Lessons Learned From the 2019 NFL Season

Here are 10 things we learned from this past season and the Chiefs' and 49ers' runs to Super Bowl LIV. Plus we answer your mail on offseason needs, Tom Brady's future and more.
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The Super Bowl’s done, the Chiefs are champions, a parade’s on my TV, and 31 other teams are on to 2020. And we will be, too.

In this week’s mailbag I’ll get to your questions on:

  • Josh Rosen’s future
  • Tom Brady’s future
  • Kyle Shanahan’s decision-making
  • The Eagles' front-office structure, and what it means for the Browns
  • ’80s music

But first, we’re going to take one last look back at the 2019 season and give you 10 things we all should know about the NFL after the last eight months.

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Big people beat up little people. That’s a Chip Kelly quote, used after he spent his first draft pick as Eagles coach on Lane Johnson in 2013, and it holds true now. The one thing that ties the conference finalists of the last couple of years together? Deep investment at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Invest in big people, as Kelly said seven years ago, and you’ll win your share of fistfights.

Of the eight starting tackles in the conference title games, five were on contracts paying them more than $11 million per year. Two of the three exceptions (Jack Conklin and Mike McGlinchey) were top-10 picks still on their rookie deals. And the eighth guy (Bryan Bulaga) just played out the final season of a five-year deal that was near the top of the market when he signed it in 2016. That, to say the least, is staggering.

On the other side of the ball, the two Super Bowl teams already had stars up front going into 2019 (DeForest Buckner and Chris Jones), and both made moves to add pricey vets to complement them (Dee Ford and Frank Clark), and the Niners spent the second overall pick on Nick Bosa, who you could argue wound up being the best player on the biggest stage, at least before Patrick Mahomes took over in the fourth quarter.

Bottom line: Good coaches can cover up a lot of things, but it’s hard to hide weakness in the trenches if your opponent is bringing strength.

Rookie QB deals remain the best bargain. For the third straight year, a team with a quarterback taken in the top 10, playing on a rookie contract, reached the Super Bowl. And for the second time in that span, they won it. Yes, that’s fudging it a little—Carson Wentz was hurt for his trip to the big game—but whether he played or not, Philly had according financial flexibility. And as we head in the ’20s, we still haven’t had a QB making $20 million-per QB win it all.

That, of course, will eventually change. But there’s no doubt that those Eagles, Rams and Chiefs were able to build their teams in a way that clubs with big quarterback financials can’t. And in a way that Philly and L.A. themselves no longer can. Jared Goff’s cap number jumps from $10.6 million this year to $36.0 million next year, and Wentz’s figures go from $8.4 million this year to $18.7 million next year to $34.7 million in 2021.

That doesn’t mean the Eagles and Rams (and eventually the Chiefs) can’t keep winning. It just means their margin for error is cut way down, and they’ll probably need their QB to be good enough to cover up some holes, which is why you’re willing to pay the guy that much in the first place.

Quarterback trade-ups are worth it. While we’re there, think about this: In the 2016 and ’17 drafts, four teams dealt away future first-rounders to get quarterbacks in the top 10. Two of those four have won championships (Philly and Kansas City), three of the four have made the Super Bowl (the Rams), and the other team (Houston) has advanced in the playoffs.

Now, missing in the first round on a quarterback can be debilitating, because not only does it mean you have the wrong guy, it also means for at least three years or so you stop looking for one. But the payoff for hitting is huge.

The trade market has changed, and maybe for good. This is quantifiable: From the advent of the 2011 CBA up until the end of March 2018, just eight players were traded for packages involving a first-round pick or more. Since then, over a 21-month span, the NFL has matched that number, with eight such deals (Brandin Cooks, Khalil Mack, Amari Cooper, Odell Beckham, Frank Clark, Laremy Tunsil, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Jalen Ramsey).

Why? There are a bunch of reasons—all of which we detailed in September. The analytics boom, the financial landscape, an NBA influence, the state of job security in the NFL and a crop of younger, more aggressive GMs are among them.

