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:
-- Why Jerry Jones could soon be hoisting another Lombardi Trophy.
-- The player who WILL win the 2019 rushing title.
-- The QB prospects -- and potentially QB-needy teams -- to keep an eye on.
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Nothing fires up an NFL player more than receiving a scathing critique from an observer on the outside. While most players will tell media members that they don't pay any attention to the internet or social media, the so-called white noise routinely seeps into the locker room, and players have to make the hard decision of whether to respond to the smoke or take the high road.
Given what I know about Baker Mayfield, though, I was positive the Cleveland Browns' QB1 wouldn't be able to let Rex Ryan's "overrated as hell" comment slide once he heard the critique. Mayfield fired back in typical fashion, with a slick comment that pointed out Ryan's current exclusion from the NFL coaching fraternity. As a former player, I certainly understand the 24-year-old's harsh response to the criticism. He's a competitor with a gladiator's mentality. He sees the comments as disrespectful, and they diminish his notable accomplishments as a productive young player in the league.
However, No. 6 should've paused for a second and dug through the former NFL head coach/defensive coordinator's full comments to see if there was some insight in the evaluation that could help him become a better player going forward. Remember, Ryan is one of the best defensive minds of his era, and his view on quarterbacks likely falls in line with the opinion of several defensive authorities around the league.
As Ryan pointed out, Mayfield isn't an elite athlete. His 4.84-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine was slower than Jared Goff's Indy run (4.82) -- and the Los Angeles Rams' QB1 has never been viewed as dual-threat playmaker on the perimeter. Also, his lack of height poses a problem when he faces an aggressive rush that pierces the pocket.
And when it comes to Ryan's claims about Mayfield's spotty accuracy and one-read approach, well, the quarterback hasn't played well this season -- and the numbers back up Rex's assessment. Mayfield has forced the ball into double-coverage at the highest rate (6.4 percent) in the NFL this season, according to Pro Football Focus. Considering interceptions are typically the result of tips and overthrows, Baker's recent knack of forcing the ball into tight windows speaks volumes about his judgment from the pocket.
Part of Mayfield's issues stems from his inability to thrive from the pocket on dropback passes. He has only completed 41 of 81 passes (50.6 percent) on dropback attempts, with a 1:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio, a yards-per-attempt mark of 6.8 and a 56.1 passer rating. Those numbers are certainly disappointing for a guy who was regarded as an elite pocket passer coming out of Oklahoma.
That said, Mayfield has been quite effective throwing off run-action, with a 75 percent completion rate, a 2:1 TD-to-INT ratio and a 111.3 passer rating. Most importantly, he has averaged 9.1 yards per attempt and delivered more explosive plays when working off run-action. This is how the Browns played after Freddie Kitchens took over play-calling duties in the back half of the 2018 season, with more "12" (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) and "13" (1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR) personnel package featured on the menu. With the 2019 Browns struggling mightily to find a few concepts that can serve as the foundation of their attack, Kitchens needs to get back to using the threat of the running game to help his young passer find his game. Feed Nick Chubb! The crafty play-caller could also rely more on the RPO game to help Mayfield get into a groove as a passer. Yes, Cleveland has called the second-most run/pass options this year, using the concept 18.9 percent of the time, but that's still a ways behind Kansas City's 29.7 percent. These quick-rhythm throws were a staple of Mayfield's Oklahoma playbook, and they could help the second-year passer regain his confidence and rhythm.
Some of Ryan's criticism was unfounded, but the longtime NFL coach wasn't completely off his rocker. If Mayfield could set aside his ego and use the critique as a lesson designed to help him grow as a player, the Browns' franchise quarterback might be able to map out a path that'll allow him to break out of this current slump.
