I talked to Robert Saleh between swings on Friday—the new Jets coach was using the quickly passing free time he has left, and a rare quiet moment, to hit balls at the range and clear his head a little. And you can bet, since he’s a father of seven(!) on the cusp of his first training camp in charge, there’s a lot going on up there.
But where you might think, for the 42-year-old, that would add up to nerves or butterflies over how it’ll go, Saleh was just more anxious under New Jersey’s July humidity than anything.
Anxious to get in the meeting room. Anxious to get on the grass. Anxious to gather his staff back together. Anxious to see what he thinks was a good spring manifest into something else, one way or the other, in the summer. He’s anxious, really, just to go.
“I’m excited for those team meetings, to be able to sit and talk to the guys,” Saleh said. “You think about those meetings; it’s your only chance as a head coach. If you’re a position coach, you’re with them all the time, it’s great. As a coordinator, it scales back some. As a head coach, that’s it. So to be able to get back and go through it and watch these guys grow.
“It’s all of it. It’s the first team meeting. Going on the practice field. The first night before the game. The whole thing is gonna be exciting. We’ve got a super, super young group of guys, and it’s going to be exciting to see them grow because they’re all made of the right stuff, they have a tremendous mindset and their growth is gonna happen. It’s a matter of coaching our tails off and giving them every opportunity to compete.”
Now, here’s the twist—more than anything else, he’s excited to see his Jets fail.
Saleh’s one of the more straightforward, straight-shooting people you’ll come across in the NFL, and he was honest as could be about that. And while it sounds funny to say it that way, it’s also a recognition, covered in self-awareness, of where his Jets program is right now.
Yes, he’ll tell you, his Jets had a wonderful spring. He loves the locker room. The young quarterback fit in nicely. The coaching and scouting staffs, more or less part of a marriage arranged by ownership, have coalesced as both he and GM Joe Douglas hoped they would, and there’s a great feeling in the building.
But as for what they really accomplished the last six months? That, as Saleh sees it, was, and should be, the easy part—and he’s not going to celebrate a proverbial hole-in-one on a mini-golf course. Which is why, more than anything, ahead of his first camp, he’s fired up to see what happens when things get hard.
“Everything’s been awesome,” Saleh said. “Call it the greatest honeymoon in the world, if you want. It’s been great. But I’m genuinely excited for adversity. Because a lot of different things are going to pop up. There are coaches that are going to find out about themselves. There’s the scouts and the GM, there’s myself, the players, the training staff. Everybody’s going to find out a little more about themselves when adversity hits.
“I think that’s when teams have their greatest amount of growth—it’s through adversity. And so with training camp, , that’s what I’m most excited for. I wanna see how people respond.”
Listening to Saleh talk the other day really was a reminder to me. For all the noise over the last six months, the first hint of real football, with pads on and teams locked in, is just a few days away. And Saleh knows his Jets, like the other 31 teams, are only going to be undefeated so much longer.
So this morning, with my first post-vacation MMQB, we’ll dive into how Saleh has gotten his team ready for that, as one of the NFL’s six first-year coaches preparing to open camp.
My break’s over, but before we get started, a big thank you to Sam Rapoport, Malcolm Perry and Luke Kuechly for the time and effort they put into this year’s summer guest columns—and I’d encourage you to click on their names if you missed any of them. Now, as for what’s in this week’s column, things are about to heat up in the pro football landscape, so we’ve got plenty to cover ….
• A look at how NIL in college football is already affecting the NFL.
• A tribute to one of the great assistant coaches in football history.
• Fallout from the franchise tag deadline.
And, of course, we’ll have plenty of news and notes to pass along later in the column. For now, let’s get back to Saleh, his Jets, where they are, and where they’re headed.
Saleh’s desire to see how his team fails, and handles failure, isn’t unique to him. All coaches want that. But the Jets coach’s saying it’s what he’s most excited about?
That’s borne of his own experience the last four years with the 49ers.
So when he brought it up, I immediately referenced Kyle Shanahan’s staff’s starting its time there 0–9. Which, as it turns out, was the wrong stretch of games to look at. Over that period, Saleh explained, the Niners were consistently close—at one point, they suffered five losses in a row by a field goal or less—and that continually fueled hope for what everyone knew was a ground-up operation. Indeed, that team eventually traded for Jimmy Garoppolo and wound up closing the year out with five straight wins with its new quarterback at the helm.
What happened the next year was different. The 2018 Niners had expectations to deal with. And while so many thought the hard part was over for Shanahan and GM John Lynch, with all the lumps taken in Year 1, reality held that things were only about to get tougher.
“Jimmy gets hurt the third game of the year and we don’t have nearly the season we felt like we should’ve,” Saleh recalled. “Everyone’s screaming for changes, everyone wants heads to roll—the media, the external forces came on strong. And to Kyle’s credit, he stayed strong. He stayed strong with players, he stayed strong with coaches, he stayed strong with the entire organization. And that offseason, you saw the players respond exactly the way you wanted them to respond, and that led to the 2019 season.
“I really believe it stemmed from ’18, it stemmed from all that adversity, it stemmed from guys’ knowing that they’re capable of so much more. Through injury-ravaged seasons, they were still able to compete, and be right at the doorstep.”
