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 why today's teams are incentivized to throw rookie quarterbacks into the fire ...
Head coaches typically don't pontificate on other teams' personnel plans. Such talk generally comes off as presumptuous and unseemly. But as we all know by now, Bruce Arians marches to the beat of his own drum. And in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach's defense, he was asked a question and he provided an answer.
Appearing on 100.9 FM in Alabama last week, Arians fielded a query about how he'd handle Tua Tagovailoa in Year 1 if he were coaching the Miami Dolphins. The grizzled quarterback whisperer's opinion on the matter spoke to the NFL's contemporary thinking around highly drafted signal-callers.
"I think it all depends on his health; if he's healthy, I'm playing him," Arians said of the No. 5 overall pick, via JoeBucsFan.com.
This desire to immediately start rookie quarterbacks has become the norm in the today's NFL. Teams are not only bypassing the old-fashioned "redshirt" season, but many are giving their first-year QBs the ball on Day 1. Last season, rookie quarterbacks totaled 57 combined starts, with Kyler Murray starting all 16 games, while Daniel Jones and Gardner Minshew logged 12 starts apiece.
With all of that in mind, here are three reasons why it does indeed make sense to quickly throw a rookie QB on the field in the modern NFL:
1) There's nothing like on-the-job training.
Despite Patrick Mahomes' unparalleled sophomore campaign following a redshirt season in Kansas City, the overwhelming majority of quarterbacks are better served by playing in Year 1. From going through the weekly preparation process to acclimating to the speed of the pro game to understanding the complexities of NFL defenses, young quarterbacks need reps as the starter in order to grow.
"I don't think you learn anything holding a clipboard," Arians said last week. "You know, I had Peyton Manning his first year, Andrew Luck his first year. Ben (Roethlisberger) was one of those guys that went in by accident because Tommy Maddox got hurt. You miss all the practice reps, you miss the game reps. I don't know what you learn holding a clipboard (and) watching."
In the NFL, the starting quarterback takes nearly all of the reps in practice. The starting unit is on the field for each and every snap of seven-on-seven (passing game), nine-on-seven (running game) and team periods. These reps are executed against the scout team, but they give the quarterback an idea of how the opponent will align and play. Additionally, these experiences provide the field general with a better understanding of timing, anticipation and expected execution.
While those reps are certainly valuable, though, they pale in comparison to the game-day experience. Young quarterbacks quickly discover the challenges of communicating with coaches, managing an offense and executing plays at a high level against a set of defenders playing at warp speed. If a rookie's able to acclimate to the frenetic pace and unrelenting pressure of the game, he has a chance to enjoy long-term success.
2) College influence on the pro game has eased the transition.
It's taken some time, but NFL coaches are readily stealing concepts from the college game. In recent years, we've seen a Sunday explosion of run/pass options (RPOs), read-option plays and additional collegiate schemes. With more coaches opting to operate primarily from the spread, young quarterbacks are stepping into offenses built around familiar plays and concepts.
As a result, rookies are not only surviving but thriving. Murray is the perfect example, as an Air Raid prodigy playing for a former college coach with extensive experience in the offense. The marriage between 2019's No. 1 overall pick and Kliff Kingsbury enabled the Arizona Cardinals' offense to hit the ground running, despite being led by a rookie quarterback who logged just 17 collegiate starts.
"Coming from where he was at -- Texas A&M and then Oklahoma, where they give him that freedom -- there's a comfort level that he's had with that," Kingsbury said last October, per the Los Angeles Times. "Coming from similar systems and having that attacking mindset, If you see a better play, get us into it. He's been comfortable from Day 1. In the spring, he was checking plays that I don't even think our guys knew. He's just very confident in that approach."
Murray's confidence and aggressiveness directing a collegiate-like offense helped him become the second rookie quarterback in NFL history (along with Cam Newton) to amass 3,500 yards passing and 500 rushing. Moreover, he walked away with the 2019 Offensive Rookie of the Year award after providing a significant boost to Arizona's offense.
Considering the success Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen all enjoyed in 2018 as rookie starters in systems heavily influenced by the college game, the NFL has more than enough recent examples to encourage more coaches to give the ball to the newbie early in Year 1.
3) It's economically responsible to build around a quarterback on a rookie contract.
The NFL is big business, and the best general managers treat it as such when it comes to building a team. With analytics becoming a larger part of the process, decision-makers are looking for prudent ways to build Super Bowl contenders without busting the budget or salary cap. It's no coincidence that we've seen teams with a quarterback playing on a rookie deal represented in six of the past eight Super Bowls (counting the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles, who started Carson Wentz during the regular season).
