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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The 2018 quarterback class will change the way the NFL scouting community evaluates the position. While a lot of the attention during the pre-draft process that year focused on whether Baker Mayfield (No. 1 overall pick), Sam Darnold (No. 3) or Josh Rosen (No. 10) was the most pro-ready signal-caller from the group, the success of Josh Allen (No. 7) and Lamar Jackson (No. 32) -- who will meet on Sunday -- has scouts reviewing their notes and altering grading scales.
Instead of measuring potential QB1s against old-school prototypes, scouts are being forced to tweak the model for the position with the standard built around accuracy, judgment, athleticism and football character (intelligence, work ethic, leadership skills, and mental/physical toughness). Now, evaluators have frequently cited those traits as "must-haves" in the past, but the success of Jackson and Allen should prompt scouts to put an even greater emphasis on athleticism, judgment and football character over pinpoint ball placement.
When I was a scout for the Seattle Seahawks in the early 2000s, coach Mike Holmgren would frequently suggest the best quarterbacks were deadly accurate passers who had enough athleticism to erase a play-caller's mistakes with impromptu plays outside of the pocket. He had success with molding Steve Young (as an assistant for the 49ers) and Brett Favre (as head coach of the Packers) into Hall of Fame players. So, his insistence on identifying passers with enough mobility to elude pass rushers and create on the perimeter has always stuck with me.
Despite having those traits ingrained in my quarterback evaluation processes from my scouting experience and playing days, I've been a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to the position, with accuracy and judgment rated at the top of my list. NFL coaches constantly preached the importance of strike zone placement and judgment in every quarterback discussion that I participated in as an evaluator, so I had a hard time believing a passer with a completion rate below 60 percent could be effective in the league.
However, the success of Jackson and Allen will change how I evaluate prospects at the position, and it should change how the rest of the football world looks at quarterbacks, too. Instead of harping on what quarterbacks aren't able to do, we should spend more time discussing the strengths of their respective games and how a team can maximize their talents through scheme creativity and personnel deployment. Moreover, we should use more of our imagination in the scouting process to envision how a player could have success as a QB1 and frame our discussions around their long-term potential.
Although we spend a lot of time discussing where a player fits in terms of round value and the long-term projection associated with those qualities, scouts should spend more time building out five- and 10-year plans for prospects with a final product in mind. In addition, evaluators should dig deeper into quarterback prospects' football character to see if their intangibles outweigh their physical skills.
This is where many scouts got it all wrong with Jackson and Allen. Instead of focusing on their unique potential as playmakers, many of us chipped away at their flaws and didn't allow our imaginations to envision them becoming more than they displayed as collegians. We attempted to fit both players into the polished-passer box that's been the standard for the position throughout history, and our insistence on having the QB1 play a certain way kept us from appreciating each of their unique gifts.
In Jackson, we undervalued his rare accomplishments as a dual-threat playmaker with a pair of 3,500/1,500 seasons on his resume at Louisville. We dissected his throwing mechanics and dwelled on his inability to consistently connect on intermediate throws, particularly to receivers positioned outside the numbers. Additionally, we questioned whether the 6-foot-2, 216-pound QB could hold up against the physical punishment of the NFL despite his success running around top competition as the most electrifying playmaker in college football during his time with the Cardinals. From a positive standpoint, we raved about Jackson's athleticism, running skills and overall playmaking ability. In fact, Jackson's explosiveness led some to suggest a position change to running back or wide receiver to take advantage of his open-field running skills.
Fast forward to the 2018 and 2019 seasons -- Jackson has thrived just like he did in college as a dynamic dual-threat playmaker. His 1,672 rush yards are the most by a QB in his first two seasons in NFL history, and he's tied for fourth in rushing TDs by a QB through Year 2 with 12.
Jackson is on pace to shatter Michael Vick's single-season QB rushing record on the strength of four games with 100-plus rush yards while spearheading a Ravens' ground game that's running roughshod over the league. No. 8's masterful ball-handling as an option quarterback has made the Ravens' option offense nearly impossible to stop, particularly with a carousel of downhill runners complementing the attack.
