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:
-- The under-the-radar running back you want on your fantasy team.
But first, a look at the NFL teams that have built the best pass-catching groups, with a nod to the NBA ...
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I don't know if Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur is a hoops fan with NBA Playoffs fever or a loyal listener to the "Move The Sticks" podcast (we know he at least plays basketball). However, his recent comments comparing the task of building a wide receiver corps to selecting a starting five on the hardwood aligns with a philosophy that I have frequently discussed with my colleague Daniel Jeremiah on the podcast.
When it comes to surrounding a franchise quarterback with weapons on the perimeter, you want to put a number of players with complementary skills on the field that enable the QB to thrive as a point guard-like distributor. Whether it's a traditional pocket passer directing a quick-rhythm passing game that's built on "catch-and-run" concepts or a dual-threat QB with accuracy issues who could benefit from big-bodied pass catchers that expand the strike zone, the best coaches have recognized the need to surround their franchise QBs with wide receivers that collectively bring a diverse array of skills to the table.
"You need guys that are at a certain area of expertise, and then it's our job as coaches to put those guys into position where they can showcase that skill set," LaFleur said after a recent practice.
I certainly agree with those sentiments, but coaches must also consider how each of those receivers complement each other when they are on the field. For instance, teams will frequently partner a big-bodied WR1 with speed deficiencies with a "burner" who has the speed and explosiveness to stretch the field. The speedster routinely takes two defenders with him in coverage, leaving huge voids for the "chain mover" to work the underneath areas of coverage.
During my days as a scout with the Carolina Panthers (2003-2007), offensive coordinator Dan Henning would describe the pro game as one that features a number of specialists. It was up to play-callers to find a way to put pass catchers in roles that allow them to flourish on the perimeter. Interestingly, we had Muhsin Muhammad cast as our "post" player with Steve Smith positioned as the speedster and Ricky Proehl operating as the designated "chain mover." With a streaky quarterback (Jake Delhomme) under center, the diverse skills of the receivers masked some of his deficiencies as a passer and elevated him to a Pro Bowl level.
Looking at today's game, I believe it's more important than ever to build a wide receiver corps stocked with a variety of players who have different skills. In basketball terms, the best NFL passing offenses have a scorer (playmaker), a "post" player (big-bodied wide receiver or tight end with size/strength to win 50-50 balls and dominate in the red zone) and a "garbage man" (chain mover or possession receiver capable of doing the dirty work between the hashes). With the speedster cast as the "catch-and-shoot" guy or the three-point specialist, the elite teams make life easy for their quarterbacks to distribute the ball like Kyle Lowry (point guard for the Eastern Conference champion Toronto Raptors).
"You're not going to go out and play with five point guards," LaFleur said, continuing the basketball roster analogy. "You need a speed guy. You need a guy that's got short-area quickness ... we'd like to have a couple guys that are versatile enough to do both of those things."
With that in mind, I thought the commencing of the NBA Finals would be the perfect time to take a look at the wide receiver groups around the league and rank them based on which units would qualify as the best starting five by NBA standards. Here's how I stack my top five:
1) Cleveland Browns
Starting five:Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Antonio Callaway, Rashard Higgins, David Njoku.
Credit general manager John Dorsey for creating his own version of the Golden State Warriors. OBJ and Jarvis Landry are much like the reigning NBA champions' "Splash Brothers" with No. 13 and No. 80 capable of putting up big numbers in spectacular fashion. Njoku capably handles the dirty work between the hashes and in the red zone as a Draymond Green-like bruiser in the paint. Callaway and Higgins provide energy and the ability to make big plays as super subs in the team's four-wide receiver package. With the deadly accurate Baker Mayfield running the show, the Browns' passing game could run opponents out of the stadium this season. NBA comparison: Warriors.
2) Atlanta Falcons
Starting five:Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Calvin Ridley, Justin Hardy, Austin Hooper.
It's not a stretch to suggest Jones is the best player on the planet at his position. Much like Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo dominates the game as a physical freak, Jones offers a rare combination of size, speed, strength, and explosiveness on the perimeter. He overwhelms defenders with his athleticism and physicality while also displaying the agility and finesse to win against cat-quick cover corners. Sanu and Ridley have superb route-running skills. Although each pass catcher falls into the WR2 category at this stage of their respective careers, they are the perfect complements to Jones on the perimeter. Hooper and Hardy are underrated contributors with a knack for working the middle of the field. Overall, the Falcons trot out a scrappy receiving corps with a mix of muscle and finesse that gives most opponents problems. NBA comparison: Bucks.
3) Philadelphia Eagles
Starting five:Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Nelson Agholor, Zach Ertz, Dallas Goedert.
Despite playing without their QB1 down the stretch and in the playoffs last season, the Eagles' receiving corps was able to keep the offense afloat with Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles at the controls. Heading into the 2019 season, the unit could be vastly improved with Jackson re-joining the squad to add some speed to the mix. Jeffery is the ultimate post-up player on the perimeter with an extraordinary wingspan to expand the strike zone for the quarterback. Ertz and Goedert have emerged as a solid 1-2 punch to dominate with a high-low post game in the red zone. Agholor, who's in a contract year, has been a bit of a forgotten man when observers bring up the Eagles, but the young pass catcher has to move past the trade rumors that hung over his head like a black cloud leading up to the draft. NBA comparison: Denver Nuggets.