Since we are already discussing the No. 1 overall pick from the 2018 NFL Draft, let's take a look at all five quarterbacks selected in the first round, and see where things stand in Year 2:
Baker Mayfield, No. 1 overall pick, Cleveland Browns: I obviously discussed Mayfield at length above, but basically, the bodacious QB1 is in the midst of a sophomore slump that has resulted in his completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating all dropping from his rookie year. Mayfield's woes can partially be attributed to the Browns' leaky offensive line and their play-caller struggling to find his way. With 19 interceptions on his resume in 17 appearances, Mayfield's turnover woes are problematic for a Browns team that was expected to compete in the AFC. Grade: B-
Sam Darnold, No. 3 overall pick, New York Jets: After seeing Darnold show promise at the end of his rookie season, the football world was waiting with bated breath to see if he would emerge as a Pro Bowl-caliber player under new coach Adam Gase. The respected quarterback guru has helped young signal-callers find their way in the past, and Jets officials were optimistic that No. 14 would enjoy a breakout season. Unfortunately, mononucleosis put Darnold on the shelf following the season opener, which wasn't a bad effort against Buffalo (completed 28 of 41 passes for 175 yards with a score). And his absence kinda blows up the grading process. Grade: INC
Josh Allen, No. 7 overall pick, Buffalo Bills: It's not always pretty with No. 17, but it has worked for the Bills to this point. The second-year pro has guided his team to a 3-0 start utilizing his exceptional athleticism, running skills and big arm to create explosive plays. While Allen's turnover issues and inconsistent accuracy have put the team behind the eight ball at times, he has made enough plays to help the offense score enough points to complement a defense that's playing at a high level. Allen is the NFL's second-leading rusher at quarterback and he continues to befuddle defenses with his improvisational style. Grade: B-
Josh Rosen, No. 10 overall pick, Arizona Cardinals (now with the Miami Dolphins): It's just unfair to grade Rosen against his classmates when he has repeatedly been on the short end of the stick. After suffering significantly as a rookie from a lackluster offensive line, No. 3 was unceremoniously traded to Miami when new Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury opted for an athletic playmaker to run his system in the desert. The Dolphins didn't do Rosen any favors when they auctioned off the team's blue-chip players for draft picks, throwing him into a suspect starting lineup (especially on the O-line) to audition for the QB1 job in 2020 and beyond. Reviewing the tape, Rosen has shown courage and toughness while taking a beating in the pocket, but he hasn't received a legitimate opportunity to showcase his passing skills due to underwhelming cast around him. Rosen has seen several quality balls slip through his receivers' hands. Grade: INC
Lamar Jackson, No. 32 overall pick, Baltimore Ravens: No. 8 has shown tremendous improvement as a passer/playmaker from the pocket. He has been consistently on time and on target with his throws to the perimeter, as evidenced by his 63 percent completion rate and 7:0 TD-to-INT ratio. Jackson has remained a frightening threat as a runner (NFL-best 192 rushing yards for QB), while significantly cutting down his rushing attempts in Baltimore's ground-and-pound, option-based offense. As a passer, Jackson has shown improved accuracy, touch and ball placement on intermediate throws between the numbers and on deep shots down the boundary. He's been better than expected as a passer in Year 2, which is one of the reasons why the Ravens (2-1) are emerging as a dark-horse contender in the AFC. Grade: A-
DALLAS COWBOYS: Triplets looking Super
I know some folks like to take shots at Cowboys owner Jerry Jones for winning just four playoff games in the 23 seasons since Dallas last won the Super Bowl, but the Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee still has a proven formula for building a title winner. In fact, it appears the ingredients are in place for Jones to hoist another Lombardi Trophy in the near future.
The wily executive won three Super Bowl titles in the mid-1990s behind a Hall of Fame set of triplets (Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin) on offense and he might experience a bit of deja vu in the coming years with Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and Amari Cooper emerging as the NFL's top trio since joining forces in the middle of the 2018 season.
I know comparing No. 4, No. 21 and No. 19 to three players with busts in Canton will make some Cowboys fans and their haters spit out their coffee, but you'll find some very interesting results when you look at the production of Aikman, Smith and Irvin during the Cowboys' Super Bowl seasons (1992, 1993 and 1995) and compare it to the production of Prescott, Elliott and Cooper since they teamed up over the last 12 games.
Prescott: 83.3 win percentage; 72 completion percentage; 108.6 passer rating
Aikman: 78.3 win percentage; 65.8 completion percentage; 93.7 passer rating
Elliott: 100.4 rush yards per game; 139.0 scrimmage yards per game
Smith: 108.4 rush yards per game; 132.5 scrimmage yards per game
Cooper: 5.8 receptions per game; 80.3 receiving yards per game
Irvin: 5.8 receptions per game; 90.2 receiving yards per game
Now, I know the sample size for the current Cowboys triplets is still relatively small, but I bet you didn't expect to see such comparable numbers between the two groups, huh? The success of Dak, Zeke and Amari is playing a big part in why I'm beginning to view America's Team as the front-runners in the NFC. Go ahead and snicker at that statement if you wish, but it could become a reality with the Cowboys' triplets setting the pace in the league at their respective positions.
