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 Year 3 played out for two high-profile quarterbacks ...
* * * **
In the scouting world, it takes about three years to determine whether a guy can really play. Although coaches and scouts want to accelerate the process for their young players, they understand that it takes some time to acclimate to the speed of the pro game while also mastering the nuances of the scheme. When it comes to the quarterback position, it takes about 30 starts with a strong supporting cast to make a solid assessment of someone's talent and potential as a QB1.
"You can't really figure out if your quarterback can play until you surround him with enough weapons to have a chance," an AFC college scouting director told me. "In a perfect world, you want to make sure a young quarterback has a couple of pass catchers, a solid offensive line and a running back that you can depend on. When they have those pieces around them, you can quickly see if they can play at a high level or not."
Given that premise, scouts and observers were excited to see how Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota would perform in 2017. The two top picks of the 2015 NFL Draft had teased scouts and observers with their outstanding talent and potential during their first two seasons in the league. Entering the 2017 campaign, each guy was viewed as a legitimate franchise quarterback. Winston had amassed the second-most passing yards (8,132) of any quarterback in his first two seasons, while Mariota had posted the sixth-highest passer rating ever (93.8) for a quarterback in that time period. With that in mind, it was reasonable to expect these two to perform like top-10 quarterbacks -- especially given that each had a beefed-up supporting cast in place.
In Tampa, the Bucs supplied Winston with a few shiny new toys possessing big-play potential. DeSean Jackson was added as a marquee free agent to give the offense an explosive dimension that'd been lacking for years. O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin were picked up in the draft to fill out a receiving corps that needed more depth and diversity. With Doug Martin returning as the team's RB1, Winston had a cast of weapons that prompted me to tout the Buccaneers as a potential offensive juggernaut.
Although the offense's performance ultimately didn't live up to the hype (currently ranking 20th in scoring), Winston has indeed stepped his game up, posting career bests in completion percentage (65.0), touchdown-to-interception ratio (18:8) and passer rating (96.5). Those numbers are significantly up from last season's marks: 60.8, 28:18 and 86.1. Sure, he has coughed up 15 fumbles (losing seven) and displayed some emotional control issues (SEE: incidents during games against New Orleansand Carolina), but Winston has played his best ball down the stretch, as evidenced by back-to-back games with passer ratings north of 130 over the past two weeks. In fact, Winston's been red hot since returning from a shoulder injury in Week 13 -- over four games, he has completed 72 percent of his passes with an 8:2 TD-to-INT ratio.
To reiterate, Winston needs to do a better job of controlling his emotions on the field. Jameis is the unquestioned leader of the team, yet he exhibits some immature behavior that isn't becoming of a face of the franchise. Simply put, the quarterback is the CEO of the team and must present himself as such. Sure, the QB can have a blow-up every now and then on the sidelines, but Winston's emotional displays are more childish than leadership-driven.
If Winston can get his emotions in check, the football world will be able to fully appreciate his performance as a QB1 and give him his due as an emerging young star.
Mariota, on the other hand, has struggled as the director of the Tennessee Titans' offense throughout this season. Despite completing a respectable 62.3 percent of his passes, Mariota has posted a highly disappointing 12:15 TD-to-INT ratio and a 78.6 passer rating. Those numbers are well off the standard Mariota set a season ago, when he posted a 26:9 TD-to-INT ratio and a 95.6 passer rating with a pedestrian supporting cast. That's why the league is so perplexed by Mariota's play. This past offseason, Tennessee added a legitimate No. 1 receiver (Corey Davis) and a veteran pass catcher (Eric Decker) to fill out a big-bodied receiving corps that perfectly complements a power running game fueled by DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. With all those weapons at his disposal, Mariota should be able to attack the defense with laser-like throws to every area of the field, right?
Here's the problem: Injuries to Mariota's legs and upper body have prevented him from playing like the dual-threat playmaker who torched opponents last year. Since 2016, Mariota has dealt with a broken leg, knee strain, hamstring pull and shoulder injury. The toll of those ailments has prevented the third-year pro from fully utilizing all his athletic gifts, which changes his comfort level and the way he performs as a passer.
