Sport MMQB: The 49ers’ QB Competition According to Shanahan, Garoppolo and Lance
Cowboys, Colts are showing why the 49ers held onto Jimmy Garoppolo
San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan will tell you that he has lived with all his eggs in one quarterback basket. This is why the 49ers made one costly decision in the offseason, trading a significant haul of draft picks for the right to select Garoppolo’s presumed successor, Trey Lance. It’s also why the 49ers made another less conventional decision — holding onto Garoppolo and rolling the dice on 2021 with both players in the same quarterbacks room.
Plus, training camp stops with the Lions, Cardinals and Browns, Josh Allen’s contract, under-the-radar training camp stars and more!
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Kyle Shanahan didn’t think he’d be here this fast, nor did anyone else in the 49ers building.
Two months ago, the coach sent his team off for summer break thinking Jimmy Garoppolo had really responded to a tumultuous offseason, and rookie Trey Lance, whose acquisition was the primary source of that tumult, had a long way to go. When they got back, six weeks had passed. Things had changed.
“I can tell [Lance] put himself in position to play this year with what he did in the 40 days away,” Shanahan said in a quiet moment after Wednesday practice. “You get a guy for OTAs, they come in after rookie camp—and OTAs wasn’t like past OTAs, we didn’t do 10 practices, we didn’t do the minicamp, the reps we had were all cut in half because of everything going on—and he was just trying to take everything in. He looked like a rookie quarterback. You could see the talent. Then they get away for 40 days and you wonder how he’d use that.
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“Did it overwhelm him? Did he go over the right stuff? We didn’t see him at all, but I know he was working his butt off. And you come in and you want to see how efficient he was, and how he was working. And the crispness in him picking up stuff compared to OTAs, it was like, Alright, this guy can take it all in, he can learn. And now each day, we keep adding more stuff, and we’re doing it to the whole team, but he’s handling it a lot better than OTAs.”
Two days later, Shanahan stirred the NFL news cycle by conceding, in a press conference with the local media, that Lance was going to play in some capacity in 2021.
I don’t know how this will all play out. But I can say this—he wasn’t just throwing that out there. And the impression Lance is making here amounts to a whole lot more than press-conference soundbites and social-media sizzle reels. Shanahan said it because Lance has earned his way into the on-field equation for the 2021 Niners.
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The next question, of course, is in what capacity Lance will be playing. The question after that would be what the result of all this means for Garoppolo. Meanwhile, the underlying truth is: Lance competing to get on the field would make this—yup—a quarterback competition. And it is, sort of.
“I think it’s gonna be tough for [Lance] to win the job, just in terms of it being two different styles of quarterbacks, and maybe a little different style of offense for both of them,” Shanahan says. “I’d be very surprised if he did with the way Jimmy’s playing. It’d put a lot on a kid to do that. He’s doing everything he can. I’m very impressed with him so far, but I’d be very surprised if that happened.”
In there, lurks the biggest takeaway from my time with Shanahan the other day. It’d be a mistake to look at what’s happening in San Francisco as you would a conventional race for a quarterbacking job almost anywhere else, and that’s because he’s not looking at the decision he’ll have to make as binary. As he sees it, he’s got more than two options on the table. And that makes this as fascinating a situation as there is in the NFL this summer.
49ers G.M. John Lynch: Trey Lance has been “tremendous,” bringing out best of Jimmy Garoppolo
The San Francisco 49ers have made it clear that Jimmy Garoppolo will remain the team’s starting quarterback for the present despite taking Trey Lance with the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL Draft this spring. Head coach Kyle Shanahan has already said that Lance will not get first-team reps with the offense, with a [more]Head coach Kyle Shanahan has already said that Lance will not get first-team reps with the offense, with a specific exception coming on Tuesday.
My two-week camp swing is complete, and my notebook is full, so there’s plenty to get to on the second Monday of August. In the MMQB this week …
• A look at how the Lions have prioritized getting their environment right.
• Checking in with a more vocal Kyler Murray in Arizona.
• A different type of Browns camp.
And a whole lot more. But we’re kicking things off with a Niners team loaded for bear, that has one very big question to answer.
The Niners open the regular season in 34 days in Detroit, and that was one thing that interested me about Shanahan’s comment on running separate versions of his offense for Garoppolo and Lance—something that’s natural, with skill sets that mesh with the coach’s well-worn scheme differently. At some point soon, I reasoned, Shanahan would probably have to make a decision on which version of his offense he’d want to run by picking a quarterback. And he’d not just do it for the good of the quarterbacks, but also the other 10 guys in the huddle. Then I realized Shanahan doesn’t really look at it that way at all.
MMQB: The 49ers’ QB Competition According to Shanahan, Garoppolo and Lance
Plus, training camp stops with the Lions, Cardinals and Browns, Josh Allen’s contract, under-the-radar training camp stars and more! SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Kyle Shanahan didn’t think he’d be here this fast, nor did anyone else in the 49ers building.Two months ago, the coach sent his team off for summer break thinking Jimmy Garoppolo had really responded to a tumultuous offseason, and rookie Trey Lance, whose acquisition was the primary source of that tumult, had a long way to go. When they got back, six weeks had passed. Things had changed.
“I think I can ride it out week-in and week-out, personally,” he says. “I think our guys trust us to make the right decision. It’s cool being in a building where no one has an agenda, whether it’s me, the GM, the owner. Everyone’s on the same page, there’s no pressure—Hey, you have to do this or You have to do that. And our players know that too, that’s what’s great about our place here. When players know you’re on the same page with the personnel department, with the owner, then they don’t really care. They just want to win.
“And I think when this is all said and done, there’s gonna be two guys they believe will help us win and I think they’ll trust us to make that decision, whether it’s permanently, for one game, for a series or just a situation. We gotta balance that out right, though. It’s tough to do, but it is as easy as ‘How do you win the game?’”
Which is to say, yes, Shanahan would feel comfortable playing matchup ball with his QBs.
“Yeah, I do,” he continued. “And the hardest thing is articulating it to you guys. Which I get. But I really try to keep as simple as what gives us the best chance right now to win. And I think our players trust that I’m like that. I think our quarterbacks trust that I’m like that. You can disagree, but it’s hard to take it personally when it’s like that. I hope we’ve got the right guys, the right team, and if they both keep getting better; it should be a good problem for me.”
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Garoppolo has close to four years, and 30 starts, 22 of them wins, in the system on his side, plus the dynamics of a roster built to win right now—one that might be less tolerant of enduring the inevitable bumps a rookie quarterback is going to put a team through. He isn’t there yet, but Lance has what could be a real ability to play the position from the pocket, even if the overall package is still a little raw.
Add the two together and, yup, Shanahan’s “good problem” is there, which is probably part of why he’s considering all his options, and not just two of them. For their part, the quarterbacks sound open to the idea, if a little curious just how it’d work.