The overarching truth, though, is that draft picks are being valued differently than they were in the past and teams are getting in front of deteriorating situations with players quicker than they used to. Which leads to more blockbuster deals.

It doesn’t matter what side of the ball your coach comes from. You can make a solid argument that the best hire of the 2019 cycle may well have been Miami’s Brian Flores, who was one of just two defensive coaches to land jobs. Tennessee’s Mike Vrabel, another guy from that side of the ball, led his team to the AFC title game. Baltimore’s John Harbaugh, an old special teams coach, had the best team in football for most of the year.

All of that is to say, yes, it’d be nice to pair an offensive play-caller with a young quarterback, like Kansas City and San Francisco have, because if that play-caller is your head coach, there’s a lot less risk that you’ll lose him. But that should be seen more as a really nice bonus, not a necessity. Tom Brady and Russell Wilson are OK, despite having had head coaches that came from the defensive side for the entirety of their careers.

Bigger than offensive tactics or quarterback know-how is leadership. That, by the way, is how the Eagles landed on a position coach named Andy Reid 21 years ago. They didn’t know then that he’d become the play-caller he has been. Which was, yup, a really nice bonus to what wound being a home-run hire.

Defense still matters. With seven minutes left at Hard Rock Stadium, it sure looked like we were, for the second straight year, going to have defense carrying Super Bowl Sunday. And that Mahomes is a force of nature and screwed up that fun narrative doesn’t change this: Each of the NFL’s top four defenses made the playoffs, and two of the top four offenses didn’t. The Niners rode their defense to the Super Bowl. The Chiefs won it because theirs was much better than what they had on that side last year.

Don’t get me wrong—a team with the makeup of the 2000 Ravens could still win it all two decades later, though it’d be tough to make that happen. What I am saying is that having balance really matters after all, and after what so many people thought was an offensive revolution in 2018. Speaking of that …

Football is about evolution, not revolution. There’s a reason why fullbacks are suddenly back in style, and why an old-school, 240 lb. hammer, in Derrick Henry, won the rushing title. And that relates to what football’s always been—a giant cat-and-mouse game. The rebirth of the run game is a direct response to teams putting 220 lb. linebackers, 250 lb. defensive ends and a constant stream of nickel packages on the field.

It’s not complicated. Put a defense on the field to combat a spread offense, and teams are going to bring in tight ends and fullbacks (see: Ravens, Baltimore) for their tailbacks to run behind. And when you put bigger defenders on the field to deal with those guys? Offenses will throw it on them.

College concepts keep coming. A year and a half ago, I did a fun story with Bears coach Matt Nagy, then on the eve of his first training camp, on the idea of stealing plays—from other NFL teams and the college game. Later in the year, Sean Payton admitted to me that he’d taken ideas from Sean McVay by studying Rams tape. A few months after that, McVay told me he was doing the same to Payton, through watching Saints tape.

So if there’s a real revolution on offense happening, it’s there. Coaches are way more open-minded than they used to be. Ideas and even entire systems, like what the Ravens ran this year, that once would’ve been derided as “college” are now ingrained in the NFL, partly because teams are doing more to meet young quarterbacks halfway in getting them to adjust and learn the NFL game.

There was plenty of that in the Super Bowl and, yes, we have a good example for you. On the Niners’ third offensive snap, Deebo Samuel broke off a 32-yarder on an end-around. Three plays later, they ran another end-around to Samuel. On this one, there was a wrinkle—a throwback to Jimmy Garoppolo. The Chiefs had it covered, and Samuel cut it back for seven yards to pick up a third-and-two.

But the bigger thing here is that even just a few years ago, you might see one of these “gimmicks” a game. This year, you saw it twice within the first five minutes of the Super Bowl, and no one batted an eye at it happening.

