The calendar has hit the middle of June, which means the NFL is closing up shop for the spring.
The offseason program, a source of much consternation between the NFL and the players this year, is just about complete. For many teams like the Patriots, one more week of mandatory minicamp — four days of practice — stands between them and summer vacation. For about a dozen teams, who moved minicamp up a week or canceled it altogether, summer is already here.
Let’s take a look at the NFL’s most important (non-vaccine) story lines from the final weeks of offseason workouts:
▪ The biggest story was Aaron Rodgers skipping the Packers’ minicamp and incurring fines of more than $93,000, a topic that has been covered ad nauseum here and elsewhere. The far more important showdown will come in late July when training camp begins. Rodgers will incur fines of $50,000 per day for every day of camp that he skips. The Packers haven’t budged in their refusal to trade him this year, and here’s betting that the saga ends with Rodgers returning to the Packers and getting a pay raise for 2021.
▪ Rodgers is not the only disgruntled NFL player. Cardinals edge rusher Chandler Jones, entering the final year of his contract and due a $15.5 million salary, was a surprising no-show at his team’s mandatory minicamp. Jones only played five games last season because of a torn biceps, but his 61 sacks since 2016 rank second in the NFL behind Aaron Donald (65.5), and Jones still should have good football in him at 31 years old.
Vikings star pass rusher Danielle Hunter is also skipping minicamp as he seeks a raise on his contract, which pays him $38 million over the next three years.
▪ Deshaun Watson remains in a holding pattern with the Texans as his legal saga slowly unfolds. Watson is training on his own and has stayed away from the team all spring, and the Texans canceled their mandatory minicamp set for this coming week, allowing them to avoid the awkward dance of Watson showing up to the facility (or not). It is unclear if Watson will be able to play while his lawsuit is active, or if Roger Goodell will place him on paid leave on the commissioner’s exempt list. It’s doubtful a team will trade for Watson until his situation gains more clarity.
▪ Russell Wilson is trying to pretend that his trade request — the one in which his agent went on the record to ESPN and listed Wilson’s four preferred destinations — never happened. Wilson is back practicing with the Seahawks and acting like everything is copacetic.
“I love Seattle,” he said this past week. “I did not request a trade. I’ve always wanted to play here. The reality is I think calls were getting thrown around and this and that, and I mean that’s just a reality.”
▪ Not much good can happen this time of year, but plenty of bad — injuries and off-field incidents. On the injury front, one of the teams hit hardest was — surprise, surprise — the 49ers, as offensive lineman Justin Skule tore his ACL this past week and safety Tarvarius Moore tore his Achilles’. The Niners, who led the NFL with 32 injured reserve moves last year, also lost Jeff Wilson, last year’s rushing leader, to a torn meniscus suffered in the locker room last month.
Coach Kyle Shanahan said it would be “pretty irresponsible of me and extremely reactionary” for him to change the way the 49ers train. But Shanahan canceled the final week of the 49ers’ offseason program the day after the two injuries occurred.
The 49ers also reportedly were disciplined for an unspecified violation of practice rules during their rookie minicamp in May.
▪ Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper has developed a nagging ankle injury that has kept him out of practice and could affect his availability for the start of camp. And the Chiefs’ revamped offensive line took an early blow when projected right guard Kyle Long reportedly broke his kneecap on Thursday. In a best-case scenario, Long, who came out of retirement to join the Chiefs, might be ready for the start of the regular season in September.
▪ Off the field, it wasn’t a player but a coach making a terrible decision and getting in legal trouble. Callie Brownson, the chief of staff for Browns coach Kevin Stefanski, was suspended by the team (but won’t be fired) after pleading no contest to drunk driving charges. On May 27, Brownson was pulled over for going 55 miles per hour in a 35-m.p.h. zone and allegedly had a blood-alcohol level of 0.215, nearly three times the legal limit.
Brownson became the first woman to serve as a position coach when she filled in for the tight ends coach last November against the Jaguars, and is slated to help coach the Browns’ running backs this year. She could also face discipline from the league office.
