MIAMI — Andy Reid probably didn’t realize it when he strolled into Brett Veach’s office in late spring of 2016, but there in front of him was the direction of his franchise. The guy holding the clicker was its future off the field, and the player on the screen its future on it.
“What you got going on?” Reid asked.
“Coach, I’m watching the quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs,” Veach responded.
That quarterback was a college sophomore whom Veach had picked off one of three lists of underclassmen that the scouting department had at its disposal at that time of year, just after the draft, as it started work toward the following year’s draft. One was a National Football Scouting list, made up wholly of rising seniors. Another was a list of juniors produced in-house. The third was a watch list of statistical stars, whose numbers simply demanded attention.
The kid on the screen was on the third one, thanks to a 4,653-yard, 36-touchdown 2015 season.
“Who is it?” Reid asked Veach.
“I said, ‘It’s this kid named Pat Mahomes,’” Veach recalled over the phone Friday. “And by that time, I had gotten to the LSU game he played his sophomore year, that bowl game where he was completely undermanned. I mean, they just had talent all over the field, LSU did. And he was just a one-man gang, just keeping them in the game and making plays and playing with so much moxie and bravado that just jumped off the tape.”
Reid sat and watched a couple of plays. In turn, Veach accomplished a modest goal that day.
He put Mahomes on the coach’s radar.
It’s been almost four years since. Then a codirector of player personnel, Veach is now the Chiefs general manager. Then barely registering a blip in the NFL—though there had been some low-key, urban-legend type buzz in the KC personnel department on him—Mahomes is now the league’s reigning MVP, leading the franchise into its first Super Bowl in 50 years.
Together, Veach and Mahomes are making a new list—of reasons why, as the Chiefs reach this destination, it sure feels more like a beginning than an end. And why what Reid’s built in Kansas City could be sturdy enough to survive beyond his coaching career.
It’s a sad day in this corner of the world. No matter what you thought of Kobe Bryant, he was a transformational figure in sports, the toy department of life: the rare athlete whose fame transcended his sport and extended far beyond this country’s borders. And as the NFL’s conference champions arrived in Florida on Sunday, it wasn’t hard to find connections.
No, this isn’t an NFL story. But there’s no question it’s being felt across pro football on this morning. And we’ll have a little more on Bryant’s impact on the league later in the column.
For now, we’re on to the Super Bowl. In here, from Miami, we’ll get you ready for Super Bowl week with ...
• A look at the lessons that the 49ers’ construction can give other teams.
• A tribute to Eli Manning from the man who drafted him.
• An update on where the idea of a 17-game NFL season stands.
And a whole lot more. But first, we’ll get back to the very, very bright future of the AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs.
Reid turns 62 years old in March and hasn’t shown many signs of slowing down—and Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, Bruce Arians and even Tom Coughlin a few years back have shown of late that coaches can go well into their 60s and be effective without much of a problem. So we’re not saying here that the Chiefs coach is coming up the 18th fairway of his NFL career.
That said, nothing is forever, and Reid is in his seventh year as Chiefs coach after 14 seasons in charge in Philly. Eventually, he’ll want to step away. And at almost any position other than quarterback, because of the nature of the sport, it’s hard to project a player more than five or so years down the line.
That’s what makes what the Chiefs have right now so interesting.
Yes, they have one of the NFL’s most accomplished, experienced coaches. But behind him are two guys very young for their jobs who figure to be bedrocks for the next decade, at least, in Kansas City.
Veach is 42. Mahomes is 24. The Chiefs are built to last.
“First of all, I’m never going to run anybody out of the building just because of their age, and I certainly hope Andy Reid is with us for many, many more years,” Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt said over the phone on Friday. “I want to start by saying that. But I do think it’s exciting any time you get really talented people who are on the young-ish side. Certainly, Brett will have a chance to be with us for a very long time. And I have no doubt he’ll do an outstanding job of building the roster around Patrick as we go.
“One of the great things about getting a young franchise quarterback is that you have multiple windows during their career where you have a chance to win a championship. And it’s up to the general manager to get the pieces around him that will allow you to win that championship. Brett’s done that with the 2019 version of the Kansas City Chiefs, and I have no doubt he’ll do it multiple times during Pat’s career.”
The amazing thing? This all came together over a matter of months in 2017. Mahomes was drafted in the first round that April, Veach promoted that July. Of course, it’s almost impossible to separate one from the other, and their tale starts with the story we just told of Reid happening by Veach’s office in the spring of 2016.
Veach was hardly the only one hot after Mahomes in the Chiefs' building, but he was one of the earliest, and known among the team’s power brokers to be his loudest fan. The truth is, he was kind of shameless about it, too, after introducing Reid to Mahomes by showing him that sophomore tape. From there forward, Veach would be watching Tech every so often, pull out his cellphone, tape a few throws and text the video to Reid.
At first, Reid would routinely respond with the thumbs-up emoji. It started as maybe a monthly thing. But as Veach got more excited with Mahomes, the texts got more frequent.
“And then it got to the point where, after like four or five weeks of doing this, I would send four or five clips and he’d be like, ‘All right, stop, dude, you’re killing me. We have a lot of time before the draft, just relax, I'm busy,’” Veach said.
The point had been made—and that was obvious when Reid showed up in Veach’s office that December with two mock drafts from ESPN.com, one from Mel Kiper, the other from Todd McShay. Neither had Mahomes in the first round. “Your boy Mahomes isn’t even on these lists,” Reid said to Veach. “Is this kid even coming out?”
