The Daily Briefing Thursday, April 19, 2018

AROUND THE NFL 

NFL fans in Mexico get a head start on finding out the date of their annual game.  The rest of the NFL schedule comes out tonight:

 

The time and date of this year’s Mexico City game is no longer a mystery.

 

The Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams will play at Estadio Azteca on Nov. 19 at 8:15 p.m. ET, the league announced Wednesday night. The reveal comes before the release of the full 2018 NFL regular-season schedule, which will be announced Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network.

 

The Monday Night Football showdown between the Chiefs and Rams is one of four NFL International Series games that will be played in 2018. Three games will be played in London this season.

 

On the heels of successful games in Mexico in 2016 and 2017, the NFL and Mexico’s Ministry of Tourism announced a three-year agreement in November to play regular-season games in the country through 2021. 77,000 fans attended November’s New England Patriots-Oakland Raiders game in Mexico City this season.

 

For the Chiefs, it’ll be the franchise’s first regular-season game in Mexico. The team played a preseason contest in Monterrey, Mexico, in 1996. The Rams have never played in Mexico, which has played host to 10 NFL games prior to this year’s contest. The game also will feature Rams cornerback Marcus Peters’ first game against the Chiefs since being traded to L.A. by Kansas City earlier this offseason.

 

AFC WEST

 

DENVER

The DB understands animal lovers to a point, but the recent obsession with protecting sharks is a surprise.  But DE VON MILLER is now trapped in the sights of the shark lovers.  The AP:

 

Von Miller says he didn’t do anything wrong when on a recent shark fishing excursion in Florida that has drawn the interest of conservation officials.

 

The Denver Broncos star said he’s an avid hunter and fisherman who always follows the rules.

 

“I was shocked” to catch a hammerhead shark in the first place, Miller said Tuesday in his first public comments about the excursion. Miller later released his catch back into the water.

 

“I went fishing. Everybody knows that I hunt and fish. It’s what I do. But I also believe in conservation. I’m not just out there going crazy,” Miller said on the second day of the Broncos’ offseason program. “We followed the rules. I did everything I was supposed to do.”

 

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission received complaints after Miller posted the catch on social media. The commission is investigating whether any violations occurred, though Miller said he hasn’t been contacted.

 

“No, I haven’t talked to anybody about it. It’s a serious deal. I don’t want to be light-hearted about it,” Miller said. “That’s just me. But we did everything we were supposed to do when it comes to that situation.

 

AFC NORTH

 

CLEVELAND

There is a report, perhaps Fake News, that the agents of RB SEQUON BARKLEY want him to denounce the Browns – but that he is resisting.  Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer tries to get to the bottom of it.

 

Saquon Barkley’s agent disputes a report that Barkley’s agency Roc Nation has told him to pull an Eli Manning and demand the Browns not draft him.

 

“As Saquon’s I can say on behalf of our entire team that we would be thrilled for Saquon to go to whichever team drafts him,” his agent, Kim Miale told cleveland.com in a text response. “We know he will be a resounding success for any team fortunate enough to select him.”

 

Asked if the report were true that Roc Nation advised the Penn State product to pull a Manning, Miale said “no.”

 

SI, in response to Miale’s statement, continues to stand by its reporting and story in the current issue.

 

In the SI profile on Barkley, Ben Baskin wrote of the running back:

 

“His Roc Nation handlers, however, don’t want him to be taken No. 1. They don’t want him in Cleveland. They want him to go second to the Giants and play in the media capital of the world. That’s where you can become the Face of the League. His manager even implored him to pull an Eli Manning and demand that the Browns not draft him.

 

“Barkley never considered the option. Sure, he likes the idea of being back in the city of his birth–even playing for the Jets, the team he grew up rooting for. And of course he’s heard countless people tell him that if he ends up in Cleveland, his career will be ruined.”

 

Baskin goes on to say that “he’s happy to take that risk, though. For the last few weeks he has told close friends about a vision he has. He believes that if he brings a championship to the Land, as LeBron did, he’ll be hailed as the best athlete of his generation and have a statue built in his honor.”

 

Roc Nation, the agency owned by Jay-Z, also represents Browns coach Hue Jackson.

 

Miale, who also represents top 10 running backs Todd Gurley and Leonard Fournette, not only handles all of Barkley’s on-field matters and contract but also co-represents him on marketing and endorsement deals along with Michael Yormark, Roc Nation president and chief of branding and strategy.

 

“He is a transformational player who can go in, contribute on day one, whereas with a quarterback there may be some time where they have to develop,” Miale told The Sports Business Journal in January. “I do think he has a real chance at No. 1.”

 

At one point in the pre-draft process, the Browns strongly considered taking Barkley No. 1 overall, but the strategy seemed to shift back to QB at No. 1 when the Jets traded up from No. 6 to No. 3, presumably to take a quarterback.

 

The thinking was that the Browns couldn’t afford to wait until No. 4 to get their first-choice QB with quarterbacks likely to to go No. 2 to the Giants and No. 3 to the Jets.

 

However, the Browns, who have the No. 1 and No. 4 overall picks, haven’t ruled out taking Barkley with either of those picks, or somewhere in between if they trade up or down.

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW ENGLAND

QB TOM BRADY is signaling that he is not as willing to be the best bargain in sports.  Chris Wesseling of NFL.com:

 

While the offseason has brought unprecedented speculation about Tom Brady’s future in New England, owner Robert Kraft recently noted that “neither side” has an issue with the future Hall of Famer’s contract.

 

“If it becomes an issue,” Kraft added, “we’ll deal with it.”

 

The Patriots might find themselves dealing with the matter sooner than Kraft imagined.

 

Amid national and local stories calling into question Brady’s commitment to returning for 2018, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport and NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo reported Wednesday that the franchise quarterback is seeking a new contract before the upcoming season.

 

“It’s not a pressing issue,” Garafolo emphasized on Wednesday’s edition of NFL Up to the Minute. “It’s not anything that is contentious right now. But Brady would absolutely be interested in revisiting this contract.”

