Happy new year! The league year starts Wednesday, meaning some of the deals we’ve known about for a while can now become official. On to your mail …
From Hulkeinstein (@Hulkeinstein14): Does the list of known interested teams (Falcons, Saints, Browns, Panthers) for Deshaun Watson reflect the full list of teams still in play?
Hulk, I think this list reflects the teams that, for now, have a serious interest and the capital to be players in the sweepstakes, and are attractive enough to Watson for him to consider waiving his no-trade clause. For those who haven’t paid as close attention, Watson met with the Panthers and Saints on Monday, the Browns on Tuesday, and the Falcons are on tap Wednesday, with the hope that his trade will happen on an expedited timeline.
And I do think a deal happening fast matters for everyone. That the grand jury decision came down Friday is a big part of that, creating a short window between the court date and the start of the league year Wednesday afternoon. For the teams interested, onboarding Watson will mean making salary cap space for him and starting to build around him. For Watson, if he wants to get other guys to come with him, that’ll have to start happening soon. For the Texans, knowing what you’re working with, and having cap space now, would really help.
So I do think this process will remain relatively straightforward, because it has to be straightforward if this situation’s going to get football closure after 14 months.
From Noah Fromson (@NoahFromson): What happens for the Browns if Watson doesn’t happen? Carr/Ryan? Stick with Baker? Draft a QB?
Noah, that’s a good question. The easy answer, to me, is going back to Baker Mayfield, who’s playing on a fully guaranteed $18.86 million option this year. Mayfield helped the Browns go 11–5 in his first year playing for Kevin Stefanski and played through injury last year. And I don’t view the pursuit of Watson as a total indictment of Mayfield; it’s more a recognition of a special opportunity (though it does say Mayfield fell short of the kind of expectations that you’d attach to a quarterback taken with the No. 1 pick).
The problem could wind up being how Mayfield reacts to all this, and what we saw Tuesday night might just be the start of it. You could say he should look at this reasonably, realize that he’s going to have made more than $50 million over the last five years, see his own performance as short of what would make a team want to give a quarterback a top-of-the-market extension and try to show everyone what he’s capable of in 2022.
But we all know Mayfield’s a different cat. Will this strain things to the point where another move might be necessary? Remember, this is the same guy who, upon having his job taken due to injury, after becoming a starter as a Texas Tech true-freshman walk-on, decided to show up on Oklahoma’s campus and walk on there. So it’s hard to rule anything out. That said, my guess would be that Stefanski and Andrew Berry planned for all that before moving forward with the Watson meeting.
They know what they’re dealing with. And I do know as of the last couple of weeks, even before the Browns landed the Watson meeting, those inside the building saw the quarterback position as one in flux, regardless of anything that was said publicly.
From Greg (@panther1gb89): If the Panthers don’t land Watson, what’s plan B?
Greg, they don’t have to worry as much about fallout, because they don’t have anyone’s feelings to worry about quite as much—Sam Darnold has that same option, at $18.86 million, exercised and guaranteed for 2022, but Carolina has no reason to tiptoe around him after the way last year went. So I think if their run at Watson fails, and I expect it to be a spirited run, then they’ll redirect their aggression elsewhere.
Jimmy Garoppolo is one name I’ve had circled for them as an after-Watson name for a while. The trouble is I think the 49ers will look for around two second-round picks for him, and Carolina already unloaded this year’s two in the Darnold trade. Their third is gone too, as part of the C.J. Henderson deal. So presuming they wouldn’t have the No. 6 pick in the deal (even a first-round pick swap is impossible, since the Niners don’t have one), it’ll take creativity and probably dipping into the 2023 supply.
So, yeah, Darnold is still haunting the team a little bit.
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From DaXss23 (@DaXss23): Are the Bills a top suitor for Chandler Jones?
Dax, I believe there’s been some level of mutual interest in bringing Jones back to Western New York, where he played his college ball, but I don’t know if they’ll be able to work the finances out. Some teams I’ve talked to like Jones over Von Miller and believe he’ll come off the board earlier, because, as a 30-something, he’s shown a better motor and down-to-down consistency.
But to me, the overriding thing here is that the Bills have indeed become the sort of place that’s attractive to accomplished vets looking to chase rings. And as a good a reason as Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane and the program they’ve built might be for that, I think the draw for most of those guys is Josh Allen. Because usually, in these situations, there’s nothing that does more to bring hope than a great quarterback.
