MMQB: How the Salary Cap Squeeze Will Impact the NFL Over the Next Few Weeks

From ways to restructure deals to specific veterans being discussed in trade talks and the value of draft picks, here's how the salary cap will impact the next few weeks. Plus, the Ravens' new overtime proposal, franchise tag deadline, disgruntled QBs and much more.
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The Ben Roethlisberger contract adjustment came and went this week without much fanfare. And I don’t expect many of you to be enthralled with what really just amounts to a whole lot of math.

But in case you are, here’s what the Steelers did: They took Roethlisberger’s $15 million roster bonus and $4 million base salary for 2021, ripped it up and did a new “five-year” deal, which has a $12.925 million signing bonus and $1.075 million base salary, with four voidable (read: fake) years that allow the team to move $10.34 million of Big Ben’s cap charge from 2021 to 2022. It lowered his overall cap hit from $40 million to $25.91 million.

A quarterback restructuring his contract to help his team out in March is nothing new.

A quarterback taking a straight-up pay cut to do it is.

Look back at those numbers again. It’s right there. Roethlisberger is short $5 million.

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This isn’t a column about the Steelers’ salary cap situation, what Roethlisberger’s got left in the tank or why $14 million (rather $19 million) made the most sense for everyone involved. It’s more so about the window the move gave us all into what’s going to take place in the NFL over the next month or so.

Ever since COVID-19 shut our country down almost exactly a year ago, and just a couple weeks after the NFL and NFLPA completed their new CBA, everyone had an idea this week was coming. The NFL was going to lose revenue as a result of the pandemic, with the stands largely empty, and that was going to affect salary caps. And veteran players under contracts built for a constantly rising cap were going to feel the brunt of it.

In essence, what was once a two-lane highway, that became a three-lane highway, then a four-lane highway and a five-lane highway, is going back down to four lanes with minimal notice. For some teams, it means having to reckon with a few bottlenecks on the roster. For others, there’s a 10-car pileup looming and advance plans are being formulated to dig through the rubble. For a precious few, there’s open, if uncertain, road ahead.

And in the coming days, there are a lot of teams playing the role of the Steelers in the example above, with the hope players might be willing to pull a Roethlisberger.

Here we’re going to do our best to map all of that for you.


We’ve got a lot coming for you in this week’s MMQB column, a week out from free agency, including …

• The origin story of the Ravens’ spot-and-choose rule proposal.

• A few thoughts on the high end of the quarterback market.

• Franchise-tag deadline talk.

• More on Sam Darnold, the Falcons and the idea of pushing the hiring cycle back.

But we’re kicking this week off with a 30,000-foot view of where we’re headed over the next few weeks in the NFL.


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The storm that’s been forecast is closing in on NFL teams, which have nine days left to get their salary caps in order before they have to be in compliance. So yesterday I had one team’s cap chief run the numbers for me—and list out how much space every team would have, straight from the NFL system, against a $183 million salary cap (which is around where teams are planning for the number to land).

Here’s the amount of cap space there was league-wide late on Sunday morning.

1. Jaguars: $86.42
2. Jets: $78.96 million
3. Colts: $70.89 million
4. Patriots: $68.74 million
5. Washington: $56.77 million
6. Broncos: $45.48 million
7. Bengals: $42.55 million
8. Panthers: $31.25 million
9. 49ers: $28.02 million
10. Chargers: $25.60 million
11. Dolphins: $24.34 million
12. Browns: $22.85 million
13. Cowboys: $21.78 million
14. Ravens: $19.61 million
15. Texans: $18.18 million
16. Buccaneers: $15.06 million
17. Cardinals: $14.95 million
18. Lions: $13.60 million
19. Giants: $7.61 million
20. Titans: $6.33 million
21. Seahawks: $6.23 million
22. Steelers: $5.33 million
23. Bills: $3.59 million
24. Vikings: minus-$4.94 million
25. Raiders: minus-$7.01 million
26. Bears: minus-$7.45 million
27. Packers: minus-$9.66 million
28. Falcons: minus-$17.84 million
29. Chiefs: minus-$21.11 million
30. Rams: minus-$26.26 million
31. Eagles: minus-$29.73 million
32. Saints: minus-$46.22 million

Now, that’s without agreed-upon trades being processed (For example, the Lions will take on an extra $10.5 million cap-wise as a result of the Matthew Stafford trade, while the Rams will incur an additional $2.5 million hit), and it’s also without franchise and transition tags (since those aren’t signed yet, or even assigned in some cases), restricted free-agent tenders or money allotted for signing rookies factored in.

So before another set of expenditures, four teams are more than $20 million in the red, nine teams are over the cap and another five on top of that have less than $10 million in wiggle room. Which means nearly half the league is somewhere between financially handcuffed and totally screwed.

If your eyes are glazing over look at these numbers, I won’t blame you. But any discussion of the 2021 offseason has to start with them. Because they will affect every little bit of how business is done in the league the next two months, and maybe beyond that. And it’ll start in earnest this week.


