not all you are.

That said, the trend to learn and implement from the college game is only growing, based on the guest list that Oklahoma and other schools boasted this spring. It makes sense, too, in that this is where the NFL gets its players from and, as a result, plenty of them have experience with these schemes going into the pros. And Riley, for now at least, happens to be at the forefront of all of it.

“The two teams in the NFL that look the most like us, or several other college teams, were the two teams playing in the Super Bowl,” Riley said, “so when people are having success with it, that’s not going to slow down.” Riley credits coaches like Pats coordinator Josh McDaniels and Eagles coach Doug Pederson for adapting certain run-action (in New England’s case) and RPO (in Philly’s case) looks to the pros.

“It says a lot—it shows they’re willing to do whatever it takes,” Riley said. “It shows they’re willing to adapt to their players, adapt to schemes they’re seeing defensively, adapt to new hour rules. I know it’s not a new rule, but that has made a big difference in the NFL—you can ask anyone. I think it just shows that they’re ahead of curve, and that’s why they’re best in the business.”

And it also says plenty about Riley, that so many NFL coaches have looked to him for help. Would he ever consider taking all this stuff to the league himself? We’ll get to that a little later in the column.


Dak Prescott gets into the action at Cowboys minicamp earlier this month.

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Trusting Youth, The Cowboys Rebuild from Within

Fun fact I stumbled into a few weeks ago: There are only three 30-somethings on the Cowboys’ roster. For a team that just a few years ago relied on aging stars like Tony Romo and Jason Witten and DeMarcus Ware, it sure happened quietly.

The 10 highest-paid players on the roster by APY are DeMarcus Lawrence (26), Zack Martin (27), Tyron Smith (27), Travis Frederick (27), Tyrone Crawford (27), La’El Collins (27), Sean Lee (31), Tavon Austin (27), Ezekiel Elliott (22) and Allen Hurns (27). Dak Prescott is 24. And the two guys over 30, aside from Lee, are kicker Dan Bailey and long-snapper L.P. Ladouceur.

What does it mean? Dallas has effectively rebuilt its roster on the fly, without really ever bottoming out, and now it looks like they’re a few things breaking right—young DBs developing; Prescott rebounding; a young receiver, like Michael Gallup, emerging—from being set up nicely for some time to come. Which isn’t bad when you consider half of the eight Pro Bowlers from the 12-4 team of 2014 are gone.

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“There’s no question, we feel really good about it,” Dallas COO Stephen Jones said from vacation this week. “I mean [corner] Chidobe [Awuzie], working there with [DBs coach] Kris Richard, Kris believes that Chidobe could play himself into being a really high-end corner. So you throw that in with some really good linebackers in Jaylon [Smith] and [Leighton] Vander Esch working with a seasoned veteran in Lee, and some young pass-rushers.

“And the offense goes without saying, I think we have the best line in football. We have one of the best running backs in football, and I think Dak’s going to pick back up and roll again and have a great year. He can be one of the best in the business. We just feel really good about the foundation.”

And that’s in large part because the Cowboys have drafted really well since 51-year-old senior director of player personnel Will McClay ascended to the top of the team’s scouting side. Eight of the 10 aforementioned moneymakers, and Prescott too, are homegrown. Seven (plus Prescott) were drafted; Collins was a college free agent.

Meanwhile, the closest thing Dallas has had to a first-round bust this decade was 2012 cornerback Morris Claiborne (he’ll make $7 million this year from the Jets), with five first-rounders over that span having made Pro Bowls. We’ll see what becomes of last year’s No. 1, Taco Charlton, and this year’s pick, Vander Esch, but that’s a pretty good track record.

Add the non-first-round hits like Lee, Lawrence and Crawford, players who’ve since departed such as DeMarco Murray and Anthony Hitchens, and undrafted finds like Cole Beasley, and it’s clear how the Cowboys have withstood the gradual attrition of the old core (Ware in 2014, Romo in 2017, Witten and Dez Bryant this year) with only one significant bump, a 4-12 mark in 2015 fueled by Romo’s injury and the Greg Hardy circus.

