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: potential impact rookies flying under the radar and the long-term plan in Buffalo.
The preseason gives scouts an opportunity to identify promising rookies who immediately outplay draft pedigree. These hidden gems not only emerge as surprise starters, but sometimes earn Pro Bowl recognition in Year 1. Jordan Howard and Tyreek Hill just went from draft-day afterthoughts to foundational pieces in one season.
Thus far in the 2017 preseason, a number of late-round picks have shown promise and potential as impact playmakers. Here are five hidden gems at running back and wide receiver -- yup, take note, fantasy footballers -- to watch heading into the regular season:
The fourth-round pick out of South Florida is one of the few bright spots for the Colts' offense this preseason. Mack has shown impressive balance, body control and stop-start quickness with the ball in his hands. He is a dynamic three-down back with the potential to create big plays as a runner or receiver out of the backfield. After watching Mack put on a spectacular showing in limited action this preseason, I believe he will add some juice to an offense that needs to take some of the burden off Andrew Luck -- whenever he returns to action.
"He jumps off the tape," Chuck Pagano said earlier in training camp, per Zak Keefer of the Indianapolis Star. "He's popping out here. He's a talented guy. He's showing great athleticism, great vision. We were doing one-on-one pass protection drills against the linebackers, and he's physical. He's got toughness. He's not afraid to stick his face in there and pick up blitzers. And then he's a weapon out of the backfield on third down. He's got a ways to go, like everybody else. But he's picking things up and, if he can master all three phases of being a good running back (running, catching and blocking), he's going to be a special player."
When a team selects a pair of receivers in the draft and one is a top-10 pick, it's natural to assume the first-rounder will make the biggest impact on the offense. But the Bengals might've stumbled upon a fourth-round gem in Malone. The 128th overall pick is built in the mold of a traditional WR1, with a 6-foot-3, 208-pound frame, 4.40 speed (in the 40-yard dash) and a polished game that's ideally suited for the NFL. From his precise route-running ability to his strong hands and natural ball skills, the Tennessee product has been able to make a quick transition from the SEC to the pros.
Marvin Lewis had a sneaking suspicion this could be the case when the Bengals snagged the long, rangy pass catcher with the second of their three fourth-round selections.
"We went into the draft and felt like this was a guy that maybe was somewhat overlooked, but had physical tools to play at a higher level," Lewis said to the team's website during organized team activities. "We've had good luck with a lot of guys like that who have similar body types and come in here as young players. They've continued to carve out opportunity and gain more reps and take advantage of it."
During the preseason, with No. 9 overall pick John Ross still recovering from shoulder surgery, Malone has been able to use his size, athleticism and speed to separate from defenders. Talking to team observers about the young pass catcher, I've heard Malone described as a special talent with tremendous upside. While he's likely to enter the regular season as the Bengals' fourth or fifth receiver, Malone could make a rapid ascension up the depth chart due to his traits and potential production as a WR2 in the making.
At 5-6 and 181 pounds, Cohen is a small back by traditional NFL standards. But defenders are quickly discovering the diminutive runner is not a novelty act at the position. The fourth-round pick provides a combination of speed, quickness and "make you miss" ability that separates him from others at the position. Not that I'm surprised at his play or production, having watched him dominate the MEAC at North Carolina A&T as the conference's all-time leading rusher and three-time Offensive Player of the Year. Cohen's a dynamic playmaker with the ball in his hands. His explosiveness has helped him earn comps to one of the NFL's top change-of-pace backs: Darren Sproles.
"There are similar traits, and I don't want to put these expectations on these players because they haven't even gotten here yet, but man, he's quick as a running back. He's instinctive as a running back. He was productive in every season he had [at North Carolina A&T]. Then you split him out of the backfield, and he's going to shake and separate from a linebacker and a safety. So, he can create problems with his quickness and his suddenness, and his athleticism. Again, he was one of those guys we were all pretty fired up about, and not just from the YouTube videos."
John Fox seemed to confirm that assessment after Cohen racked up 77 yards on 11 carries in the Bears' Week 2 preseason win over the Cardinals.
"He's explosive," Fox said to reporters. "He's flashed at us. We've seen him from Day 1 in underwear and I thought he showed a lot of tools and gifts and he's got a very mature attitude and mindset."
