Mailbag: The Latest on Rodgers and Watson

Plus, the contract situations for Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield, the coach on the hottest seat, Justin Fields’s opportunity and more.
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I’m back! Thanks to Conor and Jenny for taking the baton the last couple of weeks. And thanks to all of you for bringing me back with a ton of good questions—wish I could get to all of them. Here’s what we’ve got for you …

From Matt Ramas (@matt_ramas): Since Aaron Rodgers didn’t opt out this season, would you say it's nearly 100% chance he’ll be under center in Green Bay in 2021?

Matt, I’d say nothing is 100% with Aaron Rodgers. Bottom line: He’s a different dude, and I think that’s why the Packers (save for a couple of Mark Murphy flare-ups), knowing that, have really tip-toed around this the last few months. There’s no need to exacerbate a situation that might turn on a dime, and started with a simple communication breakdown (the failure to give Rodgers a heads-up that the team was considering taking a quarterback in April 2020).

But I do think the likelihood is that Rodgers is back with a new contract, and without a whole lot determined as to what might happen beyond February 2022. Green Bay’s brass hasn’t shown even a hint of a consideration of trading Rodgers, publicly or privately, and for good reason. Just look at its roster.

This isn’t Houston or Detroit, teams that are overhauling their rosters and can logically afford to transition at the game’s most important position. The Packers have been in the conference championship game two years in a row. They have as good a core of in-prime players (David Bakhtiari, Davante Adams, Aaron Jones, Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Kenny Clark, Adrian Amos, Jaire Alexander) as anyone, and all those players are either four years into their career or further. The time really is now for this particular group.

Now, it’d be one thing if Jordan Love was ready. The Packers don’t think he is, and that’s one reason why they force-fed him reps in the spring—I had one staffer estimate if there were 300 snaps in OTAs and minicamp, Love took 270 or 280 of them, an incredibly high percentage for anyone when you consider rosters are at 90 right now.

Considering all that, what’s the fair thing to do for that core full of high-end players in their prime? What’s the right thing for the franchise? I can tell you what it isn’t, and that’s jettisoning an all-time great quarterback.

My guess is all this comes together for the Packers and Rodgers to reach some sort of Band-Aid agreement, like the Seahawks (in a similar spot, roster-wise) did with Russell Wilson, which would leave the Packers having to deal with all this again a few months from now, when maybe Love is in a better spot developmentally, and more ready to take over, or things have improved with their franchise quarterback.

That’s not ideal. But, hey, it’d be better than not having Rodgers.

From Tom Marshall (@aredzonauk): Will the Texans soon be looking to the NFL for an answer regarding any possible suspension for Deshaun Watson?

Tom, I think the Texans would be happy to get an answer from the league on Watson, but I can’t imagine the league is going to make a hard and fast ruling until his case is adjudicated in the courts. If there’s not a legal resolution, it seems it’d be more likely Watson would land on the commissioner’s exempt list in the interim, which basically would allow the league to push pause on the whole thing.

That’s not exactly ideal for Watson or Houston, but I don’t know what the other solution would be, unless the league wants to make its own determination independent of what the courts decide. Which brings us to this question …

MORE ON DESHAUN WATSON: Exclusive reporting and more context surrounding the lawsuits. The definitive piece on the Watson situation.

From Jason (@jaygouveia20): See Watson getting traded this year or next season? Assuming all lawsuits are settled of course.

If I had to guess, Jason, I think Watson has played his last snap as a Texan. New GM Nick Caserio has really started to build through the middle of the roster with guys that fit the program and can serve as the guts of the team—and it at least looks like they’ll work on getting more high-end guys to compose their core over time.

I don’t know if I see the roster the way most do; I actually think they’ll be competitive week to week, even if it only adds up to a three- or four-win season in the end. But they certainly are pretty far from where they were a few years ago, and from contending for a championship. That puts them in the opposite position to the Packers, which is to say there’d be less to worry about when trading away a franchise quarterback. I think the situation is at the point where everyone might be better off getting a fresh start—and for clarity’s sake, I didn’t think that the first few months of the offseason.

Now, if I’m Caserio, because Watson’s an elite 25-year-old quarterback, I’m still not done exhausting avenues to try to make it work. I just don’t know if those are there for the team right now, all things considered.

