This week, attention turns to Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine. Here’s a primer of what the next seven days could produce.
In two weeks, NFL free agency gets into full swing. Well, publicly anyway.
In reality, it begins in Indianapolis as you’re reading this. All 32 NFL clubs will descend on the midwestern city, all hoping to scout their next few stars. However, when the workouts end and the interviews subside, what is a personnel man or agent to do?
But first, let’s talk about the kids entering the league. That’s where this week begins.
With the extended 17-game regular season, the league shortened the offseason. It only took nine days to open the franchise tag window, which runs through March 8. Six days after that, free agency opens and deals which were doled out on napkins carefully kept away from the latest water ring in Indianapolis are made official, as though they came together in seconds.
Still, for this week, the focus will be on the 350+ prospects taking the field at Lucas Oil Stadium. They’ve been training for months in Florida, Texas, California and various other locations, all knowing a few tenths of a second could make the difference between going on Thursday, Friday or Saturday in April’s draft.
In that vein, keep an eye on the edge rushers. No talent pool is deeper in this rookie class, and that group could produce a half-dozen first-round picks if not more. Aidan Hutchinson is believed the best — and based on my two days with him, you’ll hear no argument in this space — but there are others including Travon Walker (Georgia), Kayvon Thibodeaux (Oregon), George Karlaftis (Purdue), Jermaine Johnson (Florida State), Boye Mafe (Minnesota) and many more.
Another position worth watching? Receivers. There’s a litany who are worthy of a top-50 choice, ranging from Chris Olave (Ohio State) and Jameson Williams (Alabama) to Treylon Burks (Arkansas), Drake London (USC) and Garrett Wilson (Ohio State).
Finally, the quarterbacks. Nobody I’ve spoken with in NFL circles believes any of these prospects are sure-fire first-round talents, but they also believe a few are sure to go in the top 25 picks. Why? Because quarterbacks always fly up the board based on positional importance.
The guy to watch? Liberty’s Malik Willis. Willis was incredibly impressive with arm talent and athleticism at the Senior Bowl, and wowed in interviews. If he enjoys a similar week in Indianapolis, don’t be shocked to see him go as a top-10 pick in two months.
Now, onto the second portion of the combine. Free agency.
Based on decades of history, a few things to note. For starters, a couple drinks at the J.W. Marriott bar after a shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo’s or a juicy steak at Prime 47. Want a quieter spot? Get off the main drag and head to Shapiro’s Delicatessen, one of the best old-school bites on earth.
Regardless of venue or choice of drink, much is consumed. Least of all contract demands and potential offers.
As usual, NFL Network is beaming days of coverage with players running the 40-yard dash among a plethora of drills. It’ll be made into a big deal, which in some cases is real and others fiction (more on that in Two Cents). Still, it’s a reality show with millions on the line, while nervous men wearing their team colors know the wrong decisions could mean a pink slip, whether it be in months or years.
The point? Regardless of how you consume the NFL Combine, the 2022 season starts now.
Top 10 quarterbacks from the pre-Super Bowl era (career finished prior to 1966)
1. Sammy Baugh, Washington (4x All-Pro, 2x champion, HOF 1940s Team)
2. Sid Luckman, Chicago Bears (MVP, 5x All-Pro, 4x champion, HOF 1940s Team)
3. Otto Graham, Cleveland Browns (7x All-Pro, 3x champion, HOF 1950s Team)
4. Bobby Layne, Detroit Lions (2x All-Pro, 3x champion, HOF 1950s Team)
5. Norm Van Brocklin, Rams/Eagles (MVP, 1x All-Pro, 2x champion, HOF 1950s Team)
6. Y.A. Tittle, Giants/49ers (MVP, 3x All-Pro, 242 TD passes)
7. Bob Waterfield, Los Angeles Rams (3x All-Pro, 2x champion, HOF 1940s Team)
8. Arnie Herber, Green Bay Packers (1x All-Pro, 4x champion, HOF 1930s Team)
9. Cecil Isbell, Green Bay Packers (1x All-Pro, 1x champion, HOF 1930s Team)
10. Eddie LeBaron, Washington/Cowboys (4x Pro Bowl)
"“They’ve been super awesome. They’ve been great. I’m just looking forward to getting to know them. We’re doing the whole business relationship thing, but hopefully, we can get our families together and start getting to know each other and start building that unity that we had last year.”"
– Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr on team’s new power structure
Carr was referring to head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler, who were hired back in January. Entering the last year of his contract, Carr needs perhaps his best season yet to convince the brass he’s worth top-tier money.
While nobody believes Carr is an elite quarterback, he’s a very good one who should have another contract’s worth of quality play in him. If he were to hit the open market, he’d approach $40 million per year, which is likely going to be the rate Las Vegas must be comfortable with to keep him long-term. Otherwise, it’s either moving on or tagging him at north of $30 million for 2023.
The Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans have each had the same amount of head coaches in the past three years as the Pittsburgh Steelers have had since 1969.
Info learned this week
1. Rodgers reportedly wants $50M annually, and what that means
If Aaron Rodgers wants $50 million per year, the Green Bay Packers have two choices. They can accept it’s a fair ask considering his talents and make it so, or start lining up trade offers.
Rodgers, who is coming off consecutive MVP seasons and is assuredly a first-ballot Hall of Famer, told radio host Pat McAfee the report is false. But for a second, let’s play out the scenario as though Rodgers does want the figure. What would it look like, and is it realistic?
First, Rodgers is worth the money in a vacuum. He’s more accomplished than Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who is currently setting the quarterback market at $45 million annually.
However, there’s a significant devil in the details for the Packers, or a team who trades for him.
Mahomes, 26, is on a 12-year deal which allows the Chiefs to manage the cap deftly with his money, something which won’t be true with the 39-year-old Rodgers. A deal for the latter would have to be something of a two-year extension for $100 million with roughly $75-80 million guaranteed. In short, the cap hits would be a legitimate $50 million in ’23 and ’24, whereas Mahomes’ numbers are much lower in most years.
For example, Kansas City can restructure his deal as it has in the past and make his cap hold a paltry $13 million. With Rodgers, there’s not enough term to allow such flexibility.
Finally, if the Packers didn’t want to pay that contract out — and it would be brutal considering their cap situation — finding a suitable trade would be near impossible. Any team acquiring him would be expected to give up multiple first-round choices to Green Bay among other assets, but that’s a tough ask when the suitor than also has to tie up almost a quarter of its salary cap with his new deal.
Rodgers is absolutely worth $50 million annually, but he would be hard-pressed to get it.
2. Bieniemy back with Chiefs after flirtations
It took a few weeks to sort out, but Eric Bieniemy is returning to the Chiefs.
As first reported by FanSided on Thursday morning, the longtime offensive coordinator is returning for a fifth season in his current role with the AFC West champs. The process took awhile, with Bieniemy interviewing for the New Orleans Saints’ head-coaching vacancy in addition to waiting for other potential play-calling opportunities, per source.
Ultimately, Bieniemy and Kansas City kept an open line of communication and when Bieniemy was done exploring his options, deciding on staying with Andy Reid’s staff on a one-year deal.
The reunion is good news for the Chiefs, despite a second-half collapse in the AFC Championship Game. Bieniemy is the only offensive coordinator quarterback Patrick Mahomes has ever known as a starter, and the success together is evident. In those campaigns, Kansas City has reached two Super Bowls, won one and hosted four AFC title games, each year on the strength of its offense.
Additionally, Bieniemy and Mahomes will be joined by a familiar face, with Matt Nagy coming back as the quarterbacks coach. Nagy, who spent the past four years as the Chicago Bears head man, returns to Kansas City, where he was the offensive coordinator for two years from 2016-17.
3. Murray, Cards have mending to do, regardless of words
The Arizona Cardinals and Kyler Murray, a happy couple once again. Supposedly.
After weeks of acrimony following Murray’s Instragram overhaul and then a subsequent ESPN report blasting his character, relations were strained between the two camps. Then, last week, Jane Slater of NFL Network reported things are copacetic between them.
While Slater’s report could well be true, there are still simmering issues to be dealt with. Murray has played three years and been Rookie of the Year and a two-time Pro Bowler. He led Arizona to the playoffs this season. It’s easy to understand that, from his perspective, he should get an extension this offseason. In recent years, many quarterbacks have been paid in their first year of eligibility, including Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson Jared Goff and others.
However, it’s also simple to see Arizona’s stance. Murray has been both injured and less effective as each season went along over the last two years. In the Wild Card round, the Cardinals were blasted 34-11 by the Los Angeles Rams while Murray was hideous, going 19-of-34 for 137 yards and two interceptions. Wanting to see another year is reasonable.
If Murray can work through the disappointment of being without an extension and have a career year, he’ll likely get paid. Everything will be fine once again. If not, expect more drama.
4. Don’t believe the talk about Jimmy Garoppolo trade
If the 49ers don’t deal Jimmy Garoppolo in the next few weeks, it’s a massive indictment of both Trey Lance and their front office. Which is why it’s very likely the veteran quarterback is soon filling out a Change of Address form.
Despite recent reports stating Garoppolo isn’t a lock to be traded — and that’s accurate, because few things in life are locks — San Francisco holding onto its injury-prove, mediocre signal-caller would mean Lance is not ready in Year 2. If that’s the case after general manager John Lynch traded three first-round choices to move up for Lance’s services, it’s a disaster.
