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:
But first, a look at the most pressing draft needs for teams heading toward high picks ...
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The 2019 NFL Draft is five months away, but it is never too early for general managers and scouts to contemplate how to best tweak the roster. This is especially true for teams currently sitting outside of the playoff picture. These franchises need to identify the true difference makers in the coming draft crop -- those prospects who can help a downtrodden organization return to contention by filling a glaring need.
Top-10 players, in particular, are typically viewed as instant-impact guys with the kind of A-level talent to reverse a team's fortunes in short order. That's why teams picking near the top of the draft hope supply meets demand when it comes to filling their most pressing needs.
The 2019 draft class appears loaded with pass rushers and defensive playmakers. Coaches and scouts looking for inside or outside pass rushers are in luck, considering the bevy of available outside linebackers, defensive ends and defensive tackles boasting polished pass-rush skills. In addition, there are plenty of athletic linebackers with the speed, quickness and explosiveness to impact the passing game as blitzers and/or cover guys. With the game trending toward the pass, the value of linebackers with the capacity to hit, run and cover will skyrocket on draft day.
Offensively, the class is low on high-end talent at quarterback and the skill positions. Without firm commitments from some of the top underclassmen QB1s, it is hard to project which teams can find their franchise guys in the draft. Not to mention, those guys might not warrant a top-10 grade, based on their performance and production.
With those factors in mind, let's take an early look at the 2019 draft, assessing the needs of teams that held a top-10 selection entering Week 13:
1) San Francisco 49ers: Defensive playmaker
Despite the return of Jimmy Garoppolo to the lineup, the 49ers will need to beef up their defense to legitimately compete with the top teams in the NFC. San Francisco could opt for another pass rusher to fortify a front line that already features three first-round picks or set its sights on an ultra-athletic linebacker with big-play potential as a hit-run-and-cover defender. Regardless of position, the Niners need to add another impact guy on the defensive side of the ball to close the gap on the competition.
2) Oakland Raiders: Pass rusher or offensive playmaker
Jon Gruden will enter the 2019 draft intent on finding Pro Bowl-caliber replacements for Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper. Having traded Mack just before the start of this season, the Raiders' putrid pass rush has only produced 10 sacks in 11 games (dead last in the league), with rookie DT Maurice Hurst leading the team with four despite playing on the inside. In a league built around the passing game, it is hard to win games without an A-level pass rusher. Gruden quickly discovered the challenge of fielding a competent offense in 2018 without an explosive WR1, as the coach couldn't get consistent production out of Cooper before trading him to Dallas. The Raiders' leading pass catchers this season? RB Jalen Richard (53 catches) and TE Jared Cook (47).
3) Arizona Cardinals: Offensive tackle or pass catcher
The Cardinals have a QB to build around in Josh Rosen, but the team needs to protect him and surround him with enough playmakers to help resurrect a sagging offense that ranks last in yards and points. Protection is certainly a top priority, seeing how Arizona has surrendered 30 sacks through 11 games, but the potential departure of Larry Fitzgerald (who's in the last year of his contract at age 35) could leave a huge hole on the perimeter.
T-4) New York Jets: Offensive playmaker
The Jets' young QB1 (Sam Darnold) has shown promise as a rookie starter, but he's not surrounded by enough talent to fully showcase his skills. New York hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher or 1,000-yard receiver since 2015, and Curtis Martin is the last offensive skill player to earn All-Pro honors, having done so back in 2004. If the Jets want Darnold to reach his potential as the franchise quarterback, they have to upgrade his supporting cast -- immediately.
T-4) New York Giants: Quarterback
Give the Giants credit for attempting to resuscitate Eli Manning's game by surrounding him with an all-star cast on the perimeter. The combination of Saquon Barkley, Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram on the perimeter should produce fireworks on the field, but the veteran passer's limitations have kept the Giants' offense stuck in neutral. With No. 10 unable to make the routine plays expected of average QB1s, it is time for Big Blue to move on from the two-time Super Bowl MVP.
6) Jacksonville Jaguars: Quarterback
It is time for the Jaguars to fully accept that Blake Bortles isn't the answer. The former No. 3 overall pick is not a franchise quarterback and his benching suggests the team is indeed ready to seriously explore other options in the draft. The 2019 quarterback class lacks the depth and star power of this year's group, but that shouldn't stop the Jaguars from seeking an upgrade at the QB1 spot.
7) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Cornerback
Despite repeated attempts to patch up the hole at cornerback (see: high picks spent on Vernon Hargreaves, M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis in recent years), the Buccaneers remain a sub-par unit against the pass. The secondary has not only struggled in man and zone coverage (allowing a league-high 73.1 percent completion rate against the pass), but the unit has been unable to take the ball away (only three INTs in 11 games) or keep balls from flying over their heads (having surrendered 45 completions of 20 yards or more). In a league that's defined by aerial acrobatics, the Buccaneers' coverage issues should lead them back into the cornerback market early in the 2019 draft.
8) Detroit Lions: Pass rusher
Matt Patricia has surprisingly mustered a decent pass rush, with 32 sacks in 11 games (tied for 11th in the NFL). With Ezekiel Ansah likely headed elsewhere in free agency, the Lions will need to find a young, energetic pass rusher capable of playing from a three-point stance or an upright position off the edge in Patricia's hybrid defense.
9) Buffalo Bills: Offensive playmaker
The Bills need to add more weapons around Josh Allen to help their young QB1 thrive in Western New York. A fleet-footed pass catcher with strong hands and playmaking ability to fill the WR1 role is a top priority, but the team could also look to add a replacement for the aging LeSean McCoy. Although taking a running back early in the 2019 draft might be a bit of a reach, the team needs to find a young hybrid to play behind No. 17 going forward.
10) Atlanta Falcons: Offensive line
Atlanta's struggles on the ground could force team officials to search high and low for solutions on the front line. The addition of a road grader at offensive tackle could be a plus, but a rugged people mover on the interior would also fill a void at the point of attack. If the Falcons want to upgrade their 31st-ranked rushing offense, they'll have to find the right big bodies to put in front of Devonta Freeman and Ito Smith. (Telvin Coleman is due to hit free agency after this season.)
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Freddie Kitchens' impact on Baker Mayfield and the Browns' offense. I don't know if Gregg Williams will remain the Browns' head coach beyond this season, but the team's front office should seriously consider keeping Kitchens as the offensive coordinator for 2019 and beyond. The grizzled veteran has worked wonders with an offense that lacked an identity prior to his promotion a few weeks ago.
Head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley were fired after the Week 8 loss to the Steelers, shaking up the coaching staff and putting Kitchens in charge of the offense. Since then, the Browns lead the NFL in red-zone percentage (100 percent; 10-for-10 with 10 TDs) while averaging four touchdowns per game. In addition, the team has only surrendered two sacks (tied for second in this time period) and committed two turnovers (tied for fourth). With the Browns averaging 28.0 points and 385.7 total yards over their last three games -- compared to 21.1 and 342.4 prior to the offensive changes -- Cleveland has shown more potency since Kitchens took over as the play caller.
Naturally, the offensive production has been tied to Mayfield's improvement as a passer and playmaker in recent weeks. Since Week 9, No. 6 has completed 73.9 percent of his passes with a 9:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a whopping 129.5 passer rating. Kitchens has clearly put the rookie QB in his comfort zone and the results have been spectacular.
According to Next Gen Stats, Mayfield is tossing more quick throws (55.7 percent, compared to 46.2 during Weeks 3-8; remember, Mayfield didn't play until Week 3) since Kitchens has taken over. In addition, he is throwing more passes to his sweet spots, particularly down the seams (54.5 percent, compared to 41.3 during Weeks 3-8) and behind the line of scrimmage (22.7 percent, compared to 13.9 during Weeks 3-8). With more easy throws on the menu, Mayfield's completion percentage has improved by 15.6 percent, as he's become more efficient and effective from the pocket.
The philosophical shift caught my eyes immediately when I dug into the All-22 Coaches Film. The Browns have been utilizing a quick-rhythm passing game from run-heavy, spread and empty formations. Mayfield is at his best throwing slants, seams and sit-down routes when he can let it rip from the pocket. The No. 1 overall pick throws laser-like tosses to the boundary on out routes, but he also shines hitting in-breaking routes (digs and deep crossers) at intermediate depth. Although Mayfield will occasionally fire off a deep ball along the boundary, he's thriving as a controlled passer in a rhythm offense.
From a schematic standpoint, the Browns are incorporating a variety of play concepts and formations to help the 23-year-old quarterback. The team has been featuring more "12" (1 RB, 2 TE and 2 WR) and "13" (1 RB, 3 TE and 1 WR) personnel packages with Kitchens calling plays. In last week's win over the Cincinnati Bengals, the Browns featured their two- and three-tight-end sets on 59 percent (36 of 61) of their offensive snaps. This matches up well with the utilization of multiple-TE packages from Week 11's win over the Atlanta Falcons, when Cleveland was in "12" or "13" personnel on 40 percent of its offensive snaps (20 of 50).
