Organized team activities have begun across the NFL and will continue for the next few weeks.

While OTAs are not mandatory, some notable players are attending while others are sitting out this spring. All players are expected to show up for mandatory minicamp, which is being held by some teams June 5-7 and others June 12-14.

Here's a rundown of key players missing and key players attending OTAs:

Atlanta Falcons

Not on hand: WR Julio Jones
Impact on team: Big deal
Reaction: Word circulated to ESPN more than a month ago that Jones wanted a pay raise based on receivers such as Antonio Brown and Mike Evans surpassing him in average per year. But Jones is not a malcontent, so he’s not likely to publicly lobby for a new deal or be a distraction to the team. Yes, Jones is worth more than $14.25 million per year with three years left on the deal. And as one NFC executive said over the weekend, “If Matt Ryan is getting $30 million per year, Julio Jones damn sure should be getting at least $20 million per year because he’s their best player.” This will become a bigger issue if Jones skips mandatory minicamp in June and then the start of training camp. Based on how much the Falcons value Jones, the guess is they’ll find a creative way to meet his desires. Jones has to collect now because unlike Ryan, he won’t be getting that huge deal at age 33. -- Vaughn McClure

Jacksonville Jaguars

Not on hand: Potentially CB Jalen Ramsey
Impact on team: Not a big deal
Reaction: Jaguars players don’t have to report until 8 a.m. ET Tuesday so nothing is official until then, but indications are that Ramsey may not be in Jacksonville for at least the first workout. If that’s the case it should have no impact on the defense. The Jaguars’ starting defense never played a down together in the 2017 preseason yet was one of the league’s best units. Ramsey has trained with his father in Nashville and will not report out of shape. -- Mike DiRocco

Los Angeles Rams

Not on hand: DT Aaron Donald
Impact on team: Big deal
Reaction: Donald was named the Defensive Player of the Year last season despite not participating in the offseason program and training camp because of contract negotiations. A year later, Donald enters the fifth season of his rookie deal with a new contract still not in place. His absence will affect the development of a defensive line that now includes Ndamukong Suh. -- Lindsey Thiry

New England Patriots

Not on hand: QB Tom Brady, TE Rob Gronkowski
Impact on team: Big deal
Reaction: It’s a big deal in the context of this being the first time I can recall Brady staying away from voluntary OTAs for non-injury reasons, and how he’s spoken in the past about how it’s a time to build a foundation and trust with his pass-catchers. At the same time, no one should doubt come the start late July and training camp that everyone will be aligned with the same goal in mind: Putting in the work to vie for another Super Bowl title. -- Mike Reiss

New Orleans Saints

Not on hand: RB Mark Ingram
Impact on team: Big deal
Reaction: I hesitated to call this a big deal because it probably won’t affect Ingram’s on-field performance too much once he returns from a four-game suspension in October. He is expected to participate in the Saints’ mandatory three-day minicamp in June and, presumably, he will also show up for training camp, since that is mandatory. But it’s a significant development because it’s a surprising one. Although Ingram, 28, is heading into the final year of his contract and recently switched agents, it’s hard to picture what his endgame is here. It’s impossible to imagine the Saints will re-sign Ingram to a lucrative long-term extension while he is holding out from camp and facing a four-game suspension to start the season -- especially since they already have another No. 1 running back in last year’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, Alvin Kamara. So unless Ingram is simply trying to avoid injury, it feels like this could create a divide between player and team. And it seems even more likely that this could be Ingram’s last year in New Orleans after he has been a core player for much of the past seven years. -- Mike Triplett

New York Giants

On hand: WR Odell Beckham Jr.
Impact on team: Big deal
Reaction: Beckham is doing everything in his power to prove to the Giants that they can trust him and he’s worthy of a significant financial investment. He’s now been at the start of OTAs, minicamp and the start of the offseason workout program. Now he’s hoping the Giants start seriously negotiating that new long-term deal he so desperately desires. Beckham is also not falling behind learning the new offense.

Not on hand: DT Damon Harrison
Impact on team: Not a big deal
Reaction: It’s not a big deal for now, but it’s definitely worth noting. Coach Pat Shurmur wanted all his players at OTAs and around this spring to learn the new offensive and defensive schemes. Shrumur said he’s aware of Harrison’s absence and they’ll “leave it at that.” But it’s definitely something worth monitoring moving forward considering Harrison ended last season as the team’s defensive captain and is among the team’s highest-paid players. -- Jordan Raanan

Pittsburgh Steelers

Not on hand: RB Le’Veon Bell
Impact on team: Not a big deal
Reaction: Training camp is the bigger concern for Bell, who last season stayed away from team headquarters until September and still flirted with 2,000 yards in 2017. But Bell started slow, averaging 3.46 yards per carry through the first three weeks and raising questions about the importance of camp. Offseason workouts are much different in the eyes of the Steelers. They have value, but Bell knows the system well and the Steelers don’t want him getting hurt. The team knows Bell will be ready even if he skips all of OTAs and minicamp. -- Jeremy Fowler

San Francisco 49ers

Not on hand: LB Reuben Foster
Impact on team: Not a big deal
Reaction: Foster has been away from the team throughout the offseason program as he awaits resolution to his pending legal issues. Clarity could come Wednesday when a Santa Clara County judge is expected to rule on which, if any, of the three felony charges (including two related to domestic violence) against him will move forward to a jury trial. Obviously, Foster’s legal issues are a big deal. From a team and football perspective, Foster’s absence doesn’t help, especially because he’s expected to take on more communication responsibilities in the defense in 2018. But there’s plenty of time left to acclimate if his legal situation is cleared up soon. In the meantime, the Niners can give valuable reps to young players such as rookie Fred Warner. -- Nick Wagoner

Seattle Seahawks

Not on hand: FS Earl Thomas
Impact on team: Not a big deal
Reaction: No one really expected Thomas to attend the voluntary portion of the Seahawks’ offseason program after he made clear his desire for a new contract and suggested he might hold out until he gets one. Whether or not he shows up for mandatory minicamp next month will offer a sign of how deep he may dig his heels in, though GM John Schneider has expressed his confidence that Thomas won’t hold out, saying he’s been told by the player’s agents that he won’t. -- Brady Hendersonvideo

videoCHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Because of the confidentiality involved in the sale of the Carolina Panthers, there have been discrepancies in the reporting of how hedge fund billionaire David Tepper finds himself set to be approved as the new owner on Tuesday at the league's spring meetings in Atlanta.

Multiple sources involved in the negotiations shared the following details to

The NFL encouraged Panthers owner Jerry Richardson to choose his successor before the start of the Atlanta meetings to facilitate approval of the sale -- the winner of the bidding process needs three-fourths approval of the 32 owners.

The league wants to release its findings from an already five-month investigation into Richardson for sexual and workplace misconduct and it wants Richardson to complete the sale before releasing the results so the findings would not influence the price. The process began in December when Sports Illustrated reported four alleged victims said they received a financial settlement from Richardson in exchange for their silence.

A source told ESPN's Seth Wickersham that the results of the investigation are expected to be released after the close of the sale in July.

"Our sense was generally the league was pretty motivated to move things forward," a source said.

AP Photo/Mel Evans, FileBillionaire hedge fund manager David Tepper is expected to be approved as the new owner of the Carolina Panthers on Tuesday.

The bidding came down to Tepper and Charleston, South Carolina, billionaire Ben Navarro. Tepper, 60, had the easiest path to approval because the league already had vetted him as a 5-percent owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, which is worth $122.5 million based on Forbes' estimated $2.45 billion value of the team.

With an estimated net worth of $11 billion, by far the most of any other potential owners without minority ownership help, Tepper also had the easiest path to writing a check for the winning bid of $2.275 billion without taking on minority partners.

Navarro's final bid was $50 million to $60 million more than Tepper’s bid, according to sources, and while the NFL vetting process of Navarro had begun it would have been difficult to finish the work in time for the upcoming meetings.

Also, the bidding never reached $2.5 billion, as Bloomberg reported early in the process, or $2.6 billion, as others have reported. Navarro seriously indicated at one point early in the sale that he would consider going that high, but only verbally and never in writing.

Navarro ultimately settled in at the $2.3 billion range, not wanting to overpay for the franchise valued by Forbes at $2.3 billion.

"They got an appropriate price," one source said, noting the sale of future NFL teams might go for about 5 percent below the Forbes value.

Multiple sources said the New York investment bank Allen & Company, hired to negotiate the deal, overestimated the value of the team and tossed out Navarro's verbal offer as the market price to drive the price up. The company also indicated the price could reach $3 billion.

It never happened. Once Navarro realized the value was closer to $2.3 billion he fell back in line with other bids that began in the low $2 billion range. Tepper's initial bid was about $2.1 billion.

Also, Richardson never met with prospective owners, letting his representatives handle everything.

Tepper emerged early as the front-runner over Navarro. Michael Rubin, the billionaire owner of Fanatics, and Canada-based steel industry tycoon Alan Kestenbaum also were involved in the bidding.

But Rubin, according to sources, was told at one point that he and bidding partner Joe Tsai would have to present an offer "significantly higher" than $2.5 billion to have a shot even though Navarro never put an official bid that high on paper.

Rubin wasn't willing to do that, sources said, but would have gone as high as $2.3 billion. However, once told it would require more than $2.5 billion, there was no interest in getting back in the process.

Navarro at one point appeared to overtake Tepper as the favorite. He had the backing of Richardson's son, Mark, and several of Richardson's close friends such as George Dean Johnson. His Carolina ties as the owner of South Carolina-based Sherman Financial Group also was a factor.

Richardson, a native of North Carolina and long-time resident of South Carolina, founded the Panthers in 1993 as the team of the Carolinas.

"Richardson wanted to sell the team to Navarro," two sources said.

But because of more complicated elements in Navarro's financial plan to purchase the team, it would have made approval at the upcoming meetings tight, if not impossible.

Though Navarro had the financing in place, according to sources, it wasn't as simple as writing a check.

Tepper could write one without needing partners or technical waivers, which would have taken more time to put together. That made him the ultimate winner.

