Mailbag: Will the Patriots Finally Spend Money in Free Agency?

After a down season, will the Patriots have to change their roster-building philosophy? Plus, will Raheem Morris be a head coach in 2021, is Zac Taylor's job safe, will the NFL be mad about Josh Jacobs's Instagram post, will Von Miller's option be picked up and more.
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We’re coming down the stretch. You have questions. I have answers. Let’s go …

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From J Vieira (@jayvee1964): Will Bill Belichick finally cross the $10 million mark for a WR in free agency?

J, this is a fascinating question, because at every single skill position, the Patriots have set ceilings for themselves, and some of those ceilings were put in a long time ago. The high-water mark for receivers remains $9 million per year, set by Randy Moss in 2008, and matched by Julian Edelman on his last extension in 2019. The number at tight end is also $9 million per, set by Rob Gronkowski in 2012 (though Gronk added incentives along the way). And at tailback? It’s $5 million per, set in 2005 by Corey Dillon.

Even at quarterback, Tom Brady kept the numbers artificially low.

Fiscal discipline’s always been a strength of that program, but it’s not like they were just able to snap their fingers and make this happen—it was their ability to look for things that were a little different than other teams (valuing slots, tight ends and third-down backs, for example, which are cheaper than outside receivers and bell cow backs), and the opportunity they could provide players to play with Brady and for championships annually.

Now? Now, the value of slot receivers and tight ends is catching up with other positions, the Patriots are on the verge of missing the playoffs for the second time in a generation and posting their worst record in two decades, and not only is Brady gone, they don’t have any clear answer to the question of who their quarterback will be even next year. Would you go there on a discount? Of course not.

That leaves the Patriots in a precarious spot as they go into the 2021 offseason. They could put a fist through the glass ceilings, knowing they might get bloody along the way—free-agent spending sprees usually aren’t the most prudent ways to rebuild. They could lean into the draft, where Belichick has struggled to find help for his quarterbacks the last few years. Or it could be (and likely will be) a combination of both.

Regardless, there’s a lot of work ahead.

From Shedrick Carter (@shedrickcarter2): How realistic is it that Raheem Morris will keep the Falcons job? He has done some good things but I believe that this team needs a fresh start under new leadership.

Shedrick, I think he has a legitimate shot as it stands now, but that could change. And the reason why is I do believe the Falcons will hire a general manager first, then bring in a coach. It could be ex-Giants GM Jerry Reese. It could be a young exec like Terry Fontenot (Saints), Brad Holmes (Rams) or Brandon Hunt (Steelers). I know, for sure, that diversity has been emphasized in the vetting process, and each of those guys has a strong resume.

The point here is that if Atlanta does tab a GM first, then that GM will likely have a significant say in who the coach will be. Some GMs come in with a very strong feeling on who they want to be their head coach. Others are more flexible with it. And team president Rich McKay will certainly have his say as part of that too, which could help Morris.

For what it’s worth, I also wouldn’t rule out the idea of other teams interviewing Morris, whose second shot at being a head coach should come, if not this year, in the next couple years. He was a hot name coming into the season. Obviously, his defense’s rough start had a chilling effect on that, but he’s bounced back nicely as interim coach.

From Kyle Smith (@Kyle_Smith1087): Is Zac Taylor completely safe? If so will there be assistant coaching changes?

Kyle, I’d never speak in absolutes on this stuff. But I don’t think Taylor’s in trouble—and yes, I know his record is 4-24-1, and I think he’d be the first to tell you that’s not acceptable. But I also think the Bengals understood the enormity of the task at hand when they went about making a coach change two years ago, after 16 years with Marvin Lewis. It was always going to be a process. And it has been.

No, everything hasn’t gone according to plan. But the Bengals will go into 2021 with their franchise quarterback in place, some nice young pieces to build around (Tee Higgins, Jonah Williams, Jessie Bates, William Jackson III) and, in all likelihood, the third pick in the draft. What’s more, Joe Burrow has solid quarterback coaching infrastructure he’s trusted in alongside him, in Taylor, OC Brian Callahan and QBs coach Dan Pitcher.

So I think they’ll give Taylor the shot to keep building. I don’t think Taylor can have another two-win year. But I do think, based on what Taylor inherited, there’s good reason to stay the course and expect progress in 2021.

From Trying to tread (@bdatryangle): Assuming the Jags stay in the No. 2 spot, do they consider OT Sewell ahead of a QB?

