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 temptation the Seahawks must resist in 2019.
— Why the Packers have to draft a QB this year.
— The reasons behind Kyler Murray‘s rapid rise.
But first, a look at one of the fundamental questions when it comes to building an NFL team …
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Can a team win a Super Bowl with a quarterback signed to a big-money deal?
That’s the multi-million-dollar question floating around league circles after watching team after team hand over bags of money to the next quarterback on the verge of hitting the market, with the most recent example being the Seahawks’ megadeal with Russell Wilson.
Now, I must admit that I’m not a big fan of treating every quarterback like he is the crown jewel of the franchise, but I certainly recognize an elite QB1 makes life easier for everyone in the organization. With that in mind, I thought I would point out a few factors that are needed to win with a quarterback who earns big money on a deal that occupies a significant chunk of the salary cap. Although we rarely see a franchise win a Super Bowl with a quarterback on a top-of-the-market deal, I believe it can be done with a solid plan and the right team-building model. Here are a few ideas:
1) First, make sure the franchise quarterback is really worth franchise-player money.
I know we loosely affix the “franchise quarterback” moniker to many of the starting quarterbacks in the league, but not all starting quarterbacks are premier players at the position. All QB1s aren’t created equal and they shouldn’t get elite money unless they play at an elite level. That’s the standard and expectation for all of the other positions on the field, and it should be the qualifier for quarterbacks, as well.
Now, that doesn’t mean the quarterback has to average 300-plus yards or lead the league in touchdowns, but he has to be able to make the plays in crucial moments needed to win games. Whether that’s delivering a pinpoint pass into a tight window or running for a pivotal first down on a zone-read play or impromptu scramble, the guys earning big coin at the position need to be able to make plays when the team is counting on them.
In addition, franchise quarterbacks earning top dollar should be able to elevate the team without excessive resources around them. Sure, quarterbacks need a No. 1 receiver and a few complementary weapons around them, but they shouldn’t need all of the bells and whistles on both sides of the ball to win games. Otherwise, why are they being paid $25 million-plus per year?
Quarterbacks paid as elite players must be able to overcome some flaws on the roster to win games or they really are not franchise quarterbacks. We’ve seen Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees win with a cast of misfits on the perimeter, and that should be the standard for QB1s paid like premier players. That doesn’t mean the franchise quarterback can do it all by himself, but he should be able to keep the team in contention with a reasonable supporting cast around him. That’s what the great ones have always done (see Brett Favre) and that’s what the elite players should be expected to do in today’s game.
So, yes, before you can build a team around a big-money quarterback, you better make sure the QB1 is worth the coin.
2) Win the first round in every draft.
Old-school scouts will tell you that the best way to ensure long-term success in the league is to consistently hit on your top picks. Despite the love affair draftniks have with sleepers and underdog stories, the best players in the league are typically drafted in the first round. Those players are drafted on Day 1 to become starters and difference makers on their respective teams and executives count on those players to comprise the nucleus of a championship team.
That’s why it’s critical for teams committing big bucks to the QB1 to at least hit doubles in the first round. General managers don’t necessarily need to find megastars on Day 1, but they must select players who can be solid starters for four to five years within their systems. Using a “small ball” theory based on selecting safe players doesn’t excite anyone, but a large portion of first-round picks fail to succeed and those failures, particularly when they happen in consecutive years, can doom a franchise’s chances of remaining in title contention.
Look no further than the Green Bay Packers and their recent first-round failures as proof of how quickly things can go awry when you fail to land solid starters on Day 1 after signing a QB1 to a lucrative deal. Rodgers signed a five-year extension worth $110 million in 2013 that made him the highest-paid player at the position, yet the team’s repeated first-round misses contributed to the club failing to make it back to the Super Bowl.
From 2013 to 2016, the Packers drafted Datone Jones, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Damarious Randall and Kenny Clark in the first round, but only Clark still remains on the squad among that group. Although Clinton-Dix earned Pro Bowl honors during his stint with the team, he wasn’t viewed as a foundational player and was dealt to Washington at the trade deadline last season.
That’s certainly not the way to build a championship team around a high-priced QB, but the Packers are joined by a handful of other teams with a history of misses after signing quarterbacks to lucrative extensions. The Detroit Lions signed Matthew Stafford to a three-year extension worth $53 million in 2013 and promptly drafted Eric Ebron, Laken Tomlinson, Taylor Decker, and Jarrad Davis in the first round over the next four years. Decker and Davis remain with the team, but Ebron and Tomlinson didn’t pan out with the Lions and were dismissed or traded away before reaching the end of their rookie deals (the change of scenery seems to have benefited both players).
