Inside the NFL  

 

Notebook: Final four roster construction; Johnny Manziel's future

NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his exclusive Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):

» Why Hue Jackson and Johnny Manziel simply don't appear to be a fit in Cleveland.
» What opposing coaches think about a Chip/Kap marriage (two words: "Freddy Krueger").
» One unique (and daunting) challenge facing this latest round of head-coaching hires.
And much more, beginning with a look at the DNA of the four teams participating in Championship Sunday ...

On Thanksgiving morning, Arizona Cardinals GM Steve Keim went to coach Bruce Arians' office to explain how newly-signed, 323-pound space eater Red Bryant would be ready to play 10 days later in St. Louis.

Arians stopped him.

"Hell no," the coach said to the GM. "He's playing Sunday."

Those words rang true: Bryant played 14 snaps on defense three days after that conversation, and another two on special teams, while getting in on two tackles in Arizona's 19-13 win in San Francisco. And since, he's proven to be another find on a roster full of them, particularly when you consider that Bryant spent the first three months of the season out of football.

But telling this story isn't really about Bryant. Or Keim or Arians or the Cardinals, in particular. It's about the NFL in general, and reason the four clubs left are still standing, and why building a team is different now than it's ever been.

The Patriots finished the season with 15 guys on IR, the Cardinals had 11, the Panthers had eight and the Broncos had seven. Meanwhile, of the six AFC playoff teams, New England was one of only two that didn't endure a significant quarterback injury. Last year, Arizona entered the postseason on its fourth signal caller.

More than it's ever been, an NFL season is a war of attrition. And it shouldn't be a surprise that clubs built for that -- as are the four teams that'll vie Sunday for trips to Santa Clara -- have thrived.

"From Day 1, we've always tried to be active and aggressive with our transactions," Keim told me on Thursday morning, from his office in Tempe, Arizona. "With the first or second day of free agency, we've rarely gone big-game hunting, with guys like Mike Iupati and Jared Veldheer being exceptions. What we're trying to do is put an emphasis on midrange players, below-the-radar guys that are a great scheme fit. On most rosters, you have six to eight guys making a ton, maybe 10 to 12 total making good money.

"And then, you have to find a lot of role players, and those guys have to be guys you can count on."

So the Broncos add Evan Mathis, and the Patriots and Panthers trade for Akiem Hicks and Jared Allen, respectively, while the Cardinals have gotten production from every corner, old (Dwight Freeney, Chris Johnson) and young (David Johnson, Markus Golden). The best teams don't just live and breathe the decision maker's philosophy, they also endure and evolve.

Now that we're nearing the end, here's a look at the constructs of the 53-man rosters of the NFL's semifinalists:

Ideally for each club, the numbers above would be a little more imbalanced. Everyone wants to build through the draft -- that's where the cheap talent is, and it's always preferable for guys to come up through your system -- but all of the above illustrates that just being good at picking college players isn't enough. You have to pull every lever to make it through the long haul.

And that brings us back to Arizona, where one of Keim's first actions after being elevated to GM in 2013 was to ask Michael Bidwill to expand the Cardinals' staff. The owner obliged.

The Cards used to have two pro scouts total. Now they have a pro scouting director, an assistant pro director and two on-the-road pro evaluators. When Keim started, he was one of four area scouts, with Keim personally responsible for territory covering Maine to Miami. Now the Cardinals have six area scouts -- reducing the size of each area -- and two over-the-top scouts (East and West regional) underneath college scouting director Dru Grigson. And Keim and vice president of player personnel Terry McDonough get out on the road, too.

"It's casting a wider net, and getting the right kind of info on all players," Keim explained. "You see the success we've had with small-school guys -- David Johnson, [Rodney] Gunter, John Brown, [Justin] Bethel. That's our scouts spending time on the road. You need coverage, and having more scouts helps. And on the pro side, we have multiple reports on every player, and that includes guys on the street, guys playing in Canada. We have multiple guys in on Tuesdays. You gotta work it to not get stagnant.

"Getting to the right 53 takes work. It takes time and effort. And I really believe our personnel department's one of the best at it."

Another key has been finding a way to incorporate more risk-taking.

Under old GM Rod Graves, whom Keim still refers to as "my mentor," Arizona was incredibly strict on character. It's not like they've flipped on that completely. But Keim and his lieutenants have worked hard to find calculated gambles worth taking. Tyrann Mathieu, a third-round pick in 2013, was one of those, and he was a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate before blowing out his ACL last month. Veteran Chris Johnson, who rushed for 814 yards before going down on Nov. 29, was another.

And the Cardinals have hedged those dice rolls by stocking each position group with strong leaders, benefitting both young guys and players who could go either way. As examples of these mentorships, Keim cited how Larry Fitzgerald has helped J.J. Nelson and Dwight Freeney has guided Golden this year.

