Is it the talent or the system?
That's the question scouts and coaches routinely debate when evaluating top players across the NFL landscape. In a league full of world-class athletes, evaluators spend countless hours in the film room trying to ascertain whether a player is a transcendent star capable of thriving in any scheme or a "system guy" who needs to play in a specific game plan to produce at a high level.
Last offseason, this was the debate around free-agent running back DeMarco Murray. The 2014 NFL rushing king was coming off a remarkable season that saw him post 12 100-yard games and carry the Dallas Cowboys into the playoffs (where he added another 100-yard outing). While some observers viewed Murray as an emerging superstar at the position due to his explosive jaunts (15 runs of at least 20 yards), others viewed the Pro Bowler as a good player running behind an ultra-talented offensive line that would make life easy for any runner. Many also noticed how the Cowboys' power-based running scheme (power, counter and isolation) enhanced Murray's downhill running style, allowing him to consistently hit the line of scrimmage with his shoulders square.
At the end of the day, the Cowboys were reluctant to break the bank for a running back who appeared to be at least somewhat of a "system guy" in their minds. The Philadelphia Eagles, on the other hand, viewed Murray as a superstar who could seamlessly fit into a zone-based scheme that featured more lateral runs (outside zone and sweeps). After watching Murray struggle in a side-to-side running game that didn't suit his talents as a downhill runner, the Eagles elected to trade the back, thus acknowledging the franchise's misevaluation of a "system guy."
Watching the NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2016" this offseason, I was blown away by the player-on-player evaluations. While I assumed players would have a better feel for transcendent talents, I was surprised at the number of "system guys" ranked highly despite their obvious limitations. Given some time to study the All-22 Coaches Film, I wanted to spotlight a few notable names that, to me, fall in one of these two classes: system guy or star. Here we go!
Josh Norman, CB, Washington Redskins: Despite garnering serious consideration for the 2015 Defensive Player of the Year award after a stellar campaign that eventually earned him a $75 million contract from the Redskins, the Pro Bowler isn't considered a "shutdown" corner by traditional standards. Norman is a "clue" corner adept at pattern-reading and keying the quarterback from distance in a zone scheme that enables defenders to play with vision from off coverage. Although Norman gained some experience playing bump-and-run coverage during his time in Carolina, there are serious concerns about whether he possesses enough speed and athleticism to thrive in a scheme that prominently features man coverage.
Now, I know Norman routinely challenged premier receivers -- including the likes of Dez Bryant, Odell Beckham Jr. and Julio Jones -- at the line of scrimmage in recent years, but there are plenty of instances on tape where his lack of elite speed and burst could've resulted in big plays down the field (see: Beckham's drop against Norman in the first quarter of their rowdy matchup last season). In fact, I had an AFC North personnel director suggest that Norman could get "exposed" if he had to match up with a premier WR1 and shadow him for four quarters of coverage.
While I have the utmost respect for Norman's playmaking ability as a zone corner, I don't believe his skills are conducive to playing the role of a CB1 in every system. With a move to the NFC East and intriguing matchups dotting the schedule, the football world might soon see if Norman is the lockdown corner he claims to be.
Julian Edelman, WR, New England Patriots: This wily pass catcher is the premier slot receiver in the NFL, but he is not a transcendent star, despite his fine stats. The electric punt returner/receiver is an exceptional catch-and-run specialist in a system that features a number of option routes and short crossers for the slot receiver. This is a system that helped Troy Brown, Deion Branch and Wes Welker rise from obscurity to become household names.
Edelman has piled up 258 receptions over the past three seasons (39 games, due to injuries). Upon closer inspection, though, only half of those receptions have resulted in first downs, and he has just 24 receptions of 20-plus yards during that span.
Now, there is certainly value to having a receiver on the roster who can handle the dirty work between the hashes, but superstars move the chains and put the ball in the paint as the focal point of the offense. In addition, stars are capable of getting it done without needing a playmate to alleviate the pressure on them to carry the passing game. In New England, Rob Gronkowski is the focal point of the aerial attack -- his ability to command a double-team creates plenty of room for Edelman to operate. That's why I view Edelman as an appetizer instead of a main entree on Tom Brady's menu.
