Mickey Loomis gets reminders about the passage of time every time he takes his twins out to play for their flag football team. One of their teammates, a little boy named Bowen, has a pretty famous dad, and that pretty famous dad just so happens to be their coach.
Not every kid from New Orleans gets to learn football from Drew Brees.
And as Loomis, the Saints’ general manager for the last two decades, sees it, it’s just one more benefit he gets to have from his 15-year association with the most beloved athlete who’s ever played a professional sport in Louisiana. Of course, it didn’t take all that time for Loomis to know what he had. But just seeing Brees as doting dad and youth-league coach has a way of lending perspective to all that’s happened since 2006.
“Just the way he handles that team and handles the kids is so impressive,” Loomis said early Sunday night. “It reminds me of how much he has grown and how life goes on here. Because when he got here, it was him and Britt, no kids. And now he’s a father who’s coaching his son, and my two kids happen to be on his team. So there are a lot of memories. But my kids know him as their coach, not as the Saints’ quarterback.”
Truth is, really, all Louisianans see him as more than the Saints quarterback, too.
Brees retired Sunday after 20 NFL seasons, 15 of them spent as a Saint. And sitting here now, it’s hard to illustrate properly for all of you the impact he’s made.
It starts, of course, with football, because that’s what put him in the position he’s been in to begin with. And make no mistake, he’s done plenty between the lines, just playing the position of quarterback, to assure himself a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2026. We’ll take you through the numbers in a bit, but anyone who’s even casually followed the NFL since 2001 knows those are all there.
From there? Brees’s story can take you in a lot of different directions. He changed assumptions on quarterbacks who live outside of the prototype. He changed assumptions on a woebegone franchise. He changed assumptions on what a certain injury means for a quarterback.
But most of all, as a guy who bucked the odds in so many ways, he gave a region that badly needed it something to wrap its arms around and take pride in, when the odds were stacked against it in the aftermath of an unprecedented natural disaster. Brees is a football player, so it’s not like he could reverse any of what Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans.
He simply did what he was capable of—which turned out to be a lot, on the field and off it.
“Look, it’s just hard to imagine any player having a bigger impact on a city and an organization than Drew has had,” Loomis said. “And it wasn’t single-handed. But he had such an impact on our city and our team in a time when we were really desperate for it, after Hurricane Katrina. And the way he and his wife Brittany and his family have embraced New Orleans and Louisiana has just been beyond anything we could’ve imagined 15 years ago.”
Brees never got the second championship he was chasing the last few years. But it’s not hard to argue that what he’s leaving in New Orleans is much more valuable.
We’ve got a loaded MMQB column for you this week, one that was interrupted a little by some pretty massive news landing in everyone’s lap Sunday afternoon. Here’s what’s in the column, with the legal tampering period, ahead of free agency, just hours away.
• A look at the Buccaneers’ new reality—and approach.
• Both sides of Dak Prescott’s new deal in Dallas.
• How scouts on the ground saw Trey Lance’s pro day.
• An analytical look at whether the supposed veteran bloodbath really was one.
• A ton of nuggets relating to the annual free-agent rush.
But we’re starting, obviously, with an all-time great hanging ‘em up.
The first thing you need to know about Brees’s retirement is that, for the Saints, this didn’t come out of nowhere. Loomis didn’t want to get into when the 42-year-old told him, Sean Payton and owner Gayle Benson that he was done. But the contract adjustment that Brees and the Saints filed with the league on Feb. 4—an on-paper pay cut of nearly $24 million, designed to allow the team to carry Brees on the roster through June 1 and spread his dead cap over two years—gives you a good indication they’ve known for a while.
Loomis did say that Brees was “very respectful of the organization” in making sure they could plan properly for 2021, while the team reserved him the right to change his mind. And the rest, like so much of what Brees does, was calculated.
“I knew he was going to make that announcement today,” Loomis said. “He wanted to do it on his anniversary of signing 15 years ago. There was a little bit of symmetry to that.”
So Brees got to celebrate on a day he knew was coming by commemorating one, 15 years ago, that had an impact no one could’ve predicted.
There was so much uncertainty then. Brees’s five years in San Diego were, to put it lightly, tumultuous. He fell to No. 32 in the 2001 draft, even after a program-changing career at Purdue, largely because he barely broke 6' tall. He was benched for Doug Flutie amid a 1–7 start to the 2003 season. And in the spring to follow, Brees was approached by then-Chargers assistant Brian Schottenheimer in the weight room. The draft was the next day, and Schottenheimer wanted to give Brees fair warning that the team might take a QB.
“And he looked at me and said, ‘That would be the worst f------ mistake this organization could ever make,’ ” Schottenheimer told me. And I’m like, ‘Hey, man, don’t shoot the messenger.’ He goes, ‘Worst mistake ever.’ And he walked off.”
Less than 24 hours later, a draft day trade down made Philip Rivers a Charger, which served as another challenge to Brees as a player. Brees answered the bell—making his first Pro Bowl and taking the Chargers from 4–12 to 12–4, which forced them to franchise him and gave him a second year to hold Rivers off. That season ended for Brees with a throwing shoulder blown out so bad in the finale of a 9–7 season that his playing future was in doubt.
And that set the stage for March 14, 2006, and Brees’s arrival in New Orleans.
Loomis won’t lie now. He wasn’t sure the Saints were getting Brees ahead of that day. In fact, a few days earlier, when the then 27-year-old left for Miami after his free-agent visit to Louisiana, it seemed to Loomis chances were decent he wasn’t coming back.
“We had a good visit, but obviously it was right after Katrina, so the city was a mess,” Loomis said. “There wasn’t a lot to show other than, ‘Yeah, it’s a mess and part of our charge is to help repair it.’ Then. he left and went on a recruiting visit to Miami. At that time, obviously you felt like, ‘Listen, this could be a challenge for us to get him.’ ”
By now, you know the rest of that story. The Dolphins’ doctors looked at Brees’s shoulder, didn’t like what they saw, and Miami passed on him, going with Daunte Culpepper instead, which helped pave the way for Nick Saban to leave for Alabama 10 months later. And so Brees called the Saints, and a six-year, $60 million deal was done.
