As the scheduled start of NFL training camps gets closer, the NFL Players Association has instructed player agents to talk to all of their clients about risk factors that could make them more susceptible to severe illness as a result of the COVID-19 virus.
In a letter sent to agents Monday, which was obtained by ESPN, the NFLPA wrote, “The NFLPA is directing you to provide each of your clients with important risk factor information provided by the Centers for Disease Control that appears below, and by mid-July, you must engage each of your clients in a conversation about the vital importance of carefully reviewing this information with their personal physician. They should ask their personal doctors any and all questions they have regarding these risk factors in light of their personal medical history and their job as an NFL player. They should also discuss any risk factors with their team doctor.”
The letter provides a link to the CDC page that discusses “people of any age with underlying medical conditions” and also spells out what the conditions are that put an individual at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
They include, per the letter:
1. Chronic kidney disease
2. COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
3. Immunocompromised state (weakened immune system) from solid organ transplant
4. BMI of 30 or higher: Obesity
5. Serious heart conditions, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, or cardiomyopathies
6. Sickle cell disease
7. Type 2 diabetes mellitus
The letter includes a second list of conditions that the CDC has determined “might” put someone at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19, including asthma, hypertension or high blood pressure, other immune deficiencies, liver disease, pulmonary fibrosis and Type 1 diabetes, among others.
“We want each player to be fully informed about his personal medical situation as he makes decisions about returning to play in the league and throughout the course of the season,” the letter reads. “Proactive engagement in this manner will help players achieve that goal.”
Per the new collective bargaining agreement between the players and the league, training camps may start no earlier than 47 days before a team’s first regular-season game, which makes July 28 the reporting date for most teams. The NFL said last week that it is still planning to open camps and the regular season on time, although coronavirus health and safety protocols have yet to be finalized. The NFL and the NFLPA have been in regular discussions about those protocols as well as other matters, such as what would happen to players who decided it was too risky to play and what might happen with the 2021 salary cap as a result of lost revenue in 2020.
Netflix to produce 6-part series on Colin Kaepernick
Colin Kaepernick will be the subject of a six-part series produced by acclaimed director Ava DuVernay, Netflix announced Monday.
The series, “Colin in Black and White,” will explore the quarterback’s high school years, attempting to show the experiences and insights that led to his activism.
Kaepernick will appear as a narrator, with an actor playing him as a youth in the scripted drama of a Black child adopted by a white family.
“Too often we see race and Black stories portrayed through a white lens,” Kaepernick said in a release. “We seek to give new perspective to the differing realities that Black people face. We explore the racial conflicts I faced as an adopted Black man in a white community, during my high school years. It’s an honor to bring these stories to life in collaboration with Ava for the world to see.”
Kaepernick will also be an executive producer for the series, which was written by Michael Starrbury. No date has yet been set for its release. DuVernay and Starrbury previously worked together on the Emmy-winning Netflix miniseries “When They See Us” about the Central Park Five case.
Kaepernick, 32, spent six seasons with the San Francisco 49ers but has not played in the NFL since 2016, when he started kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice in the United States. The actions became embroiled in a debate about the national anthem, and despite his qualifications, including a Super Bowl appearance, Kaepernick has been a free agent since 2017.
“With his act of protest, Colin Kaepernick ignited a national conversation about race and justice with far-reaching consequences for football, culture and for him, personally,” DuVernay said in a release. “Colin’s story has much to say about identity, sports and the enduring spirit of protest and resilience.”
DuVernay directed the 2014 drama “Selma,” about the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights, becoming the first black female director to have her film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Johnny Manziel says his football career is probably ‘in the past’
Johnny Manziel is at a point in his life that he’s ready to concede that his football career is probably “in the past.”
The former Cleveland Browns quarterback made the declaration in an interview with the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal for a story that was published Saturday.
“In the past, probably, is the way I’d characterize it,” Manziel told the newspaper when asked about his football career. “I’ve finally got to a point where I’m trying to achieve happiness in life, not happiness on the football field.
