MMQB: How New Chargers Coach Brandon Staley Is Building Team Culture Virtually

What the first-time coach learned from Sean McVay and the Rams that he can take to his new team. Plus, why the Panthers traded for Sam Darnold, rule proposals on the table this week, Justin Fields's second pro day and more.
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Chargers coach Brandon Staley came prepared with material for Thursday’s meeting with his loosely organized leadership council—still just three months into the job, the new boss picked about 16 guys based on either their NFL experience or standing on the roster—and the team’s biggest-ticket acquisition of 2021 thus far quickly wound up on the receiving end of it.

Corey Linsley, fresh off seven seasons as a Packer, wasn’t actually on Jeopardy! himself last week. But he might as well have been when his old quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, called him out as the one teammate of his that he’d want to compete with on the game show.

“You’re famous this week!” Staley said on the Zoom.

From there, Staley gave veteran defensive tackle Linval Joseph crap about wearing a Chargers shirt into the meeting, saying he brought his apple for the teacher. And at one point, Derwin James mentioned working out with draft prospects nearby in Southern California, and the conversation turned to the star safety’s own assessments on players his team might be looking to add in a few weeks.

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“It was just normal ball conversation between players and coaches,” Staley told me Friday, driving north from his office in Orange County up to where his family’s still living, near Thousand Oaks (they’ll move down full-time in May). “It felt good. My takeaway is I felt like a real head coach for the first time. I told them that. I was like, ‘Guys, this is what I’ve dreamt about my whole life, to have this first meeting in front of you guys.’

“On draft day, when people walk across the stage, or they’re at their house, there’s so much emotion. People, they love the NFL draft, because you’re seeing dreams come true right before your eyes. Yesterday was that kind of dream come true for me.”

Of course, Staley never imagined it would happen this way, through a laptop from a head coach’s office sitting in a building that still has all the markings of the league’s year under COVID-19 protocols.

But this is where he is, and where everyone is with offseason programs in mid-April 2021. Those were supposed to start Monday, April 5 for new coaches. Then, the date was moved to April 12. Then, it got moved again to the 19th, which all along had been slated to be the day that teams with returning head coaches could start. So even if things go according to plan, and offseason programs do start next week, the head start new coaches get will be gone.

For now, Staley seems O.K. with that. He and his staff haven’t had any lack of things to do, and that first leadership council meeting, to him, was proof that the Chargers’ new coaches have made progress in one area that’s pretty important to him.

That “normal ball conversation” Staley referenced? It doesn’t happen unless you’ve at least gotten to know the guys a little.


We’re now 17 days from the 2021 NFL draft, but the draft is just one area we’re hitting on in this week’s MMQB. Inside the column, you’ll get …

• A deep look at the Sam Darnold trade, from Carolina’s perspective.

• A rundown on rule changes proposals and when you can expect voting on those.

• The two teams that are signed up for Justin Fields’s second pro day.

• How the second pro days for Fields and Trey Lance will be different.

• Fifth-year options!

… And a whole lot more. But we’re starting with offseason programs, and how a new coach is supposed to plan one in 2021.


Part of the dream, for any coach worth his whistle, of finally reaching the mountaintop and becoming a head coach is getting to address the players for the first time. And, yup, that was part of what was so cool about Thursday for Staley. But more so than just that, after saying a few words about the weeks to come, the 38-year-old, whose rise was admittedly meteoric, wanted to use the time he got with the leaders on his team to listen.

“I wanted their feedback, because in the Zoom world, what’s really vital, how you organize your meetings is a really important component to your success, and I know it because I had to install a brand new defense last year over the computer,” Staley said. “So I wanted to get everyone’s feedback, because I know how I did it last year, but I wanted to hear it from the players. Because they’re the ones who matter, their feedback’s what matters to me.”

And for the players to be honest and open, like he wanted them to be, there had to be a rapport there, the kind that showed up in the aforementioned tone of the conversation.

So there is, indeed, a box already checked.

One of the first things Staley did after his January hiring was make sure, through FaceTime, phone calls and text messages, to start relationship building with his players—while encouraging his new assistants, as they came aboard, to do the same. Some, he’s since gotten to meet in person, from high-end adds like Linsley (who came in to get his physical and sign his deal in March) to guys fighting for a role like Joe Reed (he met Reed after a workout this week).

“That part was awesome,” Staley said. “You get them right away, and everything’s moving pretty fast, but even if it’s just a two-, three-minute conversation, that can go a long way.”

Maybe that seems a little over the top, that a short text exchange could be that meaningful, but it really is central to how Staley’s approaching the first phase of building a team, under circumstances that are, even a year into the pandemic, pretty unusual.

Really, this for Staley is about showing the players that he and his coaches will be as invested in them as they’ll ask the players to be in the team—which is a more specific way of getting to the idea of buy-in. And his experience with one individual player last year 100% colored that approach for the coach, at a time when we were all still learning to work around COVID-19 and most of us were like kindergartners learning to use Zoom.

Rams star Jalen Ramsey was the first person whom Staley had a Zoom meeting with, after everything in Southern California got shut down. Staley’s says his wife Amy, who saw the stress, can confirm that getting it right seemed like the most important thing in the world at the time to then new defensive coordinator of L.A.’s other team. So he prepared, and prepared, and prepared, and by time he was done had a reel of plays from Florida State, the Jaguars and Ramsey’s first half-season with the Rams.

