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MMQB: How the Broncos and Seahawks Negotiated the Russell Wilson Trade

A 2018 pro day, an out-of-the-way Indianapolis bar and a valet ticket contributed to an NFL megadeal. Plus, Tom Brady is back, Aaron Rodgers stayed, a free agency preview and more.

The Broncos had been concerned that newish Seahawks owner Jody Allen could pull the plug on the deal at the wire. Seattle, conversely, wasn’t 100% sure that Aaron Rodgers’s status wasn’t still hovering over a negotiation that stretched from the end of January into the beginning of March. But finally, on both sides, this was starting to feel very real.

About to leave the out-of-the-way Indianapolis bar that served as one of their rendezvous points during a series of secret combine-week meetings and head home for Seattle, Seahawks GM John Schneider handed Broncos GM George Paton his yellow valet tag, No. 16157, from the downtown JW Marriott. On the back was scrawled Schneider’s final proposal, if he were to agree to deal franchise quarterback Russell Wilson to Denver.

It read:

2022 – 1ST
2022 – 2ND
2023 – 1ST
2023 – 2ND

With a list of player names to follow.

And there they were, in front of Paton, the bones of a deal that took secrecy, time, strong relationships and a ton of capital to complete. It was Sunday, and by the time the sun set in Indianapolis, both guys would be on their way home, already knowing they were well on their way to fundamentally changing the foundation of two NFL franchises.

Less than two days later, Wilson was in Denver to sign a waiver to override his no-trade clause, take a physical and complete a massive trade that’ll become official on Wednesday.

This is the story of a deal that was years in the making, weeks in negotiation and as difficult to complete as any I can remember hearing about. It required, on one side, an organization uniting with its quarterback one final time to precipitate the right result for everyone—and one they all hope will lead to a happy reunion years from now. It necessitated, on the other side, a boatload of conviction in a single player from the leaders of a new regime, and mostly just two guys who barely knew each other a few months ago.

Yes, it took a lot to make Russell Wilson a Bronco. And we’re about to dive into all the details with you.

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We’ve got a loaded MMQB column for you this week, to celebrate the final days of the 2021 league year. Inside, you’ll find …

• A preview of what to expect with free agency starting.

• Why Aaron Rodgers made the right call on staying with the Packers.

• Deshaun Watson’s short-term future, and what the grand jury decision means.

• A look at how the draft’s top five quarterbacks did in Indy.

And yes, we’re going to cover the biggest news of Sunday night, too. I have a full column on Tom Brady’s sudden comeback, and we’ll have a section in this space on it as well. But we’re starting with the second-biggest piece of news of the week, which involves one of the biggest, most complex trades of the last decade in pro football.


Getting Russell Wilson traded was complicated because the situation was delicate in Seattle and had been delicate for years, to the point where it could be hard to separate perception from reality.

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But Josh Allen’s pro day in 2018 was, to be sure, a very early flashpoint. During the then Wyoming quarterback’s workout in Laramie, a picture appeared on social media of Allen throwing, with Schneider standing an option pitch away from him. Wilson had two years left on his contract and, knowing another negotiation was coming, agent Mark Rodgers called Schneider and asked if he had anything to worry about.

Schneider responded that Rodgers and Wilson didn’t, explaining the Ron Wolf principle to keep a quarterback room loaded, and that he always wanted to see as many draftable quarterbacks and corners as he could in person to read their demeanor, and he’d miss the chance to see Allen in the fall when a trip to watch Wyoming at San Jose State got canceled due to a scheduling conflict.

Thereafter, a rumor that the Browns could trade the No. 1 pick for Wilson basically appeared out of dust—ex-Packers execs John Dorsey, Eliot Wolf and Alonzo Highsmith were running the Browns at the time, had worked with Schneider in Green Bay and joked with him that they’d deal 1, 4, 33, 35 … whatever for Wilson.

All of it set the stage for a tough negotiation the following year, with Wilson setting a mid-April deadline, to coincide with the start of Seattle’s offseason program, to get an extension done. Otherwise, Wilson would play out the final year of his contract.

At the beginning of the negotiation, Rodgers asked for a provision that Wilson couldn’t be franchise tagged at the end of the deal. Seattle gave him an emphatic no. So after the rest of the deal was negotiated, Rodgers circled back on it, and brought a compromise that came from his baseball background—rather than a no-tag provision, how about a no-trade clause?

After some negotiation, it became the final piece of the last deal Wilson would sign in Seattle, right before that deadline. For Wilson, it was important, because it assured that, in the event he actually was one day traded, he’d be able to dictate his destination.

And by then, there’d been some strained feelings, beyond just the blips above. In fact, the last game Wilson played on his second contract was a playoff loss in Dallas, in which Pete Carroll and his staff leaned on the old Legion of Boom, run game and defense formula early, before opening it up late, too late as Wilson saw it, in a 24–22 loss.

That philosophical divide wound up simmering for years. Wilson would confide in those around him that if the old equation kept adding up to championships, then he’d be fine with it; but with years passing without rings, he wondered if he could do more if the Seahawks would create a more quarterback-centric model. His own personal legacy, of course, was a part of that, too.

Now, there’s an acknowledgment on the part of many that, naturally, it was hard for everyone to go through dissolution of the championship teams. It led to a string of offseasons dotted with drama. And ultimately the thought that Wilson’s fit in Seattle might not be what it once was.


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By the time we got to January, no one in Seattle—player’s side or team’s side—wanted to relive the 2021 offseason. That February, Wilson went on The Dan Patrick Show and said he thought the Seahawks had fielded trade calls on him and wanted more involvement in the team’s personnel moves, and told Tacoma News-Tribune columnist Gregg Bell that he was frustrated “with getting hit too much.”

