Dez Bryant's future prospects; Matt Ryan, Falcons debunk myth

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:

-- How the Falcons are debunking a myth about team-building.

-- Why the Cowboys could finally unlock Tavon Austin's potential.

-- What's with this new tune Ben Roethlisberger's singing?

But first, a look at the uncertain future of a former All-Pro ...

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Is it over?

That's the question of the day regarding Dez Bryant's future. The 29-year-old carries a résumé that features three Pro Bowl nods, 531 receptions, 73 touchdowns and almost 7,500 receiving yards, but there is speculation No. 88 might have played his last snap in the NFL.

This might catch some by surprise, given Bryant's status as an elite receiver a few years ago, but interest in his services has been lacking since the Dallas Cowboys unceremoniously cut bait a few weeks ago. Sure, the timing of his release -- on the eve of the 2018 NFL Draft -- didn't help his prospects, but the market for the former WR1 presently seems cool as can be.

Evidently, teams have looked at the tape and discovered the same issues that bothered me when I studied Bryant's game over the past year. He is unable to create consistent separation, and his inability to get away from defenders makes life tough on his quarterback. In addition, Bryant is an inconsistent route runner and pass catcher, which makes it tough to depend on him as a No. 1 receiver. I wrote about this stuff during the regular season, and the issues remained prominent when I reviewed Bryant's tape shortly after the season ended. That's why I wasn't surprised to see the Cowboys move on from their former WR1, despite his royalty status within the locker room.

"It was a collective deal,"Cowboys vice president of player personnel Will McClay said Tuesday on ESPN 103.3 FM. "The [inability] to win one-on-one, to win downfield. There was inconsistency as well as some huge things in his play. So what's best moving forward for Dez Bryant [and] the Cowboys, we just made that decision. It's a production-based business."

All that said, I still believe Bryant can help a squad as a role player on the perimeter. Despite the concerns over his diminished speed and explosiveness, he is still an effective weapon in the red zone, as evidenced by his 14 touchdowns over the past two seasons. Measuring 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, he can still overpower smaller defensive backs on jump balls and back-shoulder fades. In addition, Bryant is capable of moving the chains as a possession receiver, particularly on in-breaking routes like slants and digs that allow him to use his big frame to box out defenders at the catch point.

That's why I think a team will eventually sign the veteran to a modest deal, despite some reports suggesting most teams would bypass No. 88 even at the veteran's minimum. While I certainly understand why some executives are pressing the pause button before making a move to sign the emotional receiver, Bryant remains useful. Although I don't believe he is a No. 1 receiver at this stage of his career, I do think he can be a solid secondary option on a team with another established playmaker on the perimeter.

With that in mind, here are a few rosters Bryant could help as a veteran playmaker:

Buffalo Bills: Despite possessing a big personality that might make Bills executives pause, Bryant's talents are a perfect fit for the team's offense. In spite of his declining skills, Dez would arguably be the team's most talented pass catcher (which speaks volumes about the current state of the Bills' WR corps). If Bryant can tone down his personality to fit into the blue-collar culture of Buffalo's locker room, the Bills could get a solid contributor at bargain-basement price.

New York Jets: With Robby Andersonfacing off-field issues and Terrelle Pryor trying to rediscover his game, Bryant could step in as a temporary WR1 for a team in desperate need of an established playmaker on the outside. Bryant's presence as a veteran pass catcher could accelerate Sam Darnold's development if (when) he takes the reins.

Seattle Seahawks: If the 'Hawks are serious about rebuilding their team using the 2011 model that featured a locker room full of ultra-competitive players with chips on their shoulders, Seattle could add Dez to the mix as a possible WR2 or WR3. Bryant's size and strength would make him a nice addition to the receiving corps as a designated red-zone weapon.

Indianapolis Colts: Chris Ballard wants to get more speed and explosiveness on the field, but he also needs to upgrade the supporting cast around Andrew Luck. Although T.Y. Hilton is a Pro Bowl-caliber talent, the Colts lack another established receiving option. Bryant would give them a WR2 to pair opposite Hilton, while also adding some size and muscle to the receiver room.

Washington Redskins: The 'Skins have completely rebuilt their offense with Alex Smith installed as the QB1, but they could use another big-bodied pass catcher on the perimeter -- particularly down in the red zone. Bryant's size and strength would fit in well with a group of pass catchers that already features Jordan Reed, Vernon Davis, Josh Doctson, Paul Richardson and Jamison Crowder.

