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 best pass-catching posses in the NFL today ...
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Yup, we've reached that point in the offseason. With positive vibes flowing from offseason workouts, this is the time when players and coaches make bold predictions about the coming campaign. But sometimes you have to hold people accountable for the words they spew during this period.
"I think we're the best receiving corps in the league, in my opinion, already," he said to assembled reporters on Tuesday. "Just based off of talent alone. So you put in the playbook and some guys that are hungry enough to go do it and hopefully you can go out there and show and prove that."
Whoa! The best receiving corps in the NFL??
Normally, I'd chalk up those comments to a former All-Pro receiver tooting his own horn and move on. But then Gordon's new teammate, Jarvis Landry, co-signed on the proclamation.
"He ain't lyin'," Landry said, via The Athletic. "I think the capability of what we all can do is endless."
Hm. This deserves deeper thought ...
I certainly believe Gordon and Landry have the talent to back up their own lofty claims, but elite receiving corps are like basketball teams, with high-end playmakers occupying different roles.
Most top groups have an established No. 1 receiver with a polished game that allows him to anchor the aerial attack. Despite facing double-teams and bracket coverage designed to slow him down, he continues to impact the game as a productive playmaker on the perimeter. Although most WR1s check in on the bigger side (6-foot-2 or taller), the evolution of the NFL into a passing league has allowed smaller craftsmen (skilled route runners) to hold down the top spot on a number of teams.
Elite receiving corps also features a big-play specialist with a skill set that consistently produces explosive plays (receptions of 20-plus yards). Whether it's exceptional speed and quickness as a vertical threat or dynamic running skills as a catch-and-run playmaker, the guys in this role can flip the field at the drop of a hat, while also creating space for the No. 1 receiver as the speedster routinely assigned to take the top off the coverage on clear-out routes.
"Chain movers," or third-down specialists, have become key members of elite receiving corps, too. They don't rack up 100-yard games or post gaudy yards-per-catch figures, but they are the quarterback's top target in critical situations, particularly on third-and-short (2 yards or fewer) or third-and-medium (6 yards or fewer). Considering how much of their work takes place between the numbers, these guys are typically slot receivers with exceptional stop-start quickness and crafty route-running skills, or big-bodied tight ends with basketball-like post-up skills. They have an unbelievable knack for getting open against tight coverage and they exhibit outstanding courage venturing over the middle, with linebackers and safeties lurking between the hashes. These guys rarely receive proper recognition for their work.
The final component of an elite receiving corps is the presence of a designated red-zone weapon. This player might be the team's No. 1 receiver or it could be a big-bodied pass catcher capable of winning one-on-one matchups when the field shrinks inside the 10-yard line. Regardless, the "DRZW" has a feel for creating separation in a tight area through quickness or physicality, and those skills are essential to scoring points in a league where you have to throw to win.
In essence, the top receiving corps in the league are built like the Golden State Warriors -- an all-star collection of diverse skill sets that nicely complement each other. So, heading toward the 2018 campaign, which teams boast the top receiving corps in the NFL? Here are my top five:
1) Minnesota Vikings: It's no coincidence Kirk Cousins picked the Twin Cities as his new home. Like the rest of us, he saw the Vikings' WR corps torch defenses in 2017 with a journeyman QB2 at the helm. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are spectacular route runners with outstanding stop-start quickness, wiggle and playmaking ability. Each guy is capable of taking over a game as a lead receiver, but it is their collective ability to create headaches for opposing coaches that make them the top pass-catching tandem in football. With Kyle Rudolph also chipping in as a designated red-zone weapon (12 red-zone touchdowns over the past two seasons), the Vikings' explosive WR corps could help Cousins play at an MVP level this year.
2) Atlanta Falcons: It's easy to view the Falcons' passing game as a one-man show, based on Julio Jones' remarkable play as the team's No. 1 receiver (four straight seasons with 1,400-plus receiving yards), but that would ignore Mohamed Sanu's work as a rock-solid WR2 on the other side. The veteran is a dependable chain mover with the size and strength to overwhelm defenders in the red zone. First-round pick Calvin Ridley was added to the lineup to give the offense another playmaker with explosive potential on the outside. Given the impact Austin Hopper and Justin Hardy can make as fourth and fifth options in the passing game, the Dirty Birds' WR corps will be quite imposing this fall.
