Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
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Matthew Stafford has been viewed as a franchise quarterback since the Detroit Lions selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, but for much of his career, turnover woes, inconsistent passing efficiency and gambling ways prevented the eighth-year pro from passing the velvet ropes into the VIP section of the elite quarterback club. After watching Stafford perform at an MVP level since the middle of the 2015 season, it might be time to grant the Lions' QB1 a golden ticket for an elusive membership.
Now, I know some will suggest that I'm a prisoner of the moment, with Stafford coming off a spectacular performance against Indianapolis (31-of-39 passing for 340 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions) that showcased his impressive arm talent, but I believe his vastly improved football IQ, management skills and leadership ability have put him on the verge of joining the ranks of the elite.
Over the last nine games, Stafford has completed 71.1 percent of his passes, averaged 279.9 passing yards and compiled a 22:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Most impressively, he posted a 112.5 passer rating and guided the Lions to a 7-2 record over that span. Those are remarkable numbers for any quarterback, particularly one adjusting to a new play-caller on the sideline.
That's why Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter -- promoted to the role after Joe Lombardi was fired last October -- deserves a ton of credit for helping Stafford reach his potential as a franchise quarterback, by crafting an offense that features more short and intermediate throws. In addition, the Lions have used a "share the wealth" approach that's placed an emphasis on getting the ball into the hands of the first open receiver instead of a designated No. 1 option on the perimeter. With Calvin Johnson no longer on the field to command double- and triple-teams, the Lions' "small ball" attack allows Stafford to stretch the field horizontally to exploit the underneath areas of coverage.
Golden Tate has shown flashes of thriving as the focal point for the Lions' aerial attack in the past (see: Tate's 2014 performance when Johnson was sidelined with an injury), but he is more of a "catch-and-run" specialist than a route runner. Thus, he gets his touches on an assortment of on-the-move plays (bubble screens and crossing routes) that allow him to get the ball on the run to take advantage of his explosive skills as a former punt returner. Marvin Jones is a polished route runner with a deceptive game that keeps defenders on their toes. He uses a handful of slick releases and stems that allow him to separate from defenders at the top of his routes.
While neither player is a superstar on Johnson's level or considered a true WR1, they are high-level WR2s capable of wreaking havoc in a system that plays to their individual and collective strengths. Not to mention, the Lions have an athletic tight end (Eric Ebron) with the speed to cruise down the seam on vertical routes. With a deep middle threat to clear out the linebackers and safeties, Jones and Tate are free to roam underneath on a variety of inside routes (digs, curls and shallow crossers) between the numbers. In addition, the Lions have a big-bodied chain mover (Anquan Boldin) to target on option routes or "now" screens to chew up yardage on high-completion-percentage throws.
Stafford simply needs to patiently wait for his primary targets to come open and deliver an accurate throw through a clean window. I know this sounds like Football 101, but the great quarterbacks avoid risky throws by opting for the more open receiver at every turn. This greatly reduces the chances of an interception on a tip or overthrow, which increases the team's odds of winning, due to the impact of turnover margin on outcomes in the NFL.
This brings me back to Stafford and how much he has improved as a game manager. Since his arrival in the league, the quarterback has played with a gunslinger mentality. He frequently eschewed the easy throw in favor of the high-risk, high-reward option that could result in the big play. When it worked out for Stafford, he was able to ring up fantasy football-like numbers that earned him Pro Bowl honors. But the ball didn't always bounce his way, and his mistakes would frequently put the Lions in the hole.
That's why the skeptics wondered if he ever would reach his potential as a franchise quarterback. He didn't appear to have the patience or awareness to dial back his game or become a singles hitter from the pocket. That's definitely changed since the middle of last season. Stafford has not only shown more restraint when it comes to "hero throws," but he has started to fall in love with the checkdown. The veteran passer has started to get the ball to his running backs in the flat or over the middle on leak-outs when his primary receiver or vertical threat is taken away by the coverage. By targeting the running back when the underneath defenders have dropped deep to take away the intermediate and deep routes, Stafford has been able to keep the Lions in manageable situations on second and third down.
Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film of the Lions' past nine games, I don't think it is a coincidence that Stafford has started taking the checkdown with Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick on the field. Each player is an extraordinary weapon out of the backfield, exhibiting outstanding hands and route-running ability in space. With few linebackers possessing the quickness, agility and burst to stay with Abdullah or Riddick in space, Stafford has started to target his backs with tremendous success.
