PALM BEACH, Fla. — It was summer in South Florida, Matt Ryan was still the Falcons’ quarterback, and after the team’s joint practice with Miami, Dolphins general manager Chris Grier went to his new Atlanta counterpart, Terry Fontenot, to give the first-year GM the proverbial pat on the back.
You guys are gonna be better than people think.
Grier was right. The Falcons found a way to win seven games and, if you looked hard enough at how the season went, you might’ve come out of it convinced that Atlanta was, six months after that conversation, indeed closer than people had thought. They even beat that Dolphins team, one that sure looked like the more talented group in August, two months after Grier offered Fontenot that small piece of encouragement.
Fontenot wasn’t fooled, though. He knew a reckoning was coming. And the truth in the Matt Ryan trade of last week is that, a year in as Falcons GM and coach, he and Arthur Smith simply went through with a conscious decision—the time for that reckoning was now.
That didn’t make trading away a 14-year veteran and face of the franchise—one who helped dig the Falcons out of a very deep ditch back in 2008—any easier. But where it might’ve appeared that Atlanta’s failed run at Deshaun Watson forced the team’s hand on Ryan, the facts were that the calls that Fontenot and Smith made last Monday, the former to Colts GM Chris Ballard and the latter to Ryan himself, were 14 months in the making.
But now that it’s done, the Falcons’ rebuild is really underway.
We’re about to tell you the story of how it happened.
We’re at the league’s annual meeting, and the offseason’s pace hasn’t skipped a beat, so we’ve got plenty to get to in this week’s MMQB. Inside the column, you’ll find …
• A deep dive into the NFL’s looming overtime decision.
• A rundown of the top free agents available—and why they’re available.
• More on the trade prospects of Jimmy Garoppolo and Baker Mayfield.
But we’re starting, for the third straight week, with the ins and outs of a blockbuster quarterback trade. And in this case, we’ll tell you why it was bound to happen.
There’s one number that best illustrates the problem that Smith and Fontenot faced when they started working in Atlanta two Januarys ago—$105,009,700. That was the combined cap charge for franchise cornerstones Ryan, Julio Jones, Jake Matthews and Grady Jarrett for the 2021 league year, before any decisions were made.
That was also 58% of the NFL’s 2021 cap number.
After years of restructures, mortgaging charges against the limit into the future, something was going to have to give. And it did. Smith and Fontenot decided that, at least for a year, they were going to work to field a competitive team, with the team’s longtime leaders in place, to try to establish the kind of foundation they’d need to lean on when the time did come to rip the Band-Aid off.
Scroll to Continue
So they restructured Ryan and Matthews. They traded Jones. They decided to swallow hard and keep Jarrett’s number where it was. In doing so, they went young in a lot of areas, and cheap in others, and lacked depth across the roster. It was enough to give Smith and his staff a chance to coach the team into playoff contention until the new year, before the wheels came off at the very end of the season.
And yes, the Falcons could’ve restructured Ryan again, kicking the can down the road another time. But in the end, what would that have accomplished?
Over the last few weeks, what crystallized for everyone involved was how the team and player in this case were in much different places—the Falcons needing to turn the page, clean up their cap, and get younger and deeper, and Ryan, at 37, being at a win-now age for a team that simply couldn’t operate that way.
Which meant that as the team started negotiating extensions for Matthews (that one’s done) and Jarrett (the team is hopeful that one will happen), it was time to do with Ryan what it did with Jones last year, and consider all options on perhaps the greatest player in franchise history.
• The process started at the combine, when the Falcons met with other teams, and Fontenot and Smith wanted to get a gauge on Ryan’s market value—while being careful about how his name came up in those conversations. The plan was to be communicative and above board with Ryan throughout, so Atlanta couldn’t create the appearance it was shopping Ryan, because at that point the Falcons weren’t.
But the small circle involved had a way of getting the information it needed. When Ryan’s name came up, the answer would be, We’re not shopping anyone, but we’ll listen on everyone. And then, Well, if you’re looking at what the Lions and Rams did, then we can talk. That’d elicit a laugh—because the Matthew Stafford price would certainly be too high. But then the Falcons would follow back up with, O.K., then what’s the value?
