MMQB: Sean Payton Discusses the Taysom Hill Vs. Jameis Winston Competition to Replace Drew Brees

The Saints' coach talks about how the team prepared well in advance for it's long-time QB's retirement. Plus, the NFL's new plan to grow internationally, scouts dish on Justin Fields's pro day, non-QBs who helped themselves at pro days and more.
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It was eight or nine days ago, two weekends after Drew Brees made his retirement official, that the now ex-Saints quarterback and his coach of 15 years, Sean Payton, were playing 18 holes. They talked about their kids. They talked family and work schedules. They talked like old friends would and, despite the major page-turning that had just taken place, Payton doesn’t recall the day of golf now like it was any more significant than any other round.

And so along those lines, as Payton and I talked on Thursday afternoon, when I asked whether Brees wanted an update on the Saints’ quarterback situation, the coach who’ll be guiding it answered that, really, that wasn’t even necessary.

“Oh, no, he’s real close with these guys,” Payton said. “He’s been on top of this, and we’ve been on top of this for a lot longer period of time than anyone else.”

Indeed, March 14 didn’t come out of nowhere for anyone with a keycard to team’s Metairie, La. facility—I’m assuming Brees’s still works—nor were the Saints ever going to be caught off-guard at the game’s most important position, as the greatest player in franchise history worked toward the end of a historic career.

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In fact, if you’ve paid attention, the work Payton and GM Mickey Loomis have done traces all the way back to spring of 2017. The previous September, with a five-year, $100 million deal done in 2012 set to expire, the quarterback and team struck a one-year extension. It was the first in a series of short-term, team-friendly deals (he did another in 2018 and his final one last year) that basically signaled the quarterback designating himself as year-to-year.

So Payton and Loomis dug into the 2017 draft class and fell one pick short of landing Texas Tech phenom Patrick Mahomes, whom Payton had fallen for; then, a few months later, put in a waiver claim on an intriguing Packers exile named Taysom Hill. And as was the case with Mahomes in 2017, the Saints had affection for Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield in 2018, but landing him, as Mayfield’s stock rose, was never all that realistic. Which played a part, four months after that, in the team flipping a third-round pick to the Jets for Teddy Bridgewater.

“I think that would be fair,” Payton said, “[to say] we’ve been in the quarterback business.”

Which is to say, no, Brees, didn’t need an update, because he’s been sitting front row for this the whole time. And, yes, the Saints have prioritized being prepared for Brees to walk away for nearly half a decade now.

But all that doesn’t make what’ll happen the next few months in New Orleans any less significant.

Order SI's Drew Brees Retirement Tribute Issue Here


We’re fully into draft season, and this week’s MMQB is chock full of draft stuff—and a few other items of league business that’ll be important for you know. Inside the first Monday morning column for the month of April …

• A deep dive into the NFL’s plans for Germany, Canada and Brazil over the next decade.

• A lot of insight and info into Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields’s pro day.

• A little more on Alabama quarterback Mac Jones’s second crack at a pro day.

• A look at some of the big winners of the pro day circuit as it winds down for this year.

We’ll also have some items of interest on the Falcons, Lions and Patriots, focusing on the draft process for each, from different angles. But we’re starting with a Saints franchise that’s set to move into its next era.


Because of the muddy timeline, the enormity of Brees’s departure never really hit Payton all at once. The two will be linked together forever, of course, and Payton’s appreciation for the symbiotic relationship he and Brees had has never been a secret. But this retirement didn’t go like so many do—which afforded everyone time to wrap their heads around the idea of it happening and prepare both emotionally and pragmatically for it.

So it was that everything sort of trickled in for Payton in early March. He remembers, less than a week before Brees’s announcement, saying in passing to Loomis, “Hey, Mick, have you heard anything from Drew? We’re getting real close to free agency.” And a few days later, over another round of golf, he got up to speed on why Brees waited.

“I was playing golf with Doug Miller, our PR director, and Drew had mentioned to me that Sunday he was gonna announce it,” Payton said. “I think it was Friday. I said to Doug, Hey, what’s Sunday’s date? And he told me. And then I go, What was the date we signed Drew? And then all of a sudden it came together—he’s tying it together 15 years to the day. … We had an idea after the season. He’d talked about it last year. It was different than a year ago.

“This year, we were under the assumption it was happening, so the question was more when he was gonna announce it, as opposed to if he was going to do it.”

So as you might imagine, by the time Payton and Loomis, and Payton and Miller, were having these conversations, wheels that had been spinning regarding where the team was going to go next with its quarterback situation for a few years were already in overdrive. Which meant turning the page from Brees’s announcement on March 14 to the start of the 2021 league year three days later, really, was like flipping a switch for the franchise.

The history of teams trying to replace quarterbacks like Brees over the last few decades is, to be sure, a little spotty. You have your Joe Montana to Steve Young, Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck success stories. But far more common are stories like the post-Jim Kelly Bills, post-Dan Marino Dolphins or even the post-John Elway Broncos, who kept winning at a nice clip under Mike Shanahan—though they had to keep looking for a quarterback.

Last year showed even the mighty Patriots aren’t immune.

And yet, the Saints feel pretty decently about the spot they’re in for the post-Brees era. And Payton, over our half-hour conversation, painted a good picture to explain why.

