Browns, Dolphins, and the Masters of Addition by Subtraction
Cutdown week can be as informative as draft weekend or the start of free agency when determining both an organization's philosophy and the current state of its roster. Let's whip around the league and look at some examples.
Miami Dolphins release linebacker Benardrick McKinney, center Matt Skura
McKinney, who recorded over 100 total tackles three times for the Texans, came over in the Shaq Lawson trade in March. (Lawson was traded from the Texans to the Jets this weekend.) Skura, a four-year starter for the Ravens, was a free-agent acquisition. Both McKinney and Skura were penciled in as starters when they arrived.
On the one hand, cutting recently acquired veterans is a sign of wasted resources, money, and time. But releasing players like McKinney and Skura signals that a) young Dolphins players are developing and competing for starting jobs, and b) Brian Flores and Chris Greer won't retain a veteran simply to justify a trade, expenditure, or other offseason decision. (Insert token Bears wisecrack here.)
Backup linebacker Sam Eguavoen recorded four sacks against the Falcons two weeks ago, so he may be ready for a larger role. Elandon Roberts, who played for Flores in New England and signed a team-friendly contract in March after suffering a knee injury late last season, came off the PUP list last week. McKinney was expendable, so the Dolphins expended him.
Skura came down with the shotgun-snapping variant of Steve Sax Syndrome while in Baltimore, and it appeared to carry over to Miami in practices. Michael Dieter, who was unimpressive as a rookie guard in 2019, played well in the preseason and is now the Dolphins' starting center.
This is how teams are supposed to do it: everyone on the roster is always competing for a job, even the new guy with the medium-sized reputation and/or contract. It's how the Patriots typically do things, as recent headlines confirm. Of course, The Dolphins may be getting some benefit of the doubt when it comes to these releases because they are this year's designated Team Headed in Right Direction. But it's telling that the Dolphins, unlike Li'l Patriots satellite franchises of the past, have even accomplished enough to earn that designation.
Speaking of which…
Detroit Lions release linebacker Jahlani Tavai, wide receivers Breshad Perriman and Geronimo Allison
Tavai was the Lions' second-round pick out of Hawaii in 2019. He was a raw "positionless defender" type coming off a shoulder injury entering the draft; I tagged him as a toolsy midmajor runaround guy worthy of a fifth-round selection at the time. Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn, in their incalculable wisdom, turned him into a mistake-prone inside linebacker.
Friend of Walkthrough Mike Payton of SB Nation tweeted on Tuesday that Tavai was the 12th second-round pick by the Lions since 2007 to fail to play out his rookie contract with the team. The others: Ike Alama-Francis, Gerald Alexander, Jordon Dizon, Titus Young, Mikel Leshoure, Ryan Broyles, Kyle Van Noy, Ameer Abdullah, Teez Tabor, Kerryon Johnson.
That's quite a list: three running backs who were probably overdrafted in Leshoure, Abdullah, and Johnson (D'Andre Swift, now dealing with a groin injury, was also a second-round pick); an all-purpose defender who improved once paired with a coaching staff that knew how to use him (Van Noy; Tavai signed with the Patriots and may follow the same path); some guys whose existence I have long forgotten. Darius Slay was also a second-round pick who left town because of Matt Patricia's Dollar General Belichick routine, so he fits very broadly into the category of a Lions second-round mistake.
It's going to take the new regime a while to make up for years of squandered early-round picks. Of course, that's what the old regime said.
The oft-injured Perriman entered the NFL in 2015 and lived up to his first-round draft potential for precisely three weeks for the Buccaneers in December of 2019 (17 catches, 347 yards, four touchdowns.) Perriman was penciled in as a potential Lions starter based mostly on name recognition, but a hip injury slowed him in camp, and he dropped two passes in the preseason finale. Allison signed with the Lions and opted out due to COVID last year. He was reportedly unimpressive in camp.
Instead of keeping Perriman and Allison, the Lions traded for Broncos practice-squader Trinity Benson and retained former professional lacrosse player Tom Kennedy, who spent two years on Detroit's practice squad while veterans such as Danny Amendola and Mohamed Sanu cluttered up the depth chart and payroll. Benson may be a George Paton "guy" but has earned positive reviews from Broncos observers. Kennedy was a Patricia guy (Big Daddy Bill also loved lacrosse-project receivers), so it's notable that he wasn't just cast adrift by the new administration.
