The start of this story, you’ve heard before.
Nick Saban had this freshman quarterback that he knew he might need at some point. So here and there, in 2017, he’d try and get him extended playing time—against Fresno State and Vandy, and then for the whole second half against Tennessee, even after this 19-year-old’s first possession ended in a pick-six. Then, in the team’s regular season finale, Auburn held the Tide to 112 yards passing and out of the end zone for the game’s final 27 minutes.
Alabama lost its place in the SEC title game. Saban made a decision.
“The thought after that game in my mind was, ‘If this is an issue for us moving forward, there may be a time when we have to put him in, so we can take advantage of some of the skill players we have,’” Saban says now. “So we go into the Georgia game, the national championship game, with the idea, ‘Hey, these guys have a really good run defense, they’ve got really good players, it’s gonna be hard for us to not throw the ball effectively and win.’”
The idea was prescient. Georgia went up 13–0 at the half, holding starter Jalen Hurts to 21 yards on 3-of-8 passing. Bama needed a spark. And Saban thought to himself, This is the situation when you said you’d put the other guy in and give him a chance.
The other guy went in and the rest is history.
Tua Tagovailoa wasn’t perfect the rest of the way. He threw a pick to DeAndre Baker on a call that, per Saban, wasn’t even supposed to be a pass play. Then, there’s the sack he took in overtime, losing 16 yards on the Tide’s first offensive snap of the extra period, prompting Kirk Herbstreit to say on the broadcast, “Throw it away, nobody’s open, you gotta give up on the play.” But as we know now, all of that was just a set-up to what was coming.
On second-and-26, Tagovailoa uncorked a moonshot to fellow freshman Devonta Smith, streaking down the sideline for a 41-yard touchdown. Saban won his sixth national title, and fifth in Tuscaloosa. The young Hawaiian was etched in Tide lore forever.
Now, for the part you don’t know.
Saban found Tagovailoa in the locker room postgame and, in a quiet moment, approached him in a way only this particular coach could.
“Tua, man, you can never take a sack in overtime. Especially when it’s a three-point game—the game is already tied,” Saban said to his quarterback. “But when we get sacked, we’re out of field goal range. I don’t know what you were thinking about. But you can’t do that.”
“No, coach,” Tagovailoa responded, “we just needed more room to throw the ball.”
Saban laughs now, “Just to show you what kind of personality he has, and how he’s affected by the game, or the way you said it, the size of the game, the impact, the consequences.”
The point in Saban telling the story—25 months later, with Tagovailoa’s collegiate journey having become much more complicated in the interim—isn’t hard to figure out. One, it shows how Tua changed Alabama’s program as much as any single player has in Saban’s 13 years there. Two, it shows how his star has been ready for what’s next for quite some time.
It’s hard to believe, but we’re now just one week from the combine. And so we’re in the last real lull between now and the draft. This week, we’ll cover…
- Free agents who’ll get paid more than you might expect
- Why I think Philip Rivers might have something left
- A CBA update
- How Nick Caserio wound up staying in New England
- Why Eric Bieniemy wouldn’t be nuts to consider Colorado
- Lots of fun stuff in the All-32
But we’re starting with the complex case of Tagovailoa, and why his college coach still sees an elite player and person, worth rolling the dice on.
By now, you know the end of Tagovailoa’s Alabama story isn’t nearly as happy as storybook beginning two years ago in Atlanta. That’d be Tua’s only national title at Bama, and the two seasons to follow would alternate from on-field brilliance to bad medical luck and back around again. He had two ankle surgeries over his last 13 months in the program, and that was just the prelude to something much worse.
On Nov. 16, with three minutes left in the first half against Mississippi State, Tagovailoa rolled left and, as he threw the ball away, was yanked to the ground. He stayed down. The cart came out. Screams of pain were audible on the sideline as doctors popped his dislocated hip back into place. The damage was done. He suffered the hip injury, a fracture of the posterior wall, and was at risk for AVN. That’s the condition—which leads to the death of bone tissue due to the interruption of blood supply—that ended Bo Jackson’s football career.
Dire enough was the situation that Tua was taken by helicopter from rural Mississippi to a hospital in Birmingham. Two days later, he had season-ending surgery in Houston.
“It was probably one of the most difficult things for me ever as a coach,” Saban said. “You never like to see anybody get hurt, first of all. I know it’s a part of the game, but as hard as these guys work, the goals and aspirations they have, you hate to ever see anybody get hurt. But a guy of his caliber, the future that the injury could impact in some way, the impact that it has on future, our team. It was really, really difficult.”
Saban then paused, and repeated himself, “Really difficult for me as a coach.”
The Tide wound up falling to Auburn two weeks later, effectively ending any shot Bama had of a sixth consecutive playoff berth. And thus, a lot of eyes were trained on Tagovailoa’s next move. He had to decide whether he’d stay for his senior year or declare for the draft, despite an injury that would shelve him for, at best, the great majority of the pre-draft process and rob him of a real shot to prove to teams he’d be OK coming back.
