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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Albert Breer

Patrick Mahomes Is Preparing for Another Leap

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Most coaches and players are fine with the way camp has evolved over the last decade or so, with a move off remote college campuses and back to the team’s normal practice facilities. For coaches, there’s simply too much infrastructure to relocate a football operation to another place—from technology to weight room amenities to sport science resources. For players, it’s just easier, and more comfortable, at home.

So you can call Patrick Mahomes an outlier on this one, too.

He likes that the Chiefs are holed up in a remote outpost an hour north of downtown Kansas City, and it’s not because he’s nostalgic for his days as a freshman in Lubbock, Texas. There are very functional reasons for it.

And one has been obvious pretty much every day out at the sixth camp of his already Canton-worthy career. Andy Reid runs the show here efficiently. The players practice in the morning, meet, watch tape, then come back out for a walkthrough. After that comes special teams meetings, when, traditionally, you’d find the older vets and quarterbacks who don’t have to attend getting treatment, getting a lift in or just going back to the dorms to relax.

“You’re starting to see when special teams starts and even ends, Pat go into the room with Travis [Kelce], JuJu [Smith-Schuster], MVS [Marquez Valdes-Scantling], and say, We’re gonna watch more tape,” said Chiefs GM Brett Veach after a recent practice. “That’s just the growth of the leader.”

Mahomes has found leadership opportunities this summer, and not just at training camp.

Denny Medley/USA TODAY Sports

In certain respects, Mahomes is the same guy he was when he reported to Missouri Western State last summer—one of the NFL’s very best players, arriving to carry out what’s almost seemed like his birthright over his four years as a starting quarterback and compete for a championship. In other respects, he, and so much around him, is different now than it was then.

This year, we’ll all get Mahomes 2.0, and how that looks, as I see it anyway, is one of the more underrated story lines of this NFL summer.

And that’s why what Mahomes loves about coming here is actually so important. Because the reasons for Mahomes being so excited to get here, and get rolling with a significantly different-looking offense around him, really are vital, in his mind, to where he’s going next.

“We get to get on that same page, and I think this is why it’s special to be here in St. Joe—because it’s different,” he said, in a quiet moment after practice. “Dorm rooms are a little messy to sleep in. But at the same time, you are with these guys all day every day, and you build those relationships, and know that when you get to game day, you know exactly what they’re gonna do.”

For four years, the rest of the NFL has had a pretty good idea of what Mahomes would do and everyone was powerless to stop it. If things go according to plan here, now, they’ll have to prepare for something else entirely. That’s a pretty scary thought, even without Tyreek Hill on the roster.

Wilson: Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports; Mahomes: Jamie Sabau/USA TODAY Sports; White: Mike Dinovo/USA TODAY Sports

Seventeen camps down, and I’m back home for a few, with a full notebook to spill for you guys in the column. In this week’s MMQB column, we’ve got …

• A dive into the burgeoning relationship between Russell Wilson and Nathaniel Hackett.

• Why the Chargers have changed more than you think in two years under Brandon Staley.

• How James White is unique, as the Patriots’ Super Bowl LI hero walks away from the NFL.

But we’re starting with Mahomes, now a month short of his 27th birthday, and in a different place than he has been.

During my day at St. Joe, in the context of Mahomes, it was brought up to me how different it is for the son of a baseball player growing up than it would be for the son of a football player. The divide? A football player’s kids are rarely in the locker room, outside of maybe for a few minutes after games. The son of a baseball player, on the other hand, can be in the clubhouse a lot because the players are in there so much and the atmosphere is so laid-back.

What that added up to for Mahomes, over his dad’s 12 years pitching for the Twins, Mets, Red Sox, Rangers, Cubs and Pirates, was getting to see a lot. And there was one lesson in particular he took from that time that really resonated with him over the last year, as he gradually moved from one stage of his career to the next.

“I mean, those guys were never not trying to find ways to get better,” Mahomes said. “Even Derek Jeter, A-Rod [Alex Rodriguez], all those guys. And so I feel like, yeah, it’s a different sport but the same thing—you can be at the top, and if you aren’t finding a way to get better, people are gonna catch you.”

And more than just the fact that those guys kept working, he saw how the great ones were doing it.

“The biggest thing that I saw,” he continued, “I remember being at the stadium like three and a half hours before the game and I went down to the cages to hit, and I saw A-Rod hitting off the tee. And I remember I was young, I was like, ‘I’m not hitting off the tee. I want my dad to throw to me every single time.’ And he’s just in there hitting off the tee by himself. Those little things are something that have stuck with me for my whole life.”

Last year, as Mahomes and I discussed back in March, was an education for the 2018 NFL MVP and four-time Pro Bowler on how that singular quality—obsessing over finding a way to stay ahead of the opposition—can make or break a season.

Before his fifth NFL season, Mahomes had never had consecutive games with a passer rating under 80. It happened five times in a six-game stretch in 2021, and six times in an eight-game stretch, one that started with the Chiefs’ Week 5 loss to the Bills and carried all the way into December. The obvious question followed: Had the NFL figured out Mahomes?

The truth was important for Mahomes to confront. Because there actually was a blueprint that was being drawn to combat the Chiefs. In fact, a league-wide trend to play with two high safeties, in order to slow down offenses increasingly built on the big strike, had Kansas City as the primary target and, as the numbers showed through the guts of last fall, it was actually working for a while.

“A lot of single-safety-middle his first couple years, zone and predominantly man [coverage]—different kinds of man, but man,” Reid said. “And then the last couple years, it’s this shell coverage. So variations of it, and he’s just taken to it and tried to dissect it all. There’s probably not a whole lot that he’s gonna see that he hasn’t already seen some combination of. And when you show him something, he’s gonna study it and look at it and look at it and look at it.

“And that’s how he’s wired. So I think the last couple of years have been tremendous for him.”

But it didn’t always feel tremendous.

Mahomes conceded to me earlier in the offseason that he got jittery within the pocket as teams forced him to become a more patient, judicious player and challenged him to lead his offense on 10-, 12- and 14-play drives to reach the end zone, rather than relying on big shots down the field to shortcut the process of getting the ball over the goal line. Thing is, even while it was going on, Mahomes was aware there’d be benefit to experience.