Backup quarterbacks matter. You know the story of Tannehill. He bailed out a team that was ready to win in so many places, but also on course to pay for missing on a QB taken second overall five years ago. You probably haven’t heard as much on Matt Moore, who the Chiefs lured from a scouting job with the Dolphins when Chad Henne got hurt.

Moore went 2-1 in place of Mahomes, if you include the game where Mahomes dislocated his kneecap. And you can argue his ability to lead a game-winning drive against a stout Vikings defense in Week 9 helped Kansas City win the Super Bowl. If the Chiefs didn't win that one, they wouldn't have gotten the bye, and they would've had to play the Titans in the wild-card round and go to Foxborough to play the Patriots in the divisional round.

I’m not saying they wouldn’t have won it all anyway. But it would’ve been a lot tougher. And on the flip side, the Steelers’ mess of a backup quarterback situation felled a season in which they finally found a way to fix a defense that’s been wobbly for close to a decade, only to lose Ben Roethlisberger early on. Which makes me think…

Mike Tomlin’s better than people give him credit for. He’s dealt with a lot in Pittsburgh. We saw who Antonio Brown was this year. Le’Veon Bell, too. Despite all of it, 13 years in, he still has yet to endure a losing record as Steelers coach, which, again, is a good illustration of what’s important in finding a head coach.

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From Mitch Beiter (@MitchBeiter91): What’s the deal with Josh Rosen? Why do the Dolphins seem to be giving up on him and exploring other options in the draft?

Mitch, my sense is the Dolphins made up their mind on Rosen watching him during camp, and in practice, which is why they weren’t more eager to put him out there on game day. Right or wrong, the coaches had a shot to see more. They declined. The shame of it for him is that if he was with a team that spent, say, the 10th pick of the draft on him, there’d probably be more emphasis on developing him, and he’d have more shots to play.

That, actually, is part of the damage done to Rosen last year. He went from a Cardinals team that had deeply invested in him with the No. 1 overall pick to one that took a flier on him, which naturally means there’s going to be less opportunity for him. I still think the kid has talent. But he’s played for five offensive coordinators the last five years, and that’ll take a toll on any quarterback. And that becomes another problem: Other teams might see you as damaged goods.

In the end, I’d say the chances he’s the long-term answer in Miami are small. The question now would be whether or not someone offers something for him. Because I do think the Dolphins would consider moving him.

From Kevin Pickett (@kpick38): Tom Brady plays where?

Kevin, I don’t think Brady himself knows yet, and I do think that Brady's staying in New England remains on the table. The Patriots have to thread the needle a little to make it work, because of the way things went down last summer. And they probably have to assure him that he’ll be able to finish his career in New England, which is where they wouldn’t go last summer.

If he were to leave, I’d pick the Titans as my favorite to land him. Mike Vrabel and Brady are legitimately good friends—not just as ex-teammates—and I think Vrabel can appeal to his old quarterback in offering him the chance to make the Patriots pay for letting it get to this point. Plus, you have the sort of inside weapons (Jonnu Smith, Adam Humphries) Brady’s always loved, a great run game, and geography (not too far from the East Coast) in Tennessee.

If not them, the Raiders and Chargers make some football sense for him, I just wonder about Brady going with coaches he’s not quite as aligned with and moving across the country. We’ll see what happens.

From david rohrer (@Droar): How can Kyle justify playing not to lose before the half? Also his two 4th quarter Super Bowl coaching jobs will haunt him unless he wins one.

David, I don’t think the way Kyle Shanahan handled the end of the first half is that complicated. In fact, it’s 100% consistent with the Niners’ game plan. From the start, the emphasis the Niners put on limiting Mahomes’s chances was clear. They were breaking the huddle late, snapping the ball with the play clock inside 10 seconds, and committed to running the ball for three-plus quarters in an effort to bleed time off the game clock.

