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 a coming revolution at the game's most important position ...
* * * **
The NFL unquestionably has been ruled by the top quarterbacks in the game over the past two decades. Teams with elite players occupying the QB1 role have been able to consistently compete for championships, which is why the Patriots (Tom Brady), Steelers (Ben Roethlisberger), Packers (Aaron Rodgers), Giants (Eli Manning) and occasionally the Saints (Drew Brees) have made their mark.
Granted, the Chargersshould've been in the conversation as a perennial contender, with Philip Rivers entrenched as their QB1, but they seemingly have squandered numerous chances to make a run at the title. Regardless, it is readily apparent that teams featuring veteran field generals with old-school games are thriving in a league that has undergone an aerial evolution.
Fantasy footballers and dropback traditionalists have enjoyed the work of the elder statesmen at quarterback, but it's time to brace ourselves for a change at the position that will alter the way we look at the game -- and its field generals -- in the near future. With the aforementioned veterans on the back nine of their illustrious careers, the league and the football world must be prepared to see a different kind of quarterback at the helm. Instead of watching classic dropback signal callers graduate to the NFL following solid careers manning pro-style offenses, we will see more spread quarterbacks assume the most important position on the roster -- and their ability to acclimate to the pro game will determine which teams emerge as perennial contenders in the coming decades.
Some of you will read that statement and envision a slew of dual-threat quarterbacks entering the league intent on running around and slinging the ball all over the yard, but that's not what I'm saying. I'm simply stating that the next generation of quarterbacks will come from those offenses traditionalists despise and detest -- those offenses that dominate play on Fridays and Saturdays. Yep. Those quirky offenses that require the quarterback to look toward the sideline and read the funny signs before barking out orders to their teammates are preparing the next wave of field generals for their big moment on the NFL stage.
The pro game is drastically different than the game being played at the lower levels, but NFL coaches must figure out a way to quickly adapt to this new iteration of football or they will run the risk of missing out on the next guy with the capacity to lead a team on a sustained run as a franchise quarterback. Sure, we can take the young quarterbacks to task for their lack of experience executing three-, five- and seven-step drops, but why should we blame them when the majority of high school quarterbacks these days operate out of the spread?
Not to mention, most spread teams operate at a heightened pace, eliminating the huddle with a tempo game that quickens the time between snaps. With coaches scaling back the playbook (simpler schemes and passing concepts) to allow players to play at a breakneck pace, the spread makes life easy for young guns -- but does little to prepare players (particularly quarterbacks) -- for the way NFL football has been played.
Now, I should point out that a number of the simplistic passing concepts used by high school and college offenses are derivatives of pro-style concepts featured in Bill Walsh's offensive schemes. Whether it's the quick game (slant-flat, double slants, and Y-stick), various mesh patterns (underneath crossing routes) or spot routes (snag, corner and flat), the concepts aren't drastically different than the core routes featured in every NFL playbook. Thus, spread quarterbacks aren't entirely unfamiliar with components of the typical pro system.
But yeah, there are many things spread quarterbacks struggle to learn at the pro level, pre- and post-snap.
First of all, NFL verbiage is quite the mouthful. While many spread QBs look to the sideline, spot a giant placard and bark out a simple instruction that gives everyone their corresponding marching orders, the NFL is full of long, wordy plays. Young QBs are uncomfortable getting detailed calls and regurgitating all of the necessary information back to teammates in a huddle.
Secondly, I mentioned the accompanying pace of most spread offenses above. When spread quarterbacks come to the NFL and their team operates from a huddle, they lose a key advantage over opposing defensive coordinators who just have to keep it simple against an offense running at a breakneck pace. With time to scheme and shuffle personnel between plays, NFL DCs throw exotic coverages and blitz packages at overwhelmed young QBs. The chess game between offense and defense is heightened on Sundays.
Lastly, many spread quarterbacks operate out of pick-and-stick systems that order them to read one defender and let fly. The NFL demands more full-field reads -- it's a far more exhaustive thought process in those precious few seconds after the snap.
