Why Teams Might Be Smart to Wait to Pay Their Veterans; Jalen Hurts's Competitiveness

The uncertainty over the league's salary cap means some players who want to be the league's highest-paid at their position may have to wait a bit. Plus, Jalen Hurts's competitiveness, Russell Wilson's success on play action, and wishing everyone—especially our veterans—a happy Memorial Day.
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Here’s hoping all of veterans are getting through today alright. I’ve learned the last couple years how tough Memorial Day can be on them, and I think the least we can all do is wish them the best today. And with that, we’re on to less important matters …

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• So this was a fun exercise: I was talking to one of Jalen Hurts’s old coaches the other day, and he basically said that what gives Hurts a real shot in the NFL is his competitiveness, which this coach believes will drive him to keep the improvement he experienced in 2019 at Oklahoma going. And as we talked, I mentioned how good I remember Hurts being at the end of the 2016 national title game against Clemson, one that he and Alabama lost, but also one in which, as an 18-year-old true freshman, he went toe-to-toe with Deshaun Watson. And so I decided to go back and watch the last five minutes of that game. Watson, as we all know, was awesome. But so too was Hurts, who seemed completely unaffected by the circumstances or his own inexperience. His last snap in that one was a 30-yard touchdown run to put the Tide up 31-28 with 2:31 to go. A year later, he’d lose his job to Tua Tagovailoa in the title game—but that was after losing offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who’d been key in his development. I’ll be intrigued to see what Doug Pederson can do with him in Philly. Also, if you have time, re-watch that Alabama-Clemson finish. I promise it’s worth your time.

• I would expect teams to be cautious in doing long-term deals with star players in the coming months, especially in situations where those teams have the flexibility to wait. The reason? If there’s a revenue shortfall this year, and the cap equation spits out a number lower than the $198.2 million figure in place from 2021, it’s pretty unlikely that the league and union will leave that as is. The potential bloodletting of pricey vets and tightened purse strings otherwise would create a one-year free-for-all. More likely would be negotiating a deal where the league would borrow cap dollars from future years, which could lead to multiple years of a flat cap (probably at least until the new TV money kicks in). For now, no one’s sure if it’ll come to that. But teams at least have to be prepared for the idea it could happen, which will lead at some teams to be conservative with their spending. And that’s without even considering that the threat of a revenue shortfall might make teams more conscious of their cap spending too.

• Who will that affect? Probably not Patrick Mahomes. But young non-quarterbacks could find the financial going a little tougher over the next couple months, and it could make things rather interesting with young stars like Chargers DE Joey Bosa, Jets S Jamal Adams, and 49ers TE George Kittle, all of whom will likely seek to set new standards at their positions.

• S/o to my buddy Warren Sharp, for looking this up for me—the point I made in this morning’s MMQB about Russell Wilson being strong off play-action (re: Seattle’s investment in tailbacks) is 100% supported by the numbers. Per Sharp, no quarterback had a bigger jump in his success rate from non-play-action plays (50%) to play-action plays (66%), and his yards per attempt went from 7.4 on the former to 9.4 on the latter, and that’s despite the fact that he threw the ball downfield less off play action. Also, on first half first downs, 47% of Wilson’s throws were off play-action, which was the fourth highest number in the NFL. So if you wanna know why Seattle takes care of the running back position, there’s a big reason for it. The better the back, the bigger threat he is with the ball, the less the defense can do to deal with a more dangerous Wilson.

• Bears coach Matt Nagy telling ESPN 1000’s Waddle & Silvy that he plans to play his starters in the preseason—after not doing so last year—was specific to his read on his own team, but it does open a larger discussion specific to this year for the whole league. Over the last decade, joint practices have gotten more and more common, and coaches have routinely used those as ways of ramping starters up for the season, in lieu of playing them in the riskier environment of preseason games. At this point, it seems like pulling those practices off is going to be difficult. So more coaches may actually need to play their starters in those exhibition games.

• It seems more and more likely that the college season is going to start on time, and there’s an undercover reason—among all the others—for the NFL to be rooting for that. Lots of players with NFL futures are on accelerated academic schedules, allowing them to graduate by their true junior year. As such, a fair number of prospects are set to get degrees in December. And if the college season were pushed back into January and February, and a new academic term, it seems more likely those guys could consider moving on early, and spending the coming months preparing for the draft rather than playing. And while we’re here, one big name set to graduate in December: Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence.

• The process of re-opening NFL facilities will continue this week, with the Jaguars, Packers and Broncos set to welcome back a limited number of employees Tuesday. There still isn’t a timetable for coaches and players to come back.

• When Sean Payton and I talked about the idea of his team wanting to win for Drew Brees this year, the Saints coach emphasized that he didn’t want to saddle his players with that. Then, I brought up that Michael Thomas has, on multiple occasions, said to me that winning for Brees is a motivator for him. “That doesn’t surprise me,” Payton responded. “He’s very passionate, he’s gonna clearly wear his emotions on his sleeve. He’s a passionate person. Definitely.” And that, in turn, brought me back to a conversation I had with Urban Meyer in April about culture, where he brought up the Saints specifically as a model for how NFL organizations should run, in the research he did last year, asking his ex-players about their pro teams. “The culture of the New Orleans Saints, because we have so many players down there, and they all say the same thing, ‘It’s like our practices, it’s so competitive, every day is a competitive situation,’” Meyer said. “And then I’ve talked to other ones, I talk to one, and they never have team meetings. I go, ‘What’s the culture of the program? He says, ‘I’ve got no idea. We just show up and we go to our position meetings.’ It’s incredible.” The point here? Thomas is pretty emblematic of what Meyer had at Ohio State, and Payton has in New Orleans, and is proof positive that when it comes to the culture of these teams, the key is not on some t-shirt or in some pre-camp speech. It’s more about stocking the building with guys who embody it, than about trying to convert people to believe in it. And so, then, you get a guy like Thomas, the best in the game at his position, who cares about the operation and his teammates enough to badly want to give someone like Brees the right ending.

• And we’ll wrap here with a couple Memorial Day notes. One comes from my talks with Seahawks TE Luke Willson and my buddy over at Fox, Jay Glazer, on the MVP program. It turns out, it’s hardly just football players working with soldiers there, and it was cool to hear that people like acclaimed trainer Camie Cragg, Olympic volleyball player Lindsey Berg and ex-MMA’er Royce Gracie, as well as coaches like Dan Quinn, Mike McCarthy, Payton and Dodgers manager Dave Roberts have built bonds with soldiers through the quarantine. Jay’s doing good work.

• I saw this, from Steelers LT Alejandro Villaneuva, today—it first ran on ESPN in 2018. You should watch it. It explains, fully, the meaning of the day to a solider. And I’ll say this: Villanueva might be the most impressive person I’ve met in 15 years covering the NFL, and his story is insane. I first met him in 2014, and wrote about that here. Enjoy the day, everyone.

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