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The First Read: 10 takeaways from 2024 NFL Scouting Combine's media availabilities

INDIANAPOLIS -- The one thing you always know about the NFL Scouting Combine is that there will be no shortage of storylines. It's the first official opportunity to start talking about the next NFL season, and there usually are several issues still lingering from the previous year. The hype surrounding the prospects in town for interviews, evaluations and testing is only half of the appeal. It's also a chance to hear from head coaches and general managers about how they're going to handle their business moving forward.

There were plenty of news conferences held over the last couple days here, with a variety of decision-makers addressing key topics within their own franchises. Some provided definitive answers to questions that have been raised throughout the past months, while others remained intentionally vague.

This combine edition of The First Read will focus on what this writer gleaned from all those interactions. Here are 10 takeaways that jumped out from the first couple days of media availability:

1) It looks like Chris Jones is finished in Kansas City. Chiefs GM Brett Veach said this week his top priority was a finding a way to keep the All-Pro defensive tackle with the Chiefs, now that Jones is set to become an unrestricted free agent. That task became a lot harder after it was reported that the Chiefs granted cornerback L’Jarius Sneed permission to seek a trade -- with the idea that they could elect to use the non-exclusive franchise tag on Sneed before working out a long-term deal or trading him, taking the tag off the table as an avenue for retaining Jones. (EDITOR'S UPDATE: The Chiefs announced Monday they applied the franchise tag on Sneed.) Jones finally can start selling his services to the highest bidder on the open market when the new league year begins on March 13, which is certain to be very kind to a player who was searching for a deal in the $30 million annual salary range last year. He's the best available free agent, as he's an elite interior defensive lineman and a player who just helped the Chiefs win their third Super Bowl in five seasons. Even though Jones said he wanted to return to Kansas City during the team's victory parade earlier this month -- and he told Veach the same thing after ending a lengthy holdout last offseason -- the reality is, the Chiefs were going to have a tough time keeping both Jones and Sneed this offseason. The team will keep talking to Jones about a long-term deal until his contract officially expires. However, the Chiefs have never given substantial money to a player who's reached the age of 30 (Jones will hit that mark in July), and Jones surely believes his value has never been stronger. The Chiefs found a way to win a championship after trading wide receiver Tyreek Hill to Miami two years ago when he was searching for his own massive pay increase. They likely are preparing to attempt the same feat without Jones.

2) Ryan Poles should trade Justin Fields. The longer the speculation exists about what the Chicago Bears GM is going to do with his starting quarterback and the first overall pick in this draft, the more it seems like Fields is better off playing elsewhere. Poles said Tuesday that the Bears will "move as quickly as possible" in determining a resolution. The option that sounds the best from this perspective is trading Fields, using the top overall pick on a quarterback (presumably USC’s Caleb Williams) and then finding a way to maximize more picks on young talent. That isn't a knock on the way Fields has developed. It's just a simple fact that he's entering his fourth season, which means Poles must start deciding whether he wants to give an extension to a player who still has several questions hovering over him. The important thing to always remember here is that Poles -- who, with head coach Matt Eberflus, was hired in 2022 -- didn't draft Fields. He now has a chance to select his own quarterback, while also having more than $78 million in projected cap space and a team that improved defensively in the second half of last season. Even if Fields continues to blossom elsewhere, the odds favor the Bears being better off with a lot of money, high draft picks and a quarterback who will be affordable for the next four years.

As Eberflus said: "You just point to the first two years. That first draft class, all the guys that played there, the free agents that we signed there and then last year, huge free-agency class, with the draft class there, all those guys played. So that's the foundation that we have built at the Bears. If Justin's the quarterback or a new quarterback's in there, there's a lot of things that are around him, and what's cool is we get to add some more pieces in free agency coming up in the short-term, too."