The Lions also cut all of their kickers, but that's more of a meme than an expression of organizational philosophy: half the teams in the NFL have kicker anxiety right now, and the early season is likely to be a giant kicker key party. (The Lions signed Austin Siebert on Wednesday.) What's important is that the Lions realize that they are not going to be very good this year, so aggressively sifting through the bottom of the roster and parting ways with disappointing veterans is a step in the right direction. Maybe in a few years the Lions can turn themselves into the Dolphins, or even the Browns.
Oh, and the Bears claimed Perriman off waivers. You do you, Ryan Pace.
Cleveland Browns retain defensive linemen Malik McDowell and Takkarist McKinley
McDowell looked like the Tasmanian Devil when he was Michigan State's defensive tackle but fell to the second round of the draft in 2017 due to character concerns. His Seahawks career was promptly derailed by injuries suffered in an ATV accident, followed by a series of alcohol-related arrests. His two appearances with the Browns this preseason were the first NFL games of his career. Takkarist McKinley was a fierce pass-rusher at UCLA and scouting combine rock star who flashed potential in his first two years with the Falcons, then became a disgruntled vagabond who flunked multiple physicals last year. McDowell flashed moments of dominance in preseason action. McKinley missed much of August with personal issues.
The Browns have long taken chances with troubled players such as Josh Gordon and Kareem Hunt. It became fashionable in analytics circles to blame John Dorsey for the character-risk acquisitions (among other things), but McDowell and McKinley arrived during the current Andrew Barry administration. So is this a case of praising some moves that might work because we like the guys who made them? To oversimplify, is it "good analytics" or "bad analytics" to invest a one-year contract on a high-volatility veteran?
Think of it this way: suppose two individuals spend $20 on lottery tickets. The first individual is struggling to make rent. The other is just taking money from their discretionary entertainment budget. Are both individuals incurring the same risk? Of course not. The person who is barely paying the bills cannot afford to chase low-probability jackpots, so playing the lottery is a foolish decision. For the well-off individual, playing the lottery might be a better choice than, say, spending that $20 on beer, because it at least comes with the tiny chance of a huge payday (and the fun of anticipating the drawing, and no hangover.)
Keeping McDowell and McKinley isn't brilliant because the moves might work, but because they cannot hurt the Browns if they fail. If McDowell and McKinley flame out tomorrow, the Browns roll into 2021 with Myles Garrett, Malik Jackson, and Jadeveon Clowney anchoring their defensive line. They'll be more than fine. But if McDowell and/or McKinley stay the course and regain even a portion of their 2017 potential, the Browns could field the best defensive line in football.
Once a team cracks the wild-card wall, it must be willing to take greater risks to climb into Super Bowl contention. Teams that don't take those risks end up hovering in seven- to 10-win purgatory for eternity. Yep, that's a transition, and you can guess who's next.
Minnesota Vikings trade for tight end Chris Herndon
Herndon is a perma-prospect who went 31-287-3 in his third season for the Jets last year. Maybe this is the year he turns into Antonio Gates. The new Jets regime, in desperate need of weapons and a safety valve for Zach Wilson, apparently didn't think so after watching Herndon for six weeks. But Vikings tight end Irv Smith is undergoing knee surgery, so Rick Speilman sent a FOURTH-ROUND pick to the Jets for Herndon and a sixth-rounder.
I have questions. Like, how does a team that runs two-tight end sets as often as the Vikings not have six or seven viable tight ends competing for jobs in training camp? Is Rick Spielman aware that teams sometimes cut veteran tight ends such as Jacob Hollister, Tanner Hudson, and Matt LaCosse who are roughly as valuable as someone like Herndon? How do the Vikings expect to compete when the loss of a 30-catch tight end sends them scrambling to the Jets for help? Have they considered something daring and innovative, like developing a third wide receiver?
Mike Zimmer didn't exactly clear things up when discussing Herndon on Wednesday. "He was a guy that was kind of pretty good in most areas. Decent blocker. Pretty good hands. Runs decent. Of all the tight ends we looked at he was the one that we thought was the best option." Wow, I'm ready to make a Vikings Super Bowl prop bet after that endorsement.
The Vikings also released edge rusher Everson Griffen after just eight days on the team, but that was just a waiver wire/injured reserve shell game. The 33-year-old Griffen should be back on the roster by the end of the week, because heaven knows the Vikings cannot allow their defense to get any younger.
In summary, the Vikings are simultaneously overpaying for castoffs from bad teams and playing galactic waiver-wire chess with a creaky veteran who was looking for work two weeks ago. This is what it looks like to lose at solitaire.
