Patrick Mahomes leads Chiefs to AFC Championship win


KANSAS CITY, Mo. — How is he doing this? High-ankle sprains are six-week injuries, or something like that. And Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes looked fairly fine through 36 minutes Sunday in the AFC Championship Game—not running with abandon, but when he had to, Mahomes could get out of harm’s way and do Mahomes things.

Nine minutes left, third quarter, 13-13. Why can’t these teams ever play a rout? Three times in 13 months they’d played, and the Bengals won by 3, 3 and 3. Now, with the wind chill around 4 and the Arrowhead crowd in a nervous tizzy, Cincinnati linebacker Germaine Pratt got a free run at Mahomes, who tried to sprint left and just couldn’t with the bum wheel. Pratt gained on him. Mahomes knew he had a couple of milliseconds to do something on this play, third-and-four, to extend this drive. So Mahomes turned his body and took the ball and somehow fired a pinpoint throw into the gut of Mecole Hardman just as Pratt lunged and caused Mahomes to pull up.

Limping badly.

Could this be it? I wondered if the crowd was thinking what I was thinking: Henne, warm up! (Chad Henne, the backup QB.)

Then something fortunate but unfortunate happened: Hardman caught the ball—first down, gain of 11—but he laid on the field, hurt. Timeout on the field. Bad for Hardman. Good for Mahomes, who needed a minute or two, right here, right now. He gimped over to the Kansas City sideline.

Kansas City’s Vice President of Sports Medicine and Performance Rick Burkholder, who’d been with Mahomes during his all-week rehab, said to Mahomes: “You okay?”

“Leave me alone,” Mahomes hissed.

There was not going to be any relief pitcher for Mahomes on this day.

Later, in the quiet of an anteroom next to the team’s post-game family room, Mahomes pondered the pain he felt with nine minutes left in the third quarter, knowing he was going to somehow make it through the last 24 minutes of the game. And overtime, if need be.

“On that play,” he said, “I knew once I was getting chased it was gonna hurt regardless. I knew running wasn’t gonna be something good for me. I think you saw a couple times in the game where I tried to run and I didn’t really go anywhere. So I rolled out to the left, they brought pressure off the right, and I saw Mecole open. I stepped on that leg, kinda twisted through it and I immediately felt that little shock. It’s just one of those things that you, you know, you feel it.

“But at the end of the day, man, I’m not coming out of that game unless they carry me out.”

First down. And miles to go before Mahomes can sleep.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present The Andy Reid Super Bowl.

“You know this city. You know that city,” Reid said in his Arrowhead office Sunday night. He shook his head, like he still couldn’t believe it: 14 years as Philadelphia coach, 10 years as KC coach. Now they’ll meet in the Super Bowl.

“It’s gonna be a great clash. Great. I love it. It’s crazy. It’s pretty crazy. It’s real crazy, in fact. I left there on good terms. I still got a good relationship with those people. I appreciate every bit of those 14 years.”

The nuts, the bolts:

Super Bowl LVII

Sunday, Feb. 12, State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Ariz., 6:30 p.m. ET

Kansas City (AFC 1 seed, 16-3) versus Philadelphia (NFC 1 seed, 16-3)

FOX TV (Kevin Burkhardt, Greg Olsen)

Early line: Eagles by 2.

Historic game: It’s the first of the 57 Super Bowls with two starting Black quarterbacks facing off. Mahomes plays in his third for Kansas City, Jalen Hurts in his first for Philadelphia Each QB enters the game with an injury—Mahomes with the lingering right ankle issue, Hurts with a sprained right shoulder suffered Dec. 18 at Chicago. Neither is likely to be adversely affected by it Andy Reid coached the Eagles from 1999-2012, getting fired after a 4-12 season. Five years later, the Eagles won their first Super Bowl. Five years later, the Eagles will play Reid in a weirdly sentimental Super Bowl To get to this game, Philadelphia beat the Giants and Niners by a combined 69-14; Kansas City beat Jacksonville and Cincinnati, 50-40 The matchup could come down to whether Kansas City defensive linemen Frank Clark and Chris Jones—who pulverized the Bengals front Sunday—can make a dent in the best offensive line in football. Joe Burrow said of Jones, a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year: “He’s so good. He makes it so hard on you.”

Some weird officiating from Ronald Torbert’s crew marred the second half of this game. In Cincinnati, a few calls will live in infamy. But this was the fourth time these two teams have met in the past 13 months, and the fourth time we spent the entire game, play after play, riveted.

