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:
-- Where I'd like to see the top QB prospects end up in next month's draft.
-- Johnny Manziel's future NFL prospects could be better than most people seem to think.
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New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman might've echoed the words of his mentor, Ernie Accorsi, in response to a question from NFL Network's Kimberly Jones regarding Odell Beckham Jr.'s status on the team, but it appears to me that he could be on the verge of breaking up with his best player prior to the 2018 NFL Draft. Reports from the Annual League Meeting suggest the Giants aren't actively shopping the three-time Pro Bowler, but they are certainly keeping the phone lines open in case they are "blown away" by a proposal from a team hoping to acquire the star receiver.
With the Giants apparently demanding a bevy of picks in return for Beckham's services -- ESPN's Adam Schefter is reporting that it'd cost at least two first-round picks, while our own Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero have heard the right price is more like a first-round pick and a mid-rounder or multiple second-round picks -- it looks like OBJ could be auctioned off for the type of premium draft currency that could help New York accelerate retooling efforts after a disastrous 3-13 campaign. For a team-builder like Gettleman, who boasts a strong track record of putting together championship-caliber squads through the draft, this kind of enhanced draft war chest would create a dream scenario in a rebuilding situation, right?
My podcast partner Daniel Jeremiah and I walked through a few scenarios on a recent episode of "Path to the Draft" where we turned an OBJ trade and a swap of the second overall pick into five selections within the top 40.
In many instances, I'd be all over a transaction that results in a cluster of lottery tickets on draft day. But with Beckham, I personally just can't get past the thought of shipping off a transcendent talent for unproven commodities. While draftniks love the possibility of finding the next big thing in the draft, I've been around the league long enough to know that it is hard to find premier players at marquee positions. OBJ is the fastest receiver to ever tally 3,500 receiving yards (36 games) and the first NFL player to have 30 receiving touchdowns in his first 35 games since 1967.
No. 13 is one of the most prolific playmakers we've seen in this league in quite some time. He is a threat to score whenever he gets his hands on the ball and his ability to deliver explosive plays is unrivaled in the league today. In each of his first three seasons, OBJ tallied at least 90 catches, 1,300 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. Those are the kinds of numbers that eventually result in gold jackets, which is why the Giants should pause before letting their top playmaker walk out the door.
Beckham is not only the team's most valuable piece, but he significantly elevates the play of Eli Manning. While most believe a franchise quarterback helps others perform at a higher level, the Giants' WR1 makes No. 10 a credible threat at the position. Don't believe me? Just look at the two-time Super Bowl MVP's numbers with and without No. 13 on the field since 2015:
Manning with OBJ: 63.2 percent completion rate, 66:29 touchdown-to-interception ratio, 7.0 yards per attempt, 91.4 passer rating.
Manning without OBJ: 60.6 percent completion rate, 14:14 touchdown-to-interception ratio, 6.0 yards per attempt, 75.3 passer rating.
Those numbers alone are enough to justify keeping the team's No. 1 receiver. In a quarterback-driven league, it is always about making the field general cozy -- and it's quite apparent Beckham helps Manning get into his comfort zone. OBJ is not only capable of turning short passes into long gains, but he expands the strike zone for Eli with his exceptional leaping ability and hand-eye coordination.
OK, so Beckham has been a bit of a headache on and off the field with his antics. But it is hard to part ways with a highly productive playmaker simply due to a handful of weird incidents (sideline tantrums, end zone celebrations and the kicking-net farce) and that three-second video that recently went viral on social media. Yes, he did miss the last 12 games of this past season after fracturing his ankle, but that's not typically a career-altering injury.
Although I'm not a big fan of some of OBJ's eccentric behavior, I've heard from people inside the Giants building that he's a hard worker and solid teammate. Of course this 25-year-old needs to work on his professionalism on and off the field, but I don't think that is enough to earn walking papers.
