SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Trey Lance caught a football, flipped to him from across the room inside Levi’s Stadium, and he worked a grip on it to try to relive how he had to hold it a little more than a year ago just to have a prayer of throwing it. His index finger was almost to the nose of the ball, his middle finger off the laces and his ring finger sitting over and between the first and second cross-laces.
It’s not how anyone would tell a quarterback to do it. But Lance had no choice.
Even more remarkable? He didn’t have much to say about it back then, either—really to anyone. So as his rookie year went up and down, as it looked like his cannon of a right arm might be wearing out, as it might’ve seemed to some like he was shot-putting the ball in games, Lance knew what was wrong. He had a broken finger, with damaged ligaments, and even if excuses would’ve saved him some criticism and grief, he wasn’t about to make any.
“I chipped the bone in my pointer finger, so I had to wait on it. It was super swollen, couldn’t really bend it or straighten it,” he said, as he flexed it over the ball. “It [happened] at the Raiders [preseason] game. We had a bye week after the Raiders game, I had a splint on just to try to get it back straight. So it chipped, it kind of stayed bent like this and we just had to keep working. I wore a little brace that kind of … it pushed down on my knuckle and up on both sides of my finger. I just kept wearing it and stretching it as much as I could, scraping it and just trying to get all the scar tissue out of there.”
As Lance was explaining it, he curled his index finger and held it in place, illustrating how hard it was to summon any strength in it and showing how, at the time, he was really trying to throw with four fingers. Add that to the learning curve he faced coming from North Dakota State, with just 17 college starts on his résumé, and then how hope the finger would straighten out in-season evaporated, and your perception of Lance might change.
No, Lance’s rookie year didn’t go as planned. And sure, there were moments of doubt in some corners of San Francisco. But the full picture wasn’t out there for public consumption, either—which was by the quarterback’s own choice—or even for almost any of the people he was working with day to day.
“I was blown away with the way he handled that, finding a way to get out there and get better every day,” said 49ers GM John Lynch. “And it was hard because of that finger, and it wasn’t always pretty. That’s the finger you throw a football with, and he didn’t have that. It was compromised. It led to some bad habits. But he still found a way to get better, to support Jimmy [Garoppolo], to be a great teammate and earn the respect of our guys.”
Six months later, on an August Saturday, Lance is the one taking first-team reps, with Garoppolo on a side field throwing and waiting for the Niners to find him a new home. That, of course, was expected, from the moment the team took Lance No. 3 in the draft 16 months ago.
But his road here? It had a lot more twists, and potholes, than most people know.
I had a week off the road, and I’ll be back on it this week. In between, we’re getting you a loaded MMQB column. Inside this week’s column, you’ll find …
• Some final thoughts on the Deshaun Watson decision.
• A Cowboy with no comparison.
• Why and how the Rams actually value their picks.
But we’re starting with one of the NFL’s most intriguing story lines—a team that was minutes away from making the Super Bowl now making a quarterback change months later, and taking on all that comes along with that.
There’s tempered enthusiasm on what the Niners are seeing from Lance this summer and, mostly, that’s because there’s still a lot left to learn.
The injury early in his de facto redshirt season created a pretty significant bump in the process the Niners would go through in evaluating his readiness to be their starter—as the plan prescribed all along—in 2022. And that was after there was, admittedly, a leap of faith in taking Lance third in the first place.
Again, he had only 17 college starts. He averaged fewer than 19 pass attempts, and nearly 11 carries, in those games. Most of them were blowouts on North Dakota State’s way to an FBS national championship in 2019, so NFL teams didn’t get to see him much in third-and-long or playing from behind. Then, of course, his ’20 season was canceled due to COVID-19, with NDSU playing just a single exhibition, in which the quarterback was a bit scattershot.
“That’s why the evaluation was so hard,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan explained, leaning back in his office chair. “I mean, it’s because of all the situations you just said, and also there was only one year of it, because they ended up getting canceled with COVID the next year. So you saw stuff in the games. You just didn’t see it over and over, because he didn’t have the reps of it. That’s what was so easy to see with Mac [Jones]. Just the system they played in with Sark [then Alabama OC Steve Sarkisian], the type of games they were in, you could see it a ton.
“Trey, you could make a tape and it’s all there, but there’s not a ton of it. … You go through it all, which isn’t enough. It’s enough to intrigue you, but still a risk. Then you learn the person, you find out more about him, and you believe in that. You don’t have to totally see it. You believe what you’re gonna see.”
And for a while, last summer, the Niners were seeing exactly what they hoped for. After OTAs that spring, San Francisco’s quarterback situation seemed clarified—Garoppolo was the starter for a Super Bowl–caliber roster, and Lance had a long way to go. Then, through the 40-day break between minicamp and training camp, the rookie worked on his footwork in Atlanta, with fellow ex-NDSU quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Easton Stick in Fargo, and on his throwing efficiency in Orange County, and came back for summer to a closed gap.
For a while, anyway.
“The first two weeks of training camp, we were considering it a real good competition, the way he came out,” Shanahan continued. “And then the more stuff went in, Jimmy being so used to it and Jimmy playing at a high level, Jimmy and him, there was separation between the two. There were some rookie things that he was doing. He just needed more time, and I was pumped that Jimmy gave him that time.”
Which is where the next hitch in the plan came—during the 49ers’ preseason finale against the Raiders at home.
With 16 seconds left in the half, Lance uncorked a ball into a wide-open space down the right sideline as blitzing Las Vegas linebacker Max Richardson bore down on him. It looked like a bad throwaway, because the receiver ran the wrong route, but the more significant action happened on Lance’s follow-through, which landed right on the crown of Richardson’s helmet, breaking the finger and stretching its ligaments.
As a rookie wanting to keep his place on the depth chart, and keep getting the practice reps he needed, Lance saw the injury as something he could grit his teeth and work through. So he had it splinted and, really, never brought it up again to the team.
“I didn’t really know how much it was affecting me until we were getting into the season,” he said. “Every week kind of got harder. And I was working on it, I knew obviously it was broken. It didn’t feel good. But I wanted to play. I wanted at least to have an opportunity to be ready and be the two, whatever my role was [going to be] that year. So yeah, I took care of it the best that I could. But there’s just kind of only so much you can do.”
And there was, all the same, only so much Lance could do when he did get shots to play in place of a banged-up Garoppolo last year.
The first came against Arizona, and his tape wasn’t great—he went 15-of-29 for 192 yards and a pick in a 17–10 loss. The second was Jan. 2 against the Texans, and the finger issue was only exacerbated by the fact he was a little under the weather for that one, too (his numbers, 16-of-23 for 249 yards, 2 TDs and a pick, were better). But by then, Shanahan had the context that almost everyone else lacked, and that context, added to the performance, only deepened his belief in the Lance he was gonna see, with a little more time.
Against Arizona, it was his toughness. Against Houston, it was more than just that.
“The pressure was on, because if we lost that game, we were out of the playoffs, and everybody knew it,” Shanahan said. “He started slow, and he came back and finished in that second half, he got on fire, threw a [45-yard] touchdown to Deebo [Samuel]. We ended up easily winning the game, and that was kind of when, All right, this guy can overcome adversity. We know he has the ability. It’s a matter of time for this guy.