“I know a lot of people probably want me to come back and play and give it another chance, but I don’t know, as far as being a person and figuring out life as a young adult — trying to make it and figure it out — if I’ve ever been in a better place than I’m in right now. I can honestly say I’m happy and I’m doing the right things to try and put a smile on my face every day, and that means more to me than going out and grinding on a football field.”
The 27-year-old Manziel’s last appearance on a football field came with the Memphis Express in the Alliance of American Football in 2019 before the league folded. He joined the AAF after being released by the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. That league also said he couldn’t play for another CFL team.
The former Heisman Trophy winner was taken by Cleveland with the No. 22 pick in the 2014 NFL draft. But after two tumultuous seasons, the Browns released him in March 2016 after he posted a 2-6 record as their starter.
“During that time when I got drafted, I didn’t put in the time that I needed to be a great player and I don’t think my heart was in it,” Manziel told the newspaper. “And I think when I went back to Canada, it was the same way. I truly believed and truly thought it was what I wanted to do, and my heart wasn’t in it, and it worked out the way it did.”
Manziel has dealt with several off-field issues. In 2016, a domestic assault charge against him in Dallas was dismissed after he took an anger management course and participated in the NFL’s substance abuse program. In a recent interview, he said he has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and has stopped drinking.
Now living in Scottsdale, Arizona, Manziel told the newspaper that the game of football “humbled” him and for that he’s grateful.
“Thank God I did get a chance to be humbled, because when you think you’re at the top of the world, it’s a dangerous place,” he said.
He told the newspaper that he was thankful for the impact Kliff Kingsbury, his former Texas A&M coach, had on him. He said Kingsbury, now the Arizona Cardinals‘ head coach, is a “guy who’s changed my life for the better and who I’ll always be thankful for.”
Manziel had a historic 2012 season with the Aggies, culminated by becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman. He also became the first freshman in NCAA history to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
His college success didn’t translate to professional football and the label of being a failed NFL prospect has stuck with him but he told the Avalanche-Journal he is content with what he was able to accomplish on the football field.
“People can call me whatever they want, but at the end of the day, I’m proud of what I did. I’m proud of what I accomplished. I bettered myself. I bettered my family’s life. I got a chance to play amazing college football, and it didn’t work out in the NFL and that’s OK,” he said.
Grading Cam Newton’s move to the Patriots
In the end, Cam Newton and the New England Patriots made too much sense for each other. In a league in which every other starting quarterback opportunity was full, the Patriots gave the former NFL MVP his only realistic chance of being a Week 1 starter on a competitive team. And while I don’t doubt that the Patriots still believe Jarrett Stidham is capable of being a starter at the NFL level, the chance to acquire the 2015 MVP when the alternatives were Stidham and Brian Hoyer was always going to interest coach Bill Belichick at the right price.
We might never know whether Belichick delayed the timing of the Newton signing to coincide with the news that the Patriots had lost a third-round pick from the latest in their series of league investigations, but by the time we get to September, it won’t matter. New England might have come away with the bargain of the offseason by agreeing to terms with Newton on a one-year deal, reportedly for the league minimum. Newton also can reportedly make up to $7.5 million in incentives, before he would presumably be able to hit the market again under far better circumstances in 2021.
Jump to the grade for the deal
The facts about Newton’s post-MVP career
To start, there’s very little risk here for the Patriots. They have only about $1.8 million in cap room, so depending on how the incentives are structured, they might need to create additional space to get Newton under contract. They can achieve that by extending guard Joe Thuney or cutting someone such as Rex Burkhead, Deatrich Wise Jr. or Jermaine Eluemunor. If Newton gets hurt or isn’t able to beat out Stidham, New England would presumably be out only about $1 million. When you consider that the organization paid Antonio Brown more than $9 million for one game last season, you can see just how little the Patriots have to lose by adding Newton.
