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, we begin with an in-depth look at how the No. 1 overall pick is faring in his first training camp ...
Patience is a virtue -- in virtually all aspects of life. But it is rarely found in NFL locker rooms.
In a league where production and performance are paramount, general managers and scouts frequently fall prey to the outside noise and rush players onto the field to justify lofty draft-day selections. This happens with most top picks, but quarterbacks are especially susceptible to microwave treatment when they are selected in the first round -- and even more so when they're taken with a top-10 pick.
The football world will be clamoring to see the No. 1 overall pick when the Rams open their season in front of a national television audience at San Francisco in the final game of Week 1 on Monday, Sept. 12. While I've heard all of the rhetoric from coach Jeff Fisher and his staff on resisting the urge to put the rookie out on the field before he is ready, we've seen nearly every quarterback selected with a top-five pick over the past five years take the ball as the team's starter very early in the season. Thus, I traveled to Rams camp fully expecting to see Goff primed and ready to supplant Case Keenum as the team's starter.
I mean, on paper, this shouldn't be a fair fight: Goff boasts prototypical physical dimensions (6-foot-4, 215 pounds), A+ arm talent and a polished game, while Keenum has a smallish stature (6-1, 205 pounds), an average arm and a lack of cachet as a former undrafted free agent and current NFL journeyman. Sure, Keenum led the Rams to a 3-2 record as the team's part-time starter a season ago, but Fisher wouldn't seriously consider using the fifth-year pro as a legitimate starter this season. Right?
To my surprise, Goff isn't anywhere close to being ready to play as a starting quarterback at this stage of training camp. Now, this isn't a direct knock on him or his future potential. It can be a process. Having been around some of the best quarterback developers in the game (Mike Holmgren, Andy Reid, Jon Gruden, Steve Mariucci, Dan Henning, Kevin Gilbride, Mike McCarthy and Mike McCoy), I know that young signal callers must check the boxes in three key areas before they are primed to step on the field as a starter:
» Coverage identification
Watching Goff over a full workout, I sensed that -- despite widely reported improvement since the end of OTAs and minicamps -- the Cal product still has a long way to go before he reaches the standard needed to wrestle the starting job from Keenum.
After spending his formative years directing a spread offense (Sonny Dykes' "Bear Raid"), Goff is still mastering the verbiage and communication skills to own the huddle. The lengthy play calls and at-the-line adjustments require far more verbal communication than the no-huddle system he ran in Berkeley. In addition, the constant chatter and identification require complete mastery of the playbook to make split-second decisions at the line. While I'm not privy to the Rams' playbook or their audible system, I can say that the offense operated with better tempo and pace when Keenum was at the helm. Goff had his moments directing the two-minute offense in team drills, but the pauses between plays were noticeably longer with the rookie in charge.
Moving on to some of Goff's post-snap responsibilities, I believe he is still adjusting to the complex coverages routinely employed by NFL coordinators. Rams DC Gregg Williams is one of the most creative tacticians in football, and his carefully crafted pre-snap disguises frequently mask the designated coverage. Thus, opposing quarterbacks must be in tune to the depths of linebackers and safeties in order to get a bead on the blitz or coverage. Keenum efficiently sorted out the myriad disguises and blitzes from the Rams' starters to find the hot route or open receiver down the field. He was rarely flustered by the constant movement, and his efficiency certainly surprised me, based on the complexity of the defensive looks.
Meanwhile, despite facing a more static look, Goff struggled a bit against the defense in team drills. Williams frequently aligned his defense in a Cover 2 shell (two deep safeties with corners aligned at 6 to 7 yards) and used a variety of simple zone (Cover 2, Cover 3) or zone-blitz (five-man rush with three deep and three under) concepts against the rookie. These defenses are the equivalent of what you would see in an NFL 101 class, yet Goff routinely had a tough time finding the open guy. And when he did identify the open man, he was frequently late with his throw, resulting in a contested catch or off-target toss down the field. At the NFL level, quarterbacks must throw with timing and anticipation to consistently complete passes in tight windows between multiple defenders.
Now, I don't want to be too critical of a young passer in the opening stretch of his first NFL training camp, but judgment is arguably the most important part of playing the position, and Goff seems so overwhelmed by the speed of the game that he's been inconsistent with his decisions. Some of his poor determinations are understandable, due to the uncertainty that plagues every young QB, but he also has been prone to making some "hero" throws in traffic. In the workout I attended, Goff threw four passes that should've been intercepted, each the result of a forced throw at intermediate range despite the fact that a checkdown was available underneath.