Meanwhile, Schneider maintained privately he wasn’t entertaining trade offers, and the Seahawks decided to go radio silent on the subject. Rodgers wound up going to ESPN’s Adam Schefter with four teams—the Bears, Cowboys, Raiders and Saints—to which Wilson would accept a trade, were he to ask for one (which he wasn’t). And a few weeks later, Wilson’s name was omitted from a letter that went to Seahawks season-ticket holders.

By the spring, Carroll, who maintained a strong relationship with Wilson throughout, came together with his quarterback to nip all the drama in the bud, and the two resolved to do something both do well—compartmentalize and move forward. And for the most part, as disappointing as this year’s 7–10 campaign was for everyone, both Wilson and the Seahawks went through the season without the previous issues cropping up.

The good news for everyone is that foreshadowed the incredibly clean break to come and showed the relationship between Wilson and the Seahawks was stronger than even those involved realized, built on the history, good and bad, they’ve shared together.

After a season-ending win in Arizona, two sets of daily discussions began: between Rodgers and Schneider, and between Carroll and Wilson. Wilson never asked for a trade. But Carroll and Wilson eventually got to the point where both knew that Wilson wanted to at least look at his options. And it was clear that if he wasn’t going to be in Seattle, the Broncos, with their burgeoning arsenal of young skill players, solid offensive line, football-rabid home city, new offensive-minded coach and rich quarterbacking history, would top his list.

That conclusion by Wilson wasn’t haphazard, either. In typical Wilson fashion, it was the result of a deep study into a wide range of criteria on a large number of potential suitors.

Meanwhile, in Denver, Paton and his staff were already hard at work.

Paton arrived in Denver in early 2021 and found a roster that wasn’t broken, but had questions at quarterback. And with the ninth pick last year, the Broncos really liked Ohio State’s Justin Fields. But having seen some of the quarterback tumult that unfolded in the months before April’s draft, and having fallen in love with Alabama corner Patrick Surtain II, Paton punted on addressing quarterback with his first pick as a GM, which left his options for ’22 wide open, with a situation he felt offered plenty to a good QB looking for a new home.

In January, he put his scouting staff on a wide range of veteran quarterbacks, asking them to watch all of them. The consensus that came back on Wilson was strong—outside of when he played through the injury to a finger on his throwing hand, the 33-year-old still had the accuracy, arm strength and deep ball he did in his prolific years. He could still move and still very much looked like a quarterback in his prime, particularly in how he finished the year.

In short, if they landed Wilson, it’d be a handsome payoff for waiting a year on the position.

And then came first of the two tentpole NFL events in which most of the league’s football people are in one place at one time: the Senior Bowl. Soon after Paton got on the ground in Mobile came a text from Schneider asking him to meet at the Battle House hotel.


The Battle House has been the birthplace of a lot of big NFL moments in recent years. It’s where the first real signs of friction between Kirk Cousins’s camp and Washington surfaced, in what became a yearslong, game-changing contract negotiation. It’s also where, last year, the Lions started the process of shopping Matthew Stafford across the league, days before they’d agree to trade him to the Rams.

And it’s where Wilson becoming a Bronco got off the ground.

There, in early February, Schneider informed Paton that Wilson could be available and that Denver was one of the teams for which he’d likely waive his no-trade clause. By then, Denver had hired Nathaniel Hackett from Green Bay, and Paton had gotten him and his coaches in on the quarterback study, and the feeling on Wilson as a Bronco had only strengthened. So they agreed to keep talking.

From there, there were a number of keys to keeping a delicate negotiation together.

• First was the relationship between Paton and Schneider. Paton’s first NFL boss, in Chicago, was former Bears exec Mark Hatley, who’d worked with Schneider in Kansas City and connected the two in the 1990s. Paton and Schneider also happened to be division rivals from 2007 to ’09 in the NFC North, a period through which Schneider was part of trading a franchise quarterback, and Paton a part of acquiring one (in both cases, Brett Favre).

• In working with the Seahawks, Wilson had already resolved to let the offseason play out as it would. Different from the year before, Wilson went underground after the last game, confiding to some in his circle around the Super Bowl that he thought a deal could be coming, but never saying anything publicly. By the time he was looped into the possibility of a trade to Denver, Wilson went out of his way to keep his future to himself, so as to not disrupt the possibility he’d wind up landing with his first choice.

• Paton and Schneider agreed to keep the circle incredibly small. Their head coaches knew, but the total number of people in each organization who were informed was less than a handful apiece. That made it, as you can imagine, awkward for both. Schneider had to hold draft and free-agent meetings knowing the chance he might not be building around Wilson. Paton quietly kept separate free-agent plans, based on who his QB was. In that way, for both, this was pretty different than their experiences with the very public Favre saga.

• Schneider knew where Wilson wanted to go—12 teams had called the Seattle GM between this offseason and last offseason to make a run at the QB, the number of teams Wilson seriously studied ahead of this offseason, to look at potential destinations, was in the double-digits, but one stood alone, and that was indeed Denver. So Schneider had to trust Paton would be fair knowing the Broncos were where Wilson wanted to be, which was important given the presence of the no-trade clause. And just to be sure, Schneider had to keep at least one team other than Denver alive throughout, even if his response to most in Mobile, Indy or in between, was simply, We’re not shopping him.

And so as the NFL descended onto Indianapolis for the second of those everyone-in tentpole events, the combine, Paton and Schneider knew they couldn’t exactly be seen together at St. Elmo’s or a hotel lobby Starbucks, or even in a suite at workouts, where the cameras might catch them. So they resolved to meet, and would meet daily through the week in hotel rooms, quiet conference areas and the aforementioned out-of-the-way bar.

