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 some new QB-receiver connections that could light up scoreboards in 2019 ...
* * * **
The league is in the midst of ushering in a new generation of playmakers at quarterback and pass catcher (wide receiver/tight end). As these youngsters set out to make their mark in the pros, we'll see a number of veteran quarterbacks unite with dynamic young receivers to add a spark to their respective offenses. In addition, we expect to see some clubs call on a young QB1 to team with a veteran pass catcher to spice up an offense that had grown stale without the right trigger man to lead the unit.
With offseason workouts underway, I thought this was the perfect time to look at some of the rookie-veteran passing duos that could take the league by storm. Here are the five new pairings I'm most excited to watch this season.
1) Lamar Jackson and Marquise Brown, Baltimore Ravens: The old-school, run-heavy offense employed by coordinator Greg Roman creates one-on-one situations for pass catchers on the perimeter. This sets up perfectly for first-round pick Marquise Brown, who has the speed and explosiveness to blow past defenders on vertical routes and catch-and-run plays with the ball in his hands. Jackson is at his best as an isolation passer tossing go routes, post routes, digs and slants inside the numbers. With Brown being likened to a DeSean Jackson-like playmaker, the Ravens' new pass-catching connection could produce fireworks even if the team keeps its young quarterback on a low pitch count.
2) Kyler Murray and Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals: Kliff Kingsbury's version of the Air Raid offense will create easy opportunities for quarterbacks and pass catchers to deliver. I expect Murray to produce big numbers making quick-rhythm throws to the Cardinals' receivers on the perimeter, particularly Fitzgerald. The veteran receiver is arguably the most dependable pass catcher in the league with strong hands and a detailed-oriented approach to route running. Given that the Cardinals are set to air it out with the No. 1 overall pick under center, Fitzgerald could make 100 catches this season.
3) Joe Flacco and Noah Fant, Denver Broncos: The Super Bowl XLVII MVP gets a chance to rebuild his career in Denver in an offense that closely resembles the Gary Kubiak scheme that helped him play at his best during the 2014 season. Flacco is a middle-of-the-field thrower who is at his best targeting tight ends between the hashes. Fant is a dynamic pass catcher with the speed and athleticism to overwhelm linebackers and defensive backs, particularly on vertical routes down the seam or on deep crossers running diagonally across the field. Should offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello, formerly the 49ers' QBs coach, successfully use some of the concepts that helped Pro Bowl TE George Kittle rise to prominence in San Francisco during his time there, the Broncos could see Fant emerge as a difference maker in Year 1.
4) Andrew Luck and Parris Campbell, Indianapolis Colts: After adding the ultra-explosive Campbell to the lineup to create an explosive trio on the perimeter with T.Y. Hilton and Eric Ebron, the Colts' offense looks like a top-five unit with Andrew Luck at the helm. With defensive coordinators opting to use double-coverage tactics on Hilton and Ebron, Campbell could become Luck's security blanket as an outlet. The Ohio State product will run past nickel or dime defenders in one-on-one matchups, creating opportunities for Luck to dial up the deep ball early and often in games.
5) Jimmy Garoppolo and Jalen Hurd, San Francisco 49ers: Kyle Shanahan has upgraded the weaponry around Jimmy G. with a young set of versatile pass catchers coming on board to add some spice to the passing game, including second-round pick Deebo Samuel, who was selected a round earlier than Hurd. However, I'm choosing to highlight Hurd here because of his unique game. He's a Swiss Army knife-like playmaker with the capacity to align at wide receiver, tight end or running back in any formation. As the 49ers retool their offense to generate more explosive plays, Hurd could be a featured playmaker in an offense that takes advantage of mismatches on the perimeter.
CAM NEWTON: PANTHERS QB SMART TO STAY TRUE TO HIS GAME
Some people might have cringed when they heard Cam Newton scoff at the notion of changing his playing style as he enters his 30s, but I absolutely loved hearing the former MVP commit to remaining a dual-threat quarterback. Sure, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound playmaker is still recovering from offseason surgery on his throwing shoulder and limiting the hits he takes sounds like a fine idea, but keep in mind that he's only missed five games in his eight-year career, including two in 2018.
Most importantly, Newton has repeatedly shown the football world he is capable of playing at an all-star level when he bludgeons opponents as a dominant force with the ball in his hands. The three-time Pro Bowl selectee has the most rushing touchdowns for a quarterback in NFL history (58) and ranks third all-time in rushing yards by a quarterback with 4,808 yards, trailing only Michael Vick (6,109) and Randall Cunningham (4,928). In addition, he holds the NFL record for most career games (39) with at least one passing touchdown and one rushing touchdown.
With that in mind, I don't believe Newton would be a more effective weapon for the Panthers as a traditional pocket passer. He posted a career-best 67.9% completion rate in 2018, but Newton is still a streaky passer prone to random misfires on short and intermediate throws. Newton's inconsistencies can be attributed to his shoddy footwork and fundamentals, which is why he struggles to string completions together on the perimeter. As a result, Newton has posted a 59.7% completion rate for his career and has topped 60% in just two of his eight seasons.
Those numbers aren't good enough to convince me Newton will ever be a passer with a high completion percentage from the pocket. He wasn't a "connect the dots" passer during his time at Auburn, and he's not likely to become a Tom Brady-like surgeon from the pocket as he gets older.
That said, Newton is still an elite playmaker with a unique game that makes him one of the most difficult players to defend. Although his lack of discipline and attention to detail inhibits his efficiency as a passer, there's no denying his spectacular arm talent. Newton is more than capable of making every throw in the book, particularly deep throws following play-action fakes.
