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:
-- How one player went from disappointment to MVP candidate in a year's time.
-- The construction of Jacksonville's dominant defensive line.
But first, a look at the biggest splash at the trade deadline ...
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I know that's a Captain Obvious statement, based on the team's decision to send a second-round pick to the New England Patriots in exchange for the 26-year-old quarterback. In making the move, the 49ers not only parted ways with a pick that's destined to be near the top of the round, given San Francisco's 0-8 record, but they basically took themselves out of the high-profile quarterback sweepstakes in the 2018 NFL Draft.
While there's some debate about whether the 2018 class will live up to the "Year of the Quarterback" hype that dominated the airwaves for most of the summer, the 49ers essentially punted on a chance to grab a young franchise quarterback they could've built up from scratch. Granted, we don't even know if USC's Sam Darnold or UCLA's Josh Rosen are going to enter the draft, and we're still uncertain about whether Wyoming QB Josh Allen's production will ever meet his potential, we do know that each prospect possesses a handful of core traits that could translate into long-term success on Sundays. From Darnold's competitive toughness to Rosen's flawless passing mechanics to Allen's mercurial talent, each member of this Big Three has been discussed as a top-five possibility in every draft room around the league. That doesn't necessarily mean they are three of the best players in college football, but it speaks to the value of a franchise quarterback and the desperation of teams looking for a viable option at the position.
With the brilliant performance of four young quarterbacks (Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, Jared Goff and Deshaun Watson before his ACL injury) dominating the conversation in the football world, the 49ers essentially made a decision to take a chance on a fourth-year backup with just 94 NFL pass attempts on his resume over a potential star. Now, I know I'm being a little presumptuous by anointing any college QB as a "potential star," but we're in the midst of a glorious run that has seen a handful of young signal callers take the league by storm. The stellar play of Wentz, Prescott, Goff and Watson has prompted every scribe with a hot take to crush the Cleveland Browns for failing to land a franchise quarterback in the last two drafts. Considering the 49ers' QB woes and how they passed on Watson this past April, there is plenty of pressure on the team's brass to get it right with this call. Garoppolo not only needs to shine as a starter for the 49ers, but he has to be a better player than any of the QBs who enter the league next season.
While I'm not completely sold on the transcendent star quality of the potential 2018 quarterback class, I will say that I believe the top prospects have more raw talent and upside than Garoppolo. No disrespect to the 49ers' new QB1, but I viewed him as a developmental prospect (third/fourth-round grade) when he came out of Eastern Illinois. Although I really liked his athleticism, quick release, high football IQ and anticipation, I questioned his arm strength and deep-ball capacity. I thought he would need to play as a "connect the dots" playmaker in the NFL. He reminded me of Jeff Garcia (who, to his credit, did make four Pro Bowls).
-- Jacoby Brissett: 2-5 record, 80.9 passer rating.
-- Ryan Mallett: 3-5 record, 68.3 passer rating.
-- Brian Hoyer: 16-21 record, 83.4 passer rating.
-- Matt Cassel: 26-40 record, 76.3 passer rating.
"I can't promise you guys that he'll play this year," Shanahan told the assembled media on Wednesday. "I know that we have a guy that we're excited about, and I know has the ability to help us and help this team in the future. That's what I mean by, 'Well we didn't do this just to save this year.' We did this because we feel this will improve our team and our organization.
"I'm not going to put someone out there who I don't think has the chance to be successful, and that starts with the playbook. That starts with understanding the plays that you're calling. How to communicate it with the other 10 guys -- to know actually where people are when you say it. And not many people can understand that or should. Just like I can't understand much outside of what I'm talking about right now. But it's tough -- it's tougher than people realize."
If you really think about what Shanahan said, you can see that this move is a long-term play and the 49ers are intent on making sure that their new QB1 is in the best possible position to succeed. Garoppolo is being thrust into a new system that is drastically different than the scheme he mastered over three-plus years in Foxborough. He will need some time to adjust to the verbiage and intricate concepts that are staples of Shanahan's playbook. Remember, Shanahan was Atlanta's offensive coordinator in 2015 and '16. And if it took a veteran like Matt Ryan a full season to legitimately understand everything before flourishing in his MVP season of 2016, it will certainly take an inexperienced player an extended period of time to master the basics. From spitting the play out in the huddle to understanding the various checks available during the pre-snap phase to the on-the-fly route conversions dictated by coverage, Garoppolo has a lot to learn before he can confidently step onto the field as a starter who will be judged against an incoming class of flamethrowers at the position.
With everyone in the football world waiting to debate and decide if the 49ers got it right, there are a few legacies and reputations riding on Garoppolo's play.
