The Lamar Jackson I spoke to Saturday was, really, the same Lamar Jackson I spoke to a year ago, after he served noticed to the football world by posting a perfect passer rating in his hometown in Week 1 of the 2019 season. The humility was the same. The matter-of-factness in discussing his accomplishments was the same. The deferring to the team over himself was the same. Even his tone was the same.
We have six days left until he kicks off his encore. There’s no need to worry about Jackson changing.
And that much was abundantly clearly when—as he had a couple times with me last year—he quickly and politely interrupted a thought of mine he knew he was about to disagree with. This started when I asked, innocently enough, if he’d watched Super Bowl LIV, three weeks after he and the Ravens were eliminated from the AFC playoffs.
“Nah, I didn’t watch it. I didn’t want to,” he said. “It wasn’t painful, it’s just that we weren’t performing, and I wanted to be there. So I was like, All that’s gonna do is make me mad. So nah, I’m just gonna stay away from it. Plus, I was tired, I had all these events down there, I was in Miami myself. I was tired, for real.”
Tired or not, absent or there, Jackson knew who won the game. And so I then wondered aloud to him if he looked at Patrick Mahomes’s path—second-year phenom/MVP who became a third-year champion—as he tried to chart his own.
Of course, I continued, all you guys keep tabs on one another, and how every guy stacks up against the next. That’s where he stopped me.
“Nah, nah, nah—not me!” Jackson said, laughing. “I worry about what we got going on right here. We got put out in the first round, I’m trying to get where they was. I don’t really care what they did, how they got there. I’m focusing on doing it myself. Just get me a ring, that’s what I’d take from it. Go get yourself a ring.”
That’s Jackson. He’s confident, unabashedly himself, and unafraid to set the record straight. And all of it comes off in a naturally endearing way. It’s not just how he comes off, it’s who he is.
Which is one big reason why I believe Jackson’s next act could be every bit the thrill ride his last one was. And you can tell he believes it, too, even with the bar set so incredibly high.
Our last MMQB column before the games begin is here, and we’re coming out of cutdown weekend and into the great unknown of a very different NFL season. In this week’s column, you’ll find …
• Ron Rivera on picking Dwayne Haskins as Washington’s QB.
• Matt Nagy on picking Mitch Trubisky (after all that!) as Bears QB.
• The Deshaun Watson deal, and what it means.
• More on Jadeveon Clowney, Leonard Fournette and the week’s news.
But on Sept. 7, 2020, we’re starting in Baltimore, with the guy who took the NFL by storm starting on Sept. 8, 2019.
One thing I’ve noticed the last few months is that we tend to complicate Jackson’s stardom. And some of that is fair to do. We ask if Jackson is running too much, because his workload last year was so heavy, and we’ve seen other quarterbacks pay the toll running takes on their bodies. We ask if the league will catch up to the Ravens offense, because few centered on option concepts have stood the test of time.
But Jackson being who he is makes it easy for him to present answers to these questions. His response to it, really, is simple—it’s just football. And football just so happens to have always been simple for him.
He explained to me his offseason regimen in a way that sounded like he was preparing for junior year back at Boynton Beach High. It sucked for him losing April, May and June with his teammates. And he did try to make up for it by staging two sets of workouts for them in Hollywood, Fla., like a lot of other quarterbacks did this offseason. Still, that left a lot of time for him to fill, and he filled that time … simply.
“I tried to stay in shape as much as I could,” Jackson said. “I jogged around the neighborhood with my hoodie on. I’d throw in the backyard to keep my arm going. I worked out with those guys those two times, probably two hours each [workout]. That was about it.”
Of course, Jackson’s being coy. That wasn’t really it. There’s more to where he’s going next.
But, again, I’m not sure it’s as complicated as we make it out to be.
Jackson told me as much as he worked on polishing his game as a passer this offseason, he was also working on who he is as a runner—because that’s part of the deal, too. And while Baltimore has to move its offense forward, Jackson’s coach, John Harbaugh, pushed back hard on the idea they’ll have to reinvent things any more than anyone else will. Mostly, I sensed, because he knew that question went back to old doubts about his quarterback.
“Nobody catches up with anything,” Harbaugh told me. “Everything’s always changing. To get philosophical here, the one thing that never changes is the fact that things are always changing. That’s just a fact. So to think we’re gonna run the same plays from the same formations we did last year, of course not. There are gonna be wrinkles and tweaks to it. Some of it will be clear and obvious to the naked eye. And others will be subtle, and clear to the more educated football eye.
“That’s just how it works. To me, it’s obvious.”
In other words, of course the Ravens have to keep innovating, and of course Jackson has to keep evolving. And there are very specific ways the Ravens are seeing it happen, even if he was coy by positioning a few runs around a subdivision as his preparation for 2020.
For one, there’s very little question that he’s become more intricately involved in developing the offense. And that much was clear to his coaches in team meetings. It’s growth. It’s ownership. It’s what happens with the great quarterbacks—when they go from learning a team’s system to making it their own.
This really started before the draft in 2018, when Harbaugh challenged then-OC Marty Mornhinweg, current OC Greg Roman and QBs coach James Urban to devise a detailed plan for what a Jackson-led offense would look like if the Ravens drafted Jackson. That plan went into action when Jackson took over for an injured Joe Flacco that fall, and kicked into overdrive with Roman in command of it in 2019.
