Seventy-two hours to kickoff …
• Texans coach David Culley surprised precisely no one making the proclamation he did on Monday, naming Tyrod Taylor his starting quarterback for Sunday’s opener against the Jags. And it’s fair to surmise that if Deshaun Watson isn’t the starter (and, again, no one thought he would be based on camp), he won’t be the backup either—with Davis Mills likely to dress as the No. 2 and Watson likely inactive. Which means we now enter the next phase of this drawn-out saga, and that’s the part where the team has actual games to prepare for, and an actual starting quarterback to get ready for those. Will Watson’s presence be a problem? Well, it’s not totally unprecedented. In 2015, during the preseason, Washington coach Jay Gruden and GM Scot McCloughan pulled the plug on Robert Griffin III as the team’s starter and went to Kirk Cousins—a decision that, over the months previous, had become an increasingly obvious one to make. The problem was Washington had guaranteed Griffin’s salary for that fall and had exercised an injury-guaranteed $16.2 million option for 2016, which Washington could only get out of paying if Griffin made it through the year healthy. So Gruden made Colt McCoy his backup, and Griffin a weekly gameday inactive. And while the circumstance wasn’t exactly ideal, Cousins wound up thriving, and that Washington team won the NFC East. So how did they make it work (remember, Griffin was a star in Washington early in his career)? I asked a couple guys who were there, and what they told me was that Griffin was smart enough to figure out that what would be best for his future would be to leave the people there with the best impression possible of him. There was also a mutual interest in Griffin staying healthy, and a strong young coordinator named Sean McVay there to help navigate the awkwardness. So could Nick Caserio and David Culley make the Watson situation work similarly? There are a couple of key differences. One, Watson’s on a huge long-term contract. Two, where both sides in the Washington situation knew the year would end with Griffin’s release, this one will likely come to a close, at some point, with a trade. Three, Griffin’s relationship with the team owner in Washington was miles better than Watson’s is with the owner in Houston. And four, and most prominently, there is the legal situation tied to this one. So I don’t know how weird all this is going to be for the Texans, and for Watson. But we’re about to find out.
• You’ll see my awards picks on the site in a couple of days, but for now, I thought I’d pass along something I dug up that I found fascinating that ties to the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. On just nine occasions since 1971 (all of them happening over the last 17 seasons) have quarterbacks won that honor. And in a staggering six of those cases, the team that quarterback was on ranked top four in the league in rush offense. A seventh of those teams ranked 10th, with the two outliers being Sam Bradford and the 2010 Rams (25th) and Justin Herbert and last year’s Chargers (18th)—both teams that finished 7–9 and out of the playoffs. So what is there to take from this? More often than not, the path to early success for a rookie quarterback runs is one of less resistance. If a team runs the ball well, and plays good defense, the quarterback’s going to be playing from behind less and out of manageable down-and-distance more. So you want to know how Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones are going to do in Year 1? Guys like James Robinson, Michael Carter, Raheem Mostert, David Montgomery and Damien Harris will have a hand in it.
• It’s hard to watch the T.J. Watt and Stephon Gilmore situations—which have set up as virtual hold-ins—and not think that things never had to come to this. In Watt’s case, the Steelers have had two years to find common ground with a player who earned 10 Defensive Player of the Year votes in 2019. At that point, Pittsburgh knew it’d hit a grand slam in taking Watt at the bottom of the first round in 2017, and yet the Steelers waited, and let Watt gather more leverage and more inflation to take hold, and all because of an internal rule that they don’t do new deals (other than for the quarterback) for players with two years left on their existing. So now, it’ll be expensive, and Watt’s not in position to be at his best, with the team holding him back in camp. And in the case of Gilmore, the Patriots, and everyone else involved, knew Gilmore wasn’t going to play this year at $7 million from the minute they moved $4 million in his contract from 2021 to '20 last September. Yet they spent $160 million in guaranteed money and didn’t address that, putting Gilmore in a position where he had to protect himself coming back from a torn quad. That, of course, led to the team keeping him on PUP, which puts him out, minimum, six weeks, and probably more (meaning he really won’t play all of '21 for $7 million). To me, both these cases were workable. And oftentimes, they can come down to a simple question: Do you want to win the negotiation, or do you want the player? I’m not wild about how that was answered by these teams, both of whom are to expect to contend in 2021 (which makes it worse).
