This was an exciting week in the NFL, but not because training camps opened and all 32 teams got back to football. The league saw some free agency fireworks last week, and that goes both ways — players who cashed in with mega contract extensions, and others who are holding out, risking massive fines in search of a better pay day.
Let’s take a closer look at the flurry of activity, and the varied approaches taken by several teams:
■ The Rams’ offseason approach appears to be throwing piles of money at players — everyone but their star defensive player, that is. The latest were the two eye-opening contracts handed out to Brandin Cooks and Todd Gurley last week. Cooks, traded away by the Patriots after just one season, scored an unbelievable contract: Six years in total (a five-year extension), with $89.459 million in total value and $50.459 million guaranteed over the first three seasons.
And while we haven’t seen the full details of the contract, it appears to be very real. He’ll make $11 million this year, $27.459 million next year (including a $17 million option bonus) and $12 million in 2020. Cooks is now tied with DeAndre Hopkins for the third-highest receiver contract ($16.2 million), behind only Antonio Brown and Mike Evans. Cooks should be a good fit for the Rams’ offense, which relies heavily on the run game and deep play-action passes. But this is still a shockingly strong contract for someone who has been traded in each of the last two seasons and was arguably the Patriots’ third or fourth receiving option last year. The Rams perhaps lost their leverage in negotiations with Cooks after trading a first-round pick for him and letting Sammy Watkins walk in free agency.
The Rams also reset the running back market with Gurley, who signed a new four-year, $57.5 million extension through the 2023 season. The $14.375 million average is nearly double the next highest contract, Devonta Freeman at $8.25 million per year. Le’Veon Bell is making $14.544 million this year, but that’s on a one-year franchise tag.
Yet the Rams are playing hardball with defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who is holding out of the start of camp. The problem is the sides just might be too far apart. Donald reportedly wants to become the first $20 million defender, yet the Rams can control his rights through the 2020 season (via the franchise tag the next two seasons) for approximately $38-40 million total over the three seasons.
■ A few players are banging their heads against the wall, trying to get their teams to budge. Raiders outside linebacker Khalil Mack and Seahawks safety Earl Thomas are holding out, while Bell won’t sign his franchise tag until the start of the regular season (or perhaps later). And Rob Gronkowski is having a tough time getting his money from the Patriots.
But the Falcons caved almost instantly to Julio Jones, who seemed to have the worst leverage of any of the holdouts, with three years left on his contract. But Jones’s holdout lasted all of one day before the Falcons agreed to increase his 2018 salary from $10.5 million to $13.4 million by moving money from 2019 into this year, per ESPN. The Falcons will then have to address his contract again next year, likely with an entirely new deal.
The new contract still puts Jones below Allen Robinson and Demaryius Thomas, who average $14 million on their deals, but puts Jones’s salary more in line with his elite abilities.
And the Falcons weren’t done handing out large checks, reportedly agreeing to a new five-year, $75 million extension on left tackle Jake Matthews, who was playing this year under his fifth-year option. The $15 million average puts him third among left tackles, right behind Nate Solder’s $15.5 million average.
■ Solder’s reign as the NFL’s highest-paid offensive lineman came to a close on Friday when the Titans agreed to a five-year, $80 million extension with left tackle Taylor Lewan, $50 million guaranteed, per ESPN.
Lewan took an interesting tack with the Titans. He staged a “hold-in” of sorts — he reported to training camp on time and participated in certain drills in practice, but held himself out of team drills until his new contract got completed. Lewan’s $16 million average is now the tops, and the $50 million guarantee, if there are no strings attached (and there might be), blows Solder’s $34.8 million guarantee out of the water.
The Titans weren’t done on Friday, giving tight end Delanie Walker a new three-year, $23 million deal, per ESPN.
■ The Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers are taking the much more prudent approach. The Texans have a longstanding approach to not conducting contract negotiations during the season, and per the Houston Chronicle, will not be talking to Jadeveon Clowney until after the season. He’s currently playing on his fifth-year option for $12.306 million.
And that long-awaited contract extension for Aaron Rodgers may not be coming so quickly. Rodgers, under contract for two more years at $22 million per season, will eventually become the highest-paid player in the NFL. But he’s not worried about the slow pace of the talks.
