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:
-- Why Matt Patricia is bringing the "Patriot Way" to Detroit's backfield.
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Production or potential?
That's the debate waged in every war room around the NFL during this time of year, as general managers and personnel directors put the finishing touches on their respective draft boards. With rumors and reports circulating out of Cleveland that the Browns are strongly considering using the No. 1 overall pick on Wyoming QB Josh Allen, we could be on the verge of seeing another set of evaluators go for upside over proven performance on the draft day.
Now, we don't really know if Allen is the top player on the Browns' board, but it wouldn't surprise me to see the team take a flier on the gunslinger based on the track record of their general manager, John Dorsey. The well-respected team builder has frequently opted for prospects with prototypical physical dimensions and game-changing potential over productive performers.
One year ago, we saw Dorsey, then GM of the Kansas City Chiefs, move up the board to pick rocket-armed Patrick Mahomes over two-time Heisman finalist and national championship hero Deshaun Watson. While most observers considered the Texas Tech product a developmental prospect with A-plus arm talent and a sandlot game, Mahomes wasn't nearly as accomplished or polished as Watson as a collegian. Moreover, he didn't appear to have the pocket discipline to play within the structure of an NFL offense, especially when compared to his counterpart.
In 2013, Dorsey again opted for potential over production when he picked Eric Fisher over Luke Joeckel as the No. 1 overall pick. The Central Michigan tackle wasn't nearly as polished as the Texas A&M star, but he was a better athlete with the size and length that matched the dimensions of the prototypes at the position. Despite concerns regarding the level of competition Fisher faced as a Chippewa, Dorsey believed he was a transcendent talent capable of playing at an elite level if he maxed out his potential. Furthermore, there are plenty of potential-over-production examples from Dorsey's time in Green Bay, where he served as director of college scouting and director of football operations: Nick Perry over Courtney Upshaw in 2012; Aaron Rodgers over Jason Campbell in 2005; Ahmad Carroll over Chris Gamble in 2004; Javon Walker over Jabar Gaffney and Josh Reed in 2002.
That might be hard for some of us to understand, based on the tape evaluation, but the physical tools Allen possesses could be too enticing for Dorsey to pass on. Remember, Dorsey was with the Packers when Brett Favre won three straight MVPs in the mid-1990s on the strength of a spectacular game that mixed sandlot football with pure gunslinging from the pocket. Watching No. 4 produce highlight after highlight while showcasing exceptional athleticism and arm talent certainly made an impression on the Browns' top executive during his formative years.
Not to mention, Allen possesses the kind of frame (6-foot-5, 237 pounds with 10 1/8-inch hands) and athleticism (he tested among the top quarterbacks at the NFL Scouting Combine in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, broad jump and three-cone drill) that make him a scout's dream at the position. In a business where scouts are encouraged to think about what a prospect could be at his best (Hall of Fame inductee Ron Wolf used to direct scouts: "Don't tell me what a player can't do, tell me what he can do and how he can be successful in the league"), Allen has the potential to be a game changer at the position if he can improve his accuracy and judgment in critical moments.
Now, personally, I don't necessarily believe Allen can improve in those areas and have reservations about his inability to perform on a big stage. But I can understand why Dorsey and others would be fascinated by the Wyoming star's potential and upside. I've compared Allen to Cam Newton and Ben Roethlisberger in the past, based on his unique combination of skills and potential to grow into a Pro Bowl-caliber player. That's definitely a possibility in an offense that's designed to maximize his skill set (think: vertical passing game built of play-action).
Sure, the sub-60 percent completion rate and the dismal performances against Power Five teams are alarming, but the possibilities are intriguing. And swinging for the fences is part of Dorsey's DNA. With that in mind, it certainly wouldn't surprise me to see Allen walk across the stage as the No. 1 overall pick with a Browns jersey and hat in hand.
THE DONALD-MACK DEBATE: Is inside or outside pressure more valuable?
We keep talking about the NFL being a quarterback-driven league, but this offseason could change that narrative when the past two Defensive Player of the Year recipients sign deals that pay them "quarterback money" for their dominance as disruptive pass rushers.
Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack are each on the verge of breaking the bank. Both fifth-year pros, Donald and Mack are in line for lucrative contract extensions following a series of spectacular campaigns that confirmed their status as elite players. This will put pass rushers in the spotlight, forcing executives to think deeper about the value of particular quarterback hunters in the team-building process.
