The Daily Briefing Monday, April 2, 2018
AROUND THE NFL
Mike Sando of ESPN.com talks to NFL GMs off the record and finds out which teams they think hit home runs in free agency. It is a long piece here with all 32 teams. We have reports of interest in some of the clubs spots below.
According to Mike Sando, fellow NFL GMs like the way the Bears played the game with CB KYLE FULLER:
The moves Chicago made to add receiving options Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton understandably drew much attention. Those additions and the hiring of head coach Matt Nagy were all designed to support young quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.
“Any time you are in free agency, you are going to overpay, but in the Bears’ case, they have a coach who they are confident will be able to maximize those weapons,” an exec said.
While those offensive-minded moves could be pivotal for Chicago, it was the Bears’ handling of cornerback Kyle Fuller that generated the most interesting discussion.
One exec called the Bears’ use of the transition tag for Fuller a “textbook” example of how to use the system. When they matched the Packers’ offer to Fuller, the Bears emerged with a deal that will pay him $29 million over the next two years, almost identical to what two years of transition tags would have cost. They also guaranteed much less to Fuller than Malcolm Butler commanded. Most importantly, they actually got a deal done, which would have been much tougher to do if Chicago had used the more expensive franchise tag.
“It is tough because you are still wondering whether Fuller is that guy or not, but you are kind of saying he is that guy — you tagged him,” the exec said. “The Packers obviously thought he was that guy. Do you think having a $6.5 million cap number on a corner you just transitioned is a bad thing? It is a great thing, even if you halfway like the player and are saying he is a top-20 corner instead of a top-10 corner. They minimized the guarantee at $18 million, which might be the biggest key on a player who has been hurt and has not been consistent.”
The Cowboys are bringing in well-traveled (Carolina, New England, Jets) DE KONY EALY for a visit.
NEW YORK GIANTS
See BUFFALO for some draft talk involving the Giants.
In general, NFL GMs like the maneuvers that landed DE JASON PIERRE-PAUL, per Mike Sando of ESPN.com:
It’s unfortunate that the Buccaneers needed to acquire Jason Pierre-Paul, but fortunate they were able to do so. The desperation move for pass-rush help cost Tampa Bay a third-round pick and generally went over well under the circumstances.
“They could do worse than having JPP,” an evaluator said. “At least they took a stab at it. They got JPP, they got Vinny Curry, so they definitely improved their rush. Now the question is, I don’t know where they go draft-wise. Maybe back to the defensive line.”
The Bucs got deals done with No. 1 receiver Mike Evans and tight end Cameron Brate. They landed center Ryan Jensen instead of higher-priced line alternatives such as Norwell, which could pay off for Tampa Bay when the team meets Ali Marpet at the negotiating table. On the downside, Jensen has started just one season, so he is less proven.
“If Jensen plays the way he did in Baltimore last year, that deal is a good one,” an insider said. “If you go after an established guy, you just pay so much. Solder and Norwell are great examples. They are not the best tackle and guard in the NFL, but they were just paid that way. Olivier Vernon was not the best defensive end, but when the Giants wanted him on their team, they had to pay him that way. It is just the way free agency is.”
That’s what is nice about Pierre-Paul. He’s a proven player already under contract through 2020, and the Bucs can release him after this season without cap consequences. If that happens, it probably means bad things for Tampa Bay.
“I don’t think they have done anything bad,” an exec said. “It is just how good the older guys play when you could have had picks. You are kind of playing for right now.”
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic on the signing of WR BRICE BUTLER:
The Cardinals addressed a need via free agency on Monday, announcing they signed receiver Brice Butler to a two-year contract. Financial terms were not immediately available.
Butler, 6-feet-3-inches and 220 pounds, spent the past three seasons with the Cowboys and had a total of 43 receptions for 794 yards and six touchdowns. In five NFL seasons, Butler has had more than 20 catches in only one year, but he did average 21.1 yards on 15 receptions last season.
Butler entered the league in 2013 as a seventh-round pick by the Raiders. He played two years for Oakland and was traded to Dallas in 2015.
The Cardinals need help at the receiver position. Larry Fitzgerald hasn’t committed to playing beyond 2018, and two of his backups, John Brown and Jaron Brown, left this spring in free agency.
Mike Sando of ESPN.com on the Ravens after free agency as reviewed by other GMs:
For a team that has openly fretted over empty seats at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens did not go on an excitement-generating spending spree.
“I like the Michael Crabtree addition,” one exec said. “He fits what the Ravens have been about. That is a good signing for them. It helps them, but it’s not like he scares you.”