Based on Ryan’s age and price tag, it became clear that getting more than a fourth-round pick was going to be difficult.
• Over the course of last season, the Falcons had heard Watson would have an interest in playing in Atlanta, which is an hour away from his hometown of Gainesville, Ga., and wouldn’t be afraid of being part of a rebuild if it meant getting to play in front of his friends and family. The Falcons knew that wasn’t going to be possible last summer or before the trade deadline—but going into 2022, it’d be feasible.
So they launched an investigation into Watson’s background, and when the grand jury in Harris County, Texas returned no charges on nine cases filed against the quarterback, they decided to throw their hat in the ring.
But first, they wanted to go to Ryan. Smith told him it was a unique opportunity to get 11 years younger at the position, and promised to keep him apprised throughout—and involve him in a trade if it came to that. From there, Ryan agreed to push back the “earned” date of his roster bonus to grease the skids on a trade, if the Falcons were to land Watson. The $7.5 million roster bonus had been due on March 18. It was moved to March 21.
• At that point, Colts assistant GM Ed Dodds and Falcons vice president of player personnel Kyle Smith had started preliminary conversations on a trade, and Arthur Smith and Frank Reich had spoken, too. And around the time that Fontenot, Smith, Falcons owner Arthur Blank and president Rich McKay met with Watson, over Zoom on March 16, Fontenot called Ballard for the first time, knowing that groundwork had been laid by Dodds and Kyle Smith.
“Is there really interest?” Fontenot asked.
“There is,” Ballard responded.
Ballard and Fontenot resolved to keep talking as the situation with Watson drove toward a conclusion.
• On March 18, Watson stunned the NFL by reversing course and choosing the Browns, a team he’d eliminated already, with the Falcons and Saints having been the presumed finalists at daybreak. And where some assumed that the Falcons would then try to patch things up with Ryan, Smith called his quarterback and told him that the Colts had called about him and asked if he was interested in going there.
“I’d love to look into it,” Ryan said.
Ryan’s agent, Todd France, affirmed to Fontenot that the quarterback wanted a meeting.
So on that Saturday morning, Fontenot called Ballard and gave him permission to call Ryan over Zoom—with an email communicating that the Colts would have a four-hour window, from 4 to 8 p.m. ET, to talk to him. Ballard got Colts head coach Frank Reich, offensive coordinator Marcus Brady and assistant quarterback coach Parks Frazier rounded up to make the call with him.
Over a long talk, Ryan’s passion to keep playing, and start winning again, resonated with the Colts’ group.
• On Sunday morning, Ballard reached out to Fontenot and told him he’d call him around 3 p.m. When he did, Ballard’s message was simple: Yes, we want Matt, but we can’t do more than a fourth-round pick for him.
Ballard had, more or less, nailed the market price that those talks at the combine established for the Falcons, and made the argument that it was tough to find a comp for a player like Ryan in a trade. Fontenot threw out names that were a little younger, like Alex Smith’s. And eventually, the cajoling got the Colts to move their offer up to the lower of their third-round picks, 82nd overall (the Colts acquired the 73rd pick in the Carson Wentz trade).
For the Colts, Ryan represented the type of opportunity that Ballard hoped would arise if the team was just patient in filling the hole, which wasn’t an easy position to take, given that they simultaneously thought being aggressive in moving Wentz would get them ahead of the market and, thus, a better return.
• On Monday, Smith had a speaking engagement at his alma mater in conjunction with a book tour Blank was on, in Chapel Hill, N.C., and was meeting with UNC prospects to try to get the most out of the trip. Fontenot was at Kenny Pickett’s pro day at Pitt. Ballard was in Indianapolis, huddled in draft meetings with his scouts.
Ballard called Fontenot from his office with just a few hours left until the roster bonus would be earned at 4 p.m. ET to push the deal over the goal line—82 for Ryan. Fontenot was on the field after the workout was over, waiting for the team’s private meeting with Pickett.
