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:
-- A superstar defender who's hiding in plain sight.
But first, a look at why everyone needs to settle down when it comes to the sweeping adulation of a certain quarterback ...
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I know this will create a little buzz in the Midwest, but I'm having a difficult time understanding the exhaustive veneration of the Green Bay Packers' quarterback. The latest example of Rodgers worship? A piece in The Athletic where Mike Sando asked 55 NFL coaches and executives to place each of the league's veteran quarterbacks into one of five tiers based on their performance and impact potential. Sando then took the average of all the survey results to provide an overall ranking from these football folks. Care to venture a guess as to who claimed the No. 1 spot? That's right: Mr. Rodgers. And I'm left miffed by such blind devotion from a group of high-level figures.
Although I certainly understand why the NFL community has the utmost respect for a quarterback with a Super Bowl ring and a couple MVP trophies on the mantel, the evaluation process is supposed to be a meritocracy where players are graded on their most-recent performances instead of nostalgia. And I'm sorry, but there's no way Rodgers should've been ranked as the top quarterback in football based on how he's played the past few seasons. Sure, No. 12 remains an exceptional talent with a resume that will net him a gold jacket after his career is done, but you can't tell me he's been the best player at the game's most important position in recent years. In fact, I think I've pinpointed an interesting line of demarcation -- for Rodgers and, inherently, the Packers.
Let's go back to Week 7 of the 2015 season. The Packers were actually on bye that week, but they were sitting pretty at 6-0. Following the week off, Green Bay went 4-6 down the stretch and lost in the Divisional Round. The Pack then won the division in 2016 with a 10-6 record, but posted losing records in 2017 and '18. Now, let's focus in on Rodgers' play in this context ...
Prior to that line of demarcation -- Week 7 of the 2015 season -- Rodgers sported a 76-33 QB record with a 66.0 percent completion rate and a gaudy 107.0 passer rating. That is, undoubtedly, first-class production. Since that point, though, Rodgers is just 24-24-1 as a starter with a 62.7 percent completion rate and 96.4 passer rating. Additionally, the QB is fresh off a season that saw him record the second-lowest completion percentage (62.3) of his starting career, as well as the fewest touchdown passes (25) in a season where he played in at least 10 games.
Given this clear decline in Rodgers' play over the past few years, the Packers QB just can't be ranked as the top player at his position -- especially when so many quarterbacks across the league are playing lights out. I know many people disagree with me.
"He's still the gold standard at the position," an NFC personnel director told me this week. "It's not as clear-cut. ... He needs to play in an offense that lets him air it out and enables him to control the action at the line of scrimmage. When he's healthy, we've seen the Packers win big with No. 12 at the helm."
That last qualifier -- "when he's healthy" -- is no small thing. Injuries have definitely taken a toll on the 35-year-old signal-caller. He missed the majority of the 2017 season due to the second broken collarbone of his career and has been compromised by additional ailments in recent years, including a tibial plateau fracture and an MCL sprain last fall. I don't think it's a coincidence that his efficiency from the pocket has simultaneously deteriorated. After averaging a healthy 8.4 yards per attempt and completing 66.3 percent of his passes from 2009 through 2014, Rodgers has seen those figures drop to 7.1 and 63.2 since. Considering Rodgers has finished with a completion percentage below 65 and a passer rating below 100 in three of the past four seasons, it is time to take away the hall pass we've handed No. 12 when it comes to any criticism directed at his game.
Rodgers defenders blame the Packers' coaching staff, particularly former head man Mike McCarthy, for concocting faulty game plans lacking imagination. The static nature of the offense (few motions, shifts or exotic-personnel deployments) has been frequently cited as one of the reasons for the unit's struggles against top defenses. The scheme purportedly didn't create easy-catch opportunities for the top targets on the perimeter, which forced Rodgers to hold onto the ball longer and wait for his pass catchers to uncover on improvised routes down the field. That theory might have a little truth to it, but the All-22 Coaches Film also reveals a quarterback with a preference for the three-point shot over the layup. Rodgers would rather launch the ball down the field off an impromptu scramble than take the "cheap" yards available on a checkdown to the running back. This prevents Rodgers from attacking the defense from all angles, the kind of approach that allows Tom Brady and Drew Brees to provide highly efficient play from the pocket year in and year out.
Green Bay's front office also catches flak, due to the perceived lack of weaponry at Rodgers' disposal of late. The Packers' young, inexperienced receiving corps has fielded plenty of negative ink, with critics pointing to the unit's lack of chemistry and continuity with the veteran quarterback. While it is certainly challenging to break in a host of baby-faced pass catchers on the perimeter, it is hard to give Rodgers a complete pass when Brady, Brees and Philip Rivers constantly produce at a high level with a revolving door of playmakers at their disposal. Franchise quarterbacks are expected to elevate the performance of the role players around them, and I don't believe we've seen much of that from Rodgers in recent years.
