Here's a story from Thanksgiving week 2018. Joe Burrow had just started to hit his stride as LSU’s starting quarterback, even if most stopped paying attention after the Tigers were blanked against Alabama earlier in the month. The fourth-year junior was coming off the first 300-yard game of his college football career, and looking back at that sparklingly efficient effort in a 42–10 drubbing of Rice before turning the page to Texas A&M.
And as he and Tigers offensive analyst Jorge Munoz went through the tape, the quarterback blurted something out you may not expect from an entrenched starter at an SEC blueblood.
“So I start talking about winning the job again in spring ball,” Burrow recalls now. “I just didn’t have a lot of fond memories of quarterback battles, or of coaches believing in me. He was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ Well, it’s gonna be an open competition in the spring, right? He’s like, ‘No, it’s not gonna be an open competition. What are you talking about?’ So that was great to hear. It kind of eased my mind a little bit.”
No one knew what was coming next. A national title. A Heisman Trophy. A pre-draft process where this always-doubted gunslinger would go wire-to-wire as presumed No. 1.
And therein lies the dichotomy of Burrow.
Did Burrow—now parked back home in The Plains, just outside Athens, Ohio, waiting for draft day—believe he was capable of all he accomplished after that conversation with Munoz? Unequivocally, yes. Did he think that anyone else would? No, not really.
And yes, he really did believe, on that day 18 months ago, that he’d have to prove himself all over again when the season was over. Because that’s the way it’s always gone for him.
On one hand, he’s the kid (shout out to my buddy Ian Fitzsimmons for relaying this) that, before his first college start, in the face of a pregame fracas, confronted imposing Miami defensive lineman Gerald Willis and sneered, “Come find me. I’ll be wearing 9.” On the other hand, he’s still the guy who didn’t even get picked for the final group at an Elite 11 regional in Columbus in 2014, and told his dad riding home, “I’m gonna remember this.”
So it may seem crazy to you to think that he’d have to fight to win a job he wound up doing better than anyone in college football history last year. But to him, “That’s a product of being underrecruited and sitting on the bench for three years.”
For now, the doubts are done. Burrow is three days away from going first overall in the NFL draft, validation that people at the highest level of the sport do, in fact, believe in him.
But that won’t change who he is.
It’s draft week! And we’ve got plenty coming your way. Inside this week’s MMQB…
• A mock draft … preview.
• More draft rumblings.
• Some trade names percolating.
• What Christian McCaffrey’s contract means.
But we’re starting with the story of the almost-certain first overall pick, how he got here and why it’s become such a big part of who he is.
Last April, Joe Burrow was in Nashville for the draft, a guest of Nick Bosa’s, along with ex-Ohio State teammates Joey Bosa and Sam Hubbard. The younger Bosa was about to go second overall, one spot higher than the older Bosa went in 2016, 14 spots higher than their dad went in 1987 and two rounds ahead of where Hubbard was picked in 2018. And amid the group one night, Bosa’s agent, Brian Ayrault, struck up conversation with the unassuming LSU QB.
The idea that Burrow might wind up being the highest drafted guy there, even in this group of believers, would’ve gotten you laughed out of the room. Ayrault, likewise, saw him as an interesting prospect, based on how LSU’s season had ended. But this kid he’d recruit, and eventually land, as the first pick? “I certainly didn’t see that,” Ayrault concedes.
Hell, even Burrow himself wouldn’t have bought it.
“Absolutely not,” he said Saturday afternoon. “I knew that I was gonna play really well my senior year. And I was going into it thinking I was one of the best guys in the country. But I know what recruiting is, and I know how the draft is. It’s always interesting seeing where people go and seeing who ends up panning out. So I knew I had a chance to be a really good pro. But I didn’t think I could do anything to get myself up to the No. 1 pick in the draft.
“I expected to have the kind of season that I had. But I didn’t expect for it to propel me to the No. 1 pick. I thought I was gonna go third, fourth round.”
And the reason why has everything to do with the path he’s taken to get here, to the precipice of becoming the first pick.
There was the Elite 11 slight. There was the lack of interest from Nebraska, both when Burrow was a high school recruit and a transfer, denying him the chance to follow in the footsteps of his dad and two older brothers as a Cornhusker football player. There was the list of college powers that didn’t offer him as a teenager—Ohio State only did based on a feeling from OC Tom Herman, and word-of-mouth scouting from prep coaches in the state.
Then, there’s what happened after he got to Columbus.
Burrow knew, going to Ohio State, that he’d be in a fight for playing time and that he’d have to develop. But ahead of 2017, he’d hoped there would be a chance to assert himself as the next guy behind fifth-year senior J.T. Barrett, with redshirt freshman Dwayne Haskins as his primary competition—a chance that a couple twists of fate robbed him of.
“I’d never been injured in my life. And I separated my shoulder, I sprained my ankle really bad and then I broke my hand at the end of fall camp,” Burrow said. “And I just kind of took that as a sign that it just wasn’t going to happen for me there.”