3) Pittsburgh Steelers: You would be hard-pressed to find a team that can rival the Steelers' success drafting and developing marquee receivers. Antonio Brown is arguably the best receiver in football, despite having entered the league as an unheralded sixth-round pick. Brown not only has six 1,000-yard seasons in his eight-year career, but he has 59 career touchdown catches, with 52 coming in just the past five seasons. Despite facing double-teams or bracket coverage at most times, Brown is nearly impossible to slow down or contain on the outside. With JuJu Smith-Schuster flashing all-star potential as a young starter, the Steelers boast one of the league's best 1-2 punches. If second-round James Washington lives up to his big-play reputation as a rookie, it is possible the Steelers might be underrated on this VIP list of pass-catching units.
4) Kansas City Chiefs: Before you @ me about the Chiefs' spot on this list, you should check out the ridiculous big-play production their "Big Three" has amassed over the past two years: Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins have combined for 69 receptions of 20-plus yards and 35 touchdown catches. While those numbers are somewhat stymied by Watkins' scattershot output over the past two seasons (13 20-plus yards catches and 10 touchdowns in 23 games), it is important to note that he tallied 32 receptions of 20-plus yards and 15 touchdowns during his first two NFL campaigns. Thus, it is quite possible that he re-emerges as a big-play threat in an Andy Reid system that showcases explosive receivers, particularly those playmakers with speed and RAC (run after catch) ability. With three potent playmakers on the field at all times, the Chiefs' receiving corps could become the next unit to boast a trio of 1,000-yard pass catchers in a single season.
5) Cleveland Browns: No, Gordon and Landry's comments aren't completely crazy. This is indeed a top-tier group. Gordon gives the team a big-bodied WR1 with all-star skills as a dynamic playmaker on the outside. He is one of the few pass catchers in the NFL capable of racking up a 100-yard game straight of the streets, which speaks volumes about his talent and his tools. Landry is a blue-collar worker adept at working over the middle, where toughness is valued at a premium. The three-time Pro Bowl selectee is as rugged as they come, but he's also crafty technician with excellent stop-start quickness and wiggle. Landry has leaned on those skills to become the fastest receiver in NFL history to notch 400 receptions, despite playing extensively as a slot receiver where brackets and double coverage can minimize a playmaker's production. If Corey Coleman (deep-ball specialist) and David Njoku (chain mover) fulfill their respective roles as complementary weapons, the Browns' WR corps could make a leap up this list in the fall.
LAMAR JACKSON: Ravens rookie QB poised to make noise in 2018?
You know what they say: Where there's smoke, there's fire.
That's why we shouldn't dismiss the comments coming out of Baltimore Ravens minicamp regarding the impressive performance of Lamar Jackson -- and how it is impacting the rest of the team. Sure, it is the offseason and there are plenty of guys who shine in shorts and shirts, but I believe there's plenty to glean from the glowing words flowing from Ravens coaches and players when it comes to the first-round draft pick.
That observation certainly doesn't surprise anyone who watched Jackson shine as a dual-threat playmaker at Louisville, where he won the 2016 Heisman Trophy and posted back-to-back seasons with 3,500-plus passing yards and 1,500-plus rushing yards. He is one of the most explosive playmakers that I've ever seen with the ball in his hands. The comparisons to a young Mike Vick are valid. Heck, we even had Vick himself say that the young quarterback was a "spitting image" of himself on the Move The Sticks Podcast earlier this year.
With Ravens defenders also suggesting Jackson's game is eerily similar to the four-time Pro Bowler's, it is hard to dismiss his potential as a playmaker on the perimeter.
"Once he gets out of the pocket, it's like watching a young Michael Vick," Mosley said, via ESPN. "It's amazing to watch. When you're defending him, you just have to act like you're tagging off -- you don't want to be on the highlight reel."
Speaking of highlight reels, the rookie quarterback could become a Top 10 staple as a designated playmaker for the Ravens. The team is reportedly experimenting with a variety of two-quarterback formations with Jackson and Joe Flacco on the field at the same time. While the rookie dismissed any possible position switch during the pre-draft process, Baltimore has experimented with its new toy.