“Ninety plays,” Staley said. “Bump and run. Off man. Tackling. Effort. Playing in the slot. Going all the way back, and then giving him a vision for how he was going to play for us. And there was a lot of good things. There were some things where, Man, I know we can improve these, and we need to. And then, Hey, here’s where I see you fitting in for us moving forward. … I knew a lot of his college coaches and stuff, so I had a little bit of a head start with him. But I’m like, Man, I gotta nail this moment.”

And soon, as the conversation went through what Ramsey had done in the past, and what Staley would want to do with him in the future, the defensive coordinator went from teacher to pupil.

“I learned a lot about him,” Staley said. “I learned that he loves to be coached. I love how intense he is about his game, how aware he is about his game. He’s not a defensive guy, he’s just a ball guy. I learned in that meeting that he wanted to play, and move around, and I felt he could—I studied his game a little bit from Florida State, and saw him do it, playing star, money, corner. I knew he could do everything. And that’s how I saw him, as a matchup guy that we could utilize to our advantage.

“But I learned in that conversation that he wanted to do that. Like, he wants to do that and showcase himself that way. It was an awesome conversation. I think more than anything it showed, Hey, my coach has really been looking at my game, and he’s got a plan for me.”

With the investment then going both ways—Staley’s investing in making Ramsey his very best and, in turn, Ramsey’s giving Staley full buy-in—the results were obvious. The Rams had the best defense in football and Ramsey was one of the best players in football.

But on top of all the football memories from that talk, Staley also remembers having their conversation interrupted by his three sons coming into the room, and at one point Amy popped in too, all of which allowed for everyone to let their guard down a little bit and for the relationship building process to become easy. Which, in turn, facilitated the comfort level each guy had with the other when the discussion turned back to work.

“I will remember it always, because Jalen is a big reason why I got this opportunity,” Staley said. “I mean, he’s one of the biggest reasons. He means so much to me. I remember that experience really shaping me. So when I came here to the Chargers, talking to my coaches, I shared that with them, because if this is the way it’s gotta be, we need to do this with our guys. We need to. We must. It’s incumbent upon us to do this.

“And that’s what we’ve been doing.”


As the spring of 2020 wore on, Staley wound up settling into a comfortable routine, moving his office out to the casita adjacent to his family’s rented house north of L.A. and working out of his mom’s old rocking chair. But the intensity never let up.

“At the end of it, I was exhausted,” Staley said. “I gave that thing everything I had—ask my wife, she saw me yelling into a computer screen. … I thought it was kind of an amazing way to go through it.”

Faced with this year’s challenges, it’s also giving Staley a roadmap. We’ll get more into the ins-and-outs of this in the takeaways section below, but there’s still, a week away from the supposed start of offseason programs, a fairly wide range of potential outcomes on the horizon. The league could start Phase I next week and go forward with a COVID-adjusted business-as-usual plan. Or the offseason could be all virtual again.

For Staley, the good news is there’s less flying blind now than there was a year ago when he was cutting up all that tape and trying to incorporate it into the Zoom for Ramsey.

Ways to continue relationship building are, to be sure, the most important thing Staley’s taking with him from 2020. But it is by no means the only thing he learned that he plans to apply over the next two months, no matter what shape or form the offseason program takes.

Staley plans to emphasize consistent communication. Last year, working with a staff of defensive position coaches he didn’t know, he learned, again, the importance of everyone’s getting the same message.

“It was tying in two levels of communication to make sure we were connected, in terms of coaching these players,” he said. “To me, you get one shot with these guys. And if these players see you’re on two different pages, that’s not a good thing. It was paramount to get that right. So we met a lot in the morning as coaches before we actually Zoomed with the players, so we would be connected on what we were teaching. …

“And then when we got with our players, we still had time parameters, so we tried to make our lessons for the day, our teaching lessons, as specific and purposeful as possible.”

And that flows right into Staley’s plan to tailor the teaching to the players. Because in the early part of America’s Zoom era it was hard (really, for any of us) to know how much the person on the other end was retaining, Staley made a point of following back up with guys after teaching them something.

“I felt like what was a really winning edge—FaceTime, follow up with John Johnson, follow up with Ramsey, follow up with Micah Kiser and make sure that they got it,” Staley said. “Like, Hey, do you really have it?

A few months later, at the outset of camp, the benefits of that style of teaching were obvious.

“When we got to training camp, I knew we had done it right because right away we were up and running,” Staley said. “That’s when I knew we were gonna have a chance, I think Sean [McVay] would tell you the same thing. Defensively, we were up and running right away. And that’s a credit to our coaching staff with the Rams. All those defensive coaches are superstars.”

And while it did take round-the-clock work from Staley to get there, how McVay managed the players gave him another lesson to take with him—that, for those guys, more hours doesn’t always equal more production. Hearing that from McVay himself, a guy known for his maniacal work ethic, did surprise Staley a little. But it didn’t take long for him to see what his boss was thinking.

