Mailbag: The Patriots’ Success Makes it Easier for Their Players to Opt Out

A rash of opt-outs in New England could partly be because the players have already achieved so much. Plus, how the opt-outs work contractually, an under-the-radar Super Bowl sleeper, moving the Super Bowl and how the draft would be affected if they cancel the season.
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The Patriots’ model has been the model in the NFL for two decades. Seventeen AFC East crowns, nine trips to the Super Bowl, and six world titles make that truth undeniable.

Now, we get what the other 31 teams have been waiting for.

In real time, this week, we watched New England pay a price for all that glory.

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In this weirdest of years, and in a weird way, the Patriots’ roster is being ransacked by the very foundation it was built upon. New England’s long prided itself in an ability to define and find the right kind of guys for its program. That kind of guy, it turns out, generally takes a global pandemic seriously enough to consider walking away. And walk away some prominent Patriots have over the last 48 hours.

We’ll get to your mail in a minute, but it’s worth addressing this one first. New England’s depth chart, as the Patriots come off their 10th straight division title, is under siege. Since the work week began, a half-dozen players, four of them projected starters, opted out of the contracts. Some were bigger surprises (Dont’a Hightower) than others (Marcus Cannon), and yet there was a way to tie all of this together.

At least as I see it, New England fell victim to its success—both in how it built its roster, and the success itself. The Patriots generally lean older and seek experience, and value guys who have intelligence and perspective. Which, as you might imagine, wind up being guys who’d do their research on what’s going on in America. And along the way a lot of those guys have achieved to the point where most things they’d chase on the field now they’ve already had before.

Consider Hightower. He’s made nearly $50 million as a pro and has three Super Bowl rings, to go with the two national titles he won in college. He’s smart and mature (a captain and signal-caller for both Bill Belichick and Nick Saban) and has had a boatload of injuries over nine years in the NFL.

Consider Patrick Chung. He’s made about $35 million in pro football, and also has three Super Bowl rings. He’s been a captain for Belichick, and has intelligence illustrated by his ability to play a multitude of spots within the Patriots’ complex defense. He too has taken his share of licks as a pro, playing a very physical position.

On top of all that, Hightower just had a kid and Chung has one on the way.

So if you’re one of these guys, you’ve got rings and money, and miles on your body and perspective, and a family to worry about. If it were you, wouldn’t you ask yourself, “Do I really want to put my body through all those car wrecks for a season that may wind up being one even bigger car wreck anyway?” And if you asked yourself that, how do you think you’d respond?

I’d suspect, if you’re being honest, your answer might help explain what just went down in New England.

On to your mail …

From Eric-John M. Davis (@EricJohnDavis): Bert, where can we hear your POD?

What a great question to kick off camp! You can find it on Wednesday mornings under the MMQB NFL Podcast feed, where you’ll also get Gary and Andy’s Monday morning pod, Jenny and Conor’s Weak Side Pod, and the Week In Review pod.

While we’re here, I’d love for you guys to scroll down in that feed and check out my pods from July 8, 15 and 22. Those were long-form shows with Rams coach Sean McVay, Chiefs GM Brett Veach, and Ravens GM Eric DeCosta—and each detailed their career path. There were fantastic stories in there. Among them …

• How McVay’s best football internship happened at Jon Gruden’s FFCA office in Tampa.

• How Veach once thought a young coach named Kevin Stefanski “stole” his big chance.

• How DeCosta’s entry to the NFL came by coincidence in a Connecticut bar.

So check all those out. They were fun to do, I think you’ll enjoy them, and we’ll look into maybe doing some more of that if I get some feedback from all of you.

From Tom Marshall (@aredzonauk): Does the NFL have a plan to relocate the Super Bowl - if they get that far?

Tom, I ventured to find out, and the answers I got were mostly, “I don’t think so’s.” It’s a fair question, given that the game is set to be played in Tampa, and Florida’s been a COVID-19 hotspot for the last month. But we’re still more than six months out, and anyone telling you what any part of the country will look like that far down the line is either guessing or lying.

What I can say is that they don’t do it routinely, so if they do line one up this year, that would be a special exception for a very different year. As far as I can tell, the only real contingency plan built in to the contracts to move the game is to move the date, not the location. The NFL can move this year’s game back if need be, as host cities are required to clear backup dates over a window of three weeks for the Super Bowl as part of landing the game.

As such, I believe the league could move Super Bowl LV back to Feb. 14, 21 or 28, if need be.

From Andrew Grant (@asg_grant): What under-the-radar team do you see (with expanded playoffs this year) sneaking into postseason?

Andrew, these days, it’s borderline impossible to find a true-to-life sleeper, as much as we dissect all this stuff. Early in the offseason, for example, Arizona’s Kyler Murray was a low-lying “sleeper” for the MVP. And because of that narrative, now, it feels almost like he’s among the favorites. So you have to dig pretty deep to find a team that would really qualify as under the radar.

