Being in a small downtown city for four days with every NFL coach, general manager, scout, and agent, as well as league office employees, is an educational experience. You run into a lot of people, and have a lot of interesting conversations.
Some were on the record, as 47 head coaches and GMs held news conferences. Several more were off the record, in hallways and hotels and bars.
Let’s take a look at some of the things I learned this past week at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, first going around the league and then focusing on the Patriots:
■ The 49ers couldn’t hold a 20-10 lead in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, and Jimmy Garoppolo had a performance to forget. But the Niners’ commitment in Garoppolo hasn’t wavered.
“Extremely proud of Jimmy,” 49ers GM John Lynch said. “He had his first full season as a starter in the NFL and ended up in the Super Bowl. I know Jimmy feels the same way we all do — we left a little out there and that’s a shame. We’re going to have to deal with it, really for the rest of our lives. But nobody knows that more than him. I’m incredibly proud, as is our entire organization, for the way he’s handled himself and the way he’s played and for the way he’s led our team.”
That crazy rumor that the 49ers are going to dump Garoppolo for Tom Brady? Let’s put it to rest.
“We’re extremely proud of Jimmy and committed to Jimmy going forward. He’s our guy,” Lynch told me. “He has not come close to hitting the ceiling.”
■ As for the real Brady suitors, I wrote a whole column about the Buccaneers this past week, while the Titans, Raiders, and Chargers all remain in play. Titans coach Mike Vrabel and GM Jon Robinson refused to say anything about Ryan Tannehill and whether they want him back, which only fuels the Brady speculation. But Tannehill did just switch agents to Brian Ayrault of CAA, who happens to also represent Robinson.
Raiders GM Mike Mayock defended Derek Carr’s play, but also left the door wide open. “I’ve told everybody I’ve been in touch with since the day I took this job, we’re going to evaluate every position, every year. And if we can get better, we will,” Mayock said.
And Chargers coach Anthony Lynn had an interesting answer when asked if he prefers a mobile quarterback. “I prefer a winning quarterback. He doesn’t have to be mobile. I believe that guy in New England won a lot, and he’s not very mobile,” Lynn said.
■ The Broncos can be crossed off of the Brady sweepstakes. John Elway seems to be a big fan of Drew Lock, who went 4-1 to finish the season. Lock spent the first half of his rookie season on injured reserve, and the Broncos are excited about what he can do with a full, healthy offseason.
“I think where we sit right now there is no question that Drew is the guy that we’re looking to,” Elway said. “Obviously, you want to be able to improve as a football team — get him some weapons on the offensive side, but also do some things on the defensive side.”
Elway also said the Broncos want to sign All-Pro (and former Boston College) safety Justin Simmons to a long-term deal, but “if we don’t get something done, we’ll use the [franchise] tag.”
■ Ben Roethlisberger posted a video of himself lightly throwing again this past week, about five months after elbow surgery, which knocked him out for almost the entire 2019 season. Roethlisberger is no spring chicken — he turns 38 on March 2 — but Steelers GM Kevin Colbert remains optimistic of Big Ben’s ability and skills.
“The thing that is exciting about it is we might have a better Ben Roethlisberger coming out of this surgery,” Colbert said. “He sat for a year, he didn’t have wear and tear on his body for a year. Sure, he had a significant surgery, but we are optimistic he might be better.”
Elway threw a little cold water on that notion.
“I think the older you get, the harder it is to heal. That’s what I found,” Elway said. “I’m sure that Ben’s not going to come back off that elbow surgery as fast at 38 as he would have at 25.”
■ This past week I was the first to report that Bill Belichick doesn’t see much sense in talking to Brady about a contract until the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement is settled. Bills GM Brandon Beane said his experience is that the agents are even more concerned about the CBA than the teams are.
“They may not have been, I don’t know, as schooled up as we were from our December meeting of what changes there would be,” Beane said. “There’s probably a little more unknowns from some of the agents out there than for some of the clubs.”
