The idea that Julio Jones would be traded became public in the days leading up to the draft. The fact that he had asked for a trade only made it into the news cycle two weeks ago. But what you saw go down on Sunday? The wheels have been rolling a lot longer than that.
In fact, what’s been a two-week story for fans on the outside has been a two-year story inside the Falcons’ building. This goes all the way back to the 2019 negotiation of the three-year, $66 million extension Jones landed with two years left on a deal he signed in 2015. That negotiation was long. It was difficult. And when it was done, it was positioned as affirmation of owner Arthur Blank’s promise to make the greatest receiver in franchise history a Falcon “forever,” with guaranteed money carrying the superstar into his mid-30s. The truth wasn’t nearly that clean.
Jones went to the table twice asking for a market correction to his second NFL contract—after the 2017 season, and again after the 2018 season. He got a Band-Aid pay hike in ’18, then the blockbuster contract in ’19. The first adjustment was done with the agreement that the sides would work out something more permanent a year later, and the Falcons did follow through on that promise.
But it took the entire offseason to get it done—the deal was finalized just before the 2019 opener—and there were potholes along the way. At one point, Jones’s camp told the Falcons that if a new agreement couldn’t be reached, the perennial All-Pro wanted to be traded.
It’s hard to say whether that request impacted the ongoing contract talks. It was, on the other hand, easy to see the other effects it wound up having, and the damage it did.
The relationship was strained, and it remained that way through the final two years that then GM Thomas Dimitroff and then coach Dan Quinn were at the helm. Quinn, in particular, had a strong relationship with Jones, and his ouster last October only further disconnected Jones from the organization. By the time the new brass arrived, any chance to rebuild the relationship between team and player had evaporated.
And so, what was a possibility in 2019 became a reality in March 2021. Through his agent, Jones asked for a trade.
Three months later, Jones has his wish. The 32-year-old future Hall of Famer is a Titan. The Falcons are sending Jones and a 2023 sixth-round pick to Tennessee in exchange for a 2022 second-rounder and a 2023 fourth-rounder. And as it turns out, the road getting there was longer than anyone on the outside realizes.
It may be June, but we’ve got a lot to get to inside this week’s MMQB. Here, you’ll find …
• A look at Giants coach Joe Judge’s second offseason in charge.
• How the Buccaneers really are reinventing the offseason wheel.
• Why today is a big one for coaches on the COVID-19 front.
• An Aaron Rodgers detail you might want to know about.
But we’re starting with the news of the day, which is another blockbuster offseason trade.
I led with the background on Jones, and where this is now, because I’ve gotten the feeling over the last few weeks that people can’t understand, 1) why the Falcons would move Jones, and 2) why another team wouldn’t step up and offer a first-round pick for him.
The start of the answer to the first question is what’s above—Jones wanted out, and his agent approached new Atlanta GM Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith to tell them that all the way back in early March. But there was also the precarious cap situation that Fontenot and Smith inherited, with five enormous contracts (Jones, Matt Ryan, Deion Jones, Jake Matthews, Grady Jarrett) at the top of the books, and a need to clean up those finances.
In that way, Jones’s trade request gave Fontenot and Smith a logical way to accelerate that process, without mortgaging another deal, something that the Falcons wound up having to do with the Ryan, Matthews and Deion Jones deals just to get cap compliant for 2021.
As for the answer to the second question, Jones is 32, has long-standing foot issues, and a hamstring injury took him out for half of the 2020 season. He’s also expensive now ($15.3 million for 2021), especially in a pandemic-affected cap year. And while he’s affordable thereafter ($11.5 million in 2022, and again in 2023), history suggests that if he has a huge ’21, he’ll be back at the negotiating table early in ’22.
That said, when healthy, he’s a great, great player, and his ability to manage injuries over the years with toughness and sustained productivity is part of who he is, too. All of that made for a complicated backdrop to the latest big deal of a relatively wild offseason (even if it hasn’t been as wild as some expected). Here, then, is the rest of the story on Jones, the Falcons, and the Titans …
• When the trade request went in, the Falcons honored the ultra-private Jones’s desire to remain quiet about his bid to get out of town. That’s why, when Jones's being on the block bubbled to the surface before the draft, that part of the story wasn’t out there.
• Along those lines, I have it on good authority that Jones had no clue that he was on national TV when he said to FS1’s Shannon Sharpe, “I’m outta there” two weeks ago, which led to his trade request becoming public.
