Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
But first, a look at a former No. 1 overall pick who's in positon to realize his immense talent ...
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It's time for the Jadeveon Clowney to live up to the hype that's surrounded his name since he virtually decapitated Michigan RB Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl. You remember that hit. The one where Clowney exploded through a gap, decleated Smith and scooped up a loose ball with his left hand, as his right arm was still around the poor running back's fallen body. The big hit not only catapulted Clowney into stardom, but it set off the hype train in NFL circles, with scouts raving about his generational talent and potential.
I'll admit that I was very much caught up in the Clowney phenomenon. I compared the 6-foot-5, 266-pound defensive end to a few of my Hall of Fame teammates (Reggie White, Derrick Thomas and Bruce Smith) and suggested that he had the potential to take over the league like a young Julius Peppers did during my time as a scout for the Carolina Panthers.
I continued to gush over Clowney's immense talent after watching the athletic freak blow up the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, where the defensive lineman paced his position group with some remarkable numbers (4.53-second 40-yard dash, 37.5-inch vertical jump, 10-4 broad jump) while displaying the kind of agility and movement skills that are uncommon for long, rangy pass rushers with elite physical dimensions. Sure, I was concerned about the questions regarding his spotty work ethic and injury history, but I was willing to gamble on Clowney's spectacular talent after watching the former No. 1 overall recruit destroy SEC competition as a raw -- but ultra-explosive -- pass rusher.
The Houston Texans agreed and selected Clowney with the first pick in a draft that also featured another pass rusher (Khalil Mack) with nearly identical explosive traits and a rugged game. The ex-Buffalo standout was viewed as a superior prospect in a few circles, and his selection as an All-Pro defender at two positions last season has put the Texans' decision in the spotlight -- particularly with Clowney missing significant time (15 regular-season games in two years) with an assortment of injuries (including one that necessitated microfracture surgery) and failing to make the kind of impact (4.5 career sacks) that's expected of the No. 1 overall pick.
With "the B-word" (bust) being loosely associated with Clowney's name, it is time for the Texans pass rusher to take his game up a notch, particularly with three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Wattquestionable for the start of the season. The absence of the most disruptive defender in the game not only would give Clowney the opportunity to showcase his talents as a DPR1 (designated pass rusher), but it could remind evaluators why the ultra-athletic defender garnered so much attention prior to his arrival as a pro.
Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film of Clowney's play from the past two seasons, I've always been impressed with his natural athleticism and explosive power. He has physical gifts that are hard to find. From his remarkable first-step quickness to his ability to turn speed into power on bull-rush maneuvers, Clowney plays the game like a bull in a china shop. He stays in attack mode and his combination of power-based moves (bull rush, two-hand swipe, butt-and-jerk) makes him a nightmare to deal with in isolated matchups, especially when he mixes in a speed rush or inside arm-over maneuver to get free. Although Clowney hasn't compiled the kind of production that jumps off the stat sheet, anyone watching the tape would notice how his technique has improved tremendously since he entered the league. He has more tools in the toolbox than before and he was beginning to understand how to diversify his game when injuries prematurely ended his 2015 campaign.
This preseason, Clowney looks like an absolute monster on the edge. He has continued to build upon the momentum created by his strong finish a season ago (15 tackles and three sacks in his final four games). When I studied his spectacular performance against the New Orleans Saints in Week 2 of this preseason, I saw that Clowney is not only more polished as a pass rusher, but he is nearly impossible to contain against the run. He has a strong nose for the ball and effectively uses his extraordinary length to hold the point against runs to his direction. The third-year pro routinely "long arms" blockers (defender places his inside hand squarely in the center of the blocker's chest and extends his arm to keep his outside hand free to corral runners attempting to turn the corner) to keep runners from getting outside. In addition, Clowney flashes a strong two-handed shiver that allows him to stalemate blockers on zone or power-based blocks, which clogs the hole for runners attempting to slip through creases on the inside. With Clowney also showing the wiggle and burst to slip through cracks and run down ball carriers from the back side, he is a destructive force as a run defender and must be accounted for on every snap.
