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 an upcoming summit could lead to more minority head coaches down the road.
But first, the case for why one team is better off after waving goodbye to two of the league’s top talents …
* * * * *
It’s uncommon for a team to improve after losing a pair of All-Pro players, but the Pittsburgh Steelers could show the football world that chemistry can trump talent when building a championship roster. While I’m certainly not convinced that all squads with great camaraderie can make up for their talent deficiencies, I firmly believe that this Steelers team will be better thanks to an addition-by-subtraction approach that relieved the club of some distractions that played a role in its underachievement the past couple years.
I know that statement will surprise some observers who have seen me support Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown in the past. I still believe that Bell and Brown are transcendent stars with better skills than those of their successors (2018 Pro Bowl selectees James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster).
So, why will the Steelers be a better team without No. 26 and No. 84 in the locker room?
For starters, just look at the duo’s recent absences from their new teams’ voluntary workouts as proof of their suspect leadership skills and selfishness when it comes to their roles. Sure, those workouts are voluntary and there are plenty of star players missing OTAs (organized team activities) around the league (including the GOAT himself, Tom Brady), but the decision of the Jets‘ Bell and Raiders‘ Brown to go AWOL after cashing big checks this offseason speaks volumes about their lack of self-awareness. Most importantly, it shows the football world that satisfying their contract demands didn’t result in better “buy-in” from each player.
With that in mind, I believe the Steelers were wise to cut their losses and move on behind a young nucleus of players with the collective talent to excel in leading roles. Conner and Smith-Schuster have shown they deliver enough production to keep the offense rolling, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a two-time Super Bowl winner who continues to play at a high level at quarterback.
“No disrespect to those guys or what they’ve been able to do over the course of their careers, particularly in Pittsburgh, but we had a Pro Bowl wideout on our team who’s still on our team from last year. We had a Pro Bowl running back last year who was on our team who’s still on our team,” said head coach Mike Tomlin at the NFL’s Annual League Meeting in March, referring to Smith-Schuster and Conner. “So, we’ve got good players. We’ve got good, quality players specifically at those positions. Will we need additional plays from other people? Certainly, but you have that discussion and make those statements year in and year out, and we do.”
Tomlin makes valid points when citing the standout performances of Smith-Schuster and Conner a season ago. Each of them played at an all-star level and they should give the team hope that the explosive offense that ranked among the best units in the league in recent years will continue to light up scoreboards in 2019. Additionally, the suggestion about other players stepping up also rings true when it comes to replacing the production that walked out of the door this spring. Players like second-year veterans James Washington and Jaylen Samuels will need to progress as complements for Smith-Schuster and Conner, while important roles could await rookies Diontae Johnson and Benny Snell.
That said, the removal of No. 26 and No. 84 from the locker room gives the Steelers a chance to get back to operating like a team instead of a group of individuals. The constant chatter surrounding the swirling soap operas involving Brown and Bell splintered the team and led to several honor-code violations in the locker room. Teammates overstepped their bounds when discussing contract issues and performance standards, leading to more controversies that were fueled by outsiders weighing in on the Steelers‘ veteran leadership and locker room standards.
“I think [the Bell and Brown sagas] have been highly chronicled and too chronicled,” Tomlin said at the aforementioned March meeting. “I think some things have been said that may or may not be true. All I know is neither one of those guys are members of our team anymore, so I understand that. I understand what that means. We focus our energy on those who are and their readiness and preparation.”
From a team-building standpoint, Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert have been able to hit the reset button on the roster and stockpile the locker room with guys that they believe will form a more cohesive group. The team wants players who embrace the toughness, selflessness, and competitiveness that’s keyed the franchise to six Super Bowl wins.
“We needed to get back to being the Steelers,” said a Steelers front office executive. “We need guys with the right DNA who love the game and embrace how we do things. That’s how we’ve won in the past going back to Chuck Noll and his teams and it is the way that we’ve always won since that point. The last year or so was a wake-up call and a reminder that we need to get a collection of blue-collar guys who work well together. … Playing for us isn’t for everybody, so we need to make sure that guys that are in the locker room embrace what we’re about.”
To that point, I believe the Steelers‘ draft day moves last month reflect a commitment to that philosophy, with the primary example being the team’s aggressive move up in the first round to grab Devin Bush, who’ll be tasked with filling the void that was created when Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal injury in December 2017. The ex-Michigan standout is an alpha dog with the mentality and work ethic that fits perfectly in Pittsburgh. In addition, he is a five-star athlete with the speed, explosiveness and burst to wreak havoc as a sideline-to-sideline playmaker.
The culture change continued with the rest of their draft picks, particularly CB Justin Layne, OLB Sutton Smith and Snell. Each player arrives in Pittsburgh as a blue-collar worker with the requisite physicality and toughness to meet the standard previously established in the Steel City. With Smith-Schuster and Conner already fitting the model, the Steelers have a solid nucleus in place to move past the losses of Brown and Bell without taking a step back as a contender.
