How Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell have worked together in Detroit, and why they were so excited about Penei Sewell.
You saw the tsunami of bro hugs and high fives—some landed, some missed—as the “pick is in” graphic flashed across the NFL Network and ESPN screens two Thursdays ago, with footage coming in from Allen Park, Mich. The new Lions brass, to be sure, wasn’t treating the draft like it was some sort of covert mission overseas.
Throughout an event that’s often covered like one, it seemed like the guys in this particular war room were, for lack of a more eloquent way to describe it, just having fun.
And if you talk to Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell about it, that was very real. They had a blast turning the card in to make Oregon tackle Penei Sewell their first draft pick. And if you liked that, you should’ve seen what the place looked like a couple of minutes beforehand.
“Right when that came across the league wire that Miami had selected [Jaylen] Waddle, I’m telling you it was like the opponent we’re playing just missed a field goal and we won,” Campbell said on a call with me and Holmes on Friday. “Man, look, the scouts have a hand in it and we want them to have a say. And these scouts, and Brad in particular, have spent three seasons on some of these guys. …
“And Brad always said, ‘Let’s identify the players we love across the board,’ that collectively, the whole group, there are guys we can really sign off on. And when we turn in that slip, we write that name down, we are going to all be excited. There is not going to be, ‘Well, we were split, half and half down the room.’ We wanted to make sure we had true buy-in on these guys, and certainly it started with Sewell. And yeah, [the reaction] was authentic.”
Which then brought the Lions’ coach to another element that made it real.
“There’s this whole thing, Act like you’ve been there before,” Campbell continued. “Well, guess what. We haven’t been there before. This is our first time together, man. This is our first time collectively. And if you’re Brad, this is Brad’s game, man. If you’re a GM, this is your first shot. This would be like a head coach getting his first win. It’s a big deal.”
Now, it’d be easy here to fall into the old cliché, if you want to do that, and say how different this all looked from the last Detroit regime. Sure, it did. But the truth is, what we saw on that screen on the first night of the draft really felt differently from what you’d expect in any NFL building, especially with two first-timers running the show.
And while that doesn’t guarantee anything, it was indicative of what’s been going on in Detroit for a few months now, and something even the owner could spot a while ago.
“Sheila [Ford] Hamp came in one day and she was like, ‘Wow, it feels good in here. Everybody’s having fun,’ “ Holmes said. “And this may have been in early February. And that’s just been an ongoing thing. It’s not something Dan and I have to force, have to write it down and look at it: Let’s make sure we’re having fun. Football should be fun. And we’re all passionate about it.”
So on that Thursday night in April, they let the world see that passion, and the fun they were all having. And the best part of the story, really, is in how naturally all this came together.
The draft is in the rearview mirror, and we’re getting closer to OTAs, minicamps, the summer break, and, yup, training camps. So there’ll be some looking forward and some looking back in this week’s MMQB column. Inside, you’ll find …
• A look at the changes made in the way the Patriots handle scouting.
• A preview of Wednesday’s schedule release.
• A rundown of important checkpoints looming in the Aaron Rodgers saga.
• A lot more cleanup from the draft, with some whys, whats and hows.
But we’re starting with an inside look at how the new guys in Motor City came together on the draft, and how that process has, they hope, set the whole building up for success.
When Holmes interviewed with Hamp and Lions president Rod Wood back in January, the then Rams college scouting director laid out three elements he felt would be crucial to his success, should he land the job.
1) “We’ve got to find a way to win the draft.”
2) “We’ve got to have a collaborative and confident team-building process.”
3) “We need a strong culture.”
At the time, Holmes didn’t know he’d be the GM, and he didn’t really know Campbell, who was interviewing for the head coaching job, at all. He was like any of the other candidates, trying to, through a computer screen, make an impression and bring insight into who he was. Campbell, all the same, knew of Holmes through word of mouth, but didn’t know him personally. So as things progressed, they started to do research on each other.
To that end, they had a few strong connections to lean on (Bengals coach Zac Taylor was one, since Taylor worked with Campbell with the Dolphins and Holmes with the Rams in L.A.) and not one was stronger than Terrell Williams, a Miami colleague of Campbell’s who was Holmes’s position coach when the then Lions GM candidate was a player at North Carolina A&T. “He’s your type of guy,” Williams told Campbell. “You guys are going to knock it out of the park.”
Still, with someone you don’t know, there aren’t any sure things. And then, after they got hired and were trying to learn one another, there was a pretty big piece of business to attend to right away.
Congrats, fellas! Now, go trade our franchise quarterback.
Having to handle the Matthew Stafford situation in January, just days after they’d gotten their respective jobs, wasn’t trial by fire. It was trial by inferno. But both guys can say now that, in a lot of ways, it kicked the speed dating element that any arranged GM/coach marriage like this one requires going into overdrive. And through it all, the two could take a number of things.
