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Falcons provide lesson in team building; Aaron Rodgers' magic

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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:

» What makes Aaron Rodgers such an improvisational mastermind?

» The big question facing quarterback-needy teams this offseason.

But first, a look at how the Falcons re-emerged as a Super Bowl contender ...

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There is always an opportunity to learn from the work of other executives when you're in the team-building business. That's why general managers around the NFL routinely study the rosters of the participants in the AFC and NFC Championship Games to see if there are lessons to be learned.

I've looked at the starting lineups of each of the finalists, and I don't believe it's a coincidence that every team features a five-star general under center. Quarterback play typically separates the contenders from the pretenders in the NFL. Teams with elite quarterbacks routinely compete for titles, while others fight to get into playoff contention.

That's why I'm fascinated by the ascension of top MVP candidate Matt Ryan and the 2016 Atlanta Falcons. While we've grown accustomed to seeing Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers lead their teams to the winner's circle, I don't think many observers viewed Ryan as one of the premier players at the position entering this season. He'd shown flashes of greatness through the years, but he had yet to prove himself as a consistent world-beater.

Let me be clear: I'm not slighting Ryan's game, but the Falcons' QB1 wasn't viewed as a top-five quarterback in most circles -- and some observers would've scoffed at the notion of touting him as even a top-10 guy following his disappointing 2015 campaign.

"I would've considered him a borderline top-10 [quarterback] prior to the season," an AFC senior personnel executive told me. "I think a lot of us [scouts] thought that he was good, but not necessarily a great quarterback. He has certainly taken his game up a notch this year, though."

With that in mind, I believe the Falcons have established a blueprint for building a championship-caliber team without necessarily having a transcendent superstar to start with at the QB1 position. Thomas Dimitroff, Scott Pioli and the Falcons' personnel staff have shown the rest of the league that a strong supporting cast not only elevates the play of the quarterback, but it can help a team go from the fringes to title contention in a hurry.

Looking at the Falcons' rebuilding efforts over the past few years, the team has made a concerted effort to upgrade the personnel around Ryan. The former No. 3 overall pick already had a WR1 (Julio Jones) to lean on in critical moments. Jones is an all-time talent at the position, as evidenced by his three straight seasons with 1,400-plus receiving yards (behind only Marvin Harrison's four consecutive seasons). After watching Jones act as a one-man show in 2015, the team added three playmakers to alleviate some of his burden in the passing game. Mohamed Sanu (unrestricted free agent), Austin Hooper (2016 third-round pick) and Taylor Gabriel (claimed off waivers) were added to the mix to provide the WR corps with enough diversity to attack the defense in a variety of ways.

"We have gas (speed) and toughness (physical pass catchers) on the outside," a Falcons official told me. "We have a little bit of everything you could want in a WR corps. That can create problems for the defense, matchup-wise."

While it's easy to fall into the trap of strictly thinking about pass catchers when citing a quarterback's supporting cast, the Falcons have added dynamic running backs capable of enhancing the passing game while also anchoring the ground attack. In drafting Devonta Freeman (2014 fourth-rounder) and Tevin Coleman (2015 third-rounder), Atlanta ensured Ryan always has a credible threat in the backfield beside him. The constant presence of an electric multi-purpose weapon in the backfield forces the defense to play it straight, particularly when one of the backs has posted back-to-back seasons with 1,000 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns (Freeman).

Last, but certainly not least, it is necessary to spotlight the improvements along the offensive line. The Falcons beefed up the interior through a trade (left guard Andy Levitre) and two free-agent signings (center Alex Mack and right guard Chris Chester). The trio has not only fortified the team's pass protection in the middle, but it has given Atlanta the much-needed toughness to commit to the running game when needed. Looking at the individual and collective talents of the trio, it's clear the Falcons added scrappy blockers with the strength and power to move bodies off the ball. Although Atlanta is frequently miscast as a finesse team, the O-line improvements have given Dan Quinn a physical squad that's built for the long haul.

In the salary-cap era, team builders must decide how to allocate their resources to give their roster the best chance of winning in the short term while simultaneously building a perennial contender. Given the financial commitment the Falcons have made to the offense (see: Ryan's five-year, $103.75 million contract, as well as the hefty deals signed by Mack and Sanu), the front office needed to rely on the draft to build up the defense.

