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:
But first, a look at one team's impending decision at the game's most important position ...
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On the surface, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft checks numerous boxes as a franchise quarterback, with an enviable combination of size, speed, athleticism and arm talent. Displaying solid leadership skills and big-game moxie (remember last January's road playoff win in Kansas City?), Mariota appears to be the right kind of quarterback to lead the Tennessee Titans' blue-collar outfit for the next decade.
"You notice good football players on the road when you're scouting, and he was a guy that had a quiet confidence about him, that distributed the football well, that had a unique balance of arm talent and athleticism and just thought he was going to be a really good football player," Titans general manager Jon Robinson said about his franchise quarterback during an interview on the Jim Rome Show in 2016 shortly after being hired by Tennessee.
While all of those factors are certainly true, Mariota still has been an inconsistent player over the past few seasons. At this point, quantifying his value as a franchise quarterback is no easy task.
The fourth-year pro sports a 23-26 career record as a starter, with a 62.5 percent career completion rate, a 65:39 touchdown-to-interception ratio and an 88.8 passer rating. Over the past 23 regular-season games -- going back to the beginning of the 2017 campaign -- the TD-to-INT ratio sits at 20:20, with only five games above a 100.0 passer rating during that span. Certainly not eye-popping statistics for a so-called franchise quarterback, which is why the Titans face something of a conundrum when it comes to the franchise's future plans at the game's most important position. Mariota is poised to play on his fifth-year option in 2019, at a rate of $20.9 million, but he could be tracking toward inking a deal worth more than $25 million annually when all is said and done.
That's a whole lot of cheese for a quarterback who currently ranks 37th in passing yards per game (187.2), behind the likes of Dak Prescott (214.4), C.J. Beathard (208.7), Brock Osweiler (207.8) and Ryan Tannehill (194.4). Mariota's 89.9 passer rating puts him behind Derek Carr (93.5), Eli Manning (92.7), Prescott (90.8), Alex Smith (90.7) and Andy Dalton (90.7). Considering how much hate the football world spews on many of those other passers, you can see the dilemma facing the Titans when making a decision on how to value their QB1 in the current marketplace.
Is an average quarterback worth $100 million dollars or should the team look for another QB1?
"He's not a Tier 1 or Tier 2 quarterback, but you have to keep him," an NFC personnel director told me. "It's hard to find an elite quarterback in this league, so you have to continue to build around him and hope that he develops into an upper-echelon player with the right supporting cast in the right system."
With that in mind, the Titans have attempted to build around their young quarterback. They've invested a ton of draft capital and free-agent dollars in offensive skill players, and they brought in a new offensive coordinator (Matt LaFleur) with a scheme designed to maximize Mariota's talents. After a slow start to the 2018 season, where the QB slogged through six straight games with a passer rating under 100.0, Mariota has posted dazzling figures of 119.9 and 125.0 over the past two weeks -- easy wins over the Cowboysand Patriots. Mariota has posted a 69.8 percent completion rate with a 4:0 TD-to-INT ratio during this span.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film of those performances, Mariota is at his best when he plays like an athlete at the quarterback position. He flourishes when he is able to throw on the move on bootlegs and scrambles. Mariota has a knack for finding open receivers on second-reaction plays, when the defense breaks down as he flees the pocket. In addition, the 25-year-old is a spectacular runner who's quite adept at executing the zone-read and other designed QB run concepts on the perimeter. Although his injury history prevents the Titans from extensively utilizing these concepts, Mariota's elusiveness and explosiveness as a runner add a dangerous element to the offense.
From the pocket, Mariota is at his best making quick-rhythm throws to the perimeter. He excels throwing quicks and in-breaking routes at short and intermediate range. He also shows impressive accuracy, touch and anticipation tossing post-corners to receivers down the field. Mariota consistently places his passes on the proper shoulder along the boundary, which makes it hard for defenders to make a play on the ball.
From a critical standpoint, Mariota remains a little inconsistent as a passer from the pocket. He misses a handful of layups each game -- which is odd, based on his feathery touch and solid instincts. In addition, Mariota hasn't shown opponents that he can consistently pick apart a defense with a surgeon's precision from the pocket. Granted, he is still acclimating to a new scheme and play caller, but his inconsistent stretches are more user error than poor play design.
That said, Mariota is certainly good enough to win games in this league. He is a mobile playmaker with the potential to be a true difference-maker as a dual-threat quarterback. No. 8 needs to continue to refine his game as a passer, but he's trending in the right direction in Tennessee's current system.
