In one way, the Falcons’ new bosses were very transparent with Matt Ryan ahead of April 29, telling the 13-year vet that they’d look at all positions—quarterback included—with the fourth pick in the draft.
In another way, they really weren’t. Coach Arthur Smith and GM Terry Fontenot were front-and-center at pro days for Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones (and brought offensive coordinator Dave Ragone with them), and did all the same work the Jaguars, Jets, Niners, Bears and Patriots did before taking those quarterbacks in the first round.
The idea, of course, was for the Falcons to know exactly what they were passing on if they chose not to take one of those guys at No. 4. And if a nice byproduct for Smith and Fontenot was keeping the rest of the league in the dark, well, then it worked on Ryan too. Because he didn’t have any more of an idea what was written on Atlanta’s card when it was turned in around 9 p.m. ET than anyone else watching at home.
“When the pick went in, that was the big [moment],” Ryan said the other day, over the phone. “To the organization’s credit, they were very up-front about that from the start—Hey, we’re gonna pick whoever we think is the best person to help us moving forward. And they said they had a lot of belief and all those things, but they were up-front from the start about that. So I knew when Kyle got drafted that Kyle got drafted.”
Kyle, of course, is Kyle Pitts, the freaky tight end the Falcons took to help Ryan—rather than selecting someone meant to replace him. He was the first nonquarterback to get picked and, as you’d expect, the pick brought a mixture of excitement and relief to the Ryan living room, and maybe even more so from other family members than the venerable Atlanta quarterback himself.
“I was fired up!” Ryan said, with his voice rising. “I mean, I watched this guy play through college, so it was like, Oh, alright, let’s go! I was watching it with my wife, and I think she was probably more fired up than me.”
That Ryan’s wife got a chance to exhale in a “we probably won’t have to move soon now” sort of way is totally understandable.
That said, to be fair, it would also be understandable if Ryan had taken any of this personally. Everyone would get it if he was a little put off by seeing the Falcons’ open flirtations with quarterbacks 14 and 15 years his junior. No one would be surprised if, over the last three months, with all this happening, Ryan started to eye the exit, because we’ve seen that from so many other quarterbacks the last six months.
But Ryan’s approach to the whole thing was just different. And he’s excited now coming out of all of it, and thinking that the new guys in charge who told him what they were doing, while not really telling him what they were doing, have a good shot to set him up for another run of title shots with his career hitting the fourth quarter.
We’re inching closer to real football—organized team activities (or OTAs) start this week, which traditionally has meant, really, the start of football practice for NFL players. This year will definitely look a little different, and we’re covering all that in this week’s MMQB. Inside the column, you’ll find …
• A team-by-team look at work conditions players have negotiated with their coaches.
• A Russell Wilson reset.
• The next big coaching prize in the college ranks for the NFL.
And we’ll have a bunch of guys to watch in the coming weeks, too. But we’re starting in Atlanta, where the organization set a new course the last five months—one that now has a 36-year-old quarterback squarely in the middle of it.
Really, the story of Ryan’s offseason starts with who he is. His play’s been steady as things have come undone around him over the last three years (at least 65% as a passer, a 90-plus QB rating, 4,400-plus yards and 26-plus touchdown passes in each season). He just turned 36, which is old for an NFL player but not ancient for a quarterback. He was the league MVP and in the Super Bowl five seasons ago.
So as the Falcons underwent the most significant change of Ryan’s career—essentially blowing up their football operation and starting over—it would’ve been no shocker to see him start to get wandering eyes or distance himself from the new bosses. Throwing the fourth pick into the equation only added a layer of intrigue to that, in effect giving Smith and Fontenot an escape hatch from the Ryan era if they wanted to push the button on it.
We’ve seen it, of late. Whether it was Deshaun Watson’s being disgruntled over the Texans’ organizational instability; Aaron Rodgers’ being turned off by the Packers’ drafting Jordan Love and continuing to build methodically; or Russell Wilson’s pushing for better protection, a better scheme, and a bigger voice in team decision-making, there’s no question dynamics are changing at the sport’s most important position.
And this isn’t to take away from how those guys are approaching their own situations. Ryan himself certainly didn’t when we talked. But the way he handled his own choppy waters was decidedly different.
“Most guys deal with this,” Ryan said. “It gets made a really big deal at the quarterback position. But most players are dealing with this every year, right? Everybody deals with this at times. We don’t get hired to get to retired. They hire you and then fire you. They keep moving on. You just gotta stay in that space of, I’m gonna get myself ready to go, regardless of what happens. I’m gonna make sure I’m giving myself every opportunity to be the best player that I can be.”
Which doesn’t mean Ryan didn’t hear the speculation about his job security—from the time before Smith and Fontenot were hired, when the question was whether Ryan would be in Atlanta at all, to after their hires, when the question shifted to whether those two would draft his replacement and put him on the clock.
