Consider the Redskins’ quarterback situation back in December of last year, and you’ll get an idea of how important the guy wearing Joe Theismann’s No. 7 this weekend has become.
Alex Smith suffered a compound fracture in his right leg four days before Thanksgiving. Backup QB Colt McCoy broke his leg two weeks later. Mark Sanchez, who was signed off the street to a one-year contract after Smith went down, started in Week 14, and then journeyman QB Josh Johnson, who hadn’t played since 2011, took the reins for the last three weeks of the season.
Washington went into the offseason without much of an idea of when, or maybe even if, Smith would come back, and a less dire, but similarly uncertain, prognosis on where McCoy stood. In a cruel twist, Johnson was injured in the spring with the AAF’s San Diego Fleet, before he could even get into a game, which eliminated him as a backup option.
Sometimes, we say teams are starting from scratch at quarterback. This offseason, the Redskins actually were.
“The status of Alex was huge,” coach Jay Gruden said Saturday night, driving home after the team finished its rookie minicamp. “We just don’t know the timetable on Alex. So [the quarterback position] had to be addressed. And with Colt having his injury, we had no healthy quarterbacks on our roster. Josh Johnson was hurt as well. We had nobody who could even throw in OTAs. So we had to get somebody.”
Gruden executed as deep a dive into quarterback scouting as he’s done since he held his first full-time position in the NFL, with the Bengals back in 2011. While hoping that McCoy can come back and be a part of the quarterback competition this summer, Gruden decided to trade for Case Keenum and take a swing at drafting a quarterback in the first round.
Washington hasn’t really hit on a first-round quarterback since 1937, when the team picked Sammy Baugh. So no pressure, Dwayne Haskins.
We’re into the quiet part of the NFL calendar, but we’ve got plenty coming for you in this week’s MMQB, including …
• A couple of Seahawk icons explaining what Kam Chancellor and Doug Baldwin meant to the franchise.
• An explanation of the NFL’s ambitious, grassroots effort to mine athletic talent out of the U.K., and build its fan base from the ground up that way.
• Stories from the past where teams knew what they had in a darkhorse player coming out of rookie minicamp weekend.
• A few players to watch in that regard this year.
And much, much more. But we’re starting with the Redskins’ new quarterback, and how Gruden and Co. landed on him.
You can’t start the story of how Washington wound up with the local kid—Haskins grew up in New Jersey, but starred at the Bullis School in Bethesda, Md. in high school—without knowing first how they approached the position globally, amid all the uncertainty entering the offseason. And there are two points to get to there.
First, the Redskins knew all along they would likely be in the market to draft a quarterback early. But the team didn’t want to be in a spot where it would be forced to draft one in the first round. This is where the trade for Keenum comes in—getting a potential starter on the roster at just $3.5 million against the cap allowed the Redskins the flexibility to not take a quarterback in the first round if none warranted the pick.
Second, Gruden made a massive investment in studying the quarterbacks to see if one would warrant Washington’s first-round pick. Gruden personally watched every 2018 throw, and then some, from every quarterback the team was considering picking—“Not just Dwayne and not just Kyler [Murray], but all of them, from [Clayton] Thorson to [Jarrett] Stidham to [Ryan] Finley, [Will] Grier. All those guys.”
“Watched every game, every throw that they made, how they handled themselves under pressure,” Gruden said. “That’s the big thing, you try to find good defenses that gave them pressure, see how they handled pressure, and go through all their throws. And if you have more than one season, you go back and watch another season. Dwayne only had one [season], Kyler only had one.”
The Redskins then met with the quarterbacks at the combine, canvassed all their pro days with offensive coaches (Gruden personally attended pro days at West Virginia and, yup, Ohio State) and used eight of the 30 in-house visits teams are allotted for prospects to bring quarterbacks to Washington. Haskins, Stidham, Thorson, Finley, Grier, Drew Lock and Daniel Jones made it to the facility to meet with the team, and Murray canceled on them late in the process.
