GamePlan: A Look Back at the NFL’s Wild First Week of the New League Year

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I thought it best if this week’s GamePlan was a little bit of everything, so we’re going notes style to recap a wild week in the league.

• The big news of Thursday night—that the Raiders are forking over their first- and second-round picks, plus a five-year, $141.25 million contract, to land franchise-tagged Packers star Davante Adams—took me back to a conservation I had with Josh McDaniels right around the Super Bowl.

We’d talked about lessons he’d taken from Denver, after his relationship with Jay Cutler blew up, and how he’d apply them in building a new one with Derek Carr.

“I’m going to be upfront and honest with everybody, and I really … I’ve been a fan of his for a long time,” McDaniels said. “So I’m eager and excited to begin the relationship and I think he feels the same way. And I’m going to pour into him like I’ve always tried to do with that position, and I think it’ll be a great working relationship. We’re looking forward to it.”

True to his word, one of McDaniels’s first phone calls on the job was to Carr.

I’ll bet the one he made to tell him he’d be reuniting with Adams was even better.

devante-adams

In Adams, McDaniels is fulfilling that promise to pour into the quarterback by giving Carr a true No. 1 receiver whose versatility and route-running ability makes him an ideal fit for the offense he’ll be installing in Vegas. And that McDaniels and GM Dave Ziegler are accomplishing that with one of Carr’s college teammates, and a close friend of his, shows there’s a premium being placed on the chemistry on the roster and in the building.

And it also sends a heck of a message to everyone there—as does the blockbuster signing of Chandler Jones—that Ziegler and McDaniels don’t believe the team there, one that made the playoffs last year, is very far off.

• On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the Baker Mayfield situation in Cleveland.

The Browns’ quarterback has formally requested a trade, and Cleveland’s brass has formally told him where he can take that request—and that they won’t honor it.

Thing is, Cleveland doesn’t really have to do anything at this point. Mayfield’s request has been made public throughout the league, and teams don’t need anyone’s permission to call the Browns and make an offer for the former No. 1 pick. And Mayfield does have trade value.

“I do think he’s a starting-caliber player, no doubt,” said one AFC exec. “But this ‘franchise guy’ thing, if the guy wasn’t the first pick, if he went in the second or third round, we’d be looking at him so differently. He has that attached to his name, and it’s not reality; he can be one of 32, but have to comfortable with the idea that he’s gonna be somewhere maybe 16 to 22. Physically, one-through-14, you’re talking about guys that are bigger, are better athletes, bigger arms.

“He’s got a good arm, he’s accurate, but he’s just not one of those top guys. So what are you acquiring then? The 20th best quarterback? You have to be comfortable with that.”

And this particular scout took it back to the college evaluation, where a lot of people missed. To be clear, the scout said, the tape was really, really good. But there were cracks there too—and in particular in his final college game against Georgia. At halftime of that game, Kirby Smart adjusted his defensive plan, and with a defense loaded with athletes, the Bulldogs made Mayfield looked ordinary, like a quarterback who’d gotten everything he could out of his physical gifts and simply didn’t have another gear in him.

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Now, I know Mayfield would probably disagree with that assessment, and we’ve seen him prove plenty of people wrong in the past. But it is how the league sees him now. Which should make how teams approach the Browns in the coming days fascinating.

In the end, part of it may come down to how teams like the Colts and Panthers, if they miss out on Watson, view him vs. Jimmy Garoppolo—and you could throw the Saints in there too if they strike out with the Texans’ QB (the Saints loved Mayfield before the 2018 draft). As we said the other day in the MMQB column, there’s a belief in league circles the Niners will want two second-rounders for Garoppolo. I didn’t think they’d get that until I saw what Carson Wentz went for. Now? Maybe.

So let’s say, then, some teams come to the Browns with something similar to the deal the Panthers did for Sam Darnold last year, a second-rounder and some combination of Day 3 picks. At that point, the Browns would have to balance that against however they could fill the position in the aftermath, with how Mayfield’s been carrying himself as a factor.

To me, that makes it easy to see why the Browns are keeping alive the idea that Mayfield could still be their starter next year. Mostly because, at this point, he still might be their best option.

• As for the Watson situation, it’ll be interesting to see what he prioritizes down the stretch.

To that, one thing I heard through the grapevine is that he’d like for his new team to adjust his contract, and new money and guarantees have been part of the discussion. He could be looking for a raise. He could just be looking to protect himself financially in the case of a suspension—converting a chunk of his $35 million base salary into a bonus would accomplish that, and also could be used as a mechanism to lower his 2022 cap number for his new team. Either way, financials are part of the picture here.

The Saints made their best pitch on Wednesday night, sending owner Gayle Benson to Atlanta to meet with Watson. The Falcons met earlier that day with Watson, who has family in the area and grew up an hour north of town in Gainesville, Ga.