• The Falcons took a swing at trading Jones during the week of the draft, but at that point their asking price—a first-round pick—prevented an agreement from being reached. Another thing that complicated Atlanta’s push to get a deal done was that it could be agreed to then, but not executed until after June 1 (when Atlanta could move $15.5 million of Jones’ $22.25 million in dead money from 2021 to 2022).
• No first-round pick was ever offered. And really, only once did a future 1 come up, and that was as part of a pick swap—so it wouldn’t have been a clean 1—and never got to the point where the team in question actually made an offer.
• As June 1 approached, a significant number of teams wanted in on the conversation with Atlanta, and some even said they’d be willing to move a second-round pick for Jones. But the Titans separated themselves in being the only one that was willing to pull the trigger without caveats. And the fact that they were willing to take on Jones’s contract was huge. Atlanta didn’t want to have to buy a better draft pick by taking on salary.
• The Ravens discussed a Jones trade with the Falcons prior to the draft, but pulled out of the running after taking Rashod Bateman in the first round, and never got back in. The Patriots never showed real interest to Atlanta in Jones, and the Raiders (perhaps for cash reasons) weren’t in it either. The Falcons did wind up talking to all four NFC West teams about a Jones trade, but never got a real offer from any of them.
• The Falcons felt comfortable with Calvin Ridley as their top receiver. And part of the equation here that can’t be lost—Ridley is eligible for a second contract now, and Atlanta’s new brass knows they’re going to have to pay up to keep him.
• The Titans lost Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith this offseason, and the cap circumstances coming out of the pandemic forced Tennessee GM Jon Robinson and coach Mike Vrabel to make other tough decisions on the roster as well. Getting Jones offered them the chance to juice their team with a potential game-changer after a tumultuous few months.
• Vrabel spoke multiple times with Alabama coach Nick Saban before the Titans made the trade, to try and get a feel for who Jones is as a person. And Tennessee came out of that feeling emboldened to make the move.
• The Titans’ initial offer was a 3 that could become a 2, and the 2022 second-round pick (without conditions) had been on the table for a bit. Atlanta wanting a sweetener was what needed to be sorted out, and the Titans securing a ’23 pick swap, rather than giving up, say, a 5 or a 6, means the Titans are down just one more pick in ’22 (they had already dealt their seventh), and come out even (with one pick devalued by two rounds) next year, and won’t lose a second player in the process. That made the idea of adding to the 2 more palatable for Tennessee.
• There is some low-hanging fruit here. Smith, of course, just came to Atlanta from Tennessee. The Falcons got Jones out of the NFC. Tennessee was a desirable location for Jones. But the truth, again, is that the Titans very clearly had the best offer, and were most serious over the last couple weeks. That’s why the deal got done—not because of any old connections or any sort of competitive reason.
And so that’s where we are now. The Falcons can move on now, finally.
The Titans, on the other hand, are back on the win-now horse, which makes sense. They’ve been to the playoffs the last two years, made the AFC title game two seasons ago, and have a core of players (Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, Taylor Lewan, Kevin Byard) smack in the prime of their careers. The relationship between Vrabel and Jones will be important to making this work, Jones could indeed ask for more money (at 33!) if it does, and Tennessee, which has $3.9 million cap space, has work to do to fit their new star receiver under the cap.
But based on where the Titans are, this is a very worthy swing for the fences, which will give Tannehill & Co. maybe the most imposing skill group (Henry, Jones, A.J. Brown) in the NFL.
Want more on the Titans’ side of this? We got you covered.
I got on the phone with Robinson a few hours after he pushed the deal over the goal line, and the Titans GM was... well, himself—pretty even-keeled and level-headed about a trade that hijacked the internet for a few hours on Sunday. Here’s a little bit of our back-and-forth.
MMQB: Were there conversations with people from Julio’s background when you were vetting all this that made you feel good about pulling the trigger?
Jon Robinson: "Yeah, we did a lot of background work, talked to several different people. Everybody was pumped about his competitiveness, his desire to win, the way he works. And at the end of the day, Coach Saban spoke highly of Julio and his approach to the game of football. It felt like that was kind of the final straw. You have arguably the greatest college coach of all-time to endorse a player that he coached in college, and obviously has stayed in contact with. I think that was kind of the closer, that ‘Hey, this guy's about what we're about.’”
MMQB: So it was important to figure out his fit?