• While we’re on contracts—Dallas Goedert bringing up his own contract situation on Monday highlights the interesting spot the Eagles are in at tight end. Both Goedert and Zach Ertz put together outstanding training camps, and both guys are headed into contract years. And on paper, you’d think it’d be relatively easy to decide to pay the younger Goedert and let Ertz walk. Thing is, Ertz is just four years older than Goedert, and the production level of the two isn’t close (Ertz has posted five seasons of 74 catches or more, Goedert’s never had one with more than 58). Add to that the rising cost of tight ends, and that guys like Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski have now produced into their 30s (and Jimmy Graham’s played forever), and you can see where things aren’t quite as easy as they were a few months ago, when Ertz wanted out and there was real concern about his future after a very down 2020.
• Tough to see a couple of really good Big Ten players, and potential pros—Michigan WR Ronnie Bell and Minnesota RB Mohamed Ibrahim—go down for the year over the weekend. The news seems to be better on potential No. 1 overall pick/Oregon edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, who was in a walking boot after hurting his ankle against Fresno State. Ducks coach Mario Cristobal said Thibodeaux’s getting better and termed him “day-to-day”.
• While Adam Shaheen’s absence got the most attention (because of his well-established views on the vaccine), the Dolphins have to be more concerned about the potential that they wind up without LT Austin Jackson (who also landed on the COVID-19 list) for the opener in New England. The Patriots’ pass rush, with newcomer Matthew Judon aboard, should be fierce, and where Jackson’s situation goes from here is unpredictable. Remember, there have been cases across the NFL where asymptomatic, vaccinated staffers have tested positive, and then found it nearly impossible to test out as negative—which left them to have to wait 10 days to return to work. If Jackson has to wait 10 days, he’ll miss the game in Foxboro. (And obviously, the Cowboys’ issues ahead of Thursday are further evidence that these problems aren’t going away for teams.)
• Tanner Muse’s release in Vegas has only shone the light brighter on Jon Gruden’s draft record (which wasn’t great in Tampa, either), and in particular how quickly hope for his 2020 class seems to be drying up. That group held the back half of the return from the Khalil Mack deal, and was stocked with seven picks in the first four rounds. Muse and fellow third-rounder Lynn Bowden are already gone. First-rounder Damon Arnette still hasn’t carved out a major role on defense. And fourth-rounders John Simpson and Amik Robertson are backups. That leaves two receivers—first-rounder Henry Ruggs and third-rounder Bryan Edwards—and those two combined for 37 catches last year. Now, I think Edwards has a chance to be really, really good, and Ruggs could put it all together soon too. But overall, given how stocked the war chest was, the results haven’t been good enough to this point. And it’s hard for me to allow for scapegoating of Mike Mayock here, when Gruden so clearly has been the guy there from the minute he came back to the team.
• The Colts’ activating Eric Fisher from PUP is a really good sign. It essentially means they believe that he’ll be back by Week 6, and likely earlier than that (otherwise it wouldn’t be worth burning the roster spot), since leaving him on the list would sideline him through the season’s first six games. Getting Fisher in September? Well, that’d be a clear win for GM Chris Ballard, given the tough spot the team was put in by Anthony Castonzo’s retirement in January. And should Indy have Carson Wentz back this week on top of that—we reported in this morning’s MMQB that he’s on target to play Sunday—it’d be fair to say that Indy got through a really bumpy month in pretty decent shape.
• Just because it happened too late to get it in the MMQB—huge s/o to Florida State QB McKenzie Milton. What an amazing, amazing story.
• And to expound on something that was in the MMQB, I did ask Lamar Jackson about his contract the other day. He gave me what I’d consider a very Lamar answer. “My job is to play football and win games,” he said. “Without doing things in that order, you won’t be having that money that’s on your mind. That’s why I feel comfortable about my situation. Just being focused on the task at hand, trying to win games, trying to get better as a player, that’s the first thing. And that’s how I keep my mind off it.” And as for when he does get paid, is there anyone he wants to take care of? “Whoever God wants me to help,” he said. “I don’t really have things on my mind, trying to help certain people. It’s whoever God sends my way, whoever’s on my heart to help out, I’ll do it. But other than that, there’s not really anyone. My immediate family, if anything.” I’ll say this about Jackson, and it’s something that echoes what John Harbaugh said in the column this morning—the guy is very consistently himself. And I think, in situations like these, that’s a great quality to have.
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