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:
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After paying Josh Norman big bucks to serve as their CB1, the Washington Redskins spent most of 2016 planting their marquee free-agent acquisition on one side of the field despite his burgeoning reputation as a shutdown corner. Considering the team inked the 2015 first-team All-Pro selection to a five-year, $75 million deal that validated his status as a premier corner, observers were miffed when former Redskins defensive coordinator Joe Barry didn't instruct Norman to shadow the opponent's WR1 in big games last season.
"When you pay a corner that kind of money, you expect him to cover the No. 1 guy," an AFC pro personnel director told me early last season. "He's done it in the past with the Panthers, so I don't understand why he wouldn't do it with the Redskins. Sure, it can create some problems for the other defenders, but if I'm paying big bucks to a corner, I expect him to be able to match up with the opponent's top guy."
While I certainly understand that sentiment, I also recognized Barry's rationale at the time when he talked about not wanting to disrupt the chemistry and continuity of the defense by having No. 24 travel.
"It's easy for the guy that's (moving)," Barry told reporters after a season-opening loss to the Steelers that saw Antonio Brown rack up eight catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns. "It's hard for the other 10 guys to get lined up. ... If you are coming to cover me, that's easy. But him, him and him -- I could go anywhere. I could line up at X, I could line up at Z, I could line up at Y, I could line up in the backfield, I could line up anywhere. Now, If I always told you that I was lining up right here, that'd be simple. You guys could play off of me, but if you don't know where I'm going to align, then these guys really have no clue. ... That's why most of the time, people get talked out of it, especially with an offense that moves their guy around."
To that point, it isn't as easy as some would think to incorporate a travel strategy into the game plan with an elite corner. It not only requires the CB1 to be comfortable playing on both sides of the field and possibly in the slot, but it also requires the rest of the defensive backfield to be able to adjust and adapt to playing multiple positions in the back end. Whether it's aligning at left or right corner or sliding into the slot to play as a nickel or dime defender, the other defensive backs must possess the IQ and versatility to handle the responsibility of being in an adjustable defense that morphs according to where the WR1 aligns.
From a play caller's standpoint, the implementation of a travel tactic also requires the scheme to feature man and zone concepts with a number of moving parts. If the offense can quickly determine that the defense is always in man coverage when the CB1 shadows the WR1, offensive coordinators will craft schemes to exploit one-on-one coverage. In addition, the scheme must account for the various stacked and cluster formations that are designed to bust up man coverage. In zone schemes with a travel principle, the play caller must determine whether he wants his CB1 to run with any motion or stay on his original side when the huddle breaks. He must also decide if he wants his CB1 to match up with the WR1 in slot or play on the outside, to the side of the opponent's top target.
With so much to consider and plot out, I applaud the Redskins' new defensive coordinator, Greg Manusky, for implementing his travel plans this offseason. He not only has assessed that his CB1 is worthy of matching up with top receivers, but that Norman is versatile enough to effectively play on either side of the field.
Looking at the numbers from the 2015 and '16 campaigns, it is obvious that Norman is one of the top cover corners in the game. He has yielded low reception rates (52 percent in 2015, 52.7 in '16) and tallied 19 passes defensed in each season. In addition, Norman has totaled seven interceptions while facing 90-plus targets in both years (102 targets in 2015, 91 targets in '16). With Norman holding opposing quarterbacks to a 77.1 passer rating in 2016 -- the 11th-lowest mark for a cornerback with 70-plus targets -- he certainly makes a strong case to be considered a shutdown corner.
Norman has shown that he can effectively play on either side of the field, too, as evidenced by his 56:44 left-right ratio in 2015 and his 66:34 ratio in '16. Although he is not ideally suited to work in the slot, Norman's effectiveness as an outside corner gives Manusky plenty of options when crafting a plan to travel his CB1.
"Some guys always play on the right side or on the left side," said Manusky, via ESPN. "They feel comfortable, and then all of the sudden, if take that guy -- certain players -- and move them to the other side, it's kind of foreign for them."
In Norman's case, he is comfortable playing on either side, so Manusky can focus his efforts on how he plans to deploy his No. 1 corner against elite receivers on the Redskins' schedule. Based on Norman's success against big-bodied receivers in the past, Manusky can allow his 6-foot, 200-pound CB to shadow the No. 1 receiver of each of the Redskins' NFC East rivals. This is particularly relevant against Dallas' Dez Bryant (6-2, 220 pounds) and Philadelphia's Alshon Jeffery (6-3, 218). New York's Odell Beckham Jr. is slighter at 5-11 and 198 pounds, but Norman has famously frustrated the Giants star at times in the past.
