AROUND THE NFL

Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com says there was a bargaining session on Monday.

 

With one month to go until the regular season begins, it’s highly unlikely that a new labor deal will be struck before the Packers and Bears kick off from Chicago on September 5. But that isn’t stopping the two sides from working toward an eventual consensus.

 

Per multiple sources, the NFL and NFL Players Association held a bargaining session on Monday. It’s the first full-blown meeting since three days of planned talks in mid-July ended on the first day, and it comes eight years to the day after the signing of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement.

 

Previously, the two sides had planned to resume their negotiations on July 29. That session was postponed; the league and union met today.

 

Preliminary sessions have been positive. but it’s unlikely that any potentially contentious topics were addressed in the early meetings. Eventually, they’ll begin grappling over the key issues: How to carve the billions-dollar pie, and whether and to what extent the league will be permitted to take money off the top for stadium construction and renovation.

 

Eventually, the two sides will be fighting — that’s inherent to collective bargaining. But they’re trying desperately to shield the fans and the media from any evidence of acrimony, no matter how inevitable it is.

 

NFC EAST

 

DALLAS

Three cornerstone players commanding huge extensions.  No signed contracts.  But “generous” offers, we are assured.  Kevin Patra of NFL.com brings us up to date:

 

Jerry Jones can optimistically glow about getting deals done with his trio of stars. Until the pen is put to paper, it’s all fluff.

 

NFL Network’s Jane Slater reported Tuesday that the Dallas Cowboys have “generous” offers on the table for Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott, that would put each one in the top five at their positions, per a source.

 

Slater adds that the Cowboys are ready and willing to get deals done, but if both sides can’t agree on numbers that make more sense, they’re prepared to play this season with each player on a prove-it deal.

 

Over the weekend, Jones confidently said “it’ll happen” when asked about the trio’s contract situations working out, noting that the Cowboys are in too good of a place not to resolve the conditions.

 

Previously, Cowboys EVP Stephen Jones said Dallas wouldn’t be “market-setters.” Each player’s salary falling in the “top five,” as Slater reported, would be in line with the Cowboys’ stance.

 

While Ezekiel Elliott remains in Cabo extending his holdout, Prescott and Cooper have been at camp, and neither seems worried about their deals getting done. The WR and QB can take solace that even if they don’t strike it rich in the coming months, it’s only a matter of time. With just one franchise tag available, one of the high-profile players would hit the open market in March if a deal can’t be struck.

 

Elliott’s situation remains murkier. With two years left on his rookie deal, the running back’s only leverage is to withhold services. Tuesday marks a date when it’d been suggested Zeke might return to gain an accrued season toward free agency. But with the Cowboys already picking up his fifth-year option, and the franchise tag potentially looming afterward, the date isn’t nearly meaningful enough to coax a change of stance from Zeke’s camp — much like Aaron Donald previously ignored the reporting date. Elliott wants to get paid now. Another year towards free agency isn’t going to change his position.

 

This latest at ESPN.com has Elliott issuing an ultimatum:

 

Representatives for running back Ezekiel Elliott have told the Dallas Cowboys that he will not play in the 2019 season without a new contract, a source close to the situation told ESPN’s Josina Anderson on Tuesday.

 

The source added that at this time, it is not likely that Elliott’s holdout continues into the regular season, based on the belief that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wants to get a new deal done with the running back before Week 1.

 

NFC WEST

 

ARIZONA

It appeared that the Cardinals were going to sign well-traveled WR MICHAEL CRABTREE.  Then, they were not.  Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic:

 

The Cardinals had one open spot on their 90-man roster when the day began Monday.

 

By the afternoon, they filled it with the apparent signing of veteran wide receiver Michael Crabtree, according to a report by ProFootballTalk.

 

Or did they?

 

On Monday evening, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported the Cardinals would not be signing Crabtree.

 

Crabtree, 31, appeared in all 16 games last season for the Ravens, finishing with 54 catches for 607 yards and three touchdowns.

 

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A first-round pick out of Texas Tech in 2009, he spent his first six NFL seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and three more after that with the Oakland Raiders.

 

In 10 years, he has 633 career receptions for 7,477 yards and 54 touchdowns.

 

He’s had two 1000-yard receiving seasons, in 2012 with San Francisco and 2016 with Oakland.

 

Crabtree was one of two receivers to work out for the Cardinals on Monday morning. The other was undrafted rookie Kwadarrius Smith from Akron, according to PFT.

 

Smith was recently cut after signing with the Titans.

 

For now, Arizona 12 wide receivers on the roster.

 

Last season, the team broke camp with just five receivers on the 53-man roster.

 

Coach kliff Kingsbury said he can envision the Cardinals keeping as many as seven this year, although not all seven will be active on game days.

 

The Cardinals list Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk and Kevin White as starters. The next three listed after them are rookies Andy Isabella and KeeSean Johnson, along with second-year pro Trent Sherfield.

 

Others expected to contend for roster spots include rookie Hakeem Butler, Pharoh Cooper and Damiere Byrd.

 

 

SAN FRANCISCO

CB RICHARD SHERMAN sees a Legion of Boom redux.

 

It’s taken some time, but the San Francisco 49ers’ plans to mimic the Seattle Seahawks “Legion of Boom” defense appears to be coming together.

 

No one knows the LOB better than Richard Sherman, the lanky corner who once upon a time loudly put that Seattle D on the map. Now with the 49ers, Sherman said on NFL Network’s Inside Training Camp Live over the weekend that San Francisco’s current defense reminds him of his old squad.

