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:
» Three rookie running backs to watch during the preseason.
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Now, I know we are only a week or so into training camp practices and optimism in 32 cities is soaring, but after watching the Packers work in pads recently, I'm convinced this unit will be the most explosive offense that we've seen with Rodgers under center. The Packers are loaded with talent, versatility and depth at the skill positions, particularly at wide receiver and tight end.
The team added a pair of athletic, big-bodied tight ends (Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks) this offseason to complement a deep and talented wide receiver corps that features a big-play WR1 (Jordy Nelson) and a handful of catch-and-run specialists (Davante Adams and Randall Cobb) on the perimeter. With Ty Montgomery pegged as the RB1, McCarthy has a chameleon-like offense at his disposal that will drive defensive coordinators crazy during their preparations.
Opponents will not only have to prep for the Packers' spread formations and quick passing game from a variety of personnel groupings, but they must be ready to deal with McCarthy's squad morphing from pass-centric to run-heavy sets without slowing down to huddle. The combination of player versatility and formation multiplicity will make it hard for opponents to use matchup-specific tactics on defense.
In addition, the multi-faceted games of Montgomery, Bennett and Kendricks could force defensive coordinators to play more zone coverage to avoid bad matchups on the perimeter, particularly when the team uses "YOZ" (tight end outside of "Z" flanker formation) and "ROZ" (running back outside of "Z" flanker) formations.
For a surgical passer like Rodgers, who is adept at carving up defenses with quick, pinpoint passes, the ability to play against extensive zone schemes will make him nearly impossible to defend from the pocket. He will be able to quickly identify the coverage during the pre-snap phase and get the ball to his No. 1 or No. 2 option in the progression without hesitation. Thus, the defense will be at the mercy of an errant throw or a great individual defensive play to come up with a stop against one of the most accurate passers in NFL history. Those odds simply aren't good enough to win against the Packers consistently.
But the Packers' versatility and multiplicity is not solely about creating big-play opportunities through the air. In fact, it's really about finding a way to add more balance to the attack by fielding a dominant running game. The tight ends play a particular role in juicing up the Packers' running game by giving McCarthy the opportunity to play some "big boy" football at the point of attack.
"I love the tight end position," McCarthy said at a presser before the Packers' first padded practice. "We've used those guys in the backfield more than they are suited. ... With Marty and the ability to have an on-the-line tight end is something that we needed. ... At the end of the day, when you do a game plan or build an offense, it starts with the run. When you have the tight end on the line of scrimmage, you have a clear 'C' gap and 'D' gap responsibility the defense has to defend against the run. When you have two tight ends on the line, you have to defend eight gaps instead [of] seven and six gaps. ... We can throw the football. We have a great quarterback and receivers with rhythm and timing. ... But the ability to run the football and stress the defense from a formation and alignment location, your tight ends play a big role in that."
Now, I don't expect this year's version of the Packers to evoke images of Vince Lombardi's teams executing the old "Packer Sweep," but I do believe a steady diet of runs with Montgomery will make the offense even more challenging to defend. Last season, No. 88 rushed for 457 yards on 77 attempts (5.9) as a surprise at the position. He flashed the ability to run with quickness and finesse between the tackles, while also adding a different dimension as an electric pass catcher out of the backfield. Given the challenge that Montgomery presents to the defense, McCarthy will find a number of clever ways to tap into his hybrid RB1's skills to create headaches for the opponent.
"It gives you another dimension," McCarthy said. "We are always looking for matchups, and Ty is definitely a challenge in the area of matchups. When the defense sits down and game plans for the Green Bay Packers, obviously they're going to look at No. 12 (Rodgers), but I'm sure Ty is a clear second or third as part of their conversation on how they're going to handle him as far as how we line him up."
"We want our running backs to be able to play all three downs because it gives us the ability to turn our no-huddle offense on or off whenever we want during the course of the game. ... You've got to tailor their assignment and opportunities to their skills. He's got the full gamut because he can play the No. 1 position at wide receiver."
