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 five prospects who could go No. 1 overall in this month's draft ...
Who is No. 1?
With less than a month remaining before the 2022 NFL Draft kicks off, the scouting community does not know which player sits atop the Jacksonville Jaguars' board. After selecting Trevor Lawrence with last year's No. 1 overall pick, Jacksonville is out of the quarterback market. And without a five-star signal-caller headlining this year's prospect crop, the Jags are unlikely to find an eager trade partner to auction off the pick for additional draft capital. The lukewarm interest in the QB class is accompanied by a lack of consensus among evaluators on who is the best overall prospect in this year. Still, the football world is attempting to play matchmaker by determining which player makes the most sense for Jacksonville.
Looking at the Jaguars' offseason moves, it is hard to get a clear read on their draft plan. The team retained Cam Robinson via a franchise tag that could eventually lead to a long-term deal. That means Lawrence has immediate protection on the blind side, while a competition between Jawaan Taylor and Walker Little could determine who mans right tackle. And with Brandon Scherff signed to a hefty deal in free agency to play right guard, the Jags' offensive line is in better shape. But all of that does not preclude the team from selecting a blue-chip offensive tackle with the first overall pick, at least according to new head coach Doug Pederson.
"As it pertains to the draft, that's kind of its own separate deal right now," Pederson just told reporters at the NFL's Annual Meeting. "I'm sure we're going to have more depth (offensive tackle) at that position. You can never have enough offensive linemen."
Perhaps Pederson is attempting to entice a team in the market for an offensive tackle to move into the No. 1 spot. But while the Super Bowl-winning head coach won't tip his hand on the Jags' plan, he has already given us some information about the team's criteria for a player under consideration as a top pick.
"For an offensive lineman there, there's got to be a 'wow' factor," Pederson told reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine, per The Sporting News. "You've got to be able to see that ('wow' factor) on film. They've got to be special in some way -- size, athleticism, play style, the tape, all of it."
Earlier this week, the Jaguars coach talked about what he wants in a QB hunter.
"When you look at pass rushers, they can put their hand in the ground ... they can stand up in a two-point stance ... they can slide down to a three-technique and five-technique ... and they're multiple in nature," Pederson said, per SI.com. "It's kind of like offensive linemen ... You want a tackle that can maybe play guard or guard that can move in and play center, you know, so you have that position flexibility, because you're going to need those guys to maybe play a different position as the season goes, as injuries begin to kind of pile up towards the end of the year."
Versatility is certainly a big part of the NFL game, with defensive coordinators utilizing a variety of packages to attack quarterbacks and match up with the spread formations and hybrid personnel groups that are creating headaches around the league. At the line of scrimmage, in particular, defensive play-callers are finding more ways to create opportunities for explosive pass rushers.
Given the breadcrumbs that Pederson has dropped on the path to the draft, I believe this is the perfect time to take a closer look at the candidates who could be in play for the Jaguars at No. 1. Without a consensus on the best player in the draft, the board is wide open, and Pederson has some strong candidates to consider, based on their talent and potential.
Here are the five names that could be called first at the end of this month:
There aren't many 6-foot-4, 310-pounders walking the Earth with the tools that Ekwonu puts on display between the lines. As a monstrous edge blocker with long arms and a nasty disposition, the N.C. State standout acts like a nightclub bouncer throwing out unruly patrons. He mauls defenders at the line of scrimmage in the run game; his exceptional finishing skills really stand out on tape. Ekwonu is a bully on the edges, and his nasty temperament is a culture setter for the O-line room. While he remains a work in progress as a technician, it is hard to bypass an exceptional athlete (SEE: 4.93-second 40-yard dash) with ideal dimensions. In a league that still views offensive tackle as a marquee position, Ekwonu's dominance on the edges and overall potential make him a worthy candidate to go No. 1 overall.
