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.
The NFL combine is, typically, a snake pit of rumors—most of them wrong—said very confidently. Want to know where a star player is headed? Someone within earshot is saying it very loudly even if the player himself doesn’t know. Want to know which player hates which coach? Well, folks, walk 10 feet in any direction and find someone talking about it with absolute certainty. One time in 2014, fresh off his freshman season, a head coach told me that he’d take then–Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg on his team over anyone in the upcoming draft. Everyone knows everything at the combine, which makes this year so strange: No one knows anything.
The NFL is about to change, and that’s created a bit of a holding pattern on everything that’s happening. The NFLPA sent a CBA proposal to players for a vote that could take weeks, and with that, teams literally do not know what rules they’ll be operating under for free agency and the draft. They do not know, for instance, how many teams will make the playoffs this year. Or how many regular-season games they’ll play in a few years. Or the minimum salaries of their players. Or the salary cap. Imagine being the Chiefs and not knowing under what conditions you’ll be negotiating with Patrick Mahomes. If you are the Dallas Cowboys, you have quite literally no idea whether you will have the capability to tag two players—Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper—or just one. If the new CBA is ratified before the league year begins on March 18, they will be able to tag only one. “There’s no question it’s going to put on a bigger angst,” Jerry Jones told reporters on Thursday regarding not having two tags. “It removes a very strategic thing for us. That is, we lose the transition [tag]. Strategically, that was really thought of a lot.”
The complete fog over the NFL stretches to Tom Brady, the best quarterback in the history of the game, who is scheduled to become a free agent next month. Two reports from reliable reporters on Thursday morning cast doubt on Brady returning to New England. ESPN’s Jeff Darlington said he’d be “stunned” if Brady came back to the Patriots. The Boston Herald’s Karen Guregian, meanwhile, reported that the Patriots have yet to reach out to Brady and that a source said it’s “not looking good.” Now, here’s where the leaguewide confusion comes in. Adam Schefter reported that the Patriots will not have contact with Brady until there’s clarity on a CBA:
Discussions surrounding a potential new CBA have held up any potential contract discussions between the Patriots and Tom Brady, per sources. pic.twitter.com/CQ5508BJRa— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) February 27, 2020
I asked a few executives and salary cap guys this week how they were approaching the uncertainty. The answer was mostly a collective shrug emoji. Teams are preparing for both possibilities. Even though the new CBA is expected to pass, it will take a week or more to draft a document to put up for a vote, and there are a lot of variables. Beyond that, it will take a lot of exploration of the rules for teams to figure out how to navigate the new CBA.
I’ve long made a comparison between the NFL and Formula 1, where the rules change dramatically every few years. Aside from having actual good players and coaches, the most important thing for a football team is having a front office that understands how to build a roster under the constructs of the CBA. Mastering the rules quicker than everyone else and building a team around exploiting those rules to your benefit is crucial. What’s amazing about the current situation is that teams will have only a few weeks to do that before they start building teams when free agency opens on March 18. Hell, the franchise tag window opened Thursday, with Chiefs star Chris Jones getting one, meaning teams are building their 2020 rosters under a rules package that is not yet clear. “We will be handed down new rules if there ever is a new agreement,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said this week. “But right now, we are working under the assumption of the current rules.” Bills general manager Brandon Beane said that teams were briefed on potential what-if scenarios for 2020 during league meetings in December.
After the last CBA changeover in 2011, teams figured out how to use the new rookie wage scale in their favor, and an elite quarterback on a rookie deal became the most valuable thing in sports. In 2010, the first overall pick, Sam Bradford, signed a deal worth $78 million. In 2011, after the new CBA was ratified, first overall pick Cam Newton signed a deal worth $22 million. The finances of the sport changed overnight, and so did the best way to build a team. The rising salary cap meant free agency became a viable way to assemble a roster. The cap became easier than ever to manage and the teams that reckoned with that quickly, and spent a lot of money wisely, had success throughout the life of the deal. Limits on padded practice time meant changes to the on-field product, and teams had to change the way they did nearly everything on the field. It is not an overstatement to say the sport changed dramatically because of the last CBA. Teams will have to learn very quickly how this one will change it.
