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 one quarterback under a blinding spotlight in 2023 ...
The NFL is a year-to-year league in which even the best players must continue proving their worth on an annual basis. In other words, everyone's in the limelight. But with less than a month before the 2023 regular season kicks off, no player is under more pressure to perform than Dak Prescott.
Playing quarterback in Dallas is never an easy job, obviously, but Prescott's burden is especially heavy this season, given the immense expectations surrounding the Cowboys in a top-heavy NFC.
Dak's no stranger to challenging circumstances. After entering the NFL as a fourth-round pick, he was forced to immediately start as a rookie following preseason injuries to Tony Romo and Kellen Moore. Prescott turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of that 2016 campaign, making the Pro Bowl and winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. However, many folks thought his teammate, RB Ezekiel Elliott, was more deserving of OROY honors. And thus began the perpetual questioning of Prescott's actual worth ...
Dak's contract extension became a hot topic of debate for multiple years (and through multiple franchise taggings) before he signed a four-year, $160 million deal in the 2021 offseason. Still, two of his last three seasons have been marred by injuries, and this past year might have been his worst professional campaign, as he tied for the NFL lead with 15 interceptions despite playing in just 12 games.
All of this sets the table for a pressure-packed 2023 campaign, as Dallas aims to end a 27-year Super Bowl drought with a loaded roster featuring blue-chip players at each of the premium positions. Not to mention, head coach Mike McCarthy has taken the play-calling reins on offense, looking to enhance the unit with his Super Bowl-winning experience and expertise. With everything in place for the Cowboys to make a Super Bowl run, it's time for Prescott to prove, once and for all, that he is one of the best at the game's most important position.
Looking at the offensive weapons Dallas has placed around Prescott, he should be able to pick apart opponents utilizing a connect-the-dots approach that emphasizes throwing the ball to the open man. Instead of constantly force-feeding Pro Bowler CeeDee Lamb, the 30-year-old passer should be able to work through his progressions, getting Brandin Cooks (a banner trade acquisition) and Michael Gallup (now a full season removed from knee surgery) consistent touches on rhythm throws within the scheme. McCarthy specializes in building a quarterback-friendly system designed to help his passer string together completions on quick-rhythm throws at short-to-intermediate range. The bevy of high-percentage throws should enable Prescott to operate efficiently while keeping the Cowboys' offense on schedule. In addition, implementing more low-risk plays should help the veteran keep his interception total down.
McCarthy has also been very vocal about operating a more balanced offense. With the ground attack featured more prominently, Prescott should be able to push the ball down the field in the complementary play-action passing game. As Cooks and Gallup find their comfort zone as vertical threats in an offense that will routinely set up deep shots, No. 4 could become a more efficient passer while retaining the explosive element of the offense.
And here's the thing about the offense: It won't have to carry the day, week in and week out. Prescott and Co. will get plenty of help from a defense that yielded the fifth-fewest points last season -- and should be even better in 2023.
Defensively, the Cowboys' dynamic roster features several takeaway specialists at the second and third levels. The March trade for Stephon Gilmore gave Dallas a rock-solid cover corner to line up opposite young stud Trevon Diggs. Gilmore's presence and consistent play could enable defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to utilize aggressive matchup tactics to suffocate some of the premier aerial attacks in the NFC. In addition, Gilmore's experience as an elite CB1 (SEE: five Pro Bowl nods and a Defensive Player of the Year Award over the past seven seasons) could help Diggs become a more consistent cover corner on the island. If the well-paid 24-year-old continues to refine his technique, the sky is the limit. The Cowboys could be one of the few teams featuring multiple true CB1s in the starting lineup in 2023. That's a scary thought, considering what Dallas has on the defensive front.
At the point of attack, Micah Parsons' dominance as a hybrid pass rusher could set the table for a flurry of turnovers off sacks and pressures. Parsons has overwhelmed opponents with his freakish pass-rushing skills, logging 26.5 sacks in his first two seasons, and he's just beginning to expand his repertoire of moves. With No. 11 commanding significant attention as a bona fide Defensive Player of the Year candidate, veteran end Demarcus Lawrence could re-emerge as a destructive force in a complementary pass-rushing role.
Long story short, it wouldn't be surprising to see Dallas field the top defense in the game this season, with a ferocious group that's poised to pile up turnovers once again under Quinn. Consequently, the Cowboys' offense should have the opportunity to exploit favorable field position and put up points in bunches. Dak could definitely surpass his career high of 37 touchdown passes. In fact, he could be poised to enjoy the most productive season of his career, which could further bloat his bank account. With two years left on his contract and an enormous cap figure of $59,455,000 in 2024, Prescott would appear primed for an extension next offseason.
Of course, prolific regular-season numbers will ring hollow if Dak doesn't supplement them with some postseason Ws. Prescott owns a 2-4 record in the playoffs, having never guided Dallas beyond the Divisional Round.
