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:
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With eight weeks remaining in the regular season, we can begin to sort out the contenders from the pretenders. Teams with zero chance of a playoff appearance have already shifted their focus to player development and roster planning for the 2018 season. While some of those squads will place a greater emphasis on solving their woes through free agency, the overwhelming majority of team builders have started the process of identifying needs while taking a peek at the collegiate ranks for potential draft prospects.
Granted, we are still early in the process, but this is a great time to explore the biggest needs of teams currently projected to be picking at the top of the board next April. While this list is certainly fluid and subject to change -- due to standings volatility, as well as the coming coaching staff/personnel shuffling -- it gives us a place to start when looking ahead to the 2018 NFL Draft.
Here's my take on the current top 10 (if the season ended today), identifying the biggest need for each team:
1) San Francisco 49ers: offensive playmaker. With Jimmy Garoppolo in the fold, the 49ers can focus their efforts on upgrading the supporting cast on offense. Although a pass catcher would make sense, the team could get more bang for the buck with a dynamic running back who can excel as a runner or receiver. Considering the immediate impact Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette made on their respective squads, it's no longer taboo to take a running back in the top 10.
2) Cleveland Browns: quarterback. Cleveland's annual mismanagement of the quarterback position could result in the franchise taking another signal caller early in the draft. While the recent track record suggests the Browns will find a way to mess up the pick or on-field development plan, they can't fumble away another opportunity to land a potential star at the game's most important position.
3) New York Giants: quarterback. It's almost blasphemous to suggest the Giants should look for another QB1 with a two-time Super Bowl MVP in the fold, but Father Time is catching up with Eli Manning. The 14th-year pro is in the midst of a two-year decline that suggests his best days are behind him, and the Giants should begin the process of identifying a successor. Armed with a top-five pick in a draft potentially loaded with intriguing arms, New York has the luxury of drafting a future franchise quarterback with a veteran starter still in place.
4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: pass rusher. With a league-low eight sacks so far this season, the Bucs must address their glaring need at pass rusher. The team hasn't had a consistent threat off the edge since Simeon Rice, and the lack of pressure continues to allow quarterbacks to comfortably pick apart the coverage from the pocket.
5) Indianapolis Colts: offensive tackle. Considering Andrew Luck's recent injury history, the Colts' top priority should be to upgrade the protection around their QB1. The team has allowed a league-worst 36 sacks so far this season, with Jacoby Brissett running for his life post-snap. If and when the franchise savior can return from a shoulder issue that's sidelined him all season, the Colts can't subject him to the battering that the team's QB2 has endured this season.
6) Cincinnati Bengals: offensive tackle/offensive guard. Some of Andy Dalton's struggles can be pinned on the constant harassment he's faced in the pocket. The Bengalsrank 21st in sacks allowed (24) and their current combination of blockers along the front line leaves something to be desired. Whether it's a dancing bear on the outside or a big-bodied road grader on the interior, the Bengals must add a dominant player to the front line to keep bodies away from No. 14.
7) Cleveland Browns (from Houston Texans): offensive playmaker. Most quarterbacks are only as good as their available weapons. Thus, it is not a surprise Cleveland's signal callers have struggled, given the underwhelming options available on the perimeter. The team lacks a dynamic WR1, and the running backs are B-level talents without big-play ability. (Yes, Duke Johnson's a nice weapon -- particularly in the passing game -- but he has his limitations.) In a league where playmakers matter, it's not a coincidence the Browns struggle to score.
8) Los Angeles Chargers: cornerback. The annual loss of Jason Verrett will force the Chargers to take a long, hard look at cornerback in the upcoming draft. Despite the one-time Pro Bowler's spectacular talents, L.A. has to find an insurance policy for a player who's landed on injured reserve in three of his four pro seasons.
9) Denver Broncos: quarterback. It's time for John Elway to address the quarterback situation that's torpedoing the Broncos' playoff hopes for a second straight season. The Trevor Siemian experiment didn't work and the team apparently missed on Paxton Lynch, based on his inability to win the QB1 job in back-to-back summers. With Brock Osweiler looking like a career backup, the Broncos will need to find their 2018 starter in the draft to have any chance of reclaiming their spot at the top of the AFC West.
10) Chicago Bears: wide receiver. Whenever a running back leads the team in receptions, it indicates the lack of a true No. 1 receiver on the perimeter. The Bears not only lack a WR1 -- they don't even have an established WR2 to trot onto the field. With a young, talented quarterback in the fold, Chicago must upgrade the talent around Mitchell Trubisky to give him a chance to blossom into a star.
