There was a point this offseason where Jameis Winston’s motivation was pretty modest.
“The first few weeks, I was sleeping on my parents’ couch—no hotel, I’m sleeping on their couch,” said Winston over the phone after Thursday’s OTA session in New Orleans. “And it got to the point where I was like, I got to get off this couch! Like, there’s no way I can stay on this couch. Going to rehab, coming back, sitting on the couch, icing and then going to sleep on the couch, it was like, No, I didn’t live my life to live on my parents’ couch.”
Blessings have come in different ways the past couple years for Winston. Blessings not the same as earning a five-star rating as a high school recruit, or the Heisman Trophy as a Florida State redshirt freshman in 2013, or taking home a national title a month after that, and becoming the first pick in the draft in April of 2015.
You can call the blessings coming now modest, if you want. And Winston isn’t the only one in New Orleans fired up to see where those blessings wind up taking him.
A marker in Winston’s comeback from ACL reconstruction in November involved being able to break free from his folks’ two bedroom apartment in Birmingham, Ala. That was a few months ago, and since, he’s worked his way from being limited to throwing the ball inside a 25-yard radius to, now, being able to let it rip, with a few steps left—he’s still not rolling out or throwing on the run—to get back to full speed.
What’s emerged is a more mature Winston, a smarter Winston, and a Winston with a very real appreciation for the opportunity that’s in front of him. Part of that’s being on a team that not only went in on him again—with a two-year, $28 million deal—but also doubled down on the star-studded existing core around him. That cast has been to the playoffs five consecutive years, rather than going through the cap purge many figured was coming.
The other part of it? It’s simply what he went through on the way here.
“I kind of like that back-against-the-wall mentality,” Winston said. “It’s being in the dungeon by yourself, and just coming out of it when you’re ready—when you’re ready to declare to this world that you’ve been doing the work in silence. And you do that with actions. So that’s how I view it. We still have a long year ahead of us. I’m just trying to be prepared for every opportunity that presents itself.”
The Saints’ bet on 2022, in so many ways, is a bet he will be their starting quarterback. And they aren’t making that bet blindly.
It’s Memorial Day, and I hope everyone’s having a great holiday weekend. And thanks if you’re reading this, for carving out a few minutes today. Inside this morning’s column, we’ve got …
• An in-depth look at the NFL’s diversity summit in Atlanta.
• How the Colin Kaepernick workout happened, and where it might lead.
• The Steelers’ new GM, and some more shuffling in the scouting world.
But we’re starting with some interesting details, and perspective, from Winston’s comeback from ACL surgery.
Most players in Winston’s spot on Halloween, as he was carted off the field in the second quarter of a win over Tampa, would be considering their football mortality. He was 27, seven seasons into his career, and on a one-year contract playing for a team that was still less than a year removed from the Drew Brees Era. On top of that, uncertainty hovered on the futures of stars at the position such as Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson, and it’d have been easy for Winston to wonder where he’d fit in all of that.
But Winston’s focus was narrower than even that, as his injury cart pulled into the Superdome tunnel.
“The only concern that I had was: Would I be back with New Orleans? Because I did enjoy playing in this system, I did enjoy playing with Coach. And after the season, Sean [Payton] retires, so now I’m like, Oh my goodness,” Winston said. “Now I don’t have Sean, and I came to New Orleans with Drew and Sean. I lost Drew one year and then I lost Sean the next year. And so how is the continuity going to work there?
“I always had faith in my ability to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and definitely one of the best 32 quarterbacks in the world. I’m just an optimistic guy, and I played a season where I felt like I improved on some of the areas that I had a lot of doubt in, and I was confident with that. I just missed playing, Albert. I wish I could’ve finished with this team, with where things were trending.”
The hope was he’d get a chance to build on what he was starting to establish in New Orleans—after learning for a year from Brees, and getting to play for Payton for two, and with the team promoting Dennis Allen to head coach, and with Allen bringing back longtime offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael.
But in the moment, he wasn’t going to get those assurances. That’s what, eventually, would lead him back home to Alabama and, in the end, eventually back to the Saints.
He and his wife, Brionne, who’d been in Tampa with the kids, first went to Los Angeles, where Winston had the surgery done by Dr. Neal ElAttrache and spent the balance of November rehabbing. After that, the whole family was off to Alabama, in part to start the football recovery, and in part to get his mind back to where it needed to be.
“The biggest thing I focused on, Albert, was really my wife, my relationship with my wife, and growing with her,” Winston said. “I knew that was gonna be the most challenging part of this offseason, because it was gonna be different, it was gonna be an offseason where I had to focus on recovery and getting better. And she had so much responsibility with those babies, and I knew she was going to be more comfortable in Florida. That was tough. So I just had to build with her, and have some understanding with her.”
To be sure, the situation in Alabama was unconventional by pro athlete standards. With Winston crashing on his parents’ couch, his 3-year-old was on a cot, and the couple’s baby, who turned 1 on New Year’s Eve, was sleeping with the grandparents.
