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:
- The top five edge rushers in the NFL today.
- Tom Brady must adapt to Bruce Arians' offense, but the coach should tweak his scheme in particular ways.
- Why Arizona is taking the right approach with Isaiah Simmons.
But first, a look at why Joe Burrow could have the Bengals back in contention sooner than you think ...
It's quite difficult for a rookie quarterback to immediately engineer a dramatic turnaround, but Joe Burrow could help the Cincinnati Bengals re-emerge as a competitive team in the AFC quicker than many anticipate. I'm not proclaiming the reigning Heisman Trophy winner is an overnight savior, but he's stepping into a program that is undergoing a cultural change while retaining enough weapons to significantly smooth a rookie quarterback's transition to the NFL.
I know, I know: The Bengals just went 2-14, which is why they were in position to draft Burrow at No. 1 overall in the first place. It's difficult to envision such a franchise being a group on the rise. But trust me: This isn't your typical top-pick-holding team.
It's uncommon for a two-win organization to have a blue-chip running back (Joe Mixon) and a pair of top-tier pass catchers (A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd) already in the fold. Not to mention, Cincy spent the first pick of the second round on Clemson WR Tee Higgins, a big-bodied vertical playmaker who's excellent on 50-50 balls. That's plenty of firepower at the skill positions. On the line, the Bengals essentially add another first-round pick in Jonah Williams, the 11th overall pick from the 2019 NFL Draft who missed all of last season after injuring his shoulder during team activities in June. Williams, who was the first offensive lineman selected in last year's draft, slots in at left tackle. Although questions persist about the Alabama product's ability to emerge as a five-star blind-side protector, given his less-than-ideal physical tools, the Bengals are betting on Williams' polished technique and competitiveness to enable him to hold his own against superior athletes on the edge.
If Williams develops into a blue-chip bookend, the Bengals can check off two of the boxes on the "3 Ps" formula (play caller, playmakers and protection) that enables young quarterbacks to enjoy early success in the league. This leaves second-year head coach Zac Taylor as the critical factor to Burrow's success.
Taylor's still acclimating to calling plays in the NFL while overseeing the entire operation, but when I spoke to him at both the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine, he told me that he was getting more comfortable in his role and felt better prepared to handle all of the responsibilities on his plate. I believe we will see a more confident and composed play caller in 2020.
With a year under his belt, Taylor will be able to build better game plans for his quarterback. And I loved what I heard from Burrow on a recent RapSheet + Friends podcast, where the rookie signal-caller talked about how Taylor is fully soliciting his input on the playbook.
"I think the direction that they're heading is going to fit me even more. They're going to do things that I'm comfortable with, and that's a great sign," Burrow said to my colleague Ian Rapoport. "They had me put down my top 10 plays that I had and send it to them, so they can study them and see if they [can] have them in the offense, if they don't [already] have them in the offense."
The collaboration between Taylor and Burrow is essential to building a championship-caliber offense. Moreover, the trust developed between the head coach and his new franchise face is part of creating a culture that fosters a turnaround.
Urban Meyer joined the "Move The Sticks" podcast earlier this week and discussed Burrow, who spent his first three years of college with the coach at Ohio State before transferring to LSU.
"He's at the Cincinnati Bengals now and they were 2-14 last year," Meyer said. "Do you want to help Joe become great? Surround him with a great culture with great leadership and some great players. If you do that, he'll be great. If not, he won't."
Meyer's points regarding culture shouldn't be ignored. Young players need to be nurtured in the right environment to maximize individual and collective potential. Taylor is attempting to transform the Bengals' culture by bringing in players who understand and embrace a championship standard.
"We're not just trying to win games -- we're trying to win championships," Taylor told reporters shortly after the draft. "Ultimately, you have to think long term with that championship mindset. People that are willing to work harder than any team in the league. We feel like we've added the right people. Not for one second did we compromise talent with the guys we added.
"Sometimes you can say someone is a high-character guy, but you maybe have to research to find out if the talent is good enough. Our staff did an excellent job of finding the right guys with combinations of both things -- character and talent. That's going to make us a better team."
Many coaches believe in taking players from winning programs, particularly championship programs, because that signals that they're willing to do the little things required to win at a high level. From their work ethic and discipline to their competitive spirit, the best players on championship teams are also the hardest workers.
That's why the Bengals signed six defensive free agents that were on playoff teams and drafted six players who were team captains. The addition of the captains, in particular, is important due to their proven leadership skills. Captains understand how to carry out the head coach's message and hold their teammates accountable.
"When you say a guy with an edge, that's a guy who's not afraid to hold his teammates to a higher standard," Taylor told reporters. "They have a killer instinct on the field playing against an opponent, but at the same time, that's not where most of your time is spent. Most of your time is spent in meeting rooms, on practice fields or doing individual stuff. We're going to get to where we want to go if not just the coaches hold the players to a high standard, but the players hold themselves to that standard."
