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:
— The team that must cash in on its embarrassment of draft riches.
— An NFL draft prospect to watch on Saturday.
But first, a look at three teams that could surprise in 2019 …
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Raise your hand if you really believe Joe Flacco is a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback.
For the majority of the 12th-year pro’s career, I would’ve kept my hand in my pocket when asked that question, but there’s something brewing in Denver that has swayed my opinion in recent months. The former Super Bowl MVP has not only joined a team with a defense that should emerge as a dominant unit, but he is also playing in an offensive system that suits his skills as a passer better than the one in Baltimore did. Plus, he’s surrounded by a more talented collection of pass catchers on the perimeter.
Now, I know hope springs eternal during this time of year, but I believe the Broncos have the pieces in place to make a legitimate run in the AFC in 2019. The defense has a pair of disruptive pass rushers (Von Miller and Bradley Chubb) and a premier cover corner (Chris Harris Jr.) playing in a system that’s designed to routinely create negative plays (sacks, tackles for loss and turnovers). Although the rest of the unit is comprised mostly of unheralded playmakers, we’ve seen the combination of first-year head coach Vic Fangio’s system and productive role players produce spectacular results in the past.
Offensively, the Broncos have returned to a zone-based rushing attack and complementary play-action passing game with roots in the Mike Shanahan scheme that helped pave the way for back-to-back Super Bowl wins in the late 1990s. I believe this offense is a perfect match for Flacco. The veteran passer enjoyed the best statistical season of his career working with Gary Kubiak in a similar scheme in 2014, and new Broncos OC Rich Scangarello’s system should enhance the strengths of Flacco’s game.
Just to refresh your memory, Flacco completed 62.1 percent of his passes for 3,986 yards with a 27:12 touchdown-to-interception ratio in ’14. The 27 TDs were a career-high, and he posted a passer rating of 91.0 (second-highest of his career). He looked like a high-end starter directing an offense that featured an assortment of stretch-bootleg concepts prominently in the game plan, and the Ravens won 10 games, advancing to the playoffs as a wild-card team.
The memory of that season might have played a key role in prompting Broncos president of football operations John Elway to acquire the veteran from Baltimore for a fourth-round pick in February. The Hall of Fame quarterback-turned-executive suggested in March that Flacco was still in his prime, and he has continued to pump up his new QB1 throughout the offseason.
“I think there’s more value that he brings and for what we need than people think,” Elway told The Athletic in July. “Everyone wants to sit there and look at his numbers and what’s done the last few years. To me, he hasn’t had a great system and he hasn’t had great people around him. So he can have success when you have people around him and he’s in the right system, which I think he is because this is the system he’s had success in. But he’s also had kind of a calming (effect) at that position because guys respect that he’s been there, he’s won a Super Bowl, he knows what it takes. Whether they think he’s great or good, he’s solid.”
The thought of just solid quarterback play leading to wins might draw some raised eyebrows, but it falls in line with the style of play embraced by Fangio. The grizzled, defensive-minded coach wants to lean on the running game and play complementary football, with the three phases (offense, defense, special teams) tying together.
Offensively, the offseason arrival of O-line coach Mike Munchak should fortify things up front and enable the running game to thrive, with Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman sharing the load. Munchak, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, transformed the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ O-line into arguably the best front five in football during his five seasons (2014-18) with the squad.
Given Munchak’s impeccable resume (it’s worth noting that the Steelers gave up the second-fewest sacks in the NFL during his tenure), I believe it’s only a matter of time before the Broncos‘ running game and aerial attack find rhythm under Flacco’s direction.
With Scangarello putting Flacco in his comfort zone as a play-action passer throwing a handful of bootlegs, the Broncos‘ new QB1 should put up solid numbers while throwing to wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Courtland Sutton. This approach is similar to how Scangarello — who previously served as the 49ers‘ QB coach — and San Francisco coaxed impressive production from undrafted QB Nick Mullens last season when injuries created an opportunity for the third-stringer. The formula should help No. 5 find his stride as the leader of the offense.
Most importantly, the recipe should help the Broncos emerge as dark-horse contenders in the AFC.
Here are two other squads to watch as potential surprise contenders in 2019:
Jacksonville Jaguars: After underachieving in 2018 due to an abundance of issues, the Jaguars are well-positioned to make a run at the title. The star-studded defense benefits from first-round pick Josh Allen joining established pocket-wreckers Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue on the front line. Jalen Ramsey will continue to suffocate WR1s on the perimeter with his partner A.J. Bouye thriving on the other side. Offensively, marquee free-agent addition Nick Foles needs to add some pop to an offense that should lean on Leonard Fournette as the table setter. If Doug Marrone can convince offensive coordinator John DeFilippo to stick to a balanced script after he failed to do so last season with the Vikings, the Jaguars could re-emerge as the bully on the block in the AFC.
Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton‘s shoulder injury wrecked the Panthers‘ playoff plans a season ago, but Ron Rivera’s squad is poised to bounce back in a major way in 2019. Although the former NFL MVP remains the driving force of the offense, the emergence of Christian McCaffrey as an elite RB1 enables the team to run through No. 22 for stretches of the season. With D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel adding speed and explosiveness on the perimeter, the Panthers have enough firepower to win shootouts, if needed. Defensively, the Panthers have assembled a front line with the capacity to control the game at the line of scrimmage while also harassing the passer in the pocket, with first-round pick Brian Burns playing a key role in that effort. If the secondary can keep passes from flying over the top for long completions, the Panthers will be a tough team to beat.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Dolphins‘ rebuilding plans. I don’t know if general manager Chris Grier is a hardcore basketball fan, but his apparent plan for rebuilding the Miami Dolphins into a perennial contender seems eerily similar to the blueprint several NBA executives have used to revamp their respective squads into winners. Now, I’m not suggesting the Dolphins are adopting the “tanking” strategy that helped the Philadelphia 76ers become legitimate contenders in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. But Grier is assembling the kind of draft capital that should enable the team to acquire enough blue-chip players to compete with the heavyweights in the NFL.
After a flurry of trades and massive personnel reshuffling, highlighted most recently by a deal that saw left tackle Laremy Tunsil and receiver Kenny Stills head to the Texans, the Dolphins have four first-round picks and four second-round picks in the 2020 and 2021 NFL Drafts. In other words, Grier should have more than enough ammunition to put together a roster containing the requisite number of blue-chip players needed to contend.
As my colleague Daniel Jeremiah and I have frequently discussed on the “Move the Sticks” podcast, it takes about 12 blue-chip players to vie for the title, including a quarterback, two pass rushers, three defensive playmakers, three offensive playmakers, and three offensive linemen, though the final total can vary by a positional player or two.
Reviewing the Dolphins‘ roster, I believe Xavien Howard is the only blue-chip player on the team. The Pro Bowl cornerback, who is locked up through 2024, is arguably one of the best cover corners in the league, and his emergence as a “shutdown” guy should be the starting point for the team’s rebuilding plans. Outside of No. 25, the Dolphins lack an established star — the team can only hope that one or more of its recent top draft picks (2018 11th overall pick Minkah Fitzpatrick and this year’s 13th overall pick, Christian Wilkins) will emerge as a blue-chip player in time.
“Championship teams have eight to 10 ‘blues’ (blue-chip players) on the roster,” said a former NFL vice president of player of personnel. “You need to have some stars to win in this league. It is better when they’re homegrown guys who’ve been drafted and developed within your system. They become your core players and the foundation to the program … Championship teams are built around those guys.”
The next step for the Dolphins — turning their picks into players — can be challenging in today’s NFL. My NFL Network colleague Charley Casserly believes the success rate of first-round picks amounts to a coin flip (as in, each first-rounder has a 50 percent chance of becoming a high-end starter), with the rates declining by about 10 percent for each subsequent round. Given those percentages, the Dolphins have their work cut out for them when it comes to rebuilding their team through the draft.
“They’ve done a great job of acquiring picks, but they have to get the right players,” said the former NFL exec. “Since they don’t have a lot of blue-chip players already on their roster, I believe they need to find at least four ‘elite’ players or high-end starters with those eight picks … They can’t afford to miss in the early rounds, because those busts would set back the rebuilding process … I like what they’ve done, but it definitely puts pressure on Grier to knock it out of the park on draft day.”
With that in mind, the Dolphins have to buck the odds if they want to pull off a quick rebuild in the Brian Flores era. The defensive-minded first-year head coach will need to keep games competitive with lesser players at the outset of his tenure, at least, until Grier can stockpile the roster with enough ballers to actually win games. Flores’ experience as an assistant in New England could help him scheme up a few wins thorough clever game-planning and tactical execution, but winning consistently in the NFL still comes down to talent. The Dolphins need to strike gold in the next two drafts to become the winner Grier envisions taking over the AFC.
2) Can the Colts win with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback? It might appear that the sky is falling in Indianapolis after the surprising retirement of former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck, but the Colts are in fine shape with Brissett stepping in as the team’s new QB1. Don’t dismiss as mere flattery the verbal bouquets lobbed by coach Frank Reich and GM Chris Ballard in the direction of Brissett, who signed a two-year, $30 million extension with Indianapolis earlier this week. Reich and Ballard should have tremendous confidence in their new franchise quarterback heading into the regular season.