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Step 1 for some teams is going to be finding a way to loosen the bottleneck we referenced above.

Even if the TV deals get done and provide some relief—and that’s the hope of many (and even then, most of the deals won’t kick in until 2023, which means the union would still have to negotiate the NFL borrowing against future years to fund this year’s cap)—that fifth highway lane isn’t coming back. So right now, most are working on ways to merge on to the NFL’s metaphorical four-lane fiscal freeway.

The first way to do it, for the more cap-strapped teams, will be to try to get value back for some high-end, high-salaried players. As such, there are a lot of names that have been floated for trades in football circles over the last couple weeks. Here are some:

Saints LB Kwon Alexander: New Orleans got the hyper-athletic linebacker at the deadline last year, and he was fantastic before a torn Achilles ended his 2020 season. With a $13.4 million price tag, he’s more likely to be cut than traded.

Bengals DT Geno Atkins: He has relatively reasonable numbers the next two years ($12.2 million, $13.45 million) but turns 33 in March, and a shoulder injury severely hampered his game last fall. He’s another one who will probably be cut if he’s not traded.

Rams DL Michael Brockers: Still just 30, and under contract at a reasonable $9 million this year and $9 million next year, Brockers is available. Teams have also called on Robert Woods, though L.A.’s been hesitant to move him in the past when interest from contending teams has surfaced.

Eagles G Brandon Brooks: Among the NFL’s best guards before he got hurt, a torn Achilles cost him the 2020 season. But he was healthy enough to practice before the end of the year, and the 31-year-old is under contract the next four years for a reasonable $53.2 million, and just $10.5 million this year. There have been trade discussions here.

Raiders OT Trent Brown: Somehow, Brown is still just 27 years old. The contract he signed two years ago has matured nicely—he’s due $29.25 million the next two years. I don’t think the Raiders will cut him. But he’s got value, and if they could get something back for him, while addressing their messy cap situation, they’d be amenable to moving him.

Eagles TE Zach Ertz: The writing’s been on the wall here for a while. The Eagles can save close to $5 million on the cap (and $8.25 million in cash) by moving him. And he’s just one of a few very high-profile Philly thirtysomethings who have elicited phone calls.

Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore: Gilmore’s injury at the end of the year complicates what seemed to be a fait accompli in midseason—that Gilmore would be traded to a place that would be willing to pay him what New England didn’t want to on an extension. Gilmore’s number for 2021 is just $7.91 million. Whether he’d play at that number elsewhere is another question.

Raiders S LaMarcus Joyner: Again, Vegas has to find money, and Joyner’s 2019 free-agent contract is one place to do so—he’s due $9.95 million this year and $10.05 million in 2022. He’s been a disappointment for the Raiders, but there’s still talent to work with there.

Saints RB Latavius Murray: New Orleans’s cap is a well-established nightmare right now, so Murray absolutely can be had and may be cut otherwise. But if anyone wants a reliable veteran back, Murray is under contract at $6.8 million the next two years.

Jaguars G Andrew Norwell: Norwell is making $12 million this year (with a $15 million cap number) and $13 million next year (with a $16 million cap number), and the Jaguars went to him asking for a reduction on that. The result of that? They may wind up dealing him.

Browns TE David Njoku: Cleveland wanted a third-round pick for Njoku at the trade deadline last year, and with the team having invested in Austin Hooper and carrying a promising young player, Harrison Bryant, at Njoku’s position, the former first-round pick is available again.

Saints WR Emmanuel Sanders: Sanders turns 34 in March, and is still probably worth the $8 million he’s slated to make this year. But at this point, he’s a luxury the Saints can’t afford to have.

Packers DE Preston Smith: Green Bay still really likes Smith, but his production in 2020 (four sacks) wasn’t what it was in 2019 (12 sacks), and the Packers have a former first-round pick, Rashan Gary, waiting in the wings behind him. That makes this an easy place for Green Bay to save $12 million. And the 28-year-old Smith could be a short-term fix for a team that doesn’t want to pay for Carl Lawson or Yannick Ngakoue on the open market.

Giants G Kevin Zeitler: Zeitler’s been available in the past. Now, with the Giants sorting through some cap issues, and with promising young linemen like Shane Lemieux on the roster, even more so.

Chargers G Trai Turner: He’s fought injuries, but Turner is still just 27 years old and has played at a very high level in the past. The catch is that his base for 2021 ($11 million) is high and he’s headed into the last year of his deal.

On paper, it may seem to make sense for this team or that team to make a move on one of these guys. But for the teams looking to trade guys away, it’s already proven more difficult than you’d think—in part because of the expected onslaught of cuts coming, an onslaught that will ultimately include a number of these names, and flood the zone with options for teams filling needs.

“I think it’s gonna be really hard for those sellers, I really do,” said one AFC GM. “The way I see it, and I’m just making this one up, but say you trade for Norwell, there’d have to be something in place that says you restructure the deal, lower his cap this year and maybe he’d get some of it back on [not-likely-to-be-earned] incentives. A lot of guys want to be traded to keep their money. But the numbers are too high. Teams aren’t fired up about it.”