When I quizzed a few scouts about Clowney's progress as a pro -- particularly after his strong showing against Saints -- they weren't surprised by the development, but they also weren't quite ready to fully embrace him as a breakout star. In fact, I had an AFC personnel executive tell me, "He's the same guy [as college]. You will always expect him to be the guy, but he leaves you heartbroken ... Kind of reminds me of Mario Williams."
An NFC scout added, "With him, it's not about the skills, it's about the want to ... It's not necessarily his fault, based on how he was coached by [Steve] Spurrier, but he needed someone to hold him accountable to reach his potential."
I found those responses interesting, considering how excited scouts tend to get with any edge defender who flashes disruptive potential, but it speaks to the perception that surrounded Clowney entering the league. Despite his unlimited potential, some scouts are reluctant to go all in on his ability to develop into a dominant player until he performs at a high level for a sustained period. That's why it's imperative for Clowney to shine during Watt's potential absence, to help the Texans' defense remain among the league's elite while silencing some of the criticisms lobbed in his direction since the pre-draft process back in 2014. Clowney needs to be a "shop wrecker" off the edge against the run and pass to spark a defense that usually lives on splash plays from Watt.
If Clowney can hold down the DPR1 spot with Watt on the sideline, the Texans' defense could be downright scary when they get their full complement of weapons on the field. Most importantly, the unit could make Houston a title contender and validate Clowney's selection at No. 1 overall.
ASK THE LEAGUE: Does Trevor Siemian have the goods to succeed?
When the Denver Broncos announced Trevor Siemian as the starter for the team's third preseason game, Gary Kubiak sent a message to the rest of the league that the second-year pro is in line to be the defending champs' QB1 against the Carolina Panthers when the regular season kicks off in a couple of weeks. Now, that's certainly not the scenario most of us envisioned when the three-headed quarterback competition started in the offseason, but Siemian has outplayed veteran Mark Sanchez and has a better grasp of the team's offense than rookie Paxton Lynch.
Given this development for the 250th overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft, I thought I'd reach out to a few of my scouting buddies to get their thoughts on Siemian. Here's what I asked them:
What were your thoughts on Trevor Siemian coming out of Northwestern? Where did you project his NFL ceiling to be?
AFC director of player personnel: "I was somewhat of a fan. He didn't have great numbers, but he was accurate, sneaky athletic and showed flashes of a graduate-level understanding of quarterback play (vision, timing, using his eyes to move defenders, etc.). I thought he could develop into a solid backup (initially No. 3) with a little upside."
AFC player personnel executive: "I don't even remember doing him. I know that I went there [Northwestern], but he didn't have any standout qualities. I think Denver is trying to create something. Maybe Kubiak is trying to do the quarterback guru thing."
AFC college scout: "He was super productive in limited action. He had a strong arm and enough size to be a backup. He could come in as a No. 3 and work his way up to being a solid No. 2."
AFC college scouting director: "I didn't even do him coming out ... We didn't have high enough grades on him for me to watch him."
AFC scout: "Sorry, dawg ... I didn't do him. I heard that he is doing well in Denver, but he wasn't on my radar coming out."
Despite previously praising John Elway and the Broncos in this notebook for their handling of the quarterback situation, I didn't seriously think the team would enter the season with Siemian as the starting quarterback. I assumed Sanchez would win the job as the seasoned veteran with a pair of AFC Championship Game appearances on his résumé, or that the team would hand the gig to the rookie first-rounder if the race was close coming out of the preseason.
That's why I'm shocked to see the former seventh-rounder starting the "dress rehearsal" of the exhibition season. In Week 3 of the preseason, teams play their starters into the second half to establish a rhythm and work the kinks out before the real action begins. With Siemian running with the 1s Saturday night, he's the overwhelming favorite to get the ball on opening night.
