SPARTANBURG, S.C. — The Thursday I was here, the big story coming out was Matt Rhule’s Panthers taking a step forward in their final hours of camp against the Ravens, who’d “won” the joint practice between the teams the day before. And punctuating that effort was a headline play—coming when Donte Jackson undercut a route, picked off Lamar Jackson and touched off a raucous celebration that ended with Carolina linebacker Shaq Thompson’s punting the intercepted ball into the sky and drawing a flag for taunting.
About 20 minutes later, I was standing with Ravens coach John Harbaugh, maybe 150 yards from where all that happened. He relayed a different view of his quarterback’s day, and of Jackson’s offseason in general.
“He’s always been a mature person. He’s never gonna change who he is or his personality, which is what you love about him. He’s always gonna be genuine,” Harbaugh said. “But he’s learning how to play the position, he’s learning what it takes to take it to that really elite level on a consistent basis, and you see it in the way he’s playing.”
Harbaugh then pointed back out to the practice fields.
“Like today, he didn’t run out of the pocket once,” he continued. “And he would’ve in a game five, six, seven times, and those would’ve been big plays. But that’s not what he’s trying to do. He’s staying in the pocket, he’s trying to make throws—and he’s making throws. He’s been super accurate all through camp, ball’s coming out quick, he’s throwing ropes all over the place. I think that’s probably through hard work in the offseason, he took the time.”
Whether it happens now, six days from now, or six months from now, Jackson will soon have generational wealth, further affirmation he never should’ve had to watch 31 players get drafted before he did three years ago. And while his production last year didn’t quite match his MVP year of 2019, he did manage to maintain a 99.3 passer rating, complete 64% of his throws, rush for 1,005 yards and win his first playoff game.
Yet, doubts still linger: Has the NFL caught up to Jackson?
The interesting thing is that the question doesn’t get asked of many other quarterbacks like it does of Jackson, as if Jackson’s success is rooted in some sort of schematic shell game that’ll be up once defensive coaches figure out which walnut the pea is under. And as if Jackson can’t work, like other quarterbacks famously do, to stay ahead of all that.
“You know I don’t let anything like that bother me,” Jackson said, laughing, over the phone late last week. “They’ve been saying stuff like that, I’ve been hearing stuff like that for a long time. Everything we have going on here, I’m just trying to win games.”
The best way to do that, he knows, is getting better individually. And the blip in practice that ended in Jackson’s pick masked two days of work that had the Panthers people here walking away impressed, the same way the Ravens are, with Jackson’s progress.
So if you want to say the league’s figuring Jackson out, just know that he’s figuring out a few things, too, and the guys in Baltimore are quietly excited. About where it might take him and about where it might take them.
The season’s here! Kickoff is just THREE days away, and we’re six days from the first full Sunday of the 2021 season, which (fingers crossed) should look a whole lot more like it usually does than it did last year. To get you ready, in this week’s column, we’ve got …
• A good look at the Bears’ quarterback situation with Matt Nagy.
• A look back at the first Saturday of the college season with the Senior Bowl’s scouts.
• Why Mac Jones is starting and Cam Newton’s looking for work.
• A whole lot more.
But we’re starting in Baltimore, and with Jackson, whose career arc from here will be fascinating to track, as he gets set to come off his rookie contract and move into the next phase of his career.
Eventually, it did come out—Jackson’s true feelings on how he’s been looked at differently than so many of his peers. And what brought it out was a simple question on what he thinks the casual fan will notice over the next few weeks, and what the more obvious results of the work he’s put in, and adjustments he’s made to his game, will be.
“Man, to be honest, I don’t know,” he said. “It’s always something with me. My name always gets brought up, so I don’t know. Hopefully it’ll be a good sign for me if they’re not saying anything crazy or asking me when I’m gonna get figured out or anything like that. Hopefully, there’s some good talk!”
So, then, is he sick of his game becoming debate-show fodder?
“I mean, if it’s positive, no,” he joked. “But if it’s b.s., then yeah—it’s like, Where do they get this stuff from? But it is what it is. I’ve got a job to do at the end of the day.”
It’s worth examining the question, though, because Jackson sure has. And to get answers, I went to a number of coaches who’ve worked against a unique-to-the-NFL Ravens offense that’s built to highlight its quarterback’s unique skill set.
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What I found is the challenge in defending the scheme that Greg Roman has built is how a combination of factors make it, in essence, the sort of issue playing Navy or Army is for a college team. Three factors meld together that you don’t see often at once—a gap-run scheme (complete with double-team blocks and pulling guards) tied to a quarterback-driven run game tied to a play-action passing game that the Ravens can run out of a variety of personnel groupings—with tight ends or receivers or backs the same.
In essence, having to deal with all of that at once shortens schematically what a defense can do, because defenses in today’s NFL aren’t built to deal with this sort of offense. One coach I talked to boiled it down to this: “You have to play a lot of Cover 4, so your safeties can activate in the run game, but then you’re putting a lot on your corners.” And then, on third down, the Ravens run from longer yardage more than others, and Jackson can run off the dropback game at the drop of a hat to ruin your best laid plans.
Have NFL teams figured out how to stop that? Yes and no. As is the case with college teams and the service academies’ triple-option attacks, NFL coaches have had to do work in the spring and summer to get ready for the Ravens. “You can’t just do that week of,” said another defensive coach.
And as would be the case with any young quarterback, defensive coaches have found holes in Jackson’s game—he’s not nearly as consistent throwing outside the numbers as he is inside. So, for example, what one team has done is take the defender responsible for the “curl-to-flat” area in zone and tell him, against Baltimore, to defend the curl and only go to the flat if the ball takes him there, which dares Jackson to throw outside and crowds the middle of the field, where he’s most effective throwing it.