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“We’ve just really drafted well over the last 10 years,” Jones said, “and when that happens, your young players that you draft, you keep them so they can push old players off. That’s what’s happened here. We feel very confident, comfortable that we have players on our roster, young players that are ready to step up and do the job. If you don’t ever give them opportunity, you won’t ever see what you have.”

So that brings us to where the Cowboys are in 2018, and why I think it’s probably not smart to discount them based on the skill-position questions they have. Jones didn’t say this, but others in the building have—Bryant simply wasn’t what he used to be last year, and Witten had lost a step too. The end was coming for those two, one way or the other. And no, there isn’t a pedigreed player waiting at either spot.

What’s there, however, is a roster that’s young and ascending. Leadership will shift. Jones told me that as Martin signed, he told his All-Pro guard, “We need you now more than ever to step up, you and your group, Tyron and Travis. With Jason being gone, y’all are gonna fill that leadership role.” On Prescott, Jones says, “He’s got rare leadership skills,” and he trusts that the quarterback knows it’s time to show it.

But more importantly, he knows they can play.

“One thing that Jerry [Jones] and Will and Jason [Garrett] and I talked about—if you’re gonna be a leader on the team, one of the prerequisites for being a leader is you gotta be a great football player,” Jones said. “Michael Irvin was a leader and also a great player. You don’t see many people that aren’t. Jason Witten was a leader, but a great player. You’ve got to have both in order to lead, and you’ve got to do it both on and off the field.

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“As I said, my hat’s off to Will and his staff, and Jason and his staff, in what we’ve been able to accomplish as an organization in terms of our drafting, I do think we drafted quality men who have leadership skills.”

So in a lot of ways, this offseason for the Cowboys was about trusting the job they’ve done in bringing all those guys up the last few years. Because in a lot of ways, the team really does now belong to those guys.



The Rookie Immersion

The NFL abolished the old rookie symposium after 2015, and this is third year of its replacement—the rookie transition program, which is run by each individual team. The idea was to be more inclusive—the old symposium only included draft picks—and allow teams to tailor the process to introduce players to their new homes.

So that’s really most of what was happening in the NFL last week, with the majority of coaches, scouts and football executives taking off for their pre-training camp vacations. You might have seen some of the rookie programs on social media. The Redskins and Ravens rookies went to Top Golf together. The Niners rookies did work at a Habitat for Humanity site. The Cowboys rookies went to Six Flags. The Titans toured Nashville.

And the Rams went through a comprehensive few days after the vets broke for summer, part of a month-long process the team runs for its rookies. A lot of it goes back to when the team was in St. Louis and Jeff Fisher was coach. The foundation is a financial literacy program every rookie has to complete before signing his first contract and getting his first check, a piece that tends to make an immediate impact on guys.

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“I already opened up another line of credit,” said fifth-round pick Micah Kiser the other day. “I’m already active on creditkarma.com, checking my money, what I’m spending my money on, actively paying my bills—that was the biggest takeaway for me. How can I take the little chunk of change I have now, and ultimately help that grow and make it something greater, not only in the long run, but also in the short term?”

There are also 15 league-mandated topics teams have to cover—league policy, social responsibility, mental health, etc. From there, Rams director of player engagement Jacques McClendon wanted to focus on making sure all these guys in their early 20s got a grasp on the advantages they’d have living and working in the nation’s entertainment capital and second-largest city. Here are some examples:

Dodgers game. The players got an all-access tour of Dodger Stadium and personalized Dodgers jerseys before a Saturday night game against the Giants on the 15th, then took in the action from the Dodgers’ suite as a guest of owner Peter Guber, who also owns a piece of the Warriors. The idea? The power of networking.

“I told the guys, you know how much people would pay to be right next to this guy?” McClendon said. “And five or six of them went and had conversations, trying to pick his brain, how he got to where he’s gotten, how he’s been so successful, Peter Guber. So it was just awesome for those guys to see. You have access that other people don’t have, so why would you not leverage it?”