That's cool and all, but Jackson wasn't selected in the first round to be simply a gadget player for the Ravens. They expect him to eventually be a QB1, and part of that ascension will hinge on his ability to throw the ball effectively from the pocket. While Harbaugh has raved about the 21-year-old's "natural arm talent," his ability to process information from the pocket and deliver accurate balls to all areas of the field -- particularly short and intermediate areas inside and outside of the numbers -- are critical to his success at this level.
With that in mind, I thought the Ravens' decision to give Jackson almost all of the reps during the final minicamp practice was an important step in that process. This gave Jackson a chance to get twice as many reps and settle into a routine as a potential starter. Not to mention, he had a chance to accelerate his learning curve by running the first- and second-team offenses without a break. With Jackson also tasked with spitting out play calls with more verbiage than his calls at Louisville, the experience gave him an opportunity to play QB1 in real time.
While Ravens officials continue to insist Jackson is at least a year away from stepping into the role as the team's starter, the buzz coming from Owings Mills suggest No. 8 is coming along at the right pace.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) Why the Cowboys should contend for years to come. Dallas hasn't been discussed as a legitimate title contender in 2018, but the Cowboys' commitment to the offensive line will make them viable players for the crown for the years to come. Now, I know that I've called this time of year "proclamation season," due to the bold and outlandish claims that we hear from coaches, players and observers, but the 'Boys are building a championship-caliber house on a rock-solid foundation that's helped them claim a pair of division titles in recent years (2014 and '16) despite having flawed squads.
That's why the news of Zack Martin agreeing to a six-year, $84 million deal should be celebrated by Cowboys Nation. This gives "America's Team" the best offensive line for the next five years. Like Martin, Pro Bowlers Tyron Smith (eight years, $97.6 million through 2023) and Travis Frederick (six years, $56.4 million through 2023) are also locked up in big-money deals. Each of those three guys are among the top-five players at their respective positions. That's quite a trio to build around up front.
Simply put, the Cowboys are sitting pretty with a loaded offensive line that can crush opponents at the point of attack.
Now, I know the naysayers will point out the flaws of the Cowboys' young QB1 or the suspect nature of the defense, but I must remind you that Dallas' ball-control offense built around a rugged running game has always been able to mask the team's deficiencies -- and the keep-away strategy should work well with Ezekiel Elliottpoised to carry a heavy workload.
Remember, the last two times the Cowboys won the NFC East and emerged as viable contenders, they featured the NFL's rushing champ (Elliott in 2016; DeMarco Murray in 2014) running behind the best O-line in football. The 'Boys reeled off double-digit wins during those seasons and entered the tournament well-positioned to make a run at the Lombardi Trophy. Although they didn't get it done, the presence of a rock-solid offensive line got them into the VIP section. With Martin joining Smith and Frederick as long-term players on that front line, you can pencil Dallas in as a threat to win the NFC every year.
2) What happened to Christian Hackenberg? The rise and fall of Hackenberg from promising freshman quarterback to NFL cast-off should be a valuable learning lesson for scouts and evaluators around the league.
The 6-foot-4, 228-pound passer checked all of the boxes as a prototypical franchise quarterback at first glance. A big-bodied, strong-armed thrower with A-level arm strength and range, he appeared destined for stardom in the league after putting up an impressive freshman season at Penn State while running a pro-style system under the direction Bill O'Brien. Hackenberg not only knocked off a couple of Big Ten heavyweights as a first-year starter, but he did it in impressive fashion, exhibiting big-time poise, confidence and leadership ability as the face of a program coming back from a scandal.
Those traits coupled with his high IQ and affable personality led some scouts to place a high grade on Hackenberg, despite glaring inconsistencies in his play during his final two seasons with the Nittany Lions. Over his final 26 collegiate games, Hackenberg completed just 55 percent of his passes with a 28:21 touchdown-to-interception ratio. As a sub-60 percent passer in college, he fell well below the accepted standard of efficiency for quarterback play. His inaccurate throws on tape should've raised more red flags when we projected his potential at the NFL level.
Think about it: If a quarterback struggles to play against college defenders operating in simple schemes, how is he going to perform better against bigger, faster players executing complex systems designed to confuse veteran quarterbacks? It doesn't happen. And it really doesn't happen in today's NFL, where the CBA has cut down the amount of time coaches can spend with young quarterbacks to help them grow into potential starters.
Back in my day, quarterbacks could spend the entire offseason working with coaches on the finer points of playing the position. Aspiring QB1s would report back to work in the middle of February and spend weeks leading up to the official kickoff of the offseason program working with the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach to master the nuances of the craft.
