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:
-- What to take from Sam Darnold's decision to opt out of throwing at the combine.
-- Is Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson really worth a top-five pick?
But first, a look at a strange draft trend that has emerged with first-round receivers ...
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If you're a head coach or general manager seeking a difference-maker at wide receiver, you should probably look outside of the first round.
In theory, the best players in the draft should be the earliest ones selected. But recent history suggests that the top pass-catching prospects aren't necessarily the ones who win the pre-draft beauty pageant.
Looking at last season's leaderboard, I found it interesting that the pace-setters in receptions (Jarvis Landry) and receiving yards (Antonio Brown) were not first-round picks. In fact, there were only three former first-rounders (Larry Fitzgerald, DeAndre Hopkins and Julio Jones) ranked among the top 10 in either category. While some would chalk that up to a one-year aberration -- given that five former No. 1s placed in the top 10 in receiving yards in 2016 -- the fact that these rankings have been heavily populated with later-round picks over the past five years suggests that the position should be devalued on draft day.
"You can find wide receivers anywhere," an NFC scout told me. "Just look at how many second- and third-round guys have come in and made plays right away. Why would you even think about using a first-round pick on a wide receiver?"
I can't argue that point, based on the recent results of first-round receivers. Since 2015, there have been 13 wideouts taken on Day 1, but only one (Amari Cooper) has emerged as a Pro Bowl player. Look at the list:
Remember, the first round is reserved for players who are expected to be difference-makers early in their careers. They should have two to three "blue" characteristics (size, speed, skill, production, playmaking ability, etc.) that set them apart from the rest of the players at their respective positions. In addition, their superior talent should allow them to step into the starting lineup as rookies and make contributions as impact players.
Reviewing that list of picks from 2015 to '17, you could make the argument that injuries have played a major role in the group's underachievement, but I think the issue extends beyond that. Scouts (myself included) place a greater emphasis on traits (size, speed, athleticism) over skill (route running and pass catching) in the evaluation process. Evaluators fall in love with NFL Scouting Combine and pro day workouts and don't spend enough time studying the tape to see if the prospects' games were polished enough to make an immediate impact on Sundays.
"We expect first-rounders to come in and contribute right away, but we don't really know how long it will take them to transition to the pro game," another NFC scout told me. "Most of these guys are coming from spread offenses where they run a limited route tree and they're used to getting the play calls from the sideline. Playing in a pro offense is a big adjustment for everyone.
"Just because a guy is a first-round pick, it doesn't mean that it will click for him faster than a late-round pick."
Given that sentiment, I believe craftsmen should be valued over explosive athletes despite the spectacle feel to the draft. Evaluators should look long and hard at the tape to see if the wide receivers win with skill over pure speed and explosiveness in routes. Moreover, scouts should pay close attention to how well they separate from defenders, particularly against press coverage. Artistry is required to win against some of the physical tactics employed by NFL defenders, which gives skilled receivers a nod over athletes in my mind.
Looking back at last year's draft class, it's not a coincidence JuJu Smith-Schuster and Cooper Kupp immediately succeeded in the NFL as Day 2 picks. Each player was viewed as a polished route runner who was extremely productive over a sustained period in college. In addition, their respective NFL teams put them in roles that ideally suited their skills. For instance, Kupp started the season as the Los Angeles Rams' No. 3 receiver and operated primarily out of the slot. He was able to work over nickel corners with his patience and precision. Smith-Schuster enjoyed similar success as a move-around playmaker for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He played in the slot and out wide in the team's spread formations, executing a variety of catch-and-run plays and crafty vertical routes. With JuJu nearly reaching 1,000 yards in his first pro season, the Steelers' masterful utilization of their rookie receiver is one of the blueprints teams should consult going forward.
"I can't say enough about the importance of 'fit' within a scheme," an AFC college scouting director told me. "You have to know how well the player fits into your scheme and how you plan to use him. Whether it's on the outside or in the slot, you need to be able to assess the player's skills and put him in a spot to maximize his talent."
