The official reason the entire NFL descends upon Indianapolis for a week is to prepare for the draft and scout 330 college prospects.
But the Combine also signals the unofficial start of the 2017 season. Teams and agents (ahem) are preparing for free agency to begin on Thursday, and 29 of the 32 franchises held “state of the team” press conferences (everyone except Washington, New Orleans, and New England).
Let’s look at some of the more interesting updates from the week:
■ The rumors of Tony Romo going to Denver seem a lot more realistic now than they did a few weeks ago. While John Elway expressed confidence in both of his young quarterbacks, Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch, he certainly opened the door to adding a veteran this offseason.
“We’re open to anything,” Elway said. “We’ll always look at it.”
The Broncos were fourth in the NFL in total defense and points allowed, but just 22nd in points scored and 27th in total offense, and league sources say the Broncos know they need to take advantage of their great defense while they still have it together.
Assuming the Cowboys release Romo, the Broncos and Texans make the most sense for him since they are the closest to Super Bowl contention.
■ The Jets were a disaster at 5-11 last year, and the veteran bloodletting has begun.
Gone for 2017: Darrelle Revis, Brandon Marshall, Nick Mangold, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Clady, Breno Giacomini, Erin Henderson, and Nick Folk, freeing up about $40 million in cap space. Revis will still earn his $6 million guarantee whether he plays this year or not, but his contract had offset language, meaning the Jets could get a partial refund if Revis signs with another team.
If Revis still has the motivation to play — and with $118 million in career earnings, he might not — his best bet might be to stick with cornerback and get his admitted weight problem under control, not a move to safety.
■ Marshall is already being linked to the Ravens, who like veteran wide receivers (Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, Steve Smith). A move to Baltimore could allow Marshall to maintain his weekly appearance on “Inside the NFL” in New York. A league source also said there is mutual interest between Marshall and the Patriots. Stay tuned.
■ Even with all the Harvard brainpower in the Browns’ front office, it’s coach Hue Jackson who will be leading the search for a new quarterback.
“It’s a collaborative effort, but I think our staff is truly wanting me to help them make the best decision for this organization,’’ Jackson said.
The Browns have three potential veteran options — Jimmy Garoppolo, Tyrod Taylor, and A.J. McCarron — and are putting a lot of work into the top three prospects in the draft, Mitch Trubisky, DeShone Kizer, and Deshaun Watson.
■ Garoppolo has been dominating the news cycle, but McCarron, entering the last year of his rookie contract with the Bengals, is an intriguing option. He played well in four starts at the end of the 2015 season, and likely will have a lower price tag than Garoppolo.
Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin said they wouldn’t be afraid to trade McCarron to a division rival.
“We’ll listen to whatever anyone is thinking,’’ he said. “It’s not ideal to trade guys within your division, particularly at that position. But we listen and if something comes up we’ll certainly announce it to all you guys.’’
■ Taylor, meanwhile, is looking more and more like he’ll be a free agent by next Saturday, the day the Bills have to decide whether to exercise his option and keep him around for $27.5 million in 2017. Assuming Taylor is released, he should have some options — the Browns, Jets, Texans, 49ers, and Rams need better depth at quarterback, and he could be a backup option for the Broncos should they miss out on Romo.
■ Washington is undergoing its annual soap opera, this time involving third-year general manager Scot McCloughan. He didn’t sit with team brass at the Senior Bowl (where he was also barred from speaking to the media), and suspiciously wasn’t at the Combine. Washington-area radio station 106.7 The Fan reported that McCloughan was sent home from Redskins Park on Feb. 20 and told not to return for now, but the team called his absence a “family issue” and McCloughan said he went to be with his family after the death of his 100-year-old grandmother, though she passed away on Feb. 6 and funeral services were supposed to be held Feb. 13.
This perceived dysfunction could explain why Washington hasn’t been able to agree to a long-term deal with Kirk Cousins and instead is looking at paying him $44 million on two consecutive franchise tags.
■ The Cardinals finished No. 2 in yards allowed and 14th in points allowed, but that’s not good enough for coach Bruce Arians, who lamented his team’s poor tackling last season.
