Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
» Why isn't there more league-wide interest in accomplished young cornerback Malcolm Butler?
But first, a look at one contract that signals an emerging trend in the NFL today ...
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When the Carolina Panthers inked Kawann Short to a five-year, $80.5 million deal earlier in the week, the news flew under the radar -- but astute football observers viewed the blockbuster deal as validation of a trend that's quietly building in the NFL.
Defensive tackles with pass-rushing skills are not only coveted at a premium on the open market, but they increasingly have become the top priority for teams intent on building championship defenses in a pass-happy league.
- 'TOP 100 PLAYERS OF 2017'
▹ Ike Taylor's Rankings:
▸ 100-81 | 80-71 | 70-61 | 60-51
- FIRST LOOK AT 2017 SEASON
▹ Early OROY, DROY predictions
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▹ Ranking the 5 best offseasons
▹ Who will snap playoff drought in '17?
▹ Projected Starters (NFC):
▸ East | North l South l West
▹ Projected Starters (AFC):
▸ East | North l South l West
"You have to have a dominant interior pass-rushing presence in today's game," an AFC personnel executive told me. "A big-time defensive tackle disrupts everything at the point of attack and sets the table for the edge rushers. If he can command a double-team on passing downs, he creates one-on-one opportunities for edge rushers, which leads to sacks and turnovers. If he is able to get to the quarterback on his own, he creates the kind of chaos that changes games."
Based on that statement, I understand why the Panthers opened up the vault to retain the services of an inside pass rusher who has racked up 17 sacks over the past two seasons. That total ranks behind just Geno Atkins (20) and Aaron Donald (19) among defensive tackles, which speaks volumes about Short's disruptive production.
Studying Short's game on tape, I was impressed with his combination of first-step quickness, power and combat skills. He is a unique inside defender with a mix of finesse and brute strength that sets him apart from most other defensive tackles. Short can stack blockers at the point of attack to stuff the run or slip past linemen quickly with a variety of slick maneuvers that range from a nasty swim move to an ultra-athletic two-hand swipe that leaves offensive guards stumbling around. With Short also capable of running over blockers with an explosive forklift move, he is a disruptive force capable of taking over the game from his 3-technique position.
"KK consistently affects the quarterback and is strong against the run," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said after Short inked his new contract. "The mismatches he creates for us on defense force opponents to be aware of him at all times and gives us an edge along the defensive line."
Panthers' general manager Dave Gettleman had this to say: "In 2013, when we drafted KK, I thought he was the best pass-rushing defensive tackle in the draft, and he's been able to develop into one of the top young defensive tackles in the NFL."
While you obviously expect the Panthers' decision makers to fully endorse one of the best players on their defense, I believe they bring up some good points regarding the value of a pass-rushing presence on the inside. A dominant defensive tackle can disrupt the timing and rhythm of the quarterback quicker than an edge rusher, due to his ability to penetrate through the A-gap (hole between the center and offensive guard). The presence of a disruptive DT with quick feet and fast hands creates all kinds of problems.
"You have to be able to pressure the passer from the inside," the AFC personnel executive said. "Pressure in your face is more disruptive to the quarterback. Even veteran quarterbacks feel that pressure and wilt under gut pressures."
With that in mind, it is not a surprise that teams are beginning to view interior pass rushers in the same light as edge rushers, and paying them big bucks for their skills. Short's deal averages $16 million annually, which is a nice jump from the $13.387 million franchise-tag value for defensive tackles. By comparison, Von Miller averages $19.083 million on a record-breaking six-year, $114.5 million deal that made him the highest paid defensive player in NFL history. With pure run stoppers still valued at around the $10 million mark, as evidenced by the Johnathan Hankins deal (three-year contract worth up to $30 million, with $15.9 million in guarantees), it is apparent that inside pass rushers are viewed as hot commodities in today's game.
"We are nearing the point where inside pass rushers will be considered more valuable than edge rushers," the AFC personnel exec said. "They make the game easier for everyone. There's tremendous value to that."
For years, the NFL's pass-oriented focus made defensive end and pass-rush linebacker the marquee positions in the defensive lineup. But the increasing value of inside rushers could prompt more teams to push pass-rushing defensive tackles to the top of wish lists when building championship-caliber rosters in the near future.
ASK THE LEAGUE: Can Alex Smith lead Kansas City to the promised land?
Many suspect the Kansas City Chiefs could be interested in drafting a young quarterback at the end of this month to eventually replace Alex Smith as the face of the franchise. In fact, Smith himself is openly talking about K.C. bringing in another arm. While most observers agree that none of the quarterbacks in this year's class are ready to step onto the field as a Day 1 starter, the rumors about the Chiefs' interest in this class of gunslingers prompted me to revisit a question that frequently comes up when discussing Kansas City's chances of winning the Super Bowl.
