Mailbag: Who Has the Brightest Future in the AFC East?

Opening up the mailbag to look at the AFC East, Antonio Brown, Drew Lock, the Jets' and 49ers' front offices, how the Eagles replace Brandon Brooks and more.
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Gotta say, I really appreciate everyone keeping the questions coming, even with the NFL moving into the dead period in its calendar. Let’s dive into some from this week …

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From Play Neck (@shipcity207): What team has the brightest future in the AFC East?

Play, I’d say right now, it’s the … Buffalo Bills. And I’ve got a few reasons why.

• The Bills have an off-the-charts 25-and-under core on defense, with defensive tackle Ed Oliver (22), linebackers Tremaine Edmunds (22) and Matt Milano (25), and corner Tre’Davious White (22) in the middle of it. I’m not sure anyone in the NFL can say they’ve got a young defensive nucleus like that to build around.

• You can pick at Josh Allen, but the jury really is still out for every team in the division at the position, with the possibility that all four starters come September have three years of experience or less.

• The Bills’ team-building has been pretty strong over the last three years, whether you’re looking at how the brass cleared the financial decks in 2018, how it has drafted (see: aforementioned defensive stars) or how it’s approached free agency (solid, sensible signings like Mitch Morse, John Brown and Cole Beasley) and trades (Stefon Diggs).

• Coach Sean McDermott is now second in the division in playoff appearances, with two in his three years as head coach, and he’s achieved a good level of synergy with Leslie Frazier as DC and Brian Daboll as OC. Take that into the front office, and GM Brandon Beane has a strong group with respected execs Joe Schoen, Dan Morgan and Brian Gaine in the fold. And how well the ex-Panther staffmates McDermott and Beane work together is obvious.

• They’ve given Allen a great shot, with consistent investment in the offensive line, and a skill group that now boasts both proven talent (Diggs, Brown, Morse) and young guys with considerable upside (Devin Singletary, Dawson Knox, Zack Moss).

And I’m saying all this acknowledging the absolute monster of a program in Foxboro that they’re up against. But I’d say when you combine recent draft classes, overall talent, age of the roster and coaching staff/front office stability, it’s hard not to be impressed with what’s going on in Buffalo (as I also wrote about when I talked to McDermott for my MMQB column in May).

From Matt Ramas (@matt_ramas): With the new CBA, how much harder is it now for players like Dalvin Cook to hold out for a new contract?

Matt, for right now, it’s really, really tough. If Cook were to hold out of camp, he’d lose his chance to be an unrestricted free agent in 2021, which would give the Vikings the chance to tender him as an RFA rather than franchise tag him at more than double the price. And based on daily fines of $50,000, it would take 27 days for Cook to lose every dime he’s set to earn this fall.

I’ve always advocated for running backs holding out, and putting pressure on their teams to pay them, because of the obvious dynamics of that position. But I’d have a really tough time under these rules actually telling some to hold out.

That said, this is where we were when the last CBA was implemented ahead of the 2011 season—with then-new rules strengthened to prevent holdouts, after Darrelle Revis rode one to a record-breaking deal the year before. It wasn’t until the fifth year of that CBA that a player carried a holdout into the season (Kam Chancellor). And it really took a couple megastars holding out (Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack) near the end of that CBA for us to see a holdout done the traditional way work out.

So history tells us that someone could challenge the new draconian holdout penalties, but it might take a while before that happens.

From Moose Block (@moose_block): With Antonio Brown’s recent no-contest plea, what does that do to his chances of returning to the NFL?

Moose, I contacted a lawyer friend of mine, who’s worked with players, and asked what it might mean for Brown, and the response I got was: “From a legal standpoint, an absolute nothing burger. No change.”

And that is to say it doesn’t make him any more signable now than he was a couple weeks ago. Ultimately, if a team steps up and wants to bring him in, this one will be up to how Roger Goodell views Brown, and whether he looks at missing the 2019 season as time served. I also think it’s been notable that Goodell has repeatedly referenced Brown’s mental health in discussing the ex-Steeler star’s status with the league.

That tells me Brown’s ability to gain reinstatement may ride as much on where he is now, life-wise, as what has happened in his recent past.

From SRNY10 (@shamshirosenfe2): Who’s got a chance to be better in the long run, Daniel Jones or Sam Darnold?

SRNY, let’s start with what is reality for all young quarterbacks—the successful ones are usually in a good environment. As we’ve been over in this space this offseason, Carson Wentz, Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson are all prodigious talents in their own right, but it’s not a coincidence that each had really good offensive lines in front of them, and really good coaching behind them when they had their respective Year 2 breakouts.

And since we’ve seen flashes from both Jones and Darnold, I think answering this question could well boil down to whose situation you like more. Do you like Jason Garrett or Adam Gase and Dowell Loggains more to develop your young quarterback? Do you trust that Andrew Thomas will put Dave Gettleman’s three-offseason offensive line rebuild over the top? How about Joe Douglas’s detonation of the Jets line?

I think those will be the operative questions. Ultimately, I think the renovation project around Jones is a little further along right now, and Saquon Barkley could really take the pressure off him (we’ll see what Le’Veon Bell has left for Darnold). But neither situation is like the one Wentz, Mahomes or Jackson was in.

From _seventeen17 (@phillyspencer17): How is the relationship between Adam Gase and Joe Douglas? Do you think JD is with him for the long haul or would he like to pick his own coach at some point?

As far as I can tell, everything between Douglas and Gase has been fine. But I don’t think the two are inextricably tied together the way some GMs and coaches are. Gase was hired a year earlier, and his contract is up two years earlier than Douglas’s. And, of course, Douglas didn’t hire Gase, nor did Gase hire Douglas—though the coach’s presence, and Douglas’s connection to him certainly made Douglas more attractive as a GM candidate.

