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 best pitch-and-catch combos in the NFL today.
-- The NFL's next great pass rusher could be in the 2018 draft class.
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"Trust the process."
It's the rally cry of Philadelphia 76ers fans, initially popularized during former GM Sam Hinkie's tenure, but still just as prominent today, as the team battles in the NBA playoffs. And it has become the catchphrase of coaches, executives and players in all sports when it comes to building a team, regardless of the fact that Hinkie's own tanking tactics proved quite controversial and polarizing across the sports world.
In the NBA, generally speaking, the team-building process frequently includes star players assuming a role in broader team planning, with guys like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, James Harden and others taking the lead in essentially building "super teams" that vie for titles. Although ownership and management ultimately decide how the franchise implements the plan, the game's top players clearly have a voice in what takes place within their respective organizations.
After hearing Aaron Rodgers repeatedly voice his frustrations about being excluded from recent decisions made in Green Bay -- including the ouster of QB coach Alex Van Pelt and the release of receiver Jordy Nelson -- I can't understand why one of the NFL's best players wasn't included in the process. We're talking about an all-time great with a championship pedigree not being involved in things that directly affect his play.
"My quarterback coach didn't get retained," Rodgers said on ESPN's "Golic and Wingo." "I thought that was an interesting change -- really without consulting me. There's a close connection between quarterback and quarterback coach. And that was an interesting decision."
He's right. The connection between the quarterback and his position coach is critical -- most teams are reluctant to tinker with that situation if the signal-caller vouches for his instructor. Can you imagine the Cleveland Cavaliers firing James' shooting coach without consulting him? What about the Golden State Warriors letting go of Curry's ball-handling guru without running it past the two-time MVP?
Now, I'm not suggesting management doesn't have every right to fire whomever it pleases, but it is odd to make a major move without at least discussing it with the player most impacted by such a decision -- particularly when that player is a highly accomplished quarterback expected to carry a flawed team.
Anyone who has watched Green Bay over the past decade should know that No. 12 masks a lot of warts on the team's roster. Given the lack of a consistent running game and a leaky defense that routinely fails to play at a championship level, Rodgers has single-handedly kept the Packers in title contention when he's been on the field. Look no further than the team's improbable run to the 2016 NFC Championship Game as proof of his remarkable impact as a franchise quarterback. That's why I can't understand why he is kept outside the velvet rope of the VIP section in the building.
Sure, I understand the importance of separating management from players in some team-building aspects, but the NFL's constantly referred to as "a quarterback league" by general managers and head coaches alike. Thus, excluding from the process arguably the best quarterback in the business today just doesn't make sense to me.
In a perfect world, the team would at least include the quarterback in some personnel discussions, particularly when it comes to his supporting cast. The field general's effectiveness and efficiency depend on the village around him, so he should have some input on his designated playmakers, right?
Evidently, the NFL doesn't work that way. See: Rodgers' lack of involvement in Nelson's ultimate fate.
"I think it's pretty clear that players play and coaches coach and personnel people make their decisions," Rodgers told Milwaukee radio station 102.9 FM. "That's the way they want it."
Rodgers is right. That is, generally speaking, the way teams want it. But when you're talking about a player as talented and impactful as No. 12, is that really in the team's best interest?
"Again, I know my role, and that's to play quarterback the best that I can," Rodgers told reporters earlier this week. "The team is going to try to put the right guys in place -- the right coaches in place, the right players in place. You just have to trust the process as we've talked about over the years. This process works, and it has worked for Mike (McCarthy) for a number of years. Obviously, that's why he's still here in his 13th season. We've had a lot of success here, and you've got to trust the process."
Now, I certainly respect this kind of team-first deference when taken at face value. But I also wouldn't be surprised if there is some sarcasm in Rodgers' remarks -- especially when it comes to his use of "trust the process." How can one of the best players in football trust a process that doesn't involve him?
PITCH-AND-CATCH COMBOS: The NFL's most dangerous duos
"I expect us to be the best duo in the NFL," Hopkins told reporters Tuesday. "That's my goal. I'm pretty sure that's his goal. And if we have all these goals for ourselves, that's going to help the team get what we get to."
While I initially chalked up the comment to a top playmaker simply pumping up his quarterback in an interview, I decided to take a look back at the numbers to see if Hopkins had a valid point. And in fact, No. 10 scored seven touchdowns in Watson's first seven starts, helping transform the Texans' offense into an unstoppable juggernaut that took the league by storm with the rookie quarterback on the field.