They weathered it, as Saleh sees it now, because the foundation was there—and so, as he said, the turbulence of 2018 only set the stage for the dominance the Niners displayed in rolling all the way to the Super Bowl just a year later.
And therein lies where Saleh is with his team now.
He and Douglas, and their staffs and the players, spent the last six months steeling themselves for everything that’s ahead. And now they’ll get to see, with an incredibly young team that’ll likely lean on first- and second-year players at every offensive skill spot, on the offensive line and in the secondary, how sturdy what they’ve put together is.
For his part, to prepare for that, and drawing off his time with new (or newish) staffs, not only with the 49ers, but also the Seahawks, Texans and Jaguars, Saleh prioritized three things that he did think could be accomplished between January and June. Which, he hopes, will give the team the same sort of foundation those struggling Niners had to fall back on.
First, he wanted to have his relationship be where it needed to be with GM Joe Douglas. And Saleh believes this one’s been checked off in time the two spent together—be it through the presentations coaches gave on positional specifics to the scouts, through the process of vetting the draftable quarterbacks, or just combing through the team’s roster.
The biggest takeaway for the coach on his GM (“He’s been fantastic since Day 1,” Saleh said) is how Douglas has principles in what he’s looking for without being rigid.
“He has a standard that he believes in. You can’t push him off his beliefs,” Saleh said. “That doesn’t mean he’s stubborn by any sense of the imagination, but he has a philosophy, he has a belief, he has core values, he has all those things. And because of it, he has the ability to be consistent in every decision he makes. He’s confident enough in his philosophy and his foundation to be able to take input from everybody and process all that information to make the best decisions possible for the team.
“That’s very similar to the way we believe as a coaching staff in what we believe in. It’s so easy to get along with him, because I know that what he tells me and what he tells us is from the heart, it’s from what he believes, it’s from his core values.”
To the coach, that showed up most in free agency, where Douglas brought home quality pieces like Corey Davis and Carl Lawson (and more recently Morgan Moses) while showing discipline at the bargaining table. “You get the pressure of, ‘Sign this guy! Sign this guy! Just get him in the building!’ That’s where those big, monstrous contracts come from,” Saleh continued. “And he was very, very smart with the way we went about it, bringing in the right guys, and we’re super excited about all our free agents and what they represent both on and off the field, the way they carry themselves. We’re set up nicely for years to come.”
Part of it, too, was a result of how Saleh wanted to align his staff with Douglas’s, so everyone was seeing how the Jets wanted to play football the same way. There are marks of that in the draft class—and most prominently with how the Jets believe that second-pick Zach Wilson (more on him in the Ten Takeaways below) was such a perfect fit to play triggerman in a Mike LaFleur offense styled in Shanahan roots, but also in landing an edge rusher like Lawson, or a quick-footed lineman like first-round pick Ali Vera-Tucker.
The baseline was set in the aforementioned personnel meetings, where Saleh, Douglas and their groups sought “an understanding of what our scheme asks of each player, so we could all get on the same page in regards to what we wanted our athletes to look like, not only on the field but off the field.” But just as important, as Saleh sees it, is being flexible to keep the ball moving on that—because he wants his schemes to continue to evolve.
“That’ll be a work in progress all the time,” he said. “I think there’s an appreciation from both sides on the way we’ve been able to present, and the way they’ve been able to present, and the discussion we had throughout free agency and the draft, and the way we view players, and talking about pros and cons on both sides of the coin. But as you go through, there’s going to be evolution, you’re going to want to want to change, you’re gonna wanna do things different, and we have that constant communication day-in and day-out.
“We’ve gonna have a lot more during training camp when pads come on and we’re practicing not only against ourselves, but against the Packers, against the Eagles, the preseason games, and with the things that we see as a coaching staff, and the things that the scouting department sees. That communication never ends. I don’t think you ever have it.”
Just as the scouts and coaches worked on that, the players showed up, and Saleh’s priority with them was getting a standard established. And obviously, that standard might fluctuate from position to position. But there are areas where, he said, a bar could be set for the entire team. And the spring served to get that bar set where it needed to be.
“Everyone’s got their standard with regards to how we play, how we practice, how we eat, how we train, how we rehab, how we regen, everything,” Saleh said. “And what does that standard represent? What do we want to get accomplished? To put it the simplest way possible, it’s, Are you going to bed better than when you woke up in every facet of life? I think our players have taken that to heart. It’s a really good group of guys.”
All the same, Saleh challenged the coaches there, too.
“I think the hardest thing to gain between players and an organization is trust,” he continued. “To me, it’s always about the organization proving to the players they can trust us, and that we’re doing everything we can to help them achieve their best so they can have a great career, and achieve all the goals they’ve wanted to since they were children. It’s not trying to sell anything. We have to go out and prove it every day, we have to work our butts off, we have to show tape, we have to show them everything possible to play their best.
“At the end of the day, they’re the ones that are in between the white lines having to make split-second decisions. They get a call and they’ve got 10 seconds to make a decision, and you want them to play free of mind, but it’s all-encompassing.”
