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:
-- Why the CFL would be a perfect proving ground for Johnny Manziel.
-- One star player who's betting on himself in 2018.
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Don't do it!
When I heard Pittsburgh Steelers GM Kevin Colbert emphatically state his desire to keep Le'Veon Bell with a lucrative long-term deal that would allow him to finish his career with the team, I shook my head. I believe signing the All-Pro runner to a record-breaking extension could prevent the franchise from seriously competing for a Super Bowl title in the coming years.
Before all of the Bell supporters clog up my Twitter timeline accusing me of hatin' on the league's top running back, I'm simply suggesting that inking a runner to an above-market deal is a bad investment in today's NFL. Running backs not only have the shortest shelf life of any player on the field, but we've seen teams hoist Lombardi Trophies without a marquee runner. Just look at both participants in Super Bowl LII.
The Eagles produced the NFL's third-ranked rushing attack with a three-man rotation of LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement. On the other side, the Patriots relied on a three-back committee of their own (Dion Lewis, James White and Rex Burkhead) that amassed the second-most scrimmage yards among all NFL backfields. Without a back in the group commanding anywhere near big bucks, it's fair to ask the question:
Do you really need a premier runner to compete at the highest level?
"I still believe in the workhorse back," an AFC college scouting director told me. "But I don't know how much money I'm committing to the running back after he plays out his rookie deal. It's too hard to get a runner that can sustain his production after taking the pounding that comes with being the lead back in this league. That's why I believe in drafting a back early, riding him until the wheels fall off and grabbing another one right before his contract expires. It's cruel, but that's the approach that you have to take in today's game."
Given the number of scouts that have uttered similar sentiments to me in the past, I'm surprised to hear Steelers president Art Rooney II suggest the team is willing to do what it takes to keep the RB1 in the fold for the long haul.
"Well, every year is a new challenge," Rooney said when he was asked about signing Bell to a long-term deal, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "It's like a jigsaw puzzle with the salary cap. We're lucky to have three players like Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. They're the kind of players that command a large salary. We're going to do our best to make it work. That's what you want -- the best players on your team."
Now, I understand the desire to keep your best players on your squad, but the salary cap forces teams to weigh the pros and cons of retaining a star player at a certain compensation level. For Bell, the thought of acquiescing to his $15 million-per-year demands on a long-term deal seems crazy at a time when the top running backs are making a little over half of that total. According to Spotrac.com, Devonta Freeman ($8.25 million), LeSean McCoy ($8 million), Jonathan Stewart ($8 million), Doug Martin ($7.15 million) and Leonard Fournette ($6.79 million) are currently the five highest-paid running backs based on annual average, but their numbers pale in comparison to Bell's 2017 franchise tag ($12.1 million) and his apparent contract wishes.
Think about that. Bell already makes far more than what other elite backs earn, yet he wants to be paid like a No. 1 running back and No. 2 wide receiver, based on his contributions as a runner and pass catcher. That is just not financially feasible for a title contender in today's NFL.
Now, none of this is meant to diminish what Bell has accomplished during his half-decade in the league. He has been magnificent as a playmaker for the Steelers since stepping into the league as a second-round pick out of Michigan State. The two-time All-Pro has produced three seasons with 1,200-plus rushing yards and at least 75 receptions. Bell averages more scrimmage yards per game (128.9) than any running back in NFL history since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. He is a nightmare to defend out of the backfield with a unique running style that exploits overaggressive defenses. And Bell's versatility, route-running ability and hands make him just as dangerous as a pass catcher out of the backfield or aligned out wide.
All that said, No. 26 is a risky proposition going forward. The soon-to-be 26-year-old has already suffered a significant injury to his legs (torn MCL/PCL in 2015) and underwent surgery on his core in 2016 following a groin injury that sidelined him for most of the AFC Championship Game. With Bell also having served multiple suspensions for substance abuse violations (banned for two games at the start of the 2015 season and three games at the start of the 2016 campaign), there are off-field issues to consider, as well.
And on the field, Bell's production has started to decline, with his 2017 marks in yards per attempt (4.0) and yards per catch (7.7) down significantly from 2016 (4.9 and 8.2). While that doesn't seem like a big deal on paper, those diminishing totals coupled with his heavy workload (406 total touches during the regular season, including a league-high 321 rush attempts) could signal the end of his days as the premier player at the position.
