How Training Camp Amid COVID-19 Makes Player Evaluation and Roster Building Harder; Opt Outs; More

Albert talks to Ryan Pace, Mike Mayock and Les Snead about how this unusual training camp will make things different for NFL GMs. Here's the impact on roster building, scouts being thrust into new roles, rookies, players exposed to waivers, emergency lists and more. Plus, inside opt-out decisions in college and the NFL, Joey Bosa's big deal and much more.
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Ryan Pace wants you to know that there are, in fact, silver linings in what’s shaping up to be the strangest summer of his professional career, and one in particular that he’s now getting to bask in every night.

In order to accommodate a 90-man roster and the healthy appetites that go along with your average NFL player, the Bears set up tables just outside the cafeteria at recently-renovated Halas Hall. They allow for space, and these days being in an open-air setting is always preferable to being under a roof, so this is for sure a measure to combat COVID-19.

But it’s also … kind of nice. Now, the Bears GM arranges to grab dinner every night with coach Matt Nagy and, with plenty of room to spread out, the two get to dine al fresco with a sweeping view of the team’s four outdoor practice fields and the ponds right off of them.

“So the last two nights, we discovered how nice it is,” Pace said, on Saturday night from inside the team’s practice facility, as he and Nagy were walking the grounds. “You sit out there, and it forces you to take a different vantage point during the day. Beautiful view, and it’s pretty peaceful.”

Call that the calm before the storm.

On Monday morning, a couple thousand veterans from the 30 teams that reported on July 28 will gain clearance into team facilities to start the strength-and-conditioning ramp-up portion of this year’s very different training camp calendar. And GMs like Pace will get just 33 days, between now and Sept. 5, to assess all of them and finalize their rosters for the 2020 season.

Remember, in a normal year, all these guys would already be in pads by now (we’re still two weeks away from that), and the coaches and personnel folks would have nine weeks of in-person offseason work to go off in building toward the decisions to come. But, as you all know, this is anything but a normal year.

And that goes for everyone, including the league’s team-builders.

“Obviously, there’s another variable, there’s another obstacle,” said Rams GM Les Snead, on Friday. “But I think as a GM you’re always saying, ‘O.K., what is the current obstacle?’ Normal obstacles aren’t as massive as a pandemic that’s affecting not only this country but just about every country. But as a GM, you look, and it’s, ‘Hey, if there’s an obstacle, make the obstacle the way, and help all the experts in our building reimagine ways to get better.’

“In that way, it’s not different at all.”

In many others, it will be, as Pace and Nagy could show you now on any random night.

ryan-pace-caleb-farley-joey-bosa

***

Sunday was an interesting day in the NFL. We had our second starting quarterback—Jacksonville’s Gardner Minshew—land on the COVID-19 list. We also had a second head coach come down with the virus, with Philly’s Doug Pederson testing positive, months after Saints coach Sean Payton was the first of the 32 to get sick.

Both cases show how fragile this whole thing is. Minshew lives with teammates Michael Walker and Andrew Wingard, and all three are now on Jacksonville’s COVID-19 list. While it’s unclear whether just one or all three tested positive, the rules show that it only takes one getting it for all three to be sent into quarantine.

As for Pederson, I’m told he’s asymptomatic and feels completely fine. He’s been regularly tested, so this pretty much came out of nowhere. For now, the plan is for Pederson to lead the team as much as he can virtually and have assistant head coach Duce Staley take on the head-coaching duties he can’t carry out.

Remember, the Eagles’ and Jaguars’ veterans are just now being cleared to enter their practice facilities—that’s right, this happened before the majority of the workforce even showed up. All of which is why anyone who tells you they know how this will go in a month or two is either intentionally misleading you, or is completely full of it.

Alright, elsewhere in the column this week—on this first day in the facility for most NFL veterans—you’ll find…

• Lessons from college coaches who have, thus far, navigated the COVID challenge nicely.

• A deeper look at college football’s first opt-out.

• The background on one of the NFL’s more prominent opt-outs.

• More on Joey Bosa’s big score.

We’ll also have more on COVID situations involving C.J. Mosley (one of the 40 opt-outs thus far) and Matt Stafford (the first starting QB placed on the COVID-19 reserve list, which now includes 84 players in all). But we’re kicking off this week with a look at that obstacle that Snead referenced, which will change the way every GM and his department do business over the next six months (and maybe longer).

***

Here’s another thing that was different—how Raiders GM Mike Mayock addressed families of his new rookie class just after the draft at the end of April.

Last year, Mayock hatched the idea to do a call for all the dads, moms, wives and girlfriends of the incoming guys. It went over really well with a group that wound up being one of the NFL’s best in 2019, and so naturally he decided to do it again in 2020. Only by the time he actually went through with it, the message needed pretty drastic adjusting.

“Last year when I did it, it was about all the infrastructure we have to help our rookies make an adjustment,” Mayock said Friday. “This year, the message was more, ‘Listen, your loved one is a rookie in maybe the worst year to be a rookie in NFL history. And to either make a significant impact as a rookie, or even to make the team as a rookie, you can’t afford any misses. You gotta hit 100% on the mental side, you gotta hit 100% on the physical side. And if we can’t evaluate you in practice and in the meeting room, you’re not gonna even make the team.’

“So it was a very, very different message this year. From an evaluation standpoint, I think it’s the most difficult year ever to evaluate young players. They’re not getting game reps, they didn’t get any offseason reps, so you’re getting this small framework where the first eight days are effectively walkthrough pace, and we don’t even get into pads until Aug. 17. There’s a very narrow window. And I’m very thankful that all seven of our draft picks were in the first four rounds—we feel like we have a pretty good feel on those guys.”

Mayock’s emphasis there is on the reality of the situation. Rarely is a player drafted in the first four rounds cut out in his first NFL camp. That gives the team, which just landed in a new home in Vegas, the advantage of having a foundation to work from.

