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 NFL's elite triplets on the other side of the ball ...
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I will keep it real: We've reached the point of the offseason where it is hard to come up with new and exciting topics to discuss.
Luckily, I spend a few days each week with Daniel Jeremiah spitballing ideas for the Move The Sticks Podcast. Earlier this week, we decided to draft the NFL's best triplets on offense (QB/RB/WR) AND defense (DL/LB/DB). While we've seen plenty of lists over the years detailing the top offensive triplets, I thought looking at the best defensive trios would address a trend we are seeing from team builders as they attempt to put together a championship-caliber D in today's pass-centric league.
Looking at the top defenses in football, I believe the presence of a dominant playmaker at each level remains a common denominator. This is something former Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley alluded to on an old MTS Podcast episode. Whaley suggested that championship teams have "six players that we're going to pay": quarterback, offensive tackle and a playmaker on offense; cornerback, pass rusher and a playmaker on defense. This philosophy was echoed to me in a recent conversation with a veteran personnel man who stressed that championship defenses have at least one difference maker along the front line, in the linebacker corps and in the secondary.
"In a perfect world, you would like to have a dominant pass rusher on the inside or outside," said the AFC personnel director. "You also want a blue-chip player at one of the linebacker spots and somewhere in the secondary. Ideally, I would opt for a shutdown cornerback, but you can't go wrong with a ball-hawking safety in the middle."
All of this reflects my personal experiences in team building. When I was a scout for the Carolina Panthers, we constructed a rock-solid defense that carried us to Super Bowl XXXVIII and an appearance in the NFC Championship Game a couple years later. Led by the trio of DE Julius Peppers, MLB Dan Morgan and S Mike Minter, we pummeled opponents in the NFC with a nasty D that bludgeoned quarterbacks and punished runners and receivers on the perimeter. We were one of the few teams in league capable of knocking around the QB and stuffing the run without relying heavily on blitzes. Although the conservative approach wasn't necessarily by design, the overwhelming talent of the group allowed the defensive coordinator to keep it simple on the way to piling up wins.
With all of that in mind, I think this is the perfect time to examine the depth charts and see which teams have the championship components in place on defense. Here are my top five defensive triplets:
1) Jacksonville Jaguars: DE Calais Campbell, LB Telvin Smith and CB Jalen Ramsey (or CB A.J. Bouye). The Jags nearly made the Super Bowl last season behind a star-studded defense that routinely punished opponents into submission. Campbell sets the tone at the point of attack as a shop-wreckin' pass rusher with a non-stop motor and a power-based game. The three-time Pro Bowler finished with 14.5 sacks in 2017, helping "Sacksonville" tally the second-most sacks in the NFL. Smith is a blazing sideline-to-sideline playmaker with great instincts and thump. Ramsey has quickly emerged as the gold standard in cornerback play today. A world-class athlete with an old-school football mentality, he suffocates WR1s on the perimeter. And the Jags' trio wouldn't miss a beat if Bouye replaced Ramsey. The 26-year-old's a superb tactician with exceptional footwork and recognition skills.
2) Minnesota Vikings: DE Everson Griffen, LB Eric Kendricks and S Harrison Smith (or CB Xavier Rhodes). Mike Zimmer and George Edwards have whipped the Vikings into shape as title contenders with a straight-forward recipe on defense that's built on speed, grit and hustle. Griffen embodies that philosophy as a disruptive pass rusher with cat-like quickness and a relentless spirit. He can turn speed into power in a heartbeat, yet displays enough finesse to keep offensive tackles on their heels. With 43.5 sacks over the past four seasons, Griffen's become one of the premier playmakers at the position. Kendricks is a tackling machine in the middle of Minnesota's defense. He gobbles up runners between the tackles like a vacuum cleaner as an instinctive defender with outstanding diagnostic skills. Smith is a no-nonsense enforcer with a high football IQ and a nasty disposition. He is one of the few safeties capable of roaming the deep middle as a center fielder, while also doing work in the box as a designated run stopper. Rhodes could easily fill the DB slot as an ultra-competitive cover corner with size, length and speed.
