The coronavirus has effectively shut down the sports world, decimated the economy, closed schools and public gatherings for months, and forced cities to lock down.
But the NFL is resolute in continuing with its major events this offseason (while adhering to social distancing guidelines). Free agency started March 18 as planned, and Thursday night commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to all 32 teams stating that the NFL Draft will not be pushed back, and will be held April 23-25.
The NFL can always change course, but the decision to proceed with the original time frame was unanimous among the eight owners on the executive committee who made the decision, one of which is Robert Kraft.
It may seem a bit crass for the NFL to continue with business as usual during these tough times, but the reasoning outlined in Goodell’s memo does make plenty of sense:
▪ The forecast for the crisis is highly uncertain, and there are no assurances that doing the draft later in 2020 will be any better.
▪ All public events related to the draft have been canceled; no prospects or families will be invited to the draft; all team facilities will be shut down, forcing teams to work remotely; and it will basically be a TV-studio event.
▪ The NFL Draft gives people a positive distraction during these tough times.
“I have personally discussed this matter with many other owners, club executives, and coaches, and there is widespread support for the [executive committee’s] conclusion,” Goodell said in his memo.
In fact, the NFL is so determined to hold the event on its scheduled dates that speaking out against it will be costly for team employees (not players). In his memo, Goodell said he and the executive committee agreed unanimously that “public discussion of issues relating to the Draft serves no useful purpose and is grounds for disciplinary action.”
This likely came in response to comments this past week from Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, who said on Peter King’s podcast that he and several GMs wanted the NFL to push the draft to a later date.
“This is not a fantasy draft that you can conduct with just a list of things on a piece of paper,” Loomis said. “There’s a lot of work that goes into preparing and there’s a lot of work that is done during the draft that, listen, it’ll be very, very difficult to conduct that and do it in a way that you’re doing justice to the process."
John Elway also said last week that he would prefer the draft be pushed back, but he wasn’t as adamant about it as Loomis.
“We’d rather have it backed up so we can get all our scouts and everybody in, but if it’s limited and we can stay there and they’re not going to move the draft, we’re in good shape,” Elway said on the Broncos website.
There’s no question that conducting the draft will present unique challenges. The NFL shut down all pre-draft travel March 13, which canceled all Pro Days, medical checks, and official visits to the team facilities. And this past Wednesday the NFL officially shut down all 32 team facilities, other than for medical rehab situations.
Goodell wrote Thursday that teams should prepare to not conduct the draft at their team headquarters.
“All clubs should now be doing the necessary planning to conduct Draft operations in a location outside of your facility, with a limited number of people present, and with sufficient technology resources to allow you to communicate internally, with other clubs, and with Draft headquarters,” the memo said.
The cancellation of Pro Days, medical checks, and predraft visits could have a negative effect on players from small schools, those who weren’t invited to the Combine, and those with questionable injuries. Those players will have incomplete draft files, and filling in the gaps won’t be easy.
“Last year, 33 non-Combine players were drafted. I’ll be surprised if we have 15-plus this year,” tweeted Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network. “No medical info is the main hurdle.”
In fact, access to medical information is one area in which certain teams could have a significant advantage in the predraft process. Even though all travel and team facilities have been shut down, a player can still conduct a physical at an outside medical facility in his hometown.
It means the Dolphins can still quietly conduct physicals and medical checks with the several dozen prospects living in South Florida, as long as it is not at the team facility. Teams in Arizona, California, Texas, Florida, and New Orleans also have similar geographic advantages, whereas teams such as the Patriots, Bills, and Packers would have very few hometown prospects to check out.
This past week, the president of the NFL Physicians Society wrote to the NFL that the organization “has agreed to discontinue Combine rechecks, free agent physicals, and physicals for non-Combine players until the health crisis has passed.”
But the NFL’s response to the NFL Physicians Society was clear that “clubs may arrange for a free agent or traded player to have medical exams conducted in the player’s home city or at another nearby location by a third-party doctor."
One league medical source said he expects some teams to take full advantage of their good geographic fortune and to quietly conduct medical checks.
