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What we're following at the NFL Scouting Combine: QBs, new bosses, deal-making

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What we're following at the NFL Scouting Combine: QBs, new bosses, deal-making

Draft season kicks into high gear this week at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis as teams will put prospects under a microscope during private interviews, news conferences and workouts at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Quarterbacks always dominate conversations at the combine, and this year will be no different with USC’s Caleb Williams, North Carolina’s Drake Maye and LSU’s Jayden Daniels expected to be among the first handful of picks come April. But a stellar wide receiver group, headlined by Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr., LSU’s Malik Nabers and Washington’s Rome Odunze, will also draw plenty of interest this week.

Beyond the draft prospects, new head coaches, led by the Chargers’ Jim Harbaugh, and GMs, including the Commanders’ Adam Peters, will be in the spotlight. And the futures of quarterbacks Kirk Cousins, Russell Wilson and Justin Fields will be hot topics.

We asked The Athletic’s team of beat and national writers to fill us in on who or what they’ll be watching or listening for as the NFL world descends upon Indianapolis.

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Caleb Williams, Justin Fields and other top stories to follow at the NFL combine

How big of a priority is an upgrade at wide receiver?

The Cardinals need help there. That’s not a question. But they have several needs, and two of the biggest are on the offensive and defensive lines. Like many of his peers, general manager Monti Ossenfort believes the quickest way to build is through the trenches. The popular theory is that if wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. is there, you take him. But what if he’s not? Does Arizona select Malik Nabers or Rome Odunze, also considered elite receivers? Or do they go a different route and look to pick up a receiver in later rounds? Ossenfort, who traded back from No. 3 last year, won’t answer these questions, of course, but he might shed light on how he views Arizona’s roster priorities. — Doug Haller

How does Tier 2 of the quarterback class shake out?

The Falcons don’t have a shot at Caleb Williams or Drake Maye picking at No. 8, and trading up to No. 1 or No. 2 in this draft class doesn’t seem realistic for anyone. That means if Atlanta is going to rely on the draft to find its next quarterback, it’s going to have to decide who it likes from a group that includes LSU’s Jayden Daniels, Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy and maybe even Oregon’s Bo Nix. Not only that, the Falcons have to figure out where they’re going to need to pick to get the player they want. McCarthy and Nix almost certainly will be available at eight, but getting Daniels might require a trade up to as high as No. 3. — Josh Kendall

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Which agents is general manager Eric DeCosta meeting with?

The Ravens are picking 30th. They have myriad needs, particularly on the offensive line and at running back and edge rusher. However, they’ll stay at 30 and pick the best player available or they’ll trade back to accrue more picks. What they do in the draft is never sexy, but it’s who they are. It’s also why there will be no position focus at the combine. What will be more notable is whether DeCosta can gain any traction in re-signing his own free agents. The Ravens have nearly two dozen, including standouts Justin Madubuike and Patrick Queen. With a tight salary-cap situation, DeCosta will need to get creative to keep the core of a 13-4 team together for another run. — Jeff Zrebiec

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How will the Bills navigate their currently nonexistent cap space?

The Bills have their work cut out for them this offseason. The team is in a projected $41 million hole for 2024 cap space, with only 53 players on their roster and a lot of holes to boot. The team will need to make some difficult decisions. Whom might they cut to make room? Which contracts will they restructure? Which players will they extend? How much do they want to negatively influence their 2025 cap sheet with some of their restructurings? General manager Brandon Beane hasn’t had to do anything quite like this since his early years as the team’s GM. — Joe Buscaglia

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The team’s new coach and general manager

I’m interested in hearing what Dave Canales and Dan Morgan say at their first combine as the top of the Panthers’ football food chain. The two spoke in mostly general terms at their introductory news conference, where Morgan said the team needs more “dogs.” You might have heard: The Panthers don’t have a first-round pick. But this is an important offseason for a team that needs to get quarterback Bryce Young offensive line help and more weapons while figuring out how to handle a pair of key free agents in edge rusher Brian Burns and linebacker Frankie Luvu. — Joseph Person

Shedeur Sanders and Caleb Williams

All eyes at the combine will be on Caleb Williams, right, the presumptive No. 1 pick in the draft this week at the combine. (John Leyba / USA Today)

How will Caleb Williams handle the limelight?

The most important elements of the combine for the presumptive No. 1 pick will take place behind the scenes during his conversations with teams, starting with the Bears. Most questions about Williams have more to do with what he’s like off the field, and while he’s experienced more fame than most college football players, he hasn’t experienced anything like the media onslaught that will be waiting for him Friday morning in Indianapolis. The Bears, and other teams, will likely take note of how he does in that environment. — Kevin Fishbain

The defensive tackle class

The Bengals need to attack needs at interior defensive line aggressively, so how the measurables (and interviews) shake out will go a long way to deciding if Byron Murphy of Texas and Jer’Zhan Newton of Illinois could connect at No. 18 or if a move up or down the board shakes them out of mid-first range. Will any new candidates enter the equation for Day 2 with a strong combine? The Bengals need to plot the draft path at DT and if they don’t see enough options, they could shift to a free-agent-laden approach. — Paul Dehner Jr.

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The wide receivers

The Browns are focused on winning in 2024, so the “good” stuff at the combine will involve Browns GM Andrew Berry talking potential trades with his peers and potentially bumping into agents of upcoming free agents. None of that will be for public consumption. But the Browns need to upgrade their receiving corps — now and into the future — so it’s fair to think they’ll focus on their evaluations of this year’s wide receiver class. The Browns don’t pick until No. 54 of the second round, so they’ll have to determine how many wide receivers will be long gone, which ones they might like in the second or third rounds and how those receivers might fit into their ever-evolving offense. — Zac Jackson

What is the latest with Dak Prescott’s contract?

There are plenty of areas to address in free agency and the draft, from offensive line to linebacker and defensive tackle. But Prescott’s contract is the No. 1 issue because it affects everything else. The Cowboys have given no indication that they are considering an immediate future without Prescott, who is entering the final season of his current deal. The most likely scenario is that he signs a new contract next month. If the Cowboys leave his deal as is, he’d count just under $60 million against their 2024 cap, making it difficult to do anything to improve the roster outside of the draft. If Dallas is truly “all in,” like Jerry Jones said at the Senior Bowl, they need to figure out Prescott’s future so they can begin improving the rest of the roster. — Jon Machota

Russell Wilson watch

Sean Payton said after the season that a decision on the future of the 35-year-old Wilson would not be “a long, drawn-out process.” A few weeks later, at the Super Bowl, Payton said the decision would come “sooner rather than later.” The Broncos appear ready to move on from Wilson, whose $37 million in 2025 salary becomes guaranteed if he’s still on the roster on March 17, but there has been no movement yet publicly. I’m interested to see whether the activities at the combine reveal anything about what the Broncos will do with Wilson after two underwhelming seasons in Denver and what light will be shed on their quarterback plan to follow. — Nick Kosmider

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The cornerback class

This is a really intriguing group of corners, with more than a handful of prospects looking like first-rounders. The Lions obviously could use some young talent at the position, whether it’s at No. 29 on the first night or on Day 2 with three picks — Nos. 61, 73 and 92. I’m curious to see which corners separate themselves in Indianapolis. Testing is obviously part of the equation, but defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn believes you have to be wired a certain way to excel at the position. Hearing from corners at the podium could help us get a better understanding of prospects the Lions might like. — Colton Pouncy


Packers quarterback Jordan Love exceeded expectations in his first year as a starter and now is in line for a contract extension. (Patrick McDermott / Getty Images)

Jordan Love extension talks

I’m going to be parked next to the second-floor Starbucks at the JW Marriott for 96 consecutive hours, waiting for a glimpse of Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst and super-agent David Mulugheta talking with each other. I’d even take just a glance in each other’s direction. Then, I’ll know exactly how much the Packers are paying Love. Gutekunst can’t sign his franchise quarterback until May 3 because that’s 12 months after Love’s last extension, but he and Mulugheta will surely meet in Indianapolis to exchange contract numbers. — Matt Schneidman

Nick Caserio’s plan to build on last season

This was supposed to be a gradual and potentially painful build as Caserio and new coach DeMeco Ryans began laying the foundation last season after the GM spent the two previous years dismantling and setting the table for a true rebuild. But Caserio struck gold with his hiring of Ryans and draft selections both in 2022 and 2023 and Houston came out of nowhere to win its first division title in four years. Now Caserio must further fortify the roster, giving C.J. Stroud additional support by way of consistent weapons and more impactful defensive playmakers. With adequate cap space and eight draft picks, the Texans have resources to build with a blend of free-agent talent and young prospects. Caserio and Ryans surely will not give away any state secrets next week, but they should shed light on some of their highest priorities. — Mike Jones

Who will catch the eye of Colts WRs coach Reggie Wayne?

