Russell Wilson convened his team just after the end of the season, the sixth straight that finished for the Seahawks before conference championship weekend, to come up with a comprehensive plan for the months ahead.
Those in on the discussions sensed it right away.
Wilson’s 32. He’s got nine NFL seasons in the books, and is now seven years older than he was when he and the Legion of Boom won Super Bowl XLVIII. Just one Seahawk, pending free agent K.J. Wright, predates him in Seattle, and Wright and fellow linebacker Bobby Wagner are the only two others left from the franchise’s back-to-back NFC title teams.
As Wilson articulated to those around him, and after taking stock of a 2020 season that started hot and ended with a thud, he sees this as the start of the second half of his career. And working through the plan for it meant working through the mundane things a quarterback needs each the offseason—from strength-and-conditioning to field work to film work to nutrition to sports psychology elements most of us would need a translator to understand.
Then, there was this: Wilson wanted to take as much control of his football future as possible. More than anything, it was clear he wanted a team truly built around him.
Now, I can’t say how Wilson expressed that desire to Seahawks coach Pete Carroll or GM John Schneider. But I can imagine how they might react to it—since they’ve spent the better part of a decade bending over backward to accommodate their franchise quarterback, like a lot of teams in their position would.
They’ve traded for big-ticket offensive players like Percy Harvin, Jimmy Graham and Duane Brown. They’ve fielded a generational defense. They’ve fired the offensive coordinator they won a Super Bowl with. They’ve made other staff changes to try and improve what was around the quarterback. They’ve twice made Wilson the game’s highest-paid player, doing so most recently just 22 months ago.
So what exactly, Carroll or Schneider might ask, does Wilson want that he isn’t getting? And is it possible that the best conclusion for everyone might be that he gets it somewhere else? Would they actually trade Wilson?
My answer would reflect the quarterback's relationship status with the team that drafted him in the third round nearly nine years ago: It’s complicated.
It’s March, and that means the offseason is just revving up, and we are too with a loaded MMQB for the first day of the month. Inside this week’s column, you’ll find …
• No combine last week? We’ll tell you who the stars would’ve been had there been one.
• A ton on the NFL’s diversity report, with news on the idea of the hiring cycle being moved.
• The latest on the Deshaun Watson, which hasn’t really changed.
And a ton more. But we’re starting with a situation in Seattle that’s getting kind of weird.
To understand where the Seahawks are coming from on Wilson, you first have to understand the history that goes back to the best teams the franchise has ever had.
That Wilson didn’t fit in with some of the alphas on those rosters isn’t news. But examining how Carroll and his staff handled some of the awkwardness can be instructive. And that starts with the root of the problem: Some core members of that team, guys who are gone now, took great pride in the edgy, competitive culture they helped build, and resented that Wilson was given what seemed to be a special exemption from it.
There was the meeting in 2015, after the Super Bowl loss to the Patriots, in which Carroll asked that guys lay off of Wilson. There was the time when the staff eliminated some periods where offensive starters practiced 11-on-11 against defensive starters, a move perceived by the defensive players as an effort to maintain Wilson’s confidence, rather than harden it. There was the 14–5 loss to Tampa in 2016, after which Carroll chewed out his defense, even though they’d shut out the Buccaneers for the last three quarters of the game, and Wilson had thrown two picks for an offense that generated just 245 total yards.
There was also the fact that the Seahawks weren’t drafting and signing quarterbacks as aggressively behind Wilson as they were behind stars at other positions, which furthered the internal narrative that a program that was built to push every person in the operation and keep everyone there on edge was making an obvious exception to the rule.
The idea of a quarterback getting special treatment, of course, isn’t foreign. But regardless of who was right or wrong back then, the amount of pushback the Seahawks got to giving their quarterback that special treatment was certainly unusual. And whether or not that tells you the quarterback’s ability to connect with his teammates was lacking, or that the other guys were overly sensitive, the bottom line is that it was a problem in Seattle.
If you need more details on that, our own Greg Bishop and Robert Klemko wrote a story on it in 2018; ESPN’s Seth Wickersham had one the year before that; and The Athletic’s Michael-Shawn Dugan, Mike Sando and Jayson Jenks had their own takeout piece with more details that ran last week, one that essentially served as another stick of dynamite thrown on a fire that’s been burning for over a month now.
So how, back then, did Carroll and Schneider handle the problem? For the most part, they accommodated Wilson and did what they could to keep him happy, which leads to another answer to the question of whether the quarterback will be traded this offseason.
“Depends on whether or not John’s finally fed up,” answered one rival executive.
Right around the time Wilson met with his team, the quarterback sat down with Carroll to wrap up the 2020 season and start talking about 2021. Wilson, as I understand it, alluded to the aforementioned desire for more control over how he’ll finish his career, and where he saw things going from that point forward. Both, it was clear, were very focused on getting the Seahawks back to where they were in Wilson’s first few years in the league.
Whether the sides agree on how to get there still isn’t totally clear, but Wilson came out of the meeting looking for three things in particular.
• A different offensive philosophy that would maximize him as a player. That box has been checked: I’m told Wilson was fully on board with the hire of new coordinator Shane Waldron, who’s bringing a Sean McVay-styled system from the Rams.
