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:
-- End of an era in Seattle -- why it had to happen.
-- A fascinating contract standoff involving a highly productive player.
But first, a look at how three teams are changing the way we look at team building ...
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The NFL has been dubbed a quarterback league based on the correlation between elite signal-callers and Super Bowl titles. But throughout the season, I've questioned the premise that one spot is the be all, end all of every single 53-man roster. And given the makeup of the four teams playing on Championship Sunday, this healthy skepticism appears well-founded.
That's why I believe there are plenty of lessons to be gleaned from the team-building efforts of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles. After studying the All-22 Coaches Film and chatting with a few executives around the league, I have a better idea of how these teams have been able to reach this point without an elite quarterback leading the way. There are common threads among all three squads. Here are my three biggest takeaways:
1) Build your defenses from front to back.
What's the quickest way to become a title contender? Ask any coach that question, and he will tell you that a championship-caliber defense can get you to the postseason on the strength of its play alone.
The Vikings (first in pointsandyards allowed during the regular season), Jaguars (second in both categories) and Eagles (fourth in both) all rank among the top five in key defensive metrics. These units don't just keep offensive production down, but they rarely allow opponents to drive the length of the field for touchdowns. While this philosophy is proposed in meeting rooms around the league, the Vikings, Jaguars and Eagles have the right personnel to actually pull it off in a league that's built around the pass. Looking at these three rosters, it is not a coincidence seeing plenty of talent along the defensive line and in the secondary. These teams invested draft capital and free-agent dollars on the marquee defensive positions, and it has paid off handsomely this season.
"If you want to play great defense in this league, you have pass rushers, corners and safeties," an AFC college scouting director told me. "You must be able to knock the quarterback around and handle these explosive pass catchers on the perimeter. If you can't do that, you don't have a chance in today's game."
When I look at each of these squads, the depth and talent assembled at those core positions (pass rusher, cornerback and safety) pop off the page. These teams feature blue-chip players in these areas, and the collection of talent overwhelms opponents in big games.
In Philadelphia, the roster is especially loaded up front. The Eagles roll out eight or nine defensive linemen with legit pass-rushing skills. Whether it's Fletcher Cox or Tim Jernigan on the inside or Brandon Graham, Chris Long and Derek Barnett on the outside, Philly attacks opponents in waves, like a basketball team employing a full-court press. You might not turn the ball over in the first quarter, but the cumulative effect of the pressures wears you down by the end of the game.
The same can be said for the Jaguars and their ultra-talented D-line rotation. They unleash Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson at the point of attack from a variety of spots, while also sending Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler off the edges. Not to mention, the team will rotate Marcell Dareus in as a run-stuffing nose tackle with pass-rushing skills. This combination of inside and outside pressure is too much for most offensive lines, as evidenced by the team's 55 regular-season sacks -- the second-highest total in the league, behind only Pittsburgh.
"The league is trending towards defenses having two pass rushers on the field at all times, but one is an inside rusher to complement an outside guy," an AFC assistant college director told me. "If you can get pressure up the gut and have a guy coming off the edge, you make life miserable for a quarterback in the pocket. I would rather have a pass-rushing defensive tackle over a second edge rusher -- that's the way the game is going."
Secondary play is just as essential to building a championship defense. Teams with elite cover corners and ball-hawking safeties can employ the kind of "lockdown" schemes needed to thwart a top passer. That's why the Jaguars (Jalen Ramsey/A.J. Bouye/Barry Church/Tashaun Gipson), Vikings (Xavier Rhodes/Trae Waynes/Harrison Smith) and Eagles (Ronald Darby/Malcolm Jenkins/Rodney McLeod) are loaded with top draft picks and marquee acquisitions in the back end. They understand the importance of assembling a defensive backfield that can take the ball away when pressure up front forces an errant throw from the pocket.
"Turnovers matter," the AFC assistant college director said. "If you have guys in the secondary who can get the ball back, it gives you a chance to win big."
2) Invest in the offensive line.
