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:
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It's hard to find franchise quarterbacks in the NFL, but it appears the New England Patriots have cracked the code on the position, based on their success with Tom Brady and a handful of other signal-callers who have made their mark in the league. Although TB12 is unquestionably the G.O.A.T, as a five-time Super Bowl winner, the performances of Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett as QB2s-turned-starters have led others to pay close attention to the Patriots' "draft and develop" plan at the position.
After taking some time to study New England's approach -- and the players it has developed at the position -- I noticed the team typically takes a quarterback every other year or so to ensure a young passer's in the pipeline. From Brady's selection as a sixth-round pick in 2000 to the Brissett pick in the third round in 2016, the Patriots have taken nine quarterbacks in the draft over the past 18 years. Here's the list:
-- Tom Brady, 2000 (sixth round)
-- Rohan Davey, 2002 (fourth)
-- Kliff Kingsbury, 2003 (sixth)
-- Matt Cassel, 2005 (seventh)
-- Kevin O'Connell, 2008 (third)
-- Zac Robinson, 2010 (seventh)
-- Ryan Mallett, 2011 (third)
-- Jimmy Garoppolo, 2014 (second)
-- Jacoby Brissett, 2016 (third)
*New England also added Brian Hoyer as an undrafted free agent in 2009.
Interestingly, the Patriots spent the early part of the 2000s investing in low-round picks at the position. Part of that could be attributed to the team's defensive-centric emphasis during that period. The Patriots won three of four Super Bowls from 2001 through '04 with the defense sparking the championship runs. The quarterback was expected to play his part as a game manager with a premium placed on judgment and ball security. Given the team's success with that formula, the need to invest in a playmaking quarterback wasn't a big priority on draft day.
In 2007, New England transformed into an offensive juggernaut, with Brady, Randy Moss, Wes Welker and others lighting up scoreboards around the league. And in 2008, the QB draft philosophy appeared to change. With the second and third round reserved for developmental prospects, the Patriots have concentrated their recent efforts on finding future QB1 prospects pretty often.
Looking at the common denominator between the Patriots' recent quarterback additions, I believe it comes down to being a four-year college player -- including at least two years as a starter -- with a number of significant wins and ideally a 2:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Let's compare the Patriots' drafted quarterbacks from 2008 and beyond:
-- O'Connell: Four-year starter at San Diego State with a 57.7 completion percentage and a 46:34 TD-to-INT ratio.
-- Robinson: Three-year starter at Oklahoma State with a 61.1 completion percentage and a 66:31 TD-to-INT ratio.
-- Mallett: Two-year starter at Arkansas with a 57.8 completion percentage and a 69:24 TD-to-INT ratio.
-- Garoppolo: Four-year starter at Eastern Illinois with a 62.8 completion percentage and a 118:51 TD-to-INT ratio.
-- Brissett: Two-year starter at N.C. State with a 59.5 completion percentage and a 46:15 TD-to-INT ratio.
With Garoppolo and Brissett, in particular, the Patriots hit the jackpot, landing a pair of developmental quarterbacks who quickly grasped the system and approach. Both passers were efficient and effective playing "connect the dots" football, and their proficiency suggests the team understands how to groom young passers for prime roles.
"They have a system that's been place for years," an AFC defensive coordinator told me. "The concepts and schemes don't change, so they are able to plug in players, particularly smart ones, without skipping a beat. If the quarterback does his job, the offense flows and you have a tough time slowing them down. It takes a lot of discipline on [the QB's] part, but if he trusts his reads, they will always put him in a position to succeed."
As simple as it sounds, it is hard to find quarterbacks with the discipline, aptitude and skill to thrive in a structured offense that places a premium on IQ over spectacular physical traits. Sure, the Patriots want passers with average to above-average arm talent and adequate athleticism, but they really want quarterbacks willing to stick to the script.
As I survey the 2018 QB class looking for potential Patriots -- since Garoppolo and Brissett both departed last year via trade -- I believe there are three guys capable of filling the role as the developmental quarterback with long-term potential.
Luke Falk, Washington State: Initially a walk-on at Wazzu, Falk became a three-year starter for the Cougs. He's a high-IQ player with a strong resume, having run Mike Leach's "Air Raid" system quite efficiently. Falk completed over 68 percent of his passes with a spectacular 119:39 TD-to-INT ratio. Although he lacks a big arm, he is a pinpoint passer adept at working the field as a horizontal playmaker. With Falk also comfortable executing run-pass checks at the line of scrimmage and moving the offense in no-huddle fashion, Falk could be a nice fit as a cerebral QB2 with mid-round value.
