NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his exclusive Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):
» Whether DeMarco Murray can be traded.
» Two must-see college prospects in the Heisman spotlight this Saturday.
» Whether the Bills should offer Tyrod Taylor a contract extension.
And much more, beginning with Russell Wilson's crucial transformation in Seattle ...
Trev Moawad has worked with hundreds of athletes and coaches, making his ability to draw a point of reference pretty good when it comes to the mindset of the competitors he consults. So the counterpart he's settled on for prized pupil Russell Wilson may raise a few eyebrows.
Would you believe ... Nick Saban?
The logic goes that the Alabama coach's insatiable appetite for achievement is exceedingly rare, which is to say that when Moawad sees it in someone else, it's unmistakable. Hard to find. Easy to spot.
"This is how it was explained to me by [Olympian] Michael Johnson," said Moawad, Wilson's mental conditioning coach. "When an athlete becomes a professional, it's fame, financial security and success. And you never know what'll happen to athletes once they get the first two, the fame and the financial security. For a lot of athletes, the third piece is not that important. With Russell, I think it's more the third thing. I think the most important of the three to him is succeeding."
Which is what Wilson is now doing.
In his last three games, with the Seahawks having lost their offensive engine, veteran running back Marshawn Lynch, to a sports hernia, Wilson has posted passer ratings of 138.5, 147.9 and 146.0, and Seattle has won each week's contest by a comfortable margin. As a result, he's now the league's third-rated passer, outranking more decorated vets like Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers. No coincidence, either, that the Seahawks look like the Seahawks again.
One prominent teammate kept it simple, via text: "He's playing phenomenal."
The temptation, then, would be to mark this as some sort of torch-passing from Lynch to Wilson as the Seahawks continue to evolve. That'd also be a largely incorrect takeaway.
"It's funny to talk about that, because I'm really not sure there's been a leap in what he's doing," said Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell on Thursday afternoon. "The guy is one of the winningest quarterbacks in the league over his four years, back-to-back Super Bowls, playoffs every year. I'm not sure he's all of the sudden lights-out."
So here's a more accurate way to view it: Based on the way the position is, and the financial realities of the league, what we're seeing now is, in certain ways, how it needs to be.
You may remember 14 years ago, when a game-managing quarterback got his shot to play and proceeded to lead a rock-solid group on a Cinderella run through the playoffs. His team did it again two years later, and again the year after that. The quarterback got paid and got famous, but most importantly, he kept getting better, to the point where he was the reason -- rather than a reason -- for the team's dizzying success. Because of the economics of quarterbacking, it had to become about him at some point, and he was ready when it did.
That was Brady.
Likewise, Wilson was drafted into a good situation, where he didn't have to carry the team but he did consistently come through in big spots. He cashed in this offseason, to where he's now making what three or four very good players at other positions would earn combined -- and the natural order of things means he has to become a little bit more, like Brady once did.
What we're seeing now is a good sign Wilson won't shrink at the challenge.
"I haven't seen change from him in any way for the worse," said Bevell. "It's not like he got paid and said, 'I've arrived.' The special thing about Russell is, he's a worker, he puts the time in, he gets better. No detail is too small, whether it's footwork or just being in the book. But he also has this unbelievable belief in himself. It's really unique among the guys I've been around. It's tough to get him down -- he'll continue to work and fight through it."
That's been tested this year.
The Seahawks' offensive line was, to put it mildly, a mess early on. Wilson took 31 sacks in Seattle's first seven games. No one expected him to start pointing fingers -- that wouldn't have been him -- but some were watching to see how it'd affect his play. Bevell impressed on him that, when things went awry, "you can't judge a play by the last play, just play the play and trust this play is gonna be different." It wasn't a perfect situation, not by a long shot. But he benefitted from it.
"He's playing with more confidence and doesn't seem to be pressing anymore," said one rival pro scouting director. "He seems to have developed some trust in his offensive line. If his initial read wasn't open in the past, his eyes would drop to find the rush and he wouldn't see things developing downfield."
By then, though, what he'd been through early in the year was revealing the growth he's undertaken, really, through three-plus years as a pro. This time around, he had more answers at his disposal when the questions came flying.