He’s already found that to be true in how things came back around down the stretch last year—Mahomes had a passer rating topping 105 in four of the Chiefs’ last five regular-season games and in their first two playoff games while posting a 20–2 TD-INT ratio over that seven-game run. He did it by learning to take what the defense gave him and striking underneath more consistently to make defenses pay for playing their safeties in another ZIP code.

Which set the foundation for where he, and the Chiefs, are heading into 2022.

Mahomes had Hill as his top wide receiver for his first four seasons as a starter.

Denny Medley/USA Today network

All you need to know about the trust Reid has in Mahomes is this: He gave his quarterback his blessing to essentially run the first phase of the team’s offseason program—the first two of nine weeks in April, May and June in which coaches can work with players—for the Chiefs’ skill players down in the Dallas area.

The concept is logical. The players can’t do any on-field football work on-site during that phase of the offseason program, and Mahomes wanted to build chemistry and a rapport between the lines with new guys, like Smith-Schuster and Valdes-Scantling. Doing it this way would give the players a couple of weeks on the grass with their teammates that they otherwise wouldn’t have, because of the rules.

But a coach considering the idea of it on paper isn’t the same thing as signing off on letting it happen, especially when you consider how it might be perceived by other position groups. So that Reid allowed it meant he felt comfortable handing over the leadership reins, for a couple of weeks, anyway, to Mahomes, and also that he believed the locker room’s respect for Mahomes would ensure it wouldn’t create any issue with those who were there.

“And it’s even though he’s accomplished so much and has the contract,” Veach said, when I brought it up. “It’s the fact that he doesn’t take anything for granted, and the fact that he knows these little details in everything you do, they end up paying off in the end, especially this year having a new receiver room. I don’t think there’s any element of, Hey, even though I’ve accomplished all of this, taking any of it for granted.”

It feels a little more like the opposite, in fact—like the ups and downs of last year, and the loss of Hill, have only given him something else to prove.

Part of that is tied up in his own performance, of course, and how it matches up with what he accomplished already with Hill and a band of track-star types around him over the last four years. Another, he knows, will be shown in how he can help integrate the new skill players into the offense, a task that he and his teammates went through last year with a blown-up-and-rebuilt line. At the very least, he understands who it’s on to make it work.

That would be the guy with the nearly half-billion-dollar contract.

“Yeah, it is, I mean, it’s on me to show how we practice and show how we do things here,” he said. “And it’s different than a lot of other places. We practice fast. We get a lot of reps in. And I think the best thing about it is the guys that we’ve brought in are smart. They ask the right questions. They’re always asking questions about every single route, and you see that out there today. We talk about stuff right on the sideline right after the play, and they ask what I want, and I ask what they’re thinking.”

And that’s where the experience of last year kicks in, too. Teams gearing up to slow down explosives from Hill didn’t just force Mahomes to look underneath last year. It also forced him to look away from Hill.

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The result was, by the end of the year, going from playing the position almost like a shooting guard to playing it like he was running the point. In the epic playoff win over the Bills, Hill and Kelce most certainly got theirs, but Jerick McKinnon and Byron Pringle had five catches apiece, too. The week before, in the wild-card win over the Steelers, Mahomes had a staggering six skill players with at least four catches, and only one with as many as six (and that one was McKinnon, not Kelce or Hill).

As for when the Chiefs finally did go down? Kelce and Hill had a combined 17 catches, and no one else had more than three. So going through all of that, the good and bad, forced growth from Mahomes, and he’s now even seeing that show up in how he practices.

“My decision-making is quicker, being able to get the ball out of my hand,” he said. “Obviously, when we had guys like Tyreek, you always look for that matchup. And if you had it, you would take it. But when you get the defenses rolling coverage, like what they’re doing in training camp, especially when they’re getting deep, it’s just getting through to the second and third read and getting the ball out of my hand and letting guys make plays.

“The thing about this receiving core that we have—it’s deep. There are guys everywhere. So there’s not one that you’re focusing on every single time. You’re just getting through your reads, getting it to the right decision and letting those guys make plays.”

Which should make Mahomes better individually, and the Chiefs, eventually, collectively better, too.

With all of this established, this doesn’t come together unless Mahomes actually is getting better individually—and there’s little doubt to those here that the kid who came into the league criticized for being raw coming from Texas Tech’s Air Raid offense is making that happen.

Because for all the off-site passing camps and kumbaya training-camp moments, for Mahomes to actually command a more balanced offense at the NFL level, he had to become a more evolved quarterback.

“I think that’s a big part of it as a quarterback, their maturity in the offense and then for them to speak it, because he’s done it,” Reid said. “He’s done it live now against most of the different coverages, so I want to hear it, I want the players to hear what he’s thinking. I think that’s so important. So we do that. And I try to do it with all the quarterbacks, but with our two older guys, it helps.

That’s where Mahomes’s own development came into play—for him to be able to make the offense his own, and truly speak it, he had to be able to master the whys of every call and how those meshed with whatever the defense might be trying to do to him.

“I’m so much better at recognizing coverages and knowing where to get the ball out and when to get the ball out in certain situations,” he said. “I think when I was a little younger, I knew what the progression was, but I was just trying to get through that progression and throw the ball to whoever was open. I wasn’t necessarily looking at the coverage, seeing what the defense was doing, doing all of that different type of stuff.

“There’s kind of a happy medium I have to find where I’ve seen some stuff sometimes. I feel like I get through my reads almost too quick, because I know what the defense is supposed to do. But at the same time, they’re not always right. So you want to just make sure you’re getting through your reads and giving everybody a chance. And that’s something that I’ve kind of battled with, how to be aggressive and not being too aggressive.”

Mahomes then raised a situation last year in which he cost himself a potential touchdown in a September game against the Chargers, a few weeks before he hit his midseason slump, and just as defenses were starting to play back on him and his arsenal of big-play receivers.