A Sports Illustrated article published in late April in which one of Richardson's alleged victims detailed how Richardson hurt her and called the NFL's investigation a "farce" also played a role in Tepper being selected.

The timing of Navarro being told the sale was moving in a direction that didn't include him came a few weeks after the SI article was published.

Though the upcoming league meetings have been the target for completing the sale since the March meetings in Orlando, bidders weren't given "concrete" deadlines at the start of the process, sources said.

At one point, sources said the deal was hoped to be done by the March meetings. Once that fell through, there was a strong push to get it done by the Atlanta meetings.

Others who initially were in the process at that point didn't have time to re-mobilize their efforts or weren't interested in re-entering because of how the process went.

So in the end, this week's meeting became the driving force to complete the deal with Tepper instead of Navarro.

Youth camp reveals softer side of Vikings coach Mike Zimmer

May, 21, 2018
May 21

videoEAGAN, Minn. -- The image of Mike Zimmer laughing and smiling on a football field isn't seen often (if ever) aside from the fleeting moment after a win when the Minnesota Vikings coach allows himself to take a breath before moving on to the next opponent.

Neither is the sight of Pro Bowl linebacker Anthony Barr throwing touchdown passes, or 350 elementary-aged kids running amok on the practice field inside Minnesota's gigantic new team headquarters.

And don't think for a second that you'll ever catch Zimmer trying his best attempt at the "floss" dance after one of his own players scores a touchdown. Moves like that are reserved for a time when the stakes aren't so high and the 61-year-old coach is able to kick back and enjoy himself, surrounded by his three children, a handful of Vikings players and assistant coaches during an event aimed to benefit those his foundation hopes to influence most.

The kids.

Such images serve as a snapshot into Zimmer's second annual free youth football camp for boys and girls in grades 1-8 that took place over the weekend at the Vikings' facility in Eagan. After a successful first year in 2017, the Mike Zimmer Foundation expanded the camp to a two-day affair where over 700 kids received hands-on instruction while learning the fundamentals of football with a lot of fun and games sprinkled in.

Mike ZimmerCourtesy of Minnesota VikingsVikings coach Mike Zimmer's second free youth football camp hosted 700 kids at the team facility over the weekend in Eagan, Minn.

One glimpse at the Vikings head coach in action would lead some to believe that Zimmer was having just as much fun as the campers, if not more.

"He smiles a lot more when he's out here," said Zimmer's son Adam, who is also the Vikings' linebackers coach. "I don't see him smile much when he's on the field, normally. It's good. He likes to interact with the kids, and I think it's good for him, too."

"He's acting a little soft today," Barr joked. "I don't really know who I'm seeing today. It's not something I'm used to. It's good. All the points that he gives us, I think they apply across all age groups. He's a good leader of men and leader of children so I think they picked up some qualities of him."

This is where the elder Zimmer gets to cut loose and relax while honoring the person who motivated him and his children to give back and inspire the community's youth: His late wife, Vikki. The Zimmer family's MVP.

Vikki died suddenly at the age of 50 in Oct. 2009 when Zimmer was the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati. The Mike Zimmer Foundation was formed to honor the matriarch of the family who spent her free time volunteering at children's hospitals, brought bags of groceries to the homeless and once baked cookies for Zimmer to take to work during Bengals training camp after she told her husband he was being too hard on his players.

"She had a huge heart," Adam Zimmer said. "That's who she was."

Seeing the way her dad's face lit up around the camp's participants revealed a softer side to the Vikings coach that his daughter Corri Zimmer White, the foundation's executive director, gets to see more often than most. Knowing how much seeing him in this environment would have meant to her mother made the weekend hold extra special meaning.

"My mom would've loved to stand out here and watch these kids play and watch my dad interact with them because he's completely different," Corri Zimmer White said.

The reason why we do it is because Vikki loved kids, loved being around sports, and I think that's a big part of it. It's able to bring all of us together. Even though she's not here, she's still part of it.

- Mike Zimmer

"I've always joked that he's always been a kid himself. It's just fun. He's out here and he's not worried about winning or losing and all the stress of the job. I think he just really enjoys that it honors my mom as well and it's something that our family can do together. It's a good bond for us."

The defensive-minded coach boasted that he was "all offense" during the camp, making sure to spread the ball around so everyone in his group could be involved. Like Barr, safety Harrison Smith and linebacker Eric Kendricks, Zimmer also got to test his luck under center.

"I saw him get in there and he played quarterback and he threw an interception," Adam Zimmer said. "I told him I'm glad my grandpa wasn't here. He's enjoying himself and getting into the drills."

Mike ZimmerCourtesy of Minnesota Vikings"I've always joked that he's always been a kid himself. It's just fun. He's out here and he's not worried about winning or losing and all the stress of the job," says Corri Zimmer White of her dad, Mike Zimmer.

Even in the carefree environment, the Vikings' head man sometimes found himself reverting back to his tactics as a coach; teaching experiences that were as rewarding for him as those who received instruction from the head coach of their favorite team.

"Some of them get in their stance and they have the wrong foot back," Mike Zimmer said. "I would help them do that, things like that, that maybe they haven't done before."

The importance of education and sports is a pillar of the Mike Zimmer Foundation. This June, the foundation will bestow two to three $10,000 scholarships on outgoing high school senior athletes who have dedicated ample time to their communities.

It's just another way the Zimmer family hopes to honor their late mother by doing things she would have been proud of, strengthening the bond between the Vikings coach and his children and making Vikki's memory live on through their impact in the community.

"The reason why we do it is because Vikki loved kids, loved being around sports, and I think that's a big part of it," Mike Zimmer said. "It's able to bring all of us together. Even though she's not here, she's still part of it."

videoFLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The New York Jets' quarterback situation has as many juicy layers as a pastrami sandwich from the famed Katz's Deli in Manhattan.

Four quarterbacks, four distinct stories: The golden boy. The old dude. The reclamation project. The mystery man.

They will be on the field Tuesday for the start of OTA practices, the prelim for what promises to be a compelling and potentially tumultuous summer. Right now, there are more questions than answers, such as:

1. Who is the current starter, and does it really matter?

Incumbent Josh McCown is the No. 1 quarterback and will go into training camp as such, according to coach Todd Bowles. But that doesn't mean he will be the Week 1 starter. McCown, who turns 39 on July 4, is a placeholder until first-round pick Sam Darnold is ready to take over. One of the benefits of having McCown on the team is that he doesn't need a lot of reps to get ready, so it wouldn't be a surprise if he doesn't play much in the preseason.

Sam Darnold, Trenton CannonJulio Cortez/AP PhotoJets rookies Sam Darnold and Trenton Cannon are a captive audience as offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates demonstrates a drill during the Jets' rookie minicamp on May 5.

2. Realistically, when will the Darnold era begin?

First of all, let's tap the brakes, shall we? For all his upside, Darnold is a very young quarterback (he turns 21 on June 5) who needs to be coached out of some bad habits he developed during his 22-turnover campaign in 2017. The worst thing the Jets could do is rush him into the lineup to satisfy impatient fans and media members.

"I think he's in a perfect situation, going to New York with Josh McCown, Teddy Bridgewater," former Jets quarterback Chad Pennington said last week on ESPN's Get Up! morning show. "He gets a chance to be patient. ... This needs to be a long-term process for Sam and the Jets, but I think they set themselves up nicely with a quarterback who can lead them in the future for a long time to come. There's no doubt about it."

Let's be honest: It isn't a great offense in which to break in a rookie. There's no No. 1 receiver, and there are no proven pass-catchers at tight end. It's also a new offensive scheme, which means the veterans will be learning, too.

Prediction: McCown will emerge as the starter because he's a stabilizing force, but Darnold will take over by Halloween. Look for him to get plenty of reps in the 10 OTA practices.

3. How does Bridgewater fit?

Bridgewater is the wild card because his role could range anywhere from starter to left out. He also could be trade bait. Frankly, the former Minnesota Vikings starter is the most fascinating veteran on the team because of his well-documented comeback from a horrific knee injury in 2016. Can he get back to being the quarterback who helped the Vikings to the NFC North title in 2015?

He likely will be limited in OTAs because of his surgically repaired left knee, but the Jets are confident that he will be 100 percent by training camp. There has been a lot of speculation about his health, some of it fueled by Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, but the Jets believe their rehab plan will make him as good as new. For a $500,000 guarantee, they believed it was a worthwhile risk-reward investment.

If Bridgewater flops, they cut him. If he excels, they could give him a shot at the starting job or trade him. They wouldn't get much in return because he's signed only through the season, but there's always a desperate team.

4. Are Christian Hackenberg's days numbered?

Probably, but the plan is to bring him to training camp. Whether he makes it to the regular season is another story, one that likely hinges on Bridgewater's health. General manager Mike Maccagnan might be the lone wolf on this, but his opinion is the one that matters most, and he doesn't want to give up on Hackenberg, who sat for two seasons.

Hackenberg still has practice-squad eligibility, so he could conceivably be stashed there if he clears waivers, but that would be cruel and unusual punishment for a former second-round pick.

A mind-blowing factoid on Hackenberg: He's one of only five second-round picks in the past 11 years who didn't play a single regular-season down in his first two seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. But wait, there's more: The other four suffered major injuries.

Hackenberg will unveil his revamped throwing motion in OTAs. Looking for a faster release, he shortened his delivery, perhaps in a last-ditch effort to salvage his career. Of the four quarterbacks, he has the most riding on these OTAs.

Rookie punter Michael Dickson gives Seahawks something 'unique'

May, 21, 2018
May 21

Michael DicksonAP Photo/John AmisMichael Dickson won the Ray Guy Award as the nation's top punter, was the MVP of Texas' bowl victory and was a unanimous first-team All-American during his final season with the Longhorns.

RENTON, Wash. -- During a rookie minicamp practice earlier this month for the Seattle Seahawks, on an adjacent field to the rest of the players, punter Michael Dickson was producing what might be the first of many ooh-and-aah moments.

To observers, specialists are typically out of sight and out of mind during an NFL practice, but not when they're doing what Dickson was doing on this day -- casually drop-kicking the ball more than 50 yards in the air toward goalposts set up on the other half of the field.

