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:
» Debating the benefits of having a smaller coaching staff, as Bill Belichick prefers.
Now, I know it sounds crazy to expect a first-year pass catcher to shoulder a huge burden on an offense that features a two-time Super Bowl MVP in Eli Manning, one of the most electric playmakers in football in Odell Beckham Jr. and a perennial Pro Bowl "chain mover" in Brandon Marshall, but the Giants need their rookie tight end to play like a stud to help the team's stars take their respective games up a notch.
Let me explain.
Every NFL defensive coordinator slated to face the Giants this season will make a concerted effort to neutralize Manning and his top targets. This will ultimately result in double coverage directed toward Beckham, with a few bracket tactics also thrown in Marshall's direction at times. Considering the sterling résumés and impact potential Beckham and Marshall have shown throughout their respective careers, opposing defensive coordinators will attempt to force Manning to depend on his complementary playmakers to move the ball down the field.
"You want to make the quarterback play 'left-handed,' " said a former NFL defensive coordinator. "Ideally, you want to make him lean on his second and third options instead of his primary weapons in the passing game. If he can win with the 'others' making enough plays to beat you, you tip your cap and move on."
With most defensive coaches subscribing to similar theories, the Giants needed their complementary players to emerge as legitimate threats in 2017. Last season, Sterling Shepard snagged 65 passes for 683 yards (10.5 avg.) and eight scores as the Giants' WR2, but teams didn't view him as a dangerous playmaking threat, as evidenced by the lack of double or breacket coverage he faced as a rookie. Now, that doesn't mean opponents didn't respect his talent or game, but they didn't think enough of his big-play potential to map out a plan that completely removed the young pass catcher from the mix.
The same could be said for the tight ends on the Giants' roster one season ago. Will Tye, Jerrell Adams and Larry Donnell combined for just 79 receptions, 609 receiving yards and three scores as the team's "Y" (traditional tight end) targets. Those numbers hardly register a blip on the danger radar, and they're certainly not robust enough to make defensive coordinators overhaul their game plans to better defend the middle of the field. With the Giants' passing game built on quick-rhythm passes designed to attack between the numbers, the lack of production from the tight ends resulted in Manning forcing too many throws to a heavily guarded Beckham.
Looking at Manning's subpar performance in 2016, it is not a coincidence the 36-year-old quarterback only averaged 6.73 yards per attempt, which ranked 25th in the NFL. Despite the presence of Beckham, the Giants' dink-and-dunk scheme didn't deliver many big plays or produce a lot of points due to a lack of playmakers between the hashes. Sure, Shepard was solid in the slot, but the team didn't get enough "explosive" plays from its tight ends and lacked a dominant red-zone threat on the outside. While Marshall's arrival should add some spice to the lineup as a big-bodied pass catcher with a knack for putting the ball in the paint (82 TD receptions in 11 seasons), the team desperately needed to find an electric playmaker to make splash plays over the middle.
That's why I believe Engram is the missing piece to the Giants' offensive puzzle. The 6-foot-3, 234-pound tight end is an athletic freak with 4.42 speed and a 36-inch vertical jump. He enters the NFL after putting the finishing touches on an impressive résumé at Ole Miss as the Rebels' all-time leader in receptions (162), receiving yards (2,320) and TD catches (15) by a tight end. The two-time team captain, who finished with 42 career starts, is a polished tight end with all of the tools to be an impact player in his first season.
"The thing that is really intriguing about Evan is the speed component," Giants offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan recently said during rookie minicamp. "This is a legitimate vertical threat, but he's not just a receiver. ... There is a versatility that he has that we're hoping can create some problems for the defense from a matchup standpoint because of his speed, and because of the way he runs his routes like a wide receiver."
Studying the tape, I was convinced Engram was the most polished route runner of the 2017 tight end class. He exhibits outstanding timing, patience and body control at the top of his routes to create separation from defenders in tight coverage. Engram has a feel for finding voids in coverage but is also crafty enough to win consistently against linebackers and safeties in man-to-man. Given his spectacular combination of size, speed, athleticism and route-running ability, Engram is a "new-school" tight end capable of aligning anywhere on the field, from out wide to in the slot or in a more traditional hand-in-the-dirt position.
Interestingly, the Giants have attempted to downplay Engram's potential as a "big" receiver, but reports out of rookie minicamp suggest the rookie pass catcher is slated to have a big role as a "move" tight end in the team's offense. In the Giants' version of the West Coast offense, Engram will learn the Y and U (flex tight end) positions before mastering other roles. However, the multiplicity of the scheme allows the team to place the Y or U in a number of slot or out-wide positions depending personnel groupings.
For instance, the U lines up opposite the Y or as a wing on the same side. He can also align in the slot or out wide based on the call. Thus, the Giants can position Engram as a receiver by simply calling a designated formation that places him in a displaced position. Considering how each of the Giants' receivers is expected to know multiple positions, the team has the potential to make Engram a Jordan Reed-like playmaker by shuffling the deck with players at different spots on any given play.
