Julio Jones. Aaron Rodgers. Deshaun Watson. Russell Wilson.
We’re there, right?
All four of those guys are in situations with their teams that are awkward at best, untenable at worst, with a little more than three months left until the 2021 season opener. And in the old NFL, their respective teams could have probably just waited them out, gotten to camp and told them to, in effect, buckle up their chinstraps, strap on their pads and shut their mouths.
But this isn’t your dad’s NFL, or even your older sibling’s. Today, there’s almost an assumption out there that if a player really wants out and has sharp-enough elbows to push the right buttons, he’ll eventually wind up like Jamal Adams and Jalen Ramsey—and get his way.
This offseason has given us some interesting test cases.
Matthew Stafford quietly went to Lions management asking for a trade, and he was granted it within a month to his desired destination. Carson Wentz presented his case to the Eagles in a similar fashion to how Stafford approached Detroit, on the premise that both sides could use a reset, and also landed in the place he most wanted to go, just a few weeks later.
Conversely, between the 2020 playoffs and beginning of the ’21 league year, Jones, Rodgers, Watson and Wilson let it be known that they’d at least be amenable to trades, and all four remain with their longtime teams.
And we’re all waiting to see what happens with them.
We’re waiting, because the impact the fate of those four will have on the 2021 season is huge. But truth is, the impact it’ll have on how the NFL does business going forward could be even bigger. And reverberate for a long time to come. Everyone in the league is well aware of what’s on the line in the collective of these four high-stakes games.
It’s the dog days of the offseason, but we’re going to light those dog days up in this week’s GamePlan. Inside the column, you’ll find …
• My best bets for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
• A plan for the future of the NFL offseason.
• Why the cutdown dates changed on Wednesday.
• A groundbreaking personnel exec you need to learn about.
But we’re starting with the story of this offseason, which has been different than any offseason before it.
So how did we get to the point, in the most militaristic of sports, when NFL stars feel comfortable skipping their teams’ workouts, trolling their bosses and taking their grievances public?
Much of it comes down to what drives the train in any business: money and power.
Players have more of the former, which gives them leverage to go after and then attain the latter. Nine of the NFL’s 32 starting quarterbacks—more than a quarter of the league—are on contracts worth $30 million per year or more. Seventeen nonquarterbacks are making $20 million per year or more. And if you’re calling that what it is, players under a salary cap that doubled in a decade have gone from wealthy to having eff you money.
Which has made guys less afraid to say just that to management if they don’t like their personal circumstances.
That’s where you can link the cases of Rodgers, Watson and Wilson. They’re all different, to be sure. But at the root of each, there’s a player who felt he deserved more respect from a team writing him the checks that empower him to say something about it. With Rodgers, discord began with the Jordan Love pick in 2020, and how that move was communicated. With Watson, it was a coach/GM search turning on a dime without his knowledge. With Wilson, it was, in part, a general frustration with a team-building philosophy. (Obviously Watson’s situation has also been impacted by the 22 lawsuits he is currently facing, with all news coming out after he made his trade demand.)
Now, those sorts of frustrations in the NFL aren’t new. But guys’ feeling at liberty to do more than just grumble about it is, and that goes, again, to the money these guys have and the power they can wield as a result of it.
“It’s a combination of all of it,” said an AFC executive. “Having these big contracts changed things. And that’s not the only leverage they have. The leverage with the quarterback is they can say, ‘Oh really? You’re gonna play hardball with me? Go ahead, and then what are you gonna do? You aren’t gonna win anymore, that’s what.’ … The Julio thing is a little different than that. But the quarterbacks, they’re the ones who can do that.
“And those stories get out more. In the past, it wouldn’t get out. Now, with Twitter, they can push a button and flip the script on an organization. They can get their message out easily.”
Attendant to that is a lack of fear in going to battle with management, which is where it goes past just the quarterbacks. More so, it’s a generation of players used to getting its way—a generation that Rodgers isn’t a part of, but guys like Ramsey and Adams are. Which means if the QBs open the door to players handling their business this way, others won’t be afraid to walk through it.
“The treatment of players has changed,” the personnel exec continued. “When we were growing up, you didn’t know who the best running back in California was unless you picked up Street & Smith. These guys were celebrities in high school. It’s just different. You saw it happen in basketball, and with 7-on-7 teams and Rivals and all that, the exposure for a lot of these guys is huge. In a lot of cases, people have known who they are since they were 14 years old, and that brings a level of entitlement.”
And that’s meant, for some teams, adjusting how you handle a star player.
Driving home from Orange County after being offered the Chargers job in January, then-Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley made two phone calls. The first was to his wife, Amy. The second was to the Chargers’ 22-year-old quarterback, Justin Herbert.
