The words that stuck out most, from Khalil Mack’s introductory press conference in Chicago, were perhaps the most simple and concise. What, he was asked, was so attractive about the Bears?
“To be wanted,” Mack answered. “That’s all it takes.”
This week the market for defensive players was reset by the two truly generational talents to emerge from a loaded top half of the first round of the 2014 NFL draft. And the differing paths the two players, Mack and Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, wound up navigating is explained almost completely by that single line from the newest Monster of the Midway in his first meeting with the Chicago media.
Donald was wanted by the Rams, and L.A. wasn’t going to let him go. Mack was wanted in Oakland, but only to a certain point, and that became clear quickly.
In February, around the time of the combine, the Raiders made an offer to Mack’s agent, Joel Segal. Segal counter-offered. So at that point, the Raiders definitely were ready to enter into a deal to keep Mack well past the planned 2020 move to Las Vegas, and Mack was ready to sign his future away to the only NFL home he’d known. Problem was, that shared willingness came at very different price points.
As a result, that was the end of it. And contact going forward was minimal.
It’s not as if the Rams and Donald didn’t have disagreements on value. They did. Their standoff lasted almost two years. But after not negotiating at all through last year’s holdout, as a matter of policy, the Rams kept the lines of communication, and negotiation, open this time around, and kept chipping away at a new deal.
Coach Sean McVay kept in contact with Donald. Team negotiators Kevin Demoff (the COO) and Tony Pastoors (VP of football and business administration) stayed in touch with CAA agents Brian Ayrault, Todd France and Rich Hurtado. The deal was never going to be easy—the market for defensive players hadn’t moved in three years—but the mutual intention to reach a solution was never in question.
“Aaron has earned the right to be on the Rams Mt Rushmore,” GM Les Snead told me on Sunday. “And the goal, what’s best for the organization is to make sure that occurs. That principle allowed to keep things very positive through the daily grind of trying to come to a long-term solution; We all took that approach, because the endgame was always make sure Aaron Donald is a Ram for a long, long time.”
You want to know why Donald is signed to his megadeal in L.A., without so much as a game missed, and Mack was being toured through Halas Hall on Sunday morning? It’s right there for you.
It’s why Donald arrived at the Rams facility on Friday afternoon to sign a new six-year, $135 million extension. It’s also why just hours after that, in the wee hours of Friday night/Saturday morning, the Bears called Segal, whom Mack happened to be visiting in New York, and said, “We have permission.” Segal’s response: “Let’s go.”
In this week’s MMQB we’re going to present a new set of quarterback rankings in reprising an old idea I had a few years back (you’ll like that one), we’ll look at the big decision Doug Pederson has coming down the pike, and we’ll check back on all of the fallout from cutdown weekend.
But there’s no other place to start than here, with the earth moving on what defensive players are getting paid, and the glass ceiling that Mack and Donald began all of this under smashed to smithereens. No matter how you view the deals compared to each other, it’s clear that both represent a massive step forward for NFL players who don’t happen to play quarterback.
Consider the numbers, side by side, all of which were far beyond what any defensive player, or non-quarterback for that matter, has ever made.
Total new money APY: Mack $23.5 million; Donald $22.5 million.
Signing bonus: Mack $34 million; Donald $40 million.
Year 1 cash: Mack $41 million, Donald $40.892 million.
Year 2 cash: Mack $56.3 million; Donald $50 million.
Year 3 cash: Mack $73.3 million; Donald $67 million.
Total new money: Mack, six years, $141 million; Donald, six years, $135 million.
Practical guarantee: Mack $90 million; Donald $86.892 million.
Mack had an advantage here. He was working off a fifth-year option number of $13.846 million, and plays a position with higher tag numbers. Donald’s fifth-year option was only worth $6.892 million. So that can explain the discrepancy in numbers favoring Mack.
And that wasn’t the only thing differentiating the two. As the above illustrates, the two players were in very different spots. So with that as the backdrop, here are nuggets I was able to glean Sunday from the two situations.
There wasn’t a seminal moment in the Donald talks for the Rams, but four days (Aug. 5-9) sequestered in a Baltimore-area hotel for joint practices with the Ravens gave Demoff and Pastoors every reason to spend significant time on the deal. And while it really was just more chipping away if you were to somehow chart how this all went, Snead got a nice, positive vibe from his colleagues after the calls with CAA.
