At the recent NFL Combine in Indianapolis, the league invited Matt Hasselbeck and a handful of former players to mentor a group of quarterbacks and receivers.
“They told us, ‘All right, tell us about your combine experience,’ ” Hasselbeck said. “And I was like, ‘Guys, this is literally the first time I’ve ever been invited to the combine. So I don’t think I can help you out there.’ ”
Hasselbeck’s story offers important perspective as the NFL emerges from the combine and progresses through the pre-draft process over the next six weeks. It’s yet another example that no one really knows anything when it comes to the NFL Draft.
Hasselbeck, now 46, was no slouch in the NFL. He played 18 seasons, including 11 as his team’s primary starting quarterback. He made three Pro Bowls, started 160 games, started in a Super Bowl, and last year was inducted in the Seahawks Ring of Honor.
Yet Hasselbeck, who played at Xaverian in Westwood and started for two years at Boston College, was barely on the radar as an NFL prospect in 1998. Not only was Hasselbeck not invited to the combine, he actually had the opportunity pulled out from under him.
“I got an itinerary, something in the mail, from the recruiting service. That’s how the invites used to go,” Hasselbeck recalled. “And then a lot of time went by, and I never got a plane ticket. A lot of guys that I played with in the Blue-Gray Game were getting their stuff, and I was getting nothing.”
Turned out, Hasselbeck got bumped when Ryan Leaf, a junior, declared early for the draft. But no one from the combine told Hasselbeck.
“So I called the guy from the scouting service,” Hasselbeck said. “I’m on my mom and dad’s house phone, with the curly cord in the kitchen, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, this happens sometimes. If a bunch of juniors come out early, you can get bumped.’ ”
“So I was like, ‘Well, sir, only one junior came out early this year, it’s Ryan Leaf.’ And he’s like, ‘Well, now you know who bumped you.’ ”
It was a demoralizing turn for Hasselbeck.
“Not getting invited was a crushing blow,” he said. “I mentally gave up on the NFL at that point.”
Leaf, drafted No. 2 overall by the Chargers that year, is considered one of the biggest draft busts of all time. His journey downward began at the combine. Leaf shared this past week on “The Rich Eisen Show” that he showed up to the combine at 268 pounds, about 25 pounds overweight, and that he mistakenly skipped a meeting with the Colts, who had the No. 1 pick and eventually took Peyton Manning. Leaf didn’t work out at the combine, either.
“I was banking on that combine, really banking on it, and then Ryan Leaf bumps me and doesn’t work out and was heavy,” Hasselbeck said. “I was hot. His face was on my dartboard that whole first year because I got bumped from the combine.”
Hasselbeck eventually cooled off and kept at it. He said his agent, Andrew Brandt, set up a personal Pro Day for Hasselbeck in lieu of the combine. All 32 teams were invited to come watch Hasselbeck throw at BC.
“And only one shows up,” Hasselbeck said. “It’s Andy Reid, quarterbacks coach for the Packers. And he shows up, and it’s like a blizzard in Boston. We didn’t have an indoor facility, and he’s like, ‘OK, do you want to go outside and throw in the snow?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s go, I’m ready.’ ”
“And he was like, ‘Psssh, yeah right. I’m not going outside in that. I just needed to know that you would be willing to go out and throw in that, because I coach in Green Bay.’ ”
The only reason Reid had much interest in Hasselbeck was because the Packers were set at quarterback with Brett Favre and were looking at developmental backups. Reid was also good friends with Dirk Koetter, who was BC’s offensive coordinator during Hasselbeck’s first two seasons and vouched for him.
The only other team that visited Hasselbeck on campus that spring was the Eagles, who sent quarterbacks coach Sean Payton. Payton told Hasselbeck that the Eagles couldn’t draft him but would like him as an undrafted free agent.
Sensing that the NFL wasn’t too hot on his trail, Hasselbeck enrolled in the MBA program at BC. His phone only rang toward the end of the draft, when teams such as the Ravens and Eagles asked him to sign as an undrafted free agent. Hasselbeck wasn’t even wanted by Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin, his former coach at BC, who drafted quarterback Jonathan Quinn in the third round.