Against Indianapolis in Week 1, the Lions relied heavily on their backs to win their individual matchups on the perimeter. According to NFL Media's research team, Stafford finished the game completing 10 out of 10 passes to Abdullah and Riddick. Those throws accounted for nearly one-third of his completions and passing yards. Most importantly, those easy completions get the quarterback into a rhythm and increase his confidence as a playmaker from the pocket. Considering how jump shooters react when they knock down a few layups early in a game, Stafford's commitment to the checkdown makes him a more dangerous player for the Lions.
When I think of Stafford's growth as a franchise quarterback, it reminds me a little of Brett Favre's rise right before he collected three straight MVP awards in the mid-1990s. The Hall of Fame inductee played with a gunslinger's mentality but relied heavily on his WR1 (Sterling Sharpe) during his first few seasons in Green Bay. He would target Sharpe on nearly every play, and his tendency to lock onto his first option prevented Favre from exhausting all of the options available on each route. Although Sharpe put up ridiculous numbers (the three-time All-Pro notched back-to-back 100-catch seasons and narrowly missed making it three straight during that span) as the focal point of the passing game, the one-dimensional attack made the Packers' offense easier to defend in the postseason. In addition, the presence of a dominant player with a strong personality made it hard for Favre to step into the leadership role.
That's why I believe Stafford's game could benefit from the loss of Calvin Johnson. Without Megatron as the Lions' WR1, Stafford will be forced to throw the ball to the team's other playmakers, and the diversity will make it harder to defend the team's passing game. Most importantly, Stafford will have every opportunity to fill the team's leadership void as the team captain and put his stamp on the squad as a vocal leader. Stafford gave us a glimpse of his leadership skills when he barked at Jones for failing to get out of bounds on a catch-and-run play at the end of regulation. Some will take issue with the quarterback grandstanding a bit in an exchange with one of his receivers, but he showed outstanding situational awareness, and his ability to relay his message to Jones is a positive development for a quarterback looking to put his stamp on the team.
At a time when some evaluators suggest the NFL has a quarterback problem, Stafford's growth as a game manager, leader and playmaker should inch him closer to elite status at the game's most important position.
ASK THE LEAGUE: Should Josh Norman consistently cover WR1s?
The Twitter-verse has been on fire since the "Monday Night Football" showdown between the Washington Redskins and Pittsburgh Steelers. Players, analysts and fans have been debating Josh Norman's value as a CB1 after the Redskins refused to assign their brand new Pro Bowl corner to Antonio Brown despite his status as one of the premier cover corners in the game. With so much debate about the $15 million man, I thought I would reach out to my scouting buddies to see how they would use the highest-paid corner in the game. Here's my question and their responses:
NFC scout: "Yes, but I think it depends on if the head coach and front office want to expose their mistake. ... They gave Revis money to a guy who played a lot of zone and had a mean pass rush."
AFC pro personnel director: "If I'm paying that kind of money, you're shutting one side of the field down. ... The problem occurs when you have to follow a guy around who can line up anywhere on the field. You can get some bad matchups for the rest of your guys."
AFC senior personnel executive: "I think he should, but I also believe the coordinator could put him on the No. 2 receiver and play Cover 2 over the top of the No. 1 receiver or double the No. 1 all day. Surely, a $15 million corner can shut down a No. 2. ... I don't know if I would've had him match AB, because he can struggle against small receivers with good quickness. I think he might've had some problems, because he doesn't have great reactionary quickness or recovery speed."
AFC pro scouting director: "Ideally, I would want to match him up with the top receiver. It's as simple as the coaches adjusting their scheme to fit their personnel, but there are some other things to consider. ... If you lock him up with the No. 1 receiver and he aligns in the slot, is your normal slot corner comfortable playing on the outside? Do your coaches have the kind of flexibility in their scheme or philosophy? If not, you're paying a lot of money to a 'one-sided' cover corner. ... That's how mistakes are made in free agency."
NFC pro personnel director: "When you claim to be the best, you should cover the opponent's top guy, especially if the guy on the other side [Bashaud Breeland] is struggling."