“And then just having him in the offseason, the way he came back prepared, the way it went in OTAs—the difference between OTA 1 and OTA 7, and the difference between OTA 7 and right now. The guy only gets better when he’s thrown out there.”
Of course, a lot had to happen between the end of the season and OTAs to get Lance there.
To be clear, Lance’s mechanics coach, Adam Dedeaux, loves everything about Lance as a person, and the toughness he exhibited in fighting through the injury. But he never wants the quarterback to be that quiet about something like that ever again.
“Yeah, he didn’t want to talk about the finger,” Dedeaux says, “because he may not have been thinking, This is the problem. But his arm took a beating.”
As Lynch said, the adjustments that Lance made to fight through the finger injury did, indeed, lead to bad habits. And that led to his arm wearing down, another thing he kept to himself on an old pro-football-player premise: Everyone’s dealing with something.
After the Niners’ season ended in the NFC championship game, Lance went to work with Dedeaux. As the two dove into the tape and kept talking, Lance told Dedeaux how he’d adjusted his grip to compensate for the lack of strength in his index finger, an index finger which, at that point, still didn’t have full range of motion. That allowed Dedeaux to dive further into how Lance was playing a sort of survival game with the ball.
“If, all of a sudden, there’s some unexplainable changes in ball flight and accuracy and things like that, All right, then let’s see what the major difference is,” said Dedeaux. “And then it was like, O.K., why did you feel like you had to make changes? And he was like, Well, honestly, when I hurt my finger that made me feel like I need to change to get a little more underneath the ball, so I felt like I had a little more control over it.”
So if it looked to you like, at points last year, Lance was pushing the ball from his body, that’s probably why. How did it happen? The tape showed that to manipulate the situation, Lance was not just gripping but maybe over-gripping the ball (which can create soreness), and he was also dropping his arm slot to try to get underneath it and control it better.
The reality was it wasn’t even a conscious thing so much as it was Lance doing what he had to do to get his throws to go where he wanted them to. But it was something that would need correcting, and in more ways than one.
The goal was to get Lance not to some sort of classic throwing motion, but simply back to where he felt most natural throwing it—“call it a mid-three-quarter arm slot,” said Dedeaux. That would happen only if they could get his finger and arm back to full strength.
Specialists helped Lance get his finger where it needed to be, and he and Dedeaux worked on a strict pitch count through the weeks leading up to the Niners’ offseason program. Dedeaux also used the example of Matt Ryan, another one of his clients, to illuminate how in Shanahan’s offense, it was more important to throw with anticipation than flat velocity, which would help Lance take something off some balls and save strength.
And when Lance wasn’t throwing, there was still plenty to learn from his rookie year, by his own admission. He worked through all his film from 2021, sometimes with teammates like Brandon Aiyuk, who attached himself to his quarterback over the last few months.
As the offseason wore on, Lance’s finger straightened, his mechanics corrected and his workload ramped up. So by the time OTAs arrived, he was ready to make the day-over-day progress Shanahan mentioned, which then carried over from spring to summer.
“I’m going to be a lot better than I was last year,” he says. “Everything’s slower. Some of [the tape] is tough to watch because you see some of the dumb mistakes. But that’s part of it. That’s part of playing the position, that’s part of being in my first year. There’s going to be mistakes again this year, and for me it’s about how I respond. It’ll be easy to turn the page. And for the frustrating moments? I had them today, I have them every day.
“But I think how we respond, how I respond personally is what’s most important.”
On the Saturday I was there, early in the day at his press conference, Shanahan looked at a reporter like he had three heads after the reporter had prefaced a question by saying his offense had its best practice the day before.
It wasn’t the reporter’s fault, of course. It’s just that Shanahan didn’t see it that way, as he explained a few minutes later from his office.
“I have opinions on whether guys have good or bad days, and then I have to go to a press conference and I get asked on things and sometimes it’s the exact opposite of what I feel,” he said. “And you’re like, Man, why do they think that? … Oh, there were three picks out there today. They wrote that down. Well, those three picks can be anybody’s fault, and sometimes those three picks I was pumped about, because he finally let it rip and he saw it right. And what happened? There was a tip or something, but it’s a good learning experience.
“I mean, today I went in there to the press conference and they asked me how pumped I was about the offense from yesterday. I had no idea what they were talking about. I was frustrated [with the offense]. So I feel for players, because they read that stuff or their wives call them or their friends. They’re like, Man, I hear you sucked today. And they start to believe it, and then I gotta go tell them, Dude, you don’t suck. You actually had a good day.”
A minute earlier, I’d brought up how the panic button was being worn out three years earlier when Garoppolo, coming back from a torn ACL, threw five picks in a practice. Shanahan smiled and corrected me. It was actually, he said, five picks “in a row.”
The Niners were in the Super Bowl six months after that practice.
And the hope is that’s where a fresh batch of reports of the ups and downs that Lance has been through get San Francisco, with its loaded roster and 22-year-old quarterback, this time around, too. Yes, Shanahan, in a very intentional way, is throwing the kitchen sink at his young QB with an edgy, fast, veteran defense.
“He’s going against a really good defense, so it’s gonna be tough early on,” said all-planet edge rusher Nick Bosa. “But he already looks better throwing the ball this year. Last year, he had the finger issue that kinda messed with his throwing motion, and when you’re a backup in the NFL, you don’t get very many reps. So this month is super important for him, and I’ve already seen some impressive plays.”
“They bring it every single day,” Lance added, of the defense. “We know they’re going to do that. I know if I’m not on it or we’re not on it, they’re going to make us look really, really bad. So I just know I need to be prepared to go every single day. They don’t take any days off at all, and you can see the intensity, you can feel it every single day. There’s nothing more I could ask for, in that sense, going against the best defense in the league every day.”
Ideally, Shanahan says, the offense and defense would hit “.500 every day” against one another. And so the breadth of training camp was never going to be about building Lance up to think he could snap his fingers and be Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes. More so, it was about getting a quarterback who lacks experience more of it.
Along those lines, Dedeaux mentioned how Ryan’s first year playing for Shanahan, 2015, was bumpy—and also the precursor for his MVP year in ’16. Point being, there’s going to be a learning curve along the way, and the more adversity Shanahan and defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans can create for Lance now, the better he’ll be equipped to handle it when it comes in game action.
The good news is, after last year, they already know Lance can handle the turbulence. And Lance knows it, too.
“Absolutely,” he said. “And I know, I’ve said it before, the guys in the locker room having confidence in me, and I know they got my back, that’s all I need at the end of the day. I feel really good about that, about these guys. They know I’ve got their back. But yeah, I’m turning the page. The pick I threw today, same thing, turn the page, come back, have a good two-minute drill and then we finish it the right way.”
That two-minute drill concluded with the kind of play that made Lance such a coveted prospect in the first place. Deep in the red zone, he took a shotgun snap, and as the Niners’ defensive ends raced around his tackles, he stepped up in the pocket and was chased left, seeing, out of the corner of his eye, Ray-Ray McCloud finding a dead spot in the coverage to his right.