With Montgomery capable of changing the game as a "two-way" playmaker (runner/receiver), the Packers suddenly have the ability to create more one-on-one opportunities for Nelson, Adams and Cobb on the outside. Considering how many 20-plus passes the duo delivered without a legitimate running game in 2016 (combined for 36 explosive receptions), the big plays could come up in bunches as opponents are forced to defend a more balanced Packers attack.
ROOKIE RUNNING BACKS: Three guys to watch in the preseason
It goes without saying that the NFL is a copycat league, with coaches, scouts and executives prone to stealing successful ideas from winning teams. After watching the Dallas Cowboys return to prominence behind a rookie running back that led the NFL in rushing yards, teams entered the draft looking for the next RB1 capable of making an Ezekiel Elliott-like impact as a first-year contributor.
Actually, you could say the same thing about Jordan Howard and his ability to carry the Chicago Bears as a "one-man" show in the Windy City. The 2016 fifth-round pick finished last season as the league's second-leading rusher (1,313 yards) on the strength of seven 100-yard games as a surprise starter.
With camps underway and the football world buzzing about a handful of rookie running backs poised to make a huge impact, I thought I would survey the landscape to identify three guys to watch heading into the season ...
Whenever a head coach suggests that a perfect offensive game plan has "zero" pass attempts, the RB1 should expect to get a heavy workload as a runner. Although Doug Marrone's flippant remark is a bit of an exaggeration, there is little doubt that he wants the Jacksonville Jaguars to be a run-heavy squad in 2016.
"For me, I like to run the ball every play," Marrone told reporters after an offseason practice. "I want to go back to the old way. I want to change the game."
With the Jaguars using a top-five pick on a 6-foot, 228-pound runner with exceptional strength, power and a violent running style, it is easy to envision the team leaning on their rookie workhorse to drive the offense. This is exactly how Fournette was utilized at LSU -- as the "dot" back in the team's power I-formation. He finished his collegiate career with 19 100-yard games and topped the 20-carry mark 14 times in 32 career appearances.
That kind of stamina, durability and toughness is exactly what the Jaguars wanted in an RB1, particularly with Tom Coughlin back in the fold as the executive vice president of football operations.
"Powerful, strong, better hands than I ever thought," Coughlin said, via Dan Graziano of ESPN.com. "Good kid and a good worker. Came in, right after the draft, came in a little heavy, and we talked about it, and he comes in here at 227. He's a guy that seems to practice well. I think he's one of those guys that, if you're in a circumstance, one up or one down in the fourth quarter, he can make a big difference. I think he's still going to have a lot of gas in his tank, maybe be able to get some of those tough yards at the end of the game."
For a team intent on reducing the burden on their turnover prone QB1, it is certainly possible that their new workhorse runner tops the 250-attempt mark as the centerpiece of a revamped offense.
The Panthers were looking to add a little sizzle to the offense when they selected McCaffrey with the eighth overall selection on draft night. The 5-foot-11, 205-pound multi-purpose playmaker was arguably the most electric offensive weapon in the draft, after an illustrious collegiate career that included an NCAA single-season record for all-purpose yardage (3.864) in 2015. As a "three-way" scoring threat (runner/receiver/returner) with the potential to put the ball in the paint from anywhere on the field, McCaffrey had the traits the team desired in a change-of-pace player in the backfield.
"You saw him do everything -- line up as the tailback, line up as a halfback, line up as the quarterback in the Wildcat, motion out and run a wheel route, return kicks," Ron Rivera told the team's website shortly after drafting the ex-Stanford standout. "This is a guy who you can get the ball in his hands many different ways and quickly."
With the Panthers expected to tweak the offense a bit to feature more quarterback-friendly concepts designed to get the ball out of Cam Newton's hands quickly, the addition of McCaffrey could help the former league MVP rediscover his mojo after a sub-par 2016 campaign that saw him post career-worst totals in completion percentage (52.9 percent) and passer rating (75.8). By adding more "layups" to the game plan to help Newton get into a rhythm, I expect McCaffrey to initially carve out a role on offense as a hybrid slot receiver on passing downs. The shifty pass catcher was arguably the best route runner at the position in the 2017 class, as evidenced by his spectacular workouts at the NFL combine and Stanford's pro day.