Really, what’s looming large over this situation is the return of Woody Johnson from the UK, likely to happen by the end of this calendar year. Johnson didn’t hire Gase or Douglas, and if 2020 is another rocky year, it wouldn’t be a shocker to see some level of change in the organization—a way for the older brother of acting owner Christopher Johnson to mark his return to the team’s lead role.

I’d think, in that scenario, Douglas would be more likely to survive than Gase, just based on how long each has been around, which would leave Douglas to help pick the next coach. But again, right now, all of that is hypothetical.

From The Dude (@Glasshomes12): What are the schedule guardrails in place if/when we have 1 or 2 teams that have 20% of the roster test positive for COVID?

Dude, I don’t think there are any guardrails in the schedule for team-wide outbreaks (the stuff built in would allow the league to, pretty easily, push back the start of the 2020 season, or shorten the schedule by two games). So if there is one somewhere, I think the team hit with it would have to go forward with a pretty seriously altered roster.

The question then becomes how they’d be able to put that roster together in the aftermath of the outbreak, and how players testing positive would be handled. Would they all have to quarantine for two weeks? Would there be a special list they’d be assigned to, so teams could fill their roster spots in the time being? All this stuff still needs to be worked out and, competitively, how it’s arranged figures to impact the season in a big way.

From Joshua Zalk (SJShark) #BLM (@JZalk): 1. When will George Kittle be extended? 2. Will Adam Peters be promoted to GM and John Lynch promoted to a team president role?

Joshua, the negotiations with Kittle have been tricky, and I don’t think they’ll get much easier. The top of the receiver market is $22 million per year. The top of the running back market is at $16 million per. And the top of the tight end market is at just $10 million per, and really hasn’t moved much since Rob Gronkowski signed a six-year extension eight years ago.

Want some perspective on that? Jimmy Graham signed a four-year, $40 million extension with the Saints two years later, in July 2014. This offseason, six years later, Austin Hooper got a four-year, $42 million deal to set the standard at the position.

Progress has been glacial in large part because the position is very difficult to play (heavily involved in the run and pass games), and the injury rate is high (you’re blocking and taking hits over the middle of the field), which adds up to fewer great players to begin with and even fewer that make it to the point where they can get a huge payday on a second NFL contract. And fewer guys to push the market forward equals less movement at the top of it.

Kittle, meanwhile, is the best skill player on a Super Bowl team, has only missed three games in three years and doesn’t turn 27 until October. So how do you reward him? And how far are you motivated to go when you can tag him at $10.6 million in 2020 and $12.72 million in 2021? It’s an interesting and difficult question, made even more intriguing by the fact that, for some teams, having a Kittle is more valuable than almost any receiver you could have.

On your second question, Josh, as well regarded as Peters is, I don’t think you’ll see the movement you’re laying out there—though I understand why you’d do it (a creative way to try and keep everyone happy). The Niners have a strong infrastructure as it is, and that includes team president Al Guido and EVP of football ops Paraag Marathe, so I don’t know how much wiggle room there’d be to change Lynch’s title to facilitate a Peters promotion.

And I don’t know if it would stop Peters from going elsewhere to run his own team, if that opportunity comes along, anyway. He’ll be a strong candidate if the Niners are good again, with the possibility existing that he could be paired somewhere with San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who should be a hot head coaching candidate in January.

Drew Lock

From Buck (@bucky620): Realistic expectations for second-year QB Drew Lock given the talent he is now surrounded with?

Buck, I love the skill-position talent they’ve put around him. Lock’s got a big arm, and an ability to play off-schedule, and getting guys like Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler—guys who can fly and are lethal in the open field—shows, to me, a front office matching playmakers to what the quarterback does well. They also may have the most athletic tight end room in the league (Noah Fant, Albert Okwuegnunam), a stocked running back group (Melvin Gordon, Philip Lindsay, Royce Freeman), and a new OC (Pat Shurmur) who’s great with young QBs.

So … all good? Not quite. Left tackle is an enormous concern. Garrett Bolles was on the trade block pre-draft, and the Broncos seem to be almost rooting for 2017 undrafted free agent Elijah Wilkinson to beat him out (because they know, at this point, what Bolles is as a player). They’ll also likely be counting on a rookie, in LSU product Lloyd Cushenberry at center. Bottom line, even with the promising Dalton Risner and proven free agent import Graham Glasgow at guard, there’s plenty of reason for concern along the offensive line.

Which is to say that I think how much Lock progresses this year may well ride on how much the group in front of him progresses this year.

From Julia (@phillylovsgreen): Brandon Brooks: what now? Ceiling for this team, did it change?

Julia, I don’t know that the ceiling for the team changed with their Pro Bowl guard’s torn Achilles. This is one reason teams invest deeply in offensive line coaches, like the Eagles have with Jeff Stoutland (a Chip Kelly hire who survived the 2016 purge). They also have guys in the pipeline—they’ve spent time developing Matt Pryor and Nate Herbig, and drafted Jack Driscoll in April. So it’s not like they’re caught completely off guard here (no pun intended). Brooks was a 30-year-old big-man coming off an Achilles tear (in January 2019) to begin with, so they had to be ready.

That said, the way Howie Roseman’s built the team, and this is deeply embedded in his beliefs on how to do that, its strength is along the lines of scrimmage. So taking a guy who may have been the best guard in football out of the equation doesn’t help. And I don’t think if they get through a couple weeks of camp, and Pryor, Herbig and Driscoll aren’t where they should be, that Roseman will hesitate to pick up the phone.

Would they take a big swing on someone like New England’s franchise-tagged All-Pro guard, Joe Thuney? Based on what I know … I think they’d at least explore it. But, again, that’s probably more of a down-the-road contingency thing for now.

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