As a result, Haskins spent most of the year as the backup, and got into and won the rivalry game against Michigan. Burrow felt his shot slipping through his fingers, and now says, “I knew I was probably going to be playing elsewhere after that season.” Still, he stuck around in the spring, and went toe-to-toe with Haskins—even with the feeling that the fight might not be an even one, and that Urban Meyer and his staff wanted to go with Haskins all along.
When Meyer told Burrow that Haskins was ahead of him coming out of the spring, Burrow knew what he had to do, even if, deep down, he still felt like he could be the better player.
“So that conversation was tough,” Burrow said. “I had to tell him that I was leaving. It was really tough for me because I knew the work I put in. … And I think it was really, really close. I was playing really, really well over the last two weeks of spring ball, and then I had to sit down and really think about what I wanted. And I just wanted to up the probability of being a starting college quarterback, and I felt like leaving was my best opportunity to do that. And the rest is history.”
There was also this—Burrow wouldn’t say it himself, but those around him weren’t so sure he’d even lost the competition that spring to Haskins. Which, real or imagined, made losing out again another slight for the then 21-year-old to file away in his mental Rolodex.
“I know for a fact that a lot of people felt like Joe won the job,” said Joe’s father, Jimmy. “But as a coach, you have to sometimes go with a gut feeling and make decisions that aren’t popular maybe with some parts of the team or the coaching staff, and that’s what they did. You can’t say it was wrong, because of the things that they accomplished after Joe left.”
Haskins threw a school-record 50 touchdown passes in 2018. Burrow threw 60 in 2019.
Jimmy remembers his kid as a fifth- or sixth-grader playing travel basketball. His team was down nine with two minutes to go. The pre-teen then ran off 11 straight points to win the game. “It was just one of those impossible comebacks,” Jimmy said, “and he basically did it himself.”
In that story, you can see what Burrow thinks everyone missed about him, up until now.
“I think people really underestimate the power of just wanting to do it, and hard work, and competitive spirit, and preparation,” Burrow said. “People get enamored with how the ball spins out of his hand, and how hard or how much is on the ball when it comes out, and how fast it gets to the receiver when you throw it. And they really underestimate all the little things that go into it.”
Those little things gave him a way to compete along the way. His first two years at Ohio State, with playing time not in the cards, he worked with assistants Tim Beck and Mike Hartline to overhaul his delivery, and become more fluid and less robotic as a thrower. His third year, with the feeling that Haskins was being groomed to succeed Barrett, and injuries hitting, Burrow got in the weight room to set the foundation to play somewhere else.
And by the time he got to Baton Rouge, he knew how to keep focusing on the details. He was up-and-down to start 2018, and realized that it was because, as a practice quarterback for three years, he’d been conditioned to throw the ball away at the first sign of trouble. So he retaught himself to be the athlete on the field he knew he could be. That paid off, and so did how he took the team by the neck early in 2019, leaving nothing to chance.
The result? Well, when I asked if there was a point during his Heisman campaign when he felt like he couldn’t miss, Burrow didn’t stutter.
“It was really all year,” he said. “We worked really, really hard on it. And I was super happy that it showed up on the field, because sometimes you work that hard on something and it doesn’t show up on the field, and it’s very, very frustrating. But we worked really, really hard in the offseason, not just on the timing of the routes, but extending plays, and off-platform throws, scramble drill, and it really showed on the field.
“And just the whole year, we were so in sync. The receivers knew exactly when the ball was gonna be there, where it was gonna be, and I knew exactly where they were gonna be and when they were gonna be there. It was really a special year with some special guys.”
There was an added bonus, too, in the competitor finding satisfaction. Metaphorically, that 11- or 12-year-old, all grown up, was down big again with the clock running out, and found a way. The only thing that could’ve made it better, as those around him saw it, would’ve been changing the ending just a bit—something we know from the fact that he and his dad, after LSU won its semifinal, retreated to an Atlanta hotel room to root for his old team to get to the final, too.
“There’s personal satisfaction, same thing, him showing people what he was capable of,” Jimmy Burrow said. “And I don’t know if you asked him, but he definitely wanted to play Ohio State. And I think his politically correct answer was, ‘I have a lot of friends on the team and I wanted them to be able experience the championship game also.’ But we all know why he wanted to play Ohio State, right?”
What Burrow has no issue conceding is what everyone knows: His end at Ohio State drove him, just as getting passed over at Elite 11 and getting snubbed Nebraska drove him. And in a way, that’s made the experience he’s had the last three months pretty different.
Everything, most certainly, has changed.
“Yeah, it definitely has,” Burrow said. “In the past, you hear all the things wrong with your game, everything that you need to improve on to get to where you need to get to. And now you hear everyone telling you how good you are. You just have to keep the same mentality of trying to prove yourself every single day. But it’s a lot of easier when you have people telling you how bad you are than when people are telling you how good you are.”
