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:
-- Why Tampa Bay's potential quarterback controversy isn't at all controversial.
-- The most versatile weapon in the NFL today isn't who you think it is.
But first, a look at what could be the beginning of something special in Cleveland ...
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I'm not suggesting the Cleveland Browns should take a victory lap after watching Baker Mayfield end the team's 19-game winless streak with a spectacular debut against the Jets on Thursday night, but it sure looks like the team got it right with the No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft. Mayfield energized a lifeless offense with his presence in the huddle, adding a dimension to the unit with his pinpoint passing and fearless approach from the pocket.
Now, I'll be the first to admit my surprise at the rookie's performance based on his status as a QB2 heading into the game. He hadn't taken a regular-season snap and hit the field Thursday night having received only a handful of practice reps since the end of the preseason. Considering the ultra-aggressive nature of the New York Jets' defense, I couldn't imagine the rookie successfully throwing the ball all over the yard with minimal reps, particularly coming off a short practice week.
Not to mention, I had some reservations about Mayfield's potential as a starter based on his size, athleticism and arm talent. During the pre-draft process, I scoffed at the comparisons to Russell Wilson and Drew Brees, likening the Heisman Trophy winner to a low-level starter (Case Keenum).
I was wrong.
The Mayfield I saw on Thursday has the sauce, and Browns fans are licking their fingers after getting a taste of his magic during a sensational performance in which the rookie completed 17 of his 23 passes for 201 yards in a little over two quarters of work. With a passer rating in the triple digits (100.1), the rookie displayed the same kind of accuracy and efficiency that made him a hot commodity leading up to the draft.
From firing darts to his receivers running through tight windows between the hashes to dropping rainbows on pass catchers along the boundary, Mayfield's superb timing, touch, anticipation and ball placement stood out immediately when he took over the Browns' offense for the injured Tyrod Taylor with a little under two minutes remaining in the first half. No. 6 dropped three straight dimes between the hashes on a pair of "search" routes to Jarvis Landry and a seam throw to David Njoku. Mayfield's fearlessness delivering these passes into tight windows over the middle of the field spoke volumes about his confidence as a passer from the pocket. Instead of opting for a couple of simple check-downs to ease into the game, the rookie aggressively attacked the voids in the Jets' umbrella coverage on the way to leading the Browns to a field goal with 27 seconds left in the second quarter.
In the second half, Mayfield's aggressive approach continued to pay huge dividends, as he moved the Browns up and down the field by firing lasers to his pass catchers all over the place. In the third quarter, in particular, Mayfield's pinpoint accuracy and superb ball placement on a throw to Landry on a seam route down the numbers will earn high marks from his coaches in film sessions.
In the fourth quarter, Mayfield repeatedly hit receivers on out-breaking routes on the sidelines. He tossed a perfect pass to Antonio Callaway on a speed out against a "cat" (cornerback) blitz from the boundary to convert a third-and-10 into a first down. He not only delivered the pass on time and on target, but he whipped the ball around a leaping pass rusher to get the completion. Mayfield followed that toss with another dime to Landry on a short dig route to help set up what would be the game-winning score. With the game hanging in the balance, Mayfield's accuracy, poise and composure suggest he is built for clutch moments.
Now, I know coach Hue Jackson said on Friday that he'll take his time in making a decision on whether to start Mayfield or Taylor in Week 4, but I think it's safe to say the rookie is the QB1 going forward. Looking ahead to how the Browns can build off his spectacular debut, I believe the team should feature more collegiate-like passes (bubble screens and RB swings) and RPOs (run-pass options) to put Mayfield in his comfort zone. In addition, Cleveland should continue to push the pace with tempo (hurry-up, no-huddle) mixed in throughout the game. Mayfield's ease controlling the game at the line of scrimmage should encourage the Browns to put more on his plate, particularly when the offense is moving at a breakneck pace. The frenetic tempo keeps defenders on their heels and prevents defensive coordinators from using exotic pressures and pre-snap disguises to disrupt the rookie's rhythm.
With a few extra days to prepare for their Week 4 matchup against the Oakland Raiders, the Browns should explore adding more plays that worked for the rookie QB during his time at Oklahoma. Mayfield should benefit from a customized plan that allows him to play like the pass-first point guard who dominated college football. Considering how well he played without practice reps, the No. 1 overall pick could look like a superstar in an offense built around his talents.
