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 rundown of the finest cornerback duos in the game today.
But first, a look at how "The Top 100 Players of 2017" revealed the increasing importance of one particular position ...
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You can call me a homer, but I love watching NFL Network's "Top 100 Players" to see which guys are voted into the top 10 by the players themselves. In a league where game recognizes game, I'm always fascinated to see who makes the cut -- and how those elites are viewed by their contemporaries.
Most importantly, I'm curious how players value different positions.
For quite some time now, quarterbacks have been viewed as the most important players on the field -- and that has resulted in field generals typically dominating the upper crust of the "Top 100." While many will continue to tout quarterbacks as the MVPs of the league, I believe this year's list -- coupled with the results of the 2017 NFL Draft -- might signal a changing mentality within the league that could alter team building going forward. Instead of ranking QB1s ahead of other skill players simply due to the perceived importance of the position, players are increasingly valuing playmakers at a higher level, particularly pass catchers.
In the final "Top 100" episode of this season, the players crowned Tom Brady at No. 1, but they also had three wide receivers -- Julio Jones (No. 3 overall), Antonio Brown (No. 4) and Odell Beckham, Jr. (No. 8) -- ranked ahead of the league's reigning MVP (Matt Ryan, No. 10). Jones and Brown also finished ahead of two-time MVP Aaron Rodgers (No. 6).
So, yes, the players believe that the best wide receiver in the game (Jones, according to the rankings) is the most valuable player on his team despite AP writers recognizing his QB (Ryan) as the most valuable player of the league.
As crazy as it might initially feel seeing elite playmakers rated ahead of some of the best quarterbacks in the game, I believe the players correctly understand the value of a true No. 1 receiver in today's NFL. Despite what we keep hearing about passers making pass catchers better, it is probably the other way around in the overwhelming majority of situations in the league. While you can point to Brady, Rodgers, Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Philip Rivers as guys who have elevated squads without premier pass catchers into contention, the vast majority of QB1s in the NFL depend on a collection of playmakers to help them make an impact on the game.
Now, I know that goes against the narrative that we constantly throw out in the team-building process, but playmakers enable most QB1s to look like franchise quarterbacks. No disrespect to Ryan and his remarkable accomplishments in 2016, but Jones is the most feared player on the Atlanta Falcons -- and the rest of the league let it be known by voting him ahead of his quarterback in this scenario.
But taking an ever closer look at the complete "Top 100" list, you'll see a number of examples of WR1s ranking ahead of their quarterbacks in the eyes of their peers: Antonio Brown (No. 4) and Ben Roethlisberger (No. 22); Odell Beckham Jr. (No. 8) and Eli Manning (NR); A.J. Green (No. 17) and Andy Dalton (NR); Mike Evans (No. 29) and Jameis Winston (No. 57); Tyreek Hill (No. 36) and Alex Smith (No. 81); Jarvis Landry (No. 45) and Ryan Tannehill (NR); and Larry Fitzgerald (No. 45) and Carson Palmer (NR).
If that's not quite enough to convince you, I would point to the 2017 draft as more evidence that teams are beginning to believe pass catchers have an increased value in today's game. Remember, three receivers came off the board within the first nine selections: Corey Davis, No. 5, Tennessee Titans; Mike Williams, No. 7, Los Angeles Chargers; and John Ross, No. 9, Cincinnati Bengals. Although three quarterbacks also came off the board in the first round, the fact that three pass catchers were graded as elite prospects suggests that teams are beginning to view WR1 as an essential ingredient to the championship formula.
"I think the combination of the league development so much into a passing league and the amount of production receivers are generating has caused decision makers to value receivers at a higher level," an AFC college scouting director told me. "I'm not sure that I would rank them ahead of the quarterback in the team-building process, but the position is certainly viewed as a must-have in draft rooms today."
With that in mind, I think it is important to clearly define what a true No. 1 receiver is expected to do on the field. When I've asked coaches in the past, they've suggested that he must be able to anchor the passing game as the primary option and consistently deliver big plays in key moments despite being the object of the defense's attention. Most coaches I talked to preferred a WR1 with size (6-foot or taller) and valued an expanded pass-catching radius (size, leaping ability and ball skills) over speed at the position. When I asked players about the job description of a No. 1 receiver, I heard similar responses.