Cincinnati-Kansas City. It’s now the best rivalry in the game.

Burrow-Mahomes. It’s now the best quarterback rivalry in the game.

Lou Anarumo-Reid/Eric Bieniemy. It’s not the best coaching rivalry in the game, but it’s close. Holding Kansas City to 25.5 points a game in four big, big games is a great feat. Holding Kansas City to two field goals in four fourth quarters, when Reid and Bieniemy are top-shelf, when Mahomes has often been at his greatest, well, that’s a resume-builder for Anarumo.

Back to the post-game locker room.

Burkholder is in his 29th NFL season as an athletic trainer. Reid brought him with him from Philadelphia in 2013 when he took the coaching job here. In the winning locker room Sunday night, he nodded toward Mahomes’ locker.

“I used to think Jon Runyan was the toughest guy I’ve worked with—and he was tremendous,” Burkholder said. “But now it’s Patrick. He’s incredible. It’s like there was never any question he’d play this week, and his injury was significant. The amazing thing to me: He did not miss one snap of practice all week.”

“Not one,” Reid said. “He had a little tweak here or there and kept pounding through. ‘I’m fine, I’m fine.’ That’s the crazy thing—for him to push through every play in practice, it’s just nuts. And then, he wanted to do the nakeds. He wanted to move to his left and just try it—see how it felt. We called it to the right, which would be easier for him. That’s how we had it on the script. But then he ran it to his left. He did one of those tonight. You saw it.”

Leave me alone.

You shouldn’t get the wrong impression when Mahomes bites off Burkholder’s head a little bit. Mahomes told me this is what he meant by it: “The coaches, everybody kinda coming up, media, everybody asking about it all week. I was just like, ‘Listen—I’m playing, so it doesn’t matter how I’m doing.’”

Patrick Mahomes fought through injury vs. the Bengals. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

When Mecole Hardman finally got up and walked off the field, Mahomes had a minute or so to gather himself. Then he continued the drive, and gave the Bengals their first reason to be fuming. On third-and-seven from the Cincinnati 26-yard line, Mahomes hit Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who got to the 20- and stretched the ball out to pierce the line to gain, the Bengals’ 19-. Valdes-Scantling reached out and pulled the ball back voluntarily. At the goal line, that would be a touchdown. In the field of play, it’s not supposed to be. The officials ruled that because Valdez-Scantling was being pulled back at the time of the reach, his reach was allowed. It’s dubious whether that’s a logical conclusion.

So instead of having fourth-and-one at the 20-yard line, Kansas City was awarded a first down at the 19-. Two plays later Mahomes made his play of the game. Third-and-10 at the 19-, and Mahomes, back to pass, surveyed the landscape.

“We kept the running back in to help protect and I looked at Travis [Kelce] first,” Mahomes said. “He got double-teamed. Then my next read was the deep cross guy [rookie Skyy Moore]. The safety jumped that one and so I got to that third read and I just saw Marquez. So he’s 6-5 with that wingspan and he throws a hand up there. I couldn’t really see in front of him, but I knew he was open if he was throwing his hand up like that.”

Mahomes maneuvered in the pocket two or three steps. Some 576 pounds of defensive-line bulk, Sam Hubbard and B.J. Hill, were a quarter-second from tag-team smashing Mahomes. He had only one choice—and that one choice, Valdes-Scantling, had a window very rapidly closing, with corner Mike Hilton closing in.

The window was inches wide, and 27 yards away as the crow flies.

“I tried to just fire it to Marquez,” Mahomes said. “It’s one of those when you throw it and you hold your breath, honestly.”

Watch the replay 10 times, as I did, and it looks like Hilton, diving to break up the pass, missed it by inches. I bet his fingers felt the wind as the ball whizzed by.

Mahomes: “You’re like, man, just get through there somehow.”

Said Reid: “He took a couple of hits there and I just went ‘Ohhhh.’ He got up. I don’t know what other words to use for you.”

Play of the game. Touchdown.

One point about what Mahomes, Reid and Bieniemy battled through. In the last two years, Anarumo has become one of the rising stars in the profession. Between his first year as coordinator in 2019 and his fourth year this season, he’s cut 58 yards a game from what Cincinnati’s allowed on defense. And, entering Sunday’s game, the Bengals had been 3-0 against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in the previous 13 months.

“I’m most nervous while they’re singing the national anthem,” Anarumo said Friday, the hay in the barn for his fourth meeting against Mahomes in 13 months. “Once that’s over, I’m ready to go. The fun part of football is during the game because you’re constantly thinking, you’re constantly challenging yourself, you’re constantly reacting to what they do. And against [Mahomes], you see the accuracy, the arm strength, his movement, and you think, ‘How are we ever gonna stop this guy?’”

