Packers' offensive infusion; sleeper pick could transform Dallas


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:

» Morris Claiborne thinks he's one of the NFL's top corners -- is the Jets new CB1 crazy?

» How a fourth-round pick might signal a scary evolution in Dallas' offensive attack.

But first, a look at two free-agent additions who could transform the Packers ...

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Mike McCarthy is unquestionably one of the brightest offensive minds in football, but the Green Bay Packers' attack had grown a little stale in recent years. Despite relying on a creative wide receiver corps that featured "matchup" players at every position, the unit has missed the presence of a dominant tight end over the middle of the field. (Yes, Jared Cook came on in the second half of last season, but I'm talking about a consistent force.) Better yet, the offense missed the presence of multiple tight ends with the capacity to create mismatches all over the field.

During my playing days with the Packers in the mid-1990s, it was common to see the team trot a pair of dynamic tight ends as part of a "Tiger" package that featured Mark Chmura and Keith Jackson at the "Y" (traditional tight end) and "U" (flex or move tight end) positions, respectively. These two not only helped the Packers win Super Bowl XXXI with their complementary games, but they helped Brett Favre play at an MVP level by controlling the middle of the field.

With Aaron Rodgers performing at a high level -- but lacking big-bodied playmakers between the hashes -- the Packers deviated from their "draft and develop" philosophy to sign a pair of free-agent tight ends with a combination of size, skill and versatility. This will allow the two-time MVP QB to greatly expand his game from the pocket. Not to mention, the arrival of Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks will enable McCarthy to get back to basics on offense.

While we've grown accustomed to seeing the Packers operate from a variety of "10" (one running back and four receivers) and "11" (one back, one tight end and three receivers) personnel packages using a no-huddle tempo, the team's base offensive scheme is deeply rooted in two-back formations and heavy one-back sets. Ideally, the Packers would like to use an old-school version of the West Coast offense that places the burden on the defense to constantly match up with a diverse set of personnel groupings shuttled in and out on every play. The idea is to create and take advantage of matchup advantages on the perimeter through creative game planning and substitution patterns.

Last year, McCarthy attempted to get back to this card-game approach in the middle of the season, when he moved away from the frenetic tempo attack to a more deliberate plan that emphasized a constant change in personnel groupings. Although McCarthy would've preferred to feature multiple tight ends prominently in his offense, he simply lacked the personnel to get it done and it resulted in Green Bay finishing tied with Denver for the second-fewest snaps with multiple tight end (112). For comparison's sake, the Titans led the NFL with 409 snaps featuring multiple tight ends. Not that anyone should be surprised that the Packers ranked near the bottom of the league in this area -- they've finished in the bottom five in each of the past four years. In fact, the Packers haven't ranked among the top 12 teams in multiple-TE plays since 2009, when Jermichael Finley and Donald Lee served as the team's "U" and "Y" tight ends, respectively.

With that being said, I expect the Packers to not only rank in the top half of the league in multiple-TE snaps this fall, but I see this offense truly featuring the position, with Bennett and Kendricks joining Richard Rodgers to load up the group.

Bennett, entering his 10th NFL season, has eclipsed 50 catches in each of the past five seasons. Last year with the Pats, he hauled in 55 balls for 701 yards and a career-high seven touchdowns. Checking in at 6-foot-6 and 275 pounds, Bennett is a big-bodied pass catcher with the size to post up defenders in the middle of the field. In addition, he flashes the speed to get down the seam or boundary when aligned in a slot or out wide. Despite his success as a flex player in New England, Chicago and New York, Bennett will be returning to more of a "Y" role in Green Bay.

"I'm looking forward to playing more with the tight end on the line of scrimmage," McCarthy said at the Annual League Meeting in March. "That's definitely something that will be different this year than we've done in the past.

"We need to do a better job playing to the specifics and details of our offensive scheme."

When McCarthy refers to playing to the specifics of the scheme, he is signaling to a return to the pure version of the West Coast Offense that featured the tight end prominently over the middle of the field. With Bennett playing at the "Y", the Packers can lean on the versatile specimen to anchor a power-based running game or act as a big-play threat between the hashes.

Kendricks, a seventh-year pro, is likely slated to play as the flex tight end or the "U" in multiple-TE sets. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound pass catcher could align as a big receiver in the slot or on the outside to take advantage of linebackers in space. With Rodgers also capable of aligning as a "Y", "U" or "H", the Packers can throw a variety of multipl-TE looks at the defense to keep the opposing play caller from honing in on their keys.

Looking at the Packers' current roster and how they might evolve this fall, McCarthy could pose serious problems for opposing defenses by mixing up his receiver and tight end combinations with Ty Montgomery on the field as the running back. For instance, the Packers could use a "12" personnel package (one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers) with Montgomery (RB), Kendricks (TE), Bennett (TE), Jordy Nelson (WR) and Davante Adams/Randall Cobb (WR) on the field at the same time to dictate the terms to the defense. McCarthy would be able to spread the field in a traditional 2x2 or 3x1 formation with Montgomery in the backfield to take advantage of a "big" defensive package or condense the formation into a power-heavy double-tight end look to attack a "small" defensive unit with the run.