For Gruden, the most important thing was knowing this class of quarterbacks, and he felt like he knew this class better than any class since 2011, when Carson Palmer’s retirement led Cincinnati to draft Andy Dalton in the second round.
Here’s how all that work led him to Haskins, in the coach’s words …
Haskins’s presence. Because of the depth of the work Gruden did before the 2011 draft and for this year, he often uses the ’11 class as a point of reference. Haskins reminded Gruden of a quarterback from that class—not in playing style or in classroom knowledge, but in personality.
“They’re all pretty confident kids, bright-eyed. I was impressed with the entire class,” Gruden said. “But [Haskins] has a demeanor and aura about him, kind of similar to Cam Newton coming out, just an aura of confidence. There’s something about him. When you’re around him, you feel like he’s got it, everything’s going to be O.K.—that he’s going to be successful, because he believes it.
“He believes in himself, and you can tell people rally around him, talking to other players like Terry [McLaurin] and Parris Campbell, and some other guys at Ohio State.”
That, of course, is always important for a quarterback, but even moreso when that quarterback might start in Year 1. And if there was any question on how much stock the Redskins would put in the word of someone like McLaurin, the team wound up taking him in the third round to pair with his old quarterback.
What Gruden could see on tape. Having been a quarterback himself, Gruden’s expertise has always been in this particular position, and two things about Haskins jumped out from the Buckeyes’ offensive tape. First, Gruden saw that Haskins game would translate easily to the pros.
“Coach [Ryan] Day did a great job there with their offense,” Gruden said. “It’s not just an RPO-type game. They were doing all kinds of dropback and quick game and play-action, things that conceptually are very similar to what we do. So it was easy not just to watch him, but watch him progress.”
The second thing? Gruden knew going in that Haskins had a howitzer—that’s what put him in first-round consideration in the first place. Studying him revealed more.
“He has a cannon of an arm, but he doesn’t throw it hard all the time like some quarterbacks with big arms do,” Gruden said. “Those guys get themselves in trouble, they just want to throw it hard every time. He can take a lot off of it, sometimes to a fault, he puts too much touch on it sometimes. And he can also make the difficult throws, the deep throws, the deep out routes, left hash-to-right hash on a line.
“So he has the arm strength but he also has the talent to be accurate and anticipate throws and throw with touch.”
What Gruden couldn’t see on tape. Relationships matter, and this is where Gruden’s offensive coordinator, Kevin O’Connell—who worked with Day in San Francisco under Chip Kelly in 2015—could help. While Gruden recognized a lot of carryover from the Ohio State offense to his offense, O’Connell “could relay all the concepts. He knew what was going on.”
Having that background helped Gruden dig into the details on Haskins when he talked with Day at Haskins’s Pro Day. Gruden found what Day explained to us in an early March MMQB—that, by the end of the year, Haskins was carrying a heavy load mentally, proof positive of how capable a learner he was as a one-year starter.
“Sometimes when you watch tape, they get to the formation, you look to the sidelines and the coaches are calling everything,” Gruden said. “We had to talk and make sure that wasn’t the case. Dwayne was doing a lot at the line himself, making changes that were necessary. … You just try to get a gage for where they are in their development and we felt pretty that, despite only playing one year, he had a pretty good knowledge of protections, pass concepts and all that.”
Handling the spotlight. Gruden saw first hand how the pressure of being the Redskins quarterback affected Robert Griffin III. Of course, it’s hard to project how another 20-something will deal with that. But where Haskins played—and how he handled playing against archrival Michigan, first coming in as a backup in 2017, and then as a starter in ’18—was no small plus in that regard.
“Good thing about being at Ohio State, they’re gonna have plenty of those big games,” Gruden said. “And he performed well in all of them. … He played in plenty of big games at Ohio State. He had a little bit of a failure against Purdue, but for the most part, he was pretty darn good against everybody else.”
So now Haskins is in the building, and thanks to Gruden’s studying these past few months, he knew what to expect from his new quarterback in rookie minicamps.