On a dime, he twisted his torso and unleashed a strike across his body that tattooed McCloud right on the No. 3 of his jersey for a touchdown. Shanahan blew the whistle to end practice and, really, there weren’t any gasps from the sideline.
Everyone here knows what Lance is capable of.
What Shanahan and Lynch saw when Lance, the person, convinced them what Lance, the player, could turn all the raw ability into is slowly, surely coming to life.
“To win in this league, you’re gonna have to make plays in the pocket, you’re gonna have to be a drop-back passer, do all that stuff, and I see him having the ability to do all that, which excites me,” Shanahan said. “You want that with every single quarterback you go for, but very rarely do I feel that way about a guy who I think also is a threat to run. And you look at our division, you look at some of the guys we go against and how we can get advantages on people, and so many people in the league are running similar stuff to us now.
“Defenses see it more now. … When they’re practicing against their own offense throughout the offseason, they’re just a little bit more used to it. And I love the idea of being able to add another element that maybe some other people can’t. You can do the same stuff, but if they play it this way, we do have another option. Our guy can run.”
“We really believe in that ceiling,” Lynch added, “that it can become a reality. I also think it’s comforting to know that you don’t have to put it all on him.”
Indeed, as Lance is being weaned onto the system and working to develop into a complete quarterback, a big key for Shanahan and Lynch is that because of the state of the roster, the Niners don’t need him to be superman.
In illustrating his vision for that, Shanahan cited the 28–3 lead he, Ryan and Atlanta let slip in Super Bowl LI at the hands of Tom Brady.
“There’s no defense for the perfect throw and he was shredding us,” Shanahan said. “And how do you stop that? You don’t go get someone to one-up him. You get a pass rush.”
Conversely, he then raised the Niners’ Super Bowl LIV loss to the Chiefs, and how Mahomes made plays that made a difference, like he hopes Lance can.
“You can win with a run game and with a quarterback who can make some plays, whether it’s throwing or running it, as long as you do have a top defense,” he said. “And that’s how we’ve tried to build it here to catch some of those teams until you get someone like that. And I think we have a chance to have a player grow into someone like that.”
Maybe Lance, someday, will get there.
For now, though, they’re not asking him to. They love the talent. They love the person. They also know a lot more about him than they did a year before, after watching how he handled the injury and his wait to ascend to the starting job. And Lance, for his part, is well aware of what he’s got around him too, and the opportunity that awaits.
“I’m super blessed to be here,” he said. “I was not expecting to get drafted as high as I got drafted onto a team like this, a Super Bowl contender team. So I’m thankful to be here. The guys, like I said, in this locker room, offense, defense and special teams are different, and separate themselves in so many different ways. I’ll get Deebo back again this year …
Lance then smiled and said, “Ah man, it’s super exciting.”
It is for everyone involved with the 49ers. And especially after everything they’ve already been through together.
WATSON SETTLEMENT FALLOUT, ON AND OFF THE FIELD
I’ll first reiterate what I wrote Thursday after the NFL, NFLPA and Deshaun Watson reached a settlement on sanctions for Watson—the quarterback took an 11-game suspension and $5 million fine, and agreed to an evaluation and counseling. That’s after settling 23 of 24 lawsuits against him describing sexual harassment and assault. and say that the NFL probably got what it was looking for in the negotiation.
One, the league wanted to come down hard on Watson in adding five games and $5 million on to the penalty recommended by Sue L. Robinson, who presided over the first phase of the process. And whether you think it did or not, it seemed relatively clear to me that the public’s focus over the last few days has been on how the Browns and Watson have handled the fallout, not on what the league agreed to.
Two, the NFL wanted to avoid going to court, and the settlement effectively achieves that. The league wanted no part of this turning into a supersized version of 2015, when the Tom Brady case lingered over an entire season (I’m obviously not comparing the substance of the two cases here, by the way), and this gives the NFL some closure in that way.
But what will it mean for the NFL, the Browns and Watson long-term? Here are a few things that I’ve considered on that topic since the decision came down.
1. Unless there’s a renegotiation of the personal conduct policy for cases like this one, a precedent has been set with the hefty fine and 11-game suspension. Remember, Robinson’s ruling wasn’t based on whether Watson was responsible in the four cases the NFL presented (she did find him responsible); it was based on precedent. So that there’s a new one is important.
2. Along those lines, I do wonder whether the NFL will try to work with the union to rework that part of the personal conduct policy, to address more specifically sexual violence and other transgressions against women. The league has clearly had its problems handling those. And I’d imagine the NFLPA would at least consider working with the league on that, based on how the union has worked with the league on these things in the past (the DUI policy is one where both sides, years ago, agreed harsh penalties should be in place).
3. I’ll be interested to see whether, when the 24th (and presumably final) lawsuit is adjudicated, we get a Watson who’s more willing to explain himself and be more specific with his apologies.
4. Jimmy Haslam was being a little disingenuous talking about taking risks during a press conference that didn’t go well for the Browns’ owner. He mentioned Kareem Hunt as a risk that worked out on the field. Fair enough. But under his leadership, there have been quite a few (Antonio Callaway, Josh Gordon, Johnny Manziel, Justin Gilbert, etc., etc.) that blew up in the team’s face.
5. As for Cleveland GM Andrew Berry, I’ll say this: There’s really not a lot that he can say about the 24 lawsuits or the four cases presented to the league. If he says he believes Watson, then he is essentially saying the women involved are lying. And if he says he doesn’t, well, then why did he trade for him? It’s why you saw him, I think, try to say as little as possible Thursday.
6. On the league’s end, I think the way this was handled follows what at least a few owners wanted a few years ago and agreed to in the CBA. And that’s for the NFL to start to outsource these cases and move Goodell away from being judge, jury and executioner. I think that’s why you saw Goodell pass on ruling on the appeal. And the effect of that? As I said earlier, not nearly as many people were pointing the finger at the league as they did in previous cases.
7. I can actually understand the league wanting to outsource these, too. No matter how many people it hires, it’s not law enforcement. It doesn’t have subpoena power. It’s a sports league, and as it’s found out over the years there’s very little upside to carrying the hammer in every arena.
8. There’s no way to turn the page to football here without it seeming like a hard left turn, but I’ll try. Obviously, the Browns now have certainty on the suspension, and with that I’d guess they’ll at least kick the tires on Jimmy Garoppolo and other available veteran options (so long as Garoppolo would work with them on the money part of it, and I think he would). With decent quarterback play (and I think Jacoby Brissett could give them that, too), the roster is good enough to get six or seven wins through 11 games.
9. I feel confident saying that the Browns know what they’ll face on the road this year, and were aware of it being part of the deal when they made the trade back in March. Regardless of whether Watson’s guilty, it’s obviously understandable why people would be upset with the team.
10. That said, this was never a move just for 2022. This was a move the Browns made believing it was a rare opportunity to get a top-five player at the most important position in sports in his mid-20s. The idea was it’d put them in position to compete with Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert and Lamar Jackson in the AFC over the next decade or so. So that the Browns would incur all this is both a sign of how vital having a great quarterback is in this era and of what kind of player Watson is.