Despite his top-notch athleticism, Hutchinson is a blue-collar worker on the edges with a non-stop motor and flawless technique. The Heisman Trophy runner-up not only wears down opponents with his relentless effort and activity, but also understands how to set up and sequence his moves to win on critical downs. Hutchinson finished his Michigan career with 18.5 sacks and 28 tackles for loss, but most of his production was registered during his final season (14 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss). That significant statistical jump makes him a bit of a "one-year wonder," and the naysayers wonder if he can put up big numbers against elite offensive tackles after watching his underwhelming performance against Georgia in the College Football Playoff.
The 6-7, 337-pounder is a rare find as a gigantic edge blocker with quick feet and outstanding athleticism. Neal's length, versatility and technical skills make him an intriguing option for any team seeking a franchise player with the capacity to play on the blind side or front side, while also showing solid skills as an interior blocker. The Alabama product utilizes outstanding hand skills and technique to stymie explosive pass rushers in their tracks. Although he can get out of whack with his footwork against shifty defenders, Neal adjusts quickly to consistently dominate his opponents on the edges. Critics have suggested that he has likely reached his ceiling as a rock-solid player with a polished game, but some coaches prefer a consistent performer over a more talented "flasher" in the starting lineup. Neal will enter the NFL as a Day 1 starter with all-star potential.
The highly celebrated five-star recruit lived up to the hype as a disruptive force for the Ducks. Thibodeaux dazzles evaluators with explosive first-step quickness and outstanding snap-count anticipation. The 6-4, 254-pounder pounces off the ball like a cat and utilizes a variety of speed-rush maneuvers to blow past blockers on the way to the quarterback. Although he has never registered double-digit sacks in a single season, he finished his Oregon career with 19 sacks, 35.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles in 32 games. Critics will suggest that Thibodeaux’s superior athleticism and tools should have led to even more production, pointing to his inconsistent motor and questionable focus as reasons he didn’t take over more games. That said, it is hard to handle elite quickness off the edge, and Thibodeaux’s natural skills as a speed rusher could make him a high-impact pro from Day 1.
The fastest riser on draft boards around the league is a possible No. 1 overall pick due to his potential more than his production. Walker's combination of size, speed and athleticism has captivated the imagination of NFL defensive coaches. At 6-5, 272 pounds, with extraordinary testing numbers (4.51 40-yard dash, 35.5-inch vertical leap, 10-3 broad jump, 6.89 three-cone), the Georgia product is a five-star athlete with the tools to develop into a blue-chip playmaker at the line of scrimmage. Although Walker’s production (9.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss) over three seasons in Athens might seem underwhelming, the NFL scouting community is willing to gamble on his upside based on his freakish athleticism and flashes as an effective inside pass rusher. However, taking him first overall would come with the expectation that he performs like a top-five pass rusher early in his career. And based on his college résumé, it's hard to see that level of play right away.
Is Kyle Hamilton a top-10 talent?
Ignoring the noise is one of the biggest challenges evaluators face in the pre-draft process. The sports world is flooded with hype and chatter about football prospects at this time of year, but the best scouts stick to their judgments based on film study and character assessment.
With that in mind, I believe the Kyle Hamilton eval will become a case study for general managers and scouts around the league.
Early on in the 2021 college season, the Notre Dame standout was widely viewed as a top-five prospect across media draft boards. As a versatile safety with center fielder range and linebacker thump, Hamilton turned heads as an impact defender with the potential to create splash plays all over the field. Count me as one of the evaluators who expected him to cement himself as one of the true elites in this draft class, based on his on-field performance, statistical production and physical dimensions (6-4, 220 pounds). Unfortunately, a knee injury ultimately limited him to just seven games in 2021. Even so, the unique size/skill combo kept the hype train rolling into 2022. But then Hamilton raised eyebrows with a pedestrian 4.59-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. And concerns mounted when some scouts had him in the low 4.7s at the Notre Dame pro day.
With the draft now just weeks away, there's speculation that Hamilton's stock might not be as high as initially perceived. The fact that his position, safety, doesn't typically produce high first-rounders only furthers this notion.
So, what's the deal with Hamilton? How serious are the concerns surrounding his underwhelming 40 times? Well, here's what I see in the Notre Dame safety ...
