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NFL Combine Takeaways: Joe Burrow Puts the Rumors to Rest

Plus: Tua Tagovailoa’s recovery is on track, Browns GM Andrew Berry sounds like he has a plan, and Cam Newton is expected to return with the Panthers

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The NFL season never ends. While the Chiefs’ Super Bowl victory is still fresh, the NFL combine, this week in Indianapolis, gives us an opportunity to start looking forward. To keep you informed, a rotating cast of Ringer staffers will provide a collection of thoughts from each day of the event. Media availability began on Tuesday, and a number of players, coaches, and general managers gave a glimpse at what 2020 holds for them:

Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa put some concerns to rest

Both of the top two quarterbacks in the 2020 class came to the combine with one major question hanging over each of them, and those questions were quickly addressed when each guy got his turn at the podium. Rumors started to swirl recently that Burrow was wary of playing for the Bengals, who hold the no. 1 pick, but when the Heisman winner was asked about coming to Cincinnati, he didn’t mince words. “I’m not going to not play,” Burrow said. “I’m a ball player. Whoever takes me, I’m going to show up.”

Even if Burrow didn’t want to play for the Bengals, he’d have limited leverage to force his way out. Before the rookie salary scale was put into place in 2011, players at the top of the draft had some autonomy because they could simply refuse to negotiate with the team that held the no. 1 pick. The Dolphins famously took offensive tackle Jake Long over Matt Ryan in 2008 because Miami believed it could get a deal with Long done before draft day. Ryan eventually signed a six-year, $72 million deal with Atlanta that included $4.75 million more in guaranteed money than Long’s deal with the Dolphins. Burrow has no such power. His deal is tied to the 2020 salary cap, with little left to haggle over except offsets and other minutiae. Burrow could have theoretically threatened to sit out the season and reenter the draft next season, but c’mon—that was never going to happen. If the Bengals draft him first overall (and all indications are that they will), expect Burrow and his tiny hands to be on the roster when the season begins.

Meanwhile, Tua spent some of his interview time addressing specific destinations (namely the Cowboys, who were his favorite team growing up), but the most pressing topic was his health. After suffering a career-threatening hip dislocation in November, some were concerned that Tagovailoa wouldn’t be physically ready to play in 2020. He spent nine hours with the doctors at the combine on Monday, but Tua said that he should be able to do “everything” once he’s medically cleared, which he expects to happen on March 9. That news should thrill the teams near the top of the draft. If Tua is ready to roll this season, the picks near the top could become very valuable for teams looking to trade down. If Washington is willing to forgo Chase Young, the rebuilding Redskins could likely collect a bundle of extra picks from a quarterback-needy team like the Dolphins or Chargers. Before Tagovailoa’s injury, it seemed like Tua and Burrow would wind up going 1-2, similar to the Jared Goff–Carson Wentz and Jameis Winston–Marcus Mariota pairings. If Tagovailoa is healthy, that scenario is very much back in play.

Andrew Berry sounds like a man with a plan for the Browns

There’s a reason that franchises poach coaches and executives from successful teams to rebuild their own organizations. Berry may not be able to pick players quite as well without the help of Howie Roseman, assistant director of player personnel Andy Weidl, and the rest of the Eagles’ excellent front office, but he’s still intimately familiar with the processes that have allowed Philadelphia to build such a strong roster. When asked what he’d learned from Roseman, Berry pointed to some specific lessons that he hopes to bring with him to Cleveland. The first is that Roseman explored every possible avenue to stock the Eagles with talent. Few personnel executives have been more aggressive in the trade market and more savvy in picking up players who’ve recently been released and don’t count toward the compensatory pick formula. The best teams in the NFL don’t just draft and develop their own players, they scour the league for undervalued assets. I’d expect Berry to bring a similar mind-set to the Browns.

Another tip that Berry says he picked up while working with Roseman was about the importance of building a team rather than simply accruing talent. In his first run as GM of the Eagles, Roseman was burned by big-ticket free agents and a failure to understand how bringing in expensive outside talent affected the players already in the locker room. It was a lesson that he took to heart when he got his second chance to run the team in 2015. Roseman quickly handed out extensions to several homegrown players in the organization as a way to earn goodwill among his players, and that rash of signings helped to build the locker room culture that eventually contributed to the Eagles’ winning a Super Bowl. That sentiment is especially important for the Browns, who weren’t short on talent last season but looked like a mess in just about every other way. Berry may not have the team-building success that Roseman and the Eagles front office has in Philadelphia, but his experience with that group should get him started on the right foot.

