That’s the amount of time Zac Taylor has spent in person with the guy he just staked his professional livelihood to. And that it’s just 18 minutes is pretty remarkable, given all the connections these guys have.
Taylor’s a former Nebraska football player, as are Joe Burrow’s dad, Jimmy, and brothers, Jamie and Dan—Taylor having landed in the program the semester (spring 2005) after Dan finished up (fall 2004). Taylor also remembers crossing paths with Jimmy when the two were recruiting at Colerain High in Cincinnati, Taylor for the University of Cincinnati and Burrow for Ohio University in 2016. And Taylor hadn’t been gone from UC long when he first heard about the third brother landing on the Bearcats’ radar in the spring of 2018.
“I still followed the program, I like [coach] Luke Fickell and I remember seeing—I must’ve been in L.A.—they were about to get this transfer quarterback from Ohio State, Joe Burrow,” Taylor said Sunday, from his house in the Cincinnati suburbs, with a laugh. “And then, ultimately, he decided to go to LSU. I think that was the first time that I ever saw his name.”
A lot has changed since then, but the amount of time Taylor and Burrow have been together hasn’t, outside of those 18 minutes at the combine in February.
This was a different draft for everyone, one that blew everyone’s best laid plans to smithereens amid a global pandemic. As the NFL charged forward toward the last week’s festivities, every team, every coach and every GM had to adjust and change what, for some teams, was a decades-old formula of vetting prospects.
And no one faced more pressure in doing that than the Bengals, Dolphins and Chargers, three teams with clear quarterback needs, picking in the top six, considering investments that will likely lead either to eventual title contention or eventual firings. Playing that zero-sum game is always high-stakes, of course, and no one’s going to give those brain trusts mulligans in three or four years if Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert don’t work out.
Yet, the guys making those decisions for the Bengals were able to find some peace the day after the draft, and it was mostly in the knowledge that—despite their time together with the guy they just married their football futures to being so limited—they didn’t feel like, in the final analysis, they missed much of what they’d have gotten in a regular year.
“I think at the end of the day, we didn’t lose much,” said Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin. “We were able to communicate with him remotely, dive into the football stuff. And that was not a one-day or a two-day event. It was over the course of a lot of days. At the end of the process, through every bit of process, we had all the information we needed. So ultimately, not a lot was lost.”
“The only thing we missed was watching him throw live and ultimately that's, for a lot of guys, 45–65 throws,” Taylor added. “That’s really not going to make the difference with the No. 1 pick. We’ve watched all the tape. If you’re going to say a good or bad pro day is going to influence your decision on the No. 1 pick, I mean, that would be a big decision to make. So we felt very comfortable.”
And so, away the Bengals and Burrow go.
The draft’s in the books, and we’ve got a loaded, quarterback-centric column for you today. Here’s what’s in the mix…
• How the Dolphins fooled the league in landing Tua.
• How the Chargers came to a comfort level with Herbert’s personality.
• How the Packers’ previous quarterback transition informed this one.
• The crazy trade that brought Joe Staley to the NFL, and the one that ushered him out.
Plus we’ve got a bunch of leftovers from draft weekend, and we’ll be sprinkling more in my columns through the coming days, too. But we’re starting right off the top with the first overall pick.
The funny thing about those 18 minutes: Neither Burrow, nor Taylor, nor Tobin knew then that would be all that they’d get with each other, so the meeting hardly seemed like the most important thing in the world at the time. Taylor had his first talk with Burrow the week before, just to introduce himself and ask about Burrow’s pre-draft plans, and then they sat down in Indy for the first of what they figured would be a series of summits.
Burrow made an impression. But, again, that was just going to be the start.
“There can be a lot of pressure in that situation—’O.K., we’ve been reading about this for weeks, now here’s the moment,’” Taylor said. “But he was just very confident in himself, not cocky in any way, shape or form. You're sitting in there with the head coach, the general manager, the owner and it didn't faze him. He was very confident and comfortable, and it was an easy conversation. That was really your first physical impression of the guy.”
The plan, by then, was pretty detailed and included bringing a massive contingent to Baton Rouge for Burrow’s April 3 pro day. The team was arranging for a dinner reservation for 13—a dozen Bengals officials and Burrow—for April 2, and those there specifically to vet the quarterback (some would be working on other positions) were to arrive in town on April 2.
In that group was Taylor, OC Brian Callahan, QBs coach Dan Pitcher, quality control coach/ex-LSU quarterback Brad Kragthorpe (who’d been an LSU assistant in Burrow’s first year there), Tobin and college scouting director Mike Potts. They’d slotted time to spend the entire afternoon of the 2nd with him, ahead of that dinner, and then would go to watch his pro day on the 3rd. And this was after all the work of the fall and early winter.
Tobin and Potts had each done school calls at LSU during the season, complete with visits to the Tigers’ practices during those trips, and saw three of his games live (Tobin did one and Potts two), which gave them the shot to see how he interacted with coaches and teammates on the sideline, and commanded the team on the field.
“The thing that stuck out was the way everyone in the building talked about him,” Tobin said. “Sometimes, you can tell how people feel, not by words, by how they’re saying it. And when everyone in the building talks a certain way about a kid, it perks you up. Being on campus, talking to everyone—trainers, strength coaches, position coaches, academic folks—you’d keep hearing the same message, in the same inflection, and that really registers with me.”