Here are the responses I got back from a handful of football folks:
NFC personnel executive: "I don't think he can do it. He's an athletic game manager who needs everything right around him to be successful. I just don't think he has that 'it' to put a team on his shoulders to win big games. I feel like they will always have to tailor what they ask him to do to win."
NFL head coach: "He's proven that he can get it done. He's smart, experienced and a consistent winner. I know people call him a 'game manager,' but I would rather have somebody who isn't going to turn the ball over and uses his legs when he needs to run to get his team out of bad plays. It's not always pretty, but he's won a lot of games and that's what counts."
AFC pro personnel director: "No. I think he manages the game extremely well, but I don't think you can ask him to be the guy."
Former NFL head coach: "Smith doesn't get enough credit because he's not a 'sexy' quarterback and his career got off to a slow start in San Francisco. But when you look at what he's done in Kansas City, it's hard to say that he isn't capable of winning it all. Sure, he needs the right pieces around him and you don't want to put it all on his shoulders, but the guy knows how to win and he should get credit for that."
It's funny to me that Smith remains one of the most polarizing quarterbacks in the NFL despite sporting a .672 winning percentage during his time in Kansas City. In fact, the veteran quarterback has won just under 70 percent of his games (60-25-1) over the past six seasons -- including his final two years with the San Francisco 49ers -- while helping guide his teams to five playoff appearances.
In a league where we supposedly judge quarterbacks by their ability to win games, Smith nearly checks off all the boxes as a franchise quarterback. He wins at a high level while playing efficiently from the pocket as a quick-rhythm passer -- completing more than 65 percent of his passes in each of the last three seasons and posting passer ratings of at least 90.0 during that span -- and displaying underrated athleticism as a dual-threat playmaker. Not to mention, Smith has a low turnover rate and rarely helps the opponent win with a series of haphazard mistakes.
Naturally, the critics will point out that Smith has never posted a 4,000-yard campaign or tossed 30 touchdowns in a single season, but compiling impressive fantasy football numbers has little to do with winning football games in the NFL (see: Blake Bortles). To succeed at the highest level, quarterbacks must play winning football from the pocket (efficient play with low turnovers), while managing the game like a symphony conductor. This is how Tom Brady has claimed five rings during his career albeit as a spectacular game manager for a team that rarely beats itself with careless mistakes on either side of the ball.
While I'm not suggesting Smith is in Brady's class, I'm simply pointing out that all of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL today (Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Brady) play the game in a fairly conservative manner that places a premium on low turnovers and efficient play. Like each of those aforementioned quarterbacks -- with the exception of Brady -- Smith must have the right weapons around him to win with his blue-collar approach. He needs explosive playmakers capable of turning short passes into big gains, and the Chiefs certainly have supplied him with a few of these guys (see: Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and Jeremy Maclin).
As a result, I believe Smith is undoubtedly capable of guiding the Chiefs to the winner's circle. While the road certainly is tough in the AFC, with the New England Patriots lording over the conference, Smith is good enough to get the Chiefs over the hump as long as his supporting cast remains strong on the perimeter. It won't be sexy or spectacular, but winning is all that matters. And Smith has proven he can do just that in the NFL.
MALCOLM BUTLER'S VALUE: Where's the love for this young CB?
If you were a team on the cusp of returning to playoff contention, would you rather trade for a Pro Bowl corner entering the prime of his career or use a first-round pick to select one of the premier cover corners in the 2017 NFL Draft?
That's the question weighing on the minds of several teams (particularly the New Orleans Saints) when evaluating the pros and cons of acquiring Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler against the prospect of taking one of the top corners in a draft loaded with talent at the position.
In most instances, it is a no-brainer to take the proven commodity over the uncertain proposition.
Butler made the Pro Bowl in 2015 and earned second-team All-Pro honors last season. With 32 passes defensed and six interceptions over the past two years, he is a feisty competitor with outstanding ball skills and a disciplined game.
With all that in mind, many folks were surprised that no team offered up a first-round pick to secure the services of such an accomplished corner who's still just 27 years old. You see, Butler entered this offseason as a restricted free agent. Consequently, the Patriots placed a first-round tender on the corner. Thus, other NFL teams had the chance to sign Butler to an offer sheet -- and had New England chose not to match, the signing team would have owed the Pats a first-round pick. No offer sheet ever materialized, though, and Butler signed the one-year contract tender on Tuesday.
Now that he's signed, the Patriots can trade Butler in a straight-up deal. But would such a trade involve a first-round pick? Doesn't look like it.
"I appreciate what Butler's done in this league, but there are better players available in this draft," the AFC personnel executive from the first section of this notebook told me. "He's a good player, but I'm not bypassing a first-round corner in this draft for him."
