John Lynch Goes Inside the 49ers' Blueprint to Get Back to the Super Bowl

The 49ers’ GM walks us through an offseason of transition, move-by-move, as he searches for ways to reload for another run. Plus, what NFL executives think before this week’s schedule release, an early look at the best players in the 2021 draft class, how Miami hid interest in Tua Tagovailoa, Andy Dalton’s new home and much more.
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John Lynch isn’t positive who coined the line, but he sure heard it a lot from his old coach, and Kyle Shanahan’s old boss, Jon Gruden. The ex-Bucs czar said it time and again after his team in Tampa reached the mountaintop 17 years ago, and came back to it plenty after that: You never stay the same.

For Lynch and Shanahan, and the Niners brass, all these years later, those have become words to live by.

Though it could be adapted as a reference to the situation we’re all in as Americans, it really was going to apply to this offseason in San Francisco regardless. It was just three months ago that the Niners were a quarter away from the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl victory, before Hurricane Patrick hit them with Category 5 force, sending them into the offseason with a 31-20 loss and a lot to consider.

And frankly, the obvious thing—managing a Super Bowl hangover—was pretty far down the to-do list. Three years of roster building left them with decisions to make, and Lynch had no intention of getting complacent, anyway, even if looking critically at the team and making cold decisions is tougher now than it was two or three years ago.

“I think you always have to take a hard look, when you have success, when you don’t have success—how do we get better?” Lynch said, from his home office on Friday. “And that was going to be a challenge for us, because if you look at our roster, both in quality and in quantity, we had a pretty strong group last year. Now, how do you keep that together?

“Probably for the first time since our group was assembled, we were facing some salary-cap realities. And players coming due. How do we keep it together? And how do we improve on that? A lot of our conversations were just towards that, how does this whole puzzle work? This wasn’t something that was unexpected. We planned two, three years out.”

The resulting turnover was, for a team coming off a Super Bowl, pretty significant.

Gone is one of the two best players on the defense, a franchise cornerstone at left tackle and the team’s big trade-deadline acquisition at receiver. Back are a bunch of players who might not have been, if not for one tough decision, and a quarterback who has been the subject of much speculation this offseason. Arriving is a new franchise left tackle, and rookies the team coveted at positions vacated by aforementioned veterans.

How this all works out remains to be seen. But the Niners sure haven’t stayed the same.

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The draft’s in the rear-view mirror and we’re into a quiet time in the NFL calendar, which figures to be even quieter than usual, given where we are as a country and how teams are working remotely. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a stacked column for you this week. Inside, you’ll find:

• A complete rundown of what the COVID-19 crisis is doing to scheduling for the fall, ahead of this week’s schedule release.

• A watch list for the 2021 draft.

• A fun story on how the Dolphins concealed their love for Tua Tagovailoa.

• Details on the quarterback movement of this week.

• Some shuffling in the Patriots’ front office.

But we’ll begin with a pretty detailed recap, via Lynch, of a pivotal offseason in Ninerland.

***

The story of the 2019 49ers started and ended with their dominant defensive line. It came together in March and April, with the acquisitions of Dee Ford and Nick Bosa bringing the total of former first-rounders in the group to five. The group took off early in the season, with those two, and DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas and Co. taking over. And the season finished with that unit owning the first three quarters of the Super Bowl, before Mahomes led the Chiefs to three scores in five minutes.

Lynch knew the story of the 2020 49ers would start there, too.

The Niners had kept Armstead and Buckner, their 2015 and ’16 first-round picks, together for as long as the were able to. A cap crunch loomed, as more big deals had to be accounted for on the horizon, for young stars like George Kittle and Bosa. Armstead had just played out the fifth-year option on a rookie deal, while Buckner was reaching his.

“We knew the Buckner domino was going to be the big one,” Lynch said.

So began the year-after in San Francisco.

Scouting combine, Indianapolis, late February

In an effort to make that domino fall fast, one way or the other, Lynch, Shanahan, and EVP of football operations Paraag Marathe met with Buckner’s agent, Joel Segal. The discussion was cordial, even while it was clear a tough call was in the offing. Segal told the Niners’ brass that the average per year on any new deal would have to start with a “2.” Soon, it was agreed that the Niners wouldn’t be able to meet Buckner’s ask.

“We started to see the true reality of that,” Lynch said. “We wanted to keep both him and Armstead in the worst way. And then we had to start looking at every iteration. OK, what if we keep Armstead under the franchise tag and we keep Buckner? We looked at every different way it could work. Our motivation certainly wasn’t getting rid of Buckner, because he’s one of our best players, and one of our best people. He embodies 49er way.”

Which was woven into the team’s message. Lynch told Segal, Buck’s earned it, so if you believe you can get that number, go get it. But you better bring back a first-round pick. With permission to seek a deal granted, Segal found Buckner’s money, and Lynch’s pick, faster than anyone anticipated. The wheels on a trade were turning before any of them left Indy.

“Not only did he bring back a first-round pick, he brought back the 13th pick,” Lynch said. “And then, it’s like, ‘Whoa, I didn’t think he’d do that.’ By that point, you start looking at how we can keep our team together. And I guess a long story short, it’s not something we wanted to do, but at a certain point, we felt like that was the best decision.”

