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 rise of the dual-threat running back.
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I know Kirk Cousins is poised to potentially become the league's first $30 million man, but I wouldn't blame the Washington Redskins for letting the coveted QB1 walk out the door. In a league where franchise quarterbacks, particularly those making $20 million-plus per year, are expected to carry their teams to the winner's circle, I can understand why Jay Gruden and Co. are hitting Cousins with the old "HOP" (Hold on, playa!) label before cutting a check.
Despite posting three straight 4,000-yard seasons, with a 67 percent completion rate and an 81:36 touchdown-to-interception ratio over that span, Cousins has compiled a 24-23-1 record, with one division title and zero playoff wins. While his individual numbers would please every fantasy football player across the country, they haven't helped the Redskins win at a high level.
At his end-of-season press conference, Gruden was asked to sum up Cousins' season. Here was his response, per ESPN.com:
"I'm still in that evaluation process. We're going to break down every play, every game, from a quarterback standpoint, from an offensive tackle standpoint, linebacker, safety, everybody. And when you're 7-9, it's hard to say, 'Wow, this guy really was outstanding.' You know, there's a few guys obviously that jump out. Pro Bowlers like Ryan Kerrigan had a solid year, and obviously Trent [Williams], when he played, was Pro Bowl type, and Brandon [Scherff], when he was healthy, was a Pro Bowl-type guy.
"Kirk had his flashes where he was really good. From a consistent standpoint, over the course of 16 games, we're 7-9. He did some great things, threw for over 4,000 yards and  touchdowns. He's a very, very good quarterback without a doubt, but as far as getting us over the hump from 7-9 to winning the division with all the injuries we had, he competed and did some good things."
Some will take Gruden's tepid assessment as a dig at his three-year starter, but I believe he is really being honest about what his QB1 has been for his squad. Cousins has been a stat-stuffer at the position, but his individual play hasn't gotten the Redskins over the hump. Sure, you can point to his ever-changing supporting cast and a subpar defense as reasons for the team's mediocrity, but $25 million quarterbacks -- which is the neighborhood Cousins was in for 2017, having signed a second consecutive franchise tag for $23.94 million -- are expected to elevate the play of the team regardless of circumstance.
Think about how Aaron Rodgers has always masked the Green Bay Packers' issues with his magical play. Better yet, think about the immediate impact that Jimmy Garoppolo had on the San Francisco 49ers when he took over as the team's starter toward the end of the year. With Jimmy GQ at the helm, a Niners squad that had been a 1-10 afterthought won five straight games to close out the season as one of the hottest entities in the NFL.
With that in mind, I can see why the Redskins aren't in a rush to apply the tag to Cousins a third consecutive time, which would cost them $34.5 million in 2018. Doing so would limit Washington's ability to upgrade the supporting cast around him, meaning the team would be counting on Cousins to push the team to the next level on the strength of his right arm. In short, the Redskins would need Cousins to be a "truck" (QB capable of carrying his team with little-to-no support), when he really hasn't shown the football world he can do that.
That's why Gruden could be more comfortable watching Cousins walk out the door and handing the QB1 job to Colt McCoy. While you're likely snickering at the suggestion of the eighth-year pro taking over as the team's starter, you should remember he almost swiped the job from Cousins and Robert Griffin III in 2014 when he completed 71.1 percent of his passes for 1,057 yards and compiled a 4:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio in five appearances (four starts).
Sure, that represents a small sample size, but McCoy has flashed whenever he's played for the Redskins under Gruden, and that is why he could be the next QB1 to trot out of the tunnel.
"He's been in the system for a while," Gruden said, via ESPN.com. "You can see him do some things. We're not appointing anybody a starting quarterback now. I'm not saying Colt is the heir apparent and he'll start tomorrow. I just know Colt has been in the building, and I have total faith that if he was given an opportunity, he'd be ready to produce. That's how I feel about Colt. We're not going to give him the keys right now. We're still trying to work things out with the other quarterback, and hopefully things will work out. But I know Colt is ready to play."
