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:
— How does Kyler Murray, already a first-round MLB pick, project to the NFL?
— The key to Kirk Cousins‘ recent productivity surge.
— Derrick Henry is finally utilizing his BIGGEST asset.
But first, a look at my picks for the major individual awards …
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It is almost time for banquet season to kick off, with the NFL’s regular season coming to an end on Sunday. That means it’s time to pass out awards and recognize the league’s top players, coaches and executives for exceptional performance. Although a spectacular showing in the season finale could sway a few voters, I’m pretty firm with my picks, based on what we’ve seen through 16 weeks of regular-season action. Here are my award winners:
Most Valuable Player: Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
The award should be changed to "Most Outstanding Player," seeing how the hardware typically goes to the most productive player in the league. Mahomes certainly deserves the honor under that criterion, given his remarkable production as a first-year starter. No. 15 is on the verge of hitting 5,000 passing yards and 50 touchdowns in his second NFL season. That’s unheard of in a league that routinely chews up and spits out young quarterbacks. Thus, it’s a no-brainer for me to hand Mahomes the MVP for his exceptional production while leading a team that’s playing around a hapless defense.
Offensive Player of the Year: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers
Before you jump into my Twitter mentions questioning this selection, you should understand the historical context of McCaffrey’s season. The second-year star just joined LaDainian Tomlinson and Matt Forte as the third running back in NFL history in the 100/1,000 club (100 receptions and 1,000 rushing yards), displaying sticky hands (106 receptions without a single drop) and spectacular route-running ability. In addition, the 5-foot-11, 205-pounder showed the football world that he can indeed handle the full workload of an RB1.
Defensive Player of the Year: Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams
Donald should become the third back-to-back DPOY winner, joining Lawrence Taylor (1981-82) and J.J. Watt (2014-15). The ultra-disruptive defensive tackle leads the NFL in sacks (19.5), pressures (67), QB hits (38) and tackles for loss (24). Donald has a chance to break Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record (22.5) with a strong effort in the season finale, which would further cement his status as a pass-rushing legend.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland Browns
There’s no disputing the impact Mayfield has made on the "Dawg Pound" with his infectious energy and swagger. Most importantly, No. 6 has given the Browns a legitimate franchise quarterback with elite playmaking ability from the pocket. With Mayfield notching a 95.1 passer rating on the strength of a 24:11 touchdown-to-interception ratio, the No. 1 overall pick is enjoying one of the best rookie seasons ever by a quarterback.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Darius Leonard, LB, Indianapolis Colts
It’s uncommon for a draft sleeper to become one of the best players in football as a rookie, but Leonard could vie for All-Pro honors. The second-round pick out of South Carolina State easily leads the league in tackles (155) and he’s notched seven sacks, four forced fumbles and a pick. You just don’t see second-level defenders harass quarterbacks to that degree while also showing disruptive skills in coverage. Considering his overall impact on a defense that’s quietly become one of the best units in football, Leonard should get the nod over the competition.
Comeback Player of the Year: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year was a huge question mark coming into the season after missing the bulk of the 2016 and ’17 campaigns with a variety of career-threatening injuries. Watt has not only returned to the starting lineup, but he’s re-emerged as an All-Pro-caliber defender with the capacity to take over games. With 14.5 sacks and six forced fumbles, No. 99 is back to playing like the dominant player destined for a gold jacket at the end of his career.
Coach of the Year: Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks
It’s hard to imagine a team losing five former Pro Bowlers on one side of the ball and still qualifying for the playoffs, but that’s exactly what Carroll pulled off in helping the Seahawks get back into the postseason after a one-year absence. Not to mention, Carroll swapped out a large portion of his coaching staff and boldly tweaked his offensive philosophy to a run-centric approach in a pass-happy league. The wily head coach deserves the award for punching all of the right buttons.
Executive of the Year: Ryan Pace, GM, Chicago Bears
The Bears‘ rise to the ranks of the elite is a direct result of Pace’s solid decisions over the past year. The clever executive picked an innovative head coach (Matt Nagy) to develop his young franchise quarterback (Mitchell Trubisky) while stockpiling a number of impactful playmakers (Allen Robinson, Trey Burton, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller, Roquan Smith, Eddie Jackson and Leonard Floyd) on both sides of the ball. Plus, Pace added a true difference-maker by making a bold trade for Khalil Mack to take the defense to another level.
THE KYLER MURRAY DEBATE: Could the MLB draftee be a top NFL pick?
