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Will the Panthers Trade for a Veteran Quarterback Before Week 1?

Plus, should Carolina regret passing on Justin Fields? And answering more mail on the timing of Deshaun Watson’s suspension, Sean Payton’s trade value, cutting Frank Reich some slack and when we’ll see an 18-game season.

The news cycle doesn’t stop, and so you had plenty of questions for this mid-June week. Let’s start with two questions I’ll tackle together …

Baker Mayfield on the Browns and Sam Darnold on the Panthers.

From Quinn (@QuinnNaps): The Panthers were criticized for passing on Justin Fields. If you were the Panthers, would you rather go into 2022 with Fields or Mayfield as your QB?

From Tim Seibert (@timseibert25): Gut feeling on Panthers acquiring a vet QB before training camp? Rumors of Mayfield to Carolina won’t seem to die.

Quinn and Tim, let’s tie your question into one big one, and I’ll start here: I don’t think the Panthers are going to do what they’d view as a bad deal to get Mayfield. The Browns have been a motivated seller, showing a willingness already to take on a very significant percentage of Mayfield’s salary, so long as the draft-pick compensation is right (which would essentially equate to buying a draft pick for their former No. 1 pick). My sense is Cleveland will have to go further with the money to make the Panthers a willing buyer.

The Seahawks are another team that could emerge as a suitor, though they’ve been pretty focused on seeing what they can get from Geno Smith and Drew Lock. That said, once this week’s done, the team’s offseason program will be complete, and Pete Carroll and John Schneider will have a chance to reconvene on their quarterback plans with nine weeks of info to work off.

If not Mayfield, I could see Jimmy Garoppolo as an option for the Panthers, though that would ride on Garoppolo’s ability to throw, and his willingness to renegotiate his deal (he’s got a non-guaranteed $24.6 million base for 2022).

And Quinn, your question on Fields is a relevant one because he was a very real option, and the top quarterback left on Carolina’s board, when the Panthers took Jaycee Horn eighth in 2021. At this point, I think I’d probably take Fields over Mayfield, just based on the upside. In an increasingly competitive quarterbacking environment, Fields has the physical ability to match up with the Patrick Mahomeses and Josh Allens of the world. So I think he’d be, at least for right now, the better swing to take at the position.

From louis Serpa (@louisSerpa1): When is Watson being suspended?

To me, the developments of the last couple of weeks, from the emergence of the 23rd and 24th lawsuits, to the possibility of the 25th and 26th lawsuits, to the New York Times report, illustrate the merit in independent arbitrator Sue Robinson and the NFL being patient and deliberate in handing down sanctions to Deshaun Watson and his camp. And it’s the same reason why smart people at the league have told me the pretrial discovery deadline at the end of this month is a big one as it pertains to the timing of the announcement.

Bottom line, it behooves the NFL to have as much information as it can before making a ruling, and, if you presume the league can’t have him out there early in the season, there’s still flexibility to wait a little longer without materially changing anything.

I thought before the new cases were filed and the Times report ran that the league would probably wait until July 4 weekend (which is after the discovery deadline) to drop the news. The latest developments, and this is just me talking, make me wonder whether they might just decide to give it until the start of training camp to play it safe. There are, of course, three pieces to the process (the arbitrator’s decision, Roger Goodell’s ruling and then the chance for an appeal), so all of this won’t happen overnight. But there’s still time.

And if the NFL wants to use that time, even if it makes it uncomfortable on teams other than the Browns trying to prepare for the season, then I really do get it.

From Wendell Ferreira (@wendellfp): If Sean Payton decides to come back next year, how much draft capital would Team X have to give up to the Saints? I suppose the value would drop a little compared to this year after a season away.

Wendell, I think the availability of Payton is going to loom large over the NFL in the fall of 2022. And if he has multiple bidders come January ’23, then that, in theory at least, should create a have-to-have-him environment around the Super Bowl–winning coach. And if you’re firing your own coach, and willing to bid more than $20 million per year to get him (which, based on the Dolphins’ four-year, $100 million offer of a few months ago, is where I think this would go), then you’re probably going to be O.K. forking over draft picks too.

That puts the Saints in a position of strength, since Payton walked away with four years left on the five-year, $80 million extension (that deal had an all-in base of about $75 million, with provisions to take it to $80 million) he signed before the 2020 season. Could they ask for a first-round pick for his rights? Of course. They could ask for more.

