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:
— Forget about his age: LeSean McCoy is going to put up numbers this season.
— Are the Texans acting responsibly in putting everything on Bill O’Brien’s plate?
— One highly skilled college playmaker to keep a close eye on.
But first, a look at two new-age playmakers at the game’s most important position who just so happen to be facing off this weekend …
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The football world will get a chance to see the future of the quarterback position when Kyler Murray and Lamar Jackson square off in Baltimore on Sunday afternoon. The former Heisman Trophy winners are part of a wave of dual-threat signal-callers set to enter the NFL in the coming years, and scouts are closely monitoring their progress to see how to best develop the next crop of QB1s.
As I watched Murray and Jackson during the first week of the regular season, I felt like I was watching a high school football game. That’s not meant to be a slight or dismissal of their style of play — viewing each of the young QB1s in their respective season openers reminded me of watching five-star playmakers on Friday nights. These kind of blue-chip talents make the game look easy, and their coaches set them up for success by building schemes around their unique talents as run-pass threats. This has been the standard operating procedure at the high school level for the past two decades, and we’ve seen several top colleges succeed with this model, as well. Lincoln Riley has enjoyed a tremendous amount of success at Oklahoma by utilizing an adaptable offensive scheme that accentuates the strengths of his players, particularly his quarterbacks. That’s how Baker Mayfield and Murray, despite their athletic and stylistic differences, claimed back-to-back Heismans while playing in the same scheme. Mayfield was more of a traditional distributor from the pocket while Murray preferred to do his damage as a playmaking wizard outside of the pocket, but the Sooners’ offense thrived with both players at the controls.
Reviewing my college scouting reports on Murray, I noted how OU used more designed quarterback runs and read-option concepts during his tenure than Mayfield’s. Riley clearly wanted to take advantage of the 5-foot-10 field general’s skills as a five-star athlete and tweaked his scheme to feature more movement plays in the passing game. With Murray also capable of executing the core plays of the Air Raid system, the Sooners blitzed the Big 12 behind an explosive offense that stretched the defense vertically and horizontally with runs and passes from the QB1.
Fast-forward to Murray’s debut with the Cardinals and it’s a case of deja vu, with No. 1 making a series of spectacular plays — especially late in the game — in an offense that closely resembled the scheme he starred in at Oklahoma. While Kliff Kingsbury’s version of the Air Raid places more emphasis on the passing game than most, the bulk of the concepts utilized in the aerial attack are essentially the same. Murray completed a series of quick-rhythm throws to the perimeter designed to let the Cardinals’ playmakers run away from defenders in the open field. Kingsbury doubled down on this tactic by featuring at least four wide receivers on 58 of the team’s 88 offensive snaps during the comeback tie with the Detroit Lions — that was more four-wide sets than the rest of the league combined in Week 1.
With Murray instructed to push the pace while directing the Cardinals’ up-tempo offense, the rookie caught fire in the fourth quarter and overtime, completing 20 of 29 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns while helping the Cardinals overcome an 18-point deficit and eventually log the 27-27 tie.
"We did some analytics on his fourth-quarter statistics last year at OU, and it’s insane, his numbers," Kingsbury said, via the team website. "The completion percentage, the touchdown-to-interception ratio, the yards per carry. That was something prior to the draft process that we were fascinated by: his fourth-quarter stats and what he did in close ballgames."
Kingsbury’s onto something there. In the fourth quarter with the Sooners last year, Murray completed 40 of his 58 passes (69 percent) for 546 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions, while also rushing 29 times for 286 yards (9.9 yards per carry) and four more scores.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film of Murray’s Week 1 performance, I was most impressed by the 22-year-old’s ability to orchestrate Arizona’s offense at a breakneck pace while maintaining his poise in the fourth quarter. The rookie playmaker not only exhibited complete command of the scheme, but he got the ball into the hands of the team’s most dangerous players like an NBA point guard running a fast break in the open court. This is exactly how Murray played in college — and also the way that he became an urban legend in Texas as a three-time state champion with Allen High School.
"I’m so jealous of the young quarterbacks in the league today because their coaches are allowing them to play the way that they’ve always played," former NFL quarterback Michael Vick said to me. "They are allowing them to be themselves and building offense around their skills. … That’s why you’re seeing so many young quarterbacks have success in the league right away."
