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:
» How the 2017 draft class poked numerous holes in conventional scouting.
But first, a look at why the NFL strangely seems to be devaluing a crucial position ...
* * * **
For as long as I've been around football, I've heard coaches stress the importance of being strong down the middle. The sentiment is routinely hammered home: Championship defenses are built from the inside out, with middle linebackers and safeties acting as the traffic cops of the unit.
During my time as a player and scout, I was fortunate enough to be around some championship-caliber teams with elite defenders positioned at safety. From Henry Jones in Buffalo to LeRoy Butler in Green Bay, from the late Eric Turner in Oakland to Mike Minter in Carolina, I've seen how a dominant presence in the middle of the field can impact a defense and change how offenses are able to attack various areas of the field. I've watched those great players eliminate dangerous playmakers between the hashes and force quarterbacks come off their primary options in the passing game.
"In an ideal world, you would like one of your safeties to possess the athleticism and cover skills of a cornerback, but have the IQ of a quarterback and the physicality of a linebacker," a veteran NFL defensive backs coach told me. "You would like to be able to play your base defense against 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers) and lock him up over the slot guy or the tight end, based on matchups."
In today's game, I'm seeing more and more safeties with those capabilities ... but they aren't valued at a rate that would appear appropriate based on their skills. Teams just aren't paying safeties big money, despite impressive statistics and invaluable versatility. Guys like Kenny Vaccaro, Eric Reid and Tre Boston -- fresh off contract seasons where they put in work -- remain unsigned.
Well, Reid, who knelt during the national anthem as a protest against racial injustice, has filed a non-injury grievance against the NFL, so his case is more unique. But that doesn't explain why the safety market was so tepid overall this offseason. So, what gives?
"It's hard to determine the value of safeties, based on the different ways that teams use them," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "You can't simply look at the stat sheet and figure out how much of an impact a player makes, due to the different roles that they're playing in today's game. Some guys are center fielders asked to play in the middle of the field, while others are playing down in the box as run defenders. Throw in the other guys who play as hybrid slot defenders and nickel corners, it's hard to put them in the right order when it comes to stacking the board."
Maybe that's why a 26-year-old stud like Tyrann Mathieu gets a deal (one year for $7 million with the Houston Texans) that seems beneath market value for a player with his accolades. It also might be the reason Earl Thomas is having a tougher time getting a lucrative extension from the Seattle Seahawks this time around. Sure, he's been one of the very best safeties in the game for almost this entire decade, as a six-time Pro Bowler and three-time first-team All-Pro, but few evaluators would cite him as a top-20 player in the league.
Even the players themselves appear to have a tough time determining the value of safeties in the league today. NFL Network is in the midst of revealing "The Top 100 Players of 2018," a list that is voted upon by the players themselves, with 51 through 100 already out. Well, a little birdie told me that the next batch, 41-50, will feature the two highest-ranked safeties. So the players don't have a single safety among the top 40 talents in the league today?
All of this seems quite disrespectful to the position, especially considering how teams are currently using safeties as do-everything playmakers. From rushing the quarterback off the edges to locking down slot receivers and tight ends to hammering running backs in the hole as quasi-linebackers, safeties are asked to do more than ever in today's game. Yet, they fail to receive top dollar for their skills. I just don't understand the disconnect here.
"People think that you can find safeties anywhere," the former NFL defensive coordinator said. "Listen to how people always talk about aging cornerbacks moving inside to safety when they lose their athleticism. Sure, some guys can do it, but there's a lot more that goes into the position than some realize. You have to be smart and a communicator to play in the back end. You also need to be a solid tackler in the open field.
As I continue pore over this offseason's safety market -- and some of the big names still on it -- I'm beginning to think executives still don't have a clue about the importance of having a big-time playmaker in the middle of the field, despite what I've always been told by coaches. With the NFL continuing to evolve into a passing league driven by quarterbacks, I think many organizations could regret inexplicably devaluing the position when balls are flying all over the yard in the fall.
