Inside the 2020 draft class: 50 facts you didn’t know

Inside the 2020 draft class: 50 facts you didn’t know

By now, we know what many of the top prospects set to be selected in the 2020 NFL draft can do on the field. But you might not know too much about them beyond their “elite closing burst” or “strong wrap-up tackling skills” or “explosive ability with the football.” Past the scouting reports and combine testing, so many of these players come with fascinating backgrounds, surprising NFL connections and compelling non-football hobbies.

So we did you all a favor and compiled 50 of the most interesting draft-class facts we could find. How about a quarterback who can squat nearly 600 pounds? Check out No. 3. A wide receiver who bowled a perfect game? Head down to No. 12. A defensive end who swims with sharks? No. 36 on the list. From the top of the board to the late-rounders, the 2020 class brings intrigue on and off the field.

Let’s get to know some of the prospects who could be drafted Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Note: Jim Carr of ESPN’s Universal News Group provided background research for this story. And all rankings are via Scouts Inc.

1. The top cornerback in the draft class, Jeff Okudah, did more than spend three years making plays on defense at Ohio State. He also took three years of Swahili in Columbus.

2. LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson is the second-ranked edge rusher in the draft, behind Chase Young, but it’s only by chance that he landed a college scholarship. Before he played varsity football, Chaisson arrived at an LSU football camp to support a friend — not planning to participate. But with borrowed shorts, cleats and helmet, he left with an offer.

3. Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts was a competitive weightlifter in high school. When he got to Norman in February 2019, the 220-pounder completed a 585-pound squat that sent his Sooners teammates, and social media, into a frenzy. And he reportedly squatted 500 pounds in high school.

4. For Penn State wide receiver KJ Hamler‘s 18th, 19th and 20th birthdays, his parents, Latonya Gooding and Thomas Hamler, created original songs in which they rap and sing. The most recent one garnered more than 272,000 views on Twitter.

5. Georgia’s Andrew Thomas, one of the top four offensive tackles in the class, was a dual threat of sorts at Atlanta’s Pace Academy. Thomas told reporters at the combine that he would wear his football jersey at pep rallies while playing percussion in the high school band.

6. Versatile Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray, a projected first-round pick, performed CPR on a woman who was bleeding and unconscious in the middle of the street, saving her life. He told no one, and it became public only because someone from Oklahoma’s school newspaper happened to be driving by and recognized Murray.

7. Sean Davis, the father of California safety Ashtyn Davis, was the frontman for the rap-metal band Code III, which played shows with the likes of Rage Against the Machine and Public Enemy.

8. Ross Blacklock, a 6-foot-4, 305-pound defensive tackle from TCU, moves well for his size. How well? He has been able to dunk a basketball since he was 13. His father, Jimmy Blacklock, played and coached for the Harlem Globetrotters. It’s in the genes.

9. Jake Fromm, who went 35-6 as Georgia’s starting quarterback over the past three seasons and is projected to be one of the top seven QBs off the board in this year’s draft, led his Little League team from Warner Robins, Georgia, to the Little League World Series in 2011. The 5-11, 163-pound 12-year-old was nicknamed “Man Child.” He hit three homers and struck out 11 of the 18 batters he faced.



Before donning the Georgia Bulldogs jersey, Jake Fromm dominated the competition at the Little League World Series.

10. Louisville offensive tackle Mekhi Becton, at 6-7 and 364 pounds, is the heaviest player to run a 40-yard dash in under 5.20 seconds since 2006, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. (He ran a 5.10.) According to The Athletic, the Cardinals’ strength coach could think of only one person to whom he could compare Becton’s combination of size and agility: NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal.

11. UCLA kicker JJ Molson is part of Canadian royalty. He is an eighth-generation descendant of John Molson, who founded the famous Montreal brewery in 1786. The Molsons — Geoff Molson is the first cousin of JJ’s father — also own the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens.

12. Wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden recorded 1,396 receiving yards at Liberty in 2019, but he can do so much more, including solve a Rubik’s Cube in a minute and do a full flip while catching a football. But perhaps most impressive, he bowled a perfect game two months after trying the sport for the first time.

13. Maybe Kyle Dugger, a safety out of Division II Lenoir-Rhyne in North Carolina, had a vested interest in the 40-yard dash, in which he ran a 4.49 at the combine (sixth fastest among the safeties). Or maybe he likes Research Physics, the class for which he and two teammates made a laser-timed 40-yard dash machine for a senior project.

14. As a senior at Mount Vernon High School in Iowa, highly touted draft prospect Tristan Wirfs won the state wrestling title in the 285-pound division. The offensive tackle, who had already committed to play football at Iowa, weighed 322 pounds when he decided to wrestle.

15. Eno Benjamin of Arizona State, a two-time All-Pac 12 running back, has his own clothing line. The gear — it’s even available for toddlers! — says “All About the Benjamin” and “Tucson’s Most Hated.” The latter is a dig at would-be tacklers from intrastate rival Arizona.

16. LSU wide receiver Justin Jefferson, who is projected to go in the first round, qualified for the Punt, Pass and Kick national championship at 9 years old. He finished third.

17. Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, whom ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. has going fifth overall to the Dolphins, won the 2019 William V. Campbell Trophy, which many refer to as the “Academic Heisman.” Herbert’s final project in Biology 212 measured the effects of ice baths on blood pressure, and the 6-6, big-armed QB used teammates for the experiments.

18. The hometown of Mason Fine, the most decorated quarterback in North Texas history, is barely on the map. Peggs, Oklahoma, an hour’s drive east of Tulsa, had only 813 people as of the 2010 Census, and it is designated as unincorporated.

19. Game-breaking wide receiver Henry Ruggs III, who paced the combine with a 4.27 40-yard dash, scored 24 career touchdowns at Alabama. In the end zone, his “3s Up” celebration honored his high school best friend, Rod Scott, who was killed in a car crash. Scott, who was a prospective college basketball player, wore No. 3.

20. Arizona running back J.J. Taylor measured 5-5¼ inches at the combine, where officials stretched a tape measure from the ground up — an unorthodox practice. He is tied with Trindon Holliday as the combine’s shortest player since 2006.

21. Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet is Scouts Inc.’s top-rated tight end in the class. We won’t know whether he is destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame for quite some time, but Kmet, who also played baseball in South Bend, is already in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. His helmet from a 2018 game against Syracuse at Yankee Stadium resides there.

22. Offensive tackle Hakeem Adeniji started every game for Kansas over the past three seasons. But he arrived in Lawrence thanks only to a cashew allergy that denied him enrollment at the Air Force Academy, which refused to medically clear him just before his arrival.

23. West Virginia offensive tackle Colton McKivitz‘s dad, Matt, is an amateur taxidermist who wears his prizes proudly on his head as the Mountaineers’ “middle-aged mascot.”

24. Brycen Hopkins, a tight end out of Purdue, is the son of Pro Bowl offensive tackle Brad Hopkins — who played with the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans franchise from 1993 to 2005. In the locker room, quarterback Steve McNair and running back Eddie George used to push Brycen around in a laundry basket.

25. You never know when you’ll need to get some work in. At least that’s the attitude of Alabama’s Trevon Diggs, Scout Inc.’s third-ranked cornerback and the younger brother of Buffalo Bills receiver Stefon Diggs. The ball-hawking DB takes his cleats literally everywhere he goes.

26. Though Memphis running back Patrick Taylor Jr. grew up in Texas, his family moved there from New Orleans. So when Hurricane Katrina hit, the Taylors, already entrenched in a 3,000-foot home, hosted nearly 50 people who fled from the storm when Patrick was 7 years old.

27. Safety Jordan Fuller, a two-time captain at Ohio State, has an accomplished mother. Cindy Mizelle was a backup singer for the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston and Luther Vandross, among others. Pretty decent résumé, huh?

28. In 2019, Auburn’s Derrick Brown was a unanimous All-America selection, SEC defensive player of the year and … a budding politician? Brown’s teammates called him “Baby Barack” for a personality suited for shaking hands and kissing babies. It’s the only time the 326-pound Brown, the draft’s best defensive tackle, is called a baby anything.



Derrick Brown has been a dominant force on the defensive line for three years in the SEC for Auburn; now he’s heading to the NFL.

29. Utah defensive tackle Leki Fotu played rugby for the USA Rugby Boys High School All-American team and, in 2013, trained with a professional team based in England.

30. Charlotte running back Benny LeMay spent time with former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow — and Cam Newton during his brief stint with UF — as a child. LeMay’s father, Stacy, was the Gators’ team chaplain under Urban Meyer.

31. Quarterback Jordan Love, Utah State’s leader in total career offense, was supposed to be named Michael Jordan Love. That’s what his father wanted, as a tribute to Michael Jordan. But his mother, Anna, stepped in and changed it to Jordan Alexander Love.

32. There’s a kicker in this draft class named Vinatieri who went to South Dakota State. Sound familiar? Adam Vinatieri’s nephew, Chase Vinatieri, was in the stands for his uncle’s game-winning field goals in Super Bowl XXXVI and Super Bowl XXXVIII.

33. Offensive tackle Calvin Throckmorton, who started 52 straight games at Oregon, majored in human physiology, and he dreams of being a doctor when football is done. His nickname in Eugene? “Doc Throck.”

34. Wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, a projected first-round pick, forged a close relationship with former Sooners teammate Marquise Brown (now with the Baltimore Ravens). Lamb and Brown nicknamed themselves the Saiyan Brothers after characters on “Dragon Ball Z,” a Japanese anime television series. It even inspired their touchdown celebrations.

35. A deep punt inside the 5-yard line or a perfect axe kick? In addition to his punting talents, Texas A&M’s Braden Mann also has a black belt in taekwondo.

36. Utah’s career sack leader, defensive end Bradlee Anae, likes to swim with sharks when he is back home in Hawai’i. He told The Athletic he jumps in and pets them like dogs.

37. Before LSU offensive tackle Saahdiq Charles was blocking for quarterback Joe Burrow, he was blocking shots. Charles, who is now 6-4 and 321 pounds, was an all-state soccer goalkeeper in high school.

38. Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, the sixth-leading rusher in FBS history, is a big fan of Immanuel Kant. No, Kant isn’t a legendary lead running back Taylor tries to emulate. He is a German philosopher from the 1700s.

39. It’s always good to have options. NC State defensive end James Smith-Williams already has a job offer from IBM, where he spent two summers as a paid intern.

40. Lourens Willekes, brother to Michigan State defensive end Kenny Willekes, is a trampoline gymnast and was a 2020 Olympics hopeful. But don’t discount Kenny’s own athleticism: He is the Spartans’ career leader in tackles for a loss.

41. Penn State cornerback John Reid interned at Blizzard Entertainment, a video game company, for eight weeks last spring and summer. His fascination with coding, software and more began before that, though: Reid teamed up with his uncle in high school to build a computer.