But—and this is a big but—the Mahomes ankle injury cast a doubt cloud over Anarumo’s prep work. “I gotta be honest,” Anarumo told his players Friday morning. “Feels to me like he’s got a little bit of a leaky tire and at some point, it’s gonna go flat.”

Anarumo has some Belichick in him: No two game plans are the same. He’s made a living dropping eight into coverage and eschewing the blitz against Kansas City. Ben Solak of The Ringer had a fascinating take last week in the runup to the game: Mahomes with too much time isn’t as good as Mahomes when he’s pressured and has to make quick decisions. Per Solak, in Mahomes’ last 57 games dating back to the start of 2020, he’s had eight games when he’s had an average of more than 3.0 seconds to throw. (The NFL average is about 2.7 seconds from snap till QB release.) Mahomes is 3-5 in those eight games, including 0-2 against Cincinnati—and, amazingly, 42-7 when he releases the ball faster.

So Anarumo tested Mahomes some in this game, like the time he blitzed Germaine Pratt and Mahomes tweaked his ankle again. But he also liked playing coverage. In the end, when you hold Mahomes to 23 points, you have to feel like you’ve got a good chance. Anarumo, again, ran a defense that frustrated Kansas City at times, forced a turnover and four punts. It’s amazing Anarumo, with the job he’s done in four games in Kansas City, can’t get a sniff for a head-coaching job. “No idea,” he told me Friday. “Nothing I can do. But like I told my wife last night, if nothing happens, that’s fine. We’ll hang around Joe [Burrow] another year.” Anarumo laughed, then said: “There’s worse places to be.”

Now to the end of the game. It’s 20-all, with 17 seconds left and the ball at the Bengals’ 47-yard line. With a swirling wind on the field, Kansas City needs 15 yards, minimum, to get in range to try a game-winning kick, or the AFC Championship Game would be headed to overtime, Cincinnati-Kansas City, at Arrowhead, for the second straight year.

Mahomes scrambled to his right. He stepped out of bounds at the Bengal 42- with eight seconds left. He got two feet down on the white sideline stripe.

Then Bengals linebacker Joseph Ossai pushed Mahomes, hard, to the ground. Two flags flew. The Bengals were furious. No! You can’t let them win the game on a call like that!

Yes, you can. That’s a textbook late hit by Ossai. The call had to be made. Harrison Butker came on and kicked a 45-yard field goal to win, the boot clearing the bar by five yards, maybe.

Ossai, on the Bengals’ bench, appeared to be weeping.

The emotions in this game. Man.

“Oh,” said Mahomes, “It’s gonna be sore tomorrow for sure. But we’ll go right back to the treatment. You go back to the rehab. Prepare yourself. I’ll have a little bit more time to rest this week so hopefully we can be a little closer to 100 percent for the Super Bowl.”

Three Super Bowls by age 27 for Mahomes. Pretty good. But he knows what the future holds beyond this Super Bowl. Cincinnati at Kansas City, again, in 2023.

“They’re a great football team,” Mahomes said. “I hadn’t had a team like that that had beaten me that many times in a row.”

Mahomes had a four-five-second embrace with Burrow post-game. There’s some respect there. But think back to Brady-Manning. The respect was there in a big way. But each guy wanted to obliterate the other.

“I do love Burrow, man,” Mahomes said. “He’s a competitor. But I can’t have him smoking cigars in the locker room at Arrowhead, at our stadium.”

Is there any way to legislate two Cincinnati-Kansas City games a year?

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column

NFL free agency: Early report card for every team


Thirty-two teams, 32 thoughts on the opening week of the league year with free agency.

1. Chicago. The Bears traded ownership of the draft to Carolina, then owned the first week of free agency.

After a conversation with Bears GM Ryan Poles the other night, it sounds like the trade was almost THE TRADE. Poles told me he had significant discussion with Houston at number two that could have made him trade down twice in the top 10—with both the Texans and Panthers. He wouldn’t be specific on what broke down, but he did say: “I thought there was an opportunity to do something historically pretty cool with a trade from one to two and two to nine. That had potential to add more draft capital this year, and then the possibility that you’re sitting on three ones in the following year. That had my attention. But my gut told me to trigger on it now. At the combine, I thought those quarterbacks did an outstanding job in their interview process. A lot of teams felt really good about some of those guys, but as you get further away from the combine, maybe there’s a bad pro day or something that turns teams off.”

