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:
-- An underappreciated receiver who deserves to be mentioned among the game's very best.
-- Three quick takes on hot-button stories.
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If the NFL's MVP award were legitimately given to the league's Most Valuable Player, Russell Wilson would win this year's hardware in a landslide. No disrespect to the spectacular play of Tom Brady and Carson Wentz, but they aren't doing nearly as much work for their respective squads as the Seattle Seahawks' quarterback.
Wilson not only accounts for 82.2 percent of the Seahawks' scrimmage yards -- he's also played a part in 29 of the team's 33 touchdowns (87.9 percent). Not to mention, he sports an NFL-best 134.1 passer rating in the fourth quarter and has thrown a league-leading 15 fourth-quarter touchdown passes against just one interception. With Wilson also serving as the team's leading rusher (432 yards on just 71 attempts -- 6.1 ypc), I can't think of another quarterback in the league doing nearly as much for his squad.
Sure, a true franchise signal caller is expected to make the rest of the team better, but what Wilson is doing is remarkable. He is playing quarterback at an elite level, albeit in an unconventional way. As an electric dual-threat playmaker, Wilson entered this week ranked sixth in passing yards (3,256), tied for second in passing touchdowns (26) and sitting behind only Cam Newton in quarterback rushing yards. He has been a one-man show for the 'Hawks.
"Typically, the best quarterbacks in the National Football League find a way to make the 10 other guys better," Wilson told reporters last week, via The News Tribune. "That's my main concern. That's my focus at all times, is helping our team win."
You certainly can't knock the Seattle's success with Wilson acting as a do-everything playmaker for the team. Heading into Sunday's marquee game in Jacksonville, the 8-4 Seahawks are sitting in prime position to snag their sixth straight playoff berth despite missing core players like Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril on a defense that typically leads the way. Offensively, Wilson has been forced to work around a leaky line that's unable to consistently keep pass rushers at bay or pave the way for the ground game.
Think about it this way: Wilson leads all players with a 307.3 passing + rushing yards per game -- an average greater than the output of three teams (Baltimore, Cincinnati and Chicago). That's the kind of production that makes a player worthy of the game's most treasured individual award. But there's more to the story.
Wilson has completed the transformation from game manager to playmaker over the past few seasons. Over the course of his six-year career, Wilson's pass attempts and passing yards have increased every single season -- yet he has remained quite efficient in the process. Inside and outside of the pocket, Wilson consistently delivers pinpoint passes within the strike zone. In fact, according to Next Gen Stats, he is the best passer on tight-window throws, with an 82.6 passer rating (min. 30 pass attempts).
With Wilson also excelling as a deep-ball passer -- as evidenced by his 6:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 111.5 passer rating on throws that travel 20-plus air yards -- it is hard to build a defensive game plan to diffuse his talents. The three-time Pro Bowler's combination of passing skills and athleticism stresses the defense in a way that breaks down the structure of the scheme. Whether it's his brilliant execution of zone-read/read-option concepts or his uncanny ability to improvise on the perimeter, Wilson is an absolute nightmare to defend.
"Let me state it from the other side of it: When you have a quarterback that can do that, it changes everything," Carroll said. "You got guys on the (network-television) broadcast talking about how you get the first play and then the second play (within a play). Well, sometimes, these guys give you third plays. Russell has been able to do that. It might look like it's going to be a scramble or he's going to throw it, and then he takes off and runs for 15 or 18 yards or something like that.
"It's just as hard as it can get, because you can structure your defense to play normal stuff, and then the play breaks down and then you're not quite sure if it's going to be like a QB draw or if it winds up being a spread-out or winds up being like a naked or boot -- and then the defenders have to start all over again."
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I believe the Seahawks have built the perfect scheme around Wilson to maximize his talents. From their selective use of zone-read concepts to their increased utilization of spread and empty formations, Seattle has made its QB1 quite difficult to defend. The use of empty formations, in particular, has put defensive coordinators in a quandary when making decisions about whether to send pressure or sit back in coverage against the mobile playmaker.
