The NFL is not in-season now, like basketball and hockey are. Football is not even in its preseason, like baseball is. And that’s left everyone with the general feeling that, with the coronavirus spreading, it’s the least affected major sports league.
Maybe that’s true. But for NFL folks, this also happens to be peak travel season. Coaches and scouts are crisscrossing America to attend pro days. The bigger pro days held by the bluebloods are welcoming in people from, literally, every corner of the U.S. and putting them all in confined spaces. Soon, those coaches and scouts will be traveling to conduct private workouts on college campuses. Likewise, prospects will travel to visit NFL teams.
Then, there’s the league’s annual meeting: The owners, head coaches, GMs and business leaders from every team are scheduled to arrive in Palm Beach in a little over a week. These people, like those scouting the college kids, are coming from all over, to spend time together in a small area.
I’m not explaining this to spark panic. I’m explaining this to illustrate reality.
Already, with the above as the backdrop, the Eagles and Steelers have pulled their coaches off the road, where they’d normally be. The Ravens are letting people work from home. The Texans have a meeting on it Wednesday afternoon. The Redskins and Bucs are pulling coaches and scouts off the road. And more announcements will soon follow. But most teams I communicated with on Wednesday morning are, for now, operating business as usual, and waiting for guidance from the NFL.
It’s time for the NFL to give them that guidance and make the hard decisions that need to be made in regard to the annual meeting, free agency and the draft. If it means shutting down the league for a couple weeks, then shut down the league for a couple weeks.
And I’m starting to think that’s what they have to do for a very simple reason: These teams should not have to balance competitive issues against the health of their people. Continuing forward with the NFL calendar as it stands puts pressure on teams, intended or not, to push ahead with their offseason plans, because if we don’t, and this other team does, we’ll be behind.
Putting teams in that spot is, quite frankly, irresponsible.
No one needs me to tell them this is bigger than football. Now, it’s up to the league to acknowledge that.
And with that, we’ll move on to less important matters—but still big ones in NFL Land—inside this week’s GamePlan. We’ll fill you in on …
• The outgoing NFLPA president’s feelings on the CBA vote
• The five non-QB free agents that’ll make the most
• The Brady vs. Tannehill question
• How the Chargers are quietly building for a Brady run
And now, on to the football (or business of it).
ERIC WINSTON EXIT INTERVIEW
The last question I asked now-former NFLPA president Eric Winston late Wednesday night actually turned into a case of me projecting. I wanted to know if he was nervous about how the CBA vote would go, between now and late Saturday night, mostly because I know I’d be nervous if I was in him in that spot. I think most people would be.
Why? Well, Winston was the union president for six years, and all that work built up to the negotiation of the CBA. He poured everything into that negotiation over the better part of the last year, and I’d think, given that level of investment, I’d be walking on eggshells waiting to see the final result of the work.
His answer: No, he’s not nervous. Which probably explains why he was well-suited for the role in the first place.
“One of my predecessors told me the guys will always make the right decision,” Winston said. “And he didn't mean, ‘It's gonna be your decision.’ When you look back, you're like, ‘Oh, the guys, they made the right decision there, that was right.’ And whether it was on the resolutions, whether it's in elections, whether it's whatever the guys have always faced, it might take them forever to get there, we might yell and scream at each other in the room, but I've always felt like the guys end up making the right decision.
“And I think they'll do that here. And that's why I said that, because I think we'll look back and say, ‘Hey, that was the right decision.’ So that's why I keep saying, I just want educated guys that know exactly what they care about, what they’re passionate about, and make sure that they're informed so they can make that decision.”
We’ll all know soon enough. Assuming there aren’t delays related to what’s going on in the world (and in the case of the vote, which is held online, I can’t think of a reason why there would be), at midnight Sunday, we’ll either have a new CBA or the NFL will be headed into the final year of the 2011 CBA with a lockout on the horizon.
Either way, the Winston I talked to for almost an hour seemed very at peace with the job he, executive director DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA staff and his executive committee had done in negotiating the deal. Some more from our conversation…
What he’s proud of: “Within a negotiation like this, you can affect a lot of change. But I also feel like we've done a lot of things leading up to this and in the middle. I think people forget how much happens in the middle of all this. And a lot of it was crazy for me. I mean, we went and, gosh, it was a lot of lawsuits and a lot of personal conduct issues that led into this. We had some grievances. There were a lot of things that happened there.
“Internally, we worked with the league to set up a financial literacy program that I'm proud of. It’s out to about 10 teams, we’re looking to expand out to almost all the teams, hopefully here in the near future. We changed a lot of agent regs, trying to better protect the guys, some of the agents may not appreciate it, but I even think a lot of those guys understood what I was trying to do. And I think they for the most part, appreciate that. Financial advisor regs. Some of those things, hopefully, will have some lasting effects.”
What made him OK with 17 games: “You're never OK with it. … Listen, at the very beginning, we came with a really aggressive offer and we wanted to do a lot of different things. We wanted a lot of things on our side. And that was something that they made pretty clear that, if we're gonna do something early, that was something that they wanted. And so we tried to get to an area where we felt like we've got adequate compensation for that.
