TAMPA— I spent two days down here and, full disclosure, Day 1 had me wondering.
There were throws in the dirt. There were drops. Maybe strangest of all, there was No. 12, the hyper-intense, hyper-detailed legendary prize-fighter of a quarterback, in the middle of it all, handing the situation with, weirdly enough … positivity?
Nice play, Huddy!
Way to go, Mike!
Great bench route, Chris!
All day, fellas!
This, at least to me, looked like a different Tom Brady than the one I’d seen in New England over the last two decades. And coupled with the practice I was watching—the kind that would set him off on the practice fields of Foxboro—I started to think about, and probably overthink, what I was seeing.
That was eight days ago. The next day, last Monday, I asked Bruce Arians about this relentless sunshine-pumping, coming from the most relentless competitor I’ve ever been around.
“Oh, I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” Arians told me, laughing. “I mean, he has not gotten on anybody’s ass at all. If he’s gonna get on anybody’s ass, it’s back behind when somebody else is taking reps. Then, he’ll talk to them.”
And then, Arians revealed that Brady actually did say something after that practice.
“He gave a great speech to the whole offense, once the coaches left the room,” Arians continued. “His leadership is unquestionable. But man, he is so positive with those guys out there. They’re just eating it up.”
Meet the new Tom Brady, same as the old Tom Brady.
The packaging is different. But the idea hasn’t changed.
The second day I was there was much better.
We’re 10 days out from real NFL football. I can’t wait, nor can I wait for all of you to get a look inside this week’s column. Here, you’ll find …
• A look at a wild week in the NFL on the social justice front.
• Details on the big Sunday trade that made Yannick Ngakoue a Viking.
• A fun look at the seven-camp swing I took.
• A ton of notes.
But we’re starting at Camp 12.
As it turns out, that players-only meeting wasn’t exactly Brady flipping over the Gatorade table, either. Instead, the quarterback, after waiting for the coaches to clear the room, delivered a very clear, concise message to his teammates.
“You gotta show up every day,” is how O.J. Howard recalled it. “There’s no days off. With a lot of guys in general, for me, playing football over the years, when you have so much talent, it can get to the point where you start going through the motions, because you can depend on someone else to step up and make a play. But it shouldn’t be that way. It should be everyone on the same page, everyone coming with their hard hat every day.”
“Tom, he expects us to come to work with a lot of energy and to compete every single day,” second-year slot receiver Scotty Miller added. “And we set these goals, and we gotta put in the work to achieve these goals. That’s what he expects from us every single day, to go out there with our goals in mind, give it our all and compete with energy. If we do that, as you know, we got all the talent in the world, all the talent we need to get to where we want to go.
“That’s what Tom wanted out of us—we cannot take a day off, ever.”
Which is how we get back to this being the same Brady.
He’s 43 now and, by all accounts, he’s done everything he can to blend in with everyone else here. The stories of how he greets new teammates—Hi, I’m Tom—as if he needed the introduction to them are the same as they were in New England. By now, you know he organized the workouts on the campus of tony Berkeley Prep this summer, and he played a couple rounds of golf before camp with Arians and quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen.
“I think we split,” Arians said. “He had the pro for his partner, the pro shot like 65. So we got our ass kicked that day. But I think Clyde and I got him the next time.”
But make no mistake about this—his presence is felt in every inch of this place, and has been since the minute he arrived. That, in fact, is part of what attracted the Bucs to him in the first place. They knew that Brady’s standard would be their collective standard once he punched the clock the first time and they’ve gotten what they paid for, in full, in that regard.
That meeting was one piece of it. There are plenty more.
Attention to detail. Brady’s played quarterback in the NFL for two decades, so his volume of knowledge is off the charts. That much doesn’t need to be restated. But what you may not know is that it’s at the point now where he’s not just capable of running an offense—if you’re a teammate of his, he could probably be your position coach too.
And by that, I mean, there are pretty minute details he’s drilling the fellas on.
“Last year, I had a problem—I never really noticed it, it was just a bad habit. I would, when I was running my vertical routes, or routes down the field, turn my head back too soon, and it’d have me running with my shoulders sideways,” Howard said. “And Tom kept stressing to me, Keep your shoulders forward, keep your arms pumping, and find the ball late, just track it. He’s done a great job with me on that. I’m keeping those shoulders straight, and it helps allow me not to slow down in my routes.”
“One thing that he’s focused on with me, let’s say I’m running a deep ball, whether it be a fade or go, there’s certain yardage where, once we beat the DB, he wants us to get our eyes up, get our eyes back to him,” Miller said. “That way, he can really feel us out, he can tell if we want a back-shoulder ball, or if we really beat the guy, he’ll put it over the top. We have a bunch of different deep concepts where he wants us to give us his eyes at specific yard markers. That’s one detail that’s been key for us.”
So in Howard’s example, a teammate of Brady’s is playing faster. In Miller’s, a teammate is helping Brady throw a better ball. And everyone benefits.
