The first time Packers coach Matt LaFleur met Davante Adams, the star wideout asked his new boss if he’d be on edge addressing the team at the start of the offseason program on April 8. Coolly, LaFleur answered, No, I’m not gonna be nervous. It took 30 seconds for him to double back on that, and grab Adams again.
“Heck yeah, I’m gonna be nervous,” he told him.
So when that time came, seven days ago in the bowels of Lambeau Field, and LaFleur ran into Adams on his way to the team meeting room, he affirmed what he’d said before—those butterflies were still fluttering in his stomach.
“Was it nerve-racking? Absolutely it was nerve-racking,” LaFleur said on Friday, as he and the coaches traveled to Chicago for a weekend staff trip. “And the reason it was nerve-racking is because you care so much. It’s no different than with a player when they go out and play a game. They’re gonna have some nerves, because they care, they want to do well.”
Once he got going, LaFleur says, the nerves settled, and he delivered what he wanted to be a concise speech (about 20 minutes) that would set the tone for what his program would be all about.
“First and foremost, it really comes down to the team,” LaFleur said, condensing his message. “I’ve seen this. I saw it in Atlanta [he was the Falcons’ QBs coach for their Super Bowl team in 2016]. You think about the great teams you’ve been around, and I really think how connected, how close you become as a football team is really what separates good from great. Can we get to that mentality?
“Everybody has a different path, a different journey, a different background on how they got to where we are, but can we come together as one, with everyone moving in the same direction? Are you willing to play for the guy next to you?”
To get there, he gave his players four areas where they had to be good—football character (“how accountable and coachable we are”), competition (“striving to be the best version of ourselves”), communication and consistency. And, of course, LaFleur knew there was one guy in the auditorium who’d probably have more influence over how it all played out than anyone else.
Yes, he knows how important his relationship with Aaron Rodgers will be.
Yes, we’re about to dive right into that.
In this week’s MMQB, we’re going to:
• Break down the complications of the Russell Wilson contract negotiation.
• Give you the 2019 games I’m looking forward to.
• Explain how Zeke Elliott has handled this offseason, and why a holdout wouldn’t be a surprise.
• Look at three players in the draft whom NFL coaches love—enough so to have boosted those players’ stocks.
• Tell you who the surprise first corner off the board might be, and why more guards and centers could go in the first round than you think.
But we’re starting with one of the biggest stories of the last six months in the NFL. The Packers had a new GM last year for the first time in 13 years. Aaron Rodgers turned 35 in December. And now they have a new coach for the first time in 13 years. Where it goes from here will be one of the stories of the 2019 NFL season.
You might’ve gathered from that episode above with Adams that LaFleur sees relationship-building as vital to how he’ll put the Packers together, and he did what he could over his first three months on the job to build one with Rodgers. They went out to dinner in Arizona the night after the NFL meetings ended in March, and they’ve spoken on the phone.
As the rules dictate, they couldn’t really talk much football, and LaFleur says they didn’t. “And I’m not even BSing you,” he says. “You just want to learn about each other, what you’re all about, what you care about, who you are.”
LaFleur planned to go into this job with no preconceived notions. And he isn’t taking any from the firestorm of the last few weeks, sparked by an extensive, biting story by Bleacher Report’s Tyler Dunne.
“Honestly, I haven’t put a whole lot of thought into that,” he says. “I wasn’t here, so I don’t know what happened. And quite frankly, I don’t really care what happened. All I care about is how we move forward as a football team. All I care about is the partnership that we’re forming, how that goes, and our communication. That’s all I really care about.”
That said, he knows. He wants to have relationships with everyone in the building—from the equipment guys to the trainers to the scouts to the business side, and of course through his locker room and his coaching staff. But he’s not going to try to fool anyone.
The most important relationship is the one he devoted time to in Arizona and over the phone, working to build. It’s a relationship that’s been at the center of almost every story of how Green Bay came apart over the last two years. And it’s a relationship that’s changing for Rodgers for the first time since his rookie year.
“That relationship is critical, and it’s not necessarily because I’m the head coach—it’s because I’m the play-caller,” LaFleur says. “You have to develop relationships with everyone in that building. But when it comes to Aaron, it’s so critical, because I’m the play-caller. And so anytime you’re the play-caller, you better have a relationship with that quarterback. I do believe this, and I’ve said it from Day One—it’s a partnership.