When the Seahawks said Dickson can do things with a football they haven't seen done, this was one example.

"He was just too unique of a player," general manager John Schneider said after the Seahawks raised eyebrows last month by drafting the Australian-born Dickson in the fifth round, making him the first specialist off the board. (One kicker and two other punters were selected later in that same round.) It was the first time the Seahawks had drafted a specialist since Schneider and coach Pete Carroll arrived in 2010, and it was the highest pick the organization has spent on one since Seattle drafted kicker John Kasay in the fourth round in 1991.

Not only that, but the Seahawks traded up seven spots for Dickson, giving up a seventh-rounder to do so. While that seemed to many like a steep price to pay for a punter -- especially when Seattle already has a good one in Jon Ryan -- there were some who were surprised Dickson lasted as long as he did. Draft analyst Lance Zierlein, for instance, projected him to go in the third or fourth round.

Dickson built an impressive résumé at the University of Texas, where he won the 2017 Ray Guy Award as the nation's top punter, was a unanimous first-team All-American that same season and was twice named Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year.

And to hear those who have coached and scouted Dickson describe him, that's how special of a talent he is.

"I think he's the best we've seen since really we've been here, just in terms of just straight punting ability," Seahawks special-teams coordinator Brian Schneider told 710 ESPN Seattle. "We think he's the best, and obviously that's why we drafted him. He's the best we've seen in a while."

Over his three seasons with the Longhorns, Dickson dropped 95 punts inside the 20-yard line (nine more than anyone else in the nation) and 42 inside the 10 (four more than anyone else nationally), according to ESPN charting. It's a skill that he credits to his background in Aussie rules football, which he played right up until enrolling at Texas in 2015.

In his final college game, the Texas Bowl against Missouri, Dickson pinned 10 of his 11 punts inside the Tigers' 15-yard line and four inside the 5. None went for a touchback. That's how a punter becomes the MVP of a bowl game.

"I've never been around or seen a guy, or coached against a guy, that's been that good pinning people inside the 10-yard line," Craig Naivar, the Longhorns' special-teams coordinator, told ESPN in a phone interview. "Inside the 20 is automatic."

Naivar likens Dickson to a pitcher who has a full arsenal of plus pitches, with command of all of them, and a golfer who can shape a shot in either direction. If he wants the ball to hold against a left-to-right wind, Dickson can make it draw. Say he's trying to kick away from a returner who is lined up to the left, he can make it cut the other direction.

And he's long off the tee too.

"When I was at some of his tryouts with scouts and they're out there working him out with special-teams coordinators, every once in a while they just say, 'Just show us what you can do,' and he rips one for 70-plus or whatever, just like, 'OK,'" Naivar said. "It's almost like a golfer that's forced to hit a 3-iron but every once in a while he can hit his driver. It's pretty cool."

Dickson ranked second in the nation among qualified kickers over his final two college seasons with a net average of 47.4 yards.

"There was a lot of times where we had to rein him back and say, 'You can't sit here and rip a 65-yard punt because we've got to cover it,' you know?" Naivar said. "We really wanted height and we want over 40 yards and over a 4-second hang time, and we'll deal with whatever comes with that.

"But there were times where he'd rip a good one and we would swing the field."

One notable instance of that came in a game against TCU last season, when the Longhorns were backed up against their own end zone. Dickson bailed them out by booming a career-long 76-yard punt.

"We were in Fort Worth, and they have one of the better returners in college football, and he really just got ahold of it," Naivar recalled. "The wind wasn't significant. It wasn't like he kicked it and there was like a gale-force wind behind him. He has that type of leg where he can do that. The young man misplayed the ball, so he got some roll off of that, as well. I want to say we were punting from maybe the 4-, 5-, 6-yard line, and look up and now the opponent is starting the drive with the field totally flipped."

The movement Dickson can get on the ball was on display during a competition at the end of one of the Seahawks' rookie minicamp practices. It called for players who would never be asked to return punts -- offensive and defensive linemen, for instance -- to attempt to catch one of Dickson's. The balls were turning so drastically that they would have looked like shanks had they not hung in the air for so long and went so far.

"He has a couple kicks, especially going in, where he can just put some different spin on the ball and drop it a little bit differently, and it looks a little bit different for the returners, instead of just your classic end-over-end rugby-style kick or just a spiral," Brian Schneider said. "So there's a lot of different movement on the ball."

The Seahawks hope that will make life hard on opposing returners. It wouldn't be a surprise if it results in a couple of turnovers per season, especially when the weather starts to come into play, like it can at Seattle's CenturyLink Field.

"He's the only guy that I've ever seen at that position to be considered quote-unquote 'a weapon,' and he was," Texas coach Tom Herman told 710 ESPN Seattle. "He was one of our best defensive players, because he gave our defense such long fields time after time after time. And the one thing that he can do that is so extraordinary is if you're backed up, he can bomb you out with a 60-, 65-yarder; and if you stall around midfield, he can drop the thing pretty much wherever you tell him to drop it. That's a thing that he does on such a consistent basis.

"He's worth trading up in my opinion, because you'll soon find out he'll be one of your best defensive players."

As for the dropkick, Naivar said the Longhorns had it in their back pocket for certain situations, but Dickson never got the chance. He got to use it during the rookie minicamp in PAT situations, since the Seahawks didn't have a place-kicker there.

Comments from the team have indicated that Ryan, the Seahawks' longest-tenured player, will get a fair shot to compete for the punting job.

In making the point that rookies are still unknown quantities until proven otherwise, John Schneider pointed out that he was with the front office of a team that once drafted a punter in the third round "that completely failed."

(According to Pro Football Reference, the only punter who fits the description is B.J. Sander, who appeared in only 14 career games after the Packers drafted him in 2004. The punter who eventually took over for Sander in Green Bay? Ryan, coincidentally.)

But after sharing that cautionary tale, the general manager used that word again to describe Dickson -- unique.

"He can do stuff with the ball that we haven't seen yet," he said. "We're really intrigued to see how that translates. I'm not like a punter expert ... but this guy does stuff with the ball that's pretty amazing."

videoLOS ANGELES -- Josh Norman and partner Sharna Burgess were on a couch at the far end of the dance studio devouring a late-afternoon snack. They were laughing and being playful, oozing with the same chemistry that shines on the ballroom floor.

"Time to get back to work," Norman said as he took a last bite of chicken before rehearsal for the upcoming triple-elimination semifinals of "Dancing with the Stars: Athletes."

It had been a hectic month of traveling between the nation's capital and Los Angeles, along with a side trip to his hometown of Greenwood, South Carolina, to put the Washington Redskins cornerback in position for Monday night's finale (8 p.m. ET, ABC).

But it had been a breeze as compared with Norman's journey from obscurity to NFL (and now dance) stardom.

Eleven years ago, he was sleeping on his brother Mario's couch more than 2,000 miles away near the South Carolina coast.

He had been shunned by the Division I colleges in his home state because of academic questions. He was attending Horry Georgetown Tech, not far from where his brother attended tiny Coastal Carolina.

Norman was trying to envision playing football again.



Dancing to the cha-cha and salsa at a Beverly Hills television studio in front of millions of viewers seemed as far from reality as playing in the NFL. His future looked bleak.

"That was a defining moment," Norman, 30, said as he recalled the low point of his life. "That was the bottom. Now the only thing I can do is go up."

Josh Norman, Dancing With the StarsCourtesy of Dancing With the Stars/Josh BerryJosh Norman and his dance partner, Sharna Burgess, have advanced to the finale of "Dancing with the Stars: Athletes."

Up began at Coastal Carolina, where in 2008 Norman was invited to play as a walk-on. It continued in 2012, when the Carolina Panthers selected him in the fifth round of the NFL draft.

It took a slight dip when Norman was benched for too much improvising after starting the first 12 games of his rookie season, then surged in 2015 when he was selected to the Pro Bowl and started in Super Bowl 50.

The following offseason, after having his franchise tag rescinded by then-general manager Dave Gettleman, the Redskins made Norman the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL with a five-year, $75 million deal.

He had reached his football pinnacle.

But not quite the height of his stardom.

Even then, Norman wasn't the household name he has become on "Dancing with the Stars," where Monday night he will compete with Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon and former Olympic figure-skating villain Tonya Harding for the Mirror Ball Trophy in the shortened all-athletes version of the show.

Norman has gone from SportsCenter to national talk shows such as "Live with Kelly and Ryan."

"He's more international now," his brother Renaldo said.

Even Burgess, his red-headed dancing partner, hadn't heard of him before the show.

"If I'm 100 with you ... no!" she admitted.

Burgess really didn't know Norman after looking into his background. She got the impression from his battles with New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and then-Dallas Cowboys star Dez Bryant that he was a trash-talker and genuine "bad boy."

"I thought, 'Dear God, what am I in for at this point?'" she recalled.

Now Burgess describes Norman as humble and sweet, somebody with "a heart of gold." She's blown away that he's on "DWTS" to raise money for his Starz24 Foundation that "challenges the youth to participate and excel in areas that help develop strong interpersonal skills and awareness of the world around them."

She's impressed with his dancing too, and not surprised he made the finale.

"Amazing," Burgess said. "In all honesty. We've had a lot of football players on the show, some incredible, some less so. I would say Josh is right up there with the best of them as far as learning the choreography, being able to bring his personality, A game, mental preparation."

Getty ImagesThe Dez Bryant-Josh Norman feud dates back to 2015, and a lot of it stems from both players' trash talking.

Grueling schedule

Norman was on a natural high a week ago after advancing to the "DWTS" finale, but his mind already was back on football.

"Gotta be in D.C. to lift weights at 8 a.m.," he said of the offseason workouts that players are expected to attend even though they're voluntary.

Norman doesn't have a private jet for these cross-country flights. He flies commercial, and he seems proud of it.

The dance rehearsals, using muscles in ways he never has before, actually have helped his conditioning. It has taken his mind and body places that other offseason adventures -- jumping out of a plane, driving a stock car around a superspeedway -- never did.

"You know what, [at first] my glutes were sore," Norman said.

Burgess interrupted, "You were like, 'My butt hurts.'"