Beyond the first-round prospects Indianapolis will consider with the No. 15 pick, this year’s draft class is supposed to be loaded with wide receiver talent. Last year, Wayne said he was very impressed with Josh Downs’ route running and sure-handedness during the combine, despite Downs being undersized coming out of North Carolina. Wayne relayed that message to GM Chris Ballard, Downs was drafted in the third round and had a standout rookie season. I’ll use my binoculars to keep a close eye on Wayne’s interactions during combine drills, while also asking several receivers if they’ve met with him and heard any feedback. — James Boyd

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How they handle the tricky Calvin Ridley situation

By all accounts, the Jaguars want Ridley back after the 29-year-old receiver had 76 catches for 1,016 yards and eight touchdowns in his first season in Jacksonville. However, Ridley’s contract expired and his situation is fascinating to consider. If the Jaguars re-sign Ridley before free agency begins, it qualifies as an extension and they would owe Atlanta a second-round pick in the 2024 draft as per the terms of their trade. However, if Ridley gets to free agency but still returns to the Jaguars, the new deal wouldn’t be considered an extension — rather a free-agent contract — and the Jaguars would only have to send Atlanta their third-round pick. Allowing Ridley to get to the open market is risky, but if the Jaguars play their cards right, they could bring back Trevor Lawrence’s top weapon without losing a top-50 pick. — Jim Ayello

Tier 2 of the receiver and tight end prospects

A major question for next season is whether Chiefs coach Andy Reid and general manager Brett Veach can return the team’s offense to its previous potent form. One of the fastest ways to do that is to select the best pass-catching prospects available late in the first and second rounds. Travis Kelce will be 35 next season, so adding another tight end should be high on the Chiefs’ priority list. As for the receivers, the Chiefs should have plenty of options, considering the depth of this year’s class. Reid and Veach will use the combine to start identifying which receiver could most excel playing alongside Patrick Mahomes. — Nate Taylor

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The quarterback prospects

This isn’t a unique answer, but it’s the most significant roster question for the Raiders in their first full season under general manager Tom Telesco and head coach Antonio Pierce. Quarterback Aidan O’Connell was solid in 10 starts as a rookie, but it’s hard to see the Raiders finishing this offseason without adding competition for the starting job either through the addition of a veteran or a rookie quarterback. Caleb Williams, Drake Maye and Jayden Daniels are widely considered the top three quarterbacks in this class. The Raiders will do plenty of work on them, but it’ll be difficult for them to draft any of them considering they hold pick No. 13 in the first round. With that in mind, they’ll also need to deeply study J.J. McCarthy, Bo Nix, Michael Penix Jr. and the rest of the class. — Tashan Reed


The NFL world will watch with interest to see how Jim Harbaugh and the cap-strapped Chargers retool their roster this offseason. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

Their salary-cap situation

The Chargers are effectively $31.7 million over the salary cap as they head into the combine, according to Over the Cap. Crucial decisions loom, particularly regarding receiver Mike Williams, receiver Keenan Allen, edge rusher Joey Bosa and edge rusher Khalil Mack. All four veterans have cap hits exceeding $30 million in 2024. How will new head coach Jim Harbaugh and GM Joe Hortiz navigate these veteran contracts — and their cap situation in general? Who stays? Who goes? Do they inquire into the trade market? Do they offer extensions? Will they use void years? I’ll be looking for answers to these questions in Indy. — Daniel Popper

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Sniffing around an offseason plan

The Rams don’t generally attend the NFL combine (here is why) other than their medical staff’s on-site collection of the all-important medical information on prospects. But Indianapolis is still a great place to gather data and tidbits from agents and other league sources about what their offseason plan could be and new trends in contract structures and team-building. The Rams will have approximately $40 million in workable cap space and a lot of needs despite a better-than-expected 2023 season. They also have brought in new assistant coaches — and the combine will be the perfect environment to mine for information about those additions. — Jourdan Rodrigue

Tua Tagovailoa extension talks

It certainly seems like a Tagovailoa extension is a foregone conclusion. But what will it look like and when will it happen? The Dolphins QB enters the 2024 season with a $23.1 million cap charge on the fifth-year option. The Dolphins then have the franchise tag at their disposal, so they don’t have to sign him to a long-term deal now or even next offseason. But for a team that could use some cap relief, lowering his cap figure with an extension could be appealing. But how much is it going to take to retain Tagovailoa? Is he the caliber of quarterback who should be paid in the neighborhood of a Joe Burrow ($55 million AAV)? Would he take less? These are the franchise-defining questions to keep in mind at the combine and beyond. — Jim Ayello

Where things stand between the Vikings and Kirk Cousins

This subject will shape the future of the Vikings organization. Keep Cousins, and Minnesota would likely be signaling its belief that it can contend in the short term. Move on from him, and the Vikings would be indicating that they’d be ready to chart a new path. Cousins’ contract is set to void March 12. If that happens, the Vikings will be on the hook for a hefty $28.5 million dead-cap hit. The only way to extend that money into the future is to come to terms on an extension with Cousins. The NFL combine stands as a prime opportunity for in-person discussions on this subject between the team and Cousins’ representatives. — Alec Lewis

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Quarterback Jayden Daniels

The easiest way for the Patriots to address their issues at quarterback is to draft a signal caller — either Daniels or Drake Maye depending on who falls to them at No. 3. With Daniels, there are more unknowns. The Pats aren’t concerned about his height (6-foot-4) or hand size (9 5/8 inches), but scouts want to see him at or above 210 pounds at the combine because there are concerns about his slight frame and the big hits he too often takes. The other question for the Patriots is how Daniels will interview and how he’ll test when they run him through plays on the whiteboard. How Daniels (and Maye) do this week will go a long way in determining whether the Patriots draft a quarterback or wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. with the third pick. — Chad Graff

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Offensive tackles and pass catchers

We’ll leave the annual “too far over the salary cap” discussion for after the combine because the Saints always find a way. And this year it should come in mass contract restructurings of several veteran players. As noted in our NFL reporters’ mock draft recently, the need for tackle and/or guard should stand high on the priority list. So you’d imagine players like Olu Fashanu (Penn State), JC Latham (Alabama), Taliese Fuaga (Oregon State), Amarius Mims (Georgia) and Tyler Guyton (Oklahoma) are all on the Saints’ radar. The Saints could also use another piece for Derek Carr at wide receiver (LSU’s Brian Thomas, Florida State’s Keon Coleman, Texas’ Adonai Mitchell) to add some more punch with Chris Olave and Rashid Shaheed. — Larry Holder

Saquon Barkley watch

There’s a lot riding on this next period of the Giants offseason after an already noisy start to the business side of things with coaching changes aplenty. But the spotlight will be tuned to Barkley’s future at the combine as the front office and the running back’s representatives are expected to meet again. Will they be able to hammer out a deal? Will he get tagged again for $12.1 million or will he finally test the open market and venture into the interesting running back market? We’ll get a clearer picture by week’s end of where the two sides stand. — Charlotte Carroll


Washington’s Rome Odunze is one of the stars of a deep wide receiver class that will draw plenty of interest in Indianapolis. (Joe Nicholson / USA Today)

The pass catchers

The Jets have an obvious need at offensive tackle (and/or at guard, too, depending on some offseason decisions), but they also desperately need help at wide receiver for star Garrett Wilson. Allen Lazard won’t cut it as an option in 2024. There are some extremely talented receivers in this class who could be available at No. 10 when the Jets pick — after Marvin Harrison Jr., who will almost certainly be gone — and even if the Jets still need an offensive lineman, they might be tempted by the likes of Malik Nabers or Rome Odunze — or others later in the draft, when teams have found stars in past years while the Jets sat on their hands, like last year. — Zack Rosenblatt

Are they organized?