42. California linebacker Evan Weaver, the nation’s leading tackler last season, doesn’t forget his critics. He writes reminders of their criticisms on a huge rock and crosses them off once he has proved them wrong.

43. Syracuse defensive end Kendall Coleman is both a pass-rusher and a poet. He is a fan of Langston Hughes’ poetry, and Coleman wrote his first original poem during his senior year of high school.

44. Before Washington’s Salvon Ahmed became a 1,000-yard rusher in 2019, he made the rap album “A Safehouse Summer.” Ahmed, a hip-hop aficionado with a Tupac Shakur tattoo, wrote and recorded six songs with his friends.

45. Have you ever heard of an old soul? Meet LSU defensive tackle Rashard Lawrence. His teammates nicknamed him “Uncle Phil,” a reference to the fatherly figure in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” for his mannerisms of an old man.

46. Alabama’s Xavier McKinney, Scouts Inc.’s best safety in the draft, is an artist on the side. He is covered in tattoos that he designed himself, including one of Marvin the Martian and another of “Rugrats” character Chuckie Finster holding bricks in his hands.



Former Alabama safety Xavier McKinney asks Mel Kiper Jr. why he isn’t the No. 1 safety on his mock draft board.

47. Defensive end Jonathan Greenard played one season as a graduate transfer at Florida, where he led the SEC in sacks (9.5) and tackles for a loss (15.5). But he also can sing: He finished fourth in “The Gift,” a competition for Atlanta vocalists from ages 9 to 15.

48. USC offensive tackle Austin Jackson saved his sister’s life by donating his bone marrow last year. Autumn Jackson has Diamond-Blackfan anemia, a genetic blood disorder.

49. Northwestern’s career sack leader, defensive tackle Joe Gaziano, is also known as “Joe Fettuccine Alfredo.” But it is his rather mundane first name that has the interesting backstory. Gaziano’s father, Frank, wanted to name his son Joe, and Frank “acquired” the family rights to the name from his brother, Joseph, in exchange for … a weight bench.

50. Cornerback Michael Ojemudia will graduate from Iowa with a degree in mechanical engineering, and he wants to get into auto design once football is over. He was inspired by his father (an employee at Ford) and a childhood love for Hot Wheels.

Published at Mon, 20 Apr 2020 16:41:52 +0000

The man behind your favorite QB? A career backup … and Carson Palmer’s little brother

The man behind your favorite QB? A career backup … and Carson Palmer’s little brother

SHORTLY AFTER HE tucks his sons into bed, Jordan Palmer climbs into his truck and drives across Orange County to keep one of his newest appointments.

It’s Wine Night. On most Wednesdays in February and March, Palmer uncorked wine bottles and watched football with men who have arms worth millions of dollars and are employed by teams worth billions.

Wine Night includes an exclusive group of current and aspiring NFL quarterbacks training with Palmer during the offseason. This year, it’s typically pros like Josh Allen, Sam Darnold and Kyle Allen, and even Joe Burrow, the projected No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft.

They watch tape on anyone from Case Keenum to Aaron Rodgers, break down hypothetical blitz scenarios and evaluate current draft prospects. It’s like book club or Bible study but if John Steinbeck or John the Baptist could squeeze a slant route into zone coverage.

More often than not, the Wednesday night session stretches past the designated 10 p.m. cutoff, sometimes running closer to midnight. Most everyone drinks some variation of red wine. (“These guys don’t know s— about wine,” Palmer says.) Burrow, of legal age but on a draft diet, says he opts for yogurt and berries.

Eventually, the tape is cut off, but the conversation among the quarterbacks — and the wine — keeps flowing.

“Honestly, we are super honest about what we talk about and how we say it to each other,” says Josh Allen, the Buffalo Bills’ 23-year-old starting quarterback. “We all feel like we have a good perspective of who everybody is in the room. It’s like we don’t need to hold back.”

At a time when there are dozens of high-end private quarterback coaches, players of this caliber can choose to go anywhere. But this group chose Palmer, who built a sense of community that is arguably just as important as tweaking mechanics during the offseason.

“That is what’s special about what Jordan is doing,” Josh Allen says. “It gets like-minded guys that are going through situations that not many people in the world are going through and puts them in the same room.”

For the bulk of his life, Jordan has mostly been referenced as the younger brother of quarterback Carson Palmer, the first selection in the 2003 NFL draft who enjoyed a 15-year career that netted him more than $174 million in salary. Jordan, 35, was a seven-year veteran with 18 total NFL attempts.

But in the end, Palmer’s familiarity with the entire spectrum of quarterbacks is one of his major selling points. The guy who grew up in the same house with a future No. 1 overall pick was a career backup.

“That’s still a successful career to me,” says Burrow, one of three draft prospects working with Palmer this spring, along with Colorado’s Steven Montez and Hawai’i’s Cole McDonald.

“You could tell he knew what he was talking about from the moment we first talked.”

ON A COOL and cloudy Thursday in early March, Burrow shuffles his feet and fires passes as Palmer records him with an iPad. Palmer looks at the clips, sunglasses hanging off the right side of his neck, before the drills continue.

After a 15-game Heisman-winning season that ended with him and his LSU teammates holding the College Football Playoff trophy, Burrow didn’t throw at the NFL combine. He enjoyed a little time off after his long season before going to Dana Point to prepare for LSU’s pro day, which was ultimately canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Initially, Palmer worked to get Burrow throwing off a sturdier base. By early March, Palmer says, they’d already seen a jump in Burrow’s throwing velocity.

With Burrow and all of his private clients, Palmer works from the ground up — with drills such as stepping through agility ladders, jumping off an 8-inch platform before resetting to throw, disrupting the pocket, and letting receivers pick which ball they want by flashing different things with their hands moments before the ball flies through the air.

These sessions happen a few mornings a week at the field at JSerra Catholic High School, 15 minutes from Palmer’s home in Laguna Niguel. At the beginning of the offseason, Palmer’s quarterbacks throw twice a week, eventually building up to four times at the most to avoid overuse.

But for Palmer, working with quarterbacks isn’t just about crafting throwing mechanics. Sure, Palmer has balls microchipped to measure time of release, tightness of spiral, rotations per minute and velocity. But much of Palmer’s work is about handling the mental aspect of being a quarterback and everything that comes with the position.

For Burrow, that means his time with Palmer also serves as a respite from a wild seven-month stretch that transformed him from a fringe prospect into the projected top overall pick in the draft, according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr.

“I just needed to get away from all of the media stuff, all the craziness, and just get back to a normal routine of offseason training that you don’t really get when you’re in the position I was in for the last couple of months,” Burrow says.

Palmer, through the experiences of his brother, knows the pressure of those expectations as well as anyone — and he also knows how stability off the field affects performance on it.

“There’s a direct correlation between how guys live their lives off the field and how they play,” he says. “I’ve yet to see a guy who is off the field a disaster — parties too much, doesn’t work, doesn’t study, unreliable — and then as a quarterback be organized, detailed, [have] execution, work ethic. I just haven’t seen that.”

Over time, Palmer’s quarterbacks start talking to him about more than football. When Darnold was quarantined last season while he had mononucleosis, Palmer was the first person he called, other than his parents and sister, to talk about it. When Kyle Allen was recently involved in a minor car accident, he called Palmer to see if he should settle out of pocket or go through the insurance company. Josh Allen phoned his QB coach after what would have been the Bills’ first playoff win since 1995 slipped away in January.

That’s partially why this time together in the spring is so valuable, Darnold says: What happens in Dana Point isn’t about always being fixated on the game.

“That’s good sometimes, but there’s moments when you gotta hang out with people,” Darnold says. “That’s the kind of environment that we love to be around. That’s kind of what we’ve all created here.”

And that group isn’t limited to quarterbacks. Wide receivers such as USC’s Michael Pittman Jr., Clemson’s Tee Higgins and Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk are catching balls for Palmer’s quarterbacks. Browns fullback Johnny Stanton, a onetime QB student under Palmer, is also out at JSerra. And former Utah quarterback Travis Wilson, Darnold’s former high school teammate, is working out with the group while he trains to be a firefighter.

“It’s interesting,” says Kyle Allen, who was traded from Carolina to Washington on March 23. “We’re in freaking Dana Point, California, a random Orange County city. And we have 10 to 20 NFL players out here, just creating a little community of like-minded people just trying to getting better, which is cool.”

PALMER POINTS OUT of the driver’s side window of his Ford pickup with his 12-year-old pug, Pita, draped across his lap. At first glance, the soccer fields nestled between hills and the west side of Interstate 5 in San Juan Capistrano seem to carry little significance. But more than 20 years ago, those fields hosted the first Elite 11 event.

Over the past two decades, Elite 11 has transformed from a small gathering of the country’s top high school quarterbacks to one of the most notable events on college football’s recruiting circuit. And Palmer has been there since the beginning.

In 1999, his dad read an article about Elite 11 in a local newspaper, and, shortly afterward, a 15-year-old Palmer shagged balls and filled water cups at the inaugural event. He hasn’t missed one since. And in many ways, that experience led directly to the work he does less than 3 miles away at JSerra during draft season.

“I love watching football,” Palmer says. “I love the X’s and O’s. But my favorite part is the development because that’s what I’ve been around my entire life.”

Even when Palmer was in the NFL, he served as an instructor at Elite 11’s regional camps. During organized team activities in April, Palmer hopped on a plane on weekends after workouts to attend Elite 11 events around the country.

Palmer’s first interaction with Kyle Allen came at one such regional event in Chicago in 2014, when Palmer was with the Bears. At the time, Allen was on his way to becoming the top-ranked quarterback in the Class of 2014. After Allen didn’t perform as well as he had hoped to at an event in Arizona, he made the trip up north for redemption. Allen was throwing everything as hard as possible before Palmer told him to take off some velocity to give his receivers a chance.

“It blew my mind,” Allen says. “Like, ‘You’ve gotta throw with touch?'”

Darnold met Palmer as a sophomore in high school during a workout with another private coach, Bob Bosanko. At the time, Darnold was just a redheaded kid with a big arm who reminded Palmer of his older brother. Then the two bonded at the 2014 Elite 11 national competition.

A couple of days into it, Darnold told Palmer he wanted to commit to USC — despite the fact that one of the nation’s top-ranked QBs, Ricky Town, was already in the Trojans’ signing class that year.

“I was like, ‘This guy’s for real,’ because he’s taking on the big-time recruit that SC is excited about,” Palmer says. “That’s when I was like, ‘OK, this really nice, quiet kid — there’s a dog in there.'”

After that exchange, Palmer says, he made it a point to be involved in Darnold’s life. After the QB’s first year at USC, Palmer worked with Darnold on shortening his throwing motion. They tightened Darnold’s big, looping windup and discovered that the velocity didn’t change much and the power for his throws came from the legs.

The way Palmer delivers the message makes it easier for guys such as Darnold to make big changes.

