AROUND THE NFL

Peter King on the plight of the NFL as TV keeps taking away the best refs.  He reports Jerome Boger could be next:

 

The last time the NFL’s contract with officials was up for negotiation, in 2012, you might remember some of the debacle calls for the first three weeks of the NFL season, when replacement officials were often derided for some lousy calls. The next contract couldn’t come at a worse time for the league. The league’s agreement with the officials union expires next March, so this is the last year—and a very big one—for this contract. But the expiration of the deal could force the NFL to do something it should have done before the current referee problems reared its head in the past 14 months: consider making all referees full-time officials, and compensating them with richer, multi-year deals to compete with the TV networks hiring them away from the league.

 

Last week, NFL referee John Parry retired to take a job at ESPN, which, by the way, is cycling through former NFL refs for studio and Monday night game work at an alarming pace. (2017: Gerry Austin; 2018: Jeff Triplette; 2019: Parry.)

 

There are 17 referees in the NFL, heading 17 officiating crews. And the turnover among the officials is alarming:

 

• In the last 13 months, seven of the league’s 17 refs have walked away. Last year, four refs (Ed Hochuli, Terry McAulay, Gene Steratore, Jeff Triplette) retired. This year, three more (Walt Coleman, Pete Morelli, Parry) have stepped down.

 

• The referees who get the annual Super Bowl assignment are deemed the best in the league over the course of that season. The refs in 10 of the last 16 Super Bowls have left the field. If they’d all aged out, that would be one thing. But the referees in six of those games (McAulay did three Super Bowls, Parry two and Steratore one) all left the game in their fifties, a decade considered to be prime time for refereeing. Traditionally, the retirement age for good officials is somewhere in their mid-sixties.

 

• Two more referees, Tony Corrente and Walt Anderson, are both over 66, and likely have one or two years remaining on the field.

 

So if the NFL has to replace eight or nine of 17 refs over three seasons, at a time when officiating is under more scrutiny than ever, now you see why the game is on a very slippery slope entering 2019. The new replay rules covering pass interference calls, which is a good idea all in all, will take significant managing and adjusting. Add that to the menu of demanding calls already, and add the pressurized focus on officials today, and then add seven neophyte referees over two seasons heading crews, and you see the potential for problems in officiating in the coming year or so. Major problems.

 

Network TV is part of the issue. FOX has taken two respected men, Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino who ran the NFL officiating department for 13 of the last 18 NFL seasons, and made them officiating analysts on TV. ESPN plucked Triplette and Parry off the field in successive years. In 2018, NBC hired McAulay and CBS hired Steratore.

 

Part of the reason is money. Networks will pay more than the NFL. Examining the estimate of what a 20-year NFL official who has worked his way up to referee can make in a football season, per an NFL source:

 

Game salaries: $190,000.

Referee stipend (given to each of the 17 referees/crew chiefs): $16,500.

Playoff share (given to all non-rookie officials): $25,000

Off-season pay (NFL camp visits, officiating meetings): $23,100 (rough estimate)

Total NFL pay: $254,600.

 

(Officials who work post-season games get $14,250 for working the Super Bowl and $8,250 per game for all other playoff games.)

 

The off-season pay is tricky, because officials get $2,100 per days when at ref clinics run by the league, or when they work NFL mini-camps or training-camp practices. I used 11 days of off-season work as a rough estimate.

 

So what would happen if the NFL began offering referees three-year, $1.5-million contracts to work full-time for the league? And when I say full-time, I mean officials would still be able to do side jobs away from the NFL, just as long as they devoted the requisite full-time hours to the league job. I think that’s the figure that would begin to make the Steratores and Parrys and McAulays have second thoughts about jumping to TV. Money’s not the only issue, though. Officials I’ve spoken with in the last couple of years admit the pressure and scrutiny have ratcheted up. Some don’t like current VP of Officiating Al Riveron—though, to be fair, Riveron’s got one of the toughest jobs in the game and simply can’t please everyone. And it’s a less-intense gig, obviously, to sit in a studio or broadcast booth while the games are going on and analyze plays in slow motion—instead of in real time, with coaches and players screaming at them.

 

There’s no easy answer to this. But the league can’t afford to keep losing quality officials, and smart and plain-spoken referees and respected crew leaders like Clete Blakeman, Jerome Boger and Bill Vinovich could be next at the TV negotiating table. The NFL often tries to problem-solve by throwing money at issues. Seems to me that money, and guaranteed contracts, would be a good place to start to stop the flood of referees away from the game.

 

As King points out, a big part of the problem was the a number of referees were roughly the same age.  Hochuli, Coleman, Triplette, Morelli, Anderson and Corrente were all going to go anyway and some of them were/are easily replaceable. 

 

The early departures of McAuley, Steratore and Parry hurt (and we note that Steratore was late to get a Super Bowl and Parry was mysteriously banished from the playoffs for a number of years before re-surfacing this year).  Maybe Riveron and his predecessors didn’t appreciate them properly.

 

Boger is 64, so he too will not have a long shelf life even if TV does not come calling.

 

On the other hand, the DB thought that in general the rookie refs did rather well last year. 

 

The NFL will be fine with Blakeman, Ron Torbert and some others at the top rung in the next few years.

 

NFC NORTH

 

GREEN BAY

Peter King:

 

Aaron Rodgers has started 54 games for the Packers since Oct. 1, 2015. Guess how many of those game Green Bay has won.

 

Twenty-seven. Exactly half.

 

The Patriots are 41-13 in TOM BRADY’s last 54 starts.

 

The Saints are 34-20 in the last 54 starts of DREW BREES.

 

And this from King:

 

I think my biggest takeaway from Tyler Dunne’s excellent unpacking of the Packers/Rodgers/McCarthy/Thompson story is this: Mike McCarthy is going to have work hard, and repair his tarnished image significantly in the next nine months, to have a real shot at a head-coaching job in 2020. With the broadsides he’s taken since getting fired by the Packers late last season, McCarthy has a chance to be Brian Billick—a Super Bowl-winning coach damaged so much late in his tenure that he never got a chance to coach another team.

