INDIANAPOLIS — Jameis Winston is not the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ No. 1 option at quarterback for 2020. Cam Newton is very likely the best option for the Carolina Panthers, and head coach Matt Rhule knows it.
Those were two of the big takeaways from a frantic Tuesday of press conferences at the NFL Scouting Combine, which provided the best indication yet about how the quarterback carousel will spin in the coming weeks. Teams don’t show all their cards in public, but it’s pretty obvious which teams were expecting continuity and which teams were open for alternatives.
The Panthers news was the biggest surprise. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Tuesday before Rhule spoke that the Panthers were intent on moving forward with Newton as their starter. Health and timing could be two big factors why, in addition to Newton’s top-shelf talent. Rapoport reported it could be months until Newton’s foot is game-ready, which would complicate or stall any trade market for him. After listening to Rhule speak, however, it was apparent that he evaluated Newton’s prior play and was "unbelievably excited" to see him in his offense.
"I absolutely want Cam here. There’s no doubt about that," Rhule said Tuesday.
These are easily the strongest comments all offseason from the Panthers organization about Newton’s murky future. Even if this is a rebuilding year for the team, the combination of Newton’s health, contract, talent and the likely lack of trade options makes this an easy decision. Rhule could still draft a quarterback to develop alongside Newton, then evaluate what he wants to do after 2020. There’s very little chance the Panthers could find a more productive quarterback in free agency or a more talented quarterback in the draft.
A month ago, the Panthers appeared more likely to make a quarterback change than their division rivals in Tampa. After Tuesday, that’s clearly not the case.
"As a head coach you have to decide ‘Is there a better option?’ " Bucs coach Bruce Arians said Tuesday about Winston. "I really don’t know who’s available. [GM Jason] Licht can talk to agents now, so we’ll find out hopefully in 36 or 48 hours."
This quote nicely encapsulates this DGAF phase of Arians’ career. Not only is he openly admitting that tampering is on the menu in Indianapolis alongside pricey steaks and shrimp cocktails, he’s also happy to tell you which quarterbacks he’d take over his quarterback. Arians was asked who he’d pick up the phone for.
"Tom Brady. Philip (Rivers) is another guy. We’ll see," Arians said.
It’s still possible that Winston ends up back in Tampa with the transition tag or even a two-year contract, but Jameis sounds like a fallback plan. Arians called Winston an "unknown quantity" after five years in the league and bemoaned his sloppy December. It’s worth wondering if this chatter motivates Winston to go elsewhere, no matter what the Bucs’ interest level is.
If Jameis moved on, one potential landing spot could in Las Vegas. Raiders general manager Mike Mayock did a beautiful job extolling Derek Carr’s virtues Tuesday by saying he ran Jon Gruden’s offense "at a high level," while also noting they are open to upgrading every position including quarterback. The Chiefs are not open to upgrading quarterback. Neither are the Texans, Cowboys or even Bills. Mayock and Gruden — who noticeably did not speak Tuesday — were far more definitive about Carr’s status as their franchise quarterback a year ago in Indianapolis. I couldn’t help but notice Mayock say that pocket presence is one of the most important traits he looks for in a quarterback, and he’s not sure if that’s a skill you can learn. That’s not one of Carr’s defining traits.
The Titans, like the Raiders, are watching this quarterback market intently without making too strong a commitment to their incumbent starter. Titans GM Jon Robinson said "we’ll see how it goes" with free agent Ryan Tannehill, while coach Mike Vrabel was happy to talk about his old friend Tom Brady. This could all be posturing for negotiations with Tannehill, but Vrabel doesn’t seem like a guy who feels its necessary to posture. He was happy to compliment and make jokes about his relationship with Brady without ruling out pursuing him. It truly does appear that half a dozen NFL teams are engaging in a high-stakes game of chicken, waiting to see who moves first.
The Broncos, however, are sitting this one out. Executive John Elway said he would have been interested in free agents like Brady and Rivers in previous years, but 2020 is different because of Drew Lock.
"We think he can do it for a long time. Drew is our plan," Elway said.
Mitchell Trubisky remains the plan in Chicago, too. Given two months to walk back statements about Trubisky as Chicago’s Week 1 starter, GM Ryan Pace doubled down on the notion. Coach Matt Nagy intimated there could be competition at the position with a quality backup, but Pace clearly isn’t ready to accept the possibility that his trade up for Trubisky could define this era of Bears football.