Buckner got what he wanted—entry into Aaron Donald’s financial zip code—agreeing to a four-year, $84 million extension with the Colts. Indy got a piece it believed was far superior to whomever it would’ve drafted in the middle of the first round, the kind of blue-chip player worth taking up real estate in the cap space the team has long hoarded, and the kind that rarely is available on the open market.

And as Lynch saw it, the Niners got more than just the 13th pick from the Colts. With the Buckner question answered, the team could do what looked impossible a few months ago, holding onto both Armstead, at $17 million per year, and emerging safety Jimmie Ward, the team’s 2014 first-round pick, at $9.5 million per, while bringing back depth pieces like Ben Garland, who was (and likely will continue to be) vital on the offensive line, in the wake of Weston Richburg’s injury.

That said, it wasn’t like losing Buckner didn’t sting. After all, he and Bosa were arguably the two best players in Super Bowl LIV, before Mahomes took over late.

“It is a daunting task though—How do you get better, when you’re losing one of your better players?” Lynch said. “That’s what we set off to do.”

The Jimmy Garoppolo situation, mid-March

Lynch has spoken publicly about this plenty—the Niners got wind that Tom Brady was interested in coming to San Francisco, to the team he grew up rooting for, and the Niners felt like they owed it to themselves to investigate the possibility, given who Brady (briefly a teammate of Lynch’s for two weeks in August 2008) really is. So they looked at his tape, they were impressed, and the calculus of what they’d pulled off with Buckner was fresh in their heads.

It’s easy to see where—and this is my own feeling on it—in that situation, after trading Buckner for a de facto return of the 13th pick, Armstead, Ward and depth guys, a team might ruminate on pulling off something similar at quarterback. If you could get a premium return for Garoppolo, and add that to Brady, would it be worth walking away from the guy you’ve built around? But just as the 49ers challenged themselves to consider all options, Lynch and Shanahan challenged themselves to take another hard look at what they already had.

“We went back and took a hard look at Jimmy,” Lynch said. “We grinded for a period of three, four days. And I think we both came back and said, ‘You know what? We’ve got the long-term answer in our building right now, and we feel really strongly about that.’ As enticing as it might be—and we felt like it was a responsibility to take a look, because that’s a very unique situation—we did that, we talked with Jimmy, and told him just what we did.

“I think he appreciated that. And the great news is we’re more convicted than ever that Jimmy’s the guy that we want to work with going forward. We feel like he’s got a lot more in him. Shoot, he was a huge reason we were in the Super Bowl last year, and why we have every intention of getting back and finishing the job.”

Draft week

The left tackle situation wasn’t off the Niners’ radar at the beginning of the offseason. In fact, plenty of teams I talked to had heard the Niners were in play for one with the 13th pick, given Joe Staley’s age and uncertain status, and the team’s desire to leave Mike McGlinchey on the right side. But Staley getting word to the team that he planned to retire took things to another level, adding a layer of urgency to the days leading up to the draft.

Two relationships became critical: one with Staley, and the other with Washington coach Ron Rivera. In the case of the former, Staley keeping his plans quiet during the first and second days of the draft helped the Niners keep chatter on their newly-urgent need to a minimum. In the case of the latter, trust between Lynch and Rivera would prove integral. And that really started with Lynch calling Rivera, telling him he’d like to get a deal for Trent Williams done before the draft, and Rivera having to come back with bad news before Round 1.

“We got there, and Ron just said, ‘There’s too much interest, John, we’re not gonna get it done prior to the draft,’” Lynch said. “So that was tough, we were taking on a lot of risk not knowing if we had Trent Williams, because we liked some of those tackles too.”

Add to that, this: There were plenty of moving parts in the Williams deal, not the least of which were the fractured relationships between Washington owner Dan Snyder, and both Williams and Shanahan (who was the OC in Washington under his father, Mike, from 2010–13). Long story short, everyone involved was acutely aware that the team doing a deal would be, in essence, Snyder giving both Shanahan and Williams what they wanted, which made things inherently fragile. That’s where trust would play a role.

“It’s very frustrating when, on Day 1, we tried to finish it before the draft, and other teams entered the fray,” Lynch said. “And then it’s, ‘Come on, Ron, we can’t go into this draft not knowing whether we have him or not.’ But Ron, to me, just has tremendous integrity. I’ve known him for a long time, so I knew that it was gonna be for the right reasons, if we didn’t get him.”

The 13th overall pick

So here’s the first place where Lynch’s faith in Rivera came into play. The tackles didn’t come off the board quite as the Niners expected. Lynch felt strongly that Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, Georgia’s Andrew Thomas and Alabama’s Jedrick Wills would be gone by the time San Francisco got on the clock, and maybe Louisville’s Mekhi Becton would be there.

Instead, Wirfs, who the Niners had “ranked incredibly high,” per Lynch, was there for them at 13, as a potential long-term answer at tackle, with the Williams situation still in a state of flux. San Francisco could take Wirfs and find peace in not having to worry that the Shanahan/Williams reunion (Williams was Mike’s first draft pick in Washington to kick off their four years together) would come undone. But also on the board was South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, whom the Niners earmarked before Day 1 as their top guy among those likely to make it to 13, and someone for whom they’d stay at 13.

Then the Bucs called, and created a decision point for Lynch and the crew (Marathe, Shanahan and VP of player personnel Adam Peters). Everyone knew the Bucs were looking for tackle help. So moving down one spot would give the Niners a fourth-rounder (they didn’t have a 2, 3 or 4, thanks to deals for Sanders and Ford) as ammo, if they needed it, on the Williams front, and make the Kinlaw/Wirfs decision for them.