“He’s very calm, very poised,” Gruden said. “He has a lot of work to do as far as terminology, calling plays in the huddle—he’s never really had to call plays in a huddle. But I’ve been impressed with his makeup, his ability to talk to his teammates and rally people around him. He can clearly make the throws, and he takes accountability when he misses a throw. All that stuff, it’s been fun.”
And no, there aren’t any promises yet on whether Haskins will start. When OTAs kick off later in the month, Haskins and Keenum will split the first-team reps. If Haskins earns it, he’ll remain in the fight for the starting position whenever McCoy jumps back into the fray—I’m told he hopes to be physically ready to practice again before the Redskins break for summer in mid-June. So Haskins might start Week 1. He might not.
But the promise he brings is undeniable—and a new feeling for Gruden in his sixth season as the Redskins’ coach. Remember, the Griffin situation was fairly messy before he arrived in Washington, Kirk Cousins was in a contract year every year he was the starter and Smith was acquired at age 34, then almost immediately got hurt.
Conversely, when you draft a quarterback in the first round, a team is hoping to have him for 15 years. If you hit on the pick, it means job security for everyone. It changes everything.
“That’s the hope,” Gruden said. “But we’re not giving up on Case Keenum or Colt McCoy either. They’re gonna have a chance, an opportunity to compete to win the job, and so it might be a year, it might be two years, it might be three years. These guys have a skill set that’s pretty appealing as well, as far as their ability to rally teams around them and compete.
“But it is exciting to have a quarterback here that you’re gonna have for at least five years that you know you can grow with. You can build your offense around his skill set. … It’s exciting, for sure.”
It’s a little different from what Gruden’s had the last six years. And with all that work put into it, it’s a lot different than the Redskins’ quarterback situation in December.
END OF A SEATTLE ERA
We knew Kam Chancellor was probably done playing football, given that he missed the entire 2018 season due to injury, and we had a good idea that Doug Baldwin might be finished as well. But that didn’t make it any less jarring to see Thursday’s announcement from Seattle:
The Seahawks have made the difficult decision to terminate/failed physical Kam Chancellor and Doug Baldwin. These are two of the most iconic players in franchise history, and both were integral in establish our championship culture.
Aside from the logistics—the moves actually benefit the players, allowing them to keep their bonus money—this felt like the final piece of page-turning as Seattle looks away from its Super Bowl team and to its future. Yes, Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright are still there. But the rest hardly resembles the team that reeled off consecutive conference titles and a world championship.
Cliff Avril got proof of that when after Baldwin’s release, he asked a team photographer if he had a picture of the two of them together. The photographer texted one from the 2017 Pro Bowl, 28 months ago. There were seven Seahawks posing together.
“There's two guys on the team right now from that,” Avril said, “which is crazy.”
Given how good that group of players was, I reached out to Avril and Richard Sherman this weekend to discuss the two guys who got released, and the group as a whole. And with both, I started with what I’d say was the signature of their era—Chancellor de-cleating Demaryius Thomas in the first quarter of Super Bowl XLVII.
“I think that’s when we realized, ‘O.K., the game’s over with’,” Avril said. “He didn’t want to catch any more balls across the middle, and that was early on in the first quarter. … Kam caught him slipping, hit him pretty hard and I don't think Thomas got another ball across the middle [the rest of the night]. If a player can make players change up how they approach the game, it’s a wrap.”
“It definitely changed the way their players played,” Sherman said. “Human nature, you get hit like that, you’re going to look out for your own safety the next time.”
The play shows how the Seahawks aspired to play—and who a lot of their players were. In that way, Baldwin and Chancellor could be tied together. One brought edginess to the defense. The other brought the same to the offense, and made it clear display of it in another playoff game to remember.
“The Minnesota freezer bowl game, the playoff game, he has this crazy one-handed catch in the freezing cold,” Avril said. “In those conditions, most receivers probably let that ball go over their head.”