My sense is that Poles is close to Carolina GM Scott Fitterer from years of road scouting and personnel conversations, and he could get a read on exactly what Carolina would do and what it wouldn’t. He doesn’t know Houston GM Nick Caserio as well, so it could be Poles was never sure how far the Texans would go to do the deal. In a draft with questions about all the top quarterbacks and no Andrew Luck or Trevor Lawrence in the group, once Carolina agreed to send wideout D.J. Moore and two ones and two twos, Poles was convinced he shouldn’t wait.

“Scott and I have a pretty good relationship, being around each other on the road,” Poles said. “I think that played a big part of it. And trust. He wanted to get it done. He was clear with his intentions.”

As for the free-agency investments, Poles staked big claims on two defenders, Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards, to remake the linebacker corps. Combined, he committed seven years and $91 million to Edmunds and Edwards after both had breakout seasons last year. Edmunds will play this year at 25, Edwards at 27. Edmunds was inconsistent in Buffalo, but, per PFF, was football’s best cover linebacker last year. Edwards was the league’s sixth-rated linebacker last year, per PFF, with the versatility coach Matt Eberflus demands from his every-down linebackers. (Edwards played 1,183 snaps in Philadelphia last year.) For those who’d question huge spending on linebackers, that’s fair. But Eberflus was an NFL linebackers coach for nine years before taking coordinator and then head-coach jobs, so it’s obvious these are two players he wanted and thinks can fit his defense.

Chicago got a starting guard, Nate Davis of Tennessee, and a solid complement to Cole Kmet at tight end in Green Bay’s Robert Tonyan. In the span of two weeks, Poles radically bolstered the offense around Justin Fields while keeping two first-round picks in the bank for next year, if he needs to think about moving on from Fields—which he doubts he’ll have to do. Now, with the ninth overall pick and four picks in the top 64, Poles can upgrade the roster at pass-rush and offensive line, to start.

Poles and the Bears, to this point, have won March. But winning in March is a bitter victory if losing in the next three years follows. So these three things are vital for the Bears in the next six weeks:

Win the ninth overall pick. Either trade down if you don’t love what’s there, or make the right choice in a tricky spot. The biggest X factor in this draft will be Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter, who possibly will fall to nine now after being the best overall prospect two months ago, then having a disastrous off-season. Poles has to figure out if Carter’s a legit hard-trying football guy or an irresponsible problem person, and whether he’s the kind of person and player he wants to bring in to a building franchise with character and ethos crucial elements to long-term success. I can’t emphasize how important this is. If Carter is there when Poles picks, he has the kind of decision to make that could define his term as Chicago GM.

It’ll be fascinating if Carter and one or both of the top two offensive tackles, Peter Skoronski and Paris Johnson, are there at nine. Both needs are major. Do you take the giant risk guy who is the best talent in the draft? Or do you take a solid prospect with perfect makeup at a need position to help protect your young quarterback in a vital developmental year?

Understand that all of this is about 2024 and beyond, not 2023. Don’t make decisions to win now. Make decisions to be the best team over the next five years.

2. San Francisco. Signing Javon Hargrave, quite possibly the best talent in this free-agent class, adds to an embarrassment of riches on a strong defensive front. Aaron Donald is PFF’s only defensive interior player with a higher rating than Hargrave over the past two years. The Niners, in strengthening a strong group, did something smart and underrated. With all the quarterback uncertainty entering the new season, they know they may have to win a bunch of 20-16 games. This ensures a better chance to win the low-scoring ones.

3. Detroit. The signing of cornerback Cameron Sutton is interesting, and says so much about how deals in free agency get done. The Lions on Monday went hard after the former Pittsburgh corner, 28, and the deal got finalized somewhere around 2:30 that afternoon. Agent David Canter had told Sutton he hoped his contract would end up around $10 million a year. Sutton was one of the more highly regarded defensive players in free agency; last year, his 47-percent completion average on men he was covering was 10th in the NFL for corners who played more than 500 snaps.

For players in demand, Canter explained, “The rapidity of how it happens is shocking.” Agents are texting and phoning multiple teams on multiple players. The Lions were straightforward with Canter about wanting to get Sutton done, and when the three-year, $33-million deal with $22.5 million guaranteed (he’d made $23 million total in his six Pittsburgh seasons) was finalized, Canter told the Lions he’d call Sutton to get his okay on the deal. He told the Lions to hold.

