Saints RBs equal team's MVP; domino effect of Derek Carr's deal


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:

» How might Carr's deal affect Dak Prescott?

» Why do the Browns want their defenders to play two positions?

But first, a look at how the Saints' revamped backfield could be the team's MVP ...

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If you're a fantasy football fan who is counting on Drew Brees to register another 5,000-yard season, you might want to reconsider your draft strategies based on how the New Orleans Saints are rebuilding their offense. After relying heavily on the passing game to key their offense the past few seasons, the Saints look like their dusting off their Super Bowl blueprint to bring them back into playoff contention in 2017.

While I'm not trying to rain on your fantasy parade when I suggest that the Saints are going to be more run-oriented this season, I do see a lot of similarities to the 2009 squad that took home the Lombardi in Super Bowl XLIV. I know that Brees was the driving force on the NFL's top-rated offense that season, but that unit also featured a running game that ranked sixth in rushing yards.

Sparked by a three-headed monster at running back, with Mike Bell, Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush playing in specific roles, the Saints averaged 131.6 rushing yards and totaled 21 rushing scores. Although the group didn't feature a 1,000-yard rusher, the collective effort was good enough to force defensive coordinators to respect the Saints' ground game. Whether it's encouraging the defensive play-caller to use more "plus one" fronts (an eight-man box against two-back sets; seven-man box against one-back sets) or to use more blitzes to jam the gaps at the point of attack, the Saints' rugged running game allowed head coach Sean Payton to control the tempo of the game and create big-play passing opportunities off play action.

Considering the impact ball control (time of possession) and "explosives" (big plays) have on the outcome of games, the Saints' return to a ground-oriented strategy could help the team rediscover their winning ways.

To accomplish that, they will lean on their new Big Three to anchor the running game. Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson and Alvin Kamara will split backfield duties to balance out the production on the ground. Despite the attention that accompanied Peterson's signing, Ingram will continue to serve as the team's No. 1 back in 2017. The one-time Pro Bowl selectee is coming off his first 1,000-yard season as a hard-nosed runner between the tackles. He averaged a career-best 5.1 yards per carry and scored six rushing touchdowns.

As a receiver, Ingram has totaled 96 receptions over the past two seasons and shown outstanding hands on the perimeter. He is a natural pass catcher with impeccable timing in the screen game, which makes him a dangerous asset as a check-down option in the backfield. When I look at the strengths of Ingram's game compared with the other running backs in the stable, he is unquestionably best suited to be the Saints' RB1.

"What he can do running between the tackles, what he can do catching the football out of the backfield, and also just in our third down stuff -- picking up protections, getting out, running after the catch, getting first downs in critical situations in the passing game as well as the run game -- I just do not see there being a better all-purpose guy in the league right now," Brees told reporters during Saints minicamp.

That assessment is not only spot on but it speaks volumes about how RB1s are expected to fill their roles in the rotation.

"When you're building out your backfield, you would ideally like to have a No. 1 back who can generate production as a runner and receiver," a former vice president of player personnel said. "You would like your No. 2 back to fill a specific role as a power runner or short yardage player and you would like to have a 'change of pace' guy or a receiver-type to complete the rotation. When you have a collection of backs that fill each of those roles, you have a chance to be really good."

In Peterson, the Saints get one of the greatest running backs in NFL history to fill a role as an RB2. Although the three-time rushing champ still views himself as a franchise runner, he is at the point in his career where a smaller workload should allow him to remain a factor down the stretch. Last season, Peterson rushed for just 72 yards on 37 carries (1.9 average), missing most of the season due to a torn meniscus. Considering his heavy workload over the course of a 10-year career, it's possible the disappointing season signals the beginning of the end for a runner who has seven 1,000-yard seasons, including a 1,485-yard campaign just two years ago.

"He plays hard, but his body is beat up," an AFC pro director said. "He's a role player at this stage of his career, but I do believe he has enough left in the tank to give his team a spark down the stretch."

To that point, I believe the Saints are planning to keep the veteran runner on a pitch count during the early part of the season to ensure he is fresh for a playoff run. Although Payton has been tight-lipped on his plans for Peterson, he has said that the perennial Pro Bowler will have a "clear and defined" role during the season and will "complement" Ingram in the rotation. While we can assume that Peterson might snag some short yardage and goal-line carries based on his power, we will have to wait until the fall to see how Payton really plans to use his new toy.

Speaking of toys, I believe the wild card in the rotation is Kamara. The Saints' third-round pick is a dynamic playmaker capable of delivering big plays as a runner or receiver on the perimeter. He has a game that will remind Saints fans of Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles, but I think Kamara also has a hint of Pierre Thomas in his game in that he can also carry the rock with purpose. Given Kamara's effectiveness as a change of pace runner at Tennessee (989 scrimmage yards and 10 touchdowns on 141 touches), it is easy to envision him carving out a similar role in New Orleans.