– – –

I think Matt LaFleur had to be quaking reading that story. Here’s LaFleur, four years older than Rodgers, never been a head coach, never been in charge of a veteran, star quarterback, and now he’s got to run a team after reading a story that portrays Rodgers as a vindictive, you-better-do-it-my-way guy. LaFleur’s never had to walk in front of a room of 90 guys and command them, which is a daunting enough task. Reading Dunne, LaFleur has got to worry about what kind of partner he’ll have in Rodgers. I hope Packers president Mark Murphy, in the search process, saw enough signs in LaFleur that he’ll be able to handle a quarterback like Rodgers and be able to lead a team.

 

Rodgers took to the radio to decry the story, using Jason Wilde, another Packers scribe, as his sounding board.  Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com on Rodgers, who made some good points:

 

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has broken his silence. In a major way.

 

Appearing on radio with Jason Wilde and Mark Tauscher of ESPN Milwaukee, Rodgers decried last week’s exhaustive article from Tyler Dunne of BleacherReport.com as a “smear attack.”

 

Here’s the full money quote, from Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com: “This was a smear attack by a writer looking to advance his career talking with mostly irrelevant, bitter players who all have an agenda whether they’re advancing their own careers or just trying to stir old stuff up.”

 

Rodgers specifically addressed two specific aspects of Dunne’s report, including one that as of Friday afternoon was destined to be handled by Rodgers.

 

“The two main things I think I really want to talk about and just clear up, which are really central themes to the article, the first is the [Packers CEO] Mark Murphy conversation because part of the article seems to want to say the Packers are worried about me as the leader of the football team moving forward,” Rodgers said. “And before I get into what actually happened in the conversation with Mark, I want to say two things: One, if they knew that, why would they offer me a contract last year? And two, which goes into my second central thesis point that I’m going to take down, is if I really disliked Mike [McCarthy] so much, why would I re-sign knowing that if I play and we do what we do around here — we made the playoffs eight straight years and then I got hurt and we missed the playoffs — it’s going to be me and Mike my entire career. So if I really disliked him that much, do you think I’d re-sign. Is the money that important to me? I’ll tell you it’s not. Quality of life is important.”

 

Via Tom Pelissero of NFL Media, Rodgers said that the report that Murphy told Rodgers “don’t be the problem” is “ridiculous” and “100 percent false.”

 

As to Rodgers’ reported rift with former Packers coach Mike McCarthy, the quarterback admitted that they “had issues,” but he said that those issues always got resolved and he denied a grudge dating back to the 2005 draft, when McCarthy and the 49ers passed on Rodgers. Rodgers also made a plea for positive treatment of McCarthy in the community.

 

“I think we need to honor Mike and respect him the right way,” Rodgers said, via Demovsky. “We had a hell of a run. We had 13 years, four NFC championships, one Super Bowl, eight straight playoffs, 19 straight wins. . . . So, instead of trashing this guy on the way out, let’s remember the amazing times that we had together. Packer fans, remember this, especially those of you who live in Green Bay: Mike lives here. Mike has young kids here. So Mike has to be here. Think about how difficult it is for him. My favor that I would ask of you, strongly, is if you see Mike, shake his hand. Tell him thanks for the memories. Tell him thanks for the coaching job that he did. Tell him how much you appreciate him being a part of what we built here. Things change from ‘06 to ‘18. We came off of a bad season in ‘05 and we built something special and had sustained success, so instead of trashing this guy on the way out — last year was tough, no doubt about it — but let’s honor him and his legacy as the second-winningest coach in Packers history. If you see him, please, just show him the respect that he deserves. Not only does he have to live in Green Bay, he wants to. He loves it here. He’s going to be here. So, if you see him, do him that favor and show him the respect that he deserves.”

 

Rodgers expressed regret for publicly complaining about the team’s offense after a lackluster win over the Bills.

 

“I wish I hadn’t said anything after the Bills game last year,” Rodger said, via Demovsky. “I wish I had just gotten with him in person. I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful to him but I know how it came off. That’s what I told him when I met with him face to face.”

 

Rodgers opted to address these issues not via the shotgun feeding frenzy of a press conference or locker-room scrum, but in a radio interview that was conducive to a more reasoned and deliberate conversation, with Rodgers able to address all items that he wanted to cover. While that doesn’t mean the issues won’t be rehashed if/when Rodgers meets with reporters during the first week of the team’s offense program, much of the ground already has been covered.

 

NFC EAST

 

DALLAS

Peter King approves of the deal Dallas did for DeMARCUS:

 

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a contract that makes as much sense as the five-year, $105-million deal pass-rusher DeMarcus Lawrence signed with Dallas on Friday. I assumed, as most people did, that Lawrence would play on the franchise tag for the second straight year after I saw a pessimistic David Canter, Lawrence’s agent, at the combine; a deal seemed miles away. It was. But then Canter suggested to Lawrence last week that they drop their six-year proposal down to a more team-friendly five, and advised Lawrence to speak to Dallas president and negotiator Stephen Jones. That call finally happened Thursday.

 

Sometimes, it’s good for a team to hear from an important player during negotiations; too often the two parties don’t speak to each other. In this case, it really helped. Lawrence told Jones, in effect, I’ve done everything I could do for the Cowboys. I’ve played hurt, played on a one-year contract. I love this organization. I love everything your family has done for me. I want to retire a Cowboy. I really want to make this happen.

 

In the next 28 hours, Dallas got to an average of $21 million a year ($2 million ahead of Von Miller, $1.5 million behind Aaron Donald, $2.5 million behind Khalil Mack), and though $48 million is fully guaranteed (with another $17 million guaranteed in year three if he’s on the roster in March 2020, which is highly likely), nothing beyond year three is guaranteed. Lawrence, with 25 sacks over the last two years, is a key leader of the Dallas D, and likely will play beyond three years there. But nothing beyond age 30 is a lock in the NFL.

 

Why both sides won:

 

• The Lawrence side: Pretty simple. Lawrence will go in for labrum surgery this week, and could be out for four to six months. He’s also had foot surgery, thumb surgery, two back surgeries and a four-game suspension. So to have a higher percentage of his deal than Mack or Donald or Miller fully guaranteed is very good, under the circumstances. He also will pay no state income tax in Texas. Mack will pay 4.95 percent state income tax in Illinois.  