“That’s probably when I changed the script a little bit,” Snead remembers, “And said we were in the same zip code.”
As for keys, here are a few …
• The Rams were unwilling to talk, as a matter of course, during Donald’s 2017 holdout. They backed off that this time around, almost viewing Donald staying away more as injury risk management than any sort of wildcat strike. Simply, it was an acknowledgement by the team that this was a special circumstance for a special player, and that it didn’t make much sense to try and make a point by not talking.
• Another concession came in the structure of the deal: The Rams had been against funding guarantees in the past, but did so in this case, using a rolling structure that marries the club to the player for four years (very rare) at the aforementioned price of $86.892 million. Why were they more willing? Well, one reason is because Jared Goff’s deal is the next foundational piece to take care of, and they’re going to have to be reasonable on guarantees in that one (based on the QB market), so holding the line on Donald, the best player on the team, just wasn’t worth it.
• Maybe the most interesting win for Donald—generally these deals are measured against the money left, plus what two franchise tags would cost, which represents the team’s leverage point. In this case, the number was around $40 million over those three years. Donald got $67 million over the first three years of his deal, which is a massive 68 percent hike over the aforementioned baseline.
• There was no deadline for a deal last week but the Rams and Donald certainly were cognizant of the lessons of last year. In 2017, he reported two days before the opener, missed that game, and really wasn’t quite himself for the two games after that. Both sides wanted to avoid having to endure a similar re-acclimation this year, so getting in ahead of game week was a goal.
And when it was over?
“It was, ‘Hey, we’re finally whole again, Aaron’s gonna be a part of this,’” Snead said. “That’s the first thing that crosses your mind—OK, all is right for the Rams for this moment. Obviously, there’s tomorrow and another adversity that’s inevitable, that we’ll have to deal with. But that’s the first thing, and then you do start daydreaming about some of the moves you made during the offseason to improve the defense.
“Those moves were made with Aaron penciled into the starting lineup on paper. When there’s an agreement, and he drives up your driveway, it’s no longer on paper, it’s on grass.”
It’d be wrong to assume that Donald’s deal frameworked what Mack and his people did a day later in Chicago. But there’s no doubt it had its effect on the proceedings.
Because the financial area that Donald and Mack sought to reach was uncharted by anyone other than the guys throwing the ball, the Raiders certainly had their right to believe that Mack’s asking price was crazy. And so for weeks, as teams inquired about his availability, they were met with a very firm no.
The tone changed as Donald and the Rams closed in on their deal. By then, Oakland knew what Mack was asking for was about to seem a great deal more reasonable than it had a few weeks before. And so as coach Jon Gruden would hand teams off to GM Reggie McKenzie (Gruden wasn’t kidding Sunday about not having dealt the second-rounder) late last week, those calling started to see Oakland not only as more open to dealing Mack. At that point, it seemed like they actually wanted to deal him.
So it was that the ball started rolling …
• As far as I can tell, among the teams involved, the Jets were the only ones close to what the Bears were willing to part with to get Mack. The Browns, Bills and Packers, among others, called, but this one was too rich for their blood.
• Mack’s resolve carried the day here. This was different from the Donald situation, in that Mack was on island and not communicating with his coaches on any kind of a regular basis. That could certainly get to you, especially when reporting would mean making $13.846 million for the season ahead. Mack didn’t crack, and that’s a credit to him.
• Gruden panned his roster to me last month and did it again at his Sunday press conference, and it colors why the Raiders were unwilling to go to the place they needed to in order to extend the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year. If you think you’re two years away, allocating resources into someone who may be 30 before you’re ready to seriously contend might not be the best idea.
• For their part, the Bears were monitoring Mack’s status all summer, and Matt Nagy was spending a ton of time late into the night in GM Ryan Pace’s office this week to discuss the concept of dealing for a potentially franchise-shifting talent. That was all facilitated, in part, by the rookie-contract-quarterback flexibility enjoyed with Mitch Trubisky, the same kind of flexibility that Seattle rode to a title in 2013 and the Rams and Eagles have worked to their advantage the last couple years.
