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GREEN BAY

Novice head coach Matt LaFleur had help in putting his staff together from his front office.  That and more from Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Sentinel, who along with his sources, doesn’t like the way Green Bay’s hierarchy is shaking out.  It is a long piece, in full here, edited below:

 

As the Green Bay Packers embark on a new chapter in their long, storied history under first-year head coach Matt LaFleur, one thing is clear: The paradigm inside 1265 Lombardi Ave. has changed.

 

An organizational chart that for 25 years spelled out the franchise’s hierarchy in a clear and concise manner is gone.

 

The president is still on top, but there is no single person in charge of the football operation, no Ron Wolf or Ted Thompson to set the course and make sure everyone was working toward the same organizational goal.

 

Instead, there are three men — LaFleur, general manager Brian Gutekunst and director of football operations Russ Ball — all with visions of the way they want their departments to be run, all reporting directly to Packers President/CEO Mark Murphy, hoping to steer the organization back on course after two straight losing seasons.

 

It is a structure that is fraught with trouble based on the franchise’s history, according to current and former members of the organization.

 

The Packers floundered through the 1970s and ‘80s without a strong personnel man overseeing the football operation and didn’t turn things around until then-president Bob Harlan hired Wolf in 1991 and gave him full authority over all football decisions.

 

Using that structure for all but three of the last 26 years, the Packers won two Super Bowls and 12 division titles, made seven NFC championship and 19 playoff appearances and had 21 winning seasons.

 

The new structure, sources say, has allowed Murphy to be more involved in the football operation, resulting in him spending a lot more time on the coach’s floor and in the locker room than he ever did. Just as importantly, it has elevated Ball to a position of authority nearly equal to what Thompson’s was despite his being passed over for the general manager’s job 17 months ago.

 

It was Murphy alone who chose to employ the new structure. He gave Gutekunst and Ball their titles, and hired LaFleur. It is critical to the franchise’s future, not to mention Murphy’s, that the three men below him find a groove together. The team has not had three losing seasons in a row since 1986-88 and another sub-.500 finish could have fans calling for a house cleaning.

 

How Murphy arrived at the structure can be traced to the circumstances that followed his decision to remove Thompson from his position for health reasons. The club had never commented on an illness that some say began affecting Thompson as early as 2014, but this week, after his induction into the Packers Hall of Fame, the former general manager revealed he has an autonomic disorder.

 

Thompson did not get into specifics about the symptoms or the cause but said doctors do not think it relates to CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), the brain disorder that has struck scores of former NFL players such as Thompson.

 

Thompson’s illness forced Murphy to act at the end of the 2017 season, the team’s first losing campaign in nine years. His intention was to replace the ailing Thompson with a full-authority general manager, but at some point, he decided the top three positions in the football operation should report to him.

 

There are skeptics of the organization’s direction, and it’s easy to see why, given the lack of a decisive leader with years of NFL experience in charge of the entire football operation. Maybe Murphy is the smart one, but the way things transpired after Thompson’s demotion suggest not all the pieces are going to fit together the way he believes.

 

Speaking with current and former members of the organization, agents and friends for some of those employees and people who do business with the Packers, nearly 20 in total, there are concerns that the organization is headed down a faulty path.

 

All the sources quoted in this story have firsthand knowledge of what they described but asked not to be identified to protect their jobs and professional relationships. In the NFL, those who speak out without authorization from the club can find themselves out of work quickly and those with associations with the club who speak out of turn can find themselves cut off just as fast.

 

Russ Ball a ‘good man,’ but polarizing figure

Many of those interviewed expressed concern over Ball’s role and whether it was a mistake not to give Gutekunst full authority. Gutekunst served under both Wolf and Thompson, is well-liked, exudes an air of great confidence and would have been a general manager somewhere else if not in Green Bay.

 

Ball worked hard to learn the personnel side of the game and even spent time in team meetings to get a feel for that part of the operation. He has managed the salary cap beautifully, has a good reputation among the many agents with whom he negotiates and has the experience of working for four different organizations. Thompson has told friends that Ball “is a good man.”

 

But despite his anonymity outside the building, he is described as a polarizing figure by current and former associates. Agents who negotiate contracts with Ball call him fair and honorable. Others who have left the team say he is an organizational climber, rubs people the wrong way and has a personal agenda that interferes with the cohesiveness between the different departments.

 

Asked about that, Murphy said any questions about Ball’s responsibilities or performance are born of jealousies that exist over how the front office shook out. He said Ball was an important part of the team’s success and was trusted by Thompson.

 

Murphy acknowledged that Ball has a tremendous amount of responsibility, much of which he had before. But he acknowledged that before the change, Ball had to clear every decision he made with Thompson before moving forward.

 

Now, nearly every football decision except team personnel goes through Ball’s office, and multiple sources said he has Murphy’s ear more than anyone else, creating an uneven dynamic in what was supposed to be an equal split of authority. Gutekunst has full say over the 53-man roster, but unlike Thompson and Wolf before him, he doesn’t control the message inside and outside the building.

 

Ball never speaks to the media or is out front when news is announced.

 

Under the current structure, the club doesn’t have a strong public presence like when McCarthy, Wolf or Mike Holmgren were leading the way. LaFleur didn’t come in and say he was going to win a world championship like McCarthy did or bring a pair of Super Bowl rings with him like Holmgren did. From all indications, he doesn’t have a forceful personality.