The Browns offense will look different under Kevin Stefanski

After running a shotgun-based spread offense in college, Baker Mayfield has spent the majority of his snaps in the NFL playing out of the gun. Cleveland played from the shotgun on 66 percent of its snaps last season, which was slightly more than league average. Kevin Stefanski’s Vikings, on the other hand, played under center on 70 percent of their plays in 2019—the highest rate in the NFL and nearly double the league average (37 percent). In his first year as the team’s head coach, Stefanski will tailor his offense to the personnel in Cleveland, but based on conversations I’ve had in Indianapolis, he’ll bring the basic structure of his zone-running, play-action scheme with him to the Browns.

That’ll mean some significant adjustments for Mayfield, but all that change could also be a blessing. Cleveland believes that Mayfield’s talent of playing out of structure actually meshes well with the rollouts and moving pockets that are trademarks of Stefanski’s Gary Kubiak–inspired offense. Putting Mayfield on the move on purpose could also limit his tendency to drift to his right out of the pocket when he feels pressure. Along with moving the launch point, more play-action complements Mayfield’s strengths. His completion percentage was a ridiculous 10.1 points higher with play-action last season—the highest mark in the league. Only Jameis Winston (4.5) and Jimmy Garoppolo (3.5) saw a bigger increase in their yards per attempt with play-action than Mayfield (2.6). Mayfield will be trying out some new stuff in 2020, but those tweaks could help him bounce back from a brutal sophomore season.

Matt Rhule wasn’t shy about his desire to hang on to Cam Newton

The new Panthers coach wouldn’t commit to Newton as Carolina’s starting quarterback next season, but Rhule said that he wouldn’t grant that status to any player on the roster. “I really want him on the team,” Rhule said. “I really want him to be healthy.” Rhule said that he’s spent time with Newton around the Panthers facility during his short time there, and based on what he said on Tuesday, it sounds like Newton will likely be the Panthers’ starter this year if he’s healthy.

The decision to keep Newton provides some insight into Carolina’s team-building mind-set under Rhule and a restructured, analytics-focused front office constructed by owner David Tepper. With Luke Kuechly retiring and a cloud of uncertainty hanging over Newton’s future, the Panthers seemed like a candidate to gut their roster and position themselves for a loaded 2021 QB class that includes Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. With only a year remaining on Newton’s deal, the Panthers could still be in the market for a quarterback next spring; that said, a healthy Newton could help the Panthers win enough games to make it difficult for Carolina to find a high-end quarterback in the draft next season. But the logic behind keeping Newton is pretty obvious: At $21.1 million, Newton has the 14th-highest cap hit among quarterbacks next season. If Newton is healthy, that’s a relative bargain for a former MVP who was playing at a high level as recently as 2018. It’s also a palatable price for a bridge quarterback, if that’s what Newton eventually becomes should the Panthers look to start over next season.

The Cardinals might not break the bank in free agency

Arizona GM Steve Keim has more money to spend this season than he has in years past, but he said on Tuesday that it’s smart to be cautious about big-money free-agent deals. Keim said that over the past several seasons, free-agent deals with an AAV of $5 million or more have a hit rate of only about 40 percent. We know that many smart free-agent additions happen after the first wave of signings, when teams can get a bit overzealous with their spending. But there’s also been plenty of evidence in recent years that patient teams will eventually get rewarded. Teams like the Colts and Bills have eschewed big-money deals in favor of modest free-agent deals and collecting draft picks, slowly building playoff-caliber rosters without harming their long-term financial health. Seattle has more than $50 million in cap space despite having a quarterback with a $31 million cap hit, and that’s possible in large part because it’s avoided handing out big deals to outside free agents. The right big-money free agent can transform a team (just ask the Chiefs about Tyrann Mathieu), but I’ll be curious to see how rebuilding teams with a ton of cap space (like the Dolphins and Redskins) approach the market this year.