One byproduct of that could be smart trades by teams with cap space—where they’d essentially use that space as an asset to bring in talent for below-market draft-pick compensation. Another byproduct would be Step 2.


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Step 2 is teams finding a way to keep their rosters intact by going to veterans and asking them to take less money. Either with a chance to earn it back or just taking less, period. In a lot of years, that idea wouldn’t just be a nonstarter for most players. It’d be borderline offensive.

But this year, agents are handling it markedly differently—and mostly out of fear that a normal market won’t materialize for their players.

In some cases, the aforementioned NLTBE (not-likely-to-be-earned) incentives (with triggers the player didn’t achieve the previous year; and which, if met, wouldn’t count against the cap until the following year) are being used as a middle ground, in the same way they were when the Broncos went to Peyton Manning looking for him to take a pay cut before his final season in 2015. In others, like we said, a straight pay cut is being pursued (see: Roethlisberger).

In all cases, the players and agents are having to consider the likelihood that supply (with cut players joining a bloated free-agent class) will far outweigh demand (fewer teams with money to spend), and that, as a result, breaking the bank won’t happen this year. It’s not often that a player would take less to avoid free agency, but that’s where we are, in a place where only the highest-end guys (and maybe just a couple dozen of them) will get rewarded the way guys who hit the market normally do.

“It’ll be interesting to see how agents approach multi-year deals, or if they just take a little less this year on one-year deals and try to hit the open market next year,” said another GM. “I don’t think the top-tier guys will be affected. But you’re going to see a ton more franchise tags used, because those are more cost-effective with the cap where it’s at. You’re seeing guys tagged a second time. And with that second level, second-tier, second-wave guys, good teams are going to separate themselves, picking the right guys, getting the right value.”

That’s where Step 3 happens, with the opening of free agency just nine days away.

As that GM said, guys like Ngakoue, Lawson, Leonard Williams, William Jackson and Shaq Barrett will be fine. But older veterans like Alex Mack, Richard Sherman and Justin Houston may be looking at one-year deals, and certain younger vets looking for the big second-contract score may actually wind up wanting one-year deals as well, to buy another year for the market to recover (and there’s no guarantee of a big jump in the cap in 2022, which is further hamstringing teams).

And expecting even that is a little bit of a projection, with teams hesitant the last few weeks to have any sort substantive talks on numbers with agents—mostly because they still don’t know where the cap is going wind up.

“I still think we’re where we were, and will be until we know what the cap is,” said one veteran agent. “It does handcuff teams. They’re expecting it to be under $185 million, and they’re all negative nellies to begin with. But we really don’t know where it’ll land, and these TV deals don’t kick in until 2023 anyway. We don’t know where the negotiation is with the union. … What teams are saying is basically, It’s hard for me to do anything with players, extensions, pay cuts, whatever, until l know the cap.”

Which is why so many teams have waited this long to make their cuts, and some will continue to wait until they know for sure where the cap is.


With all of this happening, all of these GMs and coaches, as well as their staffs, are getting ready to start working the most important pro day circuit of all time.

It’s important, first and foremost, because for a lot of these evaluators it figures to be the only shot they’ll get to see much of this year’s draft class in person. There’s no combine. There was a Senior Bowl, but different teams approached it in different ways. There won’t be private workouts or “30” visits. And very few NFL folks were going to schools or college games in the fall.

But it’s also important because the one foolproof solution to this salary cap problem for everyone lies in the draft. It’s where NFL teams find cheap labor, and is the one place the difference could be made up, after they have to cut an old reliable linebacker or the Pro-Bowl guard who was simply making a couple million too much.

And that touches every piece of this issue too. Teams might be less willing to part with picks in trades for veterans as a result of it. Teams might be less willing to pay a free agent or more willing to cut a vet if they like a certain position in the draft. Teams might feel emboldened to deliver an ultimatum to a starter on the roster if the class coming from college has a few guys like him.

That particular reality of this offseason isn’t pretty.

But then, not a lot about the next few weeks figures to be.


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HOW THE RAVENS CHOSE SPOT-AND-CHOOSE

The “spot-and-choose” idea—an overtime concept first reported on this week by Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio—may have seemed to rise out of thin air and into the NFL lexicon over the last few days. But the truth is, it’s been floating around for nearly 20 years and it’s been a talking point for the team that proposed it, the Ravens, for more than a decade.

Florio’s colleague, Michael David Smith, came up with the idea back in 2003 (I have no idea if he was the first one) when he was writing for Football Outsiders, and different versions of it have been bandied about in football circles since.

The concept sounds complicated when you first read about it, or at least I thought it did when I first read through it. But it’s actually not in practice, and there’s proof in the nomenclature used for it when it was first brought to the competition committee, around the time the modified overtime was being voted through nine years ago: Cut the Cake.

