Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
But first, a look at how the Seattle Seahawks continue to get the most out of undrafted free agents ...
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The best personnel men in the NFL are always trying to gain a competitive edge over their peers in the team-building process. Wily general managers will instruct their assistants to conduct various studies on the roster construction of the top teams in the NFL to see if the championship contenders have uncovered a tactic that allows them to stay a step ahead of the competition. Whether it's a different way to conduct player evaluations or tweaking the player-acquisition model, the astute evaluators will challenge their scouting staffs to spot budding trends throughout the league to see if there is anything to learn from the way other teams are going about their business.
When I worked as a scout for the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks, I frequently was asked to study prominent NFL players from my region to see if they were playing above or below expectations based on my college scouting reports. These exercises not only helped me determine which physical and mental traits were essential to succeeding in the NFL, but it helped me realize that a number of imperfect prospects thrive as pros in the right situation.
With that in mind, I typically spend the week between the final preseason game and the opening of the regular season studying the rosters of every NFL team to see if there is a potential trend emerging that could take the league by storm.
Sure, I've seen teams turn over a roster when a new coach takes over (see: Cleveland with 17 rookies on the 53-man), but I can't remember a perennial contender flipping its roster in the middle of the sustained championship run. That's why I had to dig a little deeper to see why the Seahawks are willing to go out on a limb and lean on a bunch of newbies when the team is primed and ready to make another run at a Super Bowl ring.
While researching the Seahawks' roster, I found that there were almost as many undrafted free agents (476) on NFL rosters this season as first- and second-round picks combined (482). Now, those numbers are certainly skewed based on the unlimited number of UDFAs in the talent pool, but it's still shocking to see more "long shots" on rosters than blue-chip prospects at a time when scouts have more research and information at their disposal.
When I asked around to see why there are so many UDFAs on rosters at this point, I had several NFL executives suggest that there are a lot of misevaluations on prospects throughout the process and the teams committed to doing their own research can make out like bandits on the free-agent market.
Let me explain ... Most NFL teams subscribe to a scouting service (National Football Scouting, Inc. and/or BLESTO) and those companies assign a scout to work each area of the country. Those scouts gather pertinent information on each prospect (background, physical dimensions and 40-yard dash times) and conduct a film evaluation. Based on their findings, they place an initial grade on the prospects and compile a list of the top prospects in the country heading into the fall. Teams will provide their college scouts with a list of prospects in their assigned areas and have them conduct school calls (school visit with background research, film evaluation and practice observation) to help determine which players should be on their respective draft boards.
Some teams will provide their area scouts with the preliminary grades on the prospects, but others won't allow their scouts to see the preseason grades because they believe it could taint their evaluations (scouts can be influenced by what they read from other scouts). Interestingly, teams that subscribe to the scouting services must provide one scout to the company, but that scout is typically new or inexperienced. Thus, the preliminary grades are sometimes out of whack due to a lack of perspective or knowledge.
That's why teams committed to digging a little deeper in the scouting process can gain an advantage on their peers when it comes to finding hidden gems in the later rounds or in the UDFA market.
A former vice president of player personnel for multiple NFL teams told me, "The number of undrafted free agents making teams points out the failures of some NFL personnel departments ... Teams are missing on too many top players with all of the information and research at their disposal."
He went on to suggest that some of the young scouts in the business are not "independent thinkers" and their opinions can be influenced by their "buddies' evaluations."
That's why I find it interesting that the Seahawks have had so much success with young players, particularly undrafted free agents in the Pete Carroll/John Schneider era. The Seahawks have struck gold on players like Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, DeShawn Shead, Thomas Rawls and others in recent years. Most impressively, they have blended a number of castoffs and misfits with a handful of top picks to build a juggernaut in the NFC.
Looking at the Seahawks' depth chart, I noticed there are seven former UDFAs in the starting lineup (Baldwin, Kearse, Garry Gilliam, Taniela Tupou, Mike Morgan, Nolan Frese and Shead) and 10 UDFAs on the two-deep chart. Let that sink in. The team that's been the perennial contender in the NFC has a number of underdogs occupying prime roles in a league that's super competitive at the top.
Before I go on, I should explain the UDFA process. College scouts affix grades to prospects based on their long-term potential. Guys graded at the top of the board are expected to make immediate contributions upon their arrival. For instance, a top-10 pick is expected to develop into a franchise player capable of earning Pro Bowl recognition within two or three seasons. Players with first- and second-round grades are expected to play key roles as rookies before earning starting jobs by the end of their first or second seasons. Prospects earning third- or fourth-round grades are viewed as quality backups with the potential to start in a year or two. Late-round picks (fifth round and lower) are seen as developmental prospects with three or four redeemable qualities (size, speed, production, football character, etc.).
