Trent Dilfer wasn’t looking for the Rocky IV metaphor he made three months ago to come back into focus in quite the way that it did, but it popped back into his mind in the middle of last week, with options for his prodigy’s pro day dwindling. Parks and fields in Nashville were shut down, and Dilfer’s facility—which Tua Tagovailoa planned to use for a workout he’d been building to, really, since November—had also just been forced to close amid the COVID-19 crisis.
What was left? A patch of turf in an indoor facility half the length and half the width of a normal football field, under a roof that, by Dilfer’s estimation, couldn’t have been more than 30 feet high.
Maybe it wasn’t exactly Rocky Balboa’s secluded cabin in Siberia.
And when Dilfer addressed the team of agents, trainers, nutritionists and chefs that had been assembled for Tagovailoa’s pre-draft run-up back in January, this certainly wasn’t what he meant. Instead, what he was trying to emphasize at the time was the concept of closing off the Alabama quarterback from the outside world, shutting down his social media and focusing on the work and attacking his rehab, like Balboa dove into training to topple Russian titan Ivan Drago.
But, really, this worked too. Throwing in that closed environment was actually a little like the Italian Stallion doing pullups in the rickety barn, in that coach and quarterback had to improvise.
“Bro, this is like Rocky!” Tagovailoa said to Dilfer, just before the workout.
And the goal in working around so many obstacles was to give scouts and coaches every last thing that they needed to see before making a decision on Tagovailoa. To be sure, some teams will be scared off by his medical status and history, and some will be O.K. with it. The idea here wasn’t necessarily to convert those in the first group. More so, it was to give those in the second one more look at what they’ll be working with if they draft him.
“I spent 10 hours trying to script this thing out,” Dilfer said. “One, I cared. But two, I didn’t want to create this thing where it was confusing to the scouts. I don’t care about the public, who sees it in the public. I couldn’t care less about that. It was built for the 32 teams. I wanted those 32 GMs, owners, coaches, scouts, to have it make sense—Why are they doing that? …
“It took a lot of thought to create a glorified workout to show them the things they needed to see.”
Tagovailoa’s workout was on Thursday. By Friday, when ESPN’s Chris Mortensen posted video clips from it, the two-time All-SEC quarterback was driving back to Alabama, his draft process mostly now complete. He remains the first round’s biggest wild card.
That said, the hay’s now in the barn. And teams have a decision to make on him.
Fun column this week, and I’m excited for you guys to dive into it. If you scroll down, you’ll find…
• Nuggets from a great Easter morning conversation with ex-Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who may soon pull a very rare feat, in having coached the top three picks in a single class.
• Ten things about the 2020 draft that I’ve gathered over the last week.
• RIP, XFL.
• The Brandin Cooks oddity.
And, of course, a whole lot more. But we’re starting with the Tagovailoa workout, how it came together, what it proved and what it might mean going forward.
Dilfer first met Tagovailoa in the spring of 2016, just before the quarterback’s senior year at Honolulu’s St. Louis High, at an Elite 11 camp. The two saw each other again a month later at the Elite 11 finals, and then again at The Opening in Oregon, and Dilfer estimates now that they were probably together for 11 or 12 days over that time. They casually stayed in touch afterward, through a handful of phone calls over Tua’s three years at Bama.
So even if the relationship was more friendly than familial, Dilfer was well aware of the talent he was entrusted with when Tagovailoa picked him to run the show for these last few months.
But because Tagovailoa was coming off reconstructive hip surgery, this one would have to be different than any pre-draft process that Dilfer had ever been a part of. And while the Rocky analogy encapsulated the idea, the one thing it didn’t capture is the primary goals that were set. The first was to emphasize healing in every facet of the operation. The second was, with that caution, to get Tua ready to throw on Sundays.
“I tried not to be an idiot,” Dilfer said. “I told him early on, I can get you ready for a throwing thing in seven days. So we don’t need months and months and months. I was always the one slowing it up, I never wanted to put his health at risk, knowing that it’s still the underwear Olympics. What I wanted was to give him to his team as a better product than he was before his injuries. To me, that was a different way of thinking about it.
“One, we’re not getting you ready for a pro day, we’re not getting you ready for combine, we’re not getting you ready for workouts, for visits. We’re getting you ready for hopefully a 15-year Hall of Fame career. Well, for that to happen, I gotta hand you over to a team so they can do their work with you, and you’re a better product for them. That’s always been the goal. It was a value add, a bonus, that we were able to do what we did [Thursday].”
And there was a lot of detail in how it was set up. The first piece, while Tagovailoa was still too debilitated to even soft toss, was to get him mentally ready for the league.
To that end, agent Chris Cabott enlisted former Titans and Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt to do film work with Tagovailoa a couple times a week ahead of the February combine, which prepared him to go in front of teams, while also meeting Dilfer’s stated goal of preparing him to hit the ground running with his future employer in early May.
