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:
» The biggest takeaway from this year's "Top 100 Players" list.
» A rookie who could help push Denver back to the top of the AFC West.
But first, a look at one young player who could take the league by storm in 2018 ...
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There's nothing like Proclamation Season, with coaches and players hyping the potential of unheralded individuals at every turn. Typically, I just ignore these shout-outs, chalking them up to offseason fodder. But occasionally, some of the bluster -- when it's bold, but also sensible -- grabs my attention.
"You're going to get a complete player," Hali said. "I mean, he's a smart player. He can throw the ball. Athletically, he's gifted. You don't have to coach it. In practice, I'd watch him just look guys off. Eric Berry, you look him off and complete the ball. He did it to Marcus Peters a lot. People don't know what's coming. I don't want to hype him, but I compare him to Brett Favre. He runs around the field and he throws the ball and he's just having fun."
I know Favre's name has been thrown out a few times, due to Mahomes' big arm and sandlot playing style, but most of the observers drawing that comparison haven't been on the field with the young star or competed against the Hall of Fame quarterback. That's why I'm wary of dismissing the five-time Pro Bowler's comments without at least digging a little deeper to see if Mahomes really has the goods to grow into a spectacular QB1 with extraordinary playmaking skills.
To be fair, I'm a little biased when it comes to Favre, based on my experience playing with him in Green Bay during the remarkable stretch when he won three straight MVP awards. The 11-time Pro Bowler posted a 112:42 touchdown-to-interception ratio while guiding the Packers to a 37-11 mark during that span. Although Favre never posted a passer rating above 100.0 during this time and only registered a completion percentage north of 60 once, he was a magical playmaker with an A+ game and a flair for the dramatic.
With that in mind, I think it's hard to put those kinds of expectations on a young gunslinger with only one career start under his belt. That said, I've been told by a few Chiefs officials that visions of Mahomes growing into a No. 4 clone did indeed impact Reid's decision to trade up for his new QB1 in the 2017 NFL Draft.
"[Reid] absolutely believed Mahomes had some Favre in his game," a former Chiefs staffer told me. "We constantly heard the comparisons, especially his ability to improvise and extend plays. He raved about his gunslinger mentality and big arm, and how he could fit the ball into tight windows.
"Reid wasn't bothered at all by the crazy throws that Mahomes would make into traffic. All of it reminded him of Favre."
Keep in mind: Reid was Favre's QB coach in Green Bay for part of his magical run. His first-hand knowledge of how the former second-round pick developed into a perennial all-star certainly made it easier for the Chiefs to pick Mahomes as their QB of the future despite the blemishes in his game. Mahomes was unquestionably one of the most naturally gifted prospects in the 2017 class, but it was hard to project his potential based on his sandlot game at Texas Tech. He rarely stayed on schedule in the Red Raiders' offense. His tendency to throw darts after unnecessary scrambles made highlight reels pop ... and evaluators cringe when grading his tape.
"The kid was one of the most talented quarterbacks that I watched," an NFC scout told me. "I love the arm talent and athleticism, but I had serious questions about how a coaching staff could harness his gunslinging ways. I haven't seen many gunslingers develop into controlled playmakers. ... It just doesn't happen at this level."
I'll admit to being a little slow to jump on the Mahomes hype train. Although I loved the raw talent, I thought he could become a turnover machine with his aggressive mentality and reckless approach.
But Reid is the perfect coach for Mahomes -- and he has assembled a supporting cast around his second-year QB that should help him thrive as a starter. The Chiefs' receiving corps features a bevy of playmakers with the kind of speed and explosiveness to take advantage of No. 15's big arm in a vertical passing game. Not to mention, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Travis Kelce excel as catch-and-run specialists with the kind of running skills that can make Kansas City's screen game downright scary. With Reid adept at teaching quarterbacks to play the game the right way (see: Favre, Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick and Alex Smith, among others), it is quite possible that Mahomes grows into the spectacular playmaker that many envisioned when he entered the league a season ago.
In Week 17, he gave the football world a little taste of his remarkable talents, completing 22 of his 35 passes for 284 yards (with one interception) while earning the first victory of his career as a starter. Studying that performance, I was not only impressed with the arm talent and athleticism, but with his poise under pressure, particularly while directing a game-winning drive. Mahomes played a like a veteran. It's easy to envision him taking his game up a notch under Reid's further tutelage.
"What's working for him is that he's with, I believe, the best coach in the league: Andy Reid," Hali said on NFL Network. "So having Andy Reid as your play caller is definitely going to help."
If Mahomes heeds the advice of one of the NFL's most respected quarterback whisperers, in a few years' time, those comparisons to Favre might not be as outlandish as they seem right now.
