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:
-- A mega matchup between the best WR and CB duos in the biz.
-- An emerging head-coaching candidate from Atlanta.
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That's the question that was running rampant in Dallas after his second pro season. But I don't understand why it's been debated on the airwaves and in barbershops around the country. Sure, he took a step back without his RB1and franchise tackle on the field for an extended period, but I don't know if his struggles were enough to dismiss his chances of becoming an elite quarterback.
Let's be real. Prescott posted a 62.9 percent completion rate, a 22:13 touchdown-to-interception ratio and an 86.6 passer rating for a 9-7 squad that underperformed amid Super Bowl expectations. While those numbers are far from spectacular, they are better than production posted by Derek Carr, Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, Marcus Mariota, Eli Manning and some other established passers.
That's why I completely understand Cowboys' executive vice president of personnel Stephen Jones' desire to rebuild the team's scheme around Prescott's game.
"Everybody here is all in in terms of their belief that Dak can be a great player in this league and will be," he said on 105.3 The Fan's Ben and Skin show (KRLD-FM). "How do we put concepts in place, how do we put a system in place that fits his skills? Obviously, it worked out great even though we were predominately running a [Tony] Romo-friendly offense with a few wrinkles that took advantage of Dak being young and fresh-legged and being able to have the mobility that he had.
"We were able to do that, but I think as we move forward, we have to really go in and critique and make sure that our concepts and what we're doing offensively give Dak every opportunity to utilize his skill set and get the most out of him."
Think about that. Prescott put up historic numbers as a rookie in an offense that wasn't designed for him, and he followed it up with a solid campaign in a system that still wasn't revamped to fit his game. Imagine how good he could be if the Cowboys built something around the strong points of his game as a dual-threat playmaker who spent his collegiate years running an up-tempo spread offense at Mississippi State.
Remember, Prescott is one of only four players in FBS history and the second player in the Southeastern Conference to throw for 70 touchdowns and rush for 40 in a career. That's the kind of production that should entice a team to fully utilize his skills as a runner-passer on the perimeter. Not that Prescott should be used as a run-first playmaker, but he certainly should be put in an offense that fully takes advantage of his athleticism and playmaking ability inside and outside of the pocket.
Thus, it is sensible for the Cowboys to explore building an offense that better suits Prescott's skills. During his first two seasons, he has been at his best when executing play-action passes with Ezekiel Elliott as a decoy or operating from spread formations (empty or one-back), with No. 4 in the shotgun. These are concepts that are comfortable for Prescott and some of the other Cowboys' stars (Elliott). Most importantly, they have the pieces in place to open up the offense while retaining a ball-control premise that allowed the team to win with a strong running game and a solid defense.
"I feel like they've rebuilt the team like the 1990s teams with the dominant offensive line and an efficient quarterback," said an NFC pro personnel director. "I'm not saying he is Troy Aikman, but if you check their numbers and look at their games, they play the same way. They take care of the football over everything else, and when the team is built the right way, they'll win."
Now, I'm not ready to anoint Prescott a future Hall of Famer, but I do believe he could regain his Pro Bowl form in an offense that should be better when the team adds a true No. 1 receiver and another playmaker in the passing game. While he must continue to make strides as a passer, as evidenced by his nine interceptions over his past seven games (it's not a coincidence that Elliott missed five of those games), he is still a promising quarterback with the potential to help the Cowboys make a run at the title.
MUST-SEE MATCHUP OF THE WEEKEND: Jaguars CBs vs. Steelers WRs
When it comes to marquee matchups on this weekend's playoff slate, it's hard to find a better battle than the one we'll see in Sunday's first game: Jacksonville Jaguars cornerbacks vs. Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers.
