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 why Cam Jordan's fearless remarks about the NFC South race are well-founded ...
Think the New Orleans Saints are about to hand over the NFC South reins to the Tom Brady-infused Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Think again, according to Cam Jordan.
Asked about the new-look Bucs on NFL Network's Good Morning Football this past Monday, the Pro Bowl defensive end responded thusly, with a wry smile:
"I do know we have to step up our game, we have to elevate. I mean, they've got the second-greatest quarterback in all times, right behind Drew Brees, and now we've got a head-to-head two times a year. We've got our work cut out for us. And then, of course, they have additions. You know, you bring in (Rob) Gronkowski and LeSean McCoy, you already had two 1,000-yard receivers in (Chris) Godwin and Mike Evans. I mean, this is a team that's fighting for second place."
Jordan was obviously having fun poking at his division rivals, but his words clearly reflect how confident the loaded Saints feel heading into the 2020 season. And rightfully so. Considering New Orleans has claimed back-to-back-to-back NFC South titles, posting a 13-5 division mark in the process, it is easy to understand why Cam and Co. aren't threatened by TB12's arrival in Tampa. The Saints have owned the South in recent years, winning the division title last season by a whopping six games, and it's hard to imagine them relinquishing their crown in 2020 with a Super Bowl-caliber roster.
Offensively, the return of Drew Brees ensures Sean Payton can utilize every page of his voluminous playbook to feed the ball to Michael Thomas on the perimeter. The 2019 Offensive Player of the Year set an NFL record with 149 receptions, and his 1,725 receiving yards were the seventh-highest single-season mark in league history. He essentially carried the 2019 Saints' offense, as injuries plagued Brees and Alvin Kamara. With Nos. 9 and 41 back in business, the Saints can attack defenses with a more balanced approach -- especially now that they have a quality WR2 lining up opposite Thomas on the perimeter.
Emmanuel Sanders came over from San Francisco in free agency to give Thomas a high-end playmaker on the opposite side of the field. This is no small addition. The 2019 Saints' second-leading wide receiver? Ted Ginn Jr. with 30 catches for 421 yards, totals that were 119 catches and 1,423 yards shy of Thomas' figures. That's a Grand Canyon-sized gap between the WR1 and WR2 -- a gap that Sanders will significantly close. The 11th-year pro is a productive pass catcher with a Ph.D. in route-running and playmaking ability. Sanders creates separation from defenders down the field by sprinkling a variety of stop-start moves and shake-and-bake maneuvers into his routes. New Orleans saw firsthand how dynamic Sanders can be in last season's 48-46 home loss to San Francisco, when he torched the Saints with seven catches for 157 yards and a touchdown, while also contributing a 35-yard touchdown pass for good measure:
Sanders spun Saints defenders around like tops on that day, displaying the kind of big-play ability New Orleans sorely lacked opposite Thomas. With Sanders joining Thomas, Kamara and Jared Cook in the starting lineup, Brees now has a full complement of weapons at his disposal. Opposing defenses will be spread quite thin.
In terms of New Orleans' own defense, the Saints brought back Malcolm Jenkins after the 32-year-old's six-season stint in Philadelphia. Jenkins, New Orleans' first-round pick back in 2009, not only brings leadership and experience, but he gives the Saints a matchup weapon to deploy against big-bodied tight ends (like Gronk). With Jenkins also comfortable hovering around the box as an extra defender against the run or as a surprise pass rusher off the edge, Dennis Allen's defense could feature more chameleon looks.
One thing that hasn't been discussed much, but could play a pivotal role in the Saints' attempt at a fourth straight division title: the re-emergence of Janoris Jenkins. After being released by the New York Giants in December, "Jackrabbit" was claimed off waivers by New Orleans -- and the veteran solidified the cornerback spot opposite Marshon Lattimore down the stretch. Jenkins finished the season with five interceptions and 16 pass breakups (in New York/New Orleans), displaying "shadowing" skills in designated matchups. His ability to snuff out quicker receivers gives Allen the option to employ a traditional scheme (cornerbacks align right and left) or play matchups (based on the size/skills of the WR1 and WR2) with his top two cover men.
In a division with a number of explosive pass-catching duos (Evans/Godwin, Julio Jones/Calvin Ridley, D.J. Moore/Robby Anderson), the presence of two capable CBs is crucial. Jenkins completes the Saints' secondary and shores up one of the unit's biggest holes from the past few seasons.
Jordan has certainly noticed the roster upgrades, fueling his confidence as the 2020 season approaches. While everyone's spent most of the offseason talking about the Brady Bucs, the Saints remain the class of the NFC South -- and Jordan isn't shy about letting the football world know it.
DEREK CARR: Raiders quarterback disrespected?
It doesn't take much to rile up a competitive athlete in the NFL. But there is nothing that fires up a player more than a perceived slight or lack of respect. That's why my ears perked up when I heard Derek Carr's response to a question on whether he considered opting out of the 2020 season.
"I did not. I have a lot to prove to myself. I have a lot to prove to my organization," Carr told reporters on Tuesday. "I'm going to be completely honest with you: I'm tired of being disrespected."