Of course, that’s the $7 million question. If we knew that Newton was healthy, there’s little chance he would be available in the market for the league minimum. He hasn’t been healthy for a regular-season snap since the first half of 2018, and with the coronavirus rampaging through America this spring and summer, no team has been able to get Newton in for a workout or a physical. It was going to be impossible for a team to commit to him as its starter on significant money, even if he is a better option than someone like Nick Foles or Gardner Minshew.
The chances of a healthy — or at least much healthier — version of Newton showing up for the Patriots this season are much better than some would suggest. The idea that he hasn’t been a valuable quarterback since his 2015 MVP campaign is a product of selective memory. Let’s take a quick look back through recent history to explain why I’m optimistic.
Newton wasn’t very good in 2016, when an injury-riddled Carolina Panthers team fell from 15-1 to 6-10. His line was beaten up by injuries, and his top wide receiver was Kelvin Benjamin, who is now out of football. The Denver Broncos laid waste to Newton in their Super Bowl rematch in Week 1, and he would eventually miss time with a concussion before returning to the field. He finished 25th in QBR that year at 47.1, falling just below then-Miami Dolphins starter and recently successful reclamation project Ryan Tannehill at 48.6. (If you think Newton was done because of his injury history, consider that Tannehill tore an ACL at the end of that season, did it again the following offseason, missed time with a capsule injury in his shoulder in 2018 and still earned a massive contract after getting a chance to play in 2019.)
In 2017, while Newton didn’t return to his MVP form, he was still a useful quarterback. Despite losing Greg Olsen for most of the season and general manager Dave Gettleman choosing to make a disastrous investment in left tackle Matt Kalil, Newton finished the year 19th in QBR at 51.5. He was effective enough as a passer and runner to lead a Panthers team to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth.
In Week 4 of 2017, he delivered one of his most impressive performances of the season. The former Auburn star went 22-of-29 for 316 yards with three touchdowns and an interception while adding 44 rushing yards and a touchdown on the ground in beating the Patriots at Foxborough 33-30. Newton won his prior game against the Pats in 2013, as well. His combined line against Belichick has seen him post a passer rating of 128.2, while also carrying the ball 15 times for 106 yards. I don’t think Belichick makes his decision based on two games, but the man knows how difficult a healthy Newton can be to stop.
In the hopes of keeping him healthy and building a more effective offense around the combination of his skills with those of running back Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers made changes during the 2018 offseason. In came Norv Turner, who surprisingly installed a more modern offense than the one Newton ran under Mike Shula. The Panthers used their top two picks on wideouts in DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel, although the latter also was injured. Olsen still missed time, and the offensive line was cobbled together as a result of injuries, but there was more around Newton than there had been over the prior three seasons.
Newton played excellent football through the first half of 2018. With Carolina sitting pretty at 6-2 in the NFC South, he was 10th in the league in passer rating (100.8) and 12th in QBR (63.1). Often one of the deepest average passers in football, he was given shorter passes to throw and magically improved his completion percentage to 67.3. The former first overall pick was averaging nearly four touchdowns for every interception and producing nearly 280 yards from scrimmage per game. He was fourth on my midseason MVP ballot that year.
The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Panthers 52-21 in Week 10. Pretty quickly, it became clear that Newton’s right shoulder was a problem. He struggled to make throws with zip over the second half of the season, and while he battled through the injury before eventually sitting out in late December, the Panthers collapsed during the second half. He underwent shoulder surgery after the season.
It’s important to make this distinction, because if you weren’t paying attention to the Panthers last summer and into the preseason, you might have missed an important piece of information. By all accounts, Newton healed from that shoulder injury. One report from camp lauded the return of his deep ball, which had gone missing as a result of the shoulder injury the prior year. He looked to be back on schedule to return as the Panthers’ primary quarterback, and while I’m sure there would have been some growing pains, there was no suggestion that he was still being bothered by his shoulder when the next injury struck.