Over those two years, really, most of Jackson’s input in the offense was collaborating with coaches to ID plays and concepts he liked and didn’t like, so they could streamline what was going in each week. This year, even without a game played yet, has been different. Now, Jackson’s bringing ideas: Hey, what if we have the receiver on the backside of this concept run a dig instead of a go?
Jackson explains it, as you’d expect, in a very matter-of-fact way: “I’ll voice my opinion on certain things, what I see in the defense or how I feel like we’ll have a better opportunity to put some points on the board, that’s all.” But for a quarterback, doing that signifies a big step forward.
“I’m not outspoken in the meeting room,” he said. “I don’t know why, it’s just never been me. I just let coach do his thing. I just learn what I’m supposed to do and help out if I can. But yeah, I’m getting comfortable, which is why I’m expressing myself sometimes.”
Then, there are very specific pieces of his game that he’s drilled on this offseason. And really, three of them should show up pretty quickly. One is accuracy throwing outside the numbers—the Ravens, and Jackson, know there will be opportunity there, given how their run game forces defenses to stack the box. Another is consistency in Jackson’s movement within the pocket, which is easy to overlook because of his ability to escape it.
“I just want to keep getting repetitions with that,” Jackson said. “Being consistent is the main key for me.”
The third thing is the big play. Baltimore hit a lot of shots early in the year in 2019, but that fell off later in the season. So Jackson’s made it a point to work on that with his receivers—a challenge considering they lost a whole spring of work and a slate of preseason games—and his receivers, in turn, have invested too. Hollywood Brown and Mark Andrews are playing faster now, as a result of their work. Miles Boykin is a year older, and rookies Devin Duvernay and James Proche bring game-breaking ability too.
“Down-the-field passes, we hit a lot of those early on in the season, but not really as the season went on,” Jackson said. “So we just keep working at that, keep getting better at that, and the sky’s the limit for us.”
And on top of the on-field improvements, Jackson’s finding his voice as a leader, too. If you’ve been around him, it’s not hard to understand why, really, he’s never going to be the most demonstrative guy in the locker room. He leads his own way and getting the guys down to Florida in the spring was proof of it. In fact, when I asked what the toughest part of the COVID-19-affected offseason was, he didn’t hesitate with his answer.
“Not being able to get with guys to throw!” he said. “Some people couldn’t fly to other states, they were closing down airports, so I wasn’t able to get with my guys.”
Bottom line: His relationships with his teammates are strong, something that was evident over and over again last year (remember how Mark Ingram was with him on TV?) as his star rose. And because those relationship are there, his increased prominence among his teammates has come as naturally as everything else has.
“I know he’s always communicating with guys, that’s just his way,” said Harbaugh. “The great thing about Lamar is he doesn’t change. He’s gonna be himself. He’s not gonna get caught up in any of the hype. He’s humble. He’s very hungry. He wants to be a better player. He knows he’s got a lot to learn. He pushes his guys big-time, he pushes them at practice, he competes against the defense really hard. He’s real demonstrative out there, he wants to win every play, and I think the guys really respond to that.
“That’s what they love about him, he’s so genuine, he doesn’t change. He knows more football. He’s had some hard knocks, he’s gone down in the playoffs a couple times, those are real experiences that you grow from, that callous you, that toughen you up. That’ll only make him a better leader.”
As we went through the tweaks to the system, his focus on technical quarterback improvement and his leadership, it was clear there was one factor that could override a lot of the progress in these areas, and it was much more rudimentary than any of them. Jackson sure could’ve gotten himself a big head over the last year. That, actually, would be pretty understandable.
He doesn’t turn 24 until January, and within four months he went from being a curiosity as a pro football player to the game’s most exciting star to the second unanimous MVP pick in the 100-year history of the NFL. For most people, that would be a lot to process. And it would seem tough for anyone to stay grounded under those circumstances, which is why I wanted to know how he has remained, in fact, the exact same guy.
“The Lord,” he answered. “You know, he put me in this position. And I’ve always been humble before I was in this position, so it don’t make sense for me to get here and just start acting out of character, or not acting like I’ve been there before. When I won the Heisman in college, I didn’t really look at that like it was a big deal either. But to everyone else it was. Same with the MVP. I’m just a humble person. I just chill.
“I don’t really look at stuff like other people do.”
Tucked in there is the fact that Jackson actually has been here before. He won the Heisman as a 19-year-old in 2016 and returned to Louisville the next fall for his junior year, in which he threw (3,660) and ran (1,601) for more yards than he had the season before. Jackson said that, because COVID-19 threw this offseason so far out of whack, there wasn’t a ton he could draw from that experience to this one.
“We were off for probably a month, and then we were right back into it [at Louisville],” he continued. “This season, here, coming off the MVP, COVID came, so I wasn’t able to get with my guys. And I’m not really worried about expectations, how people feel like I should come out and play, anyway. “
But maybe that’s just it.
