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:
-- One position in this draft class that really meets the standards of today's game.
But first a look at whether a versatile playmaker truly has what it takes to be a starting quarterback ...
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The question buzzed around the NFL Media newsroom when Mike Westhoff's comments regarding the New Orleans Saints' offensive weapon hit the Twitterverse this week. The longtime special teams coach, who spent 2017 and '18 in NOLA, not only suggested Hill could be a franchise quarterback, but he favorably compared the three-year veteran to the reigning NFL MVP.
"Take a look at Baltimore," Westhoff said when discussing Hill's skill set in an interview with Zach Gelb of CBS Sports Radio. "It's the same kind of guy. Taysom Hill does those same things. I think he throws better."
Whoa! I know coaches go hard for their guys, but comparing Hill to Lamar Jackson is absolutely ridiculous based on how each player has performed, even going back to their college days.
Jackson was the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner and finished his career at Louisville by posting back-to-back seasons of 3,500-plus passing yards and 1,500-plus rushing yards. Over three college campaigns, he racked up 119 total touchdowns. As a rookie in the NFL, Jackson rallied the Ravens to a playoff berth. Then, in Year 2, he became the first player to throw for 30 touchdowns and rush for 1,000 yards in a single season.
Although Hill certainly had his fair share of fine moments at BYU -- including a spectacular sophomore campaign in 2013 when he notched 2,938 passing yards, 1,344 rushing yards and 29 total touchdowns -- he suffered four season-ending injuries during his collegiate career and never came close to dominating the game to the same degree as Jackson. Despite his exceptional testing numbers at BYU's pro day (4.44-second 40-yard dash, 38.5-inch vertical jump and 10-foot-2 broad jump) and impressive overall athletic traits at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Hill entered the league as an undrafted free agent and couldn't crack the Green Bay Packers' roster as a quarterback, before catching on with New Orleans.
That said, there's no denying Hill's impact on the Saints as a Swiss Army Knife. The third-year pro played 10 different positions -- including four offensive spots (quarterback, running back, tight end and wide receiver) -- as a designated playmaker for New Orleans in 2019. Including the playoffs, Hill logged 264 offensive snaps and produced 570 yards of total offense (105 passing yards, 206 rush yards and 259 receiving yards) and eight touchdowns, per Pro Football Focus.
That's why I believe Hill is more like Kordell Stewart than Jackson as a potential starting quarterback. Before you @ me on Twitter for that comparison, you should pull up some of Stewart's YouTube highlights from when he was known as "Slash" for the Pittsburgh Steelers. While biding his time as the team's QB2 in 1996, No. 10 dazzled as an offensive weapon. Playing quarterback, running back and wide receiver, Stewart amassed 564 yards of total offense (100 pass, 171 rush and 293 receiving) with eight total touchdowns. Stewart's athleticism and versatility added a different dimension to Pittsburgh's offense, with offensive coordinator Chan Gailey utilizing creative tactics to take advantage of his backup QB's unique skills.
Stewart's 1996 situation is eerily similar to the role Sean Payton has created for Hill as a versatile weapon. The offensive wizard has featured some designed quarterback runs and zone-read concepts with No. 7 in the game to take advantage of his athleticism, toughness and running skills. Payton has also tapped into Hill's superb hand-eye coordination and ball skills by moving him around the perimeter as a pass catcher to exploit voids down the seams and along the numbers, with opponents paying close attention to Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara.
But as stated above, the third-year pro's emergence as a key contributor has prompted observers to ponder how he would perform as a full-time starter in an offense designed specifically for his skills.
"I think you'll see an offense that's similar to Baltimore, that can do a lot of different things," Westhoff said of a potential Hill-based attack in New Orleans. "And Sean Payton is an extremely qualified coach, and he's very, very creative."
Baltimore has certainly provided a blueprint for how to build an offense around an athletic quarterback. The Ravens completely overhauled their scheme and personnel to accommodate Jackson's unique talents as a dual-threat playmaker and he responded with a record-breaking season. Hill is not nearly as explosive or dynamic as Jackson with the ball in his hands, but he has a knack for moving the chains as a runner, as evidenced by his 14 first downs on 31 rushing attempts last season (including the playoffs). He runs with a physicality and toughness that's uncommon for a quarterback, which makes him even more dangerous on short-yardage/goal-line situations.