For the Saints to reclaim their hold on the NFC South, they will need their offense to be their best defense in key moments. With a return to the ground-oriented approach that led to the franchise's only Super Bowl title, the Saints' "hydra effect" in the backfield could surpass Brees as the team's MVP.

DEREK CARR'S EXTENSION: How it could influence future QB contracts

Quarterbacks around the NFL are certainly rejoicing after the Oakland Raiders signed Derek Carr to a five-year, $125 million extension that makes him the highest-paid player in the league based on annual averages. The deal pays him roughly $25 million per year with $40 million fully guaranteed at signing and features $70.2 million in injury guarantees.

While some will point out that Carr's deal doesn't include as much guaranteed money as Andrew Luck's blockbuster contract that re-established the quarterback market ($47 million fully guaranteed at signing and over $87 million in injury guarantees), it does pay him $400,000 more per year and sets the bar for elite quarterback compensation at the $25 million mark.

At a time when the football world is closely monitoring the quarterback market to determine the potential deals that could exist for the next wave of QB1s set to get paid, Carr's deal is the first in a series of dominoes that could push quarterback compensation into the $30 million range by the beginning of the 2018 season.

As a former second-round pick heading into the final year of his four-year, $5.4 million rookie contract, Carr was eligible to negotiate a lucrative contract extension following his third season of play. Much like Russell Wilson was able to do in 2015, when he received a four-year, $87.6 million contract with a $31 million signing bonus and $60 million in guarantees after leading the Seattle Seahawks to a pair of Super Bowl appearances as a third-round selection.

Although Wilson's deal didn't necessarily reset the overall market for quarterbacks, it set the bar for premier quarterbacks who emerge from lower rounds and are eligible to hit the market well before their first-round peers.

Remember, the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement stipulates that all rookie contracts are for four years, but first-round contracts include fifth-year options at varying compensation levels. The fifth-year salary for the top-10 draft picks is the transition tender (average of the 10 highest salaries) for a player's position in the fourth year of his contract. For players selected outside of the top 10 (picks 11-32), the fifth-year salary is the average of the third through 25th highest salaries at a player's position.

Thus, Carr's new contract plays a part in setting the bar for the next generation of quarterbacks who are poised to land big deals over the next few seasons. While it won't have a substantial impact on the impending deals of Kirk Cousins and Matthew Stafford due to their unique circumstances (Cousins is playing on his second-straight franchise tag, which pays him roughly $24 million in 2017; Stafford is in the last year of a three-year, $53 million contract that will pay him $16.5 million in 2017), it does establish a $25 million floor for annual compensation for borderline elite quarterbacks. In addition, it makes it more likely that young quarterbacks like Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota will get close to the $30 million mark after teams factor in their estimated fifth-year options down the road.

"The bar has been raised for the up and coming quarterbacks with 'elite' potential," said an AFC pro personnel director.

Think about it this way: The 2018 transition tag for Cousins is expected to be $28.8 million, with the exclusive franchise tag coming in around $35 million. Thus, the salary expectations for borderline elite quarterbacks will come in over the $25 million mark, which will push the salaries up for QBs after him, particularly if the quarterback is a high-level winner with the numbers to support his value to the offense.

That's why I believe Carr's contract could have a huge impact on Dak Prescott's contract in a couple of years. The 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year led the Dallas Cowboys to a 13-3 record and a division crown while posting a 100-plus passer rating in 11 games. Not to mention, Prescott finished the season with a 67.8 percent completion rate and a 23:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Considering his modest salary (Prescott signed a four-year, $2.72 million contract) against his outstanding production, he could follow Carr's blueprint to break the bank in a few years.

As far as Carr, the big contract will certainly ramp up expectations for the Raiders' QB1. He will be judged on his ability to win "big" games and whether he is able to lead the Raiders on deep postseason runs. Remember, this is a team that looked like a legitimate Super Bowl contender prior to Carr's season-ending broken leg against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 16. With franchise quarterbacks judged on rings and wins, Carr's contract and performance will continue to set the standard for the next generation of quarterbacks.

Not the same old Browns defense?

"Everybody on our defense, and I want you to watch this, has to play two positions." -- Gregg Williams, Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator


I don't know if Gregg Williams is a basketball fan, but his new desired defenive strategy reminds me of the NBA's trend toward "position-less basketball."

Fueled by the success of the Golden State Warriors, basketball coaches and executives are increasingly trotting out lineups that feature five "wings," with the length and athleticism to guard anyone on the court, while also possessing "triple threat" offensive skills (dribbling, passing and shooting) to create scoring opportunities on the other end.

This moves away from more traditional basketball tactics has eliminated the need to put players into categories based on the job descriptions of an old-school model. Instead of pegging prospects as potential point guards, shooting guards, small forwards, power forwards and centers, teams are looking to find five 6-foot-6 to 6-9 "two-way" players with well-rounded games on both ends of the floor.

