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:
But first, a look at the five QB competitions this year in training camp ...
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"If you have two quarterbacks, you actually have none."
That old adage annually crops up at this time of year, when football teams across the country are returning to the gridiron in preparation for a new season. NFL coaches and executives are under the gun to quickly resolve their quarterback dilemmas at the beginning of training camp to give their team the best opportunity to win in an ultra-competitive league.
Five teams hit training camp this summer with question marks at the game's most important position. Let's take a look at each situation and try to surmise who'll start the season under center when the regular season kicks off.
Despite the offseason proclamations suggesting that the team is comfortable with Savage spending the year as the team's QB1, the Texans didn't draft Watson to serve as a long-term understudy for a quarterback who has yet to throw a touchdown pass in a regular-season game. Sure, Savage is a big, strong-armed passer with a solid command of the offense after three seasons in Bill O'Brien's system, but he is really an inexperienced player with a spotty football resume. Savage spent time as a starter at Rutgers and Pittsburgh during a five-year college odyssey that also featured a brief stop at Arizona. Not to mention, he has been victimized by the injury bug during his time with the Texans, which spawns concern about his durability as a QB1.
Meanwhile, Watson is a rookie with a winning pedigree after leading Clemson to back-to-back national championship game appearances (triumphing in the second one). He impressed Texans staffers with his tireless work ethic and comprehension of the system during the offseason program. Although Watson hasn't been pressed into action outside of rookie and mandatory minicamps, O'Brien openly discussed how the rookie has gotten "better every day" while others have raved about his leadership skills.
"When you watched him, or at least when we watched him in the building here around our players, it was pretty apparent that that leadership trait that he has, it's infectious." general manager Rick Smith said, per ESPN, during the offseason.
"I think that he has that [leadership] about him without saying a word. He has a nature about him that I think people go to him," offensive assistant Pat O'Hara added in that same ESPN piece. "I think he has a real strong personality that's maybe not real, real vocal, but that's OK. But he has a presence about him that's real positive."
For a team that seems like it's a quarterback away from legit title contention, leadership, confidence and charisma might matter more than physical traits or scheme mastery. Given Watson's penchant for delivering in big games as a collegian (just ask Nick Saban), it appears the rookie should be the obvious pick here unless he fails miserably in the preseason, which I just don't see happening.
My projected winner: Watson.
It is uncommon for a former first-round pick to be viewed as a long shot in a quarterback battle, but that is exactly the case with Lynch trying to unseat Siemian as the Broncos' QB1. With first-year head coach Vance Joseph suggesting that he wants to pick "the best guy for our football team," it is hard for me to imagine Siemian on the sidelines when the Broncos' offensive starters take the field against the Los Angeles Chargers in the last game of Week 1.
The third-year pro was a solid as a first-time starter a season ago after surprisingly wrestling the job away from Mark Sanchez and Lynch in training camp. As an efficient manager with a conservative playing style, Siemian finished the season with only 12 giveaways (10 interceptions and two fumbles) while completing nearly 60 percent of his passes for 3,401 yards and 18 touchdowns in 14 starts. Considering the Broncos' spotty running game and inconsistent line play during the 2016 campaign, Siemian's efficient performance says a lot about his ability to play winning football from the pocket.
Lynch is a promising talent with the prototypical physical traits that most coaches covet at the position. At 6-foot-7, 244 pounds with a big arm and nimble feet, he can create big plays inside or outside the pocket. He certainly flashed some of that playmaking ability in limited action as a rookie (three games, two starts), particularly when allowed to pass on the move. As a legitimate dual-threat, Lynch shined on bootlegs and movement passes that enabled him to move the chains with his arm or legs. Although new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy's system is more pocket-based than the stretch-bootleg scheme employed by former head coach Gary Kubiak, Lynch's athleticism and arm talent could take the offense to another level -- IF the young gunslinger can manage his risky throws to keep his turnover numbers down.
"Paxton's got a big arm, so those guys with those big arms have to find their way as far as being aggressive with the ball," Joseph said following the Broncos' first training camp practice. "Obviously, Trevor's played more football. I think he's more conservative by his personality. That's not a bad thing. I think they're both different guys; it's obvious when watching them play, they're both different, but they've both been productive players."