Building confidence. Here’s why I chose to speak to Miller and Howard: Several Bucs people brought them up as guys who’ve exploded as players for having Brady as their quarterback. Part of that’s from details like the ones mentioned above. Another part is simpler. They’re more confident, in general, getting to work with him.
“When the Greatest of All Time tells you you’re pretty good—like, Hey, what a route! Great job! Or, Try this, and it works—it gives you a ton of confidence,” Arians said. “That’s really all it takes, that one little bit of confidence, and he can take that next step to become a heck of a player.”
Both guys confirmed that, as I was told, they are playing with more confidence than they had been before. It helps, of course, being in their second year in Arians’s offense.
But neither questioned that Brady’s helping to unlock that self-assuredness, too.
“He just gives us so many specifics, in where he wants us to be, so many details,” Miller said. “So when I know those things, and I know exactly what I’m doing out there, and what he wants me to do, I think that really helps me go out there and play fast, and be myself and make plays.”
“How to get open on certain routes, how he’s expecting the defender to play certain coverages vs. certain routes, and what he expects out of us as receivers and tight ends, all of that has allowed me to play fast,” Howard said. “It’s definitely been really helpful for me.”
The standard’s up for the coaches, too. Over the years, both Josh McDaniels and Bill O’Brien have said how tough it was coaching Brady—he was so smart, and so prepared, that an offensive coach had to work overtime to give him something new or challenge him in a way he hadn’t been challenged before.
Arians has certainly felt that.
And for him, Christensen and senior assistant Tom Moore, the time they had working with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis helped ready them for this experience. So just as Brady’s been pushed to learn a whole new language (Howard told me the offense is “really the same” as it was last year), he’s pushing the staff in his own way—which probably explains why he and OC Byron Leftwich were inseparable in the two days I was here.
“The verbiage was all new, so that part was a little hard on him,” Arians said. “Just learning all the verbiage—Hey, I wanna change this protection, what’s that called? And getting to where it’s a second language to him, that’s still happening. But yeah, having been with Peyton, as his coach, if it was an hour meeting, you better have two hours’ worth of stuff, because if you brought an hour, he’d buzz through it, and get bored, then get pissed.
“And it’s the same with Tom. He wants all the information. It’s fun, I’m happy he’s into the virtual reality stuff too, because that really has allowed him to get live reps over again.”
He’s holding himself to that standard too. Which is probably the ultimate key here. It’s hard to preach it if you’re not practicing it. Brady is, without question, doing that, and that virtual reality program is proof.
Per Arians, Brady hadn’t used the technology, from a company called Strivr, before. The coach actually started with it back in Arizona, and Carson Palmer raved about it to Arians (see Peter King’s 2015 story for The MMQB about Palmer using it), so Arians went to Brady with the idea. Brady, in turn, saw it as a new way to stack more work on top of what he was already doing in learning his new offense.
That is to say, he embraced it right away.
“Everything we do, we film for virtual reality with Strivr,” Arians said. “When you go back in, you put a headset on and you’re actually back at practice. And you see the exact play you just ran, versus the right blitz, so you can have all those practice reps over again. You can sit in the room and drop back, or just sit there and watch it. We did this all the time in Arizona, our backup quarterbacks, that’s how they got a lot of reps in practice.
“He’d never had it. He was like, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’ You turn around and see the running back, you look out, you see the coach. It’s crazy how good it is.”
So when another player walks by the room, after another 100-degree practice, and sees Brady wearing a headset in a dark room, and moving his feet around like a boxer during some downtime? Chances are, he’ll feel compelled to be just as invested.
Now, the elephant in the room is that what Brady’s doing is, and continues to be, without precedent. We saw how fast Manning lost it at the end. Brett Favre, too. And Brady’s 43, which makes it difficult not to think that a quick demise will eventually be in play.
But the quarterback the players are seeing in Tampa is the same one many of them have watched since they were kindergartners—and that’s not an exaggeration (Howard was a first-grader when Brady won his first Super Bowl, and Miller was in preschool). And if he can maintain that, which, again, isn’t guaranteed, then there are a lot of pieces in place here.
Brady’s got Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Miller at receiver; Howard, Rob Gronkowski and Cam Brate at tight end; Ronald Jones and Shady McCoy at tailback; plus a line that’s improved, and is adding a first-round tackle.
“I’m pretty stoked, man,” Howard said. “We have a lot of talent. It’s gonna be special to see. Every week, it’s gonna be a new guy making plays. There are always guys making plays here, every practice. Live bullets, it’s gonna be fun to go out there every week and see—Hey, it may be your day, it may be Scotty’s day, it may be someone else’s day. It’s gonna be fun.”
Miller then used the same word, stoked, before adding, “I’m extremely excited.”
Arians is too, for sure. And it’s not just because of that talent he’s putting around Brady, either. It’s all of the above, plus how this has become Camp 12 and how that’s affected everyone in the building.