The idea? The fewer possessions the Chiefs got, the better. It mostly worked until Mahomes converted that third-and-15 with less than seven minutes left. And so it was that they punted on a chance to score at the end of the first half. My bet is that Shanahan told his offense, if you pick up a first down running the ball, then we’ll go—and when they did pick up a first down, after KC took a timeout, the Niners did turn it on.

Shanahan was trying to avoid giving the ball back to Mahomes with more than a minute left in the half. He had momentum at that point. He knew he was getting the ball at the start of the third quarter. And if not for a questionable OPI call, they might’ve scored anyway. Now, if you want to talk about how much the Niners threw the ball in the fourth quarter, we can have that discussion. But I thought his strategy at the end of the half was fine.

From Justaworkingman (@Justaworkingma4): What do the Cards need to add to make Kyler Murray even more effective next year? Do they franchise Drake??

Above anything else, Working Man, I think they have to improve up front. They need help everywhere on the offensive line, and have a decision to make on pending free-agent tackle D.J. Humphries. The good news is that the Cardinals have the eighth overall pick, and there should be a number of tackles (Georgia’s Andrew Thomas, Iowa’s Tristan Wilfs, Louisville’s Mekhi Becton, Alabama’s Jedrick Wills) worthy of going right at or close to that pick.

Thing is, the problem is deep enough where it sure wouldn’t surprise anyone to see GM Steve Keim pulled both the draft and free agency levers to fix it.

As for Kenyan Drake, I’d be surprised if the Cardinals tagged him. The running back number is expected to land right around $12.5 million. Drake’s a good player. But to pay a guy in that neighborhood, he’s gotta be Derrick Henry good. That said, I’d expect they’ll make a strong effort to bring him back.

From swampsparrow (@swampsparrow): What’s your favorite cover of the 1981 hit Down Under by Australian super rock stars Men at Work?

Not sure what my favorite cover is, but that song is sick. So your question makes the bag.

From Stephen G (@Stephen26497576): With Andrew Berry leaving the eagles, is there a vacancy that must be filled in the front office in Philly? If so, any potential suitors? Seems to be a good spot for GM prospects lately.

Stephen, yes, there is. Basically, the football side of the Eagles’ front office is structured on two tracks underneath Howie Roseman. There’s a VP of player personnel (that’s Andy Weidl, and it was Joe Douglas before that) and a VP of football operations (that was Berry). The former oversees the scouting department. The latter basically oversees everything else (video, training, strength and conditioning) in the organization football-wise.

And there’s obviously some level of overlap between the two areas, which makes the communication between the two VPs important, with both those guys ultimately reporting directly to Roseman. Roseman’s involved in both sides—just think of this as if he had offensive and defensive coordinators.

An interesting addendum to that is that I’m told Berry plans to set up Cleveland that way, which is part of why there was a shakeup in the front office. VP of player personnel Ken Kovash is one name to watch. He’s one of three guys who held that title at once a year ago—along with Berry and Alonzo Highsmith—and it wouldn’t be a shocker if he kept it, and headed up scouting under Berry, with whom he’s got a good relationship.

From Brad Hesch (@bhesch34): Any initial thoughts about the #Bills draft targets? I keep hearing WR but I think DE is a need.

Brad, I actually things might fall better for the Bills to take a receiver than defensive end in Round 1. Obviously, by the time they’re up at 23, Chase Young will be gone, and I’d guess that LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson and Iowa’s AJ Epenesa will be too, based on how pass rushers are valued. And that might be a little high to start picking off guys on the next tier, like Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos.

Conversely, there figure to be a number of receivers that drop right into that range that’ll be worthy of the pick. Maybe it’s someone like Higgins. Whoever it might be, my guess is you’ll get better value at receiver there than with a pass rusher—with the full acknowledgement that...

(UPDATE: In my fatigued state last night, I answered that question as if it was about the Colts. So I’ll give you guys the previous answer I gave to Brad asking—or not asking—about Indy.)

Brad, I believe those are the two areas highest on their list, if they don’t take a quarterback high in the draft. And I think it’ll be easier this year to get a good receiver later on than it will be to find a good pass rusher past the first round. So I’m with you in thinking pass rusher could be the way they go.