2017 DRAFT CLASS: Four valuable scouting lessons learned
One valuable lesson I learned in the scouting business: It's important to re-evaluate previous drafts, identify certain players who clearly outperformed their draft slot and try to figure out why they slipped through the cracks. Was it misevaluation? Had everyone missed some special trait? Did the player's skill set fit perfectly into a specific scheme?
With that in mind, I decided to pop in some tape on players selected to the Professional Football Writers of America's 2017 All-Rookie Team to see what lessons can be gleaned from the performances of some of the more surprising honorees. After reviewing the film and jotting down some notes, here are a few lessons that I learned:
» Quarterbacks with significant experience and winning resumes should go to the front of the line. The 2017 class supposedly lacked an instant-impact franchise quarterback, but in retrospect, Deshaun Watson should've been viewed as a QB1 based on the work that he put in at Clemson. The two-time Heisman Trophy finalist not only won a national title as a starter, but he finished his three-year career with a 32-3 record and number of impressive performances on big stages, including a pair of spectacular national championship games against Alabama. With those games showcasing his remarkable skills as a dual-threat playmaker with exceptional poise and confidence, we should've given Watson more credit for the strong points of his game (confidence, clutch factor, short and intermediate passing ability and improvisational skills), as opposed to harping on his weaknesses (deep-ball accuracy and turnovers) throughout the pre-draft process.
In addition, we should've spent more time discussing what kind of schemes and concepts would elevate his play as a rookie starter. Whether it was the RPO concepts or a variety of play-action passes that highlighted his brilliance as a ball handler, Watson's talents as a QB1 were underestimated. We dismissed his potential as a franchise player due to a lack of imagination on our part. In retrospect, I probably should've focused on the need for Watson to join an innovative play designer to max out his talents in the short term.
» Place a greater emphasis on passing-game skills when evaluating running backs. The so-called devaluation of the position is something of a myth, based on the correlation between productive running backs and the total offensive output of playoff teams. While we've typically measured tailbacks by rushing yards, the evolution of the pro game has made it imperative for RB1s to have multi-faceted games that allow them to be key contributors as pass catchers. Teams are increasingly relying on running backs to create mismatches in the open field; guys with these abilities should be viewed as hot commodities.
Seeing Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt thrive as rookies after entering the league as third-round picks, I've developed a greater appreciation for running backs with spectacular hands, route-running ability and receiving skills. Kamara and Hunt snagged 81 and 53 receptions, respectively, as featured playmakers in the passing game. With fellow rookies Christian McCaffrey (80) and Tarik Cohen (53) also topping the 50-catch mark, the old-school back with a one-dimensional game is not as valuable as the pass-catching back with receiver-like skills on the perimeter. That's why I should've paid closer attention to the number of receptions Kamara and Hunt tallied as collegians. Each guy finished with at least 40 receptions during his final collegiate season. Thus, both were already established playmakers in the passing game when they entered the league. Those skills should've earned them bonus points on their final grades, which would've bumped up their round value on draft day. With the next generation of running backs cultivating their receiving skills on the 7-on-7 circuit as high schoolers, scouts will need to adjust their grading scales to properly value running backs with games that are built for the pass-centric NFL.
» Opt for route runners over explosive athletes at wide receiver. The first round hasn't yielded many impact pass catchers in recent years, but plenty of guys drafted outside of the VIP circle have provided immediate ROI. The 2017 class continued the trend, with three top-10 wide receivers (Corey Davis, Mike Williams, John Ross) combining for a measly 470 receiving yards in Year 1. Interestingly, a pair of Day 2 picks (second-rounder JuJu Smith-Schuster and third-rounder Cooper Kupp) earned rave reviews for their stellar work as complementary playmakers on their respective squads. Smith-Schuster tallied 917 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on 58 catches, while Kupp amassed 869 receiving yards and five scores on 62 grabs. Why were they able to have so much success when others have a tough time producing as first-year starters? It's simple. Each guy is a polished route runner with a game that's built on fundamentals and technique, instead of athleticism.
