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:
-- A dynamic position of yore's return to NFL offenses.
-- An overlooked prospect who could fly up draft boards in the coming months.
But first a look at the changing nature of quarterbacking in today's NFL ...
A revolution is occurring at the game's most important position -- and it was on full display last weekend.
The prototype for NFL quarterbacks has been changing in recent years, but those two nights really cemented the transition. Now it's time for the football world to acknowledge -- and embrace -- the new landscape of the position.
The top QBs in the game today are breaking traditional norms, and inherently changing the way scouts evaluate the position. Instead of looking for polished pocket passers with textbook footwork and mechanics, talent evaluators and coaches are more willing to take chances on raw athletes and build around their strengths as explosive playmakers.
"This movement has been in the works for years," an AFC assistant college scouting director told me. "It is the trickle-up effect. High schools and colleges are putting their best athletes at quarterback and letting them run around to make plays. The NFL has started to adapt because these guys are entering the league and making the same kinds of plays. Plus, the speed and athleticism of the defensive linemen force you to play with a mobile quarterback or a guy that gets the ball out of his hands quickly.
"Quarterbacks have to be more than traditional pocket passers to play in this league. You need athletes who can make plays with their minds, arm and legs."
In basketball terms, coaches are looking for scorers instead of shooters -- the ability to "get buckets" is changing the way evaluators are grading the position.
"You want guys who make plays," an AFC college scouting director said. "If your quarterback can pick up a few first downs on his own and find different ways to help the offense score points, you can live with a few flaws. It's about doing enough to win games."
When I survey the league, there are a number of scorers populating the top of the QB charts, in addition to the aforementioned trio. Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson are established Tier 1 playmakers with lengthy highlight reels of jaw-dropping, improvisational plays. They are each at their best when the game shifts into sandlot mode, with the quarterback free to run around and make plays without restriction. This enables the Seahawks and Texans to overtake opponents in the late stages of games when Wilson and Watson are orchestrating no-huddle, hurry-up offenses and two-minute drills. The helter-skelter play is not only challenging for opponents due to the frenetic pace, but the dynamic movement skills of each quarterback routinely result in big plays on impromptu runs or spectacular scramble tosses.
"Athletic quarterbacks put constant stress on your defense," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "They wear out your pass rushers with their deeper drops and scrambles, and their ability to buy extra time puts defensive backs in a bind. In the running game, a mobile quarterback evens up the numbers because the defense has to account for the quarterback run.
"If you face an athletic quarterback who can legitimately run and pass, you're really at their mercy."
Coaches and scouts at lower levels have long embraced the concept of putting the team's supreme athlete behind center. Considering the signal-caller's potential impact as the only skill player touching the ball on every snap, it just makes sense for that guy to be the most explosive athlete. Brian Stumpf -- who organizes Elite 11, the nation's premier competition for high school quarterbacks -- has observed the revolution from the ground floor.
"It's a combination of the best athletes being put at QB at a young age now, so they can develop ... and pass rush edge guys being so good ... and O-line play worsening each year. It's all coming together at the same time," Stumpf said. "I think (Tom) Brady, (Philip) Rivers, Matt Ryan even, are the last of a dying breed. The immobile pocket QB will be extinct soon."
While traditionalists cringe at the notion of an NFL quarterback controlling the game as a runner, the recent success of Jackson and Josh Allen has swayed old-school offensive minds. Think about the recent buzz surrounding Taysom Hill as a potential successor to Drew Brees in New Orleans. The former BYU quarterback has carved out a nice career as a utility player for the Saints, with Sean Payton utilizing him as a Wildcat quarterback. Hill's success executing various zone-read plays and designed quarterback runs -- while capably throwing the football, to boot -- has captivated the imagination. In fact, Hill's impact as a part-time quarterback has prompted Brees to embrace a two-quarterback system if he decides to return to the Saints for another season.
Wow. That's a future Hall of Fame quarterback who's fully open to the idea of splitting time with a dual-threat playmaker in order to add some sizzle to the offense.
With more athletes manning the position in the college ranks, NFL offensive coordinators are being forced to adapt their systems to fit mobile playmakers. Whether they're adding basic zone-read plays and RPOs to the playbook or utilizing speed-option plays on critical downs, it's all about putting the quarterback in the best position to make impactful plays.
The Kansas City Chiefs waited until the playoffs to tap into Mahomes' running skills on a variety of option plays in short-yardage/goal-line situations. He complemented those designed runs with a handful of impromptu scrambles that stretched the defense from sideline to sideline. Jackson was an unstoppable force all season long in Baltimore, absolutely shredding defenses with his unique playing style. He is one of the few QB1s in the game with the capacity to register a 300/100 game (300 passing yards, 100 rushing yards) on a regular basis as the director of an offense that looks plucked from an episode of "Friday Night Lights." Murray's accomplishments flew a bit under the radar for much of the season, but his collection of highlights as an improvisational wizard has made evaluators take notice. The combination of pinpoint passing with impromptu playmaking made the Cardinals rookie a nightmare to defend -- and he's only going to get better with an upgraded supporting cast around him.
As a young scout with the Seattle Seahawks, I frequently heard Mike Holmgren describe his ideal quarterback as a polished pocket passer with enough athleticism to escape a collapsing pocket or erase a poor play call. With more dynamic athletes playing the position today, the NFL's new prototype is the mobile gunslinger with quick feet and explosive running skills. While old-school scouts and coaches will worry about the injury risks, the rewards are too great to ignore when athletic quarterbacks are owning the NFL's crowning weekend.
POSITION RENAISSANCE: The return of the wing back
I don't know if Kyle Shanahan, Andy Reid and others have been watching old Grambling tape from the Eddie Robinson era, but the re-emergence of the wing back could change the way scouts rank wide receivers in the 2020 draft class. The position was once viewed as the marquee spot on offense, with the Wing T dominating the game in the 1960s and 1970s.