That’s worked, too, in cases where Jackson’s been off throwing outside. And that’s really the thing about it. There are cases where he’s O.K. beyond the numbers. It’s just not consistent.
“He’s streaky,” said one defensive coordinator. “But if they run and he’s hot? Look out. You gotta outscore them then.”
Now, the real question: Why do people assume that Jackson can’t get better and more consistent in those areas? Especially when those were areas where Tom Brady once struggled? (Rex Ryan’s defenses famously used to pack the middle of the field against the Patriots.) And especially when Jackson himself acknowledges the criticism isn’t off base?
“I agree with it,” Jackson said of this particular criticism of his game.
And that brings us to the work that Jackson’s done to fix it the last eight months.
When I asked Harbaugh where he’s seen Jackson focus his hours, those he gets to work on what he wants to individually, the Ravens’ coach chose a broad-strokes answer.
“Bottom line was throwing, aspects of throwing he felt like he needed to improve on—being repetitive, consistently making those throws,” Harbaugh responded. “Repeating the mechanics over and over again on all different throws, different platforms. I wasn’t with him, I can’t be with these guys. But based on what I see out here, he did it. He followed through on it, and it’s showing up.”
It’s showing up, Harbaugh continued, in a quarterback who’s “just more consistent. It’s more throw after throw after throw. He’s on the money.”
Of course, there were details to this, and a process that Jackson undertook that got way more granular than just “throwing.”
Two years ago, Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban asked Adam Dedeaux—a mechanics coach at 3DQB for a significant chunk of the NFL’s starters—to come out for OTAs ahead of Jackson’s MVP season. Dedeaux and Jackson did some surface-level work. The interaction was positive, but it was tough to do individual stuff in a team environment, and if things were going to go further, Dedeaux needed to earn Jackson’s trust.
“One thing about Lamar, we talk to him a lot, and you talk to him about what he needs to do, Lamar thinks every day about what he needs to do to get better, and he’s always got a plan for himself,” Harbaugh said. “And he’s open to your ideas, but he’s gotta believe it for himself. He’s gonna do what he believes he needs to do to get better.”
Dedeaux, for his part, says that’s not unusual with the high-level quarterbacks he works with, and so he was patient with Jackson. For a variety of reasons, they didn’t connect in 2020 after the interaction in ’19, and even when Dedeaux made plans to see Jackson earlier this year, it was on a show-me sort of basis—as in, show me what you can do for me.
So in the spring, the two started meeting, this time off-site at a high school field local to Baltimore, and it happened with the collaboration from Urban, who has already earned Jackson’s trust. Urban saw the work Dedeaux did with Andy Dalton in Cincinnati, when Urban was Bengals receivers coach, so there was testimony more than just theory there.
Dedeaux said that the work he and Jackson did in 2019 was akin to a golfer trying to adjust his swing the week of a tournament—if a quarterback is focused on team stuff, it’s always tough for any sort of mechanical changes to take root. Conversely, in getting Jackson away from the facility, he could create what he refers to as a failsafe environment where Jackson could try things out without worrying about being judged or losing a rep for his teammates.
And once they got out there, the focus narrowed not on how he throws, but what inconsistency in his lower half was doing to his throws.
“What I think he appreciated is I recognized where he’s special, and how his arm angles change, and I wasn’t going to take any of that away from him, because I come from the baseball world and realize how that’s valuable,” Dedeaux said. “I just established when it’s appropriate and when it’s not, and how your body supports those angles. So then it was, OK, I can get behind this, and now I understand the why.”
“If I see it’s helping, if I see it’s working, I’m going to be all-in,” Jackson said. “But if it’s just someone telling me, Oh, I think this’ll work, and it’s not really helping me, I’m not gonna go along with it. That’s pretty much it. And I saw it, once we started working with him, the little things he was telling me to fix, I’d fix, and it was working. It was helping me throw a tighter spiral. And I was like, Yeah, I’m all-in with this guy, let’s work with him.”
That’s because the results came quick. Dedeaux worked to get Jackson to “establish a consistent position to throw from within the offense. That starts with footwork.” With his feet in a better place, then, he made sure he was opening his hips to the target on every throw. Quickly, his throws got more consistent, and his arm was less sore after throwing.
“It was right away,” Jackson said. “It was instant. I ain’t gonna lie to you, it was instant. It was being open towards my target, bringing my hip through, bringing my leg through. That’s all it was. And then just little fundamentals with my footwork.”
And like Jackson said, his spiral’s tighter, and he’s more accurate to parts of the field that he’s never been before—something one Panthers staffer told me he noticed in saying Jackson’s ball, that day, “looked like it was coming out of a JUGS machine.”
The truth, though, is that this is all a natural evolution for a quarterback committed to taking his game to another level. It’s just that, for one reason or another, the outside focus on Jackson has been on some imaginary wall he’s bound to hit, maybe because other mobile quarterbacks have hit one in the past, while he’s focused on climbing over it.
“It is just working on and continuing to develop his game,” Dedeaux said. “His arm strength, his takeaway, his release, timing, all that, a lot of it is good. It’s just that he’s relied on his arm, and we’re just trying to get the body to contribute more. And that’s different for everybody, how they understand it, what it looks like, it doesn’t have to be what certain people think it should be. It’s just different for everybody.”
What matters is that they got where they intended to, even if the path there was different (Jackson’s has been). And Jackson, Dedeaux, Urban, Roman and Harbaugh clearly feel like they have. Which means, like one of our defensive coaches said, the Ravens might be tough to keep up with.