Shrewd evaluators are taking advantage of the economic flexibility created by having a low-priced option at the game's most important position, stockpiling blue-chip players in other critical areas. From the Seahawks building around their "Legion of Boom" defense to the Rams surrounding Jared Goff with trusty pass catchers and a dominant interior pass rusher to the Chiefs putting a track team around Mahomes with a few veteran defenders, a growing number of franchises are flourishing with this approach.
Taking all of this into account, it is wise to get the rookie quarterback in the starting lineup ASAP. Not only does this plan of attack jump-start the young QB's development, but it allows the front office the kind of financial freedom to build the best all-around roster.
DALVIN COOK HOLDOUT: Don't cave, Vikings!
I've never witnessed a virtual holdout, but I'm paying close attention to the standoff between Dalvin Cook and the Minnesota Vikings to see if the Pro Bowler shakes up the running back market.
The fourth-year pro reportedly told the Vikings earlier this week that he's logging out of his work Zoom account and shutting down his involvement in all team activities until he receives a "reasonable" contract offer from the team.
While I don't know how much No. 33's absence from virtual meetings will impact the Vikings in the middle of a pandemic that's eliminated the usual OTAs and minicamp practices for all teams, the loss of the versatile back in training camp and beyond would remove the offense's No. 1 playmaker from the lineup and could severely hinder the unit in 2020.
Don't believe me? Just look at the numbers to get a sense of Cook's impact. The Vikings are 12-3 when he finishes with 100-plus scrimmage yards (including the postseason), compared to a 6-9-1 mark when he falls short of the century mark. Cook accounted for 38.1 percent of the team's offensive touches and scored the second-most points (78) on the squad in 2019. After amassing 1,654 scrimmage yards and 13 total touchdowns on the way to earning Pro Bowl honors, Cook was the Vikings' 2019 MVP -- a three-down running back with special traits.
"You can say that about some players in this league, but then you turn the game film on and they come out of the games in certain situations," Vikings offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak explained earlier this offseason, per the team's website. "Dalvin's a great pass protector, understands what's going on scheme-wise on third down as far as picking up blitzes, those types of things.
"He has great hands. I mean, you go back and look at the screens we ran with Dalvin -- he was probably as good as anybody in football doing that. So, I think you've gotta give him the credit. He's an all-around player. He's not a guy who just does this well or that well. He does a lot of things well."
Kubiak certainly knows running backs, based on his history of producing 1,000-yard rushers in his offense. He elevated the likes of Terrell Davis, Clinton Portis and Arian Foster to honor roll status as a play caller, and his impact on Cook's performance as an assistant head coach/offensive advisor in 2019 shouldn't be ignored.
The Vikings' outside-zone scheme perfectly suits the 24-year-old's skill set as a one-cut runner with a combination of speed, quickness, balance and vision. The offensive line operates like a group of elephants on parade, moving defenders off the ball in unison with Cook attacking creases at the line of scrimmage to hit the second level. He tallied 25 runs of 10-plus yards as part of an offense that had the fourth-most rushing attempts in the league last season. Cook's presence on the field also elevated Kirk Cousins' performance. No. 8 posted a 71 percent completion rate and a 16:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio with an average of 8.5 yards per attempt with Cook on the field, per Next Gen Stats, compared to a 66 percent completion rate, 10:5 TD-INT ratio and average of 7.3 yards per attempt without him.
Considering Cook's overall impact, the team has to write a check to keep him in the fold, right?
Well, as much as I love Cook's game, I have to point out that he's only played in 31 of the 50 games the Vikings have played (including playoffs) in his three seasons due to various ailments, including a torn ACL (2017), hamstring strains (2018) and a shoulder injury (2019). The durability concerns will make the don't pay a running back crowd cringe at the notion of Cook getting a big payday.
Last season, nine of the NFL's top 10 rushers were playing on their rookie deals and only three of the NFL's 16 1,000-yard rushers (Ezekiel Elliott, Carlos Hyde and Mark Ingram) were not on their original contracts. Given that only two of the 10 running backs with the highest salary cap numbers for 2019 were on playoff teams last season -- the Texans' Lamar Miller and 49ers' Jerick McKinnon -- and that those two both missed the season due to injury, those who are not in favor of forking over major cash to RBs are undoubtedly shouting "No, no, no!" to team management when it comes to considering a long-term deal for Cook.
In Minnesota, their screams might resonate, based on the Vikings' experience with Adrian Peterson. The team inked the star runner to a blockbuster extension in 2011 (worth $85 million over six seasons, per Over The Cap) prior to the final season of his rookie contract. While he was named league MVP in 2012, the team only made the playoffs twice in the next six seasons (failing to win a game in each postseason appearance) with Peterson only playing in one game in 2014 (when he faced child-abuse charges) and three games in 2016 (due to injury).