Which is to say it goes from the practice field, to the cafeteria, to the tables in the training room and the weight room. And that last one? That’s, perhaps, where Saleh saw the best signs that trust was being earned. He asked ownership to invest deeply in a performance staff that would be able to tailor its program for individual players, many of whom have outside strength coaches they’re listening to.
Thus far, that investment’s paying off.
“There’s a lot of trust that has to be built there,” Saleh said. “It’s not like, Oh, O.K., I’m just gonna try it, and shoot if it doesn’t work, there goes the season. There’s been a lot of communication with the players, a lot of toe in the water. At the end of the day, I feel like, after our Phase 3, we had a lot of players that responded in a positive way, and there’s been a lot of communication since, between the performance staff and the players. And I feel like that’s where, to me, I feel like they’ve made tremendous gains in letting their guard down.”
When Saleh and I went back to what he’s most looking forward to, team meetings came up again, so I asked him if he’d mapped out how he’ll address his team during the first one. He told me it’d probably be centered on philosophy (“a lot of it’s boring”), and then I found that the first meeting—the one so many of us focus on—wasn’t really what he was talking about anyway.
“The big team meetings are after the first practice, and you’re showing tape, and you’re showing special teams and offense and defense, and you’re showing some competition period—just engaging the players and showing everybody everybody’s responsibility, showing the standard to everybody, “ Saleh said. “And it’s not like anyone’s getting ripped or embarrassed, it’s just: This is who we’re going to be; this is the expectation.”
And there’s another reason Saleh can’t wait for those, too.
To illustrate that, he explained his experience coaching Fred Warner, who came into the NFL as a third-round pick without a clear position and grew, by his third year, into an All-Pro middle linebacker. Warner, Saleh said, was a big question asker, and the questions came from Warner’s study of the defense, as he tried apply the information he was being taught. Over time, Saleh noticed he was staring to learn from Warner during those conversations, and the scheme grew through Warner’s experience playing in it.
Which brings us to another thing that encouraged Saleh in the spring—players, on both sides of the ball, taking the scheme, applying it on the field and coming back with questions that not only showed that they’d been cramming, but also that they were smart enough to be looking for answers in their own application of it. It was young players, of course. But it was also seasoned vets like C.J. Mosley and Vinny Curry and Davis.
“It means they’re engaged,” Saleh said. “Sixteen years, you’ve been around guys, yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll do it the way I’ve done it forever. And then you’ve got guys who ask questions, and you point it out, and nothing happens. These guys respond. And if it doesn’t work when you respond to what they said, they ask the question. And when they ask the question, that’s awesome, because just because we say it doesn’t mean it’s going to work a certain way. But shoot, give it a try, let’s see what happens, maybe we’ll see something else.
“That’s how you make it your own. And when a player makes it his own, he becomes very dangerous, in a good way. And the only way to do that is to be able not only to absorb the information that’s given, but ask the questions and make it yours. I think we’ve already had some of that happening in OTAs. That’s pretty cool, this group, they’re not just robots, they’re trying to make it all fit not only with what they’ve done in the past, but what we ask them to do and what they’re seeing on tape from other players that have done it before.”
It also helps that, “Excuse my language, but we don’t have any a------- on our team. We don’t have any jerks. It’s just a good group of young men.”
The kind, he says, you’d want to go to work with, and the kind he personally can’t wait to go to work with in less than two weeks’ time.
And when things go sideways? Even better.
At that point, Saleh will really know what he’s got and, just as important, get a better idea of just how far his young, rebuilt roster has to go.
NIL IS FINALLY HERE
While I was gone, the college sports world (finally!) changed for the better—with athletes now able to capitalize on the earning power their stage affords them, and profit off their name, image and likeness.
I could spend a few thousand words telling you how ridiculous it is that it took us so long to get here, and for the NCAA to embrace what was always an easy solution (look up Jeremy Bloom’s name, if you have time too), but there are other reporters who cover that level of sports more capably of that than me. What we will do for you here is explain how it’ll impact the way business is done in the NFL, and how the train’s already left the station on that.
And really, all of it starts in the agent community.
The NFLPA’s rules on it aren’t that complicated. They allow for agents to represent college football players for marketing purposes, so long as it’s not with any sort of agreement that said agent will be hired as the player’s agent. It’s O.K. for the agent repping the player for marketing to eventually become the player’s agent. It’s not O.K. for the agent to get a guarantee from the player that that’ll happen.
We’ve already seen examples of it—Maybe the most prominent one is Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler’s hiring longtime high-profile agent Leigh Steinberg as his NIL rep—and there are a lot more coming. And those signings aren’t the only places NFL agents are looking to on this new turf.
That brings us to prominent agent Neil Schwartz, who represented Terrell Davis and Darrelle Revis (among others) in their playing careers, and more or less stumbled into something that he thinks will be lucrative for everyone involved.
Schwartz was having dinner with his 30-year-old son, a cosmetic dentist in South Florida, during Super Bowl week in Miami in early 2020, and the two saw Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor nearby doing a paid appearance. Curious, the son asked if Taylor was making much off of it, and dad responded jokingly that Davis’s ability to monetize those sorts of nights helped put his son through dental school.
