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 one long-downtrodden franchise that's suddenly the team of the moment ...
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The Cleveland Browns have created quite the buzz with their accumulation of blue-chip talent, but I believe they're simply following a Super Bowl blueprint laid out by the Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams. Simply put, the Browns are stockpiling as many all-stars as possible while their franchise quarterback is playing on his rookie deal. The money saved from having a QB1 on a cost-controlled contract allows a franchise to add a number of top-tier players to the roster, thus supporting and elevating a young starter at the game's most important position.
Just look at how Philadelphia added the likes of Alshon Jeffery, Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, Torrey Smith, Timmy Jernigan, Chris Long and Ronald Darby, among others, on the way to winning Super Bowl LII. Los Angeles didn't hoist the Lombardi Trophy, but the additions of Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, Ndamukong Suh, Brandin Cooks, Sam Shields and Dante Fowler Jr. certainly helped them make a run through the NFC this past season. These two franchises, of course, selected quarterbacks with the first two picks of the 2016 NFL Draft: Jared Goff to the Rams, Carson Wentz to the Eagles.
Considering how well that approach worked for Philly and L.A. with quarterbacks in their second and third years, respectively, it's sensible for Cleveland to implement a similar plan with Baker Mayfield heading into his sophomore campaign. The 2018 draft's No. 1 overall pick showed promise as a rookie starter, and you'd expect his performance to improve in Year 2 with a star-studded supporting cast.
This week, the Browns added a supreme talent in Odell Beckham Jr. to an offensive lineup that already boasted Jarvis Landry, David Njoku, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt (who now will officially be eligible to return in Cleveland's ninth regular-season game after serving an eight-game ban for violating the NFL personal-conduct policy). But that's not all! Cleveland suddenly features a defense that can overwhelm opponents, with Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson joining Myles Garrett and Larry Ogunjobi to harass quarterbacks in the pocket. With Denzel Ward emerging as an all-star on the island and Christian Kirksey flourishing as the anchor in the middle, the Browns have the makings of a fine defensive unit under new coordinator Steve Wilks.
"You have to have high-level talent to win in the NFL," a Browns executive told me. "When you focus exclusively on a draft-and-develop strategy, it can breed complacency because guys are secure in their roles and the established pecking order.
"If you want to remain competitive, you need to bring in blue-chip players and let them raise your level of play."
Again, a crucial part of this strategy -- aggressively accumulating established difference-makers -- is not having the massive cap hit under center. Last season, five of the 12 postseason teams (the Bears, Cowboys, Texans, Chiefs and Rams) spent less than six percent of their salary cap on their QB1s. All of those teams have young starting quarterbacks in place who've been flanked with enough talent -- on both sides of the ball -- to win in a variety of ways.
Granted, you will eventually have to pay your QB1 if he wins at a high level and plays to the standard expected of a top pick. But the initial championship window is the four/five-year span when the young signal-caller's still playing on his rookie deal. The cost control on the most expensive position in the NFL enables an astute team builder to put together a roster with enough stud players to compete against the heavyweight contenders in the league.
As a young player in this league, I learned that it takes eight to 10 blue-chippers to win at the highest level. I joined a Buffalo Bills team that had gone to four straight Super Bowls with Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith and Andre Reed leading the way. That list doesn't even include the likes of Kent Hull, Darryl Talley, Cornelius Bennett and Henry Jones, all of whom played at a high level for Buffalo during that run. In Green Bay, I watched Hall of Fame inductee Ron Wolf build the Packers into a title team behind Brett Favre, Reggie White, Keith Jackson, Sean Jones, Santana Dotson, LeRoy Butler, Desmond Howard and Antonio Freeman. It's not a coincidence current Browns executives John Dorsey, Alonzo Highsmith and Eliot Wolf subscribe to the star theory, given their ties to the Wolf-led Pack.