While that seems like a weird name for a football rule, it relates to a simple, basic principle of economics, based on the only fair way for two kids to split a cake, which is to let one kid cut it and the other kid choose which piece he wants. This works the same way. Whether it’s by coin flip at the start of overtime, or just given to the team that loses the coin flip at the start of the game, the way the Ravens’ proposal starts is with a choice.

That’s either to spot the ball or defer to the other team.

From there, the ball is spotted by one team, and the other then decides whether or not to go on offense or defense. In essence, the team spotting the ball has to simultaneously keep its offense and its defense out of a bad spot. Put the ball on the minus-1-yard line (minus, meaning you need to go 99 yards for a touchdown) and the other team will put you on offense. Put it at the minus-25-yard line, and your opponent’s going to take the ball.

The Ravens’ research, and they did a lot of it, predicts that in most cases the smart play would be to put the ball somewhere between the minus-10- and minus-15-yard lines. Wherever the right place is, finding it most certainly would put pressure on coaches and make for fascinating, critical calls for the rest of us to talk about.

As for Baltimore’s motivation here, part of it was to satisfy the commissioner’s quiet desire to find a way to go back to some form of sudden death. And it’s also part of an effort to interject more balance, which the Ravens found was beginning to lack in the current form of OT. Since the 2012 rule change, the receiving team has won 55% of the time in OT, and since 2017, when OT was shortened to 10 minutes, that number jumped to 58%.

Also, in 11 postseasons since the modified OT was introduced for postseason play (which predated regular season play by two years), with better offenses on the field, the receiving team is 9–1.

And like we said, the Ravens have had their eyes on spot-and-choose throughout, with a young assistant named Matt Weiss having brought it to Harbaugh’s attention about a decade ago. In 2016, with Weiss rising through the staff, Yale grad Daniel Stern came on as a coaching analytics assistant and joined him in taking an interest in the idea—he’d seen a Letter to Editor in The New York Times pushing an idea that actually goes back to Chapter 13 of the Book of Genesis (Abraham divides the East and West, and lets Lot choose).

Their continuing conversation on what they saw as a very logical idea got amped up in 2019, after the Chiefs lost in the AFC title game to the Patriots without Patrick Mahomes touching the ball in overtime—which led Kansas City to propose a mandate that both teams get a possession in OT in 2019 and again in 2020. The problem there was the same with existing overtime, that being that the third possession could prove to give a team as much of an edge as the first possession did.

So at that point, Harbaugh went to Stern and Weiss, and asked what they thought of the Chiefs’ proposal, at which point they brought up the third-possession issue, which led to the head coach asking the young assistants, “What about that idea we talked about in 2016?”

And everyone agreed that it was time to start thinking about a proposal for Cut the Cake.

“It’s just an idea that floated around forever. There have been different versions for a long time,” said Weiss, who, by 2019, was the team’s running backs coach and left Baltimore last month to become quarterback coach for Harbaugh’s brother Jim at Michigan. “It’s really a credit to John, because the one thing about him that’s really rare is that’s he always interested in new ideas, and I mean truly interested.

“We did a ton of stuff that way internally, stuff that was cutting edge, that was different, and another expression of it is stuff we’d do externally like this.”

A few months ago, Harbaugh went back to Weiss and said, “Remember what we’d talked about?” before dispatching him and Stern to work on two things. One was making the language of the rule, for the proposal, as simple and understandable as possible. Two was fixing the name. (Harbaugh didn’t think a proposal called Cut the Cake would appeal to everyone.) Former NFL referee Terry McAulay—now a rules expert for NBC—advised the

Ravens to come up with two words for it.

Initially, it was divide and choose. That evolved to spot and choose.

And now, with an economic principle, a biblical reference and a kids’ metaphor, this old idea is finally in front of NFL owners for a vote. Maybe it’ll pass. Maybe it won’t. But the path it took to get here sure is interesting.


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THE DISGRUNTLED QB CLUB

I feel like I can’t write this week’s column without at least a little bit on the situations of Seattle’s (maybe disgruntled) Russell Wilson and Houston’s (definitely disgruntled) Deshaun Watson. So here are five thoughts on the two of them.

• To this point, my sense is while the Seahawks haven’t given any indication they’re moving him, they’re at least more amenable to conversation on Wilson than Houston is to talking about Watson. I’ve heard from multiple teams that Texans GM Nick Caserio’s basic message to those calling has been, You can ask me about anyone but the quarterback.

• I’ve been asked a lot this week if Seattle will trade Wilson this offseason. My answer was 95% no and 5% yes a few weeks ago, but I’m around 60-40 now. I do believe Wilson has likely signed his final contract as a Seahawk, absent something changing, and that if the Seahawks come to that determination, they’d deal him before the end of it. I’m just not sure Seattle will do it now unless a trade brings an easy path to replacing him.

• To me, the tell that it might not happen this year (or at least that it wasn’t part of any initial plan) is how the hire of offensive coordinator Shane Waldron went. And it’s not that the highly-thought-of ex-Rams assistant was the pick. He’s well-regarded and worthy of the job regardless. More so, it was that Seattle involved Wilson in the process.