This time, Veach was the one telling Reid to relax. It was, he explained, a good thing that Mahomes remained off the radar. “Because if they were saying he’s the 10th overall pick or 15th overall pick in December, then for sure he could go top five,” says Veach. Soon thereafter, Mahomes declared for the draft, and Veach was off to hit the all-star game circuit.
At the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in L.A., he bumped into agent Chris Cabott, who took Veach through his client list—“and I have this quarterback Mahomes.” When Cabott said that, Veach motioned for the agent to follow him into another room.
“There’d been a bunch of scouts around, so I was like, ‘I know you got Mahomes,’” Veach said. “And I was like, ‘Chris, I said, I know you’re from PA, and I know you know the level of coach, the caliber of coach that Andy Reid is, and you know what he does with quarterbacks, man.’ And he was like, ‘Veach, man, that's where I want him to go.’”
Veach then confided in Cabott, “I’ve been uploading videos and overloading coach’s phone with them. … Coach is in and I’m in. And this is going to be our guy. But we're at 27, man, and I think by the end of this, he'll never make it to 27. So I need you to work with me here on this. If you want him here as bad as I do, then we’re gonna have to communicate.”
The two agreed to keep each other updated on everything—workouts, visits, combine interviews, all of it. Meanwhile, the Chiefs football people met with Hunt that February to tell him of their intentions and kept the circle of people in the know small. Outgoing director of football operations Chris Ballard, another Mahomes fan, knew, but he was probably the only person outside the building who did. Inside the building, it was Hunt, Reid, GM John Dorsey, Veach, fellow codirector of player personnel Mike Borgonzi and OC Matt Nagy.
Then, it came time to move. Realistically, the Chiefs figured getting in the top five would be just about impossible, so they focused on figuring out who between six and 15 was a threat. Over a couple of months, and with a lot of information gathering, Veach & Co. ascertained that the Saints and Cardinals were Mahomes’s biggest fans. They were picking 11th and 13th, respectively. And after some fits and starts, the Chiefs pulled on another Reid relationship.
Sitting at 10 were the Buffalo Bills and new head coach, Sean McDermott, a lieutenant of Reid’s for a dozen years in Philadelphia. With an established trust in place, and McDermott leading the football operation in Buffalo, the two coaches worked to hammer out a deal.
After that, the Chiefs just needed him to fall to 10, which Mahomes did. And after that, Veach did get some confirmation that his information was good.
“Listen, it’s only what you hear after the fact,” he said. “And I know that Andy and Sean [Payton] have talked, and Sean said, ‘Hey, you’re lucky you guys took him there or I’d have taken him at 11.’ I mean, you get wind of those stories. Would they have actually taken him? You don’t know. But you do know that the interest was there.
“Now, again, maybe they were one of those teams that were going to go corner at 11 and then trade up to 20 or 19 and try to take him. So I can’t definitively say they were taking him at 11. But I do know for sure they liked him.”
Either way, Mahomes has proven to worth the freight—the Chiefs sent a third-rounder and their 2018 first-round pick to move up the 17 spots to land their long-held target, and haven’t had any reason to look back since.
The Chiefs moved on from Dorsey a couple of months after they drafted Mahomes, and there’s little doubt that Hunt remembered how important Veach was to the process of selecting the QB. But it was hardly his first memory of the rising young scout.
Veach came over to the Chiefs from Philadelphia with Reid in 2013, but most of his first two years were spent on the road working the college scouting trail. After he was promoted in 2015, he spent more time in the office, where Hunt first remembers having an in-depth conversation with the man who’d become his GM two years later.
“He told me about a player he’d be scouting, and how exciting he thought the player was, and that this player could be a really good addition to the Chiefs,” Hunt said. “We ended up not being able to select the player, and the player’s gone on to be very successful. I’ll always remember that because it was a little bit of a precursor to how excited he was about Patrick Mahomes when we got to that a couple years later.”
Hunt wouldn’t disclose the player’s name, and Veach couldn’t remember who it was—though he jokingly guessed it might be Saints WR Michael Thomas.
But the point was made that Veach was passionate about his job and had conviction in his evaluations. And that positioned him as a candidate in Hunt’s mind when the GM job came open. The issue, as Hunt saw it, was going to be the rest of the picture—that job is a big one, and it’s about more than picking players. Then, Veach interviewed.
“He was unbelievably well-prepared, had a plan, got me comfortable that he would be good overseeing the cap management,” Hunt said. “It was just a very good fit, we had very good chemistry. And of course, I knew about the relationship he had with Coach Reid. And one of the things I believe is critical to building a successful football team is that your general manager and coach are on the same page. With Brett, I knew I already had that.”
As part of the interview, Veach provided Hunt with a thorough overview of the roster, displaying his knowledge of the players, showing where the team was weak and where it was strong, and explaining how he’d attack the big issues. More than anything else, Hunt got the sense that Veach would be aggressive, and that manifested itself quickly.
And by quickly, we mean within weeks. Veach was hired in July, and by the next month he had traded for an interior offensive lineman (Cam Erving) and a linebacker (Reggie Ragland), affirming everything that Hunt figured he knew about his new GM.
“It was his analysis on those trades,” Hunt said. “First of all—the evaluation of the players. He thought both could come in and help us, both would have a chance to be starting-level players. We were dealing with mid-to-low draft picks, and where they were from a contract standpoint and therefore how they would fit into the whole cap picture, I thought was excellent.
“I’d never had a general manager analyze a move like that, where he felt there was an opportunity for us to get better for very low compensation, just making the point that we’re not going to have the ability to draft this kind of player next year with what we were giving up.”
As Hunt sees it now, those deals were just a precursor for what was coming in early 2019, when Veach rebuilt the defense aggressively and almost from scratch for new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, taking big swings on two guys, Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu, who became focal points of a rebirth on that side of the ball.