This got me thinking in a broader sense, and I decided to look around the league to identify which passing combinations will give defensive coordinators the most fits in 2018. After taking a look at the All-22 Coaches Film and chopping it up with some folks around the league, I have a good feel on the subject. Here are my 10 most dangerous pitch-and-catch combinations heading toward next season:
1) Tom Brady + Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots: It's impossible to prevent TB12 from linking up with No. 87 when the Patriots have the ball. The big-bodied tight end overwhelms smaller defensive backs with his brute strength and power, while blowing past lumbering linebackers on seams down the alley. With the duo connecting on 75 scores over eight seasons -- yes, that's the highest total for Brady and any single receiver -- it's hard to dispute their spot at the top of the list.
3) Eli Manning + Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants: Say what you will about OBJ's antics, but you can't dispute his production when he steps between the lines. Beckham is the fastest wide receiver to total 3,000 receiving yards and 30 receiving touchdowns in NFL history, and he clearly elevates the play of his aging quarterback.
4) Matt Ryan + Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons: Matty Ice captured the NFL's MVP award in 2016, but some would suggest that No. 11 was just as deserving of the honor, due to the electric playmaker's overall effect on opposing defenses and ability to consistently carry the Falcons' offense. Over the past four seasons, Jones has averaged 103 catches and 1,579 yards.
5) Deshaun Watson + DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans: Over his first four NFL campaigns, "Nuk" produced quite impressive numbers despite lacking a legitimate QB1. Last season, Hopkins and Watson made sweet music together before the quarterback tore his ACL. With a return to health from the second-year signal-caller, the Texans' star receiver could lead the NFL in touchdown catches for the second straight season.
6) Drew Brees + Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints: It's hard to find a linebacker or safety capable of matching up with No. 41 out of the backfield. As a result, Brees routinely picks apart defenses with a host of dump-offs, check-downs and option routes to the league's most dynamic pass catcher at the position.
8) Jared Goff + Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams: It's not a coincidence that Goff emerged as a Pro Bowl-caliber playmaker when he started to lean on Gurley in the passing game. The explosive pass-catching running back led the NFL in "YAC" (749 yards after catch) as an unstoppable force out of the backfield.
9) Andy Dalton + A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals: Despite somewhat-underwhelming numbers last season, Green remains one of the league's top playmakers, with six 1,000-yard campaigns in seven years. Although Dalton's still fighting the "JAG" (just a guy) label that's been affixed to his name, he has been at his best when force-feeding the ball to No. 18 on the perimeter.
10) Jimmy Garoppolo + Marquise Goodwin, San Francisco 49ers: The sample size is certainly small, but the 49ers could've uncovered one of the league's most dangerous combinations during the final five weeks of the season. Goodwin was a yard away from posting three straight 100-yard outings in Jimmy G's first three starts, which is a scary thought for opponents tasked with slowing down the combo for 16 games in 2018.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) Why the Giants WON'T take a quarterback at No. 2. If you think the New York Giants are going to spend a top pick to replace Eli Manning, think again. I'm confident Big Blue will not go quarterback in Round 1. The G-Men still think No. 10 can play at a championship level for a couple more years -- and that is going to dictate the way the team selects players on draft night.
"I wouldn't want to put an end line on him, but I do agree with them that he can play winning, championship football for two years," Accorsi said to the New York Daily News. "Now, it may be more. I'm not saying that he can't do more. But I don't think there's any question: What I saw last year in the Philadelphia game with what he had to play with, I definitely think he could still take a team to a title. I mean, obviously he has to be surrounded with a pretty good team. But I do."
Sure, Accorsi has loving eyes for Manning. After all, he's the man who made the blockbuster move to acquire the Giants' QB1 in the 2004 draft. But that view is also shared by the team's new general manager, Dave Gettleman. Talking to a few Carolina Panthers scouts about how their former leader viewed the quarterback position, they repeatedly told me that Gettleman frequently pointed to Manning as the ideal franchise quarterback. With that in mind, I'm not surprised Gettleman's not eager to dismiss the veteran quarterback in favor of a young signal-caller in this year's draft.
"You miss on a quarterback, you've really hurt the franchise for five years," Gettleman said at a pre-draft press conference on Thursday. "It's a five-year mistake."
That's why I expect the Giants to take a non-QB with the No. 2 pick. The team is intent on taking a "gold-jacket guy" at the top of the draft -- i.e., a prospect with Hall of Fame potential. Gettleman has publicly stated as much. Looking at the quarterbacks projected to come off the board early, I don't see an HOF-type in the ranks. Yet, I could easily envision Bradley Chubb, Saquon Barkley and Quenton Nelson earning perennial All-Pro honors at their respective positions before making their way to Canton. Based on that criteria, and the words we've heard reported from those closely associated with the G-Men, I do not expect the team's quarterback of the future to come off of the board when the first-round pick is submitted next Thursday night.
