The Daily Briefing Monday, April 16, 2018
AROUND THE NFL
QB MARK SANCHEZ receives a four-game suspension. Thomas Lott of The Sporting News:
Mark Sanchez wasn’t exactly a hot commodity on the free-agent block, but after Friday, he will be even less sought-after.
The veteran quarterback has been suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing substance policy, the league announced.
Sanchez is eligible to participate in all offseason and preseason practices and games.
Sanchez said in an Instagram post he was “blind-sided” by news of the positive test “and I want to say unequivocally that I have never cheated or attempted to gain a competitive advantage by using a banned performance enhancing substance.”
The former No. 5 overall pick by the Jets has a career 37-35 record as a starter with 15,219 passing yards and as many touchdowns (86) as interceptions (86).
Sanchez hasn’t played in a game since 2016, when he made two starts and a relief appearance for the Cowboys.
A cruel but funny tweet on Sanchez:
Mark Sanchez would seem to have a good case. Clearly no substance has enhanced his performance.
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Sanchez may have played his last in the NFL. So too, LB JAMES HARRISON. Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:
James Harrison is calling it a career.
Harrison, the linebacker who will turn 40 next month, wrote on Instagram that he has decided to retire, and this time he means it. Harrison previously announced his retirement four years ago but then decided to keep playing.
“I’ve missed way too much for way too long,” Harrison wrote next to a picture of his children. “I’m done. Many thanks to my family, coaches, the fans, and everyone who played a role in my football life.”
Harrison initially signed with the Steelers as an undrafted rookie in 2002, briefly spent time with the Ravens and NFL Europe’s Rhein Fire, and then really made his mark with the Steelers starting in 2004. He was a Pro Bowler for five straight years from 2007 to 2011 and the NFL defensive player of the year in 2008. After one year with the Bengals in 2013, he went back to the Steelers in 2014. They cut him last season and he finished his career with the Patriots.
Katherine Terrell of ESPN.com on TE JIMMY GRAHAM’s number:
Some players have to switch because the numbers they want have been retired. Packers tight end Jimmy Graham is switching back to No. 80, which he wore with the Saints, as the No. 88 he wore with the Seahawks was retired in Green Bay. Other players must switch numbers coming out of college because the NFL has different rules than the NCAA regarding what positions are allowed to wear certain numbers.
But then she says the retired number was in Seattle:
Tight end Jimmy Graham couldn’t wear No. 80 after the Saints traded him to the Seahawks. That number was already retired in honor of Steve Largent, and the only exception made was when Jerry Rice signed with Seattle.
Graham switched to No. 88 during his stint in Seattle, but he’s returning to No. 80 in Green Bay, the same number former Packers greats James Lofton and Donald Driver also wore.
Is number 88 retired for the Packers? According to Wikipedia (and some other sources the DB checked out), the answer is no:
All six are also members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame
3 Tony Canadeo Halfback 1941–44, 1946–52 1952
4 Brett Favre Quarterback 1992–2007 2015
14 Don Hutson Wide receiver 1935–45 1951
15 Bart Starr Quarterback 1956–71 1973
66 Ray Nitschke Linebacker 1958–72 1983
92 Reggie White Defensive end 1993–98 2007
Peter King has no problem with the cutting of WR DEZ BRYANT:
Lots of hubbub about the Dallas Cowboys’ release of wide receiver Dez Bryant, who will be 30 years old this year and hasn’t been worth the big money he’s been making since he signed a huge contact in early 2015. A few points, numerically, back up my question about the Bryant cutting: What took the Cowboys so long?
If you want to scratch the 2015 season because Bryant missed seven games due to injury that year, let’s consider productivity after 2015.
Tyrell Williams and Jamison Crowder have more receiving yards than Bryant over the past two seasons. (Tyrell Williams. Hmmm. You’ve got to do a quick mind-bender there. Who’s he play for? Chargers.)
In all, 36 players have more catches than Bryant in 2016 and ’17 combined.
Bryant, per Pro Football Focus, led the NFL with 12 drops in 2017.
For an occasionally divisive guy like Bryant, I don’t understand the logic of bringing him back in 2018, his age-30 season, at $12.5 million. Seems like throwing good money after bad to me.
Katherine Terrell of ESPN.com says WR ALLEN HURNS will not wear #88 for the Cowboys, even though it is now available:
Former Jaguars receiver Allen Hurns knew he wasn’t going to be able to keep No. 88 when he signed with Dallas this spring. At the time, that number belonged to Dez Bryant, who was released Friday. So Hurns (who still doesn’t want it) decided to go in a completely different direction. Hurns picked No. 17 instead. The Miami native said in an interview that the number was chosen to honor the 17 victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, which took place less than an hour away from where he grew up.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Peter King thinks the Giants keep the 2nd pick and don’t take a QB.