“Of course, you hear everything,” Ryan continued. “It’s become impossible to isolate yourself. It was much easier in 2008, ’09 to do it. It’s really impossible now, so you hear everything. I think just learning how to care less about that stuff, about what’s constantly being talked about, is a skill that I’ve kind of acquired as I’ve gotten older. I try and never search for it when it’s good and never search for it when it’s bad, because either way, it distracts you from focusing on what you need to focus on, just staying in the right mindset.
“My thing was, regardless of who they draft, I’ve got to get myself ready to go play this coming year. And I’m under contract to this organization for the next three years, and they’re going to get the absolute best out of me during that time. It doesn’t matter who they bring in, it’s not going to change that approach. So just stay in that lane, stay in that space, and try and get yourself ready to go.”
Now, Ryan doesn’t just get the reward of adding Pitts. His approach, in keeping the chains moving through the 2021 season, also gives him a heck of a head start off where he might’ve been otherwise.
To their credit, while Smith and Fontenot wouldn’t make Ryan promises on who they were taking fourth, the two new guys in charge weren’t shying away from building the foundation of a relationship with the former MVP. Fontenot, for example, made a point of showing up at a ribbon-cutting event for the new hospital on the team’s Flowery Branch property, because he knew he’d get quality face time with Ryan there. Smith went and got dinner with his new quarterback a few times.
Through those summits, Ryan got to learn a bunch about the direction that the rebuild was going. Over time, he found himself increasingly bought in. And with time, he got more and more work done on his own.
“The biggest thing was spending the last three months trying to learn the system, as much as I could,” Ryan said. “Trying to get ahead of it, so when we get to this time of year, and we’re having guys on the field and we’re able to spend time together, I could be speaking the language that coaches will want me to speak. I think that’s probably the thing that’s most different, just how much time I’ve spent on that.
“When you’re in the same system and you’re going through it with the same staff, you get quite a bit more of a break to recharge. That’s really how it’s been spent, getting on top of the playbook, making sure my body is in a really good space, which is what I’d be doing this time of the year anyhow. But just more time spent on learning the system.”
Through that process, Ryan’s found concrete reasons for optimism.
There’s carryover from his MVP season. Ryan’s greatest success as a pro came under ex-Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. The quarterbacks coach under Shanahan the two years Ryan and Shanahan were together was Matt LaFleur. LaFleur was then the offensive coordinator in Tennessee in 2018, in Mike Vrabel’s first year there, and put in the system that Smith took over there when he was promoted from tight ends coach to replace LaFleur, when LaFleur became the Packers’ head coach.
The first place that adds up is in Smith’s evaluation of Ryan—the coach can easily see what he’s looking at in the system, because it’s a system he effectively ran the last two years.
“One-hundred percent. One-hundred percent,” Ryan said. “He already talks in that manner of, Hey, we’re installing this, we used to teach off your cutups from back then there, but we’re going to teach off this that we used the last two years, but really it’s that same thing. And you’re like, O.K., alright, cool, perfect, we can move on to the next one, I know that one. There’s definitely some of that going on.”
And even with all that taken into account, there’s a lot more to what Smith’s doing that’s gotten Ryan’s mind working. That’s because while the bones of his offense can be traced to the Shanahan family tree, there’s nuanced difference that made it work for Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee and will allow for Smith to fit it to Ryan, too, based on the varied experiences the coach has had. Smith worked under four head coaches in Nashville and under five coordinators before he took the reins as OC two years ago.
“Every coordinator’s a little different, they’ve got a different flavor,” Ryan said. “To be honest with you, there’s more carryover [than just the Shanahan connection]. He worked with Mike Mularkey too in Tennessee, and Mike was my first coordinator. And Terry Robiskie was there, and Terry was our wide receivers coach for eight-plus years. There’s a mix of different parts of my career in all of it. Things I recognize from different spaces.
“I think everyone’s flavor on it is a little different. Matt’s very different in Green Bay than Kyle is in San Francisco now, and Sean [McVay] is different in L.A., so everybody kind of has their own flavor on it. And for sure Arthur Smith is a little different as well.”
That dynamic, for sure, carries over into personnel too with Fontenot’s arrival. Ryan and the new GM had that meeting at the hospital opening, and have had a string of phone conversations, too. And while Ryan learned a lot, there was an obvious experience that Fontenot brought to the table that really got him going—with Fontenot’s having been part of rebuilding the Saints’ roster around an aging quarterback and, in doing so, giving Drew Brees quality swings at a championship through his thirties and into his forties.
“Listen, I lived it the last five years, man,” Ryan said, laughing. “I definitely know it. They did a good job of getting that thing going pretty quickly.”
To be sure, seeing what the Saints were bringing in those rivalry games was eye-opening for Ryan—during the phone conversations with Fontenot, Ryan jokes he got to “rehash going against him the last decade and telling him how much I hated him the day before he got hired”—with things turning as New Orleans started stacking star-studded draft classes.
