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:
-- Five value plays in free agency.
But first, deciding how high Saquon Barkley should be drafted ...
In a league where executives pride themselves in taking the "BPA" (best player available) on draft day, the decision to select the Penn State star should be a no-brainer for the team that's on the clock when the draft opens.
"Barkley's special," an AFC personnel executive told me. "He checks off all of the boxes as a player, and he is an exceptional character kid. It's hard to find a hole in his game.
"He has to go No. 1."
This is a sentiment that was expressed to me at the NFL Scouting Combine by several evaluators and coaches familiar with Barkley and his game. They raved about his versatility and playmaking skills as a hybrid running back and gushed about his character.
"Barkley is going to change the standard for running backs coming into the league," an AFC running backs coach said. "He has every single trait that you want in a player. He's a terrific playmaker with a versatile game. Plus, he is a great kid with outstanding character. ... He's about as perfect as they come at the position."
After hearing so many of my scouting colleagues and coaching buddies throw verbal bouquets on Barkley, it is pretty obvious that he is a face-of-the-franchise type of player with the name and game to handle the pressure of being the No. 1 overall pick. He is a "4-P" prospect, possessing the production (5,000-plus scrimmage yards and 51 total touchdowns in three seasons at Penn State), performance (dynamic runner-receiver-returner with explosive playmaking ability), prototypical traits (6-foot, 233 pounds with 4.40 40 speed and a 41-inch vertical) and personal character to validate his candidacy as the top pick in the draft.
When you're picking a player at the top of the draft, you're hoping to land a transcendent star with a game that elevates the franchise. Although we typically reserve that spot for a quarterback, a pass rusher or an offensive tackle, based on the impact that players at those positions have on the passing game, the running back remains a valuable piece of the offensive puzzle, particularly when it comes to RBs with versatility and exemplary character.
"Positions are just letters of the alphabet, but Hall of Famers are human beings," one GM told NFL.com's Kimberly Jones in Indianapolis. "Every draft is about the human being. If you think that human being is special, take him at 1. Don't get hung up on the position."
To that point, Barkley is a special player with the potential to impact the game like perennial Pro Bowl RB Le'Veon Bell. You know that guy: The one who's averaged 129.0 scrimmage yards per game -- the most of any player in their first five seasons in NFL history -- as an RB1/WR2 for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
While I'm not suggesting Barkley and Bell are similar stylistically, I do believe the Penn State star possesses the versatility, explosiveness and playmaking ability to take over the game as a runner-receiver. The 233-pound running back can grind it out between the tackles and on the edge while also delivering splash plays as a dynamic route runner and pass catcher from the backfield, in the slot or out wide. In a league where points matter, Barkley scores touchdowns and creates scoring opportunities for others when he's on the field. That's important to remember when we dismiss the idea of drafting running backs No. 1.
I know detractors will quickly cite Kareem Hunt (a third-round pick last year who led the NFL in rushing as a rookie) and Alvin Kamara (a third-round pick who produced 1,554 scrimmage yards) as examples of why teams don't need to spend a top pick on a running back, but I would counter that argument by pointing out the impact Ezekiel Elliott (drafted fourth overall by the Cowboys in 2016), Leonard Fournette (fourth overall by the Jaguars in 2017) and Todd Gurley (10th overall by the Rams in 2015) have had on their respective squads. Look at how they immediately became the most productive playmakers on their teams, and how their unique talents have allowed their teams to play around the limitations of the QB1.
Remember, there have been serious concerns about each of those team's quarterbacks (Dak Prescott in Dallas, Blake Bortles in Jacksonville and Jared Goff in Los Angeles), yet the running backs are able to steady the offense as multi-faceted workhorses. Thus, the positional argument is moot, particularly when the running back is clearly the MVP of the offense.
That brings me to the 2018 draft class and the viable contenders for the No. 1 spot, particularly the quarterbacks. There isn't a sure-fire franchise quarterback in the group, and it's nearly impossible to suggest that any of the throwers are safer bets than Barkley.
Think about it this way: If Barkley absolutely bombs as a runner (hard to imagine), he is still a dynamic pass catcher capable of snagging 100 balls as a big-bodied weapon out of the backfield. At a time when running backs are being featured as pass catchers (14 running backs had at least 50 receptions in 2017), Barkley's skills as a pass catcher make him a can't-miss prospect at the position, barring injury.