Hamilton uses that rare size to his advantage as an absolute hammer near the line of scrimmage. He nails runners in the hole, and his physicality shows up whenever you study the tape. This would lead you to believe he's built to play like a box defender in an old-school, Cover 3 scheme. But then again, as a pass defender, Hamilton offers enticing dimensions and range. He's able to play from the middle of the field to the numbers as a deep safety in single-high schemes. From his anticipation and range to his sticky hands and playmaking skills, Hamilton is a natural ballhawk, logging eight interceptions in two-and-a-half seasons of work at Notre Dame.
That said, ball skills and turnover production aren't usually enough from a safety to warrant consideration as a top-10 pick. Hamilton must be able to impact the game as a pass rusher, too. After studying the tape, I believe there is more than enough evidence to entice NFL coaches to expand Hamilton's role and responsibilities as a playmaker. The super-sized safety flashes outstanding instincts and timing as a pass rusher while attacking the pocket on blitzes. Although he failed to register a sack during his collegiate career, Hamilton's athleticism, physicality and effort could allow him to flourish as an extra rusher from the second level in the NFL.
Long story short: There is a LOT to like here.
As a former scout, I understand the challenge of selling a head coach on a safety with disappointing 40 times in a league built on speed. But Hamilton's combine jumps -- 38 inches in the vertical, 10-11 in the broad -- showcase explosiveness. Not to mention, his tape is outstanding -- and the game is played in pads and a helmet, not shorts and a T-shirt. If you trust your eyes and the traits that consistently appear throughout the tape study, you go with the grade that was originally jotted down in the notebook before Hamilton ran the 40.
If Hamilton is judged by his on-field merits as a player and off-field evaluation as a person, he is unquestionably a top-10 talent and blue-chip prospect with Day 1 impact potential. However, the NFL draft is a beauty pageant, so some scouts will have a hard time ignoring the kind of 40 times that make evaluators question what they have witnessed on tape.
Todd Bowles to maximize second chance?
It is uncommon for a second-time head coach to step into a job with a legitimate chance of winning a Lombardi Trophy right away. But with Bruce Arians transitioning to the front office, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have given Arians' former player and defensive architect a chance to correct his lopsided head-coaching record and chase a ring with a loaded roster headlined by a seven-time Super Bowl champion quarterback.
In handing the reins to Todd Bowles, the Buccaneers are hoping their new head coach has learned from the past to become an elite leader and team-builder. While some fans will scoff at the notion of a sub-.500 coach (24-40 in four years with the New York Jets) evolving into a championship-caliber head man, the Bucs' new leader should be able to parlay his success as a defensive coordinator into better results this time around.
As a savage defensive play-caller with an aggressive scheme that masks his unit's deficiencies, Bowles displays a tactical acumen and awareness that will serve him well as the leader of the team. The former NFL safety-turned-defensive coordinator tweaks and adjusts his approach to put his players in position to succeed despite their flaws. As Tampa Bay's DC, Bowles utilized clever zone pressure tactics to reduce the route trees that his inexperienced cornerbacks were tasked with stopping. Not to mention, he overhauled his defensive strategy ahead of Super Bowl LV to stunningly stifle the defending champion Chiefs. Simply put, Bowles has demonstrated an ability to make quick adjustments on the fly to help his players thrive.
In addition, Bowles has shown he can successfully get his best players to play A+ football when it counts. Look no further than Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul delivering All-Pro-worthy performances during the team's Super Bowl run. The quick development of Devin White and Antoine Winfield Jr. also suggests Bowles understands how to help young players excel in their roles despite their inexperience.
Considering the constant turnover that NFL rosters experience annually, Bowles' developmental success could help the Buccaneers fill in the gaps on a Super Bowl-caliber roster that will need tweaking down the road.
Looking at the biggest challenge that lies ahead for Bowles in his new role, he must figure out how to get his offense to perform better than his units in New York did. Sure, it helps to have Tom Brady directing the show, but the former defensive coordinator must clearly convey his vision for how the team needs to play to ensure Tampa Bay executes the kind of complementary football that is needed to win the biggest games.
If Brady supports Bowles' efforts to build a foundation that pays great attention to detail, the rest of the team will fall in line and the transition should be a seamless process despite the change in leadership.