• I think the Saints would explore the availability of either of these guys. I have zero clue how they’d make it work, given the numbers and facts we gave you above on how far over the cap they are. I just know that in the past, New Orleans has made it work when it wanted someone badly. You may remember the Saints signing Jairus Byrd to a record-setting, six-year, $56 million deal in 2014, despite having the supposed worst cap situation in football.

• Disregard March 17 as a deadline for either of these guys to be moved. Yes, once we get there, quarterbacking seats will fill up across the NFL. And that would affect the trade value of certain quarterbacks. It won’t with Watson or Wilson, who are good enough for other teams to throw their own quarterbacks overboard. The draft is a more realistic checkpoint to look at, in that picks outside of the current year are less valuable in trades. (And the chance to acquire a Justin Fields, Trey Lance or Zach Wilson in return would probably be gone.)


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TEN TAKEAWAYS

The aforementioned cap numbers should give you a better look at how Dak Prescott has the Cowboys in a really tough spot. Not only is his franchise tag number a robust $37.691 million—Dallas is going to have to tag him Tuesday at the highest rate in the 29-year history of tags in the NFL—but the prospect that Prescott could simply sign his tender after it’s issued on Tuesday is enough to think about how it’d lead to a significant shakeup in Dallas. Right now the Cowboys, depending on where the cap lands, will probably have a little more than $20 million in room with which to operate. If Prescott inks his tag, that space will evaporate and Dallas will have to scramble to restructure, trade or cut guys to make the numbers work. And that’s with Prescott fully aware that by sitting still, he either gets $37.691 million this year and free agency in 2022 (at 28 years old), or $91.966 million over the next two years and free agency in 2023 (at 29). Bottom line, and as we’ve said before, and with the knowledge that he holds leverage created by that if-I-do-nothing scenario and the cap pickle he can put the Cowboys in, it’d make sense for Dallas to aggressively pursue a deal this week before the start of the league year. And the perfect olive branch, to me, would be to allow for negotiations to center on doing a four-year contract, with the length of the deal having been the hang-up in 2020 (Dallas wanted a longer deal then).

Joe Thuney and Brandon Scherff are operating from a position of strength. Here’s an interesting fact: This will be the 29th year of the franchise tag in the NFL, and before last year just four guards (Logan Mankins in 2011, Stacy Andrews in 2007, Will Shields in 2000 and Wally Williams in 1998) and five interior linemen total (add in center Ryan Kalil in 2011) have been franchised. The reason why is fairly simple. There’s only one tag number for offensive linemen, and that number is, naturally, based on the tackle position. It’s set high enough that teams don’t want to pay it for a guard or center, which is why a lot of good guards and centers have made it to free agency. And yet, last year, two guards, Washington’s Scherff and New England’s Thuney, were tagged. Neither negotiation came very close to reaching a deal. Both guys played, and played really well on their tenders. And now, as a result, Thuney’s tag figure for 2021 (by rule, 120% of last year’s) is $17.74 million and Scherff’s is $18.04 million. For context, the Eagles’ Brandon Brooks and Cowboys’ Zach Martin have the highest averages per year among guards on long-term deals. Both are around $14 million, meaning both Thuney and Scherff had them beat last year. Right now, my guess would be Washington would be more apt to tag its star guard than New England. But clearly, those guards are holding all the cards here, with the chance one or other could be the first in the history of their position to get tagged twice.

And one last thing while we’re there—as we said earlier, a lot of guys are going to get tagged. At this point, only Broncos safety Justin Simmons has been franchised, but he’ll have a lot of company 48 hours from now, and the reason is cap-related, but not in the way you might think. The lower cap number goes into a formula to determine tags, so those tag figures will be naturally depressed. How much so? Well, based on a $183 million cap, here are the numbers for five positions, along with a player at that position who made that much (on an average-per-year basis) in 2020.

CB: $15.101 million: Giants CB James Bradberry ($14.5 million).

WR: $16.027 million: Texans WR Brandin Cooks ($16.2 million).

DE: $16.113 million : Chargers DE Melvin Ingram ($16.0 million).

OL: $13.791 million: Buccaneers OT Donovan Smith ($13.8 million).

RB: $8.680 million: Broncos RB Melvin Gordon ($8.0 million).

So in this cap environment, if you can afford to swallow a one-year, lump-sum payment, and delay a bigger decision, or at least exert some leverage to get a long-term deal done, it’s easy to see where the tag would be a nice option for a team like Green Bay (Aaron Jones), Carolina (Taylor Moton) or the Tampa Bay (Chris Godwin) to have. In fact, as I see it, these numbers are probably bargains for those guys.

We have another Sam Darnold update for you. A lot of the basics remain unchanged from what we’ve told you over the last month. The Jets have taken calls, and haven’t seemed to be in any particular rush to move their 23-year-old former first-rounder. No one’s blown them away. They’d like to get a look at Trey Lance (March 12), Zach Wilson (March 26) and Justin Fields (March 31) throwing live at their pro days, which will be the only shot teams get to see the quarterbacks sling it in person, before making a final decision. This week, there are a few things we can add.

