It's a quiet time on the NFL calendar, with almost two weeks to go until the draft and free agency slowing to a trickle, but there is serious intrigue and consternation in two AFC cities — San Diego and Nashville.
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers suddenly is in high demand and could be the biggest name called on draft day. Rivers has refused to talk contract extension as he enters the final year of his deal because of the possibility of the Chargers moving to Los Angeles next year — he loves San Diego but supposedly wants nothing to do with LA — and the Chargers have done a ton of homework on Marcus Mariota this spring, including flying to Oregon last week to hold a private workout.
The going theory is that the Chargers could — or even should — trade Rivers to the Titans for the No. 2 overall pick, and then draft Mariota as the replacement.
For the Chargers, it would mean starting over at the most important position, but landing another potential franchise quarterback. For the Titans, it would mean bypassing a potential young cornerstone player, but landing a proven commodity in Rivers, albeit one who turns 34 in December.
However, in fleshing out all of the details, it's pretty clear that the Chargers should tread very carefully with any potential trade, while the Titans should jump at any opportunity to get Rivers.
The biggest issue with Rivers, apart from his desire not to play in LA, is his age. The Chargers should start preparing for the future, and Tennessee shouldn't mortgage the future for a quarterback entering the final stretch of his career. Right?
Wrong. That logic is highly flawed on both ends.
True, 33-going-on-34 is not a young age for a professional athlete, particularly in the NFL, where only about 16 percent of players are 30 and over. But it's also way too soon to start preparing for "life after Rivers."
He's still on top of his game and showing no signs of slowing down — Rivers threw for 4,286 yards last year, completed 66.5 percent of passes, and had a 31:18 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Just as importantly, Rivers has been tough and durable, starting in 144 straight games dating to Week 1 of the 2006 season.
And there's a good argument to be made that Rivers is still very much in his prime. The best athletes at the quarterback position are the young guns — Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson — but the best passers are all over 30.
Just look at the list of the top 10 quarterbacks in 2014, as measured by ESPN's total QBR stat: Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, and Rivers. Average age: 33. Nine of them are over 30, while Ryan is 29.
Brady just won a Super Bowl and had one of his best seasons ever at 37. Of the 32 starting QBs last year, 13 were 30 or older, and 26 of the 102 quarterbacks currently in the NFL are at least 30 years old.
Given Rivers's durability and consistent level of play, "it's way too soon to start worrying about Rivers's performance dropping off," an AFC personnel executive said.
The other issue is Mariota's projection as an NFL quarterback. If Mariota were Andrew Luck — the most NFL-ready prospect over the last 15 years — the Chargers would make the trade in a heartbeat. Or the Titans would draft Mariota without thinking twice.
But Mariota is a big question mark. No one doubts his athleticism, but the offense he ran at Oregon doesn't have many NFL concepts, and he's raw as a pocket passer. There's a chance he could eventually develop into an elite passer, but it's certainly a gamble — the stalled progress of Griffin and Kaepernick don't help Mariota's case — and it will take at least a few seasons for him to develop into an NFL-style passer.
It's why I have doubts that the Titans want to draft Mariota, even if they stay at No. 2, and why I believe the rumblings out of Nashville that the team likes last year's rookie quarterback, Zach Mettenberger. Significant changes are coming to the Titans — the CEO just left and the team is rumored to be up for sale — and I'm not sure general manager Ruston Webster and coach Ken Whisenhunt can afford to wait for Mariota to develop over several years.
They desperately need to start winning now after last year's 2-14 performance, and have many holes to fill, particularly on defense. Forget the Titans not having many big-name players on offense — Rivers would make the Titans respectable immediately, if not a playoff contender. But a stud such as Southern Cal defensive end Leonard Williams would also have much more of an instant impact than Mariota would.