“And that was kind of this holistic thing that leadership built out. And like I said, I'm not going to pass judgment on whether we got there or not. The guys are deciding that. But it's important that that takes place, because I can tell you this—if this doesn't get done, then we're going to go to expiration. Maybe a deal gets done at expiration, maybe it doesn't. And then after expiration, we all know what happens from there. So we've all got to be on board one way or another with this.”
On hearing the criticism from players: “You always internalize things. I definitely know I do. But even some of the conversations I've had over the weekend, it was very apparent for me that this wasn't about me personally. And that's something I always say to guys like, ‘Hey, this whole thing we're doing here is not about us. It's about everybody. It's about all the guys and doing what you can and doing what's best for them.’
“So on a broad scale, one of my big things has always been empower as many guys to stand up, to speak out, to be able to stand toes on the line and let's go. And you can't then turn around and say, ‘Well, don't say anything negative. Now, don't speak out.’ That's not what I've ever been about. I have a lot of respect for our leaders. … Democracy is messy, and I'm honestly glad that a lot of guys speak out and say things. Quite frankly, we've had some things in earlier in that made this a better deal from guys speaking out and pushing.”
Lessons from the negotiation: “You always think you know how much goes into something like this. You always kind of prepare yourself. You think you have a firm understanding of exactly every detail of how minimums work or how this works or how that works. And then you get into it and you realize, ‘Oh, man, there's so much there.’ And how much just the teamwork matters, how much communication matters and everything that you plan out.
“It's like that old Mike Tyson quote: Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth. You can only plan so much of this out. And then you have to be nimble, be agile and have a great team. And De and I, and I think De would tell you the same thing, we didn't do this by ourselves. I mean, we had unreal leadership … such a widespread team effort.”
Advice for his successor, J.C. Tretter: “As much as I wanted to download him with a ton of information, I tried not to. I tried to give him what maybe I would've wanted to hear and what I did hear from some of my predecessors early on. And that was really it. I think he's going to have to mold the position the way he sees it. I told him, ‘Chart your own course, go out there and do your thing.’ And you got to kind of find what you think this whole thing means to you. So I purposely actually refrained from imparting too many things on him.
“… I just said onboard a lot of information coming up here, especially in the offseason, get as much information as you can. And then at that point, then you can start thinking about, ‘OK, what do I want to do here? What do I want to do there? How do I handle the executive committee? How are we going to meet? How do we want to do all those things?’ Every leader has his own style. And I think more than anything, the guys saw something in him. I wouldn't want to say don't do that or do do that. I think he's capable. He's a smart guy. I think he's going to find his own way.”
Winston didn’t want to advocate for the deal. But I know there are things the negotiators are pleased with—things like catching minimums back up to the pace of the cap (with the ability to further adjust); gains in benefits and, in particular, pensions to get the pre-2011s up to snuff; the establishment of a new network to get ex-players care at high-end facilities across the country; the addition of things like a $1.5 million veteran cap exemption that will allow vets to stay with their long-time teams; and improvements made to rookie contracts.
And, of course, the rise in the revenue split.
Did they get enough for a 17th game, given that the owners’ desire to get to the broadcast deals gave the players leverage? Winston, again, deferred to the larger group of players to determine that. And he’ll get to watch it from the sidelines. He’ll get his MBA from Penn in May, and hopes to take a deep breath before deciding what to do next.
But I can say that the guy I talked to seemed pretty content with where he’s leaving all this. He mentioned how his 8-year-old son—who’s been to the NFLPA rep meeting every year of his life—asked him leaving Miami this week if they’d ever be back to another one. And that kind of brought the whole thing home for the old Pro Bowl tackle.
“It was a little strange in a lot of ways, obviously saying a lot of goodbyes, having a lot of good conversations with a lot of people I respect over there,” he said. “I don't think it's really set in yet, quite frankly. And obviously with this vote looming out there, I still feel like I'm gonna be behind the scenes, just making sure I supplement J.C. with whatever he needs going forward. But it was, it was just a little strange.”
Which leaves Winston like the rest of us—waiting to see what happens over the weekend.
Free agency is days away, and that means there’ll be a lot of shock and awe—He got WHAT?!?!—over what certain players are able pull down. So if you don’t want to be one of those fans whose jaw is dropping when the clock strikes noon on Monday, you’ve come to the right place.
For this week’s Power Rankings, we’re going to try to give the non-quarterbacks who’ll actually make it to the market (without being tagged) and land the biggest paydays. Here goes…
1) Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Seahawks: The market for top pass-rushers is clearly north of $20 million per year, and guys like Clowney rarely make it to free agency. Add that to the fact that the other top edge guys (Shaq Barrett, Bud Dupree, Matthew Judon, Yannick Ngakoue) are getting tagged, and Clowney, even with his injury history, is positioned to get into the $20 million club.
2) Amari Cooper, WR, Cowboys: Do I think he’s worth $17 million or $18 million per year? It doesn’t really matter. As Sammy Watkins’s foray into free agency showed us two years ago, wideouts with top-of-the-first-round pedigrees and NFL production get paid. (It’s worth at least mentioning that if the Cowboys get a deal for Dak Prescott done, the tag would be freed up for Cooper.)
