The message was received loud and clear. And because NFL teams try to respect what they get out of college football programs, the warning on Oklahoma dynamo Kyler Murray was heeded.
You’re wasting your time even talking about him.
So scouts weren’t really studying a player who was drafted and signed by the Oakland A’s months earlier. He was going to play baseball. But like everyone else, they were watching, and the water cooler talk was there, too, with graduate assistants and support staff and everyone and anyone they might bump into on a school call.
“And they’d all follow up whatever they said with, ‘Yeah, but he’s going to play baseball,’” said one AFC exec.
Point is, we’ve all gotten here pretty fast, just as Murray himself has. And in the process, Murray has taken himself from being a fascinating hypothetical—even though he won’t, what if he played pro football?— to becoming the most interesting story of the 2019 offseason.
I don’t know what he’s going to do. You don’t know what he’s going to do. Based on a number of appearances he made last week at the Super Bowl, on behalf of Gatorade, he might not know what he’s going to do.
What we do know now is that as we get away from Super Bowl LIII, there’s no more compelling figure in the sport than the guy who might walk away from it for good at 21 years old. Either that, or he’ll be the most intriguing rookie in the NFL in 2019. There’s no in-between.
So yeah, we’ll go ahead and waste more time and talk about him here.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’re getting to your offseason questions—and I’ll answer them on the Patriots and Rams, and the running back position, and the draft class, and a team or two that might rise from the dead next year.
But we’re starting by taking this global view, and ranking the most interesting NFL storylines of the time between now and when teams report to training camp in July. There are a few good ones out there, too. The game of quarterbacking musical chairs. Pittsburgh’s disgruntled skill guys. And how teams might have to get creative if they’re looking to a receiver need.
As always, we’ve got an interesting February and March and April ahead, and nothing in that time is going to be more interesting than the Murray saga, which slowly started to turn in the middle of the fall.
MORNING HUDDLE: The Julian Edelman Hall of Fame debate
One exec I spoke to on Wednesday night recalled how the national conversation shifted in October, a time when scouts weren’t giving Murray much of a look, and how that got NFL people saying, He’s gonna play baseball, but man, can he make plays. Another exec got a call from a friend in baseball out of nowhere in mid-November asking, “Is he really thinking about playing football and not going to the A’s?”
Then there was the night Murray threw for 364 yards and rushed for 114 in OU’s scintillating 59-56 win over West Virginia. That was Nov. 24, and, as a couple scouts in attendance recalled, it was all the NFL people there were talking about: He might actually pick football.
It turns out that was a pretty valid thought. What was once certain is now cloudy. Here we are, two and a half months from the draft, without a clue.
Murray wasn’t giving any up at the Super Bowl either in those appearances with Dan Patrick and Rich Eisen, as he moved sports drinks. There’s a belief out there that he prefers football. Baseball offers less injury risk. In football he’d be in the major leagues right away. In baseball he wouldn’t. And so on. There’s a lot to consider.
What we can do, for now, is lay out the timeline. Here’s what it looks like …
February 15: A’s position players are due to report for spring training in Mesa, Ariz. Oakland gave Murray a $4.66 million signing bonus under an agreement that would allow him to play one last season of college football, then report to spring training for 2019. So if he doesn’t report next week, that’s a pretty big deal.
February 27-March 2: Quarterbacks go through their four days at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Murray has been invited. Will he be there?
March 13:Oklahoma pro day. Like the combine and everything else, this one is in direct conflict with spring training.
March 14-April 19:In-house visits with teams, and private workouts. The workouts can actually spill into draft week, while the deadline for NFL teams to fly prospects into their facilities is a week before the draft.
March 20:A’s open their season in Tokyo against Seattle. As for their affiliates, the Triple-A Las Vegas Aviators, Double-A Midland RockHounds and Single-A Stockton Ports and Beloit Snappers all open up on April 4.
April 25-27:The NFL draft takes place Nashville.
And really, there are two big factors with Murray to be discussed over that period.
The first he can do little to fix. His size is a problem, and that’s even though the NFL has loosened its parameters of late at the position. Baker Mayfield was short, not small. Ditto for Russell Wilson. Murray is short and small, with perhaps the best comp for him being another member of the Heisman fraternity: Doug Flutie.
“He’s 50903 [scoutspeak for 5' 9.3"] and somewhere between 180 and 190 [pounds],” said an AFC exec. “That’s Doug.” (Flutie played at 5' 10", 180.)
The issue isn’t just vision. It’s also how Murray would hold up to the pounding in the NFL. He played behind the best line in college football and didn’t have to take many big hits last year. And if teams want to get creative and move him around a lot in the NFL, that means he’ll take more hits. So whether he can hold up is a legit question.