The 2019 quarterback class is not expected to be loaded with frontline talent, particularly after Oregon’s Justin Herbert decided to stay in school for another season, but Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray could add some star power to the group if he decides to enter the draft. Although the two-sport standout signed a $4.66 million deal with the Oakland A’s after being selected with the ninth overall pick in the 2018 MLB draft, NFL scouts will tune in to the College Football Playoff to see if the Heisman Trophy winner has enough game to be the first athlete selected in Round 1 of both the NFL and MLB drafts.
Now, I know the thought of a 5-10, 195-pound quarterback playing in the NFL would have seemed implausible as recent as five years ago, but the proliferation of the spread offense and several collegiate concepts has created an opportunity for the 2018 Heisman Trophy winner to be considered as a QB1 prospect despite concerns about his physical dimensions. With the redshirt junior exhibiting intriguing potential as a "five-tool player" at quarterback, Murray could be a compelling draft prospect as a dynamic dual-threat with A-plus arm talent, athleticism and football character.
"Murray is the most natural quarterback in college football," an NFC college scouting director told me. "He checks off all of the boxes as a leader, playmaker and passer. He has the ‘it’ factor that you want and he’s a winner.
"You can ding him for his lack of height, but it is hard to poke holes his game or production."
To that point, Murray is in the midst of a season where he’s totaled 4,053 pass yards with 40 touchdowns against only seven interceptions while completing 70.9 percent of his passes. Murray’s 205.7 passer rating surpasses Baker Mayfield‘s best mark (198.9 in 2017) directing the Sooners’ version of the "Air Raid," and his 892 rushing yards are much more than Russell Wilson compiled in any season at N.C. State or Wisconsin with a similar workload. Think about that: Murray’s passer rating outstrips the top single-season mark set by the No. 1 overall pick from the 2018 draft, while his remarkable rushing total dwarfs the production of a four-time Pro Bowler with a Super Bowl ring.
Studying the coaches tape from Murray’s award-winning season, it’s easy to fall in love with his game. Murray is a rare player capable of shredding defenses with surgical precision from the pocket, exhibiting A-plus arm strength, touch, timing and anticipation while dropping dimes on throws at every range. He routinely fires pinpoint throws to the boundary on deep outs and comebacks, but also tosses rainbows over defender between the numbers. Murray’s superb timing and ball placement on seams enable receivers to catch the ball on the move without breaking stride. In a league where "YAC" (yards after catch) is coveted at a premium, Murray’s accuracy can elevate an offense with perimeter playmakers already in place.
While some skeptics will suggest OU’s offense inflates a quarterback’s production with a number of catch-and-run concepts designed to exploit voids in coverage, it is important to note the recent success of guys like Jared Goff, Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield transitioning to NFL. Those Air Raid alums have not only replicated their on-field production in pro-style offenses, but they’ve mastered the nuances of their new schemes while displaying better-than-anticipated football intelligence. Considering Murray’s success in directing Oklahoma’s offense in a scheme that’s produced several young stars, observers shouldn’t ignore his numbers or efficiency as a QB1 in the Big 12.
"Kyler, he is a freak, man," former Texas Tech head coach (and current USC offensive coordinator) Kliff Kingsbury said, via 247 Sports. "I don’t have enough good things to say about him. He’s phenomenal. I’ve never seen him have a poor outing — not one. Which, at quarterback, is impossible to do. But he’s done it. I’d take him with the first pick in the draft if I could. I know he’s signed to play baseball, but he is a dominant football player and I’d take him with the first pick."
Keep in mind, Kingsbury has coached NFL quarterbacks Case Keenum, Johnny Manziel, Davis Webb, Mayfield and Mahomes. He not only knows how to evaluate talent, but he also understands how Air Raid alums can transition to the NFL after seeing so many of his pupils enjoy success in the league. That’s why I’m bullish on Murray’s prospects as a franchise quarterback, having watched him lead the Sooners to the College Football Playoff as the spark plug to one of the most explosive units in memory. He is not only a dynamic playmaker capable of winning with his arm or legs, but he is a proven winner with the kind of magic coaches covet in a QB1. As a five-star high school standout, Murray compiled a 43-0 record with three straight Texas state titles at Allen High School. Considering how quarterbacks are judged on their ability to win games, Murray’s pedigree should earn him bonus points in meeting rooms around the league.
If I had to compare Murray to an NFL quarterback, I would point to Wilson due to their similar physical dimensions and playing styles. Although the Seahawks star is taller and a little thicker, Murray is a more explosive athlete with comparable throwing talent.