The decision was agonizing, as Tagovailoa said himself. And on a lot of days, Saban, for good reason, prepared himself to talk to a depressed kid. That wasn’t what he got.
“I would call him every day when he first got hurt. I’d called him that Saturday night, and I was down and out about him getting hurt. And he would be positive and upbeat,” Saban said. “I was calling him to lift his spirits, and he would lift mine. And I’d call him the next day, and say, ‘I’m gonna lift Tua, support him in every way.’ Again, calling him to lift his spirits and he would lift mine. All through that process, he was so positive.
“He just had a great outlook about the whole thing and was just looking forward to what he had to do to try to get better. He wanted to go to the games and support his teammates. He did more to help me through it than I helped him. And it was my job to help him.”
Saban’s not a doctor, and he wasn’t going to get into the specifics of the injury. I’m not either. All anyone knows at this point is that, thus far, Tagovailoa’s checked all the boxes he’s needed to check, roughly two months out from surgery.
There’s also some not-so-great history here among prior first-round quarterbacks. Every situation is different, but almost uniformly, the guys who’ve come into the league with serious injury histories this decade (Sam Bradford, Jake Locker, Robert Griffin III, Marcus Mariota, Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson) have gotten hurt again in the pros.
So here’s what Saban does know: The guys he’s had in the past who have overcome injuries and gone on to long and prosperous NFL careers have had similar makeup to Tagovailoa. And he knows specifically about Tua’s because he saw him come back from the two ankle surgeries.
“He’s a very positive person,” Saban said. “I think when it comes to injuries, guys that have a real positive attitude about it, look at their rehab as a positive thing, they always seem to bounce back and do better physically and emotionally than guys who get down and out about it, get depressed about it and think about what they’re missing, rather than what they need to do to get back—worried they’re not gonna be the same as they were before.
“He was always really positive about whatever he had to do to approach getting back and being able to go back out and play and compete and help his team.”
Saban won five national titles, four at Alabama, before Tagovailoa arrived in early 2017. As such, it’d be hard for any player to be considered a program-changer—but that’s what the coach soon found out he’d be getting in the product of Honolulu prep powerhouse St. Louis.
The teenage quarterback arrived with a trio of future NFL receivers—Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs and Devonta Smith—joining a roster that already had 2018 first-round pick Calvin Ridley on it. Saban had started the move from his old pro-style offense to a spread three years earlier. And it didn’t take long for Saban and his new OC, Brian Daboll, to recognize they were getting the triggerman and the burners to supercharge it.
“Football’s a great team game, except for one position, and that’s quarterback,” Saban said. “That guy can impact the game more than anyone else. We won a lot of games here where we had really good quarterbacks, but never a really dynamic guy you build things around and change what you’re doing to accommodate his skill set. And it really accommodated the other players that we had because we had such good skill players at wide receiver.
“We changed the culture a little bit, to be a little bit more wide open, because that’s what our players on offense could do. He certainly was capable of making it work—and he did.”
The production speaks for itself. Tagovailoa threw 25 touchdown passes before throwing his first pick of 2018. He tossed 26 touchdown passes before his first pick of 2019. He was a Heisman finalist as a sophomore and was neck-and-neck with Joe Burrow for the award going into November of this year. He had the injuries, sure. But he kept winning (23–2 as a starter) and kept showing exactly what you’d want an NFL quarterback to show.
Through Saban’s eyes, all of that went well beyond the field, and into a dynamic personality that paired nicely with his playing ability. “He’s so well-liked by not just his teammates and the people internally in this program, but I think externally. Fans love him, everybody loves him. He’s just that kind of kid.” And that wound up rubbing off on everyone.
“Because he’s not a selfish guy, none of our players on offense were,” Saban said. “We had four really good receivers. They all rooted for each other, he rooted for all of them. They all made plays. None of them ever looked over their shoulder and said, ‘Why aren’t I getting more balls?’ And I think that probably started with him being such a positive guy that was team-first, that they all followed the same lead.”
It’s paid off for everyone. Jeudy’s a sure-fire first-rounder going into next week’s scouting combine, Ruggs might sneak into Round 1, too, and Smith went back to Bama and will be one of the best receivers in America, along with the fourth guy Saban referenced, rising junior Jaylen Waddle.
Tagovailoa’s wait won’t be long either.
As a player, physically, there’s not a whole lot about Tagovailoa that jumps out. He stands 6-feet tall and his arm is good but not great. Everything else made him different than any quarterback Saban’s ever had.
“Really can rid of the ball quickly, and his accuracy is unbelievable, which, to me, is the most compelling thing a quarterback can have,” Saban said. “It’s good judgment about where you throw the ball, get it out of your hand when you need to get it out of your hand, and be accurate with it so the people that are catching it can catch it and run with it. That’s what he is. He makes a lot of really, really good throws in tight windows, which is the biggest difference between college quarterbacks and pro quarterbacks.
“Pro quarterbacks have to do that because there’s a lot more man-to-man. I think he’s proven that he can do that in his college career here.”
