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:
-- A ranking of the top five RB tandems in the NFL.
-- Why Houston's backfield has a hint of New England flavor.
But first, a look at why Baltimore's offense could be even more potent in 2021 ...
It's about time!
Pardon my enthusiasm, but the Baltimore Ravens' plan to play Lamar Jackson under center more this season is something I've been hoping to see for a while. After spending the first three years of his NFL career working extensively from the pistol formation, the electric dual-threat passer will have more opportunities to operate out of a traditional pro-style offense in 2021, according to offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
"That is definitely going to be a part of what we do this year -- the percentage of which I cannot state at this point," Roman said during a recent Q&A with season ticket-holders. "I don't know the extent of it. But we are working on it and evaluating it every day."
Since becoming the Ravens' starter midway through the 2018 season, Jackson has taken the fewest snaps under center (127) among quarterbacks with at least 10 starts, including just 36 of 889 snaps last season, per ESPN stats. Although Baltimore's shotgun-heavy approach helped the team feature the No. 1 rushing attack in football in each of the past two years, thanks to Jackson's flawless execution of the read-option, it also limited the diversity and multiplicity of the offense overall. Moreover, the approach stunted Jackson's growth as a quarterback at the pro level.
"[Playing Jackson under center is] something we will certainly use from time to time, some games more than others," Roman said. "I believe it's a very important part in the development of a quarterback from a forward standpoint."
While I applaud the Ravens' offensive coordinator for making the change, I don't know why it has taken the team so long to implement some traditional pro-style concepts into the game plan.
At Louisville, Jackson played under Bobby Petrino, a head coach with NFL experience and a pro-style system. The quarterback took several college snaps operating a traditional offense. Part of that was driven by Petrino's insistence on preparing his young quarterback for the next level, but it was also guided by Jackson's desire to play a long time at the position.
"I noticed a lot of dual-threat quarterbacks in the shotgun or in the pistol, a lot of them don't last forever," Jackson told Bleacher Report back in 2016. "I want to be in the pocket."
As an electric athlete nearing the prime of his career, the 24-year-old can rely on his speed, athleticism and running skills to torment defenses. But what he knew five years ago still rings true today: relying solely on those dynamic traits isn't a recipe for long-term success. He needs to expand his game to continue ranking among the elite at his position into his 30s.
"I think that's the natural progression, you know? A guy who plays at a very high level and then you just continue to grow his game," Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban said during a call with reporters this week. "One thing he and I have talked about are the great basketball players. Michael Jordan comes to mind. He had to learn jump shots. So, you learn a jump shot, and you just keep expanding your game that way."
In a traditional pro-style offense that features play-action passes and bootlegs, Jackson will remain a threat to sneak out of the back door even as his speed and athleticism wane. During my playing days, I watched Steve Young and John Elway transition from five-star athletic playmakers to effective mobile threats in the twilight of their Hall of Fame careers.
Considering the potential $40 million-plus payday that is on the horizon for the former MVP, tweaking the number of option runs -- and the hits that come with them -- may also factor into the Ravens' decision to increase Jackson's snaps under center. While I would've preferred this shift to happen sooner, it's certainly not too late for Baltimore to start transitioning from a collegiate-like scheme that features designed QB runs, option plays and RPOs, to a Shanahan-like system that utilizes the threat of bootlegs and movement passes to complement a "Gap" or zone-based running game.
In the immediate future, the increase in snaps under center could help Jackson become a more efficient and productive passer -- a scary notion for a former All-Pro with a 30-7 career record. The play-action passing game is more effective when the quarterback turns his back to the defense, completely hiding the ball from view. Seamless fakes and footwork, a productive running game and an ultra-athletic QB -- when working in unison -- will lure second-level defenders to the line of scrimmage, creating voids in coverage at intermediate (11 to 20 yards) and deep range (20-plus yards). Often, those soft spots are behind the linebackers and between the numbers, which is Jackson's sweet spot; No. 8 is at his best on seams and in-breaking routes inside the digits.
Baltimore has been knocking on the championship door since Jackson stepped into the lineup, and this move to incorporate more under-center play could help the Ravens blow the door off its hinges this season.
2021 SEASON: Top 5 RB tandems
This is the time of the year in which every player hypes up himself or his position group as the best in the business. With OTAs underway and players meeting with media members after putting in countless hours of training to refine their skills, it is not a surprise to hear players making bodacious claims about where they rank compared to their peers.
This week, Green Bay Packers running back A.J. Dillon decided to throw his hat into the ring as a bold prognosticator. The second-year pro emphatically proclaimed he and Aaron Jones could be the best running back combination in the league.
"I think we can be the best running back tandem in the NFL," Dillon said Wednesday. "You look at us and you see thunder and lightning, which absolutely we are, but the lightning guy, Aaron (Jones), he can also grind out some yards, and the thunder guy, myself, I'd like to say I can still beat some guys running away from them. So I feel like we both definitely have our strengths, but we bring two bags, and the entire running back room is capable of guys that can do it all. That's just the standard in the running back room. That's what coach (Ben) Sirmans preached, being able to do it all, being able to find a role on the team. So I feel like we definitely embody that."