The expectations externally are, of course, higher than they’ve been for Tampa since Jon Gruden’s heyday. And that’s OK with the guys here. Because internally, thanks to Brady, that bar’s been set even higher. For the coach, that much was clear on that Sunday, eight days ago, after he heard what came out of that meeting.
“It was just reinforcement, Hey, there’s too much talent in here. We’ve gotta pick it up, we don’t have that much time left,” Arians recounted, before emphasizing that he’s trying to drive that home too. “Every day I talk to them about it. If we stay healthy, if we beat the virus, we’re gonna beat a lot of teams.”
And if you listen to Brady out there, it’s not hard to hear how he deeply he believes it.
FOOTBALL TAKES A BACK SEAT
Overnight, Monday into Tuesday, Lions coach Matt Patricia got a text from his chief of staff, Kevin Anderson, that was pretty simple and direct.
You see what’s happening in Wisconsin?
Patricia woke up to that on Tuesday morning and, since he’d been knee deep in camp work, answered that he hadn’t seen much yet, but that he’d get right on it. It didn’t take long for the 45-year-old, as he started reading, to understand the gravity of the situation.
“I don’t really feel like talking about football,” he told the players, as they gathered for a team meeting a couple hours later, coming back from a day off on Monday.
So for about two-and-a-half hours thereafter, the coaches and players spoke frankly and openly about the shooting of Jacob Blake, which, to those in the room, felt like a continuation of the discussions they had in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in May. And as the meeting wound down, the coaches handed the baton to the players, asking them how they’d like to handle the rest of the day.
On Tuesday, practice wound up getting canceled and the team staged a demonstration outside its practice facility, one that went viral on social media, with veteran safety Duron Harmon addressing the media thereafter. Eventually, later in the week, the Lions would get back to work. But the precedent they set sparked a tidal wave of cancellations across sports.
On Wednesday, the Milwaukee Bucks decided to strike instead of playing against the Orlando Magic, and the NBA’s whole playoff slate for that night was canceled. And NFL teams started to follow the Lions’ lead too.
In Indianapolis, the Colts’ social impact committee went to coach Frank Reich to voice its feeling that football needed to take a backseat for a day, after a players-only meeting earlier Wednesday night. Reich agreed, and addressed the team on Thursday morning, fully willing to concede that he needed to follow the players’ lead on this one.
What he said, I’m told, was along these lines: What happens with white privilege, we want to talk about these things when it’s convenient for us. The Black man doesn’t have that luxury.
From there, the Colts had all players and coaches register to vote, then the players went into six hours of meetings with David Thornton and player engagement staff. They came out with four areas where they wanted to focus their efforts: voter registration, police relationships in the Black community, education for underprivileged children and food access for school kids who might be missing classroom time due to the pandemic.
So did teams like the Lions and Colts change the world this week? Maybe not.
But I’d tell their stories to give you a microcosm of what’s happening in the NFL. These are sensitive topics for a lot of people and, as such, in some places the discussions within teams got emotional and even contentious, from what I understand. But as I see it, that’s a good thing.
That means people are being honest with each other, and making themselves vulnerable, and my feeling is that’s what leads to real progress. In fact, that’s probably why we saw so many teams emerge from these meetings with actionable plans—because they were able to sort through what was really important to the guys in the room.
And that says, to me, that the league took more steps forward on the social front this week, and more meaningful ones than those taken simply by writing checks.
What’ll be interesting from here is to see owner involvement. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, who’s been pretty progressive in this area for some time, said on a call with local and national media on Sunday that he sees a “sea change” among owners—“they’re embarrassed by our country, embarrassed and hurt.”
I can say that players are eager to see the owners show it. I’ve been asked a lot the last couple days if I think NFL players might walk away from games like the NBA, WNBA, MLB and NHL players did last week. The truth is, I’d need to know what’s happening in our country at a given time to answer that. I don’t know what the climate will be in America in 10 days, when the Chiefs and Texans kick off, nor do I have a clue what it’ll be in two months.
But I do know this—the players will want the support of their bosses going forward, no matter what happens next, and that could impact their decision-making in how they handle wherever all of this goes. If Lurie’s right, they’ll get it.
YANNICK GETS HIS WISH
Overnight on Saturday into Sunday, the Vikings and Yannick Ngakoue’s camp were working through proposals—some that included a lower base and incentives, others just a hard cut from the $17.788 million franchise tag Ngakoue had been assigned in March—and by the time the sun came up in the Central time zone, the deal was done. And one thing was abundantly clear.
Ngakoue very badly wanted out of Jacksonville.
How badly? He was willing to take $5.788 million less (without incentives) than he otherwise would’ve made just to stay with the Jaguars for the next four months. And so now, on that one-year, $12 million deal, he gets to play opposite Danielle Hunter, and for Mike Zimmer, on a team that’s made the playoffs in three of the last five years and had a top-10 scoring defense the last five years in a row.