• The key number for Mack: $90 million. That’s the guarantee he secured, and Segal and Pace and Bears negotiator Joey Laine were able to get there within 24 hours, which says all you need to know about what resulted from Pace and Nagy kicking tires on Mack. It’s also important here to know that the Raiders were never going there. Oakland’s brass and Mack’s camp did talk at the beginning of training camp, but unlike February, offers weren’t exchanged, a sign of how entrenched each side was.
The depth of the Bears’ investment, in fact, is probably even better illustrated by the Rams’ reasoning for going the extra mile on Donald. They saw what it cost the Giants to sign a player, Olivier Vernon ($17 million per), who wasn’t in Donald’s class, and what it cost the Jags to get a really good, albeit older, interior defensive lineman in Calais Campbell ($15 million per). And then there were the Saints, giving up an extra 1 to move up for Marcus Davenport on draft day.
In the Rams’ minds, it was worth going the extra few million per year, while saving the draft picks, to keep a player who was better than any of those guys and had been a model teammate and citizen to boot. The Bears? They went the extra few million and gave up the draft picks.
So it was a bumpy ride for Mack to get to this finish line. And there was last one kick in the junk he didn’t see coming. After spending the weekend with his agent, Mack flew Saturday from LaGuardia to O’Hare. His plane landed at 7:30 local time, and into a storm. Sure enough, the weather kept others from taking off, which meant his plane’s assigned gate was occupied by another plane in a delay.
Mack spent 90 minutes on the tarmac, not reaching his hotel near the team’s facility until around 10:30 p.m., where Nagy, his four kids, Pace and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio had come to meet him. Nothing in this saga came easy for Mack.
As for Donald? He flew private from Pittsburgh to L.A. last week.
WHO’LL BE THE TOP QB COME JANUARY?
As I was making calls this week to try to unearth who would (and wouldn’t) be on the trade block ahead of this week’s final cutdown to 53, a Packers skill player came across my desk. So I texted with an executive who had intimate knowledge of the guy, and asked if he was functional as an offensive weapon. The response I got: “Should be functional for Green Bay, due to Rodgers being so good.”
We all may debate who the best quarterback in the league is now. What I’ve found is that debate is less heated inside NFL buildings. Most think it’s Aaron Rodgers.
I set out a few days ago to try and reprise, on the fly, a larger project I ran three summers ago at NFL Network. The idea was to ask football people a simple question: Who will be the Top 5 QBs in football at the end of the season? I set the question up that way because it would reflect what these insiders thought would happen over the course of the season, rather than how things looked at the start of the season.
Also, by keeping the ballot to five names, I’d take the pressure off of the responders feeling they needed to name their own quarterbacks, limiting it to players these coaches and scouts felt were truly top shelf. We wound up getting some interesting results (Andrew Luck at No. 2!) out of the process.
So this week I sent the texts out, and what follows is based solely on the opinions of NFL general managers, head coaches, scouting directors, offensive coordinators and quarterbacks coaches, with two defensive coaches mixed in for good measure. I received 32 ballots back, and scored five points for each first-place vote, four points for second-place, and so on. Without further ado, here are the results …
1. Aaron Rodgers, Packers: 148 points (23 first-place votes)
2. Tom Brady, Patriots: 125 points (7 first-place votes)
3. Drew Brees, Saints: 81 points (1 first-place vote)
4. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers: 29 points
5. Carson Wentz, Eagles: 26 points
6. Matt Ryan, Falcons: 20 points
7. Philip Rivers, Chargers: 14 points
8. Russell Wilson, Seahawks: 12 points
9. Deshaun Watson, Texans: 7 points (1 first-place vote)
10. Cam Newton, Panthers: 6 points
11. Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers: 5 points
12. Jared Goff, Rams: 4 points
13. Kirk Cousins, Vikings: 2 points
14. Andrew Luck, Colts; Case Keenum, Broncos; Derek Carr, Raiders: 1 point each.
A couple points to make in comparing this year’s exercise to the 2015 version:
• Respondents factored in age much less this time around than last. In 2015 Brady finished third, behind Rodgers and Luck. Brees was seventh, just behind a 40-year-old Peyton Manning. That, in fact, was sort of what I was looking for—who are teams expecting to ascend/descend? Age was clearly taken into account less this year, with Brady and Brees very comfortably in the top three—maybe because the expectations on aging at the position have changed.
