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Ohio State's unreal 2016 draft class; Dallas' bend-don't-break D

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Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:

» Why the Cowboys' defense is NOT the fly in Dallas' ointment.

» How the Seahawks can mitigate the loss of Earl Thomas.

» What should we expect from Christian McCaffrey at the NFL level?

But first, a look at the college football program that's making a major mark on the NFL ...

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Through the years, a lot of college programs have been cited as football factories, but Ohio State has to be viewed as the cream of the crop in 2016, given how the Buckeyes' most recent draft class has set the league on fire this fall.

Now, I'm sure legions of Alabama, LSU, Miami, USC and Florida State fans will come after me for essentially declaring Urban Meyer as the premier developer of pro football players, but it is hard to dispute the results to this point of the season. Not only are there a number former Buckeyes at the top of nearly every rookie statistical category, but they are quickly emerging as Pro Bowl-caliber players in Year 1.

Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott headlines the class. He is a serious contender for the NFL MVP award as the league leader in rushing by nearly 250 yards. Most impressively, he has exhibited the kind of supreme talent and durability to challenge Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson's rookie rushing record of 1,808 yards.

Not to be outdone, Joey Bosa has immediately emerged as one of the premier pass rushers in the game. Despite missing the first four games of the season due to contract disputes, he ranks third among rookies in sacks (5.5) and has demonstrated the skills to be a dominant edge player for the San Diego Chargers. While everyone expects a top-five pick to immediately step in and dominate, few players have met the lofty standard like Bosa. From his relentless pursuit as a pass rusher to his rock-solid play as a run defender, the energetic rookie has bolstered a Chargers defense that desperately needed a marquee playmaker along the front.

Michael Thomas got a lot of preseason buzz -- particularly from Saints coach Sean Payton -- and he's undoubtedly lived up to the billing in New Orleans. The 6-foot-3, 212-pound pass catcher leads all rookies in receptions (69), receiving yards (831) and TD catches (seven). He has quickly developed a rapport with Drew Brees and shocked opponents with his crafty skills as a route runner/playmaker. In a very talented receiving corps that also includes Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead, Thomas already has established himself as the WR1.

With 11 draftees selected among the first 102 picks, it was reasonable to expect the Buckeye alums to make their mark in the league. Most teams consider first-, second- and third-round picks as probable first-year starters, so it is not a surprise to see many of them earn opportunities as rookies. From Taylor Decker solidifying the Lions' offensive line to Eli Apple occupying a key role in the Giants' revamped secondary to Vonn Bell making his mark as an enforcer for the Saints to Adolphus Washington plugging a huge void on the Bills' defensive line, Ohio State's rookie group already has lived up to the hype that started building after the Buckeyes' surprising run to the 2015 national title.

In fact, it reminds me of the run "The U" enjoyed when I was just getting into the scouting business in the early 2000s. In 2002, Miami produced a class that featured 11 draftees, including five first-round picks. With Ed Reed, Clinton Portis, Bryant McKinnie and Jeremy Shockey blossoming into Pro Bowl talents, that has to rank as one of the best draft classes from one school in NFL history.

While it is too early to speculate on how this Buckeyes group will eventually rank in league annals, there is no denying the depth of the Ohio State program after watching a number draftees and undrafted free agents (Jalin Marshall on the Jets, Tyvis Powell on the Seattle Seahawks) step into the spotlight as rookies.

Next year, Alabama, Clemson or LSU might lay claim to the crown, but right now, Ohio State is the football factory producing the NFL's best donuts.

COWBOYS' DEFENSE: Why this unit won't thwart Dallas' title chase

Defense wins championships, right?

If that's really the case in pro football, shouldn't we dismiss the Dallas Cowboys' title hopes, based on a seemingly lackluster group that surrenders yards by the mile?

Surely there's no way a unit that ranks 18th in total defense, 29th in pass defense and 22nd in sacks could spark a title run in a league that just saw the Denver Broncos hoist the Lombardi Trophy on the strength of a suffocating D. Right?

While conventional wisdom suggests the Cowboys will fall short of the championship threshold due to their no-name defense, I'm here to tell you it would be a mistake to dismiss the title dreams of America's Team based on that perception. Despite lacking a true marquee name or a Pro Bowl-caliber playmaker on the defensive side of the ball, the Cowboys have more than enough pieces to blossom into a championship unit by the beginning of the postseason.

I know that statement might take some by surprise, considering how the defense has been cited as the biggest impediment to a title run, but after taking a long, hard look at the Cowboys' most recent games, I'm convinced the defense is good enough to win games when the pressure ramps up in January.