I knew that Josh Norman was a polarizing figure amongst his peers, but I was surprised at how NFL executives responded to the question. I walked away from these conversations feeling that few evaluators view Norman as a premier guy, and they question whether he is an ideal fit as a CB1 in a man-to-man scheme. Moreover, I had several scouts express serious concerns about his age, athleticism and discipline as an elite corner. One of the NFC scouts told me that his "freelancing ways" almost put him in jeopardy (of losing a roster spot) as a young player, and he wondered how well he would fare in a system that required him to cover for extended periods without a ferocious pass rush forcing errant passes from the pocket.
I also thought it was interesting how several guys mentioned the challenges of having the CB1 "travel" with the opponent's top receiver. While it is not a novel concept to have the top corner snuff out the opponent's No. 1 receiver, it forces several players to adjust and embrace different responsibilities. That's why some coaches resist the urge to match up their CB1s with the opponent's WR1. Although you're able to take away a top weapon, the uncertainty created by guys playing unfamiliar spots creates big-play chances for the opponent. Thus, the team is better served to play its corners on designated sides and allow the 11 defenders to do what they do best on the field.
Overall, I believe the Redskins are in a tough spot when attempting to figure out what to do with Norman on the perimeter. Despite the dissenting opinions of my scouting colleagues, Norman has played well as a pro and shown he's capable of neutralizing top receivers when allowed to travel with them all over the field (see: Julio Jones in 2014-15, Dez Bryant in 2015 and Demaryius Thomas in Super Bowl 50). He will challenge premier receivers with his feisty ways, and his bump-and-run skills are very effective when he utilizes the proper technique at the line of scrimmage. Now, I do believe he is ideally suited to play in a zone-based defense, because it allows him to clue the quarterback (read the quarterback's eyes) and pattern-read (a tactic in which the defender keys and diagnoses route concepts to determine where the ball is expected to be thrown). In addition, I also know that he plays at his best when allowed to freelance a bit or take chances in coverage. As long as he communicates with his teammates and they are willing to compensate for his gambling ways (for instance, the safety could cheat to Norman's side when he is expected to jump a route, etc.), I believe he should be allowed to take some calculated risks based on his pregame film study. This is something the great cover corners have always done, and Norman's resume should afford the Redskins that luxury.
As far as Norman's athletic limitations and speed deficiencies, I agree with my colleagues on their assessment of his skills. He is not a world-class athlete on the perimeter and does struggle with shifty receivers with explosive quickness, but he has worked around those flaws to hold up against some of the best players in the game. In fact, Norman fared well in his limited reps with Antonio Brown in Week 1 and didn't look overwhelmed when facing Sammy Watkinsin a preseason battle that appeared to have some regular-season intensity. I know that's not exactly enough information to make a determination on whether Norman should travel or not, but it is a glimpse of his potential impact as a CB1 in the Redskins' scheme. Whether he stays on the left side or eventually flip-flops based on matchups, Norman is good enough to hold down his side with little help from a safety. I just don't know if it ever will be worth the $15 million a year that the Redskins are shelling out for his services.
EXTRA POINTS: Play it safe or go for two?
Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio shook up the football world last Sunday when he elected to go for a two-point conversionto beat the New Orleans Saints instead of kicking for an extra point to go into overtime. Conventional wisdom normally prevails in the NFL, and conventional wisdom would've had most coaches sending out their kicker for the traditional PAT (point after touchdown) with the game hanging in the balance. However, Del Rio's shrewd move should be the norm if coaches are really paying attention to the analytical data available at their disposal.
Last season, the NFL moved the extra-point kick back, and kickers converted 94.2 percent of their PATs from the 15-yard line after making 99.3 percent of kicks from the 2-yard line the season before. The kick is no longer the "gimme" it had been in the past. We've seen a number of kickers shank these tries, with the missing point coming back to haunt their team in the end. That's why I expected more teams to go for two this season, with teams converting 47.9 percent of their two-pointers in 2015. Considering a 47.9 percent conversion rate on two-point attempts trumps the point production of point-after kicks in 2015, it only makes sense to put the ball in the hands of your most important player (quarterback) with the game on the line.
I know that thought makes traditionalists squeamish, but most coaches view their franchise quarterback as the best player on the squad. Giving him a chance to win the game from the 2-yard line should put the odds in his favor. Think about it this way: If you had only one play left to win or lose a game, would you rather have your kicker control your destiny or place it in the hands of your QB1?