Hasselbeck expected to be an undrafted free agent, but the Packers surprised Hasselbeck by drafting him with the 187th pick in the sixth round, with Reid calling to deliver the news. But Hasselbeck had no illusions about playing much in the NFL. The Packers had Favre, Doug Pederson, and Rick Mirer on the depth chart ahead of him.
“I talked to one of my professors at BC, and I was like, “I’m going to try out for the Packers and miss all spring and summer of classes, and I’m not going to make the team. What should I do?’ ” Hasselbeck said. “I was so demoralized from the whole combine experience, no one coming to my Pro Day, it was like, ‘Read the writing on the wall.’ ”
The professor knocked some sense into Hasselbeck and told him the MBA could wait. Hasselbeck impressed enough to earn a practice squad spot in 1998, and he spent most of the season playing tight end in practice, lining up across from Reggie White. But Hasselbeck sat in on quarterback meetings, and got to learn under Mike Holmgren, Reid, and a trio of veteran QBs.
“They were paying me to be on the practice squad, but I should’ve been paying them,” Hasselbeck said. “It was literally the Harvard business school for playing quarterback. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Hasselbeck became a backup for the 1999 and 2000 seasons, then was acquired by Seattle to be its starter in 2001 when Holmgren was coach and GM.
In 2002, Hasselbeck was briefly teammates with Leaf — this time Hasselbeck the starter, and Leaf the long-shot journeyman. Leaf didn’t make the team, and he never played football again.
“His face was no longer on my dartboard,” said Hasselbeck, who said he remains good friends with Leaf.
Hasselbeck’s career took off in Seattle. He was a starter from 2001-11, then spent four seasons as a backup before finally calling it quits in 2016 at age 40.
At the recent combine, Hasselbeck spoke about his career and reminded the prospects that the combine and draft are just the beginning of the process.
“I wasn’t even invited, and I ended up playing for 18 years,” he said. “So I don’t think it’s the make-or-break that it’s made out to be.”
Trade for Wentz truly baffling
The NFL saw a handful of big moves this past week — Aaron Rodgers returning to the Packers, Russell Wilson going to the Broncos, Khalil Mack going to the Chargers. But the trade that blew me away was the Commanders giving up two third-round picks for quarterback Carson Wentz and, most significantly, agreeing to pick up his entire $28.3 million compensation for 2022.
Nothing about this trade makes sense for the Commanders, other than they are desperate for a quarterback and don’t have any clue how to find one.
Washington apparently sees Wentz as an upgrade to Taylor Heinecke, but it’s not a significant one. Wentz has now been dumped by two teams in two years, both of which made significant investments in him. The Colts got rid of him after just one year despite having no obvious answer at the position.
It’s enough of a head-scratcher for the Commanders to give up two valuable draft picks for a quarterback that no one else wants. But for them to also take on Wentz’s entire contract is baffling. Of the $28.3 million compensation this year, Wentz had $15 million of it fully guaranteed. The Colts were looking at potentially cutting Wentz if they couldn’t find a taker. Or they would have had to pay some of Wentz’s salary to facilitate a trade.
Instead, the Commanders bailed them out, and handed the Colts two decent draft picks for the trouble.
This trade makes no sense, other than coach Ron Rivera is feeling the heat entering his third season, and owner Dan Snyder has money to burn. But there is little doubt that the Wentz experiment will fail, and the Commanders will be back in the quarterback market again next year.
As for the Colts, general manager Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich missed badly on the decision to acquire Wentz last year for a first-round pick. But suckering the Commanders into taking Wentz’s entire contract is a major reprieve in my book.
It doesn’t matter that the Colts don’t have an obvious solution at quarterback. Getting rid of Wentz and that contract is a huge win.
As for their solutions, the Colts are at least well positioned to add someone, because they have the most salary-cap space in the NFL at nearly $70 million. Jimmy Garoppolo makes some sense, even though he just had shoulder surgery and is out all spring. Acquiring Garoppolo and signing him to a two-year deal could at least buy the Colts some time.
Free agent Teddy Bridgewater could also be a low-cost option while the Colts punt the decision for a year. And one trade option that makes sense is Kirk Cousins.
He’s in the final year of his deal with the Vikings, with a $35 million salary that’s fully guaranteed. I wouldn’t think a team would want to trade for Cousins at that salary, but I didn’t think anyone would trade for Wentz’s salary, either. Cousins actually seems like a good fit for Reich, as they both emphasize quick passes and avoiding interceptions above all. The Colts could take the money they had slotted to pay Wentz and instead pay it to Cousins this year, if the Vikings are willing to part with him.
