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 the league's best duos when it comes to getting after the passer ...
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You don't have to be an avid baseball fan to see the parallels between building an elite NFL defense and a dominant bullpen. In today's MLB, managers are increasingly relying on a host of role players to handle the pitching duties late in games. Instead of leaning on an eight-inning starter and a dominant closer in the ninth inning, managers are often hoping the first pitcher can get them through enough innings to hand the ball to a set-up man and a closer to finish the game.
In football, defensive coordinators are adopting similar strategies, with teams leaning on a variety of pass rushers to close out games when opponents are chasing points in the fourth quarter. Instead of relying on a single dominant pass rusher to knock down the quarterback with the game on the line, defensive coordinators are stockpiling their defensive fronts with two or more pass rushers who have A-plus skills. Now, assembling a diverse pass rush with multiple five-star players along the frontline is certainly easier said than done, but there are a number of teams that have a pair of "closers" with the requisite high-end fastballs and sliders in their pass-rush repertoire to close out victories.
Given some time to survey the league, here are my top five "bullpens" (pass-rushing tandems) heading into the 2019 season:
1) Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, Denver Broncos: The thought of new head coach Vic Fangio creating pass-rush schemes for Miller and Chubb should lead to plenty of sleepless nights for offensive coordinators around the league. The wily defensive architect not only inherits a pair of pass rushers who have proven they can produce big numbers together (they combined for 26.5 sacks in 2018), but he gets to build his 3-4 defense with two elite edge rushers who have complementary games. Miller is the dynamic speed rusher with cat-like quickness and a dizzying array of rush moves that leave offensive tackles tied in knots. Chubb is a disruptive power rusher with heavy hands and a non-stop motor. He overwhelms blockers with his brute strength but also displays enough finesse to win consistently on the edges.
2) J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans: Watt, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, bounced back from multiple injuries in 2018 to rejoin the discussion as arguably the best defensive player in the game. Watt's 16 sacks were second only to the Rams' Aaron Donald (20.5), and his disruptive nature created headaches for opponents around the league. Clowney's game lacks polish but is effective due to his explosive athleticism and natural strength. He routinely overpowers blockers with his "bull in a china shop" approach, which features an assortment of power-based moves reserved for only A-level athletes.
3) Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, Los Angeles Chargers: It's hard to find a more complete pair of pass rushers than Bosa and Ingram. Each defender is a crafty technician with superb hand skills and high-revving motors. Bosa might be the best hand-to-hand combatant in the league with his jiu-jitsu-like skills at the point of attack. With No. 97 also displaying more wiggle and burst than some blockers expect, he's been extremely productive when healthy (28.5 sacks in 35 career games over three seasons). Ingram is an explosive edge rusher with outstanding first-step quickness and closing speed. He displays excellent balance and body control turning the corner, which makes him a nightmare to block as a low-leverage rusher.
4) Aaron Donald and Dante Fowler, Los Angeles Rams: You could make the argument that Donald and any defender should garner a spot on this list based on No. 99's sheer dominance as an interior pass rusher. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year is a Tasmanian devil on the inside, with a combination of speed, quickness and power that makes him impossible to block at the point of attack. Fowler showed flashes of brilliance once he settled in as an edge rusher in Wade Phillips' defense after being traded from the Jaguars at midseason. He's a scrappy player with a violent set of hands and a nasty demeanor.
5) DeForest Buckner and Dee Ford, San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers quietly have assembled a top-flight "bullpen," with No. 2 overall pick Nick Bosa joining a frontline that features Buckner and Ford, who was acquired in a trade with the Chiefs this offseason. Buckner -- a long, rangy ex-Oregon standout -- notched 12 sacks a season ago while emerging as a dominant force between the tackles. Ford is an electric edge rusher with explosive first-step quickness and an assortment of speed-rush moves that keep blockers on their heels. He's at his best crashing off the edge from the open side with an unobstructed runway between himself and the quarterback. If Bosa lives up to his billing as arguably the top prospect in the 2019 NFL Draft, look out. The 49ers' pass rush could strike fear into the hearts of quarterbacks facing long-yardage situations.
TODD GURLEY: HIS TIME AS BELL-COW BACK AT AN END?
