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The New NFL League Year Will Get Off to a Wild Start

Thanks to some tweaks in the schedule, we are going to see a chaotic opening to free agency. Plus, mailbag questions on Jimmy G, Trent Williams, potential Patriots quarterbacks and the coronavirus impacting games in London.

Thanks to the CBA mess, the schedule for a big, important stretch of the NFL offseason was reset again on Tuesday. Here’s what we’ve got:

Saturday, 11:59 p.m. ET: Voting on the new CBA closes.

Monday, 11:59 a.m. ET: Deadline for applying the franchise/transition tags on players.

Monday, noon ET: Legal tampering period opens.

Wednesday, 4 p.m. ET: 2020 league year begins.

This won’t be quite the opening of the floodgates for player movement that we had after the lockout ended in the summer of 2011. But it won’t be that far off. So before we get to this week’s mail, here are eight things you need to know about the chaos coming.


1) Teams using the CBA uncertainty as a reason to slow negotiations will have a 36-hour window to negotiate with their own free agents before talks with other teams begin. On one hand, at that point, a player so close to free agency would seem to be unlikely to turn down the chance to test the market. On the other, it could simplify negotiations. There’s less time for playing games, so teams will have to, fairly quickly, show their cards.

2) That’s where it’ll get interesting with Tom Brady. He and Bill Belichick have talked. (Finally.) But the Patriots have made clear to his camp that the unsettled financial landscape has complicated things. How? The 30% rule, which will remain if the new CBA is voted down, would make it very, very difficult for the Patriots to manage his cap numbers and, as he desires, add veteran skill position players around him. So the CBA passing (eliminating the 30% rule) improves the chances that whatever the Patriots put in front of Brady on Sunday or Monday morning is attractive.

3) There’s also the simpler, more human part of it: Belichick isn’t much for protracted negotiations. He has a value in mind for each guy, and that’s sort of that. If the CBA’s ratified, and the Patriots have an offer for Brady on Sunday, there’s no time for hurt feelings or posturing by either side. It almost has to become simple, direct, and to the point, which I think might actually help in this case.

4) The 36-hour window will also allow for last-ditch efforts to get guys in the franchise-tag category signed to long-term deals, as teams try to avoid having the big, lump-sum payment on their 2020 books. Obviously, Cowboys QB Dak Prescott is one to watch. Titans QB Ryan Tannehill is another. And it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Ravens, Bucs or Steelers make final offers to their pass-rushers, Matthew Judon, Shaq Barrett and Bud Dupree, before tagging them.

5) In Indy, teams thought the asks from agents on players set to hit the market were out of whack, and that a lot of free agents were going to get to mid-March and be awfully disappointed. Conversely, agents were frustrated that teams were vague about how they were willing to go with certain guys, both because of the unusually long gap between the combine and free agency, and the CBA uncertainty. So it’ll be interesting to see where the spending is Monday at noon. This much, I know: The CBA passing would be good for players hitting the market.

6) And if the CBA does pass, I think it’ll be the one-percenters (top untagged free agents) seeing the immediate benefit. Why? Teams that were holding back on guys like Byron Jones, Amari Cooper, Jadeveon Clowney, Joe Thuney and Jack Conklin will have to catch up to those already playing footsies with those free agents, which could cause offers to rise on Monday.

7) The cap won’t be affected that much either way. The jump in percentage to 48 happens ahead of the 2021 season—the players are at 47% of all revenue this year, if the deal passes, which means the cap will be about $2 million-$4 million above where it would’ve been (46.6%). The minimum guys will get their $100,000 raises, with rules permitting teams to borrow from future years to make room for those. (The cap should rise fast thereafter, with projections having it at $260 million or $270 million within three years.)

8) Trade talks should be robust on Sunday. Teams generally want to move/acquire players before the start of the League Year, so they can do their free agent planning knowing what’s coming via trade. Trades can’t be official until next Wednesday at 4 p.m., but you can bet some will be in place before the tampering period starts.

Buckle up, folks. We’ve got a wild week ahead.

Let’s get to your mail…


Jimmy Garoppolo 49ers Vikings Watch Post


From Tiny (@KingTiny81): Can you stop talking about Jimmy G on the “hot seat”? We don’t want Kirk “0-15” or whatever it is cousins on our team.

Hey Tiny, if you can find where I said Jimmy Garoppolo is on the hot seat, feel free to pass a link along—maybe I had an out-of-body experience. What I can remember saying is that people I trust in league circles have had their radar up for the possibility that Kirk Cousins could eventually be reunited with Kyle Shanahan, and thanks to the logistics of Garoppolo’s contract (he has no guaranteed money left), and Cousins’s 2021 free agency, there’s a pretty clear window for it to happen a year for now.

And one thing I know about Shanahan is that he will be relentless and ruthless in working the 49ers roster to where he envisions it. What I don’t know is how Garoppolo will play in 2020, or what came of the Tom Brady talk internally. We’ll see what happens. But the idea is not that I’m putting Garoppolo out to pasture. I like Jimmy as a player, I think he’s got a ton of room to grow, and with Shanahan, he’s in a great place to do it.

