Lessons learned from two weeks of NFL training camp
It may have only been preseason football, but it was still fun to look at the NFL scoreboard on Thursday night and see 11 games being played.
The calendar will start to move fast now. Just three weeks and three preseason games remain for players to make their move in their roster battles, and for veterans and injured players to get their bodies right for Week 1.
Let’s take a look at some of the top developments through two weeks of camp and the first big night of preseason football:
■ Andrew Luck proved a lot of doubters wrong last year when he returned from a mysterious shoulder injury to play all 16 games and throw a whopping 639 passes. So he deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to injuries and getting his body ready for the regular season.
But Luck is now dealing with his second mysterious injury — this one a reported left calf strain that has forced him to miss seven straight practices, plus the first preseason game.
Colts coach Frank Reich said the team is going to trust Luck with his return to play.
“We’ll talk to everybody involved, but ultimately the big piece of the puzzle is, ‘What do you feel? Are you ready to take that next step? And if so, let’s talk about what that would look like and map it out for the next few days,’ ” Reich told reporters.
Luck’s unavailability amplifies the importance of backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who has been a more consistent leader in the Colts’ locker room this offseason and training camp. Brissett, who started the preseason opener, is entering the final year of his contract.
■ Out in Oakland, the Raiders may already be having second thoughts about trading for Antonio Brown and giving him nearly $32 million guaranteed over the next two years.
Brown briefly came off the non-football injury list, but has barely practiced due a foot injury caused by — strange but true — a “cryogenic chamber mishap,” according to NFL Network. Brown posted a photo of his disgusting feet to Instagram, showing the world how he accidentally suffered “frostbite” while getting treatment.
Brown will likely be ready to play for Week 1, but he’s not getting the valuable reps in with Derek Carr and the rest of the offense. And while the “Hard Knocks” cameras conveniently ignored Brown’s feet last week, it’s going to be hard for Jon Gruden and the Raiders to avoid the news in this week’s episode.
■ I like to say that nothing good happens in preseason — only injuries and distractions that can hurt a team before it gets to the regular season.
Thursday night, the Lions lost eight-year veteran receiver Jermaine Kearse (a.k.a. the guy who made the crazy catch for the Seahawks at the end of Super Bowl XLIX) for the season with a broken leg. The Eagles got a good news/bad news scenario when they lost backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld with a broken left wrist, but he avoided a major injury and should be back in 4-6 weeks, per reports.
Texans slot receiver Keke Coutee, who only played six games last season, suffered a sprained ankle Thursday night and is likely out for the rest of the preseason. And former Patriots backup tackle LaAdrian Waddle, now with Buffalo, is out for the season after tearing his quadriceps in practice.
■ Thursday night was the first time to test the new pass interference/instant replay rules, and the coaches are going to need more practice.
There were eight challenges of pass interference Thursday, and the coaches lost all but one. Only Adam Gase got it right — he challenged a no-call of defensive pass interference against the Giants, and Al Riveron agreed, overturning it to a 33-yard penalty.
Otherwise, Matt Patricia, Reich, Doug Marrone, Matt Nagy and Matt LaFleur each challenged a no-call, and the call was upheld by Riveron. Sean McDermott and Pete Carroll each challenged a defensive pass interference call against his team, only to have the calls upheld.
As someone who believes this rule will be more trouble than its worth, I’m glad that Riveron kept the call on the field on seven of eight challenges. Frankly, the one he overturned against the Giants was ticky-tack, and probably didn’t deserve to be changed. But this rule will only work if Riveron fixes just the clear and blatant mistakes.
■ Strange to see Aaron Rodgers complain about the Packers holding joint practices with the Texans last week. Joint practices have become a popular tool for NFL teams to prepare for the regular season, and Tom Brady and the Patriots have praised them for years.
“I love playing football, so I don’t care who I’m out here with,” Brady said last week when asked about joint practices. “I just love playing. Another team, our team, my kids, my sisters — I don’t care.”
Rodgers, though, complained about the practices, then basically said he was going to snitch on the two teams for breaking the league’s practice rules.
