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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When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed DeSean Jackson to a blockbuster deal at the start of free agency, I immediately figured it would be one of the best acquisitions of the entire offseason. The NFL's preeminent big-play receiver is the speed merchant that the offense desperately needed, and he's still playing at a level that few of his peers can match.
Last season, Jackson led the NFL by averaging 17.9 yards per catch while posting the fifth 1,000-yard season of his career. Not that those numbers are much of a surprise, based on his spectacular production as a home run hitter throughout his career. Jackson ranks second in NFL history with 22 touchdown catches of 60-plus yards, behind only the "G.O.A.T" (Jerry Rice, 23), and has snagged 57 receptions of 40-plus yards in his nine-year career. Since Jackson's rookie season in 2008, he leads the NFL in catches of 25-plus yards (112), 50-plus yards (37) and yards per catch (17.7).
On top of that, Jackson's 8,819 receiving yards are the fifth-most in the league since '08 (behind only Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson) and his 32 100-yard games are tied for fifth-most.
Take a second to marinate on those numbers and digest Jackson's greatness. I don't think some recognize how big an impact the three-time Pro Bowler will have on a Bucs offense that needed to become more explosive with a young gunslinger at the helm.
Last year, Jameis Winston become the first player in NFL history with back-to-back 4,000-yard passing seasons to start his career. Amazingly, given that feat, the third-year pro has just 13 completions of 40-plus yards in his career, including only four in 2016. If Winston were a dink-and-dunk passer destined to live in a "connect the dots" system built around the short passing game, we might excuse the lack of big-play production. But the 6-foot-4, 231-pound flamethrower is ideally suited to thrive in a vertical passing game. The team's previous lack of speed/explosiveness on the perimeter prevented him from pushing the ball down the field and allowed defenders to squat on the team's intermediate routes.
"Most of your deep routes are layered routes -- you've got somebody going deep, somebody in the intermediate zone and somebody in the check-down zone," coach Dirk Koetter explained to the team's website shortly after Jackson's signing. "It gets to a point where, if the defense doesn't have to honor that guy going over the top, they sit down more on your lower-level guys. ... There are a handful of receivers in the league that, when you watch the tape, defenses give those guys respect just because of their speed. DeSean's definitely in the upper echelon of those guys."
With Jackson on board, the Buccaneers have the potential to lean on him for more explosive plays or use him as a decoy to create chances for others. As an electric vertical playmaker with speed to burn, he is at his best running go routes, posts and deep overs (deep crossing routes). Jackson's combination of speed, explosiveness and ball skills (he's a former high school baseball star) makes him a tough cover for defensive backs down the field. Thus, he should shine as the designated playmaker in Koetter's scheme, which features plenty of deep-crossing-route concepts off a variety of play-action fakes and a handful of isolated vertical routes (fades/go routes) on traditional three- or five-step drops.
If Jackson isn't targeted as the primary receiver on those concepts, his mere presence will ease the amount of coverage opponents direct toward Mike Evans -- the Buccaneers' WR1 -- particularly when the two pass catchers are aligned on the same side of the field. The free safety and corner will have to decide whether to stay over the top of Jackson with a bracket or gamble by covering the explosive pass catcher in one-on-one coverage. When Evans and Jackson align on opposite sides of the field, defensive coordinators will have the unenviable task of deciding whether to roll coverage to the big-bodied Evans or the speedy Jackson. Unfortunately for opposing coaches, I'm not sure there will be a right way to defend this duo. Remember, Evans has amassed 3,578 receiving yards and 27 touchdowns in his first three NFL seasons -- and that came without a speedster in the lineup. Imagine how much production he can deliver with a legitimate threat commanding attention on the other side.
And let's not forget about slot man Adam Humphries and tight end Cameron Brate, who both will see more one-on-one matchups between the numbers because of Jackson. Last season, each guy notched 50-plus receptions as the Bucs' second and third options, with Brate's eight touchdown grabs tied for the most in the NFL among tight ends. Considering 2017 first-rounder O.J. Howard is also set to join the squad as an ultra-explosive tight end, the Buccaneers suddenly have one of the most dynamic offensive lineups in football.
I firmly believe that when Tampa's offense goes off next year, we'll all look back and credit its success to the March 9th signing of the NFL's best big-play receiver.
IS JARED GOFF A BUST? Let's all take a deep breath
In the Twitterverse, the trolls would have you believe that the Rams' QB1 is an abject failure based on his disappointing first seven games as an NFL starter. Sure, the 2016 No. 1 overall pick failed to win a game while completing just 54.6 percent of his passes with a 5:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 63.6 passer rating. But what if I told you that, despite his slow start, he is following a path that could make him a two-time Super Bowl MVP and four-time Pro Bowl selectee?
If you're a Rams fan, take solace in the fact that Goff's slow start surpasses Eli Manning's early days as an NFL starter. In 2004, Manning completed just 48.2 percent of his passes, throwing six touchdown passes against nine interceptions and producing a pedestrian 55.4 passer rating. He posted a 1-6 record during that span, struggling to find his rhythm as a rookie starter.