“And I’ll tell you what, I don’t care what’s been said, I’ve spent a week with him, and I’ve really enjoyed every second of it.”
So what did he like? LaFleur loves the minutiae of football, and it shows here. He told me he was a pig in slop talking about cadence with Rodgers, and how Rodgers draws people offsides, then rips their hearts out. “What a valuable thing. We’ve always said, for years, we want to use the cadence as a weapon. To have a guy that’s able to really use the cadence as a weapon, it’s pretty cool.”
And Rodgers was locked in on learning a scheme that’s clearly worked the last few years—LaFleur was Matt Ryan’s position coach during his 2016 MVP season, and Jared Goff’s coordinator for his ’17 breakthrough year, and he had Marcus Mariota playing well with Tennessee last year in (he finished with a career-high completion percentage, and his second highest passer rating) before a nerve issue sent his season sideways.
But this will be different. Historically, coaches from the Mike Shanahan tree (Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, etc.) have tried to take a lot off the quarterback’s plate (one example: giving protection calls to the center) to get him playing fast and free. Conversely, Rodgers has always had a lot of control, some of that even leading to clashes with the previous coaching staff.
So finding a middle ground will be key for LaFleur and Rodgers. Goff and Mariota were on the front end of their 20s when LaFleur had them, and Ryan was still just short of 30. With Rodgers, there probably isn’t a whole lot a coach can put in front of him that he hasn’t seen.
“Honestly, that is a philosophical belief that we have,” LaFleur says. “Playing quarterback, you could argue it’s the most difficult position in all of sports. It really is. So certainly we pride ourselves in trying make it as easy on the QB as possible. Now, it’s going to be no different, how we installed [the offense] for Matt Ryan, or Jared or Marcus, to Aaron. We’re going to install our offense.
“But within that, over time, certainly the more capable the quarterback is in handling different situations, the more freedom they get.”
And LaFleur knows that his new quarterback is pretty capable.
“You got a guy with that much experience who can see things, if he can get us into the perfect play, why wouldn’t you give him that freedom?” LaFleur said. “The biggest thing, I’m hoping that we do a good enough job as a staff that he doesn’t have to do that, in terms of the play calls and setting us up and being in the right looks. That’s the goal—to take that off him, because I just want him to go play. But certainly, if there’s a play that’s not going be good, yeah, please, save us. That’d be great.”
Here’s why I think this has a good chance of working: LaFleur’s a football junkie. His dad coached. His brother coaches. And you can hear it in his voice when he’s talking about the last week, when he had his players for the first time.
“Honestly, every day I get up to go to work’s been a fun moment,” he says. “I’m not kidding you. It’s been so much fun getting these guys in the building and teaching them, not only about what we’re going to be about as a football team, but more wearing the offensive coordinator hat, teaching our offensive system. It’s been awesome.”
That excitement over the small stuff, the minutiae, is likely to appeal to Rodgers, who’s at the point of his career where finding coaches who can challenge him—like Josh McDaniels can with Tom Brady, or Adam Gase could with Peyton Manning in Denver—is more difficult than it used to be.
So that’s a part of the larger equation here that LaFleur is working on. And to balance it, each morning, he puts together a list of things he needs to take care of, keeping in mind the advice that ex-Texans and Broncos coach Gary Kubiak gave him: “There’s going to be so much to do, and it’s going to seem like you’ll never get it done, and you can always find more to do. But it’ll get done. Surround yourself with good people, and it’ll get done.”
He knocks off as many of those things to do as he can, every day. Some relate to Rodgers, others involve other players, and still others range widely out, all the way to Lambeau’s aesthetics (he had the team meeting room redone, the hallway painted, and images of current players and his staff’s messaging added). The overring hope is that by the time spring is over, his guys will be together, and, using his word, “inspired” for 2019.
In the end, that’s what the 20 minutes he stood in front of them last week were for.
“There’s so much you want to tell them,” LaFleur said. “But if you tell them everything, then you don’t get anything out of that. You have to be concise, direct. Everything we do is intentional. You just want to be intentional about what we do, what we tell them, so they can take something away each and every day.”