 

“I see similarities now, obviously, with all the pass rushers we have now, all the talent we have upfront,” Sherman said. “The linebackers are versatile. They can run, they can cover. And then in the backend, we’ve got tall, rangy corners. We’ve got Jason Verrett now, who’s very versatile. K’Waun (Williams) is a great slot (corner), and we’ve got a hitter in the strong safety box.

 

“So I think we’re going to be similar. Obviously, it’s the scheme, schematically, it’s similar, but we’ll see. We’ve got to be consistent. We’ve had some really good days out here. You’ve got to stack them, though, as you know.”

 

The 49ers brought in defensive coordinator Robert Saleh in an effort to import the LOB scheme. Saleh worked in Seattle from 2011-2013 as a quality control coach. He then followed ex-Seahawks DC Gus Bradley to Jacksonville to coach linebackers (2014-2016). Then he was tapped by Kyle Shanahan to lead the 49ers D.

 

While it’s taken several years for the Niners to put the pieces in place, the additions of Joey Bosa and Dee Ford give the 49ers the pass rush element upfront that could aid a back end that has been picked on recently.

 

“It does make a huge difference,” Sherman said of the pass rush. “No slight to anybody else that came before but these guys are getting to the passer, and they’re putting pressure, making the quarterback uncomfortable in his footwork. So they are airing passes, they’re off their back foot, they’re not putting it exactly where they want it to be. So that gives DBs a chance.”

 

Coming off an injury last season, Sherman had a down season by his lofty standards. Quarterbacks, however, mostly ignored his side of the field in the crunch, choosing to pick on the less talented corners on the opposite side instead. The addition of Verrett, if he can finally stay healthy, could give the 49ers two lock-down DBs that could make life difficult for opponents.

 

While the 49ers boast a beastly front, potentially good linebacker corps, and possibly very good corner duo, the safety crew can’t match what the Seahawks once boasted with Earl Thomas — no one can replicate his field-patrolling ability. Still, it’s about as close as we’ve seen to anyone potentially getting in the same vicinity of those LOB teams.

 

 

LOS ANGELES RAMS

With WR COOPER KUPP back in the fray, QB JARED GOFF starts 2019 with a wealth of targets.  Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The Rams think they have an embarrassment of riches at wide receiver.

 

With Cooper Kupp now healthy and ready to join the starting trio from the Super Bowl of Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Josh Reynolds, Woods calls the group a “four-headed monster.”

 

“We have a lot of receivers making key plays,” Woods said, via ESPN. “Cause Josh has been making plays, but just to get Cooper back in it . . . four different styles of receivers and four different ways to attack your defense.”

 

Last year Woods and Cooks both got more than 100 targets, while Kupp and Reynolds both got more than 50. If all four are healthy for all 16 games this year, the biggest question facing the Rams’ passing game may be whether there are enough balls to go around.

 

AFC WEST

 

THE RAIDERS

Jay Gruden on how “Hard Knocks” is intruding into his brother’s busy day.  Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The teams coached by brothers Jon and Jay Gruden were both eligible to be drafted to serve as this year’s subject of Hard Knocks. Before the Raiders received the short straw, Jay jokingly tried to nudge the obligation toward Jon’s team.

 

And for good reason. While serving as the offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, Jay Gruden witnessed the extra burden of Hard Knocks on a head coach.

 

“Coach [Marvin] Lewis handled all of the editing and all that stuff,” Jay Gruden told reporters on Monday. “I think it’s probably a lot on the plate for a head coach to be able to handle that because you don’t want to put anything out there that could be a negative light on [what] a player said in a coaching staff meeting or whatever. So, you’ve got to actually make sure you go through and watch the edits, what’s going to be out there. I think it’ll be a great show. I’m sure Jon will handle that, but it’s not easy for them to, you know, handle all that stuff.”

 

So apart from the distraction that comes from having the NFL Films cameras and microphones constantly present, the head coach — who is primarily focused on getting his team ready for Week One — has to spend time watching the proposed content of each episode and decide whether it will present the team, and the coach, in the best possible light.

 

Last year, former Browns coach Hue Jackson learned that lesson the hard way. He thought the debut-episode back and forth with former Browns offensive coordinator Todd Haley would make Jackson look good and Haley look bad. And that backfired on Jackson, badly.

 

While Jon Gruden developed during his time in TV a good sense of what does and doesn’t work, there’s still an ever-present risk that he’ll guess wrong. It won’t take much to create a problem, especially with fans and media scrutinizing every scene of every episode for any hint of dysfunction or drama that can become a talking point the following morning, and beyond.

 

Jay Gruden doesn’t have to worry about that; he can simply focus on getting his team ready. Jon, as he prepares for a season that will include a game in Winnipeg, a game in London, an extended absence from Oakland, and regular-season games against the likes of the Chiefs twice, the Chargers twice, the Broncos twice, the Bears, the Packers, the Vikings, the Texans, the Jaguars, the Colts, and the Titans, he’ll have to add to that burden the weekly obligation of ensuring that nothing in Hard Knocks makes a hard-knocks season even harder.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

HOUSTON

EDGE JADEVEON CLOWNEY is an unsigned franchise tag recipient.  Deal or no deal, he is signaling a reporting date.  Kevin Patra of NFL.com:

 

Jadeveon Clowney could report to the Houston Texans earlier than initially speculated.

 

NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported on Inside Training Camp Live Monday that the pass rusher tentatively plans to report after the team’s third preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys (Aug. 24).

 

“From what I understand, the tentative plan is to show up after the third preseason game — they play the Cowboys in late August,” Rapoport said. “That is my understanding of when Clowney is planning to show up. (He) wouldn’t play in the fourth preseason game. Would get a week to make sure he’s alright. And I am told he’s in great shape. And the Texans don’t have any worries there.”

