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:
- Why the Texans' offense will be better without DeAndre Hopkins.
- Ranking the league's five most explosive offensive players.
- How the 49ers should proceed in their negotiations with George Kittle.
But first, a look at three things the Saints must do to move forward as a team ...
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees' comments this week about the prospect of players kneeling during the national anthem created a firestorm as so many around the world are seeking change in the wake of George Floyd's death while in the custody of police.
The impact of Brees' remarks stretched far beyond the walls of the Saints' facility, sparking further discussion on topics far more important than football. At the same time, there's no denying that the comments also have the potential to tear apart a team expected to contend for the Lombardi Trophy in 2020.
The damage played out in public, as several of the quarterback's teammates were highly critical of his position in the immediate aftermath. Although No. 9 has since apologized twice for his comments, the lack of empathy he initially exhibited for the plight of some of his teammates violated a sacred code in the locker room that could make it very difficult for this Saints team to come together and reach its potential. While Brees' apologies were a first step -- and were accepted by some teammates who had voiced criticism -- the Saints undoubtedly still have work to do in order to resolve the issue. And they must do this work in a way that helps the team become a more unified unit going forward.
After talking about this development with a few coaches and executives in the NFL, I've come up with three things that need to happen for the Saints to move past the controversial comments from their 13-time Pro Bowl quarterback:
1) Sean Payton has to get out in front of the issue.
Whenever a crisis strikes a football team, the head coach must address it immediately and have a plan to move past it. Payton undoubtedly recognizes the potential of this issue to divide his team.
To avoid a complete fracture of the squad, he must have a series of team meetings that feature open and honest dialogue from every member of the team. The Saints reportedly have already had one such hour-long virtual meeting. As these types of meetings continue, Payton needs to moderate the discussion to provide everyone with an opportunity to be heard. From Brees to Michael Thomas to Malcolm Jenkins to Cam Jordan and others, the Saints must continue to clear the air. Although the discussions won't necessarily change opinions, they could help players gain a better understanding of their teammates' views and backgrounds.
If Payton can get his players to continue to engage in these tough conversations without holding grudges when they're done, the Saints can move forward and slowly regain the chemistry needed to play at a high level. As the head coach of the entire team, he has to avoid looking like he's showing favoritism to any one player. With players closely evaluating how Payton leads the discussion, the Super Bowl-winning coach has to be on his game as a leader and communicator in these meetings.
"There are only a handful of coaches in the league that can handle a situation like this, and Sean is one of them," an AFC assistant head coach told me. "He has the right personality to navigate the team through rough waters. He will find a way to help the team get through the tough conversations without tearing the team apart. ... There will be some scars, but he can help them heal and get back on track."
2) Drew Brees has to re-earn the trust of his teammates.
In a locker room with a diverse set of people from different backgrounds and circumstances, the remarks undoubtedly violated some of the trust established between No. 9 and his teammates.
Brees is free to express his beliefs, but he must also show respect to those of his teammates. If he ignores their feelings, he'll be treating them as inferiors and that destroys the "band of brothers" premise that's routinely promoted in locker rooms. To have any chance of salvaging those bonds, Brees must continue to work on repairing his relationships with his teammates. He not only must earn his teammates' respect by sincerely listening to their opinions and feelings but he needs to show them that he respects them despite their differences.
"He has to walk the walk," a former NFL defensive coordinator said. "He has to do exactly what he says that he's going to do or he will lose the respect of his teammates and never get it back.
"If he's going to be their leader, they must trust him and he has to earn that back."
Brees' apologies will soothe some of his teammates' feelings, but he won't begin to re-earn their respect until they're able to see if his actions match his words. This is easier said than done, but Brees can mend his fractured relationships with his teammates by working harder to understand them and their differences.
3) The Saints' other leaders must step up to keep the team together.
The Saints will need their veteran leaders -- like Jordan, Jenkins, Thomas, Demario Davis, Alvin Kamara and others -- to keep the team together during this crisis. The squad leaders were the first to call out Brees on his missteps, but they will also play a key role in helping No. 9 re-establish his stature on the team. They must facilitate open and honest discussions within the team while demanding authenticity and empathy from everyone involved.
In addition, the veterans must model the behavior that they demand from their teammates by welcoming Brees back into the fold while he works to repair the damaged relationships in the locker room. If the veteran leaders can set the example, they can help the Saints move past this storm and maintain the chemistry that's helped them dominate the NFC South of late.
"The good teams have a way of policing themselves in the locker room," the AFC assistant head coach said. "Players will hold each other accountable for their actions. ... There are a number of incidents that happen throughout the year that require teammates to have one-on-one discussions to straighten issues out. This is a little different because it played out on social media, but the Saints appear to have a solid 'checks and balances' system in place with the way his teammates immediately challenged him. If Brees listens to his teammates and shows some respect for their opinions, they can eventually move past the issue.
"It will take some time, but it can be done."
TEXANS OFFENSE: Better without Hopkins?
This won't be a popular opinion, but I'm going to say it anyway: The Texans' offense is a better unit without DeAndre Hopkins.
