MMQB: Joe Burrow and the Long Road Back

How the Bengals QB made it through the toughest six months of his football life. Plus, Adam Vinatieri’s legacy, Catherine Raîche’s history-making promotion in Philly, the market for Julio Jones, and much more.
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Back in December, with the league ramping up its COVID-19 protocols, the Bengals, like so many other teams, were forced to make their Saturday night-before-the-game meetings virtual. And in doing so, Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher sensed an opportunity.

They knew their franchise quarterback, Joe Burrow, was isolated and immobilized far away, north of Los Angeles, in Santa Monica, with a torn ACL and MCL. They knew the sort of toll that could take on an athlete and figured, maybe, they could help. So they decided to Zoom him into those meetings with the other quarterbacks as the team played out the string. And maybe when we get September or October, Burrow will look back and find some sort of minute detail that he took from it and applied in returning to football.

But when it was happening? Really, while it might sound nice to say the intensely competitive 24-year-old was sapping wisdom from his laptop screen, the idea was a whole lot simpler than that. For Burrow, it gave him the chance to think about something other than his knee, and do it back in the environment he was most comfortable.

“It was just to keep me sane, basically,” Burrow says.

“It was naturally an easy way to keep him involved,” Taylor adds. “He’d jump in, and it wasn’t like an everyday thing—he hadn’t been with us during the week for all of that, obviously. But it was good just to see him there.”

Now, Burrow is no longer confined to participating from wherever he might be sitting. Over the last month or so, he’s gotten to be back around his teammates more, and last week, around the whole team again and on to the practice field.

That’s not to imply he’s totally out of the woods yet. He’s not; that’s why everything he’s doing even now requires a level of restraint he’s had to learn through the rehab process.

But he is a lot better than he was and can be realistically optimistic about what’s ahead.

You’d think that would start with what he, and the Bengals, see ahead—what they hope is a bright future for the franchise with a hometown kid in the center of it. But for Burrow, for now, just being back out there is enough.

“You appreciate a lot of the things that you don’t appreciate when you’re not injured, like putting on your own pants,” he deadpans. “I’m definitely more appreciative of a lot of things I wasn’t before.”


Happy Memorial Day, everyone! And especially to all of those who serve or have served our great country. In this week’s MMQB, you’ll find …

• A look at Adam Vinatieri’s legacy, with the help of his old Patriots position coach

• Learning more about the NFL’s first female VP of football operations

• Julio Jones intel, and analysis

• And a whole lot more

But we’re starting with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft, and his comeback from a knee reconstruction that ended a very promising start to his first year in the NFL.

MMQB column: Julio Jones, Joe Burrow, Adam Vinatieri

Before last year, Robin Burrow had never missed one of her son’s games, in any sport, and as such she and her husband Jimmy had plans to attend the Bengals’ Nov. 22 game against Washington. Jimmy brother lives about an hour from the Football Team’s stadium, in Fredericksburg, Va., so the plan was to go there for the weekend, then leave Sunday night after the game, make it to within two or three hours of their Athens, Ohio, home, find a hotel, then get up early to drive the rest in morning to get Robin to work (she’s an elementary school principal).

All that was scrapped by the pandemic, with Washington being one of the teams that didn’t allow fans in the stands all year. So the Burrows watched from their living room instead, and saw what we all did as their son was high-lowed by Jonathan Allen and Montez Sweat in the third quarter of a tight Week 11 game.

“We were watching the regular TV broadcast, and they went to a commercial, and we knew he was down,” Robin says. “And they came back from the commercial and said, We’re not going to show the hit, because it’s too gruesome. I was like, Oh my goodness, this is bad. And then you’re waiting for that first communication. I texted Joe right away, and he texted back that he was going in for the x-ray.”

“She was pretty calm, still positive that everything was going to be O.K.—in that regard, she was good,” says Jimmy of Robin. “But he’s always bounced up really fast. Even in the Fiesta Bowl, when he took an enormous hit, he bounced right up. When he didn’t get up, I knew then. I didn’t have to see any more.”

The doctors and trainers kept the Burrows connected, and once they were told he was cleared to fly with the team, they decided to hop in the car and make the two-and-a-half hour drive to Cincinnati so they could be at Joe’s place when he got home. When they saw him later that night, Jimmy says, “all Joe wanted to talk about was how well the offense had played against the No. 1 pass defense in the NFL,” which both parents recognized as their son finding a way to cope rather than mope.

“There was no feeling sorry for myself,” Joe says. “It was, Let’s figure out how fast I can get the surgery so I can start my rehab. And then get it going.”

Unspoken was what everyone knew—Joe’s season was over and there was a long road ahead. Burrow decided to have renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. Neal ElAttrache do the repair on the torn ACL and MCL in his left knee, and that meant going to, and ultimately staying in, Southern California. And as for how fast Burrow could have the surgery, the answer was 10 days after the injury, on Dec. 2.

Burrow’s agents rented a place for him in Santa Monica, and his mom took off work so she and Jimmy could be there. They left for a week the Sunday following the surgery, and came back a week later when Athens schools broke for Christmas. That meant they were there for most of the toughest days, which came while the Bengals season was still going on, with it hard for Burrow to even entertain doing anything football-related.