And obviously, his relationship Rodgers will be the biggest factor in how it all plays out.
FOUR FACTORS AT PLAY IN THE RUSSELL WILSON–SEAHAWKS CONTRACT SITUATION
It’s April 15, which means the deadline Russell Wilson’s camp set to do a long-term deal with Seattle is at hand. As we laid out earlier, Wilson drew that line in the sand back in January for two reasons. One, he didn’t want the talks to be a distraction once the offseason program started. And two, his camp didn’t think the QB market would shift in 2019, and that two-and-a-half months was plenty of time.
So has it been a challenge for everyone involved? Here are four reasons:
• Wilson wasn’t going to give the Seahawks a discount. And maybe that is why Seattle, per Pro Football Talk, hasn’t been convinced that Wilson wants to be there long-term. The trust has fractured to a degree on the other side too. Wilson took note of the Seahawks’ interest in Patrick Mahomes in 2017 and Josh Allen last year, as he did the team’s decision to do an interview with Kyler Murray at this year’s combine. These things aren’t necessarily a big deal on their own—GM John Schneider subscribes to his mentor Ron Wolf’s old theory that you should always be looking for quarterbacks, regardless of who the starter is. But Wilson’s still the same guy who had his job taken at NC State, which is to say he’s sensitive to this stuff.
• Wilson’s leverage made it so that taking less than what’s at the top of the market would represent a discount. Franchising him in 2020 would cost the Seahawks $30.343 million. Franchising him again in 2021 would run them $36.412 million. The two-year total: $66.8 million. If you cut that in half, you’re right at the average per year that Aaron Rodgers is pulling down. Another piece of leverage: Wilson’s set for life financially, so he’d be less motivated to settle than he was a year ago. And yet another: Franchising Wilson next year would prevent Seattle from doing the same to Frank Clark or Bobby Wagner next year. The bottom line is Wilson feels comfortable sitting tight.
• Wilson, you may have heard, has a baseball agent who puts a premium on fully guaranteed money. Fully guaranteed money, by rule, has to be fully funded. So what Seattle spends on Wilson, in fully guaranteed money, could well gut their cash budget at a time when Clark is up, and Wagner and Jarran Reed are coming up for deals.
• The CBA’s expiration looms in two years. And as such, it’d be fair for Wilson to worry about his new contract quickly becoming outdated, because that’s what has happened to his existing one. Once the highest paid player in football, at $22 million per, Wilson is now 12th, at an APY at 65% of what Rodgers is making. The next CBA could change circumstances for everyone, of course, and then you have the prospect of legalized gambling and streaming services bidding on broadcast packages affecting the economics of the league. So how can Wilson protect against that? There are two options, really. One would be doing a shorter-term deal. Another would be tying future money to a percentage of the cap.
So what do we know? We know that Wilson will be the Seahawks’ quarterback in 2019. And we think he’ll be their quarterback in 2020. But the fact that today’s deadline has come without a deal signals at least a little bit of uncertainty ahead.
THE 2019 GAMES WE CAN’T WAIT FOR
In all likelihood, we’ll get the NFL schedule this week. Four games I can’t wait for:
Browns at Patriots. This would make a great Thursday night opener, but the league announced that Packers-Bears will kick off the NFL’s historic 100th season. So Cleveland at New England could be set for sweeps in November, and it’s got all the making of a marquee game. Mayfield vs. Brady. Belichick vs. Cleveland. Beckham vs. Gilmore. Sign me up.
Chiefs at Bears: Andy Reid facing Matt Nagy is pretty cool, of course. But I want to see Patrick Mahomes, in potentially inclement conditions, coming out swinging against a Bears defense that looked like it had the generational potential last year.
Saints at Rams: Call it the Robey-Coleman Bowl.
Cardinals at Ravens: The idea of Kyler Murray and Lamar Jackson squaring off at quarterback has all sorts of potential—so long as Murray is actually a Cardinal and actually starting whenever this one goes down.