'TOP 100' LESSON: Three types of players define NFL in 2018
I don't know how many general managers, executives or scouts watched NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2018" show, but I believe there are plenty of scouting lessons to be gleaned from studying the list, particularly the top-20 selections. In a league with 1,800-plus players, the "Top 100" represents the elites -- and I want to know more about the super elites. Those one-percenters not only reflect the NFL's premier players, but they show the football world which positions are valued at a premium in today's game.
After scouring the final list, which is accumulated from the votes of the players themselves, I'm convinced the NFL essentially revolves around passers, playmakers and pass rushers.
Although we've talked about the NFL being a quarterback-driven league for years, it is really a passing league with a premium placed on guys capable of affecting the aerial attack. Whether it's as a thrower or catcher or as a sack artist, the guys capable of enhancing or disrupting the passing game are the ones earning respect from their peers and big paychecks from owners.
Reflecting on my experiences as a player and scout, the best teams in the league typically have blue-chippers in those areas, particularly at quarterback and pass rusher.
The game depends so much on quarterbacks making plays from the pocket, and the best QB1s are capable of single-handedly guiding a team to the winner's circle. Don't believe me? Look at the top quarterbacks on the list and it's easy to see how they elevate the play of their peers. From Tom Brady (ranked No. 1 overall) to Carson Wentz (3) to Drew Brees (8) to Aaron Rodgers (10) to Russell Wilson (11) to Ben Roethlisberger (18), it is easy to see the correlation between their strong individual performances and their teams' overall success.
To combat top QB1s, defenses have placed a greater emphasis on finding pass rushers with the size, strength and speed to overwhelm offensive tackles off the edges. Guys like Von Miller, Khalil Mack and Everson Griffen pummel opponents as explosive forces with dynamic first-step quickness and active hands. As outside rushers, they squeeze the pocket from the outside in and force QBs to hang tough and throw accurate passes under duress.
In a traditional sense, outside rushers have been valued right behind quarterbacks. But Aaron Donald and, to a lesser degree, Calais Campbell, are changing the equation. Inside pass rushers are a hot commodity in today's game, with more teams looking for defensive tackles with rush skills or defensive ends with enough versatility to rush from an inside position in sub-packages (see: Michael Bennett).
"I used to rate defensive ends and linebackers with pass-rush skills as my No. 1 priority," an AFC college scouting director told me. "My opinion has changed with guys like Aaron Donald creating chaos from inside. ... Interior pass rushers have a greater effect on quarterbacks because they are in his face immediately.
"I still value outside guys, but a dominating inside pass rusher would be my preference in today's game."
"The front impacts the coverage far more than the coverage impacts the front," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "You can have an elite defense with A+ pass rushers and suspect corners, but you can't win the other way around. Without a steady pass rush, it is hard for any corner to hold up against an elite quarterback or wide receiver in coverage. Guys are too good."
On the flip side, I believe offensive playmakers must be able to contribute to the passing game. Whether we are talking about wide receivers, tight ends or running backs, guys with pass-catching skills are the most impactful offensive players. Look no further than the three highest-ranked running backs on the "Top 100" -- Le'Veon Bell (No. 5), Todd Gurley (6) and Alvin Kamara (20) -- who are all hybrid playmakers. Although they are listed as RB1s, they are legitimate weapons on the perimeter as pass catchers. In addition, they are mismatch players capable of aligning in the slot or out wide, and adept at running routes like wide receivers. The running back position has completely evolved in recent years -- RB1s without pass-catching skills are suddenly dinosaurs in today's NFL.
The "Top 100 Players" series might've been created to fill a void in the offseason TV schedule, but a quick study of the list is instructive. Evidently, team builders are valuing passers, playmakers and pass rushers more than ever.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) Is Jimmy G overrated? My favorite aspect of the "Top 100" list is hearing NFL players evaluate their peers. Players have a unique perspective when it comes to breaking down other guys' games, and I tend to lean on those opinions when studying players in the offseason. I always valued player opinions when I was a scout and continue to do so as an analyst today.
"He has good potential," Ramsey said on recent appearance on NFL Network. "I think he'll be a good player, but off my experience in playing him, it was a lot of scheme stuff. It wasn't like he was just dicing us up. It was a lot of scheme stuff.
"Nobody had a scheme on him [in 2017]," Ramsey added. "There was not a lot of film out on him."
Now, I know 49ers fans don't want to hear that, after watching Jimmy G reel off five straight wins at the end of the 2017 season on the strength of a 67 percent completion rate and 94.0 passer rating, but there is some truth to Ramsey's statement.
Despite a few solid starts from Garoppolo in New England, the football world didn't really know what to expect from the young gunslinger in Kyle Shanahan's scheme. Remember, No. 10 was acquired in a midseason trade and opponents didn't get a chance to see him in action until he trotted out in mop-up duty against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 12. With the lack of preseason or regular-season film to scout prior to their games, opposing defensive coordinators were forced to defend the scheme instead of the quarterback in those late-season matchups.
