METAIRIE, La. — The New Orleans Saints made clear their intentions for the 2023 season in early March, a week before the start of free agency, when they signed Derek Carr to a four-year, $150 million contract.
They could have finally hit the reset button a year separated from Sean Payton's departure. They could have released aging veterans, flipped a few of their prime players for draft picks and rebuilt the way everyone else does it.
Instead, they signed Carr with the hopes that his familiarity with this offense will lead him to be more like 2021 Carr than the 2022 version that had him leaving Las Vegas before the season was over. That after two years with an Andy Dalton-Jameis Winston-Taysom Hill triumvirate, the Saints would be able to finally get back to the playoffs for the first time since Drew Brees retired.
That's the bet, and it all depends on lessons learned for Carr in the last year.
"Some of them are personal. Some of them I don't want to give away because it's only my 10th year. I don't want some young guy to learn it. He's got to learn lessons the hard way," Carr joked when I asked him about those lessons learned in Las Vegas last year. "They just didn't get my best and that drove me crazy at the end of the year, because I felt so spread out in so many different ways that it's hard for you to understand because of what's happening in my mind and in my life. I felt so spread out and was trying to do this and that. Trying to get the guys excited about a certain thing or a certain way even though they could see in my face it was tough. I just didn't feel like myself. I feel bad for the coaches and players because they didn't get my best.
"I tried. It wasn't like I wasn't trying to give my best. But you sit back and you write it out and learn and say, 'Oh wow man I've got to do this, this and this.' Go back to making it simple and making it about team and football. For me I've tried my best to get back to that. hopefully it leads to some success."
Carr clearly wasn't a fit in Josh McDaniels' system, but both sides hedged their bets even before McDaniels and Carr shared the field. His three-year contract extension from last April was in reality a one-year prove-it deal. The Raiders were always ready to cut bait after 2022. Last year his completion percentage dropped by nearly eight points, his interception rate increased and his game-winning-drive magic from 2021 didn't reappear.
But he has a fresh start in New Orleans. He certainly has the weapons on offense, especially with everyone in the building telling me Mike Thomas is coming back with a vengeance this year. And Carr and the offense won't have to carry the load like the case has been his entire career. The Raiders haven't had a top-10 scoring defense since they lost the Super Bowl following the 2002 season, while the Saints have had a top-10 scoring defense in each of the past three seasons.
Throughout Carr's affable half-hour press conference with assembled media, the quarterback would regularly reference social media posters or someone taking his comments out of context. While it seemed a partial lament on society today (that I don't disagree with), it was evident that Carr was taking pains to not give any fuel to the haters.
Right, wrong or indifferent, there's scar tissue there. But if he's going to be at his best this season, I think Carr has to put the blinders on.
Kamara catches Carr's attention
One other note on the Saints: They were over the moon to see Alvin Kamara on the field this week at mandatory minicamp, and his crisp route-running ability took Carr by surprise. "Bro, that's not normal," he remarked to himself upon watching the routes this week. New Orleans is rightly preparing for life without Kamara for a few games pending the outcome of his pending legal case in Las Vegas. They drafted Kendre Miller in the third round and there are obvious similarities in their game. If this is the last season in New Orleans for Kamara, it would follow a similar pattern for players at his position and age range. More on that a little later, but for now, Kamara will be key to the Saints getting one last shot at the playoffs with its aging, restructured-and-restructured-again core in a weak conference and weaker division.
Win or lose, Carthon-led Titans on the right course
Ran Carthon is undefeated as a general manager in the NFL, so there's little reason the vibes shouldn't be good at St. Thomas Sports Park. But man … Carthon and the Titans seem to have a good thing going in the front office. I spent a day there Wednesday in the last day of veteran offseason work, and it feels like the Titans franchise is on the right course whether they win or lose a lot of games in 2023.