Crabtree signed for three years and $21 million after a failed physical nixed the Ravens’ previous agreement with former Redskins receiver Ryan Grant. John Brown was another receiver addition for Baltimore, costing $5 million for one year. Meanwhile, Jeremy Maclin is out, and 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman is coming off a third straight disappointing season. He has three scoring receptions in three NFL seasons.
“The thing with Baltimore, and it was the same with Seattle, is they could always let guys walk because they drafted so well,” an exec said. “Then you go two to three drafts in a row where you are missing, and you are stuck. Their drafts have been awful in recent years with guys like Perriman and Maxx Williams, guys who are injury-prone. Now, they are having to overpay receivers who were castoffs from their previous teams.”
Kevin Patra of NFL.com on QB DESHAUN WATSON’s injury risk, which his coach says is minimal:
Deshaun Watson’s rookie season ended with the quarterback on injured reserve after tearing an ACL. While the injury ultimately occurred during a simple practice handoff, Watson has since said he believed the tendon loosened during a hit in the previous game.
After destroying opponents in one of the most impressive six-game stretches in rookie quarterbacking history, it’s fair to be concerned that Watson’s career could be plagued by injuries. After all, it’s not too long ago another dynamic quarterback, Robert Griffin III, took the league by storm, only to see injuries help corrode his staying power.
Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien isn’t concerned about Watson’s injury snowballing, noting that Watson has a good feel for sliding and avoiding contact.
“He has a really good instinct for maybe gaining the 5 or 6 yards and then going down before he takes the shot,” O’Brien said recently, via Sarah Barshop of ESPN. “That’s a big thing that young quarterbacks usually have a problem with. He seems to have an instinct for being able to stay out of harm’s way.”
In his brief career, Watson displayed he’s more like Russell Wilson, who consistently avoids bone-crushing hits, than RGIII, who couldn’t slide to save his life — or career.
As O’Brien begins to install a new offense for Watson, he’s cognizant of the balance QBs must strike between playing it safe and giving up on opportunities.
“It’s hard [to coach a quarterback out of never giving up on a play],” O’Brien said. “I think, when you look at all these guys, [they] are such great competitors. If you look at [Ben] Roethlisberger and [Carson] Wentz and Andrew Luck, they don’t think that the play is ever over. So they’re going to try to keep the play alive. Same thing with Watson.
“They’re going to try to keep the play alive and they don’t think it’s ever over. They’re the ultimate competitors. So, you just have to talk to them, in my opinion, the guys that I’ve dealt with like that, ‘Hey look, here’s the deal.’ Again, going back to I have a clock in my head, and when this clock reaches a certain point with the protection we’ve called, you better either think about taking off, sliding, throwing it away. You don’t need to take an unnecessary shot, but I don’t think it’s easy to coach that with every single guy.”
With Watson already seeing one season end due to injury, every big hit will come with cringes and prayers from the Houston faithful, hoping that the dynamic young quarterback won’t become the latest to see his talents eroded by injury. It’s a concern O’Brien won’t fret over.
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Mike Sando with thoughts on Houston’s free agency:
This offseason is all about getting healthy for key Texans contributors such as Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus. It was somewhat notable, then, that two key players signed in free agency carry availability concerns.
Tyrann Mathieu has finished two of his five NFL seasons on injured reserve and is coming off the first 16-game season of his career. He has yet to recapture the peak form that made him a dynamic player in Arizona before his injuries. Aaron Colvin finished the 2016 season on injured reserve and also served a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs that year.
“Colvin is a good player and very, very talented,” an exec said. “In my opinion, he was probably the second or third best corner in free agency, with Kyle Fuller being No. 1, so I think they helped themselves. [Colvin] can play inside, he can play outside, he is strong, has good speed, competes well at the ball, has good instincts. I think he is going to be a high-value signing.”
Another exec liked the Mathieu signing for the price, noting that Mathieu performed better late in the 2017 season. But with no picks in the first two rounds of the upcoming draft, Houston wasn’t positioned well to make a run at tackle Cordy Glenn, who could have brought badly needed stability to the left tackle position.
“You got Deshaun Watson in the draft last year — congrats — but having no pick til the third round is what you have to live with,” an exec said. “They have three third-rounders, so I do see them trying to move up, potentially for a tackle. In free agency, Mathieu grades out as a low-level starter right now, but he is so instinctive, so tough, so gritty that he is the type of player that I really want on my team.”
