It’s Monday night, the very first night of the 2020 NFL combine, and I’m at the hotel bar. It’s late and Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, holding a water bottle, is holding court, surrounded by various media members, other coaches and members of the Rams’ staff. I notice Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur and his brother, 49ers assistant Mike LaFleur, and it is against this backdrop, with NFL royalty milling about, that my podcast co-host Field Yates introduces me to someone.
“Nice to meet you,” the guy says to me, smiling as he shakes my hand. “I’m with the Arizona Cardinals.”
Maybe he doesn’t know who I am. Or isn’t aware of my strong feelings about, ahem, the Cardinals’ official Twitter account. I shake his hand back, smile big and offer my own “nice to meet you” right back.
“So,” he asks with a smile, “you still angry?”
And so it goes at the combine, where, as one coach described it to me, it’s the NFL’s version of prom. Much of the TV coverage (and rightfully so) is devoted to the incoming rookies. Heights, weights, 40 times, three-cone drills and, for at least one 24-hour news cycle, one man’s 9-inch hands. But there’s another very underrated purpose to the combine.
Everyone is there. General managers, head coaches, assistants, scouts, agents, training staffs, media members and anyone else you could possibly imagine having a purpose in the NFL is in Indianapolis during combine week. And more important than that? They’re relaxed. They’re happy.
Make no mistake, they have a job to do and they take it seriously. But it’s after the Super Bowl, before the NFL draft, before free agency and it’s the one time each year when everyone is in the same place and not really competing with anyone.
So as a result, there’s access. Everyone is around, everyone is approachable and you often find yourself in situations you never expected to be, much like me talking with a senior official of the Arizona Cardinals.
Luckily, he found the whole thing funny, couldn’t have been kinder or more gracious, and we had a fun discussion about it. And the positive nature of what could have been an uncomfortable conversation was a good omen for me. It turned out to be a great combine, as I went to as many head coach and general manager news conferences as I could, grabbed them for on-the-record conversations, and later, at restaurants and bars, for off-the-record information.
The track record of this column has been pretty good the past few years. A year ago, among other things, I mentioned that the Raiders felt they had found something in a young tight end named Darren Waller.
Some of what follows (especially what was said publically from the podiums) made its way out during the week, but I’m including it here because you may have missed it. These are my biggest takeaways from a week at the NFL combine.
1. While all the public reports stated how much the Panthers are behind Cam Newton this season, I’m not so sure. The sense I got was that they don’t want to just give him away, but if a team made a reasonable offer for him, he’d be dealt. Right now, they want to get him healthy and see what they are dealing with, but despite all the love being thrown Cam’s way publicly during combine week, insiders I spoke to think it’s less of a sure thing that Newton is the Panthers’ starting QB this season.
1a. It was also noted, more than once, by folks in both Carolina and Washington, that if Newton was somehow available, Ron Rivera absolutely loves Cam. Loves him.
2. There was lots of talk coming out of Indy about Tom Brady, and that speculation won’t die down until the future first-ballot Hall of Famer makes an announcement. But two things I can tell you: As of combine week, almost everyone I spoke with believes Brady will play for a team other than the New England Patriots this season. And secondly, I’d rank the non-Patriots teams likely to get him in this order: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans and Las Vegas Raiders.
3. There’s lots of Philip Rivers-to-the-Colts talk out there, but as one insider noted to me, “That would go against everything general manager Chris Ballard has done the entire time he’s been in Indy.” A much more likely scenario is Indy signs a veteran to compete with (and back up) Jacoby Brissett and they give Brissett another year to prove himself. As Ballard mentioned from the podium, they gave Brissett a short deal to see what they had in him. He played well early (they were 5-2) and then he got hurt, so did a lot of other players, and it went downhill from there. Count me among the folks who don’t think Rivers plays for the Colts in 2020.