“If the team called an agent and said we’re interested in your guy [for the draft], can we have him see our doctor, I think those are going to happen, and they’ll fly under the radar,” the source said.
The NFL could have pushed back the draft to give teams some time to figure everything out. Instead, Goodell and the owners’ executive committee gave a clear message: The show must go on.
Free agency a bit unbalanced
A few Patriots-related notes:
▪ They have watched eight of their own free agents sign with other teams, including Tom Brady, Kyle Van Noy, and Jamie Collins. While the salary data is not complete, the eight combined to sign for a maximum value of around $160 million, with $110 million guaranteed. Take out Brady, and it’s $110 million and $60 million guaranteed for seven players.
On the flip side, the Patriots have added 14 players in free agency (including two restricted free agents). The 14 players signed for a total of $77.4 million, with $41.8 million guaranteed. Devin McCourty and Joe Thuney account for the bulk of it, signing for $37.8 million, with $31.8 million of it guaranteed. Nine of the Patriots’ 14 signings have $1 million or less of guaranteed money.
▪ Not only are the Patriots holding back in free agency, they are not using their salary cap efficiently. The Patriots are No. 3 in the NFL with more than $26 million in dead salary-cap space, according to OverTheCap.com, behind only the Panthers ($36.47 million) and Jaguars ($33.96 million), teams seen as rebuilding from scratch.
Brady counts $13.5 million against the salary cap, Antonio Brown $4.75 million, Stephen Gostkowski $3.2 million, Michael Bennett $2 million, and Duron Harmon $1.25 million.
▪ The decision to release Gostkowski was not about the money. Gostkowski had $2 million of his $3.5 million salary fully guaranteed, and releasing him created less than $1 million of salary-cap space.
If Gostkowski signs with another team, the Patriots will get a salary-cap credit for whatever amount Gostkowski’s new team pays him, but that credit wouldn’t come until 2021. This was about the Patriots wanting a new kicker.
▪ What do Brady and Jameis Winston have in common? Both ended their 2019 seasons with a pick-6 — Brady’s on an interception to Logan Ryan on his final pass of the playoff loss to the Titans, and Winston on an interception to the Falcons’ Deion Jones on the first play of overtime in Week 17.
Jarrett Stidham was almost in that club, too — his pick-6 to Jamal Adams in Week 3 was his second-to-last throw of the 2019 season. Stidham had one more pass attempt, an incompletion in Week 5.
▪ Brady threw a pick-6 in consecutive games to end last season — victimized by Eric Rowe in Week 17, and Ryan in the playoffs (both former Patriots).
How rare was that? Brady only has thrown 16 pick-6s in his career, over 11,614 pass attempts (regular season and playoffs). The 2001 and 2019 seasons were the only ones of Brady’s career in which he threw two pick-6s.
Winston, meanwhile, threw seven of them last year, and has 11 in his five-year career.
Gostkowski ranks among the best
He didn’t have many iconic kicks like his predecessor, Adam Vinatieri, but Stephen Gostkowski leaves Foxborough after 14 seasons as one of the most successful kickers in NFL history.
Did you know:
▪ Gostkowski is No. 4 in NFL history in field goal accuracy, connecting on 87.4 percent of his kicks. He had been as high as No. 2 as of late 2018, but has since been passed by Josh Lambo (88.5 percent) and Wil Lutz (87.5 percent). But Lambo and Lutz have only kicked for five and four seasons, respectively, compared with 14 for Gostkowski.
Baltimore’s Justin Tucker (eight seasons) is No. 1, at a ridiculous 90.8 percent success rate.
▪ Gostkowski is No. 3 all time in kicks from 50-plus yards, connecting on 71.4 percent. Only Matt Prater (76.8 percent) and Jeff Wilkins (72.2 percent) have been more accurate. Gostkowski’s long of 62 is tied for eighth longest in NFL history.
▪ Gostkowski is 12th in NFL history in points (1,775), but he’s first in points per game, averaging 8.7. Tucker is second at 8.5, and Mike Vanderjagt is third at 7.9.
▪ Gostkowski is also second all time in postseason points with 205. Vinatieri is first with 238.