“I wanted him to hear my voice,” Staley said back then.
It was, for sure, a savvy move by the 38-year-old, about to become a head coach for the first time. It was also a sign of the times—where quarterbacks have become quasi-management, regardless of how young they might be.
“A lot of times, if you have a quarterback making $30 million, it feels that way,” said an NFC GM. “In a way, you become partners with him almost, he has so much influence and sway over the organization. It’s difficult, because you don’t want it to become the NBA, where guys are going to force their way out. So you have to manage guys different. And there are different expectations, too. They might want say in personnel, and if they’re unhappy with the coach, you might hear about it.”
And that’s where teams have had to reckon with the problem: Where do you draw the line on that partnership?
Many have gotten to the point where they’ll seek stars’ input on potential acquisitions (something that isn’t new but is more pronounced and deliberate now), or routinely give them a heads-up on what might be coming (which plays back to the respect factor). But all, at least as far as I can tell, stop short of really giving players a seat at the decision-making table.
“You want players dialed in,” the GM continued. “It’s a different business model now. These guys have a lot of power, but there’s not a clear-cut answer. Part of me says be up front with them, tell them the truth, maybe let them in on the interview process for a coach. That’s probably a throwaway to you, but it means a lot to a quarterback, or any player, to have their voice heard and be respected.
“But it’s still a business.”
The implication: Players aren’t trained to run teams like GMs and coaches are. And that probably best illustrates where most feel the line should be drawn.
One executive mentioned to me how important it is making sure the quarterback has a good support system around him, and people who are telling him the truth, so he’s realistic about all of that. But those guys are also pretty observant of their surroundings, with an NFL world that’s more connected than ever before. Which is one reason why the way these respective situations end could have a lasting impact.
Tom Brady’s orchestrating his departure from New England, landing in a place that would build on his timetable, and ending up on a post–Super Bowl podium did most certainly spark some of the unrest among quarterbacks who might’ve already been eyeing greener grass in faraway places.
The question is whether it leads to another level of change.
Brady’s situation in New England never got to the point that Wilson’s or Rodgers’s or Watson’s have. He had his heir drafted in ’14. That led to the friction that bubbled up during the ’17 calendar year. He bided his time, let his contract run and then, with a new deal on the table in the summer of ’19, chose to build a highway to free agency rather than his future in New England—taking a contract revision with a no-tag provision, rather than an extension.
“Brady actually had the guts to see it through and take the steps along the way,” said an NFC executive. “He was willing to play out his contract. He was willing to not ask for any more money, and rather than take the contract, he got a no-tag clause. That’s why I don’t have sympathy when I hear Rodgers. You don’t want what Brady wanted. You want everything. Watson? If you wanted out, you shouldn’t have signed a new deal.
“People leave out the part that Brady went through two years of limbo. He didn’t take a deal; he didn’t take the security of knowing he’d be there. He played it out. I respect Brady’s approach. He truly bet on himself. The other guys, they want to take your money and bet with it.”
Indeed, Wilson and Rodgers are under contract for three more years. Watson is under contract for another five years.
So those guys’ getting their way and switching teams now would signal a sea change.
“What we haven’t seen yet is a star player at the peak of his prime on a top-of-the-market deal force his way out,” the exec continued. “Deshaun Watson would’ve been the best test case for that, and it didn’t happen for obvious reasons.”
And contract logistics make this level of player movement tougher in football than other sports, too—and in particular, it’s the oft-used signing bonus mechanism on the megacontracts. Giving guys big signing bonuses serves a few purposes. One, it gets money in a guy’s pocket faster in a sport where guaranteed money is hard to come by. Two, it helps spread cap charges out over the course of deals.
With that mutual motivation woven into their negotiations, Wilson got a $65 million signing bonus in 2019, and Rodgers got $57.5 million to sign right after Wilson did his deal. Watson’s ($27 million) is a little more manageable, but that’s because he was coming off a rookie contract that had two years left on it, and Dak Prescott just pushed the bar higher, landing $66 million to sign coming off a second franchise tag.
Where the win-win of this practice ends is when a player wants off his team, because walking leaves the team saddled with the dead-cap money from the signing bonus that was spread out over the life of the deal. And having paid a disproportionate percentage of the bill on the long-term cost—the Rams-Lions deal was reflective of it, in that the teams both had to manage the dead money and sunk cost of trading QBs on massive contracts.
“In other leagues, there’s no signing bonus issue,” the exec continued. “Russell’s made almost $100 million [it’s at $88 million now] the last two years. So the economics of it are a lot harder. There’s the dead money; there’s the cash. A signing bonus is a down payment on future services.”
