You can tell that Bills coach Sean McDermott played safety in college and coached defensive backs in the NFL. This past week, he showed off an impressive backpedal.
On Tuesday, McDermott said he was “very concerned” about Stefon Diggs’s absence from mandatory minicamp practice, waiving off reporters tersely with, “I’m not going to get into it.” Quarterback Josh Allen also said that “internally, we’re working on some things — not football related.”
By Wednesday, McDermott had a different take. Actually, McDermott said, “Stef did everything that he was asked to do.” There was “great communication” between Diggs and the team, and his absence from practice was excused, because “we all needed a break and some space … and then picked up those conversations after practice.”
Oh, and things are just fine between Diggs and the team. He even appeared at Wednesday’s practice, participating in individual drills before sitting out team drills.
“He was excused by me, and so those conversations have got us to what I think and believe is a great spot,” McDermott said.
Of course, that’s a sanitized version of events. The Bills really do have issues with Diggs, their 29-year-old star receiver. McDermott is just doing his best to deescalate a tricky situation.
What else can McDermott do? McDermott needs Diggs more than ever in 2023, following two straight embarrassing postseason losses that have put McDermott on the hot seat. McDermott may have won three straight AFC East titles, but he doesn’t have much to show for it.
This is a rare situation where the issue doesn’t appear to be money. Diggs signed a four-year, $96 million deal last offseason and is set to make a healthy $24.4 million in 2023.
Diggs’s frustration is with his role in the offense and his voice in play-calling, per a league source close to the Bills’ locker room. He was visibly agitated at Allen during the 27-10 playoff loss to the Bengals, stormed out of the locker room almost immediately after the game, and didn’t attend any voluntary workouts this offseason.
The issues still hadn’t been resolved when the Bills reported for mandatory minicamp on Monday evening, as Diggs skipped Tuesday’s practice. Diggs’s agent, Adisa Bakari, told ESPN that Diggs reported for his physical on Monday night and did everything the team asked him to do, calling it an “in-house” issue, not contractual.
But by Wednesday, Diggs was back on the field, and McDermott spoke of the importance of involving Diggs more.
“Listen, getting Stef the ball is an important part of our offense. There’s no reason to say it isn’t,” McDermott said. “He’s a big focal point of our offense, in addition to Josh. And so you know, it’s important to get him going, and the more production he has, the more production we have as an offense.”
At first glance it’s hard to see how the Bills could get Diggs more opportunities. His stats last year all ranked in the top five in the NFL — 154 targets, 108 catches, 1,429 yards, and 11 touchdowns. Since joining the Bills for the 2020 season, Diggs is top six in all of those stats, and his 484 targets rank second behind only Davante Adams.
But a closer look does reveal a few reasons for Diggs to be upset. Over the last six games in 2023, including two playoff games, Diggs caught just one touchdown pass and averaged a meager 63 receiving yards. per game. In the playoff loss to the Bengals, a listless, blowout defeat at home, Diggs had just four catches for 35 yards.
And Diggs may not have connected as well with new offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey after thriving for two years with former coordinator Brian Daboll.
McDermott intimated that it was all discussed with Diggs on Tuesday.
“We come out of those meetings with some real truths about what we could have done better,” McDermott said. “I’m extremely impressed and appreciative of the communication that we’ve had. And we all want the same thing, and that’s what we kept coming back to, is we all want to win. And so I think we’re in a good spot.”
Both sides need each other. Diggs will have a hard time finding a better situation than the one he has in Buffalo, where the Bills are one of the top Super Bowl contenders, his quarterback is one of the best in the game, and the team appears committed to feeding him the ball.
McDermott badly needs to win this year to erase the stigma that he can’t win the Big One — and, potentially, to keep his job. McDermott already dismissed Leslie Frazier and named himself defensive coordinator. Trading Diggs doesn’t help the Bills overcome the Chiefs and Bengals, especially when the Bills don’t have a great No. 2 option. If anything, the Bills should be looking to add someone such as DeAndre Hopkins to pair with Diggs.