Looking at the Cleveland Browns and considering why they have to take Barkley, it really comes down to acquiring as many blue-chip prospects as possible. Sure, we can talk ourselves into believing quarterbacks Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield are elite players capable of single-handedly reversing the team's fortunes, but we actually know Barkley can make life easier for every skill player in a Browns uniform while also alleviating the burden on any QB1 who steps into the lineup.
Plus, the Browns have the No. 4 overall pick, so they're assured of the chance to get one of the top quarterbacks at that spot. If the Browns have similar grades on the Tier 1 quarterbacks, they should take Barkley at No. 1 (given the bigger talent gap between the No. 1 RB and the others) and scoop up the quarterback with their next selection.
If I'm being completely honest about the situation, I believe the Browns would be better served to sign a veteran quarterback, ignore adding a young signal-caller altogether in Round 1 and add more blue-chip players to the roster to improve the overall team (UPDATE: The Browns are trading for Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Friday). As a wise NFL executive told me, "You can never go wrong taking good players. If you keep adding good players, the team will ultimately improve and you will eventually get to where you want to go."
In baseball terms, you can win a lot of games hitting singles and doubles instead of waiting for the home run. Barkley is a line-drive shot in the gap with the potential to go from a two-bagger to a triple if he plays to his potential. In a business where it is impossible to get certainty, I would bank on a prospect who checks off every conceivable box as a potential franchise player.
RAMS' SECONDARY ADDITIONS: This unit is now the NFL's best
No disrespect to the talented quintet in Jacksonville, but the secondary for #MobSquad is downright scary, with Peters, Talib and Shields joining safeties Lamarcus Joyner and John Johnson to form a five-man crew that can completely shut down the passing game on the perimeter. While some will dismiss that talk as me gushing over a pair of acquisitions that seemingly came out of the blue, a quick look at the numbers suggests that the Rams' secondary is legitimately the best unit in the league, particularly with Peters and Talib on the island.
In the wake of the Talib trade, NFL Research dug up the top five cornerbacks in passer rating allowed since 2015 (min. 230 targets) -- Peters ranked first at 60.7, while Talib placed fifth at 68.0. In addition, Peters leads the NFL in interceptions (19) and passes defensed (55) during that span, which covers his three years in the league. While the skeptics and naysayers chalk up the 25-year-old's takeaway prowess to wild gambles and guesses, Peters is a calculated risk-taker with an outstanding feel for route recognition.
"Peters is a lot smarter than people think," a Chiefs assistant coach told me. "He puts a lot of time into his preparation. He might act nonchalant about it, but he studies the tape and he makes a lot of plays because he knows what to expect.
"His success as a young player isn't by accident."
Not to be outdone, Talib leads all active players with 10 career pick-sixes, and his 34 interceptions are the second-most in the league since 2008 (his rookie season). Although the five-time Pro Bowler's game has slipped a tad in recent years, he is still a turnover machine with a knack for jumping routes in his area. Talib is one of the best "clue" corners (a defender who plays with vision on the QB and WRs to recognize and anticipate routes) in the game and his instincts have been refined through years of experience on the island. With Wade Phillips keenly aware of Talib's game and his potential deficiencies -- remember, they spent the 2015 and '16 seasons together in Denver -- the veteran corner can comfortably slide into a CB2 role, with Peters penciled in as the top dog at corner.
Shields gives the team another playmaker to put on the field as a nickel or dime corner. Despite missing almost two seasons of action due to a string of concussions, Shields was quite a player over the first six seasons of his career, having won a Super Bowl as a rookie and made the Pro Bowl in 2014. If the 30-year-old can return to anywhere near that level as a player, the Rams will have three ball magnets on the field in their sub-package. In a division where the quarterback play is rapidly improving, the presence of a playmaking threesome at corner could be the deciding factor in the NFC West race.
From a schematic standpoint, the Rams will continue to feature man-coverage tactics under Phillips, but we could see the corners spend more time using off technique. As clue corners, Peters and Talib are at their best when they are able to sit back at 8 or 9 yards and read the quarterback. They will key the quarterback's drop to get an early jump on quick passes before turning their attention to multiple receivers in their area to diagnose the route combination. With a fierce, Aaron Donald-led pass rush generating pressure on the passer, the combination of gambling and guessing could lead to a bushel basket of turnover treats for the Rams.