Looking ahead to the 2017 QB class, each of the top five prospects (Deshaun Watson, Mitchell Trubisky, DeShone Kizer, Patrick Mahomes and Davis Webb) hail from spread systems. That doesn't even include guys like Joshua Dobbs and Chad Kelly -- developmental prospects with extensive experience in the "catch, rock and fire" systems that dominate the collegiate landscape.
If we peek ahead at the potential gunslingers in future drafts, it's more of the same, with USC's Sam Darnold, UCLA's Josh Rosen, Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield, Louisville's Lamar Jackson and Wyoming's Josh Allen operating out of variations of the spread. Thus, the notion of John Elway, Peyton Manning or Tom Brady walking through a door to save a franchise is a fallacy, and teams should begin to prepare for the influx of spread quarterbacks who are set to take the torch from the graybeards.
I discussed how to incorporate a young quarterback from a spread offense into the mix with an AFC head coach recently. He told me that you have to meet the prospect halfway and blend some of his favorite concepts into the game plan.
"You have to make them comfortable," the AFC head coach told me. "You have to give them a chance to be successful early with some of their stuff, while challenging them to learn NFL concepts at the same time. It's a delicate balance, but you have to give them a chance to play well."
With that being said, NFL coaches far and wide must find a way to build game plans around the talents of these young gunslingers and give them a chance to be successful early in their careers. Some of the pressure on the young passers can be alleviated by utilizing familiar schemes and concepts that hit their sweet spots as players. By blending some of their base concepts into the game plan, teams can help their quarterbacks be decisive in the pocket and deliver the ball on time to their intended receivers.
Teams also could elect to adopt an old-school approach with the offense revolving around the running game. Despite the popular notion that running backs are being devalued, we've seen plenty of recent evidence that the position's demise has been greatly exaggerated. The presence of a dominant RB1 can create opportunities in the passing game (SEE: Ezekiel Elliott's effect on Dak Prescott in Dallas). Not to mention, the support of a dominant rushing attack can allow the team to keep the quarterback on a pitch count and limit his exposure to exotic pressure schemes/coverages, leading to fewer turnovers by youngsters at the position.
In the end, the NFL must prepare to see a changing of the guard at the position and a generation of spread quarterbacks poised to begin the revolution.
MARSHAWN LYNCH AND THE RAIDERS: Why it'd be a dream marriage
Marshawn Lynch has told the Oakland Raiders that he's ready to come out of retirement and play for his hometown team, according to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport. The Seattle Seahawks still hold the running back's rights, so that's one hurdle that must be cleared. But with the way this story is moving, it's time to take a look at how the five-time Pro Bowler would help the Silver and Black move forward in its pursuit of a championship.
Whenever you analyze a potential transaction involving personnel, you must assess whether the player fits the scheme. In this case, a marriage between Lynch and the Raiders' power-based running game would be a match made in heaven. As a downhill runner with a rugged style and nifty feet, Lynch excels while operating between the tackles on an assortment of powers and inside-zone runs that allow him to attack the hole with his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage. The 215-pound hammer is ideally suited to play behind a "maul and mash" offensive line that specializes in moving defenders off the ball. With Oakland boasting one of the league's best offensive fronts adept at creating a push at the point of attack, the prospect of tackling a steaming locomotive would make even the most courageous defender hesitate in the hole. Lynch's exceptional power and violent finishes would lead to some "business decisions" that result in big runs for the soon-to-be 31-year-old runner.
In the passing game, Lynch's mere presence would create more one-on-one opportunities for Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree on the outside, as opponents would be forced to drop an extra defender in the box to slow down Lynch. Remember, Cooper and Crabtree aren't necessarily speed demons, so creating space for them to operate is critical to the success of the Raiders' passing game. After watching the Texanssuccessfully slow down the duo in the playoffs with aggressive man-coverage tactics (granted, Derek Carr's absense obviously didn't help), I think the addition of Lynch would serve as a nice counter-tactic to opponents' strategies in the upcoming season.