"A No. 1 receiver is a playmaker that continues to make plays despite a defense game planning to stop him," Larry Fitzgerald told me at "The Opening" earlier this week. "He understands how to get open against double-teams and bracket coverage, and always makes an impact on the game when he steps onto the field."
When I recently spoke to Jerry Rice at a camp about the role of a WR1, he told me that he must be "consistent" and "reliable" as the primary pass catcher in the passing game. He went on to tell me that WR1s continue to make plays despite facing a variety of tactics designed to minimize their impact -- that the great ones can't be stopped if they are truly elite. While he suggested that the offensive coordinator must be able to create opportunities for the WR1 to thrive, he put the onus on the player to find a way to get open against any coverage tactic thrown in his direction.
In the end, I know quarterbacks remain the most important players on the field -- based on the position's disproportionate role in the game -- but with fewer and fewer elites at that position, it might be time to view WR1s as must-haves in a league that's built on the passing game.
TITANS' OFFSEASON ENHANCEMENT: Tennessee preparing for takeoff
I'm not in the prediction business, but the Tennessee Titans will win the AFC South if their passing game substantially improves in 2017.
Now, I know that's a Captain Obvious statement on the surface, but the Titans are a dynamic passing game away from being a legitimate contender in the AFC.
Yes, after going 2-14 in 2014 and 3-13 in '15, Tennessee jumped to 9-7 last season behind the league's No. 3 ground game. But the Titans need to generate more explosive plays and score more points to compete with the elite teams in the conference. With AFC foes like the Patriots, Raiders and Steelers scoring at least 25 points per game, Tennessee must be able to put points on the board through the air to hold its own in shootouts within the conference.
Granted, the Titanstied for eighth in passing touchdowns (29) and finished 14th in scoring (23.8 points per game), but they only generated eight completions of 40 yards or more. Without a 1,000-yard receiver on the squad, the Titans lacked the firepower to fully take advantage of the talents of their young franchise quarterback, Marcus Mariota, who showed signs of coming into his own as a second-year starter with over 3,400 passing yards, 26 touchdowns and only nine interceptions in 15 starts.
The Titans needed to upgrade the talent around Mariota to help him grow and give the offense a chance to compete with the heavyweights in the conference. More importantly, the team needed to change the mentality of a passing game that lacked a dominant playmaker on the outside.
"For me, the big thing was, I believe we need more consistency and more dominance from a mental standpoint in the passing game," Titans offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie said back in May, via The Tennessean. "I believe for us, for me, we are at that point, we are who we are. We're a physical football team. We believe in being physical. We're going to play physical. We're going to do that. And I think theory-wise, we don't care who we play against. We make up our mind we're going to run the football, and we make up our mind we're going to run this play, we're going to run that play.
"We've got to get that mindset in the passing game. ... And I don't know if we're at that point. We've got to get that mindset that I don't care what the coverage is, one of us is going to win, and we're going to throw it and we're going to catch it."
While changing the mindset is a step in the right direction, the team's decision to add a whole bunch more firepower to the offense should significantly improve the aerial production. The Titans used three of their first four draft picks on pass catchers (wide receivers Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor, as well as tight end Jonnu Smith) and scooped up a productive veteran (Eric Decker) at the end of the offseason workouts. Although it is a challenge to fit so many new pieces into an offensive puzzle, the team needed to find a No. 1 receiver for their young quarterback and surround that top dog with enough complementary pieces to help him dominate on the outside.
Drafting Davis at No. 5 overall, the Titans made a bold move to snag a highly productive pass catcher with the prototypical physical dimensions and skills associated with elite WR1s. The 6-foot-3, 209-pound pass catcher is the all-time leader in major college football in receiving yards (5,285) after a stellar career at Western Michigan. He is not only a polished route runner with an outstanding combination of size, speed and ball skills, but he is a powerful runner adept at picking up chunk yards following short completions. Davis' ability to create explosive plays reminds me a lot of Jordy Nelson.
"Davis is a great kid with tremendous upside," I was told by Jerry Sullivan, a long-time NFL wide receiver coach who worked with Davis during the pre-draft process. "He is a polished route runner with the suddenness and ball skills to play the position at a high level."