That said, Beckham is now working under a general manager with a history of dismissing top performers he didn't see eye to eye with. Remember, Gettleman cut five-time Pro Bowl receiver Steve Smith as the general manager of the Carolina Panthers. He also engaged in a messy franchise-tag situation with Josh Norman that ultimately led to the Pro Bowl cornerback's release from the team. These high-profile disputes didn't derail Carolina's 2015 Super Bowl run, though, and that's why no one should dismiss the possibility of the Giants moving on in 2018 without their best player in the fold.
To that point, interested teams will need to approximate the draft capital and cash needed to land the star receiver. From a trade standpoint, it appears the asking price (even if it is indeed two first-round picks) is a reasonable expectation, based on OBJ's status and production as an elite WR1. Keyshawn Johnson cost the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a pair of first-round picks in 2000 -- part of a series of moves that left the New York Jets with a whopping four first-round picks (which ended up being Shaun Ellis, John Abraham, Chad Pennington and Anthony Becht). Johnson helped the Buccaneers hoist the Lombardi Trophy, while the draft returns played a part in the Jets making the playoffs six times in the next 11 years.
2000 was also the year when the Cowboys sent the Seahawks a pair of first-round picks for Joey Galloway. Seattle parlayed those two picks into a couple of playmakers (2005 NFL MVP Shaun Alexander and Koren Robinson) who helped spark a Super Bowl run a few years later. For Dallas, the trade did not work out well, with Galloway suffering a torn ACL in his first game with the team. He never topped the 1,000-yard mark with the Cowboys and failed to deliver on his promise as the designated deep-ball threat in the offense.
Recently, we saw the Seahawks send the Vikings "first-round plus" capital (first-round, third-round and seventh-round picks) to land Percy Harvin. The team immediately signed the disgruntled receiver to a hefty contract extension (six-year, $67 million with $25.5 million in guaranteed money) to satisfy his salary demands. Although Harvin didn't quite mesh well with Seattle as a versatile playmaker, he did help the team win Super Bowl XLVIII with a dazzling kick-return touchdown that served as a knockout blow on the Broncos. For the Vikings, the team flipped those picks into a Pro Bowl player (Xavier Rhodes) and a key contributor (Jerick McKinnon) on an ascending contender.
With those trades in mind, the Giants could certainly pawn off their Pro Bowl receiver for enough assets to orchestrate a quick rebuild if they select the right players on draft day. For a team acquiring Beckham, it would receive a star receiver seeking a contract that resets the market for pass catchers. Given the megadeals we've seen this offseason for less-accomplished players (SEE: Sammy Watkins' three-year, $48 million deal or even Donte Moncrief's one-year, $9.6 million pact), OBJ's $20 million annual expectation isn't out of bounds, particularly when you factor in recent deals by other marquee stars (like Mike Evans, who just inked a five-year, $82.5 million contract).
While it is unlikely that the three-time Pro Bowler will get "franchise quarterback money," the youngster should surpass Antonio Brown's average of $17 million per season (on a four-year, $68 million deal signed last offseason) and continue to raise the bar for the top playmakers in the game.
Which teams could provide a good fit for Beckham? Here are five:
Los Angeles Rams: No disrespect to Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, but OBJ would add star power to an offense that already sets off fireworks on game day. The explosive playmaker would excel as a catch-and-run specialist or vertical threat in Sean McVay's dynamic scheme. Better yet, he would lure another defender out of the box to create even more running room for Todd Gurley. Sure, the Rams would be adding another eccentric personality to the locker room, but Beckham's spectacular game and rock star persona would play well in Hollywood.
Cleveland Browns: If the Browns were to acquire OBJ in a trade, you would see the NFL's most explosive wide receiver corps decked out in brown and orange. Josh Gordon, Jarvis Landry and Beckham would form a Golden State Warriors-like squad on the perimeter with a "big" (Gordon), "shooter" (Landry) and "scorer" (OBJ) on the field. Defensive coordinators wouldn't be able to double-team each of the Browns' playmakers. And Todd Haley's adept at moving the pieces around the chessboard, particularly when he has multiple blue-chip players at his disposal (SEE: his work in Arizona with Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin). With OBJ's old position coach at LSU and on the Giants (Adam Henry) in the fold, the Dog Pound might actually be the best spot for the Pro Bowl receiver.
Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens not only have a need for a dominant No. 1 receiver, but they have a locker room that's well equipped to deal with Beckham's colorful personality. Remember, this is a team that had a bodacious personality like Ray Lewis as the centerpiece of the squad for years. OBJ's antics won't be a major issue for the organization if he consistently puts the ball in the paint. On the field, No. 13 would significantly elevate Joe Flacco's game.
San Francisco 49ers: The best way to help Jimmy Garoppolo live up to the expectations as a franchise player is to surround him with a bevy of potent weapons. OBJ's spectacular talents as a WR1 would allow Jimmy G to rack up production on a host of "dink and dunk" tosses to the perimeter. In addition, Kyle Shanahan's experience crafting game plans to showcase a star receiver (remember his work with Julio Jones in Atlanta?) would ensure OBJ gets enough touches to make his mark on each and every game.
Jacksonville Jaguars: The obvious connection to Tom Coughlin makes this a sensible match. The two-time Super Bowl winner drafted Beckham and helped him quickly grow into a start at the position. On the field, OBJ would give the Jaguars a legitimate No. 1 receiver to build around, which will help Blake Bortles grow as a QB1. With alpha dogs like Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack, Telvin Smith and Leonard Fournette already in the locker room, Beckham's presence shouldn't disrupt the chemistry or camaraderie established in Jacksonville.
DRAFT MATCHMAKER: Team pairings for top QB prospects
In a perfect world, the NFL draft is like a game of matchmaker. Players land with teams that have schemes, coaches and supporting casts in place to accentuate their talents. A quarterback, in particular, can see his game enhanced by playing under a coach who understands how to tailor a system around the strong parts of his game. With that in mind, here are the realistic pairings I would love to see for the top quarterbacks in the 2018 class:
Sam Darnold, Cleveland Browns: The USC standout is a blue-collar quarterback with an ultra-competitive attitude. Darnold's rugged game and gritty demeanor not only fit the persona of the city, but they mesh well with Todd Haley's quick-rhythm system. With the offensive architect known for refining improvisational wizards (SEE: his work with Ben Roethlisberger), the marriage between play-caller and quarterback looks great on paper, particularly with a cast of playmakers like Jarvis Landry and Josh Gordon on the outside.
Josh Rosen, New York Jets: The most polished quarterback prospect in the draft would be a nice fit with the Jets. He could be a Day 1 starter based on talent alone, and his skills as a pocket passer would work well in Jeremy Bates' version of the West Coast offense. As a former five-star recruit who was regarded as one of the top quarterback prospects in the country since he was 16 years old, Rosen should be prepared to handle the pressure of playing under the bright lights on Broadway.
Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills: The Wyoming star has been dubbed a developmental prospect by most observers, but his upside could look to Bills brass like a toned-down version of another big, athletic gunslinger with A-plus arm talent that they're quite familiar with: Cam Newton. (Remember, head coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane both spent significant time with Newton in Carolina.) Allen can create big plays in the passing game as a flamethrower from the pocket, while also adding some spice to the running game by taking off on designed runs. Despite accuracy woes hurting his resume, Allen's skills and potential as a multifaceted playmaker could make him a star in Buffalo.
Baker Mayfield, Miami Dolphins: Putting the Heisman Trophy winner with a creative play designer like Adam Gase could lead to fireworks in Miami. The diminutive playmaker, with his fast release and compact delivery, is arguably the best quick-rhythm thrower in the draft. He would excel in a catch-and-run system that allows receivers to rack up YAC on rhythm passes. With a solid supporting cast that features a couple of established playmakers (Danny Amendola, Kenny Stills, DeVante Parker), Mayfield could thrive in Gase's quarterback-friendly offense.
