The Daily Briefing Wednesday, March 1, 2017

AROUND THE NFL

Monday was a big day as the leading rushers in Vikings and Chiefs history were cast aside, as was Jets CB DARRELLE REVIS.  The other member clubs now wonder how much do they have left in the tank.

 

– – –

So why wouldn’t this happen –

 

The Redskins trade QB KIRK COUSINS to the 49ers for the second overall pick in the draft.

 

The Patriots trade QB JIMMY GARAPPOLO to the Redskins for Washington’s current first round pick (17th overall).

 

The 49ers get a QB that ranks somewhere in the top 15 in the NFL, maybe higher in the right system.  He’s a quality face of the franchise, familiar with the head coach and his system, in the prime of his career.  Cousins is better than any QB in the draft is likely to be and better than any other likely free agent signee.

 

Washington moves up 15 spots in the draft, gets a quality QB and saves some money for other needs even if it signs Garappolo for Osweiler money.  Certain folks at the Skins seem always to have seen Cousins’ weaknesses and not his strengths, so they probably would think the QB quality is a wash – plus they move up 15 picks.

 

And New England gets a mid-first round QB from its little-used backup.

 

Now what seems clear to the DB is not always so clear to the rest of the world.  Why isn’t this a good deal for all three teams, we ask?

 

For more on what Cousins wants – see WASHINGTON

 

NFC NORTH

 

MINNESOTA

The Vikings decided not to pay a 31-year-old running back with a recent injury history $18 million in 2017.  Chris Wesseling of NFL.com wonders what team might sign him and for how much:

 

After a decade-long run as the face of the Vikings franchise, Adrian Peterson will become a free agent for the first time in his superlative career when the new league year kicks off on March 9.

 

Peterson was due to count a prohibitive $18 million against the salary cap — more than twice the next highest running-back figure (LeSean McCoy’s $8.9 million) in the league.

 

When interested teams pore over his game film and forecast his future, they will find Peterson to be a tricky evaluation.

 

Between his 2014 banishment to the Commissioner’s Exempt list and his 2016 meniscus tear, he has played just 19 games in the last three years. In between, he reclaimed his spot atop the NFL rushing throne in 2015.

 

Running behind one of the least effective offensive lines of the 21st century, Peterson managed a league-low 1.9 yards per carry on a minuscule sample size last season. Draw grand, sweeping conclusions on those scant 37 attempts at your own peril.

 

Considering his fresh legs, exceptional talent level and a sterling track record of recovering from injuries, Peterson is a strong candidate to bounce back with the best age-32 rushing season in history if his surgically repaired knee is healthy. That’s a Brobdingnagian “if.”

 

The biggest concerns are three-fold.

 

Time marches on. The frequency of Peterson’s long runs declined in 2015, in line with studies that show running-back production decreases sharply from ages 28 to 30. Since the 1970 merger, backs of his age have reached the 1,000-yard mark just 10 times.

 

Just as problematic, Peterson is an I-formation foundation back in an increasingly pass-heavy era of specialization. The game is evolving away from his skill set.

 

When Peterson entered the league in 2007, no team had ever utilized the shotgun formation on more than half of its offensive plays. Last season, 80.4 percent of passing plays and 63.6 percent of all offensive plays started in shotgun, per NFL Research.

 

Over 90 percent of Peterson’s career carries have come with the quarterback under center as opposed to the shotgun. At this stage of his career, he’s a clear liability on passing downs, lacking the fluid lateral agility to consistently make defenders miss at the catch point.

 

The final concern for Peterson’s prospects is a loaded NFL draft class that features first-round talents in Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara. Word around the NFL campfire is that Peterson should expect a soft market for his services.

 

So where will Peterson ply his trade in 2017? Here’s our list of potential landing spots:

 

1. Minnesota Vikings: Peterson will be searching for a quality organization with ample cap space, a need at running back and a roster ready to contend for a Super Bowl. With a few tweaks to the offensive line, the Vikings are that team, constructed as a ball-control offense with a stingy defense. Peterson released a statement Tuesday, emphasizing that the “door is still open” for a Minnesota return. Once he explores his options, he might just find that the Vikings are offering the best deal.

 

2. New York Giants: When Peterson speculated about his next destination last month, he listed the Giants, Bucs and Texans. When Big Blue released veteran back Rashad Jennings a couple of weeks later, Peterson continued his public flirtation. Under Ben McAdoo, the Giants are a shotgun-heavy attack with three receivers and no fullback in the base offense. McAdoo would have to take an eraser to his monstrous play-call sheet if Peterson signed. Perhaps it’s time to lean on his stout defense and an improved ground attack, making life easier for a declining Eli Manning.

 

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs are not only on Peterson’s list of approved teams, but might also be in the market for a workhorse running back. The team could opt to cut ties with Doug Martin after the 2015 Pro Bowler landed in the league’s suspension protocol with a late-season drug issue. Unlike New York, Tampa Bay wouldn’t have to overhaul the offensive philosophy to feature Peterson as the lead runner.

 

4. Oakland Raiders: The Raiders are ushering Latavius Murray to the open market, creating a vacancy for a power back. They are rumored to be a strong candidate for Peterson’s services, but might prefer to go the draft-pick route and spend their money elsewhere.

 

5. Houston Texans: As NFL Network’s Randy Moss pointed out Tuesday, Peterson would love to play for the Texans. He grew up near Houston and still lives in the area. It’s hard to conceive of the fit, though, after the Texans paid Lamar Miller feature-back money last offseason. This team desperately needs Tony Romo, not Peterson.