▪ A trio of quarterbacks provided positive news on the injury front. Some guy named Tom Brady was slinging it at Buccaneers minicamp this past week, about 15 weeks out from what he called a “pretty serious” surgery to his left knee. Coach Bruce Arians told ESPN he plans to use Brady in shotgun more often “just to save those three or four steps.”
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott hasn’t been limited in offseason workouts following last year’s gruesome ankle fracture, with coach Mike McCarthy saying Prescott should be full-go for training camp. And Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow estimates he’s about 85 percent back from last year’s ACL tear.
“Obviously, he can’t do all the moves and stuff and what he’ll be doing once the season rolls around,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “But just watching him throw the football, it’s the same old Joe.”
Getting Jones a move Titans had to make
A few notes on the trade of Julio Jones to the Titans, which broke just a few hours after this column was published in last Sunday’s print edition:
▪ The Titans cornered themselves into making this move. They had a significant need in the passing game after losing receiver Corey Davis and tight end Jonnu Smith in free agency. They also needed to make another big splash to excite the fan base after last year’s loss in the wild-card round. Before Jones came aboard, this was not the most exciting offseason for Titans fans.
▪ On paper, the Titans look like a bully on offense. They have 6-foot-3-inch, 247-pound battering ram Derrick Henry at running back, and two physical receivers in A.J. Brown (6-1, 226) and Jones (6-3, 220), plus seven other receivers 6-1 or taller. Defenses will have to decide whether to stop the run or the two game-breakers on the outside. Ryan Tannehill has 55 touchdown passes, 13 interceptions, and a 110.6 passer rating in two years with the Titans, and has the potential to put up big numbers again in 2021.
▪ The meager return for the Falcons (it was Jones and a 2023 sixth-round pick for a 2022 second-rounder and 2023 fourth-rounder) illustrates that this was all about a salary dump for Atlanta, and that few teams were willing to give up anything of value for Jones’s contract, which has $15.3 million guaranteed this year and $2 million guaranteed next year. Certainly the Patriots didn’t have any interest, as this trade offer was easily beatable.
▪ As good as this trade looks on paper for the Titans, it also carries a whiff of desperation. They were the only team willing to give up a significant draft pick for a receiver who is aging, expensive, and has injury questions. The Titans’ front office had a tough year in 2020 — spending $20 million for zero sacks from Jadeveon Clowney and Vic Beasley, and wasting a first-round pick on Isaiah Wilson — and now they’re doubling down by overpaying for Jones and linebacker Bud Dupree ($34 million guaranteed over two seasons). This trade only works if Jones can stay healthy and productive through December and January.
▪ Despite adding Jones, the Titans’ offense still has questions. Can they be as efficient on offense with coordinator Arthur Smith gone and Todd Downing taking his place? And Downing, who has one year of OC experience (2017 Raiders), has to figure out how to reconfigure the offense around two No. 1 receivers instead of two tight ends. Keeping Brown, Jones, and Henry happy may not be so easy.
▪ Not to mention, the Titans’ defense is still a big question mark, finishing 24th in points allowed, 29th against the pass, and 30th in sacks last year. They hope Dupree can fortify the pass rush, and remade the secondary with Janoris Jenkins and draft picks Caleb Farley and Elijah Molden. But Jones doesn’t help that side of the ball.
Vaccines are still a sticking point
Last week’s column focused on the difficulty the NFL is having in convincing enough players to get vaccinated, and that story line was a dominant theme of the last week.
The Bills announced that they won’t go to St. John Fisher College (in Pittsford, N.Y.) for training camp — their site since 2000 — with general manager Brandon Beane citing “the current protocols” as making it too difficult to pull off.
What Beane really means is that the Bills have to stay home because a majority of the players refuse to get vaccinated, thereby making it too difficult to operate under strict COVID-19 protocols of masking, social distancing, and quarantining at the college.
Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold made waves when he said he hasn’t gotten his vaccine and still wants to look into the pros and cons of it. Washington coach Ron Rivera even invited Harvard immunologist Kizzmekia S. Corbett to speak to his team about the importance and effectiveness of vaccines, but some of his players didn’t appreciate it.