As a passer, Jackson has shown tremendous progress in his second season. He has significantly improved his completion rate (66.5 percent in 2019, up from 58.2 in 2018) and passer rating (109.6 in 2019; 84.5 in 2018) while displaying a better overall feel for the game from the pocket. He's at his best throwing the ball down the seams or on in-breaking routes between the numbers on traditional dropbacks and play-action passes. Although he remains a work in progress on throws to the outside, the Ravens have built their offense around the strengths of his game and they've elevated him to MVP front-runner by allowing him to be himself.
The Bills have followed a similar blueprint to help Allen become a difference-maker as their QB1. While many of us docked Allen points in his pre-draft evaluation due to his accuracy woes and disappointing big-game performances at Wyoming, the Bills focused on the positives of his game as a talented gunslinger. The 6-5, 237-pounder was viewed as an electrifying passer with exceptional arm talent and improvisational playmaking skills on the perimeter. Allen could throw the ball a country mile, but questions persisted about his touch, timing and anticipation. He had plenty of skeptics given that he never finished a season in which he was a starter with a completion rate above 60 percent throughout his high school, junior college and college career.
That said, Allen's natural talent was undeniable, and the Bills put him in a situation to rely on his inherent gifts instead of attempting to make him a refined passer from Day 1. As a result, No. 17 has performed in an often-chaotic manner, featuring a number of wow and whoa! plays. He's put Bills coaches and fans on an exhilarating roller-coaster ride.
Allen's 16 rushing touchdowns are the second-most by a quarterback in the first two years of a career (Cam Newton, 22, has the most) and his 1,061 rushing yards put him fifth on the all-time list during that same span. Although Allen wasn't universally viewed as a dual-threat quarterback during the run-up to the draft, he has displayed outstanding running skills on scrambles and designed quarterback runs. In fact, he reminded me of a poor man's Newton during my draft evaluation, with his ability to thrive on "big boy" runs near the goal line standing out.
As a passer, Allen struggled with his ball placement and accuracy during his rookie season (and still has at times this season), but he made enough wow throws to encourage the Bills' staff to expand his passing-game responsibilities heading into Year 2. Given more control and an upgraded supporting cast in 2019, he has shown steady improvement as a passer. After posting a 64.2 percent completion rate with a 6.9 yards-per-attempt average, a 2:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 75.0 passer rating inside the tackle box during the first four weeks of the season, the Bills' QB1 has connected on 66 percent of his throws for 7.5 yards per attempt with a 10:1 TD-INT ratio and a 103.2 passer rating inside the tackle box over his last eight games.
Considering Allen's accuracy issues coming out of college, that's remarkable improvement for a young quarterback still acclimating to the game. Part of his success should be attributed to offensive coordinator Brian Daboll making tweaks and adjustments to the scheme to help Allen find his comfort zone as a player.
The creativity displayed by the Bills and Ravens with their young quarterbacks should also be a major discussion point for teams in pre-draft meetings during the offseason. General managers, scouts and coaches should have a meeting of the minds to determine how to best utilize intriguing quarterback prospects. The plans should be detailed and feature enough imagination to help the young QB1 succeed immediately as a starter. Whether it's blending some of the quarterback's collegiate concepts into the playbook or soliciting advice from innovative offensive minds (SEE: former Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson and his potential impact on the Ravens, which I wrote about in the offseason), we're seeing the payoff of such thinking.
Overall, I believe the Week 14 matchup between the Ravens and Bills will become a teachable moment for executives and coaches around the league. Using Jackson and Allen as examples, decision-makers should encourage their scouts to focus on QB prospects' positives, use their imaginations during projections and find out more about their football character. Most importantly, they should urge their evaluators to keep an open mind when assessing athletic playmakers with a few flaws in their games.
With Jackson and Allen poised to lead their franchises into the playoffs despite the imperfections in their games, scouts better learn their lessons before dismissing a potential gem in a future quarterback class.