So, while I respect Cook's game, I believe the Vikings should hold off on meeting his demands at this time. Remember, they can use the franchise tag to keep Cook in the fold in 2021. I know the shrewd business move would hurt his feelings, but his leverage is limited by the more restrictive holdout rules in the collective bargaining agreement that passed this spring. The new agreement not only includes heftier fines for holdouts ($50,000 per day; was previously $40,000), but players failing to show up on the mandatory reporting date for camp would not accrue a season toward free agency. Therefore, if Cook doesn't report at the start of camp, he would give up his chance to reach unrestricted free agency in 2021. Instead, the Vikings would be able to keep him with a restricted free agent tender.
With Cook's injury history in mind, the Vikings should play hardball with their star running back. Although Cook's representatives have reportedly asked for money in the Christian McCaffrey range ($16 million per year), the Vikings could keep Cook for less than that over the next two seasons. He has a base salary of $1.3 million in 2020 on the final year of his rookie deal and the 2020 franchise tender for running backs is valued at $10.2 million (reigning rushing champion Derrick Henry signed his franchise tender with the Titans in April). We won't get into the Vikings' cap situation in 2020 and beyond, but that's another factor in this equation.
Cook certainly deserves an increase in compensation based on his performance, but the Vikings have the leverage right now and a virtual holdout shouldn't prevent them from standing firm on a more team-friendly offer.
FINE LINES: My top five teams in the trenches
Despite all of the attention paid to skill players in today's fantasy-obsessed world, most championship teams are still built in the trenches. Looking back at the playoff contenders from the past few seasons, it's no surprise most of the postseason participants boasted rock-solid fronts on both sides of the ball. The ability to control the line of scrimmage is essential to postseason success, particularly when closely played games revert back to old-school football, with the ground attack and pass rush playing significant roles in deciding which team advances to the next round.
Given some time to assess the offensive and defensive lines of all 32 organizations, here are my top five trench teams in the NFL today:
San Francisco's dominance in the trenches fueled the team's run to Super Bowl LIV and it's why the 49ers are heading into the 2020 campaign as serious title contenders once again. The star-studded defensive line features five first-rounders, with Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and Dee Ford headlining a group that combines size, strength and athleticism to deliver sacks and disruptive plays at the line of scrimmage. On offense, the addition of Trent Williams upgrades a line that punches opponents in the mouth with a hard-charging ground game. With Laken Tomlinson and Mike McGlinchey coming into their own as trench warriors, the 49ers are poised to dominate D-lines in 2020.
The Eagles could soar to the top of the NFC behind a talented defensive line that features a diverse collection of playmakers at the point of attack. Fletcher Cox is the marquee name, but his blue-collar teammates (Javon Hargrave, Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett) also have the capacity to take over games utilizing a committee approach. When the Eagles get that quartet going in the coming season, particularly on obvious passing downs, opposing quarterbacks are going to take a beating in the pocket. Offensively, the Eagles must cope with the loss of Jason Peters, but it is hard to complain with three four-star blockers on the front line. Lane Johnson, Brandon Brooks and Jason Kelce are not only rock-solid technicians, but they are physical blockers with nasty dispositions. If Andre Dillard can quickly settle in as a first-time starter, the Eagles' front will pummel opponents with its collective size, strength and athleticism.
After punishing opponents with a beat-'em-up style in 2019, the Ravens have upgraded their personnel in the trenches, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe add size, strength and playmaking ability to a unit anchored by emerging sack master Matt Judon. With Brandon Williams and Pernell McPhee viewed as solid contributors at this stage of their respective careers, Baltimore has turned a weakness into a strength this offseason. On offense, the addition of D.J. Fluker to a unit that already featured Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. should help the Ravens continue to bully defenders at the line of scrimmage. Considering the team's smashmouth playing style, the hefty front line could pave the way for a title run.
Credit Mickey Loomis, Jeff Ireland and Co. for putting together a homegrown offensive line that's become one of the NFL's elite units. Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat and Ryan Ramczyk are distinguished young veterans with A+ skills as run and pass blockers. Erik McCoy and Cesar Ruiz round out the quintet as versatile interior blockers with athleticism and movement skills. Defensively, Cam Jordan is a five-star playmaker with refined pass-rush skills and a non-stop motor. He is complemented by a young pass rusher (Marcus Davenport) with the size, length and explosiveness to take over games. If Sheldon Rankins can find his groove as an interior rusher, the Saints could climb up this ladder as a dynamic collection of trench terrors.
