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:
But first, a look at 10 second-year players on the path to stardom ...
The release of NFL Network's "Top 100 players of 2020" (Sunday-Tuesday, 8-11 p.m. ET; Top 10 on Wednesday, 8-10 p.m. ET) should be must-see TV for executives, coaches and scouts around the league. The peer-to-peer evaluations not only provide players with an opportunity to share their perspective on what separates the elites from the rest of the pack, but this annual series also gives observers an opportunity to discover which traits matter when it comes to evaluating talent.
In the NFL, scouts are taught to wait for three years before determining if a new player can make a living in this league or not. Mitigating circumstances (scheme, coaching, injuries, etc.) could prevent a blue-chip prospect from realizing his potential early in his career, so evaluators are encouraged to give him enough time to develop into the player that they envisioned when scouting him as a collegian.
To be honest, though, as a former player, I disagree with the extended timeline -- particularly when it comes to blue-chippers. The elites display five-star traits early and it's easy to envision them emerging as game-changers. That's what I witnessed while playing with Tony Gonzalez and Charles Woodson during their respective rookie seasons. Despite some rough patches, it was apparent that each player had all-star potential -- the elite traits stood out whenever you watched them in drills.
During my time as a scout with the Carolina Panthers, it didn't take long to notice a pair of youngsters: Julius Peppers and Steve Smith. Each player displayed a penchant for delivering game-changing plays. Peppers earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, while Smith snagged a Pro Bowl berth as an electric returner in Year 1.
With those players setting the ceiling for my expectation of young players, I decided to study the All-22 Coaches Film from the 2019 season to see which 2019 NFL Draft products could be ready to join the ranks of the elite in Year 2. Given some time to take notes on each of the notable contributors from the class, here are my top 10 second-year players:
The Offensive Rookie of the Year could be the new prototype at the position, as an A+ pocket passer with electric running skills. Murray dazzled opponents in 2019 with a unique playing style that kept defensive coordinators up at night crafting schemes to contain a playmaker who would eclipse 3,500 passing yards and 500 rushing yards as a rookie. With an upgraded supporting cast around him in 2020, the 5-foot-10 dynamo could help the Cardinals make a run at the NFC West title and emerge as a dark-horse MVP candidate.
The 49ers' Energizer Bunny is a game-wrecker off the edge. Bosa overwhelms blockers with his relentless energy, effort and violent hands on the way to the quarterback. The scrappy Ohio State product also displays outstanding strength, power and pop stacking blockers at the line while tracking down runners. As the tempo setter on a talented 49ers front, the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year could vie for Defensive Player of the Year honors in Year 2.
Despite logging just four starts, Allen quietly led rookies in sacks with 10.5. His efficiency as a situational pass rusher bodes well for a defense that needs the second-year pro to become a consistent force off the edge opposite (or in place of) Yannick Ngakoue. With the disgruntled Ngakoue intent on forcing his way out of Jacksonville, Allen's rise as a premier playmaker off the edge could help the defense survive the loss of a Pro Bowl-caliber talent on the other side.
Brown entered the league viewed as a possession receiver, but emerged as the Titans' biggest playmaker in the passing game. He registered a 1,051-yard season on just 52 catches (20.2 yards per catch), thanks to a whopping eight grabs of 40-plus yards, which was tied for the league lead with Mike Williams and Stefon Diggs. Brown's physicality, toughness and RAC (run after catch) ability set him apart from his peers and thrust him into the conversation as an emerging elite player.
The Steelers' 'backer gobbles up runners like Pac-Man devours dots. As a rookie, Bush racked up 89 tackles as a sideline-to-sideline playmaker, but he made his biggest contributions as a turnover machine. The Michigan product produced six takeaways (two interceptions and four fumble recoveries, including an astute scoop-and-score) while displaying outstanding instincts, ball skills and aggressiveness. Bush's immediate impact helped fuel the Steelers' top-five defense and established No. 55 as a rising star at linebacker.
