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MAQB: Kyler Murray’s Pivotal Year

Plus, Melvin Ingram and the Steelers’ strategy, Cardale Jones and NIL, Jaguars’ unique rookie deals and more.

If you missed my first MMQB back, here’s the link. If you didn’t, here’s some more for you …

• If you had any concerns over Kyler Murray missing much of the Cardinals’ offseason program, this should help: I’m told the former first overall pick gathered teammates for throwing sessions in Texas and Arizona over the last month, and he’s already back on the ground in Phoenix a week ahead of the team’s reporting date. This, it goes without saying, is a critical year for Murray in Arizona. After this season he will become eligible for a second contract, hitting that critical post-Year 3 juncture for first-round quarterbacks—when teams have to make decisions on fifth-year options and, more often than not, whether they’re in or out on their young signal-callers. For Murray there’s a second layer to this, given that Arizona missed the playoffs in five straight seasons. Another playoff-less year, of course, could lead to other changes in the organization that might affect the guys who invested so deeply in him in the first place.

Monday Afternoon Quarterback column: Kyler Murray, Melvin Ingram, Cardale Jones

• An interesting leader emerged over the last few months in the NIL fight, and it’s one football fans ought to be familiar with: Ex-Ohio State, Bills and Chargers QB Cardale Jones. Jones was initially asked by a friend of his, Brian Schottenstein, to testify in front of Ohio politicians on his own experience as a college athlete, and potential outcomes NIL could bring. “Of course, I wish this was around when I was playing,” Jones said over the phone on Monday. “That would’ve been great, with all the opportunities we would’ve had [after the 2014 national title]. But not having that, I’m happy I can play a small part in bringing this to Ohio college athletes. These guys walk into beautiful facilities every day that were built on the backs of players, and I’m just happy to do something to even that out, and now do something for the players who’ve come behind me.” Because of his place in all this, Jones has also been in a position to advise some athletes going through the change now; his words of wisdom are simple. “First and foremost, I tell them, ‘Hey, get a team of people around you, some people who specialize in it, and can make sure you’re not being taken advantage of,’ ” Jones says. “You don’t want to get caught not knowing your worth, or get tied into a contract that puts unrealistic demands on your time. So get with a professional, max your opportunities, but stay on the task at hand. It’s all great, but the first thing is still your academics, and going and performing on the field.” Jones, for his part, has also jumped in on the business side of all this, serving as an adviser for Jenloop, which we detailed in the Monday column, through a standing relationship with NFL agent Neil Schwartz and his son Jesse. Jones even wore a hastily-put-together Jenloop shirt Jesse overnighted him to the press conference following Ohio passing NIL legislation.

• One leftover from Jets coach Robert Saleh this morning: I asked him what he takes most from having coached for Kyle Shanahan the last four years, something he’d like to bring with him to Jersey. “The trend is offensive guys, right? Everyone wants to have the next offensive guru,” Saleh says. “I think what people lose with all these guys is their leadership skills. There’s a difference between being able to call plays and actually lead a football team, period. And that’s with any coach. And I think where Kyle separates himself from all of them, is his ability to lead and establish a style of play and a standard. When you watch that team, watch the Niners, even last year, when you turn on the tape, there are common denominators that you see over and over again, you see the work, the effort, the attention to detail, the energy. It explodes off the tape, and it starts at the top with Kyle. I’ve been very fortunate with Pete Carroll, Gus Bradley—I know he didn’t have the results, but he’s a phenomenal leader above anything else—and having Gary Kubiak as a head coach, and then Kyle, I’ve been lucky. Just to be able to watch those men operate and be themselves and create a standard, understand that it’s not just X’s and O’s that win football games, but the big picture, that’s where I think I’ve been very, very fortunate, to be able to take a little bit from all of them, but to keep it within the things I value.” And therein, lies what Saleh hopes will be the foundation for what he’s building. “When the tape turns on, what do you see?” he says. “A lot of times what you see is the messaging of the organization. And what I’ve been very fortunate with, I’ve been around guys who inspire people to play football. They’re already motivated. This is the perfect line, I heard it from [Mike] Vrabel once—Football players are motivated to play, but can you inspire them to do more? It’s absolutely true. They want to play. They’re motivated, because they want to make money, they want to play in the NFL, they want to be great, they want to build their name. They want all that. But can you inspire as an organization? And not just an individual person, the entire organization has to put in the effort to inspire these young men to step outside their comfort zone and do more.”