“I think the biggest change will be in training camp,” he said. “I’ve never tackled before in training camp other than a goal-line scrimmage. But tackling is such a lost art, it cost us some games last year. So we’re going to roll the dice, tackle more in training camp than we have in the past, just to teach tackling.”
I asked Arians, a coach since 1975 and in the NFL since 1989 with Kansas City, the last time he went full-tackle in training camp.
“Never,” he said. “Christian Okoye [in Kansas City] never went to the ground.”
It’s an interesting idea, but one that could cost the Cardinals a few more injuries in training camp, and might catch the eye of the NFL Players Association.
■ Raiders coach Jack Del Rio went out of his way to thank owner Mark Davis in his opening statement.
“I’m very appreciative of Mark Davis tearing up my contract and giving me a new four-year deal,” Del Rio said. “It wasn’t a very good contract to start with, but it was an opportunity and I bet on our ability to get this thing turned around and I feel like we have. Again, he was a man of his word and he stepped up and tore up that deal and gave me a new one.”
Wait — you signed your contract even though you knew it was a bad deal?
“I knew I was signing a deal that was less than maybe what a guy with nine years’ head coaching experience would deserve,” he said. “But there’s one thing about, I would say throughout life, many moments where you find the ability to humble yourself and just keep your head down and keep working hard, and that side of it usually takes care of itself.”
POLICY IS PRIVACY
Patriots’ plans hard to pin down
A few notes on the Patriots and this year’s draft class:
■ As usual, it was tough to get a good read on the Patriots’ intentions with their own free agents and players they may be targeting, as the agents of several players said they hadn’t had substantive talks with the Patriots and didn’t really knew where things stood.
Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio didn’t even get to the Combine until Thursday afternoon, and most of their initial work appeared to revolve around some of the lesser free agents — blocking tight end Mike Williams, fullback James Develin, exclusive-rights free agent Brandon King, etc.
■ Dont’a Hightower is certainly open to the possibility of returning to the Patriots but is waiting to see what type of offers will roll in at the start of free agency and whether the Patriots will come close to matching. One AFC executive was skeptical that Hightower would match the contract recently signed by Jamie Collins — $26.4 million guaranteed over the next two years — citing Collins’s superior athleticism over Hightower’s proven production.
■ The Patriots are certainly taking a long look at the tight end position, but don’t count out the return of Martellus Bennett. We’re told that the interest between the Patriots and Bennett is real — the team actually approached him about an extension during the season — and that a return isn’t out of the question, if the price is right. The Raiders and Jaguars also have expressed serious interest in Bennett.
But this might be the year for the Patriots to also draft another tight end, certainly considering Rob Gronkowski’s injury history. Another AFC executive said that this year’s tight end class is one of the best and deepest he’s ever seen, with legitimate first-round talents in O.J. Howard and David Njoku, and a good variety of prospects throughout the draft.
■ The Patriots are also in the defensive end market, with Chris Long not returning and Jabaal Sheard looking like he won’t return, either (one league source said he still is sour about being left home from the 49ers game, costing him, among other things, a $62,500 roster bonus). They’ve already brought in Jared Odrick (who can play every position on the defensive line) for a visit, and this year’s draft class is talented and deep.
“It’s as good a pass-rusher draft that I can remember,” Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said last week.
■ The general feeling around the league is that Logan Ryan will price himself out of the Patriots’ market — potentially $10 million per year — and three different sources mentioned the Lions, who need a cornerback and are run by GM Bob Quinn, a former longtime Patriots scout.
■ Speaking of Quinn, it was fascinating to hear a young GM only in his second season speak out strongly against the NFL for not inviting controversial running back Joe Mixon, who was caught on camera punching a female in 2014, to the Combine.
Quinn said the Lions will still consider drafting Mixon and called it “really disappointing” that Mixon was kept away from Indianapolis, making it difficult for teams to gather the necessary background information.
“For him not being here because of those issues, personally I don’t think that’s real fair because we have a lot of investigation that we want to do on him,” Quinn said. “To get him in one spot for all the teams would have been great. I’m not part of those decisions about how guys are chosen, but I think it is a disappointment that guys like him, and there’s a few others you can put in that category, that we’re going to be chasing around in the months of March and April and it’s really unfair to the players, to be honest with you.”