The buzz around Todd Gurley no longer being the Los Angeles Rams' bell-cow back -- as reported by NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport and further supported by colleague Maurice Jones-Drew -- will continue to spark debate over the value of running backs in the league. The 2017 Offensive Player of the Year ranks as arguably the NFL's best RB, but there are growing concerns over his durability and injury history (he was slowed by a knee issue late last season) in a league that's increasingly governed by an "RBBC" (running back by committee) approach.
The Rams drafted Gurley 10th overall in 2015, and they signed him to a four-year extension worth up to $60 million ($45 million guaranteed) last July. It's hard for me to imagine a team opting for a collection of mid-level runners over a running back like Gurley, who led the NFL with 2,093 scrimmage yards in 2017 and 21 total touchdowns in 2018. But there is a faction of the scouting community that believes in securing modest production at bargain-basement prices over paying big bucks for an ultra-talented playmaker at the position. Sure, we've seen a number of teams, including the 2018 New England Patriots (splitting carries between Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead) and 2017 Philadelphia Eagles (doing the same with LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement) hoist the Lombardi Trophy with running back committees. But the elite running backs stand out from the crowd, and their game-changing ability often adds more juice to an offense than a committee can.
"It really comes down to the triggerman (quarterback)," an AFC pro personnel director told me this week. "The better the quarterback, the easier it is to win with a running-back-by-committee rotation. However, it is hard to win with a committee with an average quarterback. ... If you have a special runner, he can elevate a mid-level quarterback, but I don't know how much I would invest in the position in today's climate."
The executive echoes a sentiment that's been shared by other team-builders in the league. Running backs aren't viewed as essential building blocks by some coaches and scouts, particularly those who believe in using running-back-by-committee rotations without a true RB1. (In those situations, running backs are often cast in roles, with one serving as a lead back, another as a change-of-pace back and another as a short-yardage specialist.)
In the case of the Rams, it's apparent that Gurley is the straw that stirs the drink. Despite the late-season success of C.J. Anderson (who is now with the Lions) as a fill-in for Gurley, there's no denying No. 30's impact as the team's RB1. Since 2017, the team has gone 17-1 in games in which Gurley posted at least 20 touches. Moreover, No. 30 has averaged 135.3 scrimmage yards, including 88.1 rushing yards, and scored 40 total touchdowns as the focal point of the Rams' offense during that span.
Given that kind of production, I'm skeptical that we'll see a reduced role for Gurley going forward. Now, if the knee issues that manifested last season return or become even worse, it's a different story, but I'm a firm believer in investing in a talented back and riding him until the wheels fall off.
"All running backs aren't created equal," said a former NFL offensive coordinator/running backs coach. "Gurley is special because he can handle the 'must run' runs [4-minute offense, short-yardage and goal-line situations] and make plays in the passing game. I know the knee injury is a concern, but he can still be an effective workhorse in this league for a long time. The key is focusing on his touches, not his carries. ... He can easily handle 15 or so runs and around 10 passes the next few years. ... I would take care of him in practice, but he would remain the focal point of the offense as a runner-receiver. ... He's special."
Considering Gurley's production over the past few years in Rams coach Sean McVay's offense, I would expect the offensive wizard to continue to feature No. 30 as the team's RB1, despite the concerns surrounding his knee. The two-time All-Pro is too good to keep on the sidelines for extended stretches. I just don't foresee the addition of third-round pick Darrell Henderson and the continued presence of fifth-year pro Malcolm Brown greatly affecting Gurley's impact as an RB1 in 2019.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Eagles wise to extend Wentz's deal now. The Philadelphia Eagles' decision to sign Carson Wentz to a four-year contract extension worth $128 million might have surprised some outsiders concerned about the fourth-year pro's durability, but the team's willingness to roll the dice on a risk-reward scenario could keep it at the reasonable end of the quarterback market down the road.
I know the thought of giving a record $107.9 million in guarantees to a quarterback with an injury history seems questionable, especially when the injuries include the ACL and LCL tears he suffered in his left knee in 2017 and a stress fracture in his back that cost him the final part of last season. That doesn't even include the broken wrist that sidelined him for part of his senior season at North Dakota State.
That said, the Eagles could save significant money on an MVP-caliber quarterback by giving him a new deal now instead of waiting until later. The agreement actually amounts to a six-year, $154 million deal ($25.6 million average annually) when you tack on the remaining two years of his rookie contract.
