Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. This edition examines Kyler Murray's first preseason showing in Kliff Kingsbury's offense, but first, a look at which particular player makes each of the league's 32 teams go:
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It is uncommon for an NFL general manager to tell anyone within earshot that he is willing to make someone the highest-paid player at his position. That's why my ears perked up when I heard Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff say on NFL Network that he wants Julio Jones to be the standard bearer for wide receiver compensation.
"We know what Julio is in this league. We have a very good idea of approximately where he's going to be, which I won't share specifically," Dimitroff said before the Hall of Fame Game last week. "The good thing is we've never been held by our owner to be limiting someone and we're very good with our football players here. We feel very proud of how we approach it. And again, where we approach it with Julio, we look at everything, of course. We believe that he should be the highest-paid player -- sorry, I did not say player -- the highest-paid receiver in the league. And I know he believes that. It's just how we're going to approach this and how we're going to get it done. I believe it's right around the corner, but I don't know when it is."
The general manager knows Jones is the engine of the Falcons' offense. His presence makes everyone better, including former league MVP Matt Ryan. I know some consider it bold to suggest a non-quarterback is the driving force of an NFL offense in 2019, but it is apparent to anyone defending the Falcons that Julio is the straw that stirs the drink in Atlanta.
When I recently spoke to an NFL defensive coordinator about Jones and his playmaking skills, he described the veteran pass catcher as "special" talent and told me that you can't really cover him with a single defender. In addition, the defensive coordinator stressed that Julio tilts the coverage and creates opportunities for Atlanta's other skill players to have room to operate on the perimeter. From Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu feasting off single coverage on the outside to Devonta Freeman seeing fewer "plus-one" defensive fronts, the presence of No. 11 makes life easier for everyone in a Falcons uniform.
That's why I'm willing to go on record stating that Jones -- not Ryan -- is Atlanta's most important offensive piece, despite the quarterback having MVP hardware on his mantel. In fact, I would point out that Jones should've been in line for that honor a few years ago, based on his impressive numbers and overall impact on the squad.
With that in mind, I believe it is the perfect time to look at the rest of the league and identify the engines that make every offense go. Here are my thoughts:
It didn't take long for the Bills' young QB1 to become the driving force of the offense. Allen surprised many folks in Year 1 as an explosive dual-threat with dynamic playmaking ability. The rookie led all NFL quarterbacks with eight rushing scores and his 631 rushing yards ranked second (behind only Lamar Jackson).
Miami Dolphins: TBD
The team's ongoing quarterback competition between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh Rosen makes it impossible to determine who will be the driving force of Miami's offense at this point. Rosen should be the leader in the clubhouse, considering that first-year coach Brian Flores has nothing to lose in seeing if the 2018 No. 10 overall pick can be a long-term solution, but the streaky Fitzpatrick's experience and fearlessness could make him the spark plug that helps the Dolphins score points against sturdy defenses.
The unquestioned G.O.A.T. continues to spark a chameleon-like offense that morphs from finesse to physical at the drop of a hat. Brady's precise pocket-passing skills have started to decline, but his sharp mind and superb management ability make him a credible threat to take over any game at any time.
Don't let Bell's one-season sabbatical overshadow his spectacular accomplishments as the NFL's premier RB1 of recent years. Bell is a dynamic hybrid running back with A+ rushing and receiving skills on the perimeter. With Sam Darnold still refining his game as a franchise quarterback, Bell's presence and playmaking ability will anchor an offensive attack that leans on the veteran back to set the table for the young QB and his teammates.
If you didn't believe the Ravens were all in on No. 8 after he put Baltimore on his back during last season's second-half run to the playoffs, all offseason chatter from John Harbaugh has further underscored the young quarterback's prominence. The 12th-year head coach has openly discussed "revolutionizing" how teams approach the game's most important position, with an electric offense that's designed around Jackson's explosive talents as a dual-threat playmaker. With OC Greg Roman soliciting ideas from some of the most creative college minds in football, Jackson is poised to step into an offense that could help him recreate the buzz that originated with his dazzling Heisman Trophy run at Louisville.