Since Week 9 of last season -- when Cooper made his Cowboys debut -- Prescott leads the NFL in QB wins (10) and completion percentage (72.0), while Elliott ranks first in rush yards (1,104) and rush first downs (58). Meanwhile, Cooper has the most receiving touchdowns (10) in his first 12 games of any Cowboys player since 1970.
With the triplets firing on all cylinders, the Cowboys lead the NFC in points per game (32.3), total yards per game (481.3) and third-down percentage (58.1), and they're tied for the league lead in fewest sacks allowed (2) and big plays (31). They've also gained at least 400 yards and scored 30-plus points in each of their last four regular-season games, which is the longest active streak in the NFL.
Those numbers are significant in a league that's more offense-driven than ever. The Cowboys have the ability to put opponents in a deep hole early in games and force them to play catch up against a defense that's built to defend the pass with speedy edge rushers and linebackers, and sticky defensive backs.
Keep in mind, the Cowboys have been a productive offense that operates with a "possession" mentality. They chew up the clock with a solid mix of runs and passes with the goal of keeping the ball for 30-plus minutes. This enables their defense to stay fresh and primed to hunt the quarterback in the fourth quarter.
"The recipe never changes for them," said a former NFL defensive coordinator. "They relied on this approach in 2014 to win the division with DeMarco Murray, (Tony) Romo and Dez (Bryant) leading the way. They did it again in 2016 with Dak, Zeke and Dez. ... The way they are playing this season, I could see them making another run at it."
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Why Vikings' Cook WILL be 2019 rushing champ. If you've listened to the "Move The Sticks" podcast and heard our scouting reports on Dalvin Cook since he declared for the 2017 NFL Draft, you shouldn't be surprised to see the third-year pro leads the league in rushing (375 yards) heading into Week 4. I believed Cook was the most pro-ready back of a draft class that included Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara. Now, he fell to the second round of the draft due to, in part, off-field concerns, and injuries derailed each of his two seasons, but his success in 2019 as the Vikings' RB1 is exactly how I envisioned the Florida State standout performing as a workhorse runner.
I'm not using this space to take a victory lap for my evaluation of a blue-chip running back, but I do believe No. 33 deserves mention as an MVP candidate after setting the league on fire through the first three weeks of the season. Cook is the only player with three 100-yard rushing games and, in addition to total rushing yards, he leads the league in yards per carry (6.6) and scrimmage yards (454) as the Vikings' No. 1 offensive weapon.
Considering the last three running backs with at least 375 or more rushing yards through Week 3 (Kareem Hunt, 2017; DeMarco Murray, 2014; LeSean McCoy, 2013) went on to lead the NFL in rushing, I believe you can already hand Cook the 2019 rushing crown. I know that's a little presumptuous after only three games, especially given Cook's injury history, but, assuming he stays healthy, I think the Vikings' RB1 is on his way to a special season with Kevin Stefanski in his first full season as offensive coordinator and shrewd offseason hire Gary Kubiak joining the staff as assistant head coach/offensive advisor.
Remember, the most important aspect of the evaluation process is determining whether a prospect's talents match the team's scheme. General managers, executives and coaches must accurately assess the talent of their players and prospects, and project how those skills would be enhanced playing in their team's scheme. That's why Cook's success should be celebrated by scouts around the league as the prime example of how the pieces of the puzzle should come together when the front office and coaching staff are on the same page.
"The most underrated part of scouting is properly matching player with scheme," said an AFC college scouting director. "Everyone can determine whether a player has enough talent to play in the league but the trick is figuring out how well he will play in your system. ... That makes all of the difference in the world for some players. ... Being in the right scheme or being coached by the right guy matters."
