Let’s get right to it, with the best news and notes from the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, where 53 coaches and general managers held news conferences (none from New England, sadly):
■ The biggest newsmaker was Arizona GM Steve Keim, who poured gasoline on the rumors that the Cardinals could look to trade Josh Rosen and draft Kyler Murray with the No. 1 pick.
Q: Are you guys sticking by Rosen or will you look into Murray with the top pick?
A: “We still haven’t gone through a full evaluation, so it’s too early to say.”
Q: Is Rosen your quarterback?
A: “Is Josh Rosen our quarterback? Yeah. He is right now, for sure.”
This might just be a ploy to create more trade demand for the No. 1 pick. If that’s the case, hopefully Keim let Rosen in on his plans, because otherwise Rosen shouldn’t feel too good about the less-than-enthusiastic support from his GM.
Rosen didn’t have a great rookie season, but he should still have a healthy trade market. He has just three years and $6.24 million remaining on his contract (plus a fifth-year option at the team’s discretion). Rosen could be an attractive option for a team such as Miami, which needs a new quarterback, or Washington, which needs a cheap quarterback to replace Alex Smith. I could also see the Patriots being interested and dangling the No. 32 overall pick.
■ Pittsburgh GM Kevin Colbert kept insisting that the Steelers won’t trade Antonio Brown just for the sake of it.
“We will only make a trade if it benefits the Pittsburgh Steelers,” he said. “We are willing to take a look, and if there is something that can be done to benefit both sides, then great. If not then we’ll deal with that when we get there.”
Colbert intimated that Brown’s trade demands may cool down over the course of the offseason. But Colbert also seemed to show his hand — the Steelers clearly haven’t received any trade offers to their liking yet.
“We’ve seen it a million times. Players get emotional, but players get through it, players come out of it,” he said. “We’d like to have him on our team, so if you decide to take a player like that off your team, you’d best have the compensation that will justify removing that player. And that would be a significant compensation either in the form of a draft pick or picks, or a player and picks.”
Colbert also had this doozy of a quote: “I really don’t agree with the perception that there is huge drama within the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room.”
But the expectation from sources is that the Steelers don’t want a redux of the Le’Veon Bell drama, and will eventually trade Brown, most likely right before the draft. This would require the Steelers to pay Brown a $2.5 million bonus on March 17, but perhaps it can be viewed as a down payment on a first- or second-round draft pick.
As for another star wide receiver reportedly on the trade block, Giants GM Dave Gettleman was much more definitive that he does not intend to trade Odell Beckham. “We didn’t sign Odell to trade him. OK?” Gettleman said. “I know that’s all over the place. So understand that. That’s all I need to say about that.”
■ There was only tepid support from a few coaches to expand the use of instant replay to include penalties, in the wake of the Saints-Rams NFC Championship game. “I don’t have any interest in expanding replay. I have a strong interest in eliminating replay, but that’s for another day,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said.
But there is much more support to adding an official to the instant replay booth to help the on-field officials get the calls right in real time. The Competition Committee will examine this issue and likely present it to the owners at their meeting this month.
■ Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch expressed plenty of optimism over Jimmy Garoppolo and his return from a torn ACL. The 49ers expect Garoppolo to participate in 7-on-7 drills this spring, though he may be kept out of 11-on-11s. They will have to monitor Garoppolo in training camp, but Garoppolo should be ready for Week 1.
“We don’t talk about football, but I see him out my window every day,” Shanahan said. “He’s been doing a good job, but everyone says they’re ahead of schedule. He is. I mean, he’s been healing great, and he hasn’t had knee trouble before.”
■ Lamar Jackson will be the Ravens’ starting QB moving forward, but he hasn’t achieved “franchise quarterback” status yet. GM Eric DeCosta was asked if Jackson will be consulted on which draft picks to pursue. “Lamar’s got a lot to work on this year, and I don’t know that really consulting with him on draft picks this year is something that would be prudent for the organization,” DeCosta said.
■ Browns coach Freddie Kitchens certainly isn’t running from the heightened expectations in Cleveland.
“We’re not scared to talk about those expectations,” he said. “We only have one goal here in Cleveland and that’s to win the Super Bowl. Why not us? The narrative is changing in Cleveland.”
■ Patriots fans can stop dreaming about adding Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders or defensive end Derek Wolfe, because John Elway announced on Wednesday that the Broncos will be picking up both of their option years. But one player to watch is linebacker Jamie Collins, who is a strong candidate to be released in Cleveland. A reunion with the Patriots would make some sense.
McDaniels back at the Combine
■ Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was back in Indianapolis this past week, helping the team prepare for free agency and the draft. McDaniels skipped the Combine last year, and the Patriots were adamant that him not being there was normal and no big deal. Of course, last year, the fallout from McDaniels spurning the Colts and their head-coaching job was just a few weeks old.
McDaniels’s presence at the Combine this year was necessary, considering that the Patriots recently lost at least seven members of their staff, including their receivers coach and assistant quarterbacks coach.
■ Jack Easterby, the team’s character/team development coach the last six years, won’t be easy to replace. He was respected by almost everyone in the organization and was a trusted mentor for many of the players. But the Patriots may already have the perfect replacement in the building. Matthew Slater would be an ideal candidate to slide into a similar mentor/chaplain/culture developer role whenever he retires. Slater, a 12-year veteran, is under contract for one more year with a $2.4 million salary.
■ The Patriots lost a good chunk of their coaching staff this offseason, but one coach staying around for another year per a league source is Joe Kim, the martial arts expert and pass rushing specialist. Last year was his first in New England, but Kim goes back 25 years with Bill Belichick to his Cleveland days.
