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:
-- Why joint practices serve NFL teams well.
But first, an honest look at the NFL's current quarterback landscape ...
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Although the first-team All-Pro corner's blunt assessments caught some folks by surprise, I respect him for putting his name on the commentary. And while I don't necessarily agree with everything Ramsey said, I believe in the premise of "game recognizes game." Thus, the opinion of an elite cover corner on quarterbacks does indeed deserve attention. Ramsey has not only faced most of the signal-callers mentioned in the GQ piece, but he's likely viewed everyone on tape while prepping for opponents.
Furthermore, Ramsey's ranting spawned some interesting discussion around the most important position in the sport. Personally, I found myself taking a serious look around the league to identify how many real franchise quarterbacks exist today.
In my definition, a "franchise quarterback" is a guy capable of delivering wins, regardless of situation and circumstance. These special signal-callers can play without the support of a star receiver or a sturdy offensive line, and they don't need an elite play caller to elevate their game. They are viewed as "trucks" in the Truck-vs.-Trailer QB debate (trucks carry the squad; trailers need the squad to carry them). When you sit down and watch the tape, trucks are the guys with transcendent games that would allow them to shine with any franchise.
With all that in mind, here's my list of the top 10 true franchise quarterbacks entering the 2018 season:
1) Tom Brady, New England Patriots: There's no disputing the five-time Super Bowl champion's greatness when looking at his resume and the lack of star power he's been surrounded by for most of his career. TB12 has only played with two legit superstars (Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski) during his 19-year tenure, but the veteran continues to rack up 300-yard games with a bunch of unheralded playmakers on the perimeter.
2) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers: The two-time MVP, who's squarely in his prime, is arguably the biggest difference maker in the game today. Just look at the Packers' fortunes with and without him on the field. Rodgers has single-handedly carried Green Bay on deep postseason runs with B+/B-level pass catchers on the perimeter and a nonexistent running game.
3) Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks: The one-time Super Bowl champion has emerged as a dominant force at the position after entering the league viewed as a game manager. Wilson earned MVP consideration in 2017 while acting as a one-man show for Seattle, leading the 'Hawks in passing, rushing and pure playmaking.
4) Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints: Despite his advanced age, Brees remains an A-level quarterback due to his exceptional accuracy, ball placement and timing. The 11-time Pro Bowler just set a new NFL record for single-season completion percentage (72.0) while topping the 4,000-yard mark for the 12th straight year. Considering the revolving door at the WR position in New Orleans, Brees' consistent production confirms his ability to elevate an offense on the strength of his right arm.
5) Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers: The gunslinger might sit higher on my list than in some other rankings, but it is hard to ignore his ability to throw the ball all over the yard to a fair amount of unheralded pass catchers throughout his career. Sure, he's had a Hall of Fame-caliber tight end (Antonio Gates) at his disposal for most of his career, but Rivers has also been able to post 4,000-yard seasons with a bunch of big-bodied pass catchers taking turns snagging passes on the perimeter.
6) Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles: Wentz was presumably on his way to claiming the 2017 NFL MVP award before his knee injury, posting a 33:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 101.9 passer rating while directing Philly's high-powered offense in just his second NFL season. Although the Eagles' offensive line ranks as one of the NFL's best, Wentz is able to produce without a marquee pass catcher on the perimeter.
7) Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers:Sorry, Kelvin Benjamin, but Newton has single-handedly carried the Panthers' offense since his arrival as the No. 1 overall pick. The 2015 league MVP is the first NFL player to have 25,000 passing yards and 4,000 rushing yards in his first seven years, and ranks third in rushing touchdowns (54) among all players since entering the league in 2011. With Steve Smith and Greg Olsen viewed as the only blue-chip perimeter players on the Panthers' roster during his tenure, Newton has repeatedly pulled rabbits out of hats when directing Carolina's offense.
8) Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans: Seven games isn't a big sample size, but Watson's ability to transform the Texans' pedestrian offense into a juggernaut speaks volumes about his star power. No. 4 lit up NFL defenses as a rookie, as evidenced by his 19:8 TD-to-INT ratio and 103.0 passer rating. If Watson returns to form after his injury, the football world could see a transformative player grow up on the big stage.
9) Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions: Despite his sub-.500 career record (60-65), Stafford is worthy of being inside the velvet rope based on his spectacular talent and knack for orchestrating game-winning drives (32 over his career) and fourth-quarter comebacks (26). Stafford has definitely been supported by a Hall of Fame-caliber playmaker (Calvin Johnson) and some other solid pass catchers, but the lack of a consistent running game (Detroit has only had a running back hit the century mark in seven games over No. 9's entire career) has put the offensive burden completely on his shoulders.
10) Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers: I know some observers will take issue with Big Ben's spot on this list. And I get it. In recent years, he has been buoyed by the presence of two of the best playmakers at their respective positions (RB Le'Veon Bell and WR Antonio Brown). And prior to that, as Roethlisberger evolved from game manager to playmaker, he had the support of a defense that consistently ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in total D. All of that isn't meant to be a slight on Big Ben's accomplishments as a two-time Super Bowl champion, but he's benefitted from his supporting cast more than others on this list. Still, he deserves this last slot.
WILD CARD) Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts: A couple years ago, Luck would definitely occupy a place on the list, but we haven't seen him play in regular-season action for quite some time. Granted, Luck appears to be fully recovered from the injury to his throwing shoulder, but any drop-off in arm talent or arm strength could prevent him from carrying the Colts like he has done for much of his career. Remember the three straight 11-5 seasons to open his pro career? Yeah, those Colts teams weren't exactly overflowing with talent.
SCOUTING SAM DARNOLD: Does the No. 3 pick look like a Week 1 starter?
I don't believe Sam Darnold is ready to fully thrive as an NFL starter, but the No. 3 overall pick is destined to open the season as the New York Jets' QB1. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound gunslinger has checked off enough boxes in the preseason to land the job, and I fully expect Todd Bowles to officially make him the starting quarterback in the coming weeks.
After a spectacular preseason debut vs. Atlanta, Darnold earned a start against the Redskins on Thursday night with a chance to put a vise grip on the QB1 job. He simply needed to show his coaches that he could manage the game at the line of scrimmage, while continuing to be efficient and effective as a playmaker from the pocket. In addition, Jets officials wanted to see how well he handled a ramped-up defensive game plan that featured more blitzes and complex coverage from a No. 1 defense.
With that in mind, I believe Darnold played well enough to retain his pole position on the Jets' QB1 job. The rookie looked poised and composed as the leader of the unit and didn't appear to flinch when faced with adversity throughout the game. Darnold quickly distributed the ball to his playmakers on a variety of quick-rhythm throws designed to get the ball out of his hands in a hurry. He completed 8 of 11 passes for 62 yards, with the bulk of his production coming on an assortment of quicks from empty formations.
By spreading the field with five eligible receivers stretched out from numbers to numbers, the Jets created easy passing lanes for their young quarterback and gave him a chance to identify any potential rushers by eliminating the Redskins' opportunity to disguise coverage. Darnold was very comfortable directing the empty attack, which bodes well for the team using more open sets when the regular season starts. He quickly moved through his progressions to find open receivers and showed the ability to execute full-field reads from the formation, particularly on a seam route to Tre McBride on a third-and-short situation in the first quarter.
On traditional play-action passes, No. 14 showed good athleticism and mobility while making accurate throws on the run. He completed a roll-out pass to RB Bilal Powell for an 11-yard gain. Darnold's ability to make throws on the run adds a dimension to the Jets' offense, particularly when they incorporate complementary bootlegs with their primary runs. Darnold has the ability to show the ball before turning and scooting out the back door on naked passes. Although Washington's defense didn't consistently fall for the fakes, Darnold's escapability eliminated some potential negative plays for the offense, as he was able to elude the initial defender before tossing the ball out of bounds.
Despite his outstanding athleticism, Darnold was sacked twice on the night when the pocket completely collapsed around him. To his credit, he took care of the ball and didn't fumble when hit by defenders. Considering his well-documented ball-security woes in college, Darnold's ability to hold on during sacks is a good sign for the Jets.
From a critical standpoint, Darnold did have an interception in the game. He didn't see a hanging defender over the middle of the field on a fourth-down attempt and the deflected ball landed in the arms of a pursuing defender. Although the Jets' coaching staff can't really take issue with Darnold throwing it up in a "do or die" situation, I'm sure they don't like seeing the ball go the other way as the result of a pick.
