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 one young quarterback who could benefit greatly from his new coaching staff ...
The Chicago Bears have been on the hunt for a true franchise quarterback since the days of Jim McMahon. Although the spunky signal-caller didn't light up the league as a passer, he helped the franchise bring home its only Lombardi Trophy with his swagger and timely playmaking.
Since No. 9 exited stage, though, the Bears' roster has featured a revolving door at the game's most important position.
Last year, Chicago traded up to select Justin Fields with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, hoping the Ohio State standout could finally provide a solution to a perpetual problem. The 6-foot-3, 228-pound dual-threat with 4.4 speed was expected to jump-start the team's offense with his arm talent and athleticism. Consequently, the Bears were expected to feature a scheme that would maximize his potential as a thrower/runner on the perimeter. However, Matt Nagy never appeared to have a plan that matched his new quarterback's enticing skill set. After Fields struggled through his rookie season -- going 2-8 as a starter, with a 7:10 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 73.2 passer rating on the season -- Nagy received his walking papers. Suddenly, the storied franchise and the would-be franchise quarterback were back to square one.
Enter new head coach Matt Eberflus and offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, and in my opinion, the Windy City should be buzzing about Fields' chances of making a quantum leap in his development this fall.
Yes, I'm well aware of the question marks at wide receiver beyond Darnell Mooney, and I know Chicago's offensive line leaves much to be desired. But the increasing chorus of Bears doubters continues to overlook the new offensive system that could fit Fields like a glove -- something that could spark a surprising revival in Chicago.
I know that sounds crazy, based on what we've seen from the Bears lately. But Getsy, who spent the past three seasons as Matt LaFleur's quarterbacks coach in Green Bay, is installing a Shanahan style of offense that should help Fields become a more efficient passer from the pocket and out on the perimeter. With the system featuring a variety of stretch-bootleg concepts (outside run and naked passing game), Fields' athleticism and efficient passing skills should shine in an attack that caters to his strengths.
Fields has shown ability as a passer on the move. In fact, he thrived in limited play-action work last season, completing 33 of his 53 passes for 491 yards and two touchdowns (against zero interceptions). That all equaled a 105.1 passer rating in this area. And in the Shanahan system, the movement passes routinely feature layered concepts (short, intermediate and deep) with half-field reads, allowing young quarterbacks to put their best foot forward. A combination of misdirection and deception could lead to more explosive plays from Fields, both as a downfield thrower and electric runner.
RB David Montgomery is one of Chicago's more talented players, and he's in a contract year. If Chicago can establish a credible running game built on the outside zone -- with Fields' athleticism forcing back-side defenders to stay at home to defend the bootleg -- opponents could find themselves shorthanded on the second level when defending deep crossing routes and flood concepts. The Bears' offensive roster might look pedestrian on paper, but the combination of this system and Fields' unique talent could put immense pressure on opposing defenses. Remember, this scheme has allowed athletic quarterbacks like John Elway, Steve Young and Aaron Rodgers to put defenses in a bind by utilizing their arm talent and athleticism on a variety of conflict plays. Although Fields clearly has yet to earn mention in the same breath as those all-time QBs, he's undoubtedly a gifted athlete with the tools to excel in the system.
Eberflus, whose background is on the defensive side of the ball, knows his quarterback has the kind of raw dual-threat ability that can be a nightmare to defend.
"The deep ball and then the ability to run with the ball. I think those things stretch you," Eberflus said to reporters back in May. "So when you get stretched vertically and horizontally like that, it always causes stressors on a defense. It doesn't matter what kind of style you're running."
With Getsy implementing a system that has helped turn average players into Pro Bowlers (SEE: Kirk Cousins and Jared Goff) and Pro Bowlers into MVPs (Aaron Rodgers), this marriage between player, play caller and scheme should bode well for the Bears' offensive attack.
That said, Chicago must get key contributions from some unheralded playmakers to make the scheme go. The receiving corps already looked thin before N'Keal Harry and Byron Pringle were sidelined by injury. Fields will need to elevate his supporting cast with pinpoint throws into tight windows.
In addition, the Bears need their patchwork offensive line to win with the smoke-and-mirrors approach that is a part of the Shanahan scheme. The zone-based blocking enables O-linemen to work in unison, as they are assigned to stymie defenders on their designated tracks. This enables teams to win at the line of scrimmage with lesser guys -- if they are all on the same page.
Most people don't expect much from the Bears this season. In fact, our resident Power Ranker, Dan Hanzus, just dropped Chicago to dead last in his updated NFL pecking order. But contrary to popular opinion, I believe this team could be a pleasant surprise in 2022, with a young quarterback playing in a system that suits his skills. Fields has the tools to be a star, and Getsy could help him make a major leap in Year 2.
Most talented teams in 2022? My top five
The toughest job facing scouts and executives around the league is maintaining their focus on building a true team, instead of just scooping up shiny objects. Although it takes elite players to realize championship dreams, the pieces must fit together nicely -- like a jigsaw puzzle -- for the organization to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
With the preseason kicking off in earnest this week, I thought this was the perfect time to examine every team in the league and determine which have assembled the most loaded rosters. After digging into the tape and making a few phone calls, here are my top five most talented teams.