 

The Patriots have a history of extending Brady’s deal with two years remaining on the standing contract. In which case, it’s not unreasonable for Brady to expect a renegotiation with an annual average of $14 million due in the final two years of his current agreement.

 

That said, neither Rapoport nor Garafolo believes Wednesday’s reports represent a ploy by Brady to expedite those talks. In fact, Brady’s public statements on the matter have left no doubt that he intends to return for a 19th NFL season.

 

“Tom Brady is going to play in 2018,” Rapoport explained. “He said it. Everyone close to him has said it. Everyone I’ve spoken to has said it. The Patriots are going forward with the very strict and stern belief that he will be playing for 2018. I don’t get the sense that they considered any of these reports this morning about ‘maybe he doesn’t play.’

 

“I also know Brady is planning a little passing camp with some of his buddies before training camp. That does not sound like the kind of the thing you would do if you were not going to play in 2018.”

 

Are the Patriots stalking UCLA QB JOSH ROSEN to be Brady’s successor?  Doug Kyed of NESN.com:

 

Head coach Bill Belichick acknowledged Friday that the New England Patriots must know the 2018 NFL Draft from top to bottom.

 

After acquiring an additional first-round pick from the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for wide receiver Brandin Cooks, the Patriots have the ability to move way up in the first round of the draft if the right player starts to fall.

 

One of those players who could fall is UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen. The Patriots have expressed interest in Rosen, a source told NESN.com. The MMQB’s Peter King wrote Monday he can’t find a spot for Rosen in the top six picks of the draft. The MMQB’s Albert Breer had him going No. 9 overall to the Buffalo Bills in his latest mock draft, while another mock draft on The MMQB has Rosen falling to No. 11 overall.

 

If Rosen is available at No. 9 overall, could they swing a deal with the San Francisco 49ers to move up for Rosen? The draft trade value chart says it would take either the Patriots’ No. 23 overall pick and the 31st overall pick or Nos. 23, 43 and 95 to move up.

 

The 49ers may owe the Patriots a favor anyway after acquiring quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for just a second-round pick. Either scenario seems worthwhile for a quarterback deemed by some as the most talented passer in the draft.

 

As for New England’s level of interest in Rosen, that’s hard to say. The Patriots have shown interest in many quarterbacks this offseason, and Rosen is among them. Do they like him enough to move up? Do they like him more than other top passers? The team is historically tight lipped, but the intrigue is real.

 

And the Patriots might feel pressure to move up to take a quarterback given the latest report on Tom Brady’s future. Brady reportedly is expected to play in 2018, but he’s not yet committed to it. If he’s not committed to playing in 2018 but winds up doing so anyway, what does that say about 2019 and beyond? It would be wise to start planning for Brady’s exit whether he suits up this season or not.

– – –

Former agent Joel Corry, writing at CBSSports.com thinks TE ROB GRONKOWSKI is underpaid and that is the source of his discomfort:

 

Rob Gronkowski didn’t show up for the start of the Patriots’ voluntary offseason workout program on Monday, which means the five-time All-Pro tight end is jeopardizing the $250,000 workout bonus in his contract. Gronkowski must successfully complete 90 percent of the workouts to get the bonus. There were 33 workouts last year, which didn’t include the mandatory three-day minicamp in June; assuming the same number again, Gronkowski can’t earn the bonus if he misses more than three workouts.

 

Some are taking Gronkowski’s absence to mean he is undecided about continuing his football career. Gronkowski surprised many after Super Bowl LII with the revelation that he is contemplating retirement, which may have been partially driven by the concussion he suffered against the Jaguars in the AFC Championship game. Patriots owner Robert Kraft recently dismissed the notion of Gronkowski retiring. Others, like myself, have considered the retirement talk as just a negotiating ploy since it first started. The Athletic’s Jeff Howe reported that Gronkowski’s absence is contract related.

 

Gronk’s contract

Gronkowski signed a six-year, $54 million contract extension in 2012, which made him the NFL’s highest-paid tight end by average yearly salary. The extension contained $18.17 million of guarantees. Gronkowski, a 2010 second-round pick, was given the extension after just two NFL seasons, which isn’t permissible anymore. Drafted players operating under the rookie wage scale implemented by the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement must wait three seasons before being able to sign new deals. He had two years left on his rookie contract prior to signing the extension.

 

Gronkowski’s new deal was originally structured so the Patriots had until the last day of the 2015 league year (early March 2016) to pick up his 2016 through 2019 contract years. A $10 million payment (i.e.; option bonus) due at the end of that March was required to get these four years, containing $27 million in salary. The contract also contained a clause prohibiting the Patriots from designating Gronkowski as a franchise or transition player if the extra years weren’t picked up, which would have allowed him to hit the open market.

 

A contract modification favoring Gronkowski was made when training camp opened in 2015. From his $10 million option bonus, $4 million was given to him as a signing bonus payable almost immediately. The other $6 million remained as an option bonus with the same exercise and payment date as in the 2012 extension.

 

Gronk’s discontent

Gronkowski first publicly expressed displeasure with his situation on Twitter in March 2016 by characterizing New England picking up his option as a pay cut for the final four years of his deal. His view of his contract is quite common among players, where the focus is on the remaining compensation instead of looking at the deal in its entirety.

 

Drew Rosenhaus, Gronkowski’s agent, attempted to get the Patriots to address his client’s contract in 2016 when visiting training camp. Not surprisingly, Rosenhaus wasn’t successful considering Gronkowski had four years remaining on his contract, which runs through the 2019 season.

 

The Patriots finally addressed the disgruntled tight end’s deal last offseason. $5.5 million of incentives were added only to Gronkowski’s 2017 contract year, which contained a $5 million salary. He earned the entire amount when he was named first team All-Pro by The Associated Press.

 

Gronkowksi is scheduled to make $9 million for the upcoming season and $10 million in 2019. The $9 million consists of an $8 million base salary, $750,000 in game day active-roster bonuses ($46,875 per game) and the previously mentioned $250,000 workout bonus. The same salary components apply to 2019, except Gronkowski’s base salary is $9 million. Given’s Gronkowski’s stance about the option in 2016, he is likely viewing these two years as a pay cut since he made over $10 million in 2017.

