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 the changing financial landscape of a long-underappreciated position ...
The NFL is beginning to truly recognize top safeties as marquee players, prompting one thought:
It's about time!
Despite some narratives floated on Twitter about the position's inferior status, the escalating value of the safety market signals a philosophical shift in war rooms across the league. Decision-makers are not only handing over big checks to ballhawks, but they're beginning to really covet box-area defenders with a variety of skills. Look no further than Budda Baker.
The Arizona Cardinals' made waves this week by signing the fourth-year safety to a four-year, $59 million extension. Over his first three seasons, the talented 24-year-old racked up 301 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and 14 passes defensed -- but zero interceptions. Not a single pick in 46 games, yet the guy just became the highest-paid safety in NFL history with an average annual salary of $14.75 million. Old-school team-builders will look askance at a safety without premier ball skills or ridiculous takeaway numbers cashing in, but Baker's versatility as a hybrid defender is what new-school coaches and executives crave at the position.
The Pro Bowler ranked among the league leaders in solo tackles last season, occupying a variety of roles as a second-level defender. According to Next Gen Stats, Baker played 647 snaps at safety, 174 at outside linebacker, 39 at inside linebacker, 31 as an edge defender, 12 at left corner and 10 at right corner. Talk about a Swiss Army knife!
On the Move The Sticks podcast, Daniel Jeremiah and I have frequently discussed how the league is trending toward position-less football on defense. More defensive coordinators are featuring hybrid players in multi-faceted roles to neutralize the dynamic athletes playing tight end, running back and quarterback. The dual-threat QB, in particular, has prompted more teams to deploy a chameleon in the box with the capacity to blitz, cover and contain near the line of scrimmage. Five-time Pro Football Writers of America Executive of the Year Bill Polian underscored this to me in a recent episode of Move The Sticks. The Hall of Famer pointed out the importance of having a box safety in the lineup with the ability to blitz off the edge and track quarterbacks down in the open field. With electric playmakers like reigning MVP Lamar Jackson running option plays, the presence of an athletic safety with A+ tackling ability is crucial to building a championship-caliber defense.
Baker's deal not only reflects that emerging trend, but it opens the door for stud safeties like Jamal Adams and Derwin James -- both still on their rookie contracts -- to absolutely break the bank in the near future. Box safeties are no longer viewed or compensated differently from ballhawks or traditional center fielders. Team-builders can cast safeties into separate subgroups, but their overall impact will ultimately determine their value. When it comes to the top-five highest-paid safeties in the NFL today, the list now features a mix of ballhawks (Eddie Jackson and Kevin Byard) and box-area hybrids (Baker, Landon Collins and Tyrann Mathieu).
Baker's historic deal further paves the way for a new breed of safeties to get PAID when it's time to sit down at the negotiating table.
DINK AND DUNK
Cardinals cranking up the pace. Kliff Kingsbury is back to his old tricks, with the Cardinals practicing at warp speed in training camp. The former college coach is embracing the up-tempo, no-huddle approach that netted him a top-20 offense in all six of his seasons as Texas Tech's head coach. I love this move, given the NFL's lack of an offseason program and abbreviated training camp in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The frenetic pace will test the stamina, endurance and conditioning of defenders, while also taxing their minds. This constant stress on opposing defenses leads to mental miscues due to fatigue and blown assignments from communication errors.
Moreover, the utilization of tempo forces defensive coordinators to use more vanilla schemes. That simplification should enable Kyler Murray to play in attack mode, with the young quarterback easily identifying and exploiting basic blitzes and coverage. This should lead to a more efficient performance from the 2019 Offensive Rookie of the Year, which is a scary thought for opponents of the second-year player, considering he's fresh off a debut season in which he eclipsed 3,700 pass yards and 500 rush yards.
With the rapid pace creating more reps in practice for an offense brimming with big-play potential, Kingsbury's approach could help the Cardinals get off to a fast start when the season opens.