Newton suffered a Lisfranc injury to his left foot in a preseason loss to Belichick’s Patriots. He sat out the remainder of the preseason before returning for Week 1, but when I watched Newton play against the Los Angeles Rams, I didn’t see a quarterback who was struggling for velocity or arm strength. From how he was moving and how many passes he sailed over his receivers, it was clear he wasn’t comfortable planting his foot. After the issue was even more obvious during a Thursday night loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the following week, the Panthers shut him down. When the injury didn’t heal with rest, the Panthers placed Newton on injured reserve, ending his season.
While a Lisfranc injury can be disastrous for receivers, it’s not typically a career-impacting injury for quarterbacks. Matt Schaub hit injured reserve with a Lisfranc injury in 2011 and returned to make the Pro Bowl the following season. Taysom Hill suffered a Lisfranc injury in college, and while it cost the BYU quarterback most of his senior year, he has been able to return and move just fine. Newton should be recovered from both the 2018 shoulder surgery and the 2019 foot surgery.
Is it possible Newton has simply taken too many hits and has grown brittle? I suppose, but we have plenty of examples of quarterbacks who suffered multiple serious injuries and were still able to rebuild their career. Tannehill, who is nearly a year older than Newton, comes to mind. Randall Cunningham dealt with an ACL injury in an era in which it was far more career-threatening and came back at 35 to deliver an All-Pro season for the Minnesota Vikings. Steve McNair battled through injury after injury and was a Pro Bowl-caliber passer at age 32 and 33. I don’t know whether Newton will get back to his old self, but it’s premature to write him off.
Adam Schefter breaks down how the Patriots managed to strike a deal with former MVP quarterback Cam Newton.
What could the Patriots’ offense look like?
A healthy Newton has to be considered the favorite to win the starting quarterback job in New England. Stidham was about to become the second player in league history taken after pick No. 100 to start for his team in Week 1 of his second season after not starting as a rookie. While the Patriots were optimistic enough about Stidham’s chances to avoid making a more significant move before now, the most we can say about the 2018 fourth-rounder is that he represented something totally unknown.
Before the Newton signing, there was already evidence that the Patriots were going to change their offense. Even the most optimistic Patriots fan couldn’t suggest that Stidham was going to be Tom Brady. He wasn’t going to have Brady’s accuracy, experience reading defenses or ability to avoid turnovers. That was never going to happen.
What the Patriots did this offseason, instead, was build around a more run-heavy attack. They put the franchise tag on Thuney, meaning that the Pats are set to spend nearly $28 million on guards this season, $6.5 million more than any other team. They got back David Andrews after their starting center missed the entire season with a pulmonary embolism; signed fullback Danny Vitale to replace the retiring James Develin; and then used a pair of third-round picks on tight ends Dalton Keene and Devin Asiasi, both of whom are regarded as plus blockers.
With Stidham, this offense would have likely looked something akin to a modern version of the attack the Patriots ran in 2001, when they had something closer to a 50/50 run/pass split. Brady’s job was to convert friendly third downs and protect the football. It worked: The Patriots were 11th in offensive DVOA and won a Super Bowl with a defense that was only 13th in DVOA. The 2020 Patriots should be much better than that on defense. That formula was going to be competitive with the Buffalo Bills for a division title even before adding Newton.
If Newton does win the job, the Patriots probably will build something closer to the offense he was working under during his time with Turner in Carolina. With the Panthers trying to get the ball out of Newton’s hands quicker, the concerns about accuracy and efficiency that might have otherwise made him and the Patriots seem like a bad fit went away. Newton had just four interceptions and four fumbles over the first half of the 2018 campaign. That’s an outlier given the rest of his career, but it’s also the only time Carolina didn’t have a healthy Newton in an offense when the Panthers were expecting him to average 10 air yards per pass attempt.
You could also see the Patriots borrow concepts that have worked elsewhere. It wouldn’t be shocking if they were to steal some ideas out of the Greg Roman playbook for Lamar Jackson and use heavy doses of motion to manipulate teams and create opportunities for Newton as a runner. New England has always been aggressive with trying to stay ahead of the offensive curve and attempting to build its offense around what is undervalued. In 2007, the team traded for Randy Moss and Wes Welker and incorporated a spread attack. Three years later, it drafted Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and the offense shifted into becoming 12 personnel. When Chip Kelly took hold with the Philadelphia Eagles, the Patriots were one of the first teams to really emphasize pace and tempo, even before Kelly joined the league. The Baltimore Ravens might have beaten the Patriots to the punch, but Belichick isn’t going to write off the league’s most effective offense as a gimmick.
