With Leonard Fournette now on the waiver wire, let’s revisit the decision to draft him fourth overall in 2017. Plus, which other running backs are watching Alvin Kamara’s contract situation, Ja’Marr Chase opts out, Logan Ryan to the Giants and more.
So here we are, 10 days away from the regular season…
• The backstory of Leonard Fournette is relevant today, as the former fourth overall pick hits the waiver wire, and (fair warning) what I’ll write here is going to be painful for Jaguars fans to hear. After Gus Bradley was fired late in the 2016 season, the team started the process of finding a new coach—and a number of guys that interviewed for the job (Josh McDaniels and Kyle Shanahan were on the list) told the team in no uncertain terms that it needed to move on from 2014 first-rounder Blake Bortles. In fact, one reason Doug Marrone was able to win the promotion from interim coach was because he was pragmatic in his thought the process, and willing to try and get Bortles right. His plan to do it was interesting: Take the ball out of the quarterback’s hands. So that offseason, the Jags went about building a ball-control offense. And in the draft, there was a perfect back to play that style, in LSU’s Leonard Fournette. Jacksonville took him, with the decision made to run it back for another year with Bortles, eliminating the chance the team would take Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes. Again, in summary, the organization made the call to stick with Bortles, then did all it could to minimize his impact on games by taking a back that would fit the kind of offense that he would necessitate (rather than more-versatile Stanford star Christian McCaffrey). For a year, to Marrone’s credit, it worked. The Jags made the AFC title game. But the long-term fallout has been undeniable. Bortles wound up lasting two more years, and his failure necessitated overspending on Nick Foles, who lasted just one year. Meanwhile, while Fournette’s fit worked in the short-term, the price paid there was missing out on McCaffrey. Three years later, both Bortles and Fournette are without jobs, and Mahomes, Watson and McCaffrey are stars. And it can all trace back to the team sticking with Bortles for a season too long.
• As for Fournette’s future, he hits the wire Monday carrying a $4.17 million number for 2020, which is why he could go unclaimed—that’s a pretty decent chunk of money to be spending on a back less than two weeks before the opener. If he does clear, the idea of Pittsburgh makes sense to me, maybe because I remember what the similarly-old-school Jerome Bettis was before he went there, and how becoming a Steeler resurrected his career. And, for what it’s worth, Fournette’s got old offensive coordinators of his in Green Bay and Chicago. It’ll be interesting to see what’s next for him.
• Alvin Kamara’s run at a contract, presuming that’s what his absence from practice is, is interesting in a number of ways. One, there’s the fact that the Saints can report the absence as unexcused, which would cost Kamara an accrued season and make him a restricted (rather than unrestricted) free agent after the season. Two, there’s the choice to do this now, rather than at the beginning of camp, which actually could be solid strategically, in that the Saints need him present a lot more now than they would in late July or early August, when a holdout would typically be staged. Three, he’s a great player, and the team is in a win-now spot. They need him. So if this is the way to get a contract, and he’s confident it’s going to happen, Kamara doesn’t need to worry about accruing that season (even if does have an impact on his post-career benefits). Lots of push and pull on this one. Stay tuned.
• Also likely watching the Kamara situation: Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon and Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook. Both guys are going into contract years. How close Kamara gets to draft classmate Christian McCaffrey’s four-year, $64 million extension should at least clarify the landscape in negotiations for the other two. Kamara and McCaffrey, to be sure, are unique weapons not tied down to simply playing tailback. But Mixon and Cook have versatility too. And even if they aren’t what Kamara and McCaffrey are, if both Kamara and McCaffrey are over $15 million per year, it becomes clearer that the latter’s deal isn’t simply an outlier.
• Shout out to NFLPA president J.C. Tretter on asking the league, via a post on the union web site, for the continuation of daily testing into the season. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the success the league has had—just four of 2,600 players are on the COVID-19 list as of this writing—it’s the importance of constantly testing players. It’s pretty simple. If you don’t let COVID-19 into the building, then it can’t spread. And as well as it has worked, I think Tretter’s right. Continuing with the testing would be money well invested for the NFL.