Smith called Ryan and told him. Fontenot called Ryan while that call was still going on, and Ryan called Fontenot back after he was done with Smith. And that was that.
Fontenot was then called upstairs and went to watch tape with Pickett.
Normally, these things can get messy. But the Falcons resolved this one wouldn’t, and the Colts made sure they wouldn’t be the reason it did, either.
So the upshot for the Falcons?
The page is officially turned. They’ve maintained a veteran presence, in bringing back Matthews and working on an extension with Jarrett, and signing economical pros like Casey Hayward. They’ll be young this year. They have the eighth pick in the draft, an extra two from the Jones trade and an extra three from this trade. They project, as it stands now, to be top three in the league in cap space in 2023.
Meanwhile, the Colts have their quarterback. And Ryan has a new home.
He never said to the Falcons specifically that he wanted to go to the Colts. But it was clear from the minute Indianapolis was raised as a possibility that he’d be good with it. Ryan knew it was time.
By then, everyone did.
OVERTIME OPEN FOR DEBATE
The one consistent theme of the NFL’s annual meeting—which is back in person for the first time in three years—is that rule changes always loom large. And the debate the owners, coaches and executives will have Tuesday, over the state of overtime, generated one of the most memorable stories from this particular summit over the last couple of decades.
It was 2010 in Orlando, and a proposal to put in the current overtime format (allowing only touchdowns to end games on the extra period’s first possession) for the playoffs was getting significant pushback from coaches. So the owners waited until the coaches had their annual golf outing at the course adjacent to the Grande Lakes Ritz-Carlton, then passed the proposal by a 28–4 vote.
“Kind of interesting the vote could be 28–4 when one of the owners was out on the [golf] course with us,” then Vikings coach Brad Childress said that day. “I’m sure they have kind of a proxy system here. [The results] got to us about hole 15—their prerogative.”
More than a few attitudes have shifted since then, for sure. Two years after the golf fiasco, the modified overtime went in for regular season games, too, and now the competition committee, the owners and, yes, the coaches are back at the table again.
There are two proposals being considered. The first, put forth jointly by the Colts and Eagles, proposed guaranteeing a possession to each team, then going to sudden death after that. The second, proposed by the Titans, allows for an overtime game to end after one possession only if the team getting the first possession scores a touchdown, then chooses to go for two and converts.
Bolstering both is a raft of data the NFL is sorting through, which reflects the biggest shift in the way overtime is being discussed now versus where the league, the teams and the individuals in the room were back in 2010. And that shift has framed most of the dialogue that’s taken place this time around.
“We probably had three or four in-depth conversations on overtime,” said Falcons president and competition committee chairman Rich McKay. “And the nice thing is they’re driven nowadays by the analytics that we get from the league office, which are incredibly in-depth and very informative. And that allowed us to have a bunch of discussions. Doesn’t mean we all see it the same way, and we’ll give our position as a committee on Tuesday morning.
“But it does lead to really good discussion, because in the old days, and I say old days, it was 10 years ago, we would’ve had less statistics, we would’ve had no analytics, and we probably would’ve watched tape of something. Today’s environment, you get so much more information and it gives you a better understanding of what the issue truly is. And that’s what we got from the league office, which I thought they did an excellent job of.”
And what’s interesting is that the most powerful data point might be the simplest piece of information available.
That was the piece of the report that showed that in 12 overtime playoff games since 2010, 10 of them were won by the team that won the toss and seven of those 10 wins came on the first possession of overtime. And it was 10 of 11 before the Bengals beat the Chiefs in this year’s AFC title game, a game that was preceded by a week by the Chiefs-Bills showdown that reignited the conversation.
But one key was that this time around, unlike in 2019, when the Chiefs proposed a similar rule change after losing in the fashion the Bills just did to them, it wasn’t an aggrieved party pushing the change. Instead, it was three teams that were unattached.