 

He’s also just 39 years old and will need to grow quickly into the position.

 

Gutekunst does not have authority over LaFleur or Ball except with roster decisions, and LaFleur has little of the influence McCarthy had when it came time to fight for something he wanted. So far, LaFleur has been allowed to make changes around the facility and add some former colleagues to his staff, but at least one friend worried that Murphy and Ball would lord over him.

 

Murphy insisted LaFleur has autonomy with his coaching staff, is being given everything he needs to succeed and won’t be interfered with. Murphy is his boss and only Murphy has the authority to give him everything he wants.

– – –

Thompson built one of the franchise’s four Super Bowl teams and gave everything he had to the organization, but he started to show signs of the autonomic disorder as early as 2014, about the time he underwent hip replacement surgery, according to one source. Murphy was made aware of some of the changes Thompson was going through, the source said.

 

Out of respect for a man they loved and appreciated, McCarthy, Ball, Gutekunst, personnel men Eliot Wolf and Alonzo Highsmith and many others did everything they could to fill in where Thompson could not in the years to follow.

 

It wasn’t that Thompson couldn’t make well-reasoned decisions; it was that he wasn’t always available to make them because his work capacity had been reduced. Everything still ran through him, and while it was his style to let things play out rather than react too quickly, his inability to devote the same number of hours to the job slowed the operation.

 

“Maybe keeping him going was the worst thing we could have done for him,” said one longtime front-office colleague.

 

A close friend of Thompson’s agreed that the good intentions of his colleagues may have backfired, adding that Thompson’s health should have been the priority, not keeping him in an intensely demanding position that might have been making things worse.

 

It is understandable why Murphy did not remove Thompson from the general manager’s chair earlier than he did. As much as his tightfisted salary management and aversion to free agency frustrated many inside and out of the organization, Thompson devoted his life to the job and demoting him would have been a difficult decision for Murphy.

 

On the other hand, Harlan had faced a similar situation in 2007 when his hand-picked successor, John Jones, was unable to manage the job due to a health problem. Harlan consulted with doctors and finally told Jones he had to step down.

 

Murphy could have done the same much earlier with Thompson. He has run the Packers like a corporation and that puts him smack dab in the CEO seat, where the toughest of decisions are supposed to be made. If he wasn’t aware of Thompson’s decline, he should’ve been, so the onus was on him to make a move, as tough as it might have been.

 

Murphy pivots to three ‘silos’

In a Jan. 2, 2018, news conference announcing Thompson’s removal, Murphy said he did not intend to change the front-office structure or get rid of McCarthy. He fully intended to replace Thompson with a general manager who oversaw the head coach. The way sources described it, Ball was going to be it.

 

Ball had spent years serving Thompson, doing some of the toughest work in the building. He did all of it with almost zero recognition from the public.

 

When McCarthy heard Ball was going to be Murphy’s pick, a source said, he objected because he wanted an experienced personnel evaluator who would not be averse to signing free agents. He had accepted Thompson’s draft-and-develop philosophy — knowing each year he would be replacing veterans with rookies — because he was loyal to Thompson. But recent weak drafts had made it more necessary to sign free agents.

 

McCarthy couldn’t really leave — he had earlier in the year had his contract extended through 2019 — but Murphy apparently felt he couldn’t tell McCarthy to accept Ball or go sit out the next two years at home. So, he went through his GM interviews with the head coach in the room. It meant Ball had to conduct his interview with the guy who didn’t want him in the job.

 

Ultimately, Murphy decided he would hire a personnel man as his general manager. He chose Gutekunst over Eliot Wolf (Ron’s son) and Doug Whaley.

 

Gutekunst, a source said, thought he had interviewed for the same job Thompson had. But when Murphy reached him on his way to a general manager’s job interview in Houston, he offered a different job. Gutekunst would have final say on the 53-man roster, the draft and free agency, but he would not have the power to hire or fire the coach or oversee all facets of the football operation.

 

Gutekunst was taken aback but took some time and eventually decided he wanted to stay in Green Bay. Part of the reason might have been that he had a good working relationship with McCarthy and felt they could partner the way McCarthy and Thompson had.

 

McCarthy was not aware Murphy had decided to create a new structure until after the fact and was not pleased because of the influence it gave Ball, a source said. It turned out to be the beginning of the end for McCarthy. Once it looked like his team wouldn’t make the playoffs after a home loss to Arizona on Dec. 2, Murphy didn’t even wait until the stadium lights were off to fire him.

 

When reached for this story, McCarthy said he was focused on the present and preferred not to dwell on the past.

 

After Gutekunst took the job, Murphy rewarded Ball with the director of football operations title and a big raise, according to a source who learned about it directly from Murphy. The title was taken from Thompson’s job description, meaning Ball was being given control of everything but personnel.

– – –

With Gutekunst in charge of personnel, Ball in charge of football operations and McCarthy the head coach, the three “silos,” as Murphy likes to call them, were established. Gutekunst wasn’t the general manager he expected to be, Ball wasn’t the general manager at all and McCarthy was in no man’s land with two years left on his deal.