Was it cramped? Sure. But there were benefits for Winston that outweighed his personal comfort. Winston’s mom retired in December, so he got to be around to celebrate. He had Christmas at home in Alabama for the first time in a decade. Then, the whole family was around for his 1-year-old son’s birthday, and everyone was there, too, when Winston himself turned 28 on Jan. 6.
“And so I had some exciting moments, man,” Winston said.
But he also had football work to do, and that for sure wasn’t going to be forgotten. His coach from 3DQB, ex-Dolphins quarterback John Beck, flew to Alabama every other weekend to get work in with Winston. And in a lot of ways, his knee injury helped clarify what the two would be working on at a Birmingham-area high school.
The upside of Winston’s injury actually came with what it didn’t allow him to do—and that was too much at once. In the past, he’d always tried to work on everything; he really never gave himself the chance to drill down enough on smaller things. And in this case, if he was going to make football progress, that was the only way it’d happen.
“It was because I couldn’t do anything, Albert,” Winston said. “I literally couldn’t do the workouts I was accustomed to doing. I wasn’t able to be on my feet and do those drastic movements, and run around, and have those tenacious workouts. So I took the approach, Hey, man, we’re gonna work smarter, not harder this offseason. We’re gonna work on the details, we’re gonna work on my quick-game footwork. I wasn’t able to throw the ball 50-plus yards down the field at the beginning of this process.
“So I had to work from really 5, 10, 15 yards.”
“It was on-field work but within parameters,” Beck added. “Basically as he communicated with the doctors—Hey, green light for this, yellow light for this, stay away from this—we had to work between those parameters and say, OK, what can work on and what’s gonna have a big impact? In the beginning, that full, cut-it-loose stuff was limited, but we could do all the dropbacks. There was no issue with working feet, working rhythm, working timing.”
How finite were the details? One example came when Winston went back and looked at his shotgun snaps at Florida State. His feet would be square to the line of scrimmage. In the NFL, he started going right foot forward in the shotgun—and as a right-handed passer, it actually made him less efficient with his movements, because he’d take a false step with his left foot to position himself to throw. So he and Beck worked on him lining up in the shotgun left foot forward.
“I said, OK, I was square initially, and if I’m square, I’m still going to take the punch step with my left foot—That means I’m taking a false step initially,” he said. “So now I’m left foot forward, and now when I take a step in the progression, I take the drop step with my left first, rather than it being a false step.”
On the Saints tape, further down the line, Winston noticed how decisive and precise Brees was underneath, versus how he’d played, and the way it really made a difference in getting Alvin Kamara in the right spot to make plays. So during that period when he was working within a small box, with limits on how far the doctors wanted him throwing it, Winston drilled down on not just his accuracy underneath, but also how quickly he was seeing things.
“Some of those underneath matchups, and how they’re created, and how they utilize that underneath game, just to move the chains, Jameis understands, I have to be precise, I have to be very accurate and very good with my decision making,” Beck said. “So he spent a lot of time on the accuracy of the throws, as well as the understanding of When is the right time for me to come down and take those, and when is the right time for me to be more aggressive? And it kind of goes back to that image of what people thought Jameis was.”
Of course, Winston already understands, and can accept to a degree, where perception has been on who he is as a quarterback. He’d actually already made progress there. Two years after his infamous 30/30 season, in his first year starting in New Orleans, Winston’s TD/INT ratio through seven games was 14-3, which projected to 34-7 over a 17-game season. But in working through these details, Winston saw a chance to take it up a notch.
Early signs in New Orleans are good he can get there.
Winston had to endure one more reminder of how his place in the NFL had changed over the past seven years before getting clarity for 2022—the Saints did make a run at Watson, and had two meetings with the then-Texans QB before he instead wound up choosing the Browns to be his next team.
But less than a week later the Saints did more than pay Winston. They empowered him.
The contract made apparent they saw him in the place he’d been working to get to since he rolled the dice on going to the Saints as a Brees understudy in 2020, with a vision of revitalizing his career the way an injured Brees did a decade and a half ago. “That was a big reason why I came here in the first place,” he said, “With that dream of revamping my career and doing some great things.”
And while the symbolism of it, and message it sent was nice, there’s a functional value Winston’s taking from the statement it makes, that this is his team, too.
“The thing people don’t understand, me and Taysom [Hill] were not only in a competition during training camp, we didn’t have OTAs,” he said. “My first two years here with New Orleans, we didn’t have OTAs where we went out there and repped plays. We didn’t have times where I was able to really grow in this offense other than me setting up throwing sessions with the guys and working on it by myself. I wasn’t able to get the coaches’ input on the field, to see how Pete liked things or how Sean liked things, or even have the chance to coordinate with those guys on things that I did well.
“It was always mixed reps, and some days I was getting the short end of the stick, and I get it. But, man, I didn’t know I was the starting quarterback until we had to leave the city to go to Dallas [amid the destruction of Hurricane Ida]. We had our last preseason game in Arizona, I still didn’t know I was the starting quarterback, I was still sharing reps.”