“He’s never going to step over a boundary,” Darnold says. “If I say, ‘Hey, man, like, what you’re saying isn’t clicking with me,’ he’s just going to move past it and he’s going to find a different way to tell me. That’s one thing Jordan’s really good at.”

BEFORE COVID-19 STOPPED nearly everything around the world, this was meant to be the first offseason in which Palmer could devote himself entirely to private quarterback coaching. In September, he left his position at his digital marketing agency, Common Thread Collective. Instead of coaching quarterbacks 30% of the time, he’d be able to do it all the time.

Palmer has always had a strong business acumen. When he was with the Bengals, he used precious screen time on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” to pitch an app called RunPee, which instructed moviegoers about the best time to leave theaters for a restroom break. He was heavily involved with QALO, the company that helped popularize silicone wedding bands.

And when the global pandemic struck, Palmer found a way to pivot. He’s working on launching a subscription-based website that can provide everything he does virtually — Zoom panels to give parents advice on handling recruitment, hangouts between high school QBs and those in college and the pros, workshops on the recruiting process, etc.

It’s an extension of a lucrative business model Palmer has constructed. Agents pay Palmer for his pre-draft services. The NFL vets with preexisting relationships pay Palmer a much smaller amount. Those, combined with QB Summit camps that attract quarterback hopefuls ranging from preteens to high school seniors, help him earn more than the salary he used to make in the NFL.

Palmer is the rare football coach who doesn’t have to worry about wins and losses, is done with work around noon and has time to ride along the beach with his high school sweetheart, Dottie, and their two young sons, Ford and Rees. That’s enough of an incentive to avoid taking a job with an NFL team that might bring more money or prestige — but also more stress.

“It’s a total lifestyle decision,” Palmer says. “Now the challenge is: How do you build a business that’s offensive coordinator money, here doing this? And so that’s the path that I’m on — building something that’s the same return but way more [free] time — and not getting fired.”

The space for skill-specific trainers and coaches continues to expand in football. And for now, head coaches don’t have an issue with Palmer’s work. In January 2019, Bills coach Sean McDermott said he respected and trusted Palmer, who was preparing to work with Josh Allen after his rookie year.

That trust comes in part from the reputation Palmer has built over the years. When Auburn’s Bo Nix approached coach Gus Malzahn about working with Palmer last summer, Malzahn called his former quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who had worked with Palmer before being drafted by the Patriots. After Stidham sang Palmer’s praises, Malzahn gave Nix his blessing.

Nix broke several records for an Auburn freshman QB, and Palmer believes he will be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft because of aspects beyond his physical traits.

“There are the two things I look at — confidence and maturity — before arm talent, before size, before any of that,” Palmer says. Nix is “more confident and mature than most of the guys I’ve ever been around.”

But not all of Palmer’s clients are potential No. 1 picks — he also works with plenty of guys still trying to find their place at the next level. Two of his clients this spring, McDonald of Hawai’i and Montez of Colorado, will likely be available toward the end of this year’s draft and are trying to land spots on 53-man rosters.

That mentality extends to high schoolers. Cole Lourd, a three-star recruit in the 2021 class, according to, is hoping to turn enough heads this summer to secure a scholarship offer before December’s early signing period.

In March, Lourd took the 90-minute trip from West L.A. to Dana Point to train with Palmer, Burrow and McDonald. Lourd, the son of a Beverly Hills financier with ties to LSU, split reps with the draft hopefuls. Palmer had the quarterbacks shuffling in and out of cones and throwing off a platform to a slew of receivers. Some were teenagers from a program called the Togethership, which is geared toward elite athletes preparing to enter high school.

Lourd had seen Palmer train draft prospects in previous years and was eager to travel south to work with him for a day.

“I’m just working my ass off and trying to work hard so that I’ll get noticed,” Lourd says.

WHEN COVID-19 closed JSerra and all other similar fields in the area, Palmer was forced to adapt.

Drills have moved to a beach in Dana Point. Palmer uses the same three receivers regularly during the crisis, all wearing gloves. Each quarterback uses his own ball. While one could ask whether they should be out there in the first place, Palmer is trying to make everything as sanitary as possible.

Not everyone from the JSerra crew is involved in these more limited practices, but Darnold, who lives in Orange County with his girlfriend, is a local. And Kyle Allen and Josh Allen, who found themselves quarantined together in March, did eventually make it out for a brief stint at home. They just returned to Orange County this week.

Eventually, they will all leave the ecosystem Palmer has built and return to their respective NFL teams. Burrow is already back home in southeastern Ohio as he prepares to be someone’s franchise quarterback. Many believe it will be the Cincinnati Bengals, a franchise that had two Palmers on the depth chart at one point. If the world regains normalcy this fall, Palmer doesn’t want to be part of the stadium crowds watching games. He wants to be surrounded by screens, watching his pupils take the field around the country, sometimes even against each other.

When he watches Darnold or one of the Allens on TV, he has an intimate understanding of how they became starters in the NFL. If things continue to go well, more of Palmer’s pupils will join those ranks. And he wants to soak in as much of it as possible.

“I don’t want to miss a snap,” Palmer says.

Published at Fri, 17 Apr 2020 14:25:20 +0000

DT Harrison: I was ‘hell-bent’ on leaving Lions

DT Harrison: I was ‘hell-bent’ on leaving Lions

Former Lions defensive tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison says he didn’t want to play in Detroit and was “hell-bent on getting out” of the Motor City.

The Lions traded for Harrison on Oct. 25, 2018, sending a fifth-round pick to the New York Giants.

“I was a bit angry,” Harrison said of the trade during an appearance on the Green Light podcast, hosted by former NFL player Chris Long.

That season, Harrison was graded by Pro Football Focus as the No. 3 interior defender in the NFL, with the best run-stop percentage in the league (16%).

“To be completely honest with you, I didn’t want to go to Detroit because of some things that I heard from some guys in the past and some guys who were there,” Harrison said. “So when I got the call that that’s where I was traded, I didn’t answer the phone for a couple hours. [Lions general manager] Bob Quinn was calling me and I didn’t pick up the phone because I was trying to figure out a way to get out of it.”

After sitting out all of the spring workouts last year, Harrison, one of the top run-stoppers in the league, was placed on the non-football injury list before signing an extension, which converted much of his base salary into a $7.5 million signing bonus.

“I wasn’t prepared for the season mentally,” Harrison said.

“I came into camp in shape, but during the first three weeks of camp I think I kind of worked myself out of shape because I wasn’t doing anything,” Harrison said. “That was a time where, to be honest with you, we were trying to facilitate a trade. I was hell-bent on getting out of there.”

By the end of the 2019 season, Harrison told reporters he was contemplating retirement after he played through a multitude of injuries and “wasn’t able to ever get back to the form I’m used to.”

Harrison, who turned 31 in November, finished last season with a career-low 49 tackles.

The veteran defensive lineman is a free agent after being released by the Lions in what he called “a mutual agreement” on Feb. 25. He had two years remaining on his deal after signing the $11 million extension in August.

“It’s nothing against the people of Detroit, the city or anything like that,” the eight-year veteran said. “I’ll forever love the city of Detroit, but I just had to go try to put myself into a situation where I saw myself there for two or three years to end my career, and I just didn’t see myself in Detroit for that long.”

ESPN’s Michael Rothstein contributed to this report.

Published at Tue, 14 Apr 2020 12:48:38 +0000

NFL’s Ron Swanson settles into woodworking hobby

NFL’s Ron Swanson settles into woodworking hobby

Almost every day is the same in Kenny Wiggins‘ garage. Get a plan. Get the tools and then get to work in his home woodworking shop.

It started in 2015, when the former Detroit Lions offensive lineman and his wife, Jennifer, bought their current home in Northern California. She gave approval for part of a three-car garage to turn into Wiggins’ workspace, where he could become the NFL’s version of Ron Swanson, the beloved woodworking, small-town government official played by Nick Offerman on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.”

“First bought a table saw and then a miter saw,” Wiggins said. “And just kind of, whenever I need something, I just kind of go and buy it and add it to the collection.”

After the two saws came a planer, movable islands alongside a growing collection of tools ready for use. He’s always been a guy who refused to call someone for help when something needed fixing.

Sometimes, he and Jennifer will walk through a store, she’ll see something she wants and Wiggins will insist he can build it himself. If Jennifer gets her way, they spend the money. If Wiggins wins, as a true DIYer, he goes on YouTube and devours as many videos as possible until he understands what he needs to accomplish.

“I’ve always been like that. If I can do it, why pay somebody else to do it?” Wiggins said. “That’s how I’ve been raised. Even though I’m making good money in the NFL, I find joy and taking pride in what I have.”

Care is key. Although Wiggins, 31, is recovering from a torn biceps he suffered during the season, he’s never been hurt in his shop and is adamant about checking safeties at all times. He tags every piece he makes with “Mr. Mediocre,” the name of his potential future woodworking company and a homage to a career spanning nine seasons with five teams in two leagues and, so far, 22 transactions.

The fascination with construction started with a red Lego briefcase Wiggins would “just take around everywhere.” Any free moment meant a chance to tinker.

Birthday gifts meant more Legos. It was an outlet for Wiggins to be creative as the biggest kid in class. While his size eventually became a positive — by high school, he was nicknamed “The Hulk” — he was teased about it when he was younger.

Legos, along with 3D puzzles, became his way to relax. Even now, before every training camp, Jennifer packs a small Lego kit to take with him. Last year was a space shuttle to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

“Those are usually a great stocking stuffer for him,” Jennifer said. “That’s kind of his outlet. He’s a hands-on guy, so when he de-stresses it’s usually through Legos or a puzzle or we’re playing a card game.

“That’s just the way he decompresses and I think that kind of takes the mental exhaustion that football can lead to and just gives it an outlet.”

While Legos remain part of his life — and he treats his white 2015 Jeep Rubicon as a real-life Lego with all the accessories he has for it — eventually Wiggins graduated to building other, larger things as a hobby.

In seventh grade, Wiggins and one of his friends had an idea. In the community where they lived, they started gathering scraps around the neighborhood, eventually turning them into a 5-foot-long wooden luge. It meant using wood on skateboard wheels — not an ideal setup for a kid, no matter how big.

Although there was foam on the inside for extra padding, the luge was not very safe.

“We tied it to [my friend’s] moped and we drove around the neighborhood and stuff,” Wiggins said. “I got a big old raspberry from a baseball slide on the concrete, on the asphalt. On my right leg, my butt cheek.

“And the next day I had to drive to Washington from Sacramento, so there was a good 14 hours in the car on top of that.”

Being good with his hands is a family trait passed down through generations. His great-grandfather, Frank Carson, was a carpenter and cabinetmaker. Wiggins never met him, but for years, a small, beat-up picnic table doubled as the family dining room table. Underneath the tabletop was “Carson” inscribed in the wood, with the year 1955.

The table held up OK until Wiggins broke one of its legs one year at Fresno State. Not yet versed in the woodworking world, Wiggins duct-taped the leg together.