Jameis Winston Drew Brees

Brees’s injuries the last two years actually made the offense more flexible. At one point, I mentioned to Payton how I’d always heard the Patriots’ offense became bastardized over the years—really morphing to be Tom Brady’s system, more than New England’s system. As I brought that up, Payton knew where I was going, and jumped in to say that, yes, it was fair to say that had happened in New Orleans to a degree as well.

But then, he mentioned how the Saints—because Brees went down for a month in 2019, with Bridgewater coming in for him, and down for another month in 2020, with Hill coming in for him—have already had to reckon with how an offense made to fit No. 9 like a glove would do with another set of hands at the wheel.

“Those were stretches of five and four weeks,” Payton said. “There are certain things that you begin to do and you take for granted, and then when you go back through it all, each year, there’s a little evolution to what you do offensively. Drew played a big part in that, relative to us building on it. And that five-game stretch with Teddy, it was, Hey, let’s not just try to just throw it out there. We treated it differently.

“The offense was the offense, the communication, the system. It’s no different than an iPhone and an Android. So there’s terminology that stays constant; there’s all of that. But it’s trying to look at what the player’s strengths are and how can we try to win each game. The one thing, having gone through that, clearly, Drew is someone who’s a winner and he understands and appreciates what it takes.”

Then, Payton added, “Teddy’s the same way, and I think Taysom and Jameis [Winston] clearly would put that ahead of any individual statistic, too.”

That last point very much frames how Payton will make what’s a pretty big decision over the coming months. But before we get to that, know this: Hill and Winston (and maybe a rookie, which we’ll get to) will be, very much, in a competition through the spring and probably most of the summer too.

“Absolutely,” Payton said, adding more time for emphasis, “Absolutely. They’re not starting from zero. They’re both starting from 500 or 1,000 or 1,500. We’ve got information. Both of these guys we view as really good players. We’re glad they’re with us and in our building, and we’re excited to work with them.”

So then the next question is how Payton will make the decision, when decision time comes. The Saints’ coach was hesitant to answer that one at first, because he wants to maintain flexibility in what’ll be a detailed process. But he did, again, emphasize that serving the rest of the team will be paramount.

“The most important thing is leading this team, leading the offense to scores—protecting the football and scoring,” he said. “There are certain commandments that we think are real important. Both of them have shown great leadership skills. Both of them have been very unselfish. It’s been a really good room here for a while, even back when Teddy was in the room. The rest of it will take care of itself. Obviously, it’s on us to give these guys the best stuff that we feel like they can execute and allow them to play.”

Which is to say, the offense will be built with flexibility to play either guy. Hill and Winston are, stylistically, different players—the former being a more athletic type, the latter a more traditional, from-the-pocket quarterback. So Payton’s plan, in conjunction with coordinator Pete Carmichael and the offensive staff, will be to a lay a foundation that works for both quarterbacks, with tweaks to highlight each guy’s talents.

“None of this is laminated,” Payton said. “You’re moving in with plans, you’re moving in with featured groupings of plays, personnel groupings, and yet there’s always some adaptability to what you’re doing. And that can be week-to-week also, throughout the season.”

But one important thing to remember, which repeatedly came up organically from Payton, is that the Saints believe they remain in a place to win, and win now—which is pretty logical, considering a string of strong drafts has the team riding a streak of four straight NFC South titles, and even withstanding some of the cap bleeding they had to do this offseason.

“It’s a young team,” Payton said. “We’re just getting to that [2017] draft class, the [Alvin] Kamaras, the [Marshon] Lattimores, Marcus Williams and [Ryan] Ramczyk. When you have a draft class like that, it’s significant. It’s an injection into your team. The challenge then is how do we afford, within the framework of the cap to pay these players, to negotiate with these guys. But it’s a young team.”

That viewpoint is why, when I asked if the team’s immediate championship aspirations changed at all with Brees’s retirement, Payton quickly and definitively responded: “Absolutely not.”

And while we’re on the draft, there shouldn’t be any ruling out the Saints adding to their quarterback competition there. Thanks to an influx of comp picks, New Orleans went from hurting a little on the draft capital front a month ago to, now, being in a healthy situation. They have four picks in the first three rounds and eight picks overall. Add that to a roster without many glaring hole, and the flexibility is there to take another QB, if one Payton likes slides into New Orleans’s lap.

To bring life to how he’s viewing it, Payton used an analogy connected to when he and his three siblings went through their parents’ belongings to divvy them up—and how different things had different value for different reasons. And how maybe there’d be something you really like, and want, even though you already have something like it.

“Well, when it comes to the draft, same way, you’ve gotta grade and not be afraid of drafting on top of strength,” he said. “When you put the final grades on these quarterbacks, we’ve been close to drafting quarterbacks before, we have drafted later-round quarterbacks. A lot of it just falls on where you’re at, and what you’re seeing in the value of the player in that round.”

That said, part of planning ahead for Brees’s departure, from the start, was having potential successors in-house before Brees reached for his coat and started heading for the door. That way, everyone knows what they’re getting themselves into and, as Payton said, there are guys competing for the job who aren’t starting from zero—and are still in New Orleans because it’s where they want to be.

“At the time [we signed Jameis], we’d gotten to see a lot more of Taysom, and we’ve seen him now in a starting role, at least for four games,” Payton said. “And then we had that exposure to Jameis. And I’ve said this, that was really good for us, and equally good for him to evaluate us, to evaluate our system, our culture, all those things. He had a handful of other opportunities both last year and this year, and now each side is trying to put their best foot forward.”