In those sessions, the work that Tagovailoa had done coming from a proud high school program, then learning a little from ex-Bama OC Lane Kiffin before arriving in Tuscaloosa, and a lot from Nick Saban, Brian Daboll, Mike Locksley and Steve Sarkisian after he got there, was clear. In particular, Tua’s recall blew Whisenhunt away, as did his ability to diagnose situations and assess an opponent’s personnel.
“It was the recall not just with his players, but the opponent too,” Whisenhunt said. “It’d be, ‘Yeah, I’d say 18 was LSU’s best player, because he could rush, but you see him drop here where he’d get all the way underneath the corner route.’ He has a good feel for what’s going on, like, ‘That’s what I’m seeing.’ And the situational stuff, he’s got recall where, this was the critical play, this what happened, and here’s why.”
As they progressed, Whisenhunt would give Tagovailoa plays to install under what was, to him, foreign terminology, and ask him to know it during their next session. Then, when they’d reconvene, he’d put Tua on the board, and that wasn’t much of a problem either.
But what really stuck out to Whisenhunt wasn’t so much his acumen. Tagovailoa’s reputation preceded him on that. What jumped out, more so, was how, still injured and fighting through a difficult rehabilitation, Tua never complained about the challenges he was faced to those around him, which mirrors what Saban told us about him in March.
“He never felt sorry for himself, which is important,” Whisenhunt said. “He comes from a really good family structure, there’s a good culture of people around him, and Nick did a great job with him. He just has a personality people gravitate to, because you can feel that he cares about you. You notice that quickly. He’s genuine, he cares about you, his teammates, his coaches. I’ll use one of Trent’s terms—He makes them feel important.,
“That’s a great quality for a quarterback. He’s just very aware, very sharp.”
March 9 was set as the date for Tagovailoa to be cleared, and it was right around then, maybe a day or two later, that Dilfer got him back out on the field. Tagovailoa had been soft tossing since mid-February, but this was going to be the first time he’d do it with any sort of movement incorporated. As such, Dilfer set up a spreadsheet to sequence Tagovailoa’s return to the field, starting with light drills to test stability.
The quarterback had other ideas.
“And the first day ends up being, Hey, I can do anything. I’m like, What? And he’s like, Yeah, let’s go,” Dilfer said. “And the first workout I think I’d scripted 35 minutes, and we went for an hour and 15 minutes. It was movement and footwork drills and we weren’t gonna throw that much, and next thing you know we’re throwing BBs all over the indoor. And that’s when it hit me, OK, I gotta rethink this. This is about endurance; this isn’t about function. This isn’t about skill development; this is about endurance.
“I could see in one day, he’s twitchy, he’s powerful, he’s ripping it.”
So Dilfer blew up the script. On Mondays and Tuesdays, they’d add new layers of movement and go through harder workouts. Wednesdays were for “Quarterback Olympics,” the kind of games you might see for fun at an NFL facility on a Friday before a game, like throwing balls at uprights or into trash cans. Thursday and Fridays would incorporate receivers into the same movement work that was added on Monday and Tuesday. And Tagovailoa would work out on his own as he saw fit on the weekend.
That would get him ready for the pro day, of course. But, again, that was just a bonus.
“I kept telling everyone this, I don’t care about that,” Dilfer said. “I care about getting him to the Dolphins or the Bengals or the Colts or the Chargers, whoever’s gonna draft him, I have no flipping idea. And that team saying, ‘Wow, thank you, thank you. He’s ready to go, we can now teach him to play NFL football.’ Because that’s not my job, my job is to get him ready to hand him over to someone else, and that team goes, ‘Yes, we have the best Tua possible.’”
But the progress did give Dilfer room to be creative as the workout got closer, and even more creative when circumstances changed.
One thing Dilfer did want to be clear on was that precautions were taken ahead of the workout on Thursday, saying, “We had to find a facility that would allow us to do it under full social-distancing policy, which we did. There was never more than 10 people, for the most part we stayed six feet apart. Now, obviously, I’m snapping the ball to Tua, so we couldn’t be six feet apart. But we were clean, we were super careful.”
And as for the workout itself, Dilfer wanted to show endurance to display Tagovailoa’s health, and four specific traits: twitch, movement, power and precision. To accomplish that, he created four blocks of throws, which were slowed only when one of Tagovailoa’s receivers tweaked a hamstring. Each of the four blocks featured 13 consecutive throws without rest, and emphasized multiple movements, where the ball finished, and the ability to catch a snap and throw in an RPO/quick-game scenario.
More challenging, given the bandbox they were throwing in, was to display power. So Dilfer created a drill for the end of the workout where Tagovailoa would take a seven-step drop, make a movement (as if he were avoiding a rusher) and, with his feet planted, in a spot where most would crow hop, throw a ball on a line to a receiver 47 yards away. Four of five such throws he made, Dilfer said, were right where wanted them.
“All he could do was pick up his front foot and move it to the right,” Dilfer said. “Now, we’re talking rare air. There’s a very small group of the population that could make this throw.”
And that was one point that Dilfer felt was important to make.
