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:
-- Assessing an emerging trend in big-money allocation.
But first, a look at five active players who could hit the Hall in short order ...
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There's nothing like watching the NFL's all-time greats celebrated for their feats on the field. Going back to my childhood, Hall of Fame induction ceremonies have always been must-see TV for me. Watching highlights of my gridiron heroes between the lines and hearing their stories never gets old.
As a player, I had the privilege of competing alongside a number of Hall of Famers, including Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Bruce Smith, Brett Favre, Derrick Thomas, Will Shields and Marcus Allen. In addition, I played with some perennial Pro Bowlers who should be fitted for gold jackets in the coming years (SEE: Tony Gonzalez, Charles Woodson and Tony Boselli). The common thread between all of these guys? Consistent dominance.
But this weekend is not only inspirational -- it is also thought-provoking. This is a natural time to reflect on the current guys making a Canton-level impact on the game today. With that in mind, who are the active players in line for the ultimate Hall honor, first-ballot entry? I've come up with five fine candidates below.
Now, I know I've left off some spectacular players -- particularly at quarterback -- but I wanted to mix it up and hit five different positions. Here's my list:
Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots: The G.O.A.T is an absolute no-brainer for first-ballot entry, given his five rings, three MVPs, 13 Pro Bowls and a highlight reel loaded with epic postseason comebacks. The 41-year-old passer is not only regarded as the ultimate winner at his position, but he sets the standard for how franchise quarterbacks are expected to lead their teams, with or without a stellar supporting cast.
Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals: No. 11 has quietly put together one of the best careers by a wide receiver in NFL history. Fitzgerald enters 2018 ranked third in receptions (1,234) and receiving yards (15,545), as well as eighth in receiving touchdowns (110). He has been a model of consistency at the position, with a transcendent postseason performance -- Fitz piled up a whopping 546 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in the 2008 playoffs -- that cemented his status as an all-time great.
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans: It remains to be seen whether Watt can regain his dominant form after two seasons lost to injuries, but he already deserves to walk through the doors at the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a first-ballot selectee due to an unprecedented level of destruction over a four-year period. From 2012 through 2015, Watt tallied 69 sacks, 15 forced fumbles and three Defensive Player of the Year awards. No. 99 was an unstoppable force at the point of attack during this span, and this otherworldly streak of excellence won't be forgotten by voters when it comes time to review his career credentials.
Antonio Gates, TE, Los Angeles Chargers: It is hard to dispute Gates' greatness as a tight end. I mean, he is the all-time leader in receiving touchdowns (114) at the position. And he helped usher in a revolution that saw a number of former basketball players turn into pass catchers and make their marks in the league as mismatch specialists on the perimeter. Although he only has two 1,000-yard seasons on his ledger -- and is currently an unsigned free agent, but could re-up with the Chargers after Hunter Henry's injury -- the sight of seeing No. 85 tap his feet in the paint over and over again remains fresh in my mind. And let's be honest: In the fantasy football era of this sport, Gates' name is held in the highest regard.
Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers: Admittedly, this one is more of a projection than the four players above. Bell will need to log more Pro Bowl campaigns going forward before legitimately cementing himself as a first-ballot guy, but don't overlook how special this guy is. Say what you want about Bell's unorthodox running style and his injuries/off-field issues, but there is no disputing his on-field performance as a hybrid playmaker. Bell is currently the all-time leader in scrimmage yards per game (129.0) among players who've logged at least 40 games, ahead of the likes of Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and Walter Payton. He is the ultimate playmaker at running back with a game that's changed how the position is viewed and valued by coaches and general managers.
TREND WATCH: Why teams are investing so much in offensive playmakers
Old-school coaches, general managers and scouts don't want to hear it, but the NFL is all about passers, pass catchers and playmakers. The seismic shift to a pass-centric approach has not only changed the way teams are being built, but it is changing how positions are valued and compensated.
Don't believe me? Just follow the money. Teams are investing heavily in quarterbacks, wide receivers and hybrid running backs.
This offseason, we've seen quarterbacks like Matt Ryan, Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo, Case Keenum, Blake Bortles and others sign lucrative deals despite questions about whether some of them are actually the best players on their respective teams. Teams are increasingly willing to pay mid-level QB1s $20 million annually to act as game managers on teams built around explosive playmakers on the perimeter and in the backfield. In a related vein, owners are writing big checks to WR1s and WR2s to elevate the play of the quarterbacks tasked with throwing the ball all over the yard. Just look at the dough Mike Evans (five years, $82.5 million), Brandin Cooks (five years, $81 million), Jarvis Landry (five years, $75.5 million), Stefon Diggs (five years, $72 million) and Sammy Watkins (three years, $48 million) got this offseason. And of course, multi-skilled playmaker Todd Gurley just signed a four-year, $60 million deal with $45 million in guarantees.