So if a player like Watson, Wilson or Rodgers can shoot his way out of town and generate a situation like Brady’s—where the organization is centered on building around the quarterback in the here and now, tomorrow be damned—then we’d be talking about moving to another level of all this.
In a way, that’s where the NBA is now, where star players move about the league on their whims, and teams lucky enough to land them build around them in short windows.
I don’t think the NFL will ever really get there. But if it happens, it’ll have to be the quarterbacks driving it, and that’s what makes where we are so interesting.
The NFL has forever been aware of the potential for this to happen. The franchise tag was originally the brainchild of Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, who came up with it because he was fearful that the advent of unrestricted free agency would lead to the departure of John Elway. And for a long time, the tag has allowed teams to hold off the sort of franchise-player team-jumping that happens in other sports.
The structure of the sport has helped teams, too. Football’s just less star-driven than basketball or baseball, which naturally means less leverage for the players.
But over the years, as rules have changed, the way players are brought up has shifted, and the passing game has flourished at all levels of the game; the importance of the quarterback has multiplied. And over time, the quarterbacks have learned how to wield the money and power given to them.
Now, in real time, we’ll get to see how far they can take it.
We’re continuing our 2021 award series. Last week, we pegged Washington LB Jamin Davis as the favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year. This week, our Offensive Rookie of the Year rankings will probably look a little more boring than that (odds courtesy, again, of sportsbettingdime.com).
1) Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jaguars (+300): No need to overcomplicate this. The starting point for any rookie of the year campaign is playing time, and Lawrence is going to get all of it. Also, the last time he leveled up, he won a championship. Now, I’m not saying Jacksonville is going to do that—the Jags are in a different place than Clemson was in 2018—but I think they’ll be better, and Lawrence will play well enough to get his share of the credit for it.
2) Najee Harris, RB, Steelers (+1200): Again, these awards for rookies are often a function of opportunity, and I believe Harris is going to have a lot of opportunity, in both the run game and pass game. That he’s eighth on the odds list is … something to be taken advantage of.
3) Zach Wilson, QB, Jets (+700): He’s third here in part because he’s a sure bet to be a Week 1 starter, like the two guys in front of him. And if the operation around him improves (with additions like Corey Davis, Ali Vera-Tucker, Elijah Moore and Michael Carter), my guess is we’ll see some flashes of brilliance.
4) Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Bengals (+1100): I have him in front of Kyle Pitts, just because history tells us tight ends’ transitions to the pro game take a little more time than receivers’. Here’s a fun fact: Mike Ditka is the only tight end ever to have 1,000 yards receiving as a rookie. He’s also the only tight end ever to get to 900 yards as a rookie. And it’s been 19 years since a rookie tight end has even gotten to 750. Meanwhile, nine rookie receivers in the last decade have made it to 1,000.
5) Justin Fields, QB, Bears (+600): If he gets on the field, he’ll rise on this list. But that’s obviously still a big if. I’ll give him the edge over Pitts (who I think will be spectacular in time), because I think the ceiling for 2021 here is pretty high.
THE BIG QUESTION
What will the future of the NFL offseason look like?
We’ve had some reporting in the last few Monday columns that drive at where the 2021 offseason programs have been going—and I’m not sure we’ve done enough to explain what’s going to come of this long-term. And to do that, I think it’s important to spell out specifically how we got here in the first place. The rundown …
• In February and March, the NFL and NFLPA started talks on COVID-19 protocols for this offseason. Remember, at that point, we were still in the thick of the pandemic, and there was still plenty of uncertainty over what the spring would look like in the U.S.
• Over time, the conversation among union officials and the great population of players started to shift—with an eye on potential permanent change. Players found that staying off their feet in the spring and having a ramp-up period to training camp, had them feeling better physically going into and coming out of the 2020 season.
• The players, team by team, put together statements saying they’d stay away from OTAs and minicamps, absent an agreement between the league and union. Lots of players still showed up for voluntary workouts, but the idea of relatively empty fields for the on-field portion of the program sparked talks between coaches and players on adjustments.
• To date, 22 of 32 head coaches have reached agreements with their players for alterations to offseason programs, some more drastic than others, but all lessening the amount of on-field work done in a team setting (which allows for players to save their legs).
So obviously, there’s been progress here toward what players want. And I think there are some more steps that can be taken here that’ll work for everyone, too.
To me, if this centers on how on-field work is handled in May and June, the focus should be what works best for everyone, and that means getting the people who need the work out there, and not wasting the time of those who don’t. Which leads me to believe a developmental period would make sense.
