As NFL Training Camp Looms, Pressure’s on for Rodgers, LaFleur and the Packers
Did you know that Aaron Rodgers turns 36 years old in December?
He’s as old now as Brett Favre was during Rodgers’s rookie year in Green Bay (2005), when we’d annually ponder whether it was the end for old No. 4. He’s the sixth-oldest starting quarterback in the NFL. He’s just a year younger than Peyton Manning was when Manning underwent the four neck surgeries.
And Aaron Rodgers, like everyone else, will eventually take an L from Father Time.
As I was shuffling through training camp storylines ahead of my final pre-vacation Game Plan column, that much hit me. Maybe it’s because my first year covering the NFL was Rodgers’s rookie year. Maybe it’s because so often hope in Green Bay had been tied to this bright quarterbacking prodigy, who seemed so young when he won Super Bowl XLV. For whatever reason, it kind of caught me off-guard.
Which is why that’s the first thing I’m thinking about ahead of 2019 training camp. The pressure is now on in Green Bay—and it’s on everyone. Mike McCarthy’s gone, and so is Ted Thompson. The team was aggressive in free agency, more than it’s been in a generation, in how it splurged on edge rushers Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith.
Most of the “yeah, buts” we’ve attached to Green Bay over the last decade have been addressed. The time has to be now, or really soon. And looking back in my notes, from a few talks with second-year GM Brian Gutekunst and first-year coach Matt LaFleur over the last year, I saw where we’d actually discussed this.
“The more you’re around Aaron, you realize the bar is set really, really high,” Gutekunst told me. “The expectations are always high. They always are around here, they always have been, but I don’t think in today’s football, with today’s athlete, especially a guy like Aaron … it’s just different, guys are playing longer, guys are taking care of their bodies differently. Every year is different.
“I don’t think you look at windows, I think you just look at it year-to-year.”
The good news is that the urgency with which the Packers have attacked the last 12 months—again, a departure from their more conservative past—reflects what Gutekunst is saying. That they are going year-to-year. That they do recognize the scarcity of a player like Rodgers, even in a golden age of quarterbacking, and are doing all they can to maximize each year they have left with him.
Of course, there’s no telling how many years that is.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll take your questions on …
• JuJu Smith-Schuster and the Steelers.
• How the top two teams in the NFC East compare.
• Todd Gurley’s knee.
• Daniel Jones’s shot at unseating Eli Manning.
• The fate of Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston.
But we’re going to kick things off this week with the 10 camp storylines that I believe will impact the 2019 season. So let’s hit the trail.
Last summer, Rodgers and I discussed his football mortality and all the things he was changing to try and extend his career. It was, in part, a realization by a supremely talented athlete that his God-given gifts needed more nurturing if they weren’t going to betray him earlier than he wanted. And as we talked, he actually set of a soft timeline.
“Minimum is 40,” he said. “I’d love to be a starter at 40, so that’d be 40 turning 41. That’d be awesome because not many guys have been to play really well to that age. … You look for different ways to challenge yourself, and for me, it’s that longevity now. We play at a high level. And 40’s an interesting number for quarterbacks, there haven’t been a lot of guys that have gotten there.
“Now, [Tom Brady] was obviously incredible … at 40. But there aren’t a lot of guys who can do that.”
Rodgers will be 40 (turning 41) during the 2024 season, which gives him six more years, or one year more than his current Packer contract runs. And that’s a short enough period of time, again, for that urgency to have an impact.
That’s my top camp storyline to affect 2019: How the Rodgers and LaFleur relationship takes between now and Week 1. The Packers don’t have years to waste with a generational player like this, and it’d be tough to count on getting another Rodgers to replace the man himself, like they did with Favre in 2005.
As we told you Monday, there are challenges here. LaFleur’s offense, from the Kyle Shanahan/Sean McVay family, is built to make things easier on the quarterback. And ideas like the double call (sending in two calls, and giving the QB a simple read of the defense to pick one) and giving protection calls to the center are designed to get the most important player on the field playing faster.
But what happens when one of the quarterback’s biggest strength is his mind, and he’s accustomed to having total control? The Packers spent the 11 weeks of their offseason program working through that. How it turns out, to me, will have as significant an impact on the 2019 season as anything that’ll happen in the NFL in August. And potentially amplify all the other changes they’ve made around the QB.
So stay tuned on that, and stay tuned on these other big ones …
BRADY’S AND BELICHICK’S 20th
This is Bill Belichick’s 20th season as the Patriots head coach, and Tom Brady’s 20th season as an NFL player—and both are well into uncharted territory, in accomplishment and longevity. And it’s been a relatively quiet offseason in Foxboro, at least until the Nick Caserio dust-up, thus far.