Combine that with the greatest season in college football history, and Tobin didn’t need a ton of convincing. By the time Cincinnati locked up the No. 1 pick, with a loss in Miami three days before Christmas, he had his leader for the selection and it was the quarterback who elicited that unanimous response.
And the coaches wouldn’t be far behind. As soon as the season ended, the Bengals accepted an invitation to coach at the Senior Bowl, and Taylor gave his staff a project—they’d get very aggressive with their film work in an effort to learn the guys they’d coach in Mobile. He was particularly intensive with Callahan, Pitcher and then QBs coach Alex Van Pelt. Taylor asked each to watch all of the tape from Burrow, Herbert, Tagovailoa and Jordan Love from 2019.
When that was over, even as Van Pelt wound up leaving for Cleveland, Taylor, Callahan and Pitcher didn’t find much disagreement in what they’d watched.
“There were a lot of things we were comfortable with—He's a great player, if this is the way it works out, he would be a good pick,” Taylor said. “I don't think we forced ourselves to make a decision at that point, there was so much work to be done. We didn't really think of it that way. It was more of O.K., this guy’s really exciting, you can certainly see him being the No. 1 pick.”
At that point, Burrow, Herbert, Tagovailoa and Ohio State pass-rusher Chase Young were in the running for the pick. They re-watched tape on the guys after Mobile, by the drive up for the week in Indy, and came back. Then, everything changed.
By the time the national shutdown started—and Ohio was hit early on—because of Taylor’s January strategy, the Bengals were playing from ahead, and Taylor himself had watched enough Burrow tape to make his eyes bleed purple and gold.
Because LSU had a historic class, with a record-tying 14 players drafted over the weekend, Taylor wound up watching the No. 1 pick-to-be from just about every angle, and would notice something new every time, be it while he was studying Tigers prospects Justin Jefferson, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Saahdiq Charles or Lloyd Cushenberry, or even rival defenders like Xavier McKinney or Isaiah Simmons.
“It was funny in that way to watch so much tape of the same plays,” Taylor said. “You're just looking at so many different things that happened because there are so many great players on the field oftentimes.”
Which is to say that by the time league shut down the pro day circuit and circulated the new rules—limiting meetings between teams and players to video conference, one hour per session, three times per week—the Bengals were already very far along in the process. The one thing they lacked at that point was face time with the prospect they were considering at the top of the draft.
So they had to make up for that, and with Burrow, even if wasn’t 100% necessary at that point, they absolutely did, by hatching the plan to max out their time with the quarterback. What they lost in in-person contact, and being able to read Burrow’s body language and see him work out physically, they made up in time virtually. “We’ve got it,” Taylor said, “so why not use it?”
It started with LSU tape, and a litany of questions associated with what was being projected on to the Zoom screen. What’s the protection here? Talk us through your work on football. Explain this concept. What was your thought process on this one? And it slowly started to push from one set of stripes to another, with Bengals tape gradually replacing Tigers tape.
Meanwhile, as they worked through the pre-draft process with Burrow’s LSU teammates, they continued to gather information on their next quarterback. There, they heard stories of how competitive practices would get last fall because Burrow set that tone, and how he’d keep the team together and harness that energy when things got heated. Mostly, though, Taylor noticed this: They loved him.
“You could just tell he had a way of just fitting in with everybody,” Taylor said. “Sometimes you have quarterbacks who are just friends with the tight end, who maybe had the same background as them. And that’s their buddy and they don’t really spend as much time with somebody on the other side of the ball. And this guy was clearly somebody who fits in with every position group on the team, and that's important.”
Along the way, the Bengals’ decision went from pretty obvious—remember, Tobin had an inkling it was going this way on Dec. 22—to overwhelmingly obvious.
And that’s why, two weeks into the Zoom meeting process, just before April 1, Taylor and Tobin went into a meeting with owner Mike Brown, his daughter and EVP Katie Blackburn, and son-in-law and VP Troy Blackburn, with the intention of nailing down what had been written in the stars for a couple months.
“Everybody got to speak,” said Tobin. “Everybody was on the same page. It was universal agreement in that meeting. No doubters. No detractors. It was basically, This is the guy that this whole group sees as No. 1. We think it’s clear. Here are the reasons.”
“It was basically, We’re all comfortable with this, this is where we’re going, let’s move forward,” Taylor added.
The Bengals didn’t tell Burrow. They wanted to give him the experience of getting that news during draft week. But as Taylor, Callahan and Pitcher started to shift the tape study more toward what Cincinnati was doing, they figured the quarterback would add it up. Taylor hesitates to call what they were doing “installing” the offense with Burrow, but that phrasing may not be too far off.
“We never out right told him, Hey you're the No, 1 pick,” Taylor said. “It was possible the way I phrased a lot of things, where he's a smart guy, he can put two and two together. There was never a moment where we said Hey, Joe we're picking you at No. 1, congratulations. That never happened until the actual phone call on draft night. But again, he's a smart guy and I think he was probably able to piece together some things I said.”