NFL Network meetings. Officials from the league office and the league’s network met with the Rams and Chargers rookies on the 17th on the Culver City campus— McClendon wanted to emphasize there was a platform there for them—before the two teams went to Lucky Strike for a bowling competition.

“The league office came in to explain that, for one, when the media is with you, it’s great for you to talk to them,” McClendon said. “But on the other hand, the league is here to amplify their voice. So whatever they want to do, whatever their passions may be, the league office is there to support those ventures, and they can use them as a tool and a resource to do well.”

Dinner. On Wednesday the rookies wrapped up the program with a dinner at Rams legend Eric Dickerson’s house. The night before they ate at Wood Ranch Restaurants CEO Eric Anders’s house. Again, the idea was to show the players everything they have right down the street in Southern California.

“Here’s a guy who’s an entrepreneur, has 17 restaurants in the area with a couple more set to open up, so that was an opportunity to see how he’s been successful,” McClendon said. “So you saw five or six guys exchange info with him, and pick his brain on how he’s been so successful. And at Eric Dickerson’s house, talk to him about how he was so successful as a player, and made sure he was on top of his game at all times.”

Branding. On Tuesday, Jeremy Darlow, ex-head of football marketing for Adidas spoke at the team’s facility to the rookies about the importance and power of what they say and how they come off publicly.

“He came and said to the guys, ‘OK, how do you approach social media?’ ” McClendon said. “Social media can be a tool for you to get what’s next. If you’re telling a story over social media, if you’re tweeting the right way, Instagram story-ing the right way, you might get a sponsorship, you might get a job. Guys just tweet outlandish stuff and put themselves in harm’s way by not watching what they tweet.”

Beach workout. Another aspect that was uniquely LA, and aimed towards players taking ownership of their careers: Rams director of performance Ted Rath put them through a rigorous competition-driven workout, but also spoke to them about recovery, and the team drove that point home with a yoga session.

“I had no clue of how to take care of my body when I played,” McClendon said. “Our performance team, Ted Rath, Reggie Scott, all the people that work with them, have been able to teach these guys—your body is Lamborghini, it needs premium gas. So it’s teaching these guys the tricks of trade so their bodies will last.”

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And there was a sobering session too, when Rams senior personnel executive Brian Xanders, the former Broncos GM, spoke to the rookies about the reality that a good chunk of them would be gone at the end of August, while giving them a road map for how to handle the worst-case scenario if it were to come. That, of course, is the idea of program as a whole, as McClendon sees it—making sure his players are ready for whatever might come

“One thing we do, we care about the man,” said McClendon, who lasted seven years on and off NFL rosters. “And if you care about the man, and you make him a more complete man, he’s a less distracted football player and he’s going to perform optimally. I feel like that’s what we do here. We truly care about these guys, and that makes my job easier, because that comes from the top, not just from me.”


Scouting the Seniors

Every summer, National Football Scouting produces grades on the following year’s college seniors for teams, as a sort of kickoff to the evaluation process. The value of the grades is up for debate—they’re done by scouts looking to break into the league, by definition guys not nearly as qualified as those who’ll make the decisions next April. And of course, leaving out underclassmen makes the list pretty incomplete.

But the grades can provide a road map. So this week I was able to get a list of the eight highest-graded seniors on the NFS list, and I figured we’d roll it out here and give you a quick line on each guy. If you’re interested in a few players to keep an eye on in the fall, here you go (in alphabetical order):

Trey Adams.

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Trey Adams, OT, Washington: He’s 6’8” and 327 pounds, entering his fourth year as a starter, and was first-team All-Pac-12 for the conference champs in 2016. If it hadn’t been for a torn ACL in October, he might have come out this year. Adams sat out spring but is expected to be ready for fall camp in August.

