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:
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When Ron Rivera suggested at the end of last season that the Carolina Panthers' offense must evolve in 2017 to help their former league MVP quarterback get back on track, I thought the grizzled coach was simply suggesting the team would add a few wrinkles to the playbook to allow Cam Newton to rediscover his comfort zone as the ultimate playmaker at the position.
While I'm sure that is certainly a big part of the Panthers' offensive transformation, the team's decision to draft a pair of hybrids weapons will not only help their franchise quarterback get back on track, but it could make their offense more dynamic, explosive and nearly impossible to defend -- IF offensive coordinator Mike Shula knows how to control the joystick from the sidelines.
Now, I'm not taking a veiled shot at Carolina's veteran offensive architect, but the pressure is squarely on his shoulders to come up with creative game plans that maximize the diverse talents of Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel as multipurpose playmakers. Each is capable of aligning in the backfield, slot or out wide to create mismatches on the perimeter, and Shula must find a way to utilize the duo's diverse set of skills to add some juice to an offense that fell apart last season, falling from first in 2015 to 15th in scoring.
In McCaffrey, the Panthers snagged an explosive triple-threat playmaker capable of delivering splash plays as a runner, receiver or returner. The 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up shattered Barry Sanders' single-season record for all-purpose yardage (3,864, as compared to Sanders' long-standing record of 3,250), while displaying a slick running style that mirrors Pro Bowl RB Le'Veon Bell's "pick-and-stick" approach. McCaffrey wreaks havoc on foes as a dangerous inside runner with a knack for skipping and skating past defenders on the second level on power-based runs. And also like Bell, McCaffrey is a dynamic receiver with polished route-running skills and strong hands. He is a "get open" specialist capable of defeating linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks with his wicked moves at the top of routes. Whether it is an option route from his halfback position or a "jerk" route from the slot, McCaffrey poses a big problem for defenses attempting to stay in their base package.
Not to be outdone, Samuel might be just as dangerous as a versatile weapon on the perimeter. He was the only player in major college football last season to post a 700/700 season (700 rushing yards and 700 receiving yards) as a "hybrid" playmaker at Ohio State. Although Samuel is listed as a wide receiver and earned All-Big Ten accolades at the position, he is a dynamic runner with extensive experience at running back. The 5-foot-11, 196-pounder is an electric jitterbug with explosive stop-start quickness and burst. Samuel's combination of balance, body control and burst makes him a dangerous playmaker with the ball in his hands, particularly on stretches (outside zone) and jet sweeps around the corner.
As a receiver, Samuel's breakneck speed (4.31 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine) makes him a legitimate vertical threat on the perimeter, but he also flashes spectacular route-running ability on underneath routes (slants/quick outs) from the slot. With the speedster also displaying exceptional wiggle with the ball in his hands, Samuel could terrorize opponents as a catch-and-run playmaker in the passing game.
Considering the skills and versatility that McCaffrey and Samuel offer, the Panthers suddenly have a couple of new toys to help Newton bounce back from the worst season of his NFL career. Remember, the 2015 NFL MVP completed just 52.9 percent of his passes and finished with an abysmal 75.8 passer rating while averaging 6.9 yards per attempt. Those numbers -- all career lows -- suggest that Newton struggled to knock down enough layups to find his rhythm as a passer throughout the season.
In most offenses, the quarterback has the opportunity to drop the ball off to running backs or slot receivers on a number of screens, swings and quicks to boost his completion rate and attack the underneath area of coverage. Studying the numbers from last season, I noticed that the Panthers only targeted running backs on 13 percent of their pass attempts. This is well below the league average (19 percent) and significantly behind prolific offensive teams like New England and New Orleans (24 percent) in passing production to running backs.
Carolina's coaching staff must've been paying close attention to those numbers. And everyone saw the Falcons and Patriots battle it out in Super Bowl LI largely on the strength of their running backs making plays as dual-threats from the backfield. In fact, Shula recently cited the Patriots' approach when explaining that he wanted to give Newton more easy completions in the game plan.
"In the Super Bowl, how many passes do you think Tom Brady threw to his backs? Mostly completed, right?" Shula said to The MMQB's Peter King. "So maybe, sometimes, it turns into just a 4-yard gain. But I'll take a 4-yard gain. ... They're glorified runs sometimes, but they work and it doesn't matter what you call them."
For the record, Brady completed 15 of 19 passes for 112 yards (7.5 yards per completion) to running backs James White and Dion Lewis in the Super Bowl on the way to directing a historic come-from-behind win. With McCaffrey and Samuel possessing similar traits as multidimensional backs/receivers, the Panthers have the ability to create mismatches in the passing game, particularly when these guys are positioned out wide or in the slot in spread or empty formations.