A championship-caliber team must have a solid D in place, and the Falcons have taken significant steps to gather enough speedsters and playmakers to get stops and turnovers. Keep in mind: An offensive-minded team should alleviate some of the pressure on the defense by lighting up the scoreboard and forcing opposing quarterbacks/offensive coordinators to chase points. With opponents targeting 30-plus points to keep up with the Falcons' high-powered offense, the Dirty Birds placed a premium on acquiring pass rushers, run-and-chase playmakers and cover guys on the perimeter.

With their past two drafts, the Falcons snagged a pass rusher (2016 NFL sack king Vic Beasley), cover corner (Jalen Collins) and three run-and-chase defenders (Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, and De'Vondre Campbell) to add speed and athleticism to the lineup. The youngsters joined a unit that already featured an ultra-athletic cornerback tandem (Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant) and some "old heads" (Jonathan Babineaux and Tyson Jackson) along the front line.

To accelerate the development of a young defense that features so many first- and second-year starters, Atlanta employed a simple scheme that allows the defenders to play without mental overload. Simplification is critical in today's game, given the limited practice time and offseason work available to the players according to the current collective bargaining agreement. Coaches don't have enough time to teach the nuances of a complex scheme, so it is imperative to feature a system that minimizes the thinking for the players. Dimitroff spoke specifically about the need to have Falcons defenders adopting a play free, play fast mentality shortly after hiring Quinn as the Falcons' head coach.

"I think the idea of allowing this football team and this defense specifically to play fast, to eliminate some of the sort of over-analyzing and let these players be the athletes they can be, is going to be very important for us," Dimitroff said two years ago.

Remember, players entering the league these days are coming in younger (more early entries) with limited experience and exposure to the techniques used in the NFL. Thus, coaches are tasked with cobbling together a good defense using many players who lack great football IQ, awareness and technical skills.

"Today's players don't know how to play," an AFC defensive coordinator told me. "They haven't been taught the game at the collegiate level, so you have to simplify things to give them a chance to play well. That's why you're seeing more teams use simple schemes like Tampa 2 or the basic Cover 3 that the Seahawks and others are using. You have to find a way to win while they are learning on the fly."

That's why the Falcons' plan to fully develop the offense around the QB1 while waiting for the defense to develop could prompt other team builders to consider adopting the approach, particularly with teams like Oakland, Tampa Bay and Tennessee also enjoying success with similar approaches.

Here's the thing: The blueprint the Falcons have implemented works for quarterbacks young and old, which makes it a universal concept that should be embraced by every NFL team. In fact, I would encourage other executives to study Dimitroff's work throughout Ryan's career for perspective on how to develop a young quarterback in today's game.

As a young player, Ryan led Falcons to four playoff berths in his first five seasons, collecting 56 wins along the way. Granted, the first-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft was certainly well-prepared after spending five seasons at Boston College honing his craft, but the Falcons made sure he stepped into a lineup that allowed him to grow into the position. Ryan was surrounded by a powerful RB1 (Michael Turner), an explosive WR1 (Roddy White) and a big-play TE1 (Tony Gonzalez, acquired via trade in 2009) and an offensive line with solid pieces on the edges. The composition of the lineup enabled the team to utilize conservative game plans during Ryan's rookie season (27.1 pass attempts per game) before gradually putting more on his shoulders as he grew into a playmaker (32.2 pass attempts to 35.6 ... to 35.3 ... to 38.4) in subsequent seasons. With a veteran-laden defense making just enough plays to complement an efficient offense, Atlanta logged five winning seasons and two NFC South titles. Of course, that roster -- under head coach Mike Smith -- got stale, and the Falcons went three seasons without posting a winning record.

Then this year came around, and Atlanta re-emerged as a serious title contender with the league's top-scoring offense. Ryan has enjoyed his finest NFL campaign, posting career bests in touchdowns (38), interceptions (only seven), yards (4,944), yards per attempt (a whopping 9.3), completion percentage (69.9) and passer rating (117.1). The 31-year-old Ryan's game has matured to the point where he set an NFL record by throwing touchdown passes to 13 different players.

Long story short: Teams around the NFL should look at Atlanta's return to prominence as the ideal example of how careful roster construction can help a good quarterback become an MVP-caliber field general hunting a championship ring.

NEXT GEN STATS: Aaron Rodgers' improvisational brilliance

During my time as a player in the league, I was fortunate enough to be around the man who has long been considered the best improvisational playmaker in NFL history -- Brett Favre -- but I'm beginning to believe his protégé might surpass him by the time his playing career is done. Aaron Rodgers has become the ultimate magician at the position, frequently pulling rabbits out of the hat when the play breaks down.

