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:
» Is Bill Belichick's "Patriot Way" wearing thin on players in Foxborough?
» A quality head-coaching candidate who's hiding in plain sight.
But first, a look at one young star's contrarian -- yet sensible -- comments ...
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Dak Prescott made headlines last week when he suggested to reporters that a team doesn't really need a No. 1 wide receiver to succeed. The 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year recently lost his top two pass catchers -- Dez Bryant (released) and Jason Witten (retired) -- but still believes the Dallas Cowboys' offense can flourish without a bona fide star on the perimeter.
"I don't know if any team in the league necessarily needs a No. 1 receiver," Prescott said, via Pro Football Talk. "It's about getting the ball out, spreading the ball around, keeping the defense on its toes."
What?! In a passing league, where it's all about pitch-and-catch aerial acrobatics, this 24-year-old QB is basically saying elite pass catchers are irrelevant?
As crazy as that initially sounds, the young gunslinger might be right. Just take a deeper look ...
Eyeing the 10 highest-paid receivers from 2017 -- by average salary, according to Spotrac -- I noticed that just three big-money guys were on playoff teams (Antonio Brown, Julio Jones and Alshon Jeffery). While you could argue that some guys on the list saw their playoff hopes diminish due to injuries to the QB1 (Davante Adams, T.Y. Hilton and DeAndre Hopkins), the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of the league's so-called marquee pass catchers were on the outside looking in when the tournament rolled around last January.
To be fair, not all WR1s are created equal. Plenty of wideouts make the big bucks ... despite not really being top dogs at the position, based on skill set and relative dominance. A true No. 1 receiver commands double-coverage, yet he's talented enough to consistently produce, even with the extra attention.
"A real No. 1 receiver will force the defense to use a safety or linebacker to help the corner on most downs," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "Despite facing brackets and double-teams, he will still find a way to impact the game, particularly when the game is on the line and everyone knows that he's getting the ball."
Think about that. A veteran defensive coordinator is not only suggesting that a dominant WR1 will change the numbers in the passing defense, but he'll continue to flourish. Based on that premise alone, I can see why Prescott believes his team doesn't need a so-called WR1. After all, Prescott saw firsthand how Bryant failed in that role over the past two seasons. Say what you want about Prescott and his "sophomore slump," but there's no denying that No. 88's ineffectiveness as the Cowboys' lead receiver impacted the young gunslinger's opinion on the importance of the WR1. Bryant was targeted on 133 pass attempts in 2017, but finished with 69 receptions. A 51.8 percent catch rate just isn't acceptable for such a high-volume wideout, and it certainly isn't efficient enough to prompt unshakeable confidence from the quarterback.
With that in mind, I can understand why Prescott is suggesting his team might be better off "spreading the ball around," instead of force-feeding one designated playmaker. Prescott watched his efficiency numbers slip when he kept targeting Bryant, instead of utilizing everyone. Freed from the burden of appeasing Dez's desires, the young quarterback can simply make his reads and hit the open man. This is how the majority of elite quarterbacks operate -- and it's the way systematic play callers prefer the offense to flow on game day.
One thing I learned from Mike Holmgren -- as a player (on the Packers) and as a scout (on the Seahawks) -- is the importance of building the passing game around B and B+ playmakers. This is something he constantly talked about, in terms of salary cap allocation. And when it came to actual skill sets, Holmgren preferred disciplined route runners and dynamic catch-and-run specialists (former punt returners) on the perimeter, instead of explosive athletes with unpolished games. As a Super Bowl-winning head coach and offensive coordinator, Holmgren understood how an elite quarterback and rock-solid scheme could elevate pass catchers, which is why he didn't value No. 1 receivers like some coaches and executives do. Don't believe me? Just look at how three-time NFL MVP Brett Favre helped Antonio Freeman, Robert Brooks, Mark Chmura and others become household names in the Packers' system. Holmgren also guided the Seahawks to Super Bowl XL with Bobby Engram, Joe Jurevicius and Darrell Jackson as Matt Hasselbeck's top three receivers.
