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:
-- The tight end poised for a monster season with a new coach.
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Drawing from my personal experience as an NFL player and scout, I believe elite teams feature eight to 10 "blue" players on the roster. Those guys are not only the team's designated difference makers, but they are typically regarded as top-10 players at their respective positions. As a player, I spent time with a Green Bay Packers squad that eventually won a Super Bowl with a star-studded lineup that featured Brett Favre, Reggie White, LeRoy Butler and a host of other studs who obliterated opponents with their individual and collective talent. Prior to that, I played on a Buffalo Bills team that was fresh off four straight Super Bowl appearances with a core of Hall of Fame inductees (Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and Bruce Smith) leading the way. Despite these Bills' Super Bowl failures, I gained an appreciation for the collective ability needed to compete at the highest level while playing on a squad that owned the AFC for a four-year period prior to my arrival.
Although the NFL has certainly changed dramatically since the 1990s, the core components needed to seriously compete for the Lombardi Trophy remain the same. The legitimate contenders in the league have a franchise quarterback surrounded by explosive playmakers with an exceptional offensive line leading the way. Defensively, the top teams can get after the passer with multiple players and they have a number of playmakers capable of taking over games. Whether it is coming up with timely turnovers or creating negative plays at the point of attack, the defense must have enough five-star talents to disrupt the flow of the opponent's offense.
With those factors in mind, DJ and I came up with the ultimate roster composition for a Super Bowl contender in today's environment. Which positions should executives focus on in roster construction? The top teams have "blues" (top-10 players) and other steady performers in the following areas ...
1 franchise quarterback
3 offensive linemen
3 offensive playmakers
2 pass rushers
3 defensive playmakers
In a pass-happy league, it is important to have a roster that features enough weapons to win using the aerial attack as the driving force of the offense. Conversely, the defense must be able to disrupt the timing of the passing game and create turnovers on the second level.
After taking a long, hard look at every roster in the league, I believe there are five teams already positioned to make a run at the Lombardi Trophy, as well as five hopefuls that could be a draft move away from potentially joining the winner's circle.
You can pencil these teams into your playoff bracket, likely as high seeds. They not only have all of the pieces of the puzzle in place, but they possess the right mix of veterans and youngsters to make it happen in 2019.
OK, the Patriots are the outlier in this group, lacking an established No. 2 pass rusher. But Bill Belichick's ability to use a variety of simulated pressures and exotic blitzes makes New England's pass rush more scheme-driven than others. With Van Noy, Hightower and others capable of contributing as pressure players, the Patriots are capable of disrupting the opponent's passing game without a name-brand QB hunter. That's why I slightly tweaked the formula here and listed one pass rusher and four defensive playmakers.
John Dorsey has helped the Browns shed their underdog label by adding five-star talents across the roster. Cleveland is absolutely loaded with difference makers at key positions, which makes a Super Bowl run a realistic possibility under new head coach Freddie Kitchens. Oh, and one side note: Kareem Hunt would merit serious consideration for "offensive playmaker" designation, but his eight-game suspension led me to settle with the other three.
L.A.'s rise to the top of the NFC has been fueled by Sean McVay's play-calling brilliance and Les Snead's savvy talent acquisition. The Rams have been major players in the free-agent and trade markets, and the bold moves have helped the team become a dominant unit in the NFC.
Say what you want about Jerry Jones and his approach to team-building, but there's no disputing the promise of this Cowboys' roster. America's Team is loaded with young talent at marquee positions -- and the group's collective playmaking ability could make Dallas the NFC's No. 1 seed at the end of the 2019 campaign. And yes, Frederick's status is still uncertain, as the center missed the entire 2018 campaign with Guillain-Barre syndrome. But even if he's still struggling with the autoimmune disorder in the fall, RT La'el Collins is emerging as a fine lineman, and would slide right into the third slot above.