“What I’ve had to explain to people—Tua doesn’t throw it hard very often,” Dilfer said. “When he needs to throw it long and hard, he can throw it as long and hard as anybody. That’s the thing that’s going to come out when he plays in the NFL, that’ll be the narrative in a couple years, people will go, ‘Whoa, we didn’t know!’ And I’ll say you should’ve known, because I tried to tell you.”
How much will what Tagovailoa did on tape change things? Maybe it won’t, because most of the questions on him center on health and there are questions on Tagovailoa’s future in that regard that are impossible to answer. But walking out of that facility, both Dilfer and Tagovailoa felt like they’d answered for everything else.
Really, the idea here wasn’t so much to impress everyone, as it was to confirm that Tagovailoa is still the same guy who won the national title coming off the bench as a true freshman, and lit up the SEC the last two years running. As Dilfer sees it, there was enough there already, on that tape, to know which of Tagovailoa’s elite traits would translate.
“What makes him great is he has multiple,” Dilfer said. “He’s got the best eyes I think I’ve ever seen at this age. At this age, he sees stuff others don’t see. I think Dan Orlovsky’s done a really good job on TV pointing this out; he makes full field reads, he sees stuff as if he has eyes in the back of his head. Some will call it intuition, instincts, some call it eyes. It’s probably both. It’s a feel as well as a clarity of vision when he sees stuff.
“And they’re quick, that’s the other thing. He doesn’t have to go, ‘Hey, my eyes are here, now my eyes are there, I gotta see it, confirm it and throw.’ It’s all one thing for him. His other [trait] would be precision. He just knows where his ball finishes, it finishes more precisely. Those would be the two superpowers. Precision, and the feel/eyes/instincts deal.”
But now? Now, Dilfer hopes the NFL sees what he has. And then they can weigh the talent against the risk, which Dilfer feels will be mitigated as Tagovailoa learns to protect himself better than he has.
Oh, and there was one other seminal moment in all this. A few weeks after they started working, Tagovailoa confessed to Dilfer he’d never seen Rocky IV—the soundtrack of which was playing in football locker rooms all over the country in the 1980s and ’90s. So he asked Dilfer if the training montage was like the desert scene in Creed 2, and they talked it over and, eventually, Tagovailoa got a night free where he could check out the real thing.
After that? “Rocky IV’s the best ever, coach,” he said to Dilfer, and the analogy started to make more sense, too.
“He definitely hunkered down,” Dilfer said. “What he had to come back from was tough, and the work he had to do to come back from it was difficult, monotonous, boring stuff. I wouldn’t say he enjoyed it. I don’t think any of this theme was, This is fun! I don’t think Tua would say, ‘Oh, man, this was the best three months of my life!’ I think he’d say, ‘No, this wasn’t very much fun, but it was worth it.’”
And now, with the metaphorical pullups on the cabin rafters and mountain runs in work boots down, and Tagovailoa having left Nashville, they’re 10 days away from getting to see the value in what they got done come to life.
URBAN MEYER TALKS TOP PROSPECTS
I talked to Urban Meyer on Sunday morning with the intention of discussing the chance—and it’s not all that remote of a chance—that three guys he coached in college could wind up going 1-2-3 in this year’s NFL draft. And we’re going to get to that. But just as we were wrapping up after about a half hour on the phone, I asked Meyer if he had a chance to get a better look at pro football than he had before, given that he didn’t coach in 2019.
He answered that he had, and that he’d actually made a point of studying the league, and talking to over 30 of his former players from Ohio State, Florida and Utah to gather information on what he was looking at. The results, he said, were fascinating.
“I just asked them, ‘Tell me about the culture, tell me about the team meetings, tell me about the expectations, the work ethic, the accountability,’” Meyer told me. “I had an idea, but what’s amazing to me is when I hear the media and the fans, and even others say the reason they’re losing is because they have bad players. That’s one of the most nonsensical things I’ve ever heard in my entire life. I mean, they’re NFL players.
“There’s not a bad player in the NFL. Now, you have superstars, some might not be the right fit, they might have some character flaws, there might be some stuff going on. But to use the term ‘bad player’? And I hear that as an excuse, ‘Hey, he’s a bad quarterback.’ What are you talking about? Because I’ve heard that, and I used to get angry when they’d say that about our players. I’d hear someone say that—Alex Smith is a bad player.
“He was the best thing I’d been around when he came out of Utah. Then I do the homework and find out what it is. It’s certainly not bad players. There are certain organizations that win every year. There are certain organizations that can’t win, yet they have better players on paper than the other organizations, because they draft before them every year. Every year. So I’d challenge everyone, ‘When you say they’re a bad player, what, are you out of your mind?’ They’re not bad players.”
Eventually, Meyer would get his answers—and draw real parallels from alums he had in places like New England, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and San Francisco.
“Culture and criteria,” Meyer said. “There’s two things you have to do. Number one, develop and implement a culture in your organization. And it’s gotta be a culture: This is the way it is, non-negotiable. And then the other thing is talent acquisition. How are you acquiring talent? What’s your criteria? Is everyone on the same page? And what I found out, those who win, that’s it. Those who fail to win, that’s it.
