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:
But first, a look at two quarterbacks who are destined to make $40 million per season in the very near future …
The recent contract extensions signed by Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson have established the market for new-school quarterbacks thriving in today’s NFL. Fully equipped with athleticism, arm talent and winning resumes, these dynamic signal-callers have become the hot commodity in a league that long held up the statuesque pocket passer as its gold standard at the position.
Scouts and executives are not only expending top draft picks on some playmakers who would have been destined for a position change in the not-so-distant past, but they are committing MEGA bucks to non-traditional franchise quarterbacks. While Mahomes and Watson kind of toe the line as pocket passers with plus athleticism and improvisational skills, their deals pave the way for the Baltimore Ravens and Dallas Cowboys to break the bank for their own QB1s.
Before you scream at me for tabbing Lamar Jackson and Dak Prescott as $40 million players, it is important to look at each guy’s game — and overall resume — when pondering what could be next on the contract front.
Jackson’s breathtaking rise to NFL superstardom has been something to behold. After entering the league as the last pick of the first round in the 2018 NFL Draft, the former Heisman Trophy winner took the starting reins midway through his rookie campaign and promptly turned Baltimore’s season around. The Ravens were 4-5 when Jackson replaced Joe Flacco as QB1. Largely relying on his legs, the former Heisman Trophy winner went 6-1 as the starter, allowing Baltimore to leapfrog rival Pittsburgh and take the AFC North at 10-6. A humbling playoff loss to the Chargers put a damper on Jackson’s debut season, but he came back to take the league by storm last year. Becoming just the second unanimous MVP in NFL history (Tom Brady, 2010), Lamar guided Baltimore to an NFL-best 14-2 record while leading the league with 36 touchdown passes and shattering Michael Vick’s single-season QB rushing record with 1,206 yards. It was a truly transcendent season, as Jackson dazzled opponents with his electric running (five 100-yard games) and highly efficient throwing (113.3 passer rating). Consequently, the Ravens led the NFL in scoring (33.2 points per game) and set a league record for team rushing yards (3,296 — nearly 1,000 yards clear of last year’s No. 2 rushing offense in San Francisco).
Yes, for the second straight season, Jackson’s Ravens were one-and-done in the playoffs. That was indeed disappointing. And sure, you can argue that Jackson’s playing style isn’t conducive to long-term success, given the potential health risks of running the ball so often. But the most explosive dual-threat quarterback in the NFL today (ever?) has more than proven his immense value to the Ravens and secured a spot among the elites at the position in 2020. His numbers and impact say that he should be compensated at a Mahomes/Watson-type level.
Prescott’s inclusion in this conversation will drive his critics nuts, but the fifth-year pro is fresh off the most productive season of his career, having thrown for 4,902 yards and 30 touchdowns in 2019. He nearly doubled the amount of 20-plus-yard completions from the previous year (68, up from 39 in 2018), while slashing his sack total to the lowest figure of his career (23, down from a whopping 56 in ’18). The 2019 Cowboys finished with the NFL’s top-ranked offense, with Dak feeding the league’s second-most-productive receiver duo (Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup combined for 2,296 receiving yards, only trailing Chris Godwin and Mike Evans’ total of 2,490).
With a pair of NFC East titles and a 40-24 record in his four seasons, Prescott’s resume compares favorably to that of Watson. The Texans’ season-opening loss at Kansas City on Thursday night dropped Watson’s career record to 24-14, giving him a win percentage of .632, nearly identical to Prescott’s .625 mark. While Watson’s career passer rating is a touch higher (100.5, compared to Prescott’s 97.0), the Houston QB has never reached 30 TD passes in a season.
With those comparisons in mind, the Ravens and Cowboys need to come to grips with the hefty paydays in their quarterbacks’ futures. Yep, we’re talkin’ $40 million per year. The Ravens should consider keeping Jackson on a short-term deal that pays him market value (something in the range of three years/$120 million or four years/$160 million) while maintaining some insurance for the team against any durability issues that could pop up based on the reigning MVP’s playing style. Meanwhile, the Cowboys attempted to lock up Prescott on a five-year deal during the offseason, but the quarterback wanted the freedom and flexibility that comes with a shorter pact. NFL Network’s Jane Slater reported that Dak and Dallas came close to a deal before the deadline for franchise-tagged players to land multi-year contracts. The deal on the table, per Slater, would have paid the quarterback $33-35 million per year, with $110 million guaranteed, $70 million owed over the first two years and a $50 million signing bonus. But obviously, pen did not hit paper. Now, given the escalating value at the quarterback position following the deals signed by Watson and Mahomes, if Prescott produces at a high level in 2020, the Cowboys will be forced to sweeten the pot, with the franchise-tag kicker shooting the price tag through the roof in Year 2 and Year 3. And given the offensive personnel surrounding the Cowboys’ passer this season, it’s not hard to imagine him putting up some massive numbers in the coming months.