JR: "It is. And that's one of the unknowns. In free agency, we talk about it all the time, you look back at your college reports on players when they were coming out of college, and try to glean some information, but that's sometimes four, five, six years—whatever it may be— and people change over time. … But there was a YouTube clip of Julio back at Alabama, with Coach Saban, talking about accountability. And this is after Julio had been in the league for a while—one of the things he learned pretty early at Alabama was Coach Saban holding players accountable, and the best players holding their teammates accountable. That's so huge in the NFL, for teammates to hold each other accountable. And I thought that was pretty good perspective from Julio in that little YouTube clip that I saw."
MMQB: Does scheme play in here, or is he one of these guys that can play in whatever offense?
JR: After watching film, I saw it, and I kind of alluded to it in my press conference, we're going to hand the ball to Derrick and we're going to do what we do. [A receiver is] going to have to go in there and go at a safety or a linebacker. He showed the willingness to do that last year. The Seahawk game stands out, him and Jamal Adams going at it. Jamal Adams, great player, and Julio went in there and did what he had to do. I just thought there, ‘It's a good fit.’ What we're going to ask of him, to catch and block, you can still see him doing that at a high level in Atlanta."
MMQB: How much do you worry about age and durability?
JR: "I think that's something you always look at—'What does his skill set look like based off the film and the age?’ I thought he was still playing at a high level last year. The durability, he takes care of his body. We felt comfortable with it. He's going to take care of his body, make sure nothing comes up, but it's part of the game. There’s a 100% injury rate in the National Football League, but I know he's going to do everything he can to stay healthy, and we're going to do everything we can to (help him there).”
MMQB: Your players are obviously aware of how this is being received—do you think there’s a benefit here in sending them the message that the team is in win-now mode?
JR: "I think we've got a really good locker room. It's a bunch of guys that love football, that work their tails off to help the team win. They care about their teammates. And we're adding a guy that loves football and cares about his teammates and wants to win. It's my responsibility to try to get as many good football players on the team as possible. You understand that part about winning and wanting to compete for championships. You've got to have the players in place to go do that, and that's part of my job—to make decisions to try to put our team in position to compete for that. We've got a lot of good players on this team. Not all of them are first-rounders, not all of them are big free-agent acquisitions, but they believe in the process we have here, they work their tails off, they're team-first guys, and we got another one in Julio."
MMQB: You gonna give A.J. Brown a job in the front-office as recruiting coordinator?
JR: "No, no. We're going to put him in charge of arts and crafts after that job he did on the jersey. He's our new arts-and-crafts coordinator."
MMQB: Start to finish, how long a process was this for you?
JR: "It was probably post-draft that we started kicking it around. And probably shortly after that is when I touched base with Terry [Fontenot]. And then moved pretty slow on it, I'd say. Over the last two or three weeks, staying in touch with Terry, telling him to ‘keep us in mind.’ And then really over the last probably 36–48 hours is when it really intensified and heated up. We were able to kind of close it out this morning."
And if Jones can be what he’s been for the great majority of his 10 NFL seasons? Well, then closing out that deal could have a pretty profound effect over how the next seven or eight months play out in the NFL.
YEAR 2 OF THE JOE JUDGE GIANTS
Fridays in the NFL offseason are really getaway days for players, especially when you get into June, with guys trying to make the most of the weekends they have left before football season begins and they push pause on the rest of their lives. That’s why the end of Giants practice last Friday was significant.
This particular OTA session was a labor-intensive one, starting with install work and ending with competitive situational drills. For the last one, the Giants pitted the offense vs. the defense in a fourth-and-goal scenario. The reward? The winner would get out of having to run at the end of the practice.
“I could hear the defense chirping, I could hear the offense chirping, I had guys in and out of huddle turning back to me, smiling, laughing—We get this, no conditioning, right?” Joe Judge said, over the cell on Saturday. “But when they went out there and broke the huddle, boom, it was all business. And that’s what I want it to look like. I want it to be good competition, enjoying the game, really loving football, and at the same time, when it’s time to work, time to be ready to go, they’re tuned in, they’re locked in, they’re ready to go.
“It [wasn’t] like, Let’s get this out of the way and we’re on to the weekend. They were having fun with the situation.”
Year 2 is here for Judge and the Giants and, for obvious reasons, this one looks a lot different than the last one. In 2020, Judge was one of five first-year coaches navigating the pandemic. What came next for the Giants was far from perfect—they were 6–10—but there certainly was good momentum to build off, with a 5–3 finish fueling a run at a division title (albeit in a really bad division) that they took all the way to Week 17.
