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:
— A potential fit for Dez Bryant.
— The scheme change that could make Patrick Peterson even MORE impactful in 2018.
— Could Odell Beckham Jr. become the first $20 million receiver?
But first, a look at a potentially concerning development in Oakland …
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What are the Oakland Raiders doing?
That was my immediate thought after seeing ESPN’s Adam Schefter report Thursday that Jon Gruden hasn’t talked to Khalil Mack since he was hired in January. The 2016 Defensive Player of the Year is not only one of the most impactful defenders in the league, but he is unquestionably the Raiders‘ best player.
Why wouldn’t you reach out to this team leader to build a solid relationship?
Now, on Friday, Gruden was asked about giving Mack the silent treatment, and whether there is drama between the two men. The coach had this to say to the assembled press: “Is that dramatic? Really? Consider what’s drama. I’ve talked to Khalil. Those guys are not always 100 percent accurate. I talked to Mack when I got the job; I just haven’t had a lot of talk with him lately. Not much to talk about right now.”
OK, maybe that’s a little better … But I still have questions about this general strategy.
Look, I know Gruden is old school. I played for him during his first season with the Raiders in 1998 and remember how he rebuilt the team from scratch. He employed a no-nonsense approach to help the franchise rise from the ashes during his initial run in Oakland, and I’m sure that he’s adhering to the same script in his second go-around.
That said, most of the best organizations nowadays have solid partnerships between the head coach and his top players. Gruden might’ve missed this evolution during his decade away from the game. Instead of the dictatorships that ruled the roost in the 1980s and ’90s, more coaches are creating democracies where the team leaders set the pace for the squad.
“I’m surprised they haven’t talked,” a former NFL general manager told me this week. “Maybe Mack hasn’t returned his calls or been available, but you would expect the head coach to talk to a franchise player shortly after he takes a job.”
Maybe Gruden did indeed get in touch with Mack early this year, as he said on Friday. But has it really been radio silence since? With a player this talented?
Since 2015, Mack has the second-most sacks in the NFL (36.5), trailing only Chandler Jones (40.5). Most importantly, he is the only blue-chip player on a defense that ranked 23rd in yards allowed and finished near the bottom of the league in takeaways and passing defense. The guy appears to be indispensable on an otherwise-underwhelming unit. There aren’t many edge defenders with his combination of strength, power and explosiveness. Throw in his relentless work ethic and non-stop motor, and it’s easy to fall in love with the only player ever to earn All-Pro honors at two different positions in the same season. Right?
Not so fast, my friend.
I don’t mean to steal a tagline from a famous long-time broadcaster — “College GameDay” is almost here! — but maybe the reported silence from the Raiders‘ new head coach tells us something crucial about his team-building mindset. Mack is seeking a new contract that could make him the highest-paid defender in football (at least until Aaron Donald puts pen to paper) with a paycheck that’s in the “quarterback money” range. With $20 million per season viewed as the baseline for a new deal, the Raiders would need to believe that the fifth-year man is not only their best player, but a transcendent force with the capacity to put the franchise on his back. While the individual numbers and accolades suggest that he is that kind of game wrecker, the defense’s poor performance during his tenure could lead Oakland’s new football czar to pause before green-lighting a new deal.
Think about it this way: If Mack wants quarterback money based on his past performance and production, Gruden could hold him to franchise-quarterback standards and tie the defense’s overall performance to him. Considering the unit has never ranked higher than 20th in scoring defense or total defense during Mack’s tenure, the new coach could argue that the edge defender’s stellar individual play just hasn’t resulted in enough wins to matter above all else.
In fact, it is possible that the offensive-minded head coach has noticed how often offensive-centric teams have been able to reach the championship threshold in recent years. Sure, you can point to the Philadelphia Eagles‘ fourth-ranked defense playing a significant role in the team’s championship charge last season, but everyone saw that unit surrender 613 yards in Super Bowl LII. With the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons also serving as prime examples of offensive-driven teams ranking as championship-caliber, it is possible that Gruden views the value of a pass rusher in a different light when it comes to shelling out the BIG bucks.
Remember, Mack is angling for a new deal as Donald, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, is also seeking a fresh contract with an “APY” (average per year) in the $25 million range. With their representatives looking to top each other’s deals, Gruden’s silence could represent the team drawing a line in the sand with its top defensive player, particularly when Raiders front-office folks know they can secure Mack’s services for at least the next two years with a franchise-tag designation that would come in well below Donald’s asking price.
Again, I don’t agree with Gruden reportedly icing out his best player. That said, remember that the head coach suggested he wanted to take the Raiders “back to 1998” at the NFL Scouting Combine. His hard-line methods are certainly in line with that premise.
