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, a look at how preseason cancellations could significantly affect teams across the NFL ...
As the COVID-19 pandemic presents unprecedented challenges around the world, the NFL is still figuring out how to stage a season. And while the players and owners continue negotiating a plan that will enable teams to properly prepare for the regular season, it appears that we could see the reduction or total elimination of preseason games. Without a full slate of exhibitions to prepare for the season, teams would have to adjust to a new way of life when it comes to the 2020 campaign. Don't forget: Teams weren't able to run their normal offseason programs, so everyone's already way behind the eight ball.
I talked about all of this to a few folks in and around the league. Here are five ways that an abbreviated/aborted preseason could impact players, coaches and scouts:
1) Veterans will have significant advantages in roster battles.
The lack of a standard preseason will prompt some coaches to rely on familiar faces when the regular season kicks off. Veterans will jump to the front of the line due to their knowledge and experience. Journeymen, in particular, should be able to parlay their expertise into contributing roles. In critical moments, coaches prefer trustworthy players with the capacity to execute their assignments under pressure. Veterans not only have the experience to make plays in those situations, but coaches are well aware of their players' resumes -- and this matters when making decisions on the roster, depth chart and rotation.
"You want to rely on guys who've been in the fire," an AFC running backs coach told me. "With limited practice time and reps, you're more likely to lean on the guy who has done it for you before. He might've lost a step and isn't as explosive or as dynamic as the young guy, but you know that he can get it done when it counts. That's important when you need to get off to a fast start in these conditions."
Coaches understand the high expectations from ownership, front-office figures and observers when the regular season starts. Regardless of how much time has been (and will be) missed due to COVID-19, the pressure to produce wins will return at kickoff. Veterans offer dependability. And coaches will scheme around their deficiencies to put them in ideal positions to succeed.
2) Teams will need to be patient with their draftees.
For the majority of teams, draftees are essentially guaranteed roster spots, with most expected to contribute in Year 1. Whether they make their mark as special teams standouts, rotational players or immediate starters, draftees are penciled into the lineup due to the team's investment (draft capital and financial commitment) in their potential. Thus, these guys are odds-on favorites to earn roster spots in normal circumstances. And the pandemic will make it hard for decision-makers to move on from draftees without an entire offseason to evaluate their development and long-term potential.
"Draft picks get every opportunity to make the team," a former NFL general manager said. "If you've invested a draft pick and money in them, you want to give them a chance to develop into the player that you envisioned. Sometimes, it takes a little longer for them to find their way, but you have to trust what you've seen on the tape and how you evaluated them throughout the process.
"You can't give up on them too soon."
That's why general managers and personnel directors should encourage their coaches to patiently wait for their draftees to find their way as pros. Each of the prospects was selected to eventually fill a role, and they should all be given a reasonable amount of time to realize their potential. Without offseason reps and minicamps to hone their individual skills and master the nuances of the playbook, it is harder to project when a young player will be ready to make a contribution on the field.
To make up for the lack of game-like reps for draftees, teams should consider creating and implementing developmental plans for their young players. The Atlanta Falcons have utilized their "Plan D" program to accelerate the development of their young players in the past. The program requires young players to spend at least 10 minutes with their coaches after practice. These extra periods not only enable coaches to refine their players' techniques, but also provide them with an opportunity to teach newbies the nuances of the scheme. Considering how mental clutter can slow down the natural reactions of players, the extra tutoring sessions help Atlanta's youngsters assimilate into the lineup as valuable backups and rotational playmakers by the middle of the season.
Damontae Kazee is a perfect example of the program's success. As a fifth-round pick in 2017, the former San Diego State star made the transition from a ball-hawking corner to strong safety with relative ease. The 5-foot-10, 184-pound playmaker was a back-to-back Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, boasting 17 career interceptions and 30 PBUs in 41 college games, but he lacked the requisite speed and quickness of an elite corner. In Atlanta, Kazee diligently worked on his physicality and toughness as a safety during those extra practice periods, while refining his natural instincts as a ball hawk. As a result, the fourth-year pro has become a fringe blue-chip player with 10 interceptions over the past two seasons, including league-leading seven picks in 2018.