 

• The Cowboys side: Lawrence is a foundation player who has missed just one game in the last two years. He’s a perfect edge player in the Dallas defense, quick and physical, and to assign a cap-space average of about 10 percent to one of the most important positions on the field is a deal Dallas was willing to make, rather than go year to year and risk a bitter player being a distraction. And now the Cowboys have the core of a front seven for the next three years—Lawrence, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch—that they believe is competitive with any front seven in the NFC.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

TAMPA BAY

Kevin Patra of NFL.com ponders a pre-draft visit to the Buccaneers by Oklahoma WR MARQUISE BROWN:

 

After losing Adam Humphries in free agency and trading DeSean Jackson, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are kicking the tires on a draft prospect at the receiver position.

 

NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported that Marquise “Hollywood” Brown is visiting the Bucs on Monday, per a source informed of the situation.

 

The speedy Oklahoma product missed the NFL Scouting Combine after undergoing Lisfranc surgery following a foot injury suffered in December. Brown is expected to be ready for training camp.

 

The 5-foot-9 wideout has consistently ranked as NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah’s top receiver heading into the draft later this month. Interestingly, Jeremiah calls Brown a “DeSean Jackson clone” with similar size and explosive ability to the former Bucs speedster.

 

With Humphries and Jackson gone, the Bucs lost 117 receptions from last year’s team. Chris Godwin is expected to play a bigger role alongside Mike Evans, and Tampa added former Ravens first-round pick Breshad Perriman as a speed element with upside. Still, kicking the tires on draft prospects makes sense for the Bucs.

 

Brown likely wouldn’t be a candidate for the No. 5 overall pick — especially with the Bucs owning glaring needs elsewhere — but could be a consideration if GM Jason Licht trades down in the first round. Doing due diligence on an injured player like Brown also makes sense from Tampa’s perspective in case he somehow slides on draft day and the Bucs are in position to nab a talented playmaker later than projected.

 

NFC WEST

 

ARIZONA

Peter King finds four teams that might take QB JOSH ROSEN off the hands of the Cardinals:

 

Canvassing the league in recent days, I found two teams as favorites to acquire quarterback Josh Rosen, the 10th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, if Arizona chooses to draft Kyler Murray and trade Rosen. I believe if this does happen, Washington is in the best position to do the deal. It could come down to whether Washington is willing to give a second-round pick instead of the third-rounder that obviously it would prefer to trade for Rosen.

 

Where I think it’s most likely Rosen could go:

 

1. Washington—Draft picks in top 100: 15, 46, 76, 96. Rosen would be an excellent scheme fit in the offense of coach Jay Gruden and offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell. Gruden liked Rosen coming out of UCLA, as did O’Connell. This is a heavy play-action team that likes to throw from the pocket—both strengths of Rosen—and also likes throwing to the tight end. That’s up Rosen’s alley. Seems like the best match of need and availability. Interesting thing about potential compensation. I doubt the Cardinals will have an offer of a 2019 top-50 pick for Rosen; so close to the draft, teams hate parting with high picks. Mike Lombardi, former front-office exec with several teams, told me the other day that first-round picks are like new cars—once you drive one off the lot and own it even for a short time, it’s not worth nearly what it was when you bought it. That’s why I think Washington could try to hold out and pay Arizona the 76th overall pick instead of the 46th.

 

2. New York Giants—Draft picks in top 100: 6, 17, 37, 95. Unlikely that GM Dave Gettleman will give the 37th pick for Rosen, in part because of value and in part because the Giants really aren’t sure if all the noise about Rosen being difficult has any merit. But the Giants are an option because coach Pat Shurmur is a play-action devotee and likes his quarterback to throw with timing and rhythm. That’s Rosen’s game. Having Eli Manning for one more season would allow Rosen to learn behind a great preparer and very smart player. So how can the Giants make a deal like this, with no pick between early in the second round and very late in the third round? (I’d be very surprised if Arizona would consider Rosen for the 95th pick.) Well, the Giants could offer a second-round pick in 2020, or try to deal the 17th overall pick in some package that would include high second and third-round picks. But dealing for Rosen could allow the Giants to use three picks in the top 40 this year to do what Gettleman really wants to do: continue to build both lines while addressing the post-Eli QB life.

 

3. Denver—Draft picks in the top 100: 10, 41, 71. Unlikely. But because the Broncos will take a young quarterback this year or next, you can’t eliminate them from consideration.

 

4. Miami—Draft picks in the top 100: 13, 48, 78. The Dolphins quarterback plans are shrouded in secrecy; Brian Flores and offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea have learned well from Bill Belichick. But I’m told the only way the Dolphins go for any quarterback is if they’re convinced that he’s going to be the answer for the next 10 years. Hard to imagine feeling that after watching Rosen last year—admittedly under constant duress behind a bad offensive line in Arizona.

 

I’d eliminate New England; just don’t sense the interest there. I’d all but eliminate the Chargers; Philip Rivers seems primed to play at least two more years, and they just gave Tyrod Taylor $6 million guaranteed over the next two years.

 

Washington makes the most sense. We’ll see if the former NFC East partners can make this happen.

 

AFC WEST

 

DENVER

Tough contract negotiations are on-going for CB CLIFF HARRIS.  Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com:

 

Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. is now in territory where Von Miller, Peyton Manning and a long list of Denver Broncos players have been before: facing John Elway over money.

 

And Elway, the Broncos’ president of football operations/general manager, has developed a reputation as an ice-water-filled supervisor of the team’s checkbook.

 

As former linebacker DeMarcus Ware once said as he was contemplating his retirement or a possible return to the team in 2017: “You can want to come back, you can think you have a number in mind that it would take, you can think how you want it to be, what your role is, but eventually, the Broncos — John Elway — has to agree with that too. And that’s the business. …”

 

The bottom line is, if Elway wants to retain a player for the Broncos, a deal gets done. And all indications are that the Broncos want a deal done with Harris so he can essentially finish his career where it started as an undrafted rookie in 2011.

