Over the last three days, one word kept coming up on the blockbuster deal struck by the Niners and Dolphins, through all the digging I did, and that word is control.
Sitting at 12 in the draft, San Francisco lacked it. At three, the Niners have it.
To understand the rest, you have to look not just at the two teams involved in this big-time transaction, but the state of quarterbacking across the NFL. The Niners know, like everyone else knows, the Jaguars are taking Trevor Lawrence first overall. They think, like everyone else thinks, the Jets are taking one, probably Zach Wilson, with the second pick. There’s also plenty of reason to believe Atlanta is taking one fourth overall.
Between there and where the Niners were, just outside the Top 10, you had the Eagles, Lions, Panthers and Broncos in play to take one, and beyond that the Patriots, Washington Football Team and Bears lurking as teams that could trade up.
Now, let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Deshaun Watson isn’t traded before the season starts, and things between the Seahawks and Russell Wilson stabilize. Lawrence goes first overall. Wilson goes second overall. That would put the Jaguars and Jets in the clubhouse, with up to eight teams still swinging to find their guy, four of whom were picking ahead of the Niners, with three first-round quarterbacks (Trey Lance, Justin Fields, Mac Jones) left.
It’s right there for everyone to see. The math didn’t work for the Niners.
But it does now.
By dealing away three first-round picks (12th overall this year, plus their picks in 2022 and '23) and a third-rounder in 2022, the Niners seized a measure of control over a chaotic quarterbacking landscape, jumping from fifth to first in line behind the Jaguars and Jets with a month left until the draft. They won’t get Lawrence, and they probably won’t get Wilson, but they will get their pick of the rest.
Of course, before seizing that control, the Niners had to figure out that they wanted control. And the process of deciding that was underway well before anyone had an idea Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch were spoiling for a splash move up the board. Which we’ll explain.
If you hadn’t turned the page from free agency to the draft, the Niners and Dolphins sure did it for you on Friday, and we’re doing the same in this week’s MMQB. Inside the last Monday morning column for March, you’ll get:
• Perspective on Zach Wilson’s pro day from the guy who scripted it.
• A full rundown from NFL evaluators on how Wilson and Mac Jones threw last week.
• A dive into the NFL meetings this week, with details on the 17-game slate and … Germany.
And much, much more. But we’re starting with the news of the week, which is the third big-ticket deal of the 2021 offseason.
O.K., so on the surface, the Niners wanting the aforementioned control seems like a fairly simple thing. Quarterback is the game’s most important position, and there are a lot of high-end prospects there in this year’s draft class. But for a couple of different reasons, the decision to make the deal was more complicated for San Francisco than for most of the others out there looking.
One, the Niners have a 29-year-old quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo, already on the roster. He’s going into the fourth year of the five-year, $137.5 million deal he signed in 2018 and is just 14 months removed from having started a Super Bowl. Two, they have a core of talented, and pricey, in-their-prime veterans, which makes draft capital valuable because it’s a place to find young, cheap talent to surround those stars. Three, because of the pandemic, getting a full evaluation on draft prospects is harder than ever.
And that, to be sure, is a lot to sort through. The Niners would get there, but, as you’ll see, they absolutely had to walk a tightrope to make it.
• Right after the season ended they decided to look at the idea of taking a QB in April. Shanahan, Lynch, assistant GM Adam Peters, offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel, QBs coach Rich Scangarello and offensive assistant Bobby Slowik were among those who dived headlong into quarterback evaluation in January and February.
• By the end of February, the initial assessment was complete, and the picture came clear that there were five legitimate first-round prospects. You didn’t need to be Lynch or Shanahan to know Lawrence was never going to be available to the Niners. But that still left four guys in play who would be options if San Francisco could find a way to jump the line. And just logically speaking, and based on their actions, the Niners made the determination that, in time, at least two of those four would be an upgrade over Garoppolo.
• San Francisco also got a picture from its scouts of the 2022 draft at the position, and it was bleak in comparison to ’21. That meant not taking one they liked this year would likely mean going into ’22, the final year of Garoppolo’s contract, with far fewer options on the table.
• The Niners have close ties to the Jets staff. Lynch and Jets GM Joe Douglas are friendly and, of course, Shanahan is new Jets coach Robert Saleh’s old boss. The Niners did have some internal discussion on Sam Darnold. And in the process of vetting they figured that the Jets weren’t moving the second pick.