So, who is under consideration for selection in some of those slots? Well, at NFL Media we don't like to match prospects with teams until after the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft has passed. But I can go over a handful of the top draft-eligible talents in college football today, based off my conversations with general managers, scouts and league executives. Here are some of the names that frequently come up in those chats, with underclassmen denoted by an asterisk:
Saquon Barkley*, RB, Penn State: Electric playmaker with triple-threat scoring potential (running, receiving and returning). Barkley is a game changer at the position capable of immediately reversing an offense's fortunes.
Minkah Fitzpatrick*, DB, Alabama: Versatile defensive back capable of playing any position in the back end. High football IQ complements a dynamic skill set that makes scouts drool.
Sam Darnold*, QB, USC: Gunslinger with outstanding intangibles and leadership skills. Turnover woes and unorthodox throwing motion are concerns, but Darnold is a winner with an impressive big-moment resume.
Christian Wilkins*, DL, Clemson: Ultra-athletic defender with the capacity to play anywhere from nose tackle to stand-up defensive end. Wilkins is a rare find, as a 300-pound defender with exceptional balance, body control and strength.
Bradley Chubb, DE, N.C. State: Big, athletic pass rusher with a polished game and relentless motor. The disruptive playmaker reminds some scouts of a young Mario Williams.
Josh Rosen*, QB, UCLA: Polished pocket passer with an Major League Baseball-like repertoire of pitches. Rosen can make every throw in the book with touch, timing, anticipation and accuracy. His prickly personality will scare some teams away, but Rosen might be the best pure passer in college football today.
Harold Landry, EDGE, Boston College: Explosive edge player with cat-like quickness and a grocery basket full of moves. Landry flashes Von Miller-like skills as a dynamic pass rusher from the right or the left.
Derwin James*, S, Florida State: Big, athletic safety with an enforcer mentality and a versatile game. James hasn't played up to the hype in 2017, but he remains a top prospect based on his unique combination of size, athleticism and versatility (coverage and blitz capability).
Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame: Road grader with a nasty temperament and a technically sound game. Nelson is a powerful drive blocker with a skill set that's ideally suited to play in a power-based scheme. Although he lacks elite movement skills and athleticism, Nelson is a gritty blocker at the point of attack capable of controlling defenders on run and pass plays.
Josh Allen*, QB, Wyoming: It's hard to find quarterbacks with A-plus size, talent and athleticism. That's why scouts are smitten with Allen's potential, despite his pedestrian numbers and subpar play against elite competition. While scouts will certainly debate Allen's merits as a franchise quarterback, he will earn top-10 grades from evaluators willing to place potential over production during the pre-draft process.
Other names to watch: Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU; Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama; Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame; Connor Williams, OT, Texas; Orlando Brown, OT, Oklahoma; Tarvarus McFadden, CB, Florida State; Arden Key, EDGE, LSU.
KELVIN BENJAMIN TRADE: Why this was a good move for Carolina
When the Carolina Panthers traded away Kelvin Benjamin moments before last week's deadline, eyebrows raised around the league. Observers questioned why a team with a sputtering offense would jettison its No. 1 receiver while still in contention for a division title/playoff berth. In addition, onlookers couldn't understand how the move would improve the Panthers' offense when the departing player was enjoying a productive season as Carolina's big-play threat and the team didn't appear to have a WR1 candidate waiting in the wings.
To me, it's quite simple.
The removal of Benjamin from the lineup is a classic case of addition by subtraction, and the Panthers' offense will not only be more explosive, but it will be a more difficult attack to defend heading down the stretch.
I'm not spewing hate on the Panthers' former No. 1 receiver because he was certainly an effective playmaker for the team on the outside. Benjamin posted a 1,000-yard season as a rookie and nearly topped that mark a year ago (941), after returning from an ACL injury that cost him the entire 2015 campaign. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound pass catcher is a dominant red-zone weapon (18 touchdowns in 40 career games) and he expanded the strike zone for Cam Newton as a big-bodied, jump-ball specialist.
Despite those impressive attributes as a playmaker, Benjamin was also a bit of an albatross to the unit as a lumbering pass catcher with slow feet and marginal route-running skills. Although his steady production masked those deficiencies, defensive coordinators didn't respect his game -- this was reflected in the number of loaded boxes and press coverages Carolina faced when Benjamin was on the field.
Remember, Benjamin was frequently joined on the field by Devin Funchess, a former college tight end who transitioned to wide receiver late in his Michigan career. The 6-4, 225-pound pass catcher not only has a similar game, but he lacks the explosiveness to take the top off the defense as a vertical weapon. With the team's No. 1 tight end -- perennial Pro Bowl selectee Greg Olsen -- sidelined by injury, defensive coordinators weren't truly threatened by anyone on the Panthers' roster in the passing game. Thus, they could single up the receivers on the outside and drop an extra defender into the box to suffocate the run.