• At this point, eight teams have called the Jets about Darnold with varying levels of interest.

• The expectation is the Jets will max out their number of allowable personnel at those pro days (at most schools it’s the NFL-mandated limit of three), and the top guys (some combination of GM Joe Douglas, coach Robert Saleh and OC Mike LaFleur) will attend.

• While, again, the preference is to see the quarterbacks throw live before they make a call on Darnold, the Jets are cognizant that holding onto Darnold past the start of free agency, with quarterback vacancies filling across the league, could hurt his value. So it’s not impossible that they’d move faster.

As for teams to watch, three in particular are interesting to me: Chicago, San Francisco and Washington. Two of the three, Chicago and Washington, were playoff teams in 2020, aren’t in striking distance to draft one of the top guys and may not think developing a rookie, given where they’re at, is the best play. San Francisco would be even more fascinating. Darnold’s a strong fit for Kyle Shanahan’s offense, and trading for him would make the Niners six years younger, and $20 million cheaper at the position in 2020. The Niners like Jimmy Garoppolo, as we’ve said here, and won’t move off him without a clear upgrade. Could Darnold be that?

The early signs on the new Falcons brass are good. And for more on it, I’d encourage you to check out Thursday’s GamePlan column, where new GM Terry Fontenot laid out a lot of the rhyme and reason for handling his first offseason in charge the way he has. One thing that’s really easy to see: how he’s prioritizing detail and relationships. It’s why I opened the piece with the trip to Clemson to see Trevor Lawrence throw on Feb. 11, and it’s a really good example, as it turns out, of what Fontenot took from New Orleans in a number of different ways.

1) He saw the relationship for all those years in New Orleans between Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton, and the trip was another opportunity to build one like that with Arthur Smith. Both personally, in the time spent, and professionally, in getting to know what his coach wants in players. “Not just talking about Trevor, but talking about what he generally looks for in quarterbacks … There’s some people that you’ve been around for so long, that you kind of know what they’re thinking,” Fontenot said. “And when you work with certain people for so long, and we’re in the beginning stages of that, we’re just building our relationship. So that part of that part of it is really fun.”

2) He saw the relationship that he could build with the people at Clemson, which is similar in proximity to the Falcons as LSU was to the Saints. Over the years, Payton and Loomis cultivated the bond between New Orleans and LSU to great mutual benefit—Joe Brady was one beneficiary. Every year, in fact, the Saints would rent out a place ahead of LSU’s pro day, and have dinner with the Tigers’ entire staff. In the future, Fontenot believes the Falcons can take advantage of geography to do the same with Dabo Swinney and Clemson (and doing it at Georgia would make sense too).

3) Making sure every rock is turned over at quarterback. The Saints built a sustained contender around someone else’s discarded franchise guy (Drew Brees), and took more recent swings on former first-rounders Teddy Bridgewater and Jameis Winston, and there’s a lesson in that too that the trip to South Carolina illustrated. “If we don’t drive an hour and a half to see Trevor Lawrence in person throw the football? That doesn’t make much sense, not to do that,” Fontenot said. “Who knows what happens in four or five years? And we missed that opportunity?”

And along those lines, it’s worth reiterating what we had in the Thursday column. That, even with plans to go into 2021 with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones aboard, you can expect to see Fontenot and Smith at all the big quarterback pro days. “The question I get a lot is: Hey, would you be willing to draft a quarterback, would you be willing to draft a receiver, despite how strong your receivers are or where you are with Matt Ryan?” Fontenot said. And yes. Yes, yes, yes. We’re definitely going to acquire at both of those positions, and we’re going to work hard to bring in competition. But I hold both those guys in high regard.”

Transparency is going to be key in the Washington Football Team report. The Junkies, a stalwart sports radio show on 106.7 The Fan in D.C., reported details Friday from what they said is a 130-page report by Beth Wilkinson, the noted lawyer hired to spearhead a probe into the franchise’s workplace culture launched in the wake of a series of Washington Post exposés last summer. In it, per the show, was a recommendation for either a lengthy suspension or sale by owner Dan Snyder. The NFL pushed back on the notion, denying that they’d received a report from Wilkinson (the implication I got over the weekend is that the report doesn’t yet exist, though it’s certainly possible there’s some sort of draft out there). So here’s the thing: The whole issue within that team, from the start, was about what was happening behind closed doors, or in settings where cameras and recorders weren’t rolling. And in a case like that, a franchise (or any company) loses any benefit of being able to say trust us. That means it’s imperative that in this case, for the benefit of the people that worked there now, have worked there in the past and will work there in the future, all findings need to be public to a reasonable degree (protecting victims, of course, would be understandable). To me, it’s the only way the new people running that team, and there are a lot of good folks in those ranks (Jason Wright, Ron Rivera, Marty Hurney, Martin Mayhew) move past this. I’d also say it’d be advisable to follow whatever Wilkinson’s recommendations are, even if the idea of a forced sale makes the other 30 owners uncomfortable.