Now the future looks impossibly bright for the Chiefs. But ask Veach about that, and he’ll bring up examples from the past in which teams got here and figured they’d be back repeatedly, and it didn’t happen. Aaron Rodgers, he points out, won a Super Bowl at 27, and has even played in another one in the nine seasons since.
“You got a young quarterback who’s the best player in the game, so that’s certainly the position everybody wants to be in,” Veach said. “But if you take your foot off the accelerator in this business, things can turn around quick. We’re certainly fortunate and excited that we have him to build on, that we have the best player in the league on our roster. But if you relax a little—man, you see it every year, things can change really quickly.
“There’s a lot of great coaches out there, there’s a lot of great players out there and a lot of great teams and rosters. And it isn’t a one-man show. Even though Pat’s the best in the NFL, if we don’t protect him and play some defense, we’ll be struggling. So it’s a good position to be in. But in this business, you never really just have a month, a week that you’re off or you’ll be struggling.”
That explanation of this enviable position reflects what Hunt saw back in that interview: that Veach will be a pitbull in keeping the Chiefs where they are now.
And Veach is right. Having Mahomes doesn’t guarantee anything past this year. But the quarterback does provide Kansas City with an awfully nice starting point as it builds future rosters. And Hunt can feel good knowing that the man who’ll be charged with putting those rosters together will probably stick around for a while, too.
HOW SAN FRANCISCO PUT TOGETHER A TEAM THAT DOMINATES IN THE TRENCHES
The 49ers’ arrival in Miami on Sunday night as a bona fide powerhouse should provide every struggling franchise with an important lesson. And interestingly enough, it’s one about getting humbled and reacting the right way.
Three Januarys ago, the Niners were, essentially, the Browns. They had experienced the implosion of the long-combustible Jim Harbaugh/Trent Baalke partnership and stuck with Baalke through two one-and-done coaches—first Jim Tomsula, then Chip Kelly. And coming through on the other end was a CEO, Jed York, determined to learn from that pretty terrible experience that followed the team’s 2012 run to Super Bowl XLVII.
York knew he had to build from the ground up, and so when Kyle Shanahan arrived for his interview in January 2017, the boss was ready to hear what the Falcons offensive coordinator was about to say. Shanahan was brutally honest. He’d studied the roster and told York it was the worst in the league. He explained how easy it had been for Atlanta to destroy the Niners, 41–13, the previous December. Shanahan gave York a truth that a lot of owners couldn’t handle.
It’s an enormous credit to York that he had the humility to process that, and understand it, and wind up being drawn to it. And it’s a huge part of why the Niners are here now.
York gave Shanahan and GM John Lynch matching six-year deals and told them to work together, prioritizing alignment. He gave them plenty of rope, allowing them to ride out bumps. They’ve rewarded him by building something that’s not just strong, but something that looks sustainable.
The lesson here? A lot of owners go into the interview process looking for coaches to tell them that they’re really close, or that things aren’t that bad. (Never mind that most teams wouldn’t be looking for new coaches if that was actually true.) It took Mike Zimmer forever to get his shot as a head coach because he wasn’t like that, choosing instead to be blunt about how he saw teams. It’s probably cost Josh McDaniels some, too.
By going the other way, York empowered his people to fix what had caused the team’s foundation to erode over three or four years—and that’s not a small factor in how the 49ers reached the Super Bowl this year.
In that spirit, here are three other things San Francisco has done in building its teams that others can learn from.
• Take the best player. I asked York last week when he knew this kind of success was possible in 2019, and his answer was succinct: “When Arizona took Kyler Murray.” The Niners knew how good Nick Bosa was, and it didn’t bother them that there may have been bigger needs on the roster; they’d just traded for Dee Ford, who joined three top-10 picks already on the San Francisco defensive line.
This takeaway is easy: If there’s a true blue-chipper staring you in the face like that, don’t look away.
• Don’t put it all on the quarterback. Jimmy Garoppolo threw eight passes against the Packers in the NFC title game and has a total of 208 yards throwing the ball in the playoffs. Those facts have been used to knock Garoppolo. They shouldn’t be. It’s a result of good team-building. Good teams should be able to pull the quarterback lever—they shouldn’t need to do it. As such, Garoppolo’s thrown for 300 yards three times this year, and the Niners are 3–0 in those games.
Being able to win the other way too, by barely throwing the ball at all—that’s a show of strength, not weakness.
“It shows how much heart our guys have, [they] just went so hard,” Kyle Shanahan told me after the NFC championship. “It's not like we expected it to be like that, but the way they were coming off the ball, the lanes they were creating, how hard our backs were going—plus with how good the defense was playing, I mean, you do can’t that unless the whole team’s tied together.”
Essentially, this is one reason why Tom Brady’s Patriots got the best of Peyton Manning’s Colts so many times. The Patriots could have their quarterback carry their team to wins. The Colts often needed their quarterback to do so.
• Be strong along the lines. I say this with the benefit of hindsight (and I wasn’t saying it at the time), but thinking back to when I was at training camp in August, I’m struck now at how the battle between the offensive and defensive lines—and in particular between Bosa and tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey—was so intense. And those battles set the tone for the entire team, helping form its identity.
“I thought we had a pretty good offense, and it was hard to operate at practice because our D-line and they had that mad man [DL coach Kris] Kocurek, who is so reminiscent to me of Rod Marinelli,” Lynch said, harkening back to his days as Buccaneers safety when Marinelli was the line coach. “I mean, Rod Marinelli is the most impactful of position coaches. We had Herm [Edwards], we had Lovie [Smith], we had all these guys—Mike Tomlin—but that position was so impactful because when they’re going full speed and they’re running to every ball, it’s hard.