“Wow, Dad, I didn’t realize how much guys get paid for this stuff,” Jesse said.
At the time, Neil was studying NIL, and so the conversation went there, and to a simple question: Outside of their ability to play, what’s a college athlete’s biggest asset? The answer is their social media accounts, which oftentimes have five-figure follower counts, and in some cases numbers that stretched to six or even seven figures.
“Basically, if I ask the college athletes, what’s the most sellable thing you have, besides being a great player, I think they find one of their biggest assets is their social media,” Schwartz said. “They have more followers than some cable TV shows have viewers or radio shows have listeners. It’s a large audience, so you might as well take advantage of that audience.”
That’s where the idea for Jenloop came from—J.E.N. is an acronym for Jesse, Esta (the American name of their Korean developer, Aekung) and Neil.
It’s like Cameo, with the difference being that Jenloop, rather than being based off its own platform, uses its users’ platforms, which puts those outsized followings to work. And Cameo, indeed, was the impetus for all this, when that dinner conversation about L.T. veered off into a brainstorming session.
Schwartz wound up going to Davis to ask about Cameo, and Davis told him that he wound up doing less on that platform because he initially was inundated with requests, and then, after raising his price, felt like the amount of time he had to put into it wasn’t worth it. A few others Schwartz talked to echoed that, so Schwartz did what he could to simplify it as much as possible for “celebrities.”
Which brought them to where they are now: The platform basically allows the celebrity to set his/her price, then just say yes, no or “edit” to messages submitted by buyers. The message is then turned into a graphic and posted on the celebrity’s account. The celebrity can also charge a higher price for businesses than individuals, which for a college athlete would mean having one price to wish someone’s kid a happy birthday and another to post an ad for the pizza place off campus.
Schwartz worked to build awareness mostly in the SEC the last few months, because Southern states were early adopters of NIL legislation, and has made in-roads with big-name football players at Georgia (Kendall Milton), Florida (Zachary Carter), Texas A&M (Leon O’Neal) and Alabama (Jordan Battle). And the beauty of it is that it should work all the same for athletes in non-revenue sports with large followings.
Schwartz raised the example of LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne, who’s got 4 million followers on TikTok and 1.1 million followers on Instagram. And that’s just one example.
“I think back in the day, if Mia Hamm was on the platform, you’d have been able to reach every female soccer player in the country through her,” said Schwartz. “There’s a young lady at Boston College where it’s basically the same—I think through her, you could reach every young girl that plays lacrosse, if it’s fair to assume that’s the bulk of her following.”
Anyway, I thought this was a really good example of how the NFL is going to start to seep into college football through NIL. And as I see, there’s real upshot for the pros here, too, in that a player who might not be ready for the league, but needs to provide for himself, or his family, can now do that as a college athlete, and not feel the need to turn pro prematurely to pull it off.
It should be interesting to see where all this goes, because the one thing that’s undeniable is that the landscape in the sport, in general, will change as a result of this.
REMEMBERING ALEX GIBBS
I didn’t want to let this week pass without recognizing a guy that I can remember being one of the most impactful NFL coaches of my childhood—and a guy who did it without serving a single day as a head coach or working a single game as a play-caller in the pros.
Former Broncos offensive line coach Alex Gibbs died on Monday at 80.
Gibbs won’t be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but those in the game are aware of the enormous impact he had on where football would go in the years after he won two Super Bowls in Denver, with Mike Shanahan and John Elway at the tail end of ’90s. And really, the start of all that came in his first stint together with Shanahan in Denver, on Dan Reeves’s staff, in the mid-’80s.
Shanahan and Gibbs arrived together in 1984 from the SEC; Shanahan coming from Florida to be Broncos receivers coach, and Gibbs from Georgia to coach the line. They were there for four years and two Super Bowls together, and Shanahan was impressed enough that he took Gibbs with him to Los Angeles as assistant head coach when he got Raiders job in ’88. But it was just 20 games before Al Davis pulled the plug on Shanahan, and the two went their separate ways for the five years to follow.
That was the precursor to a set of meetings that had an impact that would reverberate across the NFL. The Broncos hired Shanahan as head coach in 1995, Shanahan immediately hired Gibbs, and the two used their four previous years in Denver as the key point of reference to plan from.
“Our first year in Denver in ’84 was the only year we averaged 4 yards per carry or more,” Shanahan said. “Everything else was in that 3.9, 3.8, 3.7 range. And so when we did get together back in ’95, we felt our only chance to do something—because we’d been to three Super Bowls, we got embarrassed in all three—was to take pressure off of John with a good running game. And Alex was the guy that was going to help me do that.”
I looked up the numbers, and Shanahan wasn’t embellishing. Denver rushed for 4.1 yards per carry in 1984 and 3.7 in ’85; and 3.7 and 3.9, respectively, in the Super Bowl seasons of ’86 and ’87. As a result, Elway had to carry those teams, and Shanahan wasn’t going to put Elway, in his mid-30s at that point, in that spot again.