This time around, there’s no doubt he’s the guy. And with Winston now back able to do almost everything—“Throwing it, I’m 100%, I can throw it 70 yards in the air, I’m just not throwing it on the run”—two things have started to happen in Saints OTAs.
One, Carmichael can start tailoring the offense to fit Winston specifically—so he’s not running a version of the scheme that was built for Brees, and had to work for both he and Hill, as was the case last year. Two, he’s able to really build an on-field relationship with Michael Thomas (who didn’t play at all last year), get to know Jarvis Landry, and help break rookie No. 1 pick Chris Olave into the NFL.
“Now it doesn’t look bad when you say, Hey, Chris, get up, get up, you run this route,” he said. “And I believe everybody that has the opportunity to play in this league deserves it, but now you’re not throwing to guys you know you’re not going to be throwing to on Sunday.”
“When you’re in a camp battle, a lot of times, you’re trying to execute the offense, and you’re trying to show I can run that offense, whereas now, it’s Jameis’ offense,” Beck added. “And Jameis also is a teacher. When he’s out on the field, he has his guys and he’s getting the offense calibrated so that it fits the way that he sees it, he’s a teacher. It allows him to be that part of himself. There’s a comfort in that.”
Which is to say where all the detailed work Winston did should make guys around him better, now the guys around him, coaches included, will have a good shot to return the favor.
The last part of Winston’s recovery is coming. He has an appointment set to see surgeon Neal S. ElAttrache the end of June, and he’s fully confident in how that’ll go—“End of June is when I’ll be fully cleared. Camp, I’ll be full go.”
On paper, that’s when all of this will come together.
The talent that made Winston the first pick in the first place flashed during the Saints’ 5–2 start last year. Asked if he felt like he was hitting his stride when he got hurt, Winston answered, “Absolutely.” And the hope is the full breadth of his ability comes alive this year the way it did for Brees in his late 20s.
If New Orleans didn’t see the possibility of that happening, Winston, to be sure, wouldn’t be back on the contract he received, or with the team showing the kind of conviction it did in handing him the reins as he signed it. And some of that conviction is based on his ability. More is centered on knowing what he’s now been through—hitting heavy turbulence for the first time at a later point than most quarterbacks do—and how he’s coming out of it.
“It was the first time in my life where something was cut short for me, and I wasn’t able to be around,” Winston said. “I had to find something to focus on. Me playing football, I think it’s a privilege. It’s a privilege and it’s an opportunity I get to play a game that I love, that I was blessed to have the ability to play. So anywhere I’m at, I’m gonna feel that same way.
“Obviously, I had choices of where I want to be, which, I’m in New Orleans, and I’m happy that worked out. But at the end of the day, man, I’m just grateful for the opportunities I get. … I got two kids. I got a wife that’s in Tampa with those two kids while I’m in New Orleans. I have no room to complain. I’m grateful, man. I’m grateful that I have this opportunity.”
He’s got the perspective now to know it's good, especially after all that time on the couch.
Troy Vincent asked that I hold on a minute so he could check the timestamp on the email that came over on Thursday afternoon—the message came, he said, at 4:19 p.m. ET, and it was to follow up on the NFL’s inaugural Coach and Front Office Accelerator program, which was staged around last week’s owners meeting, to address the league’s diversity issue.
What’s up, bruh. Hope all is well with you and the family. I just wanted to reach out to say thank you. I thought that you and your entire staff and support group did an outstanding job. I’m glad that this all came together and you made it happen. I am also so very glad that I decided to attend. The information that was presented was awesome, that was some very good stuff.
I have two favors to ask, if possible. If you have a copy of some of the presentations, can you email them to me, and to everyone? Also, this is for me, can you send me Marvin Ellison’s cell number, please? Can you give him my info as well? I would love to have a personal, one-on-one conversation with him. Once again, thank you for everything regardless of what you can or cannot do.
The email was from Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy (above). And for Vincent, the NFL’s EVP of football operations and a former All-Pro himself, and the league’s newly formed diversity committee, it was affirmation that the step they took in Atlanta was the right one—with the summit hitting the right notes as to what the participants were looking for.
“There were some people, some skeptics,” Vincent said. “When you have someone like Eric sitting in the room, when you have someone like [Bucs OC] Byron [Leftwich] sitting in the room, and [Colts OC] Marcus Brady sitting in the room … I’ll take those three individuals—Hey, that’s our hope. Right now, the way trends have been, this does not discount anyone on the defensive side of the football, but the three men that people are cheering for …
Right there, Vincent’s voice started cracking, and he struggled to get his next words out.
“The three men that people have hope for—Marcus, and Eric, and Byron—they’re just trying to be their best self,” he said. “And for those guys to show up, to try to meet as many people as they possibly can, in that environment, to at least give a human side of who they are, and their ability to lead is critical.”
Vincent explained the emotion spilling over: “It’s a fight every day. It’s a fight every day. When your best can’t make it, it’s hard, but you can’t stop fighting.”