■ Odell Beckham’s first year in Cleveland did not go well, and the Browns may look to trade Beckham and his $14 million salary. But new Browns GM Andrew Berry either doesn’t want to trade Beckham or has a good poker face.
“We view him as part of our future,” Berry said. “Kevin [Stefanski, the head coach] and I both have had really good conversations about our expectations for him, and we expect him to adapt to those moving forward. We’re excited about the future with Odell, excited about what he’s going to do this fall.”
■ Chargers tight end Hunter Henry could be a top free agent target, and would look great in a Patriots uniform. But it sounds like both Henry and the Chargers want him to return.
“I think it’s very important,” Lynn said. “Hunter Henry wants to be back. I think he’s one of the better combo tight ends in the game as far as blocking and receiving, and just what he brings to the locker room in terms of his character and work ethic.”
JUST CAN’T STAY AWAY
Scarnecchia is still helping out
Now a few Patriots-related items:
■ Was certainly surprised to see longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia in Indianapolis, less than a month after he retired from coaching. But I shouldn’t have been — Scarnecchia also helped scout players at the Combine for the Patriots in 2014, shortly after he retired a first time (he came back in 2016).
Interestingly, Scarnecchia told me this year was the first time he had been to the Combine in four or five years, as the Patriots believe (as do most teams) that Pro Days and film study are significantly more important to the pre-draft evaluation. Scarnecchia said he’s going to help the Patriots with some Pro Days this March, then head off into retirement for real.
■ The best story I heard all week: One agent told me that within the last few years, he got a call from Bill Belichick to inquire about his free agent player. But the agent knew the Patriots had absolutely zero need for the player. He believed Belichick was really doing reconnaissance work as a favor for another GM, who definitely was interested in the player and wanted more information. The agent didn’t tell Belichick anything different from what he told the other GM.
■ Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and an NFC quality control coach passed along tremendous insight about teams copying the Patriots.
This coach was given the task of breaking down every Rams game in 2019 and charting how teams defended their offense. He first charted the Patriots’ win over the Rams in Super Bowl LIII, then started working on the Rams’ 2019 games.
This coach said he was blown away — every single team in 2019 defended the Rams almost exactly how the Patriots did in their 13-3 victory.
They played what the coach calls “an even front with overhang backers” — essentially a basic shell defense that shows the offense nothing.
The Rams’ offense has been so effective because they get to the line of scrimmage early in the play clock, coach Sean McVay reads the defense from the sideline, and he talks to quarterback Jared Goff all the way up until the coach-QB communication shuts off with 15 seconds left on the play clock.
Belichick countered by showing the basic shell coverage, and waiting until less than 15 seconds remained to move his players and get in position. This forced Goff to analyze the defense by himself, which he didn’t handle well.
Later, I met an NFC West defensive backs coach and asked him how they played the Rams. He cut me off before I finished my sentence, answering, “Just like the Patriots did.”
After finishing No. 2 in points and yards in 2018, the Rams finished 11th in points and seventh in yards last season, missing the playoffs at 9-7. No wonder McVay left his coordinators back in Los Angeles this past week to update their scheme and playbook. The Rams have a lot of work to do.
CBA proposal in greater detail
Details of the new CBA proposal have been leaking out. Here are some more interesting terms from a fact sheet distributed Thursday by the NFL Players Association:
■ Expanding the postseason by two games in 2020 will add an extra $150 million in revenue, of which $70 million-$75 million should go to the players.
■ In 2029, the rookie minimum salary will be $1.02 million. Overall, rookie minimums will increase from $610,000 to $1.065 million throughout the course of this deal (2020-30 seasons). And the minimum salary for second-year players will be $1.005 million by 2026.
■ Rosters will be expanded from 53 to 55, and game-day rosters from 46 to 48, but it comes with an asterisk. The two extra roster spots will go to players from the practice squad who can be called up for a game. The NFL will expand practice squads from 10 to 12 the next two seasons, and to 14 in 2022, for an additional 128 players. Practice squad players will now be eligible for 401k and tuition assistance.