Carthon clearly has the trust of owner Amy Adams Strunk, and he's building the Titans the way he wants. He didn't reach in free agency and may have gotten some great deals for players like Andre Dillard and Azeez Al-Shaair. He had a solid draft where, again, there were no reaches and seemingly stuck to the board. And there's the new structure in place with two assistant GMs underneath him. He got Chad Brinker from Green Bay, and there may not be anyone in a front office who can do all the things Brinker does as well as he does them. From the cap to analytics, from college to pro scouting, Brinker has background in all of it as well as being a former collegiate running back.
And just last month Carthon added Anthony Robinson to the roster as assistant GM with Brinker. Robinson has 15 years of experience with the Falcons in their scouting department. Robinson is well respected in the scouting community and earned his promotion to Nashville. He'll oversee the scouting side of things for the Titans while Brinker will preside over football operations, as both report up to Carthon.
Tennessee could use more juice in WR room
One other note about the Titans: It's going to be hard for me to believe the Titans, if they miss out on DeAndre Hopkins, will roll the ball out there Week 1 against the Saints with their current wide receiver group. There will be a surprise cut somewhere around the league. A decent enough wide receiver will get disgruntled with his current situation. A young player will make a veteran with a higher cap number expendable. And that's when the Titans can pounce if they don't land Hopkins this summer. Treylon Burks can turn into a very good No. 2 receiver, and Kyle Phillips will catch a lot of passes for this group. But even if this team decides to run 12 and 13 personnel more than most, I still have to believe they'll want a little more juice at that position.
Bears opening up pass game for Fields?
I know the Chicago Bears have been pleased to see third-year quarterback Justin Fields making quicker decisions with the football the last few weeks. When I was there last week, a team source called him "operational" in team drills and loved how he was getting the ball out of his hands. The only time I saw hesitation was twice during 7-on-7s when the defense threw a new look at him.
Offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said "timing and rhythm we're working on every single day," and that was the theme of offseason work. It's Fields' second year in the system, so things should be slowing down for him. Add in the fact that he's getting more time with Chase Claypool, has a legitimate No. 1 receiver in D.J. Moore, has downfield weapons like Velus Jones (if he'll pull the trigger a bit more on the deep balls, which he did this June) and should have a more reliable running game. The Bears believe they've done plenty this offseason to open up the offense for Fields in the pass game so he doesn't have to rely on his legs so much.
There's been plenty of talk about Fields running less and throwing more. Everyone, including Fields, wants that. But Getsy doesn't want Fields to be robotic, and work in August will show whether Fields will keep his eyes downfield and deliver passes instead of taking off and running. Maybe I'm scarred from previous experience, but I remember hearing very similar things out of Carolina in 2017 when they wanted Cam Newton to run less and throw more. I even wrote a lengthy feature about the reprogramming of Newton. He then went out and carried the ball more for more yards than he ever had in any season of his entire career.
Everyone knows rushing 160 times for 1,143 yards is amazing but unsustainable for a quarterback, so Fields can't do that many more times and have a long career. But it's one of his best proven attributes so far as he learns this offense even more, and so I won't at all be surprised when he's still a top-three rusher in the league at his position in 2023.
Chicago should shop for pass-rushing help
One other note on the Bears: They absolutely have to find another pass rusher. Yannick Ngakoue is a player who would make a lot of sense there if the numbers are right. And Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah has shown he has no fear about trading within the division, so perhaps Danielle Hunter could land with a division rival.
NFL on the offensive to show it's educating players on gambling
The NFL wants everyone to know it is informing players and coaches of the rules for legal sports betting, but that doesn't mean that those players and coaches are absolved of personal responsibility.
The rules are fairly simple. If you're a player, you can't bet on the NFL and you cannot bet while at work. If you're not a player but you're a team or league employee, you can't bet on sports at all.
Still, the league had to suspend five players in April for breaking these rules, including four Lions players. There's reportedly a fifth Lions player under investigation, and Colts cornerback Isaiah Rodgers Sr. raised his hand earlier this month as being under investigation as well.
