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, examining the wisdom of spending exorbitant sums at the quarterback position ...
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We keep calling the NFL a quarterback-driven league, based on the football world's perception that the quarterback ultimately determines whether a team is a viable Super Bowl contender. While there is certainly some truth to the correlation between quarterback performance and title contention, the belief that any QB1 with any semblance of talent is a franchise quarterback worthy of "elite" money has always driven me crazy as a team builder.
Sure, quarterback is the most important position on the field, but not every signal-caller is viewed as a "truck" (as in, the QB carries the team) by evaluators around the league. Some are seen as "trailers" (as in, the team carries the QB). With each new quarterback contract topping the last -- earlier this month, Matt Ryan's record-setting extension with the Falcons placed him at the head of a parade of QBs inking big-money deals this offseason, including Jimmy Garoppolo and Kirk Cousins -- let's take a closer look at this issue.
The "trucks" are the elite guys capable of elevating the play of a pedestrian supporting cast through their own talents. They can win without marquee names on the perimeter, and they can mask the major flaws of the squad with their stellar play. Surveying the league, I believe you could put Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford in that special category, based on what they do for their current squads. While we can debate whether another quarterback or two should be included on the list, the point remains that only a handful of guys are in the VIP circle when it comes to playing the position like a true franchise quarterback.
So I can't understand why teams continue to overpay middling players at the position when we know those players aren't single-handedly capable of reversing the fortunes of the franchise on the strength of their arm and playmaking ability. Sure, they can win games, but to get the job done at the highest level, they need support, whether in the form of a dominant No. 1 receiver, an explosive multi-purpose running back or a solid offensive line. Granted, football is ultimately a team game, but if you're going to pay a quarterback $20 million-plus, he needs to be the best player on the team, or you're jeopardizing your chances of building the right supporting cast to help him lead the team to significant wins.
Don't believe me? It's not a coincidence that only three Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks since 2006 have had a cap number that was 10 percent or more of the league salary cap in that year, according to numbers found at Over The Cap (Peyton Manning twice, Eli Manning and Tom Brady once), with at least two of those players (Peyton and Brady) qualifying as franchise quarterbacks. And consider that every Super Bowl QB in that span who took up 14 percent or more of the salary cap lost (Peyton Manning twice, Matt Ryan once). Thus, it appears that overpaying quarterbacks is a recipe for disaster for most squads.
(Some quick notes on those numbers: The uncapped 2010 season was not included. And the percentage of league salary cap was used rather than the percentage of adjusted cap for each team.)
Based on that, I think it's crazy that 16 quarterbacks are scheduled to carry cap numbers that are at least 10 percent of the league salary cap this season. With the salary cap set at $177.2 million for 2018, you're talking about half of the starting quarterbacks in the league earning the kind of money that should be reserved for elite players. Do we really believe there are 16 elite quarterbacks in the league?
Think about it this way. San Francisco 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo's 2018 cap number will take up 20 percent of that $177.2 million salary cap figure after he signed a five-year, $135 million deal this offseason. Sure, he reeled off five wins in five starts with the team in 2017, but we're talking about a player with only seven career starts taking up one-fifth of the league salary cap.
If that's not enough to give you pause, here are the top five quarterbacks when it comes to percentage of the salary cap (again, according to numbers provided by Over The Cap, using the cap of $177.2 million rather than the adjusted cap figure for each team):
1) Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers: 20.9 percent, 7-0 career record, 99.7 passer rating.
2) Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions: 15.0 percent, 60-65 career record, 88.3 passer rating.
3) Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders: 14.1 percent, 28-34 career record, 87.5 passer rating.
4) Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens: 14.0 percent, 92-62 career record, 84.1.
5) Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts: 13.8 percent, 43-27 career record, 87.3 passer rating.
Falling just outside of the top five is Kirk Cousins, whose cap percentage of 13.5 ranks sixth. He's the definition of a "trailer" as a guy who needs a strong supporting cast to play at a high level. As it happens, Cousins received a market-setting deal to join a Minnesota Vikings team that was already loaded with supporting talent.
I will let you decide if the above five would be considered five of the best players in the league. But considering the number of all-star performers at other positions who are destined for gold jackets, I don't know if you could place any of the aforementioned guys in a credible top-five list at this time.
