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:
* * * **
It's uncommon for an elite quarterback to hit the open market, but we could see Russell Wilson use the threat of free agency to become the NFL's first $40 million QB.
I know that number appears staggering at first glance, but the Seattle Seahawks' QB1 has all of the leverage in this upcoming negotiation, with Wilson heading into the final season of his current four-year, $87.6 million deal. The 30-year-old has led the team to six playoff appearances (and two Super Bowls, with one win) in seven seasons, racking up a sparkling 75-36-1 regular-season record in the process. Most importantly, Wilson is an A-level playmaker who is just entering his prime at a position that has seen the G.O.A.T (Tom Brady) play at an extremely high level into his 40s.
That's why I'm not surprised to hear Wilson recently suggest he could become the highest-paid quarterback in the history of the league. Just look at the numbers Wilson has put up the past few seasons while carrying Seattle's offense. No. 3 has posted back-to-back seasons with 30-plus touchdown passes, while also tallying nearly 1,000 rushing yards during that span. Despite the 2018 Seahawks reverting back to the run-heavy formula that keyed the franchise's ascension during Wilson's early years, the five-time Pro Bowl selectee remains one of the game's most explosive playmakers, as an improvisational wizard with a refined game from the pocket (SEE: career-high 110.9 passer rating last season). He is one of the few quarterbacks capable of winning with his arm or legs, and his durability as an athletic quarterback (zero missed starts over seven NFL campaigns) speaks volumes about his consistency and reliability.
Considering the value of having an MVP-caliber QB1 on a roster, Wilson would certainly command a hefty salary on the open market. Seeing how a then-34-year-old Aaron Rodgers was able to get an average of $33.5 million per season on a four-year extension -- despite having two years remaining on his deal -- Wilson can ask for the world in the last year of his current deal, with a $30-plus million franchise tag looming in the background.
While some players view the tag in a negative light, the top guys can flip it into bargaining power by taking an NBA approach to negotiation, particularly with the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire in March of 2021. Perhaps Wilson decides to play on the tag in 2020 and wait for the new CBA to set the market rules. If year-to-year gambles worked for the likes of Kirk Cousins (back-to-back franchise tags eventually resulted in a three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million contract), Wilson could easily parlay his resume into a $200 million deal that features a boatload of guaranteed money.
Now, Wilson could certainly get that kind of money on the open market, but I don't know if Pete Carroll would want to build a team around a QB1 eating up that much of the salary cap pie. That's not a dismissal of Wilson's talent, market value or his contributions to the franchise, but Carroll's Seahawks reached their greatest heights when Wilson was viewed as a complementary QB playing on an inexpensive rookie deal that allowed the team to pay big money to his supporting cast.
With that in mind, the 'Hawks could view Wilson as a trade asset who fetches them a king's ransom in draft picks and/or players -- either this offseason or prior to the trade deadline in the fall. We haven't seen a Pro Bowl quarterback traded in his prime since Jay Cutler was dealt by the Broncos (along with a fifth-round pick) to the Bears for a pair of first-round picks, a third-rounder and a serviceable quarterback (Kyle Orton). If Cutler could attract a pair of first-rounders 10 years ago, how much would Wilson fetch on the auction block? Think about it. A Super Bowl winner with MVP-caliber credentials would command quite a sum in a league that, less than a year ago, saw pass rusher Khalil Mack included as the central piece of a trade that landed the Raiders two first-rounders.
Considering John Schneider and Carroll's solid draft-and-development track record, the Seahawks could build a more well-rounded team by trading away their top asset. It would be an unconventional move in a quarterback-driven league, but it is certainly worth discussion in a meeting room between some of the best and brightest minds in the business.
The Russell Wilson negotiation could be the ultimate game of chicken, as franchise and franchise face haggle over money, but team builders across the NFL will be paying close attention to how the 'Hawks play the game with one of the premier QB1s in the league today.
DREW LOCK: Mizzou QB deserves mention with Murray, Haskins
The 2019 NFL Draft's quarterback class has been derided as being not as talented as last year's group, but I believe there are three potential franchise quarterbacks in the bunch. A number of observers will cite Oklahoma's Kyler Murray and Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins as Tier 1 prospects, but I believe Missouri's Drew Lock also deserves a seat at the VIP table.
