It was a simple, subtle sign that affirmed Dan Quinn’s offseason decision to overhaul his coaching staff back in January and reset the Falcons ahead of his fifth year at helm. Quinn saw it in game-management meetings, and it brought energy to what would seem to be pretty mundane, it’s-only-spring tasks for the head coach.
And it was written all over the faces of his assistants.
“I’ll say something, and I see Dirk [Koetter] or Mike [Mularkey] or Raheem [Morris] look down and smile,” Quinn says Sunday, just before his players were to report at 1 p.m. ET. “I know they’re reflecting, and they’ll nod their head, like, ‘Yes.’ Those are the moments I know not only do they understand it, but behind the scenes, they’re going to help me share that message with the staff. Those are the things, I know when I hit something and I see the head nod, it’s, ‘I know exactly what you’re saying.’”
Atlanta’s loss to New England in Super Bowl LI is now more than two years behind the team. Since then, the Falcons knocked on the door again in 2017, then didn’t in ’18, spurring Quinn to flip two coordinator spots and take the reins as defensive play-caller, replacing a third fired coach himself.
If you think all those terminations were a shifting of responsibility, or a passing of the buck, in the wake of an injury-marred, 7–9 season, the above moments that Quinn describes—those head nods and smiles—illustrate the rest of the story. Quinn knows that he doesn’t have all the answers. Turning his staff over is representative of that.
He’s also not hiding the specific reasons for making these changes.
“We lost in the divisional round to Philadelphia [in 2017], and that hurt because we had a chance to win it at the end of the game, to go to NFC championship again,” he said. “And when you didn’t get it done, you feel disappointed. For that two-year block [2016-17], one included, offensively, Kyle [Shanahan], and one didn’t. I was impressed by the team, the resiliency to keep going. And so, I fully expected us to reset from that and go battle for it again.
“I felt like last year, some things that happened for us, not playing to the standard that we’d set for ourselves, in some instances, a reset was needed. Had I not thought that, I wouldn’t have made the changes, because I think [ex-OC Steve Sarkisian is] a fantastic coach, and certainly [ex-DC] Marquand [Manuel], I love him, I worked with him for so long, and same with Keith Armstrong. So those three leadership spots had people I respect, I know, and were good coaches. But sometimes change is needed.”
The Falcons now carry, by Quinn’s count, 400 years of combined coaching experience on the payroll. Koetter, Mularkey and Morris, a holdover from the old staff, have all been NFL head coaches. New senior assistant Bob Sutton was a head coach at Army in the ’90s, and has worked in the NFL in the 19 years since. Greg Knapp, now in his second year back as quarterbacks coach, has coached more than two decades in the NFL, and played in it, too.
Going into the offseason, Quinn couldn’t wait to tap into all of that experience—and he has. In those game-management meetings, they’d watch tape of Koetter in Tampa, of Mularkey in Tennessee, of others in the room as play-callers. They’d trash-talk each other. They’d poke at one another. Most of all, they’d learn, which brought Quinn to a level of vulnerability you don’t always see in NFL head coaches.
“All of them have perspective that I appreciated,” Quinn said. “For me, I asked the question, ‘What does support from me look like for them? How can I help support them?’ And they were just the opposite—‘No, no, no, Q, my job is to support you.’ And that’s exactly what you want to hear, sitting on the other side of the table as the head coach. That’s the whole thing—how can we do it better? And if we can, let’s go for it hard as hell and see where it takes us. Having their influence and experience, that helps a ton, man.
“People who can give and receive feedback, that’s a big thing, especially among peers. It’s one thing for me to give you feedback, and you take it or not. You being able to give it back to me, that’s a big thing. Not everybody wants to do that back to the head coach. I wanted them to know, I really need it.”
And it’s one reason why the eternally-optimistic Quinn can’t wait to take the field on Monday.
Football’s back! We’ll be on the camp trail this week, so let’s get after it. In this week’s MMQB, you’ll read about …
• The decision by the NFL to not suspend Tyreek Hill.
• The looming running back holdouts in Los Angeles and Dallas.
• Why there’s good news and bad news on the CBA front.
• The effect the Clippers’ offseason haul has on the NFL.
• The Patriots’ excitement over their lot on one side of the ball.
• Derek Carr’s future in Oakland.
But we’ll start on the field. In last week’s Game Plan, we covered the first team to get out there and start practicing. Today, we’ll give you the goods on the second.
