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Sports Illustrated
Albert Breer

Why the Cardinals Signed Murray to an Incentive-Laden Deal

David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports (Belichick); Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK (Hill); Michael Chow-Arizona Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK (Murray)

ROCHESTER, N.Y.—Here we go …

• Good job by my buddy Ian Rapoport in digging up some of the finer details of the Kyler Murray deal, which include an “independent study” clause—Murray has to complete four hours of study outside of his mandatory meetings each week during the season to avoid defaulting on the guarantees in his contract. This follows news from Pro Football Talk a few days back, revealing there are outsized workout bonuses baked into the deal.

So why would Arizona do this? It’s exactly what it looks like.

The last two offseasons, Murray’s been only a partial participant in the team’s offseason program. And because 2020’s offseason program was wiped out thanks to the pandemic, that means, through four years, Murray still hasn’t had a full offseason program. Add to that there have been questions about leadership and even punctuality at points in his career, and it’s fair to connect these clauses to the team wanting more of Murray off the field. (To be fair, Murray has been an excellent pro in how he takes care of his body.)

Last year, the team imported Rodney Hudson, J.J. Watt, James Conner and A.J. Green in large part because a roster that had potential needed a rudder. It, for the most part, worked out. Those veterans helped teach the team how to win close games in the pros. But eventually, the quarterback has to be that guy—especially when the quarterback’s been paid (NFL locker rooms, to be sure, keep score when it comes to salaries). And Arizona’s showing that it wanted assurances that Murray was committed to becoming that guy before paying him.

We’ll see how Murray responds to that challenge.

• I’ve heard a lot of talk on how New England will revamp its offense with new OC Joe Judge and O-line coach Matt Patricia (and tight ends coach Nick Caley, too) helming the group. And yes, it’s true that there have been changes to what the Patriots are doing. Are they wholesale changes? That’s not how I’ve heard it.

We wrote about this last month, and it’s worth reiterating here—the Patriots offense became, in the words of one person I spoke to, very “voluminous” over Tom Brady’s 20 years of football. Every year, elements were added with just about nothing getting pulled out. And as a result, everything was very complicated, which both worked to great effect for Brady and the Patriots, and created a significant barrier for entry to newcomers, particularly at the skill positions.

The changes this spring were to address that, essentially untangling an offense that had been wound very tightly over the years. So when New England coach Bill Belichick said, “It’s a good time to streamline things offensively”, back in June, he was being forthright. A lot of the work the coaches did was to take elements out of the offense, which should work to both get Mac Jones playing faster and allow for younger players to assimilate quicker.

Will it work? We’ll see. But the fact that both Jonnu Smith and Nelson Agholor made strides toward looking like what the Patriots thought they were getting when they signed the big-ticket free agents 16 months ago, is a good indicator that it’s at least creating some early signs of progress.

• Because he hasn’t signed his franchise tender, Jessie Bates can wait until Labor Day to report to the Bengals, and not lose a nickel doing it. And in the time being, Cincinnati could find some level of benefit—it’ll allow the team to get a good long look at first-round pick Daxton Hill at free safety.

A lot of what the Bengals saw in Hill, in taking the Michigan product at No. 31, mirrors what they’ve had in Bates over the last four years, in particular his athletic profile and his ball skills. The main difference, from there, is what Hill was projected to be. You could see Bates playing the role he would in the NFL as a collegian at Wake Forest. That was not the case with how Hill was deployed at Michigan.

Though he was recruited as a safety and evaluated by most teams at the position, the Wolverines used him last year almost exclusively as a slot corner. And having that skill should be huge for him as a pro. But he just hasn’t had the time on task as a deep safety, and so from the time he was drafted, through the spring, the Cincinnati more or less gave Hill all of Bates’s reps at the position through OTAs and two minicamps.

Should Bates stay away from camp, Hill will keep getting those reps, which should serve two purposes. One, it’ll give the Bengals depth at the position and make Hill more of a movable chess piece as a rookie. And two, it’ll allow them to evaluate Hill thoroughly at the position ahead of Bates’s potential 2023 departure.

That departure, for what it’s worth, isn’t a fait accompli. But Cincinnati, cognizant of the big contracts it has coming down the pike, was willing to go to about $14 million per to keep Bates, and with Minkah Fitzpatrick’s deal done, the market at the position is now topping $18 million per. And I’d imagine when Derwin James’s deal gets done (with James represented by Bates’s agent, David Mulugheta), it probably won’t help bring the sides closer together.

• While we’re there, Joe Burrow’s already gotten some good work in reporting with the rookies and getting on the field over the weekend. Also, because the rules allow for veterans rehabbing to join the rookies and quarterbacks out there before the official veteran reporting day, Burrow had Tee Higgins on the field with him for those sessions.

For what it’s worth, those two represent two of the bigger contract questions for the team going into this fall. Both will be eligible for new deals come January. It’ll be interesting to see how Cincinnati handles each, given what’s happened to the market at those two positions over the last six months. And as is the case with the Chargers, another team with old family ownership, and their quarterback Justin Herbert, it’ll be fascinating how the Bengals navigate the funding rule problem in how they set up guarantees in the deal.

