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:
*» Best situational fits for Joe Mixon. *
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Cam Newton has accomplished a lot during his six years as a professional quarterback, but if he is really intent on being an "icon" at the position, he must evolve as a player this season.
Sure, he can continue to spark the Panthers' offense with a flamboyant but rugged playing style that has made him the only quarterback in NFL history to have at least 20,000 passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards in his first six seasons, but a growing list of injuries -- including a partially torn rotator cuff on his throwing shoulder -- suggests that the 27-year-old's crash-test dummy approach is not sustainable. Unlike traditional field generals like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, who slice defenses from the pocket with a surgeon's precision, Newton is a powerful dual-threat playmaker adept at creating explosive plays with his rare combination of run-pass skills. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback is capable of placing a tear drop into the hands of a streaking receiver 60 yards down the field or rumbling 25 yards on a quarterback sweep that looks like a play from the Vince Lombardi days.
While his unique game should be celebrated by football junkies all over the map, it is hard to imagine Newton, who before the start of the 2017 season will already have undergone ankle and shoulder surgeries during his career, remaining the ultimate run-pass playmaker as he advances into his prime.
Let's be honest. Newton is coming off the worst season of his career, looking nothing like the electric player that torched opponents in 2015. He posted career lows in completion percentage (52.9), passer rating (75.8) and passing yards per attempt (6.9). With Newton also posting career lows in rushing yards (359) and rushing attempts (90), it is possible that we're seeing the league's most dynamic offensive weapon deteriorate in front of our eyes.
"There are a lot of things we're going to look at," Rivera said a presser before the end of the season. "We get and understand that some things have to evolve around him, because he's evolving as a quarterback as well. He's getting older and he's going to be a different style player."
That's why it is imperative for Newton and the Panthers' offense to evolve this season. The team can no longer allow their star quarterback to function as the primary runner in a power-based running game. Rather, they must push him to become a more efficient playmaker from the pocket. Now, I'm not suggesting that Newton should eliminate running or scrambling from his arsenal. But I do believe he must use his athleticism and legs differently to take his game to another level while also preserving his health. Instead of running between the tackles on zone-read or power-read plays, the Panthers star should be utilized on more bootleg and roll-out action plays where he can run on the perimeter with fewer defenders in close proximity. In addition, the movement-based plays will help Newton become more efficient as a passer as he targets receivers at different levels (flat, deep crosser or comeback route at intermediate depth and a vertical route) on a half-field read.
Naturally, some observers will suggest that using more bootleg plays ripped directly out of a high school playbook will stunt Newton's growth as a passer. But I believe the clever utilization of a movement-based passing game actually creates more big-play opportunities for the Panthers through the air. In addition, the team's personnel is better suited to play in a play-action heavy offense that puts the quarterback on the move and uses deception to create open windows for receivers. Considering the lack of speed and explosiveness that Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess bring to the table, the team needs to find ways to help them get separation on the outside. The combination of motion and misdirection could help the big-bodied pass catchers find more room down the field.
From a drop-back passing game standpoint, Newton must become a more accurate thrower on quick-rhythm concepts. He is terrific throwing slants, seams and skinny posts following quick play-action or zone-read fakes, but he misses the mark when he is asked to "catch, rip and fire" on traditional quick-game routes (slant-flat combinations, quick outs, hitches, etc.). Thus, he is unable to move the chains or work into a rhythm by knocking down a few layups in the passing game. If Newton wants to improve in this area, he has to spend more time working on his footwork and mechanics. He's been able to overcome his poor footwork and awkward throwing platform thus far in his career thanks to his exceptional arm talent, but the surgery could take some RPMs off his passes. If he doesn't have that same zip, he won't be able to compensate for his poor timing from the pocket.
When I look around the league at how teams have helped veteran quarterbacks transition from athletic playmakers to more traditional players, the Steelers' blueprint for Ben Roethlisberger's evolution stands out as a success story. After watching Big Ben post big numbers but absorb big hits for years in Bruce Arians' high-risk, high-reward offense, the team switched their offensive approach under Todd Haley. The former Kansas City Chiefs' head coach quickly implemented a quick-rhythm passing game designed to get the ball out of Roethlisberger's hands. In addition, the team incorporated more two-back sets with a true fullback in the backfield to block for the tailback and add another layer of protection in the passing game. With Haley in command over the past five years, Big Ben has been sacked at an average of 28.4 times per season after being pummeled to the tune of 47.3 sacks per season under Arians. The reduced pounding has undoubtedly extended Big Ben's career and helped him continue to perform at a high level in his mid-30s.