It's not a coincidence the Bears surged to the top of the NFC North after acquiring Khalil Mack just before last season kicked off. The ultra-explosive sack master not only completed Ryan Pace's roster makeover, but No. 52 gave the Bears the high-end difference maker needed to seriously contend for the Lombardi Trophy. Stout center Cody Whitehair also received consideration for one of the O-lineman spots above.
CLOSE, BUT NO CIGAR
These teams are on the verge of joining the group above, but they need an additional piece to seriously contend for the crown.
Franchise quarterback:Carson Wentz.
Offensive playmakers:Zach Ertz, DeSean Jackson, Jordan Howard.
Offensive linemen:Jason Kelce, Lane Johnson, Brandon Brooks.
Pass rushers:Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham.
Defensive playmakers:Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod.
Need: defensive playmaker.
The Eagles took a step back in 2018, with Wentz shaking off the rust from a knee injury and eventually suffering a back ailment. The team's defense needs some more juice on the second level. Some potential priorities heading into the draft: an explosive linebacker with blitz and coverage capabilities; a versatile defensive back with playmaking potential on the perimeter or near the box. Speaking of playmaking, that last offensive playmaker spot came down to Howard and Alshon Jeffery. Went with Howard because, since the RB entered the NFL in 2016, only two backs (Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley) have more rushing yards than Howard's 3,370.
Los Angeles Chargers
Franchise quarterback:Philip Rivers.
Offensive playmakers:Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams.
Offensive linemen:Mike Pouncey, Russell Okung.
Pass rushers:Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram.
Defensive playmakers:Derwin James, Casey Hayward, Denzel Perryman.
Need: offensive lineman.
The Chargers keep inching closer to Super Bowl contention, but are a few pieces away from fielding a roster that can win against any team utilizing any style. To be effective against heavyweights in the AFC, the Bolts' offensive line must be able to control the line of scrimmage to create running lanes for Gordon or provide sufficient protection for Rivers to deal from the pocket. If L.A. can find another piece to solidify the offensive line, we could see No. 17 spark the Bolts on a deeper postseason run.
New Orleans Saints
Franchise quarterback:Drew Brees.
Offensive playmakers:Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Jared Cook.
Offensive linemen:Terron Armstead, Ryan Ramczyk.
Pass rushers:Cameron Jordan, Sheldon Rankins.
Defensive playmakers:Marshon Lattimore, Demario Davis, Vonn Bell.
Need: offensive lineman.
Sean Payton is an offensive wizard with a preference for leaning on a balanced approach to keep opponents on their toes, but he needs a more dominant O-line in place to fully implement his plan. The surprising retirement of center Max Unger leaves a void in the middle of the unit, which makes finding an interior blocker a top priority on draft weekend.
Franchise quarterback:Ben Roethlisberger.
Offensive playmakers:James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Offensive linemen:Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster.
Pass rushers:T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward.
Defensive playmakers:Joe Haden, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave.
Need: offensive playmaker.
The Steelers might have a more cohesive locker room without Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell, but the offense will surely miss their production on the field. Without a pair of five-star talents on the perimeter, Pittsburgh will need to add an explosive weapon via the draft to complement Conner and Smith-Schuster as the top offensive options.
Kansas City Chiefs
Franchise quarterback:Patrick Mahomes.
Offensive playmakers:Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins.
Offensive linemen:Mitchell Schwartz, Eric Fisher, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif.
Pass rushers:Chris Jones.
Defensive playmakers:Tyrann Mathieu, Kendall Fuller.
Need: Pass rusher and defensive playmaker.
The Chiefs have been widely hailed as Super Bowl contenders due to the emergence of Patrick Mahomes as the league's MVP, but a sagging defense threatens to torpedo those hopes. The Chiefs lost a pair of high-end pass rushers in the offseason (Justin Houston and Dee Ford) and the secondary remains a question mark despite the addition of the "Honey Badger." In a league that's governed by the passing game, K.C. must have edge rushers and cornerbacks as top priorities on the draft board. Lastly, we'll obviously have to see what comes of the ongoing investigation involving Hill.