• Rodgers was a stronger No. 1 this time around than last. In 2015 he pulled in 18 of 27 first-place votes. This time he got 23 of 32. The Packers’ QB was first or second on 30 ballots, and no lower than fourth on anyone’s list. Brady was the only other QB on everyone’s ballot, and also was no lower than fourth on any one of them. Brees was on 28 of 32 ballots. Ryan was the next most consistent to appear, landing on 14 ballots.
• Yes, Deshaun Watson got a first-place vote. When I asked the voter why, the answer came back: “Weapons.” It’s a reminder that every quarterback is to some degree a product of his environment.
• It was hard for anyone to break the stranglehold that Rodgers, Brady and Brees had on the top three, but Wentz was the one who did it most often. The returning Eagle was only on 11 of 32 ballots, but six of those 11 had him listed in the top three.
• I heard from more than a couple coaches that it was hard to rank the young quarterbacks against the older guys because they were products of such different environments, which I found interesting. The older QBs, of course, are largely equipped to play traditional NFL offense, whereas most of the younger guys have been raised in the spread.
• That Garoppolo appeared on four ballots, given the league’s limited exposure to him (seven starts), was notable, I thought.
And all of you reading, I’d love your feedback on this sort of thing. I enjoyed doing it, even if it was a little rushed over cutdown weekend, and could do similar things over the course of the year. Let us know at email@example.com
PHILLY’S TOUGH CALL ON CARSON WENTZ
I’ve never seen Eagles coach Doug Pederson as edgy publicly as he was during Sunday morning’s press conference, as he fielded questions about his quarterback situation four days out from the season opener against Atlanta. My opinion—and it’s just that, opinion—is that part of that edginess comes from managing the desire of a hypercompetitive 25-year-old athlete.
There’s no question that Wentz has it in his head that he’s ready to go, even if he hasn’t been cleared yet, and I have no doubt that he wants every minute he can get before Thursday to prove he can go. Remember, Wentz was right there with Tom Brady in the MVP race before tearing his ACL in December, and he had to watch Nick Foles lead his team to a Super Bowl title.
No one knows better than Pederson how badly being sidelined ate at Wentz, and is still eating at him. So it makes sense that the coach would be defensive at the idea that he’s not giving the franchise QB every chance he can to earn his way back on to the field. This, remember, is a strength of Pederson—understanding and reaching his players.
That’s why, as Sunday unfolded, I immediately thought of what he told me last week.
“I’m going to start by saying this is a medical decision,” Pederson said. “The doctors have to clear him to play in games. So that’s first. Obviously if we get to that bridge, and we cross it, then it’s all the timing and rhythm and accuracy and decision-making and making the calls at the line of scrimmage, that he has to do that he hasn’t been able to do at training camp up until this week, where now he’s mixing back in with 11-on-11 drills.
“But for us, and for me, the number one goal is making sure he’s 110 percent. He and I are attached. My first job, I draft Carson Wentz. And so his longevity ties to mine, and I want to make sure he’s 100 percent. But after that, he’s played a ton of football in two years. He’s still growing, he’s still learning, and so at the same time, I have to make sure he gets enough reps, enough time with the starters.”
So then it would make no sense, I said, to sacrifice certainty on where he is for a game or two, right?
“No, because he’ll play for 15 more years,” Pederson said. “That’s the part I look at. I can’t just focus on one game or two games.”
In saying that, and saying what he did on Sunday, Pederson remains fully invested in the player’s psyche and physical well-being.
As for where Wentz needs to be, I did talk to Rams team doctor/renowned knee surgeon Neal ElAttrache on Sunday. He’s close with Wentz’s surgeon, Jim Bradley, and says the Eagles and Bradley are doing everything by the book according to the science.
What the Eagles are looking for now is that the protective mechanics are working in Wentz’s knee (basically ensuring everything is balanced and aligned between the quad, the hamstring and the glute, based on firing patterns) to mitigate any sort of risk of re-injury. The actual ACL graft won’t be at full strength until about 18 months post-surgery. The LCL, which supports rotation, is still mending. And protective mechanics ensure they’ll get the chance to get back to 100 percent through play.
So yeah, for now, as to Wentz’s return, this is a whole bunch of “We’ll see.”
… of the Week
I guess EA looks at the Mack deal the same way Raiders fans do.