 

But if the negotiations with the high-profile players who came before him are any indication, it most certainly will be far from a smooth ride. So, Harris has not reported for the Broncos’ voluntary offseason program because he’d like a contract extension, and Elway has said he won’t address it until after the draft.

 

“Once we get through the draft, we’ll see where we are, we’ll see where we are budget-wise,” Elway said. “Obviously, Chris has been a good football player for us for a long time. We’ll have to see where that goes. It’s something that we’d like to look at.”

 

And there you have the themes that have been in every major negotiation the team has had on Elway’s watch — with Broncos director of football administration Mike Sullivan — that Elway routinely says the new deal “has to make sense” and that he always says he needs to “see where we are budget-wide.”

 

One of the most familiar missives has been “we want to keep everybody, but there’s only so much money.”

 

That’s the situation as the Broncos have moved through their big-ticket business in free agency, including the trade for quarterback Joe Flacco, with his $18.5 million salary for 2019, to go with $105 million worth of contracts to tackle Ja’Wuan James and cornerbacks Kareem Jackson and Bryce Callahan.

 

The Broncos, with family ownership, have always had to time their spending to when the cash came in and then when the cash went out. Even in the free-agency pursuits of Mike Shanahan to Manning’s arrival to Miller’s $114.5 million deal in the summer of 2016.

 

For his part, Harris is about to enter the last year of the five-year, $42.5 million deal he signed in 2015. And by any reasonable analysis of the deal in the NFL marketplace, it has been a bargain for the Broncos given his high performance at a high-demand position.

 

If they needed a reminder, the Broncos were 6-6 this past season after a Dec. 2 win in Cincinnati, but his value was clear after he fractured a leg in that game and the Broncos lost the last four games when Harris didn’t play.

 

Now the Broncos, with a new coaching staff in place, are trying to dig out from playoff misses for the past three seasons, including back-to-back seasons of double-digit losses, so Harris has made it clear his career clock is ticking.

 

“It’s late in my career and I can’t waste any years anymore,” Harris said earlier this offseason. “It’s time for me to win. I always wanted to retire here and finish my career here, but I’m ready to see what changes and things we do.”

 

It was Elway, however, who looked at Manning, after a 39-touchdown season in 2014 (the second-highest single-season total in franchise history), and asked him to take a pay cut that was far heftier than the $4 million cut Manning eventually agreed to after some terse negotiations. And it was Miller, during his holdout and following his Super Bowl MVP performance, who famously cropped Elway out of a photo during the team’s White House visit.

 

It hasn’t always been pretty and there is no guaranteed outcome, but history has shown if the two sides can push through the bumpy ride, they’ll get to where they want to go. If not, Harris will join the list of the team’s Super Bowl veterans he has said have “nothing guaranteed for them” as the team tries to climb out of its current struggles.

 

 

THE RAIDERS

As we reported a few weeks ago, there is at least one analytics expert who thinks the Raiders won the trade for DE KHALIL MACK going away.

 

Now, here is former Raiders coach Jack Del Rio with the old-school view.  Herbie Teope of NFL.com:

 

Former Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio ended his silence on the blockbuster trade that sent outside linebacker Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears in September 2018.

 

During a Monday appearance on NFL Network’s Up to the Minute program, Del Rio admitted the Raiders received “good value” out of the deal. And he has a good point when considering the Bears sent first-round draft picks in 2019 and 2020, a third-rounder in 2020 and a 2019 sixth-rounder in exchange for Mack and a 2020 second-round pick and a conditional 2020 fifth-round selection.

 

Now, Del Rio wants to see what the Raiders do with all the picks.

 

“It’s incumbent on [Raiders general manager] Mike Mayock to turn that draft capital into something really good that can play and get after the quarterback,” Del Rio said. “And so, we’ll find out. The draft is coming up.

 

“We’re going to find out if they can parlay those picks into something special, but they clearly decided not to pay one of the great human beings and great football players that I’ve ever coached.”

 

Del Rio coached Mack from 2015 to 2017, a three-season stretch during which Mack totaled 36.5 sacks en route to being named the 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, garnered two All-Pro selections and was named to three Pro Bowls.

 

Oakland’s decision under current head coach Jon Gruden to move on from Mack last year certainly took a majority of observers around the league by surprise, and it appears Del Rio should be included in the group.

 

But it also sounds like if Del Rio, whom the Raiders fired after the 2017 season, was still in Oakland, Mack wouldn’t be in Chicago.

 

“I think Khalil Mack is a future Hall of Fame player,” Del Rio said. “To me, when you have that talented of a player, you keep those guys.”

 

 

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

Bill Johnston is the best.  Peter King agrees:

 

I think I speak for everyone who has covered football or had any association with the Chargers over the years when I say how sad it was Friday to learn of the death of Ramona Johnston, the wife of former Chargers PR czar Bill Johnston, from Huntington’s Disease. She was 60, and had battled the cruel disease for the final third of her life. When the Chargers moved north to Orange County—soon they’ll be playing in Los Angeles—two years ago, Bill Johnston decided to remain in San Diego rather than move with the team. He didn’t want to move Ramona from her full-time care facility in San Diego. Over the years, Bill raised in the neighborhood of $3 million for the Huntington’s cause, running marathons with his daughter Hayley and setting up galas to fund research for one of the most debilitating diseases known to man. Best wishes to Bill, a true gentleman and wonderful husband, and his family.

 

AFC NORTH

 

CLEVELAND

The agent for RB DUKE JOHNSON wants his client out of Cleveland.  Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

 

Duke Johnson’s rep has asked the Browns to trade him, a league source told cleveland.com.

 

The Jets, Texans and Eagles have all been interested in Johnson ever since the Browns signed running back Kareem Hunt in February, a league source said. Other teams have inquired as well.

 

In what appears to be a statement about not wanting to be here, Johnson was a no-show for the Browns’ voluntary offseason program Monday, coach Freddie Kitchens said.

 

Kitchens said he didn’t know if it was in response to the Browns signing Hunt and all the trade rumors swirling around Johnson, who’s represented by Florida-based agent Kristin Campbell.

 

“I am not speaking for Duke,” said Kitchens. “Duke chose not to be here, and he has the ability to decide that. It is all voluntary.”