It was through those sets of talks that details of the deal were hammered out.

There were keys to the details for both, too. One for Denver was the Von Miller trade, which gave Paton flexibility with his picks—he came in with 11 to work with. One for Seattle was getting a quarterback back, and in particular Drew Lock, whom Schneider liked coming out in 2019, and whom the team saw as a bit of distressed asset, since he’d had two coordinators, a defensive head coach and was in and out of the lineup over his first three NFL seasons.

Somehow, Paton and Schneider made it back to that bar, for one final meeting, and Schneider’s final offer, without anything becoming public. When they left, both still had the aforementioned concerns. Could Allen nix the deal? Could Rodgers pull a 180 and demand a trade to Denver?

Because of that, the guys involved didn’t really know it at the time. Or maybe they just didn’t want to jinx it. But the deal was pretty much done.


Last Monday really was about tweaking the deal—nailing down which players would go to Seattle from Denver and adding the pick-swap nuance to it. And the virtual handshake took place late that afternoon, with Schneider granting the Broncos permission to fly Wilson in, and Wilson getting a look at the waiver he’d need to sign to move his no-trade clause out of the way of a deal.

Early Tuesday morning, Wilson, his wife, Ciara, and Rodgers boarded a private jet for Denver. They were already airborne when the news broke that Aaron Rodgers was staying in Green Bay, a good sign on how far this was down the road when everyone got clarity on Hackett’s old quarterback, and how that quarterback was never really an option to consider for the Broncos. They were still up there an hour later, at about 11:30 a.m. MT, when their own big news broke.

Paton was sitting in his office for that one, relaxing in knowing what a couple others in the building did—that the Broncos’ new quarterback was en route. And so when the bombshell hit Twitter, with the secret still safe with a just few people, he’d given himself the chance to enjoy the reaction from his seat, hearing little celebrations explode from all around the team’s suburban Denver headquarters.

From there, Wilson arrived. Paton met with him, and then Wilson was off to summit with Hackett and his new offensive coaches, checking the final box he wanted to before officially signing the waiver, which allowed for him to take a physical on site and finish the trade. Later Tuesday, the group, appropriately, went to Elway’s Steakhouse for dinner to celebrate. And Wednesday, Wilson got a call from Elway himself to welcome him in.

For some in Denver, the day itself had a lot of the markings and trappings of a similar day 10 years ago, when Peyton Manning became a Bronco.

But more than anything else, the strongest thing that tied one huge day in franchise history to another was the simple feeling in the building. Like that one, this one took a lot of work and care to get to the finish line. And yet, more than anything else, that finish line was really just a new beginning.

At the end of all of this, you really could call it one for everyone involved.


tom-brady-returns-buccaneers-light-on

SUNDAY NIGHT NEWS DROPS

Yes, Tom Brady’s back. And Kirk Cousins snuck in a new contract right after that news broke. So while I direct you over (again) to my Sunday night column on No. 12, here are a few of my thoughts on both pieces of news, to tide you over.

1) We all like the idea of fairytale endings, and guys’ going out on their own terms. I think Brady just showed us why it rarely happens, even with guys good enough to have the option. Just put yourself in their shoes. You have this otherworldly talent to do this one thing at a world-class level, and you love it enough to have made it through a gauntlet of weeding-out processes to get rich off it. But you also know that you’ll come to a point, probably less than halfway through your life, when age will rob you of the ability to do it anymore. And once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. Consider all that, and how do you think it would end for you? Would you willingly walk away? Or make them kick you out?

2) Also, for Brady, I don’t believe this was ever going to be about crafting a perfect ending. It’s about something simpler than that—loving competition, loving the game and wanting to play. He’s said over and over again he wanted to go until he was 45, and last year showed us he’s got more than enough football life left to get there. So he’ll play this season out at 45 (his birth date is Aug. 3, 1977). Could he keep going from there? Again, football’s not a sport that you can go to the country club and play when you’re 60. When it’s over, it’s over. So whenever it’s over for Brady, if he still has tread on his tires, it’s hard to see him not feeling that pull back onto the field, in part because it’s a big piece of what makes him who he is.

3) The next steps are going to be challenging for the Bucs. Getting Ryan Jensen signed on a three-year, $39 million deal (that happened around midnight ET) is a good start. But they still have a lot of free agents. They’re right at the cap. They already restructured Vita Vea, and have the option to do similar things with contracts for Shaq Barrett, Mike Evans, Donovan Smith and Lavonte David. So they can generate some wiggle room. But will it be enough to bring back Rob Gronkowski, Jason Pierre-Paul, Alex Cappa, Leonard Fournette, Carlton Davis and, well, you get the idea. There are a lot of mouths to feed here. The good news is the Bucs have done a pretty good job drafting and developing the last couple of years, so the pipeline’s certainly not dry.

4) Dealing with all that is worth it to compete for championships, and this means the Bucs will be competing for another one in 2022. And while Brady’s comeback may elicit some of those old Brett Favre–motivated eyerolls, the league’s unequivocally better with that dude in it.

5) As for Cousins, his title as the NFL’s leverage king has been defended once again. His big cap number led to the Vikings’ taking care of him for a third time—tacking a new year onto the final year of his second deal with the team, and giving him another $35 million fully guaranteed for his troubles. He’ll make $40 million in cash this year and $30 million in cash next year, with the ability to become a free agent at 35 (it’ll be next to impossible for Minnesota to tag him in 2024). And in case you’re keeping track, the last time Cousins entered a season without every cent of his base pay fully guaranteed was 2015, which was his first year as a full-time starter (Jay Gruden and Sean McVay picked him to start over Robert Griffin III that summer).