Based on those numbers, Wentz's deal could look like a bargain after Patrick Mahomes signs a blockbuster new deal with the Chiefs (his contract runs through 2020, not including a fifth-year option for 2021). Considering the leverage the reigning MVP figures to have in his negotiation, the quarterback market could creep near the $40 million mark in yearly pay, and that's not even factoring in how the next collective bargaining agreement could impact future quarterback deals.
That's why the Eagles were wise to get ahead of the market with a deal that certainly carries some risk but offers plenty of reward if Wentz returns to his 2017 form, when he was an MVP candidate. In fact, if I was a general manager or decision-maker for the Dallas Cowboys or the Los Angeles Rams, I would offer up my QB1 -- who, like Wentz, was selected in the 2016 draft (Dak Prescott and Jared Goff, respectively) -- a similar deal to secure his services on a contract that could look like a bargain in a year or two.
Although I believe it's hard to win a championship with a quarterback occupying such a large slice of salary cap space with a monstrous contract, it's probably better to strike sooner rather than later in today's climate. The Eagles have provided a blueprint. We will see if their NFC counterparts decide to follow the plan.
2) Pack set to ride with new and improved "NASCAR" package? When the Green Bay Packers devoted significant free-agent dollars and draft capital to their pass rush this offseason, the scouting community naturally wondered how the team would utilize Za'Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Rashan Gary on a frontline that already featured a double-digit sack producer in Kyler Fackrell. Despite the various 3-4 combinations and sub-package creations Mike Pettine has featured in his previous stops as a defensive coordinator, it's hard to envision a team playing with four outside linebackers on the field at the same time.
However, we could get a chance to see exactly that this season if the Packers trot out the package that Pettine has been experimenting with during OTAs and minicamps. Based on reports coming from team observers, the Packers have introduced a sub-package with Gary and Za'Darius Smith positioned as inside rushers and Fackrell and Preston Smith rushing off the edges. This might sound familiar to Packers fans. The package is similar to some of the exotic combinations used by former coordinator Dom Capers in the past, one of which was dubbed the "NASCAR" package in 2014. But this version would be souped-up by the presence of four athletes who have the potential to get after the passer from a three-point stance or stand-up position.
"You want to make life miserable for the quarterback to identify the possible rushers by putting a bunch of explosive athletes on the field at the same time in various positions," a former NFL defensive coordinator recently told me. "If you have enough versatility along the frontline, you can bring a variety of overload pressures and simulated pressures (four-man rush) from a bunch of different pre-snap looks that confuse the quarterback. If one or two of the outside linebackers are capable or comfortable putting their hand in the dirt opposite an offensive guard, you can open up Pandora's box with your pressure packages."
To that point, the thought of creating a "NASCAR" package had to be a part of the discussion when the team evaluated Gary leading up to the draft. The ex-Michigan standout is an explosive athlete with the versatility to play inside or outside in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme. Although he promoted himself as an edge rusher during the pre-draft process, Gary is an ideal inside pass rusher, due to his size, length and athleticism. He has Justin Tuck-like potential as an inside-outside player in a scheme that takes full advantage of his athleticism and movement skills.
When the Packers signed the Smiths, versatility was one of the main factors in the acquisitions. The team was hoping to supply Pettine with a couple of dynamic playmakers to feature in a variety of roles along the line.
"I think in Mike's defense, if you can have guys on either side that are interchangeable that can do a variety of things and be versatile, it really makes it tough for the opponent," said GM Brian Gutekunst after they agreed to deals in March, via ESPN. "And both of these guys can do that. I'm sure you guys have studied Za'Darius and he certainly can line up outside and rush with speed and power from the outside. But he's also done a lot of 3-tech work. Preston is an exceptional athlete that can do a lot of different things, on the edge and inside as well."
With each of the Smiths and Gary capable of playing anywhere on the frontline and Fackrell emerging as a credible rusher off the edge, the Packers can tease and torment quarterbacks with an assortment of pre-snap disguises and post-snap games that lead to indecision in the pocket. Considering how hesitation frequently leads to miscues and turnovers, the Packers' new "NASCAR" package could help the team climb back to the top of the NFC North.