For a team that prefers to throw the ball all over the yard (63:37 pass-run ratio in 2016), the Giants need their young tight end to eventually command enough respect so defensive coordinators can't double team Beckham (and Marshall) on most downs. If Engram emerges as the Giants' deep-middle threat, he could push them over the top in the NFC East.
Constructing a coaching staff: Is less actually more?
Who would've guessed that the New England Patriots' sustained success could be linked to a lesson learned from a schoolyard game of "Telephone"? But after listening to Bill Belichick on Paul Rabil's inaugural "Suiting Up" podcast, I believe the head coach's "less is more" philosophy regarding his coaching staff could've been conceived on a playground back in the day.
If you're not familiar with the popular children's game, a person whispers a message through a line of people until the person at the end announces the message to the entire group. The objective is to have the final message match the original. Inevitably, the phrasing delivered at the end of the line is drastically different from the original because of erroneous corrections, impatience and/or unreliable memories.
Using the game as a metaphor for the challenges of communicating to a large group, I believe Belichick's recent revelation of why he prefers a smaller coaching staff falls in line with the "lost-in-translation" message that is frequently confirmed while playing the game.
"From a getting everyone on the same page standpoint, which is critical, the fewer people you have to manage, the easier it is to get everyone on the same page," Belichick told Rabil. "So if you're talking to 10 people, it's hard to get all 10 people doing the same thing or doing the right thing. Now, you make that number 20, instead of 10, it's even more difficult.
"If you have five people supervising another 15 people, now you got another layer there where you're not dealing directly with everybody, and now you're somewhat dependent on other people to relay the message the way you want it done and to monitor it that way. Certainly, there's a degree of that, but as much of that as I can eliminate, I think it works better for me."
By design, the New England Patriots have one of the smallest coaching staffs in the NFL, with 15 members compared with the league average of 20 coaches. The team avoids adding multiple position coaching assistants or specialty coaches to the mix and adheres to an old-school approach used by Bill Walsh, Chuck Noll and others, who limited their staffs to around 14 to 15 coaches during their Super Bowl years. Under this premise, each unit would have a coordinator (offense, defense and special teams) and designated position coaches (quarterback, offensive line, wide receiver, tight end, defensive line, linebacker and defensive backs). In addition, the team would employ a quality control coach on both sides of the ball (offense and defense) and possibly a special teams assistant.
In Belichick's mind, the intimacy of the group not only leads to better communication but more effective and efficient work from the unit.
"My philosophy, really, is that less is more, so I'd rather have fewer people doing more work than more people doing a little more work," Belichick told Rabil. "As long as everybody is busy, as long as everybody feels productive, they feel good about what they're doing and they feel like they're contributing; I think when people have lag time and kind of not enough to do, that leads to getting distracted or complaining or being less productive. So even though you have more people, sometimes less work gets done."
Interestingly, I found a number of personnel people who agreed with Belichick's less-is-more philosophy based on their interactions with teams that have employed similar approaches.
"I absolutely believe that you should keep the coaching staff as skinny as possible," said an AFC personnel executive. "When you have more voices in the room, the message gets clouded and the players are the ones who suffer. Every assistant coach wants to eventually become a coordinator or head coach so they tend to put their own spin on things when they instruct their players. If the head coach isn't diligent about staying on top of his assistants, the team could splinter with the mixed messages sent in meeting rooms."
As a player, I frequently heard coaches, namely Marty Schottenheimer, discuss the importance of trust and communication on championship-caliber teams. He believed the interpersonal communication between coach to coach or coach to player was important in building the trust needed to win close games in the waning moments. With that in mind, I certainly see the value in having a small coaching staff when building a team.
However, I also believe there is tremendous value in having a large coaching staff, particularly when the team is a perennial contender. Since most head-coaching candidates are plucked right from title contenders, head coaches are wise to have successors already in place to ensure continuity of the scheme and system. This is something that Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll wholeheartedly believes.
"Through my years of being a head coach, I have always liked developing our young coaches and bringing them up through our staff as they gain experience and understanding of the way we do things," Carroll told the team's website earlier in the offseason. "I've always felt that we develop their value while they're with us to the point where we don't always outside; we nurture our young guys and elevate them. That's been the way I've been doing it for years, and it's always worked out. I feel like we kind of raise them through the program and support them, and try to give them the opportunity to move up and move on when the time comes. That's why we'e doing this."
As a scout, I had a firsthand view of this approach working effectively on coaching staffs and in scouting departments. While working with the Carolina Panthers, I watched several scouts ascend from coordinator positions to area scouts to directors to vice presidents or general managers (see Brandon Beane, Joe Schoen and Ryan Cowden). They grinded away at each position and demonstrated their value, which ultimately led to promotions inside the building. There are countless examples of other decision makers climbing the ladder as "grunts" on robust staffs, so there isn't a perfect model to use to build a championship team.
In the end, it comes down to coaches and scouts buying into the leader's message and passing it on to the team. When the message is clear, concise and sound, the wins pile up and everyone benefits in the end.
Kaepernick the Seahawks' ideal QB2?