“They absolutely did a great job,” Ryan said. “And like you mentioned, building around all the things that go along with a veteran quarterback. He did an excellent job, and New Orleans did an excellent job with the last five or six years.”
So in a lot of new ways, the last few months felt like they were giving Ryan a new lease on his football life. And drafting Pitts over Fields and Jones was simply affirmation that he was going to get a chance to live that out.
Ryan learned a lot by going through what he and the Falcons have over the last year. The pandemic led him, in the spring of 2020, to organize what basically mirrored an NFL offseason program. Then, there was managing COVID-19 protocols in-season, during a season that started with a five-game losing streak that got the coach he’d gone to a Super Bowl with and the GM that drafted him fired in mid-October. And a 4–2 flourish under interim coach Raheem Morris was followed by another five-game losing streak to bookend the lost season.
Ryan’s now 36 and predates just about everyone in the organization, save for owner Arthur Blank and president Rich McKay. And having done what he’s done for 13 years, and taking on the role he did last year in those condition, does put him in a unique spot.
“Going through all the COVID stuff, finding a way to be more efficient, to be better, to not waste time, to be able to maximize the time we have together, I think all of those things, I’ve learned and grown from significantly,” Ryan said. “I think you should be constantly evolving with your leadership style, because every team is different, every year’s a different group of guys and what they need from you is different. I certainly feel like I’ve changed and grown and hopefully am better served to do all these things than I’ve ever been.”
In that way, he’s been a great resource for Smith and Fontenot, as they get their feet wet.
But all the same, Ryan says that Smith and Fontenot have been great for him, too, in large part just because it is different. That’s not affront to anyone Ryan’s worked with, either. More so, it’s just reality—that even through what would’ve been tense moments for some people, with the possibility your replacement is about to arrive, he’s found excitement in seeing the newness of everything around him.
Remember, the last time Ryan went through a coaching change, his career got a very real second wind, one that nearly carried him to a championship.
“There’s a natural level of excitement that comes from it being different,” Ryan said. “And I love Dan [Quinn] and I love Thomas [Dimitroff], have so much respect for those guys, and I learned a ton from them. And I think that’s going to serve me better moving forward with a new staff. But there is excitement. It’s a little different. There’s a different energy, a level of wanting to prove yourself, show what you can do, all of that stuff is there.
“I think it makes it exciting, keeps it fresh for a guy in Year 14 and certainly provides plenty of motivation and gives you the energy to get out of bed and get moving.”
Over the last few weeks, with Pitts in the fold—a tight end who Ryan says not only has the talent that’s obvious to everyone, but an attention to detail he’s seen in the best players he’s been around—and Ryan’s place in Atlanta solidified, everyone could get moving forward together with the gray area gone.
But as for how Ryan’s approaching it? That part never changed. So he’ll just keep heading in the direction he was going all along.
LATEST LOOK AT OFFSEASON WORKOUTS
So Monday’s where the rubber normally meets the road in the NFL offseason. Actual football practice can begin with Phase III of the offseason program, which runs for four weeks, through June 18. Under the collectively bargained rules, this week …
• The limit on max hours in the facility at the team’s direction per day goes from four to six.
• Teams can hold 10 organized team activities (OTAs, or practices).
• Full speed 7-on-7, 9-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills can take places.
• Teams can hold a three-day mandatory minicamp (hours limit up to 10 for those days).
• Live contact is prohibited and teams can’t practice in pads.
And as we detailed last week, this is also the part of the offseason program that veteran players felt had gotten a little out of control—something the union illustrated best with its records showing eight concussions having taken place during Phase III in 2019 (last year was all virtual, due to the pandemic).
So with the NFL and NFLPA at loggerheads over the form and future of this part of the offseason, it’s been interesting to see coaches and players, over the last few weeks, take matters into their own hands. It makes sense for both sides. Whether a coach is trying to build momentum off a strong 2020, rebound from a mediocre (or worse) one, or start establishing a new program, having the players in makes a difference, even if they aren’t going 11-on-11. Likewise, for players, the fight for jobs and starting spots, begins now.
And with that as the backdrop, a large majority of the NFL’s head coaches have worked out deals with their players to get offseason programs revved up, which is in essence the byproduct of the league and union failing to find common ground on the issue.
“The biggest challenge we’ve had in the last several weeks is helping people understand this issue from the players’ perspective,” NFLPA assistant executive director for external affairs George Atallah said late on Sunday. “[Union president/Browns center] J.C. [Tretter] and the player leadership have been clear about our goals from the start. And just because it’s not popular with people who follow our business doesn’t mean it’s not right.
“It’s always been a challenge to put these things in the proper context. But after seeing the overwhelming majority of teams work out favorable terms for these workouts, you can understand the push.”