The Ravens are another example of a team failing to nail the first round after signing Joe Flacco to a blockbuster deal after the 2012 season. The team drafted Matt Elam, C.J. Mosley, Breshad Perriman, Ronnie Stanley and Marlon Humphrey during the five drafts that followed the Super Bowl MVP’s lucrative contract extension. Mosley played at a Pro Bowl level before signing with the Jets this offseason, but Elam and Perriman never played up to expectations and their failures left voids in the team’s lineup.
I’m not trying to be a downer when I point out the draft failures of these squads after signing their quarterbacks to big deals, but these examples illustrate the challenge of drafting good players in the first round. With big quarterback contracts limiting teams’ chances of correcting their draft mistakes with high-priced free agents, general managers have to get it right on Day 1 of the draft to create a viable contender using a build-around-the-quarterback approach.
3) Implement a development plan for young players.
For a “draft and develop” strategy to work in the NFL, the coaches must be fully committed to the idea of teaching the young guys on the practice field and playing them in games. As teachers, the coaches must be willing to devote some extra hours to developing their young players on the practice field and in the film room to prepare them for game reps in the regular season. While that idea seems like a no-brainer on the surface, it is hard for some coaches to trust an unproven player in games despite the long-term benefits for the player and team that come from learning on the job.
“It isn’t easy putting in a young player when you don’t know how they will handle the pressure of playing in a game,” said a former NFL defensive coordinator. “There has to be a certain amount of trust in the player that he is going to do what he’s been coached to do in every situation and that comes from him earning that trust by doing it in practice. He has to be prepared and ready to go when his number is called. … You only go to him if he’s proven it on the practice field.”
The trust from the coach comes from observing the young player hone his craft on the practice field before, during and after practices. Coaches want to see players fully invested in the process and they are usually more than willing to work with them to maximize their potential if they observe that commitment. However, the older players and/or key contributors need to get their work in and that can take away from the developmental needs of younger players.
That’s why the teams that have succeeded with an emphasis on a developmental approach have bigger coaching staffs and a clear plan for grooming their young players for playing time down the road. The Atlanta Falcons have been lauded for implementing a “Plan D” program that accelerates the development of young players with extra work after practice. Dan Quinn and his staff will devote 10 minutes after practice to work with their young players on technique and scheme understanding to prepare them for bigger roles down the road.
It is one of the reasons why the Falcons have been able to get quality contributions from a number of late-round picks and undrafted free agents in recent years (Damontae Kazee and Brian Poole among them), which provides the team with relatively cheap role players and balances the checkbook with so much money committed to a high-priced quarterback.
The New Orleans Saints are another example of a team using a developmental plan to emerge as a viable contender with a high-priced quarterback. Sean Payton and his staff not only identified and acquired a host of blue-chip players in the 2017 draft, including the Offensive Rookie of the Year (Alvin Kamara) and Defensive Rookie of the Year (Marshon Lattimore), but they also developed some of their other draftees (Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams and Alex Anzalone) and put them in prime positions to contribute as youngsters.
4) Invest free agent/draft assets heavily on one side of the ball and develop on the other side.
Whenever a team signs a quarterback to a big deal, they’re presented with a choice. Do they surround him with marquee weapons on offense via free agency or the draft and play with a young, athletic defense that’s constantly developing? Or should they pump their resources into a defense that can keep the score down and enable the QB1 to make a handful of plays to win the game? We’ve seen teams like the Falcons put all of their eggs in the offensive basket with Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley, creating a Dream Team-like supporting cast around Matt Ryan. The team complements its high-octane offense with a defense featuring young, athletic playmakers and an emphasis on adding juice to its pass rush.
The thought behind this team-building model is to invest in an offense that scores points while building a defense that’s capable of harassing opponents forced to play in catch-up mode. This is how the Indianapolis Colts remained consistent contenders during the Peyton Manning era and it’s worked successfully for the Falcons during Matty Ice’s tenure.
On the flip side, the Baltimore Ravens committed their resources to the defense and hoped Flacco would be able to make enough plays to bail them out of games that traditionally ended as nip-and-tuck affairs. The team expected their QB1 to make plays in the passing game to generate enough points to win a number of one-score games. The onus was primarily on the defense to hold up its end of the bargain as the strength of the team. Although the team repeatedly missed the playoffs after Flacco signed his big deal, the defense-focused formula has been the catalyst to a pair of Super Bowl wins, albeit with quarterbacks playing on modest deals.