From his explosive scramble forays to his ability to generate big gains on free plays following pre-snap penalties, Rodgers is a master at exploiting the defense with his spontaneity inside and outside of the pocket. Look no further than his magnificent performance against the Cowboys in the Divisional Round as proof of his efficiency and effectiveness when playing off-script. Rodgers made big play after big play on scramble drills, including this unbelievable 35-yard toss to Jared Cook along the boundary with the clock winding down:

On that play, which set up Mason Crosby's game-winning 51-yard field goal, Rodgers not only bought time by spinning out of the pocket to his left, but he delivered an absurd dart to his downfield receiver on the edge of the playing field. Sure, the Cowboys' secondary misplayed the route -- based on down, distance and situation -- but Rodgers dropped a dime on a fadeaway throw working to his weak side. The throw was a remarkable example of Rodgers' arm strength, accuracy and athleticism, which is why every former quarterback-turned-analyst has raved about the two-time MVP's extraordinary physical talents all week.

From a scouting perspective, this game-changing effort was just the latest example of Rodgers' ad-lib brilliance, something that separates the Packers QB from others at his position. He is one of the few passers capable of picking apart defenders when working off a script or as a sandlot playmaker thriving from the edges.

"I don't know what you can do when he's making plays all over the field," said an AFC secondary coach who faced Rogers during the regular season. "He's playing sandlot ball, but he's completely in control at all times."

Looking at the numbers, Rodgers posted a 101.6 passer rating when throwing from outside of the pocket during the regular season -- the fourth-best mark in the NFL. He is adept from either side, but the stats suggest that he's far more effective when throwing on the run while rolling to his right. During the regular season, Rodgers had a 60.9 percent completion rate, 12:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 116.9 passer rating on throws outside of the pocket rolling to the right, compared to a 36.1 percent completion rate, 3:1 TD-to-INT ratio and 62.7 passer rating while on the left. It is, of course, completely understandable for Rodgers to be more effective going to his right as a right-hander, but he has delivered some of his best throws in the postseason while rolling to his left.

No matter which side he's on, though, Rodgers has always been a nightmare for defenses when operating outside of the pocket -- but he has taken it up a notch during the playoffs. Rodgers has connected on 80 percent of his throws outside of the pocket (16 of 20 pass attempts) and posted a 148.8 passer rating.

"He toys with the defense," said another AFC secondary coach who also faced Rodgers during the regular season. "He steps up and moves around to buy enough time for the defense to crack. ... He's in such a zone that it always seems to work out for him."

That's why I believe Mike McCarthy also deserves credit for Rodgers' success as an improvisational playmaker, due to the head coach's willingness to map out the organized chaos for the Packers' pass catchers. The offensive guru has implemented scramble rules for his receivers since his arrival in 2006, and the team practices improvised plays daily, as detailed in this USA Today story. Whereas some coaches blow the whistle in any pass skeleton (seven-on-seven drill) or team period when a pass rusher gets close enough to register a sack on a quarterback, the Packers allow Rodgers to "play on" and flee the pocket when the play breaks down.

Although the Packers have been tight-lipped about their rules for receivers when Rodgers leaves the pocket, the majority of teams instruct the outside receiver to work back toward the quarterback along the boundary if he was originally on a vertical route or turn upfield if he was assigned a short route to the outside. The rest of the receivers are instructed to work across the field to the side of the quarterback's scramble, to get into the passer's line of sight at intermediate range. Geronimo Allison did a fine job of this in last Sunday's game:

In the red zone, receivers adhere to similar principles, but they are encouraged to stay active against man coverage, particularly when defenders have their backs to the quarterback. With the defender unaware of the quarterback's whereabouts or when the ball is released, the receiver can wiggle and shake until he escapes coverage to create a window for a Rodgers throw. Check out this amazing play from Wild Card Weekend:

In the end, the Packers' scramble plays have yielded big results due to the presence of an ultra-athletic gunslinger with remarkable arm talent and a set of pass catchers adhering to principles that have been established and confirmed through diligent work on the practice field.

ASK THE LEAGUE: Would you trade for a young QB or draft a signal caller?