Based on the early reviews from camp, he already is making his mark in the passing game as a dynamic pass catcher out of the backfield. McCaffrey's teammates have been raving about his skills as a receiver, and the team is expected to take advantage of his skills as a mismatch creator.
"He's pretty unstoppable as far as coming out of the backfield running routes," Stewart said, per the Charlotte Observer. "I can tell you now there's not going to be anybody in this league that can cover him one-on-one."
But it's more than McCaffrey's contributions as a receiver that will make him an impact player for the Panthers. As an experienced Wildcat QB with slick ball handling skills and electric running skills between the tackles, he could steal some of Newton's carries near the goal line on various read-option plays from exotic formations. While the Panthers certainly haven't revealed whether they'll use McCaffrey as a point man in their version of the Wildcat, I have a sneaky suspicion that Mike Shula will find a way to tap into his versatility to help the Panthers get back on track this fall.
It took only about five minutes of watching a live training camp practice to figure out that Cook will be a big part of the Vikings' offensive plans in 2017. The shifty back not only lined up with the first-team unit during drills, but he was aligned at three or four spots during a brief scripted walkthrough that I observed from the sideline. While it is not uncommon to see a dynamic playmaker with Cook's versatility and explosiveness placed at the dot, slot and out wide in spread or empty sets in today's game, it is unusual to see a rookie running back already earn get the ball to him status before a team's first preseason game.
That's why I'm expecting big things from the ex-Florida State standout. Cook has earned rave reviews from his teammates and coaches for his play since the beginning of camp, and team officials can't stop glowing over his potential.
"He's been everything that we've expected," Vikings GM Rick Speilman said during camp. "The only thing that we didn't expect was to get him in the second round. ... He has tremendous feet and tremendous vision. Very smart. He can catch the ball extremely well out of the backfield. You can tell he's different when he's out there on the field with the ball in his hands."
To that point, Cook certainly looks like the Vikings' most explosive offensive player on the field. He has the speed, quickness and burst to take it the distance from anywhere on the field, but he is also a unique playmaker capable of delivering explosive plays as a runner or receiver. As a new-school "hybrid" running back with a diverse set of skills, Cook is a movable chess piece that every offensive coordinator and field general would love to have at his disposal to create mismatches, particularly in the passing game.
"If you have someone who can do it out of the backfield, it really adds a fifth target [to the passing game]," Sam Bradford told reporters. "You can create some mismatches, especially against linebackers, especially with a guy that is spread out and feels comfortable in empty and running routes from the outside. I think having a guy that can catch from the backfield or from the running back position ... it just adds another dimension that teams have to think about stopping."
With the Vikings' offense continuing to evolve under new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and Bradford, Cook's versatility and explosiveness not only makes him a better overall fit than free-agent addition Latavius Murray, but it could make the unit more "pop" than it had with (late-career) Adrian Peterson in the backfield.
Whether it is as a runner working creases from the A gap to the edges or as a pass catcher creating mismatches against linebackers or safeties in space, Cook's flexibility should make him a "1,000/500" (rushing yards/receiving yards) club member by the end of the season.
KAM CHANCELLOR: Why the Seahawks paid up
Where traditional team-building models place a premium on the front line, particularly at defensive end or pass rusher, the Seahawks have committed the bulk of their dollars to the defensive backfield. According to ESPN's Roster Management System, the Seahawks have $123 million devoted to defensive backs, the most guaranteed money distributed to defensive backs in the NFL, significantly outpacing the Arizona Cardinals ($91 million), Denver Broncos ($87 million) and New England Patriots ($83 million).
While the "Legion of Boom" has certainly been the catalyst for the team leading the NFL in scoring defense in four of the last five seasons, it is uncommon to have so much money tied up in the defensive backfield, particularly at safety (in 2014, Earl Thomas signed a four-year extension worth $40 million, with $27.725 million guaranteed). When I've asked scouts, executives and coaches about the most important position in the secondary in today's game, the overwhelming majority of respondents opted for a shutdown corner. But the Seahawks' scheme places a greater emphasis on safety play, which is why Chancellor and Thomas are considered the pillars of the unit.