"It's all about the quarterback and how you can get him to play at a high level," an AFC personnel director told me. "Can you surround him with enough weapons to help him succeed? That's the question that everyone is trying to answer with their personnel moves."
It is not at all surprising to see so many passing-game weapons getting PAID when the league is undergoing a transformation in front of our eyes. Last season, we had eight 4,000-yard passers and 17 throwers with at least 20 touchdowns. In addition, there were five starters with a passer rating north of 100.
Considering the efficiency and effectiveness of the quarterbacks in the league today, I'm not surprised to see teams making long-term commitments to players with the skills to impact the aerial attack. Whether investing in a shifty pass catcher with breakneck speed or a slippery running back with receiver-like skills, teams are more committed than ever to securing playmakers with the capacity to add some sizzle to the throwing game. And why not? The NFL has implemented rules that make it easier to throw the ball without fear. As a result, forward-thinking offensive coordinators are designing attacks that take advantage of the restrictions. Teams are spending more time in spread and empty formations, with three/four receivers on the field or a combination of tight ends and hybrid backs playing positionless ball on the perimeter. This has not only increased the value of these kinds of weapons, but it has made team builders reconsider investing heavily in defensive personnel when it is just so damn hard to stop people.
With this in mind, I thought new Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden had an interesting comment on Monday.
Subtle shot at the guy currently holding out? Maybe, maybe not. But Gruden does raise a point when it comes to paying a premium for a defender who has yet to be part of a top-20 defense. Yes, Mack's individual contributions are spectacular, but one defender can only do so much to impact a game's outcome. Especially in today's game, where even the most elite defenses have a tough time stopping high-powered offenses.
The Minnesota Vikings' vaunted defense was absolutely shredded by a backup quarterback in the NFC Championship Game. And speaking of Nick Foles and the Eagles ... Yes, Philadelphia's defense played a crucial role in last year's championship campaign. But in the Super Bowl, Tom Brady eclipsed 500 yards passing against the Eagles' ferocious front. To its credit, the Philly D made a timely play to secure the game down the stretch, but still: The unit had heaps of trouble slowing down Brady and Co. all game long.
With that in mind, it is sensible today for teams to put their money on the offensive side of the ball, creating video-game attacks with playmakers all over the field. The inability to generate stops on defense should prompt more organizations to build high-powered offenses that can win shootouts, instead of constructing teams that play "rock 'em, sock 'em" football with the defense leading the way.
The Patriots might've been at the forefront of the movement when they started jettisoning valuable defensive personnel like Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, instead of signing them to long-term deals at high rates. Those decisions were met with raised eyebrows at the time, but New England has continued to end the season on Super Bowl Sunday.
The rest of the league could follow this kind of blueprint, which has also made other teams like the Falcons viable contenders in recent years. After watching the Hall of Fame Game flagfest on Thursday night, I believe we will see even more teams commit to passers, pass catchers and playmakers when they see defenders aren't capable of making a significant impact on a game that's skewing heavily to the offense.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) Colts still paying for a horrible draft drought. If you want to know why the Indianapolis Colts have plummeted into irrelevancy since losing in the 2014 AFC Championship Game, look no further than the disastrous back-to-back draft classes in 2013 and '14. With Jack Mewhort announcing his retirement this week, the Colts don't have a single player from either of those draft classes on the roster.
Think about that. The Colts couldn't parlay two years of draft picks into one key contributor on a squad that should be able to compete at a championship level with Andrew Luck at the helm. Yes, No. 12 has missed 26 games over the past three seasons, but Indy sure hasn't helped itself with the supporting cast it has constructed. I completely understand how losing an elite QB1 can torpedo a team's chances, but the absolute lack of contributions from those classes is alarming.
Just look at what came of those two draft classes:
Round 1: DE Bjoern Werner (out of the NFL).
Round 2: The Colts traded their second-round pick for CB Vontae Davis (now with the Bills).
Round 3: OG Hugh Thornton (out of the NFL).
Round 4: C Khaled Holmes (out of the NFL).
Round 5: DT Montori Hughes (currently unsigned).
Round 6: DB John Boyett (out of the NFL).
Round 7: RB Kerwynn Williams (with the Chiefs) and TE Justice Cunningham (out of the NFL).
Round 1: The Colts traded their 2014 first-round pick for RB Trent Richardson (out of the NFL).
Round 2: OG Jack Mewhort (retired this week).
