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:
-- Early grades for the first-round quarterbacks.
-- Josh Norman: A cautionary tale in free agency.
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When the Minnesota Vikings lavished Kirk Cousins with a three-year, $84 million deal to become the QB1 of the franchise, most of the analysis centered on the one-time Pro Bowler resetting the quarterback market with a fully guaranteed contract. Now, I certainly understand why the signal-caller's unique pact served as a talking point on hot-take shows across the country, but astute observers should have spent more time talking about the explosive potential of the Vikings' aerial attack, with a pinpoint passer throwing to the best wide receiver tandem in football.
In Thielen, the Vikings have a crafty vertical receiver with big-play potential on the outside. He lulls defenders to sleep with his hesitations and head-and-shoulder fakes before running past coverage on double moves. No. 19 has nine receptions of at least 40 yards since the start of the 2016 campaign. Most impressively, he currently ranks second in the NFL in catches (47) and receiving yards (589), having just become the first player in the Super Bowl era to hit 100 yards in each of his team's first five games of the season. Amazing that this guy went undrafted in 2013.
While Thielen racked up 1,276 receiving yards last season, Diggs has yet to post a 1,000-yard campaign. Regardless, he might be one of the most versatile pass catchers in the game today. He can win on the outside or from the slot as a slick route runner. No. 14's cat-like quickness makes him nearly impossible to guard on option routes and crossers between the numbers. With Diggs also capable of going deep, the Vikings have a multi-functional chain-mover at their disposal.
This brings me back to Cousins' brilliant decision to join the Vikings after surveying the free agency landscape. As a quick-rhythm thrower with A-/B+ arm talent, Cousins understood exactly what he needed to support his game, and he's surrounded himself with the kind of spectacular playmakers who'll consistently elevate his play. Thielen and Diggs can not only turn short passes into big gains, but they are disciplined route artisans capable of consistently creating separation against tight man coverage.
"I know they both have holes in their game, but they are ideal wide receivers to put around Cousins," an NFC personnel director said. "They are dependable and reliable pass catchers, and they can make it happen with the ball in their hands.
"I love what they bring to the table as a duo on the outside."
A closer look at Cousins' play illustrates how the veteran quarterback has taken advantage of his explosive pass catchers. According to Next Gen Stats, No. 8 has posted absurd passer ratings when targeting intermediate areas of the field (10-to-20 yards) over the middle (147.7) and to the right side (153.3). He has completed 17 of his 21 passes on throws to those areas for 247 yards and three touchdowns (with zero interceptions). On deep throws (20-plus yards), Cousins has been efficient and effective, completing 9 of 19 passes for 325 yards and five touchdowns (with zero picks). That's remarkable production in the vertical passing game, which speaks to the effective route running and playmaking ability of Thielen and Diggs on downfield throws.
In fact, the Vikings' overall efficiency in the passing game -- they rank third in the NFL, averaging 321.4 passing yards per game -- is a bit of a surprise, considering their struggles on the ground. Minnesota ranks 31st in rushing yards per game (65.8), and the team hasn't had a rusher top the 50-yard mark in a single contest. This leads to a bigger burden on Cousins to carry the offense through the air against a defense poised to stop the passing game. With opponents employing more two-high-safety looks and umbrella coverages designed to keep the ball in front of the defense, Cousins has needed to be more accurate and precise with the ball, and he has responded in splendid fashion.
That's exactly why Mike Zimmer and Co. moved on from Case Keenum during the offseason, opting instead for the veteran with three straight 4,000-yard campaigns on his resume. In order to take the next step offensively, Minnesota needed a pinpoint passer, particularly in big games where outcomes are often decided by a "hero" throw or two into tight coverage.
With Zimmer's defense woefully underperforming -- ranking 21st in total defense and 22nd in points allowed -- Minnesota hasn't gotten off to the start many envisioned. But still, at 2-2-1, the Vikings remain right in the thick of things, trailing only the 3-1 Bears in the NFC North. With a pair of winnable games on tap -- home vs. the Cardinals on Sunday and on the road vs. the Jets in Week 7 -- Minnesota could be trending up by month's end. And in a passing league, with a pair of blue-chip pass catchers at his disposal on the perimeter, Cousins could be the difference maker the Vikings need to make a legitimate run at the Lombardi Trophy.