As for the Texans’ piece of this, the four teams that got visits had to basically get to a certain threshold with their trade offers to get permission to talk to Watson—so the deals aren’t necessarily all the way done with Atlanta and New Orleans, but close enough that both of those teams and the Texans were comfortable a fair trade could be worked out whenever Watson chooses which team he’d waive his no-trade clause for.

• Per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Falcons QB Matt Ryan agreed to delay the trigger on his $7.5 million roster bonus from today until Tuesday. Logistically, it really doesn’t change much for Ryan (unless they cut him, which I assume they wouldn’t), since payment of the $7.5 million, per the contract, isn’t due until April 15 anyway. Really, the only difference it makes is who’d be responsible for it—Tuesday is the “earned” date, so whoever’s roster he’s on then will be on the hook to pay for it.

Why would Ryan do the Falcons a solid here?

Well, he’s had a great relationship with the team that drafted him over their 14 years together. And I’d assume that if he’s doing right by the team here, the team will do right by him if they land Watson and decide to trade him—which in this case would mean giving him some say in where he winds up.

Props to Ryan for handling all of this the way he has.

• One line from Von Miller on Thursday should give Bills fans chills, and send chills down the spines of the other teams in the AFC East.

“One of the biggest reasons I came here is Josh Allen,” Miller said. “I believe in him.”

We told you after the combine that multiple established star players either reached out on their own, or had their agents reach out to express interest in playing for the Bills, and that Josh Allen was a stated reason for it. And Miller’s just one of a number of guys, joining Jordan Phillips, Tim Settle, Rodger Saffold and O.J. Howard, who had Allen on their mind when deciding to go to Western New York.

Yes, Orchard Park is an NFL destination, and Allen is largely why.

So that advantage the Patriots had over the division for all those years, in being able to attract ring chasers to Foxboro, because with Tom Brady all things seemed possible? It’s an edge that the Bills now are cultivating a few hundred miles West.

• New free-agent OT La’el Collins flew to Cincinnati last night, and will be meeting with the Bengals brass all day today. Nothing’s fully agreed to yet, but it’s fair to assume their plan is to not let him leave town without having signed a contract, and they have a few things working for them—their line coach, Frank Pollack, was Collins’s position coach his first three years in the NFL, and Collins has LSU ties to Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase.

And, after all these years, the Bengals have something else working for them, and that’s the feeling across the league that, with Burrow, their February Super Bowl trip was just the beginning.

Having that kind of competitive capital to wield with free agents has already paid dividends for the team, with the signings of former Brady linemen Alex Cappa (from the Buccaneers) and Ted Karras (from the Patriots), both tough, heady players who bring the kind of interior pass blocking the Bengals knew they needed. Should it happen again with Collins, Cincinnati will have acquired three starting linemen in five days.

For what it’s worth, there really isn’t reason to doubt the Bengals here, either. Coach Zac Taylor and quarterback Joe Burrow were pretty good in that department last year—able to woo Riley Reiff from Minnesota at a Jeff Ruby steakhouse (The Precinct), with fellow free agent additions Trey Hendrickson, Mike Hilton and Chidobe Awuzie in attendance.

• No one should be surprised by the release of Fletcher Cox.

Last year, when his name came up around the trade deadline, the Eagles were very careful about how it might’ve looked, and what it could do to their relationship with one of the franchise’s all-time greats. This time around, when shopping him, they were much more matter-of fact-about it.

That’s a pretty good tell on which way this was going. And also on how the NFL views Cox now—he’s still a serviceable player, of course, but not quite worth the monster contract he was playing on.

• It’ll be interesting to see Allen Robinson’s fit with the Rams. His tape at the end of last year wasn’t great, and the market for him was tepid at best. And in that way, this was two sides that sort of needed one another.

On the player’s side, you had the need for a place with a history of energizing players later in their careers, and the Rams have that. On the team’s side, a healthy, reliable receiver was needed, with both Robert Woods and free agent Odell Beckham Jr. coming back from ACL tears. So Robinson gets an optimal landing spot, with a great quarterback, And the Rams get a healthy player at the position who can hit the ground running.

In the end, the contract was a value for the team, and helps give the Rams room to let Woods and, if he’s re-signed (and the Rams hope to resign him), Beckham heal for their knee injuries at a reasonable pace.

• The best free agent left? Easy. Terron Armstead.

More NFL Coverage:

Browns, Baker Mayfield Reach the Point of No Return
The Deshaun Watson Chase and the ‘Due Diligence’ Myth
2022 NFL Free Agency Grades: Analyzing Every Major Move
What Happens to the Teams That Lose the Deshaun Watson Sweepstakes?

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