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 will Atlanta's offense look with Steve Sarkisian replacing Kyle Shanahan?
» The qualities that make a good general manager in today's NFL.
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"The more you can do ..."
When I heard colleague Ike Taylor tell the football world on "NFL Total Access" that Steelers Pro Bowler Le'Veon Bell would like to be paid as a No. 1 RB and No. 2 WR, I immediately thought of those words just above, which I've heard countless coaches tell players in meeting rooms around the league.
In theory, the coaches are suggesting to their players that they can enhance their value to the team by displaying a level of versatility that allows them to fill multiple roles on the roster. While this Swiss Army Knife quality has typically been associated with bubble players in years past, the league's increasing fascination with hybrids has thrust a handful of stars into awkward spots when it comes time to renegotiate their contracts -- particularly when the franchise tag is a viable option for the team.
Remember when Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham argued with the New Orleans Saints that he should be classified as a wide receiver due to a number of snaps that he logged in the slot or out wide as the team's No. 1 pass catcher? Although the NFL arbitrator ultimately ruled in favor of the team during the veteran pass catcher's franchise-tag arbitration hearing, Graham's attempt to quantify his utilization set the stage for players to argue their position listings. In Graham's case, he pointed out that he spent the overwhelming majority of his snaps unattached to the offensive line. Moreover, he cited his work out wide as proof that he should be considered a wide receiver.
With that case serving as a precedent -- despite the unfavorable ruling -- we've seen other players suggesting their worth exceeds the top dollar commanded by their designated position. For instance, Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu sought top cornerback money during his renegotiation with the team last offseason despite being listed as a safety on the roster. He argued that his versatility as a nickel defender and occasional outside corner made him more valuable than a traditional safety, and that the team needed to recognize his work in those areas to fully appreciate his value to the team.
"A lot of people get stuck as a cornerback or a safety," Mathieu said to CBS Sports' Pete Prisco. "They want to be defined by one particular position. For me, 'Coach, please don't define me as one particular position.' I am smart enough play every position on the field and I am tough enough to play any position on the field."
The Cardinals and Mathieu eventually agreed to a five-year, $62.5 million deal that made him the highest-paid safety in the game while also placing his compensation near the bottom of the elite CB1 market. That certainly amounts to a win-win for a player who wanted to maximize his value as a defensive hybrid.
This brings me back to Bell and why he might be on to something when he suggests that he should be paid as an RB1/WR2 for the Steelers. Last year, he was the team's leading rusher and second-leading receiver. In fact, he was one of the most productive all-purpose playmakers in NFL history, with the third-highest single-season average ever in scrimmage yards (157.0). He has posted 1,200-plus rushing yards and 600-plus receiving yards in two of his four NFL seasons (2014 and 2016), while exhibiting extraordinary skills as a runner/receiver in the Steelers' offense. As a big back with a unique running style and spectacular receiving skills, Bell is certainly a dynamic threat on the perimeter, particularly when Pittsburgh aligns him in the slot or out wide in spread/empty formations. He legitimately runs routes like a wide receiver.
Thus, he raises an interesting point when he points to his performance and production, right?
In a performance-driven league, Bell should receive compensation equal to what he provides the Steelers on the field. But that's not how NFL executives think.
"We don't pay players based on their current performance and production," an AFC personnel executive told me. "We pay players based on what they will do in the future, and how long we expect them to continue to produce at that level. With some positions, we know that there is a short shelf life for the player and we aren't going to make a big financial commitment to a player who is going to deliver diminishing returns."
That's why Bell might have to play on year-to-year tags to receive the level of compensation that his game merits. By playing on the exclusive franchise tag ($12.1 million), he currently exceeds the No. 1 running back in average salary (LeSean McCoy and Jonathan Stewart at $8 million, according to Spotrac.com) by more than $4 million. Although he reportedly wants to come in at $15 million per year, it's probably not feasible to ink a running back to a long-term deal at that number based on the risk factors associated with the position. But I could see Bell forcing the Steelers' hand by playing this season on the tag and allowing the mandatory 120 percent raise to kick in on a second franchise tag in 2018, to boost his annual salary to over $14.5 million. This would essentially give him a two-year deal at roughly $27 million, which is more in line with the money he suggests a hybrid RB1/WR2 deserves.