That being said, I believe Joseph might've tipped his hand when he alluded to Lynch's risky ways. Defensive-minded coaches are typically prone to playing the quarterback who takes better care of the football. If the Broncos can effectively run the ball with C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles behind a rebuilt offensive line, the team can win with a game manager at quarterback, particularly with the defense playing at a top-five level. This is essentially how the Broncos won Super Bowl 50 and I can't imagine the team deviating from that blueprint with the pieces in place to make another title run.
My projected winner: Siemian.
While Kizer is ultimately the fan favorite heading into camp -- as a second-round pick and fresh face -- the rookie is probably a year away from stepping onto the field as a starter due to his lack of playing experience and inconsistent game. Sure, he is unquestionably the most naturally talented of the trio, but he needs to clean up his footwork, mechanics and overall consistency before he is ready to compete for the starting job.
Thus, the Browns' quarterback decision essentially comes down to Kessler and Osweiler during training camp. On the surface, the scales would seemingly tip toward Kessler due to his experience, production and performance in Hue Jackson's system last season. The second-year pro completed over 65 percent of his passes in nine games with a 6:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 92.3 passer rating. Most impressively, he didn't appear rattled on the big stage and showed far more grit, toughness and skill than many expected when studying his USC tape during the pre-draft process.
Osweiler, on the other hand, is coming off a highly disappointing season as Houston's starter. In his fifth NFL season -- but first year as a full-time starter -- Osweiler never looked comfortable in the Texans' system and his hesitancy frequently led to off-target throws at every level. Osweiler's inaccuracy and questionable judgment were reflected in his dismal numbers (2,957 pass yards, 5.8 yards per attempt, 15:16 TD-to-INT ratio).
Although Jackson is viewed as a bit of a quarterback whisperer, I don't know if Osweiler can be fixed based on his track record as a starter in this league. He struggled with his accuracy and pocket poise in Denver, and there are serious concerns about his overall toughness within the pocket. Not to mention, he seemingly wilts under pressure and there are questions about his leadership skills.
With that in mind, I believe this job is Kessler's to lose heading into the regular season. He knows the offense better than any other quarterback on the roster and knows how to manage the game to suit Jackson's tastes.
My projected winner: Kessler.
Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that we won't see Trubisky emerge as the QB1 for the team by the end of the season, but this bottom-of-the-totem-pole placement means that the competition is moot at this point. The team will keep veteran Mark Sanchez as the backup and allow the rookie to grow into the position away from the limelight. To be honest, this is exactly what Trubisky needs after logging just 13 starts as a collegian. Rushing him onto the field could be a recipe for disaster for the No. 2 overall pick.
Interestingly, the Bears have the perfect mentor in place for Trubisky in Sanchez. The veteran quarterback started right away for the New York Jets after being selected with the No. 5 pick in the 2009 draft, having made just 16 starts during his time at USC. Despite helping guide the Jets to back-to-back appearances in the AFC Championship Game in his first two NFL seasons, Sanchez never fully realized his potential as a franchise quarterback. But he has been a solid tutor to young quarterbacks as a backup (see: Dak Prescott).
"Seeing Dak last year, Mitch this year and myself, Dak played right away, I played right away, it looks like the things are slotted and the way things are going, it's going to be kind of a redshirt year for Mitch, which is fine," Sanchez said after practice on Thursday, per ESPN. "Carson Palmer redshirted. There's a million guys who watched somebody else play and then got to play themselves at some point. Some guys got thrown in right away: Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, me, Matt Stafford. There are two arguments and two paths you can go. Is one better than the other? I don't know."
While it's not exactly the competition that some expected when Trubisky was selected No. 2 overall, the Bears appear to have a plan in place to help the rookie grow into the QB1 role in time. With Sanchez serving as a tutor, Trubisky may avoid some of the pitfalls that plagued his mentor over the years.
My projected winner: Glennon.
The Jets appear to have a three-way battle at the position, but insiders will quickly tell you that this competition comes down to the veteran (McCown) and a youngster with intriguing potential but an inconsistent game (Hackenberg).
On a team that is in rebuilding mode, the Jets would appear to be better served to go with the young guy to see if he can play. The Jets used an early pick on Hackenberg because they believed that he had the potential to be a QB1, so it makes sense to give him every opportunity to prove team officials right (or wrong) to help them map out their rebuilding plans heading into the 2018 draft -- particularly with some intriguing quarterback options potentially available in the class.