The rest of the fallout for the parties involved …
For Ngakoue: The trouble here is next year’s franchise tag number might wind up being lower than this year’s (because of the falling cap) and, in taking the pay cut, he loses the benefit of the second tag being 120% of his previous year’s cap number. That said, the Vikings made a good-faith pledge to Ngakoue’s camp to negotiate a fair long-term deal when it’s allowed by rule, after the 2020 season. He’ll still be just 25 then. And he’s seen as an exceedingly good fit for Mike Zimmer’s defense, which should help him put up the kind of year that would prompt a mega-offer from Minnesota.
For the Vikings: They replace Everson Griffen and, again, have one of the best bookend pass-rush tandems in football, and give a core that’s aging—Kirk Cousins is 32; Harrison Smith is 31; Kyle Rudolph and Adam Thielen are 30; Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are 28—another Pro Bowl-level talent to go to battle with. And Hunter, also 25, and Ngakoue set up as pieces to build around long-term, after the older guys are gone.
For the Jaguars: All the way back at the draft, you heard, Jacksonville’s the Trevor Lawrence team, which was essentially a way of saying that the Jags were stripping down the operation in 2020 with their eyes on 2021 and beyond. Hard to argue that now, when you look at the list of players gone from a stellar defense that carried the team to the AFC title game just 31 months ago …
• DE Yannick Ngakoue
• DE Dante Fowler
• DL Calais Campbell
• DT Marcell Dareus
• DT Malik Jackson
• LB Paul Posluszny
• LB Telvin Smith
• CB Jalen Ramsey
• CB A.J. Bouye
That’s a lot of talent out the door. Conversely, the Jags had three of the top 42 picks in April’s draft (C.J. Henderson, K’Lavon Chaisson, Laviska Shenault), and have four picks in the first two rounds of next year’s draft. That doesn’t guarantee anything, and they’d still almost certainly need to be the worst team in football to get Lawrence (it’s unlikely whoever lands that pick trades it). But at the very least, the direction here is clear. Also, waiting wound up being prudent. The Vikings’ haul was the first hard offer they got that involved a second-round pick (and they got the 2022 conditional fifth, that could be a third or fourth, to boot).
And so, with five days left until final cuts, the trade market finally moved. We’ll have more on that in a minute.
A CAMP TRIP UNLIKE ANY OTHER
This year’s camp trip was super different for me. Normally, I’ll try and see close to three-quarters of the league between the end of July and the opener. And this year, because of (very understandable) access rules, there wasn’t great value in doing that.
But what’s happening now is historic, and so there was plenty of value in getting out and seeing how all of this was working. So I decided I’d rent a car, go down the East Coast and hit all the teams I could along the way—then go to Florida to see a certain older man who spent his professional prime in the Northeast, and chose to go to a warmer climate to close out his career.
The result was a seven-camp itinerary, and a bunch of stories gathered along the way. And some smaller stuff for me to parcel out to you guys too. Here’s some of that …
Signs of COVID-19
Patriots: At the far end of the team’s practice field, there’s a giant trailer that’d been used for … I’m not sure what over the years. I’ve never seen it open before. This year, there are two windows that, from far away, almost look like where you’d order from a food truck. One has a sign that says “athletic training” on it, the other “equipment,” two vital pieces of the football operation displaced as a result of distancing measures taken.
Jets: When you pull into the team’s expansive suburban facility, and get past the guard shack, you basically circle the practice field to get to the parking lot—and once you take a right at the corner, you can see a line of four tents set up to left, with maybe a dozen workers in hospital scrubs, plastic jackets and masks. By the time I arrived, their busy time had just ended. Media was instructed not to show up before a certain time, which allowed for all the testing to happen as guys arrived, and before reporters got there.
Giants: Four luxury coach busses are parked right at the side of the practice field, in a way that looks vaguely like a visiting high school team would arrive for a scrimmage. Why are they there? The Giants moved 90% of their football operations into MetLife Stadium, across a massive parking lot. So the players and coaches commute over from the stadium to the team’s practice facility, to use the fields there, via bus.
Eagles: I brought a neck gaiter and a cloth mask with me on the trip. The Eagles were the one team I visited where that wasn’t good enough. As all reporters enter, and go through the normal protocol—getting your temperature taken, and showing that you answered the standard questionnaire online—they’re handed paper masks (the kind you’d get in a hospital) for practice. Which, I learned on that day, get really warm when it’s 90 and humid.
Ravens: Anyone who’s been to Baltimore’s facility knows why it’s referred to as The Castle. It was modeled after a well-known country club, and looks palatial as a result. And while that ambiance is still there, it’s definitely a different feeling pulling past security and entering the facility, which is tucked in the woods in Owings Mills. The first thing you see? Three signs: Testing A-G, Testing H-Q, Testing R-Z.
Buccaneers: Here, media arrives at a prescribed time, and then lines up for temperature taking—without anyone getting out of a car. Once you pull up to the gate of a fenced-in parking lot, to the right of the team facility, you show the guard a green checkmark on your phone, signifying completion of a COVID-19 questionnaire, and then you dip your head, so he can take your temperature.