Think about it this way: Mariota has always been able to rely on his speed and athleticism to get him out of trouble when things break down in the pocket. He could shoot through a crease at the line of scrimmage whenever he was unsure about a read, and picking up yards with his legs allowed him to play through some miscues. Without his legs to lean on, No. 8 is attempting to win as a traditional pocket passer, which has never been his M.O. That's why it's hard to judge Mariota at this time.
While some observers have pointed to a lack of creativity from Mike Mularkey as the root of Mariota's struggles, it is hard to execute zone-reads, RPOs and movement passes when your quarterback's athleticism is limited.
"Would we like him better?" Mularkey said Wednesday at his weekly press conference. "Obviously, we all would. We'll look at it again overall, the whole team and each player, when the season's over."
Mariota has to improve as a QB1 in 2018 for the Titans to close the gap on the perennial contenders in the AFC.
Overall, Winston and Mariota are solid QB1 options, but both remain a work in progress. Whether it's emotional control or on-field performance, each player will need to address his flaws to take another step toward living up to the hype that comes with being a top-two pick in the draft.
PATRICK MAHOMES' DEBUT: What I want to see from the Chiefs rookie
When the Kansas City Chiefs traded up to snag Patrick Mahomes with the 10th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, we knew it was only a matter of time before he would replace Alex Smith as the team's QB1. That hasn't happened yet, but with Smith set to rest on Sunday -- since the Chiefs are locked into the No. 4 seed -- Mahomes will make his first NFL start.
Although Mahomes was widely viewed as a developmental prospect who needed some seasoning before he could step into the lineup, #ChiefsKingdom has been clamoring for the rookie since he lit up the preseason with a spectacular highlight reel that showcased his immense talent and potential as a gunslinger. From his high-arcing rainbow tosses to Demarcus Robinson on an assortment of vertical throws to his jaw-dropping scramble throws rolling to his right, Mahomes showcased an impressive repertoire of skills as an improvisational playmaker. While traditionalists cringe at the sight of a quarterback routinely shooting fadeaway jumpers from the pocket, the rookie's preseason numbers were pretty striking: a 63.0 percent completion rate, a 4:0 TD-to-INT ratio and a 109.3 passer rating. Granted, he compiled those stats against backups and fringe NFL players, but the numbers are what they are -- and plenty of observers are excited to see what Mahomes does this Sunday in Denver.
"I think he invests a lot, has worked really hard since Day 1, since he's been here. He's put in a lot of time and been really diligent, so I think that stuff is going to pay off."
From a scouting perspective, I want to see if Mahomes can play a disciplined game from the pocket. Can he sit in the pocket and patiently work through his progressions to get to the second or third option in the route? In addition, I want to see if he can avoid some of the "hero" throws that routinely lead to interceptions in favor of higher-percentage check-downs that sustain drives in the pro game. If he can play a little "small ball" while retaining his gunslinger mentality, Mahomes can become the dangerous playmaker Chiefs officials envisioned when they fell in love with him during the pre-draft process.
Finally, I really want to see how different Kansas City's offense looks with No. 15 at the helm. For years, we've heard complaints about Smith holding the offense back with his refusal to push the ball down the field. (Though, to his credit, Smith has done more of that this season.) With a big-armed gunslinger under center, will the Chiefs add more vertical plays to the game plan to complement the diverse screen and RPO tactics they've employed with No. 11 at the reins? If Mahomes shines running a scaled-down version of the Chiefs' offense, it will give us a glimpse at what 2018 could hold for this team.
"Every snap that he gets is a valuable snap for him for whenever he has that chance of getting in there [as the full-time starter]," Reid told reporters this week, per ESPN.com. "Fortunately, we're in a situation where we can do that.