Even better, both those guys got to see where Brees set the bar, and as such know the expectation within the organization for the position they play.

“And it’s not only that, it’s a schedule, it’s a work ethic, it’s preparation, it’s all of those things, tempo,” Payton said. “When you’re around someone over a period of time, you begin to learn certain things where you’re like, Man, that’s pretty good. And so I think it’s an education, and it’s been an education for both those guys.”


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And that brought us back to maybe the most interesting part of the whole thing to me. Payton is 57 now. After this year, his 16th as Saints coach, he’ll have spent twice as much time in charge in New Orleans as one of his greatest mentors, Bill Parcells, spent anywhere. His résumé should put him in play for the Hall of Fame one day, and his place in Louisiana sports history is secure.

But to me, this feels like one of those opportunities where a quarterback guru like Payton can separate himself. So I asked Payton, flat out, if the challenge in front of him, with all due respect to Brees’s greatness, gives him a good jolt.

“It’s the next chapter,” Payton said. “I don’t know if it invigorates me. I think that applies a little more to the challenge … I’m gonna tell you what invigorates you, what challenges you is when you find out your running back room is out for the game against Carolina—the whole running back room. You’re upset. You’re frustrated, like, Holy cow, not just Kamara, all the halfbacks, the fullback. And now you’re moving the tight ends on third down. That’s a challenge, winning a game like that.

“A transition like this, man, it happens at so many other positions. It’s obviously more significant because it’s QB and because it’s someone like Drew. But I think it’s part of what we do, and immediately your focus shifts, which it should, to the next thing, which is the players you have on the field. And the players that are on your roster. …

“You take [Jonathan] Vilma, you take Jahri Evans, guys that had been here quite a while. It’s different, they’re not quarterbacks. And yet you get so conditioned to move on. We’re not there yet because we haven’t any practices, we haven’t turned around with something coming up where we’re like, That’s something Drew would’ve handled. We haven’t had that moment yet. I’m sure there’ll be a few of them. But it’s a young team, that’s what’s exciting.”

And therein, Payton conceded that, sure, the separation process has a few more steps to it.

“I think it’ll be different the first time we have an OTA, the first time we have a minicamp or the first time we get into training camp,” Payton said. “It hasn’t hit you quite yet because you haven’t done anything football-related. You’re involved in draft work, free-agent work. I’m sure there’ll be a couple stages to it where it’s the first meeting, first practice and so on.”

There’s also been, to be sure, a need to pay respect to what was just completed, too. One piece of that for Payton, in March, was sitting down—“pencil to paper”—and assembling a statement that captured everything he and his quarterback have accomplished together over the last decade and a half.

But the cool thing about this is that, because of how the Saints set it up, Brees’s impact figures to continue to be felt in his own workplace, and through the quarterbacks with whom Brees just got done playing.

Which, funny enough, is exactly why Brees didn’t need Payton to update him on how the effort to replace him was going.


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THE NFL'S NEW PLAN ABROAD

Amid all the hubbub over the move to a 17-game season, some significant developments on where the NFL is going internationally took place at last week’s (virtual) owners meeting. To cover that, I jumped on Zoom Saturday morning with Chris Halpin, the league’s chief strategy and growth officer, and Brett Gosper, the ex-CEO of World Rugby, whom the NFL hired a couple months ago to be the NFL’s head of Europe and U.K.

It was a fascinating discussion about where the sport’s going, and we’ll distill it down here for you, because there’s a lot to get to.

• It sounds like the NFL has inched back a little off its old aggressive approach to putting a team in London full-time, but not for a lack of trying. As Halpin sees it, there are five elements needed to make it happen: a fan base that will sustain it and sell out games, a stadium, local government support, working football logistics and, most importantly, an owner who wants to move.

Halpin sees the NFL as having the first three things in London. He adds: “I guess it’s the Serenity Prayer—the things I can control and the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference. At the end of that, there’s a lot we can’t control.” On top of having to have, you know, a team to do it with, the logistics, of course, present a challenge—and are workable in the regular season, perhaps, but difficult in the playoffs.

“The big issue is the football logistics and there’s been extensive work done on it,” Halpin said. “That’s where we work with the competition committee. We’re going to continue to evolve that. That’s going to keep working forward. … London checks the boxes in pretty much all the areas. But the football logistics are the biggest one.”

• Germany’s happening, the question is going to be when. The NFL’s got a solid television partner there (ProSieben), and Germany’s got Europe’s largest economy and at least four suitable stadiums (Berlin’s Olympic Stadium; Munich’s Allianz Arena and Olympic Stadium; and Frankfurt’s Deutsche Bank Park, formerly Commerzbank-Arena) in massive markets that would need just standard work to be NFL ready.

What’s left to do for the NFL is to strike deals there.

“What we’re looking to do is look at the viability and really the best choice of market and partner to manage games in Germany,” Gosper said. “That could be as early as 2022. No decisions yet, but we’ll try to reach a conclusion of that project either late this year or early next year to be able to actually announce where we’re going, if we’re going to Germany at that point in time. So I think once we engage in that process it’s a pretty strong indication that’s what we want to be for one of the games.

“And there’s already some interested partners showing themselves even before we’ve begun the process. So it’s very exciting.”