BLAKE BORTLES TURNING THE CORNER: QB's play makes Jags title favorites
I'm not ready to tout Blake Bortles as an elite quarterback, but I do believe the Jacksonville Jaguars' QB1 is good enough to get the team to Super Bowl LIII.
Now, I know I've been one of his harshest critics in the past, but I've seen so much growth from the fifth-year pro over the past year that I'm convinced Bortles can lead the Jaguars to wins against elite competition.
Don't believe me? Just look at how No. 5 has performed in his past four contests and I think you'll have a better understanding of the optimism brewing in Duval County.
2017 AFC Divisional Round at Steelers: Completed 14 of 26 passes for 214 yards with a touchdown (94.1 passer rating). Added 35 rushing yards on five carries. Zero sacks.
2017 AFC Championship Game at Patriots: Completed 23 of 36 passes for 293 yards with one touchdown (98.5 passer rating). Sacked three times for minus-20 yards.
2018 Week 1 at Giants: Completed 18 of 33 passes with one touchdown and one interception (67.2 passer rating). Added 42 rushing yards on four carries. Sacked once for minus-eight yards.
2018 Week 2 vs. Patriots: Completed 29 of 45 passes for 376 yards with four touchdowns and one interception (111.0 passer rating). Added 35 rushing yards on six carries. Zero sacks.
Those numbers won't win your fantasy league -- well, except maybe last week -- but they are certainly good enough to win games when you're backed up with a championship-caliber defense and a solid running game. No. 5 has learned how to play winning football in a complementary fashion with an emphasis on ball security, passing efficiency and timely playmaking from the pocket.
This is exactly what Jaguars offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett discussed when asked about his young QB1 this past offseason.
"He has such an aggressive mindset, and he's so aggressive naturally, he wants to throw the ball down the field all the time," Hackett told The MMQB. "And he wasn't necessarily playing quarterback, either. I was giving him this footwork, this rhythm mindset, saying, 'Hey, you don't have to throw it down the field every time -- you can get to a check-down, you can get to a completion.' That took time to develop."
Yeah, I know ... Generally speaking, when a quarterback shows a propensity to dump the ball off to running backs in the passing game, we're quick to slap a derisive nickname on him: "Captain check-down." But the "dink and dunk" strategy is a smart approach for a signal-caller who's been prone to turnovers in prior years. By stringing together completions, particularly on early downs, the Jaguars can keep their offense on schedule and lure defenders close to the line of scrimmage.
Remember, every completion impacts the reaction of defenders. When a quarterback completes layup after layup, defenders tend to lose their discipline and eventually set the table for a big-play opportunity. Think about how the Golden State Warriors use the dribble-drive and three-point shot to light up scoreboards in the NBA. That's exactly how the Jaguars want Bortles to approach the passing game, with the quick throws or check-downs on early downs setting up big-play chances later in games.
Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film from Bortles' last four games, I noticed the Jaguars elected to pass more on first down, with the quarterback always having the option of dropping the ball off to the running back on a check-down when the vertical threat was covered. In 2018, Bortles has continued to lean on the check-down, with running backs accounting for 29.7 percent of his completions (14 of 47) and 18.2 percent of his passing yards. Those numbers don't jump off the stat sheet, but they certainly suggest the Jaguars' QB1 doesn't mind leaning on his running backs in the passing game.
That said, Bortles is more than just a dump-off playmaker at the position. He will push the ball down the field when he gets a favorable look, and his willingness to work the ball to his tight ends and wide receivers on intermediate routes has forced opponents to defend the entire field. With the Jaguars' running game still posing a formidable threat, opponents are facing a multifaceted offense with a new-and-improved No. 5 at the helm.
"We're in a great situation, because we have a very good line, and we have very good running backs, which will allow us to run the ball," Hackett said to The MMQB. "Now it's going to allow us to be a lot more aggressive because you can trust that Blake is going to make the right decision more consistently."
As long as Bortles sticks to the script and avoids the silly turnovers that lead to losses, the Jaguars not only have the personnel to make a run at the Lombardi Trophy, but they should be penciled in as the favorites to capture the title with a young quarterback playing at a championship level.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) Sorry, Jameis -- it's FitzMagic time. When Jameis Winston returns to the Buccaneers after serving his three-game suspension, Dirk Koetter should hand his franchise quarterback a visor and clipboard.