But even then, the Saints weren’t sure of what they had. The contract allowed for the team to bail after a year, and Loomis and Payton were leaning on the insight of new quarterbacks coach Pete Carmichael, who was with Brees in San Diego from 2002 to ‘05, to believe Brees had what it would take to come back from an injury that, at that time, was often considered a death sentence for an NFL quarterback career.
So when they signed him, Loomis says, there was “A lot of elation. And yet he could hardly lift his arm. So we were excited about getting him and yet apprehensive about the medical. Because it was certainly not a slam dunk that he would recover well enough to perform as an NFL quarterback.”
On top of that, the early signs weren’t great. In fact, when I asked Loomis if there was a eureka moment in 2006 to foreshadow a brighter future, he countered that he had a different feeling to start, during preseason games in Shreveport, La. (against Dallas) and Jackson, Miss. (against Indy), before the post-Katrina Superdome was reopened.
“There were some moments in that preseason where it was like the opposite, like ‘Oh, man, I don’t know. I don’t know if his arm’s coming back,’ ” said Loomis. “But he was so positive in the preseason, even when we got waxed in a couple games. Dallas and Indianapolis just killed us in the preseason that year. He was on his recovery. But there were some moments like, Uh oh …”
Racking his brain, Loomis said it probably clicked for him in Week 2 of that year. Brees threw for 353 yards at Lambeau, and the Saints came back from a 13–0 deficit to score a 34–27 win. The Superdome reopened the next week, Steve Gleason blocked a punt and the Saints franchise, from there, would never be the same.
Loomis remembers now what it was like then, which only makes what happened the last 15 years all the more unbelievable. Payton and Brees led a group that went 3–13 in 2005 to a 10–6 record in 2006, and a franchise that had won one playoff game in its first 39 years of existence to its first NFC title game.
Three years later, it all clicked, and the Saints were world champs. That started a run of eight playoff appearances in 12 years—which was accomplished through some controversy (Bountygate) and a constantly evolving roster—marking by far the most successful period in franchise history.
“It’s to the credit of Sean, Drew, all the guys that were part of that 2006 to 2010-and-beyond teams. Those guys changed the narrative about the New Orleans Saints,” said Loomis, who predated Brees and Payton in New Orleans by six years. “Prior to 2006, ‘07, ‘08, prior to that era, I would say the Saints weren’t very well thought of around the league. Now I would say people associate us with winning and being in the mix every year, and a destination for free agents and guys that want to have success in their career.
“He has been a huge part of changing that narrative.”
It wasn’t the only narrative he changed.
Brees also changed the notion that shorter quarterbacks couldn’t make it in the NFL and, in Loomis’s words, “paved the way for the Russell Wilsons and the Kyler Murrays and the Baker Mayfields of the world.” And in certain ways, he and Payton together helped changed the narrative on how football was supposed to be played in the pros altogether.
When Brees got to New Orleans in 2006, only one player, Dan Marino in 1984, had thrown for 5,000 yards in a season. Brees became the second player to do it in his third season as a Saint, 2008. A dozen years later, that mark has been hit 12 times—with five of those 12 seasons belonging to Brees, which says all you need to know about how the Saints have changed the face of offense in the NFL.
“I know this is a different era of football, the last 15 years than the prior 25 or whatever, but man. Just year in and year out, it’s productive, it’s productive, it’s productive,” Loomis said. “And his accuracy, his decision making, he’s just one of those guys that processes information so quickly at the position and can make an instantaneous decision and it’s the right one—not every time but almost every time. And he’s so accurate.
“I think he’s kind of proven that you don’t have to be 6' 4", you don’t have to have a rocket arm. If you are intelligent, a quick processor and accurate, and a great leader, you can have success.”
Here then, are some marks of just what Brees has accomplished, when you put those 15 years in New Orleans on top of the five in San Diego.
• He’s the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards (80,358).
• Second all-time in passing TDs (571).
• Fifth all-time in passer rating (98.7).
• Second all-time in passing yards per game (280.7).
• Second all-time in completion percentage (67.7%).
• Seven-time NFL passing yards leader.
• Five-time All-Pro.
• 13-time Pro Bowler.
Based on the nature of football, and where the game’s going, some of Brees’s places on those lists will probably change in the years to come. But his most lasting impact won’t.
Loomis is now recalling another story from the very beginning. He and a couple other Saints people had taken Drew and Brittany out to Emeril’s, a destination restaurant in the French Quarter (and the flagship of celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse), shortly after Brees signed in 2006. And in the moment, Brees simultaneously made those at the table question if he knew what he was getting into, while also foreshadowing why he’d not only make it back onto the field again, but last as long as he has.
“He was very particular at the time, and I think he still is, about what he put in his body,” Loomis said. “And so he couldn’t eat cheese. Listen, it’s hard to be in New Orleans and not eat cheese and dairy. And we’re in this kitchen table at Emeril’s and he’s got these packets of pills, fish oils and vitamins and all this stuff, and he and Brittany both had that on the table and they were eating that. I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a little different.’ “
Over the years, Brees proved to be a little different than any athlete the region had ever called its own, even local legends like Archie Manning and Pistol Pete Maravich, with his accomplishments and connection to the city.
And that was, mostly, because of what he meant when things were at their worst. How he chose New Orleans when no one wanted to go there. How he and his wife gave back to the region consistently, to the point where their names are on buildings in and around the city. How the recovery of the area mirrored the rise of the Saints, of which Brees was such an enormous part.
Again, he’s a football player. So it’s not like he could fix what happened to the Ninth Ward, or to the businesses downtown and in the Quarter after Katrina. But for those who stayed in the area, after many had left, his fight to get back on the field, and change a franchise, ran alongside their own real-life fights.