When I look at the most successful pass catchers in the league, they understand how to get open and have enough tools in the toolbox to create space from defenders in tight coverage. Whether using a variety of stems and stutter-step releases to win at the line of scrimmage or incorporating a number of crafty top-of-the-route maneuvers, Smith-Schuster and Kupp are trick-shot artists capable of winning their one-on-one matchups on the perimeter. Those skills showed up on the college tape, but they were overshadowed by the explosive athleticism shown by others. Looking back at both of their evaluations, I should've focused more on their ability to get open as potential WR2s, instead of dwelling on what each player lacked (speed and explosion) as a WR1. With that in mind, I believe evaluators should place a greater emphasis on the core skills needed to succeed as a playmaker, and how the prospect would fit into a particular scheme.
» Motor and technique matter more than athleticism for pass rushers. It's easy to fall in love with the big, explosive pass rushers who check off all of the boxes as athletes, but there's so much more to being an effective sack master than just running a fast 40-yard-dash or bench pressing the world. Sure, the top pass rushers typically display cat-like quickness and ballerina-like body control turning the corner on rush attempts, but there are plenty of QB hunters who win with effort and energy off the edges. They outwork blockers at the point of attack and their non-stop approach results in a number of garbage sacks in the backfield.
Looking at the rookie sack leaders, I'll admit to missing out on the No. 1 guy, Carl Lawson, due to the lack of splash plays on his highlight tape at Auburn. Lawson flashed strong hands as a disruptive rusher from outside or inside. In addition, he could win at the line of scrimmage with a variety of rugged moves that are typically reserved for bigger rushers. Throw in his explosive first-step quickness and superb snap-count anticipation, and Lawson showed enough "blue" qualities to merit a bigger grade from scouts. Given his 8.5 sacks and consistent QB pressure as a rookie, Lawson certainly played like the immediate-impact guy that some envisioned when earned Freshman All-American honors in his first year with the Tigers. With Lawson having racked up nine sacks in his final season at Auburn, I should've given him more credit as a high-motor rusher with a rugged game.
Reviewing the other top sack producers in the rookie class (Myles Garrett, T.J. Watt, Takkarist McKinley, Derek Barnett and Deatrich Wise), I believe much of their success was also tied to their effort, energy and hand skills. Most were described as "worker bees" during the pre-draft process, and that reputation matched up to how they played in games. Going forward, I'll pay closer attention to effort, energy and combat skills when taking notes on pass rushers.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
That won't please Browns fans who've been snatching up Mayfield jerseys at the team store, but I have a hard time believing the No. 1 overall pick is going to give the team the best chance to win in 2018 when the one-time Pro Bowl selectee (2015) has quietly been one of the best quarterbacks in the league over the past three seasons. That statement is probably hard for some observers to digest, particularly after watching the Buffalo Bills unceremoniously dump Taylor even though he helped end the team's 17-year playoff drought. However, the veteran plays the game in a way that leads to Ws in the NFL.
Don't believe me? Just look at the numbers for proof of his impact as a playmaker at the position. Since 2015, Taylor ranks third in the NFL in touchdown-to-interception ratio (51:16), trailing only Tom Brady (96:17) and Aaron Rodgers (87:21). He's second in the league in rushing yards by a quarterback (1,534) and rushing touchdowns by a QB (14), behind former NFL MVP Cam Newton (1,749; 21) during that same span.
With Taylor also responsible for the fewest giveaways (21) at the position since 2015 (among QBs with at least 1,000 pass attempts), the veteran should get more love from observers for his work as a winning quarterback.
"He's a solid player," an AFC scout told me. "He's a good athlete. He takes care of the ball and he wins games. He isn't flashy, but he gets the job done."