Remember, superstar quarterbacks are expected to carry the franchise with their individual brilliance, and I don't know if we can legitimately point to Rodgers putting the squad on his back in recent years. Sure, the team has won some prime-time games with No. 12 in a starring role, but Green Bay's middling 33-30-1 record over the past four seasons can't be ignored.
Like everyone else, I'm fascinated to see how Rodgers and the Packers perform in Year 1 under new head coach Matt LaFleur. But given Rodgers' recent play, I just don't understand how anyone could consider him as the absolute cream of the crop at the position at the moment. In fact, I wouldn't even have him in my top five. Here are my QB rankings heading into the 2019 season:
1) Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs: In his first year as a starter, Mahomes hit the 5,000/50 Club. Whoa. The reigning MVP is a video game quarterback with A+ arm talent, athleticism and improvisational skills. With Andy Reid dialing up explosive/exotic plays and the Chiefs featuring a supporting cast with playmakers everywhere, No. 15 is the premier player at the position.
2) Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers: The ultra-confident QB1 is arguably playing the best football of his career. Rivers not only manages the game with veteran savvy, but he remains one of the top playmakers in the clutch, as evidenced by his three fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives last season. Considering how effective Rivers has played with a revolving cast of characters on the perimeter, No. 17 deserves a prime spot on this list.
3) Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints: Brees has lost some arm strength in his later years, but he remains a high-level passer due to his pinpoint accuracy, superb judgment and deft management skills. Brees has become the master of connecting the dots from the pocket, which enables him to stretch the field horizontally while also attacking the seams. With a big-body pass catcher like Mike Thomas adept at making big-time catches over the middle, Brees will continue to torment opponents as a precise pocket passer.
4) Tom Brady, New England Patriots: TB12 might not be able to dominate every game from start to finish, but he remains the best closer in football. He most recently demonstrated his finishing skills in Super Bowl LIII and his clutchness separates him from others at the position. Despite losing his security blanket (Rob Gronkowski), the six-time Super Bowl champion will continue to keep the Patriots in the hunt as the ultimate winner at the position.
5) Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks: Don't let the Seahawks' run-first offense impact your opinion of Wilson as a Tier 1 quarterback. The improvisational wizard is an efficient passer from the pocket with enough magic to snatch wins from the jaws of defeat with the game in the line. With four game-winning drives in 2018, Wilson's winning pedigree and electrifying skills warrant a spot in the top five.
So, where does Rodgers rank? Well, I'd have him battling Andrew Luck for the No. 6 spot. This is not a hot take -- not when you assess the trajectory of Rodgers' play over the past four seasons.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Steelers smart to re-up Tomlin. Hats off to the Pittsburgh Steelers for ignoring the noise on Twitter and signing Mike Tomlin to a contract extension that keeps him in place through 2021. Despite Pittsburgh missing the playoffs last season -- and failing to reach double-digit wins for the first time since 2013 -- the Steelers rightfully gave the 13th-year head coach a vote of confidence heading into the 2019 campaign.
This comes to the chagrin of some Steelers fans and observers who have repeatedly voiced their frustrations over Tomlin's coaching style and the team's inability to supplant the New England Patriots as the top team in the AFC. But I think the Pittsburgh brass acted wisely, considering Tomlin boasts the second-highest winning percentage among active coaches at .654 -- a figure that just happens to be the best in franchise history. While some like to call Tomlin's Steelers underachievers, the coach ranks second among active coaches in playoff berths, with eight in his dozen seasons at the helm. And of course, his team hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in his second year on the job, reaching the Super Bowl again two seasons later. That's quite an impressive resume for a so-called "rah-rah coach" with a reputation for running a player-friendly operation.
Now, I'm not here to fete Tomlin as an unassailable god amongst men, especially in the wake of a Steeler season dominated by drama, with Le'Veon Bell's holdout and Antonio Brown's never-ending issues with teammates, coaches and other franchise folks. The Killer Bs era of Steeler football certainly ended with a thud. Ben Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown were a combination many expected to deliver a seventh Lombardi Trophy to the Steel City, given how high-octane offenses have dominated the NFL in recent years. Pittsburgh's failure to even reach the Super Bowl with this core is a disappointment that does indeed fall on the shoulders of the head coach. He deserves criticism for not getting the Steelers to play at the highest possible level when their talent, particularly on offense, suggested they were one of the top teams in football.