For years, general managers, personnel execs and scouts ranked pass rusher as the second-most important position in football, with most citing defensive end/outside linebacker as the marquee spot on defense. But lately, with pass-rushing defensive tackles or inside sub-package rushers taking over games in critical moments, I sense that sentiment changing. Teams are increasingly looking to win with A-gap (space between the offensive guard and center) pressure, due to the chaos and disruption at the point of attack. For immobile quarterbacks, in particular, pressure from the middle of the line completely disrupts their timing in the pocket and blurs their vision and/or blocks available passing lanes.
That's why I'm fascinated to see the numbers Donald and Mack will tally at the end of their negotiations, because it will shed light on just how valuable executives view premier inside and outside pass rushers at the moment. From a contract perspective, each player is looking at a deal that should feature somewhere around the $60 million guaranteed Ndamukong Suh received as part of his six-year, $114 million contract in 2015 and the $70 million in guarantees included in Von Miller's six-year, $114.5 million deal in 2016.
NFL Network's Steve Wyche says Mack is seeking guarantees in excess of $65 million. Meanwhile, Donald's apparently on the verge of becoming the highest-paid defensive player in the league. Based on their production and performance as disruptive sack artists, they are certainly worthy of getting deals that place them near the figure commanded by top quarterbacks: $20 million-plus per season. Mack has amassed 40.5 sacks in four years, including 36.5 over the past three. He also has added nine forced fumbles as the Raiders' designated pass rusher. Donald has been just as productive as a disruptor, with 39 sacks and nine forced fumbles to his name. He has also delivered 108 QB hits during that span (compared to 84 from Mack), while amassing 72 tackles for loss (Mack has 68) as a destructive force on the interior.
Given Mack and Donald's emergence as elite defenders in a league full of blue-chippers, it is not surprising that executives are looking for clones at their respective positions. With that in mind, I thought I would pose a question to a handful of my scouting buddies to see how they view pass rushers, and more specifically, what kinds of pass rushers they prefer. Would you want to build your defense around an inside or outside pass rusher? Here are some of their responses ...
AFC assistant general manager: "I'm old school, so I'm going to go for the edge rusher."
AFC college scouting director: "I would take an inside rusher like [Aaron Donald] or Warren Sapp because they can disrupt the interior line, which will affect both the run and pass. Plus, the pressure in the face of the quarterback is better than an edge rusher because he can be pushed around the edge."
NFC pro personnel director: "You can't go wrong with either one, but the inside rusher makes a bigger impact. If you can affect the quarterback immediately up the middle or disrupt the run up the middle, it messes up plays from the jump."
AFC pro personnel director: "I've always been taught that you build your defense from inside out. I'm going to go for the inside pass rusher because he can completely disrupt the game."
A second NFC pro personnel director: "Philosophically, you would want to take the edge rusher, but Aaron Donald's success clouds the debate. ... It's easier to create matchup problems on the inside because teams can always turn protections to edge guys and use running backs and tight ends to help the offensive tackle."
Former NFL vice president of personnel: "Ideally, you would take the edge rusher because they command so much attention. But when you see a guy like Donald dominate from inside, it makes you re-think that a little bit."
I find it interesting that the overwhelming majority of executives I spoke to preferred the inside rusher over the edge rusher. That's a drastic philosophical shift from what I was taught when I entered the business. Yet, it falls in line with what one of my old coaches told me as a young player. Dick Jauron, my defensive coordinator with the Jacksonville Jaguars, said a defense should be strong down the middle, and that you need to build it with that premise in mind. He told me that philosophy is true in all sports (point guard and center in basketball; catcher, pitcher, shortstop, second baseman and center fielder in baseball), which is interesting when you consider the entirety of his point.
From a statistical standpoint, the argument doesn't necessarily hold up when looking at the sack numbers from the 2017 season. The top 23 sack producers were listed as defensive ends/outside linebackers before Geno Atkins appears on the list with 9.0 sacks as a defensive tackle. (Donald is listed as a 3-4 defensive end, but plays inside in the Rams' nickel rush package.)
That brings me back to my fascination with the Donald and Mack contract negotiations. With the majority of evaluators favoring an inside pass rusher, I'm curious to see which guy lands the bigger deal. Compensation reflects value, so we will soon see if the inside rushers (or edge rushers with inside pass-rush ability) become the new marquee players on the defensive roster.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) Jarvis Landry setting bar high for slot receivers. If you needed any more proof that the NFL has become a passing league, look no further than the monster contract the Cleveland Browns lavished on three-time Pro Bowl receiver Jarvis Landry. The team is finalizing a five-year, $75.5 million deal with $47 million in guarantees ($34 million fully guaranteed) that not only makes him one of the highest-paid pass catchers in the league, but it resets the market for slot receivers.