“I think there’s more than that game,” McKay told me. “You said that game, is it a flashpoint? I’d say no, look at all the stats. They’ll speak to you on it.”
Here are some of the numbers, and other factors involved.
• The NFL’s analytics team initially presented the competition committee with 37 slides, and 20 of the 37 slides made it into the committee’s report ahead of the annual meeting. One impactful piece of evidence supporting the need for an overtime adjustment—since the modified overtime went in for regular season games 10 years ago, three teams that lost their conference’s top seed on tiebreakers had losses on their ledger that came on the first possession of overtime. And there were three teams last year alone that lost such a game and missed the playoffs by a single game.
• Making things starker in the playoffs, as the competition committee sees it, is the quality of quarterbacks, the quality of offenses and the fatigue of defenses that many plays into a game that late in the year. And beyond just that, the analytics showed that offenses are also more aggressive, in part because it’s higher stakes, of course, and also because in the regular season, the possibility of a tie exists, so offenses are trying to take time off the clock to minimize the chance the other team gets the ball back and scores.
• The injury and television aspects that were once a factor really aren’t anymore. The analytics helped on the former, too, in showing that there wasn’t a notable jump in injuries in overtime, or through the week following an overtime game for players. On the latter, where the networks used to complain about games running into later windows or other programming, now, in the words of one source, “They want the games to go on forever.” Which is to say NFL games are dusting 60 Minutes in the ratings.
• The competition committee certainly could’ve tweaked the team proposals, but the two had both crossed an unofficial threshold for taking a rule change to a larger discussion—more than half the league was willing to at least consider it, based on the committee’s annual surveys. The survey, by the way, was done before the analytics supporting a change in overtime was distributed to teams.
• These two proposals aren’t the only ones that have elicited at least some discussion. Another is Baltimore’s spot-and-choose idea, which we detailed in a column last year. And a fourth, one I hadn’t heard about until this week, is one called “continuation”—with the idea being that you just keep playing if the game is tied at the end of regulation in a sudden death format, so whoever has the ball last keeps it after the fourth quarter expires. (I like this one, but haven’t had as much time to think about it.)
• The hardest group to crack on overtime, as it was in 2010, has been the coaches. And that’s understandable, mostly because it’s another strategic piece of the game for them to adapt to, knowing it’s their rear ends on the line when it’s time to make decisions in these spots.
So where does this go from here? My guess is the league will have a hard time getting to 24 votes on its first try—because that’s how these things normally work—and they’ll take a straw poll in the room that’ll reflect that, and table it. And then, eventually, in 2023 or ’24, the change will come, from one proposal or another.
I’d also hope that this time around the coaches are in the room for it.
Outside of the overtime rules, this should be a relatively uneventful week in Florida. I say that, of course, knowing that bomb after bomb has dropped this offseason. I’m certainly not ruling out some sort of football transaction coming to life here. But, just as far as what’s on the league’s agenda this week, it’s pretty light.
• The NFL’s diversity, equality and inclusion committee met on Saturday and Sunday, will again Monday and, outside of overtime, the biggest headline could be generated in that area. The league has made pretty significant progress in improving its numbers in the general manager and coordinator ranks, but continues to lag badly in head coach hiring, which promises to continue to be a point of conversation over the coming days.
• From a business standpoint, news on G4 funding for a new Buffalo stadium should be coming. And while the Bills probably won’t have a new stadium lease before leaving Palm Beach, Terry and Kim Pegula have been talking with the state and New York governor Kathy Hochul on the subject, and a memorandum of understanding is in play. Securing those interest-free loans from the league is, of course, a big part of the process.
• The sale of the Broncos is another topic that’ll be on the docket for the owners to sort through. But where the Bills are nearing the finish line on their stadium effort, Denver is closer to the start. This is a relevant one for all teams, too, because it’s really the first team to go up for sale with the new realities of legalized gambling in place. Part of the reason why Panthers owner David Tepper bought when he did—four years ago, at a price of $2.275 billion—was in anticipation of legalized gambling soon goosing the value of each team.