"The fact he goes in and plays and has that experience [is important]. I'm not going to set expectations or any of that. That's not where I'm at. I just want him to go play, learn the game plan, play it and lead the team, the offense, and most of all have an opportunity."
For Mahomes, it is all about getting ready to be a QB1 in every sense of the term. From the preparation process to in-game execution, the rookie will finally get a chance to showcase his skills.
"It definitely helps to be able to prepare for a defense the full week and get all the reps you can against all the looks, but there's not necessarily a best way," Mahomes said, via ESPN.com. "Just being able to play is going to be awesome.
"The biggest thing for me is just to expect to go out there and win any way possible, if that's 300 yards or 100 yards or whatever it is. Whatever it takes to get a win is the biggest thing."
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) Sorry, Dez, but a pay cut is indeed in order. I know it's hard for some players to know when it's time to accept a lesser role or a smaller paycheck -- especially when they've spent their entire football lives viewed as a top dog. That's why I'm not surprised to hear three-time Pro Bowl WR Dez Bryantbristle at the suggestion that he might need to take a pay cut this offseason to remain a member of the Dallas Cowboys.
"Probably not," Bryant said, when asked about the possibility of taking a pay cut. "Hell, no, man. I believe in me."
Remember, this is a player who averaged 91 catches, 1,312 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns from 2012 through '14 as one of the most dominant pass catchers in the game during that span. Bryant still sees himself as that guy -- the All-Pro who who signed a five-year, $70 million deal in 2015 that included a $20 million signing bonus and $45 million in guarantees.
"I'm a hell of a football player," Bryant said Wednesday. "I know that. I believe that."
While I love the confidence and the bravado, I believe Bryant has an overinflated view of his talents and game at this stage of his career. The 29-year-old pass catcher hasn't surpassed the 100-yard mark in 22 straight regular-season games and hasn't posted a 1,000-yard campaign since 2014. His underwhelming numbers this season as the Cowboys' WR1 -- Bryant has only amassed 815 receiving yards on 66 receptions despite seeing 125 targets -- certainly suggest that his game is on the decline. Although he boasts six touchdown receptions, Dez also has logged eight games with fewer than five catches and nine games with fewer than 60 receiving yards.
That's definitely not in line with the production typically associated with an elite WR1, which is why a salary adjustment could be on the horizon, with Bryant due $12.5 million (with a $16.5 million cap hit) in 2018. The Cowboys' top playmaker in the passing game just isn't delivering production on par with his compensation level -- and it's unlikely he will ever return to greatness, given his age and deteriorating skill set.
After studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I believe Bryant is nothing more than a jump-ball specialist at this stage of his career. He will occasionally make a splash play on a back-shoulder or in-breaking route (slant or dig), but he doesn't run the entire route tree from his "X" position (split end). No. 88 lacks the polish, precision, and discipline to excel as a route runner, and Dallas doesn't use him as a movable chess piece. Whether it's due to Bryant's lack of versatility or the coaches' lack of creativity, the Cowboys fail to move their No. 1 receiver around to help him get easier opportunities in the passing game. Thus, it is harder to help him get open, with his speed and athleticism declining as an aging player.
Dez might need to soften his stance on a pay cut if he wants to keep the star on his helmet for the foreseeable future. Bryant doesn't have much leverage here, as his diminishing skills, lack of position versatility and one-dimensional game could make him a hard sell on the open market if he's released by the 'Boys in the offseason.
2) NFC beware: Cam's playing like Cam again. The path to the Super Bowl is wide open in the NFC. Don't be surprised if the Carolina Panthers find their way to the winner's circle behind the play of Cam Newton. You remember that guy, right? The 2015 MVP who took the league by storm as a big, athletic dual-threat QB, producing highlight-reel plays in bunches. Well, that guy is back on the scene, ever since Carolina abandoned its plan to make him a "dink and dunk" passer in the mold of Tom Brady. While that idea was certainly understandable -- the Panthers wanted to save the 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback from taking unnecessary punishment -- the decision to confine Newton to the pocket robbed him of the special qualities that made him one of the most explosive playmakers in the game.