So the same way he used time buried on the depth chart at Ohio State to rework his delivery and hit the weight room; and how he used the knowledge that he was finally entrenched as a starter to gather teammates and set the stage for 2019 at LSU; he’s used the advantage he has now, as the presumptive leader in the 2020 draft clubhouse, to work toward the 2020 NFL season. As opposed to showcasing anything for individual teams.
That started in workouts with Jordan Palmer in Orange County and has continued back in Ohio, where Burrow’s been for over a month amid the coronavirus crisis.
“That’s the privilege of doing what we did [this season at LSU],” he said. “I don’t have to spend all that time just doing stuff that doesn’t translate to the football team.”
In case Burrow needed a reminder on clinging to his roots, it was delivered by the situation that we’re all in. He’s working out where he can around his sleepy, rural hometown, and throws with twin brothers Adam and Ryan Leuhrman, high school teammates of his who went to play tight end at Ohio University, where Jimmy Burrow coached from 2005–18.
And the truth is, based on the kind of competitor he is—the kind who once called out the biggest, baddest dude on the other team before his first college start—that wasn’t really going to be a problem anyway, because it’s become a part of him.
“There’s a commonality in a lot of the great quarterbacks in the league, that they have the chip on their shoulder—from something,” Burrow said. “Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson—I mean, they all have something that got them to have a little chip on their shoulder, that makes you continue to work really, really hard. I mean, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I’d like to say I’d have had the same mindset if I was a five-star. But who knows? It’s tough to tell.”
I then asked if there’s anything he keeps to remind him of the doubts. He answered there’s nothing physical, but, “Don’t worry, it’s all in the back of my head.” So too is the knowledge that the next Joe Burrow could be coming for him, the same way he came for everyone else.
“I know that something I’m always scared of, that old saying, there’s always someone out there that’s getting up earlier and working harder,” he said. “That’s something that I’ve always been kind of fearful of, that someone’s out there working harder than me.”
And after years of battling through the slights and questions, that’s the one piece of doubt he never wants to fight off. Because if that someone finds him, Burrow knows he’ll be in for a heck of a fight.
MOCK DRAFT SNEAK PEEK
Alright, so it’s draft week, which means it’s time to kick the old mock draft machine into overdrive. And in an effort to do that, I’m actually going to give you my full mock separate from this column, on Tuesday.
But today I can offer you a sneak peek at what’s coming tomorrow, with a ton of information wedged in. So we’re going to give you the top 12 picks in Thursday’s draft right here, along with 10 things I’m hearing—plenty of them having to do with the 20 picks after that.
I also have one caveat: No projected trades in today’s mock. Tomorrow, I may have some for you, and I’ll trust you guys will be back then to find out. Deal? OK, let’s go…
1) Cincinnati Bengals: No need to overcomplicate this. The Bengals have spent a lot of time with LSU QB Joe Burrow for reasons other than vetting him. They’re already preparing him to be their quarterback. He’ll officially be that in three days.
2) Washington: Washington’s tire-kicking on the quarterbacks was, as we’ve detailed here the last couple months, an effort to gain great knowledge of the landscape. They want to know what they’d be passing on by sticking with Dwayne Haskins. They also wanted to smoke out any and all trade offers. That said, I had an old associate of Ron Rivera’s tell me at the combine to “mark it down with a Sharpie” that he’d take Ohio State DE Chase Young with the second overall pick. Two months later, what may have been a fait accompli from the start will be done. And Young should supercharge a defensive line group loaded with former first-round picks.
3) Detroit Lions: I do believe there are a couple players the Lions like right here. That said, they’d love to get them at No. 5 or 6, after a trade down. On paper, Ohio State CB Jeff Okudah fills a need and fits the Nuevo Patriot-style of defense their building, in investing from back-to-front. But of late, I’ve heard rumblings that the coaching staff has taken a real liking to Auburn DT Derrick Brown. I’m sticking with Okudah here, for now. But I think Brown is very much a possibility.
4) New York Giants: I think the Giants, like the Lions, would like to get their guy—likely a tackle—a few spots later than this, after a trade down. And, physically, Louisville left tackle Mekhi Becton does match up with GM Dave Gettleman’s history of picking players. But the more I hear about Becton’s uneven play, and his fluctuating weight, the more I think he’s too boom-or-bust to be the first draft pick of a new coach’s tenure. So give me Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs here, a guy who can play right tackle or guard while the Giants figure out if he’d be OK as a left tackle heir to Nate Solder (some believe he can play there, others don’t).
5) Miami Dolphins: There’s been buzz that the Dolphins could pass on a quarterback altogether at No. 5, take an offensive tackle, and maybe take a swing on a Jordan Love later on. For now, I’m resisting the temptation to go all-in on that thought process. Oregon QB Justin Herbert makes sense here, particularly with the persistent whispers from other teams that Miami will not take Tua Tagovailoa.