 

Johnson joined Emmanuel Ogbah as two veteran players who chose not to attend, and Ogbah was subsequently traded to the Chiefs for safety 2016 fourth-round safety Eric Murray on Monday afternoon.

 

Browns GM John Dorsey, asked at the NFL Annual meetings last week if Johnson has asked to be traded, said he hasn’t talked to him. But his reps have spoken to others in the building and made it clear he wants to be dealt, the source said.

 

Johnson has also removed most of his Browns’ photos from social media, something he also did last year before the Browns signed him to an extension.

 

Johnson’s name came up in trade talks at the start of the league year, but no one made the Browns an offer they couldn’t refuse. One source said they’re holding out for a high pick for the 2015 third-rounder out of Miami.

 

If the Browns get the right offer, they’ll trade Johnson, especially with Odell Beckham Jr. on board.

 

Also at the NFL annual meeting last week, Kitchens seemed irked by the Johnson trade speculation.

 

“I don’t know why it’s assumed that we’re going to trade Duke Johnson,” he said. “I don’t know why we would ever want to, like, just voluntarily give up a good football player. Duke Johnson is a good football player.

 

“Duke Johnson will have a role on our football team. All these guys that are here will have a role. I don’t know when it just became a necessity to trade Duke Johnson because we signed Kareem Hunt.”

 

He said he’d play all three backs when Hunt returns from his eight-game suspension.

 

 

PITTSBURGH

WR ANTONIO BROWN fires a shot at his former WR running mate JuJu SMITH-SCHUSTER.  Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Antonio Brown is done in Pittsburgh, but he’s not done taking shots at his former teammates.

 

Brown tweeted this afternoon that Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster cost the Steelers a playoff berth when he fumbled late in their Week 16 loss to the Saints.

 

“Emotion: boy fumbled the whole post season in the biggest game of year,” Brown wrote. “Everyone went blind to busy making guys famous not enough reality these days!”

 

Brown isn’t necessarily wrong about that: If the Steelers had won the game against the Saints, as they had a great chance of doing before Smith-Schuster fumbled, they would have made the playoffs.

 

But what is Brown getting out of bringing it up now? He’s no longer in Pittsburgh, and he looks petty by attacking Smith-Schuster, who has acknowledged he let the team down and called the fumble his lowest moment. Brown made his comments in response to a fan who tweeted at him that Smith-Schuster was the team’s MVP last season. There were reports at the time that Brown was offended not to be chosen for the award himself, and this tweet does nothing to change the perception that Brown has an inferiority complex.

 

Smith-Schuster responded on Twitter:

 

“Keep your emotions off the internet,” Smith-Schuster wrote, in a series of tweets. “All I ever did was show that man love and respect from the moment I got to the league. I was genuinely happy for him too when he got traded to Oakland w/ a big contract, and now he takes shots at me on social media? Crazy how big that ego got to be to take shots at people who show you love!”

 

Smith-Schuster followed that up with a quote that is often attributed to Mark Twain but does not appear in any of his published work: “Never argue with a fool. Onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.”

– – –

Great news for LB RYAN SHAZIER.  Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com:

 

Ryan Shazier has hit many milestones since he suffered a severe spinal injury that threatened his ability to walk.

 

But the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker just shared maybe his best yet: executing a box jump, clearing what appears to be about three feet.

 

Asked via text about the viral video on his Instagram, Shazier told ESPN that he has been aiming for this one for “a while.”

 

Shazier, the two-time Pro Bowler who was carted off the field Dec. 1 in Cincinnati after a tackling attempt and had spinal stabilization surgery in the days after, has executed the jumps in stages, according to Shazier’s father, Vernon.

 

“The first boxes were a lot lower than that,” he said. “It all began with just trying to jump — no box. It slowly graduated to what you see in that video.”

 

The Shazier family has hundreds of rehab videos, and he publicly shares milestones. Paralysis was a concern in the days after the injury, but since then, Shazier has retaught himself to walk, drive a car, jog and lift weights.

 

Shazier’s contract for 2019 tolled at a minimum salary, giving him one more year toward NFL pension. He might not be playing, but he serves as inspiration inside the Steelers facility. Asked recently about the Steelers’ move to keep him on the roster with the physically unable to perform (PUP) designation, coach Mike Tomlin said the decision was simple — because “it’s Ryan Shazier.”

 

Vernon Shazier said his family doesn’t keep track of dates and times of milestones but simply “get up every day and go to war.”

 

“He’s grinding every day. It’s been very intense,” he said. “He’s come a long way but has a long ways to go. We’re grateful for the progress he’s achieved. He’s been dedicated to doing all he can to make as much progress as he can. We don’t have a ceiling, just working day to day.

 

“You know how the journey began, so to see him do that is very encouraging.”

 

AFC EAST

 

BUFFALO

Here is where we learn about the International Player Pathway Program.  This from the Buffalo News:

 

Former British rugby player Christian Wade has been allocated to the Bills as part of the International Player Pathway program, the team announced.

 

Wade, who is 5-9 and 196 pounds, gave up rugby last October in hopes of pursuing an NFL career and began training for football as a running back/kick returner.

 

He played for the London Wasps for his entire pro career and represented England in international competitions in U16, U18 and U20 for Rugby Union.

 

He has 82 premierships, according to a news release, which ranks third on the rugby all-time list. (Think of premierships as scoring plays.)

 

Wade, 27, was timed in 4.53 seconds for the 40-yard dash at the program’s pro day on April 1 in Tampa.

 

“There’s a lot to learn but I’ve definitely been trying to soak up as much as I can, make so many notes and watching more film to back up what I’m learning,” Wade told ESPN UK. “It’s been fun and it’s a sort of challenge I’ve been looking for. It’s definitely been a struggle sometimes and I know it’s going to be a struggle in the future. But I definitely have the work ethic to give it everything and get what I need down.”

 

The International Player Pathway program is an NFL initiative started in 2017 with the intent of giving elite international athletes the opportunity to cross over to football. Wade is among seven athletes selected this year, representing England, Australia, Germany, Mexico and Brazil.

 

The players have been training at IMG Academy in Florida.

 

Players could have been signed as free agents or allocated to NFL teams.

