As training camps open around the NFL, I sat down with Joe Banner to get his take on some of the top storylines in the league heading into training camp:
San Francisco traded up this year to draft their future quarterback in Trey Lance. They also still have Jimmy Garoppolo under contract for two more seasons at over $25 million annually, but only have a dead cap of $2.8 million overall if they were to move on from him.
Joe Banner: This is a team that was recently in the Super Bowl, had some bad luck a season ago, and expects to be contenders again. I think they will hold Garoppolo until they are certain Lance is ready to go. As they have stated, if they feel Lance needs more time to develop, I think Garoppolo will begin the season as the starter and continue to play as long as he is producing.
On the other hand, if Lance displays in camp that he is ready to go, I think they would love to move toward the future. I am a big fan of Lance and thought he was the second-best quarterback in the draft behind Trevor Lawrence. Everything I have seen and heard makes me think he is really smart and a really good athlete, so I think they are just holding Garoppolo until Lance is ready. If that is the case, it is likely they will approach Garoppolo and offer to pay him around $10 million this season, instead of the $25 million he is scheduled to make. This would still make Garoppolo the highest-paid backup in the NFL and likely more than he would get anywhere else at this point in the offseason. Another possibility is they are able to trade him if they luck into another team suffering an injury at quarterback. They are in a unique position because they do have a Super Bowl-caliber roster with a lot of high-priced players, so they are less likely to suffer through the growing pains of starting a young quarterback, like the Jaguars and Jets.
The date to really watch is the start of the regular season, because it is inconceivable to me that they would be on the hook for his $25 million salary, via termination pay, if they expect to move onto Lance at some point into the season. If Lance is as smart as I have heard and he has appeared on tape, I think this is likely to be the case. I would not be overly concerned about him coming from an FCS program or even playing in only one game last year. I expect him to be able to overcome those things fairly quickly.
Xavien Howard has recently requested a trade out of Miami after the two sides were unable to come to an agreement over a modified contract. Howard has four years left on his deal and is set to make under $13 million annually going forward.
Banner: Howard is one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL and has been a league leader in interceptions since he entered the NFL in 2016. This is tough, because there is no ambiguity that he is underpaid for his talent, but he had every opportunity to do a better job in his previous negotiation. Personally, I could not give a player a new deal with four years left under contract because the repercussions for years going forward would be massive. Hopefully, they can sit down with the player and explain they recognize his concerns and try to get the player to recognize theirs. What they should do is try to get through this season and commit to the player that they will sit down after and try to get him some compensation that pays him closer to his market value. They would still be redoing the deal very early but this would help avoid setting a totally new precedent.
Giving the player a new contract this early into it would have a massive impact with the other players. I have been in that seat, and the moment they award him a new deal, it opens up the possibility that many other players will approach you wanting a new deal. Your ability to say “no” to the next player and them being totally okay with it is completely compromised.
Howard also has no guaranteed money left on his deal, so while guaranteeing future years is considered a renegotiation, it could be viewed as a fair compromise between the two parties. In the end, I think this is another example of a player agreeing to a contract that included too many years. Players that have leverage should be signing deals that are no more than three years. The rest of the years are essentially options for the team that are likely to end up being below market as the cap keeps expanding. Every agent right now should be convincing their clients that although the annual value might not appear like it is the best, shorter deals give the player the best opportunity to maximize career earnings. He should have anticipated better that there was eventually going to be a huge jump in the market and done a shorter deal. I am sympathetic for the player, but he is in the position he is in now because of a decision he made.
Chandler Jones is another player that has expressed displeasure with his situation. While he did average over 16 sacks a season between 2017 and 2019, he only recorded one sack in 2020 and missed the final 11 games with a torn bicep. He is already 31 and entering this season with only one year left under contract.
