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 interesting factor in Tua Tagovailoa's NFL evaluation.
But first, a look at potential breakout candidates for the 2019 season ...
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It has been widely reported that, prior to the trade with the Browns, Gettleman was seeking two first-rounddraft picks. With that in mind, many felt the veteran personnel czar came up short when he shipped the three-time Pro Bowl pass catcher (along with Olivier Vernon) to Cleveland in exchange for the Browns' 2019 first-rounder, Kevin Zeitler and Jabrill Peppers. Sure, the team walked away with the 17th overall pick (which ended up netting Clemson DT Dexter Lawrence), but most observers didn't see a first-round value in the acquisition of Peppers, despite the safety's selection as the 25th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Now, I know that statement will be met with some raised eyebrows, but the 5-foot-11, 213-pounder is coming off a solid season -- and, more importantly, he's joining a team with a scheme that should elevate his game. Giants defensive coordinator James Bettcher has a track record of putting playmakers in ideal spots to create chaos. Tyrann Mathieu earned first-team All-Pro honors under Bettcher back in 2015; the Honey Badger's deployment could serve as a blueprint for how Peppers will be used in New York.
As a hybrid defender with experience playing all over the field from his days at Michigan (when was deployed as a free safety, strong safety, cornerback, nickel corner and linebacker), Peppers could occupy multiple roles in Bettcher's ultra-aggressive scheme. Whether it's playing as a box defender on early downs or covering the slot in obvious passing situations, the third-year pro gives the Giants a more explosive athlete than departed safety Landon Collins. Don't believe me? Just look at their results from the NFL Scouting Combine. Peppers blazed a 4.46-second 40-yard dash, while also popping a 35.5-inch vertical leap and a 10-foot-8 broad jump. Collins' figures in those drills: 4.53 seconds, 35 inches, 10 feet flat. While I'll be the first to admit the "Underwear Olympics" aren't the be all, end all in player evaluation, the athletic testing does provide valuable context.
From a football standpoint, Peppers hasn't played to Collins' level, but he's certainly flashed impact ability as a designated playmaker in the past. In a Week 15 contest against the Denver Broncos last December, Peppers amassed six tackles, two tackles for losses, a sack and an interception. That's the kind of production Peppers registered consistently in Ann Arbor, where he was utilized as a Swiss Army Knife in a defensive scheme that routinely placed him in prime playmaking positions. Considering Peppers also finished last season with back-to-back games featuring at least four tackles and a tackle for loss, the Giants are getting a player who appears to be settling into his role as a hybrid defender in the NFL.
"Jabrill is a highly talented and ascending player in this league," Bettcher said on Wednesday, via NJ.com. "A guy that has the flexibility to play strong safety and could come down in the box and play some money[backer].
"He is a really talented blitzer, and when you watched his tape in Cleveland, you saw all the different roles he played. You saw snaps where he plays nickel, high in the middle of the field, high and outside, where he plays down low. A guy that has a lot of versatility. A guy that, when he learns this system, he is going to have a lot of fun playing in this system."
With that in mind, I believe Peppers is poised to have a breakout season this year. He'll be the designated playmaker in a scheme that should accentuate his talents as a multi-dimensional defender. Given Bettcher's success with Deone Bucannon and Mathieu in Arizona, Peppers could really emerge as a critical part of the Giants' defensive puzzle.
Here are five more young players who could break out in 2019:
1) Aaron Jones, RB, Green Bay Packers: Matt LaFleur's previous experience with the Rams and Falcons should give him a greater appreciation for the running game's impact on the play of the quarterback. Jones has teased Packer backers with a robust yards-per-carry average of 5.5 in each of his first two NFL seasons (214 total carries), but he was an underutilized RB1/RB2 in the previous system. Although LaFleur has discussed using a committee approach in Green Bay, Jones' explosiveness and versatility could make him a 1,000-yard rusher and 50-catch receiver as the team's lead back.
2) Harold Landry, OLB, Tennessee Titans: The second-year pro has already opened eyes as a pass rusher with his impressive first-step quickness and body control. Landry turns the corner like a cat chasing a mouse, and his closing burst to the quarterback from the back side makes him a threat to tally 10-plus sacks as a full-time starter. Given Cameron Wake's attention-grabbing presence, Landry could emerge as a force off the edge this season.
3) Mike Williams, WR, Los Angeles Chargers: OK, Williams did score 10 touchdowns on just 43 catches last season, but the third-year pro should break out even more now that he is officially the WR2 opposite Keenan Allen. As a big-bodied pass catcher with a huge catch radius, Williams is a dominant red-zone weapon capable of winning alley-oops against any corner. Should Philip Rivers continue to trust the young pass catcher in critical moments, the Chargers could have a pair of 1,000-yard receivers on the perimeter.