“We only went three days a week,” Staley said. “We did not want to wear those guys out, because we were at the beginning of that world. I think now it’s a little bit different. But I thought something we did well, we didn’t wear them out, where it’s overkill.”

The approach worked to the point where the mandated ramp-up coming out of the COVID-19 offseason, and going into training camp wasn’t just tolerated, it was embraced by the Rams’ coaches and, now regardless of whether it’s required or not, will likely be replicated by the Chargers—which is yet another sign that Staley’s focus is on making things right for the players first and foremost.

“What we learned that hopefully can be a positive is you don’t need to go 11-on-11, full speed, competitive to get something out of something,” Staley said. “What we learned in the acclimation period and ramp-up: You can get a lot accomplished without risking injury. It did take some time when we first got together, not very much, but I think had we been able to do some of that in the springtime—I’m talking about a ramp-up, acclimation type atmosphere—if we can do that, I think it’ll help the overall product.

“Because guys aren’t getting hurt, because you’re not going live, you’re just walking through, that’s something that could help.”


The other thing Staley recalls from last spring was how McVay had the staff “quality control” the offseason program at the end of it, first by side of the ball and then as a team, to try and see what they could take from it going forward that worked better than what they were doing in normal times. The idea then was probably that we’d be back to normal by now.

And obviously, we aren’t there yet.

So in one way, Staley’s notes from that time serve to frame what he’d want to do in any year from here on out. In another, they’re perfect to help him manage the continued uncertainty that the pandemic has created for 2021. Roll those two things into one, and that’s where Staley is as he works to creatively put together where the Chargers are headed next.

One idea already in the works is to create what he’s calling “The Situation Room” on Zoom, where the focus will be on situational football and high-level scheme discussion (“Where we’re bringing Chargers football alive together,” he said). The idea will be for everyone to learn together. Another is to have a speaker series, with people from football, sports in general, politics, business and religion coming on to address the players.

Then, there’s the idea that everyone needs to look inward too. To that end, Staley says now that most of the people he’s leaning on to adjust to being a head coach are the guys on his staff (coordinators Joe Lombardi, Renaldo Hill and Derius Swinton top the list), as opposed to his reaching outside the organization. And he’s also planning to have support staff from sports performance, strength and conditioning, mental health, athletic training, nutrition and P.R. address the players, to try and tie the guys in the locker room to the rest of the building.

“You’ve got all these people, our guys really have to meet them,” Staley said. “And in a virtual world, it really gets you farther from people. So that’s something I’m definitely going to do, so we can get that family atmosphere, that personal atmosphere.”

In turn, Staley believes the players will learn how many people are pulling in the direction of trying to get all those guys (90 now, 53 during the season) playing at the highest level they can—and that’s all the way down, from a coach assembling cutups like Staley did for Ramsey to someone working in the kitchen explaining the resources a player has there.

And that brings us right back to where we started: on that Thursday Zoom call, composed of 16 players, Staley, his coordinators, director of player engagement Arthur Hightower, team clinician Dr. Herb Martin, director of sports performance Anthony Lomando and strength coach Jonathan Brooks.

There, Staley got affirmation that the relationship building he’s looking for is coming along. The goal from here is for it to happen everywhere in that building—even if COVID-19 keeps everyone physically apart for a little while longer.

“It’s a big-time partnership,” said Staley. “And I’m gonna listen a lot. I’m gonna listen, I’m gonna learn about them as we’re going through this. [The work with Ramsey] was an example of that. And that’s what [Thursday] was about too, with our guys here.”

So as complicated as the pandemic has made all of this, what Staley’s trying to achieve at this point is remarkably simple. And you can count on this: It won’t change whenever the world does again.


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WHY THE PANTHERS MADE THEIR MOVE

In last week’s GamePlan, we gave you the A-to-Z on the Sam Darnold trade from the Jets’ perspective. So in the interest of equal time, I thought it was important to give you the same sort of look at the deal from the other side.

And really, there is one place where the stories match up perfectly: Both started with an important new hire coming from the NFC West on Jan. 14. That’s right, only a few hours separated the Jets’ striking a deal to make Robert Saleh their head coach, and the Panthers’ tabbing Seattle exec Scott Fitterer to be their new general manager. So that’s where Carolina’s quarterback pursuit began.

• The Panthers’ big swing for Matthew Stafford—an offer that included the eighth pick, a fifth-rounder and Teddy Bridgewater—fell short. From there, Fitterer and coach Matt Rhule started to reset at the quarterback position. Deshaun Watson was the biggest fish in the pond, but through January and February (before news broke of his legal situation), Texans GM Nick Caserio hadn’t shown, to any team, an appetite for even discussing a trade, telling them some variation of “You can ask me about anyone but the quarterback.”

• Darnold’s name first came up in February meetings, along with other potentially available quarterbacks, as the team worked through its offseason plan at all positions. Both Fitterer and Rhule had interesting background on Darnold—since Fitterer interviewed for the Jets’ GM job in the spring of 2019 and the Jets had made a run at poaching Rhule from Baylor a few months before that. The Jets had Rhule meet with Darnold, and it struck Rhule how Darnold seemed to have as good a handle of what it took to win as anyone, with all his questions centered on culture and team-building, rather than X’s-and-O’s. For his part, Fitterer remembered feedback from Jets owner Christopher Johnson, president Hymie Elhai and coach Adam Gase, and how each thought of Darnold as a person.

