How The Bills Are Gearing Up to Take Over the AFC East From the Patriots

Sean McDermott says New England still deserves to be the favorite; he takes us inside Buffalo's crucial offseason to catch them. Plus, how the Patriots’ scouting tree keeps growing, remembering Don Shula, what Cam Newton’s availability tells us, a deadline this week, the new schedule—and more.
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The wins right now definitely look a little different than they have in previous Mays, when coaches could use the time to see how a new receiver might adapt to his new quarterback, how a new linebacker might be fitting into a new scheme or how an incoming rookie really looks surrounded by NFL-caliber athletes.

But Bills coach Sean McDermott will certainly take what he’s getting. Because what he’s getting, as he sees it, has been pretty damn good.

It’s been one player tending to a friend who was hospitalized one night, then showing up the next morning, on time, to a Zoom meeting. It’s been another player being there every day, even as he helped an ailing family member of his own. It’s been a veteran opening his home to a rookie and having him stay there so he could mentor his younger teammate, and, both guys hope, give him a head start on his career.

Really, as much as anything, it’s been the totality of all of it that’s struck McDermott.

“It’s a really neat thing,” McDermott said, late Saturday afternoon, after wrapping up the second day of rookie minicamp. “And listen, it’s probably more of a picture of the American spirit than anything, which is going on all over our country right now, which is just awesome, with people helping people. … I think it speaks to the culture of the Bills. But probably bigger than that, really, I think that speaks to the American spirit.”

This, of course, is a big year in Buffalo. Expectations are probably in a place they haven’t been since Jim Kelly retired. McDermott’s in his fourth year. GM Brandon Beane just wrapped up his third draft. Josh Allen and Tremaine Edmunds, still just 23 and 22, respectively, and the faces of the new Bills on each side of the ball, are headed into Year 3.

And that’s without even getting to what everyone in the rest of the football world wants to talk about: For the first time in forever, with Tom Brady now in the NFC South, it sure feels like the AFC East is up for grabs, and no one’s better positioned to take advantage than Buffalo.

McDermott, of course, is aware of all that. But right now, he’s getting the wins where he can get them, and the wins he’s been getting, while they don’t guarantee actual wins in September or October, are pretty cool. Moreover, they’re a sign of where the program Buffalo’s built is, and maybe (just maybe) where the Bills are getting ready to go.

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***

And now, we’re into a part of the NFL calendar where it’s hard to tell what’s next. Teams are conducting their offseason programs; the annual league meeting, initially moved from March to May, has been cancelled; and there’s a self-imposed milepost looming at the end of this week. We’ll get into all of that in this week’s MMQB, plus …

• We’ll take a look at how a first-year coordinator is handling all this weirdness.

• We’ll give you insight into an NFL tree you may not be aware of.

• We’ll offer a quick appreciation of Don Shula’s life.

• And I’ll give you some schedule takeaways.

But we’re starting in the AFC East, with a team that’s been on the come for some time—and is now trying to make the most of what was always going to be a very big offseason for the program that McDermott and GM Brandon Beane have built.

***

The story of the Bills’ offseason took a hard-left turn at the same intersection everyone’s did, right in the middle of March, on the weekend ahead of St. Patrick’s Day. McDermott remembers leaving the office that Friday, after he’d gotten done calling his coaches who were out scouting off the road, not knowing whether they’d be back in the next week.

The staff, it turned out, was. But by then, it was clear their time together was fleeting, so McDermott prioritized getting everyone organized and ready for what was ahead.

The only point of reference he—or, really, anyone in the NFL—had was the 2011 lockout, which led to the wholesale cancellation of offseason programs. McDermott had his own recollections of the time—he was working for Ron Rivera in Carolina, and the Panthers’ coaches were new there, adding another layer of challenges—but he was more interested in what it would mean for the players.

Fortunately, McDermott had four guys in the room who could speak from personal experience, because they were NFL players that year. Wide receivers coach Chad Hall was with the Eagles; assistant DL coach Jacques Cesaire was with the Chargers; special teams coach Heath Farwell was with the Seahawks; and assistant OL coach Ryan Wendell was a Patriot. And what they told McDermott was pretty simple.

“These guys are now coaches, so they were highly-motivated players,” McDermott said. “But even for them, it was hard to find routine, hard to find structure, sometimes hard to get motivated, because you never knew when it was gonna end. And again, there’s a stark difference for a lot of reasons, one of which was during that time they had access to weight rooms, where a lot of guys during the bulk of the virus were kicked off of fields or kicked out of gyms.”

But, McDermott said, “There were some similarities.”