From a monetary standpoint, the Titans should bite the bullet and pay market rate for their young QB1, based on his potential and the dearth of other enticing options available. With an average quarterback class in the 2019 draft and a bunch of ho-hum prospects heading toward the free-agent market, Tennessee is better served investing in its young QB1 and continuing to add pieces around him to help him play winning football from the pocket. This approach has served Alex Smith's employers well during the latter part of his career, and it certainly could help the Titans remain a fringe contender with a quarterback offering a similar game.
STEELERS WITHOUT BELL: Pittsburgh's title chances just decreased
Don't let the numbers fool you: The Steelers' chances of winning Super Bowl LIII took a hit when Le'Veon Bell decided to pass on signing the franchise tag this week, effectively ending his season before it started. Despite James Conner capably filling in as the team's RB1, he's not No. 26 -- and the Steelers' offense will miss the two-time All-Pro when the games get bigger down the stretch.
You can call me a hater in my Twitter mentions or fill my inbox with countless statistics and data suggesting otherwise, but Pittsburgh's offense will be easier to defend in December/January. The loss of Bell will cost the Steelers dearly when they play pivotal games down the stretch and in the postseason.
Don't get me wrong: I certainly appreciate and respect what Conner has done as the team's fill-in RB1. Not only has he posted better numbers through nine games than Bell ever has before (in scrimmage yards, rushing touchdowns and scrimmage touchdowns), but he's on pace to surpass the 2,000-yard mark in scrimmage yards this season. That's unbelievable production from a backup, but it doesn't necessarily mean he's a transcendent talent at the position who forces opponents to change how they defend Pittsburgh's offense, particularly when coaches hone in on strengths and weaknesses during stretch runs.
"Conner is more of a one-trick pony," said a former NFL defensive coordinator who faced Bell multiple times over the past few seasons. "He is a grinder. He can punish you on inside runs and flashes a little wiggle, but he is not a home run hitter. He wears you down over time. ... He's been productive in the passing game, but he's not a playmaker on the perimeter. You don't need to worry about him winning one-on-ones against your linebackers and defensive backs in space. He's solid, but he's not the same kind of player as Bell."
To that point, Conner is a rugged runner with the size (6-foot-1, 233 pounds), strength and power coaches covet in downhill runners. He is at his best running counters, powers and inside-zone plays between the tackles. Conner flows quickly to and through gaps, and shows outstanding power running through arm tackles at the point of attack. He finishes runs with authority and flashes a grinder's mentality with the ball in his hands. And this skill set hasn't gone unnoticed.
"Conner is the real deal," an AFC defensive assistant told me. "He brings more toughness to their squad due to his running style. We underestimated him a little bit, but he is the reason they could go far in the playoffs."
Strong statement from that coach. But to me, Conner's still not quite an elite talent like Bell -- and I believe the talent disparity will rear its head down the stretch. No. 26 is a unique player with blue-chip running skills and A+ receiving ability. He is a standout blocker in pass protection with a high football IQ, making him a quarterback's best friend in key moments.
"Bell's special," said the former NFL defensive coordinator. "He's a complete back who can do damage as a runner, receiver and blocker. ... He has an unorthodox style that makes him hard to contain and his receiving skills are on par with some of the elite pass catchers in the game. He makes their offense go when he is on the field. They'll miss him when they get into the playoffs."
That glowing assessment definitely matches what Bell has put on tape over the past few seasons. He is a big RB with scat-back-like feet and hips. Bell's stop-start quickness and burst are uncommon for a 225-pound back, particularly one who is capable of running with strength and power between the tackles. In addition, he is a polished route runner with soft hands and exceptional ball skills. Bell can align anywhere on the field and run routes like a WR2.
Keep in mind that, when we last saw him on the field of play, Bell was the top hybrid in the game. With 7,996 scrimmage yards through 62 career games, the 26-year-old is on track to become the fastest NFL player to 8,000 scrimmage yards (Eric Dickerson currently holds the record at 64 games). He already sits atop the charts in average scrimmage yards per game (128.5), ahead of Hall of Fame inductees Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders. While some would suggest Bell is simply a "system back," based on the Steelers' success with DeAngelo Williams and Conner as temporary RB1s, it is important to view his production through the right lens.
Bell is legitimately an RB1/WR2, with the ability to grind out the tough yards between the tackles while also putting up big numbers in the passing game from the slot or out wide. From a game-planning standpoint, the permanent loss of Bell will allow opponents to hone in on the Steelers' top two playmakers, receivers Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, down the stretch. Opponents can make it a point to take away the "explosives" from the Steelers' passing game by using more bracket coverage and double-team tactics. Teams have already started using this approach this season, as evidenced by Brown's diminished yards-per-catch average (12.1 yards per catch in 2018, compared to 15.2 in 2017) and explosive plays.