From the outside looking in, the Falcons are pretty fascinating. They’ve long had a strong offensive core—Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Jake Matthews are still around, second-year receiver Calvin Ridley looks like a legit breakout candidate and a ton of resources have been poured into the offensive line. A young defensive group has come of age alongside it, and the massive contracts for Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones are proof of that.
Even Jones’s desire for a new deal is being handled peacefully; Jones and Quinn have talked through the break and spoke again on Saturday night about it. Jones reported on time for camp on Sunday, something that didn’t seem like a sure thing just a few weeks ago.
Expectations internally are high, and everything about the Falcons offseason reflects it.
With due respect to the o-line renovation and defensive players cashing in, nowhere is it clearer than in Quinn’s detonation of his coaching staff, with a rare level of unforced change coming from a sitting head coach with a recent Super Bowl on his resume. The time, as Quinn sees it, is now, and last year’s hiccups only crystallized that for him. These changes, accordingly, reflect that.
“When you go through a difficult space, what were the lessons learned?” Quinn asked. “You want to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. What I would say is I’m as motivated to begin a season as I’ve ever been in my life, because I know who the players are, what they stand for, how they work, what the staff’s about. And when I feel that way, you can probably feel the energy in my voice for this team and what I think we can be.”
How’d he go about making these critical changes in what he considers a critical year? Let’s dive in.
He used his own experiences to find an offensive coordinator. Or, as he sees it, two offensive coordinators.
“Going against Dirk, the way that he attacks defense has been very difficult to prepare against,” Quinn said. “And then on the other side, I’ve worked one year with Mike [in Miami in 2006], but through the years, going against him and teams he was involved with, the toughness, the attitude, the physicality, those were things I always admired with Mike. So I thought if we could partner some of that concept up together, along with the group of guys, and the vision for the players, that would be really important.”
Initially, Quinn interviewed each of them for the vacancy created by Sarkisian, thinking he wouldn’t be able to get both. When he figured out that might be possible, he had the two of them in, together, for a second interview to see how they’d interact with one another. And he knew there was a nice bonus out there, especially for Ryan—Mularkey was his OC from 2008-11, and Koetter was his OC from ’12-14, so both had standing relationships with the quarterback.
Quinn was selling the idea of Koetter melding his pass-game expertise with Mularkey’s run-game knowhow. But someone was getting the title and the ability to call plays—and that someone was Koetter.
“Mike had to make the bigger sacrifice, because he also had opportunities elsewhere to coordinate,” Quinn said. “So you can imagine how that made me feel, and how excited I was for him to say, ‘I’ve had those opportunities before, and I’m really looking for the right environment for me.’ That meant the world to me.”
This is different, of course, than a couple years ago, when Sarkisian was expected to run a version of what Shanahan had before him. There’s been more change, but there’s also going to be carryover, Quinn told me, with some Shanahan/Sarkisian concepts that worked for the players in-house.
He used his relationships to prepare to juggling calling plays and running the team. Shanahan, in fact, was one of the first that Quinn went to on this—the two former staff-mates talked at the combine. And when Quinn traveled to the owners meetings a month later looking to gather more information, he got a vivid picture of how doable it would be.
“It happened to be a little more common than I thought,” Quinn said. “At the owners meetings, you look around, and you’re like, ‘O.K., offensively, he calls plays, and he calls plays, and he calls plays.’ And I went to the defensive side, and it was, O.K., ‘he does, he does and he does. It was a common conversation, even starting with Kyle. … Mainly, what I was looking for, I was really looking for any blind spots.”
Being able to maintain game management was a big subject in those talks, hence the meetings in the spring. And Quinn had a feel for that, since he called the defense down the stretch and into the Super Bowl in 2016.
What he also knows is, like he said earlier, he will need help. That’s why he refers to linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich as “a de facto” coordinator, calls pass-game coordinator Jerome Henderson’s influence “big”, and says of Sutton, “he’s been such a valuable piece for me.”
“Those three guys, I lean on them a lot for different reasons,” Quinn said. “Sometimes I just want another point of view or good perspective on things.”
He ensured the staff was aligned. With so many new faces, this was important to Quinn. He had the group, including new special teams coach Ben Kotwica, spend a lot of time together, both inside the building and out to grow the synergy he was looking for.
