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Mailbag: Which First-Year Coaches Are Most Likely to Make the Playoffs?

Plus, why Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield’s deals could get done before the season, Peyton Manning’s future, and more!

CINCINNATI-TO-SAN-FRANCISCO — The trip is reaching its West Coast swing, so long as I make my connection in Dallas. By the time I’m done answering your mail, I should have an answer on that, so dive into the ’bag...

​​From Jason McIntyre (@jasonrmcintyre): rank the first-time NFL head coaches most likely to make the playoffs, and you may as well start at 2, since we know Saleh is 1

J-Mac, thanks for chiming in. Your answer …

1) Brandon Staley, Chargers: It’s not just Justin Herbert that Staley gets to work with. Joey Bosa, Derwin James, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and, well, you get the picture. The Chargers’ biggest issue the last couple years has been staying healthy. So if Staley can get a little lucky in that area, making the playoffs would be a reasonable goal.

2) Arthur Smith, Falcons. He’s got Matt Ryan, and a solid core (Calvin Ridley, Jake Matthews, Deion Jones, et al) that has its own playoff history, to build around. And he has a GM, in Terry Fontenot, who was a part of a rebuild-on-the-fly around an older quarterback in New Orleans. Bottom line: I don’t think it’ll take long for these guys to get competitive.

3) Robert Saleh, Jets: There you go, J-Mac. Do I think the Jets make the playoffs? I don’t. Do I think they have a better shot than the Eagles, Jaguars, Lions and Texans? I do. The Jets have a chance to make a big leap on the lines of scrimmage, and that should make them competitive week-to-week. Which makes a run at, say, 9–8 (these 17-game records still sound weird) and the seventh AFC playoff spot … not impossible.

From Rickey3 (@Justinsmic): If you’re the Colts … What’s your next move offensively?

Rickey, I think, for now, you stand pat—and my sense is the Colts will for the next week or two. When I talked to GM Chris Ballard the other day, he said he wanted to get a look at young quarterbacks Jacob Eason and Sam Ehlinger, and Eason in particular since he has a year under his belt, has a Drew Bledsoe type of skill set, and (like a lot of young backup QBs last year) didn’t get a lot of reps over the COVID-affected 2020 season.

I’d say after Indy’s first preseason game, they’ll have a better idea on whether or not they can feasibly go into the season with Eason as their short-term quarterback. By then, they’ll have had a couple days of joint practices with the Panthers, and the live game action against Carolina on the 15th. And there’d still be enough time after that to bring in a veteran and get him ready to play, if need be.

Thing is, losing Quenton Nelson is probably nearly as big a deal as losing Carson, especially when you consider the Colts are also probably looking at playing the first month of the season without new left tackle Eric Fisher.

That all makes Jonathan Taylor an even bigger key and I think Taylor is up to the task. The staff believes the ex-Wisconsin star was seeing the game faster and running more aggressively as a result down the stretch last year. It 100% showed in his production—he rushed 651 yards and 7 touchdowns on 97 carries (a 6.7 average) over the last five weeks of ’20. Add to that the fact that, athletically, Taylor is strikingly similar to Saquon Barkley, and that he’s shored up his shortcomings (fumbling, refinement as a receiver), and I’d buy stock in him.

And because I think he’s ready to become a focal point in the Colts offense, it would stand to reason that deploying him as the engine to Frank Reich’s offense while Wentz and Nelson heal up, and Fisher ramps up, would take pressure off the quarterback and line.

From Jeff Campbell (@campbellj28): Any insight/tidbits on Falcons camp and how Arthur Smith is settling into the HC job?

Jeff, I’m going to go further into the Falcons a little later in camp, but I can say a couple things, for now, on where they’re at.

First of all, young players like Kyle Pitts and A.J. Terrell have performed to expectations, which is necessary with the team having needs surrounding the aforementioned long-standing veteran core. Second, figuring out the offensive and defensive lines remains a big key, and especially the former with a handful of highly-drafted young guys in the mix. Third, Smith has moved into the role of boss pretty naturally.

And that isn’t surprising. One thing I do every year after the coach hiring cycle comes and goes is ask around to teams involved which guys that they didn’t hire really impressed them, and Smith’s name came up repeatedly. More than one team official gave me an Andy Reid comp on him—which isn’t to say he’ll become Andy Reid, but that he has a similar vision for the game, agile mind, and ability to reach players and motivate without having an overpowering presence in the room.

Basically, he wins people over by being genuine and intelligent, and always seeming to have the answers to the test. It was obvious, back in January, why every team put in to interview him, and some of those things are already apparent a week into his first camp.

From Jared Feinberg (@JRodNFLDraft): What are some things you’ve heard about Sam Darnold during Panthers training camp?

Jared, thus far, the Panthers have been installing the offense with Darnold, and Darnold has worked his tail off to get up to speed on Joe Brady’s scheme. Also, as was the case with Jets people, even after he left, everyone in the building has really taken to the new quarterback personally. And the physical ability is there.