"It's hard to defend a mobile quarterback in an empty formation," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "The formation naturally spreads out the defense with guys matching up with their assignments, which creates some creases for potential QB runs or scrambles. ... An athletic quarterback also puts you in a bind when deciding whether to play man or zone coverage against the formation. If you play man, your second-level defenders are running around with their back to the QB so they don't see him when he takes off. In a zone, they have vision on him but they are dropping away from the line attempting to get their assigned areas, which also leaves seams in the defense.
"Since you can't really disguise against the formation, a savvy quarterback can read the coverage and exploit whatever you decide to do against empty. It's tough."
As a former defensive coach, Carroll obviously understands the challenge and he's probably suggested using more empty sets to flummox opponents.
Looking at the Seahawks' past few games, I noticed the offense aligned in some variation of empty formation 10-12 times a game, with the bulk of those snaps occurring on third down. Given how the formation stresses the defense and makes it easy for the quarterback to read coverage, particularly with running backs aligned out wide (linebackers are put in uncomfortable spots in man coverage), the Seahawks' increased utilization makes perfect sense based on their pass-protection woes and personnel issues.
Since most teams check into a soft zone defense against empty, Wilson gets to face more three- and four-man rushes on critical downs. That's ideal because it allows the 'Hawks to use a double-team or a "helper" in protection (five blockers on four rushers). Plus, this makes it easier for Wilson to spot the breakdowns in rush lanes to avoid big hits or sacks in the pocket. With that in mind, it's easy to understand why a mobile playmaker like Wilson leads the NFL with a 3.0-second average in snap-to-throw time, according to Next Gen Stats.
No. 3 not only escapes pressure with Houdini-level ability, but he deliberately runs around to create time and allow his receivers to shake free from coverage down the field. Although Wilson's sandlot-style playmaking looks nothing like the composed play that we see from others at the position, it is the main reason why he should be considered the league's MVP in 2017. Wilson's improvisation is the driving force behind Seattle's offense. Without it, the team wouldn't stand a chance in the NFC.
KEENAN ALLEN: Overlooked name in the 'NFL's best wideout' discussion
Who is the best receiver in the game?
Well, it's time to add another name to this group.
Now, I know that statement will take some of you by surprise. Many folks haven't watched a lot of Chargers games and are unable to appreciate a playmaker who hasn't been sold to the masses as a brand name. That's OK. I'm going to help you understand why No. 13 on the Bolts is one of the best receivers in the game.
Checking in at 6-foot-2, 211 pounds, Allen is a big-bodied playmaker with unique quickness and route-running skills. He is arguably the best release artist in the game, with a dazzling array of hesitation and shake moves that leave defenders flat-footed at the line. Whether he's facing bump-and-run or off coverage, Allen consistently shakes free from coverage, exhibiting a slick style that is uncommon for a bigger receiver.
"Allen has it all," said current NFL Network analyst James Jones, who was briefly a teammate of Allen's in San Diego. "He is a big man with little-man moves. He can shake and bake with the best of them, but he also uses his size and strength to create separation.
"He's a hard guard for anyone trying to press him."
Allen is a sure-handed receiver with outstanding ball skills. He overwhelms smaller defenders on 50-50 balls, but also shows exceptional balance, body control and athleticism shagging throws along the boundary. Allen's tracking skills and dexterity are uncommon for a big man, which is why former receivers rave about his skills.
"He's legit," said six-time Pro Bowler and current NFL Network analyst Reggie Wayne. "He can run every route in the book and he can play outside or in the slot. No. 1 receivers should be versatile enough to play everywhere and can do that at a high level."
I think it is important to understand why former receivers believe WR1s should be able to play multiple positions within a formation. Moving around to various spots not only takes a certain amount of physical skill, but a receiver has to have a high football IQ to fully understand concepts from multiple viewpoints and how his role changes based on where he's aligned. With Allen, there isn't any question about his versatility or football aptitude -- just look at how he's used in the Chargers' offense.
According to Next Gen Stats, he aligns out wide (52 percent) and in the slot (48 percent) at nearly equal rates. Although he has compiled more yardage on the outside (43 receptions for 587 yards and a score), he has been a more prolific scorer when operating from the slot (34 receptions for 445 yards and four touchdowns). Allen's ability to work from anywhere on the field makes him nearly impossible to bracket or double-team consistently despite opponents knowing that he's the featured playmaker in the passing game.