 

A source said when Ball was congratulated about his promotion, he scoffed and said it was not the job he wanted. He and McCarthy kept a working relationship, but they were both reporting to Murphy, and Ball worked more closely with the president than McCarthy did.

 

A bumpy start for LaFleur

After McCarthy was fired and the season ended, Murphy led a search committee for a new head coach. Gutekunst and Ball were his two primary advisers and all three were impressed with LaFleur’s interview in Nashville, Tennessee on Sunday, Jan. 7.

 

They flew back to Green Bay and met the next day to discuss the prospects. According to two sources familiar with what transpired in the meeting, it was expected the candidates would be discussed some more and LaFleur would be brought in for a second interview. But Murphy was convinced the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator was the guy and made the decision to hire him.

 

At the Jan. 9 news conference introducing LaFleur, Murphy insisted the entire search committee agreed that LaFleur was the choice and a decision was made to move quickly. Murphy did most of the talking at the news conference; Gutekunst was mostly in the background. Ball wasn’t part of it at all.

 

A source said Gutekunst initially wasn’t going to be part of the news conference and that it would be just Murphy and LaFleur. But eventually it was decided Gutekunst would take part.

 

Once he was up and running as head coach, LaFleur had to build a coaching staff. He was supposed to have complete control over the hiring of his staff. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was not forced on LaFleur, but the new coach was strongly encouraged to keep him.

 

When it came to other assistant coaches, LaFleur wasn’t the sole decision-maker, sources said.

 

LaFleur was excited about hiring highly regarded Miami special teams coach Darren Rizzi, who was not returning to the Dolphins and had told the Packers he would come up for an interview but was not going to sign for less than three years and total of $4.5 million, a source said.

 

Rizzi was told to come. He and LaFleur hit it off in their interview, the source said. But when it came time to talk about a contract, the Packers offered Rizzi less than he was seeking and Rizzi felt he had been led astray.

 

He left town. The Packers eventually met his price a couple of days later, but by that time Rizzi had decided to pursue other opportunities. LaFleur tried to convince him to change his mind but had no success.

 

Murphy claims the Packers did not low-ball Rizzi and met his price before he left.

 

Rizzi ended up signing a three-year, $4.5 million deal with the New Orleans Saints.

– – –

A source said LaFleur was also interested in hiring assistant special teams coach Maurice Drayton to replace Ron Zook but didn’t think management would allow it because Drayton had been part of the disastrous 2018 special teams under Zook. Team officials vehemently denied this and said LaFleur could hire whomever he wanted.

 

After striking out on another candidate, LaFleur hired Vanderbilt’s Shawn Mennenga and retained Drayton as his assistant.

 

LaFleur interviewed offensive line coach James Campen for two days, a source said, and for a while it appeared he was going to stick with tight ends coach Brian Angelichio and defensive passing game coordinator Joe Whitt. But none of them were retained, and Whitt was fired without any notice.

 

As it turned out, nobody who had a long-term connection with McCarthy was retained.

 

Two sources with connections to the coaches said that was done on purpose and that Ball had a role in it, but Murphy and others vehemently deny it.

 

“Matt was allowed to make his own decisions,” Murphy said.

 

LaFleur wound up filling his offensive staff with several young position coaches with limited NFL experience, such as Adam Stenavich (offensive line), Jacob Outten (tight ends) and Alvis Whitted (receivers). He also hired former Jacksonville Jaguars offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and former Packers wide receivers coach Luke Getsy (quarterbacks) and retained running backs coach Ben Sirmans.

 

Now that all the hirings and firings are done, LaFleur has started the process of winning over the players and developing a new culture. He still has a lot of work to do in forging a relationship with quarterback Aaron Rodgers and installing a new offensive system.

 

In the meantime, the organization enters its second year under its new front-office structure. Sources said the executive committee seems to be made up of people who are just happy to be connected to the Packers and have stayed out of Murphy’s business. At board of director’s meetings, it’s rare to hear someone question the Packers operation or Murphy.

 

The three-headed management team has high expectations for the 2019 season. Murphy and Ball OK’d $56 million in signing bonuses to free agents Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, Adrian Amos and Billy Turner, and they’ll be expecting a big return.

 

Things need to turn around fast. Murphy has put himself at the top of football operations, and Ball is right there with him. Gutekunst will be judged on the talent he brings in.

 

A lot is riding on LaFleur’s ability to succeed on the field this year with the team, and leadership structure, he’s got.

 

It all starts when training camp opens July 25.

 

 

MINNESOTA

TE KYLE RUDOLPH is on borrowed time in Minnesota per this tweet from Ian Rapoport:

 

@RapSheet

The #Vikings had held active extension talks with veteran TE Kyle Rudolph, but those broke off this morning, sources say. With Minnesota drafting TE Irv Smith and Rudolph due $7.5M, this development could lead to a trade elsewhere. There is interest around the NFL.

 

NFC EAST

 

PHILADELPHIA

For the second year in a row, QB CARSON WENTZ may not be ready to answer the opening bell – if one defines the opening bell as OTAs.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz said last month that his back is “still getting there” in response to questions about whether he was back to full health and head coach Doug Pederson offered another update on his condition Friday.

 

Pederson said at a press conference that Wentz has been on the field during workouts in the current phase of the offseason program, but said he would not get “too specific” about the quarterback’s workload at this point.