First, they saw that Hamp and Wood were genuinely giving them the keys. “Sheila and Rod were saying, ‘Hey, look, we trust you guys; you guys are going to make the right decision for the franchise,’ “ Holmes said. “And they just made sure that we had the right resources we needed that allowed us to make that decision.”
Second, they immediately got to see how the other handled a high-leverage situation.
“You just dive in and you try to make the most of it,” Campbell said. “I thought Brad did a great job. I don’t know how you would’ve done any better than he did. That’s a credit to him and [VP Mike Disner], working through all that. And I thought Stafford was a class act on all regards with it. There was no ill will or animosity, anything. Both parties won.”
“You could’ve never told me in a million years that the third week on the job I would’ve been tasked with doing that, making that move, with my former boss [Rams GM Les Snead],” Holmes added. “I was still trying to recover from the text messages, congratulatory of getting the job. Hundreds and hundreds, I’m trying to get back to everybody. But then the trade’s made and then hundreds of more texts, now I’m going through hundreds of texts that were made from congratulations on getting the GM job to congrats on the trade.
“It was just how quickly it happened.”
In the process, a rapport was building that would be important through February, with the coaches learning the scouts and vice versa, Campbell learning Holmes and vice versa, and the draft and free-agent processes getting rolling. And the first piece of all that was to align scouting and coaching as much as possible with what it will all look like on the field still more of an on-paper concept than an on-field reality.
“One thing we were both 100% in agreement on, saw eye-to-eye without even speaking on it until it came up, was that everything we do, every move we make, is together,” Campbell said. “We will not have any perception, any talk from the coaches, ‘Well, you’re our guy, we really like you, but you know what, the GM doesn’t like you. Personnel doesn’t like you.’ Or, ‘You know what, personnel really likes you, but the coaches don’t.’ That will not exist in our organization. Because that is one of the first ways that you create a loser in my opinion.”
So they listened to each other and learned in the month following the Stafford trade. Campbell actually entrusted elements of the coaching side to his coordinators (Anthony Lynn, Aaron Glenn, Dave Fipp) and his assistant head coach (Duce Staley), so he could grind through personnel meetings with Holmes and the scouts, and that was after he had his coaches present position profiles for the personnel staff to work off.
Holmes figured out how Campbell and his new staff valued explosiveness across the board, and saw size and length as key in certain positions, and particularly on defense, as a key to maintaining a certain level of play and making it through an entire season. And both got a chance to learn how the other wanted to go about finding players to fit the new program.
“He wants to know, Tell me what the tape is telling us,” Campbell said. “Make sure that when you watch the player, what you are bringing back and what you’re evaluating is what’s on tape. That is the most important thing. And then let’s go back and look at the numbers. Let’s look at the pro day, but let’s not make this judgment, total judgment on a player by, ‘Yeah, the tape’s O.K., but my God, look at the pro day,’ and get swayed one way or another.
“Now, Brad’ll say it all the time, that doesn’t mean, man, you may love a cornerback that’s at a small school and then he goes out and runs a 4.8. Well, that’s probably a problem. That’s going to be a little tough in this league. I think that’s really unique and it’s a little different than [how] a lot of guys do it from a scouting perspective. … Man, what is the tape telling you?”
“Dan really started talking about grit for a football player,” Holmes said. “Guys having grit and having a certain style of play, how they really play the game and not just on the film, not just on the tape, but the way that he loves to dig deep in their background—What is the adversity that this player has overcome? Did he just have it easy his whole life? Or how did he really have to overcome something and get out of the mud? It just piled onto the whole factor of a player having true grit and sheer toughness for the game.”
And when they blended the two together, “passion for football,” seen on tape and verified in a player’s backstory, became a non-negotiable. Which helped lead them to Sewell.
Holmes knew of Sewell, of course, going into the 2020 season. But it wasn’t until the Rams’ West Coast area scout kept raving about the Oregon opt-out—”This is the best guy,” Vito Gonella told Holmes—that the then L.A. scouting director really sat down and studied him intently. What Holmes saw, he says now, took his breath away.
“In terms of feet, I haven’t seen feet like that,” Holmes said. “I remember when I first got to the Rams and Orlando Pace was kind of getting on kind of the tail end of his career, that’s the kind of feet—I’m not comparing them player for player, but I’m talking about feet—he has. I haven’t seen feet like that, and just the fire that he had, the ability to maneuver and change directions, and his kick slide is rare, on top of the physicality; it was all there.”
And Campbell’s experience when he first studied Sewell—which didn’t happen until February—was similar.
