Landon Dickerson blew up my story idea.
I figured coming out of last week’s medical combine, finding a player most affected would be a smart play for this week’s GamePlan column—getting a guy who’s going through and/or coming back from something serious, and has been hit particularly hard by the weird circumstances of 2021. And on paper, the two-time All-SEC linemen and winner of the Rimington Award, given annually to the nation’s best center, was perfect.
Dickerson blew out his ACL in the SEC title game in December, an injury that cost him the Sugar Bowl, playing for a national title and essentially any opportunity to show teams who he is physically ahead of the draft. I figured he’d at least have given himself a few days, or even a week or two, to grieve or feel sorry for himself. I figured wrong.
“I mean, honestly, there’s no reason to sit around and mope because you’re just wasting a day you can go rehab,” Dickerson said. “So there’s no reason to feel sorry for yourself. There are people that go through things a heck of a lot worse than I do. And at the end of the day, this is kind of the entertainment industry, it’s not life-or-death for me. So honestly, there’s no reason to be that upset.
“I’m way better off than the majority of people in this world. I have nothing to be sad or moping about. I have only things to be happy about.”
Absent the injury, Dickerson was considered a very good bet to go in the first round.
Thanks to how he’s handled all this, he still might.
And that’s why, as I went looking for a story on another tough circumstance of this pandemic-ravaged draft cycle, I found something else. I found the guy who’s basically written the playbook on how to handle something that we all hope never happens again.
We’re two weeks away from the draft, and that’s why we’re taking the chance to bounce around a little more than we usually do in this week’s GamePlan. Inside the column, you’ll find …
• The top five non-first-rounders from three years ago (you’ll see why we’re doing that).
• Why receivers may have to wait longer than they probably expect to on draft weekend.
• Why big-name vets remain available.
But we’re starting with the Dickerson story to lead a couple others notes we’ve got coming out of this week—on offseason programs and Justin Fields.
In putting the injury in perspective, Dickerson may lull you into the thinking it wasn’t a big deal for him. But don’t get mixed up—it obviously was.
Dickerson got rolled up on after a play in the fourth quarter of the top-ranked Tide’s win over Florida for the conference title and a ticket to the College Football Playoff. He came over to the sideline, and it wasn’t until he got to the bench that the thought crossed his mind that his knee was anything but just a little sore from the collision.
That’s when he tried to straighten his leg out. And couldn’t.
“So I knew something was a little messed up, and obviously went and got images,” Dickerson said. “But you never really sit there and think, ‘Oh, I did something really bad, I’m not going to play again.’ That … That’s a terrible mindset to have. For me, it was, Whatever is wrong can be fixed. So, now, hopefully we take care of it quick enough where I can get back for the next game or the national championship.”
His MRI the next day showed that wouldn’t be possible: He’d torn his ACL. Still, he wasn’t done fighting Bama’s team physician, Dr. Lyle Cain, on it. He regained mobility in the knee, unbelievably, six days after surgery, and then started campaigning to play at least a few snaps in either the Sugar Bowl against Notre Dame or the CFP title game against Ohio State.
Cain told reporters in Alabama shortly after the Tide’s win over the Buckeyes that Dickerson’s one-play, victory-formation appearance was the compromise, and it was a compromise that allowed Dickerson not just to play, but to dress with his teammates one last time.
“The biggest thing for me, it wasn’t necessarily going in for that last snap,” Dickerson said. “That was a great experience. And I appreciate Coach letting me do that. But for me, at that point, I didn’t know if that was going to be my last game or not in Crimson. So I wanted to go out there, be with my teammates one last time, do everything that I could, go through regular pregame warmups, get dressed in the locker room with everybody, be on the sideline and be supportive that way.
“And that’s just something, for me, that I wanted to be able to remember. … It was really just about having that experience one last time with my teammates.”
And as he said, injury or no injury, the decision to go to the NFL hadn’t yet been made—the desire to be out there was on the chance it could be his last college snap.
A few days after the title game, after some thinking, Dickerson decided that based on the progress he’d made as a player and where he was in his development, the time had come to take the next step. Of course, that meant diving into a draft cycle during which the scarcity of information on injured players, and teams’ inability to bring such players in to have their own doctors check them out, would necessarily hurt guys like him.
But that stuff? That really wasn’t where Dickerson’s head was.
When I relayed my conversation with Dickerson, and his approach to his injury, to NFL people the last couple days, it didn’t take long for it all to check out. “Amazing dude,” said one. “Everything you want in a football player and a person.” Said another: “Yeah, he’s an All-Pro person. Culture-changer.” A third added: “He’s awesome. … It’s genuine. He’s an authentic dude.”
So maybe you’d roll your eyes at some of what players say before the draft, but in this case, it’s important to point out that teams that’ll determine when and where he gets picked are buying it.