Adonis Alexander, CB, Virginia Tech: Academic woes pushed his process forward, and the Seattle-type corner is now one of three players entered into the July 11 supplemental draft. If not for maturity issues, he might have been a Day 2 pick had he declared for the 2017 draft. It’ll be interesting to see if he’s taken in a couple weeks.

Zach Allen, DE, Boston College: Overshadowed by star teammate Harold Landry the last couple years, the 6’3”, 285-pounder was one of only two defensive linemen in the country with 100 tackles in the 2017 season, and he led the Eagles with six sacks in his first year as a starter.

Deandre Baker, DB, Georgia: Size is an issue, but he’s played a lot of football at a blueblood program, starting the last two years and emerging in 2017 as an All-SEC player. He led the Bulldogs in pass breakups and was second on the team in interceptions, one of which came in the national title game against Alabama.

Austin Bryant, DE, Clemson: You’re going to hear a lot about the Clemson defensive line in the weeks to come, and Bryant may have been a first-rounder if he’d come out last year. As it is, he returns after posting a consensus All-America season in 2017, one in which he had 8.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for a loss.

Ryan Finley, QB, N.C. State: Finley is still trailing underclassmen like Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham and Missouri’s Drew Lock in the minds of scouts I talk to, and there are questions about his personality and what kind of teammate he is. That said, he’s talented and was awfully efficient during his junior year. So we’ll see.

Bryce Love, RB, Stanford: Doak Walker winner. Lombardi Award winner. Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year. Heisman finalist. Everyone’s first-team All-America. Rushed for more yards (2,118) last year than his predecessor, Christian McCaffrey, ever did in a single season. And he stayed in school because … he likes school. There are questions about size and his passing-game ability. But he sure has produced.

Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson: This true senior’s decision to stay in school was even more of a stunner than Bryant’s call to do the same. One of the most disruptive players in college football, Wilkins was an All-America last year. He’s also been known to backflip, among other freakishly athletic feats the 300-pounder has pulled off.

So there’s a start for you, with one other note to get you ready: If last year was about the quarterbacks, this year will be about the guys hunting them. Wilkins and Bryant are joined on the Clemson front by Dexter Lawrence (a top-of-the-draft DT prospect) and Clelin Ferrell, and Houston’s Ed Oliver, Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, Michigan’s Rashan Gary and Mississippi State’s Jeffery Simmons will also likely be part of a defensive line crop that could populate half the top 10 picks.


… OF THE WEEK

Tweet

I mentioned in my story on the Jets’ vetting of Sam Darnold that Mayfield got a rare perfect “9” grade in the teammate category, and I’m well aware that the recon of most teams turned up similar information on how the Heisman winner’s fellow Sooners felt about him. And here he calls his shot for a performance on Colin Cowherd’s radio/FS1 show that didn’t disappoint. After watching it, it shouldn’t be hard to see how everyone in Norman loved Mayfield.

YouTube/Video

I came across this on Sunday, and I don’t know why I was fascinated by it, but it’s a rugby player named Jacob McDonald watching video of Tom Brady and reacting on camera to what he sees without having much knowledge of football (“Gronchowski” … “That looked like a rugby try!”). He also did videos watching footage of Dante Hall’s kick returns and Walter Payton’s old highlights.

Quote

“Buffalo is our formation. It’s three-by-one but it’s a ‘B’ word—Buffalo—so that’s a bunch, and there’s an ‘f’ in it so that means the f is at the point. Key left is the protection, which means it’s a six-man protection, they’re going to block six. … The offensive line blocked their tails off. In these situations, two-minute, these defensive ends …  they know it’s a pass so they’re literally in a track stance and they’re just rushing as fast as it can. So it started there. They were incredible. … I had my guy Adam Thielen at X and he had a 7 route. The first part of that play call was 7, so he had a 7 route, which was a corner route. He had more than his share of defenders. He ran a 7 route, I really wanted to throw to him, but he was covered up. … On this side we layer it. There are three layers. Kyle Rudolph, who was at Y, he runs the quick out to the sideline. Our F, Jarius Wright, he runs an intermediate out route. And Stefon, who’s at Z, he’s got the high angle 7 heaven. There’s no timeouts left, we’re at our 39, and I remember calling the play and saying, ‘Guys, I’m going to give one of you a chance.' … They had just run all the way down the field and then they had to run back, and these guys are blocking their tails off, and they know I have to hold onto the ball to let these guys get down the field.”

