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 safety who might be the league's top defensive player.
-- A young QB who appears to have found his way.
But first, a look at the deterioration of an icon ...
* * * **
The New England Patriots are 9-1 and well on their way to an 11th consecutive postseason bid, but the defending Super Bowl champions are a quarterback away from claiming their seventh Lombardi Trophy.
It's widely viewed as blasphemous to take a shot at the G.O.A.T, due to a remarkable track record as the ultimate winner in the sport, but Tom Brady is more mystique than magic at this stage of his career.
Let's be honest: TB12 hasn't really played like an elite quaterback since the middle of 2018, and his declining play at age 42 suggests that we will never see him perform at that level again. He might walk into the ring like Mike Tyson preparing to knock out Michael Spinks, but he's really "Iron Mike" facing Lennox Lewis at the end of his career. The swagger and intimidation factor remains, but the game is no longer there -- and it is only a matter of time before opponents realize the bite isn't nearly as ferocious as the bark.
Now, I know the Twitterverse is going to take me to task for suggesting Brady shouldn't be feared as a QB1, but the numbers and tape reveal a player who currently sits outside of the top 20 at his position.
Since Week 4, Brady is completing just 62.2 percent of his passes with a 7:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and an 80.6 passer rating, which ranks 26th among 32 quarterbacks with 100-plus pass attempts during that span.
While Brady backers will likely point out his three-game run to start the season (67.9 completion rate, 8.6 yards per attempt, 7:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 116.5 passer rating) as a reason to remain optimistic about a turnaround, the fact that he currently ranks 25th in yards per attempt (6.8), 20th in passer rating (90.1) and is tied for 17th in passing touchdowns (14) should tell you all that you need to know about Brady at this stage of his career.
No. 12 is a game manager being propped up by a stellar defense and opportunistic special teams units that routinely reward him with short fields and easy scoring opportunities. That's what every quarterback wants from his supporting cast, but it's something Brady needs more than ever to win games.
I'm not hating on Brady. As I mentioned above, he's the G.O.A.T., with six Super Bowl rings to prove it. But if we stick to facts over feelings, there's no way that you can call it any differently. The three-time MVP can't carry the offense on the strength of his right arm anymore, and the Patriots would be foolish to lean on him extensively at this point, with his game in decline. In the past two games, Brady has averaged just 5.4 yards per pass attempt and he's been surprisingly inaccurate on throws that used to be layups for him.
Sure, Brady's overall play has been negatively impacted by the lack of high-end weapons around him. The retirement of Rob Gronkowski left the 20th-year pro without a dominant playmaker in the passing game with the capacity to control the game like the queen on the chessboard. Although Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu are established pass catchers and "chain movers," neither is regarded as a game-breaking burner. Lacking explosiveness on the perimeter, the Pats are forced to rely on a small-ball approach. Previously, the dink-and-dunk approach yielded big gains, as Brady was deadly accurate and efficient on short and intermediate throws. From 2016 through '18, he posted completion rates of 77.8, 74.1 and 74.2 on quick passes (time to throw: less than 2.5 seconds), with accompanying passer ratings of 115.3, 106.9 and 100.7. Despite the declining efficiency each year, he remained a high-level player compared to his peers, and New England's offense continued to produce under his direction. In 2019, however, Brady is only connecting on 69.2 percent of his quick passes with a passer rating of just 90.5.
Brady is missing open receivers, and his inability to consistently connect the dots has prompted defensive coordinators to turn up the pressure to challenge the veteran to make pinpoint throws under duress. Against the blitz, though, Brady is completing just 52.4 percent of his passes with a 76.6 passer rating. These figures are also significantly down from his last three seasons. In addition, Brady's completion rate against pressure, 32.9, is the second-lowest in the NFL.
If Brady is unable to beat the blitz with his arm while obviously lacking the athleticism to defeat pressures with his legs, he is a liability to the team, particularly against a top defense with capable pass rushers and corners who can play tight man-to-man coverage on the perimeter. This is not only reflected on the stat sheet, but a quick study of the All-22 Coaches Film reveals a shakier Brady than we're used to seeing. The veteran quarterback has been increasingly rattled by pressure, and the persistent harassment in the pocket has led to more errant throws and questionable reads than before.