Norman laughed.

"Pause," he said. "The meat part. That's what we say."

Burgess added the ankles to Norman's list of aches.

"I felt it," Norman said. "They seemed, like, fatter."

This time Burgess laughed, adding, "You got hankles. You want hankles."

Fat ankles or hankles, it definitely has helped Norman's transition on the football field.

"Like my explosiveness went from here to here," he said. "It went up a notch. It was areas I don't usually feel. I don't use my heels anymore. I use the balls of my feet, like my toes. I'm moving faster."

'Stand By Me'

Norman just finished the best performance of his brief dance career, garnering 9s from all four judges to finish second to Rippon in the first round of the semifinals.

But before the votes were revealed, he had a playful moment with his brothers -- Renaldo (36), Orlando (34), Mario (31) and Phillip (29) -- on the stage at the far end of the ballroom floor.

Norman had picked his brothers for his MVP dance choreographed to the song "Stand By Me." He picked them not just because they have been so instrumental in his life, but because many of the other competitors picked their moms.

Norman likes to be different.

"I'm trying to express and show for sure we're going to be there for each other," Norman said on a video before the performance. "I do love them and care for them. I hope they don't see this."

Norman had an interesting way of showing that love after the performance.

"He said we were trash," Phillip said with a laugh.

Trash, apparently, is a term of affection in this family.

"He was hot trash, and now he's lukewarm trash," Phillip said. "He's made it to the finals, so he's lukewarm trash. He's not complete trash."

Let Sandra Norman explain.

"I know what he's saying," Norman's mom said. "When you're hot trash, you're just a mess. Now he's not such a mess. ... That's just how they talk."

Norman grew up competing with his brothers in just about everything but dancing. Through those moments he learned how to survive and overcome the tough times.

"Growing up with four brothers, you have to fight your way up to the top," he said.

Josh Norman, Dancing With the StarsCourtesy of Dancing With the Stars/Josh Berry"Dancing is different from football," said Josh Norman, far right. "I can't go out and talk trash to them on the dance floor. ... I'm dancing individually."

Trash talking in dancing?

Norman has a reputation for breaking down his opponent with his physical skills ... and his mouth. He does everything he can to get into the receiver's head.

His 2015 Week 15 battle against Beckham is a prime example.

Beckham became so frustrated with Norman that he was flagged three times for personal fouls during the Carolina win. The following week, the league suspended him for one game.

There have been no such mind games on the dance floor -- yet.

"It's a different kind of competition," Burgess said. "They're all in a position where none of them know how to do this. They're giving moral support to each other, like, 'Yesterday was rough. My teacher, my coach, was awful to me.'

"They're in the same boat, so they have more of a camaraderie, instead of getting in your head with trash talking and that sort of thing."

So there's no trash talking in dancing?

"Honestly, there isn't," Burgess said. "You don't try to break anyone down because you know how dang hard it is to do it in the first place."

But Norman did have a fun moment with Chris Mazdzer, the 29-year-old Olympic luger, prior to their dance-off in Round 2 of the semifinals.

"The worst thing I said about Chris the other day was like, 'Chris, you're a luuuuu-ger,'" Norman said, making luger sound like loser, which Burgess quickly corrected.

Dancing apparently has softened Norman to the point where he wouldn't even bite when asked how he would get into Beckham's head if the Giants receiver were on the show.

"Dancing is different from football," Norman said. "I can't go out and talk trash to them on the dance floor. I'm not dancing across from him. I'm dancing individually. It's the sense of, 'OK, go out and break a leg.'"

Benched in dancing?

There was a moment in Week 2 of "DWTS" when Norman reverted to his rookie season at Carolina and began improvising while performing the paso doble.

"Freelancing" Norman said. "We picked it up from the spot where we wanted to ..."

Burgess interrupted.

"We?" she said. "You went there. I had to catch up."

Norman admitted it wasn't technically sound.

"But it was that freelancing thing I was telling her about [in football]," he said. "That guy just comes out sometimes."

As Burgess explained, "You need to lock that beast back up in the cage. There is no room for him on 'Dancing with the Stars.'"

But it's that freelancing that got Norman benched in the NFL that ultimately made him a star once he learned to control it. He still takes chances trying to bait the quarterback into throws, but he does it within the defensive scheme.

"I came back stronger than ever," Norman said.

But beyond freelancing, as well as his obvious swagger, Norman has a belief in himself that always has been unwavering -- even when he was sleeping on his brother's couch.

It's why he's not afraid to take chances on things such as skydiving and "Dancing with the Stars."

"Why would you just jump out of a perfectly good plane?" Burgess asked.

"To get past fear," Norman said. "God pushes the best things in life once you get past fear. So we have to get past it to reach our other destiny and that path-finding self-reward."

Luke Kuechly and Josh NormanRich Graessle/Icon Sportswire"We built something special there," Josh Norman (24) said of his time in Charlotte. "We built it up with our bare hands from the bottom to the top."

Sweet home Carolina

There's a picture in Norman's "DWTS" dressing room trailer of him on the sideline in his Panthers uniform.

"He's still supposed to be there," Phillip said.

Norman never wanted to leave Carolina. He was making long-term plans with his foundation in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area. He still talks to former teammates such as middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and quarterback Cam Newton.

"Are they going to vote for me?" Norman said, referring to the fan vote that will figure into who wins Monday night. "I'm sure they are. But still, go ahead and push for that. I need everybody."

Norman has the vote of Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks, his former position coach with the Panthers. Wilks sees the same "confident, fearless and passionate" person on the dance floor that he saw on the field.

"He's resilient and determined to succeed in all areas of his life," Wilks said. "He does not like to lose, and he's willing to put in the time. He's one of the hardest workers I have ever been around."

There's a part of Norman that would love to return to the Panthers, although at 30 and with three more seasons left on his current deal, that's not likely.

But it's the Carolinas where Norman grew up as a football player and a man. It's where he still has a ranch with about 30 horses and where he goes to escape the pressures of the NFL.

It's where he learned to dance.

Not like he's dancing now, mind you. Norman didn't know what the paso doble was growing up. The two-step that he would do in the backyard during family picnics was about the only dance he knew.

But Burgess saw in her quick trip to Norman's hometown, where he still gives back through his foundation, what makes her partner tick.

"It was so incredible to see the humble beginnings you came from, what you've been able to create for yourself and your family through persistence and dedication and hard work and just fighting for your dreams," she said, looking at Norman the entire time.

"And to see where it all started, it's still there. You haven't walked away from where you came from. You hold it very dear and, to me, that's incredible."



The chemistry between Norman and Burgess as they interact during a 25-minute interview is incredible.

There's a connection.

But no, they are not dating despite some rumor websites that suggest otherwise.

"I'm not going to lie ... we have a lot of fun," said Burgess, the only single female on the show. "We bicker and fight like an old married couple ... let's say cats and dogs. But we do have a great chemistry.

"People get that confused, that it's more intimate than it is ... I can't remember all of your brothers' names."

Norman, also single, stepped in, "So how are we going to get married? ... People are, 'Oh, you're so cute together. Y'all look so good together. Why don't you just go ahead and be there with her. Date and get married. If you don't get married, you're a fool. What?"

Born to perform

Norman dabbled in acting at Coastal Carolina. He had visions of being the next movie star, but football practice always seemed to get in the way of "the darn plays."

"So I had to choose one or the other," he said. "If not, I would have been in Hollywood with Denzel [Washington]."

There's still an actor's flare about Norman that makes him perfect for "Dancing with the Stars." Once asked who he'd be if he were an actor, he quickly replied Russell Crowe and the character he played in "Gladiator."

"Win the crowd and you win the day," Norman said.

Josh NormanDavid Newton/ESPN.comJosh Norman selected his brothers to represent in his MVP dance to the song "Stand By Me." Josh's family (from left) includes: Renaldo, Mario, mom Sandra, Phillip and Orlando.

Norman is winning the "DWTS" crowd and the judges. But he still has to find a way to out-dance Rippon, who consistently has received the highest scores.

If that means taking chances, Norman isn't afraid. On his last move in the dance-off with Mazdzer, he lifted Burgess and then let her spin in his outstretched arms within fractions of hitting her head on the floor.

"She got up and looked like, 'Where am I at?'" Norman said proudly.

A few minutes later, Norman found out exactly where he was at -- the finale.

"Got to go back, work out with my team and go to dance practice again and start this whole thing over and try to put on another great show and win it," Norman said. "Win it if you are in it.

"That's something I can go back and show my kids with Starz24 and let them know anything you do with hard work, it pays off."

It might even get you a studio trailer.

"It is definitely Hollywood movie stars," Norman said. "You know you're in the big leagues when you have a trailer."

Did you know that the NFL holds a spring owners meeting every year? They're typically snoozefests of committee reports and rubber-stamp policy approvals, drawing little public attention and almost no media coverage.

This week, however, owners will gather in Atlanta to tackle a series of significant developments. All eyes will focus on a hotel meeting room in the city's Buckhead district. Agenda items include the future of the kickoff, a record-setting franchise sale and deep social justice divisions.

Let's take a closer look at each and whether there will be resolution.

Reimagined kickoff

Owners are expected to approve a proposal, largely authored by a group of nine special-teams coaches, that would change blocking and alignment rules on the kickoff. The goal is to make the play safer by reducing high-speed collisions; 2017 data revealed that concussions occurred on kickoffs five times more frequently than other plays. If the changes don't work in 2018, owners will consider eliminating the play for the 2019 season. You can read more details here.

Expanded replay

In March, owners approved a rule that penalizes players 15 yards for lowering their helmets to initiate contact with an opponent. Flagrant contact is subject to ejection. But the league's competition committee, along with many coaches, argued for an automatic replay review of any ejection to ensure it was merited. This proposal, which is expected to pass, will veer replay into the previously avoided territory of subjective calls. Replay officials must judge and confirm whether the contact was flagrant. But the current safety-driven environment will take priority over previous replay boundaries.