“By that point, what I’d tell you is, I wouldn’t say it was a great deal of confidence, but we knew we were in the Trent Williams thing,” Lynch said. “We knew that we’d have a shot. And you start looking, What are some of the reasons we were in the Super Bowl last year? Well, I think when we were right, when we were healthy, we overwhelmed people with our defensive front. And you don’t want to lose that, and we lost a key piece of it.”

So though replacing Buckner wasn’t No. 1 on the grocery list, drafting Kinlaw also addressed a specific need for more size up front (he checks in at 6' 6", 325) and helped there immensely. Especially when the Niners considered that Kinlaw would get to work with a ninja of a D-line coach, Kris Kocurek, and how he fit the team’s style. "It was a perfect match for what we ask our D-linemen to do,” Lynch said, “which is tee off and wreck stuff.”

The 25th overall pick

Shanahan was a receiver at Duke and Texas, and as specific as he is in what he looks for at every position, it’s on another level when it comes to his former spot on the field. And as such, the particulars in what he wants are now ingrained in the Niners organization, which gives them real conviction on certain wideouts. Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk became one of those guys for Shanahan, and then the whole group, over the last few months.

The feeling there was strong enough that Aiyuk was one of a handful of names the brass would’ve been comfortable taking at 13—he was ranked closely with CeeDee Lamb—with a belief that he was, as a junior-college transfer who fought with 2019 first-rounder N’Keal Harry for playing time in 2018, just scratching the surface of his potential. And he became the name the Niners monitored in the teens, given the initial idea was that they might trade down from 13 and get him five or six picks later, had Kinlaw been gone.

San Francisco decided that if Aiyuk made it past the Eagles at 21, they’d get aggressive with their second pick, the 31st overall. Philly took another receiver, TCU’s Jalen Reagor. Lynch called Vikings GM Rick Spielman with interest in getting to 25. Parameters were set, and Spielman called back to confirm he’d do the deal, just after the Chargers dealt up to 23 to get linebacker Kenneth Murray. There was one catch—the fourth-rounder they’d gotten in the Bucs trade was going to Minnesota—and that catch did pose a threat to the Williams deal, and not just in the Niners losing a trade asset.

“Also, we knew Minnesota was in on Trent­. Did we just arm them with the ammunition they needed to go get him? Like, Oh, gosh,” Lynch said. “That thought went into it as well.”

In the end, the overall affection for Aiyuk in the room won out. “He gives you a little bit of everything,” Lynch said “He’s got strength to deal with the press coverage that everybody’s playing. Some of the holding and grabbing that’s going on, you have to be strong enough. And then forget about his 40 [he ran a 4.50 at the combine], just turn on the film. He never got caught. He plays fast. And then the long arms, he’s got elite competitiveness, there’s just a lot to like about him.”

Friday and Saturday

Previous maneuvering left the Niners with no picks in the second and third rounds, and the Williams trade twisting in the wind. “Day 2 was just kind of a long day,” Lynch said. San Francisco’s offer for Williams on Friday, its 5 this year and a 3 next year, didn’t change, in part because it couldn’t change much. The 5 was the highest 2020 pick they had, and adding it to the 3 nudged the Niners past what they believed was the field for Williams.

And that all sounded good. But it didn’t make the waiting any easier, with the knowledge that they didn’t have Staley, and might not get Williams.

“It was the best we could do, really,” Lynch said. “I think at that point … that’s what delayed us, the other teams, I can’t speak for them, but some other teams said, ‘Hey, we might get some picks here that would enable us to go do something.’ Washington, probably rightly so, exercised some patience to try to get the best thing they could for their organization, and ultimately our offer was.”

Rivera called on Saturday morning, paying off the trust that Lynch and Co. had shown in him to keep his word to them. Williams would be a Niner.

The Aftermath

Not lost on Lynch, as we reached the end of our conversation, was the magnitude of what he was walking away from by making the transaction that set all of this in motion—in letting go of, Buckner, a guy who just turned 26 and is probably one of the 10 or 15 best defensive players in the league. He raised how New England once let Richard Seymour and Chandler Jones go, and even brought his own experience into the mix, laughing as he said, “In the same year, Tampa walked from both myself and Warren [Sapp], and I think they paid for it for years to come.”

Bottom line: Just as he’s tried to reap the reward, he understands the risk.

“It was agonizing, it really was,” Lynch said. “It was tremendously agonizing and for a lot of reasons. It’s why, as much as anything we’re eager to get back, to talk to our players, to let them know. Kyle and I, it’s been very important, our word means everything. So when you profess to guys, Hey, you do the things we ask, we’re gonna take care of you, and then a guy like DeForest does everything, and you can’t take care of him, that’s difficult.

“But you get paid to make real tough decisions. And leadership, it’s not always the popular decision. It’s what you think is the right decision.”

And that all this led to a haul of Williams, Kinlaw and Aiyuk is, as the Niners see it, about as good as they could’ve drawn it up. That said, and satisfied as he might be, Lynch also knows we’re a ways off from knowing how all of this will work out, as his team looks to defend its conference title.

“I think that’s where having played a long time helps me,” he said. “You understand that great feeling is fleeting. Now, it’s time to go to work. And that’s the hard part, even if going to work now is virtually going to work.… But I’m proud that, for the most part, we kept the continuity of our team together. I think that will go a long way.”

