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Mailbag: How Does the Big Ten's Return Affect the NFL Draft?

The Big Ten is returning, but some players who opted out have already signed with agents. Plus, your questions about coaches getting fired mid-season, Tua Tagovailoa, Cam Newton, Allen Robinson, Washington's defense and more.

The Big Ten is back.

You all know how happy this makes me, and of course there are a lot of people who deserve credit for making this happen, from coaches (Ryan Day, Jim Harbaugh, James Franklin and Scott Frost) to players (Justin Fields) to parents and even a politician (Ohio representative and former NFL first-round pick Anthony Gonzalez).

But I’m not just happy I get to see football from the conference that’s been a part of my fall every year since before I could put words together. I’m happy that, in the end, everyone worked to a pragmatic conclusion. They didn’t go damn the torpedoes, or lock yourself inside until 2021. Their method was to a way to do what was best for those most affected by the decisions made—the actual athletes—in the safest way possible.

Along those lines, covering the NFL, I can tell you that daily testing has been the key to everything over the last two months. The league had 107 players known to have tested positive for COVID-19 before camp began in late July. During the initial rounds of testing, from July 25 to Aug. 11, 64 players tested positive. From Aug. 12 to Sept. 5, the start of football activity through camp, the NFL tested players 64,058 times, with just five positives.

Here’s the simple truth: It’s hard to get COVID-19 in a COVID-19-free environment. And constant testing gives everyone the chance to create that sort of environment.

So, in an NFL context, what does this mean?

nfl-mailbag-shaun-wade-ohio-state-draft-prospect

Well, 21 players within the Big Ten conference publicly announced their intention to opt out of the 2020 season. Eight of those 21 went through with it and simultaneously said they’d declare for the 2021 draft—Minnesota WR Rashod Bateman, Penn State LB Micah Parsons, Purdue WR Rondale Moore, Northwestern OT Rashawn Slater, Michigan OT Jalen Mayfield, Michigan CB Ambry Thomas, Ohio State OG Wyatt Davis and Ohio State CB Shaun Wade.

What they said in graphics or videos about those decisions is relevant, but not quite as relevant as where each guy is in the process of getting ready for the draft. What’s more important is whether those guys have signed with agents, or taken money, which would make them ineligible for the upcoming Big Ten season.

Per NFLPA records, five of the eight have signed with agents—Bateman (Blake Baratz), Mayfield (CAA), Parsons (David Mulugheta), Slater (CAA) and Thomas (Drew Rosenhaus). In addition to those guys, a third Michigan player, Nico Collins, has signed (Rosenhaus). The other three guys (Moore, Davis and Wade), have a shot to return, assuming they haven’t accepted benefits.

And that could be big for Moore and Davis, who are worthy of first-round consideration but aren’t locks to go that high. And it could be for Wade—a likely top-20-or-so pick who could play his way into the top 10 if he proves himself as an outside corner—as well. That leaves those three, presumably, with decisions to make.

So there’s your NFL subplot to the Big Ten decision. Now, on to your mail …

From Tyler Kind (@TylerKind8): I've got 2. How many coaches, if any, lose their jobs before the end of the regular season? And, of all the teams that finished last in their division last season, based off of Week 1, who has the best chance to go from worst to first and win their respective division?

Tyler, to your first question—the coaching market is going to be interesting, in that the revenue shortfall could shift some things. On one hand, it might make owners less willing to eat years on coaches’ and GMs’ contracts, so guys with multiple seasons left on their deals might get a reprieve. On the other, if owners sense apathy in their fan bases after a strange year, they might feel the need to generate buzz publicly on where they’re going in 2021.

We’ll see how that plays out. But the three places where everyone in football ops has to be a little nervous are the ones where stays of execution were granted last year, and where owners felt compelled to make statements about keeping their head coaches and GMs last winter—Atlanta, Detroit and Jacksonville. In Detroit, ownership was handed off, from mom to daughter. In Atlanta and Jacksonville, there’s already been some organizational shuffling.

So all three bear watching, if those teams stumble into midseason.