That's why I roll my eyes every time I hear an executive or analyst justify overpaying average quarterbacks in today's game. If you have to commit so much in the way of resources to helping an average quarterback play reasonably well, why are you paying the quarterback big bucks? If your compensation is ultimately tied to your performance, these $20 million quarterbacks must be able to elevate the play of the franchise; otherwise, teams should stick to the budget and play with a value-priced option at the position while placing a stellar supporting cast around him.
I know that sounds like a radical concept, but we've seen teams go to the Super Bowl without big-money quarterbacks under center. Heck, I was part of an organization (the 2003 Carolina Panthers) that went to the Super Bowl with Jake Delhomme installed as the QB1 surrounded by a couple of playmakers on the outside (Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad) and a star-studded defense. And last year, we saw Nick Foles guide the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl title backed by an ultra-talented defense and a handful of prime-time caliber offensive players. It's clear the team-building process doesn't necessarily need to be all about the quarterback if the decision makers involved know how to evaluate and acquire other players while also setting a hard line on the money paid out to the quarterback.
Now, if the QB1 is a legitimate stud worthy of being considered elite, the team should break the bank and build around his talents. If not, the team should pay him based on his talent and use the excess money to surround him with the assets that he needs to play at a high level.
Sounds simple, but it's hard to find execs willing to use common sense when it comes to paying quarterbacks in today's game.
PATRIOTS' RUNNING BACKS: Can they be even better?
Whenever a team employs a running back-by-committee system, the football world assumes the squad lacks marquee ball-carrying talent. But after watching the New England Patriots terrorize opponents with a three- and four-back rotation for years, defensive coordinators around the league should be shaking in their boots at the prospect of facing a rotation that suddenly features multiple playmakers with A-level skills.
Now, I know it's hard to imagine a unit that combined for the second-most receptions and receiving yards among running backs in the NFL while also spearheading a top-10 rushing offense could improve significantly heading into 2018, but the Patriots' three-headed monster could be absolutely sensational this season.
Don't believe me? Just pay attention to how Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears has raved about his playmakers this offseason. The long-time assistant is on record touting the skills of the ultra-versatile Rex Burkhead as a "special" player, and defensive play-callers should heed his warning about the veteran running back.
"This time last year, he started showing us what he could do," Fears said last week, via MassLive.com. "Once you get a chance to see it, you sort of build on it. Rex is something special. I like him."
While some observers will look at Burkhead's stat line (1,181 yards from scrimmage over five pro seasons, including 264 rushing yards and 254 receiving yards in 10 games last season, his first with the Patriots) and question whether he is really a marquee player, it doesn't take long to look at the tape and see how he can impact the game as a runner-receiver out of the backfield. In his injury-shortened 2017 campaign, Burkhead averaged 5.5 yards per touch and put the ball in the paint eight times. He is an exceptional route-runner with the speed and quickness to separate from defenders as a receiver, yet he is also a dynamic runner with enough physicality and toughness to pick up the hard yards between the tackles.
This is exactly how one of his former coaches -- current Browns coach Hue Jackson, who worked with Burkhead in Cincinnati -- described him last offseason after Burkhead joined the Patriots:
"He's very talented," Jackson told reporters a year ago at the Annual League Meeting in Phoenix, via Phil Perry of CSN New England. "He's a guy that was playing behind some very talented players, and so he's going to get his opportunity now, and he's going to flourish. He's a really good player. A really good player.
"He's very versatile because he's a good runner, a good pass-catcher. He's a good blocker. He's very bright. He's been a sensational special teams player there so he brings a lot of different elements to that football team."
Remember, Jackson was Burkhead's position coach and offensive coordinator in Cincinnati from 2013 to 2015, so he has a clear understanding of how the veteran could and should be used to maximize his potential. With Fears essentially co-signing on Jackson's statement, the Patriots could unleash No. 34 as a designated screen, draw and misdirection playmaker in the rotation.
With that in mind, teams should pay close attention to Burkhead's evolution while also keeping an eye on first-round pick Sony Michel (drafted No. 31 overall). The ex-Georgia standout is the most talented running back New England has had on the roster since Kevin Faulk retired following the 2011 season, and his explosive versatility could add a different dimension to the Patriots' offense.
"He's a very physical guy for a guy who's really good in the open field," Fears said of Michel. "Most of those guys are scat-back type guys. He's very productive in the open field, and he's also very productive inside because he's got some stout to him. ... He's not a little guy. He's broad-shouldered and about 215 [pounds], somewhere in that neighborhood. He's a size player that can pound it away and make some things happen in the open space."
