Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
But first, an examination of whether Chip can save Kap ...
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Kaepernick has garnered plenty of attention over the last few months for his social activism. Now that he is returning to starting lineup in the San Francisco 49ers' visit to Buffalo, the 28-year-old signal caller is back under the microscope of the scouting community. Can the previously dynamic playmaker resurrect his career under Kelly, beginning Sunday against Rex Ryan's defense?
Now, I'm sure some observers will tune in to see if the polarizing star will fall flat on his face after creating a national conversation with his anthem protest. But there are number of intrigued scouts, executives and coaches curious to see if the 6-foot-4 passer still has some of the magic that propelled him to stardom when he led the 49ers to the cusp of a Lombardi Trophy with an electric style that prompted hyperbolic projections about his future. While I didn't go as far as some analysts at the time who seemingly began taking his measurements for a gold jacket, I did believe Kap could be "the face of the future at the position" based on his remarkable talents as a dual-threat playmaker. Back in 2012 and '13, he displayed an explosive set of skills that reminded me of Randall Cunningham. Also, in his first few years under Jim Harbaugh, Kaepernick was featured in a system that allowed him to maximize his gifts as a dynamic run-pass threat on the edges.
Despite watching Kaepernick fail to live up to those lofty expectations the past two years due to a variety of factors (scheme fit, deteriorating supporting cast and his poor performance from the pocket), I believe he is perfectly positioned to bounce back under Kelly. I know that statement will be met with eye rolls and snickers, but hear me out before trashing my positive outlook.
Say what you want about Kelly and his system, but there's no disputing his ability to generate production at the NFL level. During his time with the Philadelphia Eagles from 2013 to 2015, his team ranked third in point per game (26.9) and total offense (392.8 yards), as well as fourth in rushing yards per game (131.3). In addition, the Eagles recorded the second-most running plays of 10-plus yards (176) and the fourth-most passing plays of 25-plus yards (109). That's significant output from an offense that had pedestrian quarterbacks like Sam Bradford, Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez directing a scheme that featured a ton of zone-read and option concepts (RPOs) designed to force opponents to account for the quarterback as a potential runner.
With Kaepernick at the helm, Kelly has a legitimate dual-threat trigger man. Although Kap reportedly isn't the same guy who dazzled America with his explosive athleticism and running skills in 2012 an '13, he returns to his comfort zone directing an attack that features read-option plays and straightforward pass concepts. (Kaepernick amassed over 10,000 passing yards and 4,000 rushing yards running Chris Ault's pistol attack at Nevada.)
"He gives Chip [Kelly] a Marcus Mariota-type playmaker," said an NFC scout familiar Kaepernick and Kelly. "He is not as smooth or fluid, but he is dynamic and explosive with the ball in his hands. ... He is a much different point man than we've seen run his stuff [in Kelly's NFL days]."
Speaking to that point about Mariota and how the offense could flow with an athletic playmaker, I believe the 49ers' fourth preseason game against San Diego provided a glimpse of how well Kaepernick could perform as the QB1 in Kelly's system. Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film of that game, I was impressed with Kaepernick's decisiveness, athleticism and ball handling while executing the zone-read. He has a keen understanding of when to hand the ball off or keep it, based on the designated defender's reaction. In addition, Kaepernick's willingness to carry out his fakes forces defenders to account for him, which creates bigger lanes for the running back on inside runs.
As a passer in that game, Kaepernick was quick and decisive delivering the ball to his receivers on the perimeter. Part of his efficiency and effectiveness was due to the straightforward nature of the passing game: The 49ers ran a number of simple catch-and-throw concepts with one or two receivers in the progression. Although quarterback gurus would refer to these plays as "remedial" passing concepts, they are route combinations that are routinely featured in high school and college spread offenses. Considering Kaepernick's success at Nevada with these kinds of plays, the utilization of them puts the QB in his comfort zone, which raises his confidence and overall effectiveness.
The naysayers will point out that I'm probably making too much of a preseason performance that featured a host of backups and eventual cast-offs, but I believe all reps matter. And there's no disputing that he performed well in that setting with limited practice time and a ton of pressure on his shoulders due to the attention from his peaceful protest.
When I look ahead to how Kelly could tweak his system to further enhance Kaepernick's skills, I believe you will see the 49ers play at a faster pace and incorporate more throws designed to attack the edges of the field (outside the numbers). By adding more tempo to the offense, Kelly can take the call sheet out of the opposing defensive coordinator's hands, leading to fewer complex blitz and coverage combinations. In addition, the rapid pace wears down defenders and creates more mental mistakes from undisciplined players forced into survival mode on the field.