"He’s very similar to Russell, but he’s more explosive and dynamic as a runner," the NFC college scouting director said. "He’s a legitimate threat to score from anywhere on the field. … I know there are some questions about his ability to withstand hits, but he’s rarely taken a hard hit and he understands how to slide or get down to avoid unnecessary contact."
Given the recent success of Wilson and Mayfield as diminutive quarterbacks in a league that’s becoming more progressive with offensive concepts, Murray could hit the NFL at the right time as an intriguing quarterback prospect. If he puts on a show against Alabama in the College Football Playoff semis, the buzz could reach a fever pitch for the two-sport standout with a big decision to make in the middle of January.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Kirk Cousins finding his groove under new coordinator. When the Minnesota Vikings signed Cousins to a fully guaranteed, $84 million contract in the offseason, they essentially told the rest of the league that the veteran passer was the missing piece on a squad expected to compete for a Super Bowl title. With a "win and in" game against the Chicago Bears in the regular-season finale, we will soon see if Cousins is really an upgrade over his predecessor at quarterback.
Although football is the ultimate team sport, there’s no disputing the importance of quarterback play in playoff games, which is essentially what Minnesota faces on Sunday. That’s why the football world will cast its eyes on No. 8 this weekend, to see if Cousins is a difference-maker at the position.
Through the first 13 games of the season, the Vikings‘ marquee free-agent signee didn’t look like much of an upgrade at the position. Despite compiling a 98.4 passer rating and a 24:9 touchdown-to-interception ratio, he appeared uncomfortable shouldering a heavy workload that had him averaging 40.3 pass attempts per game. Part of Cousins’ discomfort could be attributed to the Vikings‘ pass-protection woes, as evidenced by their 34.7 percent pressure rate and 2.5 sacks per game allowed during this span. Minnesota seldom used play-action (only 18.6 percent of dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus) during the first 13 games of the season, allowing opponents to aggressively pressure Cousins from every angle. Despite the 30-year-old QB’s reputation as one of the best play-action passers in football since 2015 (72.7 percent completion rate on play-action pass attempts), the Vikings‘ previous offensive coordinator (John DeFilippo) preferred a traditional dropback passing game from a variety of shotgun formations. Granted, Cousins was completing 70-plus percent of his throws and breaking some franchise records as a high-volume passer, but the scheme and play calls didn’t really match the veteran’s game.
Enter new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, and Cousins has rediscovered the game that made him the crown jewel of the 2018 free-agent market. Since Week 15, Cousins has posted a 126.9 passer rating with a 5:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, averaging 9.6 yards per attempt on just 24.5 throws per games.
Those numbers say Cousins is more efficient and effective with a smaller workload as a passer. OK, part of his effectiveness can be attributed to being better protected in the pocket, as evidenced by his 17.0 percent pressure rate in Weeks 15-16. After being pressured at least nine times in every game from Weeks 1 through 14, he has been pressured just nine total times over the last two weeks, and that’s resulted in fewer sacks (2.0 per game). Cousins has also been more effective against the blitz, with a 65 percent completion rate, 2:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 129.8 passer rating since Week 15. That’s the second-highest passer rating against the blitz during that span (behind only Patrick Mahomes), which bodes well for Cousins’ chances of succeeding in Week 17 against one of the most rugged defenses in football.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film from Cousins’ most recent games, I believe Stefanski deserves credit for putting the veteran back in his comfort zone. Pro Football Focus’ numbers back this up, too. Stefanski has called nearly twice the amount of play-action passes (36.4 percent of Cousins’ dropbacks in Weeks 15-16) and shortened the distance of the accompanying routes. As a result, according to PFF’s numbers, he is completing play-action passes at a higher rate (84.2 percent completion rate during Weeks 15-16, compared to 76.2 percent in Weeks 1-14) with better efficiency (140.4 passer rating in Weeks 15-16, 103.6 in Weeks 1-14) and effectiveness (2:0 TD-to-INT ratio in Weeks 15-16, 3:2 mark in Weeks 1-14).
Cousins is distributing the ball to his playmakers on the perimeter on an assortment of flat routes and short crossers at short and intermediate depth, which explains his 7.5 air yards per play-action pass attempt during Weeks 15 and 16, according to PFF. With Cousins attempting more layups from the pocket, Minnesota’s passing game has flourished, with the team’s top playmakers routinely catching the ball on the move.