• An effort to upgrade the offensive line, with the addition of a high-end piece that the team sinks real capital into.
• Communication, and agreement, on the direction of the franchise.
And in pursuing those objectives, Wilson wanted to see urgency from the organization, so much so that he sought to create some on his own. It just so happened that another team’s star quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, provided him the template to do it. Rodgers’s decision to publicly question his own future in Green Bay on the night of the NFC title game, in effect, gave Wilson cover to come out and say what he’d been thinking since the end of the season.
So 16 days after Rodgers’s infamous press conference, Wilson went on The Dan Patrick Show and discussed his desire for more control. Later that day, he held a Zoom call with the Seattle media and, when he was asked if he was frustrated with the Seahawks, he responded, “I’m frustrated getting hit so much.”
Therein, he took public the two unchecked boxes, and drew a line in the sand.
Then, Wilson waited. He, of course, had taken note of how Packers coach Matt LaFleur backed Rodgers the day after his press conference (when asked if Rodgers would be back, LaFleur responded, “Hell yeah, he’d better back”) and how GM Brian Gutekunst followed suit a week later. Conversely, the Seahawks have stayed underground through the noise of the last month, which included news that trade calls on Wilson were starting to roll in.
So, could that be the precursor to a trade actually happening?
It’s hard for those around Wilson to figure if, deep down, he really just wants out of Seattle. But this much is clear: He doesn’t fear the possibility of it. Which gives color to what came off to some as the most passive-aggressive trade demand in sports history, with Wilson’s agent, Mark Rodgers telling ESPN’s Adam Schefter that Wilson wasn’t asking for a trade, but that he’d waive his no-trade clause for only the Bears, Cowboys, Raiders or Saints.
So would the Seahawks, with a head coach turning 70 later this year, be afraid to deal off the greatest quarterback the franchise has ever had?
The question, like the relationship itself, is complicated.
Wilson was a front-runner for league MVP five months ago. He’s still, in many ways, the guy scouts would see in the building at 5 a.m.—always the only one there—working out as they filtered in for February draft meetings. And judging by how other quarterbacks have lasted into their 40s, it’s not unreasonable to think his best football could be well be in front of him.
But he’s also become more of a celebrity quarterback of late. Talk of his legacy, to some, has grown old, as have the constant comparisons to other quarterbacks’ situations, when Seattle has fielded playoff rosters in eight of his nine years, which matches New England for most postseason appearances over that span. And, indeed, many of his public complaints this year, that connect to those comparisons, have been private complaints in the past.
Throw in the non-trade request, and the three years left on his contract, and here we are with a team that seems pretty sick of having to play these games with its biggest star.
To be sure, with all that water under the bridge, this is probably as tense as it’s gotten.
And that leaves Wilson looking to embark on the next phase of his career, with the only NFL team he’s ever played for having to decide whether it wants go along for the ride, with all that baggage in tow.
COMBINE WOULDA-BEEN WINNERS
This was supposed to be combine week, so normally I’d be leading the column with something from Indianapolis. Last year, it was digging into the Tom Brady situation, and the compromise the Patriots and their quarterback needed to (and ultimately never did) reach. Two years ago, I sat with Ohio State coach Ryan Day and watched expected first-rounder Dwayne Haskins throw from the Lucas Oil Stadium grandstand.
This year, with the lack of a shot to do those things, we’re giving you something different.
And it starts with the disappointment each of the 330 or so invitees are feeling over the loss of the combine. The truth is, for so many, a part of the NFL dream, for as long as they can remember, has been the simple idea of toeing the start line on the 40 on that patch of FieldTurf in Indy. So there’s that—and for some guys the additional loss of the chance to etch their names in the history books.
One example? Auburn burner Anthony Schwartz.
“Of course, I was going to break the record,” Schwartz said over the phone on Friday. “So that was kind of disappointing, not being able to break the record. So it will stand, sadly. But I feel like this is kind of a special experience because I think we’ll be the first class in I don’t know how long, since they’ve been doing this, that hasn’t gone to the combine. At least I’ll be able to say that ‘back then’ when I when I become an old head.”
Schwartz was so matter-of-fact about breaking John Ross’s record—the ex-Univ. of Washington star burned a 4.22 at the 2017 combine—that I had to stop him after that and make sure I had him right.
“You’re that sure?” I asked him.
“Yes,” Schwartz said. “Most definitely.”
And this is where we can tell you Schwartz isn’t just talking out of his rear end. He was legitimately one of the fastest players in college football the last three years. He also was a major track-and-field recruit coming out of American Heritage in Plantation, Fla. in 2018, enough so that, had he focused on track, he believes there’s a good chance he’d be preparing for the Olympics right now.
“If I did just did track the whole time, I think that I’d have a good chance of being in Tokyo this summer,” Schwartz said. “At the end of the day, I’m still glad about what I’ve done. And I feel like I still even would have a chance … even while doing both, which is really, kind of crazy to think about.”
That underlines his hope now, which is that his decision to focus on the draft highlights to NFL teams where his real passion lies. Schwartz started playing football at five years old, and only picked up track to try and improve his speed for the game he really wanted to play. Three years after that, as a high school sophomore, he nearly gave up track—telling himself if he didn’t get to 10.3 in the 100 meters he’d walk away from it.