 

Pederson was willing to say that he was encouraged by how the quarterback is coming along. He would not say whether or not Wentz will be ready for full participation once organized team activities get underway on May 21. The 10 OTAs and June’s mandatory minicamp represent the final stage of work before the Eagles take a break ahead of training camp.

 

Back-to-back season-ending injuries for Wentz hasn’t dampened the team’s enthusiasm for signing him to a long-term deal, but there’s still plenty of interest inside and outside the organization in seeing how he’ll fare in his return from this issue.

 

If the DB had forgotten who the Eagles signed to replace the dearly departed NICK FOLES, you may have as well.

 

Basically, the answer is “no one.”  NATE SUDFELD is moving up from #3 to #2.  There also is a rookie fifth-round draft pick CLAYTON THORSON from Northwestern and LUIS PEREZ who was signed from the ruins of AAF.

 

Nick Fierro of the Allentown Morning Call provides this look at Thorson from the time he was drafted:

 

Notables still on the board

Washington State QB Gardner Minshew, Penn State QB Trace McSorley, Georgia DE DeAndre Walker, Wisconsin T David Edwards, Auburn WR Darius Slayton, Washington CB Jordan Miller, North Carolina LB Cole Holcomb.

 

Why they preferred Thorson

At 6-4, 225, Thorson is rugged (though not immune to injury, as noted earlier), with a good amount of polish that includes solid footwork, balance and ability to work through reads efficiently when protected.

 

 “This kid’s tough and he fits exactly what we look for in a quarterback,” coach Doug Pederson said. “Arm strength, decision making, the ability to extend plays, and he’s going to fit really well with that room and with Carson and Nate. It’s going to be a really fun spring and summer and leading up into training camp to see all those guys … come together in that room and jell and it’s a good opportunity for him.”

Thorson talked shortly after being drafted about his idols and playing within his limits.

 

“I grew up watching Peyton Manning,” he said. “I think I take things from each quarterback I watch. You watch Aaron Rodgers get out of the pocket and move and he is pretty impressive. But I try to be myself, and who that is is a guy who can sling it. With our offense at Northwestern, I was able to learn how to throw the ball with a lot of anticipation and tight windows, making plays on the run, moving the pocket a little bit.

 

 “But we had a great offense at Northwestern in terms of preparing me for the NFL. So I feel like I have taken a lot from many different quarterbacks.”

 

Why Thorson could fail

At Northwestern, he rarely went under center, so he will need to adjust at this level. He also needs to sharpen his pocket presence and not panic as much when he feels the rush. To that end, footwork will be crucial and his reps will be limited because there are two quarterbacks ahead of him on the depth chart.

 

Immediate projection

Thorson has a chance to learn from a proven tutor in Pederson and will be in a nurturing quarterbacks room. If all goes as planned this season, he won’t ever dress for a regular-season game, much less play in one. But that’s assuming Wentz stays healthy for 16 games. So stay tuned.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

TAMPA BAY

DE JASON PIERRE-PAUL will let his broken neck heal naturally with some thought that the Buccaneers could see him in the second half of the season.  John Breech of CBSSports.com:

 

Jason Pierre-Paul might not miss the entire 2019 NFL season, but there’s a good chance he’s going to miss at least half of it due to the injuries he sustained in a car crash on May 2. At least that’s the word from Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians, who was asked about the health of his star defensive player on Friday for the first time since the crash.

 

Although Bucs general manager Jason Licht released multiple statements about the incident, the team didn’t really offer any timetable for when JPP might return until now, and it’s looking like Pierre-Paul won’t be back on the field until October at the absolute earliest.

 

“I think [the evaluation] is still ongoing, and like Jason said, we’ve got our fingers crossed and praying for him,” Arians said, via ESPN.com. “[It’s] yery unfortunate. All we can do is just pray and hope for the best and hope it’s one of those five- or six-month things and go from there.”

 

Pierre-Paul fractured his neck in a crash that took place just after 2 a.m. in Florida.

 

If Pierre-Paul were to return after five months, that means he would miss the first four games of the season. On the other hand, if he’s out for six months, that means he wouldn’t be returning to the team until Week 9 at the earliest.

 

According to NFL.com, the Buccaneers star has decided not to undergo surgery on his neck.

 

@TomPelissero

 With surgery off the table, the plan is to recheck #Bucs DE Jason Pierre-Paul’s fractured vertebra at the 4-month mark, source said. The good news: Three independent doctors concurred it’ll heal on its own. Expected timeline is 5-6 months, if not sooner.

 

Although JPP’s doctors could see him coming back sooner five or six months, Arians didn’t sound as optimistic. As a matter of fact, the Bucs coach still doesn’t seem sure if Pierre-Paul will play at all this season.

 

“I don’t know what the answer is yet, if he’s gonna play, if he’s not gonna play,” Arians said. “[You] just practice with the guys you have, just like if anybody else gets hurt, on the field or off the field. You march on.”

 

The injury to Pierre-Paul happened when his Ferrari spun out while he was driving on I-95 in South Florida. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, Pierre-Paul apparently didn’t realize that he was injured. In the 9-1-1 call that he made, the Bucs pass rusher described himself as doing “OK.”