“It was just rehab twice a day trying to make it livable,” he says. “It was pretty miserable at the beginning. It was tough for me to do anything by myself, whether it was shower, go to the bathroom, all of that. I couldn’t really do any of that on my own. That was probably about two or three weeks.”

At first, Burrow’s parents did their best to distract him. He could play video games in his room, and when he tired of that, he and his mom and dad binge-watched TV shows like House. Robin, in her words, “waited on him hand and foot”, making him his go-to chicken-and-rice dinners, and his once-a-week cheat breakfasts too (biscuits and gravy).

But they couldn’t keep him away from football for long. Jimmy, a former CFL defensive back who coached at the college level for nearly 40 years, made sure to pack an NFL ball before making the trip, and soon after the surgery Joe was messing with it. At first he was lying on the floor tossing it in the air, working on the rotation on his ball, then asked his dad for some help.

“So my dad was sitting in the living room, catching balls from me while I was sitting on the couch,” Joe says. “And I was messing with my grip. There’s always little ways you can get better throwing the football when you can’t really do much.”

And while that part made things a little easier, Sundays made them harder.

“I think probably the hardest part for Joe was watching the Bengal games,” Jimmy says. “He just felt bad he wasn’t able to be there with his team, even though he wanted to watch and root for them to win, that’d kind of put him in a down trend. And then to not be able to get up the stairs, we had to have the shower redone for him to get into it, all that. When you’re a professional athlete and all of the sudden, you’re pretty much helpless, that’s tough.”

Joe Burrow is carted off the field after a knee injury against the Washington Football Team

Since being carted off in Washington, it's been a long recovery and rehab period for Burrow.

But watching the games was part of a process Burrow created for himself. It started with Saturday night meetings with Taylor, Callahan, Pitcher and the quarterbacks, and continued past the games.

“It was tough for me to watch it, when I’m not with the guy,” he says. “But I’d watch all of the game. And afterwards, I’d grade the film, just to feel like I was halfway involved with what we were doing.”

Slowly, he found ways to reconnect to football. He spent time in California with one of his best friends from Ohio State, 49ers star Nick Bosa, who also happened to be rehabbing a torn ACL. Fellow LSU alum/Rams tackle Andrew Whitworth invited him over, too. And he worked his way back through the games he did play in, from September, October and November, while the Bengals were finishing their season.

By February, he was comfortable enough to fly again, and the next step of his comeback would be taken back in Cincinnati.


The first challenge of being back in Ohio was a simple one.

“Nobody was in town for a while,” Burrow says.

So he hung with his girlfriend, and Sam Hubbard, one teammate who was around through the winter (and another close friend from OSU). He also spent a lot of time with Bengals director of rehabilitation Nick Cosgray, who took the reins from the rehab people in California and was tasked with getting him back throwing again.

Burrow got to the point where he could start with that at the end of February, throwing from a stationary position to stationary targets into cold wind, and whatever precipitation the Ohio winter might present. Cosgray would be at his side, and strength coaches and equipment staffers served as his receivers. Five or six weeks later, at the beginning of April, he was able to start mixing drops in.

“With my knee, it felt the same,” he says. “But I tweak my throwing motion every offseason and tweak my base. It was actually kind of beneficial for me, because I really started from the beginning and was able to refine some things that needed refining.”

He also was able to work on something else he found needed fixing, based on all the film work he’d done to pass the time.

“There was some good and some bad [from 2020],” he says. “I’d like to be more explosive. And I think I was really good in quick-game situations. On fourth down, we were really good. Empty, we were really good. But we need to be more explosive with play-action passes. All of our downfield passing needs to improve.”

Then, getting more specific, he adds, “I just wasn’t accurate as I was the year before [at LSU] down the field. And that was frustrating to me, because I’ve always been a good down-the-field thrower. Just getting back to the basics of that, really focusing on my fundamentals. I just started running and throwing a few weeks ago, so standing and throwing, and focusing on the fundamentals helped.”

Part of that led to a focus on getting stronger through his hips, to give him a shot to get more consistent juice throwing it. And that, as he sees it, worked. “Just getting my hips stronger through my rehab has gotten a ton more velocity on my ball,” he says. “I’ve been very happy with that.”

While that was going on, the Bengals found ways to involve him in team-building, and one big one was bringing him along for dinners to recruit free agents, like one he had with ex-Vikings tackle Riley Reiff at one of Jeff Ruby’s local steakhouses.

“He needed to be a part of that,” Taylor says. “People want to play with him, so having him there just became a natural part of the process. And he wanted to be there.”

Eager as he was in that arena, he had to be patient in the most important one. Based on the 9-12-month timetable he got from ElAttrache—who told him Week 1 was on the table right after the surgery—he knew all along that he’d be limited for OTAs and minicamp, and showing restraint with that sort of thing, his parents say, is what tested Burrow the most.

After taking deliberate step after deliberate step to make sure the rehab went right, just being there with his teammates was a big step forward, regardless of how much (or little) he could do. Seeing them, en masse, in the locker room was a big deal. Putting on a jersey and a helmet was a big deal. And getting to throw to them was a really big deal, even if it took a little tweaking of drills by Taylor and the staff to make it happen.