As committed as he was to football—enough not to give himself a cheat day at Emeril’s—the people there felt like he was similarly committed to them.
“It was more on the psyche of our city and our people as much as anything,” Loomis said. “And then, man, he has just conducted himself every year as a role model that anyone would appreciate. He’s done so much charity stuff in town, he’s got his name on lots of different things, he’s bought businesses—so it’s been private and public charities.
“Gosh, it’s almost too numerous to name. And he’ll continue to do that. I know he’s got some other projects he wants to do here post-career that will benefit the community. He just has really embraced New Orleans as his own. And that includes his wife Brittany as well, because she’s been just as impactful on our community as he has.”
He’ll have more time for that now, even with much of that time spent back in San Diego, and time to start a broadcasting career at NBC in the fall, and he’ll definitely have more time to coach his sons’ flag football teams, too.
And as for what he did over the last 20 years as a pro football player, and 15 in particular, the impact he had there will endure. It’ll endure for shorter quarterbacks. It’ll endure for high-flying offenses. It’ll endure for the identity of the Saints.
Most especially, it’ll endure for post-Katrina New Orleans.
THE BUCS' NEW REALITY
At one point, on that hazy February Wednesday in Tampa, Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht took stock of the boat-parade frenzy around him and looked over at his wife.
“Besides our wedding day and the birth of our kids,” he said, “this is the best day ever.”
He then mentioned all the stress that went into that wedding day, as if to start to hedge on what he’d just said, before Blair Licht interrupted her husband.
“Oh, this is better than our wedding day,” she responded.
Those two weren’t the only ones on the high seas looking to keep the good times rolling.
It’s been a little more than a month now since Tom Brady led the Buccaneers to a title—sparking that wild midweek celebration—but last week it was pretty clear that neither the focus nor the motivation that was required to make that happen has lessened in the least. Brady signed up for another year and saved his team valuable cap space in the process. Lavonte David, at 31, forfeited what might’ve been his last opportunity to hit it big on the open market to stay.
And with NFL players and teams bracing for a league year, starting Wednesday, that will be marked by tight finances forced by a pandemic, you could excuse the Buccaneers if they still feel a little like they’re playing with house money.
Now, Tampa didn’t just become an NFL destination. There were signs it was happening last year after Brady signed and, indeed, the three guys who scored touchdowns in the Super Bowl (Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, Leonard Fournette) joined the Bucs after Brady, going largely because of their belief in 12. For his part, Licht added Ross Cockrell and Drew Stanton to my list, as vets willing to join the practice squad to start. “They wouldn’t have come here if they didn’t think there was special opportunity here.”
But there’s no question it’s on another level now.
And that advantage is only being amplified because with the first couple offseason boxes checked, there’s another real reason for guys to go there, or to stay there. If you want an environment where everyone’s pushing their chips right to the middle of the table, Licht and Bruce Arians clearly have the poker room that you want to be playing in.
“I think head coach and quarterback are the two most important parts, keys, components of an organization. And you’ve got two guys that are kind of on the same timeline here,” Licht said. “They want to win now. They’re not interested in rebuilds; they’re not interested in a slow burn. Bruce isn’t gonna be coaching and Tom isn’t going to be playing for another 10 years. You never know how long Tom’ll play—could play another five years, wouldn’t shock me. But they both want to win now. They both have the same mindset, the same goals.
“And when you have that, and they both like to do it in a way where you’re having fun along the way, and B.A.’s a no-bulls--- kind of guy and so is Tom, it’s just a great chemistry and it bleeds into the entire team. Everyone has the same goal. B.A. preaches it, one team, one cause, trust, loyalty, respect. And the goal is to put a ring on our fingers every year.”
And again, that’s clear in both Brady’s contract and David’s.
Brady signed what amounts to a mirror of the two-year, $50 million deal he did last year. He gets $20 million to sign and a $20 million roster bonus later this month, with a $1.075 million base (the league minimum for his age) this year, and an $8.925 million base for next year. Since $15 million of his signing bonus is deferred to 2022, his cash is $26.075 million this year and $23.925 million for next year.
With these incentives:
There are two key points here. One goes back to the initial conversations between the team and Brady. Licht told Brady that the Bucs could create space without extending him, but that they’d love to add a year to his contract nonetheless. In turn, Brady gave them a commitment to play in 2022, and added that it wasn’t going to be about the money (his average per year didn’t change) and had to be to help the team.
The second ties right to that. With the three voidable years, the Bucs were able to take Brady’s cap number down to $9.075 million (a savings of $19.3 million) for this year. Likewise, David’s two-year, $25 million deal has three voidable years, which puts his cap number at $7.7 million.
Now, before your eyes glaze over from all these numbers—the voidable years are the smoking gun in the Bucs’ shift in approach. Licht and Tampa’s well-respected cap chief, Mike Greenberg, have purposefully avoided these kick-the-can mechanisms in the past, preferring to build contracts in a more responsible, pay-as-you-go fashion. But given the circumstance of having a championship team, a 68-year-old coach and a quarterback turning 44 this summer, and with the blessing of ownership, the Bucs have shifted their M.O.
Licht emphasizes, “We still have to be mindful of it.” But the truth is that, as it stands now, the Bucs will have $24 million in dead-cap charges to deal with if Brady retires before the 2023 season, and another significant amount if David does the same. And the willingness to swallow cap ramifications they’ve had a distaste for in the past is driven by the obvious—which would appeal to any player.
“We see a window,” Licht said. “We see a window of opportunity to potentially do some special things.”
And, pretty clearly, the Buccaneers can now offer guys—whether they’re deciding to come or to stay—the chance to be a part of not only that, but a program that Brady, Gronkowski, Brown and Fournette so quickly bought into, and bought into well before those guys were hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in their home stadium on Feb. 7.
The best proof is that in a year where going to work was hard on all NFL players, moaning and groaning about it was at a minimum at One Buc Place.