Clay Matthews, LB, Green Bay Packers: The sight of Matthews on a list of "system guys" will lead to quizzical looks from some readers, but hear me out before lighting up my Twitter timeline with irate responses. There's no disputing Matthews' impact as a disruptive playmaker for the Packers. The seven-year NFL vet has amassed 67.5 career sacks and created a number of splash plays (12 forced fumbles and six interceptions) in 101 regular-season games as the Swiss Army knife on Green Bay's D.
However, he certainly has benefitted from playing as a freelancer in a zone-blitz scheme that overwhelms opponents with exotic pressures from a variety of personnel groupings and alignments. Not that clever scheming should detract from his production or performance, but the six-time Pro Bowler has been given the freedom to chase the ball from all angles without worrying about gap integrity. This allows him to jump around blocks or shoot gaps when he feels he can make a play on the ball instead of filling an assigned void to potentially occupy blockers when the ball heads in a different direction.
Of course, he spent the past two seasons playing out of place at inside linebacker, but he also freelanced a bit when playing at his natural spot (outside linebacker) early in his career. Matthews pursued quarterbacks like a bull in a china shop off the corner, with little regard for contain responsibility as an outside rusher. Part of this was by design -- defensive coordinator Dom Capers' zone-blitz scheme frequently sends four rushers from one side to create an overload pressure against standard pass protection -- but Matthews' impact plays seemingly result off impromptu rushes from odd angles.
When I asked a veteran AFC West personnel man about Matthews' bona fides, he told me that the linebacker appeared to be a superstar early in his career. But after watching Matthews the past two seasons, he views him as a "system guy" who benefits from playing in a scheme that funnels playmaking chances to him. He went on to say that if Matthews has major production going forward at his natural spot, it is a "product of Capers' system."
Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: It is hard to knock a runner with a pair of 1,400-yard seasons on his résumé, but the two-time Pro Bowler isn't a game changer at the position. Yes, I'm fully aware Martin finished as the runner-up for the 2015 NFL rushing crown, falling short of Adrian Peterson by a narrow margin (1,485 to 1,402), but the Buccaneers' RB1 is a grinder without elite athletic or positional traits. Basically, Martin gains positive yards when the play is blocked correctly at the line of scrimmage. If he is forced to make a series of cuts in a tight area or wiggle to avoid a defender in space, he lacks the exceptional balance, body control and vision to make tacklers miss.
To his credit, Martin is a hard-nosed runner with a non-stop motor. He has a workmanlike running style that isn't sexy, but is productive and effective in the right scheme. In fact, I had an NFC South scout describe Martin as an "overachiever" with "good, not great," characteristics. Evidently, that's good enough to make a run at the rushing title, but I'm not quite sure it'd be fruitful in every offense. We will see if Martin can remain among the league leaders in rushing yards, having just signed a robust five-year deal to remain in Tampa.
Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins: Yes, the Redskins are willing to apply the franchise tag to Cousins, but that obviously doesn't mean he's necessarily a franchise player. Sure, the fifth-year pro is coming off a stellar campaign that saw him complete nearly 70 percent of his passes while posting an encouraging 29:11 touchdown-to-interception ratio. But he is compiling those numbers as a pass-first point guard on a fast-break team featuring a host of playmakers on the perimeter (DeSean Jackson, Jordan Reed, Pierre Garcon and Jamison Crowder) with exceptional one-on-one skills. Most importantly, Cousins is playing in a "dink and dunk" offense that features an extraordinary number of quick-rhythm throws that rarely travel over 10 air yards. With the Redskins using a variety of spread and empty formations, Cousins quickly deciphers the coverage and targets the favorable matchup on the perimeter.
To his credit, Cousins has shown outstanding timing, accuracy and poise directing Jay Gruden's offense. But questions persist as to whether he could enjoy similar success in a system that features more intermediate and deep throws. This certainly doesn't matter to Redskins' faithful, but NFL executives -- including Redskins GM Scot McCloughan -- are curious if the veteran can overcome his limitations to enjoy sustained success as a starter.
Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts: The 2012 No. 1 overall pick saw his stock tumble on NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2016" after an abbreviated season that featured some bad football. Luck was personally responsible for 13 turnovers in seven games and ranked just 92nd on the players' list. He's only completed 58.1 percent of his passes with the Colts, which is problematic for an offense built around the passing game.
Despite those struggles, though, there is no disputing Luck's talent or ability to put a team on his back. He carried the Colts into the playoffs in each of his first three seasons without a lot of assistance from his defense or running game. Most impressively, he has orchestrated 10 fourth-quarter comebacks and 14 game-winning drives in just 55 regular-season games. That speaks volumes about his poise and confidence in the clutch.
