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Bears headline four sneaky contenders; will Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr. ever find harmony?

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:

But first, a look at four teams no one should be sleeping on ...

Bears rookie Justin Fields is grabbing headlines in the Windy City as the franchise quarterback of the present and future, but the entire team should command attention on its own as a sneaky-good squad that could make a run to the playoffs.

I know that take might surprise some people based on my previous critiques of head coach Matt Nagy, but the Bears have an intriguing mix of ingredients with the potential to create problems for opponents.

The insertion of Fields into the lineup has given the offense a dynamic centerpiece to build around. While his production might look pedestrian entering Week 6, he has guided Chicago to a 2-1 record as a starter while improving his passer rating in each start. He has pushed the ball down the field more than his predecessor, Andy Dalton, and the deep ball has added some pop to the offense. Most importantly, Fields has done a good job of avoiding costly turnovers and reducing some of the negative plays that plagued the offense early in the season.

That said, the rookie quarterback must improve against the blitz. He ranks last in sack rate (20%), completion percentage (42.9%), pass yards per attempt (4.5) and passer rating (26.6) against blitz pressure, per Next Gen Stats. With Fields' overall sack rate (16.3%) and blitz rate (40.7%) at league-high levels, the Bears need their QB1 to utilize his athleticism and running skills to mask some of the team's flaws at the line of scrimmage.

To that point, we've seen a renewed commitment to the running game since offensive coordinator Bill Lazor took over play-calling duties a couple weeks ago, which gives Chicago a chance to win games until the rookie finds his groove. Despite the loss of David Montgomery to a knee injury, the Bears have the league's ninth-ranked rush offense thanks, in part, to the efforts last week of Khalil Herbert and Damien Williams. The duo is unheralded but was effective against the Raiders in an offense that is skewing toward a grind-it-out approach that sets the game up for the defense. Unfortunately, Williams was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Thursday and the Bears could be without him against the Packers in Week 6.

If Fields can give the offense enough playmaking in the passing game to supplement a rushing attack that remains effective despite injury/health issues, Nagy's team can win playing complementary football.

To win big, however, the defense will need to lean on Khalil Mack and Co. Through five games, the Bears are holding opponents to 20.0 points per game -- seventh-fewest in the league. In addition, they lead the NFL with 18 sacks and Chicago owns a plus-three margin in the turnover battle.

Mack, a three-time All-Pro edge defender, has set the tone with five sacks and a rugged playing style that has rubbed off on his teammates. With the Bears playing old school, hard-nosed football, their opponents have wilted under the constant pressure.

It's a great sign that Nagy seems to be embracing the team's blue-collar style and is managing the game to accentuate its strengths. While it might not be how Nagy, a former offensive coordinator, envisioned the Bears playing in his fourth year on the job, this team has found an identity that makes it good enough to compete for a playoff spot in the NFC.

Here are three other sneaky contenders to keep an eye on as we inch closer to midseason:

If you play great defense in the NFL, you always have a chance to make it into the playoffs. The Panthers have a five-star D featuring a collection of dynamic players with track star speed and explosiveness. Matt Rhule and Phil Snow are not afraid to unleash the unit on their foes with a barrage of blitzes that test the toughness of quarterbacks around the league. With recent trade acquisitions Stephon Gilmore and C.J. Henderson upgrading the coverage on the perimeter, the Panthers could make a run whether Sam Darnold plays well or not. 

I know a 1-4 record has the Colts positioned near the cellar in the AFC South, but pay attention to how Frank Reich's squad is playing. The team is coming off an overtime loss in Baltimore that showed the offense's potential with Carson Wentz at the helm. If the running game picks up steam and the defense plays the run like it has the last couple weeks, the Colts could get hot down the stretch and sneak into the playoffs. 

Do not count out the Steelers as a playoff contender despite their slow start. Mike Tomlin has a talented defense at his disposal with enough playmakers to create problems for opponents unable to deal with the unit's collective speed. Offensively, Najee Harris and an improving offensive line could give the team enough pop to knock out opponents with a barrage of body blows from the heavyweight runner. If Ben Roethlisberger takes care of the ball, the Steelers can be the kind of team that trips up a top seed down the stretch. 

BROWNS: Will Baker-OBJ connection ever click?

What's up with Odell Beckham Jr.