“I remember some days where Warren Sapp sprinted 30 yards, and if he’s passing you up, you’re like, ‘Man, I gotta pick my s--- up.’”
In other words, if you have a bunch of war daddies up front that helps shape a team full of them.
And based on the results—and so many factors that brought the Niners here—it’s safe to say they’ve got a team full of them.
KOBE’S IMPACT ON THE NFL
Maybe the strongest connection Kobe Bryant had to the NFL is the one he shared with 49ers corner Richard Sherman, who credits his friend Bryant with being an inspirational figure in his own recovery from a torn Achilles tendon. When I reached out to Sherman on Sunday night, he was still searching for the right thing to say, so he didn’t want to talk about it so soon.
But he was hardly the only one in the NFL impacted by the Black Mamba.
Chargers GM Tom Telesco recalled his “Welcome to L.A.” moment after the team moved, when he went to meet his family at Christmas Eve mass after work. His texted his wife to ask where they were sitting. On the right, second-to-last pew, she responded, next to Kobe. Sure enough, there he was. Telesco joked with his kids after that Kobe was probably going to go home and brag about sitting next to an NFL general manager.
But soon thereafter, he’d see him around work more. Bryant had an office adjacent to the Chargers’ facility in Costa Mesa, and before long the football team was having the basketball star over to address its players. Not surprisingly, the audience was rapt.
“He spoke to our team multiple times,” Telesco texted on Sunday. “Our players and staff hung on every word. Not just because he is a HOF b-ball talent, but because of his drive, ruthless competitiveness, singular focus, and will to win. He had a football mentality and that resonated with our players. His speeches to our team were epic. We appreciated every visit.”
Telesco remembered one where Bryant explained the importance of a player being, to put it lightly, relentless in his desire to defeat the man in front of him. Chargers coach Anthony Lynn recalled the more casual encounters at the facility: “He would stop by and share a word every once in a while. Always had a good message. One of the most fierce competitors I’ve ever been around. He was going to be the best in whatever he was doing.”
Lynn then used that word again, “Relentless!”
Bryant gave his hometown Eagles similar memories during their championship season of 2017. Doug Pederson’s champions-to-be were staying in California in between road games against the Seahawks and Rams, and Bryant came to the team hotel during the week.
Philly GM Howie Roseman said Sunday Bryant’s message to the players that day was “powerful”, about having an amazing opportunity as a pro athlete, and the importance of attacking it with everything you have, and having the mentality to hold everyone around you to a championship level. Throughout, it was obvious how the players viewed him.
“All the players were in awe,” Roseman said. “Taking pictures, wanting to meet him, he was a special dude.”
ELI RETIRES “ONLY A GIANT“
Here’s something I didn’t know: Ben Roethlisberger’s name was actually on the Giants’ draft card on April 24, 2004, as the team hit the clock with the fourth pick coming up.
I did know Roethlisberger was going to be the pick if the Giants couldn’t get Ole Miss QB Eli Manning, as has been widely discussed over the last 16 years. But I wasn’t aware it was that close to actually going down. And it was right on the edge of happening that afternoon because, as the Cardinals took Larry Fitzgerald at three and the Giants’ turn came, the Chargers, who took Manning first overall, had gone totally radio silent on then New York GM Ernie Accorsi.
Earlier in the week, then Chargers GM A.J. Smith promised Accorsi that he’d call him the day before the draft. Despite rumblings that Manning wanted no part of San Diego, Friday came and went without a call. So Accorsi figured it was over. He was moving forward. But he’d at least leave the door open, so instead of just turning the card in as the clock started, as the Giants routinely had in the past, he chose to wait.
New York got about halfway through its allotted 15 minutes before the call came. Smith asked for pass rusher Osi Umenyiora. Accorsi said no, but he and his staff had discussed at length what they would be willing to do to get Manning.
“He called me and asked for Osi again, and we said no,” Accorsi said on Saturday afternoon. “Then he said, ‘Would you give me next year’s No. 1?’ Well, we’d already talked about that, and decided we’d be willing to do it. I said yes, and we both called into [NFL exec] Joel Bussert. He had to get both of us on the phone at the same time, he literally had a phone on each ear, and the clock was running out.”
With under a minute to go, Bussert said the magic words to both GMs: We have a trade.
And for the 16 seasons that followed, the three quarterbacks affected by that phone call—Manning, Roethlisberger and the guy Smith wound up taking at four, Philip Rivers—were linked together on the field. We now know that won’t be the case next year.
This week, Manning became the first of the three to call it a career.
He did so, in his words, so he could retire “only a Giant.” And it’s safe to say that Accorsi doesn’t have many regrets on making him one in the first place. But he can tell the truth a decade-and-a-half later, and say he was actually going to be all right either way.
Per Accorsi, the Giants had Roethlisberger graded “very close” to Manning. In fact, if they hadn’t, he says now, he may have been willing to send Umenyiora to San Diego for the first pick. That he wasn’t illustrates how he felt about the future Steeler then, but it doesn’t diminish how he’s felt all along about Manning, right up to the ceremony in New Jersey on Friday that Accorsi had a front row seat for.
“It wasn’t like I’d just found out, he told me on Monday, and I’d been anticipating that it might happen,” Accorsi said. “But you go to an event like that, you see the scene, his college coach, Coach [Tom] Coughlin, 25 teammates, all the family in attendance, and it makes an impact on you. It’s a historic day in my life, so you do get reflective. It seems like yesterday that we made the trade. [Friday] was just a great day for the franchise.”
It was a time for Accorsi to celebrate too. So here are four points he made as he did that.