“The whole building was just focused on winning the Super Bowl, and all the bulls--- was lost,” Licht said.” There was no selfishness at all. It was amazing. I’ve never been a part of something like this. … I hate to use the word fun, in what it was like going into work every day, because nothing’s fun about COVID. But there was a togetherness this year that I think in normal years, it’d be difficult to have, just because the building was cleared out and it was only football people allowed in the building.”
Next year, everyone hopes, will be a little bit more normal. But if the Bucs didn’t think they could carry some of last year over, they wouldn’t be jumping through the hoops they’re jumping through to make it happen. And if anyone else wants to come aboard, and Tampa can use it to their advantage, well, now they’ve got a little room to make it happen and a whole lot to sell.
It may be just another player or two, since much of the Bucs’ focus has to be on keeping free agents like Shaq Barrett and Ndamukong Suh, and their leeway to add is still fairly limited. But it’s a nice thing to have, regardless.
“I’m not gonna take that for granted and assume anything, that we can get whoever we want at a discount,” Licht said. “But I have sensed that a lot of people want to be a part of this, which is a great feeling.”
Which, of course, he hopes can lead to more great feelings, and maybe even another to rival his wedding day.
That’s pretty clearly the idea, anyway.
WHY DAK'S DEAL FINALLY GOT DONE
Tuesday was the deadline for teams to hit players with the franchise tag. So last Monday, agent Todd France decided to hit one of his star clients, Dak Prescott, with a text to put his mind at ease as France chipped away at a blockbuster deal with the Cowboys.
The tag deadline’s tomorrow, France texted. But the true pressure point is the start of the league year, so it might be eight or nine more days.
Realizing as soon as he hit send that he might be creating more stress than he intended, he then followed up with a second text: But it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s done in two days or two hours.
It was longer than two hours. But not by much. Later that afternoon, France and the Cowboys finalized Prescott’s four-year, $160 million extension, ending a two-year negotiation and affirming Dak, coming off a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle, as the face of America’s Team for the foreseeable future, in the same way Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman and Tony Romo once were.
“All deals are special,” France said on Sunday. “It’s always rewarding to get a contract that makes a player happy. This one is different than most, in that it took on a life of its own, the timetable was long, it’s the position of quarterback and what that means, and the injury. But for me, personally, all I ever want is to make clients and their families happy.”
Safe to say, Prescott, and the Prescotts, were—and so too were the Cowboys, finally putting to bed what turned into, as France said, a long and trying negotiation.
To be sure, a lot has changed and shifted in the last year for the parties involved, but one thing that really didn’t was the Cowboys’ resolve that Prescott was, and was going to remain, their guy at the game’s most important position. In fact, if you roll the clock back to October, three days after the injury, Dallas COO Stephen Jones very clearly laid out where he stood to me: “There is zero change in his contract negotiation status, how much we want to get him signed. Nothing changes. He didn’t lose value. Nothing.”
And when I circled back with Jones on Sunday to rehash what he said there, and asked why he was so strong with his words right after his quarterback’s ankle got bent the wrong way in a critical game against the Giants, he said it was a combination of two things. First, the team doctors told him that, barring an infection, it was “an injury he would totally recover from.” Second, given that prognosis, it was easy to lean back on who their quarterback was.
“A big part of it is he’s just such a driven guy,” Jones said. “I mean he’s got an insatiable appetite to be great. He’s an incredible leader, on and off the field, he does everything the right way. He was up there at the training room from the get-go, from the time he got out of the hospital, he was up there every day with his teammates. Very difficult time, he was there every day for his team. He’s just got the it factor.”
Of course, the it factor doesn’t do deals, so regardless of how anyone felt, coming out of last year’s negotiation, it was clear there was a lot of work to be done.
And there were two pieces of history that, to me, were really interesting.
First, a big part of taking a quarterback from his rookie to a true, top-of-the-market, franchise-quarterback type of deal is having the faith he can do more with less—because it is necessarily going to be hard to build around him, from a cap standpoint. Early in 2020, Prescott showed an ability to do that in a way he hadn’t before. The line lost both its starting tackles. The run game was struggling. The defense was a mess.
Up against all that through five games, with his team needing him to carry the load, Prescott was on a 710-attempt pace (that would’ve been second all-time), averaging 371.2 yards per game, while maintaining a passer rating (99.6) virtually identical to his passer rating in 2019 (99.7).
“He showed that if he needs to pass for 450, 500 yards and four or five touchdowns, he’s capable of doing it,” Jones said. “May not be the best way for the Dallas Cowboys to win games with our setup. If we were healthy with our offensive line, and Zeke [Elliott], you’d like to be more balanced and you’d like to hold the ball longer and you’d like to help your defense out with time of possession. But I think he proved, he’s so versatile, he can take it if he needs to.”
And the second piece of history? It came off the field—and was what prevented Dallas and Prescott from getting the contract done a year ago.
That part, it turns out, was every bit as simple as all of us in the media made it out to be. France and Prescott wanted a four-year deal. The Cowboys were insisting on five.
“We made some headway in terms of trying to get close to what the overall deal looked like on APY and guarantees and that type of thing,” Jones said. “But it just never had momentum because we knew how, especially after the first negotiation [in 2019], we were so entrenched with five and they were entrenched with four. I mean, we were all around it. Other than we weren’t wanting to give in on the five and he wasn’t willing to give in on him wanting four.”
After that, they resolved to try again in 2021, and then Prescott showed he could carry the team in a way a quarterback paid that way sometimes has to, then he got hurt and that brought the sides to February.
France called Jones, and Jones’s immediate response was, “I was actually about to call you.” Jones then explained to France that they wanted to get something done before the start of free agency—the pressure point in France’s text to Prescott—but that the Cowboys wanted to get a better handle on where the cap would be first. From there, Jones explained, “It was a whole different tenor about the negotiations” than there had been the last two years.
