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 you should expect the unexpected in the Redskins‘ QB competition.
— Are the Falcons about to set a new trend in roster construction?
But first, a look at the teams that should be interested in the league’s most high-profile free agent …
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It’s rare to see any quarterback with a Super Bowl appearance, MVP award and NFL records on his resume hit the open market, let alone one who’s still only 30 years old, but that is the situation Cam Newton finds himself in. The Carolina Panthers released the former No. 1 overall pick earlier this week after failing to find a trade partner for the 10th-year veteran.
While the fact that Newton remains unsigned as of this writing isn’t a surprise given that NFL teams are not performing physicals at this time due to the coronavirus pandemic (he did pass a physical coordinated by the Panthers and his agency before being released by Carolina, per ESPN), it’s still a surprise to see a player with Newton’s credentials searching for work in what should be the prime of his career. Sure, his injuries in recent years, and subsequent disappointing production, cloud his evaluation, but we’re talking about a guy who was the toast of the league not too long ago.
Newton holds the NFL records for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (58) and most games with a passing and rushing touchdown. Although questions about his ability to continue to thrive as a mobile playmaker are valid based on the shoulder injury and Lisfranc fracture he suffered in consecutive seasons, it should be noted that Newton was playing some of the best football of his career under coordinator Norv Turner in 2018. Prior to his shoulder injury — which he suffered against the Steelers in Week 10 of the season — Newton had posted a 67.3 percent completion rate with a 13:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio in eight starts.
Let those numbers marinate for a minute. Cam was excelling as a passer in Turner’s traditional offense while also displaying the same dangerous running skills on the perimeter that made him a nightmare to defend.
That’s why I’m reluctant to focus only on his declining production since that game in Pittsburgh, but here they are anyway: 64.9 percent completion rate and a 9:10 touchdown-to-interception ratio in eight starts. The former All-Pro rushed for just 144 yards in that span.
Some might be ready to write him off based on those numbers, but I believe it’s only a matter of time before Newton finds his way back onto an NFL roster. Teams are undoubtedly going to want their own confirmation on his health status before determining whether to sign him. Assuming he checks out health-wise, a smart team should snatch up the three-time Pro Bowler to take advantage of the best value on the market at the moment. Newton would give a QB-needy team a high-end quarterback with top-10-playmaker potential and it could get him at a modest price based on the limited number of suitors in the marketplace.
He shouldn’t be ignored by contending teams, either. Squads with an established quarterback could get a solid insurance policy to protect against a significant injury to their starter. While I believe Newton certainly still wants to be a QB1, he could take this opportunity to pick the right coaching staff to help him grow his game as a passer and extend his career into his late 30s.
We’ve recently witnessed Teddy Bridgewater‘s re-emergence after spending two years under Sean Payton in New Orleans. We also watched Ryan Tannehill re-launch his career by biding his time in Tennessee until he was given a chance to take the reins. If Newton is careful and selective during this process, we could see a return to greatness from a playmaker who is seemingly being cast aside by the football world.
Here are five teams that make sense for the former MVP:
New England Patriots: It’s rare for Bill Belichick to lavish praise on opposing players, but his respect for Newton’s talents is well documented. Belichick has outlined the challenges of playing against a big, athletic quarterback with power and versatility like Newton’s. Given offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ creative mind and his affinity for athletic quarterbacks (SEE: Tim Tebow), it would be interesting to find out what the Patriots could do with his talents. Keep these numbers, via Panthers Wire, in mind: Newton has posted his best passer rating against any opponent (128.2) while completing 71.9 percent of his passes (more than 12 points higher than his career rate) and averaging 7.07 yards per rush (almost two yards higher than his career average) against the Patriots.
That’s a lot of production for Belichick to see in person, and it’s one of the reasons why I think Newton could be on the Patriots‘ roster this fall.
Los Angeles Chargers: Head coach Anthony Lynn clearly has a lot of confidence in Tyrod Taylor, but there’s no way he can ignore Newton’s potential as a dynamic QB with explosive playmaking ability. Newton’s athleticism could enhance the Chargers‘ running game, while the Chargers‘ big-bodied receivers would expand the strike zone for the streaky passer. If the Chargers are comfortable with Newton’s health and his bold personality, they could gain ground on their division rivals with the former MVP leading the way.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Newton’s personality might scare off the Jaguars‘ coaching staff and executives based on their recent experiences with some alpha dogs. That said, he would be a significant upgrade over Gardner Minshew and Newton’s athleticism would help coach Doug Marrone stick to a ground-and-pound attack with the running game leading the way. If Newton can convince the front office that he will be a team player, he could help lead a young team back into playoff contention.