It’ll be fascinating to see where Darnold can take it from here, because that last part of the equation, combined with the first two, is why he was the third pick in the draft, and his potential has showed up over his first three years, even if only in fits and starts. I had one coach who worked with him say that if you put together a 25-play sizzle reel of Darnold’s from his time as a Jet, it’d match up with anyone’s.

The task for Matt Rhule and Brady is to see if they can make who Darnold could be into who he is, so to speak. And the hope is that by creating some more stability around Darnold—more than he ever got in New York—the 24-year-old will achieve the level of consistency it’ll take for him to get there.

From Steven Bradford (@stevenabradford): Podcast?

Hopefully soon! I do appreciate the steady stream of feedback on the pod, and we’ve got some other stuff to announce coming soon too.

From Chris Adams (@RollTideinTN1): What’s the holdup with Buffalo and Josh Allen?

Chris, I think the quarterback market is just a little mucked up right now, and I think a timeline can help to establish why.

April 2019: Russell Wilson signs a four-year, $140 million extension ($35 million average per year), which edges the $33.5 million APY on the deal Aaron Rodgers did in August ’18.

July 2020: Patrick Mahomes signs a 10-year, $450 million extension ($45 million APY), easily outdistancing Wilson, albeit signing away a decade on a back-loaded deal.

September 2020: Deshaun Watson signs a four-year, $156 million extension ($39 million APY) with a more conventional structure, like Wilson’s.

March 2021: Dak Prescott signs a four-year, $160 million deal ($40 million APY), which edges out Watson on APY.

I think most people seeing the quarterback market tied more to the Watson and Prescott deals, given that Mahomes is an outlier as a player, and his deal is an outlier as a result—most teams and players wouldn’t enter into that kind of agreement. So if you’re Josh Allen, are you looking to match Mahomes? Watson and Prescott? Or could you argue that the APY should approach Mahomes on a conventional deal because of natural inflation, reasonable when you consider the 11% hike from Wilson to Watson deals separated by one offseason.

Then, the team could argue the COVID-affected cap makes it difficult to afford that sort of market mark-up, and the player could argue that by the end of such a deal, the gambling and new TV money will have sent the cap into a new stratosphere. And round and round you can go … and see why this one’s a little complicated.

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From Hellfin O’Riley (@HellfinR): Your guess on how X Howard saga will end?

Hellfin, my guess right now would be one of two scenarios. Either the Dolphins trade him, or they give him a Patriots-style raise—where they either move money up in the deal to this year and/or build-in achievable incentives that’ll increase his 2021 pay. And the latter may be more likely than the former, because Miami already balked once at the idea of moving money up in the deal.

How feasible would a trade be? Dallas was interested pre-draft, but I doubt they’d be now. Arizona has sniffed around him a little. The question would be how you’d make it worth Miami’s while to deal away one of the best corners in football, and arguably the best player that Chris Grier and Brian Flores have on their roster. And the answer, I’d think, would be with a package that includes a first-round pick, which would be a lot to ask when a trading team also has to factor in the raise Howard’s going to ask for.

It’s an interesting challenge for Grier and Flores, no doubt, and one born, in part, of the fact that Howard saw other Dolphins take paycuts (so if you can adjust a contract for declining play … then …) and watched the team open the vault and make Byron Jones the team’s highest-paid corner. These sorts of things don’t happen in a vacuum. Players are always keeping score.

From Jordan Kendall (@jordankendall54): Who's the favorite to host the combine if it's moved from Indy?

Jordan, I think you’re going to see teams that have built palatial (and pricy) training compounds in the mix. The Cowboys are already asking. The Vikings—whose facility is adjacent to a hotel, and has a stadium as part of it—just joined them. I’d imagine the Panthers would want a look after they move their headquarters to South Carolina, and the Jaguars probably will too, once the new facility Urban Meyer asked for is up and running.

And it certainly seems like these new facilities as vehicles to get the combine would mirror the Super Bowl factor with a new stadium. The league and its teams have forever used the Super Bowl as a carrot to leverage public funding for stadiums. Could they do the same to try and get government help on practice facilities? Even if there’s not a huge public good being done by building a football team its weekday home? Of course, they could. After all, no NFL owner ever saw a single dollar of tax-payer funding he didn’t like.

From Gambling Avengers (@GamblingAvenge1): Peyton appearing on PMT was … different for him. With HoF coming up and his ESPN deal, what’s next for him. Seems like he’s leaning more broadcast than front office.

Gambling, I was convinced five years ago when Peyton Manning retired that he was going to be in a front office, running a team, within a few years. And I think if the right opportunity came along somewhere in there, there might’ve been something to think about. Certainly, the Browns had been on the radar, given his relationship with Jimmy Haslam, and the Colts were too, for obvious reasons.