That’s new Broncos quarterback Case Keenum explaining “Gun Buffalo Right Key Left 7 Heaven”—otherwise known as the Minneapolis Miracle—at a season ticket holder event (via Pro Football Talk). And if you’re ever wondering how much goes into a single NFL play, or whether that was more than just luck, you should check out the video on the CBS Denver site.

Meme

Nothing against Steratore, but that’s pretty good. And congrats to Steratore on a long and distinguished career. Hard to blame him for opting for the comfort of the broadcast booth; it’s sure been good to some of his peers. If you want some insight into the 15-year vet of the stripes, our old friend Peter King did a really cool inside look at Steratore and his officiating crew back in 2013.


OFF-FIELD ISSUES

1. Before I get to the official Shoutout of the Week, shoutout to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski for stealing the show on NBA draft night. I’m glad tipping players being selected to play in professional sports leagues ahead of a broadcast was seen as a crime against humanity. Maybe we can keep that up.

2. I don’t know a ton about Luka Doncic. But I do listen to how people were talking about him before the draft—and if those people are right, that he can be a bona fide franchise player, then Dallas paid a small price to get him.

3. World Cup update: I thought it was hilarious to see a powerhouse like Germany fall behind 1-0 to Sweden, and look on Twitter, with like 60 minutes left, and see a bunch of tweets starting with “If this holds.” Two-thirds of the match left, defending champion down by 1, and it’s a potentially insurmountable deficit. You wouldn’t say that in a 7-0 football game in the second quarter ever, even if the ’85 Bears were the ones leading. (Note: Don’t get sensitive, that’s not an insult, it’s an observation.)

4. Is it alright to say that, and that I’m actually really enjoying the soccer? It’s on in my office during work, which is great, because I can drift in and out of it.

5. I really shouldn’t think this is hilarious. It’s not OK to think it’s hilarious. It’s really not.


S/O TO …

Doug Baldwin, Anquan Boldin, Malcolm Jenkins and Benjamin Watson, for finding a crafty way to answer the President’s request—and ask for pardons for larger groups of people, not just individuals. So much of what they wrote is in simple, common-sense terms. And no matter where your political feelings are, what’s great about what this group of players has been doing is that they’ve taken the collateral gained from the protests of the last two years and smartly leveraged it to accomplish their goals, which doesn’t always happen in these situations.


TEN TAKEAWAYS

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1. I wrote the other day on the Jameis Winston situation, and I don’t have a ton else to add. But I will say that I believe, and others do too, that Winston’s willingness to take the penalty without fighting would be a factor in the league’s discipline. And I think it’s a factor for Winston too, in that it would allow him to move past the incident fairly quickly.

2. Another rookie to watch from the spring: Broncos second-round wideout Courtland Sutton. Coaches were impressed with his attitude during OTAs and minicamp, and his catch radius enabled more than a couple one-hand catches that caught everyone’s attention. The strength of his hands stood to the staff, as does his size (6’3”, 218), and he’s positioned himself well to compete for playing time in camp.

3. The Saints’ defensive rebirth last year under coordinator Dennis Allen was in large par driven by veteran stars like Cam Jordan and Sheldon Rankins, and instant-impact rookies like Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams. So New Orleans went into the offseason knowing that the core of something really good was in place. And that has to make it all the more heartening to see strong springs from guys like DL David Onyemata, LB Demario Davis and S Vonn Bell, giving the team promise that its second tier will give the unit real growth potential in 2018.

4. I think the league denying Laurent Duvernay-Tardif the chance to put the letters “M.D.” on his name plate ranks among the sillier decisions I’ve seen Park Avenue make. The NFL had an opportunity served up to spotlight a pretty amazing feat by one of its guys—Duvernay-Tardif completed medical school as an active player—and show everyone else how it values those who make the league look good off the field. And somehow, it passed on that.