In addition, I'm sure the Jets would love to see Darnold push the ball down the field a little more when the opportunity presents itself. Although ball security is valued at a premium, he will need to make a few explosive plays in the passing game to prevent opponents from squatting on his routes in the future. If Darnold doesn't put enough deep shots on tape, the Jets' dink-and-dunk offense will eventually grind to a halt when defensive coordinators make a concerted effort to condense the field.
Overall, the Jets have to be pleased with the way their young quarterback is developing. He has reportedly been consistent and effective in practices and shown promise in games. Yes, Teddy Bridgewater has played quite well for the Jets in his own right, but let's be honest: New York didn't take Darnold third overall to have him waste away on the bench. Darnold has shown enough promise that starting him early won't be irresponsibly throwing him to the wolves.
Although Darnold will struggle during the early part of the regular season as a starter while adjusting to the NFL game, I can see why the Jets would like to begin the on-field development process with their young starter. If they can get a good feel for Darnold's capabilities during his rookie season, they can add the right weaponry around him heading into Year 2 to help the team make a legitimate run at the postseason in 2019. That approach worked pretty well for Carson Wentz and the Philadelphia Eagles, no?
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Patriots can overcome lack of WR1.Tom Brady's temper tantrum at a practice earlier this week might have given new life to concerns about the New England Patriots' weaponry, but I believe he has more than enough firepower to make another run at the title. The Patriots have the ultimate mismatch playmaker in Rob Gronkowski, as well as a dangerous collection of running backs with versatility and pass-catching skills to eliminate the need for a true WR1 in the lineup.
Now, that doesn't mean the Patriots don't need their wide receivers to be key contributors in the passing game, but it's not essential for the team to have a dominant No. 1 receiver to function at a high level. You could argue Gronkowski is the anchor of the Patriots' passing game, based on his spectacular production and ability to command double-coverage. The four-time All-Pro tight end is too big for defensive backs and too athletic for lumbering linebackers in space. Not to mention, he is an unstoppable force in the red zone, as evidenced by his 76 career touchdown receptions in 102 games.
With Gronk also capable of stretching the field as a dynamic seam runner (15.1 yards per catch over his career), the Patriots can lean on the big-bodied tight end to anchor the passing game.
"Tom Brady wants to work inside the numbers," a former NFL defensive coordinator familiar with defending the Patriots told me. "He is the best in the business at using his tight ends and running backs to exploit mismatches. He used to do it back in the day with Kevin Faulk, Shane Vereen and others. ... He will continue to do it with the guys that they currently have in place."
That's why I believe the concern over the Patriots' wide receivers is a little overblown. Brady has never really needed stars at the position to be successful (SEE: the very first section in this notebook) because the team has always had effective pass catchers coming out of the backfield to exploit mismatches over the middle of the field. From Faulk and J.R. Redmond to Danny Woodhead and Vereen, the Patriots have relied on a handful of scat backs to pick up hidden yardage in the passing game.
Looking at their current roster, New England has three potential impact pass catchers at the running back position. James White, Rex Burkhead and Sony Michel are all capable of posting big numbers in the passing game. Whether it's running option routes from the backfield or wearing out defenders on slants and other quick routes from the slot (or out wide in an empty formation), the Patriots' running backs are really pass-catching playmakers for TB12.
White, a fifth-year pro with 161 career receptions, is a slick route runner with strong hands and excellent ball skills. He's at his best running option routes against linebackers in space, but he's also effective on screens out of the backfield. White's shifty running style in the open field creates big problems for defenders when he gets the ball underneath coverage.
Burkhead hasn't put up big numbers as a Patriot, but he's always been one of the more intriguing multi-purpose playmakers in the league. Hue Jackson and Marvin Lewis played him primarily as a slot receiver during his time with the Bengals, even though he was listed as a running back on the roster. He lined up in the slot, out wide and in the backfield for Cincinnati, and has continued to display that versatility in New England.
"Well, Rex has been a good player his entire career," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said during Super Bowl LII's opening night. "He had a tremendous career down at Nebraska, running the ball and catching the ball with great production. And he had great production in the kicking game with the Bengals. Really, he's a four-down player. Can play on first, second, third and fourth down at a good level, and those players are hard to find in the National Football League."