Lamar Jackson, New Orleans Saints: The most electrifying athlete at the position is capable of scoring from anywhere on the field as a runner or thrower. Sean Payton could certainly foster those skills and create a unique offense that takes the league by storm. With Payton adept at blending various concepts to elevate the play of his quarterbacks, Jackson could emerge as the ultimate offensive weapon. In due time, of course. Landing with the Saints would allow the developmental QB1 to watch Brees man the position for the next couple years.
Mason Rudolph, Pittsburgh Steelers:Big Ben said back in January he's not looking beyond the 2018 season, refusing to put a timeline on how long he'll continue to play. But with the well-worn QB having just turned 36, it's time for the Steelers to plan for the future. Rudolph is a big, sturdy quarterback with outstanding intangibles and leadership skills. Although he lacks A-plus arm talent, he is an efficient passer with a game that's ideally suited for a quick-rhythm system.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
"Yeah, without a doubt," Gruden said when asked if the 'Skins are better off at the position during the Annual League Meeting in Orlando, Florida. "I don't want to compare two players, but we're always trying to be better at every position. We got better. Alex's experience is well-noted, and his record the last five years is what it is. You could argue that all day, but we feel very good."
To that point, there's no disputing Smith's experience and production as a winning quarterback. The three-time Pro Bowler compiled a 50-26 record as the starter in Kansas City, posting a 65.1 percent completion rate and a 102:33 TD-to-INT ratio with the Chiefs. He compiled a 94.8 passer rating during that span, while averaging 7.2 yards per attempt. Granted, Smith only topped the 4,000-yard mark once during his time in K.C., but he is coming off an MVP-caliber season where he posted a 26:5 TD-to-INT ratio and a league-best 104.7 passer rating while directing an offense that featured more vertical throws.
Cousins, on the other hand, just recorded three straight 4,000-yard seasons as Washington's full-time starter, posting a 24-23-1 record during that span. He tallied an 81:36 TD-to-INT ratio over the past three seasons, with a 67 percent completion rate (including a league-best 69.8 percent rate in 2015).
While the numbers suggest Smith and Cousins are nearly identical, their playing styles are quite dissimilar -- and that makes a huge difference to the play caller.
"It's not one thing, it's everything. It's the entire body of work," Gruden said of Smith in Orlando. "He's very good at the intermediate ball. He's good with the quick game. He can run zone reads, the [run-pass options]. Very exciting. ... The ability to ad-lib, make plays that aren't there and keep plays alive. Coaching him for the first time will be exciting because I don't think there's a limit on what he can do. He has all the things you want a quarterback to be able to do."
When I heard Gruden go to the mat for Smith, I thought it was another example of a head coach endorsing his current QB1. I thought the tape and data would show that these quarterbacks were similar, but to my surprise, Smith is indeed the far superior player.
Of the 11 Next Gen Stats passing categories, Smith had a better passer rating in seven last season:
Short (from behind line of scrimmage up to 10 air yards): Smith (97.2), Cousins (92.0).
Intermediate (10 to 19 air yards): Cousins (90.8), Smith (90.1).
Deep (20-plus air yards): Smith (134.7), Cousins (93.8).
Middle third: Smith (103.6), Cousins (81.8).
Outside the numbers: Smith (105.1), Cousins (101.2).
Against blitz: Cousins (98.6), Smith (94.9).
Against pressure: Smith (97.0), Cousins (59.1).
Tight windows: Smith (67.6), Cousins (53.4).
Outside the tackle box: Cousins (118.6), Smith (71.4).
Less than 2.50 seconds: Cousins (104.7), Smith (86.4).
2.50 seconds-plus: Smith (111.2), Cousins (85.9).
Despite being labeled a "dink and dunk" quarterback for most of his career, Smith is an outstanding passer when targeting every area of the field. From "catch, rock and fire" throws near the line of scrimmage to pushing the ball down the field on vertical throws, Smith was more effective than his predecessor. When you dig a little deeper into the shot chart, you also discover that Smith is not only more effective between the hashes, but he is also more efficient hitting receivers outside the numbers.