"We made it a point to take away AB and JuJu, but we underestimated Conner," said the AFC defensive assistant. "He made us pay for it, and I think he's good enough to do it again and again, if teams play them that way."
Now, I wasn't expecting to hear that opinion from a coach who has seen this iteration of the Steelers' offense for nine games, but it made me wonder if the attack is evolving around the new bell-cow back. According to Next Gen Stats, Pittsburgh is playing nearly the same amount of offensive snaps in 11 personnel with Conner at RB. However, the Steelers have deployed and utilized No. 30 a little differently than they handled No. 26.
Last season, Bell spent 88 percent (783) of his total offensive snaps in the backfield, with five percent (44) of his snaps out wide and seven percent (63) in the slot. Bell was targeted on 23 of those 107 plays where he lined up out of the backfield (eight pass attempts to him out wide, 15 in the slot) with 17 combined receptions (five out wide, 12 in the slot). He added 68 receptions out of the backfield on 83 targets, which is extraordinary production for an RB1.
By comparison, Conner has spent 89 percent of his snaps in the backfield, with five percent (22) out wide and six percent (31) from the slot. However, he has only been targeted on five pass attempts outside of the backfield, with only three receptions for 27 yards. Meanwhile, Conner has snagged 36 of 46 pass attempts from the backfield for 360 yards.
On the surface, the minimal production outside of the backfield isn't a big deal, but it does highlight the differences between Bell and Conner as playmakers in the passing game. Bell is a legitimate threat to get the ball when he is aligned in the slot or out wide, while Conner is typically used as a decoy in empty or spread formations. As teams begin to hone in on this new (and, in some ways, improved) version of the Steelers' offense, coaches will certainly take notice of Conner's usage and craft plans to minimize the top playmakers on the perimeter.
"The regular season is different from the postseason," said the former NFL defensive coordinator. "The elite teams will make Conner beat them and focus their efforts on taking away the proven threats. He's had a good run to this point, but we will really see how good he is now that everyone knows he is the man going forward.
"It's a little different when you wear the bullseye on your chest."
Great players are able to carry the load when everyone in the stadium knows the game rests on their shoulders. Conner has shown flashes of brilliance as the Steelers' RB1 through the first half of the season, but their Super Bowl hopes hinge on his ability to be an All-Pro-caliber playmaker when the games get bigger and bigger down the stretch. I have my doubts.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Alex Smith's winning impact on the Redskins. If you listen to sports talk radio in the D.C. area, you probably find it hard to believe the Washington Redskins are sitting atop the NFC East with Alex Smith installed as their QB1, but the three-time Pro Bowler is the perfect quarterback to lead this team to the postseason. Smith has become a true winner at the position, as evidenced by his 75-34-1 record since 2011, and he's sprinkled some of his winning ways on the franchise.
I know it is hard for fantasy football geeks to embrace a quarterback with only one 300-yard game on his resume this season, but Smith is playing the kind of ball that typically leads to wins in the ultra-competitive NFL. The 14th-year pro is taking care of the football (only four total turnovers) and making all of the right plays to keep the Redskins in games despite their injury-ravaged roster.
Smith's numbers don't blow you away -- he's completing 64.1 percent of his passes with a 10:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 90.7 passer rating -- but the veteran passer has avoided the big mistakes that have plagued the Redskins for the years.
"That's the reason why we've won six games," Redskins head coach Jay Gruden recently said of the team's turnover margin. "We've done a great job protecting the football."
To that point, the Redskins have a plus-11 margin in turnover differential after finishing 2017 with a minus-four mark in the category. Given the correlation between winning the turnover battle and winning games, Washington's superior ball security has been a big part of the team's winning blueprint this season.
The Redskins' solid running game with Adrian Peterson has also been a major factor in the team's success, particularly with Smith playing as a game manager from the pocket. With Peterson sniffing the 100-yard mark in most of the Redskins' wins (two 100-yard games, three games with 90-plus rushing yards), the team's new QB1 has been able to complement the potent rushing attack with some timely playmaking. Smith has thrown for fewer than 200 yards in four of the Redskins' six wins, but he's made enough plays in the passing game to sustain drives and keep the offense in position to cash in on timely turnovers.
"He's a winner," said the NFC personnel director quoted in the first section of this notebook. "I don't know if you can win a Super Bowl with him, but you can definitely win a bunch of games with a smart quarterback who takes care of the football and plays the right way.
"He's not sexy, but he wins a lot."