From Strick 9 (@SpiderStrick): What is Washington’s new name gonna be, Albert?

Strick, I wish I could tell you. I have no clue. I think some of the names floated out there like Red Tails, Red Wolves, Federals, and Washington F.C. are good. And in the past, even before the name change last year, I was an advocate of Warriors because I thought it was a mostly harmless way of connecting the past to the present. Then, I read what team president Jason Wright wrote on the WFT site, which is why I changed my mind.

I attended one of the few thousand high schools in this country that had Warriors as a mascot, and when I was growing up, we had a block Native American logo—basically a silhouette with a headdress on it. Then, when I was in sixth or seventh grade, in 1992 or ’93, the high school dropped all Native American imagery but kept the name, with logos changing fully to just an interlocking L-S.

That, of course, wasn’t the end of it. When I got to high school a few years later, a lot of us still wore shirts with the old logo under our shoulder pads, our helmet stickers for big plays on special teams were tomahawks, and the tomahawk chop was chanted pretty regularly at our games. You could also hear the chop at hockey and basketball games. This is more than 20 years ago—no one doing it understood that it could be seen as denigrating anyone.

That’s why I think this is relevant to Wright coming out and saying what he did the other day about the Warriors name. I hadn’t thought of it before—hence, my belief that Warriors would be a good option—but it made me think about what happened at my high school, and how the same sort of thing played out in a lot of different places, and certainly could again in Washington.

Washington has to go away from any sort of hint of a reference to Native American culture with the name for that reason. Simply put, picking Warriors, or something like it, would only encourage people to hold onto certain traditions (like wearing war paint or headdresses to the stadium) that offended certain people in the first place. And so I realize now why a clean break is necessary here.

From All About The Land (@jasonwilson2121): Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen? Who gets most? Who gets least?

Land, I think, in the end, if they all do their deals at once, Allen gets the most, then Jackson, then Mayfield. My feeling is that the Bills are most solid on Allen being a better player in five years than he is right now, and Allen was an MVP candidate, so I think he gets a standard top-of-the-market quarterback deal ($40 million-plus per). With Jackson, just because of the injury risk related to how he plays, the Ravens will seek to protect themselves. And I think Cleveland will be measured in doing a deal with Mayfield’s camp.

This, again, isn’t about who’s the best player now. It’s about projecting those guys forward, and each of the three teams involved has a front office that always acts responsibly in these kinds of business-of-football situations.

Now, what could affect this outside of just that is the fact that all three of these deals won’t happen simultaneously, and the order in which they happen could have an impact on each negotiation. If Jackson goes first, without a traditional agent, he’ll either set the bar for the other two, or be dismissed by the others because he’s going at this unconventionally. If Mayfield goes first, his deal will likely be framed as the floor for the other two, since they’ve accomplished more. And if Allen goes first, then it might simplify the other negotiations.

It should make for an interesting few months ahead. For what it’s worth, just four of the 12 first-round quarterbacks drafted in the five classes before these three landed top-of-the-market second contracts. All four of those were signed before each of the four quarterbacks in question (Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Patrick Mahomes and Watson) started their respective fourth years in the league. So the time really is now.

From Christopher Sperou (@itsroo2): What is the contract Steph Gilmore plays on this season? And for whom?

Christopher, I believe Gilmore will play for the Patriots this year, and on an amended version of the contract he’s currently on, in the way the team once amended contracts for Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady. Here’s how that worked …

• The Patriots gave Brady $5 million in incentives in 2018 to add to his base pay of $15 million. That differed from his ’19 “extension,” which essentially amounted to a raise of $8 million, and a pathway to free agency in ’20.

• The Patriots gave Gronkowski $5.5 million in incentives before the 2017 season, then $3.3 million in incentives before the ’18 seasons, adding to base numbers of $5.25 million and $8 million that were already on the books for those seasons.

The incentives in each of these three examples were classified as “not likely to be earned,” which allowed the team to push any cap charges forward to the following year but were actually just upticks on those guys’ numbers from the year before and, as such, relatively reachable. And doing cap gymnastics like that should be easy with Gilmore, since he missed a bunch of time last year, and thus was statistically down.