Then, in back-to-back meets, he posted a 10.3 and a 10.2, and started getting invited to national meets. He got his time all the way down to 10.07 before graduating from American Heritage. After that, of course, he was on to the SEC, where he’d pursue a career in football. But both the good (all that speed) and bad of his track background would follow him, and has all the way into the draft process.
“I have to prove to them that I’m a complete football player, that I’m a wide receiver,” Schwartz said. “Because all I’ve heard is, ‘Oh he’s just a track guy’ this and that. And then there’s a stigma against short guys, too, because everyone thinks that they’re soft and not tough, which is not true for me. I just kind of take offense to it because I started playing football first. So I’ve always been tough, always trying to give it my all, never been soft.
“I take soft as an insult. And so I just feel like I have to prove to the NFL and to everyone that I am a football player. This is my sport I’ve been playing all my life. I wouldn’t be myself without football.”
So losing the combine sucks for Schwartz, because this would’ve been the sort of week where he could’ve shown the NFL both that he benefitted from track and also that it didn’t make him any less tough than he’s always been.
Who else would’ve starred this week? Well, we’re using this discussion with Schwartz as a jumping off point for a project I worked on the last couple days, to try and identify who would’ve be the ‘winners’ of the 2021 combine that never was. So let’s dive in.
40-yard dash: Auburn WR Anthony Schwartz.
I chose Schwartz to feature here because just about every scout I talked to said that he’d be at the very least among the top two or three guys in the dash. Louisville’s diminutive flash Tutu Atwell and Alabama dynamo Jaylen Waddle (get ready to hear that name a bunch) both came up a lot, too. But the superlatives on Schwartz were off the charts. One NFC exec affirmed Schwartz’s own words, saying if he’d chosen track, “He’d be going to Tokyo.”
Bench press: Georgia G Ben Cleveland.
It was fun talking to scouts about this dude. One NFC exec said, “He looks like the guy from Game of Thrones.” An NFC GM countered that he looks like Thor and that, “If football doesn’t work out, he could totally go to the WWE.” And another veteran evaluator forecasted a future in movies for Cleveland. For his part, the Georgia guard has predicted he’ll break the combine record of 49 reps at 225 pounds, set by ex-Oregon State DT Stephen Paea in 2011, at his pro day. One other name I got here: Pitt DT Jaylen Twyman, whose tree-trunk frame lends itself to the bench press.
Three-cone drill: Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle.
The three-cone drill is a big one for scouts because it doesn’t just test short-area quickness, it also has a way of weeding out any sort of stiffness an athlete has. And that’s why Waddle is a very good bet to absolutely crush this one—he’s as loose and shifty a player as you’ll find, a true human joystick type. Florida WR Kadarius Toney and Purdue WR Rondale Moore also got some love in both the shuttle categories.
Short shuttle: UCLA RB/WR Demetric Felton.
Waddle got a fair amount of support for this one too, but we’re going to switch it up and give you a different name here. Felton showed at the Senior Bowl the outstanding ability to move in short areas that make him a fit as both a passing-down back and slot receiver in the pros. Like we said earlier, Moore and Toney got some mention here too.
Vertical jump: Illinois WR Josh Imatorbhebhe.
This is an off-the-radar name, but there’s basis here: Someone passed along to me what Imatorbhebhe did at The Opening (a Nike-run high school showcase) in 2015. The guy jumped 46 inches, which would tie the NFL combine record set by former Jaguars safety Gerald Sensabaugh in 2005. And, again, that was at 17 years old. I don’t know how good Imatorbhebhe, who went to USC then transferred to Illinois, will be as a prospect. I feel comfortable saying he can get off the ground. If it’s not Imatorbhebhe? This is another one where Moore could be in play.
Broad jump: Oklahoma WR Tylan Wallace.
This was, and always is, a tough one. I gave the nod to Wallace, because he was a champion triple-jumper as a high-schooler. But there are scouts who believe Virginia Tech CB Caleb Farley or Moore, among others, could have a good shot at winning this one. And Syracuse CB Ifeatu Melifonwu is in that category too, particularly in light of the fact that his brother Obi jumped 11-feet-9-inches at the 2017 combine. For one reason or another, it seemed like NFL evaluators had a harder time forecasting this one.
All-around: Michigan DE Kwity Paye.
Paye had the third-best three-cone time of anyone on Michigan’s roster. At 271 pounds. And while, if he performs that way at his pro day, his three-cone would be the story, most people I’ve talked to feel like he’ll be as freakish as anyone in the class with his across-the-board testing numbers. Moore’s name came up here, too, as a potential all-around Goliath, as did Melifonwu, and Georgia CB Tyson Campbell, LSU LB Jabril Cox, Kentucky CB Kelvin Joseph and Oklahoma State OT Teven Jenkins. And then, there was another name that piqued my interest …
In a way, Northern Iowa edge-rusher Elerson Smith is like Schwartz—he was expected to have a head-turning workout, too (“top three in everything at his position,” said one evaluator)—in that there’s a reason why losing the combine is a personal loss for him.