Jason LaCanfora of CBSSports.com says the Bills are desperate to get even higher in the draft, with the Giants as possible trade partners.
How much do the New York Giants really love Saquon Barkley? That’s what other NFL general managers are wondering this month.
Sure, how could the Giants not be enamored with the Penn State running back, a potentially dominant player and natural leader with few knocks against him within a few weeks of the draft? But the more they are connected to the player and the more whispers about their intent to select him turn into screams, the more other teams begin to wonder if this is more like a screen. As in smoke screen.
I spoke to several general managers over the weekend who are watching what the Giants do with the second pick very closely, and all believed that while the Giants surely are big fans of Barkley, a trade is highly likely and there could be more going on here than immediately meets the eye. Two GMs wondered if the Giants were maybe pushing the Barkley button hard in order to drum up trade interest among the teams still desperate to get into position to draft a quarterback, like Buffalo or Arizona. Because it’s not like the second-overall pick is the only spot the Giants can land the running back, and it’s not like they don’t have other needs.
“If you are (Giants general manager Dave) Gettleman, you must love all of this Barkley talk,” said one NFC general manager. “I think if he gets his way, he holds an auction for the second pick, drops back a few spots and takes the running back or Bradley Chubb at 5 if everyone is trading up for a quarterback.”
They believe that all the Barkley talk – if it has any genesis from within the Giants organization – has the multi-fold impact of letting teams know the Giants aren’t taking a quarterback, and letting teams know to come talk to them, while at the same time creating a perception that the team is perfectly okay taking Barkley. The Giants have already been selling their fanbase on the narrative – or at least preparing them for the possibility – which gives Gettleman a potential position of strength when soliciting offers for the selection.
“The more I hear about the Giants and Barkley the more I think they are trading down,” the general manager offered.
Makes sense. If you are Gettleman and you manage to have some fans and media convinced that Barkley is Superman, whether by your own actions or not, and then you are able to land him a few spots down and pick up some of the many assets this roster still badly needs, well, that certainly becomes a feather in your cap. And at a time when the Giants seem to be caught between a rebuild and dabbling with a possibly farfetched idea of contending, and with the Odell Beckham, Jr. fiasco now swirling, they could use a win or two from a public-relations standpoint, if nothing else.
Several general managers I spoke to believe there is still ample opportunity for the Giants and Bills to make a move – Bills general manager Brandon Beane worked under Gettleman in Carolina for a spell – and no one is convinced that the Bills are done wheeling and dealing.
“Brandon is trying like hell to get up and get a quarterback,” said one general manager who has spoken to Beane recently. “I’m convinced he’ll trade up twice more if he has to. It reminds me of (Eagles general manager) Howie (Roseman) a few years ago (when he was moving up to land Carson Wentz).”
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Of course. Gettleman isn’t interested in dropping all the way back to 12th overall, where the Bills currently sit after their trade with the Bengals. But if Beane can split the difference somewhat, then odds are quite good the Bills and Giants could be trade partners. If, say, the Broncos aren’t convinced there is a quarterback worth taking at the fifth spot, that would be a perfect launching point for Beane. And that would be a sweetspot for Gettleman.
“If Beane gets the five, I know he can get to two,” said the general manager who has been in contact with Beane.
When you think about it, it all adds up pretty neatly for all parties. The Browns take a quarterback (if you made me pick today I’d say Sam Darnold). If the Bills got to the second pick, say, via the Broncos and Giants, then Beane gets his pick of the next best quarterback. The Jets take a quarterback and Browns general manager John Dorsey either trades down with another quarterback-starved club or takes Barkley or Chubb himself … which would leave Gettleman with one of the two best players in the draft, only three spots lower and having gained more future draft picks via trade.
The GMs I spoke to believe there is no chance Chubb would get by Colts general manager Chris Ballard with the sixth pick, so Gettleman staying in front of Ballard keeps him in great shape there. Of course, the Broncos might not be in the quarterback market and will ride with Case Keenum, and then want the opportunity to choose between Barkley and Chubb themselves. Who could blame them?
But don’t underestimate Beane’s intent to be able to secure a quarterback who he truly believes could be a franchise difference-maker. He hasn’t reshuffled his roster and made this many trades to accrue all of this draft capital just to sit at 12th overall and be left with possibly the fifth-best quarterback in this draft. Staying at 12 and 22 of the first round doesn’t do him much good if he’s left without a passer.