 

“I hit the median, but I’m OK,” Pierre-Paul said in the 9-1-1 call, which was obtained by Andy Slater. “It’s right in the middle. It has to be moved or a cop has to come, or somebody is going to hit it.”

 

Police also seemed to think that everything was alright, because they described JPP as “apparently normal’ in their report from the incident, which was obtained by the Tampa Bay Times. The 30-year-old was eventually taken to a hospital and then released on the same day.

 

Up until now we didn’t know that the accident happened in the rain, or at least on a slick freeway.  TMZ.com:

 

The Florida Highway Patrol states JPP was driving a red 2019 Ferrari 488 Pista — a rocket ship on wheels that tops out at 211 mph. The car goes from 0 to 60 in 2.8 seconds.

 

Officials say the Tampa Bay Bucs superstar lost control of the car around 2:38 AM and collided with a concrete barrier on I-95 in Fort Lauderdale. There were no skid marks or debris found in the roadway.

 

Despite the curious time of the accident, officials say the responding officers did NOT suspect JPP was under the influence of alcohol or drugs … and was NOT tested for either.

 

Instead, cops say they believe “weather conditions” — specifically wet road surfaces — caused the NFL star to lose control.

 

And even though he was driving a “rocket ship” his speed was surprisingly low.

 

Pierre-Paul’s Ferrari was traveling at the speed limit (65 mph), but road conditions may have played a role in the incident since it was “wet and raining,” per Slater.

 

So the picture we’re starting to get is a common one in Florida.  Severe rain, most people knocking 10 to 15 mph off their speed, wondering why the guy that zooms by thinks he should drive the speed limit in the downpour just because he can.

 

NFC WEST

 

LOS ANGELES RAMS

The Rams think they have their ALVIN KAMARA in RB DARRELL HENDERSON.  John Sigler of USA TODAY:

 

Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead was feeling left out whenever New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara lined up against his team, so he made a move in the 2019 NFL Draft to go get someone like the young Saints superstar. The Rams selected former Memphis Tigers running back Darrell Henderson with a third-round draft pick, but Snead pushed hard to add the rookie sooner.

 

“The Memphis guy gives us a Kamara element,” Snead said on an episode of “Behind the Grind,” which documented the Rams offseason with video from inside their draft room. Snead was seen mulling over whether they should select Henderson earlier in the draft, and he wasn’t convinced that the dynamo would be available later on, fearing another team might beat them to the punch. “We’ll play against him and you’ll feel it,” he warned Rams head coach Sean McVay.

 

But the Rams were able to draft Henderson after all, and McVay was pleased with the pick, saying, “We’d identified him as a guy that has a specific skill set, that really can do some unique things for us offensively. He was one of those guys that stood out for us, so we’re excited about getting him here.”

 

Now, whether Henderson will be able to mimic Kamara remains to be seen. Henderson was an electric runner in college, averaging an astounding 8.9 rushing yards per attempt and notching 15.5 receiving yards per catch. He’ll be second-fiddle to Rams featured back Todd Gurley, much like Kamara did to start his Saints career behind Mark Ingram.

 

The Saints may have seen this move coming. They put Henderson through a private workout during the pre-draft process, to better judge his abilities and estimate what he might accomplish in the pros. The Rams have become one of the Saints’ chief rivals outside their division, and it’s possible they took steps to prepare accordingly. Now, Henderson will be one of their earliest opponents when the Saints visit Los Angeles for a big Week 2 game in the regular season.

 

 

SEATTLE

The Seahawks have signed journeyman DT AL WOODS:

 

The Seattle Seahawks have made another late addition to their defensive line, agreeing to terms with veteran defensive tackle Al Woods.

 

Woods’ agency, SportsTrust Advisors, announced the move Friday, a few hours after the Seahawks’ one-year deal with pass-rusher Ezekiel Ansah became official.

 

Woods, 32, was among several defensive tackles who visited the Seahawks, according to ESPN’s Field Yates, as they looked to add a run-stuffing presence after letting 2018 starter Shamar Stephen leave in free agency. At the owners meetings in March, coach Pete Carroll called that a “clear-cut” area of need, and the only notable addition Seattle made at that position since then was drafting Demarcus Christmas in the sixth round.

 

Woods, who is listed at 6-foot-4 and 330 pounds, will be the leading candidate to play nose tackle in Seattle’s base defense alongside Jarran Reed. The Seahawks’ other interior defensive linemen are Quinton Jefferson (who also plays end), Poona Ford, Jamie Meder and undrafted rookies Bryan Mone and Jay-Tee Tiuli.

 

Woods has made 43 starts and appeared in 111 games since entering the league as a fourth-round pick out of LSU in 2010. He made eight starts last season for the Colts and has played for four other teams, including a two-game stint with Seattle in 2011.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

INDIANAPOLIS

A former Special Forces commander is a key component for the Colts in their effort to determine which athletes have the fortitude to succeed in the NFL.  Zak Keefer in the Indianapolis Star:

 

After two tours in Iraq, the echoes of war would crawl into his thoughts at night, refusing to let his mind ease. “Boredom punctuated with terror,” is what he calls it. He still remembers how bloody his fingers would get loading his ammunition during training, how the planes would shake as they touched down near enemy territory, the BOOM of a rogue RPG after it exploded just in front of the truck he was riding in, six miles outside Baghdad.

