Russini: What I’m hearing at the NFL combine on the Bears, Kirk Cousins and more


After spending almost a week in Indianapolis at the 2024 NFL Scouting Combine talking with general managers, coaches, agents and sources all around the league, it’s a pleasure to end the chatter (I may or may not be icing my face from all the gabbing) and share with you the latest I’m hearing around the NFL.

Here’s what you need to know.

If the Chicago Bears planned to keep their moves a mystery, it wasn’t tough to solve their game of quarterback Clue based on all the talk in restaurants, coffee shops and convention center hallways about the team that holds the keys to the top of the NFL Draft.

Multiple league sources I spoke to believe the Bears are trying to move on from Justin Fields, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract. The team, which has the No. 1 and 9 picks, appears to be focused on using its first pick to select USC quarterback Caleb Williams.

Though there had been suspicion that Williams had no interest in playing in Chicago, he recently revealed in an interview that he would be happy to be a Bear if selected. I spoke with some top brass with the Bears who had seen Williams’ recent sentiments about his interest in Chicago, and they appeared pleased. When Williams met with Chicago’s staff in person, they spent most of their time on the whiteboard going over installation, observing his recall and process.

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As for their current quarterback, Bears decision-makers would like to make the call on Fields’ future before the NFL free agency window, which opens March 13. That’s what they prefer, but not necessarily what they will achieve. General manager Ryan Poles openly shared that he wants to “do right” by Fields and understands “no one wants to live in the gray area.”

The team spent most of the week gauging interest around the league to evaluate his value. The Bears may need movement in the veteran quarterback market, which includes Kirk Cousins and Baker Mayfield, before interested teams get into serious discussions with the Bears for Fields. Though I expect the demand for Fields to be robust, knowing teams like the Raiders, Broncos, Steelers and Falcons are all in search of a quarterback, it appears his market is soft for now. It was hard to find strong interest from any team. One NFC general manager explained the problem with the current timing: “When people know you are getting rid of something, they don’t pay as much for it.”

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Chicago needs just one team to change everything. But the Bears may have to wait for the veteran QBs to find homes before they get any interest.

That gets us to Cousins.

He is the most valuable player on the market despite an Achilles injury he suffered in October. The Vikings want to retain him, and the 35-year-old has expressed his love for the organization, but history has shown us that Cousins is the best contract negotiator in sports. The question remains how high Minnesota is willing to go to keep the quarterback that coach Kevin O’Connell clearly wants back running his offense.

Over the next month, I’m keeping an eye on the Falcons. They believe Cousins is the type of player who moves them from a fringe playoff team to a contender. New Atlanta head coach Raheem Morris and offensive coordinator Zac Robinson both have familiarity with Cousins. Knowing this could be a seamless transition for Cousins and the talented young group of players across their roster, I expect the Falcons to compete for the rights to his contract. It makes all the sense in the world.

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A consolation prize for Atlanta? How about Mayfield? I expect the Falcons to try to sign him if they miss out on Cousins or if Tampa Bay can’t get a deal done with Mayfield. The Bucs have offered a new deal to Mayfield, but they’re still at an early stage in their negotiations. We will see if the man who bet on himself, replaced Tom Brady and took a team to the playoffs can land a deal that could pay him in the range of $30 million to $35 million per year. Not bad for a QB who was just playing on a $4 million deal and now has multiple suitors.

Speaking of the Bucs, wide receiver Mike Evans plans to hit free agency for the first time in his career. The Bucs and Evans are still in discussions, but he wants to explore his options. This doesn’t mean his time in Tampa is over, but Evans wants to hear from all interested teams. This is his first chance to be courted. I still believe he’ll stay with the team that drafted him.

Chiefs star defensive tackle Chris Jones and the Chiefs are in talks to get a deal done. While Jones could hit free agency, there is optimism the Chiefs will retain him. The Super Bowl champs are locked in on locking up their best player not named Patrick Mahomes.

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Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has received a huge amount of praise for his coaching performances that helped the Chiefs win another title. Though he recently signed a new contract to stay with the Chiefs, the 49ers were trying to land him, according to a league source. The 49ers are planning to promote Nick Sorensen to defensive coordinator after parting ways with Steve Wilks and the team is expected to hire former Los Angeles Chargers coach Brandon Staley as assistant head coach, league sources confirmed. ESPN first reported the news of those moves.

I ran into Cardinals head coach Jonathan Gannon and was blown away by his support of Kyler Murray. It’s very clear Murray is their guy. It’s always enjoyable to hear a coach sound like he’s in love with his quarterback. The Cardinals pick fourth in the draft, and some in the league believe they are open to trading back. Could we see four quarterbacks go with the top four picks? One general manager told me, “Absolutely!”

I spent time with a head coach not with Chicago who felt hesitant about meeting with Caleb Williams. He had some reservations based on his own gathering of information. After the coach met Williams, I received a text that read, “I actually really like him; it was a really good interview.” That’s a small but great example of why in-person meetings are important for players and teams. One interaction can swing an opinion and a significant decision for an organization.

The Broncos made it very clear the Russell Wilson chapter will be over soon. Around the league, people believe Denver will cut him by next week.

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Don’t expect running backs to get franchise-tagged this year, as the price has exceeded the market. Based on multiple conversations with different teams, Josh Jacobs and Saquon Barkley sit at the top of free agent running back lists, followed by the next wave of backs like Derrick Henry, D’Andre Swift and Tony Pollard.

That said, teams were acting like they’d rather pay those second-tier players around $6 million rather than $10 million-plus to Jacobs and Barkley. Despite the free agent market including the most talented group of backs we’ve seen available in years, I don’t sense that changing their declining value around the NFL.

(Photo of Caleb Williams: Michael Hickey / Getty Images)





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