For one, the Cowboys rank near the top of the charts in the most important defensive metric: points allowed. The defense is surrendering only 19.0 points per game (fifth-best in the NFL), and the 'Boys have held eight opponents to 20 points or fewer, which was tied for most in the league. Using a bend but don't break premise that allows foes to rack up yardage between the 20s on long, sustained drives, the Cowboys are forcing opponents to settle for field goals when they reach the red zone. Ultimately, the objective of every defensive coordinator is to keep the score down, so Dallas is right on track with a defense that rarely allows seven when on the field.

The Cowboys also boast the second-stingiest run defense in the NFL, giving up just 82.2 rushing yards per game. No matter how much the NFL transitions into a passing league, the best defenses in football force opponents into a one-dimensional approach by taking away the running game. Stuffing the ground game on first and second downs, the defense makes the quarterback throw against intense pressure or maximum coverage on critical downs. Typically, this leads to takeaway chances on tips or overthrows when the quarterback attempts to fit the ball into a tight window between multiple defenders in coverage.

Granted, the Cowboys haven't necessarily cashed in on their takeaway opportunities this season. The unit has only forced one turnover in the past five games and ranks near the bottom of the NFL in takeaways. Yet, I still contend the Cowboys play good enough defense to spark a legitimate run at the title.

Most of my conviction stems from my respect for coordinator Rod Marinelli's reputation as a teacher and motivator. Not only can he get his guys to play hard from snap to whistle, but he has repeatedly found a way to help overmatched units perform above their talent level. As recently as 2014, the fiery defensive wizard helped a Cowboys defense without a marquee defender anchor a team that finished 12-4 and a disputed catch away from making an NFC Championship Game appearance.

From a philosophical standpoint, the Cowboys are all about hitting, hustling and discipline. I heard Marinelli -- an ex-Marine -- rant and rave about effort and physicality when I visited the team during training camp, and he continues to discuss the importance of discipline and aggressiveness whenever he stands in front of the media at the podium.

Marinelli combines his core beliefs with a simple scheme that allows his charges to play at a breakneck pace on the field. The Cowboys play a traditional 4-3 Over front (the defensive line is shaded to the tight end side) with a handful of different coverages behind it. While Tampa 2 remains the "bread and butter" coverage of choice, Dallas runs far more man-to-man than most imagine. Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I was surprised at how much Cover 1 "Lurk" (man coverage with a linebacker sitting in the hole at 10 yards) and Cover 2 "Man" (two deep safeties with man coverage underneath) was played on passing downs. With the Cowboys occasionally opting to add an extra defender to the coverage when a pass rusher is taken off the field (three-man front), quarterbacks are routinely forced to throw against max coverage on obvious passing downs.

That's why the Cowboys' statistical shortcomings should be kept in perspective when dismissing their defense. Sure, they haven't produced big sack numbers, and they've allowed quarterbacks to complete over 70 percent of their passes (70.3 percent, to be exact; only Detroit has allowed a higher rate) and post a 100.8 passer rating (29th in the NFL), but they are essentially a "slow down" defense that concedes dink-and-dunk passes instead of big plays. As a result, Dallas has only allowed five passes of 40-plus yards (ninth-fewest) and kept high-powered offenses in check in pivotal contests (see: Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Washington).

Now, I'm not sitting here suggesting the Cowboys' defense is perfect. They're unable to generate a consistent pass rush and they lack ballhawks in the back end. Those could be huge issues in the playoffs. But I believe Dallas' high-octane offense alleviates the pressure on the defense to dominate in spectacular fashion.

"You call the game differently when you know your offense can score points," an AFC defensive coordinator told me. "You're simply trying to keep the ball in front of the defense and force opponents to drive the length of the field on extended drives. At some point, they will mess up [via a penalty or negative play], and you'll be able to get off the field."

That long-time coach also told me that the Cowboys' offense can minimize the defense's exposure by running time off the clock with a potent running game. He described the strategy as a game of keep-away; the approach forces the opposing offensive coordinator to play into the Cowboys' hands. With the play caller sensing the pressure of having to score on every possession, opponents are unlikely to stick with a balanced or run-oriented attack, which makes it easier for the Cowboys to use their bend but don't break tactics on defense.

This complementary approach won't lead analysts and observers to view the Dallas D as championship-caliber, but it could be the recipe to help Jason Garrett and his young players feel the confetti hit their shoulders in Houston.

