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, Brooks' take on a juicy topic simmering in the desert ...
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The Cardinals' new head coach has told the football world that Rosen is the team's QB1 for the future, but it is hard to ignore the dot connecting that could put Oklahoma standout Kyler Murray in the desert on draft night. In fact, I believe the opportunity to put Murray in a system designed to elevate playmakers should prompt the Cardinals to trade away the franchise quarterback they selected 10th overall last spring.
I know the Cardinals would like for everyone to believe Kingsbury is all in on Rosen based on the verbal bouquets he's thrown at the team's 2018 first-round pick. However, I can't ignore the comments he made about Murray when he was preparing his Texas Tech team to face the Sooners QB this fall.
"Kyler, I mean, he's a freak, man," Kingsbury said in October, per KLBK-TV's Eric Kelly. "... Kyler is a freak. I've followed him since he was a sophomore in high school. Just think the world of him and what he can do on a football field. I've never seen one better in high school and he's starting to show it now at the college level. I don't have enough good things to say about him. He's phenomenal.
"... I would take him with the first pick of the draft if I could."
As it turns out, Kingsbury will have the chance to do exactly that, as Arizona holds the No. 1 overall pick. Now, I know coaches will frequently pump up opposing players with colorful coachspeak, but Kingsbury offered the kind of effusive praise that's typically reserved for special players. Just re-read the quote aloud and you can feel the love Kingsbury has for the diminutive playmaker. He told us that he's never seen a better high school quarterback, and that speaks volumes about his assessment of Murray's talents.
Based on my study of Murray's game, it's easy to see why Kingsbury raved about his talents in the fall. Murray completed 69 percent of his passes for 4,361 passing yards with a 42:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio on the way to claiming the Heisman Trophy.
The QB flashes explosive athleticism and dynamic playmaking ability with A-plus arm talent. Despite being at his best when making plays outside of the pocket, Murray can make the scheduled throws when given sufficient time as a passer. He throws with timing, touch and anticipation, exhibiting excellent arm strength and a hint of finesse. Murray works the ball around defenders to hit receivers running through voids in the defense. With the 5-foot-10, 195-pounder showing he can find and fit the ball through tight passing lanes at the line of scrimmage, it's easy to envision Murray thriving in a rhythm offense like Kingsbury's version of the Air Raid.
As a runner, Murray displays home run potential whenever he tucks the ball under his arm on a designed run or impromptu scramble. He quietly rushed for 1,001 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 140 attempts in 2018 (7.2 yards per carry), which speaks to his explosiveness as a ball carrier. Although NFL teams would likely reduce his workload as a rusher, we've seen Russell Wilson shred the NFL, particularly the NFC West, as a dual-threat playmaker.
That's why I'm in favor of making the bold move and unwilling to ignore the possible connection between the Cardinals and Murray despite Kingsbury's recent endorsement of Rosen as the team's QB1.
"Our feelings toward Josh haven't waned or changed," Kingsbury said. "I get that we have the first pick and there are going to be a million scenarios, and over the next three months they are going to come up. But Josh is our guy."
Hmmm. I would love to believe the Cardinals' coach, but Murray's skills are a perfect match for the team's new system. At Texas Tech, Kingsbury unleashed a mobile playmaker in Patrick Mahomes with outstanding success. He could create a similar scenario in Arizona with Murray running the show. Although I'm not putting Murray in the same class as Mahomes, the reigning NFL MVP, I do believe the Cardinals should make him the top pick and wave goodbye to Rosen.
I know the thought of moving on from a first-round quarterback seems ridiculous after one season, but how often do you get to land a five-star talent who perfectly matches your system? Moreover, do you believe a franchise quarterback ideally suited for your offense is worth the price of giving up a top-10 pick and some cash (Rosen made about $11.3 million in signing bonus and base salary in 2018)?
If so, you hand in the draft card with Murray's name on it and you worry less about the draft capital and compensation surrendered to eventually land the guy. Remember, the Los Angeles Rams (Jared Goff), Philadelphia Eagles (Carson Wentz), Chicago Bears (Mitchell Trubisky), Houston Texans (Deshaun Watson) and Kansas City Chiefs (Patrick Mahomes) made significant moves to acquire their respective QB1s and they've been rewarded with playoff appearances and Pro Bowl-caliber performances.
If Murray delivers to that standard, I'm sure the Cardinals would view him as well worth the investment.
Looking at a potential Rosen trade, I believe you could easily flip the former first-round pick for a middle-round selection based on his play and contract. Although his rookie numbers were greatly affected by instability at the offensive coordinator position and a subpar offensive line, Rosen connected on 55.2 percent of his passes with an 11:14 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Those numbers aren't bad for a classic pocket passer with limited mobility playing behind a shaky offensive line that failed to protect him.