Once Dallas got a better handle on the 2021 cap, which did stall things a little, the negotiation took less than a week, with things heating up over a smaller period of a couple days. And the reason why was that simple compromise, with Dallas willing to go where it hadn’t with some other star players and do a shorter term.
“We were real close [in 2020] as everybody probably knows,” Jones said. “I mean it really wasn’t an APY issue, it really wasn’t a guarantee issue, it was more of a term issue.”
Dallas bent there, and things took off. Prescott wound up with a massive guarantee—$95 million is fully guaranteed and $126 million will be by right around this time next year—and no-trade and tag provisions. He also got the Cowboys to tag him before signing him, meaning if he’s ever tagged by any team again, it’ll be a third tag (which means an automatic 44% raise) and his deal voids in 2025 after the tag period is up.
In return, Dallas got a reasonable APY ($40 million), which gave them an ability to manage the numbers over six years, with the two void years on the deal, and build around Prescott.
The other thing the Cowboys got is even better, which is certainty at the game’s most important position. The Joneses have had it in the past, with Aikman and Romo, so they’re well aware of what it means to have that foundational piece in place—and that’s why Jones would tell you that, no matter how protracted this whole thing got—this conclusion, with Prescott signing long-term, was always coming. Which is a reflection of how the Cowboys see their 27-year-old signal-caller, something that didn’t wane even at the darkest time.
“You’ve got me on the record right after he got hurt,” Jones said with a laugh. “I mean, he’s what you want as the face of your franchise. He’s got an insatiable appetite to be great. One to 10, he’s a 10 in work ethic, he’s a 10 in leadership, he’s just the whole package. And then on top of that, he’s amazing off the field in terms of what he does for people and causes. He’s just the right guy for the job in my eyes. And I think we got it right.”
Which is one more thing he and Prescott can now agree on.
SCOUTING TREY LANCE
Trey Lance really is, in some ways, the face of this weird draft year.
He didn’t play more than one game in the fall of 2020 because his school, North Dakota State, didn’t play more than one game. He didn’t get the benefit of the combine and won’t get the benefit of working out privately for teams, which means that—as we wrote about in Thursday’s GamePlan column—Friday’s pro day at North Dakota State was really his one shot at giving the NFL’s top decision makers an idea of what he can bring to the table physically in person.
That’s why the Jets, Broncos, Raiders, Seahawks, Vikings and Washington Football Team all sent their GMs; the Falcons, Lions, Bears and Panthers sent both their GMs and head coaches; and the Fargodome was littered with offensive coordinators and QBs coaches, too. And that’s even though Oklahoma’s pro day was happening simultaneously.
So what were the takeaways? To find out, we hit up a few guys who were there.
General Manager 1: “He was really impressive. You look at him, you can feel his presence when you talk to him, and that’s a big thing for quarterbacks. And the ball just jumps off his hand. His deep ball was awesome, he has tremendous arm strength. His accuracy was a little hit-and-miss. But once you saw him get in a rhythm, he started hitting guys more consistently. He’s just a really talented guy. … This was a big day for him, and he handled it really well. He’s an impressive guy, he did a really nice job today. People might b---- that he threw high to this guy, or behind that guy, but you saw everything you needed to see physically.”
General Manager 2: “He looks the part. He’s a big, long athlete, has a good look in his eye. I like the poise he showed in the workout, when he missed a throw it didn’t faze him. The ball jumped off his hand. I think he helped himself. The arm looked strong on tape, and that checked out. He has a really good arm, not a Josh Allen arm, but really good. The workout was efficiently run. He missed some throws—his accuracy’s not elite for a high first-round guy, but neither was Josh Allen’s or Lamar Jackson’s. He’s gotta clean up some fundamentals. But he’s a really smart kid, he played in a pro offense, he can do that. He does lock on to his primary [receiver] at times. But the upside and makeup are there. He might have to modify something, but he’s got a chance to be really good.”
Offensive coach: “He threw it better than I expected. He didn’t show signs of the big loop you saw on tape. He tightened that up and it wasn’t forced, just watching him throw. He threw it really well. He’s got some stiffness, because he’s a big, muscular guy, but showed what he needed to. He misses throws, and there’s some of that because of the stiffness. I just think he gets tight in how he throws. But he, to me, looks like a more natural passer than Josh Allen did coming out. I was more worried more about Josh’s accuracy—and I was wrong on that. In comparison, a guy like [Justin] Fields is a more fluid athlete. This is more an overpowering athlete, not as smooth, just a big, strong, fast, physical guy.”
In summary? There was a ton of pressure on Lance—something that, again, we discussed with Lance himself in Thursday’s GamePlan column—and for the most part he delivered in backing up all the promise he showed on his 2019 game tape, which keeps him squarely in the picture to go somewhere inside the first 10 picks in April.
And while Lance’s chance to showcase his physical traits is now done, we’re just getting started when it comes to quarterback pro days. Some notable ones coming:
• Alabama (Mac Jones), March 23.
• BYU (Zach Wilson), March 26.
• Ohio State (Justin Fields), March 30.
It should be a fun ride over the next few weeks, especially when you throw some dark horses like Stanford’s Davis Mills (March 18) and Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond (March 30) into the mix.
Restructures/Pay cuts > Firings. So, for quite some time now, it’s looked like these days would be a bloodbath, and the free-agent market would be clogged with veterans cut as teams reckoned with the realities of the pandemic-ravaged 2021 salary cap. How’s that working out? Actually, not as poorly as we might have expected. On Sunday, I asked a team executive to run some numbers for me to try and illustrate the supposed carnage. His search accounted for all transactions from March 1 to 14. Here’s what that search showed, from a league-wide perspective:
• 42 players cut.
• 22 cap maneuvers.
• 10 pay cuts.