• Very interesting seeing the always homegrown-heavy Steelers ink Melvin Ingram on Monday. And in a way, it shows they’re dipping a toe into a market inefficiency the rival Ravens have capitalized on big-time the last few years: third-contract vets. Over the last couple seasons, Pittsburgh has had success with one of those, in Joe Haden, and Ingram joins his former teammate Trai Turner as examples from this offseason. Baltimore likes doing it (Eric Weddle, Earl Thomas, Calais Campbell, Mark Ingram, Kevin Zeitler) because generally those guys have predictable outcomes, based on a long track record, have fewer comp-pick implications, bring leadership, and are more affordable.

• The Packers’ local revenue plunging from $210.9 million in 2019 to $61.8 million in 2020 (remember, that’s revenue, not profit) should illustrate the losses that teams league-wide took last year. No, every team wasn’t the same—some teams put more fans in the stands than the Packers (playoffs only) could last year, while others don’t have the ancillary reach to generate revenue outside games that Green Bay does—but those numbers can give you a general idea of where the 32 were coming out of the season. And while no one’s exactly shaking the couch for quarters, owners of the other 31 didn’t get rich by not aggressively addressing situations like this. Bottom line: The NFL’s determination to get every game played on time, in order to deliver the networks their inventory, was driven in part by a desire to set up monster broadcast deals after the season. Getting those was one way to mitigate the losses, as was going to 17 games. Cutting payroll was another way teams and the league accomplished that. And across the board, I think it’s worked to fast-track some money-making projects the NFL was planning beforehand. It’ll be interesting to see, then, whether that happens with teams’ efforts to cash in on legalized gambling. The NFL’s stance in the past was that they’d hold off on a lot of it until sports gambling’s legal in every state with a team. It wouldn’t be shocking to see that change.

• I hadn’t see what Adrian Peterson said to Sports Talk 790 in Houston—“I’m ready to play ball”—before filing my column this morning, but it brings back an amazing fact that’s tucked in there: With Ted Ginn’s retirement, if Peterson plays in 2021, he’ll be the final non-specialist in the 2007 draft class left in the league. That’s after nearly 3,500 touches, and while employing a bruising, Jim Brown-type of style as a runner. Peterson’s very clearly not what he once was. But that he’s still here, and capable of churning out 4 yards a carry? Pretty bonkers.

• Interesting to see the Jaguars grant Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne a key contractual concession in their rookie contracts: Neither deal has offset language in it, which makes them the only two of 27 signed first-rounders to score that (Justin Fields has partial offsets). In layman’s terms, it basically means that if either were cut over the next three years, they’d collect the remaining guarantees on the contract (and first-round contracts are fully guaranteed), and be able to sign elsewhere without their new contract being offset by it. It’s basically a worst-case-scenario clause. And the Jaguars have given on this before but not with picks outside the Top 10, which at least makes me wonder if there’s a reason behind it, tying into what’s long been a credo of Urban Meyer’s programs: to work players into the ground, but treat them in a first-class way if they give him what he’s asking for.

• While we’re there, only Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Rashawn Slater, Ali Vera-Tucker, and Greg Newsome remain unsigned among first-rounders. All players drafted in Rounds 4-7 are signed, and 27 of 32 second-round picks are under contract. That leaves the third round, where only 14 of 41 players are signed. That’s traditionally where things are a little slower, because there’s more negotiating wiggle room on whether a team maxes out the player’s slot or not (and the Texans doing so with Nico Collins late in the round made other players/agents drive hard for the same sort of deal).

• We’re down to just six teams that are truly “going away” to training camp. Those six: Chiefs (St. Joseph, Mo.), Colts (Westfield, Ind.), Cowboys (Oxnard, Calif.), Panthers (Spartanburg, S.C.), Rams (Irvine, Calif.) and Washington (Richmond, Va.). And the Colts really are about 15 minutes from the home facility, and Washington’s only going to Richmond for five days. I understand this trend, of course. Without two-a-days, and with limits on time they can spend together and mandated days off, there’s less need for teams to be sequestered; and there’s so much infrastructure that goes into running an NFL team (technology, sports science, training, etc.), it’s much more difficult to pick up and move the operation than it used to be. Still, I’ll miss the days of Flagstaff and Mankato and Bethlehem and, at least for this year, Latrobe. Even if I know those days probably aren’t coming back.

• Michael Irvin’s tactics to try and encourage players to get vaccinated, at their root, are the same as the league’s—if you’re not going to do it for health reasons, you’re going to make things tough on yourself and, by extension, your team (the weight-room restrictions for unvaccinated players are one area where coaches think an impact could be felt) over the next six months. I’m just afraid we’re at the point now where the league, and individual teams, have done so much to try and work with players that the guys who aren’t vaccinated already simply won’t do it. Like we said this morning, the league is talking with the union about adding some more incentives in potential benefits for teams that get over 85%, and I think that’s great. But if a player hasn’t budged yet, there isn’t much that’ll get him to move off his spot now.