He’s worried about playing football, not everything that comes with it. And so our storylines—how he’ll bounce back off the crash landing in the divisional round last January—aren’t really of his concern. That’s probably why, when I asked Harbaugh about Jackson’s handling of the loss, he shot back, “I’m not a psychologist,” and why he’s so sure his quarterback won’t get caught up in all the trappings of his 2019 star turn.
In fact, Harbaugh almost sounded like he was channeling Jackson in continuing with his answer, “I’m not into all that. … You move forward to the next game. You try to improve your game.” In other words, he’s sure Jackson will.
“I think he’s equipped very well to handle it, because he’s humble,” Harbaugh said. “He’s very motivated, certainly team-oriented. He says it every day, you gotta win the Super Bowl, gotta win it all. He’s got a good long-term mindset, but he understands you have to do it one day at a time. He really does. So it’s not something we have to talk about or make a big deal about, because I feel like he gets it.
“The accolades, whatever they are, the expectations, those don’t really impact your thinking or your mindset or anything, unless you allow them to.”
Jackson, he knows, won’t. And if there was any question on where his mind is right now, after this very different offseason, there shouldn’t be. Because it’s where it always was.
“Just on going out there,” Jackson said, “and putting on a show.”
And if that show is the same as last year, too, it’ll sure be one worth watching.
RIVERA’S TRUST IN HASKINS
After a thorny, unconventional offseason, new Washington coach Ron Rivera is content with where he is with reaffirmed starting quarterback Dwayne Haskins. And he has two people to thank that you may not expect.
One is ex-Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. The other is former Panthers QB Cam Newton.
What’s really interesting is how his experiences with those two informed Rivera on best practices for handling his quarterback situation over the last six months, and yet the two led him on very different paths.
Let’s start with the one that Meyer set out for Rivera. The Washington coach reached out to Meyer in January, and the two started a dialogue that eventually led to an in-person meeting in Indianapolis at the combine. Through their talks, Rivera learned about Chase Young, who Washington would wind up drafting second overall, and his new No. 1 receiver Terry McLaurin, but mostly his intent was to get into what made Haskins tick.
Meyer was clear.
“He really explained Dwayne to me,” Rivera said. “And the biggest thing he told me, You have to challenge him, Coach. Challenge him. And so when I met with him, after I’d studied him and watched him on tape, I challenged him. I challenged him on a couple things. I challenged him to be more mature, and not worry about what’s going on in the world of social media. Two, I talked about working on leadership, understanding how important it is to lead, and sometimes lead by example, not necessarily through what you say.
“I also challenged him on transforming himself, both physically and mentally. And then I challenged him on working on specific aspects of his game, his footwork, his decision-making, his movement skills.”
Rivera got a hand from his daughter on the social media end of things—she works in that area for the team and set her dad up to follow Haskins—and as a result he got to see Haskins responding to the challenges on several different fronts.
“It was good, because it looked like he was putting the work in. He was working with his teammates, he was working out, he was posting his transformation,” Rivera said. “I tried to watch it. It was great to see, it really was, because he’d taken what I told him to heart, and it just showed how serious he was about transforming who he is as a football player.”
And that, in turn, showed up in Zoom meetings through the spring too, with coordinator Scott Turner and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese affirming what Rivera had seen, which set Haskins up for the next challenge Rivera set up for him—actually winning the job.
Remember, Washington had options. Kyle Allen started games for Rivera and Turner in Carolina. Alex Smith was coming back off a horrific knee injury, but brought with him 15 years of NFL experience, and Rivera made it clear that the starting quarterback spot would have to be earned—but he said that, with a twist.
And that’s where Rivera’s experience working Newton in Carolina came in. Remember, the two arrived in Charlotte together in 2011, new coach and new franchise quarterback.
Obviously, a lot went right through the early years for Rivera and Newton. Over a five-year stretch, starting in Newton’s third year, Carolina went to the playoffs four times, won the NFC South three times, and the quarterback was league MVP in a season that ended in the Super Bowl. But there were also some things, along the way, that Rivera would learn, and one was simple—your quarterback has to know he has your trust.
“The biggest thing with Cam was just showing him, Hey, I trust you and I’m behind you,” Rivera said. “And it’s funny because the more trust I showed Cam, it just really seemed to get him going. He really appreciated the trust. So with Dwayne I tried to do that right off the bat—Hey, I trust you, I believe in you. They respond, Give me this, give me this, and they do it. It’s been amazing. Cam was unbelievable. If I ever had an opportunity to go back and look at a couple things, and change a couple things, I would really just change that one thing.
“What’s helped me is I’ve been looking at Dwayne like that.”
So that quarterback competition? Yeah, it was sort of rigged. Rivera told Haskins he’d have to win it—then gave him every opportunity to do so. The coach wanted to give Haskins every rep with 1s he could, so he could see him and so Haskins could see that he believed in him, and was going to trust him with the offense. As Rivera explains it now, “I just felt like we had to leave Dwayne where he was and let him continue to grow.”
And that happened, in part, because Haskins knew he wouldn’t get the rug pulled from underneath him with a single bad throw, which is just how all this had worked with Newton.
“I think it’s a thing where you’re kind of hesitant because you really don’t know,” Rivera said. “But as I began to give [Newton] more and more trust, all of a sudden, I started to see how much it cut him loose. He didn’t want to make a mistake because he didn’t want to lose my trust. But as soon as I showed him, Hey, I trust you, dude, I’m gonna support you, I’m behind you, soon as I showed that to him? Man, he was unbelievable. It’s like, everything he’s doing in New England? Doesn’t surprise me one bit. It really doesn’t.”