In another, his situation is different. Schwartz has SEC film. Smith’s is from the MVFC. Schwartz played in 2020. Smith didn’t, with the FCS season having been pushed to the spring. And as such, it’s pretty easy to see why this is a bigger deal for Smith. Indy has long been a launching point for rising players from lower-division schools, and so the cancelation of the combine, for Smith, meant the loss of a chance to introduce himself in a full-throated way to the NFL.
“Yeah, it’s tough,” he said. “The combine’s one of those things. I always watched it growing up, and looked at the numbers and tried to compare myself from a young age, like, ‘Wow, it’d be nice to hit these numbers there,’ and watching all the fast dudes run the 40. Yeah, it’s tough. It’s nice because scouts will still get to see my numbers, eventually, at the pro day. But there’s that whole lore around the combine and how big a deal it’s become.
“And it’s tough because I always wanted to compete there and show off what I’ve got. But it is what it is, I understand the reasons behind it.”
Smith, to be sure, is more than just a tester. He was a first-team All-America at the FCS level in 2019, registering 14 sacks, 14 QB hurries, 21.5 tackles for loss and 63 total tackles during his redshirt junior campaign. That, he’d hoped, would only set the stage for a grand finish to his college career in 2020—the well-respected Phil Steele named Smith his preseason FCS Defensive Player of the Year.
Obviously, that didn’t come to pass. The FCS season got moved. He briefly entered the transfer portal and looked hard at a potential move to Ole Miss for the fall (the timing didn’t work out), before deciding instead to finish his degree at UNI and turn his focus to the draft, moving back home to Minneapolis to work with his trainer, Roy Palmer, before EXOS to start combine prep in November.
And now? In this weird draft cycle, he’s left to try and make the most of the limited exposures he’ll get to NFL teams. There was the Senior Bowl in January, and his pro day on March 22—one that teams will attend, but not with the higher-end scouts and execs that might to go to Tuscaloosa, Columbus or Clemson—and that’s really all he’s guaranteed.
The good news, as he sees it, is the shot to show not just the athlete he is, but that he can handle the pressure of having to get it right the first time, since it might be the only time.
“I’ve been practicing these drills since my sophomore year of high school,” Smith said. “These are all a staple of football camps, from when I was trying to get recruited by colleges. I’ve been doing it for so long, it just dulls down the pressure a little bit. I’ve been there before, I’ve broad jumped, I’ve run the 40, I’ve run the shuttle, I’ve done all of it before. It’s obviously on a larger scale but I’ve prepared enough the last 10 years of playing football, doing these things, so I’m confident with where I’m at.
“And I’d have the same approach at the combine.”
His story’s a pretty cool one, and one that would’ve been told in Indy this week. As he alluded to, he had to work to be recruited out of high school—he says his alma mater, Minneapolis South, hadn’t produced a Div. I football player in 30 years. And on top of that, he was the prototypical late bloomer.
As a senior in high school, he weighed just 190 pounds. As a result, his only scholarship offer was from UNI—absent that offer, he’d planned to go to junior college to try and get more attention from the bigger schools. At UNI, he put on 30 pounds during his redshirt year, then steadily added about 10 pounds a year thereafter, and did it in some unique ways.
“My go-to for two, three years was for sure Hamburger Helper,” he said. “I would sit down and force myself to eat a whole box of Hamburger Helper, twice a week. I was like, ‘I gotta get the calories in and this is the easiest thing.’ I can cook a little bit now. But up to that point I wasn’t the best cook. So I’d cook up cheeseburger Hamburger Helper, and go crazy two nights out of the week. That was tough. I’m glad I don’t have to do that anymore.”
He can laugh about it now, but it worked. And as the weight went on, and he filled out to 6' 6", 260, he was able to hang on to his athleticism. Along those lines, at his pro day, his goal is to run a 4.7 in the 40, and get close to 11 feet in the broad jump. What he’s most proud of, though, is where his progress has come in the vertical. He’s added about eight inches over the last year, and has jumped 39 inches in training, with hopes to hit 40 inches on March 22.
“I was always good with this stuff,” Smith said. “But I was so small [in high school], it was like, ‘O.K., he’s hitting these numbers at 190. Is he gonna be able to put on weight and do that?’ I think I’ll prove that I can.”
And being able to jump 40 inches, broad-jump 11 feet and run 4.7 in the 40 at 260 pounds
in Cedar Falls, Iowa on March 22 will go a long way toward the ultimate goal—which is to get drafted as high as possible.
But doing it in Indy would’ve added a little extra oomph to the whole thing.
So that’s what he, a lot of prospects, and really all of us, have lost in not getting to go.
DIVING INTO THE NFL'S DIVERSITY STUDY
There’s a lot to dig through within the NFL’s 61-page NFL coaching demographics report that was released last week. And I got to a bunch of that on Friday with the league’s EVP of football operations, Troy Vincent.
But there was a headline he gave me during our wide-ranging conversation that we’ve got to start with. Per Vincent, two clubs are jointly drafting a proposal to move the NFL’s hiring period for coaches back so it would start the day after Super Bowl. The idea is to protect candidates from being punished for advancing in the playoffs, and also to allow for playoff teams to have their guys locked in while they’re competing for a championship.