Trying, I think it’s impossible to answer that question without knowing who’ll be making the decision and as of today, Dec. 16, we don’t know who’ll be making the decision. What can we project? We can project what the Jaguars will be looking for, and my guess is it’ll be somebody with a very clear vision for the quarterback position. We can also project, based on the team’s 1–12 record and remaining schedule (Ravens, Bears, Colts), that the Jaguars will have a top-two pick (they’d have to win two of three not to).

And we know there are two quarterbacks in this year’s draft worthy of going first overall.

So yeah, I believe either Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields will be a Jacksonville Jaguar. Any other result, to me, would qualify as an upset. But, again, I don’t know who’ll be making the decision, which makes it difficult to come to any sort of hard conclusion on where they’ll go with that pick. (My guess is Oregon’s Penei Sewell will go third to Cincinnati, for what it’s worth).

From Gambling Avengers (@GamblingAvenge1): The league couldn’t have been happy with Josh Jacobs’s antics on Sunday. With so much invested in fantasy and also the partnerships into legal gambling, there had to have been some level of disappointment?

Let me start with my own feelings: I thought it was hilarious. And really, there’s nothing in the rules stopping him now from doing what he did (for those who missed it, he posted “Sorry guys I’m not playing today” on his Instagram story in the hours leading up to the 4:05 p.m. ET kickoff of Raiders-Colts, leading to many 1 p.m. fantasy adjustments, then played in the game). It was like a perfect storm targeting an obsession with social media, an obsession with fantasy lineups and a propensity to chase headlines, which is great.

And no doubt, Jacobs’s IG Molotov cocktail blew up some fantasy playoff brackets.

Do I think we should care that much? No. Do I think the NFL will care? Yes, I do, largely because of the level of investment the league has made in fantasy sports and is starting to make on the gambling front. Remember, this is a league that for decades has mandated that teams disclose, and publicize, players’ medical information weekly because of the week-to-week gambling implications—and that started when sports betting was illegal in 49 states.

All that said, I do think the league will probably view this as an isolated incident and leave it alone. But you better believe they’ll be keeping an eye on this sort of stuff going forward.

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From R.B. (@Sports_Fi3nd): What is the state of the NFL going to look like for the upcoming playoffs as these COVID-19 cases rise? Is it possible that Goodell will prevent any fans from coming to the stadium?

R.B., I don’t know how identifiable the differences are going to be for fans. I believe the games will be played in teams’ home stadiums, and how those teams handle fan attendance will continue to be up to those teams (and, of course, local government and health officials). There will be no neutral sites until the Super Bowl, and no regional or national bubbles, barring some sort of major change in course.

But for the players, staff and coaches will there be differences? That’s possible. The idea of going to local bubbles has been discussed. Mandating those has been—officially after yesterday’s league meeting—shot down. But creating voluntary local bubbles still seems doable under the new updated protocols, and that’s where the league’s been going over time, with stricter and stricter protocols implemented as COVID-19 has worsened in America.

And, like I said, you as fans wouldn’t be able to see the difference if teams did enter into local bubbles. It would basically entail a process to remove the players and coaches from their communities, and it’d take about a week to establish each one safely. For the most part, it would mean teams buying out hotels for the balance of the playoffs, and players only commuting to and from work, which would obviously limit the chance the virus spreads.

Again, this couldn’t be mandatory. But players could be given the option by their teams, and thinking certain locker rooms could decide to do it en masse isn’t too far afield

The benefit is obvious. But the risk is too. If the virus got into one of those bubbles, the potential for spread would explode. And then there’s the mental toll it’d take on everyone, after the year it’s been, to isolate for an extended period of time (that’s a big reason why the NFL won’t allow teams to mandate them). There just aren’t easy answers here. It is, after all, a pandemic.

From Mike (@meek858): Will Anthony Lynn and/or Tom Telesco be fired at this season’s conclusion?

Mike, I think Telesco has a much better shot at making it than Lynn does, mostly because the on-field product has lagged behind the roster-building and, if we’re looking at this realistically, Telesco has multiple years left on his contract and Lynn does not. Bottom line, it’s easy to look at a Chargers roster with Justin Herbert, Joey Bosa, Hunter Henry, Mike Williams, Keenan Allen and Kenneth Murray and point the finger in one direction and not the other, and especially if that helps justify a decision that makes more logistical sense with contracts.