What? Why isn't there more love on the street for an established NFL corner in his prime?
It's simple. The fourth-year pro is still viewed as the former undrafted free-agent signee out of West Alabama who failed to impress scouts at his pro day. At that time, Butler measured in at under 5-foot-10, 187 pounds and ran a reported 4.62-second 40-yard dash in front of a handful of scouts. Butler also recorded a 33.5-inch vertical jump, a 9-10 broad jump, a 4.27-second short shuttle and a 7.20-second three-cone drill at the workout. In a league where size and speed are coveted at a premium -- particularly at cornerback -- it is hard to ignore his sub-standard measurements. Especially when comparing him to some of the premier cornerback prospects in the 2017 class ...
» Marshon Lattimore: 6-foot, 193 pounds; 4.36 40-yard dash; 38.5-inch vertical jump; 11-foot broad jump.
» Gareon Conley: 6-foot, 195 pounds; 4.44 40-yard dash; 37-inch vertical jump; 10-8 broad jump; 4.18 short shuttle; 6.68 three-cone drill.
» Tre'Davious White: 5-foot-11, 192 pounds; 4.47 40-yard dash; 32-inch vertical jump; 9-11 broad jump; 4.32 short shuttle; 6.90 three-cone drill.
» Adoree' Jackson: 5-foot-10, 186 pounds; 4.42 40-yard dash; 36-inch vertical jump; 10-2 broad jump.
» Kevin King: 6-foot-3, 200 pounds; 4.43 40-yard dash; 39.5-inch vertical jump; 3.89 short shuttle; 6.56 three-cone drill.
» Marlon Humphrey: 6-foot, 197 pounds; 4.41 40-yard dash; 10-5 broad jump; 6.75 three-cone drill.
» Chidobe Awuzie: 6-foot, 202 pounds; 4.43 40-yard dash; 34.5-inch vertical jump; 11-foot broad jump; 4.14 short shuttle; 6.81 three-cone drill.
Sure, it takes a lot more than speed and athleticism to play effectively on the island in the NFL, but Butler's pedestrian numbers certainly make it hard for some executives to embrace the idea of relinquishing a top pick to land the fourth-year pro, especially when it also comes with hefty future contract demands that could range in the $10-11 million per-year range. General managers and scouts would rather draft and groom a young player with better physical traits than expend a lot of draft currency and money on a limited athlete on the perimeter.
"This is a unique year because you can get any kind of corner that you want," the AFC personnel executive said. "This class has big corners with bump-and-run skills, smaller corners with quick feet and off cover skills. Plus, there are some nickel corners with polished games. It would take a lot to get me to part with a top pick when I can get a talented young corner at the top of the draft."
That's why there's been some hesitation from teams when it comes to making a serious play for Butler this offseason. Despite his solid play and production as a two-year starter, he doesn't strike NFL officials as an elite athlete -- and that makes it hard to surrender a top pick. Sure, we can cite Butler's competitiveness, instincts and technical skills as solid characteristics, but "shutdown" cornerbacks are expected to move around like elite athletes and handle one-on-one matchups with little assistance.
While Butler has played at a high level over the past two seasons, there are some skeptics who wonder if he is a system player benefitting from the Patriots' scheme. New England routinely double-teams the opponent's top target with a safety floating over the top or a linebacker cutting underneath. These tactics allow a cornerback to hide in some marquee matchups against elite pass catchers. With Butler typically guarding smaller receivers, he isn't a true CB1 in every sense of the word.
To be fair, Butler has thrived in many games as a defensive "matchup" weapon on the perimeter. He more than held his own in battles with the likes of Antonio Brown and suffocated plenty of receivers throughout the 2016 campaign. With Butler also having experience playing on both sides (left and right cornerback) and in the slot, it's understandable that he wants to be paid like one of the top cover corners in the game. However, I don't know if I would pull the trigger at this point if I worked for a team outside of New England.
For all the big plays and solid production Butler has delivered, he is ultimately a junkyard dog -- and his grit exceeds his talent/athleticism. This might be why the Patriots elected to bring over Stephon Gilmore to serve as the CB1 on a defense that just won the Super Bowl. Gilmore's superior physical dimensions (6-foot-1, 190 pounds) and athleticism (4.40 40-yard dash, 36-inch vertical jump, 10-1 broad jump, 3.94 short shuttle and 6.61 three-cone drill at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine) make him a more attractive option on the perimeter. Not to mention, he is a former first-round pick (10th overall in 2012 draft) and current Pro Bowler with a game that's better suited towards being a CB1.
Given how the Pats have tipped their hand regarding their valuation of Butler, I would hold off on sending a high pick to New England for a blue-collar corner who's not necessarily an elite talent.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.