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Le’Veon’s Money, Kyler’s Pro Day and the Fallout From a Whirlwind Four Days

It’s been a hectic few days of signings, trades and cuts in the NFL—with Kyler Murray’s Oklahoma workout thrown into the mix. We whip around the news on Bell, Murray, Bortles, Bridgewater and Beckham, and answer your questions on Arizona’s plans at No. 1, the Giants’ QB options and the rest from an active opening to the league year.

Maybe Le’Veon Bell had enough with Mike Tomlin or Kevin Colbert or both. Maybe he was as done with Ben Roethlisberger as Antonio Brown came to be. Maybe he just wanted to get the heck out of Pittsburgh.

And if his motivation wasn’t money, then good for Bell in making the right decision for himself and looking the other way on the cash. Because if this was about the money—and we’ll have to wait for the real numbers to be filed to drill down into the details—then it’s hard, based on what was on the table in Pittsburgh last July, to see the new Jets bell cow coming out of this a winner.

The Steelers’ pre-July 15 deadline-to-do-a-deal proposal looked like this:

Year 1: $19.5 million
Year 2: $13.5 million (two-year total: $33 million)
Year 3: $12 million (three-year total: $45 million)

5 years, $70 million.

As a matter of policy, Pittsburgh doesn’t fully guarantee base salaries in future years on long-term deals. But based on a rolling guarantee structure, and organizational precedent (the Steelers have never cut a player one year into a contract like this), Bell’s practical guarantee on the deal was $33 million. And so signing that deal was one option for the star-crossed playmaker.

The other was to just sign the $14.544 million tender, play it out, and hit the market in 2019, with a take of $26.7 million over two years (2017-18) already in the bank, then score as an unrestricted free agent. That’s the Kirk Cousins path, and there’s risk and merit in it. He could get hurt. On the flip side, it’s unlikely Bell gets a big one-year hit on the back end of a multiyear deal, so it’s making money that isn’t coming back.

Either way, given all this, it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t have done better than he did as a UFA who hadn’t played football in 14 months this March.

The Jets made an initial offer from which they barely ever budged—at the 11th hour they moved some money and incentives around without adding any cash—and that was good enough to end the Bell saga. The harsh reality coming out of it is that Bell cost himself dearly in taking an approach that was as bold as what Antonio Brown or Aaron Donald or Khalil Mack did, with one key difference.

Bell is a running back.

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In this week’s Game Plan, I’m going get to your questions on the No. 1 pick, on Dwayne Haskins, Seattle’s tagged pass rusher, the other team in the Odell Beckham sweepstakes, the other quarterback the Giants could pursue, and much more. But we’re starting with a quick spin around the NFL to dig through the rubble after three days of player movement, and we’re going to start by wrapping up the Bell saga.

We’ll do that by examining why he fell short in 2019, which has much to do with things out of his control—market conditions at his position—as anything.

Even taking Todd Gurley’s big deal, and David Johnson’s nice payday (coming off an injury) into account, it’s a fact that most teams don’t like paying the position, especially as running backs age. Gurley and Johnson got paid after three years in the NFL. Bell had five years under his belt, and wanted to be seen, because of his versatility, as more than a back, which is he is. So he sought around $17 million.

While he’s right about his versatility, the problem is he has the wear and tear that routinely kills the value of backs, carrying some injury history along with that (and that’s without even getting into his personality quirks and suspension history). That explains the absence of a bidding war for an undeniably great player—as late as Tuesday afternoon, his agent was trying to get teams that weren’t in to feign interest so he could drum up a market.

Along these lines, I remember talking to Cowboys people about drafting Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall in 2016. Part of their reasoning was that it actually prevented spending on a back, since it’s the one position where you really do get the prime of a player’s career while he’s on a rookie deal.

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That’s illustrated nicely by the production of Elliott himself (two rushing titles in his first three NFL seasons, before Dallas could by rule extend him) and of Gurley, too (NFL Offensive Player of the Year in his third season). It also shows in how the Steelers were able to replace Bell fairly seamlessly with another young player, James Conner.

So good for Bell. He did get paid, and more than almost any running back would in his situation, because he’s a really good player. Good for the Jets, too, who had money to burn and just made things easier on Sam Darnold. And for Bell’s agent, who made the best of bad situation after rumblings the last couple summers that he’d actually advised Bell to take a couple of the Steelers’ offers.

But one thing we can’t do is sit here and act as if Bell’s actions—losing a year of his prime, burning potential for post-career earnings in Pittsburgh and walking away from better money—made business sense. Because it really didn’t.