■ Every team will have eight offensive linemen active on game day, getting an extra, mandatory roster spot similar to the old No. 3 quarterback rule.
■ Players on a team that has a bye on Wild-Card Weekend will now get paid. Those were previously unpaid weeks.
■ Fines will be increased for teams that violate the Game Day Concussion Protocol.
■ Veteran holdouts will be extremely costly. If a veteran under contract doesn’t report for the preseason for more than five days, or leaves the team for more than five days, he will be subject to mandatory fines that can’t be waived by the team. The player also won’t be eligible to earn an accrued season toward free agency, which could change his status from an unrestricted free agent to a restricted one. The NFL found a way to all but eliminate rookie holdouts with its revised rookie wage scale in 2011, and now is doing its best to eliminate veteran holdouts.
■ A DUI conviction will bring an increased discipline of a three-game suspension. But violations of law for marijuana possession usually won’t result in a suspension.
One of the biggest effects of the Combine flipping its schedule for the first time in more than 25 years — coaches and scouts were really bored during the day. One coach relayed that he had nothing on his schedule between Monday evening and Wednesday morning. Another joked that he couldn’t get on a treadmill because his hotel gym was packed with coaches. And with the nights dominated first by player interviews then by drills, “There’s a lot less time to go out and have a steak,” Buccaneers GM Jason Licht said . . . One interesting change in the pre-draft business — players getting recruited hard by strength and conditioning coaches. It used to be that an agent would help find his players the right trainer to help him get ready for the Combine. But one agent relayed that now many players sign on with a trainer first, then figure out who the agent will be . . . The NFL announced that the Cardinals will host the Mexico City game in 2020, which eliminates the Patriots as an opponent. The Patriots face the Cardinals this coming season, but in Foxborough. The Patriots probably won’t go to London, either. They don’t have the Falcons or Jaguars on the schedule, and the Dolphins probably won’t want to give up the Patriots game, one of their top home draws, to London . . . With Bob Iger stepping down as CEO at Disney, he’s a name to watch as a future NFL owner. He’s a longtime friend and media partner of the league, and was brought in to lead the Raiders/Chargers stadium project that ultimately lost out to the Rams’ Stan Kroenke.
Quotes of the week
“The one thing about labor, as a coach, you ain’t got [squat] to do with it, so you may as well just buy in. You know what I mean? So whatever they decide to do.”
— Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians on a 17-game regular season.
“We started so many games scoring a touchdown. It was incredible every single week. It was a lot of fun to be a part of.”
— Ravens GM (and Taunton native) Eric DeCosta on his team’s record-setting offense in 2019.
“From my point of view, I hope not. That’s up to Tom. When you think of Tom, Tom’s always going to be a New England Patriot. He’s at that time in his life he still wants to play. It’ll be interesting from him to kind of explore and see what’s out there. I’m sure that’s exciting to him to kind of look around and see what’s available. I’m just glad that he’s thinking about playing again. He’s great for the game and he’s been great for this league.”
— John Elway on Tom Brady.
“They nailed it. They had targeted Pat [Mahomes] after his sophomore year when no one even knew who he was. You have to tip your hat to their organization . . . I told [Andy Reid], ‘You won’t want to retire for 15 years now because you won’t want to give that kid up.’ ”
— Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, who coached Mahomes at Texas Tech.
“I have no idea what the NFL does or doesn’t do to that data during game days. I’m trying not to puke up in the box for 3½ hours. That’s really the truth. So I wish I could answer you better than that.”
— Raiders GM Mike Mayock on the uses of the NFL’s player-tracking data.
“I agree with Steve [Ross] as far as, ‘Why would [Brady] want to come to Miami?’ I do. I’ll leave it at that. I do agree with Steve.”
— Dolphins coach Brian Flores, agreeing with his team’s owner that Brady wouldn’t view Miami as an attractive spot.