Before you fire off a nasty tweet or blow up my Instagram account, I'm not dismissing Hopkins' talents as a three-time All-Pro and arguably the best receiver in football. I just believe the Texans' offense will be more diverse and explosive with a committee approach at receiver that will enable Deshaun Watson to become an even better high-end distributor.
I mean, just listen to Texans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly gush about his weapons.
"We've got a great quarterback, a guy who's going to be able to distribute the ball and again get the ball to the guys that are winning, and we've got guys who have won consistently for a long time scattered throughout that room," Kelly told reporters last month. "You look at Brandin (Cooks), you look at Randall (Cobb), you look at Will (Fuller) and Kenny (Stills), obviously, with the production they had last year.
"I think when you look at the people that we have in our offensive unit room right now, you've got a lot of explosive players there for us, guys that have unique skill sets, guys that are experienced and guys that have produced at a high level in this league. It's an exciting thing to be able to kind of sit back and watch those guys come together throughout this virtual offseason and learn the offense and kind of come together as one unit."
The play-caller's optimism might surprise some observers who've watched Hopkins put the Texans' offense on his back in recent years.
In each of the last five seasons, he led the Texans in receiving yards and targets by massive margins (an average of 94 targets and 740 yards more than the next-closest receiver in those categories). Since Watson's arrival in 2017, Hopkins has averaged 162 targets, 105 catches, 1,372 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns per season. Considering the Texans haven't had another receiver top 50 catches or 700 yards in a single season during that span, the removal of No. 10 should render the offense punchless, right?
Don't believe the hype. Although Hopkins is universally regarded as an ace of spades, you can win a lot of hands with kings and queens. Houston added to the latter category by acquiring Cooks and Cobb this offseason. The combination of Fuller, Cooks, Stills and Cobb puts a dynamic set of route runners, playmakers and catch-and-run specialists around the Texans' franchise quarterback.
Watson suddenly has a track team around him with Cooks, Stills and Fuller (all clocked sub-4.4 40-yard dash times at the NFL Scouting Combine) featuring the speed, explosiveness and burst to create explosive plays on deep throws or crossing routes. Each pass-catcher enters the season averaging 14-plus yards per catch for his career and the trio has combined for 57 40-plus-yard receptions in their careers. With Watson connecting on 38 of 84 deep balls for 1,313 yards with 11 touchdowns (and five interceptions) in 2019, the Texans' track team at receiver should lead to more balls flying down the field.
In Cobb, the Texans landed a crafty slot receiver coming off a season in which he posted a career best 15.1 yards per catch for the Cowboys. Although he isn't a vertical threat, he is a playmaker with the capacity to create explosive plays as a catch-and-run specialist. A shifty runner with outstanding stop-start quickness and wiggle, Cobb could terrorize opponents over the middle of the field.
"We're excited about the veteran weapons, the new weapons that we have," Watson recently told the Houston Chronicle while discussing his summer reading program. "Over the past couple of years, we haven't had too much veteran depth, especially in the receiving room. For us to get a couple of guys to come in and be able to help us produce and play a lot of football, not just to elevate their game but our game as a whole organization as a whole offense and as a quarterback, I'm very excited about it. I'm looking forward to it."
There's some optimism from the QB himself. So, while I certainly understand why the Texans have taken heat for the decision to part with Hopkins this offseason, don't be surprised if Bill O'Brien gets the last laugh when this group of weapons produces even better results.
Top five most explosive offensive players
Coaches and general managers search high and low for players with the potential to deliver big plays in critical moments. These impact players not only produce explosive plays but help offenses put points on the board. In a league that's skewing heavily toward offense, the best offenses have at least one explosive playmaker on the field at all times.
Given some time to assess the NFL landscape while conducting my offseason film study, here are top five most explosive offensive players in the league:
QB1s are not expected to be the most explosive playmaker on the field but No. 8 is shattering the mold as a dynamic quarterback with A-plus arm talent and dizzying running skills. The reigning MVP had 47 runs of 10-plus yards (out of 176 rushing attempts) on the way to setting the single-season NFL rushing record (1,206) for a quarterback in 2019. If that's not enough, Jackson became the only quarterback in NFL history to produce 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a single season. With the second-year pro adding 36 passing touchdowns to join Steve Young (35/7 in 1994) and Cam Newton (35/10 in 2015) as the only quarterbacks with at least 35 passing touchdowns and seven rushing scores, the Ravens' star is a long-distance scoring threat on every play. In a league in which points are valued at a premium, Jackson's big-play ability makes him the undisputed champion on this list.
It is hard to gain entry into the "1000/100" (1,000 rush yards, 100 receptions) and "1000/1000" (1,000 rush yards, 1,000 receiving yards) clubs, but CMC has slipped past the velvet ropes in back-to-back seasons. The fourth-year pro has become the ultimate offensive weapon as a hybrid running back with the capacity to torch defenses as a runner or receiver. As a shifty playmaker with excellent stop-start quickness, wiggle and burst, McCaffrey weaves in and out of traffic while displaying acceleration to take it the distance. In a redesigned offense that's built around his diverse talents, the Panthers' RB1 could be the NFL's No. 1 playmaker in 2020.