The 49ers naturally will incorporate more movement passes (bootlegs and sprint outs) to take advantage of Kaepernick's athleticism. San Francisco also will repeat successful concepts, particularly mesh (crossing) routes, from multiple formations throughout the game. This has been a staple of Kelly's system since his days at Oregon and he continued to use similar methods in Philadelphia.
"Kelly's a tendency coach," an NFC pro personnel director told me. "Once he figures out what you're doing against him, he's going to relentlessly attack you with the same play over and over again. With the offense operating at a warp-speed pace, he can dictate the terms and make life easy for his quarterback."
For all of the flack Kelly has received for his "quarterback-friendly system" of late, he is the same coach who helped Foles play at an MVP level in 2013 (119.2 passer rating and a 27:2 TD-to-INT ratio). He also helped Bradford play at a high level in the second half of last season with straightforward concepts that frequently produced an open receiver running free across the field.
Kelly enjoyed success at the collegiate level with limited passers like Darron Thomas and Jeremiah Masoli directing a high-powered offense at Oregon, so I'm more than willing to bet on the clever play caller crafting a series of game plans that help Kaepernick recapture his magic as an electric playmaker.
"Oh, I think he's going to kill it," said the NFC scout. "He's in the perfect system for his skill set. ... I would expect him to do well under Chip."
I know Kelly has attempted to quell expectations, but count me as one of the observers who's anxiously waiting to see if Kaepernick can get back to being the special playmaker who captured the football world's attention a few years ago.
ASK THE LEAGUE: How do you stop the Patriots' two tight ends?
After watching Tom Brady completely shred the Cleveland Browns to the tune of 406 passing yards and three touchdowns in a little more than three quarters of work, opposing defensive coordinators have to be shaking in their boots at the sight of the revamped Patriots offense with Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett as focal points. With the dynamic duo combining to rack up 11 receptions for 178 yards and three scores last Sunday, I thought it was the perfect time to reach out to a few coaches and personnel men for their thoughts on this matchup nightmare. Here's what I asked and their reactions:
AFC defensive coordinator: "They give you a tough matchup when those guys are on the field. They are creating the mismatches on the inside instead of the outside and that makes it hard to double or take one of those guys out of the mix. You have to hope that your 'bigs' [linebackers] can hold up when you match up. Otherwise, you're screwed."
AFC secondary coach: "That's a tough one because they have two legit tight ends on the field. If there was only one tight end, I would have my guys beat him up at the line before he gets to the safety to disrupt the timing of the passing game and force the quarterback to go else. With two guys, you can't really do that. ... You also have to account for [Julian] Edelman. If you don't have a plan for him, he will kill you with the nickel-and-dime stuff."
AFC assistant general manager: "That's one heck of a challenge. With No. 12 [Brady], the presence of two big tight ends puts him back in his comfort zone. We saw what kind of success he had before [with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez] -- you knew they were going to get back to that. I would hate to have to come up with a plan to slow them down now."
NFC assistant pro scouting director: "You can't stop them. They have the two best blocking tight ends in the game, so they can mash you if you play your little guys [nickel and dime defensive backs]. If you trot out the big boys [base personnel], they will spread you out and shred you. Bill [Belichick] is the master of creating mismatches and he holds all of the cards with those two guys on the field."
AFC pro personnel director: "Whew! That's a tough one. I don't know how you really match up with them. You can hope that No. 12 has a bad day, but that rarely happens."
AFC assistant director of pro personnel: "It's hard. I don't know how you can slow them down when both guys are healthy. ... You better hope that you can find some guys in the draft that can contain them. That's really the only option."
New England's offense has always been a nightmare to defend with Brady at the helm, but Belichick has made it an unstoppable force by surrounding the best quarterback in the game with two of the best tight ends in football. Gronkowski and Bennett possess rare skills as big-bodied, hoopster-like tight ends with exceptional athleticism, ball skills and blocking ability. They force defensive coordinators to account for their whereabouts in every formation because each player can win a one-on-one matchup against a linebacker or defensive back in the passing game or annihilate defenders in run blocking. In fact, their collective skills as road graders make the Patriots' current version of their "12" package (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) far more difficult to defend than the explosive unit anchored by Hernandez and Gronkowski a few years ago.
After talking to several coaches and personnel people around the league, I'm still at a loss for how to stop this personnel package. The Pats have assembled a nice set of complementary weapons (Edelman, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola and a stable of versatile running backs) that provide the team with a solution for every conceivable defensive tactic. If the defense attempts to stay in "base" -- with regular personnel on the field -- the Patriots simply spread them out in 2x2, 3x1 or empty formations and allow Brady to pick the coverage apart with an assortment of quick-rhythm throws to his favorite mismatch on the perimeter. If the defense runs a sub-package (nickel or dime) onto the field, the Patriots will batten down the hatches and pummel the opponent with runs from a variety of "heavy" formations -- with the tight ends essentially creating a wall on the edges. With LeGarrette Blount serving as the designated hammerhead in those sets, New England can relentlessly pound the ball between the tackles until the defense waves the white flag.