I truly don’t know what the Giants will do, particularly if they’ve got a bright prospect like Darnold staring at them when their 15 minutes start April 26. But I don’t see Gettleman passing on two surer things over a quarterback he’s not at all sure about. I also would be surprised if Gettleman trades the pick with two franchise players on the board, but if the Bills offer three ones to come up, he’s going to have to think about it. I doubt he’d do it, because of what he said at the combine: “You’re drafting [at two] what you think is gonna be a Hall of Fame player. So you can’t get too cute about the whole thing.”
One final piece of intel: Gettleman was the Carolina GM for five drafts, between 2013 and 2017. He never traded any of his five first-round picks. Only once did he trade one of his second-round picks, moving up 16 spots in the 2015 draft to snag wideout Devin Funchess. So there’s not much of a history there.
Eagles CB DARYL WORLEY gets waived after an arrest in Philadelphia. Les Bowen in the Philadelphia News:
The Eagles have released cornerback Daryl Worley, who was arrested early Sunday morning after being found passed out and in possession of a gun in a car on Broad Street, near the team’s South Philly practice facility. A source close to the situation confirmed an NFL Network report, which said Worley became combative with police when they confronted him, and police used a taser to subdue him.
Worley, 23, from North Philadelphia, starred at Penn Charter High and at West Virginia University before being drafted in the third round by the Carolina Panthers in 2016. Observers were surprised when the Eagles were able to get him in exchange for veteran receiver Torrey Smith early this offseason; salary-cap concerns had made it likely the team would end up releasing Smith. Getting a young, healthy corner with 25 NFL starts for Smith seemed like a coup. The Worley release saves the team $670,000 against the cap.
In 2014, Worley entered a no-contest plea to misdemeanor assault and was given a six-month suspended sentence for an altercation with a woman outside a Morgantown, W.Va., nightclub, after a West Virginia victory. Worley said then that he was defending his girlfriend.
“It was a simple situation where it was wrong place at the wrong time. There [was] nothing malicious about the incident,” Worley told a conference call with reporters after the Panthers traded up to draft him. “All 32 teams have seen the videotape. They have the official court documents which I gave to them where there was nothing malicious about it.
“I did my due diligence as far as the court required me, and honestly, it is just behind me in the past. It is expunged from my record, and I am looking to move forward. Nothing like that is ever going to be a problem heading forward.”
An Eagles spokesman said the team had no comment on Worley’s release.
Peter King on how the Saints nearly drafted LB REUBEN FOSTER who has been all sorts of troubles for the 49ers:
Sometimes your best draft choices are the picks you don’t make.
The Saints were thinking that way last week, when San Francisco linebacker Reuben Foster—a target of New Orleans late in the 2017 first round—was charged with felony domestic violence. Authorities in California said Foster dragged his girlfriend by the hair, punched her in the head eight to 10 times, and punctured her ear drum. The 49ers are letting the legal system run its course, for now, but if the charges prove true, it’s hard to imagine Foster stays on the roster of a franchise with a recent history of sordid acts by prominent players.
Saints coach Sean Payton told me Saturday he thinks New Orleans still would have chosen Wisconsin tackle Ryan Ramczyk with the 32nd overall pick last April, even if the 49ers hadn’t jumped ahead of the Saints to grab the 31st overall pick, which was used on Foster. I was in the 49ers draft room last year, and the most dramatic point of the weekend was the Niners feeling they struck gold by stealing Foster from the Saints. Foster told the Niners—and later told me—that Payton was on the phone with Foster minutes before it was going to be the Saints’ choice and said the Saints were going to pick Foster. Foster also said Payton asked to speak to Foster’s girlfriend. According to Foster, Payton asked the girlfriend, “Are you going to be the guidance to be sure Reuben doesn’t get into trouble?”
Payton confirmed that, and said periodically over the years he asked a prospective player’s significant other if the Saints could count on her to help steer the player away from trouble.
“This was part of our fact-finding late in the round,” Payton said. “I hadn’t had a chance to meet his girlfriend during the pre-draft process, and we were still in the process of deciding. I think we were going to take Ramczyk anyway, but I wanted to talk to her about Reuben.”
Meanwhile, the Niners traded with Seattle to move to the 31st slot, picked Foster, and rejoiced at what they considered at the time was a big win for the franchise. Turns out it’s verging on being a huge loss for the franchise. But Payton had more of a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-us feeling Saturday than a feeling of spiking the football in the end zone because Foster went elsewhere. “It’s tragic, and it’s sad,” Payton said. “I just feel awful when those things happen.”