And he also has to at least worry a little that a team like Arizona (No. 15 overall pick) or Baltimore (16) leapfrogs that 12th pick to attempt to get a better shot at a quarterback, as well. Given all of that, I have a hard time thinking Beane doesn’t complete another trade. And if he isn’t concerned with getting ahead of the Jets – who are most definitely taking a quarterback with the third overall pick – then just going ahead and getting something done with John Dorsey with that fourth pick might be the simplest solution to his problem.
Throw in the fact that teams also have best-of-breed veterans like Earl Thomas and Beckham available for trade, and this has the makings of a highly-fertile pre-draft period. If Gettleman was able to drop down a few spots and pick up picks, plus land close to full value for Beckham with division rivals like the Rams and 49ers among those interested, then the prospects of the Giants getting better in the immediate future – and long-term – could look much better than they appear right now.
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Mike Sando of ESPN.com with some anonymous GM thoughts on the signing of DT STAR LOTULELEI:
“The Star [Lotulelei] signing is one I did not like,” an insider said. “I feel it is more on the name and the former first-round pick status compared to who the player is. He is consistent and he is going to be reliable and he is cheaper than Dareus. I would argue they could have found one of those guys in the draft. But they are leveraging those picks for a quarterback, they really need linebacker help and they arguably have the weakest receiver group in the league, so maybe they do not have those picks to make for a defensive lineman.”
There are NFL teams who think the Patriots would trade TE ROB GRONKOWSKI. NBC Boston:
NFL teams are eyeing New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
A couple teams were preparing trade offers for Gronk during owners meetings in Orlando, according to MMQB’s Albert Breer.
Last week, we mentioned this in the GamePlan (https://www.si.com/nfl/2018/03/29/football-gambling-betting-future-nfl-owners-meeting-mmqb …), and I’d repeat it — my expectation is the Patriots will be getting trade calls on TE Rob Gronkowski. In fact, a couple teams told me in Orlando that they were planning on making them.
The news comes after ESPN reported Gronk will likely return to the Patriots in 2018 despite mulling retirement. However, he and Bill Belichick are dealing with lingering frustrations. Belichick is concerned about Gronk’s buy-in while Gronk is growing weary of the high-strung environment Belichick creates at One Patriot Place.
Gronk finished the 2017 season with 69 catches for 1084 yards and nine touchdowns. He helped the Patriots make a Super Bowl berth, where Gronk logged nine catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns in the Patriots’ losing effort against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com with more thoughts on the matter:
Most teams wouldn’t be eager to trade a 28-year-old future Hall of Famer with two more years on his contract at affordable salaries. But the Patriots aren’t like most teams.
So the talk that Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski could be traded has to be taken seriously, given the history of Patriots coach Bill Belichick wanting to move on from players too early, rather than too late.
Belichick would much rather trade a player away when he can still get something valuable for him, rather than wait until that player gets older and loses a step, or until that player’s contract makes him harder to afford, or until that player hits free agency and leaves without the Patriots getting anything in return.
The list of noteworthy players that Belichick has traded is long. Randy Moss, Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins, Mike Vrabel, Deion Branch, Drew Bledsoe, Matt Cassel, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett, to name a few, have been sent packing by Belichick.
Albert Breer of SI.com reported that two teams are planning to make offers to the Patriots for Gronk. If those offers are good enough, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see a trade made on draft day.
NEW YORK JETS
The Jets have claimed TE CLIVE WALFORD on waivers from the Raiders.
THIS AND THAT
Five who could make significant jumps
Mitchell Trubisky, QB, Chicago Bears
During free agency, the Bears added a top target for Trubisky in wide receiver Allen Robinson, who’s a technician in the route tree with the ability to make plays over the top and produce in the red zone. The former Jaguar, who tore an ACL in Week 1 last season, racked up 18 red zone touchdowns from 2015 to 2016. Tight end Trey Burton is the new “move” guy in Nagy’s offense, a matchup piece who can align in multiple spots. And wide receiver Taylor Gabriel brings some real speed to Chicago with the change-of-direction skills to break down defenses in the open field.
These are major upgrades for Trubisky compared to the lineup he worked with last season, and Nagy’s offense — a modern twist on the West Coast passing game — should jump-start Trubisky’s development. Just look at Jared Goff and the Rams hiring Sean McVay as a potential blueprint.
Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
Mixon entered the league with the most raw talent of the 2017 running back class, in my opinion, with the power, speed and ability to impact the passing game. And we saw those traits pop on the film at times as Mixon rushed for 626 yards and added 287 yards receiving while sharing touches. With veteran Jeremy Hill leaving via free agency and the Bengals making a move to land offensive tackle Cordy Glenn in a trade with Buffalo, Mixon is in line to see an increased workload behind a better offensive line.
