INDIANAPOLIS — It was one slice, and it was part of a marketing deal with Autotrader, and it wasn’t like Aidan Hutchinson didn’t know what he was getting into when he signed up to do a Barstool pizza review. And if you check the tape, the 6' 6" 265-pound top-five lock played it off like that, giving Big Mama’s and Papa’s in West Hollywood, Calif. a polite 6.7, while rattling off his favorite Ann Arbor pizza spots to Dave Portnoy.
But deep down? He regretted it the minute the tomato sauce hit his tongue.
“Because it was in the middle of training, I was like, To have dairy, gluten, just like, what am I doing to myself?” Hutchinson said, standing in a hallway where he’d just finished working on starts for the next day’s 40-yard dash. “So I had that piece of pizza, and it always just sits in the back of my mind. And if I'm ever feeling bad, with my body or something, I'm like, It's that damn piece of pizza.”
What’s more, once he got back to the Sports Academy, an hour north in Thousand Oaks, he felt compelled to tell everyone, if for nothing else than to get it off his chest.
“He came back and he's like, Man, I had bread and dairy,” said Taylor Ramsey, a director at the facility. “Dude ate one slice of pizza, and he's pissed at himself—for one slice of pizza.”
This is how Hutchinson became, by many accounts, the best player in the 2022 draft, and how he arrived here in Indianapolis as the safest bet any team can make in this year’s class. A year ago, the Michigan star was injured and seen as a sort of try-hard edge rusher destined to go somewhere late in the first round. And because few saw him as special, it was easy to wonder why he didn’t just cash in by going pro then.
Since then, he’s become something else entirely. Now, he’s the type of player an NFL team can build a defense around, one who could go No. 1 overall, and one who very likely won’t fall past the second pick, which happens to be in the possession of his hometown Lions.
Any time a guy can shift perception the way Hutchinson did the last 12 months, it’s surprising. But that he’s pulled it off really isn’t even mildly so to Hutchinson himself, because he had in his head how he’d make this story come to life all along. And here in Indy, with a class that lacks some sizzle, that story is one that’s absolutely worth telling.
As it would be, really, in any year, because who Hutchinson is explains everything about how this happened. The piece of pizza illustrated it for me, and, for the record, yes, he was just playing it cool with how he scored it.
“It was fricking delicious,” he said, laughing. “I haven't had a piece of pizza in forever.”
Combine week’s come to a close, and we’re a week away from free agency, so we’ll have lots of time for risers, rumors and news in this week’s MMQB column. Inside the column, you’ll be getting …
• A look at the winners of this year’s scouting combine.
• An underrated factor in Aaron Rodgers’s looming decision.
• Where Kyler Murray stands a week after his big statement.
And we’ll also have a proposal for a new type of combine … in Indianapolis. But we’re starting with your very own NFL introduction to Aidan Hutchinson.
Hutchinson’s parents, Chris and Melissa, were decompressing in the hospitality suite at Michigan’s team hotel after Aidan’s final college game, a playoff loss to Georgia, when agent Mike McCartney arrived to meet with them and close the deal on his newest client. A few minutes later, McCartney got up to get the family drinks and found nothing but soda put out for the players, friends and families.
McCartney picked up a handful and doubled back to Chris and Melissa.
Chris, seeing him coming, quickly deadpanned, “If you knew much about the Hutchinson family, you wouldn’t have grabbed a bunch of sodas.”
He was messing with McCartney, of course, but there was truth in what he said. While how Aidan coped with that slice of pizza showed, indeed, how far their son has taken it, mom and dad raised their kids in the sort of environment that naturally would churn out a kid who’d always optimize his health—and ultimately his athleticism, with how he treated his body.
Where and how Hutchinson took it to another level is another story.
He became a full-time starter at Michigan in 2019 and, on a really good defense, emerged as a true every-down player quickly, in on every package and personnel grouping that coordinator Don Brown deployed. As that happened, he says now, “I knew I had a chance. And then, once I saw that opportunity, I’m all in.”
