Mailbag: Justin Herbert or Justin Jefferson for Offensive Rookie of the Year?

Which standout rookie deserves the award on the offensive side of the ball? Plus, playing 2021 QB musical chairs with top draft picks, Carson Wentz, Matthew Stafford, Jimmy Garoppolo, Sam Darnold and more.
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Merry Christmas to everyone. And to everyone, answers to this week’s mailbag questions …

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From John Carlos (@JohnnyCarlos95): What are you hearing (from voters) for the consensus OROY? Herbert & Jefferson.

John, the consensus I think will be to go with the quarterback—and I think that’s fair, given the degree of difficulty at the position for a rookie. Justin Herbert’s been nothing short of a revelation in Year 1. He’s completed 66.5% of his throws for 3,781 yards and 27 touchdowns against just 10 picks, and for a 96.3 passer rating in 13 starts. Those are astounding numbers for a first-year guy at that position.

So I think Herbert will win. But Justin Jefferson absolutely deserves consideration.

The Vikings’ star is eighth in the league in receiving yards (1,182), tied for 15th in receiving touchdowns (seven), and 22nd in catches (77). He’s got a good shot at breaking Randy Moss’s rookie record of 1,313 yards over the next two weeks. And he filled a hole the Vikings desperately needed someone to step into, having traded Stefon Diggs in the offseason.

Which is to say I think how you assess this award becomes a little bit of a Rorschach test for people’s personal criteria for it. If you think it should go to the guy who’s been the best at his particular job, it’s probably Jefferson (if you define it that way, Browns LT Jedrick Wills deserves a look, too). But if you see it as who’s accomplished the most, I think you have to give it to Herbert, just like you’d have given it to Joe Burrow before he got hurt.

From Agador Spartacus (@sgibbles): What do players on a team like the Chargers start to think when their coach becomes nationally recognized for embarrassing clock mismanagement blunders game after game?

Agador, your phrasing’s harsh! But the question’s fair. The Chargers staff’s tidal wave of game-management issues are part of what’s put all those guys on notice going into the final weeks of the season. And my feeling has always been with pro football players that results are a huge part of how wired-in each guy, and group collectively, is to the coaching staff.

It’s really pretty simple. Every pro football player wants to get rich (like the rest of us). The best way for those guys to get rich is to be the best football players they can be, but also to be associated with winning. If you have both, you’re golden—because you’re either getting paid where you are, or someone’s going to want to come get a piece of the success you’ve had, both individually and team-wise.

So if a coach isn’t giving his players the best chance to check both boxes, and the players can see it, the coach is in trouble. It’s one reason why, tough as he’s been on guys, and hard as it is to play for him, Bill Belichick’s so consistently gotten buy-in from guys. His players know they’ll have the best chance to develop individually, and they know they’ll have a shot to win and carry the championship brand with them when it’s time to get theirs.

Bottom line: Anthony Lynn’s players love him. But issues like those that have cropped up of late can cause players to check out on a staff.

From Jahmaal (@jahmaalbox): The big TE out Florida, you think he can fall to the Pats in the 1st round? And if they are taking a QB and can’t get the TE should they trade back?

Jahmaal, right now the Patriots are slated to have the 15th pick in the draft, so my answer is no, I don’t think Kyle Pitts will be available to them. The trade-back question is interesting. In my mock top 10 from Monday, I had four quarterbacks going. I think Alabama’s Mac Jones is right there with that group too. So could one of them be available at 15? Sure. Would I risk trading back and losing a guy I loved (since you have to love a QB to take him in the first round)? I would not.

Also, Penn State TE Pat Freiermuth would be an interesting guy for Patriots fans to keep an eye on. Local kid, too. And by the way, your question was weirdly specific, seeing as though we’re still four months out from the draft.

From David Gottesman (@dgotte75): Since we’re at it yet again with the Lions, who’s the best choice for GM and/or coach to attempt to right the ship for this team that I can’t seem to pull away from for some sick reason?

Well, David, let’s start with some breadcrumbs that can help lead you where this might wind up going. The Lions just hired former star linebacker Chris Spielman, and Spielman is moving from Columbus to Detroit to serve in his new role as an assistant to the owner and team president. So what’s his job going to be? I’m told it’ll be largely to ensure the culture in the organization—from the top down and across the business and football sides—is consistent and aligned. Which, quite frankly, is what the Lions have needed.

So that’s Step 1. My understanding is Step 2 will be a wide-open process to look at both head coach candidates and general manager candidates, pick the right leader (be it a GM or head coach) and build out from there. They’re not married to any reporting structure or any flow chart. New controlling owner Sheila Ford Hamp is willing to be flexible with that to get the right people in the door.