San Francisco 49ers: Jimmy G was able to elevate the 49ers' pedestrian WR corps with his precise passing from the pocket, but adding another weapon to the arsenal could help the franchise quarterback deliver more Ws in 2018. Bryant is no longer a true WR1, but neither is Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin or Dante Pettis. Thus, the 49ers could use the services of a former All-Pro with a knack for winning 50-50 balls, particularly down near the end zone, when size and leaping ability expand the strike zone for the quarterback.

THE FALCON WAY: Atlanta shows you can build around a high-price QB

There are plenty of ways to build a championship team in the NFL, but the Atlanta Falcons are showing the football world the blueprint for building a title contender around a big-money quarterback.

The Dirty Birds just signed Matt Ryan to a five-year, $150 million contract with $100 million in guarantees, rewarding the QB for routinely playing at a high level and keeping the Falcons in steady contention for most of his decade in the league.

This deal comes after the five-year, $103.75 million extension (with $42 million in guarantees) signed in 2013, which followed a rookie deal that paid him $72 million over six years. That original contract included $34.75 million in guaranteed money, making him one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the league the moment he first stepped onto an NFL field.

We've heard plenty of skeptics suggest you can't build a consistent winner when you're routinely tossing mega bucks at the quarterback, but the Falcons are debunking that myth. Atlanta has reached the postseason six times in Ryan's 10 seasons, hitting the Super Bowl in Ryan's MVP season of 2016. Thus, it makes sense for the team to back up another Brinks truck into the driveway of a quarterback owning a 95-63 career record.

"Matt is getting what he has earned and we all know the marketplace for a great quarterback," Falcons owner Arthur Blank said Thursday, via ESPN. "League revenues are up, club revenues, new stadiums and the players are the heart of the game. They're the ones on the field and they certainly deserve their fair share."

Blank added that Ryan has been "the model face of the franchise, a great leader and he has embraced our values. He has led us on and off the field."

Those are certainly all of the qualities and characteristics general managers and executives want in a franchise quarterback, particularly one who's making big bucks.

"He doesn't get the love that he should," an NFC personnel director told me. "He's been a good player for a long time. He deserves to get paid."

Here's the trick, though. The Falcons have not only paid Ryan like a franchise quarterback, but they've surrounded him with enough A-level talent to allow him to succeed as the bus driver. The team boasts a loaded wide receiver corps, with arguably the best WR1 in the game (Julio Jones) and a talented supporting cast of playmakers on the perimeter (Mohamed Sanu and Justin Hardy) that's augmented by the arrival of first-round pick Calvin Ridley. At running back, the Falcons have a devastating 1-2 punch: Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are both capable of running through defenses on inside or outside runs or blowing past defenders as crafty pass catchers out of the backfield. Not to mention, the Falcons have routinely upgraded the offensive line to handle the various fronts and pass rushers poised to harass Ryan in the pocket.

That's exactly how you're supposed to build around the quarterback in today's game if you follow the model previously established by the Indianapolis Colts with Peyton Manning under center. The Colts routinely paid pass catchers, running backs and offensive tackles, ensuring they could score points in bunches and play with a lead. This led the Colts to also invest big money in pass rushers, so the defense could deliver sacks when opponents were forced to chase points by airing it out. Indy would fill in the rest of its roster with draft picks and low-level free agents to stay below the salary-cap constraints.

Looking at the composition of the Falcons' squad, the model is eerily similar, with Atlanta spending solid dough and/or first-round picks on pass catchers (Jones, Sanu and Ridley), running back (Freeman), offensive tackle (Jake Matthews) and pass rushers (Takk McKinley and Vic Beasley). They are well-positioned to keep their stars in place, while also lavishing an enormous contract on No. 2.

THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league

1) Why Tavon Austin could flourish in the Cowboys' backfield. When Dallas acquired Tavon Austin over draft weekend, the initial reports suggested Austin could serve as another slot receiver. But that's not an area of need for the Cowboys, who already possess one of the NFL's best chain-movers in Cole Beasley. Then, when Dallas shipped Ryan Switzer off to Oakland shortly after acquiring Austin, I thought maybe the former Ram would contribute primarily on special teams. I had already ruled out Austin filling Dez Bryant's shoes on the perimeter, as Austin isn't a true No. 1 receiver by any measure. But when NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport dropped a nugget on Twitter suggesting the former first-round pick would play running back instead of receiver for the Cowboys, my initial reaction was shock.