Fourth-year coach Nick Sirianni overhauled both coordinator positions, and there’s still not much clarity about how involved he will be in working with newly hired offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to build a less predictable offensive system that supplies a deeply talented roster with more answers this offseason. And what kind of offense is that exactly? A Howie Roseman-led personnel department that remains largely intact must also upgrade several defensive positions. How more favorably positioned will defenders be in a revamped “Fangio System” that will this time be coached by … well, Vic Fangio? — Brooks Kubena

If it’s a clean sweep concerning Kenny Pickett

The Steelers interview every single player they can and they pretty much use the combine as an assurance of what they’ve scouted throughout the year. So there’s not much to glean there. Where there could be some clarification, or at least unity, is what general manager Omar Khan says about Pickett compared with what Mike Tomlin said days after the season and what owner Art Rooney II said two weeks later. Both alluded to Pickett being the No. 1 quarterback entering the season despite not regaining his starting position from Mason Rudolph over the final four games of the season. Will the Steelers triple down on that or walk it back and hammer home that Pickett won’t be entering the offseason as the clear-cut QB1 and either a re-signing of Rudolph or an outside free agent — or a potential trade — will provide legitimate competition? — Mark Kaboly

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The offensive linemen

Three of the top center prospects — Oregon’s Jackson Powers-Johnson, Duke’s Graham Barton and West Virginia’s Zach Frazier — should all have multi-positional capability in the NFL. That could be tantalizing to the 49ers, whose biggest weakness to fix lies in the offensive line. More than one spot was a problem this past season. Essentially everyone but left tackle Trent Williams endured significant struggles at one point or another. So perhaps the 49ers, who don’t pick until No. 31, will be looking for an adaptable interior lineman who can immediately fortify their especially problematic right guard position before potentially becoming the long-term solution at center. The 49ers simply need more quality options up front. Imagine the boost that could give QB Brock Purdy. — David Lombardi

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John Schneider flying solo

This will be Seattle’s first combine with GM Schneider leading football operations, so his messaging from the podium will be interesting to analyze. While Schneider has long figured prominently into key decisions, coach Pete Carroll set the vision for the franchise previously. Schneider is doing more of that now. We won’t hear from new coach Mike Macdonald at all at the combine; he and his staff are expected to remain behind to install their schemes. That will put additional attention on Schneider. — Mike Sando

How they approach the quarterback position

The Bucs want to re-sign Baker Mayfield, whose contract is up. Mayfield has said he wants to remain in Tampa. But he also told ESPN he wants market value. That probably means a deal similar to the one Geno Smith recently signed with Seattle — $75 million over three years. Whether the Bucs want to pay that is the issue. A franchise tag is an option but not ideal with safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and wide receiver Mike Evans also on expiring contracts. It will be interesting to hear what GM Jason Licht says about the quarterback position, including the prospects in the draft. — Dan Pompei

Three tackles and two receivers

The free-agency picture suggests the Titans can get help at cornerback and interior offensive line before the draft but will likely have to focus their first two picks on their two biggest needs. The absence of a third-round pick increases the urgency. Second-year quarterback Will Levis needs a long-term receiver to grow with and a left tackle to protect him. The board may work out for the Titans to choose between Joe Alt and Olu Fashanu as a foundational tackle — but what about Taliese Fuaga? Does he continue his momentum in Indy? Could the Titans move down, get him and be happy with it? The board may also let Malik Nabers or Rome Odunze slide to No. 7. Would Brian Callahan prefer a playmaker over a blocker as the Bengals did when he was there and they took Ja’Marr Chase over Penei Sewell in 2021? — Joe Rexrode

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The quarterbacks

It’s no secret that the holders of the No. 2 pick are expected to select a quarterback from the top group. The trick here is the new braintrust of GM Adam Peters, head coach Dan Quinn, offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury and the scouting department holdovers are mostly new to each other. Do they have Caleb Williams, Drake Maye and Jayden Daniels graded in the same range? If Williams is a cut above, is the gap considered enough to offer the Bears a Godfather trade for the first pick? Has Daniels’ dual-threat shine caught up to Maye or do they prefer the UNC quarterback’s prototypical size? We won’t find out the staff’s hopes and dreams, but this is where the detective work begins by examining the trio on our own. — Ben Standig

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(Top photos of J.J. McCarthy, Saquon Barkley and Malik Nabers: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images; Jim McIsaac, Getty Images; Matthew Hinton / USA Today)

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How hockey helped make J.J. McCarthy one of NFL Draft's most intriguing prospects

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How hockey helped make J.J. McCarthy one of NFL Draft's most intriguing prospects

Dan Capuano’s funeral at St. Rita of Cascia High School on Chicago’s Southwest Side was standing-room only. Hundreds of firefighters from Chicago and around the country attended. Members of the St. Jude Knights youth hockey club were there, too, wearing their jerseys.

Capuano’s sons, Andrew and Nick, played for the Knights, a Northern Illinois Hockey League program that feeds many of Chicago’s powerhouse Catholic schools. Nick was on the 2012-13 team that won the Squirt A state championship.

Dan had devoted much of his time to the Knights before he died in the line of duty while fighting a warehouse fire on the South Side on Dec. 14, 2015.

That title-winning Knights team wanted to get back together to honor Capuano and his family, so in March 2016, a new team was formed. “Team Capuano” would play in the Shamrock Shuffle at the University of Notre Dame over a weekend. Their jerseys would be red and white and include Dan’s badge number: 1676.

There was an early hiccup. “The guy that was running the tournament, he didn’t want to let us in,” said Ralph Lawrence, a former St. Jude coach. “He said that the competition would be way too high.”

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Team Capuano just wanted to play together again. It got in. Things got chippy. During one game, a hit from behind sent center Luke Lawrence, Ralph’s son, hard into the boards.

“Could have paralyzed him,” Ralph said. “It was a bad hit.”

That’s when 13-year-old wing J.J. McCarthy rushed in. The future five-star recruit, Michigan quarterback, national champion and soon-to-be NFL draft pick was livid. He didn’t drop his gloves, but a scrum ensued.

“It was a little cheap hit in the corner,” Luke said. “J.J. was the first one to me, come into the corner and exchange a few words with the kid.”

“J.J. went off on the kid and got kicked out of the game,” Ralph said.

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The whole scene was unlike McCarthy. He was typically more collected on the ice — his father, Jim, one of the primary organizers of Team Capuano, didn’t like the outburst — but Luke was J.J.’s close friend, and the tournament was an emotional experience. And in hockey, leadership often involves going into the corners.

“Those kids played for something more than hockey that weekend,” Ralph said.

When it was over, Team Capuano — the team some thought didn’t belong in South Bend — won the tournament. A year later, they returned and repeated as champions.


Ice is in McCarthy’s blood. His mother, Megan, was a competitive figure skater. He started playing hockey in kindergarten. Organized football came later.

McCarthy is on record calling hockey his first love. What he experienced on the ice would ultimately help make him a better quarterback — one now on the verge of being drafted in the first round.

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He was 10 when the Knights defeated Winnetka in the Tier II Squirt A state championship in March 2013. He and Luke Lawrence assisted on the only goal of the game. It was a special season for a special group, one that eventually split up as players changed teams and levels.


McCarthy (far right) got used to winning early as part of a championship squad with the St. Jude Knights. (Courtesy of Ralph Lawrence)

McCarthy and Lawrence were inseparable for years. Competitive in everything, they played so much and so well together on the same line that they earned a nickname referencing Henrik and Daniel Sedin, the twin stars from the Vancouver Canucks.

The Lawrences and McCarthys stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts before practices or games. The dads would get coffee. Luke would get a bagel or a banana. McCarthy always ordered a strawberry frosted donut. Ralph Lawerence advised against the pre-skate pastry, but it became McCarthy’s go-to. (After McCarthy signed an NIL deal at Michigan, a medium iced coffee and a strawberry frosted donut became his official Dunkin’ Donuts meal in the Detroit area.)

“We laugh till this day,” Ralph said. “And it didn’t hurt him. His speed was fine. His stomach didn’t get upset.”

As a coach, Lawrence emphasized playing positionally strong in the neutral zone and the importance of forechecking and backchecking. But McCarthy played the game with feel.

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“He knew where the puck was going to be,” Ralph said. “He knew what the other team was going to do.”

As Lawrence watched McCarthy play football, he saw similar things happen on the field.

“He had an instinct,” Lawrence said. “It was the same way he had it on the ice.”

McCarthy and Lawrence moved on to the Northern Express, another Tier II team that played in the Central States Development Hockey League, which expanded outside of Illinois. It was time for a new challenge.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited as a coach,” Northern Express coach Brent Dolan said.

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Dolan’s team excelled defensively. The team’s forecheck was relentless, but it didn’t score a lot.

“When J.J. and Luke came, that instantly changed,” Dolan said. “I would say our goals per game went up by two — and that’s massive in hockey.”