Jackson showed the football world that he was more than capable of thriving as a franchise quarterback last season, when he led the Ravens to a 6-1 record down the stretch while guiding the team to a division title. No. 8 directed a run-heavy, option-based attack that made him the primary ball carrier on a team that decided to bludgeon opponents at every turn. Jackson logged 147 rushing attempts (a single-season record for an NFL quarterback) for 695 yards and five touchdowns while executing a series of read-option concepts routinely utilized at the college level. The option attack took the NFL by surprise and allowed the Ravens to average a whopping 229.6 rushing yards per game over their final seven games of the regular season. That’s a ridiculous amount of production on the ground and it is why defensive coordinators feared Baltimore’s offensive approach down the stretch. Modern NFL defenses are geared toward stopping the passing game, given the league-wide preference for throwing the ball all over the yards. The 2018 Ravens’ downhill attack put pass rushers on the defensive and exploited the smallish linebackers/defensive backs on the field for coverage purposes.
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Despite Jackson’s dismal performance on Wild Card Weekend, the Ravens openly discussed going all-in on the option-based attack this offseason while soliciting opinions from a variety of college coaches deeply rooted in various forms of option football, including the triple option, read-option and RPOs (run-pass option). John Harbaugh boldly discussed revolutionizing the NFL with Baltimore’s offensive approach and opening up more opportunities for dual-threat quarterbacks in the league. He even suggested observers curious about Jackson’s rushing attempts should "bet the over," which sent the football world into frenzied speculation over what the Ravens’ offense would look like in 2019.
"The option game tests the discipline of your defense," a former AFC defensive coordinator told me. "Every defender has to understand his responsibility and assignment and remain disciplined with their eyes and focus or the option will give you fits. … You have to be on your Ps and Qs when playing against a team that features the option game."
Considering how the Ravens sold their new offense to the public throughout the offseason and training camp, I expected Jackson to open the season directing an option attack that harkened back to the days of Nebraska football under Tom Osborne. However, Baltimore surprised the football world by breaking out a game plan against the Miami Dolphins that featured just three carries by No. 8 and a bevy of vertical passes to the Ravens’ track team on the perimeter.
Reviewing the All-22 footage of the 59-10 beatdown, Baltimore featured a melting pot of option concepts, RPOs and quick-rhythm throws. Additionally, the team utilized a heavy dose of seam throws between the numbers, which played to Jackson’s strengths as a passer. At Louisville, Jackson was most effective throwing in-breaking routes (slants, digs and posts). He was efficient on "catch, rock and throw" tosses to quick routes.
Jackson was also effective throwing the ball down the field on deep-over concepts or traditional post routes down the middle of the field. He combined outstanding arm strength and sound anticipatory instincts on those tosses.
Against the Dolphins, the second-year signal-caller posted a perfect passer rating by completing 17 of his 20 throws for 324 yards and five touchdowns. The Ravens set up the young QB1 for success with a variety of quick-rhythm throws to speedsters on the outside, as well as a bevy of plays designed to exploit his big-bodied tight ends over the middle of the field. Most importantly, the team upped his confidence level by calling plays that put him in his comfort zone. You have to figure they’ll call more run plays for Jackson going forward, but that just wan’t necessary in this 49-point throttling.
"It’s all about confidence." Vick told me. "When you allow a player to be himself and play the way that he’s always played, he is going to perform better. These teams are helping younger quarterbacks by allowing them to do the things that they’ve always done well."
With more QB1s mirroring Murray and Jackson on the horizon, I can only hope more NFL executives and offensive coordinators are paying close attention to how the Cardinals and Ravens are deploying their young QB1s.
SHADY’S RENAISSANCE: Why LeSean McCoy’s poised to produce in K.C.
I’m no fantasy football expert, but I would advise you to put in a waiver-wire claim on LeSean McCoy (if he’s still available) to enhance your chances of winning your local league. I know the 31-year-old running back is coming off the worst statistical season of his career and he was a late addition to the Kansas City Chiefs following his release from the Buffalo Bills … But I believe the six-time Pro Bowl running back could rejoin the ranks of the elite as the DH in Andy Reid’s offensive lineup.
I know what you’re thinking: Thirty-something running backs can’t carry the load in a young man’s league. However, McCoy is in the perfect situation to thrive as a graybeard in Kansas City. No. 25 is not only in a familiar offense that fits his talents as a hybrid playmaker under a head coach/play-caller who understands his game, but he joins a star-studded lineup with three legitimate home-run threats — Sammy Watkins, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill (though he’s on the shelf now for 4-6 weeks) — on the perimeter. With the reigning NFL MVP, Patrick Mahomes, at the controls, McCoy will be viewed as a secondary threat by opposing defensive coordinators crafting plans to slow down the Chiefs’ explosive attack. That means fewer plus-one defensive fronts with extra defenders in the box and more room to run against opponents utilizing coverage-based tactics to diffuse the Chiefs’ big-play passing game.