“We’ve done such a good job around here of turning the page, living in the moment,” nine-year captain Matt Slater told me. “There’s a lot of change going on around here this year, we got a lot of work to do. We’ve always tried to ignore that noise. Yeah, I think the feeling around this team is a little bit different. But for us, it’s always going to be the same.”
That said, plenty around the quarterback and coach has changed. The coaching staff was picked apart, and Jerod Mayo, in his first year coaching, may wind up the de facto DC. A lot of the experienced vets that fueled February’s museum-worth Game Plan are a year older. You had the Caserio drama. Brady turns 42 during the second week of camp. Belichick’s 67. Last year’s 11 wins were a nine-year low.
And yet, they’re coming off a Super Bowl title. It can’t go on forever, can it?
THE REDEMPTION OF COUSINS
Last year, Kirk Cousins arrived in Minnesota as the missing piece, with the NFL’s first fully guaranteed multi-year contract to show for it. A bunch of young core players were re-signed. One of the NFL’s most talented rosters was ready to roll. But when the season started, a win-now team fought through coaching-staff drama and injuries, and wound up 8-7-1 and out of the playoffs.
In the time since, the club has doubled down on its core, leveraging some contracts (the team has over $210 million committed to the 2020 cap right now) to keep the band together for another run at it. And as is usually the case, the big-money quarterback is the one in the crosshairs ahead of all that.
Bottom line, if Cousins can deliver like he did for the Redskins back in 2015 behind a reworked offensive line, this team is a Super Bowl contender. If he can’t, a tricky future awaits the franchise.
COWBOYS CONTRACT TANGO
Regardless of what you might’ve heard, Dallas’s problems are good ones to have. That they have so many deals to do is indicative of the job the Joneses and personnel chief Will McClay have done in assembling one of the NFL’s sturdiest rosters. And that roster will indeed take the field in September, regardless of what happens with those individual contract situations.
But they do have a lot of guys waiting for big contracts. There’s the Dak Prescott negotiation, which will be on the front-burner. There’s Amari Cooper’s situation, which could be complicated if Saints star Michael Thomas gets done first. There’s two-time NFL rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott at the same point in his career Todd Gurley was at last year, when Gurley got his blockbuster extension.
Then, there are players like Byron Jones, La’el Collins and Jaylon Smith, who are up after this year and a little less likely to be extended before then. Again, this is a good issue for a team to have, and there isn’t a whole Dallas could’ve done to avoid this. But it’s there, and different players handle playing out their contracts in different ways. It could galvanize the group. It could make things every man for himself.
It’ll be interesting to watch.
TYREEK HILL’S ON HOLD
The Chiefs have prepared for the possibility they won’t have Tyreek Hill this season, even moving up in the second round in April to draft Georgia’s Mecole Hardman, whose skillset is similar to Kansas City’s first-team All-Pro jack-of-all-trades. But it’ll be hard to approximate his production if he’s not there for any period of time, and it’s still difficult to rule out the possibility he might not be on the team in 2019.
Hill met with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell yesterday, and it’s pretty clear the league will have to do something here, outside of just telling everyone who will listen that an investigation is ongoing.
And without trivializing the accusations, Hill’s status is just one of the variables swirling around the Chiefs in 2019, with new DC Steve Spagnuolo in the fold, Eric Berry, Justin Houston and Dee Ford gone, and Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu coming in. So how August goes on a number of different fronts should go a long way in determining how far the Chiefs can go after that.
ALL EYES ON MITCHELL
Mitchell Trubisky had a solid second year as the Bears quarterback, with Matt Nagy building an offense for him, and a stout defense lowering the bar for that offense, as far what it would take to win week-to-week. But with Vic Fangio gone, can the Bears expect the defense to repeat 2019?
It’d be hard to expect that, which means for the Bears, their success this season could well tie right to how much progress Trubisky makes in Year 3. Nagy told me a couple times last year that, as he sees it, it takes about three years for a coach and quarterback to really click together. So it’s fair to think another should be coming in the second of those years.
Remember, this is a quarterback who was drafted before Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes.
HARD KNOCK LIFE
There’s so much going on with the Raiders. Mike Mayock’s the GM. The defense has been infused with 11 draft picks, including three of the Top 40 in 2019, over the last two years. The offense gets, arguably, the NFL’s best receiver, in Antonio Brown, and a first-round running back, in Josh Jacobs, and now has a Top 15 pick at one tackle spot and the highest paid in the position’s history at the other.