With defensive coordinators growing more confident that pressure can disrupt Brady's rhythm, and with New England's offense lacking big-play threats on the outside, the Pats are poised to face more pressure than ever with No. 12 under center. Defenders have not only tasted his punching power, but they're beginning to walk through his jabs knowing that Brady is staggering as he retreats to his corner. Now, that doesn't mean the 14-time Pro Bowler is unable to catch an opponent slipping with an occasional haymaker, but the days of Tom Brady hunting for knockouts are over. He lacks the precision to beat opponents up with body blows over a 12-round fight, and his suspect supporting cast makes it hard for him to overwhelm opponents as a counter puncher.
While most of the football-watching world seemingly refuses to acknowledge that Brady is no longer the baddest man on the planet, the opponents who view No. 12 as the flabby Mike Tyson will have a chance to knock out the Patriots and swipe the belt as the new heavyweight champs of the world.
MICHAEL THOMAS: Can star WR do something only Jerry Rice has done?
The NFL might be a quarterback-driven league, but the most dominant offensive player in the game right now is a wide receiver.
No disrespect to Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes and Christian McCaffrey, among others, but Michael Thomas is an unstoppable force on the field. No one comes close to dominating his respective position like the New Orleans Saints' WR1.
Thomas leads the NFL in targets (114), receptions (94) and receiving yards (1,141), while also topping the board in receiving first downs (58) and catch percentage among players with at least 70 targets (82.5). The only player in the NFL with 1,000 receiving yards this season is on pace to break Marvin Harrison's single-season receptions record (143). Currently projected to finish with 150 catches for 1,826 yards, Thomas is on pace to blow past Jerry Rice's numbers in 1993 (98 catches for 1,503 yards), which was the last time a wide receiver won the Offensive Player of the Year award. (In fact, Rice is the only receiver ever to take home this hardware -- he also received the honor in 1987.) Let that last part marinate for a minute. Thomas is putting up the kind of numbers associated with the receiver G.O.A.T despite the fact everyone in the stadium knows the ball is heading in No. 13's direction. Thomas is the only player in the NFL who has been targeted on 30-plus percent of his team's targets (33.4, to be exact).
Considering the constant double-coverage and loaded zones that he faces each week, it is remarkable that Thomas and Brees lead the league in highest completion percentage among a quarterback-wide receiver duo with at least 25 targets (86.0). Thomas' connection rate with backup QB Teddy Bridgewater? That'd be 79.0 percent, which ranks third in the league. This is not only a testament to the clever scheming of Sean Payton, but it's a credit to Thomas' ability to win against a variety of coverage and technique tactics, including press-man. As the NFL's leader in receptions (34) and receiving yards (471) against bump-and-run, Thomas overwhelms defenders with his size, strength, and physicality at the line of scrimmage. He plays bully ball with smallish defenders early in routes and his subtle push-off tactics routinely create separation at the top of routes.
Additionally, Thomas utilizes his strength and power to pick up chunk yards after the reception. He ranks second among wide receivers in yards after the catch with 436, and Thomas' underrated running skills have enabled him to dominate the game without being a true vertical threat.
Considering his ascension to the top of the charts as an elite receiver, it is time for me to admit to underestimating Thomas' potential as a prospect when he was coming out of Ohio State. Despite his 6-foot-3, 212-pound frame and 18 touchdowns in his last two years as a Buckeye, I didn't view Thomas as a No. 1 receiver in the 2016 class. I didn't give him enough credit for his savvy route-running ability and overpowering combat skills. Thomas has become the best wide receiver in the game by building his foundation on technique and fundamentals, instead of relying solely on athleticism or speed. As a result, he has been able to consistently defeat athletic cover corners on an assortment of short and intermediate routes between the numbers and down the seams.
