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:
-- What to expect from three teams starting anew at QB on Sunday.
But first, a look at the uncertain future for one of the game's brightest young stars ...
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I don't know when the team-building process changed in the NFL, but I'm a little worried about the methods some executives are utilizing these days.
For years, I heard general managers and head coaches discuss the importance of a "draft and develop" strategy. Such an approach places a premium on identifying blue-chip talents in the draft pool, developing them into high-end players and eventually re-signing them to create a strong team nucleus that enables the franchise to contend for playoff berths and Lombardi Trophies each year.
This is how I was raised as a young player on the Green Bay Packers, with Hall of Fame executive Ron Wolf at the controls. And this was the game plan during my time as a scout for the Seattle Seahawks, with Ted Thompson, John Schneider and Scot McCloughan assisting Mike Holmgren in building up the foundation of a roster that eventually competed in Super Bowl XL. We believed in selecting blue-chip talents early in the draft, coaching them up on the finer points of position play until they became Pro Bowl-caliber players and then re-upping them on veteran deals that enabled them to act as established pillars of the franchise.
Considering the on-field advantages that come from having a young group of talented players grow up together -- not to mention, the economic benefits of fielding a homegrown team that minimizes the need to spend on flashy free agents seeking bloated salaries -- I'm surprised at the rash of trades involving highly drafted, immensely gifted players in recent years. We've seen the likes of Khalil Mack, Amari Cooper and Jadeveon Clowney get shipped out by their original teams despite putting up Pro Bowl production on the field. Each of these players were former top-five picks who'd proven themselves at the NFL level, but their drafting teams swapped them out for future selections with uncertain value.
Although draftniks love the idea of entering the prospect lottery with a pocket full of tickets, even the best draft-day gamblers barely register a 50 percent hit rate on first-round picks, according to NFL Network colleague and former general manager Charley Casserly. With the success rate dropping by about 10 percent in each subsequent round, according to Casserly, I don't know why teams would flip proven players for unproven prospects.
All of this explains why I'm baffled seeing what's going down in Jacksonville with star cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
Following a Week 2 loss in Houston that dropped the Jaguars to 0-2 -- and featured a sideline spat with head coach Doug Marrone -- Ramsey asked his agent to request a trade. Ramsey, who denies the verbal altercation with Marrone was the impetus for this action, has expressed issues with Jacksonville's front office. He is also, according to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, miffed over being deployed in zone coverage, as opposed to pure man-to-man.
"Some disrespectful things were said on their end that made me definitely walk out and call my agent as soon as I walked out," Ramsey said this week on UNINTERRUPTED's "17 Weeks" podcast. "I told him, I said, 'It's time. My time is up here in Jacksonville.' I said, 'I want to ask for a trade.' "
Jacksonville already exercised the fifth-year option on Ramsey's rookie deal back in April, keeping him under contract through 2020. But it sure seems like the Jags have been dangling the 24-year-old Pro Bowler this week. For what it's worth, Ramsey played in Thursday night's win over the Titans, and Rapoport reported on Friday that Jags owner Shad Khan "loves Ramsey, would be willing, from what I understand, to pay him and make him the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL." So, can the relationship be salvaged? I sure hope so, for the Jaguars' sake.
Sure, the loquacious cornerback is feisty, cocky and aggressive, but there is no denying his skills as the NFL's premier defender on the island in 2019.
"Ramsey is the prototype." veteran NFL defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman told me on the "Move The Sticks" podcast back in August. "He's physical. He's long. He's angular. He's fast. He can change direction. He has excellent ball skills. ... He just needs to stop talking and go to work.
"When you have a truly great cornerback, he can lead your defense."
Checking in at 6-foot-1 and 208 pounds, Ramsey is a world-class athlete with All-Pro skills on the perimeter. As a former ACC long-jump champion at Florida State with a leap that was just three inches shy of the automatic qualifying mark for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, he possesses the explosiveness needed to track elite pass catchers, while also displaying the technical skills and physicality coaches covet on the perimeter. Ramsey is not only a consistent tackler, but he is a "thump" hitter with a knack for delivering solid shots on runners and receivers in space. Combine his physical skills with his ultra-competitive attitude, high football IQ and production, and the Jaguars' CB1 is exactly the kind of franchise player championship teams should build around. That's why the phone lines were reportedly buzzing in Jaguars offices when teams caught wind of No. 20's availability. Coaches and executives understand the value Ramsey brings to the table as a premier playmaker and they're willing to deal with the strong personality that comes with the package.