3) It feels like Sean Payton can't wait to see Russell Wilson leave Denver. The Broncos head coach spent 15 minutes answering questions at Tuesday's news conference, and he only answered two pertaining to his beleaguered quarterback. Payton made it clear that Denver will have a decision about Wilson's future in a couple weeks, and the coach left no doubt that he wasn't interested in taking any more questions on the subject. (EDITOR'S UPDATE: The team announced Tuesday that it has informed Russell Wilson he is being released.) It was consistent behavior for Payton when it comes to Wilson. He appeared to berate the quarterback in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 16, and then he benched Wilson in favor of Jarrett Stidham for the final two games of the year. When a reporter asked Payton on Tuesday if he embraced the idea of getting the team's quarterback situation right, he said, "Yeah. Well look. Well, we better ... I think it's vital. I saw this humorous meme the other day where there's a Bronco fan with a shirt on and there was like eight quarterbacks names with a cross through it and he's drinking the quarterback Kool-Aid. Our job is to make sure that this next one doesn't have a line through it."

The strange part about all this was that Wilson recently told the I Am Athlete podcast that he hoped to return to Denver this season. This is coming from a man that alleged the team tried to force him into a contract restructuring in the middle of the season or face a potential benching at that point. That also might explain why Payton said he hadn't heard about that interview. It's been apparent from Day 1 that Wilson wasn't his type of quarterback. Now we'll see where the Broncos turn next, with limited resources to replace him under center.

4) Kirk Cousins still makes the most sense in Minnesota ... at the right price. Cousins is the third quarterback -- along with Fields and Wilson -- who is waiting to figure out where he's playing football next season. Unlike the other two, he's been publicly assured that his current employer still wants him on the roster. The question is what it will take to make that happen, as Cousins is set to become a free agent while also recovering from a torn Achilles sustained midway through last season. Cousins, who turns 36 in August, has made a lot of money in Minnesota over the past six seasons (just over $185 million), but it's apparent the Vikings will be working on a tight budget in doing this deal.

"We have our interests, (and) he has his," Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said Tuesday. "We'll get to the table and figure out a creative solution and try to meet in the middle. That's what every contract negotiation is, and that's what it'll be with him. What we do know is that we have a really great quarterback, a great leader, and someone we think we can win the ultimate prize with. So that's ultimately what I focus on, and that's where we're at right now."

Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell showered similar praise on Cousins and even alluded to how close their families have gotten over the past two years. However, there's going to be a good market for Cousins if the Vikings can't lock him up. The Steelers, Raiders and Falcons (Cousins' wife is from Atlanta) are just three of the teams in need of a reliable veteran signal-caller, and Cousins was still playing at a high level before his injury. The Vikings would love to have him stay put, but given their needs -- especially on defense -- he'll presumably have to give them a hometown discount to make it happen.

5) Mike Evans is going to want a lot of money. The Cincinnati Bengals ended all speculation about what would happen with wide receiver Tee Higgins when they applied the franchise tag to him, so now Evans becomes the top receiver on the open market. Tampa Bay GM Jason Licht said he really wants to keep Evans, but it's not going to be an easy task. The Buccaneers would like to hold on to quarterback Baker Mayfield, and that won't be cheap. Sources close to Evans also say he's looking for something with an annual salary in the $25 million range. (EDITOR'S UPDATE: Evans and the Bucs agreed to terms on a two-year, $52 million deal on March 4.) That might sound like a hefty price tag for a receiver who turns 31 in August, until you consider his consistency. Evans has produced 10 consecutive 1,000-yard seasons since joining Tampa Bay in 2014, and he generated 1,255 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Those were better numbers than Stefon Diggs, who is turning 31 in November, totaled in 2023, and the Buffalo wideout has an annual average salary of $24 million. Anybody looking to sign Evans had better be ready to hear that comp.