I think the debate on the Bills’ proposal to push the hiring cycle back is going to be really interesting. And to inform that debate, I figured it’d be good to look at the timing of this year’s hires. Here’s a look …

Texans GM Nick Caserio: Jan. 5

Broncos GM George Paton: Jan. 13

Panthers GM Scott Fitterer: Jan. 14

Lions GM Brad Holmes: Jan. 14

Jaguars coach Urban Meyer: Jan. 14

Jets coach Robert Saleh: Jan. 14

Falcons coach Arthur Smith: Jan. 15

Chargers coach Brandon Staley: Jan. 17

Falcons GM Terry Fontenot: Jan. 19

Lions coach Dan Campbell: Jan. 20

Jaguars GM Trent Baalke: Jan. 21

Washington GM Martin Mayhew: Jan. 21

Eagles coach Nick Sirianni: Jan. 24

Texans coach David Culley: Jan. 29

So half the hires came before divisional playoff weekend, half happened after that. All but Culley were in place by Senior Bowl week. In a normal year, that would give everyone here (other than Culley) that college all-star game week (which doubles as a sort of NFL convention) in Alabama and a month of runway to the combine to work with. Conversely, if the Bills’ proposal were rule, none of these hires could’ve happened before 9 a.m. on Feb. 8. And it’s a fair point to make that it’d put a lot of these teams behind the eight-ball in their offseason.

Here’s the thing, though—if these are hoped to be five- and 10-year decisions, is that difference of three weeks (the difference between divisional playoff weekend and the Super Bowl) really that big a deal? It didn’t seem to be for the Colts on Frank Reich or the Niners on Kyle Shanahan. Dan Quinn was hired post-Super Bowl XLIX, and had Atlanta on that stage two years later. And in the case of Reich, his early success (playoffs in Year 1) is probably even more applicable to this, given that Indy had to restart its coaching search after Josh McDaniels decided not to take the job in February 2018. Of course, there are examples of post-Super Bowl hires that went the other way too (Matt Patricia was one, and we’ll see on Zac Taylor) but I can’t find any that directly relate to timing. Which, I think, only bolsters some of the positives for the rules change that we outlined in Thursday’s column.

I wouldn’t listen to anyone saying that Zach Wilson, Justin Fields or anyone else is a true threat to Trevor Lawrence to go first overall. This is an easy, low-stress, yet major decision for Meyer to make in his first year running the Jaguars. I like Wilson—and I know his tape gives anyone, a scout or otherwise, plenty to get excited about. I like Fields, too, and I know some teams feel like he could be this year’s version of Justin Herbert, a prospect who’s simply been on the radar long enough to be overanalyzed, playing for a high-profile program in a lot of high-profile games. But I know enough to know that they aren’t Lawrence, and a few news cycles in the spring won’t change that. If I had to guess, I’d bet 32 of 32 teams see him as the No. 1 quarterback in the class (and that’s rare), and I know that he’s discussed in the sort of pre-draft stratosphere that only John Elway, Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck have been previously. Remember, there was some discussion in the media in 2012 that maybe the Colts should take Robert Griffin over Luck. I can assure you it wasn’t happening in that building. It was Luck all the way there, as I’d expect it’ll be Lawrence all the way for the Jaguars this year.

An idea that’s been raised to me by a few teams the last couple weeks: In a naturally risk-averse draft year, someone’s going to go the other way. You’ve heard it from me for weeks. This year, it’s going to be harder to get accurate medical information on players than it has been in the past. It’s going to be more difficult to vet players’ character. And the lack of face-to-face interaction with the players will fuel all of that. Which will lead to most teams swinging for singles and doubles in April, and less for the fences. But if you think about it, the effect will be certain players sliding further than they should. So is it possible someone goes into this year’s draft with the strategy to scoop those guys up? A bunch of teams think someone will. Now, such an idea wouldn’t be unprecedented. We’ve seen teams go heavy on risk in the past. Washington did it the year after the Robert Griffin trade stripped them of capital, with shots at guys like David Amerson and Baccari Rambo (look them up). And we’ve seen such an idea blow up spectacularly before—the Lions took Nick Fairley, Titus Young and Mikel Leshoure 1-2-3 in 2011. It’s just that this year, the fall of risky guys figures to be more pronounced. And I’d agree that someone will see opportunity in that.

As far as that goes, Advantage: Matt Rhule and Advantage: Urban Meyer. Both those guys recruited, coached or coached against a boatload of these prospects at the college level, meaning they have background on them going back to high school. This year, it really should help, in the way it helped Pete Carroll build a behemoth at the start of his time in Seattle.


SIX FROM THE SIDELINES

1) Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell is an awesome, raw documentary that made me feel like a teenager again. Christopher Wallace’s story is a crazy one, and this telling of it was very honest about it, from his days dealing crack in Brooklyn to becoming as big a star as there was in music in the mid-to-late-‘90s. You can find it on Netflix.