Based on the typically mild-mannered quarterback's tone there, it is apparent that he's irritated by the outside noise regarding his job status and place in the pecking order among NFL starters. Despite the fact that Carr just posted a 70.4 percent completion rate, 21:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 100.8 passer rating in 2019, there were plenty of whispers that the Raiders were dissatisfied with their franchise quarterback and could look to upgrade the position in the offseason. The speculation only intensified when the team signed former No. 2 overall pick Marcus Mariota in March to a two-year, $17.6 million deal. Although the veteran was dumped by his original team in favor of Comeback Player of the Year Ryan Tannehill, the signing seemingly put Carr on the hot seat. And then speculation also ran rampant that Las Vegas would jump into the quarterback sweepstakes on draft day, something that ultimately didn't come to pass.
Given all that, it's no surprise the seventh-year starter (and three-time Pro Bowler) feels disrespected by the football world.
While critics point to his 39-55 career record and a resume with only one winning season, Carr has played at an MVP level at times (see: 2016) and his improved performance under Jon Gruden should've solidified his spot as the team's long-term solution, right?
That's what I would imagine when comparing Carr's numbers to some of the young stars at the position:
PASSING STATS SINCE 2016:
Carr: 66.4%, 15,536 yds, 7.3 ypa, 90:37 TD-to-INT.
Dak Prescott: 65.8%, 15,778 yds, 7.6 ypa, 97:36 TD-to-INT.
Carson Wentz: 63.8%, 14,191 yds, 6.9 ypa, 97:35 TD-to-INT.
Jared Goff: 62.4%, 14,219 yds, 7.6 ypa, 87:42 TD-to-INT.
It doesn't matter whether you personally like the players listed or not -- the fact that Carr's production over the past four years is nearly identical speaks volumes. Each of the other three players is viewed as his team's unquestioned QB1 by his front office and coaches. Sure, some of them evoke quizzical looks from certain folks in the football world when their names are mentioned in "franchise quarterback" conversations, but they are certainly not under scrutiny from their own staff.
That's why I understand Carr's frustration. He has done more with less in the Gruden era, but skeptics -- outside and apparently inside the building -- continue to question whether he really has the goods to be a true franchise QB.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Tape from the past two seasons, I'm struck by Carr's ability to play like a pass-first point guard from the pocket. Carr gets the ball out of his hands quickly and utilizes every option in the route concept. Although the horizontal nature of the Raiders' passing game would seemingly crush Carr's yards-per-attempt average, the veteran passer notched the best ypa of his career in 2019 (7.9) despite throwing to a number of castoffs, misfits and unknowns.
With that in mind, the Raiders should be optimistic about Carr's potential to take his game up a notch with an upgraded supporting cast on the perimeter. Henry Ruggs III, the first receiver off the board in April's draft at No. 12 overall, gives the team an explosive playmaker on the outside with speed to burn. He is a rare find at the position, as a deep-ball specialist with outstanding stop-start quickness and dynamic running skills. The Alabama product should give Carr a legit No. 1 receiver to target in the passing game. Keep an eye on third-round pick Bryan Edwards as another pass catcher who will enable Carr to silence his critics with a strong 2020 campaign. The 6-foot-3, 212-pounder should thrive as a chain mover between the hashes with his big frame and strong hands. The South Carolina product has already drawn comparison to Davante Adams from Carr, based on his combination of physicality and ball skills. If he quickly emerges as the WR2 opposite Ruggs, Carr's supporting cast begins to look like a dangerous unit, with a pair of young playmakers alongside TE Darren Waller and RB Josh Jacobs.
Considering how well Carr has been able to play without blue-chip players around him, I predict that the football world will need to put some respect on the 29-year-old's name when he runs onto the field this season.
YEAR 2 BREAKOUTS: Which DBs are set to step up?
The biggest jump most NFL players experience is typically between their first and second seasons. Young players settle into their positions while displaying a better understanding of the speed, tempo and complexities of the pro game. From technique to scheme comprehension, second-year players can see their games go from good to great with more reps and experience.
Heading into the 2020 campaign, I expect to see a number of young defensive backs become prominent playmakers in Year 2. Given some time to dig into the All-22 Coaches Film, I've come up with five breakout candidates to keep an eye on this season:
Chris Ballard's investment in a gritty cover corner with rock-solid skills should pay huge dividends in 2020. The ultra-competitive Temple product settled in as a CB1 near the end of last season, exhibiting a resilient mentality after some midseason struggles. Ya-Sin bounced back from a pair of rough outings against the Texans and Broncos to solidify his spot on the island as a promising cover corner. His steady improvement should encourage Matt Eberflus to lock him up in one-on-one matchups against the top receivers in the AFC South. With more experience and seasoning, Ya-Sin should thrive as the Colts' CB1 on a unit poised to climb the charts this season.