Really, it’s simple: Veteran players learned last year, because the pandemic made all of the spring virtual, the benefit taking some miles off their legs could bring. And that, along with the actual injuries previously suffered in spring camps, made it so talks that started out as centered on 2021 COVID-19 protocols naturally dovetailed into players’ wanting some level of permanent reform.
They haven’t gotten that yet. But through the individual player negotiations with coaches, it’s easy to see where they feel progress has been made.
• At last count, the union had 22 teams reporting to offseason programs after players came to terms with coaches to either reduce the number of weeks in the program or, absent that, reduce the daily on-field workload.
• The Browns’ players were working toward a deal with their coaches over the weekend after staying away—and part of the reason they were O.K. with being absent until now is that quarterback Baker Mayfield had held a passing camp in Austin already.
• The Packers are another team in active talks with their coaches to come in, with in-house group thus far largely limited to rookies and players pursuing workout bonuses.
• The Buccaneers and Seahawks were two other player groups holding firm, though Tom Brady has a long history (going back to New England) of holding off-site throwing camps, and Russell Wilson’s done the same in California in recent years.
• Since Thursday, players from four teams (the Steelers are one) have gone from staying away in unison to going in for their offseason programs, after working with their coaches.
And then, there’s the Cardinals. We mentioned last week how Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury agreed to reduce the number of OTA practices, on top of the minicamp, to three.
Well, how they got there was interesting too. The Cardinals’ players eschewed putting out a public statement like so many of their peers did in early April—and instead sent a letter to Kingsbury and GM Steve Keim to explain their point of view. From there, quietly, the players and Kingsbury (and his staff) hammered out a deal that worked well for everyone.
So now, the Cardinals are in working together toward the season, under conditions that everyone had a hand in crafting. That’s a win for the players, for sure. But it also has to be a win for the coaches and the team too—to have everyone in and good with working under the conditions agreed to.
And really, you can see where all of this probably shouldn’t have been so hard in the first place.
HOW THE RUSS DRAMA SETTLED DOWN FOR NOW
Things had been radio silent on the saga of Seahawks QB Russell Wilson, going back, really, to the Bears’ attempt to pry him from Seattle back in March—with a reported clandestine meeting in Fargo, before North Dakota State’s pro day, between the teams’ GMs only affirming that the only NFL team Wilson’s played for planned to hang on to him.
That silence was broken the other day on the Rich Eisen Show, with Seahawks coach Pete Carroll addressing the situation directly, and at least giving off the vibe that he thinks more was made of the situation than needed to be.
“It seems like really old news to talk about this, because it’s been such a long time,” Carroll told Eisen. “But the little bit that he said carried so much airtime, it became bigger than life. Throughout the whole process with Russell, we’ve always been connected, we’ve always been talking, we’ve never not been in communication and we weren’t this time either. A couple things that came out got magnified.
“The questions came out, there were a couple things—he was frustrated when he was talking, just like any of us can sometimes emphasize something that’s on the top of our mind, and it can be played differently than it played itself out.”
Carroll did stop short of saying there was nothing there, in conceding that the issue was addressed between he, GM John Schneider and Wilson himself.
“There was an ongoing media discussion that I did not take part in, John and I did not, we refused to be a party to that,” Carroll said. “And Russ did what he could, once he saw it happening, to stay as quiet as he could, because it was going to have a life of its own anyway. What it amounted to was a refocusing, making sure that we were on the same page, making sure that we were clear so that we could withstand any of the scrutiny that’d come towards us, and we did that.”
O.K., so what does this mean going forward?
I’m told Wilson fully understands what’s ahead, and that’s another season as a Seahawk, and he’s preparing himself to play for Seattle now, as Carroll said. Things are indeed in a better place now and for Wilson, as one source put it, “It’s basically I’m here now, and I’m going to make it the best it can be.”
That, by the way, doesn’t mean he’ll be in the building Monday morning for the start of OTAs—the Seahawks’ coaches and players haven’t worked out an agreement like other teams have, so Seattle players have been staying away (and Wilson’s stood in solidarity with them). So I wouldn’t expect to see pictures of Wilson entering the building for Phase III quite yet, and that, as I see it, should be seen as more of a team thing than any kind of individual strike.
As we reported back in March, Wilson really wanted to view 2021 as the start of the second half of his career, which meant assessing everything he does and looking for a better way, from strength-and-conditioning to throwing mechanics to how he watches tape, and the maintenance of his body through nutrition and his mind through sports psychology. That exercise, likewise, led to an assessment of where he was with the team.
There were three resulting things he wanted coming out of that in January.
1) A new offensive philosophy that would maximize him as a player.
2) A real, high-end, ready-to-play addition to the offensive line.
3) Communication on the direction of the team from Carroll and Schneider.