In my experience, the guys pegged as late-round picks are considered priority free agents (PFAs) and teams expend a draft pick on those players to make sure they are able to secure their services for training camp. When the draft is over, teams take a look at the players remaining on the draft board and target the remaining late-round prospects as UDFAs. Thus, a lot of the undrafted free agent success stories are actually late-round prospects taking advantage of their opportunities in training camp.
Bringing it back to the Seahawks, the team has carved out a nice niche by selling hope and opportunity to free agents after the draft. The team sends recruiting brochures to agents and prospective UDFAs touting the opportunities they've provided to unheralded players during preseason games to maximize their chances of making a roster.
When I talked to a Seahawks' officials and some of their former executives about their success in the UDFA market, they told me that "it is a big deal" in their building. It is emphasized from the top down and scouts take pride in finding hidden gems. Carroll takes it a step further by promoting competition at every turn, and giving every player, regardless of draft position, a shot to earn a role with the team on the field.
From a scouting perspective, Carroll clearly defines what traits he covets in his players and outlines each position clearly. For example, the Seahawks value talented players with versatility and positional flexibility. In addition, he favors instincts and awareness over pure intelligence, and he isn't afraid to take chances on "character risks" if he can get a good feel for their background. Although taking fliers on high-risk guys can backfire on the organization, Carroll and Schneider have created a checks-and-balances system that has weeded out problem children and provided the team with a bigger talent pool to choose from.
When I spoke to an NFC executive about the approach, he told me that you cast a "bigger net" and "hit on more guys" when you open up your mind to giving undrafted free agents a legitimate chance to make the roster. He later added those guys (players Nos. 40 through 53 on the roster) are the foundation of the team in the salary cap era because "you need to find guys that can play on the cheap."
To succeed with this approach, teams must commit to player development, and this requires a complete buy-in from the coaching staff. Coaches must teach and correct every player on the roster with the same passion, and they have to be willing to let the young guys get real reps regardless of their draft position or player profile. Although this should be standard protocol throughout the league, there are a number of teams and coaches who refuse to commit the extra time it takes to develop their young players.
When I quizzed a former Seahawks scout about this approach, he told me, "Coaches need to be patient and know how to teach ... They need to be committed to developing the players." When I asked him about other teams, he replied, "Most coaches want polished players with all of the traits. They don't have the patience for development."
That's where Carroll's experience as a college coach has paid huge dividends for the Seahawks. He is willing to wait a little longer for the light to come on for his young players. After dealing with players ages 18 to 22 at USC, he has a better feel for the progression of today's players and the Seahawks' process-oriented approach yields positive results.
"[Carroll] knows the issues transitioning to the NFL are the same for a top pick or a free agent," the scout told me. "He's willing to put those guys in the same environment and go with the guy who catches on the quickest."
When I look at the next generation of castoffs and misfits poised to make an impact for the Seahawks (see: Trevone Boykin, Tanner McEvoy, Tupou and DeAndre Elliott), I see a number of guys who check off all of the boxes (athleticism, instincts, versatility, positional flexibility and production) that others don't require from their UDFAs. Maybe that's the edge that keeps the Seahawks flying high while others struggle to get off the ground.
ASK THE LEAGUE: Did the Eagles fleece the Vikings?
When the Minnesota Vikingstraded for veteran quarterback Sam Bradford in the wake of Teddy Bridgewater's devastating knee injury, the Twitterverse nearly went up in flames, with everyone weighing in to name winners and losers. Looking at my mentions, it appears that fans overwhelmingly admonished the Vikings for mortgaging their future -- Minnesota shipped a first-round pick in 2017 and a conditional fourth-round pick in 2018 to Philadelphia -- to land an oft-injured quarterback who does not have a single playoff appearance on his résumé. When I clicked onto NFL Network, I saw several of my colleagues weigh in with various opinions on who got it right or wrong in this scenario.
After listening to the back-and-forth banter over the weekend, I decided to reach out to some of my contacts within the league to get their take on the blockbuster deal. Here's my question and their responses:
NFC pro personnel assistant director: "I think that if you get a guy that you want and he's capable of helping you win games, the price is never too high. Based on getting a known commodity in Bradford versus an unknown draft pick, I think they made the right move. ... Sure, there is some risk, but you have to do what's best for your team, and they did that."