Diggs’s contract should also keep the Bills from trading him, though not because of his $44.3 million in dead cap money, which would get split between $13.2 million this year and $31.1 million next year. It’s the actual cash — Diggs is set to make $24.4 million this season, and in March, the Bills converted $22.7 million of his base salary into a signing bonus to create cap space. Teams usually don’t trade or release players after pre-paying them 93 percent of that season’s salary.
So while there clearly are issues between Diggs and the Bills, McDermott is doing his best to quash them. The Bills’ 2023 season, and potentially McDermott’s future, likely depend on Diggs being happy and productive.
“He works extremely, extremely hard — as hard as any player I’ve been around to be elite in this league — and that’s what he is,” McDermott said. “I love him. So I want to make sure that you guys understand what, really, the situation was and is, because there’s some things that have been said that I don’t think are fair.”
OUT OF POSITION
Running backs have no leverage
It is not exactly new that running backs have little value in the NFL. For at least the last decade they rarely get taken in the first round of the draft, and rarely get big contracts in free agency. The position has a massive supply of young, fresh legs coming up through the draft each year, and carries arguably the most injury risk.
But the current crop of running backs is just now learning how little value they have in today’s NFL.
The Vikings’ Dalvin Cook just got released despite completing his fourth straight 1,000-yard rushing season. Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was released and remains unsigned, as do veterans Kareem Hunt and Leonard Fournette.
“To see people like that get released, especially in my position, it’s like, damn, what did they do?” the Steelers’ Najee Harris said. “It’s eye-opening, for sure.”
The Chargers’ Austin Ekeler, who led the league in touchdowns last year (18) and was eighth in total yards (1,637), requested a trade and kicked and screamed for a new contract. The Chargers gave him a measly $1.75 million in performance incentives, and he was grateful for it.
“The Chargers did give me something in the middle, some type of incentive,” Ekeler said. “I am appreciative of that because they didn’t have to do that.”
And the top three running backs to hit free agency — Saquon Barkley, Tony Pollard, and Josh Jacobs — are hitting a dead end on long-term contracts. They each got the franchise tag for $10.1 million, and have until July 17 to sign a long-term deal, or else they can only play this year under the franchise tag. So far the negotiations haven’t gotten anywhere, and Barkley and Jacobs haven’t signed their franchise tags yet, threatening holdouts. The Giants and Raiders can counter by rescinding the franchise tag at any time and making each player a free agent, where they may not get close to $10.1 million for this year.
Barkley is vaguely threatening a holdout and Jacobs tweeted that he’s making a stand for future running backs.
“Sometimes it’s not about you,” Jacobs said. “We’ve got to do it for the ones after us.”
It’s a noble thought, but Jacobs and Barkley should probably sign their franchise tags soon. They aren’t going to change the economics of their position. And as Le’Veon Bell can attest, a holdout is the best way to end a running back’s career.
Defensive tackles are cashing in
One position that has had no trouble getting paid is defensive tackle. Nine have signed contract extensions worth at least $10 million per year, and that doesn’t include the Jets’ Quinnen Williams, who may end up with the largest contract of the group.
The top contracts were all four-year deals — $94 million for the Titans’ Jeffery Simmons, $90 million for the Commanders’ Daron Payne, $87.5 million for the Giants’ Dexter Lawrence, $84 million for the 49ers’ Javon Hargrave, $68 million for the Bills’ Ed Oliver, and $57 million for the Browns’ Dalvin Tomlinson.
The Falcons’ David Onyemata and Jaguars’ Davon Hamilton each got three years and about $35 million, and the Texans just gave Maliek Collins $23 million over two years. Plus, four defensive tackles got taken in the first round of the draft.
One AFC executive said it was mostly coincidence that several quality players hit free agency this year, like in 2020 when Aaron Donald, Fletcher Cox, Grady Jarrett, Chris Jones, and DeForest Buckner reached the market.
“Many teams have valued interior pass rushers as second only to edge rusher in importance to the defense, even ahead of cornerbacks,” the executive said. “It had just been a few years since a number of DTs were up for second contracts at the same time.”
