Publish date:

Mailbag: How Likely Is a Michael Thomas Trade?

Will the Saints trade their injured star receiver, despite the cap hit? Plus, breakout QBs, the Chiefs’ defense, the 49ers’ QBs, the emphasis on taunting rules and more.

My first camp swing’s done, I’m going to see Washington and New England the next couple of days, and all of you managed to fill the mailbag up again. Let’s go …


From Nolan McDowell (@Nolan1McDowell): How likely is a Michael Thomas trade?

At this point, I’m sure it’s possible, but I’d say not likely. The Saints, understandably, are upset with Thomas’s holding off on surgery until June, and Thomas, of course, has had his own issues with the team. Sean Payton’s history has shown that he’s O.K. with not paying the skill-position players (before Thomas and Alvin Kamara, he and Mickey Loomis had never paid one more than $10 million per year). There’s also the obvious potential suitor out there in Thomas’s college coach/Jaguars coach Urban Meyer.

But there are two problems with the idea of dealing him now. First, the cap ramifications are there—the Saints would save only $1.2 million off this year’s cap by offloading him (his number would drop to $8.9 million), and they’d take on $22.7 million in dead cap in 2022. Second, he’s still rehabbing, so a trading team would have to be comfortable with not getting him until the middle of the season.

So the Saints are looking at a top-five receiver, and a move that would necessitate paying a serious toll on the salary cap, and you might imagine that it’d take an offer really worth their while to do something right now. Conversely, would there be a team out there willing to bring Thomas in, even with the rest of his contract’s being very affordable ($64.75 million over four years), while he’s still hurt and coming off a year in which he missed nine games?

All in all, there’s a lot to sort through here, and I can’t imagine the Saints would be in a rush to do anything rash.

From tony (@asal0880): Which QB will be this year’s Josh Allen??

I think it’s tough to say there’ll be another Allen, because Allen’s leap was pretty big from Year 1 to Year 2, and even bigger from Year 2 to Year 3, making it a somewhat unusual ascension. But if you’re talking breakthrough quarterback in a Carson Wentz 2017, Patrick Mahomes 2018, Lamar Jackson 2019 sort of way, give me Justin Herbert (which, I know, isn’t exactly an outside-the-box choice).

Herbert has a combination of things going for him. He’s got a year under his belt with core skill-position players Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Austin Ekeler, with some new blood injected (Jared Cook, rookie Josh Palmer). He’s got a remade offensive line with Rashawn Slater and Cory Linsley in as the new anchors, and another offseason addition, Matt Feiler, a pleasant camp surprise. And he’s got a new system coming in, which should make the Chargers difficult to prepare for, at least in the early stages of the season.

Add that to what we saw last year, which was a quarterback who looked like he was really going places, and I think Herbert is the logical answer, even it’s not the ambitious one, to your question.

From Julian Isaac Ibarra (@JulianIsaacIba1): Will Justin Herbert be a top-five QB this year?

From BTiv (@BRT86_Chargers): Is Herbert the real deal? Or will there be a regression this year?

Two follow-ups off the last question to get to here. Julian, I think top-five is going to be tough. I know we throw these top-whatever designations around, so just take a look at this list: Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Josh Allen. Can Herbert displace one of those five guys (who I’d say had the best 2020s)? And if he can, can he get and stay in front of Matthew Stafford, Dak Prescott and Deshaun Watson, too?

Yes, Herbert’s got the talent to get there. Actually making it there, though, is hard.

But to answer your question, BTIV: No, I don’t think there’s a regression coming. Which will come as no surprise to readers of the last few paragraphs. I think that will only happen if there are injuries and/or coaching issues around Herbert.

From Russell Varner (@rvarner): Is Sam Darnold really an improvement over Teddy Bridgewater? Or is he just different than him (willing to pass more vertically and take more chances)?

Russell, I’d say he has a higher ceiling and lower floor. It’s really hard to gauge where Darnold is as a player because of how sideways the end of his time on the Jets was. For most of three years, he had little in front of him to keep him off the ground, and his highest-profile skill player was what was left of Le’Veon Bell in 2019. So he hasn’t played well of late. But even the coaches from the last few years would tell you it wasn’t really his fault.

So to me, Darnold’s still a great mystery.

Bridgewater, at the time of his acquisition, was the opposite. He’d played well in New Orleans. He knew Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady’s system, since Brady had coached for the Saints. And at the very least, the Panthers knew that Bridgewater could make them competitive at the position in the franchise’s first year post–Cam Newton.

Therein lies another big difference. Bridgewater, if we’re being honest, was always going to be the steady stopgap. Carolina never really saw him as the long-term answer. Darnold has a chance to be. Or he could flame out completely. We’ll see.