Takkarist McKinley, DE, Atlanta Falcons
McKinley’s energy level jumps out on tape. This guy plays hard on the edge. He’s s a relentless pass-rusher who produced six sacks while playing 381 snaps in a rotational role on the Falcons’ defensive line.
But when we look ahead to 2018 and the uptick in snaps McKinley should see after defensive end Adrian Clayborn left in free agency, I expect the former UCLA star to elevate his game as a pass-rusher with more technique at the point of attack.
Corey Davis, WR, Tennessee Titans
Limited to just 11 games due to injury, Davis caught 34 passes for 375 yards and didn’t reach the end zone during the regular season. If you watch the Week 16 tape against the Rams or take a look at his two touchdown grabs in the divisional-round playoff loss to the Patriots, however, Davis looked much improved.
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
When free agency opened, the Chiefs surprisingly paid a premium price to land wide receiver Sammy Watkins. But when we look at the Kansas City offensive system under coach Andy Reid, Watkins is yet another weapon — in an offense loaded at the skill positions — to build around Mahomes. And the young quarterback brings the big-time arm, the ability to make off-schedule plays and the movement skills that mesh with Reid’s playcalling.
The next five
Kenny Golladay, WR, Detroit Lions
After snatching two touchdown catches in Week 1, Golladay battled through injuries and was limited to 11 games as a rookie, finishing with 28 receptions for 477 yards and 3 scores. The NIU product averaged 17.0 yards per catch and produced six receptions of more than 30 yards.
He has the frame (6-4), speed (4.50 40 at the combine) and ball skills to get into the end zone. With new coach Matt Patricia retaining offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, look for Golladay to settle in as the No. 3 option behind Golden Tate and Marvin Jones in the Lions’ three-wide receiver personnel.
Kevin King, CB, Green Bay Packers
King had some up-and-down moments as a rookie. But he has the size/length/speed combo (6-3, 200 pounds) to elevate under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, and he already has shown the ability to play press-man coverage and the physicality to challenge routes.
Tarik Cohen, RB, Chicago Bears
Cohen checked in with 723 yards from scrimmage and three scores in 2017, coming on 87 rushes and 53 catches. But Cohen’s electric talent wasn’t fully exploited — he didn’t see the consistent touches or scripted matchups I expected to see.
Look for that to change in Nagy’s system.
Jonathan Allen, DE, Washington Redskins
Due to a Lisfranc injury, Allen played in only five games and had 10 total tackles and a sack. But the former Alabama star showed us glimpses of his athleticism and plus-technique.
George Kittle, TE, San Francisco 49ers
The fifth-round pick caught 43 passes for 515 yards with two scores as a rookie, but I expect improvement from the former Hawkeye in Year 2. Due to his fit in Kyle Shanahan’s offense as a versatile pass-catcher, Kittle could near the 60-catch mark in 2018.
With 4.5 speed, and the formation flexibility to bump into the slot, Kittle has the ability to work the middle of the field, catch the ball off play-action and serve as an inside matchup piece for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Think of Kittle as a “move” tight end/H-back who can block in the run game and also slip out of the backfield to give Garoppolo a high-percentage target underneath.
Can FOX persuade Joe Buck and Troy Aikman to work on Thursday night? Andrew Marchand of the New York Post (who broke the story that Peyton Manning had said no to FOX) has potential scoop:
Fox is hoping to put its No. 1 team of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in its “Thursday Night Football” booth in the wake of Peyton Manning turning down the opportunity, sources told The Post.
The negotiation process is in the beginning stages as Buck and Aikman will be adding games on top of their Sunday duties. Sources said that the tandem wants to work together, and they have no desire to split up.
Buck and Aikman seem to be in a very strong negotiating position with the advertising upfronts at the end of May. Fox wants to have its broadcast team in place by then, because it has paid $3.3 billion for five years to have the Thursday night game and wants to make it a marquee event. While NFL ratings have declined in recent years, “Thursday Night Football” routinely wins the night by large margins. The NFL is still by far the No. 1 property on TV.
In trying to add buzz in the booth, Fox just made a strong run at Manning for Thursdays. Fox was willing to bid high for Manning, which means that Buck and Aikman will reasonably be able to ask for more money to do the extra games. Manning also turned down ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”
Buck and Aikman would remain Fox’s No. 1 team on Sundays, but their schedule could possibly be lightened by having some Sundays off. Buck already misses three NFL Sundays because he does the World Series and League Championship Series. He also is Fox’s lead voice on its golf coverage.