San Francisco 49ers: Before you laugh at the mere suggestion of Newton joining the Jimmy Garoppolo-led 49ers, let me be clear: This would be a move driven by the quarterback’s desire to join a team coached by an A-1 quarterback developer to enhance his chances of extending his career as he transitions from dual-threat playmaker to mobile assassin in an offense that features a number of movement-based passing concepts. Newton would give the 49ers a high-end quarterback in the bullpen to fill in if Jimmy G suffered an injury, and he could give the team options down the road when it comes to the QB1 position.
Baltimore Ravens: Newton’s presence in the building won’t threaten reigning MVP Lamar Jackson, but it would upgrade the talent behind the spectacular playmaker. Newton is a much better player than the current backup (Robert Griffin III) and his dual-threat talents would mesh well with the Ravens‘ scheme. Naturally, coach John Harbaugh would need to be comfortable with Newton’s willingness to embrace a new role, but having a former MVP at his disposal could keep the Ravens in title contention in the midst of a catastrophe were Jackson to miss time with an injury.
REDSKINS QB COMPETITION: Don’t sleep on Kyle Allen’s chances
I know Ron Rivera said this week that 2019 first-round pick Dwayne Haskins is his starter even after acquiring Allen for a fifth-round pick, but he also made it clear that there would be competition for the top job. And don’t underestimate the significance of Rivera reuniting with a young quarterback who made 11 starts under his direction over the past two seasons. The Allen deal also matches offensive coordinator Scott Turner with a quarterback he developed from undrafted free agent to starter from 2018 to 2019.
Think about that: A former quarterback coach is promoted to offensive coordinator in his new job and is reunited with one of his protégés as he begins the process of trying to turn around an offense. Given the importance placed on trust and communication between quarterback and play-caller, the connection between Turner and Allen is important, particularly in the midst of a chaotic period in which teams’ offseason programs have been delayed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic.
That’s why I wouldn’t dismiss Allen’s chances of emerging as the Redskins‘ QB1 at the end of training camp. Allen’s knowledge of the offense should help him play faster than the incumbent at the position out of the gate.
While some fans will scoff at the notion of a former college journeyman and undrafted quarterback wrestling the job away from a first-round pick with a collegiate resume that included arguably the best season of quarterback play in Big Ten history, Allen is a former five-star recruit with a big arm and a high football IQ. Those traits helped him climb the ranks from a lowly practice squad member to backup quarterback to fill-in starter in two seasons.
“He’s had some success. He’s good in the locker room. He understands what I’m looking for. He understands what Scotty [Turner] is looking for,” Rivera said, via The Team 980, Redskins Radio. “So, hopefully we can take that and use it to our advantage with our new team.”
Allen started the Panthers‘ 2018 regular-season finale and parlayed that opportunity into 12 starts in 2019 with Cam Newton sidelined due to injury. To his credit, Allen won his first five career starts while exhibiting the poise, patience and leadership expected from a starter. He took care of the football and made the plays that were needed while the coaching staff kept him on a manageable pitch count (averaged 29.8 pass attempts over that span).
From a scouting perspective, Allen’s efficiency in the quick-rhythm passing game was impressive, particularly when he tossed quicks (slants, seams and arrow routes) and intermediate rhythm throws (digs and square outs) from the shotgun. The young quarterback also displayed outstanding awareness and discipline by frequently targeting the running backs on checkdowns when his primary options were covered.
When Allen stuck to the script and didn’t attempt to play hero ball, he moved the offense up and down the field without issues. With the defense playing well and special teams also assisting in the effort, the Panthers were able to win games with Allen managing the offense.
From a critical standpoint, Allen appeared to fall apart around midseason, as he went 1-7 in his final eight starts. He was unable to compensate for a shortage of weapons on the perimeter, a suspect offensive and a struggling defense that forced the Panthers to chase points on offense. The second-year pro played outside of his talents and the turnovers started to plague him, as evidenced by his 19 turnovers over his final nine games.
That said, Allen remained the team’s starter when Turner assumed offensive coordinator duties after Rivera was fired near the end of last season (at least for a couple weeks, before the franchise gave rookie Will Grier a shot). The Redskins‘ new play-caller had Allen throw 40-plus times in each of the three games he played in down the stretch, with the young quarterback completing 63.4 percent of his throws while averaging 288.3 pass yards per game. Although the 2:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio was far from ideal, the number of attempts speaks to the trust between play-caller and passer.
“At the end of the day, nobody knows what’s going to happen, so we just have to get ourselves ready,” Rivera said during the radio interview. “We really like what we have in terms of our young quarterbacks. Kyle is also a young guy who has a live arm, understands the game, understands how we do things. So, I’m excited about what the potential could be.”