• This is where doing the early scouting would help: With the whole league playing catch-up on the draft class, the Niners were able to move early with their play, engaging the Dolphins about three weeks ago. Lynch and Miami GM Chris Grier pledged to keep the talks quiet. Teams calling the Dolphins to sniff around the third pick were told only that Miami had a strong offer for it. The Dolphins didn’t shop the Niners’ offer, and the Niners didn’t double back to the Jets or anyone else looking for a better deal.
• The Dolphins, though, were looking for a way to stay closer to where they were originally picking, which led to this becoming what was essentially a three-team trade. And Miami needed a partner that would keep the talks in confidence. So Grier called the Eagles, who owned the sixth pick, a little more than two weeks ago to ask if they would be interested in moving back to 12 if the deal with the 49ers went through. Philly said yes, and the Dolphins told the Eagles they’d circle back. Then Grier and Eagles GM Howie Roseman chipped away at the parameters of a second-order trade.
• In doing that, Miami was in a position knowing quarterbacks likely would go 1-2-3-4, which would give the Dolphins the second pick of nonquarterbacks in the draft, while keeping the extra first-rounder for 2023.
• The Eagles worked exclusively with the Dolphins, and Roseman had to keep the trade under wraps in the two-plus weeks in between to allow for the bang-bang nature of how it eventually would go down. And with the Eagles believing there is a pretty good chance the Bengals will take LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase at five (we mentioned in our mock this week that Joe Burrow has given Cincinnati’s brass a glowing recommendation), Philly felt comfortable with the difference in talent between six and 12—and also operated with the knowledge that it’d be hard to get a future first (this being Miami’s slotted No. 1 in 2022) in exchange for moving down closer to the draft, particularly if it looked like the top four picks would be QBs.
(Also, this allows Philly to reset its roster, with a minimum of two 1s and two 2s—and more likely, so long as Carson Wentz stays healthy, three 1s in 2022—plus a cleaned-up cap to work with then.)
• Then free agency started and two things happened in San Francisco to affect how they’d approach the quarterback still on its roster. One, the Niners were able to keep the great majority of their own players, most notably Trent Williams, Kyle Juszczyk, Jason Verrett and Jaquiski Tartt. Two, while they flirted with some veteran quarterbacks, Joe Flacco among them, they didn’t get one. Which meant they maintained a roster capable of contending for a title, but one with only one NFL-proven quarterback on it.
• And yes, the Patriots did inquire about Garoppolo earlier in the offseason. The Niners told them he wasn’t available. He still really isn’t. Why? It’s in the last bullet point. San Francisco believes it has a championship roster, and trading Garoppolo now would be entrusting those aspirations to a player it has, at this point, only seen on tape. The Niners don’t know for sure how the kid will come along, how he’ll learn, how soon he’ll be ready to start, etc. Remember, Shanahan sat Garoppolo for a month after trading for him in 2017 so he could learn the offense. And that was with a player who’d been in the NFL for almost four years. The quarterbacks the Niners are scouting now don’t even have that much college experience. (Fields started 22 games at Ohio State, while Jones and Lance started 17 apiece at Bama and North Dakota State.)
• That said, I’d say Garoppolo’s availability is subject to change. My guess is, at this point, it’d take the Niners getting a first-round pick for them to even start in on trade talks and move off the course they’ve set. Now, if a veteran they can trust as a bridge quarterback becomes available, that could well shift their thinking. Or if we get to summer, and the rookie is way ahead of schedule, and/or a Sam Bradford-in-2018 situation arises elsewhere, that could change things, too. But for right now, Garoppolo is the Niners’ starter.
• And the economics of the situation were a factor to all this too, of course. Garoppolo almost certainly won’t be a Niner in 2022, and a starting quarterback on a rookie contract will be, which will give the team more room to operate with to lock up guys like Fred Warner, Nick Bosa and Deebo Samuel. So, too, will the fact that the Niners won’t have to pay a first-round pick at another position starting in ’22 or ’23. But for now? The Niners have the fourth-most cap space in the NFL. They can carry the rookie and Garoppolo, easily.
• As for that final price in the trade, the Niners essentially gave up those two first-rounders to jump nine spots. The other pick? In an interesting twist to all this, I’m told that 2022 third-rounder is the compensatory pick connected to Saleh getting the Jets job (part of the NFL’s efforts to promote minority hiring).
• Shanahan and Garoppolo talked on Friday. Obviously, no one in Garoppolo’s shoes would be fired up with that day’s developments. But I can say that there’s a belief there that Garoppolo will react the right way and, with his future as a starter in the league on the line, work to put his best football on tape in 2021.