• Fitterer also had his own evaluation from Darnold’s time at USC, having written up the former first-team All-Pac 12 quarterback as an even-keeled guy beloved in the Trojans’ program, who consistently rose to the occasion when the stakes were high, and a very good athlete capable of making throws to every level of the field. Rhule and Fitterer’s subsequent look at Darnold’s tape showed flashes of what everyone saw in him at USC, where he could get outside the pocket and rip it to wherever he wanted.

• The initial phone call to the Jets was … interesting. Fitterer and Rhule called from director of player personnel Pat Stewart’s phone, since Stewart was closest with New York GM Joe Douglas. Douglas answered in a sort of ditzy voice—“Stu-ert?”—and Fitterer and Rhule were caught off-guard. Stewart wasn’t. It was an inside joke referencing the Stuart character on Saturday Night Live’s Californians skit. After the initial awkwardness, Douglas told the Panthers’ crew that he needed to get through the pro days for the top quarterback prospects in the draft and get medicals for all of them, but to stay in touch. And through natural conversation in the weeks to come, the Jets and Panthers did.

• Since the Jets and Panthers were among the teams to send full crews to the big quarterback pro days, Fitterer, Rhule and Douglas found themselves in the same place at the same time a bunch. But for a while, there wasn’t a ton to talk about. In fact, at Trey Lance’s March 12 pro day in Fargo, there wasn’t much communication between GMs, other than a quick hello.

• That changed on March 26 in Provo, Utah. That morning, Fitterer was standing next to 49ers assistant GM Adam Peters when Carolina PR chief Bruce Speight texted him that San Francisco had made a massive move up the board to land the third pick from Miami. Fitterer flashed the text to Peters, who flashed a smile back at him. (The Panthers had previously kicked around the idea of dealing up, but decided fairly early on that the price would be prohibitive for where they were in building the team.) As BYU QB Zach Wilson finished throwing, Fitterer found Douglas, asked about Darnold, and they agreed to talk during the week to follow, with both teams sending sizable groups to Columbus for Justin Fields’s Ohio State pro day.

• The Jets and Panthers talked again on March 29, the night before Fields was to throw, then lingered afterward in Ohio State’s field house to continue the conversation. By that Friday, April 2, both sides felt like a deal was close. They talked again on Saturday, paused on Easter morning, with more texts back-and-forth late on that Sunday afternoon. And on Monday morning, the final hurdles were being cleared.

• For the Panthers, based on how their draft board sets up and their needs, it was important to hold onto their slotted picks in the first (No. 8), second (No. 39) and third (No. 73) rounds. So the compromise, with the Jets asking for “a second-rounder plus,” was to have the two come in 2022. And initially, the concept Carolina was working off was to have two later 2021 picks as part of the deal, but the sides couldn’t quite make the terms work under those parameters. So Carolina moved the sixth-rounder it was offering this year down (Carolina has three sixth-rounders and gave the Jets the last one), and the 2021 fifth-rounder they were offering up to a fourth-rounder and into next year. That leaves the Panthers with seven picks in this year’s draft, which gives them a shot to fill needs and potentially move some picks to 2022 to replace those they just dealt away.

• The relationship between the Panthers and Teddy Bridgewater was already strained (trade rumors will do that), but Carolina’s doing its best to manage the situation now. Bridgewater has permission to seek a trade, and Rhule has left the door open to having Bridgewater back to compete with Darnold for the job. One important nuance here: $10 million of his $17 million base salary for 2021 is fully guaranteed, so there’s a ceiling for how big a pay cut Bridgewater would be willing to take to help Carolina facilitate a trade.

• Acquiring Darnold gives the Panthers a lot more flexibility with the eighth pick—but it does not preclude them from taking a quarterback. The 49ers’ deal certainly sparked the last set of talks between the Jets and Panthers on Darnold. All Fitterer and Rhule had to do was start to count the quarterback-needy teams in front of them to know the chance one they valued would fall to them had dwindled. And yet, if the right one gets to them, they’d likely still pounce. This just allows Rhule and Fitterer to be true to the board, with the ability to fill corner and tackle needs (and not press the QB need) there, and good players at those positions expected to be available when Carolina’s on the clock.

And tucked in there is the Panthers’ all-in approach to getting the quarterback spot right.

At first, it was an aggression to look for an upgrade in Stafford, even though Bridgewater was, for the most part, fine last year. In the middle, it was turning over every rock, from Watson to Darnold. In the end, it could mean overstocking the position a little, and if you look at Fitterer’s history it’s not hard to figure where he’d have gotten that idea.

Fitterer worked in Seattle for 20 years, was there for the duration of the Matt Hasselbeck era, and then saw how his boss, John Schneider, kept taking swings at quarterbacks. Seattle had Hasselbeck back for a year. The Seahawks dealt for Charlie Whitehurst and they signed Tarvaris Jackson. And then they inked Matt Flynn to relatively pricey deal in 2012, with Schneider having been a part of drafting Flynn in Green Bay in 2008.

