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:
-- My top five tight ends heading into the 2019 season.
But first, a look at one NFC contender's high-stakes standoff with its star running back ...
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Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time leading rusher, became the first rushing champion to win a Super Bowl in 1992, Jones' fourth season as Cowboys owner. Dallas then nabbed two more Lombardis in 1993 and '95, with Smith logging a couple more rushing titles in the process. So, yeah, considering No. 22's central role in putting three rings on Jones' fingers, I'm a little surprised to hear the Cowboys boss suggesting Dallas can win a title without two-time rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott dotting the "I" in the backfield.
I understand, of course, that Jones is using the press to publicly negotiate with his RB1. The owner has to know that his team's title chances plummet without No. 21 on the field. Since Elliott entered the league as the No. 4 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Cowboys are 20-4 when the stud RB gets 20 or more rushes and 16-3 when he tops the 100-yard mark. Conversely, Dallas sports a 12-12 record when Elliott finishes with 20 or fewer rushing attempts and 16-13 when he fails to notch a 100-yard game.
Let all that marinate for a minute. The Cowboys are a .500 team when they don't ride Zeke. That shouldn't surprise anyone: Elliott's clearly the engine that makes this operation go. As a rugged runner with an explosive combination of size, strength and power that makes him nearly impossible to bring down on initial contact, Elliott is the prototype at the position. Checking in at 6 feet tall and 228 pounds, he can pick up the tough yards between the tackles while also turning the corner on stretch plays to the edges. Additionally, Zeke is a strong contributor to the passing game as a soft-handed pass catcher and a sturdy blocker in pass protection.
"Elliott is the key to their offense," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "He is their best player and everything revolves around his skills as a hard-nosed runner. Sure, you can talk about their offensive line and what No. 4 (QB Dak Prescott) and No. 19 (WR Amari Cooper) bring as playmakers, but the offense's success depends on Elliott's effectiveness as a runner."
For his part, Jones says he isn't worried about getting a deal done.
But Jones also stated that there's no real deadline on solving this stalemate.
"I don't see it that way. I don't see a point months into the season," Jones said. "I don't see a point. I've done it a lot more than these players have, I don't want to seem trite or cavalier about it, but I have a little more patience about how things are going to get done and the necessity to have angst when you have it."
Considering Elliott's skills as a five-star, all-around back and arguably the best player at his position in the entire league, the Cowboys would be foolish to allow their RB1 to spend even a chunk of the season on the sidelines. Sure, Dallas technically has Elliott under control for years to come (with two years remaining on his rookie contract, plus the franchise tag), but is it worth alienating your best player and risking a slow start to a season with plenty of hope?
As many of you remember, Jones actually engaged in a game of chicken with the aforementioned Smith back in 1993. Fresh off that first Super Bowl title of the Jones era and having set the franchise record for rushing yards in a season (1,713), Smith held out through training camp and into the regular season. But when the defending champs lost their first two games without the All-Pro back, Jones blinked and made Smith the highest-paid RB in NFL history. As mentioned before, Emmitt then led the league in rushing (yes, despite playing in just 14 games) and Dallas won a second straight title.
With that ordeal in Jones' background, why would the owner run the risk of starting a promising 2019 season in a hole?
I know many folks point to Elliott's off-field issues as a potential roadblock to a new deal getting completed. The two-time Pro Bowl selectee served a six-game suspension in 2017 stemming from accusations of domestic violence against an ex-girlfriend, and he's continued to toe the line with a few dustups in recent years that have called his maturity into question. These are valid concerns. But Jones has bullishly supported his star running back's personal growth on multiple occasions. In the wake of a May incident at a Las Vegas music festival in which Elliott nudged a security officer, Jones fully backed his star player.
"In terms of his status with us, (it) has not been impacted in any way -- and frankly, I know how conscientious he has been in the offseason and that's good enough. No, I don't see that having any consequences for us," Jones said back in May, via the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, before the league ultimately decided no punishment was in order. "I think that he certainly has had a great offseason, had a great year last year and I think that will speak for itself.
"So I think that, yes, his overall career at this point is in a really positive place."
Considering the Cowboys rank second in rush yards per game and sport nearly a 50:50 run-pass ratio since Elliott's arrival, I believe Jones' comments from earlier this week dismissing the importance of a rushing champion should fall on deaf ears. The owner could make the mistake of viewing Dallas' talented O-line as the catalyst for the offense's success, but defenses would welcome the opportunity to face "America's Team" with Tony Pollard, Mike Weber and Alfred Morris as the featured runners. Sure, the 'Boys could probably win a handful of games with that crew, but there's no way Jones is hoisting the Lombardi Trophy next February without Elliott playing a starring role. Since 2016, No. 21 leads the NFL in rushing yards per game (101.2) and his 25.1 touches per game ranks only behind Le'Veon Bell (27.5) during that span.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) The Ravens' revolutionary idea. Anyone out there waiting for the Baltimore Ravens to transform Lamar Jackson into a traditional quarterback, well, you're gonna have to keep waiting. With a full offseason to game plan around the former Louisville star as the team's starter, the Ravens are not only poised to fully unleash their electrifying young QB1 on the football world but they're preparing to do it in a manner that's eerily similar to the way he torched the collegiate landscape en route to the Heisman Trophy.