"The game today is different than it was five years ago, 10 years ago, 15 years ago," Miami Head team president Pat Riley said years ago when describing his club. " ... It's sort of a position-less game. We don't talk about point guards anymore, two guards or shooting guards or power forwards."

In football, the evolution of the passing game has changed the way offenses attack, which has forced defensive coordinators to adjust their philosophies. Instead of trotting out traditional lineups with "base" personnel (four defensive linemen, three linebackers, and four defensive backs or three defensive linemen, four linebackers and four defensive backs), teams are using more sub-package defenses with better athletes on the field to counter the proliferation of the spread offenses around the league.

"We'll get as many good players in packages as needed," Williams said at a press conference following the conclusion of minicamp. "If it means only playing one linebacker, I will play one linebacker. I think wherever I have been we have played with a lot of DBs before, because the league has become a one-back, throwing league and wherever I have been, people don't want to get lined up in two-back offenses and try to run it against us because of how we will load it up on you and outnumber you that way."

Williams is obviously pointing out how NFL teams have adjusted their tactics to take advantage of the league's rules that have increased the emphasis on the passing game. This is something that New England Patriots' head coach Bill Belichick has also discussed this offseason.

"I think that you are definitely seeing a strong trend in the league towards corners that play safety or corner-type athletes that play safety, bigger safeties that play linebacker. Both of those are trends," Belichick said after the 2017 NFL Draft.

"We've always put a lot of premium on the passing game even going back to when we had Eugene Wilson, who played corner at Illinois and started for us at corner for a couple weeks and then we moved him to free safety, but that was an advantage when teams went to the multiple receivers. Then we already had that third corner on the field and we could go nickel or we could leave our regular defense out there, or leave our corner on the third receiver, what we call penny defense. That was pretty successful for us."

Interestingly, Williams mentioned his relationship with Belichick in the press conference and how they collectively conceived the concept of "cross training" defenders years ago. In theory, defenders would learn a secondary position in addition to their primary position. For instance, cornerbacks would moonlight as safeties, defensive ends would occasionally play defensive tackle, and so on and so on.

Surveying the NFL, we've seen more teams use hybrid players on the second level to get a better handle on offenses. Safeties are routinely dropped into the box to play linebacker as a part of subpackages, and we've seen cornerbacks slide inside to nickel or dime positions to match up with tight ends or wide receivers in the slot. Now, this certainly isn't a new phenomenon on obvious passing downs, but we are seeing more teams operate in these exotic packages on game day.

Last season, we saw the Arizona Cardinals use Deone Bucannon, Tony Jefferson and Tyrann Mathieu played a variety of roles on a defense that employs multiple schemes. With each defender capable of holding up in coverage or creating chaos as a rusher, the Cardinals' versatility and variety on defense created problems for opposing offenses.

This brings me back to Williams and how he has traditionally used a diverse scheme and wide variety of personnel packages to throttle offenses. In Los Angeles, he turned Mark Barron into a pseudo-linebacker after the veteran struggled at safety with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He also took advantage of Lamarcus Joyner's dynamic skills as a nickel defender. The diminutive defender played safety, cornerback and nickel back during his time at Florida State, which made him a valuable commodity on a defense that morphs each week to match the opponent's approach.

With the Browns, Williams inherited a few playmakers with the potential to shine as versatile defenders. Jamie Collins, in particular, was a high school quarterback and college safety before finding his home as an NFL linebacker. He is one of the few linebackers in the league with the athleticism to line up in the box or out wide against tight ends or running backs without an issue. Jabrill Peppers and Calvin Pryor also fit the bill as potential hybrids on the second level. As a former linebacker/safety at Michigan, Peppers is the ideal two-position player to feature in subpackages. Despite pre-draft concerns about his ball skills, he is solid in coverage and flashes disruptive potential as a rusher off the edge on blitzes.

Although Pryor is not necessarily a prototypical hybrid player, he is a hard-hitting run defender with a nasty streak. He has the size, strength and temperament to make noise when aligned in the box. With Williams' ability to tweak personnel packages, Pryor could find a role on the defense as a versatile box area defender.

This brings me back to the basketball analogy and another reason why the Browns could be stealing a page of from their NBA brethren. In a player acquisition business where you're always looking to expand the talent pool available, it is easier to cast a wider net when coaches are willing to adapt their scheme to match their personnel instead of looking for specific players to fit their scheme. Williams stated at his introductory press conference that he wouldn't ""box" his players into any particular scheme or the way that they play.

With that in mind, the Browns' commitment to putting the best 11 athletes on the field regardless of their so-called position is eerily similar to the position-less basketball that is currently the rage in the league. If Williams can craft a plan that allows each and every player to play to their strengths, the Browns' cross training plan could help them become the next hybrid defense to create chaos for their opponents.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.



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