 

6. New England Patriots: The Pats are similar to the Raiders in that they have a pair of passing-down specialists but their early-down power back is headed to the market. Bill Belichick likes to be an outlier, zigging when the rest of the league zags. If one-dimensional running backs are devalued by the other 31 general managers, perhaps Belichick can swoop in and steal Peterson as he did with an aging Corey Dillon in 2004. If LeGarrette Blount can find the end zone 18 times in a specialized role, what could Peterson accomplish in New England’s friendly offense?

 

7. Denver Broncos: John Elway has a penchant for splashy additions, and the Broncos’ running game was a disaster down the stretch last season. It doesn’t hurt that former Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave is now the quarterbacks coach in Denver.

 

8. Dallas Cowboys: It’s a testament to Jerry Jones’ unpredictability that the Cowboys made this list with stud three-down back Ezekiel Elliott entrenched as the backfield headliner. Multiple times in the past, Peterson has expressed a desire to finish his career with the Cowboys. He has even called Jones to pitch the idea of teaming up after his Vikings career is over. According to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, Jones has said he will pursue Peterson as a sidekick to Elliott.

 

That idea will generate plenty of headlines in the football world, but it doesn’t solve Peterson’s desire for a steady workload or the Cowboys’ need to prioritize other positions ahead of an upgrade on Alfred Morris as the 70-carry backup.

 

NFC EAST

 

WASHINGTON

QB KIRK COUSINS tweeted “Tag. You’re it” when word came down that he had been franchised by the Redskins and guaranteed $23.94 million for 2017 if he puts his name on the dotted line.

 

John Keim of ESPN.com hints at a bigger game than one more year in D.C.

 

Kirk Cousins’ preferred destination is the San Francisco 49ers if he were to be traded by the Washington Redskins, according to a source close to the quarterback.

 

He loved playing for new 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan when he was the Washington Redskins’ offensive coordinator. Shanahan is a detail-oriented coach, which meshes well with Cousins’ mind-set.

 

The deadline for teams to use the franchise tag is Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET. It is expected the Redskins will use the designation on Cousins for the second consecutive year. Once Cousins signs the tag, he can no longer talk to other teams. However, the Redskins could give Cousins permission to speak with another team and then try to work out a trade.

 

The source told ESPN that Cousins would not sign a long-term deal if he were traded anywhere else — right now. Much of that is based on a desire to be in San Francisco and a lack of familiarity with other teams. Cousins is a stickler for routine and familiarity. He would not block a deal to another team, but any team that were to trade for him would have to do a lot of convincing in order to get him to sign a long-term contract.

 

Cousins’ current stance could limit the market for Washington, but it’s not impossible that Cousins would eventually agree to be traded to a team other than the 49ers. If the 49ers don’t make a contract offer to Cousins’ liking and decide to pursue another quarterback, Cousins would have no choice but to accept a trade to another team or stay in Washington for at least one more year.

 

The Redskins can negotiate with Cousins on a long-term deal until July 15. At that point, there can be no deal struck until after the Redskins’ season. Cousins would make $23.94 million under the tag.

 

Cousins, 28, passed for 4,917 yards, 25 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for Washington (8-7-1) in 2016, and he played in the Pro Bowl for the first time.

 

NFC WEST

 

SAN FRANCISCO

Ryan Phillips at The Big Lead calls for the 49ers to trade down:

 

John Lynch and the San Francisco 49ers have a massive rebuilding project on their hands and the best way to accelerate that process would be to trade the No. 2 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Last week, Lynch discussed having the draft’s second pick and what that meant, and he said he was willing to trade down if a favorable situation presented itself. He should be actively pursuing that option.

 

Last year, the Philadelphia Eagles traded up to No. 2 and landed quarterback Carson Wentz. In exchange for the second pick and a conditional fifth-round selection, the Cleveland Browns received Philadelphia’s first-, third-, and fourth-round selections in the 2016 draft, the Eagles’ first-rounder in 2017 and second-round pick in 2018. That’s a serious haul that, if used properly, could rapidly improve Cleveland’s disastrous roster.

 

If Lynch and the 49ers are serious about rebuilding what is currently an awful roster, they should be looking to move down the way the Browns did. Sure, they may not get the same kind of offer, but picking up a ton of picks in exchange for the second selection in a weak draft would be worth it in the long run. There is no sure-fire franchise quarterback in this draft, which should make the ecision easier. I’m sorry, but Deshone Kizer, Mitch Trubisky, DeShaun Watson and Pat Mahomes are not worthy of a top five pick. On top of that, San Francisco has so many issues that adding a quarterback that high would be a waste anyway, since the team wouldn’t be able to surround him with high-quality pieces.

 

The path to a successful rebuild lies in allocating draft resources properly. While Lynch has no front office experience, even he has to know that. He needs to trade down, stockpile picks and use them to fill the numerous holes on your roster. That must to be the mantra of the 49ers in the lead up to the 2017 draft.

 

One top-five player isn’t going to change anything in San Francisco, but a huge infusion of young talent could.

 

AFC WEST

 

DENVER

Ian Rapoport of NFL.com thinks the Broncos are the leading candidate to land TONY ROMO:

 

On Tuesday’s edition of Up to the Minute Live, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport identified the Denver Broncos as the prime landing spot if the 36-year-old quarterback is willing to accept less than the $14 million he’s due under his current contract.