Round 3: WR Donte Moncrief (with the Jaguars).
Round 4: The Colts traded their 2014 fourth-round pick to move up in the 2013 draft.
Round 5: LB Jonathan Newsome (out of the NFL).
Round 6: LB Andrew Jackson (out of the NFL).
Round 7: OT Ulrick John (with the Patriots).
That's a staggering rundown.
"You should have at least six to 12 players on your roster from drafts within a three to four-year period," a former NFL vice president of player personnel told me. "Those guys should be core players on your roster and major contributors at this stage of their careers. If you don't have that many guys in the mix, it means that the team was already loaded as a championship contender or you whiffed completely.
"If you missed like that, it's a fireable offense."
And the man who headed these drafts, Ryan Grigson, did indeed lose his job, in January of 2017.
No disrespect to Grigson and his staff for swinging for the fences on a couple prospects they viewed as blue-chip talents (Werner and Richardson), but failing to cash in on first-round picks in back-to-back years is tough to overcome. Championship teams typically have eight to 10 "blue" players (players ranked among the top 10 at their respective positions). Many of those guys are drafted high and developed. This "homegrown" model has been effective for teams like the Falcons, Vikings, Steelers, Packers, Chiefs, Panthers and others in recent years, so it is a proven method for perennial contenders.
"To be a consistent contender in this league, you have to nail the early picks," a former NFL player personnel director told me. "You have to get your first-round picks right and score on the majority of your second-round guys. If you find a gem in the later rounds, that's a bonus because no one expects those guys to grow into stars. But you can't miss on those top guys because you're counting on them to be major contributors and core players for the next five or so years."
Looking at the Colts, it is apparent that the draft whiffs have led to an erosion of blue-chip talent on the roster. The team failed to adequately replace core players like Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Reggie Wayne and Jeff Saturday in recent years, and those voids could've been filled by a handful of players from the 2013 and '14 classes. Without quality guys in the pipeline, a team can quickly collapse when the "blues" are unable to sustain their high level of play or they become too pricey to retain.
That's why the Colts' whiffs in back-to-back drafts have crippled the franchise during Luck's prime, and it's why the return to respectability could take a little longer than some suspect.
To be fair, I can't entirely crush Grigson for generally being aggressive in the player-acquisition game, but it is hard to recover from so many personnel gaffes in a short span. The Colts not only failed to acquire and secure players that helped their squad, but they hitched their wagon to a bunch of guys who couldn't make it in the NFL.
In a league where most games are decided by seven points or fewer, it is important to have a number of difference-makers all over the field -- and the Colts simply haven't had enough guys capable of elevating No. 12 when he can't single-handedly carry the squad. With Luck still attempting to rediscover his "A" game after an injury-induced hiatus, I'm beginning to fear the Colts' draft-day gaffes cost the team a Super Bowl run during their franchise quarterback's prime.
2) Chiefs' patience with Mahomes likely to pay off in the long run. When the Kansas City Chiefs handed the QB1 job to Patrick Mahomes in the offseason, I wondered if #ChiefsKingdom had the patience and perspective to live through the young gunslinger's growing pains as a playmaker. Despite the disdain for Alex Smith's conservative playing style, I didn't know if Chiefs fans could handle the roller-coaster ride that comes with starting an aggressive playmaker like Mahomes at quarterback.
While everyone loves the notion of a quarterback making a few "hero" throws into tight windows to win games, few coaches and observers are willing to accept the negative consequences that come with pushing the envelope as a passer. Gunslingers turn the ball over, and losing the turnover battle is the biggest deciding factor in NFL games.
"We tell defenders they have to catch the ball when the quarterback throws it to them," an NFL head coach with a defensive background told me. "Turnovers matter in this league. The odds of winning go up dramatically when you take the ball away."
That's why I'm a little concerned about the reports coming out of Chiefs training camp regarding Mahomes' struggles with giveaways through the first week of practices. According to ESPN.com, Mahomes threw seven interceptions in six practices. Although I don't know if the turnovers occurred in team drills or in 1-on-1 sessions, the number of giveaways is alarming when you think about how well Smith protected the ball throughout his tenure. The Chiefs' former QB1 only had 33 interceptions in 76 games, which is a huge reason why he won 66 percent of his games as the team's starter.
Now, I'm not saying Smith was the perfect quarterback to get the team over the hump in the postseason, but his conservative ways led to a lot of Ws for the Chiefs. With Mahomes, Kansas City's banking on explosiveness over efficiency at the position. The Chiefs want more explosive plays (passes of 25-plus yards) and touchdowns (Smith's 26 touchdowns in 2017 were a career high) in the passing game, with playmakers like Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins in the receiving corps. Mahomes' big arm and improvisational skills should create more big-play opportunities for the unit, but he must balance the risk-vs.-reward equation.
