Mailbag: NFL's Top Five Defenses to Watch in 2020

Plus, looking back at the 2018 national anthem policy that was never implemented, Dalvin Cook's holdout, when the rookie quarterbacks will play, whether Dak Prescott will play on the tag and much more.
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Let’s jump right into the mailbag this week …

From Rule of Law (@Offendeddude): Will the NFL unequivocally state their full support for the American flag and what it stands for and condemn any and all actions by players that disrespect it??

I figured I’d use this as a jumping off point to give you guys a quick refresher on what happened two years ago, and then explain my own feelings on the national anthem.

You may remember in May 2018, and after considering leaving the old policy alone, NFL owners voted through a controversial new policy, 31-0 (49ers owner Jed York abstained). It had six conditions, and required standing for the anthem, with commissioner Roger Goodell given power to punish teams for not having their personnel do so, while giving players the option to stay in the locker room while it played.

The policy was put in place without input from the players, and players’ pushback led to a series of talks, culminating in an Aug. 27 summit in New Jersey during which the sides decided, simply, not to enact the new policy, and to leave the old policy as it was. And that, for the most part, worked. Over the last two years, ratings have boomed, and the national anthem issue hasn’t come up nearly as much.

And here’s the really interesting part to me—the decision was made in part based on a mountain of analytical data on President Donald Trump’s reaction to all of this. What it showed was that Trump’s tweets on the NFL’s policies didn’t actually move the needle on the national football conversation much. What did? When teams reacted to Trump’s tweets. So the idea here was simple. Work with the players. Let the anthem issue be. Ignore Trump.

Now, this is going to be a little different. The climate has changed significantly the last couple weeks, and players are more emboldened to speak out than ever before. It’s an election year, and Trump wasted no time using this issue to rile his base (it took 48 hours, post-Goodell video).

But I’ll say this: Goodell would need to do a 180 now to enact any sort of anthem policy. He basically admitted the league was wrong in trying previously to curtail protests, and an attempt to do so again would devalue his word forever with the players, and make a liar of him. So I’d expect the league to stand its ground on this one (though the reaction of each individual team remains a variable).

As for where I am on this, I’ll always stand for the anthem. That’s a personal decision for me, and it’s based on honoring family and friends. But I’d never want to impose a requirement to do that on anyone else, nor do I think it’s my place to tell anyone else how to interpret the anthem. In fact, as I see it, forced ceremony’s got a pretty scary history on this planet. Take it from the son of someone born in Austria in the early 1940s.

And as to your question on respecting the flag/anthem itself, players have said repeatedly that protests during the anthem are not about disrespecting the flag. Personally, I’d lean back on my belief that it’s up to each individual American to interpret those symbols of our country. They mean different things to different people. I don’t think it’s up to me, or anyone else, to tell others how to define those things for themselves. It’s possible to love and respect the country we live in, and understand there’s still plenty we can do to improve it.

From Mark Hartley (@markdeafsmith): Who are the top five defenses to watch this year?

I answered this on my podcast (download and subscribe!), and it’s a fun one, so let’s get to it here too. Remember, Mark said top five to watch, not top five. So here are my top five to watch

49ers: Kwon Alexander’s back. Nick Bosa’s a year older. The Niners found a way to keep Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward, while having to let go of the game-wrecking DeForest Buckner. And they added Javon Kinlaw and held on to coordinator Robert Saleh. This super athletic group should be a blast to watch.

Bears: The talent remains there, but the core of the unit is getting older. Akiem Hicks (30), Danny Trevathan (30), Khalil Mack (29) and Kyle Fuller (28) are getting closer to the back end of their primes, while Eddie Jackson (26) and Eddie Goldman (26) are in the heart of theirs. And they added 30-year-old Robert Quinn to play a prime role, too. So which way this proud group goes will be interesting.

Chargers: You’ve got freakish talents like Joey Bosa and Derwin James. You have proven veterans like Melvin Ingram and Casey Heyward. And you’re injecting a potential star at linebacker in rookie Kenneth Murray. Health is always the question with this group. But if they can stay healthy, there is a boatload of upside here.

Ravens: The Ravens had a tough month to start last season, by their standards, but tightened up once they got an experienced middle linebacker (Josh Bynes) in to fill the void left by C.J. Mosley. This year? Bynes is gone, and they could be starting two rookie ’backers. The good news is the secondary is off the charts and the front should be fearsome.

Steelers: Pittsburgh finally started to make its way back on defense last year, and a crew of ascending young guys led by T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Devin Bush gives this group potential to make another jump in 2020. Remember, the Steelers went 8-8 with Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges at quarterback, so the idea of reintegrating Big Ben Roethlisberger with a better defense to work with is interesting.