While the disciplinary process now has closure, obviously the conversation isn’t over, and shouldn’t be over, either, regardless of where you stand on the case.
MICAH PARSONS: THE DEFENSIVE GRONK?
OXNARD, Calif. — My conversation with Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn started with my trying to get a historical comparison for Micah Parsons out of him. He didn’t have one, and eventually we meandered right back there, after it hit me how he was describing him.
This sounds like the inverse of Rob Gronkowski, I said, as he described Parsons’s uniqueness.
Quinn smiled and said he liked that one. My logic was simple. Gronkowski was a nightmare for defenses from the minute the huddle was broken because that was when they had to figure out what to do with him. Put a defensive back on him, his team checks to a run, and that corner or safety is blocked into the third row. Put a linebacker over him, Gronk’s waltzing down the seam for a big gain. There literally was no right answer.
Ditto with Parsons. When the offense breaks the huddle, the 23-year-old must be accounted for. If he’s off the line, you can’t assign a back to handle him, lest he blitz and that back be responsible for slowing him. If he’s on the line, you have to treat him as if he’s DeMarcus Lawrence coming off the edge, because he almost is. And if he drops into coverage or plays the run, you’ll likely have to waste a resource accounting for him as a rusher.
“Yeah, it’s the reserve of that matchup: Like, how are we gonna guard this guy?” said Quinn of the Gronk comp. “With him, it’s like, whenever you have to double a really good receiver, it’s hard when he has to move around to different spots. Not that they’re always doubling him, but it’s, O.K., he’s over here, he’s this; he’s over there, he’s that.”
That’s why when I went to Cowboys camp, I felt like it was one of the few where the quarterback really isn’t the most interesting player—and that’s no shot at Dak Prescott.
Parsons’s singular talent, plus his drive, added up to a rookie season for the books. He had a streak of six straight games with a sack. His 12 sacks in his first 13 games as a pro were the most by any player in 20 years, and that happened even though he was only a part-time edge player. He finished with 13 sacks, three passes defensed, three forced fumbles, and was a game-changer in every way a defensive player can be, winning first-team All-Pro honors and finishing second in Defensive Player of Year voting, ahead of Aaron Donald.
But the numbers hardly cover what a different dude this really is, a sort of Swiss Army knife that’s built for the 21st century game much like Gronkowski uniquely was, where the position designation next to his name seems like more of a suggestion. Which is why even he couldn’t come up with a comp for his skill set, when I asked.
“No,” Parsons said smiling. “That’s why it’s hard for me to watch other guys, all the guys I watch, regardless of how good they are or their play style, I don’t think there’s anybody in the league that’s like me.”
And Quinn concedes now that it actually did make it something of a challenge to assess him coming out of Penn State, especially after he’d opted out of the pandemic season of 2020 to prepare for the following April’s draft. Of course, he and the Cowboys knew how special Parsons was in terms of athleticism. He ran 4.36 at his Pro Day at 6’3″ and 246 pounds, and Dallas’s scouts saw, in part due to Parsons’s wrestling background, a rare ability to combine speed, power and leverage, along with an innate feel for how to use all that reactively.
What was hard to project was just how that would come together in the pros. He’d been an edge rusher in high school (and was recruited as one by a lot of schools) and an off-ball ’backer in college, and the NFL’s been littered over the years with great athletes who could never quite find their niche. So it was important for whoever drafted him to have a plan. Which is why when I asked Quinn if he was tough to grade, there was no hesitation.
“Yes, and he really only played one year [at Penn State],” said Quinn. “He blitzed a lot, you saw his speed, so it was O.K., I can see how we’d feature him; he could go out and just play. He’s really fast, so he can blitz, he can fit, he’s tough. But the end-of-the-line pass rush, you didn’t see a lot of that at Penn State, so when we started doing it, it was like …”
And Quinn smiled broadly. Last year in camp, the revelation happened in seeing Parsons go toe-to-toe with guys like Tyron Smith and Zack Martin, who legitimately may become Hall of Famers one day. Parsons, of course, didn’t take over when he was lined up against those guys. But he held his own, and that was enough to get the coaches thinking. Then, in Week 2, Lawrence was hurt, the governor was off and Quinn punched the gas. Parsons would moonlight at end.
By then, Quinn had little doubt that would work out, and not just because he had enough good tape from pass-rush drills in camp to put together a Parsons sizzle reel. It was also because he kept getting better and better the more he did it.
“I’m not saying he was beating Zack all the time, don’t get me wrong,” Quinn said. “But they were as good to go against as anyone to say, O.K., that worked, that didn’t work. And O.K., this is what the best in the league plays like, how can I win? And he just started adapting.”
We already detailed what happened next. Along the way, though, the Cowboys found out more and more about the kid—who faced some maturity questions through the predraft process—who was growing up so fast.
The first thing was just how driven he was. The second was how football smart he was, able to toggle from one position to another seamlessly. And in rolling those two things together, Quinn said, you had a then 22-year-old who would rarely make mistakes twice and was relentlessly self-critical, a quality that came out when I asked him about his rookie tape.
“Aw man, I just see so many mistakes that I made, bad steps, bad timing,” he said. “It’s just kinda funny. You watch that old tape and my tape now, it’s so much improved. I’m super excited to get out there this year. … It’s mental, where to place your eyes, what am I alerted for? What am I expecting? I’m trying to take the extra steps in the game.”
Physically, this offseason, he did it by working out at MMA and boxing gyms in Dallas. He went back to his roots and did wrestling workouts to drill his hand and foot movement and work on leverage and takedowns. He did boxing work to improve his reaction time, his ability to dip and move and his ability to strike. And he swears by it, because he’s already seeing results—“I’m doing all these sports because they correlate to football.”
And as for the mental side of the game, in a matter-of-fact way, he told me he’s watched tape of Shaquille Leonard (“He’s the best linebacker in the game. I love him, love his play style. I love everything about him; he’s ferocious,”) to hone his off-the-ball game, and Von Miller (“Von’s my guy, just because he sets the standard for speed rushers,”) to pick up stuff as an edge rusher.
Along those lines, Quinn has gotten more methodical on how he’s breaking up Parsons’s time between linebacker and defensive line meetings.
“We put a lot on him, but he really answered the challenge,” Quinn said. “So this year, I have him actually where it’s, O.K., you’re at linebacker for this part of the meeting, you’re at D-line this part, you’re over here for this part. So we’ve customized it. … Two days ago, it was all linebacker, the whole day. Three or four days ago, it was three-quarters D-line. And in those specific examples, it’s usually, This is how we’re gonna feature you today.”
Scary as it sounds, Quinn says there is a lot of room to grow. Quinn coached Bobby Wagner in Seattle, so he sets a high bar for Parsons when he’s playing off the line. Up front, there’s actually plenty more Dallas can do with him—and in an effort to make that happen, the coaches worked with him through the offseason to make him part of more of the defensive line games (stunts, twists, etc.) to generate better matchups and get him to the quarterback.
Even better, Parsons has eaten up all of this stuff.