And if it does, then we’ll all be able to look back and say a big part of that was knowing, great as last year might’ve been, the Niners knew things couldn’t be the same.

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THE SCHEDULE IS COMING

The NFL has promised the schedule will be released by this Friday, and it’ll be a far more newsworthy event this year than it has been in the past, for a lot of very obvious reasons. So over the weekend, I called a few team presidents to take their temperatures on some of the underlying themes that could go into the decision-making in setting the slate up, and how to proceed from there. Some nuggets I gathered:

• The No. 1 thing to watch will be the International Series games. The teams I talked to were skeptical, at best, about the idea that the NFL could proceed with four games in London and a game in Mexico City in the fall. The Jaguars are scheduled to host two games at Wembley, the Dolphins and Falcons are set to host games at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and the Cardinals are expected to be the home team for the Mexico game. It’s hard to imagine NFL teams making these trips at this point. So it’ll be interesting to see if the league acknowledges that, or goes forward—which would send five more teams into planning for what likely would be massively complicated trips.

• The second thing to watch will be for collapsible elements to the schedule, which could easily take the number of games down from 16 to 14 or 12. Obviously, the easiest thing to do would be to remove interconference games. So it’ll be interesting to see if those games are clustered in Weeks 2-5 (with Week 1 still set as a celebration of the return of the sport, that could be moved to the top of a modified schedule).

• One question that coastal teams are getting from NFL schedule-makers: Do you still want to have games on the opposite coast set for consecutive weeks, so you can stay in between games (a practice many teams have adopted)? On one hand, teams might believe that could be an effective way of quarantining, with players and coaches sequestered amongst themselves. On the other, teams might not want to spend extended periods of time in other parts of the country. It’s pretty relevant this year, with the AFC East drawing both West divisions in the rotation, and the NFC West drawing both East divisions.

• Will Las Vegas and the Los Angeles teams have their home openers later in the schedule, to allow for construction delays? And, for that matter, will the L.A. and New York teams have their slates backloaded with home games, because their areas have further to go in coming out of the crisis? Will that mean having, say, November and December weekends with one L.A. team playing on Thursday and the other on Sunday; or one New York team playing Sunday and the other on Monday?

• How will the big TV games get clustered? Will we see games like Chiefs-Ravens or Saints-Buccaneers further into the season, to increase the likelihood they’re played in front of fans?

• And that brings us back to how this will all be applied—and college football is a factor here. I’ve heard one idea that the major conferences have thrown around is starting their season on Oct. 1 and eliminating the non-conference schedule in doing so. They’ve also looked at pushing the schedule back altogether, and I’m told major college programs in the north have actually been in touch with NFL teams about using domed stadiums in January or February for home games, if it comes to that.

• Could the NFL move its schedule back, too? I don’t think it’s crazy to consider. Two teams estimated to me that, on average, NFL clubs would lose about $100 million apiece in local revenue if the season was played without fans in the stands. So when I asked if, given the choice, those in charge would rather start Sept. 1 without fans or Nov. 1 with them, one NFC team exec didn’t mince words: “I don’t think it’s even a question. If you could play a full season with fans, I don’t see how you don’t go that way. The economic impact is too major. If it’s possible to play it with fans by pushing it back, I don’t even see what we’d be discussing.” Worse, losing fans at games for a year could have an impact past 2020, in how fans used to going to games would have old habits broken, and may realize it’s easier to stay home and watch from there.

• Of course, the union will come into play on these decisions, and the first place would be connected to the salary cap. If the season went on without fans, and that $100 million figure is a ballpark reality (making the losses $3.2 billion league-wide), we’d be talking about a $48 million hit on the salary cap. In that scenario, the league and union would likely work together to “smooth” the cap (spreading the cap decrease over multiple years instead of dropping it by the full amount in one season), perhaps by borrowing from the benefits money or future years. But that, obviously, would have an impact down the line. And it wouldn’t be surprising to see it slow negotiations with big-ticket players in the coming months, with so much uncertainty ahead.

• So that’s why players and teams would probably be O.K. with moving the schedule back, if it meant preserving that much revenue. It also wouldn’t be too difficult, with most football stadiums having their non-football concert and event dates in the warmer months, giving the league the option of moving games into January, February and March.

• How far could the league move the Super Bowl back? It’s a fair question. A source told me that the league requires, with every Super Bowl bid, that cities hold extra dates in case the game has to be moved. So Tampa presumably has those. That said, one team exec told me the league probably wouldn’t want to move the Super Bowl past the start of the 2021 league year, which comes in mid-March. Moving that date would require negotiation with the union.

• Expect the NFL to work with the major college conferences on this behind the scenes (one key figure could be new Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, the former Vikings COO). The league, ideally, would like its schedule to sync up with the college season, for combine and draft purposes. So you can bet they’ll be comparing notes, even if their circumstances are pretty different. Along those lines, I can say that at least a few NFL teams have been working with the other pro sports teams in their cities to come up with plans for re-opening. Obviously, the NFL has the advantage of not being in-season, where, in a typical year, we’d be a month into the MLB season and in the midst of the NBA and NHL playoffs. Pro football will gain another advantage if baseball starts in June, as MLB folks have said it will, in that they’ll have a guinea pig to study.

