Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
But first, a look at an exciting young crop of quarterbacks who could change the NFL hierarchy ...
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It's not a coincidence that the perennial contenders in the NFL feature some of the best quarterbacks in the game. The QB1 is undoubtedly the most important position on the gridiron and elite field generals are able to single-handedly carry their teams to the championship threshold. Look no further than the success of the New England Patriots (Tom Brady), Pittsburgh Steelers (Ben Roethlisberger) and Green Bay Packers (Aaron Rodgers) -- all of whom have been postseason regulars under their respective QBs. Although the Saints haven't played at a championship level lately, New Orleans is always considered a dangerous squad due to Drew Brees' presence on the field.
Each of those signal callers is in the back half of his career, though -- and NFL evaluators are constantly surveying the landscape to see which youngsters possess the arm talent and leadership skills to thrive as franchise quarterbacks over the long haul. While I could easily mention the likes of Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck as guys ready to carry the torch left behind by veteran elites, the quick emergence of a young generation of passers should lead to optimism in several cities that haven't sniffed a championship run in years.
That's why my eyes are fixed on the Raiders, Cowboys, Titans, Buccaneers and Eagles as teams with bright futures. How could you not be enthused by the rapid development of Derek Carr, Dak Prescott, Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston and Carson Wentz? The members of this quintet not only possess the athleticism, arm and creativity associated with new-school quarterbacks, but they are old-school leaders capable of winning games by delivering clutch plays down the stretch. In a league where most games are decided by eight points or fewer, the presence of a proven leader with exceptional talents is typically the difference between the contenders and pretenders.
That's why it is wise for even prudent investors to buy stock on the futures of the five aforementioned franchises. Not just because the young QB1s have shown grit and big-time playmaking ability, but because they're largely set up in ideal situations to grow into Pro Bowl-caliber players in the near future. Carr, Prescott and Mariota, in particular, are surrounded by the essential elements (strong offensive line, talented skill players) needed to help a young passer develop into a high-level starter.
In Oakland, the Raiders have helped Carr play at an MVP level by protecting him with the best offensive line outside of Dallas. The team signed offensive guard Kelechi Osemele in the offseason to fill out a unit that features a pair of homegrown products (guard Gabe Jackson and tackle Menelik Watson) and a couple veterans with solid résumés (center Rodney Hudson and tackle Donald Penn). With Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper forming the NFL's most dangerous 1-2 punch at receiver and Latavius Murray heading up a three-headed monster in the backfield, Carr steps onto the field with the kind of weaponry that allows him to thrive as a playmaker from the pocket.
Looking at Carr's growth over the years, I don't believe it is a coincidence that the former second-round pick's production has improved as his supporting cast has gotten better. Over his first three NFL seasons, Carr steadily has boosted his completion rate (from 58.1 to 61.1 to 66.2), passer rating (from 76.6 to 91.1 to 100.6) and average passing yards per game (from 204.4 to 249.2 to 280), while showing better command of the offense. Carr's willingness to spread the ball around the field to a variety of playmakers makes the Raiders' aerial attack nearly impossible to stop when he is playing efficiently from the pocket.
Speaking of efficient, it is hard to find a hole in Prescott's game, despite the fact that he entered as a bit of an afterthought. Selected late in the fourth round of this past April's draft, Prescott has proved the skeptics wrong by playing with an ice-cold demeanor that exudes poise and confidence. Although the naysayers suggest Prescott stepped into an easy situation -- Dallas boasts an offensive line loaded with first-rounders (Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin), a superstar running back (No. 4 overall pick Ezekiel Elliott) and a pair of elite pass catchers (Dez Bryant and Jason Witten) -- it's impossible to ignore how well the rookie has handled the pressure of being the QB1 for "America's Team."
Prescott is on pace to post the best completion rate (67.9 percent), touchdown-to-interception ratio (18:2) and passer rating (108.6) of any rookie starter in NFL history. Not to mention, he is the first rookie in league history to have 300-plus passing yards, multiple touchdowns and zero interceptions in back-to-back games. Say what you want about his supporting cast -- Prescott is playing like a veteran Pro Bowler.
"He's mature beyond his years," an AFC executive told me. "He gets the big picture and you can tell that he put in the time to prepare. He did the same thing at Mississippi State, so I'm not surprised that he seized his opportunity in Dallas."