Checking was now permitted, too. There would be contact and a lot of it, a new and different level of physicality. McCarthy could give hits, take hits — and avoid them. The extra contact also meant extracurriculars, and McCarthy had no problem mixing it up.

“If I needed anything or if I was getting banged up in the corner, J.J.’s always there for me, getting in there and making sure that nothing’s gonna escalate,” Luke said. “He would always stick up for me.”


By the time he hung up his skates, McCarthy had developed into a fast, physical forward. (Courtesy of Ted Eagle)

Hockey requires quick decision-making under duress and amid contact. For McCarthy, as a forward, that often meant receiving the puck while exiting his own zone and deciding what to do as an opposing defenseman barreled his way.

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Pass the puck quickly to a teammate? Make a quick cut around the defenseman? Chip the puck past the opponent and go after it?

“People who don’t play hockey don’t really understand how fast of a sport it is and how many different components go into it,” Dolan said. “You have to make a decision with the puck, and you got to know where to go with it and execute that all in a split second. That’s not overexaggerating it. That probably helped J.J.’s vision in football.”

A shift on the ice can feel like standing in the pocket: chaos everywhere, violence nearby. You have to see it — or, more importantly, feel it — to overcome it. McCarthy, who was on Northern Express’ power play, had the poise and spatial awareness to operate in the maelstrom.

“Hockey definitely slowed down football,” Luke Lawrence said.

In particular, McCarthy developed a Patrick Kane-like knack for avoiding major hits. Dolan later saw him make hockey-like cuts playing for Michigan.

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“He’s trying to avoid getting drilled,” Dolan said. “The quick, subtle movements that you make in hockey probably helped him in the pocket and then also while he’s out on the edge rushing or scrambling.”

In the summer between seventh and eighth grade, McCarthy started training with Greg Holcomb, a private QB coach from Next Level Athletix. Holcomb saw a lot of natural ability. He also saw hockey’s influence.

“One of the reasons why he was so good at throwing off platform and moving around and changing direction is probably because in hockey he would get absolutely killed if he wasn’t able to skate past guys or make them miss,” Holcomb said. “Hockey definitely helped him.”


The first game of McCarthy’s final hockey season came, fittingly enough, at Yost Ice Arena on the University of Michigan campus.

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He was playing for the 14-and-under Chicago Young Americans, a Tier I team, during his freshman year at Nazareth Academy high school. McCarthy had always been talented enough to play at the highest level of youth hockey, but football overlapped with hockey too much, especially on the weekends.

CYA coach Ted Eagle didn’t mind the conflict because of who McCarthy was.

McCarthy had good hands and a quick release. He played hard, generated turnovers and scored. “He was a beast in hockey,” Eagle said. “He threw the body around and he wasn’t kind of this less skilled, bigger guy. He was just fast and physical.”

And he was a spark — a tone-setter. In hockey, you need that.

“I relied on him, too,” Eagle said. “It kind of sets the tone for the rest of the team when one or two guys are kind of pushing the pace.”

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J.J. McCarthy’s draft ceiling: What film shows about Michigan QB’s NFL potential

McCarthy missed the first game of the tournament at Michigan because of a Nazareth football game then showed up in the first period of their second game against the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite junior team. Eagle considers it one of his favorite hockey memories. “He raced up, and he showed up mid-game and scored a couple of goals against one of the top teams in the country,” Eagle said.

There were three hockey practices every week, mostly after football practice, which resulted in some very late nights for a high school freshman. And there were the out-of-town games missed because of football games on Friday nights or Saturday mornings. CYA would play nearly 70 games that season, many that required travel, and McCarthy made more than 40 of them, according to Eagle.

The back-and-forth between football and hockey required discipline, but McCarthy was different. Eagle described him as a “front-of-the-line guy” in practice. He paid attention to the smallest details, asked plenty of questions, talked through different scenarios. Eagle said McCarthy craved the information to get better. Teammates were drawn to him.

“I’m sure a lot of people are aware of this by now,” Eagle said, “but he was just like an ultimate leader.”

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McCarthy hung up his skates after his freshman year of high school to focus on football. During his sophomore season the next year — and just days before Illinois’ Class 7A state championship game in 2018 — McCarthy’s throwing hand collided with a defensive lineman’s helmet as he released a pass.

“As a quarterback, it’s the kiss of death,” said Brody Budmayr, Nazareth’s former quarterbacks coach.

Everything stopped. McCarthy was in pain — serious, excruciating pain. After a few nervous moments, the sophomore starter with Division-I interest wanted to test his hand. He dropped back to pass, and then …

“It’s just the pain and anguish of you know it’s broke,” Budmayr said. “It’s him actually dropping to his knees and us thinking, ‘Wow, this is not good.’”

But there was no way he was missing Nazareth’s state championship game against St. Charles North. His parents found an orthopedic surgeon to work on Thanksgiving, and playing became a matter of pain tolerance.

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That wasn’t a problem. McCarthy was a hockey player.

In the state championship game, McCarthy was 15-for-21 passing for 201 yards and a touchdown as Nazareth dominated 31-10. A legend was born.

“Ultimately, he was the one that had to go out there,” Budmayr said. “He taped it up and he led us to a state championship.”


McCarthy’s hockey coaches are convinced his experience on the ice informed his play on the gridiron. (Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

On May 11, 2019, McCarthy announced he was committing to Michigan and coach Jim Harbaugh. During the recruiting process, Nazareth head coach Tim Racki told the story about McCarthy and his broken thumb.

“When I told him he was a hockey player, (Harbaugh’s) eyes lit up,” Racki said. “And then when I told him that story, that sealed the deal in terms of the kid’s toughness and the grit that he had.”

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When McCarthy announced his college decision on social media, he thanked three hockey coaches — Lawrence, Dolan and Eagle — for allowing him to play both sports together.

“I would not be where I am without having had hockey in my life,” he wrote.

(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photos: courtesy of Ted Eagle, Scott Taetsch / Getty Images

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Anonymous NBA player poll 2024: LeBron or Jordan for GOAT? Most overrated? Finals favorite?

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Anonymous NBA player poll 2024: LeBron or Jordan for GOAT? Most overrated? Finals favorite?

Sample size matters, people.

So when The Athletic launched its first NBA player poll in 2019, with 127 players answering questions about league matters so honestly because of the anonymity they were granted, the bar was set very high. We hit triple digits again last year (108 players), when the popular poll returned in full force after a COVID-19-induced hiatus because of limited locker room access for reporters during that time.

This time around, with familiar topics like MVP, “most overrated,” “player you’d least like to fight” and the referees to discuss, as well as new debates over the 65-game rule and the commissioner’s letter grade, our NBA staff interviewed a whopping 142 players from March 5 through April 11. That’s nearly a third of the entire league, with unfiltered views of stars and role players alike. And yes, all 30 teams had a voice.

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As is always the case, not every player answered every question. But the unprecedented participation means there are more opinions and insights than ever. There’s a bonus question, too, with players telling us which non-NBA player is their current favorite athlete (yes, as you might have imagined, Caitlin Clark received a few votes).

Away we go…

(Editor’s Note: In some cases, the combined percentages of all the answers to a question may not add up to 100 percent, because individual percentages have been rounded up or down to the nearest tenth of a percentage point.)


Here’s a not-so-bold prediction when it comes to the actual MVP race: Nikola Jokić is going to win it by a far more significant margin than the one you see above. This has been the trend with our polls, with players typically seeing it very differently from the 100 media members who vote on the award every year.

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So while Jokić is considered the heavy front-runner, it should come as no surprise that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander came so close to taking the top honor here. And bear in mind, these votes were taken before Oklahoma City secured the top seed in the Western Conference on the last day of the regular season.

Luka Dončić was simply incredible down the season’s home stretch, but — like SGA — didn’t see his full body of work reflected in the polling because of the timing factor in the process.

Jokić voters

• “He’s Jokić. He affects the game in many ways that people just can’t understand — both offensively and defensively, honestly. His defense has gotten a lot better.”

• “He’s unstoppable.”

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• “To be this effective the year after winning a championship, when it’s supposed to be harder, is impressive.”

• “Nikola Jokić is MVP. Consistent, still winning, still affecting the team in a number of ways. And it’s noticeable when he’s off the floor.”

• “He’s changed the game. His defense is underrated. He just knows the game so much.”

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SGA voters

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• “No one expected the Thunder to be what they are this season, and he’s the head of that snake. And he’s consistent every single game — same numbers, and they’re incredible numbers. And he plays on both ends of the floor.”