If other teams can craft similar developmental plans for their draftees, they can still reap the benefits from the 2020 class with a patient approach that yields big results down the road.
3) UDFAs could face long odds of making active rosters.
Despite the 24/7/365 attention paid to the draft nowadays, the NFL has quietly become somewhat of a working-class league comprised of scores of players who were never drafted. Last year, according to Over The Cap, 31 percent of the players on opening day rosters were former undrafted free agents who earned their spots through exceptional performances during training camp and preseason games. Think about that. Nearly a third of the active players in Week 1 last season were unheralded guys who worked their way onto rosters by overcoming the odds.
But without an extensive offseason program and full preseason to impress and earn the trust of coaches, it will be much harder for UDFAs to make the cut. There simply isn't enough time or reps to supplant established veterans for the final roster spots. Remember: Many camp battles are ultimately decided by the special teams coach because of the importance of the kicking game, but it is harder to determine if young guys are ready to contribute in that phase without game action. Coaches are more likely to rely on their experienced players in the kicking game during the early part of the season, due to the expertise and urgency required to excel at this facet of the game.
Without the advocacy of the special teams coach in preseason meetings based on game evaluations, it is going to be harder for UDFAs to secure a spot on the active roster prior to the season.
4) Rookie head coaches might get off to slow starts.
It is hard enough for new coaches to establish a new culture in normal circumstances, but it is almost impossible for a rookie coach to hit the ground running without preseason games. Sure, the coach can craft detailed practice plans and well-structured scrimmages. But there's nothing like coaching in a game. Which is why the three men who's never been a head coach for an NFL game -- the Panthers' Matt Rhule, Browns' Kevin Stefanski and Giants' Joe Judge -- are facing quite a challenge.
From leading a 53-man roster and a group of coaches to managing timeouts and making gutsy decisions in critical situations, the head coach faces a level of stress and pressure that's unlike anything that he faces in a practice or simulated game. Without preseason games to go through the mechanics of leading a team in that challenging environment, the rookie coaches will have to undergo on-the-job training while attempting to win games that actually count.
The situation is compounded by the lack of an extensive offseason featuring fruitful classroom instruction and on-field workouts. Although the virtual classes of this offseason included traditional playbook installations and philosophical discussions, the inability for players to take the information from the classroom to the field during the summer will make it harder for new coaches to introduce complex schemes in the fall. Players might nod their heads in agreement when asked questions, but coaches won't know if they actually understand the information until they're asked to execute under pressure.
"The virtual offseason programs are great, but you have to see if players can execute on the field," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "Guys learn at different rates and some are unable to understand the Xs and Os without walk-throughs and practice reps. The limited on-field work will make it hard for coaches to implement voluminous game plans and intricate schemes. You will need to keep it simple for the younger guys and new players in your scheme.
"Can a rookie head coach figure out what's enough and what's too much? That could be the difference between getting off to a fast start or stumbling out of the blocks."
5) Scouts will need to be resourceful when scouring the waiver wire.
The preseason requires front offices to put all hands on deck when evaluating personnel around the league. College scouts will assist pro scouts in the process by studying preseason games and writing scouting reports on potential roster casualties or trade candidates.
Without preseason games, scouts will need to pay attention to articles and tweets from beat writers to get a sense of which players could be in play at the trade deadline. In addition, scouts will need to work the phones to get tips from their colleagues on the progress of players and the vulnerable guys on the roster. That information could be relayed to a team of evaluators instructed to re-watch college tape on potential cut candidates to project how players could fit into the scheme and if they're worthy of roster or practice squad consideration.
The absence of preseason games will make the evaluation process harder for scouts, but a little resourcefulness and a ton of research will enable the best front offices to stay one step ahead of the rest in 2020.
TOP FIVE DEFENSIVE QUARTETS: Who's No. 1?
If you want to win a Super Bowl in today's NFL, you better have a defense loaded with playmakers to contain the high-octane offenses dominating the league. With most of those offenses fueled by talented quarterbacks -- many of whom can beat you with their arm and legs -- the best defenses need to feature a dominant pass rush complemented by takeaway specialists and game-changers on the second and third levels.