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Away from the frenzy of free agency, Oklahoma staged its pro day, and for the second straight year it was as attention-grabbing a pro day as there will be on this year’s circuit. Last year it was because of a quarterback. This year it was because of a quarterback.

And as I talked to a handful of the evaluators who were on hand, this crystallized to me: I think Kyler Murray is now at a point where his stock is stable.

That is to say, if you love him, you love him. If you can’t wrap your head around the idea of investing in and building around a quarterback that size, or one with a stoic demeanor (kind of like Marcus Mariota’s) or you don’t like the idea of building a scheme for him, nothing’s going to change for you either in the next six weeks.

That doesn’t mean Murray can’t help or hurt himself in visiting with teams. Of course he can. It’s just that at this point he sort of is what he is, because he’s continued to check boxes. First, at the combine he answered whether he could carry more weight by checking in at 207 (he was 205 yesterday). Yesterday he showed off the power he could generate despite that smallish frame.

“He has a live arm,” said one NFC personnel director in attendance. “I have a bigger appreciation for his arm and his arm talent—the torque, the velocity, he really showed he could snap it out there. That’s what I got out of it. … He can spin it. He throws a tight ball. He really is a rhythm thrower, and he got into a rhythm.”

“The ball jumped off his hand,” said an AFC coach who was there. “You get to these workouts and it’s a chance to see fundamental skills. He answered a lot of questions. He showed he could drop from under center, he was smooth on his drops and had balance in the pocket. And the ball jumped. He showed accuracy on different kinds of throws—threw the square-in on a line, threw it deep with air, deep on a line.”

There were three nitpicks from the evaluators I talked to.

One, the workout wasn’t the most challenging you’ll see—one scout said he would haved liked to see Murray forced to move within the pocket (without bailing from it), though the idea of the set was clearly to show he could throw/generate power from a stationary position. Two, a couple balls to his right sailed on him, which isn’t a huge deal. Three, everyone wanted to see him run the 40.

But I got the feeling that the last factor was more about scouts wanting to see if Murray could get into the 4.3s or even the 4.2s at more than 200 pounds. There’s no question, of course, about his athleticism. And really, at this point teams are drilling down on the details on Murray. They’ve got a decent picture of who he is.

“He did a great job,” texted another coach who was there. “He can spin it as well as anyone out there. He’s got a lot more power than I would have thought, really drove some posts and seams, he’s able to make all the throws. The question with any spread QB who played with great talent around them will be how well they see the field when the pocket is smaller and more bodies are around them.

“But you won’t be able to answer that question until September. Baker [Mayfield’s] success this year certainly helps his cause.”

And yesterday didn’t hurt it.

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Quickly …

• Why might Teddy Bridgewater not jump at a chance to play in Miami? Consider the plight of the bridge-quarterback acquisitions of the last three years. Mike Glennon, Sam Bradford, Chase Daniel, Tyrod Taylor and AJ McCarron all arrived with the hope of pumping new life into their careers, and it didn’t take long for them to figure out that hope was misplaced, with a rookie quickly overtaking them in each case. Maybe the Dolphins don’t take a quarterback, and Bridgewater would get the whole year. But there’s no guarantee of that. And so there’s reason to think learning for another year at the foot of Drew Brees and Sean Payton and Pete Carmichael in New Orleans makes some sense.

• I don’t mind the Giants holding on to Eli Manning, so long as they’re actively looking at Murray and Dwayne Haskins and the rest of the potential heirs to the Manning throne in this year’s draft. And Pat Shurmur’s presence in Norman yesterday would tell you they are. Manning, 38, is on the books for $17 million this year. That’s just $1 million more than Tyrod Taylor made in Cleveland last year. So why would it make sense to get rid of Manning and bring in a bridge quarterback whom you don’t know at around the same price? To me, people are making way too big a deal of this—“If they’re rebuilding, why are they hanging on to a 38-year-old quarterback?!?” If you can wrap your head around Manning actually now being the bridge guy, it’s not hard to understand.

The release of Blake Bortles flew under the radar, because we all saw it coming. But there’s a good lesson to be taken from it. Bortles actually lasted longer with his team than the other two quarterbacks to go in the first round of the 2014 draft (Johnny Manziel, Bridgewater), and the failure of that group shows that there aren’t always franchise guys at the top of every class (though Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo did go in the second round), much as we may try to make that reality. The year before Bortles/Manziel/Bridgewater, EJ Manuel was the only first-round quarterback, and six years later that class doesn’t have a single starter left. I’d keep this in mind if your team decides it might be smarter to wait for Tua Tagovailoa, Jake Fromm and Justin Herbert next year than overextend for a quarterback this year. It’s what the Jets and Browns did in 2017. And while that strategy wasn’t perfect—both teams passed on Patrick Mahomes—there is merit and logic in the idea.