“It’s not whether they run the zone or the stretch play, or the three-level passing vs. the crossing routes. I know people think that’s it. Yeah, that’s fun. That’s intriguing. But that’s not why certain teams win. You walk in the locker room and you know why they win. And you talk to your players who are in those organizations and you know exactly why they win. Because the head coach and GM, and everyone, are aligned with culture and talent acquisition.”
One thing Meyer was clear on—and you could hear his passion for the topic in his voice—was that just like the difference from one program to another wasn’t about bad players, it wasn’t necessarily about a bad GM or bad coach, either. More so, as he sees it, the issues with those that fail are organizational, in the way teams may patch together coaching and scouting staffs that don’t fit, or cycle through coaches like they would swing tackles.
So all that begged the next question, which was whether or not Meyer wanted, through all of this work, to try his hand at the NFL after winning three national titles in college. He laughed and said, “I didn’t say that.” And then, I asked if he was intrigued by the idea.
“Oh, I’m intrigued,” he said. “But I didn’t go that far. There were some conversations, but it never went that far.”
I’m not sure that it ever will. But it sure would be fun for the rest of us to see it.
O.K., so I researched all the way back to 1960, and couldn’t find any example of three ex-teammates going 1-2-3 in the NFL draft. Three schools had guys go first and second in one year: Penn State (Courtney Brown, LaVar Arrington in 2000), Nebraska (Irving Fryar, Dean Steinkuhler in 1984) and Michigan State (Bubba Smith, Clint Jones in 1967). But, as far as I can tell, since the advent of the AFL, 1-2-3 has never happened.
And it could this year, with a twist. Joe Burrow is coming into the NFL from LSU, and Chase Young and Jeff Okudah are coming from Ohio State. But the three of them were actually together on the 2017 Buckeyes. Burrow was a banged-up, third-string quarterback, and Young and Okudah were true freshman defenders.
Could anyone have seen it coming? Well, in the case of two of them, Meyer says he knew pretty quickly he had blue-chip recruits that were fully capable of living up to their billing.
“[Strength] coach [Mick] Marotti, he’s almost never wrong when he says, ‘We got one here,’” Meyer said. “Jeff Okudah, the minute he walked on campus, you knew you had one. And same with Chase. Chase plays a little bit of a developmental position, where you gotta grow up in your body and learn technique. But when you put a guy like Chase Young with [DL coach] Larry Johnson, the chance of success, it’s infallible. It will happen.”
Burrow was the outlier, both in his recruitment, and his path to, in all likelihood, going in front of the other two. He first landed on Meyer’s radar the spring before Burrow’s senior year at Athens (Ohio) High. Then-offensive coordinator Tom Herman FaceTimed Meyer from a practice there and told him, “I found your next Alex Smith.” Burrow’s offer list wasn’t the kind that most Ohio State recruits boast, but as the coaches started to dig, Meyer was reminded of a lesson he learned from Kyle Whittingham, a Utah assistant of his.
Whittingham convinced Meyer years earlier to offer a young defensive back who was lightly recruited. At first, Meyer was upset with Whittingham for even recruiting him. But Whittingham told Meyer that he knew the area, and coaches who’d worked against this player said he was the best competitor they’d faced. That player wound up being six-time Pro Bowler Eric Weddle.
Over time, Meyer prioritized that trait. And as he talked to coaches who’d competed against Burrow, they all said the same thing that was once said about Weddle. So Meyer dispatched assistants to Burrow’s basketball games, to see if Burrow would confirm it. Which he did.
“I know what [other schools] missed, and you see a lot of it,” Meyer said. “A lot of these quarterbacks, I call it the spandex quarterback. They’re 8 years old and for the next 10 years all they do is 7-on-7 camps. And they become very good throwers, but a lot of times they miss some of the other parts which, to me, are much more important than being able to throw a football. And that’s leadership, competitiveness, toughness.
“Those are things you learn by playing basketball, by being a multi-sport athlete, by doing other things and competing. Competing is the No. 1 quality of every great athlete or coach.”
Now, the flip side of that? Burrow came in a little raw, and when he got hurt, he fell behind Dwayne Haskins, who was further along as a passer, despite being a year behind him in class rank. "It’s really intriguing that we had them both there, and one was a little bit behind because he was also an all-state basketball player,” Meyer said. And so he went with Haskins, who threw for 50 touchdowns in Meyer’s final year, and had to let Burrow go.
“It crushed us,” Meyer said. “But we kind of knew, and I could’ve done what a lot of coaches do, and not name a starter until August, because it was that close. But Joe and his mom and his dad, they’re just wonderful people. He earned the right. He graduated, he did everything right. Yeah, that broke our heart. We all loved Joe. We still do.”
In the time since, Burrow kept refining his release and strengthening his arm, and the rest is history. “I don’t know if you’ll ever see a season like that again in a quarterback,” Meyer said, “and there’s been a lot of great seasons. Dwayne had one the year before.” And now, Meyer’s uniquely positioned to watch three guys he believes will grow into team captain types as pros go, maybe, 1-2-3.
