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 RB who could join one of the NFL's most exclusive clubs in 2019.
-- Why one tight end has no shot to achieve his recently stated goal this season.
But first, a look at five non-playoff teams from last season that should not be underestimated in 2019 ...
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As a player or coach, there's nothing like using a slight or dismissal -- whether it's perceived or real -- for a little extra motivation heading into a season. Players feed off of feeling disrespected, and we've already seen several of them claim this offseason that they're motivated to prove the doubters wrong with their performance on the field.
After hearing four-time Pro Bowl selectee C.J. Mosley, who became the league's highest-paid inside linebacker upon signing with the Jets in March, say that the football world is "sleeping" on Gang Green, it appears we can add Adam Gase's squad to the list of teams feeling like they're not getting enough r-e-s-p-e-c-t.
I understand if Mosley's frustrated with the lack of positive buzz surrounding his team, but there should be plenty of optimism around the Jets. After hiring Gase this offseason, the team added a fiery coordinator (Gregg Williams) with a high-pressure scheme and plenty of swagger to a defensive meeting room that features a host of young alpha dogs with hard-hat mentalities. With Jamal Adams, Leonard Williams and Marcus Maye providing the spark, the Jets could set it off with third overall pick Quinnen Williams coming aboard to create disruption at the point of attack.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Jets have a budding franchise quarterback with the tools and moxie to win on the biggest and brightest stage in Sam Darnold. The team added the most complete running back in football (Le'Veon Bell) as a marquee free agent to give Darnold a RB1/WR2 to lean on in key moments. Slot man Jamison Crowder was added to a wide receiver corps that features a couple of intriguing playmakers in Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa. Although those names won't elicit a lot of noise from fantasy footballers, the collective talent at receiver should give Darnold options, particularly with Bell commanding attention as the workhorse in the backfield.
"I think we're eager," Mosley said. "Definitely young, and we know that. But as a group and collectively, we already know the people that have been here, the coaches that have been here and all they've heard since they've been here is we'll lose."
Granted, there might not be many voices touting the Jets as title contenders this season, but I expect the team to be competitive with a number of all-star players joining a coaching staff with experience and enough schematic creativity to create problems for opponents. We will see if the combination can get the Jets back into the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
With that in mind, I thought it would be a good time to highlight some squads that I feel really aren't getting the respect they deserve with training camps set to open later this month. Here are my top five teams who are being slept on as title contenders after missing the playoffs in 2018:
Atlanta Falcons: Whenever you have an MVP-caliber quarterback surrounded by A-plus playmakers in the backfield and on the perimeter in today's game, you have a chance to make a run at the Lombardi Trophy. That's why the Dirty Birds shouldn't be dismissed as viable contenders with Matt Ryan tossing the ball to Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu, with Devonta Freeman -- assuming he can stay healthy after missing 14 games last season -- serving up 100-yard games as the primary runner. With Dirk Koetter rejoining the squad as the offensive play-caller (he served in the same role from 2012-2014, when Atlanta had a top-10 offense in two of the three years), the Falcons are well-positioned to light up scoreboards around the league. If head coach Dan Quinn can get the Falcons' young, energetic defense, which was ravaged by injuries last season, to fly to the ball with reckless abandon, The A could be jumping this season with a title contender in the house.
Green Bay Packers: The Packers have one of the best to ever play the quarterback position in the starting lineup. Yes, former Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers gives Green Bay an opportunity to win any game in a one-and-done scenario in the playoffs. We've already seen him win one title and heat up for stretches to carry the Packers to the brink of another Super Bowl appearance (see: 2016 season), but the deteriorating surrounding cast around him on both sides of the ball in subsequent years limited No. 12's impact as a franchise player. The Packers addressed concerns about the defense in the offseason by pumping a lot of free-agent dollars and draft capital into resources on the edges (Preston Smith, Za'Darius Smith, and Rashan Gary), which should enable the team to close out games against opponents chasing points late in contests. If Rodgers and new head coach Matt LaFleur team up to unleash an offense that has some underrated playmakers at key spots, the Packers will surge back to the top of the NFC North this season.