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I am amazed at his instincts, awareness and diagnostic skills during the pre- and post-snap phases. Prescott has an uncanny feel for deciphering blitzes and his sound judgment has helped him pick apart defenses as a young starter. To be fair, the Cowboys have assisted him by utilizing spread and empty formations to clear up the reads, but he deserves a ton of credit for getting the ball to the right people on the perimeter.
Mariota probably has improved as a pocket passer more than any young QB I can remember in recent history. He has successfully transitioned from a spread quarterback adept at executing the "pick and stick" game (simple one- or two-read pass plays) to a pro-style playmaker with the capacity to win from the shotgun or under center. On the surface, this transition doesn't appear to be significant, but so many spread quarterbacks struggle with the footwork and fundamentals needed to thrive as a traditional passer. On play-action passes, in particular, the act of turning away from the defense and relocating the primary or secondary receiver can be challenging for a quarterback who has always played facing his defenders in the gun. Yet, Mariota has quickly mastered the skill and become a pinpoint passer on a variety of run-action pass concepts that utilize ball fakes in the backfield. Check out this 34-yard TD pass to Tajae Sharpe:
"If you have a strong running game and can use the threat of it on passes, it makes it easier on a young quarterback," a Titans offensive coach told me. "The ball fakes draw linebackers to the line, leaving big windows at the second level. These are the easy throws for quarterbacks, so he can get a few completions on some low-risk throws."
While play-action passes are certainly a big part of the Titans' offensive package, Mariota's success is not solely due to the complementary passing game. Tennessee mixed in a variety of concepts (RPOs, bunch routes, quick game and vertical passes) that fit the young QB's skills. Looking at the numbers, it's easy to see how much the second-year pro has improved since the beginning of the 2015 season. During Mariota's first 16 games, he averaged 233.9 pass yards, compiled a 23:15 touchdown-to-interception ratio and posted an 86.8 passer rating. Over the past seven games, he those figures have shot up to 263.9, 19:3 and 116.8. Most impressively, Mariota has thrown at least two touchdown passes in seven straight games. Oh, and he owns a 31:0 TD-to-INT ratio in the red zone over his budding career.
Considering how the Titans have surrounded Mariota with a rock-solid offensive line -- which has helped Tennessee field the No. 3 rushing attack in football -- the young playmaker is poised to take his game up a notch when the team lands a true No. 1 receiver capable of delivering big plays from anywhere on the field.
Winston and Wentz haven't been afforded supporting casts on the level of their peers, but each has shown A-plus arm talent and the ability to take over a game. Winston has a Pro Bowl-caliber pass catcher (Mike Evans) and a Pro Bowl runner (Doug Martin), but plays behind a leaky offensive line that fails to keep defenders away from his feet. Wentz, on the other hand, plays behind a fairly stout offensive line, but he lacks a legitimate WR1 on the perimeter. Despite some observers nitpicking each player over his perceived shortcomings, Winston (turnovers) and Wentz (judgment) are progressing at a nice rate and certain numbers suggest they are on the verge of enjoying major breakthroughs.
Winston has compiled a 12:2 TD-to-INT ratio and a 102.2 passer rating over his past six games. In addition, he has accounted for at least one touchdown in each of his 26 career games, while demonstrating terrific leadership skills.
Wentz hasn't been able to sustain his sizzling start (103.5 passer rating through his first four NFL games), but he remains a dangerous playmaker from the pocket. He already has established Eagles rookie records for QB wins (5), passing yards (2,339) and passing touchdowns (11). With Philly poised to add some more playmakers through the draft or in free agency, the team is likely to see its franchise quarterback make a big jump in his sophomore season.
In a league where quarterback play determines which teams have a legitimate shot at the title, the emergence of five young field generals could quickly change the balance of power.
K.C. PASS RUSH: Justin Houston and Dee Ford could make Chiefs Super.
The Kansas City Chiefs are rarely viewed as Super Bowl contenders, but that perception could change quickly if this group gets healthy. Last Sunday, K.C. finally saw Pro Bowl OLB Justin Houston make his season debut. The return of the 6-foot-3, 258-pound pass-rush specialist, who had been rehabbing an ACL injury, gives the league's most opportunistic defense (see: an NFL-high 23 takeaways) the top pass rush in the AFC.