It would be a massive change, of course, to start the annual hiring frenzy five weeks later than is accustomed, and leave teams making changes without any semblance of football leadership for more than a month in the process. But that a couple teams are willing to put the idea to paper speaks to there being at least some momentum for the idea.
“Everyone has a different opinion on it, the coaches, the GMs, the club owners and frankly the guy looking to become a head coach has one too,” said Vincent. “It should be a good, healthy proposal for the owners to vote on.”
That one, of course, isn’t just about minority candidates. But in this particular year—with four of the six coordinators in the Super Bowl being Black—the concept certainly might’ve helped improve the big metric that’s been highlighted over the last month, and the one the league struck out on in its efforts to improve workplace diversity across the board in its ranks.
That metric, of course, showed that just one of seven open head coaching positions went to a Black coach. That one, the Texans’ hiring of David Culley, was offset by the Chargers’ firing of Anthony Lynn, leaving the total number of Black head coaches in the NFL at three. Very clearly, Vincent affirms that remains a problem. But elsewhere, he adds, there were some pretty serious steps forward that the league can feel good about.
“It’s very simple to me,” Vincent said. “We’re not happy with progress on the head coaching front. But the data proves we’re headed in the right direction. The data speaks to tremendous progress in the totality of what we did. So I was not pleased with how we fared from a head coach standpoint. But in totality, there’s a lot of progress, and I’m very optimistic and very hopeful about where we’re going.”
From the report itself, here is some of that data.
• 34.6% of open GM/HC positions went to minority candidates, up from 18.8% in 2020.
• 47% of the interview requests for those spots were for minority candidates, up from 22% in 2020.
• The minority hiring rate for offensive coordinators was 21.4%, up from 0% in 2020.
• Three new quarterback coaches are Black.
• 38.1% of fired minority coaches got second shots from 2000 to the present, while only 19.1% of fired white coaches got second shots (though all three who got “third” chances were white).
As Vincent sees it, these good steps forward happened, at least in part, due to the new mobility policy that kept teams from blocking coaches and scouts looking to move into coordinator roles or upper management roles on the scouting side with different clubs. And that didn’t just help the guys who got jobs, but those who got the shot to interview for the first time for such positions—providing good experience and publicity for all of them.
“You could see people were shocked when we presented [the data],” said Vincent. “They’re like, ‘Oh, because of the way it was reported, we didn’t realize that was not right.’ And the reason our team shared it in the format we did, slide by slide, is to show we just had a slow first quarter. But we kicked ass the next three. You can’t discount Terry [Fontenot], Brad [Holmes], Martin [Mayhew], Marcus [Brady], Raheem [Morris]. You can’t discount that.”
That said, the report also highlighted remaining problems. A couple vivid graphics showed that while individual agents have less control than they did in 2020 over teams’ hierarchies, there are still 11 clubs with more than one supervisory coach and/or GM repped by the same agent. Also, data from 2015 to ‘20 showed that the lowest number of interviews for a minority candidate before becoming a head coach was five (Brian Flores, Anthony Lynn), while several white candidates got jobs after one interview (Doug Pederson, Joe Judge).
Then, there’s nepotism question raised in the report—one in seven coaches in supervisory roles are related to a current or former NFL coach; 10 of the league’s 32 head coaches are sons, fathers or brother of a current or former NFL coach; and of 77 coaches related to a current or former NFL coach, 55 are white.
“You want to look at cause and effect, and that one came up with the Fritz Pollard people,” said Vincent. “It was raised as a barrier to entry. So how do you address that? That’d be one of those that would require some more discussion. The beauty of where we are, we can see the numbers, chop them up, look at the pros, the cons and what adjustments we’ve made, and look back at what worked and what didn’t work, and move forward.”
One way they’ve tried to address the familiarity/comfort level issue—one that comes up a lot in these discussions—is by trying to create access and awareness of candidates who are out there. And one way they’ve done it is through the league’s football administration website, which Vincent called a sort of Zillow for teams looking for coaches. Each team’s primary owner and one designee are allowed onto the site, which allows those execs to filter what they’re looking for in a candidate, the same way a coach might call up every third-and-seven-plus a certain offense has played over the last five years.
The league monitored activity on the site (Vincent gave us a look at it, and it’s pretty impressive), and was very encouraged by the use of it by two teams in particular—the Lions and Falcons. Both wound up hiring Black GMs.
“Those two really utilized the resources in a way that was above and beyond,” Vincent said.
And the hope, of course, is that more will going forward.
For now, the fact that stuff like this is already working is encouraging. Enough that Vincent, and those working with him, feel like real progress in that first quarter of the process—during which head coaches are hired—will come too.