• With the media deals in place, there’ll be updates on the television contracts, and obviously the state of broadcasting games will be discussed (as it is at every annual meeting) with a lot of moving parts in that area this offseason, with big-name play-by-play guys and analysts shuffling and Amazon preparing to enter the fray in the fall.
And then, there’s something that’s not on the agenda that should be pretty interesting to keep an eye on …
The impact of the Deshaun Watson trade. Most commentary, and rightfully so, coming out of the quarterback’s introductory press conference revolved around his legal situation and the 22 lawsuits against him, filed by women alleging sexual harassment or assault. But for the owners, as big of a talking point this week might be what the contract Watson signed on Friday, fully guaranteed at $230 million over the next five years, means for other players going forward. And for the owners, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam’s willingness to do the deal could soon be seen as an unfortunate pivot point. Forever, owners have leaned on the funding rule—an archaic NFL regulation, from times when teams might not have had the money to pay every player, that requires a team to put every fully guaranteed dollar in a contract into an escrow account—as a reason why they can’t fully guarantee deals. In this case, Haslam’s willingness to write a $184 million escrow check (he’ll have to write it next March, by rule), lays bare the fallacy in owners’ using the rule as a crutch to give their teams protection on player contracts.
“This contract is a game-changer,” said high-profile agent Mike McCartney of the deal, done by Athletes First’s David Mulugheta. “And I hope the beginning of the end of the funding rule.”
McCartney would know—he did a groundbreaking quarterback deal of his own in 2018, when Kirk Cousins signed the first fully guaranteed multi-year deal in NFL history, landing Cousins $84 million over three years. But even he agreed that the Watson deal takes it to a different stratosphere, with the fourth and fifth years being guaranteed. So, yes, there’s a burden on the next group of quarterbacks to come due for deals, not to give on money or structure (traditionally, teams have been reluctant to give on both). The bottom line is that if the NFL was ever going to have fully guaranteed deals, it’d have to happen like this. Many hoped it’d happen with Cousins, but Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz signed more conventional NFL contracts in the year and a half to follow. We’ll see if Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert can get a different result. If they can, it’s fair to say they’ll be able to point back to what the Browns, Watson and Mulugheta did as to where the seeds were planted. And that’s why my guess would be, when the owners get into their privileged (owners only) sessions this week, things could get awfully interesting, and specifically for Haslam himself.
I think, for the most part, the Browns’ press conference was what it was always going to be. And the principles in it—GM Andrew Berry, coach Kevin Stefanski, and, of course, Watson himself—said what they were always going to say. Watson has maintained his innocence throughout, and because the 22 civil lawsuits are still pending, it was obvious he was going to be advised away from going into detail or even giving partial mea culpas. And as for Berry and Stefanski, no, they didn’t flat-out say that they think Watson is innocent. The Browns knew they’d have to own the decision, and for the most part, they did.
And as for the Haslams? Obviously, the comment Jimmy Haslam made about giving his daughters and wife veto power over the trade, regardless of his intention, looked like he was putting them on the hook for the transaction; and I also think that the Haslams should’ve moved heaven and earth to be on that stage in Ohio (It’s not like they’d have had to make a connection on Delta to get there). This, for so many reasons, was a very big deal to a lot of people, and being there in person would’ve shown acknowledgment of that from the family that owns the team. And if for some reason getting there was impossible, they should’ve at least talked before Berry and Stefanski did—the way they did it made it look like they were screening questions and taking the temperature. Which, of course, looks like the Haslams trying to manage the situation, rather than take it head on. But they will have time to make up for it, because if Friday showed us anything, it’s that, in a lot of ways, it’s going to take time (as it should) for Watson and the team to move past everything that went into the trade.
There are more interesting names than usual out on the free agent market right now. And ESPN’s Field Yates had a tweet listing some of those.