Glancing at Cleveland's new-and-improved roster today, I immediately see 10 players who at least deserve consideration as "blues": Beckham, Landry, Mayfield, Hunt, Garrett, Vernon, Richardson, Ogunjobi, Kirksey and Ward. That doesn't even include RB Nick Chubb, LB Joe Schobert and LG Joel Bitonio, three emerging A-level players at their respective positions.
That said, for this franchise to truly return to competitive relevancy, the Browns still need the chemistry between the stars, role players and coaches to work. Freddie Kitchens has to cultivate accountability, commitment and trust in the locker room, which is a challenge for a first-time coach. Granted, we saw Matt Nagy deftly navigate a similar situation last season in Chicago, earning Coach of the Year honors after guiding the Bears to the top of the NFC North at 12-4. But he didn't have as many A-listers on the roster, especially on offense. Kitchens will have to juggle the touches between OBJ and Landry, while also remaining true to the blue-collar running game and complementary play-action package that made Cleveland's offense a feared unit down the stretch last season.
Still, there's no disputing this team's enticing potential. Dorsey promised to wake up a sleeping giant when he took over as Browns GM in December of 2017. After watching the grizzled evaluator add more blue-chip pieces to the team puzzle, I see a roster that lacks a glaring weakness. The offense should be quite explosive. If the defense can play up to its potential, with the ferocious front leading the way, there's no reason why the Browns can't take over the AFC North and emerge as a viable challenger to the New England Patriots' throne.
AB AND GRUDEN: A match made in football heaven
Don't let the 2018 season distort your view on Jon Gruden's offensive wizardry in the passing game. Despite his inability to elevate Amari Cooper in the Black Hole, Gruden will make Antonio Brown the ultimate WR1 when he works with the seven-time Pro Bowl selectee. Don't believe me? Just look at Gruden's resume when it comes to his work with receivers throughout his NFL career.
As a wide receivers coach with the Green Bay Packers, Gruden helped Sterling Sharpe become a perennial 100-catch receiver in a league still clinging to its "3 yards and a cloud of dust" roots. As offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles, Gruden helped Irving Fryar grab a couple of Pro Bowl bids on the strength of back-to-back 80-catch/1,100-yard seasons. Keep in mind, Fryar was in his mid-30s at that time, but dominated NFC East opponents with the help of Gruden's scheming.
In his first go-around as head coach of the Raiders, Gruden helped Jerry Rice and Tim Brown remain a dominant pass-catching duo -- despite both guys being in the twilight of their careers. Each Hall of Fame playmaker logged 80-plus catches and nine touchdowns in their lone season together under Gruden (2001), helping the Raiders win the AFC West. Considering Brown was 35 and Rice was 39(!) for the bulk of that season, I think it is safe to say Gruden understands how to elevate veteran receivers with his scheming and play-calling.
There are additional examples of the offensive guru taking veteran receivers and showcasing their games on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Keyshawn Johnson and Joey Galloway enjoyed great success in Gruden's system. Galloway posted three straight 1,000-yard seasons and averaged a whopping 16.6 yards per catch from 2005 through 2007 under Gruden. Did I mention those were Galloway's Age 34, 35 and 36 seasons?
Given those examples, I believe Brown will crush it with the Raiders as their designated WR1 for the next few seasons. The 10th-year pro has been the top receiver in football for much of this decade, as evidenced by his six straight 100-catch seasons. During this span, Brown has averaged 1,524 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. That's ridiculous production from a No. 1 receiver, particularly one who routinely faced double/bracket coverage from nearly every opponent on the schedule. That's one of the reasons why Gruden was giddy at the prospect of crafting game plans with an all-star playmaker in mind.
"Well, I get excited because of where this man comes from -- I think the sixth round. ... He did it the hard way," Gruden said at Brown's introductory press conference on Wednesday. "He's done everything in his power to be the best he can possibly be -- on and off the field. His body of work is not only impressive, it's fun to watch. He's electrifying after the catch, he's a great competitor, he wins the 50-50 ball, he's outstanding in short areas. You have a great imagination as a football coach when you coach a man like this. He can play split end, he can play flanker, he can play in the slot, he can return punts and sell popcorn at halftime."