Carolina Panthers sale

At least 24 owners must approve David Tepper's $2.275 billion purchase of the franchise from Jerry Richardson, who began soliciting bids in December 2017 after a Sports Illustrated report alleged that he sexually harassed multiple women and used a racial slur toward a team scout. Tepper, a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, is not expected to face opposition. The price fell short of the initial $2.5 billion estimates but is still well beyond the previous NFL high of $1.4 billion paid for the Buffalo Bills in 2014. First up for Tepper: learning the extent to which he supports general manager Marty Hurney and coach Ron Rivera.

Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty ImagesThere was no consensus on the anthem policy at the last owners meetings.

Anthem policy

Owners were starkly divided in March on how (or if) they should address a policy that engulfed the league in 2017. According to the current rule, players "should" stand during the anthem but are not required to. That has allowed players such as Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid to kneel during the anthem as part of their protests against police brutality, drawing heavy criticism for the league from President Donald Trump and others. Both players have filed collusion grievances against the league after failing to find jobs as free agents. It's unclear whether a consensus will emerge this week on how the NFL could support players but also eliminate external criticism. It's possible owners will leave Atlanta without a resolution on an issue they all want to fix.

Future events

Owners are expected to approve Nashville as the site of the 2019 draft, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, continuing the road show that the league began after its final New York draft in 2014. Also on the agenda is approving two future Super Bowls: Glendale, Arizona, (2023) and New Orleans (2024). The league has reversed its Super Bowl bidding process. Instead of opening it up to bids from around the country and sifting through the results, it targets a single market and invites it to submit a bid.


Owners will no doubt discuss next steps after the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that prohibits sports gambling. States can now act to legalize betting, if they choose. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has called on Congress to enact uniform standards for all states that take that step. Paragraph 15 of the standard NFL player contract prohibits players from betting on the NFL. In addition, other league personnel are prohibited from betting on any professional, college, international or Olympic competitions. According to the NFL policy, those prohibitions are in place "regardless of whether such activities are legal."video



The news jolted Dave Toub. Sitting at breakfast in March with Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, Toub heard the words he had feared for years.

"Troy said, 'You know, the kickoff is going to disappear,'" said Toub, the Kansas City Chiefs' special-teams coordinator. "He just stated it like that."

As they ate, Vincent told Toub about a competition-committee meeting a few days earlier. A data-driven video presentation from the NFL's medical staff had painted a bleak picture of the kickoff. Results of the inherent high-speed collisions were so jarring -- the kickoff is five times as likely to cause a concussion as other plays, members were told -- that Vincent ordered the video be stopped early. The endgame was clear.

"But when you start talking about how you may remove it," Vincent said, "now people are incentivized to devise solutions. Frankly, they have been outstanding."

And so began a two-month frenzy to reimagine the NFL kickoff in a way that would soothe owners who were spooked by the league's 2017 total of 291 concussions, the highest mark on record. Toub and eight other special-teams coaches proposed a set of rule changes and alignment adjustments that, while barely noticeable to most fans, should lower the frequency of concussion-causing collisions. Owners will review and likely approve the changes this week at their spring meeting in Atlanta.

Can it work? No one knows for sure. The kickoff will remain on "a short leash," according to Green Bay Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy, and will be evaluated annually for viability. In truth, no one can define quite yet what success might look like. Concussion numbers on kickoffs actually dropped by more than 20 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to league data. And even then, league executives scrambled to address them.

NFL competition-committee chairman Rich McKay said he would be "surprised if we don't make some progress on this play." But how much further must the numbers drop -- on top of last year's decline -- to ensure the kickoff's future?

"The only thing we can do is set up the parameters and see what happens at the end of the year with the numbers," Toub said. "Some injuries we need to live with. We're playing football. There are going to be things that happen. Sooner or later, we'll get to a point where [the NFL will say], we can live with that. I don't know what that point is."

Chris Williams/Icon SportswireThe NFL's kickoff proposal aims to reduce the speed at which players collide.

A collection of tweaks

On their own, none of the proposed changes would have much impact. They are subtle enough, said retired NFL special-teams ace Steve Tasker, that most fans will see them and think the kickoff "is pretty much the same."

Together, though, the coaches believe their proposal will reduce speed before contact. They think it will force a phaseout of big linemen on the play and create an environment in which players are running with, rather than toward, each other.

Two initiatives took priority, according to Baltimore Ravens special-teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg. The first was to eliminate the two-man wedge, a rule that will also prevent teams from creating larger delayed wedges as the return develops. According to the proposal's wording, players would no longer align "shoulder to shoulder within two yards of each other and move forward together" to block. The wedge, according to McKay, accounted for nearly a third of all concussions on kickoffs over the past three seasons.

The second was to clean up the chaotic and uncertain moments prior to a touchback. The NFL has previously attempted to address kickoff safety by limiting returns via increased touchback incentives. As a result, nearly 60 percent of all kickoffs went for touchbacks in 2017. But the competition-committee video made clear that there are more than occasional injuries on touchbacks.

To bring that number down, the proposal calls for officials to signal an automatic touchback if the ball hits the ground in the end zone before it is touched by a member of the receiving team. In effect, the whistle will alert players earlier to the end of the play. In conjunction, Rosburg said he expects most teams to incorporate a version of the "iron cross" signal from returners, who would extend both arms horizontally as soon as they decide not to return the ball.

Coaches also have committed to providing players -- especially those who might have their back to the ball -- with more techniques for knowing when a touchback is imminent.

"You try to see the ball when it's kicked," Rosburg said, "and then open up, take a peek and run back. You'll have a pretty good indication of the direction and distance of the kick, and we're going to try to run with an awareness of where the ball is as we look back at our guy. ... Everyone is already doing some form of that, generally speaking. So it's not that big of a leap to do it better."

Meanwhile, the primary alignment shift requires eight men on the return team to be within 15 yards of the ball. That leaves only three in the back, including the returner. Practically speaking, the change eliminates the use of linemen on the return team. All three players in the back must be equipped to field the ball, and most coaches aren't likely to ask a 300-pound man to align in the front and then sprint to a spot 40 yards away to block.

"Some of the worst injuries that I've seen," Murphy said, "are maybe big-on-little -- larger linemen in the wedge hitting defensive backs."

Finally, a number of coaches said they will redouble awareness about players' responsibilities to each other. After watching a video compilation of injuries on kickoffs, Minnesota Vikings special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer said "cheap shots" should be counted among the culprits.

"We want talk about 'capture but don't kill,'" Priefer said. "You don't have to blow a guy up. Use your hands. Use your feet. Be an athlete. Don't try to be a tough guy. To me, this is not just about rules and proposals, but also how you teach and play the game, to be honest with you. That's part of making this a safer play."

Favoring the return?

Some of the adjustments appear certain to favor the return team, a not-unintentional consequence that evokes the NFL's effort to help quarterbacks and the passing game over the past two decades.

The kickoff-coverage team, for instance, will no longer get a 5-yard head start. Each player, other than the kicker, must line up within 1 yard of the restraining line. The restriction might sound minor, but Rosburg said that early testing has shown players reaching a "vastly different" spot downfield when they have a 5-yard head start than when they do not over the same time period. In effect, returners should have more distance between them and would-be tacklers under the new rule.

That space could discourage some teams from the recent surge of short kicks that are designed to force a return, possibly resulting in fewer touchbacks. And return teams could be more likely to take the ball out of the end zone given the increased strain on the coverage team.

New requirements for the cover team's alignment -- five men on each side of the kicker, with no pre-snap loops or twists -- should make it easier for return-team members to identify their assignments and execute blocks.

"In my humble opinion," Rosburg said, "I think we're going to see a higher percentage of returns than we've had. I also believe we're going to have a safer play. If we can accomplish both of those -- if we can get more returns with more exciting plays for our fans to watch, so they're not bored by touchbacks, and make it a safer play -- that's not just a home run. That's a grand slam."

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesThe NFL's new kickoff proposal could incentivize more returns.

Now or never?

Internal optimism aside, it's fair to step back and wonder if a collection of inside-football adjustments will be enough to satisfy owners and league executives who are concerned in equal measure about safety and the appearance of safety. NFL rule changes can take years to create the desired effect, often after annual tweaks. The kickoff probably doesn't have years to reach a reasonable safety threshold, and of all the positive reactions to the proposal, none has suggested it was bold.

Murphy said he is "cautiously optimistic" of achieving a safer play but made clear that the injury data meant "you've got to do something." McKay lauded the "buy-in" from coaches who seem to understand the existential threat. If the numbers don't drop quickly enough, Tasker thinks it impossible to "blow it up and start from scratch" rather than simply eliminate the kickoff.

But in reality, the kickoff is at the edge of a cliff. Rather than slowly test ideas in preseason games or in the Pro Bowl, as it usually does, the NFL has fast-tracked a proposal with equal parts optimism and desperation. It relied on special-teams experts, a decision that ensured sound suggestions while also providing cover should owners ultimately demand elimination. Has the kickoff been reborn? Or has its death simply been delayed? We'll soon find



This week's New York Jets mailbag focuses on a couple of first-round quarterbacks, past and present:

@RichCimini: This is a fair question, Daniel, because as I noted in a story on Day 2 of the draft, the Sam Darnold-Mark Sanchez comparisons run deep. One thing I forgot to mention in that story: Their signature wins at USC both came against Penn State in the Rose Bowl. Talk about eerie.

So what separates them? Maybe nothing; it's too early to say Darnold will be better than Sanchez, the Jets' first-round pick in 2009. There are so many factors that have an impact on a quarterback's career, some of which are out of his control. For now, though, we can point to a few things that might lead to separation.

Despite his relative lack of experience, Darnold actually played more in college than Sanchez, who arrived with only 16 starts and 487 pass attempts on his resume. Darnold had 24 starts and 846 attempts.

Both players were turnover-prone in college, but a closer examination shows that Sanchez (one interception every 30.4 attempts) struggled with it more than Darnold (38.5). Sanchez never fixed that problem at the NFL level.

We also can look to some intangible reasons. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay, responding to a question about the so-called USC quarterback curse, said recently that former college stars Sanchez and Matt Leinart "were overrated because they had so much around them. That’s when USC was rolling. Some of the best rosters in the history of college football were when those guys were there."