That meant doubling down on everything he’d done to get himself to Michigan and make himself a starter there in the first place. Which is what would lead him to the greatest player in football history, Tom Brady, who just so happened to be a Michigan alum.
“You just look at him; he's 44,” Hutchinson said, “and you gotta wonder what he's doing.”
So Hutchinson went to his dad, a Michigan All-American in the ’90s, who then reached out to his buddy Scot Loefller about getting in touch with Brady. Loeffler, who played with and coached Brady at Michigan and is now the head coach at Bowling Green, texted his old teammate. Brady then got Hutchinson’s dad in touch with a trainer from TB12.
Hutchinson wound up getting some body work done and adopted elements of Brady’s diet—eliminating dairy, sugar and alcohol, drinking a gallon of water a day, and minimizing his gluten intake. Which, as you might imagine, wasn’t easy for a college kid.
“It is hard, it is very hard,” he said. “But I know to be great, I'm going to have to make a lot of sacrifices. That was one that I'm willing to make easily, because I want to get everything that I can out of this body.”
It didn’t take long for Hutchinson to physically feel the difference just in his day-to-day life, but the on-field payoff would have to wait. He got hurt in the Wolverines’ third game of the 2020 season. He then made the decision to come back for his senior year, and last spring things started to come together. He was getting healthier. He saw new coordinator Mike Macdonald’s defense being installed.
And as he’d lost 10 pounds or so to get sleeker and play more on the edge full-time in a hybrid outside linebacker role, everything came clear as he watched spring ball from the sidelines, finishing up his rehab.
“I was watching, and our edges were dominating,” he said. “And so in that moment, I was kind of thinking to myself like, I've got a chance here to do something. Because if those guys are dominating, imagine what I could do.”
We know the rest of the story now. Hutchinson had a school record 14 sacks as a senior, was a Heisman finalist and unanimous All-American, and won the Silver Football as Big Ten MVP, the Lombardi Award and Big Ten championship game MVP. He also helped Michigan climb and summit the Ohio State mountain and get to its first playoff.
And being able to do all those things was a reason he came back for his last year—an unselfish decision that’s led to incredible individual rewards, both in the 2021 season and now in his draft position.
“One-hundred percent, every football player, this game, football uses you,” he said. “So every football player has to use football. You really got to think of yourself first, just thinking about it individually. And from a team perspective, I mean, it was beneficial all across the board. It made that decision very easy. It was probably one of the best decisions I made in my life. … Everything that I sought out to achieve, I did.”
As impressive as any of it is how Hutchison flipped perception.
Once seen just as a high-effort, workmanlike linemen, the combine again showed how much more Hutchinson has become than that. He ran a 6.73 in the three-cone drill—used to measure agility, explosiveness, and change-of-direction skills—which was a better time than all but three receivers, and sits comfortably between the times that Von Miller (6.70) and T.J. Watt (6.79) clocked here. His 4.15 20-yard shuttle was the second-best of any player at the combine going into Sunday. He ran the 40 in 4.74 at 260 pounds.
You don’t get there without a lot of natural ability and, again, Hutchinson always thought he had plenty. But his willingness to push his limits and maximize what he was born with is a good piece of this, too—which comes back to his willingness to do what others won’t or can’t, especially others at his age. “It's knowing what it takes to be at the next level,” Ramsey said. “And knowing what guys that have been in the league for 10 to 13 years do.”
That happened for Hutchinson through the commitment to cut out things like pizza, yes, but just as much through a willingness to listen and learn that isn’t always there with the top guys.
“With him, you’d expect someone that’s projected at that high level would say, ‘Hey, this guy’s coming in, he’s gonna need this, he’s gonna need that,’” Ramsey continued. “Guy ended up being the most humble dude, like just, ‘I’m here to work hard. Tell me what I can do to get better.’ And he listens, he’s coachable, anything that we've said. We did inflammatory markers. It’s, Alright, I'm not gonna eat that then. Simple. Out of my diet for the rest of my life. It's not like, I'm gonna do this for the rest of this process. It's, O.K., I'm not gonna do that anymore. This is causing inflammation? Not gonna do that either. O.K., cool.”