 

Under the terms of the program, Wade would be exempt from the 90-man roster but would count against the 53-man roster should he make the team.  Should a team opt to continue to develop a player beyond training camp, the team will be eligible for an international player practice squad exemption, although the player would not be eligible to be activated during the season.

– – –

Peter King notes how the Bills have zeroed in on Nick Saban’s bad apples:

 

You may have noticed I advised Buffalo GM Brandon Beane to pick Alabama tackle Jonah Williams in the first round of the draft.

 

Could history prompt Beane to ignore that sage counsel?

 

In the last 30 years, Buffalo has drafted three players from Alabama. (Amazing. In the last nine years, the Bills have drafted six Clemson Tigers.) Let’s recount the stories of those Crimson Tide players who went to Buffalo, all in the top 50 of the last eight drafts:

 

2011, round one, third overall pick: Marcell Dareus, defensive tackle. Twice benched for violating team rules, twice suspended for NFL substance-abuse violations, charged with reckless driving after being caught drag-racing and hitting a tree, sent home from a preseason game for violating a team rule. Dareus had a heck of a run in Buffalo. He even found time to play a few football games.

 

2014, round two, 44th overall pick: Cyrus Kouandjio, tackle. Seven starts in three years with the Bills. Just not a good player.

 

2016, round two, 41st overall pick: Reggie Ragland, linebacker. Bills traded a second-round and two fourth-round picks to move up to get Ragland, and he never played a snap for them. He tore his ACL in August 2016, then was traded to Kansas City the next summer.

 

I don’t want to be dramatic here, and I don’t mean to say that because three Alabama players were, collectively, abject disasters for the Bills that they shouldn’t take Crimson Tide players. But I’d quadruple-check them if I were Beane.

 

Probably not fair to call Ragland and Kouandijo bad apples, just bad players.

 

 

NEW ENGLAND

Do all teams get to pick their preseason foes?  The Patriots have made some requests.

 

The Bill Belichick coaching tree has deep roots, as several former New England Patriots players and coaches are scattered throughout the NFL’s coaching ranks.

 

It’s also very tight-knit.

 

The Patriots requested 2019 preseason games against teams led by former New England assistant coaches at the NFL owners meetings and are “hopeful” the league honors their request, ESPN’s Mike Reiss reported this weekend.

 

As Reiss notes, preseason games mean the possibility of joint practices with those teams, which Belichick has “generally viewed as a positive experience” and apparently would prefer conducting with coaches he knows well.

 

The Patriots didn’t have joint practices last summer for the first time since 2012. Before that, they worked with familiar faces with ties to Belichick — Bill O’Brien’s Houston Texans (2017), Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagles (2014) and Greg Schiano’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2012), to name a few — and in several instances acquired players from those teams down the road.

 

There are four former New England assistants currently in head coach roles: O’Brien, Brian Flores (Miami Dolphins), Matt Patricia (Detroit Lions) and Mike Vrabel (Tennessee Titans). The Patriots wouldn’t want to hold joint practices with an AFC East opponent and play the Texans this season, but Reiss adds that Patricia’s Lions and Vrabel’s Titans would be prime joint practice candidates for the Patriots in 2019.

 

We’ll find out soon enough if Belichick gets his wish, as the NFL could announce the 2019 preseason schedule as early as this week.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

THE AAF

Thoughts from Peter King:

 

I think someone from the Alliance of American Football, co-founder Charlie Ebersol or chairman Tom Dundon, owes eight cities and players and coaches an explanation about the league folding in the middle of its first season. Someone needs to step up and explain why the league, which was talking about a multi-year gestation period, died after eight weeks. I have known Ebersol for years, and my experience is that he is a good person. I’m going to hear his explanation first before passing judgment on anything other than my first point: The players and coaches and employees of the AAF deserve to hear what happened, and soon. But I want to take you back to a conversation I had a year ago with Ebersol, when I asked him about how he could be so sure this league would make it when the sporting road is littered with disastrous minor football leagues. Ebersol made three points:

 

• He was building for the long term. Ebersol said, “The most important thing of all the previous attempts of spring football—football—was not the core focus. There was razzmatazz, there was marketing, there was excitement, but never before did you have national champion coaches, you didn’t have Super Bowl coaches, you didn’t have Bill Polian and you definitely didn’t have a reimagining of the structure of a league that empowered the players to be taken care of … Me, my investors, my partners, Bill [Polian] my co-founder, and the people involved, are all looking at a seven to 10-year business model as a starting point of what we are trying to build.”

 

• He said he had partners willing to be patient. “Amazon didn’t make its first dollar of profit for 23 years,” Ebersol said. “We’re not a business based on one or two billionaires pouring money in and hoping for the best on the promise of 80,000 people in the stadiums and a massive TV deal. No, this is a very sober business model.”

 

• He said the returns in early years would be insignificant. “The type of money that we raised is from institutions that do not look at first and second-year returns. They look at seven.”

 

Ebersol has not spoken publicly since the death of the AAF. But a few things are clear. The AAF trusted an early $170-million investment from a former investor with the Vikings, Reggie Fowler, and had his money vetted through league investigators. It’s unclear how or why this money turned out to be an issue during the first year of the AAF, but when the league needed Fowler’s money in year one, it had a problem accessing all of it. That led to needing immediate help early in this season—and, clearly, Ebersol should not have relied on one investor to this extent, to the extent that his efficacy threatened the entire league—and so the league turned to Dundon. But Dundon, who saved the league early with a cash infusion, clashed with Ebersol and Polian over the direction of the league.

 

6. I think Ebersol is going to have to explain why he wasn’t willing to see the league through the last month of the first season. Did Fowler or Dundon, or both, view the AAF as a steppingstone to NFL ownership, and were their initial investments shows of faith to NFL owners that they should be considered for future franchises? We don’t know. But questions like those hang over the death of another minor league that had grandiose visions and not enough money to support them.