GERALD MCCOY VS. NDAMUKONG SUH, PART II
Prior to the 2010 NFL Draft, general managers, scouts, and coaches engaged in a lively debate when discussing whether Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy deserved to be ranked as the No. 1 defensive tackle in the class. No matter which side you took in the conversation, all parties had strong cases to make based on the players’ physical dimensions, performance, and production as dominant defensive playmakers at the point of attack.
In the end, the Detroit Lions decided to go with Suh as the second overall pick, with McCoy landing with the Buccaneers at No. 3 (the Rams made Sam Bradford the first overall pick that year), but the debate over which interior defender would create more disruption in the league never subsided in draft circles. In fact, it was renewed this week with Suh agreeing to terms with the Bucs days after the team released McCoy, which gives me the perfect opportunity to revisit the comparison between these two players.
Reviewing my college notes on Suh and McCoy, I believe both were elite talents worthy of consideration as top-five picks. Each prospect possessed explosive attributes that are hard to find at the position and their potential to wreck shop at the point of attack made defensive coordinators salivate at the possibilities. I can’t remember a pair of defensive tackles sharing such similar physical traits. Suh and McCoy excelled at the NFL Scouting Combine, as evidenced by their results during the event:
Suh: 6-foot-3 7/8; 307 pounds; 33 1/2-inch arm; 10 1/4-inch hand; 4.98 40-yard dash; 4.44 20-yard shuttle; 7.21-second 3-cone drill; 35 1/2-inch vertical jump; 8-foot-9 broad jump; 32 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press
McCoy: 6-4 1/8; 295 pounds; 33 3/4-inch arm; 10 1/4-inch hand; 5.04 40-yard dash; 4.48 20-yard shuttle; 7.32-second 3-cone drill; 30 1/2-inch vertical jump; 9-6 broad jump; 23 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press
I favored Suh as a player due to his production and persistent disruption. He dominated the competition in the Big 12 and frequently looked like the best football player in the country when I studied his game tape. From his explosive strength and power to his non-stop motor, Suh overpowered interior offensive linemen as a relentless playmaker at the point of attack. He finished his final season at Nebraska with 12 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss, which is unbelievable production for a DT.
McCoy was just as dominant in the same conference. He exhibited freakish movement skills as a big, athletic interior defender. McCoy could win with power or finesse at the line of scrimmage while exhibiting advanced hand skills in combat. Despite his polished game, he recorded just 14.5 sacks during his three-year career at Oklahoma, including six sacks in his final season. When making a decision between Suh and McCoy, the production was the deciding factor in my mind.
Fast forward to today, when the Bucs have opted to make Suh a centerpiece of their defense instead of continuing with McCoy as a franchise defender. At first glance, the decision was met with quizzical looks by some folks based on the similarity of the career stats for the perennial Pro Bowl defenders.
Suh: 142 games | 56 sacks | 166 QB Hits | 107 tackles for loss | 5 Pro Bowls
McCoy: 123 games | 54.5 sacks | 140 QB Hits | 79 tackles for loss | 6 Pro Bowls
The numbers are nearly identical in most of the major categories, with Suh surpassing McCoy in tackles for loss and quarterback hits while playing in 19 more games (Suh is also well traveled, having spent time with the Dolphins and Rams between his stops with the Lions and Bucs). McCoy has one more Pro Bowl bid than his counterpart, but Suh has been slightly more productive and disruptive against the run and pass. Suh has routinely whopped guards and centers with his “bull in a china shop” approach and his nasty demeanor is certainly a tone setter for a defense. McCoy has been a disruptive force over his NFL career. During his prime, he was the gold standard as an interior rusher with a solid set of run-stopping skills. He would overwhelm blockers with his combination of athleticism and strength while playing on the move.
Reviewing the 2018 season, it is apparent that each defender has started to decline. Although they are still capable of taking over games in small spurts, they are not the 60-minute men that used to strike fear in offensive coordinators around the league. That said, Suh and McCoy are still capable of making valuable contributions in the right situation. In Tampa, Suh is simply a better fit based on his game, attitude and contract demands. He agreed to a one-year deal worth $9.25 million (worth up to $10 million with incentives), while McCoy occupied $13 million in cap space prior to his release.
“It probably came down to money and scheme,” said an NFC executive. “Suh is a better fit for how they want to play under (coordinator Todd) Bowles. He is still an effective zero-technique when he wants to rev it up. Plus, McCoy didn’t play well last season and he wasn’t in great shape.”
With that in mind, Suh’s game and his nasty temperament will give the Buccaneers something that they haven’t had in years. Although he isn’t an A-level player at this stage of his career, he flashed enough disruptive ability during the Rams‘ Super Bowl run to intrigue a team looking for a powerful run stopper at the point of attack.
For McCoy, he will still garner plenty of attention on the open market as an athletic defender with rush skills and a team-friendly demeanor. He’s an effective leader willing to mentor younger players while also contributing as a solid starter. With teams like the Cleveland Browns, Carolina Panthers and Cincinnati Bengals already inquiring about his services, it’s possible that McCoy bounces back and plays at a level that adds juice to the debate about which defensive tackle enjoyed the better career.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Wagner set to cash in? The Seattle Seahawks already made Russell Wilson the highest-paid quarterback in football this offseason. Now general managers and salary cap gurus around the league are closely monitoring the team to see if general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll will make their defensive “quarterback” the standard bearer at his position.
