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:
But first, a look at the NFL's most loaded teams when it comes to top-end talent ...
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When Detroit Lions safety Glover Quin suggested last Sunday that the Cleveland Browns "probably" have better athletes than 25 of the NFL's 32 teams, the football world naturally met his comments with quizzical looks. How could a team with an 0-9 record have superior athletes than two-thirds of the league?
While I'm not going to question Quin's credentials as an evaluator, I will point out that there is a big difference between athleticism and actual playing ability in the evaluation process. Athleticism alludes to a player's combination of size, speed, quickness and agility, while playing ability details a guy's skills, performance and production. While nobody minds having high-end athletes at each position, the overwhelming majority of coaches want players on their rosters. Simply put, they want guys with the capacity to make enough plays within the system to impact the game.
When I worked as a scout for the Carolina Panthers, I learned from the senior members of the front office that it takes eight to 10 "blue-chip" players to field a championship roster. Those "blues" are best described as Pro Bowl-caliber guys who rank among the top-10 players at their respective positions. Ideally, you would reserve a blue grade for a player who ranks as one of the five best at his spot, but the variances in systems and schemes force teams to tweak the grading the scale. It's an inexact science, but a nice way to kind of take stock of position groups and teams as a whole.
As I sat back and reflected on Quin's remarks, I thought that this would be the perfect time to rank the top 10 teams based on their best players. This is obviously a subjective exercise. And again, I'm not ranking the full 53-man roster here -- just the top-end talent. Here's my list:
1) JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
The Jaguars have finally parlayed a decade's worth of top-10 picks into the league's most talented roster. The team has not only loaded up on defensive playmakers in the draft, but they've added some dynamic contributors through free agency. With defenders comprising the overwhelming majority of players on their blue list, it's not surprising the Jaguars' D is spearheading a current playoff team.
2) PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
The Eagles have taken a number of calculated risks to build a championship-caliber roster -- and it's working like a charm, with Philadelphia owning the league's best record (8-1). The Eagles have A-level players at most of the marquee spots, starting with their dynamic QB1 and their trench warriors on both sides of the ball. With Ajayi and Blount ranking as elite playmakers in their respective roles, the Eagles the right kind of weaponry to help their young franchise quarterback lead them to the winner's circle.
3) MINNESOTA VIKINGS
The Vikings are yet another defense-led squad with the kind of talent to overcome a question mark at QB and hoist the trophy at the end of the season. Mike Zimmer's defensive crew features at least two disruptive playmakers on every level, which elevates the overall play of the group.
4) SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
The Seahawks have mastered the art of "draft and develop" during the Pete Carroll/John Schneider era, as Seattle has uncovered hidden gems in the draft who have become diamond-level players. But the Seahawks have also helped a handful of castoffs rediscover their game in the Pacific Northwest. Although the defense is aging and showing some signs of decline, the 'Hawks remain a viable contender due to their overall talent on that side of the ball.
5) PITTSBURGH STEELERS
The Steelers have fielded one of the NFL's most explosive offenses over the past few years, thanks to a transcendent trio and fine line play. The Ben-Bell-Brown combination is lethal on the perimeter, but the team's interior blockers are just as deadly at the point of attack. On defense, Shazier and Heyward anchor a rejuvenated unit that's beginning to flex its muscles as one of the league's best.
6) NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
The Saints' exceptional 2017 draft class has elevated the talent, playmaking and athleticism on the roster. Most importantly, the youngsters have shored up the team's biggest voids and given Sean Payton's squad a chance to compete at a level few expected prior to the season. With Brees capable of winning any "one and done" shootout on the strength of his right arm, New Orleans' revamped supporting cast is good enough to get No. 9 a second ring.
7) DALLAS COWBOYS
Elliott's six-game absence could derail the Cowboys' title hopes, but there's a chance Jerry Jones' squad still makes a run at a postseason berth, based on the talent in the trenches. Normally, the offensive line takes center stage when discussing the Cowboys' wealth of riches up front, but the D-Line is emerging as quite a force in 2017. Lawrence and Irving are playing like all-stars at the point of attack, exhibiting the kind of pass-rush ability and sack production that leads to late-season success.
8) CAROLINA PANTHERS
Say what you want about Newton's shortcomings as a passer -- he remains an elite-level playmaker in this league due to his remarkable scoring prowess as a dual-threat terror. Cam adds a dimension to the offense with his running skills, which makes McCaffrey and Olsen (when healthy) more dangerous as complementary weapons in the passing game. On defense, Kuechly and Davis are a devastating wrecking crew behind Short. They are the lynchpins to a unit that's far more aggressive and disruptive under first-year defensive coordinator Steve Wilks.
9) ATLANTA FALCONS
The Falcons have experienced a bit of a Super Bowl hangover this season, but the talent remains in place to make another push for the title. Although Ryan and Jones aren't necessarily playing their best in 2017, they're still dangerous playmakers capable of sparking a January run with their individual and collective talents. Defensively, Beasley and Neal are bright spots on a young, athletic defense that's starting to come into its own in Marquand Manuel's first season as a defensive play caller.
10) KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Andy Reid's creativity has been unleashed with a roster that features versatile playmakers on both sides of the ball. Smith has found his groove as the director of a spread-like offense that showcases the unique talents of Hill and Kelce on the perimeter, as well as Hunt in a variety of ways. On defense, Peters headlines a unit that features a dominant pass rusher and disruptive interior defender.
BILLS' QUARTERBACK CHANGE: How'll Peterman fit in this offense?
It's uncommon for a team in the thick of a playoff race to suddenly swap out its QB1, but the Buffalo Bills made the surprising decision to bench starter Tyrod Taylor in favor of Nathan Peterman ahead of this week's battle with the Los Angeles Chargers. Although I've been around the NFL long enough to know that anything can happen in this business, I was absolutely shocked Buffalo sat down a veteran with a 10:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, 91.4 passer rating and dynamic running skills for a rookie fifth-rounder with minimal game experience.
Granted, Taylor isn't a classic pocket passer with a game ideally suited for a traditional offense, but he is an electric dual-threat playmaker with 1,385 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns as the team's starter over the past two-and-a-half seasons. The seventh-year pro complemented those numbers in Buffalo with 7,742 passing yards on the strength of a 63.0 percent completion rate and a 93.5 passer rating. As one of only three quarterbacks with 45-plus passing touchdowns and 10-plus rushing touchdowns since 2015 (along with Cam Newton and Kirk Cousins), Taylor was unquestionably the Bills' No. 1 playmaker on offense.
To be fair, it is hard to ignore the team's underwhelming pass numbers under Taylor's direction. The Bills currently rank 30th in pass offense (180.4 yards per game), 23rd in passing yards per attempt (6.7) and 24th in passing touchdowns (11). Not to mention, the aerial attack has produced just 25 completions of 20-plus yard this season, which ranks 22nd in the league.
With Taylor's contract calling for a $6 million roster bonus and a $10 base salary in 2018, the Bills decided to pull the plug on the veteran and give their first-year QB a chance to prove his worth. It seems Taylor isn't in the organization's long-term plans and the Bills want to see what they have in their young backup, with the 2018 draft class likely to feature a number of intriguing options at the position.
Peterman, the 171st overall pick this past April, is a classic pocket passer with C+ arm talent. Although he lacks the cannon to push the ball to every area of the field, he is a rhythm passer adept at getting the ball "out and up" quickly on deep throws. As a "connect the dots" passer from the pocket, Peterman is at his best working the short and intermediate areas of the field. Peterman's ability to rapidly work through progressions -- and get to his second or third option -- made him an effective passer at Pitt. He completed 61.1 percent of his passes and posted a 47:15 TD-to-INT ratio while averaging 8.3 yards per attempt during his two-year stint as a starter. Those numbers were complemented by the 518 rushing yards and three rushing scores Peterman amassed while directing Panthers' unique pro-style offense, which featured a lot of misdirection action (jet sweep) and option plays in the backfield. Although he isn't an A-level athlete or an explosive dual-threat playmaker, Peterman has enough mobility and movement skills to be a competent runner on zone-read plays and some designed quarterback runs.
As a pro, Peterman played well enough in the preseason to earn the backup job coming out of camp. He completed 54.4 percent of his passes, posted a 75.6 passer rating and finished the exhibition season with one touchdown and zero picks. Peterman effectively worked the ball over the middle of the field on an assortment of seams, quicks and checkdowns. He didn't hesitate to get the ball out of his hands and his quick processing skills allowed the offense to stay on schedule when receivers won on the outside. For a rookie quarterback, that's significant because it shows his coaches he understands where to go with the ball, which is a big part of playing the position successfully at the NFL level.
During limited relief work against the Saints last Sunday, Peterman showed promise. In a little over four minutes of action, he completed seven of 10 passes for 79 yards and a score. Despite running up those numbers in garbage time against soft coverage, Peterman was decisive and efficient getting the ball to the team's playmakers. He showed a solid grasp of the offense and the progressions in the passing game, which is essential to moving the ball consistently against quality defenses.
"I've been impressed with Nate and his maturity at a very early point in his career," Bills head coach Sean McDermott said at a press conference announcing the QB change. "He has certainly worked hard. ... The other day, we [saw] some good things, albeit it was a small sample size in a regular season. That said, he has a lot of work to do, just like we all do.
"Nate's come in, he's handled himself well. He handled himself well in the game the other day. He's poised, he's mature beyond his years, he's worked hard. ... The success that he's had to this point, he's ready. I wouldn't make this move if I didn't think that he was ready."
Peterman could indeed be ready, generally speaking, but I have concerns about a rookie quarterback at the helm of this offense. The newly minted starter has a more traditional game that will alter the way defenses attack the Bills and their 15th-ranked running game. Instead of assigning a defender to monitor the quarterback on zone-read plays, defensive coordinators will use the extra man to crowd the box and neutralize LeSean McCoy. When this plus-one approach is combined with man coverage on the outside, the Bills could face as many as nine defenders in the box on obvious run downs.