Just the same, it didn’t surprise Rivera, having been through that, that Haskins grew up a bunch as a result of having that trust. And while the two goals here may sound at odds with one another—trust him, but challenge him—they really aren’t. Really, as Rivera sees it, the trust demands responsibility, and responsibility ties into the challenges.
“The one thing I learned is that when I held Cam up to that higher standard, man, he lived up to it,” Rivera said. “So I’ve been on Dwayne about doing things the right way and holding him to a higher standard, just letting him know, I’m gonna treat you like everybody else, but my expectations for you are higher than everybody else’s.”
That Haskins is sitting here as starter in September is a good sign that, thus far, he’s met those expectations. And Rivera’s clearly got bigger ones coming for his new quarterback.
HOW TRUBISKY WON THE JOB
So where Washington wasn’t your traditional quarterback competition—and the Dolphins and Chargers have, similarly, stacked first-team reps for their veteran guys—the Bears were the one team during this strange summer to have a real, true-to-life, winner-takes-all battle at the position in training camp.
That one ended Friday, when coach Matt Nagy called Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles to come to his office separately on the players’ day off to tell each, one-on-one, that Trubisky had pulled off what most of us on the outside figured he probably wouldn’t, outdistancing Foles for the job. And for all those reasons why few believed Trubisky could do what he did this summer, Nagy has renewed respect and faith in the team’s reaffirmed starter.
“This kid now, he’s had some adversity thrown his way,” Nagy said. “When you have a guy where, there’s another quarterback that they trade for, they’ve declined your fifth-year option, there’s a lot of stuff that would beat down a lot of other guys. And he stared it right in the face and said, Let’s go. That’s what he did. I don’t know how you don’t like that. So far, he’s done everything we asked of him. Now, we want to see how it translates into the season.”
That, of course, remains the big question—and we’ll get to the difficulty for the Bears in getting the best read on that. But for right now, the reason Nagy told me he picked Trubisky relates right to the above. Going into this offseason, and on the final day of a tumultuous 2019, one that ended sideways both personally and team-wise, Trubisky was given a specific list of areas Nagy wanted him to work, as Nagy worked to revamp the coaching staff.
1) Improve footwork.
2) Stay in the pocket—don’t get flushed out as easily.
3) Control what you can control, and be yourself.
4) Work on getting through progression in the offense.
5) Have a great next-play mentality.
Then, the team traded for Foles—meaning for the first time since Nagy arrived in 2017, Trubisky would have to win the job—and after that, COVID-19 hit, leaving the former second overall pick to work on this stuff on his own.
And that was tough enough in the spring, before summer hit and it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t done messing with the Bears’ plans. This competition, it turned out, would happen without the benefit of preseason games, and have to go down really in a span of three weeks of padded practices.
That challenged Trubisky. It challenges Foles. It challenged the coaches.
“That would’ve been really good, to see those guys compete in those game-like situations,” Nagy said. “We were going to play our starters a lot more in the preseason, and we were gonna play the quarterbacks even more than that. That would’ve been fun to see. One of the things you find out in this competition, if you asked both of them, they might say it was one of the most challenging or difficult parts of it, you could never really get in a rhythm because of the plays being split so down the middle.
“So for instance, if there’s a six-play drive, there might be times when we’re able to sneak them six plays in, so Mitch’ll take six, and then two series later, Nick gets those six plays back. But a lot of times, it was like eight-play drives with the first group, and Mitch was taking four and then Nick was taking the next four. … You’re never in full-drive type mode. And in a preseason game, you’re able to get more of that. And for both of them, that was one of the biggest drawbacks.”
But the Bears did it the way they did to make it as pure a competition as they could—and with coordinator Bill Lazor, pass-game coordinator Dave Ragone and QBs coach John DeFilippo all giving input, and having different levels of experience with the two (Lazor and DeFilippo had a ton of background with Foles, Ragone with Trubisky, and Nagy with both) they were able to tailor a derby that showed the staff most of what It needed to see.
At same time, Nagy told all those guys to wipe the slate clean for both quarterbacks. “That was one of the stipulations we talked about on the front end: zero agendas,” Nagy said. So everyone was trying, as best they could, to see things with a fresh set of eyes, and it was close enough where the head coach might think Trubisky won a day, an assistant may disagree with him and then that scenario was reversed the next day.
Through all that, Nagy said, he saw a distinct toughness from Trubisky in how he competed for the job. As Nagy pointed out, neither being knocked around in the media, nor being compared to draft classmates Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes, nor having a potential replacement traded for or that option declined in May seemed to weigh on him.
“You see that arrow up and that growth,” Nagy said. “Growth is a word … some people can get impatient, and that’s O.K. But we’re in a place now, myself and Mitchell, and for where we’re at, this is the exciting time now, to be able to see his third year in this offense, to be able to see more growth, and see what he can do with it.”
Part of the growth was, through the competition, coming back strong after Foles may have had a better day than he did, and it was earning the trust of his offensive teammates all over again. Mostly, it was just going out there and playing.
