NFL teams take care of last-minute business prior to vacation
The offseason program is now complete, with most teams electing to take their players paintballing or just canceling practice altogether over the final week.
The next six weeks are vacation time, not only for players and coaches but scouts and executives, as well. But before everyone hits the beach, there were a few last-minute contract items to deal with across the league. Let’s take a look at some of the developments:
■ Patriots fans were disappointed to see the news that the Vikings agreed to a new five-year contract with Kyle Rudolph, removing his name from any trade conversations. While the final four years and $34 million of the deal are practically nonguaranteed, the 29-year-old tight end still did well for himself. Rudolph’s 2019 pay increased from $7.625 million to $9.35 million, and his cap number was slashed by more than $4 million.
The Vikings now have, on paper, an excellent 1-2 combo at tight end with Rudolph and rookie Irv Smith.
■ The Eagles have said they’re not worried about Carson Wentz’s injury history, and now they have backed it up. Wentz, previously under contract for $4 million this year and $22.78 million next year, instead signed a new six-year contract that is being reported as a $128 million extension.
The deal reportedly has a complicated structure, full of option bonuses and escalator clauses and odd numbers. Jason Fitzgerald of Over The Cap explained that this was done to get around a little-known “30 percent rule” in the collective bargaining agreement, which “limits the amount of salary that a player’s contract can increase by in the uncapped years that extend beyond the terms of the CBA.” The CBA expires in 2021, but Wentz’s deal goes through 2024.
“So a creative way around the 30 percent rule limit is to use escalator clauses that are a virtual certainty to be earned by giving the player a million different ways to earn it, even if the NFL doesn’t consider it that way,” Fitzgerald wrote.
■ A great story occurred this past week when the Colts gave a contract extension to third-year slot cornerback Kenny Moore. The deal is being reported as a four-year extension through 2023 worth $34 million that makes him one of the highest-paid slot corners.
I’m a little skeptical of the numbers without having seen them yet — Moore had little leverage, as he was under contract for this year and was due to get a restricted free agent tender next year — and I’m betting that the Colts got themselves a relative bargain. But this is still a great story for Moore, a former undrafted rookie out of Valdosta State in 2017. Moore signed with the Patriots after the draft and had an impressive training camp, but lost out on a numbers crunch and was cut at the end of camp. The Patriots were hoping to sneak Moore onto the practice squad, but the Colts claimed him off waivers. And in two seasons Moore has started 20 games, compiling four interceptions and 115 tackles and becoming one of the Colts’ most consistent defenders.
“Embodies what being a Colt is all about,” coach Frank Reich said Thursday. “Just think that sends the right message to the building for the long term.”
■ Meanwhile, the Jaguars are not taking the same approach with two of their star defensive players. Pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue, disgruntled about a lack of a contract extension, subjected himself to more than $88,000 in fines by skipping mandatory minicamp this past week. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey did attend camp but told reporters that he won’t be getting a new contract this year, and went on Instagram to say that he won’t be giving the Jaguars a discount next offseason.
“Next year, especially after I ball, they’re going to come to me, ‘Can’t we get a little discount, 20 percent off?’ ” Ramsey said. “I’m going to tell them last year you could have gotten that discount. This year, I’m going to need all of that.”
■ 49ers kicker Robbie Gould technically isn’t holding out, because he hasn’t signed his franchise tag that will pay him $4.971 million this year. But Gould is unhappy that the 49ers won’t give him a long-term deal and also briefly flirted with Stephen Gostkowski this offseason, so he skipped the offseason program.
“Robbie’s a hell of a kicker and nothing’s changed on that,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I just hope he shows up by the time we play Week 1.”
■ Saints defensive end Cam Jordan had two years and $19 million left on his deal, but the team gave him a new extension through 2023 that reportedly has $42 million in guarantees.
“I always said I wanted to be with the same team for the rest of my career,” said Jordan, who has 71½ sacks in eight seasons.