Considering all of the options available to the defense, I would suggest mixing in some "big nickel" packages with safeties filling roles as slot defenders or linebackers to account for the Patriots' spread formations. Although this unit would be a little vulnerable against the ground game, I would dare New England to run the ball down my throat rather than allow Brady to pick my defense apart with a 400-yard passing day. Sure, this thinking runs counter to the traditional philosophy that most defensive coordinators subscribe to, but I believe the only way to knock off the Pats is to neutralize their best player (Brady) and force other guys to make plays. By baiting the Patriots into a "three yards and a cloud of dust" game, you might be able to keep the score down and find a way to steal it at the end. It's not the best strategy, but based on my conversations with others, we are all grasping at straws here.
LESEAN MCCOY: How Anthony Lynn freed Shady
Who says coaching doesn't matter?
Now, I know tallying 1,187 yards from scrimmage (895 rushing; 292 receiving) in 12 games, as McCoy did in 2015 under former coordinator Greg Roman (who was fired this season after a Week 2 loss to the Jets), is nothing to sneeze at. But the running back is one of the most explosive players in football, capable of churning out 2,000-yard seasons as a versatile playmaker out of the backfield. In fact, he had already surpassed that mark once in his career (2,146 yards from scrimmage in 2013) before being traded from the Eagles to the Bills in March 2015; he also topped 1,500 scrimmage yards on two other occasions as the feature back for Philadelphia.
Considering McCoy's impressive production as an electric RB1, I expected the Bills to lean on the eighth-year pro as the anchor of a ground-and-pound attack that could fuel a playoff run. Although Buffalo featured the slippery playmaker as the bell cow in the backfield, in the 14 games McCoy played under Roman, McCoy averaged just 19.6 touches per contest. In addition, Roman didn't appear to cater his playbook or game plans to maximize the four-time Pro Bowler's talents as a runner/receiver.
A look back at the All-22 Coaches Film from the Bills' 2015 season showed that McCoy routinely carried the ball on runs directed to the edges. As an explosive runner with exceptional stop-start quickness, burst and acceleration, he is more than capable of turning the corner on most defenses. But the steady diet of perimeter runs essentially made him a feast-or-famine runner for the Bills: He'd either burst through creases for big plays (as in the video below) or run out of bounds for minimal gains:
While I can't blame Roman for featuring a number of off-tackle or outside runs in a shotgun offense that featured some of the concepts and elements that helped McCoy capture the 2013 rushing title in Philadelphia, Shady has always been at his best when running between the tackles on an assortment of downhill runs that actually limit his creativity at the point of attack. Yes, I know it sounds crazy to suggest an elusive runner with a knack for making defenders miss needs some restrictions placed on his game, but McCoy's desire to turn every run into a big play leads to some negative plays when he bounces around looking for a crease on the outside.
That's why the promotion of Lynn to play caller has paid immediate dividends for McCoy and the Bills. The former running backs coach knows the strengths and weaknesses of his RB1 as a playmaker. Moreover, Lynn asked his star pupil for his favorite plays and built the running portion of the game plan around his skills. I'm sure it seems like a no-brainer for a coach to ask one of his top players for input, but a lot of offensive coaches elect to make their game-planning decisions without consulting others. That lack of communication can prevent players from fully buying into the plan.
Lynn, on the other hand, empowers McCoy and his teammates by soliciting their opinions when formulating his game plan. This simple act gives ownership to the players, which increases their interest in seeing the plan work successfully.
"[Lynn] immediately sought out the quarterbacks and a few other offensive stars to get their opinion on what plays worked for them," a Bills official told me. "As a former player, he realizes that it's a 'player's game,' and the coach's job is to put players in a position to succeed. Sometimes that requires seeking their input and trusting what they tell you."
Studying the Bills' recent games, it is obvious that McCoy and Lynn have reached an agreement on featuring more downhill runs in the game plan. Against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 5, the Bills repeatedly handed the ball to McCoy -- who finished with 150 rushing yards -- on powers, counters and draws that allowed him to hit the hole with his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage. In addition, the Bills used a fullback (Jerome Felton) on most of McCoy's runs, providing Shady with a "sweeper" to clean out any debris in the hole, as you can see in McCoy's highlights from that game:
The call sheets against the New England Patriotsin Week 4 (when McCoy had 108 yards from scrimmage) and Arizona Cardinalsin Week 3 (when he ran for 110 yards and two scores) featured similar concepts designed to get McCoy to the second level. The veteran carved up Bill Belichick's squad on an assortment of powers/counters, tosses and Wildcat runs designed to attack the belly of the defense. That was after bludgeoning the Cardinals with powers and wind-back isolation runs (in which the running back and fullback start heading in one direction before bowing back to the opposite-side A- or B-gap) that enabled McCoy to escape out the back door.