Yes, Sewell, amid a messy situation with the Pac-12 canceling its season before doubling back and scheduling a new truncated slate, had decided to skip ’20 and declare for the draft, and it’s not like there weren’t other questions attached to his report. But as for that non-negotiable passion for the game? That, as Campbell saw it, was all over the tape.
“We were talking about grit. This dude’s got grit,” Campbell said. “He plays dirty, he’s nasty, he gets after people. And I would say this: When he makes a mistake, it’s because he’s trying to kill people. I would rather have a guy you coach backwards from there than a guy you’re constantly having to pry, Man, finish your blocks; would you finish your blocks? You go the other way with this guy, like, Hey, would you settle everything down a little bit? You don’t have to kill everybody you hit.”
Working through it with their staff, it checked out. Holmes’s top lieutenants trusted guys he wasn’t sure he’d be able to land before the draft—like assistant GM Ray Agnew and senior personnel executive John Dorsey—signed off on Sewell. And so did Campbell’s coaches, one of whom, new OC Lynn, made the trip to Eugene for Sewell’s pro day.
That landed the 6′ 4″ 331-pounder in a cluster of players that Holmes and Campbell were good with going into draft week. But the over-the-top celebrations after getting him (both the one you saw, and the one you didn’t)? Those were actually borne of a Zoom call that the head coach and GM did alone with Sewell a few days before the draft, when the Ducks’ star lineman started to separate from that cluster.
“The kind of swagger the kid has about himself, the confidence, but he’s also got humility,” Holmes said. “It was really cool. He was so smart. I was like, ‘Damn, if we get this kid …’ “
The GM mentioned to the coach that, for him, Sewell was making a move from the pack and Campbell concurred. They kept that to themselves.
So then came draft day, and there is a simple question lingering, if you put what we’ve told you so far together: How were there two organic explosions of emotion?
The first, after Miami took Waddle, is easy to figure out. The second, the one you saw on TV, needs some more explanation, if Sewell was so clearly the pick after Waddle came off the board. And any possible disconnect there is cleaned up with Holmes’s then having had to consider a very solid offer that had come in for the pick, and was standing as the Lions’ 10 minutes on the clock started to tick down.
“We had to make a choice,” Holmes said. “It was tempting. … Credit to everybody else in that draft room to stay patient and say, Hey, look, let’s trust it, and let’s just see what happens and resist doing anything. We could’ve been too cute and it actually could’ve affected the rest of the picks and how it fell down.”
Holmes now describes the offer like this: “We could’ve made the move and possibly still been in position to land [Sewell].” And the “raw emotion,” in Campbell’s words, that came after deciding to turn it down? To both guys, it signified the sort of across-the-board buy-in in Sewell that the two idealized in how they wanted to approach their draft.
The room, quite simply, was passionate about Sewell, in large part because the guys in there knew that they’d reached that level of agreement in who he was as a player.
“I thought it was pretty impressive the way Brad handled everything,” Campbell said. “The fact that he’s got confidence and he’s very secure in himself—there is no insecurity—and there is a collaboration? … It’s everything that we wanted to build the foundation of this team off of.”
He was right not to trade the pick, too. Because moving down likely would’ve led to the Panthers’ taking Sewell, and the Lions’ losing him altogether.
Instead, they’ve got him, and a few other players there were that same level of agreement on. And the next one came, as you’d expect, with Detroit’s next pick. After a long first day of the draft, and with Sewell in the fold, Holmes and Campbell went home with Washington DT Levi Onwuzurike still there as a prime target.
But as the two met privately to start day two, on that Friday morning, there was another player they never expected to fall out of the first round who was still on the board, and one more they regarded highly, right there with Onwuzurike, also available. So they went through the three and tried to rank them, and asked of the other two, “Should we really go with this player over Levi?” Ultimately, they figured they probably should.
Then, maybe two hours later, they reconvened with some staff in the draft room, and started the same exercise, before Holmes looked over at Campbell and pointed at Onwuzurike’s name on the board. Campbell just started laughing.
“It was so cool how both of us kind of changed course and both of us thought about it after we left my office and kind of got back to the same guy without us even talking about it,” Holmes said. “And us being on the same page, like all those kinds of things, just go back to how the relationship’s built even stronger.”
“He’s actually right,” Campbell added. “I mean, it was comical. In a good way. Because literally, I knew, right when he started pointing, I had already been thinking about it. So he was already kind of changing his mind. I’m thinking, ‘I’m already there, brother. I see it.’ It was good. It was great. That’s kind of how it’s been.”
Of course, the Lions had the ninth pick in the second round (41st). Which meant they had no control over whether Onwuzurike would actually make it to them.
He did. And with the obvious acknowledgment that neither of these guys has won or lost a game since being hired yet, that all kind of illustrates how this whole thing has gone to this point.
