If you were offended by the Eagles’ coaches playing rock-paper-scissors with this year’s draft prospects, you may want to turn away from this story, because that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how Philly’s 39-year-old coach, Nick Sirianni, is finding out all he can about players. That goes for the ones he already has and the ones the Eagles might consider bringing into his new workplace.
One game they’ve played over the largely virtual first phase of the offseason program is called Who Am I? Sirianni will have one of his assistants call a player and say, “Tell me everything about you that you want your teammates to know.” After that, the assistant will scour the internet, from Google to Wikipedia, to fill in any remaining blanks and present the guy in a team meeting. In some cases, Sirianni has done it himself.
Another is a retrofitted version of the old show MTV Cribs. In this case, three-time Pro Bowler Lane Johnson was the star of the debut episode, filming directly on his iPhone. And more recently, Sirianni and his staff randomly picked individual players to introduce the team to each of the position-group rooms (second-year man Shaun Bradley was a stud doing it for the linebackers, according to the head coach).
There have been some fun byproducts to come out of all this, for sure. One was pass-game coordinator Kevin Patullo’s telling his staffmates that his daughter’s a pretty competitive golfer, which led to his and line coach Jeff Stoutland’s playing a round. But there’s a purpose to it, too, and it connects those rock-paper-scissors showdowns to the rest of this.
Just like last year, first-year coaches, in an environment still affected by COVID-19, have to be creative in finding ways to bond their staffs and players. And it has to happen fast—as it did with the draft prospects—because the opportunities to do it have been limited.
“I do think of it this way—it’s not our first rodeo on this, because we did all go through it last year,” Sirianni, recalling his experience as offensive coordinator in Indianapolis last year, says. “And I thought Frank Reich did a great job. Really, he did a great job of challenging us as coaches, how we were going to be creative to get an advantage over everybody else in the league, how we were going to win the virtual offseason. Because that was a challenge last year.”
Likewise, Sirianni has spent five weeks challenging everyone in the Eagles’ building.
Some of it, like the stuff above, has been on a personal level. Some of it has been more directly professional. But none of it is a mistake.
After talking to Sirianni about all of it Saturday, it wasn’t hard to figure out that the whole thing—from MTV Cribs to route combinations, and from Who Am I? to pass rush technique—can be connected to who Sirianni is.
We’ll introduce you to him this morning.
Monday’s a fairly significant day, as those in May go in the NFL—it’s Day 1 of Phase II of the offseason program, which brings some semblance of actual football practice (O.K., they’re just walkthroughs) for the first time since the Super Bowl. We’ll cover it, and a lot more, including …
• An update on where the NFL and NFLPA stand with a lot of players returning to work
• Insight into Tim Tebow’s playing tight end—and detailing the previous time he did
• Why Travis Etienne’s giving us a window into what Urban Meyer is bringing to the NFL
• Notes from rookie minicamps
• More on the unfortunate Ja’Wuan James situation
But we’re starting in Philly, where the Eagles have a new coach, and that coach has remained relatively anonymous, at least in comparison to how Chip Kelly and Doug Pederson once arrived on the scene.
The first thing you need to know about Sirianni is where, and what, he comes from. He’s a former Division III receiver at small-school powerhouse Mount Union, and just about everyone—and I mean everyone—in his family is a teacher.
“You want me to hit that one for you?” Sirianni asks with laugh. And then he rolls.
• “My mom was a kindergarten teacher, my dad was a seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher.”
• “My brother is a high school history teacher, and his wife is a seventh- and eighth-grade English teacher.”
• “My other brother is a college football coach, but he got his education degree. His wife is a physical education/health teacher.”
• “I was an education major. My wife: She was an elementary school teacher in Kansas City when I met her. Now, she’s a stay-at-home mom, which is tougher than any of these jobs.”
“That’s my family right there,” he says. “All educators who all married all educators.”
Inside all of it, there’s the wiring for just who the Eagles hired to succeed Pederson. And the relationship-building we detailed above? It’s the starting point for where he hopes to take the team—the foundation for what’s ahead.
“I kind of learned that early on in my life to be 100% honest,” Sirianni says. “My dad was a high school coach. He was the head football coach for nine years at our high school, and he was the head track coach for 41 years. That’s why I wanted to get into coaching, the relationships. And here’s really why—when I was growing up, these grown men would come with their kids just to say hi to Coach Sirianni, just to say hi to my dad and see him.
“I always thought that was so cool, just the relationship my dad built with these players in the ’70s, early ’80s, where they were coming by to see him. That was just something that was on my mind, why I wanted to coach in the first place.”
But he’s also learned since that there has to be more to it than just that, and that’s where we’ll dive into the other part of Philly’s offseason program, which will ramp up Monday morning.