And in a way, he’s become the draft’s ultimate conundrum. This year, character is going to be valued, and maybe overvalued, because of the lack of chances teams have to get to know guys in-person. Dickerson’s got that in spades. Conversely, teams are also going to value, and maybe overvalue, certainty on a guy’s physical condition. Dickerson does not have that, and it’s important to mention here that Dickerson had a couple significant injuries at Florida State too, before transferring to Alabama.
Which only brings another point in Dickerson’s remarkable perspective to light.
That’s where we get to my idea for the story in the first place, which centered on Dickerson’s three days in Indianapolis last week. I thought we’d talk about how the Tide’s star lineman was poked and prodded, but we really didn’t. He also didn’t try to sell me on the idea, like other players might, that he came out of there having wowed everyone.
“Going to Indianapolis, we did have a chance to meet with every single team medical staff, so that was an opportunity for them to get images, everybody to look at my knee and see what they thought about it,” Dickerson said. “It’s up for individual interpretation from each doctor and what they see. Everybody’s different, obviously. But, for me, I go up there, the MRI, the X-rays, they don’t lie. You can’t hide anything.
“So I can’t tell you what each team takes individually or how they read them or anything like that. But I’m making good progress, right on track with where I wanted to be in this rehab process. I think teams are comfortable with that, and [torn] ACLs aren’t things that end people’s careers like they did 20, 30 years ago.”
In other words, Dickerson’s doing the best he can, and he knows each team may look at his injury situation a little differently than the next—and he’s not mad about that.
Instead, he’s focused on his rehab, and the actual “rehab” portion of his recovery ended about two weeks ago, when doctors and trainers cleared him to start working out again. He says he’s able to lift and condition now like he could in November, before the injury happened. And while he hasn’t slipped on a pair of shoulder pads yet, he’s been able to do some position-specific field drills that show his lateral mobility is back where it should be, which shows he’s healing fast—given that it’s been about four months since surgery.
“It’s all relative,” he said. “Every guy is different in how they overcome things, how fast they recover, how quickly they get back on things. For me, I’m right on schedule where I wanted to be. For other guys, it may be different. You can’t really lump everybody together and say this is how much time it takes because I believe everybody’s different.”
Here’s another way Dickerson’s different: While there’s plenty of focus on football, it’s not his only focus. As Dickerson’s work to get himself ready for Week 1 (“That’s the ultimate goal”) has shifted from rehab to more football-specific stuff, his schedule, for now, hasn’t changed.
Rather than go to a combine training facility this spring, Dickerson stayed in Tuscaloosa to finish his master’s in business administration, which he’s pursuing as a means to effectively manage his money now and set himself up for a career after football too. As such, his mornings are still devoted to his classwork. He heads to the Tide’s football facility after that to work out, then heads home for Zoom interviews with teams and homework after that.
The knee, Dickerson figures, will be fine. The draft will take care of itself—when I asked Dickerson if he cares if he goes in the first round, he quickly answered, “No.” And life, as he sees it, is good.
That, to me, was what was so refreshing about hearing this particular 22-year-old talk. In a few months, he’ll be a pro football player with an MBA. He has it good, and knows it, and isn’t wasting time with clichés on how hard he’s had it the last four months, or the way in which the adversity will steel him for his NFL career.
“Not to get philosophical, but we all have a finite time on this earth,” he said. “And if you sit there and you want to waste your days doing nothing, those are things you look back on in life and kind of regret. I just kind of want to live by the mindset where a lot of people say, if you died tomorrow, what would people say at your funeral? For me, it’s honestly, If I died tomorrow, would I be happy with what I’ve done? Would I be satisfied with what I’ve done with my life? That’s just the mindset that you have to take and approach every day.
“And it helps you to remember, you may waste a day, you may waste a week, but you don’t get that back. Everybody has an expiration date. We don’t know when it is. But you’ve got to make every day count.”
I think it’s fair to say Dickerson’s doing that.
Before we get to our regular segments, let’s quickly hit on two news stories of the day Thursday…
First, the NFL/NFLPA squabble. We wrote about this at length in the MMQB column this week, and the NFL is now exercising its right to start up offseason programs, as scheduled, this Monday. (In a normal year, teams with new coaches actually would’ve gotten going on April 5.) In reaction, players from the Broncos, Buccaneers, Lions, Seahawks, Browns, Bears and Giants have said they’ll boycott workouts, and the Patriots have said “many” of their guys will join that boycott in a showing of solidarity.
I’ll give the union credit on one thing. It couldn’t have been easy to pull this off, even with a single team, and that’s because there are so many competing interests here. The job-secure veteran without a workout bonus can afford to skip April, May and June.