But I’ll give you a fun one: The Raiders. My annual formula for trying to dig up a team like this is to find franchises that have invested deeply in the lines of scrimmage. That’s how I ID’d the Eagles the year they won the Super Bowl. And I’m not saying it always works, but teams built that way generally are in every game they play. Along those lines, Vegas’s investment in the trenches runs very, very deep.

You have promising young guys (Maxx Crosby, Clelin Ferrell, Mo Hurst, Kolton Miller) and steady vets (Trent Brown, Rodney Hudson, Richie Incognito, Carl Nassib), that give both groups a good deal of upside. Add that to Mike Mayock’s banner draft class of 2019 that should get better, and get potential star safety Johnathan Abram back, and I think Jon Gruden can keep a team that contended for three months last year in it all the way.

From Marc Ryan (@MarcRyanOnAir): Why is the only consistent such inconsistency surrounding the public perception of Carson Wentz? One can speak to two different, intelligent NFL guests and receive two completely different analyses. My take: I can’t evaluate him because I can’t rely on him to stay healthy.

I think it’s mainly just what you said—his injury issues have kept all of us from getting a clean read on him. His best year was 2017, which ended with a torn ACL. His 2018 featured fits and starts in the aftermath of that. His 2019 was sabotaged by injuries around him, then he got hurt in the playoffs. And now, he’s off his rookie deal, which means there’ll be a little more on him to make it work.

I love Wentz’s talent. I think he’s got a very bright future, and it’s not all potential—we’ve seen how good he can be. He was right there for MVP with Tom Brady in Year 2.

He just has to find a way to stay healthy. That’s part of the game for quarterbacks. Part of it’s been rotten luck for Wentz. But because of his size and athleticism, he’s put himself in harm’s way some too, and that catches up with even the biggest, most freakish guys at the position (see: Newton, Cameron). Which is to say, even if it may sound a little callous to say it, at some point, we have to see him make it through more than a couple months without having something debilitating hanging over his head.

From one man gang (@OneSlimms42): Percentage season gets delayed?

Listen, one man gang, I’ve told everyone who’ll listen—there are teams out there, and smart teams at that, who’ve brought real solid logic to the table in pursuit of getting the season pushed back a little. They believe that starting the season in October would allow the NFL to find better practices in studying baseball and basketball and hockey, and give time for a more deliberate ramping up of players.

But those teams were basically stonewalled at every turn. For one reason or another, the league office has been adamant on starting camp on time, and the season on time, to the point where they were willing to throw the preseason away to accomplish that. And now that camp’s actually started, and there are issues in some other sports (obviously, baseball in particular), my guess is they can’t get to the season soon enough.

With that in mind, I think it’d take something catastrophic, or the situation in our country worsening considerably, for the NFL to push pause on their process. They’ve made it this far. I don’t think they’re turning around now.

From Football Breakdown-Tanner James (@PatriotsDisect): Once a player opts out due to COVID-19 concerns, can they opt back in at a later date?

Football Breakdown, the opt-out is largely irrevocable … though there was some interesting language related to that in materials the NFLPA sent to players and agents over the weekend. And this isn’t so much allowing players to return later in the season, as it is creating a pathway for players with changing circumstances to make a decision on it down the line.

In the explanation of the voluntary opt-out, one bullet point read: “Voluntary Opt Out decision is generally irrevocable. There will be a limited basis to identify certain circumstances that permit a player to opt out later in the year based on familial circumstances.”

And then in the language on higher-risk players, there’s this: “A Higher Risk player’s decision whether to opt out is generally irrevocable. There will be limited circumstances that will permit a player to opt out as a Higher Risk Player after the initial deadline based upon a new diagnosis.”

So in either case, if you or a family member have an issue in September or October that you couldn’t see coming in late July, there’ll be a way for you to reconsider your options then. Which is a pretty logical addendum to the rules.

From r (@legalshieldrob): Why don’t the players have an option to opt out for half the season and come back the second half. Why make them opt out the whole year?

Because, R, that sort of thing could be manipulated by players and teams for competitive reasons—maybe you want to shelve a veteran player to keep him fresh for the stretch run, or you want to get a look at a young guy in his spot. And my feeling it also helps insure that these are decisions that are taken very seriously.

From FreakofNature (@mphoenix1603): If a player opts out does this year get added to the end of the contract or everything pushed back a year?

Freak, in both the case of voluntary and higher-risk players, the contract would toll, which basically means you’re pressing pause on the deal. So if you have three years left on your contract now, and opt out, 2020 becomes 2021, 2021 becomes 2022 and 2022 becomes 2023 in the deal.

While we’re here, there are a couple differences in what’s afforded to a voluntary opt-out vs. a higher-risk opt-out. The stipend for the former ($150,000) is to be treated as a salary advance against the player’s 2021 contract, while the stipend for the latter ($350,000) is not. Also, a higher-risk player would get an accrued season toward free-agency and post-retirement benefits for 2020, while a voluntary opt-out would not.