And if it seems like I was all over the place a little with that stuff, it’s because this is a complex thing for every sports league to deal with. Everyone’s hoping we’re in a place to kick off a football season in September. But, clearly, the people in charge have to be prepared for the next steps if that can’t happen—something that I’m sure we’ll see reflected, one way or the other, in the schedule release this week.

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SCOUTING THE 2021 DRAFT CLASS

Because I know you guys can’t wait for more draft content, I spent some time this week asking around about next year’s class—and I came up with a fun watch list for you to parse. So here are players to watch, plus some notes at the end about how the group is shaping up as a whole.

Carlos Basham, DE, redshirt senior, Wake Forest: Many NFL people studied him in the fall, thinking he’d come out. He didn’t. And at 6' 5" and 275 pounds, and coming off an 11-sack season, he’ll have their full attention in the fall.

JaMarr Chase, WR, junior, LSU: How good is he? “He’s better already than Odell [Beckham] was coming out,” said one NFC exec. “Dynamic. A game-changer.” And if he’d been eligible, he’d probably have been the first receiver to go this year.

Travis Etienne, RB, senior, Clemson: His return to school was a head-scratcher among scouts—he’d have been in the running to be the first tailback off the board this year. He’s a 210-pound stick of dynamite, with a 7.8 yards-per-carry average and 37 catches last year.

Justin Fields, QB, junior, Ohio State: He probably won’t be the first quarterback taken next year, but his freakish athleticism combined with his progress as a passer under Ryan Day in 2019 put him in play to go very early in 2021.

Pat Freiermuth, TE, junior, Penn State: Freiermuth did five years in high school, which actually led to the NFL ruling him eligible for the 2020 draft. Ultimately “Baby Gronk” went back to school, with a shot to set himself up to go in the top 20 or so picks in 2021.

Najee Harris, RB, senior, Alabama: Harris finally started to live up to his super-recruit billing toward the end of last year, which most felt like he’d use as his springboard to the NFL. Instead, the 6' 2", 229-pounder decided to stay in school. The tools are all there.

Chuba Hubbard, RB, redshirt junior, Oklahoma State: The ex-Canadian track star burst onto the scene with a 2,000-yard season in 2019, and brings a breakaway element to the field that no coach can teach.

Trevor Lawrence, QB, junior, Clemson: Duh.

Alex Leatherwood, OT, senior, Alabama: Why didn’t Jedrick Wills play left tackle at Bama? Because Leatherwood was there. I’ve found disagreement from scouts on how good he’s been (some think he’ll play guard in the NFL). But the potential is undeniable.

Dylan Moses, LB, redshirt junior, Alabama: All-SEC as a sophomore, Moses tore up his knee in August and missed 2019. He’d been tracking to be a first-rounder. He also has a colorful backstory—from his viral eighth grade film to some more bizarre recent events.

Micah Parsons, LB, junior, Penn State: Anointed Linebacker U’s next great one the minute he walked onto campus (they even put him in LaVar Arrington’s No. 11), Parsons has mostly delivered on his potential and brings a freaky athletic profile to the table.

Justyn Ross, WR, junior, Clemson: The breakout star of the national title game to cap the 2018 season, Ross is a physically imposing target (6' 4", 205 pounds) with a ton of upside, who’ll likely come in a notch behind Chase.

Penei Sewell, OT, junior, Oregon: Sewell may have been the first tackle taken this year, if he were draft-eligible. He’s not perfect, but the 6' 6", 331-pounder has definite top five pick potential in a league thirsty for cornerstone offensive linemen.

Smith had more receiving yards (1,256) than either of the Tide’s two first-round receivers.

Smith had more receiving yards (1,256) than either of the Tide’s two first-round receivers.

DeVonta Smith, WR, senior, Alabama: Would you believe he was better than Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs in 2019? It’s true. He came back to put more weight on, after playing last year at around 168. “He’s really skinny, but was the best playmaker on the team,” said one AFC exec. “That f----er got deep, was tough as hell, made guys miss. Just a football player.”

Patrick Surtain Jr, CB, junior, Alabama: The son of the ex-Dolphins star has been an impact player since arriving as a freshman and still has a lot of untapped potential going into his third, and likely final, college season.

Trey Smith, OG, senior, Tennessee: Blood clots in his lungs derailed his sophomore year, but he came back with a vengeance as a junior, making first-team All-SEC and winning a number of man-of-the-year type awards. So … really good character, really good player.

Shaun Wade, CB, redshirt junior, Ohio State: Wade figures to be the seventh Buckeye corner in six years to go in the first round. He played a hybrid safety/corner role the last two years, and came back to show he can play outside too. That type of versatility will be valued.

And here are five position groups to watch …

• The tackles figure to be strong for a second straight year. Sewell and Leatherwood could be joined early on by Stanford’s Walker Little and Clemson’s Jackson Carman, both of whom have shown first-round potential. The difference this year is that the group of interior linemen should stronger. Trey Smith is joined by the Ohio State guard/center duo of Wyatt Davis and Josh Myers with a chance to go in the first round.

• The running back class is really strong. Etienne, Harris, Hubbard and Mississippi State’s Kylin Hill all made the decision to return to school, which sets next year up sort of like this year. Maybe there’s not a Zeke Elliott or Saquon Barkley, but there are a bunch of really good players.