• The ‘only a Giant’ part was important to Accorsi, too. “It was my third year in the league when [Johnny] Unitas was traded to Chargers,” Accorsi said. “And to see him in a Charger uniform was too much for me to bear, because I grew up a Colts fan.” And that, Accorsi said, was what he thought of most when Manning called him Monday—that Eli’s No. 10 would never be laid over other colors.
• Some luck was involved in getting him. Accorsi said that he was smitten with Manning from the first time he saw him live, when the redshirt junior kept an undermanned Ole Miss team in a game against Auburn in 2002. (The Rebels wound up losing 31–24.) As such, Accorsi was prepared to take him in 2003, but with the Giants picking 25th, there was almost no chance they could move up far enough to get him.
A bad 2003 season from the Giants wound up affording him that opportunity, even if he didn’t think it would after Manning held his Pro Day at the Saints facility in March 2004. “He was picture perfect, he did everything right, checked every box,” Accorsi said. “I remember feeling down.… Like, ‘We’re not gonna get him.’ It didn’t feel like it got derailed, it was more like it was never on the rail.” And then, of course, it was.
• Accorsi’s scouting report wasn’t far off. As he saw it, the physical characteristics weren’t hard to scout, nor were they what was most intriguing. For Accorsi, it was the poise we’d all wind up seeing in Manning as he won two Super Bowls.
“The No. 1 characteristic when you’re evaluating quarterbacks is, Can you win a title with him? Can he take a team down the field with a championship on the line?” Accorsi said. “Todd Blackledge, I remember he said exactly what I felt—I evaluate a quarterback on third down, on what does in the red zone, what does in fourth quarter with a game on the line.… Well, we felt that way about both those guys. Roethlisberger had a history of it, too.”
And oh, how history may have been different if things had gone the other way. Instead, Accorsi was in the front row Friday, as Manning, now 39, predictably handled an emotional moment with the kind of class he’s become known for.
“That part wasn’t tough, if you know Archie, Olivia, Peyton, Cooper. That family is incredible,” Accorsi said. “I remember Archie as a player, even as a college player. I was at Penn State when he was at Ole Miss. The family’s so great, they raise their children right. And yeah, John Mara said it: Everything you ever dreamed of as a person and player, that’s Eli.… He stands for everything this franchise stands for.”
To me, in a postseason full of outrageous 49ers statistics, this one is craziest: They’ve held consecutive opponents under 100 yards in the first half. That’s what happens when The Citadel plays Alabama. It shouldn’t happen in the NFC playoffs. And yet, it did. That said, making it happen again in the Super Bowl, given the opponent, is a lot to ask.
These things usually don’t matter so much, but it’s at least interesting that the Bears are showing early interest in tight ends—Dayton’s Adam Trautman said as much—at the Senior Bowl. Chicago took big swings on Adam Sheehan in the draft and Trey Burton in free agency, because the position is an important one in coach Matt Nagy’s offense. (Travis Kelce is a good example of that). So this might be a sign Chicago is not going to wait around for a return on its investment in those two. And it’s also worth noting that while the Bears will be short of cap space this offseason, Austin Hooper and Hunter Henry lead an interesting free-agent class at the position.
Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin raised an interesting point to me when discussing how Cincinnati landed on Carson Palmer with the first pick in 2003: “The physical traits were hard to ignore. I mean, he was a big, athletic guy who could run, and he had a wonderful arm. He had tremendous deep-ball accuracy, which is one thing that [owner] Mike [Brown] has always fancied. Arm strength and downfield accuracy—that’s what he really has always taken to, guys that can make the big plays in games and not have to travel the length of the field every time. With Carson, it was an easy pick for us.” That point about downfield accuracy? That’s one to file away as the team assesses LSU’s Joe Burrow, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Oregon’s Justin Herbert.
Mahomes’ arrival on the Super Bowl stage certainly creates a significant what-if for the Bills, the team that dealt out of his draft slot. But there are a couple things that should be accounted for in the assessing that decision in hindsight. First, they were in a transitional phase, with coach Sean McDermott largely running the draft and outgoing GM Doug Whaley playing out the string (Carolina exec Brandon Beane would arrive in May). Second, the Bills did O.K. with the picks they got back: They took CB Tre’Davious White at 27, used 91 to deal up for WR Zay Jones, and packaged the 2018 first-round to move up and get LB Tremaine Edmunds. Now, would they take Mahomes if they had that pick today? They probably won’t say it, but of course they would have. And they did do their homework, having sent a full contingent (McDermott, Whaley and owner Terry Pegula) to Texas to work him out. So they had the information. And maybe there’s some regret. But it’s understandable why it went down like it did.
Speaking of what-ifs, the Broncos have a big one to chew on in their decision not to offer their job to Shanahan in 2017. The then-Falcons offensive coordinator wound up a runner-up to then-Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph. Maybe Shanahan and John Elway would’ve been a tough match, and maybe coming home to where his dad built a powerhouse would’ve created a different dynamic from the one he has in San Francisco. Maybe Denver wouldn’t have been as patient with him as the Niners have been. But things probably couldn’t have gone much worse than they did in Joseph’s two years.
If the Browns wind up hiring Andrew Berry as their new GM, the top scouting positions become vital because, as we’ve said here, Berry is more a jack-of-all-trades than pure evaluator. Assistant GM Eliot Wolf (under contract through the 2022 draft) and VP of player personnel Alonzo Highsmith (under contract through the 2021 draft) are the top guys on that side now, and both worked for a little over a year with Berry before he left Cleveland for Philly after the 2018 season. Given the discord in the organization between ex-GM John Dorsey and the analytics side, it’ll be interesting to see if Berry keeps those two, whose fate will be determined by the next GM.