The football world will continue to debate the value of Jackson and Prescott, but the market suggests they are the next 40-million-dollar playmakers, whether you like it or not.
DINK AND DUNK
Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s impressive debut: The Chiefs’ selection of Edwards-Helaire at the end of the first round back in April spawned months of buzz, with the LSU product advertised as a perfect fit in Andy Reid’s offense. Well, judging by the rookie’s impressive debut in Thursday night’s convincing win over Houston, all of that hype was justified.
CEH posted a 100-yard game (138 rushing yards and a touchdown on 25 carries) while displaying a slippery running style that reminds veteran scouts of former All-Pro running back Brian Westbrook. After watching the Kickoff Game, it’s easy to see why Reid is already smitten with his new ball carrier. The 5-foot-8, 209-pounder flashes a combination of stop-start quickness, balance and body control that makes him hard to corral in traffic or in space. Edwards-Helaire’s elusiveness and burst, in particular, stood out in a performance that provided the football world with a glimpse of a more balanced offensive approach from Kansas City.
And here’s the really scary part for the rest of the NFL: Edwards-Helaire left Baton Rouge with a reputation as a premium pass-catching threat out of the backfield, yet he didn’t record a single reception on Thursday. With the Chiefs poised to eventually tap into their RB1’s dynamic playmaking skills in the air game, the Super Bowl champions are still scratching the surface of their offensive capabilities.
Kareem Hunt’s extension: Word of the Browns inking Kareem Hunt to a two-year, $13 million extension (with $8.5 million guaranteed) raised some eyebrows around the league, but the move was a sound business decision by new general manager Andrew Berry to keep a star-studded offensive lineup in Cleveland for the next few years.
Despite tallying just 464 scrimmage yards in eight games for the Browns last year, Hunt is one of the top all-around backs in the league and his diverse game makes him a luxurious RB2 to keep in the stable alongside bell cow Nick Chubb. Remember, Hunt led the league in rushing as a rookie in 2017 with 1,327 yards. And he was in the mix for back-to-back titles before a video surfaced showing him physically assault a woman, prompting his midseason release from the Chiefs in 2018. The actions shown in that video are heinous, no doubt about it. But by extending Hunt, the Browns appear to believe that behavior is behind the 25-year-old. If he can stay on the straight and narrow, his value — in a pure football sense — is undeniable.
Hunt not only gives the Browns a dense hybrid runner to fill the third-down role, but he provides the team with an insurance policy against any potential protracted contract negotiations with Chubb, who finished second in the league with 1,494 rushing yards in 2019. Chubb is eligible for a hefty extension after this season and his asking price could soar through the roof with another prolific effort. Hunt’s signing gives Berry and the Browns the option to take a hardline stance in those negotiations or simply stockpile talent in the backfield.
Jalen Ramsey becomes a 100 Million Dollar Man: After surrendering a king’s ransom (including two first-round picks) to acquire Ramsey from Jacksonville last season, the Rams simply had to make him the highest-paid defensive back in the game. You just cannot give up that kind of draft currency for a rental. Especially considering how much L.A.’s defense improved after his arrival.
The 2019 Rams surrendered fewer points and passing yards per game with Ramsey in the lineup, and they were markedly better on third down. Let’s get a bit more granular, though, to reveal Ramsey’s true value. Check out the following breakdown, courtesy of NFL Research:
2019 Rams’ defense vs. passes of 10-plus air yards:
This shows Ramsey’s impact as a lockdown corner is substantial.
That said, the annual price tag of $21 million is a hefty cost for a cornerback. Despite Ramsey’s ability to snuff out premier pass catchers on the island, the proliferation of three-receiver sets provides opponents with plenty of chances to work around No. 20. Quarterbacks will relentlessly throw at Troy Hill (or the Rams’ CB3) in critical situations, instead of testing Ramsey on “gotta have it” downs.
Defensive coordinator Brandon Staley could put his big-money corner on the opponent’s WR2 while double-covering the top dog with Hill and a safety, but some would question why you pay a guy $105 million to not take on the biggest challenge each week.
1) Should the Seahawks #LetRussCook in 2020? That’s the million-dollar question floating around the Pacific Northwest, with the 12s begging Pete Carroll to fully unleash Russell Wilson as an offensive weapon. Despite watching the ‘Hawks win at least 10 games and earn a playoff berth in seven of the QB’s eight seasons, the fans want Wilson to sling the ball all over the yard.
I understand why the 12s are clamoring for more Russ. They’ve watched the perennial MVP candidate orchestrate a series of dramatic fourth-quarter or overtime game-winning drives (32) and post a .671 win percentage with handcuffs on his game. Fans play the “what if” game, citing Wilson’s impressive touchdown-to-interception ratio (227:80) and passer rating (101.2) in spite of the ‘Hawks’ conservative approach. What if Seattle’s coaches let Russell play the entire game like the fourth quarter? This would be a much better team, right?