It’s still a little hard to say right now how this team will be remembered. Those Seahawks were a throwback in an era moving fast in another direction—a team that won with its running game and defense, as quarterback salaries were spiraling into new stratospheres, and passing-game records were falling regularly. And to me, that makes what they did all the more remarkable. The best comp might be the ’80s Bears, a group that carved out an indelible legacy despite winning just one championship. Considering the circumstances and what they were up against (re: the rules, trends in football, salary cap), I’d say they belong in that class.
“I’d hope they’d say that was the best defense in football,” Sherman said. “That’s what we prided ourselves on. We led the league in scoring defense for four years straight. And we just took a lot of pride in what we did on every level. We really cared, and we appreciated one another and what everyone brought to the table. And I think that’s what a lot of guys would say, we’d hope we’re respected that way.”
“I think personally that we should be remembered as one of the most dynamic teams, especially on the defensive side of the ball,” Avril said. “I’d say top-three defenses ever, especially being able to have the best defense for four or five straight years, that’s pretty hard to do in the NFL.
“Most teams, you gotta win with a quarterback that puts up 5,000 yards every season. We won it in such a unique way. And really, we won games completely different from your New Englands, your Denvers, we won games in such a different way. We imposed our will on people as well. It’s completely different from a lot of the other teams that are winning ballgames.”
And it’s completely possible we never see a team win that particular way again.
THE NFL ACROSS THE POND
Ex-Giants star Osi Umenyiora started working for the NFL in 2015, and it was just his third week on the job when he made a declaration that still resonates in the league’s London office—You’ll never grow the sport to your ambitions until you have British players.
In one way, this week’s announcement that the NFL Academy is launching in the UK later this year was an outgrowth of that moment. In another, that moment simply confirmed what was fairly obvious all along.
“Four years ago, we were looking for ways to take it to the next level,” NFL UK Managing Director Allistair Kirkwood said from his London office this week. “We’d done some good stuff. But you look across the world and ask how sport can sustain popularity, and one thing all the examples we had had in common was some form of local interest … It was a sense of national pride and identity. We couldn’t offer that.”
So what started with the Player Pathway program is now expanding into the academy, which will open in September. League officials over there are in the midst of recruiting what will wind up being an 80-player crop of 16-18 year olds. They’ll go to school at Barnet and Southgate College, and get football and character coaching along the way.
Tryouts are set for June 15, June 22 and July 2, and the league got over a thousand applicants in the 48 hours after announcing the venture (all those applicants will have to apply to, and get into school at Barnet and Southgate, too). Kirkwood’s group, for now, has focused on plucking from the UK’s youth ranks (there are 84 organized teams in the UK), as well as trying to lure kids from basketball and rugby.
Why is this needed? Well, one challenge the NFL has faced in other countries is that American football is not an Olympic-recognized sport, and most nations fund pilot programs in other sports as a form of medal chasing. And another is the expensive infrastructure of the sport—it’s way more costly to build a football program than a basketball or soccer program.
“We believe there’s unbelievable athletic talent here,” Kirkwood said. “Most of these people aren’t playing the sport at all because there wasn’t a pathway. But you do the eye test and look around any neighborhood here, and you see guys every day where you say, ‘Yeah, that’s someone we’d have a real interest in.”
During our conversation, Kirkwood brought up the example of Panthers DE Efe Obada as a model for what they’re looking to do. Back in 2014, then-NFL UK head of football development Aden Durde introduced Kirkwood to Obada—a 6' 5", 270-pound hulk with five percent body fat and zero experience playing sports before joining the London Warriors club team in 2014.
Obada had been trafficked into the U.K. with his sister as a child, grew up in group homes and foster care and, as such, was challenged in trusting others. NFL UK committed to him as a developmental project for the new Player Pathway program. He bounced on and off practice squads in 2015, ’16 and ’17, then made the Panthers roster last year. In Week 3, he had a pick and a sack against the Bengals, and won NFC Defensive Player of the Week. Even better, he’s married and living a good life.