That, at least to a degree, has carried over to this spring. The energy on that fourth-down snap was just one example of the overall buy-in. Unlike the majority of the league, the Giants didn’t negotiate offseason-program conditions with their players, and they’ve still had near-perfect attendance. The New York Post reported the other day that around 70 players were at one OTA session. And that was on a day that a couple players were held out of practice after getting rear-ended on the way to work, and a handful of others who stayed home with a stomach bug.
“Not a single player ever approached me to change anything about the spring,” Judge says. “We never had any kind of meetings with players as far as what we can adjust. … We did what we had to do just in terms of ensuring the players’ safety on the field. But no, there were no negotiations or discussions. I think we’ve had a productive spring so far. Our guys have worked really hard.”
That’s not to say Judge hasn’t heard the discussion around the league. He has. And so with players showing up en masse, he and his staff have doubled-down on an effort to watch the tempo of drills, and monitor each player’s individual fitness. He’s also made clear to the players, and his staff, that players are under no pressure to show up—he wanted it to be their call.
“I’d say this: The way they’ve worked since we’ve been here tells me a lot about them,” Judge says. “They know what to expect from me, they know what to expect from our staff, they’re giving us what we demand. And these guys, they don’t just work, they work with a smile on their face. They come in, they understand the expectation—we tell them up front, we’re gonna make it hard intentionally.
“And not only do they work, they compete with each other, they have fun, they chop it up. I know they’re having fun when they start talking smack to me. That’s when I’m like, You’re fighting through all this stuff, good.”
Which is part of the foundation Judge and GM Dave Gettleman have put into place. And it’s shown up in other ways too.
It’s also there in how last year has carried over—first, in how the ingenuity of last spring carried into this spring. Judge says now that going through last year’s 100% remote offseason program showed him a lot about his staff, and in turn how they’d be able to build out after they were able to meet and practice in person.
“I really don’t think we could’ve gotten much more out of it,” Judge says. “We dissected that 50 times, in anticipation of “if that happens again”, which this spring it did [in some ways]. But really as a whole, I was really pleased. That wasn’t the smoothest process either. We were laughing the other day about when we first got locked out of the office, we’re all sitting there on the tutorial, learning how to Zoom. We thought it was some kind of NASA thing, when it was basically just FaceTime.
“We pushed through all that. We had to figure out how to show tape, every coach had a different type of setup, wifi at houses was different, in terms of streaming the video, so there were a lot of elements we had to bootleg around. There were different setups, video tape on one iPad, show it on a computer or another iPad. But I think what I learned from that was the innovation our staff had, seeing a lot of guys who figured that out. You learn a lot about the people in your building, who’s going to think on their feet, who’s gonna find a better way.”
That ingenuity and resiliency showed up in the players too. And while Judge is of the Patriots’ one-week-at-a-time ethos that treats each season and game as entities of their own, unaffected by what happened before, he can make an exception here—What the players went through in 2020 has carried over, in a particular way, to 2021.
The difference is this one’s more about how the year ended, after the players weathered a 1–7 start, than how it began.
“I think it defined the personality of the team, and the culture of the team,” Judge says. “That to me is the thing that you can carry over. Everything else, you’re starting completely over, we’re starting over like every other team. But that culture does carry over with the guys who’ve been through it. They know what to expect from us, we know what they’re gonna give us.
“And they also understand, Hey, look, some days are gonna be tough, obstacles are gonna come up, but we’re going to figure it out. That’s really the big thing. We started our rough. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we noticed through those weeks when we were 0–5 and 1–7, how our guys respond. Week in, week out, they were getting better at practice, they knew they were improving, and we knew they were improving as coaches.”
Now, that’s carrying outside the building too. And making sure it would has been one point of emphasis Judge has driven home.
“One message I gave them the other day was, Look, we’re at a point now where rules are changing, things are opening up. The city’s opening back up. You guys have to start going and being a team outside the building too” Judge says. “Last year, we had to tell everybody in the league, you can’t be together. This year, it’s the opposite—Hey guys, just go hang out. Get together as a team. Have a barbecue. Do something.”