Common sense among those I talk to in the league say this won't be the end of it. As legalized sports betting continues to spread across the country, and as its easier than ever to place a bet, it's likely more players will run afoul of the basic and easy-to-understand rules and later get caught.
One GM told me he's simply told players "just don't download any of the apps" to avoid even the temptation. I know of a few GMs who reached out to Lions GM Brad Holmes shortly after the Lions' news went public to learn what they could do to avoid a similar fate.
The league is on the offensive now to show it's educating and informing players on the rules. NFL EVP Jeff Miller went on "Good Morning Football" Thursday to discuss the guidelines, and there's going to be a media briefing next week with more information.
Thefor a video to help rookies understand the rules. The league is "strongly encouraging" teams to have a member of the NFL's compliance department meet with players in person during the season. And there will be enhanced signage throughout all 32 club facilities that lays out that gambling policy for players.
I thought Calvin Ridley said it best this week when he wished other players had learned a lesson from his year-long suspension.
"I wish they would've looked at me and said, 'Wow, they did him like that? I hope it doesn't happen to me.' Because that's what I would've done,". If I would've seen one of my NFL buddies get slammed like that, I would've been a little bit afraid and watching myself. But you know, it is what it is, they have to learn the hard way like I did. It's gonna be all right though."
Betting on the NFL is a simple-to-understand rule. The idea of placing bets "at work" has clearly led to some confusion, as "at work" means the team facility or team bus or team hotel. So, yes, a player can go across the street from the team facility and place a prop bet on a non-NFL sport and that would be just fine. But if you have to do it that badly, know the rules.
I think what's fairly telling is the NFL Players Association isn't appealing these decisions. The union agreed to the rules, and plenty of union folks go to individual clubs and tell players about these guidelines. The NFLPA isn't absolving its players of personal responsibility.
There's a chorus of people whom I believe to be smart who think the NFL is being hypocritical for its stance on players betting. The thinking goes that because the NFL has partnered with several sportsbooks to make endless millions, that punishing players for placing bets with those sportsbooks is wildly hypocritical.
But just because the league partners with sportsbooks doesn't mean players should be able to call the integrity of the game into question by betting on football. Furthermore, the NFL had nothing to do with the 2018 Supreme Court ruling that cleared the way for legalized sports betting across the United States. So now that it's happened and there's hardly any stopping it, why not benefit monetarily from it?
These untold millions that are pouring into the NFL go into the revenue bucket that gets split between the owners and players who make up the salary cap. If any player feels the league is being hypocritical about this, then they should be prepared to take less in salary. And guess what? They still wouldn't be able to bet on football anyway, just like always.
Lions defense should feast in 2023
One other note on the Lions (since they're the unwitting face of the gambling stuff, I'll throw it in here): I cannot wait to see defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn cook in the kitchen with some real ingredients this season. After a couple years of roster building that focused more heavily on the offense, the Lions spent much more energy on the defense this year. They still need another tackle to pair with Alim McNeill, but the rest of the starting defense looks stout. They have an embarrassment of riches in the defensive backfield, and I love the idea of moving C.J. Gardner-Johnson back to nickel so he can blitz and impact the passer far more than in his safety role last year with the Eagles.
More insider notes from around the league
- I have very little doubt Saquon Barkley will be playing for the Giants in 2023. He'll either do it under the franchise tag or under a contract that he may not love but gives him a little more financial security over the next few years. The Giants front office, led by GM Joe Schoen and assistant GM Brandon Brown, is a disciplined group. So as much as they want to "take care of guys," they aren't foolish to the realities of this league at that position. Whatever deal that was on the table last fall and even this spring likely won't be back on the table between now and the tag deadline of July 17. Barkley's using the small amount of leverage he has right now by talking to the press last week and passing on minicamp when he's not under contract, all of which he should do. But Le'Veon Bell proved to all running backs that you shouldn't sit out, and Barkley loves the game and his teammates too much to do that, in my opinion.