The No. 48 overall pick from last year's draft has entered the discussion as one of the best pivots in the game following an impressive rookie campaign. McCoy is a rock-solid blocker with the capacity to maul defenders in the running game and stonewall interior rushers in pass protection. With a polished game and a high IQ, the Saints center could become the gold standard at the position for this decade.
Jon Gruden's desire to pound the rock could make Jacobs a full-blown star in Year 2. The hard-nosed runner showed immense promise as a first-year starter on the way to cracking the 1,000-yard mark (1,150 rushing yards, to be exact) in 13 games. He flashes make-you-miss ability in the hole with a touch of explosive power and pop that makes defenders pause before approaching No. 28. Considering how intent the Raiders are on running the ball to alleviate some of the pressure on Derek Carr, Jacobs could make a run at the rushing crown during his sophomore campaign.
The 6-foot, 210-pound speedster is already one of the scariest big-play threats in the NFL. As an explosive athlete with excellent stop-start quickness, McLaurin has the capacity to blow past defenders on vertical routes while also weaving through traffic as a RAC specialist. With the second-year pro also displaying polished route-running skills, Washington's WR1 has the potential to become a top-10 playmaker at the position.
The versatile safety could become a household name worthy of all-star recognition by the end of his second season. Savage is a rare find as a hard-hitting enforcer with superb ball skills and instincts. In 14 games last season, he snagged two interceptions and forced a pair of fumbles, displaying outstanding range, instincts and anticipation as a crafty deep-middle defender.
Despite playing just nine regular-season games after recovering from a pre-draft knee injury, Simmons quickly made his mark as a disruptive interior defender with A+ run-stopping ability and pass-rush skills. The rugged defensive lineman finished with a pair of sacks, four tackles for loss and two QB hits, but those numbers don't properly showcase his impact. Simmons displayed game-changing flashes as an athletic penetrator with an array of dance moves.
RAMS' RUN GAME: Will copying 49ers pay off?
"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness."
I don't know if Sean McVay is a literary scholar, but the Los Angeles Rams' head coach appears to be taking a page from Oscar Wilde after watching his team's running game fall apart in 2019. With an eye pointed toward the defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers, the offensive wizard dismissed Todd Gurley in favor of rebuilding the team's scattershot ground attack behind a committee approach.
"I think it'll just naturally work itself out. I think if you look at that success San Fran had last year with that running back-by-committee approach," McVay recently said, via Cameron DaSilva of The Rams Wire. "What I thought Kyle (Shanahan) and their players did a great job of is, 'Hey, we're going to have an open-mind approach, we're going to be committed to trying to have some balance and then we'll go with the hot hand or whoever really expresses himself as deserving of the carries.' "
Last season, the Rams were essentially a two-man operation at running back with Gurley and Malcolm Brown sharing duties in the backfield. The 2017 Offensive Player of the Year was slotted in the No. 1 role, but he ceded carries to his backup as part of a plan to reduce his workload and try to keep him healthy. The results were ... not great. The 2019 Rams ranked 26th in rushing yards per game and tied for 27th in yards per rush after finishing in the top five in both categories back in 2018, when Gurley carried the bulk of the load. Sure, C.J. Anderson stepped in and provided a boost for the offense for a few games down the stretch in '18 while Gurley nursed an injury, but the running game was largely anchored by a one-man show for the first two years of McVay's tenure.
That said, the RBBC model has worked in the NFL, particularly for teams utilizing the Shanahan system. The zone-based scheme has turned a number of late-round draftees and undrafted free agents into stars. The combination of an "elephants on parade" blocking scheme and a decisive one-cut runner has yielded huge results for teams employing the system. McVay, who spent four seasons with the Shanahans (Mike and Kyle) in Washington, employs the same kind of zone-blocking system in the ground game -- an approach that allowed Gurley to earn back-to-back first-team All-Pro honors in 2017 and '18.
Given the success of the 49ers' rushing attack, it is not surprising the RBBC approach is trending in the NFL. Despite witnessing his team's previous success with a workhorse leading the way, McVay believes a multi-back system could help the Rams re-emerge as a force on the ground.