Harbaugh’s noticed other areas of growth from Jackson, too. And leadership is a big one—something that will be important as he, eventually, becomes the highest-paid player on the team.
But the key to it, as Harbaugh sees it, is that the change isn’t wholesale. It’s happened naturally and is a result more of what Jackson can do for his teammates, then trying to get them to do anything for him.
“You couldn’t ask for a better leader,” Harbaugh said. “We always tell him, Be yourself, everybody else is taken. He’s who he is. That’s what I love about him. That’s what makes him such a good leader, he’s so genuine, he doesn’t try to be what people say a quarterback is supposed to be. You walk in and try to tell him, Hey, this is how a quarterback is supposed to act, he’ll respect you. He’ll say, O.K. But he’s going to be himself.”
That, in this case, means being positive and demanding simultaneously, “in a way that’s not threatening, it’s not downgrading a guy at all, it’s always an uplifting thing,” per Harbaugh.
“He’s more outspoken on what he expects from the receivers, offensive line, cadence, all the things that go into playing the position,” the coach continued. “I’d say he’s more outspoken with the guys than he’s ever been, because he knows more, so he’s got clearer vision on what he expects.”
And therein, lies another area where Jackson’s more than O.K. being critical of himself.
“I still need to do a better job of that, of being a vocal leader,” he affirmed. “But like you said, I’m always myself, and I don’t want guys to think I’m stepping on their toes or telling them how to play their position. Sometimes, you can say something, and help guys a lot, and sometimes they don’t want that help. And I don’t like to step on my guys’ toes—they’re great players, and nine times out of 10 they know what they’re doing anyway.
“I just can help more now with the little things.”
Those little things are what Jackson was trying to take care of at that practice, and in a certain way they explain the interception, too. As Harbaugh said, Jackson didn’t leave the pocket to run once during that two-hour practice, only to buy time to throw. And that was never to be taken as a signal that Jackson is trying to erase that part of his game.
All it was, really, was Jackson’s getting the reps he needs. So rather than tucking and running when trouble brewed, he’d sit in the pocket, look at the defense and try to win a different way. And growing his ability to do that, as he sees it, will make he and the Ravens that much tougher to defend.
“I don’t want to be too early [running]. I want to see things develop, see if I can hit my guy early in his route, or coming out of his route—first window, second window,” Jackson said. “I wanted to be able to take it and see what works versus certain coverages, that’s all it was. It wasn’t me trying not to run or win from the pocket. I’m trying to win regardless, whether it’s from the pocket or doing what I do.”
So, sure, maybe the NFL’s caught up to some things he and the Ravens are doing.
But Jackson’s spent the whole offseason trying to catch up on what he hasn’t been able to do yet. And while he’s diplomatic in answering if he’s been misperceived in the process—“With the people that keep doubting me, I guess I am”—it’s pretty clear he’s heard things this offseason that he’s gotten used to hearing his whole life.
His response to it, over the next four months, and based on all the work he’s done, should be interesting, with a little more to it than most people realize.
THE TESTS JUSTIN FIELDS HAS PASSED
I told Bears coach Matt Nagy on Sunday that I’m probably second only to him on Justin Fields questions taken—maybe because of where I went to school. And if you’ve read my mailbag over the last couple of months, you know it’s the truth.
So as a close observer of the Chicago quarterbacking situation, coming out of what must’ve felt like a millionth reaffirmation by Nagy of Andy Dalton as the starter, I thought I could find the answer to a key question pertaining to an opener against the Rams in Los Angeles that’s now a week away. It’s a simple one too. Is Fields the Bears’ No. 2?
“Yup,” Nagy answered during a quick break from work over the weekend. “He is.”
Maybe it seems like a small detail to most. But here’s why, to me, it really isn’t: The Bears have an experienced, battle-tested veteran on the roster in Nick Foles. And so going with Fields as Dalton’s primary backup means the coaching staff has confidence in putting Fields in a game at the drop of a hat, because it might have to, and that Foles is on the roster as a guy who’s proven he can play that role means that Fields had to earn that.
Also, for context, the Packers made Jordan Love their No. 3 last year, and didn’t dress him for a single game. Most No. 3 QBs don’t dress on game day. Accordingly, the Bears might not dress Foles this week, or at all this year, making Fields their only real safety net.
“And I think that’s a very valid point,” Nagy said. “If you go back and look at quarterbacks that have been drafted in the first round, there’s a lot of history that suggests that players that have started as backups, and some for different reasons than others, got in early that first year. But yeah, sometimes people take that for granted—like he should be the starter or the backup. You gotta earn that.
“And we did put him in that spot early on to see if he could keep it. And he did. He did everything to hold on to that. And we tell all the quarterbacks, Do everything you can to be the starter; make it hard on us. If you do that, you’ll make the Bears a better football team.”
So for Bears fans yelling for Fields to play, here’s the good news—through a lot of preseason snaps (92 in three games), he’s earned the coaches’ trust. And from here, if Fields doesn’t play, it’s because Dalton and the team are playing well. Otherwise? Well, we’ll see. Here are a few more things from my talk with Nagy, as he comes out of a pretty newsworthy summer at Halas Hall, and dives into a big week for his team.
You should take Dalton’s preseason results with a grain of salt. Yes, Dalton’s numbers were middling (13-of-21, 164 yards, TD, INT) in the three games. And no, five three-and-outs and just one score in nine preseason possessions won’t be good enough if that’s what it translates to when the season starts.