Quickly, after the snap, he identified the defense was geared to prevent a shot downfield. So quickly, he dismissed the idea that one would be there. Which, he’d find out watching the tape later, amounted to a missed opportunity.

“They were playing kind of a two-high type coverage. I thought there was no way Tyreek would be open, because why would he be open?” Mahomes said. “He was running a little, we call it a circle post, where he kinda fakes like he’s going out and back up. And the safety drove the backside guy, which he wasn’t supposed to do. But I had already gotten off of it because I just predetermined that that was gonna be covered.

“So that’s stuff where I feel like I don’t want to ever take the aggression out of me. I feel like that’s what makes me who I am. I’m aggressive. I’m gonna take the chances. So it’s being able to recognize coverages and get through my decisions fast, but not too fast.”

And so the same way he’s used practice to work on being a distributor rather than a gunslinger at the position, he’s also using it, continuously, to test his boundaries.

With the blessing of his coach—“Coach Reid gives me the freedom to try everything”—he might try something that would be inadvisable by the book during camp so he’ll have his own book written by the time the season starts. Because as much as there is a science to playing quarterback, as Mahomes sees it, there’s been an art to finding a way to straddle that line between making strides in a conventional way and maintaining all that’s made the unconventional parts of his games so hard for even the league’s best defenses to defend.

“It might be a pick at practice. Not the one I threw in the end zone today—that was bad,” he said, laughing. “But there might be a pick in practice, where he wants me to try to throw those deep ones whenever we get those chances because those are the ones that are gonna change football games. At the same time, when the defense drops back and it’s third-and-4 and I throw to a halfback and we get the first down, it’s knowing those situations, too.

“So it’s being aggressive whenever you can be aggressive, but at the same time, knowing the situation to move the chains.”

As for how much progress he’s making in striking that balance? He’s getting there.

Tom Brady has been in the NFL since Mahomes was in preschool. Aaron Rodgers was drafted as he was completing the third grade. When his fellow Texan Matthew Stafford was drafted No. 1, he was in middle school. So, yes, of course he watches them—“I always have. I’ve always watched guys like that. Like early on, I watched Stafford, Aaron and Tom. And now, I watch guys like Josh [Allen], I watch Aaron obviously still. I watch Dak [Prescott] a lot.”

Which leads him to the broad strokes on where his game is going, and why he knows the work he’s done this offseason won’t complete him as a quarterback, so much as it gives him a shot to stay ahead of so many others at his position.

“I think even Tom would say this; you always can get better at reading coverages, finding ways to get the ball out of your hand and get it to the right guy even faster,” he said, before pausing and adding. “But I think the next thing is just going out and winning football games. At the end of the day, we’ve won a lot of football games here, but we would even say we wanted to win more Super Bowls than we already have.

“And I think everybody’s like that. There’s only one winner every single year, but finding ways to just win football games, no matter what the situation is, is something that I’m gonna try to do this year.”

That dumbs down a pretty complicated process he’s put himself through.

But in a way, a what–Herm Edwards–said sort of way, it’s the perfect encapsulation of why he’s been so excited to take on a larger leadership role this offseason, why he’s pumped to add new layers to his game and why he really loves being on some college campus on the edge of the Great Plains so much.

It’s also why Veach is so confident that Mahomes, in conjunction with Reid, is going to use what he saw over the last year to make himself more complete, and even more dangerous, as a quarterback.

“They’re gonna put these guys in position to maybe have a situation where it was, O.K., Tyreek was primary on these six routes; now, it might be on these six same concepts, it’s gonna be JuJu in that role on these two, MVS on these two and Mecole [Hardman] on these two,” Veach said. “And together they’re gonna find that sweet spot.”

As a result, with the knowledge that Mahomes can make both scenarios work, he and his staff have an advantage, too. “That’s the cool thing; we don’t really have to go out there and find specific players for Pat, because he can play any style of football with any type of receiver.” Which, as Veach sees it, is a credit not just to the Mahomes who can make a football do things no one else can, but also the one who’s pulling his receivers into a meeting room when they might otherwise be eyeing some downtime in a dorm room.

“It’s his DNA,” Veach continued. “Some people are just blessed like that; they’re wired like that. You wish all your guys were like that. He’s got a Hall of Fame résumé already, but you wouldn’t know it if you came here. You’d think he’s just getting started. It’s real. I certainly know we don’t take it for granted, because that’s not everywhere; that’s not every player. But that’s him and that’s who he is. It’s great on one end, from the coaching staff’s point of view. And it’s extremely motivating for my staff and our organization in general.

“Leaders set the tone.”

And it’s pretty clear, to the people here, anyway, that being a leader will be a big part of Mahomes taking his game wherever it goes next.

As for where that is? Buckle up.

After 10 years in Seattle, Wilson is starting over with a new coach and a new system.

Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports


ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Give Russell Wilson this: He’s not playing the aw, shucks game in his new home. He made that pretty clear to me when I asked him about the lineage he’s stepping into in his new home, holding a spot that John Elway and Peyton Manning once did in Denver.

“That’s why I play the game, man,” he told me. “I play the game to win. I also play the game to be iconic. First 10 years were amazing, let’s make the next 10 years even better.”

From the outside looking in, there’s a lot about this that feels like a different marriage than the one Wilson just walked away from in Seattle. As a Seahawk, he arrived as an underdog and the missing piece for a rising young roster that just needed him to be efficient and move the chains to become a true contender. In Denver, he’s seen as the missing piece in a different way—with the hope that he can be the guiding light for a fast-improving young core.

Then, there’s the connection to the coach. Wilson got to Seattle two years after the defensively pedigreed Pete Carroll arrived, and Carroll, at that point, had a combined 15 seasons of head coaching experience at four different locales in the bank. Conversely, he’s now landed in Denver together with Nathaniel Hackett, whose background is on offense and who is a head coach for the first time.

And Wilson, as we talked, was very careful not to say anything was necessarily better than it had been before. “It’s not about anybody else, it’s about us, it’s about us this year,” he said. But, again, it is different, and a lot of that starts with what he and Hackett have chipped away at over the last five months in trying to build the right offense.