So far, so good.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF PATRIOTS DRAFT
During free agency, it was often said that the Patriots’ aggression was a sign of how Bill Belichick was processing a 7–9 season, his first losing campaign in 20 (!) years. And my sense is that carried right over into the draft process.
In fact, by the sounds of it, the more collaborative approach we mentioned in this column back in the first week of April has led to some wholesale change in scouting in Foxboro.
I’m not sure whether it’s permanent or not. But I do know this year was a whole lot different with assistant director of player personnel Dave Ziegler, scouting exec Eliot Wolf and national scout Matt Groh moving into more prominent roles in the aftermath of Nick Caserio’s departure for Houston. What I don’t know is Belichick’s specific motivation for it. Part of it, to be sure, is probably that the rules made it much harder to put coaches on the road for this year’s predraft process.
That said, I do think there’s at least an acknowledgment there that things haven’t exactly worked (owner Robert Kraft has said as much). The Patriots have only exercised the fifth-year option on one first-round pick since hitting two grand slams in 2012, with the selections of Dont’a Hightower and Chandler Jones, and that was tackle Isaiah Wynn (who’s been good, not great, and hurt a lot). In fact, the dearth of homegrown talent to pay is what created the cap space that the Patriots mowed through during the first week of free agency.
There have also been rumblings from the inside the scouting department in recent years that we detailed back in December. Long story short, plenty of evaluators on that side let their contracts expire, then bolted over the last few offseasons at least in part because there was frustration over the lack of involvement in the draft process, and the feeling that Belichick’s own experiences with players and his connections in college coaching too often would trump the information his scouts were giving him.
And, really, that’s where the biggest change has come this offseason, which would indicate the boss is listening. To that end, I’m told that Belichick was in the office more in the spring this year than in the past, held more formal draft meetings, something that really hasn’t happened under Belichick before, and reworked other past practices with the help of Ziegler, Wolf and Groh.
The result to scouts outside the organization was obvious: The players that the Patriots took were all highly productive college players, and there wasn’t the kind of wild Belichick curveball those who’ve been there got used to (e.g., Jordan Richards or Tavon Wilson in the second round), where the New England coach valued a player way over where the rest of the NFL’s scouting community did. And the proof is right there in the numbers.
QB Mac Jones: The Tide junior’s 77.4% completion percentage and 203.06 passer rating in ’20 broke NCAA single-season records, his 4,500 passing yards were an SEC record and his 41 touchdown passes in 13 games were two short of the school record set by Tua Tagovailoa in a 15-game season. Oh, and he won the national title.
DL Christian Barmore: For all the off-field questions, the interior lineman had eight sacks, was first-team All-SEC and won Defensive MVP honors in the CFP title game.
DE Ronnie Perkins: Despite a five-game suspension to start the season, Perkins still made second-team All-Big 12 for the second straight year in ’20, and had 16.5 sacks and 32 tackles for losses in 32 career games.
RB Rhamondre Stevenson: He averaged 8.0 yards per carry in limited action in 2019, then broke through with 665 yards in six games in ’20.
LB Cam McGrone: The Michigan ‘backer filled up the stat sheet (66 tackles, 9.5 for losses, four sacks, a forced fumble and a pass defensed) as a first-year starter in ’19 before an injury-marred ’20.
S Joshuah Bledsoe: A two-year starter and three-year contributor on defense at Missouri, he was the first Tiger in a decade to post 10 pass breakups in a season.
OL William Sherman: He was a three-year starter who played both right tackle and left tackle at Colorado, and could move inside as well.
WR Tre Nixon: Nixon had 89 catches his first two years at UCF, and was on the Biletnikoff Award watch list going into ’20. He was limited to four games by a shoulder injury.
Again, the criticism of Belichick I’ve heard in the past when it comes to the draft is that he overvalues traits, overvalues his own personal experiences with players and connections to their coaches, and makes too many smartest-guy-in-the-room picks that ignore how the rest of the league might see a player.
This, conversely, was a draft full of players with production over traits, drafted in a range close to where they were expected to go.
And here’s the thing: Any criticism of Belichick has to be tempered. The guy is the greatest coach in the history of the league, and he didn’t get there by bombing this important piece of the team-building process for two decades. But he has absolutely hit another dead spot the last few years, and it’s harder to coach around those when Tom Brady’s not your quarterback anymore.
So is it possible that taking his level of expertise, and troubleshooting some of the issues his ways have presented (issues illuminated by a 7–9 season) is what’s best for the franchise now and in the long term?
I think it is. And I think it’s what actually happened, too.
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE UPCOMING SCHEDULE
The NFL will release its schedule this week, and that’s big to me for two different reasons, outside of the normal (sometimes overdone) hype around it. One, obviously, this is the first time the number of games on it has changed in 43 years. And two, for the second straight year, the release is happening in May. But this time around, it’s not because of the pandemic—this is going to be a permanent change.