At a time when some prefer sizzle over substance at the position, Taylor's blue-collar style can lead to some victorious Sundays in Cleveland, particularly with a supporting cast that includes a couple of Pro Bowl-caliber pass catchers (Josh Gordon and Jarvis Landry) and a stable of talented running backs with diverse games (Carlos Hyde, Duke Johnson and Nick Chubb). If he can continue to connect the dots as an efficient deep-ball passer, he will give the Browns solid production from the QB spot.
"Over the years in Buffalo, I definitely took steps ahead," Taylor told reporters this week. "I don't think I took steps backwards. This is a talented receiver group. I'm excited to play with these guys. It's my job to go out there and get them the ball for them to go out there and make plays.
"As far as me just being dynamic, using my legs and things like that, that will come. It will open up. That is something that I am not trying to force. I am just trying to improve my overall game, and me getting the ball out to these guys to make plays definitely helps that."
Now, Taylor will still need to fend off a challenge from Mayfield. The former Oklahoma QB was hand-picked by the front office as the franchise quarterback of the future and he will get every opportunity to play as a QB1 based on his lofty draft status. Remember, we haven't seen a quarterback taken first overall sit on the sidelines for his entire rookie season since Carson Palmer in 2003. In addition, Jared Goff is the only quarterback in the past decade to be selected No. 1 overall and start his rookie season on the bench.
That's why Taylor must ball out early in training camp to keep Hue Jackson from reversing his decision to make the veteran the team's starting quarterback. The embattled head coach has dismissed the notion of a quarterback competition taking place ever since Taylor was acquired via trade this offseason, yet the intrigue surrounding Mayfield will keep the pressure on Jackson to constantly evaluate the position.
"Tyrod's our starting quarterback. Baker's our No. 1 pick," Jackson told reporters earlier this week. "He's our quarterback of the future. I've said that since this happened. I don't think that will change. I want those guys to be exposed for what they do, because I think our fans want to know them and what makes them tick. But at the same time, I don't think it should put any more pressure on what we need to do as a football team about who's playing quarterback for us."
Time will tell whether Jackson can ignore the external pressure to play the rookie quarterback, but it would be wise to lean on the underrated veteran to guide the franchise out of the doldrums in 2018.
2) Coming soon to Arizona: DJ2K. When David Johnsonlet the football world know earlier this month that he was aiming to join Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk as the only players in NFL history to gain at least 1,000 yards receiving and 1,000 yards rushing in one season, it didn't register much of a blip on the national radar. However, I'm expecting the All-Pro to crush that goal in 2018.
The fourth-year pro barely missed achieving the feat in 2016 when he finished only 121 receiving yards short of hitting the 1,000/1,000 mark as the Cardinals' explosive dual-threat playmaker. Johnson should have a better shot of joining the club this season in a rebuilt offense that is designed to take advantage of his skills as a versatile weapon out of the backfield. New offensive coordinator Mike McCoy is putting a fullback in front of Johnson to help the Cardinals establish a more physical running game, while head coach Steve Wilks has made it a point to praise the team's rebuilt offensive line as the strength of the team.
The Cardinals' O-line struggled a season ago, but the additions of Andre Smith and Justin Pugh fill major holes at the line of scrimmage. Each veteran is a noted mauler/brawler at the point of attack, which will lead to more room for Johnson on runs between the tackles. The team has also added fullback Derrick Coleman as the designated lead blocker on old-school power and isolation runs. The former Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons standout is a rugged player adept at finishing defenders at the end of his blocks.
While there has been some discussion about Johnson needing time to adjust to a lead blocker guiding him, it's important to note that he played with a fullback at Northern Iowa and believes the extra blocker will only enhance his game.
"It's nice always having more blockers in the run game," Johnson said earlier this month. "I think it makes my job a little easier, having those guys being able to pick up linebackers, D-ends or anybody on that defensive side. It makes my read a little bit easier."