But really, because of the way the Bears managed their roster, Dalton’s play was always going to be graded more on how he ran the operation, with the acknowledgment hiccups were likely given who he was out there with at certain junctures.
“You see a lot of these teams where there’s a lot of players that aren’t playing at all, what we wanted to do was get him a few live reps, getting in there and understanding what it’s like with this offense,” Nagy said. “And we knew going into it that some of it was not going to be with some of the starters. The variable I keep talking about in the preseason, of not having your starters in there with you, it’s hard. …
“We looked at decision-making, we looked at how he runs the huddle, the things he does at practice, does it transfer into the game? He didn’t have a lot of reps, but the reps he was in there, he did a great job. Now is when we really get going with Week 1. This preseason was more about individual evaluation than it was about team production.”
Fields passed the tests he needed to. Back in July, Nagy told me that it was Fields’s job to make this hard on him. Did Fields do that? “For me, it was knowing when we get into a situation where Justin has to go in there as the starter, whenever that is, is he ready?” Nagy said. “And I’d say, for everything he’s done, he’s done a great job trying to be the best quarterback each day.”
Which, in a roundabout way, is saying that, yes, Fields made it tough not to play him, and that should bode well for the future. For now, the most significant progress in getting there came with Fields’s ability to command the Bears’ offense. Early on in camp, Fields would walk into the huddle having memorized plays, doing all he could to spit the call out. Now, he’s at the point where he can talk to, and direct, his teammates through calls.
“He’s passed that test,” Nagy said. “We went through that in OTAs, and once he got to training camp, he put in a lot of work into trying to understand the formations and understand the motions and shifts, understand the concepts. He got over the hurdle of just memorizing and now he speaks to people. That part, there’s always a play or two where you might have a little difficulty, but he’s done a great job with that. That’s not a concern.”
Fields’s next challenge will be keeping his development going as he runs the scout team on a weekly basis. That, of course, can be tough for a rookie—learning the offense he’s being groomed to run during the bulk of the day, then taking all his physical reps running someone else’s offense to get the defense ready for game day.
But the coaches have emphasized to Fields that there’s plenty to be taken from the work he’ll get running an opposing scheme on the practice field week to week. And there’ll be time after practice for Fields to get the work he needs in the Bears’ scheme.
“In practice, he’s working on his fundamentals, he’s working on him,” Nagy said. “And then in the building, he’s working on the mental side of us, and how we’re talking as a team, and things we’re looking at schematically. But when we’re out there on the practice field for those two hours, he’s doing everything he can, whenever he’s getting reps, and he’s with the look team, he’s trying to absolutely dominate our defense.
“It’s doing everything he can to not only make himself better but make our defense better.”
(For what it’s worth, the stories of Patrick Mahomes’s dominating on the Chiefs’ scout team in 2017 are pretty legendary. And you may have heard Nagy was there for that.)
The relationship between Dalton and Fields isn’t unlike Alex Smith’s was with Mahomes in 2017. Nagy said he can see it on the practice tape, in moments when Fields’s arms go up as he sees Dalton setting up to throw, when Fields knows the play is there for Dalton to make. And that sentiment is reciprocated too.
“Andy was one of the first guys down the field celebrating on Justin’s first touchdown in the first preseason game,” Nagy said. “That’s what we see every day. These guys have an unbelievable relationship. Andy’s a huge supporter of Justin. And Justin’s a huge supporter of Andy. Nick’s the same way. When you have that, and worry about what you can do to make us and you better, then we’ll all be successful.”
Now, we all know that whether it’s later this month or next year, Fields’s time is eventually coming—and his play over the last month has done nothing to make anyone question that. And it’s understandable that Bears fans want that time to come sooner rather than later. History, too, suggests it will. Over the 13 draft cycles from 2008 to ’20, 39 quarterbacks went in the first round, and just three (Jake Locker, Mahomes, Love) were truly redshirted.
So maybe we’ll see Fields soon. Maybe we won’t. Much, that same history will tell us, rides on the Bears’ place in the playoff race—it’s no mistake that those three redshirts played for teams that contended. So, again, the good news for Bears fans is either the team will be really good, or Fields will probably play.
And if they want more good news? Just know that when I asked Nagy if the Bears brass feels stronger about Fields, and having taken him 11th, now than in April, he didn’t skip a beat.
“Oh, hell yeah,” Nagy said, laughing. “Oh yeah.”
SCOUTING NCAA WEEK 1
It was a great weekend in college football, and we’re going to get to some of my thoughts on it in the first Six from Saturday of the 2021 season below. But first, I figured we could give you a little more on the action and how it relates to an NFL draft that’s still about eight months away—and there really was no one better to help us with that than the good people at the Senior Bowl (which happens to be one of my favorite events on the NFL’s calendar).
So the game’s executive director, Jim Nagy, was nice enough to offer up some scouting notes that he and his people mined over the last few days. For those who don’t know, the Senior Bowl has its own personnel department, which Nagy (a former Seahawks, Chiefs and Patriots scout himself) leads, and that group live-scouted 20 college games over the last few days. Here’s what they had for us …
• One of the biggest stories of opening weekend was the struggle of projected first-round QBs, but Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder was impressive in his team’s 49–14 win over Miami of Ohio. Ridder connected on an 81-yard TD on his first throw of the game (beautiful ball!) and finished 20-of-25 for 295 yards with four TDs and one interception. One of Ridder’s goals this offseason was to pack on some extra weight, and Bearcats coaches told us he is up to a sturdier 215 pounds this year. Ridder was our highest-graded senior QB heading into the season and he did nothing to change that opinion in our first live game exposure of the year. We will see Ridder play two more times this fall against UCF [Oct. 16] and Tulane [Oct. 30].