With more teams looking to feature hybrid running backs prominently in game plans, Cohen's big-play potential could make him a solid RB2 option and a featured playmaker in the team's empty and spread sets. If the Bears are willing to get creative to maximize Cohen's skills as a versatile playmaker, he could deliver the kind of production and impact Sproles has offered for more than a decade in the NFL.
The Jaguars have a talented young receiver group with Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns, but that won't stop Westbrook from making his mark as a slot man in the team's spread sets. The former Oklahoma standout is a polished route runner with outstanding hands and ball skills. Westbrook is one of the few rookie receivers with a variety of stems, releases and hesitations, allowing him to consistently create separation from defenders. In addition, he is a catch-and-run specialist with speed to burn. Throw in his exceptional ability as a punt returner, and it's easy to envision him making immediate contributions in Jacksonville.
"This is a guy who was a Biletnikoff Award winner, and fourth in the Heisman voting," Jaguars' general manager David Caldwell said on draft night. "He averages 18 yards a catch. He's a dynamic athlete with the ball in his hands. He can run by people and catch it and run away from them and he's got a little wiggle, so he's got really good run after the catch."
Looking back at the Jaguars' aerial attack from a season ago, the lack of deep-ball production stands out. The team ranked 29th in completions of 40-plus yard (with just four) and tallied an underwhelming 44 passes of 20-plus yard (tied for 10th-fewest in the league). Westbrook could fill the role as a long-ball specialist -- something he has showcased in August -- and give the Jaguars' passing game a little more sizzle.
Although Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone says he has yet to see "the pure, breakaway speed" from Westbrook (the wideout reportedly ran a 4.34 40-yard dash at Oklahoma's pro day) and wants the rookie to improve against press coverage, Jacksonville needs to put him on the field to take advantage of the "plus-one" defenses opponents will use to stop the team's potent running game, with No. 4 overall pick Leonard Fournette in the backfield. If Westbrook can win his one-on-one battles on the outside, he gives the Jaguars' passing game the much-needed big-play element to counter run-stopping tactics.
There is always a place in the lineup for a big-play receiver with size, speed and outstanding ball skills. That's why the Eagles were excited to add Hollins to the mix with the 118th overall selection in Round 4, after a broken collarbone prematurely ended his college career and torpedoed his draft stock.
In building up the talent around franchise quarterback Carson Wentz, the WR corps needed to add a number of pass catchers with the potential to fit specific roles. Alshon Jeffery is clearly the WR1, with Torrey Smith and Nelson Agholor next in line. While that appears to leave Hollins on the outside looking in as a potential WR4, the long, rangy UNC product is the kind of big-play specialist who could force his way onto the field.
He was a touchdown machine as a Tar Heel, scoring 20 times on just 81 career receptions while posting an average of 20.6 yards per catch. Hollins torched opponents on an assortment of vertical routes that allowed him to blow past squatting defenders as a long strider. And he also excelled on a variety of "catch-and-run" plays that allowed him to showcase his running skills in the open field. The 6-4, 221-pound pass catcher has continued to use the same tricks to flummox defenders this summer.
Studying Hollins throughout the preseason, it looks like the Eagles are prepping him for a big role, as he has spent a lot of time working with the first team. Although he is unlikely to supplant Smith as the team's designated deep threat, the rookie could make some noise as a complementary player opposite Jeffery in spread formations. Considering the lack of depth at cornerback on most teams, Hollins could make his mark against overmatched defenders.
The undrafted running back out of Virginia has been the buzz of Ravens camp, flashing the same multifaceted game that helped him become the only player in ACC history to tally 1,500 career yards rushing and receiving. Mizzell is a shifty back with exceptional stop-start quickness, elusiveness and burst. He has a knack for slithering in and out of holes between the tackles, but also displays the capacity to turn the corner on outside runs. As a polished route runner with sticky hands and outstanding ball skills, Mizzell is a weapon out of the backfield in the passing game, which gives him a chance to carve out a role as a third-down specialist early in his career.
Reviewing the Ravens' first two preseason games, it is easy to envision Mizzell working his way into the rotation as a triple-threat playmaker (runner, receiver and returner) for Baltimore. He has been impressive with the ball in his hands, and the team hasn't been reluctant to feed him early and often. Granted, preseason numbers don't necessarily translate into regular-season production, but Mizzell's effectiveness as an all-purpose back could encourage the Ravens to give him a roster spot and legitimate playing time when the games count in the fall.