The Bengals aren't likely to make a worst-to-first turnaround in this AFC North with a rookie quarterback at the helm, but Burrow's arrival coincides with a culture change that could result in the team forging a quicker-than-expected climb up the charts.
TOP FIVE EDGE RUSHERS: Studying how they win
I spent some time this week evaluating QB hunters around the league. After reviewing my notes and assigning grades based off my film study, here are the top five edge rushers in the NFL right now:
Since entering the league as a first-round pick of the New England Patriots in 2012, Jones leads the NFL in sacks (96) and forced fumbles (27). And he has actually cranked up his production since moving to the desert in 2016. In 64 games with the Arizona Cardinals, Jones has racked up 60 sacks and 17 forced fumbles. Last season alone, when Jones was the runner-up to Stephon Gilmore in Defensive Player of the Year voting, he logged 19 sacks and eight forced fumbles (seven strip-sacks). And here's another thing: During Jones' tenure in Arizona, the Cards haven't exactly lit the world on fire as a team. Consequently, they've rarely been playing with a lead, thus limiting Jones' opportunities to hunt quarterbacks without worrying about the run. So, yeah, Jones is the rare home-run hitter who can hit for average. When it comes to his playing style, Jones is a sneaky-explosive pass rusher with an array of hand-to-hand combat maneuvers that overwhelm blockers. He has the capacity to turn speed into power while also using a little finesse to win on inside or outside moves.
The five-time Pro Bowler has 58 sacks since 2015 and an ongoing streak of eight straight seasons with at least 7.5 sacks. As a high-motor rusher with a combination of strength, power and nastiness, Jordan simply overwhelms blockers on the edges on his way to wrecking offensive game plans each week. Without a consistent threat on the opposite side, the 10th-year pro's steady production is a testament to his skill level and overall dominance.
The former third-round pick has quickly joined the ranks of the elite, notching 48.5 sacks over the past four seasons. Hunter has outstanding first-step quickness, and he's capable of winning with speed or power off the edge. He uses a slippery dip-and-rip maneuver to turn the corner and complements it with a variety of hand-to-hand combat moves that enable him to win with power. Hunter is an artistic technician with a refined game that's about as polished as you'll find at the position.
No. 52's sack total was down in 2019 -- 8.5, the lowest total since his rookie season -- but he still created plenty of disruption off the edge. Mack has 21 sacks and 11 forced fumbles in 30 games with the Bears. He employs a power-based game that creates headaches for offensive tackles lacking balance, body control and anchor ability.
It didn't take Watt long to figure out how to consistently get to NFL quarterbacks off the edge. The No. 30 overall pick in 2017, Watt has piled up 27.5 sacks and 14 forced fumbles over the past two seasons. He was a splash play machine in 2019, finishing third in Defensive Player of the Year voting. Watt's energy, athleticism and hand skills make him a nightmare to block when he is in attack mode off the edge.
BUCS' OFFENSE: Tom Brady's fit with Bruce Arians
Can you teach an old dog new tricks? We will find out this season in Tampa, with Tom Brady apparently tasked with mastering the Buccaneers' scheme, as opposed to the team implementing the system that enabled the quarterback to earn G.O.A.T. status in New England during a 20-year run that included six Super Bowl wins. Bruce Arians isn't expected to radically overhaul his offense to accommodate the 42-year-old, despite his new QB1's unparalleled success.
"I think what we'll see here (in Tampa) is Bruce's offense with a Brady influence," Bucs quarterback coach Clyde Christensen told The Athletic's Bob Kravitz. "Bruce wants to keep the offense the same. We did some good things last year. Tom has been terrific as far as saying, 'Just tell me what you want to do.' And honestly, there's a lot of carry-over from all these offenses; it's just what you call certain things.
"We're looking forward to seeing how he can influence the offense. He'll make it better. That's what the great ones do. He'll have some great ideas, so we're anxious to get his take on things."
I certainly understand Arians' desire to maintain some continuity for the rest of the offense. The veteran coach is entering his second year in Tampa, implementing a Brady-led blueprint with a fast-approaching expiration date, so he doesn't want to stunt offensive growth by installing a brand-new playbook for everyone. It is much easier to put the onus on Brady to adjust to the Buccaneers' scheme, while incorporating a few ideas from the Patriots' system to help the three-time MVP get comfortable.
With that in mind, I would expect to see more multi-tight end packages from the Buccaneers, with a heavy emphasis on "12" personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs, 2 WRs). Last season, Tampa Bay only featured "12" personnel on 20 percent of their offensive snaps, per Next Gen Stats, but the individual and collective skills of Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate could prompt Brady to nudge Arians to incorporate this look more in 2020. Heavy personnel packages would enable the Buccaneers to create extra gaps in the running game, while also setting up Brady for big-play chances through the air on a variety of complementary play-action passes. Considering the size, strength and athleticism of the tight ends -- as well as the stellar receiving duo of Chris Godwin and Mike Evans -- the Buccaneers could become more formidable and efficient with an old-school approach. And it makes sense when you review last year's passing output in Tampa Bay.