Studying Cook's film from the first three games of the season, it is easy to see how his game perfectly suits the zone-based scheme employed by the team under Stefanski and Kubiak. Cook is a dynamic runner with exceptional vision, stop-start quickness and burst. He is decisive at the point of attack and his disciplined running style is a perfect match for the Vikings' outside-zone system, which requires runners to adhere to a one-cut-and-go rule that limits negative runs.
To that point, Cook has gained 303 of his 375 rush yards on runs outside the tackles, per Next Gen Stats. Most impressively, he leads the NFL in rush yards (132), yards per rush (8.8) and rush touchdowns (3) against stacked boxes (eight-plus defenders).
The Vikings have leaned on Cook and his electric running style to become the No. 2 running game in the NFL (only the Ravens have more rushing yards). No. 33's success with the rock in his hand has prompted the Vikings to run the ball 58.6 percent of the time when Cook is on the field, which is exactly how Mike Zimmer wants to play.
"It's part of our head coach's identity," Dalvin Cook told reporters this week, per ESPN. "That comes with the old-school rules. We know the type of defense we've got. If we can keep this thing close and keep this thing manageable for us to go win the football game, that's part of running the football and taking big shots and making plays and just converting. That's what Zim likes to do. I like it if that's what Zimmer likes to do."
Considering the Vikings are the only NFL team with more rush yards than pass yards in 2019, the marriage between Cook and the Vikings' new system is off to a stellar start. The next question is whether they can keep it going in Chicago on Sunday against the Bears, who have allowed fewer than 100 rushing yards in seven straight games (longest active streak in the NFL).
2) QB prospects -- and potentially QB-needy teams -- to watch. It's never too early to cast our eyes toward the 2020 NFL Draft to see which teams could be in the market for a franchise quarterback. With the Miami Dolphins positioning themselves to potentially land the QB of their choice with three first-round picks next year, I thought it was a good time to survey the college landscape to identify the signal-caller prospects who are commanding significant attention from scouts and general managers around the league as they hit the road this fall.
I don't want to get bogged down in the details here -- because that's not the point of this section -- but after chatting with a few evaluators, here are a handful of the teams that could be in the market to draft a QB next year, as well as the names to know at the quarterback position (year in school noted in parantheses).
QBs to watch
Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama (junior): Electric playmaker with outstanding arm talent and athleticism. He is a big-stage performer with a quick release and A-plus arm strength/range. He has put up big numbers, but there are concerns about his patience and discipline against a stingy or umbrella-like defense.
Justin Herbert, Oregon (senior): The prototypical franchise quarterback with the size, athleticism and arm talent teams covet. Herbert's a general manager's dream as a prospect, but there are questions about his performance and production in big games.
Jake Fromm, Georgia (junior): Fierce competitor with excellent intangibles and a high football IQ. He is a natural leader with the winning pedigree coaches and general managers look for in a QB1. Scouts rate his arm at a B/B-plus level, which leads to questions about his ability to make "pro" throws against NFL defenses.
Jacob Eason, Washington (redshirt junior): Wild-card prospect with excellent physical tools (size, athleticism and arm talent) and QB1 potential. Eason is blossoming under Washington coach Chris Petersen's tutelage and scouts have pegged him as a potential last riser up the charts. He needs to play better in big games and show that he can string together strong performances against top competition.
Jordan Love, Utah State (redshirt junior): Raw, unrefined prospect with outstanding physical tools and potential. Scouts have compared him to Patrick Mahomes as a developmental prospect with the combination of arm talent and athleticism to explode at the next level with proper coaching. Love is still a work in progress but the buzz is strong in NFL circles.
Joe Burrow, LSU (senior): The hottest prospect in college football has surged up the charts after a strong opening quarter of the college season. Burrow has a quick release and a strong arm to complement a competitive spirit that appeals to coaches and general managers in search of a franchise QB. As the son of a long-time college assistant, he has the right mix of intangibles, maturity and leadership skills to handle the responsibility of being an NFL QB1.
Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma (senior): Don't dismiss the former Alabama QB's chances of soaring up the charts after a solid season in Norman, Okla. The big-bodied playmaker has shown improved pocket passing skills while also displaying the hard-nosed running skills that make him a dangerous dual threat on the perimeter. If he can continue to show improvement as a passer in Lincoln Riley's system, he is going to attract the attention of coaches and scouts looking for an athletic quarterback with the intangibles to grow into the QB1 role as a pro.