Then, I presented Saban with what I’ve heard: That scouts who’d gone through Tuscaloosa the last few years were getting Drew Brees as a comp from guys on Saban’s staff.
“I think he’s a lot like Drew Brees. I always thought Aaron Rodgers was a lot like that as a player too,” said Saban. “Not overly big, accurate with the ball, really good judgment, decision-making. Those guys are the style of player. I would never say the expectation should be he would accomplish what those guys have, I’d never wanna put that on a guy. But that’s the style of player he is.”
Which explains a lot.
It explains why Saban was comfortable putting a 19-year-old kid in that spot against Georgia in the national championship game in January 2018. It explains why Saban went with Tagovailoa the following season, and why he’s still seen as such a viable NFL commodity, even after all the injuries.
And there’s still room for growth there, too, something that was proven out back during that freshman year of 2017. Earlier that season, months before his big-stage heroics, Saban and Daboll saw a quarterback who was letting mistakes compound themselves in practice. He was a perfectionist, and he’d get down on himself when things went wrong.
Per Saban, they’d tell him, You can’t do this, man. You gotta be able to overcome adversity, bounce back. Everybody has bad plays, the best thing you can do is learn from your mistakes.
The proof they got through to him? Instead of letting the 16-yard sack in Atlanta turn into another bad play, it led to a championship—because he had more room to sling it.
“He’s a pretty simple, this-is-the-play, this-is-my-read, this-is-what-I’m-supposed-to-do kind of guy,” Saban said. “He’s not thinking about winning a championship, he’s thinking about, ‘What do I have to do to give us a chance to win a championship?’ He stays pretty much focused on that.… He’s not one of these guys that gets overwhelmed with things.”
Considering the circumstances in front of him now, that’s a pretty good trait to have. And good reason to think, with an uncertain situation ahead, he’ll ready for whatever’s next.
FREE AGENTS READY TO CASH IN
Every year there are a few free agents off the radar who wind up making headlines: That guy got what?!? So to get you ready for what’s ahead in free agency, since we sort of exhausted the quarterback topic in the Mailbag and GamePlan last week, I figured I’d give you a list of guys who teams expect to get rich—even if you might not expect it.
Robby Anderson, WR, Jets: He’s still just 26, and went for 779 yards and five touchdowns on 52 catches last year, despite the team, and its quarterback situation, being uneven early in the season. Anderson’s red flags are well-documented, but he’s got size, and he can run, and so someone will roll the dice on the belief they can unlock the world of talent that’s here.
De’Vondre Campbell, LB, Falcons: The 26-year-old was an integral part of a Super Bowl defense in 2016, playing the K.J. Wright role in Atlanta’s Seattle scheme. Campbell’s been overshadowed by draft classmate Deion Jones over the last four years, but he’s been steady, and he finished 2019 with a career-high 129 tackles. The Falcons’ cap situation will make it impossible for them to bring him back, which could be someone else’s gain.
Graham Glasgow, G/C, Lions: He’s started 47 of 48 games the last three years, and has extensive experience at both center and guard. Is he Maurkice Pouncey or Zach Martin? No. But guys like that don’t make it to the market, and someone with money allocated for Joe Thuney or Brandon Schreff will strike out, and Glasgow will make a good fallback option. Remember this, too: Free-agent offensive linemen always get paid.
Javon Hargrave, NT, Steelers: A starter since going in the third round in 2016, Hargrave has steadily improved and was a big part of Pittsburgh’s rebirth on defense this year. He’s registered 10.5 sacks over the last two years, a big number given his role in the Steelers’ 3–4, and he should be well-positioned to hit the market, with teams thinking he’ll grow with increased opportunity after playing in the shadow of Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.
Shelby Harris, DT, Broncos: A seventh-round pick in 2014, Harris spent his first three seasons on the fringes of the league—on and off active rosters and practice squads. He found a home in Denver in 2017 and has flourished since. He won’t get what Hargrave or David Onyemata will. But he won’t be far off.
Nick Kwiatkoski, LB, Bears: Here’s the guy who’d never really gotten the chance to be a full-time starter, then did… at just the right time. The fourth-year former fourth-round pick started Chicago’s final seven games and showed that he can play the middle for someone, and he could get paid after guys like Cory Littleton and Joe Schobert come off the board. And maybe that someone will be his old coordinator, Vic Fangio in Denver.
Cory Littleton, LB, Rams: You need to protect him a little bit—he’s not the most stout inside linebacker—but Littleton is a playmaker through and through. Last year, he had 134 tackles, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, nine passes defensed and two picks. In 2018, he had four sacks, 13 passes defensed and three picks, plus a touchdown and a safety. And Littleton’s been one of the NFL’s best special teamers to boot.
David Onyemata, DT, Saints: New Orleans took a fourth-round flier on Onyemata, a product of the University of Manitoba, in 2016—and it has paid off handsomely. A favorite of the coaches, the 6'4", 300-pounder has developed into an all-around force and became a full-time starter this year. He’s still got plenty of room to grow, and the Saints’ cap situation dictates that he’ll probably have to cash in somewhere else.