The fourth-year pro has functioned as the team’s QB1 for most of the past two offseasons, and his diligent work as a backup has earned him the respect of his teammates and coaches. Reich called Brissett “the answer” in the aftermath of Luck’s retirement, and he said No. 7 took about 1,200 reps as the team’s starting quarterback in the offseason.
As Reich said, that’s about a season’s worth of reps, and that experience should help Brissett hit the ground running when the regular season begin this weekend. And it’s not like the Colts need Brissett to be a hero to win games. They simply need him to drive the bus and allow the team’s offensive playmakers (pass catchers T.Y. Hilton, Eric Ebron and Devin Funchess and running back Marlon Mack) to do the heavy lifting.
“Have a plan on every play. Keep it simple and don’t try to be a hero. Don’t try to be a hero, just play good football,” Reich told the media at a press conference shortly after Luck’s retirement. “You’ve got good guys around you. I mean that’s really the message to any quarterback. Those are kind of core principles for any quarterback. So those are a few of the things.”
Reich also suggested that Brissett’s role as a manager of the offense might be the biggest part of the job.
“He has to have complete mastery of the offense. He has to know the run game. We teach the run game. Quarterbacks have to know the ‘why’ behind why we are running a running play — not just throw the football because we feel like there are five or seven runs in a game that we call that the defense might not be the best look and you’ve got to get us out,” Reich said. “If you don’t understand what that looks like and why we are asking you to do what you are doing, then you are not going to put the team in the best position, and we need you to put us in the best position to win games.”
With that in mind, I believe we should dismiss Brissett’s 5-12 career record as a starter, including his 4-11 stint as the Colts‘ QB1 in 2017. Those numbers were compiled prior to the Reich era, which began last season, and he’s playing with a much better supporting cast than the unit that surrounded him two years ago.
I’m putting more stock into Brissett’s production and performance during the preseason. He connected on 66.7 percent of his passes with a touchdown and a 113.5 passer rating in six drives. Granted, it is preseason football, and he only played during Weeks 1 and 2, but he averaged 8.1 yards per pass attempt, and that production shouldn’t be ignored heading into the regular season.
I know the results don’t count, but the chemistry developed during exhibition games matters, and that should speak volumes about Brissett’s potential in this version of the Colts‘ offense.
Keep in mind, the Colts‘ head coach is a former NFL backup with a proven track record of building offenses around his quarterback’s strengths as a player. Reich played a key role in helping Carson Wentz and Nick Foles flourish during the Philadelphia Eagles‘ Super Bowl run as their offensive coordinator, and in Indianapolis, he helped Luck capture the 2018 NFL Comeback Player of the Year award with clever scheming.
After reviewing the All-22 Coaches Film from Brissett’s preseason play and his previous regular-season starts, I believe the Colts will feature a number of play-action pass concepts designed to let him throw down the field into open voids at intermediate range. Although Brissett is a fairly accurate passer, he is not an anticipatory thrower; play-action minimizes the need to throw wide receivers open down the field. Additionally, the combination of inside running plays and play-action passes will reduce some of the blitzing, which will help the Colts‘ pass protection.
With Reich known for mixing in some layups designed to get the ball to the running backs and receivers on the perimeter, the Colts‘ new QB1 should be in position to get into a groove early in games.
If the Colts are going to make a playoff run this season without Luck as their QB1, it is going to take a team effort. Brissett will need to do his part — but he has enough around him to get the Colts into the postseason by simply thriving in a managerial role.
NFL DRAFT PROSPECT TO WATCH THIS WEEKEND
Grant Delpit, S, LSU
LSU at Texas: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET | ABC
The 6-foot-3, 203-pound (school measurements) junior is the chess piece that every defensive coordinator covets in the secondary. As a long, rangy defender with the ability to play in the deep middle as a center fielder or off the edges as a designated blitzer, Delpit is a new-school safety in the mold of Derwin James and Jamal Adams. No. 7 not only displays the instincts, awareness, athleticism and range to be a difference maker in the back end, but he flashes the physicality, toughness and tackling ability to be an enforcer between the hashes. Against the Longhorns, Delpit will have a chance to showcase his versatility and playmaking skills against a gritty QB1 (Sam Ehlinger) and rugged offense that attacks the middle of the field with the run and pass. If the LSU standout dominates the action from his strong safety spot in a marquee battle between two teams ranked in the top 10, it will only confirm his position as the premier playmaker at the position.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.