3) Arizona Cardinals: DE Chandler Jones, LB Deone Bucannon and CB Patrick Peterson. It will be interesting to see how Steve Wilks unleashes this unit after watching it grow into a disruptive force under the previous coaching staff. Jones is coming off a season where he led the NFL in sacks, and his game continues to evolve. The seventh-year pro has notched at least 11 sacks in four of his last five seasons, showcasing a flashy game that's built around speed, quickness and burst. Bucannon is a trend-setter: a hybrid safety/linebacker in the box. As a designated run stopper with blitzing abilities and short-area cover skills, No. 20 controls the game in the tackle-to-tackle box, but also gives the Cardinals a full-time dime defender to use against "11" personnel (1 RB, 1 TE and 3 WRs). Peterson is a true shutdown corner capable of erasing WR1s with nose-to-nose press-man technique that eliminates free access on the perimeter. With P2 also capable of traveling (CB can flip sides or move into the slot to cover his assigned receiver), the Cardinals have assembled an A-level defense in the desert.
4) Baltimore Ravens: DE/OLB Terrell Suggs, LB C.J. Mosley and S Eric Weddle. The Ravens' spot on this list is a bit of a surprise, based on the ages of their veteran leaders, but Suggs and Weddle play like they have access to the Fountain of Youth. At 35, Suggs remains one of the top pass rushers in the game, combining power with a bag of tricks off the edge. He's amassed 125.5 sacks in 213 games and tallied 10-plus sacks seven times in his 15-year career. With five double-digit sack seasons since 2010, the former Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year remains a dominant force. Mosley doesn't grab headlines as a marquee player, but he is one of the current standard bearers at the position. As a sideline-to-sideline playmaker with exceptional speed and range, Mosley shrinks the field for opponents looking to create space for their top players. In addition, he blots out receivers and tight ends looking for soft spots between the hashes. With Weddle backing him up as a deep-middle player with superb instincts and ball skills, Baltimore's defense is strong down the middle.
5) Atlanta Falcons: DE Vic Beasley, LB Deion Jones and S Keanu Neal. The Dirty Birds have a young-and-hungry unit with swift defenders at every level. Beasley is an explosive sack specialist with an outstanding combination of first-step quickness, snap-count anticipation and finesse moves off the edge. The fourth-year pro led the NFL in sacks in 2016 (15.5) and flashed disruptive potential overwhelming offensive tackles with his speed and quickness. Although opponents seemingly caught up to his fastball in 2017 (Beasley recorded just five sacks, but he did miss time with a hamstring injury), the 25-year-old remains a threat to take over the game at any point. Jones is a disruptive playmaker with the speed, athleticism and burst to track down runners and receivers between the numbers. No. 45 is a new-school linebacker capable of impacting the game on blitzes or in coverage -- a critical component for a championship-caliber defense in 2018. Neal is the Falcons' heavy hitter roaming between the hashes. He punishes receivers venturing over the middle, while also dropping into the box to be a stout run stopper. Neal's aggressive style and menacing ways complete a defense that's ready to emerge as one of the league's top units.
LE'VEON'S FUTURE: Why extending Big Ben (among others) is more vital
Speaking of triplets, the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown is arguably the best in the league, with the QB, RB and WR all ranking among the top players at their respective positions. With that kind of talent assembled on one squad, the Steelers face hard decisions when the bills come due.
We already saw Pittsburgh lock up AB last offseason with a lucrative deal that made him the highest-paid wide receiver in the game, but the team is currently balking at paying Bell the kind of money that recognizes his efforts as the ultimate playmaker at the running back spot. Remember, Bell wants to be paid like a RB1 and a WR2, which would place him well above the $14.5 million franchise tag that's on the table.
In a related story, Big Ben is entering the penultimate year of his current contract. And although he's saying all the right things right now about not worrying about a new deal, that clock is ticking. Looking at the current landscape, Roethlisberger could reasonably expect a contract that pays him close to $30 million annually, seeing how guys like Matt Ryan ($30M), Kirk Cousins ($28M), Jimmy Garoppolo ($27.5M) and Matthew Stafford ($27M) are averaging that kind of money despite owning resumes that pale in comparison to Big Ben's. Considering the quarterback market is expected to keep rising -- with Aaron Rodgers and others poised to get paid in the near future -- the Steelers would be wise to pony up big bucks on No. 7 sooner than later. Even before they take care of Bell? Yeah, I think so.