"When you have some vertical speed it gets [defenses] to back off a little bit," Rivera told reporters shortly after the trade, via USA Today. "We saw a lot of single safety with the other safety in the box. And we had to do something to help alleviate pressure on the offense to run the ball."
Interim general manager Marty Hurney echoed those sentiments when he suggested that the team had "too many WRs with similar skill sets" on a radio interview with 102.5 FM The Fan in Charlotte the day after the trade. He went on to say that moving Benjamin would allow "the run game to flourish" and the Panthers to "clear out the box."
In another interview, Hurney discussed the need to put more speed on the field with a diverse set of receivers occupying prime roles.
"This was more about getting more speed on the field. We've got some young players who we think have some real ability," Hurney told the Charlotte Observer. "Kelvin was a very good player and was productive for us. It was more getting a mix of skill sets on the field and more speed."
In case you forgot: Hurney was the team's general manager when the squad went to Super Bowl XXXVIII with Muhsin Muhammad and Steve Smith playing on the perimeter of a smashmouth offense fueled by Stephen Davis. Muhammad handled the dirty work as the big-bodied receiver between the numbers, while Smith provided the playmaking on the outside. The combination worked well, as the two wideouts helped elevate the play of journeyman quarterback Jake Delhomme during that span.
Looking at the team's current QB1, the removal of Benjamin could also help Newton regain his MVP form. In 2015, with No. 13 sidelined by injury, Newton enjoyed the best season of his career -- one that ended with an MVP trophy and Super Bowl appearance. Without Benjamin, Newton was forced to distribute the ball to a cast of pass catchers that featured only Olsen as a feared threat on the perimeter. No disrespect to Ted Ginn Jr. or Philly Brown, but opponents weren't altering their game plans to stop either guy in the passing game. Newton simply threw the ball to the open man and trusted that his no-name wideouts would get the job done. This is something Tom Brady has done for years as the leader of a team that's been in title contention for most of his career.
Newton has also thrived when forced to elevate those around him -- remember his Heisman Trophy season at Auburn? -- because it puts more responsibility on his shoulders as a dual-threat playmaker. The offense becomes more potent when it fully utilizes Newton's skills as a powerful runner and play-action passer to stress the defense.
Don't believe me? Just look at how Newton responded in his first game without Benjamin. The veteran accounted for 223 total yards (137 passing and 86 rushing) while essentially playing the role of a single-wing halfback for the Panthers. And lo and behold, the Panthers won. It might not show up in gaudy fantasy numbers, but the wins pile up when Newton functions as the primary playmaker of an offense that looks a lot like the "power spread" offenses we see at the collegiate ranks (think Ohio State). He remains a dynamic weapon as a dual-threat and the pieces around him should enhance those skills.
That brings me back to why removing Benjamin was necessary to help the Panthers' offense grow this season. The team needed to find more ways to take advantage of their top two draft picks -- Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel -- as hybrid playmakers. The removal of an outside receiver gives offensive coordinator Mike Shula more opportunities to put the duo on the field at the same time.
McCaffrey is already doing yeoman's work as the team's designated slot receiver. He leads all running backs in receptions (54) and ranks fourth overall in that category. Although he ranks second on the team in receiving yards, McCaffrey's ability to align anywhere in the formation forces opponents to tweak their coverage to account for his whereabouts. According to Next Gen Stats, McCaffrey has logged the highest percentage of snaps out wide or in the slot (25.8 percent) among running backs with at least 200 offensive snaps. In addition, he is the fourth-most productive receiver out of "11" personnel (1 RB, 1 TE and 3 WRs), with 38 receptions in 50 pass attempts for 310 receiving yards.
The ability to use McCaffrey more as a slot receiver will not only enhance his contributions as a receiver, but it could help him get more touches on jet sweeps and various option plays. This becomes easier to accomplish with Benjamin out of the lineup because it opens up an additional spot in the rotation in three-receiver sets. Although Jonathan Stewart's fumbling woes led to more carries for McCaffrey in Week 9, the Panthers' coaching staff undoubtedly took note of the increased production (15 carries for 66 rushing yards) the rookie delivered with more touches and reps.