Although target areas reveal a lot about a passer's game, defensive coaches will quickly tell you that the best quarterbacks are capable of delivering accurate throws into tight windows under duress. Smith not only ranked as arguably the best passer in the NFL against pressure, but he was an exceptional tight-window thrower in 2017. Given his effectiveness working the middle of the field and hitting tight windows, the questions regarding his timing and anticipation are well off the mark.
In fact, looking at the All-22 Coaches Film after studying the numbers, I believe Smith doesn't get enough credit for his brilliance as a play-action passer in the game. He is a clever ball handler in the backfield with a number of deceptive tactics that lure linebackers and defensive backs to the line, which is why he was the NFL's most effective passer on long-developing plays (passes released after 2.50 seconds) last season.
Looking at all of data and tape, I can see why Gruden is excited to work with his new QB1 in Washington. Smith is not only a more effective passer in nearly all areas, but he is also a superior athlete and runner, which makes him more of a dual-threat than Cousins. Now, that's certainly not a surprise, based on their NFL Scouting Combine results. Take a look:
Smith's 2005 combine results: 4.78-second 40-yard dash, 32-inch vertical jump, 113-inch broad jump, 6.82-second three-cone drill, 3.96-second 20-yard shuttle.
Cousins' 2012 combine results: 4.93-seconds 40-yard dash, 28.5-inch vertical jump, 109-inch broad jump, 7.05-second three-cone drill, 4.50-second 20-yard shuttle.
Although Smith is no longer that explosive as a 33-year-old quarterback, he remains a B+ athlete based on how he runs away from defenders on tape. He is a viable option as a runner, and that impromptu playmaking ability makes him a more dangerous weapon under center. Most importantly, it adds another layer to the Redskins' playbook and gives Gruden more options when it comes to attacking defenses on game day.
Like him or not, Smith is a better player than Cousins -- and Gruden isn't wrong for saying so.
2) Is Johnny Football really working his way back onto an NFL roster? To the dismay of many critics and skeptics, Johnny Manziel is inching closer to a return to the NFL. The former first-round pick not only participated in a pair of pro day workouts over the past couple weeks that have sparked a buzz in the scouting community, but he's reportedly had a few conversations with teams, including the New England Patriots, which suggests he could have a legitimate chance to work his way back onto a roster.
What?! How can a quarterback regarded as a "party guy" with off-field issues get another shot in the league?
It's simple. The NFL is a forgiving community for talented players, particularly when it comes to former first-rounders. Top picks typically get at least three chances to fail in the league before they're completely dismissed as a bust, so I'm not surprised teams are keeping tabs on Manziel to see if he's turned his life around after spiraling out of control during his brief Browns tenure.
When I played with the Green Bay Packers, Ron Wolf told me that first-rounders were taken at the top of the draft for a reason and sometimes it only takes a change of scenery to bring out their talent. That can be due to a number of factors -- different coaching, playing in a new scheme that better suits a player's talents, the simple maturation that can follow failure -- but giving a rare talent a second chance can pay off in a major way.
That's why teams are vetting the former Heisman Trophy winner to see if he's straightened out his personal life and matured into a more focused player, on and off the field. By all accounts, Manziel has shown a more mature side in interviews and private conversations. Scouts attending his pro day workouts told me that he appeared more serious about his work. In addition, they raved about the zip, velocity and placement of his throws. Although he wasn't expected to be the main attraction at these workouts, I had a few scouts in attendance tell me that he tossed the ball around the yard like a top pick.
"He definitely hasn't lost anything as a passer," an AFC scout told me. "You can see he has a different energy about him."
At the time, I thought Manziel displayed plenty of qualities that are common among franchise quarterback. He played with outstanding confidence and swagger as a QB1, exhibiting a fearless competitive spirit in the clutch. In addition, he displayed terrific poise and composure in critical moments when he had the ball in his hands. As a passer, he had more than enough arm strength to make every throw in the book, but he was at his best operating in a quick-rhythm system that placed a premium on timely throws from the pocket. Yet, he also thrived as a "sandlot" playmaker, making a combination of rainbow tosses and laser-like throws on the move. While he tended to flee the pocket unnecessarily as a collegian, Manziel flashed just enough discipline to pique the interest of scouts looking for a mobile playmaker with a versatile game.