If Fox had been able to convince Manning to do Thursdays, then the network had looked into trying to borrow Mike Tirico from NBC. While Buck is the face of Fox Sports’ coverage, he was not in the Manning plan because, on top of all the events he does in the fall, he and his wife, the ESPN sportscaster Michelle Beisner, are expecting twin boys soon.
If Manning had signed, not only would there have been extra games, but sources said Buck and Manning would have had to do several practice runs, which would have made Buck’s schedule even more difficult. With Aikman, Buck will not have to do any extra practice as the duo has been working together for 17 years, which includes five Super Bowls.
Besides Manning and now Aikman, Fox has brought in the retired Joe Thomas and Carson Palmer for tryouts, as well as the Cowboys’ Jason Witten. Kurt Warner and current Panther Greg Olsen have been considered. The tryouts were not necessarily for Thursday nights, and all could be considered for other positions.
Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com on the huge red flag waving in the face of Wyoming QB JOSH ALLEN (who still could be the first overall pick):
When we talk about “red flags” for NFL draft prospects, we’re usually talking about issues that are hard to quantify, like character or personality or leadership. With Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen, the red flag is very easy to quantify statistically.
Namely, the red flag is that despite his rocket arm, he stunk at throwing the football, statistically speaking: Allen was a two-year starter who completed just 56.2 percent of his passes in his college career, for a mediocre average of 7.8 yards per pass, with 44 touchdowns and 21 interceptions.
FootballOutsiders.com uses a system for projecting how college quarterbacks will play in the NFL called Quarterback-Adjusted-Stats-and-Experience, or QBASE. In that system, Allen is the only player among this year’s top quarterback prospects who comes out with a negative score. The combination of only starting two years in college and only completing 56 percent of his passes is a bad omen.
Going back to 1997, there have been 27 quarterbacks chosen in the Top 100 picks despite having a negative score on the QBASE system. Not a single one of those 27 quarterbacks has turned out to be a Pro Bowler. Among the first round picks is an ugly group that includes Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Kyle Boller, Rex Grossman, J.P. Losman, and Patrick Ramsey.
Some have argued that Allen’s stats stink because the team around him at Wyoming stunk. Perhaps that’s true. But hoping that a quarterback who couldn’t put up good numbers in college will manage to put up good numbers in the NFL is a risky proposition, especially with the first overall pick in the draft.
Jackson is arguably the most unique and perplexing prospect in this year’s draft. Few quarterbacks in any class can match his athletic ability, yet he’s solidly fifth in this crop. There have been calls to move him to wide receiver, echoing the ugliness of how talented black quarterbacks have been treated by football’s white decision-makers throughout the sport’s history. And there’s the business side of it for Jackson, entering a multi-billion-dollar league without the guidance of an experienced agent, something that almost never happens for a potential first-round quarterback.
His mother is his manager, though no one really knows what that means. Is she a helicopter parent or is she simply steering a ship that’s being carried by the current? Did she tell him not to run the 40 or do agility drills, and if so, why? Why is she easier to reach for some teams than for others?
To a man, in interviews with people who have known Jackson and his mother since he was a teenager, everyone says she has Jackson’s best interests at heart. Clearly those interests are to ensure her son is a starting NFL quarterback, a path they’ve traveled together for years.
Like Jackson’s pre-draft process, so much of his narrative is in the shadows. His mother is fiercely private; it seems the only interview she has ever granted was to ESPN the night Jackson won the Heisman in 2016. It has rubbed off on her son—nearly every media request his camp has received since he declared for the draft has been declined.
Jackson has said his father died in a car accident when he was 8, and on that same day his grandmother died, too. Jones told him then not to cry, that they would do better and amount to something. And that’s the extent of Jackson’s public comments about a defining moment in his life.
He began his high school career at Santaluces HS in Lantana, Fla., about 60 miles north of Miami on Florida’s east coast, but left at some point after his freshman year. One person interviewed for this story thought it was because he wasn’t guaranteed the starting quarterback role and was splitting time. Jackson transferred to nearby Boynton Beach.
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Once, Swain caught a wild hair and wanted to use his best athlete as a safety in obvious passing downs and Hail Mary situations, hardly an unusual strategy. But just like the punt return a few years later, it never happened.
“Coach,” Swain remembers Jones telling him, “he’s a quarterback. And I don’t want anybody to think he’s anything else.”