Those became key. And they also highlight why, as the Bills see it, they have a chance to turn what’s been a bad situation for everyone into a way of showing just what this Buffalo outfit is becoming.

It starts, really, with who they already were. Since McDermott arrived in January 2017 (and this was kicked into overdrive when Beane joined him from Carolina that May), the Bills have put a premium on what kind of people they’re looking for in their players. Shorthand, Beane tells his scouts: Smart, tough and dependable.

Over the last 40 months, it’s become more apparent how that profile manifests itself inside the walls of the Bills’ facility. So getting those sorts of people in the building was always important to the guys in charge. And you could argue that, with the players on their own now, and coaches lacking oversight, it’s never been more important than it is now.

As for whether it’s evident, McDermott didn’t stutter in getting his answer out: “One hundred percent.”

As such, he’s built some flexibility into their days. Through Phase 1, he and the coaches have held two hours of daily meetings. They’ll start with position meetings some days, unit meetings others (sometimes both), with team meetings to wrap up the day in the afternoon. There are also two options for strength and conditioning: an East Coast meeting at 8 a.m. and one after the team meeting for those out west.

And the strength portion of the day really is more instructional than physical, with strength coaches giving the players direction. A Peloton class, it is not. Each player gets something tailored for the resources he happens to have where he is.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways for McDermott and his coaches to hold the players accountable. And really, it’s more about integrating spot checks into what they’re doing than it is about formally testing them. For that reason, it’s been an emphasis for the coaches to try and make the meetings interactive.

“It’s just checking for understanding as best you can,” McDermott said. “We’re just trying to make sure that we’re trying to find as many ways to be accountable to one another as possible because of the challenges that we’re faced with right now, through the virtual workouts and the virtual meetings.”

In other words, the idea is to put a good sort of pressure on the players not to want to let the next guy down. And in doing so, some have stepped forward.

And in Allen and Edmunds, there have been maybe the best signs of where the program is going. At the start of our conversation, I mentioned how Allen’s throwing coach, Jordan Palmer, told me that he’d encouraged both Allen and Jets QB Sam Darnold to use this weird circumstance to assert themselves as leaders, by reaching out to teammates, and not just those on offense. McDermott confirmed that was happening.

“He’s been doing that,” the coach said. “And really just the leadership, the buy-in to our offseason program, I think that, in and of itself, takes leadership, player-driven leadership on top of the coach-driven leadership in this case. He and Tremaine Edmunds have both been big movers ahead, if you will, of the buy-in for our offseason virtual program.”

Both, McDermott agreed, saw the opportunity in how if they were going to communicate with their teammates, the young leaders would need to make an effort to do it. That made it more intentional and, over time, more meaningful. It also set up another important piece of the program that the coaches didn’t want to lose due to the physical distance between everyone.

That part was the camaraderie that’s usually built in the spring. Not working on it now, as the coaches saw it, would mean having to catch up in the summer. So the staff decided to institute what’s become a staple of the Bills’ program over the last few years into the Zoom meetings—where players are called upon to tell their backstory, explain why football is meaningful to them and who they play for.

“That’s something that we’re trying to drive, for the guys to get to know one another,” McDermott said. “They break up into a position meeting and that’s a little bit more intimate, where ... it becomes a little easier to communicate.

“But the challenge is how do you get that position to know guys in other position rooms? So we try to find different ways to do that.”

McDermott is optimistic that the Bills are still accomplishing that.

***

None of this is perfect, and it won’t be until things get back to normal. And the reminders of how imperfect this offseason has been and will be are pretty constant. McDermott, in fact, got another one as he addressed his rookie class over the laptop on Saturday, as part of their “minicamp.” He said he laughed at himself for calling it that "because it’s so different than rookie minicamp.

“Obviously there’s not the practice on the grass,” McDermott said. “When I met with the rookies this morning, I said, ‘Listen, usually this is the start of our first day of practice together. Unfortunately, we’re not able to do that but this is a time where we can continue to come together and obviously move forward and make progress here.’ It’s really kind of a miniature model of what we’ve been doing for the first three weeks with the vets.”

Which, again, is fairly limited. But every so often, McDermott gets those reminders of where his program is, and how far they’ve come, and the kinds of guys with whom he and Beane have surrounded themselves.

That, in fact, is why so many do see the Bills as the post-Brady favorites in the division. And while McDermott isn’t looking at it that way, he does appreciate that others do—because it’s another good sign that others are noticing what he gets to see every day.