• The receiver class is anchored by Chase and Ross, who may wind up being better prospects than anyone who came out this year. But there are others beyond those two. DeVonta Smith is one. Smith’s teammate Jaylen Waddle and Ohio State’s Chris Olave are two others who merit watching. (The tight ends with Freiermuth and Florida’s Kyle Pitts in the mix aren’t bad either.)

• The linebacker group is loaded. Moses and Parsons are prodigies who NFL scouts have had their eyes on for a while. And there are others, like Georgia’s Monty Rice and North Carolina’s Chazz Surratt, who came up in my conversations last week.

• Defensive line seems to be the group that’s lagging a little. Florida State’s Marvin Wilson is one highly-thought of interior guy. Michigan’s Kwity Paye could explode this year, and is said to have off-the-charts testing numbers. And Virginia’s Charles Snowden seems really interesting, in his versatility. But a lot still needs to play out, it seems, with this group.

Of course, here’s hoping we actually get to watch these guys in the fall!

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TEN TAKEAWAYS

1) The Dolphins did a fantastic job hiding their intentions with the fifth overall pick. And I have an awesome story to back that up with—mostly because it threw me off the scent completely before the draft. In meetings after the season ended, Dolphins coach Brian Flores joked with his staff, “I’m gonna wear a Tua [Tagovailoa] jersey on the podium at the combine, so everyone thinks we’re taking him.” Add that to the fact that Flores was very guarded with his feelings on Tagovailoa, and the other quarterbacks, during draft prep, and it led some in-house to put two and two together and conclude that Tagovailoa was off the table. I, for one, had heard Miami wasn’t taking him, and was told that story above (it was second-hand) as anecdotal evidence of it. In the end, only a handful of people knew where the team really stood on Tagovailoa. Did Flores’s misdirection help Miami? It’s really hard to say. But what we know is that the Dolphins didn’t have to move from the fifth pick to get him, which obviously is a pretty good result. And one that helped them address other needs later in the draft with picks they didn’t have to deal away to get their quarterback.

2) Andy Dalton’s a good get for the Cowboys. No one knows better than Dallas the difference between a bad backup quarterback situation (2015, with Matt Cassell, Brandon Weeden, Kellen Moore) and a good one (2016, Dak Prescott). And with a team that’s very much in a championship window, loaded with players in their prime, it’s smart having a guy with Dalton’s experience who can keep the ship steady if the worst-case scenario rears its head. To be sure, I asked around with a few guys who coached Dalton and coached against him, and the consensus seems to be that if he’s surrounded with the right talent (not an issue in Dallas), he should be fine. One defensive coordinator texted that Dalton would be best in an offense with RPO and quick-game elements, which the Cowboys, without question, will have built-in for Dak Prescott. “He’s a ‘B’ player,” said the DC. “But up-and-down.” That said, how this went should further color where the Jaguars and Patriots are at the position. Cincinnati shopped Dalton to both, and neither showed much interest. And that—after his release detached him from the $17 million base that made him impossible for the Bengals to keep—neither wound up with him, despite both teams offering a clearer path to playing time, and despite Dallas only having to pay $3 million in base to get him, should say what you need to know about where they stand. Viva la Gardner Minshew, and viva la Jarrett Stidham, apparently.

3) And Jameis Winston is a good get for the Saints, too. And I think even if you have your doubts on Winston ever reaching his potential, we can agree on the concept of what New Orleans is doing here. In essence, they’re choosing not to wait until Drew Brees is done before taking shots on finding his replacement, which is really what they’ve been doing the last few years. In September 2017, they put in the waiver claim on Taysom Hill. In August 2018, the traded for Teddy Bridgewater. Both those guys’ contracts came up this year, so they found a way to keep one (Hill) and then replaced the other with another high-upside 20-something at the position. The key is they’re continuing to fill the pipeline with young guys who could be the next one while Brees ages, using Sean Payton’s skill in developing quarterbacks as both a carrot for guys to come, and an asset in trying to maximize guys who may have been felled by worse circumstances elsewhere. Does this mean the Saints have Brees’s long-term successor in-house? It does not. But the Saints are taking a lot of shots at finding that guy (throw seventh-round Mississippi State QB Tommy Stevens in that pile, too) without really giving up too much to help Brees and a loaded roster need in pursuit of a championship. And doing it this way is a lot better than being pigeonholed into trying to find one in a single post-Brees offseason. That, as I’ve said before, is how guys like Christian Ponder and E.J. Manuel wind up going in the first half of the first round.

4) And that leaves Cam Newton, who’s available for a couple reasons. The obvious one relates to the situation we’re all in now. Newton can’t get a physical on-site with a team, which is to say team doctors can’t get examine his right shoulder or left foot, which is an awfully big deal. The other? The idea of Newton as an everyman on the roster is pretty difficult to figure, since he’s never been that guy. And that’s not to say he’s a bad guy, in any way. He’s not. But he’s always been the straw that stirs the drink—from Blinn Junior College to Auburn to the last nine years with the Panthers. The idea that he could blend in as a backup would be a projection at best, and I’m not so sure he wants to go anywhere as one, either. Which makes it different than the cases of Winston and Dalton, who went willingly to places they believed would allow for long-term gains, at the cost of short-term playing time. It very well may be that we’re waiting for an injury before Newton signs somewhere. Stay tuned.