This leads us back to the crux of this Notebook topper: No player is under more pressure to perform in 2023 than Dak Prescott. Will he deliver?
The truth about Eric Bieniemy's intensity
If you want to win in the NFL, you must get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Despite coaches sharing that sentiment with players across the league for years, it appears some of the Washington Commanders did not get the memo. Their overreaction to Eric Bieniemy's aggressive personality and coaching style suggests the team might not be ready to rise from mediocrity.
Before I go on, let me establish one thing: I do not like coaches who just yell and scream for the sake of yelling and screaming. Back in my playing days, I had difficulty deciphering a coach's message if it was part of a profanity-laced tirade that lacked rhyme or reason. Moreover, if the tone overshadowed the message, I admittedly tended to check out during the conversation and failed to fully grasp the teaching point.
That said, over the course of my career, I spent time with some of the best -- and most vocal -- teachers in the game. Their edgy personalities enabled them to challenge and confront players when the effort and performance were not up to the standard. The late Marty Schottenheimer and Tom Coughlin certainly had no issue with making loud corrections in group environments. Each believed in setting and maintaining championship standards, refusing to allow a mistake to go unnoticed. Although their stern lectures might have rubbed some players the wrong way, the emphasis on accountability and attention to detail helped many of their teams play championship-caliber football. Through clear and detailed conversations, each coach was able to deliver the instructions or corrections that were needed to improve performance. As I matured throughout my playing career -- and definitely when I began my current journey as a high school coach -- I really grew to appreciate the intent behind their methods. These legendary coaches were being demanding, not demeaning -- and it took some time for me to understand the difference.
In Washington, the Commanders are apparently bristling over their new offensive coordinator's approach. Asked earlier this week whether some players have privately expressed concerns over Bieniemy's coaching tactics, head coach Ron Rivera provided a surprisingly candid answer.
"Yeah, they have," Rivera said Tuesday. "And one of the biggest things is -- I had a number of guys come to me and I said, 'Hey, just go talk to him.' I said, 'Understand what he's trying to get across to you.' I think as they go and they talk and they listen to him, it's been enlightening for a lot of these guys.
"I mean, it's a whole different approach. Again, you're getting a different kind of player from the players back in the past, especially in light of how things are coming out of college football. So a lot of these young guys, they do struggle with certain things and a lot of it ... is from where they've been. I mean, guys coming from certain programs are used to it. Guys coming from other programs aren't as much. So, us as a coach, I kind of have to assimilate and get a feel for everybody. Eric has an approach and it's the way he does things and it's not going to change because he believes in it."
While I understand that receiving hard coaching can be an unpleasant experience, the players are out of line for asking Rivera to step in, especially this early in training camp. The players have not even had a chance to see if there is a method to Bieniemy's madness; immediately questioning his approach is a bad look. If the Commanders are unwilling to accept brutally honest feedback from a man with serious accomplishments as a player (All-American running back and national champion at Colorado before becoming a second-round pick and spending nine years in the NFL) and coach (two-time Super Bowl champion as Kansas City's offensive coordinator), they will never realize their potential. And Bieniemy knows this.
"First of all, one thing I am, I'm an open book and I always invite players in," Bieniemy said Tuesday. "But also, too, as I've gone through this process, yes, I am intense. One thing they do appreciate is this: I'm always going to be up-front and I'm always going to be honest.
"Just like I stated when I first got here: We've all got to get uncomfortable to get comfortable. There's some new demands and expectations that I expect. I expect us to be the team that we're supposed to be. It's not gonna be easy, and everybody ain't gonna like the process. But when it's all said and done with, my job is to make sure that we're doing it the right way.
"There's a way to do it. Now, do they understand that? Yes, 'cause they're seeing the results. Will everybody buy in? I believe so. But if not, it's OK, because you know what? My No. 1 job is to help take these guys to another level, and I can see it. Because when you think about where we started in the spring to where we are right now, we're making a lot of strides. I'm proud of these guys. It's been some -- excuse my language -- some good s--- to watch."
Rivera tried to clean up this situation on Wednesday, saying his initial comments "took on a different life" than intended, but the cat is out of the bag. And I believe it is on the players -- not Bieniemy -- to adjust. Just ask superstars like Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill, both of whom spoke out this week, lauding their former coach's teaching style. Considering the offensive coordinator's considerable accomplishments in the game, he knows what it takes to succeed at the highest level.
Seahawks bringing back the Boom
It's not hard to imagine Pete Carroll experiencing déjà vu these days when observing his secondary. Seattle general manager John Schneider and the wily head coach have assembled an enticing defensive backfield that could remind the football world of an illustrious group from the Seahawks' recent vintage: The Legion of Boom.
That revered secondary -- originally comprised of cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor -- suffocated opponents in the back end of a top-rated defense that fueled a pair of Super Bowl trips in Seattle, with the Seahawks corralling the franchise's lone Lombardi Trophy in the 2013 campaign.