“I’ve never been in a situation like that,” Garoppolo told me. “I think at any level of football, you get two quarterbacks playing, it’s tough. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. There is the whole Taysom Hill thing in New Orleans, they were doing a version of that. There is a place for it. It’s tough, but Kyle, he’s a revolutionary guy, he’s done some crazy s--- in the past, so you never know.”
Lance echoed his position-mate almost word-for-word, saying, “I’ve never been in a situation like that. But whatever Coach Shanahan thinks is best to help this team win, I’m for it.”
And since that could be a number of things, it’s worth taking stock on where the two really do stand with a little over a month until the Niners open the season in Detroit.
I asked Shanahan what convinced him that Lance was worthand creating a potentially awkward quarterback situation for. The first thing that Shanahan did was reiterate that he and GM John Lynch weren’t sure then that the NDSU star would be the one. “I felt that way watching the tape on him early, like in January, just the playmaking ability … But I didn’t know the guy at all.”
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Which, as you’ve heard by now, is why the Niners made the move a month before the draft.
“I just knew what I saw on tape,” Shanahan says. “And then getting to meet the guy, getting to talk to him, the Zooms, spending some time at their building,. The type of person he is, the character he has, I knew it was the type of guy I wanted to coach—the person, not just the talent. And then I also know how good he’d be in this situation, with Jimmy being here, him coming in. And I knew how Jimmy treats him would be huge too.
“That’s why it’s a tough situation because everyone’s got a lot of pride. It’s a tough business. But when you’re honest with people and they know you, they might not agree with you, but they’ll respect the reasons I have and what I tell them. “
What’s cool is that it really doesn’t take a Shanahan to see the talent. At one point Wednesday, Lance took a shotgun snap and, with the rush bearing down, scrambled left, breaking the pocket. Then, as he approached the boundary, Lance flipped his hips, back-pedaled towards the sideline, and flicked his wrist, letting a ball lose like it came out of a JUGGS machine. From my view, right behind him, there was a tunnel of defenders and no receiver. The ball cut through that opening on a line, and found Brandon Aiyuk, streaking into a small window, between the 1s on his jersey, 25 yards downfield. The best way for me to describe it is Mahomesian. Or Favreian. Take your pick.
But that’s not why Lance has made this situation a little tougher on his coaches than they might’ve figured it’d be two months ago. It’s because of the aforementioned 40 days, which Lance spent chiefly in three places: Atlanta, North Dakota and Orange County.
The first two weeks of the break he was in Atlanta with Quincy Avery, one of his throwing coaches, working out with a group of receivers that included Mohamed Sanu, who played for Shanahan with the Falcons. Avery and Lance drilled down on the 21-year-old’s footwork, trying to match it with what the Niners coaches wanted, and Sanu gave him the receiver’s view of how the offense worked, and what he used to look for from Matt Ryan.
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“Trey’s the most detailed guy I’ve ever worked with,” Avery says. “It’s a challenge to coach him because he’s such a perfectionist. He wants to be right every time.”
From there, Lance spent the week of the Fourth back in Fargo, working out with fellow ex-Bison quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Easton Stick. And then it was on to California for two weeks with John Beck, another mechanics coach. Beck and Lance worked pre-draft on Lance’s efficiency as a thrower (body positioning, eliminating wasted movement), but actually applying those lessons in 11-on-11 in the spring was a challenge.
So Beck—who played quarterback for Shanahan in Washington—helped Lance continue to build the requisite muscle memory, so things that were overly mechanical in the spring would become more reactionary in how he executed the offense the staff was teaching him.
“He’s such a smart kid,” Beck says. “You give him a coaching point and it just makes sense to him. He gets it and he wants it. It all comes back to how Trey’s working.”
The schedule varied some, but generally, Lance would throw in the morning, do speed work right after, then study at whatever hotel he was holed up in during the afternoon. And the proof in how diligent he was about that has come in how the work of those 40 days in the South, the Plains, and Southern California is being put on the field in the Bay Area now.
“I don’t remember the last time I had 40 days off from anything,” Lance says. “But it’s really just how you take it. And I wasn’t taking it as days off, it was days to get better. … I was just learning as much as I could. I didn’t feel like I could compete during OTAs, because I didn’t know enough. It’s real tough to compete if you don’t know what you’re doing fully. So my biggest thing is just getting as comfortable with the playbook and the footwork, the mental and physical sides of things, as I can, so I’d have that opportunity to compete.”
He’s got at least that now. But Garoppolo isn’t going to let the job slip easily.
There were points when Garoppolo let himself vent this offseason—his brothers were on the other side of that as sounding boards for some colorful conversations—and others where he created scenarios in his head that weren’t very realistic. And as you might imagine, a few he conjured up involved his exit from San Francisco.
“Oh, no doubt,” Garoppolo says. “Especially when they first told me, you started imagining situations that aren’t even possible. It crossed my mind at one point. But I didn’t want to do that. I like it here. I like the people. I like the teammates that I’m around. It’s kind of where—I don’t want to say it’s where my career started, but as a starter this is where it was. These players, these teammates, I wouldn’t trade them for the world. I love these guys.”
Still, the noise persisted for months, and one particularly juicy storyline was unavoidable for the 29-year-old quarterback. That maybe, before, New England would make a move to bring Garoppolo back.
“You hear all the stuff,” he says. “I didn’t know how much to put into it, because if you start thinking one way, and then something happens and you go the opposite way, that’s going to make it even tougher out here. So I’ve really just tried to take it day-by-day. And even right now, anything could happen. I was traded two days before the trade deadline a couple years ago. I know in this league, anything’s possible.”
His guard’s still up for changes, but his focus is on the scenario where nothing does change, and he gets another year as the Niners starter. As such, this offseason, Garoppolo got himself healthy, and in a position to take another step in Shanahan’s offense, with plenty of room left for him to grow after injuries took chunks of his 2018 and ’20 seasons.
When he was initially traded to San Francisco in 2017, Garoppolo was at the point where he had to learn simply to play with his back to his receivers in play-action—something that really had never been asked of him much either at Eastern Illinois or New England. Four years later, carrying a 98.1 passer rating over his 30 starts as a Niner, he’s down to mastering the details of what his coach wants out of a quarterback.
It was something Garoppolo would’ve done absent the narrative-shifting trade in March, and he figured the best thing he could do in its aftermath. The results have been obvious to him, and his coaches, even if it’s not as obvious as Lance’s flashes on the practice field.
“It’s just the offense slowing down for me, being able to read the defense, have a feel pre-snap for what I’m doing and then reacting post-snap,” he says. “I think that, with every veteran quarterback, it comes more and more naturally as the years go. So that, and knowing yourself, I think when you know yourself as a player, know your strengths, know your weaknesses, in the offseason, you can focus on those weaknesses and try to make them your strengths. I think that’s really where I’ve come a long way.”