“I always say this to the players and I always say this to our coaches, the relationship can’t just be you being there for them,” he continues. “It’s part of it. Are you talking to them about their family? Are you talking to them about their interests? Yes, it’s part of it. It’s a big part of it. But the relationships that I’ve had with Dwayne [Bowe], and the relationships that I had with Keenan [Allen] and Tyrell Williams and T.Y. [Hilton], and all those guys was developed through my ability to get them better as players. …
“And when these guys get paid, when they get a big contract, that’s so exciting to me. Like when Keenan Allen got a big contract or when Dwayne Bowe got a big contract or Philip Rivers got a big contract, that is what’s so exciting for me, to know you’re a part of that.”
Logically, that fits into all of this too, because that’s a teacher’s job. Having the right kind of relationships only makes it easier.
Getting to know the players on that personal level is one way Sirianni has challenged coordinators Shane Steichen, Jonathan Gannon and Michael Clay—all, like Sirianni, under 40 years old—over the last four months. Another is drilling down on how each player learns.
And when I asked Sirianni how the players who show up Monday (and the Eagles are expecting a good percentage to come in for the start of Phase II) will see his background as a teacher, that’s where he pointed.
“We’re just trying at all times to find creative ways to hit every player’s brain right,” he says. “Some guys are going to learn through walkthroughs. Some guys are going to learn through a video playbook. Some guys are going to learn through a cheat sheet, which is kind of a lesser version of the playbook. Some guys are going to learn through the installs that we’ve taped and they’re going to be able to rewatch. We have different avenues that we try to teach guys with, we do voiceovers do with some things.
“So how do you learn?”
The ideal, he continued, is to have a sort of bespoke program for each guy, so everyone is absorbing the same information as efficiently he can, because it’s being delivered in the best way for every individual. That will happen by, as Sirianni says, creating different avenues to reach the same destination. But it has to start with the coaches getting to understand what’s best for their guys, which, Sirianni says, “is up to the position coaches, it’s up to the coordinators, it’s up to me.”
If they can get there, as Sirianni sees it, creating the tools for everyone to learn should be relatively simple. And if they can’t get there, well, then the coaches need to do better.
“That’s ultimately our job,” he says. “If a player doesn’t get it right, you gotta look in the mirror first. And that’s us as coaches. We’re accountable for that. How do we correct that? And it’s not to say the player’s not accountable, but we’re in this together, the player and the coach.”
And when the players come in Monday morning, for veterans like Lane Johnson and Brandon Graham all the way down to rookies like DeVonta Smith, the goal will be the same for the next five weeks: Sirianni wants them to leave the offseason program knowing what to do and how to do it, so everyone can hit the ground running when training camp starts.
The former will happen in the classroom. Work on the latter will start on the practice field where, as Sirianni describes it, “I’m really passionate about fundamentals and technique.”
Which, of course, is the teacher in him.
“It’s creating the habits in the things we want to create good habits with,” he says. “But in particular, when you get in person with guys, it’s going to be continuing to master the systems. Master your systems. Because when you can master your systems and know what to do, then you can focus all your time on how to do it.”
And once they master both, he continues, “that’s when a player becomes better.”
So that’s some of the micro in how the Eagles have built and are going to build. But Sirianni is also smart enough to recognize there are macro hurdles here, too. The first one, without question, is where the team will be at quarterback. Sirianni has been principled in saying, repeatedly, that there will be competition at every position, and that the quarterbacks aren’t exempt, even if Philly’s offseason has cleared the way for Jalen Hurts to get a real chance.
But where he’ll be more direct is on the importance of the position, and the relationship he’ll have to build with Hurts there—which, admittedly, has to be different than the rest of them.
“It’s so important,” he says. “Even Shane and [QBs coach] Brian Johnson, their relationships with the quarterbacks are going to be greatly important because that’s like your extension on the field. Sure, we’re going to call plays, but we also got to give them the ability to get out of plays when the look’s not right, so you’re not running a play into a bad look. It’s so important the communication is back and forth and you know what each other’s thinking and why you’re running to play. That’s a huge one.
“Why are we calling this play? Like, what is it? What are we so excited on over the headset? You’ve got to feel the same excitement like, All right, we’re calling this play and hopefully get Cover 4, and oh, my gosh, it’s Cover 4, we all know where the ball is going to go—touchdown. We all got to be thinking the same way. So you spend hours, hours, and hours and hours upon hours on that with the quarterback to make sure you’re thinking that way.”
Next after that is the arena Sirianni is walking into, one that’s pretty unforgiving.
Andy Reid got fired after making it to five conference title games and a Super Bowl in 14 seasons. Chip Kelly went 10–6 two years in a row, then got more power, had one bad season and was shown the door. Pederson won the city its first Super Bowl, made the playoffs each of the two years after that, and was fired after the wheels came off the following season.