Given the Patriots' dink-and-dunk approach, the presence of a pair of running backs with receiver-like playmaking ability gives the team a chance to stretch the defense horizontally with quick-rhythm throws between the numbers.
The Patriots also have a wild card in the bag with Michel set to join the rotation when he heals from a knee procedure. The rookie certainly fits the mold as a pass-catching playmaker with soft hands and precise route-running skills. Michel teased evaluators with his multi-faceted skills at Georgia, piling up 4,234 scrimmage yards (3,613 rushing yards; 621 receiving yards) on 654 touches (590 rushes; 64 receptions). If he is able to fully return to form, he will give New England another weapon to use out of the backfield.
Considering how the Patriots like to deploy their running backs like wide receivers in spread and empty sets, the depth and versatility of their backfield weapons is more than enough to offset the lack of a WR1 in the lineup.
2) Joint practices are a necessary evil. The highlights of fights breaking out at joint practices across the NFL have prompted some observers to call for the end of these get-togethers, but I'm here to tell you that the sessions are too valuable for coaches and evaluators to end.
While it might seem crazy for teams to engage in practice sessions with opponents before they compete in a preseason game, the opportunity to practice with an opponent gives teams the opportunity to work on new schemes, evaluate players and get their starters quality work in a controlled environment. If you're a coach or an evaluator, that's exactly what you want from preseason practices and games, right?
"Absolutely, absolutely," Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter recently said when asked if he sees value in joint practices with another team. "It's the same thing -- these guys say they don't want to hit each other, and it's great work to go practice against someone where I have a script of what we're going to run but I don't know what they're going to run. And same for the players -- you're seeing different offenses, different defenses and it's always a challenge for the players and the coaches."
"I love the joint practices," Reich told reporters earlier this week. "The No. 1 thing is just the competitiveness of it. It's the next thing closest to another preseason game, and you get a chance to really notch up the level of execution against a different style and a different scheme."
Beyond the Xs and Os, Reich added that joint practices give coaches another opportunity to see how players respond in an ultra-competitive environment.
"It's good exposure for the whole team," he said. "Then individually, we like to look at the matchups. We like to look at players and evaluate players. It's really valuable for that, as well."
For the coaches, the opportunity to experiment with new schemes and tactics in a joint practice is an ideal situation. Unlike preseason games that are filmed and distributed to all 32 teams, joint sessions are filmed by the participants, but those tapes aren't circulated around the league. Thus, coaches can try out their new plays against an opponent in a competitive environment to see if they like the tactic without exposing it to the football world.
In addition, the coaches get a chance to see how their players perform in a competitive situation against an opponent. Although coaches still value preseason games over joint practices, the extra reps against an opponent allow coaches to get a better feel for how their players will perform in regular-season games when the speed and intensity ramps up.
Finally, these workouts allow coaches to give their starters more reps in game-like conditions while minimizing the injury risks associated with participating in preseason games. Coaches will use a "quick whistle" (coaches blow the whistle prior to full contact to keep practices at "thud" tempo) to prevent their star players, particularly quarterbacks, from taking unnecessary hits from opponents. Given the importance of getting to the regular-season opener with a healthy roster, the controlled aspect of joint practices is certainly appealing to coaches, as Lions coach Matt Patricia pointed out earlier this month.
"There is a little bit of an aspect of it that is a fine line," Patricia said, "because it's another team, it's an opponent, it's a different guy, so the intensity kind of ramps up a little bit. But you really have to, as a coach, keep it controlled. We don't want any situations -- neither teams want to come out with anybody with any injuries or anything stupid that can happen in practice."
For scouts, the joint practices are all about evaluating players in controlled, game-like situations. Whether it's looking at a wide receiver or defensive back in 1-on-1s or watching how well an offensive lineman or defensive lineman fares in an inside-run period, the various game-like segments featured in a joint practice give scouts more chances to see a player work against an opponent. Considering the challenge of getting 90 players quality reps in a preseason game, the joint practices help scouts make better decisions when it's time to trim the roster.
Observers will continue to debate the merits of joint practices based on a handful of skirmishes that take Twitter by storm, but the benefits still significantly outweigh the risks, which is why these sessions will remain a big part of the NFL's preseason calendar going forward.