Recently on the Move The Sticks Podcast, I had an insightful team-building discussion with Pro Football Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian where we discussed the necessary ingredients of a championship-caliber defense. The five-time Pro Football Writers of America Executive of the Year told me that elite Ds must have a pair of premier pass rushers, a playmaking linebacker with hit, run and cover capabilities and a five-star player in the defensive backfield. He suggested that the secondary standout play one of the safety positions, but also acknowledged the value of a shutdown corner in today's game.
Polian's defensive philosophy aligns with my past experiences on championship-caliber teams as a player and scout. When I spent time with the Green Bay Packers in the mid-1990s, we trotted out a defense that featured Reggie White and Sean Jones on the line, with linebacker George Koonce and safety LeRoy Butler in the back seven. The quartet quietly played at such a high level that the defense ranked No. 1 in scoring and total D. As a scout with the Carolina Panthers, I watched a defensive lineup that included DE Julius Peppers, DE Mike Rucker, LB Dan Morgan and S Mike Minter spark a Super Bowl run. The individual and collective destruction created by that quartet enabled a team with a scattershot offense to roll through the NFC with an old-school approach. Polian's team-building philosophy still resonated with the front office members who remained in Carolina from his Panthers tenure. And I myself remain a firm believer in building around a five-star defensive quartet.
Given some time to study the game tape and assess every roster in the NFL, here are the top five defensive quartets in the NFL right now:
OLB: Bud Dupree
OLB: T.J. Watt
LB: Devin Bush
S: Minkah Fitzpatrick
It's no coincidence Pittsburgh led the league in sacks and turnovers in 2019. The Steelers have a fine young core of defensive playmakers who should keep Pittsburgh in contention for years to come. Watt was a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate with 14.5 sacks, eight forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and two interceptions. He wrecked shop from one side, with Dupree also creating chaos from across the way. The former first-round pick tallied 11.5 sacks and four forced fumbles from the back side, finding his way as a late bloomer for the Steelers. When comprising Pittsburgh's foursome, I actually had a very difficult time deciding between Dupree and Cameron Heyward, who's as consistent as they come, but I gave the nod to Dupree after his breakout season. Couldn't go wrong either way. Meanwhile, Bush showcased a fabulous combination of speed, quickness and instincts that allowed him to gobble of ball carriers at every turn in his rookie season. Fitzpatrick is the cherry atop the sundae, as a game-changing playmaker in the middle of the field. The Steelers' prized midseason acquisition dramatically improved the scoring defense (17.3 ppg in the 14 games with No. 39 in the back end, as opposed to 30.5 ppg over the first two weeks of the season), while adding five interceptions, two fumble recoveries, a forced fumble and two defensive scores. With five-star playmakers in place at every level, the Steelers are built like heavyweight contenders on the defensive side of the ball.
DE: Arik Armstead
DE: Nick Bosa
LB: Fred Warner
CB: Richard Sherman
The defending NFC champions should make another run at the Lombardi Trophy with a defensive nucleus that specializes in creating splash plays all over the field. Bosa is an Energizer Bunny with a non-stop motor and an array of pass-rush moves that overwhelm and overpower blockers. Armstead is a disruptive force on the interior with the length and wiggle to win with power or finesse. He quietly amassed 10 sacks, displaying a dynamic game that made him a top-notch playmaker at his position. Warner is a heat-seeking missile on the second level with exceptional instincts and awareness. He is the new prototype at MLB: a traffic cop with run-stuffing capabilities and A+ cover skills. Sherman remains a Tier 1 cover corner with outstanding ball skills and instincts. He's lost a step or two, but his anticipation and awareness enable to him stay with elite pass catchers on the island.