To that point, players at other positions should start to determine their value as multi-positional players with strong resumes. Khalil Mack, in particular, could reset the market as the only player in NFL history with All-Pro honors at two positions (defensive end and outside linebacker) during the same season. Sure, he will command top dollar as a premier pass rusher, but there should be some extra dollars tacked on to the deal based on his additional contributions as a disruptive outside linebacker. With the OLB market topping out at $19 million per year (Von Miller at $19.08 million) and the top defensive end commanding almost $18 million annually (Muhammad Wilkerson, $17.2 million), Mack should bring in at least $25 million a year when he eventually inks a long-term deal.
With more players driven to maximize their worth by taking advantage of the short-term vehicles available to them (franchise tags), we could see hybrids collect the kind of dough that they deserve as multifaceted contributors.
FALCONS OFFENSE: Can Steve Sarkisian keep the good times rollin'?
Whenever a team gets to the big game but fails to capture the brass ring, there is always the prospect of a Super Bowl hangover. Whether you choose to believe in such mythical things or not, the numbers don't lie: Since 2000, just half of the Super Bowl losers went on to make the playoffs in the following season. Only two got back to the conference title game. And zero returned to the Super Bowl.
While the reigning NFC champion Atlanta Falcons have to work out kinks on both sides of the ball in order to vie for a spot in Super Bowl LII, the challenge is especially daunting for an offense that's attempting to break in a new offensive coordinator after leading the NFL in scoring by nearly five points per game.
That's why all eyes will be on Steve Sarkisian when the Falcons hit the field for training camp next week in Flowery Branch, Georgia. After more than a decade in the college ranks (including head-coaching gigs at Washington and USC, with the latter ending in ignominious fashion due to alcohol problems), Sarkisian is back in the NFL for the first time since walking the sidelines as the quarterback coach of the Oakland Raiders in 2004. He's tasked with replacing Kyle Shanahan, who took over as head coach of the 49ers after directing an Atlanta offense that scored 540 points in 2016 -- the seventh-highest total in NFL history. Including the playoffs, the 2016 Falcons hit the 30-point mark on 13 occasions and tallied 40-plus points in six games. Thus, the pressure is squarely on Sarkisian's shoulders to find a way to keep the offense humming in his first year on the job.
"It's really been something to where I just want to uphold what's been done before," Sarkisian told the assembled media following a minicamp practice in the spring. "I want to find little ways to make it better. How can we improve? That's why I'm here.
"The competitiveness in all of us -- in this organization, for sure -- I know that's the first thing Dan is looking for in any player and in any coach. The competitor in me, is how far can we take it. That's how I feel about it."
Sarkisian certainly inherits an offense loaded with weapons at every marquee spot. From the reigning league MVP at quarterback (Matt Ryan) to the best receiver in football (Julio Jones) to the most dynamic running back tandem in the game (Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman), the Falcons trot out a video game-like squad that makes any play caller feel like a Madden gamer on the sticks.
With that in mind, I wonder how Sarkisian will maximize the team's talent without disrupting the flow and rhythm of an offense that kept defenders on their heels by utilizing a warp-speed tempo and myriad shifts and motions from a variety of formations and personnel groupings. Although the scheme and terminology will remain the same, the offense will ultimately have a different feel with a new captain at the helm.
"I don't know if it's going to be glaring," Sarkisian said in June. "I think it's going to be subtleties that the players understand. Little things that maybe I emphasize that weren't emphasized before. Things that I think are important. How we marry things together -- whether if it's in the run game, the pass game or formational with personnel groupings. Like I said, so much of what we did a year ago aligns philosophically with who I am and how we can continue to find ways to put our players in the best position to be successful."
From a schematic standpoint, Shanahan's Falcons featured a zone-based running scheme with a complementary vertical passing attack off misdirection action in the backfield. Although Atlanta showcased a variety of one- and two-back formations with Ryan under center, the Falcons also mixed in plenty of spread and empty formations with the running backs lining up anywhere from the backfield to the slot to out wide on the perimeter (to create mismatches in space). This is where Sarkisian could elect to focus his efforts when tweaking the Falcons' offense to suit his tastes. He gained experience utilizing a deep and talented RB rotation during his time at USC, particularly when he was an assistant under Pete Carroll. (Remember the Reggie Bush/LenDale White backfield?) He can use this background to enhance the Falcons' offense this fall.
"I think, first and foremost, we have two really electric tailbacks," Sarkisian said. "They (are) bad matchups on defense. Just need to make sure that we are putting those guys in the best position to be successful. Whether it's separately on the field or being on the field together."