Last week, during the first OTA practices, the coaches basically replaced the rehab work Burrow was doing and baked it into practices—so Ja’Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins were catching the balls rather the equipment guys—and played out of empty or without a back on his snaps, so as not to take any unnecessary risk around the knee. And Burrow was also able to take the reins during install, with the team at a walkthrough pace.

And while the way he’s felt before, during and after the sessions has been enough to bring him a level of excitement, going through this has given him a pragmatic realism too.

“I don’t know how mobile I’ll be yet, it’s too early to tell if I’ll feel normal evading the rush and doing all that,” Burrow says. “But I’m optimistic, I feel good right now. We’ll just have to wait and see until camp, how that’s gonna feel. … I’m really doing everything, at this point, it’s just getting my leg stronger. It’s hard to say how explosive I’m going to be in the run game as of right now.”

But for the last two weeks, he’s been running full speed, and cutting, and everyone sees him as being right where he should be based on the timetable he’s got. When will he be 100%?

“I’m hoping it’ll be the beginning of camp, at the latest by the first game,” he says.


The hopes of Taylor and the Bengals are tied up in Burrow’s hopes. The quarterback’s approach over the last six months has given everyone else hope too.

“He’s obviously attacked it, he’s something who wants to do everything he can,” Taylor says. “He hasn’t wasted any opportunity, and Nick [Cosgray] and him have done a great job together. And now to get him on the field, that part was really exciting for me, and for the whole team. It’s been since November that we last saw that.”

Joe Burrow smiles as he exits the field during 2021 OTAs

It’s a long way from those first few weeks—from the day after the injury, when he was at the stadium to make sure his blood flow was where it needed to be; from the video his therapist shot and he sent his parents that showed them the swelling was down and he could walk; and from learning to go up and down stairs again like a normal person, let alone a pro athlete, should. But then, it’s been a long three years, too.

Remember, he’s the guy transferred from one college blueblood to another, won a starting job at the latter, was pegged as a mid-round pick after his first year there, exploded in Year 2 at Baton Rouge, won a Heisman and a national title. He had his pre-draft process muddled by a pandemic, went first overall anyway, became a Day 1 NFL starter even with COVID-19 taking his first offseason program away, experienced some highs, some lows as a rookie … Then, tore his ACL and MCL.

“Two-and-a-half years ago, I didn’t know if I was going to be a starting quarterback anywhere in college,” Burrow says. “And now, sitting where I’m at, I’ve gone through a lot of adversity that’s helped put me in the position I’m in. This is just another bump in the road that I have to overcome. And I’m confident that I can, and I’m confident I’ve done it the right way so far.”

At the very least, it sure looks like the worst is behind him. And sure, it probably helps that he could put on his own pants again.


VINATIERI'S LEGACY

If you want to make the case that Adam Vinatieri should make it to Canton, the record book alone can make a compelling one.

Among the NFL records the former Patriot and Colt holds: Most points scored (2,673), most field goals made (599), most field goals attempted (715), most consecutive seasons scoring (24), most seasons with 100 points (21), most playoff field goals (56), most playoff points (238), oldest player to make a 50-yard field goal, make two 50-yarders in a game, and make a 55-yarder (46), most points (49) and field goals (14) in single postseason, most Super Bowl field goals (7) and extra points (14), most overtime field goals (12), most consecutive field goals (44), and most playoff games by a kicker (32).

He’s also tied with ex-teammate Tom Brady for most wins by any player in NFL history (226) and is the only player ever to score 1,000 points for two different teams.

That’s plenty, right?

And that’s just it—what’s really interesting is that rundown fails to capture why he’s considered by so many to be the greatest kicker in NFL history. To most, that’s more about the moments he created. The kick in the snow to tie the Raiders in January 2001, then one to beat them. The game-winners in Super Bowls XXXVI and XXVIII.

The simple fact is that no was nails with game on the line quite like Vinatieri was nails with the game on the line, and I think you can build his legacy out from there.

“He’s the best I’ve had in the sense where you always hear someone say, ‘this guy is the ultimate gamer’. That’s what Adam actually was,” says Brad Seely, his special teams coach in New England from 1999–2005. “I’ve had guys with better legs, guys that were more accurate, guys that had an overall skill set that was better than Adam’s. But with Adam, you just counted on the guy. He was gonna make the kicks.”

Adam Vinatieri celebrates the game-winning field goal of Super Bowl XXXVI

Vinatieri announced his retirement on the Pat McAfee Show last week, telling his former Indy batterymate that he was filing papers with the league to make it official.

And while the announcement wasn’t a shocker, it showed Vinatieri to be another football player who rode right up until the wheels fell off. He battled a knee injury through his final season, 2019, before it finally got to the point where he decided to undergo surgery to clean the issue up. As such, the Colts put him on IR on Dec. 9 of that year. Vinatieri didn’t play in 2020 due to continuing discomfort stemming from surgery, but as recently as last week said he wanted to try to give it another go.

In a certain sense, all of that is fitting, too, because it showed that while Vinatieri couldn’t fill a gap like a linebacker or lead block like a fullback, he really wasn’t a “kicker” in the way the position is often derided—as something on the fringes of the sport.