With that in mind, I believe the Panthers have to move away from some of the zone-read and power-read concepts in the running game that make Newton the focal point of the offense. He's simply taken too many blows over the past two seasons (69 sacks, 222 rushing attempts, and countless hits over the past 29 games). I believe he can continue to function at a high level without absorbing that kind of battering. While I'm sure the decision to bypass one of the league's most prolific short-yardage specialists in critical situations will be a tough one, the Panthers have to find someone else to do the dirty work between the tackles. That someone could be a big, powerful running back selected early in the draft (LSU's Leonard Fournette?) or a hidden gem in the middle rounds to complement Jonathan Stewart in the backfield. Regardless, the team must find a new workhorse and allow that person to do the heavy lifting in the running game.
If Newton is serious about being a superstar who leaves an indelible mark on the game, he must evolve as a player and encourage his coaches to tweak an offensive system that has put him in harm's way far too often.
ASK THE LEAGUE: Why hasn't a team signed Colin Kaepernick?
After watching a number of free-agent quarterbacks latch on to teams in recent weeks, observers are beginning to wonder why Colin Kaepernick is still sitting on the sidelines. While we've seen plenty of veteran quarterbacks take their time in free agency before signing with a new team, the lack of reported interest in the 29-year-old passer has led some observers to wonder if his national anthem protest has put him on a blacklist around the league. With that question popping up prominently in the Twitter-verse, I decided to reach out to some of my NFL buddies to get their take on the situation. Here's what I asked and here are their responses:
Why hasn't Colin Kaepernick been picked up? Is it because he isn't very good or doesn't fit many systems, or is it due to the extra attention paid to him after his protests?
Former NFL general manager:"He is a talented player and a heck of an athlete. Accuracy will always be an issue, but he can definitely play in this league. ... I think people forget that he has led a team to a Super Bowl as a starting quarterback. That's not an easy feat. Also, I don't think he is a bad guy based on the way his teammates have responded to him. They appear to love the guy."
NFC pro personnel director: "He's not a fit in a conventional offense. He is at his best when it's simple, using play-action and bootlegs to clear up the picture for him. He played better this year in terms of taking care of the ball and making touch throws. ... His completion percentage is skewed due to the drops from his pass catchers. He struggles if he doesn't have a running game and too much is put on his shoulders. He is talented enough to start, but only if he has a strong running game to support him."
NFC pro personnel director: "I think the other stuff has definitely played a part in why he is still sitting on the sidelines. I'm not his biggest fan, but he can play. He's athletic and talented with a big arm. Although he is more of a thrower than a passer, he can be successful in the right system with a strong running game and a movement-based passing game. ... Nobody will say it, but if he didn't have all of that other stuff going on, he would've been signed during the first week of free agency. If Brian Hoyer and Josh McCown can get jobs, he definitely should be able to find work."
AFC pro personnel director: He's a No. 2. The San Francisco tape wasn't great, but he will get his chance once guys see what happens in the draft. ... The off-field stuff is probably part of the reason why he hasn't been signed, but I seriously doubt any teams have taken him off their boards because he's an activist. I believe it's simply a case of teams looking down their lists and bypassing a guy who has made big money. They want to wait for the price tag to drop before they revisit him. It's part of the wait-and-see game that takes place during free agency."
NFC personnel executive: "The kid has talent. I still believe he can play, but you have to control him. He is not a traditional drop-back passer, but he is a playmaker who can make things happen. If he plays under the right coach, he can succeed in this league. ... He looked like a superstar under Jim Harbaugh. Look at how he played during their run to the Super Bowl. You can't ignore that. A great coach found a way to bring that out of him."
The quarterback position remains the toughest to evaluate in the league. The criteria listed by general managers, coaches and scouts vary from team to team, but most list arm talent, accuracy, leadership skills, judgment and winning pedigree as the critical factors for the position. While that checklist sounds pretty straightforward, there aren't many field generals capable of checking off all of the boxes in the NFL.
