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:
-- Ranking the QBs in this year's playoffs.
-- The first steps to turn around one of the season's most disappointing teams.
But first, a look at five teams that should pursue potentially the biggest prize of the offseason ...
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Although we can debate the semantics of Brown's behavior and antics during the days leading up to the game, it is time for the Steelers to move on from their star receiver after a tumultuous season that featured several incidents that threatened to ruin the chemistry and camaraderie in the locker room. From his repeated missed practices to his sideline temper tantrums to his social-media mishaps, the ultra-talented receiver has put his personal interests over the team's agenda and his selfish behavior shouldn't be accepted by a blue-blood franchise that's used to competing for championships.
Granted, the team has dealt with other issues from their star players, including Le'Veon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger, but it is time for Tomlin to eliminate any disruptors and build a team of guys with a team-first mentality. While Brown is lauded for his work ethic, he has voiced his displeasure with his role at times and his obsession with his numbers makes it hard for the quarterback to stick with his progressions when No. 84 is constantly chirping in the huddle.
That said, Brown's production has made it a worthwhile adventure for the past nine years. He is the fastest receiver in league history to snag 800 catches, and he's the only receiver to catch at least 100 passes in six consecutive seasons. Brown's production will unquestionably be missed, but the Steelers are arguably the best team at drafting and developing wide receivers. The team has groomed the likes of Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, Santonio Holmes, Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace, Brown, Martavis Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster and others in the past 20 years. If that doesn't illustrate the team's penchant for finding and developing high-end pass catchers, the rapid ascension of Smith-Schuster as a potential WR1 should alleviate any concerns about the team moving on from No. 84.
"They should move on from Brown," said a former NFL defensive coordinator. "JuJu isn't AB but he can certainly fill the No. 1 role in that scheme. He is trustworthy and a dependable pass catcher. Plus, he is a blue-collar receiver who fits the personality of the team and the city. I would build around him and the tight ends and put a little more emphasis on the running game. If they make those tweaks, they can definitely succeed without Brown on the field."
With that in mind, I believe this is the perfect opportunity for the Steelers to completely reboot their team without headaches on the squad. In fact, it would make sense to trade Brown before the fifth day of the league year (March 17), when he's due a $2.5 million roster bonus. While they would have to deal with a hefty cap hit of $21.1 million in 2019 if they deal him before June 1, the addition of better chemistry by the subtraction of a distraction should push Tomlin and the team to make the move. Look no further than the black cloud of Bell's no-show this past season as proof of the negative impact created by soap opera-like drama.
Although the loss of No. 84 (and No. 26) will be problematic for an offense that's revolved around its star players, this is the perfect time for the Steelers to move on and acquire assets for a rebuilt offense that will include a new quarterback in a few years. With Roethlisberger entering the last season of his contract and contemplating retirement, the Steelers could turn their eyes toward a 2020 draft that's likely to feature some intriguing options at quarterback. The team could begin to transition to more of a blue-collar squad built around a young, athletic defense and a rock-solid run-oriented attack that's been the traditional model used by the franchise since the Chuck Noll era.
As far as Brown, the ultra-talented receiver will certainly draw interest on the trade market despite questions about his character and diva-like persona. He is an unstoppable force on the perimeter and few defenses have found a way to slow him down over the past six seasons. As a soon-to-be 31-year-old receiver in the middle of a mega-deal, Brown will be viewed as a hired gun for a team looking for a short-term fix at the position. He will add some juice to a team looking for an explosive weapon to help a quarterback in need of support.
With that in mind, here's a list of five teams that should pursue Brown this offseason:
Oakland Raiders: Jon Gruden desperately needs to add offensive playmakers to the lineup to help a sagging offense become more explosive. Brown would give the team a legitimate No. 1 receiver with the potential to score from anywhere on the field, which is critical in a catch-and-run offense directed by Derek Carr. With five first-round picks over the next two years and a ton of cap space, the Raiders have enough ammunition to make Brown a member of the Silver and Black.
New York Jets: If the Jets are serious about elevating the play of their young quarterback, they must surround him with some star power on offense. Brown would give Sam Darnold a much-needed WR1 while also establishing a clear pecking order in the WR room with Quincy Enunwa already positioned at WR2. With enough cap space to absorb Brown's salary and the Big Apple stage to satisfy his ego, the marriage between the Jets and the disgruntled receiver looks like a good match on paper.