 

The Texans placed the franchise tag on Clowney this offseason. After sides couldn’t come to an agreement on a long-term deal by the July 15 deadline, the 26-year-old will play on the one-year, $15.97 million tender.

 

It’d been believed that Clowney would report before the start of the Texans season opener on Sept. 9 and wasn’t expected to miss any game checks. Rapoport’s report pushes the possible date up slightly.

 

Despite Clowney staying away from the start of Texans training camp, it sounds as though both sides are comfortable playing out the 2019 campaign.

 

“It sounds to me like they are both going to use each other for good,” Rapoport said. “Clowney is going to show up and ball. The Texans are going to get one year out of it, and then probably get a comp pick (if he signs elsewhere in free agency). Seems like both sides could benefit.”

 

Clowney would be a free agent in March 2020, assuming the Texans don’t use the franchise tag on him again.

 

AFC EAST

 

MIAMI

Michael Silver of NFL.com gets a positive vibe from new coach Brian Flores.

 

Brian Flores stood up to greet me as I entered his office on the second floor of the Miami Dolphins’ training facility Sunday morning, circling back to grab a bottle of water. There were four sunken chairs aligned in equidistant fashion around a small, circular glass table, and I sat down in the one furthest from the entrance.

 

Flores looked up and frowned. “You’re in my seat,” he said, politely but definitively. After I’d gotten up and moved, the Dolphins’ rookie head coach added, “There are three doors, and I have to have eyes on all of them.”

 

Like a cinematic mobster in a darkened Italian restaurant, Flores has a need to see who, or what, might be coming at him. As the 38-year-old Brooklyn native tackles his toughest professional test — and perhaps the stiffest challenge faced by any of the league’s six first-time head coaches — Flores has unflinchingly communicated his vision and, when necessary, asserted his authority.

 

“I try to be clear and direct,” Flores said midway through our interview, which took place before the team’s second training camp practice. “That’s part of leadership. There’s so much gray area in football, with 11 guys on the field that you’re trying to (coach).

 

“I think everyone likes direct. They might not like it in a specific moment, but … I’m always gonna push ’em to do more. That’s just me. I try to be truthful and honest and transparent, and if they don’t like it, then so be it. And that’s OK. I think they respect that and they know where I stand.”

 

The Dolphins, who haven’t won a playoff game since 2000, have a pretty good sense of where they stand in the eyes of outsiders. Coming off a 7-9 season that culminated in the firing of third-year coach Adam Gase, Miami appears to be in full rebuilding mode, with the Miami Herald reporting in January that the word “tanking” was used during at least some of the team’s head-coaching interviews.

 

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross clarified the organization’s approach in March, saying he was “committed” to a rebuild. Flores, who spent his entire pre-Dolphins coaching career with the New England Patriots, doesn’t want to hear the ‘T’ word — at all.

 

“I’m not a big fan,” Flores said. “I think the word (tanking) is disrespectful to the game that I love. I think to use that term, for a group of guys to hear that, it’s absurd — when they’re out here spending hours in the building, preparing in the offseason, running in the heat, practicing in the heat, meetings, walkthroughs, weights. To put that type of effort in, and the idea that we’re not gonna go try to win every game, it’s disrespectful to the game that’s brought a lot [of happiness] for me and a lot of other people. Especially since this is the (NFL’s) 100-year anniversary.

 

“You want to get me fired up, keep going in that direction.”

 

Flores’ career arc has been pointing straight up for the past two seasons. Following the 2017 campaign, Flores parlayed his role as the Patriots’ linebackers coach into de facto defensive coordinator duties after Matt Patricia left to become the Detroit Lions head coach. Last January, Flores blew away the Dolphins’ brass during his interview, ultimately compelling the team to wait for his services until the Patriots had completed their Super Bowl LIII victory over the Los Angeles Rams.

 

Though nothing was official, the team had already communicated its intentions to Flores, and news had gotten out that he was the Dolphins’ choice. After combining with his legendary boss, Bill Belichick, to stymie the Rams’ high-powered attack in a 13-3 victory, Flores celebrated on the Mercedes-Benz Stadium field with his family — wife Jenny and their three children, sons Miles and Maxwell and daughter Liliana.

 

Approached by a Boston TV station for a live interview, Flores held 6-year-old Miles in his arms as confetti fell around them.

 

“Miles wanted to get in front of a camera,” Flores recalled, “so I picked him up and one of the reporters said, ‘Hey Miles, do you know what happened?’ He was trying to bait him into saying, ‘We just won the Super Bowl.’ [Instead], my son goes, ‘We’re going to Miami!’ “

 

Oops.

 

Things happened quickly from there, with Flores skipping the Patriots’ victory parade to embark upon his new mission. It’s a difficult one, but Flores has overcome obstacles throughout his life and earned admiration from virtually everyone he has encountered in the process.

 

To say Flores has attacked his new job is an understatement: Since moving to South Florida, he has been to the beach just three times, staying only a couple of hours in each instance. Mostly, he has been in his office or elsewhere in the team facility, attempting to instill a culture that draws in some ways from the Patriots — the Dolphins’ AFC East rival and frequent tormentors — but which reflects his own personality as well.

 

If nothing else, he has been decisive. On Monday, the day after our interview, Flores fired offensive line coach Pat Flaherty, a 63-year-old veteran NFL assistant who’d been hired less than six months earlier, and replaced him with Dave DeGuglielmo, who’d been hired as an analyst during the spring.

 

“I think the easy decision would have been to do nothing … and hope that it got better,” Flores told reporters on Tuesday. “But I just felt like it was the move for us to make and build moving forward.”

