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 top transcendent quarterback talents in the NFL right now ...
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As the 2020 NFL Draft draws closer, we will hear several executives, general managers and head coaches express their desire to find a franchise quarterback in this draft. Although most evaluators hope their QB1s are transcendent talents capable of thriving in any situation or circumstance, there are only a handful of signal-callers with the skills to perform at an exceptional level without an elite supporting cast or specific scheme.
That's why grades on quarterbacks differ despite what production and win-loss records might suggest. The transcendent superstars at the position erase organizational mistakes, coaching flaws and personnel shortcomings to excel in their current situations. These players can step in as the QB1 on Day 1 without the coaching staff needing to radically overhaul its playbook or dramatically upgrade its personnel on the perimeter or in the trenches. The transcendent quarterbacks in the league don't require much to succeed and their performances stand out in every situation.
With that in mind, here's my list of the top five transcendent QB talents in the NFL today:
Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs: The reigning Super Bowl MVP has captivated the football world with his off-platform throws and no-look passes, but the scouting community is smitten with his rare talent as an electrifying playmaker inside and outside of the pocket. Mahomes has shown exceptional athleticism, balance, body control and arm strength whipping the ball while moving to and away from his targets. In the pocket, No. 15 shows outstanding discipline, poise and awareness when he opts to pick apart a defense with an assortment of timely rhythm throws. Although some observers have suggested that Mahomes benefits from playing with a track team on the outside featuring All-Pro-caliber playmakers (Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce), we've seen the Chiefs' offense surge after he replaced Alex Smith as the team's QB1. The creative mind of Andy Reid has certainly helped enhance No. 15's game, but watching his work as a collegian under another NFL head coach (Kliff Kingsbury) suggests that he would thrive in any situation.
Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks: In the Pacific Northwest, the "Let Russ cook" movement is sparked by the 12s who appreciate Wilson's skills as a magical playmaker. Wilson has grown from unheralded game manager to an annual Pro Bowler during an eight-year run that's seen him chalk up eight winning seasons and seven playoff berths, including a Super Bowl win. Most impressively, he has done it by elevating an offense anchored by an assortment of cast-offs, misfits and undrafted free agents on the perimeter. Skeptics have argued that he's benefitted from playing with one of the best defenses in NFL history, but No. 3 has shown the football world his capacity to carry the team by compiling a 100:23 TD-to-INT ratio over the past three seasons while enduring a roster upheaval. Given the Seahawks' enduring commitment to the run-heavy offensive philosophy, Wilson will continue to earn high marks for his ability to do more with less in Seattle.
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers: The two-time MVP has relinquished his title as the unconquerable force at the position, but he remains one of the most feared players in the game. Rodgers' unique combination of athletic arrogance, A+ arm talent and dazzling improvisational skills drives defenders crazy, but it's his high football IQ that torments defensive coordinators. No. 12 has shown the football world his capacity to win games in a variety of different ways and his quick assimilation into Matt LaFleur's system showcased the diversity of his game. Although Rodgers has lost a little bit of the magic that put him in the G.O.A.T. conversation, he still dominates the game when needed.
Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans: The fourth-year pro has led the Texans to back-to-back division titles while displaying a remarkably polished game as a dual-threat quarterback. Watson has carved up defenses with surgical precision despite playing in an ill-fitting scheme that doesn't necessarily suit his talents. Although Bill O'Brien briefly installed a collegiate-like scheme that helped the Texans light up the scoreboard like a pinball machine during No. 4's rookie season, the two-time Pro Bowler has spent most of his time overcoming poor play calls and personnel gaffes (see: Duane Brown trade) from the Texans' football czar. With the team electing to trade away one of the NFL's best pass catchers in DeAndre Hopkins this offseason, the football world will get another chance to see Watson work miracles in H-Town.
Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions: You can roll your eyes and snicker at the sight of the 12th-year pro being included on this list, but the Lions' QB1 is a fantastic talent who rivals some of the elites at the position. Stafford has the arm talent to make every throw in the book, and he has a catalog of off-platform throws that is on par with the top guy on the list (Mahomes). While some point to Stafford's sub-.500 record (69-79-1) as an indictment of his game, No. 9 has shown clutch ability (28 fourth-quarterback comeback wins) and resilience while thriving without a premier running back or consistent running game throughout his career. Considering Stafford has also had to overcome the constant turnover of the coaching staff, it is not a surprise that the Lions' record hasn't matched their QB1's talent.
The 2019 NFL MVP is unquestionably one of the most electrifying playmakers to enter the league in years, and defensive coordinators are enduring sleepless nights while attempting to come up with game plans to slow down the Ravens' QB1. As an explosive athlete with dynamic running skills and playmaking ability, Jackson has taken the league by storm as an option quarterback with potent passing skills. That said, No. 8 isn't a perfect fit for every offense, and the Ravens' radical overhaul of their offensive system was needed to accommodate his unique set of skills. That certainly doesn't diminish Jackson's accomplishments, but it's why I don't currently view him as a transcendent quarterback. He's not a perfect fit for every system -- some traditional offensive coordinators would have a tough time crafting game plans that would fit his talents as a mobile playmaker.
RISK VS. REWARD: The stakes of drafting Tua Tagovailoa
With the 2020 NFL Draft less than two weeks away, there are several teams wrestling with the idea of using a high pick on Tua Tagovailoa. The former Alabama standout is clearly one of the top prospects in the 2020 class, but a laundry list of injuries, including a surgically repaired hip, has made him one of the most polarizing players in the draft.
Skeptics are not only worried about whether he's fully recovered from his severe hip injury (he says he's 100 percent), but about his overall durability after dealing with several other lower-body injuries (a pair of ankle surgeries and a knee procedure). They wonder if he's a Halley's Comet destined for a short career with brilliant flashes.
So let me ask a question: If Tua could deliver an Andrew Luck-like career, how many team executives would be satisfied with that type of production?
Luck played less than six full seasons in a seven-year career, missing nine games in 2014 and the entire 2017 season due to injury. But when Luck did suit up in blue and white, he earned four Pro Bowl trips, posted a 53-33 record (.616) and led the Colts to four playoff berths. And while Indy only made it to one AFC title game under Luck's stewardship, there's no doubt No. 12 was the primary reason the team won 11 games in each of his first three years in the league despite a flawed roster that featured few A-List performers on either side of the ball.
I think Tua could have that type of success, if not more, depending on where he lands. When I watch him play, I see a left-handed version of Drew Brees, someone who consistently demonstrates exceptional passing skills from the pocket. The 22-year-old is a dynamic rhythm thrower with a compact windup and release. Tagovailoa shows outstanding zip and velocity on his throws, but also displays a feathery touch when needed. He consistently paints the corners of the strike zone; receivers rarely have to adjust to his passes.
On RPOs, the 6-foot, 217-pounder might be the best that I've seen at executing the concept, particularly with the ball-handling and swift release. He displays remarkable snap-to-throw quickness and his overall twitchiness jumps off the screen when studying the tape.
As a traditional dropback passer, Tagovailoa plays like it's a pitch-and-catch session on an open field -- the ball rarely hits the ground. When he's unable to throw on time, he displays outstanding poise, awareness and movement skills scooting around the pocket. He has a knack for finding passing lanes and he relies on his athleticism to create throwing opportunities down the field.
From a critical standpoint, Tagovailoa's aggressiveness and gunslinger mentality can get him into trouble. He is a big-game hunter on the field looking for an explosive play at every turn, but he will need to display better discipline and patience against defensive coordinators intent on making him dink-and-dunk from the pocket. Additionally, Tagovailoa must continue to master the nuances of reading coverage. He has been fooled by pre-snap disguises on occasion (Clemson got him in the 2019 College Football Playoff Championship Game), and the miscues have resulted in turnovers.