Ryan Fitzpatrick has been so good that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can't possibly pull him out of the lineup. The veteran has posted back-to-back 400-yard games, showing the football world how explosive this Bucs offense can be with a fearless gunslinger at the helm. Tampa Bay is averaging 482.5 yards (tops in the NFL) and 37.5 points (second) per game. Not to mention, the Buccaneers are converting an NFC-best 52.2 percent of their third downs, while also delivering splash play after splash play on the perimeter.
Fitzpatrick has been on fire, completing 78.7 percent of his passes while accumulating the following figures: 13.4 yards per attempt, 8:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, 151.5 passer rating. Those numbers are ridiculous. And going back to last year, Fitzpatrick is now 4-1 as Tampa's starter, having thrown for at least 275 yards in four of those games.
For comparison, Winston went 3-10 as a starter in 2017. And during last season, he completed 63.8 percent of his passes, with a 7.9 yards-per-attempt mark, a 19:11 TD-to-INT ratio and a 92.2 passer rating. Those numbers aren't awful, but they obviously pale in comparison to the eye-popping production posted by No. 14 of late. No wonder some Bucs veterans are suggesting the team should roll with FitzMagic for the foreseeable future.
"He's playing on fire right now," receiver DeSean Jackson said of Fitzpatrick on NFL Network. "With the way the team is rallying behind him and just playing lights-out football, you have to kind of honor it. You can't take the hot man out. You got the hot fire right now. It's like "NBA Jam." We used to play "NBA Jam" -- whoever got that hot-fire shot, you got to keep shooting, man. It's not my decision, but I'm sure Dirk and [offensive coordinator Todd] Monken and the guys that make those calls, they'll make sure they stay on fire until that fire is out."
Indeed. The offense has been rolling under Fitzpatrick's direction, and the Buccaneers would be wise to stick with the veteran until the clock strikes midnight on his Cinderella run. Now, we all know the 35-year-old's game will eventually return to the median, but there is a lot to like about the fortitude Fitzpatrick is showcasing through the first two weeks of the season.
"He's playing with house money," a former NFL starting quarterback told me. "He's played so long that he's seen every conceivable defensive front and coverage. He knows exactly what's coming and he knows how to attack it. ... For a guy with that kind of experience, the game is in slow motion. Plus, he knows that he has nothing to lose because he's destined to go back to the bench, so he's letting it rip without fear or hesitation. ... That's why you're seeing him play with supreme confidence as the starter."
Fitzpatrick has definitely let it rip on deep throws to Jackson. The quarterback has attempted five passes of 20-plus yards to his field-stretching wideout. The results? Five completions for 232 yards and three touchdowns. Not bad, eh? Now, yes, Jackson has always been a prolific deep-ball threat. In fact, with 28 career touchdowns of 50-plus yards, Jackson trails just Jerry Rice (36) and Randy Moss (29) in this category. So it's only natural for Tampa Bay's QB to exploit this explosive advantage. But that wasn't the case last season. In 2017, Winston attempted 19 passes of 20-plus yards to Jackson, resulting in just five completions, one touchdown and one interception.
Considering the fireworks display put on by this Fitzpatrick-led offense so far in 2018, it might be a while before the team's purported franchise quarterback gets his job back.
2) Christian McCaffrey's quickly becoming an elite hybrid RB. There are many explosive playmakers in the NFL, but Carolina Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey is the most versatile weapon in the league.
No disrespect to Todd Gurley, Tyreek Hill, Alvin Kamara and others, but McCaffrey is quietly producing some unique numbers in the early goings of this season. The No. 8 overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft is averaging 43.5 rushing yards and 73.5 receiving yards per game as the Panthers' primary offensive weapon. While those figures don't stand out when viewed individually, they're quite rare in concert. In fact, only one player in NFL history has averaged 40-plus rushing yards and 70-plus receiving yards over the course of an NFL season: Hall of Fame running back Lenny Moore, back in 1958.
In a league where the value of running backs is constantly questioned, McCaffrey is showing everyone that an RB1 can validate his worth as a top-10 pick without pounding the football on 20 runs a game. The Stanford product's diverse set of skills as an explosive runner/receiver makes it easy to build a game plan around him.
"He had an unbelievable rookie year and did a lot more than a lot of people would be asked to do and handled them all," first-year Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner told the team website back in January. "He's got such talent, you're just going to keep finding ways to get him the ball and try to create more space for him. That hard-nosed running between the tackles he can certainly do, but I don't know that's what you want to lead with him."