While I know that statement will take fans of the Broncos, Dolphins and Titans by surprise, the pairing of Houston and Dee Ford gives the Chiefs the most explosive set of edge rushers in the conference. Sure, those other tandems (Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware in Denver, Cameron Wake and Mario Williams in Miami, Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan in Tennessee) are dynamic and productive, but the Chiefs' duo presents a different challenge. We're talking about two athletic edge rushers in their prime with electric first-step quickness, hand skills and closing burst.
As you can see, Houston beats offensive tackle Derek Newton with a two-hand swipe maneuver that leaves Newton grasping at air. And he punctuates the sack by knocking the ball away for another strip-sack on his résumé.
Houston is clearly one of top pass rushers in the league. As he continues to shake off the rust down the stretch, the veteran defender will enhance a pass rush that has been carried this season by a third-year man really coming into his own.
Ford, a first-round pick in 2014, is enjoying a breakout season. Despite entering 2016 with 5.5 sacks in his first 24 career games, he's currently tied for the league lead with 10. The 6-foot-2, 252-pounder has added a few complementary rushes to go with his go-to move, a speed rush with a dip-and-rip maneuver. Although Ford's combination of speed, quickness and burst makes it easy for him to win with finesse moves, he has added a powerful two-hand swipe maneuver and a crafty inside swim move. With blockers unable to anticipate speed or power from the emerging star, Ford is able to dictate the terms in obvious pass-rush situations.
Considering Ford's growth as a pass rusher and the presence of veteran rusher Tamba Hali, the Chiefs have the potential to attack opponents with a three-headed monster off the edges from a variety of formations. Houston is clearly established as the team's LOLB based on his success against right tackles, but Ford has been one of the NFL's biggest disruptors from that alignment. Against Tampa Bay last Sunday, the duo lined up on opposite sides (Houston at LOLB, Ford at ROLB) in base and nickel formations. With defensive coordinator Bob Sutton also pondering the possibility of aligning Hali and Houston on the same side to execute an assortment of stunts and games from exotic personnel groupings that also include Dontari Poe and Chris Jones on the inside, Kansas City has the ability to exploit a weak link along the line with a multi-faceted attack on the edges.
THE REBUTTAL: Earl Thomas discusses evolution at the safety position.
The league is shifting to where teams are placing a premium on finding playmaking safeties. What does a safety need to be able to do to be a dominant player in today's NFL?
Earl Thomas: "He needs to really understand the offense. He needs to know personnel. He needs to be a great communicator. He needs to see the big picture of everything that's going on. He's really like a point guard in the back end."
We are seeing more of these basketball-like athletes at tight end. What kind of challenges do they present to safeties?
Do you believe it is more important for an elite safety to be able to cover or drop into the box and act as "banger"?
ET: "I believe you have to be versatile. I don't think you can be one-dimensional. If you are one-dimensional, you need to be spectacular at what you do and you must do it week in and week out. You have to be interchangeable in this league."
Turnovers are such a big part of the game. When you're looking at other safeties in the league, do you prefer ballhawks and guys who can punch the ball out or safeties who are solid in the middle and don't give up big plays?
ET: "Of course I like the guys who are ballhawks, but as a free safety, you have to understand situations. You have to be aware when you can go for it or when you need to play it safe. It's a balance."
I loved getting Thomas' take on the safety position. He is not only one of my favorite players at the position, but he is a unique playmaker with a knack for making big plays. I wanted to get his perspective on playing in the middle of the field because it is so hard to find a free safety with ballhawking skills and an enforcer's mentality.
Reflecting on our conversation, I believe his point on versatility is in line with the thinking within the coaching and scouting community. NFL people are placing a greater emphasis on acquiring safeties capable of covering slot receivers and tight ends on passing downs, while also acting as "box defenders" against the run. Although it is hard to find those special players with a diverse set of skills to fit the job description, the emergence of guys like Thomas, Eric Berry and Tyrann Mathieu have changed the way the game is played in the secondary. Teams are swapping out "toy soldiers" (limited athletes) for athletic playmakers between the hashes. These guys are not only ballhawks, but they are enforcers with an intense desire to knock the taste out of the mouth of anyone willing to venture between the hashes.
Despite the league's emphasis on reducing big hits on defenseless receiver, the NFL remains a league where each and every team seeks a monster in the middle to discourage quarterbacks and playmakers from attacking between the hashes. When that player is also able to snag picks or deliver turnovers, it can help a defense go from good to great in a hurry.