Mitch Trubisky in prime position; Odell Beckham Jr.'s challenge


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:

-- Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Jalen Ramsey/A.J. Bouye: A spectacularly intriguing showdown

-- The Raiders player facing the most pressure after the stunning Khalil Mack trade.

-- One crucial factor that'll make or break the Jaguars' promising season.

But first, a look at the key to one of the NFL's buzziest teams entering the 2018 campaign ...

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I'm not mad at Bears general manager Ryan Pace for stealing a page out of the Eagles' and Rams' playbook when it comes to building a championship-caliber squad around a young quarterback. In fact, Chicago's top decision maker might be following the blueprint that helped the Seahawks become perennial contenders through much of this decade.

While I'm sure that statement will be met with some laughs and snickers from the naysayers pointing to Mitchell Trubisky's uneven production in Year 1, I'm here to tell you the Bears have done everything in their power to help the 24-year-old play like a championship-caliber quarterback despite his inexperience.

Chicago has checked off every box when it comes to elevating a young signal-caller:

-- Adding a head coach with an offensive background deeply rooted in quarterback development (Matt Nagy).

-- Surrounding the QB with a star-studded WR corps featuring a legitimate No. 1 receiver (Allen Robinson) and a trio of playmaking specialists (rookie Anthony Miller, Taylor Gabriel and tight end Trey Burton).

-- Fielding a versatile running game with a nasty 1-2 punch (Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen).

-- Creating a top-tier defense sparked by the arrival of a former Defensive Player of the Year who's squarely in his prime (Khalil Mack).

Now, we have to see if Trubisky has the game to throw it all over the yard as a pass-first point guard directing a "share the ball" offense. Analyzing his college tape prior to the 2017 NFL Draft, I thought the North Carolina product could evolve into an Alex Smith-like playmaker in time. Trubisky's combination of athleticism and arm talent is certainly A-level, particularly when he is placed in a fast-paced offense that features some collegiate concepts like RPOs, bubble screens and rhythm throws.

In Chapel Hill, Trubisky thrived in a version of the spread offense that featured a number of "catch, rock and fire" throws from the pocket. He showed promise as a rookie executing similar concepts with the Bears. From dropping the ball off to Howard and Cohen on screens and swings to firing the ball out to his receivers on crossers via various movement passes (bootlegs/rollouts), No. 10 has a solid foundation to build upon heading into Year 2.

That said, the Bears should resist the urge to validate Trubisky as a franchise quarterback and focus their efforts on making him a competent game manager for the time being. This is what the Seahawks did with Russell Wilson during their boom years, and it is similar to the approach used by the Chiefs to initially elevate Alex Smith. Remember, Smith was still evolving as a starter when Andy Reid acquired him from San Francisco, and he continued to teach him how to play winning football when the defense and special teams were the strength of the squad.

In Chicago, Trubisky has the luxury of playing with a top-10 defense bolstered by the blockbuster acquisition of Mack. The unit should be more effective with No. 52 wreaking havoc off the edges as a devastating run stopper/pass rusher. With the defense surrendering a respectable 20.0 points per game in 2017 (the ninth-best mark in the NFL), Trubisky shouldn't need to score in bunches in order to win consistently in the Windy City.

Sound familiar? Yes, again, this feels like the offensive plan employed by the 'Hawks with a young Wilson playing as a QB1. Seattle leaned heavily on the running game and defense to take heat of the young passer. The Seahawks were one of the few teams to run on 50-plus percent of their offensive snaps, and the ground-based approach led to a large number of Ws.

The Bears certainly have the personnel to grind it out. The team's offensive line excels at blowing defenders off the ball, and each young runner (Howard and Cohen are both 23) is slick enough to slide through cracks at the point of attack. Howard, in particular, has been effective as a bell-cow runner, with 2,435 rushing yards in two NFL seasons. Cohen, meanwhile, displayed enticing pass-catching prowess in his rookie season.