 

7. I think the other thing people who build spring football league have to ask is whether we really want football in the spring. I have little interest in it, and I didn’t have one email, tweet or text in the last two months asking me if I’d be covering the AAF, or criticizing my lack of attention to it. From mid-February to late April, the time of AAF games, I believe my readers/experiencers care about the combine, free agency and the draft. Not that it’s impossible for the AAF or another minor league to exist, but it should exist as a minor league, without all the bells and whistles (an extra official known as a Sky Judge, coach-to-QB communication, and so many of the other pricy toys that you just don’t need to run a sports league). This was Triple-A football, and should have been financially managed as such.

 

 

2019 DRAFT

Peter King offers sort of a Mock Draft:

 

The one trend I hear, talking to people around the league, backs up what Gil Brandt said at the top of this column: There is no chalk. Teams will understand the strength at edge rusher is very early, the strength at tackle is from 7 to 30, the strength at cornerback and receiver is 25 to 70, the strength at quarterback after Kyler Murray is in the eye of the beholder, and so that will affect when teams with major needs at those spots pick their guys.

 

I can see once-beloved players like tight Noah Fant, wide receiver A.J. Brown, defensive tackle Jeffrey Simmons, corners Byron Murphy and DeAndre Baker, and defensive end Jachai Polite fall to the second round. I hear Dwayne Haskins could plummet, but that could be late-prep lying too.

 

It’s going to be fun. I say this every year: The NFL does a good job of building the suspense leading into the draft, and the NFL does a bad job helping teams prepare for the season. There are 115 days between the last day of the regular season and the first day of the draft. There are 90 days between the end of the draft and the start of most teams’ training camps. The NFL could easily cut out three to four weeks of draft prep (which is draft over-prep) and give teams more time with their draft choices, helping their readiness for the season. But you know why the league does this. It’s all about the hype machine. With ABC, ESPN and NFL Network doing the draft live this year, networks are paying for programming. Well-hyped programming, with some mystique. And that is what they shall get.

 

One to 32, here’s my best guess what teams from Tempe to Foxboro are thinking—and who they should be targeting in the first round.

 

1. Arizona: Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma. I wouldn’t even consider offers, unless they’re ridiculously excessive. Picking Murray here just makes too much sense, with Kingsbury in love with him. GM Steve Keim has to figure, If I hired this offensive innovator as coach, and he wants Murray badly, why would we not give him what he wants? Even with a devalued Rosen going east (see ARIZONA in DB), this is a move Arizona has to make.

 

2. San Francisco: Nick Bosa, edge rusher, Ohio State. Big pressure on the Niners to finally draft a pressure player on the line, after taking defensive linemen with their top picks in 2015, 2016 and 2017, and hitting big only on DeForest Buckner in ’16. Buckner, in 2018, was the first Niner to have a double-digit sack season in six years. Bosa’s been injured seriously in two of his last four football seasons, so he doesn’t come without risk. But he’s the right pick here.

 

3. New York Jets: Trade down. Multiple teams lust after Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, and if I had to bet, I’d put my money on GM Mike Maccagnan picking him here. He’s the cleanest prospect in this draft, and I think if the Jets auction the pick, they’d get three premier picks in return. I’d rather have the three picks—maybe two in the top 45 this year and another high pick next year—to get Sam Darnold a top receiver or tight end plus a building-block offensive lineman (Kansas State’s Dalton Risner?), at least, this year.

 

4. Oakland: Josh Allen, edge rusher, Kentucky. Jon Gruden picks Khalil Mack II, he hopes, and pays 30 cents on the Mack dollar for him. The best two edge players in the draft this year should be gone in the top four.

 

5. Tampa Bay: Trade down. That’s a strength of GM Jason Licht, who has done it two of the last three years. And because they don’t seem inclined to sign defensive tackle Gerald McCoy long-term (the Bucs have cap issues), and they could trade him, and they need multiple picks at reasonable prices. If they could deal down to a QB-craving team (Miami at 13?), Houston’s Ed Oliver or Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell could buttress a needy defensive front.

 

 

6. New York Giants: Drew Lock, QB, Missouri. Doubt GM Dave Gettleman will do this, or take any quarterback here. (In fact, I keep hearing Dwayne Haskins is sinking, and may be the fourth passer picked in this draft.) Gettleman seems to have more of a mind to fix his lines in this draft. But a franchise passer trumps all. Lock or Haskins should be the pick here—unless the Giants think it’s a lock that Lock will be there at 17.

 

7. Jacksonville: Jawaan Taylor, T, Florida. “I’ll be shocked if the Jaguars don’t go tackle here,” said one respected GM. Seems like Taylor is the most prepared to be a first-year starter, and could be plug-and-play at right tackle over Will Richardson, last year’s fourth-round pick.

 

8. Detroit: T.J. Hockenson, TE, Iowa. Hmmm. Even after raiding Jesse James from the Steelers in free agency? Yes. Hockenson’s one the best blocking/receiving tight ends—and he’s passionate about the game—to come out of college football in years. Time for Matthew Stafford to have some easy completions.

 

9. Buffalo: Jonah Williams, T, Alabama. Odd. Bills haven’t taken a tackle in the last four drafts, and the last one they took high in a draft with an Alabama guy, the failed Cyrus Kouandjio, five years ago in round two. But they band-aided the wideout need in free agency (John Brown, Cole Beasley), and long-term tackle is still a major need position.

 

10. Denver: Devin White, LB, LSU. Vic Fangio froths at putting the best linebacker and a sure, physical tackler between Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. Keep hearing Denver and a quarterback here, but it’s not what I’d do this year, this high.

 

11. Cincinnati: Multiple choice. I’d love to know what new coach Zac Taylor really thinks of Andy Dalton, and whether he believes one of these passers this year is a better option. Assuming Taylor is okay with Dalton, there’s a desperate need at tackle. I’d go Cody Ford, the Oklahoma tackle. Too high for him, but the need is acute.

 

12. Green Bay: D.K. Metcalf, WR, Mississippi. Pack should be able to scotch-tape tight end in 2019 with Jimmy Graham/Marcedes Lewis combo platter, so I’d go with a monster receiver Aaron Rodgers might actually learn to trust opposite Davante Adams. This is not the Green Bay way—the Pack traditionally waits to get a wideout down the line. Metcalf could break that mold.