2) Chubb could be the best prospect in this draft -- and the league's next great pass rusher. As a scout, I used to love asking players about their teammates and foes, because they provide unique perspective that can't be discovered simply through film evaluation. Players have a good sense for which of their peers have the talent, skills and guts to thrive at the next level. They not only know what kind of players they would like beside them in the proverbial foxhole, but they also know which players strike fear in the hearts of opponents on game day. As the saying goes, "Game recognizes game."
That's quite a compliment for a 6-foot-4, 269-pound edge rusher, but it falls in line with how I view the N.C. State standout after watching him terrorize opponents in the ACC for the past three seasons.
Bradley Chubb tallied 25 sacks and six forced fumbles in his last three years of college. As an explosive athlete with cat-like first-step quickness and violent hands, he can overwhelm blockers with a combination of strength and power that makes him nearly impossible to block off the edge. In addition, Chubb flashes a combination of bull-rush maneuvers (butt-and-jerk and the "long arm") that allows him to counter short sets and quick-jam tactics from opponents. He is so polished as a pass rusher that it's easy to envision him tallying 10-plus sacks as a rookie.
In fact, I'm on record saying Chubb is a better player than last year's No. 1 overall pick, Myles Garrett, and I firmly believe he will make a bigger impact on the league than the former Texas A&M star. With that in mind, I can't understand why Chubb hasn't been discussed as the No. 1 overall player in this draft based on his pass-rushing prowess and remarkable physical traits. He is a dominant player with A+ athletic traits and a relentless competitive spirit. Those are the characteristics that you covet in blue-chip pass rushers -- they were readily apparent in Miller and Mack as prospects.
Granted, I was a little low on Mack as a prospect, giving him a bottom-of-the-first-round grade, but I raved about his strength and power as an edge rusher. With Miller, I was smitten with his first-step quickness and burst off the edge. He was a rare pass rusher capable of turning the corner while executing a "knuckle drag" maneuver (dip-and-rip move) that's typically reserved for A+ athletes.
When I look at Chubb, I do see a blend of the two All-Pro pass rushers in his play. He comes off the ball like a track star (similar to Miller), while also exhibiting the strength, power and explosiveness of "The Incredible Hulk" (that's Mack style). Most impressively, he is a consistent sack artist with a knack for getting to the quarterback.
With Miller already seeing those same similarities in the prospect's game, Chubb could be the league's next great pass rusher.
3) Dallas was right to part ways with Dez. The Dallas Cowboys' decision to release Dez Bryant could be a case of addition by subtraction for their franchise quarterback. I think Dak Prescott will not only improve as a playmaker without No. 88 on the field, but he will become a more efficient and effective passer in 2018.
Looking at the numbers, Prescott struggled mightily connecting with the team's former WR1. He posted a 52.2 percent completion rate and an 83.1 passer rating on attempts to Bryant over the past two seasons, while tallying a 69.3 percent completion rate and a 99.4 passer rating to the Cowboys' other pass catchers during that same span. If that's not enough of an indicator of the chemistry problem between Dak and Dez, look at the disparity in touchdown-to-interception ratio in this time period: 14:7 on passes to Bryant, 31:10 on throws to the rest of the crew.
With those figures in mind, are we really surprised the Cowboys decided to move on from the 29-year-old wideout?
Now, I know Bryant has been a great player for the franchise in the past, as evidenced by his status as the Cowboys' all-time leader in touchdown receptions, but he is no longer a legitimate No. 1 receiver capable of carrying an offense as the top option in the passing game. Bryant hasn't eclipsed 100 yards receiving in his last 23 regular-season games, and he's failed to post a 1,000-yard season since 2014. That's unacceptable production from an elite receiver, which is why the Cowboys were forced to move in a different direction.
This might seem a little harsh to Bryant's supporters, who point to his success as a red-zone weapon, but his 17 touchdowns since 2015 are well off the 41 scores that he totaled from 2012 through '14. Six scores in 2017 isn't bad, but I don't think the point production is enough to offset the lack of impact plays Bryant delivered between the 20s. Thus, the decision to cut Bryant instead of offering him a salary reduction makes sense for the team. No. 88's presence on the field was holding Prescott back and limiting the overall potency of the Cowboys' pass attack.
Sure, the pressure is now squarely on Prescott to take his game up a notch in Year 3, but the removal of a declining player will help the Cowboys' QB1 become a more effective overall player.