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:
-- One polarizing signing that I absolutely love.
-- How Jon Gruden's approach to free agency is very telling.
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If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Les Snead and Howie Roseman should feel the love from Ryan Pace.
Now, in Chicago, Pace has started to put the right pieces around Mitchell Trubisky to help him take his game to an all-star level in Year 2. I understand that it's hard for some to envision a quarterback currently owning a 59.4 percent completion rate, a 7:7 TD-to-INT ratio and a 77.5 passer rating to swiftly reverse his fortunes as a QB1, but I'm bullish on Trubisky doing just that with the bevy of dependable playmakers suddenly flanking him on the perimeter.
Don't believe me?
From Los Angeles' initial acquisitions of Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp to a preseason trade for Sammy Watkins, Snead surrounded his QB1 with enough weaponry to lighten his load in the pocket. Rookie head coach Sean McVay designed a scheme around Goff's talents that allowed the former No. 1 overall pick to thrive as a quick-rhythm passer within an up-tempo offense.
The Eagles used a similar approach to jump-start Wentz's game in his second pro season. Philadelphia signed Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith to fill the team's WR1 and WR2 roles, respectively, and acquired LeGarrette Blount to beef up the running game. With a midseason trade to add another versatile runner (Jay Ajayi), the Eagles put together a talented supporting cast that helped Wentz play at an MVP level in an offense that featured plenty of spread concepts (zone reads, RPOs and quicks) to help maximize his talents as a dual-threat playmaker.
Given the dramatic turnaround of both teams and the significantly improved play of the young field generals, I'm not surprised Pace is following the blueprint to get the Bears' QB1 on the right track in 2018.
From a coaching and schematic standpoint, the general manager hired an offensive-minded head coach adept at working with quarterbacks. Matt Nagy's background as a quarterback coach, particularly with a spread disciple in Alex Smith, will serve him well tutoring a quarterback who directed a version of the spread at North Carolina. In addition, Nagy hired several assistants, including offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, with an extensive background in the collegiate game and spread offense. Thus, they should be able to come up with a scheme that puts Trubisky in his comfort zone as a playmaker.
With an offensive philosophy in place that better suits the quarterback's talents, the Bears needed to acquire the right kind of personnel to add some explosiveness to the attack. Thus, the skill players had to possess the ability to thrive in an offense featuring spread elements.
"The most important part of the free-agent equation is matching a player's skills to the scheme," an AFC personnel executive told me. "You have to make sure that his game fits your scheme and your coaches know exactly how to use him on the field. If the player's skills and scheme don't mesh, it's never going to work out."
Looking at the Bears' free-agent acquisitions, it is apparent Chicago is slotting in guys to play key roles in a multi-dimensional spread offense. Allen Robinson is the No. 1 receiver and he will likely play the "X" position (split end) for the Bears. The X typically aligns away from the strength of the formation, which puts him on the back side of 3x1 sets. In spread offenses, coaches will put their best receiver at X to take advantage of one-on-one coverage with a variety of isolation routes (slants, quick outs, skinny posts, digs, comebacks, go-routes, etc.). In addition, the back-side alignment, particularly out of 3x1 formations, makes it easier for the quarterback to identify double coverage on the WR1 during the pre-snap phase. With the Bears certain to use some "packaged plays" (play with an isolation route on the back side and an RPO on the front side), the deployment of Robinson at X is sensible.
Remember, Robinson is one of only 12 receivers with 2,000-plus receiving yards and 20-plus touchdowns over the past three seasons -- and that's despite the fact that he missed nearly the entire 2017 campaign due to a torn ACL. In 2015, he posted a 1,400-yard campaign with a league-leading 14 touchdowns and a whopping average of 17.5 yards per catch. Those numbers not only earned him Pro Bowl honors, but they pushed him into the conversation as one of the elite pass catchers in the game. With the Bears prying him away from the Jacksonville Jaguars on a three-year, $42 million deal, Robinson is undoubtedly the focal point of Chicago's passing game.
