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:
-- Bill Belichick's magic hand in the offseason.
But first, a warning about passing on future stars to draft a quarterback ...
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Excuse me for skipping ahead in this movie that's called the 2018 NFL Draft. I've seen how this story plays out, with teams disregarding their draft boards to grab quarterbacks who aren't worthy of being selected at the top. Sure, we can discuss the importance of the position and how it's a quarterback-driven league, but you'll never convince me that you should push signal-callers up the board just for the sake of landing someone who can take the snap from the center.
Now, I know this opinion diverges from those of many prominent talking heads, but based on how I was brought up in the scouting business, I believe you grade players based on their talent and potential -- regardless of position -- and rank them accordingly on the board. This is how I was taught with the Seattle Seahawks as part of a front office that included Mike Holmgren, Ted Thompson, John Schneider and Scot McCloughan -- all of whom were mentored by Ron Wolf during their time with the Green Bay Packers. (I spent parts of three seasons playing for the Packers from 1995 to '97, where I personally witnessed the philosophy play out on the field.)
Using a "BPA" (best player available) philosophy that's built on the premise of ranking and selecting the top football talents in the draft, teams shouldn't bypass good players to simply grab a prospect who fills a need. While some will take umbrage with that notion, I believe there are too many examples in previous drafts that validate my perspective.
For instance, in 2011, we watched four teams grab quarterbacks within the first 12 picks of a draft that was absolutely loaded at other positions. Cam Newton (No. 1 overall), Jake Locker (No. 8), Blaine Gabbert (No. 10) and Christian Ponder (No. 12) all flew off the board with premium picks, allowing non-QB-obsessed teams to scoop up Pro Bowl-caliber playmakers like linebacker Von Miller (No. 2), defensive tackle Marcell Dareus (No. 3), receiver A.J. Green (No. 4), cornerback Patrick Peterson (No. 5), receiver Julio Jones (No. 6), linebacker Aldon Smith (No. 7), offensive tackle Tyron Smith (No. 9) and defensive lineman J.J. Watt (No. 11). That doesn't even include the likes of center Mike Pouncey (No. 15), defensive end Ryan Kerrigan (No. 16), offensive tackle Nate Solder (No. 17), defensive end Cameron Jordan (No. 24), running back Mark Ingram (No. 28), defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson (No. 30) and defensive end Cameron Heyward (No. 31).
Although Newton has claimed a league MVP award and did lead his franchise to a Super Bowl, the three other signal-callers failed to make their mark in the league as QB1s. This should be a cautionary tale to evaluators ignoring their grades to pick players who fill the team's biggest need. It's a recipe for disaster, and I'm afraid we could see a few teams fall into that trap this year.
"You have to be careful to avoid team needs creeping into your grades," an NFC personnel director told me. "If you're a team that grades prospects strictly on how they would fit into your roster, you can overvalue a guy in a position of need. When you do that, you're prone to missing out on good players because you're trying to fix a hole instead of picking the best player."
As the executive points out, you're more likely to overrate someone when you grade and rank prospects based on how they fit on your roster instead of evaluating their overall talent from a league-wide perspective. While some observers will suggest this is simply a case of semantics, I would tell you to grade the player based on how he's projected to play within the first few years of his career. For instance, a top-five player is expected to play at a Pro Bowl level within two to three years of entering the NFL. Sure, those are lofty expectations for any rookie, but top-five picks are supposed to be transcendent stars with skills that impact game outcomes and set the stage for the franchise going forward.
That brings me back to the 2018 draft and why I'm having a hard time with the notion that four quarterbacks will come off the board within the first 10 selections. That thought is unbelievable, given the grades that accompany the quarterbacks -- particularly when you go back and look how they rated in the fall -- and it's unfathomable when so many scouts and observers have touted a handful of position players as premium talents in this draft class.
With that in mind, I continue to have a hard time believing quarterbacks could come off the board 1-2-3 on draft day, with so many talented players possessing top-10 grades. These guys are universally viewed as Pro Bowl-caliber talents, and bypassing them could spark regret down the road.