Granted, that doesn't diminish Jimmy G's effectiveness as a QB1 down the stretch, but the NFL is such a preparation league. The dearth of film on him in Shanahan's scheme prevented opponents from designing a Garoppolo-specific game plan that would eliminate his "layups" and make him take more "jump shots" from afar.
"The more information that you have on a player, the easier it is to identify his strengths and weaknesses," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "With quarterbacks, in particular, you want to know where their sweet spots are and how they respond to certain looks or pressures. When you don't have that information, it's harder to come up with a game plan that forces them to play left-handed."
Once again, that's not a dismissal of Jimmy G's talents or his overall performance in limited action, but it speaks to the challenge defensive coordinators faced when matching up with No. 10 down the stretch.
But there's more to it than that. Players also didn't have enough information to take advantage of his weaknesses or his possible tells as a playmaker. NFL defenders will scour the tape looking for anything that can help them against a certain quarterback. Just look at how three-time All-Pro CB Richard Sherman was able to pick up on one of Garoppolo's tells after playing against him in 2017 and watching him every day in offseason workouts.
"You just need to read him -- hand off ball, he's letting it go," Sherman said, per Patrick Holloway of Niners Nation. "You have to be decisive when you make those decisions. If he takes his hand off the ball and doesn't throw it, I think he'll throw guys off, but when he takes his hand off the ball, you've got to be ready to break."
That's the kind of information that not only helps defenders make quicker breaks on throws, but it is part of the scouting report that defensive coordinators will use to craft game plans. Inevitably, some folks will say Ramsey was just hating on Garoppolo for cracking the "Top 100" after just a few performances, but the stud CB was actually shedding light on how defenders and defensive coaches currently view the 49ers' QB1.
While Garoppolo's gargantuan contract extension and the hype over his 2017 campaign suggest that he is an elite player, there are plenty of people in the football world who are still waiting to see if he is a flash in the pan or the real deal at the game's most important position.
Defenses now have a full offseason to break down the quarterback's existing game tape, with more film on the horizon in the 2018 regular season. We will soon find out if Jimmy G is the NFL's next great quarterback or an average QB1 who cashed in on a timely hot streak.
2) Chubb's instant impact on Denver's defense. The Denver Broncos' defense didn't play up to its championship standard in 2017, but the arrival of Bradley Chubb could spark a re-emergence of the "Orange Crush" in the Mile High City. The fifth overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft is an explosive pass rusher with the size, strength and skill to give the Broncos the best pass-rushing tandem in the NFL.
Now, I know Chubb has yet to suit up for a training camp practice or even a preseason game, but word on the street suggests the former N.C. State standout is even better than the Broncos expected. The team's recently-hired pass-rush consultant (and nine-time Pro Bowl selectee), DeMarcus Ware, is already waxing poetic about the rookie's talents and how he will form a dynamic duo with Von Miller off the edges.
"The attributes that he really brings to the game -- stopping the run and being able to be that strong-side guy for Von -- that's what you need," Ware said in an interview with the Talk of Fame Sports Network's podcast. "They have that tag team again."
As we've seen with most of the top defensive units in football, the presence of multiple pass rushers is critical to success. Whether it's a pair of outside pass rushers crashing off the edges or an interior rusher complementing an edge defender, a double-trouble method is almost a requirement to slow down offenses in today's pass-centric league. Don't believe me? Just look at the Broncos' AFC West rivals, and how they assembled defensive fronts with multiple pass-rushing threats. The Los Angeles Chargers (Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa), Kansas City Chiefs (Justin Houston and Dee Ford) and Oakland Raiders (Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin) all boast dangerous edge-rushing duos. But the Broncos' new tandem could quickly claim the throne.
As arguably the most feared pass rusher in the NFL, Miller is clearly established as a problem off the edge, with 83.5 sacks in seven years (including six seasons with at least 10). The 2011 Defensive Rookie of the Year and Super Bowl 50 MVP is not only an unstoppable force -- with a combination of speed, quickness and burst that overwhelms offensive tackles over a 60-minute game -- but he is the ultimate closer, with a knack for delivering a game-clinching sack when everything's on the line.
Given Miller's immense talents as a disruptive playmaker, the Broncos are at their best when they can create more one-on-one chances for No. 58 or use him as decoy to set the table for others on pass-rushing downs. If the No. 2 rusher is a legitimate threat, the challenge of containing a multifaceted pass rush proves too much for most offenses.