Of course, there’s a natural motivation here. Garoppolo told me he’s had moments with Lance over the last few months that reminded him that he was once in Lance’s seat—“There’s some movies he’s never seen that I’ve seen, and I’m like, Dude, Tom used to be like this with me.” Those also illustrate that the Niners quarterbacks haven’t let any awkwardness get personal (Garoppolo sent Lance a congratulatory text on draft night, too).
But there’s also the urgency that being in such a situation can create for a veteran, and Garoppolo matter-of-factly concedes that while he doesn’t feel that day-to-day, “subconsciously, whether you realize it or not, I think it lights a fire under you.” Which, for the Niners, has manifested in Garoppolo’s work in camp, and canceled out any concern over the climate in the quarterback room.
“I thought it had a chance to be fine just talking to him and stuff, but I really didn’t know until he came to OTAs,” Shanahan says. “And then just seeing the first day, even before he got on the field, just how he carried himself, the way he talked, he seemed like his best self. You’d have to ask him what it did to him. Of course, he didn’t want that, just like Tom didn’t want it when they drafted Jimmy. And that guy doesn’t need much motivation at all, but it lights fires under guys, and Jimmy’s been on the other side of that. It’s made him better.”
And as Garoppolo sees it, that’s the result of more than just some chip on his shoulder.
“I always want to be the starter, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way,” Garoppolo says. “I always want to be the starter, I’ll always fight to be the starter. But at the end of the day, I’m playing football. I’m loving it right now. It’s a competition, that’s what you’re here for. I’m ready for whatever.”
The Niners feel like now, finally, they’re ready for whatever too.
The first piece of that is being comfortable that they’re going to have a good option at quarterback even if one thing or another goes haywire, something they couldn’t say in Shanahan’s second and fourth years in charge. That’s why, barring a team swooping in with a big offer for Garoppolo, both quarterbacks are likely to be on the team.
The Niners don’t want to expose what they see as a championship roster to the sort of risk being thin at the position again would present. Which really brings to life the whole idea— how best to serve a group of players poised to make a real run after an injury-addled 2020.
“That’s why I like the position I’m personally in, making this decision, because I do think it just comes down to winning,” Shanahan says. “That’s what our team is focused on, we believe we have a chance to win every game that we play in. And when that’s the case, there’s no, Well, how are you developing this guy? What does it mean for the future? When you’ve got a chance to win, you’re not thinking about the future, you’re thinking about now. And yeah, Trey’s gonna be a big part of the future, that’s why we made the move.
“We wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t think he’d have a chance to help us right away and in the future. But it’s not gonna be forced. The whole plan isn’t just about how to take care of the quarterback. We talk about how you do all that stuff. But when we get to camp and you see our team, our plan is how to beat Detroit in Week 1.”
That said, the big-picture element to this isn’t irrelevant. That big-picture played out, in Shanahan’s last game as Falcons offensive coordinator. It also played out , on a fateful third-and-15. The officials could’ve called holding on that play. The Niners could’ve slammed the door shut after. But it sure helped the Chiefs having Patrick Mahomes.
“I was in a Super Bowl, up 28–3, we’d just scored with four minutes left in the third quarter, and from then on out I watched a quarterback put 400 yards up in a quarter-and-four-minutes,” Shanahan says. “And I thought people were covered pretty good, and he just picked us apart. I sat there and watched a quarterback just dissect somebody. So I’ve always felt that way. Quarterbacks are everything. You always want to try and get the Tom Brady. And Mahomes has played like that for a couple years.
“And there are some guys coming up that have the capability of doing that. I’ve known that for a real long time. Watching my dad, I mean, he was a real good coach when he had good quarterbacks. So it plays into everything. When you don’t have one of those Top 5 guys, you can still win. You gotta have a good defense. You gotta know how to run the ball. But yeah, when you have a guy who can play at that type of level, Hall of Fame caliber, it makes things a lot easier.”
And along those lines, raising the ceiling, and finding that guy, was the whole idea of picking Lance in the first place.
“Yeah, totally,” Shanahan says. “And that’s it. You’re not gonna see it all on college tape. He played at a small school, and it was only one year, he got to play in one game his second year. But with Trey it comes with what you see on tape, yeah, but it’s also the horsepower you believe he has inside in him. Can you bring it out as a staff? Can he bring it out, being the right person? Can you put him in the right atmosphere? A quarterback who has a running element changes a lot of the game …
“But I’d get over that stuff quickly if you don’t think he’s got the skill set to do everything else. And we believe he does. And he’s showed us that so far. He’s by no means there yet, but he’s continuing to get better. And I believe he will his whole career.”
But, as Shanahan said, this isn’t about Lance’s career. His quarterback decision is going to be about the Niners’ year. And that simple premise sure makes all of this a little complicated.
TRAINING CAMP STOP: LIONS
ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Dan Campbell and I were discussing how he and new Lions GM Brad Holmes are doing everything they can to create the right kind of environment for a franchise that’s made the playoffs just three times since 2000, and that’s where he threw out an analogy that I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting.
“We've got two Teacup Yorkies,” Campbell says. “They're five pounds apiece. They’re named Thelma and Louise. Thelma’s awesome. Thelma’s like, whenever you call her, and here she comes, sweetest thing ever. And so is Louise. But Louise is not going to come until she wants to come—Come on, let's go. Come on, Louise! Louise! And she just sits there and looks at you. But the minute you turn your back on her and walk away, here she comes. she's right in your hip pocket. She's just kind of that way.
“And I think the players, sometimes, you think you're making things better and you actually make it worse. The harder you push one way, they're going to push even harder the opposite way. Whereas if you just kind of let it go, they'll be right by you. They'll be right in your hip pocket. Because they know, this guy, he’s good with me being who I am. And you know what? In return, I'm going to give him what he wants.”
I guess the headline here is that Dan Campbell—the baddest man in the room—has two five-pound dogs with the most hilarious names. And just to be crystal clear, I’m totally O.K. with that being the headline too, because it is priceless.
But the larger point he’s making here was well-taken too. Regardless of who you want to blame for what happened last year, the one thing that was clear heading into the team’s coaching and GM searches, which really started just after Thanksgiving, was that the Lions building was in a bad place at the end of the season. As such, fixing that, and making things healthier day-to-day, was going to be a priority for whomever wound up landing those jobs.
Campbell and Holmes have made it that, and it’s pretty noticeable already. It was apparent in the war room video that came out of draft weekend. And in the facility, you can feel it with the way the people inside are bouncing off the walls.
“It's up to us to make sure that the temperature of the building is right and good, making everybody feel comfortable and wanting to be in the building,” Holmes said, in a small conference area off his office. “I'll say going back the last regime I was with in Los Angeles, having a collaborative culture, it was an injection of energy. And you felt it—in 2017, immediate success. Everybody's working together, everybody's collaborating, personnel, coaching staff, athletic performance, nutrition, IT, everybody's working together and collaborating. And it was like, boom, roster turns over, flips, we had success.