Think about that. The Patriots are essentially getting a scat-back in a big man's body. Michel can impact the squad as a runner-receiver (sound familiar?) while also giving the team a little more physicality and toughness among the ranks. Michel's impact as an RB1 could be significant as a true three-down playmaker from the backfield.
With all of the love going to Burkhead and Michel, it is easy to forget about James White, but the Super Bowl LI hero is a nightmare for defensive coordinators as a designated pass catcher. The fifth-year pro has tallied 156 receptions over the past three seasons on a variety of "catch-and-run" routes from the backfield, slot and out-wide positions. White's explosive talents as a receiver put defensive coordinators in a quandary when determining how to match up with him.
Given the challenge of stopping each of the Patriots' top performers in the backfield, it is possible one of the league's top offenses became even more difficult to stop in 2018, even with 2017 rushing leader Dion Lewis -- the only Patriots player to put up more than 400 rushing yards -- now in Tennessee. If Jeremy Hill and/or Mike Gilislee can carve out roles as power runners, the Patriots' backfield could be the catalyst to the team's success next season.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) Josh Rosen impressing Cardinals early. I know it's the dog days of the summer and the news cycle is slow, but my ears perked up earlier this week when I heard Arizona Cardinals top pick Josh Rosen has been getting some first-team reps in OTAs. While it's not a surprise to see a top-10 pick working in with the starters, I believe the positive reviews from No. 3's work with the team suggests he is well on his way to earning more reps as the team's QB1.
"I really don't think it's going to take him long, just for a mere fact that he's extremely smart, very intelligent," first-year Arizona coach Steve Wilks said. "And most importantly, he puts the time and effort in. I think with him working with [quarterbacks coach Byron Leftwich] -- with the rookies, we can keep those guys a little longer, as far as time frame, as far as meetings -- I think he's going to be able to pick it up quickly."
Granted, Rosen hasn't played a meaningful snap in game action, but it's apparent that he has already impressed Cardinals officials with his intelligence, arm talent and poise. Not that I'm surprised, based on how the rookie played during his time at UCLA. I've always believed Rosen was the best quarterback prospect in the 2018 class, and he looks like a natural QB1 when you watch him play in game action. From the way he controlled the game at the line of scrimmage to his ability to make a wide range of throws like an MLB pitcher to his exceptional instincts and football intelligence, Rosen plays the game like elite quarterbacks have played the position for the past 30 years.
That's why I'm on record stating Rosen is the most pro-ready quarterback in this class, and I fully expect the rookie to play at an all-star level early in his career.
What?! Yeah, I know Rosen hasn't snatched the starting spot from Sam Bradford or moved ahead of Mike Glennon on the depth chart, but it's only a matter of time before he gets his shot to run the show. Despite team officials suggesting that Rosen could "redshirt" a season before taking over in 2019, it's hard to imagine the talented passer sitting on the sidelines the entire year, especially if he shows that he has a solid understanding of the offense and natural leadership skills during training camp.
To that point, Rosen has already started to check off the boxes in both areas during his brief stint with the team at rookie minicamp and OTAs. Coaches and veterans have already given him strong reviews for his combination of poise, confidence and talent as a promising franchise quarterback.
"I expect a quarterback to be like that. I'm coming from a place where I had Eli Manning, who was like that ultimate calm, cool, collected. He had some good demeanor about him, and it was impressive."
2) Cowboys emphasizing size in secondary. I don't know if Kris Richard will help his new defensive backfield come up with a catchy nickname that resonates around the league, but it is apparent the Dallas Cowboys' secondary coach/defensive passing game coordinator is intent on building a unit that mirrors the "Legion of Boom" that he tutored for eight years as a defensive assistant with the Seattle Seahawks.
While time will tell if the Cowboys' secondary can match the performance and production of a group that featured four Pro Bowl players (Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor) during Richard's run with the team, he is already putting his fingerprints on the defense by going bigger at cornerback with Byron Jones moving to left cornerback after spending the first three seasons of his career at safety.
"Prototypical [corner], fantastic athlete, great height, size, length, speed," Richard said, via Kate Hairopoulos of the Dallas Morning News. "Everything is there. He has a great attitude, working really hard from Day 1. I'm thrilled to be around him."
By moving Jones back to corner, Richard now has a pair of 6-footers (Jones measures 6-1, 199 pounds with 32-inch arms, and Chidobe Awuzie checks in at 6-foot, 202 pounds with 30 and 5/8-inch arms) on the outside to match up with the big-bodied receivers who routinely overwhelm defenders with their size and strength.