“I love the banged-up parts of it because it went through Kenny’s entire college season,” Wiggins’ mom, Suzanne, said. “And the memories probably created. One of the benches is gone, it broke.”

She said this while staring at it in her dining room — where it still sits duct-taped, a project Wiggins has yet to get to.

A single mom raising two boys, cost forced Suzanne to learn how to do many repairs herself. She does her own drywall, texturing and tiling, and has her own workbench and toolkit — and passed along the passion for it to her son. She also passed on her stinginess — Suzanne called her son “a tightwad” financially — saying it comes from his upbringing.

“He’s always referred to me because I’ve always had to fix things and, so, I think he sees there’s a process to things and he’s patient,” Suzanne said. “I’m really intrigued with his woodworking. He told me he’d make me a couple things but I’m not the type that expects anything from him.

“He’s got a family now and everybody says, ‘Oh, your son is going to buy you this.’ I’m like, ‘No, no, my son does not need to buy me anything. I’m reaping the reward of my life and my work. He’s reaping the rewards of his hard work. He’ll get around to making me something.'”

Back in his woodshop, Wiggins started embarking on bigger projects last offseason.

Some came last year when Jennifer found out she was pregnant with the couple’s first child. He constructed a shelf for the nursery along with doing the wainscoting and some of the painting. The baby was born in January. While he chose not to build the crib — “I don’t trust myself that much yet” — he built a pair of bassinet rockers, one for him and one for a friend.

Jennifer sometimes serves as her husband’s assistant and color advisor on home projects, and has a list — one currently on hold because of his injury and their newborn son — of things she wants him to build for her.

Wiggins constructed a small console table for Jennifer’s home office — he wasn’t happy with the bottom of it and plans to redo it this offseason — and his biggest project and “favorite build” so far is a 9-foot walnut table for his patio.

To build the table, he hired a kid from the local high school metal shop to build a metal stand for $200 and then had him spray paint the stand matte black so it could be inserted inside the table, screwed in as the base for the tabletop.

Then Wiggins took care of the top, sanding for a couple of days using an orbital sander to make sure it was exactly how he wanted it. It was a pain — painting and sanding are the banes of Wiggins’ woodworking existence — but it’s part of the job.

Wiggins isn’t quite Ron Swanson, although he’s a Parks and Rec devotee and knows all about Offerman’s Los Angeles-based woodshop. “He’s on a whole different level than I am,” Wiggins said. Jennifer acknowledged her husband would love to be a real-life Swanson, building his own canoes and woodworking every day.

He’s not there yet — a free agent again after two seasons with the Lions, he still wants to play in the NFL this season — but he takes pride in what he’s able to build and how he’s taught himself the craft. He loves the monotony. He gets lost in it, turning on the Hootie and the Blowfish Pandora station, reggae rock band Rebelution, or ’90s alternative music to focus him.

“It just kind of gives me a sense of accomplishment, something that I can totally go mindless into and don’t have to think about it and I have a 9-foot by 5-foot table to sand,” Wiggins said. “Three hours goes by, and I’m still doing the same s—.”

Published at Wed, 08 Apr 2020 22:09:26 +0000

How 2019 NFL second-round draft picks fared, what’s in store in 2020

How 2019 NFL second-round draft picks fared, what’s in store in 2020

The 2020 NFL draft is a few weeks away. Last week, we looked back at how each 2019 first-round pick performed in his rookie season. Today, we move on to the second-round picks from last year.

The second round was bountiful, with 20 starters coming from the 32 picks and a few stars mixed in. The Titans found a game-breaking wide receiver in A.J. Brown, who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark. What’s in store for him and another breakout star receiver, DK Metcalf of the Seahawks, in their second seasons? Eagles running back Miles Sanders took his time but developed into the dual threat many envisioned. What does a sophomore season look like for him?

NFL Nation reporters assess how every second-round pick did in his first season and then project what 2020 will bring on this scale:

  • He’s a star

  • On his way

  • He’s a starter

  • Has a lot to prove

Byron Murphy, CB, Washington

Analysis: There was a lot to like about Murphy in 2019, but he has a lot to learn. He was thrown into the fire early after Patrick Peterson was suspended for the first six games. Murphy was able to hold his own after he was moved inside and then outside. With Peterson set to return for 2020 season and Robert Alford, who missed last season with an ACL injury, expected back, Murphy will be able to play in one spot consistently and get some needed guidance from two veterans.

Rating: He’s a starter. — Josh Weinfuss

Rock Ya-Sin, CB, Temple

Analysis: Ya-Sin, who was projected by some to be a first-round pick, started 13 of 15 games as a rookie. One of his biggest challenges was going from being a man-to-man cornerback at Temple to playing more zone with the Colts. Ya-Sin was often praised by the coaching staff for his ability to shake off bad plays. “He had some really good moments, and he had some ugly moments,” general manager Chris Ballard said in January. “Let me tell you what I love about this kid: He’s exactly what we thought he was going to be in terms of grit, toughness.” Ya-Sin was called for nine penalties, second most on the team. He had 62 tackles, five passes defended and an interception. He’ll have the inside track to start alongside veteran Xavier Rhodes this season.

Rating: He’s a starter. — Mike Wells

Jawaan Taylor, OT, Florida

Analysis: He has a chance to be a Pro Bowl right tackle if he can be a little more disciplined. The biggest thing is penalties. Taylor was tied for the NFL lead with 15, nine of which were holding penalties. They were mainly a result of being slightly out of position and grabbing to compensate. Clean up some footwork and that number should go way down. Even with those issues, Taylor was one of the Jaguars’ better offensive linemen last season and the organization is excited about his potential.

Rating: He’s a starter. — Michael DiRocco

Deebo Samuel, WR, South Carolina

Analysis: As his rookie season wore on and he got more comfortable, Samuel became the Niners’ most versatile and dangerous offensive weapon. He accounted for 961 yards from scrimmage, which ranked second among all rookies, and scored six touchdowns. He also set a record for rushing yards by a wide receiver in the Super Bowl with 53. To take the next step to full-blown stardom, Samuel will need to cut down on drops (his seven were tied for second most in the league), but his role in the offense should only continue to expand as he enters Year 2, making Samuel a vital piece on coach Kyle Shanahan’s chessboard.

Rating: On his way. — Nick Wagoner

Greg Little, OT, Ole Miss

Analysis: Little seemed on his way to being the left tackle until suffering his second concussion in a month during an Oct. 2 game against the Texans. He didn’t get onto the field again until Week 11, and then landed on injured reserve. Doubts about his rookie season prompted the Panthers to trade for veteran left tackle Russell Okung, giving Little time to grow into the position. He still could be the future left tackle, but now there’s no need to rush him into that spot.

Rating: Has a lot to prove. — David Newton

Cody Ford, OT, Oklahoma

Analysis: Ford was on a learning curve in his first season blocking for a quarterback who does most of his work outside of the pocket. He split the right tackle job with Ty Nsekhe but shined toward the end of the season when he held his own against pass-rushers such as Von Miller, DeMarcus Lawrence, T.J. Watt and J.J. Watt. Ford is not a finished product but is an NFL starter right now. Whether his long-term position is tackle or guard remains to be seen.

Rating: He’s a starter. — Marcel Louis-Jacques

Sean Murphy-Bunting, CB, Central Michigan

Analysis: Coach Bruce Arians called out Murphy-Bunting in the preseason because he wasn’t making the plays in games he was making in practice. But that was due to his learning the outside and nickelback roles. Murphy-Bunting started 10 games, lining up on the outside and moving inside in nickel situations. He had a game-winning interception at Jacksonville in Week 13 and had a pick-six against the Lions in Week 15. “Coming from that day that he said that until now, I feel like it’s been a big improvement,” Murphy-Bunting said.

Rating: He’s a starter. — Jenna Laine

Trayvon Mullen, CB, Clemson

Analysis: Mullen became a starter at cornerback in Week 8 after the Raiders dealt 2017 first-round pick Gareon Conley to the Texans. Solid but not spectacular, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Mullen showed a certain “stickiness” in coverage and finished with an interception, 10 passes defensed and 50 tackles. But perhaps he impressed coach Jon Gruden most when he started the season finale, with a playoff spot still in play, a week after being stretchered off the field. “He is the brightest light of the whole thing for me,” Gruden said in his season-ending news conference. “He’s got a huge upside, and to get our second-rounder playing well is something I’m mostly very excited about.”

Rating: On his way. — Paul Gutierrez

Dalton Risner, OT, Kansas State

Analysis: Risner started 16 games at left guard and played all but 38 snaps. The Broncos drafted him because they believed he could be a fixture at guard “for a long, long time,” coach Vic Fangio said. Risner could also play tackle or center, if needed, given that he started at both positions in college. Risner will be the starter at left guard in 2020, and because of his talent, approach and work ethic, many believe he will be a captain at some point. Even as a rookie, the veterans lauded his leadership.

Rating: On his way. — Jeff Legwold

Drew Lock, QB, Missouri

Analysis: Lock started the final five games of the 2019 season. Although the Broncos went 4-1, the jury is still out on his long-term outlook. The Broncos scored more than 16 points in seven games last season, but three of those came in Lock’s five starts. Coach Vic Fangio and president of football operations/general manager John Elway said early in the offseason Lock would be the starter in 2020, and they have waived Joe Flacco and signed Jeff Driskel as the backup. With the current social distancing restrictions and Colorado’s stay-at-home order, Lock has had to do much of the work with the playbook remotely, and he will have to continue to do that with OTAs and the rest of the offseason program a question mark.

Rating: He’s a starter. — Jeff Legwold

Jahlani Tavai, ILB, Hawai’i

Analysis: He was a surprise pick last year at No. 43 but ended up being a factor for the Lions. Tavai played a little bit of everywhere when he was used — which is why it fits to say he has a lot to prove. It’s a matter of figuring out how Detroit wants to deploy Tavai. Does he play the middle, do they move him outside, does he rush the passer? How does he fit in a crowded linebacker room? Having a potential mentor in Jamie Collins might help, but if Tavai builds on a 58-tackle, two-sack rookie season, there’s reason to believe he’ll be a difference-maker in 2020.

Rating: Has a lot to prove. — Michael Rothstein

Elgton Jenkins, C, Mississippi State

Analysis: He took over as a starter in Week 3 and finished eighth among NFL guards in ESPN’s pass block win rate metric (95%) and first among rookie offensive linemen regardless of position. He was named to the Pro Football Writers of America all-rookie team and was part of an offensive line that blocked for 18 rushing touchdowns, the most by a Packers team in 10 years. While the Packers view him as a long-term star at guard, he could move to center at some point after Corey Linsley‘s time is up. If the Packers had to do it again, they might take Jenkins in the first round.