Look, I get why some evaluators would be concerned about the number of lower-body injuries Tua suffered throughout his three years at Alabama. Those types of injuries are obviously problematic for a quarterback with an athletic game. Although he isn't a runner in the class of Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson, Tagovailoa extends plays with his legs and is athletic enough to threaten the defense on a variety of option plays.
That said, we've seen guys like Carson Wentz and Watson, both of whom entered the league with medical concerns, become Pro Bowlers. And yes, both have missed extended periods of time to injury in their short NFL careers. But do you think the Texans or Eagles regret investing top picks in those players? Obviously not, as the Eagles just re-upped Wentz last year to a four-year extension (with $66 million guaranteed), and the Texans have given us zero reasons to think Watson won't be the face of the franchise for the next several years.
Those teams looked past the health issues and recognized the talent -- and their bets paid off big time. As far as I'm concerned, Tagovailoa's ability warrants the same level of confidence.
SAINTS WR CORPS: Batman finally gets his Robin
Identifying the proper role for a player's talents is one of the biggest struggles that players, coaches and general managers face in the NFL. Players frequently overestimate their talents, and evaluators often miscast players in roles that fail to accentuate their strengths. Given the challenge of putting the right pieces of the puzzle together while building a team, I love the decision by Emmanuel Sanders to join the New Orleans Saints on a two-year, $16 million contract.
The veteran is not only one of the best pass catchers in football, but he is unquestionably an A+ route runner with an expansive toolbox that will allow him to shine in the Saints' intricate offense. Sanders' superb patience, timing and body control will enable him to consistently win against cornerbacks on the perimeter, while also giving Sean Payton another weapon to build mini-game plans around. With Michael Thomas firmly entrenched in the WR1 role, the addition of Sanders gives the Saints the kind of high-end WR2 that hasn't existed in the Payton era.
On the Move The Sticks Podcast, we've discussed placing wide receivers in "superhero" or "sidekick" categories, with the WR1 playing the role of Batman and the WR2 serving as Robin. While some receivers will bristle at the notion of being a complementary weapon on offense, the most explosive offenses in NFL history have featured multiple high-end receivers thriving in their respective roles. Just reflect on the San Francisco 49ers with Jerry Rice and John Taylor in the 1980s or the Minnesota Vikings with Cris Carter and Randy Moss in the '90s or the Indianapolis Colts with Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne in the 2000s. It is not a coincidence that every superhero had a trusted sidekick capable of taking over games when needed.
Sanders has already been Robin to a Batman in Denver, where he teamed up with Demaryius Thomas to give the Broncos a formidable 1-2 punch with Peyton Manning at the helm. He thrived opposite the big-bodied pass catcher, amassing three straight 1,000-yard seasons while showcasing his impressive talents as a route runner.
In New Orleans, Sanders joins a similar situation, with Thomas coming off a season in which he led the NFL with a record-setting 149 catches and 1,725 receiving yards. The 2019 Offensive Player of the Year finished with 119 more receptions than the next-closest Saints receiver, which is why they desperately needed to add more firepower to the WR corps to stay atop the NFC South, especially with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons upgrading their respective offenses with key personnel acquisitions this offseason.
"I'm looking forward to getting in that building and showcasing my talents and seeing what Sean Payton does with both of us," Sanders told NFL Network's James Palmer earlier this week. "I feel like watching Mike, he's a baller -- and I know what I'm capable of, too. So we're going to see how it all clicks. Hopefully, a year from today, we'll be talking about how we came together and did something special as a wide receiver unit, like me and Demaryius did."
If Payton can maximize Sanders' role as a WR2 in an offense that looks like a potential scoring machine on paper, defensive coordinators around the league might need to consult their favorite comic books in order to slow down the superheroes poised to take over the Superdome.