AFC director of pro scouting: "I think they gave up too much. I'm sure there were other teams with quality quarterbacks that didn't ask them to pay such a hefty price. That being said, the sharks could smell the blood and realize how desperate the Vikings were to get a guy. ... Minnesota will realize they overpaid during draft week when they start looking at the quarterbacks they could've had."
NFC pro personnel director: "Not if they believe that they will be picking at the bottom of the first round [because they are in the playoffs]. Plus, I think it shows how bad Teddy's injury must really be."
Former vice president of player personnel for multiple NFL teams: "Yes. They gave up a lot, but they had to do it. They needed a quarterback, and they needed one in a hurry, so they had to do whatever it took to get one."
AFC senior player personnel executive: "I think so. I believe it was a knee-jerk reaction. ... To give up a first and an additional high pick for a guy who hasn't met expectations after several years in the league is a questionable move."
I'm all in with the Vikings on their decision to acquire Bradford. The team desperately needed a legitimate starting quarterback to remain a viable contender in the NFC with Bridgewater out. The Vikings are built like a heavyweight contender (they have a stout defense, strong running attack and perimeter playmakers), but they needed an efficient distributor to manage the game and get the ball to their weapons. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has repeatedly stressed the importance of building a team that is not wholly dependent on the quarterback, and it has been reflected in Minnesota's play.
The Vikings averaged the fewest pass attempts per game (28.4) in 2015 while leaning on Peterson as their primary offensive weapon. The veteran runner responded in splendid fashion by leading the NFL in rushing yards (1,485) and rushing attempts (327). Most impressively, he finished with seven 100-yard games and helped the team post an 8-1 record when he logged 20-plus carries. Those numbers perfectly align with the conservative blueprint that worked well for Bridgewater. The Vikings were 7-0 when their young quarterback finished with 25 or fewer pass attempts, compared to 4-5 when Bridgewater logged more than 25 pass attempts.
Thus, Bradford steps into a situation where he simply needs to act as a mailman from the pocket. If he takes care of the ball and allows his stellar supporting cast to go to work, he could help the Vikings earn a ticket to the postseason dance. The critics will point out that Bradford's fragile body makes it hard to depend on him as a starter (he's missed 33 games in six seasons), but the 2010 Offensive Rookie of the Year has shown flashes of being a solid playmaker at the position, including an impressive five-game run to close the 2015 season (67 percent completion rate with an 8:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio). Considering he is playing with the best supporting cast he's ever had as a pro, he should thrive in coordinator Norv Turner's system, with his former offensive coordinator (Pat Shurmur, who worked with Bradford in St. Louis in 2010 and in Philadelphia last season) on the staff as tight ends coach.
Looking at the draft-pick compensation the Vikings surrendered to the Eagles, I don't believe the loss of a first-round pick is a death blow to the defending NFC North champs. The Vikings remain well-positioned to make an impact in the 2017 NFL Draft, given that they still have eight total picks, including a pair of third-rounders and a couple of fourth-round selections. That's more than enough ammunition to create a package that allows them to move into range to grab a blue-chip player within the top 40 picks.
By the way, the concern over the Vikings' loss of picks should be mitigated by their overwhelming success selecting blue-chip players in the first round. Since 2012, the Vikings have selected Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith, Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes, Cordarrelle Patterson, Anthony Barr, Bridgewater, Trae Waynes and Laquon Treadwell with their Day 1 picks. Considering the promise shown by the Vikings' young core, general manager Rick Spielman could afford to take a risk to acquire a player who could help the team make a deep playoff run -- which, by the way, will make people quickly forget about the cost of doing business in today's game.
RANKING BACKUP QUARTERBACKS: Who's best prepared to offer relief?
It's well-documented that the NFL has a quarterback problem with a short supply of franchise players available at the game's most important position. Teams search high and low for quarterbacks with the potential to lead a playoff run, but it is hard to find a competent QB1 with the physical tools to play the position and the intangibles to lead a group of men in the right direction. That's why any quarterback with a hint of talent and starting potential commands top dollar on the open market despite a résumé that lacks a number of signature wins or playoff success.
So, if it's that hard to find a QB1, imagine the challenge of finding a backup quarterback capable of winning games as a substitute. The QB2 must be able to jump off the bench and win a game with limited practice reps and a game plan that likely doesn't cater to his strengths. Thus, teams face a bit of a dilemma when picking a backup quarterback on cutdown day. Do they opt for a veteran on the downside of his career or take a flier on an unproven young quarterback with outstanding talent but limited game experience?