On the former point, we’re getting a lot of quality matchups as a result of the formula put in place for each team’s 17th game, which pairs one division with another in the other conference, and pits teams that finished in corresponding spots the year before against one another. Among the best of the “17th games” are the Cowboys at Patriots, Packers at Chiefs and Seahawks at Steelers.
On the latter point, rolling the schedule out in May means the league now has a shot to move games around based on what happened in the draft (which makes this another nod to how important a piece of the NFL calendar the draft has become). And you’ll see that reflected here in a minute.
So with all that in mind, I want to at least give you a taste of what I’ll be looking for on Wednesday, with my top half dozen games on the ’21 schedule.
6) Cardinals at Browns: Former teammates Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield will go head-to-head, and the measuring stick each can be for the other is at least interesting—both guys have shown they can certainly play, but there’s still doubt in some corners over whether either is worth truly investing in at the top of the quarterback market and building around for the foreseeable future. It feels like a big year for both guys, and this particular game will draw eyebrows and bring intrigue.
5) Packers at 49ers: This is always an intriguing one, and Matt LaFleur scored his revenge last year over Kyle Shanahan and an injury-riddled 49ers team. Also, as of right now, who knows what the quarterback matchup is going to be? Aaron Rodgers vs. Jimmy Garoppolo? Jordan Love vs. Trey Lance? The uncertainty of that alone means the placement of this one will be interesting.
4) Bills at Chiefs: This is a rematch of the AFC title game, and a real shot at redemption for Josh Allen after all the momentum of his breakout year came to a screeching halt at Arrowhead. With both rosters loaded with ascending talent, there’s a really good shot this one will have serious implications in seeding the playoff bracket.
3) Jaguars at Jets: The two worst teams in the league in ’20, by virtue of their first-round picks, have become early-season must-watch teams. The Jaguars because they have a generational quarterback prospect on their roster, one we’ve all been waiting on for a couple of years; the Jets because they have one who should be ultraexciting to watch. And there’s very little doubt that Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson will be linked for a long, long time to come.
2) Packers at Chiefs: This was the potential Super Bowl matchup most people spent November, December and January salivating over. And if Rodgers is still a Packer—and that’s a much bigger if now than it was before—this showdown would be attractive for all the same reasons it was back then.
1) Buccaneers at Patriots: Putting this game first was pretty much the easiest thing about putting this list together. I don’t feel the need to explain it. You understand.
We’ll get answers on where these games wind up soon enough—three nights from now—but I’ll leave you with one fact that I thought was interesting.
Going from 256 games to 272 was actually sort of excruciating for the schedule-makers. Why? Typically, the 256-game schedule would produce a number with 20-plus zeros (meaning 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 or more) of possible combinations for a full-season slate. The 272-game schedule gives them a number with 40-plus zeros’ worth of combinations.
Just explaining it gave me a headache, so I can’t imagine what sorting through all that is like. And if you’re interested in that process, we’ll have more on it for you in Thursday’s GamePlan column.
It might be a while before the Aaron Rodgers saga has any sort of conclusion. That’s partly because I don’t think Rodgers is going to be made uncomfortable seeing OTAs start without him. Nor do I think, with what they believe is a championship roster in place, the Packers are going to back down from their commitment to finding a way to get Rodgers back in. But because we’re here, it’s probably worth looking at some looming dates that’ll serve as checkpoints.
• Veteran minicamp (June 15–17): This is the first mandatory activity for Green Bay players, and Rodgers is subject to up to $95,877 in fines for missing the three-day event. That’s not nothing, but I’d imagine he might be willing to swallow it to prove his point.
• Training camp (late July): Where the rubber meets the road. Under the new CBA, the team is required to fine him $50,000 per day and, because he’s not on a rookie contract, they can not go back and forgive those fines after they’re assessed, the way teams used to routinely do after holdouts came back in. That means missing the first 10 days of camp, which wouldn’t even get him to the first preseason game, would cost a half million bucks.
• First preseason weekend (Aug. 12–15): For each preseason game missed, Rodgers would be fined the equivalent of a regular-season game check. For Rodgers, that’s $816,666.67.
So if you do the math, this will be manageable for Rodgers in the spring, and in the summer he’ll have to decide just how serious he is—provided that the Packers don’t relent and trade him by then. Even retiring could be costly for him, since the team could, theoretically, look to recover more than $31 million in signing bonus money. And for those reasons, I could see Rodgers getting pushier and more vocal about leaving, or just deciding it’s best that he shows up, between now and the start of camp. All that said, the one thing I’d add here is that if there’s a player willing to do something others just wouldn’t, it’s probably the guy who’s worn No. 12 at Lambeau Field the last 16 years.