The image of Ramsey fussing with Marrone last Sunday might lead to questions about his volatility in the locker room, but the NFL is full of high-strung players. Plenty of coaches are fully capable of working with aggressive players who carry big personalities. Ramsey wouldn't be a major problem for a competitive team because his ego is tied to winning and excelling on the field.
Now, I know executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin and general manager David Caldwell probably believe they can find a comparable talent in the draft -- and that the economic savings from moving the corner would help the team address other areas. However, I don't think you can always find blue-chip players behind every door, so the Jaguars should tread lightly before trading away Ramsey for some lottery tickets. Sure, it's tempting to horde draft picks in hopes of landing the next big thing, but there's something to be said for keeping great players in the fold in a league that's all about collecting Ws.
But what if there's no repairing this fractured relationship? What if Ramsey is indeed on his way out the door? Here are a few teams with the right coaches and schemes to take on a talent like Ramsey and help him flourish:
Kansas City Chiefs: Say what you want about Andy Reid, but he is not afraid to take on talented players with big attitudes. He made things work with DeSean Jackson and Terrell Owens in Philadelphia, and also helped Marcus Peters play at an All-Pro level with the Chiefs. Ramsey would provide this Kansas City defense with a dominant CB1 to match up with the premier pass catchers dotting the AFC -- no small thing, given this team's Super Bowl aspirations. Moreover, Ramsey would give the Chiefs a little edge and grit -- stuff this team needs to take the next step as a title contender.
Philadelphia Eagles: GM Howie Roseman is always ready to make a move that could upgrade the talent on his roster. He would absolutely love to add a premier cornerback to a defense that lacks star power on the perimeter. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has been forced to call games with his hands tied behind his back without a big-time talent on the island. Ramsey would enable the Eagles to use more man coverage with blitz pressure at the point of attack. Ramsey can more than hold his own against the elite receivers in the NFC (remember what Julio Jones did to the Eagles in Week 2?) and give the team the spark that it needs to make another run at the Lombardi Trophy.
Oakland Raiders: Don't underestimate Jon Gruden's memories of Charles Woodson's dominance on the island during the coach's initial stint with the Raiders. That could prompt the coach to instruct general manager Mike Mayock to add the shutdown corner to the roster, allowing the Raiders to close ground on their AFC West rivals. Although the preseason drama with Antonio Brown will make some in Oakland squeamish about taking on another bodacious personality, the on-field product should make the team take a closer look at adding a dynamic playmaker to the defense.
Detroit Lions: On the surface, the Lions and Ramsey wouldn't appear to be a match made in heaven, based on Matt Patricia's gruff persona, but the defensive task master's scheme (man coverage) would enable No. 20 to lock up pass catchers in his preferred style. Ramsey would team up with Pro Bowl corner Darius Slay to give the Lions the best 1-2 CB punch in the game, striking fear in the hearts of offensive coordinators in the NFC North.
NEW STARTING QBs: What to expect from three passers on the spot
It didn't take long for the quarterback carousel to start spinning this season. A handful of teams have already been forced to go to the bullpen to call up their young QB2s due to injuries or poor performance from their starters. Although the original plans for teams like the Steelers and Giants revolved around a developmental approach that was designed to give their young passers more time to acclimate to the pro game by taking in mental reps on the sidelines, there are plenty of players and coaches who believe game action is the best teacher. It is time for these aspiring QB1s to take the field to see if their chalkboard learning produces positive results on the field.
With that in mind, let's take a peek at how three other passers should perform as they prepare to start for the first time in 2019 on Sunday. I'll also examine how the teams will tweak their offenses to elevate each new QB1's performance. The Jets' Luke Falk is not included here, only because -- unlike the three passers listed below -- he's simply keeping the seat warm for a few weeks until Sam Darnold can return from mononucleosis, perhaps as early as Week 5.
Daniel Jones, New York Giants: Pat Shurmur could have handed Jones the keys to the offense at the end of preseason based on his stellar performance throughout August. The sixth overall pick of this year's draft showed outstanding patience, poise and discipline directing the Giants' offense while also impressing scouts with his accuracy, anticipation and timing. Jones' ability to string together completions kept the offense on schedule and helped the Giants put points on the board. Although it will be nearly impossible for him to duplicate his 85.3 percent completion rate and 137.3 passer rating during the regular season, the rookie should add a spark to an offense that's lacked sizzle to this point.
How will the offense change? Shurmur is one of the best play-action designers in the business. He has a history of utilizing a variety of run-action/movement-based passing concepts to stretch the defense horizontally and vertically. He will tap into Jones' athleticism and movement skills to enhance the Giants' bootleg package while also adding in more RPO-like concepts to take advantage of his athleticism and ability to make quick decisions. Additionally, the Giants will usher in a full-blown youth movement with Jones joining Saquon Barkley, Evan Engram and Sterling Shepard (all under the age of 26) on the field in prominent roles as the team builds out its offense of the future.