Avoiding Foster turned out to be the stroke of great fortune that helped GM Mickey Loomis, assistant GM Jeff Ireland and Payton have the franchise’s best draft since 2006 (Reggie Bush, Roman Harper, Jahri Evans, Zach Strief, Marques Colston). Here’s how good it was:
• Cornerback Marshon Lattimore (first round, 11th overall) was Pro Football Focus’ ninth-rated corner as a rookie.
• Ramczyk (first round, 32nd) was PFF’s number four tackle, and top-rated rookie.
• Safety Marcus Williams (second round, 42nd) was PFF’s top-rated rookie safety, and 12th-rated overall. “We had him with a low first-round grade,” Payton said. “If we got him low in the first round, that would have been fine with us.”
• But when they took Williams, Payton figured the skill player he wanted badly, Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara, was gone. But when he was still available late in the second round, the Saints started working the phones, and dealt a 2018 second-round pick to the Niners to claim the 67th overall pick and the third pick in the third round. That netted Kamara, whose explosive burst helped overcome a slow start. Kamara was named the 2017 offensive rookie of the year.
• Nine picks after Kamara, the Saints used their own third-rounder to pick the poor man’s Foster, Florida weakside linebacker Alex Anzalone. They still have hopes for him to become a sideline-to-sideline playmaker, but Anzalone missed all but four games last season with an injury.
That’s the kind of draft that could keep the post-Drew Brees Saints strong contenders … assuming they find a quarterback to be a solid heir to Brees. It’s far and away the best draft any team had in 2017, and it’s a reminder how important off-field homework is on draft weekend. Whereas Foster had a shaky past, Ramczyk had zero zits on his résumé and was steady from the first practice. The Saints had five picks among the first 76 overall, and surely they should have gotten two or three good players out of that haul. But five—if Anzalone pans out? That’s one of the best drafts in recent years.
Deep down, the Niners can justify the Foster pick as swinging and missing for a potential franchise linebacker. But the lesson for Lynch now, with the recent spate of rap-sheet Niners, is he’s got to pick Eagle Scouts. This franchise has erred with risky players once too often, and for a while, they’re going to have to pick totally clean players.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
CB AQIB TALIB is glad to be a Ram. Lakisha Jackson at NFL.com:
When Aqib Talib found out he might play for a different team in 2018, he wanted to make sure he landed somewhere that was familiar.
That was either New England, where he had success with Bill Belichick, or Los Angeles to play for his former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
“Well, I’m in the later half of my career and I just wanted to be comfortable. Wherever I went, I wanted to be comfortable and there was no time in the NFL where I was more comfortable playing football than with Wade Phillips,” Talib told the team website. “He’s like a guru at putting guys in position to succeed. So if I was going to go somewhere I wanted to be comfortable and I’m definitely comfortable here in L.A.”
Talib racked up 71 tackles, 25 passes defensed, six interceptions and one Super Bowl ring while playing under Phillips for two years in Denver.
“He is a future Hall of Fame D-coordinator. So, anytime you get to share a meeting room with him everyday, you’re going to gain knowledge. He just taught me a lot about being a Pro, how to prepare for the game, and using my strengths on the field. That’s a huge part of the reason why I wanted to come play for him.”
The five-time Pro Bowler is now part of a defense that will feature another newcomer in cornerback Marcus Peters, safety Lamarcus Joyner and defensive tackle Aaron Donald. These names alone are enough to make the Rams serious Super Bowl contenders in 2018 and that’s enough to get Talib looking forward to the season.
“Man, I’m very excited just to be in L.A., the weather, just to be back with coach Wade and be with a nice team like this. This a great team, a great organization,” he said. “So a competitive team to be a part of a competitive team and make this run towards the Super Bowl is a blessing.”
Peter King on what the Broncos are thinking at #5:
I’m told a few things about GM John Elway’s draft-night preference:
1. He’s very unlikely to trade up.
2. He doesn’t think Bradley Chubb will be available here (nor do I), but he also views Quenton Nelson as a long-time great guard who could anchor his offensive line for years.
3. He hasn’t given up on Paxton Lynch, and though there’s a quarterback he likes a lot here (my guess is Mayfield or Darnold), having Case Keenum in the house for two years makes the drafting of a quarterback in this draft a lower priority. And if Elway picks one, Lynch would be the Rocky Mountain version of Christian Hackenberg—living on borrowed time.