5. I think if I had to bet on a rookie quarterback starting Week 1 right now, and a lot can happen between now and then, I’d put my money on it being Sam Darnold. The third overall pick has been a quick study through the spring, showing he can absorb and apply the information thrown at him. And the fact that he showed great ability to take hits and compartmentalize mistakes last year at USC mitigates the risk the Jets would take throwing him out there. I’d say there’s a better than 50-50 chance he wins the job outright in camp.

6. Speaking of rookie quarterbacks, worth paying attention to this quote from Ravens LB CJ Mosley on Lamar Jackson: “Once he gets out of the pocket, it’s like watching a young Michael Vick. It’s amazing to watch. When you’re defending him, you just have to act like you’re tagging off—you don’t want to be on the highlight reel.” That’s not some slappy saying that. It’s a team captain. Someone brought it up to me the other day, and said “it’s over” for Joe Flacco. I wouldn’t go that far. But to hear respected members of the team talk about the rookie that way does put another level of pressure on the 11th-year vet.

7. I wouldn’t rule out Michael Gallup making an impact in Dallas right away. He’s built like a horse (6’1”, 205), and has made some catches in spring that turned heads. And Stephen Jones brought him up to me unprompted when we talked the other day: “He was inconsistent, but he showed why he was highly thought of coming out of college—he made some really rare plays out there. And it should only get better, and his consistency should get better too as he matures.”

8. Back in the fall, it looked like there was a good chance Eli Apple, the 10th pick in the 2016 draft, wouldn’t make it to 2018 with the Giants. But with a new staff in place, Apple has turned over a new leaf, showing a desire to improve and flashing the athleticism that pushed him near the top of the draft in the first place. Put him together with Odell Beckham and a few others, and I think Pat Shurmur has staff has done a really nice job healing the wounds of 2017.

NFL
The Mind of Philip Rivers: Explaining the Game Within the Game

9. So I did ask Lincoln Riley if he has an interest in coaching in the NFL. Here’s his answer: “Hard to say, it would be really difficult to ever leave this place. This place is very invested in me and my family. They gave me a great opportunity, and I think this is one of the best if not the very best job in all of football. So I don’t know. I really, really enjoy the college game. I don’t know that you can ever say never. I don’t know what the future will hold. But yeah … it’s hard to see myself ever leaving Oklahoma right now.” It’s not hard to see NFL teams trying to pry him loose, though, based on the aforementioned interest in what the Sooners are doing.

10. We mentioned in the lead of the column that what we’re seeing with offensive football is evolution, not revolution. And I made the call on that word after I ran it by Chip Kelly over the weekend. “I don’t think it’s revolutionary,” Kelly said. “I think things trickle-up and trickle-down. And I think when you have good coaches, they don’t try to put a box of what they do. They say, ‘How do we adapt to what we have?’ And I thought what Doug (Pederson) did last year at Philly was as phenomenal a coaching job as I’ve seen in that way. He adapted from Carson (Wentz) to Nick (Foles). What a great coach does is he puts guys in position to make plays, and that’s what he did with those guys.” Kelly’s point is well-made too here, in that the NFL going to some of these concepts is adaptation to what their feeder system is giving them. We’ll have more from Chip next week.


FIVE-DAY FORECAST

There’s not much happening. The supplemental draft is in a couple weeks. The deadline for franchise-tagees Le’Veon Bell, Ziggy Ansah, DeMarcus Lawrence and Lamarcus Joyner to do long-term deals is a few days after that.

We’ll be keeping an eye on the Winston situation. And, of course, the dreaded news-dump potential of the Friday before July 4.

Full disclosure: I’ll be away for that one, so I’m not dreading it too much. But I will have a July 2 MMQB, so I’ll see you all then (and for the Thursday mailbag and the Friday podcast).

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

 

 

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)