Robinson, a 400-game winner and the most successful coach in FCS history, made the position famous with the likes of Charlie Joiner and Frank Lewis dominating from the position. Joiner used to tell me about playing wing back when he was my position coach with the Buffalo Bills. According to Joiner, the wing back is half running back and half wide receiver -- a player with outstanding athleticism, toughness, ball skills and running ability. The wing back has the potential to deliver impact plays as a runner-receiver on the perimeter on a variety of end arounds, reverses and traditional routes.
Looking at Super Bowl LIV, I believe the performances of Deebo Samuel and Tyreek Hill will help lead to a renaissance of the wing back position. Samuel, in particular, could set off a craze after totaling 92 scrimmage yards on eight touches (three rushes for 53 yards; five catches for 39 yards) in Miami. In three postseason games, the second-round rookie amassed 229 scrimmage yards, including 102 rushing yards on just six carries. Although that rushing production might've been a bit of a surprise to the football world, Samuel started to become a bigger factor as a runner during the month of December, when he totaled 122 rushing yards on nine rushes on a variety of end arounds, reverses and fly sweeps.
Think about that: Samuel averaged 14.9 rushing yards per attempt (224 rushing yards on 15 carries) over the 49ers' last eight games (including the postseason) as a complementary rusher on a team built to ground and pound. With Samuel also averaging 13.8 yards per catch (67 catches for 929 yards) during the regular season and playoffs, several coaches and scouts are quite intrigued by the 49ers' utilization of the young playmaker.
In addition, the league is watching Hill's growth as a No. 1 receiver after entering the NFL as a wing back/return specialist. Remember: In his 2016 rookie season, Hill totaled 860 scrimmage yards (593 receiving yards, 267 rushing yards) on 85 touches (61 catches, 24 rushes) while dazzling opponents with his combination of speed, quickness and acceleration. Reid put the ball in No. 10's hands on a variety of plays and his overall versatility added a spark to the Chiefs' offense.
As a young player with the Green Bay Packers, Hall of Fame general manager Ron Wolf told me that his ideal receivers were former kick returners due to their toughness and natural running skills. I believe that the same premise could result in the league looking for more pass catchers with wing back potential.
Looking ahead to the 2020 draft class, there are a number of pass catchers with the skills to help a squad as a versatile playmaker with big-play potential. Here are some guys who could fit the bill:
Jalen Reagor, TCU: The 5-foot-11, 195-pounder is a dynamite playmaker with the speed, explosiveness and running skills to turn short gains into big plays. He is a rugged runner with a knack for slipping in and out of tackles, and his overall physicality makes him hard to handle on the perimeter.
Henry Ruggs III, Alabama: Since speed kills, it is sensible to come up with a number of ways to get the ball into Ruggs' hands. The 6-foot, 190-pound speedster is a touchdown waiting to happen whenever he touches the rock in the open field. He is an explosive vertical threat with rare open-field running skills and burst.
Laviska Shenault Jr., Colorado: The wing back position is a perfect fit for Shenault and his talents as a dynamic playmaker. He has routinely shown off his skills as a runner-receiver during his time in Boulder and the transition to wing back could enable him to thrive early in his career while he masters the art of route running. Considering his size (6-2, 220 pounds), toughness and versatility, it is easy to envision him being a do-it-all playmaker in a creative offense.
Brandon Aiyuk, Arizona State: It's hard to find a more dynamic or explosive offensive weapon than Aiyuk. He is a natural playmaker capable of scoring from anywhere on the field. He displays a combination of stop-start quickness, toughness and running ability that could enable him to produce first downs on an assortment of fly sweeps, reverses and quick routes.
K.J. Hamler, Penn State: Don't let the small physical dimensions (5-foot-9, 176 pounds) fool you. Hamler is dynamite in a small package with the speed, quickness and burst to run away from defenders on the perimeter. As a dynamic returner with speed to burn, he could fit in nicely as a gadget playmaker on an explosive offense.
If you're looking for a sleeper to keep an eye on during the pre-draft process, I would suggest digging up some highlight footage of Jordan Elliott. The Missouri defensive tackle hasn't garnered national attention as a blue-chip prospect, but the scouting community is buzzing over the 6-foot-4, 315-pound disruptive force. Elliott displays a combination of strength, power and quickness that's hard to find, and he plays with a high-revving motor that could make him an All-Pro interior defender in the right scheme.
I know those are lofty expectations to place on a player with just 5.5 sacks in college, but Elliott's physical traits and technical skills should enable him to quickly make his mark as a starter in the league. From an athletic standpoint, he displays exceptional first-step quickness and movement skills at the line. He bursts through cracks at the line on "spike" stunts (defensive lineman shoots the gap to his inside) and is nearly unstoppable on movement plays. Elliott's balance, body control and burst are ideally suited for a penetrating, one-gap scheme that puts defenders on the move at the snap. He is simply too quick for slow-footed interior blockers and his consistent penetration is problematic for quarterbacks setting up on quick drops or running backs hitting inside holes on zone-based plays.
As a pass rusher, Elliott displays Mr. Miyagi-like hand skills on the way to the quarterback. He quickly attacks with a variety of initial moves (two-hand swipe, butt-and-jerk and arm over) while showing an array of complements and counters to disengage. His repertoire is certainly impressive for a young player, and it leads me to believe that Elliott will be a better pro than his college numbers suggest.
Now, I must factor his middling sack production into the equation and he will need to explain his transfer from Texas, but there is a lot to like about his game and upside as a player. If I could place a star beside a player on the meeting-room big board, someone with the potential to climb up the charts prior to the draft, I would place it beside this Missouri product.