 

During that same interview session, Flores was asked about the training camp competition between veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick — signed after the team traded incumbent starter Ryan Tannehill to the Tennessee Titans — and second-year player Josh Rosen, the No. 10 overall pick of the 2018 draft, whom Miami acquired in a trade with the Arizona Cardinals on April 26.

 

“I would say from a quarterback standpoint, it’s pretty clear to me that Ryan Fitzpatrick is leading the way,” Flores said. “I think he’s done that in a lot of areas from leadership to production on the field, in the meeting rooms, in the walkthroughs.”

 

In other words, his responses to both questions were far more revealing than the answers typically provided by Belichick — another indication that Flores, unlike some former Patriots assistants and personnel executives who leave for bigger jobs elsewhere, isn’t trying to imitate his ex-boss’ coarse, insular leadership style.

 

“Anyone that’s met him, or talked about him when we were doing our research — former players or coaches he’s coached with — will tell you, he’s his own guy,” Dolphins general manager Chris Grier said of Flores. “He’s gonna do it the way he believes in, and he’s gonna be who he is.”

 

Said Flores: “I think there’s a discipline, a toughness, a respect for the game that I learned in New England that I think is just basic, the way football’s supposed to be taught and practiced and preached. Those things that are basically foundational — hard work, high standards, playing for your teammates, putting the team first — those things are ingrained in my fabric. How those are expressed, that’ll come from me … who I am as a person. And that’s different.

 

“Everybody’s a little bit different. I think it’s from your upbringing, it’s from your experiences. Occasionally I like to have fun and laugh. More times than not I like to be direct. But … it’s a game. And you want to have fun playing a game. As much fun as you can have playing football, coaching football, that’s what we want to see out on the field.”

 

Wide receiver Brice Butler said Flores strikes a good balance between being an authoritarian and an ally.

 

“He does a great job of separating the on-the-field and the off-the-field,” Butler explained after Sunday’s practice. “If he yells at you out here, once you walk through that (locker room) door, he might give you a hug. He can talk trash with you, too. He is definitely his own guy. It’s refreshing.”

 

 

 

NEW ENGLAND

Ian Rapoport, apparently well-educated from TOM BRADY’s representatives, explains the QBs new contract.

 

Details about Tom Brady’s new contract continue to emerge.

 

NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Monday that Brady’s new deal, which bumped the New England Patriots quarterback’s salary for 2019 to $23 million, includes two years that automatically void on the final day of the 2019 league year (March 17, 2020).

 

Teams often use voidable years on contracts for salary-cap purposes to spread out the hit. This is this first time the Patriots have utilized such a salary-cap mechanism, Rapoport added.

 

Rapoport also noted that Brady’s new deal includes a provision that does not allow New England to franchise or transition tag him for the 2020 season.

 

This all means, that even if for only a brief moment in March of 2020, Tom Brady, the GOAT, will be a free agent — unless he retires beforehand.

 

“Someone can call Tom Brady at 4:01 at the start of the league year in 2020 and try to sign Tom Brady,” Rapoport said Monday on NFL Network’s Inside Training Camp Live. “All of this is factually correct. I will also add that the relationship between Brady and the Patriots is very good and the Patriots want to do everything they can to make sure that he plays well with them. But still, Tom Brady will be, if for just one second, a free agent after this season.”

 

The new deal was made to give Brady an $8 million pay bump for this season and give the Patriots more cap flexibility in the short term.

 

“It’s basically a compromise,” Rapoport said. “What the Patriots wanted to do is a little raise this year, $8 million. They did not want to hamstring themselves for future years. What if, let’s just say Brady decides to walk away if they win the Super Bowl? This way, they didn’t hurt themselves cap-wise. But Brady wants to make sure they can’t just lock him in with the franchise tag with no negotiations. Nobody wants to play on the tag, everyone wants something long-term. So it’s basically a compromise that hurts both sides a little bit, but helps both sides a little bit and helped them come to this deal.”

 

This from Mike Sando, now at The Athletic, on what Brady taking less money over the years has meant (and of course there are suspicions that he hasn’t really taken less money).

 

Brady taking less money to help the team is part of Brady’s lore and part of New England’s mystique, but if you ask decision-makers around the league, including actual team salary-cap analysts, to quantify the discount Brady has taken and explain its impact on the Patriots, the narrative takes a few turns. Questions arise. Theories take root. Suspicion lingers.

 

In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking on the subject and consulting with team execs in anticipation of the Patriots extending Brady’s contract. You might enjoy listening in on that conversation here, with a variety of different opinions and theories listed out below.

 

First, a few facts.

 

Brady’s cash earnings have lagged behind the earnings for other long-tenured quarterbacks, especially since 2013. His recent contracts have been quite salary-cap friendly.

 

While Drew Brees pushed the Saints to the brink of free agency and won a 2012 grievance that helped him leverage a new $100 million deal, Brady has renegotiated his contracts well before they expired, when players typically have less leverage.

 

Frequent renegotiations allowed New England to keep Brady’s salary-cap charge below $15 million for 13 consecutive seasons ending in 2017, with the exception of 2010, which was an uncapped year. Brady’s cap charges have spiked over the past couple seasons.

 

Interesting opinion No. 1

Something doesn’t add up, specifically regarding Brady’s 2014 agreement to waive fully guaranteed salary that was very close to vesting.

 

The biggest mystery regarding Brady’s contracts stems from his December 2014 decision to turn $24 million in fully guaranteed future salary into $27 million in future salary guaranteed for injury only.

 

Brady was 37 years old at the time. The Patriots had used a second-round choice for heir-apparent Jimmy Garoppolo a few months earlier. Wouldn’t an aging quarterback want all the job security he could get? Why would he waive those guarantees in exchange for relatively little? Was he seeking an easier way out if his time as the Patriots’ starter was indeed waning?