 

He remembers the fear he felt, in charge of a 12-man unit, worrying that he’d have to tell a wife that her husband wasn’t going to make it back home.

 

There’s a parallel he sees, something about the audacity it took to survive in his old world – one of the most demanding and exclusive branches of the U.S. military – and the one he finds himself in now. Brian Decker stood on the field of an NFL preseason game last August, marveling at what he had just seen: a safety sticking a ballcarrier in the open field. “Two guys traveling 20 miles an hour,” he says. “It sounds like a car crash.”

 

Then he thinks for a moment, and he spins his story full circle.

 

“Most people aren’t willing to turn it loose like that. I think it takes something special. And on the other side, I think about the military. How many people are willing to sign up for $60,000 a year for something that may eventually cost them their life?”

 

Decker may very well be one of the most interesting men in the NFL, a former Green Beret from the U.S. Special Forces unit who successfully catapulted a 22-year career in the military into a job in professional football. Though his title with the Indianapolis Colts is a bit vague – director of player development – his duties are not. He probes draft prospects, digging into their psyche, and tries to uncover what others can’t. He coaches the scouts, counsels the players and meets with the head coach. Perhaps most significantly, he offers the general manager a set of eyes that are indifferent to the on-field talent that so often clouds evaluations in this league.

 

Decker, 47, is taking a model he developed late in his time with the military and applying it to the talent acquisition and developmental arm of an NFL team. The objective: assess the character and internal makeup of a prospect so deeply that the team can, perhaps more accurately than ever before, confidently predict whether he will succeed or fail at the next level.

 

It worked with the Special Forces – why not pro football?

 

Two drafts and one turnaround season into the experiment, he resists calling it a success, or revealing specific case studies. “Too soon to tell,” he cautions. But what he won’t argue with is the franchise’s firm footing for the future. No doubt the Colts are a team on the rise.

 

How much of an impact has Decker had?

 

Some inside the building believe he’s one of the smartest people in the organization. Some outside it believe he’s among the most innovative in all of football.

 

“I don’t know of anybody like him in the league,” Colts general manager Chris Ballard says. “I don’t.”

 

“What he’s doing is absolutely groundbreaking,” adds Joe Banner, the former Browns CEO who gave Decker his first job in the league in 2014. “He’s a difference-maker, and as more time passes, more teams in the NFL will be trying to find their own version of Brian Decker.”

 

It wasn’t that Banner wasn’t looking for a way to crack the riddle that has long confounded NFL front-offices – why roughly half of first-round draft picks wash out of the league – it’s just that he didn’t think he’d find his answer in a lieutenant colonel stationed 125 miles east of Charlotte.

 

Banner worked for 12 years as president of the Philadelphia Eagles, building teams that went to five NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl. By 2013, he was CEO of the Browns when his GM, Mike Lombardi, returned from a trip to Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina, fascinated by a Green Beret who’d successfully overhauled the unit’s outdated selection process and wanted a chance to see if he could do the same thing in the NFL.

 

At that point, the Browns hadn’t won more than five games in five years. They were willing to listen.

 

“We were trying to think outside the box,” Lombardi says now. “I think it was important to get somebody that wasn’t gonna be swayed by talent.”

 

And that, in essence, is Decker’s approach: Teams have been tracking the measurables – height, weight, speed, strength, countless data points – for decades; what he wanted to quantify were the immeasurables, i.e. everything else. Drive. Desire. Intelligence. Response to stress. Any factor that could derail progress or stall talent. “The whole game,” a former NFL head coach calls it.

 

After Lombardi and the Browns coaches met Decker at Fort Bragg, they asked him up to training camp later that summer, and that’s where he met Banner for the first time. There, Decker told the team’s CEO about what he’d done with the Green Berets, about reverse engineering more than 500 course failures, revamping a tired selection process and watching their success rate climb by as much as 30 percent. What Decker had learned, and what his work could prove: there was a whole lot more to finding the best candidates than simply seeing which ones could survive three grueling weeks of physical training.

 

Decker gave the weed-out process a much-needed makeover. He created a model that compiled 1,200 predictive data points, weighing factors the Green Berets had never before tried to quantify – specifically, those hard-to-define qualities such as leadership and intelligence under duress – and helped them identify which candidates were best equipped not just to survive training, but excel thereafter. Over time, the washout rate dipped dramatically.

 

“What Brian did was change the paradigm,” says Col. Glenn Thomas, Decker’s boss at Fort Bragg. “People get accustomed to looking at things the same way and applying the same solutions to the same problems. Brian challenged our assumptions. He took things that had generally been intangibles and turned them into tangibles.”

 

Which, of course, was the sort of breakthrough executives in a not-too-distant field – professional football – had been chasing for years. Swing and miss on a few first-round picks in the NFL and you’ll soon be looking for work. Banner, running the show in Cleveland, was determined to boost the Browns’ batting average.

 

“In Philly, we had done a lot of research on why only 50 percent of first-round draft picks were making it in the league,” he says. “What we learned was that our football evaluations were overwhelmingly right. It was the intangibles, like how driven they were, that were frequently unknown and hard to predict. We wanted to change that number from 50 percent to, say, 70 or 80 percent.”