Landry now ranks fifth among wide receivers in average annual salary ($15.1M) with the kind of guaranteed money that's typically reserved for No. 1 receivers (SEE: Mike Evans' $55 million in guarantees as part of a five-year, $82 million contract extension signed earlier this offseason). Landry ranks ahead of A.J. Green and Julio Jones in yearly take-home pay despite being more of a role player than a featured playmaker in a passing game.
Let that marinate for a minute.
The Browns are essentially paying a chain mover the kind of cash that normally goes to touchdown makers and big-play specialists on the perimeter. That's not a slight or dismissal of Landry's remarkable accomplishments as the most prolific pass catcher in NFL history over the first four seasons of his career (400 receptions), but he is also the only NFL receiver to record a 100-plus catch season without topping the 1,000-yard mark. Landry's 8.8 yards per catch average in 2017 is the lowest of any wide receiver with 100-plus catches in NFL history.
"Landry is a good player, but I don't think that he is a difference-maker by any stretch of the imagination," a personnel director from another AFC team told me earlier in the offseason, when the Miami Dolphins placed the non-exclusive tag on Landry. "He has put up good numbers in terms of catches, but his low yards-per-catch average and lack of touchdowns would make it hard for me to cut him a big check. There are too many slot receivers capable of doing similar things at a lower number."
To be fair, No. 14 is coming off a career year where he posted career highs in receptions (112) and receiving touchdowns (nine) in an offense directed by backup quarterbacks. Most important, Landry had more touchdowns and almost as many receptions as all of the Browns' receivers combined in 2017 (134 total receptions, 1,801 receiving yards and seven touchdowns).
That's why it's hard to knock the Browns for paying Landry big bucks after acquiring him in a trade with the Miami Dolphins for a 2018 fourth-round pick and a 2019 seventh-rounder. He becomes the unquestioned No. 1 receiver in a passing game that features an immensely talented but troubled All-Pro-caliber pass catcher (Josh Gordon) and an epic disappointment (Corey Coleman) on the perimeter. The lack of consistency and production from the duo made it imperative for the team to find a reliable option to build around while breaking in a new quarterback, particularly if it is a rookie acclimating to the pro game.
With Landry already poised to play on a franchise tag that required the team to pay him the average of the top five players at the position, we shouldn't be surprised to see the deal reach epic proportions. The Browns' new No. 1 had all of the leverage in this negotiation, and he used his hammer to change the pay scale for slot receivers around the league. While some will debate whether a chain mover is worthy of being paid like an elite receiver, Landry has made it easier for the next generation of slot receivers to command bigger paydays in the near future.
2) Matt Patricia bringing Patriots' running back outlook to Detroit. The Detroit Lions could have one of the most explosive offenses in football but to the chagrin of fantasy football players around the country, the team will continue to lean on a committee approach at running back despite fielding the worst running game in the NFL in 2017.
Look, I get it. Matt Patricia is bringing the "Patriot Way" with him to the Motor City, which means the team will play a weekly game of roulette at running back with a different player shouldering the load as the lead back each game. This is how the Patriots have operated since Corey Dillon helped them win Super Bowl XXXIX but we're talking about the Lions. This is a team that hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Reggie Bush barely eclipsed the mark in 2013 and that's after the team waited almost a decade for another runner to join the VIP section after Kevin Jones hit the mark in 2004.
Think about that. A franchise that once featured arguably the best running back in football (Barry Sanders) hasn't been able to find a dominant RB1 or the right combination of backs to spark a running game that's failed to produce a 100-yard rusher in 68 straight games. That's only four games shy of the NFL's all-time record of 72 set by the Washington Redskins in the 1960s.
To make matters worse, the Lions have had the least-prolific running game in football since 2014. The Lions have finished 28th, 32nd, 30th, and 32nd in rushing offense during that span with the team failing to discover a credible threat in the backfield. Thus, the thought of the Lions entering the season without a dominant runner in the rotation leads to concerns about their ability to compete in a competitive NFC that's loaded with championship-caliber defenses.
Patricia doesn't necessarily see it that way. He recently told a group of season ticket holders at the team's annual member summit at Ford Field that diversity in the backfield will give the Lions an advantage despite going with an unestablished pecking order in the running back rotation.
