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Will Mac Jones Start Before Trey Lance or Justin Fields?

Answer your questions on this year’s rookie quarterbacks. Plus, the Lions’ wide receivers, Julio Jones, Travis Etienne, 2022 QBs, Giants expectations and meals on the road.

NEWARK TO BOSTON — Just saw my 22nd and 23rd teams of camp, and will see a 24th this week (three-quarters of the league!), so I’m ready to roll with all of your questions for this final mailbag of August. …

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From Moose Block (@moose_block): Between Trey Lance, Justin Fields, and Mac Jones, which one will be the first rookie QB to start a game?

Moose, before this week, I’d have said Lance would play snaps of significance first—in a gadget sort of role for the Niners—and Fields might get the first start. But what happened in New England over the last few days has really made me think that Bill Belichick might pull the trigger and go to Jones right away.

Why? Some of the NFL’s COVID-19 rules have been made crystal-clear to players, and the one Cam Newton and the Patriots violated is among them. Because the players are unionized, the league couldn’t unilaterally mandate they all get vaccinated. However, the NFL could work with the union to make rules that would motivate guys to get vaccinated, which is what it did, and so it was that the league wrote in a rule that basically made it impossible for unvaccinated players to get out of town after camp started (by requiring on-site testing).

That created what they believed would be a strong motivator, and they let the players know about it aggressively. Want to leave town to see Mom and Dad on a player’s day off? Get vaccinated. Want to go on a quick vacation during your bye week? Get vaccinated. Want to go see your alma mater play the week you play Thursday night? Get vaccinated. It’s pretty hard to believe Newton missed this message. It’s even harder to imagine New England did.

To me, the likelihood here is Newton slipped up, and that’s not great given that he missed time last year because of COVID-19, and it’s worse because the whole thing could’ve been avoided had he made the call to get vaccinated. Belichick’s old boss Bill Parcells used to say that the greatest ability is availability. And Newton’s already twice missed time because of COVID-19 (one time his fault, the other time not his fault), and until he gets vaccinated will be under rules that make another unplanned absence (like this one) not all that unlikely.

Meanwhile, the Patriots’ coaches continue to push Jones and put trust in him. You see it in how much they’ve allowed him to throw out of empty formations in preseason games. You see it in how they’ve tested his running the two-minute drill.

Adding that up, at this point can they trust Jones more than they can Newton? On several fronts, I think the answer is yes. Which, I think, gives Jones a shot to start Week 1, as it stands now, and depending on how this week plays out, with the Patriots’ working with the Giants on Wednesday and Thursday, and practice closing to the media/public next week.

From Johnny (@aces672): Any surprise WR cuts that could be a potential fit for the Lions?

There are decent names out there. Some draft picks that haven’t worked out might be worth keeping an eye on (N’Keal Harry, Andy Isabella), as would players who’ve become redundant with their teams thanks to a new acquisition or two (Jakeem Grant). And some of those guys might be worth the dice roll of a waiver claim.

Maybe that’s worth it for the Lions, but I do think that Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes aren’t seeing things as quite as dire as people on the outside are. Do they need a lot of work at receiver—work that’ll take another offseaon or two to do? Absolutely. Does that mean they can’t be functional at the position for the time being? No. So if the right opportunity is there, great. If not, I don’t think two guys who focused so much of the initial stages of their team-building on fixing the lines of scrimmage are going to overreach for a stopgap solution.

Along those lines, Detroit really does like what’s it’s getting from Kalif Raymond, a 27-year-old journeyman pick as a second-wave free agent in late March, and has been encouraged with the progress of fourth-round pick Amon-Ra St. Brown, who projects as a slot receiver in Anthony Lynn’s offense. Add those two to Breshad Perriman and Tyrell Williams, and consider T.J. Hockenson, D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams will factor into the passing game, and we’re not talking about the 1999 Rams, but the Lions could be O.K.

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From I WILL SPEAK FOR GOD. (@gschatman): Will Julio Jones play well or not?