The defending Super Bowl champs are more than Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, based on the number of blue-chip players in the trenches on each side of the ball. Mitchell Schwartz is arguably the best right tackle in football, and he's joined by a stout blind-side protector in Eric Fisher. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is an underrated blocker with a tenacious demeanor and playing style. Chris Jones and Frank Clark are alpha dogs on the defensive line with disruptive games and high-revving motors. Each is capable of taking over as a destructive force at the point of attack. As the spark plugs of a defense that gradually improved over the 2019 campaign, the duo could set the standard for a unit that emerges as a top-10 defense this season.
JAMEIS WINSTON: The truth about his Bucs tenure
Tyler Dunne's Bleacher Report feature on Jameis Winston raised eyebrows across America this week, specifically the quote where the former No. 1 overall pick confidently proclaimed his stature among quarterbacks.
"I know what I'm worth," Winston told Dunne. "And I know, day in and day out, without publicly coming in and saying it, that, historically, I'm one of the best quarterbacks to play the game."
Now, I understand why that kind of self-confidence sends sports talk radio into a tizzy. But before you spit out your drink or snicker at Winston's audaciousness, you might want to re-check his resume.
Jameis just became the eighth quarterback in league history to pass for 5,000 yards in a single season, joining Dan Marino, Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Matthew Stafford and Drew Brees, who's actually accomplished the feat five times. At age 26, Winston has thrown for the second-most passing yards of any NFL quarterback through five seasons, trailing only Manning. Moreover, Winston has more touchdowns (121) through his first five seasons than Brett Favre (108), Kurt Warner (101), Brady (87) and Brees (80). Think about that: The guy who has been the butt of all jokes since becoming the first quarterback with 30 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions in a single season is a certified baller with a slate of numbers that put him in the same early-career stratosphere as a number of Hall of Fame types.
That's why I'm not mad at the sixth-year pro for boldly tooting his own horn. The confidence and swagger might rub some the wrong way, but you can't dispute Winston's numbers when you make an apples-to-apples comparison to others through five professional seasons. He has played at an all-star level at times, flashing spectacular potential when he is on his game.
I know what you're thinking: What about the questionable decision-making from the pocket? That's a fair concern, but honestly, I believe the turnover talk around Jameis is a bit overblown. Although Winston's 111 turnovers are the most in the NFL since 2015, his 88 interceptions are still fewer than the 100 picks thrown by Manning over his first five seasons. Let that marinate for a minute. The guy viewed as the ultimate turnover machine has thrown fewer picks than a five-time MVP did through this stage of his career. Yet, the football world is ready to dismiss the Winston as a bust or underachiever at the position.
"He's talented," an NFC scout told me. "There's no doubt that he can play in our league, but he was dinged for his turnovers and some of the pre-draft stuff that continues to cloud his evaluation."
Clearly, Winston needs to cut down his giveaways and miscues, but he's too talented to dismiss at this juncture. That's why I believe the New Orleans Saints walked away with a steal when they inked Winston on a one-year, $1.1 million deal. He's a more talented thrower than Taysom Hill and former Saints backup Teddy Bridgewater. He's also a pinpoint passer with the capacity to throw with touch, timing and anticipation, particularly when working the middle of the field. Although Winston's fearlessness will lead to some interceptions when he attempts to squeeze throws into tight windows, the aggressiveness also results in touchdowns when he's on the same page with his pass catchers in the red zone.
Prior to last season, Winston had never thrown 20 interceptions in a season. While the football world points to his 30-interception season as the tipping point of his demise, it is really an outlier on a robust resume that's been fueled by his aggressive approach.
In New Orleans this year, Winston will get a chance to learn under an excellent quarterback tutor and play designer in Sean Payton. The creative offensive wizard has an expansive playbook layered with a variety of four-vertical route combinations, as well as pick-and-rub crossing routes that give a quarterback more layups and high-completion throws. In addition, the Saints feature a comprehensive screen game and running back option package that enable the passer to pile up cheap yards on dump-offs to Alvin Kamara.
Obviously, Brees remains the QB1 in New Orleans for 2020, but he's 41 years old, so health is obviously a concern. It's not hard to imagine Winston being pressed into service at some point. Not to mention, this could be Brees' last hurrah. Could Winston end up sticking in the Big Easy beyond this season? Sure. If an aging Brees can ring up 4,000-yard seasons largely playing small ball in New Orleans, imagine what a home-run hitter like Winston could do with a more disciplined approach from the pocket.
Considering Manning became a gold standard at the position after curbing his turnover woes, there's no reason why Winston can't eventually become an all-time great if/when he figures it out with the Saints.