“You’re gonna be a Detroit Lion in about three minutes,” Canter told Sutton, who was ready for anything. Canter said he didn’t have much time, but told him the basics of the deal: $22.5 million guaranteed, $33 milion total, with a signing bonus more than he’d made altogether in his last two years in Pittsburgh.

“Really?” Sutton said, getting emotional.

Canter said Saturday, “He just started crying. He told me, ‘This changes my life. Let’s go to Detroit, baby!’”

4. Denver. The most fascinating signing of the first week: quarterback Jarrett Stidham, two years, $10 million, $5 million guaranteed after starting a grand total of two games in his four-year NFL life. But one of those games convinced Sean Payton to take a chance on him. After Derek Carr was benched in Vegas in late December, Stidham, in his first NFL start and facing the best defense in football, San Francisco, put up 365 passing yards, three TD passes and 34 points. So now Payton buys him to be Russell Wilson’s backup, and nothing needs to be said to Wilson about it. If Wilson by midseason 2023 is having a similarly disastrous season to his first one in Denver, Payton won’t have to punt on the season. He’ll have an intriguing backup waiting in the wings. But Payton did not go hard after Stidham to put the pressure on Wilson. He considered his options at backup QB and thought he could play it safe for around the same money with an Andy Dalton type, or swing for the fences on a young prospect with significant upside. I like the logic.

5. New York Jets. So they’ll get their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, eventually. What does that mean for their 2023 schedule? A lot. I mean, a lot.

In 2022, the Jets played one game in prime time, a Thursday-nighter against Jacksonville. (The league mandates every team play one nationally televised game, minimum, per year.) Their remaining 16 games were all early-Sunday-window starts. This year, I expect the Rodgers-led Jets to get a full complement of prime-time games—five of them. If you love the Jets and are used to settling in at 1 o’clock Sunday to watch them, those days are over. In 2023, anyway.

Let’s mull over what the league might do when the schedule is announced in May. All of what I’m about to write is educated conjecture because of my years following the scheduling process. The schedule reveal is still seven-plus weeks away.

I’d bet the Jets will appear in either the Sunday or Monday prime-time opener. The league loves Aaron Rodgers. The league will try to capitalize on the fascination of Rodgers changing teams to have a ratings bonanza in week one. My money’s on NBC getting, say, Jets-Eagles or Jets-Bills on the opening Sunday night. Last Jets game on Sunday night on NBC: 2011. But the amazing part of that factoid is the Jets played a Sunday night game on NBC in three of the first 10 weeks of 2011 … and never in the 11 seasons then.

But wait. What about Jets-Cowboys? Wouldn’t that be a ratings rager? Of course it would be, and the league could do that. But often the NFL figures that games on opening weekend will get big numbers, and Rodgers versus the Cowboys will be one of the five biggest draws of the season, so the league could make it an October or November megagame somewhere. The league also has to be concerned about CBS and FOX on opening weekend, because the schedule will include doubleheader games on both networks that weekend. So maybe Dallas in the FOX doubleheader window, and maybe Joe Burrow or Josh Allen in the CBS slot. Again, just spitballing.

Re: national TV games: The Jets had one last year. I bet they have 11 or 12 this year—between a Thursday-nighter, maybe two on Sunday night, one or two on Monday night, maybe five Sunday late-window doubleheader games, and one of the newish late-season games moved to ESPN on a Saturday.

Amazon could provide an interesting Jets alternative this year. For the first time ever, the league has scheduled a 3 p.m. Black Friday game on Nov. 24, the day after Thanksgiving. Might Amazon, likely to get one Jets appearance this year, push for the Jets to host a game in the cradle of capitalism, on the busiest shopping day of the year? My guess is Amazon probably would want to sign up for more of a sure thing for this precedent-setting game, maybe the Eagles playing at home with a guaranteed rocking crowd.

In any case, one byproduct of New York employing Aaron Rodgers this year would be the Jets becoming a national team. For 2023 anyway.