McShay doesn't believe that applies to Darnold, who lost wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and three offensive linemen to the NFL after the 2016 season. Darnold played with a weaker supporting cast in 2017, although I must say Ronald Jones was a heck of a running back for the Trojans.

From personal observation, I believe Darnold is a more instinctive player than Sanchez. I watched almost every USC game last fall, start to finish. When a play went off script, which happened more often than not, Darnold showed the ability to make something positive. That was always an issue with Sanchez, in my opinion.

That said, Sanchez showed promise early in his career, but the organization sabotaged him by changing offensive coordinators, surrounding him with head-case receivers such as Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress and later trading for Tim Tebow. (I still can't figure out the Tebow move.) If Sanchez had a chance to develop into the long-term answer, it was ruined by the organization's lack of support. Any shot at redemption was killed in 2013, when he got thrown into the fourth quarter of a preseason game and suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.

That was a couple of regimes ago, but maybe Todd Bowles & Co. can learn a lesson from past mistakes. If you have a young talent at quarterback, do everything you can to nurture him. If Darnold has a chance to develop in a stable environment, he will stick around a lot longer than Sanchez did.

Jameis WinstonReinhold Matay/USA TODAY SportsLast season was frustrating for Jameis Winston, but over the final five weeks he passed for 1,584 yards and nine touchdowns.

TAMPA, Fla. -- The big message that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' coaching staff gave to quarterback Jameis Winston when he returned to the facility this offseason had nothing to do with cutting down on turnovers or throwing more touchdowns in the red zone.

Those are unquestionably areas where he has to improve, but the real message the coaches wanted to impart entering his fourth year, as offensive coordinator Todd Monken put it: "Stop trying so hard."

They could see it in his performance on the field, but they could also really see it in the locker room with how he tried to lead his teammates.

"I think the best way to put it is, in our league, there's so much pressure put on coaches and [on] that [quarterback] position," said Monken, now in his third year with the Bucs. "Nobody gets the credit either way, winning or losing, [more] than the quarterback or the coaches. That's fine. That's the way it is.

"No one is going to blame [wideout] Mike Evans for why we haven't made the playoffs; they've got the quarterback in there, and that's part of it. We get that. That doesn't mean we don't all own it. But I think the biggest thing is, 'OK, Jameis, it's OK to be yourself. You don't have to try so hard. The guys know you are naturally our leader.'

"But at times, it's hard. It's hard when you're hurt. It's hard when you're not winning the way you want and you're trying so hard to get the guys because [you] want to win so bad -- we all do. I try too hard sometimes, because I want it so bad."

Winston suffered a sprained acromioclavicular joint (AC joint) in the throwing shoulder of his right arm in Week 3 last season against the Minnesota Vikings. He didn't appear on the injury report until Week 7, after he left a game against the Arizona Cardinals with the injury, but sources close to him have said the injury initially occurred against the Vikings. It forced him to miss three games, and in the games he did try to play, it impacted his velocity and accuracy downfield.

Dealing with the injury during the first of two five-game losing streaks, Winston was still trying to give some of his "rah-rah" pregame speeches, like the one in Week 9 before the Bucs played the New Orleans Saints about "eating W's." Winston stuck his fingers in his mouth to form the shape of a W and asked teammates, "How many of you want to eat a W tonight? How many of you want to eat a W?"

After having lost four games in a row, the response from teammates caught on camera was less than enthusiastic -- as it appeared Winston was acting more like the Bucs were riding a four-game win streak -- and the quarterback was widely criticized in the media for appearing out of touch. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson empathized with Winston.

Tampa Bay BuccaneersCliff Welch/Icon SportswireDeSean Jackson, right, says last season he pulled Jameis Winston aside and told him he needed to "have fun" again, to "[stop] trying to impress the world" and to "just be [yourself]."

"Any time you're the face of the franchise and you're that guy as far as the quarterback, especially, everything is ran around you. At the end of the day, it's a tough position because you have to make the calls, you have to be the leader and you have to say the right things. Any time you say the wrong things, it's pointed on you," Jackson said.

When a team is losing or when a star quarterback clearly doesn't have his fastball, often times players need a more honest approach -- not the stuff that lights up the cameras on HBO's "Hard Knocks." They need a toned-down message or they need to hear new voices. For someone such as Winston, who had never missed a game because of injury at any level and never lost a regular-season game in two years as a starting quarterback at Florida State, that's still unfamiliar territory.

"He has natural leadership qualities, a toughness about him, guys want to follow him," Monken said. "It's OK to fail. You're human. It's OK to be hurt. It's OK to have that side of you. Let's just go. You don't have to try so hard. The guys will follow you. Just be yourself."

After the game at New Orleans, when Winston was sidelined in Week 10 with the injury, Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter selected offensive lineman Ali Marpet and linebacker Lavonte David -- two players known more for what they do rather than what they say -- to address the team the night before the next contest.

Marpet reminded players of their core philosophies. David acknowledged the reality of being 2-6 at the time and told them that they had to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Several teammates credited their speeches for being a factor in the Bucs' 15-10 home win against the New York Jets.

Winston offered his support when David continued to address the team, even after Winston had returned from injury.

"It's really whoever wants to speak and talk to the team and address the team. I haven't played," Winston said. "It's good to see different forms of leadership and different forms of communication with guys, because some people react to different things. I'm so happy Lavonte has stepped up into that role and has done a great job."

Jackson also believes Winston needed to stop trying so hard.

Jackson told ESPN's "First Take" that he pulled Winston aside last season and told him that he needed to "have fun" again, to "[stop] trying to impress the world" and to "just be [yourself]."

"You try to impress and say, 'Hey, I want to do this,' and show them 'I can do this or show them I can do this or that.' But you've got to kind of get away from that and just going back to playing ball in the yard, how we were playing when we were young," Jackson said. "That's what I tell him: 'You've got to [get] back to getting comfortable and being Jameis Winston,' who we all know he can be. The past two years, he had 4,000 yards passing, so I just stressed onto him -- everything, all the intangibles -- he has everything."

Most agreed that Winston started to look and act more like himself toward the end of the season, and coincidentally, he was healthy. In the final five weeks, he threw for 1,584 yards -- more than any other quarterback in the NFL over that span -- and threw nine touchdown passes, third most in the league. He also set career highs in completion percentages in Week 15 against the Atlanta Falcons (77.1 percent) and again in Week 16 against the Carolina Panthers (77.8 percent).

"I wouldn't say he was pulled in the wrong direction or whatever the case may be," Jackson said. "I would just say he needed to be himself and relax and not put the pressure on his shoulders, because being a quarterback you have the world on your shoulders. If you lose, it goes on you. If you win, it goes on you."

Tampa Bay quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian emphasized it's still Winston's team and that the QB has the full support of the locker room and coaching staff.

"He's always done a great job of being himself, and if you know Jameis, you grow to love him -- that relationship with him, his teammates and this coaching staff exists," Bajakian said. "It's, 'Hey, you don't have to do any more than [the next guy] -- do what you do and be yourself. Keep working the way you work. Keep interacting with teammates the way you interact with them and the wins will come.'"

Inside Nashville's bid to land 2019 NFL draft: Make it a party

May, 19, 2018
May 19

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- You could call the Tennessee Titans' April 4 uniform unveiling a test -- the team, along with the city of Nashville, was curious just how interested the public would be in seeing new uniforms revealed outside on a 40-degree Wednesday night in the middle of the offseason. They found that, as Steelers receiver Antonio Brown says, "Business is always booming."

Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk beamed with pride, looking out at the seemingly endless rows of people dancing shoulder to shoulder down lower Broadway Street that night, and proudly proclaimed: "I am blown away by this. Nashville needs to host the NFL draft."

Photo by John Shearer/Getty ImagesFlorida Georgia Line performed April 4 in downtown Nashville to celebrate the Titans' new 2018 uniforms, an event the league hopes will become the standard for future uniform unveilings, according to one NFL rep.

Now Nashville is just a few days away from learning if the NFL selected it to host the 2019 or 2020 NFL draft. A decision is expected to be announced at the league meetings in Atlanta (May 22-23). Sources told ESPN's Adam Schefter that Nashville is the "leading contender" for the 2019 draft, and would be the favorite for the 2020 draft in the unlikely event it doesn't get 2019.

Las Vegas, Cleveland/Canton, Denver and Kansas City are the other candidates. Nashville reps are "cautiously optimistic" about their chances, conservatively putting their odds at better than 50-50.

There were NFL reps at the uniform unveiling, and they passed info to decision-makers about the event's success. One of those NFL reps told ESPN that the league wants the Nashville event to be the standard for future uniform unveilings. Another NFL source said the uniform unveiling positively impacted Nashville's chances to host the draft. A win-win for all involved.

Butch Spyridon, CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., is the point man for all Nashville events. He said his biggest surprise didn't come from the 20,000 people in attendance April 4, but how many people came two hours early to party and stood outside in the cold for four hours. Always pitching, Spyridon shot a text to NFL senior vice president of events Peter O'Reilly: "20K, not bad for a fashion show." Spyridon believes hosting the draft would be at least 10 times bigger.

"It'll be like the Titans' uniform unveiling on steroids," Spyridon said. "We're the perfect location for the draft. The brand, the destination, the convenience of our downtown and location of the stadium, the star power that can help promote it and be part of the entertainment."

ESPN spoke with reps from the city of Nashville, the Titans, the NFL and other sources involved in the process to get a glimpse inside Nashville's bid. Here's what we found out:

'We're going to do it big'

The NFL doesn't want a buttoned-up draft. Throughout the process, the league has repeatedly said it wants the host city to "reinvent the wheel" -- to make it a fun event that takes on the personality of its host city. Nashville/Titans reps' ears perked up at that, because they feel it drastically increases the city's chances.

Nashville would embrace everything that makes the city special -- music, honky-tonks, a convenient downtown with a nearby stadium, and maybe even the Nashville Predators' catfish tradition. The city could land A-list performers from multiple music genres, especially country stars.