And since I forgot to mention them on the podcast, I’ll give you guys the Bills as a bonus pick here. I love their young cornerstones—Tre’Davious White, Tremaine Edmunds, Ed Oliver and Matt Milano—and Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier are among the best at developing young talent. So they should be fun to watch too.

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From RaideRon (@macomboys): The season following a team relocating is usually very poor. Do you see the Raiders having a similar season after moving to Vegas this year? Or is their coaching consistency and the injection of important missing player personnel enough to think they can snag a wildcard spot?

Ron, I actually think the Raiders will be OK. The team has been a lame duck the last couple years in Oakland, so having a permanent home, and going from an old, outdated practice facility and stadium to a state-of-the-art facility and stadium should be a good thing (most teams that have relocated were in limbo on either or both after they move). I also think the fact that the franchise has a national fan base should make the move in that regard a lot less tumultuous than it might be otherwise.

And having a veteran staff, led by Jon Gruden, shouldn’t hurt either—all three coordinators have seen a lot in their years, and shouldn’t be shaken by something like this.

But there is one thing I’ll be watching closely, and that’s the simple fact that it’s Vegas where they’re going. For years, the Dolphins have always been cognizant of the types of people they’re bringing in to fill out their roster, because the guys in charge there, over different regimes, have known not every 20-something can handle having constant access to everything Miami has to offer someone of that age. Well, the same sort of thing now applies to the Raiders. Lots of young guys will be tested in a way they weren’t in Oakland.

From FreakofNature (@mphoenix1603): Dak. Plays this year on the tag or under a long-term deal?

Freak, love the direct nature of the question—since I’ve been asked every which way about the Dak Prescott situation other than that one. Bottom line, I think his new deal gets done at the deadline. The Cowboys have had tumultuous contract negotiations in the past. They’ve had tagged players upset with the pace of talks before. And when it comes down to it, Jerry Jones winds up signing the guys he genuinely wants to keep, and Prescott’s certainly in that category.

DeMarcus Lawrence was tagged twice and got a deal. Dez Bryant was tagged and got a deal. Anthony Spencer was tagged twice and wound up getting hurt (changing the dynamic). And you can go back to see safety Ken Hamlin tagged in 2008, and he got a long-term deal too. Other current core guys on the roster? Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Jaylon Smith, Amari Cooper and Zeke Elliott are locked up, and Prescott will be too.

Now, if your question is how Dallas and Prescott’s people get there, that part is more complicated. At issue, for now, is the length of the deal. The Cowboys have signed most of their stars to five- and six-year extensions, and Prescott would rather go the Russell Wilson route (Wilson is on his third four-year deal, and has made more as a result), to be in position to benefit from the TV money and gambling windfall the NFL is expected to reap.

Will the Cowboys be willing to break from precedent, after insisting on longer deals with the others? Will Prescott bend if Dallas sweetens the total money or guarantees? I can’t answer those questions right now. But I’d bet they’ll figure it out.

From big blue for life!! (@sld150): Who’s gonna start Week 1 for the Chargers in your opinion?

Big Blue, I think, just based on the circumstances, it’ll probably be Tyrod Taylor. Justin Herbert’s already almost certain to lose OTAs and two minicamps, and will go to camp with the new CBA reducing the number of padded practices each team can have (from 28 to 16). Additionally, my feeling is Anthony Lynn looks at 2019 as a blip, and sees his team as a contender, so it’s not as if this will be a throwaway year to get the young guy reps.

But we always go to history on these things and history gives us a couple hints as to how this could play out.

First, 2011 can serve as a good guide to how 2020 might unfold, because that offseason was truncated too. Six quarterbacks went in that draft’s top 40. The two that started Week 1 (Cam Newton, Andy Dalton) played for teams that were giving them a boatload of work with the first team in practice from the jump, with intention of starting them. Two others (Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder) seized the starting jobs in the first half of the year, when their teams struggled. The final two (Jake Locker, Colin Kaepernick) were true redshirts, playing for contenders getting very competent veteran QB play.

Second, and this will back up the first point, based on a bigger sample size, in the 11 drafts between 2009 and ’19, only two of 35 first-round quarterbacks were true redshirts. One was Locker. The other was Patrick Mahomes. And Mahomes, like Locker, was playing for a contending team that was getting competent starting quarterback play. If you wanna consider Paxton Lynch a redshirt in 2016, the same principle applies.

So in there is the answer—Herbert probably doesn’t play Week 1, but the Chargers will turn to him at some point, unless the team remains in contention for the balance of the season and Taylor plays well throughout, which is certainly possible.