 

Gronkowski has dropped to the fourth-highest paid tight end by average yearly salary since signing in 2012. Two tight-end contracts signed during free agency last month may have provided confirmation to Gronkowski that something more than another short-term fix with incentives should be done with his contract. He is in the exact same place with his existing contract — two years remaining — as he was in 2012 when he signed his current deal.

 

Jimmy Graham got similar money at 31 years old and after a major knee injury in 2015 as he did at 27, when the Saints made him the NFL’s first $10 million-per-year tight end a year earlier. He remains the NFL’s only $10 million-per-year tight end on his deal with the Packers, although he had a sizable statistical regression last season. With $13 million in the first contract year, Graham’s deal is worth up to $30.75 million because of $250,000 in annual incentives.

 

Trey Burton has become the NFL’s sixth-highest-paid tight end by average yearly salary with the four-year, $32 million contract the Bears gave him despite being a largely unproven commodity. He received only limited opportunities with the Eagles over the last four years playing behind Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz and 11-year veteran Brent Celek.

 

Burton has a player-friendly contract structure: $18 million is fully guaranteed at signing, which is essentially the same as the guarantees in Gronkowski’s contract. His deal is worth up to $34.8 million because of $2.8 million in annual incentives primarily based on individual statistical achievement. A majority of the incentives will be earned if Burton performs like a Pro-Bowl caliber tight end. Although Burton is actually making $7.8 million in 2018 because half of his $7 million signing bonus isn’t payable until next March, Gronkowski won’t look at it that way. He’ll view Burton’s 2018 compensation as $11.3 million because he won’t make or acknowledge the distinction with the timing of the signing-bonus payment.

 

Only one tight end is scheduled to make more than the $19 million Gronkowski is set to receive over the next two years, and that’s Graham, who has $22 million in the first two years of his contract.

 

Gronk’s value

Gronkowski is clearly the best tight end in football. In the last three seasons when Gronkowski was healthy (2014, 2015 and 2017), he was named first team All-Pro. Gronkowski was limited to eight games in 2016 because he was slowed by a hamstring problem early in the season and ended the season on injured reserve with a back injury requiring his third back surgery. A torn right ACL and a slower-than-expected recovery from a broken forearm derailed Gronkowski’s 2013 season.

 

Gronkowski leads tight ends with 3,924 receiving yards, 34 touchdown receptions and 15.8 yards per catch (minimum of 100 catches) since the start of the 2014 season despite missing 12 games. The 34 touchdowns are tied for third in the NFL with DeAndre Hopkins. His 3,924 yards are 15th in the NFL during this span.

 

Unlike most great pass-catching tight ends, Gronkowski is also an excellent blocker. He is New England’s most important offensive player outside of quarterback Tom Brady, the reigning league MVP. Since Gronkowski is the ultimate mismatch in the passing game, he can make a legitimate case that he has transcended his position and should be compared to game’s best pass catchers instead of just tight ends.

 

Gronkowski’s compensation pales in comparison. Antonio Brown, who is also represented by Rosenhaus, sets the wide-receiver market with the $17 million-per-year extension he signed with the Steelers in 2017. Hopkins helped advance the ball for wide receivers by setting new standards for pass catchers last preseason with $49 million in overall guarantees and $36.5 million fully guaranteed at signing, which have since been eclipsed by Mike Evans. The Buccaneers last month gave the 2014 first-round pick a five-year extension averaging $16.5 million per year with $55.008 million in guarantees, where $38.258 million is fully guaranteed.

 

Wide-receiver salaries have exploded while the tight-end market has remained fairly stagnant. The Chiefs surprisingly gave Sammy Watkins a three-year, $48 million contract with $30 million fully guaranteed in free agency last month. The 2014 fourth-overall pick is being paid like an elite receiver without matching production. Watkins caught a rather pedestrian 39 passes for 593 yards and eight touchdowns with the Rams last season after being traded from the Bills during training camp. Prior to the trade, the Bills passed on a fifth-year option in 2018 for Watkins at $13.258 million due to persistent problems with his broken left foot. The Bears signed Allen Robinson to a three-year, $42 million contract with $25.2 million in guarantees although he is still recovering from the left ACL he tore in the Jaguars’ 2017 season opener.

 

The top of the second tier of wide-receiver deals is now in the $13 million-per-year range, with between $25 million and $30 million of guarantees. For example, the Eagles gave Alshon Jeffery a four-year, $52 million extension with slightly more than $27.25 million in guarantees late last season.

 

Paying Gronk while protecting the Patriots

Any Gronkowski deal needs to give New England some protection against additional injuries and an early retirement while also adequately compensating him. This could be accomplished by utilizing the same basic structure in Gronkowski’s existing contract, where more substantial per-game roster bonuses are in the new years.

 

Paying Gronkowski in the second tier of wide-receiver deals doesn’t seem unreasonable, especially when adjusting his existing contract into a 2018 salary-cap environment. The salary cap was $120.6 million when Gronkowski signed his extension in 2012. The equivalent contract under the current $177.2 million salary cap averages approximately $13.25 million per year with slightly under $27 million in guarantees.

 

The following contract is an illustration of what the Patriots could do using these principles.

 

Signing bonus: $8 million ($5 million within two weeks of execution; $3 million payable on 10/31/19)

 

Guaranteed money: $25 million

 

Fully guaranteed at signing: $25 million

 

Option bonus (exercise window as first through third days of 2020 league year): $12 million ($6 million within two weeks of exercising option; $4 million payable on 10/31/21 and $2 million payable on 10/31/22)

 

New money total: $38 million ($57 million over five years)

 

Contract length: 3-year extension

 

Average per year: $12,666,667

 

Making sense of the suggested contract

Gronkowski’s 2018 and 2019 contract years stay the same except the base salaries become fully guaranteed and this year’s workout bonus, which isn’t going to be earned, is turned into a bonus for reporting to training camp on time. The cap numbers in these years each increase by $1.6 million because of the $8 million signing bonus. With a little under $14 million in cap space remaining this year, the Patriots shouldn’t have a problem handling a modest increase in Gronkowski’s cap number. Gronkowski’s $14 million in 2018 would be $1 million more than Graham’s first-year compensation in his Green Bay contract.