The first box was quickly checked. Wilson was on board with the hire of Rams assistant Shane Waldron as his new OC, with Waldron bringing in a version of the McVay-Shanahan offense. The second was soon thereafter, with Seattle dealing a fifth-round pick to the Raiders for the highly-regarded Gabe Jackson, a guard with 99 career starts who was simply available because of Vegas’s cap situation (the Seahawks, for what it’s worth, also gave Wilson another weapon, in speedy receiver D’Wayne Eskridge, with their first draft pick).
As for the third box? That one’s a little more of a moving target. For one thing, while the brass would listen to Wilson, Seattle wasn’t going to tiptoe around its star. Schneider’s appearing at Josh Allen’s pro day in 2018, you’ll remember, ruffled feathers with Wilson’s camp—and if the Seahawks were worried about that stuff this time around, they wouldn’t have had Schneider go to Fargo to see Trey Lance throw in March.
And I think if you look at that objectively, and hear what Carroll told Eisen on the subject of Wilson’s having a voice in the organization’s decision-making, the whole thing adds up.
“I’ve always been talking to players,” Carroll said. “There’s been guys over the years that I’ve had with me in my office, or I’ve called them on the phone, now we do our texting, they’ve got information, they’ve got special knowledge, I’ve never hesitated to do that. Russ having been here for 10 years now, he’s been around us a long time, and he’s got good perspective, as does Bobby Wagner. We’re fortunate to have Duane Brown.
“They have opinions that, I don’t have to act on the information, but I want to access the information. I’m O.K. with that. I’ve always been talking to guys. So how much does he have now? He doesn’t have more than he’s ever had. I’ve respected the heck out of Russ for all of the reasons he’s proven he’s worthy. And so when I get a chance to get something from him that can help me out, I’m going to him. I don’t hesitate to.
“And I’ll do that with any of our guys. Doug Baldwin was a guy, Richard Sherman was a guy, I would talk to those guys about scheme, personnel, situations, social issues, I mean, you name it. That’s the kind of program we run around here. I don’t think it should be overplayed, and I don’t think it should be misstated either. Russ has a lot of good information, so I go to him when I think it’s appropriate.”
In other words, the Seahawks will communicate with Wilson, they’ll take his ideas into account, they respect his perspective … but there’s a line there.
This all sets up a really interesting season in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve said before I think Wilson’s probably on his last contract with the Seahawks. And with two years left after this one on that deal, it certainly seems as if where this season goes could well influence whether we’re back here again next January or February, asking if Wilson’s days in Seattle are numbered.
But, yeah, the good news for now, as Carroll said, is that Wilson is in for 2021—and that much should give everyone in Seattle a good shot to repeat as champs in what’s shaping up as the NFL’s most difficult division, and maybe take things even further than that.
I think the Falcons are motivated to turn over every rock on a June 1 Julio Jones deal. And you might ask why, and the answer, as I see it, is best illustrated with a single monetary figure: $68.014 million. That’s the amount of prorated money the Falcons mortgaged forward on the Ryan, Deion Jones and Jake Matthews deals this offseason, and the dead money they’d be dealing with on those three if they cut all of them the day after the 2021 season. And even after all that, they have so little cap room ($357,027) that they can’t sign their draft picks. Which means they can either push even more money forward, or they can try and get something for Jones (or Grady Jarrett), and start the process of getting their cap in a healthier spot. The trouble is, after asking inquiring teams for a first-round pick for Jones before the draft, the climate in the NFL right now isn’t conducive to getting value for an expensive 32-year-old receiver. Here are a few reasons why …
• Jones’s deal overall, if he can still be Julio Jones, isn’t horrible—he’s due $38.326 million over the next three years. The trouble is the structure. He’s due a fully guaranteed $15.3 million this year, meaning there are just eight teams (Jaguarss, Jets, Broncos, Bengals, Lions, Browns, Chargers, Niners) that have the space to deal for him without moving money around. On top of that, he’s got $2 million guaranteed for next year, meaning if you want to move on then, you’ll have paid $17.3 million, plus a pick, presumably, for one year.
• Cash spending is relevant this year coming out of a tough year financially for teams, and the fact is there are lots of contenders that have already exhausted their 2021 budgets. Does that mean a GM can’t go to an owner and ask for more to facilitate a special opportunity? No. But that’s another piece of capital (if intangible capital) that such an executive has to consider spending. If this was happening in February (which it couldn’t have, because of the June 1 relief Atlanta needs to do a deal), it might’ve been more manageable for other teams.
• Jones missed half the 2020 season with a hamstring injury, and while he hasn’t missed much time otherwise (just four games total from 2014 to ’19), there’s a lot of mileage on his body, and he’s played through, and managed, a lot of injuries to get to nearly 13,000 career receiving yards.