In addition, the Panthers can add a number of trick plays and gadgets to the playbook to enhance their base offense and create more big-play opportunities. Whether it's McCaffrey operating as a Wildcat QB or Samuel racing around the corner on a jet sweep or reverse, the Panthers have more weapons to use in the running game to alleviate the burden on Newton to operate as a de facto running back for the team.
That's why the pressure is on Shula to figure out how to tap into his young duo's explosiveness and versatility without bogging the rookies down with too much information.
"We like to think as coaches that you're going to be the ones that can draw up the most creative plays and it doesn't matter who's out there on the field," Shula told reporters after a recent rookie minicamp practice. "But football players make plays, and it's our job to get those guys the ball."
With the Panthers also trotting out a WR corps with NBA-like size and length (Kelvin Benjamin is 6-5, 245 pounds; Devin Funchess is 6-4, 225; Greg Olsen is 6-5, 255), the Panthers suddenly have a multi-faceted offensive lineup that provides Shula with enough options to attack opponents with alley-oops or "small ball" on the perimeter. If Newton can tweak his game and become a more efficient player from the pocket, Carolina will have an offense that can spark a return to title contention.
SAM BRADFORD'S BREAKOUT? Why the QB could enjoy a career year
Sam Bradford rarely gets mentioned as one of the top quarterbacks in the game, but I believe the former No. 1 overall pick is poised to crack the top 10 at his position this year.
Now, I know I might be the lone wolf in my glowing assessment of Bradford's game and potential, but the more I watch him on tape, the more I'm convinced he has the goods to take his game to another level as the Minnesota Vikings' QB1.
Last season, Bradford quietly posted career highs in completion rate (71.6 percent), passer rating (99.3) and yards per attempt (7.0), despite joining the team near the end of preseason.
Think about that.
The eighth-year pro posted highly efficient numbers as a passer while mastering a system on the fly and developing chemistry with a group of pass catchers without the benefit of OTAs (organized team activities) and minicamp practices. Not to mention, he was forced to play behind a leaky offensive line that was ravaged by injuries for most of the season. His coach, for one, certainly took notice.
"He's earned the right to be the starting quarterback," Mike Zimmer said at the season-ending press conference.
With that in mind, Bradford's spectacular play in adverse circumstances could foreshadow his rise to the top in 2017. He not only survived the calamity, but he actually thrived as the orchestra conductor of an offense that wasn't designed to showcase or enhance his talents. Although Bradford's production and efficiency weren't celebrated due to the Vikings' disappointing finish after a 5-0 start, his stellar play might've prompted the team to rebuild the offense around his skill set.
First, the team installed Pat Shurmur as the permanent offensive coordinator after he served as the team's play caller following Norv Turner's surprising midseason retirement. The move allows Bradford to stay with the OC who knows him best (Shurmur previously coached Bradford with the Rams and Eagles) and understands how to maximize the 29-year-old QB's potential (Bradford won the 2010 Offensive Rookie of the Year award with Shurmur calling the plays in St. Louis).
From a schematic standpoint, Shurmur's system fits Bradford's strengths as a pinpoint rhythm passer. The scheme features a number of shotgun spread formations with quick patterns and intermediate route combinations designed to stretch the defense horizontally while allowing Bradford to quickly catch and fire from the pocket. Although the passing game definitely has a "dink and dunk" feel to it, the system allows the quarterback to rack up completions and move the chains if he understands where to go with the ball based on his pre- and post-snap reads. Remember, Bradford excelled in a spread offense at Oklahoma that featured quicks and catch-and-run concepts, so Shurmur's system puts him back in his comfort zone as a playmaker.
With a system in place to accentuate Bradford's skills, the Vikings still needed to upgrade the supporting cast. The team revamped the offensive line with free-agent additions Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, and added a rock-solid center (Pat Elflein) in the draft. These additions will keep Bradford clean in the pocket, which will allow him to keep his eyes downfield instead of staring at the free rushers shooting through gaps. This will increase his accuracy on intermediate and deep throws, leading to more chunk plays from an offense that struggled to generate home runs in the passing game.
In addition, the Vikings' fortified running game will help Bradford perform better from the pocket. No disrespect to Adrian Peterson and his remarkable career accomplishments, but a) he seemed to be past his prime last September and b) his one-dimensional game didn't mesh with the evolution of the Vikings' offense under Bradford. The veteran quarterback is at his best when operating out of the shotgun, which isn't ideal for Peterson's game or running style. Thus, the team moved on from the three-time rushing champ and replaced him with free agent Latavius Murray and second-round draft pick Dalvin Cook.