I, too, heard skepticism heading into the Atlanta meetings, and a lot of it was valid. There were questions on whether or not there’d be real value for the participants, many of whom were already leading meeting rooms and working closely with their head coaches and/or GMs, and didn’t need some of the leadership training these symposiums often offer. What they found when they got to Buckhead, though, was different.
“We had an agenda laid out in the beginning, but still, it’s all new, so you don’t know what to expect,” 49ers director of player personnel Ran Carthon said. “You’re being put in a room full of people you don’t know. The coaches and executives, we all knew each other for the most part, or had heard of each other, so that part was easy. But in terms of the speakers, and the portions with the owners, you didn’t know what the reception was going to be.
“I just appreciated the openness of the different owners and president types that were there. It made everything easier.”
Falcons owner Arthur Blank opened the meetings with a call for the league to do more, and for owners to educate themselves further and, in his words, “do the right thing.” He also urged everyone, the program’s participants, as well as the owners and team presidents, CEOs and COOs in the room, to move forward together as a group.
And, really, the program was a chance for everyone to push the ball down the field on an initiative that’s been a focus for the league office for a long time now.
That started with speakers such as Ellison, the CEO of Lowe’s, and one of only three Black men currently serving as chief executive of a Fortune 500 company.
“I enjoy hearing successful, self-made businessmen,” said Panthers VP Samir Suleiman, citing Ellison, Blank and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones as speakers. “I’ll listen to those guys every opportunity I can just to hear their anecdotes and any kind of advice. … Everybody looks at [Ellison] initially as he's one of the few two-time CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. But one of his slides was showing how many times he’d been passed over. So that really resonated with me, just seeing that and seeing how he used that as motivation.”
In addition to Blank and Jones, Pittsburgh’s Art Rooney, New England’s Robert Kraft and Kansas City’s Clark Hunt sat on a panel on Monday afternoon for the group, and football side people such as Falcons GM Terry Fontenot and Colts coach Frank Reich spoke as well.
Reich, in particular, left an imprint on the participants in explaining how his growth in the league had come through working with so many Black leaders, before detailing his own path, and in many ways bearing his soul to the people in the room. It was a leadership talk, but more than that, it was information from his own experience that should wind up being applicable for those in the room that eventually become head coaches.
“To hear him as a head coach talk about not his strong points but the weaknesses he had as a head coach, and the way he spoke passionately about it, I thought that was outstanding,” said Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, a former teammate of Reich’s. “It taught a lot of us that, Listen, sometimes there are things that happen that aren’t in the head coach or GM playbook, and you gotta figure it out, you gotta feel your way through them. That taught me a lot.”
But the biggest piece of the two-day event was the opportunity for the participants to mingle with the owners—since the event itself grew out of previous diverse candidates being told one of the primary reasons they didn’t land jobs was because owners lacked familiarity or comfort level with them.
Beyond just having the 60 participants with the owners in a hotel for two days, there were two specific things the league did to make sure the interaction they wanted was happening. On Tuesday, there was a sort of “speed-dating” period, where at each table there were at least two owners/team president type and at least three candidates at a time—they’d go 15 minutes, then the candidates would rotate out, with each of them getting to a handful of tables over an hour and a half. The other element was Monday’s reception/cocktail hour.
That was where Vincent saw the most progress. By his count, 29 of the 31 owners made it there (the owners meeting didn’t start until Tuesday, so there was some concern that many wouldn’t make it for the Monday event). And where it was scheduled to go from 6:30-8 p.m, it wound up lasting until 10 or so. More than just that, Vincent saw owners engaged in both ways—talking to other teams’ coaches and execs, and introducing their own to their peers.
Vincent saw Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp bringing her assistant GM, Ray Agnew, to other owners in the room, and Bears owner George McCaskey doing the same with defensive coordinator Alan Williams. Suleiman said Nicole Tepper got him over to Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, and even commissioner Roger Goodell was helpful in that regard.
And when conversation happened, it was natural and easy—Glenn said he and Cowboys COO Stephen Jones talked about Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James for 40 minutes—which was the idea of the whole thing, for previous candidates to feel comfortable with owners and execs.
“One thing I think it did was demystify the diverse candidate, quote/unquote, and spotlight who we are as people, and the fullness of the actual individual,” said Browns assistant GM Glenn Cook. “It took away Glenn Cook, assistant GM of the Cleveland Browns who’s African-American, and brought it down to Glenn Cook, who’s big on investing, who has two kids, who’s lived in some of the places that owners have lived, or come from. It’s opened the door for that. You probably couldn’t have scripted that more perfectly.
“And it most likely wouldn’t have happened outside of that space.”
Now we’ll see how real the progress here actually was.
I’d expect the league to build on what was done here. Vincent brought up how crucial Goodell’s involvement and commitment’s been—“He has to continue to be persistent in what he’s been doing; it’s gonna take all of us and somebody has to lead”—and it showed through the two days. Goodell even participated for an owner at points, if a table wound up being a short one. Accordingly, they’ll get feedback (we’ll have more on that in the MAQB), and I’d think we could have another event as soon as the summer or fall like this one.