6) That said, I don’t hate this for the Vikings. When you look at where other teams like the Commanders and Colts are at the position, having a viable medium-term stopgap isn’t a bad place to be. Remember, Alex Smith bought Andy Reid four years to find Patrick Mahomes, and another year after that to actually go with Mahomes as a starter. As a result Mahomes entered into the healthiest situation imaginable. I don’t see why someone like Cousins can’t be that guy for new Minnesota coach Kevin O’Connell and GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah.

7) Both of these cases show quarterbacks are only getting more powerful. Player empowerment arrived in the NFL a while ago. It’s just that, just as it’s consolidated to the superstars in the NBA, in the NFL it’s really just the domain of the quarterbacks.

So there you have it, my late Sunday night shoehorned-in update to the column (now pray with me that no more news breaks before I go to bed).


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FREE-AGENCY PREVIEW

The free-agent market doesn’t officially open until 4 p.m. ET Wednesday, but soon after the window opens for legal tampering (it’s a dumb term, and we need a new one) at noon Monday, the 2022 free-agent class will start coming off the board.

This one isn’t flush with great players (though that didn’t stop Gary Gramling and Conor Orr from ranking the top 221 on the site last week). With the cap recovering post-COVID-19, more teams have been able to retain their top guys, or at the very least had the room under the cap to franchise them. So what’s left? We went to a number of executives with a pro-scouting background to get their takes on the items that’ll be coming off the shelves over the next three days.

• Mike Gesicki, David Njoku and Dalton Schultz got tagged, which was predictable given the affordable tag number for tight ends ($10.9 million). Rob Gronkowski has, indeed, made his curiosity about returning home to Buffalo to end his career known to the Bills (and, obviously, now that Brady is coming back, he could return to Tampa), but he’s not the only older veteran out there for the taking. Bengals locker room leader C.J. Uzomah and Chargers graybeard Jared Cook are among them. And there are also intriguing younger options like the Packers’ Robert Tonyan and the Giants’ Evan Engram out there. “At tight end, you look at it, and there’s not a big difference between the first guy and the fifth guy,” one AFC exec said. “It’s one of the deeper years we’ve seen, even with the guys tagged.”

• The interior offensive line group is strong, and there’s an easy explanation why it’s usually this way. There’s only one tag number for offensive linemen, meaning guards and centers effectively have to be tagged like tackles would be. The figure is $16.7 million this year. Fact is, almost no one is looking to tag a guard or center at that price, or enter into a negotiation on a long-term deal that’s framed by that number. Washington did it with Brandon Scherff twice, and he happily took the two tenders and will now be the top free-agent guard available. After him, you’ve got options like Rams guard Austin Corbett and Ravens center Bradley Bozeman.

• Conversely, the tackle options out there aren’t great, which could mean a bidding war and massive payday for Saints LT Terron Armstead, despite his age (30) and injury history. With Orlando Brown Jr. and Cam Robinson tagged, the gap between Armstead and the field is massive. Patriots RT Trent Brown, Colts LT Eric Fisher and Seahawks LT Duane Brown give teams veteran options with a lot of starting experience, but the question with each is what’s left in the tank. And after them? We’re looking at names like the Steelers’ Chukwuma Okorafor and the Rams’ Joe Noteboom.

• The corners should do well. Because corners always do well, but also because while the draft class has some depth, there’s a drop-off from the first tier to the second in the class. The Patriots’ J.C. Jackson and Bucs’ Carlton Davis should top the market, even if both have some questions attached to them (the former with consistency on and off the field, the latter with injuries). After that, there are some strong 30-something names (Stephon Gilmore, Chris Harris Jr., Joe Haden), along with a few young guys with room for growth (the Bills’ Levi Wallace and Panthers’ Donte Jackson).

• Predictably, the quarterback group isn’t great—that’s true every year. But there’s truth to what you’ve heard about Mitchell Trubisky generating enough buzz that a one-year deal worth $10 million (what Andy Dalton got last year) to at least compete for a starting job seems to be well in-bounds. The Colts could be an option for him. And you can expect his hometown team (Browns) and the OC-turned-head-coach he played for last year (Giants) are others that could pursue him, with an eye on putting him in position to push a young starter. After Trubisky, you have fellow former-first-round reclamations Teddy Bridgewater, Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston.

• One other mark of this particular market is one we’ve mentioned in this space a few times already: the presence of third-contract players like Von Miller, Chandler Jones, Allen Robinson, and Armstead atop it. “You’ll probably see that more now,” said an NFC exec. “Obviously, there’s been advances in training, and also where back in the day teams would get guys to take six-year deals, that spread the [cap] hit out, now guys are more business-minded, and want to do a three- or four-year deal, so they can hit [the market] again.”

• Last week, we gave you Falcons LB Foyesade Oluokun, Dolphins DE Emmanuel Ogbah, Jets NT Folorunso Fatukasi and Rams G Austin Corbett as guys who might get a bit more than you’d expect on the market. I’ll add Bears C/G James Daniels, Chiefs CB Charvarius Ward, 49ers DL D.J. Jones, 49ers G Laken Tomlinson and Panthers DE/OLB Haason Reddick to that list.

And with that … buckle up. It should be a fun few days, with the NFL and its teams able to sell hope to each and every one of you out there.