Given those factors, I'm really surprised the Steelers seem hell-bent on handing Bell a long-term deal. Based on his injury history and behavior, the application of the franchise tag (which would cost Pittsburgh $14.544 million in 2018) is more sensible because it keeps the relationship going on a year-to-year basis. In addition, it keeps the pressure on Bell to continue to produce at a high level to cash a big check. Fair or not, these "prove it" deals provide enough motivation to keep wayward souls on the right track. In addition, it doesn't force the team to make a long-term commitment to a diminishing player. While I absolutely understand why Bell wouldn't want to play under the tag again, due to the lack of long-term stability, the opportunity to make twice as much as the top earners at his position should be enough to lure him back into camp despite recent retirement threats.
Honestly, if I really had the ear of the Steelers' brass, I would boldly suggest the team just let Bell walk. The 2018 draft class is loaded with talented RBs with hybrid potential. Pittsburgh can get a lot more bang for the buck, even in the later rounds. For instance, third-round rookies Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt just earned Pro Bowl honors while earning less than $1 million. With the Steelers already having a battering ram in the fold (2017 third-rounder James Conner), the team could snatch up a pass-catching specialist in April to fill a void created by Bell's departure.
After watching the most well-rounded teams reach the final four of the 2017 NFL postseason, I would be more inclined to save money on the running back position and fortify other areas of my squad. If the Steelers have been paying close attention to the emerging trends of the league, they move on from their marquee runner to build a better roster that can compete for the title.
REICH MAN FOR THE JOB: Why the Colts ended up with the perfect coach
The Indianapolis Colts didn't land their first choice as a head coach, but they might've lucked into a better option to build a championship team. While most of the talk in Indy has centered on Andrew Luck and the uncertainty surrounding his health and game, I believe Frank Reich's commitment to building a true team will give the Colts a chance to win at a high level, with or without No. 12 on the field.
"This game isn't built on any one player," Reich said at his introductory press conference on Tuesday. "[Luck] is magical. He is special. He has unique traits and abilities that I respect as much as anybody. I can't wait to work with him. But if we're going to win a Super Bowl -- and that's a plan -- it's going to be about surrounding our whole team and about how we're going to bring about the best in each other."
Now, I know that sounds like pie-in-the-sky optimism that runs counter to the "quarterback is everything" conversation that normally takes place, but football is a team game where the supporting cast routinely elevates the play of the quarterback. As I've stated on many occasions, quarterbacks are categorized as either "trucks" (QB carries the team) or "trailers" (team carries the QB), with the overwhelming majority of the league falling into the latter category.
As a longtime backup quarterback -- primarily for the Buffalo Bills during their string of four straight Super Bowl appearances -- Reich knows firsthand how a talented squad can win games without a star at quarterback. He orchestrated one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history while filling in for the injured Jim Kelly in a 1992 AFC wild-card game against the Oilers, overcoming a 32-point deficit to win in overtime. Although he played at an exceptionally high level during that game, he was bolstered by the presence of a Hall of Fame running back (Thurman Thomas) and wide receiver (Andre Reed), and a defense led by another Hall of Fame inductee (Bruce Smith). Reich benefitted from having a great support system, and those lessons were confirmed when he played a key role on a Philadelphia Eagles coaching staff that helped a backup quarterback rise to become Super Bowl MVP with the assistance of a talented roster and clever play calling.
"The key to making Andrew Luck magical is -- this is a team game," Reich said Tuesday. "As great as he is -- and I believe he's the best -- this game ... the reason that we all love this game ... I just came off a team where we lost our franchise quarterback and still won the Super Bowl. So I know Andrew embraces it. This game isn't built on any one player."
Listening to Reich discuss his team-building philosophy, I know he is also aware of the challenges that lie ahead for a franchise that's lost some of its swagger after occupying a spot at the top of the AFC for over a decade. But he offered a clear plan for getting Indy back on track.
"One person at a time, one detail at a time, one player at a time and one game at a time," Reich said. "As the head coach, the vision is simple and it's clear -- that every time we step on the field to compete, there will be four marks that will mark our team. The first one is that we will be the toughest ... both mentally and physically. ... Secondly, we will be the most disciplined team. ... Thirdly, we're going to be the most prepared team. ... Fourth, we're going to be the most united team. We're going to be a close team. It's going to be built around trust, respect and love."
Looking at the roster and thinking about how the Colts can climb back into contention quickly, I believe they will focus their efforts on creating an explosive offense that carries the squad while a young defense grows up on the fly. From an offensive standpoint, Indianapolis must find a big-time running back to alleviate some of the burden on the quarterback. The Colts were at their best with Peyton Manning with Edgerrin James in the backfield, and Reich certainly knows how much Jim Kelly benefitted from the presence of Thurman Thomas.