GIANTS WITHOUT OBJ: Can New York air it out without a WR1?
The New York Giants are attempting to show the football world that you can win without a No. 1 receiver on the roster. The G-Men not only jettisoned Odell Beckham Jr., but they've made long-term commitments to a pair of WR2s to anchor a passing game led by an aging quarterback with a declining game.
Now, I'm certainly not dismissing the talents of Golden Tate or Sterling Shepard as effective playmakers on the perimeter, but neither is a No. 1 receiver in a traditional sense. As sub-6-foot pass catchers, Tate (5-foot-10, 197 pounds) and Shepard (5-foot-10, 203 pounds) are not physically imposing on the field and their inability to play "big boy" football certainly limits their effectiveness in the red zone. Additionally, they aren't necessarily speed demons who demand double-teams from opponents on a weekly basis (like Beckham did).
"In a perfect world, Tate and Shepard are No. 3s on a team," an NFC pro personnel director told me. "I don't know if they are special in any way, but they can be productive in certain roles."
Well alright then. Certainly not a ringing endorsement, but I believe both pass catchers can be effective if the Giants put them in positions to maximize their strengths.
For Shepard, that means placing him in the slot and allowing him to work against linebackers and sub-defenders between the hashes. As a crafty receiver with exceptional short-area quickness and burst, Shepard consistently creates separation on short and intermediate routes, turning quick tosses into first downs. Shepard's patience, timing and diverse releases allow him to win when he is able to escape the clutches of bump-and-run corners at the line. No. 87 is at his best when he can exploit voids in zone defenses, and his chemistry with Eli Manning shows up when he's been featured prominently in the game plan. Comparing Shepard's 11 career games without Beckham to his 32 games with OBJ, Shepard's targets (8.5 vs. 6.3), receptions (5.3 vs. 4.1) and receiving yards per game (67.8 vs. 48.1) all increased significantly without the Giants' former star on the field. Moreover, Shepard displayed a better synergy with his veteran quarterback when he moved up in the food chain.
Although things will certainly change with opponents more likely to focus on Shepard as one of the top options in the lineup, the 26-year-old could post solid numbers on the perimeter if the defense turns its attention to defending Saquon Barkley with more "plus-one" defenses (defense commits an additional defender to the box to stop the run). If Shepard can win his 1-on-1 battles on the perimeter with everyone focused on Barkley, he could top the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career and change the narrative surrounding his status as a WR2/WR3.
Tate is a rugged receiver with a blue-collar game built around his spectacular running skills as an ex-punt returner. He specializes in turning quicks and screens into big plays, particularly on jailbreak screens and WR bubbles on the perimeter. Tate not only has a knack for making the first defender miss, but he has a feel for finding creases within a maze of bodies on the field.
Looking at Tate's production since 2012, the one-time Pro Bowler leads the NFL in yards after the catch (3,621), positioned ahead of household names like Antonio Brown (3,560), Demaryius Thomas (3,264), Julio Jones (3,218) and Le'Veon Bell (2,727). Considering how each of the aforementioned pass catchers fit the bill as a WR1 or RB1/WR2, it's clear Tate has played a prominent role in the passing game. Whether that's as a manufactured WR1 or as a designated playmaker on a specific touch count, the Giants could certainly elevate him with careful scripting and scheming. We've seen offensive coordinators do this for years with a number of "system" players around the league, so it's a realistic consideration for Pat Shurmur this fall.
Without a transcendent star on the perimeter, the Giants will need their head coach to dig deeper into the playbook to make the team's passing game a viable threat with a pair of complementary players occupying key roles.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) All that glitters is gold for the Jets' defense. I'm not mad at the Jets' Jamal Adams for expressing his desire to create a special bond with new teammate C.J. Mosley that mimics the relationship established by Hall of Famers Ed Reed and Ray Lewis during their time with the Ravens. The Pro Bowl safety expressed those sentiments in a recent interview that took the Twitterverse by storm.