In that way, this really has been a lot of what Wilson has wanted forever, a sort of equity stake in the construction of a scheme that guys like Manning and Tom Brady have always had. Wanting that, of course, is one thing. Having a coach who’s all-in on the idea is another, and Hackett’s definitely not just paying lip service in including Wilson in every part of the build. He believes in doing it that way, especially after working with Aaron Rodgers over the last four years in Green Bay.

This is Wilson’s show, the same as it’s Hackett’s show. And the idea, after those five months of work, is for those two things to blend tougher so no one can tell the difference.

“We’ve gone back and forth on everything we’re doing, from the entire playbook that we built together, to making sure that every single thing that he’s done or is comfortable with or would want to do [is accounted for],” Hackett said. “That’s been our primary focus: What does Russ wanna do? And now it’s kind of focused on what the guys around him can do. What can we pass off of? What can we run? What can we route run? But yeah, the whole thing in my world is 100% based off of him.

“Russell likes it, Russell wants it, we’re probably doing it.”

It took a lot of work together, of course, and for Hackett it wasn’t just about getting Wilson to learn, but getting to know more about how he learns.

That’s a big reason why a guy named John Vieira is in the building. Hackett’s known Vieira since college—he says now that Denver defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, a UC Davis teammate, was his “football buddy” and Vieira was his “neurobiology buddy.” Vieira went on to become a high school teacher in the South, and in recent years his conversations with Hackett started to center on teaching methods and how kids learn.

Conversations naturally evolved into Vieira eventually becoming a vital part of how Hackett would build and sell his offenses, with things taking off during the early days of COVID-19, when that building and selling had to happen over Zoom as Hackett came off his first year with the Packers.

“Then it started building, building,” Hackett said. “And then once Matt [LaFleur] said, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, but go ahead and do it; all hell broke loose.”

Results in Green Bay led to plans for Hackett to bring Vieira whenever he got his shot to be a head coach—Hackett raised his name in interviews—and that’s exactly what happened. Vieira pulled up stakes and moved to Denver, and carries the title of “assistant to the head coach,” but is more commonly referred to by his boss and friend as the Broncos’ instructional designer.

“It’s just about giving [the players] the wow factor every time you go out there,” Hackett said. “And it’s hard, because as a coach you gotta keep that thing up. But that’s why he’s here. … It’s How many different ways can you do that? To have a guy in-house to build it, that understands some football, that understands the art of teaching is so critical. That’s why he’s here. It’s awesome.”

What they’ve learned about Wilson, in turn, is that he needs the why on everything. And so while so many of those hours spent between Wilson and Hackett were about, yes, building the offense, it was also about learning each other, and how to best learn from each other.

“The passion for the game, the obsession with it—he has a wild obsession with it, obviously it’s in his pedigree,” said Wilson. “And for me, this is my second decade, the beginning of it, so I want to make the second decade even better than the first, and the first was great. Now, we gotta make it even more special, so how do we do that?”

One day, Wilson says, it might be watching film from the vault of Hackett’s dad, Paul, an archive that includes all-time greats like Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. Another, it might be meeting with Paul himself. The next, it could be an animation of a play.

And with time, Hackett knew Wilson, because he had skin in the game, would become a sort of evangelist for what they were building, and pass that on to the other Broncos. That came to life with Wilson bringing his new teammates to his place in San Diego in the spring, and then again just before training camp, with all the work through OTAs already in the bank. It’s also been visible during camp—with one example being how Wilson has brought Jerry Jeudy into the quarterback room, in an effort to get Jeudy to see the game through his eyes.

“For sure, it’s just investing into others,” Wilson said. “The thing about leadership and serving is being able to give everything you have to others. When you can do that, you gain so much more. And I think for me, through my career, I’ve always given everything I have in practice to others, in terms of getting guys prepared, and now it’s a new set of guys. Whenever I leave this game, 10, 12 years from now—hopefully 12 years from now—I want my teammates to say, Man, you gave everything you had every day.”

Hackett’s hope is he can do the same for Wilson, and how Wilson describes his experience thus far with Hackett affirms that he’s getting the why part of this that he craves. “It’s the creativity, but also the fundamentals of it,” Wilson continued. “There’s a reason for everything—This is why they did it back then, this is why we’re gonna do it now. Here’s what it looks like. That journey’s been amazing.”

The cool thing for both guys is that it’s just starting, so there’s so much of this to come. In fact, when I said to Wilson that 12 was a strangely specific number as to how many more seasons he wanted to play, he smirked.

“Yeah,” he responded, “I think 45 is a good number.”

And if he keeps going for that long, and for that long in Denver, that’d certainly mean that a lot of this worked in a very big way.

Year 2 under Staley will have a new look for the Chargers.

Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports


COSTA MESA, Calif. — To most people, the way the 2022 Chargers look, at least on paper, isn’t that different from last year’s team. The offensive skill talent returns largely intact. Derwin James and Joey Bosa are still around to lead the defense. And sure, Khalil Mack and J.C. Jackson are here. But the core of who the Chargers are? To outsiders, it’s the same.

So when I was at their camp last week, Brandon Staley challenged me to really look at the team, in the most literal way.

What he thought I’d find was what became obvious when he pointed it out: It’s a really, really big football team, and significantly bigger than it was as recently as January, when Staley’s group lost a de facto elimination game on the last night of the regular season. And that it’s that way, after another offseason of building from Staley and longtime Chargers GM Tom Telesco, is no accident.

“The way we play is a 180 from how they played on defense,” Staley said. “There’s a lot of ways to play, but the way we believe in playing is with size up front. We knew there was going to be the transition, and we were going to do it in our second year. Kind of like how our second year solidified our O-line a little bit, in terms of getting Zion [Johnson]. I think next year, you’re gonna be able to see the depth and the quality be where we expect it.”

Therein lies what’s philosophical about all this for Staley.

Because for as much as last year was about Justin Herbert, and made to be about what Staley calls fourth-down “advantage situations” (he doesn’t like referring to them as gambles), what he was really trying to build, and continues to try to build, is a team guided by the most old-school tenet of NFL team construction. And that tenet holds that the game is won and lost by the guys who line up closest to the ball.