From a deployment standpoint, I'd expect Lynch to be eased into his role as an RB1 in Oakland. The team likely would preserve him for the stretch run, with plans to lean on him when it matters most in December/January. Thus, he could tally 12 to 15 rushes a game during the first half of the season, with the Raiders' young backs (second-year men DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard) serving as complementary pieces. This split would save some of the wear and tear on Lynch's legs, and allow him to gradually up his workload for the stretch run and playoffs.
Now, not everyone is as bullish on this potential move as I am.
"I don't know how this move will play out for them. He's had a bad back and hasn't played in over a year," an AFC director of player personnel told me about this hypothetical pairing. "They are taking a gamble on him, so I'm sure they will keep him on a snap count hoping to make it through the season and get a flashback of his abilities going into the playoffs"
To me, though, Lynch is not only a perfect fit as a downhill runner with a track record of success (SEE: four straight seasons with 1,200-plus rushing yards and 56 total touchdowns as the Seahawks' RB1 from 2011 through 2014), but he is also the ideal leader to help the Raiders navigate past the obstacles on the way to Super Bowl contention. That's right: I believe Lynch is the leader Oakland needs to make an extended run in the playoffs. Hear me out ...
Say what you want about Lynch's "keep it real" personality -- there is no denying the fact that he is one of the most respected players in the NFL. His name carries significant weight in the locker room. As a Super Bowl champion with experience carrying an offense on his back, Lynch can assume a leadership role on the Raiders, particularly in January. Whether through his words or his actions, Lynch can help Oakland learn what it takes to go from good to great in the NFL. He can explain how his previous team became the league's biggest bully during a run that netted a pair of Super Bowl appearances (one Lombardi Trophy) and consistent contention. With these Raiders still in the process of learning how to win big, Lynch's leadership skills could be critical to the team's success in 2017.
Now, there is certainly some risk involved in taking on Lynch as a Raider. He has a strong personality and his powerful presence could alter the dynamics in the locker room. While Derek Carr has been anointed the unquestioned leader of the team, Lynch's presence could shift the pecking order. Not to mention, he could threaten Jack Del Rio's hold on his team if he fails to consistently comply with the standards and procedures established by the head coach. In Seattle, there was constant speculation and innuendo surrounding Lynch's relationship with Pete Carroll, so the Raiders must understand who they're dealing with and have a plan to make sure he is a positive force on the squad.
Now, let's be real for a second: Lynch would enter the regular season with more than 2,300 NFL rushing attempts on his résumé -- that kind of workload has broken down many runners. Although Lynch has had a full year to rest up and recharge his battery, the Raiders need to have a plan in place to keep him active and fresh for the biggest moments of the season.
Overall, though, I LOVE this potential pairing because it would put an experienced downhill runner in a system that's ideally suited to his game. Most importantly, it would give a young team a mentor to lean on during the pursuit of greatness. Adding Lynch could be the move that puts Oakland over the top.
ASK THE LEAGUE: Is Tom Savage a legit QB answer for the Texans?
The Houston Texans are a quarterback away from contending for a Super Bowl title. Many assumed Tony Romo would fill that role, but the four-time Pro Bowler retired earlier this week. Now Houston is faced with the prospect of heading into the 2017 campaign with former fourth-round pick Tom Savage slated to handle the QB1 duties. Considering the 26-year-old's lack of experience (two NFL starts), I thought I'd reach out to a few NFL folks to see if the fourth-year pro is ready to guide the two-time defending AFC South champs. Here's what I asked:
AFC personnel executive: "He's kind of a mystery man. I know he was an intriguing prospect when he came out a few years ago. I liked his arm talent but thought he was more of a developmental player. ... I know some folks like his upside and potential after watching him play a little this [past] season, but I still think he is more of a backup than a starter at the position."
AFC secondary coach: "He showed good poise and composure when I've seen him play. He has a big arm and a good feel for their offense. I don't know if he can be a long-term starter, but he has some tools to work with."