Thinking about how Gruden will use Brown, I envision him moving No. 84 around the formation to create headaches for opponents attempting to match up with the Raiders' WR1. It's not a coincidence that the coach alluded to Brown playing split end, flanker and slot receiver in Pittsburgh -- Gruden will vary Brown's alignments to get him easy touches on quick-rhythm throws and keep him engaged for four quarters. Since 2016, Brown has scored 20 touchdowns when he's aligned outside the numbers, according to Next Gen Stats. That will certainly make it easy for Gruden to design plays for Brown at the "X" (split end) and "Z" (flanker) positions. The offensive guru knows his No. 1 receiver can win on the outside, and he will take advantage of his superb playmaking skills by scripting a handful of shot plays (deep balls) each week to keep defenders from squatting on short and intermediate routes. Expect to see Brown running a variety of double moves (slant-and-go, hitch-and-go and stutter-go routes) from an outside alignment in some exotic formations that blow up the defense's strength calls. Keep in mind, Brown has scored 18 touchdowns on deep targets since 2016 -- most in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats.
With Brown also totaling 15 touchdowns against press coverage since 2016 -- second-most in the NFL (DeAndre Hopkins has 16), per NGS -- Gruden will be like a kid in a candy store when drawing up plays for his top target.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Le'Veon Bell's about to reclaim the throne. The Twitter-verse can debate whether Le'Veon Bell took an "L" on his new four-year, $52 million deal with the New York Jets, but I believe the year-long sabbatical could help the two-time first-team All-Pro running back reclaim the No. 1 spot at his position.
I know that's an unpopular opinion at a time when everyone is counting No. 26's money, but the time away from the game could help Gang Green's new RB1 regain the juice that made him the NFL's most dangerous offensive weapon. Remember, Bell's career average of 129.0 scrimmage yards per game is the best mark in NFL history. Over the past five seasons, the 27-year-old is tied with Julio Jones and LeSean McCoy for the most games of 100-plus scrimmage yards with 37 -- despite the fact that Bell missed 31 games, including the entire 2018 season, during that span. Think about that. There is no disputing his spot on the Mt. Rushmore of offensive playmakers in the league today.
For the Jets, Bell is exactly what the team needs behind Sam Darnold. The young QB1 shouldered too much of the load as a rookie -- Bell's presence will change how defenses game plan against the Jets. Instead of using coverage or blitz-based tactics to confuse Darnold, opponents will need to use more traditional schemes to put extra defenders in the box. This should result in more one-on-one coverage on the outside, leading to easier throws for Darnold from the pocket. Being a sidekick to the Jets' QB1 appealed to Bell.
"Absolutely," said Bell in his introductory conference call with the press. "That's a part of it. Seeing a guy like him, so raw and so talented. Maybe he just needs another weapon. You never know what he can do with another weapon. He definitely was a valuable reason as to why I chose to come here."
Last season, Darnold completed just 62.9 percent of his passes thrown between 1 and 10 yards -- that's dead last among qualified quarterbacks and speaks to why New York needed Bell in the lineup. For his career, Bell averages 5.0 receptions per game -- and he snagged 160 balls over his last two years in Pittsburgh. As an effective route runner from the backfield, slot or out wide, Bell gives Darnold a dependable safety valve to target when the defense takes away downfield options with blanket coverage. Keep in mind: New Jets head coach Adam Gase has always been a believer in the "10 yards and under" passing game. By targeting running backs, receivers and tight ends within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, Gase plans on his quarterback getting the ball out of his hands before pass rushers can collapse the pocket off the edges.
With Bell expected to play a prominent role as an RB1/WR2, the Jets have added a weapon that will help the offense develop an identity with a young quarterback still finding his way. You know Gase is excited. Just look at the way he spoke of Bell back in 2016, when his Dolphins were preparing to play the Steelers on Wild Card Weekend.