 

Should the Cowboys set Romo free, he can begin negotiating a new contract with interested teams. At that point, he will have to prioritize a desire to maximize his financial value versus the strongest chance to play for a Super Bowl contender in his NFL twilight years.

 

“If he’s willing to take a pay cut,” Rapoport explained, “it seems like the Broncos and then it seems like everyone else.”

 

When Romo first realized last November that he had been replaced as the face of the Cowboys franchise, Rapoport reported that the veteran quarterback was already eyeing Denver as a possible destination.

 

Broncos general manager John Elway has been reluctant to displace Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch atop his quarterback depth chart by trading for an expensive veteran, but that dynamic shifts if Romo is freely available and willing to sacrifice money for location.

 

It’s similar to the approach Elway took last year when Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to accept a reduction in his $11.9 million base salary scuttled a potential trade from San Francisco to Denver.

 

Romo’s preferred landing spots are dwindling with Carson Palmer recommitting to the Cardinals and Alex Smith drawing a fresh round of endorsements from the Chiefs.

 

By the time the new league years rolls around on March 9, the realistic options might come down to Denver versus Houston. Regardless of the competition, Rapoport believes the Broncos will be in the “driver’s seat” for Romo’s services.

 

 

KANSAS CITY

The Chiefs have locked up S ERIC BERRY for the foreseeable future with the biggest contract ever reached with a safety.  ESPN.com:

 

The Kansas City Chiefs have reached a six-year, $78 million deal with Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry that includes $40 million guaranteed and a $20 million signing bonus, a source confirmed to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter on Tuesday.

 

According to ESPN Stats & Information, it would be the most guaranteed money for any current safety contract. The NFL Network first reported the agreement between Berry and the Chiefs. Berry will earn $30 million in the first two years of the deal, a source told ESPN’s Adam Caplan.

 

The Chiefs announced the signing Tuesday but did not disclose financial terms of the contract.

 

“Keeping Eric Berry in a Chiefs uniform long term has been a significant goal of ours,” said Chiefs general manager John Dorsey. “He’s a special football player and an incredible person. We’re thrilled we were able to get this deal done.”

 

“I’m very happy for Eric and his family,” added Chiefs coach Andy Reid. “He has put in the hard work and preparation and is without question one of the backbones of our defense and a team leader. He’s a special player and an exceptional human being.”

 

Berry, 28, played on the Chiefs’ franchise tender in 2016 and had perhaps the best season of his seven-year NFL career.

 

He delivered a number of big plays that helped the Chiefs win close games. None was bigger than an interception late in the fourth quarter on a two-point conversion attempt that Berry returned for a score; those two points were crucial in lifting Kansas City to a 29-28 win at Atlanta in Week 13.

 

Big plays aside, Berry was a solid player against both the run and pass. The Chiefs used Berry in a variety of roles, sometimes as a deep safety and sometimes lined up close to the line of scrimmage, and he was equally effective in either role. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Chiefs allowed the third-lowest completion percentage on passes thrown 15 yards or more downfield last season.

 

They also passed out big money to G LAURENT DUVERNAY-TARDIF.  Adam Teicher of ESPN.com:

 

The Kansas City Chiefs and guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif have agreed to a contract extension, the team announced Tuesday.

 

Duvernay-Tardif’s five-year, $41.25 million extension includes $20 million in guaranteed money, a league source told ESPN’s Adam Caplan.

 

“Laurent has grown significantly in his three years as a professional,” Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said in a statement. “He brings a lot of mental and physical toughness to the position, and last season he was able to become a key contributor to our offense. Laurent has a bright future here.”

 

Duvernay-Tardif, 26, was a sixth-round draft pick of the Chiefs in 2014 out of McGill University in Montreal. He broke into the starting lineup in 2015 and is now a fixture at right guard.

 

He is in medical school at McGill and tends to his studies during the offseason. Since being drafted by the Chiefs, he has returned to Kansas City each year to participate in most of the team’s offseason workouts and all of the offseason practices.

 

Duvernay-Tardif is an interesting guy who the DB admits has flown below our radar screen.  We wonder if this is the biggest NFL contract ever awarded for someone from a Canadian college.

 

AFC EAST

 

BUFFALO

The Bills are not going to tag CB STEPHON GILMORE.  Jay Skurski in the Buffalo News:

 

The Buffalo Bills will not use the franchise tag on cornerback Stephon Gilmore this year, The Buffalo News has learned.

 

The deadline for teams to apply the tag to an impending free agent is Wednesday. One league source told The News there is “no chance” of that happening.

 

That means Gilmore will hit the open market March 9, unless the two sides can come to an agreement on a long-term contract before then. It’s estimated that the franchise tag for a cornerback this season will cost about $15 million.

 

For a team with an estimated $21 million in salary-cap space, that would severely handicap the Bills’ ability to sign free agents, be it their own or other players set to hit the open market.

 

Gilmore, 26, had a career-best five interceptions in 2016, making 15 starts and finishing with 48 tackles. He missed the season finale because of a concussion.

 

Originally selected as a Pro Bowl alternate, he got into the game for the first time in his career and had an interception in the AFC’s win. Gilmore has made no secret of his desire to be paid like one of the best players in the NFL in his position. To do so, the Bills would have to give him a contract that averages somewhere between $11 million and $14 million per season. Currently, there are 11 cornerbacks who are scheduled to have a cap hit of at least $10 million in 2017.

 

Gilmore played last season on the fifth-year option of his rookie contract, earning $11.082 million, an amount that ranked fourth among cornerbacks in base salary, according to the contract website spotrac.com.