Looking at Siemian's play throughout the preseason, I must admit that I've been impressed with his accuracy, ball placement and decisiveness. He gets the ball out of his hands quickly and allows his playmakers to do the work on the perimeter. Against the 49ers, in particular, Siemian didn't hesitate to get the ball to his second or third option in the progression when the coverage took away his primary read. Speaking to a few Broncos players and coaches during the offseason, I frequently heard them rave about Siemian's command of the offense and how quickly he got the ball out. They also cited his competitiveness -- a Broncos team source told me that he treated every opportunity like a big deal and his success leading the 3s as a rookie opened some eyes around the building -- leadership skills and steady improvement as a passer as major factors in his ascension up the depth chart.
When I asked my scouting buddies about Siemian's rapid rise, most were shocked that he's considered a potential QB1 after a mediocre collegiate career. (Siemian didn't even crack the top 10 among Big Ten quarterbacks in passer efficiency as a senior.) Although I had one scout point to the Northwestern's upset win at Notre Dame in November of 2014 as a sign of his potential, the vast majority of scouts saw him as a "height/weight/speed" prospect (OK, not so much on the speed, but HWS is just a general scouting term) with a big arm and limited potential. Siemian carried a "Priority Free Agent" (PFA) grade on most boards, and the Broncos' selection late on Day 3 was in line with that opinion (seventh-round picks are essentially viewed as PFAs on draft boards).
Considering how rare it is to see a late-round quarterback in the starting lineup on opening day -- every projected Week 1 starter was drafted in the first four rounds except Tom Brady (sixth-rounder), Ryan Fitzpatrick (seventh-rounder), Tyrod Taylor (sixth-rounder), Tony Romo (undrafted) and Case Keenum (undrafted) -- the Broncos are attempting to buck the odds by giving Siemian the ball. Sure, Denver simply needs a game manager to support a team fueled by its defense and running game, but Siemian must show the skeptics that he won't wilt under the bright lights while leading the reigning champs. It's one thing to sit comfortably in the shadows as the QB2 or QB3, but it's obviously a completely different deal to be the guy.
NEXT-GEN STATS: Can Ryan Fitzpatrick do it again?
That's the question Jets fans are asking themselves heading into this season, after watching "Fitzmagic" set a franchise record with 31 touchdown passes in 2015. The journeyman also piled up 3,905 yards (the second-most in Jets history, just behind Joe Namath's 4,007 yards in 1967) and an 88.0 passer rating (highest team mark since Chad Pennington's 91.0 in 2004). Most importantly, Fitzpatrick led the Jets to 10 wins and kept the team in playoff contention into the final week.
Despite all of those accomplishments, Fitzpatrick had to settle for a below-market, one-year deal from the Jets due to questions about the 33-year-old's ability to sustain his high level of play. I completely agreed with the front office's assessment of Fitzpatrick's skills, based on his inconsistent play throughout his career, and thought the team was right to hold firm on its financial parameters. Fitzpatrick has never led a team into the postseason and his career record is 43-61-1. Not to mention, he has been one of the most turnover-prone quarterbacks in the game, averaging 1.26 turnovers a game.
Asking scouts around the league whether or not Fitzpatrick has the tools to lead a team into the playoffs, I couldn't find many evaluators willing to endorse the veteran as a legitimate franchise quarterback. In fact, most questioned if he could sustain his high level of play in 2015 because he refuses to play like a "game manager" and wants to be a "gunslinger" despite lacking elite arm talent. I had an NFC pro director describe Fitzpatrick as a "habitual line stepper" prone to playing outside of his talent boundaries. Another NFC scout labeled the veteran as a "JAG" (just a guy). The scout believed Fitzpatrick would always "melt down" in big moments based on his history, specifically pointing to Fitzpatrick's horrible Week 17 performance last season with a playoff spot on the line.