So why won’t there be an extension? Because I think Gilmore is solid on his value. He wants a deal in the neighborhood of what the Eagles gave Darius Slay last year. That one was a three-year, $50.5 million extension, and that’s a pretty reasonable target, given that Gilmore and Slay are around the same age, and this would be a third NFL contract for Gilmore, as the 2020 deal was for Slay.

I might be wrong, but I don’t think the Patriots go there with Gilmore. And I think trading him, and getting value for him, now would not only be tricky, since he’s a thirtysomething with just one year left on his deal, but it’d also undermine the aggressive stance New England took this offseason. That offseason, by the way, also hurts the Patriots here, since it cost Gilmore his standing as the highest-paid player on the defense and team. Matt Judon, who’s yet to play his first snap in New England, now owns that distinction.

So yeah, this is a complicated one. A short-term fix, to me, brings the simplest conclusion.

From JT Barczak (@jtbarczak): How long are the Bears going to trot out Andy Dalton as QB1 and isn’t Justin Fields as ready as any rookie QB in this year’s class given his measurables and competition and production in college?

JT, what I know is this—from a practice standpoint, things won’t change much early in camp from the way it was in the spring for the Bears quarterbacks. Just as he did in OTAs and minicamp, Dalton will take all the first-team snaps in training camp, and Fields will work with the second team. Which, of course, makes Matt Nagy’s plan to reproduce what he had with the Chiefs in 2017, with a veteran (Alex Smith) starting and a rookie (Mahomes) redshirting, the most likely scenario to start the 2021 season for Chicago.

But if there is a sliver of an opening here, my belief is it’ll come with the preseason games. The Bears plan to play Fields a lot in those, and that’s smart—because it’ll accelerate his development via the amount of defense he’ll get to see, and offense he’ll get to run. And if he grows with that? And practices well on top of that? Then, maybe, we’re having a different discussion a month from now.

The key, as I see it, will be how Dalton plays and how the team plays. There’ve been just three true redshirts among first-round quarterbacks taken since 2008, and in each case, the quarterback played well and the team contended. So if Dalton plays well and the Bears contend, then Fields sits. Otherwise, the door Fields can crack open by doing well over the summer could get kicked down.

From A$AP Brad (@severn58): Think Frank Clark’s gone?

Brad, I don’t think so, because of Andy Reid’s history of hanging with troubled players through these sorts of things. You saw it in Philly, and we’ve certainly seen it in Kansas City. Reid and the team knew of Clark’s issues when they traded first- and second-round picks for him, and gave him $21 million per two years ago, and making the commitment they did preclude this from being a zero-tolerance situation from the jump.

That said, it’s not ideal to have your star pass-rusher busted with an Uzi, especially when that star pass-rusher has a checkered past, so the Chiefs will have to be prepared for the possibility the league takes action here.

From Mike Saenz (@MikeSaenz22): Of all the last-place teams last year, which teams in your opinion will make a big leap forward and why?

This is easy—the 49ers. San Francisco had the worst injury situation in football last year, and was still in the playoff mix in December, which showed the depth of the roster and what the team brings to the table from a coaching standpoint. With better luck, the Niners should be a very real contender. And that is a big reason why they held on to Jimmy Garoppolo after trading up to get Trey Lance. Plain and simple: They didn’t want to expose themselves to risk at the most important position with the group they have coming back.

But giving you the Niners as an answer to this question almost feels like cheating, since they were in the Super Bowl 17 months ago. So if you take them out of the mix, and look at the other seven last-place teams, I’ll take the Falcons (over the Jets, Bengals, Jaguars, Broncos, Eagles and Lions).

For one, I really think, in time, Arthur Smith’s going to be a top-shelf head coach. He’s put together a strong staff, and that team still has a really good core, stocked with guys like Matt Ryan, Calvin Ridley, Jake Matthews, Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones. Atlanta backslid the last few years, and some of those guys are on the older side. But there’s a lot of big-game experience in that locker room, and so long as a few young guys (Chris Lindstrom, Kaleb McGary, AJ Terrell, Kyle Pitts) come along, this should be a competitive team.

From Ben Luke (@kyph_north): Which coach’s seat do you think is the warmest heading into the season?

Going into last year, Ben, I’d say there were three coaches who’d gotten a stay of execution coming out of 2019: Doug Marrone in Jacksonville, Dan Quinn in Atlanta and Matt Patricia in Detroit. All three teams had to release statements at the end of the prior season to explain keeping their coaches, then two of those coaches were fired in-season in ’20, with the other canned as soon as the season ended.

