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Mailbag: Will Any of This Year's Roster Rule Changes Become Permanent?

Dipping into the mailbag one last time before the season starts. Answering your questions on COVID-19 rule changes, what the Bucs need to be successful, Miami's coaching staff, Philip Rivers, Nick Chubb and more.

Almost there! Your questions answered, right here, right now …

New England Patriots running back Damien Harris

From Cap Space = $31,971,175 (@patscap): What are the chances some of the COVID amendments (unlimited IR return, 3 games on IR, 16-man practice squad, practice squad protection) become permanent?

This is from our friend Miguel, who runs—which has been a staple in New England since before I started covering the team 15 years ago. Consider it a nod to our guy here that we’re getting to his question first.

Miguel, I 100% believe that if there’s stuff here that works, the NFL will look at implementing it full-time. And I’d say the IR return list is a good place to start. The league added the designated to return exception to the IR rules in 2012 under very rigid guidelines—it was limited to one player then, and guys actually had to be designated for return when they first went on IR. Since then, the rules have been loosened, and now you don’t have to designate them ahead of time anymore and up to three players can return from IR.

This year, obviously, brought pandemic-related changes, and so IR is very loose and open-ended (any guy can come back after three weeks). To be clear, I don’t think the rules will be that loose going forward, in part because there are drawbacks for both the players (constant roster churn and more liberal shelving of vets) and owners (having to pay more guys in a given year). But I do think it could lead to some more flexibility in the IR rules going forward, maybe eventually with the institution of baseball-style injured lists.

I’d say no on the 16-man practice squad being permanent, but potentially yes on allowing more vets to be a part of 12-man practice squads. And on the protections, I’d say that is unlikely, because that’s a way for guys on the fringes of the league to get exponential raises. So yes, I think there’ll be some permanent change coming from this. But I don’t think every rules adjustment, as far as IR goes, will be adopted permanently.

From A Curious Fellow (@BobLblawsLawBlg): What’s more important to the Bucs making a deep run this year, the growth of their young secondary or Tom Brady’s performance?

Curious, it’s gotta be Brady. This Buccaneers team is built a lot more like the Peyton Manning Colts and Broncos teams than the way his Patriots teams were typically built—with roster investment more skewed toward having the quarterback at his best. And that’s not a shot at New England. It’s just that the Patriots built for balance, with the feeling that Brady could make up for a little less at the skill positions, so long as the skill guys were fits. Conversely, the Broncos and Colts built to supercharge Manning as a player.

And that’s great for Brady, but my feeling is that it means Brady has to be great for the Bucs to win big, which is a burden Manning knew very well. And it’s not like that’s totally new for him. Brady’s been in that spot for different reasons over the course of his career, and done well in those circumstances. All I’m saying is this is one of those years—he has help around him, more than he’s had in a while, and that puts more pressure on him to be at his best.

That’s not saying that Carlton Dean emerging as the top-10 corner the Bucs believe he can be, or second-round pick Antoine Winfield becoming a sort of Budda Baker/Tyrann Mathieu presence back there (after a great summer) wouldn’t be huge for Tampa. Those things would be. But without Brady playing great, this whole thing won’t work. And to be clear, I still believe he can be great.

From Tiber (@Tiber_UK): How come the Dolphins brought an OC with a mixed record out of retirement to groom Tua?

Tiber, this one wasn’t overcomplicated. The offense that Chad O’Shea brought from New England was, well, the New England offense. Over the years, that scheme has become more and more intricate and more and more detailed, because Brady’s one of the most football-smart players ever at the position. And for a year, they could make that work for Ryan Fitzpatrick, who’s a decade-and-a-half into his time in pro football.

But Fitzpatrick isn’t Miami’s forever answer, and with a war chest of draft picks in 2020 and 2021, coach Brian Flores and GM Chris Grier were well aware of how young they were about to become. That’s, simply, just what it was going to be. So the question became whether or not O’Shea’s offense—and, maybe more to the point, the Patriot offense—was the right one to draft and develop players for, considering things have only gotten simpler at the college level on offense.