Minnesota Vikings: Don't let a disappointing 2018 campaign overshadow the potential of the sleeping giant residing in the Twin Cities. While there was plenty of hate spewed in Kirk Cousins' direction for the way things turned out in his first season after signing a blockbuster deal, the Vikings should feel good about his chances of performing like a top-10 quarterback in an offense being overseen by coordinator Kevin Stefanski and advisor Gary Kubiak. The system places a premium on the running game -- something Minnesota didn't do enough of last season, much to Mike Zimmer's dismay -- and complementary aerial attack. With Dalvin Cook healthy and ready to add sizzle to the running game as a stretch (outside zone) runner, Cousins could terrorize opponents with timely dimes to Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Defensively, the Vikings have more than enough playmakers (Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen, Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Harrison Smith, and Xavier Rhodes) to win nip-and-tuck battles that are traditionally won with the defense on the field. If the Vikings can learn how to play complementary ball in each of the game's three phases, Zimmer's team could be standing in the winner's circle at the end of the season.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Tomlin might trot out a team possessing less talent than he did last season, but I'm on record as a believer that he will get better results with a more cohesive unit in the locker room. Sure, the departures of Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown will defuse some of the offense's explosiveness, but James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster are Pro Bowl-caliber playmakers ready to step into prime roles. With Ben Roethlisberger motivated to prove his greatness by uplifting an offense that is short on brand names on the perimeter, the Steelers could get his best effort as a player and leader this season. On defense, the addition of first-round pick Devin Bush gives the unit the dynamic weapon it's been missing since Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal injury in December 2017. Bush, a former Michigan standout, could dominate the game between the hashes and upgrade a frontline that's already brimming with young, energetic talent. If the defense comes together and holds its own against some of the premier aerial attacks in the AFC, the Steelers could finally realize their potential as title contenders.
Jacksonville Jaguars: After failing to live up to the hype a season ago, the Jaguars have become an afterthought for many observers. I feel like the lack of buzz is an overreaction to the team's dismal 2018 campaign. Why? Well, the defense remains a potential top-five unit with Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue positioned as core members of the group. Despite the absence of Telvin Smith (who has said he won't play in 2019) and the release of Malik Jackson, the defense is more than capable of stuffing every opponent on the schedule. Nick Foles' insertion into the starting lineup at QB1 should provide the offense with more consistency and stability at the game's most important position. Additionally, Foles' easy-going leadership style and winning pedigree should play well in the locker room and help the Jaguars get back on track as a title contender. If Leonard Fournette plays up to his potential as a workhorse back, the Jaguars could reprise their role as the bully on the block in the AFC.
CHRISTIAN MCCAFFREY: PANTHERS RB1 SET TO JOIN 1,000/1,000 CLUB?
If you've spent a little time in Hollywood, you know how hard it is to get into the hottest clubs in the city. You have to know the club promoter to get onto the VIP list or schmooze the doorman to get past the velvet ropes.
In the football world, the 1,000/1,000 club is about as exclusive as it gets with only two members holding seats in the section. Roger Craig earned his golden ticket with the San Francisco 49ers in 1985 when he rushed for 1,050 yards on 214 attempts and tallied 1,016 receiving yards on 92 receptions. Marshall Faulk received his VIP pass in 1999 when he posted 1,381 rushing yards on 253 carries while also amassing 1,048 receiving yards on 87 catches for the St. Louis Rams. The spectacular performance earned him NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors and was one of the high points in his Hall of Fame career.
Last season, Christian McCaffrey missed out on earning admittance into the club, but not by much, as he finished 133 receiving yards short of the mark. The Carolina Panthers' RB1 totaled 1,098 rushing yards on 219 attempts and hauled in 107 receptions -- the most ever for an NFL RB in one season -- for 867 receiving yards.
Those numbers certainly aren't shocking for anyone who spent time studying McCaffrey during his college career at Stanford, when he thrived as a multi-purpose weapon for the Cardinal. He set an NCAA record in 2015 with 3,864 all-purpose yards (2,019 rushing, 645 receiving, 1,200 via kick returns). McCaffrey provided the football world with a sneak peek of his potential to close out that season when he posted a "100/100" game (100 rushing yards/100 receiving yards) on his way toward setting a Rose Bowl record with 368 all-purpose yards.
After the Panthers drafted McCaffrey eighth overall in 2017, he immediately established himself as a premier pass catcher when he snagged 80 receptions for 651 receiving yards during his rookie season. He cemented his status as one of the league's top playmakers when he became just the third NFL player in history to finish with over 1,000 rushing yards and 100 catches in a single season. He joined Matt Forte (1,038 rushing yards, 102 receptions in 2014) and LaDainian Tomlinson (1,645 rushing yards, 100 catches in 2003) in that exclusive club, which piqued the interest of a member of the 1,000/1,000 club.
"He will definitely get the 1,000-1,000," Craig said, per ESPN.com. "It's in his DNA to make that happen. He's got the tools. He's built for it. His day will come."
