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:
-- San Francisco's 5-0 start is no fluke.
But first, a look at the dynamic offensive players who make defensive coaches jumpy ...
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Halloween is a few weeks away, but a handful of NFL stars are already playing "trick or treat" on defensive coordinators across the league. These offensive standouts produce sleepless nights for opposing coaches. They're matchup nightmares who make even elite defenders pay close attention to their whereabouts on the field.
Back in my playing days, I remember sitting through installation meetings and hearing coaches describe nightmarish players -- raving about their individual talents and how they were capable of single-handedly handing us an L with their spectacular play. During my time with the Green Bay Packers in the mid-1990s, I distinctly remember Fritz Shurmur waxing poetic about Barry Sanders in meetings prior to a pivotal NFC Central matchup. He showed countless highlights of the Hall of Fame running back spinning defenders around like tops in the open field. He urged every player on the field to pursue No. 20 with reckless abandon and throw caution to the wind when attempting to corral him in the open field. He told us that the first and second defenders would likely miss, but if we pursued with 11 guys flying to the ball, we could possibly contain him and hold him to a series of minimal gains. That said, Shurmur acknowledged that Sanders would eventually break out for a big run at some point and likely pick up another 100-yard game, but he wanted us to make him "earn it" against a defense that forced the action with its aggressive play.
Surveying today's NFL landscape, there are a number of offensive players who create similar nightmares for defensive coordinators. Although those architects will craft game plans to slow down the explosive playmakers, they know that it is only a matter of time before these guys break contain and make a pivotal play that impacts the game. Given some time to think about the most dangerous players at the skill positions right now, here are the biggest matchup nightmares at each spot:
It is hard enough to defend a precise pocket passer in this league, but it's nearly impossible to slow down a high-end thrower with exceptional running skills. That's the problem Wilson poses for defensive coordinators, as an explosive dual-threat playmaker with rare skills inside and outside of the pocket. Wilson leads the NFL with a 124.7 passer rating on the strength of a 72.5 percent completion rate and a 14:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Wilson's effectiveness has been boosted by his impressive efficiency on difficult throws to the boundary. The five-time Pro Bowl quarterback is currently completing 70.5 percent of his passes directed outside of the numbers with a 9:0 TD-to-INT ratio and a 121.4 passer rating, according to Next Gen Stats. Wilson also dominates the league as a deep-ball passer (56.7 percent completion rate with five touchdowns and a 141.0 passer rating on throws of 20-plus air yards). Not to mention, he torments opponents with his stellar scrambling ability. Russ extends plays and displays improvisational wizardry whenever he flees the pocket. The combination of scripted and impromptu production makes No. 3 an absolute nightmare to prepare for each week.
It is hard to find a back with the capacity to run between the tackles or on the edges, while also displaying exceptional skills in the passing game. That's why defensive coordinators shake in their boots while attempting to craft game plans to slow down McCaffrey, currently the league's premier offensive weapon. As the NFL leader in rushing (618) and scrimmage yards (923) through the first six weeks of the season, McCaffrey poses a major problem for defenses lacking versatile defenders with the speed, athleticism and tackling ability to contain him in space or in the hole. With Norv Turner transitioning his strategy to feature No. 22 as the offense's No. 1 option, the former Heisman runner-up is proving that all the workload concerns in his pre-draft evaluation were unfounded.
There's nothing that scares defensive coordinators more than the deep ball. That's why Hill draws helpless head shakes in meeting rooms around the league when opposing coaches pop in the tape and see No. 10 flying by defenders on vertical routes. The three-time Pro Bowl selectee is the ultimate big-play threat, with 19 receptions of 40-plus yards since 2017. Hill's speed, explosiveness and running skills make him a threat to score from anywhere on the field as a catch-and-run playmaker, particularly with Andy Reid's esteemed reputation for creating home run opportunities for his most explosive threats. There are more polished route runners and better pass catchers in the league, but Hill's dynamic athleticism is jaw-dropping.
After enjoying a breakout 2018 campaign that saw him rack up 88 catches for 1,377 yards and five touchdowns, the Pro Bowl tight end has become one of the most feared pass catchers in the league. Although Kittle demands the attention of defensive coaches around the league due to a large number of targets and receptions, it is the damage that he does with the ball in his hands that separates him from others at the position. Kittle finished second in the league with 784 YAC yards a season ago, and he's well on his way toward making another run at the top spot with 205 of his 388 receiving yards amassed on runs after the catch. Furthermore, he is a crafty route runner with a bag of tricks that makes him hard to defend in space. Given Kyle Shanahan's creativity as a play designer, defensive coordinators will continue to have frightening visions of Kittle running wild through the middle of their defenses.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: The loaded unit that has fueled this 5-0 start
I've always believed building a championship defense is similar to constructing a house. If you build the house on a solid foundation, it will be able to withstand any storm that heads in its direction and remain one of the gems in the neighborhood. Looking at the construction of the 49ers' defense, particularly the D-line, it is not a coincidence San Francisco is quickly emerging as the team to beat in the NFC.