For all the attention quarterbacks receive, the overwhelming majority of QB1s are dependent on their supporting cast. And with a young signal-caller, that starts with protection. The presence of a strong offensive line gives average quarterbacks an opportunity to thrive against elite competition. In the NFL, a well-protected QB can eat up opposing defenses. You have to have a certain level of arm talent to make a roster as a quarterback, and the bottom line is that defenses can only cover pass catchers for so long. Not to mention, the threat of a strong running game creates easy passing opportunities off play-action.
"You have to protect the quarterback to give him a chance to succeed," the AFC college scouting director said. "If you give most guys time, they can pick apart the majority of defenses."
During the regular season, the Jaguars (No. 1), Eagles (No. 3) and Vikings (No. 7) each boasted a top-10 rushing offense. Jacksonville also yielded the fourth-fewest sacks during the regular season, while Minnesota ranked eighth in this category. Philadelphia was middle of the road when it comes to sacks allowed (16th), but a big reason for this was Carson Wentz's willingness to hang tough and ability to extend plays.
Philly actually hasn't yielded many sacks with Foles under center, including just one in last Saturday's win over Atlanta. Yes, part of this is scheme-dependent -- Doug Pederson has made a point of getting the ball out of Foles' hands quickly, routinely employing quick-hitting run-pass options and screens -- but the offensive line deserves credit, especially considering the group lost its best player back in Week 7, when Jason Peters tore up his knee. Former No. 4 overall pick Lane Johnson has become one of the best right tackles in the game -- in fact, he just earned first-team All-Pro honors. Right guard Brandon Brooks, who signed a $40 million deal with the Eagles two offseasons ago, made his first Pro Bowl this season.
In Minnesota, the overall athleticism, movement skills and collective strength of the offensive line have helped Keenum thrive in a movement-based passing attack with a complementary running game. The Vikings have been able to absorb the loss of a talented RB1 (Dalvin Cook) due to rock-solid blocking at the point of attack. With the ground game and complementary run-action pass calls setting up No. 7 for success, Minnesota's offensive line has been critical to this magical season. Major credit goes to third-round pick Pat Elflein -- the rookie has provided immediate returns at the pivot.
In Jacksonville, the Jaguars have quietly assembled a solid O-line that features a second-round rookie at left tackle (Cam Robinson), a former third-round pick at right guard (A.J. Cann) and a big-money center (Brandon Linder). They can maul defenders in the running game while also keeping rushers at bay on passing downs, as evidenced by their 26 total sacks allowed in 18 games (including the postseason).
If you want your quarterback to play well, invest in the offensive line. Even a mid-level QB can get a well-stocked offense to the championship round.
3) Surround the QB with plenty of playmakers.
Franchise quarterbacks are expected to elevate the play of their teammates, but middling quarterbacks need the team to elevate them. That's why we refer to quarterbacks as "trucks" (QB carries the team) or "trailers" (team carries the QB) on the Move the Sticks Podcast. This edition of Championship Sunday highlights the importance of building a team that can support a trailer. While everyone would love to find the QB1 who can single-handedly reverse the fortunes of the franchise on the strength of his throwing arm, the overwhelming majority of signal-callers need a village to raise them up.
That's why teams must assemble a deep collection of skill players: to support any quarterback who's thrust into action (like Foles in Philly).
The Vikings have arguably the NFL's best 1-2 punch at wide receiver (Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs), as well as a big-time tight end (Kyle Rudolph) and a pass-catching back with speed to burn (Jerick McKinnon). The wealth of options allows Keenum to spread the ball around without force-feeding a designated player on the perimeter. As a result, he can simply play "connect the dots" football from the pocket to win games.
In Philadelphia, free-agent acquisition Alshon Jeffery mans the No. 1 role, with Torrey Smith and Nelson Agholor occupying the WR2 and WR3 spots, respectively. They are joined by Zach Ertz, the playmaking tight end needed to control the middle of the field. With Jay Ajayi flashing skills as a screen specialist, the Eagles have enough around Foles to help him move the ball down the field.
