The Man With A Plan In San Fran
ORLANDO, Fla. — Four things I've learned while doing a lot of lobby-hanging at the annual NFL meetings:
1. Trent Baalke is a force to be reckoned with in the NFL. The San Francisco general manager, the former protégé of Bill Parcells, slips in and out of meetings quietly and rarely stops to talk to reporters here, because he just doesn't want the light to shine on him; Baalke's a scout at heart. When you see him, he's often deep in conversation with someone he can learn from, as I'm assuming he was at dinner with John Elway on Monday night at the Italian place inside the JW Marriott here. Talking with his peers, I find a deep respect for Baalke, who is all about building his team for the long term, regardless of the temporary bumps in the road.
When the NFL announced its 32 compensatory draft picks for 2014 late Monday, Baalke was a winner again. For letting high-priced free-agent Dashon Goldson and mid-level guys Delanie Walker and Ted Ginn walk a year ago, the Niners were awarded a third-round pick in the 2014 draft—No. 100 overall in what's expected to be a rich draft. That gives San Francisco six picks in the top 100, one in the first round (30th overall), two in the second (56th and 61st), and three in the third (77th, 94th and 100th). Baalke runs the draft the way Jimmy Johnson used to in Dallas, wheeling and dealing for extra picks to allow the Niners the freedom on draft day to do what they want in moving up or down or into better position for next season. The extra two comes from the Alex Smith trade with Kansas City. I love the genesis of the 77th pick. It comes from Tennessee. Last year, Baalke traded backup quarterback Alex Smith to Kansas City for what turned out to be second-round picks in 2013 and 2014. The 2013 second-rounder was the 34th overall pick. Baalke traded that down to No. 40 with Tennessee, and got a seventh-rounder last year and a third-rounder this year in return. So for Alex Smith, it turns out Baalke got two second-rounders, a third-rounder and a seventh-rounder in return. That's why he's admired among his peers: Baalke consistently takes medium value and makes very good value out of it.
The moral of the story is Baalke doesn't have to throw too much cap money at receivers like Julian Edelman and Emmanuel Sanders, because he knows he can sit there on draft day and move up or down to get the player he wants at the right value. At 30 this year, he might get a good wideout, Marqise Lee of USC or Brandin Cooks of Oregon State, to fall to him in a deep first round. Imagine Lee stretching a defense, or Cooks trolling the middle as a dangerous slot man for Colin Kaepernick. These Niners are going to be good for a long, long time.
2. The Ravens know when to let players walk—and it pays for them. GM Ozzie Newsome knew he shouldn't overpay to keep Paul Kruger, Ed Reed and Dannell Ellerbe last year, and all left for good money elsewhere (Kruger and Ellerbe got $75 million combined in free agency, way too much as it turns out for their middling production). The results came in Monday: Newsome and the Ravens got a third-rounder, two fourths and a fifth for the players they lost. Look at it this way: In the past six months, Baltimore has paid a fourth-rounder, fifth-rounder and sixth-rounder, total, to acquire its current starting left tackle (Eugene Monroe) and likely starting center (Jeremy Zuttah).
In baseball, we're now seeing GMs refuse to sign good free agents like Stephen Drew, the shortstop on Boston's World Series team last year, because it would cost the acquiring team its first-round pick this year. It's different in football, but the message Newsome sends every year is the same: Let your vets walk if they don't fit into your salary structure, because part of the value you get in return is compensatory picks. In the 21-year history of the compensatory picks, Baltimore has been awarded a league-high 41.
3. There is no chance the NFL will re-seed the draft positions to penalize lousy division winners. Ever since respected Steelers mogul Dan Rooney spoke out against seeding the playoffs based on record and not by division winners two years ago, there's been no momentum to change the current system. That means division winners will continue to get the top four seeds, even when the NFL expands the playoffs to seven teams per conference, likely in 2015. I've always been in favor of the other way—division winners making the playoffs but not being rewarded with a home playoff game if the Wild Card teams have better records. But I was told Monday the owners value winning the division, regardless of record, more than winning 11 or 12 games and finishing in second place in a division. "I haven't heard a soul talk about it this year,'' one league official said. "I can't envision any scenario where it happens in the next few years."