 

“That is where people really started to question what was going on,” a cap analyst said.

 

Regarding this specific renegotiation, a longtime exec recalled the 1990s Denver Broncos. Those Broncos had a hard-charging future Hall of Fame owner in Pat Bowlen who was trying to end a championship drought while legendary quarterback John Elway was entering his career twilight. With Denver needing cash to finance a stadium at the time, Elway and teammate Terrell Davis deferred $29 million in exchange for receiving the money with interest at a later date.

 

The NFL fined the Broncos and deprived them of draft choices. The Broncos denied allegations from Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis and others that they had gotten a competitive advantage.

 

“Sometimes you get these Hall of Fame owners who are almost bigger than the league and the rules,” the longtime exec said. “They know they aren’t breaking the law, just pushing the rules. They want to win and look for every edge.”

 

The Patriots had gone nine seasons without a Super Bowl victory when Brady completed that strange renegotiation in December 2014. The agreement spared team owner Robert Kraft from placing $24 million in escrow for future payment, as teams are required to do when salaries become fully guaranteed. Did Brady receive some kind of assurances in exchange? It’s a natural question in the absence of a clear answer.

 

Brady and the Patriots have kept doing deals together. The team committed $28 million in signing bonus to Brady less than two years after the 2014 renegotiation.

 

There’s no indication New England has done anything along the lines of what Denver did in the 1990s. It’s entirely possible Brady has simply pursued deals that worked well for both parties. (Update: In 2015, the league determined no violation occurred when the Patriots bought services through a company Brady owns near Gillette Stadium.)

 

“Other great quarterbacks went to the franchise tag and put teams over a barrel,” an exec said. “Brees and Brady came in at roughly the same time. Brees has been to one Super Bowl. Brady has been to nine. At the end of the day, Brees will be richer, probably, but was it worth it?”

 

That implies Brady taking less money has played a significant role in the Patriots’ success, and that Brees acting similarly would have brought similar success to the Saints. Are either of those things true?

 

Interesting opinion No. 2

Brady could have had a personal incentive for leaving money on the table over the past several seasons.

 

“Yes, Brady’s wife makes money and, yes, he has taken less,” an exec said, “but he has never dared (Bill) Belichick to cut him. New England was the organization that would say, ‘Wait, you are making $27 million? No way, we are not doing that.’”

 

Brady’s stellar play was always his most valuable insurance against Belichick releasing him as Brady got older and the likelihood of a performance dropoff increased. Kraft’s support obviously comes into play as well.

 

“The culture has always been that Brady takes less and therefore everybody there should take less,” the exec said. “But with Brady, I have always felt there was a little bit of self-preservation — like, ‘I never want to put them in a position where they are thinking about cutting me because the number is so big.’”

 

Any thought of that happening perished when the Patriots traded Garoppolo in October 2017.

 

Interesting opinion No. 3

Brady’s contract dynamics, while notable, are typically overrated as a direct enabler of the Patriots’ success. Elite quarterback play, elite coaching and uncommon continuity are the real drivers of success.

 

“Brady has not pushed the envelope to get paid in the last few years,” a cap analyst said, “but I do not think that was the case before that, and even if it was true, I do not think that had any impact on the team’s ability to put a team around him. To me, those are unrelated issues.”

 

This line of thinking holds that managing the cap is much easier than finding, developing and coaching good players. Exec after exec pointed to the alliance of Belichick, Brady and more recently Josh McDaniels as the relevant differentiator, not cap flexibility. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has been another key.

 

While New England generally has not paid for the most expensive talent in free agency, the team has sometimes carried more veteran players on middle-class contracts. This could be seen as the Patriots exploiting an avenue that is increasingly bypassed, enabled partly by Brady’s deals.

 

“Where most good teams have a handful of middle-class players, New England tends to have a lot,” an exec said. “I guess that is where the advantage comes into play, but most teams would fail trying to use those players because they don’t have the coaching New England has.

 

“It’s hard to say they used the advantage because they value their players differently than the rest of the NFL. Patrick Chung works great for them, but not for someone else. Same with Duron Harmon and others.”

 

This was the most common point made, that the Patriots’ coaching and structure makes the difference. But the concept of the best player on the team taking less could have had a significant impact on team culture. After all, if Brady is not getting top dollar at his position, why should anyone else?

 

“I don’t think the contract is anything more than an interesting footnote to their dynasty, which is built on the backs of Belichick and Brady,” an exec said. “Those two would still be together if Tom were getting paid fairly.”

 

Interesting opinion No. 4

Career earnings reports that show Brady lagging against other quarterbacks compare apples to oranges.

 

Brady entered the NFL as a sixth-round draft choice. He did not start out making top-of-market money the way Matthew Stafford or Sam Bradford did as No. 1 overall picks. Those humble beginnings affected Brady’s earnings trajectory. Early on, he had the incentive to redo deals, which typically means operating on teams’ terms.

 

“It is a really hard analysis to do because there are gigantic qualifiers,” a cap analyst said. “Aaron Rodgers had very similar cash earnings as Brady for this decade until Rodgers did his new deal. We have seen a massive spike in salaries over the past three years, and Brady is at the end of the line on that.”

 

Interesting opinion No. 5

Where Brady’s contract ranks in terms of its salary-cap charge can be an imperfect way to evaluate it.

 

Rules allow teams to carry over unused cap space from one year to the next. As a result, the functional salary cap is not the same for every team in a given year. For example, Indianapolis entered the 2019 offseason with an additional $49 million in cap space carried over from the previous year. Andrew Luck’s cap charge matters less to the Colts in 2019 than it might in another year.