"You can never have enough good players," the NFC personnel director said. "If you collect a bunch of good players, you always have the option of trading some of your surpluses away to get what you need. ... I understand why everyone wants to find a franchise guy, but you better make sure that his game matches the pick. If not, you not only have missed on him, but you've missed out on other guys who could've helped your squad."
Reviewing my notes from the fall, I believe there are only two quarterbacks worthy of top-10 grades, and they don't rank within my top five overall prospects. Here's my top 10 right now:
1)Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
2)Bradley Chubb, DE, N.C. State
3)Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
4)Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech
5)Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame
6)Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama
7)Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
8)Sam Darnold, QB, USC
9)Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia
10)Derwin James, S, Florida State
I don't mean to slight the talent or potential of Rosen and Darnold as QB1s and possibly the top two picks of the draft, but they aren't the two best players in the class. They might play the most important position on the field, but there are other position players who check off the boxes as potential Pro Bowlers within the next few years.
My beef isn't with the L.A. QBs, but rather with the notion that Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield and Wyoming's Josh Allen are possible top-five or top-10 picks. Look, I understand the desire to grab a franchise quarterback, but a team vaulting up to the top of the board for a developmental prospect is bypassing the chance to nab an instant-impact player at another position. And that's no way to draft.
JPP TRADE: How does it change draft plans for the Bucs and Giants?
Pierre-Paul fills a huge need at defensive end for the Buccaneers as a pass-rushing specialist with 58.5 sacks and 13 forced fumbles on his career ledger. Tampa Bay tallied a league-low 22 sacks in 2017, which is problematic in a division that features Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan. Yes, Pierre-Paul carries a pretty hefty contract, with three years remaining on the $62 million deal he signed last offseason, but his arrival gives Bucs GM Jason Licht crucial flexibility in next month's draft. Having JPP in the fold eliminates the motivation to reach for an edge rusher at No. 7, figuring the top prospect at the position (Bradley Chubb) will be gone by then. Instead, Tampa Bay could target a defensive back (safety or corner) to upgrade a secondary that struggled to keep the ball in front of the defense a season ago.
Meanwhile, the deal gives the Giants more ammunition to fortify their roster, as they now have five picks in the first four rounds (No. 2, No. 34, No. 66, No. 69 and No. 108), plus one in the fifth (No. 139). With teams looking to move up the board to get in range for one of the quarterbacks, the Giants could take a trade at No. 2 to add some more picks ... then turn around and package their new assets in a deal to move back into range to land a couple of blue-chip players who might fall out of the top 10 due to a potential run on quarterbacks.
If the Giants stand pat, they can take one of the available "bigs" at No. 2 or pick a quarterback for the future. Honestly, I think the team's front office believes Eli Manning has a couple of good years left in the tank, and Davis Webb is a decent developmental option at the moment. If my hunch is correct, the Giants could target Bradley Chubb as their pick. The Giants are switching to a base 3-4 defense under new coordinator James Bettcher, but the scheme is adaptable enough to fit Chubb into an early-down role as an edge player in an over/under front. And every defense is multiple these days anyway, with NFL teams aligning in sub-package formations on about 70 percent of their defensive snaps. In nickel personnel, Chubb would have the opportunity to play as a defensive end in a four-man front.
If the Giants elect to focus on the offense -- but still not take a quarterback -- the decision likely comes down to Saquon Barkley or Quenton Nelson. Although the positional value of each player makes some evaluators queasy, either guy would upgrade the Giants' offense significantly as a Day 1 starter. Whether it's Barkley playing behind No. 10 as a runner/receiver with Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram occupying defenders on the outside, or Nelson joining a rebuilt offensive line with Nate Solder playing as the franchise left tackle, Big Blue's offense would be in much better shape.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) The Patriots' secret sauce. Say what you will about the New England Patriots' underwhelming draft record, but it is hard to dispute their success as bargain hunters on the free-agent/trade market. Bill Belichick and Co. repeatedly knock it out of the park with inexpensive additions that become major factors. Guys like Randy Moss, Corey Dillon, Wes Welker and Ted Washington came to New England via trade and provided the Patriots with huge returns. In addition, we've seen Belichick coax significant contributions from free-agent signees like Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel and Antowain Smith. In more recent years, we've watched the Patriots add Brandin Cooks, Eric Rowe, Chris Hogan and others as low-risk trade acquisitions or value-based free-agent signings.