"It's just a part of the system," Richard said. "The more guys we can get of that nature, of that stature, of that build, the better that we think we can be."
With a regular-season schedule that features dates against the likes of Odell Beckham, Jr., DeAndre Hopkins, Alshon Jeffery, Julio Jones, Michael Thomas, Mike Evans and others, the Cowboys needed more size and athleticism on the perimeter to discourage quarterbacks from the outside part of the field, particularly on 50-50 balls thrown outside the numbers.
"Length, strength create issues at the line of scrimmage. We want to cause as many problems as we can for an offense before the ball is even snapped," Richard continued. "If we're up there at the line of scrimmage and we're making you think about where you need to go and how you're going to get around me, it's a whole lot better than you just thinking about where you need to go."
To that point, the Cowboys' desire to get bigger is not necessarily a new trend in the league. When I worked as a scout with the Seahawks in the early 2000s under Ted Thompson, John Schneider and Scot McCloughan, we would only draft corners who measured 5-10 and 1/2 inches or taller. Ironically, Richard was one of the corners we drafted (third round, 85th overall, 2002 NFL Draft) from my area during my tenure with the team, and that standard has certainly followed him to Big D.
Each member of the Cowboys' projected starting defensive backfield (Xavier Woods, Kavon Frazier, Jones and Awuzie) measures at least 5-10 and 1/2 inches, with nickel corner Jourdan Lewis slightly below the benchmark. Although scouts are taught to avoid making exceptions to established standards, the feisty defender possesses a set of skills as a slot defender that are hard to find.
"(Lewis) is an exception," Richard said. "There aren't many guys who battle in the fashion he does, and that's what makes him special. He's tenacious, got good enough length, he's quick, he anticipates, he's smart, he's relentless; those are the exceptions."
Looking at the Cowboys' scheme as it begins to blend some of Richard's Cover 3 and man-to-man principles with defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli's Tampa-2 system, the collective size and length of the Cowboys' secondary will challenge the accuracy of opposing quarterbacks as they're forced to throw the ball into tighter windows. Whether it's man or zone, the length will lead to more tips and overthrown balls, which should produce more turnovers -- if defenders are hustling to the ball.
"We have to take advantage of our opportunities," Richard said. "When we put our hands on it, we need to ... bring them in, bring 'em to the sideline or put them in the end zone."
Considering the impact on turnovers on the outcome of games, the Cowboys' renewed emphasis on size, length and athleticism in the secondary under Richard should lead to more Ws for "America's Team."
3) Inside Sean Payton's backfield plan during Mark Ingram's suspension. The New Orleans Saints will enter the season without the services of a Pro Bowl running back, but don't expect the 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year to shoulder a bigger burden with Mark Ingram on the sidelines serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Why wouldn't a creative offensive coach like Payton give his top offensive player more touches with an all-star runner on the bench?
It's really quite simple. Despite Kamara's spectacular skills as an explosive multipurpose playmaker coming off a season with 1,500 scrimmage yards, he isn't really built to carry the load as a high-volume runner. He's never toted the rock more than 12 times as a pro, and he didn't have a single game with more than 18 carries as a collegian.
Thus, it is unreasonable to expect No. 41 to become a Ricky Williams-like pounder between the tackles. Kamara is at his best when utilized as a receiver out of the backfield with an occasional touch on the ground on delays, draws and perimeter runs that allows him to utilize his speed and explosiveness to get to the second level. To put him in Ingram's role as the team's designated power runner wouldn't play to his strengths as a player.
Sure, Kamara can take some of the touches that would've gone to No. 22 in the passing game on screens and swings, but it would be a mistake to use him prominently as a runner, particularly as a ground-and-pound playmaker between the tackles. No. 41 is at his best on deceptive inside runs or perimeter plays where he can use his speed, quickness and wiggle to avoid big shots. Although he plays with enough grit and toughness to pick up tough yards on occasion, he isn't really suited for the noisy life that power runners endure between the tackles.
That's why I believe the Saints will elevate one of the team's lesser-known backs and place him in Ingram's role. Boston Scott, Trey Edmunds and Jonathan Williams are vying for a roster spot, and the winner could immediately become the team's primary runner over the first quarter of the season. It seems crazy to bypass No. 41 for that job, but the dismissal is really Payton showing the football world that he has a clear plan for his most explosive offensive player, and he's sticking to the plan that made him a star as a rookie.