Wannabe QB GMs should win more first
Memo to the NFL’s disquieted quarterbacks: If you want to be more like Tom Brady, then try being ... a little more like Tom Brady.
TB12 is obviously on a singular (if elevating) pedestal, fresh off winning a seventh Super Bowl title – meaning he’s now collected more Lombardi Trophies than any other franchise in the league. And Brady also had a significant hand in putting together his sterling band of Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020, recruiting key contributors like longtime New England teammate Rob Gronkowski, fleeting Patriots teammate Antonio Brown and Jaguars castoff Leonard Fournette.
Seems Brady is not only still a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback at 43, he’s a pretty good assistant general manager. That doesn’t mean his peers – to the extent he has any from an accomplishment or age perspective – should feel similarly emboldened.
However Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who has still never earned a single MVP vote, proclaimed just last week that he wants input on the roster-building process.
“I want to be able to be involved because at the end of the day, it’s your legacy, it’s your team’s legacy, it’s the guys you get to go into the huddle with and at the end of the day, those guys you’ve got to trust,” he told The Dan Patrick Show last week.
“I think if you ask guys like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, you know, even Tom, you know, I think that you saw this year how much he was involved in the process – I think that’s something that is important to me.”
Seems like a good time to remind Russ and any other Brady wannabes that, before you start crooning “If I could Be Like Tom,” this is what it actually entails to be like Brady.
Wilson, the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers and the Texans’ Deshaun Watson have combined for two titles – which is the same number Brady had ... when he was
Give Wilson credit: He’s never quarterbacked a losing team in the NFL, and Seattle has reached the playoffs in eight of his nine seasons. Yet he’s also never taken the Seahawks past the divisional round since the 2014 season, when his ill-fated goalline interception in Super Bowl 49 ruined the franchise’s repeat bid.
Watson wants out of Houston – and, admittedly, who can really blame him? But in a vacuum, a 25-year-old with one playoff win requesting input on franchiseshaping hiring decisions is a pretty big ask. Still, in Watson’s case, the Texans doubtless would have been better off listening to him than others within the organization.
As for Rodgers, since largely carrying Green Bay to the Super Bowl 45 crown to cap the 2010 season, he’s won three league MVP awards in spectacular fashion but also come up short in all four of his NFC championship game appearances over the same stretch. He hasn’t been as explicit as Wilson in expressing a desire to help the front office obtain players.
But he also hasn’t been shy about (justifiably) voicing reservations about last year’s first-round pick spent on quarterback Jordan Love – a presumed Rodgers successor and not a player that could help the 2020 MVP win in 2020 – noting that players (and friends) like Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams and Corey Linsley are unsigned for 2021 or that “You can only control what you can control” ... which in Rodgers’ case means he doesn’t have all that much beyond the field.
It should also be noted that – as it pertains to Rodgers, Watson and Wilson – each of their most significant NFL victories occurred when they were playing on rookie contracts or, in Rodgers’ case, a below-market one signed shortly after he became the Packers’ starter in 2008.
Which brings me to my next point ...
Don’t negotiate for every last dollar
Brady probably could have reset the quarterback pay scale multiple times over the course of his 21-year career. But he hasn’t, consistently opting for (relatively) modest deals that have allowed the Patriots and Bucs to keep cash in reserve to pay his supporting cast.
“You can only spend so much, and the more that one guy gets is less for others,” Brady told Jimmy Kimmel two years ago. “(From) a competitive advantage standpoint, I like to get a lot of good players around me.”
Yet, since 2018 alone, Rodgers and Wilson have both been perched as the NFL’s highest-paid player, in terms of average annual salary, at various times. When Watson’s $39 million-per-year extension kicks in next year, he’ll trail only Patrick Mahomes. Watson, Wilson and Rodgers will be the only players behind Mahomes – and his 10-year arrangement provides him and the Chiefs significant payroll flexibility – on the average compensation pay scale once Ben Roethlisberger’s anticipated renegotiation occurs in the nearterm future.
Brady’s average pay ($25 million) in 2020 and 2021 ranks 14th among quarterbacks.