Then factor in that the Titans are probably a little gun-shy about drafting a raw, athletic quarterback after swinging and missing on their last two major investments — Vince Young and Jake Locker. Mettenberger showed enough in six starts last year to prove that he at least belongs in the NFL, and even if his ceiling isn't as high as Mariota's, Mettenberger is going to be the better NFL quarterback in 2015.
To sum it up, it seems clear that this trade depends on two giant "ifs." IF the Chargers are convinced Rivers is gone after 2015, and IF they evaluate Mariota as an elite quarterback, then Rivers will be heading east. Outside of that, however, the Chargers would be foolish to trade the rarest and most valuable of assets in the NFL — a franchise quarterback.
Still some questions after the verdict
The saga of Aaron Hernandez reached a sad and inevitable conclusion last week when the former Patriots star tight end was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing Odin Lloyd.
While Hernandez's fate has been cemented — he gets an automatic appeal of his conviction, but has a microscopic chance of getting it overturned — there are still a few loose ends that never got tied up:
■ What was the motive? This was never fully articulated at the trial. Ultimately, the jury decided it didn’t matter, given the overwhelming circumstantial evidence pointing to Hernandez’s involvement in the killing.
The popular theory is that Hernandez killed Lloyd to keep him quiet about the 2012 double homicide in Boston, for which Hernandez now faces two additional murder charges. But it's possible Hernandez had another beef with Lloyd, or perhaps Hernandez was simply paranoid and deranged from years of drug use, as some of his friends surmise.
■ Was Hernandez in a gang? Much was made in the public sphere about the collection of tattoos covering Hernandez’s body from head to toe, particularly the one reading “Blood” across his right hand. And a 2013 Rolling Stone article said Hernandez carried a gun with him at all times because he feared for his life. But any potential gang ties were not a part of the case against him.
■ Did Hernandez smoke PCP, and how much? The Rolling Stone article portrayed Hernandez as a constant PCP user, and as someone who became incredibly paranoid and irritable from its use. Hernandez’s attorneys tried to argue that Hernandez’s accomplices killed Lloyd in a PCP-induced rage, but Hernandez’s own usage was not mentioned in court.
■ What happened at the “flophouse?” The Rolling Stone article also mentioned that Hernandez had a flophouse in Franklin. What went on at the flophouse? Did any Patriots teammates hang out there? And was the flophouse Bill Belichick’s idea?
The article said that at the 2013 NFL Combine, Belichick advised Hernandez to lay low and rent a safe house for a while. But this angle was not pursued in the trial.
While Robert Kraft and the Patriots' chief of security did testify in the trial, Belichick was never called to the witness stand, and neither were Brandon Spikes nor any other former Patriots teammate. And in all likelihood it saved the Patriots from a lot of potential embarrassment.
Unreliable data halts concussion study
The NFL takes seriously its commitment to researching, understanding, and preventing concussions, but one of its studies has surprisingly been put on hiatus.
The NFL and NFL Players Association jointly created a program in 2013 to use helmet and head sensors to potentially track concussive hits, but the league is discontinuing the program for now because it produced unreliable data.
For the past two years the NFL funded studies using Riddell helmets and X2 Biosystems mouth guard sensors.
The sensors are supposed to measure head hits and transmit the information to smart devices on the sidelines, at which point a program would measure the velocity of the hit and determine if a player should be removed from the game.
But the sensors only measured direct, center-of-gravity hits and not many of the smaller ones that can also lead to concussive effects. The NFL wanted to continue with the project this fall, but not all of the partners involved were comfortable with the data-tracking.
"The bottom line is the recordings of these sensors right now, the accuracy is suspect," Dr. Robert Cantu of Boston University, an adviser to the NFL's Head, Neck and Spine Committee, told the Sports Business Journal this offseason. "I think it is prudent to put it on the shelf."
Injured players have a lot on the line
Forget the 40-yard dash, Pro Days, and official visits. For Georgia star running back Todd Gurley and a handful of draft prospects, the most important event of the pre-draft process takes place this weekend in Indianapolis for the Combine medical rechecks.