TODD GURLEY'S RENAISSANCE: What a difference a year makes
Widely panned as a major disappointment a season ago, the Los Angeles Rams running back deserves to be included in the conversation based on his remarkable work during the first half of season.
Remember, this is a franchise that hasn't been in the playoffs since 2004, and Gurley is the same running back who went 20 straight games without posting a 100-yard effort prior to his Week 3 outing against San Francisco (28 carries for 113 rushing yards and two touchdowns). Moreover, Gurley had seemingly lost his mojo as the feature back of an offense that wasn't exactly brimming with creativity under the previous regime.
Enter Sean McVay, and Gurley looks like the transcendent star who captivated NFL scouts during his time at Georgia. Reviewing my notes from before the 2015 NFL Draft, I thought Gurley was destined for stardom as a spectacular ball carrier capable of chewing up yards on inside or outside runs. I thought the back could turn the corner on any defense, as a 6-foot-1, 227-pound strider with outstanding speed, quickness and burst. In addition, I believed his violent running style would serve him well as a sledgehammer between the tackles. With Gurley also displaying soft hands and underrated route-running skills out of the backfield, I believed he would develop into a Marshawn Lynch-like playmaker for a team seeking a new-school workhorse with the skills to contribute as a big-bodied hybrid.
As a rookie, Gurley quickly gave the football world a glimpse of game-changing ability, reeling off 100-yard games in his first four starts -- less than a year after suffering a torn ACL during his final season at Georgia. With that season culminating in an Offensive Rookie of the Year award, it appeared Gurley was on his way to superstardom as the Rams' RB1.
But something went awry during Gurley's sophomore season. He looked like an insecure ball carrier who lacked confidence and skill. Gurley didn't top finish with more than 85 yards in a single game and only mustered two runs of 20-plus yards on the way to 885 rushing yards. If that wasn't bad enough, Gurley finished with the NFL's second-lowest yards-per-carry average (3.18) among qualified runners.
How did this happen? How did a star runner lose his mojo that quickly without a catastrophic injury or radical personnel change impacting his game?
"Frustration set in," then-interim head coach John Fassel said at the time, via ESPN.com, "and confidence maybe dropped, whether it was in himself or just the whole package."
While some of Gurley's woes can be attributed to a leaky offensive line, the best runners in the business are capable of routinely turning nothing into something whenever they touch the ball. We've seen plenty of stars overcome suspect offensive lines to routinely churn out 100-yard games (SEE: Adrian Peterson, Barry Sanders, and Frank Gore, among others). Thus, Gurley should've been able to put up decent numbers despite the O-line and play-calling issues that might've plagued the Rams a season ago.
"I think any time you're able to have some success, it helps," McVay said recently on the Rich Eisen Show. "The thing about Todd, though, is from the day I met Todd, he's had that swagger and that confidence. It's great to see him performing at such a high level.
"He makes you look good as a coach because you get special players like that, but they're also special people in terms of the way they lead and bring others with them. I think you're seeing a complete back right now. He's playing well in all phases. He's protecting well, understands the little nuances of the position. And I think you can just see in the pass game, making the most of his opportunities."
In a star-driven league where top dogs are expected to elevate the play of those around them, Gurley needed to learn how to take his game up a notch when things aren't ideal or clean around him. Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film from this season, it is apparent that he has taken his game to another level. Gurley is slashing and dashing through holes with a violent aggression that allows him to run through contact at the point of attack. In addition, he is running with more decisiveness and urgency behind the line. Whereas some runners (like Le'Veon Bell) are better when exhibiting a more deliberate approach in the backfield, Gurley's at his best when he is in attack mode with the ball in his hands, particularly against loaded boxes. According to Next Gen Stats, Gurley has posted the sixth-best yards-per-carry average (3.68) among runners with at least 40 rushing attempt against loaded boxes.
McVay has certainly helped the star runner find his way by calling more off-tackle runs designed to hit the gaps between offensive guard and tackle or tackle and tight end. This allows Gurley to "bang" (slam it in between the gap) or "bounce" (take it around the corner) on the majority of his runs. As a long strider with explosive speed and quickness, Gurley is at his best executing these "one cut and go" plays that eliminate any hesitation or indecisiveness for the runner. Kudos to McVay for quickly discovering his RB1's best play and featuring it prominently in the game plan.
"Gurley is a nightmare when he is able to get to the edge," said former NFL running back and current Rams radio announcer Maurice Jones-Drew. "He is a long strider, so he needs a little runway to get going. The outside zone or stretch allows him to hit the hole aggressive, without having to think about cutting the ball to the back side. It's a really good play for him, especially when he gets to run by No. 77 (Andrew Whitworth)."
But Gurley's MVP candidacy isn't solely due to his running prowess. He's become a nightmare to defend in the passing game. According to NFL Media Research, Gurley has the second-most receiving yards out of the backfield (293) and the fifth-best yards-per-catch average (10.9) among qualified players.