“I really have to say, and this might sound bad, but he probably wasn’t a great practice kicker,” Seely says. “I’ve been around a lot of really good kickers—Sebastian Janikowski, Phil Dawson, John Kasay, a zillion guys. He was probably really average compared to them as a practice player. Most of those guys, they don’t miss in practice. This guy would miss. But once we got to the game, you always felt great about him getting it between the posts.

“That was just him. I never thought of him as a kicker. Some guys, you say, That guy is just a kicker. This guy was an athlete that happened to be a kicker. He trained with linemen in the offseason. He was a part of the team.”

The interesting part is how, through Seely’s first year in New England, which was Pete Carroll’s last, it looked like Vinatieri’s days might be numbered. He missed a 32-yarder to beat Kansas City in Week 5, with nine seconds left, that would’ve made those Patriots 5–0 (they lost 16-14). He then missed a 33-yarder to beat Buffalo with five seconds left in regulation in Week 16, then a 44-yarder in overtime to end it (the Patriots lost 13-10). So instead of being 10–6, New England finished 8–8, and Carroll was fired.

“With Bill [Belichick] coming in, there was some question if this was gonna be our kicker forever,” Seely says. “And good for him that he felt like he had to prove himself to a new coach, and he proved himself to Bill. And going forward, he became the Adam Viantieri everyone recognizes.”

Seely’s first memory of thinking Vinatieri was more than a football player actually came four seasons before that, when the coach was in Carolina, and he saw, on TV, a rookie Vinatieri run down Herschel Walker on a kickoff. And the way he handled himself after those misses only affirmed that his mentality matched his physicality.

“This guy didn’t complain about a hold, about snaps—if it was missed, he put it on himself,” says Seely. “He was a stand-up guy in that regard. If something bad happened, he was taking the heat, not dishing the blame on somebody else, and guys respected that.”

And for that period of time when it seemed like he couldn’t miss? Seely has two favorite kicks, and they’re probably exactly the ones you’re thinking of.

The first was the 45-yarder in a blinding storm to force overtime in the January 2002 Snow Bowl against the Raiders. What Seely remembers about the moment is that there really was no discussion on what the Patriots would do—just Belichick barking “field goal” to get the field goal team out there for fourth-and-9 from the Raider 28 with 32 seconds left.

“Even from the sideline, I couldn’t tell if he made it,” Seely says. “Right before, I’d gone over to him on the sideline, and said, ‘We’re gonna have to kick this if we can get it closer.’ And we didn’t get it closer. And if we don’t make this, we’re gonna lose the game. The field was horrible, conditions were terrible. If you were betting, it was probably 30-70 against him. But it was really our only option, fourth-and-long. That was like, Wow.

“And then he made the kick to win the game in overtime.”

And, of course, two weeks later, in much better conditions inside the Superdome, Vinatieri drilled a 47-yarder at the buzzer to complete the Patriots’ mind-bending upset of a Rams team favored by two touchdowns, give the franchise its first Lombardi, and help set the course for the next two decades in the NFL.

“And that kick against the Rams, he told our ball guy to make sure he went down and got the ball after he made it,” Seely says, laughing. “It’s like, What? Really? He wanted one of our managers to make sure he’d go down and catch the ball. Who is thinking about that before the biggest kick of his life? It was, I’m making it, we’re winning the game, and I want the ball. That sums the guy up, the utmost confidence in his ability.

“Even if he had a bad kick, similar to a corner, with short-term memory, he just would think, That was aberration. I missed one? Well, I’ll make the next 10 in a row.”

Ultimately, that’s where Vinatieri’s legacy will be—that he could, after that 1999 slump, be counted on just about every time. He left New England after 10 years, during the 2006 offseason, and probably was a Hall of Famer already at that point. He wound up playing 14 seasons in Indy after that—making his run as a Colt, after all that success in New England, as long as Peyton Manning’s—and won another championship while he was there.

And in both places, his value went way past the “K” next to his name on the roster.

“I’d say he’s like a lot of guys there (in New England) that don’t get as much credit,” Seely says. “He was a glue guy, which means whatever his area of expertise was, he had to have it handled, and Adam was gonna handle what he had to handle. That’s why the Patriots are so good—this is my job, and I have to be really good at it, or it’s not gonna work here. That’s Adam. He handled that position. As you see now, a lot of guys can’t stand up to heat. He always did.”

Seely congratulated Vinatieri in a text on Friday, and said, “Make sure you invite me to Canton.” Vinatieri’s response was a lot less cocksure than the one he delivered on the Patriot sideline in New Orleans 19 years ago—“Well, if that happens …”

He was being humble, but, really, there was no reason to create any doubt on that one. His reward for all this should be coming in Northeast Ohio in about five years.


CATHERINE RAICHE’S BIG ROLE IN PHILLY

It didn’t take long for Marc Trestman to figure out he had something a little different in his director of football operations in Toronto—Catherine Raîche was hired about a month before got the head coaching job there in early 2018—and while there wasn’t a single Eureka moment for him over those months, he can remember the reminders of who Raîche was kept coming.

One that sticks out was in training camp that spring.

