“My nipples are hard… for Allen Lazard.”
I'm in a downtown bar in Indianapolis and just like I do every NFL Combine, I ask my sources what they have heard. I ask coaches, front office folks, agents, beat reporters, league sources and general managers.
I ask everybody. Because I can.
The NFL Combine is a rare, once-in-a-year event that's publicly stated purpose is to allow NFL teams to watch, time, weigh, poke, prod, interview and just generally learn a lot more about this year's incoming draft class. All of which is true.
But that's just part of the appeal. Because it's also the only time all year that the entire NFL is in the same place. All those coaches, front office executives, PR folks, media members, general managers and more are in the same one-mile radius for a week. At a time when the Super Bowl is over, but the new league year hasn't really started everyone is jovial and letting off steam in as relaxed an atmosphere as you'll find in the NFL during the calendar year.
And THAT'S what I take advantage of. At coffee shops, restaurants, and bars late at night (sometimes, ahem, very late at night), I talk to everyone I can. Some are old friends and contacts, some are people I am meeting for the very first time, but in each interaction, I say the same thing.
What have you heard?
Back to my first night in Indy, where the answer could not be more clear:
“My nipples are hard…for Allen Lazard.”
My source goes on to explain that that was a phrase he heard about Lazard, one of the top free agent wide receivers this year in a fairly thin class. I heard both the Ravens and Chiefs really like Lazard and my sense is that Lazard returning to Green Bay is not out of the question, but an unlikely outcome.
“Can I use that quote” I ask? I'm told yes and as I thank him, I explain to him, just as I do with everyone, that I am not a journalist and don't claim to be. I explain that while the track record of this column over the years is pretty good (For example this was the first national column a few years ago to suggest Tom Brady to Tampa Bay at a time when everyone else was saying there was no way he was leaving New England) there is nothing in this column that I will report as news. Nothing you will read below is anything more than rumors, gossip and highly-educated guesses. This is a column entirely about me asking some pointed questions with a distinct fantasy football point of view and in some cases, reading the tea leaves in folks' answers.
So that's what this column is. NOT NEWS. It is unsubstantiated rumors and tidbits I picked up mixed in with my interpretation of what some of the coaches and general managers said from the podium during their public press conferences.
Enough caveats for you? Good. Last thing I'll say here is I want to give a shout out to my buddies Alex Dunlap and Cody Carpentier of RosterWatch.com. Many times during the combine multiple coaches and general managers speak at the same time, making it impossible to catch everyone. So, in some cases below when I refer to something said from a podium by a coach or GM I am relying on their always excellent coverage. Check them out when you get a chance and follow them on Twitter.
Ok. Let's get to it.
In addition to the Lazard stuff, here are the 23 most interesting things I heard at the 2023 NFL Combine.
1. I don't know who the new owner of the Washington Commanders will be, just that there will be one. There's been a bunch of crazy reporting around: Who will buy them? Who won't? Is Jeff Bezos in the running or is he not? Is all this a bluff by Dan Snyder to take heat off him? And so on.
Well, Washington is my team, so you can only imagine how closely I have followed this story. And during combine week, my friend and former ESPN colleague Don Van Natta Jr. dropped an absolute doozy of a story on Snyder, alleging, among other things, that (another!) criminal inquiry of the team's finances and Snyder's dealings around a $55 million dollar line of credit is being investigated by the FBI and IRS. (My favorite tidbit? Snyder is accused of charging the team $4.5 million dollars to put the team's logo on his personal private jet. Unreal. Just when you think there can't be another terrible story… yep, here comes another! No team leads the NFL in lawsuits and investigations like my Commanders).
Anyways, highly recommended reading here.
Here's what I can tell you, from both Washington team sources I spoke to and to NFL league sources, he's selling. If he doesn't do it on his own, he's going to be forced to but it doesn't seem like it will come to that. He will sell to someone, but that someone will NOT be Jeff Bezos. Aside from all the other reasons folks have given (Snyder hates the Washington Post, owned by Bezos) one person told me Snyder hates how it looks that Bezos would drive him from the NFL AND then get his team? Snyder would rather take less money than sell it to Bezos.
2. Snyder's thought process is also, weirdly, tied to Lamar Jackson. But before we get there, let's talk about what the Ravens will do with Lamar. There are many, many theories and reports out there, but my friend and colleague Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk put this out there during Super Bowl week (and I've since seen a lot of others much later echo this) that the most likely scenario is that the Ravens use the non-exclusive franchise tag on him.
The idea is very simple. Lamar doesn't have an agent and the two sides have a had a lot trouble coming to anything close to an agreement. So, the thinking is that the Ravens say… “Hey, ok, Lamar, we'll head to the sideline and we will let you and some other team figure out a deal.” And then once that deal is figured out the Ravens have a choice to either match it (“Great, finally a deal Lamar has agreed to!”) or they get two first round picks.
And this is where Dan Snyder and his mindset come into play. Florio has mentioned a few times on his radio/TV show the idea that one team that could sign him would be the Commanders. Lamar wants a fully guaranteed deal, similar to Deshaun Watson's. A crazy deal that happened because, well, the Browns were desperate and it was the only way they could get Watson. But no other QB has that kind of deal. Not Josh Allen, who was drafted in the same class (2018). Not Patrick Mahomes. Only Watson has a fully guaranteed contract.
That fully guaranteed deal with Watson secretly drove a lot of other NFL teams crazy, as you might imagine. So, what if, on his way out, Dan Snyder gave Lamar Jackson what he wants? A fully guaranteed six-year deal. A deal he won't have to pay off because he'll be gone. As Florio said, “This would be the ultimate middle finger in the eye of the power structure if [Snyder] does it.”
Also, delivering Jackson would certainly help Snyder salvage his legacy. It's a perfect win-win. Snyder sticks it to the rest of league by re-setting the QB market in an insane way, and also delivers a franchise QB to Washington.
People may dismiss the idea because Florio's idea was later used to prank the Pardon My Take guys as PFT Commenter is a well-known Commanders fan and it went viral. But I'm told there is some actual smoke to that fire.
One last nugget on Lamar Jackson. One source said, “I think the Ravens are secretly really annoyed with Lamar and not just the contract stuff. There's other stuff, including all the missed time. Don't rule out a sign and trade.”
3. As long as we are talking big-name quarterbacks, despite all the rumors of Derek Carr going to the Jets, one thing that held that up was that Jets owner Woody Johnson really wants Aaron Rodgers. So, the staff has had to be supportive of that. However, secretly, the rest of the team's front office wanted Derek Carr. Now that Carr is reportedly signing with New Orleans, the Jets are in “Hoping for Rodgers” mode. If that doesn't work out… who knows?
4. Conventional wisdom points to Geno Smith returning to Seattle, but after talking with folks that's certainly not a foregone conclusion. Seattle (especially with No. 5 overall pick) is doing a deep dive on the QB class in a significant way. As one source said to me “What's better? $30 million a year for Geno coming off one good year (where he tailed off in the second half) or draft a rookie and keep Drew Lock?” Drafting a QB with the fifth overall pick, keeping Lock and letting Geno walk is not out of the realm of possibility.
5. Speaking of Lock, I also heard his name as a possible option for Tampa Bay to be a veteran to compete with Kyle Trask.
6. No one will be surprised to hear Chicago is getting a lot of calls on the No. 1 overall pick, but I was surprised to hear that no team has called to ask about Justin Fields and what it might take to acquire him. This is just me here, but honestly, I'd rather have Fields than the first overall pick this year. Plus, I bet Fields might be cheaper, or at least equal, to acquire than what it'll take to get the first pick and Fields is at least somewhat of a proven commodity.
7. Asking about Matthew Stafford, I was told “The guy could barely throw last year. Retirement is still not out of the question.”
8. Speaking of big name QBs coming off down years, more than one person mentioned to me that Russell Wilson is basically on a one-year audition. There's no way Denver can cut him this year, but next year, while the dead cap hit would certainly be bad, it could be spread out over two years and wouldn't be franchise crippling. Said one source “I don't think [Sean] Payton likes Russ. He's got one year to prove himself or Payton will move on.” This source pointed out that Payton has said multiple times in public, on the record, how Russell keeps “bothering Drew Brees.” Payton tries to play it off for a laugh, but my source doesn't think Payton actually think it's funny.
9. As long as we are talking Denver, I'm told the Broncos are quietly shopping Courtland Sutton. Not actively pushing him, but definitely trying to see if there's a trade market for him and if they get a decent offer, would move him.
10. The most fascinating nugget about Denver (and possibly of the whole combine) was about Javonte Williams' health and I'm told there is a VERY wide range of possibilities regarding his return. There is a chance he is healthy to start the year. There is a chance he misses multiple games. And there is actually a chance he misses all of next year. I was told he is currently a lot more hurt than the team is letting on publicly and that the Broncos are secretly nervous. Don't be surprised if the Broncos wind up with Kareem Hunt when all is said and done. Mike Boone is likely gone but Latavius Murray is expected to be back and be in the “Mark Ingram” role for Sean Payton. But Hunt, who is not expected to be back in Cleveland, is said to be a target for Denver. If Hunt winds up in Denver, my source said, you'll know Javonte Williams' injury is a lot worse than they are letting on.
11. Speaking of Cleveland running backs, people doing Best Ball drafts right now should spend a late round pick on Jerome Ford before his ADP rises. It will be he, and not D'Ernest Johnson, who will be Nick Chubb's back-up. They like Ford a lot.
12. Cleveland's offense is going to be really interesting next year. Look for the Browns to add a speed wide receiver this off-season to go with Amari Cooper. One source told me “They are really going to open up the offense. Go five wide. Pass a lot. This is going to be Deshaun Watson's offense, not Nick Chubb's. They will pass a lot more than folks expect.”
I was told to go look at the Browns-Steelers game from Week 18. In that game, the opening kickoff temperature was in the 30's. Cold as hell and the Over/Under was 39.5. People expected a low scoring, cold weather, typical AFC North game. Instead, even as cold and windy as the conditions were, Cleveland threw it 29 times while Nick Chubb ran it 12 times in a 28-14 loss for the Browns. Yes, they were down, but my source said that will be much closer to the norm for Cleveland next year. Tons of passing attempts for Watson (likely closer to 40 a game in reasonable weather) with like 12 rushing attempts for Chubb and maybe a few touches for Jerome Ford.
13. More running backs. Falcons GM Terry Fontenot was asked at his press conference if Tyler Allgeier can be the Falcons' bellcow? His answer “He's a good player, you always need multiple at that position. Having one RB carry the ball all the time, that's kind of rare. You need to have multiple running backs to preserve their career ... we love Tyler, but it's another position we have to always add to." Where you are currently drafting Allgeier in Best Ball is too high…
14. I will say that you're probably drafting James Cook too low. Bills General Manager Brandon Beane said at his press conference “Whether it is passing it to him, handing it to him, we definitely feel he can handle a higher workload."
With Devin Singletary a free agent and Nyheim Hines a possible cap casualty, there's a very real path to a significant role for Cook this year in one of the best offenses in football.
15. Staying with the Bills, I personally asked both Brandon Beane and Bills head coach Sean McDermott about Gabriel Davis. Specifically, I mentioned that expectations coming into this past season were sky high (especially after the four touchdown playoff game vs. Kansas City) and here's what Sean McDermott said: “I thought he had a good year, I really did. He didn't get off to a great start. There were some turbulent times in the front third of the season but the thing I thought he handled extremely well was that adversity and came back and he went through a high ankle sprain and then he came back and finished the year at moments and in a good way. He'll learn from that, the way Gabe is wired as well, this is a guy who, when we drafted him, was out running routes on the field. So, he's wired that way to come back and have a great third season.”
My take on that is generally coach speak, but they like him, he had a great work ethic but the one thing that popped out at me (and Beane mentioned this as well) was…. “HIGH ANKLE SPRAIN??” Davis had a reported ankle injury early in the season, but I couldn't find anywhere that it was a high ankle sprain, a much tougher and longer lasting injury, usually, than a typical run of the mill ankle injury, which was (as far as I can tell) what was reported. This certainly explains away his start to the year. Lord help me, but I think I may be back in on Gabe Davis next year.
16. I wish I had more details for this one, but I think I don't have great specifics yet because I don't think Jerry Jones has specifics yet. However, I was told that “Dallas wants to make a splash on offense.” While they like Michael Gallup and think he'll be better this year, they don't feel like they have a true star in the passing game beyond CeeDee Lamb and Jerry “wants to make a splash.” What that splash means remains to be seen, whether it's trading up (or for) a big-name player, a splashy signing in free agency or what, but they definitely want a big headliner. I threw out to my source “What about DeAndre Hopkins?” And my source said “Yeah, something like that.” Again, it was my first thought, not my source's and he didn't bite beyond basically agreeing that would be a big splash, so I'm not even saying that's a rumor. But I thought it was interesting.
17. More Dallas. I didn't hear anything about Dalton Schultz, but others have reported that he potentially will not be back with the club next year. There are a lot of moving pieces but, add in the fact that Kellen Moore is no longer the offensive coordinator for the Cowboys, and my sense is Dallas' offense is going to look a lot more different next year than people are currently thinking.
18. “In 15 days I think David Montgomery is no longer a Bear.” The source told me it's not a done deal because Montgomery could still return to Chicago it he's willing to take a team-friendly contract (but who knows what is in Montgomery's mind and what kind of market will be out there for him). However, if you have to place a bet, odds say that the Bears move on next year with Khalil Herbert in the lead role, while seeing if they can get anything out of Trestan Ebner. Chicago may also sign a veteran.
Meanwhile, Montgomery was a name that was suggested to me for Denver if they can't get Kareem Hunt.
19. Speaking at the podium on Khalil Herbert, Matt Eberflus said "He's an exciting player to watch, he can hit the home run. He has some things to work on, too, being a more viable option out of the backfield, all those things we all talk about." My take is that, assuming Monty leaves and there's no real competition for Herbert (Ebner and a mid-level veteran), Herbert will be a fantasy star in a run-centric Justin Fields led offense next season.
Over the last two years in games in which David Montgomery missed or left early, Herbert averaged:
19.5 rushing attempts per game
2.2 targets per game
16 PPR points per game
Plus, the team and offense will be a decent amount better than it was last year.
20. Another running back departure, as two sources told me they expect the Eagles to part ways with Miles Sanders. They really like Kenneth Gainwell in his third down passing role but that's about it. One thing that was interesting was both sources told me the “running back by committee” approach that Philly used the last couple of seasons was more about a lack of confidence in Sanders handling a massive workload, both from a health point of view and concerns on fumbling. If Philly were to land a “star running back” from the draft (like if they somehow wound up with Bijan Robinson) they would ride that guy in a big way. In other words, a RBBC is not Sirianni's preferred way to deploy running backs but rather what he felt he had to do given who they had on the roster.
21. What the wide receiver room looks like next year in Kansas City is anyone's guess. The only guys they definitely have under contract next year are Kadarius Toney and Skyy Moore. (Marquez Valdes-Scantling is also still there, but the Chiefs have a way to get out of his deal this offseason.) As previously mentioned, they like Allen Lazard and are looking at him. As for their current guys, people love Juju Smith-Shuster but concern around the league (and in KC) is he can't stay healthy all season long, especially in a 17 game season. So, if you sign him, you have to understand you're not getting a full year out of him. They also really like Justin Watson, who quietly played a lot of snaps (only Juju and MVS had more among wide receivers last year) but he's a very good blocker so he ends up not getting nearly as many targets as he should. Watson is also a free agent and may want to go somewhere where he has a better chance of getting looks.
22. Of the two KC guys that remain, they like both a lot. But while Skyy Moore is a nice player and well liked within the Chiefs locker room, he just doesn't have the upside or skill set of Kadarius Toney. They are blown away by all the different things he can do and he is also very well liked internally there. They are VERY excited to get him for a full off-season and fully integrated into the offense. So, if looking at the Chiefs WR in their second year with the team, it's KT over Skyy and probably not that close.
23. While all the news out of New Orleans has mostly been about the pursuit of Derek Carr and the QB position, an under reported storyline has been around Juwan Johnson. As one source told me, if the Saints give him a low tender, Johnson will have a crazy market considering how thin the pass catching market is. Johnson, who randomly is a huge TikTok star (He and his wife have 2.8 million followers on TikTok, which I literally had no idea about. They are @juandchan on there) is coming off a year in which he lead the Saints in receiving touchdowns, was second on the team in receiving yards and first downs and third in receptions behind only Chris Olave and Alvin Kamara. He's a smaller name but an interesting one to me especially given the state of tight end in fantasy.