“We proved to ourselves there through a series of accidents that the structure of the sport can do so much,” said Kirkwood. “If you provide opportunities, and if you have the right structure, and someone takes opportunity forward like he did, you can do great things. And if you could reach out to kids who are less physically developed than he was, and maybe need to mature, we think you can make a great impact.”
The league’s centering the program in the North London neighborhood of Tottenham, and sees it as a way of giving back to the area as a 10-year relationship with the Premier League soccer club begins—the NFL made an eight-figure investment in Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium, which is fully equipped for American football and will host two regular-season games per year starting this fall.
And it’s bolstered the project with player ambassadors in three categories. One is made up of stars with viral appeal (Odell Beckham, Patrick Mahomes, Juju Smith-Schuster), another is comprised of guys with UK ties (Jay Ajayi, Obada, Umenyiora, Jason Bell), and third will be alumni capable of going overseas during the football season (Jerry Rice).
The hope is those guys bring awareness to the program. The plan is to start this year with some intrasquad scrimmages, and next year play against club teams across Europe, with a goal to eventually play games against U.S. high school. The best players, they hope, will wind up getting into the American pipeline, by earning college scholarships over here on our side of the Atlantic.
There’s no question what Kirwood and Co. are doing over there is ambitious. But I’d also say the thought in doing it is correct—without kids playing over there, there’s a ceiling on how far the NFL can do. And this, obviously, is an effort to lift that roof.
1. The Steelers’ trade up for Devin Bush in the NFL draft was the first move up in the first round the team has made since 2006, and the first for a defensive player since 2003. The former target was Santonio Holmes, who wound up winning a Super Bowl MVP before wearing out his welcome in Pittsburgh. The latter was Troy Polamalu, who doesn’t need any qualifiers on his legacy there. It’s clear Pittsburgh loved Bush and targeted him early—and the clincher, I’m told, was a dinner that coach Mike Tomlin and GM Kevin Colbert had with Bush in Ann Arbor the night before his pro day.
Similarly, the Steelers circled Toledo receiver Diontae Johnson and Kentucky tailback Benny Snell early in the process. Johnson, in part because he brought return ability, was actually graded as the highest value of any receiver on Pittsburgh’s board (and they’re pretty decent at evaluating receivers, you might’ve heard). And Snell was seen as a very strong fit for what they want to be offensively. The Steelers got those two with 66th and 122nd picks, so if they’re right on them, this could be the kind of class to make you forget 2019 as the year Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown left. As always, stay tuned.
2. Not much can really be deceiphered from a rookie camp, but physical ability can stand out—and a couple people I talked to in Arizona were duly impressed with what they saw from Kyler Murray in his first work in his new colors (though his cleats caused a few problems). Obviously, everyone will have to wait to see his improvisational ability and raw athleticism in full bloom, and it’ll take game action to get a real look at that. But the coaching staff was impressed over the weekend with his ability to drive the ball on deep out-breaking routes thrown from the opposite hash. “The ball gets there in a hurry and with accuracy,” one staffer said.
3. You can’t tell much about linemen in the spring, but the Cowboys’ first two picks—second-round defensive lineman Trysten Hill and third-round guard Connor McGovern—encouraged as big and athletic system fits. It’d be pretty huge for the team if those two were hits, given that Dallas’ de facto first-round pick was Amari Cooper. Remember, as good as Cooper might be, it’ll be expensive to keep him. And the draft is where you’re able to get more affordable labor to surround the about-to-be-expensive core that Dallas in the process of taking care of.
4. The Cowboys dodged a bullet with seventh-round RB Mike Weber, who tweaked his knee on the first day of rookie camp and required an MRI. Weber, who actually practiced on Sunday, has also has more of a shot at making an impact than most players drafted in the seventh round. The Cowboys are gearing up to have fourth-round pick Tony Pollard complement Zeke Elliott, but the battle for the third spot on the depth chart is wide open. Weber is a more traditional tailback than Pollard (more of a slash-type player), which gives him the chance to add some value to the roster depth-wise.