Just look at the curious case of Agholor as proof of that premise. The Philadelphia Eagles receiver floundered during his first two seasons as an outside player, but he blossomed in Year 3 after moving inside to the slot. He not only looked like the big-time playmaker who piqued the interest of scouts during the pre-draft process, but he started to make critical plays in big moments for the team.
Fast-forward to the 2018 wide receiver class. You can make the argument that there is only one consensus first-rounder in the class -- Alabama's Calvin Ridley -- but the next 10 prospects rank as borderline Day 1/Day 2 prospects. Given the number of closely rated guys in that range, teams would be wise to wait until the second round to select a pass catcher, when the value is in line with the player.
Keep that in mind as we spend the next few days evaluating the wide receivers in T-shirts and shorts. Instead of focusing on the explosive athletes who win the football decathlon, spend your time identifying the skilled players adept at running routes and accelerating out of breaks to catch the ball. Those are the guys who will make plays next fall.
BLAKE BORTLES' NEW CONTRACT: Why it makes sense for everyone
When the Jacksonville Jaguars announced a contract extension for Blake Bortles, the Twitter-verse nearly exploded in laughter. But I believe this is a rare win-win in a contract negotiation. The three-year, $54 million pact (with $26.5 million in guarantees) allowed the team to secure the services of its QB1 for the next few seasons, while providing the 25-year-old with a contract much bigger than the one he would've received on the open market today.
Although I've been one of Bortles' harshest critics, based on his inconsistent play as a starter, I must tip my cap to him for his performance during a postseason run that had the Jaguars on the brink of Super Bowl LII. Over three January games, the fourth-year pro completed 49 of his 85 pass attempts for 594 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. Sure, he nearly set the game back a century with his performance in the Wild Card Round -- accumulating more yards rushing (88) than passing (87) -- but he found a way to get his team to the next round, and Ws matter more than individual stats in the playoffs.
"Blake's growth and development last season was a key to the success we had as a team," Jaguars executive vice president Tom Coughlin said in a release from the team accompanying the new contract. "Blake has proven, with toughness and dependability, that he can be the leader this team needs going forward. Along with this contract come high expectations that he will continue to improve and help our team accomplish its ultimate goal."
To that point, the Jaguars appear to be on the rise after winning 10 regular-season games and a pair of playoff contests. Bortles, who went 11-34 in his first three seasons, learned how to play winning football at the position in 2017, as evidenced by his career-best marks in completion percentage (60.2), interception percentage (2.5) and sacks taken (24). Given the team's success behind a seemingly improving playmaker, Jacksonville's decision was a sensible one: The young QB1 was signed to a team-friendly deal that'll allow the Jags to retain the supporting cast that elevated his play.
Looking at the official numbers from the Bortles' deal, the Jaguars are committing $20 million to the young quarterback in 2018 (up from $19 million on the fifth-year option), $16 million in 2019 with $6.5 million fully guaranteed and $18 million in 2020. Without the escalators and incentives that could push the deal up to $66.5 million maximum value, Bortles' $18 million annual average currently ranks 17th among quarterbacks, according to Spotrac, which is about right for his play and performance through four seasons.
"I don't love the deal because I don't really like him as a player, but I can see why the Jaguars locked him down," the aforementioned AFC college scouting director told me. "They are getting him on a team-friendly deal that allows them to pay some of the other pieces of the pie. Looking at their defense with all of their young playmakers, it's only a matter of time before they have to start to pay their stars. Bortles' deal gives them the flexibility to get that done and keep their core intact."
That's really why I believe this deal is a solid one for the team and player. The Jaguars get their quarterback under contract at a number that works for them while also retaining the salary cap room to keep a championship-caliber defense and a few offensive playmakers in place.
Think about it this way: The Jaguars could've spent $30 million annually on Kirk Cousins to upgrade the QB1 spot, but that would prevent them from improving the wide receiver corps and other areas of the squad. While the quarterback position is typically the most important spot on a team, I don't believe Cousins is a $12 million upgrade over Bortles if you can't keep the rest of the squad in place. With more money left in the piggy bank, the Jaguars can field a better team, which gives them a better chance to win the title.
