- Also, Sheldon Rankins’s injury is a huge blow for the Patriots, Sean McVay’s impressive playcalling against the Cowboys on Saturday, problems the Chiefs could present to the Patriots and more NFL news.
Wrapping up the divisional round of the NFL playoffs…
1. Kyler Murray has declared for the NFL draft, but it doesn’t mean he’s all in on football—yet. Murray is still free to continue negotiating with the Oakland A’s, and if he strikes a deal that would presumably prevent him from playing football, then no harm, no foul. His name would remain in the draft pool, and either a team would draft him to squat on his rights for a year, or he’d become a football free agent. Either way, by entering his name into the draft, he’s maintained the leverage he holds over the A’s and, evidently, Major League Baseball, which cares way more than anyone figured they would.
2. I’ve been talking to scouts for going on three months about Murray and none have said he’s a first-round quarterback. But that does not mean he won’t be drafted in the first round. The consensus is that he’s a second- or third-round pick, largely due to his lack of size—scouts expect he’ll come in at about 5' 9" and 175 pounds or so at the combine. There’s simply no precedent for a quarterback that size to go in the first round. And by taking him even on Day 2, teams would be making an exception to the rule (and he is, clearly, an exceptional talent).
So how does he get to the first round? It’s pretty simple, actually. Drafting quarterbacks has become a yes-or-no proposition for teams. Either you think a guy can be your long-term guy or you don’t, and if you don’t, you probably don’t take the player until at least the third round. If you do, then you’ll probably persuade yourself to draft him in the first round, rather than risking losing him by waiting. That’s why 13 quarterbacks have been drafted in the first round over the last four years, and just two in the second round.
3. One thing that impressed the opponent about Sean McVay’s play-calling on Saturday night is that he didn’t get cute. The run game was working, and the offensive line established an early edge on the Cowboys front seven, and McVay kept going back to the well. Sometimes, in these cases, coaches will feel the need to seek balance and throw the ball unnecessarily. McVay didn’t. And he was creative in finding variance—running fly sweeps against man coverage—without having to reinvent the wheel.
4. There were a lot of questions for Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski after the Patriots’ win against the Chargers on Sunday positioning it as his final home gameday at Gillette Stadium. And there’s good reason for that, of course. It’s no secret that retirement will be discussed after the season, nor is it considered likely that New England would have him back in 2019 under the currently prescribed conditions: a $12-million cap number and $10 million due to him in cash.
5. The Saints defensive horses, guys like Marshon Lattimore and Cam Jordan, flashed on Sunday against the Eagles, but part of their progress on that side of the ball has been an impressive middle class. Third-year DT David Onyemata was a force in slowing down the Eagles run game, and mid-level free-agent signing Demario Davis delivered again at linebacker. The job Mickey Loomis, Jeff Ireland and the scouting staff have done the last three in assembling the current roster is really, really impressive, and those guys are just two more examples of it.
6. Things won’t be easy for the Saints this week though, and that’s not just about facing the Rams offense. Losing Sheldon Rankins (torn Achilles’ tendon) is a huge blow. The staff is still discussing how it’ll reshuffle the deck at defensive tackle, which is an acknowledgement that there aren’t any easy answers.
7. One problem that the Chiefs will present the Patriots this week: Andy Reid’s made a habit of making minor tweaks to his route combinations lately, which has messed with defenses’ preparations. It got the Colts a bunch last Saturday. That and Patrick Mahomes’s mobility could force the Patriots out of their comfort zone and into more zone looks (like Marcus Mariota did in December), which make this challenge for New England different than the one they faced against the Chargers.
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8. The Jets’ deal with Gregg Williams isn’t done, and several other teams are keeping an eye on that. Williams is in a position of power, because the other two names that the team was considering (Vance Joseph and Chuck Pagano) are off the table. So … stay tuned.
9. The Packers’ decision to go with Nathaniel Hackett as offensive coordinator is pretty interesting to me, because I know what Blake Bortles thought of Hackett as a guy—and relationship building will be a big part of the job in working to get the very best out of Aaron Rodgers. Bortles’s bond with Hackett was strong enough to withstand a benching, and the OC consistently challenge the quarterback to do more. “Nathaniel’s the closest I’ve ever been with a coach,” Bortles told me in August. “Whether I play or don’t play for him, we’ll be friends and have a relationship for the rest of our lives. It’s my job to my job to make sure I’m playing at level where I can go start and be the guy to help this team win every Sunday. And if I ever dip below that level, I have no problem being replaced, if I’m not good enough to put the team in position to win.” Getting a first-round quarterback to the place where he’s thinking that way, and OK with it, is no small feat. So I think Hackett will be good for Rodgers.
10. One name to watch for the 2020 coaching cycle: New Browns OC Todd Monken. His case is a little like Brian Flores’s this year, in that he did well in interviews, and word of that should carry weight into next year. I’m told Monken took the Cleveland job (five teams showed interest) because he meshed with Freddie Kitchens during the interview, and the chance to work with, and enhance, Baker Mayfield probably won’t hurt his future head coaching prospects.
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