Dan Morgan’s a good get for new Panthers GM Scott Fitterer. The ex-Carolina All-Pro linebacker’s returning to Charlotte as the team’s assistant GM, and all you need to see on him as a scout is how sorry Bills GM Brandon Beane, Morgan’s boss the last three years in Buffalo, is to see him go. “Dan was everything we could’ve asked for,” Beane said over the phone on Sunday night. Beane worked in Carolina when Morgan was a player, and got to know him well on the scouting trail before hiring him in May ’18. “He’s the same guy he was as a player, a grinder, always working, super competitive. He fit in right away with us. And he got here year two with [assistant GM] Joe [Schoen] and I. He meshed well with everyone immediately. Sometimes you bring a guy in like that and there’s some jealously, some tensions, some issues. He did a great job of knocking that stuff down right away, and I think that was the guy he was. We hate to lose him, but he’ll get his chance to be a GM soon, I’m sure of that.” What Morgan brought the Bills and Seahawks (he and Fitterer worked together in Seattle) is just what he’ll add to Carolina—he came up the same way a lot of scouts did, doing things like picking up guys at the airport, but also has the perspective of a former player that’s rare in scouting (more ex-players coach than scout, by a large margin). One way that manifested for the Bills was in how he could quickly figure out scheme on tape, and easily translate a guy’s play, relative to his responsibilities, within a system. And where for most of his career, he’d done that exclusively on the pro scouting side, in Buffalo he started doing a lot more college scouting, too. So he’s thoroughly prepared for the next step. All the same, the Bills weren’t exactly caught off guard by this, and while it’s unclear who’ll replace Morgan as director of player personnel, having the guy Morgan replaced, Brian Gaine, back in the fold should help soften the blow absorbed by a pretty deep personnel department in western New York.
I trust the Saints on the draft, given their recent history. And that’s why, after the draft, I was interested to dig into just how the off-the-radar selection of Houston edge rusher Payton Turner with the 28th pick came together. As it turns out, there was a very 2020-centric logic to the whole thing. As the Saints saw it, Turner had …
• Ideal measurables (6′ 6.5″ and 270 pounds) and the largest wingspan (84 inches) for a defensive end in over a decade, length that translated to his college tape.
• Evidence from that tape that he plays with speed off the edge and can rush speed-to-power (basically meaning he has burst off the line and has the strength to bull rush off it).
• The feet, agility and overall athleticism to get himself out of trouble when he’s in bad spots, playing both the run and pass.
• A tremendous motor—which New Orleans sees as a critical factor for edge rusher, and which shows up chasing and running down plays from behind—and a high football IQ.
Did the Saints wish there was more production on tape? They did. But in a class full of raw, athletic pass rushers, and Jaelan Phillips and Kwity Paye, Turner’s upside won the day. And I’ll be honest; I did think it was a reach. The Saints, though, saw four teams between their pick and the 35th pick that had edge rush needs, and Jacksonville (at No. 33) as a specific threat. So trading back would’ve been risky, and failing their earlier play to move up into the top 10 (which would have been for Jaycee Horn or Patrick Surtain II, who had very similar grades), the value of getting Turner at No. 28, as they saw it, was fine. And if he realizes his potential, maybe he’ll be worth more than that, in joining Cam Jordan and Marcus Davenport at the position in New Orleans.
Alex Leatherwood was the other guy who raised an eyebrow for me in the first round. But, of course, same as New Orleans, there were reasons why the Raiders felt O.K. pulling the trigger on what most of us perceived as a reach. First and foremost, they liked the makeup of Leatherwood vs. Christian Darrisaw (who was widely seen predraft as likely to go well before Leatherwood would). Leatherwood was a captain, never in trouble and part of a national champion, while there were questions on Darrisaw’s toughness, grit and ability as a run blocker. Second, they saw a guy whose ’19 tape would absolutely justify a first-round pick, before he, admittedly, slipped a little in ’20. And third, they had intel that Baltimore, with two picks late in the first round, was on Leatherwood, meaning absent a trade down a few slots, it would’ve been pretty hard for them to land him elsewhere. So they got him, then moved aggressively to scoop up a sliding projected first-rounder—in TCU’s Trevon Moehrig—with the ball skills and movement skills to fill a big need at free safety. Which, in the end, means that Vegas wound up addressing two big holes (with Leatherwood set to fill the one left by Trent Brown at right tackle) in the first two rounds.