While some observers have focused on this offseason's free-agent exodus -- with Dion Lewis, Nate Solder and Danny Amendola leaving Foxboro for greener ($$$) pastures -- I believe we should pay closer attention to how the Patriots are quietly retooling a championship-caliber roster with a bunch of intriguing pickups from the bargain bin.
The team acquired Danny Shelton, Cordarrelle Patterson and Jason McCourty via trade, while adding Adrian Clayborn and Jeremy Hill as value-priced free agents. The newbies not only upgrade the Patriots' overall talent and athleticism, but they do so on budget deals that keep New England below the salary-cap ceiling.
"This is how the Patriots have done business for years," the aforementioned NFC personnel director told me. "They are the best at identifying low-priced free agents and putting them in roles that play to their strengths as players. ... Look at how guys perform before and after they play in New England. Belichick knows how to put players in a position to succeed."
That's the trick. Belichick not only knows exactly what he's looking for when evaluating veterans, but he knows how to use them in his system. The seven-time Super Bowl winner (as an assistant and head coach) is one of the best NFL evaluators in the business, and he knows how to take advantage of his players' skills. Notice how I called him one of the best NFL evaluators. I'm referring to his remarkable ability to evaluate pros and put them in spotlight positions on the field. Belichick can spot a part-time player or underachiever in another system and create a plan to make that guy an all-star in New England.
"Scouting pros is an 'apples to apples' evaluation," the NFC personnel director said. "It's all about seeing what a player can do -- and determine how his skills would play in your system. When you're looking at college guys, it's more of a projection because you really don't know how they will play as pros. You think you know what you're going to get from a young player, but there are so many variables in play. That's why it's so hard hit on college kids."
Given the challenge of nailing draft picks, the Patriots should be commended for winning on the back end with former top picks who might've underperformed with their initial teams. Part of their success could stem from Belichick's extensive research of top prospects at pre-draft workouts and pro days. For instance, we saw the video clip of the Patriots' head coach working with Bradley Chubb at N.C. State's pro day earlier this week. Although the Patriots have virtually no shot of landing the pass-rushing specialist, Belichick put him through the paces at a workout to see how well he understood reading blocks at the line of scrimmage. For the casual observer, the brief exchange appeared to be another coach conducting some busy work. But astute personnel men see that exercise as Belichick gathering more intel on a player who could cross his path years down the line.
"People that work with him (Belichick) rave about his recall when it comes to players," the NFC personnel director said. "He remembers little details about players and that information helps him when those names come up in trades or free agency."
2) Suh + Donald = a potential nightmare for opponents. When word spread across the NFL Media newsroom that Ndamukong Suh was seriously considering the Los Angeles Rams as a potential destination, I immediately tweeted out that the perennial Pro Bowler and Aaron Donald would give the #MobSquad the best defensive tackle duo in football. (UPDATE:The Rams have agreed to terms with Suh on a one-year, $14 million deal.)
Naturally, my bold assertion was met with plenty of Twitter skepticism from observers citing duos on the Vikings (the newly signed Sheldon Richardson and Linval Joseph), Eagles (Fletcher Cox and Tim Jernigan) and Panthers (free-agent addition Dontari Poe and Kawann Short). Yet still, I'm absolutely convinced Suh and Donald would rank as the No. 1 interior tandem in football.
Suh, a three-time All-Pro defender with 51.5 career sacks, is still a disruptive force as an inside rusher. He lacks a dazzling array of moves, but routinely overpowers blockers with an old-school bull rush that renders most blockers helpless. Although Suh will occasionally break out a dip-and-rip maneuver to power past blockers, he is at his best when he simply bullies blockers into the quarterback's lap with a straight power move.
Donald, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, is a different animal at the point of attack. He uses a combination of cat-like quickness, slick combat moves and a non-stop motor to harass quarterbacks in the pocket. He blows past blockers with a series of hesitation karate moves that look like they were developed in a dojo. Donald's superb snap-count anticipation and quickness make him nearly impossible to contain in one-on-one situations, particularly on obvious passing downs. With No. 99 positioned on the outside shoulder of the guard, the Rams give their best pass rusher a chance to overwhelm an interior athlete with a "two-way go": Donald can use his speed, quickness and fast hands to win on a slap-rip move through the B gap (space between offensive guard and offensive tackle) or use a James Harden-like hesitation and slip maneuver to shoot through the A gap (hole between the offensive guard and center). As evidenced by his 39 career sacks, including 11 in 14 games last season, Donald has been feasting on quarterbacks as an isolation pass rusher between the tackles.