In studying the teams with big-money quarterbacks on the roster, I can see the decision on whether to build an offense around the QB1 or complement him with a star-studded defense is a gamble no matter how you slice it. However, one team that just paid big bucks to an elite QB will find its signal-caller doesn’t quite fit so neatly in either box …
HOW ‘HAWKS CAN AVOID POTENTIAL PITFALL OF WILSON’S NEW DEAL
I hope the Seattle Seahawks‘ decision to make Russell Wilson the highest-paid player in the NFL doesn’t change the way Pete Carroll’s offense operates in 2019. While it is easy for general managers and coaches to fall into the trap of trying to justify a huge new contract, the Seahawks can’t scrap their run-centric approach to showcase No. 3’s talents as a passer to appease the masses.
Now, I know that’s probably an unpopular opinion in a league that’s supposedly driven by the play of the quarterback, but the Seahawks and Wilson are better when the team leans on the running game as the backbone of the offense.
Don’t believe me? Just look at Wilson’s production from 2018 as proof of his effectiveness directing a “less is more” passing game in the Pacific Northwest. Wilson became the third passer in NFL history to toss 35 or more touchdowns on fewer than 450 pass attempts last season (35 TDs on 427 attempts). The others, Y.A. Tittle (36 TDs on 367 pass attempts in 1963) and George Blanda (36 TDs on 362 pass attempts in 1961), are gold-jacket wearers with busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Wilson’s impressive touchdown efficiency is in line with his methodical play throughout a career in which he ranks second in touchdown percentage in the Super Bowl era for QBs with a minimum of 3,000 throws (6.0% with 196 touchdowns on 3,261 pass attempts) behind Aaron Rodgers (6.2% with 338 touchdowns on 5,492 attempts).
That’s why the concern over Wilson’s marginal passing numbers (215.5 pass yards per game last season) is laughable when you study the tape and look at his overall efficiency. Although Wilson ranked among the likes of Josh Rosen (162.7), Josh Allen (172.8), Ryan Tannehill (179.9), Marcus Mariota (180.6) and Blake Bortles (209.1) in that category, the five-time Pro Bowl selectee is a Kyrie Irving-like point guard capable of getting buckets or dishing the rock to his teammates on the break. He is a dynamic playmaker with a creative game that’s hard to defend as he displays the patience and discipline to stay on script as a rhythm passer from the pocket.
That said, Wilson is at his best when he is kept on a low pitch count as a passer. I know it’s uncommon to view a franchise quarterback in this light, particularly when he is the highest-paid passer in the league, but the Seahawks‘ QB1 and the team is far more effective when he plays in a run-heavy offense that selectively takes shots down the field.
From 2012-2014, Wilson averaged only 26.1 pass attempts with a 63.4 percent completion rate for only 207.3 pass yards per game. He posted a 72:26 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 98.6 passer rating during that span. With the Seahawks averaging 33.5, 31.8 and 32.8 rushing attempts per game in each of those seasons, the team went to back-to-back Super Bowls and notched double-digit wins for three straight seasons.
Despite Wilson’s passing numbers improving over the next four seasons (31.1 pass attempts per game; 64.8 percent completion rate; 244.9 pass yards per game; 124:37 TD-INT ratio; 101.5 passer rating), the Seahawks‘ victory total hovered around 10 wins each and the team failed to make a deep run in the postseason.
It’s important to note that the success of the 2018 team was sparked by a return to the original offensive blueprint that featured only 26.7 pass attempts per game with the team running the ball on over 50 percent of its offensive snaps. In spite of fewer pass attempts, Wilson’s efficiency and effectiveness improved with his touchdown percentage (8.2) and yards per attempt (8.1) drastically improving over his MVP-caliber season totals (6.1 touchdown percentage and 7.2 yards per attempt) in 2017.
With that in mind, the Seahawks would be wise to stick to the script in 2019 with their big-money quarterback. Sure, the football world will scream about Wilson’s limited pass attempts, but the team is built around a run-heavy premise that eats the clock and protects a young defense that features a number of developing players growing into big roles.
Carroll talked about the importance of the running game and how it matches the team’s offensive identity near the end of the 2018 regular season. He also mentioned how Wilson’s efficient playmaking ability as a passer is the ideal complement to the team’s approach.
“Really, it’s about commitment and the commitment to practice it and talk it,” Carroll said in November, per the Tacoma News Tribune. “And then carry out and coach it really well so that we’re able to do that. I mean, everyone wants to run the football. But to be that committed to it, I think that’s really what’s made the difference.
“The players are obviously suited. The guys up front are suited to run the football like that, and the running backs are suited to run football like that, and Russell complements that as well.
“I think everybody’s in on it.”