"Big-time No. 1s are able to impact the game despite facing double-teams," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "They understand what you're trying to do to take them away and they have a counter for that.
"A good coaching staff will find a way to scheme it up to give them chances, and a real No. 1 will make you pay when they get their shot."
That's exactly why Allen deserves to be in the conversation as one of the premier receivers in the game. He just became the first player in NFL history to have 10-plus receptions, 100-plus receiving yards and at least one touchdown in three consecutive games.
Let that marinate for a minute ...
In a league that has featured the likes of Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and many other superstar wideouts, Allen is the first pass catcher to post that kind of production as a WR1. He is also one of five receivers who've already crossed the 1,000-yard barrier this season, and he's already matched his career high for single-season receptions (77).
While the big-picture numbers certainly matter, I believe Allen's "money down" stats truly thrust him into the VIP conversation. He leads the NFL in third-down targets (50), receptions (31), receiving yards (464) and first downs (26) despite being the focal point of the defensive game plan. Think about that. Everyone in the stadium knows Allen is getting the ball on third down, yet the defense can't stop him. That speaks volumes about his dominance and effectiveness as a playmaker on the perimeter.
While I'm sure fans of the more high-profile receivers will tell me that it takes more than a spectacular three-game run to deserve a spot inside the velvet rope, let's not pretend he's a flash in the pan. After entering the NFL as a third-round pick in 2013, he made a serious run at Offensive Rookie of the Year with 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns in his debut campaign. Although injuries significantly limited his availability in each of the past two seasons, he's consistently posted impressive numbers whenever he hits the field.
As long as his body doesn't betray him, Allen's game is built to last and he deserves to be mentioned among the NFL's very best.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) How John Dorsey will change the Cleveland Browns' approach to team building. The Browns' decision to hire Dorsey as their new general manager will undoubtedly lead the franchise away from the analytics-driven approach employed by Sashi Brown. The former Kansas City Chiefs executive was groomed in the scouting world under Hall of Fame inductee Ron Wolf, utilizing a tape study-based evaluation system that placed a premium on performance and production. Although standard measurements (height, weight, arm length, 40 time, agility testing, etc.) will be used in the pre-draft process, you can expect the Browns to make the bulk of their personnel decisions based on how prospects perform in games instead of leaning on quantitative data.
2) Why Andy Reid did the right thing with Marcus Peters. I applaud Reid's decision to suspend his Pro Bowl cornerback for his actions against the New York Jets. The spectacular coverman is one of the best players at his position, but he must be able to control his emotions at all times. Peters entered the league with several red flags regarding his character, including reports of insubordination at Washington (he was eventually kicked off the team), so Reid needed to send a strong message to the 24-year-old to prevent a recurrence in Kansas City. Although the punishment will leave the team short-handed in a hugely important game against the Raiders, Reid boldly elected to make a long-term play to keep his top defensive playmaker in line instead of ignoring his boorish behavior.
3) The truly unforgivable aspect of the New York Giants' QB botch job. I can't believe Ben McAdoo and Jerry Reese didn't have a plan in place to get Davis Webb ready for play when they contemplated removing Eli Manning from the lineup. The rookie third-rounder is listed as the QB3 and spent the entire season working with the scout team as part of his duties. While that is certainly in line with how most NFL teams operate, the Giants needed to elevate Webb to the QB2 spot to give him enough practice reps to get ready for meaningful snaps in game action. The starting quarterback typically takes 85-90 percent of practice reps with the first-team offense and the backup takes the remaining reps. Thus, the Giants needed to elevate Webb to give him enough practice time to develop some familiarity and continuity with the group of skill players that he would work with in games. Now, I didn't see anything wrong with taking a look at Geno Smith during the final part of the season to see if he offered anything as a short-term QB1 or a long-term QB2, but the optics of failing to have your young quarterback ready for game action probably crushed McAdoo and Reese with the Giants' fan base.