Every general manager and coach will tell you that you need a franchise quarterback to have a legitimate shot at winning a championship. With several teams in desperate need of a QB1 heading into the offseason, I know a handful of executives are contemplating the possibility of adding a young quarterback via trade, free agency or the draft. With that in mind, I decided to ask a few league folks this question:

Would you prefer to trade for Jimmy Garoppolo or AJ McCarron ... or draft one of the top QB prospects in the Class of 2017?

Former NFL general manager: "That's a tough one. I don't think I would give up a No. 1 for either guy. They haven't played enough for me to make a solid assessment on what they could be as starters. It reminds me a little of the Brock Osweiler deal, and I wouldn't want to get burned. I would think about giving up a No. 2 or I would pick one of the young guys to build around."

AFC player personnel director: "We've seen this movie before with Osweiler. I would pass on the vets and hang my hat with one of the young guys. If you miss on the rookie, you can move on after three years. With the vet, you're giving up picks and paying big bucks, so it might cost you your job if you're wrong."

AFC vice president of player personnel: "I'm scared to death of the young guys. They have talent and upside, but there aren't any sure things in this [draft] class. I'm also not ready to proclaim either of the veterans as the answer because you really don't know what you're getting when they get out of their current systems. If I had to pick, I would take one of the young guys and make sure that the coaching staff has a clear plan for building around their talents."

MY TAKE

This will be one of the most hotly debated questions of the offseason in meeting rooms around the league. Teams desperate for a franchise quarterback must determine whether the options available via trade or free agency are better than the top prospects in the 2017 draft class. While I've previously suggested that there aren't any sure things in this year's draft, I believe you could say the same thing about the young veterans that are reportedly available on the trade market.

Although I've still got plenty of work to do in pre-draft assessment, I just released my initial position rankings for the Class of 2017. Here are my top five QBs -- at this moment:

1) DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame
2) Deshaun Watson, Clemson
3) Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina
4) Brad Kaaya, Miami
5) Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech

Like I say in that piece, there just isn't a can't-miss prospect in this class. These are developmental guys who offer some intriguing skills.

With that in mind, how about the aforementioned young pros?

In Garoppolo's case, it's easy to fall in love with his efficiency and judgment guiding the Patriots' offense. In two starts as Tom Brady's fill-in at the beginning of this season (Garoppolo was injured during the second game), Garoppolo completed 71.2 percent of his passes for 496 yards and four touchdowns (against zero interceptions), posting a 119.0 passer rating. Garoppolo carved up the Cardinals and Dolphins with a host of "dink and dunk" throws. Still, he played mistake-free football as a starter, and his efficiency certainly piqued the interest of teams looking for a point guard to direct a "connect the dots" attack.

On the flip side, Garoppolo hasn't played enough to have his warts exposed. Thus, we don't know how he will react to different game plans thrown at him from defensive coordinators after studying the tape. In addition, there are questions about whether Garoppolo is a system guy, based on how Matt Cassel and others (see: Jacoby Brissett) have looked when given opportunities to play in New England. And we can't forget how well Kyle Orton performed under Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels during their time together in Denver.

McCarron played pretty well for the Bengals during a four-game run as the starter last season (when Andy Dalton was injured). During that span, which included one playoff game, McCarron completed 62 percent of his passes for 764 yards with a 5:1 TD-to-INT ratio. He exhibited fine timing and anticipation as a pocket passer and impressed scouts with his ability to make "big boy" throws between the numbers at intermediate range. McCarron also displayed impressive poise and composure firing darts from the pocket.

2017 NFL DRAFT

With Dalton starting all 16 games this season, we didn't really get a chance to see how McCarron would perform in a system without former Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson crafting the game plan. The current Browns head coach had put together a script that complemented McCarron's game very well in 2015. Sure, most offensive coordinators attempt to build their game plans around the strengths of the quarterback, but few do it as well as Jackson. Thus, there are some questions about how he will perform under a new play caller in a different system.

That's why the decision to rank the veterans over the prospects will be subjective, based on your offensive scheme and coaching staff. Some coaches prefer an older player with some NFL experience because he already understands the speed, tempo and verbiage of the pro game. In addition, the presence of a veteran should allow the team to add more layers to its offense early in the season.

Overall, I would rather build around a draft pick. Sure, there will be some bumps in the road, due to their inexperience, but it's easier to mold a young player in a system built around their talents. Although I've been impressed by Garoppolo and McCarron in limited action, I'm reluctant to covet another team's backup quarterback, especially after watching Osweiler and others fail to live up to expectations when they've been given big contracts and starting jobs.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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