That's quite the compliment coming from one of the best multi-purpose backs in NFL history. Craig's suggestion that McCaffrey has it in his "DNA" to be a 1,000/1,000 back speaks volumes about No. 22's potential as the ultimate weapon in the backfield. McCaffrey's combination of speed, quickness, route-running ability and hands makes him a problematic matchup for defensive coordinators. He's too quick and elusive for linebackers to match him in the passing game but he's such an effective runner between the tackles that opponents aren't able to trot out a dime defense (six defensive backs) due to the threat of the Panthers' power running game with McCaffrey at tailback.
"The running back is the biggest mismatch in football," a former NFL defensive coordinator recently told me. "You can put so much stress on the defense with a multi-purpose back working on linebackers and safeties on option routes or bust up the nickel package with power runs from spread sets. ... If you have a difference-maker in the backfield, it changes how you have to defend the offense."
To that point, the Panthers' pairing of McCaffrey and Cam Newton puts a whole lot of stress on defensive coordinators. The presence of a dual-threat quarterback and a dynamic RB1 gives the Panthers a chance to execute a diverse option attack on the ground and a "pick your poison" passing game with No. 22 deployed as the queen on the chessboard. Considering Carolina's lack of experience and consistency on the perimeter outside of tight end Greg Olsen, the versatility of the Panthers' RB1 makes the offense go. So I certainly won't be surprised if McCaffrey earns a golden ticket into another exclusive club this season.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Could Lincoln Riley's new QB be Dak Prescott 2.0 in the NFL? There is a lot of buzz surrounding the 2020 quarterback class in league circles, and Jalen Hurts is one of the senior passers I'm keeping an eye on. The presumptive QB1 at Oklahoma is next in line to drive Lincoln Riley's Ferrari-like offense, which has produced back-to-back No. 1 overall picks. Considering the numbers put up by Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield in the Sooners' wide-open offense, Hurts could alter the narrative that's associated with his game as a dual-threat playmaker.
The graduate transfer arrives in Norman with an impressive resume that features a 26-2 record as a starter and seven 100-yard rushing games. Although Hurts spent 2018 serving as a backup to Tua Tagovailoa, the veteran playmaker performed well whenever given an opportunity to direct a loaded offense with five-star pass catchers and runners on the perimeter. In fact, Hurts' performance vs. Georgia in the SEC Championship Game (7 of 9 for 82 yards, TD; 5 rushes for 28 yards, TD) should've piqued the interest of scouts looking for a developmental quarterback with the size, intangibles and playmaking ability to play in an evolving NFL that's become increasingly friendly to dual-threat quarterbacks.
As a player, Hurts is an intriguing quarterback with a rugged game that's built on grit, toughness and explosive athleticism. He is best described as a "game manager-plus" with a mix of sound judgment, rhythm passing and timely playmaking that are viewed as the strong parts of his game. Hurts' tough running style and explosive strength enable him to chew up yardage on designed quarterback runs and designated read-option plays with the QB instructed to read a frontline or secondary defender. He earned SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors as a freshman primarily due to his ability to carve up opponents as a multi-dimensional player at the position.
Hurts ran for over 1,800 yards during his first two seasons as the starter for the Crimson Tide while adding 4,861 yards through the air. Despite the noise suggesting Hurts was simply a placeholder at the position, those numbers don't happen by accident and observers would be wise to pay closer attention to his game.
As a passer, Hurts is a work in progress from the pocket. He displays above-average arm strength, zip and velocity, but he has been a streaky thrower throughout his career. Although his completion rate has been solid (62.8% as a freshman; 60.4% as a sophomore, and 72.9% as a junior), he has a number of misses on tape that lead to questions about his accuracy.
That said, Hurts played in a low-risk offense at Alabama that rarely put the game in the hands of the quarterback, and he cycled through three offensive coordinators. He didn't get a chance to grow within a system, and an offensive architect didn't specifically tailor the scheme to his game.
That's why I'm not ready to dismiss Hurts' chances of emerging as a solid quarterback prospect in the 2020 class. As a high-character player with strong leadership skills, Hurts has the core traits most coaches desire in a franchise quarterback. In addition, I believe Hurts has more than enough arm talent and passing skills to grow into a starting quarterback at the next level. Watching him work out at the Elite 11 camp this week, I was surprised by his arm strength, range and velocity as a passer from the pocket and on the move.
Hurts made precise throws to the boundary from the far hash and his deep ball, particularly on corner routes, had more arc and touch than I witnessed on tape. Granted, this was a scripted workout without defenders on the field, but you could envision Hurts looking like a different player in Riley's offense.
In fact, the more I study Hurts, the more I'm convinced that he could become Dak Prescott 2.0 as a pro. Whether you like it or not, the Cowboys' QB1 has been a solid performer since Day 1 and his combination of physical skills and superb intangibles have helped the team capture a pair of division titles since he stepped into the lineup.