At that point, most figured the Seahawks were done for that offseason at quarterback. But Schneider didn’t let his pride get in the way of his draft board—and he didn’t hesitate to take an intriguing, undersized QB prospect out of Wisconsin in the middle of the third round. That prospect, Russell Wilson, beat Flynn out to start in camp, and the rest is history.

History, clearly, that Fitterer is carrying with him.


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THIS YEAR'S POSSIBLE RULE CHANGES

Normally, at this juncture of the calendar, we’d have a full rundown on all the rule changes—what passed, what didn’t and what was tabled—for the year ahead. But with the annual meeting gone virtual again, the league split up its elements and is holding them piecemeal. The owners/business portion happened the last week of March. The on-field items ramp up this week.

Coaches and GMs will be together on a conference call on Wednesday to sort through all of the new rule proposals. Then, on April 21, the owners will have a call with those coaches and GMs, then formally vote on what’s been proposed.

And so you’re ready for that, I figured I’d lay out a few key things that’ll be up for discussion starting on Wednesday.

• Let’s start with maybe the most common-sense rule-change imaginable—the elimination of overtime in the preseason. The only reason I can think of that this hasn’t happened already is the NFL trying to position these exhibition games as something akin to what we see from September through February. And since the league has gone to 17 games, and positioned the move more as eliminating a worthless preseason game and reconfiguring the 20-game model, perhaps the jig is finally up on that.

• This hasn’t gotten a lot of attention, but could have an impact: There’s a rule-change proposal that would ban blocking below the waist beyond five yards past the line of scrimmage and two yards outside the tackle box. That’s a potentially massive change, since cut blocking on screens and downfield on big-gainers is common. (It also very much makes sense as a health-and-safety measure to protect defensive players.)

• Attaching a loss of down to the penalty for having a second forward pass from behind the line of scrimmage, or for a pass thrown after the ball returns behind the line, which makes sense with the amount of gadget plays in football now.

• Two proposals linking to Baltimore’s spot-and-choose overtime proposal (which we championed in the MMQB column last month), one of which is sudden death, another of which is done with a full timed overtime period.

• The Ravens’ booth umpire (Sky judge) proposal is in there too. All of you who are regulars around here should know where I stand on that one.

• Philadelphia’s proposal, again, to institute a fourth-and-15 (from the minus-25) alternative to the onside kick. It’s the third time the Eagles’ idea has been up for a vote. Last year, the owners wound up at a 16–16 deadlock on the rule. It takes 24 votes for any rule to pass, so this one was a ways off from being approved, but had come a long way from being soundly defeated in 2019.

• The Chiefs’ numbers proposal is up to be voted on too, and I’m sure most of you have seen the team social media accounts get into this one. It would allow everyone except offensive and defensive linemen to wear numbers from 1 to 49. I really do like the idea. But as we mentioned last week, there is another side to it, which is that it’d make it more difficult for offenses to ID blitzers, and could create more free runs at quarterbacks.

• And then, there’s the Bills’ proposal to move the hiring cycle back, to where candidates for GM, high-level personnel, head coach and coordinator jobs wouldn’t be able to interview until after the conference title games, and teams wouldn’t be able to hire guys into those roles until after the Super Bowl. That, obviously, would be a seismic shift in the way the NFL does business, and I’d imagine there’ll be robust debate over it on Wednesday.

So by this Wednesday, it’s possible there’s some way to figure which way the winds are blowing on each of these proposals. And by next Wednesday, we’ll have some answers.

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TEN TAKEAWAYS

I do think there’s one thing everyone should know about Darnold before we move on. Really, there’s a pretty simple explanation for why he played like he did the last couple years—and that boils right down to fit. I don’t really know how sold Adam Gase ever was on Darnold (he preferred Baker Mayfield and Josh Allen ahead of the 2018 draft, when he was still in Miami), and I do think the result of that was that the Jets never bent quite enough to make their system work for him the last couple of years. It’s easy to blame Gase for that, and some of it is on him. But it’s also on those doing the hiring in 2019, who by then had to know the player, and how he’d fit the coach he was about to work under. Fact is, Darnold was relatively raw coming out of USC, hadn’t had the classic quarterback training growing up in Orange County that a lot of others have (because he was a multisport athlete in high school) and played in a fairly simple system in college that allowed him to make the most of his athletic gifts. Coming to the pros, he simply wasn’t ready to run a complex system—and that’s not to say he wouldn’t eventually be able to get there. It was at the point where I know it was suggested to the coaches that they take line calls and “Mike” points off of him and give those responsibilities to the center, to try and get Darnold playing faster. And it never happened. That’s also why I think the Shanahan system is seen as a good fit for Darnold—because that system takes much of the mental burden off the quarterback. So now, as I see it, it’ll be on Panthers OC Joe Brady to tailor his scheme in a way that works for Darnold. And prioritizing getting Darnold playing fast again would be a good place to start.

