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:
-- Who could be NFL Ohtani? Five players with two-way potential.
-- Why one of the NFL's best corners could indeed switch positions at some point.
-- An emerging trend in team-building.
But first, a look at one head coach who NEEDS success in 2021 ...
With the Chicago Bears reporting to Halas Hall for training camp on July 27, the clock is ticking for Matt Nagy. Heading into Year 4 on the job, the 43-year-old coach faces immense pressure to produce in the Windy City.
Despite never posting a losing record and snagging a couple of playoff bids, the Bears' head man is on the hot seat after logging a 16-16 mark over the past two seasons with an offense that has regressed dramatically in this span. While Nagy's 12-4 group from 2018 boasted the No. 9 scoring offense, those Bears ranked just 21st in total offense. And Chicago hasn't cracked the top 20 in either metric during each of the past two seasons. The unit's lackluster output has put the spotlight squarely on Nagy, particularly given the failures of Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles at quarterback. The duo's shortcomings have tarnished Nagy's reputation as a quarterback developer, fueling speculation that this season could be the coach's last in Chicago if the Bears don't flip the script on offense. And Nagy knows it.
"I think what we've put together -- (general manager) Ryan Pace has done such an amazing job of building the last three years -- this roster that we have, we have a lot of depth," Nagy said told NBC Sports Chicago's Kenneth Davis on the Under Center Podcast. "And so now to be able to have the time to put together, we feel like we're going to have a great opportunity offensively to do what we need to do. The time is now, we know that, and we're looking forward to it. You can't live in the past. And that's not what we're going to do. I refuse to allow that to happen. This is a new season, and so we got a fresh start. So let's see what we can do with it."
While Nagy is taking the "new year, new me" approach that many of us employ at the beginning of each calendar year, significant questions remain about whether he is able to jump-start an offense behind either a journeyman or a rookie at quarterback. Although Nagy and Co. have repeatedly stated that Andy Dalton is the starter, let's be real here: It's only a matter of time before Justin Fields finds his way into the lineup.
The Bears, of course, made an aggressive draft-day trade to secure Fields' services, giving up valuable draft capital to jump up from No. 20 to No. 11 overall. The Ohio State product is a multi-faceted playmaker with a combination of size, athleticism and arm talent to create problems for opposing defenses. Fields' dual-threat potential would not only enhance the Bears' 25th-ranked running game, but it should create more one-on-one opportunities in the passing game for Allen Robinson and others on the perimeter.
That said, the Bears must make a greater commitment to running the football, regardless of who's under center. With a defense that could experience a resurgence under new coordinator Sean Desai, Nagy needs to control the game with the offense. Leaning on the ground attack will enable the Bears to chew up the clock, as well as dictate defensive fronts and coverages, while also minimizing the turnover risk from the quarterback. Moreover, a renewed commitment to the run game puts the ball in the hands of one of their best players, third-year RB David Montgomery. The 24-year-old posted the first 1,000-yard rushing season of his career in 2020, amassing 1,508 total yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns on 301 touches. Montgomery's 16.5 carries per game ranked fourth in the NFL, leaving him behind just Derrick Henry (23.6), Dalvin Cook (22.3) and Josh Jacobs (18.2). But Nagy wants more.
"Depending on what the game is, what's happened the last couple years and why some of David's carries -- which aren't low -- haven't been quite as high is a lot of guys get it in to four-minute mode in the fourth quarter," Nagy said on the Under Center Podcast. "That's where they can get those extra four or five carries, which can bump them into the top five, you know, with 20 rushes a game. That's our goal."
Nagy's point is certainly valid, based on the offense's inability to jump out to early leads and force opponents to play from behind. To score quickly in the game's opening stages, most teams throw the ball around the yard to their top pass catchers. Despite Robinson amassing 200 catches, 2,397 passing yards and 13 touchdowns over the past two seasons, inconsistent play at the quarterback position prevented Chicago from completely maximizing him as a star WR1. It's on Nagy to come up with creative ways to get the ball to an elite pass catcher who'll be looking to boost his earning potential while playing on the franchise tag. It's also on Nagy to make sure Robinson's hard feelings toward the organization -- the receiver felt disrespected during lengthy, fruitless contract negotiations -- don't bleed onto the field of play.
Nagy must navigate a tricky offensive situation this fall, with uncertainty at quarterback, an underutilized running back and an unhappy pass catcher, but he knows Bears fans won't allow any excuses in the coming season.
"You just, you gotta win. I think that's what we love about the fans in Chicago is they're extremely passionate. They care so much about their Chicago Bears," Nagy said on the Under Center pod. "They want to win. And that's why I'm here, and trust me, I embrace it. I wouldn't want it no other way."
You want it, you got it: This is a make-or-break season for Nagy in Chicago.
THE OHTANI FACTOR: NFL's potential two-way stars
The 2021 MLB All-Star Game provided casual fans with an opportunity to check out a transcendent two-way talent. Shohei Ohtani served as the starting pitcher and leadoff hitter for the American League. Historic stuff for the Angels ace ... who also happens to lead the majors with 33 home runs. With his dual dominance invoking references to Babe Ruth, Ohtani is fueling greater appreciation for versatile athletes with the ability to impact a sport in a variety of ways.
