Mailbag: Can Big Ben Bounce Back? Will Darnold Break Out?

Plus, the Akers injury impact on Rams, finding a solution for Rodgers and the Packers, and much more.
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I’m headed to a training camp this week, and a whole host of them next week! Let’s go …

From Steve Nadle (@stevenadle): Big Ben 2021: top 10? Middle 10? Or bottom 12?

Steve, middle 10 with the potential to rise in the top 10 depending on how things play out around him. And that’s because—and I say this with all due respect to Ben Roethlisberger—his performance will ride largely on the changes that have happened around him.

The biggest thing to watch will be what’s directly in front of Roethlisberger. Long-time foundational O-line pieces Alejandro Villaneuva, David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey are gone, and line coach Mike Munchak—who had a big hand in turning the Steelers line into one of the best in football a few years back—isn’t around to develop their replacements. So the pressure is on Trai Turner coming in, young guys like Chukwuma Okorafor and Kevin Dotson moving up, and on Adrian Klemm, Munchak’s heir, to bring it all together.

The second piece, to me, is what Najee Harris will do to take the pressure off of everyone. For all the talk of Harris’s position being devalued, guys like Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott showed in recent years what a true three-down back can do to support a quarterback, and naturally allow for an offense to ask less of the triggerman with their ability to control down-and-distance and create easy completions in the passing game. Can Harris be that guy right way? My guess is yes, he can be.

And the final piece of this puzzle is the new coordinator, Matt Canada. The Steelers missed Todd Haley more than most seemed willing to concede in recent years, with Randy Fichtner, Roethlisberger’s old position coach, promoted into the play-calling role. Canada had a reputation in the college game for his creativity, and is credited with being early among coaches to weaponize jet motion, so it’ll be interesting seeing what he does with a group he’s already worked with for a year (he was the Steelers’ QBs coach in 2020).

Are there a lot of variables here? Sure. But there’s also reason to trust the job Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have done in turning over so many key spots.

From jeff (@jeff_CVN65): Sam Darnold is a successful QB with Carolina?

Jeff, I’m not sure even the Panthers are totally sure what to expect—going through the kind of three-year start to a career that Darnold just did (went through a coaching change, got the crap kicked out of him, didn’t have much talent around him) can absolutely leave a mark on a quarterback. So until live bullets start flying, it’s hard to say what kind of chance he has to become the guy much of the NFL thought he could be in 2018.

Now, the upside here is that he was raw coming into the NFL, and he in large part remains that way because, if we’re being honest, he was a misfit for Adam Gase’s offense, and it wound up costing both guys. Darnold came from a pretty simple college offense, making the learning curve steep coming into the NFL, and Gase’s system, more or less, asks a quarterback to be Peyton Manning. Darnold wasn’t ready to be that.

The result, in retrospect, was predictable. Not only did it not work, but Darnold wasn’t in the best position to learn much from the failure, and that’s why most of the guys who were there the last two years acknowledge now that playing in, say, a Shanahan-style of offense that takes the mental heat off the quarterback (via simple checks, line calls going to the center, rather than the QB, etc.) would be best for the 24-year-old.

“I think if you put together a splash tape of 20 plays from the last couple years, Sam’s would be as good as anyone’s,” said one ex-Jets staffer. “He has freaky ability. He’s a really good player. It was just a tough situation, a combination of a lot of different things—and he was stuck where he couldn’t control the things he was dealing with. He battled through injuries, rotating offensive linemen, the back never played as well as we thought he could.

“And he still finished 6–2 two years ago, and played his best ball at the end of the year again last year. I don’t think it’s fair to judge him yet. The kid handled it liked a stud, never blamed anyone, and he could’ve blamed everyone. He took responsibility for everything. He’s a great teammate.”

The staffer went on to say that in the offense Robert Saleh and Mike LaFleur are putting in with the Jets, “he would’ve been Ryan Tannehill 2.0.” Obviously, that’s not happening now, but it does illustrate the opportunity in front of Matt Rhule and his OC, Joe Brady. Really, when you put all this together, it’s not too complicated. Take the mental load off Darnold. Get him playing fast. And see where it goes.