They knew Burrow was taking notes, and they knew his recall was great, from their work through the process. So piece by piece, they gave him information that would allow him to hit the ground running as soon as they made it official on April 23.
And there was one Burrow confidant they kept talking to—because he was on their roster. That would be third-year DE Sam Hubbard, a roommate of Burrow’s at Ohio State, who told the coaches and scouts that Burrow would outwork everyone in the building, would be all-in and, most of all, would fit the culture Taylor and Co. are trying to build.
“He's arguably the hardest worker on the team,” Taylor said of Hubbard. “He's just a guy that’s just such a face for what we’re trying to accomplish here, the way he goes about his business. When you ask his opinion of somebody, you take it to the bank. And you can just tell that Joe was somebody he had a ton of respect for.”
By then, the Bengals’ brass shared the assessment, which was why it was so easy to put the final steps of the process into motion. Last week, Brown sent Burrow a letter congratulating him. And, finally, on Thursday night, Taylor made the phone call to cap a unique process, one that was unique for more than one reason.
“The cool thing is it never changed,” Tobin said. “It never flopped. It never wavered.”
And as for the next time they actually get to sit down and meet with their new franchise quarterback in person, well, that’ll be the second time.
HOW MIAMI FOOLED US
Here comes my mea culpa—I was fooled. I didn’t think the Dolphins were taking Tagovailoa at No. 5. It sounded to me, from talking to people that know that team and the people that run it well, that Miami was going to play it safe, and that Tua didn’t fit the prototype the coaching staff wanted. The more people I talked to, the more cemented that idea became in my head.
You know the rest. Yup, they took him.
And I made sure to tell Miami GM Chris Grier when we talked on Sunday that he got me, and a lot of NFL people too, who thought he was either taking Herbert or an offensive tackle—which, of course, was all part of the game. As it turned out, per Grier, going into Thursday, only a handful of people knew what the plan was, and that plan had been in place, believe it or not, for less than a week.
Just days before the draft, the team had its final medical meeting, and that was actually when the doctors gave the football people the final go-ahead to take Tagovailoa. Part of it? Part was something that ex-NFL quarterback Brady Quinn brought up on my podcast last week—that Tagovailoa’s hip injury was a freak thing, and the two ankle surgeries he had, to fix high ankle sprains were basically elective procedures aimed at coming back quicker.
“Yeah, we’re very comfortable,” Grier told me. “Really, it’s nothing different. We all know in this game, people get hurt. He's had some injuries that people talk about, but the part that people miss is a couple of the surgeries he had, he was doing it to rush back sooner, to be with his teammates and play. Some people may have elected not to do it, and kind of ride it out. He handled adversity well and showed his mental toughness, and his work ethic to come back from those things.
“Our doctors and trainers did an outstanding job, like they do on every player. With him specifically, they did nothing above and beyond of the same thing they do. They checked all the boxes and made sure we were all comfortable and feeling good about it. Brian [Flores], myself, ownership, we were very comfortable with it.”
So ended what’s been an arduous process for the Dolphins, a 16-month buildup that’s gone from stripping the roster down, to building assets up, to hitting the road to vet all the top prospects, to, finally, coming up with a strategy for drafting one, which included the subterfuge described above. Grier saw Alabama, LSU and Oregon live in the fall, and watched as his team improved and his draft position fell.
Throughout, the connection between the Dolphins and Tagovailoa persisted, which may have served as one reason why keeping intentions under wraps was so important.
But there was enough done publicly for everyone to see a little something. Owner Steve Ross accompanied Grier to the LSU-Alabama game in November, and team president Tom Garfinkel joined those two at Bama’s bowl game in Tampa, a game Tagovailoa attended but didn’t play in, thanks to a hip injury. (The Tide was playing Ross’s alma mater, Michigan, which gave him another reason to attend.)
Over time, Grier saw what he needed to see, and one coach who knows Flores well noticed how over the year he was becoming more “of an RPO guy”—something that was proven out with the move from the Patriots-rooted Chad O’Shea to new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, who brings a ton of college background. The thinking, at the time of Gailey’s hiring, was that a simpler offense would be better for a young quarterback.
Now, it’s impossible to ignore that he’s there for a quarterback who ran the RPO game better than anyone in college football the last two years.
Nor is it hard to put together what Grier gathered on his recon mission, with the sort of powerful leaders that Flores wants for his locker room.
“It’s how he carried himself,” Grier said. “And how everyone talked about him. Our guys did a lot of work on him, going back to high school. We felt like he had a lot of intangibles that we like, that you look for in leaders of programs. We would spend time talking to some of the other Alabama players, and they just raved about him as a person.
“And again, at the end of the day, it’s a challenge that’s going to determine if he's good enough to be your franchise quarterback. But a lot of other intangibles are there, and that's what got us excited.”
All of that led to Thursday around 9 p.m. ET, when Grier told a scouting coordinator of his to call the pick into the league. Less than a minute later, the email popped up on his screen to confirm the pick: Tua Tagovailoa, QB Alabama. By then, there was no more need to even swallow hard.