- On the running back contracts, we know the position has been devalued. We also knew it in 2020, but that didn't stop GMs from shelling out big contracts to top backs that year. First it was Christian McCaffrey earning a four-year, $64 million deal in April 2020. That was followed by Derrick Henry's four-year, $50 million deal. And in September, Dalvin Cook got five years and $63 million, Joe Mixon received four years and $48 million while Alvin Kamara got five years and $75 million. Looking back, I wonder if the uncertainty the pandemic created caused decision-makers to the tried-and-true "run the damn ball" football mentality. Three years later we've seen the mistakes made from an unprecedented COVID draft in 2020 where a historically low 12 players had their fifth-year options picked up (though they were for the first time fully guaranteed at exercise, so that likely played a role in the low numbers.) And I wonder if, in a normal year, we would have seen the market do what it did at that position.
- Speaking of contracts, that Odell Beckham Jr. deal is still getting talked about around the league. Sources I speak to call the one-year, $15 million deal (with $3 million in incentives) very un-Baltimore, and any movement on free-agent receivers of import has slowed because of that watermark. The counterargument is a) the Ravens don't care what it does to the market, b) they feel he's worth the money and c) if nabbing OBJ means inking Lamar Jackson to a long-term deal to end the years-long saga, so be it. But a team wanting a player like DeAndre Hopkins, for example, will need to get creative with the contract details to get it on par or better than OBJ's, whether it is in reality or not.
- The Buccaneers don't seem too keen on paying Devin White top-of-the-market money at the inside linebacker position. I find it hard to believe he'll get to -- much less eclipse -- Roquan Smith's $20 million in average annual value. But the Bucs would love to get something done sooner than later if for no other reason than freeing up some cap space. According to the NFLPA's latest public salary cap report, the Bucs have the least amount of space in all the NFL: $916,401. (The way the Tampa-St. Pete housing market is going, good luck getting anything there with just that.) White currently counts $11.7 million against the cap under his fifth-year option. If the Bucs can't work something out with him, they'll likely have to restructure or extend a veteran like Mike Evans.
- Kudos to the Carolina Panthers for not fooling around with rookie quarterback Bryce Young. Yes, everyone has to earn their spot. But this league is too hard and the learning curve is too steep to play games with the signal-caller you traded up to No. 1 for hoping to resurrect your franchise. Get him the No. 1 reps early and often. "Throw him in the fire!" is how one source put it to me recently. Frank Reich's Panthers are going the opposite route of Urban Meyer and his decision to split reps between Trevor Lawrence and Gardner Minshew.
- I'm excited for next week's Ozzie Newsome General Manager Forum and the Quarterback Coaching Summit. The program, which goes from Wednesday to Friday next week, is a great way for participants to meet one another and borrow ideas from colleagues. It also gives the speakers an opportunity to get some great tape by giving detailed presentations that team owners and decision-makers can go back and watch later in the fall. I've watched this program grow the last couple of years as speakers refine their presentations so that everyone in the room can walk away smarter. Some of the ones who stand out in previous years include Brandon Brown, Ian Cunningham, Jackie Davidson, Malik Boyd, Champ Kelly, Scottie Montgomery and Troy Walters.
- The NFL asked its owners to reserve July 20 and Aug. 8 as dates on the calendar for a meeting where they would vote to approve Josh Harris' bid for the Washington Commanders. When Harris and co-bidder Mitchell Rales met with the league's finance committee in New York last week, I'm told both the Harris group and the NFL came away feeling it was a very productive meeting where the bid needed some "largely minor" tweaks to neatly comply with the NFL's complex financing rules. The bid can very likely be agreed to by July 20, but it's the middle of the summer where 30-plus owners may not be able to get to one central location on that exact date. I'd imagine the Harris group would love this to be done by then so they can finally get their hands on the Commanders. The group has really only been able to communicate with team president Jason Wright due to league rules. To get this approved before training camp would allow new ownership to be present with boots on the ground for the start of camp.