When I quizzed a few NFL executives on the requirements of the QB2 position, I heard several evaluators cite intelligence, self-awareness and judgment as the essential traits needed for the spot. Most importantly, they talked about the need to understand how to play "winning football" by avoiding turnovers and staying within their talent limitations.
With injuries mounting and several teams already playing musical chairs at the position, I think it's a great time to take a long, hard look at the backup quarterbacks in the league to determine which guys are best prepared to lead their teams to wins if pressed into action. Here are my top 10 QB2s:
1) Josh McCown, Cleveland Browns: The 14th-year veteran is playing his best football in the twilight of his career. McCown is the ideal QB2 as an experienced player (77 career games) with solid skills. He is still capable of delivering pinpoint passes to receivers between the numbers, and his surprising above-average range on deep balls forces opponents to defend the entire field. Considering his strong leadership skills, guile and wisdom, McCown is the perfect backup to trust in an emergency situation.
2) Derek Anderson, Carolina Panthers: Despite toiling in relative anonymity behind the league's MVP, the former Pro Bowl QB is a key member of Panthers' offense as a QB2. He has capably filled in for Cam Newton in several key moments over the past few years, including a pair of starts in 2014 where he completed 49 of 74 passes (66.2 percent) with three scores and zero picks. As a savvy vet with strong management skills and a keen understanding of how to play winning football, Anderson is an ideal relief pitcher for a team that loses a QB1.
3) AJ McCarron, Cincinnati Bengals: After being overlooked in the 2014 draft, McCarron has become one of the hottest young quarterback prospects in the NFL. He impressed scouts with his strong play as a fill-in for Andy Dalton a season ago, exhibiting outstanding poise, awareness and accuracy as a pocket passer (66.4 percent completion rate, 6:2 TD-to-INT ratio and 97.1 passer rating). With McCarron also displaying sound management skills in a playoff environment, the Bengals' QB2 looks like a future starter at the position.
4) Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers:The social activism from the sixth-year pro has made him Public Enemy No. 1 in some circles, but he is an athletic playmaker with a big arm and a winning pedigree. Kaepernick has led a team to a Super Bowl appearance and another NFC title games utilizing his mobility and passing skills. Although he isn't a classic pocket passer with some of the traits that coaches covet, he is a talented player with the potential to re-emerge as a solid QB1 in the right system.
5) Mike Glennon, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The arrival of Jameis Winston derailed Glennon's career in Tampa, but the fourth-year pro has enough tools and experience to warrant serious consideration as a starter for teams searching for a young QB1 to develop. Glennon has posted solid numbers in limited action (83.9 passer rating and 29:15 TD-to-INT ratio in 19 career games) while displaying poise, confidence and a strong arm. Expect several teams to make a play for him as a potential starter instead of taking a chance on a high-risk QB prospect in the next draft.
6) Mark Sanchez, Dallas Cowboys: Despite his turnover woes, Sanchez remains a solid QB2 based on his starting experience (72 career starts) and arm talent. When surrounded by a talented supporting cast, he has shown the football world that he can win games if he plays within his limitations. But he is a high-risk, high-reward player who needs to be kept on a short leash as a starter.
7) Nick Foles, Kansas City Chiefs: The fifth-year pro has taken a significant step back since playing at an MVP level in 2013 (64 percent completion rate, 27:2 TD-to-INT ratio and 119.2 passer rating), but the memory of his stellar play should encourage scouts that he can rediscover his game in the right environment. With Andy Reid slowly repairing his confidence as a pocket passer, Foles could be a viable option as a starter for the Chiefs.
8) Shaun Hill, Minnesota Vikings: The 15th-year pro is a wily veteran with extensive experience in a variety of offensive systems. Yet, he is only a short-term solution as a QB2 due to his injury history and pop-gun arm. Hill will efficiently play "connect the dots" from the pocket, but he lacks the arm strength to use all areas of the field. Although that approach can help a team win a few games in the short term, Hill's limitations can restrict the explosive potential of an offense under his direction. (UPDATE: NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reports that Shaun Hill is expected to start Sunday's season opener in Nashville, with Sam Bradford still familiarizing himself with his new team.)
9) Geno Smith, New York Jets: The fourth-year pro is a lightning rod for criticism in New York due to his turnover issues (42 giveaways in 30 career games), but remains an intriguing developmental prospect for a team looking for a young quarterback to groom for a bigger role down the road. Now, I know Jets fans will scoff at that notion, but Smith's struggles as a young player were partially due to an inferior supporting cast (see: Jets WR corps in 2013 and '14) and a difficult transition from a spread offense to West Coast system. While that doesn't excuse his poor judgment with the ball, Smith isn't nearly as bad as some critics suggest when discussing his game.