“And the regimes I've been through, I've seen it the other way, where it was coaches versus scouts, and friction, and these people stay over here and there is no success. That's what I experienced, I knew that. So I come here and Dan comes from a culture in New Orleans where it’s similar in terms of the collaboration with coaching and personnel and all that. So then us together, it's very natural.”
It really started almost right away, with the hires of Holmes and Campbell in January. The first task was offloading a franchise quarterback, in Matthew Stafford, and that was done by the end of the month—with new assistant GM Ray Agnew, imported from L.A. by Holmes, raving to his new boss on how much he’d learned in the aftermath. From there, it was into roster meetings and scheme meetings, with the difference apparent immediately.
Where the Lions had once sectioned off these sorts of discussions, Holmes and Campbell wanted everyone involved, from the area scouts to the position coaches to the sports science and IT people. Those Zoom calls, Holmes said, routinely had over 100 people on them. By the time draft meetings began in March and April, it became an expectation that every voice was going to be heard, which is a philosophical thing for the GM.
“You're collecting all that information, then you go to your inside,” he says. “And it's just your gut, your intuition.”
Then, in the process, something else gets accomplished—everyone becomes invested in each decision. Campbell told me that as a player he could remember what it was like when he or one of his teammates would hear that this guy is the “coach’s guy” or that guy is the “GM’s guy”. Which is why he and Holmes are doing everything they can, and employing this all-in approach specifically, to avoid that.
“It’s the first sign that it is a divided building,” Cambell says. “When you start hearing those stories, you’ll never last. And so, it was important. I knew Brad was like I was. And I've said this before, he's cut from the same cloth. But I thought it was very important that this whole building top to bottom, that everybody felt like they were involved. And whatever happened, that guy is our guy. It's not your guy, or my guy. It’s our guy.”
That, as Campbell sees it, has spilled over into the locker room too, and that brings us back to Thelma and Louise. He raised his tiny canines for a reason—just as he lets those five-pounders be themselves, he plans to let his 200- and 300-pound players be themselves too.
“I don't care about shoes,” he says. “I care about what you’re wearing as it pertains to safety and what's best for your feet. But like, I don’t care what shoelaces you wear to practice or if you want to wear a towel hanging out the back of your pants. We talk about visors. There's little things that I really don't care about, because I feel like there's enough stuff we got to worry about, and we got to be on the same page about. I want these guys to feel like they can kind of be themselves to say, yes, we're a team.
“And as it pertains to football and plays and situations, we are a team, we will always be a team. But inside of that team, we have individuals and we always will. And sometimes if you push a little too hard or you restrict too much, you're taking away than they are. And who they are is what gives them confidence.”
Bottom line, the honeymoon here is very much ongoing, and there have been Campbell-ian moments along the way that have gone viral, that I’m sure all of you are familiar with.
So we’ll finish with one of those that gave the new coach and GM a reason to feel good. You may remember the video of the Lions, and Campbell, doing up-downs. And there’s more to the story than you know.
“We're starting a new tradition here, Day 1, we’re doing 40 up-downs, whole defense and defensive staff, which I got involved in, because I was like, Well, that’s my defense, I guess I better get involved in this in this,” he says. “But it’s buy-in. So anybody that we bring in has got to do 40 up-downs as it pertains to this defense. So we had just signed Bruce Hector the next day, D-lineman from Tennessee, and we bring him in and it's like, Hey, welcome, you've got 40 of them things.
“So we break out of warmup and they all, the whole defense, circle around Bruce and Bruce has got to do 40 up-downs. And they’re gonna make sure Bruce does all 40 because they had to do 40. But the coolest thing ever, he's doing them and he hits about 28 and you start hearing some of the vets chiming in, We're doing the last 10 with him! And they all jump in. And they did the last 10 with him, all on their own, coaches didn’t say anything.”
In a way, this matches up with the coaches surprising David Blough and joining him to watch his wife run the 400 hurdles in Tokyo in the team meeting room. And it just so happens that night, maybe a dozen miles away, Holmes had his personnel staff together for a dinner to wrap up a scout school they’d conducted that week. Over steaks and beers, Holmes got a text from owner Sheila Ford: “I'm so mad that I couldn’t make it to hang out with you guys.”
And really, that sort encapsulates the whole goal Holmes and Campbell set—to make Detroit the kind of place where people want to hang out with folks from work.
TRAINING CAMP STOP: CARDINALS
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Kyler Murray and I had talked for a few minutes about his maturation and his ownership of Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, and the next steps he’d take in a very important third year as a pro when he dropped a line that really made me consider where he’s at as a player. And honestly, it wouldn’t have taking too much thinking for me to have thought of it independent of his mentioning it to me.
“Each year, it’s just trying to be better—I’ve never lost this much in my life,” Murray says. “I’m used to winning. I’m used to having those things, the attention to detail, everybody on the same page, that's just how I was raised and how I was taught to play the game. And I think a lot of our L’s and our issues have been from that, from not being precise on what we're doing, just being messy.”
Murray’s record tells the tale here, maybe one we’ve all been missing.
• 42–0 as a starter at Allen High, in Texas’ biggest prep classification.
• 2–1 as a starter as a true freshman at Texas A&M.
• 12–2 as a starter as a fourth-year junior at Oklahoma.
Add it up and Murray was 56–3 in 59 starts over a seven-year stretch. Conversely, in 32 starts as an NFL quarterback, he’s 13-18-1. And when I brought that up to Kliff Kingsbury, who recruited and knew Murray all the way back in those years he piloted the Allen High, he agreed that there’s very much something to all this—that Murray’s used to being part of established programs, with top-shelf talent around him. It doesn’t take away from his prior accomplishments. But it does color his first couple years in the pros.
“It's part of the process,” Kingsbury says. “And I think one thing he's had to learn to do is how even to win ugly, because he’s had so much success. I mean, you’re talking about this period of time where he didn't even play bad games, forget losing. So you have a bad first half in this league, which you're going to have when teams you’re playing are really good. You just have to find a way to win in the end, and that's what the great ones do, and I think he's working through that.
“It's not always going to be pretty. It's not always going to be blowing people out by 50, you're going to have to battle. You have to grind and he's really made strides in that area.”
Murray still flashes all of the things that made him so dominant every other level, of course. On the day I was at practice, he roped an impossible throw over the second-level defenders, and into the hands of tight end Maxx Williams so effortlessly that it looked like he wasn’t trying, and later weaved through the defense, cutting a run back into the field in a way we all once used to see Michael Vick do it.
But that stuff alone, Murray’s learned, won’t get him where he wants to be. This offseason, with the Cardinals veterans having a cut a deal to shorten OTAs, Murray had receivers to Texas, and Arizona, to work with him. The idea was making Kingsbury’s offense his own, while also breaking in vets like A.J. Green, and trying to help younger guys like Andy Isabella find another gear.
“A.J., him being new to the team, we’re having to go out just trying to get him acclimated to the system, acclimated to the routes,” Murray says. “And I just get to meet them, hang around with them. And for the rest of the guys, I mean, they already know it. We had a lot of young guys that got a lot of meaningful reps. So that's also good for us. But as far as taking ownership of stuff, like you said, I've been doing that.