 

What he sought was a better way to assess character, then to predict future growth or decline. And wouldn’t you know it, here was this Green Beret, sitting in his office in Cleveland, claiming he could do just that.

 

Brian Decker didn’t just watch “Moneyball” – he processed it. “Now that’s what I’m trying to do,” Thomas remembers him saying after Decker saw the film for the first time.

 

He didn’t just read books – he studied them, then passed them on to his superiors. He gave Thomas a copy of Michael Mauboussin’s “Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports and Investing.”

 

Decker didn’t just hope his approach would work in the NFL, he believed it would. All he needed was a shot.

– – –

When he evaluates a draft prospect, Decker asks himself five questions.

 

Does this player have a favorable development profile?

 

Does he have a profile that supports handling pressure and adversity?

 

Does he have a good learning and support system?

 

Is he a character risk, and if so, how do we understand that risk and help this player?

 

Lastly, is he a good fit?

 

Decker has helped the Colts map out a strategic document the team uses in player evaluations that tracks those hard-to-define metrics they’re after – metrics he won’t reveal. The overarching aim is to construct a culture of high-character players that pose less of a risk to the franchise, and in turn, leads to more sustained success on the field. “We feel like your locker room can be a competitive advantage,” Decker says, sounding a whole lot like his boss, Chris Ballard.

 

“Chris is trying to take information in time period 0, and predict information in time periods 1, 2 and 3 – where a player is going to be (as his career unfolds),” Decker explains. “The upper limit of that solution set is his talent. A straight line is his talent. Anything that’s going to take him off of that will probably be attributed in some way to human factors. And so my thought … we’re not going to eliminate the uncertainty, but what if we can reduce the uncertainty by five percent? And we can compound that five percent annually over time? That becomes a competitive advantage.”

 

He spends the season monitoring the pulse of the team, traveling to road games, meeting regularly with coach Frank Reich, counseling the younger players, encouraging those coming back from injury. He spends the winter and spring offering a sounding board to the scouts, helping the personnel staff grind the draft board down from hundreds to the few that will end up in Indianapolis. “Getting the right guys on the bus,” he calls it.

 

Unique as his approach seems, Decker isn’t the first of his kind in the NFL. Jack Easterby, formerly a team chaplain with the Kansas City Chiefs, spent the past five seasons as a character coach for the Patriots before becoming the Houston Texans’ vice president of team development this spring. But Banner, who spent two decades in front offices and remains in contact with several league executives, is adamant that the retired lieutenant colonel is blazing a trail when it comes to player evaluations in pro football.

 

“Every team in the league is doing a lot of work in terms of psychological evaluations, and has been doing it forever and ever,” Banner says. “But his approach, and the types of questions he asks, and his ability to synthesize information and get to the right conclusions, that part of it is absolutely groundbreaking. There is nobody in the league doing what he’s doing as effectively.”

 

On the heels of the Colts’ draft success in ’18, and Decker’s impact throughout the building, Ballard promoted him from player personnel strategist to director of player development last spring. He interviewed more than 160 players ahead of this year’s draft. Next year, he hopes to sit down with 300.

 

Among the Colts’ selections this year, Temple cornerback Rock Ya-Sin was a captain in his only season with the Owls, Stanford linebacker Bobby Okereke is an Eagle Scout who’s performed at Carnegie Hall and completed an internship under former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Michigan State safety Khari Willis was chosen by the Big Ten to give its keynote speech at the conference’s kickoff luncheon last year.

 

The right guys on the bus, remember.

 

“Brian plays a big role, and we overload Brian,” Ballard says. “He is highly intelligent, and he’s got a great way to get to the core of who somebody is.”

 

Decker’s bought in to what the Colts are building and how they’re building it. He loves the long hours, the challenge of cracking the code that’s long confounded NFL decision-makers. He’s anxious to see what this team looks like in two, three, four seasons, after his work has had time to marinate.

 

He hesitates to take credit for the Colts’ sterling draft class last spring – their first two selections were first-team All-Pros – instead insisting that time will reveal the real verdict.

 

But just listen to the way he talks about life in the NFL.

 

“This is a commitment industry,” says the former Green Beret. “That’s another thing I like about football. You can’t just be here for the T-shirt. You gotta give a pound of flesh to do this.”

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW YORK JETS

The Jets believe they will see RB Le’VEON BELL at their mandatory mini-camp.  But maybe not the OTAs.  Charean Williams of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The Jets have not seen Le’Veon Bell much since he signed a four-year, $52.5 million deal March 13. He showed up the first few days of the offseason program last month but has worked out on his own since.

 

Although the Jets have said all the right things about the offseason program being voluntary, they aren’t “particularly pleased” Bell is not working at the team facility, Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News reports.

 

The Jets don’t know whether they will see Bell before their mandatory minicamp June 4-6. The star running back has committed only to that.

 

“We had a conversation about what was kind of his schedule,” Jets coach Adam Gase said Friday, via Mehta. “We’ll kind of see how the OTAs go. As of right now, I know the mandatory stuff . . . he said he was going to be here for that. So I don’t expect him to not show up.”

 

Bell explained on social media why he was absent from the team’s offseason program, saying he has a tried and true formula that works for him to prepare for the season.