Put all that together, and there’s a good, logical path to how the Niners got here, and how the Dolphins and Eagles helped make it happen, while affirming their comfort level going forward, for now, with the quarterbacks they drafted in 2020 (Tua Tagovailoa in Miami and Jalen Hurts in Philly). And in the process of trying to get a jump on the market, the Niners have one other thing in addition to control, and that’s more time.
San Francisco now gets a month to dig deep into Lance, Fields and Jones (and even Wilson, though he’ll likely be off the table for the Niners), max out on allowable Zoom meetings with each without having to worry about covering their tracks, and talk to everyone around those guys to get the best feel for who they’re most comfortable tying the franchise’s future to. They’ll also have time to see if developments on the veteran market might change anything on Garoppolo—or allow for a Godfather offer for him to come.
Absent that, the 49ers are, essentially, where the Chiefs were in 2017, when they drafted Patrick Mahomes with Alex Smith as the incumbent. Only San Francisco is there a month ahead of the draft. Like the Chiefs then, the Niners have a coach and GM going into year 5, a playoff-experienced roster in full bloom, and a quarterback they know they can win with who has two years left on his deal—allowing them to keep him now to best serve the team they’ll field in the fall, then trade him after the season (like the Chiefs did Smith) if he plays as well as they’d expect him to, to get some of the capital lost in the draft trade back.
There are, of course, some questions left to be answered. First and foremost, the Niners still have to figure out whether they like Fields, Jones or Lance best.
But how all that works out now is up to them. Which, of course, was the idea of moving this aggressive, and this early, in the first place.
ZACH WILSON'S PLAN
Former NFL quarterback John Beck—now a coach at Tom House and Adam Dedeaux’s acclaimed 3DQB outfit in Orange County—can still remember hanging out in the parking lot of Golden West College with Zach Wilson last summer and how manageable the goals, at the time, seemed for the BYU junior as he prepared to head back to Utah for fall camp.
“We were just standing by our cars talking about being smart, making good decisions, not taking unnecessary hits, you have the ability to make the big play, know when to use it—all that just to have a solid, consistent junior year,” Beck said Friday, as he waited for his order at a Shake Shack at Salt Lake City International. “To be here, it’s pretty magical.”
At the time, Wilson was just focused on winning his job back for the season, after Cougars coach Kalani Sitake swung open the doors to a quarterback competition. Wilson had started six games as a true freshman and nine as a sophomore, but he’d been banged up and BYU didn’t play particularly well down the stretch in 2019.
Beck figured then that Sitake was just challenging Wilson, and Wilson would wind up winning his spot back (he did a month later). And he thought Wilson was positioned nicely to show all the talent that Beck first saw in the quarterback as an 18-year-old. But in no way did Beck figure that eight months after that interaction, he’d be in BYU’s field house, with the eyes of the NFL trained on Wilson, who was ready to serve up this personal mike-drop moment: a jaw-dropping throw to cap his meteoric rise into the world of pro football.
In a way, the throw was a perfect display of Wilson showing what he could do, a year after having to grapple with what his coaches at BYU might have thought he couldn’t do.
“There were days he was pissed,” Beck says. “He’s a human; he was pissed. But it motivated him, and he was super driven, I loved the way he approached that offseason—it was very much I believe in myself, I believe I’m just gonna work my tail off, and I’m gonna go out there and earn it again, like I’ve always done. We’ve had that conversation many times.”
By now, you know the story. Wilson commuted from Utah to Orange County during the pandemic. The time he’d normally have spent with his teammates was freed up for him to work on his own game, and he picked up a job at DoorDash to finance his newly nomadic lifestyle. And Beck watched Wilson refine all the jumps that Wilson had made in their three years together.
Wilson was actually first introduced to Beck in April 2018, after he’d enrolled early at BYU (he graduated high school the previous December). Wilson’s uncle had a nephew named JD Neeleman who was the quarterback at Lone Peak High in Utah and had started working with Beck. Neeleman’s dad had said to Beck in passing, “I have a nephew that would really love to know about this. I’m gonna talk to his dad.”
Soon thereafter they met. And there they were together, less than three years later, in Provo—with Wilson the very likely second pick in the draft.
And if all this seems a little too Disney-movie-ish, there’s more. Just before the workout, news of the Niners-Dolphins trade broke. Beck didn’t tell Wilson about it until afterward, but he smiled when it went down, as he thought it might after hearing rumblings that a deal was in the works. Why? Well, he’d geared Wilson’s pro-day script—which had more than 60 throws and incorporated a lot of play-action and keeper-game throws, as well as downfield drive and off-spot throws—to play on tenets of Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
He did it because the teams picking second and fourth run that scheme, and because he had insight into it, having played for Shanahan in Washington in 2010 and '11. And with the deal, the teams with picks two through four were running that offense, with Shanahan himself in the mix.