Sirianni has already gotten a taste of what being the Eagles’ coach in Philly is like. His introductory press conference filled sports radio segments for a week. His anecdote about playing rock-paper-scissors in draft meetings was dissected a million different ways, some with all context lost. His warm welcomes to the city have, as he recalled them, come with regular addendums: It’s kind of rough here, Coach. But he’s not looking at that as a negative.
“I just appreciate how much the fans care here,” he says. “That’s pretty awesome. And I mean, you’ve seen a Chargers game. There were times when there were more Raiders fans there. We used to [simulate] crowd noise before the home games sometimes.”
And, Sirianni continues, he and his wife saw that, having come from Kansas City. “She was an inner-city school teacher in Kansas City. And all the kids on Friday wore Chiefs stuff. Every Friday, everybody in the city. And then you go to San Diego and you might see the visiting team fans, because they were there on vacation to watch the game. So I love and I appreciate the passion that the fans have here.”
He knows. Coaches succeed spectacularly in Philly, just as they fail spectacularly in Philly, and being the former, rather than the latter, for now, means starting with what he knows.
To that end, as we talked, he came back to a text he got from his legendary college coach, Mount Union’s retired 11-time national champion coach Larry Kehres (“I’m getting old, but he’s still coaching me”), that read, Nick, it doesn’t matter how much money these guys make, how many touchdowns they scored, everybody needs to know they’re loved and appreciated.
“I really pondered on that,” Sirianni says. “I used to think like, man, when Coach Kehres didn’t talk to me, I’d be like, Uh, does Coach Kehres not like me. Maybe I just didn’t talk to him that day. But when Coach Kehres went out of his way to say something to me, I’m like, That was awesome. This is huge. And I think that’s the power of the head coach, that you are able to let everybody know how much they mean to you and how important everybody’s job is in the building.”
Along those lines, Sirianni got a call a few weeks back from a receiver he had at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, in his first job after leaving Mount Union, named Roy-Al Edwards. Edwards is from Philly originally—and back in the area with a family of his own now—and the two talked and agreed to find a time to get together for dinner to catch up. “And talking to him,” Sirianni says, “it’s like, now I’m in my dad’s shoes.”
THE FIGHT OVER OFFSEASON PROGRAMS
Monday is the first day of Phase II of NFL offseason programs. What exactly does that mean? Well, practice is allowed at a teaching pace. And next week, with the start of Phase III, meetings can go from virtual to in-person, and practice can happen at full speed, albeit without contact.
That, of course, is by the letter of the CBA. But over the last couple of months, the NFLPA, behind union president (and Browns center) J.C. Tretter, has pushed for a virtual program like the one that took place last year. The league, led by Giants owner John Mara, has pushed back, wanting the offseason program to go back to the way it was before COVID-19. And at first, much of the argument was over how the lingering effects of the pandemic should factor into all of this.
That’s not where things are anymore. It isn’t about COVID-19 at this point. It’s about the players looking for wholesale reform of the offseason program.
“The COVID piece of this is really in two parts,” Tretter said over the phone Sunday night. “One, it gave people a taste of not having an offseason program last year. And two, this year, because of that, we asked is it worth our time to show up? Remember, this is early on in the offseason, before the vaccine was widely distributed, and it’s still really raging, so the question really is, Why would I go back in the middle of a pandemic?
“COVID started this. But then it became, why should we volunteer to go?”
After asking around, Tretter found a consensus: The players felt like they shouldn’t, but had been made to feel like they didn’t really have an option if they wanted to protect their professional future.
“To take a step a little further back, for a long time, this ‘voluntary’ program has never really felt voluntary,” he continues. “But last year, guys saw what it was like not going, and the benefits they’d get from it.”
So with forcing some level of change in mind, the union organized player-issued statements from teams that basically said either most or all guys would skip the voluntary program. That was in April, as Phase I started. And the move really had two results.
1) Players organized on what kind of reform they wanted—and two things, other than COVID-19-related safety measures, emerged as priorities. They felt like the programs needed to be set up as truly voluntary. “No one’s winning a roster spot in May,” Tretter says. And they wanted the intensity of OTA and minicamp practices reined back in.
2) The coaches started negotiating directly with players to try and get them in for some semblance of spring work. “It pushed the onus on to the coaches and GMs to try and create a program that guys think is worth going to,” Tretter says.
And my understanding is that now, No. 2 has led the players to get more of No. 1. Around half of the NFL’s coaches have quietly struck agreements with their players in recent weeks that will lead to guys showing up Monday. Arizona is one such team—I’ve heard Kliff Kingsbury, a former NFL player himself, agreed to scale back his program to take care of guys physically and give them a shot to be in a better place going into training camp in July. The union has also gotten great feedback on how Miami’s Brian Flores has handled it.
Of course, everyone knows how coaches value on-field time, and losing it is probably hard for any of them to swallow. But if the payoff is having a healthier team, I think some would think it would be worth it. And Tretter has his own story to tell in that regard.