Norman does have a tougher time shadowing some smaller, quicker receivers on the perimeter. As a long, leggy corner, he is not as fluid with tight turns and breaks, which makes it harder for him to stay with shifty receivers. Thus, Norman is prone to grab or hold receivers to stay in their hip pocket down the field. Considering this issue, Manusky's plan to tweak his travel scheme on occasion could help the Redskins match up with diminutive pass catchers.
"Sometimes you want to put that better player maybe on their lesser player and try to double the other guy," Manusky told reporters.
This is a common tactic used by NFL teams -- including the New England Patriots -- to take away an opponent's No. 1 receiver. In theory, the team would place the CB1 on the opponent's WR2 and use a bracket or double-team on WR1 on critical downs. If the CB1 shuts out the WR2 and the double-team neutralizes the WR1, the offense will have to depend on the role players to move the ball down the field. Considering the drop-off between No. 1s and No. 3s, the decision to flip the matchups could ground a high-powered offense looking to move the ball through the air.
After failing to maximize the talents of their CB1 during his debut season, the Redskins finally have a plan in place that should help Norman play at an elite level on the island. Considering the talent level at wide receiver in the NFC East, the Redskins will need their top cover man to play like a superstar in order for the team to reclaim its spot atop the division in 2017.
TYREEK HILL IN YEAR 2: Why the Jeremy Maclin release isn't surprising
The release of the veteran receiver of Jeremy Maclin caught the football world by surprise, but anyone paying close attention to the Kansas City Chiefs should've expected the team to find a way to expand the role of Pro Bowl playmaker Tyreek Hill after he set the league on fire as a multi-purpose weapon in Year 1.
The 5-foot-10, 185-pound playmaker scored 12 total touchdowns (six receiving, three rushing, two punt returns and one kick return) in 138 total touches as a rookie, exhibiting a combination of speed, quickness, versatility and big-play ability that's hard to find. On a team that has a tough time generating "explosives" (rushes over 15 yards, receptions of at least 25 yards), the Chiefs needed to find more playing time for their most dynamic offensive weapon in 2017 after he posted video game-like production while only playing on 40 percent of the offensive snaps.
With Andy Reid and his staff counting on more opportunities leading to more production, I'm not the least bit surprised that the team swapped out Maclin for Hill on offense. No disrespect to the eight-year veteran, but the "Z" receiver in Reid's scheme is reserved for a top playmaker in the passing game, and Maclin didn't deliver the numbers to match his compensation. Sure, he posted a 1,000-yard season in 2015 (87 receptions for 1,088 yards and eight scores), but he only posted 536 receiving yards on 44 catches during an injury-marred second season with the squad. That's simply not enough production to hold on to the No. 1 role in Kansas City's offense, especially given Hill's emergence as an electric playmaker.
"I don't know if I ever viewed [Maclin] as a No. 1 receiver," an AFC personnel executive told me. "He is capable of making plays, but he is more of a complementary receiver on most offenses. I think he is a No. 2 receiver all day long."
With that in mind, I understand why the Chiefs would want more from the player manning the spotlight position on the perimeter. The "Z" receiver is supposed to have game-breaker qualities (speed, explosiveness and running skills) that encourage the play caller to craft a variety of plays designed to take advantage of his skills. Not to mention, the flexibility of the position allows the offensive coordinator to put him on the move (motion) or in the slot to create mismatches on the perimeter.
Looking at the stats from Hill's rookie season, it is interesting how the Chiefs primarily deployed him out wide (207 snaps) or in the slot (163 snaps) when he was in the game at wide receiver. With the star also spending time in the backfield (31 snaps at running back), it is easy to see how the Chiefs could expand his role as a versatile playmaker this season.
"Growing Tyreek in the offense will be important," Reid told reporters at the Annual League Meeting in Phoenix earlier this offseason.
While the expansion of Hill's role will certainly feature more time at running back and other gadget positions, he must continue to refine his game at wide receiver.
"He was a running back that they kind of moved around a little bit," Reid said in Phoenix. "His routes when he first came were kind of raw. They weren't as disciplined as they need to be in this offense. So much of this offense is timing and being in a certain spot and knowing defenses, knowing secondaries and all that, how you're going to make adjustments. That was all new. He is a smart kid. He picked it up so fast, and he was able to play at our level."
To be fair, Hill doesn't necessarily need to be the Chiefs' best pass catcher to capably fill Maclin's role.
Travis Kelce is really the team's No. 1 option in the passing game; Hill is the speedy complement on the outside. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound tight end topped the 1,000-yard mark a season ago and finished with 70-plus catches for the second straight year (72 receptions in 2015, 85 in '16). Thus, the Chiefs' aerial attack actually revolves around Kelce's ability to exploit mismatches between the hashes against linebackers and safeties.