When I've spoken to NFL head coaches and executives throughout the offseason, they've repeatedly told me that you must value the QB1 over every other position on the field, particularly when you have a franchise guy with a pair of Super Bowl wins under his belt.
"It's hard to find a franchise quarterback," a former NFL head coach told me. "When you have one, you have to do everything in your power to keep him."
That's why the Steelers should be seriously working on an extension for their 36-year-old quarterback, despite the fact that he won't be a free agent until after the 2019 season. They should put the QB at the top of the list -- ahead of Bell. And hey, maybe Ben won't actually demand the $30 million per that he deserves.
"It's important, too, to understand as quarterback of this team, sometimes you almost have to leave a little bit of money behind for other guys," Roethlisberger told reporters last week at his football camp.
To that point, Roethlisberger could leave some money on the table for Bell. But he could also save a few bread crumbs for guys like Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert, to solidify the offensive line for the next three to five years. This would help ensure No. 7's presence under center and give the Steelers a chance to remain title contenders -- with or without Bell.
While I love No. 26 as a player, it is much easier to find an RB1 (or a build an RB committee) than unearth a new franchise quarterback. In addition, Bell's suspension/injury history makes it harder to commit above-market dollars to him, especially when the Steelers' fine offensive line can elevate the play of any runner in that backfield. When I played with the Kansas City Chiefs, Marty Schottenheimer used to harp on this point, telling the team why the running game will always succeed with a talented offensive line in place.
Now, that doesn't mean Pittsburgh shouldn't sign Bell to a long-term deal if the money's stomachable, but the team shouldn't overpay for a running back who already has five seasons (and more than 1,500 touches) of wear and tear.
The Steelers should be legit title contenders behind their three-headed offensive monster, but the impending money decisions hanging over the franchise could make this the final run for the "Killer Bs" trio. When prioritizing the Steelers' triplets, Bell is third in line. That's just the honest truth.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) Window closing for Jameis Winston to prove reliability on and off field. Winston was already heading into a "make or break" season with the Buccaneers, as a former No. 1 overall pick with a losing record as a starter (18-27) and bushel basket full of turnovers (59 giveaways in three seasons), but an expected mutliple-game suspension for a violation of the NFL's personal conduct policy certainly puts his long-term QB1 spot in jeopardy with the squad.
Now, I know the Buccaneers have already picked up Winston's fifth-year option and they've been squarely behind their franchise quarterback since making him the top selection in the 2015 draft, but I've been around the league long enough to know that you can't keep rallying behind a troubled player if his production doesn't outweigh his transgressions. Like it or not, that's the way most front offices view "character risks," and Winston is running out of time to prove his worth as a player with yellow notices piling up in his personnel file.
While some of Winston's issues are unproven off-field allegations and on-field screw ups (SEE: finger-pointing exchange with Marshon Lattimore) and weird acts (eating a so-called "W" in a pre-game speech), it all continues a pattern of erratic behavior that clouded his status as a prospect prior to the 2015 draft.
Considering how franchise quarterbacks are expected to be polished in their actions, the ongoing drama surrounding Winston takes away from some of the good work that he has done between the lines. The one-time Pro Bowler has thrown for the third-most yards of any NFL quarterback during his first three NFL seasons in NFL history, behind only Andrew Luck (12,957) and Peyton Manning (12,287). In addition, he has improved his completion percentage and passer rating each season.
While those numbers are certainly impressive and worthy of kudos, Winston's turnover woes are quite disconcerting. Since 2015, the fourth-year pro has the second-most giveaways in the NFL, behind only Blake Bortles. Considering the impact of turnovers on the outcome of games, Winston's giveaways have been one of the reasons why the Bucs haven't been able to gain ground on their division rivals. Remember, the NFC South houses three former NFL MVPs at quarterback (Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan), so Winston needs to play like a top-tier signal-caller for the Buccaneers to have a chance at walking away with the division crown.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, Winston certainly possesses the ability to be an elite quarterback in this league. He displays A-level arm talent and throws with exceptional timing, touch and anticipation when he's on his game. He is one of the few quarterbacks capable of making every throw in the book to every area of the field, despite his strange inability to connect with DeSean Jackson and others on deep downfield throws in 2017.