Now, I know that we are not even to the midway point of the season, but I'm all in on the 5-0 Niners' playoff prospects based on the dominant play of their defensive line. John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have assembled a star-studded collection of talents along the front line. San Francisco's defensive linemen have the capacity to impose their will on the opposition through their individual and collective dominance.
Don't believe me? Just look at the numbers -- they will help you see why I'm so bullish on San Francisco's defense.
The 49ers rank in the top five in many pass-rushing categories this season, according to Next Gen Stats, including pressure rate (second in the NFL at 34.7 percent), sack percentage (third, 10 percent) and pass-rush separation yards (fourth, 4.64 yards).
Considering the 49ers blitz (five-plus pass rushers) at the NFL's fifth-lowest rate (20.6 percent) and have generated 78 percent of their QB pressures with four or fewer rushers this season (46 of 59, the fourth-highest rate in the NFL), the key to San Francisco's defensive resurgence is unquestionably the defensive line.
This is exactly how Niners decision-makers envisioned the defense performing when they saw the unit's progress throughout the preseason.
"I think we've kind of finally honed in on who we are, what our identity is going to be," Lynch told reporters in training camp, via ESPN.com. "I think it's pretty clear where we believe you win and lose football games, and you know that group, they need to be dominant.
"I want them to wreak havoc on the league. A lot of our resources have gone there because Kyle and I both believe that you've got to hit the quarterback and you've got to bring him down. I'm more excited than any other time in our time being here with our ability to do that because of some of the moves that we've made."
Lynch's vision has come to fruition this season, with a quintet of former first-rounders anchoring the defensive line rotation. From Arik Armstead (17th, 2015) to DeForest Buckner (seventh, 2016) to Solomon Thomas (third, 2017) to Nick Bosa (second, 2019) and their marquee free-agent signee Dee Ford (23rd to the Chiefs, 2014), the 49ers have committed significant resources to the defensive line to upgrade the unit to championship level. Although it has taken time for some of those players to perform at a dominant level, the collective athleticism and talent of the unit has overwhelmed opponents in 2019.
Part of that success can be attributed to their new defensive line coach, Kris Kocurek, and his energetic approach to line play. The former seventh-round pick of the 2001 draft from Texas Tech has a reputation for raising the energy level in the building -- and that's definitely reflected in the play of his troops. San Francisco's front line gets after it at the point of attack, exhibiting a non-stop motor and relentless spirit that overwhelms opponents over a 60-minute game.
"Kris really gets after it," I was told by a former Detroit Lions executive who is familiar with Kocurek's coaching style and teaching methods. "Guys respond well to his energy and aggressive mentality."
From a schematic standpoint, the 49ers aren't very exotic with their line games or stunts. They will run a few twists and picks, but the majority of their pressures come from their front-line players simply whipping blockers at the point of attack. Studying their play on the All-22 Coaches Film, I'm blown away by the simple "beat 'em up" approach used by this team. It takes superior talent to win in that fashion, and the Niners have it.
San Francisco's perfect start to the season is no fluke. I expect the 49ers to remain viable contenders behind a defense built on a rock-solid foundation.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Rams made right call in Ramsey deal. As a former college scout, I know I'm not supposed to endorse the Los Angeles Rams' decision to trade two first-round selections (2020, 2021) and a fourth-rounder (2021) for Jalen Ramseyearlier this week, but I absolutely love the team's decision to opt for "players over picks" in this scenario.
Sure, the prospect of sitting out the opening round in the 2020 and 2021 drafts is a little scary, but, considering the Rams aren't likely to be drafting early in the round, I don't know if they could have landed a better player than Ramsey in either class. We are talking about a former No. 5 overall pick with world-class athleticism (ACC long-jump champion), an All-Pro game and the alpha-dog mentality that raises the standard of play of the entire defense when he steps on the field as the designated CB1.
Ramsey, a two-time Pro Bowl selectee, is one of just seven players with nine or more INTs and 45 or more passes defensed since he entered the NFL in 2016. He's allowed just 53.7 percent of targets to be completed in his career (fifth-lowest among 73 CBs with 150-plus targets since 2016, per Pro Football Focus). And he's done all this while challenging some of the top receivers in the game.
That's exactly what you want from a first-round pick when selecting at the top of the board. You want a transcendent talent who can make everyone around him better. That's what Ramsey has done throughout his time with the Jaguars, and I can't imagine him failing to perform on the Hollywood stage.
"Ramsey is better than anyone that [the Rams] could've drafted in the 2020 and 2021 drafts," an NFC college scouting director told me. "He's a proven commodity because we've seen him play at an elite level in the league. I don't know if he fixes their immediate problems, but he gives them another blue-chip player on the roster. ... You can never have enough of those on your team."