"He had a few hiccups today," offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said, via ESPN. "But that's a part of the process. When you're young, you need those hiccups because they become valuable lessons. ... Would we like for him to be perfect? Yes. We'd like for him to have the highest quarterback rating ever. ... He just needs to be poised under pressure."
The poise and composure that Bieniemy discusses is a trait that can only be mastered through trial and error at practice. While Mahomes should be aggressive attempting to fit the ball into tight windows to see what he can get away with on game day, he also needs to learn when to dial it back and play with caution.
Remember, Mahomes played in a freewheeling offense at Texas Tech, where he could aggressively throw the ball all over the yard without hesitation. As a one-man show, he was encouraged to make hero throws to elevate the play of those around him. With that in mind, I'm not surprised to hear about his turnover woes as he continues to acclimate to the pro game. As a collegian, he seemingly figured it out, finishing his three-year career with only 29 interceptions in 1,349 pass attempts. Considering his 93 touchdown passes and spectacular highlight reel of jaw-dropping plays as a Red Raider, it is only a matter of time before Mahomes figures it out as a pro.
With Andy Reid and Bieniemy allowing him to find his way through trial and error, Mahomes might take Chiefs fans on a bumpy ride before he leads them to the Promised Land in the postseason.
3) San Francisco might've unearthed a true diamond in the (Buffalo) rough. It is uncommon for a No. 4 receiver to eventually emerge as a WR1 in the NFL, but Marquise Goodwin might be the exception to the rule as he continues to climb up the charts for the San Francisco 49ers. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound speedster emerged as a big-play specialist for the team when Jimmy Garoppolo took over the helm down the stretch in 2017, and Goodwin has continued to build on that momentum throughout training camp.
"We brought him in to be a speed guy who could blow the top off (the defense), who we thought could do other stuff and it didn't happen right away," 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said earlier this week. "It's a credit to him, it's a credit to (wide receivers/passing game coordinator) Mike LaFleur. "They've really worked at it and he does every day. ... Everywhere you look, he's in the background working on his feet, doing little things.
"It's slow-motion and stuff, but that's how he's developed in his routes and he's gotten a lot of confidence catching the ball. When you can beat man coverage like that on almost any route we give you, and he's catching it consistently, we're excited about his year and expect him to get a lot of opportunities. If he doesn't, it's because he's pulling coverage to him and can give a lot of other guys opportunities."
Wow! I don't think many observers expected Goodwin to emerge as an impact player in San Francisco after watching him play like a "one-trick pony" with the Buffalo Bills. He was their designated deep-ball specialist on the outside, as evidenced by his six 40-plus-yard catches in 50 career receptions with Buffalo. The four-time All-American long jumper is the first collegian to win long jump at the Olympic Trials and the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in the same year (2012). In addition, he clocked the fifth-fastest 40-yard dash time (4.27 seconds) ever at the NFL Scouting Combine -- the fastest man in the 2013 event.
Goodwin's combination of speed and explosiveness always made him an intriguing option as an outside receiver, but his inconsistent hands and limited route-running ability kept him from occupying a bigger role in the passing game early in his NFL career. In San Francisco, he struggled with some drops at the beginning of the 2017 season before emerging as a difference maker when Jimmy G took over as the QB1. Goodwin narrowly missed out on posting three straight 100-yard games in No. 10's first three starts with the team, which speaks volumes about his connection and chemistry with the 49ers' franchise quarterback.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film from the 2017 season, I'm really impressed with Goodwin's transformation as a WR1. He started the season as a deep-ball specialist adept at blowing past defenders on vertical routes with pure speed and burst, but he reinvented himself as a chain mover with precise routes and dependable hands. Goodwin repeatedly won his 1-on-1 matchups with tempo, timing and technique. He teased defenders with his speed and explosiveness before creating separation using a variety of stop-start maneuvers at the top of this routes. Goodwin's craftiness and savvy as a route runner stood out when I compared his 2017 tape to his previous seasons.
Looking ahead to the 2018 campaign, I want to see how the sixth-year pro reacts to defensive coordinators giving him more attention. Whether Goodwin is facing bracket/rolled coverage to his side or a traveling CB1, I want to see if he can continue to make plays and impact the game. If he is able to consistently make his mark and deliver a few weekly splash plays against loaded coverage, Goodwin will quickly cement his status as the 49ers' new No. 1 receiver.