"That sounds like a good thing, right?" Patricia said. "I mean look, anything that we do, we certainly don't want to give our opponents any advantage. So again, we're always going to try to work harder than they are, we're always going to try to come up with a scheme that gives us an advantage and put our players in a position to make plays. It's not necessarily the Xs and Os, it's who's the X and who's the O and what's the matchup and how does that work. So that's something we're definitely trying to do."
Looking at the Lions' current roster, the presence of a power runner (LeGarrette Blount), a pass-catching weapon (Theo Reddick), a combo player (Ameer Abdullah) and a handful of experienced ball carriers with versatile skills (Zach Zenner, Tion Green and Dwayne Washington) on the depth chart with the possibility of adding another playmaker in the draft, suggests the team will definitely take a "toolbox" approach into the season. The coaches will decide which tools are needed for the job each week and feature those instruments prominently in the game plan.
"I think for us it's all about competition, but when we get into the game plan mode and we actually have our team and we're working against a particular opponent, then it becomes into a matchup situation," Patricia said. "Is it a running situation? Is it a passing situation? How can we use these guys in different ways to create mismatches or advantages for us based on the situation and the team that we're playing from that standpoint?"
That's certainly a reasonable plan if you can put together a stable of running backs with versatile skills that allow them to attack the defense in a variety of ways as runners and receivers. Remember, the Patriots had three running backs with at least 500 scrimmage yards in 2017 due to their flexibility as hybrid playmakers. With that in mind, we should probably ignore the Lions' rushing totals and place a greater emphasis on the scrimmage yards amassed by their running backs. The combination of rushing and receiving yardage will better reflect their impact on the game and how the team views their running backs as more than just ball carriers.
"I know people tend to look towards those teams that have just one consistent runner because it makes it easy to evaluate," Patricia said. "But I think that position, in general, has a lot of different degrees of variance to it, and if you can have that in that position, and quote-unquote call them running backs, but yet their jobs that they do are so vastly diverse, it makes it really hard on the defense. People don't understand that. It's kind of a combination of run and pass game."
3) Joe Webb signing proof that Texans building sticking with "Watson" package. When the Houston Texans signed Joe Webb as a backup quarterback, it barely registered a blip on the radar but astute observers should've viewed the move as another sign the team is fully committed to radically overhauling their offensive scheme to better fit their star quarterback.
As I discussed in last week's notebook, the Texans are rebuilding their offense around Deshaun Watson's explosive talents as a dual-threat playmaker. The team intends to fully embrace the RPOs, zone-read and play-action concepts that helped DW4 light up scoreboards around the league as a dynamic dual-threat quarterback. Although his season was cut short due to injury, the Texans' offensive production with and without their mobile playmaker encouraged Bill O'Brien to embrace misdirection, deception and quarterback involvement in the running game.
With the risk associated with running an offense that occasionally puts the quarterback in harm's way as a designated runner, the Texans are wise to add another dual-threat quarterback to the roster to serve as a QB2/QB3 behind Watson. Remember, we've heard traditionalists suggest that NFL teams can't build around a mobile quarterback because an injury completely destroys the offense because the backup traditionally possesses a different skill set and the team is unable to run the same plays.
In Houston, though, the Texans have resolved that problem by signing a versatile quarterback with a combination of athleticism and arm talent to direct an offense that is designed for a dual-threat playmaker. Webb has enough experience as a quarterback to fill in as a temporary QB1 in an offense. Last season, he helped the Buffalo Bills get a "W" in a snowstorm in Week 14, when he made enough plays with his arm and feet to move the chains in a low-scoring affair.
Granted, it wasn't pretty but the one-game showcase, his solid work as a QB3 throughout the preseason and his additional production as a special teams standout are enough to make this a sensible choice for the Texans. Webb can be a four-unit performer on special teams (kickoff and punt coverage; punt and kickoff return) while serving as the team's QB3. This will guarantee Webb a jersey on the 46-man active roster on game day, which makes him a two-for-one player on a team that covets versatility throughout the roster.
Back to Watson and how the Webb signing is another indication of the Texans' transition to a unique offense. While there isn't any doubt that Watson will return to form as a sensational playmaker, the addition of Webb is an insurance policy against a setback during the offseason. Webb can capably run the "Watson" package during OTAs and offseason workouts to give the team a preview of what the offense could look like with No. 4 in the lineup. In addition, it will give the coaches more time to experiment with various spread or read-option concepts with Webb playing the role of DW4, if he's not fully cleared to participate in workouts.
Given the importance of rehearsal reps in the spring, Webb's signing will only help O'Brien build an explosive offense that will fully tap into all of the skills of his young star quarterback.