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 single player who makes each team's offense go ...
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The NFL's seismic shift to the air has made it imperative to build an offense around a passer, pass catcher and/or playmaker. The best teams in the league are essentially sports cars with a designated player pegged as the "engine" of the unit.
Naturally, most teams would prefer the quarterback serve as the driving force of the offense, based on the league's pass-happy premise, but there simply aren't enough elite signal-callers to make that happen. Teams without special passers in place will build around running backs with unique talents or pass catchers with explosive playmaking abilities on the perimeter.
Looking ahead to the 2018 season, I think the first week of the preseason is the perfect time to identify the engine on each and every offense around the league. Here's my take:
Arizona Cardinals: RB David Johnson. Back in 2016, "DJ2K" nearly joined Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk as the only running backs with 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in a single season. Johnson could definitely earn entry into the exclusive club as the Cardinals build their new offense around his talents as a runner/receiver out of the backfield. With Steve Wilks and Mike McCoy intent on taking the pressure off the quarterback, particularly if they are forced to play a rookie QB (Josh Rosen), Johnson could put up monster numbers as the Cardinals' No. 1 option.
Atlanta Falcons: WR Julio Jones. Matty Ice might've won the league's MVP award in 2016, but defensive coordinators will quickly tell you Jones is Public Enemy No. 1 on the Falcons' roster. The electric pass catcher has posted four straight seasons with at least 1,400 receiving yards while flashing a dynamic set of skills that make him nearly impossible to defend. If the Falcons can come up with a solid red-zone plan, Jones could make a legitimate run at the MVP award.
Baltimore Ravens: RB Alex Collins. It is uncommon for a player with only two career 100-yard rushing games to be viewed as the catalyst of the offense, but Collins' emergence as the Ravens' RB1 last season steadied an offense that has struggled in recent years. The hard-nosed runner excels at finding cracks between the tackles and exhibits the finishing power to punish defenders on the second level. With the Ravens at their best when using a run-centric approach, the team's surprising RB1 is the most important piece of the offensive puzzle.
Buffalo Bills: RB LeSean McCoy. Take a quick glance at the Bills' roster, and it's easy to spot the team's top offensive player. No. 25 is an A+ talent as a rusher/receiver with a combination of quickness and "shake and bake" that gives defensive coordinators night terrors when they're crafting plans to slow down the Bills' offense. Considering Buffalo only has one 1,000-yard skill player outside of McCoy since 2015 (Sammy Watkins, 1,047 receiving yards in 2015), it is all on the 30-year-old back to carry the load, particularly with question marks at the QB1 spot.
Carolina Panthers: QB Cam Newton. Despite the hate constantly spewed toward Newton, the former No. 1 overall pick has played like a franchise quarterback from Day 1. As an explosive dual-threat with the size, strength and power to run through defenses and the A+ arm talent to throw all over the yard, Newton is the first player in NFL history to have at least 25,000 passing yards and 4,000 rushing yards in his first seven seasons. With his 54 rushing touchdowns ranking as the third-most by any player in the NFL since he entered the league, Newton is the ultimate scoring machine as a runner/passer.
Chicago Bears: RB Jordan Howard. The Bears are committed to building an offense around young quarterback Mitch Trubisky, but the Pro Bowl running back remains the straw that stirs the drink in Chicago. Howard flashed "one-man show" potential while posting back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons on an offense with zero perimeter stars.
Cincinnati Bengals: WR A.J. Green. With six 1,000-yard seasons in seven years, Green is not only one of the most consistent performers in the league -- he is one of the true elites at his position. The acrobatic playmaker has posted big numbers with a B/B- quarterback at the helm, which is a testament to his ability to create separation on the perimeter with his quickness, length and leaping ability. In a league that has shifted to an aerial emphasis, the presence of a dominant pass catcher capable of racking up 100-yard games without an elite QB is quite valuable -- definitely the kind of piece to build an offense around.
Cleveland Browns: WR Jarvis Landry. It only took one episode of "Hard Knocks" to realize Landry is the most explosive offensive weapon on the Browns. Despite being pegged as a slot receiver, the three-time Pro Bowler is a spectacular route runner with sticky hands and exceptional running skills. In an offense that's designed to feature more high-percentage passes, the Browns appear to have the ideal "chain mover" to feature between the hashes.
Dallas Cowboys: RB Ezekiel Elliott. The 2016 NFL rushing king is unquestionably the driving force of the Cowboys' offense. He's a workhorse runner with size, speed and power. Zeke not only sets the tone with his powerful running style, but his presence allows Dak Prescott to thrive as a complementary playmaker from the pocket. Don't believe me? Just look at No. 4's production with and without Elliott as proof of No. 21's impact.