In addition, the Packers could go empty in any personnel grouping to exploit a lumbering linebacker or safety in space with an assortment of quick-rhythm throws designed to get the ball into the hands of a nimble playmaker on the move.

With the team also adding an accomplished power runner in the draft (BYU's Jamaal Williams), McCarthy has an exhaustive number of personnel combinations and formations to throw at the defense.

Considering how many teams have struggled in defending the Packers over the last few seasons without having to worry about multiple weapons at tight end, Green Bay's offseason additions at "Y" and "U" could take the attack to an even higher level in 2017.

MORRIS CLAIBORNE'S POTENTIAL: Can Jets CB1 live up to his own hype?

Morris Claiborne raised more than a few eyebrows last week with a bold declaration:

"I feel like I can be the No. 1 corner in this league if I'm healthy ... when I'm healthy," Claiborne told The New York Post this week. "When I'm out there playing and I'm healthy and I'm on my game, I don't feel like there is anybody better than me."

While we've grown accustomed to hearing cornerbacks proclaim their greatness, it was surprising to hear the Jets' new CB1 boast about his skills after a disappointing five-year tenure in Dallas that failed to live up to the expectations that accompanied his arrival as the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft.

Granted, injuries played a huge part in Claiborne's inability to play at a high level with the Cowboys. He missed 33 of 80 regular-season games in five seasons due to an assortment of injuries that robbed him of the fluid athleticism and explosive quickness that made many scouts tout him as a potential premier playmaker at the position when he entered the league.

Remember, Claiborne was not only a consensus top-10 prospect in the 2012 class, but he was viewed as a special talent at the position with the size, athleticism and ball skills to handle the responsibilities associated with being a No. 1 corner. The Cowboys certainly felt that way when they moved up eight spots in the draft (giving up a second-round pick in the process) to grab the athletic corner. While injuries routinely sidelined the LSU product, Claiborne did show glimpses of his lockdown potential in 2016, when he allowed a 64.1 passer rating in coverage, which ranked eighth in the league.

While that stat won't impress the skeptics who question Claiborne's ultimate potential, I had a conversation with a scout early in the 2016 season that makes me believe that the Jets' CB1 might not be that far off with his self-assessment.

"If he is healthy, he can play with anyone," an NFC pro personnel assistant told me. "He is a guy who needs practice reps to play well in games. Injuries kept him from practicing consistently and that showed up in games. When he has been healthy and available to practice, he plays at a high level.

"Reps really matter for him."

Studying the All-22 Coaches Film of Claiborne's game, I was pleasantly surprised with how well he has played over the past two seasons. The 5-11, 192-pound corner did a great job of staying in his assigned receiver's hip pocket, particularly when instructed to play press-man coverage on the outside. Despite his checkered injury history, Claiborne flashes enough quickness to shadow receivers at the line, while also showing enough burst and acceleration to stay connected to his assigned man on vertical routes. Most importantly, he made receivers work for every completion and earn every yard on the perimeter. Elite corners are capable of making life tough on premier pass catchers -- Claiborne's sticky cover skills certainly make him an intriguing option as a CB1 when he is healthy.

For the Jets, Claiborne's skills as a press corner are an ideal match for the team's system. Todd Bowles and Kacy Rodgers want to challenge opponents with tight man coverage to force quarterbacks to throw into small windows while also preventing receivers from having free access to their routes. When executed properly, the scheme makes life miserable for the offense and disrupts the rhythm of the passing game. With Claiborne showing effective skills in press coverage as a collegian and pro, the marriage should work well in New York.

"I remember when he came out in the (2012) draft and we saw him as a press-man corner, and we were really high on him," Rodgers said, via ESPN, shortly after Claiborne's signing. "With more of a press scheme, we thought he'd fit well in our scheme with his press-man tools."

Claiborne doesn't rank as one of the premier cornerbacks in the league right now, but he certainly is the best corner on the Jets' roster. He should slide into the CB1 role immediately and his natural talent could make him a star in a scheme that plays to his strengths. If he stays healthy and is available for practices and games, Claiborne could make a strong case for being included in the conversation as a top-notch cover corner.

DALLAS' SECRET WEAPON? Fourth-round pick could change offense

The Dallas Cowboys' selection of Ryan Switzer with the 133rd overall pick barely registered a blip on the radar over draft weekend, but the 5-foot-8, 181-pound pass catcher could be the final piece to the team's championship puzzle.

Now, I know the thought of a No. 4 receiver playing a pivotal role on an offense that already features the NFL's best offensive line, the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year (Dak Prescott), the league's rushing leader (Ezekiel Elliott) and one of the premier pass catchers in the game (Dez Bryant) seems like crazy talk, but if reports coming out of Big D are correct, the Cowboys' fourth-round selection is well on his way to adding a dynamic dimension to offense that could make the unit unstoppable in 2017.

According to those who cover the team, Switzer has been nothing short of sensational during OTAs, exhibiting the same combination of quickness, route-running ability and ball skills that made him the all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards at North Carolina.

He has capably filled in for Dallas' spectacular slot receiver Cole Beasley with the first-team, and his success in workouts has already prompted the coaches to consider putting both diminutive playmakers on the field at the same time.