New England Patriots Release Cam Newton
You probably heard this news. Based on what I have seen, heard, and read, Mac Jones really is the best option at quarterback for the Patriots moving forward. I am not convinced, however, that he is a very good option.
Malcolm Butler Retires
We wish him the best. Meanwhile, the Arizona Cardinals remain more of a loose confederacy of football players than an actual football team. Examining their depth chart can really make someone appreciate the Vikings.
San Francisco 49ers Keep Jalen Hurd
Hurd is a 6-foot-4 running back-turned-receiver who transferred from Tennessee to Baylor. He was a third-round draft pick in 2019. His natural NFL position is the injured reserve. Hurd is a candidate for the Rico Gathers Award for most seasons clinging to a roster spot strictly on athletic potential.
Seattle Seahawks Keep Running Backs Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny, Travis Homer, DeeJay Dallas, and Alex Collins
Christine Michael must feel really left out.
Washington Football Team Keeps Running Back Jaret Patterson
He's the 5-foot-7 kid from the University of Buffalo who rushed for 11 quadrillion yards in two games last year. Patterson is going to be this year's James Robinson. Last year's James Robinson, meanwhile, is going to keep getting a lot of work because Travis Etienne got hurt and the Seahawks are hoarding all their running backs so Brian Schottenheimer can't grab them.
The Football Factory
A well-dressed woman of a certain age holds forth in a boiler room somewhere in suburban Ohio...
MARJORIE: Glad you gentlemen could make it this afternoon. My name is Marjorie McCarron-Karen, and I am the superintendent of Archbishop Titwillow Charter Preparatory Academy, formerly Titwillow Chiropractic. As I am sure you all read in the brochure, our online course of study is built around experiential science, faith-based mathematics, and a humanities curriculum written by Governor George Wallace himself in 1963. Now all we really need to siphon off some grant and tuition money is a football team to attract lots of marks—I mean, students. You three gentlemen are the finalists for that team's head coaching position.
ADAM GASE: I left my toddler and my dog in the car with the windows closed and no air conditioning for this interview.
BILL O'BRIEN: Grrrrrr.
"STU CLAXON": Pleasure to meet you. Happy to be back in Ohio.
MARJORIE: I will start by going around the room with some challenge questions. Question No. 1: you discover your starting high school quarterback is actually a 280-pound, 26-year-old with three outstanding bench warrants who is also coming off major shoulder surgery. What do you do?
ADAM GASE: Trade him.
BILL O'BRIEN: I will give you three first-round picks for him!
"STU CLAXON": Why, simply keep him on the bench for a year and claim that you are carefully developing him. If anyone questions you, remind them that they have never been head coaches and therefore cannot possibly fathom your wisdom.
MARJORIE: Wow. Stu won that round. Now for Question 2: What COVID policies would you enforce?
ADAM GASE: All players must drink 11 cups of coffee and sleep 45 minutes per night like I do. No virus can survive under those conditions.
BILL O'BRIEN: All players must beat up a classmate and steal their vaccination card to enter the facility.
"STU CLAXON": Remind fans and boosters that the pandemic makes it impossible for a team to be competitive. Everyone just needs to set their expectations really low for three years.
MARJORIE: Well, the answer I was looking for is "the pandemic is a hoax" or something involving bovine suppositories. But I think I liked Claxon's answer best. Third question: Your team is getting blown out 58-0 on national television, and the media is starting to ask questions about the validity of your program. How do you respond?
ADAM GASE: Just 58-0? I thought you were going to ask us about some sort of disaster.
BILL O'BRIEN: Scream obscenities at the most beloved person in the stadium!
"STU CLAXON": I would simply call some of my well-cultivated high-profile media friends and explain to them that it's impossible for me to help the team given the state of the organization above me.
MARJORIE: Aha! You aren't "Stu Claxon" at all: you are Hue Jackson in disguise! And you take whole regimes out when you fail. I didn't rise to the rank of fake charter school grifter and city councilwoman who is permanently barred from chambers by surrounding myself with the likes of you. Get out. And take the angry mongoose and Mister Googly Eyes with you.
(The three candidates stand to leave.)
HUE JACKSON: Bummer.
ADAM GASE: Didn't Gregg say he was up for this job too?
HUE JACKSON: Gregg says a lot of things.
BILL O'BRIEN: Grrrrr.
MARJORIE: None of those fools had what it takes. I need someone who provides a veneer of professionalism. Someone who can hold onto a job and stave off accountability for years. Someone who can make Archbishop Titwillow neither really good nor really bad, lest we attract undue attention either way. But where can I find such an aggressively mediocre football mind?