"McCoy can still play," the aforementioned former AFC defensive coordinator told me. "He’s explosive and dynamic. He has great vision and still shows some wiggle. … You saw how easy it was for him against Jacksonville.
"He will have that kind of room all season with the kind of playmakers the Chiefs have all over the field."
For the first time in his career, McCoy isn’t the focal point of the defensive game plan when he steps onto the field. Defensive coordinators have spent the entire offseason coming up with various strategies to stop Mahomes and the Chiefs’ electric playmakers in a bombs-away passing game that tests the discipline of your scheme and the athleticism of your roster.
"As a coordinator, I would rather the Chiefs die a slow death with them making a bunch of 5- and 6-yard plays, instead of 50- and 60-yard plays over the top of the defense," the former DC told me. "You dare them to run it and see if Reid will stick to it. If McCoy faces a soft defense like that, he could put up big numbers for them."
That last sentiment is music to McCoy’s ears. He spent the past few years as the clear No. 1 offensive option in Buffalo, and although he posted a pair of highly productive seasons (including 1,267 rushing yards and 13 TDs on the ground in 2017), Shady watched his yards-per-carry average dip. After averaging 5.4 yards per carry in 2016, he could only muster 4.0 and 3.2 yards a pop in each of the past two campaigns with a supporting cast that lacked A-listers on the perimeter.
In his initial appearance with Kansas City, McCoy scooted to 81 yards on just 10 carries in the Chiefs’ 40-26 win over the Jaguars. That’s the kind of production we came to expect from McCoy for the bulk of his career, the kind of production that’s possible for an older back playing in a wide-open offense with explosive athletes all over the field.
"It was nice just watching how fast they were going up and down the field," McCoy said his debut game for the Chiefs, via The Kansas City Star. "How much space they had, how many opportunities they had, the gains they were getting each play. At one point in the game, we were averaging like 15 yards (per) touch. That’s not normal. To see it firsthand is pretty cool."
With more room to operate and a formidable set of weapons around, McCoy could really turn back the clock in 2019.
BILL O’BRIEN: Will Texans regret handing coach so much power?
There’s a reason why the Founding Fathers built the U.S. Constitution around a system of checks and balances. Our leaders knew that it was important to limit the power of each of the three branches of government to prevent one of them from becoming too mighty.
In the NFL, the majority of front offices have a checks-and-balances system in place with the general manager and head coach balancing the power within the organization. Although the owner ultimately decides which leader has the ultimate power, the best organizations enable one leader to "check" the other to make sure that all decisions are made in the best interest of the organization.
In most cases, the general manager will make decisions with the long-term viability of the franchise in mind. Meanwhile, the head coach is primarily focused on the here and now, concentrating on how to win each week’s game.
"It is always in the best interest of the organization to split the power between a general manager and head coach," a former NFL vice president of player personnel told me. "The general manager is supposed to keep the franchise’s long-term interest at the forefront to ensure the team is competitive over the long haul. Coaches want to win now. They make a decision based on today, not tomorrow. You want to make sure that you keep them from mortgaging the franchise’s future for a quick fix.
"You won’t get (the GM and head coach) to agree on every decision, but if they are split on a player, they should move on and find a player that they can agree on. … It takes teamwork and cohesion between the scouts and coaches to build a championship team. You can have some differences of opinion and disagreements but you have to be on the same page when it comes to the vision of the program."
That’s why I’m not surprised at the recent spate of personnel moves made by the Houston Texans over the past few months, with Bill O’Brien running the football operation in the wake of Houston’s surprise firing of GM Brian Gaine in June. While the grizzled coach has led the Texans to three division titles and four winning seasons since he was hired in 2014, he has only one playoff win under his belt (over a Raiders team with Connor Cook at QB) and his sudden emergence as the de facto GM is a bit of a surprise in today’s football world.