With Rivera certain to give Turner significant input on the quarterback situation, Haskins should be on alert that he is entering training camp engaged in a real quarterback competition and he will need to play well to hold onto the job.
FIRST-ROUND FALCONS: Atlanta’s unique approach to team-building
It’s not about the Xs and the Os — it’s about the Jimmys and Joes.
If you have spent enough time around football coaches and scouts, you’ve undoubtedly heard this phrase uttered in discussions about building a winning team. Despite our affinity for the schemes and strategies of certain play callers on both sides of the ball, the best in the business will tell you that most games are won by the team with the better players.
After watching the Atlanta Falcons put together an offense overflowing with former first-round picks, it is apparent that Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff are pushing all of their chips into the center of the table and gambling on their high-powered attack outscoring opponents on the way to a playoff berth.
While the Falcons‘ team-building strategy appears to be borrowed from Madden NFL 20, it is actually part of an old-school approach — one that Hall of Fame executive Ron Wolf told me he learned from the late, great Al Davis. According to Wolf, a team should always take a look at former first-round picks because their draft pedigree typically reflects a high level of raw ability, and a change of scenery or a new coaching staff could maximize that potential. In addition, Wolf told me that you can never have enough talent on your roster and good coaches will find a way to make it work.
I take Wolf’s wisdom to heart. Same deal when it comes to NFL Network colleague (and longtime general manager) Charley Casserly, who has routinely stressed in production meetings and on air that there is a 50 percent success rate on first-round picks. (Basically, that they’re starters or key contributors by the end of a fourth NFL season.) So, judging by what I’ve learned from Wolf and Casserly, it makes sense for the Falcons to put all of their eggs in the first-round basket.
Round 1 is considered the prime cut of each draft, and accumulating as many elite players as possible should produce more wins in a talent-driven league. Just think about the success we just saw from a San Francisco 49ers defense that featured six former first-round picks, including five former 1s rotating along the defensive line.
Studying the Falcons‘ offensive lineup, the team could trot out an “11” personnel package with a former first-rounder at every spot:
QB: Matt Ryan (No. 3 overall to the Falcons in 2008)
RB: Todd Gurley (No. 10 overall to the Rams in 2015)
WR: Julio Jones (No. 6 overall to the Falcons in 2011)
WR: Calvin Ridley (No. 26 overall to the Falcons in 2018)
WR: Laquon Treadwell (No. 23 overall to the Vikings in 2016)
TE: Hayden Hurst (No. 25 overall to the Ravens in 2018)
LT: Jake Matthews (No. 6 overall to the Falcons in 2014)
LG: James Carpenter (No. 25 overall to the Seahawks in 2011)
C: Alex Mack (No. 21 overall to the Browns in 2009)
RG: Chris Lindstrom (No. 14 overall to the Falcons in 2019)
RT: Kaleb McGary (No. 31 overall to the Falcons in 2019)
Despite the underwhelming returns produced by Treadwell and Hurst for their drafting teams (Minnesota and Baltimore, respectively), there’s no denying they were viewed as highly talented prospects upon entering the league. With that in mind, they’re low-risk, high-reward propositions for Atlanta.
The same can be said for the Falcons‘ roll of the dice on Gurley. Although there are serious concerns about his knee, especially given the dramatic reduction in touches and production last season, Atlanta can reap the rewards if his diminished returns were more a product of poor deployment/utilization than injury. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter could ultimately determine whether Gurley re-emerges as a success story, depending on how he elects to feature the multi-purpose threat in the game plan. If Gurley starts to spit out 100-yard scrimmage games on a regular basis once again, we will know that the Rams‘ mismanagement of his role is what really led to the decline in production.
While Gurley’s performance will dominate headlines and fuel debates regarding the Falcons‘ decision to bring him in on a one-year, $6 million deal, I believe the team’s acquisition strategy is a sensible one when you’re contemplating how to best build a team around big-money quarterback. With Matt Ryan on his third contract, the Falcons have made the commitment to surround the 34-year-old with enough resources to allow him to shine. From the playmakers on the perimeter to the fortress that’s built in front of him, Matty Ice has everything that a quarterback could desire at his disposal.
Moreover, the Falcons have given him premier talent without completely breaking the bank, as only Jones, Matthews and Mack occupy more than five percent of the salary cap or command $10 million-plus in cap space. Given the amount of young players on rookie deals in Atlanta, the Falcons might’ve discovered a new way of building a powerhouse: drafting and developing their own first-round picks, while scooping up other franchises’ discarded No. 1s.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.