 

At the end of the 2016 season, Gilmore made it clear he would prefer not to get the franchise tag. With more than half the league expected to have at least $40 million in cap space, a rich contract seems all but guaranteed for Gilmore, who is widely viewed as the best cornerback set to hit the open market.

 

The question now becomes, how much will the Bills value him?

 

They have exclusive negotiating rights for another week, but with agents and front-office personnel from all 32 teams converging in Indianapolis this week for the NFL Scouting Combine, Gilmore’s representatives will certainly come away with a good idea of interest in his services.

 

While at the Pro Bowl, Gilmore said he had spoken with new Bills coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.

 

“They seem like they’re going to turn it around out there, but … I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “They got a decision to make.”

 

 

NEW ENGLAND

LB DON’T’A HIGHTOWER gave the Patriots five good years, but he won’t get a second contract – or at least, he won’t get one without first testing the market.  ESPN.com:

 

The New England Patriots have informed linebacker Dont’a Hightower that they won’t use their franchise tag on him, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Tuesday.

 

Hightower will test the free-agent market, but a source tells Schefter that the Patriots will still try to bring him back.

 

The 6-foot-3, 265-pound Hightower has made big-time plays on the game’s biggest stage. His fourth-quarter strip sack of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in Super Bowl LI was cited by head coach Bill Belichick as a game-changing play in the team’s 25-point second-half comeback.

 

And with 1:06 remaining in Super Bowl XLIX, he tackled running back Marshawn Lynch at the 1-yard line on the play before cornerback Malcolm Butler’s dramatic interception to help the Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks.

 

A 2012 first-round draft choice from Alabama, Hightower was named a Patriots captain for the first time in 2016. He finished the season with 65 tackles, 2.5 sacks and eight quarterback hits.

 

“He’s a great football player,” Belichick said the day after Super Bowl LI. “A versatile player, inside linebacker, outside linebacker, setting the edge, defensive end in passing situations. It’s very similar to what he did at Alabama and very similar to what Coach [Nick] Saban told me he would do for us: ‘He’ll be on the field for you every down and it’s just a question of where you want to put him.’ He can do all those things. Not only that, High’s smart, he’s tough, he gives us good leadership, and a lot of communication.”

 

Hightower turns 27 on March 12. He earned $7.751 million in 2016, as the Patriots had picked up the fifth-year option of the five-year contract he had signed as a rookie.

 

 

NEW YORK JETS

Chris Wesseling at NFL.com on the departure of CB DARRELLE REVIS:

 

The Jets have informed cornerback Darrelle Revis of his impending release, the team announced Tuesday.

 

The move was fully expected after Revis was arraigned on five criminal charges stemming from his alleged mid-February involvement in a physical altercation.

 

Coming off a nightmare season, Revis was due to count $15.3 million against the cap for an organization squarely in rebuilding mode. By cutting the 31-year-old, the Jets will save roughly $9 million in cap space.

 

“Darrelle Revis is one of the greatest players to ever wear a Jets uniform,” Jets owner Woody Johnson said in a statement released by the team. “His combination of talent, preparation and instincts is rare and helped him become one of the most dominant players of his generation. I appreciate Darrelle’s contributions to this organization and, wherever his career takes him, his home will always be here with the Jets.”

 

There’s a strong argument to be made that no cornerback ever played the position at a higher level than Revis did as the centerpiece of Rex Ryan’s defense from 2009 through 2011.

 

That incredible 2009 season featured a career-high six interceptions and a league-best 31 passes defensed while holding a string of No. 1 receivers — Randy Moss, Andre Johnson, Terrell Owens, Chad Johnson, Steve Smith and Roddy White — under 40 yards. Ryan went on to hail Revis’ brilliant campaign as the best year a cornerback has ever enjoyed.

 

In the prime of his career, no NFL player was more competitive, more intense or more prepared than Revis. He took it as an insult if his practice opponent was not properly preparing him for each game. He was often lauded for beating receivers to their spot, running their routes as well as they did.

 

A seven-time Pro Bowl selection, Revis also earned four first-team All Pro nods and a Super Bowl XLIX ring with the Patriots.

 

“Darrelle is the consummate professional,” coach Todd Bowles said Tuesday, “and one of the greatest to ever play the cornerback position.”

 

In theory, the Jets have a case for unguaranteeing $6 million in supposedly guaranteed money owed Revis, but Ralph Vacchiano in the New York Post says that is a bridge too far for the team:

 

The Jets could have made an issue out of the $6 million in salary they still owe Darrelle Revis in 2017, and tried to withhold the money due to his recent legal troubles. But according to a team source, the Jets have decided to let the issue – and the money – go.

 

That decision, to pay Revis $6 million next season even though he’ll officially be released on Thursday, avoids what surely would’ve been a legal – and perhaps public relations – nightmare for both sides. The Jets did due their “due diligence” and investigated the possibility of withholding the money, according to a team source, as they surely would’ve done with any other player.

 

But after investigating the language in his contract and looking at all the information available to them from his recent arrest in Pittsburgh, the Jets decided not to pursue the matter.

 

The possibility existed, of course, because of the late-night street fight that Revis got into back on Feb. 13. He was later charged with four felonies and one misdemeanor and faces another court hearing on the matter on March 15.

 

There was language in Revis’ contract that seemed to indicate that the incident could allow the Jets to get out of any future financial obligations. The language, confirmed by NFL sources, said that Revis could be considered in breach of contract if he’s fined or suspended by the NFL or by the Jets for “conduct detrimental” to the team, if he’s punished for violating the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy or if the Jets believe he does anything they “reasonably” believe will “adversely affect or reflect” on the franchise.

