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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I know franchise quarterbacks don't come along every year, but the Colts are in the perfect position to parlay their big chip into a king's ransom that would better position the team to annually compete for the Lombardi Trophy.
Before you @ me suggesting that my commentary here is merely outlandish click bait, I want you to fully hear me out while I explain why the Colts would be better off without No. 12 rocking the horseshoe in 2018 and beyond.
Despite leading Indianapolis to three playoff appearances and a 43-27 record as a starter over the past five seasons, Luck shouldn't be viewed as an untouchable commodity by the team. The former No. 1 overall pick isn't one of the elites at the position and certainly hasn't played like the next coming of John Elway. He hasn't played a full season since 2014 and sports a 10-12 record as a starter since the beginning of 2015.
That's not to suggest he is a bust or a colossal underachiever, but Luck definitely hasn't played to the narrative that's been attached to his name. He is a sub-60-percent passer with a penchant for turnovers. Say what you want about me being harsh, but the numbers don't lie.
In his NFL career, Luck sports a 59.2 percent completion rate, a 132:68 touchdown-to-interception ratio and an 87.3 passer rating. Those numbers aren't awful, but they're on par with a group of QBs that might surprise you, given all the hype Luck has received ...
Andy Dalton: 62.9 percent completion rate, 149:87 TD-to-INT ratio, 89.0 passer rating, 58-38-2 record.
Alex Smith: 62.3 percent completion rate; 172:91 TD-to-INT ratio, 87.1 passer rating, 84-58-1 record.
Sam Bradford: 62.5 percent completion rate; 101:57 TD-to-INT ratio, 85.1 passer, 34-45-1 record.
Now, I'm not saying those guys are comparable as pure football specimens, but their collective production puts them in the same class. Thus, you could make a reasonable argument that Luck is merely a top-15 quarterback at this point.
That brings me back to why the Colts should consider moving on from Luck. Although I make the argument that No. 12 is B/B+ quarterback, the rest of the football world still views him as the transcendent star who was expected to take the league by storm. Luck will still command a hefty sum despite concerns about his injury history, including his current recovery from a torn labrum that just hit a snag. Barring more calamitous rehab setbacks, quarterback-needy teams will offer up a bushel of picks for the opportunity to build around a three-time Pro Bowl selectee with a 40-touchdown season on his resume.
"A lot of it depends on his health, but he would command at least two first-round picks in a normal exchange," a former NFL general manager told me. "I wouldn't make the move if I'm the Colts because I think it's hard to find guys like him, but he definitely could bring a number of top picks from desperate teams at the top of the draft."
That last point is exactly why the Coltsmust entertain the possibility of trading away Luck -- to fortify a roster that has huge voids at several marquee positions. The haul that Luck could bring back to the Colts could match the epic Herschel Walker trade that helped the 1990s Dallas Cowboys build a mini-dynasty that netted the team three Super Bowl rings.
Don't believe me? Just think about what the then-St. Louis Rams were able to land for Robert Griffin III in that blockbuster pre-draft deal. The Rams landed three first-round picks and a second-round selection for an unknown commodity at quarterback. That's more than enough ammunition to fortify a roster, particularly if the team builder knows how to evaluate talent and put together a team, right?
Think of it this way ... The Colts have a short-term starter already in place: Jacoby Brissett, who is also playing on a cheap rookie deal. Not to mention, the 2018 quarterback class could feature a few potential franchise quarterback prospects who could grow into legitimate stars after sitting on the bench for a few seasons. With the team able to land a few more blue-chip prospects with multiple first-round picks in consecutive years, the Colts could be a legitimate juggernaut from a raw talent perspective by the 2019 season.
"I hear what you're saying and that plan is sellable to ownership," an NFC scout told me. "But it's hard to move on from a franchise guy for an unknown prospect. I would be more inclined to trade Brissett and see what I could get for him. Maybe he could be my Jimmy Garoppolo trade piece down the line."
While I certainly understand the skepticism associated with trading away a quarterback viewed as a "franchise guy" by the outside world, I believe this plan makes more sense than trading away Brissett for a lone first- or second-round pick. The Colts are more than one player away from being a viable contender, so they must load up the grocery basket with quality players to have a chance at vaulting back to the top of the AFC.
So, who could be a possible trade partner? I'd point to the Cleveland Browns as obvious targets, due to their desperation at the QB position and draft capital. The Browns have two 2018 first-round picks and a pair of second-round picks on the docket. Plus, they have almost $63 million in salary cap space at this time, according to spotrac.com.
Thus, the Browns could absorb Luck's hefty contract ($24.59 million annual average through 2021) without it wrecking their salary cap. Considering their willingness to take on a bloated contract from a quarterback who couldn't play this past offseason, I can't imagine the Browns bypassing a chance to add a household name at the position.