That said, Tomlin's overall resume warrants additional time to rebuild and retool a franchise that consistently competes, with six division titles during his tenure. Despite not reaching the mountaintop this decade, the Steelers have still been a steady squad under Tomlin, who has never had a losing season. In this parity-driven league, annual contention is really all you can ask for. You want to routinely make the postseason tournament, providing the chance to walk away with the Lombardi Trophy. Tomlin supplies this in Pittsburgh.
With that mind, the Steelers coach needs to get the team back on track after a frustrating 9-6-1 season. He started the process with an "addition by subtraction" mindset that saw the team move on from Bell and Brown in the offseason. Sure, both players are viewed as top-tier talents at their respective positions, but they're now being permanently replaced in Pittsburgh by a pair of 2018 Pro Bowlers in James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Although I don't believe either guy is on par with his predecessor, I'm confident both can provide comparable production as designated playmakers in a rebuilt offense. Remember, Roethlisberger is an elite player with the ability to elevate his surrounding cast. Tomlin has to empower No. 7 to allow Pittsburgh's offense to thrive without the former All-Pro playmakers in the fold.
Defensively, the Steelers must shore up their secondary to knock off the heavyweights in the AFC, namely the Chiefs, Patriots and Chargers. Tomlin has fortified the defense lately by picking up some hard-nosed guys with personalities and playing styles that match the Steelers' brand. First-round linebacker Devin Bush, in particular, will instantly serve as a spark plug to a defense that hasn't been the same since Ryan Shazier's catastrophic injury.
When I spoke to a Steelers personnel executive earlier in the offseason, he told me how the team needed to get back to focusing on acquiring and building around "Steelers guys," with outstanding football character, work ethic and selflessness viewed as critical components. Additionally, the executive discussed the desire to return Pittsburgh back to a team-centric mentality.
2) Titans safety getting his due -- now get to know him!Who is Kevin Byard? That's a question that popped up in the Twitterverse following the announcement of the safety's new megadeal earlier this week. Byard agreed to a five-year, $70.5 million extension with $31 million guaranteed, which makes him the league's highest-paid safety in average annual compensation ($14.1 million). That put him just above the Redskins' Landon Collins and Chiefs' Tyrann Mathieu, both of whom signed contracts this offseason that average $14 million per year.
Now, Byard is not a household name, but he has a spectacular game that pops when you study the tape. A first-team All-Pro selection when he led the NFL in interceptions (8) in 2017, Byard displays outstanding instincts, awareness and anticipation as a deep-middle defender, while also possessing impressive range and ball skills. Byard rarely fails to cash in when presented with an INT opportunity on an errant pass or overthrow, which is critical to playing great defense in a league where turnovers are extraordinarily valuable. And Byard is no one-trick pony in the back end. He is an impact player near the line of scrimmage, too, with a knack for getting to the quarterback on blitzes from the second level. His energy, effort and instincts make him a challenge to keep out of the pocket, particularly when the scheme creates one-on-one pass-rush chances against running backs.
Looking back at how Byard entered the league -- he was a third-round pick (64th overall) out of Middle Tennessee State in 2016 -- he's clearly outplayed expectations. Not that he was completely slept on. Leading up to the '16 draft, Byard was noted for his football IQ, toughness and ball skills. Although there were some concerns about his man-coverage skills, Byard displayed outstanding explosiveness in his pro-day workout (4.44-second 40-yard dash, 38-inch vertical, 6.73-second three-cone drill and a 4.15-second 20-yard shuttle) to complement his soft hands. But seeing how he was the 15th defensive back off the board in the 2016 draft, he's clearly proven to be a huge steal for Tennessee. With 224 tackles, 12 picks, 28 passes defensed, three sacks and 11 tackles for loss in his first three pro seasons, the proof is in the pudding.
Byard's wide-ranging traits (intelligence, ball skills, athleticism and toughness) are invaluable for a safety in today's pass-happy league, which is why Byard's success will only lead more scouts to hunt for safety prospects with similar attributes, no matter where they play their college ball. In fact, after watching Byard's ascension, I believe more evaluators will really home in on the combination of traits and production when scouting prospects from outside the Power Five conferences (like Byard was, coming out of Conference USA) this fall.
Personally, I will pay closer attention to safety prospects at the Reese's Senior Bowl during one-on-one drills and individual position work to see if a player displays more technique versatility and athleticism than the tape shows. Byard quietly put on a show at the '16 Senior Bowl, but there wasn't a consensus within the scouting community on his evaluation and he didn't get the pre-draft love that he apparently deserved.
With a new contract and duffel bag full of money in hand, I think it is time everyone pays closer attention to the Titans' dynamic ballhawk.