He’d explored trading up. He’d done his homework on the teams drafting ahead of him. He had a plan if there was action at No. 2, 3 or 4. But really, it was simple at that point: “If Tua was there, we were going to take him,” he explained. And thanks in part to people like me, who were thrown off, that’s just the way it happened, with Grier fairly calm about it throughout.
“You've done so much work on everything, so you feel good about everything,” Grier said. “It's weird. It was a sense of calmness. We've done all our work, we felt good about our process, so we identified Tua as a guy that we wanted to take. When he was there, we felt very good about it. There was no apprehension or nervousness, we're very excited to get a player we targeted at this spot. Yeah, it's a key position. Everyone understands you got to have one to win in this league, and we felt good about Tua.
“There's no nervousness or anything. We just thought he was the right guy.”
And it took no lack of work to get to that conclusion.
HOW L.A. SETTLED ON HERBERT
As part of this weird new world, the Chargers would give their quarterback interview subjects assignments to work through ahead of their Zoom meetings. They’d have a couple formations, a half-dozen pass patterns, some motions and a bunch of jargon to learn. In all, it was three-and-a-half pages, and a pretty boilerplate pre-draft exercise, even if it would come in a different form in any other year.
About three weeks ago, Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert went into his summit with the Chargers’ coaches confident that he had the work down. And then, a formation popped on the screen and a coach asked, “What if we line up in this?” Herbert responded, “I didn’t see that in there.” It was his only miss in the hour-long meeting, and at the end, he told the coaches to hold on, and grabbed the handout. It was in there, and Herbert got angry with himself.
I can’t believe I missed that.
“It wasn’t a big deal, but it was to him. He brought it up twice,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said late Saturday afternoon. “And it was something we’d forgotten about. So we know he’s a very bright young man, and he’s accountable. It’s the way he’s wired.”
The Chargers didn’t take Herbert with the sixth overall pick—and position him as the long-term successor to Philip Rivers—because he took ownership of an oversight in an internet meeting some night earlier this month. But that moment sure didn’t hurt, particularly when the biggest questions on this 22-year-old born and raised in his college town of Eugene, Ore., are centered on his personality, and whether he’s sheltered and introverted or not.
A lot of the rest, as Lynn and the Chargers saw it, was there.
So getting to know Herbert was important, and the team did everything it could to get there with him. It involved GM Tom Telesco, cross-check scout Justin Sheridan, college scouting director Kevin Kelly and West Coast area scout Chris Hobbs, as well as Lynn, offensive coordinator Shane Steichen and senior coaching assistant Rip Scherer. And it went plenty deep.
Telesco saw Herbert twice live in 2019—against USC and in the Rose Bowl—which gave him a full appreciation for the quarterback’s size and how he interacts with coaches and teammates. He also did recon going all the way back to Herbert’s teenage years, when Telesco’s close friend Brian Polian was Nevada’s coach and offered Herbert a full scholarship on the spot after watching him practice once.
And so a lot of this, for L.A., came back to who Herbert was. Some of that came in meetings, like the one described above. More of it was on tape, for everyone to see.
“I watched how he played the game, and how his teammates responded to him on the football field and I said, ‘This is not a problem,’” Lynn said. “I don’t know why it would be. Is a quarterback supposed to be loud? There’s a time for him to be loud, there’s a time for him to not be loud. You don’t have to be loud to be a great leader. You don’t have to be outspoken to be a great leader.”
As for the tape, Lynn said over time spent watching, “He just grew on me.” The coach liked the ability, and how he extended plays, but most of all, he loved the moments that tied the person and player together. One came late in a game when Herbert lowered his shoulder into a defender and rode him into the end zone. It showed Herbert the athlete, for sure. But it also clarified Herbert the teammate.
It also illustrated Herbert the competitor, the guy who took every chance—be it in the Rose Bowl or the Senior Bowl, the combine or his pro day—to throw, and show the NFL what he had, which the Chargers loved.
“He would lay it on the line for his teammates,” Lynn said. “He took off and, I mean, he didn’t dodge or lay down—now, I’m gonna say to him, Get your ass down—but he lowers his shoulder, runs through the guy and falls in the end zone. And I thought, That’s a quarterback that’s putting it on the line for his team. They needed that touchdown, he got that touchdown. I started to see stuff like that, I thought, This guy, he’s made of the right stuff.”
That stuff, as Lynn sees it, is what you can’t teach. And as for the stuff you can, the Chargers, obviously, have confidence that Herbert’s diligence and aptitude will get him where he needs to go. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have taken him where they did, a spot at which, I’m told, Telesco and Lynn were comfortable taking either Herbert or Tagovailoa.
What’s more, Lynn doesn’t see any rush to throw Herbert out there right away. If he needs time, he’ll get it. If he doesn’t, and he beats out Tyrod Taylor, he’ll play.
“We’re going into this thing: Day 1, Tyrod Taylor’s going to be starting it off,” Lynn said. “He’s earned that right. His teammates respect the hell out of him, he’s a leader on this football team. Our young quarterback’s gonna learn a lot from Tyrod Taylor. Tyrod Taylor’s one of the most respected players on our team, and he doesn’t say a whole lot either. …
“[But] it’s a competition, bro. There’s a competition at every position, not just this one. I can’t just say Tyrod’s gonna be the starting quarterback for the whole year if this young man goes in there and wins the job.”