I’m pointing that out, because that’s usually the way these things go. Normally, if a coach is heading into a season hanging by a thread, that thread is bound to snap. So who’s in that category this year? What’s interesting is that I’m not sure anyone is really standing on the ledge that way going into this year. But there are a few guys that bear watching.

• The Raiders’ Jon Gruden is heading into Year 4 without having made the playoffs, which is a tough place for any coach to be, even one whose owner is as behind him as Mark Davis is Gruden. Along those lines, the Broncos’ Vic Fangio, the Cardinals’ Kliff Kingsbury, and the Bengals’ Zac Taylor are going into Year 3 still seeking their first trip to the postseason. Fangio is also now working with a new GM, in George Paton, who inherited him as head coach.

• NFC North rivals Mattt Nagy in Chicago and Mike Zimmer in Minnesota have had their job security raised over the last couple of years. Nagy’s future with the Bears will likely tie to Justin Fields’s development. Zimmer’s done a nice job over six years with the Vikings, but the roster is starting to turn over and so, likewise, the development of younger players will be key for him.

• Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is more patient with coaches than he gets credit for—in 32 years, Chan Gailey is the only head coach Jones has had that didn’t make it at least three years—but there’s no question that there’s pressure on Mike McCarthy in Dallas coming out of a really sideways first year on the job.

And, of course, on top of these, there will likely be a few that are harder to forecast popping up along the way.

From Brad (@BRADNFLNBA): Do you believe resting players will become a thing in the NFL this season?

Brad, that’s a really good question, and my answer hedges a little—I think it’ll happen on the margins. Players and teams are more intensely aware than ever of the mileage the game can put on an athlete. They’re also, through tracking and other methods, more capable of measuring the toll it’s taking on them. So it’s not like going from 16 to 17 games is going to trigger some change in player management that wasn’t already underway.

That said, I do think coaches are going to be cognizant of where their players are physically over the last month of the season, more so than they have been in the past. And I think that could lead to teams that are solidly in the playoffs handling their rosters a little differently, and probably more guys on playoff teams sitting out Week 18 (aside: Still feels weird to write “Week 18”) to get right for the playoffs.

Then, after all this is said and done, I’m sure teams will study how that went league-wide in 2021 and adjust again accordingly in ’22. Will the resulting changes be obvious to the casual fan? Probably not, in most cases. But they’ll be there somewhere.

From Philly Phanatic (@PhillyPhan1001): When is the podcast coming back?

From CONCRETEJUNGLE (@CONCRET53684506): Can we get the name of ur new pod?

From Matt Ramas (@matt_ramas): Any updates for us on specifics for your next weekly NFL podcast?

Thank you, Philly, Concrete, Matt and everyone else who’s mentioned the podcast to me, both privately and through social media over the last month. I’ll be honest, it’s been weird not doing one since our last edition of the old show at the end of May, because, through several iterations of the show, it’s become a big part of the week-to-week rhythm of my job since I got to Sports Illustrated back in 2016.

I promise I’ll get you guys an update as soon as I have one. For now, know that I really appreciate the people we had in the audience, and the comments I’d get on the show, and I’m sorting through a bunch of options, and working to find the best way to relaunch the show and make it better than ever.

From h2o (@dog_bg): Question: Why do you feel the need to vacation in Nantucket if you already live in Duxbury?

I’m assuming you haven’t been to Nantucket, if you’re asking that.

From Moose Block (@moose_block): How was the vacation?

It was awesome, outside of my first case of poison ivy since elementary school—contracted while digging through the brush next to our house to find a small, black Kadima ball our oldest launched into the bushes. (If you’ve ever had to dig for a small black ball in brush, you know it’s not easy, so I was basically unknowingly swimming in poison ivy for a few minutes, and my right eye was swollen shut as a result the next day.)

Anyway, we’ve been going there for eight summers now, and I couldn’t recommend it enough. There’s a reason why people from all over the country vacation there.

From Michael Silver (@MikeSilver): Who is Elsa and why are you so mean to her?

Silver, you know damn well what Elsa was, and how I ran the score up on that overrated excuse for a “tropical storm.”

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