“It's just that, this is Year 3. It's time. It's time to put up or shut up. And it's really like there's no looking back. My goal is to win Super Bowls and be the best to ever do it. So that … I know it takes a lot of hard work.”
And part of that hard work is getting to the point where he can run these passing camps effectively—which requires going from student of Kingsbury’s offense to teacher.
“That’s the nerdy side of football,” Murray says with a smile. “It's just something inside you when you're playing quarterback. You're telling those dudes what to do and when they get on the same page, you can't really explain the feeling. It’s like a scientist perfecting whatever he's doing. That's how it feels. And it's fun when you're on the same page with your guys. Then, you can be great. That's what we're all trying to be, is great.”
As Kingsbury put it, “The first year we were here, they could've have had Superman playing quarterback and it would’ve been tough.” And that meant Murray would more often have to fall back on his natural tendency to take over. Two years later, Arizona needs less of that, and the Cardinals hope that’ll facilitate more growth from No. 1, to the point where the offense becomes Murray’s.
“That's what you want as a coach,” Kingsbury says. “You want to be able to call the play. And if he doesn't like something, he gets [to change it] because he’s the one taking the snap, he's down on the field. And that's I think when the magic happens, when those guys take complete ownership and they get to a call that they want.”
And Kingsbury saw that magic as a player, a decade-and-a-half ago in New England, and then again as a coach working against the Patriots.
“No question,” he says. “I remember being in awe of Brady with how he handled protections and getting guys to the right place. And now, Kyler going into Year 3, it's not Year 20 like Brady was. But he has so much better understanding of where he wants guys, how he wants to run it, how you want to run it, and that's really helped.”
All of which will help get Murray back to where he once was. Now, he knows how much it’s going to take to get there, which is a lot more than it ever has for him. But it’s pretty clear he’s been ready to take on that challenge.
“When you're the No. 1 pick, you're not going to the best situation,” he says. “Obviously, I understood that. But that doesn't mean I’m here to lose. I’ll never adapt that mindset of, Oh, it's cool, we're going to get better next year. That's just not how I see it. That’s not how I play the game. So, yeah, it stinks. I've had plenty of nights in my room dark as hell, pops asking me what's wrong, All types of that. I mean, losing is not fun. I've never been a loser. It definitely hurts. It stinks to the core. But there's a beauty in learning the process of getting better.
“Like I said, I've never lost this much. So I've had to learn how to bounce back and get back going. And Monday once you come back into the building, you got another team that's hungry. It's any given Sunday in this league. I tell everybody all the time, this s--- is hard. People don't realize how hard it is. You can't really look at the schedule like, Oh, that's a win. Everybody's good. That’s how I see it.”
It’s the right way to look at it, of course. And that means it’s up to Murray to try and be better than just good in a critical year for both he, and the franchise.
TRAINING CAMP STOP: BROWNS
BEREA, Ohio — First time I’ve been to Cleveland in a long time where there wasn’t some overwhelming storyline. In some cases, it was a coach on the hot seat. In others, it was the employ of a polarizing quarterback. In others, it was the acquisition of a controversial figure. In all cases, it fueled into the idea that Northeast Ohio was the NFL’s capital of chaos. That’s why the calm here, to me, was newsworthy.
In 18 months, coach Kevin Stefanski and GM Andrew Berry have flipped this place on its head. Contracts are quietly being hammered out for key veterans. Young players are showing promise. The roster might be as complete as any in football (which is also a credit, to be clear, to some of the people who came before Stefanski and Berry).
There’s a lot to be excited about going into 2021 for the Browns. For the first time in a long time, though, it’s not linked to whether one thing or another is going to blow up in their face. And so on my visit to Berea, I picked three things that I saw as interesting going into this year—two obvious, and one less obvious—to talk to Berry and Stefanski about. Let’s dive into that.
One question that I think is a fair one is how the Browns will handle success. The last time Cleveland had consecutive winning seasons, Marty Schottenheimer was handing the torch to Bud Carson and Bernie Kosar was the quarterback. Stefanski was 7, and Berry was 2. And if the Browns were to take a step back this year, it’d be a story we’ve heard often in other NFL locales—a team getting a jolt from a new staff, only to level off a year later.
So I was interested to hear how the coach and GM’s challenges might change when the task is sustaining success, rather than creating it. Stefanski drew from his old boss in Minnesota, Mike Zimmer, to answer the question.
“Zim used to talk about it, I think was from Coach Parcells: You have to learn to win and then you have to learn how to handle winning,” he says. “So that resonates, certainly, with me. And that was part of Zim’s message to the guys in Minnesota. There’s certainly a human element to this. I think we have a bunch of professionals here, though, that understand that we have a long, long way to go. Miles to go. …
“That’s where I have such great respect for the organizations that win consistently. And that is our goal. We want to win consistently. But in order to achieve that goal, we put the focus completely on the task at hand. That means when it’s Week 1, our focus is on Week 1. And when it’s training camp, our focus is on training camp.”
Berry echoes that sentiment: “You really do start from ground level, and that can be a challenge because, yes, there is some carryover.” He adds that it’s something his staff is cognizant of when they’re acquiring players.
“I think if guys are self-motivated and they’re accountable, that’ll naturally come,” he says. “That’s why we’re pretty simple, we want guys who are smart, tough, accountable and resilient. I think if they embody those characteristics, you’ve really covered your bases with all that stuff. … We’re pretty fortunate that we have a lot of good guys in the locker room. But it’s something that we don’t want to leave to chance, and it’s something that really Kevin, to his credit, and his entire coaching staff, they’ve messaged really since Day 1.”
Part of the Browns ability to sustain success, of course, relates right back to their quarterback. And so I arrived at Camp Berea wanting to figure out, from Berry and Stefanski’s perspective, where Baker Mayfield’s next step is going to come.
“The big thing for me, I feel like I was very fortunate in Indy to watch a mature Peyton Manning’s mastery,” Berry says. “It was his offense, he’d mastered it, he’d been in the system for a decade-plus. Same thing with Andrew Luck, after [Bruce Arians], when we hired Pep Hamilton, pretty much the same offense he’d run at Stanford. For Baker, this is the first time in his NFL career where he actually has stability on the offensive side of the ball, has stability with his playcaller, I think that’s really the next step.
“He knows the philosophy, he knows the playcalls, and he’s continuing to master it. And I don’t think that’s something that happens as soon as Year 2, but I think he already taken steps in that regard, and that’s something I think he’ll continue to make strides with.”
One real step in the right direction, though, came in Austin over the course of the offseason, with Mayfield hosting a series of passing camps for his receivers. It’s why Stefanski calls Mayfield a grinder, and a gym rat, and also why he feels comfortable having summits with the quarterback and OC Alex Van Pelt to, to bolster Berry’s point, make the offense his own.