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TEN TAKEAWAYS

Aaron Rodgers picked the best football situation, period, end of story. The Rodgers domino dropping sure did loosen up the quarterback market over the days to follow, and I think it revealed a truth, too: Quarterbacks have more leverage than ever before, and that allowed Rodgers to turn what was already a really good circumstance into an even better one for himself. And I’ll reference a couple of things I wrote during the week to explain how he got there. The first is that, really, the relationships he had in the locker room in 2021, and where those with the front office went over the last 12 months, were key to opening up the possibility he’d stay with the team that drafted him 17 years ago. The second is that, really, Rodgers created for himself in Green Bay what Tom Brady had in Tampa the last two years, and did it without having to switch teams. Consider …

• The core of homegrown talent that late former GM Ted Thompson and current GM Brian Gutekunst have cultivated in Wisconsin is as impressive as any in the NFL—Davante Adams, Aaron Jones, David Bakhtiari, Rashan Gary, Jaire Alexander, Kenny Clark and Elgton Jenkins are all among the NFL’s best at their positions, or are trending that way. And each was drafted and developed in-house.

• Gutekunst has veered in recent years from the old homegrown-only Packer model, in striking on top-of-the-market free agents like Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Adrian Amos. What’s more, in doing so, Gutekunst really hasn’t had a big miss yet.

• Last year, the Packers also started to break from their tried and true, conservative, cash-to-cap financial model, in mortgaging contracts to keep the current group together. They’re doing it again this year, and in doing so are building with the sort of short-window urgency that the Bucs did to take advantage of having Brady on the roster. Simply put, if you’re 38 like Rodgers, you want your team living like there’s no tomorrow, because for you, there probably there aren’t many of them left. He and the team are now on the same page there.

• And part of that is creating room to be aggressive with opportunities that come along. No, the Packers didn’t land Odell Beckham Jr. last year. But they tried, and they did land Randall Cobb, Whitney Mercilus and Jaylon Smith along the way, showing the willingness to compete with teams like the Rams in that arena.

• Matt LaFleur has been a better match for Rodgers than most realized he would be upon his hire in 2019, allowing for Rodgers to help shape an offense that helped the quarterback land back-to-back MVP awards and win 41 games the last three years (including the playoffs).

LaFleur, by the way, was also a really big key in holding things together over the last year, which of course helped the Packers get to this point with their franchise quarterback. So it’d seem … all’s well that ends well? Rodgers got what he wanted. The Packers have their quarterback. And there’s a nice championship window there now, too, which means everyone can worry about tomorrow when they get there (which, again, is what No. 12 wanted).

The floodgates are open on Deshaun Watson trade interest, and I’d expect he will be dealt soon. Teams involved most certainly aren’t starting from zero here. A number of teams have had their security people (most of whom are ex-law enforcement) on the case going back to last year, to be prepared for what happened on Friday, when the grand jury returned no criminal charges on the nine bills presented. Some have even put private investigators on the ground in Houston to get the best information possible. So when you see that the Panthers and Saints are moving aggressively on a trade for the Texans’ quarterback, it should tell you that, pending actually talking with him, they’re comfortable with where Watson stands legally, even with 22 civil lawsuits still unresolved. Which, in turn, would indicate that Houston would be able to land the sort of haul it’s waited over a year to get for the 26-year-old.

How big is that haul? I’m told after Watson requested a trade last year, Houston had offers that included three first-round picks. At the time, though, Texans GM Nick Caserio had resolved to keep Watson. Then, the lawsuits were filed and Caserio softened his stance on dealing Watson, but the legal uncertainty kept him from getting the kind of return he might have in February or March 2020. That sort of return should be forthcoming now. And while it’s not that simple for the Texans—Watson has a no-trade clause he’ll wield as he sees fit—my understanding is that Caserio and Watson’s camp are, and have been, in a good place, so I’d guess they’ll work together on this one toward a football conclusion that works for both sides. There are remaining off-field elements (the civil lawsuits and a potential NFL suspension) that still need resolution and are important. But at the very least, Friday’s events changed the on-field part of this story in a big way.

And because that part of it should be highlighted, too, I wanted to bring in someone who knows way more about the law than I do. My old buddy Brad Sohn is a lawyer in Florida who’s worked on cases involving NFL players and teams for years, including the concussion litigation a decade ago. So I thought he’d be well-positioned to explain what a football fan should take from the grand jury’s decision over the weekend:

“A grand jury’s non-indictment is typically a strong indicator of very light evidence suggesting a person committed a crime. It is nothing like a criminal trial, where a jury, hearing both sides of a story, as told only through evidence satisfying very stringent rules (no hearsay, for one example), has to unanimously find someone guilty, and by a standard of beyond and to the exclusion of any reasonable doubt. In plain English, a jury might believe a defendant is ‘probably’ guilty but still have to vote to let him go because the evidence was strong but not definitive. A grand jury proceeding could not be more opposite. The only side of a story prosecutors present is the version they want to tell. And they can use absolutely any evidence they choose to do so. For example, here, The New York Times has reported these grand jurors watched full videos of witness statements to police. Those would never be admitted at trial. At that point, the grand jury was asked, in essence, Is there evidence to show that more likely than not Deshaun Watson probably committed the violation of ____? And it does not even have to be unanimous to return an indictment. A vote that probable cause exists by merely nine out of (typically) 12 grand jurors results in an indictment. As the expression goes, a prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich. So in Watson’s case, grand jurors heard hours of absolutely whatever story prosecutors wanted to tell, yet not even a divided majority could conclude that evidence (even measured not in terms of what was definitive but only what was likely) amounted to a crime. And this was not as applied to just one of Watson’s accusers. According to reporting, after deeming one case insufficiently credible to present, the remaining nine were returned without indictments. No doubt, people can act poorly without acting criminally. But given the embarrassingly low standard, the lack of even one indictment here speaks volumes.”