Taylor Gabriel was signed to four-year, $26 million deal to give the offense an explosive vertical threat. The 5-foot-8, 165-pound pass catcher is a potent deep-ball threat (SEE: 10 receptions of 40-plus yards in his four-year career) who also shows outstanding speed, quickness and burst with the ball in his hands on bubble screens, jet sweeps and reverses. He will give defensive coordinators game-planning headaches, as they work to neutralize him in the slot or out wide.
The Bears added Trey Burton as a "flex" tight end to complement Adam Shaheen. The fifth-year pro is a versatile playmaker with the size and speed to create mismatches in space. Whether lining up against linebackers out wide in empty formations or working between the hashes against safeties, Burton is a tough cover in an upgraded offense that will be capable of stretching the defense horizontally or vertically.
To that last point, the Bears' running back tandem will also play a key role in elevating No. 10's performance as a sophomore. Last season, Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen combined for 1,970 scrimmage yards and 12 touchdowns as a 1-2 punch in the backfield. Howard plays the lead role as the runner, exhibiting a Cadillac-like running style (smooth and fluid) that's surprising for a 6-foot, 224-pounder. With a pair of 1,000-yard seasons in his first two NFL campaigns, Howard will command enough attention in the backfield to prevent opponents from loading up against the pass. Meanwhile, Cohen gives Trubisky an explosive target in the passing game on a variety of routes. From simple hitches and slants against tentative linebackers on the outside to spectacular screens, swings and angle routes, Cohen's extraordinary open-field running skills allow the young QB to check down to No. 29 and watch him turn short passes into big gains. In addition, the Bears can feature Cohen on a few gadget plays to take advantage of his speed, quickness, and pinball running style.
I can't close the book on the Bears' remarkable makeover without pointing out the most underrated acquisition of all: Chase Daniel. The veteran backup quarterback shouldn't play a big role on the field, but his mentorship of the Bears' QB1 is absolutely critical. After spending several years watching Drew Brees and Alex Smith prepare for games as starters, Daniel can share that knowledge and insight with the 23-year-old starter to help him take his game to the next level. From helping Trubisky build out a preparation plan for the week to teaching him the nuance of film study, Daniel can help the youngster unlock the secrets to greatness with his work behind the scenes. In case you forgot, he mentored Wentz during his rookie season and apparently taught him Brees' preparation routine.
If Daniel can teach Trubisky how to drive the Bears' new Ferrari, he's worth every penny of the two-year, $10 million deal that he inked as the team's new QB2. In fact, he might be the most important piece of this brilliant free-agent puzzle Pace assembled this offseason.
SAMMY WATKINS OVERPAID? Don't believe that noise; great move for K.C.
Sure, the box score scouts will suggest the Chiefs overpaid for Watkins, based on the fact that he's recorded just one 1,000-yard season in his four-year pro career, with a high-water mark of 65 catches in 2014. But Watkins' skeptics are missing the rare qualities that the new Chiefs receiver brings to the table, qualities that I've appreciated since his playing days at Clemson.
Watkins is a dynamic playmaker with outstanding speed, quickness and running skills. He can take the top off the defense as a vertical threat or carve up the opposition as an open-field runner with the ball in his hands.
"He's special," an AFC scout told me. "He hasn't been used correctly as a pro, but he creates problems for defenses with his speed and quickness. He can outrun defenders on deep balls or make them miss in the open field as a catch-and-run threat. If he gets enough touches each game, he can be a difference-maker."
That's what the Chiefs are banking on. They're hoping Watkins can develop into the versatile game-breaker many envisioned when he entered the league after a spectacular career at Clemson. Looking back at my notes on Watkins as a prospect, I saw an electric playmaker with outstanding speed, quickness and explosiveness. Although I believed he was at his best on catch-and-run routes that allowed him to showcase his natural big-play ability, I thought Watkins was an evolving route runner and technician with his best football ahead of him.