Now, as many folks have pointed out, Ramsey's contract is due to expire after next season, and allowing him to walk would make this trade a loser for the Rams. That's why I expect the franchise to do whatever it takes to lock him up long-term. So, yes, I'm OK with the Rams borrowing a page from the Los Angeles Lakers and building a "Showtime" squad with highly paid star power all over the field. The 16-time basketball world champions have routinely built their title squads by stockpiling the roster with players who began their careers elsewhere. From Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O'Neal to LeBron James, the Lakers have gone outside the organization to bring in A-list players. Although some of their key contributors have been homegrown products (see: Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant), the Lakers have been the premier team in the NBA due to their willingness to do whatever it takes to put the best five players on the floor.
That said, team-building is a different endeavor in the NFL, and the Rams' decision to go all in on acquiring blue-chip talents could leave them in a scenario where they don't make a single first-round pick for five years. They haven't used a first-round pick since 2016 (Jared Goff), and at the moment, they won't have another one in their possession until 2022, which puts more pressure on the scouting department to find hidden gems in later rounds. However, given their success rate in recent years with finding talent in the second round or later (Gerald Everett, Cooper Kupp, John Johnson, Tyler Higbee, Samson Ebukam, Taylor Rapp and David Long), I believe the Rams should be able to win games by filling out their roster with low-cost pieces to complement a high-priced set of core players (Goff, Aaron Donald, Brandin Cooks, Todd Gurley and eventually Ramsey).
Remember, the title contenders in the NFL typically have 10 to 12 blue-chip players on their roster. The Rams certainly have the firepower to contend, with the aforementioned quintet ranking among the best at their respective positions and players like Dante Fowler, Michael Brockers, Eric Weddle, Clay Matthews, Robert Woods and Kupp capable of playing like elite players in the team's system. Although Goff and the offensive line need to play better for the team to make a run at the Lombardi Trophy this season, the pieces are in place for the Rams to enjoy a long stay at the top of the NFC due to an approach that prioritizes proven players over picks in the player-acquisition game.
2) Peters a perfect fit for Ravens. Don't be surprised if Marcus Peters regains his swagger and Pro Bowl form now that he's been traded to the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens are the perfect cultural fit for Peters, and his game is ideally suited for coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale's ultra-aggressive scheme.
I know some observers will roll their eyes at that statement based on Peters' lowlights during his 19 months with the Los Angeles Rams, but I'm not quite ready to dismiss the player who leads the NFL in interceptions since 2015 (24), despite a handful of poor plays that made the Sunday night loop on TV.
While Peters didn't deliver to the level most observers associate with a shutdown corner during his stay in L.A., I believe he was always mislabeled as a lockdown defender. Peters is a playmaker who specializes in creating turnovers on the perimeter. He's at his best when he's able to play from distance and "clue" the quarterback (make breaks based off the quarterback's eyes) while also aggressively playing tendencies off the "hash-split" relationship (receivers run certain routes based on their alignment when the ball is placed on a certain hash or in the middle of the field).
That's why he's been able to snag so many interceptions while others are simply registering PBUs (pass breakups) on the perimeter. He has eight more interceptions than the next-closest ballhawk since entering the league in 2015 (Reggie Nelson and Darius Slay are tied for second with 16 picks apiece in that span). Peters' combination of vision, instincts and a gambler's mentality leads to turnovers, particularly if he is playing behind an aggressive pass rush that forces quarterbacks to get rid of the ball quickly.
That said, Peters' playing style will also lead him to give up big plays when he guesses incorrectly or is fooled by a double move from a crafty route runner. That's part of the risk-reward game that defensive coordinators and front office executives must accept when adding the playmaking cornerback to the lineup.
"To me, he's one of the top corners in the league," Ravens coach John Harbaugh told reporters a day after the deal was completed, via PennLive.com. "He plays the way we play. ... So I think he fits in real well that way and gives us another weapon back there so we can do the things we want to do defensively. And that's what I'm excited about. We don't want to be hamstrung. We want to be able to play the way we want to play, and he's going to help us do that."
From a personality standpoint, I believe Peters will fit in nicely with the Ravens. This team has always been defined by its defense and the stars on that side of the ball. Defenders are normally a little edgier than their counterparts and they need to be allowed to be themselves while also being held accountable for their actions.
In Baltimore, the team has traditionally thrived with edgy players like Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Looking at the current roster, fellow defensive backs Earl Thomas and Jimmy Smith certainly have an edge to them that will enable Peters to easily blend into the fabric of the team. The same could be said for Tony Jefferson, although he'll have to do any mentoring off the field as he recovers from a season-ending knee injury. Moreover, Peters' edginess won't be frowned upon by a coaching staff that understands and embraces the alpha personality that's needed to play defense at a high level.
"We needed a little more edge on that side of the ball," a Ravens executive told me. "Peters gives us some more saltiness and playmaking in the secondary. ... He should fit in well with our guys."
Peters' star has dimmed a bit after being traded twice in less than two years, but a move to a franchise that not only embraces his game but welcomes his character could help him rediscover his form as a top-five corner.