We have one leftover from the combine—and it’s on the quarterbacks. I want to give everyone a full rundown on how each guy did at the combine, and last week I was just too swamped to pull it off. So this week, I called a few offensive coaches and high-ranking personnel types who interviewed each of them, to get perspectives on how the presumptive top five fared in Indianapolis. And I say presumptive, but it seemed to me, just from talking to people the last couple of weeks, that a lot of people in the league feel like it’s set that it’s Ole Miss’s Matt Corral, North Carolina’s Sam Howell, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder and Liberty’s Malik Willis (that’s in alphabetical order, by the way), and then everyone else. Here are a few takeaways teams had from those guys.

Matt Corral: The word that kept coming up was swagger. The 23-year-old redshirt junior was confident bordering on cocky in his interviews, and knew Lane Kiffin’s offense (which is simplistic, by NFL standards) inside and out. Guys I talked to said you could see leadership traits and maybe a little bit of the youth (there are some questions relating back to maturity as a college kid there) that they’d heard about before talking to him. He didn’t work out in Indy, still nursing an ankle injury from his bowl game. “I love him on tape; I’d take him over Malik,” said one NFC exec. “He’s really tough, he’s really athletic, you can move the pocket with him and he can make plays when things break down around him. His arm’s really good, right up there with Malik. His pro day will be awesome.”

Sam Howell: The true junior had a tough week in Mobile, and to his credit seemed to come more as advertised in Indy. Teams liked that he didn’t make excuses for a down year in 2021, even if those were available. (The Tar Heels lost Dyami Brown, Michael Carter and Javonte Williams from their ’20 team, and their line struggled in ’21). “I really think the Baker Mayfield comp is accurate,” said one NFC GM. “He looks like him, he’s built like him. He throws a nice deep ball, he’s accurate, like Baker. Nothing special, just solid all the way around. If he’s your starter, you may be looking to upgrade. He’d be a good backup, average starter.”

Kenny Pickett: Just as Howell has drawn constant Mayfield comps, Pickett has gotten a lot of Mac Jones comps. He may have a better arm than Jones and move better than Jones. And like Jones, Pickett has a rep for being excellent on the board—and that showed up in Indy. Pickett flashed his inside-and-out knowledge of the pro-style system ex-NFL coach Mark Whipple ran with the Panthers last year. Is he at the level, in that area, that Jones was? Maybe not quite, and he also might be a tick less dead-eye accurate, too, but he’s plenty good in both areas.

Desmond Ridder: He was seen as a winner coming in, and teams left Indy with a pretty good idea why their scouts had built him up to be one. “He was awesome in the interview,” said an NFC exec. “And the best athlete of any of them that tested. Super leader, super competitor; people at Cincinnati rave about him. He throws it good, not great. Accuracy is an issue, and you could see receivers had to adjust to his balls out there. And his arm strength is good enough.” So like all these guys, there are holes to work around, but something to work with, too.

Malik Willis: Willis was, in the eyes of most, the biggest winner among the quarterbacks at the combine. The questions with Willis are twofold—the first stems from simplistic offenses he’s run both at Liberty and before that at Auburn, and the second concerns his pocket presence. But as for what he was able to show teams in Indy? He was aces. “I thought he showed how smart he is in the interview. He knew what he’s been taught inside and out,” said an NFC offensive coordinator. “And I thought he was really impressive physically. The ball jumps off his hand, and he’s a big athlete who’s explosive. … He was really good to talk to, too. Very personable and engaging.”

So is this as good as last year’s class? It is not. It’s also not the 2020 class. But there is something to like about each of these guys, and that there’s a pretty big variance in how high or low each of them could go should make the next month or so really interesting to follow draft-wise.

The Amari Cooper trade underscores a truth on the receiver position. That truth: It’s becoming a place where teams feel like they can cheat a little financially to get themselves in cap compliance. And the reason is there are good ones everywhere. I’d bet the Cowboys will get a deal done with Michael Gallup, their third receiver (before his injury) last year, at around $11 million per. That’d be a saving of $9 million per year compared to Cooper. Then, maybe they’ll find a way to bring back Cedrick Wilson. If not? It really shouldn’t be that difficult to go get another receiver. They found Gallup in the fourth round and Wilson in the sixth round of the same draft. And while that might be a little bit of anomaly, it’s also indicative of how deep the position seems to be every year. Just look at these two groups …

Group 1: Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, Kadarius Toney, Rashod Bateman, Henry Ruggs III, Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, Jalen Reagor, Justin Jefferson, Brandon Aiyuk, Hollywood Brown. N’Keal Harry, D.J. Moore, Calvin Ridley, Corey Davis, Mike Williams, John Ross, Corey Coleman, Will Fuller, Josh Doctson, Laquon Treadwell

Group 2: Elijah Moore, Rondale Moore, D’Wayne Eskridge. Tutu Atwell, Terrace Marshall Jr., Tee Higgins, Michael Pittman Jr., Laviska Shenault Jr., K.J. Hamler, Chase Claypool, Van Jefferson, Denzel Mims, Deebo Samuel, A.J. Brown, Mecole Hardman, JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Parris Campbell, Andy Isabella, DK Metcalf, Courtland Sutton, Dante Pettis, Christian Kirk, Anthony Miller, James Washington, D.J. Chark, Zay Jones, Curtis Samuel, Taywan Taylor, Sterling Shepard, Michael Thomas, Tyler Boyd.

The difference in the two groups? Not much, right? The first is first-rounders from 2016 to ’21 and the second is second-rounders over the same time. And that’s not accounting for third-rounders through that stretch like Cooper Kupp, Terry McLaurin, Chris Godwin, Kenny Golladay and Gabriel Davis. Because of 7-on-7, and wide-open offenses in both college and high school, a lot of the best athletes are playing receiver, which is creating a golden age at the position. So if you’ve got one that’s too expensive, like Dallas did? Chances are you’ll have an easier time replacing him than you might an edge rusher, corner or left tackle.