Given the success of those offenses, I can see why the superstar-free receiving corps appeals to some coaches, particularly those with elite quarterbacks in place. Surveying the league, it's not a coincidence Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers have posted big numbers in various seasons without a star occupying the WR1 role. As spectacular passers with MVP-caliber games, they are capable of making their pass catchers better by consistently delivering throws right in the strike zone. Those pinpoint passes are nearly impossible to drop, which allows even average players to look like superstars on the perimeter.
"If you have a great quarterback, he will make the wide receivers better," an AFC wide receivers coach told me. "His timing, accuracy and ball placement make it easy for wide receivers to make plays and move the chains. If you consistently string together first downs, you will eventually score points and win a ton of games.
"I've seen it done a few different ways, but I've learned that you don't need a great receiver if you have a big-time quarterback. The quarterback can make the receivers better."
That brings me back to Prescott. He's right -- he doesn't need an elite receiver on the perimeter. An offense's success ultimately rests on the quarterback and his talents. If the QB is legit, he can maximize a starless system with a bunch of B-level playmakers. We've seen it done over and over again, and Dallas should be able to move the ball with the current cast of characters in the WR room. Remember, the Cowboys and others (SEE: the Los Angeles Rams) have been able to alleviate the pressure on receivers by featuring an A-plus playmaker in the backfield. Ezekiel Elliott forces defensive coordinators to put eight or nine defenders in the box, which presents Cowboys receivers with more one-on-one coverage.
If Scott Linehan can craft an offense that allows his unheralded pass catchers to operate in space, Prescott could show the football world he's not just blowing smoke.
NO FUN IN FOXBOROUGH? Patriot Way catching criticism
Whenever the Powers That Be in this sport act in a manner that's perceived as overbearing, fans and columnists derisively refer to the NFL as the "No Fun League." But suddenly, the disparagement has been exclusively lobbed at one of the most successful teams in American sports history: Bill Belichick's New England Patriots.
While I don't personally know if employment in Foxborough is unpleasant, we've heard enough current and former Patriots suggest at various times this offseason that it's not all gumdrops and lollipops when you're playing for the five-time Super Bowl champs. Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and, most recently, Cassius Marsh have presented evidence of discontent with "The Patriot Way."
"They don't have fun there," Marsh said this week, via the San Francisco Chronicle. "There's nothing fun about it. There's nothing happy about it. I didn't enjoy any of my time there, you know what I'm saying? It made me, for the first time in my life, think about not playing football because I hated it that much."
Granted, Marsh landed with the Pats after spending three seasons in Seattle under the ultimate rah-rah coach, Pete Carroll, but the fifth-year defensive end (who's now with the 49ers) clearly didn't care for Belichick's tactics or his own role with the Patriots. While it's not uncommon to hear players on many teams gripe about their usage or a coach's teaching methods, it is unusual to see Patriots -- past or present -- openly vent frustrations. This franchise is notoriously tight-lipped about what happens behind closed doors, and the no-nonsense culture has been lauded by many as the right way to do business as an annual title contender.
This offseason, though, the Patriots' culture has been under siege. It seemed to start with the loss in Super Bowl LII, when Belichick made the still-unexplained decision to bench cornerback Malcolm Butler. That curious move appears to have eroded some of the cohesion that's essential to winning at the highest level.
As a player, I had a long-time defensive assistant tell me that trust and communication are critical factors on a championship squad. He stressed that trust between players is obviously key, but the trust between coaches and players is absolutely essential, as well. If a player believes in his coach and his tactics, he will give the boss everything that he has to offer -- and that will often result in a successful outing on the field. Part of that trust is built on excellent communication between coach and player. The coach will clearly outline his expectations and use a straightforward teaching approach to help the player understand his role on the team. When everyone buys in, it leads to a bunch of wins and rings, which makes everyone in the program happy.