Kyle Lauletta, Richmond: The Senior Bowl MVP was a three-year starter with intriguing potential as a small school standout. Lauletta flashes a quick release and adequate arm talent as a mid-range passer with an evolving game. He finished his career with a 63.5 completion percentage and a 73:35 TD-to-INT ratio. Given his success on the all-star circuit, Lauletta could intrigue the Patriots as a developmental player.
Mike White, Western Kentucky: As a five-year college player with almost three full seasons of starts on his resume, White is an experienced passer with a refined game. As a quick-rhythm thrower with above-average arm talent, he is at his best working a mid-range game that allows him to fire the ball to receivers on a variety of "catch, rock and throw" tosses under 10 yards. He stretches the field from east to west with his horizontal throws, but occasionally takes a shot down the field along the boundary. With a completion rate of 66.4 percent and a 63:15 TD-to-INT ratio over the past two seasons, White has the production to match his immense talent and potential as a developmental QB.
QB QUESTION: Is AJ McCarron an NFL starter?
I don't know why the mere suggestion of McCarron as a potential starting quarterback elicits such a strong response from scouts, writers and the Twitter-verse, but the naysayers questioning the former Heisman Trophy runner-up's ability to lead a team as a QB1 continue to get it wrong. In a league where we're about to see Kirk Cousins break the bank as the hottest quarterback on the market and Case Keenum and Nick Foles championed as viable starters, there is no doubt in my mind that McCarron can be a No. 1 guy on a team in need of a quarterback.
While that suggestion might make you spit out your coffee or roll your eyes, I will double down on my belief in the fifth-year pro. Since the 2014 pre-draft process, I've touted McCarron as an intriguing quarterback prospect with all of the tools needed to be a winner in this league. From his winning pedigree (36-4 career record as a starter for the Crimson Tide, with a pair of national titles) to his keen understanding of situational football and efficient numbers (77:15 TD-to-INT ratio with a 66.9 percent completion rate) to his competitive arrogance and underrated passing skills, I believed he checked off all of the boxes coming out of Alabama to be a quality NFL starter.
Now, I certainly understood why some scouts weren't fully on board with my assessment, based on questions about McCarron's arm strength and lack of athleticism. But I believed his intangibles (confidence, work ethic, football IQ and leadership skills) exceeded his physical deficiencies. And I would've taken him with a first-round pick -- if I had a strong supporting cast in place that would allow him to play as a game manager or complementary playmaker under center.
Although the rest of the league didn't share my high opinion of McCarron -- as evidenced by his selection in the fifth round behind guys like Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Tom Savage and Aaron Murray -- I remained optimistic about his chances after speaking to several Bengals coaches about his progress as a player during his first few years with the team. And I've heard positive reviews from other league folks outside of the organization, too.
"I like him for what he is," an NFC pro personnel director told me. "He's a limited passer, but coming from Alabama, he's a winner, and he's proved that he knows how to play team football. He doesn't have to have crazy passing numbers to win. That's important."
On the field, his play during the preseason suggested that he would perform well when given a chance to play with the No. 1s, and he didn't disappoint when he had his shot to run the team at the end of the 2015 campaign, following an Andy Dalton injury. McCarron not only stepped in and played efficiently as a starter -- 66.4 percent completion rate, 6:2 TD-to-INT ratio and a 97.1 passer rating in seven regular-season appearances (three starts) -- but he had the Bengals on the verge of winning their first playoff game under Marvin Lewis, delivering a would-be game-winning toss to A.J. Green with less than two minutes remaining in the game. Of course, McCarron's teammates proceeded to completely melt down, handing the game to Pittsburgh.
With those positive McCarron moments still etched in my memory bank, I remain convinced he will be a solid starter in the league if he's put in the right situation. In an ideal world, McCarron would land with a team that has three things in place that'll allow him to succeed: a strong defense, a solid running game and a legitimate No. 1 receiver.
Although I'm bullish on McCarron's prospects as a QB1, I also know that he is a "trailer" in need of a solid supporting cast to allow him to play to his strengths as a game manager. Some options:
Arizona Cardinals: Steve Wilks' squad checks off all of the boxes needed to help McCarron thrive. The team has a stout defense in place and the offense features a pair of playmakers (Larry Fitzgerald and David Johnson) who would allow McCarron to grow into the role as a starter. With Mike McCoy adept at building an offense around the talents of his quarterback, McCarron could prosper quickly in the desert as the Cardinals' new QB1.
Denver Broncos: After missing out on the playoffs due to inept quarterback play, the Broncos could return to prominence with a solid starter under center. While McCarron lacks the marquee name that would excite the fan base, he is an efficient passer capable of getting the ball into the hands of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders on the perimeter. In addition, he takes excellent care of the football, which will keep the defense out of harm's way and allow the team to return to the formula that led to a Super Bowl victory a few seasons ago.