That's why it's important to understand how he thrives as a playmaker for the Panthers. Newton is a play-action passer who needs the threat of the running game to create bigger voids in the coverage. With play-action fakes luring linebackers and defensive backs to the line, Newton connects with receivers on in-breaking routes at intermediate range (slants, digs and skinny posts). He is capable of making isolation throws outside of the numbers (speed outs and deep comebacks) but his inconsistent footwork leads him to spray the ball around a little bit.
In Norv Turner's offense, Newton is a perfect fit as a big, athletic passer with the arm talent to make the required throws. In addition, Turner is the ideal teacher to hold Newton accountable for his performance, particularly when it comes to utilizing proper footwork and fundamentals. The wily coach, who's entering his second season with Carolina, is a highly regarded quarterback developer with an impressive resume that includes work with Troy Aikman and Philip Rivers. Considering Turner's track record and Newton's athletic gifts, the Panthers' QB1 could continue to make progress as a passer without radically overhauling his game.
With a contract negotiation on the horizon (his deal is due to expire after the 2020 season), Newton needs to remind the football world of his greatness with a strong performance in 2019. He should do that by showcasing his effectiveness as a veteran dual-threat playmaker, rather than trying to be something he's not.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Gase biting off more than he can chew amid Jets upheaval? I don't know how an NFL head coach with a 23-25 career record coming off a firing suddenly gets the keys to a new franchise's kingdom, but that's the situation with Adam Gase, who's suddenly the New York Jets' interim general manager after the front-office purging of GM Mike Maccagnan and vice president of player personnel Brian Heimerdinger.
Although I'm not surprised by this development, based on the Jets' underachievement and flawed roster, I'm miffed by the timing of the move in today's football climate. Typically, a team wouldn't allow a decision-maker on shaky ground to reshape the roster through free agency and the draft if it's likely that he won't be there to see the project through to completion. Yet, the Jets allowed Maccagnan to ink Le'Veon Bell and C.J. Mosley to big-money deals, while also letting him restock the roster with his own draft picks.
While Maccagnan has certainly hit some doubles and triples (SEE: the selections of Jamal Adams, Leonard Williams and Sam Darnold), he also has plenty of misses that have left the team without sufficient depth at several key spots. The Jets' refusal to invest in the offensive line and their inability to identify explosive playmakers rendered the offense punchless last season, despite the presence of a young QB1 with loads of potential. Evidently, that's a fixable offense in 2019, with the game becoming more quarterback-centric by the day.
Now the Jets are leaning on Gase to not only orchestrate the on-field turnaround, but also change the culture of the organization. That's a lot of heavy lifting for a coach with a reputation for struggling with star players, based on his interactions with Jarvis Landry, Ndamukong Suh and Jay Ajayi, among others in Miami. Not to mention, Gase is attempting to manage a coaching staff loaded with strong personalities and big egos. Sure, coaches always have to juggle a lot of responsibilities, but adding personnel duties in the middle of an orientation period seems like a lot to manage when a coach is attempting to repair his reputation as a quarterback whisperer/offensive guru.
During my time as a scout with the Seattle Seahawks, I watched Mike Holmgren attempt to run the organization as the executive vice president, general manager and head coach. It was an overwhelming experience, even for a guy with a Super Bowl ring and extensive experience on championship staffs. While Holmgren eventually handed most of the personnel duties to Ted Thompson, the all-encompassing nature of the vice president/general manager job took away from his expertise as a coach.
Considering how Gase has fared in the past with just head-coaching duties on his plate, I don't know if more responsibility is the best thing for a 41-year-old hoping to engineer a team turnaround and reputation repair in New York.
2) Flacco's focus is exactly where it should be. The Denver Broncos' new starting quarterback is right that it's not his job to mentor Drew Lock. The 12th-year pro needs to concentrate on mastering the schematics of the offense while also earning the respect of his teammates through his work ethic and performance. Although team executives would love to see the veteran share some wisdom with the rookie passer, mentorship can't be his priority at this time.
"[Offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello] does such a good job in those meeting rooms," Flacco told reporters after practice on Monday. "Drew is going to learn from listening to him talk and then us getting the reps on the field and seeing how we all do it as a collective group of quarterbacks. Listen, I hope he does learn from me because that means we're out there and we're slinging it around and having a lot of fun.
"Because he's going to learn by watching us do it and watching us do it well. That is how he is going to learn the timing and all of those things is to be able to see it on film and hear Rich talk about it with me and digest as much of that as possible. Like I said, I hope he does learn from me because that means we're out there lighting it up."
I know that answer didn't necessarily endear Flacco to Broncos fans, but the veteran is actually doing Lock a favor by leaving the teaching to the coaches. Veteran players with pedigree are routinely allowed to take shortcuts or make amendments to plays or progressions based on their talents or experience. Those modifications are earned through trust, and young players need to learn the scheme in its purest form to understand all of the details behind the progressions.
That's why Lock needs to go straight to the source (Scangarello) when he has a question or concern about a play. After all, the offensive coordinator is the one installing the scheme (his own version of Kyle Shanahan's complex system), so he should be the main voice in Lock's ear. Sure, it would be great for Flacco to offer some insight and wisdom, and by Lock's own account, the veteran has been doing so. But it's ultimately the coaching staff's responsibility -- not the QB1's -- to make sure the young quarterback develops at the position.