Green's injuries over the past few seasons have kept the acrobatic pass catcher out of the "best receiver in football" discussion, but Bengals officials still believe he is the critical offensive piece. Mixon is a challenger to Green's throne. The explosive hybrid running back has the potential to top 2,000 scrimmage yards as the focal point in Zac Taylor's version of the Sean McVay offense.
Mayfield turned the long-suffering Browns into a respectable squad during his rookie season, and now the team has surrounded its QB1 with an all-star lineup of playmakers possessing the capacity to score from anywhere on the field. With Mayfield playing the distributor role in an offense that can be as dynamic as any attack that the NFL has seen in years, I could see No. 6 make a serious run at the league's MVP trophy as the leader of the revitalized "Dawg Pound."
The two-time Super Bowl champion will get a chance to redefine Pittsburgh's offense without the distractions of Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell in the locker room. Although the Steelers lost serious high-end talent when Nos. 84 and 26 left the building, Roethlisberger's confidence and extraordinary playmaking ability could help the team's young crop of weapons step into the light as emerging superstars in an offense that attacks all over the field. With JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner already playing at a Pro Bowl level, I wouldn't bet against Big Ben keeping Pittsburgh's offensive juggernaut humming along.
The third-year pro is on the verge of entering the discussion as a top-10 quarterback following a solid 2018 campaign that saw him become the first signal-caller in NFL history to tally at least 4,000 passing yards and 25 passing touchdowns along with 500-plus rushing yards and five scores in a single season. Watson is in line to post better numbers in 2019 with an improved offensive line and a few new playmakers, including Duke Johnson, ready to make their mark in Bill O'Brien's offense. If the pass protection holds up, there's no reason why Watson shouldn't make a run at the Offensive Player of the Year award as the director of an explosive offense that pushes the pace with No. 4 at the helm.
After shoulder issues sidelined Luck for 18 months, it didn't take long for the former No. 1 overall pick to get the Colts right back into contention. Luck reminded the football world of his brilliance last season, re-entering the discussion as a top-five quarterback with an impressive run that saw him light up defenses for 4,593 passing yards and 39 touchdowns (against 15 interceptions). Considering No. 12 was still learning the nuances of Frank Reich's offense a season ago, the perennial Pro Bowler could really go off in 2019, as he becomes more comfortable with the scheme and an upgraded cast of playmakers.
Despite the addition of Nick Foles this offseason, the Jaguars' offense will continue to run through the bruising running back. Doug Marrone's desire to bludgeon opponents with a smash-mouth running game makes Fournette the No. 1 option in a game plan that could feature 35-plus rushing attempts each week. Although new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo could have a tough time sticking with the script, Fournette's underrated receiving skills will still make him a candidate for 20-plus touches whenever the Jaguars step onto the field.
Tennessee would love for Marcus Mariota to be the engine of the offense, but his inconsistency and durability concerns have forced the Titans to lean on their running backs to control the action. Henry and Lewis are a unique 1-2 punch with contrasting styles: Henry is the big bruiser, while Lewis is the scat back with pass-catching skills. This makes it hard for defensive coordinators to come up with a solid plan for slowing down Tennessee's blue-collar offense. If new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith can continue to come up with creative ways to put the ball in the hands of his two backs on the perimeter, the Titans will be able to win games with or without Mariota performing like a franchise QB.
The Broncos not only believe they can build a playoff-caliber offense around the former Super Bowl MVP, but they believe he is still in his prime at 34. Despite the naysayers pointing to middling production from Flacco over the past four years, the Broncos think their scheme and supporting cast will help him play the best football of his career. Considering his performance in Gary Kubiak's system in 2014 (the best statistical season of Flacco's career), the Broncos could get the most out of the veteran quarterback in Rich Scangarello's version of the stretch-bootleg scheme.
Before you @ me about leaving Patrick Mahomes off this list, you should consider No. 10's impact on the way opponents defend Kansas City's offense. Hill is a score-from-anywhere type of playmaker who must be accounted for as a runner-receiver in a dynamic offense that features movement and motion on every play. With Hill's speed and explosiveness mandating double-coverage and split-safety looks on every play, the rest of the Chiefs benefit from seeing more one-on-one coverage on the perimeter. Sure, Mahomes is now a 5,000/50 Club member, but his game is greatly enhanced by Hill's presence on the field.