6) Los Angeles Chargers: Similar to the situation in Miami, rumors are swirling that the Chargers could take a tackle like Becton here. But Chargers GM Tom Telesco is one of the best poker players out there ahead of the draft (he had everyone fooled into thinking he’d pass on Joey Bosa in 2016), and with the roster they have they can’t count on drafting this high again in 2021. So they hold their breath, and hope that Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa can stay healthy enough to become what Bama coaches have told scouts he could be—the left-handed version of ex-Charger Drew Brees
7) Carolina Panthers: If this is the way things fall, I think new coach Matt Rhule would be very pleased, and GM Marty Hurney’s virtual draft card would go in quickly. The pick is Auburn DT Derrick Brown. More than maybe any player in the class, Brown is universally loved—a four-year player who passed on the chance to be a top 15 pick last year, went back to school and somehow improved his stock under a bright spotlight. He’s absolutely the kind of middle-of-the-fairway selection that makes sense for a new coach. And if Brown goes No. 3? That means Okudah slips as a result, and he could be Carolina’s pick.
8) Arizona Cardinals: It’d be fun to put CeeDee Lamb here, with how I’ve heard Kyler Murray has campaigned for his former Oklahoma teammate. But my expectation is the Cardinals will look at their options here, and see a long-term right tackle in Alabama’s Jedrick Wills to bookend with newly-extended left tackle D.J. Humphries. Defensive line would be another possibility here, with word out that they like Brown quite a bit.
9) Jacksonville Jaguars: Another team that loves Brown? Yes, another team that loves, and won’t get, Brown. And this is also the team I’ve heard marked by others as the “Trevor Lawrence Team”—which references how they’re looking at trades involving picks not just for 2020, but 2021. It’s possible that Yannick Ngaukoe could be part of such a deal (maybe as a part of some sort of 2020 pick swap, with a premium pick in 2021 coming back). Leonard Fournette could be too. And this might be a landing spot for a tackle-hungry team like Denver or Tampa. But if we’re keeping them here, even with a good chance they look at the offensive or defensive lines, and we have Clemson LB Isaiah Simmons still on the board, I’m gonna say that they’ll see him as too good to pass on.
10) Cleveland Browns: I know GM Andrew Berry says they’re not locked in at tackle. Those who know him aren’t buying it, especially after he spent a year in an organization, in Philly, that invests so deeply on the lines of scrimmage and has been rewarded for it handsomely. So I think they go tackle. The question is where. Sticking here, Georgia’s Andrew Thomas makes too much sense. But I can say that they’ve aggressively investigated moving down, and might be eyeing a player in the second tier of tackles as part of that.
11) New York Jets: I don’t think Jets GM Joe Douglas is married to the idea of taking a tackle. But I think, ideally, that’s what he’d do. And so here he’ll stop the slide of Louisville’s Mekhi Becton. The risk is there, to be sure. But the reward could be too. And Douglas could see shades of Jason Peters, who he was with in Philly, in Becton’s athletic ability. From there, it’ll be up to Adam Gase and Co. to get that out of him.
12) Las Vegas Raiders: This is a receiver/corner coinflip to me. Knowing Jon Gruden’s desire to find himself a dominant ‘Z’ receiver, I’m going with Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy here, a player I’ve heard compared to Colts legend Marvin Harrison. But I think this easily could be someone like Florida CB C.J. Henderson. And I do think the Raiders will try to trade down at either No. 12 or 19, with an eye perhaps on replacing the second-round pick that went to Chicago as part of the Khalil Mack trade.
And here are 10 more nuggets for you guys to chew on…
• As you can see, we have four tackles in the top 11 picks, and there could be as many as four more going soon after that. Some teams believe USC’s Austin Jackson has a shot to be one of the best in the group, if he can get a little stronger (he lost time during the 2019 offseason after donating bone marrow to his sister). He doesn’t turn 21 until May and could set off a second run on tackles somewhere in the teens.
• While the Lions and Giants have to be hoping someone gets antsy about a quarterback, that tackle spot may be what prompts movement later in the top 10. And maybe later in the first round too. We’ve mentioned Tampa and Denver as possible move-up teams. You could see some similar shuffling later in the round too, because the second tier of Jackson, Boise’s Ezra Cleveland, Houston’s Josh Jones and Georgia’s Isaiah Wilson has really good potential too.
• I mentioned Brown as a player universally loved. Here are two more: Alabama S Xavier McKinney and Oklahoma LB Kenneth Murray. Both guys are exceedingly safe picks, with Pro Bowl-type potential. Nick Saban has been a champion for McKinney in the pre-draft process with teams—he’s very honest with NFL types on his players—and McKinney’s tape is sparkling. And Murray’s been mentioned by a number of teams to me as a guy who should be a captain and have the green-dot on his helmet very early in his pro career.
