Nevada quarterback Carson Strong on the sideline against New Mexico State in Reno on Oct. 9, 2021.
Tom R. Smedes/AP
The National Football League’s coaches, general managers and scouts are not Carson Strong’s biggest enemy. They are not the reason not one of the 32 NFL teams deemed the former Nevada Wolf Pack quarterback worthy of a draft pick last weekend.
Strong’s biggest enemy, his never-ending adversary and foe, the Joker to his Batman, is his right knee and it will likely haunt him for the rest of his professional athletic life and beyond. Every single NFL medical staff that took an up close and personal look at Strong’s reconstructed knee apparently cringed, shuddered and covered their eyes. They slapped a warning label on the side of Strong’s package the last three or four months and told their general managers, scouts and coaches to beware.
It’s not an accident that Strong did not get drafted. It was not a mere oversight or some evil vendetta against Mountain West quarterbacks. Strong is damaged goods, an Indy car that has been in a serious accident, a potential Kentucky Derby horse with a noticeable limp. Yes, nobody outside the inner sanctums of the NFL saw this coming. Not Strong, not the media, not the 10,000 or so NFL draft experts that all predicted Strong would be one of the 262 draft picks last weekend. Nobody even hinted that Strong would not be picked at all. They just reported that, yes, Strong had a lightning bolt for a right arm but he also runs as fast as Secretariat’s statue and, yes, he’s had doctors’ hands and tools inside his right knee.
But nobody told the full truth. Nobody tells the full truth in the NFL about anything, especially doctors paid by NFL teams. NFL medical staffs don’t publish mock drafts. They don’t talk to Peter King, Daniel Jeremiah, Mel Kiper and Todd McShay or even their friends on the golf course. They don’t talk to the quarterbacks other than to say cough and this might pinch a little. And what they apparently saw when looking at Strong’s right knee is a problem that just wasn’t going to magically disappear anytime soon. It’s a problem that Strong has dealt with constantly for the past five years. It’s the reason he ended up at Nevada in the first place and not, for example, Cal.
We are not talking about a bad haircut here. It’s not a cell phone that won’t hold a charge anymore for more than an hour. Strong can’t simply grow out of his bad knee or buy a new one. According to reports Strong has a bone and cartilage condition in his knee that can only be managed and not eliminated. No number of surgeries, knee braces or painkillers can make the issue vanish. This knee is evil and like global warming, won’t go away by looking the other way. It is capable of the impossible. It got all 32 teams in the NFL to finally agree on something.
But don’t feel sorry for Strong. He is still blessed with a rocket launcher of a right arm and a toughness, intelligence, leadership qualities, competitive drive and confidence that can’t be measured. So the Philadelphia Eagles gave him $320,000 no questions asked just minutes after the draft. If he makes the Eagles’ 53-man roster he will also get a contract of about $2.5 million for three years. Yes, it beats delivering packages for Amazon. The NFL, after all, can’t resist arm talent even if it comes attached to a knee problem.
Strong, from the waist up, is Joe Burrow. Yes, from the waist down he is Joe Biden. But half a quarterback is better than nothing in today’s NFL. It’s worth $320,000, a nice sum that suggests Strong will be on the Eagles’ 53-man roster this fall as the No. 3 quarterback behind Jalen Hurts and Gardner Minshew. The Eagles also could put him on the practice squad but that comes with a huge risk because any team could then sign Strong and put him on its 53-man roster, something that would likely happen if Strong is still walking without a crutch this fall. The Eagles didn’t pay $320,000 to simply gift another team a quarterback that should have been drafted in the third or fourth round.
Strong’s road to an eventual job as a starting quarterback, however, is now very difficult and will likely be filled with challenges. Short of the NFL implementing a rule that would allow quarterbacks to wear yellow jerseys that would prevent opposing defenses from touching them, no NFL team might ever put its future in the hands of a quarterback with a right knee that could end up pointing north, south, east and west after a sack. There’s a draft every year, after all, filled with eager and able-bodied quarterbacks with undamaged joints that could fill a backup quarterback role on a roster.
But Strong’s journey is not impossible. He’s not trying to climb Everest wearing flip-flops and sunglasses. Quarterbacks have gone from an undrafted free agent to a starting role. Warren Moon, Kurt Warner, Tony Romo, Jeff Garcia, Jim Hart, Jim Zorn, Bobby Hebert, Gary Cuozzo, Davie Krieg and Tom Flores and others all did it and became solid and dependable starting quarterbacks. A lot of them had to go to another league first to prove their worthiness and likely none of them had the disturbing knee x-rays that Strong brings to the table. But it can be done.
Hey, if a 79-year-old can hobble up to a podium now and then it’s not impossible for a 20-something to find success spinning a ball in the air.
If the Eagles love Strong so much, then why didn’t they draft him? If a dozen or so teams were competing with the Eagles for Strong a few minutes after the draft, they why didn’t any of them draft him? The Chicago Bears, for example, drafted a punter with their final pick just because they didn’t want to get in a bidding war for his services after the draft. Yes, a punter. There are a couple hundred punters out of work at any one time. There’s not even one quality quarterback for all 32 teams at any one time.