 

The $12 million option-bonus payment to pick up the three new years gives New England flexibility in case Gronkowski decides to retire when his current contract is set to expire or his skills start to diminish because of injuries. The Patriots would have a $4.8 million cap charge in 2020 if they didn’t pick up the option years or Gronkowski didn’t want to play anymore.

 

The option bonus gets prorated just like a signing bonus. The Patriots would be smart to insist on a mechanism where they could elect to make the option bonus a signing bonus, instead, to give them more rights to recover money should Gronkowski retire after the option is exercised. This is something the Panthers did with Luke Kuechly and Cam Newton’s contracts, which have the same signing bonus/option bonus structure as Gronkowski’s. The CBA gives teams the right to recover the remaining prorated amounts of signing bonuses when a player retires. Recovery of an option bonus can occur only during the year in which it is earned. That would be 2020 in Gronkowski’s case. With the $12 million staying as an option bonus, the Patriots wouldn’t be able to get anything from it if he retired in 2021 or 2022.

 

The Lions were entitled to collect $3.2 million of the $16 million signing bonus Calvin Johnson received in his 2012 extension when he retired after the 2015 season. The exact amount the Lions got from Johnson isn’t known but he has acknowledged that having to write them a check has impacted his relationship with the organization. Some teams don’t assert their rights when players retire. The Seahawks didn’t ask for any money back from Marshawn Lynch during his one-year hiatus from the NFL. The deferral of the $12 million bonus makes recovery easier because the remaining payment(s) to Gronkowski could be withheld to help cover the amount owed.

 

Assuming the option bonus was reclassified as signing bonus and Gronkowski retired after the 2020 season, the Patriots would be entitled to $11.2 million from the $8 million signing bonus and other $12 million, since that’s the prorated amounts in the final two years. The final two installments for the $12 million could be withheld so Gronkowski would be paying back the other $5.2 million if New England sought recovery. Technically, New England would need to wait until 2022 under CBA rules before attempting to collect the $5.6 million of bonus proration associated with that year.

 

There are salary-cap considerations which give New England incentive to pursue the money. The Patriots would get a cap credit equal to the money actually repaid or legitimately withheld.

 

The bigger game-day active roster bonuses in the three new years would give the Patriots more financial and cap relief if Gronkowski sustained another serious injury. The $125,000 per-game amount is only payable provided Gronkowski is on the 46-man active roster for that particular game. $2 million may seem excessive but it isn’t something Rosenhaus hasn’t agreed to before. NaVorrro Bowman’s 2016 extension with the 49ers had $2 million of annual per-game active roster bonuses in his new years. Previously, Rosenhaus was comfortable with $2 million in annual per-game roster bonuses in most of the years of Frank Gore’s veteran contracts with the 49ers.

 

This basic concept could be applicable to a different team if the Patriots trade Gronkowski this year instead of addressing his contract. An alternative way to accomplish the same thing would be for 2020 through 2022 to remain as option years without the $12 million payment required for these years, where the exercise date would be the last day of the 2019 league year (mid-March 20). Instead, there would be a $12 million first-day-of-the-league-year roster bonus guaranteed for skill and salary cap that the team would have the right to convert into signing bonus added in 2020.

 

This on Gronk’s personal life from Jaclyn Hendricks of the New York Post:

 

As Rob Gronkowski keeps the Patriots at bay, he’ll still continue to play.

 

On Tuesday, the tight end reunited with former flame and Sports Illustrated swimsuit stunner Camille Kostek, as they splashed around an indoor pool.

 

 “Fun fact: My grammy has a pool in her house,” Kostek posted on her Instagram story, later captioning a video of Gronkowski, 28, as “my human water ski.”

 

Following their dip in the water, the blond twosome cuddled with Rob’s brother Glenn Gronkowski’s pup before taking a ride in a car.

 

Kostek, a former Patriots cheerleader, was first linked to Gronkowski in 2015. Though breakup rumors surfaced early last year, the model learned to tune out the noise.

 

“I’ve quickly learned that everyone has their own two cents, and I just kind of let that stuff roll and let the people talk,” Kostek told The Post in May. “At the end of the day, the people that matter know what’s the truth.”

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

BEST GMs

Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com ranks the NFL’s best GMs – countdown style. Full thing here, edited version below:

 

NOTE: I did not rank first-time decision makers hired since January of 2017, because they have not been on the job long enough to allow for a fair evaluation. I did, however, include those who came to the job with an established track record from previous tenures, including Dave Gettleman, John Dorsey and Marty Hurney. Before we get to them, let’s dispatch with the unranked, presented in alphabetical order.

 

THE RELATIVE NEWBIES

 

» Chris Ballard, Colts

It felt like Ballard started from scratch after the Ryan Grigson era, especially on defense. After undertaking an incredible amount of personnel changes over the last 15 months and putting a new coaching staff in place this year, Ballard is still playing the long game with a number of sensible signings. Like Grigson, he’ll look a lot smarter if Andrew Luck is on the field.

 

» Brandon Beane, Bills

Since taking over last May, Beane has systematically rid the Bills of former general manager Doug Whaley’s handiwork.

 

» Brian Gaine, Texans

It’s tempting to list coach Bill O’Brien as the prime decision maker in Houston. Following former GM Rick Smith taking a leave of absence from that position in January, the Texans hired Gaine while stressing that his “aligned” relationship and “communication” with O’Brien was paramount to the hire.

 

» Brian Gutekunst, Packers

Packers fans were irrationally excited about the January job change of longtime general manager Ted Thompson, despite his overall draft-day acumen and obvious influence around the NFL. Gutekunst quickly showed he’d take bigger risks in free agency, although making Jimmy Graham the NFL’s highest-paid tight end might not be the type of risk worth taking.