“It’d be a feeling of great pride we had, first of all, a staff that went out and found those people,” Meyer said. “Jeff and Chase were top 10 recruits. But Joe Burrow was not. He was a guy that did not have some of the big offers. So that goes to show you that our recruiting staff and coaching staff did their jobs and went out and found the best of the best.”
DRAFT BUZZ SEASON
So you’ve come for draft nuggets? Here are 10 for you…
• I’m told the Bengals have maxed out their time with Burrow over the last few weeks, as they work to build a relationship with him. What does that mean? Well, each team is allowed to do three one-hour calls with each prospect per week. So every week, Cincinnati has done, yes, three one-hour calls with Burrow. If you listened to my podcast with Burrow’s trainer, Jordan Palmer, a few weeks back, you heard him say that the training for Burrow has been focused on getting him ready to play in Week 1. The amount of meetings he’s had with the team that’ll likely draft him can’t hurt in that regard either.
• Maybe Washington won’t take Young with the second overall pick. But what I can say is they’ve been aggressive in cross-checking their information on him, and are poised to sit right where they are and take him second overall. Again, the tire-kicking on Tagovailoa made sense for more than one reason. First, you make sure that you’re not passing on, as one person there put it to me, “Michael Jordan.” Second, you might smoke out some offers, so you can better ascertain the value of the pick. My guess would be Young is too sure of a thing for them to pass on, much like his ex-teammate Nick Bosa was last year.
• Word’s been persistent that the Lions want to move the third pick. And it’s not that they don’t like the players there. More so, it’s that they’d like, say, Okudah or Isaiah Simmons at No. 5 or 6 with a few more picks to use down the line. It was pointed out to me that Lions GM Bob Quinn, over 21 NFL seasons, has never been with a team holding a top five pick. So his comfort level with moving down would be understandable, as would his desire to maximize the kind of asset he’s never had.
• We’ve said that Simmons would be great in a Patriots-type of defense, and that makes the run of teams at No. 3, 4 and 5—all of which run New England defenses—a very interesting one. My sense is the Giants are considering him at No. 4 against the offensive tackles, and maybe Louisville’s Mekhi Becton (who has questions about his ability to make weight and his on-field consistency, despite his freakish ability) in particular. GM Dave Gettleman, of course, valued linebackers in Carolina, having paid Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis and drafted Shaq Thompson while he was there. And I know this about Gettleman: As he said after taking Saquon Barkley second overall, he firmly believes you have to get a generational, All-Pro type talent when you’re picking that high. Both Simmons and Becton have that potential.
• Tagovailoa’s situation is fascinating. If the Lions can’t move the third pick, the Dolphins decide to pass on him in favor of Justin Herbert or even, say, Simmons or a tackle (which I think is wholly possible), and the Chargers don’t take him at 6… then what? Interestingly, it feels to me like Chargers GM Tom Telesco’s scouting report is an awfully important one for the Alabama quarterback right now. Few doubt his playing ability. But, as an old coach once said, the most important ability is availability, and the durability that’ll determine that remains a question mark here.
• A player teams like more than the general public knows: Auburn DT Derrick Brown. He’s a very clean prospect with a high floor, and a lot of teams’ decision-makers would be surprised if he makes it past the Panthers at No. 7. I’d put the Jaguars down as another team that’s been connected to him, so much so that Jacksonville may get aggressive in trying to trade down if he’s gone when they pick at No. 9, to be better position to get a receiver or corner.
• So we’ve got Detroit and Jacksonville as trade-down teams. I’d toss the Niners and Raiders in that mix too. The Raiders don’t have a second-rounder. The Niners, thanks to trades for Dee Ford and Emmanuel Sanders, don’t have a second-, a third- or a fourth-rounder. I’ve heard both teams would like to fill in the holes they have between picks there. And while San Francisco has the bigger gap (no picks between 31 and 156), they do have two first-rounders to work with, thanks to the DeForest Buckner trade. I’d say, at this point, it’s more likely that they move the 31st pick than the 13th.
• The Niners could take a left tackle if one falls to them (I’ve heard they’d like to keep Mike McGlinchey on the right side long-term), but count them with the Raiders as teams that could be in play to pull the first receiver off the board. A couple teams mentioned to me that Jon Gruden is looking for, specifically, a ‘Z’ receiver and Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy is the prototype for that (even if CeeDee Lamb’s a little more of the gritty type that Gruden likes). As for the Niners, Kyle Shanahan values speed, and has gotten a lot out of players like Taylor Gabriel and Marquise Goodwin in the past, and Bama’s Henry Ruggs would qualify as a supercharged version of that.
• O.K., so who is looking at trading up? Three teams that seem to be investigating it pretty pointedly: Tampa, Denver and Atlanta. The Bucs and Broncos, I’ve heard, could be going up for one of the top four linemen (Becton, Jedrick Wills, Tristan Wirfs and Andrew Thomas), making Jacksonville’s slot, at No. 9, a potential hotspot, given the needs the Browns and Jets have at 10 and 11. It’s not as clear what the Falcons would be pursuing, though GM Thomas Dimitroff has always, in the past, been more proactive than most in looking at the option of moving up.