On the flip side, Winston is an impatient playmaker prone to throwing the ball into traffic when he gets into "hero" mode. As a result, he registers turnovers on the kind of bonehead plays that you typically see at a youth football game. Winston's poor decisions -- on and off the field -- overshadow ability and natural leadership skills that coaches and executives covet in a franchise quarterback.
Without the miscues and misdeeds, Winston would be a clear franchise face. Just look at what Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer said back in March at the NFL's Annual League Meeting in Orlando:
"The Jameis Winston that has been on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers since the day we drafted him has been a model in the community, a model in the locker room," Glazer said, via ESPN.com. "He's the first guy in the building, the last guy to leave the building, playing through pain, with injuries most people probably wouldn't play for. So he's done everything we were drawing up on the drawing board as our quarterback and the person we drafted."
To that point, Winston certainly possesses a lot of the intangibles that you want in a true QB1, but he has to play like the No. 1 overall pick and display the kind of composure that you would expect from a franchise player. Winston has to win and win big to convince the team that he is worth the headache. In a league where quarterbacks are ultimately judged by their rings, Winston will need to get the Buccaneers into the tournament to make the reward worth the risk in this current scenario.
The No. 1 overall pick and Heisman Trophy winner not only needs time to adjust to the pro game, but he is battling an underrated veteran quarterback who is a much better player than the football world acknowledges. Since 2015, Taylor has posted a 51:16 touchdown-to-interception ratio (third-best in the NFL during that span, behind only Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers) and a 92.5 passer rating. Not to mention, he also has 1,575 rushing yards and 14 rushing scores in that time period, which ranks only behind former NFL MVP Cam Newton.
Owning a 22-20 career record and a playoff appearance as a starter, Taylor is a proven commodity at the position. With that in mind, I don't think many Browns veterans are surprised by Taylor's offseason performance.
"It kind of shows what a vet quarterback is," Duke Johnson told reporters last week at Browns' minicamp, via Cleveland.com. "The way he handles the huddle, the way he anticipates throws, the way his knowledge is for the game. It just shows. I think the only other quarterback I've had like that since I've been here is probably Josh McCown, if I'm not mistaken. Definitely, Josh was another kind of vet quarterback that did everything that vet quarterbacks do. Tyrod is definitely a guy that we have a lot of trust in and we believe that he's always going to put the ball in the right places, as long as we protect him and keep him off the ground and keep him on his feet, we'll be alright."
To that point, we should see an even better version of Taylor with the Browns, based on his outstanding supporting cast. No. 5 is surrounded by one of the best receiving corps in football, with a pair of Pro Bowl-caliber playmakers in Josh Gordon and Jarvis Landry anchoring an aerial attack that's loaded with size, athleticism and explosiveness. With Johnson and Carlos Hyde adding some sizzle as runner/receivers out of the backfield, Taylor can push the ball down the field with vertical tosses, or work sideline to sideline on "dink and dunk" throws to speedy pass catchers on the move on quicks and crossers. Considering the challenge defensive coordinators face defending every blade of grass between the white lines, Taylor could be more efficient and effective as a passer.
"This is his fourth year starting in the NFL. He's just coming into his own and this is just the tip of the iceberg," quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese said at minicamp, via Cleveland.com. "We haven't seen the best from him."
For Mayfield, the presence of a solid veteran quarterback should allow him to ease into the QB1 role when he's ready. He will not only get a chance to acclimate to the speed of the pro game by running the scout team against the Browns' No. 1 defense, but he will have the opportunity to watch a veteran with a similar set of skills direct an offense that's been designed with the former Heisman Trophy winner in mind. If Mayfield's locked in and paying attention from the sidelines, he can get enough mental reps to help him play faster and more decisive when he eventually gets his chance.
Remember, the Browns have failed to effectively develop a young quarterback since the franchise's return to Cleveland because they've rushed QB1s onto the field and haven't surrounded them with strong supporting casts.