Newton, Winston will have to wait
If I may, a song recommendation for Cam Newton and Jameis Winston:
“Patience,” by Guns N’ Roses. Or if they prefer a more modern song: “Patience” by Tame Impala.
Newton and Winston will be on rosters this fall. But they may have to wait a long time to sign — particularly Newton, who has suffered significant shoulder and foot injuries the last two years.
With the NFL shutting down all travel and teams turning their focus to the draft, neither veteran quarterback should expect to sign soon. The free agent market at all positions has slowed to a trickle, with teams only re-signing minimum-salary veterans by late this past week.
At this point, most teams want to see how the quarterback market shakes out in the draft before committing to another veteran. The price tag should come down on both Newton and Winston after the draft, as well.
And especially with Newton, teams will want to give him a thorough medical check before committing a contract. Those physicals may not be able to happen for several months.
Though no starting jobs may be available right away, there are still several decent options for both QBs. The Jaguars, Chargers, and Patriots appear to have open competitions (though don’t bet on the Patriots). The Jets only have one backup, Mike White. The Steelers probably want an upgrade from Mason Rudolph, Devlin Hodges, and Paxton Lynch.
The Broncos look like they could use an upgrade behind Drew Lock. The Seahawks’ only backup is Geno Smith. The Cardinals have Brett Hundley and someone named Drew Anderson as Kyler Murray’s backups. The Buccaneers need a third arm behind Tom Brady and Ryan Griffin. And the Titans, Rams, Vikings, and Packers all look like they could use upgrades behind their starters.
But Winston and Newton will likely have to wait until after the draft, if not much longer, to find their new homes.
Stadium projects uninterrupted
The coronavirus has put much about the 2020 NFL season in flux, but for now it hasn’t affected the construction of football stadiums in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
Casinos and most businesses have been closed in Nevada, but construction has been deemed an essential business, and progress on the Raiders’ $2 billion Allegiant Stadium has continued unabated. The construction site uses approximately 2,000 workers per day, per the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and this past week one worker tested positive for COVID-19.
And in California, construction work has also been exempt from the state’s shelter-at-home orders, allowing work to continue on the $5 billion SoFi Stadium, the new home of the Rams and Chargers.
Both stadiums were planned to open for this season, and so far remain on track.
Defensive lineman Michael Brockers and cornerback Darqueze Dennard were the first two casualties of the NFL’s modified free agency process, in which teams were forced to rely on third-party medical exams for some free agents. Brockers agreed to a three-year, $30 million with the Ravens two weeks ago, but Baltimore backed out of the deal Friday because of concerns about an ankle injury. The injury couldn’t have been too serious as Brockers quickly re-signed with the Rams, his former team (but for less money than he was going to get in Baltimore). And the Jaguars backed out of a three year, $13.5 million deal with Dennard because of concerns over a previous knee injury . . . Temple-to-Carolina is the new Rutgers-to-Foxborough. Four former Temple Owls have signed with the Panthers this offseason: receiver Robby Anderson, linebacker Tahir Whitehead, receiver Keith Kirkwood, and quarterback P.J. Walker. New Panthers coach Matt Rhule was the head coach at Temple from 2013-16 . . . Brady will do just fine for himself the next two years, earning $50 million fully guaranteed from the Buccaneers. But for Brady to achieve the maximum $59 million, he’ll just have to finish in the top five in almost every major quarterback statistic, and win two Super Bowls. No problem . . . Not surprised to see Peyton Manning take a pass on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” again. The money is great, but it’s a big commitment, and the travel for Monday night games can be a drag. If he does ever decide to do it (and here’s betting he would be fantastic — even better than Tony Romo), Manning would probably want to do a Sunday afternoon game of the week . . .With Brady leaving the Patriots, it leaves Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and Lions long snapper Don Muhlbach as the players with the longest tenure with one team. Each joined their teams in 2004 and are going on their 17th consecutive seasons. Fitzgerald technically has the longest tenure, because he was the No. 3 pick in 2004, Roethlisberger was No. 11, and Muhlbach went undrafted.