• Kansas State QB Skylar Thompson will never put up eye-catching numbers in the Wildcats’ pro-style offense, but he was efficient, made good decisions and consistently put the ball in good spots against Stanford. Our scouts also noticed his release point is more over-top than three-quarters like it has been in the past. NFL scouts will appreciate what Thompson brings to the table more than the media.
• UCF running back Isaiah Bowser got our attention on Thursday night against Boise State. The Northwestern transfer ran for 170 yards on 32 carries and was the tone-setter for Gus Malzahn’s offense. The 6' 1", 225-pounder made a couple of impressive cuts for a big back that turned the heads of NFL scouts in the press box. Bowers is now firmly on our radar.
• Maryland could be a team to watch in the Big Ten in coach Mike Locksley’s third season, and a prospect not getting enough buzz is WR Dontay Demus, who had six catches for 133 yards, including a 66-yard TD in the first quarter. Remember the name Dontay Demus.
• SMU scored eight TDs in a 56–9 blowout of Abilene Christian and got two each from senior prospects WR Danny Gray and TE Grant Calcaterra. Gray is an explosive former juco [10.5 in the 100-meters in high school] who we expect to be a fast riser this fall, and it was great seeing Calcaterra back on the field after he briefly walked away from the game due to injuries. The Oklahoma transfer is a big, fluid target and should have a big statistical year filling the void left by Colts fourth-round pick Kylen Granson.
• One of the biggest surprises of Week 1 was UCLA’s physical dominance in the trenches against LSU. A Pac-12 program wearing down an SEC power in the trenches is something no one saw coming. Talented Michigan transfer RB Zach Charbonnet, who battled through injuries during his time in Ann Arbor, is the talk of NFL scouting circles on the West Coast. After two games, Chip Kelly’s Bruins look for real.
• Speaking of teams that are for real, Montana put the Big Sky (and every other FCS program) on high alert with its shocking 13–7 road win over No. 20 Washington. The Grizzlies’ dominant defense had a number of players make plays in critical moments, including Senior Bowl watch list LB Jace Lewis, who finished with six tackles and two TFLs. Head Coach Bobby Hauck’s team is going to be a handful at the FCS level.
• The best defensive prospect we saw live in Week 1 was Virginia Tech’s Amare Barno, who finished with six tackles, 3.5 TFLs, and 1.5 sacks in the Hokies’ upset win over No. 10 North Carolina. Barno made his presence felt for four quarters, using his length and speed to harass Heisman Trophy candidate Sam Howell all night. Barno, a former WR/DB in high school, has the ability to set the edge with length, athleticism to drop into coverage and raw high-end pass rush talent to consistently affect the QB. We’ll be hearing Barno’s name frequently during the predraft process.
• Lastly, we think we found a draftable prospect on Saturday in Southern University OL Ja’Tyre Carter. While he was not on our preseason watch list, Carter got our attention with his size, quickness, mobility and strong punch.
If you like these notes, you can follow Nagy on Twitter. Among the content he’ll be getting up there this week is a scouting report and video clips of Carter—and that’s kind of thing you can look to him for over the months to come, as the season wears on and draft gets closer.
I was surprised that Mac Jones was named the Patriots’ Week 1 starter. I’m not surprised the Patriots decided not to keep Cam Newton as a backup. And the reason why is simple—when you make the decision to go with a rookie quarterback you invested a first-round pick in, everything in the quarterback room has to be about creating the best possible environment for that guy. Brian Hoyer can be a resource for Jones, with background in the offense going all the way back to 2009. Newton’s experience in the offense, conversely, didn’t go back much further Jones’s did (Jones having played for ex-Patriots assistant Brian Daboll for a year at Alabama). And beyond just that—and this isn’t Newton’s fault—there’s the matter of what’s hanging over Jones’s head if he goes through a rough patch of three to five games in the middle of the season. Simply put, if the Patriots are contending, Jones is slumping and there’s a former MVP on the sideline, that could potentially make things worse for the rookie, and not just in the public calling for the coaches to go to the bullpen, but also in his ability to rally the locker room. No one, for example, will be calling for Josh Johnson if Zach Wilson struggles for a game or two for the Jets, and Johnson’s experience in the Shanahan offense Mike LaFleur’s putting in should be of great value to Wilson. And similarly, there probably won’t be any sort of outcry to get Hoyer out there if Jones is fighting through it a little. So that explains Newton. And as for what Jones did to beat him out—the one thing I can say looking back at it is there were clear signs how the coaches had come to trust the Alabama product. They put him in no-huddle a bunch in preseason games. They liberally rolled him out there in empty sets, where the quarterback is solely responsible for any extra rushers coming. As one Patriot put it, they took the training wheels off early, and Jones really never fell off the bike, nor did he go through the whiplash of ups-and-downs that some rookie quarterbacks make their teams endure. So by the time Newton had to disappear for a few days after traveling (which is against the COVID-19 protocols for unvaccinated players), I think Jones had given the New England staff plenty to think about. And with the door open, and a week full of first-team reps to prove himself, Jones wound up walking through it.