It’ll be tougher on guys like Pace (five picks from the last three rounds) and Snead (four picks from the last two rounds). And getting the proper read on young guys you’re less invested in than you would be a high pick is, to be sure, a challenge facing everyone.

“Your concern always, in every camp, is letting a good player walk out of here,” Pace said. “It goes back to taking every piece of information you can to complete the evaluation and leaning on your staff—and not just your coaches and your scouts but your support staff to complete the picture. Because, yeah, you are nervous a good player is going to walk out of here. You always are, but to be honest, you probably feel it more this year because we’ll have less time with these guys, and we won’t have the preseason games.”

And that’s just the start of how all this will change the job of GMs and scouts this summer.

You’ve heard a lot over the last few months about how the fallout from the pandemic will affect players and coaches. Over a couple days last week, I looked into the other side of these football operations, and how the guys in charge are working to make up the difference. What I found? The affects are being felt all over the place.

Yes, veterans have an advantage. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that Joe Burrow or Chase Young won’t be in a position to succeed—Cincinnati and Washington are too invested in those guys not to do everything they can to make their rookie years work. But for a sixth- or seventh-round pick, it’ll be tough. Coaches are naturally going to be more trusting of guys who have established knowhow, with so much less time to work with.

“I think the age-old battle between coaches and personnel people, as far as rookies vs. veterans, gets enhanced this year,” Mayock said. “Coaches traditionally trust veterans that they’ve seen do it in the past. The way a rookie earns that trust is throughout the offseason program, rolling into minicamp, rolling into training camp, rolling into preseason games, and then ultimately into real game action. When you eliminate a big percentage of that….”

And so, as Mayock says, it will likely be up to personnel folks to advocate for younger guys who may not satisfy the immediate need to have experienced hands on deck.

“Maybe there’s a veteran player that you feel like, ‘Oh, this guy knows what to do’, and for the first quarter of the season there might be some security that comes with that,” Pace said. “So then there’s another player that has tremendous upside, and there might be some initial growing pains, that you let walk out of the building or try to clear to your practice squad. I do think there’s a balance there. We’re always trying to be long-term in how we build our team, and get players that have upside, players that we can develop.

“That’s where it’s important as a GM/head coach, we’re on the same page with that vision.”

The jobs of individual scouts have changed. And maybe that’s best illustrated by how the Bears are managing their staff. To effectively make the tiers work, Pace left 11 of his scouts, all on the college side, out of Tiers 1 and 2, meaning they can’t be around coaches or players. Normally, those guys would travel to Chicago and take part in the first week and a half of training camp, and be in coaching meetings and at practice, and evaluating the roster and working on projects. This year, they stayed home.

Each has been assigned a position to cross-check and will be watching practice tape as it becomes available from their corner of the country, while also getting ahead on the 2021 draft class. And that’s just the known part of how their jobs will change.

“It is hard,” Pace said. “A college scout, right now they’re at home, they like to map out their scouting schedule. Right now, it’s just working from home and watching a lot of tape. But as far as when you’re going to a school, at what time, that’s not there yet.”

Which brings us to this….

No one knows what college scouting will look like. It seems unlikely that road scouts will be making the mid-week school calls that they normally do in the fall, given that schools will likely want to turn their football facilities into “mini-bubbles” like the NFL has. Whether or not they’ll be able to even attend games also remains up in the air. And all that, of course, is assuming there is a college season at all.

That leaves a good chuck of any GM’s staff with an uncertain few months ahead.

“Jim Abrams, who’s our director of college scouting, and I have spent a lot of time talking through various contingencies,” Mayock said. “From a normal full schedule of games all the way down to no college games and everything in between, and how you attack it and what if we’re allowed on campus in certain conferences and universities, what if we’re not at others.

“And I hate to be boring, but embrace change, be nimble. That’s gotta be our philosophy.”

At any rate, that those guys will be redeployed seems a near-certainty, and Pace gave us a good example of how it might happen. Rather than having their pro scouts travel in the fall, the Bears plan to have their college area scouts do advances at NFL games, and pass those reports along to the pro scouts. The idea? Simple. As Pace sees it, it makes no sense to risk having guys in Tiers 1 or 2 travel, then come back and be around coaches or players, if it can be avoided. So he and his staff will just train the college scouts to do the NFL advances.

The cutdown will look awfully different too. Much of the bottom-of-the-roster churning that happens when teams have to trim their rosters is driven by preseason evaluations that won’t exist this year. That means, first, that teams will have far less information than they normally do on other teams’ rookies.

And it’s easy to see where that could have an impact—would the Dolphins, for example, have poached Wes Welker in 2004 had Welker not starred that summer for the Chargers? Maybe, absent a preseason, Welker makes it through to the San Diego practice squad that September and winds up being a part of some really good Charger teams and never gets to New England in 2007. Bottom line: There are lots of stories like Welker’s, but probably will be fewer in 2020, and the Welkers that are out there will need to be found on college tape.

“If you’re talking about this year’s undrafted free agents, this year’s rookie class, you gotta trust your college scouts, don’t you?” Mayock said. “They’re the ones that have seen them, that have done the background, that know what kind of work ethic they have, that know how many positions they can play, whether or not they’re projections. And you also have to trust your pro scouts with what they’ve done over the last couple years. You don’t have the security valve of preseason games, that’s a nice security blanket. And we don’t have it.”

Of course, there’s a flipside to this—and that would be the Chargers’ benefit in my imaginary scenario. If a team likes a player, it’ll have to do less to hide him from other teams to get him through to the practice squad this year. The Rams lost five(!) players on waivers after last year’s final cutdown, a number matched five times over the last 20 years.

With no preseason? Teams might not be as aggressive taking guys from other teams. Which is why, as Snead sees it, having things this way is a good thing for his team.