“I know who’s a good golfer. I know who’s a good volleyball player. I know a lot,” said Quinn, laughing. “But more than anything, we connected. And that’s really important, because they’re all recognizing they’re an extension of each other. That, to me, is a big piece of it. I enjoy spending time with those guys, but I also have trust in them, and that trust, like in a lot of relationships, grows stronger the more you’re around them.”
Now, with urgency comes pressure—and while there’s been no indication that Quinn’s coaching for his job in 2019, NBC’s Peter King wrote that Falcons owner Arthur Blank is growing “restless” in May, and that kicked up the kind of hornet’s nest that could make things awkward for a coach. So I asked Quinn directly about it at the end of our talk.
“I didn’t see it. I know of it. And I know the people whose opinions really matter to me, and Arthur’s one of them,” Quinn said. “I know exactly where I stand with him. For me, having that kind of relationship helps, so if there was something that came out that was different than what I’d thought, I could easily call him. But that wasn’t the case. I didn’t need to. And there didn’t need to be any retraction or anything like that, because I do communicate with him and know where we’re at, with the things we talk about on a regular basis.
“So it didn’t make me feel one way or another, thank goodness, because of that relationship. If I didn’t have that, you do get into your own head sometimes—What does he mean by that? But let’s be honest, being a head coach, or probably a quarterback, there’s criticism from outside the organization and inside the organization, it goes with the territory.”
And besides, looking at his roster, Quinn doesn’t see any reason why the Falcons wouldn’t be able to shut down that talk over the next six months anyway.
“Every once in a while, things line up for you like you’d like it to, because of what you feel from the team,” he said. “When that happens, it’s hard not to feel a certain way. It’s not just optimism. My glass is usually half-full anyway. It goes deeper than that. When you feel all those things connecting together, and having Deion and Grady signed prior to them getting started for camp, all those things matter, man. Everything matters.
“Staff-wise, new players, new group, my excitement for being involved in the defense and calling some things, those things light me up. I’m definitely ready to get rolling.”
Which is good, it being Day 1 of a totally new year in Atlanta.
NO NFL SUSPENSION FOR TYREEK HILL
Here’s what we know about Tyreek Hill right now …
• In March, the Kansas City Star broke the news that police were investigating battery allegations connected to a broken arm suffered by the three-year-old son of Tyreek Hill and Crystal Espinal. Police were called to Hill’s house twice in March, and again in late April.
• On April 26, the first day of the NFL draft, KCTV-5 published audio of Espinal alleging that the boy said, “Daddy did it”, and Hill saying to Espinal, “you need to be terrified of me too, b----.” Espinal secretly recorded the conversation at the Dubai airport.
• Hill reported for the start of the team’s offseason program on April 15. But once the audio surfaced 10 days later, the Chiefs decided Hill would not take part in team activities until the league’s investigation was complete. Kansas City agreed to cut off contact completely with Hill, as to not interfere with the NFL’s work.
• Prosecutors decided on April 24 that, despite believing a crime had been committed, charges would not be filed against Hill or Espinal because it couldn’t be determined how the boy suffered his injuries. The investigation was reopened when the audio came to light on April 26, and closed again in early June, again on lack of evidence.
• NFL investigators, led by Lisa Friel, interviewed Hill for eight-and-a-half hours in Kansas City in late June. They’d had the full 11-minute audio of Hill and Espinal’s exchange in Dubai—which added context to the initial audio—since April. That audio became public on July 9, via KCSP-AM.
• NFL investigators made multiple attempts to interview Espinal. Those attempts failed.
• In August 2015, Hill pled guilty to punching and choking Espinal while she was pregnant in ’14—an incident which forced him to leave Oklahoma State at the time. He finished his college career at West Alabama before being taken by the Chiefs in the fifth round of the 2016 draft. (In the aforementioned audio, Hill claimed he was not guilty of what he pled to in 2014.)
There’s a lot to sort through here. Kansas City met with Hill’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, to discuss a contract extension that was expected to land at or around $20 million per at the combine in February, which illustrates the comfort level they had with their two-time first-team All-Pro. Still, I’m told the Chiefs were proceeding with caution, and the rekindling of the Hill/Espinal relationship in 2018 (the two were engaged) gave them some pause, based on how toxic it had been previously.
This one, clearly, is pretty complicated. But to me, what’s not complicated is that the NFL needed to take action in this case. And it has in cases like this before.
Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger for six games in 2010, and did it a week after prosecutors decided not to pursue sexual assault charges against him in April of that year. In the suspension letter, Goodell wrote to Roethlisberger, “The Personal Conduct Policy makes clear that I may impose discipline ‘even where the conduct does not result in conviction of a crime’ as, for example, where the conduct ‘imposes inherent danger to the safety and well-being of another person’.”
Hill telling Espinal—the woman he was convicted of punching and choking—that she needed to be “terrified” sure seems to rise to the level of imposing inherent danger to the safety and well-being of another person, before you even get to what happened with the child. Or, at the very least, it would appear to represent the type of spot where the NFL would want to take action to avoid a fiasco like what happened with Josh Brown three years ago (which maybe the NFL feels like it covered in its statement’s “if further information comes available” caveat.)
So why wouldn’t the league suspend Hill? Two possible reasons:
First, there’s been a push among owners, some in powerful positions in the NFL hierarchy, for the league to get out of the investigation business and revert to following the lead of law enforcement. That would explain the difference in the handling of this case and that of Ezekiel Elliott – who was suspended for six games in 2017, despite both the prosecutor’s office and one of the NFL’s own investigators believing his former girlfriend had lied.
Second, there are the CBA negotiations, which loom over everything. Some believe the NFL is going to be cautious in its handling of players between now and the consummation of a new labor deal, to avoid the contentious nature of the 2011 talks.
And to me, it makes sense for the league to back off investigating these cases as aggressively as it has, and to foster better relations with its players. The practice has proven to be fraught with potholes for the NFL, was launched largely for PR purposes in the first place. But if that’s what’s happening here, they need to be transparent about.
Otherwise, it looks like they’re being, at best, pretty inconsistent now.
THE DEBATE OVER RUNNING BACKS GETTING PAID
The Melvin Gordon and Ezekiel Elliott contract situations flared up over the last few weeks, causing the debate over tailbacks getting paid to rage. And I think a lot of people are missing the mark on it, mainly because those two guys, as most NFL teams see it, are in different categories.
I asked some scouts this week about the state of the position, and what the league is getting from its feeder system. It’s clear that the NFL has a smaller top tier at the position than it does at other positions, and a much, much larger second tier.
That brings us to the new mold for the elite NFL back, which is a 225-pound (or so) bruiser who can play on all three downs. That’s Elliott. It’s also Todd Gurley and Saquon Barkley and was, and may be again, Le’Veon Bell. David Johnson, for a time, probably was in this category too.
“Those four are all from the same mold—they’re 220 pounds, they can play all three downs, they’re rare,” said one NFC personnel man, who evaluated all of them coming out. “Maybe they become less rare in time, but they’re unicorns now. And to replace one, you need three guys – two first- and second-down runners, and then a third-down guy.”
They also give a team something it can’t get from a combination of players: a queen-on-the-chess-board dynamic facilitated by their versatility, which is brought to life in how defenses aren’t getting a tell on what the offense is doing when they’re on the field.
So where does that leave a player like Gordon? His problem isn’t that he’s really good. He is. His issue is that there are too many good players at his position, which makes backs who aren’t in the aforementioned “unicorn” category replaceable (and even those unicorns at the position can be approximated to a degree, as C.J. Anderson and James Conner showed last year). And proof of it is how Justin Jackson and Austin Ekeler kept the Chargers rolling in Gordon’s stead last year.
There’s also a third category here, encompassing players like Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara with outrageous versatility that can play all over the formation. And the value of that type was shown in how Jerick McKinnon, a lesser player than McCaffrey or Kamara, got paid last year by the Niners.
This is all why my guess now would be that the Chargers, based on their own history and the state of the position, sit tight and wait for Gordon to show up. And it’s why I think that Dallas has to pay Elliott, who is both their offense’s engine and a big piece of the equation in how they’ve developed their young quarterback (like Gurley was with Jared Goff).
I asked two scouts that work, and have worked, for teams that never pay backs whether or not they’d pay Elliott if they were Dallas. One quickly said yes. The other came around, after about 15 seconds of consternation.
“I’d be nervous,” said this AFC exec. “You have the injury question, you see what happened with Gurley, and you have to take care of Dak and Amari (Cooper). But would I pay Zeke? I probably would. He’s that good.”
THE GOOD AND BAD OF THE LABOR NEGOTIATIONS
There was good news, and there was bad news coming out of Wednesday’s four-and-a-half-hour collective bargaining session in Chicago, aimed at making progress on a new deal with 20 months left on the current CBA.
