Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today's installment covers:
But first, a look at five combine standouts who forced me to revisit their game tape ...
The NFL Scouting Combine is a valuable event for collecting background information, evaluating football character and assessing health, but for the most part, the televised portions should not significantly impact a team's pre-draft process. Though the workouts are fun to watch on NFL Network and NFL+, the athletic testing and positional drills at Lucas Oil Stadium cannot overshadow years of actual game tape.
As a young scout, I heard the same thing from a group of veterans in the industry: "The film reveals a prospect's DNA." It's true. Talent evaluators mess up when they allow themselves to be swayed by spandex workouts, as opposed to trusting what their eyes and instincts gleaned from a player's college career. While a prospect's athleticism and explosiveness matter, the game is played between the lines -- and in pads. There are exceptions, of course, but most of the NFL's best players dominated the competition in college. As Hall of Fame executive Ron Wolf told me, it is essential for top prospects to possess certain traits to succeed in the league (like height, weight, speed, quickness and ball skills), but those attributes must be accompanied by outstanding in-game performance.
With all of that in mind, I'd like to discuss the biggest name to emerge from this year's talent showcase in Indianapolis. Anthony Richardson put on quite an athletic performance. At 6-foot-4 and 244 pounds, the Florida product electrified combine watchers with a 4.43 40-yard dash -- and that's just the beginning! Richardson also set a modern combine record for quarterbacks in the vertical leap (40 1/2 inches) and tied the modern mark in the broad jump (10-foot-9). With that kind of athleticism at that size, Richardson made every single evaluator sprint back to the film for further analysis -- myself included.
Studying Richardson before the combine, I had concerns about his accuracy, judgment and production. Despite being touted as an A+ athlete, Richardson did not routinely dominate as a dual-threat playmaker. Sure, the young man provided a number of splash plays that dotted highlight reels in the fall, but he did not look like a first-round pick (i.e., an NFL starter in Year 1 or Year 2) as a runner or passer.
On the ground last season, Richardson flashed breakaway speed on the perimeter (SEE: prolific rushing games against Utah, LSU and Texas A&M), displaying enough grit to handle a heavy workload as a primary ball carrier (five total games with at least 10 rush attempts). That said, he did not completely obliterate the SEC as a runner like Cam Newton did during his Heisman Trophy-winning season of 2010, when the Auburn signal-caller ran for 1,473 yards and 20 touchdowns. Richardson finished last year with 654 yards and nine scores on the ground. Jalen Hurts -- another NFL quarterback who, like Newton, has cropped up recently as a Richardson comp -- scampered for 1,809 yards and 23 touchdowns in his first two seasons at Alabama before running wild on the Big 12 (1,298 yards and 20 TDs) in his lone year at Oklahoma. Considering both of those two field generals relied on their running skills to compensate for some passing deficiencies, Richardson needed to show more dominance on the ground to fully convince evaluators that his superpowers (athleticism/running skills) could mask some of the warts in his game as a thrower.
Richardson completed just 53.8 percent of his passes last season while compiling a ho-hum touchdown-to-interception ratio of 17:9. Those numbers pale in comparison to the production delivered by his aforementioned pro comps: Newton completed 66.1 percent of his passes with a 30:7 TD-to-INT ratio in one season at Auburn; Hurts completed 62.9 percent of his throws with a 48:12 TD-to-INT ratio at Alabama, then went 69.7 and 32:8 at Oklahoma. In addition, Richardson failed to lead his team to a conference championship or playoff appearance, with Florida finishing last season at 6–7. Newton, of course, guided Auburn through a perfect 14-0 national championship season. Hurts went 38-4 as a college starter, played in seven College Football Playoff games (five starts) and helped the 2017 Crimson Tide win the national title.
In the NFL, Newton and Hurts have each led a team to the Super Bowl, with Cam earning league MVP honors in 2015 and Jalen finishing second this past season. Does Richardson have what it takes to reach these kinds of heights? While it's impossible to not be impressed by the raw physical tools he displayed in Indy, I still can't give him a premier grade at this point, with the scale heavily tilted toward potential over production.
Now, later this month, I'll be filing an updated edition of my top five prospects by position. Richardson did not make the cut in the initial installment. He will indeed be included in 2.0, due to his raw talent as a five-star athlete. But I still have reservations about his immediate impact potential as a projected starter in the league. Perhaps he possesses the work ethic, leadership skills and "it" factor to get it done on Sundays, but it's still a big projection.
