Lombardi: Behind the scenes of the NFL off-season

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NFL football fans love the combine.  For good reasons: They love watching the drills, hearing the 40 times, and dreaming of adding several of the talented players to their favorite team’s roster.  What the fans see is awesome. What they don’t see would be more amazing.  For all the talk about what happens on the field, who runs the fastest, jumps the highest, and leaps tall buildings in a single bound, the real action in Indianapolis occurs off the field—in the bars, hotel rooms and lobbies.  The conversations that are held between teams and agents, and teams and other teams which are kept confidential, make the action in Indy the biggest story. 

Instead of watching the forties, the television cameras should have tailed the Rams’ front office, because they were extremely busy once they arrived in the Hoosier state and have remained busy since.  We all know the Rams are shopping wide receiver Allen Robinson in an attempt to get rid of the huge contract they signed last off-season.  Now, the Rams know no team wants to absorb the $15.2 million of guaranteed money, so they are offering to pay some of the money to move him off their roster.  It’s not uncommon for the Rams to move a player after they sign him to a huge contract.  It has occurred multiple times, from Todd Gurley to Jared Goff to Brandon Cooks and Robert Woods. 

In fact, behind the scenes, the Rams might be willing to do the same with quarterback Matthew Stafford, since they are faced with another huge salary cap problem because of the new contract given to Stafford last season. Stafford’s contract calls for an option bonus which will trigger another $57 million of guaranteed money—$26 million from the option bonus and $31 million from his base salary in 2024.  And those guarantees are final. There is no escaping the payments unless the Rams make a move before the third day of the league year.  What would you do?  It’s easy to say stay the course, and use the famous line from Teddy in the great movie Rounders: “Pay that man his money.” But is it a wise move to invest $57 million of hard dollars into a player you are not sure can stay healthy?  Or can play to a winning level?  Are there any takers for Stafford?  Probably not, but the Rams have been able to pull a rabbit out of a hat before, and teams desperate for a quarterback might look at the $57 million as a bargain for the next two seasons. 

The Rams are holding a garage sale and are willing to make moves for any of their players not named Aaron Donald and Cooper Kupp.  They will take a first-round pick for Jalen Ramsey which would be a great deal for any team picking later in the draft.  However, Ramsey wants a new deal—and his $17 million salary isn’t easy to rip up and pay more.  Everyone wants Ramsey on their team—not everyone wants to pay him more.  

The next week will be interesting to determine the direction the Rams take.  How do they pay $57 million to Stafford and rebuild?  How do they keep the team competitive around Stafford with all the cap liabilities?  It won’t be easy, and their under-win total might be a good play because there is no way out of the Super Bowl hole they dug. 

The Ravens were another busy team in Indy. They are still working on finding a way to get quarterback Lamar Jackson under contract which is being held up over guaranteed money.  Jackson wants north of $200 million, while the Ravens are unwilling to venture there.  Would they trade Jackson?  When they place the non-exclusive tag on him later today, this will allow teams to kick the tires and find out two things.  By placing this designation instead of the exclusive Franchise tag, the Ravens are essentially saying to other quarterback-needy teams, come make us an offer we cannot refuse.  What would it take to acquire Jackson in terms of compensation?  The non-exclusive tag carries two number-one picks—will it be more or less?  And what would the new contract for Jackson cost?  Jackson would love to play near his hometown of Pompano Beach, Florida.  Would Miami be interested?  Yes, of course, but without a number one pick in this draft, it might be hard to do the deal. 

Before any team calls the Bears for the number one overall pick, they would be smart to call the Ravens first.  If Bears GM Ryan Poles wants two additional number-one picks plus a second to swap in the first round, it might be cheaper asset-wise to trade for Jackson.  Jackson is a proven commodity, whereas Bryce Young and CJ Stroud aren’t.  Poles must understand if Jackson, or Stafford, along with Aaron Rodgers are available, the willingness of teams to secure the number one pick at his high demands might look elsewhere.  Filling a quarterback need is way different than any other need.  Once filled, teams are satisfied; they don’t look for depth.  For all the false bravado Poles is singing, he needs to be aware of how the veteran market affects his market. 

Another behind-the-scenes conversation at the combined centered around Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.  Even though Rodgers has yet to officially announce his return, the seeds of his departure from Titletown have been planted.  All indications from the combine seem to believe Rodgers is going to play in 2023, and the Packers are more than willing to facilitate a trade.  What will it cost?  A one this year and something in later years, depending on Rodgers playing beyond the ‘23 season.  I would expect once Rodgers makes it official, he is playing (with Rodgers nothing is certain but the darkness), he will then select his new team. 

Get ready for a wild and fun off-season.  stay tuned to the GM Shuffle and the Lombardi Line for all the NFL news we learn.