“We wanted to be No. 1 in the AFC, and the NFL, in yards per rush,” Shanahan continued. “That was big for us, because it spoke to the toughness of a football team. We wanted to separate ourselves from the rest of the pack where they knew, whoever was coming in, they were dealing with a physical football team. And the only way we could prove that consistently would be running the ball better than anybody else.”
What was unique about what Shanahan, Gibbs and coordinator Gary Kubiak accomplished, though, was that it was done not just through beating toughness into the players, but with creativity and flair most people never associate with the run game.
And at the heart of it was a zone-blocking scheme that allowed Denver to eschew mountainous linemen for smaller, smarter, more athletic guys in the trenches, and a base call that was commonly referred to back then as the “stretch” play—an outside-zone concept that got the linemen running laterally to stretch the defensive front to the boundary, and create seams for backs to cut into (the so-called, “one-cut” backs).
“I don’t think anybody was doing it back then,” Shanahan said. “Maybe there was, but I wasn’t studying them. I’d been in the NFL for a while when we decided to do the things we did in ’95, not only what we were doing with our running game, but our play-action game off of it as well. It was just something we believed in. And it’s like anything: When everyone believes in the run game as a team, you’ve got a chance for things to work.”
It worked and worked immediately. The Broncos led the AFC in yards per carry, and finished top-four in the NFL in each of Shanahan’s first four years as head coach, and the team went 46–10 (playoffs included) with two Super Bowl titles over Years 2, 3 and 4. And the heart and soul of those teams was a Gibbs-led line that didn’t start a single 300-pounder.
“He demanded perfection, and he expected you to practice very hard,” Shanahan said. “And if you didn’t, you weren’t going to be on his offensive line. Somebody was going to take your place. And if you take a look at the people that we had through those years, we had some great character guys that believed in each other. And one of the reasons we had so much success in the running game was with Alex and the great job he did, and the offensive linemen playing together. It was a lot of guys that had the same type of mindset Alex did.”
After Elway’s retirement, the Broncos never quite returned to the level they achieved in 1997 and ’98, but the foundation remained for a contender over the decade to follow, and it lasted even beyond Gibbs’s departure after the 2003 season. Only twice during Shanahan’s 14 years in charge did Denver’s seasonal per-carry rate dip below 4.4 yards. And just as Terrell Davis became a Hall of Famer in the scheme, it made a star of Clinton Portis, and turned Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Tatum Bell and Reuben Droughns into 1,000-yard backs.
Meanwhile, Gibbs went to Atlanta, the Falcons led the NFL in rushing and yards per carry in each of his three years there (2004-06). He then was reunited with Gary Kubiak in Houston, worked a year for Pete Carroll in Seattle, and finished up back in Denver with Elway—serving as a consultant during the Broncos’ Super Bowl season of 2013.
And since, what he, Kubiak and Shanahan built has spread all over the NFL. The Niners, Rams, Seahawks, Titans, Packers, Jets, Browns, Falcons and Vikings are running schemes that have direct lineage to the old Broncos offense, and the concepts within it have been borrowed by just about everybody.
Rightfully, Shanahan gets a ton of credit for that. But he’ll be the first one to tell you that Gibbs deserves some too.
“I think the biggest compliment you can give a coach is when you know that your players believe in you,” Shanahan said. “If you talk to all his offensive linemen, they have nothing but accolade after accolade about Alex Gibbs, the type of person he was, how hard he worked and the pride he took in what he did.”
To be sure, Gibbs gave them plenty to believe in.
Every sign points to Zach Wilson’s starting the Jets’ opener on Sept. 12, but I understand why Saleh is hesitant to put that out there. The reason? If you’re selling competition in your program, like every coach does, you really can’t. So here’s what Saleh said when I asked if Wilson was going to take the first snap in camp, a sign he’d enter as the starter: “The biggest thing we’re trying to do, and call it coachspeak, we’re trying to give all 90 guys a chance to establish themselves as starters. And we want to give everybody an opportunity to go out there and play and showcase who they are, give them the ability to see how they match up. So you’ll see rotation, like you saw in OTAs this year. We’d go to the back end and give everyone a chance to be a starter, and step in there with the ones to see how they communicate, see how they work. Same thing with the D-line and linebackers and then on the O-line, at running back, receiver, just having that constant rotation. So yeah, the quarterback part is the same, those guys are all going to work. Will he take the first snap? Probably. But at the same time, it all comes down to what he can handle, and how he can handle things going through training camp and the preseason.” And Saleh said that, by the way, while adding this specifically on Wilson’s spring: “He’s a relentless worker. And I mean this, there’s guys who watch film, and then there’s guys that watch film almost religiously, and he’s one of those guys. He’s constantly trying to find ways to absorb information and learn. He’s wearing out the quarterback coach with film study. He’s relentless in that regard. His mental horsepower is off the charts. And he has a tremendous opportunity to go out there and be a good football player, because of that—because of his want to learn, because of his want to get better, because of his desire to ask questions that, frankly, he shouldn’t be asking yet. He’s looking at tells already through OTAs. The way he goes about it, he’s interesting mentally. And I’m excited to get a chance, when we go to Philadelphia and Green Bay, for him to see different defenses. It’s gonna be cool to see him react, and see how he asks questions, and see how he responds in Day 2 of those practices, it’s gonna be cool.” Translation: He may have to earn the job, but he’s well on his way to doing that.