Richardson wasn't the only prospect whose Indy exploits forced me back to the game tape. Here are four more:
The ultra-explosive inside pass rusher is built like a fire hydrant and plays like a bull in a china shop. Kancey's exceptional first-step quickness, snap-count anticipation and hand-to-hand combat skills make him a nightmare at the line of scrimmage. Though he possesses substandard physical dimensions (6-1, 281 pounds), the Pitt product's extraordinary speed (4.67-second 40-yard dash), athleticism and disruptive production (14.5 sacks and 27.5 tackles for loss in two years as a full-time starter) conjure up images of another Pitt product, Aaron Donald.
While it is unfair to compare Kancey to a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, the similar frame, disruptive play style and college helmet make it hard to not make the comp. With more tape study and Pitt's pro day on the horizon (March 29), scouts can determine if Kancey possesses the tools to develop into a difference-maker in the NFL trenches.
The cover corner has piqued the interest of coaches and scouts seeking an explosive defender on the island. Measuring 6 feet and 197 pounds, Banks possesses the size, length and athleticism to make life miserable for pass catchers on the perimeter. During his positional workout in Indy, he showcased the ability to backpedal, turn and transition like a veteran cover corner, cruising through drills. With this coming after he blazed the 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds and displayed exceptional leaping ability (42-inch vertical leap and 11-foot-4 broad jump), scouts and coaches are smitten with the Maryland standout's potential as a bump-and-run/Cover 2 corner. Banks' size and physicality make him an ideal fit for teams seeking someone to match up with big-bodied NFL pass catchers.
If he continues to impress evaluators with his movement skills and tool box, Banks could jump to the front of the class as one of the first cornerbacks off the board next month.
The hyper-active pass rusher is surging up the charts after a strong performance on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf. At 6-2 and 250 pounds, Young put up striking figures in the 40-yard dash (4.43 seconds), vertical leap (38 inches) and broad jump (11 feet). In addition, the Tennessee standout pumped out 22 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. With Young's athleticism score ranking among the top five edge defenders at this year's combine, per Next Gen Stats, coaches and scouts are conducting a comprehensive film study to determine if the late-blooming QB hunter can replicate his Tennessee production (23.5 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks and 22 quarterback hurries in 24 games) in the NFL.
A speed edge with outstanding snap-count anticipation and a nonstop motor, Young has the potential to wreak havoc as a pass-rush specialist in sub packages. Considering how sack artists are coveted at a premium, the ultra-aggressive playmaker could catch a defensive coordinator's eye as a potential mid-round gem.
Good luck finding another big (6-7, 255 pounds) tight end with such an enticing combination of speed (4.55-second 40-yard dash), agility (6.87 three-cone drill), strength (23 bench reps) and explosion (40-inch vertical, leap, 10-foot-8 broad jump). This is why scouts are scurrying to re-evaluate the Penn State transfer: His eye-popping performance in Indy sparked interest from offensive coaches searching for a mismatch creator on the perimeter. Despite logging just 15 career starts over five total college seasons, the former Pennsylvania Class AA 110-meter hurdle champion is an intriguing developmental prospect.
In a league where "flex" tight ends have become key pieces on the chessboard, Kuntz could emerge as a hot commodity in Day 3 of the draft, with some of the rarest physical traits in this entire class.
No. 1 pick trade! My immediate thoughts
Credit Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles for trading away the No. 1 overall pick for a hefty haul that includes four high-value draft picks and a borderline elite pass catcher. Sending the top selection of this year's draft to the Carolina Panthers, Poles secured a pair of first-round picks (2023 and '24) and two second-round selections (2023 and '24) that will help Chicago build a team around upstart franchise quarterback Justin Fields. In addition, the Bears received D.J. Moore, a versatile offensive weapon who could help Fields make a quantum leap in Year 3.
But of course, there are two sides to this trade. Let's dig a little deeper on both ...
What does this mean for the Bears?
The trade should serve as a vote of confidence for Fields as the team's QB1. If there were any doubts about his ability to lead the Bears or develop into a long-term keeper at the game's most important position, Chicago could have made a move for one of the top prospects in this class with the No. 1 overall pick.