D.J. Reader, DT, Texans: Lots of defensive tackles here? Lots of defensive tackles here. Reader was a fifth-round pick in 2016 and is awfully athletic for a 327-pounder, and the thought could be that he’s still got upside left as a pass-rusher. The Texans would love to keep him, and we’ll see if they can.
REASONS TO BELIEVE IN PHILIP RIVERS
Mike McCoy was Philip Rivers’s head coach from 2013–16. He remained his neighbor in San Diego since then. Until Rivers packed his family up and left for the Florida panhandle in January, the two shared a neighborhood outside the city. And so when it became clear that Rivers was done with the Chargers, even if the Chargers aren’t in San Diego anymore, it hit McCoy on a couple different fronts.
“How fortunate you are as an organization to have someone like that for as long as they did,” McCoy said, over the phone from San Diego on Sunday. “He’s the ultimate professional, does everything the right way, he’s just the best. But he’s also such a good person. That’s the one thing I hope isn’t lost. Everyone sees Philip Rivers on Sunday, but to see the way he prepared, the way he did things, how he treated the other players, he’s fantastic.”
A lot of nice things have been said about Rivers over the last week, and it’s justified.
He’s sixth all-time in passing touchdowns, sixth all-time in passing yards, 10th all-time in passer rating, and there are few Charger records pertaining to a quarterback that he doesn’t hold. But the reason why I think there may still be a little gas left in the tank comes down to what McCoy was saying, in describing his old neighbor as a person.
McCoy, you might remember, was Peyton Manning’s offensive coordinator, as the then-Bronco was coming back from four neck surgeries. Manning’s arm wasn’t what it had been, but by the time he was healthy enough to play, that didn’t matter. He could outthink everyone, which allowed him to anticipate throws—which more than made up for a couple fewer RPMs on the ball.
As we talked, McCoy basically painted the same picture for me on Rivers. I didn’t realize it until after we talked and was looking over my notes. So I called McCoy back. He didn’t want to compare one all-timer with another, specifically. But he didn’t disagree with the notion.
“I have no doubt in my mind, wherever goes next, Philip’s going to be very successful,” McCoy said when I circled back. “He’s still got it. He can still play the game. The mental part is what’s the key, his knowledge of the game. Some of these guys may not have the arm they had—and I don’t think Philip’s lost much, if anything—but they can make up for it with anticipation. The great ones have that. And they know their own strengths and weaknesses, their own limitations, better than anyone.
“So maybe you gotta anticipate more. Well, go back and watch some of the in-cuts Philip threw this year and tell me what you see.”
To illustrate that dynamic during our earlier conversation, McCoy raised how Rivers attended his introductory press conference—and immediately wanted to go to work on putting the offense in. The two melded the offense Norv Turner ran over the six years prior and what McCoy brought schematically, and, per McCoy, there wasn’t so much as a hiccup in making it work. “Really from that first day,” McCoy said, “I knew this guy was special.”
“His football intelligence is off the charts—off the charts,” McCoy said. “His knowledge of the game, you’re lucky when you’re around a guy like this. A defense says the same code word twice, he’ll expose it. You’re not gonna fool him often. And the chess match we had in practice, him and [Eric] Weddle, they went at it every day.”
Which was one more way, McCoy said, “You could see he truly loves the game of football. It shows all the time. Every Sunday was a gem to him. Didn’t matter what our record was, how many injuries we had, what time of year it was, he played the game like he was a little kid.”
So all that—his passion for and knowledge of the game—won’t be everything in determining what becomes of Rivers in 2020, wherever he lands. But I happen to think it’s a pretty decent starting point for a guy who’ll turn 39 later this year.
I don’t know why it took me this long to think of it, but I think the 49ers should look into tagging Arik Armstead with the purpose of trading him. Last year, it worked for both the Chiefs (Dee Ford) and Seahawks (Frank Clark) and brought home a significantly stronger return than the comp-pick system would’ve. Now the gamble here would be that Armstead could sign the tender, and then you have trouble finding a suitor, and your cap room (the Niners are expected to have around $20 million in breathing room) would effectively be gone if you couldn’t arrange a deal to offload him before the start of the league year. But the Niners should be able to investigate the trade market sufficiently at the combine to determine whether or not it’s a good idea to franchise him. So… this makes sense to me.
Interesting hearing that new Bears OC Bill Lazor said on the Coaches Show on WBBM in Chicago that he actually recruited Mitchell Trubisky when Trubisky was an underclassman at Mentor (Ohio) High and Lazor was a Virginia assistant. Lazor’s job will be an important one, in organizing all the voices helping the quarterback, with QBs coach John DeFilippo, pass-game coordinator Dave Ragone, along with head coach Matt Nagy, among those that’ll be trying to help kickstart Trubisky’s development. Interestingly enough, all four of those coaches were Division I college quarterbacks.
One win for Bengals coach Zac Taylor: He’s been able to come through the ups and downs of last season with a respectful relationship with Andy Dalton in place. It makes sense that Dalton wants to find a place where he can start next year, with the presumption that Cincinnati is going quarterback with the first pick. Similarly, as Taylor tried to build a strong rapport with his players, it makes sense for the team to do right by Dalton and work with him on that.
