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This is the day NFL free agency begins, the day when agents and teams can legally begin to negotiate contracts that they’ve already been, you know, illegally negotiating. But a Molotov cocktail got thrown into the top 10 of the draft over the weekend, so that takes precedence this morning.
And well, that escalated quickly.
The top of the draft got turned upside-down by Ryan Poles and the desperado Carolina Panthers just after 5 Eastern Time Friday afternoon, six days after he told me it’d take a ransom for the Bears to deal the top overall pick.
Poles got a lot from Carolina for the top pick: the ninth and 61st overall picks this year, a first-round pick in 2024, a second-round pick in 2025, and the Panthers’ number one wideout, D.J. Moore, healthy and entering his age-26 season. Moore’s not a top-10 NFL receiver, but he’s certainly in the top 20, after three 1,000-yard years in his first five NFL seasons.
Because the trade cannot be announced until Wednesday, the start of the 2023 league year, the Panthers and Bears were zipped up tight over the weekend. But I’ve gathered a few nuggets.
The prevailing wisdom: Chicago got enough for the pick, assuming D.J. Moore can be the primo receiver Justin Fields desperately needs. Carolina paid through the nose, and recent draft history is littered with lousy tradeups into the top five for quarterbacks who didn’t pan out (Robert Griffin III, Carson Wentz, Mitchell Trubisky, Sam Darnold). “If Carolina doesn’t pick the right quarterback, the trade’s a disaster,” said former NFL wheeler-dealer Jimmy Johnson.
This deal was not getting done without D.J. Moore in it. The Bears had a bottom-five group of wideouts in 2022, even after trading for Chase Claypool in midseason. Darnell Mooney, Claypool and Equanimeous St. Brown, as a group, weren’t going to give Fields his best chance to emerge as a quarterback and developing Fields is priority one for the ’23 Bears. The free-agency wideout crop is a D-minus, and unless Poles wanted to use his only pick in the top-50 on a receiver, Moore (or a number one receiver like him) was vital. Certainly Carolina didn’t want to deal one of its best five players, in his prime; in the span of six months, the Panthers have dealt their two best offensive players, Christian McCaffrey and Moore. But if they wanted to be sure of having their choice of quarterbacks come April 27, Moore had to be sacrificed.
I don’t think Carolina has decided which quarterback it wants. Of course the GM, Scott Fitterer, and scouts who’ve investigated quarterbacks have their leanings. Of course coach Frank Reich and his staff have their opinions after watching tape and meeting the passers at the Combine. But 45 days out from the first round, this isn’t a done deal. It wouldn’t be smart for it to be a done deal.
I’ve heard the same rumors everyone else has—that Frank Reich loves Florida QB Anthony Richardson. And he may be the pick. But I’m a bit skeptical. Nothing against Richardson, who is one of the most interesting QB prospects in the past few drafts. I wonder, though, about trading two first-round picks, two second-round picks and one of your five best players for a player with a high ceiling but with one year as a college starter. Trading to number one and choosing Richardson might turn out to be brilliant. But picking Richardson number one after dealing five prime pieces for him is a major risk.
However, if Richardson become The Guy, I expect Carolina to consider a minor trade-down. This would be tricky. When teams make draft trades, the team trading up doesn’t usually admit who the player target is. In this case, the Panthers, if trading from one to, say, Houston at two, would have to be assured the Texans weren’t taking the quarterback Carolina wants. That would require some trust, obviously. Going much beyond two would be a chancy venture.
Reich has never coached a short quarterback, and Bryce Young is 5-10. Is that meaningful? I give it a little weight. In Reich’s 17 years as a quarterbacks coach, offensive coordinator or head coach, his starting quarterbacks in Indianapolis, Arizona, San Diego, Philadelphia and Indianapolis (again) have been 6-6 (Nick Foles, John Skelton), 6-5 (Peyton Manning, Kerry Collins, Dan Orlovsky, Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz, Rivers again, Wentz again), 6-4 (Curtis Painter, Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett, Matt Ryan), 6-3 (Ryan Lindley) and 6-2 (Sam Ehlinger). The 6-3 and 6-2 guys totaled six starts, and I suspect that starting Ehlinger twice in Reich’s last two games in Indy was not Reich’s idea. So in 17 years, all but six games Reich coached were started by quarterbacks 6-4 and taller. Reich’s a traditionalist. He played in an era with big quarterbacks. To stake the future of the franchise on a great player, but a 5-10 player, would be unconventional for him. However, Fitterer comes from Seattle, where the 5-10-ish Russell Wilsonwas a major outlier for a decade. Young has gotten rave reviews for his football smarts, and just finished two years with a demanding NFL QB teacher, Bill O’Brien, at Alabama. So never say never about the short QB.