Eventually, Manning became comfortable within the Giants' system and was able to rely on his solid supporting cast to help him grow into an upper-echelon quarterback capable of driving his team to the winner's circle. This is crucial to remember when thinking about Goff, especially considering that the Rams just brought in a new head coach with a system and a plan in place that should help the second-year player significantly progress.
Goff's success starts with coach Sean McVay and his version of the spread formation, which features West Coast offense principles. Without seeing the Rams practice yet, I'm basing my opinion on how the young offensive guru built the offense in Washington to enhance the strengths of his quarterback (Kirk Cousins) and incorporate the talents of the supporting cast. While Goff might be familiar with the schematics of McVay's system (the QB directed a "Bear Raid" offense at Cal that featured some basic West Coast offense principles like Y-stick, snag and mesh), it might be the condensed verbiage that most helps a quarterback who never called a play in the huddle as a collegian, taking in calls off placards from the sideline.
Speaking to a Rams executive recently, I was told that the team's play calls are "not as wordy" as they've been in the past, and McVay has done a great job of lightening the load on the quarterback's shoulders.
"We had some play calls with as many as 12 to 15 words," the Rams exec said. "It's hard for a young quarterback who has never had to make a play call to spit out a long play call to his teammates, remember all of the alerts and checks, and know exactly what he is supposed to do at the line of scrimmage and post-snap. ... McVay has tried to scale back on some of the verbiage to help him get in and out of the huddle faster. It should also help him digest the information quicker and be a more decisive player at the line."
With young quarterbacks, it is important to free their mind from clutter to help them allow their talents to shine. Trimming the verbiage will certainly help Goff play faster, but alleviating some of the responsibilities on his shoulders should help him focus on being a more effective and efficient player at the position. Naturally, the toughest transition for most young quarterbacks is understanding pass protection and deciphering coverage. They can work hand in hand with the safety rotations tipping off the potential extra rushers on a play. Some schemes leave it up to the quarterback to audible or change the play or protection in those instances, while other systems incorporate built-in answers with hot reads (quarterback targets a designated receiver or running back on a short route or flare pass against a blitz) or sight adjustments (designated receiver runs to a void created by a blitzing defender on the second level).
Based on how Cousins attacked blitzing defenses in Washington, it appears he was asked to find the hot read or sight adjustment that's built into the route. Considering how Goff countered blitzes in a similar fashion in college, he should be comfortable identifying and targeting the designated blitz-beater within the route.
From a personnel standpoint, the Rams' new receiving corps will also help Goff make a significant jump as a sophomore. After watching their receivers struggle mightily in 2016, the Rams added Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp to the group during the offseason. Woods, a fifth-year pro with 203 career receptions, is a slick route runner capable of playing outside or in the slot. Although his career numbers (2,451 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns) suggests that he isn't a marquee pass catcher, Woods was consistently open on a variety of short and intermediate routes when I studied the game film. He not only gained sufficient separation from defenders, but he was able to use a wide array of stems and top-of-the-route moves to shake free from coverage.
Kupp, whom the Rams took at No. 69 overall in this year's draft, was viewed as one of the cleanest route runners in his class after a spectacular career at Eastern Washington. Scouts raved about his "high football IQ" and work ethic as a collegian, and he has already impressed NFL folks with his diligence and attention to detail.
"We needed dependable and reliable pass catchers on the perimeter," the Rams executive told me. "The quarterback needs to know that his top targets are going to be where they're supposed to be, when they're supposed to be there. Woods and Kupp will be in the right spots. That alone will help Goff become more consistent."
Although many observers wouldn't consider Woods or Kupp A-level receivers, there are plenty of teams that have succeeded with solid B-level pass catchers in a West Coast system that creates opportunities for polished route runners. Thus, the Rams' passing game could flow smoothly without a true No. 1 on the field.
Now, I didn't forget about Tavon Austin as a possible option as the team's WR1, but he has yet to even come close to a 1,000-yard receiving season through four pro campaigns. Most importantly, he hasn't carved out a niche as a vertical threat or catch-and-run specialist. With Austin currently sidelined due to injury, we'll see if McVay can eventually work the diminutive playmaker into the passing game as a big-play threat.
Speaking of playmakers, the Rams have a pair of them at the tight end position in Gerald Everett (a second-round pick in April) and Tyler Higbee (a fourth-rounder in 2016). The duo could help Goff become more efficient as a quick-rhythm passer, playing pivotal roles as TE1 and TE2 in an offense expected to be more "tight end-centric," according to NFL Network's Steve Wyche.
The move to a multi-faceted tight end attack is sensible, given the unique athleticism that Everett and Higbee bring to the table. Plus, the double-tight end set creates problems for the defense because it allows the Rams to utilize a power running game with Ace (single back with tight ends on opposite sides) or Tight-Wing (single back with both tight ends on the same side). Not to mention, the team can incorporate a number of movement-based passes off play-action fakes (bootlegs) to attack the defense with three-level reads (post, crosser and flat).