Six of 10 players who were franchise tagged didn’t sign long-term deals with their teams—and that could set those guys up nicely in 2022. And accordingly, the easy answer to the question of why Chris Godwin, Marcus Maye, Allen Robinson, Cam Robinson, Brandon Scherff and Marcus Williams were not locked up by their teams is that it wasn’t what was best for those guys. How could that be true? Follow the bouncing ball …
• The tag numbers are very healthy, even with a COVID-19-affected cap knocking them down a little this year. All six of the aforementioned players are looking at playing on one-year lump-sum numbers in eight figures this fall. Allen Robinson’s getting $18 million, and Scherff’s a tad north of that. Bottom line, that’s good money, and gave the players leverage to say no, and still be awfully comfortable.
• Negotiating with teams in a year when the cap is down, and cash budgets were limited because of COVID-19, wasn’t optimal. So if a player’s O.K. with his 2021 number, why not resist doing a deal when you can only really negotiate with one team in that environment, wait a year, and dive back in next year, when the cap should jump by more than $20 million and you can negotiate with every team? And with the prospect that the cap could really explode in ’23 with the new TV money kicking into the equation?
• And if you’re covered with a career-ending disability policy, like some of these guys are? Even better. Let’s say, for instance, that you’re Maye or Williams, and you have $10.612 million coming on the tag, and you have a $7 million policy. That means you’re covered to get $17.612 million—with $7 million of that being tax-free—if something goes horribly wrong. Otherwise, you get your $10.612 million and likely get free agency in 2022.
And then, there’s history here. While there are cautionary tales here (Henry Melton in 2013 is a good one), there are more stories like those of Kirk Cousins, Dak Prescott, Trumaine Johnson and Joe Thuney, where players weaponized the tag, took home big single-year payments, then cashed in. More and more, guys are becoming hip to that strategy and, again, given the above landscape, it’s not all that hard to understand why standing on the hand they had was the right play for a few of them this year.
As for the one guy who did get a deadline deal, the Taylor Moton signing is a good signal of what Matt Rhule is looking for in building up his Panthers program. Moton’s evolution as a player over time wasn’t unusual—he was drafted in the second round, redshirted, in effect, as a rookie, and then became the Carolina’s starting right tackle in 2018. Over the last three years, while he’s not Lane Johnson or Ryan Ramczyk, he’s grown into a top-10 or so right tackle, and has been durable and reliable in starting 48 of 48 games, and bridging the transition from Ron Rivera to Rhule in Charlotte. Is $85 million over five years ($71.25 million in new money on a four-year extension, adding to the $13.8 million tag) a lot for a player like that? Sure, it is. But you need good tackles, they’re hard to find and, as such, it’s easy to see where the idea of having one of the two spots taken care of long-term would be enticing enough to do what the Panthers did. And then bring this all back to how Rhule’s building his program. Moton’s a worker, who’s proven he can be counted on, and has consistently improved—and if the locker room is watching what types of guys Rhule and GM Scott Fitterer will pay, Moton’s not a bad example for those guys to present to the rest of the team.
Vaccination rates are right where people in the NFL expected them to be. Going into the weekend, the league had 13 teams having broken the 85% threshold and two below 50%, with a league-wide player vaccination rate (guys with at least one shot) of 73.8%. So how, in real-life terms, did we get here? Before vacation, I gave you the four segments of players the league and union saw emerge in their vaccination efforts.
1) Early adopters. Guys that didn’t need anyone telling them to get the shots because they were going to do it anyway.
2) Young players eager to follow directions. These guys took the information the teams gave them and got the shots.
3) Players on the fence who moved with the protocols. Many of these guys were skeptics, but weighed the pros and cons, saw how much more difficult not being vaccinated was going to make their 2021 season, and got the shots.
4) Anti-COVID-vaxxers. Guys who were against getting it from the start, and would do what they needed to in order to avoid the shots.
Interestingly enough, the NFL’s vaccination rate hovered around 50% before the protocols were presented to players and, now, with camps’ coming and the protocols set, it’s approaching 75%. Which, I’d say, validates the research the league and union did on this.
The NFL and NFLPA are still talking about adding benefits to the protocols for teams over that 85% threshold. That won’t change the stringent protocols that non-vaccinated players are facing, but could make things even easier for the guys who are vaccinated, and coaching and support staffs as well. Thing is, at this point, I’m not sure what difference that would make. If you haven’t gotten the shot(s) at this point as a player, my guess is you’re pretty dug in. And to be clear, I do not believe that players are going to pressure each other to get the shots—my sense is this has become a third-rail topic in locker rooms along the lines of religion, family and money. There’s a reason why you don’t see many guys with the “I got vaccinated” graphics on their Twitter or IG avatars, and why, save for a couple Cole Beasleys, those staunchly opposed to getting the vaccine have stayed mostly quiet. Really, as I see it, this has been more of a by-example thing in locker rooms, with teams that had high-profile quarterbacks (the Chiefs with Patrick Mahomes, the Falcons with Matt Ryan) as early adopters reaping the benefits.