5) The fifth-year option deadline for 2017 first-rounders is Monday at 4 p.m. ET, and it should teach us something about the draft. Decisions on 30 of the 32 are now public, and only 18 have been exercised. That means, pending calls on S Malik Hooker by the Colts and LB Haason Reddick by the Cardinals, 12-14 teams have either detached or started the process of detaching from their first-rounders of just three years ago. Remember, all exercising the option does (until next year’s changes come) is give the team control for another year at a fairly reasonable rate, which is only guaranteed for injury. It’s pricier for guys in the top 10, yes, but even that is just the transition-tag number, which would be a good deal for the team if said player is justifying his draft position. And yet, the second pick (Mitch Trubisky), third (Solomon Thomas), fourth (Leonard Fournette) and fifth (Corey Davis) had their options declined, and it’s not like this just a case of bad teams striking out—two of the four declining those options (Niners, Titans) were playing on conference championship Sunday four months ago. Lesson: Even in its upper reaches, the draft is a crapshoot.

6) I’d keep an eye on new Bronco K.J. Hamler. His name came up repeatedly when I asked scouts last week which picks and which classes they liked, and most thought he was hurt more by the pandemic than the other receivers he was competing with for draft position. Hamler’s rep is as a DeSean Jackson-type burner, and guys like that can usually help stamp such an assessment in the 40 in Indy—Bengals WR John Ross, the ninth pick in 2017 (who, by the way, just had his option declined), is a great example of that happening. Well, because Penn State has a notoriously fast track, Hamler, as other past Nittany Lions have, decided to wait until his pro day to run. And then his pro day got canceled, which meant teams didn’t have a verified time on a guy whose calling card is his speed. You can understand why, then, some teams might get a little skittish over taking Hamler too high. So the Broncos got him at 46. Which is a nice bargain, if you consider that a, say, 4.30 in the 40 might’ve had Hamler sniffing the first round.

Peters, who is on the market, was a member of the NFL’s All-2010s team.

Peters, who is on the market, was a member of the NFL’s All-2010s team.

7) Jason Peters is still out there. And two AFC West teams with designs on contending—the Broncos and Chargers—are still in dire straits at left tackle. Denver has a former first-round pick (Garrett Bolles) who was on the block pre-draft, had his fifth-year option declined, and now will battle Elijah Wilkinson for the job. Wilkinson, a UMass product whom I had to Google, was undrafted the year Bolles came out. The Chargers, meanwhile, may be in an even more precarious position, with Sam Tevi and Trey Pipkins as contenders to start there. To me, that’s enough in each case to make the phone call to Peters, who is 38, and isn’t what he was, but can still play. Peters isn’t going to come cheap, but the Broncos have $24.2 million in cap space, and the Chargers have $21.0 million, and I think it’d be worth spending a chunk of that to create another option at a pretty important spot. The only issue? The only issue is the Eagles may have designs on bringing Peters back, so Denver and/or L.A. would have to move quickly.

8) I’d have my radar up for the Seahawks perhaps finding the long-term successor for Bobby Wagner in first-round pick Jordyn Brooks. That’s with the acknowledgement that, for now, the likelihood is Brooks fits as a stand-in for veteran K.J. Wright at the weakside linebacker spot, as Wright recovers from offseason shoulder surgery. Maybe Brooks does enough to push Wright to the strong-side whenever Wright’s ready to come back, maybe he doesn’t. But Wright is 31 and in a contract year, so there should be room for Brooks to find a role somewhere next to Wagner, Seattle’s man in the middle, for the time being. And as I understand it, the Seahawks see him eventually taking over Wagner at the “Mike” ’backer spot. While Wagner’s still just 29 and under contract through 2022, it doesn’t hurt to have that sort of plan in place ahead of time, especially when you consider what an important part of the Pete Carroll Seahawks that Wagner’s been, in a lot of different ways.

9) It’s interesting to go back and look at some kids’ high-school rankings post-draft. And Justin Herbert was a fun one this year. He was the consensus 43rd-ranked quarterback in the Class of 2016, according to the 247 Sports composite list. Of the 42 guys ranked ahead of him, there’s one first-round pick (Dwayne Haskins), and just three other draft picks (Jacob Eason, Jalen Hurts and Nate Stanley), though a bunch of guys from the class are still in school. The No. 1 quarterback that year? Ex-Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson, who did a deal as an undrafted free agent with the Chiefs over the weekend. Now, to be fair to the guys doing these rankings? They did much better the year before. First overall pick Joe Burrow was the 19th-ranked quarterback in 2015, but it’s not like there are a bunch of slappies in front on him. Among the 18 are first-rounders Josh Rosen (1st), Kyler Murray (3rd), and Sam Darnold (12th), with Jarrett Stidham (4th) and Drew Lock (10th) also in that mix.

10)The Patriots were fortunate to come out of the January hiring cycle largely intact, with OC Josh McDaniels, director of player personnel Nick Caserio and pro scouting director Dave Ziegler all eliciting interest. With them staying put, New England avoided the kind of mass exodus it went through last year. But the Pats won’t make it through this offseason totally unscathed. Highly-regarded college scouting director Monti Ossenfort will likely be on the move in the coming weeks—he was twice requested for, and blocked from, interviews for the Texans GM job over the last two years, and interviewed for the Browns GM job in January. Ossenfort succeeded Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff in his current role in New England, and has been an integral part of building the second iteration of the Bill Belichick dynasty. For obvious reasons, this figures to be a quieter year for movement in the scouting community (normally, May is when a ton of guys are switching jobs). But in the case of someone like Ossenfort, having an established reputation and relationships should supersede the difficulty teams might have in running a search process amid the circumstances. The Patriots, for their part, weren’t caught off-guard here, with Ossenfort letting his contract expire. They brought former Browns and Packers exec Eliot Wolf aboard in February.