"Multiple-tight end packages are difficult to defend in this league," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "With two and three tight ends on the field, the offense forces the defensive coordinator to make a decision: Do I defend it in base defense? Do I use nickel? Do I run another defensive lineman or linebacker onto the field against three-tight end sets? Those are the questions that the defensive play caller has to ask himself when he sees the extra 'bigs' run onto the field.
"The package is extremely dangerous if the second tight end is a playmaker with receiver-like skills. If he can align in space and run routes like a big receiver, he puts you in a bind because they can split him out to exploit your 'big' personnel package or bring him in as an attached tight end to run at your nickel defense. Good offensive coordinators will use '12' and '13' personnel packages to give the defense fits and exploit mismatches in the run or pass game."
Looking at the Browns' success in recent weeks, it's not a coincidence that David Njoku has become a big part of the game plan. Since Week 9, the former first-round pick has snagged 10 balls for 134 yards and a score. Njoku has torched opponents down the seams while also catching a couple of screens to take advantage of quick-dropping linebackers in coverage. Considering that the 6-foot-4, 246-pound pass catcher possesses the speed, quickness and movement skills of a wide receiver, the decision to utilize more "12" and "13" personnel packages creates favorable matchups for the Browns in the passing game, which makes life easier for Mayfield in the pocket.
The team's increasing reliance on backfield targets has also helped Mayfield become a more efficient player from the pocket. Since Week 9, the Browns have directed 23.9 percent of their targets to receivers originally aligned in the backfield. Mayfield has completed 95.2 percent of those passes, with a healthy average of 9.4 yards per attempt and a 4:0 TD-to-INT ratio. By comparison, No. 6 only targeted receivers out of the backfield on 13.0 percent of his passes in Weeks 3-8 with a 75.9 percent completion rate and 0:0 TD-to-INT ratio. With Duke Johnson and Nick Chubb showing solid receiving skills out of the backfield, Cleveland's increased reliance on screens and checkdowns has jump-started Mayfield's game.
The Browns have also become more of a play-action passing team in recent weeks. Cleveland has used play-action on 29.8 percent of Mayfield's dropbacks since Kitchens took over, which is a 10.8 percent increase from Weeks 3-8, when the Browns called play-action passes on just 19.0 percent of their passing attempts. From a defensive standpoint, play-action passes are problematic due to the ball fakes luring linebackers and defensive backs to the line of scrimmage, leaving voids at intermediate depths between the numbers. This creates bigger passing lanes for Mayfield on slants and seams, and leads to fruitful plays on catch-and-run concepts to wide receivers and tight ends.
Overall, Cleveland's offense has a flow and symmetry that didn't exist prior to Week 9 -- and the rookie quarterback is thriving as a result. Mayfield is not only comfortable directing the attack, but he is beginning to grow into the playmaker some envisioned when he was the No. 1 overall pick (SEE: passer ratings of 151.2 and 143.9 over the past two weeks). Considering the success of the quarterback and offense under Kitchens' direction, the Browns should stick with the play caller going forward to keep their franchise quarterback in his comfort zone.
2) Where did the Jacksonville Jaguars go wrong? The demise of the Jaguars (3-8) will go down as one of the biggest surprises of the 2018 season. A team many expected to vie for the Lombardi Trophy after a spectacular run to last year's AFC Championship Game has now lost seven straight games despite fielding one of the NFL's most talented rosters, particularly on defense.
While it is easy to pin the blame on recently benched Blake Bortles for the team's woes, the scattershot quarterback is performing at about the same level as he did last season. Bortles' completion rate (60.4 this season, compared to 60.2 in 2017), touchdown percentage (3.5 vs. 4), interception percentage (2.7 vs. 2.5), passing yards average (233.8 vs. 230.4) and passer rating (81.9 vs. 84.7) are quite similar year over year. Although Bortles' numbers have certainly been disappointing since Week 5 (57.5 completion rate, 211.0 pass yards per game, 6:7 TD-to-INT ratio, 73.9 passer rating), the Jaguars have never run the game through their inconsistent quarterback, so his failures and limitations aren't the biggest reason for the team's underachievement.
The Jaguars' problems are due to the poor performance and production of the running game and defense. While new-school football followers will suggest Jacksonville's formula was doomed to fail in today's pass-happy league, it is the only way to win without an A-level quarterback. Considering the team's success in 2017 using a similar game plan, it is reasonable to expect the Jags to rely on the same formula this season with a star-studded defense and a Pro Bowl-caliber running back in the fold, right?
"No, we were a whistle [away]. And that's my position," Coughlin said of the perceived quick-whistle on Myles Jack's fumble recovery in the AFC Championship Game, a play that could have led to a game-changing touchdown by the Jags. "So, tell me everyone out there what they're going to do in that circumstance about your football team. Aren't you going to fill other pieces in and try to be as good as you can be? Well we tried, didn't we? The nature of the game got us and we go back to the drawing board.