This brings us back to Trubisky and how he needs to play for the Bears to win. Based on Trubisky's 2017 numbers, Chicago's at its best when keeping No. 10's pitch count under 20 pass attempts. In the team's four wins with Trubisky as a starter, he averaged 19.5 pass attempts. He completed 65.4 percent of his passes in those games, with the following sparkling figures: 8.8 yards per attempt, 2:0 TD-to-INT ratio and 101.7 passer rating. In the team's eight losses with Trubisky as the starter, the young QB averaged 31.5 pass attempts with the following marks: 57.5 percent completion rate, 6.0 yards per attempt, 5:7 TD-to-INT ratio, 70.0 passer rating.

Long story short: The Bears should lean on the run until the young quarterback proves to the football world that he is ready for a bigger role on offense.

If the Bears stick to the script and allow the rest of the team to elevate their young quarterback, they could emerge as a true title contender while Trubisky is playing on a team-friendly deal that allows the front office to properly build around his talents.

NEXT GEN STATS: Why OBJ vs. Jacksonville is must-see TV

If you're looking for an intriguing matchup to watch this weekend, pay close attention to the five-star battle between Odell Beckham Jr. and the Jacksonville Jaguars' secondary. The New York Giants' star is one of the most explosive and exciting players in the NFL today, but he's opening up Year 5 with a must-see showdown against a pair of lockdown cornerbacks possessing an array of skills that challenge even the game's very best wide receivers.

In 2017, Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye combined to reduce opposing quarterbacks to the following numbers: 49.5 percent completion rate, 5.5 yards per attempt, 4:16 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 40.8 passer rating. That's pure domination.

As aggressive bump-and-run corners with quick feet and fast hands, Ramsey and Bouye make receivers work for each and every yard. The combination of physicality and skill overwhelms many pass catchers, while also forcing quarterbacks to make a number of tight-window throws. According to Next Gen Stats, on these tight-window throws, the Jaguars held opposing passers to the lowest passer rating allowed (7.2) last season, with a 0:9 TD-to-INT ratio. Considering the NFL's average passer rating last season on tight-window throws was 49.6, there's no denying the challenge the Jaguars' dynamic duo presents, especially in bump-and-run coverage.

And it's not like the Jaguars' corners were ineffective in off coverage, either. Among the 53 qualified cornerbacks (min. 30 targets), Bouye and Ramsey ranked in the top seven across three major efficiency categories when aligning at least 5 yards off from a wide receiver at the snap:

Bouye: 24.5 passer rating, 3.5 yards per target and a 44.2 percent completion rate.
Ramsey: 40.3 passer rating, 5.1 yards per target, 45.8 percent completion rate.

In fact, Bouye topped the board in all three of those categories.

With that in mind, Beckham faces his greatest challenge to date when he squares off against the Jaguars on Sunday. He will play against an A-level cover cornerback on each side of the field, and Pat Shurmur won't be able to hide him from the defense with clever scheming or positional alignments. Thus, this will be a skill-on-skill matchup all day long.

Beckham has been one of the most prolific pass catchers in the NFL since entering the league in 2014, with top-five rankings in receptions per game (6.7, third overall), yards per game (94.1, third), touchdown receptions (38, third) and 100-yard games (19, third) during that span. It's pretty amazing that Beckham ranks so high in those last two figures, considering he missed the final 12 games of last season with a broken ankle.

After studying the tape leading into this marquee matchup, I think Beckham could have more success against the Jags if they give him free access on the perimeter by playing off coverage. Eli Manning has posted a 98.8 passer rating when throwing to Beckham against off coverage since the beginning of 2016, with 65 receptions on 103 targets for OBJ. As an electric playmaker with speed to burn and a polished game, he consistently creates space from defenders when he doesn't face harassment at the line of scrimmage. Beckham explodes past corners on short and intermediate routes, particularly on slants, crossing routes and double moves (slant-and-go) outside the numbers.