How is a 5-foot-8, 179-pound receiver going to survive in this league as a playmaker out of the backfield?

"Running back is his natural position," said an NFC personnel director. "He's had his most productive games at running back at West Virginia and in the NFL. He's at his best with the ball in his hands, and he is an underrated runner between the tackles. ... If he hadn't been over-drafted, we would probably appreciate his skills as a runner a little more."

To that point, Austin was probably mischaracterized as a receiver in the run-up to the 2013 draft. He was a record-breaking all-purpose stud at West Virginia as the 2012 Big 12 Conference co-Special Teams Player of the Year and the Paul Hornung Award winner as the most versatile player in the nation. He scored touchdowns four different ways (catch, rush, kick and punt return) as a senior, while also snagging 114 receptions as a slot receiver.

While those numbers from a pass catcher certainly stood out, a deeper look into his background suggests that Austin is -- and always has been -- a running back at heart. He was the two-time consensus Maryland Player of the Year after scoring 790 points, 123 total touchdowns, 9,258 all-purpose yards and 7,962 rushing yards at Dunbar High School (Baltimore).

Let that marinate for a minute.

As a sub-180-pound running back, Austin was not only the best high school player in the state, but he then became a spectacular all-around weapon in the Big 12 Conference, exhibiting a combination of speed, quickness and acceleration that made him a nightmare to defend. As a pro, he has shown flashes of that ability, but it has been at running back -- not really at wide receiver.

Looking back at Austin's most productive year (2015) in the NFL, it is not a coincidence that he delivered matching production as a runner (52 rushes for 434 yards, four scores) and receiver (52 receptions for 473 yards, five scores). He touched the rock on an assortment of jet sweeps, reverses and traditional handoffs as a runner while snagging a handful of passes on quick screens and options routes as a receiver. Although it takes some creativity to max out Austin's talents, the fact that he has such similar production as a runner (1,238 rushing yards, 6.7 yard average) and receiver (1,689 receiving yards, 8.7 yard average) in his five pro seasons suggests that he should be used as an all-purpose weapon going forward.

That's why Austin could kill it in Dallas, as a change-of-pace back behind Ezekiel Elliott. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan should be able to script eight to 10 touches for him each week on an assortment of screens, sweeps, reverses and designed gadget plays that allow him to get the ball in his hands in the open field. In addition, Austin can effectively run the Cowboys' traditional power plays between the tackles despite his relatively smaller frame. He displays outstanding balance, body control and vision on downhill runs, as evidenced on this clip:

Given how the Cowboys are intent on making the offense more "Dak-friendly" this season, I can envision Austin carving out a large role as a change-of-pace back/slot receiver in Dallas' spread offense. Remember, the Cowboys used Lucky Whitehead in this capacity a few seasons ago during their run to the NFC East title, and Austin's big-play ability on screens, reverses and fly sweeps perfectly suits Prescott's skills as a dual-threat quarterback.

While there were plenty of snickers on Twitter when the news of Austin's trade hit the wire, the joke could be on defensive coordinators around the league when they see the dynamic slot receiver/running back finally used like he was at West Virginia in a dramatically remade Cowboys' offense.

2) Why it's so important to pay attention to five-star high school recruits. If I worked in an NFL front office as a general manager or personnel director, I would routinely check out the high school recruiting rankings to monitor the progress of four- and five-star prospects over their college careers. While the Twitter-verse loves to suggest this star-ranking system doesn't matter, particularly when a two-time walk-on (Baker Mayfield) is drafted first overall, the data suggests that many elite high school prospects eventually become top NFL players down the road.

Don't believe me? Just look at recent draft classes -- you'll see the first few rounds are full of former five-star recruits.

In 2018, for example, seven first-round selections were rated as five-star recruits, with nine additional first-round selections earning four-star designations, according to 247Sports. That's a 50 percent hit rate in the first round, which is pretty good considering the small number of recruits who earn top billing in high school.

Two years ago, the hit-rate was even higher. The 2017 draft saw 10 former five-star recruits selected in the first round, with 12 additional selections rated as consensus four-star prospects. That's a total of 22 elite high school recruits who were rated as elite NFL prospects. Once again, that's a high level of success for the recruiting analysts tasked with rating 17- and 18-year-olds across the country.