2018 QB CLASS: Early grades on first-round picks
The 2018 quarterback class wasn't expected to make an immediate impact in the NFL, based on the number of perceived redshirts on tap, but the group has acquitted itself surprisingly well early. Now, it's obviously way too early for anyone to even bring up the legendary 1983 QB class, but I firmly believe the football world should be excited about the young gunslingers who are beginning to make a mark on the league despite obvious flaws. After digging into the All-22 Coaches Film following Week 5 of the regular season, here are my thoughts on each of the QBs who came off the board in Round 1 this past April:
Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns: The No. 1 overall pick has been even better than advertised. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound gunslinger has energized the 2-2-1 Browns with his unshakable confidence and swagger, while adding a spark to the offense with his playmaking ability. Mayfield has shown outstanding touch, accuracy and anticipation as a rhythm thrower in an offense that has perked up since he walked into the huddle. Although Mayfield's numbers suggest that he remains a work in progress (58.9 percent completion rate, 3:3 TD-to-INT ratio, 81.4 passer rating), you have to watch the games to get a true sense of his impact. Mayfield has taken Cleveland's offense to another level with his fearless playmaking from the pocket. If Hue Jackson and Todd Haley continue to add more Oklahoma elements (no-huddle action, quick-rhythm passing concepts and screen plays) to the playbook, Mayfield could help the Browns make a legitimate run at a playoff berth. Grade: A-
Sam Darnold, New York Jets: The numbers on the stat sheet aren't striking (55.7 percent completion rate, 7:6 TD-to-INT ratio, 77.2 passer rating), but the Jets' QB1 has been a solid performer for an offense that lacks a whole lot of star power. Darnold has effectively managed the game from the pocket, while adding some spice to the unit with his playmaking ability on the move. Although he still needs to cut down on his turnovers and aggressive throws into traffic, the rookie certainly looks like "franchise" material, based on his solid work throughout the first quarter of the season. Grade: B
Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills: The Bills were forced to burn Allen's redshirt almost immediately, as Nathan Peterman laid a huge egg in Week 1, but the highly gifted QB could benefit from this baptism by fire in the long run. Allen is learning how to play winning football as a QB1 while leading a scrappy squad that lacks an established offensive playmaker outside of LeSean McCoy. Although his passing numbers (53.3 percent completion rate, 2:5 TD-to-INT ratio, 60.4 passer rating) leave much to be desired, the film reveals a dynamic dual-threat with A-plus arm talent and athleticism. Allen's ability to create big plays on the run can't be denied: From his scramble tosses to his nifty impromptu runs, No. 17 has shown some Cam Newton-like skills with the ball in his hands. If the Bills can continue to build the offense around the strengths of his game (running ability and deep-ball range), Allen could develop into a solid starter at the position down the road. Grade: C
Josh Rosen, Arizona Cardinals: Rosen certainly hasn't blown the doors off the league altogether, but his flashes of brilliance have been enough to inject life into an offense that struggled mightily under the direction of Sam Bradford. Despite posting a sub-50 percent completion rate (49.2), Rosen has been an effective passer from the pocket. He capably makes touch/timing throws between the numbers, while also showing the ability to drive the ball on laser-like tosses to the sidelines. That said, Rosen has to continue to work on his accuracy and ball placement, as evidenced by his low completion percentage and dry spells. Sure, his wide receivers could help by eliminating some of the easy drops, but Rosen needs to consistently hit the strike zone with catchable balls to eliminate any questions about his accuracy. Despite those issues, No. 3's poise, composure and management skills have lifted Arizona's offense from complete ineptitude. Grade: B-
Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens: Despite his objections to playing another position during the pre-draft process, Jackson has been featured as a "gadget guy" for the Ravens this season, sitting behind a rejuvenated Joe Flacco. No. 8 trots onto the field a few times a game to run a handful of zone-read plays as a glorified Wildcat quarterback. Although he has picked up five first-downs on 16 rushing attempts, Jackson is only averaging 4.5 yards per carry and has yet to deliver a real splash play. As a passer, Jackson has completed 1 of 5 throws for 24 yards, without a touchdown or an interception. Given his highly limited playing time as a quarterback, it is impossible to issue a grade for Jackson's performance at this time. Grade: INC
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Is Derek Carr still the Raiders' franchise quarterback? It might sound crazy to question the status of a quarterback cashing big checks from a five-year, $125 million deal inked just two offseasons ago, but I'm not convinced No. 4 will be in silver and black for the long run based on how he's playing for Jon Gruden in the coach's return to the Black Hole. Granted, the Carr-Gruden marriage is only five games (and four losses) old and there's plenty of time for the three-time Pro Bowler to turn it around, but the clock is ticking on Carr's tenure.