"I'll put the gloves on with anybody that wants to talk about what -- let's face it, our numbers are down all over the place. Our sacks are way down. Our pressure is down, our turnovers are huge, they're out of sight. Our penalties, the way that we behave on the field is ridiculous, some of the penalties. So, there's a lot of things that are going to get addressed, and are being addressed."
Notice how Coughlin went right to the defense when discussing the team's underachievement. The defense was expected to carry the Jaguars over the threshold, with the band of alpha dogs setting the pace with their bodacious claims and bold games. You remember that crew, led by Jalen Ramsey, Telvin Smith, Myles Jack, A.J. Bouye and Calais Campbell, right? That unit suffocated opponents a season ago with their collective speed, quickness and athleticism. The Jaguars finished second in total defense (286.1), points allowed (16.8) and sacks (55), while Jacksonville tied for fifth in turnover differential (plus 10). With the defense dominating the trenches and blanketing pass catchers on the perimeter, the Jaguars could lean on a punishing ground attack that ranked No. 1 in yards per game (141.4). The recipe was so effective that it was easy to buy into Jacksonville as the favorite in the AFC heading into the season.
Looking at the All-22 tape from this season, though, I don't see the same effort, energy and execution from the vaunted defense. Despite ranking among the top-10 units in total defense (sixth), scoring defense (eighth) and pass defense (third), the Jaguars have been victimized by blown assignments, resulting in more big plays through the air and on the ground. Jacksonville has surrendered five completions of 40 yards or more and allowed nine runs of at least 20 yards with three additional runs over 40.
For a defense built on smothering opponents at every turn, the Jaguars have shown far more leaks than expected. Now, I know the standard is certainly lofty for this Jacksonville D, based on last season's success, but there's no denying the unit's shortcomings in 2018. During the team's seven-game losing streak, the Jaguars have allowed 26.7 points per game, 355.0 total yards per game, 125.7 rushing yards per game and surrendered a third-down conversion rate of 41.6 percent. Those numbers are well below the unit's output from 2017 and a significant dip from the defense's performance for the first four weeks of the season, when the Jags held opponents to an average of 14.0 points, 259.3 total yards, 95.0 rushing yards and a 30.2 third-down conversion rate. Those issues can be partially attributed to opponents catching up to Jacksonville's scheme and the complementary adjustments. Defensive coordinator Todd Wash rarely attacks with exotic pressures or complex zone coverages, so opponents know exactly what they're getting on each down. Now, that approach has certainly been successful for some teams running this modified Seahawks scheme, but it takes a high level of execution to consistently produce wins over time.
Studying Jacksonville's defensive play in the trenches, the front line isn't dominating the line of scrimmage. The Jaguars' sack numbers are certainly down and they haven't controlled the running game. Opposing running backs are finding success on early downs, which keeps the team from getting into hunt mode on third down. Without putting the offense in obvious passing situations, the Jags haven't been able to rack up sacks or pressures, which also explains their low takeaway numbers. Considering the correlation between rush and coverage, the lack of pressure makes it harder for defenders to intercept passes off tips or overthrows.
On offense, a spate of injuries to the offensive line has certainly impacted the Jaguars' ability to move defenders off the ball, but special runners are able to function without an A-plus frontline. Leonard Fournette has shown flashes of being an exceptional runner during his season and a half in the league, but his availability is always a concern due to a notable injury history. He has only suited up for 18 of 27 possible games in his tenure with the Jags, and the team's production wanes in his absence. In 2018, the Jaguars average 151.8 rushing yards with No. 27 on the field, but only 82.8 rushing yards when he is on the sideline. Two other areas that plummet when Fournette's not on the field: the team's scoring average (22.8 to 13.8) and total yards per game (359.8 to 335.3). Meanwhile, Jacksonville's giveaways rise (eight with Fournette, 14 without the RB). Sure, injuries happen to even the game's best players, but Fournette's absence is quite problematic for a team built around the running game.
Speaking of brawls, the Jaguars' melee also illustrated the lack of discipline that's permeated the squad this season. Although the team has always been a little mouthy, with the big personalities on defense doing most of the barking, Doug Marrone appeared to have a good handle on his players, even as some toed the line at times in 2017. This season, Ramsey and others have stepped over the line repeatedly with their behavior on and off the field. In a league featuring games that are often decided by the thinnest of margins, Jacksonville's lack of discipline is a legit factor in the team's surprising fall.
While most of the football world will point the finger at Bortles for the Jaguars' failures, the team's star players should bear the brunt of the responsibility for the unfulfilled potential of this season.