So what would it take for the Falcons to part with Jones? I think they’d probably do it for a second-round pick at this point. That said, I also think there’s some logic to hanging on to him. His contract would be a lot easier trade after this year, and the idea of having Pitts, Jones and Calvin Ridley together, even for just a year, has to be enticing. I know, from talking to Ryan, that the quarterback would approve, and Smith and Fontenot know it, too. “They obviously know how I feel about Julio. They know it, there’s no question about it,” Ryan told me. “It’s the part of the business that’s tough as a player, that it’s constantly like this. And Julio’s had such incredible production that it becomes a huge, huge story. But this is the hard part of it, there’s uncertainty, for lack of a better term, constantly. So obviously I hope he’s here. He’s been such an awesome teammate. Really, and I’ve said this before, I don’t think anybody has impacted my career as significantly as him. I’ve been very fortunate to ride along with him for 10 years. So we’ll see what happens. But I also don’t want to get involved in anybody else’s business. That’s for him to handle.” And, of course, for the Falcons to handle.
The Lions’ interest in Matt Campbell was real, and should come as no surprise, but contract terms were never even discussed. The 41-year-old Iowa State coach has been a hot name in NFL circles for three offseasons now, and Campbell has been relatively resistant to leaving Ames. But in January, he did at least give the Detroit job some thought. He and Lions special assistant to the owner Chris Spielman have a strong relationship—the two are both from the football-mad city of Massillon, Ohio—and, as such, Campbell spoke with the Lions brass a couple times about the job opening as the NFL hiring cycle got revved up. And Detroit was preparing to fly out to visit with Campbell just before Campbell pulled his name out of the running. Why did Campbell bow out? Iowa State has most of its team from last year coming back, and a few upperclassmen told Campbell that they’d stay, and not head off to the NFL, if he did too. So really it sounds like this was a matter of loyalty (to his players) and timing (having a really good team coming back after last year’s Fiesta Bowl win). And while the Lions were the only team he formally talked with, five of the seven that had openings reached out looking to interview him. It’s understandable if you, as an NFL fan, don’t know much about Campbell. But as we’ve been saying in this space for some time, power brokers in the league are well aware of how good he is. And it’s fair to assume that will manifest in more opportunities down the line. As for right now? I don’t know if the Lions’ getting on that plane and visiting Campbell would have led, eventually, to an offer being made. What I do know is that one wasn’t made. And, again, that Detroit’s not alone in its interest in the Cyclones coach.
The Washington tackle shuffle underscores the challenges teams faced this offseason—and how players are paying a price for it. The Football Team is one of 20 that went into this week with less than $10 million in cap space. And the effect of it was clear with how Ron Rivera, Martin Mayhew and Marty Hurney spent the last few days managing their offensive line. Ex-Bears tackle Charles Leno found himself without a job after Chicago landed Teven Jenkins in the second round of April’s draft. Leno started every game the last five years, and 94 total, at left tackle for the Bears, and gave the WFT brass an option to fill a spot that’s been problematic for the franchise for two years now, first due to the Trent Williams drama, then due to his departure. And perhaps in a normal year, both cap- and cash-wise, Rivera, Mayhew and Hurney could’ve paired Leno with Morgan Moses to give the team a formidable, experienced tackle duo. But this year? It was an either/or proposition. Which created a Door 1 and Door 2 situation.
• Door 1: Keep Moses at $7.75 million this year at right tackle, and ride with Cornelius Lucas at left tackle, with hopes that rookie Sam Cosmi would come along.
• Door 2: Sign Leno for $5 million, and move the Lucas/Cosmi question over to the right side, where it might be a little easier to manage.
And for a lot of these same reasons, when Washington picked Door 2, it was hard to trade Moses—his price tag wasn’t outlandish, but it’s hard to find teams with much room to spend right now. So he wound up where Leno was before him, as a street free agent, even though the guys who coached him last year felt he had plenty left to give as a pro. He’ll find a home somewhere, but it’ll probably be for less than he’d like, which is just the harsh reality of the NFL right now, even if things are slowly getting closer to normal.
The more people I talked to who have coached Tim Tebow, the more I think that Urban Meyer’s handling of him is going to be important. Why? Well, first of all, I can’t find anyone who thinks it’ll work. He ran a 4.71 40-yard dash at the combine 11 years ago, which is a middling number for a tight end, and really lacks the height and length that you’d want at the position (Tebow’s 6' 2", whereas 16 of 20 tight ends at the 2020 combine were 6' 3" or taller). And that’s without getting to the fact that last week was the first time he’d been so much as in a football practice in nearly six years, or that tight end is one of the most physically and mentally challenging position to learn on an NFL field. For all those reasons, guys who worked with Tebow come back to a simple question: What’s the upside? And the response to that might be, What’s the downside? But I think there is downside here, and it connects to credibility. If it looks bad a week into camp, or two weeks into camp, what will Meyer do? Getting rid of Tebow might be tough, and it would take admitting being wrong, but what would be worse is hanging onto him to the point where other players start to question what he’s doing there, which would hurt Meyer’s ability to sell the principle of meritocracy his programs have had their foundation on. Then there’s the attention he’ll attract, and the resentment teammates have felt over it in the past. “The thing about Tim is, in the past, he could have helped to diffuse that, or stay in the flames,” said one coach. “He doesn’t diffuse it.” So that part of it—asking Tebow to do all he can to blend in with other roster longshots (even if that’s impossible)—should be addressed too. And again, I don’t want this to sound like I think Tebow has no shot, or that it could take Meyer’s program down. All I’m saying is that if there’s any sense that it’s turning into a circus in the media or a running joke in the locker room (which has happened), then Meyer’s got to know it’s time to pull the plug. And if it works? Well, then Meyer has the best salesman for his program he could ask for in the locker room, even if Tebow’s never going to be Ozzie Newsome out there on the field. But I’d say there aren’t a lot of NFL folks counting on it getting that far.