Denver Broncos: QB Case Keenum. It's hard to imagine many NFL executives or coaches viewing the longtime journeyman as a franchise quarterback, but after watching Keenum guide a team to the precipice of a Super Bowl, you could make the case that he is ready to be the engine for an organization willing to tweak the offense to suit his game. With Gary Kubiak and Vance Joseph familiar with his talent and potential from their time together in Houston, Keenum will step into a scheme that fits him like a custom suit.
Detroit Lions: QB Matthew Stafford. You could make the argument that Stafford is quietly one of the NFL's top clutch performers, based on his track record in the fourth quarter throughout his career (fourth-most fourth-quarter comebacks among active players with 26). While detractors will point to Stafford's sub-.500 record (60-65), it is hard to win games when the team has only had seven 100-yard rushers in Stafford's 125 career games (none since Thanksgiving 2013).
Green Bay Packers: QB Aaron Rodgers. The 2017 season let the football world know the Packers' championship hopes still hinge on Rodgers' ability to play at an MVP level. The perennial Pro Bowler not only elevates the team's perimeter players with his pinpoint passing, but he masks the Packers' roster flaws with his spectacular playmaking ability. Rodgers is the epitome of a franchise quarterback, as an ultra-talented passer with the capacity to rack up wins with or without a strong supporting cast.
Houston Texans: QB Deshaun Watson. It took Watson just seven games to establish himself as the alpha dog on the Texans' offense. The extraordinary playmaker transformed a pedestrian attack into a scoring machine with his combination of running and passing skills tormenting defenders on the perimeter. Watson posted a 19:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio, a 61.8 percent completion rate and 103.0 passer rating during his brief tenure as a starter, prior to suffering a season-ending knee injury in practice. If he returns to health, there's no doubt DW4 gives the Texans a chance to make a run at the Super Bowl.
Indianapolis Colts: QB Andrew Luck. Despite missing all of 2017 recovering from a shoulder injury, Luck is the epicenter of the Colts' offense. He's been effective in that role since entering the league as the No. 1 overall pick in 2012, but the team lacks established playmakers on the perimeter outside of T.Y. Hilton. While Frank Reich has discussed implementing a rhythm passing game with a bunch of quick throws designed to get the ball out of the QB's hands quickly, the onus is on Luck to make good decisions and avoid unnecessary hits in the pocket.
Jacksonville Jaguars: RB Leonard Fournette. Whenever a coach discusses the possibility of playing a game with zero pass attempts, you know he believes in running the ball with his RB1. Fournette has taken some criticism for his 2017 average of 3.9 yards per attempt, but you can't dispute the physicality and toughness he displays with the ball in his hands. For a team that prides itself on hard-nosed, smash-mouth football, Fournette is the ideal runner to build an offense around.
Kansas City Chiefs: RB Kareem Hunt. It is not a coincidence that Alex Smith played at an MVP level with Hunt in the backfield behind him. The NFL's reigning rushing king bowled over opponents as a rugged runner, while also flashing soft hands and underrated route-running skills as a pass catcher. Hunt's emergence as a hybrid runner added a dimension to the Chiefs' offense that will help K.C. transition into the Patrick Mahomes era. With the young quarterback trying to find his groove, the Chiefs will lean on Hunt's running style and playmaking ability out of the backfield to alleviate the pressure on No. 15's shoulders.
Los Angeles Chargers: QB Philip Rivers. Say what you want about Rivers' bravado -- the wily ol' gunslinger remains one of the best in the business due to his ability to elevate the play of any and every playmaker who steps onto the field for the Chargers. Rivers has a remarkable connection with his pass catchers, which prompted Ken Whisenhunt to rely on a pass-first approach down the stretch in 2017. With Rivers cutting down his turnovers and negative plays, the Bolts can go toe-to-toe with any contender on the schedule this season.
Los Angeles Rams: RB Todd Gurley. The 2017 Offensive Player of the Year not only led the league in scrimmage yards and touchdowns, but he helped Jared Goff play at a Pro Bowl level by forcing opponents into more "plus one" defenses to account for his explosiveness as a hybrid RB1. With Gurley's mere presence and playmaking potential altering the way opponents defend the NFL's highest-scoring offense in 2017, there's no doubt No. 30 is the guy who makes the Rams' attack go.