Now, all that said, I actually like the veteran's chances of sustaining his play under offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, who's a terrific play designer with an outstanding feel for mixing personnel groupings and formations. Gailey will trot out a number of spread and empty sets with "10" (1 RB, 4 WR), "11" (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) and "21" (2 RB, 1 TE, 2WR) packages on the field. He will tailor his passing game to best suit the strengths of his quarterback, and the approach helped Fitzpatrick thrive a season ago.
Remember, Gailey was instrumental in Fitzpatrick's initial emergence as a starting quarterback in Buffalo, so he has a clear understanding of the veteran's game. As a quick-rhythm passer with a sharp mind and an average arm, Fitzpatrick is at his best when operating from spread formations due to the clear sightlines (fewer defenders in the box) and distinct pre-snap reads. When directing a passing game built on short, rhythmic throws, Fitzpatrick is capable of playing efficient and effective football.
Looking at the numbers, I don't think it's a coincidence that Fitz compiled a 26:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio on passes that covered 20 air yards or fewer, compared to his 5:8 TD-to-INT ratio on passes that covered 20-plus air yards. Fitzpatrick shines when he is able to catch, rip and fire from the pocket without hesitation. He completed 183 of 248 attempts (73.7 percent) on passes under 10 yards, with a 12:2 TD-to-INT ratio. The numbers drop significantly when he moves to intermediate and deep range. Thus, the Jets are wise to spread the field to create passing lanes for Fitzpatrick at close range.
As I dug deeper into the numbers, I found it interesting that Fitzpatrick was more effective in working with "11" personnel (59.7 percent completion rate with an 11:3 TD-to-INT ratio and a 90.9 passer rating) than with the team's "10" package (60.1 percent completion rate with a 12:10 TD-to-INT ratio and an 82.5 passer rating), considering how the team used the four-wide grouping on about a third of their snaps in 2015.
On paper, the matchups out of "11" personnel favor the Jets against most opponents, with Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker enjoying size advantages over most corners, and a collection of running backs (namely Bilal Powell) capable of wearing out linebackers in space. If the team can get Devin Smith or Quincy Enunwa untracked, Gang Green's spread-and-shred approach could cause headaches for defensive coordinators.
The addition of Matt Forte hasn't been widely discussed across the NFL landscape, but this gives the Jets a dynamic weapon to use in a variety of ways. Forte is one of the productive multi-purpose backs in NFL history, as evidenced by his 12,718 total yards from scrimmage (8,602 rushing yards and 4,116 receiving yards) in eight seasons. Forte is one of the few running backs capable of executing receiver-like routes from the slot or out wide, which will open up the playbook for the Jets and make life easier for Fitzpatrick in the pocket.
Last season, the Jets used empty formations with mixed results (254 pass attempts for Fitz -- 56.3 percent completion rate with a 13:10 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 75.6 passer rating), but thrived when using their spread formations (96 pass attempts -- 65.6 percent completion rate with a 3:0 TD-to-INT ratio and 97.8 passer rating). With Forte coming on board, the Jets will get better production from their empty formations by incorporating more screens and isolation routes to the back.
In addition, the Jets' spread formations will benefit from having a legitimate weapon at the "dot" position. Forte averaged 4.13 yards per carry on runs from single-back sets last season; his presence will prevent opponents from using "light" boxes (six defenders or fewer) against open formations. Not to mention, he averaged 11.2 yards per reception in 2015 when catching the ball out of the backfield in this package. That production will eliminate some of the double coverage and brackets on Marshall, and create more one-on-one opportunities for Fitzpatrick to exploit.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention the X-factor in the Jets' 2016 plans could be a return to old-school football with "21" personnel (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) on the field. The traditional grouping is commonly associated with the I-formation and hard-hitting runs between the tackles, but it is also one of the best play-action passing sets a coach can use to create big plays. Forte was effective in this formation with the Bears as a runner last season (4.29 yards per carry) and Fitzpatrick thrived as a passer with "21" personnel on the field (54 attempts -- 53.7 percent completion rate with a 5:0 TD-to-INT ratio and 111.03 passer rating). Forte hinted at the Jets' utilization of the I-formation as one of the factors for joining the team, and I believe Gailey will expand on the package.