“I wouldn’t mind if they didn’t do it for another 14 years,” Rodgers said Tuesday. “You bring a team in, I understand the point of it. I don’t think doing live special teams drills is very smart. I think the [NFL]PA is going to look at that, for sure. The kickoff especially is one of the most dangerous plays in football, and that’s why they’ve tweaked different things over the years. Close to a live kickoff drill I don’t think is best use of a [joint] practice.”
■ Speaking of the Texans, coach Bill O’Brien was the point man on the team’s trade with the Browns for running back Duke Johnson, per the NFL Network. The Texans are going without a general manager this year after backing off their pursuit of Nick Caserio, and don’t seem too concerned about it. O’Brien has plenty of control over the 53-man roster, anyway.
Brady’s contract works both ways
My biggest takeaway from Tom Brady’s new contract, which pays him $23 million in 2019, then automatically voids on the final day of the league year (March 17):
This wasn’t quite another case of Brady and the Patriots working hand in hand. This was more of a true negotiation — both sides got something of value, but also made concessions.
It’s pretty clear the Patriots held firm to two beliefs: Brady will not get an actual extension, and won’t get paid at the top of the quarterback market. Brady, though, wrestled control of the timing of the situation. Next spring, Brady holds more of the cards.
Let’s break it down:
■ The raise from $15 million to $23 million is nice, but Brady still ranks 13th among quarterbacks in average annual salary. Russell Wilson ($35 million average), Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, Matt Ryan, Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo, Matt Stafford, Derek Carr, Drew Brees , Andrew Luck and — yes — Alex Smith still make more than Brady on a per-year basis. The reality is Brady is 42, and is coming off a down year by his standards.
But the Patriots didn’t totally stiff Brady, either. It can’t be a coincidence that Brady got essentially the same deal that Brees is on this year: $23 million in pay, two void years on the back end, and a No Franchise or Transition Tag clause.
■ The Patriots really must not have wanted to give Brady an actual extension, though, because the contract is not the savviest cap management. When the deal voids March 17, the Patriots will automatically take a $13.5 million cap hit for 2020 (the final two years on the $20.25 million signing bonus he just received). Even if Brady re-signs in free agency, any contract must start with a $13.5 million cap hit, which could result in a fairly large number.
It would have been better cap management to give Brady two actual years on the back end of the contract, which would have allowed the Patriots to spread the cap hits to $6.5 million in 2020 and 2021 should he walk away next year. But the Patriots look pretty adamant about going year to year with Brady and not locking themselves into any commitment.
■ As for next spring, Brady is set to be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, come March 18. However, nothing is set in stone. Brady and the Patriots can still negotiate a new deal before the current one voids. If Brady signs a new one-year deal before March 18, there would still be the $13.5 million cap hit. If he signs a new two-year deal, it would start with a $6.75 million cap hit.
■ This is where Brady came out ahead — he now controls the timing of the situation next spring. If the Patriots want the cap relief for 2020, they need to negotiate a deal with Brady by March 17. No more of this waiting around until August, then offering Brady (relative) scraps. And they can’t put the Franchise or Transition Tag on Brady, giving them one fewer negotiating tool.
The Patriots and Brady can always do a new deal after March 18, but it will start with that $13.5 million cap hit. It would be much better for the team – cap-wise and PR-wise – to get a deal done with Brady sooner instead of dragging it out all offseason.
I’m sure Brady would have rather signed a true extension now, and would have liked to get paid more. But he did score a victory by taking control of the timing.
■ Speaking of timing, Brady signed the deal Aug. 5, confirming the debated point that he didn’t have to wait a full calendar year (Aug. 9) to sign a new contract. And it calls into question why the Patriots didn’t get this done earlier. Sure, they created $5.5 million in salary-cap space, which they can always roll over to next year. But they knew all spring that Brady would be their quarterback this year, and knew they would restructure his deal for cap-saving purposes. Why did they wait until August? Had they done this back in March, they could have used the cap dollars on a Jared Cook or some other help on the roster.