While that happens, as Stefanski sees it, there’ll be personal growth too, which the coaches saw last year, and hope to see more of this year with improved situational play.
“That’s the fun part in this profession, taking guys like Baker who want to keep getting better, and giving him avenues to keep getting better, and giving him drills, and keep pushing that envelope.” Stefanski says. “He did an amazing job of taking care of the football last year, that’s gotta be who we are. And he understands that completely. We put such an emphasis on the turnover margin as a team, it’s such a great team stat.
“And then it’s just constant growth, third down and red zone and two-minute, all the situational moments where the quarterback is such an integral part of success.”
And this is where I circled back to Stefanski himself. Part of the calm here is thanks to the guy in charge on the field—who is incredibly level himself. In fact, when I raised this to one of Stefanski’s coaches, he laughed, and told me he’d never heard his boss raise his voice. Which, for a football coach, is pretty interesting.
After hearing that, of course I had to ask Stefanski about it, since people in his profession are sometimes expected to flip the Gatorade table over at halftime (s/o to Coach Winters).
“You’re just being true to who you are,” Stefanski says, laughing. “My voice will certainly get raised, it’s been raised already this camp. The salty language, the Philly in me, definitely boils to the top, I can’t help that. But all told, I want our players to see somebody, during the games especially, I want them to feel like things are under control. And for me it’s never made sense to lose your mind on the sideline, because you’re losing the thing you need to think, and then what are you portraying to your team? I do think about it in that regard. But in terms of, is that who I am? I’m just being me.”
The first name that came to mind when he explained that, for me, was Hall of Famer Tony Dungy. And Berry brought up an old assistant of Dungy’s to drive home why Stefanski can be so effective handling himself as a sort of antithesis to a stereotype.
“The first NFL coach I worked with was actually Jim Caldwell in Indianapolis, and Kevin reminds me a lot of Jim, where Jim rarely raised his voice, but he was authentic and he treated coaches, staff, players like professionals and adults,” Berry says. “I think that goes a long way, because if they feel like you have their best interests in mind, people don’t want to let him down, because he is so authentic and so down to earth.
“I do think that you’re right, if we call it a spectrum, I think it’s shifting a little bit from the kind of fire-and-brimstone coaching to being a little bit more laid back. With that being said, I do think there still are and will be people who just communicate in different, where they’re just emotional. Now, I think, I hope, we’re past the days of coaches just absolutely dog-cussing players, because I personally don’t think that’s appropriate. But I think there’ll still be impassioned, fiery coaches that come to the NFL and have success.”
So really, this is just Stefanski’s way. And together with how Berry’s running the front office, based on the climate of this place this summer, it sure looks like it’s working.
1) The Bills’ contract with Josh Allen is a simple expression of two sides working together to reach a conclusion both badly wanted. The numbers are the numbers. Allen’s extension covers six new years with $258 million in new money. He’s second to Patrick Mahomes in average per year, at $43 million. He broke records for full guarantees ($100 million) and guarantee against injury ($150 million). But while this one did take a lot of work, the path there for each side was simple—prioritize what’s important and reach a compromise. For the Bills, term was important, so GM Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott could effectively plan for building around Allen for the rest of the decade. For Allen and his reps, total guarantee was important. And the above terms of the contract tell the tale. Where Deshaun Watson and Dak Prescott got four-year extensions that’ll likely get them to third contracts in the mid-2020s, Allen is locked up for the next eight years. But he has a full guarantee in nine figures, the first such guarantee in NFL history. And as for the Bills conviction in Allen? That part really is about. Buffalo drafted Allen knowing he was a raw piece of clay, who hadn’t grown up on the 7-on-7 circuit or with personal quarterbacking gurus, which gave him a lot of room to grow. From high school to junior college to Wyoming, he was almost always the best player on the field, and as such had to win the game by himself a lot. And interestingly, the Bills had to coach that out of him—teaching him that just because he could do something didn’t always mean he should do something. A loss to New England in 2019 was one flashpoint in Allen’s development in that way. Both defenses were playing lights out. It was a field position game. And Allen tried to take over—and almost did—but threw three picks along the way. In 2020, the Bills saw a lot less of that Allen, and in doing this contract, the Bills are trusting they’ll continue to see less of that version of him. They trust it, mostly, because of who he is. And the cool thing for Buffalo is that in paying Allen, they believe they’re showing who they are. “This is who we pay,” Beane told me Saturday. “When you pay double-digit APYs, you better be paying someone with good habits, the type of person where when other guys ask, How do I get paid?, you can point to them. And they’ll say let me follow Matt Milano, let me follow Tre’Davious White, let me follow Josh Allen. You start paying the wrong people, you’ll get other results. you won’t like what you get.” Beane then added, Now, Josh still has room to grow. He’d tell you that. He worked this offseason, he didn’t just say, I made it to the AFC title game. In fact, he has a chip on his shoulder because he didn’t play his best in that game.” Indeed, in doing this contract, the Bills are telling you they believe the best is yet to come.
2) I don’t think the Allen deal will have that much of an effect on Mayfield and Lamar Jackson. At least right now, and that’s about the teams those two guys play for. The Ravens have consistently gotten their core guys—players like Marlon Humphrey and Ronnie Stanley—to do deals that are close to the top of the market, but not market-shifting and easy for the team to manage. I’d imagine if they do Jackson two years early, his willingness to play ball on that would be a prerequisite. And with Mayfield, I think you can look at the Nick Chubb deal, and the ongoing negotiation with Denzel Ward, and see how disciplined the Browns are going to be, especially with deals done two years early. So add that up, and I think Mayfield and Jackson will either do reasonable contracts that may lack the sizzle that Allen’s brought but still make them really rich, or wait a year. If they wait a year, then maybe Allen’s deal raises the bar for Aaron Rodgers’ next contract, and then it will have had an effect on his draft classmates. But I don’t think it’s making the Browns or Ravens uncomfortable now.
3) Colts LB Darius Leonard is worth every penny—and I actually think the five-year, $99.25 million contract is a win for Indy. I pegged this extension at four years and $78 million a couple weeks ago, knowing how the Colts wanted to keep the number under $20 million per and figuring they’d forgo a fifth new year (and sixth year overall) to do it. Instead, the Colts kept his number under $20 million, albeit at a higher APY ($19.85 million) than I’d projected and got the fifth year. And Leonard got $20 million per over the first three years of the deal, which is part of the compromise. But the bigger story here, really, is how the Colts are starting to lock up their 2018 draft class. Braden Smith went first. Three-time All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson will likely follow in 2022, maybe as the first non-QB in team history to crack the $20 million milestone. Of course, all of this is a pretty good reflection of how GM Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich have built Indy’s foundation. Now, if they can just get the quarterback position right …
4) One more contract note—good on the Dolphins for taking care of Xavien Howard. What’s interesting about this one is the five-year, $75.25 million extension Howard did in 2019 was really the first big contract for an incumbent player of the Brian Flores/Chris Grier Era. I know at the time that Howard represented what they wanted in a player as they started their build, and in this case the good work they did in getting a team-friendly structure bit them—eventually, the market wound up bearing out the flaws in the deal. It bit them, too, because they paid another corner, Byron Jones, substantially more without that corner having played a down for the team. So even when Miami took a hard line over the last couple months, and Howard’s camp insisted on the team making an exception for an exceptional player (teams never do deals for players with four years left on standing ones), I tried to keep in mind how aggressive the Dolphins guys were in taking care of Howard in the first place. And I’m glad I did. Here’s what Howard’s agent, David Canter, got for the star corner to add to a deal that had four years left on it.