Considering how the Titans desperately need someone to fill the WR1 role, Davis' skills are perfectly suited for the job -- if, of course, he can quickly acclimate to the pro game after dominating the MAC.
The recent signing of Decker gives the team a legitimate WR2 to align opposite the young pass catcher. The 6-foot-3, 214-pound veteran has topped the 1,000-yard mark three times in his last four full seasons -- and he's scored 52 career touchdowns. He is a dangerous red-zone weapon as a big-bodied playmaker, but he could settle into a role as a "chain mover" for the Titans. As a crafty route runner with outstanding size and superb ball skills, Decker is a dependable "combat catcher" in key situations. In addition, he can play out wide or in the slot in spread formations to take advantage of a favorable matchup between the numbers.
With Rishard Matthews and Delanie Walker also capable of winning over the middle of the field as possession-receiver types, the Titans have assembled more than enough weapons for Mariota to play "connect the dots" from the pocket. But the team needs to find a vertical threat to deliver a handful of explosive plays over the course of the season. While most observers expect that production to come from Davis, based on his size/speed combination as a potential WR1, I believe the Titans have a pair of wild cards who could emerge as "field flippers" in their aerial attack. Rookies Jonnu Smith and Taywan Taylor certainly fit the bill as dynamic pass catchers with vertical-stretch ability and catch-and-run potential.
Smith, the 100th overall pick, is an explosive pass catcher with rare athletic traits (4.62 40-yard dash at 248 pounds, 38-inch vertical jump and 10-foot-7 broad jump) for the position. Standing at 6-foot-3 with soft hands and crafty route-running ability, the Florida International product is a carbon copy of Walker with more juice. He could deliver big plays as the "H" tight end (move) in the Titans' "12" package (1 RB, 2 TEs and 2 WRs) against base personnel. If he can fully grasp the nuances of the position, Smith could be the big-play threat on an offense who creates home run plays off play-action fakes.
Taylor, the 72nd overall pick, is an electric route runner with spectacular playmaking ability after the catch. He can turn short passes into big gains on the perimeter or blow past defenders on vertical routes. Although his timed speed (4.50) doesn't suggest that he is a burner, Taylor repeatedly blew past defenders as a two-time first-team All-Conference USA receiver with 34 touchdowns during his last two seasons at Western Kentucky. Look for him to carve out a role as a designated big-play specialist in the team's spread formations.
Robiskie certainly alluded to taking advantage of his new offensive weapons when he suggested that it was "good to have new toys" when discussing his young wide receivers and tight end earlier this offseason.
With expectations growing as they hurtle toward the 2017 campaign, the Titans need to get their shiny new toys up and running quickly.
CORNERBACK TANDEMS: My top-five rankings
When Stephon Gilmore boldly touted the New England Patriots' starting cornerback tandem as the best in the business, I thought his assessment might've been a bit premature, based on the talented defensive backfields that I've studied in the past. While there are plenty of teams with an elite cornerback playing with a high-level sidekick, I've always believed the best cornerback tandems should feature a pair of players with complementary games that allow the defensive coordinator to mix and match his schemes and personnel deployment to create favorable showdowns on the perimeter.
"In a perfect world, you would like to have a pair of cornerbacks with a diverse set of skills as your No. 1 and No. 2 corner," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "You would like one of the guys to be a more physical player with the size and length to match up with the big wide receivers on the perimeter. If he can excel in press, that would be ideal, but I would like to match big on big on the outside whenever it works. The other corner should be able to shadow the smaller, quicker receivers that play on the outside or in the slot. If he is able to play from distance or use a backpedal in man or zone, it is an asset because you're able to do more things when it comes to combo coverage.
"You don't need to have two No. 1s, but if they can balance each other out, it makes the overall unit better due to the flexibility and versatility that they give the coordinator."
As a young defender with the Kansas City Chiefs in the mid-1990s, I saw firsthand how a secondary with a pair of high-end corners (James Hasty and Dale Carter) could suffocate an offense. Each defender was a Pro Bowl-caliber playmaker in his own right, but their respective games were vastly different on the field. Hasty was a big, physical cover corner adept at mauling receivers with an ultra-aggressive game at the line of scrimmage. He bullied opponents with stiff one- or two-handed jams and rarely allowed receivers to catch a ball uncontested on the perimeter.