And that’s why, as Ramsey described what he’s seen the last two months from Hutchinson, it mirrored his path at Michigan—with the trainer explaining how so many players that age have their ups and downs, this one just steadily, continually, has kept getting better.
That culminated in a strong, complete combine performance that affirmed the change in perception of Hutchinson among NFL teams was justified.
“It's weird how the narrative changes in just a year,” he said, smiling. “But that just goes to show why I block out the outside noise, because it's all just B.S. at the end of the day. People are going to believe what they want to believe.”
Hutchinson has a lot of believers now.
Late on Friday afternoon, Hutchinson was just off the massage table, having gotten some aggressive body work done by a TB12 trainer named Devin who’d flown in for the combine, when Minnesota edge rusher Boye Mafe started giving him crap about a pair of shorts he was wearing that was branded with his name. Hutchinson played it off. Then Mafe went in on Hutchinson’s sneakers—which he suspected were custom-made.
Mafe was trying to needle Hutchinson for being a superstar. And he knew he could, because Hutchinson doesn’t act like one.
“That’s what I’m saying,” said Mafe, who’s trained with Hutchinson since early January. “He has that superstar stature, first off the board, but acts as if he’s in the sixth round.”
Which, of course, reflects the whole story line here—a guy who knew, deep down, he had it in him to be a top-five pick, working like a priority free agent to get there. “I mean, the man drinks only distilled water,” Mafe continued. “If you focus on the type of water you're drinking, you're locked in.”
And Hutchinson’s now on the doorstep of seeing that manifest in the NFL’s implicit acknowledgment that he’s become what he thought he was from the start.
“I think, in my head, I always knew it,” he said. “In my head I always viewed myself like that. … Now everyone sees me at No. 1, but I've been seeing myself at No. 1 for a very long time now.”
From here, Hutchinson will go back to Detroit to get ready for Michigan’s pro day, where he’ll do the bench and probably little else.
The larger plan now is to turn the page, take everything he learned from the last two months, phase out the combine work and start training for his first NFL season, so he can hit the ground running when he gets to rookie minicamp and OTAs in May.
And whether it’s the Jaguars, Lions or someone else taking him, it’s a pretty good bet he’ll be ready when he gets there, because the approach he’ll take in getting ramped up for football between now and then won’t be much different from the one he’s always taken. Going first, he says, “would be cool,” but more than that he wants to be on a team that fits him, he wants to win and, deep down, he knows what’s out there for him.
“I want to be a Hall of Fame player,” he said. “I want to have a lot of First Team All-Pros. I want to be legendary.”
And clearly, he’ll do whatever it takes to get there.
The pizza can wait.
COMBINE AT A CROSSROADS
The first and most obvious thing I’m taking away from this year’s combine, after last year’s was erased by COVID-19, is this: The event itself is dealing with growing pains, brought about by the league’s insistence on turning it into more than what it was intended to be, which is a tool for teams to get their work done.
And the fan experience element clashed with the workplace environment right away when workouts kicked off Thursday night. Loud music, and, to put it kindly, not the kind of music the players would pick out, drowned out player announcements in the suites. The scoreboards showed the NFL Network feed, rather than displaying who was working out where. Because of that, personnel people and coaches up there had to scramble and use binoculars to pick out who was doing what as the workouts wore on.
Midway through Thursday night’s festivities—to the credit of Jeff Foster, and the combine and league folks there—the powers that be made the decision to kill the music, and it didn’t come back.
But by then, coaches and scouts alike were calling the operation of the event a (bleep)show. Several head coaches and GMs cut their trips short. Others stayed in their hotels and used their time to work ahead on free agency. Many of the higher-ranking team people in town for the week questioned whether they’d come back if things keep going this way.
Also, the team that won the Super Bowl, the Rams, made the trip optional for most of its personnel, and all of their top decision-makers wound up declining to come with the event happening two weeks after their 2021 season ended. And if more teams go in that direction, the main motivator for the top prospects to work out—getting to do it in front of every head coach and GM—will be gone. Or the league will have to pay them to participate.