Ten minutes into his first OTA practice as a pro, Tretter broke his leg in a fumble-recovery drill, which cost him a year of development and marks his perspective on all of this.
“OTAs have been out of hand for a long time,” Tretter says. “They’re full speed, full contact, nonpadded practices, and guys are getting beat up in them.”
To prove it, the union has data that shows there were eight concussions incurred during 2019’s offseason program. Other injuries are more common, and even minor ones can lead to guys being at a disadvantage going into training camp, when jobs really are lost and won.
And so with the players motivated to change things, and absent a CBA adjustment between the league and union (“There’s not going to be a resolution on the voluntary part of it,” says one source), the coaches and players are making the changes outside the bounds of the contentious NFL-NFLPA talks.
Of course, there has been collateral damage. Ja’Wuan James’s case is one obvious example. He’d been in the Broncos’ building before taking the union’s advice not to take part in the team’s offseason program, then blew out his Achilles and is losing a $10 million guarantee in the process. We’re going to get to that one more in-depth below. But as Tretter sees it, the risk James was taking wasn’t new, and the result is informative.
“Being a pro athlete, you have to work out year-round,” he says. “Only nine of the 29 weeks of the offseason are within the voluntary program. So if we only prioritized staying off the non-football injury list, then we’d all only train nine weeks in the offseason. The league doesn’t want that, fans don’t want that, teams don’t want that. We know that we’re at risk off-site for non-football injury reasons. But it’s the same risk every year. And as for Ja’Wuan’s situation, players are watching that closely.
“You’re tasked with working out year-round. And guys have always felt teams have their back when they’re training, working out for the season. So players are watching this closely to see which teams aren’t going to have players’ backs. And doing this also disincentivizes guys working out. If you’re going to hold this over my head, and I don’t want to get hurt, well, then I’ll play myself into shape, and protect myself and my money.”
Tretter then reemphasizes the point, “You really just want to feel like your team would have your back in that situation. And then on top of that, you read this memo where it sounds like the league is basically pushing teams to throw injured guys under the bus.”
Which brought our conversation right back to what Tretter believes is the owners’ motivation.
“I think it’s coming down to control—you’ll do what we tell you to do, when we tell you to do it, how we tell you to do it,” Tretter says. They haven’t really heard players tell them no before. And now they have had the vast majority tell them no, and I’m sure it grinds some gears on their side. This is about getting to the status quo for them, even though I think we could all realize there’s a better way.”
So yup, attendance leaguewide Monday morning will be interesting. Tretter, for his part, won’t be at the Browns’ facility, and says most of his teammates will be staying away, too, after Cleveland’s player leadership found that “most guys feel good about where they’re training at and what they’re doing.”
Will that have an impact on their season? It’ll be interesting to see, because up until now, there really was only one way all this was done.
TEBOW’S BRIEF TIGHT END EXPERIENCE
If you ask the coach who had Tim Tebow during, by far, his most successful season as a professional athlete whether he’s athletically capable of playing tight end in an NFL game, that coach doesn’t have to imagine what it would look like. That’s because John Fox saw Tebow do it. And sure, it was for only three snaps in a Week 2 game against Cincinnati in 2011, and it wasn’t as a traditional tight end—the Broncos used Tebow as a “move” tight end and receiver—but there was something there.
And mostly, it was that he didn’t look completely out of place.
Fox’s idea of Tebow playing there wasn’t a new one. In fact, the year before, when he was the coach of the Panthers and Tebow was coming out of Florida, the Carolina staff had discussed what he might look like as a hybrid tight end–fullback—that was how they saw him athletically. So when Eddie Royal got hurt, and with Julius Thomas banged up, on the fly, in a close game and still new in Denver, Fox and his staff gave it a go.
“The one thing I will say, when we threw him in the game, he knew that position,” Fox said over the phone Friday. “He didn’t practice all week there, we hadn’t used him there, it was pretty remarkable. And he didn’t catch a pass in that game, but he has good hands, he’s a good athlete, he understands football. Hell, the guy played pro baseball, so who knows?”
(Here’s my conversation with Fox about Tebow from when he retired from baseball in February.)
The other day, Urban Meyer conceded what’s been widely reported—that the Jaguars are considering bringing his former Heisman-winning quarterback in to play the sort of role Fox used him in on that September 2011 afternoon. He added that he’d like to make a decision in the coming days, and that makes sense, since, as we’ve established, offseason programs move on to the practice field starting now.
The idea that Tebow would be considered for this sort of role has been panned, and that makes sense, too. His last football practice came six summers ago. His last regular-season game came nine years ago. His last start, a blowout playoff loss to New England a week after the famed walk-off win over the Steelers, was nearly a decade ago. He’s 33 now, and that would make him the oldest player on the Jaguars by nearly three years over receiver Marvin Jones. Generally, that’s not an age at which teams take on projects.