 

» John Lynch, 49ers

The seed Lynch planted by calling Bill Belichick with interest in Jimmy Garoppolo last summer wound up bearing fruit when the Patriots chose to call back in October and send the QB to San Francisco. That one transaction and Lynch’s excellent head coach (Kyle Shanahan) could result in stability for the 49ers deep into the 2020s. Lynch hasn’t been shy about paying top-of-market deals to surprising players, and it’s too early to evaluate whether his first draft will pan out, although the legal troubles of linebacker Reuben Foster (picked 31st overall in 2017) are already a huge concern.

 

» Brett Veach, Chiefs

Promoted last July…the early signs for Veach are strong: He made tough decisions by releasing costly veterans like Tamba Hali and orchestrated an excellent trade haul while sending Alex Smith to Washington.

 

THE RANKINGS

 

26 – Ryan Pace, Bears

This offseason has been full of promise for Pace, but it’s too early to grade the acquisitions intended to make the Matt Nagy era fly. Pace inherited a difficult situation in 2015, but there’s no avoiding that his first big hire (coach John Fox, fired in January), free-agent signing ( Pernell McPhee, released in February) and draft pick ( Kevin White, who has played in five games since being picked seventh overall in 2015) are reflected in the team’s 14-34 record since Pace arrived.

 

25 – Bruce Allen, Redskins

The power structure in Washington has Allen at the top as president, with senior VP of player personnel Doug Williams and coach Jay Gruden also in the mix. The team’s handling of Kirk Cousins’ contract situation — not to mention Allen’s pronunciation of his quarterback’s name — raised a lot of eyebrows.

 

24 – Marty Hurney, Panthers

It’s hard to shake the memories from the end of the original Hurney era in Carolina, which included some bloated contracts (hello, Jake Delhomme) and trades of future draft picks. But Hurney also had plenty of draft hits, like Luke Kuechly, and surprising extensions for Thomas Davis and Charles Johnson that wound up panning out.

 

23 – Mike Tannenbaum, Dolphins

Three years removed from taking over as executive vice president of the Dolphins, Tannenbaum has brought some needed stability to the front office…Time could be running out, however, for Tannenbaum to find his Carson Wentz.

 

22 – Mike Maccagnan, Jets

Like a first-round quarterback drafted to the wrong organization, many first-time GMs are the victims of circumstance. Maccagnan had a lot to clean up after the Rex Ryan era, but the roster hasn’t shown much progress three years later…Maccagnan’s drafts haven’t been poor, but they need to be sensational to dig the Jets out of their hole. That’s the burden many decision makers face before they have their quarterback in place.

 

21 – Bob Quinn, Lions

Quinn suffers in these rankings because he hasn’t had time to fulfill his vision since taking over in 2016. He’s overhauled the offensive line with draft picks ( Taylor Decker, Graham Glasgow) and free agents ( T.J. Lang, Ricky Wagner). Quinn hired Matt Patricia as head coach in February — perhaps two years later than Quinn, who inherited coach Jim Caldwell when he first arrived, would have liked. The decision to retain offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and franchise player Ezekiel Ansah reflects a methodical approach from Quinn, who hasn’t made change for the sake of change.

 

20 – Jason Licht, Buccaneers

Only five players on the Bucs’ roster predate Licht’s arrival in 2014. This is fully his team, one that has often looked decidedly better on paper than it has on the field…After watching the team go 22-42 on his watch, Licht needs to translate firepower into victories, fast.

 

19 – Jon Robinson, Titans

Robinson’s two drafts have been stealthily excellent, like his haircut…After an arranged two-year marriage with former coach Mike Mularkey, Robinson hired a coach on his wavelength (and another former Patriots alum): Mike Vrabel. A long, fruitful partnership together should emerge if Robinson continues at this pace.

 

18 – Duke Tobin, Bengals

The structure of the Bengals’ front office has been murky ever since owner Mike Brown allowed that he’d ceded some control to coach Marvin Lewis and Tobin, the director of personnel. Since Tobin is the one who addresses the media at the NFL Scouting Combine, I’ll give him credit for constructing a roster with the most home-grown snaps in football by far in 2017.

 

17 – John Dorsey, Browns

Consider it a red flag that Dorsey was fired in Kansas City after the team made the playoffs three times in four seasons. The track record is impressive otherwise.

 

16 – Tom Telesco, Chargers

The Chargers’ general manager since 2013, Telesco has hit at least one personnel home run nearly every year, from draft picks Keenan Allen, Joey Bosa, Jason Verrett and Hunter Henry to free-agent pickups like Casey Hayward and Geno Smith

 

15 – Reggie McKenzie, Raiders

McKenzie had a tough act to follow in Oakland in 2012, asked to clean up some of Al Davis’ indulgences after the passing of the legendary Raiders owner. It took a few years to escape salary-cap jail before the 2014 drafting of Khalil Mack, Derek Carr and Gabe Jackson turned the franchise around. McKenzie has spent brilliantly on a stacked offensive line, but it’s worth noting the Raiders’ 12-win campaign in 2016 is his only winning season. His job is now to keep new coach Jon Gruden happy and thinking long-term, which will be easier said than done.

 

14 – Dave Caldwell, Jaguars

Is a five-year rebuilding plan worth it if the first four years result in 15 wins combined? The answer for Caldwell will come in the next few seasons. Can the Jaguars prove their breakout 2017 campaign (which ended in an AFC title game appearance) wasn’t a fluke? Five straight seasons drafting in the top five eventually resulted in landing Jalen Ramsey and Leonard Fournette, while Caldwell used free agency brilliantly to fill out the best defense in football. Credit goes to owner Shad Khan and executive VP Tom Coughlin (brought in last year) for not blowing up the front office. The team’s undying faith in quarterback Blake Bortles, however, could still hamstring all the fine work Caldwell has done.

 

13 – Dave Gettleman, Giants

Gettleman joined Dorsey in the random wave of successful general managers getting fired last summer, seemingly for personality issues rather than job performance. Gettleman’s “brusque management style” (as the Charlotte Observer termed it) might play better in front of a podium than in a board room, but his emphasis on line play helped routinely get the Panthers into the playoffs.