6. Green Bay. While we’re on the subject of Rodgers, two points about the Packers:

  • I think it’s silly to try to get a first-round pick off the Jets this year. New York picks 13th in the first round, and with no apparent guarantee that Rodgers, entering his age-40 season, will definitely play in 2024, the Jets would be foolish to give up a pick that could be used on the second- or third-best offensive lineman in the draft—to protect Rodgers. (If that’s how they choose to use the first-round pick.) The fairest deal: Jets trade a second-rounder this year (43rd overall) and a conditional pick in 2025, not 2024, based on whether Rodgers plays football for New York in 2024. If he plays 100 snaps or more in 2024, the Jets give Green Bay a first-round pick. If Rodgers plays less than that, the Jets give Green Bay a third-rounder. So if Rodgers plays two years for New York, the price is a first- and a second-; if he plays one year, the price is a second- and a third-. I totally see Green Bay’s point about playing hardball for Rodgers, but the 13th pick in the draft for a guy who might play one year? I don’t see it. Unless Rodgers flat-out guarantees the Jets he’s there for two years, minimum, I’m not considering paying the 2023 one for him.
  • Having covered Brett Favre from Green Bay to the Jets 15 years ago, I find this one part of the comparable stories to be eerily similar. Green Bay GM Ted Thompson wanted an all-in Favre in March 2008, Favre wasn’t willing to commit to being an off-season warrior, and retired before coming back in a trade to the Jets. I think when this story is finished, we’ll see that Green Bay GM Brian Gutekunst wanted an all-in Rodgers in March 2023 and knew he wouldn’t get it. More evidence for that got piled on the other day when Rodgers told Pat McAfee he was 90-percent retired when he went into his recent darkness retreat. So just like the late Thompson turned to the unproven fourth-year former first-rounder, Rodgers, to step in for Favre, now Gutekunst turns to the unproven fourth-year former first-rounder, Jordan Love, to replace Rodgers.

7. Washington. In the ultimate last gasp of the Snyder Administration (D.C. fans can only pray the end is nigh), a franchise that has finished 25th, 23rd and 24th in scoring in the past three seasons, a franchise in the same division with the NFC champ, explosive Dallas and the rising Giants, a franchise in search of a franchise quarterback since forever will cast its lot this season with the 144th pick of the 2022 draft, Sam Howell, and Jacoby Brissett. No need to even speak with the 2019 MVP who plays just up I-95 in Baltimore, Lamar Jackson. Nope. That’d be a waste of time, right? I’m not suggesting the Commanders absolutely should sign a 26-year-old franchise quarterback with injury question marks, but to not even go down the road with Jackson? How do you say you’re doing everything you can to win when you don’t sit with him and see what Lamar Jackson is all about? What does that cost, exactly?

8. Indianapolis. The Matt Gay signing got zero buzz, but it’s a big one. In 41 games for the Rams, over a 2.5-year stretch, Gay hit 74 of 80 field goals (.925), including 12 of 15 from 50-plus. Now there are only two kickers—Gay and Justin Tucker of the Ravens—averaging more than $5.5 million a year. Gay will make $9 million all told in year one and $5.625 million a year for four years, which, for a kicker languishing on the Colts’ practice squad in October 2020, is pretty amazing. This deal got done at 11:45 p.m. ET Monday, and there was this nice touch to it: When agent David Canter texted Sean McVay to tell him Gay was leaving for the Colts, McVay called Gay to tell him how much he appreciated everything he did for the Rams, and to tell him how happy he was that Gay was getting a big contract. The great thing for Gay’s numbers: Kicking in retractable-roofed Lucas Oil Stadium, and in the temperate AFC South, should be very good for his career.

9. Miami. Mike White for two years and $4.5 million guaranteed is a great contract, particularly for a team that wanted to upgrade at the number two QB. Teddy Bridgewater and Skylar Thompson were 1-4 in relief of Tua Tagovailoa, and Miami scored 11 points in the one win. White started seven games for the Jets and threw for 405, 369 and 315 yards in three of them, and the locker room loved him. I love Mike McDaniel using White as a ball of modeling clay for the next two years.

10. Cincinnati. Most surprising signing of the first week of free agency: Orlando Brown doing a deal with the Bengals for four years, $64 million. That’s a $16-million average. That makes Brown, per, the 10th-highest-paid left tackle in football.

Think of how the business works. One contract at a position leapfrogs another. In 2020, Laremy Tunsil signed for $22 million a year in Houston. In 2021, Trent Williams signed for $23 million a year in San Francisco. In 2022, a good but not great tackle, Cam Robinson of Jacksonville, signed for an average of $17.5 million a year. This week, Tunsil signed an extension with Houston for $25 million a year.

Next season: Williams is 35, Tunsil is 29. Robinson is 28. Brown is 27.

Brown has less guaranteed money in his contract in four years than Robinson, a lesser player, got in three. It’s not that Brown isn’t better than Robinson; he is. It’s just that with the exception of Tunsil’s extension, the tackle market didn’t go insane, and no team out there loved Brown. But good for Cincinnati. Brown is a good buy for $16 million a year.