• It’s a relationship business, and there are rumblings that Kyler Murray has given the Arizona brass a glowing review of his former teammate Lamb. Would the Cardinals take one, given that they have DeAndre Hopkins, Larry Fitzgerald, and Christian Kirk on their roster, and drafted three of them last year? I’m skeptical, particularly with how nicely a big-time right tackle like Wills would fit the bill. But it’s worth keeping an eye on anyway.
More draft details. So here’s the latest on what the NFL draft will look like, as it comes to you in 10 days. The ESPN/NFL Network simulcast will be helmed from the World Wide Leader’s campus in Bristol. And commissioner Roger Goodell will, indeed, be announcing the picks from a camera set up in the basement of his home in Westchester County, just north of New York City. To make sure all this is efficient, there’ll be a mock draft held among teams, with fake trades and everything, early next week to test the technology. And each team will be connected to the league in multiple ways. Primary among them will be a Microsoft Teams conference, with each team allowed to have up to three officials patched in from their homes. As a backup, there’ll also be a league-wide conference call, through which teams can make picks and trades. And to provide another failsafe, each team will be tasked with designating a “decision-maker” (be that the head coach, GM or owner), and that decision-maker will be allowed to have one IT support professional on hand at their house. Obviously, there are a lot of moving parts here. But I can tell you, after the stories I’ve heard the last few weeks, it’ll probably be necessary. Remember, these teams are trying to move technological resources that are supported by palatial facilities with wired, business-grade internet. You don’t just make that all go at someone’s house by pushing a few buttons.
There is an upshot here. Lots of teams I’ve talked to, after some fits and starts at the beginning, have actually really taken to the current setup, believing they’ve become more efficient in cutting out the clutter that working in an office can create. And obviously, owners are seeing savings, especially those that have routinely flown in and housed scouts from all across the country for the two or three weeks leading into the draft. “I could see this changing everything for us,” one NFC exec said. “It allows you to be more efficient, you’re saving money, and honestly our meetings have been better than ever before. There’s not as much bull----.” And you can count new Panthers coach Matt Rhule (who I wrote extensively about last week) among those who are seeing the benefits. “We were utilizing our Microsoft Teams [on Wednesday], [GM] Marty [Hurney] and myself, the entire offensive staff and some of the auxiliary people, just taking turns going through everyone on our draft board,” Rhule told me. “Everybody does that all across the NFL, obviously we’re doing it from our own houses, our own apartments everywhere. But we’re able to do it, just the same way as we would do it back in the facility. What ends up happening is you just have really focused time, where nobody’s walking in and saying, ‘Hey, Matt, I need to talk to you for a second.’ Or, ‘Hey, Marty, I need to talk to you for a second.’ We’re just all locked in on this computer screen for hours at a time.”
The NFL will miss the XFL. And it’s for more than one reason. Some of the ideas were good, to be sure. I wouldn’t be surprised if the kickoff rule gets adopted by the NFL at some point, and their use of the officials was solid. But as much as anything, NFL teams appreciated how well put-together the rosters were. “The rosters were full of fringe, practice squad type guys that, because of the numbers crunch, teams might’ve just cut,” one AFC exec said. “The quality was consistently what you’d want it to be for that league. Philip [P.J.] Walker’s a perfect example of that. The [AAF] had more guys like Johnny Manziel, [Zach] Mettenberger, the renegade types. The XFL felt more like a true minor league.” That, by the way, is a tribute to the scouts and coaches who put those rosters together, and it should be a sign that we could see a whole lot of those guys land on NFL teams in the fall.
Why was Brandin Cooks dealt again? Because it does seem strange, right? Well, in each case, there was a specific reason. With the Saints, there was friction over how he was being deployed. With the Patriots, his contractual demands would’ve upset the team’s salary structure, given that he was asking for (and eventually got) more than Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman were making. With the Rams, the concussion issue made him a guy that they were actually looking to move, as they sought to reorganize what was becoming a very top-heavy cap situation. And in each case, he went for considerable draft capital, reaping first-round picks for the Saints and Patriots, and a second-rounder for the Rams. But there is something overarching here that can contextualize how a 26-year-old with four 1,000-yard seasons, and a guy that all his coaches generally like, could be moved so many times. For an outside receiver, Cooks is, in fact, a smaller player. And for someone as fast as he is, coaches who’ve gotten him have noticed that he’s pretty stiff, which doesn’t allow for the wiggle that you need to separate in short areas as an inside receiver. So that winds up making him a little one-dimensional—he is very good down the field—and limits him on third down and in the red zone. Does it make him a bad player? No. He’s clearly a good player, even when accounting for the injuries. But is he worth $16 million per year, given those limitations? Probably not. That’s the level the Patriots and Saints balked at paying him. It’s also why the Rams traded him. And it’s pretty notable that the Texans are now getting him with four years and $47 million left on his deal, which puts him under $12 million per year. So really, if you add this up, it’s as much about how the money matches the player as anything.
