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NFL Mailbag: Which Non-Playoff Teams Improved the Most – Sports Illustrated

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Time to open the mailbag for questions about most improved teams, the Chargers’ weapons, what the start of the season will look like, Andy Dalton in Dallas, Josh McDaniels’s future and more.

Times may be getting slow in the NFL, but mail keeps coming in. So I’ll keep answering it …

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

From seed (@seed32041243): What is the non-playoff team that improved their chances the most of making the playoffs during the offseason?

Easy answer: Tampa. They added a legendary quarterback and a legendary tight end, even if those guys aren’t quite what they were a few years back, and got a tackle that some considered to be the best in the draft in the teens. The defense, with a top-shelf coordinator in Todd Bowles at the controls, started to ascend at the end of last year. And they were 7-7 with a shot at the playoffs in late December, despite Jameis Winston’s 30-interception season.

I don’t know if we’ll get vintage Brady in 2020, but I feel comfortable saying that Bruce Arians’s crew will turn it over a lot less this year. So the Bucs would be on my short list.

And if you want a less obvious team, give me the Colts. I still believe in what Chris Ballard and Frank Reich are doing Indy, after a really weird 2019 there. They spent three years building up the guts of the operation, and now you see the plan coming around with skill guys like Michael Pittman and Jonathan Taylor in the fold. Add a battle-tested quarterback in Philip Rivers, and there’s a lot to like on what’s still an ascending roster.

From Gambling Avengers (@GamblingAvenge1): You mentioned that spring football won’t work without the NFL’s backing but would an independent league work in the fall on Tuesday/Wednesday nights?

Avengers, I don’t think so. First of all, part of the strength of football is the scarcity of the product. Every game, whether it’s high school, college or pro, feels special because there are fewer of them, relative to other sports, and each one means more. It makes what we do get appointment viewing, and putting a minor league on random weeknights nearly wouldn’t qualify as that—I think that Mid-America Conference ratings at the college level would confirm it for you.

Second, putting it in the fall doesn’t change much when it comes to funding. The biggest issue the AAF and XFL had was that they couldn’t really stand on their own two legs financially. And while the NFL would see real non-financial benefits from a league like one of those succeeding, it’s shown time and again that it won’t invest if there’s not a financial benefit to go with it.

NFL Europe is proof positive on that front. The league got a ton of benefit from that league, from the globalization of the sport to the development of under-the-radar talent to even the emergence of young players like Sebastian Vollmer and Bjorn Werner from Germany. In the end, though, the owners were taking a bath on the bottom line, and didn’t have the stomach for that, which should give you a good idea of how they look at these things.

From Post draft szn (@nygtim): Does (Aaron) Rodgers play all 16 games this season?

If you’re asking me, Post Draft, if Rodgers will stay healthy, I have no idea (though he has started all 16 games in five of his last six seasons). If you’re asking if Rodgers will have the job if he is healthy, my answer is yes, because I don’t think the Packers drafted Jordan Love with any intention of playing him this year or maybe even in 2021. And that was part of how Green Bay could afford to evaluate Love a little differently than other teams.

If you were, say, the Dolphins or Chargers, it was probably unrealistic to think that Love wouldn’t be your starter by, at the latest, the start of the 2021 season—there’s really only been one first-round quarterback over the last decade (Johnny Manziel) who hasn’t been entrenched as his team’s starter by the start of Year 2. And that means you’re probably throwing Love into the fire before he’s ready; Most scouts I talked to believed Love was raw to the point where two or three years of runway to becoming a starter would be beneficial.

But if you’re the Packers, the idea that Love could get that time is actually pretty realistic. Rodgers’s contract will line up right up with Love’s—once Love signs, they’ll both be inked through 2023—and you have control over Love through 2024, with the fifth-year option on his deal. And so barring Rodgers crumbling, there’ll be no pressure for the coaches to stick Love in there, or for Love to rush his development.