• One thing that was interesting to hear while I was in Tampa: Fourth-year TE O.J. Howard was ecstatic to be working with Rob Gronkowski. In checking in with some people there, some concern did exist as the Gronkowski trade went down in April that Howard might not take the news well. Instead, the opposite happened—and Howard’s agent actually called the team soon thereafter to tell them that the former top-10 pick couldn’t be happier. So when I talked to Howard on Sunday, I made sure to ask him about that. “Rob is one of the greatest ever to play the position,” Howard told me. “It was an opportunity for me to go and learn, and just become a sponge and soak up a lot of knowledge. I’m always about learning more, putting more things in my toolbox, continuing to sharpen those tools and become a better player. So this is an opportunity for me to do that with him and Tom [Brady]. I couldn’t be put in a better situation at a young age, Year 4. This is only the beginning for me, it’s been a great opportunity for me to have a chance to have my career take off.” That, of course, is a great attitude to have, and it’s showing up in his play, too. Howard’s cleaned up his problem with drops, and been a star in making circus catches in contested situations all month.
• While we’re there, and just to accentuate the point I made in the MMQB column, here’s promising second-year receiver Scotty Miller on how positive Tom Brady’s been in camp: “That’s something I’ve noticed from him since the day I met him. Just extremely positive. I’d heard stuff about him, that in New England, he’d get on guys or whatever. But with us, he’s as humble as it gets. I mean, if he puts the ball on my chest and I drop the ball, he’ll be like, ‘My bad, I gotta give you a better ball,’ where it’s not his fault at all. That gives us all confidence, when we see our leader being humble and wanting to work on his game every single day. It tells us, if he’s doing that, we need to be doing the exact same thing, always willing to take the blame, and always doing your best on every single play.” And how have his teammates taken to following him? Well, I was told last week that among the veteran skill players—guys who worked with him over the spring and summer—the Bucs have seen zero (0!) soft-tissue injuries. That’s despite the adverse summer conditions in Tampa, and despite the COVID-affected camp schedule. I can’t say whether they all took up Brady’s training methods, but I do know the team thinks those guys watching and being around Brady over that time helped.
• Four weeks ago today, I gave you 12 non-quarterbacks who I believed had the sort of NFL standing to seriously consider opting out of the 2020 college season. LSU WR Ja’Marr Chase, on Monday, officially became the fourth guy on that list to do it. Those left: Clemson RB Travis Etienne, Oregon OT Penei Sewell, Alabama WR Devonta Smith, Alabama CB Patrick Surtain, Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle, Ohio State CB Shaun Wade, Florida State DT Marvin Wilson, and Alabama LB Dylan Moses. LSU had another player opt out Monday as well—per our own Ross Dellenger, massive Tiger DT Tyler Shelvin won’t play this fall, and move his focus to getting ready for April’s draft. As it stands now, he’s probably a Day 2 pick, and so the decision to go is understandable. Also, the sudden exodus from LSU highlights something pretty interesting—the three programs that have the most sustained national success over the last decade (Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State) haven’t had a single opt-out yet.
• Good signing by the Giants, bringing Logan Ryan aboard at $7.5 million for this year. Before becoming a starting corner for the Patriots, Ryan was a core special-teamer for Joe Judge in Foxboro—Ryan was a gunner on the punt team as a rookie—so the two know each other exceedingly well. And just as Ryan was able to help Mike Vrabel establish some of those New England standards in Nashville the last two years, he should be able to do the same for Judge in Jersey the next four months. But really, this was about Ryan as a player. The Giants believe he’s still got plenty to give in that department.
• The Derwin James news is super disappointing, but another reminder that, many times, pre-draft concerns are warranted. I got asked a lot in 2018 how James slipped all the way to the 17th overall pick, where the Chargers snapped him up. Well, James was outstanding as a true freshman at Florida State, suffered a catastrophic knee injury as a sophomore, then came back and was less than 100% himself as a junior before declaring for the draft. The concern wasn’t over James’s ability to play. It was over his ability to stay healthy. Sadly, that concern’s proving warranted as a pro.