The Bills are flush with cap space. They project to have around $80 million to spend, and that’s before they make moves ahead of the league year (releasing Trent Murphy, for example, would create another $7 million or so). And they’ve drafted very, very well the last three years, which puts them in position to take full advantage of having their quarterback on a rookie deal. Now, they just need that quarterback, Josh Allen, to come through for them.
Should free agents Chris Harris and Derek Wolfe depart, then Von Miller will be the only member of the 2015 Broncos defense, the one that won Super Bowl 50, left. Which tells you all you need to know about the shelf life of teams built that way. In this era, with a team like that, you only get so many shots at it.
We’ve mentioned here that Browns GM Andrew Berry plans to structure his front office like the Eagles do theirs—with a VP of player personnel (heading up scouting) and a VP of football operations (heading up the rest of the football side) reporting to him. Berry already has two trusted confidants at his side, in Ken Kovash and Ryan Grigson. It certainly is possible that we see Kovash wind up as VP of football ops and Grigson as VP of player personnel when the reorg happens, probably after the draft.
Maybe it’s posturing, but it’s at least interesting that Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said this (via ESPN, from the NFL Coaches Academy): “I don’t care who’s my quarterback. We’ve gotta have a defense.” He was referencing the need to keep a defense that improved and has a boatload of free agents—Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Carl Nassib and Ndamukong Suh among them—together. That said, given the chance to back Jameis Winston, he’s been lukewarm over the last few weeks. And this is another example of it.
The Cardinals’ inability to cut David Johnson is another cautionary tale on paying running backs. Half his $10.2 million salary for 2020 was guaranteed at signing in 2018. The other half vested during the 2019 offseason. To get out of that, Arizona would have had to cut him just months after signing him to that deal in August 2018, with over $13 million gone for the single year, and $9 million in dead money to account for. For not doing that? The team is tied to him this year. They can trade him, but another team would have to be willing to pay a guy who’s been under 4 yards per carry two years running over $11 million this year. The Cardinals could eat some of that, but that, of course, would cut into the $8.25 million they’d save on the cap by dealing him. So yeah, not a great spot for Arizona to be in.
I do think Tyrod Taylor is an ideal placeholder for the Chargers. He knows Anthony Lynn’s system, having run it in Buffalo. And he’s worked with a young quarterback before—he opened 2018 as the Browns starter before giving way to Baker Mayfield—so he’d probably be good for a first-round quarterback, should that be where team brass finds the next guy.
The Chiefs have some decisions to make on players (Sammy Watkins would be one), but one they’ve already made their mind up on is Chris Jones. One way or another, I expect him to be a Chief in 2020. They’ll try to work out a deal first, and if that doesn’t work, they’ll tag him. One thing that complicates his situation a little is what the Chiefs paid an outside acquisition, Clark, last offseason. You’d think Jones would want at least what Clark got.
One sneaky important free agent: Colts LT Anthony Castonzo. GM Chris Ballard’s done a great job rebuilding his offensive line. Losing a left tackle would be a serious blow, because as good as the young pieces (Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Braden Smith) are, none of them have any experience playing that position. For his part, Ballard said on Indy sports radio this week that believes Castonzo has three or four good years left.
With the likelihood that the Cowboys lose Byron Jones in free agency, the continued development of young corners Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis will be in focus with the new coaching staff. Both guys will be in contract years in 2020, and will be working with DBs coaches Maurice Linguist and Al Harris. Harris was a pretty good NFL corner himself.
Soon, it’ll be time for the Dolphins to start spending the capital they built last year. An overview: Miami has around $95 million in cap space and is likely to have 15 draft picks, after the comp picks are doled out, with five in the first two rounds. That’s an amazing position for GM Chris Grier to operate from. But he knows as well as anyone, turning that into a cadre of great players is tougher than just amassing it.
Another name I considered for last week’s cut list was Eagles WR Alshon Jeffery. The reasons they’d get rid of him are there—health, his place in the locker room, his price tag, and his age. The trouble is there would be major cap implications to walking away, and Philly’s already thin at the position. This is a tricky one for Howie Roseman.
There’s good news on the back end of the Falcons’ likely divorce from running back Devonta Freeman—there will be options for them in the draft. Atlanta has four of the first 80 picks, and the second and third rounds should be where a lot of the top backs (Georgia’s D’Andre Swift, Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire) come off the board. So the hole there will likely be temporary.
This week, Leonard Williams pushed back on the notion that he’s asking for $15 million from the Giants. But maybe he shouldn’t? Given that the team forked over a third-round pick and a conditional fifth-rounder to get him, and his franchise tag number would be around $16 million (not happening), Williams has considerable leverage here.
It didn’t go unnoticed among people connected to Tom Coughlin that the Jaguars hired his replacement in New York, Ben McAdoo, as quarterbacks coach. Funny coincidence, given all that’s happened over the last two months.