Will this approach pay dividends? Well, this is why Gruden’s return to the NFL garners so much general intrigue: We’ll all just have to wait and see.
I’m not a hater, but I’m still having a hard time buying Case Keenum as a franchise quarterback. Before you @ me on Twitter suggesting I have it in for the Denver Broncos‘ new QB1, I’m merely saying that I don’t know if a 30-year-old career backup (OK, prior to last season) can thrive as a longtime starter in this league.
Sure, Keenum flourished in Minnesota as a surprise starter in 2017, posting an 11-3 record to go along with sparkling individual numbers (67.6 percent completion rate, 22:7 TD-to-INT ratio, 98.3 passer rating). But he never came close to hitting those marks as an emergency fill-in during his first five years in the league. Prior to his stint with the Vikings, Keenum sported a 9-15 QB record, sub-60 percent completion rate, 24:20 TD-to-INT ratio and a 78.4 passer rating. He looked nothing like a mid/high-level starting quarterback. This didn’t surprise anyone who evaluated him coming out of Houston.
Despite being the NCAA’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns, Keenum entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2012 due to concerns about his size, arm talent and athleticism. The only FBS quarterback ever to post three seasons with 5,000-plus passing yards was largely ignored in the pre-draft process because he didn’t display enticing physical traits and came from a quarterback-friendly college scheme that produced inflated numbers.
Still, to his credit, Keenum established himself as a viable QB2 option during his first five seasons in the league. He was a solid performer for Gary Kubiak as an emergency sub in limited action with the Houston Texans, and he earned fine reviews from Rams personnel folks, particularly when it came to his work as a placeholder for Jared Goff.
“He’s a gamer,” a former Rams official told me a few seasons ago. “If he’s surrounded by the right supporting cast and asked to play the game a certain way, he can definitely win games in this league.”
In Los Angeles, Keenum didn’t have the supporting cast or system in place to help him perform beyond his talent. He played in a static offensive scheme that didn’t feature a lot of creativity with shifts, motions and concepts.
In Minnesota, though, Keenum joined a talented offensive lineup that featured the NFL’s best 1-2 punch at wide receiver (Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen), a chain mover at tight end (Kyle Rudolph) and, for a short time, a dynamic playmaker at running back (Dalvin Cook). Not to mention, he had a crafty play caller in Pat Shurmur who was quite adept at creating big-play opportunities for his top offensive weapons while keeping the quarterback in his comfort zone.
“He’s a solid No. 2,” a Vikings official told me this week. “He’s a great guy to have in the locker room because he has all of the intangibles that you want in a quarterback. … He doesn’t have great arm strength and he has a little bit of a gunslinger mentality that will lead to some head-scratching decisions on 50/50 balls. Last year, those plays went our way, but I don’t know if he can sustain that kind of success long-term.
“He got away with a lot of risky throws last season.”
That sentiment is why I’m hedging my bet on Keenum a bit. The seventh-year pro was essentially driving a luxury car in Minnesota with an A-level co-pilot (Shurmur) mapping out the route. In addition, he was the hot shooter at the craps table who kept rolling 7s and 11s. Watching Keenum throughout last season, I wondered when the luck was going to run out — and that occurred in the NFC Championship Game.
Now, do the Broncos have the right combination of personnel and coaching to keep this journeyman playing at a level that — with more good fortune — can produce wins and playoff appearances? Well, there are some promising components in place.
Keenum’s first NFL head coach (Kubiak) is a part of Denver’s personnel brain trust and he can share his thoughts on how to maximize his protege’s talents through clever scheming and game-planning tactics. Plus, the Broncos‘ offensive coordinator, Bill Musgrave, is an adaptable West Coast offense disciple with a knack for building a system around a quarterback’s game. Just look at Derek Carr‘s work during and after Musgrave’s tenure with the Oakland Raiders to get a feel for his impact on a quarterback’s production and efficiency.
Last year, Shurmur quickly identified the best concepts for Keenum’s game and repeatedly dialed those plays up from a variety of formations to keep the veteran comfortable. The Broncos should closely study that blueprint and install favorable concepts into their playbook, while also blending in the best route combinations for Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders on the perimeter. If this duo can get on the same page with the new quarterback, it could help the Broncos‘ offense re-establish the chemistry and rhythm that made it a dangerous unit in the past.
In the end, it comes down to coaching, and whether the Broncos‘ staff can find a way to elevate the new QB1’s game through scheming and tactics.
“In a league that is very competitive, most of the teams are the same outside of the quarterback position,” Broncos head coach Vance Joseph told USA Today. “So, if you don’t have that guy, from a leadership perspective, from a playmaking perspective, it’s hard to win games in this league. The rest you can fix. You can coach your way through the rest.