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SIX FROM THE SIDELINES

1) It’s interesting to hear the NBA discussing plans to move its 2020-21 season back to December, in the event the league is able to resume its current season in the summer. And it’s interesting not on its face, but in the potential ulterior motive—which would be a dry run at a permanent shift in the calendar, designed to move basketball from having to compete with football for viewers, and potentially put its playoffs in the summer. Similarly, college football could use a shortened regular season, if it comes to that, to give an eight-team playoff a shot (they’d probably say they’d be doing it to make up for the lost revenue, which would be true). So is there something the NFL could try in the fall if its season is affected? I’m intrigued to try and figure that out.

2) The Kentucky Derby was supposed to be Saturday, and it was definitely weird having the first post-draft weekend, which is usually when the NFL slows down a little, without it. But if the new date, set for Labor Day weekend, goes off as planned, social media will be interesting, at least to me. That Saturday is cutdown day in the NFL. Which means my timeline will be filled with not just the names of the three-year-old thoroughbreds, but also third-string tight ends.

3) I’m more excited than I should be for the return of Billions. Best show on TV.

4) I got through Waco this week. The mini-series, starring the guy who played Riggins in Friday Night Lights, actually originally aired on the Paramount Network in 2018. But somehow, no one, myself included, noticed it until it popped up on Netflix earlier this year. And it was fantastic. I learned a lot I didn’t know about a situation that exploded and was all over the news when I was 13. Also that dude, Taylor Kitsch is his name, was super convincing as David Koresh.

5) I’d imagine Roger Goodell, Adam Silver, Rob Manfred and Gary Bettman will be paying attention to the playing of baseball in South Korea this week. The season there is set to start on Tuesday.

6) I remember George W. Bush being a pretty divisive figure as a candidate and President in his time, so it really has jumped out at me how reasonable he looks compared to the politicians of 2020. And this video message is an excellent example of how far backward we seem to have gone. My most vivid memories of Sept. 11 (that was the start of my senior year at Ohio State) center on how the country came together. I know I’ve said it before, but we’ve seen very little of that this time around.

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BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

I’m planning on watching the Alex Smith doc (it’s on the DVR) that Stephania Bell did for ESPN in the next day or so. But everything you see out there is consistent with pretty much everything you hear on Smith. From Urban Meyer to Patrick Mahomes, and everyone in between, it basically reflects what Dwayne Haskins (whom Smith easily could’ve resented) is saying here.

One thing I kind of like about the 88 tradition in Dallas—all the guys involved wore the number from Day 1. Michael Irvin got it as a rookie, and he and Drew Pearson gave the blessing for Dez Bryant to wear it as a rookie in 2010. So it’s cool now to see Bryant pass that on to Lamb.

Magical work.

And I don’t think it’s crazy, either. New England saw him as a distressed asset coming out—a five-star high school recruit who started at Baylor as a true freshman, then saw his college career go sideways six ways from Sunday. The talent’s been there, and in this sort of situation New England trusts its ability to coach and develop. At this point, we probably should trust Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels’s ability to do that, too.

This is exactly who Andy Dalton is.

Somehow I think this trend gets blown to smithereens in 2020.

Cold world out there.

I definitely appreciate Good Will Hunting being left off this list. (The Town was good, but I’d never heard of the Charlestown bank robber thing until this movie came out.)

Love it.

And this is really cool of Chase Young, too.

After last year’s effort, I was looking forward to seeing what the Colts’ in-house folks would have for us coming out of this year’s draft and they didn’t disappointment. Really insightful look at how Indy’s class came together, and how much Chris Ballard, Frank Reich and Co. liked Michael Pittman Jr. and Jonathan Taylor.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

This going to be an extension of my point on fifth-year options—the conclusion that the Bears reached with Mitch Trubisky (they declined his) over the weekend isn’t as unusual as you might think.

Twenty quarterbacks went in the first round between 2011 (the first year of the last CBA) and 2017 (the class that has decisions on their options coming up now). Trubisky becomes the sixth of those to have his option declined, joining Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, E.J. Manuel and Teddy Bridgewater. Three others—Brandon Weeden, Johnny Manziel, and Paxton Lynch—didn’t even make it to the point where the teams drafting them had that decision to make, bringing the washout total to nine out of 20.

So that the Bears and Trubisky are here isn’t exactly the shocker of the century.

That said, while this sort of whiff has precedent, the next steps might not be pretty.

Only one of the aforementioned eight, Bridgewater, had much of an NFL career at all after leaving the team that drafted him. And even that one carries a little bit of asterisk, since his option was declined because he suffered a very, very unusual injury, which he wound up bouncing back from elsewhere.

As for the team, what compounds the problem in GM Ryan Pace’s decision here is what he passed on. Chicago traded up from No. 3 to 2 to get Trubisky, while the Chiefs and Texans were even more aggressive—dealing from No. 27 to 10 and No. 25 to 12, respectively—to get the guys that Pace bypassed. Those guys? Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. And that’d be tough for any GM to get past, even one who’s done as solid a job as Pace has on balance.

Add it all up, and you see both how difficult, and monumental, these quarterback decisions at the top of the draft really can be.

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