Considering how teams are forced to defend the running game with extra defenders in the box, Wilson’s ability to throw the ball down the field is the perfect counter to the “plus-one” fronts used by defensive coordinators. According to Next Gen Stats, No. 3 had 13 touchdowns on deep passes (20-plus air yards) last season, which tied him with Patrick Mahomes for the league lead.
In addition, the combination of the running game and complementary passes have allowed Wilson to make fewer tight-window throws. The veteran passer threw into tight windows on just 13.8 percent of his passes in 2018 (10th lowest in the NFL), per Next Gen Stats, yet he led the NFL in air yards per attempt (20.2), yards per attempt (8.4), touchdown percentage (15.3) and passer rating (103.4) on those throws.
As the only qualifying passer with a 100-plus passer rating on tight-window attempts, Wilson’s efficiency and effectiveness only validate his status as a premier quarterback.
In a league governed by quarterback play, Wilson’s worth every penny on his new deal, but the Seahawks don’t need to overhaul their style of play to prove his worth to the football world. With Wilson’s long track record of thriving in a “less is more” passing game, the ‘Hawks would be wise to use him as a high-volume passer only in emergencies.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Why Packers must draft a QB in 2019. I know Aaron Rodgers‘ supporters will likely take this the wrong way, but I’ll say it anyway: The Green Bay Packers should use one of their two first-round picks on a quarterback.
I know this take might come as a bit of a surprise, considering the team signed No. 12 to a four-year, $134 million extension just last August, but the Packers need to invest in a successor to the 35-year-old perennial Pro Bowl passer and they need to do it now.
While Rodgers hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down as an MVP-caliber player, he has been banged up in each of the past two seasons (played most of last year with a tibial plateau fracture and missed nine games the year before) and the Packers are in the perfect position — both as a team and in terms of draft capital — to grab a talented quarterback as an insurance policy and eventual successor. With three selections in the first 45 picks, including Nos. 12 and 30 overall, general manager Brian Gutekunst can pick up a youngster with legitimate starting potential at the top of the draft.
Considering NFL starting quarterbacks tend to overwhelmingly be first-round picks, the Packers would be wise to use their extra first-rounder (No. 30 overall) on a promising quarterback prospect with the arm talent, athleticism and football IQ to become a long-term starter. This was certainly the thought process when the Packers selected Aaron Rodgers with the 24th overall pick in the 2005 draft despite having a 35-year-old three-time MVP at the helm.
Think about that. Brett Favre was arguably a more accomplished player then than Rodgers is at this stage in his career, and still the Packers used their top pick on a quarterback. Although that decision was driven by Rodgers ranking as the best remaining prospect on Green Bay’s board, per former team executive Andrew Brandt, the team wisely made the decision to draft a quarterback before the position became a pressing need. It’s usually at that point in time when the temptation to reach for a franchise quarterback who doesn’t necessarily warrant a high pick leads to bad decisions.
During my time with the Packers in the mid-1990s, I frequently heard ex-Packers general manager and Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinee Ron Wolf discuss the importance of bringing in a young quarterback every other year to keep the pipeline full of prospects. He believed a team could never have enough signal-callers and that those potential QB1s would become valuable insurance or trade commodities if they flashed upside in the preseason after being developed in the Packers‘ offseason Quarterback School. Guys like Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck and Aaron Brooks were a few of the quarterback prospects who were flipped into draft picks after being developed in the team’s system.
That’s why I’m not surprised by the team’s decision to host Missouri’s Drew Lock on a pre-draft visit or their failed attempt to get Duke’s Daniel Jones into the building for a sit-down. The Packers have been able to remain a viable contender for the last 20-plus years due to solid quarterback play. Mapping out a transition plan from No. 12 is a smart business decision that doesn’t present any serious risks.
If Rodgers continues to play at a high level into his late 30s, the team can auction off their young passer for a draft pick (see New England and Jimmy Garoppolo/Jacoby Brissett). If No. 12 begins to show signs of decline, though, the team can move forward with their young quarterback operating under a team-friendly deal that allows them to build up the rest of the roster.
Either way, the decision to take a talented quarterback early in this year’s draft would be a wise investment that could pay huge dividends for Green Bay down the road.
2) What has caused Murray’s rapid rise up draft boards? I’m fascinated by the dramatic shift of opinions on Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray heading into draft weekend. The Heisman Trophy winner is universally viewed as the No. 1 quarterback in the 2019 class now despite enduring months of questions about his size, arm talent, playing style, scheme fit and commitment to the game. Before the Heisman Trophy winner declared for the NFL draft in January, he was rarely discussed as a potential first-round pick during the regular season and he was viewed as a long shot to come off the board as a top-10 pick.