God, yes, Jones will be fine. The Titans are managing him as they should, given his age and injury history, through camp and in the aftermath of Jones’s getting nicked up at the beginning of August. The bones of the offense new OC Todd Downing will run, passed down from Matt LaFleur and Arthur Smith, are in Kyle Shanahan’s system. And Jones was a superstar in Shanahan’s system in Atlanta.

I don’t know whether we’re going to see the Jones of 2014 to ’18 in Tennessee. But I wouldn’t be too worried at this point, either.

From Kevin (@kw0123456): Will Jaylon Smith request a trade from the Cowboys, and will his decline in play expected?

Honestly, I’m surprised Smith is still on the team at this point. He fell out of favor with Jason Garrett’s staff late in Garrett’s tenure and didn’t play very well in Mike Nolan’s scheme last year, either (to be fair, not many Cowboys did). On top of that, he’s expensive, and the team has drafted two off-ball linebackers in the first round in the last four years, and continued to stock depth at the position in the spring.

So there aren’t a lot of great signs for Smith’s future in Dallas, particularly when you consider that the scheme that got him paid—one Monte Kiffin and Ron Marinelli ran with the Cowboys—was brought back by Dan Quinn this offseason, and that really hasn’t seemed to have any sort rejuvenating effect on Smith.

It sure seems like Micah Parsons has already passed Smith, Keanu Neal might have, too, and the team also invested a fourth-round pick in Jabril Cox at the position (which isn’t great for Leighton Vander Esch’s future in Dallas, either). Which means, in short, I don’t think Smith has to request a trade, because if anyone else calls the Cowboys with interest in taking that contract off their hands, my guess is Dallas would be all ears.

From Craig Gio (@JerichoMileMan): Best place you ate at on the road?

Great question, Craig! Here are my top five …

1) Billy Sushi, Minneapolis: I don’t know whether my palate is sophisticated enough to be discernable about situation, but I do know that what I had in Minneapolis was absolutely off the charts.

2) St. Elmo Steak House, Indianapolis: I could get cute and not name the old standby, but I won’t. Had shrimp cocktail and a filet, sitting by myself at the bar. I couldn’t have been happier. (Eating alone at a restaurant bar is a highly underrated experience.)

3) Élevage SoHo Kitchen & Bar, Tampa: Had an amazing short rib plate there, and like I said in the MMQB column the whole experience at the hotel this place was in—the Epicurean—was fantastic.

4) Cribb’s Kitchen on Main, Spartanburg, S.C.: The kind of place you go to and know the minute you walk in that you’re in the South. The homemade chips and pimento cheese dip were off the charts, and the fried chicken plate I ordered was exactly what I had in mind when I saw it on the menu.

5) Hinterland Brewery, Green Bay: I had a chicken sandwich with fries, and that was really good. But it’s more just the atmosphere of a Green Bay bar during camp that I always go for, and you’re guaranteed to get it at Hinterland.

From Nick (@icknau): When is Justin Fields most likely to start? Should we believe anything Matt Nagy is saying regarding Dalton/Fields?

Nick, I’ll take Nagy at his word that Andy Dalton will start Week 1. My guess now is that Justin Fields will be starting at some point in October. And honestly the offensive line is a big reason why.

The team already lost second-rounder Teven Jenkins, the purported left tackle whose selection prompted the Bears to cut longtime left tackle Charles Leno loose. Jenkins had some medical flags going into the draft, and, sure enough, he’s hurt. So without Jenkins or Leno, the team’s taking a swing on 39-year-old Jason Peters, and could wind up relying on fifth-rounder Larry Borom (who, to be fair, has had a promising camp after dropping 45 pounds off his college weight).

All of these things might make it difficult to keep Dalton healthy. They also could lead to the conclusion that the team might want to go with a more mobile quarterback who can create on his own (which Fields very clearly can).