The good news is everyone remains committed to negotiating in good faith. There was no staged walkouts, or charged rhetoric coming out of this one, which is absolutely a positive in comparison to where they were in negotiations ahead of 2011. The bad news is that there is, indeed, a reason why what was supposed to be a three-day summit was reduced down to a few hours. Let’s break it down.
• The one-day meetings in April, May and June were centered on identifying issues and worked the edges to find common ground. This was the first true negotiation and, as such, the first time the league and union dove into the economic split.
• By mid-afternoon Wednesday, the sides decided they were too far apart from one another on the economics, and that’d it be a waste of everyone’s time to continue the meeting as it had been constituted. The owners wanted time to construct a new proposal, having gained more knowledge of the players’ position. The players wanted to try and find flexibility in their own proposal. So they made the call to return to their corners, and give each other a couple weeks to regroup.
• Plenty of heavy hitters were there. The NFLPA brought its entire executive committee—including Richard Sherman, Benjamin Watson, Adam Vinatieri, Russell Okung and president Eric Winston—with the exception of Giants safety Michael Thomas, who had a prior family commitment. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones couldn’t make this one, but Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Giants owner John Mara, and Steelers owner Art Rooney, all big players in 2011, were all in attendance. Of course, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and upper level staff made the trip as well.
• It may be tough to just cut and paste the 2011 revenue split. Why? Well, credit Hunt for creating the model that broke the stalemate back then—players would get 55% of the revenue from the broadcast deals and 45% of the revenue from digital deals (under the premise that the owners really had to work and be innovative for the latter). With new broadcast deals on the horizon, digital figures to be a bigger factor.
• The next meeting is scheduled for July 29, and active players on the executive committee will be excused from camp but not required to attend. There’s also a meeting on the calendar already for mid-August, which is a good sign that these discussions are amicable as the season gets closer.
There, of course, are negotiating points outside of just the revenue split (We broke those down in our April CBA primer. And while nothing’s signed off on, and these things are always fluid, there are some non-economic issues that the players and owners have found agreement on.
But it still seems pretty unlikely that we have a new CBA by the owners’ self-imposed Week 1 deadline.
I say that because I think, for now, the players have leverage. There’s no real incentive for them to do a deal now. For the owners, there is one—it would create the opportunity to get going on the next said of media-rights deals, and work forward on other business ventures with economic certainty. So I think it’d take a pretty significant giveback on the part of the owners to get the players to do a deal now. We’ll see if they’re willing to do that.
That said, this whole thing is in a much better place than it was a decade ago, when a lockout seemed inevitable in the owners’ search for a correction of the 2006 CBA. Despite what you might’ve heard, the current CBA has generally worked fine for everyone, so there’s less animosity now than there was then. That, of course, is subject to change.
1. How about leading this off with NBA free agency. The Clippers’ early July haul of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George didn’t go unnoticed in NFL circles—and for good reason. Clippers owner, Microsoft tycoon Steve Ballmer, is eyeing land adjacent to Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s multibillion-dollar project—on the opposite side of the property from the Forum—to build a state-of-the-art arena for his team, freeing it from third-banana status behind the Lakers and the Kings at the Staples Center. The City of Inglewood still owns the plot in question, but so long as a lawsuit involving James Dolan and MSG (which own the Forum) is resolved, Ballmer’s purchase of it is considered a fait accompli. And the viability of the franchise’s project is only enhanced with the expectation it’ll be among the NBA’s highest-profile teams over the next few years.
Why does the NFL care? It’ll add another premier venue to the area where the Rams’ new stadium will open a year from now, and open even more possibilities for the kinds of mega-events the NFL likes to put on (like Super Bowl LVI). The league’s vision all along has been to make the campus America’s premier sports-and-entertainment property. The Clippers can help, and even more so now, with their star power players.
2. Speaking of the Rams, this season will be the first time that reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald has attended training camp since 2016, the team’s first year back in Southern California. This probably should help contextualize the value of training camp for players considering holdouts, given the players who have missed parts of camps the last five years.