CHIEFS VS. PATRIOTS: Belichick's blueprint for stopping Mahomes
If you're looking for a blueprint on how to defend the Chiefs' offense, you should pay close attention to the Patriots' defensive game plan on Sunday when Kansas City visits New England. Bill Belichick has an impressive track record of stifling some of the most explosive offenses in NFL history (although he came up well short against a very different type of attack in Baltimore last month), so defensive coordinators around the league will take copious notes on how the guru elects to defend Patrick Mahomes and Co. when the teams take the field at Gillette Stadium.
Entering Week 14, the Patriots have played some form of man coverage on 61.7 percent of their coverage snaps (highest rate in the NFL), per Pro Football Focus. This certainly isn't a surprise for anyone who has followed the Patriots in recent years. Belichick not only believes in the simplicity and effectiveness of the coverage, but it enables him to use a variety of defensive fronts and personnel groupings without drastically changing things in the back end.
"The Patriots are a man-coverage team," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "That's who they are and it's what they do. They believe in it and they practice it every day from Day 1 of their offseason program through training camp. Every defensive drill is designed to teach their defensive backs and linebackers how to master the coverage and all of the nuances to it. Additionally, they learn how offenses will attack man coverage and how to work through all of the picks and rub routes opponents will use to free their receivers on the perimeter.
"If you drill it every day and work on all of the various route combinations, you eventually become great at it. ... That's the beauty of what the Patriots do. They keep things really simple so that their players can master skills and play at a high level."
In studying the All-22 Coaches Film, it's clear the Patriots live and die in Cover 1 Man Free -- in this coverage, their perimeter defenders match up with eligible receivers and a deep safety is positioned in the post. The Patriots play straight-up man coverage without using "Banjo" (switch) calls against rub routes or picks, so their players are adept at working around screens. By eliminating the "Banjo" calls, the Patriots reduce the chances of blowing a coverage due to communication errors and put the onus on their players to get the job done in man coverage. Additionally, the utilization of man coverage takes away layups for quarterbacks and forces opponents to sustain drives by making tight-window throws.
There's no disputing New England's effectiveness in man coverage. The Patriots are holding opponents to a 55.1 percent completion rate (ranks second in the NFL), 6.1 yards per pass attempt (third), 5:13 touchdown-to-interception ratio (first) and a 56.7 passer rating (first) when they play man. Their 13 interceptions in man coverage are two more than any other team has had in a season since 2014, which is remarkable considering defensive backs have their backs to the quarterback in man coverage.
Against Mahomes, the decision to play man coverage is part of a league-wide trend designed to disrupt the timing and rhythm of the reigning MVP's effectiveness. No. 15 has faced man coverage on 49.3 percent of his dropbacks in 2019 (highest rate in the NFL). He has a 57.2 percent completion rate, 7.6 yards-per-attempt average, 7:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and 92.7 passer rating vs. man. Those numbers are significantly down from his 2018 MVP campaign, when he faced man coverage on 28.2 percent of his dropbacks. Mahomes completed 63.9 percent of his passes with a 9.8 yards-per-attempt average, 18:3 TD-to-INT ratio and 124.1 passer rating vs. man last season.
Part of the increased man usage against Mahomes has been fueled by the success of Matt Patricia's Detroit Lions employing the tactic against the Chiefs in their Week 4 contest. In a 34-30 Kansas City win, No. 15 completed 24 of 42 passes (57.1 percent) for 315 yards with zero touchdowns or interceptions for an 81.0 passer rating (which was his lowest rating since Week 5 of the previous season). Although a 300-yard outing still might make some defensive coordinators cringe, Mahomes' lack of big plays and touchdowns vs. Detroit has prompted others to swipe the ex-Patriots assistant's game plan.
To be fair, Patricia was probably stealing a page from his mentor's book after watching tape from the two matchups between the Chiefs and Patriots from last season. In the Pats' AFC title game win, Belichick not only played a lot of traditional Cover 1 Man Free but he also featured a lot of Cover 1 Rat with Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill designated as the Rat. Cover 1 Rat is a variation of the Patriots' traditional Man Free coverage, with the free safety playing over the top of the designated Rat player instead of playing in the post. This enables the Patriots to put their best cover corner (Stephon Gilmore) on the Chiefs' WR2 (Sammy Watkins) while committing a double-team to the Chiefs' No. 1 weapon (Hill) in the passing game.