Now, I know Hackenberg hasn't logged a regular-season snap and has been widely criticized for his offseason performance in OTAs/minicamps. Regardless, he should get the bulk of the reps in preseason to see if he shows steady improvement as a potential QB1. The Jets already know what they have in the 38-year-old McCown. If he performs well during the first few games, the team can give him an extended look in the third preseason game to see how he holds up in three quarters of play against as a starting defense. This would not only boost his confidence, but it would allow the rest of the team to become more comfortable with a young QB1 growing into the role.
In the end, I don't necessarily believe that everyone will endorse a youth-movement plan with jobs on the line -- particularly the head coach's -- but I do believe the team will give Hackenberg every opportunity to wrestle the job away from McCown with his play on the field. If the second-year pro dazzles in the next month, he will earn the job. Otherwise, I would expect the veteran to trot onto the field when the Jets kick off the regular season.
My projected winner: McCown.
JOE FLACCO'S BACK INJURY: Cause for great concern?
When the Baltimore Ravens announced that Joe Flacco would miss some time with a back injury, I wondered if this could be the beginning of the end for the team's franchise quarterback. While the injury is only expected to keep him out of action for three to six weeks, the thought of an aging quarterback dealing with back issues makes evaluators cringe.
"Whenever you hear about a quarterback suffering a back injury, you wonder if they will ever be the same," a former NFL scout told me. "The act of throwing the ball puts so much torque on your core (abs and back) that you wonder how it will affect their throwing motion. You also wonder how they will handle being hit after suffering the injury. It might be a minor thing, but it definitely makes you worry about his long-term prognosis."
Now, I know it's too early to speculate on the long-term ramifications of Flacco's disc injury, but it's reasonable to assume that he will have to work through the injury for the rest of the 2017 season. He will miss some valuable time at training camp and his absence could extend into the regular season based on how his back responds to treatment. With the former Super Bowl MVP only a season removed from dealing with a major knee injury that prematurely ended his 2015 campaign, you start to wonder if his mounting injuries will begin to affect his play on the field.
Speaking of his play, Flacco hasn't necessarily been great on the field since his spectacular run in the 2012 postseason that allowed the Ravens to claim their second Super Bowl title. Over the last four seasons, Flacco is only 29-29 as a starter with an 82.5 passer rating and 61 interceptions (third-most in the NFL during that span). Not to mention, the Ravens have made just one playoff appearance since their magical title run, which is a major concern for a team that's invested big money in the QB.
That's why I'm concerned that Flacco won't ever play up to the standard that he created when he successfully bet on himself during the 2012 season. Despite positing decent numbers as a passer (3,500-plus passing yards in seven of his nine seasons), Flacco still doesn't stand out as an elite quarterback with the capacity to put an offense on his shoulders.
"He not that guy," the former scout said. "They have a high regard for him in the building, but he's never really been the guy to carry the team. When they've been at their best, he's been the complement to a strong running game and suffocating defense. ... He wasn't the straw that stirred the drink when they were winning during his early years. Ray Rice was the focal point back then. Without a big-time player in the backfield to do the heavy lifting, he is unable to take the offense to another level."
With that in mind, Flacco needed a healthy preseason to mesh with a cast of pass catchers who will be responsible for carrying the offense without a strong running game in place. Versatile RB Kenneth Dixon already suffered a season-ending injury, while Danny Woodhead is coming off ACL surgery and Terrance West has yet to prove himself as a real difference maker. This puts the onus on the shoulders of Jeremy Maclin, Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman to serve as the driving force of the offense. Of course, a pass-first premise is completely reliant on having a healthy Flacco.
Naturally, the Ravens' offense could still hit the ground running if Flacco returns relatively soon and doesn't experience any setbacks. But when the quarterback was asked about the severity of the injury -- and any potential timetable for return -- on Friday, his answers didn't exactly calm the nerves of Ravens fans.
"We're not really sure," Flacco told the assembled media. "Hopefully not too long, but at the same time, just kind of a little waiting game. I think we're being conservative, a little bit cautious. I have some tightness down there.
"Hopefully it's not too long, but at the same time, it's just one of those things where you have to be patient and not let your competitive nature get the best of you."
An extended absence could force the team to turn to Ryan Mallett to spearhead the offense. While the seventh-year pro did show promise as a two-game starter for the Ravens in 2015, questions linger about his ability to handle the burden of being a QB1 on a team without a potent ground game. And early returns on Mallett's work with the first-team offense aren't positive. John Harbaugh has openly discussed his own conversations with free-agent QB Colin Kaepernick, but Baltimore signed a different quarterback (David Olson, formerly of the Kansas City Phantoms) on Friday. If Flacco's back continues to act up, the Ravens will look to tap Kap.