Fast-forward to the brief stint in the NFL. I just studied the tape, and Manziel was better than I remembered. The diminutive playmaker threw the ball with plenty of zip and velocity, but also showed a feathery touch on occasion. Not to mention, he showed good efficiency and above-average accuracy as a quick-rhythm thrower from the pocket, particularly when operating from the shotgun. Manziel was at his best when playing in spread and empty formations, where he could see the field and potential rushers. From a critical standpoint, Manziel was a little undisciplined as a playmaker, which led to some mistakes and turnovers. With his off-field issues likely affecting his preparation and development, the former first-rounder never reached his potential as a QB1. Given the cloud of uncertainty surrounding his discipline and focus, there are plenty of skeptics questioning Manziel's return to the league.
"I can't see it," an NFC scout said to me. "I don't know if you can trust him due to his off-field issue, and I'm not quite sure that he has enough talent to get another snap in the league. Sure, he can go to the [Spring League] or the CFL, but I can't see him playing in the league again."
I don't agree with that scout's assessment, based on the numerous chances first-rounders typically receive from coaches and execs seeking reclamation projects. Teams are always willing to give young, talented players a chance to earn a spot on the roster, particularly when they've earned high grades from scouts in the room. That's why I'm not surprised the Patriots reportedly talked to Manziel before and after his workout at Texas A&M. Manziel was a top-rated prospect in the 2014 class that included Jimmy Garoppolo -- the Patriots might've issued comparable grades to each of the passers. Considering how well Garoppolo performed in their system, the Pats could be willing to take a chance on Manziel to see if they can uncover a hidden gem at the position.
Although Manziel is more of a freewheeling playmaker than Jimmy G, his game fits the Patriots' quick-rhythm system. He is at his best throwing "catch, rock and fire" passes from shotgun sets and his scrambling ability would add a dimension to the offense. I'm obviously not saying he could unseat Tom Brady as the starter, but we've seen the Patriots coax quality performances from the likes of Brian Hoyer, Matt Cassel, Jacoby Brissett and others in brief stints, so it's possible Manziel could show enough promise to earn a spot as a QB2/QB3. Remember, he still has some practice-squad eligibility and that could make him an attractive option as a low-risk signing.
3) Is the kickoff on its last legs? I'm all for the health and safety of the NFL players, but honestly, I'm a little put off by this exploration to potentially eliminate kickoffs from the game. As a former NFL kick returner myself, I believe the play is one of the most beautiful aspects of the game -- and the impact of a field-flipping return can legitimately alter a game's outcome.
I already mentioned Percy Harvin's scintillating kick-return touchdown to blow open Super Bowl XLVIII earlier in this notebook. Remember Desmond Howard's spectacular return and robot celebration in Super Bowl XXXI? Those plays not decided the outcomes of title bouts, but they showed the football world the value of a dominant return man in a big game.
From a personal standpoint, the elimination of the kickoff would've reduced my odds of playing five-plus seasons in the NFL. Without carving out a role as a kick returner/kick-coverage specialist, I would've missed out on a chance to develop as a position player. While observers rarely pay close attention to the 22 guys on the field during a kicking play (well, besides the kicker and the returner), I can tell you that each member of those teams are battling for their football lives when they're running down the field.
That's why I'm saddened to hear about the potential elimination of the kickoff. The loss of that play would reduce the number of jobs available for developmental players on every team. Sure, teams will find a way to stash a few players on the roster, but those guys won't get a chance to feel the exhilaration of busting a wedge or splitting the seam on a perfectly blocked return.
Now, I understand why the Competition Committee would want to reduce a play that's been associated with concussions, but I would hate to see a number of returners and special teamers miss out on an opportunity to grow as players.