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Two Minute Warning: The year of the offensive tackle

Offensive Tackle
Feb 28, 2020; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs (OL53) goes through a workout drill during the 2020 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Who would be dumb enough to trade multiple picks for a veteran offensive tackle and throw your draft away? 

Oh right, sorry, Houston Texans. Then again, you just gave Bill O’Brien all the power so… karma? 

The 2020 NFL Combine will be considered a win for multiple players. Henry Ruggs might not have beaten the 40-yard dash record, but he solidified himself as a top 15 player. Jalen Hurts shut up the critics for another week by having a strong outing under center. Jeffery Okudah might have bumped into a conversation for the No.2 pick with his smooth backpedal and breaks in coverage. 

But the real winners of the combine are the teams needing an offensive tackle as a priority. Much like the receiver class, there’s a separation between the top tier players and the middle of the pack. Also like the receivers, it’s not a loss to miss out on the big names because mid-round selections should be in the running to help your favorite team thrive.

Coming into Indianapolis, four tackles were all expected to fight for the No.1 position on big boards. How about you pick your team’s poison is and be happy instead of arguing why they’re not unanimously ranked No.1. All four names excelled during Friday’s drills and solidified themselves at least the top tackle on one NFL board. 

Alabama’s Jedrick Wills has been linked to being the first offensive tackle off the board. Running a hair over 5.0 seconds in the 40 while positing a 34.5 vertical approach, the Crimson Tide right tackle certainly proved why NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah believes he should be in the mix early. 

“I have Mekhi Becton, but he’s right behind him,” Jeremiah said of Wills. “He ran just over 5.0 in the 40. You see some of that explosiveness in the vertical that shows up when you watch him on tape.”

Speaking of Becton, please someone sprint to the dang podium if he’s on the clock because he might beat you there. At 364 pounds, the Louisville sensation ran a 5.10 40 while posting 23 reps on the bench. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Becton is the heaviest player to run a sub -5.2 40-yard dash at the combine since 2006.

Then there was Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, who perhaps came in with the most questions surrounding his potential. Shut up nerds; those questions have been answered.

The former Hawkeye vertical jump of 36.5 inches is the best by any offensive tackle lineman at the combine since 2006. To put that into perspective, DeAndre Hopkins, both known for his ability to go high for passes, posted 36 inches during the combine in 2013. Wirfs also had the best 40 times among all lineman at 4.85.  

Even Andrew Thomas, who perhaps looks like a loser in this scenario, had a solid weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Georgia product posted a 5.22 40 time, 21 bench reps, a 30.5 inch vertical, and looked sharp during drills. At 315-pounds, Thomas will be one of the smaller tackles, but scouts raved of his pass protection skills during his time at Georgia. 

The top half teams struggled due to pass protection on the offensive line. The Giants, Dolphins, Panthers, Cardinals, Jaguars, Browns, Jets, and Buccaneers allowed at least 40 sacks during 2019 — four of which allowed more than 50. If the offensive tackle isn’t a top priority to these team’s general managers, they deserve to sit in mediocrity for the next decade.

The four offensive tackle’s floor should be Tampa Bay at No.14 — and that’s being generous to Jason Licht. But even for teams such as Los Angeles, Miami, and Carolina, who could be targeting quarterbacks early, the depth behind them is substantial. Houston’s Josh Jones, USC’s Austin Jackson, TCU’s Lucas Niang, Georgia’s Isaiah Wilson, and Boise State’s Ezra Cleveland all performed on the tape and in Indy that could merit a late first or early second-round selection. 

Wide receivers will garner the most attention due to their flashy playing style and ability to put fans in the seats. Outside of that, offensive tackle should be the position to address. So, congrats teams who need a bookend of the future — your options are clearing a path to a successful start to your next great draft class. 

– 

Life has a funny way of taking control of everything that you love. With multiple jobs in this world of writing, my role at PFN has gone on the back-burner. Here’s the excellent news Two Minute Warning Fans:

I’m back!

I’ll wait for the respective 30 minutes for you to continue to clap. 

Meanwhile, the NFL free-agent market is heating up as teams prepare for the tampering period later this month. On this week’s 2MW, we’ll be taking a look at an offensive tackle’s free-agent market, the franchise tag, two quarterbacks changing homes and my favorite player in the draft showing you why he’s a stud.

Let’s hop on into it. 

Conklin’s crushing free-agent market

Last season, the Tennessee Titans elected not to pick up the fifth-year option to right tackle Jack Conklin. It seemed like the right move at the time since the All-Pro was coming off two injured-ridden seasons. Now, that could be bitting them in the keester. 

After another successful year in the trenches, Conklin’s free-agent market is sky-rocketing towards the top of the charts. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the 25-year-old product could sign with the New York Jets when free agency officially opens on March 18. 