 

12 – Jerry Jones, Cowboys

There is no front office quite like the Cowboys’ front office, a family affair in which owner Jerry Jones’ son, Stephen, might now have the most influence. After decades of Dallas holding on to players too long and overpaying its own stars, it’s worth noting how well the ‘Boys have drafted this decade, with Dez Bryant, Sean Lee, Tyron Smith, DeMarco Murray, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, DeMarcus Lawrence, Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott all providing incredible value. It makes me wonder if Jones’ struggles with self-scouting have extended to a coaching staff that has too often underperformed.

 

11 – Mickey Loomis, Saints

Loomis also runs the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans, so it’s likely that coach Sean Payton and assistant general manager Jeff Ireland wield plenty of personnel influence here, too.

 

10 – Steve Keim, Cardinals

The ability to reboot a roster with a new head coach separates good general managers from the greats. Keim and Bruce Arians experienced immediate success after taking over in Arizona in 2013, winning 34 games and making two playoff appearances in their first three seasons. Now that Arians is out and Steve Wilks is in, Keim gets his chance for a second act.

 

9 – Les Snead, Rams

If not for Howie Roseman, Snead would have deserved the Executive of the Year award last season. While that doesn’t quite erase memories of Snead’s slog of a five-year run with Jeff Fisher, it puts those struggles into context.

 

8 – Rick Spielman, Vikings

Spielman is a survivor. He survived a rocky ending with the Dolphins, then hung in as de facto GM in Minnesota for six years before getting the official title in 2012, with the Vikings making five playoff appearances along the way. The roster is overstuffed with home-grown talent and strategic free-agent scores like Linval Joseph and Riley Reiff. Spielman’s first true coaching hire, Mike Zimmer, has provided the team with a clear direction over the past four seasons. Spielman created the salary-cap flexibility to sign Kirk Cousins after making the franchise attractive enough to lure the quarterback in.

 

7 – John Elway, Broncos

If this list had been constructed after the 2015 season, Elway would have been near the top spot. If he goes through another season with the same old problems in Denver, then he won’t be in the top 10 a year from now.

 

6 – John Schneider, Seahawks

The rebuilding job Schneider undertook with Pete Carroll at the start of this decade should be taught to aspiring executives. The combination of outstanding drafts, value risks like the Marshawn Lynch trade with Buffalo and the early extensions to keep the Seahawks’ core together led to incredible success. Now Schneider has to do it again, with virtually no difference makers from the last five draft classes and spotty big swings at players like Sheldon Richardson, Jimmy Graham and Percy Harvin. If Carroll and Schneider are truly built for a college-style shelf life, as former “Legion of Boom” standard-bearer Richard Sherman surmised, Schneider desperately needs to find his next class of quality players.

 

5 – Thomas Dimitroff, Falcons

Dimitroff gets extra credit because he’s made the Falcons into a consistent threat with two different coaches (Mike Smith and Dan Quinn), a rare feat. The Falcons’ roster is built primarily around his draft picks, with some key veteran acquisitions, like center Alex Mack and wideout Mohamed Sanu.

 

4 – Ozzie Newsome, Ravens

General manager jobs are like late-night hosting gigs: Anyone who is still on the air should be considered a success. The Ozzie Newsome Show has been running in Baltimore since 1996, when he became a trailblazer as the first African-American general manager in league history.

 

3 – Howie Roseman, Eagles

There is no greater testament to a general manager’s skill than winning a Super Bowl with a backup quarterback.

 

2 – Kevin Colbert, Steelers

The Steelers’ loyalty to head coaches (they’ve only had three since 1969) is well-documented. The team’s continuity in the front office, where Colbert has run the personnel department since 2000, is even more crucial.

 

1 – Bill Belichick, Patriots

Nick Caserio has the title of director of player personnel, but it’s been Belichick guiding the franchise on and off the field since 2000. Belichick is far from a perfect evaluator, with a so-so draft record over the last few years and some curious trades, including the deals to move backup quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett. Still, Belichick is unmatched at uncovering value in surprising places.

 

 

BROADCAST NEWS

With Brett Favre reportedly botching his tryout, ESPN may be turning to the safe choice of Kurt Warner for the vacant Monday Night Football position. USA TODAY:

 

There’s at least one Super Bowl-winning quarterback left in the running for the Monday Night Football analyst gig.

 

Kurt Warner has had multiple conversations with ESPN, and the Hall of Fame inductee remains among the narrowing list of candidates to replace Jon Gruden, a person with knowledge of the discussions told USA TODAY Sports. The person, granted anonymity because sensitive nature of talks, also said Warner is getting “serious consideration” for the job.

 

ESPN had already sought out Peyton Manning and Brett Favre as potential replacements for Gruden, who had called Monday night games for the previous nine seasons and left ESPN to take over as head coach of the Oakland Raiders.

 

Manning passed on the job and Favre, who per a New York Post report had a less-than-spectacular audition, said on Twitter this week that he was unsure he wanted to pursue broadcasting.

 

Steve Young, who serves as an analyst on the MNF pregame show, said earlier this year that he’s not interested, citing the time commitment required.

 

Warner has been an analyst on NFL Network since 2010. He played 12 seasons in the NFL, leading the Rams to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last summer.

 

ESPN doesn’t appear to be in any rush to name a Gruden replacement or the one left open in the booth when it was announced play-by-play announcer Sean McDonough would go back to calling college games.

 

Another person familiar with the discussions told USA TODAY Sports that the list of candidates remains “long” and that it’s “too early to conclude” who the finalists are at this point.

 

Former New York Jets and Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan and former NFL quarterback Matt Hasselbeck are among the others ESPN has considered.

– – –

FOX’s Thursday Night pregame show will look a lot like Sunday.  Cindy Boren in the Washington Post:

 

Fox’s new “Thursday Night Football” broadcasts are going to have a distinctly Sunday morning vibe, at least as far as the pregame show goes.

 

The network will air a mini-version of its “NFL Sunday” offering, with Michael Strahan anchoring along with Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long in New York City. The three will continue to do the Sunday show, too, and it will remain based in Los Angeles. Jimmy Johnson and Curt Menafee, the Sunday morning host, will not be part of the Thursday show, Fox said in announcing its plans. Basing the show in New York will allow Strahan, evidently the hardest working man in show business, to anchor and continue with his “Good Morning America” co-hosting duties.