The Buccaneers have a complicated decision to make on LB Shaq Barrett. He had a 19.5-sack season, and the market for elite pass-rushers has now been established well into the $20 million-per range (Khalil Mack, Frank Clark, DeMarcus Lawrence). Do the Bucs go there now? Do they wait to see what’s out there on the market and risk losing the 27-year-old? Finding a guy like Barrett has been a struggle for the Bucs in recent years, so it’ll sure be interesting to see how hard they fight to keep him.
Give Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury credit for Mahomes, too. The former Texas Tech coach told teams ahead of the 2017 draft what he believed he had in the quarterback, and more probably wish they’d listened now. Another interesting fact on the Kingsbury/Mahomes pairing? It was another freelancing quarterback Kingsbury had who led to his fascination with Mahomes as a high-school recruit. That quarterback was Johnny Manziel, whom Kingsbury coached as Texas A&M’s offensive coordinator. Trey Havarty, a Kingsbury assistant at Tech, told Bleacher Report last year that “Kliff, after coaching Johnny, wanted a mobile quarterback, and Mahomes is obviously that.” That and a whole lot more.
This is tea-leaf reading, but my guess is that if Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers does indeed leave LA, he’d have two locations above the others in mind: Indy and Tennessee. But it takes two to tango, so we’ll see where those teams’ interest lie.
I hope everyone got to see the Chiefs’ tribute to Andy Reid. And it illustrates the underlying meaning behind this Super Bowl for so many in Kansas City. They want to win it for him.
Good on Peyton Manning for going to bat for his former Colts teammate Edgerrin James in his Hall of Fame candidacy. It’s needed, because James has seen his star fade because he played with so many of them. He’s one of just four players in NFL history with four 1,500-yard seasons, which is pretty amazing. And he made ex-Colts GM Bill Polian’s stunning decision to draft him over Ricky Williams in 1999 look pretty smart in the long run.
The Cowboys have less than two months left to get Dak Prescott signed to a new deal. If they can’t before Feb. 10, they’ll have to put the franchise tag on him, which means they won’t have it for other free agents like Amari Cooper and Byron Jones. So Cooper and Jones should be rooting for the Prescott talks to drag out just a little longer.
Speaking with his local media, Dolphins GM Chris Grier addressed the team’s quarterback question this week, and it was interesting that the first thing he mentioned was how at that position, “Intangibles are what separates a lot of guys.” Then, he pointed to Drew Brees and Tom Brady. Which is something to file away for the next couple months.
The Eagles’ hire of new secondary coach Marquand Manuel won’t get the attention that the offensive coordinator hire will (whenever that happens), but it might be just as critical. Getting the corner spot shored up will be a high priority in Philly this offseason, and Manuel will be in the middle of that.
Even after restricting the contracts of QB Matt Ryan and DT Grady Jarrett, the Falcons remain tight to the cap, and it’ll be interesting to see how that affects their offseason decision making. I’ve long held the assumption that they’d franchise TE Austin Hooper at around $11 million, because that’s an affordable number. But I’m not sure they’ll have the breathing room even for that, and it’s fair to guess that two other free agents, DE Vic Beasley and LB De’Vondre Campbell, are gone.
One thing the Giants can take forward from a rough 2019 season: a potentially awkward situation between Manning and Daniel Jones went about as well as could be expected, which is a credit to both quarterbacks. And how well it worked was illustrated by Jones’ attendance at Friday’s presser.
Jaguars coach Doug Marrone had nice things to say at the Senior Bowl on how pass rusher Josh Allen finished a 10.5-sack rookie year, in light of how some guys fade down the stretch in Year 1. Allen isn’t Nick Bosa. But he’s a really nice building block for Jacksonville going forward. And for now, a very affordable one.
Interesting to see ex-Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage at practices in Mobile this week wearing Jets gear. This was the ex-Browns GM’s first time back in Mobile in that capacity, working for an NFL team, in eight years. And you’d think, based on his institutional knowledge of the game itself and the ins and outs of how it works, he was probably a nice resource to have over the last few days.
Teams coaching in Mobile always gain a little bit of an edge going into draft season by having so many players in an intimate setting for a week. For the Lions, there was a second benefit, too—getting to break in new coaches. With some turnover on Matt Patricia’s staff, the last few days were good in getting to integrate special teams coach Brayden Coombs, DBs coach Cory Undlin and offensive line coach Hank Fraley in an on-field setting.
The top quarterbacks in this year’s draft certainly have questions, but there is quality depth at the position. So it’s fair to wonder if now is the time for the Packers to take a real hard look at putting Aaron Rodgers’ successor on the roster. Worth mentioning, Brett Favre was 35-and-a-half when Rodgers was drafted. Rodgers turned 36 in December.
One name that I wouldn’t rule out for the Panthers, as they look to add to their front office is Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio. I know that Carolina owner David Tepper has been friendly with Caserio at league events, and it’s possible he’ll wait until after the draft to take a big swing at bringing in a scouting-side executive, presuming the Eagles successful keep Berry off-limits.
The Patriots’ addition of Jedd Fisch to the staff is an interesting one, in that they went outside the family tree to grab him from the Rams. Why would they, when Belichick’s history is to promote from within? There really isn’t a logical successor to Josh McDaniels on the team’s staff, or at least one who could be ready in a year, so bringing in someone with coordinating experience (Jaguars, Michigan, UCLA) has to be a big plus.
One thing that Raiders GM Mike Mayock said to the Las Vegas Review-Journalthis week that jumped out at me: “We don’t have enough outside speed.” That was something the team felt like it addressed with Antonio Brown last year, before the meltdown, and should have ample opportunity to take care of this year, with a very deep receiver class set to come into the NFL in April.