Miami Dolphins: QB Ryan Tannehill. The jury is still out on whether Tannehill will ever play like a top-10 quarterback during his time in the league, but he is unquestionably the MVP of the Dolphins' offense when he is on the field. Sure, the young signal-caller missed all of last season with a torn ACL, but the Dolphins are counting on their franchise player to regain the form that helped him guide the team to a 7-1 run in the middle of the 2016 campaign, piling up a 13:5 TD-to-INT ratio and 100.1 passer rating during that span.
Minnesota Vikings: WRs Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. It is impossible to designate No. 14 or No. 19 as the team's WR1 based on their interchangeable games and dynamic playmaking abilities. Diggs and Thielen are not only capable of thriving in the lead role, but they form a 1-2 punch on the perimeter that routinely delivers haymakers in key moments. With an $84 million quarterback (Kirk Cousins) in place to distribute the ball like a dealer at a blackjack table, Diggs and Thielen will continue to come up big for the Vikings.
New England Patriots: QB Tom Brady. The G.O.A.T. is the definition of a franchise quarterback. Brady consistently leads his team to the winner's circle -- with or without A-level players on the perimeter -- using a high football IQ and an efficient game to pick apart defenses. In addition, TB12 is a clutch performer with a knack for orchestrating two-minute drills with the game hanging in the balance. Given Brady's track record as a championship playmaker and his current status as the league's reigning MVP, there isn't any doubt about which Patriot makes the offense go.
New Orleans Saints: QB Drew Brees. One of the most prolific passers in NFL history remains an elite player at the position despite his advanced age. Brees set the NFL completion percentage record (72.0) in 2017 on his way to posting his 12th straight season with 4,000 passing yards (a run which includes an NFL-record five 5,000-yard passing seasons). Although he has morphed into more of a "dink and dunk" passer at this stage of his career, Brees is an unstoppable pass-first point guard for the Saints.
New York Giants: WR Odell Beckham Jr. It's not a coincidence that Eli Manning struggled in 2017 without OBJ on the field. No. 13 is one of the most prolific pass catchers in NFL history through this stage of his career, with an uncanny ability to score from anywhere on the field. Beckham's explosive potential forces opponents to account for his whereabouts on the field, which creates big-play opportunities for others on the perimeter.
New York Jets: QB Sam Darnold. Yes, it is crazy to suggest an unproven rookie quarterback is the driving force of an NFL offense, but the Jets don't have a blue-chip player on that side of the ball outside of the No. 3 overall pick. Darnold's gunslinging ways and spectacular playmaking ability will add a little sizzle to a pedestrian offense that could struggle putting points on the board without a dynamic playmaker on the perimeter. Although the rookie hasn't won the job outright or been publicly discussed as the starter by Todd Bowles, it is only a matter of time before Darnold becomes the leader of the unit.
Oakland Raiders: QB Derek Carr. The Raiders hired Jon Gruden with the sole purpose of taking Carr's game to the next level. While the fifth-year pro is coming off a sub-par season, Carr remains a dangerous playmaker with the weapons the Raiders have assembled around him. If Amari Cooper, Martavis Bryant and Jordy Nelson can quickly develop a rapport with Carr in this system, the gunslinger could get back to being an MVP candidate in Gruden's high-percentage passing scheme.
Philadelphia Eagles: QB Carson Wentz.Nick Foles led the Eagles to a title -- earning Super Bowl MVP honors in the process -- but Wentz is unquestionably the team's franchise player. The former No. 2 overall pick was not only playing at an MVP level when he suffered a season-ending knee injury during Week 14 of the 2017 season, but he was entering the conversation as one of the top five quarterbacks in the game. With the third-year pro recovering from his injury ahead of schedule, the Eagles appear poised to make a legitimate run at back-to-back titles.
Pittsburgh Steelers: RB Le'Veon Bell and WR Antonio Brown. Yes, this is a cop-out. But when an offense features the NFL's top running back and top wide receiver, it is hard to determine which one is most important. Bell is a hybrid running back with a slippery running style and WR-like skills in the passing game. Brown is an unstoppable catch-and-run specialist with a knack for getting open against any coverage. Although each player is capable of running the show as the offense's No. 1 option, the Steelers' spread-it-around offense allows both to shine as interchangeable go-to guys.
San Francisco 49ers: QB Jimmy Garoppolo. It didn't take long for Jimmy G to establish himself as the 49ers' top player when he stepped into the lineup in the back half of last season. The young QB1 transformed a team that couldn't get a "W" into one of the hottest groups down the stretch. With Garoppolo's ability to reverse the team's offensive fortunes without a legitimate WR1 on the perimeter, it is easy to get excited about No. 10's prospects as a franchise player for the 49ers.