Imagine a big draw (Carrie Underwood? Justin Timberlake? Tim McGraw and Faith Hill? Chris Stapleton? Keith Urban? Brad Paisley? Blake Shelton? Thomas Rhett?) gracing the stage before, during and after the 2019 draft. With hundreds of thousands partying, enjoying live music and drinking at Broadway honky-tonks, restaurants and sports bars. All of this could be a reality next April 25-27.

"At one point, the NFL folks said music never really worked very well with our audience. I looked at them and said, 'You've never done it in Nashville,'" Spyridon said. "We're not going to do it without music. We're going to do it big. We could do it in a real fun, cool way."

Nashville came to the Titans (and then the NFL) in 2011 and 2013 with a desire to host the draft, but the idea didn't go far. Once the league opened up the bidding, Nashville worked with the Titans to convince the league to include it. Nashville made the first cut to 17 cities, and then the five-city short list.

The NFL made the process to get a bid considerably harder than it was for Chicago (2016) and Philadelphia (2017). The contending cities were invited to New York to present in late November and early December. The NFL visited Nashville two or three times and held weekly calls with all five cities. Emails were frequent. The New York Times reported in April that Spyridon figures it will cost about $3 million to host the draft, but visitors would spend between $5 million and $10 million.

Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today SportsAs part of its pitch to host the NFL draft in Nashville, the city suggested Broadway Street and nearby Bridgestone Arena -- shown before the Predators played Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final in June 2017 -- be a big part of draft weekend.

"The league doesn't want to make a mistake. Part of the convincing is that you won't make a mistake with this city," Spyridon said. "We're the smallest market of the five standing, so we have more to prove. We have the most character. We play above the rim; we have to hustle because we're shorter than everyone else."

Nashville in the national spotlight

Nashville prefers 2020, citing a better fit for minor logistical reasons, but the city told the NFL it won't be picky. Having enough hotel rooms for 2019 was a hiccup midway through the process, but the city worked with its clients and hotels to achieve the capacity needed to host the draft.

On the Titans' side, Steve Underwood (president and CEO), Stuart Spears (senior vice president and chief revenue officer) and Burke Nihill (vice president and general counsel) have been the go-to resources. Spyridon and NFL reps also lauded the role Strunk played in the process. Landing the event would be a major win for Nashville but maybe a bigger win for a talented and ascending small-market Titans team that would have the national spotlight that weekend.

Nashville and the Titans sent reps to the Philadelphia and Dallas drafts to see how things were done. The events were completely different, which confirmed the NFL's personality criteria.

"In 2019, we can blow this thing up, following Dallas indoors in the stadium. It'd be a 180-degree turn," Spyridon said. "New York is the gold standard, but New York is an event. Dallas is an event. Nashville is a party. You're going to know that you were going to be in Nashville and you're going to have a good time."

The Nashville team felt Las Vegas was its biggest competitor because of its resources, but the feeling from multiple people involved in the process is that Las Vegas (the Raiders are expected to arrive in 2020) and Cleveland/Canton (the NFL's centennial celebration year) were likely to be top candidates for 2020. Denver seemed to be more ideal for 2019 and Kansas City was open.

If Nashville does get the 2019 bid, credit the NFL for buying into a strong pitch, embracing a party/music-centered draft and loving Nashville's convenient downtown location and proximity to other NFL cities.

Nashville has four main goals if it lands the draft:

  1. Build an event that locals want to attend and will make them proud.
  2. Get fans from nearby markets to attend -- Atlanta, Indianapolis and Cincinnati are all within a four-hour drive. (Reportedly 63 percent of the 250,000-plus fans in Philly for the 2017 draft were from out of town.)
  3. Convince top draft prospects to come to Nashville for draft weekend. (One of the NFL's big focus points is increasing the attendance of big-name prospects.)
  4. Top 400,000 in online app registrations for fans wanting to be in the actual draft theater. (Dallas had 400,000 fans register to attend the draft.)

Spyridon said the city encouraged the NFL to use the Ascend Amphitheater for the draft theater, Nissan Stadium (home of the Titans) and its parking lot area against the Shelby Bridge for the fan experience, and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center for the team war room/team desk. Music City Center convention hall was also presented as a potential option. Spyridon also suggested that Broadway Street and First Avenue, which is full of honky-tonks and includes nearby Bridgestone Arena, be a big part of draft weekend.

Ultimately, the NFL will create its own event based on the potential locations provided.

A Nashville draft would certainly be unique, and it'd be nothing short of a big party.

Exploring hot topics around the New England Patriots in mailbag form:

This is a topic I revisited earlier in the week, and one reason it's timely to highlight is because the Patriots enter Phase 3 of their offseason program on Monday. Phase 3 has previously been identified by Tom Brady as a good time to build a foundation with his pass-catchers, as it's the only time in the offseason program when the offense can go against the defense. In 2015, I remember it as the time that running back Dion Lewis first flashed and made an initial impression on Brady.

Tom BradyPhoto by Fred Kfoury III/Icon SportswireTom Brady said he missed voluntary workouts to spend more time with his family, but perceptions may change if he also misses Phase 3 of the offseason program next week.

In speaking to former Patriots players Matt Chatham and Rob Ninkovich, they shared the viewpoint that Brady's absence up to this point isn't a big deal, but added that their perspective would change a bit if Brady didn't show for the OTA part of the program (which starts Monday).

That's important context to answer the question about whether Brady's decision to forgo the first five weeks of voluntary workouts might have been different had Jimmy Garoppolo still been with the team. Brady could show up Monday, and it changes the discussion a bit.

Regardless, I take Brady at his word that his overall approach wouldn't have changed. He said the decision was with his family in mind, and Garoppolo's presence wouldn't have changed that.

With receiver Phillip Dorsett having a $450,000 roster bonus due on the fifth day of training camp reduced to $150,000 (he can earn back some of the money in incentives and per-game roster bonuses), it shouldn't have a trickle-down effect on any efforts between the Patriots and tight end Rob Gronkowski to sweeten his contract. More than that, the move protects Dorsett as he could have been released before that roster bonus was due, and reflects how he is fighting for a spot. By accepting a reduction, he gives himself a chance to compete for a roster spot without having finances play a major role in the outcome of who wins those jobs. After Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan, there is a logjam of receivers looking to break through: Dorsett, Malcolm Mitchell, Jordan Matthews, Kenny Britt, Cordarrelle Patterson, Braxton Berrios, Riley McCarron, Cody Hollister and Chris Lacy

Alonso, if Kenny Vaccaro, Tre Boston or Eric Reid remain on the market for an extended period of time, it would be consistent with the Patriots' approach to take a look at them and consider them from an emergency-list perspective. At this point, it seems fair to say they'll stick with what they have and see how it looks in the teaching-based organized team activity setting -- specifically as it relates to a couple of young players who spent last year on the practice squad, David Jones and Damarius Travis. They might be sleepers for that No. 4 spot, and there also might be some crossover with the cornerbacks, as someone like Jason McCourty could play some safety-type responsibilities depending on the package. The pure safety depth chart has Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards, Nate Ebner, Jones, Travis and A.J. Moore. There's always the chance for an addition, and Vaccaro, in particular, was a player I thought would be a good target for them if he were healthy.

When New York Jets special-teams coordinator Brant Boyer checked his inbox last season, he'd periodically find an email from Reggie Barlow, one of his old teammates with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Boyer knew exactly what each one contained:

Video clips of Trenton Cannon, a touchdown machine at Division II Virginia State.

Barlow, the school's head coach, did the work of a skilled PR man, promoting his player by sending out clips to some of his NFL friends. He and Boyer have what he describes as "a real cool relationship" -- Barlow returned punts and kickoffs for the Jaguars and Boyer blocked for him -- so he made sure to keep his buddy in the loop on Cannon.

Thanks to the Boyer-Barlow relationship, the Jets developed an affinity for Cannon and drafted him in the sixth round, making him the first player drafted from Virginia State since 1996. They believe Cannon can make an immediate impact as a return specialist, a position that has haunted the Jets in recent years. His first real opportunity will happen Tuesday, when the team conducts its first OTA practice.

This is how it goes in scouting. Coaches, general managers and scouts rely on their connections to get inside information on potential sleepers. Everybody knows about the big names such as Sam Darnold, Saquon Barkley and Baker Mayfield, prospects whose pro days and combine performances are featured on national TV. It's a different ballgame with small-school players. NFL evaluators need to be like investigative reporters, digging from crumbs of intel.

"Brant Boyer did a great job with researching this guy and studying him over the last two years," Barlow told ESPN. "Coach Boyer and I have a relationship where he can trust that we see this guy and we think he's an NFL-caliber player. I think it's great that the Jets did their homework."

Trenton CannonJulio Cortez/AP PhotoTrenton Cannon rushed for more than 4,000 yards and 44 touchdowns in three seasons at Virginia State.

Barlow sent a variety of clips to Boyer, showing Cannon as a running back, slot receiver and kickoff returner. Boyer watched every video, often responding to Barlow with an enthusiastic comment about Cannon's potential.

There was a lot to like last season as Cannon scored 22 touchdowns -- 17 rushing, three receiving and two on kickoffs. He averaged 33 yards per kickoff return, which excited Boyer, who spent two days at the Petersburg, Virginia, school during the run-up to the draft. He met with Cannon and worked him out, mainly studying his ability to return punts, something he didn't do in college.

"He was extremely thorough," Barlow said of Boyer. "He came down, spent some time on campus, watching film. What I thought was really huge was [him saying], 'Let's make sure this guy fits the pedigree of a New York Jet. Let me talk with him.'"

So they talked.

"Typically, the first-round guys and maybe the second-round guys get that type of detailed attention," Barlow said. "[Boyer] knows how critical that position is to create that positive field position for yourself. I commend him on doing his homework and finding the guy that fits what the New York Jets are all about. He took the time to get to know him as a person."

Cannon created a buzz in the scouting community when he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds at his pro day at the University of Richmond. It was a chilly day, with temperatures in the mid-40s. The perimeter of the field was covered with snow, but Cannon came out smoking.

"This was a guy that really kind of caught [Boyer's] eye, and our scouts liked him, too," Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan said. "He's an interesting guy. He's very athletic, maybe slightly undersized (5-foot-11, 185 pounds). We're going to use him as a running back, or line him up as a running back, but obviously our focus is to see how he can impact us as a returner. That's the part where we're very interested to see how he does."

