We’re almost to June, and veteran minicamps are next week. Ahead of all that, here’s what you wanted answers to from me this week …
From Nick Cosellian (@nick_cosellian): Are people sleeping on the Browns? Watson’s last full year ...
• 4,823 passing yards
• 33 passing TDs
• 7 INTs
• 112.4 rating
• 70.2 completion %
• 444 rushing yards
• 3 rushing TDs
It feels like a full offseason, and no suspension will be much easier for the Browns to compete.
Nick, I agree. It’s easy to forget now—and I understand why people have—but the narrative on Deshaun Watson coming out of his last full season, 2020, was much different than what it is now. At that point, perception held that he’d performed very admirably through a mess of a calendar year in which coach Bill O’Brien got more control over the roster, was overtaken in that department by EVP Jack Easterby, with O’Brien then ousted at midseason.
Those numbers above that Nick gave us are from that year, and in the aftermath of DeAndre Hopkins being dealt to Arizona. It also happened after Watson got a four-year, $160 million extension, so there was plenty of pressure on the quarterback to deliver as he did.
Watson missed the entire 2021 season, was suspended for the first 11 games of the ’22 season for violating the league’s personal-conduct policy, playing in only six games. In the latter circumstance, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski had to build an offense that worked for Watson, but also for Jacoby Brissett and the other 10 guys in the huddle, while simultaneously preparing both to play last summer. What resulted was a very weird year, which ended with Watson playing in a scheme that proved to be imperfect for him.
The lessons the coaches will take from that, I think, really count for a lot. My expectation is Stefanski and his offensive staff will unveil something, in a few months, that’s a lot more geared to what Watson does well—O’Brien did the same thing for the quarterback in Houston, borrowing some offensive concepts from Clemson to get Watson going early in his career. And that, with the talent on hand, should be enough to get Watson back to where he was in Houston, where, at one point, he was seen as toe-to-toe with Patrick Mahomes as a player.
For that reason, while I’m not sure I’d pick Cleveland to make the playoffs right now, I sure wouldn’t be shocked if the Browns are one of the seven teams standing from the AFC come January.
From Zach The “Chiefs SBLVII Champs” Guy (@thelaymansterms): What will be the deciding factor for Hopkins deal? Contending for a ring, HOF status, etc. Or final payday? Multi-year/lower APY or 1 year “prove it” with higher cash out?
Zach, great question—and one that I honestly have myself.
I think the Chiefs’ negotiation gives you the best roadmap here. It did seem, for a time, like Kansas City was making progress toward a deal to land Hopkins. Then, Odell Beckham Jr. got $15 million guaranteed from Baltimore, and the contract options the Super Bowl champs put in front of Hopkins looked a lot less enticing, and that was sort of that. But that, of course, doesn’t mean the money options they were looking at for Hopkins were necessarily bad ones.
They wanted to give him an incentive-laden deal that, as I heard it, was structured similarly to the one they wound up giving Donovan Smith (which will make it harder now for K.C. to double back and sign Hopkins). Smith’s deal has $3 million in base pay, with $1.02 million of that coming in per-game roster bonuses, and $9 million in incentives, bringing the max to $12 million. They also sold Hopkins on the idea he could do what Juju Smith-Schuster just did, and parlay a solid season in K.C. into a bigger deal elsewhere the next year (Smith-Schuster got a three-year, $25.5 million deal from the Patriots).
That, to me, is the best model, whether it’s in Kansas City or somewhere else, for Hopkins. Cap and cash budgets are spent at this point in the year, so I can’t imagine he’s gonna be getting needle-moving money anywhere (and if he does and takes it, as a 31-year-old WR, then God bless him). And that should make him more willing to compromise financially to burnish his legacy a bit, and maybe generate one last sizable payday for himself in 2024.
From David Kromelow (@dkrom59): Which team in the NFC is the best equipped to dethrone the Eagles and make it to Super Bowl LVIII?