4) Kenyan Drake, RB, Miami Dolphins: Chad O'Shea brings a playbook from New England that calls for versatile running backs in the game plan. Drake is a big-bodied hybrid back with outstanding route-running and pass-catching skills. He averaged 43 catches over the past two seasons as a rotational player, but the 25-year-old could become an 80-catch guy in an offense designed to put the ball in the hands of playmakers in space. With Drake also flashing the potential to become a 1,000-yard rusher, the Dolphins could make No. 32 their feature playmaker in a retooled offense.
5) Anthony Walker, MLB, Indianapolis Colts: It's weird to suggest a player who just eclipsed 100 tackles is under the radar, but the Colts' middle linebacker has largely been overshadowed by his All-Pro teammate, Darius Leonard. Walker's impressive instincts and awareness, as well as his high-revving motor, make him an ideal fit for Matt Eberflus' hustle-and-flow scheme. If the Colts' defense picks up where it left off a season ago, Walker could join Leonard as a household name and one of the top linebackers in football.
DAK PRESCOTT'S FUTURE: Cowboys QB about to join $30 Million Club?
Just four quarterbacks average $30 million in annual compensation, but Dak Prescott is in line to join the club. I know the thought of the Dallas Cowboys' signal-caller sitting alongside the likes of Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan will make some observers queasy. When you take a closer look at Prescott's first three years in the NFL, though, he deserves access beyond the velvet rope.
The 25-year-old has the second-most QB wins (32) since entering the NFL in 2016, trailing only Tom Brady (35), and he leads the NFL in game-winning drives (14) during that span. In addition, Prescott boasts a 13-5 record against the NFC East, including a 10-2 mark over the last two seasons. We can debate whether wins should be counted as an individual stat, but it is impossible to dismiss Prescott's success as the QB1 of America's Team. No. 4 is the only quarterback in NFL history to pile up more than 20 games with a 100-plus passer rating (minimum 20 attempts) through his first three years. Considering Prescott is also the NFL's highest-rated passer when the game is tied or in overtime since 2016, the young quarterback certainly has a compelling case to earn big bucks.
That said, skeptics are having a hard time wrestling with the big dollar figure Prescott is going to command, given some raw passing statistics in his three-year career. Dak has hit 300 yards passing just five times in 48 regular-season games. He doesn't stack up eye-popping TD numbers, throwing for 23 in 2016, 22 in '17 and 22 last year. While his career completion percentage sits at a respectable 66.1, Prescott is viewed as a scattershot passer with some accuracy issues.
Moreover, Prescott is categorized as a game manager whose success is predicated on the presence and production of Ezekiel Elliott, one of the game's very best running backs. And Dak's play exponentially improved with the midseason trade for Amari Cooper:
Prescott without Cooper: 62.1 completion percentage, 202.4 pass YPG, 8:4 TD-to-INT ratio, 87.4 passer rating.
Prescott with Cooper (including two playoff games): 70.1 completion percentage, 269.1 pass YPG, 16:5 TD-to-INT ratio, 101.0 passer rating.
OK, so, the performance of the young quarterback when surrounded by top talent yields outstanding results. The Cowboys hit their bye week last season at 3-4. Then they acquired Cooper, went 7-2 down the stretch to take the NFC East and won a playoff game. Prescott plays like an A-level quarterback with A-level playmakers around him. Isn't that exactly what you want from a QB1 in today's game?
Given Prescott's uptick in play down the stretch last season, it is reasonable to expect the QB will continue to perform at that level with Elliott and Cooper in the huddle going forward. Suddenly, Dallas has another set of triplets just entering their prime, with Prescott the oldest at age 25. That's why Jerry Jones doesn't have much of a choice when it comes to paying his young field general. The bodacious owner has to pay market value for his quarterback after getting a pair of Pro Bowl campaigns at a greatly reduced rate. Remember, Dak entered the league as a fourth-round pick, receiving a contract with an average annual salary of $680,848. That's well below the going rate for even a mid-level starter, with Andy Dalton commanding an average of $16 million a year. And Prescott could reasonably argue that his resume puts him ahead of Derek Carr ($25 million average annual salary), Jimmy Garoppolo ($27.5 million) and Kirk Cousins ($28 million), based on the Cowboys' success in recent years.
That's why I believe No. 4 is knocking on the door of the $30 Million Club. Say what you want about Prescott and his passing totals, but he has stacked up enough wins and shown enough flashes to hold firm on his asking price and rebuff any hometown discount being suggested by the Cowboys.
While some have suggested Dallas should make Prescott play out his deal and use the franchise tag to keep him in the fold, the escalating value of the tag can't be overlooked. The 2019 franchise tag for a quarterback is valued at $24.865 million, with teams charged a 120 percent increase if they chose to issue a second tag the following season. Based on those totals, that would put Prescott at around $25 million or more in 2020, with a salary of at least $30 million in 2021 on a second tag. Not to mention, the current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2020 season, which adds even more uncertainty about future pay scales.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Raiders GM Mike Mayock's team-building philosophy makes perfect sense. I'm surprised at the conversation and debate surrounding the Oakland Raiders' draft class. With new general manager Mike Mayock opting to pick four players who participated in January's College Football Playoff National Championship Game between Alabama and Clemson, the football world seemingly had a tough time coming to grips with a team builder selecting a handful of top players from two of the best programs in college football.