Let's not sugarcoat it: The Jets are desperate for a competent returner.

In 2017, they averaged a league-low 4.5 yards on punt returns, barely exceeding what their leading rusher, Bilal Powell, averaged on runs from scrimmage (4.4). Since 2013, the Jets are ranked 32nd in punt return average and 22nd in kickoff return average. The Jets are one of only six teams since 2013 that hasn't returned a punt or kickoff for a touchdown.

So, yes, they need an explosive player. Who better than someone named Cannon?

"I played in the league for eight years and I know the pyramid you need to fit as far as size, weight, ability and explosiveness," Barlow said. "There aren't very many people I've seen that have that like Trent."

Foyesade OluokunWilliams Paul/Icon SportswireFoyesade Oluokun (No. 23) was selected by the Falcons in the sixth round of this year's draft.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Foyesade Oluokun has a little edginess in his tone and it's not because folks often mispronounce his name.

The Atlanta Falcons rookie linebacker from Yale knows there's an undesirable label that follows him into the NFL; one that says Ivy League players are highly intelligent but not necessarily high-caliber athletes.

"Once they see you in the Ivy League, they shut off their brains like, 'These are not athletes like other schools are used to playing.' That's the stigma," Oluokun said. "I don't like it, personally, because I think there are a lot of athletes in the Ivy League. And long as we get our opportunity, is what it comes down to in the end. Yes, you kind of have to work harder for it. But hopefully, people are waking up to us."

Oluokun, a sixth-round draft pick, joined fifth-round wide receiver Justin Watson of Penn -- drafted by Tampa Bay -- as the only Ivy League players selected in this year's draft. It marked the 46th time multiple Ivy Leaguers have been drafted but the first time since 2013, when the trio of JC Tretter (Cornell), Kyle Juszczyk (Harvard) and Mike Catapano (Princeton) were selected by Green Bay, Baltimore and Kansas City, respectively. Twelve former Ivy League players were on active NFL rosters last season with two of them, fullbacks Juszczyk of the San Francisco 49ers and James Develin of the New England Patriots, earning Pro Bowl status.

Also of note, the Falcons signed linebacker Richard Jarvis from Brown as an undrafted free agent.

The Buccaneers now have three Ivy League offensive players on their roster, as Watson joins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and tight end Cameron Brate, both of Harvard. Fitzpatrick initially was a seventh-round pick of the Rams in 2005.

"There were scouts that came through, but I think the difficult thing in the Ivy League was our schedule was basically seven Ivy League opponents and some Patriot League opponents, so there aren't a lot of NFL prospects on the field," Fitzpatrick said. "Obviously in the SEC or a big-time conference, you are going to have people there watching other people and they can a glimpse of you.

"So the difficult thing, I think, was essentially there was me and maybe one or two other guys that were even on the NFL's radar at that point."

Ivy League schools have produced a pair of Pro Football Hall of Famers in former Chicago Bears quarterback Sid Luckman from Columbia and former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker/guard Chuck Bednarik from Penn. And 10 Ivy League players have made the Pro Bowl in NFL history, including Luckman and Bednarik.

Despite those success stories, skepticism remains when analyzing the modern day Ivy League talent. One NFL executive said you never know what you're getting from an Ivy League player because "they are so underdeveloped."

Columbia's Al Bagnoli, the reigning league coach of the year, has seen some of the disregard up close for years. He had been the coach at Penn since 1992 before leaving for Columbia in 2015.

"I think [NFL evaluators], they kind of initially go into it with a little bit of a bias," Bagnoli said of the scouting process. "And then it's really critical for our kids to test exceptionally well. I think the NFL, at times, is so numbers-driven that you need a great workout to kind of validate the level of athlete that you may be, more so then someone coming from a more visible program like an Alabama, an Oklahoma, one of those.

"So I think there's a lot more pressure in the actual workout to put up numbers that validate what they're seeing on film and validate the type of athlete that they are."

Oluokun is the perfect example. He was bound for an Ivy League school coming out of high school in St. Louis, selecting to attend Yale over Harvard and Penn. He developed into a second-team, all-Ivy League performer, thanks, in part, to gaining an extra semester following a torn pectoral injury as a junior. Despite those accolades, he didn't generate a lot of interest at his own pro day at Yale. Oluokun attended a second pro day, hosted by Fordham University but held at Columbia, where he opened eyes by running the 20-yard cone drill in 4.12 seconds, running a 4.48 in the 40-yard dash, a posting a 10-3 broad jump.

There were about six scouts at Yale's pro day. At the one hosted by Fordham, where Oluokun completed his testing, there were more than 20. And then Oluokun started to get calls and line up visits. He then trained with a group of top draft prospects at Landow Sports Performance in Colorado, which helped not only get his name out there but helped get his body ready for the NFL.

"I went in the draft with no expectations," Oluokun said. "I was hearing people say, 'You might get drafted.' I wasn't going to go in like, 'I'm going to get drafted' and be let down at the end of the day. It's all about making the roster at the end of the day, whether you're drafted or undrafted."

Fitzpatrick brought up another interesting point related to the NFL's evaluation of Ivy League players. He said he got a lot questions about his true interest in pursuing an NFL career considering an Ivy League education offers other lucrative job options outside of football. He eventually sold evaluators on football being his immediate plan after college.

Agent Joe Linta, a former player and coach at Yale who has represented more than 20 Ivy League players, assures NFL teams his clients are football focused and NFL ready.

"Ivy League players have the smarts and toughness to succeed in the NFL," Linta said. "They are always great kids, and we love working with them. Many of them have passed on D-I scholarships to pursue an Ivy League education. When we do our film work and feel that an Ivy League player has NFL ability, we are virtually certain that he will be of exemplary character."

As for Oluokun, he also has a plan after earning his degree in Economics. He has a desire to be a general manager in the NFL some day, especially if someone can give him the opportunity to shadow and learn the intricacies of the business. But for now, his sole focus is making an impact for the Falcons.

"I know I can make one through special teams right away," he said. "I want to be all over the special teams: kick return, kickoff, punt, all of it. Try to fly down -- you know, I'm an athletic dude -- try to use my body in the best way possible to make tackles, make blocks. I love winning, so whatever coach wants me to do to win is what I do. Keep learning my role on defense as a linebacker and try to get myself in the game.

"And yes, my dream is to be in the financial side of sports. I'm good at analyzing things really well. So I can analyze players. If I understand those concepts and put money on top of it, I think I can do really well there."

Maybe Oluokun will find himself scouting the Ivy League one day. He knows first-hand there are talented athletes waiting to be discovered.

Trey QuinnManuel Balce Ceneta/AP PhotoTrey Quinn led the nation with 114 receptions last season at SMU.

ASHBURN, Va. -- The title hasn’t dented his confidence. He’s Mr. Irrelevant to others, but that will never be how he views himself. Washington Redskins rookie receiver Trey Quinn might have been the last pick in the draft, but for him that’s a starting point and not an end game.

And being Mr. Irrelevant just becomes something else to overcome, pushing him to where he believes he’ll go.

“I love it,” he said last weekend during the rookie minicamp. “Call me Mr. Irrelevant all you want. I’ll prove that I’m relevant. If I’m going to talk, I better back it up and that’s why I’m out here working. I’m capable of being a playmaker in this league.”

He has no doubt he’ll make the 53-man roster: “Absolutely.”

He has no doubt about his ability: “I think I was the best receiver in the damn draft.”

Quinn's confidence stems in part from his production. He caught 22 passes in two years at LSU before transferring after the 2015 season. At SMU last season, Quinn led the nation with 114 receptions for 1,236 yards and 13 touchdowns.

“You’d think it would help, leading the nation in receptions,” he said. “It means you’re getting open and catching the ball. It’s all perception for a lot of people. People can get fooled by perception and they buy into it too much.”

After the draft, Redskins coach Jay Gruden called Quinn an “exciting prospect. He’s a great option-route runner, great feel in zones, strong hands, good physical blocker, good after the catch.”

During the rookie minicamp, Quinn worked mostly from the slot -- and that's likely his future spot, too. At 6-foot and 200 pounds, he has good size inside. Last weekend, he showed that he can create openings with how he plants on his fakes and sinks his hips at the top of his route -- something that attracted the Redskins' attention. The team also likes his confidence and toughness. Quinn says he can play outside, too, but he’ll have to learn to defeat press coverage.

“I can do it all,” he said. “I can come out of the backfield. I’m a utility receiver. If you need me to run a fade, I can do my best. I know I’m 6-foot, but I can get up there, too."

The hard part for Quinn is that the Redskins already have an excellent slot receiver in Jamison Crowder, who is entering the final year of his contract. But they didn’t have depth behind Crowder. With quarterback Alex Smith and a bolstered group of receivers after signing Paul Richardson -- they also hope to have Jordan Reed and Chris Thompson healthy -- Crowder could find more openings underneath.

That means Quinn also will have to impress the Redskins on special teams. He might help as a punt returner, though he didn’t stand out there in college. He returned a combined six punts for 20 yards and had five kickoff returns for 113 yards.

But this is where desire enters.

“Anywhere there’s an open spot, I’ll take it,” Quinn said. “I’ve never played deep before, but I’ll go back there in the backfield and light up a running back or something. Anything like that -- and work out on special teams. That’s how they say you make an impact as a rookie. Anything they’ve got for me, I’m willing to do.”

Escaping the title of Mr. Irrelevant will be tough. Even his buddies back home in Louisiana ribbed him about that moniker. But Quinn will be able laugh about it while vacationing in Newport Beach, California, next month -- one perk of being Mr. Irrelevant. He'll get more attention from being the last pick in the draft rather than, say, a sixth-rounder -- which is when Washington first debated taking him. The Redskins went with linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton instead; in the seventh round, picking Quinn was a no-brainer.

“I was pissed off at it at first,” Quinn said. “Now I love it. I want a reason to prove people wrong. Any title you want to give me like that, I’m open for it. It’s exciting to prove people wrong. If you’re going to label me like that, go ahead. I’ll get a tattoo of it one day.”