1. I don’t know if Ezekiel Elliott will report to work in Frisco, Texas, today. I also don’t think it’s crazy to think he might hold out at one point or another this offseason, the first in which he’s eligible for a new deal. And I know the Cowboys wouldn’t be floored by it either. That said, so far Elliott’s been a regular for optional stuff run by captains, and working out at the Cowboys facility, and those who’ve seen him say he looks lean, in shape and like he’s carrying the same sort of focus he showed going into winning a second rushing title last fall. The hope now inside the Cowboys is that the growth Elliott showed after through everything he did in 2017—including a protracted court fight with the league, and ultimately a six-game suspension—has led to permanent change. If it has, a big payday should be coming. I will say that one benefit the Cowboys saw in drafting a running back fourth overall in 2016 was that they’d get Elliott’s prime during his rookie contract, because of how the shelf life of players at his position works. But he’s outplayed his rookie deal, and he’d be smart to do all he can to get paid now. I’ve gotten no sense that the Cowboys wouldn’t look at doing just that. We’ll see.
2. One thing I always find interesting is how coaches intertwine themselves into the process this time of year, and how their assessments of players can affect those players’ stock. So I’ve got three guys here who, from what I understand, have benefitted from the coaches’ involvement. One is Missouri quarterback Drew Lock, as we mentioned in Thursday’s Game Plan column—he’s sharp, and has good presence, and talent to work with. Another is Michigan linebacker Devin Bush. The consensus is that the smallish Bush is behind LSU’s Devin White as the second off-ball linebacker in the class, but some coaches actually like the son of the former NFL safety of the same name better. And a third is Boston College guard Chris Lindstrom, a smart, clean prospect with the versatility to play center (a Falcons contingent including GM Thomas Dimitroff, assistant GM Scott Pioli and coach Dan Quinn worked him out on campus a couple days ago. Atlanta is picking 14th).
3. Bush’s Michigan teammate Rashan Gary is a good bet to go a little lower than some expect—especially for someone with his athletic profile—and I’m told teams further down in the first round are doing work on him to prepare for the possibility he falls. Gary came in at 6’5” and 277 pounds in Indy, ran a 4.58 40, posted a 38-inch vertical and a 10-foot broad jump. He can play inside or out. And he plays hard. But questions have persisted about the former No. 1 overall high school recruit’s production. He’s still raw, and that may cause questions about coaching, except that the guy who played opposite him at Michigan—Chase Winovich—was a very technically sound and evolved defensive lineman, and more productive than Gary. “Clearly, the coaching was available to him,” said one scout. So the difficulty teams have had in seeing the gap between talent and impact is leading some teams to backing off of Gary. At one point he was a top-10 lock. At this point that’s definitely not the case. In fact, it seems like there’s a decent chance Bush goes ahead of him.
4. On Lock, I had a college scouting director tell me the other day that he believes the Missouri quarterback has been helped by the success of Patrick Mahomes. What did he mean? “There’s a narrative there,” he said. “The way this guy plays, the way he throws from different body positions, he’s an athlete. He’s throwing sidearm, slinging it while he’s bouncing around. You may not be sure how you’d coach it up, but he can make it work. And then you take the attitude and demeanor, he’s really smart like Pat was. He’s not Mahomes, but that Mahomes has this success without traditional mechanics should help him.” I wouldn’t be surprised to hear this again about the more freewheeling quarterback prospects in the years to come.
5. Regarding edge players, one team I’d count in the mix to take one would be the Titans—they’ve spent a lot of time, and it’s been noticeable to those on the pro day circuit, with the defensive linemen. And coach Mike Vrabel’s presence has been noted, too. It makes sense, if you consider that Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan are gone, and Tennessee’s highest-impact addition at the position, Cameron Wake, is 37 years old.
6. Here’s something that might surprise you: It wouldn’t shock me if Temple’s Rock Ya-Sin is the first cornerback drafted. My sense is there are five players in that mix. LSU’s Greedy Williams and Georgia’s Deandre Baker might be the best players, but there are questions about both from a football character standpoint. Both Washington’s Byron Murphy and Vanderbilt’s Joejuan Williams are seen as solid prospects, and people, but with perhaps a limited athletic ceiling. And that leaves Ya-Sin, who’s a solid kid and athlete, with the questions really surrounding his ceiling as a player and the level of competition he’s coming from. I’d be surprised if any corners go in the first half of the first round; the Steelers at 20 might be the first team to take one.