The Jaguars' secondary is a crucial component of a defense that finished the regular season ranked second in points allowed (16.8 per game) and total D (286.1 yards per game). In fact, Jacksonville posted league-best marks in passing defense (169.9 yards per game), completion rate (56.8 percent) and passer rating against (68.5). Those numbers are certainly impressive on paper, but not nearly as impressive as the stellar performance Jaguars defenders have put on tape. Studying the All-22 Coaches Film of the team's most recent performances, I believe Jacksonville boasts the best cornerback duo that we've seen in recent memory. Pretty remarkable, considering the high level of play we've seen in the last half-decade from Seattle's "Legion of Boom" and Denver's "No Fly Zone," but my statement's not hyperbolic.
A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey are a rare tandem featuring two No. 1 corners on the island. In most instances, there is a clear-cut CB1, but both members of Jacksonville's dynamic duo can hold down a side without safety help. Whether it's blanketing a receiver in sticky, bump-and-run coverage or frustrating quarterbacks with superb route recognition and ball skills in zone, Bouye and Ramsey are exceptional cover corners, as evidenced by their league-best 40.2 combined mark in passer rating allowed, according to Pro Football Focus.
With the duo collecting 10 of the team's 21 interceptions (second-most in the NFL during the regular season), it's hard to attack Jacksonville on the perimeter through the air -- despite the fact that the Jags employ a simplistic single-high safety scheme (man-free/Cover 3) that's routinely featured in high school and youth football playbooks.
Antonio Brown is arguably the best receiver in the league, with five straight seasons of 100-plus receptions on the strength of a playground game built on speed, quickness and improvisation in space. He consistently separates from coverage and is a nightmare to slow down, even when he's bracketed up.
JuJu Smith-Schuster has emerged as a dangerous WR2 in his very first NFL season. As a catch-and-run specialist in the Steelers' spread-it-around scheme, the second-round pick led all rookies in receiving yards (917) and touchdown grabs (seven). Smith-Schuster can do damage on the outside as an "X" or "Z" receiver, and he's also quite capable of wearing out nickel defenders from the slot. No. 19 is a problem for opponents unable to handle his physicality, toughness and playmaking ability from anywhere on the field.
Martavis Bryant is the X-factor of the Steelers' receiving corps. The 6-foot-4, 211-pound wideout remains a big-play threat despite his middling production in 2017 (50 receptions, 603 yards and three scores). Bryant still flashes quickness and burst on vertical throws and is more than capable of getting behind the defense. If the Jaguars pay too much attention to Brown and Smith-Schuster, Bryant could be the safety valve Ben Roethlisberger targets in a pinch.
Looking at the matchup, I believe the Jaguars will focus on taking away the No. 1 receiver (Brown), forcing Big Ben to look elsewhere. Jacksonville has consistently shut down the opposition's top target this season, as evidenced by the receptions (51 -- first in the NFL), receiving yards (652, second) and receiving touchdowns (four, T-5th) allowed to WR1s, according to NFL Research.
Thus, this game could come down to Nos. 19 and No. 10 winning their battles on the edges. If Smith-Schuster and Bryant can win one-on-ones against the NFL's best cornerback tandem -- and a top-notch slot defender in Aaron Colvin -- Pittsburgh will have a chance to erase the bad memories from a 30-9 Week 5 loss that featured five interceptions (including a pair of pick-sixes) by a suffocating pass defense that's the best in the business.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) An emerging head-coaching candidate from the defensive side of the ball: At a time when young offensive minds are getting fast-tracked to head-coaching jobs, NFL owners and executives might want to take a look at an emerging defensive wizard in Atlanta who's spearheading a resurgence on that side of the ball that should earn him high marks as a top-job candidate down the road.
Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel is pushing all the right buttons in remaking this Dirty Birds D into a suffocating unit. Promoted from secondary coach to DC last February, Manuel guided the Falcons to top 10 rankings in scoring defense (No. 8 at 19.7 points per game) and total defense (No. 9 at 318.4 yards per game). After finishing last season at 27th in scoring D and 25th in total D, the Falcons quietly became one of the best defenses in football, which is why Manuel should get more love as a head-coaching candidate when names are thrown around for vacancies in the future.