4. Per Albert Breer, the Broncos are also smitten with two other ideas: trading down, or replacing Aqib Talib with Ohio State star cornerback Denzel Ward.
RB KERWYNN WILLIAMS is now a Chief. Jeremy Bergman at NFL.com:
The Kansas City Chiefs have added yet another running back to an already crowded backfield.
Former Arizona Cardinals running back Kerwynn Williams is signing a one-year deal with K.C., a source told NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport. Williams reportedly had “multiple options” but chose the Chiefs because of the “fresh start” it represented.
Drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the seventh round of the 2013 draft, Williams made Arizona his home for four years, tallying 218 career carries for 971 yards and four touchdowns during his time there. Over four seasons with the Cardinals, Williams was waived and cut on five separate occasions, only to have his best season in 2017 when he racked up 519 yards from scrimmage on 130 total touches.
In Kansas City, Williams will be one of four running backs backing up bell-cow second-year stud Kareem Hunt, including Charcandrick West, former Dolphins back Damien Williams and Spencer Ware, who is recovering from a season-ending PCL injury.
Peter King on what Cleveland will be doing next week. For the first pick:
GM John Dorsey has to have made a decision by now, and my gut feeling is it’s going to come down to a quarterback, Wyoming’s Josh Allen or USC’s Sam Darnold, with this pick. For the first three months of the college season, Dorsey scouted all players, knowing there was a good chance he’d be a GM in 2018. For the last four months, since being named the Cleveland GM, he’s known he had to know everything about every quarterback because he was likely to pick one with the first overall pick. If he’d seen six Baker Mayfield games before taking the Cleveland job, don’t you think he’s seen every game of the top five quarterbacks, and at least privately has decided who he favors by now? Dorsey is one of the most thorough personnel people I’ve met in the business. I’m not saying he has written a name on the card Goodell will read yet, because I’m sure Dorsey wants to hear out smart offensive minds who may differ—namely coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. I’m just saying I’d be surprised if deep down Dorsey didn’t know who he is picking.
And at 4:
I think they’d trade only for a ransom, like three ones from Buffalo (at 12) or Miami (at 11), and that’s unlikely. Dorsey went to the Gettleman school. Don’t trade a guy you project to be an annual All-Pro player (Chubb, Barkley or even North Dame guard Quenton Nelson) when you’re trying to build a great team. The one X-factor here: If Darnold survives the first three picks, one of those mega-trades might pop up. I wouldn’t do it if I were Dorsey, and I had the chance to get a player like Chubb here.
Whatever is going on with G RICHIE INCOGNITO, he is not following a coherent plan. Here is the latest maneuver:
The strange tale of Richie Incognito’s Twitter posts takes another strange turn on Saturday.
In a week where Incognito tweeted he was retiring and then he would be at Monday’s Bill offseason program, he is now asking to be released.
Please release me from my contract. Contact @AthletesFirst for further updates. Thank you for your service
It is really strange considering he fired Athletes First on Twitter over a week ago.
There will probably be more to come on this story in the next few days.
Kevin Duffy of MassLive.com with comments from Bill Belichick from a pre-draft news conference.
“Last couple years, going into those past few drafts, I would say we were able to eliminate a number of players just based on where we were selecting,” Belichick said at Friday’s press conference. “This year’s a little bit different than that. We really need to know the draft top to bottom. Potentially, I’d say there are a handful of players that are probably out of reach. But realistically, just about everybody is in play other than a handful of guys.”
This doesn’t mean the Patriots won’t trade up in the first round. It’s simply an indication that it’ll be difficult for New England to chase a quarterback such as USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, or Wyoming’s Josh Allen. All are expected to be off the board in the top five.
The Patriots can package their first-round selections — No. 23 and No. 31 — to move up, but there isn’t much precedent for a team sliding from the top five into the 20s. It’ll be hard to find takers.
A more likely scenario: A trade similar to what the Texans and Chiefs pulled off a year ago to select Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes, respectively.
Houston dealt the No. 25 pick and a 2018 first-round selection to select Watson at No. 10.
Kansas City traded the No. 27 pick, a 2018 first-round selection, and a third-round pick to grab Mahomes at No. 12.
If the Patriots do indeed move up, it’s more likely that they’ll target a player such as Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield or Louisville’s Lamar Jackson in the 8-15 range.
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When the passel of rookies do come to town, TE ROB GRONKOWSKI won’t be on the practice field to greet them. Neither will TOM BRADY. Jason Hirschorn of NFL.com:
When the New England Patriots assemble for the first time since their defeat in Super Bowl LII, they might do so without one of their biggest stars. According to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, tight end Rob Gronkowski doesn’t currently plan to participate in the team’s voluntary offseason conditioning program set to begin Monday.
