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:
» Who boasts the NFL's best pass-rushing duo? The answer might surprise you.
But first, a look at how the Eagles are approaching their team-building process in the exact right way ...
* * * **
I don't know if the Philadelphia Eagles are ready to take over the NFC East this year, but I believe they are putting together an offensive lineup that will help their young quarterback lead the team back to the top of the division in the near future. While plenty of teams express optimism about a developmental approach with a young signal caller at this time of year, I don't know if any organization has done a better job than the Eagles of putting the right pieces around their young QB to help him grow into a playmaker.
Now, I know some people will think I'm heaping a ton of praise on Philly due to glowing reports from OTAs and minicamp, but I'm bullish on Carson Wentz based on the team's moves throughout the offseason. The Eagles not only upgraded their supporting cast with veteran pass catchers who provide playmaking ability and experience, but they have assembled a potent running game with a punishing workhorse runner and an explosive jitterbug with big-play potential.
Most importantly, the Eagles have solidified their offensive line to make sure their prized possession is protected by a pair of talented tackles with the size and athleticism to snuff out the dynamic pass rushers that destroy the timing of the passing game.
This is exactly how Eagles coach Doug Pederson laid out his plans to me when we briefly chatted during a Senior Bowl practice in January. He told me that the team needed more playmakers in the lineup to alleviate the pressure on Wentz to carry the offense on the strength of his right arm.
Despite Wentz showing flashes of brilliance during his rookie season, he couldn't get the Eagles' offense going consistently due to spotty play from his pass catchers (35 drops in 2016) and offensive line, particularly when Lane Johnson was sidelined with a 10-game suspension in the middle of the season. With Ryan Mathews underperforming as the team's RB1, Philadelphia's supporting cast failed to prop up the rookie QB.
That's why the team's decision to add veteran pieces on the outside should lead to better -- and more consistent -- play from Wentz and the Eagles' offense. In the passing game, free-agent signees Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith give the 24-year-old quarterback weapons to fill the WR1 and WR2 roles, respectively. Jeffery, in particular, is a game changer for the Eagles as a big-bodied pass catcher with outstanding hands, ball skills and a ridiculous pass-catching radius. The 6-foot-3, 218-pound veteran is a natural No. 1 receiver capable of delivering big plays as a chain mover or an alley-oop specialist in the red zone. Jeffery excels at winning 50-50 balls, exhibiting outstanding leaping ability and hand-eye coordination.
"You look at a guy like that, you look at size, you look at route-running ability, explosive to the ball, good hands, catch radius is big," Pederson told the assembled media at the Annual League Meeting in March.
The former Pro Bowler will erase some of the young quarterback's ball-placement mistakes by snatching balls drifting out of the strike zone. Most importantly, Jeffery will give Wentz a dependable pass catcher to trust in key moments.
Meanwhile, Smith will settle into a role as a vertical playmaker on the outside in Philadelphia. Much like he did in Baltimore, Smith will stretch the defense with his speed and acceleration, and make his plays on deep balls down the field. Remember, Smith had 19 receptions of at least 40 yards during his four seasons with the Ravens, averaging nearly 17 yards per catch. Those are the kinds of numbers that force defenders to back up, resulting in plenty of room for receivers to run high percentage short and intermediate routes.
With those two wideouts on the outside, Jordan Matthews will be able to return to his best role, in the slot.
On the offensive line, Johnson and nine-time Pro Bowler Jason Peters can neutralize pass rushers off the edges. Thus, Wentz should be able to attack every area of the field without worrying about being hit in the ear hole in the pocket.
"I know the feeling," Pederson said this week, via NJ.com, after Philadelphia gave Peters a one-year extension through 2019. "Back in the day I had Tra Thomas over there, Jon Runyan on the right side. Having those anchors on the edges gives you added comfort as a pocket passer. Carson's a guy who can take advantage of those guys being the core of your offensive line."
Wentz should also be more comfortable in the backfield with LeGarrette Blount aligned behind him in the I-formation. The 30-year-old, two-time Super Bowl champ gives the Eagles a power back with the kind of size and strength to bludgeon defenses between the tackles. The 6-foot, 250-pounder rushed for 1,161 yards as a member of the Patriots in 2016 and led the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns. While he lacks the speed and explosiveness to turn the corner, he is a sledgehammer attacking the middle of the defense.
"He brings that power," running backs coach Duce Staley said, via PennLive.com. "He's a big human being ... and he's coming downhill. That's something we haven't had here in a long time."
Blount gives Wentz a downhill threat whose presence will create big-play chances in the passing game. As a power runner with a reputation for mashing defenders in the hole, Blount forces opposing defensive coordinators to account for him on early downs with eight-man fronts. That'll provide one-on-one chances for Jeffery and Smith on the outside. Considering how easy it is for a young quarterback to complete pitch-and-catch throws against soft coverage, the threat of a power running game should help Wentz improve his completion percentage in Year 2.