Buffalo Bills: If the team moves on from Tyrod Taylor -- and it seems to me like they might be trying to create a trade market for him right now -- McCarron could be the right guy to replace him as the new QB1. He knows how to play winning football in a blue-collar fashion and his Alabama ties could make him an ideal fit in Brian Daboll's scheme. With Sean McDermott intent on rebuilding the winning culture in Buffalo, McCarron's pedigree could serve him well as the new starter in Buffalo.
Cleveland Browns: I have to put the Browns on the list based on McCarron's ties with Hue Jackson and the aborted trade from last season, but I'm not really convinced this is the right spot for him. The team's defense isn't quite up to par and the only wideout worth a salt is Josh Gordon. Throw in the probability of the team using the No. 1 overall pick on a quarterback, and I just don't know if this is a spot where McCarron would flourish in 2018.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) The Chiefs are making a mistake in moving on from Marcus Peters. It wasn't shocking to see rumors about the Kansas City Chiefs possibly trading two-time Pro Bowler Marcus Peters this offseason, given his tumultuous 2017 campaign that included a team-imposed suspension. But now that a deal between the Chiefs and Rams has been finalized, I really question this move by K.C.
Sure, Peters has been a headache to deal with, on and off the field, as evidenced by his penalty issues (three unsportsmanlike fouls and two for unnecessary roughness in 2017) and reported run-ins with coaches, but he has been absolutely sensational as a pure cover man. Peters leads all players with 19 interceptions since 2015, and his passer rating allowed has remained at an astonishingly low level during that span. (Peters' passer ratings allowed from 2015-17, according to Pro Football Focus: 67.1, 65.6 and 66.0.) Not to mention, he has discouraged quarterbacks from throwing the ball in his direction, due to his remarkable ball-hawking skills on the perimeter (targets have dropped from 151 to 91 to 72 each year). Considering how hard it is to find true shutdown corners in this league, Peters' feats as a playmaker are going to be nearly impossible for the Chiefs to replace.
While some have suggested the recent additions of Kendall Fuller (who will come over as part of the Alex Smith trade) and David Amerson (signed after being released by Oakland) could allow the defense to survive without No. 22, I will quickly tell anyone within earshot that Peters is a top-five player at his position, and neither guy can walk in his shoes on the island. No disrespect to their previous play or their long-term potential, but they simply aren't capable of replicating his production as a playmaker, particularly on the outside against No. 1 receivers.
Fuller is ideally suited to play in the slot, based on his quickness, awareness and instincts. He ranked as one of the best slot defenders in the game (he held opponents to a 54.5 passer rating allowed and a 51.0 percent catch rate in 2017) and shows promise handling receivers between the numbers, but playing outside is a different animal. I'm not completely convinced he can "clue" the ball like Peters or match up with some of the "big" receivers in the AFC West.
Amerson has the size to match up on the outside, but he is not the playmaker that Peters has been on the island. With only eight career interceptions in six seasons (56 career starts), he doesn't produce takeaways at a high clip, and his game is better suited for a complementary role as a CB2. He lacks the speed and quickness to shadow top receivers, and a heavy workload against No. 1s would put his flaws on display.
With the draft also offering few players capable of stepping in as lockdown corners from Day 1, the Chiefs have blown a serious hole into a defense that already underwhelmed last season.
"Peters requires a lot of maintenance," a personnel executive from a different AFC team told me before news of this trade broke. "He's an emotional kid with a strong personality. That mix can make life tough on his coaches, but you can't knock his ability on the field. The kid is always around the ball, and he has a knack for coming up with a play in key moments. ... It's hard to find playmakers in this league, so I would exhaust all of my options before moving on from him."
2) Why Jarvis Landry shouldn't get a monster contract. When the Miami Dolphins surprisingly placed the non-exclusive franchise tag on Jarvis Landry this week, the transaction was met with raised eyebrows from executives around the league. Although the three-time Pro Bowler has snagged more passes than any other receiver in NFL history in the first four seasons of a player's career (400), he isn't viewed as a classic No. 1 receiver, and that makes it hard for some to justify the hefty salary that the tag carries for 2018 (around $16 million, per NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport). This would rank Landry behind only Antonio Brown ($17 million) in average annual salary among receivers.
"Landry is a good player, but I don't think that he is a difference-maker by any stretch of the imagination," a personnel director from another AFC team told me. "He has put up good numbers in terms of catches, but his low yards-per-catch average and lack of touchdowns would make it hard for me to cut him a big check. There are too many slot receivers capable of doing similar things at a lower number. I would've let him walk and looked for a cheaper option."