Given the circumstances, we probably won’t know for quite some time whether or not Herbert can pull it off. But safe to say the Chargers think whatever they throw this kid’s way, he’ll be able to handle it.
EXPLAINING THE LOVE PICK
Packers GM Brian Gutekunst wants to, at the very least, get this out there—drafting Love with the 26th pick on Thursday, the result of a trade-up from 30, wasn’t part of some master plan hatched long ago to land Aaron Rodgers’s heir in 2020.
As he sees it, moving up and drafting the 21-year-old from Utah State was more capitalizing on an opportunity and less creating any sort of path of succession. In fact, as the draft wore on, a scenario that’s not all that uncommon started to play out in the Packers’ (virtual) war room. Players Green Bay liked kept coming off the board in the late teens and early 20s, which started to shift the idea of taking Love from hypothetical to possible.
“We looked at it like we really do every year,” Gutekunst said Sunday afternoon. “We evaluate all the players, and certainly quarterback is of the highest priority for an NFL franchise. We evaluate those guys very closely. And you set your boards. Again, you don’t know what’ll happen. But I've never in my time in Green Bay, we've never been in a spot where it was like, Hey, we have to go get a quarterback this year. This was no different.”
Long story short: Eventually, Love was the top guy left, and the gap was widening.
“As those players got picked, it was kind of like, With the way our board was, there really wasn't anyone else at that level that we felt comfortable taking.” Gutekunst said.
Meanwhile, as the GM and his lieutenants made calls, it became very clear to them, as they sat at 30, teams right in front of them—the Seahawks, Ravens and Titans—were seriously considering moving down to collect more capital, and had fielded inquiries on cost.
Knowing that, Gutekunst had a decision to make. He could get aggressive, and move in front of the teams between 27 and 29. Or he could sit at 30, knowing the other players that Green Bay valued at that spot were gone, and he’d be working furiously to move the pick as a result, if Love didn’t make it there.
At that point, the GM had seen enough of Love to envision him in Matt LaFleur’s offense, one that strives to marry the run game to the pass game, in a wing-T-ish kind of way that makes things more difficult on a defense. Love had the feet and arm to pull it off, and that was just the tip of the iceberg in what Gutekunst liked on him, the result of a process that started for him, really, at Death Valley when Utah State took on the LSU machine.
“He's just a really smooth, fluid athlete with a really loose arm,” Gutekunst said. “Natural thrower, certainly has a lot of arm strength. So, again, the physical traits, that was evident watching him throw in warmups and in the game. I like his competitive grit. That's a tough challenge going into Death Valley for a team like that. I thought he took some chances and tried to keep them in there as long as he could. But, again, it was a brief exposure.
“And LSU had about 15–16 guys I was looking at as well, so ... yeah …. But that was kind of what we took out of it.”
Utah State lost 42–6, Love threw three picks and everything was underway. No one would’ve guessed that’d be the first step toward finding the next Rodgers for Green Bay.
But here we are.
And there the Packers were, everything coming together fast—with that threat of Seattle or Baltimore dealing in front of them, and the need to do something about it. It left little time to call Rodgers before Gutekunst dealt a fourth-rounder to Miami to move from 30 to 26 to get Love. It wasn’t until after all that, that Gutekunst had the chance to call Rodgers and talk him through the whole thing.
The GM wouldn’t divulge what was said, but suffice it to say, this isn’t uncharted territory for him. He was the Packers’ Southeast area scout back when Rodgers was drafted as Favre’s replacement and hasn’t forgotten all the good, and the bad from that pick. And as easy as it is to compare this to that, philosophically he sees this as an extension of what Ron Wolf used to do—basically drafting a quarterback every year.
“We haven’t been able to do that the last few years, it just hasn’t fallen for us the right way,” he said. “And it’s not like we haven't wanted to, it’s just the value of the player and where we thought they were and where we could take them at the time, it just didn't happen. I think it's always kind of been in my DNA that anywhere in the draft, if you have an opportunity to take a quarterback you really think can play, you need to consider it.
“That's really what this move is. I know people may look at it differently from outside, but it was kind of one of those things where he was a guy we really think can play somewhere down the road. And he happened to be available to us. And it was really pretty much that simple. I think it's a little different than the Favre/Aaron thing because there were some different dynamics going on there at the time. But I think we’ve got an elite quarterback that's going to lead our team for, hopefully, a long time. And now I feel really good about a couple of the guys that we got behind him if anything should ever happen.”
It’s hard to say now whether Love will grow to be more than that. But by going to Green Bay and sitting—he was seen as plenty raw coming out—he may get the best shot to do that.
And we all know how that worked out for the last guy.
SO LONG, STALEY
We’ll get more into the Trent Williams trade in the takeaways section below, but the retiring cornerstone he’ll replace at left tackle in San Francisco, Joe Staley, deserves a minute here. In the time I’ve spent around the team, he’s found a way to really embody the personality of the locker room for two separate, very different, title contenders—the Jim Harbaugh incarnation of the 49ers and the Kyle Shanahan version.