So whether or not they get Jones, the Bills will be playing with an advantage in these sorts of situations for the foreseeable future.
From Reese Hitch (@reasitch): Why won’t the NFL switch the Super Bowl to Saturday?
Two words: Television. Ratings.
From Indy4Life (@FredJohn80): Who will be starting QB for the Colts in 2022?
Indy, it sure looks like GM Chris Ballard is going to be calculating in how he addresses it, and it could require some patience for those following. And it makes sense, to me, that they’d let things play out a little. I’m not surprised he threw his hat in the ring for Watson—and I’d expect similar why-not swings on guys like Raiders QB Derek Carr. Will all that lead him back to Garoppolo? I think there’s a good chance of that.
What’s fascinating to me is that Indy, before this offseason, really hadn’t had interest in Garoppolo as an antidote to its quarterback ills (remember, the Niners and Colts did the DeForest Buckner blockbuster a couple of years back, while the Niners were kicking tires on Tom Brady).
But they’re obviously in a more desperate spot now. The key, as I see it, will be not operating that way over the coming days. A Watson trade could shake free someone like Mayfield or Matt Ryan.
From Jack Fitzpatrick (@jackjack9298): What does the market look like for Za’Darius Smith?
Jack, I won’t be surprised if we see Smith consider a return to the Ravens—because in a lot of ways he’s the perfect Baltimore signing. Because he was cut, his addition wouldn’t hurt the Ravens in next year’s comp-pick formula. And in recent years, the Ravens have shown a propensity to go after third-contract guys, like Eric Weddle, Earl Thomas, Mark Ingram, Calais Campbell and Alejandro Villanueva.
It’s not happenstance, either. The Ravens believe third-contract guys bring a level of certainty (they’ve already gotten paid, so you’re not wondering how they’ll handle getting money), dependability and leadership to mitigate the risk you normally get in signing free agents. And they’ve gone back to the well with guys like Smith in the past—with Pernell McPhee being a really good example of it.
So yes, I expect Smith to have a market. And it wouldn’t surprise me if that market brings him home.
From Justin Banner (@masterjediHulk): Who would win in a fight: one Aaron Donald or four Patrick Mahomeses?
I love Mahomes, but it would take a lot for me to pick against one Aaron Donald.
From Raul (@raulvibe): Does Kyler Murray get paid this year or do the Cards make him wait until next year? Does he end up holding out?
Raul, I think he probably will get paid. My sense is the Cardinals want to put it off until the summer, and I also understand why Murray and his camp can’t just take a promise like that at face value. If he were on the trade market now, there’d be suitors that would be willing to fork over picks and a contract. If this drags past the draft, that market for Murray would be a lot smaller, since teams will have made their plans at the position.
Remember, his leverage here is, really, the threat of forcing a trade, especially with the acknowledgment that a summer holdout would be tough because of the new, strengthened rules. And if he threatens to force a trade, it has to be real, and he has to be willing to go through with actually doing it, which, again, would be easier for him to do in April than thereafter.
So I expect Murray’s camp to keep the heat on the Cardinals between now and mid-April, and my guess would be Arizona will move off its spot at least a little, and progress will be made between now and then to ward off things really going off the rails. If that happens, then I think it will eventually get done, because that’s how these things work.
That said, the deal Aaron Rodgers just signed, one that averages $50 million over its first three years, won’t make things any easier.
From Richard Ito (@rich_ito): Did the Jags offer that Christian Kirk money to any other receiver first? Or was he always their guy?
Richard, not that I know of. And I will say that I think Kirk is a nice fit for what Doug Pederson has traditionally wanted to do—in making skill players positionless to a degree. You can hand the ball to Kirk on jet sweeps and reverses, use him out of the backfield, and I wouldn’t even be afraid to build in some elements with him as a wildcat quarterback. His skill as a return man shows all you need to know about what the guy can do with the ball in his hands. So in that way, yeah, he’s all Jacksonville was looking for.
I know price is the question, and it should be. Paying a receiver without a single 1,000-yard season at $18 million per year, with upside to get to $21 million, is wild. But I know teams and agents had him coming off the board at $14 or $15 million per. So while this is a markup, I suppose the Jaguars could justify it in knowing that, because they’re the Jaguars, they have to pay a tax, and also because they really don’t have guys internally to pay.