So why didn’t one team grab Strong in the draft so that they didn’t have to entice him with $320,000 guaranteed money after the draft? It is still a mystery.
A total of nine quarterbacks were drafted. Five of them were expected (Kenny Pickett, Desmond Ridder, Malik Willis, Matt Corral and Sam Howell) but four were complete surprises. The New England Patriots took Bailey Zappe in the fourth round. Yes, Bailey Zappe. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who already took Pickett in the first round, took something named Chris Oladukon in the seventh round. Miami took Skylar Thompson, a guy who has also had his share of knee problems, in the seventh round. Thompson wasn’t even healthy enough to play the Pack back in September when Nevada and Strong went to Kansas State (and lost 38-17).
And the San Francisco 49ers picked Brock Purdy with the 262nd and final pick of the draft. Dieter Brock would have made more sense. Shame on the 49ers for passing up a local kid like Strong, who is from Vacaville, Calif. Carson Strong with Joe Namath’s now 78-year-old knees, has to be a better quarterback prospect than Chris Oladukon, Bailey Zappe, Skylar Thompson and even Brock Purdy.
The harsh truth of the NFL is that even the teams that took those forgettable quarterbacks probably understand that Strong is better than any of them. Those teams were just looking for quarterbacks they could stash on their practice squad. Strong, too, might end up on the Eagles’ practice squad, but there is a far greater chance some other team would swoop in and steal him away. That isn’t likely going to happen with Oladukon, Zappe, Thompson or Purdy.
The two Wolf Pack players that were drafted (Romeo Doubs by Green Bay in the fourth round and Cole Turner by Washington in the fifth round) are almost sure things to make their 53-man rosters.
Doubs now gets to catch passes from Aaron Rodgers and will also likely return kicks and punts. Washington seems to think they got the steal of the draft with Turner. Commanders head coach Ron Rivera said after the draft, “The guy that I think is very intriguing to us more so than anybody is Cole Turner. He is a dynamic pass catcher that is a big target. He’s got a tremendous catch radius, runs good routes and knows how to separate at the right time.”
Doubs will join a long list of former Wolf Pack players to go from the Pack to the Packers that includes Stan Heath, Tony Moll, Dan Orlich, Don Jackson and Dick Afflis. Turner, too, joins a long list of former Pack players in Washington that includes, Charles Mann, Marko Mitchell, Terry Hermeling and Vic Carroll.
Strong is hoping to be the second Wolf Pack quarterback to play for the Eagles after Bill Mackrides (1947-51). But is Philadelphia the right spot for Strong? It might not be. The Eagles might have brought Strong in to simply trade him for future draft capital down the line.
The Eagles seem committed to starter Jalen Hurts, even going so far as to sign his good friend, wide receiver A.J. Brown, this off-season. And do the Eagles really want a guy like Strong, who can’t run and move around and is a sack away from being carried off the field, to be the backup behind Hurts? Hurts is one of the better running quarterbacks in the NFL. Strong, well, wasn’t even the best running quarterback at Nevada.
With Strong as Hurts’ backup, wouldn’t that require the Eagles to run a completely different offense if Hurts got hurt? And if the Eagles thought Strong would eventually replace Hurts as the starter then why didn’t they draft him and not risk losing him as a free agent after the draft?
Does Strong, because he wasn’t drafted and now has to claw his way back to prominence from the pile of unwashed masses known as undrafted free agents, now regret his decision to leave Nevada two years early? Of course not. He got what he wanted. He’s in the NFL, sort of. Yes, he’s not traveling first class and is merely waiting at the gate with a stand-by ticket. But he’ll get his chance eventually, likely on a midnight flight where they will likely lose his luggage and bring him to the wrong destination. But he’s going somewhere.
At Nevada he might have been headed to a career-ending knee injury. That’s a risk he simply was never going to take, especially as he went under the knife again before last season. But it is fun to think about now. What if Strong wasn’t now in the NFL’s waiting room and was, instead, getting ready to bring the first Mountain West title to Nevada this fall? Would Jay Norvell still be the Wolf Pack’s coach? Would Strong have headed to Colorado State with Norvell? Would Ken Wilson now be the Pack head coach?
Strong’s decision to go pro this year affected about four or five dozen lives other than his own when you add up all the coaches and players that followed Norvell to Colorado State and those that came to Nevada because there were spots to fill. It’s likely Norvell would have never passed up on another chance to coach Strong. The two would likely still be in Nevada right now, getting ready for another record-breaking season this fall. Norvell, after all, could always get another job at a school like Colorado State whenever he wanted it. Heck, he might have gotten real job next December or January if he won a Mountain West title with Strong this fall.
Strong, though, was never going to play the 2022 season at Nevada. That evil knee with the nasty streak wouldn’t allow it. You only get one chance at a fairytale life in the NFL. And, despite the fact that his fairytale had a strange twist to it this weekend, this was it for Strong.