 

“Cash is the best way to look at Brady’s deal,” an exec said.

 

How much money has Brady earned relative to his peers? It’s a trick question. Brady has no peers, as any Patriots fan will tell you.

 

Let’s group Brady with eight other quarterbacks for the sake of analysis. Rodgers, Brees, Stafford, Ryan, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and Brady make up my list. All were rookies before the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. All have started at least 75 percent of the teams’ regular-season games since 2011, each for the same team throughout.

 

Brady ranks last in cash earnings among those nine players since 2011, according to Spotrac and OverTheCap.com.

 

Picking time frames to measure earnings can be tricky because players’ contracts are not synched. Brady owned the NFL’s No. 1 annual average for the 2010 and 2011 seasons, then ranked third in 2012.

 

Brady’s recent earnings will spike with this new extension, but from 2011 to 2018, the numbers show he’s $48 million behind Rodgers, $37 million behind Brees, $27 million behind Stafford, $25 million behind Ryan — and losing ground in most cases.

 

Interesting opinion No. 6

What works for the Patriots works for the Patriots.

 

“You can’t use Brady’s deal as a comp for any of your quarterbacks because every agent says, ‘Ah, that’s New England, it’s an anomaly, he is probably getting paid on the side anyway,’” a GM said.

 

“I study the league. I don’t study New England too much because I think all that stuff they do works there but it doesn’t work anywhere else. It is what it is.”

 

Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com detects another sign that the end is finally near for Brady:

 

Regardless of whether Tom Brady plays for a different team in 2020, the circumstantial evidence is mounting that this could be his last year with the Patriots.

 

Beyond the decision to hire WME for non-football projects and a new contract that makes it even easier to have a clean break from the team after this season, Brady reportedly has put his home in Boston on the market.

 

Via Tom Curran of NBCSportsBoston.com, Brady and wife Gisele Bundchen have listed the home for $39.5 million.

 

Curran notes, citing the New York Post, that Brady and Bundchen have been looking for houses in Greenwich, Connecticut and in Alpine, New Jersey.

 

Their current mansion, located in the Brookline section of Boston, was built after Brady and Bundchen secured approval from the local zoning board to build the home.

 

They previously built a home, complete with a moat, in L.A. In 2014, Brady and Bundchen sold the L.A. mansion to Dr. Dre for $40 million.

 

None of this means that 2019 will be Brady’s last year with the Patriots. But each little nugget will serve only to enhance the perception that Brady is making plans for a future that will be unfolding sooner than later.

 

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

5 TEAMS LIKELY TO DECLINE

Yesterday, we had Bill Barnwell’s 5 teams likely to improve (Carolina, Tampa Bay, San Francisco, the Jets and the Giants) in 2019.  Today, the flip side (edited below, whole  thing here:

 

Over the past two years, I’ve identified 11 teams whose underlying statistics seemed to portend a coming decline in this column. Ten of those 11 teams have declined, while one — the 2018 Titans — managed to maintain its 9-7 record. The group has declined by an average of 4.2 wins from its prior record, and though 10 of the 11 teams had made the playoffs during their successful season, not one made it back to the postseason the following year.

 

I think that streak will break in 2019. There are some talented, successful teams on this list, and though I think they won’t hit their high-water marks of 2018, they’re still likely playoff teams. My column on teams likely to improve started in California, so let’s go back there to start this list:

 

Los Angeles Rams (13-3)

Point differential in 2018: plus-143

Pythagorean expectation: 10.9 wins

Record in games decided by seven or fewer points: 6-1 (.857)

FPI projected strength of schedule: 15th-easiest

 

The Rams traded draft picks and created cap space to try to build a Super Bowl winner last season. They came within just a few plays of winning football’s biggest prize, although Saints fans might argue that the Rams didn’t deserve to be in the game to begin with. Even before the missed call on Nickell Robey-Coleman that extended the NFC Championship Game, the Rams were fortunate in a few ways in 2018.

 

Start with that 6-1 mark in close games, because it’s almost impossible for even the best teams to maintain. Since 1989, 12 other teams have gone 6-1 in one-score games, winning an average of 11.9 games over the full season. The following year, those same teams were a combined 39-45 in one-score games. Each team saw its win total decline, and the average fall was just under four wins.

 

That’s a small sample. Let’s expand it out to all the teams that won five more close games than they lost, so we’ll include teams that went 5-0 and 7-2 along with the 6-1 Rams. That’s a group of 27 teams, and after going 173-38 (.820) in games decided by seven or fewer points, those same teams went 89-111 (.445) in one-score games the following season. You can’t count on L.A. winning 85% of its close games again in 2019.

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The fumble recoveries won’t happen as frequently. Los Angeles recovered 71% of the fumbles in its games last season, including 12 of the 14 fumbles it forced on defense. That 71% figure was the highest fumble recovery rate going back to at least 1991, which is where the NFL’s publicly available fumble data begins. If we look at the 50 highest fumble recovery rates going back through 1991, those teams recovered an average of 64.8% of their fumbles in Year 1 and then an average of 50.2% the following season.

 

It’s not a Phillips thing, either. Though the former Cowboys coach is a brilliant defensive mind, his defense as a head coach or defensive coordinator had recovered 48.6% of fumbles from 1991-2017. On average, defenses recovered 48.2% of fumbles over the same time frame.

 

Though it didn’t really matter because the offense was so dominant, the Rams’ defense fell from sixth in DVOA to 18th a year ago. Are they likely to be significantly better in 2019? They lost a pair of Pro Bowl-caliber starters in Lamarcus Joyner and Ndamukong Suh, then added 34-year-old Eric Weddle and 33-year-old Clay Matthews this offseason. Aqib Talib, who was by far the Rams’ best cornerback a year ago, turned 33 in February.