“Anytime you bring up some of those words—expectations, pressure—number one, I think it shows you that people respect the way we’re doing things overall, which is nice,” he said. “But number two, and just as important, the Patriots, look, they’ve won the division for X amount of years. [Ed. note: 11 straight and 16 of the last 17.] … Until someone is able to win the division, to us, the Patriots remain the favorite. Why shouldn’t they? You tell me one reason why they shouldn’t.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, we really do,” he said. “And our players work hard, there’s no doubt about that. I think that’s the one thing that I can say: We embrace that we’ve got to earn things.”

Getting guys who would share that mentality has been part of the plan from the very start. And, yes, it’s taken some pretty tough events to prove it out this spring. But the fact that it’s happening, as McDermott sees it, will count for something down the road.

***

PATRIOTS SCOUTING TREE KEEPS BRANCHING OUT

There’s been less movement in the scouting world this year than usual—for obvious reasons. The optics of firing people wouldn’t be great right now, nor would it be easy for any team to run a real search process for new hires.

But a couple guys did land well-earned promotions last week with old friends who really didn’t need to spend much time getting to know them. Patriots college scouting director Monti Ossenfort was named the Titans’ new director of player personnel, joining ex-New England staffmate and Tennessee GM Jon Robinson. And Eagles national scout Pat Stewart was tabbed by his old co-worker from Temple and Western Carolina, Matt Rhule, to be the Panthers’ new director of player personnel.

And as these hires went down, it hit me again how, where the Patriots coaching alumni have been scrutinized for the trouble they’ve had once they left campus, New England’s scouting alumni tree has become a force on that side of the business. By my count, with Ossenfort and Stewart joining these ranks, there are now 15 ex-Patriots scouts at the director level or higher elsewhere in the league. The list, in alphabetical order:

• Marvin Allen, Dolphins assistant GM
• Thomas Dimitroff, Falcons GM
• DuJuan Daniels, Raiders assistant director of player personnel
• Mike Disner, Lions VP of football administration
• Jason Licht, Buccaneers GM
• James Liipfert Texans college scouting director
• Jim Nagy, Senior Bowl executive director
• Kyle O’Brien, Lions VP of player personnel
• Monti Ossenfort, Titans director of player personnel
• Adam Peters, 49ers VP of player personnel
• Bob Quinn, Lions GM
• Jon Robinson, Titans GM
• Matt Russell, Broncos director of player personnel
• Pat Stewart, Panthers director of player personnel
• Lionel Vital, Cowboys college scouting director

Even more staggering? Eleven of the 15 were together for the Patriots’ 16–0 season in 2007 (Russell left in 2005, Vital left in 2006, Licht left in 2003 then came back in 2009, and Liipfert was hired in 2009). And in that period, Dolphins coach Brian Flores and Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz were part of the scouting department in Foxboro, too.

It’s pretty nuts, so after putting all this together, I reached out to Scott Pioli, who was VP of player personnel at the time. He remembers that time pretty fondly, for reasons obvious to anyone (the winning), and not as obvious to the casual observer (the people).

“Everyone on your list did the work to get where they are,” Pioli texted. “I simply hired people that love football and have specific traits—then we provided them with opportunity and mentorship.”

As for the down-the-line guys in the group who’ve grown into executives, there definitely was some pride in being able to rattle off the names—and in what was going on in Foxboro back then. One said he saw a commonality in that the guys making up the group were more workers than they were climbers, which led to a natural ascension for so many of them.

“I will tell you, hands down, what we all learned from Scott and Bill, indisputably, is role understanding, and a really strong feeling of non-entitlement,” Dimitroff, now the Falcons GM, said. “You do your job to best of your ability, and we’re going to win and it’s gonna pay off. That’s what I believe. And yes, we would’ve all put our hands up about wanting to be a general manger, if we were asked then. But the people there knew the main focus was to master the job you were in, and that would open up opportunities for everyone.”

Robinson, along those lines, affirmed that there were traits apparent in Pioli’s hires.

“He was looking for football guys, guys that worked hard, guys you could count on, guys that could handle a lot, that were going to find football players, not just the testers, or the best locker room guys,” the Titans GM said. “I mean, you want good guys, you want good athletes, but Scott always reminded us that they had to be good at football, too.”

And in creating such a clear picture of what he was looking for, Robinson continued, an environment was hatched where the scouts developed their own mold for players.

“Looking at the teammates there—and I’d refer to them as teammates of mine in the scouting world—one thing that all of us that came through that program had, we were empowered to give opinions on players and we had a system in place that worked,” he said.  “Now you get here, and it’s our people, our own method to the madness—and yet, we’ve tried to find players that fit the system and culture the same way.”

And clearly, back then, they were doing something right, or else so many others wouldn’t be looking for their own version of it.