San Francisco 49ers: Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch are committed to building a dynamic offense around Jimmy Garoppolo. The 49ers already have a chain mover at tight end (George Kittle) and a speedster (Marquise Goodwin) at WR2, but the team lacks a high-end playmaker to occupy the No. 1 role. With six straight seasons with 100-plus catches and 1,200-plus receiving yards, Brown is an A-plus pass catcher capable of filling the 49ers' biggest void on the perimeter.
Green Bay Packers: The Packers have been at their best in the Aaron Rodgers era when they've had multiple pass catchers capable of filling the No. 1 role. Davante Adams is certainly an elite-level talent, but adding Brown would give the Packers the most explosive 1-2 punch in the league. That said, Brown would need to get along with Rodgers and embrace the values of an old-school football community. If the Packers can get the mercurial pass catcher to agree to those terms, they certainly have enough ammunition (two 2019 first-round picks) and cap space to acquire the perennial Pro Bowler.
Washington Redskins: Owner Dan Snyder loves collecting superstar players on his roster. Brown is a megastar with the explosive playmaking ability to upgrade a sagging offense. Although the Redskins don't have a lot of salary-cap space or attractive draft capital to pull off the maneuver, we've seen this team make it work when the owner sees a player he likes. Considering the Redskins' lack of star power and declining attendance numbers, the team could add some entertainment value by making an aggressive move to add No. 84.
RANKING THE PLAYOFF QUARTERBACKS: Foles over Brady
If you ask any NFL coach about the key ingredient to winning a Super Bowl, they will quickly tell you great play from the quarterback is essential. Looking at the 2019 playoff field, there's an impressive group of QB1s in the bunch but only a few guys are capable of putting their teams on their backs in a series of win-or-go-home battles. Given some time to pop in the All-22 Coaches Film to check out the play of all 12 quarterbacks while also reflecting on their postseason resumes, here are my Quarterback Power Rankings heading into the playoffs:
1) Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints: The leader of the Saints remains one of the best closers in the business with seven game-winning drives in 2018. Brees is capable of winning in any win-or-go-home scenario on the strength of his surgical passing skills. As the most efficient passer in the tournament, he's shown the football world that he can still shred any defense, and that makes him the scariest quarterback to face of this bunch.
2) Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks: The run-heavy 'Hawks are a ground-and-pound outfit, but Wilson quietly finished with 35 touchdown passes (tied for third most). The electric dual-threat playmaker is a nightmare to defend on the perimeter and a proven big-game performer with eight playoff wins since entering the league in 2012. Only Tom Brady has more playoff Ws (11) during that span, so it is hard to ignore Wilson's potential impact on the tournament.
3) Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles: Before you @ me with crazy comments about Foles' spot on this list, the reigning Super Bowl MVP is riding an eight-game winning streak when he starts and plays the majority of the snaps in December/January, dating back to last season. He's been on fire down the stretch, as evidenced by his 77 percent completion rate, average of 320.7 pass yards, 6:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 108.4 passer rating over the past three games. Considering how the Eagles rode Foles' hot hand to Super Bowl LII, I wouldn't put it past the veteran to make another run at the Lombardi Trophy.
4) Tom Brady, New England Patriots: The G.O.A.T would normally occupy the No. 1 spot on this list, but it's hard to ignore his decline this season. Brady has flinched more than ever in the pocket and his questionable decisions in key moments (see the Miami and Pittsburgh games) have raised eyebrows around the league. Despite a growing crowd of skeptics, Brady still deserves a spot near the top of the list based on his Super Bowl history and nearly spotless home playoff record (19-3). With the Patriots potentially two home games away from another Super Bowl appearance, I wouldn't dismiss TB12's chances of rediscovering his magic in the playoffs.
5) Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts: No. 12 is playing at an MVP level heading into the playoffs after shaking off the rust from an 18-month layoff. Luck helped the Colts win nine out of their last 10 games while posting a 69.5 percent completion rate with 280.1 passing yards per game average and a 23:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio during that span. With the Colts' QB1 more than capable of carrying the offense as a flamethrower from the pocket, particularly off play-action (67.2 percent completion rate, 9.9 yards per attempt, 10:2 TD-INT ratio and 118.9 passer rating, according to Pro Football Focus), Luck could help Indy stay hot in the postseason.
6) Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs: The MVP favorite has to overcome inexperience and the Chiefs' porous defense to lead Andy Reid's squad on an extended playoff run. He's certainly talented enough to carry the Chiefs as a LeBron James-type playmaker, but he will need to conquer his butterflies to make it happen. With plenty of angst and anxiety running rampant in Arrowhead Stadium after the team's recent playoff failures, Mahomes will need to be on his game to help the AFC's No. 1 seed maximize its potential.
7) Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers: Despite playing at an MVP level for three quarters of the season, Rivers is a question mark heading into the playoffs after limping to the finish line with a disappointing three-game run. Since Week 15, Rivers has posted a 63.6 percent completion rate with a 3:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 68.2 passer rating. Given No. 17's spotty playoff record (4-5 won-loss record; 60.3 percent completion rate, 11:9 TD-INT ratio and 85.2 passer rating), the pressure is on the veteran to raise his game in the playoffs.
8) Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans: Clutch play in big games is in Watson's DNA based on his work at Clemson in the College Football Playoff, but the NFL playoffs are a different animal with the speed, physicality and intensity reaching peak levels. As a first-time participant, the nerves could overwhelm No. 4 as he attempts to settle in behind a suspect offensive line. That said, Watson has scored a touchdown in all 23 of his NFL games and is one of only three NFL quarterbacks to finish a season with 4,000-plus pass yards and 500-plus rush yards. That kind of production typically leads to wins, which is why it's hard to count out the second-year pro.
9) Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams: The former No. 1 overall pick has grown into a solid QB1 for the Rams, but after a December mini-slump, Sean McVay has to wonder if Goff is capable of carrying the offense on his own. Although the Rams' QB1 has shown in recent weeks (68 percent completion rate, 8.3 yards per attempt, 5:0 TD-INT ratio and 126.7 passer rating on 50 attempts in Weeks 16-17) that he might be most effective on a pitch count with the offense propelled by the running game, the memory of a disappointing showing on Wild Card Weekend last year could shake the confidence of the creative play-caller heading into the tournament.
10) Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys: No. 4 heads into the playoffs facing intense pressure and scrutiny as the Cowboys' QB1 despite leading the team to the playoffs for the second time in his three-year tenure. Skeptics question whether Prescott is a good enough passer to lead the Cowboys on a deep postseason run, but he has posted a passer rating of at least 100.0 in five of his last six starts with a 11:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. With Prescott also engineering the most game-winning drives (14) of any quarterback since 2016, the Cowboys' QB1 might be the sleeper of the bunch.
11) Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens: There's no denying No. 8's impact on the Ravens' offense since stepping in as their QB1. Jackson has keyed a rushing attack that's averaged 229.6 yards on an astonishing 45.1 attempts since he took over in Week 11. Although it is uncommon to see a quarterback average almost 80 rush yards per start, Jackson's explosiveness as a runner creates big-play opportunities for others on the ground. If he can complete a handful of passes, particularly play-action shots (deep balls), the rookie makes the Ravens the X-factor in the playoff field.
12) Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago Bears: No. 10 is the key to the Bears' Super Bowl hopes as a dynamic dual-threat quarterback with explosive playmaking potential. However, Trubisky's inconsistencies as a passer will prompt defenses to put the game on the young quarterback's shoulders. Although Matt Nagy will script out a plan that features a handful of layups and gimmes for his QB1, Trubisky will have to make some big-time throws in critical situations (third down/red zone) for the Bears to emerge as champions.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) Is Dak Prescott the next Russell Wilson? When the Dallas Cowboys play the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday, you'll be watching Dak Prescott go head-to-head with the player he could become five years from now. That might sound like a bit of a stretch comparing No. 4 to a four-time Pro Bowler with a Super Bowl win on his resume, but the third-year pro is very much on track to follow Russell Wilson's blueprint as a franchise quarterback.
Don't believe me? Just look at Prescott's numbers compared to Wilson's through the first three years of their respective careers:
Prescott: 10,876 passing yards, 944 rushing yards, 85 total touchdowns (67 pass; 18 rush), 39 giveaways (25 interceptions; 13 fumbles), 113 sacks taken; 96.0 passer rating; 32-16 won/loss
Wilson: 9,950 passing yards, 1,877 rushing yards, 83 total touchdowns (72 pass; 11 rush), 34 giveaways (26 interceptions; 8 fumbles), 119 sacks taken; 98.6 passer rating; 36-12 won/loss
During Wilson's first the years in the league, the Seahawks leaned on a marquee running back (Marshawn Lynch) and a star-studded defense that routinely kept opponents out of the end zone. You don't need to squint to see Dak Prescott and the Cowboys following the same approach. Dallas has a premier running back (Ezekiel Elliott) in place and an emerging defense comprised of a pack of young wolves excelling in a stifling scheme. With the team returning to their blue-collar roots as a ball-control squad built on physicality and a complementary play-action attack, Prescott is playing a managerial role as Wilson did for the 'Hawks during their Super Bowl run.