The salary-capped NFL is a zero-sum game, fellas. The more cheddar you take, the less that’s available for the other guys. Getting the biggest bag possible might be good for your family while also helping other players negotiating contracts elsewhere to earn every nickel they can. But this approach doesn’t leave much room to bring that needed pass rusher, red-zone threat or bodyguard that your team desperately needs to get over the hump.
Wilson is “frustrated I’m getting hit too much” after getting sacked 394 times in his career. Welp. Learn to throw the ball away on occasion, Russ, rather than extend every play. Or maybe renegotiate to free up funds if you want more topflight blockers in front of you than just left tackle Duane Brown.
Be careful what you wish for
I spent a good chunk of Super Bowl week asking people for their impressions of Brady beyond his records and his rings. Generally, the common denominators of the responses I got were that he’s basically just one of the guys but also unfailingly committed to making himself and his teammates better.
And when was the last time you remember Brady pointing a finger or imploring his front office for more help? Win, and he shares the credit publicly. Lose, and he accepts the blame publicly.
Wilson, who’s earned deserved accolades over the course of his career – most recently the league’s prestigious Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award – isn’t one who’s going to bear the “one of the guys” label. (And that doesn’t get easier when you’re married to Ciara or making “Mr. Unlimited”videos.)
But whether it’s Wilson, Rodgers or Watson, seeking personnel input – and each lacks Brady’s bulletproof NFL résumé or deft way of generally keeping his roster suggestions behind closed doors – is a slippery slope. It’s easy for quarterbacks to play a decade or more, but can they objectively take a franchise’s longterm outlook into account while trying to win in the short run with a bunch of teammates whose careers average three years?
How much does a QB care about the salary cap two years from now? What happens when one of his personnel suggestions backfires? What happens when the locker room starts to break down when some players know they’re backed by the quarterback and others know he’s maneuvering against them?
It’s rare enough when an NFL coach can step back and see his own team’s big picture in stark relief from an executive standpoint ... right, Bill O’Brien? Quarterbacks without “TB” in their initials should be especially careful about overreaching until they’ve consistently mastered the 100 yards in front of them.
Even if the salary cap ends up around $180 million, the Green Bay Packers will need to clear a considerable amount of cap space before the start of the new league year next month.
Most NFL teams are facing tough financial situations entering 2021 and will need to make difficult decisions to adjust to a shrinking salary cap. Restructuring contracts – which requires committing more money to future caps – and both asking for significant paycuts from some players and outright cutting others are available options for teams, including the Packers.
The Packers have already restructured the contract of left tackle David Bakhtiari, according to a report by Ian Rapoport of NFL Network.
Here is an in-depth breakdown of the most reasonable ways the Packers can clear more cap space this offseason:
1. Restructuring Aaron Rodgers’ deal
The Packers have plenty of options with Rodgers’ deal, but only if they want to use them now. He has a $6.8 million roster bonus due next month. All of it can be converted into a prorated signing bonus, saving money now but adding more to the tab later. He also has a base salary of $14.7 million in 2021, providing another avenue for savings if the Packers want to convert some or most of it into a signing bonus. Again, these are moves that help the Packers in a big way now but also commit more money to Rodgers long-term. As it stands right now, the Packers have an out if they want to transition to the Jordan Love era in 2022. Restructuring Rodgers’ deal would all but eliminate that option. This is an easy way to create a lot of cap space, but also the most complicated decision long-term.
2. Releasing Preston Smith
Smith’s cap number is $16 million in 2021. While productive in 2019, Smith delivered only four sacks and 11 quarterback hits in 2020, creating the kind of sharp on-field regression capable of turning a veteran player into a cap casualty. The Packers could attempt to re-do or restructure Smith’s deal, but the team could save $8 million by cutting him outright (with $8 million in dead cap) or $12 million (with $4 million in dead cap in both 2021 and 2022) if he’s designated as a post-June 1 release.