To be fair, most quarterbacks are reluctant to take the open checkdown when they believe they can make a "hero" throw. But Goff is in line for a number of turnovers off tips and overthrows until he develops the patience and poise to settle for a short completion instead of gambling on a "wow" play. He might foster these characteristics after a few preseason games, but I believe it will take him some time to learn the management skills needed to start for a competitive team.
Taking all of this into account, I think it's sensible for Fisher to officially name Keenum the starter and stick with him through at least the first half of the season. The veteran not only gives the Rams the best chance to win right now, but the team believes in his talent and leadership skills. Speaking to several offensive players, I repeatedly heard the word "gamer" and "winner" in reference to the 28-year-old Keenum. In fact, one Rams receiver said the offense would thrive in 2016 with Keenum at the helm, even though everyone expects Goff to eventually become a "baller" at the position.
To get a management perspective, I talked to several team officials who suggested Keenum can succeed because he has a clear understanding of his limitations and won't try to do too much with the ball in his hands. Unlike some quarterbacks who shrug off the "game manager" label, Keenum seemingly has embraced the approach -- and everyone in the building believes he won't mess it up if he gets the chance. Given that Los Angeles has a budding superstar in Todd Gurley who can pound the football, savvy game management from the quarterback position could work quite well for this team.
For the past several months, I thought the prospect of Keenum taking the field with the starting unit was simply the product of coachspeak. But after spending time at Rams camp, I believe the team should play the veteran quarterback until the youngster proves that he is ready to handle the job. This is the blueprint Fisher successfully used with a young Steve McNair during his time heading the Oilers/Titans. Despite entering the NFL as the third overall pick in the 1995 NFL Draft, McNair didn't become a full-time starter until 1997. He went on to make three Pro Bowls and earn NFL MVP honors in 2003. Fisher should keep this in mind, to help Goff eventually reach his full potential as the Rams' franchise quarterback.
THE REBUTTAL: Keenan Allen, WR, San Diego Chargers
When the San Diego Chargers signed Keenan Allen to a four-year, $45 million extension in June, it not only cemented his status as a franchise receiver for the team, but it sparked a conversation about whether he was a dominant WR1 by traditional standards. Rather than listen to outside opinions on the fourth-year pro's game, I thought I would take it directly to the man himself. Here are his responses:
What is your definition of a franchise receiver?
Keenan Allen: "Just somebody who can do everything at every position ... inside or outside ... knows the whole offense. He is able to make adjustments on the fly or in the middle of the play. He knows everything that the defense is doing and he is able to make the big play when it is needed."
Are you a franchise receiver?
Allen is a prototypical WR1 by any standard. He is a big, physical receiver with long arms and big hands. Most impressively, Allen is a polished route runner with a variety of slick moves and releases that allow him to create separation from defenders despite average timed speed (Allen clocked a 4.71-second 40-yard dash at his pro day prior to the 2013 NFL Draft). In addition, he is a jump-ball specialist with a knack for snatching 50-50 balls away from defenders along the boundary. With Allen also displaying outstanding running skills as a rugged catch-and-run specialist, he can create big plays or move the chains as the primary pass catcher for the Chargers.
By the numbers, Allen certainly makes a strong case to be considered a WR1. He has a 1,000-yard season on his résumé and was well on his way to another one prior to the lacerated kidney that ended his 2015 campaign in early November. Allen was on pace for 134 receptions and 1,450 yards at the time of his injury; his 67 catches tied for the second-most recorded in an NFL season's first eight games since 1960.
Now, Allen's career yards-per-catch average (11.9) suggests that he is strictly a possession receiver, but he should see his numbers soar with a return this season of Ken Whisenhunt to the offensive coordinator role he last occupied in Allen's rookie year (when Allen averaged 14.7 yards per catch). If Allen adds more explosive plays to the ledger (only one catch of 40-plus yards in his career) and scores a few more "tubs" (touchdowns), he will confirm his status as the Chargers' WR1 and force some observers to rethink their top-five choices at the position.
ASK THE LEAGUE: Can Hue Jackson make RGIII a franchise QB again?
Here are the responses ...
NFC pro personnel director: "If anyone can fix RGIII, it's Hue. He tends to put quarterbacks in a position to do what they do well and protect them from themselves. I don't think RGIII is broken, but he lost his confidence and got away from what he does well. It will be interesting to see him this preseason."
AFC college scouting director: "I think it depends on how the kid responds to Jackson's coaching style. He is a talented player, but his ego needs to be kept in check."
AFC player personnel director: "I feel like Washington broke RGIII by making him a runner. At Baylor, he was an athletic passer who ran a fast 40. Hue should definitely be able to make him a solid quarterback because he's got talent and some skill."