In other words, what Beck and Wilson put together was more or less built on the mission statement of whichever company he’ll wind up working for, even if the Jets were to pass on him. Even better, as Beck sees it, getting to one of said companies would be a perfect result.
“It’s the perfect fit,” Beck says. “They want somebody who can get the ball out quick, make quick decisions go through progressions and know where and why. He can do that. Once he processes it, does he have to move off the spot and deliver an accurate ball? He can do that. In play-action game, can he get out on the edge and throw on the run? He can do that. In the keeper game where they want to take their shots, can he pull up quickly and get the ball downfield in a split-second? He can do that.
“I just think what Zach brings to the table, and what that offense is asking of the quarterback, is such a great match.”
There’s no question that Wilson needed to grow over the past few years to get here. His arm, Beck says, has gotten stronger, through a combination of simple physical maturation and work (specific throwing routines, weighted-ball exercises, etc.). Conversely, they’ve also worked on Wilson’s ability to rein it in, and not take unnecessary risks with his body and the ball, gains that showed up during BYU’s 11–1 season.
All the same, Wilson’s changed Beck’s mentality a little, too, getting him to think bigger. Part of that has been being ready for the potential (probable?) result that Wilson lands in New York, and everything that comes along with that. In fact, Beck told me he’s planning to line up two friends of his—Chad Pennington and Josh McCown, a pair of former Jets QBs—to talk to Wilson about the challenges of playing in America’s biggest market.
“Zach looks forward to opportunities like that. He has traits to handle the big stage,” Beck says. “I think he wants those moments. He’s human, like we all are. And New York can be tough. But he’s been working on the tools to handle those things for a long time, and I think he’ll have the right people in his corner to help him through the ups and the downs, if that’s the market he’s gonna be in. Because there’s gonna be those.
“He’s well aware of that. When you play football, there are ups and downs, and if you’re gonna have ups and downs in that market, you have to know the reality of it.”
Another reality: Last summer, Beck didn’t see himself being in this spot, getting ready to board a flight back to California after Wilson turned heads, again, and pulled into pole position to go second overall in the draft.
And it wasn’t just that one throw, either. Which is where we’re going next …
THE VIEW FROM A PAIR OF PRO DAYS
If there are five quarterbacks likely to land in the first round, we’re now through 70% of their pro days. Math sounds a little funny, right? Well, Trevor Lawrence threw in February, Lance on March 12, Wilson on Friday, Fields throws Tuesday and Jones threw Tuesday and will throw again this Tuesday (sort of head-to-head with Fields) during Alabama’s second pro day. And as we did with Lance and Lawrence earlier in the offseason, we’re here for you in getting reviews from those who were on the ground for the workouts.
We’ll go in chronological order, so we’re starting with Jones, who had a bit of a shorter throwing session than Wilson—partly because he’s going to throw again, and is expected to show a little more, this week. Another thing worth mentioning is that the Tide’s trio of potential first-round skills guys (receivers DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, Najee Harris) sat this one out.
NFC exec 1 on Jones: “I thought he did really well. I thought he threw the ball well, his accuracy was obvious. He had couple misses early, where you could see how competitive he is. He has a stronger arm than people think, he’s better athlete than people think. And the testing numbers show he’s a better athlete than people think. His movement in drills show it, he threw the ball well on the run.… It seems like he has a presence to him. The drawbacks may be thinking he’s a one-year guy, and there are the arguments on the talent around him. But nobody made those comments on [Joe] Burrow, right? I love Burrow, but he had a lot of good players around him.… I think Jones is a good player. I don’t think he’s elite. But he had good moments, and you saw at all year and at the pro day, the stage isn’t too big for him.”
AFC exec 1 on Jones: “He threw fine at the pro day, most guys do. … Athletically he’s just average. He fits into the pocket-passer category. Had enough arm strength, ball placement was a little off on some throws, but he’s very accurate, he showed a lot of that on film. … The guys love him. You heard ex-teammates chose him over Tua. He definitely has an outgoing personality, you could see him cheering his guys on. … If anything, you worry about the lack of athleticism, when he has to create on his own, and he’s not throwing to first-round receivers all over the place. … He’s not an upper-echelon athlete. Tom Brady isn’t either, but he compensates with anticipation, accuracy, experience. Mac will have to develop that.”