Germany, per Halpin and Gosper, posted an average-minute-audience of about 600,000 for NFL games last year on ProSebien, which is better than NHL numbers domestically in the U.S., and got an AMA of about 2 million for the Super Bowl (which started after midnight local time). That number doubled the U.K. number. And NFL research showed that 17% of the crowd for the Raiders-Seahawks game at Wembley in 2018 came from Germany, which is pretty staggering.

“And 6,000 inbound from Germany each time we play in the U.K.,” said Gosper. “It’s quite extraordinary. There’s nothing quite like that in sport in the U.K. You get that in rugby—a lot of French and Continentals coming in. But it’s quite unique, that many Germans coming into the U.K.”

• And the plan is to have four international games as the baseline, which is why the requirement was added for each team to have to “host” at least one game over the next eight years (4 x 8 = 32!). Two are contracted out to be played at Tottenham in London, and one each will be earmarked for Germany and Mexico. Owners also empowered the NFL to go forward with games elsewhere in Europe and the Americas.

So beyond England, Mexico and Germany, where will that be? The next two in line for the NFL are Canada and Brazil. How soon? As I’ve heard it, part of the issue for both is that there aren’t stadiums in place that make sense for the NFL right now—with Canada clearly having the fan base to support games there and Brazil moving in that direction.

• Asia and Australia, at this point, are further off in the distance, and logistics, again, rear their head on this one.

“You’ve got the time zones working for you [in Europe], so the teams can leave Sunday night and be back in their city Sunday,” Halpin said. “I mean, even the West Coast teams can get out of London, leave London at 8:00 and get in very late and sleep on the plane, but get in late Sunday night to L.A. and San Fran. It’s such a different ball of wax with the Pacific time zones and 16-hour trips.

“So we’re continuing to build. We have really good activation in Australia. Our sports betting partnership, for example, works great. We’ve got great media partners also across Asia. So yeah, I’d say I’d say for Asia Pacific, it’s going to be media, digital engagement.”

• And then here’s one that I missed last week: The NFL’s going to allow teams to start to sell themselves to other countries, separate from the league’s efforts. As the rules stand, teams can’t sell outside of their home marketing area (a 75-mile radius surrounding their city) in the U.S. or elsewhere. Well, starting now and going through September, the league’s going to take applications for teams to claim countries as international “home markets.”

Teams will have to have a detailed plan for what they’ll do (marketing, youth outreach, partnering with soccer teams, etc.), and why they should be awarded the market. The goal, Halpin says, is to, over time, assign about six teams to the league’s major international markets (they’ll be bidding on entire countries, not parts of it), and have those teams’ efforts complement one another.

“So Team A will come forward and say, ‘I will have this level of player trips, I’ll do a youth football camp, I’ll co-market with the local soccer team or whatever, and I may build a facility there,’ ” Halpin said. “‘I can then sell sponsorships so I can extend my airline or hotel partnerships to Germany, so they can generate revenue to cover those investments and in a host of other things.’ All we care about on this is fan development. This isn’t dollars and cents [for the league office] in the grand scheme of things.”

The premise is that no one gets connected to a sport on a deep level out love for a league itself—it’s about teams and players. And this will allow the teams to sell to those countries, with the idea that it’ll benefit everyone. “Then you get even more people who are connected to the NFL by a specific team or player,” Halpin said. “That helps the 32 in growth, media consumption, etc.”


Now, there is one thing that should be addressed here before we move on—and that’s what looks like the NFL pulling back on the U.K. a little bit. And there might be truth to it in time. The NFL wants to keep playing more games there but, based on the current structure, it’ll need teams volunteering to go to even match the number it’s had in the past (four). And for the British fan, that might be a tough pill to swallow.

But really, this was part of the plan all along. The NFL’s old international chief, Mark Waller, focused on London in large part to try and build a working model that could be replicated elsewhere, and it has been in Mexico and now will be in Germany. So more than taking away from London, this is more an effort to spread the wealth.

“It’s completely the model that Mark Waller championed as he shut down the World League and pivoted to playing live games,” Halpin said. “It really works and drives fandom, showing them the best product up close and creating that impact, that commitment.”

And if you look at Germany’s history with the sport (including Bjoern Werner, Sebastian Vollmer, Markus Kuhn and Jakob Johnson), it’s not too difficult to figure out why that’s the next frontier.


Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields (1) throws the ball against Clemson Tigers in the third quarter during the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl

SCOUTING FIELDS'S PRO DAY

Tuesday was really the grand finale for the big quarterback pro days—Ohio State’s Justin Fields took centerstage, while Alabama’s Mac Jones got his second crack at throwing for scouts—and, really, it’s tough to be the one who goes last.

By the time all head coaches and GMs got to Columbus for the Buckeyes’ pro day, and there were a bunch there, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence (Feb. 12), North Dakota State’s Trey Lance (March 12), Jones (March 23) and BYU’s Zach Wilson (March 26) had checked their boxes for teams, and that left Fields with more to lose than to gain, really. And facing that head on explains what made his strength coach at OSU, Mickey Marotti, most proud last week.

Fields ran his 40, threw for scouts, added throws to his script on demand from NFL folks in attendance, and, as Marotti saw it, shined through all the pressure that was on him.

“It’s a testament to who he is and how he prepares and his competitive spirit,” Marotti said over the phone the next day. “And with who he was as a player here, it didn’t surprise me. It didn’t. Because he did that every day. I told him, and a lot of our team, a lot of his teammates would attest to this, during some of those times where we were paused or shut down his energy and his attitude motivated and inspired me. There were times, like, ‘Man, what are we doing? We don’t even know if we’re playing a game.’ I was just … it was hard.