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Even if the defense improves, we should expect at least a modest offensive decline. I don’t buy the idea that the Patriots gave everyone a blueprint on how to stop the Rams in the Super Bowl — McVay has had an entire offseason to make adjustments against defenses that might sell out to stop outside zone — but the league already suggested it is going to target holds on the backsides of run plays this season, using a block from star Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth as one of the examples.

– – –

It’s also fair to wonder if the Rams will be as healthy on offense as they were a year ago, given that they were the second-healthiest unit in football on that side of the field based on Adjusted Games Lost.

– – –

L.A. might also contend with a tougher schedule if the 49ers take an expected step forward and the Cardinals compete with Kyler Murray at quarterback. The Rams lose a home game to London, which has historically hurt teams, but I’m less concerned because they’ll be playing the Bengals. The sky isn’t falling in Los Angeles, and there are going to be weeks when the Rams look downright unbeatable, but the preponderance of evidence suggests that we’ll see them fall off from their 13-3 record.

 

New Orleans Saints (13-3)

Point differential in 2018: plus-151

Pythagorean expectation: 11.2 wins

Record in games decided by seven or fewer points: 5-1 (.833)

FPI projected strength of schedule: 11th-toughest

 

Let’s add the other team from the NFC Championship Game into the mix, because the Saints are in a similar situation to the Rams. Nobody doubts they are a wildly talented team. They have probably the deepest roster in football and an excellent coach in Sean Payton. Even as I’m projecting a decline into the 10-win range, I would be shocked if New Orleans missed the playoffs.

 

To get to 13-3, though, a lot has to go right. Teams have to win a lot of close games, which is tough to do. The Saints went 5-1 in those one-score games a year ago, and some of those wins were pretty narrow.

– – –

The Saints don’t have a track record of pulling out narrow wins with their Hall of Fame combination of Payton and Drew Brees. Before 2018, they were 40-37 in games decided by seven or fewer points with Brees in the lineup and Payton on the sidelines. (Those numbers leave out the 2012 season in which Payton was suspended.) They were 1-3 in those same one-score games with a similar core of talent in 2017.

 

Just as the Rams were remarkably healthy in 2018, New Orleans ranked sixth in Adjusted Games Lost.

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The elephant in the room, of course, is the possibility that Brees might not be the same quarterback he once was as he enters his age-40 season. Brees looked like an MVP candidate through the first 11 games last season, but the future Hall of Famer looked more like Dak Prescott or Marcus Mariota from Thanksgiving on. Including the postseason, here are Brees’ splits before and after Thanksgiving:

 

My colleague Mike Triplett asked Brees and the Saints about the late-season swoon, and neither party seems concerned about it carrying over into 2019. I’m going to take a closer look later this month at the decline and what happens to elite quarterbacks like Brees as they age. Even if Brees bounces back to his usual self, expecting any quarterback to post a QBR near 90 is too much to ask for any significant length of time.

 

The Saints don’t need a dominant Brees to make the playoffs, especially with Teddy Bridgewater waiting in reserve in case of a total collapse. Even with the diminished version of Brees, the Saints went 5-2 in competitive games and came within a brutally missed call of making the Super Bowl. With an above-average defense and a sound running game, they could make the playoffs without requiring much more than competent quarterback play. Getting to 13-3 for a second consecutive year might be beyond New Orleans, even if it remains a Super Bowl contender.

 

Dallas Cowboys (10-6)

Point differential in 2018: plus-15

Pythagorean expectation: 8.4 wins

Record in games decided by seven or fewer points: 8-2 (.800)

FPI projected strength of schedule: Eighth-easiest

 

Let’s just start with the big crooked number up there for the Cowboys. They were 8-2 in games decided by seven or fewer points last season. They actually have their own Panthers-esque streak of alternating seasons in which they’re great in one-score games one season, only to struggle in those same contests the next.

 

The Cowboys were 4-1 in one-score games in 2014, 2-6 in those same games without Tony Romo in 2015, 7-2 in one-score games during Dak Prescott’s debut season in 2016, 2-2 in those same games in 2017, and then 8-2 a year ago. They were 34-29 in one-score games under Garrett before the 2018 season. I don’t anticipate Dallas winning 80% of its games decided by seven or fewer points again in 2019. Teams that have won six more one-score games than they lost in a given year since 1989 went 109-25 in Year 1 and 46-49-1 in those same games the following season.

 

I can see the argument from Cowboys fans here. Things turned around for Dallas only after the team traded for Amari Cooper. The Cowboys were 3-4 before acquiring their star receiver and 7-2 afterward. What if we only evaluate the Cowboys on their performance after acquiring Cooper? Are they still likely to decline?

 

Actually, yes. The Cowboys were slightly better than their record during the first seven weeks. While they went 3-4, Dallas outscored its opposition by three points over that stretch, which is roughly the level of a .500 team. And likewise, during their final nine-game run, the Cowboys went 7-2 while outscoring opponents by a total of 13 points, which is roughly the level of a .500 team. We would have expected the Cowboys to win 4.8 of those nine games by point differential. Instead, they won seven.

 

Six of Dallas’ seven wins during that late-season surge came by seven or fewer points, with an eight-point win over a Colt McCoy-led Washington team as the lone exception. That game wasn’t particularly close, but the Cowboys were either tied or trailing in the fourth quarter in five of those seven victories.