NFC exec 2 on Jones: “I thought it was an efficient workout, a workout that showed good arm strength, very good accuracy, and better athlete than you thought on tape. The impressive thing was that from the Senior Bowl to this workout, he’s improved. His footwork was better, his accuracy was better. And he was working with different receivers at the Senior Bowl, but his top guys at Bama weren’t working out, either. He seemed to have more arm at pro day. … I didn’t think there was anything he didn’t do well, nothing disappointed me. … I wouldn’t say he’s a first-rounder. I think he’ll be a solid pro, and that puts him in second or third round. But for me, not the first round.”
And now to Wilson, whose workout was scripted for about 60 throws, but wound up around 70 after he asked Beck for a couple of do-overs.
NFC exec 3 on Wilson: “He ended up being bigger than I thought he’d be, and that was the No. 1 thing people worried about. He was 215 pounds, his hands measured out, he was fine with all that stuff. On the field, he was really impressive. He’s an easier thrower than I realized, very smooth motion. Where some guys have a hitch or a windup, the ball jumps right off his hand. … He’s an easy thrower on the move, you can tell he’s a natural athlete. The arm strength is excellent, the accuracy was good. He got in a rhythm where he was really hot. He also missed a couple. Walking away, if you’re [Jets GM] Joe Douglas, you feel better about it, that, ‘Yup, this is the guy.’ From a pure, physical standpoint, he’s all good. You have a little medical question, because there’s so much unknown this year with everyone, he had the [2019 surgery on his] shoulder. But I don’t think that’ll be a big deal.”
AFC exec 2 on Wilson: “It was really good; he’s super talented. He throws so easy, he has a really quick delivery, he can throw from all angles and zip it if he needs to. The arm strength—if there was any question I had, it might’ve been there, and he certainly answered it. There were some throws, on each sideline, you could tell where he didn’t really rip it on tape. I’m not as worried about that now. … Could it have been better? Sure, he missed a couple. But from a talent stand, it was really impressive. … [Seeing his stature] was good. He’s not a skinny-legged guy, he’s not frail, he’s put together. I’d heard the heaviest [he had] ever been before this was 205. He was 214 at pro day, and it looked good. And he has a bigger lower body than people thought. … From a tape standpoint, he wasn’t as good as [Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers] coming out. But that’s easy to say now. Some of the ability to throw from different angles, and with a release that quick is similar to those guys. Rodgers is probably more appropriate. Remember, people weren’t super [excited] with Rodgers’ arm, either, which seems crazy now. So is he as talented as those guys, as an athlete? Maybe. Is he gonna be a great generational quarterback? I don’t know.”
AFC exec 3 on Wilson: “He threw it well. He missed a few; I think he was pretty pumped up going in, so that might’ve been it. He can really throw it. It’s easy for him. He can throw across his body, on the move, to his right, to his left. … You could tell he had some nerves early, but he was poised enough to get it together. If you’re comfortable with the guy and his leadership—and I think that’ll check out—he’s really good. A BYU kid going to New York, he’ll need a little work, of course. … He looked better [physically] than I thought he would. He’s over 6' 2", and he’s not a rail, he’s got a good lower body. And you can tell he’s gotten stronger since the season.”
And with that, now, the pro day spotlight shifts to Fields and back to Jones, and it sure will be interesting to see how quarterback-hungry teams staff those two workouts on Tuesday.
The NFL’s meeting this week won’t include rules changes, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be affected by its events. In fact, in the 25-page agenda prepping owners and team presidents/executives for it, there are a lot of interesting nuggets on what they’re calling the “restructured” season. Here are some of the small details that flow into the bigger picture of going to 17 games, and what it means for football in America.
• The NFL calling it a restructured season rather than an expanded season is intentional, of course, and references the change from a 16 regular-season/four preseason game format to a 17 regular-season/three preseason game model. The league and union agreed on this in part based on injury data that broke down all football activities (regular-season games, regular-season practices, preseason games, training camp practices, joint practices, etc.) and found that the highest injury rate was actually in preseason games. So, as they saw it, the healthy-and-safety difference from one model to the other was seen as a push.
• As part of this restructure, the NFL calendar will simply expand a week. Camp will open around the same time it normally does, the Hall of Fame game will still be five weeks from the Thursday night opener, and the first full slate of preseason games will be four weeks out from Week 1. The difference? A two-week gap between the final preseason weekend, and Week 1. So there will be no games leading into Labor Day weekend.
• Because of the new TV deals, the NFL will need to have games in an early kickoff window (9:30 a.m. ET) and is planning to have three of those annually to satisfy the agreements in those contracts (which kick in two years from now). Obviously, those games would likely be held in, let’s say, different time zones than they normally would. We’ll get to that in a second.