With their franchise quarterback sitting on the sideline nursing an aching back, the Ravens can only hope for a speedy return to health -- or they could find themselves on the outside looking in for the third straight January.
THE JARVIS LANDRY CONUNDRUM: Slot wizard worth WR1 money?
The eventual negotiation between the Miami Dolphins and Jarvis Landry, who is set to hit free agency next year, will be an interesting one to watch for executives around the league. While most decision makers value production and performance at a premium, it could be hard for the Dolphins to open up the vault for a two-time Pro Bowler with a impressive resume -- but a limited game.
That's not a dismissal of Landry's terrific accomplishments as a playmaker for the Dolphins. The fourth-year pro is co-owner of the record for most receptions by a receiver during the first three years of his career (tying his former college teammate, Odell Beckham Jr., with 288 grabs) and holds the team's single-season record for receptions (110 catches in 2015). Not to mention, he is a consistent chain mover with a bully-ball game that is eerily similar to Anquan Boldin during his prime.
Landry is such a powerful offensive force for the Dolphins that head coach Adam Gase dubbed him the team's "best player on offense" a season ago. With the creative coach essentially building concepts around Landry's strength as a "get-open specialist" on short and intermediate routes, I can see why the Dolphins would want to keep their top target in the fold.
Last season, Landry produced first downs on 55.5 percent of his receptions while averaging 12.1 yards per catch, which are improvements over the corresponding figures he posted in 2015 (54.5 and 10.5). In addition, he matched his career high with three receptions of 40-plus yards and established a new career best with 16 catches of at least 20 yards.
I can see why Landry would expect big bucks in a new deal. He is the Dolphins' leading receiver and their "go-to guy" in key moments, which is everything that you expect from a No. 1 receiver, right? That's why I could see Landry's representatives pushing for a deal that places him at the bottom of the WR1s in the league. A guy like T.Y. Hilton would serve as a solid comparison based on his stature on the Colts and his recent production since inking a five-year, $65 million deal in 2015.
Hilton in 2015-16: 160 receptions, 2,572 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Landry in 2015-16: 204 receptions, 2,293 yards and eight touchdowns.
While those numbers are certainly in the same ballpark, I believe the Dolphins' situation is murkier due to the presence of a pair of promising pass catchers in Kenny Stillsand DeVante Parker. Each brings a set of skills to the table drastically different than Landry's -- and the traits possessed by Stills and Parker are typically placed at a higher value than those of the two-time Pro Bowler.
"[Landry is] a slot receiver and you can find those guys anywhere," an AFC defensive coordinator told me. "There are plenty of guys around the league that can do what he does, so I wouldn't overpay to keep him.
"Now, I will say that he is tough and competitive, but he doesn't have any special traits. He kills you on underneath routes. If you put a great slot corner on him, he disappears. He kills those average guys because his toughness and physicality overwhelms them."
Looking at Stills and Parker, they bring about a different set of problems for the defense. Stills is a big-play receiver with speed to burn and his vertical playmaking ability forces opponents to keep a safety back in coverage. He's averaged 16.7 yards per catch over his career and notched 18 receptions of at least 40 yards in four seasons, which certainly catches the attention of defensive coordinators intent on taking away the deep ball. In addition, he has scored 20 career touchdowns, including nine in 2016.
"You worry more about guys who can put the ball in the paint," the defensive coordinator said. "You can live with guys picking up first downs on short routes, but the guys who score touchdowns are the ones that you pay close attention to.
"This game is about scoring points, so I'm going to focus on stopping those guys over the chain movers."
In Parker, the Dolphins have a former first-round pick with all of the characteristics that you look for in a WR1. He's big, fast and athletic with strong hands and natural playmaking skills. Parker finished 2016 with 56 receptions for 744 yards and is starting to flash the takeover potential that you expect from a No. 1 receiver.
With a pair of outside receivers beginning to enter prime years, it could be harder to pay big money for a slot receiver without elite speed or quickness. That's why Landry might be forced to play on a year-to-year contract (franchise tag) or allowed to walk by a Dolphins team that has assembled some pretty good pieces on the perimeter. Stills and Parker might be more valuable to the team's long-term success as prototypical playmakers, and that could make Landry expendable if his contract demands get out of control.