Jacksonville's run-first premise allows the team to lean on No. 4 overall pick Leonard Fournette, Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon as a three-headed monster in the backfield. The trio alleviates pressure from Bortles to carry the offense as a passer from the pocket. Although Marqise Lee, Dede Westbrook, Allen Hurns, Keelan Cole and Marcedes Lewis have made plays in the passing game, it's the presence of a strong running game that's truly key; this allows the team to play around Bortles' inconsistencies as a passer.
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Like it or not, this kind of QB-independent roster-building could be the way of the future in a league ushering in a changing of the guard at the position. With Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger nearing the end, you should get used to seeing executives constructing true teams, as opposed to QB-centric squads.
SEAHAWKS' OFFSEASON OVERHAUL: Why Seattle's turning the page
I hate to break it to you, Seahawks fans, but the squad that you've grown to love under Pete Carroll is no longer.
You remember that fun-lovin' crew that took the league by storm with a bunch of alpha dogs playing ferociously under an eternally enthusiastic coach with a philosophy that was going to enable them to win forever? Well, that core group of players -- along with most of the coaches -- who claimed five straight playoff berths, three division titles and a Super Bowl ring is no more. Now, we must get ready for the second chapter of the Seattle Seahawks under Carroll without some familiar faces on the field and in the press box.
While change is inevitable in this league, it's tough to envision the Seahawks without the likes of Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Earl Thomas and Jimmy Graham. Although it is possible for some of those wily vets to return for another run at the brass ring, age, injury history and hefty cap numbers suggest that a few names on that list have played their last game in front of the "12s." With the team also swapping out its offensive and defensive coordinators -- and a few position coaches -- the new version of the 'Hawks will attempt to regain its swagger and identity with some new voices and a few new characters in lead roles.
Why? Why make sweeping personnel changes when the team's recipe for success has worked so well since the beginning of the decade?
"We have a real formula of how we win. And we have been unable the last two years to incorporate a major aspect of that -- and it's running the football the way we want to run it," Carroll said recently, via The News Tribune. "I think you see tremendous examples around the league of teams who have turned their fortunes around, and they have turned it around in a formula that I think should sound familiar to you: running the football, teams playing good defense and doing the kicking-game thing. That is the formula that has proven historically the best in this game.
"We have been committed to that from the start. But, unfortunately, we have not been able to recapture it the way that we have in years past."
Say what you want about the moves, but it is clear Carroll has a vision for how he wants his teams to play -- and he's committed to bringing that style of play back to Seattle. On defense, in particular, Carroll wants his guys operating in a simple scheme that allows them to play fast and free. He is a believer in a single-high-safety system that mixes man (Cover 1) and zone (Cover 3) with maximum coverage in the back end. The success of the defense is predicated on a persistent pass rush that's capable of winning with four guys hunting the quarterback. This is where Kris Richard and Carroll reportedly bumped heads, with the former defensive coordinator using more man coverage and blitzes than the head coach preferred. That's why Ken Norton Jr. might be a better fit, despite his failures as the Oakland Raiders' defensive coordinator. Norton, of course, coached under Carroll from 2004 through 2014, at USC and in Seattle.
"It's all up to the management, to Coach Carroll," linebacker K.J. Wright said while discussing the staff changes during a radio interview on 950 KJR in Seattle. "I believe that they want to do what's best for the team, and if that's what they thought that we needed to get done, then that's just what it is. They thought that a change needed to be made. We got a guy in that's very familiar with Coach Carroll, very familiar with the system who's going to be really good, I believe, and I'm excited for this new opportunity that we have as a defense."
Wright suggested that Norton's experience in the system would ensure continuity and help the squad get back on track.