And slowly, the coaches saw Trubisky start to check those boxes. His footwork was better. He had more poise within the pocket. He was going deeper into his progressions. He was leading naturally, in his own way, and managing bad moments by responding with good ones. Now, it was close enough to where, when Nagy called those three assistant coaches together one final time, he wasn’t sure where the meeting would go.
But what he did know was that Trubisky had already answered the bell.
“What we looked for ultimately was to see, are they making the same mistake twice?” Nagy said. “How are they handling the coaching? How are they handling teammates? You just have a feel for it, you really do, and it was definitely close. But in the end, [after the meeting], we knew that Mitch won the job, and that’s what it’s all about.
Where it goes next, and how the change in the spring and summer schedule affected it, really does remain to be seen. But for now, Nagy’s at peace with the call he made.
And when I asked how long a leash Trubisky has—and how he’ll keep his new/old starter feeling like he’s not getting pulled the minute something goes wrong—Nagy answered, in essence, that he’ll cross that bridge when he gets to it. [Note: He doesn’t really plan on getting to it.]
“It goes back to that—control what you can control,” Nagy said. “And it’s a positive thought versus a negative thought. And we don’t even discuss it, because that just goes to bad places. We think positively, like, Hey, we can’t wait, there’s an excitement, a laser focus, a mentality right now. It’s a feeling of positivity within our team, not just at the quarterback position, but across the board. Being a part of that as a quarterback, being a part of that as a head coach, there’s a real pure excitement to get this thing started.
“That’s probably for others to debate and discuss, that’s their world.”
Back in Nagy’s world, things get simpler now. He’s got a new starting quarterback. And while few would’ve believe it would be the old starting quarterback again, Nagy’s pretty happy seeing what going through all of this revealed about the guy.
Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes are going to be linked forever—the same way that, say, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger are—because they came into the league together. And as such, it makes sense now to look at the contracts the two signed this summer, and put them side-by-side.
But first, let’s acknowledge this: These huge paydays are, first and foremost, confirmation that they’ve lived up to where they were drafted, which is a big accomplishment in itself.
That Mahomes lasted to the 10th pick, and Watson to the 12th pick, and both were plucked by teams trading way up the board to get them, is a good reminder that this outcome was hardly ordained. In 2017, opinions on the two (and I can confirm this from my draft notes, after talking to teams that April) varied wildly, and both guys are only scratching the surface now of where they can go as players.
Now, on the contracts, this won’t be apples-to-apples. Mahomes’s deal (negotiated by Chris Cabott and Leigh Steinberg) is an outlier in its length (a 10-year extension), and structure (with rolling guarantees locking the team into its quarterback); while Watson’s (negotiated by David Mulugheta) is far more conventional, and a significant one in its uptick over the standard for traditional quarterback deals, most recently set by Russell Wilson.
On its face, Watson’s deal is a four-year extension worth $156 million, while Mahomes’s deal is worth $450 million in new money over its decade of new years. But there’s obviously a lot more to dive into here …
• Over the life of the Watson contract (2020-25), Mahomes will make $8.7 million more, but a big part of that was Mahomes having $27.6 million left on his rookie deal, while Watson had $18.7 million left on his (due to draft position, and the pricier option for top-10 picks). In new money? Man, was it close. Watson ($156.0 million) edged out Mahomes ($155.8 million) by just $200,000 even.
• As far as new-money cashflow goes, Watson wins. It’s $27 million to $8.03 million through Year 1, $20 million to $6 million through Year 2, $55 million to $35.45 million through Year 3, $92 million to $75.9 million through Year 4, and $124 million to $113.85 million through Year 5.
• The fully guaranteed total toggles back and forth a little. At signing, Watson got $73 million and Mahomes $63 million. Mahomes’s total rises to $103.5 million in March. And in March 2022, Mahomes will be at $141 million, while Watson will be at $110.7 million.
• Obviously, then, the biggest difference comes into focus—Watson’s deal expires in March 2026, while Mahomes’s deal expires in March 2031. So let’s say they both make it through the next six seasons. Watson, again, will have made $200,000 more in new money than Mahomes (before accounting for incentives). Very close. Then, Watson would be free. Mahomes would have six years left on his deal, at $294.2 million, which is a little more than $49 million per year.
And that, really, is where this gets fun. If Watson plays well, he’ll likely be negotiating another deal in 2024 or ’25. Will the quarterback market—after second deals for guys like Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray and, by then, maybe even Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence—be beyond the $49 million mark?
It’s a fair bet that it will be, with the new television deals and an influx of gambling money potentially pushing the salary cap into the stratosphere. Mahomes is protected if that doesn’t happen. Watson’s deal is, in a certain way, a bet that we will get there (and most players, including Dak Prescott, for one, prefer shorter deals like Watson’s).
It’s a bet, too, that Russell Wilson has already won once. The Seattle QB did a four-year deal in 2015 at $22 million per, which positioned him to get another deal in 2019, that one at $35 million per.
That’s a 59% markup, by the way. If things played out similarly with Watson, that’d mean signing a deal at more than $62 million per year in 2024. Does that seem unlikely? Sure, it does. But all the same, deals like the ones Watson and Mahomes just got probably would’ve seemed crazy four years ago.