"You hit November," Keim said, "and they've played enough and been surrounded by vets and so they know how to practice and play like a pro."

Then, there's the willingness of the staff to find ways to use all those new guys.

"It takes a fearless staff," Keim said. "You sign a guy on a Tuesday, and Bruce says, 'Yeah, cool, baby -- We'll get him right.' And the guy plays Sunday."

That was, as discussed above, the case with Bryant back on Thanksgiving. But that circumstance wasn't exactly an isolated one. The way it played out, in fact, was common, and it explains why all of this works: The scouts found a guy to fill a particular need, and the coaches trusted the evaluation enough to get the guy going right away, then made it work on the field. In this day where organizational dysfunction is so common in the NFL, there's little trace of any in the desert.

"That's the great thing -- the lines of communications from the scouts to the coaches, that's been so great, it's always so open," Keim said. "It's one of those deals, you check your ego at the door. It's not a Steve Keim team or a Bruce Arians team, it's an Arizona Cardinals team. You gotta work hand in hand, and respect each other, and we all do. Coach and I make the decisions, but everyone has a hand in it."

So when things come apart here or there, as they inevitably will during an NFL season, there's a united front there to combat that. And if recent situations in Philadelphia and San Francisco, or success within the four clubs still playing, have taught us anything, it's the value in synergy.

Four downs

1) Just the beginning in Charlotte. Two years ago, the Panthers lost to the Niners in the Divisional Round after a 12-4 season. There are just seven starters left from that team. The cap mess has been cleaned up. The drafts have been strong. And there's little question the future is bright -- something even the most grizzled of vets in that locker room are excited about. "They've built this thing the right way," said ex-Jet/Steeler Jerricho Cotchery, now in his second Panther season. "And the best evidence of that is we were 3-8-1 at one point last year, and if it isn't built the right way, then everything crumbles. But everyone rose up and that showed our true foundation. I heard [Seattle's] Richard Sherman talk about how young their team is. It's no different here. You look at Cam, we can say the same things. Luke Kuechly. KK Short. Shaq Thompson. All these guys. Same thing here. We've built it the right way." What Cotchery is describing, of course, is a program, above just a single team, and he told me he saw that right away in Carolina, when he was greeted with texts from Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Ryan Kalil, Greg Olsen and others the day he signed in March 2014. As he mentioned, that group was about to embark on a 3-8-1 start to 2014 -- the result of the cap purge that created all the turnover -- but was equipped to deal with it. The Panthers are 21-2 since. "You can talk about family all day long, but is it really a family? You truly have family here," Cotchery said. "Now, when we step on the field, I don't want to let you down. When we lose a game, I feel like I've let you down. That's what family is all about." And that, of course, would make Ron Rivera the dad, a role he's served by keeping the message consistent in good times and bad. Defensive end Kony Ealy explained to me that Rivera starts every day by telling players to take care of their inner A.P.E. -- Attitude, Preparation, Effort. The rest, obviously, has fallen into place. "He believes in us, period," said Ealy. "And that's even when no one else did." Most people do now. And by the looks of it, they will for a long time coming.

2) Tom Brady's toughness. Lost in the haze of last week's murky Foxborough storylines -- Rob Gronkowski's health, Chandler Jones' bizarre trip to the police station, etc. -- was that the quarterback didn't exactly depart the regular season with a clean bill of health. Tom Brady suffered a high ankle sprain in the season finale at Miami, and one source said it looked "bad" going into the bye week, even with the confidence that he'd get right in time to play two weeks later. So over the 13 days between the Dolphins and Chiefs games, sources say Brady's ankle was treated aggressively and, in the end, wound up being in good enough shape for the 38-year-old to carve up Kansas City, completing 67 percent of his throws for 302 yards, two touchdowns and a 103.5 passer rating. The best news: He came out of the game without any more damage done. And so this will go down as another one of those injuries that neither he nor the team say much about, but that Brady deserves credit for playing through. In December 2011, he suffered a separated left shoulder, played with a harness and got his team to the Super Bowl. Two years ago, he suffered ligament damage in his throwing hand, and got the Patriots to the AFC title game. We've heard a lot this week about Brady working officials after he takes hits. Lesson in all this: Don't correlate that in any way to No. 12's toughness. He's more than above-average in that department.