NEW BILLS REGIME: Stockpiling picks and building from the ground up
The Buffalo Bills might've earned some quizzical looks from observers following their surprising training-camp trades of Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby, but the moves added to the robust draft currency that could allow the franchise to rise in the near future.
Buffalo now has six draft picks in the first three rounds of the 2018 draft. This will give the new regime of GM Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott a chance to build a roster that consistently competes for playoff berths and division crowns down the road.
Naturally, skeptics will point out that stockpiling draft picks doesn't always lead to success, but I've been around the game long enough to know that the perennial contenders build through the draft. Looking at the long-term success of the Packers, Seahawks, Steelers and a handful of other squads, it is no coincidence that those rosters feature a number of homegrown stars at the marquee positions.
In a league with a hard salary cap and a team-friendly rookie wage scale, the draft provides franchises with a clear path to success -- if, of course, they can identify, develop and eventually re-sign their talent. Thus, to me, the Bills are making the smart play and setting themselves up to attack the biggest vehicle for talent acquisition next spring. And this approach should be no surprise to anyone who's paid attention to Beane's comments.
"I'm going to build through the draft, first and foremost," Beane said at his introductory press conference in May. "You have to draft well and sign those guys. If you draft well, you sign them."
OK, yes, we've heard every general manager in the league echo similar sentiments. But I can personally attest to the fact that Beane and Co. are committed to the draft-and-develop philosophy. As part of the Panthers' scouting department from 2003-07, I worked with Beane and new Bills assistant general manager Joe Schoen on a team that made a Super Bowl appearance and an additional NFC Championship Game. I also played with the Bills' new assistant college scouting director, Lake Dawson, on the Chiefs and we started our scouting careers together with the Seahawks. In Seattle, we worked under Mike Holmgren, Ted Thompson, John Schneider and Scot McCloughan in a system that prioritized the draft-and-develop principles laid out by Hall of Fame exec Ron Wolf.
"The long-term vision is to build a consistent winner here," Beane said to the assembled press back in May. "Sean and I [will not] achieve a goal if we make the playoffs once and then we're out of it two or three years in a row. Sustained success. Year after year, we're contending to win the division. That's the first thing we have to do. We've got to go win the division."
To that point, the Bills are certainly in line to use the draft to help them close ground on competitors in 2018. Sure, the losses of Watkins and Darby will impact their ability to contend in the short term, but neither player was considered a must-have in the Bills' new schemes. While Watkins is a legitimate deep threat with speed to burn, he has battled a number of injuries and it's hard to justify paying a banged-up WR1 a lot of money when Buffalo's version of the West Coast Offense has worked without A+ talent on the perimeter. In Darby's case, the ultra-athletic corner wasn't necessarily a great fit for a defense that features a number of zone concepts which reward corners with exceptional technique, awareness and ball skills. With first-round pick Tre'Davious White in line to anchor the CB1 role, the Bills could afford to jettison the miscast corner for slot wide receiver Jordan Matthews and a 2018 third-rounder.
This brings me back to the 2018 draft and how the Bills can parlay six picks within the first three rounds into a solid foundation that leads them back to prominence. Surveying the potential prospects in the 2018 class, there are a number of intriguing quarterbacks, pass rushers and offensive tackles with high preliminary grades. Three quarterbacks could earn top-10 grades by the end of the process and there are a number of disruptive DE/OLB-types with first-round grades already penciled in beside their names. With plenty of options also available at offensive tackle and wide receiver in the first three rounds, Buffalo could move up and down the board to add Day 1 starters to the roster. While that is certainly easier said than done, the abundance of picks allows the Bills to "double down" (pick multiple players at the same position) to hedge their bets or trade up to select a certified blue-chip prospect at a marquee position (think QB, if Tyrod Taylor is done in Buffalo after this season).
"Anything you build, you want to build it from the ground up with a solid foundation," Beane said. "Rome wasn't built in a day. We're not trying to do this tomorrow. We're going to try to do it the right way and, when it's meant to be, we'll get there -- and I think everybody will see success."