“I remember talking to him early on like, Hey man, I’m gonna coach you hard, and we’re gonna ask you to do some things that not many people do,” Quinn said. “He goes, You tell me what you need to see from me. So when I say we’re gonna try to do some things that not a lot of people have done, that’s what we did.”
And there’s even more of that coming now, which brings to life how this sort of positionless player also seems so limitless at this early of a juncture in his career.
And Parsons, for his part, knows it, too. Which is why his goals don’t have limits, either.
“To be one of the greatest,” he said, now smiling broadly. “That’s what I want to be. I started in Ohio; I want to end in Ohio.”
That first Ohio reference, by the way, is to his first game as a pro, which was last summer’s Hall of Fame Game in Canton. The second Ohio reference, as you might’ve guessed, is to the same place.
DON’T MISUNDERSTAND THE RAMS
IRVINE, Calif. — The T-shirt really wasn’t Les Snead’s idea. He got an order of them from a family friend as a stocking stuffer for Christmas last year. The Rams’ GM was then prodded to wear it. He kept responding, I’m never wearing this. Then, someone said, You win the Super Bowl, you gotta wear it. Begrudgingly, he agreed. And when that happened, neither his wife, Kara, nor his kids were about to let him off the hook.
“It was more for others than me,” he said laughing.
So that’s the story of how the Eff-Them-Picks meme became a shirt, and how that shirt came to be worn at the Rams’ Super Bowl parade. And even now, Snead’s a little sheepish about it.
Maybe that’s because, well, he doesn’t believe it—or that it represents his team’s strategy.
As such, as you might’ve guessed, on the sun-soaked day that Snead and I caught up on the Rams’ UC-Irvine fields about an hour after another supercharged Sean McVay practice, Snead wasn’t wearing the shirt. He hasn’t put it on since the parade, and the Rams can laugh about it now. Just know they’re laughing at, and not with, the idea of it, because it’s become such a misnomer for how their roster was built the last six years.
“If I sum it up, with our earlier picks, it’s, Is there a less traditional way to use them?” Snead explained. “You’re not devaluing them. We’re not just giving them to our division rivals, like, Hey f— these picks, here you go, take them. It’s, Can we use them in a different way to help us get an edge? Now, the flip of that is if you’re gonna bring in players in their prime and have to pay them, along with some of your other pillars, we’re gonna really have to rely on players that are on their rookie contracts to be their Robins to our Batmen.
“And that’s the inverse of [the meme].”
If you think Snead is just pushing back on a popular narrative, you’re wrong.
Over the six drafts Snead and McVay have overseen, the Rams have made 53 picks, tied for sixth most in the league over that period (2017–22). The team carried 33 homegrown players on its 53-man roster into the NFC title game last year, tied with the Niners for most among the four conference finalists. Thirteen of the team’s 22 projected starters are Rams picks, with Aaron Donald the only first-rounder in the group, and that’s not counting three more (Troy Hill, Justin Hollins, Coleman Shelton) who are more-or-less homegrown, too.
Nine of the aforementioned 13 are still on rookie contracts, which, like Snead said, is a huge key to all this. Some guys have grown into megastars and are paid as such (Donald, Cooper Kupp). Others have earned manageable second deals (Rob Havenstein, Brian Allen, Joe Noteboom, Tyler Higbee). And the third category here is key, too, one that includes players like John Johnson III and Cory Littleton. Letting those guys leave has allowed the Rams to keep the war chest loaded with capital, because they’ve brought back a raft of compensatory picks.
“We’ve tried to utilize the comp formula. We’ve tried to trade back, to collect as many picks in the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh [rounds] as possible,” Snead said. “Now, we’re 32nd in first-round picks, but we’re top five in second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh.”
So what is actually innovative and different about this?
It’s ripping down the notion that first-round picks, and especially back-end first-rounders, are fundamentally different from other picks—and it’s a lesson Snead really first learned as Thomas Dimitroff’s top lieutenant in Atlanta in 2011. Going into that spring’s draft, the Falcons had made the playoffs three straight years, and had a young star quarterback in Matt Ryan with a burgeoning core around him.
“The concept of Julio [Jones], which is where all this has to start, it’s being aware of what window you’re in,” Snead said. “At that point in time, Matt Ryan had shown he could win, get you to the playoffs. It’s like, O.K., now you’re in this window, we can be good, we can contend, let’s go for it. At least you’ve had this success, it’s not like you’ve never been in the playoffs and you’re doing something radical to see if you can get in.
“It was, How can we get an edge and be even better in that tight window where there’s eight to 12 teams left?”
That discussion led the Falcons, whose slotted pick was 27th that year, to really examine the value of such a low first-rounder. Their determination? Maybe everyone’s been doing this all wrong. And in the end, they wound up dealing that first-rounder (Jimmy Smith), plus the 59th (Greg Little) and 124th (Owen Marecic) picks in 2011, and the 22nd (Brandon Weeden) and 118th (Jarius Wright) picks in ’12 for Jones.
The Falcons made two NFC title games and a Super Bowl over Jones’s first six years, Ryan won an MVP, and Jones made seven Pro Bowls as a Falcon.
That, of course, was a less traditional way to use high picks, and Snead would carry the lesson of it over to the Rams. So after McVay arrived, it meant taking a swing on a Sammy Watkins or a Marcus Peters, knowing the Rams could get a comp pick back if those kinds of moves didn’t work out. Then came the Brandin Cooks trade of 2018, which was the regime’s first for a veteran that involved a first-rounder, and really opened up the conversation.
The Rams looked at what the Patriots did with the Cooks pick in 2018. It became Georgia lineman Isaiah Wynn. Then, they saw what became of their first-rounder, the 31st pick, the next year, which they’d used in a trade down—the Falcons used it to take Washington tackle Kaleb McGary. So their slots, in consecutive years, became solid, if unspectacular offensive linemen, neither of whom wound up being long-term left tackles.
“You say, Would we give up two starting offensive linemen for Jalen Ramsey?” Snead continued. “And then you say, You know what? It’s a little easier to find a starting OL than it is those types of corners. So you’re always trying to use a little bit of the abstract.”
Using that abstract led to the Ramsey trade midseason in 2019 and, then, about 15 months later, the Matthew Stafford blockbuster—two deals that cost the Rams four first-round picks and a bunch of money in monster extensions. But they worked out because they were for truly elite players who were worth all of it, which was proven out in February.
Now, maybe the biggest key, Snead says, is the involvement of the coaching staff in the later rounds—both in being clear on what kind of role players they need and then being able to develop guys who, naturally, might not bring the whole athletic package that a first-round pick does. And therein lies another thing Snead took from Dimitroff in building his draft board—not just to rank players, but address needs, and construct and fill out a functioning 53-man roster (which is a tenet of Dimitroff’s roots in the New England system).
But not being hyper-focused on, say, a pick in the 20s helps there too.
“You can spend a lot of time trying to figure out who you’re gonna draft at 22,” Snead said. “But when you don’t have that, you can really sit down with your coaching staff and your scouting staff and say, Let’s figure out how we’re gonna do our best at finding players that fit for the Rams instead of spending all that time trying to find this one first-rounder. It allows us a lot of time to do that.”