The Deshaun Watson situation is where it was. Where it goes from here is still anyone’s guess. At the very least, now, we know there’s been communication between Watson and the new regime in Houston. The quarterback got on a Zoom call with new coach David Culley 10 days ago, Culley got to share his vision and Watson has affirmed that his does not include a future with the team. And in doing so, Watson implicitly confirmed his issue isn’t with Culley or, for that matter, new GM Nick Caserio. Which would, of course, make it tough for either of those guys to fix the problem. So we’re still in a place where Watson’s not of a mind to make amends, and where the Texans aren’t of a mind to trade him. One of those two things has to change for there to be movement here, obviously, and in that way this has become a battle of wills—Caserio/Culley’s will to keep the light on for a Watson reconciliation and Watson’s will to get the hell out of Dodge. So I’ll take a stab at how this will end. It could be with Watson having an unexpected change of heart, though those who know him say that shouldn’t expected. It takes a lot to piss the even-keeled Watson off, they’ll tell you, but if you get there, it’s not to get back to the point where he’ll trust you again. Conversely, the conclusion here could also be with Caserio shipping Watson out of town, which very definitively isn’t what he wants to do. But if it does happen? A couple people who know him said they’d expect it would happen quietly and suddenly—he’d probably just take offers without telling anyone Watson was available, and then quickly trade him (Watson, of course, would need to sign off, given the no-trade clause in his contract). So I wouldn’t expect the normal circus that accompanies a trade of that magnitude.
That said, I still wouldn’t trade him, at least not for a while. I can’t emphasize this enough: There really isn’t a hard deadline on this. This isn’t Carson Wentz or Sam Darnold. Watson’s value will hold past the start of free agency on March 17, and past other quarterback openings filling up across the league, mainly because Watson’s the caliber of player for which other teams would throw their own quarterbacks overboard. Also, the Texans don’t owe Watson another dollar until Week 1, so it’s not like they’ll have to write him a fat check this month or next with the prospect remaining that he won’t play for them in 2021. All of which makes the next checkpoint in the calendar the draft. The draft is, of course, relevant because once it passes the chance to get a current-year first-rounder goes out the window, and with it a piece of capital to replace Watson. So long as the Jets and Dolphins hold on to the second and third picks, my assumption is the chance to get those would be on the table for Houston. So if I’m the Texans, I’m spending the next six weeks doing everything I can to mend fences. Now, I’ve heard people make the argument that Houston should just trade him now. To me, there’s no way you can say that while acknowledging that the guy is a quarterback with potential to be among the top two or three at his position over the next decade. Because trading that kind of commodity away (at 25 years old!) without pulling every lever possible to keep him would make no sense at all. And to illustrate the point, I’ll ask the question: How many quarterbacks drafted since Watson would you trade for him straight up? Of the 11 guys taken, I’d say there are two (Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow), maybe three (Josh Allen) you could even have a conversation on, and that’s only about upside. None of those three have reached the level Watson has, and only Herbert is more than two years younger than him. Which goes to show you that replacing him would be a crapshoot at best, and that avoiding having to do so is an ending worth pursuing at pretty much any cost.
Players are doing more to get combine results than ever before. Last week, we told you about the EXOS combines that took place in Phoenix and Dallas. This week, Priority Sports, one of the country’s more prominent sports agency, will be holding an event similar in a lot ways to that one at Sierra Canyon in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Chatsworth (the school Bronny James goes to). And the idea that the Priority folks came up with was roughly the same one the EXOS people had—with players having so few chances to prove themselves this year, it became important to give prospects multiple shots at working out. Mike McCartney, one of Priority’s veteran football agents, raised to me the potential that something like what happened at Michigan in January (where the school shut down athletics for two weeks) could cost kids their pro days. “I’d be sick to my stomach if that happened,” he said. So about a month ago, McCartney and a few other guys were on a call with ex-Eagles college scouting director Trey Brown and the idea was hatched. “We said, basically, instead of putting all our eggs into one pro day, coming off a year when most of them were canceled, why not do or own?” McCartney said. So Priority hired Brown to run it and asked him to assemble a team. Brown brought in ex-NFL scouts Drae Harris, Jeff Bauer, Rick Mueller and Khary Darlington to help. And Priority got ex-Michigan State QB Brian Lewerke and ex-Div. III All-America QB Broc Rutter—both of whom were in NFL camps last summer—to throw for the skill guys. The workout will happen Wednesday, and Michigan DT Carlo Kemp and FB Ben Mason, Michigan State DE Naquan Jones, Minnesota CB Ben St-Juste, NC State DT Alim McNeil, Colorado OL Will Sherman and Wisconsin DE Isaiahh Loudermilk, as well as 2020 draft prospect Shane Zylstra, will be among the dozen or so guys taking part. They’ll do all the testing, plus positional drills, with a film crew on hand to document the whole thing—players will get a Google drive after of the workout to send to teams. And the hope here is that they get some peace of mind too, in knowing that at the very least they’ll have one chance to show what they’ve got. “What I’ve said to the players is that it’s not a replacement for the combine,” McCartney said. “It’s a second bite of the apple, with the pro days coming up.”
The NFLPA’s annual meeting—done virtually this year—portended what’s to come. And that’s a lot of suspicion between teams and players/agents. During the call, union executive director DeMaurice Smith said something to the effect of, “Call each other, work together, share information and drive up values on the market. I know you don’t get along, and that there’s competition, but at the end of the day, it’s what’s good for everyone.” Call this a preemptive strike. With the salary cap falling, there’s concern among players and agents (as there has been in the past), that teams will work with each other to keep prices reasonable, which, of course, is illegal and could only be combatted with agents working with each other to try and prevent it from happening. And while I think it’s pretty unrealistic to expect agents at the top of the game to full on work with one another in the pressure-cooker of a free-agent market, the greater takeaway here has to be that everyone is expecting a really deflated market. So how will that manifest? One veteran of the market gave me what I think is a pretty realistic prediction, breaking the massive group of free agents into three tiers.