 

The vague phrasing of that last part would’ve been the Jets’ opening, since the NFL likely wouldn’t have stepped in until a legal resolution. But it would’ve been difficult for the Jets to claim Revis adversely reflected on the franchise since, through his lawyer, the cornerback has professed his innocence and claimed to be the victim in the incident.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

CENTRAL REVIEW, CELEBRATIONS

The NFL may go the way of hockey and baseball – and set up a central review center far away from the stadium in question.  Judy Battista at NFL.com:

 

The NFL’s Competition Committee is discussing two proposals that would significantly alter officiating — whether to make referees full-time employees and how to centralize the replay review system.

 

According to one league official familiar with the committee’s conversations during its meetings here at the NFL Scouting Combine, there is increasing support for both ideas. The full-time referees would be gradually phased in, to give current referees the opportunity to either exit their current careers or to leave the officiating ranks. But if the idea is approved, the phase in could start as soon as this season. According to the official, there is greater interest in full-time referees than there is in adding an eighth member to the officiating crews. In the past, officials have resisted the idea of becoming full-time employees because they did not want to give up their other, in some cases lucrative, jobs, so one question that would linger over the process would be how many referees — the top member of each crew — would leave officiating and have to be replaced.

 

There is also increasing support for centralized review, which would presumably be operated out of the league’s officiating headquarters in New York. The hope, the league official said, is that centralized review would improve two areas: consistency of officiating and the time it takes to review calls. League officials have become disenchanted with referees going under a hood to review replays on the sideline and there is a push to limit the number and length of interruptions to games. The referee on the field would still be involved in the review process — the league official said the NFL did not want the referee to simply stand on the field awaiting the decision from the centralized review office — but this would be a significant step to take review off the field.

 

The Competition Committee will continue to meet here this week, then convenes once more before the league’s annual meeting in late March, at which votes on new rules would be taken. The committee also is discussing extending the one-year experiment with putting touchbacks at the 25-yard line. The rule, which was used in 2016, decreased the number of returns — the goal, because returns are considered one of the most dangerous plays in the game — and the committee wants to extend the experiment by another year or to make the rule permanent.

 

Mike Florio at ProFootballTalk.com seems to agree with the concept of centralized review:

 

This would cut the game-site referees out of the process entirely.

 

The NFL hopes, per Battista, to improve consistency of officiating and to streamline the process from a time standpoint. The involvement of the league office in replay review via pipeline to each game site already ensures consistency, as long as the referee accepts the advice he receives from NFL executive V.P. of officiating Dean Blandino or his lieutenant, Alberto Riveron.

 

Taking the decision out of the hands of the referee will make the process cleaner by dispensing with the protracted dog-and-pony show that has the referee puttering from the middle of the field to the sideline, talking to this person, talking to that person, putting on the headset for a Dukakis-in-a-tank photo op, going under the hood, executing the review, emerging from the curtain, taking off the headset, talking to this person, talking to that person, puttering back to the field, and finally announcing the ruling.

 

When the NFL decided in the midst of the ratings crisis to get creative about ways to trim fat from the game broadcast, the most obvious layer of subcutaneous goo came from the replay review process. It takes too long in its current form, and dispensing with the slow, plodding, multi-step, on-field process will trim some fat from games.

 

Tom Pelissaro of USA TODAY hears that the NFL is looking at giving players more leeway to celebrate before the flags fly:

 

When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell appeared in a Super Bowl-week skit with comedian Keegan-Michael Key about excessive celebration, it might have been a sign the league is open to doing more than getting in on the joke.

 

The NFL’s competition committee has discussed the league’s celebration rules during its annual meetings at the scouting combine – a conversation that’s slated to continue Wednesday during a joint session that includes current and former players as well as representatives from the NFL Players Association, people with knowledge of the meetings told USA TODAY Sports.

 

And there is a strong sense that changes are coming to clarify the rules, focusing in part on the duration of some acts, which could ease pressure on officials to over-enforce and reverse the surge in celebration fouls that brought a fresh round of complaints last season about the “No Fun League.”

 

There were 30 so-called “demonstration” penalties in 2016 – up from 29 over the previous two seasons combined and just five in 2013, according to data compiled by the NFL and obtained by USA TODAY Sports.

 

In a meeting here Monday, the competition committee watched video of roughly 40 celebrations that drew fines last season, said one of the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue remains under discussion. Though there was not consensus on all the celebrations, those that were prolonged remain a problem for the committee, in addition to obvious no-nos of mimicking weapons or sex acts according to multiple people in the Monday meeting.

 

Goodell made clear unsportsmanlike conduct was an area of emphasis last season, pushing for a rule (approved as a one-year experiment) that automatically ejected a player for two such violations. As one of the people explained, the intention wasn’t to ramp up flags for celebrations, but officials erred on the conservative side. That pattern, combined with players continuing to push the limits, contributed to the escalation in celebration infractions.

 

Scott Green, the former NFL referee who is now executive director of the NFL Referees Association, acknowledged during Super Bowl week that it’s “getting kind of hard sometimes to determine” what exactly the league wants called. Officials want the rules clearly defined, but would really prefer the NFL enforce the rules through fines rather than flags.

 

“Got to give guys credit – they’re pretty creative,” Green told USA TODAY Sports. “They take it right to the line, and then maybe they go over or they don’t. We would love as a group not to be dealing with celebration issues. But that’s part of our jurisdiction, and unfortunately, we look like the bad guys when we throw the foul after a guy goes 90 yards for the touchdown.”