OLB: Khalil Mack
OLB: Robert Quinn
LB: Roquan Smith
S: Eddie Jackson
If the Bears can find a way to make every game a defensive struggle, they could emerge as a dark-horse contender in the NFC. The Mack-Quinn combination should terrorize opponents in the NFC North with the speed (Quinn) and power (Mack) contrast creating problems on the edges. Both defenders have "take over the game" potential with signature moves that make them nearly impossible to block in one-on-one matchups. And Quinn edged out Akiem Hicks, who's a menace up front for the Bears when he's healthy. Smith's sophomore campaign didn't measure up to his lofty standards, but he remains one of the top playmakers at his position based on his dazzling flashes. Limited to 12 games because of injury, the explosive sideline-to-sideline defender finished with 100 tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception. If those numbers rate as a disappointing effort for the third-year pro, it is possible for Smith to reach All-Pro status in 2020 with a more consistent showing for the Bears. Jackson is the instinctive playmaker that every defensive coordinator covets in the middle of the field. He is a turnover machine with elite ball skills and scoop-and-score potential.
DT: Chris Jones
DE: Frank Clark
LB: Anthony Hitchens
S: Tyrann Mathieu
We pretty much know what we're going to get from Kansas City's offense -- points, and plenty of them -- so it's on the playmaking defense to hold up its end of the bargain in the Chiefs' bid to repeat. Clark and Jones give the unit a hard-hitting duo up front that wears opponents down with a barrage of body blows. The combination of up-the-gut pressure from Jones and pocket-crashing from Clark makes quarterbacks wilt by the end of a 60-minute game. Hitchens is a steady player in the middle with a rock-solid game as a run stopper. He isn't a top-50 player in the league or anything, but his consistent presence, superb communication skills and consistency within the box make him a perfect fit for the Chiefs. Mathieu is the ideal complement to a disruptive pass rush as a Swiss Army Knife defender with box-area skills. He remains a standout playmaker against the pass, but his ability to also make plays against the run elevates the performance of the defense. Moreover, Mathieu's leadership skills and toughness give K.C. an edginess that's needed in the rough-and-rugged AFC.
DT: DeForest Buckner
DE: Justin Houston
LB: Darius Leonard
S: Malik Hooker
Before you @ me about the Colts' inclusion on the list, I challenge you to find a better front-seven trio than Buckner, Houston and Leonard. Their individual and collective abilities not only earn blue-chip designations, but few groups can match the overall explosiveness of their complementary games. Buckner is a monstrous interior defender with a unique combination of run-stopping skills and pass-rush ability. He racked up 19.5 sacks, 26 tackles for loss and 34 QB hits over the past two seasons with the 49ers as a heavy-handed defensive tackle. Houston remains a dangerous pass rusher off the edge in the twilight of his career. With 11 sacks last year, he hit double digits for the first time since 2014, looking spry and energetic playing as the designated edge rusher for the Colts. Leonard is a shop wrecker from the second level as a tackling machine with outstanding blitz ability and coverage skills. The Pro Bowler is a unicorn at the position as an explosive athlete with a refined game that's built on technique, toughness and tenacity. Hooker has yet to live up to his first-round pedigree -- partially due to a series of injuries -- but he's a talented athlete with supreme ball skills and instincts. If he smooths out the inconsistency in his play and stays healthy, the Colts' defensive quartet could rival any unit on this list.
PANTHERS' NEW-LOOK OFFENSE: Must-see TV?
Although it obviously hasn't been possible this offseason, I typically love visiting NFL teams during summer months to see how coaches are adding pages to the playbook to help their best players take their games to the next level. New coaches, in particular, are fun to study due to their different perspectives and ideas on how to maximize the talents of their personnel. Some coaches will tweak a scheme to put players in different positions and accentuate certain talents, while others will bring in new players to create a unit that fits their vision for how a team should play in the NFL.
But yeah, this offseason, we're all forced to do more detective work in order to glean how some new-look attacks could come together.
From everything I'm seeing and hearing out of Carolina, new head coach Matt Rhule and new offensive coordinator Joe Brady have taken a blended approach with the Panthers. They've committed to building around the team's established stars (Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore), while adding some new faces with unique games who will move the team's offense in a different direction in the post-Cam Newton era. Brady will presumably take the lessons learned from his time with the New Orleans Saints as an offensive assistant, as well as his years working with Joe Moorhead at Penn State and Steve Ensminger at LSU, to create a new-school offense in Carolina that should be must-see TV this season.