Anyway, we’re all winners here in that we get to see these two lock horns for real in just three days. And we can hope the financial game they’re playing is still relevant years from now, because that would mean they’re still playing the way they are now.
It’s possible to think the clear-the-decks nature of the Jaguars’ offseason has been done with an eye toward (potentially) taking a quarterback in 2021 and, at the same time, knowing that the Yannick Ngakoue and Leonard Fournette moves weren’t signs of tanking. Really, everything Jacksonville has done the last six months has been about turning the page and setting a younger foundation. They have three of the top 45 picks from April (CB C.J. Henderson, DE K’Lavon Chaisson, WR Laviska Shenault) in their building to show for that. They know they’re not winning 12 games this year, so naturally the idea they could be in play for Lawrence, Justin Fields or Trey Lawrence this April hasn’t escaped them. But really, whether they get there or not wasn’t going to ride on their ability to keep Fournette or Ngakoue happy for another year. Those two didn’t want to be there. And, in turn, it’s pretty understandable why coach Doug Marrone—and this has become more Marrone’s program this year than it was before, for sure—wouldn’t want them around anymore either. If this year’s going to be about developing young players like Henderson and Chaisson, and making determinations on others like Gardner Minshew, having guys who are basically running the clock out on their contracts so they can leave doesn’t exactly help build an environment conducive to that. So, yeah, it does look like the Jags are positioning themselves like the Dolphins did last year, where they’ll be in position to take a quarterback. But no, shedding those two guys in particular isn’t really all that significant to getting there.
Fournette’s story, while we’re here, is a great cautionary tale on fit. And really this story starts with Fournette as a 15-year-old—which is around the age he became a local icon of sorts in New Orleans. From that point forward, he was treated as if he was the LeBron James of football (I actually went to see him play back then, on the advice of ex-Patriot and LSU star Kevin Faulk) by the people around him. By the time NFL teams had started to dig into who Fournette was, there was no secret to it. Rumors of special treatment at LSU were out there (example: He didn’t have to stay at the team hotel with the rest of the players the night before games), as was the rep he’d grown, and maybe it was a result of all this, as someone who didn’t deal well with authority. Ex-Jacksonville EVP Tom Coughlin was warned how Fournette might not be a match for the program he and Marrone were planning to build. Then, after a great first year, the chickens came home to roost. He could be moody and grumpy, and mostly because he was never going to fit into a my-way-or-the-highway environment. Those who did have a good relationship with him were the ones who met him halfway. Others thought Fournette was more enamored of the things that football afforded him than of the game itself. And things got to the point last year where he was late and would fall asleep in meetings, so the writing was on the wall on this one. Now, it’s possible things are a lot different in Tampa. Bruce Arians has always been able to handle egos, and the locker room there is very strong (the Jaguars did believe losing leaders like Marcedes Lewis, Paul Posluszny and Chris Ivory after his first year affected Fournette’s behavior). And even if Fournette’s style is a little dated, his talent is undeniable. For all those reasons, I can see why Tampa took a flier. But given the history, it’s not hard to see where things went wrong in Jacksonville—or why he’s gone.
Smart move by the Eagles to scoop Josh McCown up off waivers. We discussed this with McCown’s agent in late July, and it’ll be pretty much as he laid it out back then—McCown will get to live at home, take part in meetings from there and pull down $12,000 per week ($204,000 for the season). But there is a twist. McCown had been living in North Carolina, but when high school football season was postponed there (he’d been coaching at his sons’ school), he and his family decided to pull up stakes and move to East Texas, near where he grew up, owned a lake house and much of his extended family lived. One son, Owen, is now the starting quarterback at a local high school there, and his second son, Aidan, is a sophomore. So that’s where McCown will be working from, and his brothers (one of whom was an NFL quarterback himself) are close by to help him get in the field work he’ll need. The side benefit for McCown here—other than living the American Dream of pulling down a great paycheck in mesh shorts—is twofold. One, he loves the Eagles coaching staff, and he loves the quarterback room, and that love is mutual. Carson Wentz, in fact, has told guys in Philly that he wants McCown there as a resource, after having had him around in 2019. Two, McCown has aspirations to become an NFL head coach, and this will give him another level on which he can relate inside a locker room. He’s been a guy fighting to get in the league, he’s been a backup, he’s been a starter and he’s been a gameday inactive. But he’s never been a practice squad player, and this will give him that experience. So all in all, this is a pretty good deal. The Eagles get their quarantine quarterback, and give Wentz that valuable resource back. McCown gets that valuable layer of experience, and to be with a group he likes a lot—and the commute will be pretty manageable too.
The idea of the “final 53” could be proven a fallacy over the next few weeks. Over the weekend, the NFL felt the impact of the cancellation of the preseason. Without those games to go on, teams were flying blind on other teams’ players, which is why just 17 of those let go on cutdown day were claimed on waivers, way down from the 36 claimed off the initial cutdown last year. Now, here’s a twist—teams might still be flying blind on their own players a little, too. I was talking to someone Sunday who mentioned to me that every year, through the spring and into the start of training camp, there are players who coaches fall in love with, only to have their hearts broken when those guys fail to translate their practice performance onto the preseason game field. This year, that hasn’t happened, because there haven’t been games. So there may well be players on just about every roster who hit the game field, and aren’t quite what their coaches thought they were. Which could lead to the normal roster churn of this week spilling through September—with young guys coming off rosters and veteran street free agents potentially going on. We’ve obviously got a lot of weird stuff ahead of us, in the season of COVID-19. This would be one more thing to watch for.
