Three days left!
• It was interesting to see Cam Newton say what he said on Boston radio this morning, because it lines up with a belief I’ve had for a good five years now: that he’s among the most misunderstood athletes in American sports. His teammates swear by him, and you can ask first-class guys like Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly, Ryan Kalil and Greg Olsen. His coaches love him. And really, the problem has been that the narrative out there pre-draft continued post-draft, and Newton never cared to correct it. So it’s just sort of sat there forever, and it’s something that actually makes me really respect the 31-year-old quarterback. He’s so comfortable in his own skin, that what everyone else thinks doesn’t matter even a little to him. It’s something I brought up to Ron Rivera, when Rivera and I were talking about how his experience with Newton informs him on developing Dwayne Haskins, and Rivera was pretty quick to agree with the idea. “I used to tell the guys, ‘Hey, if you can live your life within certain parameters, a certain set of rules, then do so. But don’t lose your personality,’” said Rivera. “And that was one thing Cam took to heart, he never lost his personality. He was true to who he is, and because of it, he was truly misunderstood.” Hopefully, that changes over time. And if it doesn’t? It sure seems like Newton’s fine with that, too.
• Oregon LT Penei Sewell declaring should surprise no one—he may have been the first tackle taken in last year’s draft, had he been eligible to go pro. As it stands now, while I did get a little pushback on Monday in declaring him the next Anthony Munoz, the 6' 6", 331-pound monster is the leader in the clubhouse to be the first non-quarterback taken in April. Sewell won the Outland Trophy last year as college football’s top lineman and, get this, he doesn’t turn 20 for another month. Even at that size, one AFC executive referred to him, via text on Monday, as an “easy athlete.” Another scouting director said he, “really has everything you’re looking for. … Thick-bodied blocker that is consistent, good in both phases of the game, and has the physical traits of size and strength to go along with really good tape.” The delay in the Pac-12 season, no doubt, was a factor in Sewell’s decision to go pro. And he’s one of the few where there really shouldn’t be much argument over the decision he made.
• While we’re on college football, that season is underway. And with NFL kickoff coming in three days, I figured it made sense to check in with one of SI’s college football insiders. Ross Dellenger was at Southern Miss/South Alabama on Thursday, and he’s going to BYU/Navy tonight. So I asked him to explain what being at a COVID-era game was like, to give you an idea on what’s coming. Here’s what Ross sent me on the experience: The pageantry of college football is what makes it so special. The roar of tens of thousands of fans. A campus buzzing with life. Fight songs from the marching band. But the FBS kickoff last Thursday in Hattiesburg, Miss. had none of that. No band. An empty campus. Fewer than 10,000 fans. It was weird, but we'd all better get used to it, right? This is football in 2020: masked fans seated six feet apart watching what could be some very awful play in stadiums nearly empty. So what was it like? We sat down with the fans for a full quarter and that produced some interesting moments. Sideline noise was clearer than normal. Individual voices could be heard echoing across the stands. But, still, football fans did their thing. A 13-point favorite, Southern Miss found itself down 13-0 in the first 12 minutes of the game against South Alabama, triggering frustration from the stands. One USM fan, clutching a Michelob Ultra in each hand, proclaimed, “They’re whipping our ass!” Ah yes, college football is back!
• Would you believe me if I said the situation in Detroit gives Adrian Peterson a shot to really extend his career? Follow me here … Decisions by New Orleans and Washington to let him go were made, in part, because he would’ve been a role player—part of a rotation at the position—and there was some doubt over how he’d handle being in the kind of spot. Well in Detroit, early on at least, he’ll probably have a shot to be the guy. But the Lions have a couple of young guys they really like at the position, in Kerryon Johnson and D’Andre Swift, and if those guys get healthy and get going, that would put Peterson in a platoon. And if Peterson shows he can produce in that sort of spot, and be good for the young guys around him, then I do think the league would start to look at him in a little different light—just look at how helping young guys along helped extend Josh McCown’s career.