• The linebacker group is more highly thought of than I figured a couple months ago. Right there with Murray, you’ve got LSU’s Patrick Queen, a smallish, but smart, athletic player who might be a fit with one of the Dolphins’ latter two first-round picks. And Texas Tech’s Jordyn Brooks is another off-ball linebacker who could sneak in the first round. If I was doing the full mock now, I may even give him to New Orleans at 24. The Patriots and Ravens could be in play for linebackers in the 20s, too.
• Lots of moving pieces with the receivers, but I do think we get out of the top 10 without one selected, then have three go in the next 10 picks: Jeudy, Lamb and Alabama’s Henry Ruggs. Ruggs, incidentally, is another player the Bama coaches have raved to teams about, and it’s not because of his otherworldly speed and overall athleticism. More so, it’s his toughness, physicality and team-centered ethos. He could go as early as 13, I believe, where the Niners could use him as a supercharged version of Taylor Gabriel or Marquise Goodwin in Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
• Because the debate’s come up between Okudah and Henderson, and there are teams that like Henderson more—the concern with Okudah is that he was stiff in drills at the combine and didn’t run quite as fast as some expected (projections had him in the 4.3 range, and he posted a time of 4.48). That said, his tape is cleaner than Henderson’s, and he’s far more physical. Henderson had tackling issues and, while he flashed freakish man-to-man ability (“He’s Velcro,” said one AFC exec), he was a tad inconsistent. So with Henderson, to a degree, you’re gambling on being able to clean up his game a little.
• Everyone’s so locked in on the Eagles taking a receiver at 21 that I’m toying with the idea of not giving them one. And maybe sliding Murray in there instead.
• Georgia’s D’Andre Swift should be a very good litmus for how devalued running backs have become, because most teams I’ve talked to believe he’ll be the first back off the board, and it’s not hard to find people who regard him as a first-round talent. My bet would be he goes somewhere early in the second round, which would be more a sign of how the league sees the position than any sort of personal indictment. And while we’re here, an interesting nugget to look ahead with: I talked to one AFC exec who told me he strongly believed that Clemson’s Travis Etienne would’ve been the first back taken this year if he’d declared.
• My sense is the dearth of interior offensive line depth is pushing Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz and LSU’s Lloyd Cushenberry up. I think there’s a very good chance the former goes in the first round, and the latter probably won’t have to wait long after that.
• We’ve given you the Lions, Giants and Jaguars as potential trade down teams—and the Raiders and Niners could deal down too to fill significant gaps they have in picks on Day 2 (although both might be more inclined to deal their second first-rounders than their firsts). Put the Titans and Seahawks, later in the round, on that list of teams that could look to use their first-rounders as vehicles to start accumulating later picks.
HOW WE'LL WATCH THE DRAFT
To me, someone who’s watched the draft since I was in elementary school, the idea of the whole thing looking completely different is fascinating. No matter the changes in the past, since I’ve been watching, whether the broadcast was coming from the Paramount Theater at MSG or Radio City Music Hall or the more grand, city-wide setups of late, the rhythm of the show has always been pretty similar.
You had the anchor desk, the interview location, the stage where the commissioner would announce picks from, war room cams and the rest. And for the first time in a very, very long time all of that’s going to be disrupted. So in order to put this together, I hit up a couple of the guys in charge over the week to get a feel for what it’ll look like. Here are some things I picked up…
• The two broadcasts, one on ABC and the other, an ESPN/NFL Network simulcast, will be broken up as Disney broke them up last year—with the over-the-air show focusing more on players’ journeys and storylines, and the cable show the more traditional draft broadcast, heavy on highlights and analysis. Interesting fact: Under this format last year, the ABC audience was almost 50% female.
• The studio crews will be limited, as you’d expect. Rece Davis, Maria Taylor, Tom Rinaldi and Jesse Palmer will be in Bristol for ABC, and Trey Wingo and Suzy Kolber will be there for ESPN/NFL Network. Analysts will be patched in from their houses. And the normal control room of 20 people will only have seven people inside it for this pretty big undertaking. (There will be a second satellite control room.)
• Fifty-eight players have agreed to have the take-home kits set up from their houses, as have the head coaches and GMs (or GM equivalents) from all 32 teams. I was told that the oversight was going to be necessary all along—to ensure no one was flouting the rules and gaining an unfair advantage. Which made it easy for the league to mandate that the broadcast could show the GMs and coaches doing their jobs (there was some negotiation on guidelines, allowing from when the broadcast can show them).
• In total, there will be over 170 feeds, which will make the show quite the juggling act. And for those in charge, part of the challenge will be replacing the energy that crowds have traditionally given the broadcast. One way to do that is through pacing. As such, you can expect a show that, when the focus is on the football stuff, moves pretty fast.
• Some of it will look very familiar. The plan is to have Wingo and Davis throw to the commissioner for picks, and for Roger Goodell to announce each of them from his basement in Westchester County.
