There’s a bit of a void in the NFL schedule, with the scouting combine moved back until the end of the month, delaying the flurry of pre-free agency activity that usually takes place right about now in Indianapolis. Yet the NFL’s never-ending news cycle churns on, which leaves us with a nexus of not much going on between teams and agents, but plenty of time to pontificate about the many roster moves to come, specifically at the all-important quarterback position.
This, of course, can lead to conflicting or conflated statements and reports about the varied intentions of certain teams or particular players, as we try to sort through what may or may not happen with the various quarterbacks who could be changing addresses, like Tony Romo, Jimmy Garoppolo and Kirk Cousins. The reality, as best I can determine, is that nothing much has really changed with any of them since last I weighed in on their prospects prior to the Super Bowl. But, with so much swirling around and the speculation mounting, I’ll do my best to parse out some fact from fiction.
Where does Tony Romo end up?
Much is being made of how Romo is going to disentangle himself from the Cowboys. And I get that, considering he is someone who will be in the franchise’s ring of honor one day and who is one of owner Jerry Jones’ all-time favorite players. He’s a franchise QB who has experienced his share of highs and lows in Dallas. The larger point is, he won’t be back in Dallas and he will be starting elsewhere next season and we’ve known that for quite some time. Sources said Romo has yet to have a formal conversation with Jones about his immediate future, and that’s likely to take place before the Cowboys’ contingent leaves for Indianapolis, and that will be an emotional exchange for each individual.
But just to be clear: Romo doesn’t have a mandate or expectation about his next NFL transaction. He isn’t dictating or demanding anything to the Cowboys, nor does he intend to do so. He understands the NFL and the salary cap and the business side of things, and is a very shrewd businessman in his own right. Sure, there are certain teams he would prefer, and nothing much has changed with that since I last reported on his situation, other than Carson Palmer affirming he’s coming back for 2017, which means Arizona is out. Houston, Kansas City and Denver remain the most intriguing destinations for Romo.
And Romo is plenty smart enough to know there are things he can do to facilitate a trade with one of those teams if need be. Would it be ideal to simply be released and able to sign any contract he wants with the team of his choosing? Sure. But if Jones, who now finds himself in Super Bowl or bust mode in 2017, can get a third-round pick for him, and find a cheap five-year starter with that pick to contribute to a potential championship run, it would be foolish to not at least explore those options when everyone gathers in Indy. The fact is, no one knows precisely how this will unfold -- not Romo, not even Jones -- but all can agree that there is no feasible path to seeing Romo back in Dallas next season.
Beyond that, Romo “expects” nothing.
The exact mechanism that leads to his departure will unfold in due time, and in the meantime he is working out like a demon and is prepared to throw himself into the offseason program wherever he lands in hopes of winning a Lombardi Trophy himself. The thought of going to a rebuilding team obviously doesn’t make much sense at this point in his career, and being flexible with regard to massaging his contract to work within the cap constraints of a contending team is something to which he’s open. Keep in mind Romo has never had the chance to play on a truly balanced team. He’s never been with a top-seven defense, for instance. Even with him functioning as a very expensive backup quarterback in 2016, his contract didn’t blow up the Cowboys’ cap or preclude the team from assembling some other expensive talent around him.
Will Garoppolo stay or go?
You’ll hear plenty of back-and-forth about Garoppolo the rest of the month as well. The Pats will trade him. The Pats won’t trade him. The Pats can’t wait to deal him. The Pats would never consider dealing him.
Here’s what I’ll tell you: Everyone has a price. If there is one constant in Bill Belichick’s team building, it’s that he always has an eye on the present and the future, few players are irreplaceable (really, only Tom Brady), and if he believes what he can corral in terms of draft picks and players is worth more than what he believes he can derive from that asset in the near future, then he will move on from him. Ask Richard Seymour. Ask Matt Cassel. Ask Chandler Jones. Ask Jamie Collins.
Belichick has traded players off the franchise tag before and he’s the rare exec to fully explore restricted free agency and he’s not bound to convention or concerned with groupthink. (Hell, remember, even Babe Ruth was traded, and Wayne Gretzky was dealt, what three times? Which I suppose by NFL Hall of Fame voting standards means Gretzky probably shouldn’t in the Hall … lest I digress).
So, if someone puts an offer on the table that Belichick believes is worth more than what he can cull from Garoppolo, he will make the trade. Period. I don’t care if it involves a first-round pick or not. What about three second-round picks, from a bad team, for instance? I wouldn’t get caught up in thinking it has to be for this, or it has to be for that.