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Thomas had to sell momma first, though. Louisville had to promise Jackson would be a quarterback-only. The first time Thomas met Felicia Jones, he did all the talking and she stared at him without saying a word. He says they laugh about that now.
Thomas’s word wasn’t enough, though. She needed to hear it from Petrino. So the head coach walked into Jones’ home and promised her that her son would play quarterback-only and have a chance for significant playing time as a true freshman. Jackson was on his way to joining the Cardinals.
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During that freshman year Jackson roomed with receiver Jaylen Smith, who went on to become his favorite target last season. After games, Jackson would put his mom on speakerphone and she would offer critiques of the roommates’ performances.
“She doesn’t [hold back],” Smith says. “And kids like us needed that. I didn’t take it like, ‘Who is she to tell me what I’m supposed to be doing.’ Nah, she’s really watching and knows what’s going on.”
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He has been mostly quiet since he left Louisville, doing a group interview at the NFL scouting combine last month and a couple hits with ESPN. In that combine interview he said his mother was his manager but not his agent, that he will not hire an agent, and that he will use a lawyer to look over his rookie contract. Jones has kept her silence, just as she did throughout Jackson’s collegiate career. She declined multiple interview requests from The MMQB over the past two months. For these two, mum’s the word.
“It’s not that she’s trying to—in my opinion—control him,” Thomas says. “They’ve been through a lot together. For them to want to stay together and try to do this thing together, that’s the way they’ve always been. They’d just rather the play do the talking.
“You’ve seen parents before in these ordeals where they try to be the spokesperson, whether it’s [LaVar] Ball or [Todd] Marinovich’s dad a long time ago. That’s not her deal. Can you blame her? If she was one of those people who was trying to put herself in front of all this, you’d say, ‘Oh here we go.’ But it’s not like that.
“It’s different than sometimes it’s portrayed. I know it’s hard for you guys in the media because she’s not accessible or talkative, but would you rather have it the Ball way or this way?”
At Louisville’s pro day last week, multiple teams expressed to The MMQB that it’s been difficult to get in touch with Jackson and that calls have not been returned. This information is coming straight from teams and not, as some theorize, from agents wishing to crush Jackson’s choice to not hire one.
The entire pre-draft process has been unique for Jackson. A potential first-round pick, he’s met with the Texans (who have Deshaun Watson and no pick until the third round), the Chargers and, according to ESPN, has a private workout with the hometown Dolphins. At this point, it’s unclear what other teams, if any, Jackson has met with since the combine.
Jackson spoke to former Heisman winner Andre Ware of ESPN after his pro day before going to NFL Network’s Mike Mayock for a four-minute sit down. Both of those interviews were approved by Jones, who did not O.K. Jackson taking questions from all media in attendance, as is the custom at pro days.
It’s also unclear if Jackson has an apparel endorser. Again, most players of his caliber would be suited and booted by Nike, adidas or Under Armour by now, their social media pages awash with corporate thank-yous for the easy check. Jackson wore a school-issued adidas top and shorts, but then slipped off his Gucci sandals before his workout to don orange and silver Nike cleats.
And finally, Jackson’s decision to not run the 40 at either the combine or his pro day drew the most scrutiny (curiously, more than the reports of NFL teams being unable to reach him). It’s obvious Jackson is the fastest quarterback in this draft and likely the fastest since Michael Vick. What will a 40 time tell NFL teams other than reaffirming the beliefs of those who think he’s more athlete than quarterback? From Jackson’s perspective, how does that help him get drafted as a QB?
Joshua Harris has been coaching Jackson since the quarterback left Louisville. Harris is a high school coach in South Florida who reportedly played college football at Miami before transferring to Tennessee State. He scripted a pro day workout that saw Jackson get under center for all 59 of his throws, and Jackson worked with his receivers in Louisville for the three days prior to Thursday’s big day. Felicia Jones was there for the practices.
“She brought me and him together two days ago when we were running routes in here,” says Reggie Bonnafon, the former Louisville quarterback turned receiver/running back who performed well at the pro day. “She was telling me to come out of my breaks and not wait on him to throw the ball. She’s like, ‘Don’t wait on Lamar to place the ball. If you’re already out of your break and he’s late, that’s his fault.’ It’s kind of different. But she’s a great lady.”
Jackson looked great throwing the ball, better than the numbers (47-for-59) would suggest. Of his 12 misses, eight were drops and one was a wide receiver slip. He was inaccurate on just three throws. Harris directed Jackson, and the coach was flanked by two friends of Jackson’s family, though no one in Jackson’s camp or Louisville would or could divulge their names.