Having earned All-SEC honors in each of the past two seasons (first-team in 2017, second-team in 2018), Lock is a five-star prospect with the arm talent and athleticism to thrive in the league as a new-school quarterback. Lock can make every throw in the book with A-level zip, velocity and touch. He is one of the few passers in this class capable of making rope throws to the opposite hash, while also showing enough arm strength and finesse to launch teardrops down the boundary on vertical routes. With Lock also flashing the ability to make tight-window throws between the numbers, he's a prime candidate to operate in a wide-open NFL playbook under an aggressive offensive coordinator looking to attack every area of the field with an assortment of dropback passes.
The 22-year-old's athleticism and movement skills also stand out on tape. The former high school basketball star displays outstanding balance, body control and short-area quickness inside of the pocket. He makes subtle movements to elude and avoid rushers in the pocket, while delivering off-platform throws on the move in either direction. In addition, he makes those Houdini-like passes look routine.
That said, Lock has struggled with his accuracy, as evidenced by his 56.9 percent completion rate over his four years as Missouri's starter. He frequently misfired on intermediate throws in college, and those off-target throws will result in interceptions at the next level. To be fair, Lock played in a basketball-like offense that revolved around "layups and threes" (screens and deep shots). He needs to become more effective as a distributor by adding more of a mid-range game to his arsenal.
With all that in mind, I can envision Lock flourishing in a Kyle Shanahan-like system that features a number of play-action and bootleg concepts with maximum protection or a moving pocket. Considering the simple two- and three-man concepts that accompany those plays, Lock would be able to show off his dazzling arm talent in a scheme that also slowly indoctrinates him into the pro game. Despite his wealth of experience as a starter in the SEC (46 career starts), Lock is still a relative newbie at the position, based on his multi-sport background in high school. As a prep, Lock spent his offseasons showcasing his hoop skills on the AAU circuit, as opposed to attending various quarterback camps and mastering the footwork and fundamentals of the position with a private trainer. Thus, there is plenty of developmental potential with Lock when he is able to commit to being a franchise quarterback 24/7/365.
From a critical standpoint, there are some legitimate concerns about Lock's performance vs. top SEC competition. Against ranked conference opponents, he posted a 1-10 record with a 52.1 percent completion rate, averaging 203.6 passing yards per game with a 14:16 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Those numbers are startling, particularly for a draft prospect with the potential to come off the board within the first 20 selections.
While some of the blame for Lock's record can be attributed to the lack of star power around him on the perimeter, I believe that challenge will actually make him a better pro down the road. Lock developed mental toughness and the necessary leadership skills to fuel a turnaround, as chronicled in this profile by NFL.com's Chase Goodbread. Lock endured a pair of losing seasons during his first two years in Columbia, but led the Tigers to back-to-back bowl games during his final two campaigns.
Lock also handled coaching changes and offensive scheme overhauls during his tenure, which will serve him well when he's forced to adapt and adjust as an NFL QB1.
If I had to compare Lock to a current NFL quarterback, I would point to Matthew Stafford. The former No. 1 overall pick has remarkable arm talent and he's played at an MVP level at times during his career (SEE: 2016) as a comeback specialist (26 career fourth-quarter comebacks, 33 game-winning drives). Interestingly, Stafford entered the league with similar questions about his accuracy, having posting a 57.1 percent completion rate at Georgia. Although he had a strong record against top competition (3-0 in bowl games; 6-3 in rivalry games against Florida, Georgia Tech and Auburn) and a winning overall record (30-9 as a college starter), the combination of arm talent, athleticism and wizardry is similar to the traits Lock displays with the ball in his hands.
If I'm a team looking for a quarterback with a high ceiling based on talent, athleticism and experience, I'm happily hitching my wagon to Lock if I can't get my hands on Murray or Haskins on draft day.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Don't overreact after Jaylon Ferguson's poor workout. Each year, we see a top prospect plummet down the rankings due to a subpar workout during the pre-draft process. Louisiana Tech's Jaylon Ferguson could be the next youngster to experience a drastic draft-day slide following a lackluster pro day that has led to questions about his speed, quickness and overall athleticism.