"Manuel is one of the rising stars in the business," a long-time AFC defensive assistant told me. "He is sharp, energetic and detailed. He is still finding his way as a coordinator, but he has the 'it' factor to be the guy."
While it is too late to push Manuel as a candidate in this hiring cycle, it is not too late to shed some more light on the tremendous job he has done reshaping the Falcons' defense into a top unit. Over the past nine games, Atlanta has gone 7-2 while holding opponents to 17.3 points per game and showcasing a D that features speed, athleticism and playmaking ability all over the field. Studying the All-22 tape of the team's most recent games, four things popped off the screen. This group is ...
- Fast and athletic.
- Disciplined and detailed, particularly in coverage.
- Underrated on the pass rush.
- Rock solid with open-field tackling.
I knew the Falcons' roster was full of "urgent athletes" after speaking with general manager Thomas Dimitroff in the offseason, but that description doesn't do the unit justice. Each defender plays like his hair's on fire -- everyone swarms to the football. In a simple scheme, these defenders are allowed to play fast and physical; their minds aren't cluttered.
Although the Falcons' approach is simplistic, the beauty of the scheme is in the details and discipline displayed by defenders, particularly in the secondary. In a single-high safety scheme (Cover 1/Cover 3) that frequently puts cornerbacks on islands, Atlanta does an excellent job of suffocating opposing playmakers on the perimeter. Over the past three games, the Dirty Birds have held Jared Goff, Cam Newton and Drew Brees to the following combined figures: 55.1 percent completion rate, 226.0 passing yards per game, a 3:4 TD-to-INT ratio and a 68.2 passer rating.
Think about that. Three of the top quarterbacks in the league played like also-rans against the Falcons' defense, which is a testament to the plan and execution.
In Saturday's Divisional Round game at Philadelphia, the Falcons take on an Eagles team missing Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Wentz. If Atlanta can harass a shaky Nick Foles and limit Jay Ajayi -- the last runner to gain 100-plus yards against the Falcons, as a member of the Dolphinsback in Week 6 -- Manuel can continue to open eyes as one of the bright young defensive minds in football.
2) Why Norv Turner's a brilliant hire for the Panthers -- and especially Cam Newton: If Cam Newton is really serious about becoming an icon at his position -- something he's said in the past -- we should see his game evolve in 2018 under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. The Carolina Panthers snatched up the 65-year-old offensive wizard on Thursday to retool the attack and help No. 1 play like a top-five quarterback.
Now, I know it sounds crazy to suggest that a former league MVP isn't already regarded as an elite player, but it is hard to make that assertion with Newton, based on his maddening inconsistencies as a passer. Since entering the league in 2011, Newton ranks as the worst passer in the NFL, with a 58.5 percent completion rate (min. 1,500 attempts). In the league today, the 60 percent mark is kinda viewed as the Mendoza Line. And Newton's fresh off a season where he posted lackluster marks in TD-to-INT ratio (22:16) and passer rating (80.7).
But No. 1's issues as a passer are deeper than those surface-level numbers. Newton ranks as one of this season's worst throwers on third-down (i.e., the money down), with a 53 percent completion rate (third-worst in the NFL in 2017), a 59.8 passer rating (second-worst) and 12 interceptions (worst). With No. 1 also posting the largest average passer-rating swing (41.1) from game to game this season, the veteran's inconsistencies as a passer needed to be addressed to help the Panthers' offense operate at a championship level.
"Cam is so talented that he should be one of the elite players in the league, but he hasn't been consistent enough as a passer," a former Panthers' scout told me. "He needs to be pushed a little, and I don't know if the other guys (offensive coordinator Mike Shula and quarterback coach Ken Dorsey, both of whom were relieved of their duties on Wednesday) could challenge him enough to get him to take that next step."