Now, the obvious: Tebow has always been a little different and, clearly, for Meyer, he’s unique.
And I think that, really, is where we get to the upshot of this for Meyer. Every new coach wants to bring players with him who’ll help sell his message in the locker room, guys who can bring testimony to the theory being sold. From that standpoint, Fox understands why the idea of Tebow makes sense for Meyer.
“Most definitely,” Fox says. “You definitely want somebody carrying your flag, carrying your torch, carrying the message. Any time I was a new coach somewhere, I wanted to do that. I brought Jessie Armstead from the Giants to Carolina. Every time I went somewhere, I brought someone. And it’s because they’re the ones down in the locker room, and every successful team I’ve been around, leadership’s been important, and the reality is what makes or breaks you is the leadership in that locker room, more than anywhere else.”
Which brings us to the next set of questions: Will the players listen to Tebow if he struggles? And if he’s a mess at his new position, will that cost the staff some credibility?
“Urban really likes him,” Fox continues. “He believes in his leadership. And I do too. He can be a really positive force in the locker room, he can help you establish a culture. But realistically, I haven’t seen him play in 10 years. To line up and play tight end after all that time off? To me, it’s a longshot.”
The Jaguars, for their part, have seen him more recently. At this point, and in part because he lives locally, Jacksonville has been able to work him out a number of times—and those who were there weren’t just projecting what he could do as a tight end, but also looking for potential special teams value (he played some on teams for the Jets in 2012), which is part of the deal. To make the team, he’ll probably have to bring something in that phase of the game, too.
As Fox sees it, willingness to do those things probably won’t be a problem, and there was good evidence in that Bengals game. Some quarterbacks would’ve balked if they were tapped on the shoulder to play another position in an emergency spot. Tebow’s reaction was the opposite. “He wanted to,” Fox says. “He’s a competitor, man. He just wanted to win.”
The tougher part is whether he can actually pull it off, at his age. Because using Tebow as an emergency tight end is one thing. Giving him a roster spot, and a place on the depth chart at the position, is something else entirely.
“He’s not gonna be a ‘Y’ tight end,” says Fox, referencing playing the traditional in-line tight end position, which requires a player to operate almost as an extra tackle on some snaps. “But as a slot receiver–move tight end, in two-tight end sets, I think he was capable of that, because of how big he is. He’s built like a fullback, he’s smart, he’s tough, strong, durable, competitive. Anyone like that has a chance. Now, at 33? In football, that’s older.”
One thing Fox says he would guarantee, amid all the unknown, is that “no one will outwork him, no one will outlift him and he’d earn respect that way early on.” He also compared him to Larry Csonka as a runner, which, of course, opens up the chance of using him in different ways across the offense.
But as for the job he’s trying to get hired for? Fox reiterated that he thinks it’s a “long shot,” which is not an insult. Making it in the NFL isn’t easy for anyone. Making it back after a decade away? Even tougher. And definitely a long shot.
While we’re on the Jaguars, I think it’s worth paying attention to what Meyer is doing with Travis Etienne. In case you missed it, the new Jacksonville coach deployed the Clemson dynamo as a receiver at rookie minicamp over the weekend, and I think it’s more than an experiment. In fact, I think it’s one of the first clues to what Meyer is planning to bring with him from the college game. And I referenced it Saturday on Twitter, when I grouped Etienne together with former Florida star Percy Harvin, and ex-Ohio State stud Curtis Samuel. A lot of people were confused by the comps. So let me lay it out for you …
• Harvin was a high school quarterback who converted, when arrived on campus, into a college hybrid. And if you don’t really recall his role as a Gator, because he was drafted into the NFL as a receiver, he had more carries (194) than catches (133) at UF.
• Samuel was a high school running back who converted as a collegian into the same sort of hybrid, and his distribution of carries (172) to catches (107) in Columbus, similarly, belies his NFL label as a receiver (you saw his crossover ability last year playing for Panthers OC Joe Brady).
Moreover, Harvin was 5′ 11″ and 192 pounds at the 2009 combine; Samuel was 5′ 11″ and 196 pounds at the ’17 combine; and Etienne is a little bit bigger, at 5′ 10″ and 212 pounds at this spring’s medical combine, but is in the same neighborhood when it comes to body type (remember, he’s been training to play tailback). So how does this add up? Well, the position that Harvin and Samuel played was commonly referred to as “the H” (or H-back, though it’s not what you’d think of as an H-back from an NFL standpoint, outside of their involvement in presnap movement) at their respective alma maters. That’s a position that Meyer deployed with a player named Paris Warren all the way back at Utah. And the concept is one that, even all these years later, remains a forward-thinking one—that a versatile athlete can break the offensive huddle as “positionless,” and force the defense to adjust based on where he goes. It also demands a unique athlete. Most backs can’t be functional receivers. Those who can—and Etienne has flashed that—allow coaches to generate mismatches for them all over the field (an idea that goes back to Thurman Thomas and Marshall Faulk). My sense is that’s the direction this is going. And when you consider that the Jags have James Robinson and Carlos Hyde already at the position, and that they were looking at a Harvin-type in Kadarius Toney before taking Etienne, the whole thing makes sense.