All you need to do is look at the Rams roster to see how that’s worked out—and, in the process, turned a fun catchphrase on a T-shirt into one big lie.
I love what the Falcons did with their team this week. Atlanta had set up a series of joint practices with the Jets ahead of their preseason game in New Jersey, and when the league let the teams know they’d be moved to a Monday night time slot, Arthur Smith knew he’d have some extra time on his hands. He didn’t want the team sitting in a hotel in Jersey City for more than 24 hours—so he decided to try to get creative with the day between the practices and game, and give the players a shot to see something they normally wouldn’t. As such, the Falcons first considered doing their day-before walkthrough at Princeton (team president Rich McKay is an alum), before Smith got the idea, looking at the map, to make the short drive up to West Point. Owner Arthur Blank’s CEO, Steve Cannon, is a USMA graduate, so Smith talked to him and they got the ball rolling on what unfolded for the team Sunday.
Smith conducted his walkthrough in the morning before taking the players in for lunch with the cadets, then a tour of campus. “First off, it’s an appreciation for watching this leadership academy, how they operate, getting to peek behind the walls of a place that a lot of civilians don’t get to see,” Smith told me after the walkthrough. “Then, it’s the message I gave the team. It’s not some kind of political statement, or trying to play G.I. Joe or soldiers—it’s for us as a football team. We got work on the field and got to see if we could learn something from the way they train their cadets, their leadership, their management tactics. I’m thankful they let us up here.”
It was a cool experience for Smith personally, too, his dad having served in the Marines. In fact, before he made the trip, his dad repeated a story Smith had heard before. In Vietnam in 1968, as company commander of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine, he’d attached with the Army on a cross-operation, before telling his son to “tell whoever’s in charge here that he could only make it three weeks in the army before he had to go back to the Marine Corps.” That family history, of course, added to the trip for Smith—who’d read plenty about the campus, and on the coaching legacy of people like Bobby Knight and Mike Krzyzewski there, but had never been, and even coached a West Point football alum (Collin Mooney) back in his Tennessee days.
“I’ve always heard it’s beautiful,” he said. And now he and a bunch of other guys who hadn’t been there know it for a fact, which, to me, makes for pretty good use of an otherwise quiet training camp day.
J.J. Watt taking vet days in camp is probably a sign that most older guys should. Why? Well, because Watt resisted it forever. He estimates, between the Texans and Cardinals, he’s been offered a relaxed camp schedule for the last seven years or so. He turned the break down every single time. Until, that is, this summer.
“It’s hard,” Watt told me last week. “You’re an athlete, and I’ve always believed to lead the guys, you have to be working with the guys. But it’s not Bear Bryant’s two-a-days. I think people are more understanding now. It’s a different league.”
So, maybe a bit begrudgingly, Watt accepted the offer this time around, going to the two-days-on, one-day-off cadence some of the other older Cardinals players have worked off of. The main impetus for him was, first, his age (he’s 33 now), and also the amount of time he’s missed: 42 of 97 games the last six years, after playing in 80 of 80 over his first five years.
“The part that I should’ve realized earlier is the most important thing in the NFL is the 17 Sundays and to make it to the playoffs,” Watt said. “It’s extremely important to practice, it’s extremely important to be out there with the boys, it’s extremely important to be working on your game. But if you worked your ass off on a Wednesday in training camp and didn’t make it to Sunday in Week 8, it’s all for naught. So for me it’s learning that, with a six-week training camp, the importance is getting to the season and being healthy for the season, and knowing that it’s O.K. if you have to let your body rest on a random Tuesday.” And he says that with the acknowledgment that he hates watching practice, because, obviously, he likes being out there with the guys, and also because, “It’s boring.” But if it means playing in December and January? It’ll have been worth it. Here are a couple more things from my talk with Watt …
MMQB: What’s keeping you out there?
Watt: Competitive drive. Just the want to compete, the want to be with your team to contend for a championship. It’s what I do. As an athlete, as a competitor, you want to be out there, you want to be competing, you want to be working to be at the top of your games. And once that dies, I’ll stop.
MMQB: Have you thought about walking away the last couple of years?
Watt: There’s been some injuries that have been harder than others, certainly. To say that you never ever thought about that is just a lie. I’d be lying. But no, especially not recently, I haven’t. I feel really good. This camp, I’ve felt great. I’m really looking forward to playing.
MMQB: How can you guys avoid the late-season collapse this time around?
Watt: I think the first thing is injuries. We have to stay healthy. We’re 7–0 and I go down, Kyler [Murray] goes down, Hop [DeAndre Hopkins] goes down for a bit. You start to lose some very important pieces to the team, that’s going to hurt you. Also from a leadership standpoint, just being able to handle that adversity, having different guys out there and being able to say, It’s all right, we got this. The handling of adversity and the maturity of the team, to be able to go through a difficult stretch of a game, or even if it’s a difficult week or two, to be able to handle that. … That’s something that definitely, as the leadership of this team, we’re working on.
MMQB: Kyler had told me he thought negativity got to the team late last year. You think the team’s learned from that?
Watt: I hope so. If you lose whatever we did at the end, seven of nine, then get your ass kicked in the playoffs, I hope we learned, I hope you don’t want to feel it again. And if you do, I don’t want you in my locker room.
I think the Steelers have a difficult decision to make. Kenny Pickett has been nails in the preseason—and the numbers reflect that. His two games thus far …
• Against the Seahawks, Pickett went 13-of-15 for 95 yards, two touchdowns and a 132.6 passer rating. He led the two touchdown drives and went three-and-out just once, playing the entire second half with, and against, plenty of guys who probably won’t be in the league in two weeks.
• Against the Jaguars, Pickett was 6-of-7 for 76 yards, a touchdown and a 151.6 rating. He led two drives, went three-and-out on one (though a holding penalty negated a third-down conversion on that one) and led a touchdown drive on the other.
So add it up, and Pickett got seven possessions, led the Steelers’ offense to three touchdowns, went three-and-out twice (one of which, you could argue, wasn’t on him), and completed 19-of-22 throws for 171 yards and three touchdowns. Now, Mitch Trubisky has also been pretty decent (9-of-15, 123 yards, TD) in two preseason games, and has been really good in practice. But that’s the thing—Pickett’s shakiness at times in practice seems to evaporate when the game lights come on, which matches his reputation from college. And his experience at Pitt helps, too. He was actually recruited there by Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada, then the Panthers’ OC, and ran a version of Canada’s offense in 2017 and ’18, before getting a steady diet of NFL-styled concepts playing in former Steelers assistant Mark Whipple’s offense the last three years.
“Playing for Whip definitely helped a lot,” Pickett told me earlier in camp. And on top of that, the volume of defense he saw starting 49 games over five years helps shorten the learning curve. So … would Mike Tomlin start him? In a certain way, this reminds me a little of the spot Bill Belichick was in with the Patriots last year (and there are some similarities between Pickett and Mac Jones, who’s not quite as athletic, but more consistently accurate than Pickett), where a rookie showed he got it quickly. Ultimately, New England went with the rookie over Cam Newton, confident that he was ready and had the mental toughness to endure bumps, and knowing that playing in in Year 1 would allow Jones to hit the ground running the next year. All of those elements exist with Pickett, too, I think. But thinking about going with the rookie, as the Steelers are, and pulling the trigger on it are two different things, especially when there’s a playoff roster on hand full of veterans whose 2022 fates rest on that call.