3) Johnny Manziel's future. It's not news that Johnny Manziel's days as a Brown are numbered. Or they likely are, based on how things went down during the interview process of eventual head-coaching hire Hue Jackson. But the reason why? As I understand it, there's significant doubt within the organization that Manziel will be able to handle the demands that Jackson puts on players at his position. The expectation of the new staff will be, more or less, that the quarterback take up residence at the facility during the season, and be a round-the-clock presence with his teammates inside those walls. It's why Carson Palmer and Jason Campbell were ideal for Jackson in Oakland. It's why he connected so closely with Andy Dalton. It's why he believed in AJ McCarron when Dalton went down in December. And if Manziel is going to have any sort of shot, he's going to have to convince a lot of people in Cleveland very, very quickly that he's capable of being that kind of gym rat. Jackson's handling of Dalton the last couple years can provide a pretty vivid illustration of what all this means. One Bengals coach said that after Jackson took over as offensive coordinator in 2014, "He changed Andy's routine to get him around us more and around the other offensive players more." Jackson actually moved to get the game plan to Dalton early each week, per the coach, "so he could talk through it in more detail. Then, he pushed [Dalton] to meet separately with other skill guys and some offensive linemen to get them on the same page as him." Overall, Jackson wants his quarterback to take ownership of his offense. As of right now, it's hard to envision Manziel as that kind of guy.

4) A Chip/Kap marriage by the Bay? If Colin Kaepernick is to stay on the Niners' roster past April 1, barring a renegotiation, it'll cost the team $14.3 million in cash and $15.9 million against the cap. And we still don't know if Chip Kelly likes the dual-threat dynamo that much. But ask defensive coaches about the possibility of those two teaming up, and one word generally describes the various answers: terror. "The fact that Kap can make guys miss and get in the open field, they didn't have that last year at all in Philly," said one defensive coordinator from a rival team. "We treated [Sam] Bradford like he was under center. There was zero threat of him running the ball. We told our guys, 'Don't treat him like he's in the shotgun, he's never gonna pull the ball.' " Throughout last year, that changed the math that so often has favored Kelly and his vaunted run game, and allowed defenses to get in the backfield and create negative plays. The Eagles ranked first in total rushing yards and yards per carry in 2013, and 14th and 21st in those respective categories in 2015. Put Kaepernick and Carlos Hyde (who thrived in Urban Meyer's spread in college) in the places of Bradford and DeMarco Murray, and another rival defensive coach said it should be "Awesome -- could be scary. You get the run threat back to keep the ball on zone read. ... And Kap can throw it deep. Chip stretched the field with [Nick] Foles vertically, and not as much with Bradford. ... And Kap did a good job with simple reads and progressions early in San Francisco. Chip's intermediate pass game in Philly had those features." Another rival defensive coordinator added, "I think [Kaepernick] is a good enough passer, but obviously what'll be a nightmare is his ability to run. That offense is straight 'Freddy Krueger' when you have a quarterback that can pull the ball and run at any given time." The bottom line is the run game is about as important to making this system work as having a great quarterback is in fueling more traditional pro systems. So now, Chip's on the clock to make a decision on Kaepernick, a player who could put juice back in that ground attack. The decision's complicated, to be sure, but the ceiling seems to be high here.

Three checkdowns

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1) Mike Vrabel turned down an offer to become 49ers defensive coordinator on Thursday, but just getting the invitation after his fifth year as a coach (second in the NFL) is pretty remarkable. And his value to Kelly in San Francisco would've gone well beyond calling the defense. In three years at Ohio State, Vrabel emerged as the program's top recruiter. In two years in Houston, his ability to get more out of players has been noted. The tie here? He can command a group and draw respect from everyone. After Kelly's experience in Philly, it's fair to see where a unifying force like Vrabel might've been a game changer. Conversely, my sense is the decision for Vrabel (who was strongly recommended to Kelly by his former coach, Bill Belichick) was a tough one, and as much about family and loyalty to Bill O'Brien as anything. He'll return to Houston as a) a possible heir to current DC Romeo Crennel and b) a potentially hot coordinator candidate for the next coaching carousel in 2017.

2) It's not surprising that new Lions GM Bob Quinn impressed the Ford family during their visit -- he wouldn't have the job otherwise -- but it might have been his thoroughness that came off best to those hiring. Quinn's plan showed how much he'd taken from Belichick in 16 years working under the Patriots coach, but it emphasized very much that, as it was explained to me, "I'm not going to try to be Bill." Quinn showing he'll be himself, rather than a facsimile of a mentor, is key, given how many Belichick protégés have failed by simply trying to duplicate the blueprint.

3) Ultimately, new Dolphins coach Adam Gase will be judged on wins and losses. But in what's been a dysfunctional building in past years, Gase has been a breath of fresh air to those who remain from the 2015 season. According to a number of staffers, Miami's new boss has been understanding and patient as holdover assistants assess their situations and weigh staying versus going elsewhere. And again, these aren't things that'll determine whether Gase makes it in his first shot as a head coach. But these are good steps taken toward creating a healthy and unified working environment.

Two prospects to watch in Saturday's East-West Shrine Game

Watch the game on NFL Network at 4 p.m. ET.