I don’t think the Commanders are done at quarterback. Really, Washington was stuck here. Wilson wanted Denver, and Seattle wanted him out of the NFC. Rodgers was never available. And, as we’ve reported, Washington was never going to be able to get involved on Watson unless and until there was full resolution of his legal situation, both civil and criminal, because of the franchise’s own history over the last two years. That left them perusing the second tier, which led them to Carson Wentz. Did the Commanders give up too much for Wentz? Until I hear the offer another team made Indianapolis for him, yes, I believe they did. I think giving the Colts close to what the Colts gave up for Wentz a year ago (the material difference was a three that can become a two, rather than a two that can become a one) is too much, especially when it means Washington will also assume all $27 million Wentz is due for 2022 ($15 million of his $22 million base is already fully guaranteed, the remaining $7 million will vest this week and a $5 million roster bonus will come due on March 20, too). And I say that even though I believe there’s some decent reasoning there—the Commanders know they’ll have to try to get Wentz to know when to say when on plays, and take the easy stuff more, but also believe having downfield weapons like McLaurin should unlock parts of Wentz’s game. But I also say it knowing they’re still in play to draft one high. If that’s the endgame here, then this looks a lot different. If it’s just Wentz? Well, then you’re betting that you can do things that the Eagles and Colts, with staffs that knew Wentz exceedingly well and were invested in him, simply couldn’t.

The ghost of Andrew Luck still haunts Indianapolis. This isn’t a shot at Luck at all. I’m very happy for him, that he’s found the peace he was looking for when he struggled so mightily with injuries before the abrupt end of his football career. But there’s no question where his 2019 retirement left the Colts—with a fast-improving roster needing an instant fix at the most important, and hardest-to-fill, position on the field. Their expenditures to find one since have been significant …

• Soon after Luck retired, Indianapolis added a year to backup-turned-starter Jacoby Brissett’s rookie contract at a cost of $28 million.

• A promising 6–4 start in 2019 devolved into a 1–5 finish, and the Colts ended up signing Philip Rivers to a one-year, $25 million contract for ’20. Brissett, due to his aforementioned contract, stayed on in ’20 as Rivers’s backup.

• Rivers retired, Brissett left and the team dealt what wound up being first- and third-round picks to Philly for Wentz in early 2021, while paying Wentz $21.3 million for the season.

And now, Wentz is gone, too. What’s bananas is, if you add it up, the team spent $76.3 million on those three guys (plus the picks for Wentz), when Luck was due just $64.125 million over the same period (2019 to ’21) on the deal he signed in ’16. So where do they go next? I trust that GM Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich will be creative in finally finding a solution here. But it hasn’t been easy to this point and won’t be going forward. So while I understand the feeling that Wentz was never going to be a fit for the program they’ve built in Indy, from a leadership standpoint, and that owner Jim Irsay wants urgency given the strong core of in-prime players the Colts have … it’s hard to trust that someone like Luck is going to fall out of the sky. I think they’ll take their swings (like maybe a can’t-hurt-to-ask run at a Matt Ryan or Derek Carr), but it’s pretty tough to project where this will go next.

The Niners have played their cards right with Jimmy Garoppolo. They weren’t moving him last year for anything less than a first-round pick, and that afforded Trey Lance to get the redshirt year he needed while the team made a run to the NFC title game. And they’ve been somewhat passive early this offseason in working to move the 30-year-old, who won’t be ready to throw again until late June or early July after undergoing surgery on his throwing shoulder. Where has that left them? With teams like the Colts, and whoever’s left on the outside looking in on Watson, as potential suitors in what’ll soon be a bone-dry quarterback market, with neither the free-agent class nor the draft offering many options in the way of starters. Which is why a couple of teams told me the belief is the Niners’ ultimate ask will land in the neighborhood of what they got for Alex Smith in a similar situation back in 2013—they wound up with two second-round picks from Kansas City then—after the Watson domino falls. A few weeks ago, I might’ve told you that was a little rich. But after seeing what Indy got back for Wentz, and looking at where the quarterback supply/demand dynamics stand now? Maybe they’ll actually get their price.

Maxx Crosby’s getting paid in Las Vegas is an awesome story. The Pro Bowl pass rusher’s four-year, $95 million extension was signed, believe it or not, two years to day Crosby checked himself into a rehab facility for alcoholism. And Crosby swears it was one of those happy coincidences that’s hard to explain. “Nah, it just happened,” he told reporters last week, smiling. “It’s the universe; it was supposed to happen.” It also happened because Crosby’s a damn good player—the 2019 fourth-round pick already has 25 career sacks—and one who keeps getting better. Last year, Pro Football Focus had him with 100 pressures, which is third most in their tabulations since 2006. But because of what he went through a couple years back, with his new contract, he’s also got his eye on what he can do off the field as a result of his own experience, which is a pretty cool piece to all of this.

“I want to be of service to other people going through whatever they’re going through right now,” Crosby continued. “It’s crazy. My fiancé sent me a picture from two years ago today ... the look on my face and how much different I look, I didn’t even recognize that person. But just two years later, I have the ability to not only take care of myself forever, but my kids and my dogs. I came from a tough situation, but I just want to show people there that anything’s possible if you put your mind to it.”

As usual, I’ve got a few more takeaways to wrap up the week …

• I guess you can’t give the Colts too much credit, considering that they drove into the ditch on Wentz in the first place. But good recovery by them in driving out of it, in getting the cap space they did back, and much of the draft capital they lost in the initial trade as well.

• The Eagles get credit, too, for getting ahead of it—getting picks and creating flexibility at quarterback in the aftermath, where they can take swings at guys like Wilson and Watson, and be O.K. to wait another year and give Jalen Hurts another shot if that doesn’t work out.