In the end, the Jets are banking on Fitzpatrick retaining his magical ways for at least another season to engineer a playoff run. Despite a lengthy history that suggests he is unable to lead a team to the winner's circle, the Jets have put him in a system that plays to his strengths and surrounded him with a star-studded supporting cast that can elevate his play. If Fitzpatrick can stick to the script -- and stay away from gunslinging -- the Jets could emerge as a legitimate contender in the AFC behind a quarterback few view as a marquee guy.
FANTASY GEMS: Five rookies generating buzz in the scouting community
As one of the fantasy footballers prepping for a draft this weekend, I've been leaning on my contacts around the NFL to point me in the right direction when looking for a few young guys to target on draft day. Now, I know the hardcore football fans are already familiar with some of the names on this list thanks to the buzz that's circulated throughout the offseason, but I thought I would share the following list with you, based on my observations and conversations with scouts, coaches and players. Here are five instant-impact rookies you should target on draft day:
Tajae Sharpe, WR, Tennessee Titans: It's rare for a fifth-round pick to come in and seize the WR1 job, but that appears to be the case with the ex-UMass standout in Tennessee. Sharpe quickly has become Marcus Mariota's most trusted weapon at the "X" position (split end), and their connection should produce big numbers with opponents intent on slowing down the Titans' "exotic smashmouth" attack. When teams are forced to put eight defenders in the box and leave their corners on the island in one-on-one coverage, the 6-foot-2, 194-pound pass catcher will see a bunch of balls in his direction on the perimeter.
Sterling Shepard, WR, New York Giants: This offseason "hype bunny" is poised to make a major impact playing opposite Odell Beckham Jr. As a silky smooth receiver with super ball skills and explosive RAC (run after catch) ability, Shepard is a perfect fit in the Giants' catch-and-run system that places a premium on getting the ball into the hands of playmakers on the move in the open field. Considering how much attention OBJ will command from opponents, Shepard is certain to get plenty of target in his direction, regardless of whether or not Victor Cruz is in the lineup.
Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints: After releasing Marques Colston in February, the Saints needed to find a rugged receiver capable of doing the dirty work between the numbers. Thomas could be the man for the job as a big-bodied pass catcher (6-3, 212 pounds) with sticky hands and advanced route-running ability. He has teased Saints officials with his flair for the acrobatic catch throughout the offseason, but the football world caught a glimpse of his spectacular skills against the New England Patriots in Week 1 of the preseason. As Brandin Cooks cements his status as the Saints' WR1, Thomas should carve out a role as the designated "chain mover" in key situations.
Hunter Henry, TE, San Diego Chargers: Don't be surprised if Henry becomes a huge part of the Chargers' game plan this fall. The 6-5, 250-pound tight end is carving out a role as an H-back/"Y" receiver in the team's "12" personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) packages. When the Chargers drafted Henry with the 35th overall pick, he was expected to serve as an apprentice to Antonio Gates for a season before taking over as the "Y." But the loss of Stevie Johnson to injury could prompt the team to use more creative and exotic sets with both tight ends on the field. I watched Henry line up in multiple spots within a wide array of spread, empty and condensed formations when I checked out the Chargers' joint practice with the Cardinals a week ago. He could get the ball on a variety of quick-rhythm throws and short crossing routes to combat blitz tactics from opponents attempting to disrupt Philip Rivers' timing from the pocket.
Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans: Most of the time, I wouldn't suggest snagging a backup running back as an RB2/3 or flex option, but Henry is an exception to the rule, based on my gut feeling that he eventually will take over the workhorse role for the Titans (think: fantasy playoffs). The big-bodied thumper is a classic downhill runner, but he has shown better instincts, lateral quickness and agility than most observers expected when initially projecting his impact out of Alabama. Despite starting the season as the Titans' RB2, it's only a matter of time before he edges out DeMarco Murray as the focal point of the team's ground game.