From Moose Block (@moose_block): [Is Washington] really considering drafting Tua rather than Chase Young?

Moose, here’s what I had one person there say to me, when I asked about kicking the tires on Tua Tagovailoa, while they have Dwayne Haskins on the roster: “We have to make sure we’re not passing on Michael Jordan.” And I actually love that comparison. The Blazers passed on Jordan in 1984, and took Sam Bowie, because they already had a really good 2-guard, Clyde Drexler, in-house. In the end? Having Drexler and Jordan would’ve worked OK.

The quarterback position is obviously a little different, since only one guy plays. But I’d say, looking back, as great as Drexler was, the Blazers would’ve dealt him if it meant getting the 12-plus years of Jordan that the Bulls got. And this is all a long way of saying, it behooves the new Washington brass to know exactly what Tagovailoa is (and Justin Herbert and Jordan Love, for that matter) before they go forward with the plan to take Chase Young at No. 2.

There’s also the benefit of making teams that covet Tagovailoa or Herbert uncomfortable, and getting an offer out of them for the second pick. Maybe someone blows you away completely, and you move the pick. Either way, you’re creating options for yourself, and it never hurts to have those.

That said, I do believe the new staff likes Haskins and is looking forward to working with him. It’s just that not doing what they’re doing, in my opinion, would be a little negligent.

From Eric Atkinson (@Ericinparis2012): Think there will ever be a true stab at bringing the NFL to Canada? As a #BillsMafia member, I am glad it didn't work out with them, but I would love to see a Canadian NFL franchise and you have to think that the success of the @Raptors proves it can work.

Eric, this is a fascinating question, since the NFL has more than dipped its toe into the northern shores of Lake Erie with their foray into Toronto a few years back. I think what they found while they were there was that halfway giving the region the Bills wasn’t going to work, nor was just putting random games up there.

So why not give North America’s fourth biggest city its own team? I think, for one, there’s a certain courtesy the league would extend the Bills here. Even though owner Terry Pegula said he believes the area is big enough to support two NFL teams (Toronto’s 90 minutes from Buffalo)—at least until their stadium situation is resolved once and for all. For another, Toronto itself doesn’t have the stadium necessary to attract an NFL team.

But eventually, would it make sense to have a team there? Sure it would. There are at least a handful of NFL cities that are less fit for a pro football franchise than Toronto. And maybe down the line, Toronto could be a solution if the Chargers’ issue in L.A. persists (there’s no great sign that’s turning around any time soon).

From Michael Edmundo (@Kawasupmang): Jets & Trent Williams. 3 year extension, total contract 4 years, $72.5 million. Are both sides signing up for that assuming compensation is somewhere around a 2nd round pick?

Michael, there’s a good chance the Jets have four or even five new starters on the offensive line. And getting Trent Williams in place before the draft, along with a top-shelf interior lineman in free agency, would be nice, because it would free the Jets up from having to address their deficiency with the 11th overall pick. The idea’s even more enticing when you consider how the draft’s top tackles starred in Indy, and may not make it to the Jets’ pick.

That said, there are two problems with all that. One, it might cost the Jets the 11th pick to get Williams, and that’s a heavy price to pay when you consider that you’re probably going to have to give him a hefty raise too. And two, he’s got fairly extensive injury history and turns 32 in July, which would give you trepidation if you’re looking at investing a first-round pick and a lot of money into the guy.

So as of right now, I’d say Williams is an option for the Jets, and their level of interest would probably be dictated by the price. And the one thing Williams does have going for him, adding this all up, is that the recent shelf life of elite tackles (Andrew Whitworth, Jason Peters, etc.) is almost equal to that of the great quarterbacks.

From MIKE BARNA (@barna3): Browns need to focus heavily on OL, but now LB’s. What names would YOU go after spending smart $ to fill some voids? Thank you.

Mike, it remains to be seen how Joe Woods will adapt the Seattle-style scheme he ran in San Francisco to Cleveland (remember, he ran a 3-4 as Vance Joseph’s coordinator in Denver for two years). But if he’s looking for the type of swift linebacker that works for the defense he was a part of last year, with some flexibility to play in the aforementioned Wade Phillips scheme, Rams free agent Cory Littleton would be a really good fit. And if you’re looking at cheaper options, Woods has background with Bears free agent Danny Trevathan.

On the offensive line, obviously, Cleveland’s had trouble finding a guy to fill Joe Thomas’s old job, and they’re in the same boat as the Jets—the rising stock of the draft’s top tackles has made it so there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to sit where they’re picking (10th overall) and get one they like. Last year, ex-GM John Dorsey called Washington about Williams on a weekly basis. So even with Dorsey gone, people in the building are familiar with the seven-time Pro Bowler, and it makes sense if the search for a tackle starts with discussions there.

From Steve Toland (@SteveToland555): Could you see the Pats offering JC Jackson in trades for a WR or TE?