4) Los Angeles Rams
Starting five:Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, Tyler Higbee, Gerald Everett.
Some observers will put the dreaded "system player" label on the headliners of the Rams' receiving corps, but it's hard to ignore their individual and collective production in Sean McVay's offense (Cooks and Woods each eclipsed 1,200 yards receiving last season and Kupp had 566 yards through eight games when he suffered a season-ending ACL tear). Cooks, Woods and Kupp share duties as the lead receiver on the team based on weekly matchups and McVay's creativity. The Rams' clever play-action system creates opportunities down the field with that trio attacking voids at the intermediate level. Higbee and Everett fly a bit under the radar, but they have the capacity to win their one-on-one matchups against linebackers and safeties. NBA comparison: Utah Jazz.
5) Los Angeles Chargers
Starting five:Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Travis Benjamin, Hunter Henry, Virgil Green.
I had to include the Chargers on this list after watching Williams emerge as a difference maker to complement Allen on the perimeter. Considering Allen has played a James Harden-like role as the Bolts' go-to guy, the team needed a second scorer to loosen the coverage in the back end. Luckily for L.A., Williams emerged last season as a big-bodied pass catcher with a knack for putting the ball in the paint. With 10 touchdowns in his second season, No. 81 will have an opportunity to play an ever bigger role following the offseason departure of Tyrell Williams. Benjamin and Henry are crafty role players. Although touches are limited for the pass catchers at the bottom of the totem pole, the Chargers' complementary options provide just enough balance to keep opponents from loading up to stop Allen on the perimeter. NBA comparison: Houston Rockets.
NOTE: If there wasn't uncertainty about Tyreek Hill's future with the Kansas City Chiefs, they would have made my list. When you pair Hill with Travis Kelce on the perimeter, well, we've all seen how hard it is to stop them. No. 10 can score from anywhere on the field as a runner-receiver-returner and Kansas City creatively finds ways to get him the ball in space. However, it appears there won't be any determination on Hill's availability until we know the outcome of the child-abuse investigation involving the fourth-year receiver.
LAMAR JACKSON: RAVENS MAKING ALL THE RIGHT MOVES FOR QB1?
Will Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh heed the words of his boss when it comes to the utilization of Lamar Jackson? We'll have to wait until Week 1 to know for sure. What I know now, though, is that I love the buzz I'm hearing about the team's revamped offense under new coordinator Greg Roman. It certainly sounds like the Ravens are catering their scheme to the QB1's unique talents.
"We made a concerted effort to surround Jackson with more speed and playmakers," said a Ravens executive. "The plan is to build the offense around his strengths as a player while surrounding him with enough weapons to help him succeed. ... He's a really talented player but we need to make sure that we put him in the best situations to play to his strengths."
Looking at Jackson's promising rookie season, it's apparent that he has outstanding speed, quickness, and running skills. He rushed for 556 yards in his seven games as the starter while helping the Ravens post an NFL-best 229.6 rushing yards per game during that span. With the team winning six of its final seven games and earning a playoff berth despite pedestrian passing stats (completed 99 of 170 pass attempts for 1,201 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions), the Ravens stumbled upon a formula that made them a dangerous team down the stretch. Yes, the Ravens became a team few defensive coordinators wanted to face because their old-school approach is the perfect counter to the way NFL defenses are currently constructed.
"We play old-school, smashmouth football," said the Ravens executive. "This is the way playoff teams were built back in the day, with a dominant running game complementing a stout defense. ... You control the clock and dictate the terms to the opponent. With more teams building their defenses specifically to defend the pass, the throwback approach gives us an advantage with No. 8 at quarterback."
That said, the Ravens can't get away with running the Single Wing or a modified Wildcat Offense with Jackson toting the rock 20 times a game (he averaged 17 rushes per start last season). It's hard for elite running backs to handle that kind of workload, so we can't expect a 6-foot-2, 212-pound quarterback to survive as a grinder between the tackles.
That's why I'm not surprised to hear Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti suggest his QB1 will have a lighter workload as a runner in 2019.
"I think you'll be pleasantly surprised that Lamar is not going to be running 20 times a game," Bisciotti said in a conference call with season ticket holders Wednesday, via ESPN. "That's not what this offense is about."
There's no doubt the team has upgraded the talent around No. 8 at running back and on the perimeter this offseason. Free-agent addition Mark Ingram and fourth-round pick Justice Hill add more pop to the running game. Ingram gives the Ravens a rugged downhill runner with the strength and power to bully defenders between the tackles. The two-time Pro Bowl selectee has not only averaged at least 4.6 yards per carry in five of the past six seasons but he has scored 40 rushing touchdowns during that span. Moreover, he adds some more toughness to the unit. Hill is a burner with the potential to take it the distance whenever he touches the ball. The 5-foot-10, 198-pound dynamo with 4.40-second speed is well-versed in the spread offense and his experience finding creases on inside zone plays should make him dangerous with defenders eyeballing Jackson's every move.