With that in mind, I believe a team in need of a QB1 would certainly opt for Rosen over one of the signal-callers available in the 2019 draft. You could make a reasonable argument that Rosen would be the best passer in the class or cherry pick the top five and slot him in where he fits. I would rank Rosen no lower than third among the passers in this class, with the Cardinals QB slotted ahead of Missouri's Drew Lock and Duke's Daniel Jones. Although each is viewed as a better athlete and playmaker, Rosen is a more refined passer with a game that easily fits into a traditional pro-style offense.
Even if scouts disagree with how I rank Rosen against the top four prospects in the class, he is certainly viewed as a better player than this year's second-tier prospects (West Virginia's Will Grier, N.C. State's Ryan Finley, and Auburn's Jarrett Stidham). That would approximate his value at around the second round, which makes him an easier sell to teams looking for a potential starter in this draft.
Considering the impact of an elite QB1 on the rest of the franchise, the Cardinals are sitting in the catbird seat with a franchise quarterback on the roster and a chance to add another one on the horizon. Let's see if Kingsbury plays it safe or goes after the guy he raved about when he had an unfiltered opinion.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) Why Flacco's an upgrade for Denver. What's John Elway doing? That's the question that buzzed through NFL Media headquarters after reports of the Denver Broncos' trade for Joe Flacco hit the wire earlier this week. Skeptics couldn't understand why the team would acquire the Super Bowl XLVII MVP after he's ranked as one of the lowest-rated passers in the league since 2013. Moreover, the buzz coming from the newsroom focused on whether Flacco is even an upgrade over Denver's Case Keenum under center.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that I'm not the biggest Flacco fan based on his middling production as a QB1 with a salary near $20 million, but I also recognize his talent and pedigree as a former first-round pick. The veteran is one of the best deep-ball passers in football and he can light up a scoreboard when playing in an offense that suits his skills as a play-action passer.
Look no further than his solid 2014 season under then-coordinator Gary Kubiak as proof of his potential in a run-first, play-action offense. Flacco posted a 62.1 percent completion rate, 3,986 passing yards and a 27:12 touchdown-to-interception ratio in an offense that was built off the stretch-bootleg combination (outside zone run with a variety of naked bootleg complementary concepts). He finished with the second-highest passer rating (91.0) and yards per attempt (7.2) and second-most completions of 20 or more yards of his career that season (50).
That's solid production for a starting quarterback, particularly one playing with a spectacular defense behind him, right?
That's why the Broncos made the move to acquire the veteran as the team seeks to rebuild quickly under new head coach Vic Fangio. Remember, the wily former defensive coordinator spent four seasons with the Ravens as a defensive assistant, including the 2008 season when Flacco led the team to the playoffs as a rookie starter. That experience undoubtedly had an impact on Fangio's belief that the veteran can play a key role in a franchise revival despite his recent numbers suggesting otherwise.
That said, I understand why some Broncos fans are shaking their heads when looking at Flacco's numbers compared to Keenum's production over the past three seasons. Since 2016, Flacco has compiled a 21-20 record with a 63.7 percent completion rate, a 50:34 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 82.5 passer rating. On the other hand, Keenum has posted a 21-18 record with a 63.8 percent completion rate, 49:33 touchdown-to-interception and a 85.9 passer rating during that same span.
Given that those numbers are so similar, it doesn't look like the Broncos have upgraded the QB1 position with Flacco coming aboard, right?
Wrong. Flacco is clearly a more talented player and holds significant advantages when it comes to size and arm strength. In addition, the Broncos' new QB1 entered the league as a first-round pick, while Keenum arrived as an undrafted free agent.
Fair or not, pedigree matters and former first-round picks are still treated like royalty by some scouts when conducting evaluations. Flacco certainly benefits from that bias and it likely played a role in his arrival. More importantly, the big, strong-armed passer is a better fit for new offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello's scheme based on the similarities between the concepts featured by Kubiak back in 2014.
With Flacco looking like a better fit from his management skills to his playing style, the Broncos clearly upgraded their QB1 spot by opting for traits over a potential feel-good story. We'll see if it leads to more wins and a playoff berth next season.
2) How Baltimore's offense will evolve with Jackson in Year 2. The Baltimore Ravens ushered in the Lamar Jackson era in the back half of the 2018 season, as the rookie stepped in for Joe Flacco in Week 11 and reeled off six wins in seven games to win the AFC North. While the former Heisman Trophy winner sparked an offense that averaged a mind-boggling 229.6 rushing yards over the final seven weeks of the regular season, largely due to his playmaking skills as a dual-threat quarterback, the Ravens' biggest offseason questions revolve around Jackson's development as a passer and the offense's evolution with No. 8 at the helm.
Freshly promoted offensive coordinator Greg Roman shed a little light on how the Ravens' new attack will function when he outlined his plans on The Lounge Podcast. The coach discussed improving the passing offense and putting Jackson in a position to succeed as a thrower.
"We've got to develop a strong passing attack," Roman said. "Lamar's got to develop and everybody around him has got to get better in that area. Obviously, there will be more emphasis on that."