4. Forget a Friday night wild-card game in 2015 or beyond. When the league moves to a 14-team playoff system in 2015 or '16, there will be six wild-card games instead of the current four. Reports surfaced that the NFL would consider paying those games on a variety of days on a slow weekend on the sports calendar—the first weekend of the New Year usually. Not so.
The league wisely will not consider two teams playing a playoff game on a very short week—playing their Week 17 game on Sunday and their Wild Card game five nights later—simply because of the effect on competitive balance; it would be unfair to ask team to play their biggest game of the year on a short week when the options otherwise are plentiful. More likely, I'm told, would be tripleheaders on Saturday and Sunday, or two games Saturday, three Sunday and one Monday night. That second option is most popular, because it would allow the NFL to have the lead prime-time show on three straight nights in early January.
As for complaints that the Monday night game would be unfair to the winner the following week, four teams already play on the first Saturday after playing the previous Sunday. The NFL could assure Monday night's wild-card winner of not playing till the following Sunday.
And now onto your email:
DESEAN MYSTERY DEEPENS. An avid Eagles fan, I'm at a loss with rumors that they might cut DeSean Jackson if they can't find a trading partner. What am I missing here? I know he's a diva and there is concern about him moping because his contract won't be restructured. But it still doesn't add up.
—John, Branchburg, N.J.
Three different club officials on teams other than the Eagles asked me if I knew why the Eagles wanted to trade their ace wideout. It's one of the big secrets here, but the Eagles have had plenty of chance to knock down the rumors about shopping Jackson and refuse to do so. Today'sPhiladelphia Inquirer reports, "Jackson's days in Philadelphia are all but done." Whether it's worries about Jackson's off-field life (he said his home was recently robbed of jewels and more than $100,000) or the distractions he's caused in the Eagles offense, there's no doubt Eagles GM Howie Roseman would make a deal for the right price. But that's the problem: So many teams smell blood in the water now and think Jackson will be released that they're not going to make Roseman a fair offer for him. They'd rather keep their mid-round picks in a strong draft and hope they get lucky and sign Jackson if he's released. The mystery deepened this morning at 1:25 Eastern time, when Jackson tweeted: "Good to Talk to BIg Chip today !! Say or hear what ya want." Chip Kelly, he meant. Stay tuned.
HARD TO DEFINE SOMETHING EVOLVING. Would you address what the "Owners' Meetings" are all about? Who goes, how many meetings are there, what business is handled, do certain owners hob-knob together, etc.? And, is it required that the owners actually attend? It seems to me that several owners stay out of the way and let their front office people handle the business side of football.
—Troy, Hartford, Conn.
Thank you. Traditionally—and I have been going to owners’ meetings since 1985—the meetings have been held to award future Super Bowls, change or amend rules, and allow the commissioner to give a private state-of-the-league address to all owners, coaches, general managers, and top team officials. All owners except for ones in ill health attend the meetings. I say “traditionally” because the meetings have changed in the past few years to become much more of a media event over-promising and under-delivering on hard news. I would bet in the past few years, more news and rules changes have happened at the shorter NFL May meetings, which are attended by owners and club officials, but not coaches, with maybe a fifth of the number of media members on hand. But it’s sort of a tradition to attend the league meetings as a member of the NFL media, and it’s still worthwhile for people in the media because it’s the one of the few places where all the owners and all the coaches and all the GMs are in one setting at one time.
ANDY DALTON HAS AN ARGUMENT. Another question regarding the Andy Dalton dilemma: If you’re Dalton, do you go to the Bengals and try to lock up a long-term deal at, say, $7 million a year? If he shows no improvement this year, it seems likely that he’ll either be playing backup somewhere in 2015 or end up with a cheap, short-term deal with the Bengals. Or both. Why not try to lock up a decent amount of money and a long-term deal?
—Joel, New York
I think you’re on to something, but your figure is way too low. The Bengals would be thrilled to lock up Dalton at $7 million annual average. That figure would make no sense for Dalton, because one really good year could make him worth $18 million a season. There wouldn’t be a problem with getting something done if there was some general agreement in what made sense for an unproven January player, but the problem is Dalton logically would make the point that he’s had the best three-year run of any QB in Bengals’ history, so he’s not interested in taking a lesser deal.