■ Three veterans departed minicamp without contracts, but are likely among the first to get done in training camp. The Falcons’ Julio Jones, under contract for two more years and $21 million, said owner Arthur Blank assured him a new deal is coming. “His word is gold,” Jones said. Saints star receiver Michael Thomas, entering the last year of his rookie deal at $1.1 million, will likely get rewarded before the season starts. “He’s been very consistent, and he’ll be the next one, I am sure,” coach Sean Payton said. And Tom Brady, entering the last year of his deal with a $15 million salary and $27 million salary cap number, doesn’t seem concerned about an extension. “I think those things work themselves out,” he said at minicamp.
Impression after three days of work
A couple of notes on the Patriots after attending minicamp:
■ My first thought when seeing first-round pick N’Keal Harry on Day 1: “I thought players weren’t wearing pads.”
Harry wasn’t in pads, of course. But listed at 6 feet 2 inches and 228 pounds, he fills out a jersey nicely, and is noticeably bigger than the Patriots’ other receivers. We might not get a full appreciation for his physicality until the reps become live in September.
Harry didn’t have the best minicamp, struggling to get open against Stephon Gilmore (who doesn’t?) and having a handful of mental mistakes, such as lining up in the wrong spot. That doesn’t bother me too much, as Harry still has plenty of time to learn the nuances of the offense.
Most noteworthy to me was the amount of attention the Patriots gave Harry. He took reps with the ones, twos, and threes. He worked with Tom Brady off to the side during special teams drills. He got one-on-one coaching from Josh McDaniels, receivers coach Joe Judge, and Troy Brown and Deion Branch.
Harry is no typical rookie receiver for the Patriots. They need him this fall, and they’re doing everything they can to get him up to speed.
■ Another intriguing development was seeing left guard Joe Thuney playing left tackle almost exclusively throughout the three days. Some of it was by circumstance — Isaiah Wynn was being held out this spring as he returns from a torn Achilles’ — but moving Thuney to left tackle is one potential option for replacing the departed Trent Brown.
Thuney has not missed a game in three seasons at left guard (and last season didn’t miss a snap), but playing left tackle isn’t foreign to him, as he started there in his senior year at N.C. State (protecting Jacoby Brissett). Thuney not only is durable, but he played all five offensive line positions in college, and could reasonably play left tackle or any other position for the Patriots.
But while it’s smart to prepare Thuney to play left tackle, the Patriots would be better off keeping Thuney at left guard and going with Wynn or another veteran option at left tackle. I don’t know if Thuney has what it takes to be an above-average left tackle over a 16-game season. And moving him to left tackle has the potential to weaken two spots on the line — left tackle and left guard.
The Patriots had signed veteran tackle Jared Veldheer to compete for the job, but he surprisingly retired before reporting to Foxborough. Veteran tackles such as Donald Penn and Jermey Parnell are still available, and the Patriots should look to sign one of them.
Easterby offers unique profile
The surprise firing of Texans general manager Brian Gaine June 7 put the spotlight on Jack Easterby, who joined the team this offseason as executive vice president of team development. Some media and fans were surprised to see Easterby, known as a team chaplain and character coach in his six years in New England, have so much influence on the Texans’ football operation.
Though his background may be in religion and character evaluation, Easterby was a huge influence in New England’s football operation during his tenure. The players viewed Easterby as a valuable confidant, and for the last several years, so did Bill Belichick. Easterby sat in with Belichick on every personnel meeting, and following the Aaron Hernandez episode, Easterby was instrumental in helping the coach determine which players could and could not thrive in the Patriots’ system. Easterby also is a former college athlete who helped serve as a coach in Patriots practice, and got his start in the NFL by working in the Jaguars’ salary cap department.
Belichick tried to bring Easterby, 36, back this offseason, but Easterby wants to run an NFL front office someday and left for an opportunity to spread his wings in Houston.
Not knocking down the door
At the latest NFL owners’ meetings on May 21, one of the producers of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” sat at the hotel bar at the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne, trying to remain optimistic.