My feeling is that the Broncos swung for the middle of the fairway in taking Patrick Surtain II ninth. And it helped that GM George Paton was with Surtain’s dad, Patrick, in Miami all those years ago, which brought an extra level of trust. The son reflected all the high-level personality/work traits of the father, and the son was a better player coming into the NFL than the ex-Dolphins All-Pro had been back in the 1990s. In fact, as the Broncos saw it, Surtain was the best defensive player in the draft, a corner with size, speed, length, scheme versatility and a rare, rare trait few corners show as collegians—he very rarely looks stressed in coverage. And really, all that made the Broncos’ decision very similar to the one the Panthers made in the slot ahead of them, their top defensive player against the remaining quarterbacks. My sense here is the result mirrored Carolina’s in another way, too, where the Broncos really liked Ohio State’s Justin Fields, but went for the surer thing at another premium position. So, in the end, Denver gets a guy who will bring big value in Vic Fangio’s scheme, with both a high ceiling and a high floor, and the team maintains flexibility at quarterback, while getting to give Drew Lock one more shot at proving he can be the guy. And if Rodgers comes available, they’re still in position to get him.
I think, based on my conversations before and after the draft, the Bears have to be ecstatic they got Justin Fields at No. 11. And that’s because a lot of his fall was circumstantial. Before the draft, I had a handful of teams that either weren’t going to be in position to take Fields, or didn’t have a need at quarterback, who had the Ohio State quarterback as the second guy in the class. Then, if you look at the Panthers’ and Broncos’ decisions coming down to their respective top defensive players in the class vs. Fields (which I think is where both those teams were), and you look at the Bengals’ wanting to add one of the draft’s very elite (precluding a trade down), Miami’s having already moved up to No. 6 and Sewell’s falling into the Lions’ laps, you’ll see how the slide from No. 5 to No. 9 happened. From there, Dallas wasn’t going to trade back further than a few spots, because of the dropoff in talent in the class in the mid-teens, and that brings you to the Giants at No. 11, the spot the Bears (who’d talked to Dallas) wound up trading into. So add it up and you had six teams that either weren’t taking a quarterback, or would’ve picked Fields if they had, that didn’t want to move down. Good fortune for Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy, and now we’ll see how it plays out.
Tom Brady’s level of investment remains high. The Buccaneers quarterback’s first move after the draft? The day after it wrapped up, eight days ago, I’m told Brady reached out to GM Jason Licht asking for the numbers of his new rookie teammates, and by the time the week was out, he’d talked to second-round quarterback Kyle Trask to set up plans to throw together. And therein, I think you can see the overarching impact Brady’s had on the whole operation. It also reminds me of something a high-ranking figure in the organization said to me back when Brady signed in March ’20. “The standard has just risen,” this person said. “What he brings is going to be, obviously, extremely valuable. But what he leaves behind, whenever that is, hopefully it’s more than two years, is equally as valuable.” We now know, barring something unforeseen, it’ll be at least three years—he committed to playing in 2022 when he signed his new deal with the team a couple of months ago. And while there’ll be a price to pay for the mortgaging of contracts to win now, and the Bucs have done a lot of that, it’s interesting to see Brady proving those words true, investing in guys who’ll be there past his retirement (at least theoretically, since, well, who knows how long Brady is gonna go?) and be part of the down-the-line rebuild, including his own potential personal replacement. Truth is, you could see last summer, and I wrote about this then, that every piece of the Bucs’ operation had been affected by Brady’s presence—and the fact that he’s putting in work that could have a tangible impact on the franchise’s long-term prospects, outside of just his influence on the people around him, adds another layer to it.
Kerryon Johnson is a great example of what happens to running backs. For the last few years, Johnson’s been seen as a potential star early in his career—the ’18 second-round pick rushed for 641 yards at a clip of 5.4 yards per carry in just 10 games as a rookie. From there? An injury-marred ’19 led to the Lions’ drafting D’Andre Swift in the second round in ’20, and Johnson was phased out last fall. Then, the Fords blew up the front office and coaching staff, and Johnson was cut last week by new guys in charge. And now, at just 23, and after being claimed off waivers by the Eagles, he’ll have a hard time ever getting the big second contract every pro football player strives for. Now, here are some other names from that second round in ’18: Giants G Will Hernandez, Colts LB Darius Leonard, Broncos WR Courtland Sutton, Dolphins TE Mike Gesicki, Cardinals WR Christian Kirk, Eagles TE Dallas Goedert, Panthers CB Donte Jackson and Buccaneers CB Carlton Davis. What do they have in common? All of them are seen, going into year four, as ascending players. Only with running backs do we see guys get to that age and have so many think that their arrow is already pointing down. And Johnson is a great example of it, and why so many great teenage athletes are gravitating away from that position, and to other spots (like, most prominently, receiver).