“Three or four of our scouts, they’re sitting up in the stands, and they’re not really watching practice. They’re talking. They’re just not really focused on the practice,” Trestman, the former Bears coach, said the other day. “And there she is, separated, by herself, with a notebook in her hand, watching practice in an undistracted manner. Really doing what she needs to be doing, taking notes on our players, and watching the position group that she was assigned to, and putting herself in a position where she could do her job.

“Nobody on the staff looked at her differently for that, or made fun of her for it. I remember bringing her over and asking her, ‘How come you’re not over there?’”

Trestman couldn’t recall Raîche’s exact response, but it did strike him how she knew how to get her work done, while still fitting in with the group, even if she was separating herself from the group for that moment. “It just tells you a little bit about her, she understood the difference, being with the group when you should be, and not when you shouldn’t be.”

This week, the Eagles, and Raîche, made some history, with the 32-year-old ascending into Andrew Berry’s old job as VP of football operations, and getting there at the same age Berry did (Berry became the Browns GM the following January). It’s a big step for Raîche—her friends in Philly call her “Cat”—and for the Eagles, who also promoted their two African-American directors, Ian Cunningham and Brandon Brown, to co-directors of player personnel (the second-ranking job in the scouting department, under VP Andy Weidl).

But moreso, it’s a big step for football, the same way Kelly Kleine being hired in Denver as executive director of football operations was.

Football’s not like baseball and basketball and hockey. Those sports have popular facsimiles for women on the college and pro levels, which creates a natural pipeline for women to go from playing at the game’s highest level to coaching at the game’s highest level. Most women trying to get jobs with NFL teams battle not just long-held gender barriers, but also the old “you never played” barrier.

That makes people like Kleine and Raîche pretty significant. The last couple weeks, we covered how Kleine made it. Here, we’ll dive into Raîche’s story.

She graduated from the Université de Sherbrooke law school and initially took steps to start a career as an attorney, before catching on with her hometown Montreal Alouettes in 2015. Her beginnings were on the contract side, as the team’s coordinator of football administration. Within two years, she was promoted to assistant GM, before leaving for Toronto, where she’d start working with Trestman.

And while contracts were her initial area of expertise, by then, she’d grown to have at least a working grasp of most other facets of a Canadian football franchise, too—from scouting players, to knowing what needed to be done to get them in and out of the country.

“Every job she handled she handled with great attention to detail, she was knowledgeable, she’s a great communicator,” Trestman says. “We gave her every opportunity, she wrote scouting reports, she set up practice facilities, she handled all the details that went into operations. Everything we asked her to do, she did. … And she’s really even-keeled and emotionally intelligent. She’s humble. She’s got a desire to learn. Those are pretty good attributes for somebody that age.”

That 2018 season wasn’t a great one for Toronto. The Argos finished 4–14, but opportunity was going to come out of it from Raîche. In March of 2019, Trestman was hired away to be the head coach and GM of the rebooted XFL’s Tampa Bay Vipers, and Raîche was one of two hires he made right away—naming her the team’s director of football operations.

In the months to follow, Raîche worked from Canada, while making periodic trips to the U.S., as paperwork on her work visa was being processed. Through that time, she was hip-to-hip with Trestman in getting the new team off the ground, and then opportunity knocked again with the NFL holding a symposium for women aspiring to move up in its ranks in June 2019.

That’s where Eagles GM Howie Roseman found her. A month later, Raîche was hired full-time as Philly’s football operations coordinator—before Trestman could even get her stateside to start working for the Vipers. But even though she’d left, her impact was there with the people in Tampa.

“She kept us on course, kept us on the rails,” Trestman says. “When you’re starting from nothing, there’s a lot to do, and she could do all of it.”

From there, clearly, Raîche was on her way. Roseman had her shadow Berry, knowing Berry may well become a GM in short order, and thinking that the new hire might eventually be able to replace her. It took less than two years for that to happen—and it happened after Berry made a bid in 2020 to try and poach her from the Eagles.

Now, it’s tough to say where this goes next, because hiring patterns can be fickle, GM spots don’t turn over like coaching spots do, and we’re completing an offseason where there were an unusually high number of openings on that side (seven), which makes it likely to be quieter on that front over the next couple years.

That said, Raîche is someone I know Sam Rapoport and the folks at the league office have identified as capable of landing in that sort of role, and her latest promotion puts her, essentially, one step away from getting there.

“I have daughters her age, and as a father, it’s something you want to see daughters get a great opportunity when they’re talented enough to be there, you kind of get an affinity for that,” Trestman says. “I said it years ago—I think she’ll be a general manager. And what a great place for her to take the next step, it’s a perfect position for her. My hat’s off to Howie and the Eagles for giving her that opportunity.”

And we’ll have a little more on the other opportunities landed in Philly in a minute.


TEN TAKEAWAYS

My guess is Julio Jones is traded this week. But I’ll say this—it is not easy finding a team that’s falling all over itself to make that happen. There’s a simple explanation as to why, too. The NFL generally doesn’t pay age, and it generally doesn’t fork over huge draft capital to get age, and the 32-year-old Jones is, in pro football, aging. To illustrate that point, I took the last three years, a period over which big-time trades have become more and more prevalent, and looked at the age of guys being moved for major draft capital. Over the period going back to April 2018, 11 non-quarterbacks have been dealt for a first-round pick or more.