***

NEW FACES ON THE CHARGERS’ OFFENSE

It took a decade, but Shane Steichen made it—he’s finally got his own NFL offense to run, as Chargers coach Anthony Lynn’s new offensive coordinator. And just as he made it there, so much has changed. Philip Rivers was let go. Tyrod Taylor was elevated. Justin Herbert was drafted. Hunter Henry was franchised, Russell Okung was traded for Trai Turner, and Bryan Bulaga was signed. Then, of course, the pandemic hit.

And Steichen’s best laid plans, the result of nine seasons climbing the pro-football ladder, got thrown in a blender. Which has meant adjusting, adjusting and more adjusting.

There’s always a challenge in being a first-year coordinator, it’s just amped up for guys like Steichen, moving into the role in this environment.

“You’ve got to embrace this challenge that we’re in and you’ve got to adapt to the new circumstances,” Steichen said on Saturday. So how has he changed things on the fly? Well, there’s the obvious need to recalibrate things. Steichen has worked to streamline what he’d planned to have in, knowing the Chargers’ time on the field together will be shorter. “It’s like, ‘Hey guys, we have this but let’s not spend a lot of time on it. Let’s move on, this is gonna be more prevalent.’”

But he’s also adjusted to get the most out of guys in the meetings. One way the Chargers have done that is by pulling stuff off the TV a little more, to give guys a more entertaining view of the action and mix it up. Another is to make everything competitive.

And Steichen has done that with a pretty constant barrage of quizzes for his players. Inside the Zoom, there’s live scoring while the guys are taking the tests and trash talk. And it’s all timed, which puts a fun sort of pressure on everyone. 

“We always say, ‘let’s always compete in everything we do,’” Steichen said. “Off the field, we’re gonna compete in the classroom. We have the whole offense in on it, and it’s pretty competitive. It’s fun.”

Steichen’s even carried some of that stuff to the team’s minicamp this weekend, which has really just been three sets of three-hour blocks of meetings (8-8:30 a.m. special teams, 8:30-8:45 unit meetings, then 8:45-9:30 and 9:45-11 position meetings) every day.

Taylor, who threw six passes last year, will look to lead Steichen’s first Chargers offens

Taylor, who threw six passes last year, will look to lead Steichen’s first Chargers offens

In a way, all of it’s a sort of prelude to the summer, too, with a quarterback competition on the horizon. Taylor will take the first practice snap, and Herbert will try and beat him out, and how it goes will be the biggest story of camp. For now, though, Steichen’s at a baseline with his rookie quarterback—telling him to recite play calls, and cadence, and how he’ll get in and out of the huddle at home, as a way of getting up to speed with the terminology and making it natural.

Herbert, for his part, is doing his best to fit in.

“The quarterback room’s been great, obviously we have Tyrod in there an Easton Stick as well,” Steichen said. “And they were in there last year, you know, so that transition with those two guys has been great. They’re hard workers, they’re pros, Tyrod and Stick. And then Justin coming in, he’s really sharp. We’re just really getting to know Justin in the classroom setting now in the last few days. But it’s been a good transition.”

And one, of course, that’s really just starting for the Chargers.

***

FIVE THOUGHTS ON THE SCHEDULE

The schedule’s out, and while I don’t want to spend a ton of time on it because we’ve dissected it a few times on the site already, I will say this—the NFL hasn’t been dying to discuss what it did here to set up a slate amid all the uncertainty the pandemic has created. Normally, the league is pretty open about its process in this department and puts guys like Howard Katz and Onnie Bose out front to explain it, and get those guys the credit they deserve. (Here’s my story from inside the league office on schedule release day in 2019.)

This year? Crickets.

So, quickly, in case you missed them, there were a couple things that have a contingency-plan tinge baked into the schedule. One, every team shares a bye with its Week 2 opponent, making it relatively simple to collapse a 17-week schedule into 16 weeks without byes. Two, there are no division games in Weeks 3 or 4 and each team has one home game and one road game in that two-week cluster. Which would make it relatively simple to shorten the slate to 14 games.

Mostly, though, this schedule reads like the NFL would much prefer to move its season than shorten it. Interconference games weren’t bunched together, and that would’ve made it easier to lop weeks off the slate. And Tampa has contingency dates for Super Bowl LV later in February and March, if the season has to be pushed back.

OK, now that we have that out of the way, here are five things I thought were interesting about how all this was set up.

1) There are six games at MetLife Stadium in the first five weeks of the season. And yes, the NFL was handicapped a bit on this one, since two teams play in that facility, and neither the Jets nor Giants merit a ton of primetime games (which is what it would take to have the two doubling up on home games on different weekends). Still, this went further than that. This was actually front-loading the schedule at a facility a bike ride away from the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. I don’t know why you wouldn’t try to avoid that.