From a schematic standpoint, Stefanski deserves kudos for tying the Vikings‘ running game to their play-action pass package. Cousins has been under center on 66.9 percent of his snaps during over the past two games, compared to just 34.4 percent during Weeks 1-14. With the Vikings piling up rushing yards with Cousins under center in recent weeks (SEE: 4.8 yards per rush with the QB under center), the complementary play-action has been more effective. The Vikings‘ decision to throw 19 of 20 play-action passes over the last two games with Cousins lining up under center displays a bigger plan to marry their running game to their play-action passing package.
"When the runs and play-action passes look alike, it puts your linebackers and second-level defenders in a bind," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "If the blocking action is similar, it makes defenders pause, which leads to big plays on the ground or through the air.
"The key is making it all look the same to the defense."
To that point, the Vikings have run the ball on 56.2 percent of their offensive plays since Week 15, as compared to just 33.3 percent in Weeks 1-14. The run-centric approach not only allows Minnesota to control the game, but it sets up easy throws for Cousins in the passing game. The one-time Pro Bowler simply has to put the balls in the hands of a supporting cast that features arguably the best 1-2 punch in football at wide receiver (Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs), a playmaking tight end (Kyle Rudolph) and an electric running back (Dalvin Cook).
The Vikings invested a ton of money in Cousins to help them take the next step as a Super Bowl contender. Is he the right man for the job? Well, a re-tooled offense that’s designed to elevate his game certainly doesn’t hurt the cause. But this Sunday’s must-win game against Chicago looms large.
2) Derrick Henry finally playing to potential: If you ask any NFL scout how long it takes to determine whether a top prospect can succeed in the league, he will quickly tell you that stars make their mark by their third pro season. That’s why the Tennessee Titans were willing to wait on Henry, a 2016 second-round pick, to blossom into a legit RB1, and he’s rewarding them for their patience with a spectacular stretch of games that could spark a playoff run.
The 6-foot-3, 247-pound freight train is nearing the first 1,000-yard season of his career on the strength of a three-game stretch that’s seen Henry total 492 rushing yards on 71 attempts (6.9 yards per carry) with seven touchdowns. The third-year pro is finally running with the kind of thump and explosiveness that makes him a defensive back’s nightmare on the perimeter.
Interestingly, Henry’s performance seemed to begin improving following a conversation with Titans legend Eddie George. George gave Henry a blunt assessment of his game after Tennessee’s loss to the Chargers in Week 7, per the team’s website.
"He asked me flat-out what I thought about his game," George said to TitansOnline.com. "And I was very honest. I said, ‘Look, it’s not about you hitting the home run. We know you can hit the home run. It’s what you can do consistently between the tackles, and it comes down to one fundamental thing. It comes down to you imposing your will on defenders. You are too big not to use that as your strength. You have to force guys to tackle you. Make one cut and go.’ "
Titans Online writer Jim Wyatt reports that "George gave Henry a specific example from the team’s game against the Chargers in London, which George attended. It was a second-quarter play, an off-tackle play to the left, when George felt Henry turned contact down against a Chargers defender, despite having a big size advantage. From one big back to the other, George hammered Henry about it."
Say what you want about George’s no-nonsense message, but it certainly impacted Henry. In fact, Henry’s hard-nosed running style reminds me of facing George in the 1990s when he was the workhorse for the Oilers/Titans. Measuring 6-3, 235 pounds in his prime, George rushed for 10,441 yards during his nine NFL seasons, exhibiting a rough-and-tumble running style that made me cringe when he turned the corner and headed in my direction when we faced each other during my time as a defensive back for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
With Henry doing his best George impersonation, the Titans are leaning on their young RB1 heading into a win-and-in game vs. the Colts this weekend. No. 22 is averaging 4.2 yards after contact (second-highest among 46 RBs with 100-plus rushes), according to Pro Football Focus. In addition, Henry has forced 41 missed tackles as a rusher, which is tied for the fourth-most in the NFL.
While those numbers are impressive, I’m more impressed with his strong production in the later months of the season. During his career, Henry has averaged 74.5 rushing yards on 14.5 rushing attempts (5.1 yards per carry) with 14 touchdowns in 15 games in December/January, including the playoffs. Although those numbers don’t pop off the page, they are nearly double his normal production during the early months (September through November), when he’s averaged 38.4 rushing yards on 9.2 carries (4.2 yards per carry) with nine touchdowns in 33 games.
Considering how football changes after Thanksgiving, with teams increasingly relying on the running game and a more physical brand of football, the Titans‘ big-bodied runner gives them a chance to bully opponents, including the Colts on Sunday night.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.