"We miss the quarterback school," I was told by a current NFL head coach with a strong reputation for developing QBs. "We used to be able to slow down and teach them how to play. ... We don't have enough time for that these days."
That lack of time is what Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden was alluding to when he suggested the CBA failed Hackenberg.
"Everybody is an expert out there on Hackenberg and thinks he can't play," Gruden said as the Raiders wrapped up a three-day mandatory minicamp. "It's unfortunate, this whole collective [bargaining agreement]. How do you develop a quarterback? I don't know how you do it.
"[Hackenberg] has been working on changing his stroke, his passing motion, and I think he did that. We just didn't have enough reps to take a good look at him."
With that in mind, I believe scouts will have to change the way that we evaluate quarterbacks, particularly developmental guys. We have to assume young signal-callers won't radically change much from their college days, and we should spend more time discussing how we can build offenses around their strengths instead of projecting how they will grow in a certain system.
Hackenberg certainly looked like the player he was at Penn State during his time with the New York Jets, and he probably continued to look that way during his brief stint with the Oakland Raiders. It is not his fault that we put unrealistic expectations on his development. That's our problem and we need to remember that when we look at the next class of quarterbacks coming through the pipeline.
3) Meet the new Seahawks ... same as the old Seahawks? The Seattle Seahawks rose to prominence at the beginning of the decade by leaning on the philosophy that Pete Carroll honed during his time at USC. Using the mantra "Always Compete," Carroll created a competitive environment where every player on the roster had a chance to vie for playing time and a major role on an up-and-coming squad that took on cast-offs and misfits at every turn.
While the executives and scouts focused on Seattle's remarkable drafts in 2010, '11 and '12, the team's success was really rooted in its solid developmental plan and fearless approach to putting young guys on the field. With experience being the ultimate teacher, the Seahawks emerged as the bully in the NFC behind a bunch of cocky and bodacious playmakers who performed like savvy veterans despite their inexperience.
During a spectacular five-year run from 2012-16, the 'Hawks compiled a 56-23-1 record with five playoff appearances, three NFC West titles, a pair of NFC championships and a Super Bowl win. The team's sustained run behind a core of young, unheralded players still looking to carve out their spot in the NFL landscape allowed the 'Hawks to create a competitive environment where guys earned their playing time strictly through their performance on the field, regardless of draft pedigree. With the team's core built to succeed in an "alpha dog" environment, Seattle made it tough for the next generation of ballers to earn minutes as key role players.
"It's pretty plain to see, that when guys have established themselves for four or five or six years at a spot, and they've been really effective at what they do, it's hard to convince the next guy that he's going to take their spot," Carroll said in an interview with Albert Breer of The MMQB. "That's for sure. So when opportunities are more open, it does create, in the truest sense, the best connection to what the philosophy and the approach is all about."
As Breer details in his piece, Seattle has moved on from a number of core players this offseason to create opportunities for the next generation of 'Hawks. Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett were released and traded, respectively, to open up spots in the starting lineup. In addition, Cliff Avril wasn't retained after suffering a severe neck injury and Kam Chancellor might not return due to a serious injury of his own. And then there's Earl Thomas, who's sitting out offseason workouts looking for a new contract.
Long story short: The 2018 Seahawks will feature a number of new faces dotting the roster at key spots. Seattle has attempted to turn back the clock in rebuilding the roster.
"It feels like four or five years ago," Carroll said to The MMQB. It feels fresh and wide open, it's more of an open competition for some of the spots. And that's a really good thing for us, because it does feed into the whole approach.
Without a wealth of top picks at their disposal, the Seahawks have been bargain-basement shopping, acquiring a bunch of former first-round picks who were deemed expendable by their previous squads. Guys like Dion Jordan, Marcus Smith, Barkevious Mingo and D.J. Fluker are being counted to fill big roles. Not to mention, the team brought on a couple of hungry youngsters via the draft -- first-round RB Rashaad Penny and third-round DE Rasheem Green -- who could begin the season in the starting lineup.
If the Seahawks are going to return to their lofty perch atop the NFC, the team's young players and recently acquired castoffs will not only need to bring the fire and desire like their predecessors, but they will need production and performance for Carroll to get Seattle squarely back into contention.