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If you’re going to look at this from a cold, analytical standpoint, let’s just take teams that fired their coaches last offseason and whom they took in the first round. If you’re the Jaguars, would you rather have Travon Walker or Payton? If you’re the Texans, would you rather have Derek Stingley Jr. or Payton? If you’re the Giants, would your rather have Kayvon Thibodeaux or Payton? And those are teams picking in the top five.

You get the picture. A great head coach is almost always worth more than a first-round pick, with the exception being that the first-round pick is a franchise quarterback. (If, for example, I was running the Jaguars in 2021, I wouldn’t have traded the first pick for any coach, since Trevor Lawrence was there.) So the chances someone thinks Payton is worth a first-rounder? In the new NFL, where first-rounders aren’t valued like they used to be? Pretty good, I’d say.

From Mattt Milller (@Mattm334863): If Mike McDaniel struggles in 2022, do you think the Dolphins will try to throw the bag at Sean Payton again?

Matt, short answer: No. I think the Payton dalliance will go the way of the Watson talk of last October, where the book is probably now closed on it in the mind of owner Steve Ross. Also, usually in hiring a younger coach in McDaniel, there’s some acknowledgment that a little runway might be needed, so my guess is Ross will afford him a de facto honeymoon period, particularly with the Brian Flores lawsuit ongoing.

Of course, if suddenly Tom Brady wants to go there as a free agent in 2023—and I’m not saying that’s a likelihood—then maybe all bets are off.

From Danny (@BetTheOver85): How much slack does Frank Reich get considering all the QB turnover the past few years?

Danny, I think it’s fair to cut Reich some slack, because he had very little to do with the physical and mental state Andrew Luck was in when he arrived in 2018, and Reich got a really good year out of Luck before the QB shocked the world and hung up his cleats in August of ’19. Since then, the Colts have bounced from Jacoby Brissett to Philip Rivers to Carson Wentz to Matt Ryan.

And if you break that down … Brissett, a solid backup, was thrust into the job because of the timing of Luck’s decisions; Rivers was always going to be a short-term Band-Aid; Wentz was a reclamation project that didn’t work (for a variety of reasons); and now they’re on to Ryan. So really, we’re talking about one real swing-and-miss out of the five quarterbacks that the Colts have had as starter over Reich’s five years.

Was there a better answer out there? They’ve had three first-round picks since Luck retired. They traded the 13th pick in 2020 for DeForest Buckner, and by No. 13 that year, Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert were off the board, and Jordan Love and Jalen Hurts were the top two QBs left. In ’21, they took Kwity Paye at No. 21, with five quarterbacks gone, and Davis Mills, Kellen Mond and Kyle Trask the top guys left. This year’s pick went to Philly for Wentz, and wound up being 16th in a shaky QB draft (Kenny Pickett went five picks later).

They threw their hat in the ring on Deshaun Watson, and were told the Texans weren’t trading him within the division; and Russell Wilson more or less had his eyes on Denver from the start of the offseason, and the no-trade clause to get himself there. And I’m not sure that Tom Brady was ever realistic, though in that case it was really the Colts that didn’t show a lot of interest.

That, to me, leaves you with one legit second guess over the last few years—Matthew Stafford. Indy was one of three teams on his list, along with the Niners and Rams, and the Colts discussed packages of picks and players with the Lions, but never put the 21st pick, that wound up being Paye, on the table. My sense is the lukewarm interest was a preference thing for the Colts brass, and based how things have gone since … it’s fair to criticize them for not being more aggressive on Stafford.

But the rest? I kind of think they’ve just done the best they can to this point.

From Moose Block (@moose_block): I know this is an NFL mailbag but what’s your take on the LIV Golf situation?

Moose, honestly, I think it’s complicated. I’m all for free markets and players acting in a capitalistic fashion, because, regardless of the sport, the very best pros are truly the 1% of the 1%, and there’s an expiration date on how long they’ll stay there. Obviously, the flip side is the ethics of taking money from the Saudis, which is in a bucket with the NBA taking Chinese money and FIFA defiantly keeping the World Cup in Qatar despite the raft of atrocities committed to get stadiums for that event built.

And I sometimes think about this stuff in this context: Where do you draw the line?