In 2014, Odell Beckham Jr., then with the Giants, missed all of training camp and parts of the first month of the season, and he won Offensive Rookie of the Year. In 2015, Kam Chancellor held out into September—the first veteran holdout to last into the regular season under the ’11 CBA—and was named to the Pro Bowl for a playoff team. In 2016, Joey Bosa held out and missed all of training camp, reported at the end of August, and won Defensive Rookie of the Year. And the last two years, again, Donald missed all of camp and won Defensive Player of the Year.
That, of course, isn’t to say camp doesn’t have value. It just has less in an era when players train and study year-round for their jobs. Very few need it to get themselves in shape anymore.
3. The Patriots have their questions on offense (left tackle, tight end, receiver), but I can tell you there’s an internal belief their depth on defense is as good as it’s been in years. And that especially goes at the linebacker spots and into the secondary, where there’s a blend of old (Devin and Jason McCourty, Patrick Chung, Dont’a Hightower), in-prime (Stephon Gilmore, Kyle Van Noy, Duron Harmon) and young (Duke Dawson, Ja’Whuan Bentley, Joejuan Williams). If they can work out their edge rusher need (Michael Bennett is suited to move around, Derek Rivers has disappointed), the feeling is the defense, even with a gutted coaching staff, should be able to carry the offense through any fits and starts early on.
4. In May, we reported how the Raiders ranked the 2019 draft quarterbacks—Kyler Murray, Drew Lock, Dwayne Haskins, Ryan Finley, in that order—and I said my belief was there was never an intention to take any of them with the fourth overall pick. Part of that is because of where I think Oakland is right now with Derek Carr. Last season Carr was really good down the stretch, despite losing Amari Cooper: After the team’s Week 7 bye, and over the season’s last 10 games, Carr went 214-of-320 (66.9%) for 2,047 yards, 12 touchdowns and just two picks that came in the season finale against Kansas City, meaning he went nine games without throwing one.
Now, is Carr perfect? Nope. And maybe the Raiders are drafting Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert or Jake Fromm to lead them into Vegas next April. But with the advances Carr made in going through progressions, setting protections, and making run/pass checks over the year, there’s reason to believe the relationship between Carr and perpetually quarterback-restless Jon Gruden could keep growing. I may be the only one, but I’m excited to see what it looks like in September, with a restocked arsenal around the 28-year-old QB.
5. Just to follow up on the Texans’ reconfigured operation—it’s pretty clear that it’s Bill O’Brien’s show in Houston now, and that, for the time being, everything will run through him in a set up that probably won’t be too unlike New England’s. Meanwhile, chief negotiator Chris Olsen will oversee the cap, director of player personnel Matt Bazirgan will oversee pro scouting, college scouting director James Liipfert will oversee (yup) college scouting, and EVP Jack Easterby will continue to be a backstop to ensure the football side of the organization is aligned, among his other duties. This also underscores that the GM search of June was Nick Caserio-or-bust (although I think O’Brien liked New England college scouting director Monti Ossenfort as a GM candidate, too).
6. Training camp battle I’m most intrigued by: Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Josh Rosen in Miami. Fitzpatrick enters camp with a lead, but Rosen’s still an awfully intriguing talent, one who, early on at UCLA, was seen as the next big thing in quarterback prospects. Coming out of his freshman year, then-UCLA coach Jim Mora told me, “His potential is unlimited. He would have been the best quarterback in the draft this year.” That year was 2016, the year Jared Goff and Carson Wentz went 1-2. The Dolphins new brass, helmed by GM Chris Grier and coach Brian Flores, has done a lot of things right this offseason, in managing assets, resetting the roster, and building the coaching staff. But as is the case with any new regime, so much still rides on who the team’s quarterback will be three years from now. Rosen’s got potential to be that guy—or he could just be a speed bump on the way to drafting Tua or Herbert.
7. I’m as excited to see the Browns as I am any team on my camp tour. But if I were ranking positions of concern among expected contenders, Cleveland’s tackle situation would be way up on the list. The team cut Desmond Harrison in June amid off-field issues, placing all the Browns’ eggs at left tackle into former second-overall pick Greg Robinson’s basket. Robinson wrested the job there from Harrison midway through last year. The staff thought he played fairly well, if inconsistently. So the question here is whether or not Cleveland can finally harvest the freakish ability of a player who’s still just 26 years old, or he’s just the bust that most believe him to be.
“He was more consistent last year—still not great, but better than what he’d shown,” said one rival pro scouting director. “He still has mental lapses and poor technique.” If it works out, the Browns really don’t have a significant hole on their roster. If it doesn’t, a problem there could wreak havoc on their offense. Stay tuned on that one (or at least as much as you can stay tuned to line play).
