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:
But first, a look at five men primed to made skeptics eat crow ...
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I don't know what is in the water at training camp facilities these days, but something's prompting players to readily offer up disparaging opinions on their NFL brethren. While I've been in plenty of locker rooms and film sessions in which players deliver snide remarks about others' games, the public comments that I've heard of late are shocking.
Baker Mayfield's harsh commentary on Giants rookie Daniel Jones made waves earlier this week. Granted, the Browns quarterback forcefully distanced himself from the quotes, saying GQ presented them out of context. Whatever the case, it was quite a social media firestorm. And then there was Raiders safety Lamarcus Joynergoing scorched earth on Kyler Murray, Kliff Kingsbury and the Cardinals' offense (something I dig into deeper a little later in this notebook).
It just feels like the disrespect has reached epic levels across this league. Not to mention, all the white noise from the Twitterverse, with every armchair quarterback and wannabe scout weighing in on schemes and spewing half-baked player evaluations. Considering the current landscape, I'm sure plenty of players are heading into the 2019 regular season fully motivated to enjoy the last laugh at their critics' expense.
With that in mind, this is the perfect time to spotlight some high-profile guys poised to silence the naysayers in 2019:
Dak Prescott, quarterback, Dallas Cowboys: Prescott has played a starring role in the NFL offseason version of "Let's Make a Deal," with the quarterback's reported asking price reaching $40 million per year, as confirmed by NFL Network's Jane Slater. Although the hefty sum would make him the highest-paid player at the position -- and let's be honest, this is almost certainly a negotiating tactic -- Prescott's 32 QB wins since 2016 (when he entered the league as a fourth-round pick) rank behind only Tom Brady, with the Cowboys capturing the NFC East title in two of his three NFL seasons. Now, I know the mere mention of a team stat (QB wins) to validate Prescott's price tag will draw the ire of his critics, but there's something to be said for winning, particularly in a league where quarterbacks are judged by rings. With a strong supporting cast at wide receiver (led by Amari Cooper) and a healthy offensive line in front of him, Prescott should enjoy a career year, regardless of how Ezekiel Elliott's holdout plays out.
Melvin Gordon, running back, Los Angeles Chargers: The most disrespected running back in football has heard all the shots lobbed in his direction. Yes, Philip Rivers recently voiced his support for the 26-year-old back, but the QB's initial comments back in July -- "We love Melvin, but we're going to go with what we've got. It's a pretty dang good group." -- made Gordon get mad online. The two-time Pro Bowler will eventually enjoy the last laugh when opponents change their defensive approach with Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson on the field extensively. Yes, I know the Chargers went 4-0 in games Gordon missed last season, but don't let that mask the difference between Gordon and his understudies. The former first-round pick is the only NFL running back with at least 10 scrimmage touchdowns in each of the past three seasons. He has also surpassed 1,300 scrimmage yards in each of those years. The Chargers can win some games without No. 28 on the field, but they won't contend for a title without the versatile running back playing a leading role.
Odell Beckham Jr., wide receiver, Cleveland Browns: Don't let the flamboyant antics and diva persona overshadow OBJ's spectacular talent. The sixth-year pro is an unstoppable playmaker on the perimeter with a combination of speed, quickness and burst that makes him a nightmare to defend. Beckham's skills add a different element to a Browns offense that suddenly features explosive playmakers all over the field. No. 13 will see more one-on-one coverage than he's faced in the past, with slot machine Jarvis Landry and tight end David Njoku attracting attention over the middle and RB Nick Chubb (and eventually Kareem Hunt) commanding some plus-one defensive fronts. With Baker Mayfield pulling the trigger as a crafty pass-first point guard, we should see OBJ post big numbers as the Browns' No. 1 option in the passing game.
Mike Tomlin, head coach, Pittsburgh Steelers: After watching the Antonio Brown drama play out in Oakland, Steelers fans should have a greater appreciation for how Tomlin kept the locker room intact for as long as he did. That said, the 13th-year head coach needed to fix Pittsburgh's culture this offseason, after seeing his star-studded squad miss the playoffs in 2018 despite looking like a bona fide title contender on paper. Listening to the buzz surrounding Steelers camp, the team might actually benefit in an addition-by-subtraction scenario, with AB and Le'Veon Bell being replaced by a new crop of playmakers eager to make their mark. JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner have already shown their capacity to handle premium roles, but there are some others who look primed and ready for more responsibility -- most notably, receiver James Washington and hybrid back Jaylen Samuels. Considering Pittsburgh's strong history of developing players, Tomlin's squad won't skip a beat without Nos. 84 and 26.