I don't really understand why the concept of taking multiple players from winning teams is baffling to some. We routinely see owners interview and select coaches from Super Bowl teams to help reverse the fortunes of their own franchises. If ownership makes those decisions hoping to steal some of the culture from perennial contenders, why wouldn't team builders use that same philosophy when looking for core players to add to the roster?
As a young player with Green Bay Packers, I had a discussion with Ron Wolf about building a winning team. He talked about adding players from winning programs, particularly "big" schools where guys play on the biggest and brightest stages. The 2015 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee told me guys from powerhouse programs understand the sacrifice needed to win at the highest level, and they're more likely to buy into the selfless culture needed to win Super Bowls.
That message aligned with what I learned from my college coach, College Football Hall of Fame inductee Mack Brown, who also believed in building a championship-caliber program with high school recruits from winning programs. Coach Brown told me winners don't flinch at the commitment and sacrifice needed to win games, and that changes the culture of the locker room.
Mayock clearly wanted to establish a certain culture in the Raiders' locker room, selecting a handful of "foundational players" with kind of the talent and football character that coincides with success. Surveying the college football landscape, there are only a small number of programs competing for the national title each and every season. Clemson and Alabama currently top the list, with Ohio State, Oklahoma and LSU also viewed as football factories in the scouting community. That's not a slight to some of the other top programs in the country, but scouts universally consider those schools "must-visit" programs on the trail.
"You want guys who get it," an AFC college scouting director told me. "You want guys who will put in the work to win. Guys from championship programs know what winning looks like and how you have to prepare and perform to win. ... In a perfect world, you're getting the best players who've dominated in high school and college. If they can do it on those levels, why wouldn't they be able to do it as pros? That's what you're hoping for when you get guys from championship teams."
To that point, I believe there is indeed something to taking players from winning teams, especially if they've been voted team captains or are widely considered as team leaders. It's not a coincidence that three of Oakland's nine picks last month -- Clelin Ferrell, Maxx Crosby and Hunter Renfrow -- earned the captain's "C," while Josh Jacobs, Johnathan Abram and Isaiah Johnson were considered strong leaders on their respective teams.
The Raiders were looking to elevate the talent and football character in their locker room. The decision to add a bunch of "all in" guys from the national title game is part of the process of rebuilding a winner in Oakland.
2) How will Baker and Kyler impact the NFL evaluation for Tua? It will be interesting to see how much bearing the performances of Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray will have on the way scouts evaluate quarterbacks going forward. The last two No. 1 overall draft picks fell outside the prototype for QB1 prospects of the past 30 years. But they vaulted to the top of the charts after scouts, coaches and executives looked past their physical dimensions to appreciate their talents as passers and playmakers.
In Mayfield's case, evaluators were willing to bank on his arm talent, accuracy and leadership skills translating into positive results for his team. The 6-1, 215-pound passer didn't disappoint, as he transitioned from a collegiate passer posting a 69.8 percent completion rate and a 119:21 TD-to-INT ratio at Oklahoma into a rookie starter with a 63.8 percent completion percentage and a 27:14 ratio. Those numbers, which included the rookie record for touchdown passes, speak volumes about Mayfield's ability to thrive at the next level as a precise pocket passer.
Murray has yet to take an NFL snap, but he will get a chance to show the football world that his dynamic talent translates well to the pro game. The 5-10, 207-pound playmaker put up eye-popping numbers in his lone season as OU's starter: 69.0 percent completion rate, 4,361 passing yards, 1,001 rushing yards and 54 total touchdowns (42 pass, 12 rush). The Heisman Trophy winner was widely viewed as the QB1 in the 2019 class, primarily due to his unique combination of big-time arm talent and spectacular running skills. In an offense that will put the ball in the hands of a slick playmaker in a fast-break attack, Murray could dazzle and amaze early in his career.
That's why all eyes will be on Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa this fall. The 6-1, 218-pound lefty looks the part as a passer/playmaker for the Crimson Tide. He is at his best throwing darts from the pocket, but also flashes enough athleticism and mobility to create splash plays outside of structure. Tagovailoa connected on 69 percent of his throws with a 43:6 TD-to-INT ratio in 2018, exhibiting A-plus arm talent as a pinpoint passer. He is one of the few college QBs capable of throwing with touch, timing and anticipation, while also delivering fastballs to the perimeter.
Although Tagovailoa has a tendency to make some high-risk throws under duress, he falls into the new prototype established by Mayfield and Murray as a polished pocket passer with enough athleticism to create plays on impromptu scramble tosses. Not to mention, Tagovailoa has the winning pedigree and flashes the clutch factor to take his game to another level in a high-stakes affair.
Considering how the league has seemingly dropped some of the standards that automatically moved a number of undersized quarterbacks down the board in the past, Tagovailoa and a handful of smaller quarterbacks are suddenly hot commodities on the scouting trail.