After studying Brady's influencers, the Saints' base offensive scheme and the talents of the Panthers' key playmakers, here is what I expect the 30-year old to do with Carolina's offense:
1) Build around Christian McCaffrey's multi-faceted game.
I don't know if Brady plays Madden, but even novice gamers know that the ball should always be in the hands of players in the "99 Club." McCaffrey's impeccable rating reflects an explosive game that makes him an unstoppable force in the backfield. As the only member of the 1,000/100 (1,000 rushing yards, 100 receptions) and 1,000/1,000 (1,000 rushing yards, 1,000 receiving yards) Clubs, Run CMC is a playmaker extraordinaire with the capacity to take over games as a runner or receiver. He displays a rare combination of skills as a crafty inside runner with home-run speed and a sure-handed receiver with stupendous route-running ability.
The Panthers have taken advantage of those skills by putting the ball in his hands on a variety of power plays, delays and zone-read option plays, but the team could open up the playbook to feature more off-tackle or perimeter runs to enable him to utilize his speed and stop-start quickness. In addition, the increased utilization of a variety of RPO concepts with zone or power plays could help McCaffrey exploit uncertain second-level defenders conflicted by the run-pass option.
In the passing game, McCaffrey has racked up impressive totals on checkdowns, swings and screens, but the team has rarely featured him as an out-wide threat. As an A+ route runner with soft hands and natural ball skills, CMC could create headaches for defensive coordinators as an outside receiver in empty sets. The favorable one-on-one match-ups in space against linebackers or safeties would make life easy for the quarterback, while giving McCaffrey easier opportunities to rack up scrimmage yards without taking big hits from multiple defenders.
2) Play with rhythm and tempo, allowing Teddy Bridgewater to maximize his skill set.
Bridgewater's connection with Brady from their Saints days should help the QB1 make a smooth transition in Carolina. The young offensive wizard knows Bridgewater's game and how he processes information as a cerebral playmaker from the pocket. Most importantly, he and the QB1 are on the same page when it comes to how the game should be played.
With that in mind, Carolina should play pace and rhythm with Bridgewater due to his success as a quick-rhythm passer throughout his NFL and collegiate career. The seventh-year pro is at his best when playing like a pass-first point guard from the pocket, distributing the ball to the swift pass catchers on the perimeter on an assortment of short and intermediate throws. He gets the ball to them quickly and enables them to do the dirty work on the perimeter as catch-and-run specialists.
Although Bridgewater's connect-the-dots approach doesn't earn rave reviews from observers, the low-risk style keeps his teams in games by avoiding turnovers and costly mistakes. As a result, the veteran quarterback sports a 22-12 record (64.7 win percentage) as a starter and consistently gives his team an opportunity to win against all opponents. For a team in the middle of a rebuild, Bridgewater's game could help the Panthers become competitive faster than many expect.
3) Let D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson go to work on the perimeter.
Speed kills in the NFL. Teams with explosive playmakers on the perimeter routinely light up scoreboards around the league. The Panthers have a pair of speedsters with big-play potential in Moore and Anderson.
Moore -- a third-year pro with 142 receptions, 1,963 receiving yards and six touchdowns in his first two seasons -- is a polished WR1 with outstanding stop-start quickness and running skills. He is capable of doing the dirty work over the middle of the field on short and intermediate routes, while also displaying the run-after-catch ability to turn short passes into big gains. Moore is ideally suited to play the lead role in a ball-control passing game.
Anderson should thrive as the designated big-play specialist on the opposite side of the field. The fifth-year pro displays excellent speed, acceleration and burst as a vertical route runner. Anderson quickly shifts gears to separate from defenders with the ball in the air, and his ability to take the top off the defense creates opportunities for others on underneath routes. Over his first four NFL seasons, the former Jet tallied 50 receptions of 20-plus yards and another 11 of 40-plus. In Brady's offense, Anderson will certainly occupy the field-stretcher role, but the Panthers could also feature him on a variety of crossing routes and diagonals to enable him to run away in man coverage. With his speed and burst creating problems on the outside, Bridgewater could target him whenever he senses blitz-man or one-on-one coverage on the perimeter.