To me, while you can argue over whether it was the right thing for the Packers right now, this was a pretty ideal spot for Love to land, for all these reasons. All reasons which, if you break them down, would lead you to believe Rodgers has got that job for the foreseeable future.

From Sam Gregory (@samtheg13): What day would be the deadline to have the players report and have the season go on as scheduled? With the international games being removed, how does this effect teams who have to play in one to host a super bowl? Arizona’s got canceled but are still set to host in 2023. Just move it to next year?

I combine a couple of Sam’s questions here. And his first one is pretty interesting. I hate to keep comparing everything to 2011, but that’s the most applicable example we have. That year, camps started on time (with the exception of the two teams that were supposed to open early and play in a cancelled Hall of Fame game). The season went off mostly fine. So that’d indicate you might be able to cut things down a little further—and, to some degree, the new CBA does that naturally (the number of padded practices allowed in camp has been cut from 28 to 16).

So I don’t think it’s nuts to think they could do with two weeks of camp leading into a game week (making for a total of three weeks). The thing about that, though, would be that if we’re still in a spot over the summer where camp can’t start until mid-August, will teams be ready to host games at stadiums just a couple weeks later? And if we’re following the money, wouldn’t it be better for the owners to just push the season back, so they could try to open with fans on, say, Oct. 1 or Nov. 1? These are the questions they’d be asking now.

As for the International Series game participants, I’m pretty sure the language just allows the league to compel teams from Super Bowl host cities to play. It doesn’t necessarily require it. So I’d guess the league would probably have the Cardinals just go to Mexico in 2021—particularly considering the geographic sense it makes for them to go there, and grow their brand anyway—but I don’t know that it’ll have to be that way.

From quentin quarantine (@lefebvrewm): How many 1,000-yard receivers will the Chargers have? (Mike) Williams, (Keenan) Allen, (Hunter) Henry and (Austin) Ekeler are all capable.

Quentin, I think I smell a fantasy question here. I’ll allow it. I think the answer to your question relates to two things: Who’s the quarterback? And, Who’s the left tackle? There are more reasons for optimism on the former than the latter, but the latter might wind up being just as important. If you’re deficient there, you might be compelled to run the ball, and play off play-action more, to protect your quarterback, especially if it’s your rookie quarterback.

That brings us to the second piece of the equation. Tyrod Taylor and Justin Herbert are different quarterbacks. With Taylor, you’ll be playing more through the run game, and the effects of that were certainly seen in Buffalo in his three years as starter there. Only one player in those seasons, Sammy Watkins in 2015, had a 1,000-yard receiving season, and he just barely made it there (1,047). The next highest total? Robert Woods with 613 in 2016.

So in this case, having the rookie in there may actually help Williams and Allen, and especially Henry and Ekeler (who can be effective safety valves), even as he works through some of the usual bumps.

From Jessica (@jessj83): When does @clownejd sign somewhere and what are the odds it’s the Titans?

Jessica, I continue to believe that Clowney’s best option will be back in Seattle. If the goal is to get a big payday in 2021, and it should be, and you consider the circumstances of this offseason and how the Seahawks scheme can highlight his freakish athleticism, there’s no question that Pete Carroll and Co. give him the best chance to be at his very best in 2020, which gives him the best chance to be most marketable in 2021.

Yes, there was a gap in Clowney’s initial financial expectations and how the NFL saw him, and that’s why he’ll probably be playing on a one-year deal somewhere in 2020. But at this point, he should be looking at the big picture—and what could be out there for him in 10 months. (And if it’s not Seattle, I do think the Titans make sense, because of the presence of his ex-position coach, Mike Vrabel, as the head coach there.)

From Moose Block (@moose_block): Is this Josh McDaniels’s last year as the Pats OC?

Moose, I think if the Patriots have a solid year on offense, there’s a good likelihood that he’ll have an opportunity in 2021—and that’s largely because then we’ll have seen yet another example of McDaniels having developed a young quarterback, something that’s already been apparent in how Matt Cassel and Jimmy Garoppolo came along under his tutelage. So in a certain way, Jarrett Stidham becomes a key for him.