7. So what I’m saying about Ya-Sin is that he’s sort of the “double off the wall” that teams feel comfortable with. And increasingly, this year’s class is having the feel of one where those kinds of guys are going to sneak into the first round. It’s happening on the offensive line, too. I’d bet there will be a run on tackles somewhere in the first half of the first round—there are three (Florida’s Jawaan Taylor, Washington State’s Andre Dillard and Alabama’s Jonah Williams) before a pretty significant dropoff. And that’s even with the acknowledgment that Williams might be more of a guard than a tackle in the NFL. And there’s a good chance that the group of centers and guards everyone was saying would bring value in Rounds 2 and 3 on Friday get pushed into Round 1. N.C. State’s Garrett Bradbury seems a certainty at this point. And Lindstrom, Oklahoma’s Cody Ford and Texas A&M’s Erik McCoy could go on Thursday too. Those, for all intents and purposes, are your doubles off the wall. In a class short on the super elite, some seem content to play it safe in Round 1, even if it’s not at what’s considered a premium position.
8. The Iowa tight ends continue to be fascinating. We mentioned the other day in the Game Plan that the Hawkeyes coaches were higher on T.J. Hockenson than on Noah Fant to scouts, and I did a little more poking around on that over the last couple days. One college scouting director told me, because he’d heard that stuff in the fall, he was surprised with what he found in Fant: “I thought he was intelligent, articulate, mature, I really liked the guy.” I think both have a shot to go in the first half of the first round. Some have tried to compare Hockenson to Rob Gronkowski. Another college scouting director’s reaction when I raised that question: “Hell no.” The two comps I got for Hockenson were Hunter Henry and Heath Miller—which is to say he could be a really good player for a long time in the league, but isn’t an athletic freak show. Fant is, and has receiver-type talent (I had someone compare him, physically, to Vincent Jackson on Sunday), without much of history of having blocked anyone. Which helps the explain the difference between these two guys who, really, play different positions (Y tight end v. F tight end.)
9. On the heels of the back-and-forth between Alabama coach Nick Saban and his old safety, Ronnie Harrison, on the NFL’s three-year rule, I’d mention what we have in this space before—Kentucky linebacker Josh Allen is a really good example of a guy who used an extra year in school in the best way possible, lifting himself from the second or third round likely into the top 10. So since we’re always trying to help you look forward, I turned over some rocks to try to find a couple more players who easily could’ve come out this year but stayed, and who’ll be worth monitoring. One is obvious, and that’s Oregon QB Justin Herbert. He might have been the first quarterback to go this year—I’ve had more than a couple evaluators say they’d see him that way —if he’d declared. Another is Alabama DL Raekwon Davis, who was actually playing in front of Quinnen Williams in 2017 but probably lacks the high end potential that his teammate brings. And a third, and one who might wind up being the best of these, is Auburn DT Derrick Brown, a true three-down lineman who could be a top-five pick next year.
10. Take last week’s news that the NFL and NFLPA were meeting as very positive. As we noted on Thursday, this was a productive meeting with plenty of principals in attendance, and a resulting agreement to keep talking. My sense is that the owners who control these talks are motivated to start working on the future of the broadcast deals, even with four years left on the current ones, because the next set will be complicated. And they know they can’t really get things lined up with the networks or the streaming services until they have more certainty on the labor front.
… OF THE WEEK
“I’ve said before … Derek Carr is a franchise quarterback, and we believe that. Beyond that, just like at any other position, we’re going to do our due diligence. If we found somebody we liked better, or thought had a bigger upside, you’ve got to do the right thing for the organization. But we love Derek. We love what he brings to the table. But like every other position, we’re going to do all of our due diligence. And I happen to work with a head coach that absolutely loves the position. And we’re always going to know about those guys.” —Raiders GM Mike Mayock.
I actually think Mayock is being honest and forthright here, and playing the game at the same time. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, the Raiders loved Quinnen Williams, and wanted to take him with the fourth overall pick. Let’s say he went before Oakland got on the clock, and let’s say Devin White was the next guy on the Raiders’ board—a really good player, but at a position you’d be a little uncomfortable taking that high. You’d think they might want to trade down, right? And the best way to drum up interest in your pick? Make everyone believe you’re in play for a quarterback. I certainly think they could be, by the way. But just leaving the possibility open has a very real benefit for the Raiders, which shows that Mayock’s already pretty good at playing the game.