Josh Allen, quarterback, Buffalo Bills: I'll admit to questioning the long-term potential of Allen when he was selected seventh overall despite being a sub-60 percent passer in college. However, the Bills' QB1 acquitted himself quite well in Year 1 as a dual-threat weapon with spectacular running skills and impromptu playmaking ability. Allen became the only QB in NFL history to pass for 200-plus yards and rush for at least 100 yards in back-to-back games. No. 17 led all quarterbacks with eight rushing touchdowns and finished second among signal-callers in rushing yards (631, trailing only Lamar Jackson's 695). Although the Bills would prefer for Allen to do his damage with his cannon arm, the running skills certainly add an element to his game that makes defensive coordinators stay up at night. With the Bills surrounding their young QB1 with a stable of catch-and-run specialists on the perimeter (see: Cole Beasley, John Brown and Zay Jones), the second-year pro could really break out in 2019.
CARDINALS' AIR RAID: 'Pretty-boy offense' or potentially lethal scheme?
Nothing irritates players and coaches more than being labeled soft. That descriptor questions player toughness, and it tarnishes a team's playing style in a league built on machismo. That's why Oakland safety Lamarcus Joyner's description of Arizona's offense had to strike a major nerve in the Cardinals' locker room.
"It's pretty-boy football," Joyner said during an in-game interview with ESPN's Lisa Salters during the Raiders' preseason matchup with the Cards. "It don't allow the defense to play the game physical like the game was meant to be. When you go against an offense like that, you have to introduce that physicality to them because they don't want to do that."
The Raiders safety certainly didn't mince his words when assessing Kliff Kingsbury's Air Raid offense, which is steeped in collegiate concepts like bubble screens and quick-rhythm throws. The pass-first scheme is best described as "basketball on grass," with receivers cutting into open areas of coverage instead of running designated routes. When it is executed properly with the quarterback and pass catchers on the same page, the system looks like a choreographed pickup basketball game with shooters getting open looks all over the floor.
But is Joyner onto something? Will Kingsbury's attack get bullied into submission at the NFL level?
"I was skeptical of the offensive scheme when I initially saw the scheme on the board," I was recently told by a former NFL wide receiver turned college football position coach at a prominent school implementing a version the Air Raid. "There are only 18 or so passing concepts in the playbook, but it really turns into a 'get open' offense, with receivers sitting down in open areas or running away from defenders based on coverage.
"It takes a while for the quarterback and receivers to get in sync and view the game out of the same eyes, but when they're on the same page, it can be nearly impossible for the defense to slow it down."
Now, I'm never surprised hearing college folks rave about the scheme, based on its track record of success at that level. But I didn't expect a former NFL player to tout the positives, given the differences between the field dimensions and defensive playing styles at the different levels. In the college game, the wide hash marks enable the offense to stress the defense with spread formations and horizontal concepts. Offensive coordinators can use a variety of spread looks (empty, 3x1 and 2x2) to stretch the coverage and create easy pitch-and-catch throws for the quarterback. Crafty play-callers will position receivers well outside of the numbers, especially to the wide side of the field, to take multiple defenders out of the box. In the NFL, the hash marks are in the middle of the field and that neutralizes some of the advantages created by overload (3x1) or spread formations. The ball stays in the middle of the field for the entire game, so defenses are rarely stretched from sideline to sideline by alignment. This eliminates some of the easy throws and cavernous running lanes that we see on Saturdays.
That said, we've seen several NFL teams, including the last two Super Bowl champs in New England and Philadelphia, incorporate several Air Raid staples into the playbooks to elevate the play of their respective quarterbacks. From Y-stick routes (tight end runs a 6-yard hitch or out with the WR2 executing an arrow or 2-yard flat route and the WR1 streaking down the field on a go route) to the mesh concept (intersecting crossing routes from opposite sides of the field with a 12-yard dig or sit-down route included in the pattern), NFL offensive coordinators have implemented several core plays from the Air Raid system. In fact, Nick Foles' success during Philly's magical Super Bowl run can largely be attributed to Doug Pederson running mesh repeatedly from a variety of formations and personnel packages to get the Super Bowl MVP into a groove.