Rating: He’s a star. — Rob Demovsky

Joejuan Williams, CB, Vanderbilt

Analysis: Through no fault of his own, Williams was buried on arguably the deepest cornerback depth chart in the NFL, behind Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones, so he played sparingly. There’s still reason to think he will become a key contributor, but he hit a different type of speed bump this offseason when he was arrested after officers stopped him for speeding and found that he had a controlled substance, drug paraphernalia and prescription drugs without a prescription, according to the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

Rating: Has a lot to prove. — Mike Reiss

Greedy Williams, CB, LSU

Analysis: Williams stood out in training camp, which propelled him to becoming a Week 1 starter to begin last season opposite Denzel Ward. Williams started all 12 games after missing four weeks early in the season because of a hamstring injury. At times, Williams proved to be a more willing tackler than his draft reputation suggested, though he also had plenty of whiffs, especially later in the season. Williams had some rough moments in coverage but overall showed he has the ability to cover in this league.

Rating: He’s a starter. — Jake Trotter

Marquise Blair, S, Utah

Analysis: Blair could use his own category: “Should’ve played more.” He’s somewhere between having a lot to prove and being a starter because it’s a mystery to many — including some in the Seahawks organization — why he didn’t start late last season while Quandre Diggs was hurt. Missing significant time in the spring and summer because of hamstring and back injuries didn’t help, but Blair lived up to his reputation as a thumper and made some big plays over three midseason starts. Veteran strong safety Bradley McDougald ($5.43 million cap charge) has a year left on his deal, but Blair will have a chance to beat him out for the starting job next to Diggs.

Rating: Has a lot to prove. — Brady Henderson

Erik McCoy, C, Texas A&M

Analysis: Not only did McCoy fill a glaring need for the Saints after Pro Bowl center Max Unger retired last spring, but he was also widely praised as the top rookie center in the NFL last season. The 6-foot-4, 303-pounder actually led the Saints with 1,058 snaps while starting all 17 games, including the playoffs. Pro Football Focus had McCoy graded as the fourth-best center in the NFL — and the only one with both a pass-blocking and run-blocking grade above 75.0. And the Saints’ offense didn’t miss much of a beat, tying for third in the NFL in points per game (28.6) and fewest sacks allowed (25).

Rating: On his way. — Mike Triplett

Ben Banogu, OLB, TCU

Analysis: The Colts thought Banogu would be a linebacker when they selected him, but he moved to defensive end during offseason workouts. Banogu spent his rookie season as part of the Colts’ rotation at defensive end. He didn’t have more than two tackles in a game and finished with 2.5 sacks. “Flashes from Ben, but need more,” GM Chris Ballard said. “I think he’ll continue to develop.” Banogu will have an opportunity to get even more snaps if the Colts don’t re-sign veteran defensive end Jabaal Sheard. Banogu, Kemoko Turay and veteran Justin Houston are the Colts’ top three pass-rushers.

Rating: Has a lot to prove. — Mike Wells

Irv Smith Jr., TE, Alabama

Analysis: Smith was gradually worked into the mix and exceeded expectation. When the Vikings lost receiver Adam Thielen for almost two months, Smith stepped into a bigger role (36 catches, 311 yards, two touchdowns) and emerged as a reliable target for quarterback Kirk Cousins. That’s why it’s possible the replacement for Stefon Diggs might already be on Minnesota’s roster, given how much Gary Kubiak’s offenses rely on tight ends. In his 21 seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator (1995-2015), Kubiak’s tight ends have received an average of 23% of targets per season. Target share should increase for Smith and Kyle Rudolph in 2020 after they were underutilized at times last season.

Rating: On his way. — Courtney Cronin

A.J. Brown, WR, Ole Miss

Analysis: Brown has become a primary weapon for the Titans’ offense. He was the franchise’s first rookie to record a 1,000-yard receiving season since Ernest Givins in 1986. Brown’s ability to gain yards after the catch is as good as that of any receiver in the NFL and led to his having the second-highest average yards per catch (20.2) last season. Brown had four touchdown receptions of 50-plus yards, which was the most by a rookie since Randy Moss had five in 1998 with the Vikings. The charisma Brown showed as a rookie made him one of the most popular players on the team.

Ranking: He’s a star. — Turron Davenport

Drew Sample, TE, Washington

Analysis: Sample didn’t have many chances as a rookie. Before he missed the last seven games of the season because of an ankle injury, he ranked 80th in routes run by tight ends, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. To put that in perspective, Bengals tight ends Tyler Eifert and C.J. Uzomah ranked 19th and 31st, respectively. Sample will be asked to increase his production with Eifert signing with Jacksonville. In nine games, Sample had five catches for 30 yards.

Rating: Has a lot to prove. — Ben Baby

Miles Sanders, RB, Penn State

Analysis: It took some time for Sanders to find his footing, but once he did, he became a force. A dual threat out of the backfield, he averaged more than 5 yards per carry and 97 all-purpose yards from Week 8 on — a surge that pushed him into the Offensive Rookie of the Year conversation. The offense stabilized when Sanders emerged as the lead back, benefiting from his surprisingly sure hands and explosive style of play. There is no doubt he’ll be the primary ball carrier moving forward, with the chance to be among the most productive backs in the NFL.

Rating: On his way. — Tim McManus

Lonnie Johnson Jr., CB, Kentucky

Analysis: Johnson has a chance to be a starter in 2020 after an up-and-down rookie season. Coach and general manager Bill O’Brien believes Johnson has a lot of potential, which is clear based on how much he played as a rookie. “He’s going to have to build that catalog so that he can just refer to his notes when he goes up against a guy, and he’ll know what to expect and how he should be able to play him,” former defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said in December. Houston is hopeful that Johnson can take that step between his rookie and second NFL seasons because it is depending on him to play significant snaps in a secondary that has question marks.

Rating: Has a lot to prove. — Sarah Barshop

Max Scharping, OT, Northern Illinois

Analysis: Scharping was part of the Texans’ revamped offensive line that included left tackle Laremy Tunsil and rookie right tackle Tytus Howard. Scharping had a big jump to make last season from playing at Northern Illinois to the NFL, and he did so relatively well. O’Brien has praised Scharping for being “very coachable” and said he thought the guard improved as his rookie season progressed. Scharping is expected to be Houston’s starting left guard again in 2020.

Rating: He’s a starter. — Sarah Barshop

Mecole Hardman, WR, Georgia

Analysis: As a rookie, Hardman delivered exactly what the Chiefs hoped he would: big plays. His touchdowns last season came from 42, 83, 21, 30, 63, 48 and 104 yards. Whether he gives the Chiefs even more this season depends on his playing time. The Chiefs are holding on to Sammy Watkins and re-signed Demarcus Robinson, so Hardman might not get the ball much more than he did as a rookie. That’s fine with the Chiefs as long as the big plays keep coming.

Rating: On his way. — Adam Teicher

J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, WR, Stanford

Analysis: Arcega-Whiteside finished 29th among rookies in receiving yards with 169, unable to achieve the instant success multiple players from his draft class enjoyed. That came as a bit of a surprise given the ability he had shown at Stanford and during the preseason. Asked to learn all three receiver positions, he suffered from information overload. With better coaching and a little more seasoning, Arcega-Whiteside has the potential to blossom in Year 2. But with the Eagles looking to bolster the position in the draft, he’s going to have to earn his snaps in 2020.

Rating: Has a lot to prove. — Tim McManus

Trysten Hill, DT, UCF

Analysis: Hill was inactive for more games (nine) than he played (seven). That’s never a good thing for a second-round pick. He wasn’t expected to be a major piece on the defense as a rookie, but the Cowboys certainly expected more than six tackles, a quarterback pressure and a tackle for loss. He came to the Cowboys with questions about work ethic and maturity, and he did not help himself by falling asleep in a team meeting early in the season. The Cowboys added Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe as free agents, so Hill will have to earn his playing time in the rotation. Teams like to say a player makes his biggest jump from Year 1 to Year 2. The Cowboys have to hope that’s the case for Hill, because he has a long way to go.

Rating: Has a lot to prove. — Todd Archer

Parris Campbell, WR, Ohio State

Analysis: Campbell’s season was full of injury after injury. Hamstring. Hernia. Hand. Foot. Those injuries forced the speedster to spend more time on the sideline than on the field. Campbell played seven games and his impact in those games was minimal. Campbell had 18 receptions for 127 yards and a touchdown. The opportunity will be there for Campbell to redeem himself, because T.Y. Hilton and Zach Pascal are the only two experienced receivers returning.

Rating: Has a lot to prove. — Mike Wells

Nasir Adderley, S, Delaware

Analysis: Adderley’s potential impact with the Chargers remains uncertain after he played four games his rookie season, primarily on special teams, before he was placed on injured reserve because of a hamstring injury. Adderley could face an uphill battle to earn playing time this season because of a crowded secondary. But Chargers coach Anthony Lynn recently expressed confidence in his ability. “He is a good athlete; I wouldn’t bet against the young man,” Lynn said. “But we just need to get him on the field.”

Rating: Has a lot to prove. — Lindsey Thiry

Taylor Rapp, S, Washington

Analysis: Rapp took advantage of an opportunity to move into the starting lineup following a season-ending injury to John Johnson. In 15 games, including 10 starts, Rapp intercepted two passes, returning one 31 yards for a touchdown, and had 100 tackles and eight pass deflections. Rapp’s rookie season, while considered a success, wasn’t without error. In Week 16, with the Rams clinging to playoff hopes, Rapp blew a third-and-16 coverage against the 49ers, who went on to win 34-31. Johnson will return to the starting lineup in 2020, but Rapp is expected to maintain a starting role as he takes over for the retired Eric Weddle.

Rating: On his way. — Lindsey Thiry

Andy Isabella, WR, UMass

Analysis: Isabella learned how steep the learning curve is to play in the NFL; he got on the field for 38 offensive snaps in the first eight games. He found a bit of a role in the second half of the season, catching eight passes for 181 of his 189 yards in the final eight games. Isabella’s speed is undoubtedly his best asset, but because of his lack of growth in other areas, he was limited to fly routes and jet sweeps for the most part. With an offseason to work on his short-yard separation and diving into the film, Isabella is poised to make a jump in 2020. But how big?

Rating: Has a lot to prove. — Josh Weinfuss

Juan Thornhill, S, Virginia

Analysis: Thornhill had a significant role in the Chiefs’ improved defensive performance last season. His superior range allowed him to not only make plays but also free Tyrann Mathieu for his wide-ranging role. Thornhill missed the playoffs and Super Bowl LIV after tearing his ACL in the final regular-season game, but the Chiefs are expecting him back at some point in 2020.

Rating: He’s a starter. — Adam Teicher

DK Metcalf, WR, Ole Miss

Analysis: So much for that talk he could only run go routes. The Seahawks couldn’t have asked for a better debut from Metcalf. His 58 regular-season catches was second among NFL rookies and second by a rookie in franchise history. He then set a Seahawks playoff record with 160 yards in the wild-card round, also an NFL postseason record for a rookie in the Super Bowl era. He had a touchdown in that game to go along with seven in the regular season. Also impressive: Metcalf played in all of Seattle’s games even though he had knee surgery 19 days before the opener. He and Tyler Lockett give the Seahawks one of the NFL’s better wide receiver duos.