NEXT GEN STATS: Seattle's defense can overcome Earl Thomas' injury

Just when the Seattle Seahawks were rounding into form as a Super Bowl contender behind the suffocating play of the "Legion of Boom," the loss of five-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas threatens to torpedo their title hopes. Without an instinctive ballhawk in the middle of the field, the Seahawks' vaunted single-high-safety coverage might be susceptible to the deep ball and their super stingy run defense could be exposed without the undersized enforcer plugging holes.

Most importantly, the defense heads down the stretch without one of its inspirational leaders and an experienced traffic cop in the middle of the field. Considering the role Thomas occupies as one of the designated playmakers on a D that annually spearheads the Seahawks' title contention, Seattle is no longer a leading contender to challenge Dallas and others for the NFC crown, right?

Not so fast.

The "Legion of Boom" has dominated opponents over the years while dealing with injuries and departures. The Seahawks' coaching staff has developed a host of unheralded players and helped them star in the back end. Remember, no one expected Richard Sherman (fifth-round pick in 2011) or Kam Chancellor (fifth-rounder in 2010) to emerge as two of the top players at the respective positions, but the diligent work of those guys and Seattle's coaching staff has made the "LOB" the top defensive backfield in the league. With slept-on prospects like DeShawn Shead and Jeremy Lane developing into starters, I'm willing to bank on the Seahawks' "next-man up" capability.

Before I get into Thomas' replacement, Steven Terrell, and how he could blossom in his new role, I think it is important to understand exactly what the Seahawks are losing in Thomas. The seventh-year pro is one of the biggest defensive playmakers in the game, as evidenced by his 32 takeaways (23 interceptions, nine forced fumbles) in 107 career games. Thomas exhibits exceptional athleticism, instincts and range as the center fielder in Seattle's single-high-safety defense. He capably covers from numbers to numbers on vertical routes, yet also flashes dynamic playmaking skills when he is positioned as a "lurk" defender (safety sits at 15 yards looking to jump any deep crossing routes) between the hashes. In addition, Thomas is a feisty run defender with a knack for drilling running backs in the hole.

Looking at the numbers, it is easy to see Thomas' impact on the defense whenever he is on the field. According to Next Gen Stats, the Seahawks are holding opposing quarterbacks to a 59.6 percent completion rate, 7:10 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 75.6 passer rating when Thomas is in the lineup. Opposing runners have mustered just 3.5 yards per carry when No. 29 is flying around as extra defender in the box.

Those statistics are quite remarkable -- especially the passing figures. In today's game, rules severely limit contact on pass catchers. Yet Thomas' mere presence in the middle of the field discourages quarterbacks from taking deep shots. And his hitting prowess prompts pass catchers to tread lightly when venturing between the hashes (ask Rob Gronkowski).

Taking another look at the numbers, you can see how quarterbacks struggle when Thomas and Chancellor are both on the field. Passers posted just a 23.2 percent completion rate and a 35.1 passer rating on passes of 20-plus air yards with the veterans on the field together. But for the remainder of this season, that will no longer be the case.

This brings me back to Terrell and why I believe the fourth-year pro could be a solid fill-in for the Pro Bowl safety. Checking in at 5-foot-10 and 197 pounds, Terrell clocked a 4.34 40-yard dash at his pro day, while also posting a 38.5-inch vertical and a 10-10 broad jump to go with a 6.86 three-cone shuttle time. Those numbers are not only impressive on their own merits, but they are better than the measurements Thomas posted at his pro day and the NFL Scouting Combine (best marks: 4.37 40, 32-inch vertical jump and 9-5 broad jump) prior to the 2010 draft. Thus, you could argue that the Seahawks are getting a superior athlete to play between the hashes.

"He's really equipped," Pete Carroll said at a recent press conference. "He's really fast. He covers a lot of ground and all that. He's a very disciplined football player."

Speaking to another Seahawks official, I was told that Terrell's an "outstanding kid with the smarts and instincts" to the job. That individual went on to tell me that the young player "could run with his opportunity."

From a playing standpoint, Terrell definitely has flashed when he has been on the field this season. He has recorded 11 tackles and a pass defensed in three games (Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Carolina) of action at safety, exhibiting terrific range and instincts as a center fielder. Obviously, Terrell is not quite as aggressive to the ball as Thomas, but he certainly gets to his assigned area in a hurry. Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, Terrell is consistently in position to make plays on the ball -- and his production will only improve with more reps. Now, I'm not saying that he will become a dynamic playmaker like Thomas, but he will have a shot to make a few splash plays as the center fielder surrounded by elite talents like Sherman and Chancellor.