What do those guys have in common? Bobby Wagner is 32, Stephon Gilmore is 31, Odell Beckham Jr. is 29, Tyrann Mathieu is 30, Julio Jones is 33, Jadeveon Clowney is 29, Calais Campbell is 36, J.C. Tretter is 31, Jarvis Landry is 29, Duane Brown is 37 and Melvin Gordon is 29. And the age of the guys on this list, to me, shows a few things …
1. Guys are effective deeper into their careers now, to the point where we’re talking about this number of 30-somethings (or soon-to-be 30-somethings) this way.
2. Those who can make it that far, and have already made their money, are more willing to be patient and wait for the right team and deal to come along.
3. In a year like this, with so many big-box transactions hurtling down the pike, such patience gives older players better perspective on where the NFL will be in the fall.
4. Clowney has shown that deals for veterans will still be there for guys who wait, and waiting means being able to stay where you live and work out with your people.
Then, there’s the team side of this—and how the compensatory pick formula factors into all of it. If a club picks up one of these guys (with the exception of those like Landry, who are cut) now, it affects what they’ll get in comp picks in 2023. But come the first week of May, teams can sign players without it going into the formula. So there’s a benefit for the teams in waiting, and for the player in that some of the savvier teams in this area (Ravens, Patriots) might have renewed interest six weeks from now. So some of the available free agents, to be sure, could get snapped up soon. But others might sit out there for a while, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing for anyone involved.
The Tyreek Hill trade signals where the NFL has been going for a while. Teams are always copycatting the league’s biggest winners, and that’s why, over the last couple of years, you’ve seen teams bend over backward to try to give their quarterbacks their own version of Hill. It’s one reason why Hollywood Brown was the first receiver taken in 2019; why Henry Ruggs III went in front of Jerry Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb in ’20; and why Jaylen Waddle went sixth last year, four picks ahead of his Heisman–winning teammate DeVonta Smith.
But just as this trend has caught on, we’ve seen the league adjust—one trend I identified coming out of the season, that a bunch of teams raised to me as prominent in the league over the course of the year, was the rise in two-high-safety looks on defense predicated on taking shots away, and forcing offenses to go 10 or 12 or 14 plays to get in the end zone. It was a factor in why the Chiefs’ offense struggled early in the season (they’d eventually adjust), and in how teams played against teams with quarterbacks capable of making a living downfield and on broken plays. And the truth is, it worked.
So it’ll be interesting to see how the Dolphins use Hill (like we said in Friday’s GamePlan, it’s a smart bet that you’ll see Mike McDaniel build an offense, and game plans, predicated on getting the ball out quickly and into Hill’s and Waddle’s hands, which plays to what Tua Tagovailoa’s strengths were at Alabama), and also whether this leads to an adjustment in how the Chiefs play. Though Marques Valdez-Scantling is a burner, both he and fellow new Chief JuJu Smith-Schuster are bigger receivers than Kansas City has had since Patrick Mahomes took the reins in 2018.
My sense is Jimmy Garoppolo’s shoulder is the biggest factor in the 49ers’ struggle to find a trade partner. Make no mistake—the Niners’ plan from the start was to trade Garoppolo. They were budgeting to have him off their books, and Garoppolo felt like he was gone when the season ended in the NFC title game. The plan, as I’ve heard it, was to deal him after the big quarterback dominoes (Watson, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers) fell. And yet, here we are, and Garoppolo’s still a Niner. What gives? The injury to Garoppolo’s throwing shoulder is a bigger deal than I thought it’d be, and maybe more so than the Niners thought it’d be too. Why? Two reasons.
1. If you’re trading for him, knowing he won’t be ready until late June or early July means you’ll go through the spring building an offense for him without him on the field. And then, if he has to be managed through training camp, the problem is exacerbated.
2. He’s only under contract for 2022, at $25.6 million. So absent an extension, trading for him is a for-now move, and it’s tough to make a for-now move for a quarterback who could still have lingering effects of a throwing-shoulder injury through the only year he’s signed for.