Steve, I hadn’t thought about this, but it’s a pretty solid idea. The Patriots do have some depth at corner, with Jason McCourty’s option picked up, Stephon Gilmore and Jonathan Jones back, and Joejuan Williams in the pipeline, so this could be a creative way to attack their skill-position deficiency without depleting their draft capital (they absolutely need an influx of young talent).

Jackson’s 24, started six games last year, has a lot of room to grow, and is due just $660K in 2020, with a restricted free-agent tender coming in 2021. So would it make sense to deal with, say, Tampa, and try and get TE Cam Brate and a pick for Jackson? Or ask about O.J. Howard while dangling Jackson? Would Houston part with Will Fuller for a good young corner like this? The more I think about this, the more I’m intrigued. … Good work, Steve.


From nick brewer (@NickBrew2840): Bucs fan dying to know who their QB will be. What is your guess as to the week 1 starter in Tampa??

Nick, the two names I’ve heard connected to the Bucs most are Tom Brady and Teddy Bridgewater. That’s fascinating to me, because, on paper, neither guy is a particularly great fit. Bruce Arians’s offense calls for a Clydesdale at quarterback who can take a big hit off a seven-step drop and get the ball downfield. Could Bridgewater withstand the pounding? Would Brady, healthy as he has usually been able to stay, want to? And would the big-strike nature stylistically work for either of these guys, both of whom play like point guards?

It’s really interesting to consider—and maybe this is where offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich takes his next big step forward—separating the offense a little from its Arians roots to work for an accomplished veteran quarterback. We’ll see. What I do know is that there hasn’t been much in the way of progress with Jameis Winston, so the Bucs will almost certainly be out there looking for one.

From grahamstewart (@grahams45878291): Has there been any notable movement in front offices into further adoption of advanced analytics this offseason due to Ravens success? Is there a phasing out of the Traditionalist takes?

Graham, NFL teams are further along with this stuff than you might think. Yes, there are clubs that would be classified as old-school, that might only have analytics people to check a box. But I found when I did a big story on analytics three years ago that most teams have integrated analytics staffers into what they do and have found good use for all the new information they’ve been given.

I’d add two points, too. One, because the NFL was ahead of other sports forever in this area (quality control coaches are, essentially, analysts and film study incorporates all kinds of analytics, and both have been around for decades in football), there was a little more of a culture war over this, because analytics folks were treading on an already beaten path. And two, most smart teams have long used the data to create guardrails for themselves—if they’re outliers to the norm, they want to know it—and cross-check decisions they make.

It’s just that in football, because of the nature of the sport and people in it, so much of this stuff is seen as proprietary. So few people who are trying to gain an edge are also advertising what they’re doing. The best example of that? The Patriots, of course. Publicly, Bill Belichick has downplayed the usefulness of what’s come of the analytics boom. Privately, analytics people will tell you that his behavior matches closely with what the data would tell you to do. The truth? That he’s been using the data forever, and just doesn’t call it “analytics.”

San Francisco legend Bill Walsh was just like that too.

Want more on this? Go here and here for my stories from 2017.

Tom, that’s a great question. I do think some of the early reaction may have been done for show. Like that joint statement from all the leagues on limiting media access to locker rooms? I’m all for taking precautions in a dangerous situation. But how does it make sense to do that, then play games in front of twenty- or thirty-thousand people in close quarters?

But it does seem like sports leagues are coming to their senses about that contradiction and canceling more events or making plans to have them without fans. SI’s Michael Rosenberg had a column yesterday saying it’s time to keep fans out of the arenas across all sports.

Taking all that into account, the fall’s a long way off, and the league hasn’t even altered plans for the owners meetings this month in Palm Beach, or the draft next month in Las Vegas. That shows you how much they hate to call off any big event, and International Series games are certainly seen as big ones for the league.

From Matt Ramas (@matt_ramas): If the Patriots don't end up signing Brady, which free agent QB will they target?

Matt, we can roll this back to the analytics question—and how Belichick looks at everything globally, when it comes to his roster. Last year, per the cap accounting by Spotrac, the Patriots were ninth in the NFL in quarterback spending, with $22.53 million in cap space allotted to the position. Next year, as it currently stands, they’re 24th at $8.3 million. That number will rise if Tom Brady leaves, and the rest of his dead money (another $6.75 million) accelerates on to their salary cap (they’d jump instantly to 18th).

Even then, their total number will be much lower than last year. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Belichick would like to keep it that way—giving him an advantage this year, and setting up a bigger one in 2021, in spending less at the most expensive position. That’s an edge the Eagles, Rams and Chiefs have ridden to Super Bowls the last three years, and it would allow New England to reset what’s currently an older roster.

So if the Patriots were to, say, trade for Andy Dalton, it wouldn’t shock me if they ask him to take a big pay cut. Nor would it surprise me if they’re shopping from the clearance rack in free agency, in a rare year where quarterback supply may outweigh quarterback demand (hello, Marcus Mariota). And I’d bet 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham (cap hit: $744K) is part of the mix too.

Because Brady has always taken less, the Patriots have always had an advantage when it comes to quarterback spending. I’m gonna assume they’ll try to maintain that edge.

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