• $1 million incentive in 2021 for Pro Bowl or All-Pro.
• $2.5 million in 2021 incentives tied to playing time.
• $600,000 in workout and per-game roster bonuses in 2022 converted to base salary.
• $6.775 million of his 2022 is now fully guaranteed.
I’m told the deal came together over four hours on Saturday night, which. That really shows that, after all the acrimony, the Dolphins wanted Howard to stay, and Howard really never wanted to leave, even after Miami had pre-draft trade talks on Howard, and after Howard requested a trade subsequently this summer. My understanding is the breakthrough after small pieces of progress came last week occurred with Howard’s return to the field from an ankle injury. Howard took part in a walkthrough Friday, and the team made it clear that if he got back on the field, they wanted to start really ramping up, and not have this revert to a sort of hold-in if the contract was still on his mind. Howard agreed, and practiced Saturday, looked good, and things accelerated fast from there. So this is a good conclusion for everyone, and one with a couple lessons. One, a deal that doesn’t age well isn’t solely bad for a player—if the player’s great, he’s going to make the team feel his pain. And two, when you pay guys in free agency, it’s important to keep how it’ll affect the guys you already have in mind.
5) I wouldn’t ignore the uptick in Mac Jones’s reps in Foxboro. Per the media on the ground there, the first-round pick got more work over a couple days last week, after a shaky Tuesday, and one of those days was a full-pads session in the rain. By all accounts, Jones responded. Why does it matter? Well, having covered that team, I know where some coaches view inclement weather as a pain in the ass, Bill Belichick sees opportunity with a team based in a part of the country where such things are unavoidable. Moreover, he values those opportunities. So the fact that he’d accelerate Jones’s work on a day like that, and after Jones had struggled, is meaningful, in my mind. Sometimes it’s hard to read the day-to-day in a situation like the Patriots’ quarterback competition—you don’t know how a coach is challenging a player or working his strengths or weaknesses on a given day. But there are exceptions. It doesn’t mean he’ll win the job for Week 1, or at any point over Jones’s rookie year. But I think it does mean something.
6) I’m like a lot of people—it’s disappointing for me to hear Kirk Cousins won’t get vaccinated, and that Lamar Jackson wound up having a symptomatic case of COVID-19 (it’s unclear whether he’s vaccinated or not). And mostly, I feel that way because I think the NFL is right to believe that the COVID blips they’ve had thus far could’ve been avoided if everyone would get the shot. But there is a flip side to this. A lot of players are surrounded by teams of trainers and nutritionists and doctors. And while every doctor I’ve talked to has endorsed the vaccine, some cases are more complicated. I was told a story of a player this week who got COVID-19 last year and had a heart issue arise from it. In June,that—after 177 million people had received at least one dose of a vaccine—there were “more than 1,000 reports” of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart), and that it occurred “mostly in male adolescents and young adults age 16 years or older.” Because of that, and because the player had a heart issue from COVID, his doctor recommended he not get the shot(s). Would every doctor agree with that doctor? I wouldn’t think so, and the CDC continues to recommend the vaccines as the best protection against COVID-19—statistically, the benefits far outweigh the risk. But I think having that kind of health scare, where it’s anecdotal but personal to that player, and then getting that advice from a doctor you trust, would be enough reason for a lot of players to mask up for the 2021 season rather than get the vaccine. Which brings me to my main point here: I don’t think we should be casting blanket judgment on players for these choices. (Now, if a player is making a decision based on politics or something he saw on Facebook or YouTube? That’s a different story entirely.)
7) I think people need to stop getting upset over players running laps or sprints, or doing up-downs. People made fun of Dan Campbell for using up-downs as a sort of initiation ritual, and got mad at Joe Judge for having his Giants run gassers for fighting in practice. Honestly, who cares? It’s football. Coaches use the summer to try and build a foundation for the fall, and ingrain a standard in their players, and that’s not always best done by putting your arm around a guy. Here’s what Giants receiver Sterling Shepard had to say on the subject: “That's kind of the standard that we've set here in this building and as a team, and I think guys have bought in and know what to expect whenever you step on the field and when you're playing under a guy like coach Judge. If you don't like it, then you're welcome to leave. But that's the way that we do things around here and everybody is standing by that, and I'm all for it. I mean, it's a little different for us because we're receivers, we've got to be able to run all day, but I don't mind it.” Now, coaches can go too far with it. But making a guy take a couple laps around the field doesn’t exactly evoke the Junction Boys for me. And I still remember one coach’s response when I asked about this sort of practice a few years ago: “Would they rather I fine them?” Probably not.
8) The Rams are pretty ecstatic with Matthew Stafford. I was with L.A. on Friday and Saturday, and the most common conversation-opener that staffers there used on me was simple: “This guy …” And they knew I knew who they were talking about before saying Stafford’s name. During the team’s scrimmage with the Cowboys on Saturday, Stafford made a throw that brought to life what they’re enamored with. On the play, Stafford took the snap, and rolled to his left. With a couple Dallas defenders bearing down, he flipped his hips—I could swear he didn’t have his feet all the way planted—and launched a rocket to DeSean Jackson, who was racing downfield towards the right pylon. I was standing near Jackson, and could hear the ball humming. So it’s that, plus the mental acuity Stafford brings, that has Sean McVay, Kevin O’Connell and Co. believing pretty strongly that the quarterback is going to allow the coaches to swing some clubs they haven’t been able to pull from the bag in a while. And that’s not an indictment on Jared Goff, so much as it is an affirmation that Stafford’s high-end ability remains, as he heads into his 13th year as a pro, and first as a Ram.
9) Urban Meyer’s comment about “spandex teams” this week sounded familiar, as an alum of one of the schools he won big at. In his previous four stops, Meyer was famous for making it hard on players in camp, believing they needed to be calloused for the long season ahead. And for that reason, I do think you’ll see a Jaguar team that’s very physical and competitive. But I am curious to see what it’ll mean later in the season for the group. Mike Tomlin was the same way with his players his first year in Pittsburgh, and believes that set the tone for his program with the franchise coming out of a very successful Bill Cowher Era. At the same time, he later would concede that his team wound up fading in November and December because of the accumulation of miles he put on them. Which means it was a sort of short-term pain, long-term gain bargain for Tomlin. Anyway, the Jaguars will be compelling, with Meyer and Trevor Lawrence, throughout 2021. But it might be worth circling back on this once we get past Thanksgiving.