 

13. Miami: Quarterback or edge rusher. Maybe new offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea and GM Chris Grier have fallen in love with one of the passers. I’d lean that way if I were the Dolphins. But pass-rush is a major need, so I could see Montez Sweat or Brian Burns too. Either would be good here.

 

14. Atlanta: Ed Oliver, DT, Houston. Pair Oliver with Grady Jarrett, and Dan Quinn, finally, could have the kind of interior terrorism he’s yearned for since arriving in Atlanta. I understand they are mirror players. I also understand how difficult it would be for an interior offensive line to block these two.

 

15. Washington: Tackle or edge rusher or corner. Imagine being midway through the first round and having your pick of the corner market. Washington could have that, but the corner market is deeper than tackle, and thus a decent corner could be had on day two. If Dillard or Ford is on the board, I’d pick either. Keep in mind that Washington’s my favorite in the clubhouse to deal for Josh Rosen if the Arizona QB is traded.

 

16. Carolina: Montez Sweat, edge rusher, Mississippi State. The Usain Bolt of defensive linemen could well be gone by now, but he could drop a bit because of inconsistent college play, his minor heart condition, and the fact he’s a little stiff as a rusher. But post-Julius Peppers, Carolina should run this card to the podium in Nashville if Sweat is there midway through the round.

 

17. New York Giants: Depends on the first pick. If the Giants didn’t take a quarterback at six and Drew Lock is here, he’s the guy. If so, best available offensive or defensive lineman, such as guard/center Garrett Bradbury, who could compete to play opening day at a need position, center.

 

18. Minnesota: One of a number of offensive linemen, like Dalton Risner, T, Kansas State, or Erik McCoy, C, Texas A&M. If they don’t take the best available protector, I’ll be stunned. The line’s a major need. It got coordinator John DeFilippo fired last year.

 

19. Tennessee: Irv Smith Jr., TE, Alabama. Marcus Mariota needs an intermediate friend, and Delanie Walker, coming off an injury, will be 35 in August. Smith’s an opening-day contributor.

 

20. Pittsburgh: Devin Bush, LB, Michigan. When the Steelers lost Ryan Shazier to a spinal injury 16 months ago, they lost the heart of the defense. Bush isn’t Shazier, but he’d give Mike Tomlin the closest thing to Shazier they’ve had.

 

21. Seattle: Trade down. If the Seahawks hold the pick, it should be for a year-one starter on the offensive line like Bradbury, the center-guard. As it stands … Team most likely to trade down in round one: Seattle. Team with most urgency to trade down in round one: Seattle. GM John Schneider would rather trade on draft day than breathe, and he has but two picks in the top 120: this one and the 84th overall. Over-under on Schneider’s trade-downs on draft weekend: four.

 

22. Baltimore: Trade down. In Eric DeCosta’s first draft as GM, the safe thing to do—with just two picks in the top 100—is what is in DeCosta’s blood: Trade. If not, and if an explosive wideout like D.K. Metcalf is gone, the smart pick here would be a 10-year center—Erik McCoy of Texas A&M.

 

23. Houston: The best tackle. I don’t care who it is. The Texans have to get two good tackles in this draft. Andre Dillard, Cody Ford, Dalton Risner … one should still be here. If not, GM Brian Gaine’s got to trade down for value.

 

24. Oakland: Josh Jacobs, RB, Alabama. It’s a great story, Marshawn Lynch being the billboard for his hometown Raiders. Rebel, rebel. Guess how many carries Lynch has had in the last four NFL seasons? It’s 408. Guess who turns 33 two weeks from today? Time marches on, and a guy who’s averaged 102 carries a year in the last four and who is ancient by running-back standards is maybe a complementary player this year. Raiders need a stud back, and I hear they love Jacobs.

 

25. Philadelphia: Marquise Brown, WR, Oklahoma. Incredible how similar picks 24 and 25 are. Eagles trading for DeSean Jackson, who will be 33 this year, and he starts a second act in Philly, like Lynch has done in Oakland. Jackson is the same height (5-10) and six pounds heavier at 175 than Brown, who should become the long-term deep threat for Carson Wentz.

 

26. Indianapolis: Best available front-seven player. Brian Burns still there? Good; he can learn from Justin Houston. Clelin Ferrell? Likely gone. Christian Wilkins? Excellent choice—a 315-pound space-eater who could free Darius Leonard to make even more plays in 2019.

 

27. Oakland: Nasir Adderley, S, Delaware, or Jerry Tillery, DT, Notre Dame. I tend to think Adderley, because he’s a versatile player (three-year CB, one-year safety) who could fill the hole at safety next to Karl Joseph or plug at corner or nickel as well. Good weapon for defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. The luxury of extra picks might make defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons tempting. He’d have been a top 10 pick were it not for his torn ACL in February.

 

28. Los Angeles Chargers: Johnathan Abram, S, Mississippi State. Derwin James and Abram in the back end for the next eight years? Sign me up for that.

 

29. Kansas City: Rashan Gary, edge rusher, Michigan, or best edge player available. Chiefs have gotten rid of their best three pass-rushers in the last 13 months—Tamba Hali, Justin Houston and Dee Ford. If there’s one left in the round who can walk, chew gum, and get around tackles at the same time, GM Brett Veach will nab him.

 

30. Green Bay: Noah Fant, TE, Iowa, or best available offensive lineman. Keep hearing Fant was a distant second to Hockenson among the football people at Iowa, so that could give the Packers pause. They need a long-term tight end, and this could be a good spot to get one.

 

31. Los Angeles Rams: Best available offensive lineman … Chris Lindstrom, G, Boston College, or Elgton Jenkins, C, Mississippi State. The Rams have major long-term issues on their offensive line. The 2018 starters from center to left tackle—John Sullivan, Rodger Saffold and Andrew Whitworth—will likely all be gone by opening day 2020. Reinforcements must come.

 

32. New England: Best corner, edge player or receiver. I’d take Greedy Williams, the corner from LSU. Serious top 10 prospect in October, and nothing happened to knock him down other than the fact that so many other corners are close to him in ability. Pats can dip into deep wideout/tight end market at 56, 64 or 73 overall, or with a trade. The tight end who might fit well is Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger—if the Patriots think he can block well enough in their scheme. He can stretch a defense.