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 league's five most improved position groups.
- Why Melvin Gordon could be in for a monster year.
- How Jay Gruden plans to make the most of Gardner Minshew.
But first, a look at reasons for optimism in Cleveland ...
Baker Mayfield is entering what could be a make-or-break season playing for his fourth different head coach and offensive coordinator since joining the Cleveland Browns as the first overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft. The circumstances are not ideal, but I believe the third-year pro is positioned to enjoy the best season of his career in an offense that should help him bounce back from a disappointing sophomore campaign.
After taking some time to study head coach Kevin Stefanski's offense, the Browns' offseason moves and Mayfield's film, here are three reasons why No. 6 will be a much better player in 2020:
1. The Browns' 12 personnel package will be tough to stop. The addition of former Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper to a lineup that already featured Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, David Njoku and Nick Chubb will keep defensive coordinators up late at night searching for answers. Defending 12 personnel (two-tight end sets) can be difficult due to the extra gaps created in the running game and the threat of four verticals in the passing game. However, the Browns' personnel will create an even bigger challenge with OBJ and Landry potentially feasting off one-on-one coverage on the outside or Chubb punishing opponents attempting to utilize light boxes to defend the run.
With the threat of Njoku, Hooper or even fourth-round pick Harrison Bryant running free down the seams also posing problems, the Browns can make life easy for their young quarterback by living in 12 personnel and utilizing a variety of formations to exploit the weaknesses of the various fronts and coverages. This could allow Mayfield to utilize a simple check-with-me system that gives him a run or pass option on every play. He can come to the line, read the defense and put the Browns in the best play call to exploit the weakness of the defense. If No. 6 understands defensive fronts and coverages and how to attack each, the check-with-me approach from 12 personnel should give the Browns a chance to be a more efficient and effective offense.
With Stefanski calling the plays last season, the Vikings operated out of 12 personnel on 34.9 percent of their offensive snaps (second-highest rate in the league) with Kirk Cousins thriving out of the package. The veteran quarterback tied for the league lead in touchdown passes (13) from 12 personnel while also tallying the second-most pass attempts (209) and passing yards (1,569) from the package, per Next Gen Stats. With Mayfield averaging 9.0 yards per attempt (third-most in the NFL) out of 12 personnel last season, the Browns will undoubtedly up their usage (from 22.9 percent in 2019, which ranked ninth in the NFL) to take advantage of their superior personnel.
2. Using more play-action passes will unlock Mayfield's potential. The analytics crowd will quickly tell you that featuring the play-action passing game is one of the best ways to help any quarterback thrive as a passer. Mayfield is a prime example based on his efficiency and effectiveness on play-action passes compared with traditional dropback throws in 2019. He had a better completion percentage (64.7 to 57.5), yards-per-attempt average (8.9 to 6.6), touchdown-to-interception ratio (9:3 to 13:18) and passer rating (106.2 to 69.4) on play-action passes. The stark contrast should prompt Stefanski and Co. to build the passing game around play-action concepts that are married to the Browns' favorite runs.
Keep in mind, Chubb finished as the NFL's second-leading rusher (1,494 yards) behind Derrick Henry. The threat of handing the ball to the 5-foot-11, 227-pound runner lures linebackers and safeties to the line of scrimmage, leaving huge voids at intermediate range. With OBJ and Landry capable of finding soft spots on in-breaking routes (digs and skinny posts) and Njoku and Hooper able to slip past defenders on seam routes, the Browns can get the top playmakers the ball in prime positions off play-action passes.
Last season, Mayfield tied for the third-most touchdown passes (nine) off play-action. With the Browns poised to use more 12 personnel packages, he could put up ridiculous numbers as a play-action passer this fall.
3. The Browns' rebuilt offensive line will provide better protection. The first rule of chess is to protect the king. All of the moves executed on the chessboard are designed to protect that all-important piece from threats while creating opportunities to end the game with bold moves. The Browns haven't protected their king (quarterback) well in the past two seasons due to suspect personnel at key spots and an ill-fitting scheme that didn't play to the strengths of the talent on the front line.
That should change this fall with free-agent signee Jack Conklin and first-round pick Jedrick Wills upgrading the edges as athletic road graders. This will not only enable the Browns to pummel opponents with a dominant running game fueled by Chubb (and Kareem Hunt) but it will fortify a passing game that should prominently feature play-action passes.
As nimble blockers on the edges, Conklin and Wills will enable Mayfield to effectively execute more movement passes, particularly off stretch-bootleg action. With the Browns' new bookends capable of moving like elephants on parade during run-action plays, the play-action passing concepts will become more deceptive and effective on the perimeter.