The veteran quarterback continues to perform at a Pro Bowl level regardless of situation and circumstance. No. 17 has not only done it with All-Pros on the perimeter, but he's also succeeded with unheralded pass catchers and an inconsistent running game. Although Rivers would certainly benefit from Melvin Gordon's presence behind him, the QB has a long resume of production that suggests it doesn't matter if Gordon reports or not.
Jon Gruden brought AB to the Raiders to give the offense some juice on the perimeter. Brown is a spectacular playmaker with an indefensible game that makes him nearly impossible to contain with double-coverage and bracket tactics. No. 84 will help Derek Carr post high-end numbers as the director of Gruden's dynamic offensive attack.
This roster is clearly built around the two-time rushing champ who's currently holding out for a new deal. He sets the tone for the offense with his bruising running style and commands enough attention from defenders to make life easier for Dak Prescott in the passing game. Not to mention, No. 21's ability to grind it out as a 30-plus-touch player enables the Cowboys to employ a keep-away strategy that leads to wins (and division titles) in the ultra-competitive NFC East.
Say what you want about the running back position, but there's no disputing Barkley's impact on the Giants as a hybrid playmaker. The second-year pro racked up 2,028 scrimmage yards and 15 touchdowns as a first-year starter -- and he could blow past those numbers in Year 2 as a more confident player settling into his role as the team's leader.
The Eagles' QB1 is clearly the focal point of Doug Pederson's offense. Wentz is a new-school, prototypical franchise quarterback with a dynamic mix of running and passing ability. He has a strong connection with the big-bodied playmakers on the perimeter (Zach Ertz and Alshon Jeffery), but his budding rapport with DeSean Jackson could help him go from good to great. If Wentz can add the deep ball to his repertoire, this version of the Eagles' offense could be the most explosive unit that we've seen under Pederson.
The veteran running back is no longer the premier player at his position, but he's a consistent playmaker capable of grinding out the tough yards between the tackles. He will team with Derrius Guice to give the 'Skins a formidable 1-2 punch that should alleviate some of the pressure on the QB1 to carry an offense that needs to employ a ball-control style to win games.
Chicago Bears: Head coach Matt Nagy
For all of the love thrown in Mitchell Trubisky's direction for his growth as a second-year starter in 2018, the verbal bouquets should really land on Matt Nagy's lap for crafting a scheme that sets up the QB1 for success with a variety of layups (screens, quicks and isolation routes) embedded in each game plan. Sure, Trubisky deserves credit for converting the layups, but Nagy's creativity and offensive brilliance elevate the young signal-caller beyond his talent level.
Despite Matt Patricia wanting to employ a ball-control style that makes the quarterback a complementary player, the Lions' franchise QB remains the focal point of the offensive scheme. No. 9 can make every throw in the book, and his gunslinging ways give the Lions a chance to win shootouts in the fourth quarter.
Clearly, it's Rodgers' show in Green Bay. The perennial MVP candidate keeps plays alive with his athleticism and improvisational skill, while also displaying the ability to play on the script. If Rodgers buys into Matt LaFleur's system and offensive philosophy, he could reclaim his spot as the No. 1 quarterback in the game.
The Vikings' 1-2 punch at wide receiver is the best pass-caching combination in football. Thielen and Diggs are polished route runners with electric playmaking skills and strong hands. These two are capable of elevating any QB1, including Kirk Cousins, with their individual and collective abilities as catch-and-run threats on the perimeter.
I discussed Julio's impact on the Falcons at length in the intro to this piece. He's an absolute game changer year in and year out, as evidenced by his active streak of five straight seasons with 1,400-plus receiving yards. No one else in NFL history -- not even Jerry Rice -- has accomplished this feat.
The former MVP remains the focal point of the Panthers' offense despite Christian McCaffrey's emergence as a premier playmaker in the backfield. Sure, Newton's injury history is a major concern, but he is still an explosive talent capable of exploiting the defense as a runner/passer on the perimeter. With Norv Turner routinely setting No. 1 up for success with easy throws and a passing game that features the RB prominently, the three-time Pro Bowl selectee could spark a return to the playoffs for the Panthers.