The Colts also need to shore up an offensive line that just surrendered a league-high 56 sacks, forcing Brissett to take a pounding in the pocket. While personnel can be added to fortify that unit, Reich's intention to implement a quick-rhythm scheme with a no-huddle tempo could mask some of those deficiencies in the short-term. Remember, Reich saw the effectiveness of the "K-Gun" attack in Buffalo -- he certainly believes in the benefits of playing fast as an offense. If the team can find a complementary playmaker to help T.Y. Hilton on the outside, the combination of quick throws and catch-and-run concepts will allow the Colts to keep the quarterback upright in the pocket.
"We will be a multiple attack, up-tempo offense," Reich said. "We will be aggressive. We will change things up. What I mean by multiple is we'll use personnel groups and multiple formations. Being able to run the same things over and over again and disguise it so other teams don't know what we're doing. We'll keep them off balance with run and pass. We'll change the tempo. There will be a strong element of the no-huddle offense."
As one of Reich's teammates with the Bills during the "K-Gun" era, I understand his love of the no-huddle and how it could be advantageous to the Colts with Luck at the helm. The rapid pace of the offense forces defensive coordinators to use vanilla looks due to potential communication issues. Most importantly, it allows the QB to take more ownership of the offense and focus on being an efficient playmaker from the pocket while also exploiting defensive vulnerabilities with timely runs. Given Luck's IQ and communication skills, the move to the no-huddle could unleash a monster on the league.
Looking at the defense, the addition of Matt Eberflus signals a move to a simple scheme designed to help young players get onto the field right away. As a Rod Marinelli disciple, Indy's new defensive coordinator will employ a mixture of single-high safety coverage (Cover 1-Man) and Tampa 2 to make life simple for his defenders in the back end. The Colts will spend the bulk of their practice time mastering technique and effort, which will give them a chance to survive as a "bend but don't break" unit supporting an offense that should put points on the board.
Now, the Colts will need to find a pass rusher or two to anchor a four-man line in the scheme, but hustle and energy go a long way in a defense that aims to play fast. Looking back at Reich's experience as a QB2 in Buffalo, he watched his teams reach four straight Super Bowls with a complementary defense that limited big plays and points.
While I'm not ready to proclaim the Colts as a "worst to first" contender, Reich's unique perspective could help the team emerge as a viable contender in the near future, with or without No. 12 playing the lead role.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) Why Johnny Manziel should head to the Great White North: If Manziel really wants to convince NFL evaluators he's ready for another chance in the league, he should head north of the border for an extended stay in the CFL. Although he's been unable to finalize a deal with a CFL team, that league is the right environment for the former Heisman Trophy winner to show off his skills, maturity and leadership qualities as a QB1.
"The CFL is the perfect place for a dual-threat quarterback," a former CFL standout with close ties to the league told me. "The wide field and creative offensive approaches are tailor-made for a quarterback with (Doug) Flutie-like skills to rip it up.
"If he is on his game and his mind is right, there's no reason why he couldn't kill it up there."
That's exactly why Manziel should pack up his bags and head north as soon as he's done with his stint in the Spring League. While participating in the developmental league will put him back on the radar of NFL scouts, a brief (less than a month) run as a starting quarterback in the four-team league won't be enough to convince evaluators they can trust Manziel as a player or person. Despite any flashes he might display in practice or game action in Austin, Texas, skeptics will question whether he can sustain his discipline and focus over an extended period of time.
With that in mind, a successful one- or two-year stay in the CFL could go a long way toward convincing an NFL coach or general manager to take a flyer on Manziel. The 25-year-old former first-round pick can demonstrate his renewed commitment to the game by earning high marks for his work ethic and preparation from his CFL coaches. In addition, he can show improved maturity by successfully handling the responsibilities given to QB1s. From his press interactions to his punctuality for meetings and practices to his communication with players and coaches, Manziel can answer a lot of questions about his potential as a starting quarterback.
On the field, Manziel could take advantage of the pass-happy game to sharpen his skills as a playmaker from the pocket. During his brief stint as an NFL starter, Manziel struggled with his accuracy, ball placement and coverage recognition. In addition, he didn't appear to have a strong grasp of the offense due to his admitted lack of preparation. An extended stay in the CFL could help him work on those aspects of his game while also flourishing as a playmaker.
"The game up here is different," a CFL executive told me. "The width of the field creates wider passing lanes for quarterbacks, and the emphasis on the passing game gives a quarterback a chance to improve quickly as a passer. With offensive coordinators also willing to use half-field reads on roll outs, the game can help young quarterbacks figure out how to play the game the right way for their skill set."