"Thomas is their new Marques Colston," said a former NFL defensive coordinator with extensive experience coaching against the Saints. "He's a 'jumbo' slot receiver with the size and strength to overpower nickel corners between the hashes. He runs good routes and plays with an edge to him. Payton does a great job of creating and exploiting mismatches for him, but Thomas deserves credit for working on his game.
"He's become a monster on the perimeter."
Although the comparison to Colston will draw some eye rolls from Who Dat Nation, the veteran defensive play-caller was really heaping praise on the Saints for the utilization of their No. 1 receiver as a "big slot." By inserting Thomas into the slot, New Orleans is pitting him against linebackers ill-equipped to cover him in space or undersized cornerbacks without the strength to hold up against his physical style. In addition, the insertion of Thomas into the slot gives Brees a big target with a large catch radius over the middle of the field. Given the quarterback's waning arm strength, the clever placement of the team's No. 1 playmaker in close proximity to the quarterback puts Thomas in prime position to get consistent touches.
With Thomas turning those touches into first downs and touchdowns, the Saints' offense continues to roll behind the lead of a wide receiver -- a wide receiver who deserves serious consideration for some serious hardware.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Jamal Adams: Defensive Player of the Year? It might sound crazy to suggest that the league's top defensive player hails from a 3-7 team that considered trade offers for him last month, but it's hard to ignore Jamal Adams' spectacular play for the New York Jets. While Adams made it clear that he didn't like having his name included in trade talks, the third-year pro is thriving in his role as the designated playmaker in Gregg Williams' defense and the football world should take notice.
For starters, Adams leads his team in sacks (6), quarterback hits (9), tackles for loss (8), forced fumbles (2) and defensive touchdowns (2). If he keeps that pace through the end of the season, he'll become the first player to lead a team in each of those categories since Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt accomplished the feat in 2014, when he won the second of his three DPOY awards.
Think about that. Adams is compiling a resume as a defensive back that rivals one of the best defensive linemen to ever play the game.
Adams is disrupting plays in the backfield as a blitzer, on the perimeter and in the deep middle. This is the kind of versatility that he displayed during his college career at LSU, but he's taken his game to another level in Williams' ultra-aggressive defense.
The Pro Bowler has been deployed near the line of scrimmage as a hybrid linebacker at times, utilizing his superb instincts and awareness to snuff out running plays in the backfield. Additionally, Williams has incorporated Adams into the pass-rush package as an extra rusher on five- and six-man pressures, while also deploying him as a bluffer on simulated pressures (four-man rushes from blitz-heavy looks). The Jets will frequently show an overload blitz with Cover 0 behind it before dropping into a three-deep or two-deep zone with box defenders retreating into zone drops.
To execute these exotic coverages and pressures, the defense must have a Swiss Army Knife defender in the secondary with the smarts, athleticism and versatility to float seamlessly from box defender to deep defender without a hiccup. Adams is that guy and he's a relentless hunter in pursuit of the ball on every snap. His six sacks since Week 9 are the most in the NFL in that span, and he is the first defensive back with six-plus sacks and at least two defensive touchdowns in a season since 1982.
At a time when NFL teams are always looking for a ballhawk in the middle of the field, Williams has elevated his best defender by utilizing him in unconventional ways. Hopefully, the "peace" Adams found after he stayed put through the trade deadline continues because he's been playing his best ball since finding it.
2) Josh Allen turning the corner? The Buffalo Bills are inching their way toward locking up a playoff berth behind a quarterback who's beginning to come into his own.
Although it isn't always pretty when Josh Allen plays, there's no denying the energy the Bills' QB1 has added to the offense as a dynamic dual-threat at the position. The second-year pro has guided Buffalo (7-3) to the top of the wild-card race in the AFC, despite ranking in the bottom third in the league in completion percentage (60.3 percent), pass yards per game (217.5), touchdown-to-interception ratio (13:7) and passer rating (85.4).
Those numbers certainly are not going to wow anyone at first glance, but his passing production combined with his running-game impact has made him a dangerous weapon with the ball in his hands. Allen has produced 20 touchdowns this season, including seven rushing TDs, while averaging more yards per game (250.6) than the two QBs drafted before him in 2018, Baker Mayfield (247.1) and Sam Darnold (231.7).