4. There is no chance the Lions take Tua Tagovailoa in the draft, a source I highly trust told me. No chance.
5. I asked a Bears insider who will be under center for the first play of the 2020 season. The answer? “Mitchell Trubisky, and it’s a handoff.” And then they laughed. The expectation is the Bears will bring in a veteran to compete with or back up Trubisky, but while the leash is short, it’s still Mitch’s job for now.
6. I’m told that Dwayne Haskins has been in the building every single day during the offseason, working out, preparing and taking it very seriously. The Redskins believe he needs to work on getting the ball out quicker but that he can make all the throws. They like his pocket presence and overall expressed a lot of confidence in his potential. Things can change, of course, and if Newton becomes available, all bets are off, but if I had to place a bet today, I’d say the Redskins’ starting QB this season will be Haskins and that they draft Chase Young at No. 2 overall.
8. I met two people who are official voters for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I asked them, “Is Eli Manning a Hall of Famer?” They debated it back and forth for quite some time and never reached a conclusion. There were pros and cons from both of them. I found it interesting and think this will continue to be a debate for a number of years.
9. I spoke to a member of the Jaguars’ coaching staff about their offense this past season. “What does Jay [new Jaguars offensive coordinator Jay Gruden] like to do? He likes to throw. What does Ben [new Jaguars quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo] like to do? He likes to throw. So what do you think we are going to do this year?” I’ll be fading Leonard Fournette this summer at his expected ADP.
9a. Also, the idea that this is Gardner Minshew II‘s job was quickly dispelled. Rumors have the Jags moving on from Nick Foles, but I was cautioned against believing that. They like both QBs in Jacksonville and expect it to be a camp battle between them.
10. I saw a lot of concern over comments from Anthony Lynn about wanting “another guy” back there with Austin Ekeler. Now, we don’t know yet whether Melvin Gordon (or Ekeler) will definitely return to the Chargers, but my take after speaking with folks is that the Chargers do see Ekeler as a 17-to-20 touch-per-game guy. They just won’t all be runs. In fact, they, not surprisingly, love Ekeler out of the backfield, lined up in the slot, etc. And those plays work best when you have another running back in the backfield (Justin Jackson?). In other words, Ekeler (assuming he’s back with the Chargers) will still be a fantasy star in 2020, and the comments about needing “another guy” were overblown and taken out of context.
11. Matt LaFleur was asked whether Aaron Jones showed something this past season, especially when Jamaal Williams went down with an injury, and whether Jones could handle a bigger workload. Could Jones be a workhorse? LaFleur said not only did they need “both guys” (meaning Jones and Williams) but that ideally they’d add a third. Oh boy. Now, don’t get me wrong. Jones is still the Green Bay running back you want, the one you’ll draft highest and, barring injury, will have the most fantasy points at the end of the season. But there’s a chance our #FreeAaronJones campaign may have to live on.
12. Speaking of the Packers, news came out that they wanted to add another pass-catcher and they will make a run at free-agent tight end Austin Hooper. But one name to remember at the end of your upcoming draft this year? Allen Lazard. LaFleur talked Lazard way up, and it was noted to me by a source I trust that Lazard spent Thanksgiving this past year with Aaron Rodgers and has spent a ton of time with him this offseason as well. Rodgers and Lazard are very close, apparently.
13. The Redskins re-signed Adrian Peterson, and they have Derrius Guice coming back from injury. But one name that came up a lot as I spoke with various Redskins sources was Bryce Love, who was injured all last season. He’s definitely a name for the end of your draft and for those in dynasty leagues.
14. I interviewed Rivera (and you’ll see the full interview on the upcoming combine/free-agency episode of The Fantasy Show on ESPN+) and asked him about his running backs, mentioning that until he found Christian McCaffrey, he had always been the kind of coach who used multiple backs. He said his expectation in D.C. this season was more of the same. He likes multiple backs and expects all three guys (Guice, Peterson, Love) to have a role this season. It will be a RBBC in Washington to start the year.