Functionally, that means the first hire will dictate the second. For example, if 49ers coach Robert Saleh blows the Lions away like he did the Browns brass last year, and the Fords decide to bring the Dearborn native home, they’d then look to match a GM to him (like Colts assistant GM Ed Dodds). Likewise, if, say, Vikings exec George Paton won an interview there, then you’d probably see someone he’s connected to (Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald) hired next.

Personally, I think it’s a smart reimagining of a place that needs to be reimagined, and probably part of why they’re doing as many early interviews of guys without jobs as they have—so they can collect as many ideas as possible on what their new setup should look like.

From Gary (@NotTheP0lice): If Matt Stafford were to be traded this offseason, which team(s) would be the likeliest? Thanks!

Gary, I love the idea of another team pursuing Stafford in an Alex Smith–in-2013 kind of way. Granted, Smith was a little younger (Smith was 29 on Opening Day 2013, Stafford will be 33 at the start of next year). But Stafford can absolutely be the sort of ultra-placeholder that Smith was—a quarterback you can win with, and build with, while casually keeping the door open for getting aggressive at some point to draft one you truly love.

With Smith as starter, the Chiefs made the playoffs in four of five years, and they spent their draft capital wisely in building up the roster. Then Andy Reid, John Dorsey, Brett Veach and the rest of them found a guy they loved—Texas Tech phenom Patrick Mahomes—and bundled a bunch of picks to jump 17 spots in the first round and get him. And allowing things to play out like that (even without the benefit of hindsight, in knowing what Mahomes is now) was brilliant for a few reasons.

One, it allowed for the roster to be built up to the point where picks could be viewed as disposable assets. In other words, because Reid and Dorsey had built it up for five years, there weren’t a slew of pressing needs that would be harder to address with the picks going out the door. Two, it ensured Mahomes was entering a healthy situation. K.C. had the leeway to sit him for a year, and then the infrastructure to support him when he did play. And three, Smith gave the Chiefs the freedom to wait for something truly special to surface.

That’s why I think a team like New England, which has a lot of problems to fix, would do well to get Stafford. It’s also why I could see Stafford being attractive to a team like Washington, which now has a nice foundation to build off of and might not be picking high enough to get a QB it’s truly smitten with. And, to me, it’s enough reason to make keeping Stafford an attractive option for whoever winds up getting the Detroit job.

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From DaveGreen (@OneDaveHendo): How do you solve the Eagles QB situation??

It’s a good question, Dave. I think I would probably stick with Carson Wentz for another year, and try it one more time—putting Wentz in an open competition with Jalen Hurts for the job. I just feel like after trading up twice for him in 2016, and doubling down with a four-year, $134 million extension in 2019, the investment is so heavy that you have to exhaust every idea and rep you have to try and see if he’s capable of returning to an MVP level.

That might mean changes in the coaching staff. It might mean adjusting how you handle him. It should mean pushing him with Hurts, mostly because I think seeing how he reacts to having to earn his job will tell you a lot of how fixable he is as a player.

And all this comes with a caveat—if you think the guy is shot, then bail now. He still has value and, as it stands, his contract is an asset for someone else. If you deal for him, you gamble with cap space in the short term ($25.4 million for 2020), but if he hits, that average is below $25 million over the next four years, a bargain for a starting quarterback in the NFL. And that sets it up so Philly should be able to get something back for him.

Conversely, if the Eagles wait and he bombs, that trade value is gone, and they’re left to cut him and swallow the cap repercussions. Yes, trading him would mean dealing with the dead-money hit. But they’re going to have to deal with that at some point anyhow, and if you’re trading your quarterback, you’re probably planning a pretty massive rebuild—which means taking on salary-cap water is a litter easier and more justifiable.

I don’t envy the Eagles’ spot. But like I said, if I was them, assuming they see hope, I’d try it again with Wentz, but not without putting some level of pressure on him to make sure they

know where he’s at psychologically and can handle being the guy going forward—and that glimmers of hope won’t devolve into this sort of thing again.

From Patrick Bell (@motl40): how does Stephon Gilmore’s injury/surgery impact the Patriots’ decision with him for 2021?

Patrick, Gilmore’s surgery certainly could affect his marketability, and what another team is willing to give up for, then pay him—so I do think it adjusts how much luck the Patriots might have trying to move him. The background here is that coming off his 2019 DPOY season, Gilmore wasn’t going to play for $11 million in 2020. So the Patriots moved $4.5 million up from 2021 to get his number to $15.5 million for this year. And if he wasn’t willing to play at $11 million in 2020, chances are he won’t want to play at $7.5 million in ’21.