That's why the skeptics and naysayers should chill when questioning Prescott's chances of growing into a franchise quarterback. Sure, he's not quite ready to win games as a consistent 300-yard passer, but there are plenty of quarterbacks who've grown from game managers to playmakers in this league. Just look at the growth of Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger from the early stages of their careers. Each served as a game manager for teams built around a stout defense and a steady running game, before becoming the engines of their respective squads.
Prescott has certainly shown flashes of being able to put a game on his shoulders, particularly in late-game situations. He has directed 14 game-winning drives over the past three seasons -- most in the NFL and five more than Wilson. In addition, Prescott has made enough throws in key moments to earn the respect of his teammates and coaches as a big-time player.
With that in mind, the Cowboys can certainly evolve their offense to help Prescott maximize his potential as a playmaker. As a sturdy dual-threat playmaker at Mississippi State, he excelled at making timely throws from the pocket while also picking up key first downs on a variety of read-option and designed quarterback runs. The Cowboys have sprinkled in some of those plays but they could certainly utilize more quarterback running plays, particularly in third-down and red-zone situations. This is how the Seahawks used Wilson during his early years and they continue to use him as a spot runner as he's gotten older.
In addition, the Cowboys need to incorporate more vertical throws into their passing attack to take advantage of Prescott's arm strength and range. These down-field opportunities should be there for the taking off of play-action, as defenses have to respect Elliot's game-changing ability at all times. Also, as Amari Cooper becomes more comfortable in his role as the Cowboys' WR1, he and Prescott should be able to consistently produce more splash plays -- and they can do so without Prescott having to throw the ball more than 30 times a game.
Wilson evolved into an elite QB1 under a similar plan. There's no reason why Prescott can follow the blueprint to become a Tier 1 player at his position.
2) Falcons' coaching staff shake-up: I will never begrudge a head coach for taking ownership of his coaching fate, but I'm a little surprised Dan Quinn made sweeping changes to his staff after suffering his first losing season. Although the writing was on the wall for offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who took over the NFL's No. 1 scoring offense only to see the unit rank 15th in 2017 and 10th this season, I'm surprised the Quinn dismissed Marquand Manuel as his defensive coordinator.
The 39-year-old was viewed as a rising star in the business after quickly climbing up the coaching ladder following a solid eight-year career as a strong safety for six NFL teams. Manuel was not only instrumental in developing the Falcons' defensive backs since joining the team in 2015, but he was regarded as an outstanding teacher and communicator. In 2017, his first year as defensive coordinator, he guided the Falcons' defense to a top-10 finish in both scoring defense (8th) and total defense (9th) -- the first time the Falcons had achieved that feat since 1998. While the 2018 campaign was certainly a disappointment, a number of injuries to several key starters certainly played a role in the unit's decline.
"More than anything I just really wanted to make sure the style and attitude that we want to play defensively -- I really enjoy that part of it and wanted to be more involved in that way," Quinn said. "I thought that was the appropriate way to say, 'Hey, if I'm going to be the one calling [the plays], we certainly want to give [Manuel] the right to do that [with another team].' "
That said, I can understand why Quinn would prefer to control the defense himself. During his two-year stint as the Seahawks defensive coordinator (2013-14), Seattle's unit ranked first in total yards allowed (270.4 yards per game), scoring defense (15.2 points per game), passing defense (178.8 pass yards per game) and rush defense (91.6 rush yards per game), and helped guide the team to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances.
Quinn previously served as the Falcons' de facto defensive coordinator when he took over play-calling duties for former coordinator Richard Smith near the end of 2016. He's taking the play card again with mounting pressure on his shoulders.
"He wants to take back control of his squad," said the former NFL defensive coordinator from the opening section of this piece. "If Quinn is going to go down, he would rather control his own fate instead of putting it in the hands of others. Don't forget, he saw his mentor (Pete Carroll) do the same thing in Seattle and have success. He wants to have a bigger say in how his defense plays."
If Quinn stays true to his roots, he is going to get the Falcons back to playing more zone coverage, particularly Cover-3, with his defenders' eyes on the ball. He will instruct his defenders to take away the deep ball and focus on "hit, run and cover" in the back end.
"The Falcons were playing more man-to-man coverage than before," said the former NFL defensive coordinator. "They were more aggressive but that left them vulnerable to deep balls. Quinn will be a little more conservative and focus on keeping the ball in front of the defense. ... They will focus on running to the ball and creating turnovers. He will get them back to the basics because that's what he believes in."
Time will tell whether the coaching overhaul will lead to more wins in 2019, but I can't fault Quinn for taking steps to have more control over his future.