The development follows months of speculation regarding Gronkowski’s desire to continue his career. The 28-year-old addressed the topic of retirement at his post-Super Bowl press conference, telling reporters, “I’m definitely going to look at my future, for sure. I’m going to sit down the next couple of weeks and see where I’m at.”
Still, Gronkowski’s potential absence from voluntary workouts doesn’t necessarily mean the All-Pro tight end intends to hang up his cleats quite yet. Rapoport reports that Gronkowski has trained this offseason at the TB12 Sports Therapy Center and the expectation remains that he will play in 2018.
Gronkowski wouldn’t represent the only major absence from the Patriots’ offseason program, either. Tom Brady is currently on a trip to Qatar with his family and will miss the workouts in Foxborough.
While injuries have limited Gronkowski in recent years, he still ranks among the league’s most productive tight ends. He caught 69 passes for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns in 2017 and leads all tight ends in receiving yardage (3,924) and touchdown receptions (34) since 2014. Gronkowski has earned first-team All-Pro honors five times in his career, most recently last season.
THIS AND THAT
AIKMAN THINKING FRONT OFFICE
With FOX having the NFL Draft, Troy Aikman has been very active in preparation for the coverage. And it seems to have scratched an itch. Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:
Matt Millen. John Elway. John Lynch. Troy Aikman?
The Hall of Fame quarterback, who retired after the 2000 season, apparently has the itch to run an NFL team. That’s what he suggested during a recent appearance on The Doomsday Podcast from Ed Werder and Matt Mosley, via Peter King of SI.com.
“I do believe there is another frontier for me beyond television,” Aikman said.
With FOX televising the draft this year, Aikman will help cover it. As part of his preparation, he attend the Pro Day workouts conducted by USC quarterback Sam Darnold and UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen. This helped underscore Aikman’s pre-existing interest in someday running an NFL team.
Aikman joined FOX immediately after retiring, quickly becoming a member of the network’s top broadcasting team. The fact that he has stayed there for so long (even after FOX hired, to his dismay, Skip Bayless) shows how much Aikman loves what he’s doing. Still, if he’s thinking about moving on to bigger and better things, a schedule that will now include two games per week in most weeks of the NFL season may cause him to start asking himself, “Why am I doing this to myself?”
That question becomes more likely if Aikman already is thinking about something else he can potentially do to himself: Tie his name and reputation to the success or failure of an NFL team, giving up a spot he could hold for another 20 years or longer for a gig that necessarily becomes a year-to-year proposition from the first day he walks through the door.
If/when Aikman does it, he’ll join Millen, Elway, and Lynch as former players who made an unexpected right turn well after retiring, becoming key executives at a team without paying the dues that most key executives must pay before taking over.
In a related quote, this from Sean Payton as told to Peter King:
I can’t find anyone in the NFL who thinks there’s an Andrew Luck in this quarterback crop. That’s why the top of this draft will be so hard to pick, and will be so overwrought and over-thought both before and after the first round. “I don’t see Luck in this draft, and I don’t see Carson Wentz, who I liked a lot coming into the draft,” Saints coach Sean Payton said Saturday. He’s in the market for a passer. “I’d feel a little bit uneasy if I were at the top of this draft and I decided I had to have a quarterback. The pressure to get a quarterback is so great in this league, I get that. But we can’t create ’em. I wouldn’t be surprised if only one of these guys is left standing in four or five years, and if so, I’d guess it would be Sam Darnold.”
Read the whole thing from Barnwell, if the excerpts below wet your whistle.
We could come close to an NFL record this year before any players take a snap. There are five quarterbacks who could come off the board on Day 1 of the draft, which would tie the 1999 draft for the second most since the merger. The only draft to post six first-rounders is the legendary Class of 1983, which delivered a trio of Hall of Famers: John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino.
As much as the league seems to be struggling to pick between the prospects in this year’s class, though, the coaches and executives of 1983 weren’t able to separate the wheat from the chaff until well after the fact. Elway was the No. 1 pick, but the Chiefs still managed to draft Todd Blackledge seven picks before Kelly. Blackledge threw 29 career touchdowns. Kelly topped 29 in 1991 alone. Tony Eason was taken one pick after Kelly and 12 picks before Marino, who would post the greatest passing season in league history to that point during his second campaign.
A league full of coaches and personnel executives who had spent and would go on to spend the majority of their lives working in the game weren’t able to pick between a trio of future Hall of Famers and two guys who would fail to make a single Pro Bowl. (Ken O’Brien, drafted after Eason and before Marino, at least made two Pro Bowls over his 10-year career.)
