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:
» The scouting community's polarized position on QB prospect Patrick Mahomes.
But first, a look at one quarterback room that has more potential than you think ...
* * * **
Call me crazy, but I don't think the Cleveland Browns' quarterback situation is nearly as dire as many seem to think. Despite the constant chatter regarding the organization's need to find a franchise quarterback in the 2017 NFL Draft, I believe the Browns might be better served by standing pat at the position and relying on the current options on the roster.
Now, I know I might be the only evaluator in the football world to take an optimistic view on Cleveland's quarterback situation, but I believe the team's young field generals are better options than what's available in the draft, free agency and trade markets. While the allure of trotting a new "face of the franchise" to the podium is tempting -- and the Browns have a whopping 11 draft picks, including two in the first round (Nos. 1 and 12) -- the better business decision would involve developing the quarterbacks currently on the roster to see if they spawn an effective NFL starter in the short term.
I know it's hard to grasp that concept when Jimmy Garoppolo has been hailed as a potential savior at the position, but the Browns' current signal callers should provide the Dawg Pound with just as much hope and optimism for the future. No disrespect to the New England Patriots' QB2, but what has he really accomplished in the league to make us believe that he is a franchise quarterback capable of engineering a major turnaround in Cleveland?
Sure, Garoppolo flashed some potential during a pair of successful starts for the Super Bowl champions at the beginning the 2016 season, but aren't the Patriots viewed as the best-coached in football? How much stock should we place in his efficient efforts when we watched an unheralded rookie (Jacoby Brissett) lead the same squad to a 27-0 victory the following week?
Thus, the Browns run the risk of overvaluing a backup quarterback who really hasn't shown the football world that he is a franchise quarterback -- or even a legitimate NFL starter at the position. Considering the draft currency and financial commitment it could take to pry Garoppolo away from New England, the risk-reward ratio doesn't make sense for an organization that remains several pieces away from playoff contention.
The draft is just as risky, without a sure-fire option at the top of the board. While DeShaun Watson, Mitchell Trubisky, DeShone Kizer, Patrick Mahomes and Davis Webb are intriguing talents, there isn't a consensus superstar in the bunch -- and questions persist on whether any of them are capable of thriving in Year 1. With question marks surrounding the entire class, the Browns are better off developing one of their own instead of taking on another young quarterback at this point.
Once again, I know that's an unpopular opinion in the microwaveable quarterback age, but it takes time for young signal callers to grow into the position -- and the Browns would return to Step 1 with a rookie at the helm. I'm beginning to think Cleveland realizes this, which is why we are starting to hear a different tone from the team when it comes to Osweiler.
"He's a guy that's gonna come in and compete," Hue Jackson told NFL Network's Steve Wyche at the Annual League Meeting.
That's how the Browns should treat a 26-year-old quarterback who was viewed as a hot commodity just one offseason ago. Osweiler had plenty of suitors on the open market last year before signing with the Houston Texans on a four-year, $72 million deal that featured $37 million in guarantees. While Osweiler has been called a bust for his disappointing performance in Houston as a starter this past season, it is important to remember he is still a young quarterback with the potential to function as a quality starter in the league. He played a key role in the Denver Broncos' most recent championship campaign by posting a 5-2 mark while filling in for Peyton Manning.
Naturally, skeptics will point to that all-time defense as the driving force of those Broncos, but Osweiler deserves credit for his efficient effort as a starter on team that allowed him to simply manage the game from under center. I know fans see the "game manager" label as a huge taint, but the capacity to understand and execute in critical moments is key to winning games. Osweiler's ability to hold down the fort for the Broncos in Manning's absence suggests he can win games in this league when set up for success.
Looking back at Osweiler's struggles in Houston, he definitely deserves criticism for his inconsistent play as a big-money quarterback. But I'm not convinced Bill O'Brien completely put him in a position to maximize his potential within that system. The 6-foot-8, 235-pound slinger is ideally suited to play in a quick-rhythm scheme that features an assortment of short and intermediate routes inside the numbers. In addition, he is an efficient passer off play action, particularly on movement-based drops that included half or full rollouts.
Remember, Osweiler entered the league after only one full season as a starter at Arizona State (15 career starts in college) and logged just seven starts during his time in Denver. Thus, he was essentially a rookie in Houston despite the fanfare and hype surrounding his arrival as a big-ticket free agent. Considering how experience is life's greatest teacher, Osweiler should be an improved player in 2017 after learning several hard lessons during his 16-start gig (including the playoffs) with the Texans.
If the Browns are serious about seeing what they have in Osweiler, they should consider incorporating bits and pieces of the offense that he ran successfully at Arizona State. Sure, it's been six years since he played in Noel Mazzone's version of the spread, but the concepts are eerily similar to some of the basic routes in the West Coast offense, which would make it easy to blend into Cleveland's game plan. Jackson has done this before with young quarterbacks (see: Andy Dalton in Cincinnati), so it is definitely possible to put Osweiler in a position to succeed with subtle tweaks to the playbook.