3) Byron Jones, CB, Cowboys: Jones isn’t Champ Bailey, but he’s an athletic freak with 21st-century corner/safety flexibility and room to grow. And a lot of really good teams (including one in Dallas’s division) have a crying need at what is a premium position. I don’t think it’s crazy to believe he becomes the highest-paid corner of all-time, which would mean making more than $16 million per.
4) Jack Conklin, OT, Titans: Two years ago, Nate Solder became the highest paid tackle ever, signing with the Giants in free agency. Last year, Trent Brown set a new standard in joining the Raiders in free agency. And over the last couple years, free agents like Andrew Norwell, Ryan Jensen and Mitch Morse have hit the market and raised the bar at the guard and center spots. Conklin’s got injury issues, and he’s been inconsistent over four years, and he’s about to get really, really rich, maybe to the point where he’s the new standard bearer among tackles.
5) Joe Thuney, G, Patriots: Same premise here—good offensive linemen get paid when they make it to market. Thuney’s coming off a second-team All-Pro season, and New England may have its hands tied here, since the Patriots already paid fellow guard Shaq Mason. I don’t know if Thuney will get what Conklin does. I do think he’ll be in the neighborhood of $15 milion per year.
THE BIG QUESTION
Why would the Titans choose Ryan Tannehill over Tom Brady?
We reported in the Monday column that the Titans have had contract talks with Tannehill, and both ESPN and NFL Network have reported on the situation over the couple days since, and here’s the thing about that: Tannehill could simply accept an offer, as the negotiations go on. That, necessarily, would end their pursuit of Brady before it (officially) began.
Which begs a simple question: Why would they do that?
Like I said the other day, I’m not sure many people out there would take Tannehill over Brady to win a game tomorrow. I wouldn’t. But this situation isn’t that simple. There are other factors that are, and should be, playing into this for the Titans.
One is obvious, and that’s age. Brady turns 43 in August. Tannehill turns 32 in July. Brady gives you, probably, a two-year answer at the position and would have to adjust to a new place for the first time in his career. Tannehill could realistically stabilize you at the position for, says, five years, and buy you time to find a younger answer, rather than sending you on an immediate search for one. And there’d be no adjustment for him.
Another is also pretty simple, and that relates to timing. Say the Titans and Tannehill can’t come to an agreement by 11:59 a.m. ET on Monday. If they don’t then tag Tannehill, he can go to market. And if you don’t have assurances you’re landing Brady, who’ll likely want to weigh his options, you’re playing a dangerous game with a roster capable of winning now. Logan Woodside is the only quarterback the Titans have under contract.
And a third reason would be the makeup of the current team. Mike Vrabel has pushed all the right buttons on that side of the ball—promoting Arthur Smith to offensive coordinator last year and calling for an identity with that unit that perfectly fit what GM Jon Robinson has been building (see: Henry, Derrick). Tannehill’s athleticism and playing style are a part of all that. If Brady comes in? Smith’s gonna be charged with changing a lot of things.
Now, skepticism over whether Tannehill’s 2019 flourish is sustainable, based on a longer track record in Miami, is healthy. And I’ve been around Brady enough to think the Titans need to really consider taking the risk. I’d have a very hard time doubting him in this spot where so many people are.
But if the Titans decide not to roll the dice on it? It’d actually be understandable.
WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
Since we’re all Brady, all the time here—I’m not sure enough people are looking hard at what the Chargers just did, dealing Russell Okung and bringing back Trai Turner, as a move that might make L.A.’s second team a little more attractive to a certain quarterback, so long as it’s followed by a couple other moves.
This is the rare offseason where there are multiple good options available at left tackle both on the veteran market (Andrew Whitworth, Trent Williams, Jason Peters) and in the draft (Mekhi Becton, Andrew Thomas), and the Chargers have around $50 million in cap space and the sixth pick in the draft as capital. And if L.A. gets a good one, there’s a chance they’re as good (and probably healthier) at left tackle, while shoring up a huge need on the interior.
Remember, a big part of Brady’s decision-making process is going to be what’s around him, and the one thing the Chargers 100% had to fix was the line. They may be just one move (maybe two) away from doing it. If they have that fixed? Then, it’s easier to focus on an impressive cadre of skill players (Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Hunter Henry, Austin Ekeler) and a defense with a couple franchise-level players (Joey Bosa, Derwin James).
Now, there are some things that the Chargers really can’t control. Would Brady want to play for Anthony Lynn and a first-year coordinator, in Shane Steichen? Does he want to be in L.A.? Is going to the AFC West the right thing for him?
All of those questions are valid. But the Chargers’ shot at getting Brady could be too, if you follow how they’re addressing, efficiently, other problems he might have had with the place.
THE FINAL WORD
I’ll just say here that I hope everyone stays safe and is cautious the next couple weeks. And that’s coming from some who definitely didn’t take this whole thing as seriously as he should have until the crap hit the fan on Wednesday night.
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