Carter was a spectacular athlete capable of shadowing receivers utilizing a soft pedal at the line of scrimmage to eliminate free releases on the outside. Although he could "bully ball" on the perimeter, Carter routinely leaned on his superior speed and athleticism to neutralize receivers in coverage. With few teams possessing a pair of receivers with the speed, athleticism and toughness to deal with this dynamic duo on the perimeter (I didn't even mention the Pro Bowl-caliber nickel corner, Mark McMillian, who also played on that squad), that K.C. defense routinely destroyed the rhythm and timing of opponent's passing games.
With that in mind, I decided to take a look at the landscape of the league to see if Gilmore was correct in his assessment of the Patriots' tandem as the league's best, here's my take on the top cornerback duos in the league:
1) Denver Broncos: It's impossible to list the top cornerback tandems in the league without mentioning the "No Fly Zone." Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. have routinely shut down premier receivers on the perimeter with their complementary games and aggressive approach. As the long, rangy corner with dazzling footwork and outstanding instincts, Talib overwhelms receivers with his physicality, toughness and non-stop energy at the line. Meanwhile, Harris is the crafty playmaker with the instincts, awareness and ball skills to blanket receivers from distance. Whether it's in the slot or out wide, Harris' savvy, anticipation and awareness make him one of the best cover corners in the game. With a pair of corners boasting the capacity to lock up receivers without help over the top, the Broncos have the most impressive cornerback tandem in football. And Denver's third corner, Bradley Roby, is quite a player himself.
2) Los Angeles Chargers:Jason Verrett and Casey Hayward aren't household names, but it is hard to find a better set of lockdown corners on the edge. Verrett is a dynamic press corner with outstanding footwork, balance and body control. He is one of the few corners in the league capable of using kick-step and motor techniques to shadow wide receivers all over the field. Hayward is a terrific "clue" corner with exceptional ball skills and instincts. He is ideally suited to playing "field corner" in a press-bail scheme that mixes zone and man concepts. Considering how Gus Bradley routinely puts his corners on the island against any and every receiver, the Chargers' corners could emerge.
3) New England Patriots: Much to Gilmore's dismay, the Patriots' corners aren't listed as my No. 1 tandem. However, that doesn't mean that they aren't worthy of being placed on my Mount Rushmore of active cornerback duos. Gilmore is the ultra-smooth corner with the length and athleticism to muscle receivers at the line. He is a skilled technician with the footwork and transitional skills to maintain hip-pocket positioning down the field. Butler is a gritty competitor with a non-stop motor and superb instincts. He challenges receivers at the point of attack in press, but also has the capacity to win 1-on-1s utilizing a backfield or off technique. With Belichick adept at putting his players in the best position to excel, the Patriots' cornerback duo could rank at the top of this list by the end of the season.
4) New York Giants: The G-Men's return to prominence last season was fueled by defensive play, particularly on the island with Janoris Jenkins and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (and Eli Apple) neutralizing elite receivers. The duo not only blanketed pass catchers with sticky coverage, but they flashed a knack for playmaking with nine interceptions and 39 passes defensed between them. Jenkins took his game up a notch after coming over from the Rams as a marquee free agent. He displayed outstanding instincts, awareness and ball skills as the team's CB1, while also exhibiting better discipline in coverage. DRC was just as impressive moving from outside to inside in certain packages to match up with top pass catchers. If the Giants can continue to harass quarterbacks with their impressive collection of bookends (Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon), the dynamic CB duo will continue to make headlines as premier playmakers on the outside.
5) Jacksonville Jaguars: It's uncommon for a second-year player to anchor an elite unit, but that is the case with Jalen Ramsey holding down the fort for the Jaguars as a CB1. The ultra-athletic cover corner is already making a strong case for Pro Bowl consideration after suffocating pass catchers as a rookie. He will team with A.J. Bouye to give the team a pair of junkyard dogs on the edge to eliminate the big plays that plagued the Jaguars' defense in the past. Bouye, the team's marquee free agent signee, is a savvy corner with a high football IQ and outstanding instincts. He excels at blanketing receivers from distance (off coverage) but also flashes enough athleticism to win utilizing bump-and-run or press technique. On a defense that quietly ranked eighth in points allowed last season, Jacksonville's new CB pairing could definitely shoot up this list in 2017.