Some might argue that the team should have paid up to do a long-term deal with Cousins in 2016, back when he was first hit with the franchise tag, which would have conceivably allowed them to lock him up for less than he'd cost them now. But at that point, Cousins had been a full-time starter for just one season, and I don't think he was worth more than the $16 million per year they offered him at the time. I think they were smart to tag him and make him prove he was worth the money. Based on how he's performed since, I don't think he'll be able to play up to the size of the contract it'd take to keep him in Washington, either via the tag or a long-term agreement.
As one NFC pro personnel guy told me via text: "$30M puts you at a huge cap disadvantage and he's not the guy that'll lift a franchise by himself." Devoting too much in the way of cap space and resources to a quarterback who is unable to do more with less can seriously hamstring a franchise going forward.
As crazy as it sounds for Washington to let an established quarterback walk away, the team is better served to hand the ball to its QB2 instead of the purported "franchise guy." The Redskins can upgrade the auxiliary parts of their roster by saving some money on a quarterback who delivers comparable production to the high-priced option he'd be replacing. It might not be a popular move inside the Beltway, but it is a decision that could keep the Redskins in the mix as a contender in the NFC.
If you don't believe me, just look at the Baltimore Ravens and what they've accomplished since lavishing a big deal on Joe Flacco despite knowing he wasn't a Tier 1 quarterback. Since signing Flacco to a six-year, $120 million deal in 2013 (plus a three-year, $66.4 million extension in 2016) following a hot playoff run that culminated in a Super Bowl win, the team is 40-40 and just missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.
While the circumstances are slightly different, I think the Redskins could learn a lesson about overpaying for a quarterback that you know can't elevate the franchise. If they can resist the temptation to appease their fans by re-signing a quarterback who is overvalued outside the building, they could build a team that is better positioned to compete in the NFC East.
AARON DONALD'S CONTRACT: Time for the Rams to pony up
No disrespect to Von Miller, Khalil Mack, Chandler Jones or any other trendy sack artist, but there isn't a more disruptive player on the planet than Donald. The four-time Pro Bowler leads all defensive tackles in sacks (39), quarterback hits (108), pressures (236), tackles for loss (72) and forced fumbles (9) since he entered the league in 2014. Despite missing all of training camp and a pair of games this season -- the season opener (due to a contract holdout) and the season finale (for rest) -- and adjusting to a completely different defense under new coordinator Wade Phillips, Donald leads all defensive tackles in each of those respective categories this season, as well. Let that marinate for a second ...
Just looking at those numbers alone, I can justify a big payday for Donald. He has a long resume of providing disruptive production, and his consistency warrants the kind of contract that puts him on the top of the hill for defenders. Considering the current high-water marks for pass rushers (Miller's deal for $114.5 million over six years, with $70 million in guarantees) and defensive tackles (Ndamukong Suh's deal for $114.3 million over six years, with $60 million in guarantees), Donald should be the league's first $20 million defender, based on his work as a disruptive playmaker at the point of attack.
While that proclamation is based largely on Donald's statistical dominance, I'm even more convinced that he deserves that kind of dough after studying him on tape. Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film, I see a versatile interior defender with an explosive combination of strength, power and quickness that makes him nearly impossible to block at the point of attack. No. 99 is arguably the only defensive tackle in football capable of winning with power or finesse on any given play. He shows extraordinary first-step quickness and combines it with some of the best hand skills that I've ever seen from an interior defender.
"If I'm starting a defense from scratch, I would typically want an edge rusher with outstanding potential, but Donald has forced me to re-think my thought process," an AFC scout told me. "An interior defender with pass-rush skills might have a greater impact, because he is right in the quarterback's face. If you can disrupt the game up the gut, it changes everything for the offense ... That's what Donald does for the Rams."