Additionally, the Niners need to recoup some of the aforementioned lost draft capital while picking up what would be $25.5 million in cap space if he’s moved. Currently, San Francisco is $4.5 over the threshold.
So what could Garoppolo fetch? A first-round pick is in play. He’s a decent quarterback at 31 years old with a Super Bowl appearance and a 33-14 career record.
Last year, the Philadelphia Eagles got first- and third-round choices from the Indianapolis Colts for Carson Wentz, who they’re already looking to move on from. Now, Wentz was under contract for three years while Garoppolo’s deal expires after 2022, but he’s still a valuable commodity in an offseason where the free agents and draft prospects are underwhelming options.
5. McVay staying with Rams amid booth shakeups; bad news for Cowboys
After a few weeks of mystery, Sean McVay isn’t going anywhere.
Following a Super Bowl win at 36 years old, talk circulated about McVay potentially leaving the sideline for the booth and a paycheck dwarfing his current number. However, the champ decided to stay put after Rams owner Stan Kroenke reportedly gave him a raise. Initially, McVay was slated to make $8.5 million in 2022, compared to the near $20 million per year Amazon was prepared to offer.
With McVay staying, the game of musical chairs continues for the networks. Last week, we learned Troy Aikman may be jumping from FOX to ESPN after being with the company since 2001, and with Joe Buck since ’02. Buck is also a candidate to join his partner at the Worldwide Leader, meaning we could see the duo shift from Sunday afternoons to Monday Night Football.
Meanwhile, former Saints coach Sean Payton could be moving into Aikman’s old chair. Payton is reportedly in talks with the network, which could make for a fascinating subplot.
For years, everyone in league circles has assumed Payton would eventually coach the Cowboys for friend Jerry Jones. However, considering Aikman and CBS color man Tony Romo get almost $20 million annually, how much would Jones have to pay Payton to come out of the booth should Mike McCarthy falter after this season?
Want the truth about the combine? What you’re watching is secondary.
The NFL loves to sell the 40-yard dash. The 3-cone drill. The broad jump. While those are fine and informative in some cases, teams really care about two things above all else, and we won’t see a second of each: interviews and medical.
The biggest value of Indianapolis to the 32 clubs is being able to get a full medical evaluation from team doctors. Any physical issues are usually fleshed out here, keeping a team from taking a player who unfortunately has a problem which could limit him. In the interviews, we sometimes get ridiculous questions, but front offices and coaching staffs can learn plenty.
If kids check out medically and impress behind closed doors, their on-field workouts are of little consequence barring either incredible or horrendous showings.
The NFL loves to put on a show, but what matters most is behind the curtain.
Inside the league
Player to watch this week? Boye Mafe.
While in Los Angeles for the Super Bowl, I was embedded for two days with seven prospects to watch them prepare for the combine. While spending time seeing Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson and North Carolina State’s Ickey Ekwonu — both appear to be every bit the projected top-five picks they are — don’t sleep on Mafe.
Mafe, an edge rusher from Minnesota, starred at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, being named the National Team’s MVP while getting plenty of evaluators in the league talking. Some believe he’s a first-round pick in a class loaded up with pass-rushers. It’s easy to see why.
Furthermore, having interviewed him, it would be a shock if he doesn’t impress behind closed doors. The personality is there, but so is the football IQ.
Few have a combination explosiveness and speed which Mafe possesses at 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds. If he showcases his abilities during on-field workouts, he could be a riser coming out of Indy.
No team has a longer draught of taking a first-round quarterback than the New Orleans Saints, who haven’t done so since selecting Archie Manning in 1971. Will that change this year with a pressing need at the position?
Keep an eye on the Carolina Panthers this offseason.
Desperation creates action in life, and certainly in the NFL. After going 10-23 over his first two years with Carolina, head coach Matt Rhule needs improvement. Last season, the Panthers cratered horribly after starting 3-0, finishing 2-11. Owner David Tepper allowed Rhule another chance, but there needs to be improvement in 2022.
Carolina has $12 million in cap space and can get to $20 million easily if it wants. The Panthers also hold the No. 6 overall pick in April’s draft. The latter is more important, because it can either be used for an impact player, or flipped as the central part of a trade for a veteran quarterback.
Rhule entered the league with the reputation of an offensive guru. However, his attack has been short-circuited with Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Darnold at the helm. Rhule can’t reasonably believe the Panthers are going to win much with Darnold again, and there’s already rumors about reported interest in Kirk Cousins of the Minnesota Vikings.
Getting an upgrade at quarterback will be tough in a year with a lackluster rookie crop and no notables on the open market.
With that backdrop, expect Carolina to work diligently in an effort to find a lifesaver under center.