Jadeveon Clowney sought, and found, the right result. Clowney’s best play was always going to be heading to a place where he knew the system and would be able to assimilate quickly. His background with Titans coach Mike Vrabel (Clowney’s position coach from 2014-16 and coordinator in 2017 in Houston) gives him that in Nashville. So why did this take so long? It was, as it usually is, about the money. Understandably, Clowney hoped to cross the $20 million per year plateau, as plenty of his edge-rushing peers have. It didn’t happen in March, in part due to his injury history, in part due to his murky past in Houston. Then, the effects of COVID-19 hit the NFL, and future cap uncertainty was attendant to that, making it even more difficult to get paid. Bottom line, Clowney’s financial expectations had to change. Some teams were willing to go to $15 million for him, though none he wanted to play for. The team I was told he had his eyes on all along—Baltimore—wasn’t reciprocating the love. And the teams he was connected to most (Tennessee, Seattle and New Orleans) lingered in the range of $10-12 million. The Saints tried, but $10 million was really as far as they could responsibly go. The Seahawks had a number in mind (I’m told it was around $10 million, too), and weren’t budging much. Tennessee, conversely, showed flexibility—and my guess is the incentives that can take him from $12 million to $15 million are there to help Clowney save face after walking away from the latter number. If it seems like a lot of work to get to an obvious end result, it was. But that Clowney got there is what matters. And he’s there now.
I’ve heard good things out of Green Bay about Aaron Rodgers’s mindset, and more than just how he’s managing his relationship with rookie Jordan Love. He’s even referenced, and spoken wistfully, internally about how things worked with Brett Favre, when Rodgers was in Love’s spot all those years ago. Being in Year 2 in Matt LaFleur’s offense has helped too, for obvious reasons, as has the ascent of a couple young guys around him. One is fourth-year back Jamaal Williams, who’s flashed in the past but hadn’t found real consistency until this summer. He’s cut weight, looks quicker, smarter and stronger, and has been sparked by competition from second-round pick A.J. Dillon. And another one is third-year receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling. To be honest, I was a little hesitant to point him out, because I touted him last summer too—ahead of a 26-catch season. But the physical tools have always been there with the UCF product and he, again, has the look of a guy ready to break out.
While we’re in the NFC North, keep an eye on Chicago’s rookie class. Fifth-round receiver Darnell Mooney has been really solid in camp, and his 4.38 speed could add an element to the Bears’ offense that it’s missing right now. And a classmate he’s gone one-on-one with plenty through the early stages, second-round corner Jaylon Johnson, has impressed too. Add second-round TE Cole Kmet to the mix—and Kmet’s one of those guys who’s solid all the way around in a he’s-gonna-have-a-10-year-career kind of way—and you have a group that should contribute pretty quickly. And getting that kind of production from a class that lacked a first-rounder (the last piece of the Mack trade) would be huge for a Chicago team that’s aging quickly in some key spots.
The Josh Rosen story was written early last year. I remember last September, people asking why Miami wasn’t starting Rosen—after all, they needed to get answers on him and Ryan Fitzpatrick, effective as he can be, wasn’t going to be the starter longterm—and the answer I found was strikingly simple. The Dolphins felt like they already knew what they had. Eventually, Rosen would get his shot, but it only confirmed how the staff felt, as did how the offense got on track once Fitzpatrick got back in the lineup. So how did Rosen’s star fall so quickly? It might be as simple as a lot of people (myself included) being wrong. The truth is, in Miami, it was a little bit of everything. For such a smart kid, Rosen wasn’t processing as quickly as the coaches would’ve liked. He didn’t have good feel for how fast the rush would come in the NFL. He didn’t get rid of the ball fast enough. He didn’t see the field fast enough. He relied on his arm to bail him out too much He played, as they saw it, with a general lack of urgency. On top of that, while people wound up liking Rosen there, it was acknowledged he was an acquired taste—he could come off as arrogant, and not one of the guys, until people took the time to get to know him better (and found he was actually a decent guy). Which, of course, played into preconceived notions of him. All of that was tough for Rosen to get past. Really, where the coaches could see the talent was as he threw in one-on-ones. Outside of that, there wasn’t a ton to work with. And I’ll admit, it was tough to wrap my head around it after having heard about Rosen’s gifts since he was an 18-year-old UCLA freshman. But that was the reality of it. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next, with Rosen reunited with Bucs OC Byron Leftwich (who coached him in Arizona), and in a room with Tom Brady. Hopefully, he gets a good long look there, and a real shot to right all that’s shown up wrong in his game.