First-round picks are expected to make an immediate impact, and Savage didn't disappoint as a rookie starter. The ultra-aggressive second-level defender displayed outstanding instincts, awareness and playmaking ability. He is a unique defender with the capacity to play low or high in a scheme that moves safeties around like knights on the chessboard. Savage's versatility and ball-hawking skills resulted in 52 tackles, two interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles, as he quickly became a critical part of the Packers' defensive game plan. Don't be surprised if he takes it up a notch this year and vies for Pro Bowl representation.
The league's next great safety could play in horns if Rapp builds upon his impressive rookie season. He burst on the scene as quite the playmaker in 2019, with 90 tackles, eight passes defensed and a pair of picks (with one returned for a touchdown). Rapp's instincts, aggressiveness and versatility could lead to a prominent role as a utility player on the second level. As a designated box-area defender, the 2019 second-round pick could make an impact as a sideline-to-sideline run supporter or as a lurker swiping passes between the hashes. With new defensive coordinator Brandon Staley intent on employing a multi-dimensional scheme with defenders aligning in random alignments within various packages, Rapp could become an all-star defender while serving as the Rams' jack-of-all-trades.
Joe Woods' arrival as the team's new defensive coordinator should unlock Williams' potential as a lockdown corner. The 6-foot-2, 185-pounder is a man-to-man specialist with the speed and explosiveness to stay hip-to-hip with any wideout on the perimeter. Williams' athleticism jumps off the screen when studying his defensive snaps in man coverage, but he needs to clean up his technique in zone. Despite staying on top of receivers to eliminate vertical throws, he surrenders a number of underneath completions when playing bail coverage in three-deep zone/zone blitzes. Although zone coverage is designed to take away the deep ball, the feisty cover man should be able to make more plays on the ball with more experience heading into Year 2. If Williams can continue to make strides as a tackler, he should thrive in Woods' blitz-heavy, man-to-man scheme that leaves him isolated on the island.
The hard-nosed cover corner struggled through a rookie season that was marred by penalties (10), but he flashes a combination of physicality, toughness and skill that could make him a high-end CB1 in time. Johnson's willingness to challenge receivers at the line makes him a headache for quarterbacks looking for easy completions on the perimeter. If the second-year pro can eliminate his penalty issues while retaining his aggressiveness in coverage, Johnson could become a vital contributor as an outside corner in the Texans' base and sub packages.
AMARI COOPER: Don't sleep on WR's bold claim
Amari Cooper doesn't have a reputation for providing outlandish quotes or predictions. That's why the league should take notice of the four-time Pro Bowl selectee's audacious prediction that the Cowboys should have three 1,000-yard receivers in 2020 on the heels of CeeDee Lamb's arrival in Big D.
"You have to draft the best player on the board -- everybody understands that," he said of Lamb earlier this week, per the team's official website. "I think he's a great receiver. And I think with me and Michael Gallup going for 1,000 yards last season, I think the expectation is to have three 1,000-yard receivers this year."
Cooper's praise and lofty expectations for Lamb are certainly warranted, based on the rookie's exceptional career at Oklahoma. The 6-foot-2, 198-pound pass-catcher amassed 3,292 receiving yards on 173 receptions with 33 total touchdowns in his three seasons with the Sooners. As a big-play specialist, Lamb averaged 19.0 yards per catch at OU while exhibiting outstanding hands, ball skills, and run-after-catch ability. He flashes a little DeAndre Hopkins in his game as a 50-50-ball snatcher, but he's more dynamic and explosive with the rock in his hands. Lamb displays a combination of power and wiggle that makes him tough to take down in the open field, particularly when he catches the ball on slants and shallow crossers.
The rookie's expansive toolbox and dynamic skills make the Cowboys' receiving corps arguably the best unit in the game, with Cooper and Gallup coming off 1,100-yard seasons. Plus, Cooper and Lamb have the capacity to play outside or in the slot. That versatility could enable head coach Mike McCarthy to put either playmaker at the Z position (flanker) with the other lined up as the E (a.k.a. slot) receiver. This is a tactic that McCarthy frequently utilized in Green Bay to create and exploit mismatches with a talented set of pass catchers.
In Dallas, this strategy will be enhanced by the presence of Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield. The two-time NFL rushing champ will force opponents to utilize more "plus-one" fronts to contain the Cowboys' potent running game, and that will lead to more one-on-one coverage on the perimeter. With defensive coordinators unable to utilize brackets or double-teams to slow down Cooper (... or Gallup ... or Lamb), the Cowboys' aerial attack becomes extremely difficult to stop.
The Cowboys' 11 personnel package (one RB, one TE, three WRs) not only gives them three pass catchers with A-plus playmaking ability to exploit one-on-one matchups, but it should also encourage Dak Prescott to take more shots down the field. Cooper, Gallup and Lamb have the capacity to wrestle 50-50 balls from defenders along the boundary and each possesses enough speed to win on vertical routes against single coverage.
Considering Prescott's precision down the field (a dive into the Next Gen Stats suggests No. 4 was the NFL's best deep-ball passer last season), the trio could produce more big plays and fuel an offense that's even more dynamic and explosive in 2020. And this is the club that led the NFL in total yardage a season ago. Add Lamb to the mix, and America's Team could be downright scary this season.