• “I think he’s the most consistent No. 1 option on his team without a consistent helper. Like, there isn’t really a clear second superstar even though Jalen Williams is coming on as well. I think what he’s doing every game is the most impressive, and it translates into wins.”

• “Obviously, he’s scoring the ball. But the way he shares it and has his team involved is very unselfish. And I think he’s up there in steals as well (tied with Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox for the league lead at two per game). And he’s been doing it all season long. …He’s just been really consistent in the style of play that he has. He’s just been dominating the game, and it’s not just points. It’s rebounds, assists, and he’s done a great job of leading that team over there.”

• “Underdog. Just with what OKC is doing, nobody would be mad if they were a 10 seed with their roster. If they were a 10 seed, nobody would be like, ‘Oh, they’re having a bad year.’ They’d be like, ‘They’re still rebuilding.’ … With what he’s doing, I think that’s my MVP.”


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Victor Wembanyama said last month that his friend and fellow Frenchman Rudy Gobert would be a worthy winner of the 2023-24 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award. But Wembanyama also added that, in future seasons, he, and not Gobert, would be the front-runner.

Their NBA peers, however, feel Wembanyama’s time has already arrived. Players voted the towering Spurs rookie as the league’s best defender right now.

Wembanyama led the league in blocks, averaging 3.58 per game. His next closest competitor, Utah’s Walker Kessler, recorded 2.41 blocks per game.

“He just makes it so hard to finish at the rim,” one opponent said of Wembanyama.

Another player said: “He’s changing the game. Players — you can’t say ‘scared’ — but he’s changing their shots. He deserves it.”

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The Grizzlies certainly looked terrified in this three-on-one Wemby highlight that went viral earlier this month.

Gobert, who would join Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace as the only four-time winners of the DPOY award if he wins it this season, finished fifth in our vote (6 percent). As you’ll see later on in this poll, this isn’t the last time Gobert is questioned by his peers.

Jrue Holiday, the top vote-getter by a wide margin in last year’s poll, placed second in the voting this year at 12.9 percent, barely trailing Wembanyama.

Wembanyama voter

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“He really, like, affects everything in the paint. He has dudes not even trying to go to the rim. He damn near leads the league in blocks right now, and this is his first year. He’s doing it in limited time too.”

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Holiday voter

“I think guard defenders are more impressive because they’re on the ball all the time. As a big man, you make up mistakes by helping off your man. So it’s easier. Protecting the paint is somewhat easier than staying in front of the ball.”

Lu Dort voter

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“(He) guards multiple positions, (is a) physical defender, guards without fouling — even when at the beginning of the season when the referees were calling fouls. Now, it helps him even more, because they’re not calling fouls.”


Wembanyama entered last year’s draft with enormous hype. The answers to this question once again demonstrate that, in the players’ eyes, the adulation was deserved.

“Some of the stuff he does offensively, the way he moves, it just looks so fluid,” one player said. “Just seeing him from afar, he’s playing the right way. He has the right principles. He’s focused on the right things. I like him.”

Wembanyama’s age factored into some of the players’ votes, as he turned 20 in January. Naturally, any team executive looking to build a title-contending team wants as long of a runway as possible.

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“You can have him for 20 years,” one of the players said.

Another player who chose Wemby explained his vote like this: “The upside and at 20 years old, you can see that if he stays healthy and continues to get better, he can be a truly great player. I don’t want to put a ceiling on him.”

Jokić, on the other hand, is 29. So, it says something about how much his peers respect his game that so many of them still would make him their first signee even though he’s nearly one decade older than Wembanyama. Jokić is seven years older than Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards and four years older than Dončić.

Do you think Jokić faring so well is impressive? How about the fact that LeBron James is still getting votes in this young man’s category at the ripe old age of 39 (he’ll be 40 on Dec. 30). Ditto for Steph Curry, who turned 36 on March 14. The same can’t be said for 29-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo, who won this category by a landslide in both 2019 (36.4 percent to Anthony Davis’ 10.4 percent) and 2023 (52.4 percent to Jokić’s 8.7 percent) but registered a measly 2.2 percent this time around.


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There’s just something about Gobert’s game that his peers don’t like. Maybe the skepticism stems from a lack of playoff success, as none of Gobert’s teams have advanced to the conference finals. Or maybe it all traces back to the bubble in 2020 when the Clippers’ Terance Mann buried all those 3s over Gobert in the West semifinals and sparked serious scrutiny about the perceived limitations of the big man’s game.

Gobert has the elite résumé, though, with the three DPOY awards, three All-Star appearances, an All-NBA Second Team selection and three All-NBA Third Team nods. He has the receipts from this season, as he was the indisputable anchor of a Minnesota defense that was the best in the league while Gobert finished second in rebounds (12.9) and sixth in blocks (2.1) on a team that came just two wins shy of earning the No. 1 seed in the West (it finished third). And as our resident Timberwolves expert Jon Krawczynski wrote in January, the truth about those Jazz teams was that their lack of perimeter defense was the real problem that was exposed in those playoffs. These Timberwolves don’t have that deficiency.

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Still, Gobert joins Draymond Green (2019) and Trae Young (2023) as the latest winner of this undesirable award.


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Seven seasons in, Derrick White’s top claim to NBA fame is finishing 16th in the media’s 2018-19 Most Improved Player voting and being named to the 2022-23 NBA All-Defensive Second Team. Jalen Williams, in his second season, placed second in last season’s Rookie of the Year voting but was also routinely mistaken on opposing telecasts for the Thunder’s “other” Jaylin Williams. Both Jalen Williams and White were lightly recruited coming out of high school.

So yes, in other words, they’re very familiar with the experience of being underrated. And while both are receiving more acclaim, they’re not the ones commanding the brightest spotlight on their respective teams.

White plays in the shadows of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kristaps Porziņģis and Holiday. Williams, meanwhile, is on a dynamic young Thunder team where Gilgeous-Alexander commands most of the spotlight alongside big man Chet Holmgren.

One of the players who voted for White said, “I say that every single day: He’s one of the most underrated players in the league. They talk about him more (now), but they still don’t talk about him enough.”

Said another: “(White) defends really well (and) does a little bit of everything on offense.”

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It’s notable, too, that Gilgeous-Alexander finished fourth in the players’ most-underrated voting even though he’s a virtual lock to be an All-NBA First Team selection by the media for the second season in a row.

“I don’t know if you can even say it anymore because he’s starting to get his due, but from a players’ perspective, it doesn’t feel like it’s covered enough,” an SGA voter said. “But what Shai has done this year, just how his progression has gone … I don’t know if you can call him underrated, but it almost feels like how for all those years they were talking about Damian Lillard (during his Portland years), how he was kind of flying under the radar (because of Steph Curry). But if you asked players, (they would’ve said) he’s one of the best guards in the league, in the top two. So I’m starting to see some of that with how we’re talking about Shai.”


The legend of James Johnson grows yet again.

Not only is the 6-foot-7, 240-pound, 37-year-old tough guy now a three-time winner of this award, but he continues to inspire fear in his opponents despite playing in just nine games this season. The Pacers forward has been mostly out of sight, but he’s not out of mind.

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As many players discussed, it’s Johnson’s formal training as an actual fighter that most concerns them. He previously said that he holds a 20-0 record as a kickboxer, is 7-0 in mixed martial arts fights and has a black belt in karate. His nickname is “Bloodsport.” Need we say more?

In a January podcast interview with former NBA player Ryan Hollins, Johnson shared his opinion that, with a year of training in ground defense, he could beat UFC heavyweight legend Jon Jones in a fight.

Here’s the best part of Johnson’s latest season, though: Johnson re-signed with Indiana just two days after the game ball kerfuffle between the Pacers and Bucks on Dec. 13. Johnson had been available all season long, but the Pacers just so happened to come calling for him to return after that wild night in which Antetokounmpo gave them all the Big Brother treatment.

Johnson has been on board ever since, with a brief interruption for paperwork purposes. Indiana had to waive him to complete the Pascal Siakam trade with Toronto on Jan. 17 but signed him to a 10-day contract two days later before signing him for the rest of the season.

“He can actually fight,” one player said. “He’s different. He’s crazy. He’s one of those where you won’t win, but if you do win, you’ll have to kill him.”

Another player said: “Is he still in the league? He’s a triple black belt. I’m not f—ing with James. There’s other guys (where) I might actually lose the fight, but I’m not f—ng with James. He might kick me in my head.”