"Things we'd ask him to do within the system, earlier in his career, if the guy he wanted to throw to wasn't there, he'd just take off," said Bevell. "Now, he's going through his progressions. He's grasping it better, he's trusting his protection, and he can go one to two to three to his checkdowns. It's his overall understanding, how he can use the system against a defense now."
Bevell's been careful to make sure Wilson retains what the coordinator calls "his magic." Seattle has called more runs of late, which helps Wilson take advantage of the speed work he emphasized this offseason with renowned trainer Ryan Flaherty, and keeps the defense more honest.
The big thing, though, is that Wilson has continued to get better at the other stuff, and the way he's playing right now is more sustainable -- and easier to build around -- than how he played as a rookie or a second-year pro, when he was winning endlessly with a superior team. It's almost the reverse of what happened with Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco or Robert Griffin III in Washington.
That, of course, guarantees nothing. Wilson still has a ways to go to catch the elite, and he knows that, to be sure.
But he also knows this: Failure won't be due to a lack of ambition.
"He wants to be mentioned in that conversation," Bevell says. "He's on that mission, to be the best ever."
And as it is with a certain coach in Alabama, failure on that particular count won't come for lack of trying.
1) Steelers make it work. Consider this: Ben Roethlisberger has missed four-and-a-half games, receiver Martavis Bryantsat out five, center Maurkice Pounceyhasn't played a snap all year, left tackle Kelvin Beachum was lost for the year in Week 6 and running back Le'Veon Bell was suspended for the first two games of the season before being lost for the year with a knee injury in Week 8. So of (arguably) the six most important members of the offense, only receiver Antonio Brown has avoided missing at least a quarter of the season. And yet, here we are: The Steelersrank second in the NFL, behind only Arizona, in total offense. What's more, they're getting better. As Chris Wesseling pointed out earlier this week, Pittsburgh's total of 2,116 yards over its last four games is the second-highest total in a four-game stretch (beaten only by the 1982 Chargers) in NFL history. Here's how one high-ranking Steeler source described the group's ability to take all these hits and keep punching: "Young guys like [tackle Alejandro] Villanueva, [tight end] Jesse James and [backup quarterback] Landry Jones are being developed. Vets like [center] Cody Wallace and [running back] DeAngelo Williams have played at a high level. The younger wideouts, Bryant and [Markus] Wheaton, have continued to grow. The communication of the whole to the quarterback has been great. And Ben has played at a high level." Put that together, and it's clear there are a lot of hands in the pot. General manager Kevin Colbert and his staff are responsible for finding the guys listed above -- of the seven replacements named there, Williams is the highest paid, at $2 million per year. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley and his staff (and line coach Mike Munchak deserves a mention, too) have developed them and kept them ready. And head coach Mike Tomlin has kept the ship steady through some rough waters. The result has been three 500-yard efforts in four games, and a team that looks like it'll be an awfully tough out with Roethlisberger, Brown and Bryant leading the way.
2) Patriots stuck in neutral. The once-unstoppable Patriots offense now looks scattershot. And while the reasons for that are a little complex, the overriding cause is remarkably simple. Without injured tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman, and with Danny Amendola banged up and the offensive line struggling to stay together, of course they weren't going to be the same. "[The Week 13 loss to the Eagles] was an anomaly," said one rival executive who studied it. "Three touchdowns came without the defense on the field -- the two on special teams, and the pick-six. I think they've done a hell of a job with whom they lost, but the injuries are becoming a bear to overcome. Just too many losses at key spots and a lack of continuity, and the overall talent issues on offense are not as easy to mask. ... [Tight end Scott] Chandler's a nice player, but he's not Gronk. Amendola's a nice player, but Edelman's better. The run game's been an issue, and so the protection issues continue to be." And all of that creates a larger problem -- which is where it gets complex -- for the Patriots from a scheme standpoint. The fact that Tom Brady has seven years under his belt with Edelman, six with Gronkowski and three with Amendola had made it almost impossible for teams to play zone against New England, because of the ability of all those guys to find dead spots and the synergy between them, which allowed them to see things the same way. So the Patriots had been able to force defenses into man, which made the game a lot simpler for them. But with guys like Chandler and Keshawn Martin now playing prominent roles, defenses can open their playbooks back up -- consider that the Eagles, a predominantly Cover-3 defense, had more success Sunday than Seattle did in Super Bowl XLIX. And Brady winds up with as uneven a three-game stretch as he's had since last season's rough start. So you wanna know if the Patriots' problems could be fatal ones? Tell me if Gronkowski, Edelman and Amendola are healthy, and we can answer the question.