AFC director of player personnel: "That's a tough one because he really hasn't played much in three years. ... He has a strong arm. He's pretty accurate and shows some anticipation. I don't know if he can be a long-term starter, but I think he can help them win as a backup/spot starter. I just don't know enough about him to say that he can handle the role beyond a two-to-three-game run as a starter."
Second AFC secondary coach: "I don't know if we've seen enough to determine whether he can be a long-term answer. He has a strong arm and flashed a little, but we need to see how he reacts when teams game plan against him."
Second AFC director of player personnel: "Savage is a tough kid. I like his intelligence and arm talent, but he needs to operate from a clean pocket to be an accurate thrower. He struggles with pressure and will make some poor decisions after taking a few hits."
Despite toiling in relative anonymity as a Texans backup, Savage has been one of the most polarizing prospects in the scouting community since he became a media darling during the run-up to the 2014 NFL Draft. My colleague Gil Brandt partially fueled his meteoric rise in the Twitterverse when he compared the former four-star high school recruit to Hall of Famer Troy Aikman after watching Savage toss six touchdown passes against Duke during his senior season at Pittsburgh. NFL Media draft guru Mike Mayock called Savage the "wild card" of the 2014 QB class, citing his prototypical size and exceptional arm talent as traits that could make him a steal.
Now, I certainly understood the hype surrounding the 6-foot-4, 230-pound gunslinger with A-plus arm talent in a league that covets traditional dropback passers. But I didn't share the same opinion on Savage when I studied his game prior to the 2014 draft. I viewed the ex-Pitt standout as a gifted developmental prospect who needed a lot of work before becoming a starting quarterback in the league. Although Savage certainly displayed intoxicating arm talent as a pure pocket passer, I had concerns about his accuracy, anticipation and athleticism as a young quarterback. Savage's flawed footwork and mechanics prevented him from consistently delivering the ball within the strike zone and I feared his erratic ball placement could make him a turnover machine in the NFL. In addition, I had some concerns about his vagabond journey (Savage spent time at Rutgers and Arizona before concluding his career at Pittsburgh) and whether he possessed the necessary grit to man the most important position in pro football. As a result, I placed a Day 3 grade (Rounds 4-7) on him and categorized him as a developmental prospect at the position.
To my surprise, Savage has made tremendous strides as a pro since arriving in Houston as the No. 135 overall pick. He has cleaned up footwork flaws that negatively impacted his game and flashed better control of his ball when throwing fastballs and changeups to his receivers on the perimeter. In addition, Savage showed better anticipation and timing on his finesse throws between the numbers, as he connected on a few digs, bench routes and sail routes against zone coverage during a two-game stint as the Texans' QB1 near the end of last season (before a concussion knocked him out in the first half of Houston's Week 17 game).
Granted, a successful two-week run (Savage completed 41 of 65 passes for 436 yards with zero interceptions in wins over the Jaguarsand Bengals) isn't enough to cement Savage's status as a starter. It definitely encourages players and coaches in the locker room to believe in his upside as a potential QB1 heading into the season, but Savage must show his colleagues that he can be counted on to show up for all 16 games. Avoiding injury is a big part of this. In addition to last season's concussion (which kept him out of the Texans' playoff opener), Savage missed part of the 2014 season with a knee injury and spent the entire 2015 campaign on injured reserve with a shoulder issue.
In the end, Savage's long-term potential as a starter will come down to his availability, production and adaptability during the season. Despite his intriguing flashes in limited action, Savage must show his coaches and teammates that he can be counted on to perform at a high level when Houston needs him to drive the bus. While he has plenty of weaponry around him, Savage must be able to adapt to the changing defenses (blitzes, pre-snap disguises and post-snap coverage shifts) that he will face as the team's anointed QB1. This is the most challenging aspect of playing the position over the long haul and few field generals are capable of adjusting their games when the defenses catch up. How well Savage handles this part of the game will ultimately determine whether he remains the Texans' QB1 for 2017 and beyond.