8. Just to wrap up the contract stuff—it’s worth noting that certain teams have multiple players going into contract years that might be worthy of the franchise tag. The Chiefs have Hill and Chris Jones. The Cowboys have Prescott and Cooper. The Chargers have Philip Rivers and Melvin Gordon. And each of those teams will only have franchise tag to use. So failure to take care of either, would mean one of the two would hit the market in each case. Which, of course, would affect the makeup of the 2020 free agent class.
9. I mentioned this in the Game Plan mailbag last week, but it bears repeating: my sense is that default language connected to guarantees continues to be a problem with first-round contracts—it concerns what would trigger a team voiding a player’s guarantees—and it may explain why the four remaining first-rounders are still unsigned (49ers DE Nick Bosa, Jets DL Quinnen Williams, Giants QB Daniel Jones, Panthers DE Brian Burns). This was an issue last year with Bears LB Roquan Smith. We also saw this come into play, by the way, last year with Leonard Fournette, when the Jaguars voided the remaining guarantees in his rookie contract after he was suspended.
10. Keep an eye on Steelers rookie Diontae Johnson. His grade, which took his dynamic return ability into account, landed him the highest grade of any receiver on Pittsburgh’s board in April, I’m told. And if there’s one thing the Steelers can do, it’s evaluate receivers. Over the last 10 years, they’ve drafted Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Juju Smith-Schuster. And they did it without spending a single top-60 pick on the position until last year, when they took Oklahoma State’s James Washington (who also bears watching) 60th overall. Johnson was the 66th pick in this year’s draft.
… OF THE WEEK
“It doesn’t bother me personally. I’ve been in the NFL for a long time and seen a lot of different ways of people handling things. He has to do what he feels he needed to do and that’s how he’s handled it. Everyone is going to handle things differently and that’s how he chooses to make sure he’s ready to go and ready to play. The Browns weren’t playing Hue Jackson, the Browns were playing the Bengals.”
— Hue Jackson on Baker Mayfield’s taunting during last year’s Browns/Bengals game to FOX’s Colin Cowherd. The ex-Cleveland coach will get killed for almost anything he says these days. But I thought this was the correct response to start to get past some of the things that happened last fall. That said …
“I’m not gonna lie to you and say that the first time I played Hue did not feel good. It’s human nature to want to get revenge.”
— Baker Mayfield to ESPN’s Mina Kimes. I’m always going to appreciate this brand of honesty. After all, we’re not in the business of collecting quotes that sound like they were brainstormed in some PR firm’s conference room.
Oh so we all love Brooks Koepka because he plays well only four times per year and get upset when Eli Manning does that.— Kevin Clark (@bykevinclark) July 18, 2019
The Ringer’s Kevin Clark, a.k.a The Tweet King, wasn’t too pumped when I said he had to be hearing footsteps last month. He’s hanging on the rim after this one.
This was in response to Saquan Barkley wishing Barry Sanders a happy birthday, and it again shows who Sanders was. Anyone who watched him play knows. And anyone who watched him play knows—with all due respect to Barkley and everyone else—that probably won’t ever be another quite like him.
Fifteen-year-old me can relate with Namath here. Then I found out that you could write about sports. And—get this—get paid for it.
Maybe it says something about me, but the first thing I did when I saw this was look up how much the Redskins are paying Josh Norman. If you’re wondering, his base for 2019 is $11 million, and he can make another half-million in per-game roster bonuses. And this caps a weird sequence for the team, where a starting linebacker went down in the first non-contact, half-speed OTA period of 2019, and the star corner hurdled a bull in Pamplona and got away unscathed.
This is insane, because of the trajectory and power you’d need to get on that ball (and no, I don’t care that it has nothing to do with winning football games). The MVP can sling it. Just as the NFL’s preeminent seer said last fall.
I have no idea.
I was kind of creeped out by the FaceApp thing this week, not gonna lie.
Lovie’s beard is fantastic. (And it’s probably better to have people talking about that than his post-Chicago record.)
Who says Steve Spurrier never made it in pro football?