"I definitely see some similarities in the physiques, playing styles and demeanors," an NFC personnel executive told me during a recent conversation. "Both are solidly built with strong lower bodies and broad shoulders. They also have A-plus leadership skills and alpha personalities. ... They command the huddle in their own way and their teammates respect them. Those qualities matter a lot more than you can imagine when you're searching for a franchise guy."
Looking at similarities between Hurts and Prescott, you can start with size and athleticism. Hurts is 6-foot-2, 219 pounds, per school measurements, while Prescott measured 6-2, 226 pounds at the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine. From an athletic standpoint, Prescott's combine measurements (4.79-second 40-yard dash; 32.5-inch vertical jump and 116-inch broad jump) are certainly within Hurts' range based on his SPARQ rating as a high schooler. Hurts' 4.85-second 40 time and 31-inch vertical jump have likely improved since his senior year of high school.
Studying each player's career numbers as SEC standouts, you could make the argument that Hurts' production is comparable to Prescott's output as a two-time All-SEC selection. Each player racked up 1,900-plus rushing yards (Prescott totaled 2,521 rush yards as a three-year starter; Hurts has amassed 1,976) and posted completion rates above 60 percent (Prescott finished as a 62.8% passer; Hurts has completed 62.9% of his passes) as QB1s in the ultra-competitive SEC.
Given Prescott's success as a starter with the Cowboys, scouts shouldn't dismiss Hurts' chances of emerging as a hot prospect, particularly with a year to master some of the nuances of the passing game under Riley at Oklahoma. The Sooners' version of the Air Raid offense enabled Mayfield to quickly acclimate to the NFL, as evidenced by his record-breaking year as a rookie passer. With Murray well-positioned to set some rookie marks as the Arizona Cardinals' QB1, Hurts has an opportunity to rewrite the narrative associated with his game in the same system that produced those two signal-callers.
2) Njoku's 20-touchdown goal isn't feasible in Browns' offense. We've reached the point of the offseason where outlandish predictions and goals are stated on a daily basis. From analysts to players, everyone wants to put a bold and bodacious hot take out there for public consumption. While I normally would dismiss most claims without a second thought, a recent statement from Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku almost made me spit out my sparkling water when I heard him being interviewed on "The Rich Eisen Show."
"Honestly speaking, I don't really put numbers into my goals," Njoku told Eisen. "I just feel like if I gave everything I could to the game, just worked my hardest, I feel like I'll feel accomplished.
"With that being said, I want 20 touchdowns this year," Njoku added, with a laugh. "I just feel, for me, just knowing that I gave all I got will make me feel accomplished."
Now, to be fair, it's possible that Njoku wasn't completely serious about the goal, since he did laugh after saying it. Initially, I chalked up Njoku's comment to a young player eagerly hoping to make a splash as a playmaker in his third season. Coming off a solid campaign with 56 receptions, 639 receiving yards and four touchdowns, I understand the confidence and optimism he emits as a developmental player. Still, I didn't want to dismiss the possibility of a 20-TD campaign without some serious consideration.
Measuring 6-4, 246 pounds with wide receiver-like movement skills and athleticism, Njoku is becoming a nightmarish matchup for defenders between the hashes. He can bully defensive backs with his superior strength and power or race by lumbering linebackers with a series of finesse moves. In the red zone, Njoku's ability to play above the rim gives him a chance to win the majority of his one-on-one matchups on the perimeter.
For a guy who has put 20 touchdowns out there as an individual goal, Njoku does enjoy a significant advantage as a red-zone weapon. Moreover, he could benefit from the presence of Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry on the outside. With opponents forced to use more two-deep tactics and double teams to contain Nos. 13 and 80, Njoku could get plenty of touches running down the seams against linebackers or sitting in open windows against loaded zones.
That said, it is going to be nearly impossible to reach to the 20-touchdown mark with so many playmakers on the roster, including Kareem Hunt (after serving his eight-game suspension), Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson coming out of the backfield. There aren't enough balls to go around, and No. 85 might be fourth or fifth in the pecking order when you consider how Freddie Kitchens prioritizes who will get touches in a given week.
Remember, OBJ and Landry have to get their touches each week or Kitchens runs the risk of dealing with meltdowns and fireworks on the sidelines. That's not a slight to their individual and collective maturity, but it's a real acknowledgment of how elite pass catchers need the ball to remain engaged over the course of a 60-minute game.
While I love Njoku's confidence and view him as a key contributor for the Browns this season, I don't believe he will join Jerry Rice and Randy Moss in the 20-touchdown club.