And rookie Donnel Pumphrey, the all-time leading rusher in FBS history, could carve out a role as a change-of-pace runner and matchup problem in the passing game. Suddenly, Wentz has a fleet of weapons who should allow him to thrive.
Considering the direct correlation between quality quarterback play and wins, the Eagles' plan to revamp their young signal caller's supporting cast could result in a few division crowns in the near future.
ASK THE LEAGUE: Should Pittsburgh give Le'Veon Bell a big-money deal?
We've reached the end of the pre-summer training program, but there are still questions about whether Le'Veon Bell will agree to a long-term deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers by the July 15 deadline or play on his franchise tag in 2017 -- if he decides to play at all. With one of the NFL's most explosive offensive weapons contemplating his options as the deadlines draws near, I thought I would reach out to a few league folks to get their take on Bell and how they would handle his contract situation. Here's what I asked and their responses:
Former vice president of player personnel: "I can't give him the money. He has character concerns and an injury history that would prevent me from making a long-term commitment. I would make him play on the tag and hope that we get to the Super Bowl, then reassess the situation at the end of the year. ... I think that he's playing on borrowed time and I just couldn't do it (sign him to a long-term deal)."
AFC personnel executive: "I love his game, but I couldn't put a lot of money into that position. I've seen too many running backs fall off the cliff after they get their big payday. I would let him play on the tag this year and find a younger, cheaper option next year."
AFC pro director: "No one in their right mind is trying to pay a veteran runner a lot of money to be a feature back. Bell is a really good player, but too many teams have found effective runners at cheaper rates to invest big money in that position."
It's hard to believe one of the NFL's most dynamic offensive weapons isn't viewed as a franchise cornerstone, but that's the reality of the running back position in today's game. Teams place a greater value on quarterbacks and pass catchers these days. Now, that doesn't mean running backs are diminished in importance in today's game -- six of the NFL's top 10 rushers led their respective teams to the playoffs last season -- but organizations are reluctant to pay big bucks due to the volatility of the position.
The steady pounding that comes with playing the position makes it hard for a runner to suit up 16 games a year. Not to mention, the constant battering leads to a rapid decline when the cumulative effect of all the hits robs the runner of his speed, quickness and burst. Thus, it is hard to invest in a running back unless he has special traits and the ability to impact the game as a three-down playmaker with a fairly clean injury history.
In Bell, the Steelers have the most complete running back in the NFL. The 6-foot-1, 225-pounder is a dynamic runner/receiver with the potential to take over the game as a traditional workhorse or electric playmaker in the aerial attack. Whether it's chewing up yards on inside runs while displaying a unique "slip and slide" running style or blowing past defenders on slant routes from a flanked position, Bell torches opponents as the ultimate weapon out of the backfield.
In 2016, Bell became the first player in NFL history to average 100-plus rushing yards (105.7) and 50-plus receiving yards (51.3) in a single season. In addition, he posted the third-highest mark in all-purpose yards per game (157.0) in NFL history, behind only Priest Holmes (163.4) and O.J. Simpson (160.2).
With Bell also joining Eric Dickerson as the only NFL player to reach 6,000 yards in 47 career games, the Pro Bowl selectee is one of the most prolific all-purpose backs in NFL history. Considering his impact on the game, I understand why Bell sees himself as the Steph Curry of the NFL and has expressed the desire to receiver the kind of money ($15 million per year) that would him among the top offensive weapons in pay out.
Looking at the running back position, Bell's franchise tender ($12.1 million) dwarfs the annual average compensation for top running backs (Jonathan Stewart and LeSean McCoy earn $8 million; Doug Martin pulls in $7.15 million), but it falls well below the deals that top receivers ink when it's time for their paydays. A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Demaryius Thomas average between $14 and $15 million per year, while Antonio Brown's new deal puts him in the $17 million range. Thus, it makes sense for Bell to fall somewhere in between those numbers based on his play on the field, right?
In most cases, just given his production on the field, I would argue for Bell landing a deal in that range -- but he has a couple of issues that prevent me from fully endorsing his campaign to reset the running back market. The 25-year old runner has character concerns and an injury history that makes it tough to give him big bucks on a long-term deal. He is currently coming off groin surgery and missed a large chunk of the 2015 season with a knee injury. Bell has also faced a pair of suspensions for substance-abuse violations and is a failed test away from another four-game suspension from the league. He has only completed a 16-game schedule once during his four-year career. It's hard to write a big check to a player who hasn't shown the durability, accountability and maturity you desire in a franchise player.