"When it did happen, I was wondering, like, who is out there that knows how we play, knows how we operate, knows the system like that," Wright said. "And when they told us Coach Norton, I was very relieved, very happy, because he played 13 years in the league, he coached at USC with Coach Carroll and in the NFL, won a Super Bowl with us, so he's going to be just fine. He's the type of guy that can not only impact the defense but impact the entire team. He's just that great of a guy, that influential. So when he gets in here, I think you'll see a big turnaround with our team."
That said, Wright talked about Carroll's influence on the defense and how the head coach always has been the top dog behind the scenes.
"He's definitely going to be the overseer because he's the head coach and he's definitely the defensive mind. Even when we had Gus (Bradley) here, DQ (Dan Quinn), he even put his thing onto Gus, and Gus had to adjust to what Coach Carroll wanted. So it's going to be the same thing," Wright said. "It doesn't matter who came in, they would have to do what Coach Carroll wanted. This system has worked for us. It's really good and a lot of teams over the league have stolen it and made it work for them. And so it doesn't matter who comes in -- Coach Carroll is really the mastermind behind it all."
On offense, the Seahawks hope new coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and O-line coach Mike Solari can get the running game up and going in the Pacific Northwest. The Seahawks' rushing offense has ranked 23rd and 25th, respectively, over the past two seasons. Remember: Seattle fielded a top-five ground game in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. With those top-five finishes tied directly to a pair of Super Bowl appearances, it's sensible for Carroll to focus his offseason efforts on upgrading the rushing attack.
While most of the emphasis will center around the team's personnel, it is important to note that the Seahawks have used a league-high 16 picks on the offensive line since 2011. Despite the heavy investment in the O-line, the Seahawks had only eight draftees log eight or more starts during that span, which is an indictment of the team's development plan. With five of the draftees failing to log a single snap, the Seahawks clearly needed a new voice and leader in the position room.
Let's be clear, though: Seattle's running-game woes extend beyond the front line. The Seahawks' running backs haven't played up to par since Marshawn Lynch handed in his No. 24 jersey a few seasons ago. Whether it's due to a lack of explosiveness and pop or unavailability due to injury, the 'Hawks' collection of runners hasn't contributed enough to reduce the team's dependence on Russell Wilson's wizardry as a playmaker. As the team's leading rusher in 2017, the quarterback was exposed to more hits than other starters. That's not conducive to winning over the long haul.
This is where Schottenheimer's influence comes into play. He once directed a Jets offense to back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances with Mark Sanchez at QB1. Think about that. If Schottenheimer can get a Sanchez-led offense to the championship game, he should be able to get a team with an MVP candidate over the hump, right?
Remember, those Jets teams were led by a run-oriented offense that perfectly complemented the dominant defense. In Seattle, Schottenheimer will work with Solari to recapture that ground-and-pound approach. Given Solari's familiarity with "Martyball" -- Solari was the offensive line coach with the Kansas City Chiefs when I played under Brian's dad, Marty -- this marriage could very well propel the Seahawks back in the right direction.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) Shurmur's approach could take Giants from worst to first. Of all the offense-driven head-coaching hires in this cycle, I believe the marriage between Pat Shurmur and the New York Giants has the most promise. The 52-year-old offensive wizard is ideally suited to take over a team loaded with stars on both sides of the ball. Despite the G-Men's meltdown in 2017, there's no denying the talent that exists on the roster. The Giants not only have a solid set of "blues" on the depth chart (Odell Beckham Jr., Jason Pierre-Paul, Olivier Vernon, Landon Collins, Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Damon Harrison) with the potential to spark a championship run, but they have some intriguing young pieces (Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram) with talent to emerge as studs in the right system.
Offensively, Shurmur's detailed approach and versatile scheme should elevate the play of a unit that features a two-time Super Bowl MVP at quarterback (Eli Manning) and arguably the most dynamic offensive weapon in football at wide receiver (Beckham). With a pair of complementary weapons (Shepard and Engram) also available in the passing game, the Giants have the potential to light up the scoreboard -- if they can fix the offensive line. That's where Shurmur's experience in Minnesota could pay off for Big Blue. After watching Shurmur guide the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game behind a completely rebuilt offensive line, the Giants know that their new leader can figure out how to best utilize his weapons on the perimeter, while also playing to the strengths of his line. Shurmur tweaked his running game in Minnesota to handle the contrasting running styles of Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray when the team lost its RB1, and that adaptability will help him work around whatever deficiencies exist on the Giants' offensive line. In addition, the wily coach will retool New York's pass-protection schemes to account for Manning's limitations as an athlete and passer.