Ultimately, that equation led to the tough decision Flores had to make, to let go of a decade-long Patriot staff-mate of his. And what Chan Gailey offered was, in many ways, the antithesis. His offense is simpler, and had roots in the college game, and was implemented in the college game relatively recently, just as the spread offense was catching fire at that level. So for young players, as the Dolphins figured it, having an experienced play-caller and teacher with an offense that wouldn’t take years to grasp should help.

The idea, at least, is you can get guys on the field more quickly, and get them playing fast, to accelerate their development. It’s working, too, even if the Dolphins continue to take it slow with Tua Tagovailoa. Miami will have either two or three rookies starting on the offensive line in Foxboro.

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From David Genford (@solskjaer025): How badly does Peterson damage Swift’s value? In a keeper league, do you think Swift will be a clear number 1 from next year on?

Fantasy question!! David, I really like D’Andre Swift. He had a just O.K. final year at Georgia, and is a little lighter than some teams would like, but a year ago at this time some saw him as a potential top-15 pick (and potentially a better prospect than his predecessors in Athens, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel). So yeah, I believe he has a bright future ahead.

Here’s how I see the Adrian Peterson thing going: The Lions brought him in because they know he can play a significant role right away in an offense he knows like the back of his hand (he played for Darrell Bevell in Minnesota). The question with Peterson, really, is how he’ll handle being in a platoon. So for Peterson to extend his career, he’d be well-served to be a good mentor to both Swift and Kerryon Johnson.

Which is why I think this has a chance to be a pretty cool setup. It’s not like Peterson’s been a bad teammate—the concern was also more so how he’d handle not being The Man. And I think he’s attuned to that, which will be good for both Swift and Johnson, in that they’ll get the benefit of learning from him. So yeah, I’m pretty bullish on Swift’s future, once he gets through the leg injury he’s dealing with.

From Josh Skinner (@joshskinner91): Do you think a projected drop in the salary cap next year will have any effect on the trade market this season?

Josh, I think it already did. Things were very quiet on the trade front on Friday and Saturday, where there’s usually activity, and sometimes even some blockbuster trades. The lack of preseason games played into that, for sure. But so did all the financial uncertainty looking forward. Two facts that are important, to that end:

• Twenty-two of the league’s 32 teams entered the week with less than $15 million in cap space, and 14 of them had less than $10 million. That’s more important this year than it would be most other years, because, thanks to the COVID-19 circumstances, there figures to be more in-season roster churning than normal. Also, with the potential for a drop in the cap in 2021, teams are keener on the idea of rolling space over to next season.

• Before the pandemic, teams routinely built contracts out believing the cap would keep rising—so there’s an issue looming in 2021. With a revenue shortfall coming, the cap could be as low as $175 million, and there are a dozen teams already over that number in commitments for next year, none of whom have more than 44 players under contract. That is what you might call a problem. And there’s no telling how long the rebound will take, if we’re looking to 2022 and beyond.

In short, given those conditions, I believe the value of draft picks (which become cost-controlled talent) rises and the value of veterans with outsized price tags sinks. Which is why I believe in October the trade market will probably look like it did last week (although these conditions could create opportunity for some aggressive team out there).

From R.B. (@Sports_Fi3nd): Do you see the NFL draft moving to June to accommodate college football being played in the Spring?

Yes, I think the NFL will absolutely accommodate college football if it comes to that. The truth is pro football needs college football more than college football needs pro football. It’s a free minor league, and it’s a marketing machine for the draft and for individual players—guys like Joe Burrow and Kyler Murray enter the NFL as readymade stars. On top of that, the more draft prospects actually play this fall/winter, the better for coaches and scouts.