“That’s just the way the game is,” Staley said. “Now, it’s becoming a lot more outside in—jump shooting, three-pointers, high-wire act. But I just know that’s not what sustains and stands the test of time.”

It’s something that, when you look really hard at the Chargers’ investments and acquisitions over the last 18 months, is 100% backed up with how the team is being built.

It started last year with the idea to flip the offensive line upside down, and that much was obvious in the big-ticket add of Corey Linsley and the first-round pick spent on left tackle Rashawn Slater. This year, the team doubled down by using another first-rounder on a lineman (Zion Johnson) while spending to bolster the defensive front, with a trade for Mack as the centerpiece of the effort. So yeah, they gave Mike Williams a deal, and poached Jackson from New England, but what started in 2021 carries over to ’22.

And so long as Staley’s in charge, that line-of-scrimmage pipeline won’t go dry for any lack of effort in trying to fill it.

“When we got here, the offensive line was the worst part of this team,” he continued. “We signed Corey, Matt Feiler, drafted Rashawn, and so we were halfway there, pretty much. Then this year, we were able to get Zion, and then Jamaree Salyer from Georgia, and so we feel like we’re a lot deeper up front, and really high quality. And then on defense, it all happened this year.

“Joey [Bosa], obviously, coming back, but then [signing] Khalil, Austin [Johnson], Sebastian [Joseph-Day], Foxy [Morgan Fox], draft Otito [Ogbonnia]. That’s what we wanted to do when we got here, when me and Tom got together.”

Of course, investing in making it work, and actually having that come to fruition, are two different things. And so adding all that size and experience in the trenches will, in a month, need to come to life in the sturdier sort of look that Staley’s looking for.

But at the very least, the team here is increasingly reflecting the vision Staley and Telesco had for it, which is a vision that’s a little different than some people might expect.

“What it allows you to do is become a complete football team. And that’s what I felt like was missing last year; we weren’t a complete football team,” he said. “Offensively, we were really good, but becoming a complete offensive football team means we can play however we need to play, run game and pass game. And then on defense, all the different styles of play you have to match up against, all the different quarterbacks, to do that you have to have a front that can hold up.

“If you have to play Baltimore or [Kyle] Shanahan or the Titans, and it’s a slugfest, you’re built to play against that. Or you’re playing [Josh] Allen, Mahomes, Deshaun [Watson] and it’s spread out, it’s going fast … you gotta chase these guys around; you have to be able to play that game, too. In order to do that as a football team, it starts up front. Then, certainly, you have to have the quarterback. Coming here, you have a quarterback. Then, it’s O.K., get our fronts on both sides of the ball where we need to be.

And are the Chargers there yet?

Staley smiled and said, “I just think we’re a lot closer to becoming that complete team.”

Which, again, taking a simple look at the team itself would tell you.

White was a hero in Super Bowl LI and one of many Patriots to thrive in a specific role.

Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports


Before we get to the takeaways, I didn’t want to let the week pass without getting a good word in on James White—in part because just about every word on the retiring Patriots running back over the last few days has been a good word.

There’s a reason for that, of course, and a reason why so many of his teammates and coaches first talked about the person he was before ever mentioning what an interesting player he’d become over the last eight years. It was also one of the first things White and I talked about Friday night, because I thought it was a unique way to leave the game.

After the Patriots’ preseason opener the day before, New England captain Devin McCourty said, “He’s one of those guys that, someday, if my daughter found a guy and said, ‘I’m gonna bring home a guy; he’s like James White,’ I’d be excited.” Another longtime captain, Matthew Slater, added, “He’s a true Patriot, but a better human being.”

“It’s been really cool to see,” said White. “I always wanted to earn the respect of my teammates and coaches, first and foremost, with the hard work I put in, and my performance, and by the way I carried myself on a daily basis with my attitude. I’m not really the most vocal person, but I always tried to lead by example. … I wanted for them to know they could count on me on a daily basis.”

There’s no question he accomplished that, and that sort of approach, over time, helped White grow into a role that Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen and Dion Lewis held before him in Foxboro. And that he grew into that role is remarkable based on where he came from.

White told me that he always considered himself a strong receiver and route runner, and worked on it a lot with his dad growing up. But at ground-and-pound Wisconsin, he really only got the chance to show it as a senior—when he caught 39 balls as a complement to the 1,444 yards he rushed for.

So never did he think his NFL career would play out quite as it did.

How so? He’s the rare back who walks away with more career catches (381) than carries (319), which is a true illustration of the role he played for Tom Brady, Cam Newton and, briefly, Mac Jones. But maybe it’s just as reflective of his story of a self-made player, one who was a true redshirt as a rookie during the Patriots’ 2014 title year, and only got on the field the following year after Lewis got hurt.

“My senior year of college, we started to involve the running backs more in the passing game. I started to build a little more confidence there,” he said. “I never would’ve imagined me getting to the NFL and having more catches than carries, but that’s the role that they found for me. I accepted that role and tried to be the best at it. That was my goal. I just tried to take it and run with it, and be dependable, and do my job at a high level.”

And he was the best at it when it mattered most. Brady, of course, was the MVP of Super Bowl LI, after the dramatic comeback from a 28–3 deficit against the Falcons. But White was right there with him when it came to heroics. The third-year back figured he’d have a good role in the game, given that Atlanta ran the same defense Seattle did, and Vereen went wild in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks two years earlier.

But no one could’ve guessed it’d add up to a Super Bowl–record 14 catches for 110 yards and the game-winning touchdown in overtime (he also rushed for another two scores in the game).

“I figured I’d probably have seven, eight catches,” he said. “Obviously I didn’t expect the crazy impact I had, the outcome of it. But we ended up in passing situations when we were down by so many points, and the ball just kept coming my way, and I wanted to do whatever I could to scratch and claw to get us back into the game.”

Five offseasons later, White found himself fighting his way back from hip surgery, the result of a serious injury he suffered in September. He told me he was making steady progress through the last few months. Bill Belichick called him in March before free agency started and told him that he’d love to have him back, and White wound up signing a new two-year deal, which was another motivator to get back to full strength.