• Another piece of the new TV deals included enhanced flex scheduling, and that’s being voted on, too. If passed, the league (and networks) will be able to move games between the early and late afternoon windows freely “with proper notice”; flex games to Sunday Night Football with 12 days’ notice in weeks 5–14; six days’ notice in weeks 15–17; and flex games to Monday Night Football in weeks 12–17 with 12 days’ notice.
• The league is also putting in some limits on TV. Teams can’t appear in prime time more than seven times in a season (including flex games) and can be scheduled ahead of time for a max of three SNF appearances and three MNF appearances. Also, the league is now going to be allowed to schedule two teams per year to have two games with fewer than five days to prepare (which is to accommodate TNF and, perhaps, Amazon’s Black Friday game).
• The NFL will also formally vote through the scheduling formula for the 17th game—which will match divisions and pit teams that finished in corresponding spots for each team’s fifth interconference game. (For 2021 the divisional matchups would be: AFC East vs. NFC East, AFC North vs. NFC West, AFC South vs. NFC South, AFC West vs. NFC North). The home team will rotate by conference each year.
In the end, all of this stuff is wrapped into two voting matters. Resolution JC-1 covers going to 17 games. Resolution M-1 encompasses the 11-year, $113 billion media deals the NFL struck with the networks. And on JC-1, the resolution “reason and effect” reads: “To confirm a change in the scheduling format to one consisting of three preseason and 17 regular season games per club, the manner for scheduling games within that format, and to establish the League’s authority to schedule regular season games in countries outside of the United States once a 17-game regular season schedule is implemented.” That brings us to our next takeaway …
The NFL’s international aspirations are growing again, after COVID-19 put them on hold for a year. And if you go through the aforementioned 25-page memo, that much is made clear over and over again. Tucked into the two voting proposals are pretty serious changes to how the NFL is going to conduct its international series. Here’s a snapshot of that:
• NFL teams will be required to “host” at least one International Series Game over an eight-year period, which gives the league a baseline inventory of four games each season to move outside the States.
• And here’s a really interesting twist within that: If the NFL only has that baseline of four to work with (the requirement of teams to play one international home game over an eight-year span doesn’t start until 2022) in a given year, the breakdown of “target markets” in the memo included a newcomer. It called for a goal of two games at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London, one at Estadia Azteca in Mexico City and one in Germany, either in Munich or Berlin.
• With the new requirement, the NFL will drop for future Super Bowl bidding its mandate that teams with winning bids to host Super Bowls must “give” the league a home game for the International Series.
• Also, as part of the resolution, the NFL retains the right to schedule games in Canada, Mexico, the U.K., Europe and South America. I’m told the reason for the inclusion of South America on that list was that the league specifically has its eyes on Brazil. The reason for the exclusion of Asia and Australia? Because of the logistical issues related to time zones, going to those places would have to be part of a bigger discussion.
• When International Series games are scheduled, teams can protect divisional games, and one nondivisional game from being moved.
• The “home” teams for the four international games will come from the conference that is getting the ninth home game.
• Volunteers to play internationally could lead to their being more than four international games in a given year. Which could lead to the NFL getting to or even past the number (four) they have in London in recent years.
So if there’s one takeaway from all that, I’d say the inclusion of Germany and Brazil marks a subtle shift in the league’s strategy, from focusing on one or two markets (London, Mexico City) to trying to replicate its successes in those places elsewhere.
I wouldn’t rule out a Stephon Gilmore … extension. I do believe it’s unlikely that Gilmore plays the 2020 season for $7 million, which is what he’s on the books for. And I think, as an acknowledgment of that, and on the heels of a very newsworthy few weeks, the Patriots will at least explore the idea of extending Gilmore. Could they still trade him? Sure. Was moving $4.5 million from 2021 to 2020 in his deal—the contractual equivalent of a cash advance—an acknowledgment on both sides that the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year was probably going to be seeking his final big NFL payday somewhere else in 2021? At the time, it was. But a couple of things have changed since.
First, Gilmore got hurt, and his torn quad makes it tougher for the Patriots to get fair value in a trade, and tougher for another team to make a long-term commitment. Second, the Patriots roster is a lot closer to being a contender than it was two months ago, with Dont’a Hightower back off his 2020 opt-out, and high-end, in-their-prime free agents Matthew Judon, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith joining the roster, in addition to complementary pieces like Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. Bottom line: If the Patriots think Gilmore has, say, three more good years left in him (and they know better than anyone else how the 30-year-old has taken care of his body) and they don’t want to pay promising young corner J.C. Jackson like a premier DB, you can certainly see where it’d make sense. I’m also told, for what it’s worth, that Gilmore would be very open to signing a new deal in New England.