Hill is a touchdown waiting to happen whenever he touches the ball on receptions, reverses or returns. He has 68 plays of 20-plus yards (61 receptions; seven rushes) and 27 plays of at least 40 yards (25 receptions; two rushes) since 2016. As a dynamic punt returner with 13 20-plus-yard returns and five 40-plus-yard returns in 85 attempts, Hill is a home-run hitter with a knack for putting the ball on the sweet spot of the bat. Despite a slightly disappointing 2019 campaign that resulted in fewer explosive plays, he remains one of the most feared playmakers in the game due to his speed and big-play potential.
It's rare for the best blocking tight end in football to also produce explosive plays in the passing game, but Kittle is a unicorn at the position. The All-Pro tight end has the most receiving yards of any tight end in NFL history through three seasons. According to Next Gen Stats, he also ranks second in the league among pass catchers with 1,541 yards after the catch since 2018. Think about that. The 6-foot-4, 249-pounder zips around the field like a catch-and-run specialist with a combination of size, strength and power that makes him a nightmare to tackle in the open field. With the 49ers featuring him as the No. 1 option in the passing game, No. 85 has quickly become one of the most dangerous playmakers in football.
The 2018 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year is a unique find as a big-bodied running back with electric skills as a runner-receiver. The 6-foot, 233-pound playmaker is a threat to score from anywhere on the field on off-tackle runs, swing passes and screens. Barkley has amassed 35 plays of 20-plus yards (24 rushes,11 receptions) and 14 plays of at least 40 yards (10 rushes, four receptions) over the past two seasons, despite battling a series of nagging injuries in 2019. Given his home-run percentage on a team with limited weapons on the outside, Barkley probably deserves to be listed a little higher on the list.
KITTLE'S WORTH: TE should be paid like OT/WR
The San Francisco 49ers want to lock up their All-Pro tight end with a lucrative long-term deal, but how do you properly compensate George Kittle, who's due to become a free agent after the 2020 season, when he is the most complete player at his position and the best player on your team?
"George is a huge part of this organization," general manager John Lynch told KGMZ-FM 95.7 The Game on April 30, per ESPN.com. "George isn't going anywhere. We're going to work hard to try to get it done. I think they've got motivation just to reset the tight end market, as do we for him. It's just finding that sweet spot, where that is. ... When that happens, I don't know. But we're working hard, as are they, to try to make that happen. George is going to be a part of the 49ers for a long, long time."
Lynch's comments reveal the dilemma the 49ers find themselves in when attempting to assign value to Kittle's contributions as a player. He's a throwback at the position with a playing style that qualifies him for hybrid status as half-offensive tackle, half-wide receiver on the perimeter.
As a run blocker, Kittle is an athletic road grader with a rare combination of strength, power and body control that overwhelms defenders on the edge. He consistently moves defensive ends and linebackers off the ball and finishes with a nasty disposition. Kittle's relentlessness, energy and persistence jumped off the screen when I studied the All-22 Coaches Film. He loves being involved in the running game and his impact as a blocker is reflected in the 49ers' rushing stats. According to Next Gen Stats, the 49ers averaged just 2.6 rush yards per carry and 60.5 rush yards per game with zero touchdowns in two games without No. 85 on the field last season compared to 4.8 rush yards per carry, 156.0 rush yards per game with 23 touchdowns with the All-Pro tight end.
That's quite a contrast in production for the NFL's second-ranked rushing offense with and without Kittle on the field. Moreover, it speaks to No. 85's value as an edge blocker in a league with few dominant blockers at the position.
In the passing game, Kittle is the total package with strong hands, detailed route-running skills and explosive playmaking ability. Since 2018, he has amassed the sixth-most receiving yards (2,430) in the NFL, while also tallying the second-most yards after catch (1,541) of any pass catcher. Those numbers are remarkable, particularly his YAC production as a rugged tight end.
That's why the 49ers' contract negotiations with their star tight end could be a game-changer for proponents of position-less football. Despite being labeled as a tight end, Kittle is a "Y" (traditional tight end) compared to some of the "H-Back" or "Flex" players commanding big bucks at the position. Austin Hooper (four years, $42 million) and Hunter Henry ($10.6 million) are the highest-paid players at the position but they are pass catchers best described as "Flex" players based on their skills as primary pass catchers.
Although they've racked up impressive numbers, they're certainly not blockers with the capacity to dominate the game without the ball. Kittle's five-star blocking skills combined with his ridiculous production as a pass catcher puts him at another level. When I reference No. 85 as a "big" hybrid with the blocking ability of an offensive tackle and the soft hands of a wide receiver, I'm attempting to accurately categorize his skills as a blue-chip talent.
Based on Kittle's talent and impact, we should consider the salaries of the top 10 offensive tackles and wide receivers. According to Spotrac, the range of salaries for the top 10 offensive tackles falls between $13.75 million (Donovan Smith) and $22 million (Laremy Tunsil). The top 10 wide receivers' salaries range from $16 million (Adam Thielen) and $22 million (Julio Jones).
Considering the top of the tight end market sits just above $10 million, the 49ers could be looking at a deal that falls between $13 million and $16 million annually if the team pays him based on his value and impact.