If the top guys don’t work out, what will the league be left with? An event it can’t sell.
Very clearly, the combine is at a crossroads. Later in the week, rumblings were growing that Indianapolis would, indeed, wind up keeping the event for the next year or two, after so many thought it was a fait accompli that it’d go to Dallas in 2023. Most NFL people want it here, so that happening would help. But clearly, the league has a lot to work out to keep what’s been a tentpole event for decades viable in a post-COVID-19 world.
And with that, here are a few nuggets we were able to ascertain after the teams had the chance to kick tires on the 324 prospects in Indy.
• Liberty’s Malik Willis came out of Indy as the guy who gained the most among a pretty blah group of quarterbacks. He threw the ball much better than he had at the Senior Bowl, and interviewed well with teams—with the context being that he showed a capacity to learn and a strong personality, even if it’s pretty clear he’ll have a ways to go in learning the nuances of the pro game (and he did a very good job explaining the ins and outs of a simplistic Liberty offense to teams). And in the NFL’s current Patrick Mahomes–Josh Allen world, his combination of a howitzer for an arm and elite athleticism puts him in position to convince teams he can grow into a lot more than what he is right now. I’d say he’s in the lead to be the first QB taken. His pro day is March 22, and showing the kind of continued improvement he did between the Senior Bowl and combine there would help his cause.
• When I sent out texts Saturday night asking who helped themselves the most, one AFC GM responded, “Every Georgia defensive player.” An NFC exec said, “Kirby Smart.” He then texted, “14 players, and they all interviewed and performed well.” So much so, in fact, that it’s tough to single out one. Or maybe it’s just tough to single out one beyond mountainous nose tackle Jordan Davis, who ran in the 4.7s on some watches at 341 pounds. “He was the best guy out there, Jordan Davis,” said another NFC exec, “one of the single most impressive combine performances ever.” The question with Davis will be whether he’ll have the endurance to be an every-down player in the pros, but the freakish athletic show he put on here would at least give you a good feeling that he can be more productive on third down in the pros than he was as a collegian.
• Davis’s linebacker teammates Travon Walker and Quay Walker drew similar reactions from scouts. One exec I talked to said, more or less, he thought a lot of scouts were quiet on the former during the fall, with hopes what they saw in him wouldn’t be widespread. Well, the secret’s out. “We’re not in that market,” he joked, “because we don’t have a top-15 pick.” Another said he “should be in the conversation to be the player with the most upside in this year’s class.” Travon Walker’s workout was that good. And Quay Walker, overshadowed all year by Nakobe Dean, crushed his meetings, flashing very solid football intelligence. Want one more Bulldog? Safety Lewis Cine had a very solid weekend all the way around. Suffice it to say, it’s not hard to see why Georgia was historic on that side of the ball.
• There wasn’t a ton of movement among the receivers. The Ohio State wideouts, Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, held serve. USC’s injured star Drake London didn’t work out. If anything, the biggest development might have been a negative one—Arkansas’s Treylon Burks’s average testing numbers, punctuated by a 4.55 40, figured to push him down some in the first round, particularly in a year when nine receivers ran sub-4.4 (including both Wilson and Olave). Further down the line, Penn State’s Jahan Dotson didn’t blow it out at his workout, but showed the kind of head for the game that’ll make him fit in the league as a slot. “Really good interview,” said an NFC exec. “Self-aware, but confident, and he also performed well in the drills.” And Western Michigan’s Skyy Moore was brought up by just about everyone as a guy you can now lock in as a Day 2 pick after a strong workout.
• The most important things for Georgia receiver George Pickens were always going to be the medical and the interviews in Indy, based on the background teams have on him and the ACL injury he just came back from. But his workout was good, showing why he was looked at as perhaps the top receiver prospect in the class before he got hurt, and a few teams brought him up to me as a guy who helped himself.
• Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III and Iowa State’s Breece Hall emerged as winners among a lackluster tailback class. One NFC exec told me he sees both as late-first-round types who’ll probably go on Day 2 based on how the position is valued in the league.