The Falcons could use Freeman and Coleman on the field together in a split-back setup or in a one-back formation with one tailback in the backfield and the other aligned in the slot or out wide. Think of it this way: The Falcons could put defensive coordinators in a tremendous bind by trotting out a "21" (2 RBs, 1 TE and 2 WRs) or "20" (2 RBs, 0 TEs and 3 WRs) package with the dynamic duo on the field at the same time. Defensive play callers would have to play big (base personnel) against an offensive group that could easily form a series of pass-happy formations, thus allowing the Falcons to exploit mismatches on the perimeter, particularly against lumbering linebackers forced to play outside in coverage. This is a tactic that Atlanta successfully used against the Broncos in a Week 5 win last season, and it is a strategy that Sarkisian could utilize to help the unit remain one of the most explosive attacks in football.
Most importantly, the tactic could help the league MVP continue to play at a high level with defensive coordinators intent on taking away the Falcons' most explosive weapon (Jones) through a variety of double-team and/or bracket tactics.
Ryan posted a 64.3 percent completion rate while targeting Jones on 26.7 percent of his regular-season attempts. Jones finished the season with over 1,400 receiving yards and six touchdowns on 129 targets. While that is certainly impressive production, considering the amount of attention the Falcons' WR1 receives from opponents, Ryan was actually even more efficient when targeting the team's complementary weapons on the perimeter. Last season, six Falcons pass catchers boasted better completion-rate numbers than Jones:
» Devonta Freeman, RB: 83.1 percent completion rate, two touchdowns.
» Tevin Coleman, RB: 77.5 percent completion rate, three touchdowns.
» Mohamed Sanu, WR: 72.8 percent completion rate, four touchdowns.
» Taylor Gabriel, WR: 71.4 percent completion rate, six touchdowns.
» Austin Hooper, TE: 70.4 percent completion rate, three touchdowns.
» Justin Hardy, WR: 65.6 percent completion rate, four touchdowns.
Those numbers reaffirm Sarkisian's suggestion that the Falcons have a pair of electric running backs who create problems for opponents on the perimeter. Thus, I would expect to see the Dirty Birds lean on the running backs a little more with the new offensive coordinator looking to put his stamp on the squad. He's already hinted at the team spending more time in the I-formation, with Ryan taking snaps from under center. Although the throwback formation would appear to suggest a more conservative approach from the Falcons, Sarkisian promises to keep his foot on the gas when he has the chance.
"I think there is a fine line in play calling," Sarkisian said. "You want to stay ahead of the chains. You want to win on first-and-10. You love second-and-3. You love second-and-4, when you've got your whole playbook at your disposal. But if that's all that you do, defenses will start to defend just that. So, you have to be able to take your shots. You have to stay aggressive. You have to throw it down the field to give yourselves that other intermediate window, which is so good to you. So, you always want to have that plan of, OK, we're going to take our shot here. It is going to be second-and-10 if it doesn't work. Now what?
"We all love third-and-4; you've got everything at your disposal. But you can't just play for third-and-4 because the game is too hard to go 12 plays every drive to score a touchdown. You need to get yards in chunks. You need those explosive plays because your percentages of scoring on those drives skyrocket. The four- and five-play drives are a lot easier to score on than the 12-play drives."
ASK THE LEAGUE: What makes a good general manager?
When it comes to the volatile nature of existing in a performance-based business, the NFL has stood for "Not For Long" to players and coaches for some time now. But recently, general managers have begun to feel the effects of failing to live up to the lofty expectations set by impatient owners and rabid fans. Just a decade ago, it was common for team builders to get at least five years to turn around a moribund franchise before ownership would determine whether to stay the course or go in a different direction.
When I first entered the scouting business in 2001, general managers could net long-term extensions on the strength of a resume dotted with a number of wins and a handful of playoff appearances. Although owners desperately wanted to add a Lombardi to the trophy case, they, for the most part, were satisfied to see the team raise a division championship banner at the end of the season because it signaled that the team was building toward something greater.
Somewhere along the line, though, those banners and playoff appearances lost their significance, as owners raised their expectations for the architects responsible for setting the vision for the team.
Look no further than the recent dismissals of John Dorsey (Kansas City) and Dave Gettleman (Carolina) as proof of the changing landscape in the NFL. Each leader had put winning programs in place, yet both found themselves receiving pink slips on the eve of training camp this summer. Given the tremendous GM turnover since the end of last season (Scot McCloughan in Washington, Ryan Grigson in Indianapolis, Trent Baalke in San Francisco and Doug Whaley in Buffalo), I asked a handful of league executives how this job description has changed and what traits are essential to thriving in the role.
What are the three essential traits that you would look for in a general manager?