The Jets’ signing of CFL safety Anthony Cioffi is another example of how the NFL could really use a developmental league. Cioffi finished a very solid four-year career at Rutgers in early 2017, and went undrafted that spring. He signed with the Raiders, washed out and landed in Canada. There, he grew as a hybrid safety/linebacker (he actually started his college career as a corner) and played his way into another shot at the NFL. We’ll see how this one goes, but as it is, this is a good example of a post-college guy who probably wasn’t quite ready buying himself some time by playing somewhere other than the NFL.
I touched base with Lions coach Matt Patricia via text on Friday on the Matthew Stafford trade report. Here’s what he said: “Not in any trade talks whatsoever for Matthew.” I think some of this may stem from Detroit kicking the tires on some quarterbacks before last year’s draft. Whatever it is, as far as I can tell, there’s nothing there right now.
The likely release of Packers tight end Jimmy Graham will free up $8 million in cap space and bring the team to around $30 million in breathing room. The flip side is that it’ll also eliminate a playmaker—and put a little more on GM Brian Gutekunst to get playmakers for Aaron Rodgers, and on the coaches to get more out of underachieving younger guys like Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
The Panthers’ continued caution on committing to Cam Newton is fine for now, but the new league year is a month away—and the game of musical chairs at quarterback probably won’t last long thereafter. Now, they’d probably be OK going forward with Kyle Allen and Will Grier and a potential draft pick in 2020, especially considering Year 1 under Matt Rhule promises to be something of a rebuild. The issue would come if the Panthers want to get something for Newton, trade-wise. That’ll be tougher to do on, say, April 1, because so many of the quarterbacking seats will be taken by then.
One win for the Patriots—their 2017 contract with Dont’a Hightower. It looked like there was zero chance he would see the four-year deal he signed with the team through. He had a partially torn pec, and looked like he was breaking down physically, and that was reflected in a deal that protected the team at every turn ($875,000 per year in per-game roster bonuses, $2 million per year in play-time and performance incentives). Yet, here we are, going into the final year of that deal. The pec wound up going in October 2017, ending that season after five games, but he’s started 30 of 32 games the last two years, which is a big-time credit to him.
A.J. Green would make a lot of sense for the Raiders. And regardless of the quarterback situation (it’s safe to say the team sees the floor as sticking with Derek Carr, and the ceiling obviously may be somewhere else), the Raiders would probably be a good fit for Green.
The Rams introduced their new coordinators last week, and one thing I like about the hires is pretty simple: There’s strong reasoning behind them. Defensive coordinator Brandon Staley had connections to Sean McVay through Chris Shula, Staley drew interest from multiple teams, and a big part McVay’s motivation in pursuing him was how hard a time he had coaching against defenses led by Vic Fangio, Staley’s boss last year in Denver. As for offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell, McVay saw the need for more hands-on coaching with Jared Goff, given the losses of Matt LaFleur, Greg Olson and Zac Taylor over the last three years, and few would be better suited to fill that role than O’Connell, who filled the role (Jay Gruden’s OC) that McVay once did in Washington.
We mentioned this with the Niners a few weeks back, and it goes for the Ravens too—huge win for the team keeping its coaching staff intact. That coordinators Greg Roman and Wink Martindale will return is huge for the young guys, as will be having Roman and QBs coach James Urban back for Lamar Jackson.
In the wake of the Redskins shedding Josh Norman and Paul Richardson, many anticipated something happening with tight end Jordan Reed on Friday. I’m told that situation has to be handled differently because of Reed’s injury situation—concussion issues landed him on IR last October. He last played in a game in 2018.
Interesting aspect of the Saints’ situation with Drew Brees: His contract is up. The last time we were here, a two-year, $50 million deal got done without incident, and I don’t think there’ll be one this time if Brees to decides to play in 2021. But an already tight-to-the-cap New Orleans team will have to be creative cap-wise, because Brees has $15.9 million in dead money to deal with, which means he’d have the second highest cap number on the team if he decided not to play. And then, there’s the fact that Brees’s deal could well be a market setter for Philip Rivers and Tom Brady.
I personally think it’d be tough for the Seahawks to bring Michael Bennett back. Too much history for both sides to wade through there.
Big Steelers news that slid slightly under the radar this week. And GM Kevin Colbert was the one to say it for himself: “I’m not looking to ever go anywhere else again as long as the Rooneys and Steelers are interested in me.” Assuming Colbert’s being forthright, that means he’s open to sticking around a few more years, and also that he’d resist anyone trying to poach him. Rumors have swirled for over a year that Panthers owner David Tepper, a former Steelers minority owner, might make a run at adding Colbert to his front office.
Should CB A.J. Bouye wind up a cap casualty in Jacksonville, his return to the Texans almost makes too much sense. When Houston let him go, Rick Smith was still the GM. The coaches loved him. So with a long-standing need at that position, Bradley Roby a free agent and Vernon Hargreaves cut, bringing back an old friend might make sense for Houston.