"We feel good. We've got three guys really on our roster that have played football when you look at Darrell Henderson, John Kelly is another guy, Malcolm Brown has consistently produced in that No. 2 role behind Todd," he said. "And then Cam Akers is a guy that we're excited about. So we've got four backs that we feel like are all NFL-legitimate, starting-caliber backs and not feeling like you've got to force carries or touches to any of them. Just open mind and see how these guys do."
McVay might tout the talent and potential of Henderson and Kelly, but the workload could ultimately be split between Brown and Akers. Brown, a sixth-year veteran, will get the first crack at carries, based on his experience and flashes as the team's RB2 in prior seasons. Although Brown has mustered just 769 rush yards in 54 career games, he is coming off a five-touchdown season in which he displayed short-area power and pop. He hasn't posted a 100-yard game during his career, but he has shown potential as a short-yardage/goal-line/four-minute-offense specialist.
Akers, the team's top pick in this year's draft at No. 52 overall, could eventually emerge as the lead back in the rotation. The Florida State product is a dynamic runner with a versatile style that enables him to thrive as a one-cut runner within a disciplined zone scheme or as a shake-and-bake playmaker in the open field. He is an excellent receiver out of the backfield with a knack for turning short passes into big gains, particularly on screens. Akers not only has the most complete game of any runner in the rotation, but he is a natural fit in the team's scheme as a multi-faceted playmaker -- which is exactly what Gurley has been at his best.
At the end of the day, McVay's copycat plan could help Los Angeles close ground on division rivals and re-emerge as a threat in the NFC. Or it could just be the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.
COVID-19: Impact on home-field advantage
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted some NFL teams to announce they will limit the number of fans allowed to attend games, and in the case of the Giants and Jets, not allow any fans in. These plans are being made with safety and health in mind, as they should be, but in these highly unusual times, I do believe having a smaller crowd -- or no crowd at all -- will impact the game and alter how some of the NFL's heavyweights compete this season.
That sentiment might lead to quizzical looks from some folks, but home-field advantage matters in the NFL. Take a look at the top home records since 2015, per NFL Research:
New England Patriots: 33-7
Kansas City Chiefs: 29-10*
Minnesota Vikings: 29-11
Pittsburgh Steelers: 28-12
Green Bay Packers: 27-12-1
Baltimore Ravens: 27-13
New Orleans Saints: 27-13
*Kansas City played a neutral-site game in London back in 2015 where they were the designated home team, but that wasn't counted here.
It's not a coincidence that the last two Super Bowl winners are at the top of the list. Great teams dominate their opponents at home, using those games to help them earn pole position in a playoff run. That's why we should pay close attention to the correlation between those impressive records and the 24 combined playoff berths (and three Super Bowl wins) among those squads in that span.
Stacking wins at home helps contenders inch closer to the magic number (10) that has traditionally resulted in a playoff berth. Part of their success can be attributed to defenses taking advantage of the noise and energy from the home crowd. Pass rushers, in particular, exploit the crowd noise to "jump the snap" (anticipate the snap count) to blow past offensive tackles on speed rushes. Moreover, the NFL's premier sack artists have always punished quarterbacks when they're able to take advantage of late-reacting offensive tackles who are affected by the crowd noise.
During my playing days in the 1990s, I watched three of my Pro Football Hall of Fame teammates (Reggie White, Bruce Smith and Derrick Thomas) abuse opposing offensive tackles at home. Each pass rusher would utilize initial quickness and snap-count anticipation to get a head start at the line. Thomas, in particular, would capitalize on the raucous environment at Arrowhead Stadium. He not only fed off the energy of the crowd, but he overwhelmed hesitant pass protectors with his exceptional first-step quickness and anticipation of the snap. No. 58's get-off, burst and acceleration made him an unstoppable force off the edge on obvious passing downs at home.