You may not know the name George Pickens, but you probably will soon, and for good reason. The Georgia rising junior is a 6' 3", 201-pound specimen, capable of the most outrageous sorts of catches, and possessing talent to go in the first half of the first round of the draft. He also tore his ACL last week during spring practice, an injury that could wind up costing him all of the 2021 season. The normal ACL timetable makes a return for the SEC title game or College Football Playoff possible. But the question now is whether or not that’s best for him. Amid the pandemic, LSU WR Ja’Marr Chase, Oregon OT Penei Sewell, Penn State LB Micah Parsons, Virginia Tech CB Caleb Farley and Miami DE Gregory Rousseau made the call to skip the 2020 season. All are (and I’ll say somewhat tentatively due to Farley’s medicals need to check out postsurgery) expected to go in the first round, with Chase and Sewell good bets to land in the top 10. So if you’re Pickens now, and you see that missing a final college season didn’t kill those guys’ stock, would the best call be to focus on getting ready for the 2022 draft, or on focusing on trying to make it back for the stretch run at Georgia, especially when there’s no guarantee that the Bulldogs will be playing meaningful games then? It’s an interesting question to ask. And it could signal a postpandemic change in how star prospects handle the end of their time as college football players.
April 8–10 is going to be an important weekend in the NFL. Over those three days, the NFL is inviting 150 prospects to Indianapolis for physicals. Each team will be allowed to bring two people to the event (a team doc and an orthopedic specialist) to go through the normal checks that players would normally go through at the combine. For a player like Farley (coming off shoulder surgery) or Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle (coming off a broken ankle), that weekend looms large, and is accordingly a big one for teams going into their final set of draft meetings. On one hand, it’s great that the NFL and combine people are doing this, even if the proposed multisite idea (where they’d have guys get physicals in four different locations across the country, with teams flying in) might’ve been more effective. On the other, it highlights the problem teams and players with injury history are facing this year. Normally, teams would have medicals on around 330 players from the combine, and the ability to bring others in for physicals, meaning scouts will be assessing somewhere around 200 players more than usual with incomplete medical information. They’ll still have “virtual” physicals from those on the list of invites the combine released last month who won’t be in Indy this weekend (I’m told 90% of those have been completed). But that’s not the same as a team getting its doc’s hands on every guy. And on day 3 of the draft, there’s a chance that will have a very, very real impact for players whose teams have never been face-to-face with, and it will for teams, too, in how they manage risk in that area.
That weekend’s also going to present Wilson with his final box to be checked. As we’ve said for a couple of weeks, the Jets wanted to be able to dot the i’s and cross the t’s on Wilson, and the other quarterbacks in the class, before really putting Sam Darnold out there for trade. And the physical is a part of it for Wilson. The BYU quarterback had surgery on his throwing shoulder between his freshman and sophomore years. The expectation is that it will check out fine next week in Indy. But if you’re Douglas and the Jets, I’m sure you’d like to know for sure, from your own doctors, that the shoulder’s going to be O.K.
As for where Darnold could wind up next? I’d keep an eye on Carolina and Pittsburgh. Darnold would represent a worthy, and affordable, dart to throw at the quarterback board if the Panthers are convinced the quarterbacks they’d want will be gone by the time they pick at eighth (and Atlanta having the fourth pick doesn’t help them). As for the Steelers, if the price is right they could see some similarities in how Darnold plays to how their own quarterback did in his early 20s, and throw Darnold in there to compete with Dwayne Haskins to be Ben Roethlisberger’s heir. Washington and Denver have also come up as possible landing spots, though I know each had some misgivings on his tape.
An #AsExpected for this week: The guys feeling the cap crunch are, indeed, the NFL’s older free agents. In this week’s GamePlan, I did a top 5 of available free agents, and the first four had each been in the league for at least seven years (the fifth was a running back, Leonard Fournette). Some of the guys who just missed my list: Carlos Dunlap, Melvin Ingram, Justin Houston, Casey Hayward, Alejandro Villanueva—well, you get the picture. The high-end, in-prime free agents got their money, at maybe an incrementally smaller rate than they would have normally. The second-tier, in-prime guys scrambled to find one-year or bridge deals. And the older free agents, accustomed to being paid well, wound up sitting out there on the market. Of the aforementioned top 5, Jadeveon Clowney, DaQuan Jones and Richard Sherman remain unsigned, while Fournette (with Tampa Bay) and Sammy Watkins (Baltimore) found one-year deals.