For a young quarterback who is trying to work his way back to the NFL, the opportunities that the CFL provide could help him reach his final destination -- IF he's willing to put in the time and work to make it happen.
2) The Kansas City Chiefs' defense is poised to undergo an extensive makeover this offseason: Committed to fielding a younger, more athletic version in 2018, GM Brett Veach gave 35-year-old Derrick Johnson and 32-year-old Darrelle Revis pink slips within the last week. While neither move ranks as a surprise, based on the players' declining performance, they are just the first aging dominoes to fall, with the team expected to move on from Tamba Hali (34), Ron Parker (30), Frank Zombo (30) and possibly Bennie Logan (28) this offseason.
Certainly can't blame the team for flushing several defenders following a disappointing 2017 campaign that saw the unit rank 28th in total defense, 29th in pass defense and 25th in rushing yards allowed. Those numbers are abysmal for a franchise that's been a perennial contender over the past five years, primarily due to a star-studded defense that owned the line of scrimmage and suffocated receivers on the perimeter.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film from this season, I saw an aging unit that lacked speed and explosiveness in key areas. The pass rush was virtually non-existent outside of Justin Houston (accounted for 9.5 of the team's 31 sacks) and the coverage was suspect away from Marcus Peters. Against the run, the Chiefs didn't allow many explosive plays on the ground (only surrendered six runs of 20-plus yards), but their lack of forced fumbles indicates a dearth of speed and athleticism (gang tackling and hustle produces fumbles).
While the pass rush should improve with a healthy Dee Ford manning an edge spot, the team's acquisition of Kendall Fuller in the Alex Smith trade should shore up K.C.'s CB2 spot, with the third-year pro also capable of shutting down slot receivers. At linebacker, the combination of Reggie Ragland and Kevin Louis-Pierre should give the Chiefs a rugged 1-2 punch against the run. Better yet, they add more youth and athleticism to a starting lineup that was ancient by traditional standards (six defenders 30 or older on the two-deep depth chart prior to the Wild Card Weekend collapse vs. Tennessee).
With the team expected to add a few more pieces during the draft, Kansas City's hoping a younger, more athletic squad can solve the defensive woes that derailed a promising season.
3) Mike Evans is wisely betting on himself: Evans' decision to play out his rookie contract on the fifth-year option might've surprised some observers, but the one-time Pro Bowler could break the bank with another strong season as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' WR1. The 6-foot-5, 231-pound pass catcher has posted four straight 1,000-yard seasons with at least 70 receptions in each campaign. He has scored 32 touchdowns in 61 NFL games, posting a pair of 12-score seasons (2014 and '16) as the Buccaneers' designated playmaker.
Given his standing as the team's third all-time leader in receptions (309) and receiving yards (4,579), Evans certainly has enough leverage to push for a lucrative deal that places him among the elite WR1s in the league. While most players and their representatives would look to cash in immediately on their production, it appears No. 13 will play out his deal in hopes of inking a long-term contract that matches his production and potential at the position.
"We're not doing any negotiating (right now). We're just going to wait and play it out," Deryk Gilmore of Day 1 Sports & Entertainment recently told PewterReport.com. "We think that the Buccaneers are a great organization. We feel that they really care about Mike; they care about the direction of the franchise and where it's going."
Evans is slated to play on a $13.2 million option that currently places him second in the league in terms of 2018 cash earnings, according to Spotrac.com. (Antonio Brown's due to make $16,775,000 million in 2018, while DeAndre Hopkins leads all wide receivers in total contract value after signing a five-year, $81 million deal last August.)
"He's under contract, so what we like to do is let him finish up," Gilmore said. "We think [Evans' production] will speak for itself, and when it comes time to do the deal, I think his deal will be in line with what we plan."
While it's quite debatable whether Evans is really in the same league as Brown as a player, there's no disputing his place among the top five receivers in the game, based on his numbers as a No. 1 receiver. Evans is one of only three receivers in NFL history to start his career with four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons (Randy Moss and A.J. Green are the others). With his receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns placing him near the top of the charts among his peers, Evans has a reasonable chance to up the ante at the position.
"I look at every single deal that comes through, whether it's a wide receiver or even a quarterback," Gilmore said. "One of the things that's smart to say is that you look at Jimmy Garoppolo, and if we said, name the top five quarterbacks in the league, it wouldn't be Jimmy Garoppolo, but he's paid the highest. If you look at that ... I consider Mike to be one of the top five players in the league."
Considering how the market rewards the latest high-profile player at the table, Evans' decision to postpone his contract negotiation could make him the highest-paid pass catcher in the game by next year.