At 13, will there be a pass rusher worth taking? Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa, if he slips that far, would be, I believe, and LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson, a former blue-chip recruit who really turned it on as last year wore on, would be an intriguing option with a ton of upside. From there, there’s probably a little bit of a drop-off, which illustrates why taking one in the first round might make some strategic sense.

From Ryan Caban (@ryancaban24): Do you think even if Sammy Watkins agrees to a pay cut, Chiefs don’t cut him?

Ryan, I’m not really sure why Watkins would agree to a pay cut. He’s set to make $14 million this year. The market for receivers hasn’t really waned much since he signed his three-year, $48 million deal two years ago. He’s 26. He played well in the Super Bowl (five catches for 98 yards). He can still fly. Now, I’m not advocating that some team break the bank for him. But I’m also not having a hard time conjuring a scenario where it happens.

As it stands now, and presuming they both make it to the market, Cincinnati’s A.J. Green and Dallas’s Amari Cooper will be the top two receivers available in March. Green’s 31. Cooper sputtered a little at the end of last year. So there’s not a perfect option out there to be had. And Watkins, because of his wheels, will appeal to a league that’s trending toward putting more emphasis on speed at that position (see: both Super Bowl teams).

I’d also expect they all benefit from Michael Thomas and Julio Jones pushing the market upward last summer.

From William Oatway (@duke9678): Should the Pats start the rebuild or go all in one more season?

Fascinating question, William. Of the Patriots’ regular starters on defense last year, eight will be 30 by the end of this year, and a ninth, Kyle Van Noy, turns 29 next month. On offense, Julian Edelman turns 34 and Marcus Cannon 32 this spring, Rex Burkhead is 30 this summer, and they stand to lose All-Pro Joe Thuney at guard. And we haven’t even mentioned Tom Brady’s age yet.

So to me, this all boils down to what they do at quarterback, and vice versa. If most of those guys are back, and the Patriots run back one more time with a group that has volumes of championship experience, no one quarterback comes close to making as much sense for them as Brady does. If they turn the page, like they did a decade ago after the 2009 season, then we’re talking about something else entirely.

If it’s me, I’m bringing most of last year’s team back and supplementing that group with a few key vets. It may not be the most sound team-building choice right now. But a Brady doesn’t come around often, so I’d probably give it at least one more shot with him.

From David (@Super_Nerd00): Do you think the run on WR starts early or will teams address positions because they know they can get a good one later?

David, I sort of already answered this: I think the depth of the receiver group this year, which is outstanding, will probably end up hurting some of the top guys. If there was a Julio coming out, that’d be one thing. I don’t think there is. Rather, there are a handful of really good players at the position who could grow into No. 1s, but aren’t the physical forces of nature that receivers that go in the top five usually are.

Among those top guys are Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy, Oklahoma’s Ceedee Lamb and Clemson’s Tee Higgins, but there’s not a lot separating them from others like Colorado’s Laviska Shenault or Alabama’s Henry Ruggs (in fact, it’s close enough where I don’t know if the first three are assured of going in front of a handful on the supposed second tier).

As a practical matter, that means that there will be teams that really like, say Jeudy, that could sit there and reason, “We’re good if we wind up with K.J. Hamler in the second round” and address another need in Round 1.

From Daniel Zbikowski (@DanielZbikowsk2): Thoughts on the Jaguars taking 2 home games away from the fans of Jacksonville?

From Prepare For Disappointment (@prepdisappoint): What is the medium-term plan for games in London? Is this something that is being negotiated as part of the next CBA?

Daniel and Prepare, this is a complex question. What we know is true: 1) The Jaguars will play two games in London next year. 2) The NFL would like to play a full eight-game schedule in London, sooner or later. 3) There would be great benefit for the league, business-wise, to having a team in one of the world’s wealthiest, most sophisticated markets. So no matter how this is spun, people in Jacksonville should have their radar up.