 

Clarifications to the existing rules – which outlaw a list that includes, but is not limited to, throat slash, machine-gun salute, sexually suggestive gestures, prolonged gyrations and stomping on a team logo – would not necessarily require a vote by the membership.

 

Goodell and other league officials have long cited the need to keep tensions from escalating as reason for making stricter celebration rules. But last season featured flags for, among other things, doing snow angels, hugging an official, shooting the ball like a basketball, jumping into an oversized Salvation Army bucket and a variety of quasi-choreographed dances.

 

In the social media age, originality quite literally pays. Viral video clips can mean endorsement dollars. So, while certain types of celebrations won’t ever gain approval, escalating the war on fun makes little sense, especially as the NFL ponders its early-season ratings dip and tries to find ways to keep reaching a younger generation.

 

That Goodell played along in the skit with Key and Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller – who has borrowed the forbidden celebration of Key’s “Hingle McCringleberry” character and been fined for it – seemed to signal a shift in tone. Key even dressed as the fictional player while hosting the NFL Honors event Feb. 4, showed video of one of Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown’s penalized dances and presented himself an award for excessive celebration, all with Goodell looking on from the audience.

 

 

TAGS

Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com looks at the history of the franchise tag through the best and worst decisions:

 

Can you believe it? The NFL franchise tag has been in use for 25 offseasons, dating to 1993 and the start of the free-agency/salary-cap era.

 

During that span, we’ve seen teams benefit from the arrangement when they preferred not to make a long-term commitment to their best players. The tag has sometimes provided the necessary structure to jump-start negotiations. Occasionally, we’ve seen it work out well for players. (Seattle Seahawks left tackle Walter Jones got to sit out three consecutive training camps, all while earning top dollar as the franchise player, before signing a lucrative long-term deal in 2005.)

 

So in this momentous year, let’s look back at five of the best and worst franchise-tag decisions of 202 total from 1993 to 2016.

 

Quality is based on the perspective of the team, rather than the player who was tagged, and is, of course, up for debate.

 

Best franchise-tag decisions

 

Sean Gilbert, DT, Washington Redskins | Years: 1997-98

The Redskins paid dearly to acquire Gilbert in 1996, sending the No. 6 overall pick to the Rams, so they wanted to get more than one season for their trouble. But Gilbert was a union-minded veteran who drove a hard bargain, and he sat out the 1997 season rather than play under the franchise tag. Rather than pay him, though, the Redskins used the franchise tag again and waited while the Panthers rescued them. Rather than getting saddled with a weighty deal the Panthers soon regretted, the Redskins turned Gilbert into a pair of future first-round picks.

 

Peerless Price, WR, Buffalo Bills | Year: 2003

Sometimes, teams use the franchise tag to increase trade return. The Bills capitalized on Price’s career year — 94 receptions, 1,252 yards, nine touchdowns — in 2002 to dangle him with the tag the following offseason. The Falcons were known to regret passing on Price in the 1999 draft and still wanted him as a weapon for quarterback Michael Vick. Atlanta surrendered its first-round pick in 2003, No. 23 overall, for a player the Bills weren’t planning to bring back. In turn, the Bills used the pick on tailback Willis McGahee — who sat out his rookie year while recovering from a knee injury but then produced 3,365 yards and 24 touchdowns from 2004 to 2006.

 

Albert Haynesworth, DT, Tennessee Titans | Year: 2008

Haynesworth was one of the NFL’s most dynamic and confounding interior disruptors at the time, and the Titans did not meet his demands for a long-term deal. They let him play out the 2008 season under the tag, getting a career-high 8.5 sacks and three forced fumbles from him, and then let him sign a monster free-agent contract with the Redskins in 2009. (By prior agreement, the Titans couldn’t tag him again.) His new deal — which included a then-record $41 million in guarantees — turned out to be one of the worst in free-agent history. Haynesworth was totally disinterested in playing, was traded after appearing in only 20 games and was out of football by the end of the 2011 season. Whether by design or accident, the Titans got out from under him just in time.

 

Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears | Year: 2012

In part because of their shrewd/ruthless use of the tag, the Bears got eight highly productive years from Forte at an overall average of $4.375 million per season. Between 2008 and 2015, no running back had more combined rushing/receiving yards than Forte (12,718). The Bears made him a low offer in 2011, knowing they could use the tag in 2012 if needed. Forte turned it down, and the following year, the sides agreed on a four-year deal worth $32 million. At the time, Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson was earning more than $14 million per year. Forte’s compensation remains one of the most stark examples of how the franchise tag can suppress the salary of high-end players.

 

Anthony Spencer, DE/LB, Dallas Cowboys | Years: 2012-13

In truth, this two-year arrangement worked out well (financially) for both sides. In 2012, Spencer delivered the Cowboys a career season. He totaled 11 sacks and 95 total tackles in 14 games, in exchange for about $8.8 million. The Cowboys franchised him for a second consecutive year in 2013, at a cost of $10.6 million. Spencer then suffered a knee injury that required microfracture surgery. He played in only one game that season and was out of football by 2015. So in the end, the Cowboys were able to pay as they went rather than commit to a long-term deal. And Spencer received a total of $19.4 million over two years, at least as much if not more than he would have taken in over two seasons of a multiyear deal.