Speaking of the passing game, there has been plenty of speculation regarding Shurmur's ability to work with a big personality like Beckham. Although Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen aren't viewed as divas, I can tell you it's hard to manage an offense that features a pair of No. 1 receivers on the field at the same time. Yet, Shurmur was able to do so without it being an issue in the locker room. Nos. 14 and 19 figured out a way to share the marquee without bickering, and their ability to play well together in the sandbox is a direct reflection of Shurmur's deft management of the "touches" in the passing game.
"Shurmur does a great job of spreading it around," a former Vikings scout told me. "He understands how to move the chess pieces around the board to maximize the talents of his players and elevate the offense. That's rare."
If that's not enough, just listen to how the Vikings' top weapons rave about their offensive leader's approach and adaptability.
"He's not an arrogant guy. He's not a guy that's not going to switch things just because he's done it a certain way," Thielen told Vikings.com a few weeks ago. "He's a guy that's going to adapt. If we're not good at something, he's going to throw it out. If we're good at something, he's going to keep doing it and try to figure out different ways to do that. He's a guy that wants to win, wants to move the ball and doesn't care how he's going to do that."
"I guess he's great at what he does because he does a lot of studying, as far as what works and what works for his guys and putting us in the best position to be successful," Diggs added, via Vikings.com. "He uses all of the pieces of the puzzle to try to make it all work; no matter what game we have, he's going to try to put everybody in a position where they'll have success so we can all get a W."
In New York, Shurmur inherits a team that has all of the pieces to quickly re-emerge as a dominant bunch, particularly on offense. He has a veteran quarterback and a crew of explosive pass catchers who can score from anywhere on the field. If he can get his veteran leaders on both sides of the ball to buy into his message, there's no reason why the G-Men can't go from worst to first in a year's time.
2) Does Landry deserve WR1 pay?The contract standoff between Jarvis Landry and the Miami Dolphins will make for great theater over the next few weeks. The two-time Pro Bowl receiver is looking to get paid after a spectacular four-year run of historic proportions. Landry holds the NFL record for most receptions by a receiver through the first four seasons of his career with 400 catches (for 4,038 yards and 22 touchdowns). As the team's No. 1 pass catcher, he wants to be paid like an elite WR1, and he believes the team's offer has been "disrespectful," based on production.
Now, I see where he's coming from based on his catch totals, but it's hard to break the bank for a slot receiver who doesn't impact the game as a dynamic playmaker. No disrespect to No. 14 for being the ultimate chain mover for the Dolphins, but he's just not a transcendent talent at the position.
Measuring 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds, Landry is not a blazer capable of blowing the top off the defense as a vertical threat. He is best described as a "playground legend" when it comes to his route-running skills and playmaking potential from the slot. He is at his best freelancing on option routes and making things happen with the ball in his hands in the open field. Despite those assets, Landry's not viewed as a dominant player in the league.
"He's a good player, but we didn't view him as a Tier 1 guy," an AFC defensive coordinator told me. "He can frustrate you with his ability to pick up first downs on third-and-short and third-and-medium situations, but he doesn't do enough to take over games. ... We wouldn't double-team at every turn like we would do some of the top guys because we didn't feel like he could beat us by himself."
While that opinion might shock some observers obsessed with Landry's numbers and production, other league officials describe him in a similar fashion.
"He's a really good slot receiver, but I don't see him as a special player," an AFC personnel director told me. "He will make some sandlot plays for them, but I don't know how you build an offense around that. ... I definitely don't know how to put a value or a price tag on a guy that picks up first downs but lacks the ability to take over a game. He's a hard one to figure out."