2) The league must feel good about SoFi Stadium in L.A. and Allegiant Stadium in Vegas opening on time. The Rams cut the ribbon on the former on the first Sunday night of the season, and the Raiders open the latter on the second Monday night of the year.

3) The Bengals and Dolphins are playing in Week 13, which is great news for anyone who wants a Tua Tagovailoa vs. Joe Burrow matchup. The later that game came in the calendar, the better the chance that we’d get see them go head-to-head, as they did in last November’s Bama/LSU thriller. This one’s in December. Over the last five years, Patrick Mahomes is the only first-round quarterback, in a group of 16, not to be starting by that juncture of his rookie year, and that was because the Chiefs had Alex Smith and were contending.

4) Conversely, I love that we’re getting Mahomes and Lamar Jackson in Week 3. The game’s in Baltimore, giving us a much better shot at temperate conditions, which is what the Chiefs and Ravens had last year for Kansas City’s 33-28 win. If you’re rooting for a shootout, like I am, getting this one in September iss a win.

5) I love that both the Patriots and Bucs maxed out on primetime games. How Tom Brady and Bill Belichick track without each other is as big a storyline as we’ve got for 2020, so it makes all the sense in the world that the NFL wanted to let the country follow along. We were always going to get a lot of Tampa, based on the circumstances. Getting as much New England as the nation does is a fun twist.

***

REMEMBERING DON SHULA

We touched on Don Shula’s legacy in a couple of my columns last week, and the one thing that continues to leap out at me is his mind-blowing longevity. My dad was 13 when Shula was hired in Baltimore. I was three weeks shy of my 16th birthday when he retired from the Dolphins. He went straight through, without a break, in between as an NFL head coach.

He had two losing seasons, going 6–8 in 1976 and 6–10 in 1988. He was 71-23-4 in Baltimore, and somehow better in Miami. He entered a new frontier in taking the job, in going into pro football in Florida, and left it with the state having become a hotbed at all three level of the game. He went to three Super Bowls, and won two, in his first four years with the Dolphins, got back again in his 13th year with David Woodley at QB, and then drafted Dan Marino.

I was too young to remember most of that, and I was a teenager at the end—when it seemed like his retirement was simply going to boil down to when Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga could convince ex-Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson to take the job, which happened in early 1996. But what I can recall is what a mythical figure Shula was, sort of like Red Auerbach was as I grew up in the Boston area, only Shula was still coaching.

I also remember, when I started doing this for a living, how revered he was in the Dolphins organization, and maybe even more so during the times when the organization couldn’t get out of its own way, almost like his presence brought a certainly dignity to the place when things seemed hopeless.

All I know is there aren’t many guys like that, and I have to think a big part of it was how his legend connected generations. Which is the kind of legend few guys can claim to have.

RIP, Coach.

***

TEN TAKEAWAYS

The availability—and likely continued availability—of Cam Newton and Joe Flacco is another example of the NFL’s quarterback bubble bursting. Going into last year, 31 of the NFL’s 32 teams had either a quarterback on a veteran deal making $16 million per year, or a former first-rounder on a rookie deal. Dallas, with ex-fourth-round pick Dak Prescott in the saddle was the one exception, and two teams had both. Adding Prescott to the others, tally that up and you come to 34 quarterbacks. Put Broncos second-rounder Drew Lock in the mix, and the number becomes 35. Now, account for three first-rounders coming into the league this year—Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow, Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa and the Chargers’ Justin Herbert—and the number climbs to 38. Eliminate Andrew Luck, and it’s back down to 37.

See what’s happened here? NFL teams have overinvested to try and find answers at the most important position. I can’t argue with the strategy. If you get it right, no one remembers how you got there. It’s easy to forget that the Seahawks paid Matt Flynn in 2012 and that the Eagles paid Sam Bradford in 2016, because those were the years that Seattle landed Russell Wilson and Philly moved up to get Carson Wentz. But it goes a long way to explaining how we got to a point where names like Newton and Flacco are out there and available. The position, in general, is incredibly healthy in the NFL, in part because the league’s widened its scope in what it looks for. But teams’ constant search for the next one, added to guys like Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers smashing old norms for longevity, have led to a situation that once was unthinkable. Quarterback supply is outpacing quarterback demand. And so someone was going to be left standing when the music stopped. (It’s not totally a coincidence, either, that the two guys who are have a lot of trouble have an injury history, which is a bigger problem now than it’s ever been, given that players can’t travel to take physicals.)