• Some of it will look different. The plan is to open the show with a tone-setting message to honor all those in the crosshairs of COVID-19—from first responders to medical workers all the way to grocery store clerks and restaurant workers. And there’ll be stories from players, coaches and legends who’ve been touched by the coronavirus woven into the broadcast, too.
• ESPN execs are mandating that all off-the-air personnel wear masks during the broadcast, which should make the communication challenge, from the sets to the two control rooms to all the different coach/GM/player locations in the field, a little tougher. But obviously, that’s all being done for the right reasons.
• The league, for its part, is trying to emphasize two things, as it works to strike the right tone for the broadcast. First, it’s making sure that it’s clear that the NFL understands its place in the world (which can sometimes be lost in the hysteria of an event like the draft). Second, it’s using the platform it has, and this giant megaphone the draft gives it over three days in April, to deliver a larger message. We’ll see how they do.
And then, there’s another option you’ll all have, which I think will be a fun one. My old buddy Rich Eisen will be hosting what’s being dubbed the “Draft-A-Thon” to raise money for six key charities connected to COVID-19 relief.
Eisen should give the show (which will stream on YouTube, Twitter, Twitch and Reddit) a good level of experience in balancing a real-life crisis with the levity of sports. He’s been hosting his daily national radio show the last few weeks, of course. But he has plenty of other experiences to draw on, including the time he shared ESPN’s SportsCenter anchor desk with the late Stuart Scott on Sept. 12, 2001.
“I can just remember talking with Stuart, wondering, ‘Why are we even doing this?’” Eisen said on Sunday afternoon. “I had a place at the time on the Upper West Side, and I drove down the next day, and I’m walking around my building, and people are stopping me and saying, ‘Thank you for doing the show last night. That’s the first time I’ve felt normal.’ … You realize there’s a balance to be struck there. People appreciate the break.”
Obviously, Eisen hopes the show he’ll lead will strike that same balance, so the pandemic and the fundraising effort will be a big part of the proceedings. But he also knows people will be coming to him and his crew (Deion Sanders will be part of the show on Thursday) for football, and so they’ll give the people football.
Eisen’s bringing booking firepower from his show and NFL Network over to arrange a slate of celebrities, players and influencers to talk draft, and they’ll creatively work through the show. One idea is to have celebrities on as the teams they root for are on the clock. Comedian Kevin Hart is slated to be on first, and they’ll work from there, with Mark Teitelman (who produces the combine for NFL Network) running thing behind the scenes.
You also might get to see Eisen’s kids, since he’s told them they can swing by the at-home setup when certain big names are patched in. And yeah, for a guy who’s been at the anchor desk for 17 drafts, this will be different. But this, of course, is a different year.
“It’s very exciting to be at the forefront of such an important draft and the fundraising effort.” Eisen said. “It’s such an important venture for the NFL. There’s a part of this world that needs a respite from reality. And we can create that boost of energy to bring awareness where it needs to be boosted. We needed people to understand the elderly are going hungry, that the Salvation Army needs help. So we’ll try and place the draft within the reality of the world, while giving everyone the break they need.”
The veteran market will be worth watching over the coming days. We covered part of this in discussing Jacksonville, and the availability of Fournette and Ngaokoe, and we’ve discussed it the last few weeks—the veteran trade market bears watching. There’s a belief out there that some teams have held back veterans, anticipating that teams will be looking to fill needs with more experienced hands, given the potential difficulty in getting rookies ready to contribute right away with the likelihood the entire offseason program will be wiped out. Ex-Bears TE Trey Burton, finally cut this past week, was one such player. Bengals QB Andy Dalton was another we raised last week. Niners RB Tevin Coleman and Colts DB Quincy Wilson are two more who came across my desk this week. And if guys like these can’t be moved? It’s possible that a few guys like that get cut before teams start their virtual offseason programs next week.
Fournette’s market, or lack thereof, will be fascinating. The feeling going into the 2017 draft was that the ex-LSU star was the old-school option in a starry tailback class that had Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara and Joe Mixon in its ranks. And three years later, he looks borderline outdated. The truth is, the prototype in the NFL has changed, and, as a result, Fournette would’ve needed to be Adrian Peterson to justify going fourth overall in this day and age. A big piece of the value of fellow top-five picks Saquon Barkley and Zeke Elliott was what they brought to the table in the passing game, and Todd Gurley developed quickly in that area after going 10th overall in 2015. Fournette, to his credit, has worked to get better in that area and had 76 catches last year for Jacksonville. But he’s never been the natural player in that phase that others are, and it makes the Jags’ decision to take him as high as they did more questionable as the years have gone by, even if it did fit with how Tom Coughlin wanted to build the team. And there’s probably a lesson there that teams will take going forward. Or at least one for the teams that haven’t already learned it.