That said, I’m not sure Telesco is 100% safe. I think some of that might ride on whoever the next coach is in L.A. But some of the early names I’ve heard there—Bills OC Brian Daboll and Patriots OC Josh McDaniels—do have ties to Telesco, which could subtly help those coaches, and Telesco, in the process. If they go with someone not tied in any way to Telesco, that obviously could change some things.

Either way, the franchise is entering into a critical time, with an uber-talented quarterback on a rookie contract creating the kind of window to build that the Eagles, Rams and Chiefs rode to the Super Bowl the last three years.

From arod (@arodismyname): Do the Dolphins think Tua is the future?

A-Rod, I think the Dolphins feel good about where Tua Tagovailoa is right now—he’s shown resilience and a good head for the game, and the Texans (Miami has their first-round pick) have played just well enough to take the idea of getting Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields off the table. The great thing is that pick will, in all likelihood, remain in the top 10, positioning Chris Grier and Brian Flores to get him help (I’m doing a mock top 10 for Monday morning’s column, and right now have them taking Florida’s freak of a tight end Kyle Pitts at eight).

That said, I’m not sure Tagovailoa has shown anything overwhelming to this point, like Herbert has in L.A., to where you can say you feel strongly that he’ll be Miami’s QB in, say, 2025. But maybe that’s always the way it was going to be—Herbert’s physical ability is overwhelming and Tua’s isn’t. Tagovailoa’s game has always been more about instincts, accuracy and feel. And the early signs have been good, so we’ll see where it goes.

From Neil Desjardins (@Dez1924): Will the Broncos pick up Von's option?

Neil, it’s a good question. So let’s set the table. Von Miller turns 32 in March and is heading into the final year of the blockbuster six-year deal he signed in 2016. As part of that deal, the team has to exercise its option for that sixth year before the start of the 2021 league year (in March). Should it exercise the option, Denver will be on the hook for his $18 million base for 2021 and a $22.125 million hit. Declining the option would mean swallowing the difference in those two numbers ($4.125 million) in dead money.

Now, the Broncos are in decent shape cap wise—they’ll have room under the cap, regardless of whether it falls in 2021 or not—so they can handle Miller’s number. Will they be willing to? It’s a good question. Miller’s streak of five consecutive double-digit sack seasons was snapped in 2019. He’s missed all of this year with a dislocated tendon in his ankle. And while he may come back this month, the injury is a red flag on the age front.

My guess is at the very least the Broncos would ask him to take a pay cut (maybe as part of an extension). Coach Vic Fangio’s job will be on the line in 2021, and even GM John Elway’s future past that year is uncertain. So you’d think they’d want him back in some capacity. The cost they’re willing to incur to have him will probably be the question.

From 12 more qtrs for doug (@gloomysmitty): What will the Eagles get for Hurts in a trade in the offseason?

I’m assuming this is a joke, 12? They have Jalen Hurts at $883K for next year. He’s shown promise in a regular-season setting. Baseline, that’d be great value in Hurts providing depth/insurance at the position. And maybe he can be more than that.

The one caveat here would be the If someone blows you away with an offer scenario. I don’t think that’s happening. Hurts looked good on Sunday. Still, I’d be stunned if teams were lining up to make him their starter in 2021, ahead of what’ll be available in the draft in April, and making him a starter is the only thing that would justify the kind of return Philly would require to move him.

I’d actually be more confident saying that Hurts will be an Eagle in 2021 than I would saying the same for Carson Wentz, because of that contractual dynamic.

From Jerry Jeudy Is The Best Rookie Wide Receiver (@JerryFNJeudy): Do you think Andrew Luck plays next season

Jerry, let’s end it here. I’ve sort of sniffed around on this from time-to-time over the last 16 months. For right now, I get the sense that Andrew Luck is very happy in retirement. And that’s outside of me asking Colts people if they’d be interested in this quarterback or that quarterback that’ll be available next year, and getting the answer, I’d rather just have Andrew back. (They’re kidding about that being possible … I think.)

Luck will be 32 at the outset of next season. The more time you spend away, the harder it gets to come back. For right now, I don’t see it happening. And trust me, I’d love to see it. That Colts roster is loaded and if Luck hadn’t retired I firmly believe they’d be neck-and-neck with the Chiefs in the AFC right now. But I’m just not getting any sort of indication that things have changed for Luck much.

Selfishly, I hope I’m wrong. But I’m also glad that a dude who’s really a genuinely good guy has found contentment outside the sport he was such a prodigy in.