From BradyForcesJetsFansToCry (@Pats_1988): Hello Mr. Breer, the Patriots released 10 players, mostly UDFAs. Why didn't they wait for the opt outs from their players? Was BB blindsided from so many opt outs? Thx and best regards from Austria.

It’s always great to hear from the homeland, Brady, so thanks for writing in. I can’t say definitively why the Patriots didn’t wait to release those guys. But I’d guess your reasoning—that they didn’t see all the opt-outs coming—would almost have to be part of it.

I think the other part that can’t be ignored is the reality of this summer, and the economy of time at work. There are only so many hours players will have in the facility, and so many reps they’ll get on the practice field between now and Opening Day, and that means all coaches have to balance giving lower-rung guys a shot to make the roster and doing everything they can to get the guys who are going to play Week 1 ready for that.

My feeling is that for most teams that changes the priorities you take into training camp, and especially if you’re facing as much player turnover as the Patriots were before the opt-outs, and are even more so after them. In simple terms, making sure Cam Newton and Julian Edelman are on the same page, and Josh McDaniels has a plan for them based on what he’s seeing on the practice field is more important than giving the kid from Louisiana Tech or William & Mary a fair shot to make the roster. Sounds harsh, but it just is.

So maybe if you don’t think that kid has a chance anyway, under some unfair circumstances, then it just doesn’t make sense to keep him around.

From All happy teams are alike (@AllHappyTeams): What does the NFL do if a player, coach, or official experiences a... poor medical outcome?

Happy teams, I assume you’re asking if a player falls ill during a game, and the answer is I don’t know. Part of the ethos of a football player is pushing through stuff, especially on game day, and so I’d guess if something like that happens there’s a pretty good chance we wouldn’t ever hear about it. Likewise, coaches generally don’t take sick days to begin with. And while that might change this year, it’s really hard for me to see a guy pulling himself from work in the midst of the action. My guess is he too would push.

Now, if someone, say, throws up on the field? I think that’s a different story all together, because other guys might not be comfortable competing in the same space as that person. And I can’t believe we’re talking about that now, but that’s where we are in 2020.

Trevor Lawrence Clemson football vs Ohio State

From Duncan McLean (@TheRealDunx): If the season is canceled but the draft in 2021 went ahead, how would the NFL decide the draft order?

We’re gonna wrap up with two questions I got on the podcast, and that I’ve gotten a lot, that I feel like are worth answering twice. Duncan, the easy answer would be to keep the draft order the same—but I don’t think that’d be fair, to reward Cincinnati and Washington and Detroit and the Giants twice for being bad once. So, as I did earlier in the offseason, to come up with an idea here, I went back to the one applicable piece of sports history I could find.

You may remember that the NHL lockout wiped out the entire ’04-’05 season, and that meant having a 2005 draft without standings to build a draft order off of. So the NHL got creative, and built a weighted lottery for the equation, and assigned team lottery ping-pong balls according to it. Here’s how it worked.

Three balls: Teams that had not made the playoffs in the previous three seasons or held the first overall pick in the previous four seasons.

Two balls: Teams that had one playoff appearance or first overall pick over that time.

One ball: All other teams.

If you ran this for 2020, then the Bucs, Jets, Broncos, Raiders, Dolphins, Giants, Lions and Washington would all get three ping-pong balls; the Browns, Cardinals, Bengals, Chargers,

Colts, Steelers, Jaguars, 49ers, Packers, Bears, Cowboys, Panthers and Falcons would have two ping-pong balls; and the other 11 teams would have one.

Now, does it seem unfair that it’d be done this way with a generational quarterback prospect like Clemson's Trevor Lawrence on the board? Maybe. But in 2005, the NHL basically had its equivalent to that, in Sidney Crosby. So, three Penguin Stanley Cups later, obviously, this wouldn’t be unprecedented in sports.

From Gerry Levine (@gerrylev): If there is no college football season how will that affect evaluating players for next year’s draft?

Another good question here, Gerry, and one that, when I was doing the podcast, I went back in recent history to research. Honestly, my first instinct is to say losing a full college football season would affect the draft a lot. But after looking back at last year, I’m less sure of that, at least when it comes to the top of the draft.

Now, there’s no question that the first pick would not have been the same in 2020, if there was no 2019 college season—Joe Burrow’s ascent from probable third- or fourth-round pick to slam dunk No. 1 makes that undeniable. But as for the rest of the Top 10, honestly, I feel like the NFL had a pretty good idea on who Chase Young, Jeff Okudah, Andrew Thomas, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, Derrick Brown, Isaiah Simmons, C.J. Henderson and Jedrick Wills were well before they did anything on the field last fall.

Once you get past the elite group, there, obviously, would be more variance. Also, the decisions players have to make on going pro would become more complicated, as would the process of vetting them (given access for scouts almost certainly won’t be the same during this draft cycle). So there’d definitely be an impact.

It just may not be as all-encompassing as you might think.

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