Conklin is a proven starter at the NFL level, being named an All-Pro during his rookie season in 2016. Dominant on the right side of the line, the Jets will need to protect third-year quarterback Sam Darnold. As PFN’s Draft Analyst Tony Pauline reported earlier this weekend, both parties should make this deal a priority since the Jets are willing to pay the asking price. 

Conklin joining gang green shouldn’t change the approach set for New York come draft day either. The need at left tackle will still be a priority as the team allowed 52 sacks during the 2019 season — 4th most in the NFL. Joe Douglas will now have the option to solidify both bookends for Darnold’s progression over what will hopefully be five years. 

Should other teams trade up near the top of the market, New York will be set to justifiably find a weapon for Darnold early in the draft. Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy or Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb should be in play for the No.11 selection if teams begin to make a run for offensive linemen. The Jets would be safe taking a top pass-catcher day one and adding depth to the line with someone such as Auburn’s Prince Tega Wanhgho or TCU’s Lucas Niang. 

The Jets’ top priorities will be on offense this April. If Conklin joins the staff, they could breathe, knowing they should stay put outside the top 10 and allow the draft to run its course. 

Franchise tag galore

The franchise tag is used mainly to sign players to a long-term deal before they can test the market. Hopefully, these eight teams can get the deal done before a Jadevon Clowney 2.0 was to occur. 

With the recent news of defensive linemen’s Yannick Ngakoue and Chris Jones receiving the tag from Jacksonville and Kansas City, respectively, the total for official franchise tags have come to five. Both standouts of the 2016 NFL Draft class, Ngakoue and Jones are heralds for their ability to create a pass rush and pressure quarterbacks into making mistakes downfield. 

Jones seems optimistic that the Chiefs will be able to be paid his due before a holdout is to occur. 

“But the beautiful thing about the franchise tag [is] that it can go one of two ways. The team can long-term you to have you for the future, or they can trade you. Either way, I’ll get paid benefits.”

Ngakoue, on the other hand, is likely ready for a fresh start after the season of destruction in Duval County. 

Reports state that Jones will earn $16 million this season should he play under the tag while Nagouke would receive $19.3 million — significantly less than what the market would offer. The Chiefs will likely part ways with aging veterans or higher contract to keep Jones around in a defense that features Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu. Jacksonville could be forced to pull a Houston 2.0 and add several drafts picks to return a profit in 2020. 

The franchise tag might hit its pinnacle this offseason with up to nine team potential placing it on players. Tampa Bay will try to retain Shaquil Barrett, who led the NFL with 19.5 sacks, while the Titans are expected to tag Derrick Henry, the league-leading rusher, if a long-term deal cannot be completed. Teams such as Dallas (Dak Prescott or Amari Cooper), Cincinnati (AJ Green), Los Angeles (Hunter Henry), and Denver (Justin Simmons) have already established they will tag their talent to keep them in the building for another season. 

While the tag has its perks, it sometimes will delay the inevitable. General managers will need to cough up the dough or cough out a reason as to why their stars aren’t being paid. Either way, best of luck to these franchises. 

Foles finished? 

In less anticlimactic news, the Jaguars have found their quarterback of the future… for 2020 that is.

Reports have stated that the team will look to trade former starting quarterback Nick Foles after one season into his $88 million deal last year. With the slightly better success under Gardener Minshew, the Super Bowl 52 MVP will be leaving Duval after throwing 736 yards and three touchdowns. 

Here’s the thing; who’s taking that contract? 

Similar to when the then St.Louis Rams signed Foles to a $24.5 million deal in 2015, the quarterback has underachieved in the long-term process. Fans will remember him for “Philly Philly” and giving the city that ironically is called “Brotherly Love” a championship for the first time in history. Still, the track record has shown his inability to remain a starter for a full 16 games. And despite a trade that would leave Jacksonville with $18.75 million in dead cap for 2020, the team will come out a loser for betting on an unproven starter. 

Is Minshew the answer under center? Literally, who knows. Sure, he relates to the fans as your “average joe,” but the team will need wins — which Minshew collected six of last season. If the team cannot find a trade partner for the quarterback who is perhaps the most expensive paper stopper in the NFL, they will have more questions then answers for their long-term future. 

The Ngaouke news will be the storyline to follow, but keep Foles in the back of your football heads. Is he a hero? Yes, without a doubt, he’s the biggest name to Philly since Balboa. Is he a starter — or ever was? 

You know the answer. 

Sweet Lord Simmons 

Defense wins championships is how it goes. If you want to fix yours, draft Isaiah Simmons. 

One of the biggest knocks on the Clemson weapon was also his greatest strength – his versatility. Last season in the No.1 college defense, Simmons played at least 70 snaps at four different positions, including 25 on the outside as a boundary corner. During Saturday’s combine drills, the 6-foot-3 defensive weapon ran a 4.39 40, an 11-foot broad jump and a vertical of 39 inches. 

His 40 time? Second fastest by a linebacker since 2003. 