And I also don’t believe the Niners are going to give him away. The belief, as we’ve said, was two second-round picks would get it done. My guess is, given the climate now, that would be negotiable. But keeping Garoppolo wouldn’t be impossible for the Niners, either. My expectation is the offense the Niners build for Trey Lance, because of where he is in his development and what his strengths are, will look pretty different, and Garoppolo being out for the spring gives both the team and Lance the chance to work on that. And if it doesn’t work? Having Garoppolo around as insurance wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. It’s not the conclusion that the player or the team wanted, but I don’t think it’s impossible that’s what will end up happening if the right offer doesn’t come along. We’ll see if it does. The Panthers are still the one team that lines up as the cleanest fit, but with jobs on the line in 2022, it may be tough, again, to rely on a quarterback coming back from that kind of injury.
The Baker Mayfield situation is different from Garoppolo’s. To me, this is really about the music stopping on the quarterback carousel (at least momentarily), and there not being a team that would have made Mayfield its clear-cut starter. Which means, as we mentioned in Friday’s GamePlan, because he’s a backup, no one seems willing to pay him his $18.858 million option for 2022. And for the Browns, that means offloading him might mean having to eat some of his salary, and having to do that gives Mayfield a level of control—he could refuse to renegotiate his contract if he doesn’t like a trade destination. Ultimately, to me, doing that, then dealing him to a team like the Seahawks or Lions, where he could compete with another reclamation project quarterback (Drew Lock or Jared Goff), and give those teams another shot at getting their quarterback spot right, makes the most sense.
The comment that Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians made to my old colleague Steve Wyche here this weekend was interesting. Wyche asked Arians if the Buccaneers would have been involved in the quarterback whirlwind of the last three weeks had Tom Brady not come back. Arians responded that Tampa Bay was already in the trenches. “We had started to uncover as many stones as we possibly could,” Arians said. “We would’ve turned over every stone. … [GM] Jason [Licht] did his calls. We were in the midst of all that stuff when Tom decided to come back, and thank God we could say, ‘No thanks, brother. We’re out of it.’”
I’ve heard Watson would’ve had some interest in Tampa if there was an opening there (I don’t know if the Bucs would’ve pursued him), and Wilson might have been in play, too. Which makes sense, since Tampa built its team with contracts that allowed for the championship window to remain open this year, after Brady signed his one-year extension last year.
The earth-shaking trades of the last three weeks are, yes, part of a trend. But that trend didn’t just begin. In September of 2019, I did research for a story that showed that over the first seven years of the 2011 CBA, just eight players were traded for first-round picks or first-rounders and then some; while in the 17 months to follow (April 2018 to August 2019) there were eight such deals (Brandin Cooks twice, Khalil Mack, Amari Cooper, Odell Beckham Jr., Frank Clark, Laremy Tunsil and Minkah Fitzpatrick). The reasons I heard for that shift varied, from the financials (trades are a better place to land expensive vets than free agency) to the NBA influence (players forcing their way out) to job security concerns (teams have to win faster) to a younger group of GMs (who are less averse to risk-taking). All of those still apply, and the trend has only accelerated since, with four such deals happening this month (Watson, Wilson, Hill, Davante Adams). And so, just to revise the list, here are two more I’d add to it for 2022.
1. Teams, like the Colts and Falcons, recognizing a shared benefit based on the spots each franchise is in. You can see that, in fact, in almost every one of these deals, as we mentioned earlier.
2. The Rams-ification of the NFL. This kind of imitation often happens with championship teams, so that’s a part of it, of course. But it’s also what teams see themselves as being up against—it’s tough to beat a team that’s as aggressive as L.A. has been without being as aggressive in building your roster. Or so the idea goes.
So will this keep going? I think it will. The factors pushing the explosion of trade activity aren’t going to reverse themselves, and the expected growth of the cap in the coming years will only help facilitate blockbusters in the future. Which means … buckle up. This is probably the new normal.
We’ve got quick-hitting takeaways, because of course we do. I don’t need to tell any of you that things haven’t slowed down even a little bit …
• I liked what I heard from Johnny Manziel, who’ll play this spring in Fan Controlled Football, in an interview with ESPN’s Kevin Seifert. He told Seifert that he no longer has it in him to make the sort of commitment it takes to be a pro athlete, but still loves the game, and it’s awesome to see that he’s playing in the minor league for that reason.