“It was hard to come to work. And we were just kind of in no man’s land. And he came in with that same fire, like we’re playing the Super Bowl the next day. And every day it was like that. I’d say, ‘Dude, you inspire me, man. I’m coming to work because of guys like you.’ So his performance did not surprise me.”

For the record, Fields ran in the low-to-mid 4.4s, even with a little stumble, on one of his attempts at the 40. But maybe more impressive was what transpired on his other attempt. Watch this video.

On the 40 above, you can see Fields get tripped up, start laughing and cruise through the finish line. One scout I talked to still had him at 4.59 on that one. So that’s what we’re dealing with here.

Here, then, is a little more from evaluators who were there on how Fields did overall at the pro day.

NFC offensive coach: “He lit it up. It’s what I expected. That stuff’s not an issue. The physical stuff has always been there. He made a lot of really good throws. Everyone tries to do the movement stuff at these now, sometimes too much, but he really made a great throw running to his left. And weighing 227, running a 4.4 is impressive. … It was outstanding; for what it was. He was outstanding. … Progressing through reads is not the issue with him, it’s more when someone is open, he takes an extra hitch to throw it, and I’m not sure how much he plays on time, which goes back to I’m not sure how great his vision is. But he throws the s--- out of the ball.”

NFC exec: “I think he was good, don’t get me wrong. But a lot of people were raving about it, and I didn’t see that. I thought some balls his receivers had to work for or adjust to. His off-platform throws didn’t look quite as good, but off-platform throws that are scripted aren’t really off-platform throws, which is probably why it looked a little awkward. But it was a good workout. I thought he was 2A/2B coming in, and I walked out of there not thinking any different. … To me, it’s him and Zach Wilson as the second quarterback … Both those guys are a little more dynamic than Lance and Jones. Lance has good upside. Justin is just very special. That dude, his 40, he clicked his heels, almost fell over, and still ran 4.4. … Just athletically superior.

AFC exec: “I thought it was very similar to what you saw on film. He threw it well and threw the deep ball really well. Overall, he did a good job throwing it. … To me, it was a standard pro day, and he just buzzed through it. It’s the same stuff, and it matches who he is. We’ve got a lot of film on him, and he’s throwing on air here. I think the guy has starting NFL talent, all the arm, athleticism and he can extend plays like you’d want him to. The days of being a statue back there are gone, and Justin’s got the ability both to throw from the pocket and extend plays. … And of course, he ran really well.

It’ll be interesting to see how all this plays out. Being an Ohio State alum, I may have a little bias, but I do know what I watched the last two years (I went more in-depth on this in my Thursday column), and that’s a tough, competitive uber-athlete with an obscene ceiling as a player.

Now, the common refrain you’ll hear from his coaches in Columbus on the holes in his game, and there are some, is that Fields just needs to more reps, as someone who doesn’t have the volume of starts that Lawrence does and was a multisport athlete in high school.

And that, to me, remains what’s so interesting about this quarterback class. It’s a really good, but somewhat inexperienced one. Lawrence will go first, and he started 36 games at Clemson (going 34–2). Wilson will likely go second, and he started 28 games at BYU (19–9, 11–1 last year). From there, Fields started just 22 games at Ohio State (20–2), while Jones (16–1) and Lance (17–0) started 17 apiece at Alabama and North Dakota State, respectively.

That means just two of five have more than two full college seasons of starts under their belts—which means these guys, more than anything, just need reps, so they can see more and grow through their mistakes.

(We’ve got one other thing on Fields in relation to all this coming, from his training, which we moved over to this afternoon’s MAQB. So keep an eye out for that.)


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TEN TAKEAWAYS

I think Mac Jones’s superpower, since that’s the question a lot of people have asked about him, is his consistency. I also think that’s probably what showed up most from his first pro day to his second, and even within his second. And proof really came in how Jones and his QB coach David Morris worked Heisman winner DeVonta Smith into the mix. Initially, Morris and Jones had two different scripts for the pro day, one with Smith and the other without. Smith got some work in with Jones two Saturdays ago, three days before the second pro day, and on Monday teams were notified that Smith wasn’t planning to work out. Jones, Morris and Jones’s long-time coach Joe Dickinson didn’t even bring the script with Smith incorporated with them to campus on Tuesday. So when Smith decided he was going to work out after all? “Me and Joe Dickinson got in the huddle, talking to Mac, and he said, ‘Let’s just roll with it,’” Morris said. “It was, ‘Whatever he wants to run, let’s roll with it. … I think it says a lot about their relationship to each other.” Smith—as you might remember from our reporting a couple months ago—told teams that asked point-blank at the Senior Bowl that he’d take Jones over his former Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa, and the reasons why were on the display from there. Jones went from throwing 58 balls to throwing 68 with Smith’s off-script work woven in. And for those who knew what was happening, it checked another box in the consistency column for a dude who connected on 77% of this throws as a redshirt junior last year, in that more throws only proved the point. “He would’ve done four pro days if they asked,” Morris said. “He has nothing to hide. His greatest gift is his consistency, and you’ll see it everywhere: practice, games, pro day. Not too many balls are off with him.” And in a way, getting to show that off the script only matched up with what Jones wanted to show in the first place through his two pro days, which was that he could create when things aren’t perfect (e.g. off-platform throws, throws on the run). And while I can tell you there’s plenty of good, healthy disagreement between scouts and coaches across the league on what Jones will be in the NFL, there’s certainly no lack of information out there on him now.