TOP 5 MOST IMPROVED UNITS: Ravens restock
Every general manager enters the offseason with a plan to improve the weakest parts of his roster. Some will elect to spend big in free agency or a trade to acquire a blue-chip veteran who fills a void, while others will identify a five-star prospect in the draft with the potential to provide an immediate impact as a Day 1 starter. The most savvy decision-makers will double down and address their weakest positions by using multiple avenues to add players. Given some time to assess the NFL landscape after a flurry of offseason activity, here are the five most improved units in the league:
1. Miami Dolphins secondary: A perfect marriage between personnel and scheme usually produces great results. That's why the Dolphins defense should significantly improve in 2020 with Byron Jones teaming with Xavien Howard on the perimeter. Jones is a sticky bump-and-run corner with the size, length and athleticism to match up with premier No. 1 receivers. With first-round pick Noah Igbinoghene fortifying the secondary as an explosive track athlete with natural bump-and-run skills, the Dolphins have turned a weakness into a strength with a solid set of acquisitions this offseason.
2. Baltimore Ravens defensive line: After receiving a beatdown at the hands of the rugged Tennessee Titans in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, the Ravens upgraded their defensive line with the additions of Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe and third-round pick Justin Madubuike. The additional beef along the line will help the Ravens slow down punishing rushing attacks while adding more pop to the pass rush. Campbell, in particular, gives the unit an interior pass-rushing presence that should enable Matt Judon to get more one-on-one opportunities to hunt the quarterback on obvious passing downs.
3. Arizona Cardinals WR corps: Whenever a team can add an All-Pro to a unit that already features a gold-jacket performer still playing at a high level, it should be considered a coup, particularly when it comes from an inexpensive trade that tips in the team's favor. That's exactly what happened in the DeAndre Hopkins deal, giving the Cardinals a five-star playmaker at the WR1 spot while reshuffling the deck to put rest of the WR corps in optimal roles (Larry Fitzgerald at WR2 and Christian Kirk at WR3). For a young quarterback with an Offensive Rookie of the Year award on his mantle, Arizona's upgrade at the position could help Kyler Murray go from good to great in his second season.
4. Cleveland Browns offensive line: As we mentioned earlier in this piece, the Browns needed to upgrade the protection around Baker Mayfield to help him bounce back from a disappointing sophomore season. Enter Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills as the new bookends to help No. 6 feel safe and secure in the pocket. The duo will not only create a fortress around Mayfield but they will secure the edges to help Nick Chubb make another run at the rushing title. If Conklin and Wills settle in as edge blockers early in the season, the Browns' offense could finally become the explosive unit that everyone expected it to be in 2019.
5. Atlanta Falcons defensive line: The Dirty Birds' front line has undergone a massive makeover with free-agent acquisition Dante Fowler and second-round pick Marlon Davidson adding some physicality, toughness and nastiness to the unit. Fowler has come into his own as a pass rusher since leaving the Jaguars for the Rams in a midseason trade in 2018. He has tallied 13.5 sacks and 50 QB pressures over the past 23 games, per Pro Football Reference, while exhibiting a power-based game that overwhelms blockers off the edge. Davidson adds a little pop to a unit that needed a disruptor beside Grady Jarrett on the interior. The rookie flashes a combination of quickness, power and explosiveness with a non-stop motor that could make him a nightmare to deal with between the tackles.
MELVIN GORDON: Renaissance coming in Denver?
Don't be surprised if Melvin Gordon enjoys the best season of his NFL career after changing addresses in the spring.
After amassing 6,000-plus scrimmage yards and earning two Pro Bowl selections in five seasons with the Chargers, Gordon has a chance to go from good to great with the Denver Broncos. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound runner not only joins a team that is committed to featuring him as the No. 1 back, but he reunites with a scheme that showcased his talents as an explosive, downhill runner.
"It (the Chargers' scheme) really didn't play out to my strengths, especially the first couple years there," Gordon said on the Rapsheet and Friends podcast. "I kind of just had to adjust and make it work. It kind of wasn't a system built for me. But I feel like Denver kinda runs my style of football, and I think it's a great fit."
Reviewing my notes on Gordon prior to the 2015 NFL Draft, when he was selected 15th overall by the Chargers, I loved Gordon's patience, vision and explosiveness as a runner. The Wisconsin product showed exceptional zero-to-60 acceleration, and his ability to slither through cracks made him a threat to score from anywhere on the field. In his final year in the Badgers' zone-based offense, Gordon racked up 2,587 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns as a workhorse runner with outstanding stamina, endurance and toughness. He reminded me of Jamaal Charles in his prime, and I expected him to run up big numbers with the Chargers as an RB1.
As a pro, it took Gordon a little time to settle in as a blue-chip runner. He underwent microfracture surgery after a disappointing rookie campaign but bounced back with three straight seasons of at least 1,375 scrimmage yards and 12 total touchdowns. Although he failed to average more than 4 yards per carry in four of his five seasons, he would occasionally flash A-plus speed and burst on off-tackle runs.
As the No. 1 running play in the Chargers playbook, the "stretch," or outside zone, would instruct Gordon to attack the outside leg of the tackle, with the running back expected to "bend" (cut back), "bounce" (take it outside) or "bang" (attack the hole), based on the reaction of the defense. Gordon had his moments as a perimeter runner, but his straight-line running style is better suited to play in an offense with more downhill runs.
The Broncos are employing a zone-based system under new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur that's expected to feature more downhill plays designed to limit negative runs while enabling runners to attack the line of scrimmage with squared-up shoulders. Looking at Gordon's game, the marriage between player and system should be a perfect fit.