Re: the dissatisfaction of left tackle Jonah Williams, who asked for a trade Grant it. Take a three for him.

11. Baltimore. And on the sixth day, we waited.

All that matters now is one team out of 31 not named the Ravens reaching out and negotiating in good faith with Lamar Jackson. No one can seem to find one of those teams. Tennessee or Indy, maybe. Doubt it. Candidates continue to fall by the wayside—Miami committing to a fifth year at big pay for Tua Tagovailoa in 2024, the Jets committing (apparently) to Aaron Rodgers, Tampa Bay using Baker Mayfield for an apparent bridge year, Vegas going with Jimmy Garoppolo, Washington passing, Atlanta likely to stay with Desmond Ridder, Carolina opting for a rookie. Today is the sixth day teams are allowed to negotiate a contract with Jackson, and there are not even quiet rumors that any team is doing so.

Jackson could take the lack of interest as a hint that he’d be best off to take a shorter, guaranteed deal with Baltimore—two or three years. He implied that was on the table on Twitter last week. If he has gotten a three-year guarantee in the neighborhood of $44 million a year, I think he’d be smart to take it, even if it won’t be as much as he wants. Simple reason: If no one out there is giving him more fully guaranteed for three years, obviously feeling that his injuries must factor in (Jackson has missed 34 percent of the Baltimore snaps in the last two seasons), he could take a three-year deal and be a free agent again at age 29.

If Jackson simply figures he doesn’t want to play for the Ravens anymore and would risk missing the 2023 season over that—and I have no idea if this is the case—then he can sit out this season and see if the Ravens would get tired of the drama and cut him after the season. Do I think that’s probable? No. But I also never thought we’d be in a situation where a 26-year-old former MVP is sitting out there with scant interest either.

12. Philadelphia. For now, the ethos should be, “In Howie we trust.” After building a terrific roster and coming within a few snaps of a Super Bowl win with a neophyte QB, GM Howie Roseman chose to bring back some of the longest-in-the-tooth Eagles: center Jason Kelce, who will be playing his age-36 year in 2023; defensive linemen Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, who will play this year at 33 and 35, respectively; and 32-year-old corner Darius Slay. The last two teams that reached the Super Bowl and tried to run it back didn’t. Tampa Bay brought back every starter from its 2020 Super Bowl team and lost in the divisional round in ’21. The Rams got all emotional after winning it in 2021 and had a disastrous 5-12 season last year.

The difference here may be that Kelce played as a top center in the league last year, and spot-playing Graham—43 percent of the snaps, his lowest over a full season in eight years—led to his first double-digit sack season. But sticking with four vets to play prominent roles at an average age of 34 is pretty risky.

Roseman did bring back his best cover corner, James Bradberry, and didn’t get seduced into a second contract for an effective back, Miles Sanders. Paying running backs often leads to wasteful deals, sadly for them, and the Eagles budgeted wisely in the backfield.

13. Seattle. Hard not to love the signing of safety Julian Love for the reasonable sum of $12 million over two years. If you watched much of the Giants last year, you saw an impact player in every game. Imagine the combinations Seattle will be able to use in the back seven if Jamal Adams can stay healthy with Quandre Diggs and Love.

14. Dallas. The Sunday acquisition of Brandin Cooks sets what I believe to be an NFL record: Cooks is the first player to be traded four times before turning 30.

I’d be bullish on this trade if I were Dak Prescott. Here’s why: Cooks just finished three years with the Texans—one year with Deshaun Watson, one year with Davis Mills/Tyrod Taylor, and the last year with Mills. He averaged 76 catches a year with the Texans in the midst of the QB mayhem. He’s on the last year of a bloated two-year, $39.6-million contract, but the Texans will pay $6 million of the $18 million he’s due this year, and the deal cost the Cowboys fifth- and sixth-round picks. I think it’s a smart trade for both teams. Houston clears out a big salary and deals a player who wasn’t happy being there. The Texans now have a league-high 13 picks in the April draft.

15. Las Vegas. Interesting trade, basically, that the Raiders worked out. They sent tight end Darren Waller to the Giants, signed wide receiver Jakobi Meyers in free agency, and got a third-round pick in return from New York. On the surface, you think it’s a hard move to justify, trading an offensive tight end and great complement to Davante Adams when you’re trying to build around new quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. But Waller’s entering his age-31 season and has missed 14 games due to injury over the past two years. Meyers, an egoless guy, is four years younger and had 150 receptions over the past two seasons, playing 31 of 34 games.