Does it stink for Newton and Flacco? Sure. Is it fair? Probably not. But someone was going to wind up in this position. Andy Dalton and Jameis Winston, of course, were right there with those guys too, and got jobs with a willingness to take less money and a backup role.

That said, that Newton doesn’t have a job speaks to how the NFL handles the quarterback position. And specifically, it speaks to how starting quarterback and backup quarterback spots are filled via very different job descriptions. Is Newton one of the 32 best quarterbacks in the world? Yes, he is. But, in a weird way, NFL teams aren’t always seeking the best players to fill out their depth chart at that position. If you have a young guy, specifically, a lot of times, coaches will want the backup to be a resource to the starter, rather than a threat to him—Newton had a guy like that behind him for a lot of years, in Derek Anderson. That’s one reason why Josh McCown had such a long second run in the league. It’s also why some other guys wash out quickly. And crazy as it sounds, if the Broncos are that committed to seeing what they have in Drew Lock and the Jaguars are similarly committed to checking out Gardner Minshew (and those teams’ actions say they are), then it would be one explanation why they haven’t moved on Newton, because Newton has never been in that sort of position in the past.

But that doesn’t mean some other, more quarterback-secure teams don’t look at it as foolish. And one veteran scouting director working with such a team affirmed that for me this week, texting, on Newton, “If it isn’t a money issue, any other excuse is just bullshit on behalf of the decision maker. Cam at less than 100% is still better than Mike Glennon, Cooper Rush, Jeff Driskel, Matt Barkley, Brian Hoyer, Mason Rudolph, Duck Hodges, Logan Woodside and Kyle Allen. Seattle should also consider bringing him in. Their current backup behind Russell [Wilson] is an undrafted rookie. … If he or his reps have expressed that [he doesn’t want to be a backup], then I understand. But if it’s just an assumption based on what’s they think his personality is, then, again, it’s a very lazy way of doing business.”

The league’s commitment to competitive balance is about to get tested. And I think a quote from Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, from a conference call with local reporters, highlighted this looming issue. “There’s a couple of things that we’re committed to adhering to, and that’s the global approach of the National Football League, in regards to football ops and how important competitive fairness is in our game,” Tomlin said. “We all got to get started on the same footing in that regard. Then, also, respecting our local government and the guidelines they prescribe individually in terms of workplace safety. Those are the two key components for us. We’re in a wait-and-see mindset, and we’ll be ready to go when both boxes are checked.”

To this point, the NFL has followed the doctrine Tomlin’s referencing here—that no team can open until all teams can open. But in a memo to teams last week, the league laid out a plan to start reopening facilities, with a desire to start Phase I of the plan on May 15 (which would allow no more than 50% of team employees, up to a total of 75, to return to work, and no players outside of those rehabbing). That means things would, on paper, come to a head this week. Will they? Well, I was on the Crossover podcast last week with my buddy Chris Mannix, and Mannix, our NBA insider, said that basketball teams talked big about keeping things even, from team to team, weeks ago. And when push came to shove over the last couple of weeks, the NBA decided going forward with it as states started to reopen wasn’t logical. So the question for the NFL would be this: When will push come to shove? Per that memo, you might start to see it this week.

Warford has given the Saints plenty to celebrate: He’s made each of the last three Pro Bowls.

Warford has given the Saints plenty to celebrate: He’s made each of the last three Pro Bowls.

Larry Warford gives us a perfect example of how cold the NFL can be. And it’s not that the ex-Saints guard—who made the Pro Bowl in each of his three years in New Orleans—is a victim for having been cut this week. He made $25.5 million over his time there. But his is a good example of how these things happen. Because of Drew Brees’s style of play, as a 6-foot quarterback who stays in the pocket, the Saints have always made a huge investment on the interior of their offensive line to give the quarterback the clean throwing lanes he needs. Warford has been a part of that, as were the two inside guys he played with (Andrus Peat, Erik McCoy) last year. So Sean Payton and Co. weren’t going to leave themselves wanting in that area by whacking Warford in March. But if they had a chance to get another interior guy, in Michigan center Cesar Ruiz, that they really liked? That’d chance things. And so they kept Warford as insurance, and pounced when Ruiz fell into their laps at No. 24. That, then, gave them the flexibility to save $8.5 million against the cap by cutting Warford—which wound up being another big plus for the team, given that the Saints came out of draft week with less breathing room under the cap ($3.85 million) than all but three other teams. Which, in turn, put Warford out there on the market at a time when most cap space has been spent and needs have been filled. That is a tough spot for the 29-year-old to be in. Good thing he already got paid.