The Ja’Wuan James case really sucks. In March 2019, at 26 years old, James scored the kind of big, second-contract pay day—four years, $51.01 million, with about $27 million fully guaranteed and $32 million guaranteed against injury—that every football player with a shot at playing in the pros sets as a goal. Twenty-six months later, after opting out of the 2020 season, he’s collected a little more $17 million of that. And after tearing his Achilles working out, James was put on NFI, then cut by the Broncos last week. That the injury happened away from the team facility allowed the team to designate it a non-football injury, and it took Denver off the hook for the remaining $10 million in guarantees, plus the additional injury-guaranteed $5 million he’s due in 2022. In essence, this is what would happen if a guy got hurt hang gliding or snowboarding. And unfortunately for James, the rule is pretty ironclad. I ran it by a lawyer buddy of mine, Brad Sohn, who worked on NFI cases with Lawrence Tynes and Sharrif Floyd, and his guess was that James will either lose his fight to recover the money or reach a settlement with Denver at around maybe $1 million, far less than he was due. “I would anticipate there will be a grievance filed on Ja’Wuan’s behalf but I’d view that as an extreme uphill battle,” Sohn said, via text. “It was stunning to me how many players I know who I view as smart, relatively savvy guys had zero idea that they were risking their contracts by working out away from team facilities. I would hope the NFLPA might reconsider some of its recent positions on working out ‘off campus’ given how many guys had no clue—look at Patrick Mahomes’s public statement—this could result. NFI is a repeated contract issue that has often flown below the radar, but that clubs can use, basically at their discretion, to just not pay guys. I’m not sure whether this situation is one where the club used NFI in bad faith, but I urge the PA to look at this closely. It’s simply come up too often.” The result of all this is very unfortunate for James. Presuming he can’t come back this year, he’ll be a big man, turning 30, coming off an Achilles injury, having played just 60 snaps since leaving the Dolphins after the 2018 season (he missed almost the entire 2019 season, too). So getting that money back won’t be easy … ever.
The tone change on Deshaun Watson continued this weekend with what David Culley told the local media. “We have nothing to say about that situation at this time,” Culley said. “Cal [McNair] and ownership a few weeks back indicated about how our organization feels about the situation. When [GM] Nick [Caserio] was on not long ago, he mentioned that he also mentioned that the legal process is in effect right now and we’re going to respect that and go from there.” Culley added that he had “nothing to say” on his expectation of seeing Watson at the facility anytime soon. This, to be sure, is different from where we were back in January and February, and that’s why—when the dust settles both legally (and lawyers on both sides pushed buttons publicly this week) and with the league—I’d think Watson is likely to be moved. To where? It’s at least interesting that the Panthers and Broncos both kept their options open by passing on Ohio State’s Justin Fields, whom each liked. I also would not ignore the Dolphins. Miami has a first-rounder next year, and two in 2023, and could also offer a young quarterback (Tua Tagovailoa) from a college program Texans GM Nick Caserio has a lot of experience with. Houston could then let Tagovailoa and Davis Mills compete behind Tyrod Taylor … and, well, we’re probably getting ahead of ourselves here. But I do think the Dolphins are in a place where they could offer something good for Watson that would also allow them to maintain everything they’ve built the last three offseasons.
The Seahawks’ draft haul is more interesting than I realized. And it’s really not because of who they got two weekends ago (we’ll get to that in a second). More so, it’s about what they did with the picks. Check it out …
• Their first- and third-round picks (Nos. 23 and 86) were traded to the Jets for S Jamal Adams.
• Their fifth-round pick (No. 167) was sent to Las Vegas for OG Gabe Jackson.
• They acquired a seventh-rounder (No. 235) in the deal for S Quandre Diggs, then dealt that pick to Cincinnati for DE Carlos Dunlap.
• They traded their sixth-rounder (No. 208) during the 2020 draft for Miami’s seventh-rounder last spring, which they used on WR/TE Stephen Sullivan, who spent the year on the practice squad, then signed with the Panthers in February.