That's why I'm not ready to completely dismiss the chances of Kingsbury's system working in the NFL. The scheme is built on some core plays that were featured in Bill Walsh's original version of the West Coast offense and defensive coordinators are still having problems defending the base plays in that scheme. With Kingsbury adding more quicks and screens to the game plan to increase the quarterback's completion rate while also enabling the team to move the chains on a handful of layups, it is possible Kyler Murray posts ridiculous completion-rate numbers as a first-year starter in the league.
If I had to point out a potential issue with the scheme after talking to several defensive coaches around the league, I would cite pass protection as a concern. The protection schemes employed by Air Raid disciples are viewed as simplistic and easy to attack off the edges with overload pressures (four defenders from a side). That could lead to some free runs to the quarterback. This is especially concerning for Arizona, given the suspect state of the Cardinals' O-line.
In addition, the scheme doesn't have many built-in answers to aggressive defenses outside of hot reads (quarterback designated to throw to a specified receiver on a quick slant against blitz pressure) and sight adjustments (receivers alter their routes based on seeing a blitz). Those counters are easily taken away at the NFL level with bump-and-run coverage.
"The Cardinals will have problems if they can't expand their pass-protection packages," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "They are susceptible to a variety of edge pressures and combination gut blitzes in their base protections, and defensive coordinators will relentlessly attack them if they don't have effective answers.
"Kingsbury will need to have more protections on the menu to be effective over the long haul. That's really the biggest question he will have to answer when the regular season starts."
We've seen finesse offenses succeed in the league with the passing game leading the way, but it takes a diverse approach to make it work. Offensive coordinators must be able to sprinkle in enough runs and use a variety of pass protections to keep defenders on their heels. When executed properly, the offensive flow is beautiful to watch. That's the kind of "pretty-boy offense" Kingsbury and Co. would love to produce, right?
EXTRA POINT: QB Jones fully validating Giants' controversial pick early
Evaluators should never take a victory lap when their top prospects shine in the preseason, but I wouldn't hold it against folks in the New York Giants' front office if they wanted to gallivant around the perimeter of MetLife Stadium a few times following another strong performance from Daniel Jones. The Giants' future QB1 continues to look the part, and the naysayers who took their shots at the franchise for selecting the Duke product with the No. 6 overall pick might wanna sprinkle a little salt and pepper on their words before eating them.
In three games, Jones has completed 25 of his 30 passes (83.3%) for 369 yards with a pair of touchdowns. He's averaging 12.4 yards per attempt, looking like a legit franchise quarterback in the process. The game hasn't looked too big for the rookie -- his poise is one of the many attributes that have Giants officials smitten.
"I know he's a winner," Giants head coach Pat Shurmur said of Jones earlier this week, via the team website. "He helped his team win games. Each quarterback is evaluated based on their skill set and their ability to lead their team. Each guy is a member of a different team. We don't worry about that.
"He's a deep thinker, he's well thought out, and he gets it. That is part of being the quarterback, is being able to lead, say and do all of the right things. ... We're confident that he's going to make good decisions and live a good life outside the field. That gives us the confidence to know that when he's on the field, he's going to do the same thing."
On the field, Jones is composed as a playmaker from the pocket. He quickly works through his progression to get to his second option in the read. Ideally, he will get to his third and fourth options against certain coverages, but Jones' ability to find a secondary receiver when the primary option is covered is impressive for a rookie.
From a passing standpoint, I believe Jones' accuracy and ball placement have been superb. He has repeatedly delivered passes to his receivers within the strike zone, while also giving pass catchers chances to make plays on a handful of 50-50 throws along the sideline. Jones has a knack for connecting with his receivers on back-shoulder fades, which is a harder throw than it appears on the surface.
Now, I understand that Jones has posted gaudy numbers against a host of backups during most of these games, but look at his performance compared to the other rookies and you should have a greater appreciation for his game. Jones has checked all the boxes as a young player and the team should be encouraged by his efforts.
Although the small sample size won't prompt Jones' biggest critics to offer up apologies for their harsh draft-day commentaries, his rock-solid performance over multiple games should make evaluators pause a bit before delivering another hot take about the Giants' young signal-caller.