The Gurley plan. Dirk Koetter's proposed usage plan for Todd Gurley should be music to the ears of Falcons fans. The veteran offensive coordinator aims to give the two-time first-team All-Pro 15-to-25 touches a week as part of a game plan to energize an underachieving offense that averaged just 23.8 points per game in 2019 despite having a former MVP at quarterback and multiple five-star playmakers on the perimeter (SEE: Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley).
Although there are concerns about whether Gurley's knee can hold up with a heavy workload, the Falcons' commitment to feeding him the ball is sensible based on his potential impact on the offense. Since Gurley entered the league in 2015, his teams are 21-1 when he finishes the game with at least 20 touches. Moreover, his teams are undefeated (12-0) when he totals 25-plus touches in a game.
As a dynamic playmaker with a slashing running style, soft hands and polished receiving skills, Gurley is a three-down back capable of "100-plus" production (scrimmage yards) when healthy. The sixth-year pro is a scoring machine with an efficient track record for getting the ball into the paint (64 red-zone scores on 259 red-zone touches over 73 career games). In today's shootout league, Gurley's scoring prowess not only adds pop to the Falcons' offense, but it could help them re-emerge as serious contenders in the NFC.
Rosen realism. I love Josh Rosen's mentality heading into his third season as a pro. The Miami Dolphins' presumptive QB3, behind Ryan Fitzpatrick and rookie Tua Tagovailoa, is focusing on improving his overall game, as opposed to getting caught up in the rat race.
"Maybe my mindset will change in some point in the future, but I'm not really focused as much on winning a job as I am just getting better," Rosen said, via ESPN. "I was drafted in the first round, and I think people around the league still think I can play to a certain extent. Whenever that opportunity comes, wherever it comes, I just want to be prepared for it. Because they're few and far between. I didn't do great with the two I already had. Not many people get third chances. I'm definitely going to seize the opportunity when it comes."
As a former No. 10 overall pick, Rosen will likely get another bite of the apple, based on his pedigree and lofty draft status, but he will need to make the most of it or he could be destined for a career as a lifelong backup.
Despite his prototypical size (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) and natural arm talent, Rosen is an inconsistent passer with a 54.8 percent career completion rate, as well as a 12:19 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 3-13 record as a starter. Those numbers don't exactly scream future QB1, but his physical attributes and an improved mentality could make him a more consistent player in the right situation. It's hard to envision Rosen getting another chance in Miami, given the current state of the Dolphins' QB room, but hats off to the 23-year-old for his clear-eyed preparation to relaunch his career.
1) Jerick McKinnon: His time to shine has arrived. Two seasons have passed since the San Francisco 49ers inked Jerick McKinnon to a four-year, $30 million deal to be their RB1, and it looks like the team is finally about to get a return on its investment.
After missing the entire 2018 season with an ACL tear, McKinnon suffered a setback in his recovery last August that cost him all of the 2019 campaign, too. However, after restructuring his deal in March to stay with the Niners, McKinnon has looked "phenomenal" in training camp, according to teammate Kyle Juszczyk. Head coach Kyle Shanahan is counting on the 28-year-old to be a major contributor this season.
"We brought 'Jet' here for a reason a few years ago," Shanahan said during a recent interview on KNBR's Tolbert, Krueger & Brooks show. "And we went into that year thinking about adding a receiver in free agency. All the receivers out there, we didn't really think fit the role of what they were all getting paid.
"And we thought there was a running back who, at the time, we thought could come in here and be our starting running back, but more importantly, be a guy that we got the ball to a lot in the pass game."
In 2017 (his final season with the Minnesota Vikings), McKinnon tallied 991 scrimmage yards (570 rushing, 421 receiving) with five touchdowns. Reviewing the All-22 Coaches Film from that season, the veteran runner displayed quick feet and a shifty running style that perfectly fits the 49ers' zone-based scheme. McKinnon wastes little time getting to and through the hole, and his outstanding stop-start quickness makes him tough to corral when he reaches the second level.