Mason Rudolph, Pittsburgh Steelers: The second-year pro was pegged as the Steelers' potential QB1 of the future when the team selected him with the 76th overall pick of the 2018 draft. The 6-foot-5, 235-pounder was not only a prolific passer at Oklahoma State but he was a winner, with a 32-9 career record and three 10-win seasons on his resume. Rudolph was a solid performer during preseason play as a rookie, and he took it up a notch in 2019 with a 65.1 percent completion rate and a 4:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He displayed a better command of the offense while showing impressive skills as a quick-rhythm passer. He gets the ball out of his hands quickly and lets his playmakers do the work on the perimeter, as he showed in relief of Ben Roethlisberger last week. This is exactly how Rudolph played at Oklahoma State, directing a spread offense with explosive athletes all over the field, and it is the way that he should play in a Steelers offense that features a number of spread concepts that perfectly suit his game as a pass-first point guard from the pocket.
How will the offense change? The Steelers' offense looks a little like playground basketball with Big Ben under center. The team routinely scores on broken plays and improvised routes with Roethlisberger finding open receivers down the field on impromptu vertical routes or crossers. The freestyle nature of the offense can get the Steelers off schedule and lead to some extended dry spells when the QB1 and pass catchers aren't in sync. Additionally, the Steelers' propensity to lean on the aerial attack with No. 7 in the game renders the running backs as second-class citizens in the offense. All of that will change with Rudolph taking over for Big Ben, who will miss the rest of the season with an elbow injury. The Steelers will get back to being a little more traditional in their approach with a mix of inside runs and play-action passes dominating the menu. The game plan will also feature more quick-rhythm throws and "now" screens designed to get the ball into the hands of JuJu Smith-Schuster and others on the perimeter. The Steelers will also play more complementary offensive football with ball control and time of possession emphasized to marry up with a more defense-centric approach. The team won't be as dynamic with Rudolph under center, but despite coming up short against the Seahawks on Sunday, Pittsburgh could win a lot of one-score games with a blue-collar plan that skews toward conservatism on offense.
Josh Rosen, Miami Dolphins: When the Dolphins acquired the former first-round pick in the offseason, most of the football world expected the team to anoint him as the QB1 to see if he could become the face of the franchise going forward. Rosen had shown flashes of toughness, grit and resiliency during a rough-and-tumble rookie season in Arizona, but critics harped on his poor completion rate (55.2 percent) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (11:14). Despite those numbers, it is hard to knock No. 3 for his performance in the desert when he was sacked 45 times and nearly beaten to a pulp behind a porous offensive line.
In Miami, Rosen showed flashes of five-star talent during the preseason, but couldn't unseat Ryan Fitzpatrick for the starting job, as the coaches went with the 36-year-old veteran. That said, it's hard to get a real evaluation on Rosen based on his circumstances since entering the league. He's rarely played with A-level talent around him and the Dolphins' offensive line woes make it nearly impossible for him to settle in as a passer. As a pocket passer, Rosen is a natural with big-time arm talent and anticipation skills. He has shown glimpses of being a pinpoint passer when he's protected in the pocket.
How will the offense change? It's hard to imagine seeing a drastic difference in the Dolphins' offense with Rosen at the helm. The patchwork offensive line lacks premier talent and the same can be said for the playmakers on the perimeter. Offensive coordinator Chad O'Shea will need to feature a handful of core plays that work well for No. 3. From quick-rhythm throws to bubble screens to play-action passes, the Dolphins should keep things simple to help the second-year pro find his rhythm as a passer. In addition, the move toward simplicity could help the offense's other young players build confidence and eventually find success by mastering the little things over time.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Commitment to run showing promise post-Luck
I'll admit to snickering a bit this spring when Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich floated out the possibility of his team fielding a top-five rushing attack this season. It's uncommon for a team with a franchise quarterback to lean on the ground game in an era when rule changes have made it much easier for passers to ring up 300-yard games. At the time of his comments, with Andrew Luck coming off an NFL Comeback Player of the Year season in which he posted 4,593 pass yards and 39 touchdowns against only 15 interceptions, I couldn't imagine the Colts taking the ball out of No. 12's hands to give it to a running back on a critical down.
That's why I was skeptical when Reich shared with reporters his desire to field an elite rushing unit.
"We have to run the football," Reich said during OTAs in May. "Our goal is going to be a top-five rushing football team."
