We can’t believe it either, but “Nick Foles, Super Bowl MVP” is old news. The 2018 NFL combine is already here, and a rotating cast of Ringer staffers will provide you with a collection of “five thoughts” from each day in Indianapolis.
1. The Vikings’ Quarterback Situation Remains One of the Offseason’s Biggest Questions
Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer is rarely one to mince words, and his media session on Thursday proved no exception. Several of the questions he fielded pertained to the team’s future at quarterback, and Zimmer didn’t hold back when discussing the significance of that choice. “It’s important for myself and [general manager] Rick [Spielman] and the organization that we pick the right guy that is going to help us to continue to move forward,” Zimmer said. “If we don’t do that, then I’ll probably get fired.”
Those words may sound harsh for a coach who’s won 39 games in only four seasons on the job, but that’s how large this choice looms for the franchise. Save for a few role players, Minnesota’s stifling defense will remain mostly intact heading into the fall. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs is still on his rookie contract. The offensive line is poised to return four starters. The rest of the Vikings’ roster is primed to compete for championships. It’s now a matter of finding the final, all-important piece to the puzzle.
In evaluating all three of his soon-to-be-free-agent quarterbacks, Zimmer voiced his honest concerns. He cited Sam Bradford’s injury history before calling the veteran’s knee problem “degenerative.” He expressed trepidation about whether the 25-year-old Teddy Bridgewater could return to the level he was at before suffering a devastating knee injury in August 2016. And he wasn’t shy in offering doubts about Case Keenum, the 30-year-old who broke through in 2017. “Is he the guy that played for us,” Zimmer asked, “or the guy who played for the Rams?”
Yikes! Forget pulling punches. Those are haymakers to the diaphragm. Zimmer’s tone about his in-house options opens the door to the rampant speculation about the Vikings’ interest in Kirk Cousins. Those rumors have already started to swirl, and they won’t die down until Cousins is sitting in front of a microphone with a different team’s logo behind him. Zimmer didn’t mention Cousins specifically on Thursday, but he did allude to how making a sizable financial commitment to one player can impact the rest of a roster. “Let’s make sure we keep understanding the team is why we have done good things,” he said. “You just have to pick out the right [quarterback] that’s going to help your football team the best. And where you can still do things at other positions. You don’t want to go crazy here.”
2. Zimmer’s Controversial Move to Block an Interview Speaks to the Challenges That Come With Winning
After former Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was hired as the new Giants head coach in January, he requested to interview Minnesota quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski for the vacant OC position in New York. Rather than give Stefanski a chance to move up the coaching ranks, Zimmer blocked the interview to keep the 35-year-old position coach in Minnesota. Many head coaches are happy to give their assistants opportunities for upward mobility, but in Zimmer’s mind, losing Stefanski and Shurmur would have made for an exodus that the offense couldn’t easily endure.
“I get criticized for blocking guys and stuff like that, but loyalty, to me, is a big thing, right?” Zimmer told local Twin Cities reporters at a breakfast on Thursday. “So I come in here four years ago and the offense is 29th, 27th, 26th. But I keep [my assistants]. So the first time our offense is pretty good, then I’m supposed to let all my coaches leave? I don’t think that’s right. If I’m going to be loyal to them and not fire them after they don’t have good years, then I don’t think they should not be loyal to me.”
The merits of that reasoning notwithstanding, Zimmer’s frustration points to how turnover can eat away at the coaching staffs of successful teams. Winning brings opportunity, and coordinator changes or position-coach shuffling brings uncertainty. Look no further than the 2017 Falcons, who looked completely different on offense under coordinator Steve Sarkisian than they did under Kyle Shanahan a season earlier.
Zimmer has caught a lot of flak for blocking Stefanski’s interview, but there’s no denying that success comes at a price. And the difficulty of retaining coaches is just one more reason that it’s hard for teams to stay in Super Bowl contention over extended periods of time.
3. A Wave of Young Offensive Coordinators Is Coming
During his press conference on Thursday, Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn was asked how he thought former wide receivers coach Nick Sirianni would fare as the Colts’ new offensive coordinator. Lynn offered a glowing response that spoke to Sirianni’s meteoric rise through the ranks.
Sirianni is only 36 and served as the Chargers wideouts coach for the last two seasons. Before that, he worked as Philip Rivers’s position coach for two years. Sirianni is an admitted football junkie who pores over tape for pleasure as much as work. And he’s one of several young offensive coordinators getting their first crack at that job in 2018.
New Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur is 38 and comes to the gig after spending one year with the Rams. John DeFilippo, who was recently snatched away from Philadelphia to coordinate the Vikings’ offense, is only 39. Rather than seek out retread NFL lifers to run their offenses, Indy, Tennessee, and Minnesota have sought out infusions of energy from coaches on the rise. This feels like a direct response to the success that 30-somethings Shanahan and Sean McVay had in their debut seasons as head coaches. It goes a step further in the case of LaFleur, who has spent a chunk of his career working for both men.
In a league where schematic changes are happening faster than ever, finding guys who relish the creative aspects of the job is paramount.
4. The Jimmy Garoppolo Buzz Is Approaching a Full-Throated Roar
49ers general manager John Lynch spent the first four and a half minutes of his interview session on Thursday fielding questions about his starting quarterback. One was a simple yet understandable: “Do you feel like you hit the lottery?” It drove home how the talks around the Niners at this year’s combine couldn’t be more different than the ones that happened in 2017.
In their initial offseason in San Francisco, both Lynch and Shanahan took very measured approaches. Patience was the theme, and Shanahan made it clear that he was in no hurry to draft a quarterback he didn’t feel would be the best option moving forward. Those days are a distant memory.
Garoppolo’s presence alters the entire complexion of the 49ers’ offseason, starting with how he can help the team lure some of the biggest fish in free agency. From the day Jimmy G got into the building, San Francisco’s brass hasn’t been hesitant about trotting him onstage. The marketing machine has been operating at full capacity for some time, and soon, it’ll be time to reap the benefits. Players on the market, even those who are defenders, see a franchise quarterback as an alluring factor when making their choices.
“It will be nice in free agency when anybody we’re going for doesn’t ask me who our quarterback is going to be,” Shanahan said. “They know. That’s nice. I don’t have to always say, ‘We’ll have one, I promise. Just can’t tell you. Just wait, we’ll see.’ That makes it easier.”
5. The Saquon Barkley Show Has Begun
The Penn State running back completed only one drill on Thursday, and even that was enough to leave some jaws on the floor. Barkley ripped off a ridiculous 29 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press. Don’t worry, that’s just the seventh-highest running back total in Mockdraftable’s database—which dates back 19 years. Barkley’s absurd skill set and ability with the ball in his hands are what make him a surefire top-five pick, but his supernatural athletic gifts have a chance to steal the week in Indianapolis.
Barkley reportedly clocked a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at Penn State. That time may have been helped by home cooking and has to be taken with a grain of salt, but it makes his performance in Indy all the more intriguing. If he’s anywhere near 4.4 after weighing in at 233 pounds, that’s outrageous.