Samuel also benefits from Benjamin's departure. The rookie speedster moves up in the rotation and becomes an integral part of the offense as a hybrid on the perimeter. He can get his touches on traditional routes on the outside or on reverses, sweeps and pitches via various option plays. That was the original plan for the Ohio State star when he was selected with the 40th overall pick in April, and I don't think it was a coincidence that he had his career high in touches (four) in the game immediately following Benjamin's trade. Expect him to assume a bigger role with No. 13 out of the equation.
In spite of my insistence that the Panthers' offense is better off without Benjamin, I must point out that someone will need to fill his role as a deep-ball specialist. He led the Panthers this season in deep-ball passer rating (109.7) on the strength of four receptions (out of six pass attempts) for 118 yards and a pair of scores (with one INT). That production will need to be replaced by one of the aforementioned playmakers or by an unheralded pass catcher like Russell Shepard or Kaelin Clay. While Funchess hasn't delivered in that role to date (0-for-10 on deep-ball pass attempts), he appears to have Newton's confidence as a down-the-field weapon. If he can hold his own in that role, the Panthers appear to be better suited for a playoff run without their former No. 1 receiver on the team.
COWBOYS' PASS RUSH: The X-factor that keeps Dallas in the mix
The reinstatement of Ezekiel Elliott's six-game suspension has led some to dismiss the Dallas Cowboys' NFC East hopes, but I'm here to tell you that the team's emerging defense -- particularly the defensive line -- might be good enough to help them give the Philadelphia Eagles a run for their money.
While that statement certainly runs counter to the narrative that has surrounded the defense in recent years, I see a D-line sparking a unit that's beginning to show some teeth under Rod Marinelli. Since Week 7, the Cowboys have held opponents to 15.3 points per game while racking up seven takeaways and 11 sacks. Led by Demarcus Lawrence, David Irving and Tyrone Crawford, the D-line is wreaking havoc at the point of attack and destroying the timing of opponents' passing games.
On the season, the Cowboys are not only posting the NFL's sixth-best pressure rate (32.4 percent) and averaging 13.0 pressures per game, but they rank third in the league in sacks (27). Those numbers are well above the unit's figures from a year ago, when Dallas compiled a 22.0 percent pressure rate and ranked in the middle of the pack in sacks at season's end (36).
"The front end (pass rush) affects the back end (secondary) far more than the back end affects the front end," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "A strong pass rush can mask most of the personnel issues that team has in coverage.
"That's why you always place an emphasis on having enough guys up front who are capable of getting home."
Lawrence, who ranks second in the league with 10.5 sacks, has been an absolute terror off the edge. He is on pace to challenge Michael Strahan's single-season pass record (22.5) as the Cowboys' designed pass rusher. Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I've been impressed with Lawrence's speed, quickness and hand skills. He is an Energizer Bunny off the edge, exhibiting a non-stop motor and relentless spirit pursuing the quarterback. With Lawrence also adept at throwing his hands and working the edges of the blocker in one-on-one situations, he has become an unstoppable force in Marinelli's Tampa-2 scheme.
But Lawrence hasn't been a one-man show of late. The return of Irving from a four-game suspension has given the Cowboys' front line an essential puzzle piece. The presence of a dynamic interior pass rusher completely disrupts the quarterback's rhythm, putting a big body right in his face. It's hard for a passer to throw over or around a middle rusher, which leads to plenty of turnover opportunities off tips or overthrows. Considering how those miscues impact the game, everyone is looking for a disruptive presence on the inside.
"In today's game, you need to have a dominant inside rusher to play great defense," an AFC scout told me. "A pass-rushing defensive tackle quickens the clock in the quarterback's head and forces more errant throws from the pocket.
"A disruptive interior rusher also forces more double teams and sets the table for other rushers. If you have a stud on the inside, it changes the way that you can play defense."
Irving has been a just that for the Cowboys. The 6-foot-7, 290-pounder is a long, rangy athlete with a handful of power-based rush moves that befuddle offensive guards. Irving's combination of length, strength and skill has helped him notch six sacks in four games. Although Irving has crushed opponents as an inside rusher, the Cowboys also have the option of placing him outside, taking advantage of his overall explosiveness off the edge. The third-year pro has plenty of experience as a swing player (inside/outside defender) and that should make him a valuable part of the pass rush going forward.
Speaking of value, the underrated member of the D-line has been Crawford. The veteran defensive end has quietly picked up four sacks this season, including three over the past four games. He is a junkyard dog off the edge who feasts on the scraps left on the table by Lawrence and Irving. The sixth-year pro won't command extra attention as a rusher, but his non-stop motor and energetic approach could get him close to 10 sacks by the end of the season.
For a team that is going to need the defense to play a bigger role with its star running back on the sideline, the emergence of a dominant D-line could help the Cowboys reclaim the NFC East division crown.