Editor's note: NFL.com analysts and former NFL scouts Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks of the Move The Sticks Podcast share some of their scouting notes, including:
But first, we kick off this week's notebook with Brooks' take on which NFL teams are best positioned to make a Jaguars-, Rams-, or Eagles-like rise in 2018.
After watching teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars, Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles earn playoff berths after missing out on the playoff party a season ago, I started thinking about which teams are poised to make the jump into title contention after sitting out the party this season. Although we still have to go through free agency and the draft to see how their final rosters eventually shake out, I believe these squads have a core in place that will give them a shot to make a playoff run with a little tweaking in 2018. Here are three teams to watch.
San Francisco 49ers
The acquisition of Jimmy Garoppolo has reversed the fortunes of a downtrodden franchise. The 49ers' new QB1 is as good as advertised as a franchise quarterback, as evidenced by the team's three-game winning streak since he took over as a starter. He has displayed the kind of arm talent, athleticism and playmaking ability that coaches and scouts covet in a QB1. He's also elevated the play of his supporting cast and displayed the "clutch factor" in critical moments. Given the importance of quarterback play in the league, Jimmy G gives the 49ers a shot to re-emerge as a playoff team in 2018 with a couple of moves in the offseason.
First, the team needs to beef up the supporting cast around Garoppolo to alleviate some of the pressure on him to act as the driving force of the offense. A dynamic running back with three-down ability would certainly add more balance and spice to an offense that ranks 24th in rushing yards per game (97.3) and lacks a five-star player at the position. In addition, the team could use a big-bodied WR1 to do the dirty work between the hashes to allow Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin to thrive as playmakers on the outside.
Defensively, the 49ers need to add a few more pieces in the secondary to fortify a unit that's shown promise behind a star-studded defensive line. If the 49ers can identify a playmaking linebacker and a versatile CB1 and/or safety to step in as key contributors, the defense could emerge as a top-10 unit with the talent and potential to spark a run.
Despite posting one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history, the Broncos aren't that far away from reclaiming their seat at the winner's table. The defense remains one of the most destructive units in football with a lineup that's chock full of experienced playmakers at every level. Although age could become a factor in the secondary (see Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, Jr.), the defense is still playing at a championship level under new head coach Vance Joseph.
That's why all eyes are on the offense and the quarterback position, in particular, to see how the team addresses the biggest hole on the roster. The team could make a play for a four-star veteran field general in free agency or take ANOTHER chance on a talented quarterback prospect in the draft. Regardless of the approach, the Broncos have to get the QB1 position right before they can return to form as a perennial playoff contender.
Whenever the Broncos find their quarterback, they will also need to upgrade the protection around him to help him survive and thrive in a division loaded with premier pass rushers (see Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Khalil Mack and Justin Houston). Sure, the team invested in Garett Bolles and Menelik Watson a season ago, but that shouldn't stop John Elway from looking for another edge protector in the draft.
New York Giants
On paper, this team looked like a legitimate Super Bowl contender heading into the 2017 season. Despite the presence of a declining franchise quarterback, the offense had juggernaut potential due to the cornucopia of playmakers in the passing game. The Giants had pass-catchers for days and their ability to create mismatches on the perimeter should've created problems for defensive coordinators around the league. On defense, the G-Men returned a lineup that featured a number of dynamic veteran playmakers along the frontline and in the secondary. Their collective talent and experience were expected to help the team make a Super Bowl push after falling in the Divisional Round a season ago.
Although things certainly didn't go according to the script, the Giants are in a position to make a quick bounce-back with a few good moves in the offseason. The team's top priority should center around the retooling of the offensive line. The Giants desperately need to find a blue-chip left tackle to allow Ereck Flowers to move to his natural position (right tackle) or the bench. In fact, the team could "double up" (invest two picks or sign multiple players at the same spot) at offensive tackle to protect the quarterback. The team could also beef up the interior to fortify the running game or add an explosive running back with plenty of "make-you-miss" ability to mask the team's flaws at the point of attack. The Giants need to balance out their offensive attack to ease the burden on Eli Manning or the young QB1 who eventually replaces him. -- Bucky Brooks
5 NFL REASONS FOR BAKER MAYFIELD'S SENIOR BOWL DECISION
There was big NFL draft news on Friday, as Baker Mayfield accepted his invitation to the 2018 Reese's Senior Bowl. For those looking into the reason for why he would elect to play in the all-star game despite having at least one, and potentially two, playoff games ahead of him, here are five QBs who helped themselves during their week in Mobile, Ala. (the site of the game), when they were draft prospects.