I can’t imagine being Sidney Jones this weekend. The former second-round pick was shopped last week, then cut on Saturday. He cleared waivers Sunday, then signed on to join the Jaguars practice squad. But really, that story started in Seattle on the morning of March 11, 2017. That was Jones’s pro day, and the day everything changed for him—he snapped his Achilles on the final position drill of the workout. Prior to that, Jones was widely viewed right alongside Marshon Lattimore as a top corner in the draft class. Lattimore actually tweaked his hamstring at that year’s combine, then came back and did drills at his pro day, then went 11th overall to the Saints. Since, he’s made two Pro Bowls, and was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2017. Jones, meanwhile, fell to 43rd overall, where Philly took a flier on him. He missed all but one game of his rookie year rehabbing the Achilles, and struggled to stay healthy the last two years, playing in just 21 games, and starting eight of them. Lattimore has already made $12.8 million, is on the books for another $2.8 million this year, and is in line for a monster extension. Jones has made about $4.8 million, and sits on the fringes of the NFL. And all of this came down to a bad break in a pro day workout, which is a pretty good example of how thin the line is between making it and washing out in pro football.
On the bright side, for Philly, the roster cutdown was another good example of the depth of its roster. Three of the 17 guys claimed off waivers were Eagles, and they were one of only two teams to have multiple players poached (the Chiefs were the other). It’s a small thing, of course, but one that scouting departments take great pride in annually—knowing your roster is well-regarded around the league to the point where there’s demand for the guys you just let go. So here’s hoping GM Howie Roseman, VP of player personnel Andy Weidl, assistant director of player personnel Ian Cunningham, VP of football administration Jake Rosenberg and senior adviser Tom Donahoe got a chance to crack a beer on Sunday night after things settled down, and feel good about the job they did.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
With the season underway, we’re transitioning our Six from the Sideline section back to a college football/draft focus. Or we’ll have it that way as long as college football can survive the pandemic. So here’s Volume 1 for the 2020 season.
1) Trevor Lawrence has shown a lot of leadership off the field through the muck of the run-up to the 2020 season. He showed it again on Sunday by taking up for his teammates and friends in being the front man for a large group of college football players asking for schools and football programs to take five actionable steps aimed at making real change. We’ve seen Joe Burrow being similarly vocal on social justice lately, and it’s pretty cool to see younger players feeling compelled to step forward.
2) Tennessee had 44 players sidelined from workouts last week, and had to cancel Saturday’s intrasquad scrimmage as a result. Most interesting to me is that coach Jeremy Pruitt said the great majority of guys were taken off the field as a contact-tracing measure. I’ve seen how vigilant the NFL has been about it—the red light on the tracers on guys’ wrists and around their necks are hard to watch—and it’s not hard to see where that could wind up being a problem in college football. I’d stay tuned in on where the Vols’ situation goes.
3) I was floored to hear that Michigan president Mark Schlissel hadn’t talked to coach Jim Harbaugh at all (they’d texted and emailed, per Harbaugh) before voting to cancel the Big Ten season. Maybe it’s me, but I’d think doing something that could literally cost a school’s football players millions in future NFL earnings merits a conversation with the football coach.
4) NFL folks told me they’d have to do less than basketball, baseball and hockey to mask the empty stands—mostly because of how the sport is shot versus the others. Most of that rang true in what I watched of Southern Miss/South Alabama and Army/Middle Tennessee this weekend. During the actual game action, you couldn’t tell the normal crowd wasn’t there.
5) I’m legit fired up to see Lawrence play on Saturday. The idea of that seemed pretty unlikely a month ago, but here we are.
6) If you missed Kirk Herbstriet on Saturday, watch this … now.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Len seems excited to be relocating in Florida …
… and to play for Bruce Arians and with Tom Brady.
I tried to tell you guys about Joe Judge. If he was trying to be a Bill Belichick knockoff, I’m not sure this would be the way to do it.
What MDS and Clark are saying here is absolutely true. And it doesn’t mean you can’t criticize players. It’s more an acknowledgment of just how hard it is to even get invited to a training camp at the NFL level.
The Texans repurposed this over the weekend, and it’s a good sign of who Watson is—he gave his first game check to cafeteria workers struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. I’m not sure how many 22-year-old rookies would’ve even thought to do that.
And you should take the time to watch the first 13 minutes or so of this—the Texans had Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, Astros ace Justin Verlander, a Make-A-Wish kid fighting leukemia who Watson befriended and Watson’s family on to congratulate him on his new contract. Credit to Houston PR chief Amy Palcic for setting up a real cool look into Watson’s life.
He’s got 156 million reasons to smile.
Yup, that worked on me. I felt ancient seeing him on TV the other night.
Good to see the camaraderie there. Adrian Peterson landing in Detroit was, of course, in large part due to Peterson’s background with Lions OC, and ex-Vikings OC Darrell Bevell, and it should be good for the young backs there (Johnson himself and D’Andre Swift). But here’s a cool side plot to whole thing: Peterson needs 1,054 yards to move into third on the all-time rushing list, which would mean passing … Barry Sanders. It seems unlikely that Peterson would do it this year, as a Lion, but it also would’ve seemed unlikely a few years ago that Peterson would still be playing. So I’m not ruling anything out.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Football is damn close to being here. Just four days away. And we went pretty much the entire column without mentioning the NFL’s handling of the pandemic, which means we’re in a pretty good place to be kicking off with Chiefs/Texans.
We’ll have more on that one coming in the MAQB.