With Taylor reportedly seizing the QB1 job during offseason workouts, the Browns could finally take their time developing their future quarterback while winning games with an upgraded roster that looks ready to compete in the AFC North.
3) RB by committee = perfect approach for Pack. The return of the running back has been celebrated in league circles, but that doesn't mean every NFL team is committed to building a backfield around one dynamic RB1. The challenge of finding a workhorse capable of handling a heavy workload as a runner/receiver has led several teams to adopt an RB-by-committee approach.
Count the Green Bay Packers in as one of the teams expected to lean on multiple backs to steady their offense. After watching Ty Montgomery, Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones show promise individually as part-time RBs in 2017, Mike McCarthy has already determined that a multi-back approach is ideal for his squad.
"The fact of the matter is we're going to go running back by committee," McCarthy told Rob Demovsky of ESPN's NFL Nation. "But if one of them would emerge as that full-time guy then you have to have that ability to ... adjust to that."
Now, this certainly isn't a surprise to anyone who has followed the Packers since McCarthy's arrival. The offensive guru has routinely leaned on multiple backs to spearhead the team's running game since his arrival in 2007, as evidenced by the fact that Green Bay has only had five seasons in which an RB logged 200-plus rushing attempts (Ahman Green, 2006; Ryan Grant, 2008-09; and Eddie Lacy, 2013-14). Although each of those runners surpassed the 1,000-yard mark during those respective seasons, the Packers have routinely been forced to rely on a group effort to buoy a running game that has taken a backseat to an aerial attack guided by arguably the best quarterback in the game. In fact, the presence of an elite QB1 has made it mandatory for at least one of the running backs in the group to possess A-level receiving skills out of the backfield. This has been one of the biggest trends in the NFL and more teams are beginning to feature interchangeable playmakers in the backfield with the capacity to contribute as runners or receivers.
Having just studied the top backfields in football while compiling a list of the top-five running back groups, I don't believe it is a coincidence that a number of teams are building their offenses around multi-back attacks. It is not only hard to find a five-tool player at the position (running back with A-level explosiveness, running skills, hands, route-running ability and blocking skills), but most running backs are unable to withstand the pounding associated with playing as a bell-cow back.
"As far as planning and going into the season, that's why we're going about it that way," McCarthy told ESPN. "We feel like we've got three guys that have all done it, but they haven't done it over a long period of time, so I think it's just practical thinking from that position and realizing that it's a very demanding position.
Given the Packers' personnel, I would expect the move to help Montgomery regain his magic as a mismatch playmaker. The fourth-year pro was at his best in 2016 when he played as a hybrid in the backfield. He amassed 805 yards from scrimmage on 121 touches (77 rushing attempts; 44 receptions) as the queen on the chessboard. During that season, No. 88 would align anywhere and everywhere on the field for the Packers to get the ball on screens, quicks, crossers and rushing attempts. Montgomery's versatility will give defensive coordinators headaches when attempting to determine which personnel grouping is on the field. How will they treat No. 88? Is he a running back or a wide receiver? Will they put nickel or dime personnel on the field to best match up with him as a possible slot or outside receiver? Those questions will create the kind of dilemmas in opponent's meeting rooms that could eventually create confusion on game day.
With Williams and Jones, the Packers have a pair of traditional running backs with complementary skills. Williams is a grinder with the size (6-foot, 213 pounds), strength and rugged running style that makes him an ideal thumper between the tackles. The second-year pro is a "Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em Robot" with the ability to run through contact at the point of attack. In addition, he is a dependable pass catcher capable of snagging swings, screens and checkdowns on the perimeter.
Jones is a slippery scatback with speed, quickness, burst and wiggle. The second-year pro flashed impressive pop in limited action, with six runs of 20-plus yards and a 40-yard run as a rookie. Although Jones wasn't featured in the passing game (nine receptions for 22 yards), he was a pretty productive pass catcher as a collegian (71 career receptions at UTEP) with a solid set of skills as a route runner.
In a perfect world, the Packers would have a single player who could handle all of the duties, but the team's individual talent and collective potential at the position suggest that the team's decision to move to a committee approach could make the unit more dangerous this fall.