Dolphins: After going through the same stuff I did at the previous six stops—filling out a questionnaire on symptoms and who I’d crossed paths with, and getting my temperature taken—a PR assistant handed me a pass with a seat assignment (not normal at camp). It said 118 and basically had me sharing a relatively expansive pavilion area atop the stands with the Miami Herald’s Armando Salguero. The purpose, obviously, was to keep reporters spread out, and we got an internet connection, large fan, and power outlet for our troubles.
Name to watch
Patriots: OLB/ILB Josh Uche. Primarily an EDGE player at Michigan, New England saw inside/outside versatility with Uche because of his build and instincts, and it’s clear that he’s made an impression early in training camp. Bill Belichick has overseen transitioning EDGE/linebacker hybrids off the line of scrimmage in the past (Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Kyle Van Noy). And if Uche can pull it off, it sure could help fill the void left by Dont’a Hightower’s opt out.
Jets: TE Chris Herndon. It wasn’t hard to see him jump out on the day I was there, and it’s just as obvious, talking to people there, how losing Herndon last year (he only played in one game, due to injury and suspension) affected Sam Darnold. The staff loves the rapport they’ve seen between the two with Herndon back now. If Darnold’s draft classmate can stay healthy, he could well wind up being a centerpiece in the passing game.
Giants: TE Evan Engram. It’s not breaking any news to say Engram’s got a boatload of ability. Everyone knows that. Everyone also knows that injuries have been a problem. But what was interesting to me was just how dominant he was in practice the day I was there, and how he’s fit into new coach Joe Judge’s program. In the former first-round pick, the staff has found a worker, and a very football-intelligent player, which is exactly what they’re looking for across the board.
Eagles: DE Josh Sweat. The former five-star prep recruit looked freakish on the day I was there, and Philly has pretty consistently seen the big, long defensive end flash that ability the last few weeks. I watched him at the end of a two-minute period absolutely turnstile left tackle Andre Dillard (obviously, before Dillard got hurt) for a sack. Sweat’s another guy where health remains the question. But man, he can play.
Ravens: WR Hollywood Brown/TE Mark Andrews. Alright, so these aren’t really breakout candidates—these guys were 1-2 in catches, yards and touchdown catches for the team last year. But both guys changed their bodies this offseason, and the coaches believe both are playing faster as a result now. Which is a pretty scary prospect, given all the Ravens were already giving defenses to account for.
Bucs: CB/S Antoine Winfield Jr. The second-round pick has been making plays on a daily basis, and Tampa’s going to find a way to get him on the field as a rookie. For Arians, Winfield brings hints of what the coach had in Tyrann Mathieu and Budda Baker in Arizona, a combo safety who can do a million different things. Having a player like that also should go a long way in further unlocking Todd Bowles’s hyper-aggressive scheme.
Dolphins: G Solomon Kindley. Post-Laremy Tunsil, Miami needs help all over the offensive line. Kindley, a fourth-round pick, looks ready to give it to the Dolphins. Through a physical camp, he’s excelled to the point where I’d be surprised if he isn’t starting against the Patriots on Sept. 13. He’ll likely be one of two or three rookies on that line, which also happens to be why going with Ryan Fitzpatrick, for now, is the smart play for Miami.
Patriots: How will the rookies play? New England may wind up relying on more of them this year, and more heavily on them at certain spots (LB, TE), than they’ve relied on a group of rookies in a decade, going back to the Devin McCourty/Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez class of 2010.
Jets: Who’s playing receiver? There are questions about the line, too, but at least there they know who’ll be on the field. At receiver, it’s more of a scramble, with Breshad Perriman, Chris Hogan, Jamison Crowder, Denzel Mims, Braxton Berrios and darkhorse Jeff Smith in the mix.
Giants: How will rookies fare at the tackle spots? It sure looks like you could have both spots manned by draft picks, with Andrew Thomas on the left side and Matt Peart on the right. How they hold up should help determine Daniel Jones’s 2020 fate.
Eagles: Who’s playing guard? With Dillard down, and Jason Peters back out at left tackle, the question is who’ll take Brandon Brooks’s old spot. They’ve spent a lot of time developing Matt Pryor, drafted Jack Driscoll high and have an intriguing prospect in ex-Australian rugby star Jordan Mailata as contenders. But it’s important to remember that, in Brooks, they’re replacing an elite player.
Ravens: How do the pieces in the secondary fit together? With Earl Thomas gone, DeShon Elliott slides into his old role. But then the questions become how they deploy Jimmy Smith, who could become the kind of combo player Brandon Carr was last year, and how Chuck Clark is affected. High-class problem here, but one that has to be worked out for Wink Martindale to run as flexible a scheme as he did last year.