I think an interesting nugget from Jenny Vrentas’s story on the ongoing Deshaun Watson saga was over a potential settlement. Generally, in civil cases, the plaintiff is seeking transparency, and the defendant is seeking confidentially. In this one, or these 22 cases overall, it’s the opposite. And it’ll be interesting to see if, based on those conditions, lawyers Tony Buzbee and Rusty Hardin can work out an agreement that avoids what would be a lengthy process in the courts. If they can’t? Well, then there’s a long road ahead for Watson legally, and the NFL is going to have to act, or not act, based on its own investigation into the matter. For now, I’d assume the league would allow for the Texans to excuse Watson from mandatory minicamp in a few weeks. Come summer, though, if there isn’t a legal resolution, the league’s going to have to make a decision.
Some things I heard out of Browns rookie camp were interesting—and perhaps point to the athletic profile GM Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski are going to look for going forward. Like any rookie class, much will be judged for Cleveland on its first-round pick—in this case, ex-Northwestern CB Greg Newsome. But it was what I heard about the next two picks that got my attention. On defense, second-round linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah’s speed, overall athleticism and range to cover a lot of ground, in addition to his length and a big frame that could carry more weight, was enough to have coaches excited. And on offense, third-round receiver Anthony Schwartz showed smarts, better polish at the top of the route than expected, and played to his Olympic-level speed. “You can feel his speed out there,” said one staffer. And add those two to Newsome, who ran in the 4.3s, and you can see the sort of effort Berry and Stefanski are putting in to make an already-athletic roster even faster across the board. It should be fun to watch where all of that goes.
I like the Broncos’ hire of Kelly Kleine, and that’s because I like what I heard about her after asking around—both with those who know her from the scouting trail and those who were in the building with her in Minnesota. One Viking coworker I texted with called Kleine a “rock star” before adding, “no task was too big.” And that’s just where Minnesota valued her. Because she took on so much, her versatility, in handling college scouting on the road, administrative work, in-house pro scouting and myriad other responsibilities, made her “the glue,” in another person there’s words, of the team’s scouting department. A big piece of how she positioned herself to get there and take on those tasks, was borne of the respect she commanded, because she’d come up like so many others did, taking advantage of every opportunity she could. As a student, she worked as a gameday assistant, eventually getting more work in PR. People noticed how tireless she was, so when the scouting department had an intern who couldn’t handle the work quit, the Vikings asked if she wanted an internship on that side of the building. She jumped at it and moved up fast from there, eventually becoming a go-to person in the scouting department because she was so good at managing people and wearing different hats, which, of course, makes her a fit as executive director of football operations in Denver—a job in which she’ll oversee video, equipment and sport psychology, be the GM’s liaison to the training room, and coordinate pro and college scouting, while also chipping in on the evaluation process. New Broncos GM George Paton, who came from Minnesota, obviously had a front-row seat to see Kleine’s ascension, and he deserves credit for the groundbreaking hire. And I also think Rick Spielman should get credit here, too, for being a champion for diversity in his front office. In fact, upon Kleine’s departure, as we mentioned in last week’s MAQB, Spielman promoted two women in the scouting department (Taylor Young, Kaitlin Zarecki), and moved another from intern into a full-time role (Caroline DeFelice). Just a good story all the way around.
I’d pay attention to what Julian Edelman said about Cam Newton. Few know the program, or New England’s offense, better than just-retired 35-year-old, so it caught my eye when he said this on the Michael Irvin Podcast on PodcastOne: “He’s probably been working hard. That’s his M.O. Cam works hard. Now we’ve got to see if he can work smart in the right areas, and if he does that, he’s going to give himself an opportunity to do well. But he’s also going to have to beat out the young gun, because the young guy is there—little Mac Attack. This kid, that’s a first-round draft pick. That’s, like, a real first-round draft pick.” So, of course, Edelman’s take on Mac Jones feels informed. And I also think it’s interesting hearing Edelman say Newton’s got to “work smart.” I did story a couple of years ago on Newton, and how he and then Panthers OC Scott Turner were working to move him into the next phase of his career. At the time, Newton made clear to me how he was a sort of “physical” learner. He always wanted to practice at full speed, because he felt like that was how he’d get things down best. He also explained how he’d worked to find a better way, through a trusty notebook, of maximizing his classroom learning. And what I know about New England is there’s a lot of classroom learning, and it feels to me like that’s what Edelman’s getting at. Of course, I’d think the Patriots’ coaches could meet him halfway on that, too, and I’m sure there’s been an effort to. I don’t know how it’ll manifest. But as Edelman said, the selection of Jones puts Newton on the clock.