In fairness to Pace, Nagy and everyone else who spoke Tuesday, decision makers are put in a difficult spot in Naptown. They don’t even know the rules they will be operating under with the Collective Bargaining Agreement hanging in the balance, and they are just weeks away from enacting their offseason visions. They want to make news in March, not at the podium in February. That’s why so many coaches and decision makers probably envy Bill Belichick’s approach to the media at the combine. He doesn’t speak at all.
With all that quarterback fun out of the way, here were my other takeaways from Tuesday’s press conferences.
1) Franchise tag season is upon us. Elway confirmed that safety Justin Simmons will get the tag if the Broncos can’t come to a long-term agreement. Bengals coach Zac Taylor said he was "very confident" that A.J. Green would be on the team, which indicates the Green is likely to get tagged, too. Chiefs GM Brett Veach made it clear defensive lineman Chris Jones isn’t going anywhere, so he’s likely to get tagged. Pass rusher Matthew Judon should stay put in Baltimore with GM Eric DeCosta optimistic they could sign him to a long-term deal. At worst, Judon is likely to be tagged. Finally, Chargers GM Tom Telesco mentioned the tag as an option for tight end Hunter Henry, which is generally an indication that’s exactly how it will go down.
2) Taylor got great news when LSU quarterback Joe Burrow made it clear he’s not going to pull a power play if selected No. 1 overall by the Bengals.
"Yeah, I’m not gonna not play," Burrow said with the nonchalance of a 23-year-old who knows he’s incredibly good at what he does and is about to be rewarded handsomely for it.
3) Jets general manager Joe Douglas did his best to tamp down any trade speculation about safety Jamal Adams, expressing some confidence they will make Adams a "Jet for life."
4) Three of football’s best left tackles will be back next season, ending speculation about retirement. 49ers general manager John Lynch said Joe Staley will be back. The Rams indicated they are close to a deal bringing Andrew Whitworth back and Colts GM Chris Ballard said that Anthony Castonzo indicated he’ll play in 2020. In Castonzo’s case, the Colts still have to work out a contract for what would be one of the top tackles on the market.
5) When I asked Giants general manager Dave Gettleman if he expected left tackle Nate Solder to be on his roster next year, he provided the verbal equivalent of "humina humina." That’s one to watch. Meanwhile, Giants coach Joe Judge refused to individually name a single player on his roster in an effort to let them know they all have a clean slate with him. Even Daniel Jones. Judge then spent most of his time with the media explaining this policy.
6) Listening to Rams general manager Les Snead, it sounded like linebacker Cory Littleton was their biggest free-agent priority. Defensive lineman Michael Brockers could be the odd man out in free agency and edge rusher Dante Fowler may be viewed as less integral to retain than Littleton.
7) Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell’s comments on Gardner Minshew were notable. While Caldwell made a few cursory positive statements about Nick Foles, Caldwell said Minshew was the type of quarterback they could "build around." Caldwell noted that Minshew’s stats were better than any other rookies (like Kyler Murray or Daniel Jones, although this take is up for debate) and that they want a quarterback who can make plays off-script. That is not Foles’ strength. I don’t blame the Jaguars for being excited about Minshew, but Foles’ contract is seemingly unmovable. That makes Caldwell’s life complicated in the coming weeks.
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8) Caldwell didn’t guarantee that Walter Payton Man of the Year Calais Campbell would be back with the team, indicating that it could depend on how some other moves play out this offseason.
9) After a few years of amassing as much power as possible in Houston, Texans coach/GM Bill O’Brien is delegating one duty: Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly will call plays next season.
10) Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff announced that tight end Austin Hooper and tight end De’Vondre Campbell will hit free agency without new contracts from the team, likely meaning they are headed elsewhere. Hooper is set to hit it rich, especially if Hunter Henry is kept off the market.
11) After a few years of jumping through salary cap hoops to keep his team together, Eagles general manager Howie Roseman has more flexibility this offseason. I found it fascinating that he said he views this season as the start of a three-year building process when it comes to their roster. Most GMs are worried about this year, whereas Roseman shows the work when it comes to long-range planning. He said he’s not looking to protect compensatory picks; he’s looking to add talent. (In other words: Look for big headlines out of Philly this offseason.)
That’s it for Tuesday. Tune back on Wednesday to see which new quarterbacks are still looking for love.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.
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