With the 2016 draft also featuring 22 elite prospects (five five-star recruits and 17 four-star guys) in the first round, you can count on a solid number of elite high school players eventually landing on NFL scouts' radars down the road.

"I've always consulted the high school recruiting rankings prior to drafts," an NFC personnel director said. "I'm not necessarily looking for the first-round guys, but I'm trying to find the guys that fell off the map. Where are those guys? I will have my scouts do some research on those guys to see if we should bring them in as late-round picks or free agents."

I thought that idea was an interesting one based on how recruiting analysts grade high school prospects. When I've talked to analysts on the road at high school events, they've told me that five-star recruits are viewed as future first-round selections/NFL stars with four-star recruits rated as potential NFL players. Given the challenge I face grading college players as NFL prospects, I have a tremendous amount of respect for analysts projecting the long-term potential of high schoolers, particularly when their success rates are at the top of the spectrum.

This brings me back to the 2018 draft and where the five-star guys end up being selected. Nineteen former five-star recruits were drafted over the weekend, with seven guys picked in the first round and 12 selected on Days 2 and 3. Although 18 former five-star recruits from the 2013, 2014 and 2015 classes did not end up getting picked, it is important to note that 15 were signed as undrafted free agents.

At a time when everyone is looking for an edge, scouts would be wise to consult the recruiting lists to get an early jump on the players who eventually will make their way to the league as stars or hidden gems.

3) What might be behind Big Ben's desire to extend his career. The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the draft intent on finding a possible successor to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but in taking Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph with the 76th overall pick, they may have actually extended the perennial Pro Bowler's career. The two-time Super Bowl winner recently said he's not planning to hand over the QB1 job to the rookie any time soon.

"Well, that's fine. He can do that," Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "but I plan on playing for three to five more years, depending on how the line goes and staying healthy, if I can stay healthy. If he's going to be their guy, that's great, but in my perfect world, it's not going to be for a while."

Huh? Isn't this the same guy who suggested he was "washed up" early in the 2017 season after playing a bad game and repeatedly floated the possibility of retiring in recent years. What possibly could've changed his mind to make him consider playing into his 40s?

It's simple. No. 7 has seen the money middling quarterbacks have received over the past few years -- and the massive contracts top-tier QB1s like Matt Ryan recently landed -- and I'm sure he wants another big payday in the $30 million-per-year range. Roethlisberger has two years remaining on a four-year, $87.4 million extension that pays him $21.8 million per year. Although the $20 million mark used to be the threshold for elite quarterbacks and Super Bowl winners, the recent flurry of QB deals puts Big Ben at 12th on the list in annual compensation.

Some of the names who are earning more than him (per Over the Cap): Kirk Cousins ($28M per year), Jimmy Garoppolo ($27.5M), Matthew Stafford ($27M), Andrew Luck ($24M) and Alex Smith ($23M). It has to be hard for Roethlisberger to walk to the bank with a smaller check than some of these guys. Thus, the whiny retirement talk last year was probably a subtle play to get more cash out of the Steelers when his contract expires at the end of 2019.

Now, his recent talk of an extended run as the Steelers' QB1 is likely another attempt to accelerate the renegotiation process.

"I went and talked to [owner] Art [Rooney II] and coach [Mike Tomlin] and coach Randy [Fichtner, Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator] and basically said, 'Listen, I can't control -- barring major injuries, barring things at home, and things out of your control -- the way my body feels," Roethlisberger said. "The way our O-line is put together, as good as they are, they kept me healthy as can be the last couple years. I really feel I can play this game another three to five years.

"I'll still take it one year at a time and give it everything I have that one year, but that's what I felt comfortable in telling them."

What does that mean for Rudolph and the team's plans for their QB2/QB3? Nothing. Big Ben's apparent change of heart won't alter the team's developmental plans for their young quarterback. They drafted the former Oklahoma State star with the intent to groom him for a prime role down the road.

"This was an unusual draft class. I mean, there was some top quarterbacks and we certainly felt that Mason was amongst that group for sure. ... So we didn't take him with the first pick or the second pick even. We talked about it, but the immediate player, like (Oklahoma State receiver) James Washington (in the second round), can help us now, whereas we had to take and look for the future and a guy like Mason Rudolph isn't going to be available very often. ... It was a very easy pick, because we think at some point he can be a productive starting, winning quarterback."

Given Big Ben's recent statements, and what I suspect is his desire for a new contract, I think we have a little time before we'll see if Rudolph can walk in No. 7's shoes.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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