So if the Big Ten and Pac-12 play a winter season that wraps the second weekend in March, my belief is the Senior Bowl, combine and draft would be moved to accommodate it. That doesn’t mean you wouldn’t have more opt-outs. If the season gets pushed that far back, an uptick in opt-outs will be, I believe, pretty much unavoidable. But the NFL helping would at least make it so kids don’t have to choose between their seasons and the pre-draft run-up.

I can also say that these ideas have already been discussed between the NFL and some college football powerbrokers.

And while we’re there, it’s possible those events have to be moved regardless. It’s pretty hard to say right now whether gathering people from every corner of the country and putting them in hotels together—which is what happens in Mobile and Indy—will be doable come January and February. Stay tuned on that.

From Natasha Gipson (@mrsgipson42): Is Rivers going to end up prolonging his career by going to Indy and playing behind that line?

Natasha, I think it gives Philip Rivers a heck of a chance. The bulk of that line, four of the five guys, have really been together as a unit for three years now. And three of those four are guys still ascending as players. And let’s just say it’s been a while since Rivers had that sort of stability in front on him.

Here’s the other part of it: I don’t think the Colts need Rivers to throw for 300 yards every week to win, which should help save some miles on his body. Marlon Mack’s a proven commodity capable of being an every-down back, and Jonathan Taylor arrives with all the talent in the world and a ton of college production to join him in the running back room. When you add that up, you see a pretty comfortable situation for a quarterback.

If an intriguing group of young receivers (led by Parris Campbell and Michael Pittman) comes along next to T.Y. Hilton, Rivers could bounce back nicely.

chubbs thumb

From David Rose (@bigrose9): Will the Browns still sign Nick Chubb?

Tough question to answer, David. After getting Kareem Hunt done at $13.25 million over two new years, the Browns have obviously built themselves some long-term flexibility should they choose to move on. So I think now you’d be well-served to keep an eye on what happens with Saints RB Alvin Kamara and Vikings RB Dalvin Cook.

Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey set a high bar earlier in the offseason, with his four-year, $64 million payday. Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon ($12 million per year) and Tennessee’s Derrick Henry ($12.5 million per) fell well short of that. I’d imagine Kamara and Cook land in something close to a middle ground between the two. And should Chubb repeat his 2019 campaign, and go for another 1,500 yards, the baseline for paying him would have to be right around $14 million per.

Are you O.K. with that? Would new GM Andrew Berry sign off on it? Much has been made of the analytics influence in the Cleveland front office, which might indicate a reluctance to pay big for backs—and perhaps positions the signing of Hunt as getting ahead of a potential problem keeping Chubb. But I’d also say that I think Berry’s his own guy, and so tying him down to what someone else’s principle tells him to do could be a mistake.

From Paul Smith (@smudga55): Will Mitch Trubisky keep his job all year?

So, Paul, this is actually something I did broach with Matt Nagy when we talked on Sunday night. Simply, I asked how the team would make sure Trubisky didn’t feel like a switch would come at the first sign of trouble.

“Just by making him concentrate on every single play, every single practice,” Nagy said. “Again, it goes back to that—control what you can control. And it’s a positive thought versus a negative thought. And we don’t even discuss it, because that just goes to bad places. We think positively, like, ‘Hey, we can’t wait, there’s an excitement, a laser focus, a mentality right now.’ It’s a feeling of positivity within our team, not just at the quarterback position, but across the board.

“Being a part of that as a quarterback, being a part of that as a head coach, there’s a real pure excitement to get this thing started. That’s probably for others to debate and discuss, that’s their world. Now, do we always have to be prepared for all situations? Yes. If you’re not prepared for different situations then you’re not doing your job. But that stuff you talk about, we talk about months prior, the what-ifs, so you can at least have an idea.

“Now, it’s time to think about winning and being positive. From our world, the coaching world, you want to think that way, and that’s what we do.”

Which is to say, Trubisky’s gonna have some rope, but not so much that the Bears will decline the option to make a change down the line if need be.