As far as Kessler, the Browns might've uncovered a potential starter in the 2016 third-round pick from USC. That opinion probably goes against the narrative floated out in most football circles, but the rookie starter played better than expected when he got his chance in 2016. In nine games (eight starts), Kessler posted a 65.6 completion rate and a 6:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio for a 92.9 passer rating. While some will snicker at those numbers and suggest they are simply garbage-time stats compiled by a quarterback forced to chase points for a losing team, Kessler played well enough in three competitive games (vs. Miami, Washington and Tennessee) to warrant serious consideration as the Browns' starting quarterback going forward.
Granted, I'm not ready to appoint Kessler as the next big thing at the position, but I do believe he is capable of winning games as a quick-rhythm passer with solid management skills and a "small ball" game that has been effective elsewhere in the league (see: Kirk Cousins and Alex Smith, among others). While Kessler needs to show Browns officials that he is durable enough to be a long-term starter (he missed time in 2016 due to concussions and a rib injury) and that he possesses the arm strength to attack down the field, the 23-year-old has shown an evolving grasp of situational football, which is key to winning games in this league.
In the end, I'm not saying Osweiler or Kessler will set the league on fire, but I certainly would see what they have to offer before committing to another unproven young quarterback as the savior of the franchise. With most of the available options on the market and in the draft also viewed as "trailers" (the rest of the team must carry the quarterback to the winner's circle), the Browns would be wise to build up the rest of the roster and see if either player can lead the team out of the AFC North cellar in 2017, instead of making a hasty quarterback decision to simply earn a press conference "W".
ASK THE LEAGUE: What's the word on QB prospect Patrick Mahomes?
According to most folks, the 2017 quarterback class doesn't have many franchise-changing options, as I alluded to above. Coaches and scouts repeatedly have stated that there aren't many Day 1 starters in the group, but we've heard plenty of evaluators suggest that there are some intriguing developmental prospects in the group. Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes has been cited as arguably the quarterback with the most upside in the class, despite the fact that he played his college ball in an air raid system that produces statistical marvels but few NFL starters. With the buzz building that Mahomes could sneak into the first round, I thought I'd reach out to some folks around the league to get their take on the QB's game and long-term potential. Here's what I asked and their responses ...
Is Patrick Mahomes a franchise quarterback?
AFC national scout: "Physically, he has all of the tools to be a guy. He has some serious arm talent. I know he is a little reckless, but he makes some 'wow' throws that every guy can't make. Plus, he's athletic and tough. He will need some time to grow into the player that you want him to be, but he could be a star at the next level."
AFC college scouting director: "He's a good player, but he needs some work. I see the arm talent and the athleticism, but he is inconsistent in so many areas. He will need to sit and wait for a few years before he can be a starter. ... If a team is patient and willing to wait on him, I can see him being a nice developmental guy. I just couldn't pull the trigger on him in the first round."
NFC scout: "He's special. He's a rare talent that you simply don't see very often. ... I know he's raw and unpolished, but the talent is off the charts. You have to figure out how to harness it. ... He's a gunslinger and I don't know if he can change. The team that takes him has to understand that and be willing to live with it."
NFC personnel executive: "He's got a great arm, big balls and he's mobile. ... He's going to drive his head coach crazy for the first couple of years and there's no getting around that. If it clicks for him and he's coachable, I think he could become a special quarterback."
There aren't many quarterbacks in the NFL with the raw talent and tools that Patrick Mahomes brings to the table. Checking in at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds with a rare combination of athleticism and A+ arm talent, he is a dynamic gunslinger capable of revolutionizing the position with his electric passing skills.
While there are plenty of guys in the league capable of making every throw in the book, there are few passers capable of delivering strikes to every area of the field from unorthodox throwing positions while moving away from the target. Whether it's dropping a dime to a streaking receiver on a post route following a fadeaway drop or delivering a teardrop over the top of multiple defenders along the boundary while on the move, Mahomes specializes in making "wow" throws. Although a number of those throws are ill-advised, the Texas Tech star's penchant for producing splash plays sets him apart from others at the position. Considering how those highlight plays leave a lasting impression on a scout's mind, I'm not surprised Mahomes has earned rave reviews for his raw talent and potential.
With that being said, I'm not fully convinced that Mahomes has the goods to be a franchise quarterback. Playing winning football at the position requires discipline and patience in the NFL, and I'm not sure he is willing to tone down his game when the defense takes away the deep ball and dares him to win with a connect-the-dots approach. Moreover, I worry about Mahomes' accuracy and ball placement based on his inconsistent footwork and mechanics. While those spectacular off-platform throws look great on the highlight reel, the majority of his off-balance throws sail over the top of his intended receiver. With NFL defenders prone to snagging interceptions off tips and overthrows, Mahomes' sandlot style could make him a turnover machine at the next level.