Right now, in a normal offseason, the NFL allows coaches seven weeks of on-field instruction—three of what amounts to walkthroughs and individual drills, and four of nonpadded, full-speed practices. My idea, then, would be to stagger those. So if we’re talking about the seven-week, post–Phase I period, maybe you leave it as seven weeks for guys with four accrued NFL seasons or fewer, and make it four weeks for everyone else.
That, as I see it, could look like this on next year’s calendar:
• Vested veterans: Phase II, May 23 to June 3; Phase III, June 6 to 17.
• Nonvested players: Phase II, May 2 to 20; Phase III, May 23 to June 17.
That would eliminate the idea that for vets there’s much voluntary-but-not-really time, and it’d give you the shot to develop young guys more effectively. And creatively, on this calendar, you could start working the older players in with their younger guys in walkthroughs from May 23 to June 3, even while the younger guys are ramping up.
Also, really, in this format, you’d be down to two “can’t miss” weeks for players, so if they wanted to stay in their own training programs (which plenty of guys do), and they had background in the system you’re running, they’d basically be freed up to do it.
Now, is this perfect? It isn’t. But I do think it’s an interesting idea that has the benefit of tailoring the offseason to the needs of different levels of players, and could help teams both with their depth and with their health in the long run.
WHAT NO ONE’S TALKING ABOUT
Why the NFL changed its cutdown calendar.
In case you missed it, summer’s going to be a little different in the new, 17-game NFL, and it’s not just the move from four preseason games to three. The league’s also going from one cutdown to three. Here’s how it’ll look:
• Aug. 17 (Tuesday after Preseason Week 1): cutdown from 90 to 85.
• Aug. 24 (Tuesday after Preseason Week 2): cutdown from 85 to 80.
• Aug. 31 (Tuesday after Preseason Week 3): cutdown from 80 to 53.
Functionally, this does change some things for teams. For one, it’ll make it so final rosters are set nine days out from the Thursday opener and 12 days before the first Sunday of the season—before, it was five days before the Thursday opener and eight days before the Sunday of Week 1.
Also, it’s going to make it a little more challenging to evaluate bottom-of-the-roster players for teams. If coaches feel the need to spend early preseason snaps on starting players, and then the guys at the end of the line are gone for the last preseason games, there’s less for teams to evaluate off. And that may not seem like a huge deal. But those 81 to 90 types are guys who wind up on tryout lists and practice squads in November and December, and can use those opportunities as a springboard into actual careers.
Why would the NFL change the rules then? I have one theory of my own, and another that a front-office type raised to me on Wednesday.
My theory: It’ll increase the likelihood teams have to play starters in the final preseason game. Remember, the league chose to put that game two weeks before the opener, rather than just moving the start of the preseason back, which gives coaches more leeway to put their prime-timers out there (knowing they’ll have a long layoff before the games count).
Theory I was given: NFL owners don’t want to pay guys who weren’t going to make their teams for getting hurt in the final preseason game. And with fewer guys around who won’t at least make the practice squad, it’s less likely someone destined to wind up a street free agent is negotiating an injury settlement.
Is that a little more cynical? Sure it is. But I wouldn’t doubt it was a factor.
Because really, from a football standpoint, there’s not a ton of upside to these changes.
THE FINAL WORD
Good to see the Eagles promote Catherine Raîche from football operations coordinator to vice president of football operations on Thursday—the sort of promotion, for a personnel chief, that can be the final step before ascending to a general manager’s seat.
And it was cool digging around on Raîche a little and finding out more about who she is as a professional. Here are a few facts …
• Eagles GM Howie Roseman hired Raîche in 2019 out of the CFL, where she was serving as the Toronto Argonauts’ director of football administration. The year before that, she’d been her hometown Montreal Alouettes’ assistant GM.
• She became the Alouettes’ assistant GM in 2017, after just two years working there. She’d been a lawyer before that, having graduated from Université de Sherbrooke’s law school.
• She’s moving into a position last held by now Browns GM Andrew Berry. Roseman had her shadow Berry for much of his year in Philly, knowing Berry would eventually become a GM, and feeling like she’d have the chops to grow into his role. Also, she’s 32, which is how old Berry was when he got the job in Philly.
• Berry tried to hire her away after getting the Browns GM job last year.
• Being from Montreal, French is her mother tongue, and she’s also fluent in (obviously) English and Spanish.
And over the last day, I’ve heard people with teams and throughout the league office say they believe she’ll wind up as the NFL’s first woman to become GM (though she may have some competition for the distinction with Denver’s new executive director of football operations, Kelly Kleine).
Anyway, it’s a great story of where the NFL is going, and we’ll plan to have more for you on the Eagles’ move in Monday morning’s column.
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