NFL ruled by QBs in 2020, Zach Ertz watch, Chiefs keep core and more

The 2020 NFL season will be remembered for its oddities, but also for a bevy of big-name quarterbacks having notable moments.

Every NFL season is disproportionately influenced by its star quarterbacks. This one will simply have a more historical hue to it.

A quick glance around the league reveals what will be a major storyline throughout the campaign. Across both conferences, there are future Hall of Fame quarterbacks potentially playing their final seasons. There are terrific talents who could be gearing up for a wardrobe change come 2021, while others are veteran in new homes, hoping to find a bit more magic.

In New Orleans, Drew Brees is likely playing his last year. The Saints are Super Bowl contenders and Brees, 41, is clearly winding down. Arguably a top-10 all-time quarterback, Brees could move into rarified air with a second title. Without one, he’s still cemented as a champion, but the final half of his career is overshadowed by crushing postseason exits.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are hoping Ben Roethlisberger isn’t finished after major elbow surgery. This isn’t uncharted territory for the franchise, as Hall of Fame signal-caller Terry Bradshaw attempted to do the same in 1983, only to last part of one game at Shea Stadium before throwing his last pass.

Roethlisberger has two years remaining on his deal, but if the elbow barks, the avenue to continue may be closed off for the 38-year-old.

In the NFC North, only Kirk Cousins can feel safe beyond 2020. Aaron Rodgers shares a locker room with his eventual replacement in Jordan Love. While it’s highly unlikely Rodgers is done with the Green Bay Packers after this season, it’s possible if injury allows Love an opportunity and he shines.

The Detroit Lions could well be seeing their final season with Matthew Stafford. The 32-year-old can be moved next offseason with the team recouping $34 million over there following two years. If Detroit falters and is within range of Trevor Lawrence, Trey Lance or Justin Fields, it’s a likely scenario.

Of course, Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys have been well-written about in this space, but it’s a juicy subplot to the year. If Prescott flourishes, Dallas will either have to tag him for $38 million come March, or allow him to hit free agency. Choices abound for owner Jerry Jones.

Finally, what of Derek Carr and his Las Vegas Raiders? Head coach Jon Gruden has never seemed particularly enamored with his starting quarterback. If Las Vegas doesn’t play well — whether it be the fault of Carr or his leaky defense — general manager Mike Mayock may move on this winter, saving nearly $20 million in the cap-tight 2021 season.

Then there’s the old faces in new places.

Tom Brady is the most notable, leaving the New England Patriots for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Brady, 43, is hoping for a few great years in pewter before he retires to a life of luxury. He’s surrounded by immense talent — including a familiar face in Rob Gronkowski — but does he have enough left within himself?

Speaking of New England, Brady is being replaced by the 2015 NFL MVP in Cam Newton. Newton, who has endured serious foot and shoulder injuries the last two seasons, is trying to jumpstart his career. If he can, the Patriots are fascinating, and so is Newton’s market next year should he reach free agency.

Finally, Philip Rivers. The 38-year-old is trading in his lightning bolt for a horseshoe, hoping he can make one more run at his elusive Super Bowl. For sure a longshot, Rivers has terrific and familiar coaches in Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, both whom were with him in San Diego. His front line is also fantastic, but is it all enough to make this a notable destination or is Indy a forgettable pitstop?

The upcoming season will be defined by myriad things, not the least of which a crippling pandemic.  However, on the field, few topics will have a more lasting impression than the men under center, hoping for one last moment of glory.

Power rankings

Best 10 games to watch this September

1. Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens, Week 3 (MNF)
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints, Week 1
3. Green Bay Packers at New Orleans Saints, Week 3 (SNF)
4. Dallas Cowboys at Seattle Seahawks, Week 3
5. New England Patriots at Seattle Seahawks, Week 2 (SNF)
6. Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings, Week 1
7. Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs, Week 1 (TNF)
8. Denver Broncos at Pittsburgh Steelers, Week 2
9. Los Angeles Rams at Philadelphia Eagles, Week 2
10. Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers, Week 1

Quotable

The Las Vegas Raiders signed Marcus Mariota for $17 million over two seasons. He’s not the typical backup holding a clipboard. A former No. 2 overall pick, Mariota comes in as a threat to Derek Carr if he falters in the early weeks.

Head coach Jon Gruden being complimentary towards Mariota isn’t headline-worthy — most coaches talk up their guys — but it does raise an eyebrow considering the Raiders’ situation under center.

Podcast

Due to an F-1 tornado which hit my area, we were unable to record a podcast last week. We sincerely apologize for the delay. Starting this week — barring another Act of God — we will redelivering Stacking The Box on a weekly basis through the NFL Draft.

Random stat

The 1977 Denver Broncos are the only Super Bowl participant prior to this century without a Hall of Famer.