While I am not ready to proclaim Seattle's 2023 secondary the Legion of Boom 2.0, the pieces are certainly in place for the group to emerge as a major piece of the championship puzzle for Carroll and Co., thanks largely to the Seahawks' savvy CB drafting of late.
Tariq Woolen immediately emerged last season as one of the biggest steals of the 2022 NFL Draft. Selected midway through the fifth round (No. 153 overall), the UTSA product tied for the league lead with six interceptions, capping off a revelatory rookie season with a trip to the Pro Bowl. With extraordinary size (6-foot-4, 33 5/8-inch arms), world-class speed (4.26 40-yard dash) and NBA bounce (42-inch vertical leap), Woolen is a physical freak at the position. Whether utilizing his superior length to stonewall receivers at the line or relying on his wheels to shadow wideouts down the field, Woolen makes it hard for quarterbacks to squeeze balls into tight windows. When it comes to what Carroll typically looks for at the position, Woolen's built in a lab. And he wasn't the only Day 3 CB find for Seattle in last year's draft.
In fact, 44 picks before selecting Woolen, the Seahawks nabbed fourth-rounder Coby Bryant, who won the 2021 Jim Thorpe Award lining up across from Sauce Gardner at Cincinnati. Playing all 17 games (six starts) as a rookie, Bryant mostly manned the nickel, filling up the stat sheet with 70 tackles, four passes defensed, four forced fumbles, four quarterback hits and two sacks. This year, Bryant has added safety duties to his job title as the Seahawks attempt to build a position-less secondary with the capacity to match up with any style of offense or personnel grouping trotted out by the league's creative offensive play-callers. The 6-1, 193-pounder can handle slot receivers and flex tight ends in space as a hybrid safety with corner coverage skills. Bryant's presence in the defensive backfield could enable the Seahawks to play more matchup man-to-man concepts where corners travel with their assignments. And Seattle's first pick in this past April's draft only furthered the rationale for this hypothetical approach.
The Seahawks' selection of Devon Witherspoon at No. 5 overall took many by surprise, not only because Seattle hadn't drafted a corner in the first round since 2006 (Kelly Jennings), but because the Illinois star doesn't provide the length typically associated with Carroll cover men. Don't let Witherspoon's sub-6-foot frame fool you, though -- the 22-year-old plays with an edge. He's a versatile cover corner who can thrive in man or zone, utilizing various techniques to get the job done. And although his arm length (31 1/4 inches) doesn't fit Seattle's prototype at the position, Witherspoon's talent, toughness and tenacity absolutely fit the culture of the Seahawks' defensive room. The rookie missed Seattle's preseason opener against Minnesota on Thursday night with hamstring issue, but the injury doesn't appear to be serious.
With Woolen, Bryant and Witherspoon, the 'Hawks boast a fine trio of young cornerbacks to match up with the three-receiver sets offenses run throughout the league. And that's not all! Michael Jackson (a 17-game starter for the Seahawks in 2022) and Tre Brown give Seattle enviable depth at the position.
So, how about safety?
Quandre Diggs has been an absolute rock for the Seahawks since arriving in a trade with the Lions midway through the 2019 campaign. Acquired for the bargain price of a fifth-round pick (with Seattle also receiving a seventh-rounder in the deal), Diggs has been a Pro Bowler in each of the past three seasons, starting every game and nabbing 14 picks in the process. Obviously, the deal has been a smashing success for Schneider. But it's a whole different story with the other safety spot.
In Jamal Adams, the Seahawks have one of the biggest wild cards in the league today. Back in the summer of 2020, Schneider sent the Jets a loaded trade package that included two first-round picks in order to procure Adams' services. The safety provided immediate returns in 2020, earning second-team All-Pro honors while leading the 'Hawks with 9.5 sacks, but he's been marred by injuries in Seattle, still rehabbing the torn quad tendon that basically cost him the entire 2022 campaign. We'll have to see how he looks upon his return to action, and where he fits into this defense. More box-safety work -- or even a potential move to a quasi-linebacker role -- could give Seattle a dynamic dime package that matches up with big personnel or spread packages. Given Adams' well-established pass-rushing skills, the former top-10 pick could play as the run stopper in the box or as the add-on rusher on five- and six-man pressures. But even if Adams struggles to return to his old form, the Seahawks have insurance.
Largely lost in the shuffle of the free agency frenzy, Seattle's signing of former Giant Julian Love was a wise move. The fifth-year pro is a hybrid nickel defender with a mix of cornerback and safety skills, enabling him to play multiple roles in the defensive backfield. Love can align anywhere from the post to the slot, or in the box to take advantage of favorable matchups. As we all wait to see what Adams offers upon return, Love's versatility should help defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt throw various looks at quarterbacks to disrupt their rhythm and timing within the pocket.
All in all, this is a deep and talented secondary with a great mix of youth and experience. With the original Legion of Boom providing the blueprint, the Seahawks' secondary could spark the defense's return to the ranks of the elite in 2023 -- and inherently lift Seattle back to true-contender status.
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