Rating: He’s a star. — Brady Henderson

Published at Wed, 01 Apr 2020 17:03:16 +0000

No record-setting deals, a weak corner market and more: Barnwell’s NFL free-agency lessons

No record-setting deals, a weak corner market and more: Barnwell’s NFL free-agency lessons

NFL free agency isn’t over, but with the vast majority of notable players under contract, we can get a sense of the bigger picture and what it tells us about the state of the league.

As the NFL dealt with the impact of the coronavirus outbreak and started free agency just days after approving a new collective bargaining agreement, this was the most atypical free-agent period we’ve seen since the post-lockout window in 2011.

Even given how unusual this window was, there are lessons to be taken away about how the league is approaching things. Let’s get a sense of what to learn from this most recent run of free agency and what it could mean for players and teams in the years to come.

Jump to a section:

Players are already looking to 2022
How injured free agents were affected
The market for veterans wasn’t there
There weren’t record-setting deals
Cornerbacks didn’t fare well
Wide receivers fared even worse
Offensive linemen? They got paid
Confused teams, confusing decisions

ESPN Daily podcast: What we learned in free agency

Players signed shorter contracts

We saw a clear trend in free agency this year: shorter deals. Typically, the top contracts in free agency are for four or five years, allowing teams to spread the large signing bonuses typically associated with those deals over as many years as possible to lower cap hits. In 2019, for example, 16 of the top 20 free-agent contracts by average annual value (AAV, simply the player’s total compensation divided by years) were for four or more years.

In 2020, just eight of the top 20 deals by the same measure have been for four or more seasons. To understand why agents and players are looking for shorter contracts, you have to look toward 2021 and 2022. Over the next two years, the NFL will renegotiate each of its television contracts, which are an enormous source of league revenue. The league is realistically hoping to double its television revenue to $15 billion.

Once that revenue spike takes place, the salary cap — and player salaries — should rise dramatically. (NBA fans will remember a similar spike taking place in the summer of 2016.) As a result, there were plenty of players throughout this class who were willing to take shorter deals in the hopes of getting another shot at free agency in 2022 and 2023, when the cap could be north of $250 million and approaching $300 million.

This also means players approaching free agency now might be more inclined to wait for their deals in the years to come. Quarterback Dak Prescott, now on a franchise tag at about $33 million, is the most notable. The Cowboys and Prescott could come to terms on a four- or five-year extension now, but if Prescott is willing to go year to year, he could pocket nearly $73 million over the next two seasons and then hit unrestricted free agency in 2022 with the league in a new economic landscape.

Players with injury histories were affected by the coronavirus outbreak

While it pales in comparison to the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic, we saw players with significant injury histories miss out on opportunities they would have had in a typical offseason. Players and team executives were unable to travel. With doctors and medical facilities committed to the fight against the coronavirus, it hasn’t been easy (and at times has been impossible) for teams to get full medical testing on players from the physicians they trust.

The most significantly impacted player by this holdup has been pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney, who likely expected to get something close to a Khalil Mack-sized deal in free agency. It’s possible that teams see a player who has yet to hit 10 sacks in a season and just don’t want to pay a premium for Clowney’s upside, but teams that might be interested in making him a multiyear offer would need to give him a full medical exam first. The former first overall pick underwent microfracture surgery on his knee in 2014 and missed time in the second half of 2019 with a core injury. You can understand why organizations that might have been willing to offer Clowney more than $60 million in injury guarantees would want to get a closer look before putting pen to paper.

Running back Todd Gurley‘s past few weeks were also surely affected by the crisis. No team was going to be able to devote its limited medical resources in the middle of the first week of free agency to Gurley, which is one of the reasons the de facto deadline for a Gurley trade came and went without a move. The Falcons quickly agreed to terms with Gurley on a one-year pact after he was released by the Rams, but if you’ve noticed, Atlanta hasn’t officially announced that deal. It is likely waiting to get a closer look at Gurley’s knee.

It’s also going to affect quarterback Cam Newton, who hasn’t been healthy since the first half of the 2018 season. He underwent shoulder surgery last winter and then suffered a Lisfranc injury during the preseason, so we never got to see whether the former MVP was healed from that shoulder issue. If Newton wants an opportunity at a starting job, a team such as the Chargers or Patriots is going to want to give him a detailed physical and see the 2011 first overall pick throw the football. Neither of those things is possible right now, which makes it more likely Newton will wait until the social distancing measures have been relaxed before signing.

Likewise, this seems likely to pop up again as we approach the 2020 NFL draft in a few weeks. Without the ability to see players at a pro day, set up a private workout or get post-combine medical data, teams are probably going to be more hesitant about taking prospects who are medical risks than they would in a typical year.

Free agents on the wrong side of 30 didn’t do well

Prominent players on the downside of their careers who might have expected one last significant contract typically didn’t end up getting what they hoped. Cornerback Chris Harris Jr., 31, who was a Pro Bowler as recently as 2018, got only one guaranteed year and $9.5 million as part of a two-year, $17 million pact. Offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga, 31, took home a deal with a max value of three years and $30 million, right in line with far less effective or experienced players such as George Fant and Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins, 32, threatened to not return for the final year of his Eagles deal, which was set to pay him $7.9 million; while he got $16.25 million guaranteed over the next two seasons from the Saints after his release, his AAV barely rose on the open market. Even quarterback Tom Brady got only $25 million per season on his two-year pact.



Buccaneers GM Jason Licht explains how they were able to land Tom Brady in free agency, adding that the QB made a pitch for why it made sense for him to come to Tampa Bay.

While there were exceptions, those moves tended to come from teams that typically don’t have much of an ability to read the market, such as the Texans (wide receiver Randall Cobb) and Bears (tight end Jimmy Graham). This was not a friendly open market for the league’s established stars.

The top of this year’s class didn’t move the market

Tight end Austin Hooper ($10.5 million per season from the Browns) and cornerback Byron Jones ($16.5 million per season from the Dolphins) came away with the largest AAV for players at their respective positions in league history. It might seem like those guys were resetting the market, but there’s one factor left unaccounted for: the rise of the salary cap. After accounting for inflation, the top of the market didn’t set records or keep up with the biggest contracts on NFL books.

The table below puts that in context. Going position by position, it lists the top active contract at each position by AAV, compares that to the most lucrative contract signed by a free agent this offseason by the same measure, and then includes a column detailing what that player would have needed to make per year to sign a true market-resetting deal:

Many of these veterans were re-signed before hitting the market. If we compare just free-agent deals to the free-agent deals of the past, only one position set a record for largest deal by percentage of AAV, which was at wide receiver. Even there, though, Amari Cooper‘s five-year, $100 million deal from the Cowboys came in at 10% of the cap, narrowly ahead of the 9.8% Mike Wallace earned on the five-year, $60 million contract he signed with the Dolphins in 2013. And while Wallace was able to get 50% of his contract fully guaranteed at signing, Cooper got only 40%.

For the players involved, money is money. Cooper and Jones got life-changing money and deserve to get paid. For the agents and the players who have big deals to come, though, the top of the market stagnating isn’t a great sign. It tells us two things:

One is that the league didn’t think this was a very good free-agent class, which is possible, although players such as Cooper and Clowney would be considered superstars at key positions in their respective primes, while Brady and Philip Rivers were veteran starters who still have something to offer. I would have expected them all to get more money. The average annual salaries for Brady and Rivers, accounting for cap, are smaller than Brock Osweiler‘s when he signed as a free agent with the Texans in 2016.

The other is that more teams are realizing free agency — or at least the top of free agency — isn’t necessarily a smart place to spend money. It’s likely not for a majority of teams; we’ve seen the Bills and Chiefs dramatically improve their roster in recent years by making smart free-agent investments, for instance. If teams do start treating free agency like it’s a suboptimal solution, it’ll change the way players and teams approach contracts.

In baseball, thanks to the frosty free-agent window of 2018, we began to see young superstars such as Ronald Acuna Jr. sign team-friendly deals years before they would be eligible for free agency. Football contracts are different for many reasons, but this could encourage the next Prescott or Kirk Cousins to sign the first deal they see as opposed to backing themselves to go year to year in advance of free agency. It’s something we’ll be monitoring this time next year with a class that could include Yannick Ngakoue, Patrick Peterson, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Prescott.

Most teams were conservative at cornerback

We didn’t see cornerbacks at multiple levels get the sort of contracts they would have hoped to receive. I mentioned Jones and Harris at the top of the market, but even the Darius Slay trade was telling. The Eagles had to give up only third- and fifth-round picks to acquire Slay, months after the Rams sent two first-round picks and a fourth-round selection for (an admittedly better and younger) Jalen Ramsey. The Eagles then handed Slay what amounts to a two-year deal for $26.6 million with two unguaranteed years attached. Slay himself suggested on Twitter in February that he expected to make north of the $15.1 million AAV Xavien Howard had hit on his new deal. He got there only with unguaranteed money.

Philly also signed Nickell Robey-Coleman to a one-year deal for a little over $1 million, which is remarkably low for a 28-year-old who had been an effective slot cornerback during his time with the Rams. There was a dramatic shift this offseason with slot corners. Last year, we saw teams place significance on paying their slot defenders. Bryce Callahan took home three years and $21 million from the Broncos. Tavon Young inked a three-year, $25.8 million deal with the Ravens. Kenny Moore II got four years and $33.3 million from the Colts, while Justin Coleman topped the lot with four years and $36 million from the Lions.

This year, the market mostly sputtered. Harris will move back into the slot, but his deal disappointed. Robey-Coleman signed for close to the veterans minimum. Brian Poole, who excelled for the Jets last season, re-signed on a one-year deal for $5 million. Bradley Roby signed a three-year, $36 million deal to re-up with the Texans, which is yet another example of general manager and coach Bill O’Brien failing to anticipate the market. Kendall Fuller, who took snaps at slot corner and safety for the Chiefs, did get a four-year, $40 million deal from Washington. Logan Ryan, a better player than Roby and Fuller, still hasn’t signed.

There is still a lot of cornerback talent out there, too. In addition to Ryan, Darqueze Dennard, Bashaud Breeland, P.J. Williams, Prince Amukamara and the recently released Dre Kirkpatrick are all still available.

Teams resisted the wide receiver market in advance of the draft

This was a middling class of receivers, but the free-agent class struggled to make an impact. Robby Anderson, who was widely regarded as the best receiver in the group, ended up taking a two-year, $20 million deal from the Panthers with $12 million guaranteed. Five wideouts topped that guarantee mark in 2018 and three got there in 2019. While Cooper hit $20 million per season, even he didn’t get the sort of guarantee structure that would have seemed likely heading into the season.