10) Ryan Mallett, Baltimore Ravens: The big-armed gunslinger has always teased scouts with his raw talent, but he has started to understand how to play winning football at the position since arriving in Baltimore. Mallett played pretty well in place of Joe Flacco down the stretch last season and his solid play continued throughout the 2016 preseason (70 percent completion rate with a 3:1 TD-to-INT ratio and a 98.3 passer rating). Considering how hard it is to find a talented pocket passer with a solid grasp of complex passing concepts, Mallett is an interesting developmental prospect to groom.
NEXT-GEN STATS: Is Jordy Nelson the Packers' most valuable player?
Now, I know that statement will be met with some quizzical looks and raised eyebrows, based on Rodgers' stature in the league. And honestly, I'm engaging in a bit of hyperbole -- after all, Green Bay would almost certainly be dead in the water without Rodgers -- to underline what the numbers suggest: The veteran receiver is an indispensable Jenga piece to the Packers' championship puzzle.
With Nelson lost to a torn ACL in 2015, the Packers ranked 25th in passing offense and 23rd in overall offense en route to a second-place finish in the NFC North and an exit in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. With Nelson on the field, the Packers are one of the most explosive offenses in football, a juggernaut that few defensive coordinators are able to solve.
Since 2011, the Packers have averaged 29.5 points, 390.6 yards and 276 pass yards with Nelson in the lineup, compared to 24.8 points, 336.5 yards and 222.2 pass yards without the Pro Bowl receiver on the field. That's a significant drop-off in production -- but I believe it is Nelson's impact on his teammates that really illustrates his value to the Pack.
Rodgers, for instance, is definitely not the same player with No. 87 on the sideline in sweats. I know this goes against the narrative that the superstar quarterback elevates the play of his receivers, but the numbers suggest Nelson makes the two-time league MVP better. Since 2011, with Nelson on the field, Rodgers has completed 67.1 percent of his passes, registered a 113.0 passer rating and averaged 8.6 yards per attempt, compared to a 61.4 percent completion rate, a 95.4 passer rating and a 6.8 yards-per-attempt average without Nelson. Most importantly, Rodgers' winning percentage is a robust .750 (39-13) with Nelson in the lineup, compared to his .700 winning percentage (14-6) without his WR1 over that span.
Part of what makes Nelson such a great asset in the Packers' system is his combination of speed, quickness and running skills on the perimeter. As a former punt returner and high-school track standout, Nelson is an explosive playmaker with the ball in his hands. He is capable of turning short passes into big gains, particularly on slants from the outside.
Nelson also has developed into one of the best deep-ball threats in the league, exhibiting exceptional balance, body control and patience as a route runner on the perimeter. He excels on double moves, and the Packers' clever play-action passing game features a number of misdirection vertical routes that showcase Nelson's talents as a route runner.
Nelson's dominance is reflected in the numbers that he posted during his last two seasons on the field. During that span (2013-14), Nelson ranked fifth in the NFL in receptions (183), third in receiving yards (2,833), tied for fifth in receiving touchdowns (21) and tied for second in receptions of 25-plus yards (31). That kind of production commands attention from the defense and alleviates some of the pressure on other receivers to make plays on the perimeter.
Packers receiver Randall Cobb struggled without Nelson on the field last season. The former Pro Bowler not only had trouble shining as the Packers' WR1, but his production dipped even as he received more targets from Rodgers. Cobb finished 2015 with 79 receptions, 829 receiving yards and six touchdowns on 129 targets after tallying 91 catches, 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns on 127 targets the previous season. Sure, Cobb suffered through a spate of injuries during the season, but he clearly missed his highly accomplished teammate. His diminished impact is a testament to the attention Nelson commands as the Packers' clear WR1.
The loss of Nelson on the field also affected the Packers' running game, specifically running back Eddie Lacy. In Lacy's first two seasons (2013 and '14), with Nelson operating on the perimeter, Lacy averaged 1,159 yards, 10 touchdowns and 4.4 yards per carry. Last season, the hefty running back saw his production plummet; he finished the year with only 758 rushing yards and three scores while averaging only 4.1 yards per carry. Now, Lacy certainly didn't help himself by playing well above his listed weight, but the extra defenders he saw in the box last season clogged up most of the lanes between the tackles. Without a viable deep-ball threat on the outside, teams could stack eight or nine defenders near the line of scrimmage to contain Lacy.
After watching the Packers' offense fall off a cliff without Nelson on the field, it will interesting to see if the unit re-emerges as a juggernaut with its MVP back in action.