"It's exciting, it's crazy," Adams said, per the team's official website. "I'm not comparing us to them, but in a way, I'm saying it can be something special like that. And when I say that, I mean Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. That's the first thing that came in my mind and I hit (Mosley) up. I told him we can do something special just like those guys if we put our minds to it and just keep working, stay humble and keep our faith. That's what I'm looking forward to."
While it is certainly a lofty ambition to match the feats of Reed and Lewis as a tandem, the fact that we can even envision the Jets fielding a Super Bowl-caliber defense with a few five-star players as the foundation is a step in the right direction. Yes, we have to include Leonard Williams in the discussion as a centerpiece player who helps give the Jets a formidable unit down the middle, which is essential to any top-tier D.
"Every championship defense is strong down the middle in any sport," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "In baseball, it is the pitcher, catcher, shortstop, second baseman and center fielder. In basketball, it was always the point guard and power forward or center. Football is no different. You have to have dominant players at defensive tackle, linebacker and safety. Those guys are your foundation and you build out the rest of the unit from there."
Looking at the Jets' defense the past few years, there's no disputing the talent and potential of Williams and Adams as difference makers. Each defender brings swagger and toughness while dominating at their respective positions. Mosley only adds to that foundation with his instincts, awareness and playmaking potential.
As a player who's quick to diagnose thanks to his outstanding read-and-react skills, Mosley is a sideline-to-sideline menace against the run and pass. He impacts the game as a hitter between the tackles or as a rover in coverage. With Williams pushing the pocket and Adams protecting the deep middle or creating chaos in the box, Mosley's combination of skills should lead to more splash plays and turnovers for the Jets.
2) Hop aboard the O.J. Howard hype train. My advice to fantasy football team owners looking for a breakout player to hang their hat on in 2019: Snatch up O.J. Howard in the draft. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' third-year tight end has been the talk of the town since teasing the football world as a sensational sophomore before foot and ankle injuries derailed his 2018 season. The effusive praise recently lavished on Howard by the team's QB1 leads me to believe he will be a major part of the offense this season.
"The sky's the limit, really, not even the sky -- probably the moon," said Jameis Winston, per Pewter Report. "Why limit him there? This guy, he's incredible. He and Cam (Brate) really complement each other well. I think O.J. can learn a lot of things from Cam. I believe having both of those guys is going to make our offense go to the top."
The 6-foot-6, 251-pounder is a freakish athlete with an exceptional combination of size, strength and speed that makes him a nightmare to defend on the perimeter. He's too quick and athletic for linebackers and is an unconquerable bully for smallish defensive backs. That's why Howard could emerge as a stat-sheet stuffer for the Buccaneers, with DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries no longer around to beg for scraps in the passing game.
With the veterans gone, Howard should become the No. 2 option in the pecking order behind Mike Evans, and his numbers should skyrocket with the team poised to use more "12" personnel packages (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) featuring Howard or Brate as a "flex" pass catcher. This not only creates headaches for defensive coordinators attempting to keep base personnel on the field to potentially handle the running game, but it also gives the Bucs a huge advantage when spreading the field with big bodies in open sets.
Although first-year Bucs head coach Bruce Arians didn't have a big-time pass catcher at tight end during his time in Arizona, the strength of the Bucs' personnel should lead the wily play caller to lean on the ultra-athletic Howard in the passing game next season. No. 80 has the potential to act as a quasi-WR2 in the team's new offense.
Studying the coach's scheme and how he's deployed his top playmakers in the past, it's possible that Howard occupies the role Larry Fitzgerald excelled in during his time with Arians in Arizona. The big-bodied tight end can be used as an oversized slot receiver assigned to work the middle of the field from a variety of alignments. Additionally, he could receive a little work as an outside receiver in empty formations to take advantage of matchups in space.
Considering the production Fitzgerald posted as an aging pass catcher who was still the Cardinals' top target (at least 100 catches and 1,000 yards in each of his last three seasons with Arians), Howard could see his numbers spike despite sharing the marquee with Evans as the Bucs' top option in the passing game.