– – –

You might figure that the possibility of a lengthy Ezekiel Elliott holdout would also hurt the Cowboys, but I’m not as concerned as some others might be. For one, I don’t think the chances of Elliott holding out deep into the regular season are especially high. He doesn’t have much leverage, given that he’s still two full years away from even requiring a franchise tag. The Cowboys also have a lengthy record of paying their homegrown talent, even given many of those deals haven’t turned out well. I don’t think Elliott is going anywhere.

 

In addition, though it’s always difficult to parse out an individual player’s value in the broader context of an offense, I think Elliott’s impact on the Cowboys’ offense is likely overstated

– – –

The best case for the Cowboys improving in 2019 involves their offensive line. They have three of the best linemen in football in Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick. Those three missed 21 total games via injury last season, including a full 16-game season from Frederick, who was recovering from Guillain-Barré syndrome.

– – –

If a young Cowboys team takes a step backward, the blame will likely be thrust upon Garrett and/or the various contract situations that are currently enveloping the team’s core. I wouldn’t be so sure. The Cowboys were a league-average team or worse in 2018, when they finished finished 21st in DVOA — below the Broncos, Giants and Packers. It wouldn’t shock me if Jerry Jones’ team were actually better on a game-by-game basis in 2019 yet failed to make it to 10 wins.

 

Los Angeles Chargers (12-4)

Point differential in 2018: plus-99

Pythagorean expectation: 10.4 wins

Record in games decided by seven or fewer points: 5-1 (.833)

FPI projected strength of schedule: Seventh-toughest

 

This one hurts. When I wrote a less team-specific version of this column for the 2016 season, I pegged the Chargers as one of the teams in football most likely to improve. They improved, although only from 4-12 to 5-11. They made it back on the list of teams to improve for 2017 and jumped from 5-11 to 9-7. The numbers still suggested that there was more bounce in the Chargers, though, and when they made a third appearance on the improve side of this column last year, they went up by three wins and made it to 12-4. Our Chargers have grown up.

 

Now, sadly, I must recuse myself from the Chargers bandwagon. The numbers no longer project Los Angeles to improve; in fact, this was basically the same team in terms of its underlying performance from 2017-18.

 

A Chargers team that had gone 7-20 in games decided by seven or fewer points from 2015-17 went 5-1 in those same games last season. Some of that is finally stumbling onto a valuable kicker in Mike Badgley, who went 15 of 16 on field goals after his predecessors from 2015-18 had combined to go 81-of-107 (75.7%). Badgley should be better than that horror show from years past, but he’s probably not going to hit nearly 94% of his kicks over a larger sample in 2019.

 

What happened instead is that the same heartbreaking losses that happened to the Chargers in close games suddenly started happening to their opponents.

– – –

Don’t get me wrong: The Chargers would have been a good football team without the late-game heroics. They ranked third in overall DVOA and were the only team to place in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive DVOA. They were eighth in the latter category despite getting just seven games from star defensive end Joey Bosa and nine from influential linebacker Denzel Perryman. Tight end Hunter Henry missed the entire season.

 

L.A. might have expected to be healthier in 2019, but it is already down one key figure, as left tackle Russell Okung deals with a pulmonary embolism.

– – –

It also appears the Chargers will be without Melvin Gordon to start the season, as the fifth-year running back holds out in search of a new deal. I’ve written about why I don’t think he is worth a big contract, but the 2018 version of Gordon was unquestionably a positive for Los Angeles.

– – –

The opposition also projects to be tougher for the Chargers, who faced the league’s seventh-easiest schedule last season per FPI. Los Angeles had only five games against playoff teams last season, going 2-3 while being outscored by 23 points. This year, it is projected to face the league’s seventh-toughest schedule. Only the Colts and Texans are projected to see their schedules make a larger leap in terms of difficulty this upcoming season. For the second year in a row, L.A. will lose a home game to a foreign market, as it is scheduled to play the Chiefs in Mexico City in November.

 

I’m glad that the storyline of the Same Old Chargers is over. When Anthony Lynn went for and converted that two-pointer to beat the Chiefs, we got to move on as a nation. It’s also fair to note that these Chargers aren’t suddenly owed a bunch of victories in close games because they lost in every conceivable fashion from 2015-17. This is one of the most talented teams in football, but with average luck in a division with the Chiefs, it will be tough for L.A. to hit 12 wins again in 2019.

 

Miami Dolphins (7-9)

Point differential in 2018: minus-114

Pythagorean expectation: 5.2 wins

Record in games decided by seven or fewer points: 5-1 (.833)

FPI projected strength of schedule: 10th-toughest

 

I don’t want to pick on the Dolphins, who pursued a logical offseason plan after years of trying to spend their way into contention with a flawed roster. They weren’t going to seriously compete with Ryan Tannehill at quarterback and holes on both sides of the ball, so I can’t fault them for heading into a rebuild. You can pick nits with some of the money they absorbed to get mid-to-late draft picks, but I love the move they made to go after Josh Rosen, even if the former Cardinals quarterback doesn’t work out in his new digs.

 

At the same time, unless Rosen is suddenly a superstar in teal, the short term isn’t going to be pretty for Brian Flores’ team. The 2018 Dolphins were far worse than their 7-9 record indicated, as they posted the fourth-worst point differential in the league despite playing the 10th-easiest schedule. Miami then mostly sat out free agency, losing starting right tackle Ja’Wuan James while targeting former Patriots such as Dwayne Allen and Eric Rowe.

– – –

Nobody is pretending that they are seriously trying to compete this season, which is a good thing for an organization that has spent most of the past decade trying to trick itself into believing it was a contender. As long as they stay self-aware, the long-term future for the Dolphins will be brighter than it was this time last year. This season just probably won’t be pretty.