• Through last week’s run of quarterback pro days, I can say Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder made a positive impression on scouts. I don’t know how high he’ll go, but I had one coach tell me that if he had the receivers who were on display the day before at Ohio State, it would’ve really been a show.
• Liberty’s Malik Willis’s personality continues to be a talking point among teams that have met with him. He’s good, too, at teaching back Liberty’s admittedly simplistic offense to coaches. And that’s important, because his ability to learn and apply that sort of stuff is a part of where the college-to-pro projection with him is.
• The last couple of weeks also help illustrate why Kyler Murray wanted his contract done early in the offseason—even after the Cardinals asked him to wait until the summer. Part of his leverage would’ve been his ability to demand a trade, and demanding a trade requires suitors, which there are fewer of by the day. There’ll be even fewer after the draft, which is why Murray wants his situation resolved by then.
• I’ll be interested to see if Khalil Mack’s toe injury affects him as a Charger. And the reason is that it’s a pretty rare one for a football player. That doesn’t mean it’s any more or less serious than other injuries, it may just be a little trickier to manage (or maybe it won’t be).
• For the life of me, I don’t know why fake years continue to be tacked onto the end of monster contracts, only there to boost the deal’s average per year. In the end, maybe it’s worth it from a public relations standpoint for the player (and mostly his agent). Is the player fooled by that? Or a player he’s recruiting? I don’t know.
• Ronald Jones II seems like the kind of hammer the Chiefs could use to exploit lighter boxes built to deal with Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce & Co., similar to how Leonard Fournette has done that for the Bucs the last couple of years. I like Jones’s fit there.
• I do think Brady-to-the-Dolphins might have been a legit thought a while back. I don’t think it is anymore.
• The Jets’ willingness to part with their second-round picks (No. 35 and 38), but not either of their first-rounders (No. 4 and 10) for Hill is another great example of what a big factor contracts are in trades.
• Here’s hoping for a quieter week. (I know all of you are rooting for the opposite.)
SIX FROM THE SIDELINES
1. Google Run Baby Run Center. It’ll make the Saint Peter’s story even more amazing for you. Or at least it did for me.
2. This is a pretty perfect time to be in Florida for someone like me. Just ahead of the oppressive heat, and right before it gets warm in the Northeast.
3. And even better if you find a place like Henry’s Palm Beach to eat.
4. Arch Manning’s recruitment is fascinating to me. He’s from as high-profile a family as there is in the sport, and one that’s never shied away from attention, and yet here he is quietly taking visits without much social media fanfare and few breadcrumbs on where he’s going (he was reported over the weekend to be taking his third visit to Alabama). Good job by his dad, Cooper, in trying to let him be a kid for as long as is possible, which isn’t much longer.
5. Starting to buy in on the Celtics.
6. Hard not to feel optimistic about where we are as a country on COVID-19 right now.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Man, that’s not cool.
Neither is that!
Jones did, in fact, restructure to help the Dolphins get Hill.
Social media’s great, isn’t it?
And good recovery, too.
This was part of a miniseries produced by the Tweet King.
Not sure what the proper analogy is here. (Happy everyone’s safe.)
Attention NFL prospects: This is the correct answer.
He’s definitely getting work in.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Generally, the annual meeting is a pivot point for the NFL, going from the veteran market to the draft, with each team’s draft meetings ramping up over the next couple of weeks—so we’ll have more draft-centric columns coming on the site soon.
Yeah and … who am I kidding? Given the way this month has gone, who the hell knows what’s next? (Whatever it is, we’ll have it covered for you this afternoon in the MAQB.)
More NFL Coverage:
• Mailbag: Is Tannehill on Thin Ice in Tennessee?
• Math Behind the Wide Receiver Blockbusters
• The New Normal of Madden Roster Building
• How 22 Women and One Star Quarterback Got Here