On the perimeter, the Ravens added first-round pick Marquise Brown to a lineup that features a pair of versatile tight ends (Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews) capable of sealing the edges in the running game or splitting the seams as pass catchers. Although Brown's height (5-9) isn't necessarily ideal for a passer who completed less than 60 percent of his throws last season, the rookie's blazing speed will give the Ravens opportunities to exploit one-on-one coverage on the outside when opponents load the box to stop the run.
"Everything falls to Lamar," Bisciotti said. "We believe in him. We believe he's going to be great. He desires to be great. We will continue to build the team around his strengths, and he'll continue to work on his weaknesses."
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Why Tevin Coleman is poised for a big season. If you're looking for a sleeper in your fantasy football draft, I'd suggest using an early pick on San Francisco 49ers running back Tevin Coleman to be your RB1. The fifth-year pro is reuniting with play-caller Kyle Shanahan, who coached Coleman for two seasons in Atlanta where he helped the running back play near a Pro Bowl level. But it's not the duo's past production that has me excited about Coleman's 2019 potential -- it's Shanahan's evolution as an offensive tactician.
"Now, he can do anything he wants," Coleman recently told reporters, via NBC Bay Area. "He can put guys at multiple positions. He can put us in multiple positions to run different routes. It's pretty good.
"(He's) definitely more creative than he was in Atlanta, just with everything (he's) doing with the backs and tight ends and receivers."
Think about that. Coleman is raving about the offensive coordinator who guided him and the Falcons to the NFL's top-ranked unit just three years ago taking his creativity to a new level. That Falcons offense featured No. 26 as a designated playmaker with big-play potential in both the run and pass game. Coleman tallied 941 scrimmage yards (520 rushing, 421 receiving) with 11 total touchdowns during the 2016 season, which culminated in a Super Bowl appearance. The veteran averaged a whopping 13.6 yards per catch, exhibiting big-time skills as a pass catcher out of the backfield.
Considering Coleman's explosiveness as a straight-line runner in a zone-based scheme, the reunion between runner and play-caller could produce fireworks in San Francisco just like it did in Atlanta. Remember, Coleman has 21 20-plus yard runs in his career, including eight in 2018, but he's rarely had a chance to carry the ball more than 10 times a game. Given his home-run potential and solid career yards per carry (4.4), I could see No. 26 emerging as the 49ers' next 1,000-yard back.
Now, I know the 49ers still have Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida on the roster, guys they'll be counting on to fill key roles in the team's running back rotation. But Coleman's pass-catching prowess separates him from the pack and should put him at the top of the depth chart as Shanahan uses a balanced approach out of the team's 21 personnel (2 RBs, 1 TE and 2 WRs).
With Coleman already hinting at Shanahan being more multiple with his formations and personnel, the veteran could ring up fantasy points like a pinball machine in 2019.
2) Odell Beckham Jr.'s absence from OTAs is a problem. I'm not one to freak out about players missing voluntary practices and OTAs, but Odell Beckham Jr.'s absence from the Cleveland Browns' offseason program is problematic for a team with Super Bowl aspirations. Sure, these practices are optional and players have every right to avoid them based on the Collective Bargaining Agreement, but championship teams build chemistry, continuity and trust during these workouts.
Don't believe me? Just look around the NFL and check out the perennial contenders. Most have 90 to 95 percent participation with their stars. While some critics of this take will point to Tom Brady's absence from the New England Patriots' workouts, he's certainly in a different category as a six-time Super Bowl champion who has played in the same system for years.
In OBJ's case, he's just joined a new team and is acclimating to a new scheme under a new head coach while also working with a young quarterback. Although he is unquestionably a transcendent talent at the position, he will need to be on the same page as Baker Mayfield to be able to post the numbers everyone expects from a marquee player.
In addition, Beckham could use this time and opportunity to become recognized as a team leader in the locker room. While No. 13 might not want that responsibility, it might be out of his control. With the production he's put up and the star power he has, his teammates are naturally going to look to him as a model to follow. And with a number of young pass catchers in the meeting room, the Browns need Beckham to set a positive example.
Back in April, head coach Freddie Kitchens adamantly defended his wideout's absence from the team's initial voluntary workouts, saying he had "no problem" with Beckham's decision. I completely understood Kitchens' viewpoint at the time based on his desire to forge a relationship with his star receiver.
But when asked this week about Beckham missing much of the most recent phase of the team's offseason program, Kitchens had a slightly different perspective, suggesting the former All-Pro missed "a lot -- the offense." I believe now what I believed back in April, that OBJ would benefit from being around the team as much as possible as the offense is being installed. Despite having former LSU teammate Jarvis Landry and position coach Adam Henry in his meeting room, OBJ needs to know the offense like the back of his hand so that he can play fast and free on the perimeter.
If Beckham is serious about turning the Cleveland Browns into the New England Patriots by winning as many championships as possible over the next five years, he might want to make his presence known by being a more regular participant in an offseason program that is designed to help him thrive as a playmaker and possible leader in the Dawg Pound.