If rings were handed out to the teams with the best rosters, the Chargers would be golden in 2022. General manager Tom Telesco and head coach Brandon Staley have built a championship-caliber roster with blue-chip players in each of the marquee spots in the lineup. From the quarterback (Justin Herbert) to the offensive playmakers (Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Austin Ekeler) to the blind-side protector (Rashawn Slater) to the pass rushers (Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack) to the cover guys (Derwin James and J.C. Jackson), the Chargers have put together a lineup that is capable of going toe to toe with the heavyweights at home or on the road. If a few of their unheralded players pop in 2022, the confetti could fall on the Bolts' shoulders at the end of the season.
The loss of Sean Payton is significant, but a loaded roster could help the Saints overcome the absence of an offensive wizard on the sidelines. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. has plenty of weapons at his disposal, with Jarvis Landry and Chris Olave joining a lineup that features an elite No. 1 receiver (Michael Thomas) and an all-world playmaker out of the backfield (Alvin Kamara). With the additional benefit of a beefy offensive line that batters and bruises opponents, Jameis Winston is set up for success; he just needs to take care of the football. Defensively, the Saints are a star-studded group with five-star playmakers on each level. From Cam Jordan to Demario Davis to Marshon Lattimore to Tyrann Mathieu, New Orleans features dominant playmakers all over the field. The combination of a high-powered offense and a disruptive defense should make the Saints a problem in the NFC.
The team's top-heavy strategy has certainly paid off for Sean McVay and Co. The Rams have elite players surrounded by key signings and productive blue-collar guys drafted in the mid-to-late rounds. With Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, Bobby Wagner, Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp setting the standard -- while guys like Leonard Floyd, Troy Hill, Cam Akers, Allen Robinson, Tyler Higbee fill in their respective roles -- the defending champions should continue to chase rings for years to come.
Despite losing an All-Pro receiver (Davante Adams), the Packers remain one of the heavyweights in the league. From their four-time MVP at quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) to their star-studded defense loaded with former first-rounders (Kenny Clark, Rashan Gary, Jaire Alexander, Darnell Savage and Eric Stokes), the Pack boast a collection of blue-chippers with the individual and collective talent to overwhelm the opposition. And the backfield duo of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon is one of the league's very best. This team has won 13 games in each of the past three regular seasons, and I don't see much of a drop-off coming in 2022. Green Bay should once again be right in the mix for the top seed in the NFC.
With or without Deshaun Watson, the Browns are talented enough to make a postseason run. The team is loaded in the trenches with blue-chip talents on the offensive (Joel Bitonio, Wyatt Teller and Jack Conklin) and defensive lines (Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney). The backfield features a pair of Pro Bowl-caliber runners (Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt) with the ability to excel as ground-and-pound specialists behind the monstrous front line. (Of course, Cleveland needs to smooth things over with Hunt, who recently asked for a trade.) The Browns' second and third levels on defense feature multiple playmakers with all-star-caliber skills (Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Denzel Ward and John Johnson III).
Camp trend: The allure of joint practices
If you are wondering why some of your favorite players are not playing in preseason games, it might be because they participated in a joint-practice session earlier in the week. More teams are treating the sessions (when one team travels to another's location to practice together) like exhibition games to help their players prepare for the regular season. Although speed and intensity are greater in a game than they are in a competitive practice, it seems coaches prefer the controlled environment of a joint practice when it is time to get the No. 1 unit a little work. In fact, next week alone, 16 teams -- half of the league's squads -- are scheduled to participate in joint practices.
With referees instructed to utilize a quick whistle on joint-practice plays in which the quarterback is in harm's way, coaches can reduce the risk of injury to the most important person on most rosters. The passer still gets to throw from a muddy pocket, but doesn't have to worry as much about taking a big hit when the protection falters. Thus, the coach can see him maneuver around the fallen trees while also testing his instincts, anticipation and accuracy against defenders with the speed, quickness and athleticism to shrink the passing windows down the field.
The benefits of joint practices extend far beyond the quarterback position. The trench warriors (offensive and defensive linemen) get a chance to test their skills in energized 9-on-7 periods. In addition, defensive backs have an opportunity to face receivers who aren't their teammates in one-on-one drills and seven-on-seven periods.
In competitive team drills, coaches have an opportunity to pit their No. 1s against the opponent's starters while operating under a "thud" tempo (tacklers can hit ball-carriers, but they are not supposed to take them to the ground). The intensity is ratcheted up when NFL players line up across from true opponents, even in a practice setting. These sessions give coaches a chance to conduct extensive evaluations in an environment that should reduce the injury risk compared to that of a preseason game.
"I've always felt like you get more out of those joint practices than you do the actual preseason game," Jets coach Robert Saleh said around this time a year ago. "It's just different because it's a more controlled environment. You're not exposing yourself to being tackled or having to tackle, and you can get a lot of work in with it, where it's a little bit more structured in terms of situations. A lot more things can happen.
"And you're getting a really good view of the players."
Given each team's obvious goal of reaching the regular season with every blue-chip player available for action, the opportunity to get quality work done in a controlled, highly competitive setting is a win-win scenario for coaches across the league.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter.
NFL+ gives you the freedom to watch LIVE out-of-market preseason games, LIVE local and prime-time regular-season and postseason games on your phone or tablet, the best NFL programming on-demand and more! Wherever you are, this is how you football! Learn more about NFL+.