3. Releasing Christian Kirksey
Kirksey finished strong, but he also missed five games to injury and was one of the lowest-graded starting linebackers by Pro Football Focus in 2020. His twoyear deal could be cut in half and the Packers could save a little over $5.6 million in 2021 by releasing him. Maybe the Packers find a way to restructure his deal, or offer a big paycut with performance-laden incentives for earning back the money, but it’s likely that Kirksey will become one of many veteran cap casualties in Green Bay and around the league.
4. Restructuring Za’Darius Smith’s deal
Like Rodgers, Smith has both a roster bonus ($5 million) and large base salary ($10.75 million) due in 2021, providing options for pushing money into the future and saving on the cap now. Again, the Packers can convert some or most of that money into a signing bonus to save in 2021. Still only 28 and now a Pro Bowler and All-Pro, Smith is likely viewed as a foundational part of the defense long term, so the Packers could entertain extending his deal past 2022 to create more immediate savings.
5. Releasing Dean Lowry
The extension Lowry signed during the 2019 season looks like an error by the Packers, and they’ll have a chance to get out of it before the 2021 season. Cutting Lowry could save $3.3 million in 2021, or as much as $4.8 million if he’s designated as a post-June 1 cut. Like the others, the Packers could approach Lowry with options, such as a paycut or restructure, to
stay in Green Bay. It’s certainly possible veteran players will prefer staying put in 2021, even with a massive paycut, over changing teams during a unique and challenging offseason.
6. Releasing/restructuring Rick Wagner
Wagner was a solid free-agent find by general manager Brian Gutekunst, who needed to replace Bryan Bulaga and add depth at offensive tackle entering 2021. Wagner played at a high level and was nothing short of a bargain for the Packers in 2020. His deal could be restructured or extended if the Packers see him as a part of their plans in 2021 and beyond. He could also be released, which would save the Packers $4.25 million this season. Wagner is 31 years old and has a lengthy injury history. Getting out of the deal after one solid year might be the best case scenario. However, his cap number is only $6 million in 2021, so it’s possible the Packers view him as a valuable but cheap veteran starter at offensive tackle.
7. Restructuring/extending Adrian Amos’ deal
Amos has a base salary of $4.9 million and a roster bonus of $1.5 million due in March, so there’s cap space to be had here by pushing money into future years or extending his current deal past 2022. Like Za’Darius Smith, he’s only 28 years old and an important part of the defense, both now and long term, so the Packers might be willing to risk adding money or years to his deal in return for immediate cap relief.
8. Extending Davante Adams
Adams, a first-team All-Pro and fourtime Pro Bowler, is entering the final year of his deal in 2021. The Packers almost certainly want him in Green Bay past 2021, so an extension could make sense this offseason. His cap number is scheduled to be around $16.8 million. Backloading a new deal could lower his cap hit in 2021 but make him far more expensive in later years, when he’ll be older and potentially less effective.
9. Restructuring Billy Turner
The Packers can save almost $6.2 million
by making him a post-June 1 cut, but he might be too valuable to lose, especially at a $8.4 million cap hit in 2021. Maybe a restructure could work. He has a base salary and roster bonus worth a little over $5.5 million this season.
10. Other potential moves
K Mason Crosby: The Packers can save $2.5 million by moving on, but going into 2021 with a new kicker seems unlikely.
WR Devin Funchess: The Packers can save $1.27 million by cutting him. He opted out of the 2020 season and could be hard-pressed to make the roster.
OL Lucas Patrick: The Packers can save $1.95 million by cutting him, but they likely view him as a cheap, reliable player along the offensive line.
CB Josh Jackson: The Packers could save $1.33 million by cutting or trading him.
Green Bay — Matt LaFleur wants to run the same defense his close friend Sean McVay does with the Los Angeles Rams.
But while LaFleur’s new defensive coordinator, Joe Barry, brings Brandon Staley’s updated version of Vic Fangio’s scheme to the Green Bay Packers, he won’t have the two players most responsible for making Staley’s defense go with the Rams: Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey.
Barry will have some talent to work with, for sure – Jaire Alexander isn’t as highly regarded league-wide as Ramsey, but he is one of the NFL’s best corners, and the Packers have a bona fide defensive lineman (Kenny Clark) and outside rusher (Za’Darius Smith) as well.