That's why the thought of Suh and Donald joining forces in a Wade Phillips' defense is a nightmare for offensive coordinators and quarterbacks around the league. Not only are you putting two of the most disruptive defenders in football on the field at the same time, but you are placing them side by side in a 3-4 defense that easily morphs into a five-man front (walk both outside linebackers down as edge players) to create one-on-one matchups across the board.
Think of it this way ... Suh will align over top the center in a "zero" (head up) or "shade" position to control the A gap at the point of attack. He can whip most centers playing bully ball and those wins will eventually force offensive coordinators to use the guard as a helper on passing downs. However, the presence of Donald at the 3-tech position really creates a no-win situation for the offensive play caller, due to each Pro Bowler's ability to win a one-on-one matchup. If you pay too much attention to Suh, Donald is left singled up against a guard. If you decide to double team Donald, you leave Suh alone with a free run to the quarterback through the A gap.
With the various shades and alignments Phillips can use from a 3-4 look -- particularly a "Bear" or "Double Eagle" (three defenders on three interior blockers; nose tackle is head up on the center with the other defenders positioned on the outside shoulder of each guard) -- he is virtually guaranteed a favorable matchup in the middle of the defense. Keep in mind, quarterbacks are most affected by "gut" pressure in the pocket. Thus, the Rams' potential tandem could pose a serious problem for opponents throughout the NFL.
3) Can an old dog learn new tricks? Dez's future depends on it.Dez Bryant told NFL Network's Jane Slater that he's going to spend part of the offseason training with a personal wide receivers coach David Robinson, with the goal of expanding his route tree and improving his releases, while also working on his footwork to compensate for a loss of speed.
Now, I'll always applaud players for diligently working on their craft during the offseason, but something about this report doesn't sit well with me. Maybe it's the notion that Bryant is just beginning to focus on his footwork, route-running fundamentals and press releases. I mean, the guy entered the league in 2010. So, after eight seasons in the league, Bryant is suddenly realizing that he needs to become a more detailed route runner and technician at the position?
It's crazy to think a three-time Pro Bowler with three seasons of 1,200-plus receiving yards and 73 career touchdowns didn't spend the early years of his career mastering the fundamentals of the position. Sure, you can win with sheer athleticism as a young player, but a guy's explosiveness declines with age and he must have a game deeply rooted in the fundamentals to thrive as an aging veteran. Bryant should've come to that realization sooner, having failed to hit the 1,000-yard mark in any of the last three seasons. He has struggled getting away from defenders at the line of scrimmage against press coverage and his inability to separate at the top of routes has been problematic in recent years.
"When a player gets older, they rely more on their knowledge and technique to win battles on the perimeter," a veteran wide receivers coach told me. "You have to develop those skills as a young player to play for a long time in this league."
That's why the Cowboys' coaching staff should also be held accountable for Bryant's decline. Great coaches challenge their charges to improve each and every day, and they won't allow a player to become complacent on the field. Sure, Bryant could've ignored his position coach's pleas to work on his footwork, route-running fundamentals and press-release technique in individual periods. But old-school coaches don't allow any player to skate by on talent alone -- they point out their players' flaws in the film room and on the practice field and come up with a plan for improvement in those areas. I'm shocked that Dallas' offensive coaches haven't demanded more from their WR1 to this point. Instead, they've allowed him to exist as a three-route playmaker (slant, hitch and fade) on the perimeter, which is unacceptable for a player who posted a dominant run from 2012 through '14 where he averaged 91 receptions, 1,300-plus receiving yards and 14 touchdowns per season.
I'm happy Bryant apparently has had an epiphany about his game, with noise growing to epic levels regarding a potential pay cut or release. It's hard for an aging player to improve in the twilight of his career, but Bryant's decision to seek out a WR guru could help him salvage a game that's in need of repair.