Considering that viewpoint and how Donald has consistently ranked as one of the most disruptive defenders in football since he stepped onto the field as a rookie, I don't know why the Rams are pausing before writing a check that rewards him for his stellar play. In a league that is touted as the ultimate meritocracy, players should be rewarded for their efforts. Whether it is a starting job or a Pro Bowl honor, the best players should be recognized for a job well done. On a team that is making its first playoff appearance in years due to the stellar play of a disruptive force at the point of attack, it is time for the Rams to open up the checkbook and scribble out some big numbers (with a few commas!) to reward the best player on their squad.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) The Bengals were smart to keep Marvin Lewis. When the Cincinnati Bengals announced Marvin Lewis agreed to a two-year contract extension, the Twitterverse was outraged at the prospect of a coach with zero playoff wins in 15 seasons keeping his job. Bengals president Mike Brown was criticized for remaining with the status quo instead of pursuing a hot candidate to get the franchise over the hump as a title contender. While I certainly understand the disappointment and outrage expressed from Bengals fans clamoring for a championship banner in Paul Brown Stadium, I believe the team made the right move to retain Lewis as its head coach.
Why should a coach coming off back-to-back losing seasons be given another chance to reverse the franchise's fortunes?
I know this isn't the most popular answer, but Lewis is the best man for the job, and the Bengals wouldn't find anyone better equipped to handle the challenges of building a champion in Cincinnati. That's right -- I'm saying the man that many Bengals fans want to run out the door is best suited to lead the franchise back to prominence, because he's done it before.
Remember, Lewis is the winningest coach in franchise history, with a 125-112-3 record (.527 winning percentage) plus seven playoff appearances on his resume. In the 35 seasons before his arrival, the Bengals only won 42.6 percent of their games and made the playoffs just seven times.
Think about that.
Many focus on Lewis' disappointing playoff record, but the fact is, he's made a moribund franchise competitive. The Bengals have won four division titles during his tenure and are only two seasons removed from making five straight playoff appearances (from 2011 to 2015) while playing in the rough-and-tumble AFC North. Sure, they've been one-and-done in those appearances, but you have to be in the tournament to win the 'ship. That's why Lewis' ability to make postseason tournaments shouldn't be taken lightly, particularly at a time when eight new teams made the playoffs after missing out last season.
Now, that doesn't mean Lewis is excused from blame for the team's 13-18-1 record over the past two seasons. The team hasn't played smart football consistently, and the Bengals' lack of emotional control in critical moments (see: 2015 Wild Card Weekend) has led to questions about their perceived lack of discipline. With questions also surrounding Andy Dalton and the direction of an offense loaded with star-studded talent, Lewis has plenty of questions to address as he attempts to orchestrate another team makeover that leads to a dramatic rebound in 2018.
Given his track record of rebuilding the Bengals into playoff teams after mini-slumps, I would rather bet on a known commodity than an unknown prospect that doesn't have the chops to handle the unique circumstances of this job. Remember, this is a franchise that traditionally hires coaches with previous ties to the organization, and none of the viable options (Hue Jackson, Jay Gruden and Vance Joseph) hit the streets during this coaching cycle. Thus, it makes sense to hold on to Lewis for another couple of seasons, to see if he can return the Bengals to the top of a division that could be winnable in 2018.
2) The Saints followed the blueprint of their 2006 rookie class for success. You always hear general managers and executives talk about the importance of building the team through the draft, but few are able to assemble a class that completely transforms a franchise from pretender to contender in six months. That's why every scout in the league is raving about the New Orleans Saints' 2017 class after watching these newbies help the squad claim an NFC South title following three straight 7-9 seasons.
Fueled by the stellar play of Pro Bowlers Marshon Lattimore and Alvin Kamara and the timely contributions of Marcus Williams and Ryan Ramczyk, the Saints have emerged as legitimate title contenders in the NFC. They not only have the talent to run with any squad in the conference, but they have enough depth and versatility to create problems for opponents on both sides of the ball. That's exactly what every head coach and GM hopes a new draft class adds to the roster when they do the picking in April. Decision makers want to select a handful of players who can make an immediate impact at their respective positions. To do so, evaluators must have a clear vision for how each player would fit into their scheme and locker room.