Overtime championship games: 2— NFL Memes (@NFL_Memes) April 9, 2019
Patrick Mahomes: 0
And I was rooting for Texas Tech, by the way, because I wanted to see what would happen in Lubbock if they actually won the whole thing.
I like the guy on the left who isn’t letting the chaos around him screw up his view of Dwayne Wade’s shot.
This is one way to get your point across—and if I were Drew Brees, I’d be a long way from letting what happened in January go. So I can appreciate the edginess, always.
Is this a part of #TankForTua? (I’m kidding, of course, and in no position to make fun of someone else in their late 30s for old-man conditioning—s/o to Peleton.)
That was pretty good. (And looked like a lot of work.)
And this could’ve been my Video of the Week, or my s/o. Either way, watch it if you haven’t yet.
Last week, it looked like my old buddy Darren Rovell might’ve driven Tom Brady off Twitter with his stirring rendition of “One Shining Moment.” Instead, 12 came back with a vengeance on Masters Sunday—live tweeting the whole damn thing. And using a GIF this early into his Twitter career was definitely a heat-check moment for the 41-year-old six-time champion.
S/O to …
New Miami coach Brian Flores, who shared the story of his mom with those at the Dolphins Cancer Challenge. It couldn’t be easy so soon after her passing, but good on him for trying to make good of what I know has been a very difficult situation for his family.
And while we’re there, a nod to Rams DL Aaron Donald too, for giving back.
NFL star and Pitt legend Aaron Donald has made a seven-figure financial commitment to the Pitt Football Championship Fund.— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) April 12, 2019
At 27, Donald is the University's youngest seven-figure donor in history.
Thank You, @AaronDonald97!
SIX FROM THE SIDELINES
1. I don’t want to over-romanticize what Tiger Woods did on Sunday—given that some of the adversity he overcame to get to Sunday was self-created—but, man, what an awesome moment. Hard to believe there are a lot of kids graduating college next month who weren’t alive for his first Masters title in 1997.
2. And I think the way Woods wore his emotion on his sleeve really made it what it was. You saw it on 18, and then after with his kids, the same way it was with his dad 22 years ago. Great for golf, too, which goes into a different stratosphere in popularity when Tiger’s great.
3. Maybe it’s me. But letting LeBron James basically run the team in Cleveland didn’t seem to leave the Cavs in great shape after he left, nor did his influence over the roster do the Lakers a lot of good this season. So how, again, does it make sense to hire more people, like Tyronn Lue, who’ll be beholden to him?
4. It also sure seems like Magic Johnson was basically asking at the end, “So why, again, am I putting up with all this?”
5. I watched a little of the Minnesota-Duluth/UMass hockey final on Saturday, and really feel like I’ve been missing out. Good, fast-paced hockey. A really entertaining product that I sort of wish I was paying attention to while my school was still alive (Ohio State lost to Denver in the quarters.)
6. I know he’s struggling now, but man, does Tim Tebow deserve credit for making it all the way to Triple-A Syracuse in the Mets system. That’s an amazing accomplishment for someone who hadn’t played competitive baseball since high school, no matter what happens from here. This wasn’t the sideshow that many of us (I’ll raise my hand) expected.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
The window for “30” visits—the 30 visits allotted to each team, during which they can bring prospects into their facilities—closes on Wednesday, but that doesn’t mean the work will. In fact, what’s ahead often is the most clandestine part of the draft process.
Teams can visit and work players out on their college campuses right up until draft day. And the few days before then usually provide the best chance for teams to turn over rocks without revealing their intentions—there’s far less time, at that point, for the media or others around the process to uncover what they’re doing.
An example from 2018 would be the Patriots’ quiet tire-kicking on Baker Mayfield. Early in the process, New England tried to arrange time with Mayfield. But because they were picking 31st, his camp declined. Then New England traded Brandin Cooks for the 23rd pick, which gave the Patriots the ammo for a move up the board—and convinced Mayfield, when they circled back, to take the meeting.
That happened the Monday before the draft. And I was later told that the team’s love for Mayfield was very real—he was the one (and only) quarterback they’d have considered getting aggressive on.
So my advice would be to take a special interest in what your team might be working on when we get closer to draft day.
Question or comment? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.