2) The Les Miles story is horrible. Consider this: LSU knowingly continued to put Miles out there as the most visible person at the university for four years while he was banned from having interactions with female students. How does that happen? And how does Kansas vet him as a candidate for its job and either a) not find out about this or b) figure out what happened at LSU and hire him anyway? The whole thing’s bananas.

3) On Texas repealing the mask mandate, because I don’t think people on Twitter heard me correctly: I’m all for reopening businesses and getting kids back to in-person, full-time school, and I’m glad we’re on our way to doing it. What I don’t want is to go backward again. And beyond just protecting the vulnerable (which isn’t a small piece of this), if keeping the masks on a while longer prevents us from having to go backward with schools or small businesses, I say we keep the masks on. No one likes them. But it’s not that big a deal, basically the equivalent of having to take your shoes off at the airport post-9/11.

4) I had no idea MLB spring training games were already happening.

5) Seeing what’s happening with quarterbacks in the NFL right now, there’s no more questioning the impact that LeBron James has had in professional sports. He took a bullet with The Decision that really did allow for players in all sports to change teams, or push to change teams, with far less blowback than they used to get.

6) Since I was part of the unpaid internship debate last week, there’s one thing I’d want to add to what I already said about it. To me, my points were more about the benefit that I got from my experiences than proving how difficult I had it. I had a ton of advantages growing up, no question. And having to fall on my ass into the real world was a wake-up call. At that age, doing internships, and then making in the 20s through a good portion of my 20s after that (while others my age made double or triple what I did) sucked. But it also forced me to learn what working hard actually means, and to figure out how, professionally, to compete—because if you’re in that position and you don’t compete and you don’t work harder than everyone else, you’ll either have to leave the business or never make it past that rung of the ladder. And in the end, I firmly believe that gave me an edge on people who were covering pro teams and making a comfortable salary right out of college. They didn’t have to do what I did, so they didn’t get to learn the stuff I did. No, I wasn’t digging ditches or mining coal. I was taking agate, covering preps and living in a ratty apartment in Boston’s North End (2 BR for $1100/month!!) that my buddy and I found. I don’t tell these stories as some sort of victim, and I’m definitely not standing in the way of someone else pursuing their worth. I just feel pretty lucky I had to do it that way.


BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

I legit think this is a blind spot for some coaches and scouts who come out of the Patriots’ program—find a productive, smart quarterback who can process and is accurate, and follows coaching, and he can be Tom Brady. If only it was that easy.

Brandon Marshall’s still pretty strong.

Very true.

Definitely true. But also probably a player aware of the market.

Anthony Sherman’s old enough to have been playing Massachusetts high school football when I was covering Massachusetts high school football. Which is to say he had a really good, long run in the sport. Congrats to Sherman, on getting to go out on his terms, and on a great career.

Very interesting point.

This was a really cool way for Kyle Rudolph to go out, and we’ll have more from him here in the coming weeks.

This was the (harmless) tweet from my buddy Jane that started the unpaid-internship firestorm, believe it or not. And I’ll repeat what I said to those looking to get into the media: Kids, take advantage of every opportunity you can. Jobs and internships early on are going to have aspects to them that you’re not gonna be thrilled about. But I promise you there’s value in working through that.

So I’m always looking for things on videos like this …

… and posts like this now. Does it look staged? Are there multiple photographers on site? Do the subjects have hardo looks on their faces? Is Portrait Mode on?

(It’s way better when it’s clear someone else just caught a guy doing something like this, for obvious reasons.)

All that said, this was really cool by J.J. Watt. And that leads us to …


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Marshall Goldberg was a two-time All-America halfback at Pitt, where he won back-to-back national titles before becoming a four-time All-Pro running back for the Chicago Cardinals. His NFL career played out in two stints, sandwiching his service as a Naval officer in the South Pacific during World War II. After football, he went into insurance, then took over a machine parts company than was renamed Marshall Goldberg Machine Tools.

He’s a member of the College Football, City of Pittsburgh, West Virginia Sports Writers and National Jewish Sports Halls of Fame. He was born to a Romanian immigrant in West Virginia in 1917 and died in a Chicago nursing home at 88 in 2006.

I’d say his life was well-lived, and I’d never heard of him until this week.

To me, that’s what’s cool about what the Cardinals, and Goldberg’s family, did in unretiring his No. 99 so Watt can wear it for the next couple years in Arizona. If Watt had just picked, say, 91 or 93 (the two vacant numbers in the 90s), no one would’ve bothered to figure out who Goldberg was. But by bringing it out of retirement, I did, and I’m sure a lot of other people did too. And so his family’s decision to reach out to Watt and offer the number up led to a lot more folks, like myself, learning about a guy we wouldn’t have known anything about otherwise.

I see that as a pretty cool result of the whole thing. And the Cardinals can just retire his number again whenever Watt’s done playing in Arizona.

The way I look at it, there don’t need to be rules around these sorts of things. In this case, I’m glad the team approached it that way—and good on Watt, too, for using it to celebrate the life of a guy who sure seems to have deserved it.