Sure, we've found a handful of elites at the position with the resumes to justify their standing as "franchise quarterbacks," but the overwhelming majority of quarterbacks in the league are system quarterbacks who need the right scheme and supporting cast to succeed. Although no one wants to hear that in the fantasy football era, where we judge quarterbacks by the number of 300-yard passing games on their ledger, the vast majority of quarterbacks in the league are leading their teams to the winner's circle by effectively distributing the ball to a host of playmakers and managing the game as the offense's No. 1 decision maker. On the "Move The Sticks" podcast, we refer to these quarterbacks as "trailers," because the rest of the team is responsible for carrying the quarterback over the finish line instead of the other way around.
That's why I laugh when observers continue to suggest that Kaepernick doesn't have a place in the league as a QB1 or high-level QB2. The 29-year-old playmaker has already demonstrated the ability to lead his team to the Super Bowl as a "trailer," when he guided the San Francisco 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII -- a team fueled by a rugged running game and a rock-solid defense. While many continue to dismiss his role in the 49ers' Super Bowl run, it is important to note that he replaced Alex Smith near the end of the season and added an explosive dimension to the offense with his talents as a dual-threat playmaker.
Now, I'm fully aware that it's been more than four years since Kaepernick accomplished that feat, and he did so with one of the most talented rosters in the NFL that season. But we have observers touting Brian Hoyer, Josh McCown and Mike Glennon as solid stop-gap players based on their small-scale accomplishments throughout their careers. In fact, I found it interesting that my colleague Connor Orr pointed out that Kaepernick's numbers over the past three NFL seasons are eerily similar -- if not superior -- to those put up by McCown, Hoyer, and Glennon over the same timeframe.
Kaepernick: W-L: 11-24 | Comp. percentage: 59.7 | Y/A: 6.9 | TD-to-INT: 41:19 | Rating: 85.9
Hoyer: W-L: 13-14 | Comp. percentage: 59.6 | Y/A: 7.3 | TD-to-INT: 37:20 | Rating: 86.2
Glennon: W-L: 1-4 | Comp. percentage: 59.3 | Y/A: 7.0 | TD-to-INT: 11:6 | Rating: 86.0
McCown: W-L: 2-20 | Comp. percentage: 58.7 | Y/A: 6.9 | TD-to-INT: 29:24 | Rating: 79.3
With that being said, I'm not suggesting Kaepernick is a savior for any team. He didn't play well in 2015, and he remains an inconsistent pocket passer despite an improved showing in 2016. However, the seventh-year pro certainly flashed enough promise last year (see New Orleans, Los Angeles and Seattle games) to warrant consideration as a borderline QB1 in a league that got excited about Matt Barkley after he posted back-to-back 300-yard games with a 4:8 TD-to-INT ratio during a late-season stint as the Bears' starter.
Thus, I have to wonder if potential backlash over Kaepernick's national anthem protest might be preventing some teams from pulling the trigger on the dynamic dual-threat playmaker. While none of the people I spoke with said the potential public relations headache was the main factor for Kap still being a free agent, they did acknowledge that it could play a part in the decision-making process. In addition, there certainly has been plenty of reported chatter about how Kaepernick's arrival could affect a locker room. Teams in general are wary of distractions and those squads without direct ties to Kaepernick might be unsure of his personality and how he would connect with his teammates.
From a business standpoint, several executives suggested to me that Kaepernick will probably get signed after the draft when everyone knows how the "musical chairs" at the position are settled, and they can pinpoint a veteran quarterback to bring in for depth. Moreover, they suggested that Kaepernick's price tag could drop by that point, making him a more affordable pickup. Considering how we routinely see veteran players snapped up at the late stages of the offseason program after teams have been able to assess their young players, it's quite possible Kaepernick is simply in a holding tank until the dust settles at the position.
Looking around the league for potential fits, I believe there are a handful of teams that would make sense based on their scheme and quarterback situations. Carolina, Kansas City, Buffalo and Seattle would be sensible locations based on how they've featured athletic quarterbacks in their systems. Although I'm not necessarily convinced that any of those teams would be interested, particularly Kansas City (the Alex Smith-Kaepernick history might lead to some serious awkwardness) and Carolina (two alpha personalities in the same QB room), I do believe their success with dual-threat playmakers would make Kaepernick a viable option as a QB2.
In the end, I believe NFL teams would be wise to check in with Kaepernick's former coach, Jim Harbaugh, to see how he helped maximize the quarterback's talents in San Francisco. The University of Michigan coach stood on the table for his former QB1 in an interview with PFT Live that shed some light on how NFL teams frequently cast off quarterbacks before they've reached their potential.