"You assign your top corner to the opponent's No. 2 receiver to eliminate him while using double-teams and brackets to neutralize the No. 1 receiver," said the former NFL defensive coordinator. "This should force the quarterback to target the third option in the passing game, which is a win for the defense. ... That's how the Patriots make you play left-handed. They force you to rely on guys who aren't comfortable being the top option in the passing game."
By comparison, Gilmore has matched up against Hill on just 13 percent of his routes (13 of 98) in their three career meetings, and Jonathan Jones actually drew the Hill assignment in the AFC Championship Game, shadowing Hill on 61.3% of his routes (19 of 31). The Patriots used Rat on 14 dropbacks in the AFC Championship Game, per NFL Research's Keegan Abdoo, with Hill receiving the double-team from safety Devin McCourty on each of those plays. Hill finished the night with only one catch for 42 yards and set a career-low in target percentage with only three targets on 31 routes (9.7 percent). In addition, the Rat tactics disrupted Mahomes' rhythm, as evidenced by his 50 percent completion rate (5 of 10 passes for 144 yards and a score) and three sacks taken when facing Cover 1 with double coverage on Hill. Sure, Mahomes averaged 20.9 air yards per attempt against Rat due to the voids in the middle of the field with McCourty vacating the post to play over the top of Hill, but the tactic clearly worked with Hill having a minimal impact on the AFC title game.
Fast forward to 2019 -- the Patriots will likely utilize more Rat coverage tactics against the Chiefs in Sunday's matchup despite their success as the best man coverage team in football. They attempted to play Hill straight up in Week 6 last season without any exotics in the game plan and he enjoyed a monster game (seven catches for 142 yards with three scores).
With that in mind, the Patriots will need to double-team Hill to limit his explosive plays and keep him from taking over the game. Although this tactic will make the Patriots vulnerable down the deep middle, if I'm the Chiefs, I can live with giving receivers like Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson some opportunities to make plays if it means slowing down the Chiefs' triplets (Mahomes, Hill and Travis Kelce).
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Are the Bucs stuck with Jameis, for better or worse? If I'm the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I don't know if I can re-up on the Jameis Winston experience. The No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft is four games away from free agency, and the jury is still out on whether the team should extend this roller-coaster ride. When asked earlier this week about the quarterback's future beyond this season, Bucs coach Bruce Arians demurred.
"There's been really, really, really good and there's been some really, really bad," Arians said to the assembled press. "I'm gonna pass until it's over and then we'll make a decision."
That's not exactly a ringing endorsement of the fifth-year pro, but you understand why Arians is undecided on his QB1's future, based on his NFL-worst 101 turnovers since '15, including 25 giveaways this season. That said, Winston ranks second in the NFL in passing yards (3,659) and is tied for sixth in passing touchdowns (22). Not to mention, he's directing a Buccaneers offense that's averaging 28.3 points per game, a figure that currently ranks fourth in the NFL and would shatter the Tampa Bay franchise record (24.8, set just last season). Winston could become the first quarterback in the NFL to average 300-plus passing yards with 25-plus giveaways since Hall of Fame inductee Kurt Warner claimed the NFL MVP award in 2001.
So there you see the push and pull of the Jameis debate. But if you still have questions in Year 5 about whether a first-round selection is truly a franchise quarterback to build around, don't you kind of have your answer? Winston has been maddeningly inconsistent on a sub-.500 team while also dealing with some off-field issues that call his character into question despite his reputation as a hard worker and charismatic leader. The Buccaneers have not only stood by Winston's side through it all, but they've shuffled through a carousel of different coaches and play-callers in an attempt to maximize his skill set. From Lovie Smith to Dirk Koetter to Bruce Arians, Tampa Bay has swapped out voices and philosophies in an attempt to help Winston settle in as a franchise player. In addition, the offense has been stockpiled with talented pass catchers ideally suited to excel in a vertical passing game.