I think he has a chance, but, again, it’s hard to say what sort of toll the last few years took on him. We’ll know soon enough. The good news for Carolina here is that the investment is modest enough to where if it doesn’t work, they can take another shot on a quarterback in next year’s draft—and this certainly wouldn’t preclude them from taking a shot at Deshaun Watson if he’s available later in the summer (I’d expect them to be in the mix, if it happens.)

From Joolz R. Shah (@Joolz_MF): How much of an impact will losing Akers have on the Rams this season? Is there anyone, either on the team or otherwise, who can step in and deliver as the new no.1 to complement Stafford?

So Joolz, here’s the way I look at it—I think the Rams can approximate the run game production they had last year with Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson, with Henderson and some combination of young players on the roster. Will it be the same? No. But the strength of the run game there is more than just the backs, and Henderson’s a really good player to begin with.

Where I think the Rams are losing out here is with Akers’s upside. He was a high school quarterback and played behind a god-awful offensive line at Florida State, so the way most teams saw him coming out was as a solid back that probably had a whole other level of untapped potential. And the Rams certainly saw that potential over the second half of last year, to where they were readying to build their run game around him.

That upside is now gone, which is too bad, but also not the end of the world. Moving Henderson into the starter’s role, and letting Xavier Jones, Otis Anderson and Jake Funk compete for snaps (with the option to augment in later in camp) should give Sean McVay and Kevin O’Connell a shot to build at least a keep-em-honest run game to marry to the passing game Matthew Stafford’s now piloting.

From A L E X (@AlexLeeSays): Week 1 Rodgers is playing for ... ?

From Baseball is Back (@MLB_is_Back): If you're the Packers, why not offer Rodgers this deal—We tear up your contract, you sign for one year and something like $40 million and next year you are a free agent.

Thanks for the questions, guys—I know everyone’s going to keep asking about Rodgers until there’s some resolution to his situation, and I’m gonna keep answering these, because it’s the biggest story in the league (so, I guess I’m not apologizing for addressing it every week). Baseball is Back, you’re right to look at creative contractual solutions, because I do think that’s where you’ll be able to find some sort of conclusion to all this.

Now, this hasn’t been about the money from the start for Rodgers. It was, in part, about the communication around the Jordan Love pick last year, and Rodgers’s desire to have a voice in the organization and play for a team that’s going to build on his timeline (see: Tom Brady, Buccaneers) and with an according sense of urgency. And, indeed, the Packers have offered Rodgers deals to make him whole financially.

That said, the contract would almost have to be part of the fix. As it stands, Rodgers has $73 million over three years left on his current contract and (this is the key) nothing is guaranteed in 2022 or 2023. That gives the team control without obligation—they can pull the plug on Rodgers whenever they want, should Jordan Love get to the point where, at his price point, he’s a better option for the team. And with trust between Rodgers and the team fractured, I’m sure Rodgers doesn’t feel like taking the Packers word for anything.

To me, that leaves two paths out of this, absent a trade, and both relate to his contract.

• The first is the one you’re proposing—and wouldn’t be totally unlike the Patriots’ handling of the end of the Brady era. The benefit is Rodgers comes in, and on to a championship roster, and you have a year to get Love ready to be your starter. The difference is that Brady was already headed into the last year of his deal in 2020, and so New England’s concessions (a no-tag provision and a raise) weren’t nearly at the level of shaving two de facto team-option years off a deal. Add that to the fact that the Packers wouldn’t get a return, outside of a Day 3 comp pick, and I don’t see this happening. But what could happen is some sort of agreement to trade Rodgers after the year.

• The second is doing an extension, and I don’t think the raw total of such a deal (it’s going to be a lot regardless) would be the key, so much as the guarantees would be. My guess is that it’d, at least, require the Packers guaranteeing the next three years, which would match up with the three years left on Love’s rookie deal. What’s really tricky about that, though, is as a policy Green Bay doesn’t guarantee future years in its contracts, so this would have to be an exception, and one to explain to others in the locker room (Obviously, Rodgers is worth making an exception for, but that doesn’t mean it won’t raise questions from others).