5. After all that Dolphins GM Chris Grier and coach Brian Flores have done to find personality matches for their program, the risk that Miami’s taking on Mark Walton might seem antithetical—but I can assure you it isn’t. Walton, a talented 2018 fourth-round pick of the Bengals, was arrested three times this offseason before Cincinnati decided to waive him. What Grier and Flores are doing by signing him follows a pattern that you’d see plenty in New England. When the Patriots take character risks, they’re pretty much always buying low on guys, either in the draft or on the veteran market. The guys they invest first-round picks or big money on, on the other hand, are usually their types. So now in Miami, you see the big investment in veteran corner Xavien Howard and first-round pick Christian Wilkins. And the low-cost dice roll on Walton. If it doesn’t work, it’d be pretty easy for the Dolphins to walk away, which is the key here.
6. Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith announced on social media that he will skip the 2019 season, saying he needs to ‘get my world in order.’ The situation continues to be strange—I’m told the team still hasn’t had any one-on-one communication with him. So where this goes next is anyone’s guess. I do know other teams that were interested in potentially trading for the linebacker before the draft are keenly monitoring the situation. It’s a strange one.
7. Mike Klis of KUSA reported on Saturday that the Broncos won’t trade Chris Harris, and I can understand why it would be hard to get great value for him. Harris only has one year left on his deal—he’s due $7.9 million ($7.8 million base, $100,000 workout bonus), which is a bargain for a player of his caliber, of course. But if you’re dealing for him you either have to be comfortable having him as a one-year rental (and that he’ll even report if you treat him as one), or paying him long-term at the top of the market with 30th birthday a month away. Getting premium draft capital for a player in that circumstance, no matter how good he is, will always be a tough ask. So the Broncos are trying now to resolve this. I’m told both GM John Elway and chief negotiator Mike Sullivan have spoken personally with Harris’ agent, Fred Lyles, over the last few days. Lyles has laid out what Harris wants. And this week, the Broncos will come back with a counter. As we mentioned a couple weeks back, what Denver gave Kareem Jackson (three years, $33 million, albeit with nothing really guaranteed past his $12 million in 2019) has been a point of contention.
8. This post from Pro Football Talk’s Michael David Smith got my attention on Sunday. The all-time high for touchdown passes in a season by a quarterback past his 42nd birthday is six, by George Blanda in 1970. Barring injury or other unforeseen circumstances, Tom Brady will almost certainly shatter that record, which makes me think that we don’t make enough of what Tom Brady’s doing. (By the way, last week’s Game Plan explored how to compensate all the older quarterbacks, now that the rules seem to have changed at the position about what constitutes … old.)
9. This is a deep inside football thing, but it’s worth noting that of the 10 or so first-round picks that have signed thus far (including Murray) all have offset language included in their contract. It probably won’t affect any of the guys who signed, given it’d only come into play if they’re cut before their four-year contracts are up, but is one of the few negotiating battlegrounds in the 2011 CBA era of slotted rookie contracts. It’s notable that teams are winning decisively in this area, considering how it caused dustups in the recent past.
10. I like Adam Gase’s idea to have an orientation instead of a rookie minicamp—something he did after Dante Fowler tore his ACL in Jacksonville’s rookie minicamp in 2015—and good on other teams for dialing back what they’re doing by making these teaching camps. After months of training for the combine and pro days, players are not quite in football shape. Plus, the real value, for most teams, in these camps is looking at the undrafted guys, and maybe finding a tryout guy or two worth keeping. More on that in a second.
… OF THE WEEK
“Was I shocked with Odell? No, honestly, not. They felt like he was a problem the whole time. Ever since Odell stepped into the league with them, they felt like he was a problem, I felt like from the outside. … We loved him. Odell is my brother. He is not that kind of guy, or what people think he is about or what the organization did. I don’t know why.”