Underrated 2020 free agent: Rams LT Andrew Whitworth. He’s said he wants to keep playing, and L.A. could really use another year from him, after losing Rodger Saffold and John Sullivan during the 2019 offseason. The offensive line, in general, is a problem area for the Rams, and one they’ll need to invest in this offseason.
The Ravens have an incredibly interesting decision to make on free agent CB Jimmy Smith. They just gave Marcus Peters a three-year, $42 million extension. And Marlon Humphrey, who emerged as a superstar at the position this fall, is eligible for a new deal this offseason for the first time. That’s a lot of moving parts at a position that was a major strength for a 14–2 team in 2019.
The more I think of the Redskins and the second pick in the draft, the more I think of the Niners. Like San Francisco last year, if they keep everyone, Washington will go into April with four former first-round picks on its defensive front (Ryan Kerrigan, Jonathan Allen, Da’Ron Payne, Montez Sweat), which might cause some to think, That’s not a need. And if the Niners had operated like that, maybe they’d have considered passing on Nick Bosa. I know they’re glad they didn’t. Likewise, I’m pretty sure the Redskins would be pleased with what Chase Young would bring to their front, and the effect he’d have on the guys around him.
One benefit for the Saints in paying Drew Brees what they have over the years—and there are many—is coming back around now. New Orleans never really resisted to pay him at or near the top of the market, and as a result there aren’t old wounds being cut open now as he and the team face an uncertain immediate future (like there are in New England). Brees said at the Pro Bowl this week, he’ll either play in New Orleans or nowhere in 2020.
Seahawks QB Russell Wilson to ESPN this week: “I think we need a couple more (players). … Free agency is very, very key to getting those superstars on your team.” Seattle, by the way, has a ton of cap space to work with—and will even after they decide what to do with pending free-agent Jadeveon Clowney.
Steelers owner Art Rooney said last week that he’s “optimistic” that GM Kevin Colbert will stay on board for another year. But the fact remains that the 62-year-old’s contract is up after the draft and, even if he stays, the time to start preparing for the post-Colbert era in the front office is now. VP of football administration Omar Khan seems to be the most likely candidate to take the reins, whenever the time comes.
Just a strange couple weeks for the Texans. The dismissal of cap czar Chris Olsen and linebackers coach John Pagano are the latest moves in a burst of staff shuffling. The firing of Olsen, in particular, was eye-opening. That this happened three weeks after the season ended had to be tough for Olsen, given that two other cap manager spots (Redskins, Panthers) turned over earlier in the month.
A name I’m watching for the now[vacant Titans’ defensive coordinator post: Shane Bowen. The team’s outside linebackers coach has gone with Mike Vrabel from Ohio State to Houston and now to Tennessee, so he has as good an idea as anyone on what Vrabel will want out of his coordinator.
Convincing Gary Kubiak to dive back in as an offensive coordinator this week was a huge win forVikings coach Mike Zimmer. As Minnesota’s assistant head coach and offensive assistant, Kubiak helped to adapt his offense for last year’s OC Kevin Stefanski to great success, and his decision to take the OC job himself this year will mean minimal disruption for a team that should remain in the title chase in 2020.
THE TOP FIVE
1. Progress on the labor front. The CBA probably won’t be a front-burner topic for most of you this week, but it could well wind up being one for the people negotiating it. I’m told that significant progress has been made toward a new labor deal, and the union is hoping for the league to make another move this week as both sides come to South Florida. And here’s an important point for the union: I’m told the league has told the players that if they go to a 17-game schedule, it won’t be until 2021 at the earliest. A few weeks ago, the players were seeking a guarantee from the league that they’d get 48% of total revenue as part of the new deal, with rising minimum salaries and an increased salary floor. It’s unclear whether or not the league is there yet, but I can say that things have changed to the point where the union has some of its voting board on standby to come to Miami this week if enough progress is made. It’s unlikely any sort of deal gets done that soon—you’ve probably heard how players at the Pro Bowl pushed back on the notion of a 17-game season—but serious groundwork could be laid and momentum built towards an agreement.
2. The Browns’ history is hurting them. Vikings assistant GM George Paton was hesitant to interview with Cleveland to begin with, and that he went back a second time was indicative of two things. One, he’s got great respect for their new coach—his long-term co-worker, Kevin Stefanski. Two, through the first interview, he genuinely liked the people he met with enough to seriously considering taking the job. And this is where the Browns’ history got in the way of Paton’s good experience. Owner Jimmy Haslam’s reputation for listening to too many people and the structure of the football operation in general were problematic for most candidates, including Paton. That illustrates the price the Browns pay for being who they’ve been for a decade. So they lose out on Paton (who didn’t ever get to the point of having an offer before removing himself from consideration), who would’ve aligned perfectly with Stefanski. It’s a shame for them, too, because landing Paton would’ve been a big win in what’s been a scattershot search process. It’s also understandable why Paton would walk: Most scouts only get one shot at being a GM (unlike coaches), and it’s not hard to see why someone might be leery of taking that shot with the Browns.
3. Gambles pay off. A total of six quarterbacks went in the first round in 2016 and ’17, and all six were landed by teams who traded up. And so I had this interesting point raised to me this week—four of those six trades involved teams making massive moves up the board (more than 10 slots), and dealing away future first-rounders to do it. Of those four, three have made the Super Bowl since. The Eagles did it two years ago, the Rams last year, and the Chiefs are here now. The one that hasn’t made it yet, the Texans, are plenty happy with their decision to deal way up for Deshaun Watson. What’s more, both those classes were seen as relatively average at the position. The narrative going into 2016 was there was no Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston to be had, and in ’17 it was that a better crop of quarterbacks was coming in 2018. Food for thought as teams dig in on Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert.