So, yeah, sure, this isn’t about the money. But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t help in finding a path out of this for the team. This whole thing remains, to borrow a word, complicated.

From Holly (@hollberry03): How far do you think the Seahawks will go this year??

That’s a general question, Holly, but I do think the answer relates back to the three things Russell Wilson wanted when things between him and the team were on the rocks—a new offensive system that would creatively highlight his skill set, a very real piece for the offensive line (rather than a reclamation project or low-round flyer), and a voice within the organization.

Wilson got the first two things, and those will be key in where the ceiling is for the Seahawks. Shane Waldron was among Sean McVay’s most trusted lieutenants in L.A., and a very real sounding board on X’s and O’s, and his ability to import that scheme and retrofit it for Wilson will loom large on Seattle’s season. And bringing in Gabe Jackson from the Raiders to fortify the offensive line should too.

Bottom line, if the scheme and the line are right, Wilson should play well, and the Seahawks should be really good (assuming they’re truly through the early-season struggles they had on defense last year.)

As for that third thing, well, the Seahawks really didn’t change how they do business a whole lot to give Wilson a seat at the team-building table, instead leaning on how Pete Carroll and John Schneider have built over the last 11 years. So how that all works out for the team is a storyline, too, that for obvious reasons will have big-time implications on its fortunes over the next six months.

Mark me down for 9-11 wins for the Seahawks.

From Jets Takes Airplane departure (@JetsTakes): Could Mike Vrabel find himself on the hot seat if the Titans defense continues to struggle?

Jets, I don’t think so. Yes, the Titans defense has struggled. But I don’t think Mike Vrabel was hired to be a guru on one side of the ball or the other—though he’s really sharp in those areas. He was hired to be the head coach, and I know that sounds pretentious to say it that way, but it’s true. Over the process of him being vetted and interviewing, I heard more than one team compare him to Bill Cowher, and I think that’s a good comparison, because Cowher was a former player who had a very defined vision for a program.

Vrabel is also 29–19 over his three years, with an appearance in the AFC title game two years ago, a division title last year, and a successful quarterback transition under his belt.

From Frank Davis (@Frankied35): Chances of Trey Lance starting this yr?

Frank, I’d put it at about 25%, so long as Jimmy Garoppolo stays healthy. The Niners believe they have a championship roster, and I’m with them on that. They were in the Super Bowl 18 months ago, and contended into December with the worst injury situation last year. With better luck, they should be right back in the running, and Kyle Shanahan owes it to the other 52 guys who’ll be on that roster to give them the best chance to win right now, and not sink chunks of this year into developing a young quarterback.

That, really, is the fundamental difference between the Niners and most other teams drafting quarterback in the first round—usually those teams are bad, and can afford (like the Jags and Jets can this year, for example) to devote a season to take lumps with a young guy to service what they’d hope is a brighter future. That’s just not where the Niners are.

Now, that said, there is a chance Lance plays, and it happens one of two ways as I see it. Either Lance is off the charts good between now and September (and remember, he’d have to be significantly better, because you’d be building in for the normal highs-and-lows any rookie QB has) or the Niners struggle as a team. The former could happen, even though most NFL folks believe Lance came in as raw and could use a year to sit.

The latter? Well, just three teams have truly redshirted first-round quarterbacks over the last 13 years, since Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco changed the paradigm for rookies at the position in the fall of 2008. It’s not a coincidence that all three were contenders (2011 Titans, 2017 Chiefs, 2020 Packers), which essentially meant they had no need to pull the plug on a proven veteran. Maybe the Niners are less than that. But I wouldn’t count on it.

From Chad (@C_Michael_Money): Odds Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are both on the Browns week 1? Meaning Chubb contract issue and Hunt trade.

Chad, I’ll say 90% chance Chubb and Hunt are together on the roster in Week 1. And that’s because Hunt isn’t exactly pricey. He counts $4.87 million against the cap and costs $5 million cash this year. Both those numbers bump to $6.25 million next year. Which is essentially what Cleveland is paying Case Keenum to back up Baker Mayfield. Given how the Browns lean on the run game in Kevin Stefanski’s offense, that’s not outlandish.