“I don’t know if there’s a timetable,” he said last week. “The feelings haven’t changed. Obviously I’d love to be here and I think they’ve spoken at length about wanting to extend my deal. But now that I’m here my focus is definitely on other places. It’s on my teammates, my leadership role, my performance on the field.”
A MEMORABLE LIFE
Sparano made his mark in the game
The NFL season kicked off on a sad note last week with the untimely death of Tony Sparano, 56, from heart disease. Sparano had been the offensive line coach for the Vikings, and previously served as the Dolphins’ head coach for four years and Raiders’ interim head coach for 12 games in 2014.
Sparano had a lot of local connections. He’s a New Haven kid who coached New Haven University to the Division 2 national championship game, and also served as Boston University’s offensive coordinator from 1989-93. Sparano was brought into the NFL by Chris Palmer, the former BU coach and Patriots coach under Bill Parcells. And Parcells is the one who hired Sparano as the Dolphins’ head coach in 2008. Parcells, reached by phone Thursday, said he didn’t want to comment on Sparano’s passing, saying I was the seventh person he turned down.
“He was a great associate and a person and family I have a lot of respect for,” Bill Belichick said Thursday. “I never coached with Tony on the same staff, but our relationship came as competitors, and I have a lot of respect for him.”
History says Sparano was a 32-42 career head coach with an 0-1 postseason record, but he deserves to be remembered for much more than that.
His 2008 Dolphins were one of the great turnaround stories in NFL history, going from 1-15 the previous year to 11-5 and AFC East champions, becoming the first team to improve by 10 games in a single year. They are the only team other than the Patriots to win the AFC East in the last 15 years.
And while the wildcat formation perhaps wore out its welcome in the NFL, Sparano showed some guts by breaking it out against the Patriots in Week 3 of the 2008 season. The Dolphins were 0-2 at the time, and Sparano decided on the flight home from Arizona the previous week that it was time to do whatever it took to win a game. Sparano’s QB coach, David Lee, brought the wildcat from Arkansas, where he used it with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones.
Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ defense had no idea what hit them, as the Dolphins ran the wildcat formation six times and scored four touchdowns — three Ronnie Brown runs, and a Brown touchdown pass to Anthony Fasano. The Dolphins’ 38-13 victory at Gillette Stadium is Belichick’s third-largest defeat in his Patriots tenure.
“Yeah, it wasn’t a great day for the Patriots,” Belichick said last week.
Sparano also deserves credit for how he handled his worst season, 2011. Coming off the lockout and an offseason where his owner tried to replace him with Jim Harbaugh, Sparano’s Dolphins started 0-7 and were squarely in the Suck For Luck campaign. But his players never quit on him, impressively winning four of the next five games, all by double digits. Sparano made a decent case to keep his job, but Stephen Ross fired him anyway — and his team has only made the playoffs one time in six years since.
Patriots dominate multiple divisions
NBC Sports’ Peter King had a great stat last week, showing that the Patriots are 189-51 over the last 15 regular seasons, a full 80 games up on the next-best team in the AFC East, the Jets (109-131). The inference, of course, is that not only have the Patriots been truly dominant, but they have been beating up on, to quote Dan Shaughnessy, a bunch of tomato cans.
But I dug a little deeper into the numbers last week, and the results may surprise all the Andy Warhol fans out there. Belichick has a 214-74 record in 18 regular seasons with the Patriots, for a .743 win percentage. And of the eight divisions, the AFC East has actually been the second-toughest against Belichick.
His record against the AFC East is 83-29, for a .741 win percentage that is actually a tick below his career average. Only the AFC West (25-13, .658) has given him more trouble.
Belichick certainly has beaten up on the AFC East, but he has absolutely crushed these four divisions: the NFC North (14-2, .875), NFC East (13-3, .813), AFC North (25-6, .806), and AFC South (25-6, .806).
Belichick currently has 14 straight wins against the AFC South, and 10 straight wins against the AFC North.
In the AFC East, Belichick has had the toughest time with the Dolphins (23-13, .639). But he hasn’t had much of an issue with the Jets (26-10, .722), and owns the rights to the Bills (31-5, .861). Of Belichick’s five losses to Buffalo, two of them were games he didn’t try to win (resting the starters in Week 17 of 2014, and the Jacoby Brissett broken thumb game in 2016).