In Murray, the Vikings get a big-bodied, one-cut runner with the size, strength and power to grind between the tackles -- yet he is also a capable receiver out of the backfield. Murray caught 74 balls over his last two years in Oakland and snatches the ball cleanly on swings, screens and checkdowns out of the backfield. Although he isn't a mismatch option in the passing game, he is more than capable of playing a role as a receiver on early-down play-action passes.
Cook, the No. 41 overall pick out of Florida State, is an electric multipurpose back with home-run ability. He can score from anywhere on the field as a runner or receiver, and his spectacular running style reminds me of Jamaal Charles. With the Vikings moving to more spread formations and a shotgun-oriented approach, Cook's versatility and explosiveness could make him quite a difference maker in the lineup beside Bradford.
Remember, the Vikingsranked dead last in rushing a season ago, and the lack of a steady ground game allowed opponents to hone in on Bradford and the passing game. If Murray and Cook are able to emerge as credible threats, it changes the coverage Bradford faces and allows the Vikings' receivers to see more one-on-one matchups on the outside.
Considering the Vikings' receiving corps had three pass catchers (Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph) eclipse 800 yards despite facing loaded coverage, the crew could post crazy numbers in a system that creates plenty of opportunities for polished route runners with crafty games. With Michael Floyd joining the group as a downfield threat and 2016 No. 1 pick Laquon Treadwell poised to make a leap as a second-year pro, the Vikings have enough weapons to allow Bradford to carve up defenses with a flurry of "dink and dunk" throws to the perimeter.
To be an elite quarterback in this league, a field general needs to have the right scheme and supporting cast to thrive. In Minnesota, Bradford is finally in a situation that will allow him to play like the signal caller everyone envisioned when he came off the board as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft.
ASK THE LEAGUE: Why hasn't anyone signed LeGarrette Blount?
When LeGarrette Blount was revealed as No. 80 on NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2017," I received a few texts from some buddies asking why a running back coming off a 1,100-yard season with an NFL-best 18 rushing touchdowns is still on the market. While I've grown accustomed to seeing 30-year-old runners dismissed in a league that doesn't value old-school backs at a premium, I must admit that I'm surprised to see Blount out of work coming off a season where he helped a team win a Super Bowl. Thus, I thought I would reach out to a few scouting colleagues to see why the Super Bowl champion is still on the street and what could be holding up a potential deal for his services. Here's what I asked and the answers that I received:
Why hasn't a team signed LeGarrette Blount after he cracked the 1,000-yard mark and led the league in rushing touchdowns?
AFC pro personnel director: "It has to be the money or the character. I know the college issues are behind him, but some teams might be reluctant to take a chance on him due to how things played out in Pittsburgh. He basically walked out on that team in the middle of the season. That's a pretty serious offense. Plus, he is 30, and teams aren't willing to throw a lot of cash on an older running back."
Second AFC pro personnel director: "He's an acquired taste, so he's not for everybody. You have to be comfortable with his personality and how he potentially fits in the locker room. It works in New England because they understand him and how passionate he is about the game, but I don't know if other teams or coaches can get the best out of him. He might be too hot to handle for some teams."
It is always surprising to see good players without a team, particularly when they are coming off strong years where they posted outstanding production and helped win games. However, Blount is a different case because he is an aging running back and has some character concerns that prevent teams from fully embracing him as a franchise running back.
While he has been a model citizen during his tenure in New England, he had a handful of incidents with the Titans, Buccaneers and Steelers that make teams pause before bringing him into the locker room. Sure, guys can change and evolve over time, but Blount's history suggests that he is at his best in New England, for whatever reason. (And actually, he could ultimately end up staying in New England, due to the Patriots' use of a rarely used tender.) Now, that doesn't mean he couldn't enjoy success with another team under the right circumstances. Still, decision makers are reluctant to pay big bucks to an older player who appears to have some blemishes on his résumé from a character standpoint.
On the field, I don't think there are many questions or concerns about his ability to handle a role as a feature back in a power-based offense. He is a proven commodity as a grinder and his ability to score touchdowns in goal-to-go situations could make him an asset to a team looking for a "punch it in" guy. While I don't know how much I would pay an older back in the current landscape, I can't envision Blount getting more than the relatively cheap, incentive-laden kind of deal that is going around for established veteran running backs (SEE: Marshawn Lynch, Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles).
If I had to choose a destination for Blount outside of New England, I would point to the New York Giants. The G-Men need a physical runner to help them become more efficient in the red zone, and Blount's rugged running style would fit the bill. Not to mention, his big body would make him a perfect fit for their four-minute offense and give the Giants a bit of the blue-collar identity that's needed to win big in the NFC East.