Don't believe me? Just look at the fine print at the bottom of Carr's contract and you'll quickly find out Oakland can opt out of his deal following this season with minimal ramifications. The team would carry about $7.5 million in dead money, but save $15 million in salary cap space by moving on from Carr next offseason. In addition, the Raiders have enough ammunition following the Khalil Mack trade (two first-round picks in the 2019 NFL Draft) to go after one of the premier quarterbacks in the class.
Given some of the options that could be available in the draft, it is quite possible Gruden could decide to dismiss Carr after the season and hitch his wagon to a new gunslinger on his way to Las Vegas.
Keep in mind, Gruden had a revolving door at quarterback in Tampa Bay, with nine different guys -- Shaun King, Brad Johnson, Rob Johnson, Chris Simms, Brian Griese, Bruce Gradkowski, Tim Rattay, Jeff Garcia and Luke McCown -- serving as the Bucs' QB1 under his watch. He quickly loses interest in underperforming quarterbacks and doesn't mind making a switch on an annual basis. I watched it happen when I played for the Raiders during his initial stint with the team, as he moved on from Jeff George to Rich Gannon following his first season.
That's why Carr should be on high alert after stumbling out of the gate to start the season. With a 7:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio overshadowing a 71.3 completion percentage, the veteran has to be more effective tossing the ball around the perimeter. Carr's poor judgment and shaky deep-ball accuracy have kept the Raiders from lighting up the scoreboard in a league that's built for explosive offenses. Moreover, No. 4's inconsistent play over the past two seasons makes me wonder if Carr is really a Tier 1 quarterback, as opposed to a flash-in-the-pan guy who enjoyed a spectacular 2016 campaign.
I'm not trying to be a prisoner of the moment, but when you look at Carr's numbers throughout his career, he's played like a mid-level starter for the Raiders. He's posted a pretty solid completion percentage (62.1 over his career), but he's never finished a season with 4,000 passing yards, and his 6.7 yards-per-attempt average would put him in the "Checkdown Charlie" category among starting quarterbacks. In fact, when you compare his overall numbers to other starters around the league, he's comparable to the likes of Ryan Tannehill, Blake Bortles and Andy Dalton. Considering the love-hate relationship the football world has with that crew, I could see Gruden looking for an upgrade at the position based on production and compensation.
At $25 million per season, teams expect a superstar at the position, not an average player with limited upside and potential. If Gruden will part ways with a dominant player with blue-chip talent and a flawless resume due to a hefty price tag (SEE: Mack, Khalil), he certainly will move on from an underperforming QB1 who is playing like a low-level starter.
2) The lesson to learn from Josh Norman's decline in Washington. The Josh Norman saga in Washington should serve as a cautionary tale for scouts and executives when it comes to nabbing free agents off the open market. The Pro Bowler signed a five-year, $75 million deal in the 2016 offseason after earning All-Pro honors and Defensive Player of the Year consideration following a strong 2015 campaign.
The 6-foot, 200-pound playmaker was viewed as arguably the best cover corner in football after finishing that season with four interceptions, 19 passes defensed, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries as a CB1. With Norman holding opposing quarterbacks to a 54.0 passer rating on throws to wide receivers in his area, he was regarded as a "shutdown corner" by many observers.