Decisions on fifth-year options are looming in a very big way. And these decisions are different this year, in that the options are fully guaranteed (not just guaranteed against injury) the moment they’re exercised. So now, more than ever before, teams will have to declare where they stand with their first-round picks of three years ago. And when you’re really looking at it, you can see how strong the draft class was. It’s to the point where there’s a decent chance that only two players won’t have their options picked up (Josh Rosen is already off his drafting team and Saints pass rusher Marcus Davenport might be the other). Some will likely be extended soon (Josh Allen, Quenton Nelson), and maybe, like Raiders OT Kolton Miller, those deals will come before the teams have to pick up the options; others might have their situations complicated a little by injury (Derwin James, Leighton Vander Esch). But as always, the most interesting calls center on the quarterbacks. With the Darnold trade done, just three of the five quarterbacks taken in the first round in 2018 remain with the teams that drafted them. And we’re now going to find out where Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson stand with their franchises. Since the rookie wage scale was instituted in 2011, Year 3 has become the fork in the road for first-round quarterbacks with their teams—at that point, the team has to make a decision on whether to pick up the option, and whether to extend him. And history shows that if a quarterback isn’t extended after Year 3, he’s probably going to be gone soon thereafter.

• Of the 20 quarterbacks drafted in the first round between 2011 and ’17, eight earned extensions with their teams. Six of those eight happened after Year 3.

• Another, Cam Newton, signed his extension after the team picked up a fifth-year option, and he had to play out the fourth year of his rookie deal. And the outlier would be the deal Blake Bortles got, which came a year after his team declined his fifth-year option, which followed a surprising Jaguars run to the AFC title game.

• Of the 12 guys who didn’t get extended by the teams that drafted them, only Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota actually made it to Year 5, and they were gone after playing out their option years in 2019.

The call on Allen will be academic. On Jackson, a deal might be slightly more complicated. Mayfield, to me, sets up to be the really interesting one. But regardless of which way their teams decide to go, over the next couple months, we’ll get a pretty good picture on where they stand with their quarterbacks.

Going through the Darnold process was really good for the Jets’ new powerbrokers. Through it, Joe Douglas and his top lieutenants (Rex Hogan, Chad Alexander and Phil Savage) had a great shot to see up close what Saleh and his coaches value in players. “No doubt,” said Douglas, when we talked Wednesday. “Obviously, you’re excited about Robert. And then you’re excited about this great staff of hires and teachers he’s bringing in. And then you’re excited about the defensive scheme, guys attacking up front, getting off the ball and creating havoc on the D-line. And this offensive scheme, creating explosives in the run game and creating explosives off of that with the play-action pass and all the different route combinations they have. So you’re fired up about that. And then you get into these meetings, and there’s such a clear-cut plan. There’s such great teaching methods that they have in place. And just going through these conversations, it’s reinforced the excitement that you had when we made the hire. These are great guys, man. They have the vision and they have a plan and it makes your job easier from a personnel perspective when there is that clear vision in what they’re looking for—like, O.K., this is easy, we can find guys that are made of the right stuff. It’s been cool. It’s been really cool.” Obviously, a lot rides on what the quarterback taken second overall becomes (cough, Zach, cough, Wilson). But if the Jets hit on him? I think there’s real reason for optimism in Florham Park.

I think the second pro days for Justin Fields and Trey Lance are going to be really interesting. I’m told the tentative plan for both is to have the NFL folks there run the throwing sessions, rather than have their respective throwing coaches (John Beck and Quincy Avery) script the workouts. Which is definitely different, and will probably be more useful for the teams there. Fields’s is set for Wednesday, and Lance’s is a week from Monday. And Fields’s workout, at least for right now, is set to be closed to the media (outside of OSU’s in-house video people), so teams that want to see it will have to make the trip. As of Sunday, I was told just two teams have committed to being in Columbus—the 49ers … and the Patriots. San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch are expected to lead the Niners’ contingent to Ohio State (and North Dakota State too). As for the Patriots, this is subject to change, but I wouldn’t be surprised if offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is leading a group there for New England that will likely also max out the three allowable people, under the 2021 pro day rules. And so everyone’s clear on this, with private workouts forbidden because of COVID-19 this year, these workouts have to be open to all teams and, as we said, have attendance limited to three people per NFL team. So these aren’t private workouts. But with NFL teams calling the on-field shots, and actual attendance sparse, they may wind up having that feel.

Monday should be an interesting day on the offseason program front. It’s been more than a week since the league and union have formally met on the structure of the offseason program, with, again, the start of it for new coaches already having been pushed back twice. And so the fact that there is a bargaining session set for Monday between small groups from the union and league on the offseason program is significant. At this point, the sides are at a stalemate. The players want an all-virtual program. The owners want offseason programs to be a modified version of what’s normal. At this point, there is suspicion from the former that the latter is simply running out the clock to April 19, when the league can simply just open the programs for business and let whichever players want to participate head to their respective team headquarters. The players, for their part, have tried to combat that by getting guys to boycott. The problem is that hundreds of players have workout bonuses at stake, with some teams in locations where players don’t live putting them in contracts, over the years, as a matter of course to incentivize participation. The Packers are a great example—Aaron Rodgers ($500,000), Kenny Clark ($600,000), Za’Darius Smith ($500,000), Davante Adams ($500,000), Preston Smith ($500,000), David Bakhtiari ($500,000) and Adrian Amos ($500,000) are among those with sizable workout bonuses in their contract to ensure those guys make the trip to Wisconsin every spring. Those guys do make a lot in general, which would soften the blow, but would you walk away from a half-million to prove a point? So that’s why the union is in a very tricky spot here. And that some younger players might want the opportunity to use the spring to earn jobs is a factor, too (the idea of allowing younger players more offseason access has been discussed in the past). Stay tuned on this one.