But in the end, the effect can’t be measured until January. And that’s where, as the guys participating in Atlanta saw it, the whole thing gets turned on its head a little bit, with their hope being the owners got as much out of the couple days there as they did.
“Nothing’s changed on how we feel,” Glenn said. “I mean, we want to be head coaches, we want to be GMs, nothing’s changed on that. The question is to the owners: How did they feel about getting to know who we are? Where’s their comfort level? I think that’s what everyone’s missing the boat on. … I want to be a head coach, that’s not changing. There were guys that wanted to be GMs.
“So when we came to the event, we’re going to interview for jobs anyway, but I thought it was good for the owners to get a chance to know us, how we operate, what our background is, how there are more commonalities, more similarities we have than you’d think.”
Glenn joked to some of the guys there that the biggest difference between the participants and the owners “is their bank accounts are bigger than ours.” And if more owners see that, after their time spent together, then I’d say a pretty nice step forward was taken.
At the very least, after last week, it seems like that should be an easy step to take.
“[One thing] I walked away with: There’s a lot of really talented people around the league that look like me,” Cook said. “That was awesome and refreshing to see, just a bunch of talented people in the room asking good questions, participating and being passionate about wanting to take the next step.”
We’ll see, a few months from now, to what degree it’s there for them.
The Steelers bet on themselves in elevating long-time exec Omar Khan into the general manager role. This season will be the 45-year-old Khan’s 22nd in the Steeler organization, and he’s been considered a very viable GM candidate for more than half that time. First, it was as Bill Cowher’s presumed GM, had Cowher returned to coaching with teams such as the Giants, Jets, Panthers or Dolphins (all rumored to be interested). Then it was for other jobs such as the one he nearly landed in Houston last year.
But last week, when Rooney called Khan to his office and offered him the job, and Khan then called his wife, Kristen, and his parents to give them the news, the whole thing felt right. For everyone. Pittsburgh is, more or less, doubling down on their success over 22 seasons under Kevin Colbert, and on their ability to develop people in their front office. And Khan gets what’s a dream job for any football exec, but especially him.
With all that in mind, I figured we’d introduce you, the football-watching public, to the guy who will, side by side with Mike Tomlin, lead one of the league’s iconic franchises going forward, with a little Q&A.
MMQB: Your background could’ve taken you on different tracks, like becoming a team president, so did you always have your eye on being a GM?
OK: I’ve always kept my options open, but the goal was always to be a general manager ever since I was young. That was my goal, that was the trajectory I was trying to follow.
MMQB: Was there someone who was a model for you?
OK: I grew up a Saints fan, growing up in New Orleans. And when I started really watching football was when the Saints starting turning things around, and Jim Finks was the general manager. And I always had a keen admiration for Jim Finks and what he did, and there was an attraction to that kind of role. And ever since I was young, I really wanted to be part of it. I remember as a kid, this was before you got much from the internet, I used to get Pro Football Weekly, and the newspapers during draft time, and cut out all the player rankings. And I used to take the back of my board games—you know, like Monopoly, because it was easy—and I’d post as much information as I could get on them. So I ostensibly have prepared for the draft since I was little.
MMQB: Were you ever worried that your shot wouldn’t come?
OK: I think in this business, you work to be part of the conversation. And fortunately for me over the last however many years I’ve continued to be in the conversation for some of these opportunities, and I always felt confident that the right one would come along. This was the one I always hoped would, and fortunately it did.
MMQB: How would you describe your bond with the organization?
OK: Obviously, the Steelers are the Steelers, and the Steelers speak for themselves. But ever since I stepped foot in this place, there’s been this bond with me and the city and the community and the team; it’s been so natural. I don’t really know how to explain it. It’s just a natural bond.
MMQB: What do you take from 20 years with Kevin?
OK: He was part of the process of [hiring me]. I remember interviewing with Dan Rooney, Art Rooney and Bill Cowher, and then Kevin, that’s who I met with at the time. … Kevin’s been a great leader for a long time, and he and I have worked so well together for so long. I mean, honestly, I find it hard to believe there’s two other people in the league that have worked as well together as Kevin and I have. I’ll always appreciate how he included me in all different parts of the football department. But more importantly, the number one thing, he’s always preached the importance of building this through the draft, and that’s not gonna change.
MMQB: How about your relationship with Mike Tomlin, and how that plays into it?
OK: We’ve been together for 16 years now, so that’s a natural transition, too. Him and I have had a great relationship over the years, we’ve confided on several things, and we’ve had a great friendship. It’s a smooth transition; that part’s easy.
MMQB: How does your job change?
OK: Obviously, I get to be more involved in different areas of the football department, and take more of a leadership role. But fortunately I’ve surrounded myself with some good people and I think I’m giving us an opportunity to be successful.
