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Mailbag: The NFL Needs to Tone Down its Optimism About the 2020 Season

On Tuesday the NFL gave maybe the most optimistic picture of the COVID-19 pandemic we've seen in weeks. Plus, mailbag questions about the third overall pick, the Patriots' draft and best players to interview.

I understand the reasoning.

The NFL is a business. One that generates 11-figure revenue numbers annually. It didn’t get there without prioritizing the bottom line, nor did its owners accumulate the wealth to buy teams by failing to find opportunity to profit around every corner.

So free agency went on as planned. So the draft will too. So on Tuesday, NFL EVP and general counsel Jeff Pash painted perhaps the most optimistic picture of the COVID-19 pandemic that any of us have seen anywhere in weeks.

“We’re pretty confident we’ll be able to start on schedule,” Pash said.

And that was only doubling down on what he’d asserted earlier in the conference call.

“On the season itself, our planning, our expectation is fully directed at playing a full season, starting on schedule and having a full regular season and a full set of playoffs, just as we did in 2019,” he said. “We take our guidance from the medical people, from [NFL chief medical officer] Dr. [Allen] Sills from [NFLPA chief medical officer] Dr. [Thomas] Mayer, from the outside consultants in infectious diseases, and from the CDC.”

Again, I understand why. The NFL has partners, sponsors and advertisers to worry about. Just as it’s a scary time for you and me, it’s a scary time for big business. Spending isn’t going to be what it was. Institutions with long-standing relationships in the pro football community are going to have to pick their spots for the foreseeable future.

Pash is speaking to them: We got you. We’re going to be America’s escape. We’re planning on it. And we want you to be a part of it. There’s nowhere your money will be safer. Because there will be football, and America will be eating it up when it gets here.

The idea matches up perfectly with the decision to go forward with the new league year, which was, at the very least, an opportunistic move to pull in a captive audience, and the forceful nature with which they’re pushing ahead with the draft, which is, well, the same. It’s who they are, and how they got where they are, and so it’s not that hard to figure out what they’re doing here.

But someone, anyone, at some point, should’ve raised their hand and asked the same question that could’ve saved the NFL a lot of trouble over the last decade, in countless scandals that made pro football look like a ruthless circus: Are we doing the right thing?

Given the circumstances we’re all facing, I personally don’t think it’s right to threaten coaches or executives not to speak out about the problems, both human and football-wise, with keeping the draft scheduled for the end of April, as the NFL did last week. I’m also not sure it’s right to tell a society that needs to be taking every precaution possible—and needs to be treating this international crisis as something that will get a lot worse if we don’t—that everything’s going to be just fine in a few months.

And maybe the NFL didn’t mean for it to come off that way. But it did.

Which is a problem, and one that was completely avoidable, if someone in the office had just asked that very simple question of right and wrong.

Alright, time to get to your mail…



From Packers Magazine (@PackersMag): Your favorite all-time player(s) to interview, and current players?

This is a fun question, and Packers Mag, I’ll break it down into phases of my career.

When I was on the Patriots beat in my mid-20s, I’d give you Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, and Tedy Bruschi, mostly because those guys were smart enough to work around the Patriots rules, and would give it back to you. I think you learn more from guys like that. Artrell Hawkins and Jarvis Green were two lower-profile guys who were great too. And Tom Brady was in a different way—he’s always been really good at explaining stuff.

When I was on the Cowboys beat, there were a bunch of guys who were just good, smart dudes. Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware and Terence Newman were all really normal for guys who were stars on the league’s highest-profile franchise.

On the national scene, where I’ve been over the last 12 seasons, it’s harder to narrow it down for obvious reasons. But I’d put Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck, Mike Vick, Robert Griffin III, Matt Ryan, Andy Dalton, LeSean McCoy, Steve Smith, Kyle Rudolph, Andrew Whitworth, Richie Incognito, Eric Wood, Ed Reed, Darrelle Revis, Bart Scott, Cliff Avril, Richard Sherman, Josh Norman, Calais Campbell and Nnamdi Asomugha among the high-profile guys who you’d look forward to seeing.

And those guys were great for a lot of different reasons, and I’m probably leaving names out. If I added names of lower-profile guys, it’d take me all day to compile a list, which underscores what I’ve always thought: Yeah, there are bad dudes in the league, but the majority of guys to come through the NFL, in my experience, are pretty good people.

From HoopsGuy1482 (@HGuy1482): Is it a lock that Detroit will draft Okudah?

Hoops Guy, no, it’s not. If Washington were to trade the second pick, the Lions would probably sit at 3 and happily take Chase Young. Otherwise, Detroit is open for business on a trade, and the idea that the Dolphins or Chargers might come up has to appeal to them for a very specific reason. There’s a consensus that there are four elite defenders in this year’s draft (Young, Okudah, Isaiah Simmons and Derrick Brown) and falling back to 5 or 6 in the order, while accumulating more capital, would ensure that the Lions would still get one.

That said, I do think the tea leaves would tell you that, assuming Young’s gone, Okudah would be the preference. The Lions traded Darius Slay and his replacement on the roster, Desmond Trufant, is probably just a short-term fix. Conversely, the Lions spent at linebacker (Jamie Collins) and defensive tackle (Danny Shelton, Nick Williams), so corner remains the biggest need, even if Simmons would be a good fit for Matt Patricia’s defense.

Either way, since January, it’s seemed like we’ve been looking at Joe Burrow to Cincy, Young to Washington, and the draft really starting at 3 with the Lions.

From Mason (@MasonOX1): Probably have gotten this a lot but if the #redskins aren't able to trade TW, do you think he'll have to suit up and play for them this season and hope they don't tag him next off-season?