Roman certainly understands how teams will try to defend Baltimore going forward, particularly after defensive coordinators study the tape from the AFC Wild Card Round and steal ideas from the Los Angeles Chargers' game plan. In L.A.'s 23-17 win over the Ravens, Bolts DC Gus Bradley scripted a plan that featured seven defensive backs on the field to neutralize the speed of the Ravens' prolific rushing attack while forcing Jackson to throw the ball into tight windows down the field.
"Everybody wants you to have to fight left-handed," Roman said. "The best thing we can do is be able to fight with both hands. We want to be able to run it and pass it. There will definitely be more of a balance there. That's how you win -- that's what makes it sustainable."
Despite Jackson's flaws as a passer (like a lack of accuracy on throws outside the numbers), the Ravens' aerial attack showed some promise with the young QB1 at the helm. He pushed the ball down the field to open receivers on vertical throws, particularly on deep crossers at intermediate range. The combination of hard run fakes and deep "runaway" routes worked well for Jackson due to the overaggressive reactions from second-level defenders (linebackers and defensive backs). In addition, the play-action passes appear to help Jackson find his rhythm as a passer, leading to better footwork and more accurate throws.
From a schematic standpoint, the combination of read-option or power-based runs and play-action puts defenders in a bind, resulting in big plays down the field. The Ravens can really expose those flaws by running and throwing from run-heavy formations with multiple tight ends on the field. As a former NFL defensive back, I can tell you it is hard to maintain eye discipline against an offense that uses deception and misdirection in the running game while incorporating similar action into the passing attack.
"That's another thing we want to do is make a lot more big plays in the passing game," Roman said. "Take advantage of these looks we're getting from defenses, who are basically stacking everybody up in there and playing a modified 6-2 defense."
When I worked as a scout for the Carolina Panthers, head coach John Fox frequently pointed out that strong running teams should have vertical passing games because you want to throw for "chunks" (passing plays of 25 yards or more) when taking to the air. The combination works well when the offense features a dominant running game and speedy receivers on the outside.
Considering the current makeup of Baltimore's roster, the team could go after another pass catcher with big-play potential this offseason, either in free agency or the draft. Adding a "stretch" player will enable the Ravens to take advantage of eight-man fronts and compile impressive passing yardage on a limited number of throws.
"The greatest gift is winning," Roman said. "If you look at all the 300-yard passing games this year, tell me how many of those were attached to a win. You might be surprised."
Indeed. QBs who reached 300 yards passing finished with a 68-67-2 record in 2018.
The Ravens don't necessarily want Jackson to become a "bombs away" thrower -- they just want him to be able to take advantage of the layups that are available when teams load up the box. If Roman can craft an aerial attack that enhances the 22-year-old's skills as a passer on in-breaking routes between the numbers, the Ravens' offense could become an even scarier assignment for opposing coaches.
3) My top 10 overall draft prospects. I recently released my prospect positional rankings -- top five by position, to be specific -- to officially kick off my pre-draft process of stacking players on the board. However, I think it is important to keep those grades and rankings in perspective when viewing all of the players that are available in the draft pool. While scouts will sort out prospects by position and rank them according to their talent and potential impact, general managers and college scouting directors will spend countless hours deciphering the top 150 prospects in the draft, based on the theory of ranking the "best player available." This essentially requires evaluators to rank players based on how you'd select them in the park for a pickup game with the fellas.
With that in mind, I wanted to take a little time to dig through my notes and post my top 10 overall prospects, based on film study. Although this is subject to change based on workouts, interviews and background/medical checks, I thought I'd share my working list with you to create an initial discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of this draft class.
1) Nick Bosa, Edge, Ohio State
2) Quinnen Williams, DT, Alabama
3) Dwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State
4) Devin White, LB, LSU
5)Josh Allen, Edge, Kentucky
6) Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma
7) Rashan Gary, DL, Michigan
8) Greedy Williams, CB, LSU
9) Christian Wilkins, DL, Clemson
10) Clelin Ferrell, Edge, Clemson
As you can see, the 2019 NFL Draft is loaded with blue-chip defenders, with eight defenders dotting the list. Pass rushers are certainly plentiful, as evidenced by six of them holding spots in this top 10. With Gary and Wilkins showing versatility as potential inside/outside rushers, teams in need of disruptors will have plenty of different options early in the draft.
At quarterback, I believe the debate for the No. 1 spot will come down to Haskins and Murray. Both are special players, but they play the position in different ways. Haskins is the big, sturdy flame thrower most offensive coordinators covet in a pocket passer, while Murray is an electric jitterbug with A+ arm talent and athleticism. Depending on the scheme and imagination of the play caller, I think teams can make a case for both guys as franchise QB1s.
From a critical standpoint, I worry about the lack of elite skill players on offense. There aren't any Tier 1 pass catchers or runners in the class, and teams would be wise to wait until the second and third rounds to secure a WR2 with long-term starting potential. We will see if the perception changes after the NFL Scouting Combine, but this is shaping up to be a "meat and potatoes" draft with big bodies coveted at a premium.