"First thing -- and this was critical, man -- we needed to have a good draft," Saints coach Sean Payton told The MMQB.com in November. "And (assistant GM) Jeff Ireland, the scouting department, everyone involved in that process as we looked closely this year, and even a year ago, was trying to find the right fits and the right guys. ... It absolutely had to be [a good class]. And we made the (Brandin) Cooks trade so we'd have more ammo."
In the scouting world, the importance of fit within a scheme is rarely discussed, but it is critical to the evaluation. Astute coaches and scouts understand that it's not just about assessing a prospect's talent, but understanding how to feature the player in a way that highlights his strengths and minimizes his weaknesses. This is something Payton did in 2006, when he selected a handful of players (Reggie Bush, Roman Harper, Jahri Evans, Zach Strief and Marques Colston) that helped make up the core of the team's Super Bowl-winning squad in 2009. With each of those aforementioned players (plus Rob Ninkovich, who spent a year in New Orleans before moving on to Miami and New England) putting in a decade of service in the league, Payton had enough examples of the kind of players he needed to return the Saints back to prominence.
"The football makeup of that class, those guys all played 10 years," Payton said. "The football makeup, the intelligence, the grit, those key factors in trying to measure success, it was important that we were clear. We weren't being hard on each evaluation, but we need that type of foundation again of smart, tough football players that we had a clear vision for."
While it is important to focus on the physical traits desired in each prospect, the Saints' emphasis on the core values or intangibles certainly played a role in not only identifying good players for the team, but guys who could change the culture of the locker room. At a time when the league features a number of teams that are evenly matched from a talent standpoint, the insistence on finding guys with intelligence and toughness has also already elevated the play of the Saints on the field.
3) Dual-threat players becoming desired at RB position. I don't know if you've noticed, but the 2017 running back class has ushered in a renaissance at the position. Led by the electric play of Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt, the NFL is seeing the "hybrid" running back (runner-receiver type) play a more prominent role on offenses this season. Now, this certainly isn't a surprise, based on the league's shift toward a pass-heavy trend, but it is uncommon to see so many teams build game plans around rookie running backs with unique skills as pass-catching playmakers out of the backfield.
Don't believe me? Just look at the stats, with each of the aforementioned four rookies topping 1,000-plus scrimmage yards this season: Hunt had 1,782 scrimmage yards, Kamara had 1,554, Fournette had 1,342 and McCaffrey had 1,086.
While some observers will suggest Hunt and Fournette were a little more traditional in their approach based on their 1,000-yard rushing seasons, their contributions as pass catchers shouldn't go unnoticed. Each guy finished with at least 35 receptions (Hunt had 53, Fournette had 36) and flashed big-play potential on screens and checkdown routes out of the backfield.
Meanwhile, Kamara and McCaffrey amassed the bulk of their yardage through the air, as they finished with 81 and 80 catches, respectively. The pass-catching specialists not only snagged balls on an assortment of swings and option routes out of the backfield, but they also logged significant production as designated pass catchers from the slot and out wide. These guys were capable of running routes like receivers, which makes them nearly impossible to defend with linebackers in space.
Part of their success as slot receivers or out-wide playmakers could be attributed to their exposure to route running on their high school/club 7v7 teams. These squads compete in passing-game scrimmages throughout the spring and summer that are designed to help skill players master various aspects of the passing game. While some have knocked players for participating in these events because it's not "real football," it is not a coincidence that the new generation of running backs is better prepared to step into roles as hybrids due to extensive experience playing 7v7 as youth and high school players.
With four rookies helping guide their teams into the postseason due to their contributions as hybrid playmakers, you can rest assured that more teams are going to look for running backs with pass-catching capabilities. With that in mind, I would encourage any aspiring running back who wants to be a part of the renaissance to spend his developmental years honing his game as a pass catcher on 7v7 teams.