Khan’s, and the Steelers’ pick for assistant GM will have reverberations. Pittsburgh wound up poaching Philly’s VP of player personnel, Andy Weidl, to be their new assistant GM. And after interviewing Weidl for the job that Khan wound up landing, the Steelers, to be sure, feel pretty fortunate to lock down two guys from their candidate pool. That Weidl has worked with Khan before (they were together in New Orleans in 2000), is from Pittsburgh and started his career with the Steelers, is a pretty nice bonus, too. “We had the opportunity—I wasn’t necessarily sure we’d be able to work things out with Philly, but we did—and he’s very talented, he’s loyal, he knows what it means to be a Steeler,” Khan said. “He’s a great evaluator; he was a good fit for me and the organization.” And Weidl’s exit from Philly signals a significant shift in the personnel department, with the once-Ravens-centric personnel department GM Howie Roseman built in 2016 now having almost completely turned over. Consider the list of folks the Eagles have lost in the last three years …
• Jets GM Joe Douglas
• Browns GM Andrew Berry
• Bears assistant GM Ian Cunningham
• Browns assistant GM Cat Raîche
• Steelers assistant GM Andy Weidl
• Giants assistant GM Brandon Brown
• Panthers VP of player personnel Pat Stewart
• Lions senior personnel executive John Dorsey
• Raiders director of pro scouting Dwayne Joseph
To this point, the Eagles have added ex-Steelers exec Brandon Hunt and ex-Browns scout Charles Walls, who will be in scouting-director-type roles, as well as ex-Bronco personnel men Matt Russell and Jordan Dizon on the scouting side. I’d expect some pieces to move around this week, and my guess is the model will change to some degree, too. VP of football operations and compliance Jon Ferrari, VP of football operations and strategy Alec Halaby and college scouting director Alan Wolking are in line for promotions, as are area scouts Ryan Myers and Phil Bhaya. And I’d expect ex-Jags GM Dave Caldwell will have an enhanced role, too. Bottom line, all this is going to look pretty different than it did a year ago.
The details on Browns TE David Njoku’s four-year, $56.75 million extension are key. On the franchise tag, Njoku was due to make $10.834 million in 2022. Which means that tagging him twice, with next year’s number being at least 120% of this year's number, would cost a minimum of $23.83 million. Why is that relevant? Well, on Njoku’s new deal, he’ll make $25 million over the first two years. Which means, ultimately, the Browns will get three years of team control on the back end simply for guaranteeing the second year and paying a tax of a little more than $1 million. And so I think this ends up being a really good deal for Cleveland, and for a couple reasons on top of these, too …
• Austin Hooper fell off a cliff in 2021, so the team really needed Njoku after coming into the season thinking tight end was a real strength (2020 fourth-round pick Harrison Bryant didn’t develop as hoped, either).
• Njoku is still just 25. So while there have been points of his career at which he was a disappointment, his progress in certain areas—primarily with his blocking—gave the Browns plenty of hope he’s got another level to his game.
• The $14 million APY (average per year) line is the barrier to get past for top tight ends now, and Njoku does fit into the group, probably as a player who’s near the bottom of the top 10 at the position with room to grow. Inside that $14 million club, he’s not the blocker that George Kittle or Mark Andrews are, but he’s better in that area than Travis Kelce, and a better overall player than Dallas Goedert, with as high an athletic ceiling as any of them.
So, overall, while the Browns have had a lot of mouths to feed, this one’s pretty good business with a guy who had an eight-figure cap number to begin with.
I don’t think the HBO interviews affect things much on the Deshaun Watson front. While video always can impact the way people view something, the information in the Real Sports report from Soledad O’Brien didn’t really tread into any new territory. So I think the NFL investigation, nearing completion, will move forward unaffected—with one of the final steps, talking to Watson himself, now having taken place. The NFL’s talked to more than half of Watson’s 22 accusers, and deposed all of them. To me, that leaves the June 30 deadline for pretrial discovery important to watch in this case. My understanding is the league is likely to wait until June 30 has passed, allowing for the most information possible to be produced in the court proceeding before making a decision. So July seems like a good bet, as to the timing of a call coming from the NFL on Watson. Ideally, they’d get full legal closure before doing it. But it increasingly appears that waiting for that will mean waiting until 2023. At the earliest.
The Raiders’ workout of Colin Kaepernick (above) was positive. I’d say the door is being left open for a deal, but it probably won’t happen right now. The workout itself went well. He didn’t blow everyone away or anything like that. But he showed he was in shape, and that his arm strength is still intact, even at 34 years old and after five seasons out of the league. The upshot for Vegas, as I see it, is twofold. One, owner Mark Davis has long been an advocate for Kaepernick, and his cause, and so being the team to give him an opportunity lines up with where the boss is philosophically. Two, there just aren’t a zillion NFL-capable quarterbacks out there. So if you’re going to be a team that looks under every rock, as Josh McDaniels said the Raiders would be last week, this makes sense as one to turn over. For now, my sense is Kaepernick did well enough to keep himself in the discussion. And my guess is the Raiders give themselves the rest of the spring to look at the guys they’ve been working with behind Derek Carr, Nick Mullens and Jarrett Stidham, and then reassess. But for now, it’s a really good development for a quarterback who’s actually three-and-a-half years older than Carr, and I think genuinely wants a chance to compete somewhere for a job this summer (I’m not sure NFL teams were convinced that was the case in the past).