• If you’re into interior offensive linemen, some things were clarified over the weekend. Boston College guard Zion Johnson tested well and showed his smarts, making it clear that he understands his strengths and weaknesses, in interviews. Nebraska center Cam Jurgens was raised by multiple teams as a guy who showed up bigger than most people thought he would, and tested well—one exec even said he can see why some scouts believe Jurgens might have more upside than Iowa’s Tyler Linderbaum. And Chattanooga’s guard/center Cole Strange was raised to me by a number of teams as a guy who had both interviewed and worked out well.
• Early returns on the DBs varied. Two teams told me Washington’s Trent McDuffie was outstanding in their interview and positioned himself as a safe pick—“Really just a clean guy who’s gonna be as good as the talent allows him to be,” said a source from one of them. Florida’s Kaiir Elam was another strong corner interview, though his workout wasn’t as good. And Cincinnati’s Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner came as advertised (as we said last week, we had one veteran evaluator call him the best player in the entire class), as did Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton.
• A few others whom multiple teams raised as combine winners: Montana State LB Troy Andersen, Washington State OL Abraham Lucas, Central Michigan OL Bernhard Raimann and Tulsa OT Tyler Smith.
And we’ll have plenty more to clean up from the combine later on Monday in the MAQB.
The NFL should enhance the combine and do it right here in Indy. The reality is that what you see on television is such a small fraction of what the event is for people in the NFL. And as we explained, the amount of hiccups this week could cause a significant problem for the league in attracting decision-makers to attend the workouts, which would affect top players’ participation in them. So how do you fix that? My feeling is you make the event bigger while deemphasizing the workouts. And if that doesn’t make sense on its face, you can follow me on an idea I threw out to some team people the last few nights, and one a couple told me I should write here. Baseball has its winter meetings as the kickoff to the offseason. That’s what the NFL should make combine week. In so many ways, that’s what it already is—with teams meeting with each other and with agents, to set the stage for all the movement to come through March and April. Indianapolis is perfect for it with a centralized downtown and hotels connected to a convention center that facilitates meetings, dinners and drinks through the week. So you build programming around the NFL winter meetings and really lean into what the combine’s become over the last few decades—a prelude not just to the draft, but also free agency and the looming trade market. Make the workouts a part of that, not the centerpiece, and you can give the football people what they want, get big-name players to work out and make the whole thing more of an event. Have pending free agents in town for television purposes (and to meet with teams, if you’re willing to ease the rules). Use shows to advance what’s to come. I don’t see a real downside to the idea. The fact is, the combine workouts themselves have a very real ceiling as to how big they can become. The drive-by fan just isn’t going to stay at home on a Friday night to watch players he or she couldn’t pick out of a lineup run in shorts. But … there is more the league could do to make the event bigger.
The personal part of Aaron Rodgers’s decision shouldn’t be ignored. Ultimately, it’s why I think we’ll get an announcement this week that he’s going to stay with the Packers. And it all goes back to one thing I’ve heard over and over again on the spot the Packers are in with their reigning MVP quarterback—how much he loved the roster that he was a part of this year. The place he’s in, really, is reflected in the role our buddy Mike Silver reported Rodgers fulfilled this weekend, as the officiant for David Bakhtiari’s wedding with his head coach Matt LaFleur in attendance. He loves Bakhtiari. He loves LaFleur. We know how he feels about Davante Adams and Randall Cobb, and he has similar feelings for a lot of others he played with last year. And if the Packers show they can bring all those guys back to go after a Lombardi Trophy, and he gets the contractual commitment he’s looking for, my sense is his decision would become academic. Which is huge, because of how important personal relationships are and always have been to Rodgers. Last year, the personal fractures between Rodgers and the team led to an uncomfortable, awkward offseason. Now, with those largely fixed, and the good relationships he had previously now even better, Rodgers can make this a professional decision, and I think that’s where Green Bay’s advantage always was. The football situation they can present is pretty tough to beat. And one I think he’ll confirm this week that he wants to stay in.