From Larry Fitzgerald’s eulogy for Senator John McCain:
“Many people might wonder what a young African-American kid from Minnesota and a highly decorated Vietnam War hero-turned-United States senator might have in common. Well, I thought of a few. I’m black; he was white. I’m young; he wasn’t so young. He lived with physical limitations brought on by war; I’m a professional athlete. He ran for president; I run out of bounds. He was the epitome of toughness; I do everything I can to avoid contact. I have flowing locks; and, well, he didn’t. How does this unlikely pair become friends? I’ve asked myself the same question. But you know what the answer is. That’s just who he is. … While from very different worlds, we developed a meaningful friendship. And this highlights the very rare, and very special qualities of Senator McCain that I came to deeply admire. He didn’t judge individuals on the color of their skin, their gender, their backgrounds, their political affiliations or their bank accounts. He evaluated them on the merits of their character and the contents of their hearts. He judged them on the work they put in and the principles they lived by. It was this approach to humanity that made Senator John McCain so respected by countless people around the world, including me.”
Here’s what I love about this—it shows a sense of self-awareness from Texans star J.J. Watt that we probably wouldn’t have seen three or four years ago, almost making fun of himself for tweeting motivational clichés back then. And that’s fantastic. He used to get mad about people picking at him for that (looking at you, Big Cat), and now he’s in on the joke.
“I said, ‘You f*****, you’ve given him a lot of money,’ ” Blank told Kraft. “You have influence and spend time with him,’ ” Blank persisted. “ ‘Robert, there are things he’s saying and doing that are not great for this country. And the smartest people in the world today, you know they’re viewing him as a four-year mistake.’ ”
That’s an exercept from Mark Leibovich’s new book “Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times”—recounting an interaction between Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Patriots owner Robert Kraft. I’m about 40 pages into the book, and so far it’s fantastic. It’ll be available to this week on Amazon and in your local bookstore (those that still exist). It’s worth picking up.
S/O to …
Jaguars QB Blake Bortles and his foundation for providing meals to first responders who were on first and second shifts following the mass shooting at a Madden tournament in Jacksonville eight days ago. Bortles and company partnered with Mambos Cuban Café to pull it off, and the quarterback included notes to the police, firefighters and volunteers who helped in the aftermath of the incident. Pretty cool gesture by the 26-year-old.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
Our new draft-focused element in the Monday Morning Quarterback column:
1. From an NFC college scouting director: “There’s an argument that two of the top five best running backs (for next year) are in the state of Oklahoma: Justice Hill (Oklahoma State) and Rodney Anderson (Oklahoma).”
2. It was no secret that Ohio State had three potential first-rounders starting on its defensive line (Nick Bosa, Chase Young, Dre’Mont Jones), but some within the program quietly have grown a belief that they could have one at quarterback too. Not sure if it’s time to go that far yet, but Dwayne Haskins was impressive Saturday.
3. From another scouting director: “Ole Miss has the best wide receiver group in college football.” A.J. Brown is seen as a first-round prospect, and had seven catches for 93 yards and a touchdown in the Rebels’ win over Texas Tech, but he was only one of four receivers with four or more catches.
4. By the looks of it, LSU’s assembly line of defensive backs is still churning, as that secondary keyed the Tigers’ handling of Miami. And Greedy Williams is more than just a really cool name.
5. Ed Oliver is a bad man.
6. Get ready, because we’re going to be talking a lot about Penn State’s Trace McSorley over the next few months. I’m not sure the Baker Mayfield comps carry much weight, but I know Trent Dilfer—who had him at the Elite 11 camp—was very impressed and said so in the draft QB story we did in July.
1. You shouldn’t lump together the Broncos cutting Paxton Lynch after two years and the Giants whacking Davis Webb after one year. The Broncos traded up in the first round to land Lynch as Peyton Manning’s replacement, while the Giants took a flier on Webb in the third round. Plus, Lynch was cut by the man who drafted him, and Webb wasn’t. But the one thing the Broncos and Giants have in common is that they passed on quarterbacks in the upper reaches of the 2018 draft. The Giants liked Sam Darnold and Josh Allen, and took Saquon Barkley instead. The only quarterback Broncos really considered at five was Darnold, but they did believe all four of the QBs who went in the Top 10 would be upgrades over Lynch. So in both cases, the teams passed on players who could have been the future. Of course, it’ll be a few years before we can fairly determine whether those calls were mistakes.