Now, do I think Fields is completely ready? I don’t. He still holds the ball too long at times, has a ways to go in commanding Nagy’s offense, and you can see he still waits to see the receiver (which contributes to his holding the ball) before pulling the trigger, rather than throwing with anticipation.

That said, he’s starting this week, and the coaches should see what he looks like with at least some starters. They’ll also get another look at how difficult (or easy) it would be to work around some of those shortcomings and expected growing pains. Maybe that won’t make a difference for Week 1. But at least the Bears will have more of a picture of what they look like with Fields in there, if they have to consider a change later in the fall.

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From David Kromelow (@dkrom59): What 2022 draft-eligible college QB is the best candidate to experience a meteoric rise up draft boards?

So this would be the Zach Wilson/Mac Jones, Joe Burrow, Kyler Murray/Daniel Jones/Dwayne Haskins of this year. And it’s always a little difficult to project these things. And in doing this, I’m assuming Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler, North Carolina’s Sam Howell, and USC’s Kedon Slovis are off the table, and even Liberty’s Malik Willis and Ole Miss’s Matt Corral (Corral was the top QB in the NFS prospect rankings distributed to teams) have been mentioned enough that I’m not sure they’d be in the Burrow category.

With that established, keep an eye on Boston College’s Phil Jurkovec. He’s got an NFL body (the Eagles list him at 6’5” and 226 pounds), threw for more than 300 yards in four of his first five games at BC and is playing in an NFL system for ex-Rams offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti. Jurkovec was once a blue-chip recruit, too, initially going to Notre Dame before transferring after getting stuck behind Ian Book on the depth chart.

Maybe he’ll be a first-round pick. Maybe he’ll be a fifth-round pick. I don’t know which now. But it does seem like he has an NFL future, and so I’d lump him in with the guys listed above in a year in which, much like 2019, the race among QBs to go in the first round will be wide open.

From Matt Ramas (@matt_ramas): Will the Hawkeye camera system be in place for Week 1 games?

Matt, it should be—and it should help big-time. Until now, the replay official in the booth has had to call down to the TV truck to get different angles of certain plays, which would make it impossible for that official to be a resource to the guys on the field off anything but the broadcast. What Hawkeye will do is give that official access to every camera angle, and the ability to isolate, slow down, fast-forward and rewind each play in real time.

The plan was to implement Hawkeye last year, but COVID-19 delayed that a year. And so on top of the rest of this, the league’s had plenty of runway to get this ready, too.

Now, there is one potential issue. Those replay officials? They don’t have a contract for 2021. It’s being negotiated now, and maybe it’ll get done before the start of the season. To this point, the replay officials have worked through the contract dispute, and maybe they’ll keep doing so when the season starts. But that it’s lingering out there in the year the league is giving the replay official more power, and making him/her much more of a resource to the on-field crew, is not ideal.

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From Jeremy Friedrichs (@FriedrichsJk): Albert, especially now with the Etienne injury, where do you fall on the over-valuing of running backs debate?

Jeremy, honestly, I don’t know whether we can view Travis Etienne as a running back, because I don’t think playing a traditional tailback spot was ever the vision for him. Urban Meyer’s plan from the jump was to make him what Paris Warren was for him at Utah, what Percy Harvin was for him at Florida or what Curtis Samuel was for him at Ohio State—a receiver/running back hybrid, playing a position they call “The H.”

That makes it a little tough for me to take your question at face value, because whether Etienne becomes Samuel or Harvin, the pitfalls that traditional lead backs face won’t apply for him.

But the idea of taking a running back in the first round? I’m not totally against it, if the player is the new prototype—a 230-pound back who can be a major factor in the passing game, thus becoming a queen on the chessboard. That’s what Todd Gurley became for the Rams, and what Zeke Elliott and Saquon Barkley were coming out of the Big Ten.