I was on the field during the 1998 season opener against the Raiders when he sacked Jeff George six times -- one of which resulted in a safety -- and forced a fumble. It was the most dominant individual defensive performance that I've witnessed during my 20-plus years in and around the league. It also illustrated how an elite pass rusher can take over a game when the home crowd is whipped into a frenzy. My belief in this notion was only strengthened after studying the largest home-to-road sack differentials among the 34 members of the 100-plus sacks club:
Derrick Thomas, Chiefs: +42.5
Dwight Freeney, Colts and Cardinals: +31.5
William Fuller, Oilers: +25.5
Jared Allen, Chiefs and Vikings: +23
Robert Mathis, Colts: +22
It's interesting to note that three of those five players (Freeney, Fuller and Mathis) spent the bulk of their careers with teams that played their homes games indoors. Allen and Thomas played in front of what's been dubbed the loudest crowd in the NFL at Arrowhead Stadium (according to Guinness World Records), and Allen also spent half his career with the Vikings, who played their home games in a dome.
When I take another glance at the aforementioned teams with the best home records since 2015, I don't believe it's a coincidence that each squad currently features, or recently featured, a five-star pass rusher in the starting lineup. OK, the Patriots might be the exception, but keep in mind that they place a premium on coverage over pass rush with their defensive approach.
That said, the Vikings could be the team that's most impacted by a small or nonexistent home crowd. Mike Zimmer's squad has 34 more sacks at home than on the road since 2015 (125 sacks at home; 91 sacks on the road), with Danielle Hunter and others feasting on opponents overwhelmed by the raucous Minnesota crowd.
Without the usual noise and energy to tip the scales in their favor, particularly with the defense on the field, the Vikings would lose one of the biggest advantages in the league. The Steelers, Packers and Saints would also miss out on the favorable conditions that routinely help lead to Ws.
As such, playing with small crowds or no fans in the stands could open up the playoff field this year and potentially play a significant role in the postseason with only one team in each conference receiving a bye in the new playoff format.
WASHINGTON REBRAND: Applause for temp name
I LOVE the Washington NFL franchise's decision to temporarily name its club the Washington Football Team. While a quick scan on social media shows many folks disagree with me on this, I believe the name and new uniforms are bold in a unique way.
I know the decision makers within the organization are doing their due diligence to come up with a more permanent solution, but going with this name is ideal for the moment. It provides an opportunity for unity after so many years of division. By using the moniker "Washington Football Team," it allows head coach Ron Rivera to stand in front of his players and promote team over self in every action.
At the same time, the franchise needs its supporters to embrace an old-school style (leaning on the running game and defense) that always has a place in the NFL. With a defense that should be led by a front line that features five former first-round picks in the rotation, including Chase Young (the No. 2 overall selection in this year's draft), the Washington Football Team has an opportunity to play throwback football in the NFC East.
Offensively, the team has an all-time great at tailback (Adrian Peterson) to spark an offense that should embrace a ground-and-pound approach that enables it to keep the game close if the defense plays up to expectations. The ball-control philosophy might not endear the Washington Football Team to fans of razzle-dazzle football, but it's a time-tested formula that has worked since the beginning of the league and continues to produce solid results in today's game (SEE: Baltimore, Tennessee, San Francisco, and New England, among others).
While I'm not ready to proclaim the Washington Football Team the next great squad to take the NFC by storm, I believe it's following in the footsteps of the greatest achievers in life by boldly featuring a single name (Washington) as its brand. Considering the success of Prince, Sade, Madonna, Seal, Jay-Z and others, the franchise's bodacious approach reflects an arrogance that often precedes excellence.
OK, I know that might be a reach, but as a fan of Premier League soccer, I believe the decision also reveals the team's desire to begin a new (and hopefully more successful) era by prominently featuring the city it calls home in its temporary name. There's nothing like representing your city on the pitch and in the stands. The team's approach enables the fan base to embrace being different in a copycat league.
I remember when the 2001 New England Patriots ran out of the tunnel as a team prior to Super Bowl XXXVI before shocking the world by knocking off the St. Louis Rams. The approach was radically different from the norm at the time (starters were announced individually), but the decision to come out together provided the football world with a glimpse of the culture that existed within the squad. Six Super Bowl wins later, the Patriots are viewed as the gold standard in the league with a team approach that the football world appreciates and respects.
If the Washington Football Team utilizes this temporary name to really establish a team-first culture under Rivera, the jokes about the moniker could subside quickly as a contender re-emerges in D.C.