However, when the sacrifice doesn't result in Ws, it is harder for players to continue to check their egos at the door for the sake of the team. That's why it's not surprising to hear the negative comments from former players suddenly escaping Foxborough, in the wake of a very tough defeat. Look at what Amendola had to say about his contract negotiations -- or lack thereof.
"I came in with an open mind," Amendola, who's now with the Dolphins, told ESPN. "I understand Bill runs a tight ship, and he hasn't been known to pay his players, really. I understood that I gave money back to him, so I could play for him and play for my teammates and fulfill my side of the contract, and at the end of the day, I had faith that he was going to give me an opportunity to stay.
"When free agency broke, I came to the realization that he wasn't going to really come close to any of the other offers I had. I had to make a decision for my family and go down to Miami and continue my career there."
Amendola speaks to the sacrifice he made, in terms of pay, to have a chance to win a ring. But the paltry compensation made it even tougher to endure some of the abrasive methods reportedly employed by the legendary head coach.
"It's not easy, that's for sure. He's an a--h--- sometimes, Amendola told ESPN. "There were a lot of things I didn't like about playing for him, but I must say, the things I didn't like were all in regards to getting the team better, and I respected him.
"I didn't like practicing in the snow, I didn't like practicing in the rain, but that was going to make us a better football team and that was going to make me a better football player. It wasn't easy, and he'd be the first to admit, at the [Super Bowl] ring ceremony, that it wasn't easy playing for him. The silver lining was that we were at the ring ceremony."
And that's exactly it. Essentially, the ends justify the means. But after a narrow Super Bowl defeat -- one in which the coach's decision-making came under fire -- there's bound to be some disgruntlement.
Is the trust, between players and the head man, eroding in New England? From Brady and Gronk (both of whom are staying away from OTAs) to some of the unheralded holdovers, plenty of players appear to be casting quizzical looks at Belichick ... while simultaneously wondering if the strenuous grind is eventually going to lead to another shiny ring on 53 fingers.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) Impressive start for Teddy Bridgewater with Jets. I can't say that I'm surprised the Jets are buzzing about Bridgewater after the fifth-year pro dazzled during the first week of OTAs. Despite being signed to a one-year deal with only $500,000 in guarantees, Bridgewater gives the Jets a young, quality starter with plenty of experience (28 career starts), a winning resume (17-11 career record) and a solid set of tools as a QB1.
Now, I'll admit my affinity for Bridgewater dates back to the 2013 Sugar Bowl when I watched him carve up a loaded Florida defense on the way to earning Most Valuable Player honors. On that night in the Superdome, the efficient playmaker displayed outstanding confidence, poise, and arm talent, sprinkling the ball around the yard to a cast of unheralded pass catchers. He continued to show NFL QB1 potential the following season on the way to becoming the 32nd pick of the 2014 draft.
With the Minnesota Vikings, Bridgewater showed glimpses of high-end starter talent as he guided the team on a playoff run during his second season. Although he played as a game manager on a team that was driven by its running game and defense, Bridgewater showed steady improvement as a passer and decision maker from his first to second season. In fact, he was expected to break out in Year 3 before a gruesome knee injury in the preseason sidelined him for the entire 2016 campaign and kept him on the bench for most of 2017.
Although the injury ultimately cost Bridgewater his job as the Vikings' franchise quarterback, it's important to note that he was once the team's starter and head coach Mike Zimmer believed in his ability to lead the team to wins.
"The thing about Teddy, and everybody talks about this and talks about that -- he knows how to win, and what else is there with the quarterback?" Zimmer said back in 2016, via USA Today. "I'm not going to mention names, but there's a bunch of quarterbacks throwing for 300 yards and their team doesn't win. They make mistakes. They don't play right in the critical situations of the game. And [people] say, 'Oh, his arm strength.' His arm strength is fine. He's been throwing the ball 55 yards down in practice all the time.
