NFL's 2019 bounce-back candidates; 'Madden' ratings debates

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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:

-- The two biggest snubs from the 99 Club in "Madden 20."

-- San Francisco's most valuable offensive player isn't who you think it is.

-- Why Houston's GM-free operation should frighten Texans fans.

But first, a look at some prime candidates for the 2019 Comeback Player of the Year award ...

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Don't be mad at Golden Tate for touting Matthew Stafford as the best quarterback he's ever played with. Sure, the proclamation puts No. 9 above the likes of Russell Wilson and Carson Wentz in Tate's world, but the love and respect each of those MVP-caliber quarterbacks command from their supporters doesn't make Tate's statement incorrect.

As the first pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, Stafford was viewed as a generational prospect with A+ arm talent and passing skills. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Georgia product played with a gunslinger's mentality and the kind of swagger that screamed franchise quarterback, making the choice at No. 1 easy for the Detroit Lions.

Where do things stand now, a decade into Stafford's NFL tenure? Although he only sports a 66-75 career record in Detroit, Stafford was lauded as a legit MVP candidate just two Novembers ago. Moreover, the 31-year-old has engineered 26 fourth-quarter comebacks and 33 game-winning drives, figures that rank first and second (behind only Drew Brees), respectively, in the NFL since 2009. That's the stuff of legends, particularly in an era of football where every discussion revolves around the quarterback position. While Stafford doesn't have the jewelry/hardware of the NFL's most celebrated signal-callers, he certainly has demonstrated the ability to win games without an all-star supporting cast. Before you @ me with a Calvin Johnson reference, I will kindly point out that Stafford hasn't enjoyed a consistent running game -- or played with a true star back -- at any point in his career. In fact, over Stafford's 10 seasons, he's been supported by a 100-yard rusher in a grand total of nine games. Think about that. Stafford has been expected to single-handedly carry the Lions' offense on the strength of his right arm throughout his entire career. Detroit has failed to provide him with a consistent workhorse runner to alleviate some of the pressure on him.

Meanwhile, Wilson spent his formative years in Seattle playing alongside Marshawn Lynch, and most would cite "Beast Mode" as the Seahawks' offensive MVP during his time with the team. Additionally, No. 3 also enjoyed the luxury of playing with one of the best defensive units in football. With Pete Carroll relying on the old-school formula of "RB1 + D = Ws," you can make the argument the 'Hawks actually reached their greatest heights with Wilson in a managerial role.

In Wentz's case, the young quarterback deserves credit for playing at an MVP level during the 2017 regular season, but he has to live with the distinction that, due to injury, his backup (Nick Foles) guided his team to a Super Bowl win while also nabbing game MVP honors. The narrative gained more steam when the Eagles' former QB2 seemingly outplayed Wentz during the 2018 campaign, with Foles logging another playoff win in the process.

With all of that in mind, Tate's statement isn't necessarily a hot take. Now, I know it's not necessarily the best time to make a strong case for Stafford, with the former Pro Bowler coming off his worst statistical season in quite some time. But I believe the Lions QB is poised to enjoy a bounce-back year, one that catapults him back into the discussion as one of the blue-chip players at the position and puts him squarely in the mix for Comeback Player of the Year honors. Stafford, of course, took home that piece of hardware in 2011. Could he follow in Chad Pennington's footsteps and become the second player ever to win the award twice? Wouldn't surprise me.

Here are a few other players poised to bounce back in 2019 and establish themselves as Comeback Player of the Year candidates:

Le'Veon Bell, RB, New York Jets: It's been a while since we've watched No. 26 dazzle as the ultimate offensive weapon. The self-proclaimed RB1/WR2 is a Hall of Fame-caliber playmaker, with a career per-game average of 129.0 scrimmage yards, putting him in the same class as gold-jacket wearers like Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders. Bell's unorthodox running style lulls defenders to sleep, while his precise route-running skills and superb pass-catching ability give NFL defensive coordinators sleepless nights. With the Jets looking for an offensive threat to take some of the pressure off their young franchise quarterback (Sam Darnold), Bell has ample opportunity to remind the football world of his greatness.

Earl Thomas, S, Baltimore Ravens: The six-time Pro Bowl safety was the centerpiece of the "Legion of Boom" in Seattle, but now he gets a chance to further boost his brand as the game's premier ballhawk in Baltimore. Thomas' range, instincts and awareness add another dimension to the Ravens' coverage in an ultra-aggressive defense. If Thomas can quickly master the nuances of Don Martindale's exotic-blitzing scheme, he'll feast on errant throws forced from a multi-faceted pass rush.

Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers: It could be a make-or-break year for Jimmy G, with the 49ers looking for franchise-quarterback play from their $137.5 million asset. The sixth-year pro could respond in splendid fashion with a strong performance in an upgraded offense under Kyle Shanahan's direction. Considering how the offensive guru elevated Nick Mullens a season ago, Garoppolo could play at an MVP level for San Francisco this season, with a number of new weapons at his disposal.