 

“It’s voluntary,” Gase said. “Everybody can get upset about it. There’s no point. We know where he is. He’s working out. He’s always been ready. Every year that he’s played, he’s been ready to go. So that’s just what it is. If somebody doesn’t like it, then talk to the NFLPA.”

– – –

Manish Mehta, one of the few survivors of the New York Daily News, reports on a rare rumor he did not start. 

 

We’ve officially reached the Nothing-To-See-Here portion of the Jets offseason when juicy rumblings and half-truths get publicly denounced.

 

Adam Gase took a blowtorch to the latest rumor about a perceived rift between general manager Mike Maccagnan and him.

 

 “Unless I say it, it’s really irrelevant to me,” Gase said Friday during the team’s four-day rookie orientation program. “I don’t know who decides to put that stuff out there. It kind of pisses me off a little bit, because we have discussions on everything. That’s our job. We have to work through so much stuff. That’s what we got to do. That’s all we’ve done since we’ve been here.”

 

Reports of internal unrest between the top two people on the football totem pole on One Jets Drive surfaced during the draft, with some even suggesting Maccagnan’s imminent ouster. Although the general manager’s job was never in doubt, questions remained about the dynamic between the GM and head coach.

 

Maccagnan maintained during the draft that he had a solid working relationship with Gase, who didn’t address reporters at the time. The coach suggested Friday that there has always been an open line of communication from the moment he was hired four months ago.

 

 “Since we’ve started,” Gase said, “we just constantly were in communication, whether he’s coming down to my office or I’m going to his office. That’s all we’re trying to do, is just make sure we’re on the same page all the time and making sure that we’re trying to put this thing together as well as we can in a short period of time.”

 

Although Gase conceded that free agency is a “nightmare scenario” for myriad reasons that have nothing to do with Maccagnan, it’s naïve to believe that the two of them saw every player through the same lens.

 

Truth be told, spirited, passionate discussions are preferred. The best organizations have lively debate. The worst are saddled with Yes men.

 

Gase, who doesn’t have contractual control of the 53-man roster, admitted that it is indeed healthy to have differences of opinion in the building on the way to finding the best resolution to any problem.

 

“If it wasn’t, then what are we doing this for?” Gase said. “If everybody just agreed on everything, it’d be boring. You need to have a little excitement every once in a while.”

 

One gets the sense that there have been some difference in player evaluations, which is perhaps inevitable.  And we all know that Maccagnan once spent a second round pick on QB CHRISTIAN HACKENBERG.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

BROADCAST NEWS

Jordan Thompson could become more famous as a TV handyman than he ever was as a journeyman tight end.  Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com:

 

Jordan Thompson sits on the stairs, small scissors tucked behind his left ear, in the Atlanta home of Carly and Patrick Milyo. Thompson’s hands methodically work in and out, grabbing the cloth as he stitches. With a television camera in front of him, following his every move, he is in the final moments of what has been an arduous two days.

 

It was something that took getting used to, both his new life and the pressure that comes along with it. Once an unknown NFL tight end who played two games in two years with the Detroit Lions before a knee injury ended his career, Thompson, 29, transitioned in retirement to the world of carpentry and home improvement.

 

Television, at least initially, wasn’t part of the plan. Renovating homes around Rockford, Ohio, was. Then a friend called. He had an idea. A little over a year later, Thompson ended up in Georgia as a carpenter finishing up a trying 48-hour project with designers Nicole Curtis and Robert Van Winkle — better known as rapper Vanilla Ice — as part of the HGTV/TLC surprise home renovation show “While You Were Out.”

 

“Eight months prior, I had never even thought of being on TV,” Thompson said. “It was a lot of fun and a lot of people say, ‘It’s so neat to see you on there and you’re the same person on that show as you are day to day.’ I told them when I agreed to do it that what you see is what you get and I’m not going to, I don’t like scripted parts.

 

“There’s no script, but I don’t know if I would like that, portraying me in any other way than just being me. I think they did a great job with that.”

 

Thompson didn’t know how much of a role he’d have in the four-episode series. He became one of three permanent cast members along with another carpenter, Eric Griffin, and the host, former MTV VJ-turned-carpenter Ananda Lewis.

 

Thompson’s prior television experience came from interviews in the NFL and in college at Ohio. Otherwise, he had mostly worked in the background. He thought this might be the same way. It wasn’t. His face is in almost every scene. He’s in every episode. By the end, it seemed like he had been doing the television portion of this for years.

 

Lewis, with years of television experience, saw Thompson become more comfortable with each episode — interacting more, letting more of his personality show and gaining a greater understanding of when the camera was on him and when to subconsciously look up and explain what was going on to the viewer. Lewis called him “a natural.”

 

“I think Jordan should have his own show, honestly,” Lewis said. “And I think he will. For the kind of viewers that HGTV and TLC have, DIY, all these networks that do renovation kind of based stuff, he’s perfect. He’s perfect for it.

 

“He’s fantastic to look at. He’s a sweetheart. He knows what he’s doing. He has the actual chops. And he’s fun. I think that might be in his future somewhere, I hope. I’d love to watch that myself.”

 

For now, Lewis and Thompson hope there’s a second season of “While You Were Out” to prepare for. Thompson, though, wouldn’t be here if he didn’t actually know how to do the work.