I also think they’ll find common ground on a new deal with Chubb. You can argue the analytically-driven front office might not want to pay another back, of course. But the reality here is that Chubb is pretty much everything Stefanski and GM Andrew Berry could ask for in a player as they build their program, and he’s emerged as the centerpiece of the offense. He’s the kind of guy you want to pay, because of what he represents on the field, in the locker room and in the community. Paying him sends a good message to the rest of the players on the roster in what exactly the guys in charge are willing to pay for.

Again, I understand having close to $20 million per year tied up in the tailback position doesn’t exactly match up with the profile of the Browns brass. But given the circumstances, I don’t think being there for a year or two would be so painful for those guys that they’d want to upset the sort of mix they had on the team last year.

From Jerrad Wyche (@JerradWyche): With Dalton set to start, and Fields being the clear #2, what are the chances Nick Foles gets moved/traded before the start of the season?

Jerrad, I think that’ll all depend on whether or not another team comes along willing to take his contract off the Bears’ hands. That team hasn’t come along yet. But he’s due just $4 million in cash this year, so it’s not that hard to envision a scenario where someone gets a couple weeks into camp, doesn’t like its situation at quarterback, and makes that call to Chicago, and maybe does some sort of late-round pick-swap to get him.

The Jets are one team I’d keep an eye on there. They don’t have a veteran backup, and Foles would be a great resource for Zach Wilson, something GM Joe Douglas knows well given that was with Foles in Philly for the quarterback’s Cinderella run to a Super Bowl title four years ago.

From Ricker81 (@D_Ricker81): Overall thoughts on the Giants offseason? If they do not win the East do you see them being able to get in as a wild card?

Ricker, I think they have a shot, but a few things have to happen. Among them …

• The offensive line has to coalesce around young guys like Andrew Thomas, Matt Peart and Shane Lemieux.

• Kenny Golladay has to be a true No. 1, which would really unlock a solid group of complementary receivers (Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton, Kadarius Toney).

• An edge-rusher needs to emerge, and maybe that’s rookie Azeez Ojulari, another Georgia star plucked by ex-Kirby Smart staffmate Joe Judge.

• A couple young guys will have to fortify the secondary’s depth, and I think those guys could be Aaron Robinson and Xavier McKinney

And, of course, Saquon Barkley has to get fully healthy, and become the player so many believe he can be, and Daniel Jones has to take the next step at quarterback.

It sounds like a lot, right? Thing is, I think it’s realistic to think the Giants could hit on all these variables. If they do, then yes, they can be a playoff team.

From redrover (@redrove60906229): What happened to your show and where can we hear you these days?

Red Rover, I really appreciate the feedback from you, and everyone else. You can always catch me on with Colin Cowherd, Rich Eisen and Dan Patrick, and twice a week for longer hits on 98.5 in Boston. I promise you I’m working on where we’re going on the podcast front.

From MMM (@Mike_DeJesus15): Will UM ever beat OSU again?

Forever is a long time, MMM.

From Paul Owers (@paulowers): Do you think we will be dealing with reports this season of COVID outbreaks that close team facilities during the week and threaten that team’s next regularly scheduled game? Or will the NFL expect teams to play games as scheduled?

I think the games will get played as scheduled, Paul. Do I think we’ll have outbreaks? I think it’s definitely possible with teams carrying lower vaccination rates (remember, on top of the fact that vaccinated players are far less likely to get COVID, unvaccinated players will be tested 14 times more often than vaccinated players), and for those teams contact tracing could also loom large, in Broncos quarterbacks or Saints running backs kind of way.

Obviously, a lot of this is going to boil down to what our country looks like, relative to COVID, in the fall and winter. But I feel comfortable saying that the difference between teams with high and low vaccination rates certainly could have competitive implications.

From MarkusKapono (@KaponoMarkus): Are you vaccinated?

Yes, I am. Got the shots in April.

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