And while he served in that role, he became a damn good player for the team. He made six Pro Bowls and three All-Pro lists, and joined Jason Peters, Tyron Smith and Joe Thomas to make up the tackle group on the NFL’s 2010s All-Decade team.
That’s not bad for a guy who came to the NFL as a converted tight end in 2007.
“Everyone worried about him being big enough back then,” said Scot McCloughan, the GM who drafted Staley to the Niners with the 28th pick that year. “He had been a tight end, and I remember him getting on the radar by running fast at his junior pro day the year before. But that was at 280, and he’d played his junior year at about 300. So we were all concerned about him putting good weight on.
“At one point, after we got him, he actually put bad weight on, got that under control and then wound up putting the good weight on.”
So it was a while before the Niners truly knew what they had. His career really took off when Harbaugh arrived in 2011, after injury marred seasons in 2009 and ’10, and for the balance of the decade San Francisco had stability at one of the most important spots on any football team’s roster.
“I didn’t know he’d play this long, but everything else was in line—he was a team guy, a good guy, he had everything,” McCloughan said. “It was an easy pick. I wasn’t worried about the player, there was no background issue, medically or personally.… And I wasn’t worried about him getting bigger either, you knew that would happen, the talent was there.”
Getting him did take some doing for the Niners, though. And that’s where this story gets really interesting. The Niners took Patrick Willis with the 11th pick that year, and wouldn’t be in position to get Staley with the 43rd pick. So the Niners swung a trade with the Patriots to get the 28th pick and grab him, sending the 110th pick and the team’s 2008 first-rounder to New England in the process. Here’s the rest of that story:
• The Patriots traded that 110th pick for Raiders WR Randy Moss.
• The Patriots traded the Niners’ pick the next year (seventh overall) and a fifth-rounder to the Saints for the 10th pick and a third-rounder. At No. 10, they drafted LB Jerod Mayo, Tedy Bruschi’s eventual replacement in the middle of their defense. (Shawn Crable was the third-rounder.)
• The Saints moved up to get Sedrick Ellis at No. 7, who their new D-line coach Ed Orgeron(!) wanted to bring with him from USC. Ellis started in Super Bowl XLIV. And that throw-in fifth-rounder? It wound up being OG Carl Nicks, a second-team All-Pro for that championship team.
• And if that’s not enough, that Patriots/Niners’ pick had become a point of contention with other teams. New England was docked a first-rounder in 2008 for Spygate. Some believed they should have had to give up the higher of their No. 1s, which was the San Francisco pick.
Which is to say that while a pretty interesting trade—that Trent Williams deal—signaled the end of Staley’s career, it’s almost impossible that it’ll outdo the one that brought him into the NFL.
Congrats on a great career, Joe.
Trent Williams was a massive get for the Niners. And I say that provided he’s close to what he was the last time we saw him play football. If he is, San Francisco’s leadership (John Lynch, Paraag Martathe and Kyle Shanahan) deserve a ton of credit for threading the needle on this one. Knowing Staley was at the end; understanding the market for the consensus top four tackles in the draft meant it was unlikely they’d land one; having Tristan Wirfs fall to them at 13 anyway and then trading out of that slot; and knowing their leverage could be on shaky ground all along, but sticking to their guns—that all took stones. At one point, it looked like the Niners might be able to wheel one of their first-round picks into a package to get the third-rounder they’d need to do the deal (they didn’t have a 2, a 3 or a 4 coming in), and they did get a fourth-rounder to flip-flop with Tampa, who came up to get Wirfs at 13. But then Brandon Aiyuk, a pretty much ideal Shanahan receiver, was there in the mid-20s, and that fourth-rounder went to Minnesota in a six-slot trade-up to get him. It was after all that, the Niners worked out the deal with Washington to send next year’s 3 and a 5 this year to get Williams. And they were able to do so despite Washington owner Dan Snyder’s grudges with both Williams and the Shanahans. As a result, Kyle Shanahan gets his dad’s first draft pick from Washington, a seven-time Pro Bowler who’s still just 31.
The Colts approach at receiver gives you an interesting window into the draft process. Last year, we wrote about why Indy gave WR Devin Funchess a one-year, $10 million deal. The move, to be sure, didn’t work out—Funchess caught three balls in the opener before breaking his collarbone, and missed the rest of the season as a result. But the logic behind the move remains sounds. As the Colts saw it, last year wasn’t a great year to be looking for a high-end receiver. So they signed Funchess as a way of getting them to what they believed would be a better receiver this year, and drafted a hybrid, in ex-Ohio State star Parris Campbell, in the second round to develop at the position. A year later, Funchess is gone, and the team wound up taking a receiver, in USC’s Michael Pittman, who may have been a first-rounder in last year’s shaky wideout class. And the twist? The twist is that the Colts traded last year’s first-rounder to Washington, and got the picks that wound up landing both Campbell and Pittman. Had they just stayed there and picked a receiver? The next one to go after their slotted pick, at 26, was New England’s N’Keal Harry.