When word emerged out of the Pacific Northwest that the Seattle Seahawksmight have interest in signing Colin Kaepernick as a potential backup quarterback, I thought the marriage could be a perfect match. National anthem controversy notwithstanding, the seventh-year pro is not only an upgrade over their current backup -- the oft-troubled Trevonne Boykin -- but he would give them an experienced field general to step in if Russell Wilson were to get injured.
Now, I know Wilson has been an ironman at the position, as evidenced by his 80-game regular-season start streak. He has played through minor (and some more severe) bumps and bruises to take the field for the Seahawks as their QB1, but his improvisational style often subjects him to extra shots. Without a dependable backup quarterback on the roster, the Seahawks would be wise to bring a passer with the experience, athleticism and arm talent to seamlessly step into the lineup.
The skeptics will certainly point to Kaepernick's struggles in 2015 as proof that he is unfit for the job, yet they fail to credit the 29-year-old playmaker for a solid 2016 campaign where he posted a 90.7 passer rating and a 16:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Keep in mind, he posted a passer rating above 100 when combining his last four games of the season (67.8 percent completion rate, 6:1 TD-to-INT ratio with one rushing touchdown).
If that's not enough to build a case for his signing, the fact that he has outplayed each of the notable quarterbacks who have already found new homes this offseason should prompt the Seahawks to make the move.
» Kaepernick: 28-30 win-loss record; 72:30 TD-to-INT ratio; 88.9 passer rating
» Mike Glennon: 5-13 win-loss record; 30:15 TD-to-INT ratio; 84.6 passer rating
» Josh McCown: 18-42 win-loss record; 79:69 TD-to-INT ratio; 78.2 passer rating
» Geno Smith: 12-18 win-loss record; 28:36 TD-to-INT ratio; 72.4 passer rating
With the recent signing of turnover machine Ryan Fitzpatrick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (46-69-1 win-loss record; 166:133 TD-to-INT ratio; 79.7 passer rating) after a horrific season in which he posted the lowest passer rating in the league (69.6), it might be time for Kap to join a squad in desperate need of a strong QB2, and that squad should be the Seahawks.
From a schematic standpoint, Kaepernick is certainly capable of executing the zone-read plays and RPOs (run-pass options) that are a part of the Seahawk's offensive package. In addition, he is better suited to play in a system like Seattle's that also features a number of half-field reads on traditional drop backs or movement drops (bootlegs) that put every route in his line of sight. Not to mention, he has a strong enough arm to push the ball down the field on the vertical routes that complement the team's power running game. Naturally, Kaepernick needs to continue to refine his footwork and mechanics to become a more accurate and efficient drop-back passer, but he is certainly capable of manning the QB1 spot in the short term if needed.
"I believe he can play, but you have to control him," an NFC pro personnel director told me. "He's not a traditional drop-back passer, but he is a playmaker who can make things happen. If he plays under the right coach, he can succeed in this league. ... He looked like a superstar under Jim Harbaugh. Look at how he played during their run to the Super Bowl. You can't ignore that. A great coach found a way to bring that out of him."
An NFC personnel director added: "I'm not his biggest fan, but he can play. He's athletic and talented with a big arm. Although he is more a thrower than passer, he can succeed in the right system with a strong running game and a movement-based passing game."
Speaking of Wilson, the addition of Kaepernick would encourage the three-time Pro Bowler stay razor sharp as the team's QB1. Sure, he still has two years left on his contract (which included $61.53 million in guarantees), but the Seahawks value competition at every position, and the sight of Kaepernick in the room will serve as a daily reminder for Wilson to continue earning the respect of his coaches and teammates with his play.
I know some naysayers would scoff at the notion of Kaepernick possibly supplanting Wilson as Seattle's franchise quarterback, but we've seen enough examples to keep the thought in the back of our minds (SEE: Michael Vick eventually replaced Kevin Kolb and Donovan McNabb in Philadelphi, or Dak Prescott's ascension to the franchise QB spot in Dallas after Tony Romo's injury, or even Tom Brady's takeover in New England for an injured Drew Bledsoe). Given how valuable quarterbacks are viewed in the team structure, there's something certainly worthwhile to signing a quarterback capable of serving as a long-term sub on the team.
One last note about Kaepernick as a potential QB2 ... The backup quarterback is a unique job requiring a different set of skills. Listening to Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian discuss the QB2 position recently, he suggested the QB2 must have the following traits to be considered a high-end backup:
2) Fast learner and quick processor. Kaepernick spent the first half of the 2016 season as Blaine Gabbert's backup, but played well when he was called into action by Chip Kelly.
3) A good teammate who is confident and comfortable in his role. Kaepernick was the recipient of the 49ers' Len Eshmont Award last season, which is considered the most prestigious honor the players vote on.
4) Bullpen mentality. Kaepernick has demonstrated on multiple occasions that he can come off the bench and lead a team. I already highlighted his solid production after replacing Gabbert last year, and then there's his more noteworthy relief effort in 2012, when he replaced Alex Smith midway through the season and led the Niners on a Super Bowl run.
With the veteran quarterback seemingly checking all of the boxes, it should only be a matter of time before Kaepernick joins the flock.