You gotta be happy for Philip Rivers. It’s pretty cool that he found a school, in St. Michael of Fairhope, Ala., willing to name him coach-in-waiting, which allows him to finish out his NFL career and fulfill what he told me last summer really has been a lifelong dream of his. Rivers’s dad was his high school coach, and based on his own experience through that time, he’s known for a good while that, when his two sons got to be high school age, he wanted to coach them as his dad did him. Gunner, the elder of his two sons, is entering sixth grade in the fall, and was a quarterback on a flag team back in San Diego that Philip coached, a team that actually also included ex-Charger safety Eric Weddle’s son Gaige. So the St. Michael football team may be getting a pretty good quarterback out of this deal, too. Rivers, by the way, also said when we talked last August, that he already has a pretty good outline of what his offense is going to look like, when he trades his helmet for a headset, an exchange that should happen in the next year or two (and certainly will go down by the time his kid gets to high school age).

This quote from Nick Saban, to a Giants.com podcast, on safety Xavier McKinney and how Bama DBs transition to the league, just leapt out at me: “Our guys typically make good adjustments. I know a few years ago we had six guys sign NFL contracts and five of them ended up starting as rookies. Even though this will be a transition, I think most of the things that [McKinney] is going to be exposed to, he’s probably done. They might call it something different. I think it’ll be an easy transition for him.” Saban referenced his experience in Cleveland and Miami, and how he’s brought an NFL flavor to how he teaches his defensive backs—if you go out to a Bama practice, that’s where Saban spends his time during position-group drills—and there’s no question McKinney was a prized pupil. Saban is notoriously honest with NFL coaches about his players (he doesn’t sugarcoat), and all accounts I got were that he raved to teams about his All-America safety, more so than any player in this year’s class, including Tua Tagovailoa (who he also loved). I think it’s fair to have your radar up for the Giants potentially having a steal in the 36th overall pick, and it sure does line up that one of Saban’s ex-assistants, Joe Judge, wound up getting him. A 4.6 time in the 40-yard dash caused him to slip, but he was a consideration for Dallas at No. 17 even after that, to give you an idea on the kind of bargain this one might be.

The virtual nature of the offseason program has taken the teeth out of spring holdouts, but I would definitely keep an eye on the tailbacks from the 2017 draft class. Christian McCaffrey became the first one to get paid—bringing home a four-year, $64 million extension. And he’ the best player in the group. But Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook, New Orleans’s Alvin Kamara and Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon all have compelling cases in asking for new deals and, unlike McCaffrey, they are all going into the final year of their rookie contracts (the Panthers held a fifth-year option on McCaffrey since he was a first-rounder). They also have reason to push the issue, because of how quickly it can go away for a player at that position. Todd Gurley is a great example of that. And Zeke Elliott can give them a roadmap, in showing the merits in taking a hard-line stance after three years. If I were them, based on all of the above, I would probably be pretty pushy myself.

Bengals coach Zac Taylor saying “we’re set” at quarterback this week is as clear a signal as any that Joe Burrow will be starting against the Chargers on Sept. 13. Ryan Finley is the closest thing the team has to an “incumbent” on the roster—he has all of three career starts, posted a 62.1 passer rating last fall before ceding the job back to Andy Dalton and is just two years older than Burrow. Bottom line, if there was a thought of redshirting Burrow, the team would either have kept Dalton or brought in a McCown type to hold the fort. Instead, this is setting up like 2011, when the team entered camp, post-lockout, with every intention of going with Dalton, then a rookie second-round pick. Dalton got the first-team reps right away, and was first on the depth chart for the team’s preseason opener, and it would seem likely now that the Bengals follow a similar path with Burrow when we get to the summer.

One of the things I picked up from the Browns’ in-house production on their draft was GM Andrew Berry conceding how important finding a tackle was. And that was after Berry told the media that they weren’t married the idea of taking one in the first round. So what was the benefit in trying to create perception they might not take a tackle? Well, the Jaguars, at No. 9, became a hot spot for teams sniffing around on trading up for a tackle, and by the time they got on the clock, there was only one off the board. In this case, and with the Browns having called around on trading down, it’s possible teams further down the line didn’t feel a great sense of urgency to leapfrog Cleveland. So the Jags took a corner (C.J. Henderson) and Wills fell into the Browns’ laps, giving Berry the tackle he wanted all along. And now, there’s a second subplot I’ll be following. Cleveland’s clearly projecting Wills to left tackle. But he has very little experience playing there—all 29 of his career starts were at right tackle, where he protected the lefty Tagovailoa’s blindside. Meanwhile, free-agent acquisition Jack Conklin was signed to play right tackle, the spot he manned in Tennessee, but actually has way more experience (35 of his 38 starts at Michigan State were at left tackle) on the left than Wills does. What do I think happens? I think Wills will play left tackle, with Conklin on the right, and NFL folks do too. “(Conklin’s) a right tackle,” said one AFC scouting director, “Wills has much better feet.” But I do think it’s worth considering the history of both guys. Either way, the Browns have a pretty good line coach, in Bill Callahan, to figure it out.