David, I still think it’s San Francisco. Yes, there’s the quarterback question, and that’s a big one. But their roster is really strong, and if you list the 20-somethings—Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk—and add them to the one graybeard (Trent Wiliams) in that mix, then consider the fleet of good players on their second tier, you’ll get an idea of what kind of team this could be.
They’ll have more answers on where Brock Purdy is at in the coming weeks, and clarity there, one way or the other, should help, with Sam Darnold and Trey Lance also in the mix.
And the truth, given what’s in the NFC, and what the Niners have, I don’t think San Francisco would need Purdy to turn into Aaron Rodgers for the Niners to get to their fourth NFC title game in five years, and ultimately then their second Super Bowl under Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch.
From Wayne O (@WayneOW66L67): So how does Brady become the Raiders QB without the rest of the owners pitching a fit? And did Josh McDaniels think this is a next-level genius move?
Wayne, I’m not counting on that happening. In short, Raiders doctors were uncomfortable with the progress of Jimmy Garoppolo’s left foot three months after he injured it. Garoppolo and the Niners jointly decided not to do the surgery in December, believing holding off would open more doors (in particular, for a playoff return and a full 2024 offseason) for everyone. So the surgery put off after the season became more necessary (we had more on that here), so Las Vegas had it done.
As part of that, Garoppolo signed a waiver that basically absolves the Raiders of responsibility (from his guarantees, surgery, rehab, etc.) if he reinjures his left foot. If he doesn’t, the $33.75 million guarantee he got in March applies.
Now, would McDaniels call Brady if Garoppolo got hurt? Probably. But that’s not a part of the plan (although I do enjoy your brand of 4-D chess moves, Wayne.
From Rich Griller (@RichDwyer4): Does the latest development in the Jimmy G drama affect the comp picks next year for the 49ers?
Rich, no, it doesn’t. He signed the deal during the first couple of months of free agency, and the comp pick coming back will be—as all comp picks are—based on playing time and money. And because Garoppolo is at nine years, rather than 10, the Niners could still net as much as a third-round pick (guys with 10 years or more can’t get the team more than a fifth-rounder).
From Tiny (@KingTiny81): Who do you think starts Week 1 for the 49ers at QB?
Tiny, as I said earlier, my guess would be Purdy. And we should have a more firm idea on that soon.
From Ron Jon (@APatriot70): Hi, AB, how do the Patriots internally assess Mac Jones, and what do they really think they have in him? Thanks.
Ron, I think Mac Jones is still in the we’ll see category internally. How he’s been handled is, at the very least, interesting. There, of course, have been the coordinator changes—he’ll have his third play-caller in as many seasons this fall. But beyond just that, the way they’ve managed him has been pretty different than what we’re used to seeing as far as how young quarterbacks are generally built up by the organizations that draft them.
To be fair, Bill Belichick actually tried that first, telling everyone who’d listen, that Jones had grown a ton physically and mentally in his first full offseason as a pro. Then, camp was a bit of a mess for a variety of reasons (one of which was an unconventional coaching setup), and Jones struggled early, was outwardly emotional about it and got hurt. And as a result, when he got back, Belichick wouldn’t promise him anything more than five minutes out.
That’s carried into this offseason, with Belichick’s refusal to shoot down the idea that Bailey Zappe will have a legit shot at unseating Jones as the starter, which stands as another sign that the Patriots aren’t altogether pleased with Jones’s handling of 2022, circumstances be damned. So now they’ll see, and we’ll see what they’ve got.
As of right now, I’m not sure they’d tell you that Jones will be nothing more than a middle-of-the-pack quarterback, in the “win with” (rather “win because of”) category. He’ll have a shot, with Bill O’Brien aboard, to prove he can be more than that.
From Ankit Vohra (@TheAnkitVohra): Would the #Patriots look into Jimmy G if he doesn’t end up with the #Raiders?
Ankit, no, I don’t think so. Because the only way I see Garoppolo becoming available is if he reinjures his left foot badly enough for the Raiders to cut him. In which case it wouldn’t make sense for the Patriots to sign him, especially given how a quarterback signing might upset the apple cart in Foxborough.
