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Three Takeaways From the NFL Combine

The annual event in Indianapolis is as much about talking as it is scouting, and conversations there have provided a glimpse at how the offseason may unfold. For one, expect a slow quarterback market.

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The NFL combine generally includes as much talking as it does scouting, so the league’s annual convention is one of the best places to get a sense of what’s to come in the offseason. We’ve spent the past few days in Indianapolis catching up with friends and sources and listening to coaches and general managers at press conferences, learning what may be coming in free agency and the draft. Here are a few notable items from those conversations.

1. The quarterback market should be slow.

At the start of the 2021 offseason, one of the biggest story lines was the expectation that several quarterbacks would change teams. Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Jimmy Garoppolo, Sam Darnold, Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, Cam Newton, and Teddy Bridgewater were among the names with the potential to switch teams. Not all of them did—players like Stafford, Darnold, and Wentz did change teams, but others like Rodgers and Garoppolo stayed put. This year, fewer passers are expected to move.

Players like Kirk Cousins, who once might have looked like a candidate for a trade or even a release, seem more likely to stay where they are. The Vikings signaled their commitment to Cousins when they hired Kevin O’Connell, Cousins’s former quarterbacks coach in Washington, to be their head coach. O’Connell and new general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah reinforced that view this week.

“I think what you know about Kirk is when the odds are shifted in his favor he gets the most out of it,” Adofo-Mensah said Tuesday. “And I think people don’t appreciate that skill enough.”

If Cousins does indeed remain a Viking, he may need a contract extension. Cousins has a $45 million cap hit this season, which would strain the Vikings’ ability to build a solid roster around him. Extending Cousins would allow Minnesota to lower his cap number and spread that money out over future years, when the cap is expected to be higher, but it would also involve committing to him beyond this season. Still, it’s a move they may need to make, given that sticking with Cousins shows a desire to keep the team competitive in the near term.

Another NFC North quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, also seems most likely to stick it out with his current team.

NFL Network reporter Ian Rapoport reported that the Packers are working out a short-term deal for Rodgers that would make him the highest-paid player in the NFL on a per-year basis. Without getting into specifics, general manager Brian Gutekunst said that cap specialist Russ Ball has worked through the various financial scenarios Green Bay could offer Rodgers and that the Packers are waiting for the quarterback to decide what he’d like to do. Gutekunst said he believes Rodgers will provide them with clarity before March 16, when free agency opens.

“There’s a lot of decisions that have to be made before that,” Gutekunst said. “So that would be helpful. But I would think we would know something before that.”

Given that the Packers have a roster ready to compete with Rodgers at the helm and that the team is willing to up his compensation, the most likely scenario is that Rodgers will remain in Green Bay for at least another season.

Other quarterbacks are being courted by their current teams.

“Jameis [Winston] is an option for us and we hope we’re an option for Jameis,” Saints general manager Mickey Loomis told Nick Underhill of NewOrleans.Football.

Browns coach Kevin Stefanski expressed belief in Baker Mayfield.

“He has done it. We have all seen him do it, so I do not think he lacks for confidence,” Stefanski said. “I think this is a great offseason for him to get healthy and then have an offseason together to get him in the building with the rest of the team, work together and try to get better.”

The Colts seem more likely to move on from Carson Wentz than not, though it does seem there is some support for Wentz within Indianapolis’s own building.

“There’s good discussion going on,” general manager Chris Ballard said. “And I think if you’re all agreeing, I think that’s one of the misnomers. You can have a good relationship and disagree. You can have a great relationship and not always agree with what one person said, but ultimately, when we make the final decision, we walk out all three together with whatever that decision is.”

The three people Ballard is speaking of are himself, coach Frank Reich, and owner Jim Irsay. The three are expected to meet in the next week or so to decide what to do about Wentz, who will have $7 million of his base salary and a $5 million roster bonus guarantee on March 18. Reich, having worked with Wentz during his career-best 2017 season in Philadelphia, was a major influence in bringing Wentz to Indianapolis last offseason and still seems like the biggest proponent of keeping him.