That said, I’m excited to see how Pederson uses Kirk, even if it will be tough to justify how far he went above the sticker price to land him.
From Ryan Clary (@Ryanclary11): Trubisky or Wentz under their current contracts?
Ryan, I say Trubisky. I think both moves were made with a feeling that the teams involved, the Steelers and Commanders, knew their veteran options were limited, and thus each might need to take multiple swings this offseason to get the position right.
Trubisky’s deal has a base value of $14 million over two years, with incentives that can take it higher. Wentz’s pay for this year alone is nearly double that. And the Commanders had to fork over two third-rounders (one of which will become a second-rounder if Wentz starts all year) to get him. So where both teams maintained flexibility here, the Steelers also maintained cap space and their warchest of draft picks.
I also say that knowing that if both of these teams draft quarterbacks—let’s say Kenny Pickett goes to Washington and Malik Willis to Pittsburgh—and then have one of the two, the veteran or rookie, hit, then no one will remember what they gave up to get the other one. Want proof? How much do you remember what the Seahawks did to get Matt Flynn, Charlie Whitehurst or Tarvaris Jackson, or even recall that they held on to Matt Hasselbeck for Pete Carroll and John Schnieder’s first year?
Of course you don’t, because all that trying resulted in their getting Russell Wilson.
From Carey (@SeriusBall): Don’t you think it’s easier as a journalist now to be open about favorite team/bias than say 15–20 years ago? (Not sure why we made it such a big deal in first place.)
Carey, I do think Bill Simmons had a huge impact in that area—I was in college when he came into prominence at ESPN, and he was the first sportswriter I can remember who would outwardly maintain his childhood loyalties. And he was really, really entertaining doing it, which opened the door for others to do the same.
In my job, I really can’t root for NFL teams, and at this point I wouldn’t want to anymore anyway. It’d be weird and make what I do more difficult, and I’m plenty happy enjoying the game for the game and building relationships across the league, without bias, so I can learn, and inform, as much as possible. Do I root for story lines that help me do my job better? Sometimes, and it’s also always good to see good people do well.
And I wouldn’t want any of you to think that means I think I’m above it. I stay plenty connected to the inner child in me—who grew up rooting his ass off for teams in every sport—with my alma mater’s football team. I think it’s important, too, because it keeps me from falling out of touch completely with how people consume what we’re covering.
From Ryan Jay (@ItsRyanJohnJay): If Jimmy G isn’t moved by Wednesday, is he getting released, or do the 49ers have restructures up their sleeve? Is the rumor of the team meeting with Watson a false rumor as has been suggested?
Ryan, no, he’s not getting released. As I said earlier, I believe the Niners are waiting for the Watson shoe to drop, with the belief that Watson’s coming off the market will smoke out new suitors and help define the market for their 30-year-old starter. I mentioned Monday that two second-rounders is where other teams believe the Niners’ ask will land. Before the Wentz trade, I thought that was high. I don’t anymore.
And the Watson rumor/report was false. The Niners aren’t in the running for him, though they were high on Watson’s list last year.
From Matt Ryan (@MRyan_10): Thinking in the first round the Pats need to target O-line, Trevor Penning possibly? Then more obvious needs at LB. If they go in that order, is there a chance a receiver like Skyy Moore, who has had a lot of interest the past few weeks, will be there in the third or would that be John Metchie range?
Matt, I believe offensive line might be the team’s most pressing need now, after the Patriots traded Shaq Mason, let Ted Karras walk and now stand to lose Trent Brown in free agency. Remember, this is a team that lost three offensive line coaches (Dante Scarnecchia, Carmen Bricillo and Cole Popovich) over the last three offseasons and has a left tackle, in Isaiah Wynn, headed into a walk year.
So yeah, I think at No. 21, if the right lineman is available, they’d probably pounce. That, or they could take a corner, which is just about as big a need.
And the good news, then? That there is an abundance of receiver depth in this draft, like there was in the last few. So you’ll be able to find good ones into the third day, and guys like Moore could slide a little because of the number of options that will be for teams over the final weekend in April.
More NFL Coverage:
• Browns, Mayfield Reach Point of No Return
• 2022 NFL Free Agency Grades: Analyzing Every Major Move
• How the Broncos and Seahawks Negotiated the Russell Wilson Trade
• Why the Steelers Selected Mitchell Trubisky As Big Ben’s Successor