Thirty-five years later, I’m not entirely convinced we’ve gotten much better at evaluating quarterbacks. The league has access to more information than ever before, but the job has become tougher. A wider range of passing offenses at the collegiate level have made it more difficult for obstinate coaches to translate amateur success into bland professional schemes. Passers come better prepared for the pre-draft process than ever before and are far more selective about throwing at the combine.
As a result, the range of opinions — anonymous and otherwise — we hear about these players before they enter the league is truly remarkable. The error bars are impossibly large. Ask around about Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen and you’ll hear that he’ll turn into budding MVP candidate Carson Wentz or Titans washout Jake Locker. You’ll hear that Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield will turn into either Johnny Manziel or Russell Wilson. This doesn’t happen in other sports. Jaylen Brown didn’t enter the NBA draft only to be compared to both Jimmy Butler and Bill Murray in “Space Jam.”
Picking the right quarterback is the most important thing an NFL organization can do. The Browns famously didn’t believe in Wentz and traded the No. 2 pick in 2016 to the Eagles, who did. The rest is history. You can basically get everything else wrong and still repeatedly make it to the playoffs with the right quarterback, as we saw in the first few years of Andrew Luck’s career during Ryan Grigson’s reign as general manager in Indianapolis. It is not hyperbole to suggest getting this decision right is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
And yet history tells us that the league will wrongly evaluate these prospects. Chances are that one or two of these five passers will turn into superstars, but it’s unlikely that those one or two will be the first quarterbacks taken on draft night. Some fans are about to buy authentic team jerseys they’ll quickly regret. Thousands of scouts spent tens of thousands of nights in hotels around America for decisions nobody will want to claim three years from now. We should be able to do better than this.
So what has gone wrong? Why can’t we reliably figure out which quarterbacks will turn into superstars? And can we fix it in time to evaluate this year’s class?
All those examples aren’t to suggest that NFL personnel executives are stupid and don’t understand football, or that only a few select experts have any idea what’s going on, both before and after quarterbacks have entered the pros. Longtime Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome traded up to grab Kyle Boller. Bill Belichick, who was on the other end of that swap, famously went back and forth between Tom Brady and Tim Rattay during the 2000 draft. Howie Roseman and the Eagles traded up to grab Wentz, but they also handed $12 million in guarantees to Chase Daniel, who threw one pass in an Eagles uniform before being released and replaced by Nick Foles. Even for the best, this is tough.
The simple response is usually just to peg players who underperform expectations as “busts” and assume that they would have failed regardless of where they ended up. That’s a naive way to evaluate draft picks. Think about Jared Goff, who looked entirely lost during his debut season under Jeff Fisher and offensive coordinator Rob Boras. What if the Rams had passed up the opportunity to hire Sean McVay and held on to Fisher for another interminable season? Would Goff have improved? If he had been truly dismal for a second consecutive campaign, would the Rams have given up on him and gone after yet another quarterback this offseason? Goff very well could have been written off as a bust.
There are more realistic reasons why coaches and executives end up making decisions that seem curious with the benefit of hindsight. Let’s understand why:
The guys who drafted the QBs don’t get to stick around for long. The coaches and general managers who fall in love with a quarterback don’t always get to stick around for long to actually mold their would-be star. In Goff’s case, that was clearly a good thing, but other new coaches don’t click with their inherited starter. Matt Leinart’s career went south after Dennis Green was replaced by Ken Whisenhunt in the desert.
This is increasingly becoming a problem. Take a look at every top-10 passer over the past 20 years and their first four professional seasons, which form the bulk of their rookie deal. Of the 20 quarterbacks drafted under the old CBA, 10 played under the coach who drafted them for the first four years of their career.
Thirteen quarterbacks have been drafted since the league went to a new rookie scale in 2011, and of those 13, just four — Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Carson Wentz and Patrick Mahomes — have held on to their coach for the first four years of their careers. Even that number is generous, given that Luck lost interim coach Bruce Arians after one season once Chuck Pagano returned, while Wentz is only two years into his career and Mahomes just finished his debut campaign.
Highly drafted quarterbacks don’t get to enjoy much stability. Mitchell Trubisky is already on his second coach after John Fox was fired. The same is true for Goff. Jameis Winston is on his second after Dirk Koetter was promoted from an offensive coordinator’s role. Marcus Mariota is about to start his fourth season with his third coach; the coach who drafted him, Whisenhunt, was fired after seven games.