Newton’s future in the NFL will be interesting, because I don’t think his case has much precedent. Here’s why: No quarterback in modern times has played the position like Newton has for as long as he has, which is a reason he’s as beat up as he is. Newton wasn’t just a runner in his prime, he was a power runner, deployed often between the tackles like a 230-pound tailback would be. And yes, because of his defensive end-sized frame, he could withstand the punishment. But eventually, the hits add up, and the accumulation of punishment takes its toll, be it a shoulder, a foot, or wherever else Newton sustained injuries in recent years. And those who’ve worked with and against him are noticing what you'd see with an aging running back—instead of getting tackled, he’s getting hit. So can he still be the same runner he was? We didn’t see it in the preseason—because you don’t see those things in the preseason—but he wasn’t that in 2020. And if he can’t be the same runner, can he win a different way? And if he’s not the same player, how does he fit into a team as a backup, a role he’s really only served once (at Florida, behind Tim Tebow) since he got to high school? And well into nine figures in career earnings, does he even want to do that? Because of all this, I think Newton’s best play might be to stay patient, and see if an injury somewhere opens an opportunity. At any rate, for each of the above reasons, Newton’s playing future is suddenly very murky.
While we’re on the Patriots, I wish Bill Belichick hadn’t said what he did about the COVID-19 vaccine. And I say that acknowledging that it’s his job to coach vaccinated and unvaccinated players the same, and that he has to have the latter group’s back, too. But the point he made—that the vaccine really doesn’t prevent you from getting COVID-19—was misleading, at best. The NFL’s data shows that there are seven times as many positive tests among the unvaccinated, on average, as there are among the vaccinated, and that’s before you even get into how many of each group are actually getting sick from COVID-19. “It’s a complicated conversation,” the NFL’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, said over the phone on Sunday. “But for the unvaccinated, it’s a simply different virus. It’s milder, it’s less transmissible, there’s less concern over hospitalization or death.” And Sills said that while acknowledging what everyone knows, which is that the vaccine isn’t a cure-all. He knows the league’s got another challenging year ahead in that regard. So with that as the backdrop, here are three things that Sills has his radar up for going into 2021.
1) Everyone’s letting their guard down. Anyone can grasp this one. “One of the biggest challenges for all of us is we’re all ready for this to be over,” Sills said. “We’re all looking forward to a time when we don’t have to worry about masks or contact tracing or testing. But we’re not there yet.”
2) More community exposure. Guys are allowed to be out and about. Schools are fully open. Business that were closed aren’t anymore. So there’s just more of a chance that players, coaches or staff are going to catch COVID-19 outside the workplace than there was last year, when they were all living, more or less, in virtual bubbles.
3) Symptom reporting. Everyone’s pushed through things at work in the past, and so, now that we’re into a time when vaccines are available and much of the world has reopened, Sills does have a level of concern that players, coaches or staff might revert back to pre-pandemic times, and not report something they think is allergies acting up or a minor respiratory illness.
Of course, no one knows what COVID-19 is going to look like in everyday life a few months from now, which makes it hard to predict where the NFL, or any business, will be that far down the line. But for now, Sills is emphasizing that continued vigilance in managing COVID-19 will be the key, and that includes getting as many players vaccinated as possible (the league got good news this week with the player vaccination rate staying steady at around 93% through the roster cutdowns). “All you have to do is go through one of our major medical centers and walk around,” said Sills, “and you’ll see that the protective efficacy of the vaccine is very apparent.”’
While we’re there, the Cowboys’ losing Zack Martin for the opener is a very big deal. The Buccaneers’ defensive front has a chance to be even better than it was a year ago, with another year of development from Vita Vea and the addition of rookie freak-show Joe Tryon. And that means, especially with Dak Prescott in his first game back from major ankle surgery, the Cowboys really needed all hands on deck for the trip to Tampa, and now we know they won’t have that. It’s also a reminder to everyone (particularly when considering Martin is among eight Cowboys to land on the list over the last 16 days) that COVID-19 will loom over this season. And hopefully it won’t be to nearly the degree it affected last year, but it seems a good bet it’ll be lingering there right up through the Super Bowl in February in Los Angeles.
The Chiefs’ offensive line situation remains fascinating. As is stands, Kansas City’s looking at having one high-end free-agent add, another big-name veteran they traded for (and will presumably pay), and basically three rookies starting, with five backups behind them who all have Super Bowl starts under their belts. And while there are good stories involving Orlando Brown, Joe Thuney, rookie center Creed Humphrey and virtual rookie Lucas Niang (a 2020 third-rounder who opted out of last season), sixth-round pick Trey Smith is one you’re going to want to watch closely. Smith’s illness due to blood clots has been well-documented, and plays into why he’s quickly become an NFL starter. As the Chiefs saw it, the Tennessee product’s ’19 tape was that of a top-50 or so prospect. His ’20 tape wasn’t nearly as good, but, as Kansas City dug into his file, the team found that was largely a result of his inability to practice last year, resulting from medication he was taking for the blood clots. And if he was able to come off the medication and practice in ’21, they figured he could become the first- or second-round player they thought he was before, which is exactly how things have played out. On top of that, by all accounts, Smith is a first-class kid, which stands as a nice bonus to the fact that he’s playing like the kind of prospect he’s been when healthy. Humphrey’s similarly looked like a real long-term answer at center, and Niang’s hit the ground running. And hitting on those three together, and having three starters on the line on rookie contracts, would huge for the Chiefs going forward, based on what they’re paying Thuney and what they’ll have to pay Brown if he has the kind of season they think he will. Very quickly, GM Brett Veach and his staff have turned a weakness into an area where there’s upside and depth. The big question is how quickly it all comes together, because chemistry generally takes time up front. But one thing the Chiefs aren’t short on with their new starting five is potential.