Really, he knows the players already get that. There’s a group of guys who’ve been playing golf after OTA sessions. Quarterback Daniel Jones has organized player-led throwing sessions in both Arizona and Charlotte. And guys have even inquired about the Giants opening the practice fields so they can get work in without risking injury off the premises during the summer break.
Then, there’s what Judge is hearing about how his guys work, which brings him to a story from earlier in the offseason. A couple of his defensive linemen were working with a pass-rush specialist away from Jersey, and a coaching friend of Judge’s was there, and told him, “Your guys work like high school kids—they work, they smile, they hit the next rep.”
More proof of all this has come with the influx of new guys. And it’s not just in how Kenny Golladay or Adoree' Jackson have fit. It’s also apparent in how the receiver and cornerback rooms have received them.
“It’s a good group. It really is,” says Judge. “They care about each other, they compete with each other, they help each other, they push each other. I think one of the biggest things too is, a lot of times new guys come into a program and there’s a lot of natural competitiveness—like, who’s this who just came in my room? It doesn’t matter who, any of the free agents that have come in at any position, you watch the other guys, and they’ve embraced them coming in. And that to me just shows it’s a team atmosphere.
“They don’t care who helps us as long as they can help us. And we’re going to everybody along the way. That to me is a really good sign.”
Now, the flipside—Judge knows having a good feeling in the building is easy when you’re undefeated, as everyone NFL is right now. Regardless of how they finished, the Giants were still 6–10 last year, and as such the coaches in New York know the climb up from here remains a steep one.
But being from where he is from, Judge is big on how much “football character” in a team can mean over the course of an NFL season, and Judge can see now, at the very least, his guys have that as he defines it.
“There are just certain guys,” Judge says, “like, I love seeing Shep [Sterling Shepard], he comes out and just has a smile on his face every day. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing. Every day, I look at him, O.K., this guy loves football. He loves the game. And that’s fun to be around. You look at Blake Martinez every day, he loves the game. We have a number of guys, I could go through the names …”
And Judge didn’t want to go through all of them, from Dexter Lawrence to Leonard Williams to Evan Engram and Kyle Rudolph, and so on and so on. But what he would say is that it’s there in most everyone he’s worked with this spring, and that’s gotten him excited to make the drive through suburban North Jersey to the office every day..
“I really do love working with this group,” Judge says. “We do our squad meeting at 7:30 every day, we kick off the day, and I go in there every day and look at the faces and personalities and it’s like, I’m just having fun. You really are. You’re having fun. It doesn’t mean it’s always jokes and smiles, but you’re having fun every day with these guys, training, competing.”
Judge didn’t have predictions for me, or even goals on how far the group might go—with pressure ratcheted up as Jones hits Year 3, and a free-spending offseason comes to a close. But if you listen to him, it’s pretty clear the Giants are in a good place right now.
BUCS AND THE NEW WORKOUT MODEL
In Thursday’s GamePlan, we drilled down on players looking for offseason and training camp reform, and that made me even more interested in how the defending champion Buccaneers are handling this offseason. Last week, in the Takeaways, we fleshed out how Tampa has chosen to set up its spring work—with Tom Brady taking some of veterans for work on his own, and Bruce Arians and his staff setting up what is essentially a developmental camp in place of OTAs.
So I figured it’d be good to talk to one of the older guys on the team, which led me to hit up Ryan Jensen on Friday. The Bucs center just turned 30 and is heading into his ninth NFL season. He has perspective for this discussion because, as a former Division-II star and sixth-round pick, and practice squad alum who became the highest-paid center in football, he’s been on both sides of it.
With that background in mind, he’s the first to admit that what he needs now is a whole lot different than what he needed in 2013, when he was just trying to find his place in pro football as a Ravens rookie.
“I think OTAs have a place for young guys that need to develop and learn the offense, need technique work and stuff,” Jensen said, from his Colorado home. “There’s been discussion in our group about what that’s gonna look like in the future. This whole thing’s been good for everybody, in talking about how they envision spring football being in the future.”
Which has led to that very different looking offseason program, with some guys working, at least in part, at the direction of Brady, some working at the direction of Arians (Arians and Brady are coordinating that), and others, like Jensen, who are older and may need rest more than work, recharging outside of Florida.
“A lot of the older guys just aren’t going for whatever reason—maybe they don’t feel it’s necessary for them,” Jensen says. “For me, I know coming into this year, it was like, Cool, I didn’t do this last year and I felt really good and was pretty much healthy the entire year. So O.K., there was a slight little change, and for me being an older guy, having a lot of experience, I feel like OTAs aren’t really necessary for me, more than a young guy who may need those reps, experience learning the offense, learning the defenses, etc.”