In addition, Beckham is always a threat to take the top off the defense on vertical routes with his 4.43 speed and sudden acceleration overwhelming DBs. Although Ramsey is a world-class athlete with Olympian-like explosiveness as a former ACC long-jump champion, he doesn't want to make this contest a track meet with OBJ on the perimeter. Ramsey needs to put his hands on Beckham at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the timing of the route and force the receiver to run off his line.

Bouye will need to rely on his savvy, instincts and awareness to keep Beckham in check. As an excellent route anticipator, he must beat Beckham to the spot and discourage Manning from throwing the ball in his direction with a few pass breakups or an early interception. By the way, Manning tied for No. 1 in tight-window interceptions last season with seven, which makes the Jaguars' sticky coverage a major concern for the Giants.

Forced to pick a winner in this battle, I'll lean toward the Jags cornerbacks, but it will be well-fought by all parties involved. This is just such a unique CB duo capable of playing nose-to-nose or in space against premier pass catchers. They will challenge Beckham at every turn and make it difficult for Manning to find him on catch-and-throw concepts. Although I don't expect the Jaguars to use travel tactics against No. 13, it wouldn't surprise me to see Ramsey fully take the assignment if Beckham gets loose early in the game.

Final prediction: Beckham finishes with four catches for 65 yards and zero touchdowns on eight targets.

TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL

1) Pressure mounts on Oakland's Carr. If Derek Carr is really a $25 million quarterback, we will see him lead the Oakland Raiders into the playoffs without another A-level playmaker on his team.

Fair or not, that's the expectation when the QB1 tops the $20 million mark in annual yearly compensation. Carr must elevate the players around him with his play or he's not carrying his weight as a franchise quarterback. Now, I'm sure that statement will be met with some quizzical looks, but I don't think he's played to that standard since his pay day of a little over a year ago.

In Carr's case, you could argue the three-time Pro Bowler is a first-tier player based on his combination of athleticism and arm talent. He can make every throw in the book from inside the pocket, but he's just as effective tossing darts on the move. Carr's improvisational skills and gunslinger's mentality have helped him complete 61.3 percent of his passes with a 103:44 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 87.5 passer rating in 62 career starts.

Although those career numbers are certainly solid, it was Carr's spectacular play during the 2016 campaign that cemented his status as the Raiders' franchise quarterback. In 15 regular-season starts, Carr put up MVP-like numbers (63.8 percent completion rate, 28:6 TD-to-INT ratio, 96.7 passer rating) on the way to leading the team to a playoff berth. No. 4's run was so impressive, the Raiders signed him to a five-year, $125 million extension before the next season.

At $25 million annually, the contract not only put Carr in the first-tier compensation range but it suggested to the football world that he was a "truck" in quarterback parlance. By definition, a "truck" is a QB capable of carrying an offense on the strength of his play with or without an A-level supporting cast. These quarterbacks are viewed as the VIPs of the world and teams are paying them top dollar to mask any flaws or deficiencies on the squad.

While the quarterback money has skyrocketed over the past 12 months, the $25 million mark was originally reserved for the "elites" at the position because they're capable of shouldering a bigger burden -- and the big piece of the salary cap pie reflects that belief.

In Oakland, Carr's contract is one of the reasons why the Raiders elected to part ways with Khalil Mack despite his stellar play as a two-time All-Pro defender. Despite his impact as a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Mack was deemed expendable by Jon Gruden and his staff, partially due to Carr's contract and the belief that No. 4 could mask the defense's deficiencies by outscoring opponents.

"I don't know how many teams have done that," Gruden said, when asked about the prospect of carrying two high-priced players shortly after the Mack trade. "Aaron Donald got signed. [The Rams] don't have a quarterback that has been re-done yet. I think the Bears made this trade, [Mitch] Trubisky is still on his rookie deal. It's tough when you have two players that are the highest paid, or close to the highest paid, at their positions. So, the economic part of it certainly weighs in."

To that point, the Raiders' head coach is correct about the challenges of building a competitive team when you have a pair of players making top dollar at their respective positions. In fact, you could argue that it's hard to build a championship squad when the quarterback is playing on a big money deal that occupies a significant part of the team cap.