S/O to …
Broncos coach Vic Fangio, for saying this when asked about Denver having the most open training camp practices of any NFL team this summer …
“I didn’t realize we had the most. I think it’s good to have the fans out here. The history of the NFL—you had to go to college campuses back in the day because the facilities didn’t look like this. When I first went to the Saints in the mid ’80s, we had an 80-yard grass field, O.K.? We had no cafeteria. Guys would go to a greasy deli for lunch right across the street. You were forced to go to small college campuses to have your two-a-days because they had a cafeteria, because they had classrooms and because they had dorms to sleep in. A byproduct of that was that fans could come and watch.
“I think one of the small things that have driven the NFL to being the most popular sport in the country is that you let people come watch practice. People that maybe can’t afford to go to the game. Maybe get and an autograph from a player. Maybe a player shakes their hand or throws them a sweatband or a glove. You do that with a young person, you've got a fan for life and football has a fan for life. There is more to be gained out of that than any advertising slogan or any commercial that you put on TV. I think it is a good thing, and I think I’ll embrace it and the players will embrace it. I wish there could be more of them here, but I think about half or less of the NFL now doesn’t go to college campuses and doesn't have the world of thought to have people at their facility to watch practice. I think it's a little bit of a negative.”
This immediately made me think of my experience as a kid. I remember chasing field goals at Patriots training camp in Smithfield, R.I.—they’d kick the ball into the woods, and we’d all try and get to them back there, hoping the assistants tasked with getting them back didn’t see us make away with them. And I remember road-tripping with my dad to Fredonia State, between Buffalo and Erie, Penn., to see the Jim Kelly/Thurman Thomas/Bruce Smith Era Bills (we had a family connection to the team and I was a big fan).
I loved that stuff as a kid. It made you feel like you could get up close and personal with the NFL in a way that was tough to otherwise, even at games. And to me, it’d suck if kids now couldn’t experience that. So I think what Vic said here was spot on.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINES
1. At a campaign rally for President Donald Trump in North Carolina on Wednesday night, the crowd chanted “Send her back!” in reference to Somali-born Congresswoman Ilhan Omar—something I think is absolutely reprehensible. My mom arrived here from Austria in 1972. My dad’s family goes back a handful of generations; my great-great grandfather Breer moved to the States from Northern Germany in the 1850s. That’s what this country is—a nation of immigrants. (And I usually don’t get into politics in this space, but this one really got to me.)
2. I don’t know much about Shane Lowry. But watching an Irishman walk up the 18th hole of the British Open, knowing it was over, in the first Open to be played in Northern Ireland in 68 years, was pretty awesome. And what he said after to NBC was pretty perfect—“Everyone knows we’re all one country when it comes to golf.”
3. Too early for draft nuggets? Never! I’m told that Alabama receiver Henry Ruggs, at 5’ 11” and 184 pounds, posted a 4.25 40-yard dash at Crimson Tide’s junior pro day. By comparison, teammate Jerry Jeudy, an expected top-half-of-the-first-round player (and a more complete receiver at 6’ 1”, 188 pounds), came in at 4.53.
4. I love the Ohio State/Michigan rivalry with everything I’ve got. So no, all the noise around Jim Harbaugh’s comments on Urban Meyer this week didn’t bother me. That kind of hysteria is just of what makes this one what it is.
5. While we’re there, I thought it was really, really interesting hearing how new Ohio State coach Ryan Day has used Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley as a sounding board as he replaces a legend (like Riley did Bob Stoops). Lots of NFL folks consider Day and Riley the two brightest young minds in the college game, so it’s good to see there’s a relationship there.
6. After all the player movement we’ve seen the last month in the NBA, here’s hoping that Giannis Antetokounmpo becomes in Milwaukee when Tim Duncan became in San Antonio. And I say that while acknowledging that it’s up to Bucks management to show over the next two years that they’re competent enough to help make that comparison come to life.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
I’m hitting the road Tuesday for training camps. I’ll be in the Midwest first, then the West Coast, and somewhere on the Eastern seaboard after the first full weekend of preseason games. And like you are, I’m pumped to see football get back into swing of things.
A shameless plug: You can follow along on Twitter (@albertbreer) and Instagram (@albert_breer) to keep track of my still-fluid travel schedule. I’ll post updates from the field there, plus I’m hoping to Periscope and answer your questions from each camp. Of course we’ll have content coming in each of my three weekly columns throughout.
Also, if you are visiting a training camp the same day I am, come say hello. I think I can speak for our entire staff when I say that we really value your feedback, and I’d love to get some of that in person.
Hope to see you guys out there!
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