The second issue is everything we’ve written here. Is he even going to play football? If he is, will he stick with it, knowing his baseball opportunity may still be there, if there are big bumps early on?
“Missing on that position will get you fired,” said an AFC college scouting director. “So if we’re going to make that kind of investment in you [as a first-round pick], we need to know that you’re as into us as we’re into you.”
Murray had to know that these questions coming in Atlanta last week, and he has to be ready to answer them in more certain terms when/if he meets with NFL teams at the combine in Indy and then during on-campus workouts and trips to teams’ facilities in March and April.
The good news? Though I don’t know many scouts who’d grade Murray as a first-round pick right now, most think he’d go in the first 32 picks because of how the position works. Three scouts I spoke to on Wednesday think Murray’s a better player coming out than Lamar Jackson was last year, and clearly a better passer. I asked another whether Murray would go first overall if he was 6' 4", 225. Words weren’t minced.
“No doubt,” he answered.
So Murray is massively intriguing—and things will get even more interesting next week, when the wheels start to turn. As always, stay tuned.
Other offseason storylines:
Pittsburgh drama: Antonio Brown is due a $2.5-million roster bonus on March 17, which gives the Steelers a natural deadline by which to find a resolution on trading or keeping him. Four days before that, Le’Veon Bell will be a free agent, and his market should be interesting. I’m not sure he’ll match what the Steelers offered him (five years, $70 million) in July.
Quarterback musical chairs: Among the veterean quarterbacks expected to be available are Nick Foles, Joe Flacco, Teddy Bridgewater and, probably, Ryan Tannehill. There are a handful of teams in dire need (Jaguars, Dolphins, Redskins), and some with starters who might be on shaky ground (Giants, Broncos). That’s not a lot of spots available, so the QB market will be an interesting place—especially after a year in which bridge QBs like Sam Bradford and Case Keenum got a pretty big money.
The year of the defensive lineman in free agency: Among the high-profile D-linemen on deals about to expire: Jadeveon Clowney, Frank Clark, Demarcus Lawrence, Dee Ford, Dante Fowler, Ziggy Ansah, Tre Flowers, Brandon Graham, Grady Jarrett, Ndamukong Suh, and Sheldon Richardson. A few guys here will get hit with the franchise tag. A bunch of others will get very, very rich.
The year of the defensive lineman in the draft: Ohio State’s Nick Bosa and Alabama’s Quinnen Williams lead a bumper crop that could land 15 to 20 prospects in the first round. And Bosa and Williams will both contend to go first if a quarterback doesn’t.
Super Bowl swan songs. Both conference champions stand to lose cornerstones to retirement. Rams tackles Andrew Whitworth, and Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and safety Devin McCourty all conceded during Super Bowl week that they’re considering it. All three are great pros, and would be huge losses for their teams.
Super Bowl hangover? The Rams have a long list of free agents (Suh, Fowler, Lamarcus Joyner, Rodger Saffold), and are budgeting forward in anticipation of Jared Goff’s second contract. The Patriots could lose Flowers and left tackle Trent Brown, and have seven players counting for over $92 million on next year’s cap, all of whom are 29 or older. There’s plenty of business to be done for both clubs.
Receiver movement. The draft class isn’t flush with high-end receivers (but there is depth at the position into the third and fourth rounds). Neither is the free-agent market (Golden Tate and Randall Cobb are the headliners). For that reason, I believe teams will get creative and make calls about Julio Jones and A.J. Green. Will it work? I don’t know. But it can hurt to ask.
The Spring of Jon: The Raiders came under fire for tearing things down to the studs in Year 1. As a result of that effort, they control this year’s draft, with three first-rounders, and five picks in the first two rounds. Bottom line, Jon Gruden has a lot to work with this season.
The Colts’ shot: Indy has more than $100 million in cap space and three picks in the first two rounds, plus a burgeoning young core led by two first-team All-Pro rookies (Darius Leonard, Quenton Nelson) around Andrew Luck. Another good offseason from GM Chris Ballard, and look out.
And, of course, there’ll be a few more storylines we don’t anticipate that’ll pop up. As always, we’ll be ready for those. For now …
From Matt Coiner (@mattcoiner23): Do the Patriots have an advantage in trying to re-sign Trey Flowers due to the fact that he shares the same agent as Bill Belichick? Or does that not really mean anything in the NFL?