At a time when most offensive coordinators are spending every waking moment drawing up new passing plays to take advantage of the offense-friendly rules, Reich was busy making plans for a dominant rushing attack to alleviate the pressure on his QB1. Given Luck's surprise retirement last month, Reich's foresight might have saved the team's season before it started.
The Colts currently rank second in the league in rushing offense (185 yards per game) behind a bruising running game that pummels opponents between the tackles. Most surprisingly, the Colts have been able to bludgeon opponents on the ground despite the shocking and sudden transition at QB to Jacoby Brissett, who stepped into an offensive system that was designed for his predecessor.
Considering those circumstances, Reich deserves a standing ovation from his peers for his vision and perspective ahead of the 2019 season. The former offensive coordinator understands the value of a strong running game and intended to build up the Colts' ground game before he even knew Luck wouldn't be part of the team in 2019.
"I mean, I know everybody is going to talk about Andrew and the pass game, and we are going to throw it and hopefully throw a lot of touchdowns," Reich continued during his May comments. "But really what is going to set the tone for us is going to be how we run the football.
"That is not going to change. We have to run the football."
Now, I know that statement might lead to cringing for those in the analytics crowd who view the running game as inefficient when it comes to scoring points, but he should be receiving kudos from the crowd for pairing the rushing attack with a complementary passing game designed to exploit over-aggressive defenses loading the box to stop the run.
"That will set up the play-action pass," Reich added. "That will set up all the big chunk plays."
When you stop and think about it, Reich was putting the finishing touches on a rock-solid offensive plan that would have helped Luck continue to flourish as a passer while alleviating some of the pressure on him to carry the entire offensive load. Despite having a franchise quarterback on the roster, Reich was wise enough to realize elite teams don't overburden their QB1s. Sure, they will need the franchise quarterback to carry the load on a few occasions during the season, but most teams would prefer to reserve those moments for special occasions instead of making them weekly adventures.
That's why the Seattle Seahawks returned to their roots with a run-centric operation despite the presence of an MVP-caliber quarterback in Russell Wilson. It is also why the New Orleans Saints have been able to thrive in the twilight of Drew Brees' career with No. 9 losing a little steam on his fastball. These teams have been able to rely on formidable running games to keep the offense afloat when the QB1 is struggling or to simply bring balance to an offense that skews heavily toward the passing game with a franchise quarterback at the helm.
Think about that. While we're evaluating a small sample size, the Colts' former QB2 is operating at a more efficient rate than his predecessor, partially due to the team's commitment to the running game.
"Being able to run the ball helps in all phases," center Ryan Kelly said this week, per ESPN.com. "We need to pass, but for the most part in your shorter situations, you're not in third-and-long. You're on the ball, putting the defense on their heels. When we're passing the ball, it makes it a hell a lot easier when you're able to run it.
"Again, the defense can do a bunch of different things to stop you on the run game, but as long as your details and fundamentals are sound, it's tough to figure out how to get after you."
While the Colts' decision to lean on the running game might be partially driven by Luck's retirement, I don't believe the move goes anywhere near as smooth without the team's dominant quintet at the point of attack. The Colts' offensive line is one of the best in football and great coaches tend to rely on their best players in times of crisis.
In studying Kelly, Anthony Castonzo (left tackle), Quenton Nelson (left guard), Mark Glowinski (right guard) and Braden Smith (right tackle) this season, it is easy to see why Reich has built the game plan around the front line. The group not only controls the line of scrimmage by consistently moving defenders off the ball, but it's also given the once mild-mannered Colts an identity that's a little more blue-collar.
"We have five tough f---ing guys up front," Castonzo said, per ESPN.com. "Five very strong, very good football players on the O-line, and it's exciting when you can do that. You're chipping, chipping, chipping and I don't think we even remember the last play. We just focus on our job and the next play. It's the mentality of the offensive line."
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Remember, this is a franchise that has been fueled by the exceptional play of a pair of QB1s for the past two decades. The Colts frequently won high-scoring, "Madden"-like shootouts during the Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck eras, but the move to a more run-oriented approach enables Reich to control the game with his rugged offensive line and an emerging defense (third in the league with eight sacks).
With a stable of hard-nosed running backs (Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins) in place to carry the load, the Colts' ground-and-pound attack will continue to pop behind an offensive line that blows open holes at the point of attack. If Brissett can continue to complement the running game with timely play-action passes to Parris Campbell, Eric Ebron and T.Y. Hilton on the perimeter, the Colts' rushing attack could spark a run to the playoffs that few observers expected when Luck hung up his cleats in August.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.