But what about the guy who has, say, a $500,000 workout bonus and is at the end of his career, where every dollar counts? How about the second- or third-year player looking to make a team? How about the undrafted rookie who’ll have only so many chances to make an impression, and may not get a second shot at becoming an NFL player if the first one doesn’t work out? Or the guy who needs to get his sea legs back after an injury?
The bottom line is that this isn’t simple for players. These are decisions that could have a competitive impact, and that’s without even getting to comparing the safety of NFL facilities vs. the gyms these guys are working out at, or the risk guys take in getting injured outside of the team’s workout program (teams can designate those “non-football injuries” and withhold pay).
And I’ll be honest, I’m surprised the owners are being so forceful on this, when they’ve been so willing in the past to bargain away offseason hours in the past. My understanding is some really believe that they need to have an offseason program (I’d count Pittsburgh’s Art Rooney and the Giants’ John Mara in that group). I think for others it probably goes back to control, and getting something for every little thing they give the players.
Put the whole thing together, and it’s complicated. And I’m sure it sucks for some players and coaches who really want to use the time to get better.
On to topic No. 2 …
Justin Fields had a second pro day happened in Columbus on Wednesday, and we’ll have more on that on Monday. But I’d say this much: The structure of it was very smart. This was very much Fields’s workout. The 21-year-old put together the script, knowing what NFL teams wanted, and Buckeyes quarterbacks coach Corey Dennis held it for him and read off of it. But it was clear that the QB himself was running the show (which was intentional).
As for the details of that workout, there was a heavy West Coast offense bent to it, with Fields throwing off traditional play-action (turning his back to the line), working through quick-game throws and screens, and then progressing down the field to show his capability of hitting every level of the field. Which is to say that even if it wasn’t catered specifically for Kyle Shanahan, it might’ve looked that way to an educated onlooker.
There were three other interesting nuggets we were able to gather.
One, Fields was throwing to freshmen receivers Julian Fleming and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and basically coaching the 19-year-olds on how he wanted the routes run as the workout went on, which got the attention of some people in attendance—flashing both his football IQ and his command.
Two, the script called for 44 throws, and much of it was similar to what he did on March 30 (he repeated a few to bring that number to around 50). After that, he let NFL coaches take over for about 10 more throws, and drills they ran had receivers at downfield spots. After the ball was snapped, and Fields took his drop, the coaches yelled where to go with it, and Fields had to snap it to the receivers.
And three, the tempo of the workout was breakneck, to show the sort of shape Fields was in as all of this was going down, which gave the coaches a chance to see the quarterback basically run the show at an intense pace.
So it sounds like Fields did all he could, as the hay approaches the barn on his pre-draft process. It’s also worth noting how the Falcons, Broncos, Panthers and Patriots had multiple people at both of Fields’s throwing days, and had different crews at each of them, which I’d guess is an effort to get more people developing opinions on who he is.
Trey Lance is next (and last) up, with his second pro day set for Monday in Fargo.
I love looking back at draft history, so I figured this would be a good time to take a look at five non-first-rounders from last year that have made an impact already—to show that the draft itself may get less exciting on Friday but doesn’t lose its impact.
1) Panthers S Jeremy Chinn: An absolute hammer at safety, and already the team’s top defensive playmaker, Carolina landed Chinn with the final pick of the second round. There wasn’t a single safety who went in the first round last year, but Chinn was the fifth one taken in the second.
2) Buccaneers S Antoine Winfield: A prototype Todd Bowles safety who is a moveable chess piece that flashed big-time playmaking ability in the Super Bowl champs’ secondary, Winfield should only get more dangerous with experience.
3) Bears CB Jaylon Johnson: To be fair, injuries contributed to Johnson’s slide in 2020. But he was able to stay healthy—and shine—as a rookie, and his emergence helped give Chicago flexibility to move on from Kyle Fuller in managing a thorny cap situation.
4) Cowboys CB Trevon Diggs: Stefon’s little brother went one pick after Johnson, at No. 51, and we’re betting on the come here a little. He had ups and downs, but flashed high-level ball skills as a rookie (three picks, 14 passes defensed and a forced fumble).
5) Patriots OT Mike Onwenu: The Michigan product didn’t go in the second round, like the four other guys on this list. He went in the sixth. But already, he looks like a young building block on a team that needs more of those.
THE BIG QUESTION
How will the receivers come off the board?
I was talking to a college scouting director earlier this week, and as we were going through the first round, he offered this up: “Ja'Marr Chase, if you take Trevor [Lawrence] out of it, I think he’s the next best guy. I don’t know where the hole is in his game. He’s as complete a prospect as I’ve seen at that position. There’s just a lot to like, and not a lot of downside. And it feels like he’s a little under the radar because of the quarterbacks.”