As for who has the best chance to go from worst to first and win their division, give me Arizona. The Cardinals looked great in Week 1, the mighty Niners looked mortal and the Rams and Seahawks are in the good-but-not-great category for me—for right now, at least. I also wouldn’t sell on the Lions yet, because I believe that division is winnable. The Bengals and Chargers are decent, too, but both have powerhouses in their divisions.

From American Idle (@BarlesCharkly): How many games until we see Tua instead of Fitzmagic?

American, I think that all depends on how long Miami can stay in the playoff picture. And if you look at it, there aren’t very many layups ahead on the Dolphins’ schedule. The Bills are next, then the Jaguars, Seahawks, 49ers, Broncos, Chargers, Rams and Cardinals. The team’s bye is two weeks after that—and maybe that’s when they’d take a hard look at putting Tua Tagovailoa in the lineup.

The main thing to me, after watching the Dolphins on Sunday, was that I just don’t think the roster is there yet. And if you look at the scope of the rebuild, and the teardown they’ve undergone over the last 18 months, that’s 100% understandable. This was always going to take time.

So if/when this year becomes about getting the team in the right place for 2021, I’d think Tagovailoa will go in. And I say that with the acknowledgment that Brian Flores and his staff probably aren’t even thinking about that yet. I just know last year there came a time when they had to see what they had in Josh Rosen, and when that time came, Flores’s own assistants didn’t see that call coming. In fact, they were very surprised to get the news.

We’ll see when that “surprise” comes this time around.

From Brent Scharber (@TruSchool80): Josh Gordon reinstatement?!?!??

Brent, I looked into this one for you. What I got back was basically that this one is “still up to the commissioner.” Per his lawyer, Gordon relapsed in November after the death of his brother and was suspended again as a result in December. He applied, yet again, for reinstatement in June. And really, that’s where things still stand right now.

The Seahawks re-signed Gordon two weeks ago, which doesn’t mean a ton other than removing any doubt about his desire to play. Roger Goodell has acted with more mercy in these sorts of cases of late—Randy Gregory’s case is a good example of that—so it’s not like there’s no hope for the oft-suspended Gordon to gain reinstatement. It also probably doesn’t hurt that he’s generally well-liked and considered a good guy.

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But to make a prediction on this one? That would be tough to do, given that the result rides on the whims of the commissioner. What I can say is I believe Gordon’s in a good place now. He’s also living in Seattle, so when he gets the green light from Park Avenue, he’ll jump right in.

Jets head coach Adam Gase looks at his playbook during a game

From Adam Winters (@adam_c_winters): Can Adam Gase be fired now pls?

Adam, I don’t think Gase will get fired in-season, and that’s because I think his fate is tied to who the controlling owner is. Woody Johnson is finishing up his ambassadorship in the U.K., and when he comes back there’s plenty he’ll have to answer for, related to the reports on racist comments he was said to have made. If Woody’s back in December, will he jump right back in as boss? Will the league intervene?

There’s also the fact that Gase’s contract has two more years left after this one, meaning whacking him will mean footing a hefty bill to have the guy not coach for you.

That said, the idea he might be gone isn’t wild. If Woody does take over for his brother, the fact that he didn’t hire Gase isn’t an insignificant detail. And if things don’t turn around over the next couple of months, the Jets will be driving toward a critical point in Sam Darnold’s career, and who is overseeing it on the field will be important. So stay tuned. The Jets got off to a really bad start, but the season’s not over after one week.

From 𝙍𝙖𝙞𝙙𝙚𝙧 Yeezus (@raideryeezus): Will the Patriots take measures to protect Newton from injury or will Cam keep up the same beastly style that got him hurt the last two seasons?

Raider, this is a really good question, and OC Josh McDaniels did address that on Tuesday and said he was cognizant of having to protect Newton. And it’s not just a story in New England. My buddy Matt Cassel pointed this out on my podcast Tuesday: Five of the 16 winning teams on Sunday had quarterbacks as their leading rushers. So can New England, Buffalo, Arizona, Baltimore and Seattle keep playing this way?