With the pre-draft information at a premium for teams this year, I’ll be tracking the Panthers and Jaguars. We mentioned Fitterer’s experience in Seattle—and this is another area where it comes into play. It goes back to Pete Carroll’s early years, when his background with college players he coached, coached against or recruited gave the Seahawks a nice advantage.

• In 2010, Seattle landed four future Pro Bowlers (Russell Okung, Earl Thomas, Golden Tate, Kam Chancellor)—and took one of them (Thomas) over a ballyhooed player at the same position (Taylor Mays) who had played for Carroll at USC.

• In 2011, the Seahawks drafted four players (James Carpenter, K.J. Wright, Richard Sherman, Malcolm Smith) who have made it through a decade in the NFL. Two have been Pro Bowlers, and a third was Super Bowl MVP. One (Smith) played for Carroll at USC, and another was recruited by him out of high school and played at a Pac-12 rival (Sherman).

• In 2012, the Seahawks drafted another four players (Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner, Russell Wilson, J.R. Sweezy) who were still playing in the NFL last fall, with two of the four (Wilson, Wagner) trending toward Hall of Fame candidacy.

• Three of the aforementioned guys (Thomas, Wagner, Sherman) made the NFL’s all-decade team. In addition, the Seahawks had a fourth rep on that all-decade list, Marshawn Lynch, who was acquired during those early years—and Lynch was recruited out of high school by Carroll and played for Cal against Carroll’s USC teams.

So it’s fair to say, looking at all that, that the Seahawks worked with a nice edge during Carroll’s first three years in Seattle, just as a result of the background he had with so many players from those draft classes. And if that edge was there, then it’d sure stand to reason that, in this year without a combine, 30 visits or private workouts, Matt Rhule and Urban Meyer—both coaching in the college ranks 16 months ago—might have an even bigger advantage.

The Aaron Rodgers situation bears watching. We said it last week. Rodgers doesn’t say or do things by accident. So hearing him repeat last week (this time to Pat McAfee) what he said the week before is meaningful to me, in that he’s keeping pressure on the Packers to build aggressively around him, and not letting them forget last year’s trade up for Jordan Love. What will it amount to? I’m not sure. But I know this: The Packers have language in Rodgers’s contract that would allow for them to unilaterally convert base salary to bonus money, and save $9.1 million in cap space this year. And they haven’t done it. That, to me, would signal that they’d want to work with him on that, and maybe they have, or that they don’t want to push cap charges forward, which would be taking the longer-term view that prevents the sort of “loading up” that Rodgers has quietly tried to push for (look at how much mortgaging Tampa Bay has done for an example of how that works). Either way, I think it’s worth keeping an eye on this stuff. It wouldn’t surprise me much if other teams are, and maybe even checking in with the Packers to see if there’s any shot of a move there. (I don’t think there is, but it never hurts to ask.)

The Broncos are lurking as a team that could get aggressive at quarterback. We have a few pieces of evidence indicating that. First, they made a good—but not great—offer for Stafford back in February, proposing a deal that would’ve sent the ninth pick to Detroit with the quarterback and a second-rounder coming back (they were outbid not just by the Rams, but also Washington and Carolina on that front). Second, new GM George Paton has been on the ground for pro days at North Dakota State, BYU and Ohio State (he had a conflict with the Kyle Fuller signing and the presser following Justin Simmons’s extension and couldn’t make it to Alabama’s), which is purposeful in a year when you can go only get eyes on so many guys, and one where every minute spent counts, this being Paton’s first in Denver. So what to make of it? Well, my sense is that Paton and coach Vic Fangio want to add competition for Drew Lock at the position. That could come via a trade for someone like Teddy Bridgewater, who Paton was a part of drafting, it could come early in the draft or it could come later. But this much is clear—we mentioned this in my first mock draft a few weeks ago and in a few other places—Denver isn’t sitting still at the position like it did a year ago in going all-in on Lock. And that to me is a pretty decent sign that John Elway has truly moved into the background. Another would be the lack of real interest in Darnold (Denver discussed it, and touched base with the Jets, but never made an offer), who Elway loved coming out in 2018. And this would qualify for a healthy development for the organization, in that it reflects real trust in Paton’s vision.

My thinking is still in the same place it’s been regarding Deshaun Watson. And that is pretty much here: I can’t in good conscience have a take on all the information that’s surfaced over the last week (from lawyers Tony Buzbee and Rusty Hardin) without either indicting Watson or failing to take the women’s allegations seriously enough, both of which are unfair. But I do know this: Some teams that were lining up for Watson in February have (for now) removed themselves from the mix altogether, and that’s in part because they can’t go forward with such a pursuit without clarity on the situation. And while Watson’s got problems bigger than football right now, the fact that it could be a while before we get clarity on his situation makes where Watson will be in the fall of 2021 impossible to predict.

