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 NFL's best player isn't a quarterback -- and doesn't play offense.
-- The star receiver who has no shot of accomplishing his goal for 2019.
-- Why one of the league's most decorated RBs could be feeling the heat in training camp.
But first, a look at one rookie who'd be best served by getting thrown into the fire ...
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"To put him out there early against those teams, it's just a formula for disaster for the team, for Jay (Gruden), for the fans and everybody else," Theismann said during a radio appearance on 106.7 The Fan. "I think the young man is our future, and let's protect the future, instead of throwing it out there right now and saying, 'OK, go get 'em.' The schedule we're playing is not a 'go get 'em' schedule."
Despite facing a challenging slate that features four playoff teams from last season (the Eagles, Cowboys, Bears and Patriots) during the first five weeks, the 'Skins are better off handing the ball to their new franchise quarterback on Day 1 of training camp and letting him work through the rough patches of being a rookie starter.
Sure, it's not ideal to trot out a young signal-caller against a handful of upper-crust teams with stingy defenses, but Haskins is the best option on the roster and it doesn't make sense to delay his developmental process by having him sit behind Case Keenum and/or Colt McCoy. I don't intend to pooh-pooh either veteran's valuable experience in this league, but let's be honest: Their individual talents pale in comparison to Haskins'.
Now with his fifth NFL franchise, Keenum has posted an 84.5 career passer rating and a 64:42 touchdown-to-interception ratio over seven seasons. Although some of his numbers don't look so bad on paper, the vast majority of Keenum's pro success came during a magical 2017 campaign when he was pressed into service for the ultra-talented Vikings. The veteran not only had a pair of crafty WR1s at his disposal, but he was playing for a creative play caller with a keen understanding of his quarterback's game, and the results were quite nice: 67.6 completion percentage, 22:7 TD-to-INT ratio, 98.3 passer rating. Without Pat Shurmur in his ear, Keenum has never come close to putting up those kinds of numbers. His 2018 performance in Denver (62.3 completion percentage, 18:15 TD-to-INT ratio, 81.2 passer rating) only confirmed his status as a QB2.
Meanwhile, McCoy has previously been touted as a potential spot starter with the 'Skins, yet he only has a 7-20 career record, including a 1-5 mark with Washington. The numbers over his nine years in the NFL (60.5 completion percentage, 29:26 TD-to-INT ratio, 78.9 passer rating) are worse than Keenum's. With the Redskins alone, McCoy has been moderately effective as a 68.4 percent passer with an 8:6 TD-to-INT ratio. His production's alright for a backup, but it certainly doesn't scream starting quarterback in most NFL circles.
That's why I believe the Redskins should insert the No. 15 overall pick into the starting lineup immediately and let him take his lumps as a first-year player. Haskins will not improve as a pro QB until he takes meaningful snaps. Jump-starting that process should be the team's priority, with NFL teams increasingly finding success with young quarterbacks playing on cheap rookie deals.
"You only learn how to play quarterback by playing," a former NFL head coach told me. "You need reps to get better and practice reps don't compare to game experience."
With that in mind, the 'Skins should get the developmental process started by letting Haskins take all of the reps with the starters in training camp. That would give Washington's coaches an opportunity to evaluate him and adequately build an offense around their young quarterback's game. The modification process is probably the most important part of getting a rookie QB ready to play -- the coaches need to fully identify Haskins' strengths and weaknesses.
Additionally, Gruden and his staff need to blend in some of Haskins' favorite concepts from the Ohio State playbook to help him find his comfort zone early in the season. Although we've seen teams like the Ravens (Lamar Jackson), Texans (Deshaun Watson) and Bears (Mitchell Trubisky) make adjustments on the fly in recent years, the Redskins would be wise to proactively put those plans in place and allow No. 7 to develop some confidence while learning the pro game.
As a young player with only 14 collegiate starts under his belt, Haskins will need to be kept under a pitch count to limit his exposure to the defense. Washington arguably boasts a top-five offensive line when Trent Williams and Brandon Scherff are healthy (and happy), and the Adrian Peterson-Derrius Guice combination should give them a formidable running game. With Vernon Davis and Jordan Reed providing a big-play element over the middle of the field on play-action passes, the 'Skins have enough weaponry to support their young quarterback in a conservative, run-based offense that features 25 or fewer throws each week.
The front office came away encouraged with Haskins' potential in a retooled offense after watching him work in the offseason program.
"To be on the sidelines during OTAs and minicamp and see the young guy do what he's done and how he's taken command of the opportunity that he's had," Redskins senior vice president of player personnel Doug Williams, who earned Super Bowl XXII MVP honors as the franchise's quarterback, told NFL Network's Steve Wyche on Tuesday. "To see a guy walk up out of the huddle, and the poise that he has, the patience that he's exhibited, it's room to have a lot of hope.