I’ve asked around a bunch the last couple weeks to try and find the next quarterback who might pull what Burrow, Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield did: emerge from the pack to become a high first-round pick. And one name came up a few times, and my buddy/NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah raised it on the podcast last week too—Stanford QB Davis Mills. The 6' 4", 212-pound redshirt junior was the consensus No. 1 pro-style quarterback recruit in the high school class of 2017, and seized the starting job last year when incumbent K.J. Costello got banged up (Costello has since transferred to play for Mike Leach at Mississippi State). So keep an eye on Mills.

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SIX FROM THE SIDELINE

1) I started listening to a New York Times podcast called “Rabbit Hole” on Sunday, on the advice of a friend of mine. And I’ll pass that advice on to you guys—two episodes in and I’m hooked on a show that explains how the internet has affected America.

2) Baseball’s caution should give everyone pause on what’s ahead in football. Per Ken Rosenthal, of Fox Sports and the Athletic, MLB is planning on kicking off a season of 78–82 games in early July, and starting without fans in the stands. Training camps, as you know, open that month.

3) The budget crunch at Big 10 schools like Wisconsin and Minnesota show vividly the importance of football in the athletic departments in major conferences. And that’s why I wouldn’t be worried about the future of college football so much coming out of this as I would be concerned on what becomes of all the non-revenue sports that football has financed forever.

4) The Bundesliga starts back up in Germany this Saturday and you better believe that the NFL will be keeping a close eye on what happens over there.

5) Billions remains the best show on TV.

6) Since it’s been a topic of discussion all week, I’d say this about the 1992 Dream Team—leaving Isiah Thomas off was ridiculous then, as everyone knew at the time, and it remains ridiculous now. Of the guys on that team, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were clearly the three most deserving. I think Isiah would’ve been fourth, if you were putting a list together then. So that he was left out speaks to two things: The absurdity of the omission and the power of Jordan.

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BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

The best part of Very Cavallari (I came to watch with my wife and stayed for Jay) was definitely Cutler’s attitude toward the whole thing. And this week, we found out that attitude was no acting job.

I can’t wait for this. And Peyton’s pretty funny here, even if he did have those lines in the holster for the occasion.

Burrow keeps winning. (Also, he has the same theme that my sons have in their room, so I guess that’s a good omen for ol’ Stephen and Drew Breer.)

S/o to outgoing Titans president Steven Underwood, whose facial hair has always been the star of the show and who was a staple at league meetings, both inside and outside the conference rooms. Underwood’s retiring after 40 years, and was integral to the NFL becoming a success in Tennessee, which was an untapped gold mine for major pro sports, before Bud Adams moved the Oilers there in the 1990s.

I don’t care which team you root for, you should be rooting for Alex Smith.

This isn’t an NFL tweet, but it’s from the NFL’s Tweet King, so I’m including it.

This is fantastic by the Saints. And big s/o to Pequod’s, which is the best deep dish in Chicago, and it’s not real close.

I’m not that familiar with TikTok, but this isn’t bad.

Not cool.

This is a good watch, whether you’re a Browns fan or not, on Cleveland’s virtual draft.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

I’ll raise May 15 again here as a date to watch—that’s this coming Friday, for those of you who don’t have a calendar in front of you right now.

Will anything happen? We’ll see. Only 11 of the league’s 32 teams (the Titans, Texans, Jaguars, Colts, Dolphins, Chiefs, Broncos, Raiders, Cowboys, Bucs and Falcons) play in states that have re-opened, and of those 11, only the Raiders have yet to relocate their operations to said state and are living under California’s rules, for now. The Cardinals, Saints and Bills could have their stay-at-home orders lifted before Friday, too.

I will say that there’s no easy answer here.

On one hand, I get Tomlin’s point. It’s inherently unfair to let a team that happens to be in a less-affected part of the country gain a competitive advantage because of the pandemic, and the NFL’s not at a stage in its calendar (like the NBA is) where the league has to act with urgency. On the other, it seems silly to force people to meet over Zoom if it’s relatively safe for them to go in, and it probably would help non-football personnel stay employed if they could do so, too.

And all of this is why I’m not really sure why the NFL felt compelled to impose that deadline on itself. But it did, so we’ll be watching, whether they take real action or not.

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