With Hill suddenly positioned at "Z", defensive coordinators will have to decide whether to keep a safety deep to guard against the long ball or use a bracket coverage to neutralize Kelce over the middle of the field. Considering how the Chiefs can bust up those plans by moving Hill around the formation as a decoy on the perimeter, the team's offense is suddenly more dangerous and dynamic with the second-year pro playing a bigger role in the game plan.
ODELL BECKHAM'S ABSENCE: It's understandable and not a big deal (yet)
I know we've reached the slow part of the offseason, but the outrage over Odell Beckham Jr.'s absence from voluntary workouts seems a little over the top. Granted, the three-time Pro Bowl receiver is a lightning rod for criticism, based on his flamboyant game and diva demeanor, but his decision to work away from the New York Giants' practice facility is not a big deal at this moment.
"I wouldn't worry a lot about his absence," the aforementioned AFC personnel executive told me. "You would love to have him at these practices, but they are voluntary and he strikes me as one that stays in shape. As long as he is working out on his own and comes back in good condition, I wouldn't spend a whole lot of time worrying about OBJ's absence. ... It only becomes an issue if he starts to miss the mandatory stuff as part of a long, drawn out holdout."
That's why I'm reserving judgment on Beckham's offseason behavior until we see whether he shows up to work when it's required for all players. As part of the collective bargaining agreement, players under contract are only required to show up at one mandatory minicamp to fulfill their obligation to the team. The Giants' camp is next Tuesday through Thursday. Although disgruntled players have been known to show up with mysterious injuries that have kept them sidelined during minicamp sessions, the overwhelming majority of players show up at these events to avoid hefty fines. Thus, I would anticipate No. 13 being on the field in some capacity next week.
With that being said, I don't have a problem with Beckham letting the Giants know that he is unhappy with his contract situation -- as ESPN reported -- by potentially withholding his services to draw some attention to the matter. He is the Giants' franchise player and deserves to be paid accordingly. Beckham has had at least 90 catches, 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns in each of his three NFL seasons. (Beckham is tied for the most receptions by a player in his first three NFL seasons with 288, and he is just the third player with 1,000 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in each of his first three seasons, joining John Jefferson and Randy Moss.) He has spectacularly outplayed a rookie deal that'll pay him just over $1.8 million in 2017, which ranks his salary 64th among wide receivers alone, according to Spotrac.
With Beckham set to make over $29 million over five years (and up to $48 million over eight years) as part of an endorsement deal with Nike, it doesn't really make sense that he receives so much more money for his off-field exploits than his on-field production.
However, he is in a situation where the team holds all the cards.
"In the NFL, you get paid for future performance instead of past production," said the AFC personnel executive. "He's been a great player for the Giants, but you want to make sure he is going to continue to put up big numbers down the road. I would use the big-money contract as a carrot to keep him hungry and motivated."
To that point, the Giants have already picked up his fifth-year option at almost $8.5 million, and they have the option of placing the franchise tag on him when he becomes a free agent in 2019. Plus, they have the option of using the franchise tag again in 2020 to retain his services.
"I wouldn't be opposed to using those mechanisms to keep him in the fold," the AFC personnel exec said. "Sure, I would like to keep my 'franchise player' happy, but he's a little extra on and off the field, so I would like to drag it out as long as I could before writing the big check. ... If I can make him earn it on a year-to-year basis, I can keep him from getting comfortable. ... I don't mind paying him, but I would want to see a little more."
Now, I don't know how much more Beckham needs to show to prove his worth to the Giants, but this situation is strikingly similar to what recently took place with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Antonio Brown. After outplaying his deal by tallying more receptions over a four-year span than any player in NFL history, the Steelers slow-played contract discussions until they absolutely had to extend a lucrative offer to their No. 1 receiver. Before eventually signing him to a four-year, $68 million contract extension with a $19 million signing bonus, they essentially made him play out the five-year, $42.5 contract that he signed in 2012. Sure, the Steelers sweetened the pot a few times (team advanced him $2 million of his 2016 salary prior to the 2015 season, and later restructured the 2016 contract with another advancement of 2017 salary to push his compensation over the $10 million mark) to keep him happy but motivated.
In Beckham's case, the Giants could throw him a few coins to make him a happy camper heading into the 2017 season or they could sit back and make the fourth-year pro continue to earn his keep as the top playmaker in football. While that is certainly a shrewd strategy that can work in the short term, it could backfire on the Giants in the end if OBJ continues to perform beyond expectations on the field.
Beckham has the potential to rewrite the record book and re-establish the marketplace for pass catchers. We'll soon discover whether the Giants elect to reward their wideout for his efforts on their own or in response to a star player who eventually withholds his services when it really matters.