Don’t believe me? Just check my Twitter timeline from December and you’ll see plenty of naysayers in my mentions disputing my opinion on Murray’s prospects as a top-10 pick. The Twitter-verse was up in arms about the chances of a 5-foot-10, 195-pound quarterback going in the first round when the NFL has rarely seen a sub-6 foot passer celebrated as a franchise quarterback.
Sure, Russell Wilson just inked the most lucrative deal in NFL history earlier this week and Baker Mayfield is coming off a record-breaking rookie season, but I remember Drew Brees getting points deducted from his grade back in 2001 due to his measurements instead of his game.
That’s why I was stunned when three-time Super Bowl-winning general manager and current NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly reported his results from an anonymous poll of front office executives that listed Murray as the No. 1 quarterback in the 2019 class on 16 of 20 ballots. That’s 80% of NFL executives toting a 5-foot-10 gunslinger as the premier QB1 in a league that’s traditionally about prototypes at the position.
The landslide in Murray’s direction is certainly startling when the same poll conducted around the time of the NFL Scouting Combine in February revealed a tie between the Heisman Trophy winner and Dwayne Haskins.
What happened? Why has Murray’s stock surged up the charts in the last two months? There are a few explanations for Murray’s rise to the top of the charts around the league.
1) Scouts and coaches finally dug into his tape after interviewing him at the NFL Scouting Combine and they were pleasantly surprised by his performance. Remember, scouts aren’t permitted to engage in a comprehensive evaluation of underclassmen until they officially declare so a lot of the background information and film study isn’t completed by the time the NFL Scouting Combine kicks off.
2) Evaluators had a chance to travel down to Norman to see Murray throw at Oklahoma’s pro day. His impressive workout likely left a strong impression on scouts who were seeing him in person for the first time, and that exposure might’ve led some to stand on the table for the playmaker during pre-draft discussions prior to officially setting the board.
3) There could be a few scouts marrying their grade on Murray to his potential draft slot to make sure they look like winners on draft day. Although general managers frequently tell their scouts that scouting reports are supposed to outline a prospect’s long-term potential, it is hard for some evaluators to avoid the temptation of looking good on draft day instead of truly projecting a player’s long-term value.
But perhaps the biggest influence on Murray’s ascension to the top spot is the path his predecessors have paved before him. Baker Mayfield‘s unprecedented success transitioning from the Sooners’ version of the Air Raid offense to Freddie Kitchens’ playbook in Cleveland provided a blueprint for how another team may be able to replicate that type of success with Murray under center.
Scouts frequently look in the rear-view mirror to see where they’ve hit or missed in previous drafts. Self-review can help evaluators avoid repeating the same mistakes, which, in some cases, requires being willing to adapt to the league’s evolution instead of sticking to their traditional norms.
Mayfield’s recent success — and the careers of Russell Wilson and Drew Brees — not only debunk the undersized quarterback narrative that’s followed Murray, but it squashes some of the negative stigmas often attached to quarterbacks who come from Air Raid systems. For years, scouts believed the scheme inflated quarterback numbers and didn’t prepare them for the complexities of the NFL. While there is certainly some truth to the inflation and the simplistic nature of the offense, the proliferation of the scheme at the high school and collegiate levels has put more five-star talents in the system, which leads to more alums eventually making their mark in the league.
We recently witnessed Jared Goff and Patrick Mahomes become top-10 picks after graduating from Air Raid schemes at Cal and Texas Tech, respectively. In fact, I believe Mahomes’ draft day rise and his MVP-caliber play in his first year as a starter has been the biggest influence on Murray’s surge up the charts. The scouting community was uncertain No. 15 could make a seamless transition to the NFL game after playing “sandlot” football at Texas Tech. Although most acknowledged his exceptional physical talents as a strong-armed gunslinger, it was hard to predict how Mahomes’ game would evolve and translate into an NFL offense.
To be fair, he landed in the right situation with a proven quarterback developer in Andy Reid, but Mahomes’ dominance as a young passer not only shattered the stereotype of Air Raid quarterbacks, but it might’ve opened the eyes of scouts looking for the next big thing at the position.
Considering Murray’s explosive athleticism, outstanding arm talent, unique playing style and baseball background, it is easy to fall in love with the idea of the Heisman Trophy winner becoming a pint-sized Mahomes 2.0. And with evaluators also potentially influenced by Mayfield’s historic year and Wilson’s recent megadeal, it’s possible Murray’s climb to No. 1 in the 2019 QB class is really the result of a perfect storm at the position.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.