I know what you're thinking: You can't win in the NFL with a running quarterback!
That remains debatable, but I believe you undoubtedly enhance your chances of winning by putting your QB1 in his comfort zone. This is what old-school coaches have done with pocket passers throughout the years, and it's the way sharp offensive coordinators operate today when they fully understand the strengths and weaknesses of their quarterbacks. Whether it's featuring a small menu of their QB1's favorite passing concepts from a variety of formations or designing an offense that routinely puts the youngster on the move to take advantage of his athleticism and/or minimize full-field reads, the most successful play callers build the game plan with the QB1's best and worst attributes in mind.
"I'd bet the over on that one. I'd bet the over for sure," Harbaugh said without hesitation. "It's going to be interesting. I don't think we know the exact numbers or the math."
That statement will make traditionalists cringe, based on the injury risks many associate with quarterbacks running the ball on the perimeter. But what if Baltimore has mitigated those risks by stockpiling dual-threat quarterbacks? Remember, the Ravens have Robert Griffin III and Trace McSorley on the roster in the QB2 and QB3 roles, respectively. Their past experiences executing read-option offenses could help them thrive in an offense that's similar to the attacks routinely utilized in the college game. With Greg Roman taking over as offensive coordinator, Baltimore has a play-caller who's experienced in working with these kinds of quarterbacks. He was San Francisco's OC when Colin Kaepernick took off as an explosive dual-threat in the first half of this decade. Moreover, the change to a college-style offense built on read-option plays, RPOs and designed quarterback runs could expand the quarterback talent pool available to the Ravens in future years.
"If you look back and think of the history a little bit, the game was probably revolutionized with Bill Walsh and Joe Montana," Harbaugh said on NFL Network. "And that's been the model for the last 25, 30 years, and we've all been chasing that model, pretty much, trying to find that quarterback, find that rhythm, and all the things that go with that offense, and it really hasn't changed too much.
"None of us can envision what's to come in the future. I don't know how many of the quarterbacks from the '60s or '70s would have been able to succeed. Not too many, probably. (Dan) Marino, I'm sure, could have played in any era, but a lot of those other guys would not have been great in the West Coast Offense era. What's the next era going to be? Well, we're about to find out. We're about to find out what the limits are on that. I think it's going to open up opportunities for quarterbacks all across, and in our league, and it's going to make it tough on defenses. So, that's the idea."
Think about that -- and think about all of the athletic quarterbacks blazing football fields across the country on Fridays and Saturdays. Lower-level coaches have ushered in a change at the quarterback position by putting the best athlete on the team in a position to touch the ball on every play. With those athletes ascending to starting roles at the collegiate level, the Ravens' decision to revolutionize their offense behind Jackson could give them a competitive advantage for years to come, due to their willingness to fully embrace the dual-threat quarterbacks that will be shunned by traditionalists.
"I can see what they're doing," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "By utilizing a college offense around a running quarterback, they can corner the market on all of the athletic quarterbacks in college football. ... It is similar to how the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots used to have access to all of the undersized defensive ends and rush linebackers because they were the only teams running the 3-4. If Baltimore can successfully make this transition, they will be able to snag all of the Deshaun Watsons, Lamar Jacksons and Kyler Murrays in the college game. ... It really could expand their quarterback pool."
Considering the collegiate nature of the Ravens' scheme, the team's player-acquisition strategy could resemble a Power Five school's recruiting approach at the quarterback position. Baltimore could take athletic quarterbacks early in the draft with the idea of playing them on a cheap rookie deal for four or five years before drafting another to replace him at the end of the deal. This might sound like an out-of-the-box idea, but Alabama, Clemson and Oklahoma have been quite successful with multiple quarterbacks winning prime-time games. Sure, this is different from the traditional way general managers build rosters, but the approach could enable executives to build better teams to vie for the title each year.
"The Ravens could become like Army, Navy and Georgia Tech," the former NFL defensive coordinator said. "They could build teams that are balanced from a personnel standpoint, with multiple players sharing the responsibility of carrying the team, instead of leaning on the franchise quarterback and a handful of stars. ... You could probably build a better overall team. I just don't know if you can win a championship with a runner at QB1."
That last comment is the million-dollar question in Baltimore, with Jackson poised to direct Roman's quarterback-friendly, run-heavy offense with options and QB runs. Despite Jackson's fine rookie showing that resulted in a playoff appearance for the Ravens, questions persist about Baltimore's title chances, due to the young QB's inconsistent throwing. Skeptics wonder if he can make enough plays in the passing game to complement a dominant ground attack that gave defensive coordinators headaches down the stretch last season.