In Carolina's split-safety scheme (Cover 2/Cover 4), Norman could key "No. 2" (slot receiver or tight end/running back in a 2x2 formation) or "clue" the quarterback to make aggressive breaks on throws in his area. Prior to the snap, the crafty corner would frequently align in press coverage before using a "bail" technique to stay on top of wide receivers while reading the eyes of the quarterback.
In the Panthers' zone-based scheme, Norman's technique and natural playmaking skills as a ballhawk worked to perfection. With the 'Skins, Norman has been expected to play a variety of coverages, including bump-and-run, but the scheme doesn't necessarily mesh with his skills. In addition -- considering his newfound stardom and celebrity, and his fat pockets after inking his big deal -- it is fair to wonder if the former Pro Bowler is still the same hungry player who entered the league as a fifth-round pick out of Coastal Carolina.
Scouts worry about scheme fit and celebrity when they pursue free agents on the open market, and Norman's former teammates have also voiced similar concerns about No. 24 when looking at his decline over the past year.
"Josh is, I think, in love with being a celebrity right now and not necessarily being a football player," DeAngelo Hall said on 106.7 The Fan's Sports Junkies simulcast on NBC Sports Washington. "And Josh needs to kind of refocus. Get back on the grind. Get back to the basics, technique-wise, and really work because he's not going to live off the reputation of being Josh Norman. Teams are starting to go at him and he's either going to have to make plays or somebody else is going to get an opportunity to play."
"I'm not going to say he was never good [in Washington], but for what we want him to do in this defense, Josh probably wasn't the best fit," Hall said. "Josh is a different kind of corner, man. He doesn't like to sit in there and press, sit and fight with his man at the line of scrimmage. He likes to bail. When you bail, you give up certain things. You're not going to be as quick at comeback routes, and curl routes and possession routes. But you tend to kick the deep ball off when you do that."
The All-22 tape backs up Hall's assessment of his former teammate. Norman isn't an ideal fit for the Redskins' scheme as a zone corner with wandering eyes. He lacks the discipline to shadow his man without peeking at the quarterback, which makes him susceptible to double moves and "pump" routes. In addition, Norman doesn't consistently pay attention to detail -- mental lapses lead to blown coverages (and big plays) on the perimeter.
Against the New Orleans Saints, Norman was partially responsible for a couple of scores when he failed to use proper technique or maintain eye discipline on his assigned receiver. For instance, Norman looked confused lining up on a goal-line touchdown pass to Josh Hill; Norman didn't keep his eyes on his work as No. 89 slipped past him on the play-action pass.
Later, Norman appeared to blow a coverage that allowed Tre'Quan Smith to run down the boundary for an easy touchdown. While it is debatable whether No. 24 is solely to blame for vacating his area in Cover 3 (three-deep coverage), the veteran's wandering eyes and jumpy nature could've played a role in him jumping the flat route on the play.
With that in mind, I can see why the 'Skins are growing tired of Norman's act, based on his modest production since his arrival. The veteran cornerback hasn't intercepted a pass since Week 16 of 2016, and he only has a pair of forced fumbles to his credit since the beginning of 2017. That's certainly not the kind of production you would expect from a $16 million corner, particularly one who signed with the team under the premise of being a top-tier playmaker.
That's why I believe Norman's plight as a CB1 should serve as a cautionary tale for team builders looking to add high-priced free agents to the roster. Despite a player's production elsewhere, you never really know how they will impact the game in your scheme. Coaches need to help team builders out by clearly outlining an impending free agent's role with the squad.
"Scheme fit is the biggest part of the evaluation in free agency," an AFC personnel executive told me. "You need to have a clear understanding of the player's strengths and weakness, and how those skills could be enhanced or exploited in a system. If the skills don't match the scheme, you can't do the deal."
The Redskins made Norman the highest-paid cornerback in football, but they put him in a system that doesn't match his talents as a ball-hawking playmaker on the island. With the zone corner floundering in a scheme that exposes his deficiencies in coverage, executives and scouts should pay closer attention to matching a player's talents to a proper scheme when shopping for marquee players at the free-agent market.