That's why the decision to bring on Turner is a brilliant move for the Panthers. The veteran coach is viewed as one of the top QB developers in the game, as evidenced by his work with Troy Aikman, Philip Rivers and others throughout his career. As an Ernie Zampese disciple, Turner is a proponent of a downfield passing game that features a number of in-breaking routes (slants, skinny posts and digs). In addition, he is a big fan of a power-based running game and complementary passing attack that creates plenty of big-play opportunities for the quarterback.
Looking at Newton's skills, the Panthers' new system should work well for a strong-armed thrower adept at pushing the ball to the far corners of the field with outstanding zip and velocity. Say what you want about Cam's accuracy and ball placement, but there's no denying his ability to throw darts to every area of the field. There are few NFL passers who can match No. 1's raw ability, and Turner's scheme should showcase his skills as a passer -- if Newton completely buys into the preparation and dirty work needed to be a great quarterback.
That brings me back to Turner and why he could be the coach to get Newton to take his game up a notch as a passer. He is known for his attention to detail and he has the right personality to prod his naturally gifted signal-caller to focus on the finer points of the game. Think of it as the wise old man in the barbershop dropping nuggets on the youngsters hanging on his every word.
But here's the thing: The 28-year-old Newton has to want to evolve as a quarterback and become more of a thrower than a runner at this stage of his career. Remember, he is coming off a season where he led the Panthers in rushing for the third time in his career. That's not ideal, but those running skills can certainly add a dimension to an offense.
"He's never had an athlete like Cam at quarterback," said one long-time defensive coordinator who currently works for an AFC team. "It will be interesting to see how he utilizes those skills."
While I don't expect Turner to feature Newton as much as a runner, I do believe the QB's athleticism and elusiveness can help him erase some play-calling mistakes. With Turner inheriting an offense that features his preferred cast of weapons (big-bodied receiver, productive tight end and pass-catching running back), he will give Newton every opportunity to succeed as a QB1. Now it's up to No. 1 to remake his game and take advantage of the scheme.
3) How Mark Helfrich will jump-start Mitchell Trubisky's development: If I could give out a gold star to a team for hiring an ideal coach for a situation, I would affix one to the Chicago Bears' logo for adding Mark Helfrich to the coaching staff. The former Oregon Ducks head coach is joining Matt Nagy's staff as the team's offensive coordinator, but he is really tasked with building an offense that fits the talents of the team's young QB1. While some will scoff at the notion of a career college coach torching NFL defenses, I believe his experience tailoring an offense to a Heisman Trophy-winning dual-threat quarterback (Oregon product Marcus Mariota) will accelerate the development of Mitchell Trubisky as a franchise quarterback in the Windy City.
As an athletic quarterback with an extensive spread-system background from his pre-NFL days -- not to mention, only 13 college starts under his belt when he entered the 2017 NFL Draft -- Trubisky is still learning how to play the position while adjusting to the pro game. Although No. 10 showed progress as a rookie starter, the Bears can jump-start his production by putting him in an offense that features some familiar concepts in the playbook. From the bubble-screen game to RPOs (run-pass options) to a handful of "catch, rock and fire" passes (quicks), Helfrich is experienced at building a game plan that caters to a young signal-caller accustomed to playing in an up-tempo spread system. Considering Trubisky's background as a spread quarterback, the Bears' new offensive coordinator can put him in his comfort zone by implementing a system that looks like the no-huddle attacks featured on Friday and Saturday nights.
Nagy's mentor, Andy Reid, leaned on trusted college coaches and advisors like Chris Ault (the former Nevada head coach credited with inventing the pistol offense) to build a dynamic spread offense that elevated Alex Smith's game in Kansas City. With Helfrich joining the Bears' staff to build an offense around Trubisky, we could see the youngster's game progress in Year 2 the same way we watched Jared Goff and Carson Wentz grow into Pro Bowl-caliber players this season.