And today, I remain high on Watkins as a playmaker. He not only boasts a healthy career average of 15.9 yards per catch, but he has totaled a respectable 25 touchdowns in four seasons, while exhibiting outstanding speed, quickness and burst as a vertical threat/RAC (run after catch) specialist. Watkins is capable of scoring from anywhere on the field, and his big-play potential worries NFL defensive coordinators in game prep.
"You have to be aware of his whereabouts because he can take the top off the defense," an AFC defensive coordinator told me. "If you fall asleep at the wheel with him on the perimeter, he can hurt you as a big-play weapon.
"You have to know where he is at all times and give him a little attention when it's needed."
Now, I'm not saying the Chiefs should pay $16 million annually for a one-trick pony, but Watkins' home-run ability will change the way opponents defend their offense. With Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce capable of taking over games in their own right, the Chiefs suddenly have three guys with the potential to carry the passing game on any given day. Most importantly, they have three pass catchers on the field with the ability to win on vertical routes or catch-and-run plays on the perimeter.
Remember, the Chiefs are tweaking their offense with Patrick Mahomes as their new QB1. The second-year pro is an excellent deep-ball thrower with extraordinary arm talent and range. He is at his best pushing the ball down the field on an assortment of vertical routes with a few bubbles and "now" screens sprinkled into the plan. Watkins should thrive in an offense built around those concepts because those are the routes that he crushed as a collegian at Clemson. Given the impact of scheme fit on the performance of a potential No. 1 receiver, Watkins' immersion in the Chiefs' updated version of the spread could lead to fireworks this season.
"We're fired up to have Sammy join our roster," general manager Brett Veach said. "We believe he was the best wide receiver on the market with an incredibly high ceiling. He's got a good supporting cast around him here, and with his size and speed, he can be a threat for us."
Yep. I think Veach has a point there.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) Gruden's Raiders will indeed be a throwback outfit. It was all fun and games when Jon Gruden joked at the NFL Combine about "trying to throw the game back to 1998." But based on how the wily coach is putting together his squad through free agency, AFC opponents better legitimately get ready for some old-school football when the Oakland Raiders come to town.
The team recently added a tailback (Doug Martin), fullback (Keith Smith) and blocking tight end (Derek Carrier) to a lineup that already features one of the best offensive lines in football and a devastating power runner (Marshawn Lynch) who tied for the league lead in rushing yards (with Dion Lewis) during the second half of last season. While everyone in the media contingent giggled when Gruden got a little nostalgic discussing fullbacks as a "dying breed" and expressed his desire to add a "blocking tight end" to help Lynch punish opponents, the head coach was simply laying out his game plan for returning the Raiders to prominence like he previously did at the turn of the millennium.
I was a part of the 1998 squad (and 1999 training camp roster) that Gruden coached in Oakland, and I can attest to his love of power football. Although he helped Rich Gannon eventually become a league MVP, Gruden built his teams around a power running game with multiple backs starring in designated roles -- guys like Tyrone Wheatley, Napoleon Kaufman and Charlie Garner. He always had a fullback in the rotation (Jon Ritchie) to blow open holes for runners between the tackles and give the offense a little attitude.
"Old-school football never goes out of style," the aforementioned AFC defensive coordinator told me. "Teams that can run the ball always have a chance in this league. The physicality and toughness that comes with an effective running game helps your offense and defense. Just look at how Jacksonville and others became playoff squads by leaning on the running game."
Looking at the Raiders as they're presently constructed, the potential for a top-five rushing offense is certainly there. Beast Mode remains an effective runner between the tackles and Martin could be a solid option as an RB2 due to his rugged game. If the Raiders commit to running 30-plus times per game, the ground game will open up the field for Derek Carr and his receivers when they mix in some play-action passes. To put it in simple terms: Oakland can run, run, run and throw deep, like the late Al Davis would suggest whenever he talked to the coaches.