“We’ll find someone,” he said.
Teams haven’t been so eager to volunteer for the show in recent years, but eventually a team raises its hand. Last year, the Browns took the assignment on May 17. In 2017, the Buccaneers signed up on April 19. In 2016, the Rams made the announcement on March 23.
But this year, it took until June 11 for the NFL to finally strongarm a team into taking on the show. That team was the Raiders, and it was the correct choice. They have an electric coach in Jon Gruden, intriguing personalities such as Antonio Brown and Vontaze Burfict, and the unique subplot of playing their final season in Oakland before moving to Las Vegas. They are a much more interesting choice than the other teams that could have been forced into it — the Giants, Redskins, 49ers or Lions.
The Raiders put on a good face about doing “Hard Knocks” in their press release, but Gruden doesn’t seem too pleased. He wasn’t quoted in the release, and he didn’t take any questions about it after canceling Thursday’s practice and news conference, the final ones of the spring.
“Hard Knocks” can still be an entertaining show, but the novelty is wearing off. Considering that pretty much no team wants to do it anymore, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the show phased out in the near future.
As a rule, it’s been difficult
Another week, another change to the new pass interference/instant replay rule.
In March, when the rule was hastily passed without much thought to how it would actually look, the plan was for the instant replay booth to initiate reviews in the final two minutes of each half, like for all other replay decisions.
Then in May, the competition committee said that pass interference is only going to be reviewed via coach’s challenge, even in the final two minutes, so that it doesn’t bog down the game.
Then on Thursday, the NFL reversed course again and said all replays will be done via automatic booth review, but “under stricter criteria . . . to prevent excessive game stoppages.”
Oh, and the Hail Mary play was going to be excluded from all of this, but now suddenly it’s back in the mix as an automatic booth review.
The competition committee is ready to draft the rule officially, but teams still have a week to lodge their thoughts and complaints.
What we’re seeing is a tug-of-war between Rich McKay, the chairman of the competition committee, and the coaches, led by Sean Payton, one of 10 members of the committee. McKay is pretty much against the rule altogether and would rather the NFL keep the status quo. But Payton and the coaches not only want pass interference (and non-calls) to be reviewable, they want the decision to challenge the calls taken out of their hands in the final two minutes. And the coaches seem to be winning the fight.
Rest in peace Pat Bowlen, the Broncos owner since 1984 who died on Thursday at 75 after battling Alzheimer’s for several years. Bowlen, who relinquished control of the team in 2014, was Robert Kraft before Robert Kraft. Bowlen was the first owner to 300 wins, his teams had as many Super Bowl appearances as losing seasons in 35 years (seven), and he was a significant force in the NFL’s growth in the 1980s and ’90s in television, labor, stadium development, and international play. Bowlen becomes the fifth NFL owner to die in the last year, along with the Seahawks’ Paul Allen, the Texans’ Bob McNair, the Saints’ Tom Benson, and the Chargers’ Alex Spanos . . . 49ers receiver Marquise Goodwin has his sights set on Tokyo in 2020. Goodwin said he will attempt to qualify for the next Olympics in the long jump, after finishing 10th at the 2012 Games but failing to qualify in 2016. “What I do in long jump — track and field — definitely correlates to what I do as a wide receiver,” Goodwin told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Being fast. Being explosive. Putting my foot down. It’s the same mechanics that I use in football.” . . . A couple of AFC South teams got creative this spring in helping their players recover. The Texans beat the heat by installing a cooling room next to their practice field — basically a giant walk-in freezer set to 25 degrees that can hold up to 35 players at a time. And the Titans installed a sand pit next to their practice fields, to give their players a low-impact beach workout without having to actually go to the beach. Titans coach Mike Vrabel said it was something he learned from his workouts with Joey Galloway in their playing days. “As we started to get older I noticed that my knees and my ankles probably got a little bit more sore than what they used to in training,” he said. “So, we worked and we did most of our stuff in the sand pits as we began to get a little older.”