• Khai Harley probably doesn’t get enough credit for his cap wizardry in New Orleans.

• All the restructures you’re seeing might not be the 2024 death sentences people make them out to be. Remember, the new television deals go into the cap equation next year, and the gambling money is going to start to affect it too. Big jumps in that number are coming.

• There was so much news this week that we couldn’t really hit on Khalil Mack and the Chargers until now. Great, aggressive move from GM Tom Telesco, and it’s exciting to think what Brandon Staley will do on defense with Mack and Joey Bosa, if (and it’s not a small if) they can stay healthy.

• And, of course, the move was another example of the advantage a team with a quarterback on a rookie contract has.

• As for the Bears, with the trade of Mack and the release of Eddie Goldman, it’s pretty clear that GM Ryan Poles saw the window for an aging defense closing and didn’t want to wait around for it to slam shut in his face. If I’m another team, it might be worth calling and seeing about the availability of a guy like Eddie Jackson.

• I think the Cowboys may wind up getting more for La’el Collins than they did for Cooper (a fifth, and a 10-pick improvement in their sixth-rounder). Why? It goes back to what we said earlier in the column—it’s easier to find a good receiver than it is a good tackle.

• I’ve said it before, I’ll said it again: It’d be really hard to replicate the Rams’ team-building model. It takes a coach whom players want to player for, a desirable location, an owner willing to pony up cash (different than cap) and a roster ready to win. Who’s got all that? Denver maybe? Who else?

• The owners’ meetings are less than two weeks away, and I’d expect overtime to be a big topic. Again.


SIX FROM THE SIDELINE

1) I got two TV recommendations for all of you. First is Super Pumped, which is on Showtime and is about the beginnings of Uber. Second is The Dropout, which is on the wild story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. You’re welcome.

2) I’m no fan of Kyrie Irving, and I’m a big advocate of the COVID-19 vaccine. But that he’s able to sit courtside for a Nets game, but not play in it, is absolutely asinine. COVID-19 can’t have made us all this dumb.

3) Congrats to Kevin Garnett on having his number retired in Boston. People my age around here are barely old enough to remember the heyday of the Larry Bird era (I was 6 for his last championship), so how Garnett came and made the Celtics a champion right away, and a consistent contender for a half decade was significant for all of us. And his overall legacy is pretty incredible too, if you consider all he accomplished with the Timberwolves, on top of how his decision to go pro straight out of high school in 1995 changed the game for so many of his contemporaries.

4) I should’ve known better. I made all kinds of declarative statements about baseball after MLB started canceling games. And now, the league is playing all 162 games, and having spring training and everything else. Bottom line, I’ve covered enough of these labor disputes to know how fake deadlines work, and I definitely could’ve done better to realize that’s what those deadlines were. So baseball comes off of this in better shape (still not great shape) than I might’ve said the last few weeks.

5) Good luck to my friend Mike Florio on the release of his book, Playmakers.

6) God bless you, Harry Miller. And big shout out to Ohio State coach Ryan Day, who helped Miller through an incredibly difficult time. Day’s own father died by suicide when Day was a kid, and has used that tragic experience to help others—he and his wife Nina have a foundation for pediatric and adolescent mental wellness. Miller said Day was instrumental in addressing the problem, and it’s not hard to understand how great a resource Day must’ve been for Miller.


BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

So this is how Brady got to live life for a while. … Not sure I’d be dying to get my bell rung again if I were him. Of course, I’m not the greatest of all-time (yet).

Did I try, oh, a dozen times or so to hear what Ronaldo is saying to Tom Brady? No comment. (Do you think he told him?)

My guy Jim as on it Saturday.

It sure was. And what a run for Kevin Clark too, in this section. I was going to tweet Monday morning that Mike Garofolo made it this week and Clark didn’t, and then the Brady comeback facilitated a comeback of Clark’s own.

That’s one thing I had to edit post-initial-filing.

Yes, he is, brother of Mitch. What did he come back from? A harrowing premature retirement, that’s what.

Pretty good.

A gift that keeps giving: Colts fans will stay fans of Wentz, as Eagles fans like my guy Mitch can tell you. Or at least root for him to stay good enough to stay in the lineup.

Mike’s right!

The Wentz draft-pick tally, thus far, is pretty wild. Anyone else remember how Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso (as part of the Chip Kelly purge) played into it?

That’s Jeudy after Rodgers decided to stay in Green Bay, then an hour later after Wilson was traded to, yup, Denver.

Honestly … that might be the tweet of the year so far.

Assuming everyone knows that Wilson took batting practice at Coors Field after signing with the Rockies, and got to turn a few double-play balls with Troy Tulowitzki, right?

It’s worth giving this a look. Brandon Marshall’s doing a good job with that show.

Not sure why Field is skeptical here.


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Pro day season kicks into high gear this week, with Arizona State and Georgia Tech Monday; Auburn and UCLA Tuesday; Colorado, Georgia, Michigan State and Minnesota on Wednesday; Clemson and Stanford on Thursday; and Michigan and South Carolina on Friday.

But the big ones? Those are the ones involving the quarterbacks, and after some weird scheduling conflicts to start, the dates for the top guys have been worked out.

Pickett will throw on Monday, March 21 at Pitt; Willis on March 22 at Liberty; Corral on March 23 at Ole Miss; Ridder on March 24 at Cincinnati; and Howell on March 28 at North Carolina. So four of the five will be right in a row, and all five will throw within an eight-day stretch, which is pretty ideal for teams looking for one.

And that scheduling conflict? At one point, three of the five were scheduled to throw on the same day. Good to see common sense prevailed, and that teams and players will get the best result here.

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