JEFF FISHER: Excuse me, is the support group meeting for folks whose catchphrases are now obsolete?
MARJORIE: (tenting fingers diabolically) Come in and have a seat, you captivating DILF...
Legends of the Not-Yet-Fall
Nathan Peterman's heroic, near-historic preseason performance—he was the only Raiders quarterback to take a snap in August, going 63-of-92 for 593 yards, two touchdowns, and a very Peterman-esque four interceptions and 10 sacks—sent me scurrying to NFLGSIS.com to find out if Peterman was the most prolific single-preseason passer in NFL history.
As it turns out, Peterman was not even close.
Landry Jones holds the "modern" (since 2000) record with 130 preseason attempts for the 2015 Steelers. Jones, entering his third season at the time, soaked up all the Steelers attempts in the Hall of Fame game that year and threw 46 passes after Ben Roethlisberger got his toes wet in a preseason appearance against the Jaguars. Veteran backup Bruce Gradkowski suffered a shoulder injury in the next preseason game, creating even more work for Jones; the Steelers signed Michael Vick as insurance, so Jones must not have blown them away. Jones still spent three more seasons on the Steelers roster, because they keep their backups forever (see Rudolph, Mason).
Five other quarterbacks have attempted 100 passes in one preseason in this century: Joe Webb for the 2019 Texans (115 attempts), Joey Harrington for the 2002 Lions (112), Matt McGloin for the 2017 Eagles (109), Kevin Kolb for the 2007 Eagles (105), and Ryan Nassib for the 2017 Giants (103.)
Webb and McGloin were just gobbling up playing time in place of young starters Deshaun Watson and Carson Wentz. Kolb was at the start of his long, slow incubation period as Donovan McNabb's successor in 2007. Three years later, the Eagles would finally discover that Kolb did nothing but roll to his right and get sacked if his first read wasn't open; luckily, Vick was ready to embark on the second act of his career.
Nassib, brother of Raiders edge rusher Carl Nassib, was the most Peterman-like quarterback of the 100-attempt group. The Giants drafted Nassib in the fourth round in 2013 as a low-cost Eli Manning backup with develop-and-trade potential. By 2015, it was clear that Nassib's only value was as an August quarter-muncher. Nassib reprised his role in 2016; Davis Webb (with an assist from Geno Smith) replaced him in 2017 as the Giants transitioned to quasi-feasible Eli exit strategies. They are still there.
Harrington, the third overall pick in 2002, is the square peg of the 100-Preseason Attempt Club: top rookie prospects rarely endure a heavy August workload. Harrington threw two interceptions in the preseason opener, so Marty Mornhinweg must have decided he needed more work. Harrington threw 35 passes in the 2002 preseason finale; the whole "third game is the dress rehearsal" concept wasn't codified in 2002, but that was still a strange choice for a team with veteran Ty Detmer and the Peterman-like Mike McMahon on the roster. Harrington's development plan was never used as a model for other young quarterbacks, for obvious reasons.
Tony Romo may have had the best high-volume preseason in modern history for the 2006 Cowboys: 92 attempts (just like Peterman), 64 completions, 833 yards, three touchdowns, three interceptions, a 95.9 passer rating if you are the sort of sicko who is into small-sample meaningless-game passer ratings. Romo was in his third year on the back of the Cowboys bench and his second caddying for Drew Bledsoe. He would replace Bledsoe in midseason that fall and immediately become a sensation. There was neither NFL GamePass nor Twitter at the time, so most of the football nation had little idea how well Romo was playing that August. Even if there had been, Romo would have gotten the Jacob Eason treatment, not the Trey Lance treatment (draft uber-hipsters gushing about how their "discovery" deserves a chance, as opposed to major outlets thirst-posting about how he should be QB14EVR).
Peterman's 92 pass attempts were high but not that noteworthy: Bryce Perkins attempted 91 passes this preseason for the Rams. What's noteworthy is that no other Raiders quarterback made an appearance: no Derek Carr, no Marcus Mariota, no Case Cookus. Jon Gruden is content to roll this season without even a Landry Jones-caliber prospect in the wings behind his middle-of-the-pack veteran starter and injury-plagued backup. And Peterman was rewarded for his hard work with the third quarterback spot, even though he has no value as a prospect or a mentor.
Gruden's plan for the present may not be viable, but at his plan for the future is entirely nonexistent. Roster cuts can tell us a lot about a team's philosophy and direction, but I think we all have the Raiders pretty much figured out.