Mason, I’m not sure what Trent Williams’ other options are here. Again, I heard he wanted quarterback money last year, and other teams are under the impression he wants to be the highest paid lineman now – topping $18 million per on a new deal. And that last part would be fine if he were a free agent. But he’s not. He’s got a year left on his deal, and the contract ask compounds the price for teams interested.

Now, you’re looking for those teams to give up a premium draft pick and a top-of-the-market contract for a tackle with injury/off-field flags that’s turning 32 in three months. Again, there’s probably a team or two out there willing to make Williams the highest paid tackle in football. But do that and give up a first-round pick, or a second-round pick and something else?

So either Washington needs to give him away for what they’d get in a comp pick or less now, or Williams has to come down on his financial demands. There’s a middle ground somewhere here. But for right now, there’s a little bit of a staring contest going on.

From Darth Edge (@theedge60): Is @YannickNgakoue a top 5 DE in the NFL who should also be the top paid DE?

No, Darth, Yannick is not a top five defensive end. He’s a very good pass-rusher, who’s a little deficient in the run game—which makes him a lot like Dee Ford last year. Ford, you’ll remember, fetched a second-round pick for the Chiefs in a tag-and-trade, and got $17.1 million per from the Niners, albeit in a deal that gave the team some trap doors to bail if need be. I think this is probably where you start with Ngaukoe.

Now, should be paid like a top five edge player? Unequivocally, yes. The top five now: Khalil Mack ($23.5 million per), DeMarcus Lawrence ($21 million), Frank Clark ($20.8 million), Von Miller ($19.0 million) and Trey Flowers ($18 million). Ngaukoe’s tag number is $17.788 million. And generally, when you’re doing a long-term deal off a tag number, you take what it would cost to tag the guy twice and average it. That number for Ngaukoe would be $39.13 million. So his long-term deal should be in the neighborhood of $20 million per year.

That would slide him comfortably into the top five. So yes, he should be paid like a top five edge player, based on his leverage. (And that’s acknowledging that guarantees and structure might be more complicated.)

From Shedrick Carter (@shedrickcarter2): Are you hearing any rumors regarding any big trades on draft night?

Shedrick, we’re still a little ways off from that. But I do think there’s an interesting dynamic that promises to affect the 2020 draft that could be in play, and that’s how quickly teams will be able to get guys ready to play. Without the six weeks or so that rookies normally get in May and April, will it be tougher for a rookie to be in position to play? And without an offseason program, might teams be more worried in camp simply about getting their players ready for Week 1 than developing young talent? Yes and yes.

So if you’re a team with a hole left on your roster after free agency, it’s certainly possible that you might have some doubt that a rookie will be able to fill it this year, especially if that hole is at a position that’s not particularly strong in this year’s draft (like, say, safety or tight end). Or if you’re a coach that needs to win now, you may not want to rely on a rookie, given the circumstances. And the solution in both those cases may be in combing other teams’ rosters for veteran trade targets.

That makes it worth at least paying attention to the idea that some teams may get to draft week and start throwing out offers for veterans on other teams—and it may create an opportunity for teams with depth at key spots to build up some draft capital.

From American Idle (@BarlesCharkly): Which offensive lineman that nobody has ever heard of will Bill Belichick draft at 23?

American Idle, I’ll go with this glass-eating third-round guard from Fort Valley State that’s gonna push Joe Thuney out of the lineup so Bill never has to give him $16 million per year. Or I’ll just say this: If you like trading down (one of the other few things Belichick does that annoys Patriots fans), this may wind up being the draft for you. And for a couple different reasons that actually make a lot of sense.

First, the New England roster is old. The aforementioned Thuney is one of the only young guys on the roster who looks like a long-term cornerstone at this point. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn (who’s had trouble staying healthy) might be another, corner J.C. Jackson has shown promise, and we’ll see on N’Keal Harry, but you’re scratching for guys after that. So the Patriots don’t just need to get younger, they need volume in their younger ranks, which will take more picks.

The other thing is that Belichick generally doesn’t like when he’s got gaping holes between picks. Because of the Mohamed Sanu trade, the Patriots have a gaping hole between the 23rd and 87th overall picks. They then have four picks between 87 and 125, another hole between 125 and 195, followed by seven picks between 195 and 241. To me, all this adds up to Belichick trading out of 23, and then all around with the rest of his picks.

It’s a big draft for that team, and not just because Tom Brady’s gone.

From thomas barz (@barzskins): If the season were to be canceled, what would the 2021 Draft Order be based upon? Thanks!

Thomas, I don’t know why I found your question so interesting, but it was to me. And to answer it, I actually went back to the one pro sports season of my lifetime that was completely wiped out: the 2004-05 NHL season. What I found was pretty fascinating.

For its 2005 draft, the NHL put the entire league into a weighted lottery, based on playoff appearances in the 2001-02, 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons, and the first overall picks in the four previous drafts. Teams that had no playoff appearances or first overall picks in that period got three lottery balls. Teams that had one playoff appearance or first pick in that period got two balls. Everyone else got one ball. Forty-eight balls went in, and the first round was drawn. And from there, it was a snake draft, with order reversing each round.

What was the impact of all that? The Penguins wound up with the first pick after getting the second pick the year before. The No. 2 pick in 2004 was Evgeni Malkin. The first pick in the 2005 draft was…Sidney Crosby. That’s two Hall of Famers and the foundation for three Stanley Cups.

Of course, none of us want the NFL, or any of the other sports leagues, to be pushed down that road because of the crisis in our country. But it was fun to look that up, anyway.

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