EZEKIEL ELLIOTT: Give the Cowboys RB1 his due!
It's silly for an NFL player to get worked up over his rating on Madden NFL '21, but I absolutely understand if Ezekiel Elliott is feeling disrespected by the folks at EA Sports.
Not only was he excluded from the game's 99 Club, but he received a rating of 92, which is two points lower than the mark he received in last year's game and ties him for third among running backs with the Browns' Nick Chubb. I don't know if the Pro Bowler's series of tweets on Thursday morning were in response to his Madden standing, but I don't believe it's a coincidence that he expressed his displeasure with how some observers have assessed his talents, skills and game during the same week that the new ratings were released.
As one of just three running backs in NFL history with at least 7,000 scrimmage yards, 40 rush touchdowns and 150 receptions in his first four seasons, Elliott is already a gold-jacket-caliber player in the class of LaDainian Tomlinson and Terrell Davis (the other backs to accomplish the feat). You read that correctly. Elliott is already an all-time great and he should be treated as such in every conversation regarding the running back position. By every meaningful metric, Elliott is in rarefied air as a runner. He has ranks fourth in league history with an average of 96.5 rush yards per game, placing him behind Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees Jim Brown (104.3), Barry Sanders (99.8) and Davis (97.5), but ahead of Eric Dickerson (90.8) and Walter Payton (88.0).
Let that marinate for a minute.
The two-time NFL rushing champ has rushed for more than 1,300 yards in three of his four seasons -- and the one season in which he did not reach that mark (983 rush yards in 2017) was impacted by a six-game suspension. Given his robust yards-per-game average that season (98.3) and overall effectiveness running behind the Cowboys offensive line, it's reasonable to assume Elliott would have surpassed the 1,300-yard mark again and claimed another rushing title if not for the suspension.
That's why I understand Elliott's frustration at the lack of appreciation for his dominance. No one has come close to matching his numbers as an RB1 since he entered the league, and the tape validates his excellence. The 6-foot, 228-pounder is a bull with the rock in his hands. Elliott exhibits exceptional strength and power on inside runs while also displaying outstanding balance and body control. He runs through arm tackles and glancing blows, finishing his runs with a combination of violence and physicality that sets the tone for the rest of the offense.
Naysayers will point to Elliott's lack of big runs (posted a career-low four runs of 20-plus yards in 2019) as a sign of slippage, but the fifth-year pro has always been best described as a grinder. He has just 34 runs of 20 or more yards in his career, with 14 of those recorded during his rookie season. Moreover, Elliott has a grand total of four runs of 40-plus yards (in 1,169 rushing attempts) during his career. Considering his remarkable production without the assistance of big plays, Elliott's consistency as a chain mover should be celebrated by observers.
Think about it this way: Saquon Barkley and others have followed the James Harden model as three-point shooters with "boom or bust" stat lines, while Elliott has torched opponents with a flurry of mid-range jumpers like Kawhi Leonard. Although his game is not always flashy or full of pizzazz, it's effective and teams can win championships with a steady producer like No. 21 leading the way.
One more thing: I would hold off on giving too much credit to the Cowboys' offensive line for Elliott's sustained success. Although the unit that helped him win a rushing title as a rookie was certainly five-star caliber with three former first-round picks playing in their prime (Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin), the front line hasn't performed to that level since 2016. Smith's game has declined since that point due to an assortment of injuries. Frederick's battle with an autoimmune disease sidelined him for the 2018 season and seemed to rob him of the explosive strength and power that made him one of the best pivots in the game.
With age, retirements and reshuffling impacting the unit, the greatness of the Cowboys' offensive line has been overstated by many fans. Sure, Dallas' front five has been no worse than solid throughout Elliott's tenure, but it certainly hasn't been the dominant unit that mauled opponents during his rookie season. The individual and collective decline show up on the tape and observers should keep that in mind when pointing out Elliott's so-called decline.
I don't mind having a healthy discussion about which running backs deserve to be included in the top-five list, but any conversation that excludes Elliott should be dismissed. The Cowboys RB1 is an all-time great on a path to Canton, and anyone who disagrees is simply a hater who hasn't done their homework or research.