While Mayock and Jon Gruden have drilled home the idea of culture-fit players in the draft, they’ve rolled the dice on buy-low veterans like Vontaze Burfict and Richie Incognito. And as for the incumbents from the previous regime, Derek Carr actually carried some momentum out of last year with a very strong finish to Year 1 under Gruden’s watch.
I can’t wait to see what happens, and we’ll probably get an indication of which way it’ll go right there on HBO. One thing to remember: For all the noise, Gruden can still coach and, at least on paper, there’s now some pretty decent talent on his roster.
ANDREW LUCK ENCORE
Luck just had his first normal offseason in four years, and comes back having worked through the mechanical adjustments that led to some ups and downs early in 2018. And it’s not like last year was bad—he had 39 touchdown passes against 15 picks during the regular season, and went into Houston and won a playoff game.
Even better is the prospect for what’s around him. Last year’s draft class has the look of a franchise changer, with two guys already first-team All-Pro (Quenton Nelson, Darius Leonard). And if the 2019 group, which has already seen flashes in practice from Rock Ya-Sin, Parris Campbell and Bobby Okereke, is anything close to that one, look out. This could be a Super Bowl team.
You don’t need me to read down the list, but I will anyway—Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Denzel Ward ... In short order, GM John Dorsey has added enough to a talent base that already included guys like Myles Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi and David Njoku to have Browns fans dreaming of just their second trip to the playoffs since Belichick was coach. And maybe a whole lot more.
But with all these big-ticket acquisitions comes the responsibility of melding egos together, and that’ll fall on first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens. I love Kitchens as a coach. He thoroughly deserves this shot. He’s very capable of managing people. And that’s good, because the challenge ahead isn’t for the faint of heart.
KYLER AND KLIFF
What’s ahead in Arizona won’t be dull—a new-age coach with ideas counter to NFL norms on offense, and a 5' 10" dynamo executing them between the lines. No, I can’t wait either to see how the Kliff Kingsbury/Kyler Murray experiment plays out in the desert, especially after hearing what I did through the spring about Murray as a passer in practice.
Just as interesting will be how they handle camp and preseason games, given that they should have an advantage early on in the season, with most of the league guessing as to what they’ll see out of the new coach and quarterback. It could wind up being like the Redskins in 2012 with Robert Griffin III, or the Eagles in 2013 behind Chip Kelly—and maybe without much visible trace of that in August.
Either way, I’m pumped to see what it looks like, even if we’re waiting until Sept. 8 to really see it.
And with that, let’s get to the mail …
From Chris Evans (@chrisevoevans): Why does the NFL have the end of the season, a break, OTAs, then another break? Would it make sense to have one longer break than two?
This is an interesting question. My belief is that it has to do with the team-building calendar as much as anything. January and February are about planning, with combine, draft and free-agent meetings, as teams set the course for what’s ahead. In March, there’s free agency, which means the bulk of your roster is in place ahead of April.
That’s when the doors swing open for veterans to get ahead on the next season. The draft is at the end of April, and the on-field stuff starts in earnest after that. And for guys who have to work Thanksgiving and Christmas every year, having a month off around the Fourth of July is a nice time to unplug ahead of a long season.
So if you line it up, it makes sense.
From Bruno (@BrunoGarrett1): Will JuJu (Smith-Schuster) catch over 100 passes, and who will be second on the Steelers in receptions?
Well, considering that Smith-Schuster had 111 catches last year, and was one of two guys on the roster in triple-digits in 2018 (joining Brown), I’d say he’s a fair bet to get there again. As for who’ll be second, the first two guys I’d mention were third and fourth on the team in catches last year—tight end Vance McDonald and running back James Conner.
Beyond that? The Steelers have done a great job identifying receiver talent over the last decade, and 2018 rookie James Washington showed bursts of brilliance as a rookie, so he’d be one to watch. But the guy I’m really intrigued to see is third-round pick Diontae Johnson, who, I’m told, was the top receiver on Pittsburgh’s board in April (in part because of his added value as a return man).
Add all that up, and I’m not overly worried about the Pittsburgh offense, post-Le’Veon Bell/Antonio Brown. Where I think their season will really swing is on a defense that still hasn’t gotten back to the old standard, but could with 10th-overall pick Devin Bush in the fold.
From Hey Hey, it's Ray Ray (@theraybergman): More likely to be sitting as the No. 1 or 2 NFC seed if all things go well; Eagles or Cowboys?