The rest of the running backs from that class become interesting, too, in the wake of McCaffrey’s deal. And I understand, completely, why the Panthers did it, giving their star 24-year-old a four-year, $64 million extension, with almost 60% of the new money functionally guaranteed. He’s more than a tailback. He’s a modern-day Marshall Faulk who averages more than 100 catches a year. He also was a good candidate—as a player, a worker and a teammate—to get the first outsized payday of the Matt Rhule era, in the message it would send to the rest of the locker room. But is there a chance Carolina will have regrets like the ones the Rams wound up having on Gurley? Of course. What may be even more interesting is what this means for guys like Kamara, Cook and Mixon, who’ve become centerpieces for their offenses. Those three are now headed into contract years. And they may not have quite the record of production that McCaffrey has. But it’s close enough to where they’ll look at his deal, and probably feel OK asking for a lot.
Could the Colts take a quarterback? Maybe. But if I were you, I’d trust what GM Chris Ballard is saying here: “You can’t force the quarterback position. … It’s got to be the right guy, the right fit,” he told the local media last week. “I don’t know when that’s going to happen. Maybe this year, maybe next year, maybe two years from now.” I personally feel like he and the team are of a mind to wait, which would explain why they were comfortable trading away the 13th overall pick. Next year’s class should have at least a couple blue-chip quarterback prospects. But the beauty of the spot Indy’s in now is they could take a swing on, say, Washington’s Jacob Eason on Friday with one of their three picks, and it wouldn’t really affect their ability to be aggressive in 2021 or any year past this one. If you take a quarterback in the first round, you’re pretty much locked into that guy as a coach or GM (Arizona’s Josh Rosen pick notwithstanding). If you spend a 2 or a 3 on one, that’s not the case. And there are tons of examples of that, Carolina taking Jimmy Clausen in the second round the year before they took Cam Newton first overall being one. Speaking of…
One of the windows for Cam Newton should open next week. At that point, we’ll know whether Justin Herbert’s a Dolphin, Tua Tagovailoa’s a Charger, and lots of other depth charts will be added to (or not added to) at quarterback. And that’ll leave teams that either didn’t get the guy they wanted, or were playing coy for strategic purposes, with less of a reason to stay away from Newton. So, say, the Chargers take a tackle at 6? Then, it might make more sense for them to make a play for the ex-Panthers quarterback. To be clear, I’m not saying Newton’s going to sign somewhere next week. I am saying one hurdle will be out of the way. Of course, the other hurdle—the one that doesn’t allow team doctors to get a closer look at Newton’s left foot and right shoulder—remains.
I’d keep a very close eye on the Jamal Adams’ situation. There’s no questioning his game-wrecking value to the Jets defense. How he fits into the program is another question. Word last fall was that while he was annoyed with his name being connected to trade rumors, he warmed considerably to the idea of going home to Dallas. Obviously, it didn’t happen. But that sort of thing can lead a player to think a little differently about his future. And at the time, a couple execs floated the idea that he could wind up being the 2020 version of Jalen Ramsey if the Jets didn’t reward him with a deal that reset the safety market. Ramsey, you’ll remember, showed up to training camp in a Brink’s truck, got in a verbal altercation on the sideline with Doug Marrone in Week 2, then went on the shelf with a back injury before being traded in mid-October. We’ll see what measures Adams takes to make his point.
The Joe Thuney situation opens a window into the Patriots’ financial situation. And this is an interesting one because this isn’t an off-the-reservation type of guy—he’s been as good a practice player and program guy as he is on the game field, and on the game field he was an All-Pro last year. Thing is, Thuney has a boatload of leverage right now. He’s signed at $14.78 million for this year. Two tags would cost the Patriots at least $32.52 million, which means the team would likely have to give him a deal north of $16 million per year to make it worth it for him to sign long-term. That’d make him the highest paid guard in league history. It would also put him more than $3 million clear of what any other player not named Tom Brady has made in New England. How would that be received by, say, Stephon Gilmore? And how would it affect the Patriots’ ability to ask others to take less in the future? These are all things to consider, and things that will certainly be considered if trade calls come in.
I think Garrett Bolles is on the way out in Denver. We’ve mentioned the last two weeks that the Broncos could be looking at trading up—and that it might be for a lineman, even though they’d like to address their receiver need as well. And a big part of that, again, is the likelihood that the team could move on from 2017 first-round pick Garrett Bolles, who started 48 straight games for Denver at left tackle. Bolles, who turns 28 in May, has fought through issues with penalties, and hasn’t lived up to expectations over three seasons, and it probably doesn’t help that he was drafted three offensive coordinators ago. It’s possible he becomes a reclamation project for one on the seemingly endless list of teams that go into this week’s draft looking for offensive line help.