Ted Ginn’s a perfect example of how I think the definition of a draft bust can be a moving target. The ex-Ohio State star entered the NFL as one of the sport’s most electric players, and to a chorus of boos from Dolphins fans—fans who wanted Miami to take Brady Quinn with the ninth pick in the 2007 draft. Ginn lasted just three years there, catching 128 balls for 1,664 yards and five touchdowns in 48 games before Bill Parcells dealt him to the 49ers for a fifth-round pick in ’10. So yes, as a ninth pick, and for Miami, Ginn was a pretty serious bust. And most in Ginn’s spot wouldn’t last much longer in the league after that. Ginn made it another 11 seasons, giving him 14 in the pros, and you can look up how many guys make it that far that don’t play quarterback or kicker. Indeed, he was the second-oldest receiver in the league last year, behind only Larry Fitzgerald. And he retires having made Super Bowl runs with the Niners and Panthers, and gained a lot of respect not only for having lasted as long as he did, but for how he handled himself as a teammate and a pro. And to further drive home the point here, just three players from that draft class remain on NFL rosters: Patriots K Nick Folk, Packers K Mason Crosby and Bengals LS Clark Harris. (Adrian Peterson may join them in the coming weeks, which is another pretty remarkable thing.)
I really hope Richard Sherman gets the help he needs. I’m not defending his actions of that night. But I do think Sherman’s done enough over a decade in the NFL to earn the benefit of the doubt, and I see his first public reaction after being charged with DUI, endangering road workers, resisting arrest, criminal mischief and criminal trespass (he pleaded not guilty to all counts) as a good sign that he understands the gravity of his actions.
To me, that shows a guy who’s not making excuses, and not running from what he did, or where he is now personally. I also think, and this is my opinion, this is a chance to shine the light on how difficult a time a lot of players have leaving the NFL. Sherman’s career may or may not be over, but he’s at least had to reckon with the possibility of this being the end of the road over the last few months. And if he had a hard time with that, well, he’s got a lot of company among his peers.
My belief is the Stephon Gilmore situation in New England remains very uncertain. Part of it’s that Gilmore isn’t yet completely out of the woods in coming back from the torn quad he suffered last year. But a bigger part is where he and the team are contractually, with Gilmore’s going into the final year of his deal. My understanding is there’s been no recent progress toward either extending Gilmore, or giving him a raise for 2021, but that could change with people coming back off vacation in the coming days. As we explained in last week’s mailbag (among other places), this will likely come down to Gilmore’s either getting a Darius Slay–style extension, or having achievable incentives added to his deal, like Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski near the end of their time in New England. But the bottom line is that the time is coming to get something done here. The Patriots knew last September when they moved $5 million in his contract up a year that they’d be here—Gilmore was never going play the final year of his deal at $7 million—so this is no surprise to anyone. And failing to get something done, and get Gilmore in a good place going into this year, would only undermine all the work Bill Belichick did to overhaul the roster in March and April. Which is where Gilmore’s leverage is. Belichick’s leverage, of course, is in the $50,000 daily fines Gilmore would incur by not showing up for camp. But even if Gilmore shows up, my guess is, absent a contract adjustment, he’d probably take his sweet time with the quad. Bottom line, the best thing for everyone is to address it soon. I think these two sides will.
As for Aaron Rodgers’s situation, well, that one’s anyone’s guess. I’d bet, but don’t know, that Rodgers has an idea of what he’ll do over the next eight days. Few other people, even those who work with Rodgers, know. But ask me what I think, and I’ll tell you that Rodgers will probably get some sort of contract extension, and things will wind up being fine in the short term (with some of the long-term remaining a “beautiful mystery”). As of right now, maybe he’d still like to play elsewhere. But from a football standpoint, it’s hard to see where he’d be in a better situation to win another MVP or another Super Bowl. And the Packers owe it to a roster full of guys in their primes who have played in consecutive NFC title games to do everything they can to get Rodgers back in the fold, even if it comes with nothing assured past February.
With this offseason winding down, I think it’s worth saying, again, that this year’s quarterback unrest might become more the norm. My feeling is Rodgers and Russell Wilson (and to a lesser degree, Deshaun Watson and Matthew Stafford) watched what Tom Brady pulled off over the last 18 months and saw not only what was possible, but what they were up against. Brady had a team commit to building not only for him, but on his timeline, with a lot less concern for the longer-range future than we were used to seeing in the NFL. And the key is it worked. So for the first time, we saw an NFL team built LeBron James–style getting the star around which it was founded to the Lombardi Trophy podium. And while Brady did it by playing out his contract, and Rodgers and Wilson had multiple years left on theirs, it’s not too hard to connect the dots here and understand why the other guys wouldn’t just say, “I want some of that,” but also be more than a little antsy about getting it.
I can’t wait to get on the camp trail. Obviously, we’ll have more in the next week to get you ready for that too. But for now, I figured I’d wrap the Takeaways with 10 things I can’t wait to see play out over the next month.
1) How the Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield contract situations unfold. One way or the other, the Bills, Ravens and Browns will give us all some signals on where they stand with the last three quarterbacks standing (as their original team’s starter) from the 2018 draft class.