But as camp drew close, White started to plateau and just couldn’t quite get back to where he felt like himself on the field. So he started to consider everything. Doctors had told him while he wasn’t at risk to reinjure the hip, per se, continuing to play could accelerate an eventual need for a hip replacement, which would affect his day-to-day life with his two kids. And he’d lived that life last year, being on crutches for four months.

“That definitely was a factor,” he said.

So he and his wife talked, and kept talking, and by the end, he says, it wasn’t that hard to pull the trigger—because logically it was the right thing for everyone.

“I knew the extent of my injury,” he said. “I’ve been talking with my wife the whole time, about the process, so it wasn’t too hard. Having to say the words, O.K., I’m done now, is actually the hardest part. But I’ll sit back and watch the games. I still enjoy watching football. I know the first year will probably be the toughest, especially since I’ve been in a locker room the whole time, working with the guys.

“It’ll probably make me be tuned in even more, because I know what’s going on.”

As for what’s next, White said he’ll take some time now, then probably consider coaching or going into media, or even working in some facet of the shoe business.

Whatever he chooses, he’ll have a lot of people rooting for him.

A settlement remains a possibility in the Watson case.

Phil Masturzo/Akron Beach Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK


I think there was a subtle pendulum swing in the Deshaun Watson case this week. If you remember, we wrote a few times just before July 4 that the NFL was aggressively pushing its position out there—that it wouldn’t accept a settlement deal with a less-than-a-year suspension, and that it was pursuing an indefinite suspension, absent a settlement—and how it was likely happening because the hearing may not have quite gone the league’s way and there was an anticipation the initial arbitrator, Sue L. Robinson, wouldn’t come down on Watson as the NFL would like. And Robinson didn’t, levying a recommendation of a six-game suspension. Now, it feels like the opposite is happening.

In the middle of last week, word got out, via the AP, that Watson was willing to accept an eight-game suspension and $5 million fine; and that was followed up by Watson’s interview during the team broadcast of the Browns’ preseason opener, during which he apologized for the first time to the women who reported him for sexual harassment and sexual assault. “I’m truly sorry to all of the women I have impacted in this situation,” he told Aditi Kinhabwala on the WEWS-TV pregame show. He also mentioned he wants to “continue counseling,” which goes back to what he told the media at his introductory press conference in March.

So as to the timing? Peter C. Harvey’s decision is coming, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s trying to prompt a settlement before issuing a ruling. When Robinson created a five-week window for the league, union and Watson to reach one back in July, they actually did get closer to a deal—Watson was willing to take a six- to eight-game suspension, while the league offered a deal at 12 games with a $10 million fine. My understanding is that treatment was a part of that offer, too, and something the NFL would insist on in any settlement. So that it’s now out there that Watson is willing to accept a fine and undergo more treatment, it feels to me like an effort to do what it takes to avoid a yearlong suspension. And a part of that might be the union and Watson’s camp coming to the sort of realization the league did more than a month ago—that an arbitrator wasn’t going to rule in their favor. Either way, these developments at least create the appearance that a deal between the sides is realistic.

I do have two other things to take from Watson’s preseason debut. And those two are in two very different departments.

1. I wouldn’t worry too much about his uneven numbers through nine snaps. He hadn’t played in 19 months. Starting linemen Joel Bitonio, Jack Conklin and Chris Hubbard didn’t play. Neither did Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt nor Amari Cooper. And the Jaguars played all their starters. The idea here was to get Watson’s feet wet in game action and take him through the Browns’ game day operation, from pregame through to kickoff and into game action. That was accomplished, ugly as it might’ve seemed (he actually graded out O.K. with the coaches). So long as a yearlong suspension doesn’t come down this week, which would send him home, I’d expect him to be a little less rusty next Sunday against the Eagles. And, remember, this was never just a for-now play for Cleveland. It was always about the unique opportunity to get a long-term answer at quarterback.

2. The reception the Browns got in Jacksonville is what they expected, and what they should expect for the rest of the year—and that may even be for games Watson isn’t playing in. They’re no longer the cuddly, down-on-their-luck, underdog Browns. They fully understand how this will change how they’re perceived, and received, outside of Cleveland for the foreseeable future.

Baker Mayfield did flash a little of what the Panthers were looking for in trading for him Sunday against the Commanders. As we’ve said in this space, a huge part of the trade for Carolina was the belief that Mayfield could, at least, get the team up to where it’d have average play at the position, which it couldn’t be assured of in staging a Sam Darnold vs. Matt Corral competition. And one way for Mayfield to give them that was to bring what Darnold couldn’t last year—part of the issue with the latter is he simply doesn’t see it fast enough, and as a result doesn’t play fast enough. In that way, Mayfield’s first throw Saturday showed the difference he can make.

You can see Mayfield moving his head and getting the ball out of there fast, and that kind of efficiency should allow Carolina to get a little more out of what it believes is a pretty talented group of skill players. The other positive to come from the game, then, actually involved all three quarterbacks. The team responded to both Mayfield and Darnold in the game, and there was good energy between the two of them on the sideline (they talked a lot), as there has been during camp. And both helped coach up Corral when he was in there. Which showed, overall, that even with the competition, it’s the kind of healthy room the team was hoping for when it pulled the trigger of trading for Mayfield (who I’d say has a fair-sized lead in the quarterback derby now).

So far, so good for Carson Wentz. It’s early, of course. And no one thought, even in midseason last year, that the Colts were going to dump Wentz as fast as they did. So there shouldn’t be any sweeping judgments taken from this. That said, I thought the Commanders did a good job of getting Wentz going. One thing the Washington coaches noticed looking at his Indianapolis tape was how the play calling late in the season, leaning on a dominant run game, seemed to knock him off rhythm. So it makes sense that in his first game action since last year’s Week 18 meltdown, Commanders offensive coordinator Scott Turner would try to create a little momentum early, and he did that with seven pass calls on the team’s first nine plays from scrimmage. Wentz wound up settling in, commanded the offense nicely and played a clean, efficient three series, connecting on 3-of-4 third-down throws, each of which moved the sticks. It’s a small step forward, to be sure, especially with Carolina sitting out Jaycee Horn, Derrick Brown and Shaq Thompson. But a step nonetheless.