The Kyler Murray situation has potential to get worse before it gets better. And it might not wind up getting better. Here’s the bottom line: Murray’s camp isn’t going to be content to wait until the summer to negotiate a new contract, which is essentially where Arizona was with its franchise quarterback when it was approached about the contract after the season. My understanding is Murray wants this resolved between now and the draft for a couple of reasons.
1. There’d be a robust trade market if he were available now, with quarterback supply outweighed by demand. And Murray knows if a team trades for him, it’ll extend him, too. After the draft? Teams will have their quarterback plans set, so the market won’t be near what it is now. Which means if there’d be a time to push for a trade, it’d probably have to be before the end of April.
2. A summer holdout would be tough given the strengthened rules to further punish players who stay away. And realistically it’s much harder for a quarterback than it is for a guy at any other position to draw a line in the sand once training camp starts and a team has to come together around its leaders.
Now, I’m not necessarily saying that Murray will demand a trade. But I do think it’s on the table if things don’t go well over the next month or so. Add the leadership questions that have been raised about Murray in Arizona’s building—some see him as a sort of independent contractor, and this won’t help change that feeling—and the Cardinals definitely have an interesting few weeks ahead.
The Amari Cooper situation ties to Michael Gallup’s situation. My guess is at some point over the next week, word will come in that Gallup, who tore his ACL in Week 17 (and it was a clean tear, so he has a chance to be back for the opener), is signing a deal in the range of $11 million per year. And if that’s what it takes for Dallas to extend their promising 26-year-old, you’ll see the idea here—they’ll be locking up a potential star who’s two years younger than their established star for about $9 million less per year then they’d otherwise be paying. A similar situation could play out with edge rushers DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. The bottom line is—and this is a champagne problem—Dallas has gotten really top-heavy on its cap because of the number of stars and cornerstones the team has been able to draft and develop. They went into last year with 10 guys making $10 million per or more, with Cooper being one of three guys on the roster at or above $20 million, and one of five north of $14 million. Could they mortgage some deals and move money around? Sure. But if picking Gallup over Cooper means keeping Cedrick Wilson, who’s also a free agent, and getting a little cap healthier, would that beat the other options? It feels to me like Dallas is saying yes, and the timing on the Cooper news, coinciding with the Gallup negotiations wrapping up, seems to confirm that.
The franchise tag deadline is Tuesday, and Bengals S Jessie Bates is in line to get one. It’ll cost Cincinnati about $13 million to do it, which isn’t much for a 25-year-old former All-Pro who played his best ball through a Super Bowl run and is already a team captain. So, yes, Bates will be a Bengal in 2022. The second question is, of course, whether this is a precursor to a long-term deal. Which way this goes, as I see it, should be a good indicator on where the Bengals are coming out of a breakout season. Bates’s agent, David Mulugheta, has repped a number of the highest-paid safeties in football history (Earl Thomas, Kevin Byard, Landon Collins), and has another coming up behind Bates in Derwin James. It’s hard to see him doing anything but a market deal. And so there’ll be a question as to whether the Bengals will be willing to go to a certain price point, within a certain structure, to lock up one of their most respected and promising players. Keep an eye on this one, because Cincinnati has more than a few big negotiations that’ll follow Bates’s over the next few years, and the precedents set here figure to be important ones for the other guys coming up for big-money deals.
More tags are coming, but not nearly as many as last year. Bates will be tagged, and ESPN reported Monday morning that Chiefs OT Orlando Brown got one. Throw Adams in there, and I think Cowboys TE Dalton Schultz will get one too. But that may be it. The reason why? Well, for one, with the overall cap number rebounding, the tag numbers are bigger this year than they have been. And two, with that cap space, more teams have been able to take care of the guys they truly want to. On top of that, in other cases, because of mortgaging around the COVID-19-affected caps of the last two years, there are other teams really tight to it and unable to take on the lump-sum payment that a franchise tag brings.