As a passer, Hill remains a work in progress. He has more than enough arm strength to play from the pocket, but isn't a great touch, timing or anticipation thrower. Hill is at his best pushing the ball down the field on vertical routes off play-action or hitting open receivers on RPO concepts with quarterback run action behind it. The threat of No. 7 as a runner changes the defense's approach, leading to easy completions on jump passes and bootlegs.
When you take a look at the All-22 Coaches Film and break down how Hill impacts the game, I don't believe he would make a greater impact as a QB1. He is a Pro Bowl-caliber special teams standout and dynamic multipurpose offensive weapon -- I would be reluctant to lose those contributions by putting him in a traditional role. Hill gives defensive coordinators more to worry about as an offensive specialist than as a full-time quarterback.
"He is a Swiss Army Knife," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "He is a great change-of-pace athlete with a variety of skills.
"They're using him the right way, when you look at it."
Part of Hill's success as a part-time player stems from how the Saints tweak his role each week. Defensive coordinators are uncertain of his whereabouts from play to play, and that mystery leads to a lot of unnecessary practice reps and preparation for situations that may or may not occur on game day. If Hill spends more time on the field as a traditional quarterback, it becomes easier to figure him out and puts more pressure on him to perform at a high level in the game's most demanding position.
"The jury is still out on whether he can actually play quarterback," the former NFL defensive coordinator said. "You want to see if he can do it 65 times a game over an entire season. Coaches will quickly find out what he can and can't do, and then we will see how good he really is.
"It's an entirely different animal playing quarterback when everyone knows you're the guy and they build game plans to take away your strengths."
That's why this situation reminds me of Stewart and his plight in Pittsburgh. He was a bona fide star as a part-time player/offensive weapon for the Steelers early in his career, but critics picked apart his flaws when he became the team's QB1. Although he eventually made a Pro Bowl and was a part of two Steelers teams that hit the AFC Championship Game, Stewart's fatal flaws as a quarterback kept Pittsburgh from advancing to the Super Bowl (SEE: four turnovers in each conference title game).
Looking at Hill's game and his age (he'll turn 30 before next season), I don't know if he can truly develop into a franchise quarterback. While he has been able to utilize his athleticism and running skills to enhance the Saints' offensive attack, it's unlikely that he could sustain that kind of performance as an older player. Remember, Cam Newton is viewed as a declining player at age 30 and he's been a dominant dual-threat playmaker for a decade. The former NFL MVP has the most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in NFL history (58) and he's been a trend-setter as a mobile playmaker.
For Hill, a move to QB1 would certainly give him more opportunities to impact the game and put his own beliefs to the test.
"I definitely view myself as a franchise quarterback," Hill said in a recent interview with the Associated Press' Rob Maaddi. "I think as you look at the other questions: Is it New Orleans? Is it somewhere else? As you go into free agency, this is the time that you start to find out how people view you. We haven't gotten into free agency long enough to really know how these guys view me and we'll just handle it as it comes."
Considering the risks and rewards that come with giving Hill more chances as a quarterback, I'm not convinced he can reach the level Jackson and even Stewart achieved as ultra-athletic playmakers.
CHARGERS' QB QUESTION: Is Tyrod the answer?
It's hard to imagine a scenario in which coaches or executives would opt for Tyrod Taylor over a potential Hall of Fame quarterback, but the Los Angeles Chargers might be better off with the athletic veteran taking over for Philip Rivers. That's not a slight to the storied career of No. 17, but Taylor might be a better fit right now for Anthony Lynn's vision of winning -- and that could make all of the difference in the world for the Bolts.
"Tyrod Taylor is a heck of a quarterback," Lynn told AM 570 LA Sports. "We couldn't have a better backup right now, and now he has an opportunity to maybe step up into a starting role. I've had Tyrod before [in Buffalo], and I know what this young man brings to the table, in the passing game and the running game.
"One of the things he does very well is take care of the football. I believe every year he's started in this league, he's been the No. 1 quarterback in taking care of the football. I believe more games are lost than won. So if we can just take care of the football and take it away, we'll be OK."
There's a lot to digest in those words, but astute observers should pay close attention to the last few sentences uttered by Lynn. When a head coach suggests that more games are lost than won, he is pointing to the strong correlation between winning the turnover battle and winning games in the NFL. With that in mind, it is easy to see why Lynn is optimistic about the Chargers' chances with Taylor under center. In 2019, Rivers had 23 total turnovers during a 5-11 campaign. Considering the Chargers finished 2-9 in games decided by one score, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to connect the dots between quarterback errors and losses.
The veteran combines his superb ball security with improvisational skills that enable him to augment a dominant running game. Taylor averaged 5.6 rush yards per carry (283 rushes for 1,575 rush yards) during his three-year stint as a starter in Buffalo, helping the Bills pummel opponents with a dynamic running game that taxed defensive coordinators around the league.
"There are some guys that can win from the pocket, but when you look around the league, most of these guys are mobile quarterbacks that can move," Lynn told 570 AM, when asked what style of quarterback he prefers. "All you have to do is watch high school football on Friday nights. High school football told me 10 years ago the direction the NFL was headed.
"So that's just the world that we're in right now -- you can do more things and be more cutting edge [with a mobile quarterback]. But that guy that can stand back there, pick up all those protections, throw the ball from the pocket and use the quick passing game [instead of] his legs, you can still win with a classic pocket passer."
Surveying the Chargers' depth chart and studying their games from 2019, the leaky offensive line makes a move to Taylor a sensible one for Lynn. With No. 5 capable of escaping pressure and creating plays on the perimeter, the veteran can erase some of the mistakes that take place at the point of attack. Moreover, he avoids the miscues that lead to losses and that could help the Chargers finally reach their potential under Lynn in 2020.
2020 NFL DRAFT: The most alluring aspect of this CB crop
Whenever you ask coaches and executives how to build an ideal defense, the conversation typically ends in a discussion on the importance of having an elite cover corner in the lineup. The NFL's seismic shift to a passing league has made it imperative for top teams to find big cornerbacks with the size, length and athleticism to match up with the basketball-like athletes who are dominating on the perimeter as pass catchers.
Looking at the cornerback class for the 2020 NFL Draft, I believe coaches will have plenty of enticing options when it comes to snagging a big cornerback to put on the island. Each of the cornerbacks on my top-five list measures at least 6 feet tall with most weighing 200 pounds or more. Additionally, each is projected to run 4.52 seconds or faster in the 40-yard dash, which is critical with the league becoming more man coverage-centric to eliminate the quick throws that have enabled quarterbacks to compile robust completion percentages in recent years.
When I worked for the Seattle Seahawks in the early 2000s with Ron Wolf disciples like John Schneider, Scot McCloughan and Ted Thompson, we set the bar at 5-foot-11 as the minimum height for a cornerback prospects. The trio had watched Randy Moss, Cris Carter, Herman Moore and other big-bodied receivers dominate the NFC North during their time with the Green Bay Packers, and they were determined to find longer athletes at the position to better match up in the passing game.
Fast-forward to today's game, and guys like Michael Thomas (6-3, 212), Julio Jones (6-3, 220), Chris Godwin (6-1, 209), DeVante Parker (6-3, 216), Keenan Allen (6-2, 211) and Kenny Golladay (6-4, 214) are dominating. The giants are not only winning 50-50 balls down the field, but they are abusing smaller defenders in the red zone.
To counter that, evaluators are placing a premium on finding decathletes with the physical tools and ball skills to compete for rebounds down the field.
"It's a matchup league," the former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "You need to have enough big bodies to handle the basketball athletes on the outside. If you can find a former (high school) wide receiver with some toughness, athleticism and ball skills to play on the island, you want to have those kinds of athletes to compete in one-on-one situations. If they can tackle and aren't afraid to mix it up, you can take those guys and make them stars."
Digging deeper into the 2020 class, Trevon Diggs fits the bill, as a former high school receiver who's made the transition to cornerback. The top-ranked prep wideout in Maryland in 2016 made a smooth transition to cornerback and his athleticism and ball skills could make him an elite player at the next level. With Cameron Dantzler (quarterback) and C.J. Henderson (running back) also having ample experience as high school offensive players, these new-school cornerbacks might be better equipped to deal with the pass catchers who are currently dominating the league.