 

Worst franchise-tag decisions

 

Joey Galloway, WR, Seahawks/Cowboys | Year: 2000

Let’s be clear. The Seahawks made a great decision to franchise Galloway, even though he was 29 and had caught only 22 passes in 1999 after an eight-game holdout. The Cowboys made the huge blunder here. They were so infatuated with the idea of adding a playmaking receiver that they sent two first-round picks to acquire Galloway’s rights. He never produced a 1,000-yard season for them and scored only 11 touchdowns in three full seasons before being traded again in 2004. The Seahawks used the picks to select running back Shaun Alexander in 2000 and receiver Koren Robinson in 2001.

 

Steve Hutchinson, G, Seahawks | Year: 2006

In this case, the Seahawks erred in not using the franchise tag. Hutchinson was an All-Pro player who wanted elite money at a position that rarely got it. The Seahawks used the transition tag, which offered them only the right of first refusal, to let Hutchinson find his true worth on the market. He did, signing a precedent-setting $49 million offer sheet with the Vikings that contained a “poison pill” that made it impossible for the Seahawks to match. In the end, the Seahawks got too cute and received no compensation for losing a Hall of Fame player that they wanted back all along.

 

Greg Hardy, DE, Carolina Panthers | Year: 2014

To be fair, the Panthers extended the tag three months before Hardy was charged with assaulting his ex-girlfriend. He already had signed the tender by the time the incident occurred, preventing the Panthers from rescinding it. But in the end, the Panthers got only one game out of him (and one sack) while still paying the entirety of his $13.4 million salary. Almost no production, and nationwide scorn, proved a double scar for the franchise.

 

Charles Clay, TE, Miami Dolphins | Year: 2015

A 26-year-old pass-catching tight end who had produced 127 catches and 10 total touchdowns over the previous two seasons? Clay sure seemed to be a keeper. But the Dolphins apparently weren’t convinced. They passed on the $8.347 million franchise number in favor of the $7.071 million transition tag. That decision, worth $1.276 million in potential savings, cost them a player they are still trying to replace. Clay signed a massive offer sheet with the Bills. The Dolphins didn’t match. After veteran Jordan Cameron fell short the past two seasons, the Dolphins will finalize this month a trade for another tight end, Julius Thomas. Clay, meanwhile, has caught 108 passes for the Bills.

 

Josh Norman, CB, Panthers | Year: 2015

I did my best last season to justify and explain the Panthers’ thinking here. There was absolutely an argument to make for allowing a 29-year-old cornerback to move on, especially by a team that philosophically favors building from the interior, rather than committing to multiple years of eight-digit salaries. But you must have a reasonable plan for replacement, and the 2016 season proved the Panthers did not. They ranked No. 24 in defensive QBR, allowing the fourth-most passing yards in the NFL (4,291), despite a pass rush that recorded 47 sacks — second most in the NFL. If nothing else, the Panthers should have allowed Norman to play out the season on the franchise tag and then parted ways.

 

 

2017 DRAFT

Jonathan Jones at SI.com tries to figure out how one-year semi-wonder MITCH TRUBISKY could be the first QB off the board.

 

The day after North Carolina dropped a winnable season-opener against South Carolina in 2015, Keith Heckendorf was on the road recruiting but taking the time to check in on his quarterbacks. When the passing game coordinator and QBs coach got Mitch Trubisky on the phone, he was surprised at what he heard.

 

“Coach, I’m exhausted,” said the redshirt sophomore, who didn’t play a single snap in the 17–13 loss to the Gamecocks. “I lived and died on every play in that game.”

 

Despite a stellar training camp that year, Trubisky lost out on the starting job to Marquise Williams for a second straight year. But Williams struggled in that first game, throwing one touchdown against three interceptions—including two in the end zone—and an overmatched South Carolina team emerged victorious against the Tar Heels. Trubisky admitted to his position coach that he thought his coach would turn to him and he’d lead the Heels to victory.

 

“But Coach,” Trubisky continued, “I don’t want to play because Marquise struggles. I want to play because you, Coach [Larry] Fedora and everyone on this team believes that I can help us win ballgames.”

 

This story is emblematic of Trubisky’s ability to be a great teammate, for sure. But it also lays the foundation for the answer to the question everyone has about one of the draft’s top quarterback who started only one full season of college ball: If Mitch Trubisky is so good, why was he a backup for two seasons to a guy who didn’t make a final 53-man NFL roster?

 

Currently, Trubisky sits in the premiere class of this year’s quarterback crop, ranking just above Deshaun Watson and DeShone Kizer. The former Mr. Ohio threw 30 touchdowns, ran for five more and tossed just six interceptions last season for the 8–5 Tar Heels. He’s accurate with a big arm, mobile inside and outside of the pocket and features a clean character slate. To understand what took him so long to get on your radar, you have to go all the way back to 2013.

 

That season, fifth-year senior Bryn Renner needed season-ending shoulder surgery in early November, and UNC coaches tabbed Williams as the starter for the rest of the season. Trubisky had enrolled early at the school and performed well in the spring, but they decided against burning his redshirt in a season where the Tar Heels started 1–5 and had no shot at an ACC title. Williams won four of his six starts and rolled into the next season with that experience under his belt.

 

Both Fedora and Heckendorf say Trubisky and Williams were neck-and-neck in 2014, but Williams’ experience won out. The Tar Heels also knew their offensive line wasn’t strong, and Williams was the better, more powerful runner of the two. Fedora found a compromise, though. He would play Trubisky on the third offensive series of every game and go from there.