"Ask what kind of arm Joe Montana had or any of these other guys. It's just so fantasy football now. Our team is built a certain way, and that's how we're going to play. That's just how we are and who we're going to be, and I'm not going to apologize for it."
Fast-forward to 2018 -- Bridgewater is in a similar spot with a team that will be governed by its defense and running game. If he steps onto the field as the QB1, he will be asked to take care of the ball and distribute it to the Jets' playmakers on the perimeter. With Bridgewater spinning it well in OTAs, you can already envision the Jets starting Bridgewater as the "bridge" quarterback until No. 3 overall pick Sam Darnold is ready to take over as the starter in 2018 or 2019.
Remember, Darnold is only 20 years old and he's entering the league with about five years of experience at quarterback at the high school and collegiate level. Thus, he could use a redshirt season or two to get acclimated to the league and the offense. So, I wouldn't rule out the possibility of Bridgewater winning the job over veteran Josh McCown and Darnold at the end of training camp.
When I bumped into Bridgewater at a Nike "The Opening Regionals" camp in Miami earlier this offseason, he talked about regaining his rhythm as a passer and working his way back to the top of a depth chart. Although our meeting was prior to his signing with the New York Jets, he was excited about the opportunity to play for an offensive coordinator who would "unleash" him and build a scheme around his talents. Granted, he isn't exactly in a situation where he is viewed as the franchise guy, but he could win the QB1 job and have OC Jeremy Bates customize game plans that play to his strengths as a quick-rhythm passer with excellent accuracy, timing and anticipation.
With the Jets employing a variation of the West Coast offense, which is built around short, high-percentage passes delivered off three- and five-step drops, Bridgewater is in an offense that perfectly matches his game, and the positive reviews support to that notion.
That's why I'm curious to see how the Jets will showcase Bridgewater during training camp and the preseason, particularly if he continues to perform well in practices and scrimmages. Will the Jets use Bridgewater as a trade chip to bring back draft capital or some other assets? Will they give him a legitimate chance to be a short-term starter? Regardless of the outcome, it sounds like the minimal offseason investment could pay huge dividends for the Jets.
2) The NFL's "modern-day Tom Landry"? If I'm a general manager or top NFL executive looking for a quality head-coaching candidate, I would make sure that Raheem Morris is at the top of my list. Now, I know the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach flamed out during his first run as a team leader (2009-2011). However, he's grown from that experience and is uniquely qualified to guide a franchise from a tactical standpoint.
As the Atlanta Falcons' associate head coach/passing game coordinator, Morris is one of the few coaches in the league with high-level experience on both sides of the ball, having already spent 10 seasons in the league as a defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. He has played a role in the development of fantastic offensive and defensive units (see the 2002-05, 2007-08 Buccaneers defense; and the 2016 and '17 Falcons offense) and those accolades shouldn't go unnoticed in a league that routinely rewards coaches with head-coaching gigs when their units put up big numbers.
"Morris is quietly doing some legendary stuff," an AFC head coach told me. "He is the modern-day Tom Landry. He has led a top defense and now he is a major part of an offense that's put up big numbers. I know it didn't go well the first time around, but it's hard to find a more qualified guy for a top job than him."
Whoa! I know the comparison to a legendary coach will make some observers snicker, but it's uncommon for a coach to hold major responsibilities on each side of the ball. Sure, you'll occasionally see a defensive backs coach spend a season or two coaching receivers, but you rarely see a situtation like Morris'. Landry is one of the few NFL coaches to lead an offensive and defensive unit as a coach. He spent four seasons as the New York Giants' defensive coordinator before serving as the Dallas Cowboys' head coach (and offensive play caller) during his final 29 seasons in the league.
"Coach (Landry) would install the offensive game plan on Wednesday mornings and put in the defensive game plan on Wednesday afternoon," said former NFL defensive coordinator and Cowboys defensive back Dennis Thurman. "He had to have a brilliant football mind to have a complete understanding of offense and defense. ... You just don't see coaches have that ability on the pro level."