Just look back at the numbers Denver's D produced when Miller played with Ware during a three-season run that resulted in a Super Bowl 50 win and a historic run that put Denver's unit in the conversation with some of the best defenses of all time. With No. 58 and No. 94 crashing off the edges, the Broncos' sack totals ranked ninth in the league in 2014 (41), first in 2015 (52) and third in 2016 (42). By comparison, the Broncos ranked 22nd in the NFL with 22 sacks in 2017 and looked nothing like the previous championship-caliber units.
In Chubb, the Broncos drafted the best defensive player in this prospect pool. In fact, I evaluated Chubb as a more polished pass rusher and a better overall player than last year's No. 1 overall pick, Myles Garrett. While some snickered at that notion during the run-up to the draft, I think it's telling that three-time Pro Bowl CB Chris Harris Jr. called Chubb "a young Khalil Mack" after watching him dominant offseason workouts as a pass rusher opposite Miller.
I'm certainly not surprised at the comparison to the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year, based on Chubb's style of play. He is an old-school pass rusher with a repertoire of power-based moves that make him hard to contain off the edges. In addition, Chubb plays with the kind of energy and relentless spirit that wears opponents down over time and leads to some garbage-time sacks at the end of games.
That said, it is hard for a young pass rusher to make his mark immediately in the league if he doesn't add tools to his toolbox to help him win against elite offensive tackles. Based on early reviews from Broncos officials, Chubb certainly possesses the humility and self-awareness to refine his game and become the high-level complementary rusher that the team needs.
"He's one of those guys who's mature, he listens, and that's what you want from a young guy," Ware said on the Talk of Fame Sports Network's podcast. "Because some of them come in very arrogant, saying, 'OK, I'm in the league now.' But for me, he has that, 'I just arrived' mentality. 'What do I need to do to deliver?' "
If Chubb plays like he apparently practices, the young pass rusher will not only alleviate some of the pressure on Miller, but he will help the Broncos' defense play at a level that could result in the team returning to the top of the division.
3) The reigning sack king could REALLY go off in 2018. If you're looking for a contender for the 2018 Defensive Player of the Year Award who's flying a bit under the radar, you might want to keep your eyes on Arizona Cardinals edge rusher Chandler Jones. The reigning NFL sack leader is not only coming off a spectacular season in which he piled up 17 sacks, 28 tackles for loss and 38 quarterback hits, but he is moving into a 4-3 scheme that could help him surpass those totals.
"My expectations are for him to perform well at a high level this year," new head Cardinals Steve Wilks told reporters, via the Arizona Republic. "To what degree, I hope it's Pro Bowl, All-Pro, maybe Defensive Player of the Year. He has that kind of skill set. I think the 4-3 is going to allow him to have more of an opportunity to go for the quarterback. He's very savvy and he's shown that over the years, particularly last year with the production."
Think about that: The only player in the NFL with at least 11 sacks in each of the past three seasons could be poised to make an even bigger impact in a new scheme that will allow him to chase quarterbacks and ball carriers without hesitation.
In the Cardinals' new 4-3 system, Jones will play as a one-gap penetrator, removing the "read and react" premise that was a hallmark of the team's previous 3-4 scheme. As a 4-3 defensive end, No. 55 will be instructed to hunt the quarterback first and foremost, with stopping the run viewed as a secondary assignment. The attack mentality should allow Jones to not only play faster, but to be more disruptive off the edge as a designated rusher.
"It's less thinking, honestly," Jones told reporters at his charity football camp. "A guy can just go play and not think. You can play a lot faster. Our whole defense should be a lot faster."
To that point, Wilks' defensive scheme can help pass rushers take their games to another level. In his 4-3 system, DEs are expected to rush the passer off the edges or through inside gaps on a variety of stunts, games and loops. In addition, Wilks believes in applying pressure with five- and six-man zone/man blitzes that create one-on-one opportunities for edge players.
Last season under Wilks in Carolina, Julius Peppers notched 11 sacks as a situational pass rusher despite being an "old head" on the defensive line. He had the green light to hunt the quarterback whenever he was in the game; this singular focus helped him play at a breakneck pace despite having lost a step at age 37. Jones, on the other hand, in squarely in his prime. The seventh-year pro flashes exceptional snap-count anticipation and first-step quickness off the edge. He complements his explosive speed with an array of crafty moves that blend power and finesse. Whether it's a dip-and-rip or a slick spin move or a shifty inside burst off basketball-like crossover footwork, Jones has a bag of tricks that makes him a nightmare to deal with, particularly when he can line up in a Wide 9 alignment that gives him plenty of runway before engaging an offensive tackle.
That's why opponents should fear Jones' potential impact in a scheme that allows him to put his hand in the dirt in a sprinter's stance with an attack-dog mentality. If Jones can put up big numbers as a part-time rusher in a 3-4 scheme, imagine what he can do in a system that actually plays to his strengths.