That left GM John Schneider with his slotted second-rounder (No. 56), fourth-rounder (No. 129) and seventh-rounder (No. 250). From there, Schneider took WR D’Wayne Eskridge with the two, dealt the 129th pick to Tampa Bay (who came up for WR Jaelon Darden) for Nos. 137 and 219, took CB Tre Brown at No. 137, then packaged Nos. 219 and 250 to get back the 208th pick (which had gone from Miami to Chicago for TE Adam Shaheen) and took OT Stone Forsythe at No. 208. Got all that? The good news is there were signs of promise, despite the dearth of actual picks, from Eskridge this weekend at minicamp—he showed off his speed, and the confident, football-loving personality scouts raved about to the Seahawks’ coaches—and Forsythe’s raw length at left tackle really stood out, too. But ultimately, I think, when we look back at this class, a lot of the result should be tied back to what roles Adams, Dunlap, Jackson and Diggs play in helping the franchise through what figures to be a critical period, with Russell Wilson’s future in Seattle so tenuous. And that part of it, to me, is fascinating.
We mentioned last year how much of Joe Judge’s first draft class was tied to old connections the new Giants coach had, and that trend carried over to this year. And that’s important to Judge, as I see it, because he wants to know he’s bringing the right kinds of guys in (that’s part of why their vetting on Kenny Golladay was so extensive). Here’s the rundown on that from this year’s draft:
• First-rounder Kadarius Toney landed at Florida but was recruited to Alabama by Giants assistants Jody Wright and Jeremy Pruitt. And Pruitt was seen on the Bama staff as being very connected to the Mobile area, where Toney is from. So both had background on Toney going back to when he was 15 or 16 years old.
• Second-rounder Azeez Ojulari kept the Georgia-to-Jersey pipeline flowing, which is in part a product of the strong relationship between Judge and his old Bama staffmate Kirby Smart. And Ojulari was signed out of high school to go to Georgia by Giants linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer (then a Bulldogs assistant).
• Third-rounder Aaron Robinson played his freshman year (and actually got on the field) in 2017 at Alabama, with Pruitt as his defensive coordinator and Wright there as director of player personnel (running recruiting for the Tide). As a result, the Giants knew all about Robinson’s transfer to UCF, which was just a case of homesickness and nothing more.
• Arizona product and sixth-round RB Gary Brightwell’s new position coach in New York, Burton Burns, is very close with his college coach, Rich Rodriguez. The two were together at Tulane in the ’90s.
• Seventh-rounder Rodarius Williams was at Oklahoma State with assistant John Wozniak, who succeeded Judge as Bama’s special teams coach a decade ago. Those two are close.
Some connections there are closer than others, but what’s obvious is the value that the Giants are putting on trustworthy information on players—which starts with the scouts doing the job, and can continue, smoothly, with the coaches contributing in pulling on those old relationships. We’ll know in a few years how all of this translates with these two draft classes. But one interesting twist to all this I can leave you with here: One guy the staff really didn’t have connections to, fourth-round pass rusher Elerson Smith, stood out over the weekend, in flashing his enormous athletic upside. Keep an eye on him.
I was interested to see Najee Harris’s answers to questions about his ability as a receiver—and whether he returned to Alabama for his senior year to sharpen that. “I’ve always been catching the ball, man,” he said when asked about a wild catch the media saw him make on the practice field this weekend. “I always do that. Not to brag or nothing but it’s like, it wasn’t luck. I can tell you that. Since y’all was watching, I’ll do it again. Nah, I’m going to get in trouble. But it’s not something I work on. I just, I’ve been doing that since middle school. I got big hands, man.” If you look at Harris’s résumé, though, you’ll see the uptick in how Bama used him in the passing game—10 catches his first two years combined, 27 in 2019 and 43 last year. And one thing I can tell you is that of all the guys who took part in pro days, Harris was, in scouts’ minds, on the short list of guys who helped themselves the most. He looked smooth and natural catching the ball during Bama’s second pro day, and NFL teams getting to see that in person, after a year with no combine and limited trips to see guys play live, made a difference for a lot of evaluators. Now, maybe the Steelers would’ve taken him 24th regardless. But I have to think it helped, for a team that’s shown a willingness to use a big back (see: Bell, Le’Veon) extensively in the passing game.
I’ve been a big fan of the Colts’ in-house With the Next Pick show. And it sounds like one nugget from this year’s edition might be coming to life. At about the 12-minute mark of the last episode, they showed Frank Reich basically announcing to the room, “I like [Kylen] Granson a lot. He’s gonna play.” GM Chris Ballard then joked that Reich sounded like a scout, pushing for one his guys, before the show cut to scouts talking about the coach’s love for the SMU tight end. Assistant director of college scouting Matt Terpening said, “Frank came in the draft room one day and said, ‘Hey, I watched this Granson kid, he can run, he’s athletic, I really like this guy.’ ” Director of college scouting Morocco Brown added, “You could tell he had this little love affair. He just had those puppy-dog eyes, and he spoke up and said what he had to say. He knew how to get the room’s attention to get his guy.” After that, as Ballard went up to the board, right before revealing Granson would be the 127th pick, and piled on, “I think Frank’s gonna come out of his seat.” Well, guess what? Early indications are that Reich might’ve been on to something. His excitement over Granson carried over to his assistant coaches this weekend, with the rookie’s moving around really well and flashing excellent hands. Given how Reich values that position, I’d say it’s worth filing all this away.