While that opinion might be hard for some observers to digest, given Landry's production as a fantasy football star, I agree with the premise, based on how slot receivers are viewed in the league. Pass catchers assigned to work the middle of the field are a dime a dozen, and teams shouldn't pay top dollar for replaceable assets. The top of the pay scale should be reserved for the No. 1 receivers universally viewed as game-changers at the position. Sure, first downs and total catches are nice, but the big money goes to the playmakers who put the ball in the paint (score touchdowns) and flip the field with explosive plays.
Looking at Landry's production over a four-year period, it is hard to justify making No. 14 the second-highest-paid player at the position. Consider that Landry has just 38 catches of 20-plus yards on his resume; Brown recorded almost three times as many big plays (93 receptions of 20-plus yards) during that same four-year span. That's why I'm surprised the Dolphins were willing to issue the tag when the top slot receivers make anywhere from $10 million (Randall Cobb) down to $5.5 million (Julian Edelman) per year for their services as chain movers. I certainly understand the desire to keep one of your best players in the fold, but the thought of resetting the market for slot receivers at a ridiculous number would've been enough to give me pause, particularly with Landry reportedly seeking a four-year deal worth $14.5 million annually.
On the other hand, I can understand why Landry desires a deal in the big-money neighborhood, based on his record-breaking production early in his career. He has not only averaged 100 catches per season, but he is clearly the team's No. 1 option in the passing game.
Which existing contracts could serve as a point of comparison in contract negotiations? The team might try to point to the deal most recently given to Edelman, who, before tearing his ACL in the preseason, went on a four-year run very similar to Landry's (356 catches, 3,826 yards and 20 touchdowns with 35 receptions of 20-plus yards). But the team-friendly nature of No. 11's deal (two years, $11 million) makes it impossible to use as a reasonable starting point.
Thus, the Dolphins would likely use Cobb's four-year, $40 million contract as a baseline, given the former Pro Bowl receiver's role and production with the Green Bay Packers. Cobb inked that deal shortly before he would have hit free agency in 2015, coming off his fourth pro season, in which he snagged 91 passes for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns -- his lone Pro Bowl campaign to date. Despite failing to top the 1,000-yard mark in any other season of his career, Cobb's big-play numbers (50 receptions of 20-plus yards and 25 touchdowns) through the first four seasons of his career were similar to Landry's, and his role as a hybrid running back-slot receiver falls in line with Landry's responsibilities as a catch-and-run playmaker for the Dolphins.
Tavon Austin's deal with the Los Angeles Rams (four years for $42 million, with $30 million in guarantees) could also be used to set the table for an extension between the two sides. Austin certainly hasn't provided the Rams with the same kind of impact as Landry, but their similar roles as slot receivers could allow Landry's representatives to make a strong argument for more money.
Armed with a $16 million tag that pays him like an elite player, Landry has all of the leverage needed to reset the market for premier slot receivers around the league.
3) How will the 2017 RB class impact the 2018 NFL Draft? The NFL is a copycat league, with coaches, scouts and executive known to swipe good ideas from opponents. With that in mind, I can't wait to see how the value of running backs plays out on draft day following the recent success of Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt. All of the aforementioned members of the 2017 running back draft class had major impacts on their respective squads, but the difference in their draft slots will lead to several conversations in meeting rooms around the league.
While first-rounders are expected to produce at elite levels early in their career, players taken in the middle rounds are viewed as developmental prospects who need a little time to find their way before making their mark on the league. That's why teams will have to determine whether investing in a first-round running back like Fournette (chosen fourth overall by the Jaguars) or McCaffrey (eighth overall by the Panthers) is a wise investment when Pro Bowl-caliber runners like Kamara (picked in the third round by the Saints) and Hunt (third round, Chiefs) can be uncovered later in the draft. The conundrum reignites the draft-value debate that always centers around the position at this time of year.
"It's hard to justify taking one early when you see so many mid-round guys have success right away," an AFC college director told me. "Sure, some of the guys at the top of the board are a little bit better, but if you know you can [get] Pro Bowl-caliber performance from a lesser guy, why would you invest a top pick in that position?"
I wonder how many teams will set their sights on finding a quality running back in the mid-to-late rounds. Considering how top picks (see: Ezekiel Elliott, fourth overall in 2016; Todd Gurley, 10th overall in 2015; Fournette and McCaffrey) have performed compared to their non-first-round brethren (see: Le'Veon Bell, second round in 2013; LeSean McCoy, second round in 2009; David Johnson, third round in 2015; Kamara and Hunt), I don't know if you can go wrong with either approach in today's game.