One of Johnson’s former teammates said: “J.J. is actually the coolest dude ever. He’s super cool. I just know his reputation. I know if you mess with him, it can get like that. But he’s one of my favorite teammates that I’ve had.”

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Speaking of consistency in this category, Steven Adams (6-11, 250) takes second place behind Johnson for the third consecutive time. The Houston Rockets big man hasn’t played since Jan. 22, 2023, when he suffered a posterior cruciate ligament sprain in his right knee that would later require surgery. But like Johnson, the intimidation factor remains.

“(Adams) knows all the MMA stuff, and he can get you in a chokehold real quick,” one Adams voter said. “He’ll be nice with it, but he’ll choke you out and be like, ‘It’s OK, buddy.’”

And how’s this for a terrifying thought for Rockets opponents during an on-court melee? A healthy Adams and his 7-4, 290-pound teammate, Boban Marjanović, in the same scuffle. The Serbian big man, who played a villain in “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” and starred in the below fight scene with Keanu Reeves, garnered votes as well.

“John Wick 3,” one Marjanović voter said in explaining his choice. “It’s not like he can fight, but he’s huge.”

You may have noticed Wembanyama received a vote for the player guys would least like to fight. Picking Wembanyama seemed like an iffy choice considering how thin he is. But, sure enough, Wemby garnered the player’s vote. The reasoning? He would have a massive reach advantage.

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Do you think MJ’s getting nervous? King James almost took his (player poll) GOAT crown this time around, and he’ll do just that next year if this voting trend continues.

In this endless debate, His Airness has experienced serious slippage for the third consecutive poll. Jordan had a huge edge in 2019 (73 percent to LeBron’s 11.9 percent) and was still nearly doubling him in 2023 (58.3 percent to 33 percent). Now the gap is only 3.8 percent.

It makes some sense, though, as James is doing things at this late stage of his career that players this age have never done. And these many feats, it’s quite clear, are changing the way some players see this debate. Consider the highlights of his past 14 months…

  • Broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record on Feb. 7, 2023
  • Led the Lakers to the West finals three months later
  • Led the Lakers to an (inaugural) In-Season Tournament title in December
  • Became the first player to be named to a 20th All-Star team in February
  • Was one of three players to average at least 25 points, eight assists and seven rebounds this season (the others were Jokić and Dončić)
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As one of us wrote when James became the first player to cross the 40,000-point barrier in early March, the constant comparisons do a disservice to both. Their respective journeys have become too different for the discussion to maintain any merit. But James’ ability to remain elite for this long, and to put together this incredible body of NBA work that started during George W. Bush’s first term as U.S. president in 2003, is forever changing the way his career will be remembered.

As a final note here, someone did, in fact, vote for Paul Pierce as the GOAT. (Insert shrug emoji here…)


The folks who run Madison Square Garden call it “The World’s Most Famous Arena” and the “Mecca.” But what sounds like brash marketing hype also matches the opinions of NBA players.

One player responded: “MSG. It’s the Mecca. It’s classic.”

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Another who chose the Garden answered: “At MSG and Crypto, there are bright lights and celebrities.”

The Celtics’ arena historically has gotten a lot of praise for its fans, and nothing’s changed this season. One player said: “Crazy atmosphere. Some big sports fans. It’s so loud in there.” Another said he likes facing the Celtics in Boston because he enjoys playing in a “hostile environment.”


The architects who designed Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena, Charlotte’s Spectrum Center and Memphis’ FedExForum shouldn’t feel bad. Those arenas top this list because the home teams in those venues struggled to draw fans this season relative to other clubs.

Little Caesars Arena, which the Pistons share with the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, “won” this dubious honor even though its average announced crowd was said to be a respectable 18,159 fans per game.

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“No fans, no atmosphere at the moment,” one player said.

Another added: “It’s very open. It’s got to be packed out for it to stand out, and that’s just not what it is.”

The Hornets ranked next to last in home attendance this season, prompting one of the players who voted for Spectrum Center to say, “It’s quiet. Good arena. But it’s quiet.”

One of the NBA’s off-court dramas this season swirled in Washington, where Wizards principal owner Ted Leonsis attempted to move the team and the NHL’s Washington Capitals to Alexandria, Va. Leonsis later scuttled those plans after they failed to move forward in Virginia’s legislature, and Leonsis subsequently reached a deal to remain at Capital One Arena and receive $515 million in funding from the local government to upgrade the arena.

Opposing players don’t like the arena much. One of them said: “Just the way it’s built, it’s a very cold arena. It feels like there’s no soul to it. It feels very empty when you’re there — not by how many people are there. There’s no warmth. I don’t really know how to explain it. … As a player, you like to feel enveloped by the crowd. It doesn’t feel like that.”

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You may be wondering why Denver’s Ball Arena, where fans have been rocking for years now, ranks seventh in the voting. The answer: the altitude, which is something the Nuggets and NHL’s Colorado Avalanche lean into as a psychological play. When visiting teams’ buses arrive in the arena’s loading dock, players see a sign that says: “Ball Arena WELCOMES YOU TO THE MILE HIGH CITY, ELEVATION 5,280 FEET.”

“Oh my God, that team needs to be moved,” one player said. “The altitude is crazy. I don’t like it at all. Every time I play there, I’m dog-tired.”


This is a case where players’ opinions appear to have changed in one year. Gregg Popovich won this vote last year, followed by runner-up Steve Kerr.

Erik Spoelstra placed third last year, receiving 9.5 percent of the vote, but has since vaulted to the top. He has come a long way in this poll since getting just 1 percent of the vote (12th place) in 2019. Considering that his Heat reached the NBA Finals by way of the Play-In last season, it’s safe to assume that earned him even more respect.

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“Just the Heat culture — they’re always competing,” one Spoelstra voter said. “They’re always trying to find a way (to win). I feel like they’re always taking guys that fit their system, and that makes them play very good.”

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Popovich remains highly regarded.

“Pop,” one player answered. “Easy. I love those types of coaches, like Pop and Spo. I would rather you ‘mother—’ me than smile in my face.”

The Knicks’ Josh Hart, who voted for Spoelstra, insisted that he be quoted on the record for this one.

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“Spo, hands down,” said Hart, who worked with Spoelstra at the FIBA World Cup tournament last summer when the Heat head coach was a Team USA assistant. “Quote me on that one. F–ing love Spo.”


Few coaches get more out of their teams than Tom Thibodeau does. But no coach gets more grief for it than Thibodeau, either.

Thibodeau’s Knicks finished 50-32 and earned the East’s second seed, but New York’s success this season and his two NBA Coach of the Year awards didn’t seem to matter much to players. He’s been named the coach players least would like to play for in all three polls, with this margin (37.7 percent ahead of Doc Rivers) the largest yet (he was 13.5 percent ahead of Chicago’s Jim Boylen in 2019 and 29.1 percent ahead of Houston’s Stephen Silas last year).

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“I’m too old for those practices,” one player said.

“He’s playing everyone 48 minutes,” another said.

Well, that’s not quite accurate. According to the NBA’s figures, four Knicks players ranked in the top 50 in minutes per game this season: Julius Randle (15th at 35.4 per game), Jalen Brunson (16th at 35.4 per game), Anunoby (35th at 34.0 per game) and Hart (50th at 33.4 per game).


It’s said that the NBA has improved parity in recent years, and that’s true.

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But players still think the NBA title race will come down to two teams: the defending champion Nuggets and the team with the league’s best regular-season record, the Celtics.

“Whoever comes out of the East is going to lose to the Western Conference teams,” one player said. “I just think when you look at the landscape out West, the best teams — Denver is my pick. OKC’s too young and they’re not big enough. … The one team that could give (Denver) problems would be the Clippers if they play at their best and they’re healthy, just based on matchups. But continuity in this league is everything, and Denver has it. So that’s my pick.”

Another player who voted for the Nuggets said: “It’s like a factory, plug and play. They play the right way, no matter who’s out there. Shoutout to Jokić.”

Still, Boston was a buzz saw during the regular season, compiling a league-best 64-18 record while finishing first in offensive rating and second in defensive rating.

“When you’ve got Jrue Holiday on the team with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who are shot makers, he’s a great defender obviously,” one player said. “And with Kristaps Porziņģis, they have got danger everywhere and defensively as well. Also, their fans make it hard to beat them, for sure.”