Now, I am sure the Packers believe that their 1-2 punch ranks as one of the best units in the league, but I wanted to pop in a little tape to see if Dillon and Jones really deserve top billing at the position. After spending most of the week studying the film and tallying up the numbers, I decided to rank the top five running back tandems based on their talent, production and potential in 2021. While I am sure that my Twitter mentions will take a beating with some notable names on the cutting room floor, here is my top five:
The Browns' dynamic duo not only spearheaded the NFL's third-ranked rushing offense but also anchored a unit that creates problems for defensive coordinators around the league. Nick Chubb, a two-time Pro Bowler with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons on his résumé, brings the attitude and the pop as a grinder between the tackles. Kareem Hunt is RB1b in the backfield as a former NFL rushing champ with the sizzle and sauce to create explosive plays on the perimeter. He is a unique change-of-pace back with feature-back skills to keep the offense rolling when Chubb is out of the game.
Saints star Alvin Kamara put up the quietest 21-touchdown season in 2020 while notching his third straight campaign with 1,500-plus scrimmage yards. His dynamic skills as a runner/receiver set the table for the Saints' offense and create opportunities for others with defenders paying close attention to No. 41's whereabouts all over the field. Latavius Murray is a supersized dual-threat playmaker with a game that blends power and finesse. He has topped 600 rushing yards in back-to-back seasons as Sean Payton's secret weapon in a smashmouth offense dressed in disguise.
Despite a subpar 2020 campaign from Ezekiel Elliott, the two-time NFL rushing champ teams with Tony Pollard to give the Cowboys an explosive 1-2 punch in the backfield. Elliott remains a rugged runner with outstanding vision, balance and short-area burst. As his offseason social media posts suggest, he is committed to regaining his all-star form, and a fit No. 21 could add a third rushing title to his collection playing behind a healthy offensive line with Dak Prescott at the helm. Pollard has shown big-play potential as a super-sub with speed, quickness and wiggle. With the Cowboys' capable of putting up big numbers as an offense-driven squad, the football world could quickly appreciate the complementary backfield that makes the offense go.
Despite Carson Wentz's arrival as the Colts' new QB1, the offense will run through a talented collection of running backs playing behind a stable of Clydesdales at the line of scrimmage. Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines and Marlon Mack are complementary jigsaw puzzle pieces that fit together perfectly in a diverse scheme that mixes power and pizzazz. Taylor is a punishing workhorse with a no-nonsense game that enabled him to quietly amass 1,169 rush yards and 11 touchdowns rumbling between the tackles as a rookie. Hines is a sensational space player with soft hands and polished receiving skills. The fourth-year pro has topped the 60-catch mark twice in three seasons while settling in as the designated third-down back in the rotation. Mack, who missed nearly the entire 2020 campaign with a torn Achilles, is the wild card as a key contributor with the skills to serve in either capacity as a fill-in. With three high-end playmakers in the backfield, the Colts can impose their will on opponents with a balanced attack fueled by their running backs.
The Raiders' signing of sneaky-good Kenyan Drake gives Jon Gruden a talented pair of playmakers in the backfield. Josh Jacobs has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons while flashing a bull-in-a-china-shop running style that sets the tone for the offense. Drake nearly eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark a season ago as the RB1 for the Arizona Cardinals. The versatile veteran tallied 10 rushing scores, but has more to offer as a playmaker in the passing game. Remember, he has a pair of 50-catch seasons on his résumé; Gruden could tap into Drake's expertise as a receiver to balance out the offense. The underrated collaboration has not garnered headlines, but it could help the Raiders emerge as dark-horse contenders in the AFC West.
Texans' new backfield: The Patriots' Way?
Perhaps Nick Caserio is an avid trading card collector with a propensity to fall in love with the stat line on the back of his favorite players' cards. That is the initial sentiment when you peruse the running back transactions made by the Texans' general manager this offseason.
At a time when most teams are acquiring young runners through the draft as mid-to-late-round selections or undrafted free agents, the Texans have added some geezers and castoffs to a running back room that already featured veteran David Johnson. That is not a slight or dismissal of the notable accomplishments of Mark Ingram, Phillip Lindsay and Rex Burkhead, but it is hard to imagine the Texans relying on a single player to carry the load as the team's designated RB1.
Sure, the thought of having three former Pro Bowlers (Ingram, Johnson and Lindsay) with 1,000-yard seasons on their respective résumés is impressive, but can any of the all-stars return to form in H-Town? Most importantly, are they capable of performing at a high level on a suspect offense that could be without the services of a franchise quarterback with All-Pro potential.
If Deshaun Watson is not in the lineup, the Texans will need to alleviate the pressure on Tyrod Taylor, Jeff Driskel or Davis Mills by relying on the running game or a quick-rhythm aerial attack with the running backs featured prominently in the game plan. The approach could resemble the scripts that helped the Patriots dominate the AFC for almost two decades.
In fact, the Texans' running back-heavy roster reminds me of the complementary backfields the Patriots have utilized for years. Those teams under Bill Belichick were nightmares for fantasy football players due to the random running back rotations. The unpredictable nature of New England's playing-time patterns was driven, at least in part, by favorable matchups. If the Patriots wanted to play ground-and-pound football against an opponent, the mudders would get top priority. If they opted for a spread-and-shred approach, the diminutive pass catchers would dot the marquee.
Considering the Pats' success with a revolving door at running back, I understand why Caserio is exploring every low-cost option on the market for the Texans as he assembles a stable of running backs with complementary games. Whether it is opting to ride the hot hand each week or building snowflake game plans that change the RB rotation based on matchups, the Texans are hoping their collection of backs can give David Culley and Co. enough firepower to put some points on the board this season.