MAQB: Rookies Are Way Behind on Signing; Justyn Ross's Surgery Is Big NFL News; More

An inability to get physicals means that many NFL rookies haven't signed contracts or been paid a dime yet. Plus, Justyn Ross's injury is not just a Clemson story but a major 2021 draft story, Frank Reich's powerful statement and more notes from around the league.
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With more important matters ongoing in our world, here’s some football for you guys …

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• Want a motivator for teams to get some players back in before the end of June? A lot of rookies still haven’t been paid a dime yet, for obvious reasons relating to their inability to take physicals. Only guys who are close enough to team doctors to go in or with teams willing to do third-party physicals are signed, and that has the number of rookie deals way down. By the end of May last year, 204 of 254 draft picks (80.3%) were signed, including 20 of 32 first-round picks. This year? As of June 1, just 51 of 255 draft picks (an even 20%) are signed, with only two of 32 first-rounders (Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa and Panthers DT Derrick Brown) inked. Even many undrafted free agents who agreed to terms back in April haven’t actually signed yet. And so there is a reason for teams and players to find a way to get rookies in at some point over the last two weeks of June. The idea of teams getting some players back before the end of the offseason program has been discussed for weeks, in part to allow teams to start testing their protocols and create a sort of soft opening so it’s not just an opening-of-the-floodgates in July. Maybe that is put into action with rookies coming in first.

• Another group of rookies that’s hurt—the tryout guys. Normally, those guys would get their shot by filling out rosters for rookie minicamps, but the uncertainty over what form those will take puts those guys in peril. Not too many tryout guys make it, but there have been some pretty incredible success stories, like Adam Thielen and Malcolm Butler.

• The news that Clemson WR Justyn Ross will have surgery after learning, via a spring injury, that he has a congenital fusion, isn’t just big college football news. It’s big NFL news, too. The 6' 4", 205-pound 20-year-old was one of the heroes of the national title game in January 2019, and he had 112 catches for 1,865 yards and 17 touchdowns through two collegiate seasons. Going into his junior year, he was widely considered by NFL folks as a better prospect than his old running mate Tee Higgins, who was drafted 33rd overall by the Bengals in April, and a potential top-15 pick. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told reporters Monday that he’s hopeful that Ross will get healthy and have a decision to make on declaring for the pros in seven months, but there’s no guarantee of anything (even that he’ll play again) at this point. It’s hard not to feel for Ross, who was so close to making a fortune in the pros. I touched base with a few evaluators on Monday that hadn’t studied him yet, but mentioned him as a guy who was impossible to miss when studying other guys. “Every bit as good as Higgins (already), probably, with a higher ceiling,” said one college scouting director. “Would’ve been a first-rounder.”

• For what it’s worth, while we’re there, next year’s receiver class may actually be better at the top (though not as deep overall) than this year’s historic group. LSU’s JaMarr Chase, and Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith enter the season with a shot to be top 15-20 picks. Ross would’ve been battling those three for position in the fall.

• Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer allowing for pro sports teams in the state to practice is a big deal for the NFL—because Michigan has been one of the more restrictive states throughout (Whitmer has flat out said they won’t be packing fans into stadiums in the fall)—but there’s also a flip side there, and that’s the cap on people allowed under the order and the requirements on social distancing. Both would make it tough for a football team to function, given the nature of sport and number of people it takes to run even a practice. Again, the clock’s ticking. June 26 is the end of the window for players to come in as part of the offseason program.

• While we’re there, keep an eye on the NHL’s daily testing protocol, and how that gets set up. It’ll be more complicated for NFL teams to have the capacity to pull that off, given that they’ll each be bringing 90 players and around 20 coaches to training camp.

• Vic Tafur of The Athletic wrote a nice story the other day on Raiders WR Clelin Ferrell, and in there was the news that Ferrell has bulked up, from 262 pounds to 275 pounds. And that underscores the fact that Year 1 to Year 2 is when a lot of guys make their biggest gains as pros (it’s something Bill Belichick says routinely every year). The obvious piece of that is that players simply get their footing in the NFL. Less obvious is this: Going through the grind from a final college season, to combine prep, to pro days, to private workouts and travel for visits, to rookie minicamps, to OTAs and veteran minicamps, to training camp, to finally reaching that actual first season … is a grind. Simply having the chance to reset and focus on areas to improve on is valuable. Guys like Ferrell certainly have gotten that this offseason, amid weird circumstances.

• Throw Washington WR Terry McLaurin in that group, too. He’s stayed local this offseason in D.C., which has allowed him to get work in with Dwayne Haskins (fellow sophomore WR Kelvin Harmon has been in that group, too) the last couple months. Which is one reason why Ron Rivera spoke so highly of him the other day.

• I did want to make sure I got this, from Falcons president and competition committee chair Rich McKay, out there: I asked him if he was impressed with all the work the coaches have done on the SkyJudge concept (which we detailed last week), and he couldn’t answer that question fast enough. “I’m always impressed by it,” McKay said. “Listen, the coaches have always, forever been very involved in the rules process. What I’ve been impressed with in this one is how they’ve been passionate, committed and yet rational about the steps necessary to do it. That’s what I’ve been impressed by. To me, you just can’t just throw the two words out, Sky Judge. You gotta define what you mean by it. The idea that the official sitting up there, call him an official, whatever want to call that individual, could have a bigger impact on game and help us with officiating makes perfect sense. The way in which that’s going to be done and executed is really going to take some time. And to me, it’s required to be baby steps as we try to get that right.” The coaches, in their work, acknowledged that, which is why the league is going forward with the preseason test. (We got more on all that in the Monday morning column, if you’re interested.)

• And given where we are as a country, we’ll leave you with Colts coach Frank Reich’s comments from this morning, which were well-delivered on a call with the local media in Indy: “Injustice, few things, few things stir the human heart and soul like injustice. When we see it, feel it, experience it, it’s heart wrenching. It’s not enough for a person who looks like me to say, ‘I’m not racist.’ This kind of talk and thinking, it typically lends itself to a posture of neutrality, indifference, and passivity. It’s easy to be silent and do nothing, when it doesn’t directly impact you. This attitude simply doesn’t evoke any conviction about doing what is right, and standing up for the inherent dignity and rights of all people, no matter the color of their skin. I stand firmly behind the Colts statement, and in particular, the phrase that says, ‘We abhor racism.’ Racism is vile, deplorable, detestable. There’s no form of it that is acceptable, and in no way can it be justified. Our black community has bore the brunt of this injustice far too long. I believe that I—we—all have a personal responsibility to speak up, and to act in ways that build each other up, not tear each other down. I believe each one of us can make a difference if we’re willing to grow personally and display the courage necessary for us to take steps of progress in this most important of issues. Just wanted to, just felt compelled to make a statement I’ve spent some time writing and just wanted to share personally. I know we issued an organizational statement, but spent some time thinking and writing a statement that would reflect my own personal views. And just cannot be silent. Want to be proactive and so want to do my part and feel responsible.”

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