But it will be Barry’s ability to adapt the scheme to the Packers’ personnel without having the league’s most dominant defensive player (Donald) that will determine whether LaFleur made the right move in replacing Mike Pettine, who was promptly hired by the Chicago Bears as a senior defensive assistant.
That LaFleur turned to a Fangiobased scheme is hardly a surprise. He told John Keim of ESPN.com in 2019 that Fangio’s defenses were the most problematic for him as an offensive coach. Then this past season the Rams, in their first year running Staley’s version, ranked No. 1 in the NFL in fewest points and yards allowed, and No. 2 in defensive passer rating.
But it’s not just as easy as plugging in the scheme with a new team. Any defense that has both Donald and Ramsey has a big head start in this league.
Barry’s charge will be adapting to the Packers’ talent, and in that regard maybe the biggest thing to watch is how he deploys Alexander, the team’s best player on that side of the ball.
Among the hallmarks of Staley’s defense are the way he tries to outnumber receivers in coverage and disguise the coverages he deploys. The key to that is a cornerback who can cover one-on-one anywhere on the field.
The question is whether Barry will
use Alexander in the “star” role that Ramsey often plays, which would mean lining up in the slot regularly, a role Pettine didn’t like because he considered playing outside and inside cornerback as “two different worlds.” He preferred having someone in the slot who played and practiced only on the inside.
Alexander doesn’t have Ramsey’s size – Alexander is 5-10 and 196 pounds to Ramsey’s 6-1 and 208.
But despite his stature Alexander is a physical tackler and the kind of dynamic player Barry might want in the middle of the action more often, regardless of his size. Barry has not been available to the media yet to comment on that possibility.
Regardless, here’s a thumbnail look at Staley’s version of Fangio’s scheme, based on conversations with two offensive coaches who played the Rams last season as well as in-depth articles in The Athletic from late last season, one by Robert Mays and another by Jourdan Rodrigue and Ted Nguyen.
The first thing that jumped out when I re-watched the Packers-Rams divisional-round playoff game was that Staley favors playing an uncommon form of nickel defense. The standard nickel has a front four, two inside linebackers and five defensive backs. But Staley almost always lined up in that game with fiveman fronts (three defensive linemen and two outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage), only one inside linebacker and a nickel (five-man) defensive backfield.
He did it on first down as well as third down, and he did it against three-receiver sets, which is the most personnel grouping in the league, but also against more run-heavy groups such as two tight ends.
Essentially, it’s a way to try to better stop the run while keeping five defensive backs on the field. Because, as Mays goes into in depth in his story, one of the keys for Staley (and Fangio) is keeping both safeties back for coverage. Last season, according to Next Gen Stats via Mays, the Rams played light boxes more than anyone in the league (83 percent of their defensive snaps), with Fangio’s Denver Broncos second (78 percent).
That means stopping the run with only six players in the box, which isn’t easy, as the Packers from 2019 (and at times in ’20) well know. Pettine occasionally played that same personnel but without the Rams’ results. We’ll find out in 2021 whether Barry is better than Pettine at deploying different alignments and teaching gap responsibilities with five-man fronts.
“What really sucks in the NFL is if you’re in (three receivers) and try to run the football against (five-man fronts),” one of the coaches said. “Your (blocking) rules all change, the matchups are not great.
“This is a way for them to keep the base defense structure out there, but they’ve put in one better cover guy because the offense is in (three wides).”
The premise of Staley’s scheme is that in a passing league, the priority has to be stopping the pass. And doing that with both safeties in coverage is much better than lining up one in the box, because it makes it harder to hit big plays downfield and allows for more ways to outnumber receivers and disguise coverages.
It’s an approach Pettine believed in as well – in 2019 he quipped that it’s faster to fly to Miami (site of that season’s Super Bowl) than walk. Last season, the best thing the Packers’ defense did was prevent the big play – they gave up the league’s fourth-fewest completions of 20 yards or more. The Rams were second.