Washington paid a price the other way. That first-rounder wound up being Montez Sweat, but the second-rounder it cost them this year ended up being the 34th overall pick, which might’ve been a piece of capital with which they could’ve replaced Williams. Instead, they had to take a swing on LSU tackle Saahdiq Charles at the top of the fourth round. And Charles absolutely has the talent to be a starting left tackle in the NFL. The problem is his off-field issues are extensive, and he failed a slew of drug tests while he was in college. That’s less of a problem than it used to be, but that he let it get to the point where he had to serve a six-game suspension led some teams to take him off the board altogether. For Washington? Sure, it’s worth taking a swing here. But it’s also indicative of how teams often try to make up for previous trades that drain them of picks. In fact, Washington’s been in this spot before. After the 2012 Robert Griffin trade, the team wound up taking fliers on boom-or-bust prospects like Baccari Rambo and David Amerson. They have to hope this works out better than that did.
I love the Bills taking a shot on Jake Fromm in the fifth round. At that point in the draft, most guys don’t wind up lasting very long in the league anyway, and it seemed to me that most evaluators believed the floor for Fromm would be as a Colt McCoy– or Chase Daniel–level backup, which isn’t bad value in the fifth round. And there’s a pretty cool backstory here too. Bills GM Brandon Beane was actually in Athens doing a school call the week after Fromm lost a home start for the first time in his career, and in practice that day his value to the program was on display. On one side of the practice field, head coach Kirby Smart was running the defensive session, with an offensive scout team on hand. On the other, Fromm was running the practice for the offense against the scout defense. That the coaches had trusted Fromm to be the one leading practice in that critical juncture in the season, and that Fromm saw it as a place he needed to step forward, spoke volumes to Beane. Add that to what Beane heard that day (that Fromm would be in the building watching tape until late in the night regularly) and what he saw as the season went on (Fromm fighting through with a beaten-up, undermanned skill-position group), and Beane was super impressed with a guy he had no thought of drafting, with Josh Allen on the team’s roster. But as Saturday wore on, Fromm’s name continued to separate from the pack on the team’s board, to the point where it was screaming at the Bills’ brass in the fifth round. Based on his grade alone, had quarterback been a need, Buffalo would’ve considered Fromm with at least a couple picks before getting to the one the Bills actually took him with. As it is? As it is, the Bills walk away with a really good backup quarterback prospect that could have trade value down the line.
I’m not as wild about the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts pick. And that’s nothing against Hurts the player, a guy who showed great determination in making it through all he did—at one point while he was at Bama, some NFL scouts were assessing him as a running-back prospect—to go in the second round. More, there would be two factors gnawing at me here if I’m the Eagles. One, I’m not sure he wouldn’t have slipped a little further, had Philly not taken him at 53, where they could’ve added a corner like LSU’s Kristian Fulton, a linebacker like Wyoming’s Logan Wilson or a pass-rusher like Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa, or traded down. Remember, it was the fourth round before another quarterback came off the board. Second, I’d worry his on-field value over the next four years may be minimal, if Carson Wentz stays healthy. Now, all that said? I like the conviction in the evaluation by Howie Roseman, and if Hurts gives them good depth for three years and gets flipped for a second or something better after that, then this will look better as a Wentz insurance policy.
The Saints’ investment at quarterback is fascinating. I love the Jameis Winston signing in New Orleans, for both sides. And I’m not sure they had to do what they did with Taysom Hill. I’ll explain. On the former, this strikes me as the ultimate win-win. Sean Payton, as strong a developer of quarterbacks as there is in the NFL, gets a year to work with an uber-talented former No. 1 overall pick, and the Saints get a year to evaluate him in-house as a potential Drew Brees successor. Winston, in turn, gets a year to move his game forward, working with that top developer of quarterbacks, something that worked out pretty well for new Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (to the tune of $21 million per year). So both sides win. On the latter, I’m not sure it was necessary to do what the Saints did with Hill. They, more or less, are paying $16 million for another year of control over Hill, who’ll turn 30 later this year. The franchise tag at quarterback next winter will probably come in at $28 million or so. That’s a $12 million difference. So either Hill shows he’s not the answer, and you’re on the hook for the extra $16 million and you have to figure out how to bring back Winston or find another answer, or re-sign Brees for another year. Or he shows he is the answer, and you saved the $12 million but have to give him a new deal in the post-Patrick Mahomes NFL. And I’m not crazy about all that. But Payton, again, is pretty good with quarterbacks, and must’ve had confidence in Hill to sign off on all this.
It’s always interesting seeing how connections play into draft picks, and it’s clear that new Giants coach Joe Judge leaned on his in his first draft in charge. It’s actually pretty staggering, if you go down the line on this one. Here’s who New York picked:
• Georgia T Andrew Thomas and LB Tae Crowder, who played for Judge’s Bama staffmate Kirby Smart.
• Alabama S Xavier McKinney, who played for Judge’s old boss, Nick Saban.
• UConn OT Matt Peart, whose position coach was Judge’s Mississippi State staffmate J.B. Grimes.
• Penn State LB Cameron Brown, who was in Happy Valley the last few years with new Giants DL coach Sean Spencer.
• Oregon G Shane Lemeiux, who was with Judge’s Bama staffmate Bobby Williams the last two years in Eugene.
• South Carolina LB T.J. Brunson, who was with Judge’s Southern Miss staffmate Clyde Wrenn.