This will be an important time for young quarterbacks. Teams with new coaches get started today with their offseason programs, and most of the other 27 with incumbent coaches will get going next Monday. And in there, there’s really good opportunity for young quarterbacks to move forward as leaders, and so I figured I’d pass along this story from a podcast I did a couple weeks back with Jordan Palmer. Palmer told me that he relayed to Bills QB Josh Allen and Jets QB Sam Darnold how he used the 2011 lockout as an opportunity—and encouraged them to do the same. That offseason, Palmer’s older brother Carson had retired (temporarily), but Jordan remained on the Bengals roster and Andy Dalton wouldn’t be drafted until late April. So he made a point of reaching out to teammates, even the defensive ones, to set up workouts and discuss ways to make up for all the time lost, and he found the bonds he built (even though he didn’t wind up starting that fall) were strong. And he thought that helped everyone once things got back to normal that summer. So Darnold and Allen got to work on that, and it’ll be interesting to see how that might help once teams are back in their facilities and we know what’s to become of the 2020 season.
And as coaches try to make the most of the time they’ll get with players in the weeks ahead, I thought Sean McVay’s perspective on what he wants to get out of it was interesting. “No. 1, it’s the perspective this creates for the blessings that we have,” he told me. “And then it’s let’s maximize the things that we can control and be as prepared above the neck as possible. And then based on whatever the resources are that each guy has at his disposal, let’s trust that we can be responsible for being in great physical condition, and come back as close to ready to roll as possible in some pretty rare circumstances. It’s maximizing the moment.” One thing to pull out that he hit on there: The trust coaches will have to have in players to do all they can to be in the best shape possible. In that way, the character and makeup of each team’s roster will be tested.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1) I’m filing this just before The Last Dance starts, and here’s my hope—That the show reflects why a lunatic of a competitor that Michael Jordan was. Few athletes are like that anymore. Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant were. Tom Brady is. I kind of get the feeling Burrow could be too, for what it’s worth. And I just think it’s such a big part of making Jordan who he was, it’d be a disservice if the doc didn’t reflect that. So we’ll see how it goes.
2) Credit should be given to Rich Paul of Klutch Sports—the agent for LeBron James and a host of other NBA stars. Per The New York Times’ Marc Stein, about half of the fewer than 20 basketball players who exercised an option to accelerate their pay schedule are repped by Paul, and those guys stand to sidestep the league’s plan to withhold pay from players as a result. You often hear NFL agents talk about getting money in a contract to their clients as quickly as possible, and unforeseen circumstances arising is one reason why. So credit the oft-criticized Paul for helping his players with a pretty savvy set of decisions.
3) The delay of baseball in Japan and basketball in China can’t be a great sign for where we’re going with American sports over the next few months. But golf should be a good bellwether in June, since it’s about as easy a sport to follow distancing guidelines as any.
4) Golf, by the way, is planning to re-open on the weekend of June 11–14, for the Charles Schwab Challenge in Texas.
5) I heard my buddy Tony Massarotti say this on the radio this week—and he’s right—that baseball players have to be careful with negotiations on their pay for whatever becomes of this season. MLB is way more reliant on the gate revenue than other sports and, thus, stands to lose more if games are played without fans. Add to that the tenuous place the sport holds in this country, and the damage another lost season could do in that regard, and I think everyone involved has to tread carefully in what’s a challenging situation for all.
6) It’s worth paying attention to Jalen Green, the top high-school basketball recruit in the country, spurning Memphis and Auburn to enter the NBA’s G League pathway. With so much uncertainty over whether college basketball will be played in 2020-21, more could follow suit. And if guys are successful with it, we may see the kinds of kids who have been the college one-and-dones choosing to skip school all together.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
That mental Rolodex of Burrow’s? Brady has one too. And by the looks of this, there’s no expiration date on it. (Which I love, because there’s nothing I respect more than a grudge held.)
Tweet of the century by Perloff, and I told him that. If I were him, I may have just stopped tweeting after that, the same way I used to “retire” from certain video games after beating someone badly in one.
I knew New York Post photographer Anthony Causi in passing, but I know a lot of people that I’m close with held him in the highest regard. And it’s been nice to see all the tributes in the wake of such a horrible tragedy.
Not bad, Geoff.
One of the good things about this horrible situation is how it can bring people together. And this is one example that I didn’t expect. Good for Tom, and good for Roger.
Sixty-five yards seems to be an estimate.
Big Cat’s create-a-coach made me miss NCAA Football all over again (the discontinuation of that game is when I stopped playing video games completely, and I’m not even kidding).
0 This is how new uniforms should be done. (The Patriots and Chargers, by the way, are unveiling theirs over the next two days. Buckle up.
While we’re on the Browns, here’s a nice look at how they went about making their whole football operation remote last month.
Credit to Von Miller, and others who’ve gone public on this. Any little thing to make others take it more seriously is a good step taken in my book.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
We’re about to have a blitz of NFL news for the next week. And after that?I wish I could tell you what it’ll be like. My best guess it that we’ll be figuring it out as we go along—and I do appreciate, in advance, all of you that come along for that ride with us.Because I know if you guys are still with me at this point of the column, you’re a pretty loyal audience for us.
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