That's staggering production for a running back who primarily makes his passing-game contributions from a traditional alignment in the backfield. Gurley's amassing his yardage on screens, swings and rails instead of playing out wide like a quasi-receiver. With Gurley doing it the old-fashioned way for a franchise that's featured some of the most dangerous three-down running backs in NFL history (Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson), it is time for the football world to appreciate a running back on pace for 2,100 scrimmage yards.
These Rams weren't expected to score like "The Greatest Show on Turf," but Gurley's re-emergence as one of the top playmakers in the game has sparked the team's surprising return to prominence, which puts the 23-year-old back squarely in the MVP race at midseason.
BIRTH OF SACKSONVILLE: How the Jags built this ferocious front
You don't always get what you pay for in life, but the Jacksonville Jaguars are definitely getting their money's worth from a defensive line that's loaded with big-money free-agent acquisitions and top draft picks.
In case you haven't heard, the Jaguars lead the NFL sacks behind a front line that absolutely bludgeons opponents at point of attack with its collection of size, strength, power and skill. In just seven games, Jacksonville has recorded a whopping 33 sacks, with the D-line accounting for 29. Think about that: The Jags have been able to pummel quarterbacks into submission without having to routinely commit second-level defenders to the rush. Thus, they are able to play max coverage in the back end while harassing passers in the pocket using traditional tactics at the line of scrimmage. Whereas other teams are forced to scheme up pressures to get defenders home, the Jaguars can play a "beat 'em up" scheme with their pass rushers expected to win against single or double-team blocks. With so many guys capable of winning their one-on-one matchups, Jacksonville has been able to notch 10 sacks in two games this season. Only one other NFL team -- the 1984 Chicago Bears -- has ever accomplished this feat.
Now, I'm not saying these Jags are on par with that legendary Bears defense, but I do believe #Sacksonville boasts the most balanced collection of pass rushers that we've seen in some time. And Jacksonville brass deserves credits for spending major capital to put this group together. Over the past two offseasons, the Jags broke the bank for Calais Campbell (four years, $60 million) and Malik Jackson (six years, $90 million). Jacksonville also spent the No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft on Dante Fowler and snagged Yannick Ngakoue with a 2016 third-rounder. And this season's returns have been splendid.
According to Next Gen Stats, the Jaguars' D-Line (34 percent) rates behind only the Eagles' unit (34.6 percent) when it comes to pressure rate. Those are impressive figures, considering the league average is 19.8 percent. Campbell ranks second in the league with 10 sacks, while Ngakoue (6.5 sacks) and Fowler (5.5) both rank in the top 15. Although sacks don't necessarily tell the entire story when it comes to disruption, the steady pressure does change the way quarterbacks attack a defense. Instead of firing balls down the field at intermediate and deep range, passers must work the underneath areas of coverage with a "get the ball out" mindset. While that is a great strategy against most elite pressure units, the presence of stud corners Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye in Jacksonville makes it nearly impossible to rely on quicks (slants, hitches, quick outs and seams) to move the ball. Their sticky man-to-man tactics eliminate the layups and force quarterbacks to hang in the pocket against a ferocious pass rush.
"Pressure and coverage go hand in hand," a longtime NFL defensive coordinator told me. "If you can disrupt the timing of the quarterback while also blanketing the receivers, you completely mess up the flow of the offense. The coverage forces the quarterback to hold onto the ball a little longer and gives the rush more time to get home.
"When you're good in both areas, you become a defense that's impossible to deal with."
Given the premise outlined by the veteran coach, it is easy to see why Jacksonville ranks first in pass defense.
And here's the scary thing: It's only going to get worse for opposing quarterbacks with the recent trade for Marcell Dareus adding another disruptive playmaker to the mix. Dareus played two seasons under current Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone in Buffalo -- and made a pair of Pro Bowls. He gives this Jacksonville unit a dynamic nose tackle with diverse skills. He can harass quarterbacks as an A-gap penetrator or clog the lane as a stout run stuffer. Despite being viewed as an underachiever during his final snaps with the Bills, Dareus still proved pretty effective against the run -- according to Next Gen Stats -- and should be squarely in his prime at age 27. This is big because stopping the run has been the one problem for Jacksonville's defense. The Jags currently give up 138.6 rushing yards per game -- dead last in the NFL.
Remember, most defensive coordinators enter each game intent on stopping the run, particularly on early downs. Those stops eventually force quarterbacks to throw in long-yardage situations against a defense geared up to rush the passer from every angle. With Dareus coming on board to shore up the Jaguar D's one problem area, Jacksonville could really be #Sacksonville for the rest of the season.