Seattle Seahawks: QB Russell Wilson. NFL quarterbacks aren't supposed to lead the team in passing and rushing yards, but that's what Wilson did for the Seahawks in 2017. The QB single-handedly carried an offense that struggled to generate first downs with his magic as an improvisational wizard inside and outside of the pocket. While it is not ideal to put so much of the offensive burden on the quarterback, it's impressive when a QB1 can shoulder the load and keep his team in playoff contention. Wilson did it in 2017, and he will have to do it again for the 'Hawks to have a chance in the NFC West.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: WR Mike Evans.Jameis Winston should occupy this spot as the team's franchise quarterback, but you could argue that Evans might be a more important piece of the puzzle for the squad. The big-bodied pass catcher is one of only three players in NFL history with 1,000-plus receiving yards in each of his first four seasons (joining A.J. Green and Randy Moss). With Evans' game and production seemingly unaffected by the team's inconsistent quarterback play, he is the focal point of the Buccaneers' game plan each and every week.
Tennessee Titans: QB Marcus Mariota. If you didn't believe the Titans were all in on No. 8, the decision to reshape the coaching staff with offensive innovators confirms the team's belief in the young franchise quarterback. The dual-threat playmaker is not only an efficient passer off play-action, but his running skills add some sizzle to the mix. If Matt Lafleur uses the same formula that previously helped Jared Goff and Matt Ryan find their groove, the Titans' QB1 could become quite a weapon at the position.
Washington Redskins: TE Jordan Reed. Say what you want about the oft-injured pass catcher, but Reed is a difference maker when he is on the field. No. 86 has tallied 19 touchdowns over his last 32 games, including 11 in 2015. As a hybrid pass catcher with the size of a tight end and the athleticism of a wide receiver, Reed is the focal point of an offense that works inside out.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Scouting Baker Mayfield's debut. The rookie quarterback was solid in his first action for the Browns, but I'm not ready to give the No. 1 overall pick a gold jacket for throwing the ball all over the yard against the New York Giants' "2s" and "3s" on Thursday night. Sure, after seeing Mayfield complete 11 of 20 passes for 212 yards and two scores in two-plus quarters of work, the Twitter-verse would have you believe this is the NFL's next great quarterback. But a look at the tape reveals a good -- not great -- performance from the Browns' QB1 of the future.
From his first snap, Mayfield showed outstanding poise and composure within the pocket. He calmly got the Browns in and out of the huddle, while also handling the pre-snap movement at the line of scrimmage. Mayfield took snaps from both the shotgun and under center without bobbles and drops, which is critical for a player who operated primarily from the gun at Oklahoma.
As a passer, Mayfield showed good touch, timing and anticipation throwing the ball to his playmakers down the field. He worked the back-shoulder fade to perfection along the boundary, particularly on his 26-yard throw to Rashard Higgins in the second quarter. In addition, Mayfield showed impressive touch and timing on intermediate throws between the numbers after climbing the pocket to find open passing lanes. He connected with Higgins on a dig route and tight end David Njokuon a crosser (for a touchdown) after sliding around the pocket to evade the rush.
To that point, Mayfield's escapability stood out when he repeatedly fled the pocket to his right to extend plays. He kept his eyes down the field while scooting around the corner and made a couple of impressive throws along the boundary on the move. Although he made a few plays escaping to his left, Mayfield is more dangerous when he rolls to his throwing side. He can capably flip the ball to an open receiver or outrun a chasing defender to the boundary for a few yards.
Looking at Mayfield's complete body of work in his debut, I believe No. 6 is at his best throwing quicks (slants and bubble screens) and seams/fades off play-action. He not only threw the ball on time, but he repeatedly delivered the ball within the strike zone.
From a critical standpoint, Mayfield missed a few deep shots down the field against tight coverage. To be fair, his receiver needs to create more separation from the defender on the go route to give the QB enough space to drop the ball in over his shoulder.
Mayfield also needs to work on setting his feet and throwing from a more stable foundation in the pocket. Sure, he had great success playing this way in college, but he will eventually start to miss tight-window throws at the pro level if he fails to use his legs when he delivers the ball.
Looking ahead, I'm curious to see how Mayfield responds when opposing defensive coordinators begin to game plan for him. He displayed a strong tendency to escape to his right, which will lead some teams to blitz him extensively from that side. How does he handle pressure from his throwing side? Can he be effective throwing on the move to his left? Mayfield will need to answer those questions in the coming weeks to keep opponents from attacking him for "sitting" on his right hand.