What it all comes back to for me is this: When the Patriots haven’t been able to simply blow past teams with talent like they could in 2007, their core offensive concept has been versatility. Because they’ve had Gronkowski, Develin, Julian Edelman and a variety of versatile running backs, the Patriots have always been able to create a mismatch. They could go three- or four-wide and still have the blocking ability to run the football effectively. When they sent out 22 personnel and made it look like they were going to run the ball, they had the athletes to motion out or work off of play action and beat an opponent’s base defense in the passing game. It’s how the Patriots won their last Super Bowl.
Last year, with Gronkowski retired, Develin injured and a replacement-level group of tight ends, the Patriots didn’t have that ability to disguise their intentions with their personnel or the flexibility to shift from one concept to the other. They might have wanted to run the ball more effectively, but when Sony Michel was in the game, they ran it 67% of the time; only two players (who played 300 offensive snaps or more) were better indicators of whether their team was going to run the ball, and one of them was Ravens fullback Patrick Ricard. When James White came in, the Pats threw the ball 81.8% of the time; only three other players were a more obvious tell. New England suffered both running and throwing the football.
The Patriots didn’t get Gronkowski back this offseason, but by replenishing at fullback and tight end, they were able to restore some semblance of versatility. By adding Newton to replace Brady, they’ve upgraded that versatility and added uncertainty at the one position where they didn’t have it during the Gronkowski era. They were fine without Brady as a run threat given everything else he could bring to the table; but if Newton is healthy, he can give them a runner who can barrel through undersized boxes out of 10 or 11 personnel or someone who can take advantage as a passer when teams load up the box to stop the run. In that sense, he is less a replacement for Brady and more a replacement for Gronkowski.
The grade: A-minus
Having said all that, while the Patriots aren’t incurring much financial risk by signing Newton, there is an opportunity cost that drops this grade ever so slightly. Naturally, there’s a chance he fails his physical, which would render this whole thing a waste of time while simultaneously jabbing at Stidham’s confidence. If Newton stays healthy enough to soak up the majority of the preseason reps with the ones and then suffers a season-ending injury in Week 2, the Patriots will have wasted their time when Stidham could have desperately used those snaps.
Even if Newton does stay on the field and plays well enough to start, there’s a chance this doesn’t move the needle for the Patriots. If Newton is the 24th-best quarterback in football, they will probably go 9-7 and not be good enough to beat the Kansas City Chiefs in the playoffs, and they will likely move on from Newton after the season without having found their long-term quarterback. They would then enter next year with the same questions about Stidham and their future at the position, only with Stidham a year closer to free agency and the market much less likely to bear starting options.
Dan Orlovsky breaks down how Cam Newton will be utilized with the Patriots, saying Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels will find new ways to use his skill set.
In that dream scenario in which Newton stays healthy and the Patriots compete for a Super Bowl, there’s still some modest downside for the team. They were unable to convince Newton to sign a multiyear deal or get any sort of option on him for 2021 if he excels as the starter. It’s unclear whether the Pats will have the right to franchise him after the season if he does return to form. They’ll be able to afford a tag for him, given that the Pats are projected with more than $86 million in cap space, but if his camp negotiated a tag refusal as part of this deal, the Patriots won’t have a lot of leverage in re-signing him.
This is an obviously smart move for the Patriots, even if it doesn’t work out. Merely having Newton on their roster when he could have served as a high-upside backup for such rivals as the Bills, Ravens, Steelers, Chiefs and Tennessee Titans would have been worth what the Patriots are paying him. For the Patriots to add a starter with Newton’s upside this late in the process is almost a cliché. This has a strong case to become the best free-agent signing of the offseason.
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