Time is running short for the NFL and NFLPA to come up with a plan for offseason programs. The idea that’s been floating around for some time is to allow teams to start on time 20 players in the building at a time, with things loosening up as more players get vaccinated and as long as things continue to improve nationwide on the COVID-19 front. (There’s the potential that vaccinated players would be under one set of rules, and nonvaccinated players under another set for a time.) The 20-player limit is, in essence, how big college programs, full of players who can’t afford expensive offsite personal training, handled things last summer, and it makes sense as a starting point, to at least give players the option to go work with their strength coaches. The next question would be when to pull the lever on it, and that would presumably be soon. Under normal rules, teams with new coaches would be able to start offseason programs a week from today, and teams with incumbent head coaches would be able to start on April 19.
Doing the mock draft this week gave an early look at players who I believe scouts and coaches are higher on than people realize. And three really stood out for me above the others.
• Ole Miss WR Elijah Moore: You might know him from his, uh, creative Egg Bowl celebration. Scouts are looking at him in a different light now. I think he has a shot to sneak into the bottom of the first round, and he could be the fourth receiver taken after LSU’s Chase and Alabama’s Waddle and DeVonta Smith, in some order.
• South Carolina CB Jaycee Horn: I’m not going to sit here and tell you he’ll be the first corner taken. But I won’t be surprised if he is. Farley’s back surgery is a complicating factor for some teams, and I’ve talked to a few that prefer Horn to Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II. I’d say Horn’s a pretty safe bet to go inside the top 20 and has an outside shot at the top 10.
• Alabama RB Najee Harris: I left him out of my first round, but a few people encouraged me to find a way to sneak him in there. His omission was more about positional value and the fact that last year no backs were taken in the first 31 picks, while seven went between 32 and 66.
I think this is the right time to refresh everyone on where teams stand from a salary-cap standpoint. So here are the top five and bottom five teams in cap space, as we approach April 1.
Top 5: Jaguars, $40.60 million; Colts, $34.09 million; Broncos, $28.36 million; 49ers, $23.20 million; Bengals, $21.63 million.
Bottom 5: Saints, $2.12 million; Giants, $3.89 million; Bears, $4.08 million; Falcons, $4.65 million; Packers, $4.78 million.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1) What a fun run from Oral Roberts (even if I didn’t like how it started). And I'm going to avoid the irony-of-it-happening-in-the-Big-Dance joke:
2) Shaka Smart must have a heck of an agent—if it’s true that he was about to get fired at Texas, and wound up with the Marquette job before anyone had to announce it.
3) This NBA buyout market is weird. That Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge can suddenly just surface on the Nets, and Andre Drummond on the Lakers would seem to further upset competitive balance in a sport that struggles to keep it. But maybe I’m wrong.
4) The Last Blockbuster on Netflix is great, if you grew up in the ’80s and ’90s like I did.
5) RIP, Howard Schnellenberger, the architect of the State of Miami and The U. Very few coaches can match the legacy of the man who led the Canes to the first of their five national titles. It’s not overstating it to say he changed college football.
6) The lack of buzz around Opening Day has to be disconcerting for Major League Baseball. That’s a pro sport that relies on people’s habits (having a game on, going to the ballpark) to maintain its audience over 162 games and through the summer months. And I think the fact that some of those habits were broken last summer, because of the pandemic, makes this season a critical one for a sport that fewer kids are playing.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
And this reaction to it, too …
… as well as that reaction.
And as for this reaction on 17 games, I’d say Kamara’s not alone.
Looks like me at the gym (except for the monstrous build and the ridiculous push-ups. The same, otherwise).
Boston College has become an interesting breeding ground for scouts and coaches, and all these guys are relatively young. In addition to Flores, Kansas City’s Ryan Poles and Vegas’s DuJuan Daniels have risen through the ranks to the director level on the scouting side. And the not-so-young guy over there on the right? That’s Barry Gallup, who played at BC in the 1960s, coached there for two decades through the Doug Flutie years and is still around as the de facto mayor of the program.
Trevor Lawrence, also impressed.
Fun fact: If Philly wins in week 17, they pick ninth, not sixth. And there’s zero chance that Miami is giving up a first-round pick to go from 12 to 9, so when the Eagles execute that pick next year, they’ll have Doug Pederson to thank.
You can spend a good hour on the internet researching the fallout from all of this.
This is pretty cool.
As is Mahomes’s effort to keep a certain basketball coach from leaving his alma mater to go to that basketball coach’s alma mater.
If the Bears did this to drive people crazy … I love it. (And I also think Andy Dalton is a fine for-now answer).
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
We’re now exactly one month from a live, in-person draft in Cleveland. And after all we’ve been through over the last year, that seems like a pretty big deal.