In the end, the Colts must decide if their QB1 has more value as a franchise player or a trade chip in a quarterback-needy market where he could command enough draft capital to reverse the fortunes of a team that's heading nowhere at the moment.
PACKERS WITHOUT RODGERS: Brett Hundley can lead a playoff push
Hundley exhibits enough of the core characteristics to function as a winning quarterback under Mike McCarthy. From his ample frame (6-foot-3, 226 pounds) to his explosive athleticism to his outstanding arm talent and football IQ, the ex-UCLA standout has made tremendous progress since entering the league as a fifth-round pick. Although preseason success should always be taken with a grain of salt, it's not irrelevant. Hundley's play during the exhibition season suggests that he can perform at a B+ (or higher) level while guiding the Packers' offense. And that's a testament to Green Bay's developmental system, given what I thought about Hundley as a prospect coming out of college.
Looking back at my notes on Hundley before 2015 NFL Draft, I questioned his pocket poise, judgment and deep-ball accuracy. He appeared a little indecisive with the ball under duress and his hesitancy frequently led to sacks (as evidenced by his 125 sacks in three collegiate seasons). Although I loved his athleticism and playmaking potential inside and outside of the pocket, my concerns about his ability to consistently "connect the dots" as a rhythm passer prevented me from affixing a big grade next to his name.
While I thought Hundley was a much better player than the 147th pick in the draft, I believed he needed some time and seasoning to develop into a potential NFL starter. He needed to become a more efficient and effective passer from the pocket, while improving awareness and anticipation against pressure. Studying the All-22 Coaches Film from the past three preseasons, Hundley has improved tremendously as a playmaker from the pocket. He has been more decisive and accurate as a passer, while exhibiting outstanding touch, timing and ball placement.
From a numbers perspective, Hundley's 66.2 completion rate and 10:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in nine preseason games accurately depict his overall effectiveness guiding the Packers' 2s in glorified scrimmages.
Again, the intensity of preseason football is a lot different than regular-season action, but you can certainly make some solid assessments on Hundley's potential by studying his exhibition outings. After examining how Green Bay performed with Hundley on the field, I believe you will see the team use a variety of quick-rhythm routes from spread and empty formations. While the bulk of those throws will be "catch, rock and fire" tosses (slants, hitches and sticks), he will also work the outer edges of the field on hinges and stop routes. With the Packers intent on using empty formations from a variety of personnel packages, the team can eliminate some of the exotic pre-snap disguises that confuse young quarterbacks in the pocket.
McCarthy will also take advantage of Hundley's athleticism by putting him in motion via an assortment of bootlegs and movement passes following play-action fakes. By using run action and quarterback movement, the play caller can beef up his young field general's completion rate with some easy half-field reads featuring receivers available at every level (short, intermediate and deep) within his sight lines.
From a personnel standpoint, the Packers probably will stay with the same rotation, using a variety of "11" (1 RB, 1 TE and 3 WR) and "12" (1 RB, 2 TE and 2 WR) groupings as their primary sets. But the team could lean more on Aaron Jones at running back -- instead of Ty Montgomery -- to give Hundley a little more pop in the running game. Jones is averaging a healthy 4.8 yards per carry, as opposed to Montgomery's 3.2. If the rookie back can steady the ground game with a more consistent effort, the Packers can alleviate the pressure on Hundley to throw the ball 30-plus times as the driving force of the offense.
One element that might change is the Packers' use of the no-huddle offense. Rodgers loved playing at a breakneck pace, and his ability to call the game from the line of scrimmage prevented opponents from substituting defenders to match up with the Packers' personnel. In addition, Rodgers' savviness operating an up-tempo offense frequently led to Green Bay generating explosive plays on "freebies" due to neutral-zone infractions or illegal-substitution penalties. Without the veteran controlling the game from the line of scrimmage, the Packers could lose one of their sneaky scoring tactics in the short term.
Overall, though, I don't expect Green Bay's offense to grind to a screeching halt with the young quarterback at the controls. Hundley has spent three seasons honing his craft behind Rodgers, and McCarthy has a long track record of elevating the play of his quarterbacks. Although I don't expect the third-year pro to shatter the record book as a passer or fill up the highlight reels as a spectacular playmaker, I believe he will chalk up enough Ws to keep the Packers in the mix as a playoff contender.
Remember, McCarthy found a way to win games with a pair of ho-hum quarterbacks (Matt Flynn, Scott Tolzien and Seneca Wallace) filling the QB1 role in Rodgers' last extended absence in 2013, so I'm not worried about the Packers falling by the wayside with a more athletic and talented signal caller stepping in this time around.
ANDY DALTON'S REVIVAL: The power of the play caller
The NFL will always be known as a quarterback-driven league, but I'm beginning to realize coaching matters far more at that position than at any other spot on the field. Look no further than Andy Dalton's dramatic turnaround in Cincinnati (2-3) as proof that the right play caller can help a QB1 go from good to great in this league.