I still think the logistical issues make it too difficult for the league to hit the goal it set in 2007—to have a team there within 15 years of the launch of the International Series, which would be in 2022. I do see how you could set up a team to have a U.S. base (there’ve been rumors about the NFL buying the Falcons’ Flowery Branch, Ga. facility for that reason), and make the schedule work. I just don’t know how you’d do offseason stuff, allow for equitable roster churn, or make sure that playoff competitive balance wouldn’t be affected.

But having a half-and-half schedule, where the Jags are there for four games down there and are branded more aggressively as the U.K.’s team? I could see the league trying that. I wouldn’t agree with it, because I think you’d alienate Jacksonville and it wouldn’t be enough to captivate London. But I could see the NFL being compelled by the idea.

From Wendell Ferreira (@wendellfp): Who do you see as players that could be traded before free agency? Foles, Odell, Watkins, Alex Smith for salary dumping?

Wendell, I’m working on my cuts list right now. But maybe on Nick Foles and Odell Beckham Jr., I think the Chiefs would do it on Watkins (not sure there’d be many suitors at his price), and I still don’t think Alex Smith plays in 2020.

Some obvious names to work with: Bengals QB Andy Dalton, Broncos QB Joe Flacco, Falcons RB Devonta Freeman, Dolphins WR Albert Wilson, Packers TE Jimmy Graham, Bengals OL Cordy Glenn, Browns DE Olivier Vernon, Jaguars DT Marcel Dareus, Giants LB Alec Ogletree, Vikings CB Xavier Rhodes and Redskins CB Josh Norman. We’ll have more soon on this, but being cut candidates, those guys, naturally, would be available via trade.

From Chi Cheong Ho (@chicheongho): #49ers, which of their own UFAs will they sign?

So Chi, to me, this is really about three guys: DE Arik Armstead, S Jimmie Ward and WR Emmanuel Sanders. The Niners aren’t exactly swimming in cap space. They’re expected to have in the teens of millions. Which is to say I think there’s a decent chance all three guys will be gone.

I think Armstead will be toughest to keep. He broke out in 2019, a year after it was a real question whether it was worth the Niners' going through with his fifth-year option. He’s an athletic, 6'8", 280-pound defensive lineman who just turned 28. Tagging him would put them over the salary cap. And they’re going to have to pay DeForest Buckner, a better player at his position, soon (Buckner’s going into his fifth-year option).

Ward’s an interesting one. He plays a vital position in Robert Saleh’s defense, and almost walked last year—the Niners’ ability to bring him back was facilitated by Le’Veon Bell saying no to a one-year offer, which led to the team bringing in Tevin Coleman at half the price. Ward signed a one-year, prove-it deal and, like Armstead, set himself up to get paid with a big fall/winter. I think they’d love him back. But this one won’t be easy either.

Then there’s Sanders. He turns 33 in March. This will come down to price. The Niners love Sanders. Sanders loves the Niners. At the right price, I think he'll return. If someone offers him what another older receiver, Golden Tate, got in free agency last year, I think he’s probably gone.

And here’s why this isn’t all horrible for the Niners: They’re loaded on the D-line, and have good, developing young talent at receiver. Safety would be a bigger issue, if Ward departs. But if that’s really the one thing they have to work out in March and April, that’s not that tough a position for a team coming off a Super Bowl to be in.

More SI Super Bowl LIV Coverage
* Michael Rosenberg: Patrick Mahomes Is Here To Stay
* Conor Orr: Shanahan Absorbs Gut-Punch Super Bowl Loss
* Kalyn Kahler: Reaction From the Niners' Stunned Locker Room
* Charlotte Wilder: Super Bowl LIV Was One Giant Spectacle

More From SI.com Team Sites:
* Niners Fall Agonizingly Short In Super Bowl
* Kittle Reflects on Turning Point of Niners' Loss