Wrapping up another weird weekend in the NFL …
• There’s no better example of Trevor Lawrence’s looming presence over the bottom of the NFL standings than in ESPN’s Sunday morning news story this weekend gauging the trade value of Jets QB Sam Darnold. And I hope I’ve been as clear as possible about this with people over the last couple months. There’s very little chance that whoever has the first pick will trade it, regardless of who else is on the roster. The team that gets him is going to have to be the worst team in the league, because that’s the type of prospect Lawrence is. It was like this in 2012 for Andrew Luck (and I’d imagine 1983 for John Elway and 1998 for Peyton Manning), and it's going to be the same in 2021.
And to continue the exercise, I did reach out to a few people to gauge what the price tag might be for Darnold—and what they’d be willing to pay. One NFC exec said, “A little more than the [Josh] Rosen trade, so maybe a second and a fourth.” An AFC scouting director was willing to go a little further than that, saying, “If you had a 1 in the 20s like, say, a Pittsburgh, I’d do it. The kid’s talented as hell and is under a brutal [situation].” A second NFC exec said he’d consider “a late 1 this year for him, maybe two 2s,” and added “He’s still an asset. This isn’t Hackenberg.”
That makes a lot of sense to me. And if I was the Steelers, I’d see a lot of reclamation project value there. The Niners took a shot like that back in the ’80s, and did it despite having Joe Montana on the roster, and I don’t think they regretted it.
• While we’re on the Jets, the continued acrimony between Le’Veon Bell and the team sure could lead to GM Joe Douglas’s phone ringing in the next couple weeks to check on his running back’s availability. And one thing that might help is the structure of his contract. The Jets already paid out a $4.5 million roster bonus, and his $8.5 million base comes down by a half-million each week—the prorated amount left sits at $6 million right now.
If I were Douglas, I’d move him. That the squabbling between Bell and coach Adam Gase has gotten to the point where the 28-year-old back is passive-aggressively taking shots on social media, and Gase is responding by telling reporters, “I hate that's the route we go with this,” suggests the genie might out of the bottle on this one anyway. And it’s not like they’re relying on Bell as is—he has 22 touches and three missed games through five weeks.
As it stands, the next two drafts are shaping up as huge ones for Douglas. Might as well get as much capital as you can.
• Given everything that’s happened the last week, I figured the time was right to bring in an actual doctor to assess what changes can be made on the fly to the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols to help the league keep the train on the tracks (and it’s been wobbling of late) for the next three months. So I reached out to my buddy Jess Flynn, who’s a sports medicine physician at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center up here in Massachusetts for answers.
Here are five ideas she passed along …
Respect the incubation period. The incubation period of the virus that causes COVID is anywhere from two to 14 days, with the median being four to six days. Stephon Gilmore tested positive four days after his last contact with Cam Newton. Outside of the NFL, close contacts quarantine for 14 days. The NFL and its players have accepted the risk associated with the fact that they can’t quarantine a full 14 days and still play a season. That being said, no player thought they might be forced to board a plane just 48 hours after their starting quarterback tested positive. Every case is different, but when contact tracing reveals enough close contacts to fill a plane, that has to be taken seriously. The show can’t just go on. Depending on the situation, consider keeping close contacts out of the facility or close it altogether for at least four to seven days. 48 hours is not enough.
Test on game day. The NFL sends gold-standard RT-qPCR tests every day except game day. It’s true that the results are not available until the next morning, so they don’t help decide whether or not the game can be played. The timing of the Titans’ outbreak illustrates why game-day testing is so important. After an OLB coach tested positive on a Saturday morning, the team went almost three full days (Saturday a.m. until Tuesday a.m.) before finding out that nine other players and staff had also contracted the infection. If a qPCR test was done on Sunday morning, the team would likely have known that there were more positives by Monday morning. The downside with game-day testing is that you might find out you unknowingly had an infected player or coach take the field. But the upside is clear. If they had received a positive result on Monday morning (from Sunday), the Titans’ facility may never have opened and that could have changed the course of the team’s initial outbreak.
Listen. The NFL and NFLPA announced that they will be monitoring all teams for compliance with mitigation strategies like masking and physical distancing. This shouldn’t just be remote surveillance. When things go wrong, ask why and learn from it. Understanding barriers usually leads to protocol improvements. The league, its players and their union all share a common interest in playing a full season in the safest way possible. Players have responsibility to each other and to the league, but pointing fingers is not productive.
Help visiting teams with factors outside of their control. If a team asks for help with mitigation strategies while they’re on the road, make every reasonable effort to make it happen. Using the Patriots as an example, if a visiting team with a very recent positive asks for extra locker room space to separate close contacts from non-close contacts, exhaust every option to make it happen.
Build more flexibility into the schedule. You’re going to need it. As the weather gets colder, people spend more time indoors and cases in the general population increase, expect to see more cases in NFL locker rooms. A player testing positive is not necessarily a mark of reckless behavior. While it’s not time to press the red button on the season yet, some recalibration is in order.
• To most of us, the sudden stardom of Eagles WR Travis Fulgham came out of nowhere—the former sixth-round pick’s name wasn’t exactly circulating much ahead of the 2019 draft, he played his college ball at Old Dominion and he’s lived the life of an NFL journeyman the last 14 months. But how all this came to be is far more interesting than that, and a good example of how the NFL’s scouting departments work.
Philly Northeast area scout Jim Ward loved Fulgham leading into the ’19 draft and, accordingly, the Eagles had strong grades on him. The problem was they only had three day three picks, they wound up trading one of them for DT Hassan Ridgeway, and they’d already taken a receiver, Stanford’s J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, in the second round.