Looking deeper into the makeup of those lists, it showed that the biggest names cut were players who were hurt (i.e. Eric Fisher) or on deals that were designed for them to be cut in 2021 regardless (i.e. Jared Cook). And that figure of 22 cap restructures hasn’t yet accounted for a bunch that have been agreed to. So for me, the first thing I figured here was that teams are confident, with TV deals coming, that the cap is going to recover, which would make them more comfortable pushing some charges off into the future. And the first thing for the exec who helped me with this? “The quality of player being cut isn’t changing,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest takeaway for me.” Which is to say, if a team really wants to keep a player, in most cases, it’s finding a way to do it.
The Cam Newton news is not worth Patriots fans freaking out over. Contracts will always tell you what a team—and to some degree, the league—thinks of a player. And if you dig into the details on Newton’s deal to return to New England, it’s not hard to read this one. Newton gets $2 million to sign, a $1.5 million base for 2021 that’s fully guaranteed, $1.5 million in per-game roster bonuses, $8.5 million in incentives and a $100,000 workout bonus. And going through the incentives, here’s the rough translation:
• He’ll get $3.6 million if he doesn’t make the team.
• He’ll likely get at least $5.1 million if he does, and stays healthy (they won’t put him on the roster to make him a gameday inactive).
• More realistically, he’ll probably earn either $5.6 million or $6.1 million (based on playing time triggers), if he makes the roster, because I can’t imagine they’ll keep him as a backup.
• If he hits any of the remaining $7.5 million in playoff and awards incentives, then the decision to bring him back will have been a success.
Now, here’s the thing—when the cap was set last week, the Patriots had about $68.2 million to work with. That’ll come down a little with the Trent Brown trade, but the bottom line is that allotting $6 million of that space to give yourself a placeholder at the position (and maybe he’ll be more than that, we’ll see) is a worthy use of that resource. And if he’s really good, it’ll be worth it to dump a few million in incentives into next year’s cap. Fact is, Newton had a horrific situation around him in 2020, with a skill group worse than Alabama’s or Ohio State’s (no exaggeration), had barely played any football in a year and a half going in, was coming off significant shoulder and foot surgeries, and got COVID-19 after a promising start. So I have no issue with the Patriots taking another flier on Cam, so long as they make him compete for the job with another vet and/or a rookie coming in.
The Chiefs’ decision making with their tackles might not be quite what you think. And I’m not saying they were going to say goodbye to Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz regardless of their injury situations. But I’ve been told by multiple people connected to the situation there that this was always going to be a turning-the-page offseason for K.C. with its offensive line, regardless of what happened with those guys health-wise, or in the Super Bowl as a result of those health issues. Is it possible that those guys might’ve made the cut if they were healthy, for the transition? Sure. Maybe. But that they weren’t, that there was a question whether either would be ready for camp and that their ailments (back for Schwartz, Achilles for Fisher) were problematic ones for big men in their thirties, made it so the Chiefs couldn’t allot $25 million of space to them in a tight-cap environment.
Maybe Fisher will wind up back there, and maybe Schwartz, if he decides to keep playing, will too. Either way, the Chiefs have created space to start, in earnest, their reset in what they’ll put in front of Patrick Mahomes for the next few years, with a rich draft class there and some free-agent options at those positions (Trent Williams, Riley Reiff, Russell Okung). And now, they’ll have room to operate. Last week, at this point, they projected to be over $20 million in the red on the cap. After these moves, plus simple restructures I’m told are coming on Patrick Mahomes’s, Chris Jones’s and Travis Kelce’s contracts, they’ll have more than $20 million to spend.
This week was a great sign for where the Bills are as a program. This is a new phase for Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane. Until now, Buffalo, for the most part, had its core players on rookie contracts, and could use the saving to add aggressively around them with veterans. The challenge from here is already underway—and really started with the signing of Tre’davious White to a four-year, $69 million extension and left tackle Dion Dawkins to a four-year, $58.3 million extension six months ago. This week, they built on that, with deals for White’s draft classmate Matt Milano, and one of Beane’s and McDermott’s Carolina imports, Daryl Williams. The details …
Milano: 4 years, $41.5 million, $23.5 million injury guarantee.
Williams: 3 years, $24 million, $13.75 million injury guarantee.
The truth behind these numbers is simpler than that—the deals tie the Bills to Milano for two years and Williams for one, which leaves open the possibility those guys won’t be part of any sort of five-year plan. But, to me, they reveal what the Bills are building, in that when McDermott and Beane arrived, guys like Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby couldn’t bail from Western New York fast enough. Milano and Williams didn’t just choose to stay, they chose to forgo free agency to do it. For Milano, that meant passing on using the market to boost what is routinely the biggest deal of a starting player’s career (his second contract). For Williams, it meant giving up a shot to maximize his value after injuries plagued a promising start to his career in Carolina. Both wanted to stay, and now will get to. Add that to Mario Addison, Vernon Butler and Mitch Morse being willing to take pay cuts to keep the band together, and it’s not hard to see the sea change that’s taken place in that organization.
That Seahawks GM John Schneider was at Trey Lance’s pro day shouldn’t be ignored. And this isn’t about him just going—Schneider likes to see guys throw live, and has been there for most of the top quarterbacks’ pro days over the years (it’s just a little easier to miss it if that quarterback plays for Clemson, Ohio State or Alabama, where he could be there to see anyone). More so, as I see it, it’s an indication that the Seahawks aren’t going to tiptoe around Russell Wilson, amid a mountain of uncertainty. You may remember the friction that Schneider’s presence at Josh Allen’s pro day three years ago caused. Well, if Seattle was concerned with kicking that hornet’s nest again, it would have been easy for him to sit this one out, especially since the Seahawks don’t have a first-round pick. But Schneider was there. And who knows, if Seattle does wind up moving Wilson, maybe the picks the Seahawks get in return would position them to get someone like Lance, which would make this particular trip one worth taking. Either way, it showed, to me, that the organization’s going to be prepared for all scenarios and won’t be held hostage by the one it’s dealing with now. And Schneider also got a good look at Bison tackle prospect Dillon Radunz. Interestingly enough, getting him in the second round, which is a realistic idea, could actually wind up helping to thaw things between Wilson and the only NFL team he’s played for.