From Nicky C #22 (@centernc22): Do you think the Chiefs’ mediocre defense will hold them back from winning a Super Bowl?

Nicky, I wouldn’t be all that concerned, because really, if the Chiefs are middle of the road on defense that should be enough. And pending any discipline to Frank Clark, I think they can be at least that. Beyond their core on that side of the ball (Clark, Chris Jones, Tyrann Mathieu), Kansas City’s got a few promising young pieces (L’Jarius Sneed, Willie Gay), reclamation projects (Taco Charlton, Mike Hughes), and a proven coordinator (Steve Spagnuolo) pulling the levers, and I think that’s plenty.

If I were you—assuming you’re a Chiefs fan—I’d be more concerned with the state of the offensive line, which was what did Kansas City in last year. I love that GM Brett Veach so aggressively went all-in on fixing the oil leak that led to a Super Bowl wreck, trading for Orlando Brown; signing Joe Thuney, Kyle Long and Austin Blythe; and drafting Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith. Still, there’s no position on the field that requires more cohesion or communication than the offensive line.

So line coach Andy Heck’s a pretty important figure in accelerating the process of acclimating those guys to holdovers Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (who’s hurt right now), Mike Remmers and Lucas Niang. And to me, getting that area shored up is Priority No. 1, over whatever incremental growth the defense might be capable of.

From BrickbyBrick2021 (@taurus33333): Who starts week 1? Lance or Garoppolo?

SI Recommends

Brick, I’ll say Jimmy Garoppolo, with Trey Lance’s holding a Taysom Hill type of role within the offense and Kyle Shanahan’s reserving the right to flip the switch at some point during the season. The reason why? The rest of the roster. Trent Williams. George Kittle. Alex Mack. Nick Bosa. Arik Armstead. Fred Warner. The core to get back to the Super Bowl is there, so Shanahan knows his decision needs to be about the here and now.

Lance is a brilliant prospect. Physically, it’s all there—and that’s a big reason he was the third pick in the draft. On top of that, as we detailed in the Monday column, he’s come a long way since draft day, which matches up with his reputation of being a really bright and hard-working kid who crushed his meetings with teams ahead of the draft. All of that means, yes, he’s got a real chance to be a really good quarterback in the league.

Now, the flip side is why he was called “raw” by scouts in the spring. Really, above anything else, it’s lack of game reps, and in more ways than one. He started only 17 games in college. In only two of those games did he throw more than 25 passes. In nine of them, he threw it fewer than 20 times, and he finished his college career with 192 rushing attempts against 318 passing attempts. Also, because North Dakota State was so dominant, he rarely played from behind, in third-and-long or in spots where he had to carry the team.

None of that’s an indictment on Lance. It’s just the reality that there’s a lot he hasn’t seen, and has to adjust to in the pros. And the question then for Shanahan becomes threefold. How bumpy will Lance’s adjustment get if he plays as a rookie? How willing will he and his veteran players be to ride those bumps out? Will the reward for those bumps in January and February be better than what Garoppolo would give you?

I personally think the complexity of all that makes this interesting, as does the fact that Garoppolo has, indeed, had a really good camp. If it were me looking at all this, if it’s close, I think you go with Garoppolo to start, because you can always switch later—and it’d be much tougher to have to go from Lance back to Garoppolo in-season. But I can also understand, with what Lance is doing, why you could be pulled in the other direction.

From Major Hawk (@MajorHawk1962): What is the take on the Jets’ rebuild from other NFL teams’ coaches and front offices?

Major, GM Joe Douglas has been well-respected in scouting circles for a long time, and I think if you asked people in that community, they’d tell you that Douglas’s fingerprints are all over the rebuild, based on what he’s emphasizing and also on where he’s focused the first phases of his roster construction.

To anyone paying attention, it’s obvious what I mean there: Douglas has built through the lines of scrimmage. He’s invested two of his three first-round picks to this point on offensive linemen (Mekhi Becton, Alijah Vera-Tucker), and he’s paid for help on both sides up front (Morgan Moses, Sheldon Rankins, Carl Lawson). And on top of investing in the trenches, you can also see how he’s looked for toughness in his player profile. Becton’s a good example. There were some maturity concerns on him, but none on how tough he is.

For what it’s worth, since Douglas had a voice in the coaching search, Robert Saleh fits the profile too. And Saleh’s hire, in my mind at least, directly addresses the amount of the dissention there was in the building the last couple years—the ex-49ers defensive coordinator is known for his energy, personality and passion.