Credit to Zach Wilson for saying the right things at minicamp. The new Jets quarterback was asked about starting and simply responded, “In this position, the coaches want to play the best player. That position has to be earned. I have to do what I’m supposed to do. That’ll take care of itself.” And that’s a good, mature answer for a rookie. But the Jets are 100% preparing Wilson to start, and my expectation is the reps in the coming weeks will prove it. Overall, the team feels like it’s built a healthy situation for a young quarterback, adding Corey Davis in free agency, and three offensive players right after Wilson in the draft (Alijah Vera-Tucker, Elijah Moore and Michael Carter). And new OC Mike LaFleur’s system is pretty quarterback-friendly, and the depth chart indicates they aren’t going to be taking reps away from Wilson. All of which makes him just about as good a bet to start week one as his counterpart in Jacksonville.
While we’re there, the Jets joined the Colts and Raiders as the three to hold rookie minicamps this weekend. Among them, Colts QB Sam Ehlinger (who’s dealing with a horrific tragedy) is the only player on any of the three rosters to skip this weekend, with the union pushing new players to do just that in an effort to overhaul the look of the offseason in general. And I think the decisions made by all these players to show up underscores the difficulty the PA’s having, both in convincing rookies to skip these camps, and all players not to show up for OTAs later in the month. Whether you’re competing to getting the ball on Sundays, to start or just make a team, there’s likely going to be a cost for not showing up in June. That may not be right—the PA did fight to keep these workouts voluntary a long time ago—but reality is reality. And the reality here is that if all players aren’t staying away en masse, skipping means exposing yourself to some level of risk, in that you’re risking ceding ground to someone who did show up. Which, evidently, is a risk the Raiders’, Jets’ and Colts’ rookies weren’t willing to take over the weekend, and I’d imagine most veterans won’t be O.K. taking when OTAs start.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1) Happy Mother’s Day to my wife, Emily, and mom, Veronika. Both are saints for dealing with me.
2) D.K. Metcalf posting a 10.37 in the 100 meters and keeping pace with world-class sprinters is incredible. Yeah, he finished last in his heat, but if you look at the video below, other than being bigger than the rest of the guys, he didn’t look out of place at all.
3) I got a Pop-A-Shot “for the kids” for our basement, and I give it the highest recommendation. It is AWESOME having that down there.
4) I have no idea what to make of the Medina Spirit story—other than I bet there are a lot of Bob Baffert–related inside jokes going on between horse trainers right now.
5) Interesting story from our old buddy Emily Kaplan here, detailing how the NHL is easing its protocols on vaccinated players and largely vaccinated teams. That’s the way the NFL is trending now, too, and I’d bet a lot of U.S. workplaces will be following suit, giving people a sort of organic motivation to get their shots.
6) Rare MLS take: It’s weird that the Columbus team is dropping “Crew” as its nickname. It’ll be Columbus SC going forward, and, honestly, these sorts of rebrands you see in MLS feel like a little bit of a reach to try and identify as the top European clubs do.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
It’s still amazing how close the Patriots got.
Not bad, Greg.
Not sure how I missed Spencer Brown’s jumping through a table to celebrating being drafted by the Bills last week, but here it is.
Again, this is amazing—a 6′ 3″, 235-pound football player kept pace with world-class sprinters. Let’s not argue over this. Let’s just appreciate it …
Because if Robert Griffin III (who had Olympic-level promise in track before shifting his focus to football) can appreciate it, the rest of us should be able to as well.
Strong info drop by the new Broncos GM right there.
I have an incredible amount of respect for all that Brady’s accomplished … but he’s been throwing 95 in the offseason his whole career. He invites teammates for workouts during the NFL’s winter break. He does quarterback drills in backyards and state parks wearing his helmet and shoulder pads. And once, his response to ex-teammate Rodney Harrison’s showing up to the weight room at 6 a.m. in May was, “Good afternoon.” So … yeah, I’m not sure I can take him at his word on his feelings here.
For what it’s worth, James Jones isn’t just an ex-teammate of Aaron Rodgers’s. He’s maintained a friendship with the guy, too.
The Colts do a great job with this series, and the latest installment was excellent.
Prayers to the Ehlingers. Just unthinkable.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
This is the last week of Phase I of the offseason program. Next week is the only week of phase 2—and that’s when on-field instruction from coaches can commence. And the week after that, phase 3 starts, which means the start of OTAs, which is really the start of football practice in the NFL for ’21.
So while players’ not showing up at this point is certainly notable, it’ll be more notable next week if they’re still staying away and way more notable two weeks from now.
Does it matter that much? That answer depends on who you talk to. But it’ll at least give all of us something to obsess over with the NFL’s hitting the slow time on its calendar.
• Orr: Final Draft Grades: Analyzing Every Team’s Picks
• Brandt: Rodgers and Packers Still in Fight for Control
• Breer: Ron Rivera’s Expectations for Year 2 in Washington
• Report: Jags Expected to Sign Tim Tebow to One-Year Deal