That's why teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers (quarterbacked by Ben Roethlisberger) and Green Bay Packers (Aaron Rodgers) openly discussedbeing more aggressive with two-point attempts during the offseason. Their quarterbacks are not only MVP-caliber players, but they have the athleticism and impromptu wizardry to make unscripted plays when things break down. Thus, they enhance the team's conversion chances when they have the ball in their hands with the game on the line. Considering the fact that 75 percent (71 of 94) of the two-point tries in 2015 were attempted through the air, it appears that most coaches prefer to trust their quarterbacks to make the play when the game is on the line, especially if they are mobile playmakers with strong arms.
Looking at the numbers from Week 1, I don't think it's a coincidence that the Oakland Raiders (behind Derek Carr), Tennessee Titans (Marcus Mariota), Indianapolis Colts (Andrew Luck) and Atlanta Falcons (Matt Ryan) aggressively went after extra points with quality quarterbacks under center. Each quarterback has a strong command of his respective offense, and most are athletic enough to create big-play opportunities with their arm or legs. Thus, teams are able to incorporate some movement-based passes and misdirection plays in their two-point playbook.
Speaking of two-point plays, I think it is important to acknowledge that teams are changing how they prepare their game plans to account for more two-point attempts. In the past, teams would typically have one or two two-point plays on the call sheet on game day. The offense would practice those plays on Friday as part of their red-zone period, but they'd rarely spend a lot of time on those plays, because they occurred so infrequently.
Now, teams are spending considerably more time and thought on their two-point packages. The Steelers, for instance, used a drill called "Seven Shots" to start out each practice during OTAs and training camp practices. The drill places the ball at the two-yard line, with the 1s on offense versus the 1s on defense for a series of plays. This provides the offense with more repetitions in this critical area of the game, allowing the team to be better prepared than its opponents on two-point plays. In addition, it allows the offensive coordinator to increase the volume of plays used in two-point situations to prevent opponents from snuffing out the play with the game on the line.
Considering the Steelers converted eight of 11 two-point attempts in 2015 and the Raiders won their 2016 opener largely due to two successful two-point conversions (in three attempts), I think more teams should spend time on their two-point packages to take advantage of the math equation that some teams are overlooking on game day.
NEXT-GEN STATS: Is Carson Wentz the real deal or a one-game wonder?
That's the question every general manager and scout must consider after watching the second overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft light it up in his debut performance despite missing most of the preseason with a rib injury. Wentz completed 22 of 37 passes for 278 yards and a pair of scores for the Eagles in their Week 1 win over the Browns. He finished the night with a 101.0 passer rating and looked like a potential star at the position.
Now, I know it's only one game, and we shouldn't give the rookie a gold jacket based on his spectacular play against a weak Browns defense, but Wentz's numbers stand up well against the debuts of other top picks in recent history. Take a look at how some recent top-five quarterbacks performed in their first career starts:
Carson Wentz (2016): won game; completed 22 of 37 passes for 278 passing yards with a 2:0 TD-to-INT ratio and a 101.0 passer rating.
Jameis Winston (2015): lost game; completed 16 of 33 passes for 210 yards with a 2:2 TD-to-INT ratio and a 64.0 passer rating.
Marcus Mariota (2015): won game; completed 13 of 15 passes for 209 yards with a 4:0 TD-to-INT ratio and a 158.3 passer rating.
Andrew Luck (2012): lost game; completed 23 of 45 passes for 309 yards with a 1:3 TD-to-INT ratio and a 52.9 passer rating.
Robert Griffin III (2012): won game; completed 19 of 26 passes for 320 yards with a 2:0 TD-to-INT ratio and a 139.9 passer rating.
Cam Newton (2011): lost game; completed 24 of 37 passes for 422 yards with a 2:1 TD-to-INT ratio and a 110.4 passer rating.
Based on the numbers, it nearly impossible to determine whether Wentz will go on to become an elite quarterback after one game, but I found it interesting that his stats were nearly identical to Cam Newton's production in his 2011 debut against the Arizona Cardinals. I've always believed Wentz's game mirrored the reigning MVP's playing style, and he could make a similar impact on the league as a big-bodied, dual-threat playmaker.