The three-time Pro Bowler is one of the most prolific runners in football, as evidenced by his 54 career rushing touchdowns (most by a quarterback in NFL history). In addition, he leads all quarterbacks this season in rushing attempts (128) and rushing yards (695), and is tied for the QB lead with six rushing scores. With the Panthers' season hanging in the balance at the midway point, Newton reverted back to his old ways and the team is rolling heading into the playoffs.
"It is difficult because he's such an integral part of what we do," Rivera said this week, per ESPN.com. "And when we give the [RPOs] -- run/pass options -- part of the option is him keeping the ball and running, as well. He'll come up and look at the line of scrimmage, make his checks and calls and whatever, and now from there it's all about his reads."
Although the extensive use of RPOs puts Newton in the crosshairs, the various reads guarantee the Panthers always have the correct call to attack the defense, which is a huge advantage.
"There's so many options we have with him, it helps us, it benefits us tremendously," Rivera said.
Since Week 10, Newton has posted an 11:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio while also averaging 59 rushing yards per game. He is terrorizing opponents as a true dual-threat, and he's been able to do so while adjusting to an ever-changing cast of playmakers around him. With the top seeds in the NFC lacking established stars at quarterback, the Panthers are well-positioned to make run behind a dynamic athlete making his mark as a runner and passer down the stretch.
3) What's next for suspended cornerback Apple and the Giants? The New York Giants' decision to suspend Eli Apple for the season finale should serve as a reminder to scouts: Do your due diligence on prospects in the 2018 NFL Draft. The disgraced former top-10 pick has been called a "cancer" by one of his teammates, and reports of his immature behavior have been cropping up throughout the season. From his a near-walk-out following an intense film session where he faced harsh criticism from his coaches for his play to his apparent refusal to engage in scout-team duties at practice, Apple's clear lack of professionalism/maturity should've drawn red flags during the pre-draft process. With reports of a dysfunctional family situation also leading to a distracted Apple, the Giants should've been prepared to deal with some of the issues that have prevented the 2016 first-rounder from reaching his potential, right?
"There were plenty of guys around the (Ohio State) program who told us that he was immature," the aforementioned AFC college scouting director told me. "There were also plenty of whispers about his mom not allowing him to grow up or really deal with any kind of adversity. That's why we had questions about his mental toughness in our meeting rooms. I didn't think that it would play out like this, but I can't say that I'm really surprised.
Obviously, I don't know what the Giants knew about Apple and his football character prior to adding him to the team, but I do believe his meltdown will encourage other teams to advise their scouts to dig a little deeper when researching prospects prior to next April's draft. Executives will push their scouts to ask harder questions in pre-draft interviews and spend more time talking to coaches, administrators and support staff. In addition, scouts will be asked to spend more time talking to high school coaches and teachers to get a better feel for the player and his family dynamic. Although this has always been a part of the scouting process, it is more important than ever to have a clear understanding of a prospect's background and character in today's game. Time restrictions imposed by the current collective bargaining agreement limit contact between players and coaches, which means prospects must be independent and self-sufficient. In addition, they must be coachable and willing to take directives from the staff.
Considering how some college head coaches cover up their players' transgressions, it is important for scouts to have enough contacts in the rolodex to get the real scoop on someone during the background-checking process. Without solid intel, it is hard to know what you're bringing into the locker room.
As far as Apple is concerned, the Giants have to make a decision on what to do with the 22-year-old cornerback. He has obviously lost the trust of some of his teammates, and who knows if the new coaching staff will give him a fair shake with his baggage splattered across the internet? Meanwhile, the remaining money on his contract is no longer guaranteed due to his suspension. No matter where he ends up, the second-year pro will have to earn the trust of everyone in the building with an A+ effort in the offseason. Apple will need to show his peers that he has grown up as a person and player while also showing improved skills on the island. This is easier said than done, but he has time to turn it around.