(The funding rule is only there, by the way, as a crutch for owners to avoid guaranteeing money in contracts. There’s literally no other reason for it that still stands even a little with the NFL where it is in 2022.)

Donald, McVay and the Rams were able to work things out this offseason to keep the star defensive lineman in Los Angeles.

Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

• Got two leftovers from my extensive conversation with Rams coach Sean McVay from last week. The first connects to his role in trying to get Aaron Donald back in the fold for 2022, as Donald mulled his future. And the truth? McVay told me he didn’t do much selling at all.

“Without betraying anything he said to me, the coolest thing was the trust we shared with one another, and I think that’s where I wouldn’t want to get into specifics,” McVay said. “But his comfort in being totally open and honest about the exact things that are important, what he wanted and then our ability to work through it, in addition to the contract stuff, I just thought his communication with me through the process was such a cool reflection of our relationship, and the maturity that he has and the security he has in himself.

“But the most rewarding part of all of it to answer the question in a simple form was the consistent dialogue that existed and his transparency with me when we were working through figuring out, Alright, am I gonna retire? What is the right number for you to come back at? Are you still motivated to play? We were able to work through all those things, because I did really feel this way—if he was feeling like I’m not in the place to give it everything that I’ve always given it, I feel like my career is complete, I wouldn’t have pushed, because he’s changed my life for all the right reasons.

“Being able to coach a player like him, and if he said after eight years, I feel like I’m ready to step away, I don’t know anybody’s earned the right to do that, with the resume that he’s built and the way that he works, more than him. But then when you realize, O.K., you still are motivated to play and you wanna try to be able to know I gotta a few more great years left in me, I want to continue to pursue championships with people that I care about, then let’s try and figure this out.”

And obviously, the Rams did just that.

• Now, the second thing goes back to the story we told in the morning column about McVay re-reading Phil Jackson’s book. When I circled back with the Rams coach a couple days after our first conversation last week, I told him I felt like an idiot for not drawing the parallel there immediately—maybe Jackson’s best trait as a coach was his ability to effectively manage the egos of stars, and that’s something McVay, too, has quickly grown a rep for.

“What’s amazing to me, Albert, is he goes 6-for-6 with the Bulls when they go to the Finals,” McVay said. “[Michael] Jordan, the only playoff series Jordan ever lost once they started winning the championships was when he came back midseason and they lost to the Magic. He goes two three-peats there. What I’d forgotten until I read that book was he started a three-peat his first year with the Lakers—his first three years they won three in a row. And then he actually wins two more without Shaq [O’Neal].

“But I think managing different personalities, I do think his ability to manage and get the most out of superstars, whether you’re talking about Michael or Kobe [Bryant], people forget what a magical job he did handling Dennis Rodman. The Shaq and Kobe thing, I forgot how volatile that was when those guys were having problems. To be able to steady the storm, when the outside-in narrative is this whole thing is off the rails, but it never really was and I think that came to life in the Last Dance too.

“And then he won two as a player with the Knicks, too. His perspective and his ability to understand, way before a lot of guys did, the importance of mental capacity, and how to get guys to be great players but then also be great teammates which then elevates everyone around them, that’s what I thought really came to life.”

Which, again, you can argue has happened with the Rams, as well.

• The more we hear from Tyreek Hill, the more impressive it is that the Chiefs were able to manage him the way they did over the last six years. Those in the Kansas City organization now acknowledge it wasn’t easy. But that’s part of Andy Reid’s greatness as a coach—His ability to manage all different kinds of players, and personality, allows the front office to cast a wide net in player acquisition, knowing Reid can handle challenges others can’t.

(This, by the way, goes for Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh in a very big way, too. We all saw what became of Antonio Brown after he left the Steelers.)

• Bills tight end Dawson Knox was asked about his contract situation on Monday. He said he’d like to stay in Buffalo. The team would love to keep him. But the challenge in holding on to someone like Knox—a really good player, not yet a star—is indicative of the more global challenge facing the Bills, as the young guys coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane have populated the roster with start to become eligible for contracts.

Everyone can’t break the bank. So tough calls will come. Do you pay Knox? Do you pay Tremaine Edmunds? How about Ed Oliver? And are these guys willing to take a little less to stay? It’s a good problem to have, of course. But it won’t be easy.

New contracts for Packers coach Matt LaFleur and GM Brian Gutekunst were richly deserved, and it’s good to see they got done. The roster’s in great shape. The team’s well-coached. The rest of the league’s respect for the job Green Bay has done the last few years has been reflected in other teams coming in to poach coaches and scouts from there.

And this also affirms that the Packers are entrusting LaFleur and Gutekunst to guide the franchise through the post-Aaron Rodgers transition, whenever it comes.

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• As you could see on the dateline, I’m filing this one from a Courtyard near Bills camp in western New York—and I’m pumped to be back out on my camp tour again. Looking to follow along with me? You can find me on Twitter (@AlbertBreer) and IG (@Albert_Breer). I’ll be posting there throughout my trip, and there’ll be plenty of stuff on The MMQB (@TheMMQB on both Twitter and IG) accounts too. See ya out there! 

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