15. I met an offensive coach for the Buccaneers and asked him point blank, “What the hell happened with O.J. Howard last season? Something we don’t know?” And the coach was as perplexed as we all were. He said Howard is a great kid, works his tail off and they all love him. It was just one of those weird things, but they certainly haven’t written him off by any stretch. They remain excited about his prospects.
16. Jordan Akins, who had a nice fantasy season, was mentioned as a tight end to keep an eye on. Darren Fells is expected to move on, but the Texans think they can get the same kind of production out of Akins, if not more.
17. I would not count on Miles Sanders becoming a stand-alone fantasy star this year. Philly still wants a RBBC this season and one of its coaches noted the Eagles really missed Jordan Howard down the stretch last season.
17a. Also, if I were in a dynasty league (and I’m in three), and I didn’t have to write this column (I do, thus alerting all my league mates), I’d do whatever I could to get Dallas Goedert. Man, do they love him in Philly. The sky is the limit for him there, and I expect them to continue to find even more ways to get him involved in 2020. If Zach Ertz is 1, Goedert is 1a in their minds.
18. I was introduced to an NFL head coach by a mutual acquaintance. “Hey Coach, meet Matthew Berry. He’s the fantasy guy.” The coach nods, shakes my hand and says with a smile, “I hate fantasy.” Fun!
18a. Of course, when I spoke with Rams GM Les Snead about Brandin Cooks, Snead said they thought Cooks had a nice year stretching the field and opening things up for other players, even though “he didn’t do much for fantasy points.” And Doug Pederson smiled when he saw me, saying, “Sorry we didn’t score more fantasy points this year.” Overall, I’d say more coaches than not are “fantasy friendly,” or at least understand the importance of it to the game’s popularity.
19. An inside source says the Giants don’t believe Evan Engram can ever stay healthy. The source believes Engram is a candidate to be traded during the upcoming season.
20. In talking to Snead about the Rams’ running backs, one year after all the talk about Todd Gurley II and load management, he said the team thought it worked well last season. The expectation is that, early in the season, it will be more Malcolm Brown and Darrell Henderson, with Gurley getting a lighter workload than we are used to, and his work will increase as the season goes along. In speaking with another member of the Rams, they also plan to address their offensive line issues in a big way this offseason. Overall, I’d feel better about Gurley if he were my RB2 or even flex than I would as my RB1 this upcoming season.
• We discussed the likelihood of this on the Fantasy Focus combine podcast we released Wednesday, but it looks official now, as reported by my friends Jeremy Fowler and Dan Graziano: The Bengals will use the franchise tag on A.J. Green.
• Raiders general manager Mike Mayock spoke of “Phase 2” for Josh Jacobs, now in his second year in the league, and expects him to be more heavily involved in the passing game.
• I spoke with Colts coach Frank Reich about a few subjects, but one of them was expectations for Parris Campbell and Zach Pascal. He’s excited to get both of them on the field at the same time, along with T.Y. Hilton. Don’t sleep on either guy at the end of your draft.
• Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta says the team expects much bigger things out of Miles Boykin this year.
• Ran into Gary and AJ Vaynerchuk and spent some time with them. What they’re building with VaynerSports is nothing short of impressive.
• 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said Deebo Samuel was as fearless a rookie as he has ever been around.
• Expect to see Greg Olsen and Will Dissly on the field together this season, although if you have to draft one Seattle tight end, it should be Olsen over Dissly. (Although they love Dissly long-term there. Great dynasty buy.)
• Expect to see Dede Westbrook line up much more outside this year than he has in the past.
• Spoke with a Bengals offensive coach, who said as much as they love Joe Mixon, dynasty leaguers shouldn’t forget about Trayveon Williams, whom they are very high on. The coach said, “People forget, this kid led the SEC in rushing. The SEC!”
Matthew Berry — the Talented Mr. Roto — desperately wishes he could tell you everything he saw and heard there.