MOBILE, Ala. -- For the past five days, the NFL descended upon the Deep South. The main focus was supposed to be on the college prospects playing on the field at Ladd Peebles Stadium, but that wasn't where all eyes were.
Some were on Dreamland BBQ or Wintzell's oysters. For others, however, attention was on the sidelines and in the stands -- the league's best gossip circles. What did we learn over the course of a few days? A few things:
1) New coaches face new challenges.
There were first-year NFL coaches aplenty, including the Bills' Doug Marrone, Cardinals' Bruce Arians, Eagles' Chip Kelly and Jaguars' Gus Bradley. Each had a different way of scouting the new talent. Some ducked into the stands. Others, like Kelly, stood on the sideline, zeroing in on prospective players. Was Kelly grading players in his head? Well, not exactly.
Talk to any new coach working under a new general manager working with a new set of players working in a new situation. Then realize, everything's just getting started. Most of these guys have a long, long way to go to even understand the kind of player they are looking for.
Asked what his ideal player is like, Bradley said, "You have this image we'll be extremely tough and play with a lot of poise," Bradley said. "Guys that are passionate." At this point, that's what he hopes for, because he hasn't worked with new GM David Caldwell enough to figure out what they -- together -- want physically. Same with Kelly and Eagles GM Howie Roseman. Kelly's interest in evaluation is clear, and evaluating on a pro level might be easier than in college, as there is far less projecting. But he hasn't learned his roster enough, hasn't learned the organizational philosophy enough to know what he wants to see. I was reminded of this during the week when considering all the obstacles in the way of first-year coaches.
"I don't think it's hard," Kelly said, "because the draft isn't tomorrow."
2) Don't be surprised if QBs are over-drafted, despite a bland crop.
The consensus among league-wide talent evaluators is that there is no Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III in the 2013 NFL Draft. With all due respect to Senior Bowl participants Mike Glennon (North Carolina State), Ryan Nassib (Syracuse) and Tyler Wilson (Arkansas), they are not sure-fire top picks. Certainly not No. 1 overall picks. But going in the top 20 is definitely a possibility. As is slipping into the first round like Brandon Weeden did last year. The reason? As one salary expert pointed out, the new rookie salary structure allows teams to reach for quarterbacks with a smaller penalty. And this year, we might see it more than ever.
Several teams are desperately in need of a passer, but quality options are scarce. There are only so many Matt Flynns and Alex Smiths to go around. And it's not like the days of 2010, when the St. Louis Rams and No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford were agreeing to a six-year, $76-million deal with $50 million guaranteed. In those days, you might have been more reluctant to reach, because if you swing and miss, the penalty is crushing. The Oakland Raiders can attest (see: JaMarcus Russell). Last year, however, Weeden signed a four-year, $8.1 million deal.
Now, let's say a team like the New York Jets reaches for a passer in the first round, and the pick fails. While it hurts to waste the pick, it's no longer a devastating financial blow. This might cause even more over-drafting of quarterbacks than usual.
3) Free agency won't offer much excitement this offseason.
Last year during free agency, there was madness. It started with Mario Williams, when the Bills welcomed him to Buffalo and wouldn't let him leave without signing a contract. And the wackiness continued. But listen to several top executives around the league and you quickly get the impression this year will be, well, boring. Why? Because teams don't have money.
The cap is mostly staying flat. Sure, there will be some excitement surrounding where Michael Vick will end up, and maybe where Flynn could be traded. But anything else? Wes Welker might be franchised again. Greg Jennings will almost certainly leave the Green Bay Packers, but will his deal be a blockbuster? Not likely. Plus, the way the finances shake out, there might not be endless money for middle-aged, mid-level free agents looking to command, say, $1.5 million dollars to play middle linebacker. More and more veterans might end up having to settle for minimum deals. As one general manager put it, he'll wait until Day 4, when the veterans start calling teams instead of the other way around. But it appears there will be more than a few disappointed vets this year.
4) League folks can't look away from the Jets debacle, either.
It's not just the media that's infatuated with the Jets. It's the NFL world, too. Gang Green seemed to be on everyone's mind in Mobile, though it wasn't (just) Tim Tebow this time. Everyone's wondering the same question: How did a dynamic, forward-moving team that reached the AFC title game two years in a row turn into such a mess? It was not missed in league circles, for instance, that David Caldwell chose the Jacksonville Jaguars -- straight up -- over the Jets when offered the chance to serve as GM of either. As one executive asked, "Well, what would you do?" Spend a year cleaning up salary-cap hell with coaching uncertainty ... or start anew and build? Easy choice.
An interesting example for comparison to these Jets? The Raiders. Yes, the same Raiders who went 4-12 this year. Because they spent a year under new GM Reggie McKenzie simply setting the foundation, and they aren't done yet. Escaping a salary-cap debacle, while having an infective quarterback who must be on the roster, with plenty of other holes all around -- yes, the Raiders and Jets have similarities. Yet Oakland had a keen understanding of the time table for getting the franchise together, led by McKenzie's even-keeled approach. The Raiders are getting some picks back this year, and slowly, they will build. Many think the Jets don't understand the situation they are in.
One topic kept coming up in talks with people around the league: Mark Sanchez's contract. As in, how could Mike Tannenbaum do it, and guarantee his salary for 2013? Tannenbaum's inability to explain away that contract -- as a salary-cap guy -- might keep him out of the league this year and for years to come.
5) Sean Payton's rock-star return created quite a buzz.
All week, everyone wondered, "Where's Sean?" The New Orleans Saints came to Mobile in full force, but where was the head coach? When one assistant coach asked this early in the week, he had to be reminded that Sean Payton couldn't interact with NFL people at events like the Senior Bowl during his suspension. That changed Wednesday, when Payton made his rock star-like appearance following a Tuesday reinstatement, coffee in hand, sitting alongside his fellow coaches. The intrigue stayed alive throughout the week, with a pack of general managers asking reporters, "What's he going to say?" as Payton walked up to his news conference. Then, after Payton concluded a thorough, soul-searching, forward-thinking, remorseful and flawless presser, the attention turned to his team.
The Saints, once again, were a hot topic, but not for the reason that dominated their existence over the last year. They were, in fact, back to the real world. Payton's charismatic ways drew attention, and not just from the outside world. Even from Saints folks who participated in the staff meeting after he arrived in Mobile, the atmosphere was described as electric. As one person told me, "You could tell right away the head coach was back." They knew Payton would have a certain seriousness -- with some anger -- after what had happened in his absence, and some of that came out with the firing of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo on Thursday. But they also craved his sense of urgency, one that had been badly missed. The Saints have some remodeling to do. But there is no doubt who is in charge anymore.