“For the L.A. Rams, we’d rather protect the players that we drafted, signed as undrafteds or developed than have the opportunity to scout players from other teams, given the either/or,” Snead said. “Even if we looked at it in the future, and said, ‘Let’s do one, two or however many preseason games, and you had to open those up to video or not, we’d probably say no, so we’d have a better chance of not exposing some of the players we’ve tried to develop to waiver wire.”

Emergency lists will be more important. And as Snead and his staff see it, two adjustments will need to be emphasized. The first will be making sure the team is prepared for a nuclear situation—where an entire position group gets wiped out.

“The No. 1 thing is through COVID, with position groups, it could be through one positive test and contact tracing, always be prepared for a chunk of that group going down,” Snead said. “You could have a chunk of a position group affected by injury normally, but usually that’s over the course of a season, not necessarily over the course of one week. … Just know at a position of concern, if there was an episode where you had chunks of players have to miss a game, you have to be prepared for that.”

The second is that a player with background in a team’s system or within its program becomes more valuable. In a normal year, it’d be rare that a team will need to find a guy on a Friday or Saturday to play—usually, barring a freak practice injury, you’d have a few days to prepare for that. This year, you might not.

“Knowing the position and knowing assignments is going to be more important in the short-term, in the microscopic view of that, which is the next game, that’s gonna outweigh skill level,” Snead said. “You’d take a player of maybe lesser talent, lesser skill, who knows your system over someone with greater talent, greater skill if there is an emergency, a sudden change and a more urgent need for someone to have to go play in a game. Now, things will stay the same if it’s a long-term decision, and, hey, have a roster spot, no urgent need.”

Practice squads will, too. Pace brought up the idea that you may have to carry a kicker on your practice squad—and that you’ll need to have someone you feel comfortable with long snapping on your roster who isn’t, you know, the long snapper. And at other spots, having extra guys who have years of experience in the league, and have been in your meetings, should make a difference.

The really interesting part, though? How teams use their expanded practice-squad spots—the league’s allowing 16 for this year, up from 10 last year, and 12 as agreed to in the new CBA—might tell all of us what they prioritize.

“We’re allowed 16 players, we’re allowed six veterans of whatever experience, and I think different teams are going to take different approaches as to how they stock the squad,” said Mayock. “To me, that’s intriguing. I think you’re going to see different teams’ philosophies reflected in that, whether it’s quarterback, whether it’s offensive line, specialists, there’s a lot of different questions that each team is going to have to determine the answer for.

“And I think a lot of us are going to look at it differently.”

***

There’s no road map for this. Never before have area scouts not been allowed into college facilities in the fall. Never before have pro scouts lacked preseason games to work with. And never before have GMs had to deal with the reality that large swaths of their roster could disappear in a matter of hours.

All that’s on the table now, and that’ll make the jobs of the guys in charge tougher.

But here’s one commonality in the ones I’ve talked to—after the offseason they’ve had, the challenge they have in front of them now is one they’re genuinely looking forward to.

“Yeah, I do,” said Mayock. “And I think that’s part of the message, which is the way I was brought up; my dad was a high school coach. Regardless of what you’re given, whatever the situation is, embrace it, take on the challenge and do the best you can with it. And I think certain teams, and I’m talking from top to bottom—not just the scouts or the coaches or the players—I’m talking about certain franchises that are gonna look at this as an opportunity and go out there and find a way.

“You can’t sit here and b---- and moan. All 32 teams have the same rules. Who’s gonna take the most advantage, be the most creative and the most consistent throughout the whole process?”

And this much is for sure: If this year’s as chaotic as we expect it to be, whoever does will have a pretty nice advantage to work from.

***

LEARNING FROM COLLEGE COACHES

Boston College coach Jeff Hafley could hardly believe the results he got late Saturday night, so right away he fired off a text to a group of his players.

I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you guys. I know this hasn’t been easy and you guys deserve a ton of credit. Please let the guys know how much I appreciate all of you. This will pay off. It’s a great start now we have to stay at it!

Hafley had 154 people connected to the Eagles football program, including himself, tested last week, and zero—zero—came back positive. And underlying in that text was the key, in his opinion, to the whole thing. “It has to come from the players,” Hafley told me on Sunday afternoon. “I have a leadership council, like everyone in the country, and I told them that. It’s going to be on your top leaders to convey the message—Hey, you go out, you’re risking my senior season. If I’m gone for two weeks, and miss training camp, everything gets screwed up. They took that to heart”

BC is one of dozens of major programs to return to campus over the last couple months, and the circumstances those teams face are, in many ways, different than those in front of their NFL counterparts. NFL players aren’t in classes during the day, or roaming around a campus, and they, of course, have financial resources college players don’t.

That said, there’s been plenty of back-and-forth between college coaches and pro coaches, as the NFL tries to find best practices for the coming months. In fact, the other day, Niners coach Kyle Shanahan, Hafley’s old boss, gave the BC coach a call, and Hafley took him through how he’s held special teams meetings (players go to their offensive and defensive position rooms, and the special teams coach Zooms to them from his office.

Another guy who’s gotten a lot of calls from the NFL on COVID-19 is one who’s been on the speed dial of plenty of pro football folks the last few years—Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley.

Like Hafley, Riley got some pretty staggering results late last week. The Sooners had 100 players and 38 football staffers tested, and zero came back positive. That signified affirmation that, while things are about to get a lot more challenging, the deliberate approach the Sooners have taken is the correct one.

College programs across the country got the green light to bring players back in early June, but Riley made the decision to hold back on that—choosing to give his guys a July 1 return date so the program could better research the issue and learn from the successes and failures of other college teams going back earlier. From there, he used coaches he knew as resources, and he was selective in the experts he listened to.

“Probably the biggest thing was, I didn’t read anything online,” Riley said Saturday night. “Once I figured out there was gonna be so much out there about it, it was hard just to zero in on what was true, what was false, where all these opinions were coming from. So I put my education in the hands of our medical personnel here and their experience.… There’s been so many differing opinions and thoughts on treatments, how to handle it, best practices, all that, I figured hearing from a group of voices that I know and trust was best.”