In addition, I want to see how Mayfield plays against the "1s." Does the speed of the game overwhelm him when the starters are on the field, or does he excel when he has a top-level supporting cast around him?
If he checks off those boxes in the coming weeks, I believe he can force the Browns coaching staff to have an extended conversation about when he might see the field this season. At the moment, I'm not ready to anoint the young passer after one preseason game.
2) Is Cole Beasley a No. 1 receiver?Dak Prescott made national headlines this week when he selected Beasley as his "go-to guy" during an interview with Kurt Warner and Michael Irvin on "Inside Training Camp Live." The proclamation might have taken some observers by surprise, due to Beasley's role as a slot receiver and his diminutive physical dimensions (5-foot-8, 180 pounds), but being a quarterback's No. 1 option is all about trust.
"For me, it's Cole Beasley," Prescott said when asked which receiver is his safety net. "I think it's been that way. I know it was that way my rookie year. And last year, we were on the same page sometimes and sometimes we weren't. But he's a guy that's hard to cover. He's hard to cover in man to man, hard to cover in zone and he can stretch the defense, as well. It's about moving him around, making the defense respect the fact he can go over the top, he can beat you over the top. Once we open that up, he's hard to cover underneath and that's his game."
Prescott's scouting report and assessment of Beasley's game is certainly in line with my observations from tape study. Despite seeing his production dip in 2017, Beasley's combination of stop-start quickness and route-running ability makes him a tough matchup between the hashes. He sprinkles in a variety of hesitation releases and stutter-step moves in his route-running repertoire to keep defenders off balance, particularly when he runs "jerk" routes (wide receiver starts like he is running across the field before stopping and redirecting in the other direction) and angle routes off motion.
With Beasley frequently aligning in the slot within spread or empty formations, the Cowboys can move him around to create and exploit mismatches against sub-package defenders and safeties in space. Prior to this season, Beasley would often align on Dez Bryant's side in those formations to bust up the bracket coverage with "switch" routes that frequently pitted the shifty slot receiver on an overmatched defender in space.
Now, skeptics question Beasley's ability to anchor an offense as a No. 1 option based on his declining production in 2017, when opponents appeared to pay more attention to him and his whereabouts. With Bryant and Jason Witten failing to command double-coverage as declining playmakers last season, Beasley began to get some of the brackets and trap coverage that used to go in their direction. The newfound attention affected his production and his ability to impact the game. Beasley totaled 75 receptions on 98 targets in 2016, averaging 11.1 yards per catch and posting 51 first downs. Last season, he totaled just 36 receptions on 63 targets, averaging 8.7 yards per catch and recording 20 first downs.
Those numbers certainly don't reflect a No. 1 receiver, but I believe Beasley's ascension to that role will remind some observers of the rapid rise of Wes Welker and Julian Edelman in New England. Now, I know some will think this comparison is due to their skin color, but I think their similar playing styles and offensive systems make it a valid comp.
In New England, Tom Brady prefers to work "inside out" (from the middle of the field to the numbers) as a passer. He frequently targets tight ends, slot receivers and running backs between the numbers on a variety of option routes and crossers. Edelman and Welker racked up 100-plus-catch seasons behind this approach and became dangerous playmakers in the system.
In Dallas, Beasley could experience a similar rise with Prescott leaning on him as his No. 1 option in a scheme that will feature more interchangeable parts on the perimeter. Beasley and others will align in various spots within spread formations to create and exploits mismatches, particularly against linebackers and sub-package defenders in the box. Not to mention, the Cowboys can also use the threat of Ezekiel Elliott as a runner to enhance the passing game.
"I think it helps us out a lot," Prescott said on "Inside Training Camp Live." "There's not anything they can key on. When Beasley's out there, he's not just in the slot -- he's out wide. Then you add Beasley and Tavon Austin on the field at the same time with Zeke in the backfield, you maybe motion someone into the backfield -- it just opens up this array of things we can do on offense, not forgetting about that I can run the ball.
"It's kind of what we wanted going into this offseason: Moving guys around, keeping the defense on their toes, knowing we can still go over the top and do the things we're good at like running the ball and play-action. It's just going to allow our offense to take another step."
For a Cowboys offense that seemingly lacks an established No. 1 receiver on paper, the connection between Prescott and Beasley could help No. 11 emerge as a blue-chip playmaker for an offense that features more layers and dimensions than the previous version.