• Brandin Cooks was 24 went he was dealt from the Patriots to Rams in April 2018.

• Khalil Mack was 27 when he was traded from Oakland to Chicago in September 2018.

• Amari Cooper was 24 when he was traded from Oakland to Dallas in October 2018.

• Odell Beckham was 26 when he was traded from the Giants to the Browns in March 2019.

• Frank Clark was 25 when he was dealt from Seattle to Kansas City in April 2019.

• Laremy Tunsil was 25 when he went from Miami to Houston in September 2019.

• Minkah Fitzpatrick was 22 when he went from Miami to Pittsburgh in September 2019.

• Jalen Ramsey was 24 when he was dealt from Jacksonville to the Rams in October 2019.

• DeForest Buckner went from the 49ers to Indy the day after he turned 26, in March 2020.

• Stefon Diggs was 26 when he was traded from Minnesota to Buffalo in March 2020.

• Jamal Adams was 24 when the Jets traded him to Seattle last July.

So that’s one guy at 22, one guy at 27, four at 24, two at 25, and three at 26, which means Jones would be five years older than the next oldest player to be dealt for a 1. Add that to the cap and cash crunch that we addressed last week, and it shouldn’t be too surprising seeing the trouble that Atlanta has had offloading its star receiver. Now, I do think there are teams that would be interested at the right spot. But take, for instance, the Titans and Ravens, both of whom have had internal discussions on Jones—each would have to move a lot of money around (both have less than $10 million in cap space) to bring him in. Even the oft-discussed Patriots can’t do it without some serious restructuring. And as for the idea Atlanta would eat money … maybe the Falcons will. But that, in a way, would be self-defeating, if the move is going to take up cap space as it is. Even with a post-June 1 trade, which would move $15.5 million of his $23.25 million in dead money to 2022, the Falcons will be carrying $7.75 million in dead money this year, and already paid Jones $48.7 million for the first two years of the deal he did two summers ago. And none of this is to take away anything from Jones the player. He’s a Hall of Famer, as I see it. But a trade return isn’t a career achievement award—it’s about projecting what a guy is going to be going forward. Which, as you can ascertain here, is just one reason why new Atlanta GM Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith are in a very difficult spot here. And why most teams that have sniffed around are leery on overpaying.

Julio Jones on the field before a game against the Vikings

All of this said, I’d say the Titans make the most sense for Jones. GM Jon Robinson has been unafraid to trade for veteran players in the past (Jadeveon Clowney was a good example), and the departure of Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith to the AFC East leaves a void that Jones could very easily fill. Also, while the Titans are sitting at around $4 million in cap space, Ryan Tannehill has a sizable base for 2021 ($24.5 million), over $23 million of which could swiftly be converted into a signing bonus to create room for Jones. Here’s the other thing—Tennessee’s core is in a window to contend now. Ryan Tannehill turns 33 in July. Taylor Lewan, returning from an ACL, will be 30 then. Kevin Byard will be 28 on opening day, and Derrick Henry is 27 and piling up mileage on his legs. Coach Mike Vrabel and GM Jon Robinson have a really good team that’s been in the playoffs two years in a row, winning its division last year, and going to the AFC title game the year before that. They had to lop some guys off for cap reasons this offseason. Getting Jones would be a creative way to make up for it, and give the current group a better chance to make a title run. If you believe you can do it, are you willing to mortgage $15 million in cap spending (off Tannehill’s deal) into 2022 and ’23 (when you should be cap healthier) and fork over what might be the 60th pick in the draft, and maybe another mid-round pick for Jones? If I’m Robinson and Vrabel, the idea of that would be tempting. Especially with other AFC contenders Baltimore and New England at least coming off as tepid on the idea of spending too much on Jones.

The Ravens are interesting here for a pretty simple reason: Jones sort of fits their new type. Over the past few years, Baltimore has taken swings at third-contract players (Calais Campbell, Kevin Zeitler, Sammy Watkins and Derek Wolfe are on the roster now), zigging in an area where most teams zag. It isn’t an accident, of course. I dug around on the idea a couple months back, and here are a few reasons for their somewhat-newfound practice:

1) Predictability. There’s more history on third-contract players, which makes for less volatility. Also, since these guys aren’t getting big money for the first time, there’s far less concern about their behavior changing as a result of getting a big check.

2) Desire to win. Whether it’s a player like Wolfe or Watkins who’s had a taste of a championship, or guys like Campbell and Zeitler that haven’t, there’s a hunger to win knowing that there might not be many shots left at it.

3) Usually, they’re cut or traded. As such, they usually come in without the team having to worry about how they factor into the comp pick formula.

4) Leadership. This is obvious—the deeper you are into your career, the more position you’ve been in where you had to lead, and so naturally you’ll be better in that area.

And in looking at Jones, “predictability” is the only one of those boxes he doesn’t check, and that’s because of the injuries. I’m not sure he’ll wind up a Raven. But I do know they’ve stayed abreast of this one, and in ways listed above, and ways not (toughness, grit, etc.), Jones would be a fit.