Since Week 3, Dalton has the NFL's third-highest passer rating (116.1), along with a 73.1 percent completion rate and a 7:2 TD-to-INT ratio. He's averaged 275.3 passing yards per game during that span and looked nothing like the shaky QB who struggled to string together completions (54.5 percent completion rate) or put points on the board (0:4 TD-to-INT ratio) during the first two weeks of the season.
Most importantly, the Bengals' offense has surged over the past three games, averaging 25.0 points and 2.7 offensive touchdowns -- compared to 4.5 points and zero offensive touchdowns during the first two weeks of the season.
Those numbers are eerily similar to the production posted by the unit in 2015, when the Hue Jackson-led offense averaged 26.2 ppg with Dalton playing the best ball of his career from the pocket. In case you forgot, the Bengals' QB1 completed 66.1 percent of his passes during that season with a 25:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a lofty 106.2 passer rating. He garnered serious consideration for the league's MVP award before breaking his thumb while attempting to make a tackle (off a pick) in Week 14.
With Dalton and the Bengals' offense suddenly playing at a high level, I wanted to take a deep dive into this sudden about-face. How does a simple change in play caller lead to such a dramatic turnaround in performance?
"It's all about the quarterback," an NFL head coach told me. "The coordinator should build the plan around the quarterback's strengths and what he's comfortable doing. If he doesn't like a particular play or he can get a good feel for it, you should throw it out.
"Since he is the only player with the ball on every play, you have to build the offense and call the game with him in mind."
This is clearly what the Bengals have done since Lazor took the reins. He has simplified the plan to help Dalton play without hesitation.
"I think Andy's playing very decisively," Lazor told reporters last week, via Cincinnati.com, while the Bengals were on a bye. "We -- all of us, including him, including AJ McCarron and all the people -- we've just tried to make sure we're on the same page. When this play gets called, this is what we're thinking. Can't guarantee that it's going to work out. ... But as long as he knows when this play gets called, this is the purpose."
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, it is apparent Cincinnati has streamlined the offense to allow Dalton to play fast and free in the pocket. The recent game plans under Lazor have featured more quick-rhythm throws designed to get the ball out of the QB's hands quickly. Whether it's the play-action slants (RPOs) or quick isolation routes to the perimeter, the Bengals' passing game features far more layups and quicks than before. These routes are not only high-percentage tosses, but they are similar to the throws Dalton routinely made as a spread-offense director at TCU. Thus, he is comfortable and confident executing these plays, which leads to more decisive play from the veteran.
"As long as he keeps in mind, This is the intent of the play, and tries to stay true to that and manages the other options that might come up if they leave somebody one-on-one, then he'll play decisively," Lazor told reporters last week. "I think that's the biggest thing."
Looking at the Next Gen Stats data from the past three games, it's not a coincidence that 65.9 percent of his passing attempts (61 of 93) have been thrown at or within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. With an 85.2 percent completion rate on those tosses (and 485 passing yards compiled on layups), the Bengals have become more efficient and productive in the passing game. Not to mention, the increased emphasis on short throws has helped Dalton, as he averaged 2.51 seconds snap-to-throw on his pass attempt over the past three games, according to Pro Football Focus.
With the Bengals emphasizing more "catch, rock and fire" throws in their game plans, Dalton has been able to get into a groove as a passer and playmaker. The team's decision to feature A.J. Green more prominently in the plan has also helped the QB1 rediscover his magic. The perennial Pro Bowler has seen his targets, receptions per game, receiving yards per game and receiving touchdowns improve over the past month. He has averaged 11 targets, 7.3 receptions and 121 receiving yards since Week 3, which is well above the marks that he posted during the first two weeks (9.0 targets, 5.0 receptions and 70.5 receiving yards). Studying the tape, Cincy has helped Green get loose by deploying him in the slot more often. He excels at running vertical routes from that alignment; opponents haven't been able to keep him from running past defenders when he lines up near the hash.
"The Bengals have been using Green on vertical routes from the slot position for years," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "When he lines up in the slot, he is running down the seam or to the corner. That's what he does, but few teams have found a way to stop it."
As one of only two players averaging over 100 receiving yards per game this season (Antonio Brown's at 116.7; Green, 100.8), Green's re-emergence has helped Dalton become a more potent playmaker from the pocket. This is exactly what Lazor promised when he assumed play-calling duties after Cincinnati's 0-2 start.
"No. 1 priority is our best players and who we want to get the ball to," Lazor told the assembled media at the time. "Then, it's what are the things that we do well? Then, what are our opponent's weaknesses and how do we attack them?
"Hopefully you only have great calls on game day. You want the quarterback to trust that you've got an answer for him every play."