With Harbaugh willing to build the offense around Jackson's electrifying skills as a dual-threat playmaker, we will soon find out if the Ravens' revolutionary approach will usher in a new era of football in the NFL.
2) The best tight end of yesterday -- and his successors today! Whenever it's induction time for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I find myself examining the careers of each of the honorees. I like to see if there is anything that I can learn from their ascension to help me become a better scout and evaluator. This year, I have the pleasure of seeing one of my former teammates, Tony Gonzalez, receiving a gold jacket for a distinguished 17-year career that concluded with No. 88 as the all-time leader in catches, yards and touchdowns by a tight end. (Antonio Gates has since past him in the TD department.)
As a player, Gonzalez opened the door for a wave of former basketball players entering the NFL as play-making tight ends. He was a two-sport guy at Cal, with a combination of size, athleticism and strength that made him a nightmare to guard between the hashes on the gridiron. Gonzalez also frequently utilized the post-up skills honed on the hardwood to create separation from defenders at the top of routes.
During my time with the Kansas City Chiefs (1997 and '98) as a defensive back, I distinctly remember the challenge of getting around Gonzalez's big body to make plays on the ball. As the "Bandit" in the Chiefs' defense, I was frequently assigned to the tight end in coverage, and Tony was a problem to cover on vertical routes and "sit down" routes over the middle. He expanded the strike zone for the quarterback with his size, length and leaping ability. He could climb the ladder to snag alley-oops in the red zone or put a defender on his hip and have the quarterback throw to the high hand like an entry post pass on the basketball court. Those daily battles certainly shaped my perspective on the tight end position as I transitioned into the scouting world. I placed a greater emphasis on athleticism and pass-catching over other traits. Although it's certainly nice when a tight end's at least a serviceable blocker, the position offers greater value in the passing game today. With Tony G blazing the trail.
Now, I will give Gonzalez credit for working on his skills as a blocker throughout his career. After entering the league as a C-plus blocker with raw technique, he became a solid worker bee on the edge with enough tenacity and relentlessness to control defenders at the point of attack. Watching his growth as a contributor in the running game changed not only my perspective on how tight ends could develop as blockers but it enabled me to take more chances on pass-catching tight end prospects with marginal blocking skills.
Additionally, Gonzalez's growth as an overall player and his dominance as a pass catcher made me dig into the background of TE prospects to see if they had been basketball players in high school. The footwork, physicality and hand-to-eye coordination refined on the hardwood translates well to success on the gridiron, as evidenced by the number of former hoopers dominating the position at the moment.
With No. 88's skills and impact in mind, here are my top five tight ends heading into the 2019 season:
1) Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs: The undisputed top tight end in the NFL is a play-making machine with a game that would make Gonzalez proud. Kelce is the ultimate mismatch on the perimeter as a jumbo-sized wide receiver with excellent route-running skills and soft hands. He consistently separates from defenders at the top of his routes by utilizing a variety of slick releases and stems that keep defenders on their heels. With the reigning MVP (Patrick Mahomes) growing more comfortable in his role as the Chiefs' QB1, Kelce will continue to post big numbers in a star-studded offense.
2) George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers: I don't know many coaches or scouts who envisioned Kittle blossoming into one of the elite playmakers at the position when they watched him work at Iowa. To his credit, the 2017 fifth-round pick has worked his way into the conversation as a premier pass catcher with outstanding hands and running skills. As a perfect fit in Kyle Shanahan's play-action passing game, Kittle could remain a highly ranked player on this list for years to come.
3) Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles: The new NFL requires elite offenses to feature at least one tight end with wide receiver-like skills. Ertz's game could make him the new prototype at the position, as a polished route runner with exceptional balance and body control. With Carson Wentz expected to regain his Pro Bowl form in 2019, No. 86 could post back-to-back 100/1,000 seasons as the Eagles' No. 1 option in the passing game.
4) Eric Ebron, Indianapolis Colts: The former top-10 pick finally showed the football world why he was initially selected ahead of Odell Beckham Jr. and other stars in the 2014 draft with a spectacular 2018 campaign that included 13 touchdowns as the Colts' designated red-zone weapon. Ebron's size and athleticism make it easy for Frank Reich to create big-play opportunities for Andrew Luck over the middle of the field.
5) Jared Cook, New Orleans Saints: It took a while for Cook's game to match the potential evaluators saw when they watched the former South Carolina standout light up the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine with an impressive performance that included a 4.50-second 40 time and a 41-inch vertical leap. But after finding his game a few seasons ago with the Green Bay Packers, Cook dazzled opponents as the No. 1 option in Oakland's passing game in 2018. The veteran pass catcher is arguably the best seam runner in the game, and his new marriage with Drew Brees could be a match made in heaven.