The numbers are even more notable when you look at offensive coordinators. Not a single quarterback taken in the top 10 since Matthew Stafford in 2009 has managed to make it four years with the same offensive coordinator at the helm. Each of the 15 top-10 passers drafted since — a group that includes Wentz and Mahomes — has been forced to work with at least two offensive coordinators during their first four pro seasons.
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Analytics haven’t helped all that much (yet). In 2008, college student David Lewin looked back at college quarterbacks from the past and found that completion percentage and games started were the only two meaningful predictors of professional success, and that only worked for quarterbacks selected in the top two rounds of the draft. (Lewin now works for the Boston Celtics as their director of scouting.)
The idea had a couple of fitting issues — the data set hadn’t been backtested, and the endpoint of the top two rounds was arbitrary — but the concepts were insightful. Quarterbacks who struggled with their accuracy in college rarely developed it at the professional level, and as passers spent more time in college, scouts gained a better sense of their actual skills and were able to provide a more meaningful evaluation of their talents.
Since then, the results have been mixed. Passers with sub-60 percent completion percentages like Stafford and Matt Ryan have found success at the pro level, while hyper-accurate darlings like Brian Brohm and Robert Griffin III haven’t been able to parlay college completions into regular NFL work.
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Unqualified evaluators can use pseudo-psychology to talk themselves into anything. Statistics and tape aren’t enough to scout players, as teams rightfully want to know a quarterback might fit in their locker room and how he’ll command a huddle. Off-field problems have sunk passers like Ryan Leaf, Manziel and Todd Marinovich. Organizations have to do their due diligence.
The problem, though, is that they often take a leap past those evaluations and adopt rules or administer tests that can’t realistically prove anything. The Giants were famous for administering a 200-page psychological exam to potential draftees, at which Deion Sanders summarily laughed and walked away.
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Teams aren’t much smarter about this stuff now. It might not be the single determining factor in deciding who a team selects, but there is plenty of useless information being strewn around this year. Hue Jackson is impressed that Baker Mayfield got his teammates to chant “Hee hee.” Giants owner Steve Tisch was blown away by Josh Rosen’s table manners. Two years ago, the Jets were impressed that Christian Hackenberg could make easy conversation about the Masters at a local bar.
Others want to believe they can see whether a quarterback will succeed or not by looking into their eyes or figuring out whether a passer has the “it” factor. I wrote about the “it” factor fallacy back in 2014, noting how quarterbacks like Mark Sanchez and Vince Young had been pegged with the moniker early in their careers, only for “it” to disappear when they were exposed.
Everyone from Jimmy Clausen to Tim Tebow has been regarded as someone with the “it” factor at one point or another during their careers, but “it” hasn’t been remotely predicative of pro success. Two of the quarterbacks who we would say most clearly have “it” are Brady and Russell Wilson, who fell past the first two rounds of the draft when everyone who swears they can spot “it” should have seen “it” from a mile away. Intangibles clearly exist, but we’re not very good at identifying who possesses “it” until well after the fact.
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Organizations get impatient. Teams that say one thing during the pre-draft process don’t actually follow through on their development plans. The Jaguars wanted to give Blake Bortles a redshirt year in 2014 to rebuild his mechanics, but after a solid preseason and three mediocre games from backup Chad Henne, an 0-3 Jags team named Bortles as their starter in Week 4. Bortles’ mechanics never took and eventually collapsed altogether in 2016.
The Eagles, meanwhile, intended to sit Wentz behind Bradford in 2016, but when Philadelphia got a great trade offer from the Vikings for Bradford, they inserted Wentz into the lineup a year earlier than expected. Things obviously went fine for the second overall pick one year later, but teams generally push their new quarterbacks into the lineup earlier than they suggest in April.
In some cases, this might not be the decision of the people who seem to be involved. Ownership might encourage — or insist — that a team draft a quarterback or insert their new prospect into the lineup. A coach who is in danger of losing his job might prematurely bench a struggling young quarterback in the hopes of finding a higher floor with an experienced veteran, representing the moral hazard of when a team’s incentives to win aren’t in line with that of their head coach.
What does that mean for the 2018 draft class?
For one, anyone who says they’re sure that any of these prospects is going to turn into a star or a mistake is kidding themselves. It’s pretty clear that much of what makes a quarterback is what happens after he arrives in the NFL. How is his team at developing draft picks? What sort of infrastructure does he have to succeed? How much will his coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach do to ease the transition to the professional level? Educated eyes can certainly pick up elements of a quarterback’s game he’ll need to improve or rely upon at the next level, and history may suggest some members of the quarterback pool are more likely to succeed than others, but nobody’s a surefire hit or a guaranteed disaster.