Kyle Pitts has become the most interesting non-QB in the draft class for me. I knew about Pitts in 2019, but he really came on my radar over the summer—when a few NFL folks told me he was one of the guys that most surprised them in not opting out when COVID-19 was threatening the college season. That was before his 12-touchdown junior season. And now, the way NFL people talk about him reminds me very much of how NFL people talked back in 2018 about Quenton Nelson, another premier player at a position that isn’t generally drafted much in the top five. The lesson? Well, there were good players taken in front of Nelson (Baker Mayfield, Saquon Barkley, Darnold, Denzel Ward and Bradley Chubb were the five), but I think you’d be hard-pressed to say any of them are better players than Nelson is. So I’m thinking there’s a team somewhere in that neighborhood this year that’ll be thinking like GM Chris Ballard was then—and just take the best guy. Another fun fact on Kyle Pitts: He was born on October 6, 2000, so he’ll have four NFL games under his belt before he can legally drink a beer. And believe it or not, Oregon’s freakshow of a tackle prospect, Penei Sewell, is three days younger than Pitts.


SIX FROM THE SIDELINE

1) The story of Will Zalatoris this weekend was awesome. But I have to admit, some of the edge came off when I found out he’s 24. Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods were three years younger than that, so this wasn’t exactly a college kid just taking his hacks at Augusta.

2) One thing that I love about the Masters is getting to see the psychology of it. Justin Rose played great on Thursday, and faded from there. And Hideki Matsuyama had to overcome two bogeys in a three-hole stretch to hang on for his first major title—and I can’t imagine what was running through his head when he put it in the water on the second of those. And after that, he worked out of the bunker on 18. To be able to manage the stress in a sport that demands such precision is a pretty impressive thing.

3) Maybe I buried the Red Sox too early last week. But I can’t be all-in yet.

4) I’m not gonna lie, seeing the crowd at the Rangers’ home opener did give me a little anxiety—and I’m not someone who’s running from going to sporting events. (I went to the Senior Bowl and Super Bowl for work; and the CFP title game as a spectator; and I’m going to an NHL game with my kids on Tuesday.) But I’m hopeful that everything works out O.K. with the crowds there, and that it’s a sign that normalcy is on the horizon.

5) It was great to see highlights of McKenzie Milton from Florida State’s spring game. Milton, you’ll remember, was the UCF quarterback who suffered a catastrophic leg injury in November 2018, with doctors finding extensive damage to the arteries and nerves in his right knee. He had emergency surgery the night of the injury, then two more surgeries before being discharged from the hospital. Two months after that, he had reconstructive knee surgery, and he wasn’t walking again until spring 2019. He wound up having another emergency surgery in 2019, after getting an infection. Finally, he made it back to run UCF’s scout team last fall, then transferred to FSU after the season. Here’s hoping he’ll get to play for the Seminoles in the fall. Milton, by the way, won his last 24 starts at UCF.

6) Congrats to all my UMass friends on the school’s first Div. I national title in any sport (the football team won a I-AA title in 1998), with the hockey team bringing it home to Amherst. And I stand by what I tweeted on Saturday—the fight song totally sounds like one of the generic fight songs in the create-a-school function of the old NCAA football video games.


BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

The bar for Trevor Lawrence has been set high.

Not enough people are talking about this.

Can’t find many people who know Darnold that aren’t happy for him, coming out of all this in a place he’s excited to be.

This is a super interesting trend here that Bucky Brooks raised on my podcast this week: How many sons of NFL players are going into the NFL as corners this year. You have Samuel and Surtain here, plus South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn (son of ex-Saints WR Joe Horn) and Washington’s Elijah Molden (son of ex-Saints CB Alex Molden). I brought up to Bucky how every receiver class now seems to be stacked, and how 7-on-7 has changed the lower levels of the game and made receiver the glamour position; and Bucky countered with the fact that ex-NFL players are raising their sons to play corner, with the path to scholarships and the pros far less cluttered. If that’s what these guys are doing, it’s a smart play.

So Jags fans have a history of doing stuff like this, and this from @E_Dilla (Eric Dillard in real life) is pretty cool. He initially rallied support to pool money on Twitter and buy Trevor Lawrence a toaster off his wedding registry. Once he got the money to do that, he decided to use the excess to get Lawrence a vacuum cleaner. And now, he’s pledging what’s left over (more than $6,500, as of Sunday night) to Lawrence’s charity of choice. He also told me over DM that anyone who donates (or donated) more than $9.04 (904 is Jacksonville’s area code) is automatically entered to win a toaster of their own—supplied by the local paper Folio Weekly, which jumped on board as this started going on. Pretty cool.

A long snapper’s official beer. God bless America.

Again: God bless America.

Love that being on Jimmy Johnson’s boat in Key West has become almost a rite of passage for NFL coaches.

There was a lot of this on Twitter last week.

That’s one way to take the edge off.


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Eddie George is the new head coach at Tennessee State, and I’m excited to see what he can do. He’s really, really sharp (and I’m not saying that just because he’s a Buckeye), and his name recognition alone should be a boon for the Nashville-based HBCU.

I also wonder if this will lead to a trend of more ex-players without coaching experience landing head coaching jobs. We see it happen plenty in basketball, but football coaching has always been seen as too involved for someone to just jump into such a role. Now? Well, if George and Deion Sanders (at Jackson State) succeed, I think it’s fair to wonder if bigger schools will look at making similar moves.