Now, I'm not ready to give Morris a gold jacket as a coach, but he does deserve a ton of credit for being able to rise to the top of his profession as a leader on both sides of the ball. Morris has contributed mightily to defensive units that were historically stingy and currently oversees a passing game that is viewed as one of the best in football. That unique perspective should make him an ideal head-coaching candidate.
"Raheem has always been a great defensive coach," 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan told ESPN in 2017 after spending the previous two seasons working with Morris in Atlanta. "And now, to have the experience on offense the past two years puts him at the top of the tier. He has more energy than any coach I've ever been around, and he can connect with any type of player or coach. He's more than ready to be a head coach again."
With general managers and executives already compiling their short lists of coaching candidates for next offseason, Morris' diverse background should definitely merit inclusion.
That's the first question I asked no one in particular when I heard Seattle signed Marshall earlier this week. I wasn't necessarily cracking a joke when I posed that question to a few of my co-workers at NFL Media headquarters, but the 34-year-old pass catcher's game has seemingly been in decline since he posted a 1,500-yard season for the New York Jets in 2015.
No disrespect to the six-time Pro Bowl selectee, but he has failed to crack the 1,000-yard mark in back-to-back seasons since 2012-13, and he's coming off an injury-plagued campaign that saw him suit up for just five games with the New York Giants. Granted, Marshall has never been considered a blazer, but he is even slower than he used to be and not nearly as explosive. Thus, the Seahawks seemingly added another pedestrian playmaker to a WR corps that needs to step up to help Russell Wilson carry an offense that's become more pass-centric in recent years.
"I didn't have a ton of options," Marshall said on Wednesday following the Seahawks' fifth OTA, per ESPN. "I think the sentiment around the league is that I'm done, and I get it. Rightfully so. When you get on the other side of 30 and your production slips and you have a big injury, people just count you out. So, it was an interesting process. It was a humbling process, to say the least. There were some really tough days that I had to push through, mentally and physically, so for this to be an opportunity and come to [fruition], you can't ask for a better situation. You've got probably a top-three quarterback, you've got one the best franchises, you've got a young nucleus, guys that are hungry and ready to compete."
Looking at the Seahawks' depth chart, the team needed a red-zone weapon after watching Jimmy Graham leave as a free agent for the Green Bay Packers in the offseason. Graham, a five-time Pro Bowler, scored 16 touchdowns over the past two seasons, including 10 scores in 2017. Although Graham was listed as a tight end, he essentially played a jumbo wide receiver role for the Seahawks, bringing the kind of size (6-foot-7, 265 pounds) and athleticism that made him a mismatch for most defenders in the red zone.
Marshall certainly can replace some of that production, as a 6-5, 232-pound pass catcher with playmaking ability. He has routinely leaned on his superior traits to overwhelm defenders in the red zone, as evidenced by his 82 career touchdowns. Marshall has complemented his spectacular scoring prowess with eight 1,000-yard seasons and six 100-catch campaigns in a 12-year career.
"He's a big receiver, he's a physical guy, he works well in close areas, working off of defenders and all that," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "The fact that he's been a go-to guy in his past, there are those kinds of thoughts out there. We'll see what happens. I don't know. We'll see how he fits in. Really, he's like the rest of the guys. He's got to battle for every step of the way, and he knows that. I was very emphatic about how this is going to work out, and he was fired up about it and ready to go."
Carroll's comments certainly don't make it sound like Marshall is a shoo-in to make the squad, and his incentive-laden deal confirms as much. The veteran receiver signed a one-year deal with a maximum value of $2.155 million if he hits all of the incentives tied to his total number of receptions (70), receiving yards (800) and touchdowns (7) this season, per ESPN. Considering each of those benchmarks is worth $350,000, respectively, Marshall can make decent money if he can carve out a role as a WR3/red-zone threat.
With the Seahawks hoping the big-bodied pass catcher can add some spice to their offense, the team's modest deal could be a rare win-win for the team and player -- IF Marshall still has some gas left in the tank.