What if Bortles flops in 2018?
Even if No. 5 fails to play up to the standard, Jacksonville can part ways at the end of next season without suffering a crippling cap penalty. The team will have essentially given Bortles $26.5 million for a one-year rental, but quarterbacks are indeed pricey in today's market. Sure, you don't want to pay big bucks for a quarterback who can't play, but the ability to walk away from the deal gives the Jaguars the best of both worlds. They reward their QB1 for his improvement down the stretch last season while also keeping him motivated with a "prove it" deal that forces him to play for pay.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) Yes, Tarik Cohen CAN actually live up to that ambitious self-comparison.Tarik Cohen raised some eyebrows last week when he suggested that he could play the role of two-time Pro Bowl playmaker Tyreek Hill in the Chicago Bears' offense. While many took umbrage with the comp, I believe the diminutive back hit the nail on the head with his bold assessment of his own talents and his performance potential under new Bears head coach Matt Nagy.
"When I was at the combine, coaches would always ask me who I would compare myself to in the league," Cohen said this week during a WSCR-670 AM appearance on "Bears All-Access." "And I would always tell them, 'Tyreek Hill.' I feel that I can do the same kinds of things he does in the Kansas City offense. ... And now, since we have their coach now (Nagy was the Chiefs' offensive coordinator in 2017), I feel like I have to live up to that. And I definitely look forward to being the same kind of playmaker."
On paper, the second-year pro doesn't appear to have a similar skill set to the Kansas City wide receiver, based on their size differential (Hill is listed at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds; Cohen measures 5-6 and 181 pounds) and speed disparities (Hill reportedly ran a 4.25-second 40-yard dash at West Alabama's pro day; Cohen clocked a 4.42 40 at the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine). But after an extensive study of their games on tape, I feel the comparison isn't as crazy as you might think. Cohen is a hybrid running back capable of delivering splash plays as a runner or receiver (from the backfield, in the slot or out wide). He displays exceptional stop-start quickness and burst with the ball in his hands on runs between the tackles or on the edges.
In the passing game, Cohen is a mismatch playmaker with a combination of skills that makes him a nightmare to defend in space. He runs routes like a receiver on the perimeter, exhibiting outstanding balance, body control and timing in the open field. Cohen is too quick for linebackers and some safeties to handle on isolation routes from the backfield, in the slot or out wide.
When given the opportunity to touch the rock in the passing game, No. 29 has shown the football world that he can create all kinds of headaches for defensive coordinators -- and that he is a key ingredient in the team's winning recipe. Cohen posted 10-plus rushing attempts and at least one reception in three games last season, and the Bears won all three.
With that in mind, it makes sense for Nagy to use Cohen in a way that mirrors Hill's role with the Kansas City Chiefs as a rookie. During that season, Hill served as a Swiss Army Knife as the team's designated playmaker on gimmick and gadget plays, earning an All-Pro nod in the process. Hill logged his touches on a variety of quick screens, jet sweeps, vertical routes and kick/punt returns that showcased his remarkable combination of speed and open-field running skills. Although Cohen is not quite as fast or explosive as No. 10, his success as an offensive specialist in Year 1 is comparable to the two-time Pro Bowler's production as a rookie. Just look at the numbers:
» Cohen (2017): 140 touches for 723 scrimmage yards (5.2 per touch) with three total touchdowns. 55 combined returns for 855 return yards (15.5 yards per return) with one score.
» Hill (2016): 85 touches for 860 scrimmage yards (10.1 yards per touch) with nine total touchdowns. 53 combined returns for 976 return yards (18.4 yards per return) with three scores.
Considering Nagy's experience building creative game plans to showcase the talents of a unique offensive weapon, I would expect Cohen's touches, production and impact could surge in 2018 in an offense that has a collegiate-like feel to it. With new offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich also bringing plenty of fresh and innovative ideas from his days as Oregon's head coach and offensive coordinator, Cohen could certainly snag Pro Bowl honors as the Bears' No. 1 option on offense.