So how has this new idea work out? There were three points of interest that Jensen and I hit that I thought worth sharing here.
• Brady and his group had been using the Yankees spring training facility, which is across the street from Raymond James Stadium and less than a mile from the Bucs’ practice facility, to get their work in. But when the Ja’Wuan James situation in Denver turned the temperature up on the NFL/NFLPA talks on this stuff, Arians was prescient enough to feel the heat before getting burned.
“That’s what makes B.A. such a good coach,” Jensen says. “B.A. was like, You guys can choose to work out here. We won’t come out and bug you, if you guys want to come out and throw. But at least be at the facility in case you get hurt, so at least you’re gonna get paid.”
• All the same, guys are going out for Brady’s camp because, really, it’s like an actual camp. They know they’re taken care of, with Brady’s body coach, Alex Guerrero, monitoring the workload of not just the quarterback, but everyone on the practice field.
“Tom’s done it for long enough and he always has his trainer there,” Jensen says. “When I was there, I was just snapping him the ball. But with all the guys running routes, Alex would always be there. Obviously he’s there for Tom, but he’s also watching the receivers run, and he noticed when they started to get tired. And when skill guys get tired, and their legs turn to jelly, that’s when they start pulling muscles.
“That’s when Alex would be like, O.K., he’s done, he’s done, he’s done—you’ve had enough work. That’s huge having Tom there, who has all that experience, running the practice, running the routes. And then you have Alex there, who’s been with Tom for a lot of years and recognizes those things, to help prevent guys from getting hurt.”
• Jensen is in agreement with the union that much of the on-field 11-on-11 work had gotten too intense. And part of the problem, as he sees it, isn’t so much the overall intensity as the variance of intensity from player to player—“some guys are going 110%. And some guys are going 70% because they know how to practice.”
“It’s supposed to be non-contact, not full-speed, yada, yada, yada, however it’s worded,” Jensen says. “But for interior guys, you’re not necessarily finishing your blocks or anything like that, but if you’re not going full-speed, that’s when guys get hurt in OTAs—one guy’s going faster than the other guy on the interior, you get tripped up, and next thing you know, somebody’s falling into somebody’s knee.
“That’s where OTAs can get dangerous. A lot of times, you guys are trying to make the team in OTAs, and then you have older veterans that are solidified at their spots taking it a little bit easier, because they know how to practice, they’re professionals. There’s a lot of miscommunication when it comes to the competition aspect of it, because we’re all competitors. … And learning how to practice is a huge challenge for a lot of young guys.”
• One other thing last year showed Jensen: He needed a lot less summer action than he thought to be ready for the season. And after going through a lighter camp, as he sees it, having two or three weeks of full-on practice, a game week, and maybe a quarter or a quarter-and-a-half in a single preseason game would get him where he needs to be.
“What a lot of younger guys struggle with is the knowledge of the game,” Jensen said. “And I’m not saying I know everything about the game, but you play for long enough, and you’re not playing slow because you don’t know what you’re doing. For me, to feel ready, last year, for example, with the ramp-up period and then a shortened camp, we didn’t have any preseason games, it was a little funky going into Week 1, not having played in a game-type scenario.
“So I’d say for me, my needs, a quarter, a quarter-and-a-half of a preseason game along with camp to feel like we’re playing real football again. For me, the knowledge of the game is there, and now it’s about getting to Sunday.”
Given how Arians listens to his players, don’t look for much excitement in the Buccaneers’ three preseason games. And here’s another way to translate it: Tampa seems to have a lot more of this figured out than most. Which, at least on paper, could give them another advantage going into 2021, as if they need any more.
1) Today is a day of significance for NFL coaches, and that’s because the rules are about to change. At this point, the great majority of coaches have been vaccinated. And the NFL is considering, in a narrow scope, cases where some have medical, family or religious reasons not to get the vaccine. But for those who aren’t in either category, one of two things will happen today.
• If a coach has had at least one shot, putting him in the process of being vaccinated, he can be around players outdoors but not indoors. That means, obviously, he can be out at practice with the guys, but not in the meeting rooms.
• If a coach isn’t at least in the process of being vaccinated—and many teams are doing vaccinations on-site, which means it’s been logistically easy for most to get their shots—then they will no longer be allowed around players.