With that in mind, Peterman must be able to threaten opponents with the deep ball to keep the safeties from creeping near the line of scrimmage. If he is able to get the ball to Kelvin Benjamin or Jordan Matthews on a handful of vertical routes, defensive coordinators will pause a bit before condensing the field with the loaded boxes. Thus, the pressure is also on the Bills' receivers to win their one-on-one battles on the outside against press coverage. Considering the lack of speed and explosiveness Benjamin and Matthews bring to the table, Peterman's back-shoulder-fade game will need to be on point for Buffalo's offense to flourish.
Of course, Buffalo isn't the only team with serious quarterback questions swirling this week ...
VIKINGS' QB CONUNDRUM: Only a matter of time before Teddy's starting
Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer has guided his team to the top of the NFC North through the first 10 weeks of the season, but how he handles his quarterback situation could determine whether or not the Vikings will remain in contention down the stretch. The grizzled coaching veteran has to decide if he should continue to ride a perennial QB2 in the midst of a hot streak or hand the reins over to the team's former franchise quarterback who is just working his way back from an injury that threatened to end his career.
In Case Keenum, Zimmer has an experienced journeyman who has seemingly found his groove in the Vikings' system. In eight games, the sixth-year pro has completed 64.9 percent of his passes for 1,914 yards, posting an 11:5 TD-to-INT ratio and a 92.6 passer rating. Those numbers are certainly solid for a starting quarterback, but they are also well above the production Keenum has posted for most of his career. Prior to this season, Keenum had never posted a completion rate above 60.9 or a passer rating in the 90s. Thus, we are seeing him play his best football during this mini-stint as a starter.
Remember, this is the same guy who had 13 turnovers and a 9:11 TD-to-INT ratio a season ago as the Los Angeles Rams' QB1, before giving way to Jared Goff. While I refuse to completely blame him for the Rams' offensive ineptitude in 2016, I do believe his limitations show up the more that he plays. As a smallish quarterback (listed as 6-foot-1, 215 pounds) with average arm strength and an inconsistent game, Keenum is prone to turning the ball over against quick defenses. He lacks the zip and velocity to make laser-like throws to the perimeter, and his gunslinger mentality exceeds his talent. Thus, he needs to be surrounded by A-level playmakers, to elevate his play while masking his deficiencies. Dynamic pass catchers will come down with the 50-50 balls he's prone to throwing up and his stat sheet won't reflect the poor decisions as a result.
Studying the Vikings' offense over the past few weeks, it's apparent that Minnesota's receivers -- specifically, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen -- are carrying the team's QB2. These two have played like the best 1-2 punch at the position today, and their collective playmaking ability has helped Keenum look like a star. Granted, that's what premier receivers are expected to do when a backup comes into the game, but it's important to remember Keenum is a "trailer" being carried by the Vikings' best players. (Quarterbacks are categorized as "trucks" or "trailers" in personnel terms. They either carry the team to the winner's circle or the team carries them.)
"Backup quarterbacks can play well for a short stretch, but at some point, they're going to be who they've always been," a former NFL head coach told me. "When teams get more film on them, they begin to expose their shortcomings and you rediscover why they've always been backups."
That's why it's only a matter of time before the Vikings hand the ball to Teddy Bridgewater as the starter. The fourth-year pro was the team's unquestioned franchise quarterback prior to his gruesome injury, and despite his mediocre career stats (64.9 percent completion rate, 28:21 TD-to-INT ratio, 87.0 passer rating), he will give the Vikings the best chance to win down the stretch. Sure, he will need to shake off the rust and rediscover his rhythm in the pocket, but the former first-round pick is more talented than the team's current starter. And Minnesota's current system is better suited for Bridgewater's game.
Looking at how the Vikings have game planned with Sam Bradford and Keenum at the helm, it is easy to envision the team using similar scripts to help Bridgewater succeed. With Bradford in place, the team played small ball, with the game plan featuring a ton of high-percentage short and intermediate concepts from spread formations. This allowed Bradford to pick apart defenses on an assortment of "catch, rock and fire" throws from the shotgun. In addition, the quick-rhythm concepts were a mix of West Coast offense principles and spread offense concepts that fit the eye of the quarterback. With Bradford topping the 70 percent completion mark in this scheme, it is easy to envision Bridgewater thriving in a system that'll showcases his talents as an accurate passer.
Keenum has succeeded in the same system, but the emphasis has been tweaked to feature more play-action passes. He has enlisted some form of run-action fake on 28.1 percent of his throws, according to Pro Football Focus. Most importantly, he has completed 72.6 percent of his throws off play-action for 792 yards and four scores. Considering how Keenum has struggled with his accuracy and ball placement while compiling those numbers, the Vikings would likely get even more production from the position with a more accurate passer at the helm.
In the end, Zimmer has to do what's best for the team in the short term, while also thinking about the future. The Vikings are in the middle of a five-game winning streak with a QB2 who's playing out of his mind. Keenum will eventually fall back to the median. That said, I don't blame Zimmer for riding the hot hand as long as he can. He just needs to know when to go to the bullpen to get the closer.