Then, the question becomes where he goes and with whom. McDaniels has a pretty strong idea of what he believes a franchise should look like—one he shared with the Browns, who clearly didn’t want to go through the organizational teardown he proposed. So I think whatever team it is would have to adopt McDaniels’s vision. Then, the other part would be who he’d pair with on the scouting side. Patriots pro director Dave Ziegler would’ve been that guy in Cleveland, but Ziegler is becoming an increasingly important figure in Foxboro.

All this said, I do think if the right opportunity comes along, McDaniels would definitely go. He is not married to staying in New England.

From Tyler Schmidt (@teachgeek90): Why did the Cowboys sign Dalton? Is it really about leverage or are the Cowboys just looking to upgrade the team?

Tyler, 2015 and 2016 tell the story. In 2014, a young Dallas core came of age and went 12-4, and was the Dez Bryant catch/non-catch away from making the NFC title game. Clearly in a title window, bad luck struck the next two years with Tony Romo going down in both seasons. In 2015, the team wasn’t prepared, shuffled from Brandon Weeden to Kellen Moore to Matt Cassel, and went 4-12. In 2016, the team struck gold in the fourth round in landing Dak Prescott, and didn’t miss a beat when Romo got hurt, finishing the year 13-3.

I’m not great at math, but that appears to be a nine-game swing. There were other factors in play, of course (having Greg Hardy on the roster wasn’t great for team chemistry when the crap hit the fan in 2015), but the core players on the two teams were essentially the same.

Now, you can apply this to 2020—the Cowboys, again, have a loaded roster with a bunch of guys smack in the middle of their prime. The time is now. And while Prescott’s been very durable (64-for-64 in games started over four years), Dallas knows well what can happen if you’re not ready for a quarterback injury, and signing Dalton shows an acknowledgment that they don’t want to risk wasting one of the years that the core they’ve built has left. (Last year’s Saints are another example of what QB depth can mean for a contender.)

OK, now that we’ve gone through all that, does this give the Cowboys some leverage in talks? Sure, it does. They can go to training camp now knowing the whole thing won’t be a fire drill, which takes away some of the leverage Prescott has in not having signed his $31.4 million franchise tender, since his staying away from camp would hurt the team a little less. But do I think this will affect Prescott’s long-term status with the team? I do not.

From Don Ridenour (@DonRidenour): Young QB who makes biggest leap this year not named Mahomes? How many games do you think get played this year and when does the season start??

And to wrap up, we’re taking two questions from Don. Don, I’ll look at the last three years of quarterback breakouts as my model—Carson Wentz, Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson all had MVP-level second seasons (with Mahomes and Jackson actually taking the award home) in 2017, ’18, and ’19, respectively. All three had a couple things in common. Each had creative offensive coaches. Each had strong tackle play. Each had legit weapons around him.

To me, of the three quarterbacks to go first round in 2019, Kyler Murray is the one who can check all three of those boxes right now. The Cardinals bring back D.J. Humphries and drafted Houston OT Josh Jones, who some regarded as a first-round talent, in the third round. Kliff Kingsbury adjusted well to the NFL in Year 1. And Murray’s going to be throwing to DeAndre Hopkins, Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk and Kenyan Drake.

So I think Murray, from a team standpoint, is set up a little better right now than Daniel Jones or Dwayne Haskins are.

As for when the season starts? I think they all get played and the season starts on time. But I’ll be honest, I have no idea if I’ll be right about that. I don’t think the 32 teams know. I don’t think the league knows. Because we don’t know where we’ll be in this country in a month, let alone where we’ll be in the fall. The good news here is that the NFL will get to watch baseball, basketball, hockey, golf and auto racing try to start back up first.

If you want answers, the best thing to do is probably just to pay attention to what happens in those sports, because they’ll give you a pretty good example of what can and can’t be pulled off along the way.

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