I don’t believe many people know who the Niners are taking third. And I’ll punctuate that point by giving you this nugget: When Kyle Shanahan went to assistant coaches Mike McDaniel, Rich Scangarello and Bobby Slowik, among others, for assessments on the quarterback class in January and February, as he and John Lynch mulled a big move up the draft board, he didn’t share his own evaluation with those guys. And I don’t want anyone to take that as discrediting what anyone who’s close to Shanahan, like Chris Simms, says, because Simms, for one, has a really good read on what Shanahan wants in a quarterback. I just know the Niners have efforted to keep this one very close to the vest, even though they don’t necessarily have to anymore. If you’re asking me, Mac Jones might make the most sense for Year 1, Trey Lance for Year 4 and Fields as the player with the most talent of the three for Shanahan to mine. But that’s just me.

Eyes are on Atlanta and Detroit now. The first three picks are spoken for. And that leaves the Falcons as a team to watch—one that’s going to have to make a decision on its pick with some complicated finances at quarterback (due to all Matt Ryan’s restructures), and a team in need of cheaper young talent with which to surround its core. My guess has been that the Falcons will stick at No. 4 and take a quarterback, because I don’t think they want to count on picking that high again and this happens to be a really strong year at the position. But I do know they’re open to the idea of trading the pick and have had exploratory talks with other teams on a deal that would have someone else moving up to No. 4. And Detroit’s another team I’ve been told to keep an eye on—since they can give other teams an opportunity to jump Carolina and Denver in the quarterback line (though that’d more likely be a draft-day deal, since you can’t totally be sure who’ll be there at No. 7 right now). I’m told they’ve got a cluster of players ID’d they’d be good with at seven, but are open to doing a deal to move down as well. What about Cincinnati and Miami? The former’s been conservative in moving first-rounders over the last 25 years, and will likely have its pick of a top target (Kyle Pitts/Ja’Marr Chase) or a bodyguard for Joe Burrow at No. 5; and the latter went through a lot to stay in the top six within the context of its trade with San Francisco (though it’s hard to rule moves out with Chris Grier pulling the trigger for the Dolphins).

The quarterbacks weren’t the only guys to help themselves at pro days the last few weeks. With the pro day schedule winding down (Texas Tech’s is Tuesday; Ball State, Houston, Rice and UAB’s are on Thursday), I figured I’d ask around for some guys who are just below the elite level in this year’s draft class (i.e. the Jaycee Horns of the world) who could get a boost from how they performed.

Stanford CB Paulson Adebo: A 2020 opt-out, Adebo had the kind of day he needed to—moving great in drills for a bigger corner and flashing top-shelf ball skills.

BYU OL Brady Christensen: A three-year starter in Provo, Christensen got the attention of scouts, even with Wilson showing out, with freakish testing numbers (a 10' 4" broad jump!).

Michigan WR Nico Collins: The 2020 opt-out crushed it in position drills and ran his 40 in under 4.45 seconds at 6' 4" and 215 pounds. His position’s a crowded one. So this helps.

Kentucky CB Kelvin Joseph: Questions on the LSU transfer most related to character, but some wondered about his speed at 6' 1" and 193 pounds. Wonder no longer: 4.34.

LSU WR Terrace Marshall: He was always going to be overshadowed by Ja'Marr Chase this week, but he also ran in the 4.3s on scouts’ watches and looked smooth in position drills.

Louisiana RB Elijah Mitchell: There were questions on Mitchell’s speed. After running in the low 4.3s, lots of teams are going to take a second look at his tape.

Texas A&M QB Kellen Mond: Nothing overwhelming here, Mond just threw it accurately and his arm strength checked out. A high 4.5/low 4.6 40 time confirmed he can move.

Northwestern CB Greg Newsome: Just a really solid football player who was thought to have athletic limitations … who posted a 4.3 that gives him a shot to sneak into the end of Round 1.

Penn State edge Jayson Oweh: 6' 3". 246 pounds. 4.39 in the 40. Vertical of 34 inches. Broad jump of 10' 6". And, oh yeah, zero sacks allowed last year. Lots for teams to sort through.

Georgia LB Monty Rice: A hyper-productive collegiate player, the question with Rice always linked to his ability to move. So running in the 4.5s makes him a solid Day 2 guy.

Florida State CB Asante Samuel Jr.: Samuel’s always been good athletically. That he measured at just over 5' 10" gave some teams the feeling he won’t only be a slot corner in the NFL.

Notre Dame TE Tommy Tremble: Seen as more of a blocking type, Tremble’s testing figures, punctuated by a 4.59 in the 40, and hands in drills showed potential to be more than that.

Ohio State LB Pete Werner: Werner had really solid all-around testing numbers. Add those to Werner’s college versatility and production, and he’s looking at going on Day 2.