George Pickens is one to watch, in more ways than one. Let me be very clear here: You’d have a hard time finding a single scout out there who’s remotely surprised that the second-round pick looks like a star already. The NFL has had its eyes on the Georgia product since he was a freshman. Talent was never the question.

“I thought he’d have been this good,” said one NFC exec. “He’s so explosive and big and physical. You saw the video. It probably should’ve been a penalty, but he barely touched the corner [during the preseason game the other night] and the corner fell over. You can see how strong and physical he is. He’s a beast.”

So why did Pickens fall in the draft? One reason is that he barely played last year for the eventual national champs, coming off an ACL tear he suffered in the spring. Another is that there were character questions going back years that scared off some teams. But the talent enticed everyone—in fact, the above evaluator believed that Pickens’s baggage is a reason why Drake London and Treylon Burks went as high as they did, because they were cleaner options as bigger receivers. Pickens was clearly more gifted than both, and likely would’ve been in the top-10 mix absent the questions. And now, he’s with Mike Tomlin, who’s a master at getting the most out of guys with issues in their past. So I wouldn’t be stunned to see Pickens become a real problem for defenses quickly—and then we’ll get to see how much growing he’s done off the field over the last few years.

Garoppolo now has two teams that could make sense.

Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

This could be an important week on the Jimmy Garoppolo front. Jets QB Zach Wilson will undergo arthroscopic knee surgery Tuesday in Los Angeles. When the docs go in, they’ll determine whether he needs a meniscus trim or repair. The team is confident it’ll be a trim—which would necessitate a two- to four-week recovery. But there’s the off chance he’ll need a repair, and that would be season-ending. Meanwhile, the Watson decision could come down this week. If the suspension stays where it is (unlikely), then I’d guess Cleveland will stick with the plan to roll with Jacoby Brissett. If it’s for the whole season, or even a majority of the season, I’d bet they’ll consider their options.

And in a worst-case scenario for either team, Garoppolo would fit. Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur was Garoppolo’s position coach in San Francisco, and Robert Saleh was there with them, too. And Kevin Stefanski’s offense in Cleveland is one he built with Gary Kubiak in Minnesota, so there’d be plenty of carryover for Garoppolo, who played for ex-Kubiak assistant Kyle Shanahan for those four years with the Niners.

I thought it was interesting that Lamar Jackson quietly set a Week 1 deadline to get a long-term deal done. Details have been scant, because the Ravens have kept a small circle on this one (they know how important trust is to Jackson), but I did hear the last few weeks that last year Baltimore matched the $43 million APY that Josh Allen got at the beginning of the 2021 season. Presumably, that number’s gone up since. What Jackson’s pushing for is unknown, but guarantees, and maybe even Watson-level guarantees, would be a big part of the ask. If he doesn’t get it, and Week 1 passes, then a franchise tag next winter is probably next. Would that be good for Jackson? Let’s dive into it …

• The Ravens could give Jackson the nonexclusive tag, which right now projects to about $31.5 million. That means on two tags, he would make a shade under $70 million, with a third and final tag in 2025 set at more than $54 million (So about $124 million as a three-year total). The risk there would be someone, at a price of two first-round picks, could swoop in and steal Jackson away. What would prevent that would be …

• … Assigning him the exclusive tag, which right now projects to about $45.5 million. Two tags in that scenario would come to just more than $100 million, and a third tag in 2025 would then cost about $78 million.

These figures, of course, are subject to change with new contracts and restructurings that happen over the next few months. But that gives you a rough idea of what’s ahead if the Ravens and Jackson can’t bridge the gap. And while I still think they will, I’d have told you a few months ago that it’d be done by now, and it’s not, which is interesting—especially given that the sides acknowledged that, of late, they’ve tried (where before they were all just waiting).

The Tom Brady story is interesting to me in its lack of precedent. I’d say the Bucs probably should’ve gotten in front of this one a little better than they did—but as far as I can tell, his 10-day absence from camp was indeed preplanned, and cleared, and Brady’s family is fine (i.e., it’s not an emergency). And so when you think about this one, it’s hard not to consider how aggressive teams have gotten about giving veterans days off.

When I was at Cardinals camp the other day, it was pretty clear in how Arizona was pacing some older players, like J.J. Watt, on its roster. To me, it wasn’t just an acknowledgment that those guys could use a break physically to help prepare themselves for the 17-game grind ahead. It was also basically saying that those guys don’t get enough out of every single practice to justify them not getting these breaks—and it makes sense that older guys would need that work less than younger guys do.

So if that’s true for a guy in his late 20s or early 30s … what does it mean for a guy who’s 45? It seems like maybe Brady is showing us now. And I talked to a bunch of personnel folks and coaches over the last few days about this. Safe to say none of them were offended much that Tampa Bay would give the greatest quarterback ever a few days off from camp (remember, Brett Favre showed up in mid-August of 2009 to a new team and wound up being just fine).

I think everyone needs to listen to NFLPA president J.C. Tretter on the conditions of NFL playing surfaces, because it’s increasingly becoming a problem. Here’s what the former Browns center said, in the aftermath of Saturday’s Bears-Chiefs game taking place on a less-than-ideal patch of grass at Soldier Field: “The NFL said that this field met minimum testing standards. We clearly need to re-evaluate what is an acceptable surface for players to compete on. We need new testing metrics looking at the performance and safety of every field. The NFL can and should do better.”

Now, I’m not going to pretend to know whether the conditions in Chicago this week were or were not acceptable. What I do know is I’ve heard about these sorts of issues over and over again from players. The great majority of guys don’t like playing on FieldTurf. And the grass surfaces in northern climates look like crap way more often than they should. To me, this comes down to, as is the case with so many other things in the NFL, money. Teams are trying to cram more and more events into these stadiums to justify their cost, and that means either teams are going to the artificial surface or they’re letting the natural surfaces take a beating. What I do know is that it seems like the Packers are the one team that has it figured out—using a hybrid natural surface that’s woven together, and somehow withstands the Wisconsin winter. The problem is that the system, which is widely used for the pitches in Premier League soccer, is expensive and takes a lot of upkeep. The Packers don’t have an owner to answer to for that. The other 31 teams do. And maybe this is just me, but that doesn’t seem like a good enough reason not to give elite athletes the highest-level surface possible to run around on. Especially when the cost for not doing it, paid by those athletes, can be so high.