3) Jim Bob making waves.Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter will likely be a name to watch as new staffs come together in January -- assuming Detroit coach Jim Caldwell's group isn't whacked by whoever gets hired to be the team's new GM -- and not just because his name is fun to say (which it is). The 31-year-old Cooter's made a marked difference with quarterback Matthew Stafford, and he's done it on the fly, having replaced the fired Joe Lombardi in late October. Through the first eight games of the year -- a span that includes the final seven games of Lombardi's tenure and the first of Cooter's -- Stafford threw 13 touchdown passes against 11 interceptions, with a discussion forming about his future in Detroit. Then the Lions had their Week 9 bye, the GM and president were shown the door, and Cooter quietly reworked the offense. The biggest change? According to players, his work to simplify the verbiage was most impactful. Tight end Eric Ebron explains it like this: "He's taking what was a paragraph long and condensing it to one word or two words." And in doing so, Cooter empowered his quarterback. "The reasoning for it is the ability to play on the ball," Stafford told me. "It lets you play faster. If you want to get into a play that, in the huddle, might be 10 or 15 words long, it might be difficult to do that at the line of scrimmage, barking all that out. So if you wanna play fast, it's easier if you can create on the move. ... Faster in and out of the huddle, and the ability to play at the line of scrimmage without huddling if you need to." That's allowed Stafford to create better matchups on his own -- and Cooter's doing that too, by moving guys around -- which has led to a surge in production at the skill spots. As for Stafford himself, over the last four games, his average yards and completion percentage are up, he's thrown nine touchdown passes and just a single pick, and his passer rating has jumped more than 20 points (from 84.1 over his first eight games to 105.4 over his last four). So now, rather than being viewed as a potential trade piece, Stafford is likely to be seen as an attractive building block to GM candidates. And for all the new head coaches that'll be in place in January, Cooter has the look of an offensive coordinator worth pursuing.
4) What the 2011 NFL Draft says about the wisdom of selecting a quarterback later.The 2011 draft class is fascinating for a number of reasons, and its lessons could well impact what happens in April, a half-decade later. Depending on who's available, eight or nine signal callers could come off the board within the first four rounds -- but as one AFC exec put it a couple weeks back, "There's no Winston or Mariota." In 2011, of course, there was one of those: Cam Newton, who went to Carolina with the first overall pick. But the next three quarterbacks taken -- Jake Locker (eighth overall to the Titans), Blaine Gabbert (10th overall to the Jags) and Christian Ponder (12th overall to the Vikings) -- were pushed up the board by need and the importance of the position. A fair number of teams didn't have first-round grades on any of those three, and none of the three made it to a fifth year with their drafting team, with two (Locker and Ponder) out of the league now altogether. Meanwhile, Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick were selected by the Bengals and Niners, respectively, with back-to-back picks early in the second round, and both were quarterbacking playoff teams within two years. Because the Bengals decided to wait, despite having a crying need, they were able to give Dalton a weapon in Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green with their first pick in that draft (fourth overall). Because the Niners waited, they got Pro Bowl pass rusher Aldon Smith in the first round, and were able to sit Kaepernick early in his career. Both Dalton and Kaepernick were brought along in a more reasonable manner than most first-round picks are. One (Dalton) has kept ascending, the other (Kaepernick) hasn't -- that's just the way it goes. But each was in a far better spot than their first-round counterparts (Newton aside). A similar argument could be made about the 2014 class, with Oakland second-rounder Derek Carr looking like the brightest prospect despite being taken after first-rounders Blake Bortles (fifth overall to the Jaguars), Johnny Manziel (22nd overall to the Browns) and Teddy Bridgewater (32nd overall to the Vikings) -- plus, the Raiders came away with linebacker Khalil Mack (fifth overall) for their patience. Spin this forward to today. If you're a struggling team that needs a quarterback and is eyeing an upcoming class that could include a half-dozen QBs you might grade similarly, it might make some sense (for your sake and the sake of the kid) not to take one in Round 1.