If you wanna take a look at all the details, check out this post from NFL Network's Mike Garafolo. But I can save you some time: Basically, the deal is valued at $21.15 million in base salary, with $18 million tied to bonuses. To get his full $39.15 million, Sherman will need to play 48 regular-season games (while logging 90 percent of defensive snaps), making three Pro Bowls and All-Pro teams in the process. Tall order? Sure. But what else did you expect for a player at this point in his career?
While much of the conversation surrounding Sherman's contract has focused on the lack of guaranteed money, the expectation that a soon-to-be 30-year-old cornerback fresh off two Achilles procedures could land a mega-deal was always unrealistic. Sure, he has been the best corner in the NFL since 2011, as evidenced by his CB-leading totals in interceptions (32), passes defensed (99), completion percentage allowed (47.4) and passer rating allowed (50.9) during that time span. But the former fifth-round pick was always regarded as more cerebral than athletic at the position.
"He was always viewed as a limited athlete, and the serious injuries will only spotlight those concerns," the aforementioned AFC defensive coordinator said. "He is a smart player who understands his weaknesses and how to play within that scheme. If he stepped outside of that scheme, he could be exposed like Josh Norman and others have been exposed when they step outside of their comfort zone.
"I think he was smart to take the deal and stay within a familiar scheme. I don't know how many 30-year-old corners can play at a level where they could command big money in today's climate."
To that point, I had the NFL Research team pull some numbers on notable cover corners and their accomplishments before and after turning 30:
I think Sherman, who has four Pro Bowl nods to his name, made a solid gamble to bet on himself with the incentive-laden deal that has some attainable feats, if he returns to form. He is playing on a team that will command a lot of attention due to the rising expectations -- and that could certainly help him earn Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors if he plays well in prime-time games. Not to mention, he is playing in a scheme that accentuates his game. Given how well he knows the teams and players within the division, Sherman could cash out in the short term.
Remember, this deal was always going to a year-to-year proposal, based on his age and cap number. That's why all of the conversation surrounding the contract is just bluster from observers taking baseless shots that are music to the agent community's ears.
3) Jackson's wise to immediately name Tyrod the Browns' starting QB for 2018. To the chagrin of some Cleveland Browns fans and observers, Hue Jackson named Tyrod Taylor as the team's starting quarterback for the 2018 season. While some have suggested that the Browns should hold a QB competition, with a probable draftee poised to battle Taylor for the QB1 spot, the early announcement really alleviates the pressure on any young quarterback who steps into the building amid lofty expectations as the possible No. 1 overall pick.
"I don't think that has anything to do with anything," Jackson said in Taylor's introductory press conference. "If that's the decision that we make as an organization, to take a quarterback at 1, then we will. But Tyrod's the starting quarterback. That's not going to change that."
"There is no competition," Jackson said. "He's going to be the starting quarterback."
Think about it this way. We have pointed out the flaws of every top prospect in the 2018 quarterback class and suggested that every one of the top-tier guys needs some time to develop. If that's the case, Jackson's proclamation is sensible, right?
By making the announcement early in the offseason, he's making it known that any quarterback selected by the Browns will be slated for redshirt duty as a rookie. This is certainly uncommon in today's league, but sitting down for a season can undoubtedly have its benefits. Look at Carson Palmer and the way the Cincinnati Bengals kept him on the bench during his rookie season despite his status as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft. The three-time Pro Bowler served an apprenticeship under Jon Kitna for a season before assuming the starter's role as a sophomore. Based on the way Palmer's career turned out, you could say that was a wise choice for the player and team, and others should've followed suit with their young stars.
Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers crushed the league after sitting on the sidelines early in their respective careers. Most recently, Patrick Mahomes spent nearly the entire 2017 season in the dugout while watching a veteran starter guide his team into the playoffs. With Mahomes flashing big-time potential by the time he started a game -- in Week 17, when the Chiefs were able to rest players -- you could see how the developmental plan served him well.
With Cleveland looking to find a long-term solution at quarterback, I applaud Jackson and the Browns' front office for putting a developmental plan in place to nurture the future face of the franchise.