Bucs: Is there enough offensive line depth? Tristan Wirfs turned a corner over the last 10 days at right tackle and Alex Cappa’s coming along at guard, so Tampa feels good about the two question marks they entered camp with up front. But a couple injuries could create a very real problem.
Dolphins: How young is too young on the offensive line? Yup, another line question in a year where lines are going to be tested, thanks to the relative lack of work they’ve gotten together. Miami has three guys in Austin Jackson, Robert Hunt and Kindley who they like. Would you be OK playing all three? There’s not a ton of NFL precedent for it.
The trade market’s been slow, and I’m not sure how much the Ngakoue deal shifts that paradigm. Thing is, we knew for months that Ngakoue was available. There was another trade this week, with linebacker Raekwon McMillan going from Miami to Vegas, but that was the result of the Dolphins actively shopping McMillan. Situations like those are fairly cut and dried. The players were clearly available. Conversely, deals aren’t happening organically this year, as they normally would be, for a few different reasons.
1) No one is getting to see other teams’ players in preseason. So most talks between teams to this point, I’m told, have consisted of personnel guys asking, Where are you guys heavy and where are you guys light? And there’s a lot of guessing going on.
2) The prospect of a cap shortfall in 2021 gives teams less financial flexibility to take on guys with big numbers in future years, or work on extensions with guys in contract years.
3) Despite the NFL’s outstanding start on the COVID front, teams still have their guard up, and they know that depth could wind up being a bigger factor this year than ever before (and it’s always important). So, naturally, spare parts are less dispensable.
4) Expanded practice squads, and the allowance for six veterans to be among the 16, changes some dynamics. There might be, for instance, a guy who won’t make your 53 this year that you’d have shopped in the past, but now want to sneak through to your practice squad.
Now, some things may wind up shaking loose this week. I certainly think there’ll be players out there on the block for fiscal reasons. And in other cases, maybe some team will take a swing on a guy who might not have been thought to be available—and hit. But for the most part, the way things are trending, I’d guess there’ll be less trade action in general than we’ve had in the past, and maybe a lot less than we had in a very active 2019.
LSU WR Ja’Marr Chase is one college opt-out who should get your attention. Not only is he fully expected to be the top receiver taken next year, had he been draft-eligible, he may have been the first receiver to go back in April, too. “He’s easy [to evaluate],” said one AFC college scouting director. “He’s a first-rounder, no doubt about it, and the best receiver in the class. You can compare his height and weight to [Minnesota opt-out Rashod] Bateman, but he’s a step faster, he’s stronger, just a really strong kid, with very good hands. And he’s a really good athlete. … He comes from a good [high school] program there in New Orleans, he was a five-star recruit, yeah, he’s an easy evaluation. He blocks, he plays hard, just does everything. He’s just really good, there are no holes in skill set. You’ll have to see how fast he is, that’s the question, but word out of there is he’s faster than you’d think.” So yeah, tough to argue with the call Chase is making.
I think Brian Urlacher’s social-media activity last week is indicative of how we’ve stopped listening to each other. If you missed it, the Hall of Famer lined up Brett Favre playing through his father’s death—and starring in a MNF game the night after it happened—as an equivalent to NBA players deciding not to play playoff games this week. It’s a little ridiculous to compare the two to begin with. Favre played through personal tragedy, in part because he thought it was the best way to honor his dad. If he’d decided he couldn’t go that night? I don’t think anyone would’ve thought less of him. He made a choice that was his own, and his way of going through the grieving process was, I’m pretty sure, respected by everyone. What happened in Wisconsin last week connects in no way to that, nor does the response of the NBA players. In fact, if I try and contort myself to find the connection, it’d actually be this—just as Favre’s decision to play that night illuminated his dad’s life, the basketball players’ collective decision not to play illuminated a problem that’s deeply personal for a whole lot of them. But that’s just the false equivalency piece of it. To me, what’s worse is completely ignoring what athletes across sports were doing in skipping practices and games this week. My interpretation is that they were saying, We won’t be your distraction this time around. I’d say it worked, too. Instead of listening to that, though, Urlacher drew his own conclusions. Which, to me, reflects how we’ve become so divided as a country. No one seems to listen to anyone outside their own echo chamber anymore. And that sucks.
I’m excited to see what the Seahawks secondary looks like. Jamal Adams has come as advertised through his first few weeks in Seattle. But just as notable has been the emergence of second-year centerfielder Marquise Blair—who flashed speed and playmaking ability throughout, now 16 months out from Seattle having taken him in the second round. And theoretically, you could say that he’d be easy to slot into the old Earl Thomas role, with Quandre Diggs as a movable piece. The only thing is that Blair has the flexibility to move down and cover in the slot. And Adams does too. And this is why Pete Carroll and those in Seattle have been pretty tight-lipped about where the defense he’s run for over a decade there is going next. Given the versatility of the three safeties, and that the Seahawks are happy with outside corners Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers, Carroll and DC Ken Norton have a lot at their fingertips, and I’d expect they’re going to look a little different on defense than they have as a result.