Looking back at my scouting report on Wentz prior to the draft, I viewed the 6-foot-5, 237-pounder as a big, strong-armed passer with exceptional arm talent. I thought he was not only capable of making every throw in the book with zip, velocity and precision, but he also flashed a feathery touch on deep balls along the boundary. Regarding his running ability, I loved Wentz's combination of size and speed on the perimeter. He excelled executing zone reads and designed quarterback runs, particularly down in the red zone, where "plus-1" concepts -- quarterback runs to negate the defense's numerical advantage at the point of attack -- give the offense an added dimension.
Considering Wentz's high football IQ and his mastery of complex passing concepts due to his experience directing a pro-style offense at North Dakota State, I thought he would have a solid track to success despite playing against a lower level of competition as a collegian. Now, I'll be the first to admit that I thought it would take him some time to figure it all out (the Eagles planned to give Wentz a redshirt year as a rookie while he sat behind a couple of veterans), but the rookie was thrust into the starting lineup when the team traded Sam Bradford to the Minnesota Vikings for a couple of top picks.
I've been around the NFL long enough to know that plans quickly change, and most top-five draft picks, particularly quarterbacks, crack the starting lineup at some point during their rookie seasons. But I didn't expect to see Wentz stepping onto the field with the "ones" in Week 1 after sitting out the majority of the preseason with an injury. Despite showing impressive flashes in limited action, Wentz hadn't played enough preseason snaps to get a full grasp of his readiness, and I wondered how Eagles coach Doug Pederson would craft a game plan around the rookie to help him succeed in the season opener. In my experience, most coaches opt for a conservative approach when breaking in a rookie starter. Teams will feature quick throws and simple isolation or combination patterns to make it easy for the quarterback to find an open receiver against any coverage. Coaches will also script a series of plays around the strengths of their young passer to make sure that he quickly finds his comfort zone on the field.
Against the Browns, the Eagles crafted a beautiful game plan that highlighted Wentz's strengths as a downfield passer. From seams and go-routes along the hashes or sidelines to sail routes (deep speed outs) and deep overs (deep crossing routes), the Eagles featured a number of vertical routes that allowed the rookie to push the ball down the field off play-action or on the move. To my surprise, the high-risk, high-reward approach better suited the rookie's talents. According to Next Gen stats, Wentz completed 9 of 11 passes (81.8 percent) that traveled 10 or more yards in the air, with 15.6 yards per attempt and a perfect 158.3 passer rating on those passes. (He connected on 13 of 26 passes that traveled 10 yards in the air or less, with 3.8 yards per attempt and a 60.7 passer rating on those throws.)
That's ridiculous production from any quarterback, particularly a rookie making his first start after limited preseason work. As I studied the All-22 Coaches Film, I was blown away by Wentz's touch, timing and accuracy on his deep throws. He dropped the ball over the receiver's outside shoulder on most throws, which allowed them to keep the defender on their hip while securing the catch.
Let's take a closer look at video of Wentz's first touchdown pass on Sunday. The Eagles are aligned in an empty formation, with Jordan Matthews in the slot. The team is running a smash-seams concept, with the outside guys instructed to run hitches and the slot receivers running fade routes from their inside position. Against man coverage, the inside fade gives the quarterback a bigger box to target in the front corner of the end zone. This definitely makes the throw easier, but Wentz's superb ball placement made it nearly impossible for the Browns to defend the play:
Later in the game, the Eagles dialed it up on a fade route to Nelson Agholor down the boundary, as you can see in the video below. The second-year pro must escape press coverage at the line, but he can't get pushed too far to the sideline, because it shrinks the target area for the quarterback. Agholor quickly whips Pro Bowler Joe Haden at the line and fights to "stack" (receiver works to get directly in front of the defensive back while running down the field) the veteran corner as he heads down the field. Wentz throws a teardrop over the young pass catcher's outside shoulder for a score:
Wentz's debut performance has created a buzz in the scouting community. Evaluators wonder if the young passer can build upon his strong performance to energize an Eagles offense that is more systematic than star-driven. After looking at the numbers and the All-22 Coaches Film, I not only believe he will continue to shine as a deep ball passer, but his accuracy and efficiency will improve on the quick-rhythm throws that are the foundation of the Eagles' passing game. If he quickly masters the "catch-and-fire" throws in the game plan, the Eagles might've landed a budding superstar at the top of the draft.