I went looking this week for an explanation on the Ravens letting Lamar Jackson set the pace in contract talks with the team, and got one. The Baltimore brass knew from the start that trust was going to be a big factor in negotiating Jackson’s contract, more so than it normally would be. Because, one, trust is important for Jackson personally and, two, Jackson would be negotiating without an agent. That’s meant keeping the circle on it small, and the information available to the public sparse. It’s also meant knowing not to play the normal negotiation games (low-balling early, balking late, etc.), because they weren’t dealing with an intermediary. And that is why this is moving slowly. The Ravens are being careful. Jackson isn’t showing urgency (yet) to get the deal done, and internally there’s been a lot of focus on fixing what went wrong at the end of the year. So for now, I’d say there’s no real reason for concern, and there shouldn’t be, really, until the start of training camp. If we get there with no deal? Then I’d be worried something is off. But that’s a ways off.
Every time I talk to Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes, I think that the Lions nailed it last year. Eventually, that has to prove itself out—and we covered what Detroit needs to do to accomplish that in Friday’s GamePlan. But when you’re around Campbell and Holmes, you can feel the alignment between the two, which is pretty incredible given they had no previous working relationship before they were hired together last year. This year, in fact, three of the four teams (Giants, Raiders, Vikings) that hired like Detroit did last year, filling GM and coach openings at once, put together a GM and coach that had worked together before. And the fourth team, Chicago, hired two guys who’d been talking about linking up for a couple of years. There was no such connection between Campbell and Holmes.
“We didn't know one another, but it was, shoot man, I can still remember our first phone call,” Campbell told me. “I didn't meet him face-to-face, first time I talked to him was on the phone. But I could tell, I was like, Ah man, this guy's like me. You could feel it, and just the way he talked, the way I talked, and the way we communicate was like Alright. And then sure enough, it has been. And you understand now why they saw it. And [Lions president] Rod [Wood] hired the two of us, it was like they knew, and they were dead on.”
Now, of course, I’m not suggesting Detroit’s braintrust is foolproof. A lot of different things could lead to the Lions’ plan failing. But the nice thing for the franchise is that one of the most common reasons for such arranged marriages failing—a lack of alignment—won’t be one of those things.
Some quick-hitters to get to this week. And because we’re closing in fast on the start of the league year, we’ve got a few interesting ones for you.
• The Bills—of Buffalo—are becoming a bit of a destination for veteran free agents. I’m told at least one big-name veteran reached out to the Bills (it’s usually the other way around) to show his interest in them and set up a meeting for his agent at the combine last week. So if the finances work out, it wouldn’t surprise me to see someone like that signed by the Bills.
• Good to see the stadium deal is being worked out there. It’d be a shame if there wasn’t a team in Buffalo.
• The Broncos have made no secret of their interest in upgrading at quarterback this offseason, and the interest seems to be getting reciprocated. I don’t think Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson would mind going there. And if the Rodgers thing were to somehow fall apart this late in the process, I think the Broncos would be atop his list, too.
• A few veteran names were bandied about in trade talks here the last few days, and one was Giants CB James Bradberry. It’s pretty clear to other teams that new GM Joe Schoen is open for business.
• One player I talked to a few people about was Panthers QB Sam Darnold. His value has cratered, and it sure seems like Carolina might need to eat some of his money to deal him.
• A few free agents who may wind up getting more than you’d think: Falcons LB Foyesade Oluokun, Dolphins DE Emmanuel Ogbah, Jets NT Folorunso Fatukasi and Rams G Austin Corbett.
• I mentioned this before, but it’s pretty interesting how many of the top free agents this year are third contract guys, with Rams OLB Von Miller, Cardinals DE Chandler Jones, Bears WR Allen Robinson, Packers WR Davante Adams, Saints OT Terron Armstead and Bucs C Ryan Jensen among them.
• I don’t think J.C. Jackson will get to Jalen Ramsey’s financial numbers. But with his ball production—and even given some of the baggage he’s carried since before he came into the league—I don't think he’ll wind up that far off.