On top of all that, Oregon’s Mario Cristobal and South Carolina’s Will Muschamp are also from the Saban tree, and Judge knows them; UConn coach Randy Edsall and UCLA coach Chip Kelly (who coached fourth-round CB Darnay Holmes) are close to the Patriots program, and Judge knows them; and Penn State coach James Franklin grew up in the same area as Judge, which gave roots to their relationship.
It’s all pretty fascinating, and it should benefit the Giants for a couple reasons. One, Judge knows he’s getting good information from those guys. Two, Judge can bank on the fact that the kids coming his way will be able to handle the kind of program he wants to run. And it, by the way, isn’t hard to figure out where Judge learned all this. The Patriots have been plucking from Bill Belichick’s friends for years. The latest connection there? It’s to Michigan, where OC Josh McDaniels’s brother Ben coaches. New England’s plucked three Wolverines in the two drafts since he got there.
The guy in this draft class I’m most intrigued to see with regard to how he translates to the NFL is without question new Cardinal Isaiah Simmons. Is he a safety? Is he a linebacker? What we know is that he’s a freakish athlete who was insanely productive in college, and had that ability harnessed and schemed up expertly by Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables. And the NFL was split in what all of it made him as a pro prospect, which was illustrated by his market on draft night. I figured going in that the Patriots-connected teams drafting at No. 3, 4 and 5 would be tempted by him. But after digging, I don’t think any of them were wild about taking him that high, nor were the Panthers at No. 7. On the flip side, there were other teams, including one that went very deep in the playoffs last year, that had him ranked very close to Ohio State dynamo Chase Young atop the draft board. And so the onus now is on Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph to get the most out of a guy who’s very much the type of Arizona GM Steve Keim (i.e. Tyrann Mathieu, Tony Jefferson, Budda Baker, Haason Reddick, Deone Bucannon).
There were undercover benefits to the way this year’s draft was conducted that you couldn’t have seen on Thursday, Friday or Saturday night. And I was told the stories of a few them, so I’ll give you a fun one here. The kids of one head coach made ESPN’s air on one of the nights (and we probably saw most of the coaches’ kids by the end), and the kids of another head coach were watching. The second set of kids knew the first from when the two coaches had previously worked together. So they wanted to get on TV too, and did eventually, with the first coach making sure his kids saw it. And eventually, the kids all wound up FaceTiming to catch up after not having seen each other in a couple years. I thought that was another pretty cool result of a very unique set of circumstances for everyone. Chances are, we won’t get to see the coaches and GMs in an at-home environment like this again. But a lot of those guys I talked to took lessons on efficiency and balancing off-season time between work and family from the experience, which I thought was pretty awesome. And I do think there is something the NFL can incorporate in 2021, assuming everything is back to normal. They could back off in pressuring kids to show up to Cleveland next April, and simply give them the option. Then, some would go, and do the traditional commencement-style crossing of the stage. And others could be sent camera kits and watch from home. That way, I think we’d get a fun mix of both.
The people at ESPN deserve a lot of credit. I thought the broadcast was outstanding all the way around, and the ESPN and NFL Network folks deserve to have their names in here. So shout out to ESPN’s Seth Markman and Bryan Ryder, NFL VP of Broadcasting Onnie Bose, and my old buddy and ex-NFL Network colleague Charlie Yook. Markman, ESPN’s point man for the NFL and a VP of production, texted this Sunday, when I asked about the job the blended team of ESPN, NFLN and NFL people did: “Just a fantastic team effort. Went better than any of us expected. I think we have to figure out how to incorporate so many of the successes in future drafts.” As they should.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1) Hopefully being in the start of the real offseason next week, I can watch The Last Dance live with the rest of you. For now, I’ll bitterly look at Twitter and see a million comments on it at 11:56 p.m. ET.
2) Kaitlin Collins is doing a fantastic job covering the White House for CNN.
3) I really hope it’s not a mistake for Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado and Montana to start reopening this week. I don’t know what the impact will be. But I do understand both the worry over the state of the economy and the fact that, in certain parts of the country (mine included), we have a ways to go. Also, as is the case with everything in 2020, I’m fearful politics are shaping the opinions of people who aren’t great at thinking for themselves.
4) The Cape Cod Baseball League canceling its season is understandable, of course. But it’s still pretty sad, both for the kids and everyone who flocks to those games every summer.
5) I watched last year’s 24/7 episodes on Florida and Penn State football, and I gotta say that it’s outstanding. Worth your time while we all wait for next week’s premiere of Billions.
6) This will be my kids’ seventh full week out of school, and I really do feel terrible for all the high school kids, especially the seniors, who are missing out on spring sports and prom and all that. Lots of stuff you just can’t have back.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
It’s hard to believe the Gronk thing happened this week. Thoughts, Jules?
It’s been a long wait for Barry to get back out there.
Pretty cool—from a 16-year-old Burrow to a recruiting analyst, doing whatever it takes to get more exposure.
This one, too, from a 17-year-old Chase Young.
Pretty creative by the Arizona Republic’s Katherine Fitzgerald, getting Kliff’s pad as a Zoom background. And, per Fitzgerald, somehow Kingsbury didn’t give her a reaction.
That dog won Friday.