Well, this is what overnight overhaul looks like in the National Football League
RARELY DOES a league change so drastically in such a short period of time. But the events of late December through early March made some aspects of the NFL completely unrecognizable to anyone watching pro football a decade ago. Here's what's radically new:
PUSHBACK AGAINST THE POWERS THAT BE
Heading into the collective bargaining negotiations in 2020, players seem to be tipping the scales back in their favor. Look at the way stars like receiver Antonio Brown, linebacker Khalil Mack and D-tackle Aaron Donald strong-armed their teams into trades (Brown to the Raiders; Mack to the Bears) or long-term deals (Donald with the Rams). Le'Veon Bell sat out a full season, unafraid of the backlash that usually grinds players into surrendering their personal interests for the supposed good of their team. Even incoming rookies are leveraging themselves better: Michigan D-tackle Rashan Gary and Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray (below), projected top picks, didn't fully participate in the predraft dog and pony show.
A COACHING REBALANCE
Look hard (too hard, perhaps) and you can trace all of this year's coaching hires back to the electric, defenseless Monday Night Football game in November between the Chiefs and the Rams, who combined for 105 points. Notice how most teams either took the traditional course—the Broncos (Vic Fangio) and the Dolphins (Brian Flores) hired the two hottest defensive coordinators on the market, in an effort to combat the 2018 offensive wave—or made a massive leap of faith to recreate that scoring boom: 35-year-old Zac Taylor, most recently Sean McVay's QBs coach with the Rams, took over the Bengals; 39-year-old Kliff Kingsbury, an Air Raid disciple, got the Cardinals' top job after being fired at Texas Tech. How these young guns fare will affect not only future coaching hires but also the myriad players brought in to fit their systems. Incoming Air Raid--ready receivers, for example, could thrive—or soon be looking for work in more traditional roles.
GOODBYE, QB NORMS
Somehow we've emerged from the combine with the 5'10" Murray still considered the front-runner to be the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft. Hmm. If nothing else, that shows that opinions on quarterback height have dramatically altered over the course of a few years. Drew Brees is no longer an outlier. Russell Wilson is no longer an outlier. Coaches talk about clean sight lines and the ability to see over linemen, but if Murray performs well during his rookie season, how much of that will be exposed as a lazy scouting trope? Several GMs at the combine said their size guidelines have changed significantly over the years—likely as the minds of their coaches opened, or as smaller players flashed game-breaking abilities elsewhere. Murray, if he succeeds, has the power to further alter the future of the position.
THE UNIMPORTANCE OF TRANSCENDENT RECEIVING TALENT
Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. (above) were traded in 2019. Think about how insane that sentence would have sounded a year or two ago—but also how easily both deals can be defended by coaches and execs who point out that championship teams rarely feature a star receiver. These doubters go back to the Calvin Johnson--era Lions, cite the struggles of franchises that devote large chunks of their salary-cap space to one wideout, then ask: Is it worthwhile? (Demaryius Thomas, Julian Edelman and Alshon Jeffery were not considered or paid like stars on their recent Super Bowl--winning teams, despite their consistent abilities to win matchups and create open space.) This fall we'll find out if Brown and Beckham were uplifting bad offenses, or if they were actually holding their teams back.
A SAFETY RENAISSANCE
With more coaches looking to create mismatches on offense, the counter is obvious: players who are effective against the run and the pass. Defensive coordinators love guys who can match up with both silky receivers and bulky tight ends. And it's showing up in the payroll. This month Landon Collins (to the Redskins) and Tyrann Mathieu (Chiefs) became the highest paid players at the position in NFL history, with $14 million in average salary. And Earl Thomas (Ravens) cashed in just weeks from his 30th birthday, perceived as an age of decline for the position. Just last year we were talking about the twilight of the safety, as former first-round picks like Kenny Vaccaro and Eric Reid fought for scraps in free agency. Reid's kneeling during the national anthem (to raise awareness for social injustices and racial inequality) certainly played into his down market, but even he emerged with a salary bump for 2019. Don't be surprised to see more callbacks to the Giants' three-safety defenses from their '07 Super Bowl run.
THE NFL LEARNS TO TANK
Sashi Brown will be a mere footnote in the annals of the Browns, but his willingness as Cleveland's executive VP of football operations to take a woebegone roster with tradable assets and resist a quick fix will go down as one of the best decisions in modern franchise history. His liquidation sale in 2016 and '17 gifted new GM John Dorsey with high picks and salary-cap space when he arrived last year, and the full scope of the payoff is becoming clear. Back-to-back No. 1 picks produced the most promising pass rusher (Myles Garrett) and QB (Baker Mayfield) that Cleveland has had since its reboot in 1999. The Browns have since used their wealth of resources to acquire Beckham and D-end Olivier Vernon from the Giants—and they still have a top 50 pick in next month's draft. With the Dolphins likely to take a similar approach, this will mark the NFL's first real foray into systematic tanking during the salary-cap era.