I’ll take the Eagles. Both have very strong rosters, and are excellent along the lines of scrimmage, which generally means you’ll be in every game you play. The makeup of each team is well-conceived. And to me, the tiebreaker is with the quarterbacks. I like both Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott, I just think the ceiling is a little higher with Wentz. We saw it in 2017, when he was neck-and-neck with Tom Brady for league MVP before tearing his ACL. We saw it during his rookie year too. And I’ll give him a mulligan for some of the unevenness of last year—he was coming back off the ACL, and it wasn’t long before the back problem cropped up after that.
At his best, and I think a leaner Wentz will get there in 2019, it’s not hard to think he’s a quarterback capable of elevating an already really-good team in a serious way.
From dhat_guy (@dhatguy37923486): What is the situation with Todd Gurley? Will he be 100% by the time the season rolls around?
Well, dhat, the good news is the issue Gurley had at the end of last year wasn’t new. The bad news is that it’s not going away. Teams knew he had a degenerative issue in his knee (though not as bad as, say, a Jay Ajayi or Myles Jack had pre-draft) coming out of Georgia. It was considered manageable. It has been. But the question with these sorts of things always relates to longevity.
And so it’s fair to ask how long the Rams will be able to build around Gurley into the future, and at least examine the implications of the deal he signed last summer. That said, I think the problem in January was a bit more related to his confidence. We’ve seen in the past of what happens when Gurley isn’t running as decisively—it happened in 2016, thanks to a shoddy run scheme. This time around, I think it’s possible his assuredness in the knee, after he tweaked it, was a factor in how he ran.
So I think the priority for the Rams has to be getting Gurley back mentally to where he was two years ago, as Offensive Player of the Year. The health thing is largely out of their control anyway, and the drafting of Darnell Henderson and re-signing of Malcolm Brown is pretty good evidence that they know they have to be ready if something goes wrong.
From Jesse Reed (@JesseReed78): Odds that Daniel Jones actually supplants Eli Manning within the first four weeks of the season?
Jesse, I’d say that doesn’t happen, as of right now in late June. I don’t think you keep Manning around without the intention of starting him, and giving him the chance, on the field, to hold on to his job. But I also wouldn’t take what Pat Shurmur said a couple weeks ago and dismiss it—to me, that was confirmation Jones has positioned himself to play in the fall. And Shurmur knows that if Jones is clearly the better player in the summer, his locker room will know it, and his hands will be tied.
So no, it’s not impossible we see Jones early on. But to me, the likelihood remains that it happens if and when the Giants fall out of contention. History shows us that first-round quarterbacks don’t stay on the bench if their teams fall out of the race behind veteran starters.
From Evan Vracar (@Roca_Star): Bigger make-or-break year: Mariota or Winston?
Evan, you can read more on this in this week’s MMQB. But I’d say it’s moreso a make-or-break year for Mariota than Winston. And the reason why is simple: If a guy’s problem is injuries, and he keeps getting hurt, then teams are going to be reluctant to rely on and build around him. For quarterbacks, since only one really plays for each team, that can be pretty destructive to a career.
Now, if either guy struggles in 2019, I think the same fate would await them, and that would be a lot of uncertainty going forward again. But if Mariota has another season where an injury gets the best of him, things will probably be pretty tough for him going forward. And barring Winston having trouble off the field again, and he actually hasn’t in a while, he isn’t facing anything like that.
From Steven Rosenberg (@SteveRosenberg): Participation trophies... for or against?
So this one’s still going? ICYMI: My four-year-old got a participation trophy, and I made a joke about it breaking, and a certain corner of the internet (one based in a hipster-friendly part of Brooklyn) got very upset with me. For the record, I didn’t actually have any problem with said trophy, and enjoyed the reaction very much.
I do think once kids get to a certain age, and that’s coming soon for my oldest, they should keep score in sports. That’s sort of the idea of the whole thing, and I think not doing that is robbing them of some of the great benefits of playing, win or lose.
From TDC in AZ (@tdcourser): If you could vacation with one current NFL player who most of us haven’t heard of, who would it be?
Here’s a good one to wrap up with. if I could take the “most of us haven’t heard of” part of that question out, it’d without question be Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is awesome at vacationing, and I’m not even kidding. He’s been to more countries than I can name.
But under your parameters, and I’m going to say we’re looking at the casual fan here (who wouldn’t know the names of offensive tackles), I’ll take David Bakhtiari or Mike McGlinchey. And that’s based on recent video evidence.
We got a good MMQB coming for the week of the Fourth, and I’ll see you guys after I get back from my own vacation, over on Nantucket.
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