Re: the third-round pick, 100th overall, the Raiders have four picks in the top 100 now, with a tight end need whether Foster Moreau leaves in free agency or not, and this is a draft heavy on tight ends.

Re: the quarterback situation, it’s got to be a significant disappointment for Josh McDaniels to lose Jarrett Stidham. McDaniels coached him in New England, traded for him in Vegas, and prepped him for a very impressive late-season two-start run for the Raiders. Stidham jumped to Denver for what couldn’t have been much more money. I hear Stidham figured with Garoppolo coming and the chance the Raiders could take a quarterback with their early first-round pick, he’d have a better chance at playing time under Sean Payton in Denver. I’m not so sure the Raiders will pick a quarterback at number seven, or wherever they end up in the first round. (Certainly, with the departure of Stidham, they’ll pick a quarterback in the top three rounds.) To me, the opportunity with the Raiders likely not trading into the Bryce Young/C.J. Stroud stratosphere and with Garoppolo’s injury history would have been golden in Vegas.

Notes on 16 through 32.

Arizona is not gaining ground on the NFC West, though importing LB Kyzir White from Philadelphia is a plus The reunion of Jonnu Smith with coach Arthur Smith in Atlanta should rekindle some of the innovative ways Arthur Smith used Jonnu in Tennessee—and a Kyle PittsJonnu Smith combo platter will be tough to defend I guess Jordan Poyer will have to stomach those New York taxes for at least another year in Buffalo. I love Poyer and Matt Milano returning, though Tremaine Edmunds will be a tough loss Carolina’s offseason is the trade for the top pick. The Panthers will try to buck the don’t-pay-running-backs trend by investing $24 million in Miles Sanders Cleveland’s been quiet with the exception of an intriguing Edge bookend for Myles Garrett, signing Ogbonnia Okoronkwo—who had an impressive second half—from Houston Smartest move by Jacksonville: re-upping consistently underrated defensive tackle Roy Robertson-Harris Smartest move by Kansas City: stealing under-valued edge player Charles Omenihu (54 QB pressures in spot play last year, per PFF) from the Niners. Not sure about the Orlando Brown-for-Jawaan Taylor swap, particularly paying Taylor $4 million more per year than Brown got in Cincinnati The L.A. Chargers are gambling that Eric Kendricks, a top-five NFL linebacker in 2020, can regain that form in the middle of the Charger D at age 31 The L.A. Rams are in a gap year, trying to get their team and future and cap right in 2023 with a recharged Sean McVay. It’s smart, and don’t expect them to apologize for winning a Super Bowl while robbing from the future in 2021.

Minnesota signed versatility in slot/outside CB Byron Murphy, and they’ll need top production to make up for the loss of Patrick Peterson to the Steelers New England is a cautionary tale for this time of year. Two years ago, the smartest man in football, Bill Belichick, went nuts in free agency, signing 11 players from outside the team in a post-Brady roster makeover. Last week, the Pats parted ways with two of those mainstays, Jonnu Smith and Jalen Mills. The only star of the group: Matt Judon, with 28 sacks from the edge in two years. DT Davon Godchaux and TE Hunter Henry have been solid, but it all goes to show you that winning free agency in March is a hollow crown. New England is 18-17 since, with zero playoff wins New Orleans is doggedly trying to stay relevant, signing Derek Carr and praying that Michael Thomas (last three years: 40 games missed, 10 games played) might turn into Michael Thomas again The N.Y. Giants are the richest slot team in football, with the very bright prospect Wan’Dale Robinson due back from ACL surgery early in the season, free agent Parris Campbell in from Indy and Sterling Shepard re-signed for a song. Along with Darren Waller (fingers crossed he can stay on the field), Daniel Jones has some significant security blankets in the intermediate area now Pittsburgh signed the best guard in free agency, Isaac Seumalo, from the Eagles on Saturday night Kudos to Tampa Bay for keeping its two best free agents, corner Jamel Dean and linebacker Lavonte David. Baker Mayfield, on his fourth team in 15 months (true fact: he played with Cleveland on Jan. 9, 2022, and has meandered to the Panthers, Rams and Bucs since), seems like a bridge to 2024 to me He’s a little light at 228, but Azeez Al-Shaair is Mike Vrabel’s kind of sideline-to-sideline linebacker and will play as many special teams snaps as Tennessee wants. He’s one of my favorite players, and should be just entering his prime in his age-26 year.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column

Analyzing Bears sending No. 1 NFL draft pick to Panthers


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.

Minnesota Vikings v Carolina Panthers
(Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

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 Wilson was 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 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.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column