That's the million-dollar question circulating around the football world. The superstar pass-catcher missed the first couple weeks of the 2021 season due to the ACL tear he suffered last year, but since returning in Week 3 he has 9 catches for 124 yards and no touchdowns, which isn't exactly the impact expected of a three-time Pro Bowl receiver. 

Now, part of Beckham's diminished production can be attributed to his lengthy recovery from the knee injury. As a dynamic athlete with A-plus speed, quickness and burst, the veteran is still knocking off the rust from the extended layoff. From his bump-and-run releases to his route-running ability, it's clear that OBJ is still attempting to regain his all-star form on the perimeter.

While he's not performing at peak levels right now, I still believe Beckham flashes enough playmaking ability to warrant a Get the ball to No. 13 section on Kevin Stefanski's call sheet. 

"I kind of look at each game and what do we have to do to win? What do we need to do to go score a bunch of points?" Stefanski said during a press conference on Wednesday when asked whether Beckham needed more than the three targets he received last week. "As I've mentioned before, he's a dynamic football player. He's very front of mind when we're game-planning, when we're calling plays. Sometimes the defense dictates if the ball goes elsewhere, and we're comfortable with that because we have good players elsewhere."

With Stefanski stating on the record that feeding OBJ is a priority, the disconnect seems to be between the thrower and catcher. It appears Baker Mayfield and the enigmatic receiver have not been able to get on the same page since Beckham arrived in Cleveland in 2019.

The eighth-year pro is averaging 56.8 receiving yards per game with the Browns after averaging 92.8 per game during his five seasons with the Giants. OBJ's yards-per-catch average in Cleveland is nearly identical to his time with the G-Men (13.9 with Browns; 14.0 with Giants) but he has just seven touchdown catches in 26 games in Cleveland after tallying 44 touchdown grabs in 59 contests in New York.

The discrepancy certainly doesn't stem from a lack of desire for the ball on Beckham's part.

"I cannot sit here and lie like, 'I do not want the ball,' " he told reporters this week. "Like I tell you every time I get up here, they do not pay James Harden for defense, you know what I mean? He is a shooter. I feel like I am a shooter. As I get down in the red zone and I am running a corner route and three people come with me and Higgy (Rashard Higgins) is wide open, I have to know that happens. I know that I bring a lot of attention to defenses on the other end, and other people are going to be open."

After studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I believe a combination of scheme, a lack of chemistry and flawed execution is to blame for OBJ's failure to thrive as the No. 1 option in the passing game. As a run-based offense, the Browns' game plans have been built around Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. The duo spearheads the NFL's top-ranked rush offense, which limits the number of touches available for receivers on game day, but Chubb has been ruled out of Sunday's game against the Cardinals due to a calf injury.

Regardless, Stefanski should be making a concerted effort to get No. 13 the ball on a handful of plays that do not require reads. Whether he tosses OBJ a few bubble screens or hitches on the outside or hands him the ball on fly sweeps and reverses, the dynamic playmaker needs a steady diet of touches to stay engaged.

Mayfield also needs to prioritize OBJ in the passing game. He is clearly the Browns' most talented receiver, and the QB1 should treat him as such by frequently targeting him. Sure, Mayfield should absolutely work through his reads and deliver the ball to the open man. But great quarterbacks are aware of the temperamental nature of pass-catchers and they make it a point to get them the ball to keep them focused and attentive throughout the game.

When I study Mayfield's play, it looks like the fourth-year pro does not have the same chemistry with Beckham that he shares with the Browns' other playmakers. Perhaps it is due to the repetitions that he shared with the other pass-catchers while working together in the offseason and training camp. Beckham was limited in practices until late August, which might have kept the duo from developing the timing and trust needed to perform at a high level under pressure.

There is still time for Mayfield and OBJ to get on the same page, but the clock is ticking with the trade deadline on the horizon. If the Browns cannot find a way to maximize OBJ's talents within the framework of their offense, they might be able to acquire a better option for their young quarterback with the assets that No. 13 brings in a swap.

JA'MARR CHASE: He's the real deal!

Trust your eyes.

A lot of factors go into the evaluation process but believing what you see should be the No. 1 rule in the scouting business. That's why I am not surprised to see Ja'Marr Chase terrorizing the league as the Bengals' No. 1 receiver.