My sense is that Nick Foles is a nose ahead of Mitch Trubisky in the Bears’ QB competition. And it doesn’t surprise me, while we’re there, that Matt Nagy would want to try and keep quiet who the winner of that derby is until the very end (which is what he said he’ll do after Saturday’s scrimmage at Soldier Field). To me, it’s the only true-to-life battle at that position in the league. In Miami, Ryan Fitzpatrick is taking the first-team reps. Tyrod Taylor’s doing the same for the Chargers. And Cam Newton’s clearly emerged in New England. It’s hard to blame those coaches, given the constraints at hand, and the need to build rapport and develop a scheme for the offensive players ahead of Week 1. In Chicago, as Nagy promised, the reps have been split, and if you’re going this far into the summer with it (we’re seven days away from a game week), then I understand wanting to keep the Lions, at the very least, in the dark on who they’re preparing to face in Week 1 for long as possible. In the end, I do think Foles will maintain the slim lead he has now. But I also believe the Bears coaches are being earnest in wanting to see more before making the call there final.
Alexander Mattison’s emergence in Minnesota adds an interesting layer to the Dalvin Cook saga. One big reason why NFL teams are so reluctant to give running backs big money is pretty simple—they’re too easy to find. You don’t need to spend a first-round pick on one. And maybe if you’re looking in the third or fourth round, you won’t find Zeke Elliott or Saquon Barkley. But what you might find is often close enough. Which brings us to Mattison. The Vikings spent a third-round pick on him in 2019, he averaged 4.6 yards per carry as a rookie and he’s hit the ground running in Year 2. I’m told he looks faster and more explosive than he did before, and has had a great camp carrying himself like a seasoned pro. Now, is he Cook? Probably not. But consider this—Mattison is due just $2.2 million total over the next three years. Re-upping Cook might cost you $15 million per year. I’m not great at math, but I’d say it wouldn’t be hard to come by an analysis that going with Mattison over Cook after this year is the right thing to do. And that also, by the way, is why Cook has to do all he can to get paid. His leverage, based on all the above, isn’t getting stronger with time.
I’ve heard the Texans’ work through a month has been crisp. And that’s, at least in part, thanks to the focus over the last couple years on culture. The players the Texans have brought in—guys like Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb—are pros, and the practices have reflected that, as has the toughness of a team that’s now built through the lines of scrimmage. It took some gambling, of course, to get here, and it’s certainly possible the exodus of guys like Jadeveon Clowney and DeAndre Hopkins will exact a price when the games come. But my sense is Bill O’Brien has the building where he wants it. And it’s something he actually brought up, when we discussed players policing each other this year, in being careful COVID-wise. “Every year, your team’s different. This year we really wanted to have a team that had really good leaders,” he told me. “Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt and Brandon Dunn and Bernardrick McKinney and Darren Fells, and then we added other great leaders like Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb, in addition to Nick Martin and Laremy Tunsil, guys like Justin Reid, there’s no doubt that they’re going to police each other. These guys wanna win. It’s really important to them to be a winning football team.” And, again, that’s shown up, with kickoff just 10 days away.
I’m not surprised in the least to hear Dwayne Haskins’s assessment of his relationship with Alex Smith, a few weeks in. In meeting with the D.C. media, Haskins referred to Smith as a “big brother” and a mentor, and that would surprise no in San Francisco or Kansas City, who saw him with Colin Kaepernick or Patrick Mahomes. Just the same, I know Haskins’s excitement for Smith is genuine. “He got some 9-on-9 reps in, and a couple times, he felt how real that pass rush is,” Haskins said. “Alex is an ultra-competitive guy, and we had a conversation after practice today about just how important it was for him to get back out there. I’m extremely happy for him, proud of him, have so much respect for him and know what type of guy he is on and off the field.” There’s also, obviously, real football benefit here for Haskins and Kyle Allen, in working with Smith. The staff there has seen it up close—how Smith is able to draw on his own experiences, and his ups and downs, to give the younger QBs lessons. And his off-the-charts retention in learning the offense has both set a high bar for the others and given Smith instant credibility as not just a player, but a teacher in that room. I don’t know if Haskins will wind up being the long-term answer in D.C., or if Allen will be either, for that matter. But I do know that both guys have a better shot at it, and the team will probably get an answer on it more quickly, because Smith is in the room.
File this away: Solomon Thomas is playing really well in Niners camp. The first draft pick of the Kyle Shanahan/John Lynch era has been largely a disappointment in San Francisco, and the team didn’t pick up his injury-guaranteed fifth-year option for 2021. And yes, the thought of it clicking for Thomas has come up before—a year ago the arrival of then-new D-line coach Kris Kocurek, who brough an aggressive style and wider splits, was expected to be a boon for Thomas. Thing is, last year, in a loaded position group, snaps were hard to come by. This year, with DeForest Buckner gone, there should be more opportunity for Thomas. And the Niners are at least hopeful that the former third overall pick is in as good a position as he’s ever been to take advantage of it.