“I’m not a fan of it. I probably won’t get vaccinated until I get more facts and all that type of stuff. I’m not a fan of it at all,” third-year pass rusher Montez Sweat told the Washington Post. “I haven’t caught COVID yet. I don’t see me treating COVID until I actually get COVID.”
Getting vaccinated is mandatory for coaches, but not for players. The NFL will likely allow teams to ditch their COVID-19 protocols once 85 percent of players are vaccinated. But many teams are struggling to get near those levels.
“I think the only thing that we can do is make sure that all of our players have all of the information,” NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said.
Trouble brewing in Carolina?
Charlotte, N.C., come on down. You’re the next city to be strong-armed into paying for a stadium for your NFL team.
Panthers owner David Tepper, ranked by Forbes as the 142nd-richest person in the world at $14.5 billion, spoke to local reporters this past week about replacing 25-year-old Bank of America Stadium, noting that, “at some point that building will fall down.” Tepper was adamant that “I’m not building a stadium alone,” and he envisions a plan where the team, the taxpayers, and personal seat license-holders split the cost three ways.
“That’s a partnership,” he said. “And if people don’t want it, they don’t want it. I’m not going to force it on anybody.”
The subtext: “And if you don’t want it, I’ll find a city that will.”
Tepper may not have trouble finding a city willing to work with him. St. Louis would love to get the NFL back, while Vancouver and Toronto have emerged in recent years as potential candidates for a team.
Tepper also has scaled back his grandiose visions of building a domed stadium that could attract Final Fours and maybe a Super Bowl to Charlotte.
“There is no way in hell I would build a domed stadium in Charlotte, especially after COVID,” he said.
Kinley must report for military duty
Former Navy cornerback and class president Cameron Kinley thought he would be able to defer his military service and try to forge an NFL career, as Joe Cardona is doing for the Patriots and Malcolm Perry for the Dolphins.
But the Secretary of the Navy informed Kinley this past week that he would instead have to fulfill his five-year military commitment immediately. Kinley, who signed as an undrafted free agent with the Buccaneers, said the Navy did not give him a reason for denying his request — acknowledging that the Navy has no responsibility to do so — and that he doesn’t have an opportunity to appeal the decision.
“I’m speechless,” Kinley told “The Dan Patrick Show.” “I felt like I had a piece of me taken away.”
The other service academies haven’t been as strict. This year, one graduate from West Point and three from the Air Force Academy will be competing in NFL training camps.
Ja’Wuan James cost himself $10 million this year when he tore his Achilles’ working out on his own (on the advice of the NFLPA), allowing the Broncos to void his guarantees and release him. James filed a grievance seeking $15 million (he had another $5 million guaranteed next year) that will be tough to win, but in the meantime, James has found a new home. The Ravens signed James to a two-year contract this past week, and coach John Harbaugh even left open the possibility of James returning to play at the end of the 2021 season. Of course, James still cost himself a lot of money by getting hurt. His new deal reportedly guarantees him just $500,000 this year (while he rehabs), and could pay him up to $8 million next year, though that seemingly is heavy on incentives … Of the 19 first-round picks that had signed contracts as of Thursday, Bears quarterback Justin Fields is the only one to negotiate for no offset language in his contract. This means Fields, if he is released before his four-year contract expires, would still collect the full $18.87 million guaranteed from the Bears, and can double-dip on a paycheck for another team. It’s a minor thing that rarely comes into play, but offset language has become the only point of negotiation in rookie contracts, and Fields picked up a rare win for players … Rivera said with a straight face this past week that he’s going to have an open quarterback competition between Ryan Fitzpatrick, Taylor Heinecke, and Kyle Allen. Bet your life savings on Fitzpatrick … The NFL announced that it is expanding into Germany soon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots are picked to play in the inaugural game. The Patriots are one of the most popular teams in Germany, the NFL’s third-biggest international market outside of Mexico and the United Kingdom, and former Patriots Sebastian Vollmer and Markus Kuhn, who broadcast Monday night games in German for DAZN, could call the game.