"I paid attention to him when he was in college, being a Michigan State grad myself," Gase said, per the New York Post. "Seeing him go from what they did at Michigan State, where they are power football. I remember him being a big guy, that was downhill, and seeing him be a guy who has transformed his body and can do everything in the run game. The weapon he is out of the backfield and when he is removed from the backfield and empty, and all the different things they can do with him with the route tree he has.
"It's very impressive to see how he has grown as a player from the time he was drafted. If he is not the best in the league, he is one of the top three. I just can't think of a lot of guys who are as versatile as he is. He is a weapon for them."
Now he's a weapon for Gase. Have fun, coach.
2) Kyler Murray checks another box. Initially, it was hard for some observers to envision Kyler Murray emerging as a first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, due to his status as a one-year starter with substandard physical dimensions. But the Heisman Trophy winner is inching closer to potentially becoming the No. 1 overall pick after an impressive performance on Wednesday at Oklahoma's pro day.
While it is possible that the connection between Murray and the Arizona Cardinals is an elaborate smokescreen designed to coax another team into trading away significant draft capital to jump up to the top spot on the draft board, there's no denying the Oklahoma product's talent and potential as a possible No. 1 pick following his spectacular workout in front of representatives from all 32 NFL teams.
Murray dazzled scouts with his A+ arm talent and athleticism while completing 61 of 67 passes in a scripted workout designed to showcase his pocket-passing ability. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound passer is an "easy" thrower with a compact motion that looks ripped from a quarterback training video. Murray not only displayed quick feet and excellent balance taking three-, five- and seven-step drops, but he showed evaluators that he's capable of throwing with touch, timing and anticipation from the pocket. He can throw darts on drive throws to the boundary from the opposite hash or drop in feathery tosses to receivers down the seams or inside the numbers.
Murray is the rare power pitcher with a changeup, slider and knuckleball in his arsenal. He can carve up defenses with a variety of throws tossed from the pocket or on the move. Although he didn't display his movement passing skills during the workout, Murray has a ton of highlight-reel throws on his tape that put that question to bed. He is not only capable of making pinpoint throws to receivers on deep crossers and comeback routes, but he is an improvisational wizard with a knack for connecting on rainbows when throwing outside of the pocket.
Despite being viewed as a five-star athlete based on his exploits on the football field and baseball diamond (he was already a top-10 pick in the MLB draft), Murray decided to bypass the 40-yard dash and the athletic testing portions (shuttles and jumps) of OU's pro day. Although blazing a blistering time in the 40 would've created a buzz throughout the NFL scouting community, the Heisman Trophy winner's nifty footwork and fluid movements as a passer confirmed his exceptional athleticism.
To that point, Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley silenced any concerns about Murray's speed and quickness when he hinted to NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah that his QB1 would seriously challenge Marquise Brown in a 40-yard race. Considering Brown's reputation as one of the fastest players in college football, the notion that Murray could hang with (or even beat) the speedster speaks volumes about his overall explosiveness.
From a character standpoint, Murray's personality and leadership skills could become less of a concern after watching him interact with his teammates at the workout. The Sooners appeared genuinely excited about Murray's performance, and the endless high fives and hugs suggest that he was well-liked by his peers. Granted, the observation from afar needs to be backed with solid information from coaches and administrators, but he appeared to have a strong connection with his teammates at first glance.
Murray's post-workout interview also showed more of his personality and gave evaluators a glimpse of how he could command a room as a soft-spoken -- yet ultra-confident -- player. Although the combination of shyness and athletic arrogance could rub some team executives the wrong way, others will see Murray's easy-going nature during the interview as an encouraging sign of how he could project as the face of a franchise.
Overall, Murray's workout wasn't flawless, but he certainly checked off enough boxes to remain squarely in the conversation as a top-10 pick -- possibly No. 1 overall.