Four-time All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner recently expressed his desire to become the highest-paid player at his position when he signs his next deal. Wagner is in the final year of his contract and he’s attending but not participating in voluntary OTAs in hopes of getting a contract extension prior to the season.
Although he currently ranks fourth among inside linebackers in average salary per year ($10.75 million) on the strength of the four-year, $43 million extension he signed in 2015, the recent deals inked by New York Jets ILB C.J. Mosley (five years for $85 million; $17 million APY) and San Francisco 49ers ILB Kwon Alexander (four years for $54 million; $13.5 million APY) will certainly encourage No. 54 to seek a deal that pays him an average of $17 million annually based on his consistent performance and production as the Seahawks‘ defensive leader.
We can bring up his age (he’ll turn 29 next month) as a potential factor in the negotiations, but it’s hard to dispute his value as the designated defensive playmaker in Seattle. Wagner has missed only two games since 2015 and he’s been recognized as an All-Pro defender in three of those seasons. From a statistical standpoint, he has led the league in either total combined tackles or solo tackles in two of those seasons while also delivering a solid number of “splash” plays (28 tackles for loss, 43 quarterback hits, 7.5 sacks, seven fumbles recoveries, four interceptions, and four touchdowns) during that span.
Considering his impact relative to Mosley’s, Wagner should seek to reset the market when he enters negotiations with the Seahawks.
“(Mosley’s deal is) the top (of the) linebacker market,” Wagner told reporters at Seattle’s OTAs on Tuesday. “That is the standard. And so that is the plan to break that.”
With that in mind, the Seahawks certainly had to expect Wagner to demand an eye-popping contract when they saw the terms of Mosley’s deal hit the wire in March. Plus, the team knows that Wagner can use the potential cost for applying the franchise tag (projected to be $16.845 million next year) to him as a bargaining chip in negotiations. With that number considered the starting point for any new deal, it’s not hard to envision him snagging a deal that puts him in the exclusive $20 million club for non-quarterbacks. If former teammate Frank Clark (signed a five-year, $104 million deal with the Chiefs after being traded from Seattle) can get a deal that puts him in that club, there’s no way the Seahawks can justify shortchanging their defensive leader when he’s been an unquestioned dominant force in the midst of a mass exodus of Pro Bowl defensive stalwarts.
“He’s an incredible player and been an incredible part of our program and the community and all that,” Carroll said at the Annual League Meeting in March. “Bobby’s going to be a Seahawk.”
Given Wagner’s play and the Seahawks‘ adoration of No. 54, I think it’s only a matter of time before we see the team make its defensive “quarterback” the highest-paid player at his position.
2) Development of minority coaching candidates could lead to more head jobs. I’m really excited to hear about the NFL partnering up with the Black College Football Hall of Fame on the 2019 NFL Quarterback Coaching Summit. The event will invite assistant and positional coaches from the NFL and NCAA ranks to Atlanta, Georgia, to strengthen the coaching and personnel development pipeline.
“As part of our ongoing efforts to develop a diverse pipeline of offensive coaches and personnel, the Quarterback Coaching Summit is an opportunity for participants to further develop and perfect their proficiencies in game administration, offensive philosophy implementation and quarterback development,” NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent said in a recent release.
The summit will include panel discussions with some of the most respected and successful NFL general managers and head coaches to discuss pathways toward career advancement and coaching roles in the NFL. With Black College Football Hall of Fame co-founders James “Shack” Harris and Doug Williams leading these panels with the likes of former Baltimore Ravens general manager and current executive vice president Ozzie Newsome and Philadelphia Eagles Executive Vice President of Football Operations Howie Roseman, among others, the event will give minority coaches valuable resources, professional development and networking opportunities with NFL club representatives.
“We are excited to work with the NFL on the Quarterback Coaching Summit, as well as open the lines of communication and exchange ideas on fundamentals and techniques required to coach the QB position,” Harris said in the release. “The results should help participating coaches in college football and the NFL prepare for the opportunity to become head coach, offensive coordinator, quarterback coach, or offensive assistant.”
This is the kind of event that the NFL needs to spearhead to increase the number of minority candidates in the head coaching pipeline. The growing importance of the quarterback position and the subsequent trend of hiring “QB gurus” as head coaches has, in part, resulted in fewer opportunities for minorities, as people of color are currently under-represented in offensive coordinator, quarterback coach and offensive quality control positions. Despite the diverse experience and perspectives running back and wide receiver coaches (positions that are more widely occupied by minorities) can bring to the table as offensive architects, the prevailing belief that the game revolves around the quarterback makes it imperative for minorities to get into roles that enable them to have a hand in developing passers.
While I don’t know if the summit will immediately change the landscape when it comes to people of color obtaining a higher percentage of offensive coordinator and QB coach openings, I’m pleased the NFL is at least making the effort to put more minority coaches in the arena.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.