These coaches, by the way, can still be in their offices, and run Zoom meetings. But the bottom line is, in order to maintain the privileged status they gained last year through constant testing and rigorous protocols, they’ll have to be vaccinated, and almost every coach is complying. I’d actually heard from one who’s had his first shot, and is considering holding meetings outside this week and next to manage around the new rules. And making that tougher is sort of the idea. By putting this in motion for the last two weeks of the offseason programs, with mandatory minicamps all happening this week or next, a pretty direct warning shot’s been sent to the holdouts (and I’ve heard that the league-wide number is single digits): Get vaccinated or you’re going to be pretty useless to your team during training camp.
2) An interesting detail on the Aaron Rodgers situation that’s relevant to this coming week: The Packers could simply excuse him from mandatory minicamp. In the 2020 CBA, there was new language put in to tighten up what used to be the very common practice with holdouts of simply forgiving fines after the player reported (or was traded). Now, teams not only are induced to fine guys ($50,000 per day) for not showing to camp, but are forbidden from waiving the penalties at the end. So if Rodgers doesn’t show up for training camp in July, his absence will get expensive in a hurry. But as for minicamp? The Packers could just give him leave, and not fine him the amount prescribed by the CBA.
Day 1: $15,515
Day 2: $31,030
Day 3: $46,540
As far as I can tell, the Packers can’t fine him and then forgive the fine after. But, again, they could just not fine him. I don’t think this is going to change much, as to whether Rodgers will show this week (no one expects him to). Nor do I think the $93,085 is going to faze him much, since he’s already walked away from a $500,000 workout bonus. If the Packers are looking to extend an olive branch, though? That would be one way to do it. Conversely, if they fine him, that could be taken another way. We’ll see what happens. But this obviously sets up as one last spring checkpoint in the Rodgers saga—with Matt LaFleur planning to allow the players the option of attending the final week of the offseason program (next week) virtually.
3) I think, for the time being, the Bears’ quarterback situation is very status quo. And that’s not to say Justin Fields hasn’t come as advertised—he has. The staff there has seen strong command, confidence and the quiet leadership style he carried himself with at Ohio State. He’s also shown himself to be very self-aware and coachable—in the words of one staffer, “playing the rookie role very well.” That sets Fields up nicely heading into the summer. But it hasn’t changed the course for the Bears. Andy Dalton has been good in the offseason program too, and the plan is to have Dalton take the first-team reps, and Fields work with the 2s in training camp. And until a rookie like Fields starts getting work with the 1s, the truth is that you don’t really have a quarterback competition. That said, the Bears are going to get Fields a lot of work in preseason games, so he’ll have opportunity to show who he is as a player. And it’s obvious what the idea here is—for Dalton to play great, the Bears to contend, and Fields to keep stacking good days in the background. As we’ve reminded people here plenty, coach Matt Nagy was in Kansas City for Patrick Mahomes’s rookie year, as the Chiefs OC, so he saw the benefit everyone got from doing it that way. But the key to that? The Bears will have to win, like the Chiefs did in 2017. Otherwise, it’ll be tough to keep Fields on the bench.
4) While we’re there, it was good to hear that Cam Newton’s hand injury is relatively minor. He hurt it at Friday’s practice, which happened to be open to the media, and it looks like he’ll be O.K. for training camp. That said, if it shelves him for this week’s four OTA sessions, and then the three days of minicamp, it will be interesting to see if Bill Belichick uses that opening to get a longer look at Mac Jones’s progress. This sort of thing, believe it or not, is often what leads to rookie quarterbacks taking jobs and not giving them back. Off the top of my head, here are three examples …
• Then-Steelers rookie Ben Roethlisberger got into a Week 2 loss to the Ravens after Tommy Maddox suffered ligament damage to his elbow. Six weeks later, Maddox was healthy enough to return, but Roethlisberger had led Pittsburgh to five straight wins, and the decision to stick with the 2004 first-rounder had become academic.
• A case of tonsilitis led to doctors finding a rare condition called Lemierre’s Syndrome in Ravens QB Troy Smith just before the third preseason game of 2008. Smith’s absence pushed first-round pick Joe Flacco up the depth chart, Flacco started the opener, and by the time Smith came back later that September the starting job was spoken for.