From Brock Ascher (@BrockAscher): Does Tua play this year?

Brock, taking everything we just said about Herbert into account, my answer on Tua Tagovailoa would be yes, he will play at some point. I think the Chargers are contenders. I see the Dolphins, for now, as a team that will be a tough out on a week-to-week basis, but I don’t think they’ll be in the playoff chase in December—they still have work to do along the lines of scrimmage—which will leave the staff without a great reason not to play Tua, if he’s not playing already be then.

It’s also notable that Tagovailoa played a bunch as a true freshman at Alabama. Before he and Jalen Hurts came along, this was the class standing of Nick Saban’s starting QBs in Tuscaloosa (2007-15): redshirt junior, fifth-year senior, redshirt junior, fifth-year senior, redshirt sophomore, redshirt junior, fifth-year senior, fifth-year senior, fifth-year senior. In fact, prior to 2016, Saban hadn’t so much as had a QB with less than three years in college start a single game at Bama. The trend holds over his history at LSU and Michigan State too.

So Hurts breaking through to become starter as a true freshman in 2016, in part with Bama moving to a scheme with spread principles, was a big deal, and that Saban would take reps from him, and play Tagovailoa in spurts to give the offense a spark in 2017, was, too. Even crazier was that he trusted Tagovailoa enough to turn to him at halftime of the freaking national title game that year.

That, to me, should tell you that Tagovailoa will be prepared to play whenever his number is called, and the moment won’t be too big for him.

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From Lee Bromfield (@LeeBrom): Dalvin Cook - the daftest holdout since Melvin Gordon?

Lee, I actually think Gordon is probably a bad comparison. Cook’s been hurt more, but has proven to be a better, more versatile player when he is on the field. He’s also 24 and heading into Year 4, with 457 career carries as he makes his play for a new contract, whereas Melvin Gordon was 26, going into Year 5 with 897 career carries.

The other factor? How reliant each team was on the player. The Chargers had Austin Ekeler in reserve, playing in an offense loaded with skill position talent (Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Hunter Henry). Conversely, the Vikings’ situation behind Cook is murky, the team just traded Stefon Diggs and the offense was clearly built around the former second-round pick last year, so taking him out of the equation would represent a pretty massive blow.

And taking all of this into account, I think you can see where some of Gordon’s inconsistency his first three years in the league really cost him. A tailback holding out after three years makes sense—you can pay the guy and still feel pretty comfortable you’ll get, say, another three years of top-shelf play for him. After Year 4, the future can look cloudier. Bottom line, Cook breaking out in Year 3, positioned him better.

An example that bolsters this point? I’d actually tell you Le’Veon Bell waited too long to force the issue in Pittsburgh, which really wound up costing him.

I’ll also say this—it’s possible to maintain both that a tailback should do all he can, based on the dynamics of the position, to get paid as early as he possibly can, while conceding that a team should be very careful about paying a star at that spot. Backs wear down too fast, and there are too many good ones out there that teams can reasonably get by with. Which is why, again, any guy at that position needs to strike when the leverage equation swings his way.

From Craig Ginsberg (@CraigAdamG): What would be considered a successful season for Dave Gettleman to keep his job with the Giants?

Craig, I think much of that will ride not on record, but how young players develop, and in particular how the team looks along the two lines of scrimmage and at quarterback coming out of the 2020 season. Gettleman has invested a ton on the offensive line, bringing Nate Solder, Kevin Zeitler, Will Hernandez and now Andrew Thomas aboard, and infused the D-line with Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams. If you’re scoring, among those six, you’ve got five former first-rounders, with the sixth having been the second pick of Round 2.

So you can’t say Gettleman hasn’t been trying to stock the cupboard with the kind of Hog Mollies that served as his foundation in Carolina. Now, we’ll see if that effort brings results.

Then, there’s the obvious: Gettleman will judged on how Daniel Jones plays. When a GM takes a quarterback as high as Gettleman took Jones, that’s just the reality of it. Much of how he’d be judged from that point forward was going to be tied to how Jones wound up playing.

One thing we do know, for sure, is that Gettleman won’t be around forever. He turns 70 in eight months, and he’s been through a lot of late. In fact, there was even a thought that the Giants might bringing in a Joe Judge-connected heir apparent (Judge is close with ex-Patriot exec Monti Ossenfort, who left New England for Tennessee in May) this offseason. As it is, the team has younger guys (assistant GM Kevin Abrams is one) it likes on staff who could be the successor too, and knows it will, at some point, have to answer this question.

The question, then, is when. And how this season goes should shed some light into that.

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