The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder was the best receiver on the planet at LSU during the 2019 college football season. He racked up 1,780 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns on 84 catches. The unanimous All-American and 2019 Biletnikoff Award winner was a dominant playmaker on the perimeter, exhibiting a dynamic combination of speed, athleticism and ball skills that made him nearly impossible to defend.

Chase's spectacular skills had scouts salivating over his potential as a pro heading into the 2020 college football season, his junior year. Although he decided to opt out due to COVID-19 concerns, evaluators were still excited about his potential to thrive as a WR1 at the next level. I ranked the LSU standout as the top receiver in the 2021 NFL Draft and regarded him as one of the blue-chip prospects in the class.

With Chase reuniting with his former college quarterback, Joe Burrow, in Cincinnati, it was easy to envision the sticky-fingered pass-catcher playing like an All-Pro as a rookie. However, the optimism took a turn when Chase appeared to have a case of the butterfingers in the preseason with four drops in five targets.

Perhaps we should have anticipated a slow start for Chase based on his inactivity in 2020. The decision to opt out prevented him from honing his skills in live action, and we should not underestimate the importance of repetitions on performance. Moreover, we overlooked the difficult transition from college to the pros as a receiver.

From the ball to the route tree and offensive system, the NFL game is different from the one played on Saturdays. It takes time to adapt and adjust, and Chase simply needed an acclimation period to make the transition.

"The ball is different because it is bigger," Chase said during the preseason. "It doesn't have the white stripes on the side so you can't see the ball coming from the tip point so you actually have to look for the strings on the ball at the top, which is hard to see because whole ball is brown and you have the six strings that are white. But for the most part, just have to get used to it and find out what I am comfortable with catching."

Chase pointed out that his issues were concentration flaws and he could correct them with more attention to detail.

"My drops come from me not looking the ball in. By looking the ball in, I'm talking about high-pointing it and watching it and as soon as it hit you looking away," he said. "Me running before the catch. Me doing stuff like that and dropping it. I did that a couple times."

Fast forward to the regular season, and Chase looks exactly like the dominant receiver scouts raved about. He is averaging nearly 20 yards per catch (19.8) with five touchdowns and a pair of 100-yard games in his first five contests. The production and jaw-dropping highlights not only match what Chase put on his tape at LSU, but it confirms his status as a pro-ready prospect.

Given how impactful Chase has been with the Bengals, I will make sure to trust my eyes (what I see) over my ears (what I hear) the next time I grade a top prospect.

Is Bills' Gregory Rousseau JPP 2.0?

The scouting business is all about making projections and comparisons to estimate how a prospect will perform at the next level. Evaluators pore over their previous scouting reports and pro day measurements to see if they are able to find the next big thing at a given position.

For pass rushers, the evaluation comes down to get-off, hand skills and flexibility (bend and burst). Those traits routinely translate into huge sack numbers when a young player figures it out.

In Buffalo, Greg Rousseau has started to put the pieces together and the rest of the AFC is on notice.

The rookie pass rusher is coming off an A-plus performance against the Kansas City Chiefs that showcased his rare combination of size, length and power. Measuring 6-foot-5, 260 pounds with 34 3/8-inch arms, Rousseau is a prototypical "Rush End" with the potential to win with finesse or power off the edge. He attacks with speed while utilizing his exceptional arm length to create separation when he determines what is going on in the backfield.

After studying the rookie's pass-rush attempts, I am impressed with Rousseau's savvy. He knows when to attack with speed, quickness and his non-stop motor. The rookie plays hard while attempting to set blockers up with a sequence of maneuvers that keep them guessing at the line of scrimmage.

The combination of athleticism and individual game-planning reminds me of how a young Jason Pierre-Paul crushed opponents off the edge. I made this comparison during the pre-draft process and I am sticking with it after seeing Rousseau exhibit the same kind of potential at left defensive end. The rookie is too long and athletic for most right tackles, and it is only a matter of time before he commands extra attention as a pass rusher.

With a team-high three sacks, 18 tackles, four tackles for loss and an interception, Rousseau is making an impact off the edge while learning the game on the fly.

After watching him enjoy similar success during on-the-job training at Miami as a former wide receiver turned defensive end, I am not surprised by his immediate impact on a team full of worker bees with blue-collar mentalities. Rousseau has adapted to the "play hard" culture and is quickly emerging as a star with the potential to transform the defense from good to great during his rookie season.

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