It really is hard to wrap your head around the amount of work scouts have done in the last few weeks. It includes sifting through the second half of every preseason game and looking through the depths of every roster, in search of a backup lineman or corner that might make a difference as a contingency in November or December. It’s having a feel for who might spring free and how such a player would fit the scout’s team. It’s a ton of volume. And the flip of that is why personnel departments take pride in having players claimed on cutdown day. This year, two teams (49ers and Jaguars) had three guys claimed, and six more (Browns, Bengals, Ravens, Chiefs, Broncos, Jets) had two apiece claimed. In a very straightforward way, because other teams want your surplus, that’s most often read—and not incorrectly—as a sign of roster depth. But there’s another end to it that I’d overlooked, and that a couple of guys called me on and pointed out—an even better way to manage your surplus is to get something back for it. And so I feel like it’s important to point out that, between Sunday and Tuesday, the Texans, Bills, Bengals, Jaguars, Chiefs, Eagles, Broncos, Ravens, 49ers and Rams were able to get a return for players that were either destined for bit roles or may have been cut from those rosters altogether. There were also examples from earlier in the summer where teams like the Ravens (Shaun Wade) and Patriots (Sony Michel) were able to flip guys from areas on their rosters where there were more quality players than they could keep. Anyway, I think this stuff is an interesting way to look at who’s doing the best job building. Maybe I’m the only one.
While we’re there, cutdown day waiver claims were down for the second straight year. From 2011 to ’19, there were 32, 29, 45, 26, 27, 33, 44, 39 and 36 players claimed the day after cutdown day. Last year, the number was 17. This year, it was 27. Why? Well, last year’s situation was pretty obvious—without preseason games or joint practices, there wasn’t much chance to scout other teams’ players, which made it harder to make the leap on a guy hitting the waiver wire. This year, my exec’s thinking went, was the result of how thin April’s draft class was (COVID-19 circumstances in the 2020 season meant fewer players declared for the draft). So players either undrafted or picked after the fifth round carried less value this year than before, leading to less activity. Add to that expanded practice squads that allow for older veterans to provide depth (meaning you might need a little less of it in a pinch), and I think you have your answer.
The Steelers’ negotiation with T.J. Watt bears watching in the coming days. Pittsburgh’s long had rules about negotiating with players—they don’t guarantee money in future years, they won’t negotiate once the season starts, and (outside of the quarterback) they won’t do extensions with players who have more than a year left on their contracts. The last of those three rules kept the Steelers from getting ahead of last year’s spike in edge-rusher money, with Myles Garrett ($25 million APY) and Joey Bosa ($27 million APY) pushing pay at the position only touched by quarterbacks. And now, dealing with that spike and reality that it’ll likely take at least $28 million per year to lock up Watt, the first of those rules will keep them (presumably) from using guaranteed money to keep the overall dollar figures down. That brings us to the second of the rules, which sets Saturday as the deadline to get a new deal done. The Steelers have, indeed, done buzzer-beater deals on the day before the season before (Cortez Allen in 2014, David DeCastro in ’16, Stephon Tuitt in ’17), and maybe they’ll get there on this one. I just wouldn’t peg Watt—who’s probably getting some good advice from his brother on this—as the type to back off his position at the last minute. And really, that’s a shame, because Watt’s the team’s best player, and in this case, the team’s having drawn imaginary lines on contracts is seemingly making it a whole lot more difficult for player and team to cross the finish line on continuing a relationship that’s been so good for both. I said this on the Stephon Gilmore situation, and I’ll repeat it here: When you’re talking about guys at that level (Gilmore won DPOY in ’19, Watt’s been a candidate for the away annually), it’s usually better to have the player than win the negotiation.
The Saints’ circumstances certainly stand to send the team in one of two directions. We’ve seen in the past where being in the sort of spot that Sean Payton’s bunch is in can be a galvanizing force. We’ve also seen where it can grind a team down. And if you want examples of that from this weekend, the contrast on the college level between how Tulane played on Saturday afternoon (hanging with Oklahoma to the very end) and how LSU did later that night (getting beaten soundly by UCLA) provided a good illustration. I think it’s fair to guess that Sean Payton will have his team ready to go. In 2008, ahead of Payton’s third year in charge, the Saints moved their operation to Indianapolis before their opener in Tampa to sidestep Hurricane Gustav. In ’13, they left for Chicago a day early to miss Tropical Storm Karen. New Orleans, for what it’s worth, won both games. This is a little different, of course, because the Saints won’t be going home as quickly—the team is camped in Dallas and practicing at TCU, for now, and its “home” opener has been moved to Jacksonville. And there’s obviously also the fact that they had the steady hand of Drew Brees in those situations, with this one coming on the doorstep of Jameis Winston’s debut as Saints starter. But I think, given the history here, the Saints will be O.K. And I’ll say this about the team in general: It’s done all it can to make sure that the story of Hurricane Ida doesn’t become in any way about the spot they’re in. The Saints know well there are a lot of people in worse shape than they are, and so I think their hesitance to make a big deal is well-placed.
I have some thoughts ahead of Week 1. And since this is one of my last chances to get these out to all of you, I’ll spill 10 here.
1) There’s good confidence that Carson Wentz is going to play, and play well, for the Colts in Week 1. I’m told he’s right on track to start the game, a little more than six weeks after getting hurt.
2) I can’t wait to see what Kyle Shanahan does with his quarterbacks against the Lions.
3) I really like the rhythm that the Dolphins had Tua Tagovailoa playing with in preseason. He looked explosive and like he was playing more instinctively. I don’t know if it’ll carry over, but it’s definitely a lot closer to Bama Tua than last year was.
4) The Ravens’ ability to get and stay healthy at receiver could wind up becoming a major factor in the AFC North race.
5) Our picks are coming later in the week, but let’s just say there’s a certain large quarterback who plays near the Canadian border that I believe is in for a huge year.