The Panthers’ decision should be easier. And I think it’ll come before, not after, this week’s game against the Bills. Maybe even Monday. There won’t be any surprises. Baker Mayfield has pretty clearly been the best quarterback in camp, and for a number of different reasons. One big one came on the only possession he’s played over Carolina’s first two preseason games. On the fifth snap of that 13-play, 54-yard drive that ended in a field goal, a second-and-9 from the 50, Mayfield got the ball from the shotgun and quickly moved through what was in front of him. First read? Covered. Second read? Not there. Boom, ball’s out to the third guy in the progression, fullback Giovanni Ricci, for six yards underneath to get Carolina into a manageable third-and-3. That’s the sort of routine play the Panthers weren’t making as much last year, and that was the idea in getting Mayfield in the first place—that he could bring them at least league-average quarterback play.
And on that snap, a nondescript one, to be sure, Mayfield showed field vision, an ability to process quickly and an awareness for the situation. No one would look at that throw and say, “field general,” but that’s just what Mayfield was in the moment. That doesn’t mean he’s going to be a superstar this year. Just means he’s got a shot to be pretty good, and Carolina thinks that’ll be good enough to get a promising young roster to take a big step. And Mayfield has also acquitted himself well with his teammates and coaches, which is the clincher here. The coaches sent him the playbook in early July during a no-contact period, and when he reported a couple weeks later, they were really impressed with the grasp he’d gained for a complex scheme without anyone else’s help. He’s also shown humility coming out of a rocky exit from Cleveland, and he’s been respectful in entering a quarterback room, melding quickly with Sam Darnold and Matt Corral, even though they were all competing for the same thing. So you add that stuff to what Mayfield’s shown in camp in the way of processing and instincts and field vision? And yeah, that decision is coming really soon.
The Patriots are probably going to trade … someone. New England’s really tight to the cap, and my sense is they’d like to use a surplus they might have at one position or another to alleviate that and maybe pick up a draft pick or two. The one guy I know definitively that they’ve talked with other teams on is Isaiah Wynn, their first-round pick from 2018. Wynn, though, is on a $10.4 million fifth-year option, which has made it tough to move a guy who, four years after he was drafted, is still seen as a tackle/guard tweener.
The other spot where New England could potentially get calls is receiver. There’s been speculation on Nelson Agholor, but his big number ($9 million base, plus $1 million in per-game roster bonuses) makes him more difficult to trade. He’s also emerged as a leader in the receiver room in Foxborough after a really strong offseason, which could make the Patriots hesitant to move him.
So … maybe Kendrick Bourne? His financials are manageable ($3.75 million, plus $750K in per-game roster bonuses), he’d shown some frustration with the offensive changes over the last few months, and just got done with a weird week (fight in joint practices with Carolina, scratched for the game). I think the Patriots will get some calls on him, at the very least. And I think they’d feel compelled to listen, too, given their own situation.
The Buccaneers’ offensive line situation should not be ignored. We saw what happened last year in the playoffs when Tampa Bay had a couple injuries up front, and the damage done already this summer has been significant. Guards Alex Cappa (free agency, to the Bengals) and Ali Marpet (retirement) left. Center Ryan Jensen is out for the foreseeable future, if not the season, with a knee injury (we’ll have more on that in the quick-hitters). And on Saturday, guard Aaron Stinnie, who’d started games in a pinch the last couple of years for the Bucs, tore his ACL and MCL against the Titans.
That leaves the Bucs with ex-Patriot Shaq Mason and rookie Luke Goedeke at the guard spots, and second-year pro Robert Hainsey at center. Of the three, only Mason has an NFL start on his résumé, and none have started a game in a Bucs uniform. While Goedeke and Hainsey were both top-100 draft picks, and there is potential there, neither has started an NFL game (Hainsey dressed for only nine games last year). Given all that, and the fact they’ve got a 45-year-old quarterback who’s had issues with pressure up the middle over the course of his career (and I mean that in a relative sense, given that it’s Tom Brady we’re talking about), I’d say there’ll be a lot to manage for the Buccaneers’ offensive staff, at least early in the year. Assuming, of course, Brady comes back soon from his preplanned camp sabbatical (I’m kidding, of course … although it will be interesting to see what he has to say about all this).
Roquan Smith’s ill-fated hold-in ended the way most predicted it would. Smith is a really good player. But he’s also a sawed-off, instinct-driven, heat-seeking missile of a linebacker in a league that’s increasingly looking for size, length and athleticism at his position. So he doesn’t fit every team to begin with. And even with those where he does fit, there’s been an overall devaluing of his position across the NFL (13 off-ball linebackers have an APY of $10 million or more; 31 edge rushers make that much, with 14 at $16 million or more). Which means for Smith or the Bears to find a trade partner, they’d have to find a team that Smith would fit stylistically (he’s not exactly a perfect fit for Matt Eberflus’s scheme, based on what Eberflus had in Indianapolis), willing to pay the top of the market at a position where many teams won’t and give up premium draft capital on top of that. That’s a lot of boxes to check. Evidently, more than any team was willing to mark off.
Jordan Love’s step forward is great news for the Packers. Obviously, it’s good for Green Bay to see the progress and have the potential successor to Aaron Rodgers in place, just in case Rodgers walks away after this year. But it’s also good for Green Bay that the progress is going on tape accessible to the rest of the league—because if Rodgers is back in 2023, then teams that might be interested in trading for Love will have some tangible proof that the progress is happening.
For his part, Matt LaFleur said after Friday’s win over the Saints that Love is “light years ahead” of where he was even last year. “I think the game has slowed down for him,” LaFleur told reporters. “I see a much more decisive player. I think that’s going to lead to a much more effective player.” Now, it wasn’t perfect, to be sure. His decision-making still needs improvement, and the Saints’ coaches noticed how much better he is off play-action than he is in the dropback game. But now, versus where he was, he looks like a guy who’s got a chance. So maybe Love will get a real shot to play next year, whether it’s in Green Bay or someone else. And if he does, we’ll all get an interesting case study in seeing the results of a quarterback being developed a different way than they normally are these days (Rodgers, interestingly enough, is the last first-rounder who had to wait three years to become a starter).
Working on that Rams section, I have some random numbers to share. Like we said earlier, they’re tied for sixth in most draft picks taken (the Cowboys, Colts and Broncos also have 53) over the last six years. Who has the most? And the fewest? Glad you asked. Here’s what the numbers showed …
Most draft picks (2017–22)
1. Vikings 67
2. Packers 58
3. Ravens 56
4. Bengals 55
5. Commanders 54
Fewest draft picks (2017–22)
1. Saints 34
2. Chiefs 40
3. Texans 41
T-4. Bears, Dolphins, Eagles, Falcons 42
So what does that tell you? Probably not a ton. The two teams with the fewest picks, New Orleans and Kansas City, have each been in the playoffs in all six years of that period. The Saints have fewer because they like packaging picks to move up for specific guys. The Chiefs have fewer because of trades for Patrick Mahomes and Frank Clark. Both, obviously, have done a nice job.