Now, because he opted out, no one’s seen Chase play a game in 15 months. But going back to when he was playing? There’s substance to what this particular evaluator is saying.
Consider this: Vikings WR Justin Jefferson was the only player to take Offensive Rookie of the Year votes away from Chargers QB Justin Herbert, taking nine to Herbert’s 41, after an 88-catch, 1,400-yard, seven-touchdown season. And anyone who watched LSU in 2019 would tell you he was a clear No. 2 to Chase that year, and that Chase was the engine for Joe Burrow’s ride to a Heisman and that offense’s journey into the record books.
So if we’ve established that Chase is that kind of player, he should go in the top five, right? Well, maybe not. In this burgeoning golden age for receivers, there’s an argument to be made over scarcity of great tackles (Penei Sewell) or tight ends (Kyle Pitts) vs. great receivers, and that the smart play for a Cincinnati or Miami might be to address another area and come back to receiver in the second round.
There’s a track record here, too. If you cover the last five years, here’s what the group of first-round receivers looks like vs. the second-round receivers.
First round: 2020: Henry Ruggs (12), Jerry Jeudy (15), CeeDee Lamb (17), Jalen Raegor (21), Jefferson (22), Brandon Aiyuk (25); 2019: Hollywood Brown (25), N’Keal Harry (32); 2018: D.J. Moore (24), Calvin Ridley (26); 2017: Corey Davis (5), Mike Williams (7), John Ross (9); 2016: Corey Coleman (15), Will Fuller (21), Josh Doctson (22), Laquon Treadwell (23).
Second round: 2020: Tee Higgins (33), Michael Pittman Jr. (34), Laviska Shenault (42), K.J. Hamler (46), Chase Claypool (49), Van Jefferson (57), Denzel Mims (59); 2019: Deebo Samuel (36), A.J. Brown (51), Mecole Hardman (56), J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (57), Parris Campbell (59), Andy Isabella (62), D.K. Metcalf (64); 2018: Courtland Sutton (40), Dante Pettis (44), Christian Kirk (47), Anthony Miller (51), James Washington (60), D.J. Chark (61); 2017: Zay Jones (37), Curtis Samuel (40), JuJu Smith-Schuster (62); 2016: Sterling Shepard (40), Michael Thomas (47), Tyler Boyd (55).
The jury’s still out on some of these guys, and the second-round group has 26 players vs. the first-round group’s 17. But if you look hard at it, the difference in the odds of hitting it big on a receiver in the first round versus the second looks negligible at best.
That brings us back to Chase, and the question of whether or not that scarcity argument could cost him—and I don’t think it will too much. As that scout intimated, he’s probably too good to slide far, and he has Burrow championing his cause for landing in Cincinnati as the fifth pick.
But could it hurt DeVonta Smith or Jaylen Waddle? Absolutely, especially with teams looking at the possibility of guys like Elijah Moore, Rondale Moore, Tutu Atwell and Rashod Bateman being there late on Thursday night or into Friday.
WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
How many highly-accomplished veterans are still out there unsigned.
Three weeks ago in this space, we gave you a list of the five best free agents left on the market. At that point, we were eight days into free agency. Three of those guys (Sammy Watkins, Leonard Fournette and, just this week, Jadeveon Clowney) have since signed, all to one-year deals (in Baltimore, Tampa and Cleveland, respectively. The two others have not.
So what are we to make of Clowney having just done a deal, and DaQuan Jones and Richard Sherman still being out there—not to mention Melvin Ingram, Justin Houston, Russell Okung and Alejandro Villanueva also being available?
“Because there will be younger, cheaper and healthier options in the draft,” said one veteran pro scouting director.
Simple as that?
“It really is,” he continued. “Because if you don’t get one, [guys like] Houston and Sherman will be available.”
The problem for those guys, of course, is the circumstance created by pandemic economics that we’ve all been talking about for months—there are too many free agents out there and not enough cap space to sign them with. And in a year like that, the preference was always going to be to fill holes with young, cheap labor, rather than expensive veteran talent. And the associated issues for older players have only been made worse by the amount of them out there, giving teams the knowledge that they can wait to sign them.
All of it had this pro scouting director thinking that it might make sense for the league to have the draft before free agency—since free agency is designed to be a needs-based exercise, the draft really shouldn’t be and teams would probably be more effective in both if they went into the draft more open-minded and into free agency with a clearer vision for their needs.
And that made sense to me. Until, that is, I remembered that the players probably wouldn’t go for that, given that it would naturally take bidders off the market for players.
THE FINAL WORD
I like Aldon Smith going to Seattle—both for Smith himself and the Seahawks. Smith’s going to a place that’s made a living off reclamation projects over the years, and hitting on Smith would address a big need for the Seahawks.
And just from a human standpoint, I think it’s good to see he’s gotten his life together.
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