 

It is unclear who will take over after kickoff, although SI.com reported that Fox was working on using Joe Buck, Troy Aikman and Erin Andrews on the prime-time games as well as in most of their usual Sunday spots.

 

The show will air at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time on Fox and the NFL Network when Fox’s package begins Week 4. The telecasts are part of Fox’s $3.3 billion, five-year deal to carry games (excluding Thanksgiving) between Weeks 4-15. They’ll be simulcast on NFL Network and distributed in Spanish on Fox Deportes.

 

 

 

 

2018 DRAFT

Brady Henderson of ESPN.com with a long look at DT VITA VEA, projected by most to go in the middle of the first round:

 

Vita Vea’s position coach at Washington, Ikaika Malloe, had seen the massive defensive tackle pull off all sorts of improbable athletic feats for over two seasons. So he was used to it when he saw Vea, covering a punt in his final college game, sprint some 40 yards to take down the returner with an open-field tackle.

 

At 6-foot-4 and 347 pounds, mind you.

 

“By that time, there’s not really anything he can do to shock me anymore,” Malloe told ESPN.com last month. “You kind of just shrug your shoulders and say, ‘Yep, I’m not surprised by it.’ He does things that normally people of his size should not be doing. But he does it with such ease that you take it for granted. You kind of get used to him doing those types of things. He’s got footwork like a linebacker or even a DB. He can backpedal with the best of them and change direction and flip his hips. In the beginning, maybe a year ago … that’s kind of when I was in awe of things, just of what he can do and that type of stuff.”

 

Vea, a projected first-round pick in this year’s NFL draft, showed during his three seasons at UW that he’s much more than just an athletic marvel. He started 27 games and in 2017 was voted the Pac-12’s defensive player of the year and the conference’s top defensive lineman. His 9.5 career sacks are proof he possesses the pass-rush ability that can separate good defensive tackles from great ones.

 

“When you’re 6-4, almost 350 pounds and you have incredible strength and you’ve got unbelievable quickness for your size, that is a rare combination,” ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “That’s why he’s drawing comparisons to Haloti Ngata. That’s why I’m projecting him to go in the top part of the first round.”

 

Kiper and ESPN’s Todd McShay each had Vea going No. 13 overall to the Washington Redskins in their dueling two-round mock.

 

So just how freaky and dominant of an athlete is Vea? From outrunning a sprinter to jumping as high as cornerbacks and more, here are some tales told by those who have coached him and those who have played with him.

 

Chasing down a sprinter

Vea’s first sport was tennis, which he played in after-school programs while growing up in Santa Clara, California. He was too big to play Pop Warner because of the league’s size restrictions, so his first real taste of football came at Milpitas High School, where he spent four years on varsity. He played all over the field for the Trojans, including running back — he scored 11 touchdowns as a senior — and even some Wildcat quarterback as a 6-4, 240-pound freshman.

 

Kelly King, who coached Vea at Milpitas, on a play from his junior season: “We were down ready to score on the goal line against another team and the sprint champion from the other team [Delshawn Mitchell of Wilcox High School], we had fumbled the ball and he picked it up and was running down the sideline. Vita ran him down and caught him. The look in the guy’s eye’s that that guy had caught him was priceless. Unfortunately, we fumbled, but … [Vea] probably tracked him down about 50 yards and caught him. … He was the sprint champion of the league, so he was supposedly one of the fastest guys in the league, and he got caught from behind.”

 

BYU running back Squally Canada, a teammate of Vea’s at Milpitas who was on the field during that play: “Vita had 150 pounds on him and not only that, Delshawn had like a 30-yard head start and Vita came across the field. That was probably the craziest thing I’ve ever seen Vita do in my life. … It was a toss right, I dropped the pitch, got tackled … Delshawn happened to pick it up and Vita was on the other side of the field, and I just remember looking down from the ground and I’m seeing Delshawn and the crowd cheering and what not. I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s over. It’s a touchdown.’ Next thing you know, here comes Vita. He grabs him and just pushes him out of bounds. And it was one of those things like, we all looked at each other like, ‘Did Vita just catch Delshawn Mitchell?’ We looked and we started wondering, ‘How fast is Vita?’ That was the question … At 6-4, 285, he just caught a known track star. It was crazy, man. It was one of those things you had to see and be there for.”

 

Vea ran the 40-yard dash in 5.1 seconds at the 2018 NFL scouting combine and suffered a strained hamstring in the process. His time ranked 11th among players listed as defensive tackles. The 10 times ahead of him, which ranged from 4.87 to 5.09, all came from players listed between 285 and 315 pounds. In other words, a bunch of significantly smaller defensive tackles ran slightly faster times.

 

More on Vea here.

 

– – –

 

These may not be the first player off the board at every position, but these are the guys that Mel Kiper, Jr. of ESPN.com really likes:

 

As we approach the 2018 NFL draft, I keep getting this type of question: “Mel, who do you like?” It’s so tough to answer because I have to think about team needs, how each prospect fits into those needs and realistic draft positions.

 

Well, below is my version of an answer to that question, in which I annually give out my list of favorite prospects at every position. A reminder of how this works:

 

This is neither a list of the best players in the draft overall, nor guys I consider the best at each position. They’re all good, and they’re all going to be drafted, but they fit into a few separate categories. These are prospects whom I’ve:

 

Often rated higher than other evaluators within the draft media or team evaluators I discuss prospects with, or …

 

Ranked higher in close debates within position groups, namely at quarterback, or …

 

Just liked the way they play the game

 

In the end, these guys will probably just be considered “guys Kiper really likes.” Here’s the class of 2018, with projections on the round in which each will be drafted:

 

Quarterback

 

Josh Allen, Wyoming

Allen has been my guy all along. I’m not backing down now. He has checked all the boxes to be the No. 1 overall pick, and he’s a perfect fit as the Browns’ developmental franchise quarterback. Remember: He doesn’t have to start in 2018. Tyrod Taylor can be the short-term answer. Allen has all the talent in the world to be a superstar quarterback down the road.