From BK (@robertfkenyon): Opening day RT for the #bengals?
BK, my best guess right now would be Jonah Williams. The Bengals left tackle of the past four years asked for a trade back in March, after Orlando Brown Jr. was signed to play that position—but Cincinnati signed Brown with the idea, from the start, that Williams could flip back over to the position he once played, and started at, as an Alabama freshman.
The larger question is where—when we get to Week 1—veteran La’El Collins is at with this health. He tore his ACL and MCL on Christmas Eve, meaning that the opener will be about eight months postoperation. So no matter how good he may look on social media videos now, expecting that he would return from a multiligament tear in under nine months would be optimistic.
The larger question, to me, is what happens when both Collins and Williams are healthy. Both are capable of playing inside. Will one slide inside and displace second-year man Cordell Volson? I don’t know, but given where the Bengals have been up front, it’s not a bad problem to have.
From Seth in Florida (@Seth10179721): How good will Marvin Harrison Jr. be in the NFL?
Now, this is just a little anecdote for you, Seth—on how the league is viewing the 20-year-old son of the Pro Football Hall of Famer—some 11 months before his draft day. And, obviously, a lot can happen between now and then. But here’s the text reaction I got from five different evaluators, some of them scouts, some of them coaches, right after Harrison ran routes for C.J. Stroud at Ohio State’s pro day in March.
• “Really impressive”
• “Unfortunately not draft-eligible”
• “He looked like a dude”
Ohio State lists Harrison as 6'4" and 205 pounds. His coaches have pointed out to me—because he has a low-cut build—his legs are shorter, which allow him to move like his father did as a pro with the Colts. And with all due respect to Tennessee’s Jalin Hyatt, there was no question who college football’s best wideout was last year—Harrison finished last with 77 catches for 1,263 yards and 14 touchdowns, and his injury in the Peach Bowl was the swing factor in Georgia outlasting the Buckeyes on the way to a national title.
Of course, there’s always a risk in overrating “next year’s” guys. But I don’t think that exists as much here. Harrison will absolutely be in the Calvin Johnson–Julio Jones–A.J. Green–Ja’Marr Chase category, which is to say he’s the kind of prospect that comes around only once every few years.
From Zeze (@Zezex0_0): Any updates on Budda Baker and the Arizona Cardinals? Does he seek record money for a safety or does he want to be on a winning team?
Zeze, I honestly think this is about winning for Baker. He played for three head coaches during his first three years in the league. He’s played in one playoff game in six years, and his team got run out of the building on that one occasion. I think the idea of having to start over again, with a first-year coach and GM, in what looks like a total rebuild, weighs on him.
He also has to know, being in the prime of his career, he’ll have only so many shots.
“He’s still that guy,” said one assistant coach who worked with him, back in April after the trade-request news broke. “He’s the leader of all leaders. I’d stand on the table 10 times over for a guy like Budda, and what he brings to a locker room, classroom, to practice, and then you see the way he plays. He’s not changing his style on any of that. It’s who he is; it’s what makes him special. If I had a chance to get him, I’d get him in a heartbeat.”
To me, this is sort of the opposite of the DeAndre Hopkins situation. He is exactly the kind of player Monti Ossenfort and Jonathan Gannon are looking to build around—and one they’re willing to pay a premium to help build the right kind of culture they want in Arizona. It’s not a good player, where you have to tolerate a lot. In fact, Baker’s the guy you point to when you’re telling younger players what you’re looking for them to become.
So maybe the Cardinals give him a little financial sweetener to come in and play that role for them, and hope they can show him it’s worth sticking around.
From Peter Yadrich (@peterwhygolf): How close are the Chiefs and Chris Jones on an extension?
Peter, this feels like a summer extension to me. I believe over the weekend Kansas City had less than a half million in available cap space. A Jones deal will get them some relief that they need there—and obviously he’s very much a guy worth rewarding.
The price point is the question, and the deal Aaron Donald did last year does complicate things for the Chiefs. But I think in the end, they’ll be able to find middle ground with him.