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All things considered, this report card could have been much worse for the refs. In essence, you had 21.9 percent of the players polled indicating that the officiating job was below average this season and 78.1 percent giving a grade of average or better. Given all the high-profile frustration with the officiating on display this season, as well as the midseason change in “points of emphasis” that empowered defenders again and suppressed scoring, no one should be surprised that they didn’t get straight As.

Voters who gave an F

“Sh–, they don’t know if they want us to play or not play.”

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“But they good people…”

Voter who gave a D

“It’s a different sense of entitlement that they feel, and they get a little bit more sensitive than they had previously. Some of the missed calls, it’s just like, that’s not OK. And some of them are blatant. It’s not an easy job by any means. (But) I’ve seen better years.”

Voter who gave a C

“The issue is there’s just too much volatility. But also, the inconsistency. I would say there’s eight elite officials, great officials, and then you have the rest of the 50 that are just, you could carry them in. It makes it hard on those guys. There’s eight elite officials who are great at communicating and at officiating, and then there’s four (who can do) one of each, where they can either officiate or they can communicate. And the rest of them are just … bad.”

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Voter who gave a B

“I don’t think people realize how hard that job is. All things considered, they’ve done a good job. That’s not a job I would ever want to have. There’s still definitely room for growth, but within the job and what’s asked of them and where the game’s moving, I think they’ve done a great job.”

Voter who gave an A

“They make the calls that the league wants them to make, right? … And now, we’re just adjusting again, because there’s more holding and grabbing now. So they’re allowing stuff now. I guess they just do whatever they’re told.”


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What’s more telling? That 46.2 percent of the players gave the commissioner an A or that none of the 130 players who responded gave him a D or an F?

“Some of the things he does, we’re not going to like, but that’s just us as players,” said one of the players who gave Adam Silver an A. “We like to complain about s—. But I think what he’s doing is great for the league. The In-Season Tournament. The Play-In. All this is to build the luster of the league and to build the TV ratings to make sure they’re in a certain place so when it comes time to do this new TV deal, we can do it.”

Another said: “I’d give him an A. The money’s good. The fans are enjoying the games. We’ve got a new In-Season Tournament that everybody looks forward to now, especially because there’s money on the line. I really wanted to win that In-Season Tournament. I had some plans for that money, for real.”

It’s not all perfect, of course.

“Everything is good except the All-Star Game, and that weekend wasn’t great,” said one player who still gave Silver an A. “Other than that, I feel like it’s been entertaining. I feel like the league’s been real competitive.”

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One player who gave Silver a B said: “There’s a big disparity with the referees still. Referees aren’t consistent with their integrity, the way they approach you, and the NBA has a huge problem on its hands. That’s the biggest thing in the NBA right now: the referees. Some people get calls and some people don’t get calls. It may be the same (play), but if it’s Trae Young or somebody else, it looks different.”

In terms of criticism for Silver, several players indicated officiating is one of the few areas in which they believe he has fallen short.

“The only reason (I’m giving Silver) a B and not an A is that I’m not sure that players have the liberty to speak out (against referees) the way it should be,” one player said. “I do, to a certain extent, understand why that is, because you’ve got to create a culture of togetherness and can’t just randomly criticize referees and all that stuff. But some of this stuff, especially with referees, they have an ego and they know that so they act a certain way toward you because they know you’ll lose money if you criticize them. … Adam’s doing a great job of maximizing our money in a great way.”


The new collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players, enacted last summer, includes a provision that says players must appear in at least 65 games to be eligible for most end-of-the-season honors, including MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, the All-NBA teams and All-Defensive teams.

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From league officials’ perspective, the new rule is designed to get the league’s best players on the court more often. In addition to benefiting the fans who purchase tickets to games, the theory goes that having such a rule will make the league even more attractive to suitors for the upcoming media rights deal.

The rule has come under fire from some players, even though they voted to accept the new CBA. Keep in mind that the rule is one small part of a large, dense document that came as the result of thorough negotiations between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association that represents them. Neither side got everything it wanted.

But still, we wondered how players feel about the rule now. In the wake of the sensitive Embiid situation earlier this season, when the reigning MVP was roundly ridiculed for missing a nationally televised Jan. 27 game at Denver because of a left knee injury only to get hurt three days later when Jonathan Kuminga fell on the knee in a game at Golden State, the discussion about whether the rule was putting players in harm’s way was front and center for the second half of the season.

Exactly half of the players who answered the question said they’re against the rule.

“Obviously, I get why they do it in terms of wanting guys to play,” said one player who is against the rule. “But I also think guys will force themselves to play through things sometimes — obviously, the Embiid thing that happened, whether he was right or not to play. I just think it gets risky for guys. If you’re talking about MVP, I think for everyone in the league it’s clear who the MVP is, whether they play 65 or 82 games. From a player’s point of view, I think guys know who the MVP is. It’s always going to be whatever the top two or three or whoever those guys are. So, I just think it’s forcing guys to play sometimes when there (are) legitimate reasons (not to play).”

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Some of the players against the 65-game rule said they’re in favor of having a rule but would prefer the threshold be set at a lower number of games.

One player said: “I think that’s a lot of games, honestly, when you think about how the game is played. Back in the day, guys would play 80-some games. They would walk the ball up and post up. But we’re non-stop, and there’s a lot of wear and tear So, guys like Embiid, guys that are superstars in this league, there’s a situation where they might have to fight through games to get to a threshold to get an award. It’s kind of tough, kind of bulls— sometimes. But what if one of those guys, they’re at 60 games, they’ve got a bad knee injury and, in one of those five games, tears his meniscus because he’s trying to get an award? I don’t like that.”

Nearly 45 percent of the players who responded said they were in favor of the rule.

“Sixty-five games, that gives you a 17-game cushion to miss if you need rest or things like that,” one of the rule’s supporters said. “I’m all for it. You’ve got to be out there on the floor if you can.”


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Let’s face it, folks: During the 2023-24 college basketball season, no player was more compelling than Clark. And when we were enjoying March Madness, the women’s NCAA Tournament seemed to have more engaging storylines and colorful characters than the men’s.

This got us wondering: Is women’s basketball having a moment within the NBA too?

The answer appears to be a resounding “yes!”

In our survey, Clark not only ranked as the second-favorite current non-NBA athlete, but women’s basketball players — Sabrina Ionescu, Kelsey Plum, Angel Reese, JuJu Watkins, A’ja Wilson and Clark — were named on 12.2 percent of all NBA players’ ballots. Only NFL players were named on more ballots (39.1 percent of them) than women’s basketball players.

“She’s unreal,” one NBA player said about Clark, who went first overall last week to the Indiana Fever in the 2024 WNBA Draft. “I’m excited to see how her journey pans out and what she does for the women’s game.”

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Now that Clark has finished her college career, who, if anyone, will become the most popular NCAA women’s player? Maybe Watkins, the dynamic 6-foot-2 guard who just finished her first season at USC.

One NBA player said: “Her game is so pretty to watch. She’s so fluid, smooth. … I hadn’t watched a full game (of hers) until tournament time. I’d seen little clips and highlights and stuff. But watching her against UConn the other night, she definitely made a big fan out of me.”

Soccer players — none of them American — were named on the third-highest number of ballots, coming in at 11.3 percent.

Given that the NFL dominates the North American sports landscape, it should come as no surprise that it dominated our poll. Jackson, the Baltimore Ravens quarterback who won his second NFL MVP last season, has a bunch of fans in the NBA.

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“He’s one of the best QBs ever since he came into the league,” one player said. “His running ability is crazy.”

But it was one other NFL quarterback — a quarterback far less talented than Jackson — who drew one of the funniest responses in our entire poll: Cousins, the former Commanders and Vikings quarterback who recently signed a four-year, $180 million contract to join the Atlanta Falcons, with $100 million of that total guaranteed.

When an NBA player named Cousins as his favorite current non-NBA athlete, the response elicited a dumbfounded “Why?” from one writer from The Athletic.

The NBA player said: “Kirk Cousins because he gets paid and doesn’t have to win or don’t have to do anything and made $400 million off of one playoff win. Legend.”

(Illustration by John Bradford / The Athletic; top photos of Rudy Gobert, Victor Wembanyama and Adam Silver: Kenny Giarla, Ronald Cortes, Justin Tafoya / Getty Images)

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How the NFL views the NIL era: 'This whole draft landscape has changed'

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How the NFL views the NIL era: 'This whole draft landscape has changed'

The bright lights and quarterback debates will be there as always when the NFL Draft starts Thursday night. But something’s different this year, which will become more evident as the rounds turn and we get into Day 3 on Saturday.