Now, we can point to the Buccaneers' scattershot running game and leaky offensive line as contributing factors to Winston's failures, but it's hard to reward a turnover-prone passer with a career mark as a starter that's well below .500 at 26-40. Players rarely undergo radical transformations later in their careers. The Bucs have to realize that Winston just continues to play the game in a reckless manner no matter who's calling the plays.
Here's the thing, though: Tampa Bay might have no other choice but to continue on with Winston in some capacity, based on where the organization could possibly land in the draft and which free-agent options will hit the market.
Entering this week, the Buccaneers were in position to land the No. 14 overall pick in next year's draft. By that point, the Tier 1 draft QBs -- like LSU's Joe Burrow -- would be long gone. If the debate were to come down to a prospect like Justin Herbert or Winston, I don't know if the scouting staff could confidently project the Oregon Duck as a better pro than the veteran.
Surveying the free-agent market, I'm not sure you can point to a veteran quarterback with more potential or upside in the Buccaneers' offense. While I would consider Teddy Bridgewater as a possibility, based on his steady hand and Florida ties, I don't know if the football world would see that move as a significant upgrade at QB1. Many other possible options (Blake Bortles, Eli Manning, Geno Smith, Marcus Mariota, Case Keenum, Colt McCoy and others) don't move the needle with their talent or potential. Now, the free-agent class of QBs could grow, depending on how certain teams move forward. We could put Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and/or Drew Brees on a speculative list, but each one is on the back nine of his career and offers little as a long-term option for the Buccaneers.
Considering the circumstances, the most sensible move for Tampa Bay might be holding onto Winston on a short-term deal that gives the team an opportunity to either fix its QB1 or find a viable developmental option in the 2020 or 2021 quarterback class. I know that's not what many Buccaneers fans want to hear, but Arians might be forced to ride the Jameis coaster yet again.
2) Kittle's the true MVP of the 10-2 49ers. The San Francisco 49ers' success could earn Jimmy Garoppolo some MVP votes, but the most valuable player on their squad is George Kittle. The Pro Bowl tight end is the Jenga piece to the 49ers' puzzle, and it time for the outside world to appreciate his talents as the most complete tight end in football.
As a receiver, Kittle is a monster on the perimeter -- a crisp route runner with soft hands and exceptional running skills. No. 85 posted a 1,377-yard season in 2018 as the 49ers' No. 1 option in the pass game, with 784 of those yards derived after the catch. That's ridiculous "YAC" (yards after catch) production for a tight end; it speaks volumes about his rare skill set at 6-foot-4, 250 pounds.
Although injuries have hampered Kittle this season, he remains the 49ers' leading receiver in receptions (54) and yards (687) while dominating the middle of the field as a dynamic pass catcher. Kyle Shanahan does a great job of designing misdirection concepts to put Kittle in a position to exploit an undisciplined defender. Moreover, he builds game plans that create touch opportunities for Kittle. It's all about putting the ball in the hands of the team's best playmaker.
Despite Kittle's greatness as a pass catcher, though, it is his blocking skill that separates him from others at the position. The former Iowa standout is a dominant blocker at the point of attack, exhibiting excellent balance, body control and technical skills locking up defenders on drive and reach blocks. The 49ers take advantage of Kittle's talents by directing 57.8 percent of their runs outside of the tackles when he is on the field. With the team averaging 5.1 yards per carry with a 44.6 percent success rate when taking the ball around the corner with Kittle in the mix, it confirms his value as an edge blocker. Because, without Kittle on the field, the team only averages 3.4 yards per carry and owns a 30.5 percent success rate. There's just no disputing his value to the ground game. The Niners also produce far more explosive runs (10-plus yards) when Kittle's present in the play.
On a team that houses the NFL's second-best rushing attack (148.0 yards per game) on the strength of an outside zone-based running scheme -- a team that's also produced five games of 150-plus rushing yards -- the presence of a dominant edge blocker is essential to the unit's success. When you also factor in Kittle's contributions as the team's top dog in the aerial attack, it is hard to find a more valuable piece to the 49ers' puzzle.