“I think having Case gives us an honest hope that, if I do my job from a coach’s perspective, and the players do their job, we can win football games.”
If the Broncos can find the right combination of personnel and plays to help Keenum carry last season over to 2018, it won’t matter what anyone (myself included) thinks about his long-term viability.
1) Why Dez Bryant and the Browns could benefit each other. NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported Friday that the Browns and Dez are working on scheduling a visit. And if the Browns are serious about improving their fortunes after last year’s abysmal campaign, they should indeed give Dez a long look as a potential WR2/WR3. The three-time Pro Bowl selectee would not only help fill the void created by Josh Gordon‘s indefinite absence, but he could be a valuable contributor as the team’s third receiver in its “11” personnel packages even after No. 12 returns.
Now, I know I’ve been one of Bryant’s harshest critics in the past, but I believe No. 88 can still be an effective player. He’s no longer an A-plus playmaker on the perimeter, but he can still thrive as a chain mover in the right system. As a big-bodied pass catcher with the size, physicality and an alpha-dog mentality to overwhelm defenders on the outside, Bryant can rack up yards if he gets the ball on the move. The Browns can get the most out of the veteran pass catcher by deploying him in two specific ways: 1) on shallow crossers out of a bunch formation, which would allow him to run off a pick by a fellow wideout to create separation underneath; and 2) by aligning him on the backside of the formation and having him run his best routes (slant, dig or fade) against CB2s and CB3s.
Remember, Browns offensive coordinator Todd Haley understands how to take advantage of big-bodied receivers who lack elite speed and quickness. Just look at his work with Keyshawn Johnson, Terrell Owens, Dwayne Bowe, Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald during his previous stints as an offensive coordinator/passing game coordinator. Haley knows how to design plays to create space and opportunity for big receivers, and his scheming could elevate Bryant’s play in the twilight of his career.
The presence of Hue Jackson and Al Saunders could also help Bryant thrive in Cleveland. As respected wide receiver gurus with distinguished resumes, these two are revered for their work developing pass catchers. Their attention to detail could help Bryant refine his game even at this stage of his career. From improving his route-running ability to adding variety to his press-release repertoire, Bryant can learn a lot from the receiver think tank that currently exists in Cleveland. With WR coach Adam Henry also lauded for his ability to develop pass catchers, Dez could provide solid returns.
From a personnel standpoint, Bryant’s arrival would improve a receiving corps that needs more complementary playmakers around Jarvis Landry. Without Gordon and Ricardo Louis (out for the season with a neck injury), the Browns are forced to elevate Corey Coleman and Antonio Callaway into prominent roles. Although each player is viewed as an A-level talent, Coleman’s inconsistencies and Callaway’s inexperience could stifle the offense’s potential in the short term. Despite Bryant’s flaws, he would currently rank as the team’s second-best pass catcher and improve the unit’s chances of stringing together first downs and scoring points.
If Gordon does return to the lineup, the addition of Bryant only enhances the Browns‘ WR corps on the perimeter. Bryant would team with Gordon and Landry to give the offense three legitimate perimeter threats. Given Haley’s superb track record crafting share-the-ball passing offenses (the 2008 Arizona Cardinals had three 1,000-yard receivers), the decision to sign Bryant would appear to be a win-win move for the team and player.
For those who might be concerned about how Bryant’s fiery personality would fit into the locker room, I think the Browns‘ coaching staff — loaded with individuals who aren’t afraid of conflict or confrontation — would take a heavy-handed approach with the wideout.
That said, Cleveland’s front office certainly has to do its due diligence to see if the 29-year-old’s game and personality fit, but I believe the rewards could be well worth the risk in this scenario.
2) Patrick Peterson‘s new role. Pretty much since his entrance into the league in 2011, Peterson has been in the conversation as the premier lockdown corner in football. But the seven-time Pro Bowler could cement his status as an all-time great when he settles into a new scheme that allows him to make even more plays on the perimeter.
What?! How is it possible for this three-time first-team All-Pro to make a bigger impact as a CB1? Just give him more responsibility in a defensive scheme that allows him to dig deeper into his toolbox as the ultimate playmaker.
That’s exactly what first-year head coach Steve Wilks is doing by encouraging No. 21 to spend more time in “off” coverage in a zone-based scheme that allows him to play with his eyes on the quarterback. In addition, Peterson will play a little in the slot and rush off the edge on zone dogs. The expanded role already has the veteran excited, as he gets more opportunities to put his imprint on the game.
“It should be fun,” Peterson said in June, via the team’s website. “I’m looking to make a ton of plays this year. I’m looking to start jumping routes now. I’m looking to be a little bit more aggressive off the ball and be the same as I am when I’m in the receiver’s face.”