There are question marks about each of these prospects, such as the pre-draft debate on ESPN comparing Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen and Louisville passer Lamar Jackson. Bill Polian, the former GM of the Colts who now works as an NFL analyst for ESPN, suggested earlier this year that Jackson should consider a move to wide receiver owing to his athleticism and size, but Jackson measured in at the NFL combine at 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds, which is nearly identical to the listed height and weight of Andy Dalton. Dalton, who was a surprisingly influential running quarterback in terms of the the zone-read during his time at TCU, does not appear to have been asked to switch positions before or during his pro career.
Allen, meanwhile, is a quarterback prospect straight out of the 1970s. The 21-year-old has ideal height (6-5) and a cannon for an arm, but he completed just 56.2 percent of his throws at Wyoming, the lowest completion percentage for a would-be first-rounder since Locker (54.0 percent). ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. has suggested Allen played in an offense that frequently threw the ball down the field, deflating his completion percentage, with Jackson playing in a scheme in which it was easier to find safe completions.
In talking to NFL coaches and executives at the combine, there are certainly plenty of people within the league who share Kiper’s sentiments about the Louisville and Wyoming offenses. It’s also impossible to break down every single one of the playcalls for each offense to figure out whether Allen turned down easy completions to take big shots downfield. Remember the air yards statistic I mentioned earlier, though? We have that data for Allen Jackson, and the rest of the quarterbacks in this year’s draft, thanks to ESPN Stats & Information research.
It’s true that Allen didn’t throw many short passes relative to your typical college quarterback, but Jackson actually threw fewer “layups” than Allen when you account for the fact that he has an extra year on tape. Here are the numbers for each of the five passers, split by the distance over which the ball traveled in the air. Note that these numbers don’t include the six passes Allen threw in 2015 or Baker Mayfield’s stats from his lone season at Texas Tech in 2013:
Josh Rosen threw more screens and quick hitches than any of the other candidates, as more than 40 percent of his passes were thrown within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage. Jackson didn’t throw a ton of screens, but 42.8 percent of his passes were in the midrange between 5 and 14 yards, which was comfortably the most of any of these five signal-callers. And then, it’s certainly true that Allen was chucking it downfield more than anybody else. Nearly a full one-third of his passes, 33.2 percent, traveled 15 or more yards downfield. Rosen, who was playing in a version of the West Coast offense under the tutelage of former NFL coach Jim Mora Jr., threw downfield on just 22.9 percent of his passes.
Let’s now consider how accurate each quarterback was in each respective zone. Here is each quarterback’s completion percentage, split out by those same air yard figures:
Allen and Jackson, ironically, have roughly similar profiles. They were both well below the NCAA average for completion percentages on extremely short throws (73.3 percent), but were better than the typical passer on throws 15-plus yards downfield.
It’s difficult to not notice Mayfield, given that the Heisman Trophy winner was significantly ahead of the pack in most categories. It’s staggering that Mayfield’s completion percentage on throws traveling 20-plus yards in the air (51.8 percent) wasn’t all that far behind that of Allen on throws at or behind the line of scrimmage (58.7 percent). Mayfield’s passer rating on those throws was 297.6, and he posted a 99.7 QBR on those throws. Allen was second-best in those same categories among the five would-be first-rounders, but his passer rating was a mere 185.8, with a 90.8 QBR mixed in.
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If a team drafts Jackson to play quarterback and discourages him from running the football, he might disappoint for reasons entirely out of his control. Likewise, though, if a team drafts Allen and tells him to never throw the ball any farther than 10 yards downfield, they’re not going to be happy with the results. Draft Mayfield, line him up under center, and tell him to never leave the pocket? You’ll end up playing to your quarterback’s weaknesses as opposed to his strengths.
It sounds downright stupid for a team to do that, but organizations make these sorts of mistakes all the time. Mora inherited Michael Vick and tried to turn him into a West Coast quarterback. Mariota went from spending all of his time in the shotgun at Oregon to an offense that took 45.1 percent of its snaps under center over the last two years under Mike Mularkey, the 10th-highest rate in football.
As I mentioned earlier this year in talking about Case Keenum, the old trope about how there aren’t 32 good starting quarterbacks to go around is naive. The problem is that there aren’t 32 good quarterback situations to play within, a reality that was reinforced by the success of Keenum and Foles after they looked disastrously bad under Jeff Fisher with the Rams. Teams that are spending every waking hour worrying about picking the right guy are likely kidding themselves to think that they can reliably pick the best quarterback from this group. They should worry about making themselves the right fit for whoever they end up choosing.