1) Given what's gone down with Eagles back DeMarco Murray, I asked around about whether he'd be a tradeable commodity in the offseason. "Yes," said one AFC exec. "I would guess the contract would probably be more of a hindrance to a trade than his '15 production." Indeed, there is a perception that Murray's problems in Philadelphia are system-related. As for the contract, it'll be a tough one to move -- but not impossible. Similar to Jimmy Graham's situation last year (in acquiring him from the Saints, the Seahawks took on three years and $27 million of what was a four-year, $40 million deal), the structure of Murray's deal makes it so that a team that has money to spend (and a few actually need to get over the salary floor) could see it as workable. He has four years and $31 million left on the contract he inked with Philly last offseason, and only $9 million guaranteed. And $7 million of that $9 million is his 2016 base salary, which you'd be taking on anyway. The average puts him in the neighborhood of the Bears' Matt Forte and the Panthers' Jonathan Stewart, and the ability to escape the deal at any point is attractive. So could the Eagles ship him out for a low pick just to get out of the deal? It's not impossible.
2) One leftover nugget from Bill O'Brien last week: Don't look for the Texans to volunteer for "Hard Knocks" again anytime soon after appearing on the most recent installment of the HBO program. Once, as it turns out, was enough. "I don't think so," the coach said. "The team handled all that well, but I'm not gonna say I'm a big fan of "Hard Knocks." If it were up to me, I wouldn't do it again. I would tell you that the people who produce the show are absolutely awesome people. And it didn't have anything to do with us not playing well early on. Some people would use "Hard Knocks" as an excuse -- that wasn't it. We weren't playing well. I just wouldn't want to do it again."
3) A loss to the streaking Seahawkson Sunday would lock in John Harbaugh's first losing season in eight years as the Ravens' coach, but if history is our guide, there might be something that results to look forward to. Since the Ravens won their first Super Bowl title following the 2000 season, the team has posted three losing campaigns -- and general manager Ozzie Newsome has taken advantage of the draft capital those disappointing efforts wrought. In 2002, the Ravens went 7-9, and Terrell Suggs came in with the 10th overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft. In 2005, Baltimore was 6-10, and Haloti Ngata arrived with the 12th pick the following spring. And in 2007, the Ravens were 5-11, and they wound up with Joe Flacco at No. 18 overall in 2008 after trading down and then up again.
Two college players to watch Saturday
1) Clemson QB Deshaun Watson (Heisman Trophy presentation, ESPN, 8 p.m. ET): There's still a lot to learn about this 20-year-old, who's in just his fourth semester as a college kid. But what everyone has seen thus far has intrigued many at the pro level. "I just like the way he throws the ball," said one offensive coach for an NFC club. "He's a smooth athlete. He's had injury issues, so that'd be a concern." An NFC general manager added that the requisite athleticism and arm strength are there, while Watson still needs to improve his accuracy. And an AFC college scouting director echoed that, saying he sees "a good athlete that spins the ball well. Not always accurate from the pocket, he's better on the move or when a play breaks down. But he's already a good, solid player." The numbers have been pretty good, too -- he's completed at least 70 percent of his passes in eight of the Tigers' 13 wins, only failed to hit 65 percent twice, and was under 60 percent just once. He also topped 100 yards rushing in four of his last five games, as Clemson's run to the playoffs intensified, and he has a reputation -- as those scouts who've been through the school this fall would relay -- of being a solid kid and leader. Watson, of course, has a ways to go, and isn't draft-eligible until 2017. But the arrow is most certainly pointing up here.