Look no further than the defense's struggles without the perennial Pro Bowl selectees a season ago as a reflection of their impact:
With Chancellor and Thomas: 6-1 record, 14.3 points allowed per game, 288.6 total yards allowed per game, 68.5 passer rating allowed.
When either Chancellor or Thomas was out: 4-4-1 record, 21.3 points allowed per game, 342.1 total yards allowed per game, 99.0 passer rating allowed.
In the Seahawks' single-high safety scheme, the safeties are essentially playmakers, due to their ability to control the middle of the field. The 'Hawks primarily use a post safety and a "buzz" safety as part of their Cover 1 (man-to-man coverage) or Cover 3 "Buzz" (three-deep zone with a safety as a middle hook drop defender) coverages. This routinely places Thomas and Chancellor between the hashes at different depths to discourage any passes down the middle of the field. With a deep defender in the post (deep defender in the middle) and a lurker in the middle at around 10 to 12 yards, the Seahawks essentially crowd the middle of the field and force quarterbacks to throw the ball outside of the numbers.
Considering how completion percentages drop dramatically when quarterbacks throw the ball toward the sideline (the longer the throw, the lower the completion rate), the presence of Thomas and Chancellor in the middle is arguably the biggest reason the Seahawks have ranked at or near the top of the charts in pass defense over the past five seasons. But there is more to it than the tactical approach.
Despite the pass-friendly nature of today's rules, the Seahawks have found a way to maintain the intimidation factor in the defensive backfield. Chancellor remains a respected enforcer as a 6-foot-3, 225-pound thumper with a knack for punishing pass catchers.
"You might want to ask some people around the division," said head coach Pete Carroll at a press conference following Chancellor's deal. "Ask the guys on the other side. There's no question that his presence is obvious. He's written a nice little introduction to his book about who he is and what he's all about. It's out there and everybody knows. He's a fantastic player and a great physical presence. They know that."
With that in mind, it is sensible for the Seahawks to retain the services of Chancellor and Thomas for the next few years. Sure, you could argue that Father Time might impact their abilities to continue to play at an all-star level, based on each player nearing the age of 30 (Chancellor is 29; Thomas is 28). But they haven't shown any signs of decline on the field. Meanwhile, the Seahawks have their two essential pieces of their championship defense in place through at least the 2018 season.
This brings me back to how the Seahawks are bucking conventional wisdom by putting their money in the defensive backfield instead of the front line. Chancellor ($12 million) and Thomas ($10 million) rank third and sixth, respectively, in average annual compensation at their position. CB1 Richard Sherman ranks fifth among corners with a deal that pays him $14 million on average, and it concludes at the end of the 2018 season. With three defenders carrying All-Pro credentials in the defensive backfield, it's hard to argue with the financial commitment the Seahawks have made to the stars of their secondary.
On the flip side, the 'Hawks have inked their top pass rushers -- Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril -- to deals that annually pay them $10 million and $7.12 million, respectively. Although each player ranks among the top 20 defensive ends in annual compensation, neither is paid like a top-five player at their position despite combining for 64.0 sacks over the past four years and helping the team finish tied for third in sacks (42) a season ago.
The Seahawks' defensive construction reminds me of a conversation that I had with one of my former defensive coaches (Dick Jauron) during my time with the Jacksonville Jaguars about building a championship defense. The wily Jauron told me that championship teams in any sport (football, baseball and basketball) are "strong down the middle," and team-builders should take that approach, particularly when building a defense in football. He pointed out that all-time great defensive squads typically featured a dominant player at middle linebacker and had playmakers at the safety spot. He noted that both positions needed players comfortable being "traffic cops" (communicators/leaders), and opponents needed to feel their presence. Although Jauron told me that generating a consistent pass rush was critical to the unit's success, he believed putting the best players down the middle of the defense was essential to fielding a championship-caliber defense in the NFL.
Based on the Seahawks' roster and their salary allocation, it is apparent that the team's executives adhere to a similar philosophy, with a pair of playmaking safeties commanding top dollar to roam behind one of the NFL's best and highest-paid middle linebackers (Bobby Wagner, $10.75 million average). Considering the team's success and status as a perennial contender behind a defense that's strong from back to front and down the middle, it won't be long before other team builders explore the Seahawks' unique model for success.