Only 58 underclassmen have declared for this week’s draft — down from 130 players in 2021 and the smallest number of underclassmen since 2011. For those in NFL circles, the introduction of NIL money is a clear factor.

“It’s crazy to fathom that some of these guys made more money in college than they will in the NFL,” Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur said.

Players started signing marketing deals after the Supreme Court’s 2021 ruling that collegiate athletes are entitled to payment for their “name, image and likeness.” The pandemic-shortened season in 2020 has also played a part in players staying in school, as they were granted an extra year of eligibility. And then the NCAA allowed players to transfer without sitting out a year.

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How name, image and likeness is impacting NFL draft decisions

NIL payments are not public figures, but most players who will be selected in the top three rounds this week have money in the bank now. USC quarterback Caleb Williams, the projected top pick to the Chicago Bears, has been estimated to have earned around $10 million while in school. He may be an outlier, but NFL coaches are noticing a difference in their interactions with draft prospects in the NIL era.

“You look for the guys that have that look in their eye,” Las Vegas Raiders coach Antonio Pierce said. “You can really feel it, and you can also see the guys that are entitled, that have NIL money, which is an issue because they come in privileged. They have money in the bank.

“When I came in the league, I was broke. These guys already got goddamn jewelry on and the Louis Vuitton rocking already.”


Las Vegas Raiders coach Antonio Pierce wants to see players enter the NFL with the same type of competitive edge that he possessed. (Steve Marcus / Getty Images)

Pierce wants players with an edge, and he feels that already having money in the bank from college might affect how hard they are willing to work to crack a starting lineup in the NFL. Compounding that problem, Minnesota Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell said it’s harder to know how players respond to adversity when so many hit the transfer portal at the drop of a hat.

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“They already have money in their pocket, so you see some guys not going as hard in the pre-draft process,” agent Ron Slavin said. “And no one is eating those packs of ramen noodles anymore.”

The NFL minimum salary for a rookie in 2024 is $795,000. Players who are drafted sign standard four-year deals — contracts for first-round picks also include a fifth-year option — that are scaled based on the draft slot. The slotted deal for the No. 1 pick — presumably Williams — is $38.5 million over four years. By the start of the second round, the four-year value dips to under $10 million. From about the fourth round on, players make an average of roughly $1 million per season on their rookie deals.

And that’s where there appears to be a huge drop-off in player quality in this year’s draft.

“Clubs are saying that this is a really good draft through 150 picks, and then after that it falls off a cliff,” agent Steve Caric said.

New York Giants general manager Joe Schoen said Thursday that, according to the team’s assistant director of player personnel, Dennis Hickey, 170 players with draftable grades returned to school this year.

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“Because of COVID partly and NIL, this whole draft landscape has changed,” Baltimore Ravens GM Eric DeCosta said. “There’s less draftable players, less underclassmen.”

“All those guys stayed in school for NIL money,” Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said. “You’re going to see teams drafting players late that they usually sign as priority free agents.”

Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said players he has been scouting for years still are not in the draft.

“It’s a supply and demand issue,” he said. “Defensive line was apparently a big issue in college, and a lot of those guys got a lot of money to go back to college. And so that’s gonna affect our league and the depth of that position and different things.”

NFL teams will likely spend the run-up to the draft looking to package fifth-, sixth- and seventh-round picks and move up.

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“We’ve talked about the idea of, (in) the later rounds of the draft, if there’s nobody there that you covet, potentially trading that pick for a better pick,” DeCosta said.


The feeling around the NFL is the quality of draft prospects drops after this year’s fourth round, in part because so many players elected to stay in school. (Michael Wade / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Jason Belzer, the CEO and co-founder of Student Athlete NIL (SANIL), manages more than 30 booster collectives for some of the bigger Power 5 schools.

“I think the NIL has affected the NFL considerably, but for the better,” Belzer said. “You have more and more players that are choosing to stay in college football and develop and get paid, rather than go into the draft. There are multiple quarterbacks that made over a million dollars that are not going to get that kind of money because they’re going to be late-round picks. The NIL is the best thing that ever happened to the NFL when it comes to development.”

He estimates that 40 college players made more than the 2023 minimum NFL salary of $750,000, with a lot more making $500,000, including a tackle projected to go in the sixth round this week. Belzer said that roughly five players per Power 5 roster make more than $100,000.

For late-round picks who aren’t guaranteed to make the roster, the decision to return to school can be quite easy.

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“Getting drafted is a significant honor no matter where you go — even the sixth or seventh round — but if you’re a seventh-round pick, you’re getting, like, a $90,000 signing bonus, and that’s the only guaranteed part of your contract,” agent Eugene Lee said. “Compare that to a school where you have a front-line starter at a P4 school and you say, ‘Hey, come back! We’ll give you $350,000.’ It’s just like, ‘OK.’ You take out a loss-of-value policy and there you go.”

The later-round prospects simply are taking advantage of a chance to have their cake and eat it too.

“A fourth-round pick, for example, has a chance to go back to school and get better, move his draft status up and then make more money next year,” Caric said. “And as insurance, he can make what he would make with a Day 3 signing bonus thanks to NIL and coming back to school.”

More collegiate experience can be a good thing, especially at the quarterback position. Jayden Daniels played in 55 games at Arizona State and LSU, almost double the number of games North Carolina’s Drake Maye played in (28).

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“We don’t have a minor league, and those extra years is maybe a couple of minor-league years,” Adofo-Mensah said. “And that also depends on where they’re playing and the system, how relatable that is to our game.”

The Vikings, who hold picks Nos. 11 and 23 in the first round, could trade up to fill their quarterback need or just stay put and use their first pick on the best player available and the latter pick on someone like Oregon QB Bo Nix. Nix played a whopping 61 games at Auburn and Oregon and thinks his experience gives him an edge over the other potential first-round quarterbacks.

“Repetition is the mother of all skill, so the more you can do something, the better you become at it,” Nix said at the combine. “I was able to prove that as the years went on, getting better and better, learning new things, playing in different systems — five in five years is a lot, but that’s a lot of fun. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Nix is 24 years old, which could impact his perceived upside.


Bo Nix’s age (24) could work against him in the draft process, but he thinks his experience is a benefit. (Zac BonDurant / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing if you come out a little bit older — and maybe even a better thing,” Raiders GM Tom Telesco said. “You’ve got more experience under your belt, more maturity at that position. Other positions, it may or may not matter.

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“Typically as a scouting staff, we always say we’d like a younger player because the guy has a chance to develop, maybe has a little bit more ceiling. Is that true or not? I’m not really sure. But I do know that we’re going to have some players coming in the league that have good experience and may be ready to play a little bit earlier than maybe in times past.”

Nix could have entered the draft last year but stayed for a chance to win a national championship and had the cushion NIL allows.

That experience edge might only hold for quarterbacks, though.

“I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had in the last couple of weeks where I ask a club about Player A or Player B; the older age is always a minus,” Caric said. “They obviously want to draft someone they’re going to have for more than one contract. When you come into the league at 24 years old with these super-senior years, that’s not as attractive as the 21-year-old.”

Alabama offensive tackle JC Latham was able to enjoy a different college lifestyle than previous players but said the extra money also helped him prepare for the NFL.

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“It definitely has you grow up,” Latham said at the combine. “You gotta understand that you’re getting more money now, so there’s gonna be a bigger target on your back.”

It can also help players learn to manage their money before their first NFL rookie camp.

“If you want to create more wealth for yourself and your family, you gotta really understand how to maneuver it and manage it,” Latham said. “Definitely puts you in the mindset to really understand what’s going on around you and how (you can) create your wealth early.”


All these players staying in school have to come out at some point, so the number of draftable players will grow again next year.

And GMs and coaches still need to draft good players to keep their jobs — owners don’t want to hear an excuse about the NIL impact after another losing season.

“I do think — especially in the early rounds — it’s a very good draft,” Denver Broncos GM George Paton said.

And though the NFL can wring its hands a bit about NIL, it doesn’t change how it watches a player’s game tape and decides who to invest in.

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“It hasn’t changed our preparation that much,” said first-year Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Macdonald, a former defensive coordinator at Michigan. “I was ready for it since we had it down back at Michigan.

“The only thing is that some of these players are going to have to take a pay cut to play in the league.”

— Staff writer Tashan Reed contributed to this report.

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(Top illustration: Dan Golfarb / The Athletic; top photos of Roger Goodell and Caleb Williams: Rich Graessle / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images and Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

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