Despite Drew Brees setting the single-season record for completion percentage (again), the Saints are at their best when the game runs through Nos. 41 and 13. Kamara and Thomas are elite weapons with electric games that make them impossible to contain over a 60 minutes. Although Brees deserves praise for putting the ball in their hands, the Saints' playmaking duo should receive more credit for elevating the 40-year-old quarterback at this stage of his career.
Bruce Arians took the Buccaneers' job partially because of his belief in Winston's talents and potential as a franchise quarterback. The fifth-year pro certainly has the arm strength and confidence to make every throw in the book, but he needs to do a better job of taking care of the ball and managing the game. If he can avoid the temptation of trying to do too much, Winston could finally realize his potential as a former No. 1 overall pick.
Kliff Kingsbury identified Murray as the ultimate triggerman for his offense and is committed to building his scheme around the QB1. The Cardinals are not only putting in an upgraded version of the Air Raid, but they are surrounding Murray with a cast of swift pass catchers possessing the speed and quickness to turn short passes into big gains. We don't know how defensive coordinators will react to this collegiate version of offense, but the Cards are all about having the ball in No. 1's hands.
Yes, we've heard plenty of chatter regarding Gurley's arthritic knee and durability concerns all offseason. But look at No. 30's production over the past two seasons. He is an electric playmaker with a dynamic game that makes him the ultimate weapon as a runner/receiver in the backfield. Although Jared Goff has made strides as a franchise quarterback, the Rams are still at their best when the offense runs through Gurley.
San Francisco 49ers: Head coach Kyle Shanahan
The 49ers' offensive architect can seemingly make any quarterback look like a solid player. Just look at his work with Nick Mullens and you quickly realize San Francisco's offensive success comes through scheming and tactics, not individual performance. While Jimmy Garoppolo's return will add a dimension to the offense, the 49ers' offensive output will always hinge on Shanahan's ability to find and exploit defensive weaknesses through creative play designs.
The one-time Super Bowl winner has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to take over games as an improvisational wizard on the perimeter. Wilson's electric scramble tosses befuddle defenders and produce big plays for an offense that ideally wants to lean on a rugged running game. Although the team's run-first strategy has a track record of playoff success, the presence of No. 3 gives Pete Carroll a solid backup plan to utilize when things go awry.
EXTRA POINT: Kyler Murray showcases enticing skill set in brief debut
I know it's the preseason, and you can't put a lot of stock in what you observe from a player in 10 to 12 snaps ... but I'm really impressed with what we saw from the No. 1 overall pick in his preseason debut for the Arizona Cardinals.
Kyler Murray was impressive directing the Cardinals' offense in his only drive Thursday night, exhibiting all of the qualities that made him the consensus No. 1 player at the position in the 2019 NFL Draft. From his first toss (a dart thrown on a quick out to Damiere Byrd) to his overall command of the offense, Murray looked like he was comfortable and fully in control. Despite starting the drive on his own 2-yard line, Murray didn't flinch and got Arizona out of the hole with a series of quick-rhythm throws and screens to the perimeter.
Murray completed all seven of his pass attempts, though one was negated by his receiver stepping out of bounds before the catch. He quickly put the ball in the hands of his playmakers and allowed them to move the chains on catch-and-run concepts. This is exactly what you want to see from a distributor, particularly one who is expected to play like a pass-first point guard on a fast break.
Now, I know the Los Angeles Chargers were playing a static defense without a lot of exotic tricks to it, but Murray's rhythm suggested that he knew exactly where to go with the ball on each play. That should inspire plenty of confidence from Cardinals officials when they view the tape over the weekend.
From a critical standpoint, Murray needs to continue to work on taking care of the ball and avoiding negative plays at the position. He took a sack on third-and-long that ended a drive -- a veteran might've been able to anticipate the pressure or throw the ball away under duress. Yes, I'm nitpicking a little in questioning his judgement, but I'm sure it is one of the topics Kingsbury and Co. will discuss with their young QB1 in meetings.
Overall, I thought Murray gave the football world a lot to be excited about with a solid debut that showcased his talent and potential as an electric playmaker in Kingsbury's offense.