This gathering is for players who ended last season with an injury and have been unable to participate in the drills and other on-field testing (the list of attendees is not announced).
Gurley, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament in November, declined to even let NFL doctors look at his knee in February. But if team doctors are pleased with Gurley's progress now, it could help cement his status as a first-round pick.
This study appears to be on target
Interesting study from the website Football Perspective, using data from Pro Football Focus to look at which cornerbacks were targeted the most and least in 2014 in relation to the average NFL cornerback (PFF concludes that the average cornerback is targeted on 16.4 percent of passing plays). The two names at the top of the study shouldn't surprise anyone — Richard Sherman saw 25.5 fewer targets than the average cornerback (65 on 552 passing plays), the best mark in the league, while Darrelle Revis was second with 20.4 fewer targets than average (79 on 606 passing plays). A trio of NFC North cornerbacks — Casey Hayward, Tim Jennings, and Rashean Mathis — round out the top five.
The cornerbacks that were targeted the most compared to their peers: Johnathan Joseph, Jason McCourty, Buster Skrine, Kyle Fuller, and Joe Haden.
Dennard is trying to work his way back
What a difference a year makes for Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. Last offseason he was serving a 35-day jail sentence in Nebraska and rehabbing a shoulder injury that kept him off the field until training camp. And after starting 16 games in his first two seasons, Dennard's 2014 season was a bust. He played in only six games (four starts) because of the nagging shoulder injury, fell behind Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan on the depth chart, and ended the season on injured reserve with a hamstring injury.
But this offseason, Dennard appears to finally be healthy, doing position drills and working out every day in Arizona with teammates Devin McCourty, Tavon Wilson, and Duron Harmon.
Dennard is entering the final year of his rookie contract and facing a make-or-break training camp in August. Revis and Brandon Browner are now out of the picture, but Dennard won't be guaranteed a roster spot. His $1.59 million salary with only $14,000 of dead money makes him a potential salary cap casualty, but he's working hard to get back in the Patriots' good graces.
The NFL schedule will be out this week (Tuesday or Thursday night are the best guesses). The Steelers are the Patriots' likely opponent for the opening Thursday kickoff game, with the Eagles as the secondary option. The Patriots should get the maximum five national TV games in 2015, and I'll go with: Steelers, Jets, Texans, Colts, and Cowboys (Thanksgiving), with several other games in the national 4:25 p.m. time slot (especially the Broncos game) . . . Anyone concerned about the Seahawks not being able to agree to a long-term contract with Russell Wilson? Nope, me neither. It will get done before he reaches free agency next offseason . . . The Washington Post reported that in a meeting with season ticket-holders, team president Bruce Allen said the Redskins are contemplating a schedule change that would make their final preseason game against Jacksonville a Thursday matinee, to make the game more family-friendly . . . One team that should consider drafting a quarterback in the middle rounds? The 49ers. They only have two on the roster — an inconsistent Colin Kaepernick, and backup Blaine Gabbert . . . You shouldn't be surprised that Jameis Winston reportedly scored a respectable 27 on the Wonderlic test. He carried a 4.0 grade-point average at Hueytown (Ala.) High School and got accepted to Stanford to play football for David Shaw . . . Participating earlier this month at Maryland's Pro Day? Spencer Myers, a two-time Atlantic Coast Conference heavyweight wrestling champion for the Terrapins who did defensive line drills and long snapping in front of 30 teams, according to the Baltimore Sun . . . NFL teams with new head coaches began voluntary offseason workouts last week, and a couple notable names were not in attendance — Jets defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, unhappy about not getting a long-term contract yet, and Bears running back Matt Forte, who is entering the final year of his deal. "Relax everybody," Forte tweeted to Bears fans freaking out about a potential holdout. "It's called voluntary W/O for a reason. I've always been there, especially when it counts!"