Info learned this week

1. Chiefs keep core together, expect Mathieu to be next

General manager Brett Veach is doing work this summer. Over the past month, Kansas City has signed quarterback Patrick Mahomes, defensive tackle Chris Jones and tight end Travis Kelce (more on him below) to extensions totaling more than $650 million.

By doing so, Kansas City has the following players for at least the next three seasons: Mahomes, Jones, Kelce, Frank Clark, Juan Thornhill, Anthony Hitchens Mecole Hardman, Tyreek Hill and Clyde Edwards-Helaire.

Not a bad group. One name to give kudos to? Chiefs cap guru Brandt Tilis, who in conversations around the league is seen as a whiz assisting Veach in making the numbers work.

However, one major name is missing from the aforementioned list. Tyrann Mathieu.

Mathieu, who signed a three-year, $42 million deal with the Chiefs last offseason, has re-emerged as a First-Team All-Pro who essentially replaced what a healthy Eric Berry brought to the defense. While Veach can wait until next summer to extend Mathieu if he chooses, the Honey Badger tops the priority list in Kansas City.

If we’ve learned anything about Veach and the Chiefs, they keep their stars. Mathieu will be no exception.

2. Packers reward Clark with record deal for nose tackles

On Saturday morning, Kenny Clark securing a four-year, $70 million deal with a $25 million signing bonus.

Clark, who made his first Pro Bowl last season, is one of the top interior pass-rushers in the game. He notched 12 sacks over the past two seasons while being a dominant force inside to plug the run.

For Green Bay, this deal shows a continued commitment to fielding an elite front seven. Last offseason, the Packers uncharacteristically spent lavishly in free agency, landing edge rushers Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith. Combined with Clark, the trio matches up with any in football.

Considering general manager Brian Gutekunst didn’t add any weapons for quarterback Aaron Rodgers this offseason, Green Bay appears to be building a team capable of winning games in the 20s instead of the shootout-style affairs.

3. Alex Smith’s comeback is the stuff of legend

There’s no smart angle here, just admiration.

Smith was brutally injured in Nov. 2018, shattering his tibia and fibula. As documented by ESPN’s Project 11, Smith almost lost the leg to infection. Now, he’s cleared for football activities in Washington and is officially off the PUP list.

It’s impossible to know if Smith ever plays another down. Dwayne Haskins is the starter for the Football Team and certainly the future if he shows even remote promise. Smith is battling with Kyle Allen to be the backup, hoping he can retain his position at some juncture. Even with the activation onto the active roster, hurdles remain.

Yet, frankly, it doesn’t matter whether he plays again. Smith being able to compete on a football field is nothing short of a miracle considering the road he has traveled. Here’s to hoping Smith gets one more moment in the sun. He’s earned it.

4. Hard Knocks will be a tough watch this year

The ratings are in for the first episode of HBO’s Hard Knocks with the Los Angeles Chargers and Rams. It was ugly.

Tuesday’s show only grabbed 273,000 viewers, about one-third of last year’s first episode. For the first time, the series is tackling two teams, but with the pandemic raging and both teams having limited fanbases — especially the Chargers — it’s a tough sell.

Additionally, neither club is expected to seriously contend or has exciting rookies to sell. Last year, the Raiders were at least interesting with Gruden, the Antonio Brown fiasco and the last year of Oakland football being at the epicenter of the season. The year prior, it was Bakre Mayfield and the Browns. Intriguing stuff.

Few are going to tune in for Jared Goff and Tyrod Taylor, especially without preseason games and the typical cut-down drama. The show has largely declined in recent years save the Cleveland season, and 2020 won’t be any better.

5. Mims’ injury could be huge problem for Jets offense

The New York Jets are relying on rookie Denzel Mims to be a critical component of the passing game. They could be in some trouble early.

Mims is missing time with a hamstring injury, putting the former Baylor star behind the learning curve in an already truncated offseason. This is a growing issue for New York, who allowed Robby Anderson to leave in free agency for the Carolina Panthers while failing to add any veteran weapons.

General manager Joe Douglas has left third-year quarterback Sam Darnold with little ammunition in a critical campaign. With Mims sidelined, the depth chart is Jamison Crowder, Breshad Perriman, Josh Malone and Vyncint Smith. Not ideal.

Darnold is entering a season which will determine whether Douglas picks up his fifth-year option. Relying on a rookie and veteran stopgaps is a poor plan.

Two cents

*A raw, quick-hitting thought from the week not based on sourcing but pure opinion*

The Miami Dolphins should start Ryan Fitzpatrick and let him play the first month, if not few months.