Butler’s uneven season ended well
■ Malcolm Butler’s first season in Tennessee after signing a $25 million guaranteed contract didn’t go according to plan. While he played in all 16 games and had three interceptions, Butler had technique and focus issues that led to several touchdowns, and played only the third-most snaps among Titans corners (79.7 percent).
But Titans coach Mike Vrabel praised Butler’s ability to fight through the adversity and finish strong.
“Malcolm really played well down the stretch,” Vrabel said. “He admittedly wasn’t performing up to his expectations. And he kept battling, he kept practicing, and again really turned out to have a good year as things finished. He never really pouted or disappeared. He fixed things and competed.”
■ Matt Patricia recently hired as his new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who was previously the Seahawks’ offensive coordinator when they lost to the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Of course I had to ask Patricia if, during the job interview, he asked Bevell why he decided to throw a slant pass on the 1-yard line at the end of the game instead of handing off to Marshawn Lynch. “Totally was not part of the conversation,” Patricia said, drawing a big smile. “I think there was a mutual, just eye connection that said, ‘We’re not going to talk about that, and we’ll just move on to now.’ ”
MEN OF MASSACHUSETTS
Locals excelling in the front office
Massachusetts doesn’t produce many NFL players, but the state is cranking out the GMs. Two local guys were already running teams entering this offseason — the Giants’ Dave Gettleman (Mattapan, Boston Latin, Springfield College) and the Lions’ Bob Quinn (Norwood High, UConn) — and now two more teams have tabbed local guys to run the show.
The Dolphins handed the reins of their football operation to GM Chris Grier (Holliston High, UMass), son of former Patriots executive Bobby Grier. And the Ravens turned the front office over to Eric DeCosta (Taunton High, Colby College), who was former GM Ozzie Newsome’s trusted right-hand man for the last 11 years in Baltimore.
“I’ve had a lot of time to think about it over the years. It’s definitely gratifying. I also feel pressure,” DeCosta said. “I was a Cowboys fan in the late ’70s. Just loved the draft with Gil Brandt and Tex Schramm and Tom Landry. And how they did it was always just something that was just so appealing to me to follow that and to study their draft picks and their scouting and the way that they did it. I always sort of imagined myself maybe someday having the chance to do that.”
Concussions still issue at practice
The Combine is also big week for the NFL’s medical community, with league doctors gathering for several days of meetings to discuss injury data, injury protocols, and player safety issues. The NFL allowed the Globe to sit in on a few of the meetings. Here were some of the takeaways:
■ The NFL saw a significant reduction in concussions in 2018, down 25 percent overall from 2017, including a 29 percent decrease in regular-season games. However, training camp practices remain a concern, as the league saw the same number of concussions in 2017 and 2018 (45). The NFL’s research shows that preseason practice concussions overwhelmingly involve offensive linemen and the act of blocking, so the league’s top medical advisers will be working closely with the Competition Committee this offseason to see if it can find ways to make practices safer for offensive linemen.
■ In games, the players with the highest incidence of concussion were defensive secondary players and special teamers. The NFL already instituted significant changes to the kickoff play (with concussions decreasing from 20 in 2017 to 13 last year), and will work on the punt play this offseason. For defensive backs, the NFL will continue to focus on eliminating head-down tackling. The league’s research shows that 60 percent of player-to-player concussions last year came from one player lowering his helmet.
■ Tom Brady belongs to the 1 percent in the real world, but in the NFL he’s part of the 2 percent — the percentage of players who wore poor-performing helmets last year, per the NFL’s research. Through crash-test research, the NFL now classifies helmet models as either green (preferred), yellow (acceptable) or red (substandard), and 2018 was the last season that the NFL allowed players to wear helmets in the red category. Brady tried wearing one of the acceptable helmets last season, but by December had switched back to his old model. But in 2019, all “red” helmets will be banned, so Brady has no choice but to switch to a different model and get used to it.
Hard Knocks still a hard sell
No team wants to deal with the circus that is HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” So in 2013 the NFL instituted a rule that any team that didn’t make the playoffs the previous year, and didn’t have a first-year head coach, would be candidates to be on the show, with the NFL picking one team if no one raises its hand. That led to a funny exchange over the past few weeks from the Lions and Raiders, two of the five teams that are eligible this year (also the 49ers, Giants, and Redskins).
Speaking at a fan event three weeks ago, Matt Patricia joked, “I think Jon Gruden is an excellent choice for that show. I think the Oakland Raiders and everything they’ve got going on right now would be fantastic viewing for everybody to watch.”
Added Bob Quinn: “Nobody wants to do it. Except Oakland.”
Gruden responded in kind on Thursday. “Appreciate Matt Patricia, my friend, offering that up to me,” Gruden said. “That beard that Patricia has, he’s going to be a star. I mean, he’s going to be one of the future television stars. I’d be surprised if ‘Monday Night Football’ doesn’t put him upstairs in the future. Patricia is going to do a great job on ‘Hard Knocks.’ ”
The ever-quotable Gruden would be our first choice for “Hard Knocks,” though the 49ers could be interesting with Jimmy Garoppolo coming back from his torn ACL.
Quotes of the week
■ “I don’t know. I’ve gotten so used to chaos and dysfunction.”
— Colts GM Chris Ballard, on if this felt like a normal week for him after handling the McDaniels fiasco last year.
■ “When he told me about Wyoming, I was like, ‘Wyoming?’ He might be the first player ever — nothing against Wyoming — but the first player ever to go out there and train and really get away.”
— Jaguars coach Doug Marrone on where Leonard Fournette is training this offseason.
■ “We had a guy walk in our room last night, a receiver out of Ole Miss, his name is [D.K.] Metcalf, I mean he looked like Jim Brown. He’s the biggest wideout I’ve ever seen. We had pictures of him with his shirt off, it made we want to get into the weight room last night.”
— Jon Gruden.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.