6) J.J. McCarthy is the most intriguing quarterback prospect in this draft: Just like last year, there will be a handful of talented quarterbacks in this class. McCarthy, who led Michigan to a national championship, is going to be the one who generates the most questions among those with first-round potential. He didn't carry an offense in college in the way Caleb Williams, North Carolina's Drake Maye or LSU's Jayden Daniels did. He also doesn't have nearly as much experience as a starter as somebody like Washington's Michael Penix. What he does bring is an interesting combination of youth (he just turned 21 in January), athleticism and winning intangibles that led to him being 27-1 as a starter in his college career. McCarthy also has a chance to boost his stock this week, as he's throwing at the combine, while Williams, Maye and Daniels are not. When asked about McCarthy, one scout said, "I found him to be up and down. What you love is the leadership, the chip on his shoulder and the toughness he plays with. A lot of times he'll look like an NFL backup with average physical traits and then he'll put together clutch drives with big-time throws in big games. You really have to study him hard to sign off on him as a top pick. But one thing you can never underestimate at that position is the 'clutch' gene. It's hard to find."

7) Buffalo needs to figure out a ton of questions on defense: The Bills can blame defensive breakdowns for their inability to reach the Super Bowl in each of the last three seasons, and now they face an offseason with more uncertainty on that side of the football. One safety (Micah Hyde) is a free agent who could retire, while another (Jordan Poyer) could be a salary-cap casualty. Cornerback Tre'Davious White also has a $16 million cap number that could make him expendable -- especially since he tore an Achilles just two years after sustaining a torn ACL -- while linebacker Matt Milano is returning from a fractured leg. There's also the legitimate question about whether edge rusher Von Miller will ever be a difference-maker again after tearing his own ACL in 2022 and generating no impact this past season.  "He finished the season healthy so he's doing well," said Bills GM Brandon Beane. "I think he's in Texas right now. We're hoping that he will look more like he did when we got him [when] he had eight sacks in [nine games]. We're hoping that's the Von [we get]."

8) Count on Dave Canales helping Bryce Young: The Carolina Panthers hired Canales for plenty of reasons, but the most obvious had to be his quarterback-whispering abilities. He helped reinvent Geno Smith during his time as an assistant in Seattle, and he did the same thing for Baker Mayfield as the offensive coordinator in Tampa this past offseason. Canales needs to work similar magic with Young, who was the top overall pick in last year's draft and a disappointment in his first season. The issues weren't all about Young -- the Panthers fired head coach Frank Reich after a 1-10 start and never found much consistency with the supporting cast on offense -- and Canales already sees plenty to be excited about in his second-year signal-caller. "I have a specific plan," Canales said. "I can't wait to put that into play, but again, we're not talking about a guy that there's a big fix for ... You're looking at an accurate player, a really smart player, [and] he's aware of what's happening."

9) The Eagles had better repair their culture: Philadelphia head coach Nick Sirianni has made a lot of changes this offseason, including the addition of new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. His most important modification, however, will be improving the environment around his team after last year's second-half implosion (when the Eagles lost six of their last seven games). "Any time you go through a season, whether it's successful in your eyes, and whether it's not successful in your eyes, you look on ways and opportunities to get better. My job is to talk to every single player, and I've done that. Talked to every single coach. What went right? What went wrong? You take that into account. You take everything into account, and you try and get better at doing those things. Connection is our No. 1 core value, and there were things that we as a team, myself, didn't do a good enough job of last year ... I look forward to getting better. Like I said to you guys before, we're not that far removed from having one of the best cultures that any of us had ever been around. There's just some tweaks that we need to do."

10) Ben Johnson gave the Lions a huge gift: Most people would've bet on Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson being one of the head coaches addressing the media this week, given how coveted he's been after his success in Detroit. Instead, he decided to stick with the Lions for another year, which makes them a championship contender once again. "I don't know the whole interview process and all that, but I know this: His whole focus was on helping us win," said Lions head coach Dan Campbell. "It wasn't about preparing for interviews. So I guess you just never know how they're going to play out, you know? I know this -- he's more than capable of being a head coach. He's qualified. By the way people have hired in this league before, he's more than qualified. But here's what I love about Ben: Ben's not going to do anything he doesn't really want to do or that he doesn't feel like he's ready for. I'm glad we got him back. He's one of us."

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