From a scouting perspective, Luck is the prototypical franchise quarterback every coach covets when it comes to size (6-foot-4, 240 pounds), athleticism, arm talent and football aptitude. He is a rare signal caller with the capacity to make every throw in the book from the pocket or on the move. Luck's combination of athleticism and intelligence would allow him to fit into a movement-based offense that uses the quarterback as a runner or in a traditional dropback system that requires the quarterback to thrive exclusively from the pocket.
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans: It's uncommon for a WR1 to post big numbers without a big-time quarterback, but Hopkins has been able to thrive with a cast of misfits manning the position over the past few seasons. The 6-1, 218-pound pass catcher has piled up 187 receptions for 2,731 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns over the past two seasons. With the Texans also lacking an explosive WR2 during that span, Hopkins has been forced to face double coverage from opponents intent on taking away his deep-ball chances down the boundary. Despite those tactics, Hopkins has continued to thrive on vertical plays (nine receptions of 40-plus yard since 2014) and remains a dangerous red-zone weapon due to his exceptional leaping ability. A big-time hoops star in high school, Hopkins boasts extraordinary ball skills; his ability to snatch balls away from defenders allows him to play bigger than his physical dimensions.
Given his consistency and success despite his circumstances, there's no doubt Hopkins is a transcendent star at the position.
Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos: The Super Bowl MVP cemented his status as a superstar with a series of spectacular performances during the 2015 postseason. Miller absolutely dominated each of the Broncos' title tilts (AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl 50) while displaying the exceptional first-step quickness and closing burst that's helped him notch 66.5 sacks in 79 career games (including the playoffs). The production certainly jumps off the stat sheet, but it's Miller's athletic traits (speed, quickness, balance and body control) that pop on the All-22 tape.
The Broncos' designated pass rusher not only overwhelms blockers with his initial burst, but he combines extraordinary balance with outstanding hand skills to keep blockers on their heels. With a spin move and an inside-shimmy maneuver that are just as devastating as his straight speed rush, Miller is not a one-trick pony off the edge. That's why it's easy for Miller to seamlessly transition into different schemes (John Fox/Jack Del Rio employed a 4-3 system; Wade Phillips uses a 3-4 scheme) as a designated pass rusher. Whether he's aligning at SAM (strong-side linebacker) or edge rusher (from a three-point stance or an upright position), Miller's athleticism and instincts set him apart from other pass rushers in the NFL.
LeSean McCoy, RB, Buffalo Bills: It appears the voters for the "Top 100" valued numbers over visuals when rating McCoy -- who landed at No. 69 -- but there aren't many running backs in the NFL with the spectacular traits the veteran displays with the ball in his hands. McCoy is a slippery runner with explosive stop-start quickness, wiggle and burst. He routinely makes defenders miss in tight quarters with an electric jump cut, but he also displays the kind of "shake and bake" that forces would-be tacklers to proceed with caution when attempting to corral him in space.
Now, McCoy's jitterbug running style will frustrate coaches searching for a downhill runner, but the veteran has been very productive in a variety of schemes (four 1,000-yard seasons in seven years and a career mark of 4.6 yards per carry) that haven't always catered to his strengths as a cutback runner. With McCoy also making steady contributions as an electric playmaker out of the backfield in the passing game (332 career receptions for 2,574 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns), the eighth-year pro is the dual threat most teams covet in a franchise RB1.
Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals: The fifth overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft was expected to dominate the cornerback position with his dazzling combination of size, athleticism and ball skills on the perimeter. He has not only lived up to the hype, but he has changed the way scouts and coaches view "lockdown" cornerbacks in today's game. Peterson travels to match the opponent's top receiver and does so in splendid fashion while employing a variety of techniques in the Cardinals' blitz-heavy scheme. The 6-1, 219-pounder capably uses "mug" (two-hand jam) and "shadow" (mirror and run) to blanket WR1s, but he also displays the footwork, instincts and ball skills to play away from the line.
I spoke to an AFC West personnel executive recently about Peterson's game and potential, and the evaluator told me that "Peterson has always been viewed as one of the elite athletes at the position, but now his game has started to match his talent." After watching Peterson flummox opponents throughout the 2015 season, there's no doubt in my mind that he is one of the few corners in the NFL capable of making his mark on the island in any system.