As reported by The Athletic's Dane Brugler, the 6-foot-4, 271-pound pass rusher posted pedestrian times in the 40-yard dash (4.82 and 4.83 seconds), 20-yard shuttle (5.12) and three-cone drill (8.08), while also recording ho-hum numbers in the bench press (24 reps), vertical jump (32 inches) and broad jump (9-foot-9). (Ferguson was not allowed to participate in the NFL Scouting Combine, due to a conviction for simple battery during his freshman year at Tech.) Although Ferguson isn't expected to be a decathlete in pads, it is hard for some scouts to ignore those metrics when there are plenty of pass rushers posting Olympic-like qualifying times in pro day workouts.
All that said, the best evaluators trust what they've seen on tape and their opinions aren't swayed by the stopwatch or measuring tape. That's why I continue to believe Ferguson is one of the best pass rushers in the draft, and he will make his mark immediately as a disruptive force off the edge.
The FBS all-time sack leader (45) not only has an impressive resume that features two seasons with 14-plus sacks, but he's amassed 67.5 tackles for loss in 50 career games. Nearly 27 percent of his career tackles were for a loss, and that disruption stands out. Studying the coaches film, I was impressed with Ferguson's length, strength and motor. He frequently "rag dolls" offensive tackles, exhibiting excellent hand skills when he sheds blockers at the point of attack on the way to harassing the quarterback. Ferguson's combination of a power-based game and relentless energy make him a nightmare to deal with on the edge, which is why several opponents elected to use double-teams or chip blocks from backfield players to slow him down on obvious passing downs.
From a critical standpoint, Ferguson's stiffness and lack of explosive quickness also show up on tape. He's not a super athlete off the edge, but he's become a skilled player with a knack for anticipating the snap count or reading the offensive tackle to get an early jump off the ball. Ferguson wins with effort, energy and aggressiveness, which translates well to the NFL.
Looking for comparisons, I believe Ferguson is reminiscent of Terrell Suggs when he entered the league after starring at Arizona State. The 2011 Defensive Player of the Year and seven-time Pro Bowl selectee set the FBS career record for sacks (44) in just three college seasons, but he slid down some draft boards after a disappointing showing at the NFL Scouting Combine with a 4.84-second 40 time and just 19 reps on the bench press. Suggs followed that up with another underwhelming effort in his pro day that featured 40 times in the 4.81-4.85 range on my stopwatch. Suggs still went 10th overall in the 2003 NFL Draft and went on to earn Defensive Rookie of the Year honors with 12 sacks in his debut season.
From that experience, I learned that performance, production and skills matter more than pre-draft workouts, and I continue to put far more stock on film study in my current evaluations. Ozzie Newsome, who drafted Suggs in Baltimore, also taught me to lean on performance and production when studying players, particularly pass rushers. The Ravens' former general manager told me sack production over multiple years in college translates to NFL success, and that formula definitely rings true when I look back at my scouting career. From Julius Peppers to Jared Allen to Suggs to Ryan Kerrigan to Von Miller, the game's most prolific sack artists were also highly productive as collegians.
Granted, each of those players also had the physical skills needed to thrive as pros, but the performance and production popped on tape. With Ferguson's production, effort and energy also showing up on the film, I'm willing to bank on the Louisiana Tech standout making his mark in the league despite his uninspiring showing in the pre-draft beauty pageant.
2) Justin Houston's a perfect pickup for these Colts. Championship teams aren't entirely built through free agency, but title contenders certainly can add a key piece to a championship puzzle with a pivotal signee. Looking at the Indianapolis Colts' recent signing of Justin Houston, I do believe the team has made a major move toward becoming a legitimate contender in the AFC.
The four-time Pro Bowl selectee with 78.5 career sacks gives the Colts a dominant presence off the edge. Despite his recent release from the Kansas City Chiefs, Houston remains a potential double-digit sack artist as a pass-rush specialist. The 30-year-old combines outstanding hand skills with balance, body control and short-area burst to run quarterbacks down from the back side. Although he's lost a little quickness due to injuries, Houston's experience and savvy make him a legitimate threat.
At a rate of $12 million annually, Houston ranks as one of the highest-paid players on the Colts, but the two-year deal allows the team to continue to add resources without mortgaging the future. When I look at how the most recent Super Bowl rosters were built, they have a number of veteran players on NBA-like short-term contracts that provide both team and player with maximum flexibility.