The Rams can also flex either tight end out to form a spread set out of "12" personnel. This is something the Redskins frequently utilized with Jordan Reed under McVay to create mismatches on the perimeter. Considering the athleticism and route-running skills of Higbee and Everett, the Rams can spread opponents out to allow Goff to play "small ball" (quick game), giving the young quarterback an opportunity rack up completions and stay in manageable situations.
Obviously, the presence of a strong running game would also help Goff become a better player in his second season. For that to occur, the Rams need Todd Gurley to rediscover his mojo as a feature back. After bursting onto the scene as a rookie with at least 125 rushing yards in his first four NFL starts, the 2015 Offensive Rookie of the Year hasn't cracked the 100-yard mark in 18 straight games. No other running back since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger has played all of his team's games and averaged as many carries per game as Gurley (17.4) without reaching 100 rushing yards at least once in a season, according to NFL Research.
If Gurley re-emerges as a dominant threat in the backfield, the Rams can allow Goff to act as more of a manager than a playmaker for the offense. This certainly won't appease observers expecting a young quarterback to throw the ball all over the yard, but the majority of second-year field generals still need to operate under a tight pitch count (25 passes or fewer) until they are able to show their coaches they can handle more responsibilities as the offensive leader.
In the end, Goff's success will ultimately come down to whether the Rams can build a system around his talents that allows him to showcase his strengths as a quick-rhythm passer. If McVay can quickly identify what his young passer does well and feature concepts that allow him to stay in his lane, Goff will eventually show off the talent that made him the No. 1 pick in the draft. If the team can identify and develop a supporting cast that enhances the young quarterback's game, the wins will start to pile up and the naysayers will quickly forget about the slow start that had some uttering the "B" word after just seven starts.
ASK THE LEAGUE: Is Rob Gronkowski's contract restructure a fair deal?
The New England Patriots recently restructured Rob Gronkowski's eight-year, $54 million contract to give the four-time Pro Bowl tight end an opportunity to get paid like the top player at the position (currently Jimmy Graham, who'll earn $10 million in 2017). The way the contract is set up, Gronkowski's 2017 salary could go from $5.25 million to possibly $10.75 million -- if he can hit certain benchmarks. While the deal had been in works for six months, it surprised me to see such a talented player agree to a restructure loaded with incentives instead of guaranteed money. Thus, I thought I would reach out to some execs to get a better perspective on the new contract and whether it serves both sides best. Here's what I asked and the responses that I received:
AFC personnel executive: "As long as he's healthy and playing, he has a chance to get it. This is a deal that pays him for being available. He just needs to line up and play. With TB12 at quarterback, he can certainly hit all of those numbers."
Former vice president of player personnel: "This is a deal that balances his production against his injury history. They're basically telling him that they are willing to pay him big bucks ... if he is healthy. He just needs to stay on the field, which is a bit of a challenge, based on his injury history the past few years."
NFC pro personnel director: "He wasn't being paid like a top-10 tight end. This is a team-friendly deal that pays him based on his production. It's really a sign of good faith by the team to one of their best players."
It is uncommon for a guy universally viewed as the No. 1 player at his position to sign a "prove-it deal," but Gronkowski's injury history makes it hard for him to demand a fat contract loaded with guaranteed money. Thus, he needed to settle for an incentive-heavy deal that will allow him to earn his money if he takes the field and produces like everyone knows he can.
Here's a quick breakdown of what his salary could be next season, if he can reach certain incentive thresholds:
» $6.75 million: If Gronkowski hits 70 percent play time OR 60 catches OR 800 receiving yards OR 10 TDs.
» $8.75 million: If Gronkowski hits 80 percent play time OR 70 catches OR 1,000 receiving yards OR 12 TDs.
» $10.75 million: If Gronkowski hits 90 percent play time OR 80 catches OR 1,200 receiving yards OR earns All-Pro recognition.
After thinking about it, I think the deal makes sense for both parties.
The Patriots don't have to worry about a huge salary-cap hit because the incentives fall under the "Not Likely to be Earned" designation, as those numbers would surpass his production from 2016, when he totaled 25 catches for 540 yards and three scores. Yep: With Gronkowski coming off another injury-abbreviated season, the Patriots were able to take advantage of a rule to sweeten the pot for their No. 1 playmaker in the passing game.
For Gronkowski, the deal makes sense for a few reasons. First of all, he was already under contract through 2019. Secondly, Gronk's long injury history -- December's back procedure was the ninth surgery he's undergone since 2009, according to the Boston Herald -- really sapped his leverage. Gronkowski hasn't logged a full 16 games since the 2011 season. In two of the past four years, he's missed half the season.
But, when healthy, Gronkowski has shown the ability to hit these benchmarks. He has eclipsed 80 receptions twice (2011 and 2014) and earned first-team All-Pro honors three times (2011, 2014, 2015).
Overall, this strikes me as a win-win negotiation between a team and a top player. The Patriots will be able to reward their star if he produces (without altering the length of the deal -- it still runs through 2019), while Gronkowski has a chance to get the biggest bucks at his position.