Alright, to your questions …

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From mikail schutte (@Mikail_Schutte): What do you think Arizona (will) do with the No. 1 pick? Trade, take Murray and shop Rosen, or take someone else?

If I was a betting man—based on what I know about Kliff Kingsbury, and Murray’s fit in his offense—I’d bet the reigning Heisman winner will land with the Cardinals. And if it’s not Murray, I think it’ll be hard to move the pick, and the likelihood would be that they’d stand pat and take Nick Bosa. Neither would be a horrible conclusion.

As for the market for Rosen, if I’m a winning team with an aging quarterback and no long-term answer behind him (Chargers, Patriots, Packers, Steelers, Saints), I think long and hard about calling the Cardinals. Would it be worth it for, say, the Chargers to flip the 28th pick to Arizona for a guy who, at worst, is a cheap backup for now (three years, $6.28 million left on his deal), and, at best, could be Philip Rivers’ heir?

I say absolutely. Those teams probably won’t be bad enough in the short term to find their next quarterback without getting creative. And this would be a way to get creative.

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From TheBotReport (@TheBotReport1): Based on Dave Gettleman’s comment, [the Giants will have a] run-first attack. Does this mean Haskins is out?

Absolutely not. Having a run-first attack makes sense given that the Giants’ best player is their tailback, they’re investing in building up the offensive line, and there’s uncertainty going forward at quarterback. And given the needs everywhere, and how they are, finally, going through a real rebuild, it’d be foolish to take any idea on what to do with the sixth overall pick off the table.

That especially goes for the idea of taking a quarterback. If you’re drafting where the Giants are, and you think a 15-year answer at the position is sitting for you there, and you have a 38-year-old starter, you almost have to take the quarterback. And if you like him enough (and if you think he’s worth the sixth pick, you would), you should be open to trading up for him too.

I don’t know if Haskins is the Giants’ guy. But if he is, they move aggressively to get him.

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From Gregg (@GreggSeager): Are the Seahawks working on a long-term deal for @TheRealFrankC_?

Gregg’s referring to pass-rusher Frank Clark here, and yes, I’d expect that Seattle will work through the next few months to see if they can find a middle ground and get their defensive end off the one-year, $17.28 million tender. And it’s certainly possible that he’s the only of the four pass-rushers tagged to do a long-term deal (although I think Dallas has a shot with DeMarcus Lawrence, in time, too).

One thing I’d advise here—buckle up. These situations often aren’t pretty, and as such I don’t think the Seahawks will see much of Clark, absent a deal, between now and July. What matters is where they’re at in the middle of July, ahead of the deadline to sign tagged players to long-term contracts. Trey Flowers’ deal at $18 million per likely set the floor for Clark, whose sack production easily outpaces the new Lion’s.

Another complication here would be the fact that the Seahawks might not be able to tag Clark again next year, with Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner set to enter contract years (Jarran Reed is, too) and the possible need to franchise one of those two looming.

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From KnightWhoSaysNih (@KonSeanneryy): Do you think Daniel Jones is a fit for the Giants?

I still think Haskins would be more likely, and there are plenty of scouts who regard the Ohio State gunslinger as the draft’s best quarterback prospect, ahead of Murray. But sure, I think Jones could be a fit, particularly because of his pedigree. As you may know, Jones played for Manning family confidant David Cutcliffe at Duke, which would be one easy connection into the building right away.

Then again, the family might not have great interest in Eli being replaced.

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From Prepare For Disappointment (@prepdisappoint): If one of the MMQB team showed up with a blonde moustache, would their notice period start immediately or would you still require a written resignation?

I would keep this bleach-mustached reporter, and deploy him strategically. For those of you that missed it, I tweeted the other day that I think Antonio Brown dyed his ’stache blonde to try to make everyone think he’s crazy, and make the Steelers think he was capable of anything, as his contract drama dragged on. And I absolutely think these tactics would work in the media.

If Brown can intentionally make people feel awkward, we should be able to too! So I’d send this hypothetical reporter into the most awkward spots. At worst, you cut through the tension with the blonde ’stache. At best, people just start telling you things because they’re not quite sure where you’re coming from with that bizarre facial hair of yours. Either way, you win.

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From DX-Tex (@DXTex): Why have the Texans done squat so far to help protect Deshaun Watson after the beating he took last season?

Tex, the Texans have time, and a part of this is looking out there on the UFA market and, again, seeing demand outweighing supply at the offensive line positions. That’s why Trent Brown takes home the GDP of a small nation to play left tackle in Oakland, and why Mitch Morse, now in Buffalo, is the highest paid center ever, and Billy Turner, he of 25 career starts, got $7 million per to go from Denver to Green Bay.