Titans GM Jon Robinson has pulled together a really solid roster over the last four years, so it’ll be interesting to see how he handles the first draft pick of his tenure. Right tackle Jack Conklin is a free agent, and good offensive linemen always get paid in free agency. So whether it’s Tennessee or someone else paying that freight, you can bet Robinson will be wishing, at the end, that he’d be picked up Conklin’s $12.87 million option for 2020. The Titans declined it, largely due to Conklin’s injury problems.
A lot’s been made over the Vikings defensive coordinator situation, with Andre Patterson and Adam Zimmer sharing the role in 2020. I’d say it’s probably not worth spending much time worrying about. Mike Zimmer was one of the best defensive play-callers in the league for over a decade as a coordinator, so he’ll be more than able to make up for an experience deficit the two new guys bring.
CBA talks are entering a critical stretch. The NFLPA held a meeting of its exec board and player reps on Jan. 30 in Miami and again on Feb. 6 in L.A. Another Thursday meeting is set for this week in D.C. Coming out of the L.A. meeting, the NFLPA gave the league a list of its issues with its proposal, and the league countered with another proposal. The union and league will continue dialogue this week, so tweaks could come to the most recent proposal, and the players will decide in D.C. whether to vote on what they have in front of them or counter. The good news? A lot of the economic issues have been worked out. The biggest divide, at this point, concerns minimum salaries. The bad news is that the idea of a 17-game season still remains an issue, and Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill’s comments last week didn’t help. The league and union are trying to grind through new work rules—offseason, training camp, and in-season—that would lighten the physical and mental load on the players, should there be a 17th game. And the NFL’s given the players its word that the new schedule won’t come until 2021, at the absolute earliest. I was told on Friday that a vote this week remains unlikely. But things are moving in the right direction. The NFLPA has its annual rep meeting from March 7–10, during which they’ll elect a new president. Given Eric Winston’s role over the last few years, finding common ground before then seems like it’d be critical for both sides.
Nick Caserio’s staying in New England. The Patriots are keeping their director of player personnel, and I think this is a situation where you have to give ownership credit. As was the case with Josh McDaniels a couple years ago, the Krafts recognized that, given the age of the coach (67 now, 68 on opening day) and quarterback (42 now, 43 on opening day, and a free agent), stacking young guys who could continue to ascend in different parts of football operations would be vital. So maybe Caserio will get the GM title eventually—no one’s had that in New England over Kraft’s 26 seasons of ownership—or maybe McDaniels will be the head coach. The key is the team has created in-house options for itself. Two other aspects of Caserio’s imminent new deal are worth noting, as well. First, as it’s structured now, the Patriots have three guys atop their scouting department—Caserio, pro director Dave Ziegler and college director Monti Ossenfort. Both Caserio and Ossenfort’s deals were set to expire in May, leaving Ziegler as the only one signed for this season (he’s up after the 2021 draft). So a potentially destabilizing circumstance loomed, and now that’s been addressed. Second, Caserio’s role as quasi-coach (he’s in McDaniels’s headset from the booth on gameday) and jack-of-all-trades made it so it probably would’ve taken multiple guys to cover the difference he makes for the organization. All of which means, all the way around, this is a great development for the Patriots.
Kicking tires on Colorado wouldn’t be crazy for Eric Bieniemy. And I get the logic people are pushing that the Chiefs’ OC should stay in the NFL and take his shot at a head coaching job next year. But I’d use Bill O’Brien and Matt Rhule as examples of what going into a difficult situation at the college level can do for a guy’s NFL stock. In 2012, after three years as the Patriots’ offensive play-caller, O’Brien was considered a wild-card candidate for the Jaguars’ opening, and had been connected to many other jobs. He went to post-Sandusky Penn State. He did a great job. By 2014, he was the hottest candidate on the NFL market, and went to a pretty stable franchise in Houston. Likewise, Rhule could’ve bailed for the NFL a year ago, and into a broken situation with the Jets. He stayed an extra year as Baylor’s fireman, completed the rebuild there and wound up commanding an unheard-of seven-year deal to be new Panthers owner David Tepper’s first coaching hire. Point is, there is benefit in doing it that way. Bieniemy will almost certainly be in the mix again next year for jobs. Coaching Patrick Mahomes protects his stock the way coaching Brady once protected O’Brien’s. But a great couple years at his alma mater could wind up giving him his pick of jobs. And I’m not saying that’s what he should do. I am saying the move would be understandable.
The Myles Garrett/Mason Rudolph situation will only get uglier. I’ve felt this way from the moment Garrett’s accusation that a racial slur from Rudolph ignited the November fracas in Cleveland (which ended with Garrett swinging a helmet at Rudolph)—one way or the other, something awful happened. If Rudolph is guilty of what Garrett says he is, then it’s self-explanatory how bad that is. If Rudolph’s not guilty, then Garrett’s handling of this, after he doubled down with ESPN’s Mina Kimes this week, is even worse. Barring Garrett retracting what he said, the accusation is something Rudolph will have to wear for the rest of his career, which is wildly unfair if he’s innocent. If you want an idea of the impact here, just turn on the TV. It wasn’t hard to find segments the other day breaking down the “if he’d done this” scenario. Which, if someone is just tuning in mid-stream, might cause people to assume he’s guilty. In that sense, a lot of damage has already been done.