"I don't want to say he's going to start Game 1 today, but it's been a pleasant and enjoyable scene to see what Dwayne Haskins has done over the last few weeks."
Gruden also expressed some excitement over Haskins' potential after observing his performance at minicamp.
"You see the 'wow' plays and you're like, 'Jesus,' " Gruden said earlier this month, via ESPN. "When he's on, there's nobody you'd rather have than Dwayne. Really. It's pretty. He stands tall; he has a cannon, and he can quicken up his release. He's got great touch. Strong, powerful arm; strong, powerful body. But sometimes when he's off, he's abnormally off. It's kind of weird."
That last comment aside, we've never heard Gruden -- or any Redskins official, for that matter -- rave about either veteran to that degree. Let's be real here: Washington should hand the ball to the young fella and let him go to work.
AARON DONALD'S WORLD: Why the DT's the best player in the NFL
I know it is hard for the quarterback lovers around the football world to come to grips with this, but No. 99 is the best player in the NFL today -- and it's not even close.
I raise this topic because, earlier in the week, recently retired defensive end Chris Long called Donald "the best football player in the world." I'm with Long here, and we're not the only folks who share this viewpoint. In fact, I believe most evaluators and observers would unanimously select the back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year as the most dominant force in the league today.
In five NFL seasons, Donald has earned five Pro Bowl berths and four first-team All-Pro selections on the strength of 59.5 career sacks and 97 tackles for loss. That kind of production is normally reserved for edge rushers, not interior defenders tasked with stopping the run on the way to harassing the quarterback. The 3-tech in a 3-4 defense isn't expected to notch a 20.5-sack campaign (like Donald did in 2018), but the 6-foot-1, 280-pounder consistently generates pressure on the passer despite facing a variety of blocking schemes at the point of attack.
"He's changed the way that I view building a defense," an AFC personnel executive told me. "I used to believe edge rushers were the marquee players along the defensive front, but now I would take an interior rusher over an edge guy. They affect the quarterback in a different way because they are right in his face.
"Donald's success has definitely changed the way defensive tackles are valued."
To that point, I believe we've seen a shift in the way DTs are graded and ranked during the pre-draft process. In April, we witnessed six defensive tackles coming off the board in the first round, with three pass-rushing types (Quinnen Williams, Ed Oliver and Christian Wilkins) selected within the first 13 picks. At the NFL level, we are coming off a season in which five defensive tackles (Donald, DeForest Buckner, Fletcher Cox, Jarran Reed and Geno Atkins) finished with at least 10 sacks. That's spectacular disruptive production from a position that's been primarily tasked with run-stopping responsibilities for years.
In Donald's case, the sixth-year pro is an absolute monster at the point of attack against the run and pass. He uses his extraordinary first-step quickness and burst to blow past defenders on angles and games. No. 99 also flashes rare strength and power as a low-leverage player capable of knocking blockers back into the backfield on the way to corralling running backs. As a pass rusher, Donald's combination of speed and quickness is bolstered by a relentless motor that makes him impossible to contain over a 60-minute game. He wears down blockers with his energy, and his Popeye-like explosiveness leads to disruptive plays at key moments.
"I've never seen anybody work so hard, who had so much talent and play so violent and play with such tenacity," Long said, recalling Donald's work ethic as a rookie at Rams training camp. "This guy would fight you on the field at the drop of a hat, and I respect that about him, and [he] outworks everybody.
"I would be the last person in the film room usually at the end of camp, and I would go in there and watch tape once everybody was at home. I started going in there and opening the door and turning the lights on to find my pen or notebook, and he was in there every night."
Hearing Long describe Donald is music to the ears of any scout or coach in the NFL. Teams love to hear a blue-chip talent described as a blue-collar worker on the field and in the meeting room. Better yet, you love it when the underdog plays like a heavyweight on the field.
With Donald posting 31.5 sacks and 40 tackles for loss over the past two seasons, there's no disputing his impact on the field as a three-down playmaker. The guy is a bona fide game wrecker -- and the best overall football player today.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) No way to 2K for Cowboys' Cooper. I'm not one to squash another person's dreams, but there's no way Amari Cooper accomplishes his recently stated goal of becoming a 2,000-yard receiver in the Dallas Cowboys' offense. That's not a knock on No. 19's talents as a three-time Pro Bowl receiver, but he would need to nearly double the production of the best season of his career to set the new standard for receiving yards at the position. (Calvin Johnson holds the single-season record of 1,964.)
To make this dream a reality, Cooper would need to average 125 receiving yards per game in an offense that revolves around Ezekiel Elliott and a rugged rushing attack. Remember, No. 21 is a two-time rushing champ coming off a season with a league-high 381 touches and 2,001 scrimmage yards. He is the focal point of Dallas' offense and the team's grind-it-out approach with him has netted a pair of NFC East crowns in the past three seasons.