Date: Saturday, Jan. 23
Time: 4 p.m. ET
TV: NFL Network


2016 NFL Draft coverage:

1) Keenan Reynolds, ATH, Navy: Reynolds was a four-year starter at quarterback in Annapolis, and rushed for more yards from the position (4,559) than any player in FBS history, while also setting FBS records for total touchdowns (88) and points scored (530). Oh, and he also threw for 4,001 yards in his time as the triggerman behind the Midshipmen's option attack. So there's no doubt about his productivity as a collegian. There are, however, plenty of questions on how he'll translate to the pros -- beyond just the standard ones about his military commitments. "Great kid," said one AFC college scouting director, when asked about Reynolds. "He'd be a slot receiver or running back in the pros. Very productive college player, but he's different than [Antwaan] Randle-El or [Michael] Robinson." The director said that his pro prospects are still "questionable" but "it's hard to discount his competitiveness and production." Assuming he can work out a deal to eventually serve out his military time while still pursuing a pro football career, like this evaluator said, the first thing he'll need to do is find a position. He's been used as a running back at this week's East team practices, but might be best suited to play in the slot as a pro. There's also the fumbling problem (he had 32 at Navy) that he'll have to answer for. But there's no question he's an enticing player for NFL teams to consider, and should have a legit shot at making a 2016 roster. And when it comes to where he stands now, this line, overheard from East coach Charlie Weis at a practice this week after Reynolds kept on a play as a Wildcat quarterback, should sum it up: "You're either gonna be the MVP or we're set to get our asses kicked."

2) Nate Sudfeld, QB, Indiana: Sudfeld was a three-year starter in Kevin Wilson's prolific spread offense, cuts an impressive frame (listed at 6-foot-6, 245 pound), and has an older brother in the NFL. So there's plenty to like here -- and he'll go into this particular all-star game as the best player at his position on the field. "He's got good mechanics in the pocket for a taller kid," said another AFC college scouting director. "He makes quick decisions, but he's got an average arm -- he's not strong down the field. He's accurate on short and intermediate throws and he took care of the ball at Indiana. A Day 3 type of kid." Because he's from a spread, the college director added he'd like to see if Sudfeld "can operate from under center in a pro-style offense. He does a good job reading with his eyes -- showing that stuff during the week of practice and impressing with his knowledge during interviews should help his cause." With a good showing Saturday, following a solid week, Sudfeld could shape up as a middle-round project for teams that aren't comfortable drafting a QB high out of a pool of solid, but flawed signal callers.

Extra point

All seven head-coaching vacancies have been filled -- each by a coach with an offensive background.

Miami's Adam Gase, Cleveland's Hue Jackson, San Francisco's Chip Kelly, Tampa Bay's Dirk Koetter and Philadelphia's Doug Pederson all have said they'll call plays. The Giants' Ben McAdoo said he hasn't decided yet, though he appears poised to hold on to that responsibility. If he does, Tennessee's Mike Mularkey will be the only new head coach who won't be calling offensive plays.

That's pretty staggering, considering that, of the last 12 Super Bowl champions, only two (the 2009 Saints and 2010 Packers) have had the head coach double as offensive play caller. And those who've been there would offer a warning to the new guys.

"When you're offensive coordinator, you spend all week developing your plan," said one former head coach, who's now a top assistant. "You're in every meeting. It's very difficult to do that as a head coach. As an OC, you script all the practices, so you get a very good feel as the week goes on of what you like where and why situationally. As a head coach, you miss that step, which is a critical one. It's obviously doable, but some of the normal feel that you're used to having game day when you call plays that gets developed as the week progresses is lost."

The bottom line, he said: "You need great support to get through with minimal negatives."

Another issue is missing parts of game planning on Monday and Tuesday, which pushes you into catchup mode, and then balancing it with responsibilities on defense and special teams.

"Game management gets neglected unless you do a great job during the week, every week, in communicating with the opposite coordinator," said another former head coach-turned-assistant. "It's harder to make sure the offensive game plan and defensive game plans work together. And don't forget special teams."

Even the two above examples of champions -- Sean Payton in New Orleans and Mike McCarthy in Green Bay -- aren't perfect stories of success. In the six seasons since their title, the Saints have ranked fourth, 24th, 32nd, fourth, 31st and 31st in total defense, and have cycled through four different defensive coordinators. In Green Bay, McCarthy's sense that his team had become too offense-reliant prompted him to cede play-calling duties after the 2014 season. He seized the job back late in the '15 campaign.

Fact is, being an NFL head coach is a big job. And so is calling offensive plays. Trying to do both isn't impossible. But it is a lot.

"You risk losing on all the big-picture head coach stuff," the first coach said. "If you have a great staff, you can do it effectively."

So in the end, probably the best place to look here is to the people around Gase and Jackson and Kelly and Koetter and Pederson (and maybe McAdoo). They're the ones who will facilitate the head man's ability to pull off balancing his new job, while trying to keep doing the one that got him there.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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