Is league doing enough?
It wouldn’t be an NFL offseason if the league and the Players Association didn’t find something to squabble about. This year, the bickering is over the league’s gambling policy, and whether the NFL is doing enough to educate players and properly explain the rules and consequences. Three players have recently been suspended for the season and two more for six games for violating the league’s gambling policies, and at least one other player is under investigation.
Last week’s column delved into the NFL’s educational efforts — players are required to watch a video headlined by Tom Brady, hear a presentation from a league or team official, and sign an acknowledgment that they understand the gambling policy. They are given the entire policy in their player manual, and also a one-page summary of the policy that outlines the key principles — don’t bet on the NFL in any capacity, don’t bet on other sports while in the team facility, don’t enter a sports book during the season, and don’t provide inside information.
The NFL has made a point to highlight all of these educational efforts. This past week, the league sent me unsolicited the one-page summary as well as a link to an interview on NFL Network from NFL executive vice president Jeff Miller.
But one prominent agent reached out to say that most of the NFL’s educational efforts were lacking or nonexistent in 2022, when many of the recent violations took place. He claimed the teams didn’t spend much time explaining the policy, and sent a copy of last year’s player manual, in which the gambling policy is provided over six pages of a 397-page document.
“A needle in a haystack,” the agent said.
The aggressive nature in which the NFL is promoting its educational efforts creates the impression that this is more about PR than truly making sure the players understand the perils of gambling on football. But it’s still ultimately up to the players to know and follow the rules, no excuses.
Gruden remains in the game
Jon Gruden hasn’t coached since October 2021 after being fired by the Raiders, but he is still involved in the game. Per ESPN, Gruden has been working in Tampa with free agent quarterback Carson Wentz, who still hopes to play this year. And Gruden was in New Orleans last month working with his former quarterback Derek Carr, as well as some of the Saints’ offensive coaches.
“Obviously, Jon’s a guy that has a lot of experience with Derek, and Derek has had his most success under Jon Gruden,” Saints coach Dennis Allen said.
Carr said he doesn’t agree with some of the homophobic and sexist remarks Gruden made in e-mails that led to his firing, but it was great to see his former coach.
“I can’t express enough how much I love Coach Gruden. He’s family to me,” Carr said. “When all that stuff happened, it was hard for me because you’re mad, you’re frustrated. But you don’t stop loving him, you know?”
The NFL and HBO have yet to announce the team for this year’s “Hard Knocks,” offering more proof of how much the show is hated by the teams, especially since each already makes its own behind-the-scenes content for the web and social media. The Detroit News this past week reported that the NFL approached the Lions about reprising their time in the spotlight after doing the series last year, and the Lions declined. The NFL a few years ago had to create rules to essentially force teams to participate — it has to be a team that missed the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, and doesn’t have a new head coach. The leaves four candidates for this year: Bears, Saints, Commanders, and Jets. How can the NFL not pick the Jets as they navigate training camp with the biggest story in the league, the addition of Aaron Rodgers? … A good stat from BetMassachusetts.com: The Patriots’ Rhamondre Stevenson was the most undervalued running back in the NFL last year, racking up 1,461 all-purpose yards with a salary-cap hit of $1.012 million, costing the Patriots just $693 per all-purpose yard. The Chiefs’ Isaiah Pacheco was next at $755 per yard, followed by Tony Pollard ($821), Dameon Pierce ($823), and Tyler Allgeier ($845) … Per multiple reports, the NFL’s finance committee told the 32 owners to be available on July 20 and Aug. 8 as potential dates to vote on the Commanders’ sale from Dan Snyder to a group led by Josh Harris. The deal requires the vote of 24 owners for approval. Harris’s bid has questions about its structure and the amount of debt, but NFL owners are eager to be rid of Snyder … The Bengals-Chiefs rivalry is getting fun. Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase said, “Pat who?” when calling Joe Burrow the best player in the league. Patrick Mahomes responded Thursday night by posting, “That’s Who” and a picture of him wearing his two Super Bowl rings.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.