“I believe in Carson,” Reich said. “I stuck my neck out for him. Last year I was a big part of that decision to get him here. And so I believe he’s gonna continue to have a lot of success at quarterback. That might be here, it might not be here.”

Wentz’s future may hinge on what kind of trade offers the Colts can get for him. Given that the most vocal support for Wentz is coming from the coaching side of the Colts’ triumvirate, and not the personnel side, it still seems more likely than not that Wentz will switch teams. That had been the expectation after the season, when the Colts’ late-season collapse prevented them from making the playoffs. It does seem a bit murkier now, though.

2. Jimmy Garoppolo is the first domino.

There are wild-card cases like a Russell Wilson or Kyler Murray trade that could shake things up, but, given how many big-name quarterbacks seem destined to stay with their teams, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is looking like the biggest trade chip of the 2022 offseason.

Garoppolo spoke openly after the season about the public expectation that he’d move on from the 49ers as they hand the reins to 2021 first-round draft pick Trey Lance, and general manager John Lynch confirmed Wednesday that the team is open for business.

“A lot of people need or want quarterbacks right now and he’s obviously a guy they’d look at,” Lynch said. “So, yes, we have listened.”

The 49ers have the advantage of a seller’s market. The consensus around the league is that one reason so many starters aren’t on the move is that teams are wary of what’s considered a weak draft class for quarterbacks. That leaves teams that need passers—like Denver, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and Carolina—in the difficult position of deciding whether to potentially overpay for someone like Garoppolo or try their hand in the draft.

Teams looking at Garoppolo will have questions about his health. Injuries have always been an issue for Garoppolo, who is scheduled to undergo shoulder surgery soon that will sideline him from throwing until late June, according to NFL Network.

“It was one of those injuries where the recommendation from multiple doctors was, ‘Let’s try rehab first and see if the pain and some of the other symptoms go away,’” Lynch said. “And that was the hope obviously, but that wasn’t the case as time went on. And I think in the last couple days, he had another visit where the decision was made to go ahead and have that surgery. Anytime you have surgery, it’s not a minor deal. Anytime it’s the throwing shoulder, I understand the significance, but it is described as a minor surgery and Jimmy is going to be fine.”

Given the market, Garoppolo will probably be traded. Expect his market to move relatively quickly, because interested teams that don’t end up trading with San Francisco will have to move on to another, less attractive, option.

3. The reports of the Wonderlic’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

For the first time this year, the NFL is not administering the Wonderlic test to prospects at the combine. The 50-question IQ exam has been criticized because results were regularly leaked to the media and there are long-held concerns about racial and socioeconomic biases. According to The New York Times, no statistically significant correlation between a player’s Wonderlic score and his on-field performance has ever been documented.

However, the Wonderlic hasn’t disappeared. The league is not centrally administering the test, but teams are still allowed to give it to prospects. The league does have the option of banning the test after this year’s combine. But multiple sources said that teams are still using the Wonderlic and even sharing the results of some tests among themselves to reduce the number of times prospects are asked to complete the exam. NFL Network reported the score of one quarterback prospect who had impressed on Thursday.

There’s variation in how much teams value the Wonderlic. Browns general manager Andrew Berry said it had already been essentially eliminated from Cleveland’s process before the NFL got rid of it.

“Quite honestly, we thought the Wonderlic was outdated,” Berry said. “That is not something that really held a lot of weight for us. There are other cognitive measures that we use.”

Lynch, the 49ers general manager, said he didn’t consider the Wonderlic effective for measuring football IQ, but that having a historical record of players’ test performance was helpful for comparison purposes.

“It’s not about a test, so I think we’ll be fine,” Lynch said. “But it is another tool that you have 15, 20 years’ worth of data that you can kind of compare.”