Banner: I do not think he will get a new deal or be traded. It is possible they extend him a year or two to help move some money up front, but their moves this offseason do not suggest they want to move on from him. They feel they have a chance to go a long way this year, and that was reinforced by bringing in guys like J.J. Watt and A.J. Green. They are not going to sacrifice that for a pick they cannot even use this year. I think there is virtually no chance he gets traded and a modest chance he gets an extension. The Cardinals know that regardless of how he is feeling, he is going to show up because he is becoming an older player, coming off an injury, entering his contract year.
The thing for Arizona is they need to figure out whether his 2020 season represented a downturn in his skills combined with an injury, or if it was a true aberration based on a small sample size. Neither party, including the player, can know for sure, but that is what separates the good franchises from the really good ones. That is why it would be hard for me to see Arizona giving him a new deal at the moment.
Deshaun Watson, who has had an offseason surrounded by controversy, reported to camp but seems to be doing very little so far.
Banner: This is very hard for me to comprehend. If we are going off what was publicly reported, it seems like players with less credible accusations have been put on the commissioner exempt list. Maybe they have adjusted the standard in the league, but I really think there should be more explanation on why he is allowed to report and practice, despite numerous accusations, with some of them turning into criminal complaints. At some point, there are enough accusations where it is hard to believe that something is not there. I think he falls into that category.
Focusing on football, the fact that he is at camp and not taking first-team reps at quarterback suggests that he is either secretly not allowed to, or Houston is ensuring that he stays healthy for a trade possibility. Their reasoning that he is not getting reps because he was not there in the offseason does not seem to be legitimate to me. At this point, if I was running another team looking to be aggressive at quarterback, I would remain in touch with Houston at this point. I certainly would not feel comfortable at the moment to make a deal for him, but their actions indicate there is at least some chance they will move him if the other stuff settles down. If a team were to trade for him now, they would have to put a lot of contingencies in the deal that protects them if he is not able to play for some reason.
Going into next offseason, there is a very real possibility that two of the top five quarterbacks in the NFL – Watson and Aaron Rodgers — are available. I think many teams recognize this and have begun planning for that scenario. If Jalen Hurts proves not to be the answer for Philadelphia, I would put them at the top of the list of teams looking to acquire a proven quarterback, especially knowing it is probable they will have three first-round picks in next year’s draft.
Justin Herbert had an historic rookie season, but Joe Burrow was also off to a very strong rookie season before suffering an ACL injury 10 games into his career.
Banner: I think people have forgotten how good Joe Burrow played last season with a poor offensive line and just okay weapons. I think his injury was a direct result of how battered he was through the season, but I thought he was playing as well as any rookie over the past 5-10 seasons. I think the excitement for Herbert is justified, but people have sort of forgotten how good Burrow looked at the beginning of his career.
The thing I worry about is they did not do much to improve their offensive line from a season ago. Burrow was already one of the most sacked quarterbacks before his injury and unlike the Chargers, who made two meaningful acquisitions with signing Corey Linsley from Green Bay and drafting Rashawn Slater, I thought Cincinnati failed to make meaningful upgrades there. This would be worrisome because they had the opportunity to draft the top tackle prospect in Penei Sewell and passed. Truthfully, this is consistent with their history. They have not valued the offensive line for some time.
It is why I think they can become a good team with Burrow, but getting to great will be virtually impossible. It is also why they were able to make the playoffs for numerous seasons under Marvin Lewis but failed to really advance deep into the playoffs. You cannot win postseason football if you cannot slow down teams with really good pass rushes. It was the main reason Kansas City struggled so much in the Super Bowl this past year, and you saw them make meaningful changes heading into this season. Cincinnati does not seem to appreciate that.
The NFL was very clear about their stance on vaccinations and wanting players to get vaccinated before the season.
Banner: I applaud the league for taking an aggressive stance towards the virus. It happens to be what is most morally correct and what is most correct from a business perspective. They need all the employees and players available and able to do their jobs. You cannot continue to have teams have big breakouts and then miss multiple games. It creates massive problems with scheduling, determining the playoff order, and then determining the draft order. I think this is right for the country and right for the league. Overall, their guidelines are more than fair because they are still giving players the personal choice whether to get it, but it also gives them the best chance to get through the season with the most players being able to stay healthy.