Joe Flacco: The week in Mobile was especially valuable for him, having come from a lower level of competition (FCS Delaware). He showed off his arm talent in practice and went from being a likely second-round pick to being a first-round target of the Ravens, who traded up to take him 18th overall. The Senior Bowl launched him into Round 1.
Russell Wilson: Although everyone was disappointed when he measured in below 6 feet at the Senior Bowl weigh-in, he had an excellent week of practice and was highly impressive in his interviews with teams. There were several teams thinking they would be able to get a steal in the draft when they picked Wilson, but the Seahawks jumped to the front of the line and nabbed him in the third round. That move has paid off handsomely.
Philip Rivers: Rivers blew away the Chargers at the Senior Bowl with his performance in practices and the game as well as his preparation and personality. He won them over during that week. He went from someone who was viewed as a potential top-10 pick to going fourth overall before being sent to the Chargers in the Eli Manning deal.
Jimmy Garoppolo: Garoppolo's become the talk of the NFL over the last few weeks, as he's led the 49ers to three straight wins since becoming the team's starter. He wasn't on the initial Senior Bowl roster, but thanks to AJ McCarron's decision not to play in the Senior Bowl, Garoppolo gladly accepted the invite. He followed up a solid week at the East-West Shrine Game with a solid week at the Senior Bowl and solidified himself as a second-round pick.
Carson Wentz: I had Wentz as a top-10 player coming into his Senior Bowl week, but there were still some questions about him, mostly due to his competition level as an FCS product (North Dakota State) and his limited number of starts. He blew everyone away in Mobile, though, with his arm talent, athleticism and football intelligence. He was so impressive that the Eagles were willing to part with multiple draft picks to move up and take him second overall.
As for which situation is most similar to Mayfield's, I'd point to Flacco. There was a split in the scouting community about whether he was a late first-rounder or second-rounder. Flacco went to the Senior Bowl and solidified himself as a first-round pick. Mayfield will have that same opportunity.
I don't see much downside to this decision. There's always a risk of suffering an injury, but I don't recall a QB suffering a serious injury in the Senior Bowl. As for performance, I can't recall a QB having a worse week throwing the ball than Tim Tebow, and he still went in the first round. --Daniel Jeremiah
SAINTS' 2017 DRAFT CLASS ONE OF DECADE'S BEST
Ramczyk has started every game this fall and he's been very reliable in both the run and passing game. Williams has started 13 of 14 games and he's currently the third-leading tackler on the team. His range, instincts and ball skills have been on display throughout the season.
Every personnel department aims to land at least 3 starters in every draft class. The Saints vastly exceeded that mark. They identified upper-echelon NFL starters with each of their first four selections, and their fifth selection, Florida LB Alex Anzalone, was off to a tremendous start before he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in October. Third-round pick Trey Hendrickson has also been a solid contributor, collecting 2 sacks as a role player.
This has a chance to be one of the best draft hauls in over a decade. The Seahawks' 2012 draft class helped set their team up for multiple Super Bowl runs. They landed Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner, Russell Wilson, Jeremy Lane and JR Sweezy in that class. While this Saints class lacks a quarterback, it should provide the core nucleus to make the team a playoff contender for years to come. -- Daniel Jeremiah
THE DERWIN JAMES QUESTION
While he's tremendously explosive and dynamic, it will be fascinating to see where teams believe his best positional fit will be at the next level. After studying him and chatting with a few NFL personnel executives, I think most teams will slot him in as either a box safety or weakside linebacker on their draft boards. For teams operating in a two-high safety defense, James is viewed as an off the ball, outside linebacker. For single-high-safety teams, James would slot perfectly as their force safety in the box. I'll be shocked if he isn't asked to perform both linebacker and defensive back drills at the NFL Scouting Combine. I believe he has all-pro potential at either position and I'm looking forward to following him through the draft process. -- Daniel Jeremiah