That's why I'm pushing my chips to the middle of the table when suggesting the #MobSquad has the No. 1 secondary in football, with Peters and Aqib suddenly joining forces in Los Angeles. The duo is so good at taking the ball way and blanketing receivers that quarterbacks will be forced to throw more passes between the hashes, where Joyner and Co. can swipe balls off tips and overthrows in congested areas. Given how the Rams' offense is already capable of lighting up scoreboards across the league, the extra possessions generated from the league's top secondary could pave the way for the team to make a trip to Super Bowl LIII.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) Five players who could provide great value in free agency: The NFL Scouting Combine was just the center of the football universe, with teams looking for potential contributors in the 2018 draft class. But the upcoming free agency period (teams can begin negotiating with players on March 12 and start signing them on March 14) has evaluators casting their eyes toward the open market. Beyond the marquee names available (starting with Kirk Cousins), astute executives are digging through the bargain bin to see if they can find some value-priced options.
Given some time to assess the list of the top 101 free agents of 2018 compiled by Gregg Rosenthal and Chris Wesseling, I've identified five veterans who could provide great bang for the buck at (relatively) discounted rates:
» Sammy Watkins, WR: The fifth-year pro has been viewed as a disappointment after entering the NFL as the fourth overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, but a closer examination of his career suggests he could be a dynamite playmaker in the right system under a creative play-caller. Despite having only one 1,000-yard season under his belt (2015 with the Bills), Watkins is an explosive playmaker with a robust yards-per-catch average (15.9) and 25 career TD receptions in 52 career games. Although the jury is still out as to whether he's a true No. 1 receiver, Watkins can add a vertical dimension to any offense as a designated home-run threat on the perimeter.
» Malcolm Butler, CB: Ignore the scuttlebutt that tarnished the Pro Bowler's professional reputation following his surprise benching by the Patriots for Super Bowl LII. Instead, focus on Butler's ascension from undrafted free agent to Pro Bowl-caliber playmaker over four seasons. Butler was not only one of the best cover corners in the league in 2015 and '16, but he played at an elite level as a CB1 frequently assigned to the opponent's top receiver. In a league where shutdown corners are hard to find, teams could snag one in Butler at a discount following a sub-par season that's made some forget his greatness on the island.
» Jerick McKinnon, RB: It might be hard for some veteran running backs to get their money in a market that's going be influenced by a deep and talented draft class, but McKinnon has a chance to bust open the piggy bank as a combo back with fine skills as a runner-receiver. The 5-foot-9, 205-pounder nearly amassed 1,000 scrimmage yards (570 rush yards, 421 receiving yards) and scored five total touchdowns as the Vikings' change-of-pace back in 2017. McKinnon's versatility and explosiveness could make him an enticing option as an RB2 in a rotation system.
» Teddy Bridgewater, QB:A nasty knee injury suffered in August of 2016 and a lengthy recovery kept No. 5 on the sidelines for the past two seasons, but teams looking for a "bridge" quarterback with long-term potential could be attracted to the veteran's intangibles, managerial skills and winning pedigree (17-11 record as a starter in 2014 and '15). Bridgewater is an efficient passer adept at carving up defenses as a "dink and dunk" tosser. Although his limited deep-ball range makes him a questionable fit in a vertical offense, he could be an ideal game manager for a team in need of a veteran quarterback who knows how to play winning football.
» Tre Boston, S: Every defense must have a traffic cop with superb ball skills and leadership ability in the post. Boston quietly elevated the play of the Los Angeles Chargers' defense with his outstanding communication skills and playmaking ability. The veteran snagged five interceptions and added spice to a defense that needed some swagger in the back end. With several teams looking to remake their secondary by adding veteran leaders with playmaking skills, Boston could be a hot commodity when free agency opens up.
2) Who is DeMarcus Lawrence? That's the mega-million-dollar question the Dallas Cowboys have been wrestling with. The soon-to-be 26-year-old pass-rushing specialist is coming off a spectacular season in which he tallied 14.5 sacks and four forced fumbles as a destructive playmaker off the edge. Instead of letting the one-time Pro Bowler hit the market as one of the hottest free agents available, the Cowboysused the franchise tag to keep him around for at least another season. While I understand why some believe Dallas should immediately lock up a young, emerging pass rusher on a long-term deal -- something the franchise can still do this offseason -- I think it'd be wise to let Lawrence play on the tag to see if he can become a more consistent force as a No. 1 pass rusher. If he records 10-plus sacks again and shows dominant flashes, I would happily toss out a multi-year contract to retain his services as one of the young stars on defense.