Overall, I love Mahomes' natural talent and athleticism. He has a unique combination of skills that could help him become a magical playmaker at the position. Thinking about potential comps for the gunslinger, Mahomes reminds me a lot of Jay Cutler when he was at Vanderbilt. Cutler single-handedly kept his team in games with his heroic playmaking ability, but he never fully grasped how to play winning football on Sunday. If Mahomes fails to embrace a more disciplined approach to game management, footwork and mechanics, he could become the ultimate tease at the position as a talented passer who is incapable of consistently leading his team to the winner's circle.
RICHARD SHERMAN TRADE TALK: Is he on the decline? Best team fit?
When news broke about Richard Sherman's apparent availability in the trade market, I can't say I was completely shocked. I've been around the NFL long enough to know that every player on a roster is expendable and teams are willing to pawn off prized possessions if they believe the talent is no longer worth the headache.
While I'm one of Sherman's biggest fans, I knew that his controversy-filled 2016 campaign could put him in jeopardy during the offseason. Coaches and scouts will tolerate boisterous personalities and emotionally high-strung players while they are playing at a high level, but they will look to move on from those same players whenever they sense a dip in performance or production.
Considering the buzz surrounding Sherman's availability, I thought I'd take a look at the All-22 Coaches Film to see if the three-time first-team All-Pro lost a step or became more vulnerable on the island in 2016.
Upon closer inspection, Sherman -- much to my surprise -- wasn't nearly as polished or flawless as he had been in previous years. He appeared to lose his balance more than ever at the line as crafty wide receivers avoided his jams with stutter-steps and fakes early in routes. In addition, big-bodied receivers like Brandon Marshall and Julio Jones were able to create separation by pushing off or boxing out Sherman at the top of their routes. Granted, those two receivers typically have their way with corners on the perimeter with their rugged style, but I'm not used to seeing Sherman frequently out of sorts. To his credit, Sherman responded by making a number of critical plays against each receiver (two interceptions against the New York Jets and a pair of pass breakups against Atlanta) that tilted the outcome in the Seahawks' favor.
Despite Sherman's penchant for playmaking in key moments, I do believe the 29-year cover corner is beginning to decline a bit. He was never considered a speed demon or a super athlete on the edge (Sherman ran a 4.56-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, a pedestrian at the position), but he won his battles with flawless technique and savvy. At his advanced age, he must win at the line of scrimmage with superb footwork and fundamentals because he lacks the explosive athleticism to overcome early separation. Although Sherman continued to get his hands on the ball due to his superb pattern-recognition skills, the veteran was out of position more than ever.
"He's never been a great athlete," a former NFL defensive coordinator familiar with Sherman's game told me. "He wins with his technique and IQ. ... If he isn't focused or on top of his mental game, he definitely can be exposed on the island."
The 2016 Seahawks appeared to have way more coverage busts on his side of the field than we're used to seeing, which is problematic for a team that relies heavily on the "Legion of Boom" to set the tone for the squad. While some of those communication errors might've been due to the number of young players forced into the lineup due to injuries to Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, the blown coverage stand out on tape and lead to questions about everyone's attention to discipline and detail, particularly the veteran leader on the corner.
Overall, I still believe Sherman remains one of the top corners in the game due to his general ability to create turnovers and snuff out premier receivers on the edge. He is certainly worth retaining as a CB1 on a team that routinely puts its corners on the island in its hybrid man-coverage scheme.
That said, given Sherman's apparent availability, it's worth discussing which teams would make sense for him from a scheme standpoint. Surveying the landscape, I could see the perennial Pro Bowler adding value to the Cowboys, Patriots and Raiders. Although his physical skills are beginning to diminish, each of those teams utilize schemes that accentuate his talents as a CB1. In Dallas, the combination of Cover 1 and Tampa 2 would allow Sherman to continue to play press-man on early downs before clueing the quarterback on obvious passing situations. With the Patriots, Sherman's ability to hold up in man coverage would allow Belichick to vary his man-to-man deployments to ideally match up with the opponent's top perimeter weapons. Oakland's scheme is certainly similar to the Seahawks' system, based on Ken Norton's presence as the defensive coordinator. The team also needs a legitimate CB1 to anchor a secondary that must step up to get the Raiders over the hump.
For the Seahawks, the loss of Sherman could be minimized with a strong draft. The 2017 class features a number of long, rangy corners with skills that are similar to Sherman's. Considering the team's successful track record developing defensive backs, the allure of replenishing the secondary with younger, cheaper talent could be one of the driving forces behind the trade discussions. With this development going public, the chatter will either force Sherman to get back on his game or result in a transaction that tests the developmental plans of a team that's trying to hold on to its status as a perennial contender.