Looking at Smith's play at quarterback, I'm reminded of my former coach Marty Schottenheimer's theory that more games are lost than won. He frequently suggested that turnovers and penalties compromise a team's opportunity to win. He harped on ball security at all times and even implemented things in practice like the "Seattle Rule." This decree, which got its name from a game against the Seahawks when Schottenheimer's Chiefs fumbled the ball an inordinate amount of times, required that ball carriers kept the ball tucked away under their arms while running past a designated marker 25 yards away from the line of scrimmage and until they jogged back and handed the ball to the ball boy.
Considering Schottenheimer's success (200 career wins) with this approach, Smith's winning ways over the past eight-plus seasons as a conservative playmaker shouldn't come as a surprise.
That said, Smith's play has been far from perfect, and he will need to tighten it up for the Redskins to finish atop the NFC East. The veteran currently has the lowest completion percentage (64.1) since his first year in Kansas City (60.6, 2013). In addition, Smith is 14 points below his career-best passer rating mark (104.7) posted in 2017.
Part of his struggles can be attributed to acclimating to a new team and a new scheme with a cast of pass catchers battling through a variety of injuries. With the collective absences of Redskins receivers affecting the timing and rhythm of the passing game, Smith has avoided throwing risky 50-50 balls. Although he has kept his turnovers to a minimum, Smith will need to push the envelope a bit to win games against the heavyweight contenders in the NFC.
If Smith can add a little more sizzle to the passing game while keeping his turnovers down, the Redskins could be a tough out down the stretch with a rock-solid running game and defense leading a surprising run.
2) How the Rams' offensive simplicity creates headaches for NFL defensive coordinators. I don't know if Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay has access to Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon, but when I look at the Rams' attack, I believe the offensive wizard adheres to an offensive philosophy that matches the no-frills view of the World Series-winning manager: "Do simple better."
The Rams are arguably the best offense in football, yet they rarely change their personnel and use a small menu of plays each week. Although the simplistic approach is masked by exotic fly motions and shifts, L.A.'s offense is driven by the team's commitment to the 11 personnel package (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers). At a time when offensive creativity is being celebrated at every turn, the Rams are lighting up scoreboards around the league with a straightforward offense that features the same folks on the field on every down.
Don't believe me? According to Next Gen Stats, the Rams are in their patented 11 personnel package on 96.3 percent of offensive snaps -- the highest rate of any NFL team by a significant margin (Miami is next with 80.1 percent). That means the team's core unit (Todd Gurley, Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks, Tyler Higbee and Cooper Kupp prior to his season-ending ACL injury) essentially stays on the field for a 60-minute game.
With a mentality that NFL football is indeed a real-life version of "Madden 19," McVay has figured out that it is best to keep your best players on the field at all times to increase the offense's chances of scoring points. The baby-faced offensive wizard is doing what top gamers have done for years: build the offense around your best players instead of your favorite plays.
The Rams don't try to trick you with a bunch of hockey-line shifts featuring various guys running in and out of the game. They simply line up and go with the same core unit staying on the field. This not only allows Jared Goff to jump in and out of tempo (hurry-up, no-huddle) to keep opponents on their heels, but it allows the young quarterback to anticipate how opponents will attack him on most downs. Next Gen Stats provides a function that displays all of the different defensive fronts that an offense faces. When you look at the Rams' offense in this capacity, it's striking how few different looks they face. With that knowledge in hand, McVay can build game plans around exploiting a defense's weakest link and relentlessly attack that player for explosive plays (See: Anthony Barr in the Minnesota Vikings game in Week 4).
In addition, McVay's simplistic approach helps him expose and exploit his opponent's "AFC" (automatic front and coverage) calls with specific formations and player alignments designed to put overmatched players on islands. Whether it is his clever use of empty formations or condensed sets (bunch formation with two or more receivers aligned in a cluster), McVay finds a way to put designated defenders in a bind, leading to explosive plays on the ground or through the air.
To that point, the Rams lead the NFL in average yards per play (7.3 yards) out of 11 personnel sets despite running the ball on 43.8 percent of their snaps out of the package. Each of Todd Gurley's 198 rushing attempts has come from 11 personnel, over 100 more than any other player (James Conner is next with 94). Considering the team's success rate on the ground out of their 11 package (5.2 rush yards per attempt), it is not a coincidence the Rams are averaging 8.9 yards per dropback in 11 personnel (highest in NFL) when you factor in the impact of play-action passes.
The Rams' high-flying offense might look exotic and complex at first glance, but the beauty of the NFL's most dynamic offense really lies in its simplicity.