Considering how Harbaugh's star pupil performed under his tutelage, I believe it is only a matter of time before the controversial passer gets another opportunity to put his wares on display for an NFL team.
JOE MIXON'S NFL FUTURE: Where could the running back land?
My colleague Maurice Jones-Drew stirred up the pot the other day when he ranked Oklahoma's Joe Mixon as his No. 1 running back in the 2017 class.
The controversial Oklahoma back has been largely ignored throughout the pre-draft process due to his involvement in a horrific act of violence against a woman in 2014. While I know this serious incident has rightly given many team execs reason for concern, many still view Mixon as a truly unique talent. In fact, I recently had an NFC scout tell me that Mixon is "the most complete back in the draft," and it really isn't close when it comes to his skills, versatility and explosive playmaking potential. Now, I know it will be hard for some people to move past his off-field transgressions, and understandably so, but everything I'm hearing tells me Mixon will be drafted, and probably in the first three rounds.
"He's the real deal," said an AFC running backs coach. "He has a unique set of skills that could make him a star in the league. He can run inside or outside. He flashes a nice mix of speed, quickness and power. Plus, he is a natural receiver out of the backfield. He can do it all. That's hard to find in a young back coming into the league."
When I studied Mixon during the fall, I saw a lot of the traits that the coach outlined. The former Oklahoma star flashes an impressive combination of balance, body control and vision with the ball in his hands. Mixon shows rare stop-start quickness in the hole but also possesses the strength and power to run through defenders in traffic. Not to mention, he displays home-run speed and acceleration when he reaches the second level. As a receiver, he is a natural pass catcher with outstanding hands and route-running ability. He is one of the few backs capable of lining up out wide and running routes like a receiver from a flanked alignment. Considering his diverse skill set and overall explosiveness, his game reminds me a ton of Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson.
Given Mixon's talent and potential as an impact player, teams are doing their due diligence on him before making a decision on whether to remove him from their draft boards. General managers and coaches went through a similar ordeal with Kansas City Chiefs' star Tyreek Hill a season ago when he entered the NFL with domestic violence issues in his past. After drafting Hill last year, coach Andy Reid explained some of the process that went into the team's decision. Hill's successful rookie season (first-team All-Pro) has undoubtedly led some teams to pause before removing an ultra-talented player with a checkered past from their board.
In fact, teams are examining their coaching staffs and support systems to see whether they would be able to handle everything that comes with drafting a player as polarizing as Mixon. When I survey the landscape, I certainly believe there are a handful of teams equipped to handle Mixon and his complicated situation.
Kansas City Chiefs: Andy Reid has been known to give troubled players second chances during his time in the league. He signed Michael Vick in Philadelphia when few would touch the star after his dog abuse convictions. Not to mention, Reid used a late-round selection on Hill despite serious concerns about his character. Although Reid will certainly not turn a blind eye to Mixon's situation, he has created an environment for troubled players to turn around their lives. Plus, the Chiefs have a no-nonsense RB coach (Eric Bienemy) with a knack for building strong relationships with his players. That's huge in these situations.
Dallas Cowboys: Jerry Jones is not afraid to gamble on high-risk, high-reward prospects. He has signed a number of questionable characters throughout his time in Dallas and leaned on his expansive support staff to help those players with their issues. Although it hasn't always worked out in the Cowboys' favor, the wily owner isn't afraid to take on the backlash that comes with signing a player with a checkered past.
Denver Broncos: John Elway has assembled an outstanding locker room with strong leaders and a terrific support system. The team has effectively handled players with character concerns in the past (see Von Miller and Aqib Talib) and helped them work through their issues. Plus, Mixon's agent (Peter Schaffer) is based in Denver, which would provide additional support for the troubled star away from the field.
Oakland Raiders: Jack Del Rio and Reggie McKenzie have put together one of the NFL's most talented rosters, but the team is missing a "crown jewel" at the running back position. While owner Mark Davis has a no-tolerance policy on domestic violence, the Oklahoma star is a Bay Area native who could benefit from playing near his hometown (Oakley, California) with his family and friends in close proximity.
Cincinnati Bengals: Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis have successfully gambled on several character risks while building up a team that has consistently competed for playoff berths over the past decade. The team seemingly has the coaching staff and support system in place to help a troubled player manage his behavior and succeed on the field. Although there have been plenty of on-field blips (see 2016 AFC Playoff Game) throughout their tenure, the Bengals' long track record suggests they could take on Mixon's situation.