A New Debate After Burrow
LSU quarterback Joe Burrow will go first. This is basically the only thing we know about the draft. After that, Ohio State defensive end Chase Young seemed to be a lock for Washington, where Ron Rivera is building his new defense, but there are a handful of voices that emerged this week wondering whether Alabama star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa might be a smarter pick, despite last year’s selection of Dwayne Haskins. Before we get to that debate, Young met with the media on Thursday, detailing a number of topics—growing up in Maryland, he said he watched the Redskins but didn’t root for any specific team (check a box for smarts). He did, however, like watching some Redskins players like Sean Taylor.
Meanwhile, he sounded like a bona fide member of analytics Twitter when discussing his lack of sacks late in the season. “I had a lot of quarterback hits, a lot of pressures,” Young said. “If you know football, you’ll see how they changed their whole offensive game plan for one guy. A lot of people might not know how to really study a tape or may not know how to watch football, but if you know, then you know I made an impact in those games.” He continued: “Being the best defensive end isn’t about sacks. It’s about being the most disruptive player on the field. You can do that without having a sack.”
So: Back to whether Young or Tagovailoa is the pick at no. 2. Mel Kiper Jr. said on ESPN that the Alabama passer should be the pick if he’s medically cleared. I spoke with the NFL Network’s Kurt Warner on Thursday, and I was intrigued when he said that if he could remove his “bias” about the severity of Tagovailoa’s hip injury, which Warner said stems from his memory of Bo Jackson’s career-ending hip injury 29 years ago, then he’d have a hard time choosing between the two SEC quarterbacks with the first pick. “I think it would have been really hard for me from what I’ve seen in both these guys to really decipher, without looking at him a lot deeper, which one I would take no. 1 overall. I really like what Tua does. I think in an RPO system, he’ll be phenomenal—so accurate on the underneath-type stuff, gets the ball out quick, makes [quick] decisions with the football.”
Warner said he’d like to see Tagovailoa make more downfield throws but loves his footwork, his fakes, and his ability to reset in a play. Meanwhile, Warner said he likes Burrow’s technique. He said he looks for college traits that can carry over to the pros, and he thinks Burrow’s compact throwing motion, paired with his quick decision-making, which was on display when LSU went with five wide receivers, will transfer quickly to the NFL.
Jerry Jones Was on One
Jerry Jones on possibly re-signing former Cowboys WR Dez Bryant: “I’ve thought a lot about it in the shower.” Not dismissing it out of hand. Considering it.— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) February 27, 2020
Jones was typical Jones in his meeting with Cowboys reporters on Thursday. He voted for the CBA proposal despite the disadvantages it would present his own team. He said, uh, that about Bryant, who, unsurprisingly, tweeted his approval of Jones’s comments. Jones said that keeping talented cornerback Byron Jones is a “real challenge,” which is to be expected given the team has to figure out how to pay Prescott and Cooper. He said it’s “about a role” when asked whether the team would bring back Jason Witten. The tight end’s return seems very much up in the air one year after returning to the Cowboys following a year in the broadcast booth. Jones thinks about only one of these personnel moves in the shower, however.
Meanwhile, actual things happened at the combine. The top quarterbacks, like Burrow and Tagovailoa, didn’t throw on Thursday, but less-heralded passers like Utah State’s Jordan Love did. (Young will not test at the combine either.) Among the standouts who did work out on Thursday was Missouri tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, who looks like he’ll be an athletic option for teams:
Elsewhere, Michigan wideout Donovan Peoples-Jones jumped 44.5 inches in the vertical jump.
And LSU’s Justin Jefferson now has nice data to back up his play from 2019:
Athletic testing is not the end of a conversation about proving whether a player is great; it’s simply part of it. I think athleticism—and thus, athletic testing numbers—matters a lot when it comes to positions that require explosive movements, like pass rusher or skill positions. As I’ve written before, a lot of smart teams have zeroed in on things like the broad and the vertical jump, or the three-cone, as a nice guideline for a players’ athleticism. These numbers contribute to a more informed decision, and the top teams pay a lot of attention to them.
Also, a Jacked Punter
PUNTER Michael Turk benched 25 reps of 225 lbs today at the Combine.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 27, 2020
That’s more reps than these players:
Frank Clark (19 in 2015)
Jadeveon Clowney (21 in 2014)
DeMarcus Lawrence (20 in 2014)
Devin White (22 in 2019)
Chandler Jones (22 in 2012)
Michael Bennett (24 in 2009)