The Kyle Juszczyk re-signing gives me a good opportunity to show you all something that I’ve always seen as a window into who Kyle Shanahan is as a football coach. And it may seem like a small thing—explaining why the Niners would spend big twice on a position that some people have considered dead for a decade—but to me it explains more than just what’s on the surface. Shanahan and I were talking about what he thought when everyone was throwing around big terms, like revolution or modern football, in the face of the offensive explosion of 2018. His response: “There are always cycles. … That’s why to me, there’s no absolutes. That’s why I use 21 [personnel] probably more than anyone in the NFL, we have a fullback in there, not just because that’s our offense, it’s because I believe that’s an advantage. People don’t play base defense very much, because the majority of the league doesn’t have a fullback. And so you get people on the field they’re not as used to practicing with. You know their menu’s smaller, and it’s, alright, I know I’m attacking these five things instead of these 25 things. And you can see it better as a play-caller, as a quarterback. But also, it can be an advantage for the defense. If there’s only two receivers out, that’s a lot easier to defend than having to deal with a slot receiver. That’s why it’s important to me to have a fullback like Juice where you can do two-back, but you also can be in one-back and do one-back type stuff.” My takeaway from that day, two summers ago, was pretty simple: Shanahan sees football as a big cat-and-mouse game (which a lot of great coaches do), and his job is to simplify what’s complex for his players. Also, when you hear him talk about this stuff, it’s pretty clear why he’s good at teaching it, because he makes it pretty easy to understand.
The state of the defensive line in the draft class should help free agents. Defensive tackle will be a sketchy position, at best, in the 2021 draft. And while there are a host of freak athlete edge rushers in the class—Miami’s Greg Rousseau and Jaelen Phillips, Michigan’s Kwity Paye and Penn State’s Jayson Oweh among them—most of them are seen as in need of development and may take time to come around. That means players like Tampa Bay’s Shaq Barrett, Baltimore’s Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue, Pittsburgh’s Bud Dupree and Cincinnati’s Carl Lawson should all be valuable to teams with an immediate need for outside rushers. And an interior monster like Giants DT Dalvin Tomlinson is in position to cash in, too. In a year when a lot of players are going to be backed into “prove-it” type deals, I think all these guys wind up getting standard-market contracts, well into eight figures per year.
On the flip side, I think the opposite will happen for backs and receivers—and maybe some offensive linemen too. The draft class is loaded at receiver again, and has depth beyond brand names like DeVonta Smith, Ja'Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle and Rashod Bateman; it has a whole bunch of viable immediate-starter tailback options, in Travis Etienne, Najee Harris and Javonte Williams, among others; and is both strong at the top and deep along the offensive line. That’s why it’s tough to see Green Bay’s Jamaal Williams, Arizona’s Kenyan Drake or Seattle’s Chris Carson really cashing in; and why older players at the other two spots, like Indy’s T.Y. Hilton, Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, or Pittsburgh’s Al Villanueva might not like what they find out there this week. These sorts of conditions can affect a free-agent position group in any year. But especially in a year like this, where teams are so actively looking for bargains to fit under a tighter cap.
That said, 49ers OT Trent Williams is about to get paid. I talked to a couple of guys over the weekend who studied Williams ahead of free agency, and were legit wowed by how spotless his tape was. In 2020, at 32, he maintained a level mirroring his prime in Washington, a prime during which he was one of the two or three best offensive linemen in the NFL. I think he’ll stay in San Francisco. But I don’t think the Niners will get it done without paying more than they probably figured they’d have to when they traded for him during last year’s draft, and, accordingly, I’ve heard they’re willing to go to $20 million per year to keep him. As for potential suitors to drive that price up, remember, when the trade happened, Minnesota was very much in it—and the Vikings just cut their left tackle, Riley Reiff. Then there are other high-end contenders, like Indianapolis and Kansas City, that have a need at the position. All of which adds up to a rarity: A non-quarterback in his thirties pulling down a top-of-the-market deal.
I have more random thoughts on free agency to give you. Here are 10 …
1) Given how his time in Detroit ended, and questions lingering over whether he protected himself late in the year for free agency (questions that I’m sure irked him), I’d be surprised if Kenny Golladay goes to a program like the one he just played in.
2) Lots of positions have, after the guys who’ll be the top-shelf earners, a second tier of third- or fourth-contract types. We mentioned the receivers (Hilton, Green, Marvin Jones). You’ll also find this dynamic at corner (Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, Roald Darby), on the offensive line (Villanueva, Okung, Alex Mack, David Andrews) and at tight end (Rob Gronkowski, Jared Cook). That’s where a lot of agents see the cliff existing, where the deals go from normal market value to short-term “prove it” or “betting on myself” pacts.
3) You may not have liked the Leonard Williams acquisition for the Giants at the time, but their willingness to tag him at $19.351 million shows that they sure feel like they got the 2019 trade-deadline deal right. It’ll also make it tough for Dave Gettleman & Co. to get a long-term deal with him, based on the leverage he has.
4) Two players who should benefit from other franchise tags: Safeties John Johnson (Rams) and Anthony Harris (Vikings). With Justin Simmons, Marcus Maye and Marcus Williams franchised, and a mediocre draft at the position coming, those seeking safety help don’t many places to look, so the bidding for Johnson and Harris should be very healthy.
5) Likewise, Washington taking Brandon Scherff off the market should really help New England’s Joe Thuney. It seemed the Patriots were resigned to Thuney’s 2021 departure after tagging him last March—they had very minimal discussions on a long-term deal with him thereafter, and no progress had been made right up to when the Patriots agreed to deal for Trent Brown last week. But since then, the lines of communication have reopened, and the Patriots have expressed that they’d like to keep Thuney. Whether the sides can meet on a price remains to be seen.