• If you’re surprised by the sudden revival of Mitchell Trubisky’s stock, take a look at supply and demand across the NFL at the position. There will be teams left standing when the music stops on the top guys, and Trubisky would give them a viable option with starting experience and upside. Andy Dalton got $10 million for a year last offseason. I could see Trubisky hitting that number this month.
• Big thanks to all the people in Indy who make it easy to make this week such a productive one for all of us.
I do have one last piece of Super Bowl LVI clean-up. When I did the MMQB lead with Raheem Morris a couple weeks back, I asked him about his defense’s final play—which we went through in the column that Monday. And what I left on the cutting room floor was my question to him about whether Aaron Donald not getting to Joe Burrow on that play would’ve meant Ja’Marr Chase scoring the game-winning touchdown. You’ll remember Ramsey fell down in coverage on Chase on the play, just as Donald was whipping Burrow to the ground. Morris emphasized that Burrow was reading left to right on the play, looking for Tee Higgins on a drag to his left as Chase broke down the right sideline. A nice play by David Long Jr. to get in Burrow’s vision caused Burrow to pull the ball down, and Donald was there to end it.
But … “If he came back across the board, which I’ve seen him do before, he absolutely has a chance to throw that ball up,” Morris told me. “I’ve seen him do it against Green Bay, I’ve seen him avoid the rush a bunch of times. He has a chance. And Jalen falls late in the down. But by the time he falls, Joe was already on the ground—and it was a pool party for us after that.” One other interesting aspect to the play: I’m told Burrow actually adjusted Chase’s route presnap, which, to this layman, would indicate that, with another second or two, he’d have gone downfield to him. Which, of course, is another example of the value Donald brings to the table.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1. I can’t wait to see what Jayson Tatum does in the playoffs.
2. I’ve never been a Duke basketball fan, and I made fun of some of the things Duke did Saturday on Twitter, but that was really cool watching Mike Krzyzewski say goodbye at Cameron with his family alongside him. There aren’t many coaches who mean as much to a program at any level as Krzyzewski means to that one—and to be able to win that much (five national titles) at such a small school with those sorts of academic standards is pretty remarkable.
3. I can’t remember Big Ten basketball ever being as balanced and deep as it is right now. Of course, there’s a chance that’s reflective of the fact that there’s not a real juggernaut in the group, too. We’ll find out soon enough.
4. Do I need to tell anyone how dumb Major League Baseball and its players are still? All they have to do to know it is see how little anyone cares about their squabble. And if this lasts too long, no one will care when they come back, either.
5. Inventing Anna is pretty awesome.
6. Prayers for the Ukrainian people. All the images and stories from there have been absolutely horrifying, but, I think, important for all of us to pay attention to.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Pretty cool moment there between Mike McDaniel and one of his old bosses, John Lynch.
Legendary move by McDaniel there …
… And here too.
Love that from Willis.
Would’ve been cooler if Olave’s number stood!
Probably not. But maybe?
That was good …
… and this was better.
I wanna set that game up in my basement now.
Agreed, agreed, agreed.
For my money, still the freakiest thing we saw all weekend.
It’s very weird being at the combine at night, and cutting through the convention center, and seeing guys ramping up for their workout days on the carpet in there—after two months of being at premier training facilities. You’d think maybe the league could find them a fieldhouse in town to use for that? Or something better than working on starts in a hallway.
Not even sure where to start on that one.
Definite Joey Burrow vibes from the Cincinnati kid.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
With 2022 in full swing, some key dates ahead …
• March 8: Franchise tag deadline.
• March 14: Free-agent tampering period opens.
• March 16: League year starts, free agents can sign, trades can be executed.
• March 27 to 30: NFL annual meeting in Palm Beach.
And pro days start this week, too, and will be rolling right through early April. Which means the NFL has accomplished its goal of having football for people to discuss, dissect and fight over at all times.
More NFL Coverage:
• The Short, Sweet Era of Mercenary Star QBs May Already Be Over
• Why Kyler Murray’s Contract Is Suddenly an Issue
• 2022 NFL Draft Prospect Rankings: Top 100 Big Board 1.0
• MMQB Mock Draft 1.0: Kenny Pickett Is QB1