■ Finally, the two void years have oddly specific salaries, considering Brady will never earn them: $30 million in 2020, and $32 million in 2021. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but add in the $23 million, and what you get is a three-year deal worth $85 million – an average of $28.3 million per year.
SEE WHAT YOU HAVE
Dolphins must give Rosen starts
A few notes after spending two days with the Dolphins last week:
■ It’s obvious that Ryan Fitzpatrick is better than Josh Rosen right now. Fitzpatrick runs the offense more crisply, while Rosen misses badly on some throws — like, 5 feet over the receiver’s head. But this season should be about finding out Rosen’s ceiling, so he needs to play, regardless of whether Fitzpatrick has a better camp. The Dolphins have a tough opening schedule with four straight playoff teams – vs. Ravens, vs. Patriots, at Dallas, vs. Chargers, followed by a bye. Perhaps Fitzpatrick starts the first few games before giving way to Rosen.
■ The Dolphins’ defense sounds familiar to what Brian Flores had in New England. They don’t have any standout pass rushers, and the strength of the defense is in the back seven, particularly the secondary. Bobby McCain is like Devin McCourty, a former cornerback converting to free safety. Minkah Fitzpatrick is like Patrick Chung, a do-it-all safety that plays all over the defense.
“It’s really exciting. The scheme I ran at Alabama was kind of set up that way — it was based around the DBs,” said Fitzpatrick, who said the Dolphins are watching a lot of film on the Patriots’ defense. “I’m watching them all — Patrick Chung, McCourty brothers, [Jonathan] Jones — all of them. We watch a lot of New England, but then obviously we get to put our own little wrinkles on stuff.”
■ One area where the Dolphins differ from the Patriots, though, is at linebacker. The Dolphins have light, speedy ones, all listed between 225 and 246 pounds. The Patriots prefer bigger linebackers — Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Ja’Whaun Bentley are all listed between 250 and 260 pounds.
The guy the Dolphins love is second-year linebacker Jerome Baker, a 225-pound speedster who started 11 games as a rookie and has emerged as a team leader.
Banks was a true professional
Rest in peace Don Banks, the longtime NFL writer who shockingly passed away in his sleep last Sunday while covering the Hall of Fame ceremonies in Canton, Ohio. Banks was only 56 years old, and his death hits hard.
Banks spent 30 years covering the NFL, in Minneapolis, Tampa Bay, 16 years at Sports Illustrated, and the last few years as a freelancer based in Boston. He epitomized professionalism, was a great writer and reporter, and never had a whiff of pretension. Banks was just good people.
I just saw Banks in the press box in Canton at last Saturday night’s ceremony, and he could barely contain his excitement about starting his new job as the national NFL writer at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Banks said he was going to use the “Boston Globe model” for his coverage – writing national stories through a Raiders/Vegas lens. His first story ran in last Sunday’s paper, and was a total home run — about the lessons Hue Jackson and Todd Haley learned from their disastrous stint on “Hard Knocks” last year.
Some 12 hours later, the day his first article was published, Banks was gone. This one hurts.
The Bears are uncovering every corner of the earth to fix their kicking woes this offseason, and got an unlikely boost from the Panthers on Thursday night. Panthers coach Ron Rivera, a linebacker on the ’85 Bears team, called a timeout at the end of the second quarter to ice Bears kicker Elliott Fry before he attempted a 43-yard field goal. Fry nailed the kick, from almost the same exact spot as Cody Parkey’s missed field goal in the Bears’ playoff loss. “No, it wasn’t planned, but I’m kind of glad he did it,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said of Rivera . . . The Packers and Raiders have reportedly only sold about 9,000 tickets to their Week 3 preseason game in Winnipeg, but don’t blame the Canadian fans. The cheapest ticket available is $169, which is an absurd price to pay for a preseason game. Growing the game only works if you make it affordable . . . A good reminder for all of us: Preseason games are about evaluating players, regular-season games are about scheme. What happens in August rarely translates to September.