 

“I didn’t want Marquise looking over his shoulder every snap, and I wanted Mitch knowing that he was going in at this point,” Fedora said. “Not, ‘You’re going to go in, oh I don’t like this situation, well maybe next series, now the series after that,’ and then you don’t get him in. We were going to bite the bullet and he’s going in on the third series.

 

“Whether he eventually wins the job or he’s the second-team guy, now he has meaningful reps, so if something does happen to Marquise, we can roll with him.”

 

The rotation was awkward and never worked. Coaches reassured Trubisky that it was fine if a series ends in a punt, but naturally Trubisky pressed trying to make his mark with his opportunity. He completed just 54% of his passes and had as many touchdowns (four) as interceptions. With a historically bad defense—the Heels lost four games in a seven-game stretch by giving up 70, 50, 50 and 47 points—and Trubisky struggling to get comfortable, Fedora abandoned the rotation and the Tar Heels stuck with Williams in a forgettable 6–7 season.

 

With Williams leading the way on the field for the rest of that season, Trubisky kept busy in the weightroom. He came to Carolina at 195 pounds and played the 2016 season between 220-225 pounds with lean muscle gained from the gym. Before the December Sun Bowl against Stanford, Trubisky was doing 350-pound power cleans easily.

 

“That really propelled him into that offseason that hey I’m going to go win this job,” Heckendorf said. “We came into the offseason and I told him if you want this job, you have to go get it. He had this feeling that, ‘I’m not going to let this happen again. I’m going to be ready to lead this team going forward.’”

 

Well, about that…

 

By most accounts, Trubisky was the better quarterback in the fall leading up to the start of the 2015 season and would have been the starter in a vacuum. But the truth was that Trubisky had to be demonstrably better than Williams to get the job for three reasons. First, Williams had 19 starts to Trubisky’s zero. Second, Williams was one of the lone offensive bright spots from the previous year and boasted the charisma and leadership qualities the team needed. And finally, benching a fifth-year senior quarterback from Charlotte to start the year likely wouldn’t have played well back in UNC’s biggest recruiting hub.

 

There was some disagreement among the offensive staff members on Fedora’s decision but they went with it. The Tar Heels were on their way to a 3–1 record that season when Fedora yanked Williams midway through the win against Delaware because Williams was freelancing against the Blue Hens. Trubisky completed 17 of his 20 passes (with two drops) for 312 yards and four touchdowns and was named the ACC Offensive Back of the Week.

 

The following day Fedora told his staff that he was sticking with Williams so long as the senior would play within the offense the following week at Georgia Tech. Against the Yellow Jackets, the Tar Heels went down 21–0 in the first half, and there was a palpable feeling the offense would soon be turned over to Trubisky.

 

“A change may have happened” at quarterback if things had gone differently, Fedora said. “What you are thinking about in that game,” he continued, “do we need a change to try to spark something? What’s the reason that we’re down 21-0 right now? It wasn’t the quarterback.”

 

Williams engineered one of the greatest comebacks in team history. He led the team in passing, rushing and receiving in that game and got the 38–31 win in Atlanta, the first one for North Carolina since 1997.

 

“From that moment, there was no conversation,” Heckendorf says emphatically. “There was no conversation. That solidified that this is Marquise’s team.”

 

UNC went 11–3 that season, including a narrow loss to Clemson in the ACC title game. Conference coaches and media voted Williams as the second-team All-ACC quarterback behind Heisman-finalist Watson. Williams finished his UNC career as the school’s all-time leader in total offense and touchdowns scored. So while it’s true that Williams went undrafted last year and didn’t make the final cut in Green Bay, he’s also one of the most prolific players in Carolina history.

 

Trubisky’s play in 2016 didn’t surprise anyone in Tar Heel Land. He showed glimpses of it in spot duty during the 2015 season (he completed 85% of his passes and had six touchdowns and no picks), and Trubisky rolled in the first three-quarters of the season. He had UNC at 7–2 with a shot at a rematch with Clemson in the conference title game when his game (and the rest of the team) took a step back. The Tar Heels lost three of their last four games, including the Sun Bowl loss against Stanford. If the biggest knock on Trubisky is his pocket awareness, those bad traits showed in losses to rivals Duke and N.C. State. But Trubisky’s coach is willing to shoulder the blame for that.

 

Trubisky, a mild-mannered kid from Ohio, was suddenly atop Mel Kiper’s Big Board for quarterbacks. He made the back page of a New York tabloid. His friends and teammates teased and questioned him about his future plans.

 

“As I look back on it, I wish I could have done more to take some of that pressure off of him,” Fedora admits. “I wish I could have shut it down so that it would have been taken off of him so he didn’t have to always worry about it because it was there. I think I could have done a better job of insulating him from it, and down the stretch he would have been an even better quarterback.”

 

That’s a coach’s lament for a player who waited his turn not once but twice, who didn’t raise a fuss when he wasn’t picked, who didn’t demand a transfer in a player-coach meeting and whose parents didn’t trash the school on a message board. Trubisky will face that pressure this week at the combine, next month at his pro day and in his several individual meetings with these in weeks before the draft. Fedora is sure Trubisky can and will rise to the occasion, and Trubisky has already fulfilled one of his coach’s prophecies.

 

“If you didn’t follow Carolina football closely and didn’t see the controversy of the quarterbacks early on, you wouldn’t have known who Mitch was before this year,” Heckendorf said. “I would go to recruits and say by the end of this season, everybody in the country will know who Mitch Trubisky is. I believed it with every fiber of my being.

 

“And sure enough, the season ends and everybody in the country knows who Mitch Trubisky is.”