I think how Frank Reich and the Colts handled the offseason program will be studied. And the reason why is because they handled it very differently from how other teams did—when head coaches started scrambling to get their players to show up for all that voluntary work. Reich cut the offseason program down by three full weeks, taking Phase III, the meatiest part of the program, from four weeks to one. For the Colts, the week of May 17 was Phase II, the week of May 24 was Phase III, and now they’re off. Within the last two weeks, there were eight days spent on the field, and the first five were truly reserved for teaching, with the offense and defense separated. The last three there was more competitive work, but all 11-on-11 was at a walkthrough pace, with coaches and players mutually policing the intensity and making sure everyone was staying on their feet. As far as I can tell, there are two pieces of logic to follow here: 1) As we’ve detailed here the last few weeks, these efforts by players to lighten offseason programs has purportedly been to save miles on guys’ legs, and this will do that; 2) under those conditions, my sense is Reich and his staff wanted to get everyone in for at least part of the program. And with the time they did have, with everyone there, they were able to teach and put on tape some of the new plays/concepts the staff is putting in (even if some of that tape doesn’t have guys at a full-speed pace), so they can build off that, rather than just start to learn it, when they get to training camp. All of that makes sense. What I’ll be interested to see, then, is how the Colts rookies look when we get to the preseason games. Normally, they’d have 16 practices going into camp, between rookie minicamp, OTAs, and full-squad minicamp. They’ve got a lot less as it stands right now.

While we’re there, the idea of a ramp-up period remains at the heart of discussions between the league and union on training camp. The problem right now is that the timing doesn’t quite work. Last year, teams were required to go through a nine-day acclimation period (Aug. 3–11), then a five-day gradual ramp up (Aug. 12–16) before the first day in pads, to get guys ready coming off a COVID-addled offseason. That’s a full two weeks, and last year the cancellation of the preseason accommodated that schedule. This year, the first full weekend of the preseason games is Aug. 12–14, with the league-wide report date for everyone but the Cowboys, Steelers and Bucs being July 27 (that’s the report date, not the start of practice). If you do the math here, you’ll see that doing it the way it was last year would make it impossible for most to stage even a single padded practice before preseason games start. And even with the CBA-prescribed five-day acclimation period, chances to hit in practice before that first preseason game will be relatively scarce. Where this negotiation goes between the union and league—particularly after the offseason-program talks between those groups went nowhere, and with the NFL clearly trying to turn camp into more of an event this year—will be interesting.

The reporting out of New England this week on Mac Jones was interesting. A bunch of the locals there said Jones looked sharp, or as sharp as you can in that sort of setting, so I did a little digging to see what I could figure out. What I heard was that Jones has been, to this point, as advertised—which is good news, because that means it’s as the Patriots saw him going into the draft, and they really liked him (obviously). He’s very accurate, the ball comes out quick, and he’s smart. His teammates’ words on him (Kendrick Bourne said he’s got “swag”) matches what the Alabama guys told teams about Jones during the pre-draft process. Now, here’s where we dump water on the idea that this is all that significant. The extent of the Patriots’ competitive work to this point of the offseason program has been a single 7-on-7 period. Everything else has been on air or at a teaching pace. So even they aren’t sure what Jones will look like when he has to make tight-window throws in the face of a live rush. But so far, so good. Really, what Jones can do for himself at this point is clear every hurdle thrown in front of him. If he keeps doing that, maybe they give him some reps with the 1s in camp, which is where he’d actually have a shot at winning the job from Cam Newton, who for his part has shown good accuracy and some of the same positive signs he did last summer (yes, I know how that turned out). At this point, I’m not sure there’s going to be a full-on quarterback competition at all. Will Belichick choose to have one? Maybe Jones can convince him to.

I think it was interesting to hear this week that Kyler Murray hasn’t been in the Cardinals’ offseason program to this point. I’m told he’ll be there soon and has worked out with teammates in Dallas (where he spends his offseason). And this may just be the way these things are going in pro football in general. But it’s at least notable that Murray’s choosing to work out in Texas, rather than Arizona, to get himself in the right place for his third year, which is a critical one for every first-round quarterback.

Tom Brady’s decision to do workouts separate from the Bucs’ offseason program is another example. But this one, I think, could foreshadow where some of this goes in the future. Brady has run player-led workouts for a long time now—he used to hold them in Montana, after skipping parts of Patriots OTAs—so he has a good handle on how to do it. And because he’s Tom Brady, veteran guys (Rob Gronkowski, Cam Brate, Mike Evans and Antonio Brown among them, per the Tampa Bay Times’ Rick Stroud) are showing up. Meanwhile, Bruce Arians is holding OTAs at the team facility, with a lot of the younger guys getting more work in as a result—and using it as a sort of developmental camp. If you think about that, it really does make sense. The older players know what they need, and are getting their work in. The younger players need direction, and they’re getting it from their coaches. And in a couple weeks, they’ll bring all of that together at mandatory minicamp. And if it works out, there’s an interesting template to work from there, if you have a veteran quarterback capable of taking the kind of lead role that Brady routinely does.