I love the attitude Patrick Mahomes is taking to the change in Kansas City. He and I went over this back in March, and the 26-year-old struck a similar tone in discussing all the Chiefs’ turnover with the Kansas City media last week. "It's going to be everybody,” Mahomes said. “It's not all going to be one guy. Obviously [Travis Kelce] is still going to get a lot of completions, a lot of yards but the whole receiving room is going to have big days and that can be something we use to our advantage. It's a very deep receiving room. It's hard to tell which guys are going to make it because we've got so many good receivers. That's what you want. You want that competition.” To me, that sounds like a guy who understands he’s moving into a new phase of his career—one in which there’ll be a little more on him to be a distributor and lift the group around him. And if you want something to chew on, I’d just give you Mecole Hardman as a player to watch there. I’ve heard he’s had a really good spring, and the staff sees great opportunity for him in the team’s post-Tyreek Hill world (and that he may benefit more than anyone from his ex-teammate’s absence).
While we’re on it, there was a good lesson that came from the Chiefs social media last week. Obviously, there’s some intrigue surrounding rookie undrafted free agent Justyn Ross just because of the former Clemson star’s history (Ross was on a first-round track, and dominated Alabama in the national title game as a true freshman before a spinal injury knocked his college career off-kilter). And the hype was only fueled with Mahomes saying a few nice things about him, after this video emerged on Twitter … Now, look … it’s fun to think about Ross potentially regaining his pre-injury form, and being the star that everyone thought he was destined to be back in February of 2019. It’s also really nice of Mahomes to pump up his new teammate. That said, when I checked in with folks there, I found them saying he’s been pretty good so far, but not any sort of huge revelation. So you have some highlight catches, and flashes. And after that? He’s got a ways to go. Like I said, there are a ton of reasons to root for the kid. But the danger to overreact is always out there this time of year. I think this is a good example of it.
I’m excited the combine’s going back to Indy for the next two years, but the NFL’s not doing this as charity for a city that’s been ideal for the event. It took Indianapolis really stepping up to keep the event, and the kind of bid they put together for it (combined with a scheduling conflict in Dallas, and a little indifference from Los Angeles) was really what pushed things over the goal line, with increased financial commitment and community serving as pivotal factors with the league trying to get the event to another level with fans. On the former, maybe the most apparent thing to fans will be a planned festival on South Street—which will be closed to all but foot traffic—to celebrate the event. On the latter, the Colts are planning two legacy projects to attach to the combine, one of which will promote mental health and tie to the Irsays’ “Kicking the Stigma” initiative. On top of that, Indy remains logistically perfect for the event, and moving it, and all that goes with it, would be a pretty massive lift. And so from here, now the league and Indy will plan for the next two years, with improving the player experience a major focus.
The proposed changes to the Pro Bowl could come soon. And as in soon, I mean soon enough to cancel the 2023 game. The sense I got from folks at the league meeting is that, really, there’s no reason to keep going forward with an event that clearly falls short of the NFL standard, and has more recently become a little embarrassing for the league. And as for replacing it, the word that keeps coming up is “celebration” … as in the league wants it to be a “celebration” of its best players. This, then, will be where I advocate for them going to Peyton Manning for ideas on how to reinvent the event for the NFL’s best—whether that includes on-field stuff such as a 7-on-7 game and big-man challenge or not. Back when the game was in Hawaii, Manning had become its de facto mayor, holding court daily by the pool and turning it into the sort of elite-of-the-elite get-together that players wanted to be a part of. I think that should be the future of the event, regardless of how you dress it up. Make it a resource for the game’s biggest stars, and give them reason to show up. Like I said, I think Manning would be the best guy to go to for ideas on how to do that.
We have quick-hitters for you on Memorial Day. Here are 10 of them …
• For all the talk on how bare the cupboard is in Chicago, I’d pay attention to what Justin Fields has been saying about third-year receiver Darnell Mooney. I think there’s a chance, after a 1,000-yard second season, the ex-fifth-round pick finds another gear.
• The door’s been open for Jimmy Garoppolo and his camp to discuss possible contract adjustments with other teams to facilitate a trade. It’ll be interesting to see how the financials, with Garoppolo due a non-guaranteed $24.6 million in 2022 (and none of it coming until Week 1), paint the picture here once Garoppolo’s healthy enough to throw.
• One name to watch as minicamps approach: Titans rookie Treylon Burks. A couple weeks ago, we went over his weight issue in the MAQB, and how it was there for some pre-draft private workouts. I’ve also heard he labored to get through some of those, which was a red flag for certain teams. We’ll see what sort of shape he’s gotten himself into since.
• I wouldn’t expect to hear much become public on Lamar Jackson’s absence from OTAs in Baltimore. The Ravens believe trust is a huge factor, really, in all areas for Jackson, but especially with the contract negotiation. So the circle will be kept small on his contract talks, and I’d expect the Baltimore brass will be protective with information on it.