QB market shrinks quickly
Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and Carson Wentz resolved their situations, so unless Kirk Cousins, Kyler Murray, or Derek Carr surprisingly shake free, the top quarterbacks left are Deshaun Watson and Jimmy Garoppolo.
The Panthers are reportedly all-in on Watson, but they don’t have an attractive package. They already traded their second- and third-round picks this year, and only have Sam Darnold to offer in return, who is owed nearly $19 million fully guaranteed this year. The Steelers look like they could be a good spot for Watson, but the fact that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the Steelers “ARE NOT interested” suggests that decision comes straight from the top.
Writing for The 33rd Team, former Eagles executive Joe Banner said the Eagles are the top landing spot for Watson, and I agree. They have three first-round picks this year (Nos. 15, 16, and 19), a lot of other picks, and can offer the Texans an intriguing and cheap quarterback in Jalen Hurts, who is under contract for two more years. With Watson’s legal issues being resolved favorably, he could put the Eagles over the top.
If the Panthers don’t land Watson, Garoppolo could be a fallback, although Darnold’s $19 million guarantee is an albatross for them. Garoppolo is an obvious option for the Colts, and could also be a solution in Minnesota if the Vikings trade Cousins. There’s also a thought of the Raiders trading Carr and trading for Garoppolo to reunite him with Josh McDaniels, but that seems complicated and risky for the Raiders.
Top free agents often come with risk
The release of Trey Flowers and trade of Khalil Mack this past week once again illustrate how top-of-the-market free agency always comes with a “buyer beware” sticker.
In his first four seasons, all with the Patriots, Flowers had 21 sacks while earning a total of $4.03 million. In his last three seasons, all with the Lions, Flowers had just 10.5 sacks while earning $54 million.
Mack had a similar breakdown. In his first four seasons, all with the Raiders, he played in all 64 games, had 40.5 sacks, and made a total of $18.7 million. In the last four seasons with the Bears, Mack missed 12 games, had 36 sacks, and made $90.75 million.
It’s not that Flowers or Mack dogged it after getting paid. Both were productive players when healthy. But both struggled with injuries, as is common in the NFL, showing the inherent risk of spending a lot of money on one player.
The Raiders announced their full coaching staff under McDaniels, and unsurprisingly, there are plenty of Patriots connections. Offensive coordinator Mick Lombardi and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham coached in Foxborough. Offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo and quarterbacks coach Bo Hardegree came over with McDaniels from New England this offseason. A senior offensive assistant will be Jerry Schuplinski, McDaniels’s college teammate who was with the Patriots from 2013-18 and most recently was on Joe Judge’s staff with the Giants. And a senior defensive assistant will be Rob Ryan, who was a member of Bill Belichick’s staff from 2000-03, when McDaniels was a pup with the Patriots. McDaniels also retained Jon Gruden’s son, Deuce Gruden, as a strength coach … I wouldn’t be surprised if the Raiders got in on J.C. Jackson’s free agency. They are in good salary-cap shape and had the fewest interceptions in the NFL last year (six) … Quite an offseason for owners. Dan Snyder is getting investigated again by the NFL for yet another sexual harassment allegation, while also getting hauled in front of Congress over the other investigation. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross was accused of tanking and sued for racial discrimination. The Cowboys were revealed to have spent $2.4 million in settlements for voyeurism with their cheerleaders. And now a 25-year-old woman has sued Jerry Jones, claiming he is her father … Wilson and the Broncos play at Seattle in 2022, while Wentz will play at Indianapolis and at Philadelphia … All of the players that got released this past week were at least done the favor of hitting free agency early so they can get a head start on the process. “It’s def a new day. NFL Players are being informed ahead of time that they are being released,” former Saints receiver Lance Moore tweeted. “In 2014 I found out on this here app that I was getting the ax from the @Saints.” … Buccaneers left guard Ali Marpet announced his retirement on Feb. 27, and the team placed him on the reserve/retired list this past Wednesday. That’s relevant, because a certain 44-year-old quarterback hasn’t been placed on the retired list yet, more than four weeks after he made his announcement.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.