On those Eagles’ promotions—moving Cunningham and Brown into those roles makes them two to watch going forward. Cunningham, 36, is really interestingly positioned here. He cut his teeth in Baltimore and grew under Ozzie Newsome and Eric DeCosta to the point where Newsome trusted him with the Southeast, and Alabama in particular, as an area scout. From there, fellow Raven alum Joe Douglas brought him to Philly to be the Eagles’ college scouting director, and Roseman promoted him to assistant director of player personnel after Douglas tried to bring him to New York after he got the Jets GM job. This second promotion came after Cunningham was runner-up to Dan Morgan for the Panthers assistant GM job. All of which is to say the former Virginia tackle is closing in on GM candidacy. And Brown is getting there too, landing the co-director of player personnel spot with just seven NFL seasons under his belt (one with the Jets, two with the Colts, four with the Eagles). Brown has a law degree and a wealth of experience on the pro side, which complements Cunningham’s experience on the college side. And those two have been working with Roseman and Weidl since 2017, so there’s a good level of institutional knowledge there too—something that should be important as the Eagles work through what’ll be a fairly significant rebuild. And both are good names to file away as being in the pipeline.

You can be excused if you forgot C.J. Mosley’s name the last two years. But it was good to hear him talk this week. “There's a little added chip because you've always got your fans that are going to heckle," Mosley said Thursday, in a Zoom with the New York media. “When I get back on the field, I definitely want to make sure they respect the name again.” It’s easy to forget now, but Mosley was All-Pro four times in his first five NFL seasons before landing a five-year, $85 million deal to leave the Ravens for the Jets in March of 2019. Twenty-seven months have passed since then, and Mosley has played a total of 121 snaps for the Jets—he had more tackles than that in 2014 and 2017—after missing all but two games in 2019 and opting out last year. So he’s got a lot of work to do to justify the way the Jets paid him. And his will be a good test case in how time away affects a football player’s ability to reenter the league. During that meeting with the media, he cited Gronkowski’s comeback. But the truth is, he was away for almost twice as long as the Buccaneers star tight end.


SIX FROM THE SIDELINE

1) My thoughts with all of our servicemen and servicewomen today. Through covering the league and talking to guys like Nate Boyer, and having friends in the military, I’ve learned how difficult a day Memorial Day can be for the folks in uniform—and all they have to reckon with, given its meaning. Here’s wishing peace for all of them today.

2) Hard to watch what Jordan Speith is capable of this week and not wonder when he’s gonna get back into the winner’s circle at a major. Hard to believe it’s been four years since he won one, and six years since he won the Masters and U.S. Open back-to-back.

3) Seeing the TD Garden full for Celtics and Bruins games this weekend was amazing, and I’m sure all of you feel the same way at the sight of the same thing in whatever city you live in. It sure does feel like it’s been forever. And it definitely took a lot of good work by a lot of good people to get us back here.

4) Good to see NIL (name, image and likeness) legislation making its way through the system in Ohio, which will join Georgia, Florida, Alabama, New Mexico and Mississippi in having passed it to allow college athletes to profit off their individual brands. And on one hand, how this has happened makes you wonder how ridiculous it is that the NCAA couldn’t get here on its own. On the other … yeah, it’s the NCAA.

5) Late on this, but we just started The Morning Show on Apple TV, and it’s spectacular.

6) Good luck to Lincoln-Sudbury alum Eric Holden, a Maryland middie, in the NCAA lacrosse championship today. That tournament, if you’ve missed it, has been electric.


BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

We make a big deal of these things. And really, we do it without acknowledging the jerseys that sell are the new ones. So yes, Tebow’s jerseys are selling. But so are Justin Fields’s. And Najee Harris’s. And Burrow’s, after a Bengals uniform change. And Jalen Hurts’s after a number change.

What a total freak show.

I followed up with Schwartz on this, and asked who the best he played with, and in retrospect I should’ve know it’d be Julius Peppers, who actually played real minutes for the North Carolina basketball team while a star on the Heels’ football team. But the second name he mentioned was interesting: Former Pro Bowl tackle Branden Albert.

While we’re there, it’s actually sort of impressive that Carson Wentz can keep up like this with Mo Alie-Cox, who was a star hoops player at VCU before deciding to give football on a shot on the now-common “there are more 6’6” power forwards than 6’6” tight ends on the planet” premise.

This was pretty good. And by the way, knowing what I know, I do not think Julio knew he was on air on Undisputed.

In case you missed it, there’s the actual video.

Not many guys could pull this off. Good work by Kenny Mayne.

Love this. And Philip Rivers would tell you it’s fulfilling a dream for him that he’s dreamt for as long as he did of being an NFL player.

Love these, and the Panthers did a really good job taking you inside the first offseason together for coach Matt Rhule and new GM Scott Fitterer.

The Broncos’ version didn’t get as much attention this week, but it was similarly well-done, and gives you a good window into who new GM George Paton is.

I’ve never made a meme, but it feels to me like this is a good first swing at one by Brady.

Not an NFL tweet, per se, but a sign we’re getting back to normal.


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

As much as we’ve heard about Tebow signing in Jacksonville, we still haven’t heard from Tebow about signing in Jacksonville, outside of a team-issued statement. And you’d think that means he, and the team, are actively trying to keep this iteration of TebowMania from turning into a circus.

That’s good. Because if there’s one common complaint I’ve heard from his past coaches about it, it’s not that he’s actively fueling it. Moreso, it’s that he doesn’t do anything to calm it down. And not talking is probably the best thing he can do to calm it down. For now, anyway.

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