“It takes a lot of 4- and 5-yard runs to add up to a 50-yard pass,” Staley told Mays. “If you truly believe (explosive plays) are how you lose in the NFL, you really need to start there in your philosophical structure and how you construct your defense.”
The scheme de-emphasizes inside linebackers – there’s usually only one on the field – and puts more on safeties than most schemes do. They line up a little closer to the line of scrimmage, have to fill faster on run plays and are the keys to disguising coverages on defense.
Staley plays a mix of coverages that includes zone on one side and man on the other; rotating up one safety after the snap to help cover the middle of the field, while the other plays lone deep safety; and having Ramsey in man coverage while everyone else is in zone, which frees both safeties to help the other cornerbacks because Ramsey was responsible for his guy by himself. That’s something Barry should be able to do with Alexander.
It’s not like the Rams are the only team playing those coverages, but no one did it as much as Staley last season, because he had two safeties back more than anyone.
In essence, the coverage approach is similar to LaFleur’s on offense: Have things look more complex than they really are.
“All (the Rams) did was take advantage of a couple of their good players, put them in (good) spots,” said the other offensive coach. “I just remember going, this defense does look better (than in 2019), but it looks simpler.
“Sometimes when you run multiple defenses, guys make multiple mistakes.”
The question is whether Barry can make it work without having the Rams’ players.
Among the biggest decisions facing general manager Brian Gutekunst and the Green Bay Packers is the future of outside linebacker Preston Smith, who is under contract for the next two seasons but also a prime cap casualty candidate given his production regression in 2020 and the potential cap savings in 2021.
Here are a few thoughts on Smith’s future with the Packers:
Smith had a poor season in 2020. No way around it. While good for a big play every now and then, he wasn’t consistently disruptive or active as a rusher or run defender. Smith had as many offsides penalties (four) as sacks.
The Packers can designate Smith as a June 1 cut and save $12 million on the cap in 2021. It’s going to be very difficult to pass up that chunk of savings. Even if he’s cut pre-June 1 cut, the Packers can save $8 million. They need to shed as much as $30 million before the start of the new league year.
Without a June 1 designation, the Packers would be taking on $8 million in dead cap in 2021. That’s a significant amount of money to essentially light on fire, especially during a year with shrunken cap.
Maybe the Packers can find a trade partner. It could be hard to move that contract, but not all teams are fighting the cap as hard as the Packers in 2021, and Smith is still relatively young with a history of production disrupting the quarterback. Creating the cap savings while getting something back in return – maybe a draft pick capable of providing a draft pick on a cheap contract – might be the best case scenario.
The Packers replaced defensive coordinator Mike Pettine with Joe Barry, who was the defensive coordinator in Washington during Smith’s rookie season. That past connection could give him a better shot at sticking around on a restructured deal.
Rashan Gary looked like a legitimate difference-maker down the stretch of his second season. If Smith is released, a starting spot and many more opportunities will be available for Gary, who could be on the verge of a true breakout season in 2021.
The Packers may already see Gary as the starter opposite Za’Darius Smith in 2021. If that’s the case, Preston Smith is almost certainly gone. No team is paying that much for a rotational/backup player, even at edge rusher.
It’s never easy to part ways with pass-rushers, especially pass-rushers just one season removed from producing 12 sacks, 23 quarterback hits and 11 tackles for losses.
Smith’s career has had upand-down swings, especially over the last four seasons. For whatever reason, he’s been productive one year, and then much less productive the next. If the trend continues, Smith could have a better year in 2022.
Players know the NFL is a business, but Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith are close, and parting ways with Preston could negatively impact Za’Darius. This is a small factor, but locker room chemistry is something the Packers care greatly about.
Smith has never missed a game over his six-year NFL career. Teams certainly value reliability. At the very least, the Packers can probably count on Smith playing 16 games next season.
When all the factors are considered, it’s hard to imagine the Packers not moving on from Preston Smith at some point in the next month so. He regressed sharply in 2020, his position group has an ascending player needing more opportunities, and releasing him – especially with a post-June 1 designation – provides significant cap relief.