One other thing about Bryce Young that Reich and his staff will love and could sway them toward a 5-10 QB. There probably wasn’t a quarterback in college football last year who was as smart and resourceful as Young. Case in point: On most snaps at Alabama, Young called two plays in the huddle and decided which to use—himself, not with a signal from the sidelines—once he read the defense at the line. “That’s very NFL,” said one league quarterback authority who has studied Young. “I think that’s one of the reasons his height isn’t as big a deal as it might be—he’s dealt with figuring out the right play all the time based on what he sees from the defense, and I’m sure he factors in not getting in traffic with a bunch of 6-5 guys.” Two other points to consider about Young: He didn’t have many balls batted down. And Reich is not an inflexible person—if he thinks Young’s markedly the best prospect, he’ll be good taking him.
Does Young’s size mean 6-3 C.J. Stroud has the best chance to be the pick? Two veteran front-office people I spoke with Saturday think Stroud makes the most sense, but those two men are not making this call. Stroud did play the single-most impressive game of any of the four first-round prospects (including Kentucky’s Will Levis) this year—putting up 41 points on Georgia in the college playoffs, throwing for 348 yards with four TDs and no interceptions—so that counts for something.
Where is Chicago left? My column last week focused heavily on the Bears, and now that the deal’s been done, Poles faces a few truths. He knows he needs to bulk up on the offensive line; he has the cap room (a league-high $69.9-million in effective cap space, per overthecap.com) to afford one of the top three tackles in free-agency—Orlando Brown, Mike McGlinchey or Kaleb McGary. Re the draft: Being at nine takes him out of the ballgame for the best pass-rusher, Will Anderson of Alabama, and likely puts number two edge player Tyree Wilson of Texas Tech out of range. But the top offensive-line prospect, Peter Skoronski of Northwestern, could be there at nine. Poles could be smartest spending on one tackle in free agency, and one defensive linemen—Dre’Mont Jones or the pricey Javon Hargrave, or perhaps Frank Clark to beef up the pass-rush.
It’s amazing how different the Bears could look come training camp. Imagine Fields throwing to D.J. Moore outside or in the slot, with Brown protecting his blind side, and Skoronski plugged in either at guard or tackle as a day-one starter. Imagine Jones and Clark buttressing a needy defensive line. That’s all fantasy football, of course, but Poles has the cap room and draft picks (9, 53, 61, 64 overall) to make some plug-and-play decisions between now and May 1.
Re Carolina: Anyone who scouts the quarterbacks comes away thinking Young and Stroud are good candidates for the top pick. The game has changed in the past few years. If you love Young the most, you’re going to deploy an offense that’s 97-percent in shotgun and let him be the smart guy at the line he was at Alabama. Stroud showed the ability to drive the football with confidence; clearly, he’ll be able to make every NFL throw, and he’s afraid of nothing. But then there’s Richardson. It’s certainly possible in the next six weeks the Panthers could talk themselves into the versatile Florida quarterback with the great arm and 80- and 81-yard college TD runs.
I wish I could tell you a good gut feel on who Carolina will pick, but I can’t. As I say, I’m sure those who will collaborate to make the pick have leanings today. Leanings can change in 45 days.
Jalen Ramsey to the Dolphins made too much sense, for both Miami and the Rams. It happened Sunday afternoon. We should have seen it coming for weeks.
The trade—Ramsey to Miami for a mid-third-round pick, 77th overall, and an invisible tight end from the 2021 third round, Hunter Long—seems light for the Rams. And it is, but the market for a cornerback entering his age-29 season who wants a contract extension and who gave up 65-percent completions to his man in coverage last year wasn’t as robust as the Rams had hoped. There was also the matter of Ramsey wanting to go to Miami.
The Dolphins are all-in for 2023. The Rams are all-in for 2025. It’s now officially official: L.A. is a bleep-them-picks franchise no longer, and will build for the future with their 11 picks this April.
Miami will contend if Tua Tagovailoa can stay on the field most or all of the regular season. That’s a certainty. But this deal is an admission the Dolphins won’t be a title team without major improvement on defense. The new coordinator, Vic Fangio, is piece one of the rebuild. Ramsey is an important second piece. The Dolphins in 2022 allowed 113 more points (one TD per game) than the Bills and had interceptions in just five of 17 games. The pricy free-agent cornerback from 2021, Byron Jones, may be too injured to count on. If Aaron Rodgers signs with the Jets and if Lamar Jackson plays with Baltimore, Miami will have nine games in 2023 against premier quarterbacks: Josh Allen and Rodgers (two each), with one against Patrick Mahomes, Jalen Hurts, Justin Herbert, Jackson and Dak Prescott. Ramsey and Xavien Howard should be a formidable cover duo in Fangio’s new defense.
The Rams are going to build through the draft for the foreseeable future, reversing course from the Super Bowl LVI title team. In the last two years, they’ve had one pick in the top 100, total. This year they’ve got three in the top 77 (36, 69 and 77, and I would look for GM Les Snead to try to swap the 36th overall for two or three picks). Long has done zero in two years for two head coaches in Miami, so I wouldn’t count much on him.
Two teams traveling different roads, both using present-day logic. This weekend of big transition will continue with the first week of the new league year and more transition.