 

Projection: Top five.

 

Running back

 

Nick Chubb, Georgia

Chubb had a great college career, but teammate Sony Michel was better last season, and it looked like Chubb had lost some explosiveness after a severe knee injury in the middle of the 2015 season. Then Chubb went and lit up the combine, running a 4.52-second 40-yard dash with a 38.5-inch vertical and 10-foot, 9-inch broad jump, and he really impressed scouts. This is a big, 227-pound back who’s going to break tackles and find running lanes. There are questions about his hands, but I think he can be a three-down player. He’ll be a value pick on Day 2.

 

Projection: Second round.

 

Fullback

 

Jaylen Samuels, NC State

I’m cheating a little bit here, because Samuels is only 225 pounds and will be an H-back at the next level. He worked out with the tight ends at the combine, but he’s only 5-foot-11. He’ll have to wear a lot of hats in the NFL, but a creative offensive coordinator will get him on the field. Samuels had 201 career catches for 1,851 yards and 19 touchdowns for the Wolfpack, and he had 12 rushing touchdowns in 2017.

 

Projection: Third or fourth round.

 

Wide receiver

 

Anthony Miller, Memphis

This is the most underrated wide receiver in this class. I just love the kid. Miller had 96 grabs and 18 touchdowns in 2017, and he finished his college career with 37 receiving TDs. At 5-11, he isn’t the biggest wideout, but he can play outside. And he’s tough. If not for a broken foot that kept him out of the Senior Bowl and combine workouts, we might be talking about him as the best receiver in this draft.

 

Projection: Second round.

 

Tight end

 

Hayden Hurst, South Carolina

It’s neck and neck between Hurst and South Dakota State’s Dallas Goedert for my top-ranked tight end in this class. But if we’re talking about my favorite tight end, it has to be Hurst, a complete player who relishes blocking. He really impressed me with his maturity when we had him on the Dari & Mel show. Hurst, a former minor league baseball player, turns 25 in August, so you know what you’re getting physically.

 

Projection: Late first round or early second round.

 

Offensive tackle

 

Geron Christian, Louisville

If we’re talking about the highest upside of any of the offensive tackles in this draft, the guy might be Christian. He could be a star left tackle; he’s that talented. And he started 39 college games on the left side, so he has experience. Fun fact about Christian: His brother, Gerald, was Mr. Irrelevant in the 2015 draft. The 6-3 tight end was picked by the Cardinals at No. 256 overall.

 

Projection: Late first round or early second round.

 

Guard

 

Will Hernandez, UTEP

Hernandez is one of the best run-blocking guards I’ve ever graded. And I’ve been grading college prospects for a long time. He just destroys guys. Run behind him on third-and 1 or fourth-and-1, and you’re going to convert the first down. He’s a 6-2, 327-pound mauler who should be a plug-and-play starter as a rookie.

 

Projection: Late first round or early second round.

 

Center

 

James Daniels, Iowa

If it’s an offensive lineman out of Iowa, you know he’s going to be technically sound. Coach Kirk Ferentz does a great job in Iowa City. Daniels is the top-ranked center in this class and an athletic, physical and, of course, technically sound interior player. Daniels is also one of the youngest top prospects in this class, as he doesn’t turn 21 until September. I remember scouting his dad, LeShun, who played on some dominant lines at Ohio State in the mid ’90s.

 

Projection: Late first round or early second round.

 

Defensive end

 

Breeland Speaks, Ole Miss

I could have gone with the no-doubt top pass-rusher in this class in NC State’s Bradley Chubb. Where’s the fun there? Speaks is unheralded. You might remember him from this fumble recovery that went viral. But Speaks doesn’t play football with a smile. He’s a physical, disruptive, downright mean defender. And at 6-3, 283, he could play any position along the defensive line.

 

Projection: Third or fourth round.

 

Defensive tackle

 

RJ McIntosh, Miami

McIntosh is quick and athletic, and he plays hard. Effort is not an issue. He’s an underrated 3-technique penetrator who had 21 tackles for loss over the past two seasons. I wouldn’t be surprised if McIntosh was taken in the fourth or fifth round and became a longtime NFL starter.

 

Projection: Day 3.

 

Inside linebacker

 

Oren Burks, Vanderbilt

Versatility is what sticks out with Burks. He played safety and both linebacker spots for the Commodores. He has good instincts and the athleticism to cover tight ends and backs leaking out of the backfield. Inside linebacker is Burks’ best NFL position, and he was up to 233 pounds at the combine. He’s going to be a reliable pro player.

 

Projection: Third or fourth round.

 

Outside linebacker

 

Uchenna Nwosu, USC

Nwosu might be the best pure pass-rusher available when Round 2 begins on Friday night. He is just a thorn in the side of offensive tackles (and quarterbacks). Here he is blitzing up the middle in the Cotton Bowl and taking down Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett before Barrett can even get to his first read. Nwosu had two sacks that night and eight total in his final six games. He was unblockable down the stretch of the season.

 

Projection: Second or third round.

 

Cornerback

 

Jaire Alexander, Louisville

OK, hear me out: Alexander has Deion Sanders-type swagger. No, he’s not Deion Sanders, the best cover cornerback in the history of the NFL. But Alexander plays football with Sanders’ confidence. Alexander knows he’s going to lock down receivers, and he lets them know. Knee and hand injuries forced Alexander to miss several games last season, but the 2016 tape shows a lockdown corner with great ball skills — he had five interceptions. He’s also a fantastic punt returner, which means he’s great running with the ball after he snags interceptions. Alexander could be picked in the top 20.

 

Projection: First round.

 

Safety

 

Justin Reid, Stanford

When Reid tested so well at the combine — 4.40 40-yard dash, 4.15 20-yard shuttle and more — I went back to the Stanford tape. And Reid was all over the field. He was in the box, running to make run stops. He was playing as a deep safety, breaking up passes. He played some cornerback (nickel and outside). Reid is a versatile and smart defender who produced — he had five interceptions, 99 total tackles and six tackles for loss last season. He’s going to make an impact as a rookie.

 

Projection: Late first round or early second round.