—Redskins/Ex-Giants S Landon Collins. This is a pretty eye-opening piece of candor from a guy who was a team captain with the Giants. And while he certainly isn’t speaking for GM Dave Gettleman, coach Pat Shurmur or owner John Mara, I wouldn’t dismiss what he’s saying here in any way—it’s a pretty fair bet that there were others in the locker room who felt like he did.
So this isn’t a football tweet. But with two kids under five and a third on the way, I’m with Will here.
49ers offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey, the centerpiece to this tomfoolery, wears No. 69 …
… As does Packers offensive lineman David Bakhtiari. Because I’ve got the maturity of a 12-year-old, a lot of times I wonder if that is why a guy chose to wear No. 69. And now I have my answer on one of the NFL’s best tackles, and another of its most promising. Good work, fellas.
Is this guy wearing 69 too? (Probably)
Thanks to the Colts for sharing this excellent look inside draft weekend. It’s 20 minutes long, and I know it’s hard for anything to be worth 20 minutes of your time in 2019 (since that’s what I ask for on Mondays and Thursdays), but this absolutely is. One highlight here was from April 17 (at the 11:30 mark), when they show a draft meeting where GM Chris Ballard said, “The debate probably ought to be (Ben) Banogu versus (Bobby) Okereke.” A scout asked, “so who do we take?” Ballard responded, “Both of them.” Indy got Banogu, a pass-rusher from TCU, at 49, and Okereke, a Stanford linebacker (who we wrote last week) at 89. And after they got the latter, coach Frank Reich yelled in the war room, “Could not have gone better!”
Another good one, this from Buffalo, with good detail on how the trade up to get Oklahoma tackle/guard Cody Ford (who was in play as high as 11) with the 38th pick.
And because I love you guys, here’s a fifth video – shout out to draft prospect “Deuce Dominguez. He’ll fit right in with the Packers.
So based on the reaction … I guess they don’t do the nutcracker drill anymore, huh?
S/O TO …
Panthers TE Greg Olsen. This is legitimately awesome. Greg and Kara Olsen’s son TJ was born with a congenital heart disease, and they have used the experience to create a lot of good over the years. But this one is above and beyond—a $2.5 million donation to establish a new Cardiac Center at Levine’s Children Hospital in Charlotte. And this one hit me personally. My wife Emily has been a nurse on the Cardiac ICU at Boston Children’s the last seven years, and just knowing what they do, and hearing the stories I do, it’s truly God’s work that the doctors and nurses on these units do. The Olsens could not have given to a more worthy cause.
Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott. Those in the Cowboys building have remarked on how much the two-time NFL rushing champion has grown up over the last 15 months or so. And maybe he’d have done this anyway – but it’s a good example of him doing good. In case you missed this one, Jaylon McKenzie, a promising eighth-grade football player, was hit and killed by a stray bullet leaving a party in Elliott’s hometown of St. Louis two weekends ago. Elliott offered to pay for his funeral, and it was McKenzie’s family, not Elliott himself, that made sure it got noticed. Good work, Zeke.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINES
1. If you’d told me the Celtics would wind up in an impossible situation with Kyrie Irving two years ago, I would have said you were crazy. But here we are. Do you try to re-sign him, and to a max deal, given how the series against the Bucksended? If you don’t, what do you do? You’re still capped out. This, I’d say, is where Danny Ainge earns his money.
2. The best outcome would probably be making a hard run at keeping Irving. That way, the team can go get Anthony Davis, and try to convince him to sign long-term. If this was the NFL, I’d approach it completely differently. But it’s not. You can’t win in the NBA without superstars, and there’s no guarantee that Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum—who are both a lot easier to root for than Davis or Irving—make it there.
3. Hard to have sympathy for LeBron James. Is he caught in a mess? Yup, he’s knee-deep in one. But no one would’ve looked at the Lakers’ last half-decade and said that was the best basketball situation for James last summer. He knew that, and while it’s strong to say he signed up for this, not one thing that’s happened since last July is that far afield from how we’ve seen that franchise operate.