"[Switzer is] a classic slot receiver," Cowboys' offensive coordinator Scott Linehan told the Dallas Morning News following a recent practice." He has a similar game (to Cole Beasley), but he has his own things. We would really like those two guys to complement each other and run real similar route trees."

Naturally, whenever you think about a team maximizing the slot position to create an offense that drives defensive coordinators crazy, the New England Patriots come to mind. Bill Belichick has used the likes of Troy Brown, Deion Branch, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola to create mismatches. As catch-and-run specialists in the Patriots' "dink and dunk" offense, the slot receivers are asked to run a variety of routes within 12 yards of the line of scrimmage. These routes (pivot, jerk, option and short crossers) are designed to get the receivers the ball on the run and take advantage of their dynamic running skills in the open field. (It is not a coincidence that each of the Patriots' slot receivers have been experienced punt returners with exceptional stop-start quickness and running skills.) With linebackers and safeties unable to corral the jitterbugs in space, New England has been able to build an offensive juggernaut that relies on shifty playmakers gobbling up yards on low-risk throws.

In Dallas, the combination of Switzer and Beasley will give the Cowboys the opportunity to play more small ball with four wideouts on the field, including a pair of slot receivers with identical games.

"He's another weapon," Prescott said last month, via the Dallas Morning News. "He reminds me of Beasley and the things that he can do. Playing in the slot, he had a lot of production at North Carolina.

"I know he's going to add another dynamic to this offense."

While the thought of taking Jason Witten off the field will make some long-time Cowboys' fans cringe, a four-receiver offense could help the 15th-year veteran have a greater impact down the stretch, due to a reduction in snaps during the regular season. Not to mention, subbing Switzer in for Witten would give the Cowboys more speed and quickness over the middle of the field.

"I love Witten, but he doesn't scare defenses any more," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "If they went to more four-receiver stuff with Switzer and Beasley on the field, it would cause more problems for defenses from a matchup standpoint."

Conceivably, Dallas could roll out a package with Bryant and Terrance Williams on the outside and the diminutive duo (Switzer and Beasley) on the inside. This lineup would allow the Cowboys to work a variety of combination routes between the hashes to take advantage of their ultra-quick slot receivers, while also giving Bryant a chance to win on isolated routes outside the numbers. If the Cowboys elected to move Bryant to a slot position, with Switzer or Beasley playing on the outside, opponents could watch the beastly receiver have his way with nickel corners and safeties over the middle of the field. Look at how other big-bodied receivers like Larry Fitzgerald have terrorized opponents while working in the slot.

While Dallas' desire to create mismatches in the passing game is one of the reasons why Switzer is pegged to have a "significant" role on offense, I believe the Cowboys might have a bigger vision for their offense with the four-receiver lineup playing a more prominent role in the game plan. I have a sneaky suspicion that Linehan might be creating a modernized version of the run-and-shoot that allows Ezekiel Elliott to play the role of Barry Sanders behind a powerful offensive line in a spread offense that creates natural running lanes between the tackles.

Before you call me crazy, I want you to think about how every defensive coordinator slated to face the Cowboys will make a concerted effort to stop the reigning rushing king. Defensive play callers spent the offseason crafting a variety of "plus one" fronts (eight-man fronts against two-back formations; seven-man fronts against one-back sets) designed to plug holes at the line of scrimmage to prevent the Cowboys' RB1 from controlling the game as a grinder. If the Cowboys move away from their traditional lineups to feature more "10" personnel package (one running back and four receivers), defensive coordinators will suddenly encounter a different dilemma when coming up with a plan to defend the offense. I'm not alone in this line of thinking, either.

"If the Cowboys use more four-receiver sets, you have to decide whether you want to play 'big' or 'small' to match up with them," the former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "You also have to decide whether you want to load the box with an extra run defender to stop Zeke or keep another safety deep to keep Bryant in check. Plus, you also have to have a plan to slow down Beasley and Switzer if they are wearing out your nickel and dime defenders over the middle.

"This is same problem the Detroit Lions used to give defensive coordinators in the 1990s with Sanders, but their offensive line wasn't nearly as good. With the Cowboys' personnel up front, they are nearly impossible to defend when they spread you out."

Scary, huh?

But that's not the end of it. The move to more spread formations with "10" personnel on the field could also help Prescott settle in as a second-year starter. The 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year shined running an offense that wasn't necessarily built for him. Sure, he was effective and efficient directing an attack that was ideally suited for Tony Romo, but imagine how good he could be if the offense was specifically designed to fit his strengths as a player. Remember, Prescott played in a spread offense at Mississippi State that routinely opened up the formation to make it easier for the QB to read coverage at the line and find passing lanes down the field. The Cowboys used a lot of empty formations a season ago to create similar advantages, but they could certainly enhance their offense with four-receiver personnel packages that provide more formation flexibility for the young passer.

With Switzer in line to play a key role on a Cowboys offense that could spark a Super Bowl run, it looks like Jerry Jones might've stumbled upon a missing piece to the championship puzzle on Day 3 of the draft for the second year in a row.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.



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