Such a player makes things much tougher on the defense and can be a huge asset in developing a young quarterback. No way Dak Prescott develops at the rate he did, or Jared Goff ascends like he did from Year 1 to Year 2, without Elliott and Gurley, respectively. And if you look at what those guys made on their rookie deals, it’s actually a bargain. Elliott, as the fourth pick in 2016, got $6.2 million per year. Gurley, as the 10th pick in ’15, made $3.6 million per. Barkley’s APY, as the second pick in ’18, is $7.8 million.

By comparison, Melvin Gordon makes $8 million per. So if you draft one of those guys, and hit, you get his best years, with promise he’ll reach his prime much faster than someone at another position, at a relatively affordable rate. Things get tricky, of course, when it’s time to pay him. But just drafting those guys high? In certain circumstances, it makes sense.

From Ricker81 (@D_Ricker81): Did you cover the Giants yet? If so, thoughts? How do you like our chances this year? Do you think we can get in the playoffs if we don’t win the East?

I’ll be with the Giants on Thursday, Ricker! And I’m looking forward to seeing what it looks like. So I’ll give you what I’m looking for there, going in …

• Where’s Daniel Jones, having a second consecutive season in a system for the first time as a pro, with a seriously revamped skill group around him?

• How does the offensive line look, with the team’s having invested four top-150 picks in it in 2020, in addition to having ’18 second-rounder Will Hernandez and vet Nate Solder?

• Are guys like Lorenzo Carter, Azeez Ojulari and Elerson Smith going to do enough off the edge to bring the pass rush what it needs?

• Does a veteran secondary have enough to lift up a front seven that’s going to be pretty young in some spots?

Bottom line, the Giants can contend in 2021 but need a bunch of things to break right.

From Team Ward (@TeamWard007): Big fan of your work btw. Quick question, what do you mean by Mac having to manage the rusher during 5/19 passes when he has an empty backfield? What does that mean he has to do and how important is it in his role/development?

Ward, it’s relatively simple—when a quarterback is in empty, that leaves five guys in to block. Generally, you’ll want five guys to handle four pass rushers, so if an extra rusher comes, or is coming, the quarterback is responsible for it. There are a number of ways the quarterback can handle that. If he senses pressure, he can adjust the protection and motion a back or tight end in to help, throw the ball hot (to a receiver adjusting for the pressure), or get out of trouble with his legs. And if it’s just four coming? It’s on him to know it.

Regardless of what he does, he needs to process a lot of things coming his way quickly, and being wrong, or not reacting quickly enough, can lead to disaster.

So that Josh McDaniels has trusted Jones enough to have him out there throwing out of empty looks tells me he trusts his quarterback can handle it. Otherwise, he’d be putting him in a spot to fail. And on those snaps, Jones hasn’t failed.

From Matt Ramas (@matt_ramas): If Josh Rosen had stayed one more year at UCLA and entered the 2019 draft, how might his career have gone differently?

Because I liked this one (and didn’t realize he asked two until just now), we’ll wrap up with a second question from Matt. And first, Matt, I’d tell you that I’m not sure that would’ve worked out great for Rosen, given that Chip Kelly was coming in as UCLA’s new coach, and I don’t think he and Kelly would’ve been a great match.

But let’s say, for instance, Rosen had transferred to LSU before Joe Burrow had the chance to that summer. And let’s say he stayed two years, and got to play with Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and everyone else in Baton Rouge in 2019. Would he have been the first pick in the ’20 draft? Maybe. Then, he’d have been going to a team, in Cincinnati, with a first-year coach, and a team that would probably have been more patient than Arizona was.

That level of investment in Rosen personally, in turn, might have led to Rosen’s growing more productively, and remember, in this case, he’d have been coming into the NFL more mature to begin with.

Might it have made a difference? It might have. I still don’t know whether Rosen would’ve had the makeup to really make it as an NFL quarterback, because that question has dogged him at each of his NFL stops, and I do think makeup is a big part of making it for any NFL quarterback. But I do think it’s fair to say he’d have had a better shot in this circumstance we just made up.

Which proves the point, again, that how first-round quarterbacks develop often comes down to a lot of different factors, and some of those factors are out of their control.

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