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:
-- How Joe Judge's hiring could change the annual coaching carousel.
-- Why so many teams misjudged DK Metcalf -- and the effect this will have on scouting.
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It is tough to separate your head from your heart in the evaluation business, but Bill Belichick can't let his affinity for Tom Brady seduce him into keeping TB12 around for another season in New England.
I know parting ways with the six-time Super Bowl champ and three-time MVP, whose resume is synonymous with winning at the highest level, would be viewed as blasphemous in Foxborough. But if the Patriots want to continue competing for titles in the near future, it's time for them to close the book on the Brady era.
Once again, I'm not taking a shot at Brady's standing as the G.O.A.T. He will deservedly go down as the greatest quarterback in NFL history, and a gold jacket is unquestionably in his future, based on his individual accomplishments and the Patriots' dominance under his direction.
But the NFL is a "what have you done for me lately" league, and Belichick can't let nostalgia get in the way of his team-building process. He allowed other Patriots legends (like Ty Law, Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, Vince Wilfork and others) to walk out the door in the past, and he should give the 42-year-old Brady, who is headed for free agency this offseason, the same treatment as a rapidly declining player nearing the end of a storied career.
I'm sure that sentiment won't endear me to the legions of TB12 fans who blame his 2019 season, in which the Patriots failed to make the AFC title game for the first time since 2010, on a suspect supporting cast and an underachieving offensive line, but the numbers don't lie. Brady got off to a sizzling three-game start from the pocket (see: a 67.9 percent completion rate, 303.7 passing yards per game, 8.6 yards per pass, a 7:0 TD-to-INT ratio and a 116.5 passer rating). But through the rest of the regular season, Brady ranked among the bottom six in the league in completion percentage (59.4, ranking 28th), yards per attempt (6.2, tied for 30th) and passer rating (82.0, 27th).
Brady also struggled against pressure in 2019, as evidenced by his 37.4 percent completion rate on those throws -- the third-lowest mark in the NFL this season among QBs with at least 30 attempts under duress. When you compare that number to the 52.1 percent completion rate that he posted under pressure from 2016 to '18, it is apparent that he is no longer the surgeon who used to carve up any opponent that dared to challenge him with five- and six-man pressures.
TB12 is also incapable of attacking the entire field as a passer, particularly on throws out wide. Brady finished 2019 with the lowest passer rating (67.4) among 32 qualified quarterbacks on throws to wide targets, along with a 53 percent completion rate and a 5:6 TD-to-INT ratio on these tosses. Comparing those numbers to Brady's production when throwing out wide from 2016 to '18 makes it appear as if the former MVP's game has fallen off a cliff:
BRADY WHEN THROWING WIDE:
2018: 63.4 percent completion rate, 11:2 TD-to-INT ratio, 101.4 passer rating.
2017: 61.1 percent completion rate, 10:5 TD-to-INT ratio, 96.2 passer rating.
2016: 60.8 percent completion rate, 9:1 TD-to-INT ratio, 101.6 passer rating.
With that obvious decline in mind, Belichick would be wise to pull the plug and let Brady walk this offseason, given that a number of other core veterans (Devin McCourty, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Matthew Slater, Joe Thuney, Marshall Newhouse and Danny Shelton) are also open to depart via free agency. The Patriots have traditionally been one of the league's older teams, but it is time to reset the roster to get more speed and athleticism on the field.
If the Patriots are going to begin a rebuild, it would be better to usher in a new era with a younger QB1 to grow with a retooled roster. Obviously, no new quarterback will come close to matching Brady's legacy, but the Patriots need to find a signal-caller who can attack the entire field while also offering some of the movement skills needed to succeed at the position at this time. I'm not suggesting the Patriots need to bring in a Lamar Jackson-type QB, but a younger, more dynamic playmaker would enable the team to attack defenses in different ways.
That's why I'm not surprised to hear NBC Sports' Peter King suggest Belichick would be intrigued by the potential of Andy Dalton as a starting quarterback. You can laugh all you want at the thought of the 32-year-old Dalton, whose run with the Bengalsis likely ending, succeeding TB12 as the Patriots' QB1, but the three-time Pro Bowler is an experienced starter with a high IQ, solid management skills and underrated athleticism. He has won games during his nine seasons in Cincinnati when the pieces were right around him, and Belichick could certainly put together plans to win games with Dalton at the helm.
The same could be said for Teddy Bridgewater, the Saints backup who is headed for free agency, based on his combination of intangibles, arm talent and playmaking ability. Considering the presumably affordable price point for each veteran compared to Brady's expected asking price ($25 million-plus), the Patriots could build a better overall team with a valued-priced quarterback who also has a superior overall game. Remember, also, that Belichick has succeeded in New England with the likes of Matt Cassel, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett stepping in as starters, proving it doesn't take an elite quarterback to win games under his direction.
I know fans will have a tough time wrapping their minds around the possibility of Brady heading out of town after all that he's done for the franchise, but those fans might do well to remember a cautionary tale from another sport: the sweetheart deal Kobe Bryant received from the Los Angeles Lakers at the end of his NBA career. Bryant's farewell tour might've brought joy to the legions of fans in No.8/No.24 jerseys, but the team couldn't compete at a high level with a deteriorating superstar still front and center.
If Belichick is really about winning over everything else, he needs to break up with his quarterback to keep the franchise in title contention.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) How Joe Judge could significantly impact future coaching searches. I don't know if Joe Judge will bring a Super Bowl title to New York, but I hope that he wins enough with the Giants to prompt more owners and general managers to view special teams coaches as viable head coach candidates. Although John Harbaugh's continued success with the Baltimore Ravens -- including the team's impressive metamorphosis over the last couple years, with Lamar Jackson now directing an innovative offensive attack -- has put special teams coaches on the map, the fate of Judge could have a bigger impact on how kicking game coordinators are viewed in hiring circles.