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Garoppolo was planning to stay
A few thoughts on the two articles on Jimmy Garoppolo last week, from Bleacher Report and Sports Illustrated.
■ The Bleacher Report article put to rest the notion that the Patriots weren’t planning to keep Garoppolo past 2017, as Garoppolo admits that he was looking for apartments in Boston’s Seaport district last summer. Whether the Patriots were going to keep Tom Brady or not, they had every intention of keeping Garoppolo (until Belichick was overruled).
■ Nate Solder thought Garoppolo would be wearing Patriots colors forever, too. He told Sports Illustrated, “I thought it was a Brett Favre-Aaron Rodgers situation.”
■ The Bleacher Report article also crystalized the Brady-Garoppolo relationship quite well. No, Brady never really put his arm around Garoppolo and mentored him on the finer points of playing quarterback. Garoppolo chose a seen-but-don’t-be-heard approach.
“I was going to watch and literally absorb everything I could from him without being an annoyance,” Garoppolo said. “I didn’t want to ask a ton of questions. I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers. You have to play the politics a little bit.”
But they weren’t enemies by any stretch, either. Brady would call Garoppolo once a week in the offseason to check on his progress, and Brady and his wife once organized a double date with Garoppolo.
Brady hated the idea of Garoppolo — the young hotshot quarterback who threatened to take his job — but seemed to get along with Garoppolo well.
Jones keeps banging the drum
The NFL announced on July 19 that it put a moratorium on its new national anthem policy, and that nothing would be final until the owners worked out the situation with the NFL Players Association. The two sides met Friday, and while nothing is settled, they said in a joint statement, “We are encouraged by the discussions and plan to continue our conversations.”
Of course, that hasn’t stopped Jerry Jones and the Cowboys from ignoring a league-mandated gag order and applying their own rules. “Our team knows where I stand on the issue,” Jones said. “Our policy is that you stand at the anthem, toe on the line.”
“We certainly are supportive of them when they have their personal issues or their personal things that they want to pursue,” Cowboys CEO Stephen Jones added. “And we’ll help them pursue them on Tuesdays. But when you’re wearing the Dallas Cowboy uniform and a Dallas Cowboy helmet and you’re working for the Dallas Cowboys, you check the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ at the door and you’re a part of a team. There’s bright lines in terms of our organization.”
The NFL is trying to find an amicable solution with the players association to this issue, but increasingly, Jerry Jones does whatever Jerry Jones wants to do.
Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are squaring off this fall for just the second time ever — Rodgers was hurt for the 2010 matchup (Matt Flynn’s breakout game), and Rodgers outdueled Brady in 2014 at Lambeau Field. Packers president Mark Murphy said this year’s Packers-Patriots game was the No. 1 game atop every TV network’s wish list. NBC won, with the game airing on Sunday Night Football on Nov. 4 . . . Draft picks really are the best value in the NFL. Patriots guard Isaiah Wynn, the 23rd overall draft pick, is 23rd on the Patriots with a $2.08 million cap number this year. Fellow first-rounder Sony Michel is 31st at $1.75 million, and second-round cornerback Duke Dawson is 46th on the Patriots with a cap number of $862,705 . . . It has been a roller coaster few weeks for rookie cornerback Sam Beal. On July 11, the Giants used a third-round pick of the supplemental draft on Beal to give their secondary a much-needed boost. Two weeks later, Beal suffered a shoulder injury in his first career NFL practice and is likely out for the season . . . Also got to feel for the Chargers, who first lost budding star tight end Hunter Henry to a torn ACL this spring, and potentially lost starting cornerback Jason Verrett to a torn Achilles’, suffered Friday during the team’s conditioning run on the first day of training camp.
Per ESPN, the Raiders aren’t allowed to sell “Las Vegas Raiders” gear until the team actually moves to Sin City in 2020 . . . Interesting concept by Washington this fall. For the first time, season-ticket holders will receive discounts on concessions from 20 to 50 percent, which they can obtain by scanning their barcodes. But per the Washington Post, if the tickets are resold on the secondary market, the bar code will be altered and the buyer will not be privy to the discounts.