The three men wore black outfits with a “Super 8” logo printed on them. Inside the red 8 were the words: God, prayer, faith, family, education, sacrifice, character, discipline. These are the eight core values Jones has espoused for years. She sat in a black swivel chair past midfield as Jackson worked his way through the script from the opposite 40 into the red zone. When the workout was complete, several of Jackson’s receivers came over to hug her.
“Did I do good?,” tight end Charles Standberry asked her. She told him yes. “I ain’t trying to get your son…” he said before trailing off, out of breath.
The Super 8 team gathered their belongings and headed to the exit of the indoor practice facility. Waiting outside was Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and quarterbacks coach Shane Steichen. In Philip Rivers the Chargers have an aging franchise quarterback, and head coach Anthony Lynn gushed about Jackson’s play-making ability at the combine. The team wanted to meet with Jackson.
And so Louisville reserved a room at the team facilities, and Whisenhunt and Harris communicated about where exactly the room was located. Then Jackson, his coach, his family friends and his mother walked off together as the quarterback headed to his latest job interview.
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At NFL.com, Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks try to find the one missing piece for five contenders.
New England Patriots
First-round pick: No. 31 overall
The missing piece: The Patriots came within one win of securing their sixth Super Bowl title last season. Despite some attrition during the free-agency period this year with the departure of OT Nate Solder and others, this roster is still in good shape. However, they could use another playmaker on the defensive side of the ball. I believe Boise State LB Leighton Vander Esch would be the perfect addition. He has an ideal blend of size, speed and versatility. Bill Belichick is the right coach to unlock his vast potential. He would team up with Dont’a Hightower to give the Patriots two flexible, explosive assets at the second level of their defense.
First-round pick: No. 30 overall
The missing piece: The Vikings were one win away from a Super Bowl appearance last season and last month they signed Kirk Cousins, the crown jewel of free agency. Now they need to add the finishing touches to a championship-caliber roster. The offensive line was vastly improved last season, but there is still a need for an upgrade at the guard position. UTEP OG Will Hernandez is a mauling run blocker and he’s surprisingly nimble in pass protection. His physicality is a perfect fit for a team looking to close out wins with the running game.
First-round pick: No. 29 overall
The missing piece: The Jaguars have arguably the most talented young roster in the NFL. However, in order to overtake the Patriots in the AFC, they need to add more firepower to their offense. While Blake Bortles has his detractors, I believe he’s capable of leading this team to the promised land if the Jags can find him one more weapon in the passing game. I’m a huge fan of Maryland WR D.J. Moore. His combination of toughness, speed and playmaking ability would fit beautifully in the Jacksonville offense. The Jaguars’ running game can be dominant, and that presents plenty of big-play opportunities in the passing game. That’s exactly where Moore can help. He could lead the league in yards per catch in the Jaguars offense.
First-round pick: No. 28 overall
The missing piece: The Steelers already possess a Super Bowl-caliber offense, but they need to add more punch to the defensive side of the ball. They couldn’t overcome the loss of Ryan Shazier to injury last season and they are in desperate need of an impact player at the linebacker position with Shazier out for 2018. When I studied Alabama LB Rashaan Evans, I immediately thought of the Steelers. He fits the profile of what they look for at that position. He’s extremely strong, aggressive and explosive. He plays with the hunter’s mentality that we’ve seen from all of the great Pittsburgh linebackers over the years. It’s possible that Evans will be picked before the Steelers are on the clock at No. 28, but if he’s available, Pittsburgh should turn in the card for him.
New Orleans Saints
First-round pick: No. 27 overall
The missing piece: The Saints hit a home run in last year’s draft, selecting both the offensive (Alvin Kamara) and defensive (Marshon Lattimore) rookies of the year. This roster is in great shape and might be a single piece away from capturing a Super Bowl title. By all accounts, they attempted to bring back tight end Jimmy Graham in free agency, but he chose to catch passes from Aaron Rodgers instead of Drew Brees. I’ve been told the Saints have been doing a lot of homework on the tight ends in this year’s draft, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they went in that direction with their first-round pick. I have South Carolina TE Hayden Hurst as my top player at the position and I think he’d be a perfect fit in New Orleans’ system. He has the speed to make plays down the field and his toughness after the catch is outstanding. He even has experience as a ball carrier, which would afford a creative mind like Sean Payton plenty of options. This is an ideal match. — Daniel Jeremiah