Glancing at the numbers from the past three games, it is obvious that McCoy has found his groove. With Lynn strategically putting his back in positions that allow him to maximize his talents as a "Houdini in a phone booth" (that is, a shifty runner in tight quarters), and with the veteran offering his own input on what plays work best for his game, the Bills have suddenly found a way to unleash their star runner in a new-and-improved ground-and-pound offense.
NEXT GEN STATS: Why Morris Claiborne turned a corner
We've all heard the idiom that a tiger can't change his stripes, but LSU productMorris Claiborne is flipping that saying on its head. After failing to live up to expectations as a potential shutdown corner following his arrival as the No. 6 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys' CB1 suddenly has emerged as one of the best cover corners in the game.
Oh, I know that sentence will take some readers by surprise, considering Claiborne's previous struggles on the island, but the fifth-year pro is absolutely suffocating wide receivers this season. Through five games, he is only allowing a 57.1 completion rate (24 completions on 42 targets) and a 68.8 passer rating to quarterbacks directing throws to his side. Not to mention, Claiborne has kept a handful of notable WR1s in check with his stellar play on the perimeter.
Don't believe me? Check out how these WR1s performed on plays when they were matched up against Claiborne this season:
That's the kind of production and performance that typically leads to All-Pro honors at the end of a season. It's also likely to lead to a lucrative contract for an impending free agent in a pass-happy league that rewards CB1s with elite cover skills. While some would suggest Claiborne's outstanding play is a byproduct of a desperate player thriving in a contract year, I believe his rapid improvement is the result of two factors coming together to allow him to finally reach his potential as a playmaker on the island: health and a position change.
After missing 24 of a possible 64 regular season games during his first four seasons due to an assortment of injuries (including a torn patellar tendon in 2014), Claiborne is finally healthy and playing like the franchise player that many expected him to be when he entered the league as an ultra-confident CB1. I will be the first to admit that I thought he was destined for stardom after studying his tape at LSU and witnessing his spectacular pro-day workout. I've seen a lot of cornerbacks work out in front of coaches, but I've never seen a defensive back exhibit better footwork, turns and transitions and ball skills in drills. Claiborne was smooth and fluid in all of his movements, which led me to boldly anoint him the "most complete cover corner" in the 2012 class.
Injuries kept Claiborne from reaching his potential early in his career. He repeatedly missed a number of practices and workouts during the regular season. In addition, Claiborne repeatedly missed time during the offseason rehabbing from various surgeries. Considering the correlation between quality repetitions and confidence, it seems reasonable to suggest the veteran's early career struggles stemmed from his spotty preparation on the island.
"The biggest thing with Mo is that he's past the injuries -- he's healthy and available to practice now," an NFC scout familiar with Claiborne and the Cowboys told me. "With practice and repetitions comes confidence. And because he's been able to develop his confidence on the practice field, he's now able to produce in games."
I spoke to Cowboys officials during training camp, and they repeatedly touted Claiborne as the "best cover corner" throughout the preseason and raved about his competitive practice habits. In fact, Dallas receiver Dez Bryant called Claiborne a "beast," based on their spirited battles in one-on-one drills during training camp.
Naturally, Claiborne's improved health has helped his play on the field, but I believe the Cowboys' decision to move him to left cornerback -- after he spent the majority of his NFL career on the right side -- has been critical to his success. According to Next Gen Stats, he has aligned at LCB on 88.6 percent of the Cowboys' defensive snaps. That's quite a development, considering both his previous struggles and the responsibility that falls on the shoulders of a left corner. Remember, most teams place their top corner at LCB, since the overwhelming majority of quarterbacks are right-handed, with full vision of that side of the field in dropbacks.
I studied the All-22 Coaches Film, and Claiborne looks more comfortable playing on the left side of the field. From his footwork to his transitions, he looks smoother and more fluid in coverage. In addition, he is playing with great discipline in coverage at the marquee position in the secondary.
Reflecting on Claiborne's success as a collegian at LSU, he frequently played on the left side and thrived facing a barrage of throws, supporting the notion that he is most comfortable executing turns and transitions from that side. He is also used to seeing the ball from that side of the field, which results in more breakups and interceptions when opportunities arise.
I know it's probably hard for some observers to comprehend how a move from one side to another can drastically affect a player's game, but I've seen a number of cornerbacks struggle when forced to play away from their preferred side (see: Nnamdi Asomugha with the Philadelphia Eagles). That's why the Cowboys' decision to put Claiborne on the left should be viewed as one of their best coaching moves of the season -- a game-changing shift for a young corner who is suddenly playing like a premier CB1 on the island.