In 2019, Bucs QB Jameis Winston connected on 67.6 percent of his play-action pass attempts (69 of 102 passes, per Next Gen Stats) with an average of 12.3 yards per attempt, an 8:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 127.8 passer rating. On non-play-action passes, Winston posted a 59.4 percent completion rate with an average of 7.3 yards per attempt, a 25:28 TD-to-INT ratio and a 75.8 passer rating. Considering those numbers, the Buccaneers should've featured the play-action passing game more prominently to maximize their offensive potential.
With TB12 under center, you can expect to see more play-action, particularly from run-heavy formations and personnel groupings. The combination of condensed formations and play-action fakes could open up the middle of the field on seams and deeper in-breaking routes behind over-aggressive linebackers. Last year, Brady posted the seventh-highest passer rating (107.6) on deep passes, according to Next Gen Stats, with an average of 11.8 yards per attempt and a 7:2 TD-to-INT ratio. Given a better supporting cast with blue-chip playmakers on the perimeter, Brady could look like a different player if the Bucs lean into a vertical passing game built off play-action throws.
Brady could also encourage Arians to feature empty formations with big bodies on the field. The no-back set with tight ends and/or running backs aligned outside of wide receivers will make it easy for No. 12 to identify coverages and target favorable matchups. The Buccaneers used empty formations on 9.2 percent of their offensive plays in 2019 (13th-highest in NFL, per NGS), but Brady's experience and efficiency directing no-back sets could make it a staple in the game plan this season.
Arians might largely hold on to his old playbook with Brady coming onboard, but the 14-time Pro Bowler can make a few tweaks to a scheme that could help the Buccaneers' offense go from good to great under his direction.
ISAIAH SIMMONS' ROLE: Rookie settling in at LB
Credit the Arizona Cardinals' coaching staff for avoiding the temptation of making Isaiah Simmons the NFL's next "jack of all trades, master of none" on defense. Despite GM Steve Keim dubbing the Clemson standout a "Swiss Army Knife" on draft night, just a few days later, Cards defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said the team plans to play the 6-foot-4, 238-pounder at linebacker to start.
Head coach Kliff Kingsbury reiterated the one-position philosophy for Simmons earlier this week, saying that strategy may pay off the biggest dividends.
"Our thought process is, if he is really able to focus on one position, having the flexibility to still move around, but really focus on one, what does that look like?" Kingsbury said during a Monday conference call. "And the sky can really be the limit.
"That's why we were so excited about him. The athleticism is through the roof. But his ability to play different positions and not really have any chance to focus on one, we just think the sky can be the limit for what he could be if we really lock him into one position the majority of the time."
I love this approach with young players. The transition from college to the NFL is tough, and freeing blue-chip players from mental clutter is the best way to help them play fast early in their careers. Although Simmons played a multi-faceted role at Clemson as an upperclassman, he was on campus for a few years before the coaching staff put more on his plate.
As a redshirt junior in 2019, Simmons already had an extensive amount of reps and experience that allowed him to master the defensive scheme. Consequently, the Tigers were able to expand his role in his final college campaign.
That's why it's smart for the Cardinals to start the rookie out as a one-position player before increasing his responsibilities as he becomes more comfortable. At linebacker, Simmons will still get a chance to play multiple roles as a second-level defender with the capacity to blitz or cover from his weak-side linebacker position. He was a disruptive force for the Tigers on blitzes (8.0 sacks and 16.0 tackles for loss in 2019) -- a fact certainly not lost on Joseph.
"I've seen him pass rush and, obviously, when you're a blitzer, you have to have some kind of pass-rushing technique," Joseph told reporters during a teleconference on April 28, via ESPN. "Because if they have a blocker for you -- which, in this league, they probably will most of the time -- you have to have some technique to make moves and flip the hips to be a pass rusher. I've seen him do that. I've also seen him rush when he's clean, and if a quarterback stands in a pocket clean, I mean, he can finish on quarterbacks.
"I've seen him also beat backs and tight ends one-to-one as a pass rusher, so he's both. I mean, when you're that tall and long with that kind of burst, being a blitzer or pass rusher, it's kind of one and the same."
While Simmons should certainly see action attacking from the second level, he might also provide a significant impact in coverage. The Cardinals allowed a league-high 1,148 receiving yards, 9.0 yards per target and 16 touchdowns to opposing tight ends last season, and the rookie defender's rare combination of size, speed and athleticism makes him uniquely suited to defend that position. Obviously, this is key in a division that features All-Pro George Kittle, savvy vet Greg Olsen and a couple of athletic pass catchers in Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee.
Simmons should have his work cut out for him in Year 1 in an absolutely loaded NFC West. Encouraging him to get acclimated and comfortable at one position before adding more on his shoulders should not only help in his long-term development, but enable him to contribute immediately.