That said, the draft haul provides Poles with an insurance policy if Fields regresses this season. With multiple first-round picks in the 2024 draft, Chicago could always move up the board to land a top signal-caller from what has the early makings of a loaded QB class.
If Fields continues to trend in the right direction, the Bears can throw all of the draft capital at non-quarterbacks on each side of the ball, giving Matt Eberflus and Co. enough weaponry to quickly rebuild a team that should also land a handful of marquee free agents this offseason, given Chicago's league-high cap space. Loaded with draft picks and cash, the Bears should be back in business as a viable playoff contender by 2024 at the latest.
What does this mean for the Panthers?
For the Panthers, the deal allows general manager Scott Fitterer and new head coach Frank Reich to pick a franchise quarterback to construct everything around. Though the rebuilding effort is more challenging without as much draft currency in each of the next two drafts -- and minus a WR1 -- the trade enables Carolina to target its favorite prospect at the crucial position.
The blockbuster deal also signals the Panthers are in "win now" mode, despite taking on a young franchise quarterback. Why? This gives Carolina a five-year window to make a Super Bowl run, with the quarterback on a team-friendly rookie deal that should enable the Panthers to load up on premier talent at marquee spots.
The No. 1 overall selection allows Reich to handpick a field general to take the franchise to the next level. Given his success working with young quarterbacks in the past (SEE: Carson Wentz in Philadelphia), he has a blueprint that should help the Panthers hit the ground running in his first year on the job. He will need to determine whether C.J. Stroud, Bryce Young, Anthony Richardson or Will Levis is the right fit, but the winner of the QB1 debate should be set up for success early. With Reich, Josh McCown (quarterback coach), Thomas Brown (offensive coordinator), Parks Frazier (passing game coordinator) and Jim Caldwell (senior assistant) providing an experienced cocoon around the rookie, the Panthers' new QB1 could flourish in a division that is there for the taking.
Reminder: The Jags now have a true WR1
The Jacksonville Jaguars' acquisition of Calvin Ridley at the trade deadline flew under the radar due to the fact that the talented wide receiver was in the midst of a season-long suspension for betting on NFL games. But with Ridley's official reinstatement earlier this week, the shrewd move could really help the upstart Jags make another playoff push in 2023. In my role as a Jaguars analyst/sideline reporter, I had the opportunity to sit down with Ridley for an exclusive interview earlier this week, so this is definitely top of mind for me. But it's time for everyone else to jog their memory on what could turn out to be a blockbuster acquisition for one of the league's up-and-coming teams.
Although Ridley has not stepped onto an NFL field since October of 2021, the former first-round pick gives Jacksonville the true No. 1 receiver who could make Doug Pederson's offense a nightmare to defend. Don't forget: The last time Ridley played a full season, in 2020, he caught 90 balls for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns. Ridley could prove to be the dynamic playmaker whom Trevor Lawrence needs to take his game to another level in Year 3. While Christian Kirk, Zay Jones and Evan Engram already comprised a solid pass-catching group with interchangeable games that enable them to fill various roles in a position-less passing game, Ridley is a proven WR1 with a skill set that will force opponents to alter their game plans when defending Jacksonville.
As a polished route runner with a rare combination of balance, body control and stop-start quickness, the 28-year-old is a "get open" specialist who can win against one-on-one or double coverage. Ridley's experience as a WR1 with the Atlanta Falcons following a two-year apprenticeship under Julio Jones has prepared him for his new role, while also giving him a chance to play in a balanced passing game where the ball finds the open guy.
The "share the wealth" approach worked well for the Jaguars in 2022, but the addition of Ridley as a legit WR1 allows the team to establish a pecking order (Ridley, WR1; Kirk, WR2; Jones, WR3; Engram, flex TE) while maintaining the positional flexibility that helped Pederson play musical chairs on the perimeter. This adjustment should help each pass catcher settle into a role more conducive to his particular skill set, thus providing Lawrence with an upgraded unit to help him take his game up a notch as an emerging elite quarterback.
If Ridley can return to form as a Pro Bowl-caliber playmaker, the Jaguars could field a WR/TE corps with three 1,000-yard pass catchers and a 1,000-yard rusher (Travis Etienne). Jacksonville broke through with an AFC South title and playoff win last season. With Ridley in the mix, Pederson, Lawrence and Co. could force themselves into the Super Bowl conversation.