I think more veteran trades could be coming. And they might be coming during draft week. Some teams that got through free agency with holes still on their rosters are mulling the idea of filling them with veterans. Why? Well, because if the offseason program is eliminated as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, which seems a near certainty now, then it’ll become a tougher ask to expect a rookie to come and fill a void in Year 1, particularly with the new CBA cutting the max number of padded practices in camp from 28 to 16, and mandating three-day weekends in the summer. Additionally, I’ve heard that certain teams are holding on to vets they may have otherwise cut in anticipation of that. One example just might be Andy Dalton. The Bengals have maintained that they want to keep their options open with him. And maybe that’s because they believe a new option could emerge right before, during or after the draft.
Count Drew Brees’s NBC deal a win for all players. And an example that players need to capitalize on their names while they’re still playing. Brees did a deal that’ll eventually position him in one of the premier seats in all of sports broadcasting as the color guy on Sunday Night Football, presuming Big Peacock hangs on to the NFL’s premier regular-season time slot. And part of what made Brees so attractive to both NBC and ESPN is that he is still playing, which both makes his name as relevant as can be and gives him the institutional knowledge that Tony Romo has skillfully used over his first three years in the booth. That gives Brees runway to prepare for the job, and it’ll give him an advantage when he gets there. And if I’m a younger star, and I’m interested in TV, Brees is just one of a number of guys I’d look to as examples of why it’s important to get your feet wet early. Ryan Clark, Brandon Marshall and Greg Olsen are other examples of guys who greatly enhanced their value for a second career by getting the ball rolling while they were still in the midst of their first.
Speaking of second careers, Luke Kuechly’s absolutely got one in football, if he wants it. And my understanding is that both his alma maters—the Panthers and Boston College—have left the door wide open for the seven-time All-Pro linebacker to come back and help out in some capacity (be it as a coach, or in a role less involved). And Kuechly sure sounded like a guy who isn’t done with the game altogether, in what he said to Mike Tirico: "I love the game of football. I love everything about it, I love the studying aspect, I love the team aspect.... I'm gonna miss the interaction—the guys, you know, every day. I know when the season comes around I'm going to have that pit in my stomach knowing that, man, I wish I was still out there, but I think you look at it in the sense that you have a long life to live, what's the best thing for right now? You have to make hard decisions in your life. I think this is one of the harder ones I've had to make. Hopefully I can find a way to stay involved in football somehow."
The booth umpire idea should get a good long look. And I know because it wasn’t endorsed by the competition committee that it probably won’t happen this year. But I hope they get creative, and maybe experiment with it in the preseason. I’ve talked to those who helped craft the proposal that the Ravens and Chargers pushed forward, and I can tell you that a lot of thought went into it, and it’s an idea that, on paper, should work. One, the official won’t have the ability to stop the game, meaning the play clock will govern his interventions into game action (which, in practice, should mean he’s only jumping in on obvious misses by the on-field crew). Two, he’s reporting to the head referee, making him a resource to the crew, rather than an adversary. Three, he’s in the stadium, which makes him more accountable, via the on-field guys, to each coaching staff than someone in New York is. Are there kinks that would need to be worked through? Sure. So experiment with it this year. But to me, this would fix one of the craziest things in pro football—which is that the officials don’t get the benefit of all the different angles of HD footage that someone sitting on their couch at home would. And as for what coaches think of this, last year, before the owners meetings, I polled all 25 of them, via text, on whether or not they’d want a sky judge. Nineteen responded. Fifteen said yes, two said no and two said they wanted more info. So that should explain where they stand.
Jimmy Garoppolo is cemented as the Niners’ quarterback for 2020. And good for George Kittle for having his back. "People talk,” Kittle told Pro Football Talk’s podcast. “There's nothing else to talk about. It's nothing that I took seriously. Jimmy G is my quarterback, and he's one hell of a quarterback. We don't get to the Super Bowl without him. So there's no one that I'd replace him with. What he's done for this team leadership-wise and on the field, he's one of a kind." We went over part of this already—that the interest in Tom Brady was coming more from the quarterback to the team than the other way around. So what would have it taken for the Niners to bite? Honestly, I think, really, it would’ve been someone blowing them away with an offer for Garoppolo. Which really no one had to consider, given the weird supply/demand dynamic at the position (for once, supply outweighed demand) this spring.
Mike Gundy is making all football coaches look dumb. And if I were one, I’d probably be pissed at the Oklahoma State coach for it, because he’s perpetuating a stereotype about them—that they feel like their jobs are far more important than they actually are (given Gundy’s comment about the Oklahoma economy). That said, I have way less of a problem with coaches saying they’re preparing as if it’ll be business as usual in the fall. That, in fact, is what they should be saying, because that’s the message everyone else that works for and around them needs to hear. As we learned during the lockout in 2011, some will handle the disruption better than others. And those that are making the most of the time they have, both now and when we get closer to the season, will be rewarded for it if and when there are games.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1. Full disclosure: I loved the idea of the NBA having players playing HORSE and NBA2K. But I haven’t found time to watch a second of it. Maybe I will. But it hasn’t been appointment TV for me.