How many of us have Nikes? I do. So, then, am I complicit, too? I just think this is a complicated conversation to have that’s too often simplified for one person to demonize another that they doesn’t like. I feel comfortable saying the FIFA situation is the worst of the ones I outlined above, because the foundation of Qatar’s World Cup bid was built upon a mountain of human rights violations, creating a very direct line from one party to another.

The rest—and I say this humbly, as someone who doesn’t know everything—are more complex.

Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (3) runs the ball against Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Eli Apple (20) during the second quarter in Super Bowl LVI.

From Zach Fogelman (@FogelmanZach): Is OBJ back to the Rams a definite?

Zach, I think it’s a possibility, not a definite. With Allen Robinson and Van Jefferson there as complements to Cooper Kupp, and a couple developmental types (Ben Skowronek, Tutu Atwell) in the hopper, the Rams don’t have an enormous pressing need at the position. And while last year’s freak injury to Robert Woods shows that you can’t have too much depth at the position, it’s fair to assume other receivers will be available between now and the Nov. 1 deadline, if another emergency arises on the roster.

So the Rams are taking their time and Odell Beckham Jr., who probably won’t be ready to play until December, is too. If another team gets eyes for Beckham and offers him something worth jumping after, to get him to rehab with them and return near the end of the season, then, well, that’s the risk the Rams are running by not going overboard to get him back now. But the signing of Robinson is a pretty decent indicator that they wanted to be prepared for the possibility he’s not on the 2022 team all along.

From Sam Minton (@sam_minton22): Any update on the Patriots play-calling situation?

From CryptoDegen #Haradashi #85 (@NickTeixeira15): Any way we see Tyquan Thornton get run this season?

Sam and Crypto, I’ll go ahead and tie your questions together, because the first one flows right into the second one.

The Patriots’ offensive play-caller is TBD. I do think Bill Belichick will have his decision made when he comes back from the summer break—so that play-caller can start working with Mac Jones, and getting a feel for the gig in preseason games. I do not know who it will be. But what I do know is that the offense is going to look a little different, and whoever’s vision for that is stronger (Joe Judge or Matt Patricia, or even Nick Caley) will likely get the call.

How will it be different? Well, as we said in the Monday column, my sense is Belichick, Judge and Patricia have worked this offseason to untangle the offensive scheme. Over 20 years with Tom Brady, the offense became tailored, and even bastardized, to leverage the future Hall of Famer’s strengths. That means it was voluminous. That means it required a lot of the quarterback, and really everyone. That means, for two decades, the Patriots were constantly adding to the offense without ever really subtracting much.

That’s why it became a very hard scheme for rookies or even veteran newcomers to grasp. So now, the thinking goes, streamlining the offense, will get everyone playing faster and also allow for guys coming in from the outside to assimilate more quickly and efficiently. Which is why Nelson Agholor and Jonnu Smith, disappointments as free-agent additions in 2021, have looked this spring a lot more like the guys the Patriots thought they were getting last year.

And that’s why a guy like Thornton has a better shot at contributing in New England this year than rookies have had in the past (though he definitely needs to put some meat on those bones, regardless of how fast he might be).

From Michael Coulbourne (@nottakenname): When does the NFL go to an 18-game regular season?

Michael, during the 2011 labor negotiations, with the league still in the teeth of the concussion litigation, the union was able to wrest away the owners’ ability to add two regular-season games to the schedule, which is why the 17th game had to be bargained for in the ’20 labor deal. That means, at least from now until the start of the ’31 league year, the NFLPA has a level of control over whether an 18th game is added.

Could it happen before then? Sure. Players might decide that going to 17 games wasn’t as harmful to their bodies as previously believed, and that the monetary benefit is too great to pass up. But it won’t happen without something significant going the other way, and if I were them and the owners got pushy, this is what I’d tell them: Allow for unrestricted free agency after three years, and shorten rookie deals, and we’ll think about it.

For most players, getting to a second contract is really the dream, where a player can land financial security for himself and his family, and in some cases score generational wealth. But getting there is hard, based on the toll the game takes on a player’s body. By going to 17 games last year, NFL players coming into league now have to make it through 68 regular-season games, rather than 64, to get to free agency. With an 18-game slate, that number would go to 72. So why not say, We’ll go to 18 games if you give us free agency after 54?

Ultimately, I don’t think the league’s going to 18 games for a while. But, again, if they really want to, the players need to get something substantial in return.

From Roderick Melvin (@RoderickMelvin): Old school unis or new school?

Old school. Every single time.

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