That's why I would steer clear of a long-term extension right now and force Bell to play under the prove-it deal of a franchise tag for this season. At the end of the year, if he's healthy and productive, you could attempt to re-sign him to a longer deal. Or you could also slap the franchise tag on him for a second year, to make sure he's motivated to do the right things on and off the field. In the meantime, I would put a plan in place to find a younger, cheaper option at the position with the potential to succeed Bell down the line.
If I felt good about Bell and his potential after this season, I would consider doing a deal that comes in below the franchise mark but over the $10 million threshold that would reset the marketplace for running backs. I could see the Steelers doing a deal that puts him at or near $11 million annually on a four- or five-year contract. This would not only show the football world that Bell is a valuable member of the squad, but it would establish the mark for multipurpose backs with three-down capability (like Arizona's David Johnson). Naturally, the Steelers have plenty of leverage to wield the hammer in negotiations due to Bell's off-field issues and injury concerns, but they could reduce the guaranteed money in the deal and tie in some clauses related to his character.
In the end, I understand why the team might be reluctant to make a long-term investment in Bell, but we've all seen the potency of the Steelers' offense when he is in the lineup -- and I would want to make sure that I can retain that explosive potential for as long as Ben Roethlisberger is in the fold. With Bell, Big Ben and Brown, the Steelers are always a legitimate title contender.
BOSA AND INGRAM: Chargers boast league's best pass-rushing duo
When the Los Angeles Chargers inked outside linebacker Melvin Ingram to a new four-year, $66 million deal, they not only retained the services of an up-and-coming star at the position, but they provided Gus Bradley with the best pass-rushing combination in the league. No disrespect to the Texans' terrific trio (J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus) or the Giants' dynamic duo (Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon) or the Seahawks' explosive triumvirate (Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Frank Clark), but those combos lack the explosive potential of the Chargers' 1-2 punch off the edge.
Last season, Ingram and Bosa combined for 18.5 sacks and five forced fumbles on a defense that showed plenty of promise when both guys were on the field. (Remember, Bosa missed four games due to a hamstring injury suffered in his first practice following a lengthy contract dispute that extended deep into the preseason.)
Bradley, who is implementing a hybrid 4-3 scheme, will position Ingram at the "LEO" spot (weak-side DE/OLB) and Bosa at defensive end in the Bolts' base defense. On nickel downs, Ingram and Bosa will primarily play on the edges, but the 2016 Defensive Rookie of the Year could slide inside to rush from a 3-technique position against overmatched offensive guards or flip sides to take advantage of favorable matchups. In 2017, Bosa tallied 6.5 sacks from the left defensive end spot, three sacks from right defensive end and one sack from the right outside linebacker position. Thus, he is comfortable playing in a right-handed or left-handed three-point stance and more than capable of harassing the quarterback from either side.
As a pass rusher, Bosa is a hand-to-hand combat specialist with a wide array of moves. He can win on a traditional bull rush or a forklift maneuver, or attack with a slick two-hand swipe that leaves blockers stuck in the mud. With Bosa also flashing a dip-and-rip move and a sneaky power-spin maneuver to complement his non-stop motor, the second-year pro is a persistent threat capable of taking over games with his relentless approach. When I studied him as a collegian, I thought his game was eerily similar to Michael Bennett's -- and Bradley could use him in a similar capacity with the Chargers.
In Ingram, the Chargers have a fastball pitcher with the speed, quickness and burst to race past blockers on the open side. The 6-foot-2, 247-pounder is a dynamic athlete with explosive power and short-area quickness. (Ingram led his position group at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine with a 6.83-second three-cone drill and a 4.18-second short shuttle). In addition, he is a low-leverage player capable of working under blockers with an assortment of power maneuvers (one-armed stab, hump move) to get loose off the edge. As evidenced by his 18.5 sacks over the past two seasons, Ingram's combination of speed and power can overwhelm opponents in key moments.
"He is a freak of an athlete," Bosa said to the team's website after a minicamp workout this week. "He can beat you with speed, but at the same time, he can put his foot in the ground and run right through you with one arm. He is just a dynamic athlete for a pass rusher."
In my experience, the best pass-rushing combinations feature a speed player on one side and a power player on the other. I personally watched these kinds of combinations wreak havoc on foes during my playing days in Buffalo (Bruce Smith and Cornelius Bennett), Green Bay (Reggie White and Sean Jones) and Kansas City (Derrick Thomas and Dan Williams), and again as a scout in Carolina (Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker). With the speed rusher quickly harassing the quarterback off the edges and the power rusher outmuscling blockers at the point of attack, the combination can completely destroy the timing and rhythm of the passing game.
In a league where harassment is critical to defensive success, the Chargers' combination of speed (Ingram) and power (Bosa) will spark a defensive resurgence and a playoff run in Los Angeles this season.