Scouts might not know where to play him early, and that could play into his favor. A struggling season at outside linebacker could have the team looking to have him move to the back end. Maybe a year at safety could have him playing in more of a blitzing role. Even if a team cannot find a permanent role for him at the next level, that’s not the end of the word. 

The old saying states, “Jack of all trades, master of none”. When teams were looking at “multi-purpose” players such as Shaq Thompson or Deone Bucannon, the hybrid player was just becoming a trend. While they were the pioneers, Simmons is the final product. 

Simple; draft him and be happy teams.  

Brady baiting Bill? 

The NFL impending free agency won’t begin until Tom Brady decides so. In the latest edition of “yanny” or “laurel,” Brady was seen with Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman on the sideline talking about his future. Most fans see him say, “he’s not,” but others are replying with the fact that he said, “let’s not.” 

Have at it Twitter. 

The bottom line is Brady, and his decision will affect the entire free-agent market. And simple, he and Bill Belichick need to have “the talk” we all have when going through a relationship. If he returns to New England, teams will be able to bring back players like Ryan Tannehill to Tennessee or Jameis Winston to Tampa Bay. 

Others could decide where they believe their best chance of starting will form. Then you have teams like the Bengals who could begin to look at their options of where they could dump someone like Andy Dalton for next year. 

But if Brady were to leave, this would allow New England to begin searching for their future under center, thus creating a ripple effect and allowing other teams to start their pitch meetings for the G.O.A.T. this month. Teams would also be able to find ways to dump their salary cap and begin putting money aside for either free agency as a whole or just one top player. 

No one knows what’s going to happen — no, you don’t, so stop saying you do. We all know one thing that will go down with Brady – a stall in the free-agent pool. The two parties will need to meet soon; otherwise, this historic free-agent class will become a snooze fest. 

Parting Shots

I’m going to take this time to break down PFN’s Brad Kelly’s most recent mock and give my thoughts. Brad’s a buddy of mine, so I hope he doesn’t get too upset. Let’s have fun, kids!

10) Best Pick: Carolina Panthers select LB Isaiah Simmons: Again, Simmons is a weapon for any defense, and the Panthers have holes everywhere. With Luke Kuechly retiring, Carolina needs a leader at the second-level.

9) Worst Pick: Green Bay Packers select OT Matt Peart: Look, I don’t think there is a “bad pick” in his mock, but this is the more questionable one. After failing to address the receiver position last offseason, Green Bay needs a No.2 for the future. With TCU’s Jalen Reagor or Arizona State’s Brandon Ayiuk still on the board, that seems like the better move for now.

8) Most Questionable, Yet Possible Pick: Los Angeles Chargers select QB Jordan Love: I’m all for the not having Justin Herbert go No.6 like most mocks, but Love? Although I do believe the Utah State quarterback would thrive in Los Angeles, the team should trade back or back in to select him. If they’re going someone else other than Herbert that early, it should be an offensive tackle. 

7) Slam Dunk: Baltimore Ravens select DL Javon Kinlaw: So Kinlaw didn’t perform at the combine due to knee tendinitis, meaning his stock could be falling. If he were to land to the Ravens, the fans better be screaming for joy. This is a premier defensive tackle who, when healthy, will terrorize offensive lines. 

6) Makes Too Much Sense: Las Vegas Raiders select LB Patrick Queen: Yeah, this is going to happen. Much like Garrett Bradbury to the Minnesota Vikings last year, the Raiders will choose Queen or Kenneth Murray. Sucks if you hate obvious picks, but this is the pick at 19, so get used to it.

5) Creative Against the Rest: Philadelphia Eagles selected WR Denzel Mims: I’m not a stan for Mims in the first round, but the Eagles at No.21 does make sense. The team will need a speed threat and the Baylor alum ran a 4.38 at the combine. It makes sense, and Brad knows receivers. I’m done judging. 

4) First Round Winner: Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The team gets my No.4 player at pick 14. There’s no reason they should have Vita Vea and Derrick Brown in the trenches, but they do. Hi Bruce, welcome to the hopeful playoff picture. 

3) First Round Loser: Jacksonville Jaguars: At some point, the team needs to add a defensive tackle. I like Jerry Jeudy, but Brown or Andrew Thomas would be a slam dunk pick. Same with Kristian Fulton, but Kinlaw and Josh Jones are right there. I’m nit-picking because it’s still a great haul, but I personally would have gone in a different direction.

2) Favorite Pick: New Orleans Saints select WR Justin Jefferson: The Bayou Bengal plays in his backyard with Drew Brees and Michael Thomas? Yep, I’m happy. 

1) Least Favorite: Buffalo Bills select WR Tee Higgins: Higgins’ comments on sitting out of the combine to “prep” rubbed me the wrong way. Buffalo is my favorite on the rise franchises because I was a big Josh Allen supporter (which is the equivalent of saying I support the President to NFL fans).

Higgins is talented, but with comments about not being ready for the most significant job interview of your life, I’m not sold. 

Cole Thompson is the Lead NFL writer for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter at @MrColeThompson.

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