Considering how easily he topped the 1,000-yard mark as a rusher when he was healthy (1,239 yards in 2016), the Cardinals' emphasis this offseason should be centered on creating mismatches for the talented playmaker in the passing game.
Whether it's through the use of motion out of the backfield to get Johnson matched up on a linebacker in space or aligning him on the outside of a spread formation as a quasi-receiver or even using him on option routes from the dot position in the backfield, McCoy will need to tap into his creativity to get the Cardinals' most explosive weapon favorable matchups in space. He can win in those situations with his natural receiving skills -- Johnson played some wide receiver at Northern Iowa -- helping him to create space from defenders.
Keep this in mind, too: The Cardinals could trot out a rookie (Josh Rosen) as their QB1, and the presence of a versatile running back with dual-threat capabilities will alleviate a lot of the pressure on a first-year starter. The team could instruct Rosen to give the ball to Johnson in a variety of different ways as a runner or receiver, which makes Johnson's goal of joining the 1,000/1,000 club a realistic possibility this season.
3) Ripple effect from kickoff rule changes. In case you missed it, the NFL owners approved changes to the rules for kickoffs at the Spring League Meeting this week. I'm curious to see how the new rules will impact the game and the composition of NFL rosters this season. As a former kick returner, I'm a little biased when it comes to my feelings about the play. I believe it's one of the most important plays in the game, and teams that understand how to create big-play returns enhance their scoring opportunities when they advance the ball beyond their own 30-yard line. Although the changes over the years have reduced the impact of a dynamic return game, the best teams consistently find a way to win the third phase of the game, particularly on kickoffs when a significant amount of yardage is exchanged.
That's why I'm intrigued by several aspects of the rules changes, including the elimination of the wedge block, the standstill-start requirement for the kicking team and the "setup zone" that places eight blockers within 15 yards of the ball. These changes have essentially transformed the kickoff into more of a punt-return play for the receiving team with man-to-man blocking schemes and three deep returners.
From a return-team standpoint, I wonder if clubs will use three returners, like a post-safety setup under the old rules, or continue to deploy one designated returner and a few fullback/linebacker-types in front of him to block any leakers down the field. In addition, I'm curious to see if special-teams coaches will use more skill players (wide receivers, tight ends and fullbacks) because there will be more one-on-one blocking in the open field, which requires better athletes and players adept at blocking in space. The makeup for returners will also change a bit, with guys expected to cover more ground than before. Coaches will opt for speedy guys with outstanding quickness and tracking skills over the rugged returners (see: Brian Mitchell) who used to occupy some of the KR spots in the past.
On the coverage side, I believe we could see more linebackers and defensive backs on kickoff coverage units due to the elimination of running starts and the need to make more tackles in space. We could also see more wide receivers earn time on those units as the play transitions into more of a punt play, where speed and athleticism are coveted at a premium. Sure, those wide receivers will need to be able to make tackles in space, but their collective speed and quickness will make them more valuable than ever on kicking units.
In terms of team building, I believe the new kickoff rules will also change how teams stack their roster at certain positions, particularly on game day. In the past, teams would keep seven or eight offensive linemen on the 46-man active roster and as many as eight or nine defensive linemen, but the kickoff rule changes reduce the need to keep so many big bodies on the game-day roster. Not to mention, the transition of the play into one where speed and athleticism can be even more advantageous will encourage offensive-minded teams to keep more wide receivers on the game-day roster, which will also impact the way offenses attack defenses, with more spread and empty formations possibly on the horizon.
In addition, you could see more teams stash "big" receivers (6-foot-2, 215-plus pounds) on the roster as special-teams standouts/WR4s and WR5s. With teams looking for large, athletic guys capable of blocking in space, the bigger receivers could become hot commodities as bottom-of-the-roster fillers.
Overall, I'm glad to see the league find a way to save the kickoff, but it's going to lead to a few big changes for how teams game plan and build their rosters.