One comment from Patriots owner Robert Kraft flew under the radar this week, but really shouldn’t have. Here it is: “In the end, if you want to have a good, consistent, winning football team, you can’t do it in free agency. You have to do it through the draft. I don’t feel we’ve done the greatest job the last few years and I really hope, and I believe, I’ve seen a different approach this year.” That Kraft wants better draft results, when you look at how the Patriots have done of late, isn’t a surprise. But a different approach? What does that mean? Well, in the past, Bill Belichick’s had a very closed-off process and, in his defense, for the most part it’s worked. But it’s also led to personnel people feeling like they were actively cut out where other teams’ people weren’t. In essence, the Patriots’ scouts would do their jobs through the season and then hand off the process to Belichick and the coaches in February, with only a couple guys on the personnel side really consistently involved from that point forward. Where most teams had draft meetings with their scouts in February and April, the Patriots would have theirs with scouts in December and February. And at that early point, it’s tough to set the board, with two and a half months of information still to come. So from there on, the scouts would just be gatherers, which frustrated plenty of them, and played into the exodus in the scouting department the last few years. It also, as some saw it, led to misses like N’Keal Harry in 2019. Harry killed his 30 visit that spring and had a college coach, Todd Graham, who was close to Belichick. In that end, without more input from scouts who preferred Deebo Samuel and A.J. Brown, the coach wound up leaning on his own experience with Harry, rather than the red flags his scouts planted, and lost a golden opportunity to fill a hole on his roster. And that brings us back to what Kraft said: The Patriots have employed a “different approach” this year. My sense right now is that has translated inside the building in a more collaborative Belichick, who’s listening not just to his top guys, Dave Ziegler and Eliot Wolf, but also those rising through the organization, like national scout Matt Groh. Now, I don’t know if it’ll change the Patriots’ luck on draft day. Or if Belichick will pull back on it when we get there. But for now, it feels like a good positive step for them.

This coming week is a big one for teams, with the “medical combine” set to start on Wednesday in Indianapolis. It’ll give the Jaguars a chance to get an update on Trevor Lawrence’s surgically repaired (left) shoulder, and everyone a shot to see how the recoveries of players like Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle (broken ankle) and Virginia Tech CB Caleb Farley (back surgery) are coming. In all, 150 prospects are invited, and it’s a very important checkpoint for teams that would usually get all the medical information they need through the February combine, annual April medical recheck and allotment of 30 in-house visits for which they could fly players in. This is really going be the only shot, with teams allowed to send two people (team physician and an orthopedic specialist) in for the “event.” Even tougher will be assessing guys who are banged up and not invited. Those who were on the combine list in February but aren’t going to Indy this week can get, through the league, virtual physicals. But teams are going to be leery of nicked-up players that their doctors can’t examine, and that certainly could have an effect on the draft stock of certain guys.

And once we get past that medical combine, it’ll be interesting to see how the Jets move forward with Sam Darnold. GM Joe Douglas’s preference throughout has been to get all the information on Wilson, Fields and Lance before making a final decision on what to do with the former third pick. I do think there’s a price point at which Douglas would’ve already moved Darnold (maybe a second-round pick, plus a player or lower-round pick), and obviously that price hasn’t been met. But they also haven’t aggressively tried to move Darnold either. So could getting the chance to close the file on Wilson, Fields and Lance (and Jones, too) prompt the Jets to start looking for a trade partner? Maybe. Or they could wait until the draft, like the Cardinals did with Josh Rosen, who was dealt the day after Arizona took Kyler Murray with the top pick. Which could help the Jets, in that at that point it’s certainly possible teams like Carolina or Denver may have struck out on landing quarterbacks in the draft.

I’d encourage any Texans fans to listen to my podcast with Nick Caserio last week. I’ve been open on my feelings about Houston: I wasn’t a huge fan of the road they took to get there, but I think they absolutely got their GM hire right, and I think you’ll see why if you check out that interview. And I’d add to what he said to me on the Deshaun Watson situation and tell you now that I think the Texans’ tone is changing with other teams on the idea of dealing the quarterback (until recently, Caserio privately told teams, “You can ask about anyone but the quarterback.”). So could a trade be done before Watson’s legal situation is resolved? For most teams, it’d be tough to get owner sign-off, but there would be a way to make a fair deal if someone was willing to go forward with acquiring Watson. And that would be by making future picks involved in the deal contingent on Watson suiting up and playing. Now, I don’t necessarily think that’s likely at this point, especially with a criminal investigation starting. But I’m also not ruling it out altogether.

I like the idea of the NFL allowing single digit numbers for back-seven players on defense and all skill-players on offense. Mostly, I feel that way because I think it looks cool (I was a high school defensive end who wore No. 4). And I also get that Chiefs GM Brett Veach pushed the change because, between retired numbers and expanded practice squads, K.C. flat-out ran out of numbers last year (I’ve also been told that Veach likes the way single digits look, too, like a lot of players do). But a buddy of mine did give me something to think about on this, something I hadn’t really thought about: This could be an anti-offense change. Allowing for linebackers to wear low numbers, and become less distinguishable from defensive backs, would make it harder for quarterbacks, and offenses in general, to ID guys presnap, which could lead to more free runs at the passer or mix-ups in protection. That, of course, flies in the face of most changes we’ve seen in the NFL over the years. And yes, the more liberal numbering system works in college and high school, but there’s less substitution and specialization at those levels, making it less of an issue. All of which has left me just a little torn on the idea of this. Which, again, I really like on paper.

Aaron Rodgers doesn’t say stuff by mistake. So I think when he says something, like he did this weekend on ESPN, we should listen. We should also hear what he isn’t saying, and look for motives, because basically that’s what he’s suggesting we do by carrying himself like this. Asked by Kenny Mayne if he wants to be a Packer for life, he responded, “I don’t know that a lot of that’s in my hands.” That, of course, doesn’t answer the question, but it does advance the idea that he might not be against the idea of playing elsewhere down the line. Which only puts the pressure back on his team to make things right around him. Which I think has been his motivation for answering question this way going back to January. At the very least, this was another opportunity to kill a story line that’s been a pain in the ass for his bosses, and he very clearly passed on that opportunity.