• Flacco injured his hip in a Week 9 loss to the Steelers in 2018, and couldn’t make it back after the Ravens’ Week 11 bye. The Ravens were 4-5 at the time. Lamar Jackson stepped in and won three straight. And when Flacco was ready to return in Week 15, even coming off an OT loss in Kansas City, the Ravens decided to stick with their new first-rounder over the old one.
To be clear these three instances aren’t perfect comps to Jones’s situation in New England—mostly because Roethlisberger, Flacco and Jackson had games in which to prove themselves. But Jones could do enough in the next two weeks to accomplish two things vital to winning a starting job as a rookie quarterback: 1) he could convince the coaches to at least give him some first-team reps once the pads go on in August (the team is cycling quarterbacks through right now, so the Patriots don’t have 1s and 2s and 3s like some other teams set it up); and 2) he could win over his more experienced, accomplished teammates, which is an equally important piece of the equation. This one could get interesting.
5) The Texans are going to be a fascinating team to watch over the next few weeks. The guys running an overhauled football operation had to hear all offseason what a mess the organization is, and how hopeless the Texans are going to be for the foreseeable future. I don’t think anyone there is under the illusion that Houston is going to be a contender in 2021. But new GM Nick Caserio and coach David Culley have quietly started to rework the guts of the roster to get it into a competitive spot for the fall, and there are at least a few glimmers of hope. Ex-Cowboy Maliek Collins is a good example of Houston’s need to bring in hungry vets with something to prove on (given their cap situation) modest one-year deals. Center Justin Britt is another such example, and the Texans actually feel like they’re adding size and strength to the position over what Nick Martin provided at a way more expensive rate. All the same, 2020 third-rounder Jonathan Greenard’s athleticism is showing up in Lovie Smith’s scheme, which is a better fit for him as a edge-rusher than Romeo Crennel’s was; and 2021 third-rounder Nico Collins has already made an impression with his size and quickness showing up, as well as his professionalism (he showed up in really good shape after opting out of the 2020 college season). Maybe these guys aren’t going to be superstars, but I think each shows how Caserio and Culley are trying to build in tough circumstances—with the hope that signing, drafting and developing the middle of the roster makes the team deeper, and a tougher out for more talented teams in the fall.
6) The Toradol story is worth paying attention to. Last week, a memo went out to players and agents spelling out that the NFL/NFLPA Joint Pain Management Committee had concluded that “Toradol should not be used prior to, during, or after NFL games or practices as a means of reducing anticipated pain.” The memo went on to explain when Toradol use is appropriate (basically in reaction to an acute injury, rather than in a preventative manner), and how it should be administered. This is a big step forward for the league, which for a long time normalized the use of dangerous drugs like this anti-inflammatory (ex-NFL lineman Jeremy Newberry was a champion in bringing the problem to light). My take on it? It’s about time. It took way too long to get here, and the fact that the NFL stridently continued testing and punishing guys for marijuana and marijuana-related products when players were flat-out telling the league that it was effective for them in pain management continues to be mind-blowing. There’s no way to prove this, but it sure does seem like the league backing down on marijuana without asking the players for something in return could’ve saved a lot of people a lot of trouble, and a lot of other people from a lot of problems.
7) We’re getting into the time of year when teams start to look at extending their own veterans, and that puts some level of focus on the 2018 draft class. Those guys are eligible for long-term deals for the first time, and there are really two categories of players I’m watching in that regard. The first is the obvious, and that’s the quarterbacks. This boils down to three guys: Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson. All three had their options exercised for 2022—Allen’s and Jackson’s will run their teams $23.1 million, while Mayfield’s is $18.9 million—but are working on modest cap numbers in 2021 ($10.57 million for Mayfield, $6.91 million for Allen, $3.01 million for Jackson), which means their teams will have to be creative in structuring new deals (though Cleveland less so because it has $20.62 million in space and Mayfield’s number is already bigger than the others). So where those go, and whether the average per year starts with a “3” or a “4” will be interesting, especially if Rodgers gets paid. The second group I’ll be paying attention to is in Indianapolis, with the Colts having budgeted for some time to take care of their own, and now in position to reward cornerstones Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard.
8) While we’re there, good on Mayfield for getting guys to Austin and Florida to throw. Cleveland—led by NFLPA president JC Tretter— has been one of the harder-line player groups on offseason workout conditions. The fact that Mayfield has gone out of his way to hold workouts in multiple locations is a good sign of his ability to bring guys together. I don’t know that it’ll make the Browns brass feel any stronger about him