That's why I think the Dolphins have been slow-playing the negotiations for the past year. They value his production as a chain mover, but they don't want to overpay a player they know isn't an elite performer in the traditional sense. While his agent wants to work off the deals that T.Y. Hilton (five years, $65 million with $28 million in guarantees; $13 million annual average) and Doug Baldwin (four years, $46 million with $24.25 million in guarantees; $11 million annual average) inked a few years ago, I don't believe Landry is a No. 1 receiver like those big-money guys. Sure, the catch production is similar, but he doesn't play out wide or command a double-team. Not to mention, he barely averages 10 yards per catch for his career, and he's coming off a year when he posted a career-worst 8.8 yards per catch.
That's why the Dolphins might use the Julian Edelman deal (two years, $11 million) as the starting point for a new deal with Landry, based on their similarities as slot receivers. Edelman posted fine numbers as the Patriots' designated chain mover from 2013 through '16 (356 receptions for 3,826 yards and 20 touchdowns), but he operated primarily out of the slot and isn't viewed as a classic No. 1 receiver. Thus, the Patriots are paying him for his special skills without overpaying him as a WR1.
While Landry certainly doesn't want to be pegged as a "slot guy" due to the difference in pay, I don't know how the Dolphins -- or any other team -- can treat him as something other than that.
3) AFC title game provides intriguing contrast between defenses. On a recent episode of the Move the Sticks Podcast, Daniel Jeremiah and I debated whether any Patriots defenders would crack the starting lineup for the Jaguars. While the comment was made in jest, I thought I would take a deeper look at the comparison using information from Pro Football Focus to make my overall point about the talent disparity between each unit.
Now, I won't suggest that the PFF grades are an iron-clad representation of how players are viewed within front offices around the league, but I do believe these grades provide some perspective on how coaches and scouts look at the talent on these two rosters. At first glance, I noticed how many "blues" pop off the Jaguars' depth chart. Calais Campbell, Jalen Ramsey and Telvin Smith rank as blue-chip players, with A.J. Bouye and Malik Jackson on the verge of crashing the VIP party as high-quality starters, according to the PFF grading scale. With five additional defenders (Yannick Ngakoue, Tashaun Gipson, Paul Posluszny, Myles Jack and Barry Church) ranking as solid "greens" (above-average starters), the entire Jaguars defense is rated above the line, with the exception of Marcell Dareus. With that in mind, it's sensible for the Jaguars to play an aggressive style of defense that dares opponents to win their one-on-one battles. As a result, Jacksonville finished second in the league in sacks, takeaways and points allowed.
On the other side, the Patriots' defense is devoid of star power -- but it features some good players in the secondary. Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung are viewed as solid starters for the Patriots, and their collective play allows the D to use a coverage-oriented approach to slow down opponents. Although Malcom Brown and Trey Flowers earn high marks for their solid play at the point of attack, the strength of the Patriots' defense is their secondary. Bill Belichick plays to this strength by employing a scheme that features a lot of man coverage. The defensive czar uses a simple "1-Rat" concept (Man-Free with a "hole" player) to blanket opponents with max coverage while using a three- or four-man rush. These tactics allow quarterbacks to have more time to throw, but the suffocating coverage eventually leads to sacks or throwaways when receivers fail to come open down the field. Although the approach isn't sexy, the Patriots' simple scheme and mastery of execution allow them to contain offenses without exceptional talent on the defensive side of the ball.
Keep in mind, the Patriots have netted 33 sacks over their last seven games after notching only 17 sacks during the first 10 games of the season. Most importantly, they've only surrendered 14 points per game over the past 13 contests.
For years, we've heard coaches suggest that defense wins championships. In the AFC Championship Game, we will get a chance to see if a "team" defense trumps a star-studded unit in a title game. For evaluators intent on studying the team-building efforts of others, the contrasting styles and makeups of these units will lead to an interesting offseason study.