Tua Tagovailoa is the future. He’s going to be the starter soon. However, he’s learning a new offense as a rookie. As importantly, so is his left tackle, first-rounder Austin Jackson. Tagovailoa is also coming off a very serious hip injury.

Miami should be cautious and allow for the 2020 season to serve as a developmental steppingstone to contention in 2021.

Also, while we’re here, look for Preston Williams to emerge as a star across from DeVante Parker. At the 2019 Senior Bowl, I had a scout tell me he thought Williams was worth a second-round pick based on talent, but his off-field concerns would drop him off many boards.

Williams ended up going to the Dolphins as an undrafted free agent before notching 32 catches and 428 yards with three touchdowns in eight games before tearing his ACL.

Slow-play Tua and look out for Williams in Miami. Just my two cents.

Gambler’s game

*Favorite bet of the week, will typically center on a game, but in the preseason, it’s a future*

Love the Steelers at +375 to win the AFC North. Yes, the Ravens are looming, but Pittsburgh is a terrific value there. If Ben Roethlisberger comes back healthy, Mike Tomlin’s club has a great defense to pair with him.

Baltimore is the favorite and rightfully so, but if we’re talking value, that’s a good play.

Inside the league

*Information gleaned from league conversations over the past week*

George Kittle and Travis Kelce got paid. Zach Ertz is on deck.

On the trio of fantastic tight ends, the conversations I had around the league saw the deals for Kittle and Kelce differently … to be kind.

With Kelce, some are baffled over the structure. The future Hall of Famer didn’t get any extra money this season, saw a $4 million bump in 2021 and will only make $7.5 million in 2022.

One exchange I had on Kelce deal ended with the contract being called “a f**king F-” from the player’s standpoint.

Meanwhile, the Kittle contract is being viewed as player-friendly even with the NFL’s penchant for so-called funny money. Kittle received $18 million up front despite the pandemic, and his $30 million fully guaranteed beat the previous record for tight ends of $23 million, signed by Austin Hooper in March.

Additionally, a very interesting wrinkle in this deal.

The 49ers have a vesting date for all their large contracts of April 7, which is a month later than most teams. It puts players at a disadvantage, because San Francisco can cut bait after most of the free-agency cash has been spent around the league.

While Kittle does have the April 7 vesting date, his contract features rolling guarantees forcing San Francisco to declare a year in advance. It’s a huge win for Kittle and his veteran agent, Jack Bechta.

As for Ertz, the next few weeks are critical.

Eagles general manager Howie Roseman now knows what the market will bare. If he wants to retain Ertz, he’s likely going to need to pay close to Kittle’s contract. If he’s unwilling to go there, considering Philadelphia’s internal fondness for backup tight end Dallas Goedert, Ertz could well be playing his final season with the Eagles.

It’s a tough spot for Roseman. No tight end has ever recorded more receptions than Ertz over his first seven seasons, and few are more integral to their team’s passing game.

However, the Eagles are slated to be a comical $91 million over the cap next season if it comes in at the basement level of $175 million. Even if the threshold is $200 million and Philadelphia rolls over its current $24 million in space, Roseman must shave off approximately $45 million to factor in draft picks and marginal breathing room.

Extending Ertz could be tough if new money is getting pumped into the hypothetical extension.

History lesson

In 1970, the American and National Football Leagues merged. As per the agreement, two conferences were created, with the NFL teams constituting to the NFC. However, due to the imbalance of the preceding leagues, the AFC needed three transfers.

The Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and Steelers ended up being the three. Cleveland owner Art Modell agreed first, on the conditions he would be joined by Art Rooney and the Steelers, and that both teams would be joined by the Cincinnati Bengals in a new division.

Modell got his wish — and so did the founder of both Cleveland and Cincinnati’s franchises, Paul Brown — as the AFC Central was minted with the inclusion of the Houston Oilers. Modell was so frazzled by the decision, he fainted the next morning and was hospitalized.

For Colts owner Carol Rosenbloom, the choice was easy. He wanted the $3 million given to each club who made the switch. Baltimore joined the AFC East and won the Super Bowl in its first season as part of the conference.

Parting shot

The NFC East is largely about the Cowboys and Eagles this season, but the other two teams are worth monitoring in their own right.

For the New York Giants and Washington Football Team, it’s a year of tumult and turnover.

In both cases, there’s a new head coach and second-year quarterback. For New York, Joe Judge is tasked with building a defense without a single star on the roster, all while helping Daniel Jones reach his potential. In Washington, Ron Rivera has playmakers galore in the front seven but lacks the offensive weaponry of Big Blue.

While it figures to be a race for third place between New York and Washington, which one takes the biggest strides. Come Christmas, has Jones or Haskins emerged as a clear-cut franchise quarterback to build around?

Whoever comes out ahead has to feel good heading into 2021, even if it’s a tough campaign ahead.

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