Just look around the league and you'll notice that, to this point, no Super Bowl-winning team has had a quarterback with a cap figure in excess of $20 million, per Over The Cap's data. Despite the hefty pay days suggesting many QBs are capable of carrying a team to the winner's circle on the strength of their arms, it is hard for a one-man show to succeed in this league. Unless that one man is truly special. He must be able to elevate the play of those around him or take over the game in LeBron James-like fashion.

That's why the pressure is on Carr to perform like a franchise quarterback and MVP candidate this season. In my opinion, the team couldn't afford to keep arguably the best defender in the league due to the quarterback's salary. Moreover, the lack of funds forced the team to shop at the clearance rack for perimeter playmakers (SEE: Jordy Nelson, Doug Martin and the failed Martavis Bryant experiment) to support No. 4.

Don't feel sorry for Carr, though. He's being paid the big bucks to make stars out of lesser-known players. That's what Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers have done for years, and Carr should be expected to do the same as an "elite" quarterback earning VIP money.

"I can't say enough about him. He's special, that's all I'll say," Gruden told reporters at the outset of training camp. "I've worked with a lot of really great quarterbacks in the past, but this guy is as into football as any guy I've met. He is talented and smart.

"If coach doesn't screw him up, we have a chance to have a heck of a quarterback."

We will soon find out if the Raiders' QB1 is really a franchise quarterback, with Gruden putting the hopes and dreams of the franchise on Carr's shoulders by dismissing the team's best player.

2) Mistake-free Blake could lead Jags to new heights. When Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone recently told reporters he wanted to see "zero turnovers" from Blake Bortles, it might have appeared to be another dismissal of his QB1's game. But astute observers should view the comments as the coach attempting to help his franchise quarterback become a championship-caliber winner in the near future.

"Zero turnovers," Marrone said on Monday, when asked what he wants to see most from Bortles this season, per The Florida Times-Union. "I mean really, and I say that with anyone on our team that touches the football. That's the one thing that is the biggest cause of winning and losing games. I think that we talk about ball security and that's not just for a quarterback, but for our receivers, our tight ends, running backs, all the time. When you turn the ball over, it's hard to win football games."

I know this is the same coach who suggested a year ago that an ideal game for the Jaguars would feature "zero" pass attempts, but I believe these comments are really an honest assessment of Bortles' game and how he must play for the Jaguars to win a title this season.

Don't believe me? Just look at how the Jaguars' winning percentage correlates with Bortles' ball security:

-- Zero turnovers: 11-6 (.647)
-- 1-2 turnovers: 9-25 (.265)
-- 3 or more turnovers: 1-9 (.100)

These statistics fall in line with the NFL averages when it comes to turnovers and their impact on the outcome of games. In 2017, teams won 64.8 percent of their games when they finished plus-one in the turnover battle. Those statistics rise to 87.9 and 95.7, respectively, when teams own a differential of plus-two or plus-three or better.

With that in mind, it's sensible for the Jaguars to harp on ball security given that their QB1 leads the NFL in giveaways (79) since 2014. Bortles' carelessness with the football and inconsistent play are the only reasons why the Jaguars aren't considered the prohibitive favorites to win the AFC.

This is a team that finished with the league's top-ranked rushing game and No. 2 defense in 2017. The Jaguars feature five-star playmakers all over the field. They simply need the quarterback to avoid screwing it up with silly turnovers in the pocket.

"Kind of a cliche saying we always talk about is, 'End every position in a kick' -- whether it's punt, field goal or extra point," Bortles told reporters this week, also mentioning that he is more concerned about having a low number of interceptions than a big touchdown total. "As long as you're controlling and eliminating those interceptions as much as possible, you'll be in good position."

I'm sure those comments won't make fantasy footballers happy, but it should be music to Jaguars fans' ears when they ponder the team's championship hopes. If No. 5 is able to take care of the ball, the Jaguars will win the AFC South, and could make their way to Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.



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