4. Heat getting to Carr? Yes, Raiders QB Derek Carr saw the pictures of his boss, Mark Davis, talking to someone else’s quarterback, Tom Brady, at the UFC fight last weekend. “I mean, there was a lot of quarterbacks at that fight,” Carr said to ESPN this week. “And there was a lot of football players at that fight that are free agents. And it’s like, every time, with my job, it’s always a story. No matter what. And knowing some people that were around, I even know what the conversation was [between Davis and Brady], and it's like, ‘C’mon, man, when’s it going to end?’ Especially when people are seen with certain people. It’s like, ‘Oh, gosh. Well, I was at dinner with [Davis] last night. Does that count for anything?’ Golly. It’s just funny. But I’m used to it now.” To be fair, Carr has had to deal with this for a couple years now. Last year, the questions arose when the Raiders kicked the tires on Kyler Murray, Dwayne Haskins and Drew Lock. And until Brady’s future is determined, it’s fair to say that Carr won’t be the only quarterback to feel the rumbling of the freight train of rumors to come.
5. The cautionary tale of Antonio Brown. The former All-Pro is clearly sorting through some deep-seated problems right now, stuff that no one should be laughing about. But I’d say there’s one issue here that’s pretty common among athletes: how Brown has surrounded himself with yes men. Over the last year, he badly needed to listen to someone, anyone, who was trying to tell him no. Either those people were there and he didn’t hear them, or he avoided them all together. Either way, there were enough people mistaking what he did at the end of last year and into the first quarter of 2019 as “player empowerment” to convince Brown that he was right in conducting himself in a completely outrageous, unpredictable and unprofessional way. The Raiders validated his behavior by giving him a huge raise upon trading for him, and the Patriots didn’t help much either in handing him $10 million guaranteed after he shot his way out of Oakland. Now, those who cheered on his act last winter—and I’ll admit I thought it was kind of hilarious at the time—or enabled him by giving him chance after chance can’t help him. Here’s hoping he finally comes to a place where he can see that.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINES
1. Justin Herbert’s big week at the Senior Bowl is relevant. Mobile, of course, is where Carson Wentz, Baker Mayfield and Daniel Jones made moves, and Herbert may wind up being the latest case of that, particularly if teams remain nervous about Tagovailoa’s hip. Herbert is still fighting the inconsistency of his 2019 tape and the feeling that he’s not a natural mover in the pocket (there have been comps to a young Ryan Tannehill in that regard), but he did take a step forward. Nice to do it playing for the coaches who have the first pick, too.
2. Small-school guys helped themselves in Mobile.Particularly noteworthy were St. John’s OT Ben Bartch and Lenoir-Rhyne S Kyle Dugger.
3. Scouts are very much warming up to the tailback class on the horizon. There’s not an Adrian Peterson or a Saquon Barkley, and there were a couple who surprisingly returned to school (Clemson’s Travis Etienne, Alabama’s Najee Harris). But there will likely be value to be had in the second and third rounds, with talents like Ohio State’s JK Dobbins, Georgia’s D’Andre Swift and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor.
4. This is eerie. LeBron James, wearing a Laker uniform, passed Bryant to get to third all-time on the NBA scoring list—he’s only trailing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone—the day before Kobe’s death.
5. Kyrie Irving is one of a kind. Truly.
6. It’s weird to me that we’re having the “Will they show up to the White House?” debate ahead of teams actually winning a championship. There are honestly few things I could care less about than a pro sports team showing up for a photo op.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Lots of tributes from NFL stars coming in on Kobe, so we’re gonna devote this section to that…
This was tweeted just as the Pro Bowl was getting started and was the first sign I saw that word had gotten through to the players. It felt weird watching such a meaningless game as this was all happening. I can’t imagine what it was like for the players playing in it.
Brady and Kobe were seen together a few times—I remember it happening of the floor of the Garden when the Celtics played the Lakers years ago. To me, in this AAU/frienemy age of sports, those two are part of an increasingly rare breed of the uber-competitive. In that way, I sort of see them as the descendants of Michael Jordan.
And that’s certainly the feeling you got hearing the players interviewed on the sidelines during the game.
Pretty raw moment here between Brees and Lisa Salters.
This was pretty cool. Smith said postgame that it was Seahawks QB Russell Wilson that gathered the NFC team before kickoff, when the players heard the news, and led them in prayer.
The bond between the Eagles and Bryant, like we said, was pretty cool. And it showed …
… when Philly won the Super Bowl.
There were a lot of these, too, which shows the disbelief of a generation of NFL players that were little kids when Kobe’s career really took off – and that look at him the way my generation looks at Jordan, as the ultimate winner. In that way, this sort of widespread reaction makes all the sense in the world.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Super Bowl week is about referendums. And the teams that get here become, over their eight days on site, examples of everything that every other team should be. And I’m writing that here with full knowledge of how I lauded the Chiefs and Niners at the top of the column.
Just know this: There’s more than one way to get here.
Last year, the Rams got here with a daring team-building approach that included big swings not only to get a young quarterback, but to stock the team around him while he was still on a rookie deal. Which is just how the Chiefs are built. Conversely, the Niners were put together methodically, like the Patriots of 2018. But even those two weren’t that alike: New England was old, San Francisco is young.
The point is, despite what you might hear this week, there is more than one way to get to a Super Bowl. And with that said, now we’ll dive into a full week of over-analysis and overreaction. Should be fun.
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