I don’t anticipate Belichick himself investing a lot of energy or resources into negotiating a trade at all -- that’s up to agent Don Yee, who represents Brady and Garoppolo. If Yee finds a team that his player is willing to sign with long-term, and that team presents a package of assets that is to Belichick’s liking, then he’ll gladly move on with Brady and Jacoby Brissett for 2017 and continue to draft developmental quarterbacks along the way to find his next Cassel/Brian Hoyer/Ryan Mallett/Garoppolo. The only difference here is that Jimmy G truly has a chance to be a special starter elsewhere, and he’s already displayed that in meaningful NFL games.
As to those downplaying the odds of a trade, I’d keep in mind that it currently works particularly in New England’s favor to have the message out that Garoppolo is not available and won’t be available and that he’s the future. It only increases the Patriots’ already considerable leverage. But this kid has shown he can play at the highest level, Belichick and Josh McDaniels and Brady have already groomed him for the next team, and there are a bevy of quarterback-needy teams that have loved him since his time at Eastern Illinois. And Brady isn’t going anywhere for several years. People can talk about how quickly Peyton Manning hit the wall and all, but Brady doesn’t have the same neck/nerve issues, his offensive line is much improved, and he truly is dead set on playing until age 45 or as close as he can get to it. I firmly believe he has one more contract with New England still in him.
So how long is Garoppolo supposed to sit?
Also consider, the Deflategate ruling robbed the Pats of a first-round pick and a fourth-round pick. Belichick loves to maneuver around the draft board and recouping those losses would be vital to sustaining the Patriots’ long-term run of success. And he did draft Brissett in the third round a year ago for a reason. He already has his Garoppolo insurance. Then consider how desperate teams like the Bears, Browns and 49ers are to find not just a franchise quarterback, but a young one if possible because they have long rebuilds ahead. Garoppolo is far and away the best of the breed in that regard, and they can get their QB and still retain their top-three picks in this year’s draft.
If anything, I’d say every factor -- including Brady’s Super Bowl MVP season -- points to a deal going down. And after Sam Bradford just went for a 1 and a 4 -- albeit it under duress -- you can’t convince me teams won’t be willing to give Belichick something similar. I’d also point out that, of the interested teams, Yee has known Bears GM Ryan Pace from his earliest days, as Yee represents Saints coach Sean Payton, and Pace went straight from Eastern Illinois to start a 14-year run with the Saints front office. Yee knows well just how much Payton and Pace valued Garoppolo in the draft. Putting a deal together between those two wouldn’t be difficult.
Yee has also known Browns coach Hue Jackson since his earliest days in college coaching, like when he first became an offensive coordinator at Cal in 1996 (Yee is a Cal grad). And Yee has known 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan kinda, sorta his entire life as Yee has a long relationship with Kyle’s dad, Mike Shanahan, and Mike Shanahan is one of the top consultants in the new Pacific Pro Football League that Yee is launching to develop NFL prospects.
So, let’s just say there are plenty of pre-existing relationships and bonds that wouldn’t exactly form obstacles to a potential blockbuster trade/signing. I also wouldn’t rule Houston out of this equation, should head coach Bill O’Brien be entrusted with finding a new QB after the Brock Osweiler failure was foisted upon him by ownership a year ago. O’Brien is a product of that same New England system -- though he is high on Tom Savage as well. Regardless, I would hardly be writing off the likelihood of a Garoppolo trade just yet, though I would also caution that with New England in no rush to have to deal him, and the Pats with oodles of cap space and Garoppolo costing them next to nothing, I wouldn’t get fixated on the timing of this deal. It hardly has to be completed by the start of the league year in March, though I would certainly bet on it coming to fruition before the draft is complete in late April.
What about Cousins?
Last but not least, there is the Kirk Cousins situation. He’s going to be franchised by Washington, which we first reported on Thanksgiving morning. And, unlike last year, the Redskins will make a legit concerted effort to sign him to a fair-market deal (unlike the low-ball overtures of a year ago). And by July 15, I suspect Cousins has a long-term deal with Washington agreed to. Kyle Shanahan and Pace and others will have trade interest, but when you factor in a $25M annual contract with how many picks it would take to pry him away, I’d put far higher odds on Romo and Garoppolo being dealt than I would on Cousins. Not for lack of interest, however.
Soon enough, Yee and Belichick and Shanahan (Kyle, though, who knows, maybe Mike, too) and Jones and Jackson and O’Brien and Mike McCartney (who represents Cousins) and Romo’s reps will all be in Indiana, walking the same enclosed hallways, eating the same pricy shrimp cocktail, hosting meetings in the same hotels and haunts, and then all three situations will start to come more clearly into focus.