It’s an interesting question because the Patriots have been down this road before with very prominent members of their team. Back in 2006, Neil Cornrich repped both Belichick and Adam Vinatieri. The kicker was tagged in 2005, and allowed to go to the market the next year. The market for him, though, moved suspiciously slow. So Vinatieri got frustrated, fired Cornrich, hired Willie McGinest’s agent (Gary Uberstine), and signed with Indy.
Does that mean Flowers should fire Cornrich? Nope, not necessarily. But it’d certainly be understandable if he was watching his back through this.
From Stephen Sheehan (@StephenPSheehan): Could we see a retooling phase in New England? Lots of key veterans look to be on the verge of retirement or carrying hefty cap hits in 2019 (Gronk, McCourty, Dont’a Hightower). Patrick Chung and Julian Edelman aging as well.
I mentioned the seven guys accounting for the $92 million. They are Brady, McCourty, Hightower, Stephon Gilmore, Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen and Marcus Cannon. It’s fair to assume they won’t all be back.
The Patriots also have swung and missed on a lot of draft picks of late, and the result is that the pipeline is running drier than usually. In 2014 the Patriots had Malcolm Butler behind Darrelle Revis, James White behind Shane Vereen, Cannon behind Sebastian Vollmer, etc. No such triple-A operation is in play right now.
From Jacob Feldman (@JacobFeldman4): How much money did Todd Gurley just cost Le'Veon Bell?
Jacob! I don’t think what’s happened with Gurley affects Bell much, because I’m not sure Bell was getting the payday he’s been hoping for. Given his injuries, the tread on his tires, and his suspension history, there are legit questions about reliability and professional drive.
Yes, he’s a really good player. But the Steelers showed us how easy it can be to replace a tailback—they did it first this year with James Conner, then later with Jaylan Samuels. So I’m just not sold that there’s this cadre of teams out there ready to go all in on Bell.
From Alberto Cantù (@belloe_belloe): Worst-to-first early candidates?
Of all the last-place teams, I wanted to give you Detroit. But they’re in a division with Minnesota, Green Bay and Chicago, so it’s hard to envision them cutting through the darkness and to the playoffs.
So I think I’ll go with the Raiders. I love what the Chiefs and Chargers did last year, but I also believe that Gruden can coach. Derek Carr played great for him down the stretch of the season, and they had a pretty solid rookie class.
From Craig M (@Dolfan2334): Two questions, actually: 1) Do the Eagles get close to what they are asking for Foles and from whom? 2) After players are tagged, who do you see as the biggest fish likely to change teams in UFA this offseason?
First question: I don’t think the Eagles would get more than a 2 or a 3 for Foles. Maybe I’m wrong. But that he’d be on a $25 million tag would make him tough to move—it means another team would likely have to give him more than $25 million per year on a long-term deal (with a big guarantee), or just take him as a rental. That, plus whatever the pick going to Philly would be, is a lot to wrap your head around.
So Howie Rosesman will be calling around and looking for suitors willing to trade for Foles on the tag. If they find one, great. Then they tag and trade him. If they don’t, they can sit back, let Foles walk, and collect a compensatory pick in 2020.
Second question: I think Bell is the biggest name to change teams this offseason.
From Abdullah Ahmed (@Abdullah12): Other than defensive line, what’s the deepest position group in this year’s draft?
I’d say the two positions that have good depth would be the interior offensive line and tight end. As NFL teams see it, there should be a lot of long-term starters at the guard and center spots to go on Friday during the second and third round.
And as for the tight ends, Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, Alabama’s Irv Smith, UCLA’s Caleb Wilson and Stanford’s Kaden Smith headline a very good group. Based on where the offensive game has been going, the NFL’s been looking for big-time tight ends, and the last few years have been thin at the position. So there’s a hunger for these guys, as they come into the league.
From James Cunningham (@cunninghamjames): Jets trade up to 1 for Bosa—worth it? Difference-maker?
Yes, Bosa’s a difference-maker. No, the Jets, who hold the third overall pick, don’t trade up for him. If anything, the Jets trade down. Remember, they don’t have a second-round pick, so they’d absolutely like some more ammo to fill out their roster with.
So right now, the Jets are big fans of Dwayne Haskins, Drew Lock, Murray and the other draft QBs. Those guys do well in the pre-draft process, and trigger-happy, quarterback-needy teams might get antsy. Voila! Suddenly the Jets have trade partners.
From Chi Cheong Ho (@chicheongho): Any insights into how NE and LAR catch up with the other 30 teams that have already begun their offseason free agency and draft preparations?
For the Patriots, it’s old hat. For the Rams, they held scouting meetings in Atlanta ahead of the Super Bowl last week, and they staffed all the college all-star games as they normally would. So though they’re both a little behind, neither team will be starting flat-footed.
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