SIX FROM THE SIDELINES

1) I’m definitely excited to see Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs take the floor one last time Monday night before he heads off to the NBA. And that shot on Saturday night? I never thought I’d see another in an NCAA tourney that would top Christian Laettner’s turnaround jumper against Kentucky in ’92 (I was 12, and the pass from Grant Hill was pretty spectacular, too). I think Suggs’s shot did it (based on the degree of difficulty). But the sequence, with Hill’s pass and the fact that Duke would’ve lost if Laettner missed, might swing it back the other way.

My very official Twitter poll was about as close as Saturday’s game.

2) Suggs is a pretty good all-around athlete too. He was actually a four-star quarterback prospect, carrying offers from Georgia, Iowa, Iowa State, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Ohio State. Of course, I’m sure they all knew the score. Per 247 Sports, Suggs was the 384th-ranked football prospect in the U.S., giving him a shot, but not a sure one, at the NFL. In hoops, he was ranked 11th nationally. And, as it turns out, he’ll only need a year at Gonzaga to cash in his ticket to the NBA.

3) My big takeaway from the situation with the MLB All-Star Game and Georgia voting laws is pretty simple: I’m sick of politicians using the law to wage war against each other, or for their parties, or to rile up those who are for or against them, rather than letting right and wrong govern their decision-making. The election was in November. Get over it.

4) Baseball season’s over in Boston already. And before they could get past 10% capacity in the stadium, no less! (If this keeps up, they’ll be begging for 10% in a few months.)

5) Fun college football name to watch: D.J. Uiagalelei. He’s the designated successor to Trevor Lawrence, who succeeded Watson (with a dash of Kelly Bryant in between), which means Uiagalelei won’t be lacking for expectations. But the 6' 4", 250-pound sophomore isn’t lacking for talent either (or a great story, with his dad having been a bodyguard to stars in Hollywood). Based on what you read out of there, it sure looks like Uiagalelei could give Clemson a real shot at producing a third first-round quarterbacks in a seven draft span. Uiagalelei will be draft-eligible in 2023.

6) The Last Blockbuster on Netflix brings back all kinds of memories. And it also made me wonder how my three kids would react if I brought them into a video store now.


BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

Morris passed this along and mentioned the level of detail here: Watch how Jones moves his head to simulate plays. Also, you can see some twitch in how he moves in the pocket, which fits into the better-athlete-than-you-think (ex-tennis player!) category.

And it’s not like it was a short overlap for those guys either. On top of the fact NFL Update here lays out on Samuel, Brady and Joe Horn were in the league together for eight years, and Brady and Patrick Surtain Sr. were for nine years. Just bananas.

Flowers is a coaching agent now, and runs the QB Collective camp, but was also a teammate of Kyle Shanahan’s at Duke and an offensive assistant for him in Washington, so this is a decent fact to reference as to why offensive hires have gone the way they have of late.

Avery, throwing coach for a bunch of NFL quarterbacks (and who’s worked with Fields and now Lance), on the Gonzaga hoops star/2021 NBA lottery pick.

As we work our way back to normal, I figure we’ll probably keep getting reminders like this one. And that really sucks for St. Elmo, an Indy institution that was probably counting on this time to start making back all it lost. (This is where I encourage you to go buy some cocktail sauce off their site, like I did a few weeks back.)

So there’s definitely some truth here, but … I think the combination of Riley Reiff arriving from Minnesota, and the depth of the offensive line class in the draft at least allows the Bengals the flexibility to consider Chase over Penei Sewell at No. 5 (and if I had to bet right now, I’d say they’ll listen to Chase’s ex-teammate, Joe Burrow, and take Chase there).

I don’t understand how people can pull this off. But it also sort of shows that if you ever hear people act like offensive linemen are just big meatheads, you probably should assume they don’t have any clue about football. They’re probably the second-smartest position group in the sport, behind quarterbacks, because they have to be.

I could try and explain this to you … but it’s easy to leave it as an inside joke. (And no, this Mike didn’t have any say in the Dak Prescott deal.)

This is pretty good, but I think we can all agree that Twitter’s made April Fools’ Day so much worse (especially with vague jokes … looking at you, Nate Burleson!!)

Couldn’t be happier for Nick, and the success he’s had with neworleans.football. The guy grinded his ass to make this work—and he’s done an awesome job with his site.

Exactly my thoughts.

Good note from Peter. I didn’t know about this and will follow up on it at some point when things slow down a little bit—so stay tuned for that.

I immediately thought of how Urban Meyer made the same promise, and followed through the same way, after Ohio State won the national title in 2014. Which gives the NFL two 55-plus head coaches with championship ink.

Second inside joke of this edition of Best Of, and if you want to be in on it, the editor of this column—@mitchgoldich—is always happy to fill people in.


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Trevor Lawrence is still the best player in the draft. And I’m just giving everyone that reminder, because it does feel like he’s been forgotten as we debate the other guys.

The best way to remember what we’re dealing with here? Well, I’ll put it like this: If Lawrence wasn’t in this year’s draft, I have no idea who’d be coaching the Jags right now.