Carson Wentz, QB, Philadelphia Eagles: It typically takes a player a year-plus to fully regain form following a significant knee injury. That's why the Eagles should expect their QB1 to recapture his MVP form when he takes the field this season. Wentz has shown electric playmaking ability as an athletic passer with nifty feet and high-end arm talent. If he meshes well with his new weaponry in Philly (DeSean Jackson, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Jordan Howard), No. 11 could re-emerge as the prototype at the position.

Deion Jones, LB, Atlanta Falcons: The ultra-athletic linebacker was beginning to enter the discussion as one of the top defenders at his position before a foot injury limited him to just six games last season. Jones could quickly remind the football world of his dynamism when he returns to action in September. His sideline-to-sideline range and playmaking ability previously made him the centerpiece of a Falcons defense built to stymie the pass-centric offenses in today's NFL, which is why Atlanta just handed him a four-year, $57 million extension. With Keanu Neal also returning from injury, Atlanta's D could take the league by storm in 2019, which obviously wouldn't hurt Jones' case for some year-end hardware.

'MADDEN' RATINGS: Two players who deserve membership in the 99 Club

I'm always juiced when the new version of "Madden" hits the shelves. Part of my excitement stems from the anticipation of playing the game with updated features that improve the overall experience, but there is another part of me that loves to get the new ratings for top players.

With my scouting background, I'm fascinated to see which players fall into the "blue-chip" category that theoretically would put them in the elite grouping on personnel boards across the NFL. Most teams use a color-coded system to categorize players based on their talent, potential and production. The "blues" are considered the top 10 percent of the league, with their individual talents placing them within the top five players at their respective position. Within that grouping, the elite of the elites are put in a special category that sets them apart from their peers.

On the gamer front, the "Madden 99 Club" represents the best of the best in the league. In a game that rates players on a scale from 1 to 99, these are the guys who receive a perfect score. In "Madden 20," Aaron Donald, Bobby Wagner, Khalil Mack and DeAndre Hopkins are the exclusive members of the club. The release of Madden ratings annually spawns plenty of debate, but the arguments really ramp up when you're singling out the best players in the game.

How can a list of the game's best players in 2019 not include any quarterbacks? If that's really the most important position on the field, with QBs getting paid the most money based on that premise, why wasn't a single one admitted into the 99 Club this year? Do we overvalue the position in the real world, while the virtual world sees QBs as a piece of the puzzle? Granted, the reigning MVP, Patrick Mahomes, earned a 97 rating, which is nothing to scoff at. But his remarkable talent and spectacular production as a "5,000/50" guy (5,000 passing yards, 50 touchdowns) weren't enough to earn him a perfect score. Why? What is No. 15 missing that keeps him outside the velvet rope?

From a scouting perspective, you could certainly suggest Mahomes stepped into a perfect storm, with a creative head coach and an explosive supporting cast possessing the collective speed and big-play potential to elevate Mahomes' game. That's not a slight or dismissal of Mahomes' mesmerizing raw talent, but Alex Smith played at a Pro Bowl level in Kansas City with the same support system. So I can understand why the Madden folks didn't give Mahomes a perfect score after just a single season of work. Despite the eye-popping numbers and highlights, the 23-year-old inherited a really good team and made it better. If Mahomes had taken over a downtrodden squad and elevated it to title contention, an instantaneous promotion to the 99 Club would've been more likely.

One player who definitely does deserve a 99 rating right now? Ezekiel Elliott. The No. 4 overall pick in 2016 has been nothing short of spectacular since Day 1, leading the NFL in rushing in two of his three seasons (and pacing the league in yards-per-game average in all three). His nearly-flawless game deserves top honors. At 6-foot, 228 pounds, the Cowboys' RB1 is a rugged runner with a unique combination of strength, power, speed and balance. Elliott is a dynamic inside rusher, but he also flashes the quickness and burst to turn the corner on perimeter runs. He combines his athletic traits with a workhorse mentality that's reflected in his physicality and toughness with the ball in his hands. In the passing game, Elliott earns high marks for his pass-catching ability and blocking skills. He is the quintessential three-down back, with the toughness and tenacity to take on hard-charging linebackers while also displaying the soft hands to catch the ball in space. Bottom line: Zeke is the most complete player at his position.

And if I could nominate one more player for 99 Club membership in "Madden 20," I'd make a strong push for someone who wears No. 99, J.J. Watt. I know that the three-time Defensive Player of the Year has battled numerous injuries over the past few seasons, but his bounce-back campaign in 2018 put him back into consideration as the best defender in football. Watt amassed 16 quarterback sacks and finished with a career-best seven forced fumbles. Don't overlook that crazy production. After serious injuries mostly wiped out Watt's 2016 and '17 campaigns, he returned to play at a level of dominance approaching his prime, when he was universally viewed as the best defender in football.

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

1) Robbie Gould's worth every penny for San Francisco. The football world likes to make jokes about kickers and their value to a team, but the San Francisco 49ers should be applauded for making a serious commitment to Robbie Gould. The veteran kicker is the most valuable offensive player on the squad, and the 49ers needed to secure his services to bolster their playoff hopes this season.