The middle class of wideouts also got crushed. Guys such as Breshad Perriman ($6 million from the Jets), Devin Funchess ($2.5 million, Packers), Nelson Agholor ($1.1 million, Raiders) and Demarcus Robinson (undisclosed, Chiefs) found only one-year deals. Phillip Dorsett took a one-year deal for the minimum from Seattle. Agholor didn’t have his best season, and Funchess was hurt for most of the season, but Perriman was one of the most productive wideouts in the league in December. Every one of them would have at least held out hope for a multiyear offer.

Given how aggressive teams have been at wideout in years past, the easiest explanation for their sudden thriftiness at receiver has to be the upcoming draft. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay projected 12 wide receivers to come off the board across the first two rounds in his latest mock draft. Teams certainly seem comfortable targeting this draft class at the expense of the veterans in free agency.

Veterans currently on rosters are also going to be at risk. Take someone like Kansas City’s Sammy Watkins, whose $13.8 million base salary for 2020 was already untenable even before the wide receiver market tanked. He isn’t going to get that sort of 2020 salary on the open market, and once all those first- and second-round picks flood rosters, there just aren’t going to be many jobs available. The realistic threat of teams releasing players such as Watkins, Marqise Lee (Jaguars) or Marquise Goodwin (49ers) could lead them to accept pay cuts.

Teams are still desperate for offensive linemen

Offensive line was one of the few places in which we saw teams stay aggressive in free agency. The Cardinals gave D.J. Humphries a three-year, $43.8 million deal before free agency began, and that seemed to set the tone. While the top of the market wasn’t record-setting, we saw Anthony Castonzo (two years, $33 million from the Colts) and Jack Conklin (three years, $42 million from the Browns) each get significant deals as the best options available at their respective positions.

Needy teams bought in bulk. The Jets signed four offensive linemen, including the widely panned decision to give Fant a three-year, $27.3 million deal. His former employers signed four themselves, as the Seahawks added B.J. Finney, Brandon Shell, Cedric Ogbuehi and Chance Warmack, the last of whom sat out the 2019 season. This was one of the few positions in which the mid-tier got paid well and even the lower tier is mostly off the market.

The confused teams made confusing decisions

Finally, we saw teams that typically make head-scratching choices continue in that vein. The Texans were the most obvious example; even if we put the DeAndre Hopkins trade aside, the contracts they handed to Cobb, Roby and Eric Murray are disasters after you look at how the markets at those positions went. Murray, a useful special-teamer and a viable third/fourth safety on a good team, probably should have gotten a two-year deal for a total of about $6 million. Houston guaranteed him nearly $11 million and likely will be in for $12.6 million over the next two seasons.

The Bears proceeded to blow away nonexistent markets to get the guys they wanted. After general manager Ryan Pace struck out on tight ends Adam Shaheen, Dion Sims and Trey Burton, Chicago signed Jimmy Graham to a two-year, $16.1 million deal with $9 million guaranteed and what must be the most inessential no-trade clause in league history. (Burton is still under contract because his player-friendly deal structure guaranteed $4 million of his base salary for 2020 in 2019.) Chicago also chose to send a fourth-round pick to acquire Nick Foles from the Jaguars, eating some portion of what was an underwater contract in the process, when the likes of Newton and Andy Dalton are either available for free or will be available for much cheaper.

Even the Cardinals, who had the Hopkins deal fall into their lap, have managed to get their other major decisions wrong. Contracts for players such as Jordan Phillips, Devon Kennard, and De’Vondre Campbell have voidable years attached to reduce Arizona’s short-term cap issues in 2020. That’s a reasonable move if you have Drew Brees under contract at $25 million, but not really if you’re adding marginal defensive players. Campbell’s deal has a ridiculous four voidable years attached. It’s the sort of financial mismanagement that would lead you to take away somebody’s checkbook. Think about how foolish that strategy is … and how much better Arizona’s offseason still looks than Houston’s. That’s where we are with O’Brien.

Published at Wed, 01 Apr 2020 20:36:15 +0000

NFL Power Rankings: 1-32 poll, plus where each team stands after free agency

NFL Power Rankings: 1-32 poll, plus where each team stands after free agency

Millions have been spent and the landscape of the NFL has been significantly altered due to the initial free-agency blitz. But while there are obvious storylines (Tom Brady) that have been written and a few more to go (Jadeveon Clowney), now is a good time to take the temperature of each NFL team.

Therefore, we’ve asked our NFL Nation writers to describe in three words where the team they cover currently stands this offseason.

How we rank in our Power Rankings: Our power panel — a group of more than 80 writers, editors and TV personalities — evaluated how teams stack up throughout the season.

Jump to:
NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | PHI | PIT | SF

Way-too-early ranking: 1

Three words: Keeping it together. The Chiefs named defensive tackle Chris Jones their franchise player at a cost of about $16.1 million and are keeping wide receiver Sammy Watkins at a cost of $21 million rather than releasing him and taking a $7 million charge. Those moves mostly wiped out their salary-cap room and signaled that the Chiefs will keep the band together as much as possible for another Super Bowl run rather than replenish through free agency. The Chiefs re-signed backup quarterback Chad Henne and added two probable reserves in offensive lineman Mike Remmers and cornerback Antonio Hamilton. — Adam Teicher

Way-too-early ranking: 3

Three words: Lamar awaits draft. The Ravens used what little cap room they had on defense in free agency. Baltimore placed the franchise tag on outside linebacker Matthew Judon, traded for defensive end Calais Campbell and re-signed cornerback Jimmy Smith. The focus now shifts to the draft, where the Ravens will look to improve the supporting cast around quarterback Lamar Jackson. Baltimore will add a wide receiver (or two), an interior offensive lineman and perhaps another running back to help the reigning NFL Most Valuable Player. — Jamison Hensley

Way-too-early ranking: 2

Three words: Run it back. The 49ers were clear about their offseason intentions: They wanted to keep their NFC championship team together as much as possible. While cap constraints meant saying goodbye to one of their best players (DT DeForest Buckner), his departure created flexibility to bring back key contributors from last season such as Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward. It also gave them much-needed draft capital (the No. 13 overall pick), so they can be major players in the NFL draft and continue adding valuable, cost-effective pieces to a deep, talented roster. Their hope is that those moves will keep their championship window open longer. — Nick Wagoner

Way-too-early ranking: 4

Three words: Quite the catch. I probably shouldn’t overstate the importance of signing 33-year-old free-agent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, but he sure feels like the perfect fit to fill the Saints’ most glaring need. They already had one of the NFL’s most talented rosters, so they didn’t need an overhaul. And they have kept most of their core together. But their lack of options in the passing game was evident in each of their past two playoff losses. Michael Thomas had 119 more catches than any other WR on the team last season. — Mike Triplett

Way-too-early ranking: 5

Three words: Pass-catchers still needed. The Packers made a run at tight end Austin Hooper but it got too rich for them. There’s still plenty of opportunity for them to get Aaron Rodgers more weapons in what is a receiver-rich draft. They could take a receiver in the first round for the first time since 2002, but even if they decided to go with a tackle or defensive player at No. 30, they can still find immediate help on Day 2 of the draft. — Rob Demovsky

Way-too-early ranking: 6

Three words: Waiting on Clowney. The Seahawks want him back, but they’re exercising patience. Jadeveon Clowney wants at least $20 million, more money than anyone has been willing to offer. The Seahawks have been active elsewhere, starting with four under-the-radar offensive line additions. They’ve added two pass-catchers in Greg Olsen and Phillip Dorsett and found a potential upgrade at right cornerback by trading for Quinton Dunbar. Re-signing Jarran Reed and bringing back Bruce Irvin will help their pass rush, but they still need a primary threat like Clowney, and Seattle might be able to get him back at a bargain rate. — Brady Henderson

Way-too-early ranking: 8

Three words: Must keep building. The Titans started free agency on a good note by making sure quarterback Ryan Tannehill and running back Derrick Henry were back for another season. They made another move in the right direction when they signed Vic Beasley Jr. However, the loss of Jurrell Casey and possibly Logan Ryan leaves questions about the defense. The Titans need to find ways to help improve the defense and overall team speed. Most of the premier free agents have been plucked from the market. That places emphasis on a productive draft to add impact players to help build off of last season’s momentum. — Turron Davenport

Way-too-early ranking: 9

Three words: Defense deeply depleted. The Vikings unloading expensive veterans while not re-signing a handful of their own free agents was inevitable given their salary-cap situation, but losing Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander, Xavier Rhodes, Andrew Sendejo and Jayron Kearse leaves a lot of production to replace. The defense is in the midst of a reboot, and Minnesota will need to hit on its draft picks this year in hopes that a first- or second-round cornerback can aid a group that lost all of its starters and find a defensive end to begin to replace what Griffen brought over 10 years in Minnesota. — Courtney Cronin

Way-too-early ranking: 11

Three words: AFC East front-runner. While the Jets focused on building their offensive line, the Dolphins spent big money on marquee free agents and the Patriots coped with the loss of quarterback Tom Brady, the Bills made one of their splashiest moves of the new league year, trading for wide receiver Stefon Diggs. The additions Buffalo made on defense should, on paper, make an already-stout group even better — vaulting the Bills to the top of the preseason AFC East totem pole. — Marcel Louis-Jacques

Way-too-early ranking: 19

Three words: Must protect Brady. The Bucs are over-the-moon excited right now after landing six-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady. But they still need a starting right tackle to replace Demar Dotson and to possibly groom into a replacement on the left side if Donovan Smith doesn’t work out. They’ll also need to address the ground game, getting a running back who can help Brady in the screen game, which in turn helps slow down an opposing pass rush. — Jenna Laine

Way-too-early ranking: 12

Three words: Hold that line. The Cowboys’ top goal was to keep quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper, and they did that with the exclusive franchise tag and a five-year contract, respectively. They have suffered some losses, such as Byron Jones, Randall Cobb, Robert Quinn and the retired Travis Frederick, but they knew they could not pay big money to everyone. They added Gerald McCoy and kept Sean Lee, Anthony Brown and Joe Looney — which takes on added significance after Frederick’s retirement — but are they better now than last season’s 8-8 finish? It’s difficult to say yes, but there is the draft to consider. — Todd Archer

Way-too-early ranking: 14

Three words: Send receivers, STAT! The Eagles did not address wide receiver during the main wave of free agency, even with Nelson Agholor departing for the Raiders and Alshon Jeffery still recovering from Lisfranc surgery. The plan is clear: to address the need in the draft by drawing early and often from what has been dubbed a historic wide receiver class. That approach leaves little room for error. The pressure is on to get it right come April. — Tim McManus