The first leg of my camp trip is done, and we’ve got a notebook to unload here. Let’s jump into that, with my quick hitters …

• Along the way, we gave you some UDFA sleepers in my “five from …” series (Chargers S Raheem Layne was one) on the site. Here’s another one—Cowboys S Markquese Bell. He’s got the size and length Dan Quinn likes in his DBs, and has a good shot at making the team and carving out a role down the line.

• I mentioned Maxx Crosby in the series, too, and I’m considering making him my pick for Defensive Player of the Year. After seeing a lot of these guys over the last three weeks, I’d put Joey Bosa and Nick Bosa in that mix, too, as well as second-year stars Micah Parsons and Patrick Surtain II.

• I remember saying the Bills’ biggest question was at punter. And then rookie “Punt God” Matt Araiza went ahead and put his foot to an 82-yard bomb against the Colts and, well, maybe the biggest question then would be, “Can the team stay healthy?” Everything is in place there.

• A lot of smart NFL people who know the Patriots well think Bill Belichick is going to wind up calling the offensive plays in Foxboro at some point this season.

• I don’t think the Bears are going to be awash in offers for Roquan Smith. And that’s not to say he’s not a really good player. He is one. But he’s an off-ball linebacker in an era that doesn’t value them, and he’s not big or long enough to be an ideal fit for a good number of teams. And if you trade for him, you’ll have to give him a top-of-the-market deal on top of the draft pick compensation.

• Malik Willis is exciting to watch, and Ryan Tannehill’s money for 2023 isn’t guaranteed. Tannehill’s cap number for ’23 is $36.6 million; Willis’s is $1.173 million. So if Willis keeps growing through his preseason game experience, and Tannehill stumbles when the season starts, it probably won’t take long for people in Nashville to start calling for the rookie.

• While we’re there, both Sam Howell (in Washington) and Desmond Ridder (in Atlanta) had nice debuts.

• Justin Fields made a couple of eye-opening throws for the Bears against the Chiefs. He was also on the run a lot and took a big shot or two. Which leads us to the obvious: Chicago offensive coordinator Luke Getsy is going to have to manage his offensive line issues to get the most out of Fields over the next five months.

• Speaking of offensive line issues, the one in Tampa isn’t getting the attention it should. Breaking in three new starters between tackles Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs won’t be easy, regardless of which quarterback is lining up behind them.

• I don’t know if Jalen Hurts is going to be worth a megadeal after this year or next. But I can say I’m thoroughly impressed with his improvement over the last five years, from Alabama to Oklahoma and now the Eagles. There was a point when scouts thought he was a glorified running back. No one I know thinks that anymore.


1. I’ve been going to Ohio State games for nearly a quarter century. I’m not sure there’s been a hotter ticket than this year’s Notre Dame game—set for the Saturday before Labor Day. And I’d guess, because of the proximity of South Bend to Ohio, and the fact that Notre Dame’s stadium is significantly smaller than Ohio State’s, the 2023 ticket has a chance to be an even tougher one.

2. So Kevin Durant wants the Nets’ GM and coach fired … but wasn’t he the one who constructed the team and picked the coach?

3. Great move by the NBA retiring Bill Russell’s No. 6 league-wide. He’s as great a winner as there has been in North American team sports and had a major impact off the court as well.

4. Surprising to hear Fernando Tatis Jr. took an anabolic steroid accidentally. It’s really wild that all these athletes who surround themselves with the best nutritionists and trainers keep stepping on that exact same banana peel!

5. The Netflix documentary on Woodstock ’99 was much better than the HBO one, and the reason why, for me, was that the former wasn’t trying to draw some grand conclusion about an entire generation of people (which happens to be my generation) through the disaster in upstate New York. In the ’90s, we played pranks on people. We broke stuff. We got out of control and messed up sometimes. As the kids of a time that was relatively peaceful and prosperous, it’s not any more complicated than that … so stop trying to make it more than that.

6. She won’t read this, but maybe I’ll show it to her down the line: Happy third birthday to our beautiful daughter, Ginny. We’ve already learned so much from you, Gin, and I can’t wait to see where you’re headed.


Still just behind Bama in the coaches poll, though.

Just an epic Boobie Miles tribute from Hurts. Amazingly well done. Only thing that would’ve been better would’ve been a Darnell Jefferson jersey.

By the way … these two are about to do some damage. Derek Carr has ripped it up in camp (zero picks all summer, is my understanding), and Davante Adams looks fantastic.

Worth your time. Nice work, Bills.

Not gonna lie … this was pretty great.

There are a lot of big At the End of the Day guys in the NFL. Still, this is really impressive work from the Patriots’ quarterback.

Ja’Marr Chase has a ton of swagger. But Denzel Ward’s not lacking for it, either.

The Bills’ social team had a good week.

During Mahomes’s rookie year, Chiefs staffers had video of him from practice that looked borderline fake; it was so wild. This is in that category.

Good on Kyler Murray for taking care of a young fan who got his jersey swiped at a practice.

I can relate with this a little—it’s pretty awesome when your kid starts to get what you do for a living.

Appendicitis is no joke.

Really cool tribute to Texans rookie John Metchie III, who has leukemia.

I don’t blame J.J. Snakes freak me out, too.

Here are the Bills taking care of their one roster hole.

And finally … yeah. Good Luck seems like a nice coincidence. French Fries is pushing it.


Tuesday is the first big roster cutdown, from 90 to 85. And while for the most part that won’t mean much to many people, it is worth paying attention to because it can prompt some action on the trade market, especially with a weekend of preseason tape out there.

So … we’ve got maybe a mildly interesting 30 hours or so (depending on when you read this) ahead.

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