The Seahawks are a much better team when Wilson plays as a managerial playmaker. That statement will make some 12s cringe, but the conservative offensive approach is part of a complementary football strategy that leads to Ws.
Don’t believe me? Just look at how the team functioned in 2016 and ’17 with Wilson throwing 540-plus times each season. Although the Seahawks compiled a 19-12-1 record during that span, Wilson finished with a sub-100 passer rating and 11 interceptions in each of those campaigns. In addition, the aggressive offensive approach coincided with a defensive regression that featured a slide outside of the top 10 in total D and points allowed in 2017.
That’s why the Seahawks must continue to operate in a conservative fashion with Wilson at the helm. While critics chastise the team for Wilson’s 45.2 percent dropback rate in the first quarter over the past two years (compared to Patrick Mahomes’ 67.8 percent during the same span), the Seahawks’ scoring average (4.84 points) is higher than in 2016 and ’17, when Wilson had a 57 percent first-quarter dropback rate, per NFL Research.
Considering Wilson’s efficiency over the past two seasons (35:7 TD-to-INT ratio, 110.9 passer rating in 2018; 31:5, 106.3 in ’19) with the team also earning a pair of playoff berths (21-11 record in that span), the ‘Hawks should ignore the noise and stick to the plan that’s made them a feared squad in the NFC.
2) Jadeveon Clowney: Jevon Kearse 2.0? Jadeveon Clowney might’ve shed his preferred No. 90 for No. 99 in Tennessee, but that’s not going to stop Titans fans from wondering if the veteran can reprise the role of “The Freak” from the franchise’s great teams of the late 90s/early 2000s.
It’s been a minute since we’ve talked about the three-time Pro Bowler and one-time All-Pro who sported the No. 90 jersey in Nashville, but Jevon Kearse sparked a Titans Super Bowl run with his disruptive playmaking skills.
Like his predecessor, Clowney is a freakish athlete with the size, strength and explosiveness to create chaos as a designated disruptor off the edge. The 6-5, 255-pounder is like a bull in a china shop as a rusher, employing a rugged game that overwhelms blockers. He utilizes his length, strength and power to bully offensive tackles on the way to harassing the quarterback. Despite his pedestrian sack numbers (32 sacks in 75 games), Clowney creates consistent pressure, as evidenced by his 80 QB hits in six seasons.
That said, the veteran is an unpolished pass rusher without a dominant signature move. He wins on sheer strength, power or athleticism, not technique. Whether he’s jumping the snap to shoot the gap or deploying a powerful bull-rush maneuver that rocks the blocker, Clowney wins with his natural physical tools. If he is unable to win, it’s because he lacks a repertoire of moves to prevail after an initial stalemate. Clowney’s limited toolbox is one of the reasons why he’s failed to reach double-digit sacks in a season.
As a run defender, the seventh-year pro is a disruptor at the point of attack, particularly when he is put on the move. Clowney explodes through cracks on “Pirate” stunts (defensive end shoots through inside gaps) and “long stick” movements (defensive ends runs through the A-gap after initially aligning opposite the offensive tackle). With Clowney also possessing a high-revving motor, he really makes his mark in ground defense.
Looking at Clowney’s potential impact on the Titans, he should fit right into a defensive line that features a number of rock-solid defenders with brutish games. With Harold Landry, Vic Beasley and Clowney joining Jeffery Simmons and a few other house-wreckers, Tennessee has the depth and versatility to pummel opponents with a variety of D-line combinations in a multi-faceted scheme.
Don’t be surprised if Ryan Tannehill continues to play like top-five QB. Second-year offensive coordinator Arthur Smith has designed an efficient smashmouth offense with a complementary passing game that creates big plays for an accurate downfield passer with anticipation, touch and timing. Most importantly, Smith tapped into an element of the passing game that unlocked Tannehill’s superpowers: play-action.
The Titans’ scheme and personnel creates the perfect storm for Tannehill as a passer. Given the team’s physical offensive line and the presence of a gargantuan running back coming off his first NFL rushing title, any threat of run action is an irresistible temptation for linebackers and safeties assigned to clog running lanes within the tackle-to-tackle box. In addition, the Titans’ big-bodied pass catchers on the perimeter excel at catching the ball between the numbers, particularly on seams, skinny posts, digs and crossing routes. With opponents forced to defend the Titans with eight-man boxes from single-high looks, the middle of the field opens up like a rural highway whenever No. 17 turns his back and fakes a handoff to Derrick Henry.
As a result, Tannehill led the NFL in completion percentage (77.1), yards per pass attempt (13.7) and passer rating (144.5) on play-action passes. Wide receiver A.J. Brown led the league in receiving yards (646) and yards after catch (342) on play-action targets, while tight end Jonnu Smith (13.6 yards after catch on play-action targets) also thrived in the bluff-and-throw approach.
Given a full season to direct an offense that showcases the best parts of his game, Tannehill should continue to play at a very high level.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.
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