Given the circumstances, the Texans have to figure out how to help O’Brien navigate the rough waters of being a football czar with so many experienced decision-makers eager to pull off favorable deals against a novice to the role. Look no further than the Seattle Seahawks’ poaching of Jadeveon Clowney as a prime example of a shrewd negotiator pulling off a deal that tilted heavily in his team’s favor. Seahawks GM John Schneider not only secured the services of a three-time Pro Bowl selectee who could be entering his prime for a pair of C-level players (Barkevious Mingo and Jacob Martin) and a 2020 third-round pick, but he fleeced the Texans into paying $7 million of Clowney’s salary.
If that didn’t make longtime observers chuckle, the fact that Houston waited to trade him until well after the July 15 deadline to sign players who had received the franchise tag to multi-year deals must have led to a few belly laughs from the scouting community. If the Texans had shopped Clowney prior to that date, they would have operated from a position of much greater leverage and could have avoided a situation where the player dictates the destination, as Clowney did in this case by essentially vetoing a potential trade to the Dolphins. He would’ve been forced to play for his new team or miss out on collecting $15-plus million as a franchise tag recipient. Moreover, the team taking him on would have been able to sign the defensive end to a lucrative extension prior to the deadline, which likely would have resulted in much better compensation than the Texans ultimately received in the Clowney deal.
Speaking of trades, the Texans’ swap with the Dolphins for former first-round pick Laremy Tunsil provides another example of how O’Brien’s inexperience as a front-office decision-maker negatively impacted the franchise. While outsiders can debate about which team won the trade that involved the Texans sending two first-round picks and a second-rounder for the standout left tackle and WR Kenny Stills, it is Houston’s failure, thus far, to reach an agreement with Tunsil on a long-term extension following the completion of the trade that makes some observers scratch their heads.
Considering the assets surrendered to acquire the franchise tackle, the Texans should’ve locked him up right away to make sure his presence, performance and production makes up for the loss of three high-level draft picks. Remember, first-round selections are expected to be the pillars of the franchise, so the Texans need Tunsil to be a franchise guy to approach comparable value in return.
Looking at the construction of the Texans’ roster, I’m worried about the team’s inability to build around their franchise quarterback in his prime. The team lacks first-round picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts, and their limited draft capital makes it hard to find the cheap labor needed to support Deshaun Watson, particularly after he presumably signs a blockbuster deal in a year or so.
Although I can’t fully guarantee that the presence of a general manager would’ve prevented these highly questionable decisions, I’ve been around the game long enough to know that a head coach with executive powers needs a right-hand man around to assist him with the personnel moves.
As a scout with the Seattle Seahawks, I watched head coach Mike Holmgren struggle managing the day-to-day duties of running a team as the executive vice president of football operations/general manager. The constant phone calls, personnel decisions and team-building assignments took him away from his strengths as a head coach/play-caller. Despite his best efforts, we languished in mediocrity (31-33 record from 1999 to 2002) and failed to win a playoff game during that span.
Interestingly, the Seahawks hired a general manager following the 2002 season and Holmgren didn’t experience another losing season until his final season on the sidelines.
With that in mind, the Texans should pay close attention to how O’Brien navigates the rest of the season as the organization’s ultimate decision-maker. Although his tenure as a football czar has seemingly gotten off to a poor start, Houston’s head coach can make it right by winning the AFC South and going on a run in the playoffs. With most owners and fan bases operating with a "What have you done for me lately?" mentality, O’Brien can buy a little time with a few big wins while getting the much-needed experience as an executive.
Absent that kind of success this season — and Houston opened up with a tough loss at New Orleans — the Texans will need to find a general manager to check O’Brien’s power and restore the balance within the office. That might be the plan anyway. Houston was pursuing Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio following Gaine’s firing, but then New England filed tampering charges and the Texans backed off. When Caserio’s contract is up next offseason, maybe Houston goes back in. Here’s the thing, though: Will Caserio still want the job if O’Brien continues to mortgage the future?
NFL DRAFT PROSPECT TO WATCH THIS WEEKEND
Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama
Alabama at South Carolina: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET | CBS
If you’re looking for a classic WR1 with a polished game and dependable hands, you might want to settle in for Jeudy’s game against South Carolina this weekend. No. 4 is a precise route runner with exceptional stop-start quickness and an assortment of moves that consistently help him get open against top corners. He complements his superb route-running skills with an outstanding combination of hand-eye coordination and ball skills that make him the ultimate chain mover on the outside. Jeudy’s consistency and reliability as a No. 1 receiver earn him rave reviews from scouts, and he is only going to rise up the charts when NFL coaches have a chance to really dig into his advanced game.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.
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