• While we’re there, the Cardinals’ promise to Kyler Murray’s camp, one that set off the issues between him and the team earlier in the offseason, was that they’d get a deal done with him in the summer. So if that holds, I’d bet Murray only shows up for the full-squad minicamp, and we’ll see after that.
• Sometimes a contract dispute creates opportunity—and it has in Cincinnati where first-round pick Daxton Hill has taken all of Jessie Bates’ reps with the starters at safety. Regardless of what happens, it’ll be good experience for Hill, who was used almost exclusively as a nickel at Michigan last year, and good for the team to get to see him there. Hill, second-rounder Cam Taylor-Britt (who could challenge Eli Apple for playing time) and fifth-rounder Tycen Anderson have all looked good in the secondary in Cincinnati this spring.
• Seahawks exec Alonzo Highsmith’s move to his alma mater as Miami’s first GM is fascinating, and mirrors, in a certain way, Tom Gamble leaving the Jags to become Michigan’s director of player personnel in January. More college programs are building NFL-styled scouting departments, and that means scouting opportunities are going to be more readily available in the increasingly complicated landscape of college football.
• Texans quarterback Davis Mills might prove some people wrong this year.
• Colts coach Frank Reich saying this week that he’s had his eyes on Nick Foles for a while basically confirms what we all knew last year—there was just no way the Colts could’ve done it last year with Carson Wentz on the roster—because Foles was pretty available last summer. It’s also a good example of how interpersonal dynamics play into personnel moves.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
- I don’t know where to put the Steph Curry/Klay Thompson/Draymond Green Warriors in NBA history, but they beat LeBron James’ Cavaliers for their first title, were basically unstoppable when healthy with Kevin Durant in the mix, and now have gotten back to the Finals post-Durant. And they’ve been in the Finals six of eight years, with two exceptions being injury related. Pretty wild.
- The Carolina Hurricanes going 7–0 at home and 0–6 on the road through 13 playoff games has to be one of the weirdest stats of the year in any sport.
- If Tommy Pham and Joc Pederson wanna go a few more rounds, I’m all for it. In fact, baseball can use a lot more of this sort of thing.
- Not gonna lie, I think it’s pretty funny that Nick Saban just hauled in a commitment from a high school quarterback who’d been committed to … Texas A&M.
- SEC Media Days in Destin this week!
- Goes without saying that our prayers are with those in Uvalde, Texas, after the unimaginably tragic events of last week.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
This qualifies as a football story because it’s fantasy football-related, and Joc Pederson is definitely that guy in this league …
… but I guess this happened because Pederson stashed a player on IR who perhaps shouldn’t have been there, causing Pham to say, “there was too much money on the line. You look at it like, there’s a code, and you’re f---ing with my money” …
… and Pederson later followed up with a GIF teasing Pham’s Padres, who were struggling at the time. I don’t think I could love this story anymore. But I’d be appreciative if maybe we can keep it going so I can find out for sure.
The sudden Formula 1 craze is incredible.
Am I the only one surprised this doesn’t happen more often?
Such a fun story, seeing Tyrann Mathieu’s football story coming full circle.
Hard to believe now, but Belichick’s job security was a hot topic then—there were even rumors that some of his assistants’ houses were on the market early that season. (I’d say the Patriots made the right move sticking with him.)
Thanks for freaking me out, Chargers.
Love these shows. The Panthers did a great job with theirs again.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Today’s a really difficult day for many veterans. So I wanted to reprise something Nate Boyer—the Green Beret vet of multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan who made it to camp years ago as a long-snapper with the Seahawks—said to me a few years back. I checked in with Boyer on Sunday to make sure he was cool with it, and he is, so here it is:
“Memorial Day can be a really hard day for a lot of people, a lot of veterans, a lot of family members. But at the same time, I think it’s important for veterans to shift the focus to being a day of celebrating guys. For any of us that served that lost buddies, we know that all those guys wouldn’t want us feeling guilty or bad today. Survivor’s Guilt is a big deal, and that’s probably the last thing they’d really want us to feel. So to think about them, and think about what they’d really want us to do today, I’d imagine most of them would want us to enjoy the day and celebrate them.
“Honor them, remember them, but have a good time with those of us that are still here. I think that’s the best way to honor them, with the way we live our lives as veterans. And for a lot of the civilian community that doesn’t have a direct connection to that, it’s never offensive to thank somebody for their service, but it is important to understand the difference between Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day. This is a day that we’re honoring those that paid the ultimate sacrifice. So you don’t really need to thank us. Maybe spend time with us, think of us, let us know that you support us, but also it’s good to let us know that today might be a tough day for us.
“This is the day that we set aside to remember our brothers and sisters in arms that didn’t make it back, they laid it all down for us so that we can live freely and enjoy days like today, enjoy the freedoms that we have here in this country.”
My thoughts are with our servicemen and servicewomen today, and all the veterans who served such as Boyer did (and like my cousin Nick Clark did, and like a bunch of my fraternity brothers did). I hope you all know how much you’re appreciated.
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