Tier A: The top 20 or so guys, names like Shaq Barrett, Joe Thuney, William Jackson, Leonard Williams, Yannick Ngakoue and Carl Lawson. These guys, absent tags (I left off obvious tag candidates intentionally), will get paid like it’s a normal year.
Tier B: The free agents who’d normally benefit most from making it to the market—good-not-great players who might be your second-best linebacker, your backup quarterback or your nickel corner. The fate of these guys is a mystery.
Tier C: Backups and depth pieces. Our guy predicted a bloodletting on this level, with more players resigned to playing on the minimum (which actually went up in the new CBA) than ever before.
So to me, the market in 2021 will be defined by what happens with that middle tier. I had an agent predict to me this weekend that there’ll be a lot of “bridge contracts”—one year or shorter-term deals that are designed to get the player back on the market at a more opportune time. That would make sense.
That, to me, might prevent teams from making the mistakes they usually do in free agency. Here are two guys who fit in that Tier B two years ago: then Bucs WR Adam Humphries and then Chargers WR Tyrell Williams. Both cashed in, Humphries with the Titans and Williams with the Raiders. Two years later, both have been cut. Over the interim, Humphries made $19.86 million, and had 60 catches for 602 yards and four touchdowns; and Williams made $21.2 million, and had 42 catches for 651 yards and six touchdowns. Obviously, both signings wound up being disasters. And that’s not to say a team can’t do well on the veteran market. That year, the Packers (Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Adrian Amos) and Bills (John Brown, Cole Beasley, Mitch Morse) certainly did. It’s just really hard to, with players that other teams willingly let hit the market. And so if a lot of those guys wind up doing bridge deals, because teams can’t spend as freely as they’d normally be able to, it might wind up saving some GMs and coaches from themselves.
I have no idea if Drew Brees is coming back or not, after all the indications given that he was retiring. But seeing this video from his long-time trainer Todd Durkin can only lead you to two conclusions: Either he’s considering coming back for a 21st NFL season, or he and his trainer are having a lot of fun with all of us.
What’s interesting about this to me is that Brees already took a pay cut for 2021, and that pay cut was processed on Feb. 4, dropping the quarterback’s base salary down from $25 million to $1.075 million, the minimum for a player of his tenure. Everyone’s read on that, at the time, was the same. Brees was doing it so the team could carry him on the roster through June 1 and divide up the $22.65 million in dead money that needs to be accounted for over two years. That act really doesn’t hurt Brees in any way, it just helps the team—unless he were to return. So would Brees actually be willing to come back at that number? Or would the Saints be willing to do a new deal with him, and pay him, again? Or, again, is he really already retired and just messing with everyone? My guess is he’s messing with everyone. But given their cap issues, the Saints probably wouldn’t mind paying their 2021 starting quarterback a tad over a million bucks.
I think some people in Washington had reason to be a little miffed at Alex Smith’s comments to GQ. And that’s why you saw Smith’s camp aggressively put it out there that they have no animosity toward the franchise. Here’s the money quote, from Smith to GQ: “When I decided to come back, I definitely threw a wrench in the team’s plan. They didn’t see it, didn’t want me there, didn’t want me to be a part of it, didn’t want me to be on the team, the roster, didn’t want to give me a chance. Mind you, it was a whole new regime, they came in, I’m like the leftovers and I’m hurt and I’m this liability. Heck no, they didn’t want me there. At that point, as you can imagine, everything I’d been through, I couldn’t have cared less about all that. Whether you like it or not, I’m giving this a go at this point.” Why would you be upset about that if you’re, say, Ron Rivera? Well, because the team did all it could to have Smith involved, going back to last spring when Smith was still rehabbing. At that point, he was positioned as a mentor to Dwayne Haskins. By mid-August, still not wholly ready to play, Smith was given a training camp roster spot, and Washington carried him through on to the active roster at the beginning of the year. As I saw it, they did everything they could to facilitate his return. So yeah, I can understand why people with the team might be a little confused with where Smith was coming from there. And I think, if you parse the comments, Smith may well have been referencing where Rivera & Co. were on him before they actually started working together. Either way, I think it’s unlikely he’ll be back at his current number ($19 million) for next year. Maybe he’ll be back, maybe he won’t. But Washington is going to consider its options at the position, be it with veterans (like Ryan Fitzpatrick, Teddy Bridgewater if he’s cut, or even Cam Newton) or a trade up in the draft, in addition to having Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen around.
I think the broadcast deals will get done soon, and it’s going to be fascinating to see where the Thursday night package goes. If John Ourand’s reporting in the Sports Business Journal proves correct—that Disney will keep Monday Night Football, and simulcast some games on ABC—then it would appear one more suitor for Thursday Night Football would officially be eliminated. And that’s because one goal of Disney’s was to put some, but not all of its NFL inventory on ABC, with the big network creating a pathway into the Super Bowl rotation, but the cable network still needing the league as a draw to keep subscribers. If that’s accomplished with one package, rather than two, then that likely leaves Amazon as the frontrunner for TNF (with a likely simulcast on NFL Network), and man is that interesting. The idea that a streaming service would land one of the deals is, of course, a pretty sharp change in how the NFL has done business, but I’d guess it’s only the start. In fact, one veteran league exec predicted to me this week that this will be the last set of consolidated broadcast contracts, and that by the time another one is done, the packages (AFC, NFC, SNF, TNF, MNF) could be sliced and distributed five different ways. And the more I thought about that, the easier it was to see why—the way people are consuming media in general has changed drastically over the last 15 years, and all you have to do is look at how kids watch sports to see that the change will keep coming.