So yeah, I think opposing coaches and scouts would tell you that the Jets are starting to get a little more level than they’ve been in a while, and Douglas and Saleh have put together a nice plan. We’ll see what they do with it.

Rashard Higgins attempting to dive for a touchdown

From Russell Varner (@rvarner): If you were suddenly made commissioner, what’s the first rule change you’d make?

This one’s easy for me: the fumble-out-of-the-end-zone rule. It makes no sense to me that you fumble out of bounds on the other team’s 1, and you’re goal-to-go with a yard to gain to score six points, but if the ball grazes the pylon, it’s the other team’s ball 19 yards in the other direction. That’s not excusing guys who’ve had soul-crushing fumbles as a result of this rule. It’s not like those guys didn’t have access to that particular corner of the rule book before they fumbled. To me, this is more about the lack of sense the rule makes in general.

I’m pretty surprised it’s lasted as long as it has, to be honest.

From paul pop jr (@pmpjr): How much will officials mess with games and the lines now thanks to the new taunting rules?

Paul, I think this is one of those things that’s going to become a feel thing. The coaches’ subcommittee has a voice in these matters, and my guess is they’ve become at least a little tired of having to manage players’ emotions in-game and maybe the flashpoint was Super Bowl LV. That afternoon/night, you’ll remember there were confrontations sparked by taunting between Tom Brady and Tyrann Mathieu, and Tyreek Hill and Antoine Winfield.

So where do they draw the line? My feeling is it’s pretty simple: Is the gesture directed at someone? For instance, I’d think it’d be O.K. for Hill to flash the peace sign running into the end zone still, just not at opponents (the way he has at times, and the way he did in the regular season at Winfield and the Bucs secondary). The trouble there, I’d say, is there’ll probably be places where it happens in an incidental way, like if a receiver jumps up and makes a first-down signal while a defender happens to stumble into his sightline.

And generally, if rules are being officiated that way, it can take a process of feeling out to get there. Which means it might be a little inconsistent at first, which, of course, will drive people up a wall.

From Matt Ramas (@matt_ramas): What do you think is the league's rationale for not placing Deshaun Watson on the exempt list?

Matt, honestly, I think a lot of times in these cases, the league doesn’t want to take action until it has to. And until Watson is charged criminally, the NFL can use that as reason not to make a move.

Now, I thought they were going to put him on the exempt list at the start of camp, based on that being the juncture at which it’s happened in the past (ex-Giants CB DeAndre Baker last year was one example), and because I figured they wouldn’t want this becoming a topic of discussion as they brought football back from summer break. But obviously that didn’t happen, and that’s put the Texans in a really strange spot.

And while I believe Watson’s next snap will be for a team other than the Texans, from everything I’ve heard, GM Nick Caserio has been resolute with others that he won’t take anything less than full price in a trade for him. To Caserio’s credit, even as this has gotten even more awkward between team and player, he hasn’t budged, and knowing how disciplined the guy is, I can’t imagine he will soon.

Of course, if someone wants to offer him what it would’ve taken before Watson’s legal issues to get the quarterback, that’s a different story.

From Jerrad Wyche (@JerradWyche): With Darius Leonard and Fred Warner getting PAID this offseason, when should we expect to see Roquan Smith follow, and will his contract be similar?

Jarrad, I think the Bears and Bills are both in this spot now with star off-ball linebackers—Smith in Chicago and Tremaine Edmunds in Buffalo. Both guys have been really good players with a chance to get even better. But contracts for Leonard and Warner illustrate how the market at the position has changed.

Really, C.J. Mosley was first. Back in 2019, he was ready to return to the Ravens on a deal for around $14 million per year, which was a little less than what the Jets were offering. But the Jets kept upping their own offer to Mosley to see where his “can’t say no” point was, and Mosley wound up scoring $17 million per as a result. That set the stage for Bobby Wagner to get $18 million per from Seattle, and Wagner’s deal was the bar for Warner ($19.05 million per) and Leonard ($19.7 million per) to clear.

And because of that market acceleration, the first- and fifth-highest paid off-ball linebackers are now separated by more than $5 million (Leonard’s APY is a 36% markup on what Zach Cunningham, the No. 5 on that list, makes). So the question then becomes if the Bears and Bills believe the position should be paid that way. It’s a tough one for the teams to answer, which is why I think they may kick the can down the road for a year on doing those particular deals (with both Edmunds and Smith signed for 2021 and ’22). 

More From NFL Coverage:
The Year the NFL Banned Two of its Biggest Stars for Gambling
FROST Score: The Training Camp Stories That Matter, and Those That Don’t
MMQB: The 49ers’ QB Competition According to Shanahan, Garoppolo and Lance