2) What Urban Meyer’s first training camp in Jacksonville looks like. In his four college stops, Camp Meyer was marked with intensity, and a weeding-out process that helped shape rock-solid programs. It’ll be interesting to see how he adjusts that for the NFL. I’m excited to get a look.
3) Where Tua Tagovailoa is going into Year 2. The Dolphins’ roster is really getting there—after three offseasons with Brian Flores and Chris Grier in charge—and, as such, much will ride on whether Tagovailoa can make the sort of sophomore leap that a lot of young QBs have in recent years.
4) How Pittsburgh looks around Ben Roethlisberger. Tentatively, the Steelers are my first camp stop, and so much will ride on how a line without Alejandro Villanueva, David DeCastro or Maurice Pouncey (or Mike Munchak, for that matter) comes together. And also how Najee Harris can take pressure off everyone.
5) Matthew Stafford in Sean McVay’s offense. I’ll just put it out there that I’m toying with the idea of picking Stafford to be league MVP. And for what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s a player where the gap is bigger between what fans think of him and what coaches and scouts believe.
6) How much pressure Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones can put on their respective coaching staffs to play them.
7) Sean Payton’s first Drew Brees–less season in New Orleans, which will feature the league’s one truly open quarterback competition.
8) Whether Justin Herbert can live up to expectations. The Chargers’ sophomore QB is very clearly seen, after a starry rookie campaign, as capable of one day becoming a top-five quarterback. So … Is “one day” going to be this year?
9) How the guys coming back from injury look—because there are a lot of them this year. And having Dak Prescott, Joe Burrow, Nick Bosa, Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Derwin James and Odell Beckham back at full strength would be really good for the NFL.
10)What happens next with Deshaun Watson. And I know “excited” is the wrong word here, so I guess on this one, it’d just be more curious to see where this goes.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1) Collin Morikawa was amazing to watch on Sunday. So much pressure, and that dude was cold-blooded throughout. I think everyone was waiting to see him open the door for a surging Jordan Spieth, and he held it shut with incredible consistency.
2) It feels like Giannis Antetokounmpo is growing as a player in big moments before our eyes, and I can’t help but feel like the NBA needs to do more to position him as the new face of the league. And by more, I mean everything it can.
3) Scary scene outside Nationals Park on Saturday night. And if you don’t think our country has a gun problem, I don’t know what to tell you. It’s not the only reason these things keep happening, of course, but it’s a big one.
4) Of all the NIL deals done this month, the one that got my attention was the two Texas A&M players cutting $10,000 deals with TexAgs.com to do exclusive interviews with the site. In some corners of Europe, this is how soccer players handle their media availability. And so it certainly makes you wonder if that’s coming here.
5) Every Wrestlemania’s being available on Peacock is dangerous—pretty easy for me to get caught in rabbit holes where I’m 9 years old again.
6) The Olympics are almost here, and I can’t think of a better way to keep up with it all than to subscribe to my editor (and buddy) Mitch Goldich’s Very Olympic Today newsletter. I can tell you I'm already signed up.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Colts owner Jim Irsay’s got guitars used by Prince, Elvis, and the Beatles, handwritten lyrics from Bob Dylan and a drum head from the Grateful Dead, among other things in his collection. And this has to rank up there with any of those. At least it better, given that he paid $915,000 for it.
That’s veteran agent Andy Simms, and he’s right. The NCAA had decades to come to this solution on its own and regulate it. It didn’t, it’s bed’s made, and now it has to lie in it.
I always thought the most bonkers Manning fact is that Archie was drafted second, had three sons, and the two that were healthy enough to make it to the NFL were both taken higher than he was.
Eli’s not bad at this.
I’m with Fitz. Rhyme was a little long.
Dead honest when I say it doesn’t look like he’s changed all that much over a half-century.
Also brought to you by this amazing Twitter feed: Dan Campbell’s ’90s shoulder pads.
When you get vaccinated, you’re helping everyone. (Get well, Rich!)
Not NFL, but still worth sharing. Again, if I’m the NBA …
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
We’re on to the 2021 season! And as part of our planning, we’re moving a few things around. One you’ll notice is that, at least for now, my Thursday GamePlan column is going to be put on ice. There are a couple of reasons for that.
I’ve been doing the Thursday notes column since I got to SI and The MMQB five years ago, and kept doing it even after taking over the Monday column from Peter King two years ago. A lot goes into both, which has made it tough to do anything else.
This will make it easier to spend more time on certain stories and chip on SI’s Daily Covers, which makes sense given the NFL’s place atop the U.S. sports landscape. The overall hope is, at least in the short term, this will create a little more flexibility.
But you’ll still be getting everything else you’ve gotten from me in the last few seasons, from this Monday morning column, to the MAQB and the Wednesday mailbag (which we may expand some) to breaking news coverage of the biggest stories. And we have a new YouTube show that we’re working on (a sort of descendent of MMQB TV from a couple of years ago), and I’m excited for all of you to check that out in the fall.
Anyway, I appreciate all of you following my work, and our work, for another season. And always feel free to reach out (email@example.com) with your feedback on any of this stuff. We’ve got a fun year coming.
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