2. Was interested to see Adrian Wojnarowski’s report that NBA teams are banding together to try to get the draft pushed back, because of the elimination of parts of the pre-draft process. Surely, I’d think Adam Silver and Co. are keeping a close eye on what’s happening in pro football now.
3. My buddy Doug Lesmerises of Cleveland.com has a great Ohio State podcast that I listen to, and on it he raised this really interesting point: Would the NCAA’s model be exposed if college football went on before students return to campuses? I think I agree with him that it would. If you’re denying these guys benefits that the normal students would get because they’re amateurs, you can’t exactly put those guys in danger that you aren’t putting normal students in, for business reasons. Or, at least, you can’t if you’re concerned about looking like a total hypocrite.
4. And for more on that, check out the HBO doc The Scheme, which lays bare the way college basketball really works. The wiretaps they have on Arizona coach Sean Miller and LSU coach Will Wade are worth the two hours you’ll spend watching alone.
5. I’d keep an eye on what happens with the best draft prospects among the 2020 college football season’s elite players. If fall camp starts on time in August, I think they’ll all play. But if the season is disrupted, or preparation for the season is truncated, you’d think the Trevor Lawrences of the world would probably be doing some risk/reward analysis.
6. It’s been a tough few weeks at SI. And while I don’t want to single out any one person over the next, there’s one name in particular of a person no longer working with us that readers of this column will recognize—and this one hit particularly hard for us in the MMQB family. The first time I met Kalyn Kahler, it was early 2016 in California, and Peter King and Dom Bonvissuto had invited me out to talk about a job. I was still at NFL Network at the time, and over the months to come, I got to know Kalyn a lot better. Over time, I saw a ton of talent, and ambition, and eventually that start to manifest in her coverage of the draft, and a slew of deep investigative stories she pulled off. And I’ll say this about Kalyn: She had what most people think they have, but might not truly possess—and that’s a combination of the drive and desire it takes to do the job at a high level. Where a lot of young people would want you to help get them information for a story, she’d be more interested in how you got it (a quality she shared with another former colleague of ours, Emily Kaplan). That’s why, and I’ve told her this, she got better, and will keep getting better. Anyway, if any employer out there is looking at her, and wants to know more, I’m not hard to find.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
S/o to Washington for this. And s/o to my wonderful wife, Emily, for following her calling into that line of work. I’m very proud that my kids have someone like that to look up to.
Love the sentiment here from Ravens coach John Harbaugh. Great idea by the team.
That’s arguable. But in a week of uniform redesigns, with the Browns’ new duds coming this week, it’s worth appreciating really good ones. And the Raiders have really good ones.
Social media murder, in the first degree. (Though with those “gradient” uniforms, you kind of did it to yourself, Falcons.)
Pretty good comeback, though.
I’m old enough to remember that the creamsicles weren’t as well thought of back when they were actually being worn as they are now (they were sort of part of the joke in how bad the Bucs were back then). So I can understand why they didn’t go back to them, much as I would’ve liked that, based on the memories they might recall for the fan base. And I’ll give this Gruden Era look a solid B. Much better than Atlanta’s. (And to wrap up our uni watch for the week, here’s hoping the Browns go back to what they should’ve been wearing all along, and you all know exactly what that is.)
But if the Masters happens in November, as it’s now scheduled to, then we’ve got a pretty cool weekend coming before Thanksgiving. It’s also interesting, given that Augusta is in the South and CBS has the SEC on TV, that they put it on the SEC’s annual November “bye week” when conference powers schedule non-conference pushovers for glorified walkthroughs.
Congrats to Jameis Winston and his new wife Breion.
The Colts in-house video folks did a great job with this last year, and it’s been good again so far in 2020.
… And this was just really well done.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
You probably heard about Jaguars legend Tony Boselli’s fight with COVID-19. You may not know about his son’s battle.
Florida State center Andrew Boselli, a healthy 22-year-old playing football for a college football blueblood, got the disease from his dad, with a test he took March 21 turning up positive. In a first-person account on the school’s athletic web site, he detailed what it was like.
“A day after my test—an unpleasant process in and of itself—I woke up feeling like I’d been hit by a bus,” Boselli wrote. “I’m thankful to say that my family and I have recovered from our fight with the coronavirus, but I also want everyone to know just how hard it was. I spent days feeling miserable. And my dad, a strong, healthy 47-year-old man with no underlying health conditions, spent three days in the intensive care unit.
“I promise, even if you’re young and healthy, you do not want this virus.”
I’d urge anyone who wants to know more about the disease, or think it’s limited to the sick and elderly, to click through and read about Boselli’s experience. As most of you know, we’re going to have to continue to be very careful for a while.
Stay safe, everyone.
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