AFC pro personnel director: "He must be a communicator who can delegate responsibility and manage people. He should allow his staff to evaluate and express their opinions, and decipher all of the information to make an informed decision. He should be humble enough to hire smart people on his staff and not be intimidated by their input. In addition, he should have a strong knowledge of day-to-day personnel matters and an overall understanding of league's transactions/salary cap. Most importantly, they need strong management skills so they can lead the group in the right direction. ... Since the majority of general managers come from scouting backgrounds, someone needs to mentor them along the way to help them succeed."
AFC assistant general manager: "The general manager needs to be a great leader. You hope that he is a natural leader since there aren't any leadership-development courses or classes for scouts that ascend to the general manager spot. ... There is so much to learn about office dynamics, working with coaches, public relations staff, strength coaches, etc. As a general manager, you affect the entire building and you have to have the communication and people skills to lead the group. As a road scout, you're independent and you don't have to work with others. Sure, you understand scouting and the team building process, but you have to master the communication part to thrive."
Second AFC pro personnel director: "The general manager must be definitive, consistent and have a presence (leadership skills). He needs to be able to lead men and set the plan in place for the entire organization."
NFC pro personnel director: "He must be a great communicator and a leader of men. He should also be a strong evaluator with outstanding organizational skills. ... It's a people business, so he needs to be able to set the tone for everyone in the organization."
As a young scout, I thought the general manager needed to be the best evaluator in the building, but I've learned that scouting -- or player evaluation -- is only a small part of the job. Sure, the team leader needs to be able to assess talent and determine how a player or prospect would fit on a roster, but the best general managers in the business are visionaries with outstanding communication and managerial skills. They are highly organized and detailed with their approach, and they have the ability to set a plan for everyone in the organization to follow.
This doesn't necessarily mean they earn a gold star in every area, but they have enough self-awareness to understand their inherent weaknesses and surround themselves with talented staffers who can help mask those deficiencies. When I worked for the Seattle Seahawks with Mike Holmgren serving as the executive vice president/general manager (as well as head coach), I watched him lean heavily on Ted Thompson, John Schneider and Scot McCloughan as the leaders of the personnel department. As a long-time head coach, Holmgren didn't fully understand the ins and outs of the scouting department, so he stepped back and allowed more qualified executives to handle the day-to-day tasks while he weighed in on the big decisions.
With that in mind, I believe it is important for a general manager to surround himself with executives that are more than "yes" people in the building. Although the general manager typically has the final say in personnel matters, it is important for him to have enough humility to take advice from others and listen to differing opinions before making a big decision. In addition, he should surround himself with smart people and empower them to do their jobs. If the general manager neuters his supporting cast, he will have a tough time receiving honest or critical feedback when he really needs to hear it.
From a communication standpoint, the general manager must be able to exchange ideas and thoughts with others in the building. From the head coach to the medical staff to the players in the locker room and their agents, he must master the art of communication to be successful in this business. Whether it is discussing a potential player acquisition or deciding which guys to keep active on game day, the general manager must be able to navigate difficult conversations without creating lingering effects. The leaders who are able to work through these tense moments without losing their cool are the ones who survive over the long haul.
In the end, the GM job is arguably the most difficult gig in the sports world, given the ever-changing job description and unrealistic expectations. It takes a chameleon to do it well, and owners should spend more time evaluating personalities instead of simply looking at resumes to get the right person for the job.
1) John Elway, Denver Broncos: Shrewd decision maker who has successfully made the transition from player to executive. He trusts his gut when it comes to big decisions, but isn't afraid to lean on his staffers when it comes to making moves.
2) Thomas Dimitroff, Atlanta Falcons:The two-time NFL Executive of the Year is a cutting-edge leader willing to adapt and adjust to the times. He has shown the football world how to build a title contender around a young QB and revamped his team-building model to construct a championship-caliber squad around a veteran QB with a big-money contract.
3) John Schneider, Seattle Seahawks: Smart football man with a knack for finding hidden gems in the draft (and undrafted free agent market). He will lean on his scouts to make big decisions, but isn't afraid to take a gamble on high-risk, high-reward players when the situation is right.
4) Ozzie Newsome, Baltimore Ravens: One of the best pure evaluators in the business. Newsome's track record speaks for itself when it comes to nabbing blue-chip players in the draft.
5) Rick Smith, Houston Texans: Despite his struggles attempting to land a franchise quarterback, Smith has built a consistent winner in Houston with his affable demeanor and a keen eye for talent.