This spring is an important one for Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert. So it’s good that the players and coaches in Cincinnati, Miami and with the Chargers were able to come to agreements leading to normal offseason program attendance. Now, I understand that’s not why the players in those places were able to make those deals (that’s more, in each of those places, about young coaches who are willing to compromise with their players), but it’s a good byproduct. We’ve seen substantial second-year leaps from quarterbacks like Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen in recent years, and Burrow, Tagovailoa and Herbert’s having the best chance at making similar jumps is what’s best for everyone in those places. And, yes, in this case, doing the work in the spring really does count.
The league should look into Eugene Chung’s recent comments. The former NFL lineman and assistant coach in Philadelphia and Kansas City says he was told he was ‘not the right minority’ during an interview. If the idea of diversity is to broaden the scope of voices in the NFL, someone like Chung, an Asian-American in a sport without a lot of them, should be even more valuable.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINES
1) Amazing accomplishment by Phil Mickelson—winning a major at 50, almost five years older than Jack Nicklaus was when he won the Masters out of nowhere in 1986. And the steel nerves he had to have to follow a super shaky tee shot on 18 with that recovery to save par … pretty phenomenal.
2) I love the NBA play-in tournament. It makes being a top-six seed more important, and even adds value to the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. And that’s exactly what the NBA needs, to add more value to its regular season. If I’m Adam Silver, I’m making that change permanent yesterday.
3) The college lacrosse tournament’s a really underrated watch. My 6-year-old loves playing, so I watched parts of the two games on Sunday with him. All four teams playing were bluebloods of the sport. Both games went to overtime and ended with spectacular goals. And I’ll be watching Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and Duke next weekend (Good luck to the Lincoln-Sudbury kids on Maryland and North Carolina, and to Terps middie Alex Smith, son of NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith).
4) Taylor Hall’s got his issues, but he’s one heck of a hockey player.
5) That the NCAA still hasn’t gotten some sort of NLI rules in place, and that state legislatures are going to beat that clown show to the punch, is bonkers. This has forever been such an easy fix, and yet, for some reason, they’ve resisted at every turn. And with all the money on the line (forget about what’s right and wrong), not seeing this coming is a stunning lack of foresight.
6) The A&E documentaries on the legends of the WWE (It was the WWF in my day!) are outstanding. If you’re my age, it’s like a time warp back to your childhood.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
In a sport full of physical freaks, Derrick Henry is really freakish.
Still think David Bakhtiari’s the king. But this wasn’t bad.
Closer, but still no Bakhtiari.
This isn’t NFL specific, but in a major city that’s been slow to come back from COVID-19, it can be taken as a sign we’re headed toward a much more normal NFL season.
It sure feels to me like it’d be an upset if there isn’t full capacity at every NFL stadium in the fall. And maybe the summer for preseason games, too. And I say that because I live in a state, Massachusetts, that’s been as cautious as any on moving off COVID-19 restrictions, and Fenway Park is going to be at full capacity on May 29. So every football stadium in the country should be by Sept. 12, barring any sort of move backward in where we are with the virus. At the very least, the NFL’s going to have a mountain of data from other sports by then.
So I guess new Eagles DE Ryan Kerrigan doesn’t have to change his plates.
I’m interested to see how this goes. It’s not unusual that athletes with the perspective Christian Hackenberg has become really good mentors and coaches.
So I guess Jalen Ramsey got into a beef with Bears fans over Darnell Mooney, and I hope this situation can be further instigated ahead of the Rams’ playing Chicago in Week 1.
The NFL doesn’t allow crop tops in games. But I’d like to remind Park Avenue that there’s still time to change that before Quinn Meinerz’s debut.
I don’t think Andy Reid invented Victory Mondays. But he’s got a lot of experience with them.
Not bad, Gregg.
I made fun of Ian for turning this into a news story. And it got almost 6,000 likes. So be forewarned: Everything the Jaguars’ newest camp body does is news. Just like the old days.
Legendary shot from the Twitter account that just keeps giving.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Patrick Mahomes is well on his way back from turf toe surgery, and in position to jump into the Chiefs’ offseason program this week. And since he’s the best player in the league and all, I figured passing along that good news would be a good way to wrap the column after a sleepy NFL week.
See you for the afternoon column.
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