Although he flashes enough wiggle, bounce and scoot to handle duties as a workhorse runner, he's at his best when featured as a playmaker in the aerial attack. As a pass catcher, McKinnon not only shows soft hands and natural ball skills but he is an exceptional route runner with outstanding poise and patience setting up defenders at the top of his breaks. The 5-9, 205-pounder has a refined set of skills that would make him a dangerous weapon from the backfield, slot or out wide in a creative passing game. In addition, his patience, hands and open-field running ability could make him a big-play threat as the feature back in the screen game.
The 49ers did rank second in the league in rushing (and points scored) last season with McKinnon sidelined, and that should have the team's fans excited. He still will be competing against Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman for snaps, but that gives the Niners enviable depth at the position. With McKinnon re-emerging as a highlight playmaker in camp while shaking off the rust, Shanahan has another weapon to add to an already-explosive offensive lineup.
2) Eagles offense: Fear the birds' attack! The most difficult offenses for defenses to stop are the ones loaded with explosive playmakers who have complementary skills that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.
Enter the Eagles, who have assembled a 12 personnel package (1 RB, 2 TEs and 2 WRs) that could create headaches for defensive coordinators around the league. The two-tight end set featuring Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, with DeSean Jackson and Jalen Reagor at receiver and Miles Sanders at running back, has 40-burger potential. The quintet not only features speed at every position but each player is an interchangeable part with the capacity to play multiple roles in the game plan. For instance, Ertz and Goedert are really jumbo receivers with the size, athleticism and pass-catching skills to torment linebackers or defensive backs in space. Both are capable of playing in the slot or out wide in spread or empty sets.
Jackson and Reagor, the team's first-round pick in this year's draft, are speedsters with big-play potential as vertical stretch receivers or as catch-and-run specialists working from the slot on bubble screens and crossing routes. Sanders completes the puzzle as an electric jitterbug with playmaking ability as a runner and receiver.
The plethora of options at Doug Pederson's disposal is apparent when you study the All-22 Coaches Film. The Eagles can create mismatches all over the field with their clever formations and personnel deployment. Moreover, they can play chess against defensive coordinators with their spread and empty formations.
"We can get mismatches on the field no matter what," Goedert said, via the team's official website. "If they play base (personnel), it's either going to be a safety and a linebacker on us or if we get both safeties (in coverage), the running back gets a linebacker (in a matchup) and there's nobody deep for DeSean. So being able to have us both, if they put in nickel (an extra cornerback), we can run the ball. And then they're short in the run game. There are so many different things that we can do, so many things that both of us bring to the table and we can cause a little bit of nightmares for defensive coordinators."
I have to agree with the third-year tight end's sentiments. The interchangeability of the Eagles' 12 personnel package will create migraines for defensive coaches around the league. And with Pederson expressing optimism about Pro Bowl wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (foot surgery) returning to the lineup in the near future, the team's shape-shifting package in two-TE sets could soon get another boost.
The Bolts upgraded at QB by letting a legend walk. The Los Angeles Chargers are a better team with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback. This statement isn't a slight to the team's QB1 of the future, rookie Justin Herbert, but it is an acknowledgment that the understated veteran is a significant improvement over his predecessor at the position, Philip Rivers. Despite Rivers' Hall of Fame-worthy resume, his gunslinger approach and reckless playing style prevented the Bolts from reaching their potential last season.
With the silly mistakes and careless turnovers (23 giveaways), Rivers' suspect ball security played a major role in the Chargers' 2-9 record in games decided by seven points or fewer in 2019. Taylor is on the opposite end of the spectrum as a steady QB with a conservative playing style. He has 25 giveaways (20 interceptions, five fumbles lost) in his nine-year career (46 starts) with an interception percentage (1.5%) that ranks as one of the lowest in NFL history.
Sure, he might miss out on some of the big plays Rivers -- who signed with the Colts this offseason after 16 years with the Chargers -- was able to convert by taking chances, but given the impact of turnovers on the outcome of games, I believe Taylor's ability to take care of the ball makes him a better fit for a Los Angeles team looking to get back into the playoffs after a highly disappointing 5-11 season.