4. File this name away from 2023 or so: DJ Uiagalelei. The rising senior quarterback at St. John Bosco High, Josh Rosen’s alma mater, committed to Clemson last week. And the way quarterbacks people talk about him, it sounds like we’ll be hearing from him plenty the next few years. (Also, as my buddy Pete Thamel wrote last summer, his dad’s story is fantastic.)
5. 2019 NHL Playoffs > 2019 NBA Playoffs … is what I wrote last week. And then Steph Curry happened. And C.J. McCollum happened. And Kawhi Leonard happened. And Bruins 6, Hurricanes 2 happened. And Sharks 6, Blues 3 happened. And I temporarily withdraw my statement.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
I know I wrote the contrary, but there is value in rookie minicamp! There are some things teams can legitimately see in the two or three days out there—mainly whether they made a grave mistake, or maybe hit on a later-round pick or free agent moreso than expected.
“You have your ‘oh no’ guys, and your ‘oh wow’ guys,” ex-Buccaneers GM Mark Dominik said. “But most of them, it’s, ‘O.K., that’s what we expected. Most of them, you don’t know right away.”
It’s easy to uncover the stories about players who were revelations during the first or second weekend in May. Rumors about Derek Carr making a run at the Raiders’ starting job, after the team said he’d absolutely be redshirted, began this weekend. Everyone remembers how the legend of Russell Wilson started at one of these, too.
Want some more good stories? Dominik, ex-Jets GM and Dolphins EVP Mike Tannenbaum and ex-Seahawks Scot McCloughan agreed to hook us up.
Dominik’s came in 2010, with a seventh-round linebacker out of Florida State.
“I can remember Dakoda Watson,” he said. “He came to minicamp and immediately jumped out—a super athlete, with elite movement skills. And he’s 10 years in. He showed up, the pure athleticism, you’re like ‘Wow, he moves at a blur pace, he’s super quick and long.’ So immediately, we knew he’d be dominant special teamer,’ and could develop as a linebacker.”
Watson wound up signing a three-year, $6 million deal with the 49ers in 2017—great money for a special teams guy—before being traded to Denver last month. And Tannenbaum’s also involves a guy in the third phase of the game.
“James Ihedigbo, I think he had pretty severe cramps, but he made it through the whole camp,” Tannenbaum said. “His toughness popped out right away—how it important it was to him. So from the get-go, we knew he’d make it.”
And he did. The undrafted free agent from UMass played 10 seasons in the NFL, getting to a Super Bowl with the Patriots in 2011, after four years as a Jet, and winning one as a Raven.
But the best story we got was from McCloughan, who brought up an undrafted receiver from the class of 2011. He was working as Seattle GM John Schneider’s right-hand man at the time, and got good info on a receiver that Stanford assistants David Shaw and Pep Hamilton had endorsed, despite what then head coach Jim Harbaugh had said. So he put a draftable grade on Doug Baldwin.
Others inside the Stanford program, as it turns out, knew too.
“Harbaugh was the reason he didn’t get drafted,” Sherman told me. “Harbaugh didn’t have a great relationship with Doug or me, he talked bad about me through the draft process. Even though Doug was our No. 1 receiver his junior year, he made Doug spent the whole time on scout team. He just didn’t like Doug. And the only reason Doug played his senior year was because all of our receivers, all the way down to the walk-ons, got hurt and he didn’t have a choice.
“If Doug got to play, and had a normal career like anyone else, he probably would’ve been a second-day pick. … I knew if he got a fair shot to thrive, he’d take advantage of it.”
And did he ever, right from that first minicamp.
“You saw the quickness, the hands, the speed, the demeanor, the makeup right there at the rookie camp,” McCloughan said. “He dominated. He was the alpha as an undrafted free agent.”
That draft class, by the way, had Sherman, Wright, Byron Maxwell and Malcolm Smith. Three of those players started in Super Bowl XLVIII. The other was the game’s MVP.
So most of the time, there’s not much to take from the minicamp. But sometimes, there’s a little something to file away.
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