10) My big 14-camp swing is complete. I’ll do a few more teams in the coming weeks. But the big part of the trip is done, and so my notebook is full. So you want one under-the-radar player from each spot? I can do that for you.
• The Steelers’ offensive line is in flux, and one player they’re intrigued with at the critical left tackle spot: Rookie Dan Moore, who actually got himself into a fracas with Cam Heyward the day I was there. Could he be Alejandro Villanueva’s replacement? Maybe.
• After the failed Yannick Ngakoue experiment, the Vikings badly needed a booked for Danielle Hunter. Keep an eye on second-year man D.J. Wonnum. The defensive coaches are giving him a lot of opportunity, and love his potential.
• De’Vondre Campbell was once a rising star in Atlanta, and a rookie starter for the Falcons’ Super Bowl team. He flamed out thereafter, and has bounced around since, but is asserting himself as a potential answer for the Packers inside linebacker question.
• The Bears are another team with offensive line issues, and fourth-round pick Larry Borom could be a godsend in that regard. He’s lost 45(!) pounds since the end of his final season at Mizzou, and is fighting for playing time at tackle.
• Michael Strachan’s name has come up time and again since the Colts took him in the seventh round. His size/speed ratio is outstanding, and he’s consistently made plays in camp. Even in a crowded receiver room, he looks poised for a role.
• LB Shaun-Dion Hamilton arrived in Detroit as a waiver claim from Washington. And he’s worked his way into the mix at inside linebacker. The Lions see him as a viable piece there just a couple weeks into camp.
• After signing Anthony Walker, the Browns may not need another hand at middle linebacker. But Mack Wilson’s breakthrough offseason has certainly made them think about what they might do at the position.
• Bengals receiver Auden Tate is a monster in a room full of big people (for the position), and catching everything in camp.
• Trent Sherfield, anyone? The Niners love the camp he’s having. And even if he can’t crack a rotation that’ll include the fast-improving Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel, there should at least be a special-teams role for him in San Francisco.
• Rookie Marco Wilson’s cover skills have stood out for the Cardinals, as has the fact that they can move him around in the secondary. If Malcolm Butler shows signs of decline—and Arizona’s bracing for that—Wilson could be a godsend.
• Rams NT Sebastian Joseph-Day isn’t so much a darkhorse as he is a player that could wind up doing a lot more. He’s shown in camp improved rush ability, that could break him out of the run-down stereotype. (If you want a real darkhorse here: Justin Hollins.)
• Chargers rookie WR Josh Palmer drew stylistic comparisons to Saints star Michael Thomas while I was in town. And with Joe Lombardi bringing the New Orleans offense to L.A., the fit here should be interesting.
• Last year, the Cowboys’ injury issues on the line forced rookie Terence Steele into action before he was ready. He struggled. But he’s transformed his body since, and is having a strong camp. Playing time might be hard to come by, with Tyron Smith and La’El Collins healthy at tackle. Still, Steele’s making the team feel better about its depth there.
• Jon Gruden loves him some Foster Moreau. The Raiders’ third-year tight end is finally fully healthy, stronger, and playing faster. He could be a problem for defenses geared to stop Darren Waller.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINES
1) I flew Frontier Airlines for the first time on Saturday. It was mostly fine, given what I paid for the 42-minute flight from Burbank to Vegas. The seat felt like a folding chair, tray table was the size of a dinner plate, and there was no internet. (But, again, I knew what I was getting into. Could’ve been worse.) And this was the best part—Airfare was $34 (not a misprint), and it cost me $65 to check my bag.
2) Maybe it’s because I was on my camp trip, but I didn’t really have much desire to watch the Olympics. Maybe it’s because it lost star power withand out. I just never felt the urge to watch any of it, outside of some of the women’s swimming. And I don’t think I’m alone.
3). An absolute legend of the sport, and by all accounts a gentleman too. I can’t remember a point in my childhood where Florida State was not among the elite of the elite—and Bowden’s string of 14 consecutive Top 4 finishes in the AP poll is a good illustration of that. For a while there, he really was college football.
4) Best place I ate on my trip: Billy’s Sushi in Minneapolis.
5). And player acquisition/movement in European soccer is still amazingly confusing to me.
6) Happy birthday to our middle child Drew, who’s probably the smartest person in our house. He’s 5 now, and one thing I’ll always remember from being in the hospital after he was born is that’s when my Twitter got hacked. Things got pretty sketchy (you can Google it) for me and Frank Caliendo for about an hour there, and eventually, I’ll be able to tell Drew that story. For now, he’ll have to settle for LEGOs.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Good call, Marlon Humphrey. And good reminder that Chiefs-Ravens is six weeks away.
No place like Green Bay.
… as we were saying.
Hard to overstate how Josh Allen’s teammates view him.
You shouldn’t be surprised by this.
Congrats to John Lynch, one of the really good people in today’s NFL.
For the record, I really don’t think what Jason Garrett said was meant to be taken the way it was. I’ve know Garrett since he was Cowboys offensive coordinator and I was a beat writer for the Dallas Morning News, back in 2007, and I see him as one of the last people that would publicly demand that people call him “coach.”
The Russell-Chamberlain (or Magic-Bird for people my age) of their generation.
That speech was a pretty good indication of why NFL teams and network partners have been trying to hire Peyton Manning for years.
Maybe it’s because he’s in Jacksonville, but there just hasn’t been a lot of buzz on Trevor Lawrence this summer. So it’s always good to get a reminder of what’s coming.
Really cool—third generation Buckeye football player (yeah, that’s not NFL, but this is my column).
FWIW, Garoppolo told me Lance carried his pads in on Wednesday.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
I’d expect teams will be judicious with their starters across the board this week in preseason games, and probably throughout the preseason. Why? Well, NFLPA data showed that last year’s acclimation period really helped in preventing injuries, and there was a lot of anecdotal evidence that players felt better going into and coming out of the season as a result of it as well. And you know what else happened last year? The preseason was canceled.
So it would make sense if coaches manage their vets carefully this year, given that evidence. There will be exceptions of course, and other reasons (see: Justin Fields, Trey Lance, Zach Wilson) to watch the preseason too. But don’t be surprised if we see even less of the league’s established vets than ever before.
MORE NFL COVERAGE:
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49ers vs Chiefs: Three offensive players who could help themselves with a big performance .
The 49ers face the Kansas City Chiefs for the first time since the grueling Super Bowl loss. Head coach Kyle Shanahan announced that all starters would come off the field after the first drive. Oh Boy, let's all hope Trey Lance makes it out alive. San Francisco’s second-team offensive line has struggled throughout camp. But I'm sure Shanahan has a plan. There are plenty of players to be intrigued about on offense. There’s an intense receiver battle after WR3. The running back room looks crowded, but the two returning backs have dealt with injuries as of late — not to mention that the offensive line depth isn't the strongest.