That's certainly not what many folks, including myself, expected from Allen when he came off the board as the seventh overall pick in the 2018 draft. The ex-Wyoming standout was viewed as a developmental prospect with prototypical size and elite arm talent. However, concerns about his accuracy and touch led to questions about his game. Allen was maddeningly inconsistent as a passer in college and his streakiness resulted in a career completion percentage of 56.2, which is significantly lower than the rate NFL teams typically look for in prospects (at least 60 percent).
Fast-forward to his rookie season, when Allen teased evaluators with his athleticism, arm talent and running skills on the way to passing for 2,074 yards with 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while rushing for 631 yards and eight more scores over 12 games. While the passing numbers fell in line with expectations, No. 17's impact as a runner seemingly came out of the blue considering his scant production as a ball carrier at Wyoming (767 yards over three seasons).
In 2019, Allen is applying the lessons learned from an inconsistent rookie season, as he has become a more steady passer and playmaker for the Bills. He's gone five consecutive games without an interception (career-long streak) and he's posted a passer rating greater than 110 in three of his last five games. The rising young passer has accounted for 12 offensive touchdowns since Week 6 (tied for third-most during that span).
As far as his overall efficiency as a quarterback, Allen has a passer rating 17.5 points higher than his mark from last season. Only Lamar Jackson has a larger passer rating increase (21.8) of the 25 QBs to start five or more games in each of the last two seasons. That's significant progress for a quarterback with accuracy issues dating back to his days as a high school player.
Given Allen's improvement, head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane should earn a round of applause for having a vision for their young QB1 and how he could succeed in the league. Since both men came to the Bills from the Panthers, it's possible that part of their blueprint was influenced by Carolina's success with Cam Newton at the helm. The 2015 MVP is an unorthodox playmaker with a unique game that blends exceptional running skills with A-plus arm talent in a bold and bodacious package.
To maximize all of Newton's talents as a dual-threat quarterback, the Panthers built an offensive scheme around him that featured designed quarterback runs, read-option plays and a handful of vertical routes that enabled him to push the ball down the field. Although Newton's completion percentage routinely hovered at or around 60 percent in years past, the Panthers were able to win with a collegiate-like offense that put their QB1 in the best position to succeed as a playmaker.
In Buffalo, the Bills have followed the script by utilizing Allen in a similar fashion. The team has routinely featured game plans with designed quarterback runs, zone-read plays and RPOs mixed in with a variety of deep shots in the passing game. The diversity of the Bills' running game -- with the quarterback playing a role -- has given defensive coordinators problems as they attempt to figure out the best way to slow down No. 17 as a playmaker.
Allen has 15 career rushing touchdowns, which is the second-most by a quarterback in his first 22 games since the NFL merger (only Newton had more, with 17). In addition, Allen is one of only five players with seven-plus rushing touchdowns in each of the last two seasons (Christian McCaffrey, Todd Gurley, Derrick Henry, and Aaron Jones are the others).
In the passing game, the Bills have surrounded the QB with a track team of receivers. They have added more speed, quickness and athleticism to the lineup to help Allen improve as a "connect the dots" passer. Cole Beasley, John Brown and tight end Dawson Knox have consistently created separation on their routes, routinely turning short passes into big gains on the perimeter. Their individual and collective abilities as running threats have enabled the Bills to feature more screens, quicks and crossing routes in the game plan.
With Allen showing growth as a passer, the added emphasis on the short game has helped him improve his completion rate and keep the offense on schedule. Most importantly, it has helped Allen cut down on the turnovers that plagued him a season ago.
Now, Allen has yet to lead his team to a win over an opponent that currently has a winning record this season, so I understand why there are Bills (and Allen) skeptics. This squad still has a great chance to advance to the playoffs, though, and I believe it's time to pay closer attention (and a little more respect) to an unorthodox playmaker who is quickly emerging as a franchise quarterback in Western New York.