"They run a lot of inside zones, and that's what I did a lot at Wisconsin," Gordon said. "It's going to really help me get back in the feel of what I do best. I'm an inside-zone runner."
If Gordon can get back to playing like the all-star who tormented defenses as a dual-threat playmaker, he'll give the Broncos' offense an added dimension with a couple of young runners already in the stable.
"Obviously we had two good backs in Royce Freeman and (Phillip) Lindsay," said general manager John Elway, when explaining the decision to add Gordon. "We know that [Lindsay] is a guy that's had a great year for us. I know there's people going, 'Why do you need another horse?' Well, when you have an opportunity for Melvin Gordon to come in here, we felt like it was an addition to the team. He's a guy that obviously has had a lot of success in this league. He's scored a lot of touchdowns and has caught the football a ton. So we feel like with him -- with Melvin, as well as Phillip -- that we've got a great one-two punch, and we'll only get better in the backfield.
"Ultimately, we have to score more points this year. We've struggled on the offensive side the last two, three years, and so we've got to get better on that side. I think Melvin will be one of those key pieces to help us get better."
GARDNER MINSHEW: Gruden taking right approach
If you want to help a young quarterback thrive early in his career, you need to build the playbook around his talents to help him flourish.
That's why I'm excited to hear new Jacksonville Jaguars offensive coordinator Jay Gruden discuss the importance of crafting a relationship with Gardner Minshew and leaning on the young QB1's insights to build a master plan that helps him go from good to great in Year 2.
"Well, it better mesh," Gruden said Tuesday via team transcript, referring to his relationship with Minshew and the Jags' QBs. "It's my job to make it mesh, you know, to take on the personality of the quarterback and get him to understand what we're trying to get accomplished on the play-to-play, game-to-game, week-to-week basis, it's going to be critical. I love Gardner's competitive spirit. You could see it shine through on tape when he was in college and obviously last year in the games he got to play. Now it's just a matter of him getting some general knowledge of our offense and me figuring out what he likes, what he doesn't like, what makes him tick and go from there. I'm pretty easy to get along with, I know he is too, so I think it will be a great relationship between the two of us."
Gruden's words shouldn't be taken lightly. Developing trust through communication is essential to building a strong bond between the play-caller and quarterback, which is a critical part of a successful offense. Gruden's acknowledgement signals the Jaguars' willingness to adopt a new-school approach (build around quarterback's talents) to quarterback development instead of utilizing the traditional method of forcing a young playmaker to master a complex system that isn't necessarily tailored to his game.
In recent years, we've seen Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and Kyler Murray flourish as youngsters in schemes that were specifically designed for their unique games. Although Minshew lacks the name recognition of his contemporaries, he flashed enough pizzazz and playmaking ability in 12 starts to earn the respect of his new offensive coordinator.
"He got drafted in the later rounds and came out, and playing in the National Football League is about taking advantage of your opportunities, and Gardner did that," Gruden said. "He's a shining reason why once the opportunity presents itself, you take advantage of it. He did that, and he's put himself in a great position to take the Jacksonville Jaguars and lead them into the future. He has shown a skillset where he can sit in a pocket, step up, make things happen outside the pocket. He's accurate, he's tough and obviously he's a great leader so he's got the intangibles you want in a quarterback. Now he's got to get to know the team, get to know the offense a little bit so we can all gel together."
Studying the tape from Minshew's rookie season, it is easy to see why the Jaguars' coaching staff is excited about his potential. He effectively toed the line between efficient and explosive while posting the highest passer rating (91.2) and fewest interceptions (6) of any rookie quarterback that started more than five games. He set franchise rookie records for passing yards (3,271) and touchdown passes (21) and guided the Jaguars to a 6-6 record in his starts.
As a rhythm passer with a quick release, Minshew quickly worked through his progressions and consistently put the ball in the hands of the Jaguars' top playmakers. He is comfortable pushing the ball down the field to his vertical pass catchers (D.J. Chark, Chris Conley or Dede Westbrook) or dropping the ball off to his running back (Leonard Fournette) on swings and checkdowns. Minshew's complete command of the offense is uncommon for a rookie, but it enabled the Jaguars to have balanced distribution among their pass-catchers, with four players logging at least 47 receptions.
No. 15's athleticism and improvisational playmaking ability also added a dimension to the Jaguars' offense. He rushed for 344 yards on a variety of impromptu runs, but it was his scramble tosses that helped the unit move the ball in key moments. Minshew's ability to evade, elude and avoid rushers while keeping his eyes on his targets helped the Jaguars generate big plays and score points.
Most importantly, Minshew won games. And he did it running an offense that wasn't built specifically for him.
"I think the biggest thing for that position, and we said it last year, is the ability to win games," Jaguars GM Dave Caldwell said. "And Gardner's done that throughout his career, whether it was high school, whether it was at Washington State where he won 11 games the year he came out, and last year for us. He's got an ability to lead a team and win games. ... That's always going to be the No. 1 thing."
Given a chance to make his mark as a starter with a coordinator intent on building the offense around his game, Minshew could help the Jaguars chalk up more Ws and climb out of the AFC South cellar this season.