With that in mind, I applaud Turner for featuring McCaffrey as the Panthers' No. 1 weapon at Cam Newton's disposal. The wily play caller/designer feeds McCaffrey the football on a variety of option routes, screens and draws that attack the voids in defenses near the line of scrimmage. Additionally, Turner gives McCaffrey the ball on the "Power G" play that propelled him to stardom at Stanford as a Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2015.
Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film of Panthers games, I've been impressed with McCaffrey's elusiveness and wiggle with the ball in his hands in the open field. He has a knack for making defenders miss in tight quarters, while also showing better-than-anticipated strength and power breaking tackles in the hole. Despite being listed as 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, McCaffrey is comfortable running between the tackles on isolation plays directed between the center-guard and guard-tackle gaps.
Now, he's not built to handle a heavy workload of "smash" runs, but he is effective enough on traditional runs that the defense can't key on him exclusively as a pass catcher. As a playmaker in the passing game, McCaffrey's superb timing and precise route-running ability make him a threat to create explosive plays whenever he gets the ball on the perimeter. He consistently gets open against 1-on-1 coverage, and the Panthers have found ways to tap into his receiving skills.
Since 2017, McCaffrey leads all running backs with 100 receptions, which also ranks as the fourth-most receptions in NFL history by a pass catcher in his first 18 career games (Super Bowl era). With the Panthers intent on utilizing No. 22 on an assortment of quick-rhythm throws, screens and hard-hitting runs, McCaffrey could continue to post the kind of numbers that will make his name pop in the NFL record book.
3) Rams' defense overwhelms opponents with measured approach. I'm not surprised the Rams are defensively suffocating opponents on the perimeter -- with Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters joining a unit that also features Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers along the front -- but I'm pretty shocked by how they're going about it. Wade Phillips opting for a coverage-based approach with so many Pro Bowlers at his disposal? Not what I expected.
Studying the Next Gen Stats from this week's NFL Media research packet, I noticed the Rams are blitzing five or more defenders on just 18.8 percent of their opponents' dropbacks. That's tied for the ninth-lowest percentage in the NFL, down significantly from the 40 percent clip posted by the unit a season ago.
The presence of a pair of playmaking cover corners with versatile skills -- like Talib and Peters -- gives a creative defensive coordinator the flexibility to blitz whenever the urge strikes. That said, the threat of a dominant defensive line imposing its will on three- and four-man pressures allows the D to employ a variety of man or zone coverages that take away eligible receivers on the perimeter.
"Playing coverage is the best way to slow down quarterbacks if you have the guys who can hold up in the back end," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "You can double-team a talented receiver or use a safety as a robber to take away the quarterback's favorite routes. Additionally, you can drop seven or eight defenders into a zone and allow them to play with vision on the quarterback for quicker breaks on throws.
"Although blitzing can be an effective tool, you are always better off when you can rush three or four and keep everybody back in coverage. It's the easiest way to eliminate big plays."
To that point, the Rams have been terrific playing coverage in 2018. Despite allowing a 66.1 percent completion rate (opposing QBs are 37 of 56 for 286 yards) when rushing four or fewer rushers, the unit has a 0:4 TD-to-INT ratio and an NFL-best 48.7 passer rating in these circumstances. On the flip side, when the Rams rush five-plus defenders, they're giving up an 81.8 percent completion rate (9 of 11 for 107 yards) and a 94.1 passer rating. Although they haven't yielded a touchdown pass using either approach, it is apparent that the risk of sending extra rushers hasn't been worth the reward for the Rams.
Comparing the data to my observations from film study, I now see the wisdom in Phillips' conservative approach with the Rams. He has a game-wrecking front line capable of disrupting the rhythm of the quarterback with interior pressure, and the penetration is enough to force errant passes from the pocket. In addition, Talib and Peters are two of the best route readers and ballhawks in football, and the Rams' conservative pressure tactics allow both CBs to sit off at 8 or 9 yards off and cherry pick errant throws. With Donald and Suh forcing quarterbacks to throw with blockers in their laps, the Rams' ultra-aggressive corners have been able to swipe or swat passes at every turn.
If the Rams can continue to get away with these low-risk tactics, it is going to be hard for opponents to move the ball, particularly when Los Angeles' high-powered offense forces teams to play from behind.