6) Everyone’s looking for gamebreakers, copy-catting what the Chiefs have built. So in the receiver group, Houston’s Will Fuller, Las Vegas’s Nelson Agholor and Carolina’s Curtis Samuel all stand out to me as guys who should be in decent shape, despite the depressed market.
7) The Dolphins’ trade for Bernardrick McKinney is a pretty easy one to read. Miami, looking for a traditional Mike linebacker, doesn’t like its options in free agency or the draft. And McKinney brings system familiarity, having played for Romeo Crennel in Houston. Meanwhile, with J.J. Watt gone, the Texans get a pass-rusher with a move to a Lovie Smith system that demands them.
8) Urban Meyer pushed for staff and facilities upgrades before taking the Jaguars job, and it’s pretty clear he’s working hard to change the perception of the franchise. It’ll be interesting to see how he uses free agency, with more cap space than any team in football (right around $86 million), to further that effort.
9) The Colts are another team to watch. Bills are coming due on the core Chris Ballard has built (All-Pros Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard are eligible for new deals for the first time), but even accounting for that, and the addition of Carson Wentz, Indy has a little breathing room to add a nice piece or two.
10) Status quo on the Sam Darnold front, with Darnold likely to be the next QB domino to fall. So what I told you last week stands: Eight teams have been in contact with the Jets about Darnold, and the team would like to see Wilson and Fields throw live at theit pro days before making a final call, but has relayed some flexibility on that to other teams. What kind of deal would get it done? My guess would be maybe something north of what Arizona got for Josh Rosen in 2019 (that was a two and a five).
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1) Congrats to the Norman (Okla.) girls hoops team on its state championship.
2) Is it weird to anyone else that, in the face of FBI investigations into their recruiting violations, neither Arizona nor LSU had to so much as change men’s basketball coaches? I’m all for players getting paid, but it’s definitely wild to see Will Wade and Sean Miller still out there like nothing happened.
3) I love my alma mater’s hoops team this year. That said, Illinois’s center is an absolute monster.
4) Nebraska-Oklahoma was always a huge one back in the day, so I’m happy that the Huskers rethought pulling out of their game on Sept. 18, which will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1971 Game of the Century. And the whole thing, once again, makes you remember just what Nebraska used to be. For me, it was the program that won three national titles during my four years in high school, and absolutely bludgeoned one of Steve Spurrier’s best Florida teams on the way to one of them.
5) I’m only three episodes in, but Tell Me Your Secrets on Amazon is absolutely haunting.
6) RIP Marvin Hagler. No lie, one of my earliest sports memories was the buildup to the Hagler-Sugar Ray Leonard fight in 1987 (I’m too young to recall the Hagler-Hearns fight), and I can remember asking my dad why it was that big a deal, because I’d only watched Mike Tyson fight and thought heavyweights were the only ones who mattered. He explained it to me, and it was easy for me to pick up on how our whole region was rooting for Brockton’s own after that. He was an absolute icon in New England then, and for a lot of people up here he still is.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
The Saints’ tribute, to the most important player in franchise history.
Strief played with Brees for 12 years (2006 to ‘17), which I believe ties him with Thomas Morstead (2009 to ‘20) as Brees’s longest held teammate.
Brady was definitely Brees’s longest-held rival. They first played against each other on Oct. 2, 1999, with Brady leading Michigan to a 38–12 win over Brees and Purdue. Brees, by the way, is one of the few to boast a winning record against Brady. Including that first game, and eight more in the NFL, the final tally: Brees 5, Brady 4.
And there’s the tale of the tape, excluding the last one, a 30–20 Bucs playoff win over the Saints that wound up being the last game of Brees’s career.
And here’s maybe the player who exemplifies Brees’s impact the most. Mayfield’s high school, Lake Travis, was actually a rival of Brees’s, Westlake, and there’s little question that Brees’s success helped open the door for teams to think about shorter quarterbacks a little differently. Which, by 2018, made the idea of taking a guy like Mayfield first in the draft not as weird as it would’ve been when Brees was coming out—and it would’ve been really weird back then.
I can remember talking to Mike Thomas about how he was motivated to get Brees another title. That didn’t happen, but you definitely got the vibe that there was almost a big brother/little brother thing Brees and Thomas developed, as Thomas grew into the game’s best receiver.
Brady’s knee looks a little delicate. But he’s got plenty of time to work that out.
This made me feel good about my kid being drenched after his hockey practices.
And there’s something relating to this other point from Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy.
S/o to Jordan Poyer, another member of that Bills core, for this.
I think when we’re looking at Fields, Wilson and Lance, we should keep this in mind. Environment matters. A lot.
Really cool story here, from new Texans coach David Culley to Steve Wyche and Jim Trotter on the Huddle and Flow podcast.
And this might’ve been the tamest reaction from the Boston media on Newton’s re-signing with the Patriots.
Love this, from Prescott, on his return from a compound fracture.
I saw the Tweet King reprise this in the aftermath of Brady’s deal, and it was worth me reprising it too.
That’s an NFL tweet. Sort of.
Still the truth. The Chargers showed everyone how it’s done last year.
This isn’t NFL related, but it’s worth me sneaking it in here if just one person who hasn’t seen it before gets to as a result. I hadn’t seen this until I heard about Hagler’s death on Saturday, and it’s mesmerizing. Movie fights (Rocky, etc.) are usually wildly unrealistic. This looks like a movie fight.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
There was an interesting detail in Brady’s contract everyone should file away for this week. Agent Don Yee negotiated for a provision that would bump Brady’s $20 million roster bonus by $1.471 million if a 17th regular season game is added this year, and another $1.471 million if it’s added in 2022.
How did Yee and the Bucs come up with the number? It’s 1/17th of $25 million, which is Brady’s average in base pay the next two years.
That, of course, makes sense. If Brady does extra work, he’ll get paid extra for it. And my understanding is that such provisions have been written into some other player contracts already. I’d expect a lot more of this in the coming days, with dozens and dozens of deals looming in the week ahead.