One thing that was crystal clear at training camp: There was a ton more 11-on-11 than I’ve become accustomed to seeing. So the idea that coaches might rethink the idea of camp? Yeah, you can throw that out the window all together. The loss of joint practices and preseason games, and any semblance of offseason on-field work, simply had coaches trying to replace what they could of what they were missing. And it was interesting in talking to John Harbaugh about his brother Jim, and whether he’d consulted with the Michigan coach on how they work around time constraints at the college level. John said he had, but then added that even what colleges are working with isn’t totally applicable. “I always know what they’re doing as far as how he organizes his camp, his scripts, his timeframe,” John said. “It is like the colleges, but the difference is the colleges, they have spring practices, and they also build up to this. They bring their guys back in June and they’re there all summer, they’re working conditioning all summer, they’re doing individual workouts. They even do 7-on-7 on their own, they do group work on their own. According to the rules, it’s legal. So it is like college in the pure sense of training camp. It’s not like college in that we’re not getting as much work as they’re getting leading into it. It’s not exactly like college.” And thus, in many ways, NFL coaches were working, in certain ways, from scratch on this one. And that the result of that was fairly consistent, from camp to camp, to me, was interesting.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1) Yes, I watched Austin Peay-Central Arkansas on Saturday night. And yes, I checked on Saturday morning to see if College GameDay was on. (It wasn’t.)
2) In the weirdest of college football seasons, we have more games this coming weekend, but not a major conference game until the weekend after that. The first one? Trevor Lawrence and Clemson take on Wake Forest at noon on Sept. 12.
3) The Big Ten’s handling of the cancellation of its fall season has been a total crapshow. That’s established, and reinforced, by how the other conferences were caught off guard by the announcement, after working with the Big Ten on plans before that. And now, as I see it, the league (and I’m a fourth-generation Big Ten alum, for clarity’s sake) has an opportunity. They can watch the SEC, ACC and Big 12 open camps. They can watch the rates at their own schools. They can, yes, communicate with their football coaches. And they can be open-minded in considering an October start in the process. Whether the conference office or school presidents like it or not, the Big Ten is much more SEC than it is Ivy League. Football is a huge part of the identity of our schools. And it should be treated as such.
4) Really great idea by the NBA to turn their arenas into polling places in November, and it should be especially important in an election year when, because of COVID, having a lot of space is really important.
5) That mess between the Mets and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred on canceling the game the other night was … not that surprising, given how baseball has handled 2020.
6) My camp trip was the first time I’d left New England since the lockdown began in March, and I gotta say that I’m worried for our cities. Pretty tough seeing these places I’d been countless times looking like ghost towns, with storefronts boarded up, and pieces of their identities stripped away. I don’t know how we’re going to fix it, but it’s going to take a lot of work.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Good message, but I have a feeling there’s a BCC on this tweet, so to speak.
We all thought 2012 was a banner draft class for quarterbacks. I’m not sure many thought the 5′ 10″ guy who was the sixth taken among them would wind up being the best one.
Mike Tomlin’s going into Year 14 in Pittsburgh, just one shy of Bill Cowher’s 15 years. Watch this, and you’ll see how he’s been able to last that long. And you’ll also see, or get a reminder, that X’s and O’s aren’t the biggest part of that job.
This, from the team that’s been at Ground Zero for all this over the last three months. S/o to Mike Zimmer, for turning it over to his players.
This is great.
Not hard to notice how Joe Burrow was out in front in May in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, and now he’s out in front again. Good for him.
Listen to Brian Flores.
Didn’t expect the no-look from Ryan Fitzpatrick (and while we’re here, I’ll send our best to him and his family as they grieve the loss of Fitzpatrick’s mother).
And here’s the guy we do expect the no-look from, plus a reminder that we’re now 10 days away from getting to watch him play in a real true-to-life football game.
Imagine trying to cover Emmanuel Sanders.
You won’t find an NFL person who hasn’t been rooting for Teddy Bridgewater the last four years. One of the most likable, genuine guys in the league, and now a fantastic story, too.
J.K. Dobbins has already impressed the Ravens coaches with his competitive streak and his feel out there. And I’m told Mark Ingram’s really taken him under his wing, recognizing that Dobbins is in great position to be his successor as Baltimore’s bell cow.
I usually don’t use my own tweets here, but Lurie wasn’t screwing around on that call.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Media access to practice ended in a lot of cities on Sunday. And I’m not telling you that to complain. I’d hope most of us in my line of work have made peace with this being a very different year, and this is after we’d normally be getting kicked out of practice (calendar-wise) anyway.
But I do believe we’ll feel two impacts on that end.
1) The information flow heading toward opening weekend is going to shift in the coming days.
2) Teams can now effectively set their depth charts and work on more specific scheme stuff without as much concern for it becoming public knowledge.
And so, really, this just sets another piece of uncharted territory as we continue on with this season of unprecedenteds.