To this point, the fifth-year pro has been an inconsistent playmaker for most of his tenure, and his sensational Pro Bowl campaign in 2017 can't erase the questions that surround his game. From 2014 to 2016, Lawrence started just 16 games over three seasons, recording a total of nine sacks, 18 QB hits and two forced fumbles. In addition, he missed the first four games of the 2016 season while serving a four-game suspension for a violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy. With Lawrence also missing time with various injuries (broken foot and two back surgeries), I think it'd be sensible to force No. 90 to play on a prove-it deal.
Despite finishing tied for second in the NFL in sacks last season, the Pro Bowler is far from a sure thing as a No. 1 rusher. He tallied 10.5 sacks during the first seven games of the season, but mustered just four QB takedowns the rest of the way. Granted, sacks tend to come in bunches for even the top pass rushers, but the elite sack artists find ways to make plays when necessary.
"It takes some time to graduate as a pass rusher," said four-time All-Pro and Cowboys all-time sack leader DeMarcus Ware on NFL Network's "Total Access." "But when you graduate, which he has done with 14.5 sacks, it comes with a lot of responsibility. ... When you have the bulls-eye on you and you get double-teamed, you have to be able to make plays. No matter what the situation is."
That's why Lawrence must show the Cowboys that he can be a "closer" as a passer rusher. In baseball terms, the team's top pass rusher should be a Mariano Rivera-like show-stopper with a signature pitch that's impossible to hit in the ninth inning. Studying Lawrence's game, he certainly has a couple of pitches in his repertoire that make him hard to contain (inside arm move and bull rush), but his late-season disappearance is a bit of a concern for a No. 1 rusher. The Pro Bowl defender couldn't get on the board against opponents' double-team and chip ploys. Considering how he struggled against those tactics, Lawrence has some work to do to before he warrants the kind of big-money deal that signals his entrance to the VIP club at the position.
"I feel like they have given me the opportunity to really break the bank next year," Lawrence told NFL Network's Jane Slater earlier this week.
He's right. Now he has to prove that he's worthy of being paid like an elite playmaker at the position by providing a season full of sacks and splash plays in key moments.
3) What Michael Bennett brings to Philly. The Philadelphia Eagles' surprising acquisition of three-time Pro Bowl DE Michael Bennett from the Seahawks is another case of the rich getting richer. The defending Super Bowl champions not only acquired a veteran pass rusher with 54 career sacks and eight forced fumbles, but they added another closer to a lineup that features a host of disruptive defenders along the defensive line.
As a versatile player capable of getting home off the edges or up the gut as a situational pass-rushing defensive tackle, Bennett gives the Eagles' D-line rotation more depth and some insurance against some impending departures via trade, releases or free agency. This is particularly interesting with Brandon Grahamchirping about a new deal, DT Beau Allen hitting free agency and DE Vinny Curry viewed as a possible salary-cap casualty.
"This is a great pickup for the Eagles," an AFC personnel executive told me. "He can fill the roles occupied by Vinny Curry or Chris Long and give them some insurance against a Brandon Graham contract squabble. On the field, Bennett gives the Eagles another rusher that they can use to attack the quarterback in waves. That's part of [Eagles GM Howie Roseman's] approach. They want to roll rushers in and out to wear you down. That's how they rolled through the NFC East on the way to the Super Bowl, and now they have even more ammunition to continue with that approach."
Looking at the possibilities, the Eagles could field the scariest pass rush in the league on third-down situations. Bennett and Fletcher Cox could align on the inside, with Derek Barnett and Graham hunting off the edges. With each rusher capable of winning his one-on-one matchup at the line of scrimmage, the Eagles are holding the "Big Joker" in a spades game with their superior personnel.
Remember, Bennett is one of the best closers in the game, as evidenced by his 22 total pressures (sacks, hurries and knockdowns) in the fourth quarter last season. He has a knack for slipping past blockers with a variety of hesitation, power and finesse moves. He's nearly impossible to stop when he can work a blocker's edges, particularly when he's aligned as a 3-technique (defensive tackle) on pass-rush downs. Flanked by Cox on the inside, Bennett should see more one-on-one chances with opponents poised to slide their protection in No. 91's direction.
Think about that: The Eagles have a pair of Pro Bowl-caliber rushers sitting over the top of the guards with a disruptive duo rushing from the edges. Considering how hard it is to deal with a single dominant rusher, Philly's explosive quartet could spearhead another run at the title.