As he’d hoped, buying time did allow for improving circumstances and information. Testing became more available, which obviously helped, as did the knowledge that while surfaces weren’t transmitting the virus as once believed, wearing masks certainly did a lot to stop it.

So Riley’s players are wearing masks everywhere, and that’s not just for meetings and walkthroughs—it’s during training too. “Everything,” Riley said. “Conditioning. Practice. Shower. You name it, they have a mask on.” As part of that, Oklahoma was also meticulous in organizing the flow of foot traffic in the building and has tried to minimize the sort of downtime where guys would normally just be sitting around together.

And connected to all that, Oklahoma was aggressive, like BC was, in pursuing buy-in from its players, with the leaders positioned as messengers, and Riley trying to be as clear as he could be in explaining all the why’s of the new guidelines.

“They had to understand the entire process,” Riley said. “We took them through the reasons we felt like those decisions were in their and our best interests. And then, ‘The only way this works is if these things happen.’ We had, even before they came back to our facility or got back to our campus, weeks and weeks of meetings where that was emphasized, that this was gonna be the plan when you get back and this is what you have to prepare yourself for. Versus bringing them back and on the first day they’re here you drop this bomb on them that they can’t do this or that when they leave the facility.

“So I think it was reinforcement of the plan and then, as any coach, any leader knows, you can rah-rah-rah all you want, the reality is that we’ve had a team that believes in our plan.”

And in that plan is where Riley’s advice to NFL teams has been.

And more specifically, it’s the fact that it’s not his plan that’s the key.

“In my opinion, simple as this sounds, listen to your doctors, listen to your trainers, listen to your medical personnel,” Riley said. “These people are trained in these areas and it obviously pays to have great ones, and guys that are super experienced, and top of their field. We’re lucky to have that here. You listen to these people, and you gotta let these people run point. Sometimes coaches, man, we’re all wired the opposite, feel like we’ve got take the point all the time. So that’d be my biggest advice.”

Now, both Hafley and Riley were quick to add addendums to the great results they’ve gotten through July. They know the real challenge starts when the student body returns to campus, because that will, without question, be a multiplier for all the variables in play.

But as for what their respective programs are doing—and the plans that NFL teams can put in motion—both guys are optimistic that everything that can be done to have a football season is being done in their workplaces. As for whether it all works out, and they’re able to have an actual season, both believe that remains difficult to predict.

“I feel better than I did a month ago,” Hafley said. “And I’m still hopeful we’ll have a season. This whole thing is so day-to-day. You hear this, you hear that, and so you have to kind of take it day-to-day. But yeah, I’m still hopeful in talking to the people I’ve talked to, and the guys I have, that makes me optimistic because we’ve got such a good group. But eventually, this is all going to be a little bit out of their control.”

“There’s a lot of outside factors,” Riley said. “If it was only based on us being able contain it, solely that factor—and listen, we’re gonna have some positive tests through the year, I get that, I’m not saying we’re perfect by any stretch—I feel like we could make that happen. But there’s obviously a lot of other factors, how it goes in the public, it’s in the hands of so many different people right now. I think like everything in life right now, it’s up in the air.

“I’m confident we’ll play at some point, whether it’s this year, a full year, spring, whatever it is, I do think we’ll play. I just don’t know when or what that’s gonna look like yet.”

Truth is, neither do the rest of us—and that certainly goes for NFL teams, too.

***

EFFECT OF CALEB FARLEY’S OPT-OUT

We got our first FBS opt-out this week, and as you’d expect this one happens to be a very solid NFL prospect. Virginia Tech CB Caleb Farley was actually a high school quarterback who was recruited as a receiver, redshirted his first year in Blacksburg, then started the last two years, making first-team All-ACC as a third-year sophomore. Some more I’ve gathered on Farley the last couple days.…

• Farley experienced tragedy in his family very recently—his mother died of breast cancer two years ago. As such, my understanding is that a big piece of his decision was made to try and protect not just himself, but his dad and grandparents. “He was concerned with putting his family at risk,” said one source.

• He did weigh declaring for the 2020 draft in January, but ultimately decided to return to school to try to improve his stock. (One evaluator told me he believed Farley would’ve been the third corner off the board if he’d come out last year, behind Detroit’s Jeff Okudah and Jacksonville’s C.J. Henderson.)

• Another factor in his decision to return to Virginia Tech: He had a minor back procedure at the end of the year that might’ve been an issue in the draft process. He’s back fully healthy now.

• He’s a pretty impressive physical specimen. The school lists him at 6' 2" and 207 pounds, and he is said to have been clocked running at 24 miles per hour.

• Up until last Wednesday morning, when he finalized his decision to leave, he was working with his Hokies teammates on campus. He’s since signed with agent Drew Rosenhaus, which in effect makes his decision to leave college football final.

• He’ll start pre-draft training this week at EXOS at the Andrews Institute in Gulf Breeze, Fla. Farley chose Pensacola because COVID-19 is less of an issue in the panhandle than it is South Florida and Arizona, the two other places he considered going. The plan, for now, is to focus on conditioning and getting bigger and stronger. To stay football sharp, he’s looking at three or four DB coaches with NFL experience, with plans to have one with him in Florida.

And here’s the take of two NFL evaluators on Farley’s prospects.

AFC college scouting director: “He’s very polished, quick, has instincts and gets his hands on a lot of balls—he had 12 pass breakups and four picks. He can play, man, he can run. The thing with him, he has an ACL [tear] in his past, and missed his last two games with what they said was back surgery. But he’s top half of the first round—a good kid with no real flaws. The support staff there loves him.”

AFC executive: “He’ll be one of the top corners. How high? There’s some question about the top-end speed he can play with. But a good comp on him would be [Falcons first-round pick] A.J. Terrell. This guy’s a former high school quarterback, came in as a receiver, and you see a really good player on tape, which obviously makes you think, ‘How much better can he get with experience at the position? I’d have liked to see him play some more, if the games even get played. But he won’t be hurt by that. The tape is good.”

Now, clearly, Farley won’t be the last prospect to make this decision. The question is whether this is the start of a ripple or a tidal wave. And looking back at last year’s top 10, you could argue that nine of the guys (minus Joe Burrow) were considered to be right in that range going into 2019—which is to say, the NFL was already well aware of how talented they were, and could have made decisions on them if, hypothetically, last season hadn’t been played.

So what does that mean? That means the top guys sure have some options here. And I do know some college coaches have already started to whisper about agents trying to talk their players into leaving school.

While I had him, I did ask Lincoln Riley about it on Saturday.

“We’ve had some conversations with our guys, we have,” Riley said. “That’s always kind of ongoing. We’re a pretty open outfit, we kind of like things out in the open, want our players comfortable discussing things with us. We try to cultivate an atmosphere of that. So we have, but I wouldn’t say that’s anything out of the normal for us. Obviously, it’s a different conversation than we’re used to having, at a different time.”

And, obviously, it’s a different time in general, with Farley’s departure from the ACC a pretty good illustration of it.

***

Pierce signed with the Vikings after four years in Baltimore, where he started 14 games last season.

Pierce signed with the Vikings after four years in Baltimore, where he started 14 games last season.

WHY MICHAEL PIERCE OPTED OUT

In Thursday’s GamePlan column, I told you the story of Marquise Goodwin, and why the decision to opt-out wound up being an easy one for him. And after talking to Vikings DT Michael Pierce on Friday, it’s pretty easy to see the trend here—most guys pressing pause on their NFL careers aren’t exactly doing it to kick back and take a fall sabbatical.

Pierce has had to manage asthma his whole life and had a pretty scary episode with pneumonia a couple years back, one that forced him to miss a game as a Raven and went well beyond just having a bad week. It took longer than expected to get the fluid out of Pierce’s lungs and, once it was gone, his respiratory system didn’t recover as the doctors expected, which affected his daily breathing.

“I should’ve been recovering, and I wasn’t,” Pierce said, from his home near Birmingham. “Going through that, I know what it takes to get through a season with my history.”

Further simplifying the decision for Pierce: His little brother, now a Charlotte-area accountant, has asthma, too, and their father (who lives in their hometown of Mobile) has a worse case of it than either of them.

But that doesn’t mean the decision to opt out doesn’t sting a little. Pierce has improved year-over-year since making it into the league as an undrafted free agent out of Samford. Last fall, as the Baltimore defense rounded into its accustomed form, the 345-pounder was a cornerstone of the improvement and a wrecking ball in the middle of the Ravens’ front.

Minnesota saw enough to reward him with the kind of second contract that can change lives. Pierce agreed to the three-year, $27 million deal a week into free agency, which set him up to enter his prime football years with financial security and a team deeply invested in him.

“Obviously, I went undrafted, and everything I’ve gotten had to be earned,” he said. “I made the team as a rookie, made Pro Bowl alternate last year, I’m starting to get acknowledged, I signed the deal. So it’s hard, especially, not knowing my coaches and teammates that well. It’s hard emotionally. And from a pure football standpoint, I was starting to ascend. It hit me hard.

“But at end of the day, what’s worse? Missing the season, or playing eight games and winding up on a ventilator?”

He knew how obvious the answer was and, to their credit, so did the guys he was confiding in. The team, of course, knew of his condition—when he drove to the Andrews Institute in Pensacola for a physical in the spring to complete his contract, a chest X-ray was part of the battery of tests—and thus wasn’t shocked with his concern. Nor were co-DC Andre Patterson or assistant DL coach Imarjaye Albury (who Pierce has known for a few years).

Coach Mike Zimmer offered his support, too, after getting the final call from Pierce—“he just told me to continue to take good care of myself, stay safe and, as far as he’s concerned, there are absolutely no hard feelings”—and GM Rick Spielman did the same and told Pierce he’d keep him apprised of the new rules for sidelined guys as they come in. But the ultimate affirmation that he’d done the right thing came from head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman.

He has COVID,” Pierce said. “And we were talking through the different scenarios and he just said, ‘This is obviously a serious decision for you, and [opting out] would be a smart decision. He works for the team, so he has to keep their best interests in mind. But I understood what he was saying, even if he didn’t say it explicitly.”

And now that it’s done, Pierce does have a plan. His workout plan starts Monday with his trainer at Godspeed Elite Sports Academy in Hoover, Ala., and he plans to be meticulous with his diet. Because of his underlying issues, he’s been on a pretty strict quarantine since the beginning of the pandemic. He still hasn’t been to a restaurant yet (“and I’m a big guy, I like to eat”), and only gone to the barber shop once. And that’ll continue.

Also, with some time freed up, he’s started to mentor college players who play for old coaches of his, specifically some young defensive linemen, and he’ll continue with that, which he says he has a passion for (he aspires, down the line, to become a college AD). And as for hobbies, he started to play the piano, and has Mary Had A Little Lamb down.

All of that’s great, but it doesn’t mean Pierce isn’t well aware that there will be a hole there that’ll be tough to fill come September.

“Back in Baltimore, we had such a tight locker room, and even being on calls with the [Vikings] guys, texting and telling them I won’t be playing, that’s just tough,” Pierce said. “I’ll miss the camaraderie, and playing the game is super fun. I don’t think it’ll hit me until the first game, when I’m not running out of the tunnel, even if there aren’t fans. I play the game out of joy, and I’m blessed to play it at a super high level.

“So it’s going to be tough to watch, obviously knowing the locker room they’ll have, guys like Kirk Cousins, Harrison Smith, who I watched before I got in the league, and guys like Dalvin Cook, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr. It should be an awesome team, and it’ll be gut-wrenching watching, knowing I could help them chase a Super Bowl.”

But, he added, “It’s a strange time.”

And one that forced him to make what was anything but a strange decision.

***

THE BIG BOSA DEAL

If you want to know how much conviction the Chargers have that Joey Bosa is one of their centerpieces as they move into a new stadium and era, consider this—the record-breaking deal he signed last week came together over a matter of 24 hours.

The L.A. brass, led by GM Tom Telesco and lead negotiator Ed McGuire, and Bosa’s agent, Brian Ayrault of CAA, first broached the idea of doing this sort of massive extension at the combine in February, with the team very clearly telling Ayrault that the deal would get done during the offseason. But then, the pandemic hit, and rules associated with it proved fluid, so in early May, the Chargers told Bosa’s camp to sit tight until everyone got clarity.

The NFL and NFLPA came to a financial agreement on the future of the cap, and how the COVID-19 fallout would be dealt with, on July 24. The negotiation kicked off two days later, on July 26. That left a very tight window—Bosa’s reporting date was July 28. And the five-year, $135 million extension got done on, yup, July 28.

Here’s some more to chew on from the negotiation.

• Bosa’s full guarantee of $78 million at signing—the total of the first three years—beats the previous high for a defensive player, set by Khalil Mack two years ago, by $18 million. The guarantee goes to $102 million over four years on the fifth day of the 2022 league year. If the Chargers cut him before that? He gets the $78 million for two years of work.

• Crazy? Maybe not if you consider Bosa’s numbers. He has 40 sacks over his first 51 games as a pro. Mack had 32 over his first 51 and Aaron Donald had 29. And even if you point to the injuries that kept him from playing the full 64 games over that stretch, and look at the four-year totals, Bosa is right there with Mack (40.5 over 64 games) and Donald (39 over 62 games).

• And I’ll add this story, for context. When I went to Chargers camp a couple years back, I had a veteran coach, and not one known for hyperbole, tell me, “If the kid stays healthy, he’s going to Canton.” Bosa, by the way, turned 25 less than a month ago.

• Part of what made the Chargers comfortable here was that Bosa’s not just the team’s best player, he’s also as hard a worker as they have, and someone who’s very well-liked throughout the organization. Bottom line: It was easy for the team to look at the player and say to other young guys, “Watch that guy, that’s how you get paid here.”

• Worth mentioning here, too, that the Chargers are just entering into having a quarterback on a rookie deal. Now, I don’t know if Justin Herbert is going to make it as a player. But I do know that gives a team added financial flexibility.

• I do think the report date of July 28 was relevant. Remember, Bosa showed as a rookie his willingness to take a stand, holding out deep into camp that summer—and there’s no question his family’s always been very business-minded on football, given his dad’s experience as a pro. And there’s also Ayrault’s presence here. He was the lead agent in recent holdouts involving Bosa, Donald and Roquan Smith.

• That said, this appeared to be a very smooth, efficient negotiation. And that, again, is a nice reflection of the team’s desire to keep Bosa, and Bosa’s desire to stay. (I’m told the Bosas were very appreciative of how amicable the whole thing was.)

Now, there’s a new financial bar for defensive players to clear going forward. I can think of a few guys who’d be grateful for that. And one, I’d guess, grew up right down the hall from the guy who just got paid.

***

TEN TAKEAWAYS

Questions on COVID-19 testing are going to persist. Lions QB Matt Stafford did, indeed, test positive for COVID-19 (this wasn’t a case of being in close contact with someone sick). The test was administered on Friday, and Stafford was asymptomatic beforehand. That means that Stafford passed tests on Tuesday and Wednesday, before the positive came up and landed him on the reserve list. And now he’ll have to go through the process of being cleared to go back in the building. So what happened? It’s hard to know. But this is a reminder that these tests still aren’t perfect, and problems could certainly result with players being tested as consistently as they will (which, in my opinion, is the right way to do it, and something the players pushed for). For now, it’s manageable. No one’s playing a game tomorrow. But when these become competitive matters? Let’s just hope the bumps are smoothed out by then.

The Jets’ deal for C.J. Mosley is looking worse by the day. And I’m not going to kill them for it. Mosley’s a top-five off-the-ball linebacker when he’s healthy, was still just 26 years old when he signed his deal, and is exactly the kind of person you’d be comfortable paying (evidenced by a healthy offer he got from the Ravens at around $14 million per year). That said, yikes … He signed in March 2019, has already collected $29 million, and won’t play his third game for the team until September 2021. By then, he’ll be 29 years old and coming off what’ll amount to a two-year layoff. Is it the Jets’ fault he suffered a serious core-muscle injury? No. Nor should anyone, the team nor the player, be criticized for his decision to opt-out of the 2020 season, due to family health concerns. It’s just that these are the sorts of things that can get in the way of a team taking advantage of having a young quarterback (the clock is ticking on Sam Darnold’s rookie deal), and shorten a team’s margin for error in roster-building (especially going into a period during which the cap may drop), and are, well, just the Jets’ luck.

I’ll say it again—I believe Joe Burrow will be ready to go Week 1. This is based on the emphasis the Cincinnati staff has put on getting the LSU product ready to go. He’ll take the first snap of camp, and get the majority of the starter reps off the jump, which will help. And when he gets that ball in practice, he’ll be well-positioned to know what to do with it, too. The staff has taken the approach of having Burrow drink from a firehose of information, and they’ve used technology to get around the obvious challenges he’s faced this offseason. They’ve used the whiteboard function on Notability to get classroom work done. They’ve tested him on Kahoot!, an app that brings a competitive element to quizzes for teachers and students. They’ve had him do review worksheets on a daily basis. And this much I can say: They wouldn’t have kept feeding him if he showed any sign of not being able to take it. He’s proven to be every bit the coach’s son he is. As it was explained to me, in the process, Burrow’s shown a great understanding of the big picture, how one thing fits the next, how to find weaknesses in scheme and fix them, how to go after a defense (a big thing in the LSU offense he ran), and how routes should be run against different defensive technique. Much will depend on the development of young guys around him, like Jonah Williams, Billy Price, Drew Sample and Tee Higgins. But I’m excited to see where this goes.

Antonio Brown still has plenty to give. And by that, I mean from a football standpoint. Last September, the Patriots saw all that Brown could be—a rare talent who could win at all three levels (short, intermediate and deep)—which is why Tom Brady quickly became, and seems to remain, attached to him. “He has a lot left,” said one veteran executive who’s studied him closely. “He’s still really, really f---ing good. … What separates him is everything about him that’s been special—you’ve seen it. Some receivers get open with the quickness, some do it with their speed, some are savvy in setting up their routes. He’s all of that. He changes speeds really well throughout the whole route, gets open deep on vertical routes, but he can also shut it down wherever he needs to in a route. He does everything.” Now, the question becomes whether or not that’s enough for a team to bring him in, knowing he’s gone for the first eight games of the year. One thing that seems relatively clear is it’d help whoever it is to have another alpha at quarterback—one who can keep him in check and bring the best out in him. Seattle showed interest last year, and has kept tabs on him since. The Saints kicked tires too, though having Emmanuel Sanders probably killed the need to bring Brown aboard. But both those places are representative of the kind of place where he could find a home, teams that are contending, have strong quarterbacks, and could walk away from him fairly easily if things go the wrong way again. And then, of course, there’s the new home of Brady himself. But in case you missed it, Bruce Arians coached Brown in Pittsburgh, and has said publicly the Bucs aren’t going to make a move. Maybe now that there’s some certainty on his situation, that changes? At the very least, we know Brady wouldn’t mind that.

The Patriots’ linebacker issue is glaring. We’ve all focused on the quarterback spot (where, Bill Belichick confirmed Friday, there will be an open competition to start) almost exclusively since Cam Newton signed there a month ago. But consider this: The Patriots lost Kyle Van Noy (played on 80.75% of the defensive snaps in 2019), Jamie Collins (80.65%) and Dont’a Hightower (71.73%), who played by far the most of the team’s off-ball linebackers, as well as top backup Elandon Roberts (20.04%). That really leaves only third-year pro Ja’Whaun Bentley (27.28%) coming back at the position. And beyond just the 2019 service those three had, the trio also won seven rings as Patriots between them, so they leave a cavernous void in institutional knowledge, and led a position group that was second (behind only the secondary) in the team’s position cap spending in 2019. Or, if you want to simplify it, just think of all Belichick’s great defenses, going all the way back to his days as Giants defensive coordinator, and how important the position was to all of them. Suffice it to say, New England’s got a lot of work to do there. Ex-Jet Brandon Copeland (who’s not exactly a young prospect, at 29) would be a logical stopgap next to Bentley, and things get thin after that. Rookie Josh Uche’s mostly an edge guy, but might have the athleticism to move. Draft classmate Anfernee Jennings is another edge linebacker who could change positions. And … yeah, this could be a problem.

George Kittle’s contract issue is predictable. And it’s not because of the player or the team, it’s the position. Here, for context, is a list of the highest APY by position in the NFL.

QB: $45.0 million (Patrick Mahomes)

DE: $27.0 million (Joey Bosa)

OLB: $23.5 million (Khalil Mack)

DT: $22.5 million (Aaron Donald)

OT: $22.0 million (Laremy Tunsil)

WR: $22.0 million (Julio Jones)

ILB: $18.0 million (Bobby Wagner)

CB: $16.7 million (Darius Slay)

RB: $16.0 million (Christian McCaffrey)

OG: $15.0 million (Brandon Scherff)

S: $14.6 million (Eddie Jackson)

C: $11.25 million (Rodney Hudson)

TE: $10.6 million (Hunter Henry)

So if you’re Kittle, could you argue you’re worth what, say, Jones is to the Falcons or Mike Thomas ($19.25 million per) is to the Saints? You certainly could. And that’s where things are difficult. The team has to find a sweet spot where it can make Kittle feel like he’s being rewarded for his value to the team, without doing something wholly irresponsible given the leverage they have. If they wanted to play hardball, they could keep him this year on his rookie deal ($2.13 million), and tag him twice for a three-year total of around $26 million. The Niners, behind EVP Paraag Marathe, have always been sound on the contract side, so there’s no need to panic here. But this was never going to be easy.

Njoku, who had 56 catches two years ago and just five in an injury-plagued 2019, walked back his trade request.

Njoku, who had 56 catches two years ago and just five in an injury-plagued 2019, walked back his trade request.

While we’re on tight ends, good call by David Njoku pulling his trade request. The NFL’s first weekend will be wrapping up just six weeks from now, and so incorporating new players at this point will be a challenge for any team trying to fast-track its starters to be ready for the opener—which in turn would make it tough for a player to go somewhere new at this point and carve out a major role. The Browns will have to make a call after this year on whether or not to go through with the 2017 first-rounder’s option, injury-guaranteed and set at about $6 million, in 2021. It stands to reason he’s got a better shot at justifying that number in Cleveland than anywhere else, even with Austin Hooper now aboard. Plus, Kevin Stefanski’s offense—a cousin of the Kyle Shanahan system that Kittle stars in—is very tight end-friendly, and that should allow for both guys to get theirs.

Seeing Drew Brees deflect the retirement question this week got my attention. And maybe Brees would’ve said what he did—that he’s not looking past tomorrow, let alone to January or February—regardless. But I do think it’s fair to wonder if more guys are keeping their plans for the future open now, given what a weird season this might become. I’ve wondered if some of the older guys opting out are basically telling all of us that they don’t want to use the football miles they have left on 2020, and likewise for a player who is playing this year but might be ruminating on life after football, there may be the feeling that this year might not be the one they’d want to go out on. On Brees specifically, through conversations with him the last few years, I know he believes he can keep playing into his mid-40s (and he’ll turn 42 in January). The question, then, for him is whether he’ll want to. How 2020 goes obviously could affect that.

Wanna know why a guy like Ryan Fitzpatrick keeps getting work? Witness how the Dolphins quarterback told local reporters on Saturday he knows he’s a “placeholder” for fifth-overall pick Tua Tagovailoa. And then, this: "He's a really interesting guy. He's got a lot of energy to him. You can tell guys are going to gravitate to him. There's just something about him that's just very likable. I can already tell he's one of those guys who will get along with everybody." Fitzpatrick’s 37 and turns 38 in November, and he’ll make $8 million this year in large part because he’s a good guy. He can start for you. He can absolutely come off the bench cold if that’s what you need him to do. But more than just that, he can fit into the framework of your locker room, and be a great asset for your young quarterback. That’s part of how Josh McCown’s kept cashing NFL checks. Chase Daniel, too. And it’s not hard to see where, whether it’s a month or a year from now, Tagovailoa will be telling all of us how good Fitzpatrick was for his development as a quarterback. Which is something, very clearly, teams find a lot of value in.

Patrick Mahomes’s contract didn’t really help any other quarterback negotiation. Here’s why—most players don’t want to do deals of that length, and because it’s such an anomaly in that regard, teams are going to try not to look at the APY of $45 million as a real number. And we bring this up because Deshaun Watson’s contract was in the news this week. He, like Mahomes, became eligible to do a second contract for the first time this offseason and, as is the case in Kansas City, it’s pretty clear that Houston will eventually get something done to lock their franchise guy up long-term. But for 10 years? As I said, I doubt Watson would want to do something of that length. And if he won’t, my guess it the Texans would then say looking at Mahomes’s average isn’t apples-to-apples. Which would leave Houston and Watson in the same place Dallas and Dak Prescott have been in—trying to find out how far past Russell Wilson’s average of $35 million the common ground lies.

***

SIX FROM THE SIDELINE

1) Be sure to read Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada’s story on the NBA and China. It’s spectacular journalism, and highlights the lengths to which the league would go to monetize a world market that’s long been the great financial frontier for every American sports league. You may remember, the NFL wanted to play a preseason game there in 2007, but that was canceled because the league was shifting all its international focus to cultivating London.

2) I think one good thing about the social justice reckoning we’re in the midst of is that it’s caused everyone to self-reflect (I know I have). And so good on Warriors coach Steve Kerr for apologizing for waffling on the topic of China last year. He went so far as to concede he was nervous about damaging the NBA’s interests there, and admitted that was wrong. I do feel like more in the league would do well to address the topic, because there’s no question the NBA has been most successful of all the U.S. leagues over there.

3) Credit to both the NBA and NHL. The TV product looks pretty incredible, given the hurdles both had to clear to create some level of normalcy in their broadcasts.

4) Like I said earlier, no athlete should face criticism for opting out of their sport in this tenuous time. But, man, Yoenis Cespedes picked one weird way to go about it.

5) Most of the Pac-12 players’ demands are very reasonable. Some are far-flung, but that may just be a negotiating tactic. That said, I’m not sure that people understand what the fallout is likely to be here. Most likely, if money needs to be cleared, my guess is the slashing the big schools will do will come in the non-revenue sports. Football and men’s basketball may look different, but they’ll survive. Sports like golf, track and softball might not be so lucky. Which sucks for those athletes, but would be the result of applying free-market economics to what’s been a crooked system forever.

6) The PGA Championship really crept up on me. But golf’s first major in this out-of-order season tees off Thursday.

***

THE BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

More than a few people are wondering if the NFL doesn’t want to give players the chance to dip their toe into the 2020 season before making a decision. (Maybe because that water looks pretty murky right now.)

Bosa: “I made it.” At that point, we didn’t realize the full breadth of what he was saying there. Now, we do.

What I’ve seen from the Kyle Brandt/Aaron Rodgers podcast is really good—and I think an effective use of the medium. I’ve always thought the best interview pods make you feel like you’re getting let in on a conversation, and that’s what this feels like.

Speaking of podcasts, I had QB guru Quincy Avery on mine back in June, and he explained how he hired chess master Seth Makowsky to work with Deshaun Watson and Dwayne Haskins. Both QBs now play regularly as a form of mental conditioning, and by the looks of what Kyler Murray’s tweeting here, it looks like it’s caught on.

After 9/11, going through the airport became more difficult. And we had no real data that it was helping bust terrorists. But we did it, because even if it gave us a 1% better chance of catching one, that would be worth it. So let’s say masks give us a 1% better chance of getting out this by, say, October. Wouldn’t that be worth it to you?

OK, then.

Alert Eric Berry!

I’d say Jimmy’s past all that Brady drama.

Something looks … weird about Julain Edelman here.

This was after Mahomes ranked fourth of the NFL Network Top 100. (Do I really think he cares, based on how serious players are about voting for that list? I do not.)

Otherwise, good week for Mahomes.

***

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

This week’s for walkthroughs!

All 32 teams are now through the initial phase of testing needed to clear players to enter their facilities. Last Friday, the Texans and Chiefs started the strength-and-conditioning phase of the ramp-up to football. The other 30 get going today. And all 32 will conduct eight days of that over a nine-day period—during which they can also hold walkthroughs.

That leads into four days of non-contact practices over a five-year period that starts with practice similar to Phase II of OTAs, and ends with practice more like you’d see in minicamp. After that, the pads go on (Aug. 14 for the Texans and Chiefs, Aug. 17 for everyone else.)

So we’re getting there, folks. What it will look at that point, though, is anyone’s guess.

That much, it seems, still depends on the virus.

See you guys this afternoon for the MAQB.

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