One scout we spoke to said Mixon is the best running back in the draft, in the same mold as David Johnson and Matt Forte. But Mixon is going to be an “owner pick.” An NFC head coach told us that about half of teams last year had Tyreek Hill, who had a domestic violence arrest in college, off their draft boards. The Chiefs took him in the fifth round and Hill was an All-Pro and Pro Bowler as punt returner and scatback.
Happy to get down to business
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross put his players through a different type of Combine last week, inviting 16 of them to New York City for a hands-on business education to help prepare them for life after football.
Ross, a billionaire real estate developer, introduced the players to a wide array of business associates. They wore hard hats and toured Ross’s construction site at Hudson Yards, talking to contractors about steel and drywall. They went to NFL headquarters and met NFL executives. They also met the CEOs of Warby Parker and Equinox, Maverick Carter of LRMR Management and LeBron James fame, and Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils owner Michael Rubin.
The players paid for the trip out of their own pockets but appreciated the opportunity to mingle with stars of the business world.
“It’s been beyond worth it having the opportunity to sit down with so many business minds and be a sponge,” defensive end Cameron Wake said, via CNBC.
Team owners- Take this blueprint and apply it.— Spencer Paysinger (@PYSNGR) March 4, 2017
Players- Take the time to invest in your curiosity.
Could lead you to the life you want.
Chandler Jones is certainly going to make a nice chunk of change in 2017, but the trade from New England to Arizona did cost him some money. Jones, considered an outside linebacker in the Cardinals’ defensive scheme, was given the franchise tag last week, which carries a salary of $14.55 million for linebackers. If Jones were considered a defensive end, as he was listed in New England, he would have made $16.934 million. In a fair world, the NFL would have one number for “pass rushers” regardless of scheme . . . What a difference a month makes for Antonio Brown. In January, his Facebook Live stunt in the locker room was the ultimate sign of disrespect and selfishness, leading to Mike Tomlin dropping vague threats about Brown’s future in his press conference and rumors of the Steelers wanting to move on from Brown. In February, the Steelers made Brown the highest-paid receiver in the league with a new five-year contract that essentially amounts to a three-year, $49 million deal. That’ll teach him . . . Before former Patriots tight ends coach Brian Daboll took the offensive coordinator job at Alabama two weeks ago, he had a long conversation with Patriots tight end Mike Williams, who played at Alabama under Nick Saban. Daboll knows Saban, of course — Saban gave him his first job at Michigan State in 1999 — but going from the NFL back to college is a big transition. Williams relayed that Alabama’s program is very similar to the Patriots’ and that Daboll shouldn’t have any problem fitting in . . . An underappreciated angle of the Patriots’ Tom Brady-Jimmy Garoppolo dilemma — the role of agent Don Yee, who represents both players. If the Patriots keep Garoppolo as the QB of the future, well, that means they will eventually kick Brady out the door. Doesn’t Yee have to lobby for the Patriots to trade Garoppolo, so that both of his clients get starting jobs? . . . The Packers now employ David Raih as an “offensive perimeter” coach, whatever that means . . . Jason Fitzgerald at OverTheCap.com notes that with the salary cap set at $167 million, the No. 1 overall draft pick should be locked into a four-year contract worth $30,408,550, with a signing bonus of $20,255,308. Jared Goff’s numbers last year were approximately $27.9 million and $18.6 million . . . Also, a first-round restricted free agent tender (likely for Malcolm Butler) comes with a salary of $3.91 million . . . Of the 10 teams with the most salary cap space entering next season, the Patriots (sixth, $59.7 million) and Raiders (ninth, $42.9 million) are the only ones that made the playoffs last year.
Quote of the week
Falcons coach Dan Quinn, on recovering from the Super Bowl loss: “We talk about boxing quite a bit. We got our ass knocked down on the canvas, and you get back up and you go fight again. That’s kind of what this offseason is about for us.”
Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas quickly became a trusted option for quarterback Drew Brees. The Ohio State product amassed 92 receptions in 2016, the second most in NFL history for a rookie. He finished the season with 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns. Here’s a look at the players to record 90 or more catches in their debut seasons.