• Shout out to my old colleague Ian Rapoport for his story on the discussed Saints/Browns swap. I love the idea of it, and if you follow the league closely you probably remember Cleveland doing something similar in 2017 with Brock Osweiler. The Browns got a 2018 second-rounder and 2017 sixth-rounder, and sent a 2017 fourth-rounder to Houston for taking on Osweiler’s outsized contract. That second-round pick wound up being Nick Chubb, who rushed for 1,464 yards last year while making less than $1 million. So I’d say that one worked out for Cleveland. And the team’s director of player personnel at the time was … Andrew Berry, who’s now the Browns’ GM. I applaud his effort on this one. He’s got a league-leading $34.74 million in cap space. Turning some of that into a second-round pick would’ve been a coup, and he deserves credit for trying.
• The Dolphins tabbed Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starter, officially, on Monday. But the truth is, the writing had been on the wall for a while. As coach Brian Flores explained in his presser, the absence of spring and preseason games, and the truncating of training camp, really forced teams’ hands on these sorts of things. Really, for most in this sort of spot, it was only fair to have a starter at the position in mind, in order to use the time they did have to build toward the season. And really, the Dolphins handled this the same way the Chargers did in going with Tyrod Taylor and the Bengals did in going all-in with Joe Burrow from the start—giving one guy a great majority of the reps through camp. The Bears, this year, were the outlier in that they had a true competition at quarterback. So how Mitchell Trubisky plays will be interesting.
• The Texans’ spending over the last year is worth noting. They got a lot of attention for declining to acquiesce to the demands of Jadeveon Clowney and DeAndre Hopkins, but they’ve hardly shied away from paying their own. These six deals are on the team’s ledger, all done in the last 12 months.
• QB Deshaun Watson, $39.0 million APY
• LT Laremy Tunsil, $22.0 million APY
• ILB Zach Cunningham, $14.5 million APY
• OLB Whitney Mercilus $13.5 million APY
• C Nick Martin $11.0 million APY
• ILB Bernardrick McKinney $10.0 million APY
All but Tunsil are homegrown, and even Tunsil didn’t get paid until he got a year in the organization under his belt. In doing all this, the Texans, under their new structure (with coach Bill O’Brien as GM, and Jack Easterby as EVP of football ops), have defined what sort of players and people they reward, and also gave a pretty clear indication of how they believe a team should be built (all six of those guys play pretty close to where the ball is snapped).
• It took no time for NFL teams to take advantage of the new injured reserve rules. The Patriots (Damien Harris), Colts (Trey Burton) and Raiders (Marcus Mariota), among others, put significant players with relatively minor injuries on IR on Monday, saving roster spots for now with the knowledge they’ll be able to have those guys back, if they’re healed up, three weeks from now. Putting a guy on IR used to be a massive decision. This year, it won’t be. And while this is a COVID-19 measure, you have to wonder if the NFL will look at this as a dry run for greater reform to the IR rules. The league has loosened the rules progressively over the last few years, via the designated-for-returned tweaks (which allowed players to come back off IR). This is a much more drastic change, of course. But it’s not like these sorts of rules are foreign in other sports—baseball has different levels of its injured list—and you can bet teams are going to like having the flexibility to move guys on and off the list.
• Six of the top eight picks from 2016 are all on rich second contracts, and the two that aren’t certainly have a case to get paid. So it’ll be interesting to see how the Rams handle Jalen Ramsey and the Ravens handle Ronnie Stanley, as they enter the option years on their rookie deals. Also, that all eight stand to get top-of-the-market veteran contracts (eighth pick Jack Conklin is the only who’s had to go to free agency to get his) shows a pretty remarkable hit rate for that class.
• While we’re on the topic of second contracts—corner Tre’Davious White was the second player from the Bills’ 2017 draft class to score his, joining left tackle Dion Dawkins. Linebacker Matt Milano is in line for one too. And that the team got three foundational pieces in one draft cycle is absolutely noteworthy. As is the fact that coach Sean McDermott basically ran that draft, with outgoing GM Doug Whaley overseeing the scouting department at the time. The Bills have a bright future for a bunch of reasons. But there’s no question that it started with hitting big on three of the six picks they had that year. The downside? Well, the downside is that they traded out of 2017’s 10th pick as part of that maneuvering—which set them up to get both Josh Allen and Tremaine Edmunds in 2018, but also means they vacated a slot where some quarterback named Patrick Mahomes happened to get drafted.