On the flip side, Minnesota, Green Bay and Baltimore have all contended through this span, so what they’re doing is working for them. And so I guess what you learn here is a truism that’s not all that exciting—picks are really only worth the players you turn them into.
We’ve got quick-hitter takeaways for the week, as we head back on the road. Here are 10 of them for you, right now …
• I wouldn’t expect any definitive declaration on Jensen for the Bucs for a while. His knee injury is complicated. He and the team are, indeed, leaving the door open for a return, but I’m told it wouldn’t happen until the playoffs, and probably deep into the playoffs, and even that might not be very likely. Either way, it’ll be a few months before they have a better idea on whether there’s a real chance he can play this season.
• The Bills look like a machine right now, and you can even see it with new guys, both older (O.J. Howard) and younger (James Cook, Khalil Shakir). When I was at their camp, I felt like they had this sort of quality that you saw watching the 2007 Patriots or ’13 Seahawks practice—just with the way it looks. Saturday’s preseason game only backed that up for me.
• I don’t know if there’s anything to it, and maybe it has to do with pre-combine training or the more deliberate ramp-up to camp, but it feels like a lot of rookies are going down with pretty significant injuries. Among them over the last few days: Panthers QB Matt Corral, Bears S Jaquan Brisker and Rams OL Logan Bruss.
• The Packers getting OT David Bakhtiari back off PUP is a really important development. If he and Elgton Jenkins, who came off the list last week, are at full strength, a trouble spot on the roster becomes a big-time strength—and maybe one of the league’s best lines. And I’d bet the team has Jenkins (one of the league’s best linemen, who can legit play all five spots) at right tackle when the season starts, as has quietly been the plan, to bookend Bakhtiari and keep the three young guys (Jon Runyan Jr., Josh Myers, Royce Newman) together inside.
• It’s pretty wild that KaVontae Turpin took two kicks to the house on Saturday night. Turpin’s story is a complicated one. He was thrown out of TCU in 2018 after a domestic violence incident with his girlfriend. Because of it, starting in ’19, he had to work his way through the edges of the pro football world, playing in Fan Controlled Football, the Spring League and a European league before winning USFL MVP honors for the New Jersey Generals in the spring. That got him his shot in Dallas. And he seems to be making the most of it.
• Hard not to root for Lions LB Malcolm Rodriguez if you’re watching Hard Knocks.
• If I’m a Jaguars fan, I’m pretty optimistic right now on where the new staff has Trevor Lawrence. It’s not perfect yet, and Doug Pederson said himself that Lawrence needs to calm down early in games. But they have him playing fast, and doing that has put the generational physical tools he has on display.
• With Joe Flacco likely to start the Jets’ opener, I think it’s worth mentioning here that he’s really made a difference for Zach Wilson in New York. Maybe the biggest lesson Wilson’s taken? Flacco told him to focus on what the coaches are asking him to do, rather than trying to process every last thing that’s happening on the field. The Jets’ staff saw Wilson take that lesson, and start to play more instinctively and less robotically, before he got hurt.
• At the risk of sounding like a Buckeye homer, Saints rookie Chris Olave so far looks on an NFL field just like he did at Ohio State—smooth, savvy and lightning fast. Now, that doesn’t mean he’s an automatic All-Pro or anything like that. But generally, in my experience, if a guy looks like he did in college right away, it’s usually an indicator his game is translating quickly. And as I understand it, the Packers game was a continuation of a nice stretch of camp for him.
• I’d think a lot of teams will be sitting starters for the last weekend of preseason games, which precedes, of course, next week’s cutdown. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be guys worth watching. And I think Commanders rookie QB Sam Howell is one.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1. The new Manti Te’o documentary on Netflix is absolutely jarring, especially when you consider how much Te’o lost as a result of the situation. I’m also not sure that Naya Tuiasosopo was appropriately held accountable for throwing someone else’s life into complete chaos.
2. It’ll be fun to see what happens with Quinn Ewers at Texas now that he’s been named starter. I’ve heard he’s pretty raw, but a good kid and one blessed with a ridiculous arm. Can the Longhorns be good enough around him for him to develop the right way? How will it look against Nick Saban in 19 days? A lot to consider, and look ahead to, with this one. (Plus, Arch Manning gets to Austin in January!)
3. Urban Meyer’s run in the NFL was, of course, a trainwreck. That said, he’s always been really good on TV, so it makes sense that Fox would want him back. What’ll be interesting, though, is how he’s received on the road, with Big Noon Kickoff set to be on campuses on a weekly basis for the first time this fall.
4. I had no idea Spaceman was still pitching at 75 years old.
5. Does it feel like the Lakers giving LeBron James a two-year, $97.1 million extension … might not be the best idea? He’ll turn 39 during the first year of the deal (2023–24), and 40 during its second year (2024–25). And at the numbers he’s making, if he’s no longer the superstar he’s been, in a salary-capped league, it would seem the Lakers would have some major problems. I hope he’s still the LeBron he’s been, for the record. I just have a hard time seeing it happening.
6. Good story from my buddy Paul Kuharsky on how ridiculous youth sports have gotten. It’s pretty easy to see for me, even with my oldest being just 7, how clubs have overrun everything. Covering pro sports for a living, I feel comfortable saying this—no one’s winning a scholarship in elementary school.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Keep an eye on M.J. Emerson.
Take that, Brady Six!
In addition to Brunell and Warner … Matt Hasselbeck, Ty Detmer, Aaron Brooks and, of course, Rodgers, were among the backups the Packers developed behind Brett Favre over the years. It feels like teams value picks too much to do this anymore, but Ron Wolf’s old philosophy was a good one—if it works out, you get three years of good depth from a young quarterback, then a pick or picks back for him when his contract is running out.
… when training camp coverage gets a little too detailed.
I think I tore three ligaments just watching someone trying to square up on Moore there.
Pretty cool—Garrett Wilson congratulating his old high school buddy Brett Baty on his MLB debut …
… and here’s the reaction at that high school to Baty hitting a home run in his first at-bat (technically, that’s not an NFL tweet, but I’ll put it here anyway).
I give the fight I saw at Patriots-Panthers a 7.8.
This is probably an 8.2. Pickett really showing a lot of fire out there in the end-zone stands.
Can’t wait! (But isn’t there actually a game in Ireland next week?)
I’ll always be a sucker for these.
A-plus reaction from Lawrence.
Love this. R.I.P., John.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
I’ll be hitting up a handful of teams this week to wrap up my camp travel—and I’m excited to get back out there (even if Florida in August isn’t really my speed). And as has been the case, you can keep up with me with takeaways, whether via video, article or Twitter, from each of the five I’ll see between Tuesday and Thursday.
Last week, we got you some on the Patriots and Panthers.
And if you’ve been following all along? We appreciate it, and have a lot more coming for you with the season getting closer and closer.
More Deshaun Watson Coverage: