This is the time of year where the most meaningful stories happen away from the field, with the potential to echo throughout the 2019 season. Before the league takes its six-week nap prior to training camps kicking off, here's a look at my four biggest takeaways from OTA/minicamp season.
1) The Eagles beat the rush with Carson Wentz contract
The least interesting and most overheated talking point in sports is whether or not NFL teams can succeed when spending money at the quarterback position. It comes up every time a franchise quarterback receives a new contract. But the truth is, once a quarterback performs at an above-average starter level, he's going to get paid. The contract is usually the biggest ever at the position. The only question is, when will he sign?
Carson Wentz easily cleared that performance bar with his play during the 2017 season, when he threw for 3,296 yards with a 33:7 TD-to-INT ratio in 13 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Even his injury-marred 2018 campaign (3,074 yards, 21:7 TD-to-INT ratio in 11 games) was worthy of a long-term investment. The Eagles were smart to get Wentz signed up early, before fellow 2016 draftees Jared Goff and Dak Prescott.
Quarterback contracts that looked huge at the time they were signed, like those given to Andrew Luck (for six years and $140 million) in June of 2016, Matt Ryan (for five years and $150 million) in May of 2018 and Andy Dalton (!) (for six years and $96 million) in August of 2014, wound up looking affordable in the long run. Consider where each quarterback ranks today in terms of annual average value across all positions, according to Over the Cap: Luck ($24.6 million) is 11th, Ryan ($30 million) is fifth and Dalton ($16 million) is tied for 41st. The salary cap continues to rise at a rapid pace, while the amount of money allocated to players on rookie contracts (which seems like a significant portion of most rosters) remains relatively fixed. As former Packers executive Andrew Brandt put it recently, it's never been easier to manage the salary cap in the NFL, a theory supported by the incredible amount of salary-cap space available throughout the league.
The notion that franchise quarterback contracts make it that much tougher for teams to win is vastly overstated. Teams like the Raiders and Colts, who have young quarterbacks (Luck for Indianapolis and Derek Carr for Oakland) on big deals, seemed to struggle to find enough quality players to spend their cap space on in the years after they signed their QBs, leaving resources unused. That's inefficient. Eight NFL teams have more than $20 million in "dead money" taking up cap space because of players no longer on the roster, according to Over The Cap. That's inefficient. Spending money on a starting quarterback is not a hard decision, and it's not a difficult one to build around.
The Eagles have as many quality veterans signed long-term as any team in the league, and they were still able to fit Wentz's contract in. The fact that the current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire after the 2020 season makes any new deal more complicated, but the Wentz contract will ultimately free up cap space for 2020. The Vikings are in a similar boat, with an expensive quarterback (Kirk Cousins is in Year 2 of a three-year, $84 million deal) and a veteran-heavy team, yet they were still able to keep Anthony Barr and Kyle Rudolph with new contracts this offseason.
Under the previous CBA, the poorly run teams were always trying to escape salary-cap hell. The current CBA has made it almost impossible to get into salary-cap hell in the first place. (Although 2020 will present unique challenges, because of the CBA's rules regarding pushing money into an uncertain future.) The poorly run teams now just can't find enough good players to spend their money on, so they either waste unused cap space or are forced to spend it on bad players.
The Eagles haven't had that problem, and their investment in Wentz should pay dividends. By the time he's ready to sign again (the extension will carry him through 2024), quarterback contracts will likely have reached another stratosphere.
2) Bill O'Brien consolidates power
The Texans have never belonged more to coach Bill O'Brien than they do now in the wake of general manager Brian Gaine's firing last week. The hiring of former Patriots "character coach" Jack Easterby into a role as executive vice president of team development back in April was an important shift for the organization. O'Brien seemed to win an apparent prior power struggle with former GM Rick Smith in Houston, and the arrival of Easterby was another sign that O'Brien, who worked for the Patriots from 2007 to 2011, is bringing people to the organization that he's comfortable working with.
There's an argument to be made that O'Brien has earned the right to call the shots heading into Year 6 of his tenure with the team. The Texans have had a winning record in four of his five seasons there, with the sole exception being 2017, when Deshaun Watson's rookie year was derailed by a torn ACL. Since then, founding Texans owner Bob McNair passed away, and O'Brien appears stronger than ever under chairman and CEO Cal McNair.
With power comes greater scrutiny. The Patriotsfiled tampering charges on Wednesday against the Texans for trying to pry Patriots executive Nick Caserio away to replace Gaine. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport notes that Easterby was at the Patriots' ring ceremony the night before Gaine was fired, which "set off alarm bells" in Foxborough. Before the tampering charges were filed, The MMQB's Albert Breer wrote a good piece on the strong connections between Easterby, Caserio and O'Brien.
Whether O'Brien is able to bring Caserio to Houston or not, the underlying message from Houston is clear. This is O'Brien's organization. Any post-firing analysis of Gaine that tried to pin certain draft picks or free agent moves to him during his brief tenure (he was hired in January of 2018) was misguided. O'Brien is the through-line in this organization. He wants the responsibility and ultimately should be given the credit for its resourceful passing game over the years and their chronically underachieving offensive line. It's all on him.
3) Tyreek Hill remains a Kansas City Chief
The Chiefs announced after the first night of the 2019 NFL Draft that Hill would no longer be allowed to participate in team activities, in the wake of audio being released by KCTV5 of Hill and his fiancee speaking about injuries suffered by their son. The release of the audio precipitated the reopening of an investigation involving Hill, and there was widespread speculation that Hill's days with the Chiefs and possibly in the NFL were over. But that hardly seems certain six weeks later.
"Barring any further developments, there is every reason to believe that Tyreek Hill will be back with the Chiefs before training camp begins late next month," NFL Network's Tom Pelissero said last week. "Now of course the NFL could intervene here, they could apply the Commissioner's Exempt List to Hill while their investigation continues."
This much we know: Hill remains on the Chiefs' roster. He wasn't quickly released, like former Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt was during the 2018 season, after video emerged of Hunt shoving and kicking a woman in an incident at a hotel. (Hunt was subsequently signed by the Browns and suspended for eight games.) Hill also hasn't been officially suspended. "Barred from team activities" is not an official status and is temporary. Hill is currently residing in a gray area, but that can't continue much longer. Until the league or the Chiefs officially changes his place on the Chiefs roster, it seems foolhardy to assume anything one way or another about the status of the three-time Pro Bowler for the 2019 season.
4) Ron Rivera set up well for make-or-break year
Not a ton of news that occurs in May and June changes my view of a team's outlook, but two significant developments involving the Panthers took place in the span of a few weeks. Carolina signed a difference-making pass-rushing defensive tackle (Gerald McCoy) and unveiled quarterback Cam Newton's compact new throwing motion at mandatory minicamp.
The success of Newton's adjusted mechanics will not be known until the season. He came back rather quickly from shoulder surgery after the 2016 season to positive offseason reports, but his shoulder strength was a notable problem again in the 2018 season. It's undeniably a positive that Newton was back on the field well before training camp, and it's an encouraging sign that he's still trying to fix his accuracy issues.
The McCoy signing adds to a Panthers defensive line that was already bolstered by the addition of first-round pick Brian Burns. McCoy, Burns, Kawann Short, Mario Addison and Dontari Poe will be a lot for opposing offensive lines to handle, reminiscent of great Panthers lines of the past. The McCoy addition allows Rivera's defense the best shot possible to reclaim the form it has shown for much of the decade, with a strong defensive line, Luke Kuechly at linebacker and a secondary that punches above its weight.
With new owner David Tepper presumably ready to make changes if needed, Rivera surely knows he must win with this group, or there could be a house-cleaning after the season that includes the team's coaching staff and front office.
It's not so different than the situation Saints coach Sean Payton faced entering the 2017 season after a string of mediocre Saints campaigns. Rivera has been one of football's most reliable coaches since taking over in 2011, and he's rallied back from job-security questions before, but this is a make-or-break season. It's quite possible that Rivera and Falcons coach Dan Quinn -- heading into Year 5 in Atlanta -- each need a playoff spot to keep their jobs in the NFC South, and there may not be room for both of them.