Houston could have made a run at someone there. Instead they’ll focus on getting help in the draft, and help should be there. The Texans have four picks in the first three rounds, and are looking at a class stocked with starting-caliber interior linemen from the bottom of the first round through the end of Round 3 on Friday night. So I think Bill O’Brien, Watson and crew should be OK.

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From Dantheman_#1 (@1_dantheman): Should the Colts be active in free agency? Or just re-sign the important ones? Eric Berry? Another WR?

Well, it’d be tough to get too active now, based on what’s left on the market. And here’s how I see the Colts—they didn’t think there were many difference-makers on the market (maybe two or three), and weren’t going to overextend themselves after failing to land one of them. That’s where you see a slew of short money and one-year deals done.

Even with their needs for edge rushers and receivers, they stay disciplined and to the plan, with corner Pierre Desir’s three-year, $25-million reward for a solid 2018 really representing their most aggressive expenditure. And I think you’ll see them actively mining the second wave of free agents, as they did last year.

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From michael christopher (@Bigdogz1318): With the Niners getting Dee Ford, do you still think its a slam dunk that Nick Bosa is still the number two pick if Murray goes one, or will Quinnen Williams get a serious look there?

I think if Nick Bosa is available to the Niners, they will not hesitate with the card. Robert Saleh’s Seattle-styled scheme demands disruptive D-linemen, and Bosa’s as NFL-ready a college edge rusher as you’ll see. I like Quinnen Williams’ potential, but the Niners have spent three first-round picks in the last four years on interior defensive linemen, so an outside guy makes more sense all the way around.

And by the way, Bosa and Dee Ford would be really good for another. If this is where Bosa lands, based on the other guys he’d have up front with him in San Francisco, I’d say he’d be a great bet for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

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From Mark Jenkins (@somniaphoto): What team do you wish was on Hard Knocks this year?

The Raiders are the easy pick. The Raiders are the correct pick.

Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock and Antonio Brown and Mark Davis and Marshawn Lynch and the last year in Oakland and the last camp in Napa and sign me the hell up for all of that.

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From Paul DuBourt (@paul_dubourt): You think my Bills could snag A.J. Green away from Cincy? Talk about going into the draft with an awesome foundation. TE, LB and OL, which are great in this draft.

Green would look really nice alongside new acquisitions John Brown and Cole Beasley, but I wouldn’t hold your breath on that happening. That said, I don’t think you’re crazy for asking about it, because teams are asking these questions too.

Some of this is an offshoot of relative weakness at receiver in the draft and free agency. Some of it is the trend of overall aggressiveness by younger GMs. And what it’s amounted to is teams making calls on big-name receivers you wouldn’t think would be available for trade. We’ve already seen one moved.

Will there be more? The owners meeting at the end of the month should be interesting.

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From Mr. Jake (@shermostat) Who else was in on OBJ and how close did it get?

The one team I know was in for Odell Beckham Jr. before he was dealt to Cleveland was … the San Francisco 49ers. I’m not sure how close they were to where the Giants lined up. I do know they’ve had an interest for more than a year, have monitored the situation in the time since, and were at the very least involved until the end on this particular move.

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From Sal Bocciano (@_falvo): What is the plan for the Patriots at WR? Potential targets, etc.

Overall, my educated guess, Sal, would be to get younger. Their only established returnee at the position is 32-year-old Julian Edelman. They tepidly dipped their toe in the free-agent pool earlier this week, making a run at Tampa’s Adam Humphries before he signed a four-year, $36 million deal in Tennessee.

Part of the Patriots’ issue in pursuing free agents is what it could do to their salary structure—Super Bowl MVP Edelman is making $5.5 million per year, which is pretty absurd given his production and puts a natural ceiling on how far New England is willing to go in rewarding people at the position. Good reason there, too, why getting receivers in the draft makes sense.

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From John Zahr (@johnzahr): Why are we now seeing ‘guaranteed’ money and ‘fully guaranteed’ money broken out in some of these deals. What’s the difference?

We’ll wrap it up here, John, because this is a pet peeve of mine. Almost always, if you see “guarantees” in a reported deal, and the number attached seems high, then that means the money is guaranteed against injury only. And injury guarantees very rarely pay off. To me, those “guarantees” should be referred to as “injury insurance.”

Want true guarantees? Look for that phrase you referenced: “Fully guaranteed.” The number is usually lower, and it’s the one the player can count on getting.

Stay tuned to The MMQB. We’ll continue to track all the player movement and weigh in with analysis, grades and more.

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