The Lions wound up drafting Fulgham in the sixth round, but the Eagles kept tracking him. Fulgham went from Detroit’s active roster to its practice squad that September, then back on the active roster in December. Detroit then waived him in August and the Packers claimed him, then waived him 10 days later. And at that point, with expanded training camp rosters, the Eagles finally had a spot for him. So they put in the claim, he spent a few weeks on the practice squad in September, and then got called up nine days ago.
At the time, he didn’t have an NFL catch. Two days later, he scored the 42-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown that put Philly ahead for good in its first win of the season, over San Francisco. And Sunday, he went for 152 yards and another score on 10 catches. Now, if the Eagles knew he was capable of that? They wouldn’t have waited so long to grab him. But they did feel like something was there all along, so this is a testament, in my mind, to not giving up on an evaluation, and in this case not giving up on Fulgham sure has paid off.
• The Ravens defense isn’t getting enough attention—and maybe it’s because Baltimore got torched a few weeks back by the Chiefs—but there was a fact floating around Monday that just leapt off the page to me. Baltimore started five defensive backs on Sunday. And all five (corners Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith and Marcus Peters, and safeties DeShon Elliott and Chuck Clark) had sacks, which is a pretty good sign of how creative and aggressive the Ravens still are (and have always been) on defense.
How creative and aggressive? Pro Football Reference went back and looked and found this was the first time in recorded history five DBs on the same team recorded sacks in a single game (the 2004 Packers had the previous record, with four in the divisional round that year).
Here are two great examples I’ve pulled of what DC Wink Martindale has cooked up.
The first came on a second-and-4 from the Bengals 26, with 7:41 left in the third quarter. It was a standard four-man rush on a play-action pass with the D-line, and then corners Peters and Anthony Averett blitzing off opposite edges. Confusion left tight end Drew Sample to peel back and block Peters from the opposite side, Sample missed and Peters kept after the QB, eventually sacking and stripping Joe Burrow.
The second was a little more exotic. On the second play of the fourth quarter, second-and-17, Martindale crowded the line with eight defenders. A tick before the snap, Clark fell off. Then, at the snap, Matthew Judon and Tyus Bowser dropped, leaving five guys rushing. By then, though, they’d scrambled Cincinnati’s protection to the point where, even with six guys in to block, Humphrey came free off Burrow’s blindside to bury the rookie.
I’ve heard some defensive coaches say they want to call games like offensive coaches—and dictate terms to the other side—and it looks like that’s exactly what Martindale’s doing.
• A few interesting things came from a media call with Falcons owner Arthur Blank and president Rich McKay on Monday afternoon, after the team fired Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn …
The team will consider hiring a search firm. Blank and McKay didn’t commit to it, but said they plan to talk to firms to see if there’s a fit out there. McKay made it sound like he’d want one to streamline the process—and help with things like background checks and communication with agents. So stay tuned on that.
McKay will oversee football operations. While the team president said that there’s wiggle room in how coaching and scouting are structured in relation to one another, the plan is for the GM to report to McKay and for the GM to have final say over the roster. (Until recently, GM Thomas Dimitroff reported directly to Blank).
There won’t be a fire sale. McKay said that the team will consider trades that are best for the team, and for individual players, but emphasized that there won’t be an effort to gut the roster for draft capital ahead of the trade deadline later this month—“This will not be a situation where we predetermine the roster for the next GM and coach.”
Matt Ryan’s future will be up to the new hires. While Blank lauded the job his quarterback has done the last 13 season and said, “I hope he will be in our plans,” the owner was very clear in saying he plans to leave decisions like that one up to the people he hires.
Raheem Morris was promoted for his leadership qualities. The play of the defense did come up on the call in a question on why Morris was the pick as interim coach, and McKay said that Morris’s connection with the players, on both sides of the ball, was a major factor in the decision. Both Blank and McKay said further staff changes will be up to Morris, and it sure sounded like Morris will be considered for the full-time role if things go well.
• And one more thing on the guys fired on Monday—both deserve credit for stabilizing the organization and making the jobs they’re vacating attractive ones. Dimitroff arrived on the heels of Mike Vick going to prison and Bobby Petrino bolting midseason after less than a year on the job. He immediately landed Vick’s replacement. And working for a franchise that was a mess, and had never made the playoffs in consecutive seasons before, Dimitroff’s first five teams had winning records and four of them made the playoffs. Two years after that run, Dan Quinn arrived to a team that needed a well-defined identity, and he gave them that immediately, making it all the way to the Super Bowl in his second year.
Ultimately, maybe these guys will be remembered most for Super Bowl LIII, and 28–3 will forever haunt them in a way wide-right haunts the 1990s Bills. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t accomplish a lot.
• One last note on the Dak Prescott situation: The Cowboys look brilliant for signing Andy Dalton when they did. They landed him on a one-year, $3 million deal in the spring, with reasonable incentives that Dalton has a good shot at triggering now that he’s the starter. The main thing here is the Cowboys have a pretty solid core group of guys in their prime (Zeke Elliott, Amari Cooper, DeMarcus Lawrence, Zack Martin, Jaylon Smith), and having a guy like Dalton, who made the playoffs in each of his first five years as a pro, makes it so this isn’t just lost year, like 2015 was for the franchise after Tony Romo went down.
• I can’t be the only who’s watched the Washington quarterback situation unfold over the last month and thought that New England may have competition to keep Cam Newton next March, if Newton isn’t franchised … can I? In fact, I wonder if the presence of Ron Rivera’s crew on the quarterback market would force the Patriots to tag him.
• My sneaky player to watch Monday night: Saints third-year WR Tre’Quan Smith. Staffers down there have been excited about him since he was drafted, and I think the emergence of Emmanuel Sanders last week should only help Smith (who scored twice against the Lions) have a big night against the Chargers.