I don’t think that Nick Foles will be the Bears’ starting quarterback in 2021. But if you look closely at what GM Ryan Pace said this week, you can see why, for the spot they’re in, he’s a valuable guy to have around. “I respect the way he handled a lot of adversity this year, not just for himself in the quarterback room,” Pace said. “He was a leader in the room as a starter or as a backup. … When he was playing, there were some things that, in fairness to him, the offensive line was a little unsettled and the run game wasn’t quite where we wanted it to be.” Thing is, very few guys out there are capable of navigating the divide between being a starting quarterback and a backup quarterback than the backup who came in to win the Super Bowl three years ago. So you can have Foles stay on as the placeholder, and at just $6.7 million against the cap, while you peruse the market, both veteran and rookie, without concern for how he’ll react to what you’re doing at the position. And to be clear, I’m not saying that the Bears should sit on their hands. But Foles at least gives them the chance to be patient in how they handle what’ll be available to them over the next few weeks.
I’m rooting for Johnny Manziel and Josh Gordon in Fan Controlled Football. I don’t know where it goes from here, but both guys have demons they’ve fought, and it seems like those two have genuinely looked out for one another. So here’s hoping they get some fulfillment from playing again, and that it leads to better days (whether they’re in football or not) thereafter.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1) Skiing update: There’s nothing more terrifying than seeing your kid flying down the mountain when you at least perceive that he’s lost control. (Good thing my kids have the Austrian instincts they do on the mountain, or Saturday might’ve been a mess.)
2) Sending my best to Tiger Woods for a full recovery, regardless of whether or not he ever picks up a golf club again.
3) I hope everyone listens to Jeremy Lin.
4) Michigan got another quarterback transfer this week (Texas Tech’s Alan Bowman), which highlighted, again, how no quarterback that Jim Harbaugh has recruited out of high school to Ann Arbor has finished his college career there. Another one, Joe Milton, announced in February that he’s transferring, joining a list that includes fellow former high-end recruits Brandon Peters (Illinois) and Dylan McCaffrey (Northern Colorado) as those who’ve left. Pretty wild, considering how he arrived at his alma mater with the expectation that quarterback development would be a strength of the program. Want to know why Harbaugh’s NFL stock has cooled some? That’s certainly part of it.
5) I got a decent a view of how tough it is for the 65-plus crowd to get a COVID-19 vaccination appointment in Massachusetts this week. Let’s just say that we probably could (and should) be handling the rollout a little better, or more efficiently, given our country’s resources.
6) Shout out to the North Dakota Bison, who saw their 39-game winning streak snapped on Saturday by Southern Illinois. Thought No. 1: NDSU’s football program is one of America’s most impressive, in any sport and at any level. Thought No. 2: I wonder if this would’ve happened if the season had been played in the fall and Trey Lance was their quarterback.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
I thought this was an interesting point—and that’s not to call anyone out, because this has been a challenge for everyone in sports, and because basketball (lots of close contact, played indoors, lots of travel) always had conditions that lend themselves to spread. It’s just that I remember how people acted as if the NFL was the league that was totally out of bounds in its handling of the pandemic over the summer. That was never really the case.
Cordarrelle Patterson is a Bear, and is evidently a pretty hilarious one.
The Wilson situation was definitely beneficial for everyone on Twitter.
A rhino is the perfect animal to name Gronk.
Good to see this. Both those guys have consistently given back to the sport, and their profession, through their actions. So it’s not surprising (to me at least) to see them on this call.
Interesting way to look at it from the always sharp ex-NFL offensive lineman.
And while we’re there, this was a pretty interesting story of his.
In case you need a reminder of what an absolute monster Myles Garrett is.
In either case, the smart strategy would be just to hit the deck.
Excellent reference to the detail my buddy Tom Pelissero over at NFL Network had on the Watson situation last week. This also led me to look up how old Swingers is, and that was a pretty depressing exercise. This October brings the 25th anniversary of its release.
Considering what we’ve seen elsewhere, gotta give the Lions and Matthew Stafford credit for their handling of what could’ve been a messy divorce. And credit to Stafford and his wife Kelly for everything they’ve done in Detroit.
When I was making calls on the combine sections of this week’s columns, one of the scouts I talked to told me about this Tom Rinaldi piece on Paye. It’s amazing. Watch it.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
There’s a good chance that the TV deals will get done in the coming days. And really, that’s the biggest loose end that needs to be tied up for the salary cap to be set. Once the cap is set, teams will get more aggressive, both in moving on from and bringing in players.
Which is to say, buckle up. We’re on the doorstep of a whole bunch of offseason action and, as always, we’ll be covering all of it for you here on the site.