Way-too-early ranking: 7

Three words: Life after Brady. Everything that has unfolded with the Patriots is consistent with how they have generally operated under coach Bill Belichick — more notable defections than additions — except for one major piece: quarterback Tom Brady. With Brady leaving to sign with the Buccaneers, it takes away a security blanket the Patriots have always had in points of transition. So therein lies the intrigue for what’s ahead. The Patriots have always preached that every season is a blank slate, even when Brady was there to lead the way. Now the question becomes if Jarrett Stidham can step in at quarterback. — Mike Reiss

Way-too-early ranking: 17

Three words: Bridging the gap. Signing Philip Rivers signaled that the Colts organization doesn’t believe Jacoby Brissett is its next franchise quarterback after he struggled last season, and that Rivers is more of a short-term starter because the Colts signed the 38-year-old to only a one-year contract. The Colts currently do not have a first-round pick in this year’s draft after giving it to San Francisco for defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, but they do have two picks in the second round, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they used one of those picks on a quarterback who can sit behind Rivers and learn next season. — Mike Wells

Way-too-early ranking: 15

Three words: Checked the boxes. The Steelers filled their most pressing roster needs through free agency, allowing them the luxury of drafting the best available playmaker when they make their first selection at No. 49 overall in the second round. Guard Stefen Wisniewski and tight end Eric Ebron fill the most immediate needs, giving the Steelers a two-time Super Bowl champion to compete for the starting left guard spot and a tight end to be a big-bodied target in the red zone for Ben Roethlisberger. Quieter than most teams, the Steelers restructured the most expensive contracts and were efficient in the first wave of free agency, setting them up for more freedom when the draft rolls around. — Brooke Pryor

Way-too-early ranking: 10

Three words: Life without Hopkins. How do you replace an All-Pro receiver who has led your franchise in receiving since 2014? And someone who bonded immediately with your franchise quarterback on and off the field? The Texans are about to find out after trading away DeAndre Hopkins on Day 1 of free agency. Houston has Will Fuller and Kenny Stills on the roster who, if healthy, will be able to take over some of Hopkins’ production. New signing Randall Cobb, a slot receiver, should be a reliable target. But Houston still needs another outside receiver and could target one in the draft, perhaps with the second-round pick (No. 40 overall) it received in the Hopkins trade. — Sarah Barshop

Way-too-early ranking: 13

Three words: To be determined. The list of starters who are gone is staggering, headlined by star running back Todd Gurley, who was cut after the Rams could not find a trade partner. On defense, the Rams watched two key playmakers — outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. and linebacker Cory Littleton — sign elsewhere. Plus, the Rams released cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman and Clay Matthews to create salary-cap space. Their plan moving forward remains unclear, though it’s nearly certain that several of these holes will need to be filled by young and inexperienced players already on the roster. — Lindsey Thiry

Way-too-early ranking: 16

Three words: Something to prove. The Falcons added four former first-round draft picks in Todd Gurley, Dante Fowler Jr., Hayden Hurst and Laquon Treadwell, and all four have to show they can play up to their first-round talent. Gurley is the one fans are excited about the most, and he certainly wants to answer questions about his left knee and his ability to be a productive back. The Falcons, as a whole, have to prove they can compete in a revamped NFC South now featuring Tom Brady. — Vaughn McClure

Way-too-early ranking: 18

Three words: Still offensively challenged. The Bears likely upgraded at quarterback when they sent their fourth-round compensatory pick to Jacksonville for Nick Foles, who has a good opportunity to unseat starter Mitchell Trubisky. But quarterback is far from the only issue. The Bears have yet to upgrade their offensive line. Chicago needs additional help at wide receiver after the club released Taylor Gabriel. Plus, former second-round wideout Anthony Miller is rehabbing from yet another shoulder procedure. And no one really understands why the Bears signed veteran tight end Jimmy Graham to a deal that included $9 million guaranteed and a no-trade clause. — Jeff Dickerson

Way-too-early ranking: 20

Three words: Ready to draft. The Raiders hit on some real and specific defensive needs in the first wave of free agency, particularly at linebacker (Cory Littleton, Nick Kwiatkoski and Carl Nassib), cornerback (Eli Apple) and safety (Jeff Heath). And they got a pass-rushing defensive tackle (Maliek Collins). General manager Mike Mayock said at the combine that with so many needs on defense, he did not have to be so “surgical” on that side of the ball. It all leaves open the possibility of the Raiders using one of their first two draft picks (Nos. 12 and 19) on a receiver (CeeDee Lamb? Jerry Jeudy/ Henry Ruggs III?) — Paul Gutierrez

Way-too-early ranking: 23

Three words: Wild-card bound. The Cardinals filled almost every major need during the first week of free agency, whether through signings or trades. By adding All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and signing defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, outside linebacker Devon Kennard and inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, Arizona went from a five-win team to a playoff contender, especially with the Rams dismantling their defense and the confidence gained from winning in Seattle last season. — Josh Weinfuss

Way-too-early ranking: 22

Three words: Help for Baker. Everything about the first day of free agency was about helping Baker Mayfield, and the new regime demonstrated by its moves that it still believes he is the Browns’ long-term franchise quarterback. Cleveland signed the best tight end on the market in Austin Hooper to give Mayfield a reliable pass-catcher out of play-action and in the red zone. The Browns also signed the top right tackle in free agency in Jack Conklin, who is one of the top frontside pass-protectors in the league. And to top it off, Cleveland brought in veteran QB Case Keenum to serve as a mentor for Mayfield. — Jake Trotter

Way-too-early ranking: 21

Three words: Still need help. The Broncos made trades to bolster their defense, acquiring defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and cornerback A.J. Bouye, and used the franchise tag on safety Justin Simmons. They chose to use the bulk of their free-agency dollars on the offense, signing guard Graham Glasgow, running back Melvin Gordon, tight end Nick Vannett and backup quarterback Jeff Driskel. It leaves them searching for additional team speed in the draft and that should have them taking a long look at the cornerback options, as well as wide receiver, with the No. 15 pick. — Jeff Legwold

Way-too-early ranking: 24

Three words: On the rise. The Chargers missed on free-agent quarterback Tom Brady but otherwise made several moves in free agency that should help them contend for a division title. They addressed issues on their offensive line by signing right tackle Bryan Bulaga and trading for guard Trai Turner. By re-signing running back Austin Ekeler and applying the franchise tag to tight end Hunter Henry, the Bolts ensured that — whether it’s Tyrod Taylor or a rookie selected in the draft — their new starting quarterback will have sure-handed targets. And on defense, signing cornerback Chris Harris Jr. immediately puts their secondary among the best in the NFL. — Lindsey Thiry

Way-too-early ranking: 26

Three words: Brian Flores Way. After a largely idle 2019 offseason, the Dolphins backed up the Brinks truck by making an aggressive push toward competing in a post-Tom Brady AFC East. That means investing heavily in man-to-man cornerbacks such as Byron Jones, versatile front-seven, two-way players such as Kyle Van Noy and Shaq Lawson and special-teams standouts such as Clayton Fejedelem and Elandon Roberts. The Dolphins have a promising future because players have bought into the Brian Flores Way, and there’s hope that with 14 picks in the draft (including three first-rounders), Miami will find its quarterback of the future and become a perennial contender. — Cameron Wolfe

Way-too-early ranking: 25

Three words: Better draft well. General manager Joe Douglas, in his first offseason with the Jets, is patching holes with short-term fixes. Only three of their eight new players received multiyear contracts. Of the three, only one (center Connor McGovern) has security beyond 2020. This puts the pressure on Douglas to draft well. Patching is OK, but the team still needs long-term solutions at wide receiver, offensive tackle, cornerback and outside linebacker. The Jets always seem to be in a perpetual state of rebuilding. It’s painful for the fan base, but Douglas deserves a fair chance to do it his way.– Rich Cimini

Way-too-early ranking: 27

Three words: Life after Cam. Yes, the Panthers are in the midst of a complete rebuild under new coach Matt Rhule. If there was any doubt, it ended when they decided to move forward without franchise quarterback Cam Newton and with free-agent pickup Teddy Bridgewater. It’s all about getting young and cheap to be in position to make a playoff run in a few years. Their first nine free agents were 27 or younger and all had deals of one to three years. None were established stars. But nothing spoke louder than moving on from Newton, the first pick of the 2011 draft. — David Newton

Way-too-early ranking: 29

Three words: Work still remains. Yes, the Giants signed two significant free agents in cornerback James Bradberry and linebacker Blake Martinez — and they will help. The Giants then started to fill in around them, but there are still holes all over this roster, with no imposing edge rusher or difference-maker on defense and the offensive line still in need of upgrades at tackle and center. The Giants, under coach Joe Judge and general manager Dave Gettleman, still have a lot of work left to do after the first wave of free agency. More additions are needed, in free agency and the draft. — Jordan Raanan

Way-too-early ranking: 30

Three words: The Midwestern Patriots. It might not be the phrase some in Allen Park, Michigan, like hearing, but that’s been the direction throughout this offseason. The Lions brought in an ex-Pat on every level of their defense — defensive tackle Danny Shelton, linebacker Jamie Collins and safety Duron Harmon. It’s possible that five defensive starters will have New England ties. Then there’s the coaching staff, where all but two defensive staffers have some Patriots past. It makes sense, in a crucial year, that general manager Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia would want to bring in people who know the scheme and understand the culture they are trying to build. — Michael Rothstein

Way-too-early ranking: 28

Three words: Clearing cap space. GM Dave Caldwell traded Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye and Nick Foles and cut Marcell Dareus to save nearly $40 million against the cap this year. Plus, with those contracts off the books, the Jaguars will have more than $100 million in cap space in 2021. Of the six players Caldwell has added, only two (LB Joe Schobert and TE Tyler Eifert) are front-line guys. The rest help with depth and improve the middle and back thirds of the roster. Caldwell might not be around in 2021 (owner Shad Khan said “the time to win is now”), but he’s getting the franchise in financial shape. — Mike DiRocco

Way-too-early ranking: 31

Three words: Will take time. The Redskins knew they couldn’t rebuild in one year under new coach Ron Rivera, so they weren’t going to chase every big name. They did pursue wide receiver Amari Cooper and missed, but the rest of their signings were more about value and low-risk contracts. They added versatile cornerback Kendall Fuller — their most expensive pickup — and veteran linebacker Thomas Davis. Third-down back J.D. McKissic excites them. But most of the signings were about building depth. Whether it works remains to be seen, but it is the approach. They are focused on the draft, where they own the No. 2 pick (hello, Chase Young). — John Keim

Way-too-early ranking: 32

Three words: Shifting spending patterns. Cincinnati’s conservative approach to free agency went out of the window this year after the Bengals spent more than $112 million on three players — defensive tackle D.J. Reader, cornerbacker Trae Waynes and wide receiver A.J. Green. The aggressiveness is needed for a franchise in the middle of a rebuild. It also prepares for the arrival of quarterback Joe Burrow, the projected No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming draft. The spending spree is imperative for a roster that needs a slew of upgrades. — Ben Baby

Published at Wed, 25 Mar 2020 21:53:46 +0000