Bengals RB Chris Evans is a fun dark horse I can give you from this weekend. Just the fourth(!) Michigan running back draft since 2000, Evans had a very weird college career. His first three years (2016 to ’18), he was a versatile scatback for the Wolverines, rushing for 1,722 yards and averaging 5.6 yards per carry, with 40 catches and 16 touchdowns from scrimmage. Then academic issues cost him the 2019 season, and he struggled to find his footing in a new offense during last year’s COVID-19-wracked season. So can he be the guy he was in his first three years in Ann Arbor? The Bengals, having just lost Gio Bernard (a back with a similar skill set), bet a sixth-round pick he can be. And he gave his new coaches reason to believe the last couple days, showing that he’s a smooth athlete with excellent hands, and fits athletically on an NFL field. There’s a long way to go (remember, pass-blocking will be a big part of playing the role Bernard did), but early on he looks like a guy the Bengals should be able to move all around the formation.
I almost forgot about O.J. Howard. But it’s true—the Bucs are in essence adding a freakish athlete at tight end (Howard only played in four games last year before getting hurt) who Tom Brady took under his wing last year. Bruce Arians said this week Howard’s “really close” and “looks fantastic.” That means Tampa’s going to have Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Scotty Miller and promising sophomore Tyler Johnson at wideout; Rob Gronkowski, Cam Brate and Howard at tight end; and Ronald Jones, Bernard, and Leonard Fournette at tailback. And Howard’s playing for a contract. Sheesh.
We’ve spent a lot of time on Aaron Rodgers the last couple of weeks, and rightfully so. In fact, in last week’s mailbag, I even cooked up a fake trade to make him a Bronco. (For the record, after talking with a few teams, the deal had Rodgers and a 2022 fourth-rounder going to Denver for Drew Lock, Bradley Chubb, Dalton Risner, first-rounders in 2022, ’23 and ’24, and a second-rounder in ’22; and rumors a couple of weeks ago circulated on a package of Drew Lock, Chubb, Jerry Jeudy, the ninth pick and next year’s first-rounder.) But I think one thing we’re missing is what a big few weeks this is shaping up to be for Jordan Love. Brett Favre’s flirtation with retirements in the springs of 2006, ’07 and ’08 (in ’08, he actually did retire, then came back), allowed Rodgers critical developmental time with the Packers staff, and were a reason why he was able to hit the ground running in ’08. Love has the same sort of shot in front of him, and it’ll be interesting to see what he does with it.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINES
1) Crime of the Century, a documentary on HBO Max about the opioid crisis, is absolutely mind-twisting. Fair warning—be prepared to be pissed off watching it.
2) And Colt Brennan’s death is another reason to be angry.
3) In the wake of the CDC news coming down last week, I think all of you will be with me in sending a big thank you to everyone who’s been on the frontlines of the pandemic, from the health care workers (and I’m married to one) to the people responsible for pulling off the miracle of developing a widely distributed vaccine in a little over a year. We’ve found ourselves a lot of heroes in the last 15 months.
4) In more trivial matters, I’m really interested to see what the NBA’s play-in tournament looks like in practice. Credit to the Association for trying something outside the box that’s been ruminated on in the past during an unusual year.
5) The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame gets (rightly) criticized for being too easy to get into, in comparison to others halls of fame. But Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett is one hell of a class. (Chris Bosh getting in with the next class is another story.)
6) Can’t wait for the Pentagon’s report on UFOs.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Like I said, I’m excited to see what’s in that report. And I’d imagine anyone my age who grew up watching Unsolved Mysteries is, too.
Very creative, Chiefs.
And this from the Ravens, too. Good week for NFL teams’ social accounts.
So … almost wash out of the league after going sixth in the draft, before finding a way to hang around forever and play for every team?
Harris is legitimately hilarious.
Not sure what to make of this one at all. But good for the Dolphins, Patriots, Eagles and Colts, evidently.
Eh, less weird than that. And less drinking, too.
But this was really strong from Brady.
The Packers-Bears rivalry runs deep.
Boss move by Tommy Doyle.
I love the relationship between the Saints and Jarrius Robertson. And this is really cool to see. Congrats to Jarrius!
Big congrats to our guy Bob Klemko and his lovely wife, Dana.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
The best detail of the schedule release was a simple one—we can all feel good that the season is happening. I remember what last year was like, and the doubt that the season would start on time, and what felt like a culture war over whether football, at various levels, should be played. I gotta say that I’m glad to be done with that.
We’re getting football in September. On time. As scheduled. Without its existence being some of referendum on everyone’s values.