I know that's a lot to put on a 38-year-old possessing a resume that's heavy with special teams experience, but he could be better positioned to succeed as a team leader than any other first-time head coach in recent history.
Let me explain.
The special teams coordinator is the only coach who interacts with offensive and defensive players, and he is also tasked with managing the entire coaching staff during certain periods on a daily basis. Special teams coordinators must assemble their kicking units with players from both sides of the ball, and they have to teach a variety of football skills that might be unfamiliar and uncomfortable for the majority of their personnel. For instance, many wide receivers and running backs placed on kickoff and punt-coverage teams must learn how to take proper pursuit angles and make open-field tackles after spending the majority of their high school and collegiate careers playing with the ball in their hands. In addition, special teams coordinators must delegate responsibilities to position coaches during special teams periods to ensure every player gets the proper instruction on the field. For example, defensive back coaches will work with the "vice" team to master the techniques needed to hold up the gunners on punt returns. Meanwhile, running backs coaches or wide receivers coaches will tutor the returners on how to field punts and deliver explosive plays in the return game.
Considering how head coaches must always delegate and assign responsibilities to their assistants, a special teams coordinator's experience prepares him well for the ultimate leadership role in the big chair.
"We meet with 80 percent of the team every day," an NFC special teams coordinator told me. "We know the roster better than any other coach on staff besides the head coach. We also have to motivate, teach and encourage players who don't really want to play on the kicking units, and we have to get them to play at a high level."
At a time when player development and deployment are critical parts of team-building plans, special teams coordinators are uniquely qualified to handle the responsibilities associated with the head-coaching role, particularly with the game-management experience that enhances their resumes.
"We bring the message every day to the team," an AFC special teams coordinator told me. "We are the offensive coordinator (return game), defensive coordinator (coverage teams) and a situational specialist. We also work with the head coach on game management.
"Special teams coaches touch every phase of the game. That's why we are better prepared to be head coaches than other coaches."
Special teams coaches are essentially a step below the head coach when you really assess their responsibilities. They are masters of personnel management and staff organization, and they also bring situational mastery to the table. That's more than most offensive and defensive coordinators can offer as first-time head coaches, and this is why more teams should explore the special teams coach market when looking for qualified candidates during the hiring cycle.
With Harbaugh building a monster in Baltimore -- due to his adaptability, flexibility and superb management skills -- and Judge getting an opportunity to rebuild one of the NFL's blue-blood franchises, special teams could become the new breeding ground for head-coaching candidates in the very near future.
While the naysayers will scoff at the connection between a workout performance and on-field production, it is hard to ignore the correlation in this instance, with Metcalf quickly becoming an unstoppable force on the perimeter. The 6-foot-4, 229-pounder not only amassed the third-most receiving yards (900) among rookie wideouts, but he just posted a 160-yard game in a spectacular playoff debut that has observers wondering why the Ole Miss product didn't earn first-round grades.
At the combine, Metcalf clocked a 4.33-second 40-yard dash while also popping an explosive vertical leap (40.5 inches) and broad jump (11-foot-2). In addition, he led all wide receivers with 27 repetitions on the bench press while displaying the physique of a superhero. Although Metcalf's three-cone time (7.38 seconds) and 20-yard shuttle time (4.50 seconds) were among the slowest of all skill players at the event, he was unquestionably one of the most explosive athletes in the building, and his solid positional workout prompted me to tout him as a possible top-10 pick in the draft.
Despite the strong overall performance on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf, Metcalf's inconsistent performance (only 67 career catches) and injury history (broken foot in 2016, season-ending neck injury in 2018) at Ole Miss led scouts to deduct points from his final score. He was deemed a "one-trick pony" (deep threat) in scouting circles, and evaluators couldn't envision him playing as a WR1 on Sundays.
"He's a 'body beautiful' kid with exceptional straight-line speed," an AFC scout told me last March. "He can stretch the field and makes plays as a vertical playmaker, but he's a limited route runner because he has a tough time stopping and changing directions. He lacks the balance and body control to run comebacks and intermediate routes. Plus, he's shown inconsistent hands.
"I love the athleticism and explosiveness, but I see him as a role player, not a star."
To the Seahawks' credit, the team has helped Metcalf succeed by placing him in a role that plays to his strengths as a dynamic straight-line athlete with explosive speed and acceleration. Studying the All-22 Coaches Film from this season, No. 14 primarily runs an assortment of vertical routes (go routes, posts and deep overs) and crossers that don't require him to stop and redirect. He can simply rely on his speed, power and athleticism to either run away from defenders or overpower them on 50-50 balls.
With Tyler Lockett entrenched as the Seahawks' WR1, Metcalf has been able to contribute as a specialist on the perimeter while learning the nuances of the position. He remains a work in progress as a route runner, but his game is becoming more refined in the NFL, and he's made strides as a consistent pass catcher. The combination of sweat equity from Metcalf and player deployment from the coaching staff has helped the rookie become an instant-impact player.
"Pete (Carroll) loves prospects with athleticism and instincts," said an NFC college director familiar with the Seahawks' draft philosophy. "He believes he can teach those guys how to play and he puts the onus on the coaches to place them in roles that will enhance their talents."
Considering Metcalf's surprising success as a rookie starter, there will be more general managers and coaches focused on identifying combine freaks with impact potential in the right scheme/developmental plan.