XFL’s got its work cut out for it. Through six games (going into Sunday’s action), five unders had hit, and no game had been decided by fewer than 6 points. The Tampa Bay Vipers, coached by a noted offensive guru in Marc Trestman, haven’t scored a touchdown on offense yet. And the reasons why, I think, are pretty simple. The NFL has a depth issue at quarterback and along the offensive line, so naturally the XFL was always going to have problems filling out those positions. The AAF addressed that with rules severely limiting blitzing. The XFL hasn’t, and defensive coaches are starting to catch on to the fact that linemen are having trouble identifying and blocking pressure. So they’re sending guys. It’s led to offenses having problems moving the ball, and quarterbacks getting hit. And the tough thing is, if they want to be a developmental league, those are the two positions I believe the NFL would be most interested in them working on. Maybe there could be rules tweaks in-season?
SIX FROM THE SIDELINES
1) Since the Astros either hired the wrong crisis management people, or didn’t listen to the ones they had, I’d like to offer this statement for owner Jim Crane: “I own the team and the buck stops with me. As a result, even if I wasn’t directly involved, I’m accountable for everything that happened over the last few years, and this has been an embarrassing episode for all of us. From this point forward, I promise to do my best to uphold a higher standard of integrity, and hire people who’ll do the same, within this organization. I sincerely apologize for our actions.” Bottom line, they didn’t have to make things so hard on themselves.”
2) As I type this, I have no idea who won the dunk contest. And now I’ll go look it up… Derrick Jones Jr. Not sure who that is. But I’m pretty sure this is another sign that all-star games in professional sports are sort of outdated. The Pro Bowl sucks. I don’t think the other ones are very good either. Or necessary anymore. (Update: I guess the actual NBA All-Star Game was pretty good last night, according to what was on Twitter.)
3) Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan make up one heck of a Hall of Fame class.
4) Billy Donovan had the court at the Univ. of Florida named after him this week, and I’m not sure he gets the credit he deserves for what he accomplished there. To do what he did at a dyed-in-the-wool football school—capturing back-to-back national titles in hoops—remains absolutely incredible.
5) The Michigan State coaching search ended with Mel Tucker landing a deal worth $5.5 million per year, and illustrated why, again, the SEC and Big 10 have separated themselves from the rest of the country. Remember, it was a Pac-12 school with a national title in the last 30 years that couldn’t keep up with the fourth program in the Big 10 East.
6) Obviously, the rape case at my alma mater, Ohio State, is unspeakably awful. I’m glad that Ryan Day didn’t waste any time taking action.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
It’s impossible not to root for Teddy Bridgewater.
Or Ron Rivera, for that matter. The new Redskins coach held a Bud Grant-style yard sale of his old Panthers gear, and he and wife Stephanie raised $30,000 for the Humane Society of Charlotte. Awesome way for them to say goodbye.
Very fair take from Bobby Carpenter. And I love that: Bad things happen when good people choose to do nothing.
And this would be a fair question.
Just when you thought the ol’ Gatorade bath had gotten stale.
God bless Scott Simpson.
You guys know where I fall on this. S/o to Dianna for asking the question too, and getting the correct answer.
What’s really tough for Mason Rudolph is it’s almost impossible to prove a negative.
Matt Rhule’s first tweet as Panthers coach… Live from Daytona.
This is a fun watch.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
And maybe this is more looking forward than looking back, but I figured it’d be fun to go back to my review from this summer of Joe Burrow, who was coming off a good-not-great redshirt junior season, his first at LSU.
Every year, during our draft week in July, I do full once-over of the quarterback class to come, to give you guys a picture of how those in the know see the best prospects at the most important position. The hope is to give you stuff to pay attention to, from an NFL perspective, during the college season. Here’s how we looked at Burrow:
Burrow was in the thick of a position battle with [Dwayne] Haskins in 2018 at Ohio State, then transferred to LSU and caught fire at the end of last year. And he’s got some physical ability, and size—and a pretty decent situation around him to boot.
“LSU’s one of those teams, when you play them, you see it’s built on good play at every other position but quarterback,” [Jordan] Palmer said. “But the last five games, he went off, and they’re bringing back pass-rushers, corners, three good running backs. It’s all there. He has a chance to have special year, and you can see it’s not too big for him.”
And he sure did have a special year. But when I wrote that, the thought was maybe he plays his way into the second round, after being seen as a third- or fourth-rounder. I’m not sure anyone saw what was coming.
So what do you need to know? I think Burrow’s case is another example that shows we shouldn’t draw sweeping conclusions on college players before their eligibility is up. Similar to Burrow, Baker Mayfield was seen as a middle-round prospect going into his final year at Oklahoma. Kyler Murray was seen as a baseball player. Both went first overall the following April, as Burrow is expected to.
Right now, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields look like the cream of the 2021 crop. But a lot can happen between now and next April.
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