That, at least, is why the assumption has been that the contract adjustment was an acknowledgment from both sides that this would be Gilmore’s last year in New England. The lower number for ’21 would make it easier for the Patriots to move him after the season, and being moved would give Gilmore a shot to get his last big bite of the financial apple a year before his contract expired.

Now, the question is whether another team would be willing to give up a draft pick for him and hand him a big contract. And the more it’ll cost the team monetarily, naturally, the less this hypothetical team will be will be willing fork over in draft-pick compensation. It’ll be interesting because there is some precedent here—the 49ers gave Richard Sherman a three-year, $27.1 million deal in 2018, with Sherman coming off a torn Achilles. So I do think someone will be willing to pay Gilmore.

Again, adding a draft pick to the price tag is where the question lies, and will probably color how the Patriots handle this. (Also, the Patriots have a young corner, in J.C. Jackson, who’s got eight interceptions on the year and is headed for restricted free agency.)

From Frank Davis (@Frankied35): 49ers’ percent chance of a new QB in 2021?

Frank, let’s go with … 40%? I think the Niners will consider their options in 2021, and if there’s an upgrade out there, they’ll consider it. Jimmy Garoppolo’s been hurt a lot as a pro, he’ll turn 30 next year and he still has two years left on a deal with reasonable numbers and structure that make it at logistically easy for the team to keep, trade or cut him. The question then becomes what would constitute an upgrade.

If the Jets made Sam Darnold, who’s still just 23, available, I think the Niners would look at it. If Kyle Shanahan loves, say, BYU’s Zach Wilson, and wants to trade up for him with, for argument’s sake, those same Jets, then I could see where the Niners might consider it (though with their top-heavy salary structure, picks are valuable). And if they view Matt Ryan or Matthew Stafford as better for-now options, maybe they’d look at that, too.

The key here is that I do believe San Francisco will stay nimble in this situation, and Garoppolo’s contract affords them the luxury to take that approach.

From bryan (@bryan07628819): Jets have very little talent, why don’t the Jets trade down with Cincinnati for Sewell and again to another top-ten team who wants the QB. Jets add a few high picks and draft a receiver like the two from Alabama or LSU. Thoughts?

From Eric Lancet (@ELancet): Now that the Jets have the second pick, doesn’t it make sense to build around Darnold and actually give him talent to play with?

Bryan and Eric, it’s complicated. On one hand, if you believe Justin Fields or Wilson is generational, and you have to take them, I think you do it. That would allow you to deal Darnold, get a return and start the clock over again on having the quarterback-on-a-rookie-deal team-building advantage. But if you believe Darnold’s your best option—and I do believe that GM Joe Douglas really likes him—then I think you auction off the pick to the highest bidder against the idea of just sitting there and taking Penei Sewell, the Oregon tackle, to pair with Mekhi Becton.

Either way, they’re in a really good spot. I’d still rather have Trevor Lawrence, based on what Lawrence is. But this isn’t a bad year to have the second pick either. And Douglas, who made his bones as a road scout and is among the NFL’s most respected evaluators of college talent, should have a shot to fix a lot of problems on draft weekend beyond just settling the quarterback position, and whether he takes a quarterback at No. 2.

From Smee (@SmeeSir): Best QB fit for Panthers?

Smee, I don’t think Matt Rhule’s much of a fan of losing. But he went through tough transitional years at both Temple and Baylor, and I think it’s possible down the line we’ll see this rough patch they’re in as a blessing in disguise. Right now, the Panthers are slated to pick fourth, and Cincinnati’s beating Houston this weekend (possible!) could move them up to third. That means they’re well positioned to get a quarterback.

Honestly, I feel like either Fields or Wilson would fit the bill there. Both have considerable athletic potential and seem to have the right makeup to be really good pros. And the good news is the Panthers have an ideal placeholder in Teddy Bridgewater, who’s making reasonable money for a starting quarterback ($21 million per year) and makes it so the Panthers don’t have to force it with a pick and won’t have to push a young guy into the lineup before he’s ready.

I really like where Carolina is going into Year 2 with Rhule.

From Big Mike (@Big_Mike_150): With Lawrence and Fields seemingly headed to the AFC after Burrow, Tagovailoa and Herbert last year, plus Mahomes, Jackson, Watson, Allen and possibly Mayfield, the AFC seems set up for a long run of success with all of these young QB over the NFC with only Murray and Prescott.

I hadn’t thought of it this way, but that’s a very interesting point. Looking at the top 10 teams in the draft, though, I’d say the Panthers and Falcons will be in play for quarterbacks, and separation between the guys going after Lawrence (throw Trey Lance and Mac Jones in that mix, too) is small enough to where each guy’s success, and how they stack up against one another, could be dictated by the situation each one goes into.

It should be a fascinating draft cycle with no lack of story lines, even if there’ll be zero drama on who’s going first.