2) The impact of Darnold's decision not to throw in Indy. I'm not gonna lie -- I'm a little disappointed that USC QB Sam Darnoldis bypassing throwing drills this weekend at the NFL Scouting Combine. The 6-4, 221-pound gunslinger is viewed as the No. 1 quarterback on a number of draft boards around the league, but he needed a strong performance in Indianapolis to potentially create some separation from the competition at the position.
Although we all know that his decision to wait to throw until his pro day probably won't have an impact on his final draft positioning, it does raise some concerns about his competitiveness when you see the rest of the top prospects throwing on the biggest stage. Every evaluator wants to see top prospects take their games up a notch when challenged by the performance of others. This gives scouts a little insight into how a prospect handles the pressure of competing against other alphas in a competitive environment that can make weak-minded athletes wilt in the spotlight.
"You don't really worry about the numbers," said the aforementioned AFC college scouting director. "You focus on how they compete and battle through the conditions. If they can handle the adversity here, they should be able to handle anything else that comes along as a player."
To that point, we often hear apologists suggest quarterbacks shouldn't throw at the combine because they're throwing to unfamiliar receivers in a different environment. The lack of timing and chemistry between thrower and catcher can lead to some failed connections that spark questions about the quarterback's accuracy, anticipation and arm strength. While there's some truth to that assessment, the majority of evaluators really want to see passers throw to get a better feel for their arm talent, ball speed and range. Scouts want to get a better feel for how much zip, velocity and touch throwers are able to put on the ball to determine whether a potential QB1 can throw in that team's respective environment.
"I want to see if the ball jumps off his hands," an AFC head coach said to me. "I want to get a feel for his velocity and ball speed. Can he throw the ball on a rope that can cut through the wind or will a strong breeze make his ball flutter? That's really what I want to see -- that and how his footwork works with his upper half."
In Darnold's case, scouts will have to wait until USC's pro day to see if the young gunslinger can put enough heat on his throws to play in all conditions. Although they won't have the opportunity to compare and contrast his throws to the tosses from others, it likely won't matter at the end of the day. The USC standout will be picked early on Day 1, and his absence in the throwing line is a temporary headline that will fall by the wayside in a few days.
3) Be wary of over-drafting at guard. Over the past few days, I've heard Notre Dame OG Quenton Nelson pegged as a top-three prospect in this class. But I'm having a tough time buying the narrative, based on my personal assessment of his game and the value of the position. Simply put, offensive guard is not a marquee position on the roster, and too many teams are playing ordinary guys on the interior.
"I would never invest a top pick in an offensive guard," the AFC college scouting director said. "There are too many Pro Bowlers that have come from the later rounds for me to commit a top pick to that position. I would rather spend draft capital on one of the marquee spots (quarterback, left tackle, pass rusher or cornerback) that impacts the passing game on either side of the ball."
This is the prevailing opinion of most evaluators in the league. The top half of the first round is reserved for players capable of impacting the passing game, and teams shouldn't step outside of the box on draft day. Since I started scouting in 2000, there have been only four offensive guards selected as top-10 picks, which speaks volumes about the value of the position in today's game.
Look, Brandon Scherff (taken fifth overall in 2015), Jonathan Cooper (seventh overall in 2013), Chance Warmack (10th overall in 2013) and Leonard Davis (second overall in 2001) were good prospects coming out, but did any of them end up being a true game-changer in the NFL? It's also important to note that Scherff had some position flexibility as a combo guard-tackle, which enhanced his value as a top-five pick.
With that in mind, I have a hard time valuing Nelson as one of the elite prospects in this class. Sure, he is a powerful road-grader adept at moving defenders off the ball, but I worry about his movement skills and athleticism. He lacks the balance and body control to consistently hit moving targets in the strike zone, and he could be prone to holding penalties with his "clutch and grab" playing style.
Now, I'm not saying that I don't view Nelson as a first-round player with the potential to earn Pro Bowl honors in a few years, but I don't see him as a Hall of Fame-type prospect with a game that will revolutionize the position. I could be wrong about my long-term assessment, but I know I wouldn't spend a top-five pick on an interior player with such a limited impact on the passing game.