6) One team I think is better than people realize: Carolina. If the Panthers can figure things out at linebacker and left tackle, I think you’ll see Matt Rhule’s program working in a weakened NFC South.
7) I’ll repeat this: Teams have had issues with asymptomatic, vaccinated staff testing positive for COVID-19, then not being able to test negative in the days to follow. In those cases, coaches, staff and players have to stay away for 10 days. For players, that could mean missing two games. Which is to say, this could be a factor in the fall.
8) While we’re there, good on Tom Brady for being open on his own cases of COVID-19, and the fact that he was vaccinated thereafter even though he’d previously had the virus. And good get by Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times in getting that from him.
9) I’m interested to see how many rookies Urban Meyer plays right away in Jacksonville. We know Trevor Lawrence will play, and Travis Etienne won’t, next week. What’ll be interesting is seeing the roles of guys like Andre Cisco and Walker Little, with the staff there quietly believing they drafted a bumper crop in April.
10) I really don’t blame the Texans for sitting on Deshaun Watson’s rights. Here’s the thing: If they’re willing to work through the awkwardness of having him on the roster, and they already have been for six weeks, then what difference does it make, doing it now versus in, say, March? In any case, you won’t get the picks you get for him until April anyway. So why not wait for his value to potentially rebound? Bottom line, waiting for the right haul is the right thing for that franchise, as it works through a pretty extensive rebuild.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
1) Seeing Jump Around at Camp Randall on Saturday legit made things a little dusty in my home office. After all we’ve been through as a country, what a great, great scene.
2) The struggles of Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei on Saturday night, and the reaction following the Tigers’ game against Georgia, is probably a good indication of how impossibly high the bar has been set at quarterback there, after having Watson and Lawrence starting there in six of the last seven years.
3) Along those lines, as Jim Nagy said, Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler and North Carolina’s Sam Howell both underwhelming in Week 1 is a good reminder of just how wide open this draft year is at quarterback. In a lot of ways, I see it like 2019—and that year two of the three QBs to go in the first round were first-year starters, with the other one a product of Duke.
4) Georgia’s entire front looked draft-worthy in its constant harassment of Uiagalelei. But the guy to keep a close eye on there is junior defensive end Nolan Smith, who had 35 quarterback pressures in 24 games over his true freshman and sophomore seasons in Athens. He’s always been considered raw. But if he puts it all together, it’s not hard to envision a scenario where he starts climbing the draft board fast.
5) Bill O’Brien’s off to an awfully good start as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, and I think it’s safe to say Bryce Young’s play could be his ticket either to a college head-coaching job, or reentry into the NFL at some level. Young’s debut as Mac Jones’s successor: 27-of-38, 344 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs. For what it’s worth, I have no idea if Young has an NFL future (he’s built a bit like Tagovailoa). In part, because it’s one game, and no one’s really studied him yet. But so far, so good.
6) Nice to see Chip Kelly get rolling at UCLA, and watching his Bruins manhandle LSU reminds me of something he said to me back in 2013, right after using his first pick as Eagles coach on Lane Johnson: “Big people beat up little people.” To me, that was sort of the hidden thing with Kelly, how much emphasis he put on stocking the lines of scrimmage. And that emphasis sure looks like it’s starting to pay dividends in Westwood.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Things thawing in Green Bay?!?
I always think these are interesting—even if those recruiting rankings are usually more accurate than people want to admit.
I came on the Patriots beat in 2005, months after David Patten left the team for Washington. So my experience with him is more based on what others have told me. But going off that? I can tell you everyone’s always had such amazing things to say about who he was, and it’s about way more than the important role he played in the birth of a dynasty. Patten died in a motorcycle accident this week at the way-too-young age of 47. RIP.
Let’s go, BIG SIX-SEVEN!
That’s the leader in the clubhouse to be the first pick in next year’s draft, folks, and he’s a pretty frightening athlete to say the least. He hurt his ankle Saturday—here’s hoping he’s O.K., and gets back on the field this week.
Not gonna lie, I think single digits on massive D-linemen are pretty intimidating.
Love seeing that.
Someday, Bishop Sycamore jokes will get old. Today is not that day.
Eric Moulds was pretty underrated, in part because he was a Bill right after the Super Bowl era there.
Really need someone to ask Vrabel about this in a press conference.
Fantastic detail here from my buddy Jeff. The best one—the Saints had a staffer go on Expedia to figure out what city would be toughest for Green Bay fans to get to for the opener. Which is part of why the game’s going to be in Jacksonville.
“Kind” is one word for it.
Jonathon Cooper’s reputation as a person coming out of Ohio State was as solid as it gets, and here’s a little window into that, after he made the Broncos roster last week.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Unfortunately, Patten’s passing wasn’t the only one in the NFL over the last few days.
The pro-football community also lost both Tara Deeker of NFL Media and Steelers broadcaster (and ex-player) Tunch Ilkin last week, and I can say personally that each will be missed.
I worked with Deeker for years at NFL Network, and the best way I can describe her is as someone who spread positivity every time you were around her. When there’d be groups of us at events together, it seemed like she was omnipresent, had something nice to say to everyone and was always the life of the party. Just an absolute joy to be around.
As for Ilkin, my memories of him were from time spent at Steelers camp, and then at games during the fall, and I’ll just remember how easy he was to talk to on anything about the team. His passion for the game was obvious from the minute you met him, and you never got the feeling he was talking down to you on football stuff. And his story, as the NFL’s first Turkish-born player, was pretty incredible.
Our condolences to families and friends of Patten, Deeker, and Ilkin, all gone way too soon.
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