Second NFC pro personnel director: "Hue can't fix RGIII, but he will have a plan that allows him to succeed in the short term. He will put in concepts that play to his strengths -- quick reads and some of the movement stuff that he did at Baylor -- but RGIII needs to keep his ego in check and take to the coaching."
NFC pro personnel assistant: "Hmmm ... I don't know if Hue can completely salvage RGIII, but I would expect him to play well in the short term because they will have a good plan in place for him."
I found it interesting that most of the people I chatted with believe Jackson can absolutely craft a plan to accentuate Griffin's strengths as a player. They expressed a tremendous amount of faith in Jackson's tactical skills and his ability to minimize a player's weaknesses through his play calling.
Now, I firmly believe Jackson can work wonders with most players based on his strong evaluation skills and creative scripts, but I still have doubts about Griffin's "buy-in." The former Pro Bowler fancies himself a pocket passer, but the tape doesn't validate his assessment. To me, he is an athletic playmaker capable of delivering big gains on the perimeter as a run/pass option player (read-option, bootlegs and designed roll-outs) or as a deep-ball specialists on play-action passes. From the pocket, I believe he needs to play in a system that features simple concepts with half-field reads based on coverage, as opposed to full-field reads and pure progression passes.
If RGIII adheres to the principles of those concepts and displays the patience to take the checkdown or underneath throw when the intermediate and deep routes are covered, he is more than capable of reviving his career as a starting quarterback.
NEXT-GEN STATS: Jordan Reed is revolutionizing the tight end position
I'm not quite ready to proclaim the Redskins stud as the gold standard, but I do believe Niles Paul and Trent Williams were onto something when they suggested Reed is one of the best receiving tight ends in the game.
In his third NFL season, Reed finished with 87 receptions for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns in only 14 games (eight starts), tallying 14 receptions of 20-plus yards and producing first downs on 62 percent of his grabs. Now, I know those numbers are certainly impressive on their own merits, but the Next-Gen Stats suggest Reed is not only delivering the goods as a playmaker -- he's changing the job description for the TE position.
Instead of spending most of his time attached to the line as a traditional tight end, Reed is being used like a jumbo wide receiver. Last season, Reed aligned in the slot or out wide on more than 41 percent of his snaps. Twenty-four percent came in the slot, with Reed compiling an impressive 74.4 percent catch rate (29 receptions on 39 targets) and averaging 11.1 yards per catch. When positioned out wide (17 percent of his snaps), Reed continued to dominate opponents with a 74 percent catch rate and an average of 8.5 yards per catch.
Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film, it is easy to see why Reed has become one of the biggest playmakers at the position. At 6-2 and 246 pounds with solid speed, he is too big for most defensive backs and too shifty for linebackers forced to guard him in space. Redskins coach Jay Gruden has cleverly tapped into his skills by lining him up in different spots within the formation, particularly down in the red zone, where he torches opponents from a wide alignment.
Let's take a look at a couple of plays that display Reed's dangerous skill set.
Against the Dolphins in Week 1, with the Redskins facing third-and-goal, Washington positioned Reed on the outside as the single receiver away from a trips formation. In this play, Reed is instructed to run a fade route against one-on-one coverage. Redskins QB Kirk Cousins will quickly check out whether a defensive back or linebacker matches up on Reed, to determine whether to target his tight end or work the front side of the formation. When Cousins sees Reshad Jones opposite Reed, he knows the fade route is in play, due to Reed's size and athleticism advantages. As you can see in the video below, Reed makes his quarterback look wise by beating Jones with a hard inside move and sprinting to the corner to snag a perfectly thrown alley-oop:
Against the Buccaneers in Week 7, with the Redskins again facing third-and-goal, Washington again positioned Reed on the outside to take advantage of a favorable matchup. In this play, the Redskins are aligned in a quads formation, with Reed as the single receiver on the back side. By design, the 4x1 formation creates confusion for the defense, due to the overload on the front side. In addition, the empty formation allows Cousins to quickly read the coverage (man, zone or blitz) based on the deployment of defensive personnel. Reed's superior athleticism and receiving skills take it to another level, because he enjoys a favorable matchup against a defensive back or linebacker in space. As you can see in the video below, Reed is matched up against safety Bradley McDougald. He quickly slips inside on a slant and waltzes into the end zone for the game-winning score:
The Redskins' clever utilization of their ultra-athletic tight end was not only effective in the red zone, but it also paid huge dividends on third down. Reed finished with the second-most receptions for a tight end on third down (23) and ranked fifth in total yards on third-down receptions (215). He has mastered the art of finding open grass against zone coverage, and his slick route-running skills make him nearly impossible to defend in man-to-man.