2) Alabama RB Derrick Henry (Heisman Trophy presentation, ESPN, 8 p.m. ET): After platooning with T.J. Yeldon during his first two years in Tuscaloosa, this true junior has shouldered a heavier burden in 2015 than any back in college football: His workload of 339 carries (26.1 per game) lead the FBS, as do his 1,986 yards and 23 rushing touchdowns. The question, then -- as it has been with so many other Alabama players -- is where the upside is in the 6-foot-3, 242-pound force of nature. "He's different," said another AFC college scouting director. "[There are] not many built like him: He's high-hipped, not loose, and there's a long style to his play. But he has good vision, and when he gets rolling, he is rolling. Great strength, great balance, quick feet for a big guy. ... I don't know how fast he'll run, I just know that he's so long that once he gets going, he covers a lot of ground. ... If he has room to go, he's hard to catch." An area scout assigned to Alabama called Henry a "solid college back, but he needs touches to be productive, and he's a downhill runner only." One comparison I got for Henry was the obvious one -- because backs this tall are rare -- and that was a "faster Brandon Jacobs." But according to these evaluators, Henry is not as violent a runner as Jacobs was coming out. Another comp: a "bigger, slower DeMarco Murray." In any case, he's not in the class of a Todd Gurley or a Leonard Fournette as a projection, and likely won't be seen as quite as good, in that regard, as Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott. The area scout put it this way: "Elliott can create on his own, [Henry] can't." So as big and fast and freakish as Henry may look, because his game would be limited if he were to land in an offense that demands more out of backs in the passing game, his ability doesn't translate as well as it may seem it would on TV.
In this particular space, we've discussed the tricky contract decisions coming for clubs on future free-agent quarterbacks Brock Osweiler and Kirk Cousins. And while the Bills don't need to address Tyrod Taylor's situation in the offseason, giving their quarterback an extension is certainly something to look at.
The ex-Raven signed a three-year deal with Buffalo in March, but the final year voids if Taylor plays 50 percent of the Bills' 2015 or '16 snaps -- and since he's already played 645 snaps (80.9 percent), it's now a certainty that next year will be a contract year for the first-year starter, who is scheduled to make $1 million (plus attainable play-time incentives that could push the deal to $3 million) in his second year with the team.
Suffice it to say, the 26-year-old, who made just over $2 million over his first four NFL years, could be motivated to secure his fiscal future and mitigate injury risk. That puts the team in a good position to do a deal, which leads to the question of whether or not the Bills are comfortable hitching their wagon to Taylor as their quarterback of the future.
With that as the backdrop, I asked Rex Ryan this week if he thinks, based on what he knows now, Taylor is the type of quarterback who can become the face of a franchise.
Rex smiled, then continued: "I'm confident in this young man. And I've been confident from the day we brought him here. He's done nothing but stay on the level I thought he'd be on or even exceeded it a little bit. He's been absolutely terrific for us. If we win, I think people will realize it. We're 6-4 with him as our starter. I think the more success our team has -- people are gonna say, 'Who is this kid at quarterback?' And they'll be surprised when they look at the stats."
I then asked Ryan what everyone missed on Taylor. He responded, "Don't care. Don't care. We missed on him in New York when I was trying to [trade for] him. I wish I had the foresight then that I have now."
On Taylor's end, his agent actually initially reached out to the Eagles, because of the potential fit in Chip Kelly's offense. When it became clear that wasn't an option -- Philly was working on the Sam Bradford trade -- the Broncos (whose new coach, Gary Kubiak, had just coached Taylor as the offensive coordinator in Baltimore in 2014) and the Bills emerged as Taylor's suitors, and the playing-time picture pushed him to Buffalo. Now that Taylor's there, though, there are other reasons he wants to stick around. And he's adamant about staying.
"For sure. For sure. It's a great group of guys, great organization to be around, great people in the organization. And great players," Taylor told me. "I love coming to work. Just with the attitude everyone comes to work with, that makes it a fun environment. So, of course, I'd want to be here long-term."
The quarterback added that Greg Roman's scheme has proved an ideal fit, because, in Taylor's words, the offensive coordinator "does a good job of creating ways to have his playmakers go out there and succeed."
It should be noted that Roman's approach in San Francisco (where he worked from 2011 to 2014) worked early on for Colin Kaepernick, too, and Kaepernick's development eventually plateaued when defenses forced him to function as a more conventional quarterback. Similarly, Taylor will have to prove he can counterpunch when defenses build a book on him.
But with six touchdown passes and no picks in his last two games, and the Bills squarely in the race for an AFC wild-card spot, we can say this much: So far, so good.
"We know what he's doing," Ryan said. And he's just getting better and better as he goes along."