I’m going to say this has to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Given Newton’s injury history, I think the Patriots have to be especially diligent. Ditto for Seattle, which has seen Russell Wilson quietly fight through a lot of bumps and bruises in recent years. It’s also no small factor that Wilson will turn 32 in November and Newton will turn 32 in May, and each has close to a decade of NFL mileage on the odometer.

With the younger guys—Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen and Kyler Murray—it’s less of a factor, but definitely not a nonfactor.

And the catch-22 with all of them is you don’t want to take away what they can do to compromise a defense on every snap. If those guys are threats in the run game, and each is, it makes everything on offense easier for everyone involved. Which illustrates the tightrope of practicality all these teams walk between short-term success and sustainability.

From Matt Ramas (@matt_ramas): If Cam Newton plays well this year, does Josh McDaniels stay another year as the Pats OC?

Matt, I’ll tell you what I know: Had the Browns offered McDaniels the job,and allowed McDaniels to bring a GM with him (it likely would’ve been Patriots scouting exec Dave Ziegler) and set football ops up as he saw fit, he’d be gone already. And I also know he was intrigued by the Carolina job, which was filled by Matt Rhule just as he was set to interview (the Panthers had to move quickly, for obvious reasons).

So that tells you that, yes, he’s prepared to take a job elsewhere, but also that the way the place is set up—from ownership to who the GM is to how football ops would be set up—is a big factor for him, after what happened in Denver.

And I’m with you on the thought that a big year from Newton would propel McDaniels to the top of some lists. This year will give him the chance to swing some clubs he’s had in his bag for a while. In turn, I think the football world will get another reminder of how smart he is and why the Krafts worked so hard to keep him around a few years back.

From Slim Reaper (@rjd012): Will Washington average 5+ sacks per game?

Slim, I’d say that’d be pretty unlikely. The 1984 Bears set the season record with 72, and they were one of only three teams in NFL history to break 70, along with the 1989 Vikings (71) and 1987 Bears (70). If you reach 70, that’s nearly 4.4 per game. Five per game would be 80 for a 16-game season, which would mean breaking the current team record by eight sacks.

But I’m assuming you’re a WFT fan, and so I’ll allow this—there are plenty of reasons to believe what you watched on Sunday from your defensive line is very real. Chase Young lived up to his billing, and his situation isn’t unlike the one his ex-college teammate Nick Bosa walked into in San Francisco last year, joining a bevy of former first-round picks in his position group.

I don’t think it’s too far out there to think Washington’s D-line can be a top-five group this year.

From Tanner James (@PatriotsDisect): Would you prefer Allen Robinson or OBJ? Realistically?

Tanner, right now, I think I’d prefer Beckham if I’m a team that has a strong infrastructure in place and Robinson for anyone else (provided I know I’m getting his contract extended). I say that because Beckham is still a prodigious talent, and I’ve seen guys like him in the past go to places where there’s strong leadership and thrive. It happened for Terrell Owens in spurts. It happened for Randy Moss in New England.

But if you don’t have that kind of self-policing locker room culture in place, I think you’d be better off with Robinson. He’s a worker and will blend in (despite the last few days), and I think he could be good for a young quarterback somewhere. I’m not sure I’d want to go with Beckham in that sort of circumstance.

And maybe that’s a little bit of a cop out, but each situation isn’t the same. Speaking of …

From Moose Block (@moose_block): Will Odell Beckham and Baker Mayfield ever get on the same page? It feels like Odell will be demanding a trade if this continues.

Yeah, I’d definitely keep my eye on that. One thing that’ll be interesting looking forward is the level of detail that Shanahan-family offense demands on its receivers. Beckham is plenty smart enough to make it work but has been at his best in the past with the ability to freelance. So there are a bunch of things in play there.

I do think most of that’s workable. There’s another side, though, too, and that’s where Beckham wants to play geographically. He started his career in New York, spends a lot of time in L.A. and likes the big stage. Can Cleveland give him that? If the Browns win, sure. If not? Well …