Not to mention, the heavy reliance on the running game and the reigning rushing leader has helped the Cowboys protect their defense by controlling the clock and limiting the number of offensive possessions for their opponent. Considering Dallas' success with this old-school formula, I can't imagine coach Jason Garrett deviating from this established blueprint with his job likely hinging on the team's performance in 2019. (Remember, Garrett's in the final year of his contract.)
That said, I certainly believe Cooper will be a key contributor as the top receiver in a revamped offense that features improved weaponry on the perimeter. Randall Cobb joins the lineup as a crafty slot target with a versatile game, while Jason Witten returns from retirement to reprise his role as the team's designated chain-mover. With Michael Gallup continuing to evolve as a WR2, the Cowboys' passing game now has more options available for Dak Prescott, and No. 4 could play like a pass-first point guard in first-year coordinator Kellen Moore's offensive scheme.
To that point, I think Cooper has a more realistic shot of posting a 1,300-yard season, which would be a career high, as the Cowboys' WR1. While Cooper exploded for 180 and 217 receiving yards in a couple of regular-season games with his new team after last October's trade, the veteran also had four games with fewer than 40 receiving yards with Dallas. Opponents were able to focus their attention on him as the primary weapon in the passing game and the brackets or tilted coverage limited his opportunities on the outside. With a better supporting cast around him, Cooper will see more one-on-one coverage and that should lead to more production from him on a weekly basis.
Although I don't believe it will lead to the 125 receiving yards per game that it would take to reach the 2,000-yard mark, it could help Dallas' offense become a more dangerous. And if that helps the 'Boys build on last season's run to the Divisional Round, Cooper will be the critical WR1 of a team that could realize its collective goal of becoming the ultimate winner, even if he doesn't rewrite the history books.
2) Will Shady be feeling the heat? If I'm a team in desperate need of a veteran running back, I'm closely monitoring the Bills' training camp rotation at the position. Buffalo currently has a collection of former Pro Bowlers (LeSean McCoy and Frank Gore), a proven contributor (T.J. Yeldon) and an intriguing rookie (third-round pick Devin Singletary) battling it out for snaps behind second-year QB Josh Allen, but few teams carry four established running backs on the roster, especially when they don't bring added value as special-teams contributors.
That's why I have a sneaky suspicion that McCoy could be on the hot seat heading into the final year of his five-year, $40 million contract, no matter how hard he believes it would be for the Bills to replace him. The soon-to-be 31-year-old runner carries a salary-cap charge of about $9 million for the 2019 season, but he is coming off an injury-riddled season that was his least productive as a pro (514 rushing yards, three touchdowns and a 3.2-yard average) and is showing signs of slowing down as an RB1. McCoy didn't flash the same kind of shake-and-bake that made him a playground legend for most of his 10-year career and he lacks the rugged running style to age gracefully at the position.
Before you @ me on Twitter, I'm just pointing out that McCoy's game is built on speed, quickness and burst. Most older running backs rely on vision, power and contact balance as they continue to play into their 30s (see: Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson). That doesn't mean No. 25 is a washed-up player, but it does mean he will have to tweak his running style to survive as an aging back.
Now, I know the Bills have expressed faith that McCoy can still be a weapon, but it is hard to imagine Buffalo or another team forking over the nearly $6.2 million in salary he's due to a running back who's unable to carry the load as a workhorse. McCoy's 161 rushing attempts in 2018 (11.5 per game) were the fewest attempts he's had since his rookie season, when he rushed for 637 yards on 155 rushing attempts (9.7 per game) as a rotational player. If Shady doesn't show his old zip and burst when he reports to training camp in a few weeks, I would expect the Bills to put No. 25 on the trading block or ask him to take a pay cut to remain on the squad.
I know that sounds like harsh treatment for a running back with 10,000-plus rushing yards and 69 career rushing touchdowns. And yes, the Bills are not strapped for salary-cap space with $21.7 million available, per Over The Cap, but the compensation must match the production in the NFL, especially at the running back position. That's why McCoy is more vulnerable than his fellow Bills RBs to get the tap on the shoulder to see GM Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott near the end of training camp for a frank discussion about his role on the team and the size of his check.
Remember, the Bills added Gore to the team on an inexpensive deal (one-year contract worth $2 million) to act as a mentor/role player. The veteran's presence will add some leadership to the locker room and he's still effective enough to handle a small workload. Gore is an insurance policy against McCoy's decline or departure, as he can fill the role of being the grizzled veteran in the meeting room.
With Yeldon, who signed a two-year, $3.2 million deal this offseason, capable of serving as the pass-catching specialist (averaged nearly 43 catches over the past four seasons) and Singletary providing some juice as a young runner with fresh legs, the Bills seemingly have a plan in place to move on from McCoy if he isn't up to par as a playmaker.
If the two-time All-Pro doesn't return to form in training camp, we could see him in a different jersey when the regular season opens.