Since, my thinking has changed. Manning settled in the Denver area after walking away from the Broncos, and every indication I’ve gotten from people who know him is that he has loved his retirement. He works with coaches and players when he sees fit, has his own production company and had an ESPN series, will do a fun companion MNF broadcast in the fall on the network, and gets to be around his twins a lot.

I still think he eventually could get the itch to go back. But I think the part of it that’ll give him pause is knowing he won’t ever want to do that halfway—so if he gets back in and works for a team, it’ll have be an all-in proposition, which would likely mean giving up some of the trappings of being an ex-player he’s enjoyed the last few years.

For the record, I do think he’d be good in a John Elway-type of role, and I think it’d be fun to see him in that sort of space.

From Harry (@HarryWright19OT): Reasonable expectations for Jags/Lawrence/Meyer?

Harry, they were 1–15 last year, so I think getting to 6–11, which would be a 4.5-game jump, would be a really nice first step. And I think it’s reasonable to expect the team to spring an upset or two with a roster that’s going to be young in a lot of key spots, and for Trevor Lawrence to have a season in the neighborhood of Justin Herbert’s 2020.

Really, to me, this will be about how Jacksonville looks after Thanksgiving. Usually, in a rebuilding year like this one, you can see down the stretch if things are going in the right direction.

From Josh Jeffi Call me hand (@JoshJeffi): Since Nick Chubb’s deal just got done, I feel Baker Mayfield extension is next, however I also feel it won’t be until next offseason. Where do you think extension talks are now at between the Browns and Mayfield?

Josh, I don’t think anything is imminent, but the sense I’ve gotten is that the Browns are comfortable giving Mayfield a new contract now, provided that the number is right. What I don’t see happening is Cleveland’s front office getting backed into a corner because of the result of a negotiation like Josh Allen’s, wherever that one goes. And I think that means Mayfield’s camp has some decisions to make on what exactly they need to do a deal.

Also, while that all sounds prudent for the Browns, there’s also some risk involved. If you wait—and this goes for the Bills and Ravens, too—and the can gets kicked down the road to 2022, you risk a new contract for Aaron Rodgers, who’ll be going into a contract year next offseason, blowing the market up again.

That’s why I’d guess all three teams will get a little more aggressive about trying to find a long-term compromise with their quarterbacks as we get closer to the end of camp.

From Ricker81 (@D_Ricker81): Do you think Watson gets traded before the deadline?

Ricker, it’s a good question. And I’d have an easier time answering it if I knew whether or not there’d be a settlement of the 22 lawsuits filed against him (it’s hard to envision that they’ll be all adjudicated without one any time soon), which would clear the way for the league to sanction Watson, and bring more clarity to his football status.

Until then, I do think there’s a fundamental issue. Texans GM Nick Caserio would be doing his franchise a massive disservice if he traded away his 25-year-old franchise quarterback, under contract for five more years, without getting the kind of historic return that would set the table for a full rebuild. On the flip side, if you’re another team, could you give up such a haul without the aforementioned clarity? It’d be tough to get an owner to sign off on.

Before the draft, there were questions in league circles on whether the Texans might go for a deal based on conditional picks—with what Houston would get back based, in part, on how much time Watson winds up missing. It didn’t happen then, and word is now that Caserio isn’t going to offload Watson at any sort of discounted rate and may be willing to wait out his price.

But I wouldn’t totally rule out someone meeting the Texans’ price at some point. We ID’d four teams (Carolina, Denver, Miami, Philadelphia) to watch in the Monday column a couple weeks ago, and maybe one of them emerges. The Eagles just cleared a bunch of cap space by restructuring Lane Johnson and Derek Barnett, could have three first-rounders in 2022 (pending Carson Wentz’s availability), and are led by an owner, in Jeffrey Lurie, who signed off on risks in the past has been focused on getting the quarterback position taken care of.

Likewise, Carolina and Miami have owners who have been motivated to find long-term answers at the position. And Denver very clearly kept its quarterbacking options open by passing on Justin Fields, who the team’s brass liked quite a bit, in April.

Now, you’d think if one of these teams was going to make the leap it probably would’ve happened by now. But then, there’s really nothing normal about the whole situation, so I’m not ruling anything out.

***

Update! I didn’t make my connection in Dallas. They wound up rebooking me on a flight to San Francisco on Thursday, which obviously would present problems since I’m scheduled out to do a camp a day. I waited for 45 minutes in a customer-service line, got to the front, and asked the guy that he book me on a different airline if they couldn’t get me out before Thursday. So he did.

I’ll make it there around 9 a. m. local time. Time will tell if my bag is there with me. Last night, I was told it was already headed to SFO, so I couldn’t have it (I have no idea how the bag got on the flight and I didn’t) which means, yup, after staying at the airport hotel last night, I’m wearing yesterday’s clothes.

The good news is I get to go to a football practice now. And (hopefully) get a normal night’s sleep in Phoenix tonight.

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