It might seem unusual for off coverage to be viewed as a more aggressive tactic than bump-and-run technique, but playing away from the receiver allows a cornerback to have vision on the quarterback and jump routes in front of him.
“Playing press-man coverage leads to few interceptions because the defensive back is always playing with his back to the quarterback,” a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. “You’re focused on the wide receiver and you only pick up the ball at the last minute. The late reactions result in more breakups instead of picks because you don’t see the ball thrown. In off coverage, you get quicker breaks on the ball because you can read routes and see the ball come out of the quarterback’s hands. If you’re able to key the three-step (quarterback drop) and catch the ball on tips or overthrows, you’ll come up with more turnovers at the end of the season.”
I’m a big believer in this theory after watching some of my former teammates (Eric Allen, Charles Woodson and Mark McMillian) steal pick after pick playing off coverage. They not only mastered the art of jumping routes, but they were able to make quicker breaks on throws by “stealing second” on the quarterback’s windup. These subtle hints have been shared in DB meeting rooms for years, but the game’s greatest players are able to take that information and put it into play on the field.
“Now I have to be able to play with my eyes, play with vision,” Peterson said. “Those little nuggets he’s (Wilks) been giving me over the last two months have been a tremendous help.”
That’s why opponents should fear the player Peterson could become this season.
“Patrick is trying to position himself long-term to one day be in Canton (as a Hall of Famer),” Wilks told reporters in June. “To be able to do that, you’ve got to start separating yourself even more. So that’s the challenge I try to give him.”
For a player with a resume that’s already brimming with Hall of Fame potential, the opportunity to play in a “see ball, get ball” scheme could help cement his claim on a gold jacket.
3) Is Odell Beckham Jr. the NFL’s next $20 million man? Like it or not, the New York Giants are about to pay OBJ a whole lot of money. Now, I know the thought of a non-quarterback position player netting a salary that provides $20 million annually is unfathomable in some circles, but Big Blue’s best player will raise the bar for pass catchers whenever he eventually signs his new deal.
With Antonio Brown currently ranking as the highest-paid wide receiver in the game at $17 million per, Beckham could sprint past AB’s earnings. Sure, you can debate whether OBJ is the best receiver in the game, but you can’t knock his production or impact as an electric playmaker on the perimeter who’s still just 25 years old.
The fifth-year pro shares the NFL record for most receptions in the first three seasons of a career with Jarvis Landry (288), and his 4,122 receiving yards during that span trail only Randy Moss. In addition, Beckham is the fifth player in NFL history with double-digit touchdowns in each of his first three seasons, and he is the only player in NFL history with at least 80 receptions and 10 touchdowns in that period.
If that’s not enough data to convince the Giants‘ front office to open up the vault, the team can check out the offense’s dramatic decline in production without No. 13 in the lineup.
Last season, the Giants averaged 13.6 points per game in the 13 games OBJ missed or played limited snaps in. That was after averaging 23 points in the three games in which he handled a normal workload.
Eli Manning‘s game also suffers when Beckham isn’t on the field. Don’t believe me? Marinate on these numbers since No. 13 was drafted ..
With OBJ: 63.6 percent completion rate, 7.0 yards per attempt, 66:29 TD-to-INT ratio, 91.5 passer rating.
Without OBJ: 60.4 percent completion rate, 6.0 yards per attempt; 14:14 TD-to-INT ratio, 75.0 passer rating.
That’s why the Giants must pay Beckham the big bucks. At a time when teams are beginning to reward elite offensive weapons for their ability to elevate offenses (see: Todd Gurley and Julio Jones), Beckham has enough leverage to command some “quarterback money” when he reaches the negotiation table.
“They’re going to make him the highest-paid [receiver],” a former NFL general manager told me. “He’s going to blow the doors off Antonio Brown‘s deal because he’s arguably the best receiver in the football.
“If you’re the Giants, you want to protect yourself with the language and some of the stipulations because of his antics and behavior, but it’s probably in their best interests to do the deal sooner rather than later with the market changing for receivers.”
That’s why you’re hearing the Giants‘ ownership openly discussing plans to sign Beckham to a blockbuster deal, after dismissing some of that chatter early in the offseason. The economics of the wide receiver market have changed dramatically this offseason, with guys like Brandin Cooks and Sammy Watkins inking deals that average $16 million per year, and Jarvis Landry receiving $15 million per as the premier slot receiver in the game. If those guys are inching closer to the top of the market with some limitations to their respective games, a five-tool playmaker like Beckham begins to look like a bargain as a $20 million man.
“We think we know what it is going to take to re-sign him,” Mara told reporters on the first day of training camp, via ESPN.com. “We’ll see.”
Mara can play the “wait and see” game for as long as he wants, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the number needs to come in at the $20 million mark for No. 13 to sign on the dotted line.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.