According to Next Gen Stats, the Seahawks' defense doesn't fall off a cliff without No. 29 on the field. (Granted the numbers are limited, as Thomas played in 11 of the Seahawks first 12 games.) The team has held quarterbacks to a 51.9 percent completion rate and an 84.9 passer rating. Although the 4:1 TD-to-INT ratio isn't necessarily what the Seahawks' coaches desire, the 6.6 yards per attempt (compared to 7.1 when Thomas is on the field) is pretty impressive. Against the run, the Seahawks have held opponents to 3.8 yards per rush when Thomas isn't on the field, and they've yet to surrender a rushing touchdown. Considering where those numbers rank on a league scale, the Seahawks are still capable of playing championship-caliber defense without the veteran playmaker.

ASK THE LEAGUE: How does Christian McCaffrey project to the NFL?

When Christian McCaffrey decided to enter the draft, I admittedly perked up at the thought of another dynamic playmaker entering the league. With the running back about to begin the pre-draft process, I thought I'd reach out to a few folks in the industry to get their initial impressions on the Stanford star. Here's what I asked and their responses:

What are your thoughts on Christian McCaffrey? Will he be a star as a pro?

NFC scout: "I believe the kid is an outstanding talent, but you must have a plan for what you're going to do with him. He's not going to be as fast or as twitchy as some expect, but he is going to test well enough to be in the conversation in the first round. As a player, I don't know if he can shoulder the load as a workhorse back. He gains a lot of yards between the tackles, but I don't know if he is ever going to be a YAC (yards after contact) guy. To me, he is Brian Westbrook. He will make his plays as a runner-receiver-returner in the right system. I just hope he goes to a team that understands his game and puts him in the right spots to shine."

AFC senior personnel executive: "Hmmm. He's a nice piece of a puzzle, but I don't think he's a transcendent star. I can see him being more of a role player like Danny Woodhead. He's more of a balance and control-type runner, instead of a dynamic playmaker. He has some shake and wiggle, but lacks exceptional pitter-pat. ... I think he needs to be in the right system to maximize his talents as a multi-purpose player."

Second NFC scout: "I don't think he's as good as Reggie Bush and (Bush) didn't set the league on fire. To me, McCaffrey is a role player that gets a few touches on catches out of the backfield or on gadgets. I might be wrong, but I don't think he can be a full-time guy."

MY TAKE

It is a little surprising to hear the varying opinions from scouts on one of the most accomplished players in college football. McCaffrey is only a season removed from shattering Barry Sanders' NCAA record for single-season all-purpose yardage. Not to mention, he is completing a season where he has rushed for over 1,600 yards and tallied eight 100-yard rushing games. Considering how he entered the year as a marked man after finishing second in the 2015 Heisman Trophy voting, I would think that his production alone would pique the interest of scouts looking for a versatile playmaker to add to the lineup.

When I've previously studied McCaffrey at Stanford, I've been impressed with his big-play ability as a two-phase player. He can flip the field with his efforts as a runner-receiver-returner, and he's a gritty workhorse for a team that lacks many playmakers on the perimeter. Moreover, McCaffrey played and acted like a five-star player whenever the Cardinal faced elite competition, so I sensed that the NFL game wouldn't be too big for him when he got his chance.

Studying coaches tape from this season, I was still impressed with McCaffrey's versatility and playmaking skills as a multi-purpose weapon, but I didn't see him generate as many explosive plays. As a runner, in particular, I didn't see him reach the second level on a series of explosive cuts or creative moves that suggested he could play like Houdini in a phone booth at the next level. Granted, he was facing a number of loaded boxes after posting a monster season as the RB1 for the Cardinal, but I still expected to see him pop a few big runs based on his reputation as a premier playmaker at the position.

As a punt returner, McCaffrey is a home run waiting to happen. He has a knack for spotting creases in traffic that should make him a dynamic return man at the next level. Despite having several punt-return scores called back due to penalties this season, McCaffrey's brilliance as a returner is enough to make him an early-round selection.

Overall, I tend to agree with the assessment that McCaffrey is probably destined to be more of a role player than a star at the next level. I know he has some "wow" plays on his résumé, but not nearly as many as Reggie Bush compiled at USC. Given how Bush largely made his mark in the league as a third-down back/return specialist, I would expect McCaffrey settle into a similar role as a pro.

With that being said, I do believe he could be a game changer for a team like New England, San Diego or New Orleans. Those teams understand how to incorporate versatile playmakers into the game plan. In the end, scheme fit will determine whether McCaffrey sets the league on fire.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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