I know some readers will jump into my Twitter mentions with comments about Jimmy Garoppolo and his importance as the team's QB1, but the 49ers' offense wasn't bad with Nick Mullens at the helm last season. That's not a dig at Jimmy G, but Kyle Shanahan is a legitimate quarterback whisperer, and the offense has already shown it can survive without Garoppolo. With an upgraded supporting cast, the Niners could certainly win games with Mullens filling in as a short-term QB1, especially with a solid defense and a dependable kicker in the fold.

OK, while we will have to wait and see how quickly the 49ers' defense comes together behind a front line loaded with first-rounders, there is no disputing Gould's stature as one of the very best kickers in the game today. The veteran has connected on 96 percent of his field-goal attempts over the past two seasons, and he's nailed 100 percent of his "clutch kicks" (10 for 10 on kicks in the fourth quarter with the game within three points) during that span. With Gould converting 87.7 percent of his career attempts, he is well worth the $10.5 million in guaranteed money that's part of his new four-year, $19 million deal.

The thought of paying a kicker big bucks is probably still mind-boggling to old-school executives, but a good kicker is a dangerous offensive weapon. Offensive-minded coaches should fully understand the value, based on how elite kickers expand the scoring zone. A kicker with the capacity to consistently nail field goals from 50-plus yards out puts his team within scoring range not too far across midfield. This enables offensive coordinators to alter the play-calling strategies in the "high red zone," with a guaranteed three points available whenever the offense crosses the 40-yard line.

As a scout with the Carolina Panthers during the 2003 season, I watched John Kasay help us make a Super Bowl run with his spot-on accuracy from any distance. This enabled us to rely on a conservative offensive game plan and a stingy defense to win games. Offensive coordinator Dan Henning could scale back the risky play calls when we crossed midfield, due to Kasay's reliability.

Gould offers Shanahan the same comfort, which alters the way that he can dial up plays for the 49ers. Whether it results in taking more shots from the high red zone or handing the ball off to a stable of running backs, Shanahan has the freedom to play the clock/score game, with Gould considered money whenever he trots onto the field.

"Over the years, Robbie has established himself as one of the best at his position in the NFL, which is precisely why we were so committed to working out a new contract with him," general manager John Lynch said, per the team website.

2) Why Houston's no-GM approach is highly concerning. I wasn't a political science major, but I've always compared NFL front offices to the United States government, with the different branches serving as a checks-and-balances system. Although the NFL setup typically comes down to two different departments headed by the head coach (coaching) and the general manager (scouting), the system provides owners with a decision-making foundation that balances immediate concerns with long-term planning.

Coaches are naturally more concerned about the here and now, with their job security directly tied to wins and losses at all times. Typically, coaches eschew long-term projects in favor of immediate producers on the field. While this strategy certainly makes sense in a win-now league, the risk of going all in on a single season could leave a team in salary-cap hell down the road. It could also leave a franchise without enough draft assets to tweak the roster while its core players are in their prime. General managers, on the other hand, are a little more fixated on the future. Many value draft picks like gold, with a long-term developmental plan near and dear to their hearts.

That's why I'm a little concerned by the news coming out of Houston that the Texans will not have a general manager for the 2019 season. The plan, according to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero, is to split the duties between head coach Bill O'Brien, executive vice president of team development Jack Easterby and others, until next offseason. The obvious presumption is that O'Brien will lead the charge in the most meaningful senses. Now, we've seen plenty of head coaches attempt to run entire organizations, but there aren't many success stories when it comes to the dictatorship model.

In my experience, few head coaches are truly equipped to juggle all of the responsibilities. Ultimately, things slip through the cracks. Coaches who were hired for their tactical acumen routinely become distracted by the day-to-day duties of managing the team and front office.

When I worked with Mike Holmgren in Seattle, he was the executive vice president of football operations, general manager and head coach. He was responsible for assembling the team (through roster acquisitions and on-field development) and he was in charge of putting together offensive game plans and calling plays. Not to mention, he had to sign off on various business projects and remodeling plans to the Seahawks' facility while trying to put the team in the best position to win each week. Think about the challenge of juggling so many responsibilities while also trying to script out your "first 15" (opening script of plays) for the game.

If a Super Bowl-winning head coach with a wealth of experience and a strong mentor (Bill Walsh) struggled with so many responsibilities -- Holmgren eventually dropped his GM duties -- why would I expect O'Brien to be able to manage these Texans? Houston's currently led by a young, developing franchise quarterback (Deshaun Watson) who needs attention, with an otherwise-aging roster that will require some major decisions sooner than later. What's next for Jadeveon Clowney? He's staying away from the team and has yet to sign the franchise tag, and now the two sides could be fighting over which position he's tagged at. This could lead to some hard feelings that spill into the locker room, with other players evaluating how the franchise handles one of its marquee players.

Maybe this is how the Texans were ultimately going to handle the Clowney situation from the start, but the messy ordeal doesn't help O'Brien, who heads into the 2019 campaign under a ton of pressure to produce for a franchise looking to make a legitimate title run. Without another set of eyes and a strong voice to challenge the coach on critical decisions, the plight of the Texans is all on O'Brien. Can a dictatorship result in a Lombardi Trophy in H-Town?

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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