In the NFL, we rarely see true two-way players. But Ohtani's success inspired me to explore which players could successfully pull double-duty in the league. After poring over my past scouting reports and popping on a little tape, I've come up with five guys who have the potential to shine as two-way all-stars in today's game:
The 2019 NFL MVP is a unique athlete with the speed, quickness and agility to shine at any skill position on the field. The football world has already seen Lamar revolutionize the quarterback position, as the first NFL signal-caller to post back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Considering he also boasts a 30-7 record with a 68:18 TD-to-INT ratio and 102.6 career passer rating, Jackson is clearly established as a blue-chip playmaker at the position. That said, I believe Jackson could've been a Pro Bowl wide receiver or defensive back if he'd opted to play one of those positions in the NFL. Video clips of the Ravens' QB1 playing sandlot football likely make team officials cringe with fear of injury, but they showcase the tools he could use to become an explosive wide receiver or lockdown corner. In a league that covets speed and athleticism, Jackson's five-star ability would make him a star anywhere on the field.
It has been a few years since we watched Jack scoot down the sidelines as a running back for the UCLA Bruins, but the veteran could reprise that role as a pro. Jack's two-way talents were widely discussed in meeting rooms around the league prior to the 2016 NFL Draft, with some scouts viewing the 6-foot-1, 244-pounder as an enticing running back prospect. Given an opportunity to shine as a versatile playmaker, Jack could make waves a two-way stud for the Jaguars.
While injuries limited the three-time Defensive Player of the Year's opportunities to contribute as an offensive playmaker at the end of his run with Texans, Watt still has a 75 percent catch rate and three touchdown receptions on his NFL résumé. I, for one, would love to see the Cardinals give the 6-5, 288-pounder some snaps at tight end this season. It's not like Arizona's roster is loaded with established players at the position, and Watt also spent a year playing tight end in college. If Kliff Kingsbury needs an extra TE for his jumbo sets near the goal line, he should ask No. 99 to pull double duty.
The Michigan product was a football decathlete as a collegian, with a versatile game that enabled him to play a variety of positions as a three-way player (offense, defense and special teams). Peppers' explosiveness as a returner prompted some scouts to suggest that running back would be his most natural position in the NFL. The fifth-year pro flashes big-play skills as a defender and punt returner (12.4-yard average over the past two years with the Giants), but he could offer Big Blue more bang for the buck as a designated offensive weapon and/or third-down specialist. Fresh off a season in which New York finished 31st in scoring and total offense, maybe Joe Judge and Co. should look to get the ball in this guy's hands more often.
It is hard to imagine a 6-4, 347-pounder toting the rock, but Vea was a high school running back possessing jaw-dropping agility, balance and body control with the ball in his hands. He displayed "make you miss" ability in space, while also predictably overwhelming defenders as a bruiser between the tackles. Vea logged some goal-line snaps as a fullback for the Bucs back in 2019 -- and actually caught a touchdown pass! Gimme some more of that, Bruce Arians and Bryon Leftwich. How about handing the ball to a mammoth tailback on some short-yardage/goal-line situations?
JALEN RAMSEY: The next Charles Woodson?
If I'm Rams head coach Sean McVay or general manager Les Snead, I love hearing Jalen Ramsey discuss his openness to following 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Charles Woodson's blueprint for becoming one of the greatest defensive backs to ever play in the NFL.
Ramsey, a four-time Pro Bowl cornerback, recently joined the "Million Dollaz Worth of Game" podcast to discuss various football topics, including the possibility of an eventual move to safety, the shift Woodson made late in his career. While Ramsey made it clear that he loves playing CB right now, he also said he'd have no problem moving to safety down the road.
"I like Charles because, even though I say Deion (Sanders) is the best corner to play the game, Charles is the best defensive back to play the game because he played multiple positions in the secondary. He played corner, he played safety, he played nickel. He did a bunch of different stuff and he affected the game in so many different ways," Ramsey said. "Me coming to L.A., that's kind of the role that I started to be in. I'm still on the edges, on the corner the majority of the time, but here and there, they're starting to let me be me a little bit more. Mix it in, playing a little bit of nickel. And then at some point in my career, if it takes me there to safety, I would want to do that, as well. I want to have a mix of all."
Some observers might bristle at the notion of an All-Pro cornerback lining up at different spots in his prime, but I believe playing multiple positions in the defensive backfield would enable Ramsey to show off a diversified game that could lead to a gold jacket of his own one day. Yes, that is lofty praise for a player entering his sixth season, but I do believe a Swiss Army knife-like role could help the veteran go from great to legendary as a defensive back.
As a DB with the Raiders in the late 1990s, I watched defensive coordinator Willie Shaw push Woodson toward greatness by giving him a bigger role and more responsibility heading into his second season. The wily coach moved the young playmaker around the defensive backfield to keep his mind stimulated while also increasing his opportunities to be around the action.
As I studied Ramsey in the Rams defense coordinated by Brandon Staley (now the Chargers' head coach) last season, I thought the decision to utilize him in a variety of roles, including at the star position, not only maximized his potential but enabled him to showcase his leadership skills and communication ability. Ramsey was able to play out wide or in the slot (career-high 169 snaps from the slot) based on the matchup and coverage calls. In addition, the Rams utilized the veteran as a free safety and near the line of scrimmage on a handful of designed blitzes.
"He's a very complete player -- size, speed are critical factors for the position," Staley said on Jan. 5. "He's an outstanding open-field tackler. He can play man-to-man, from bump and off. He can play the ball in the deep part of the field. He's got position flexibility. He's got a mind that allows him to play different positions and play them at a high level. He's as fierce of a competitor as you're going to find."
The Rams' creative utilization of Ramsey matches how I envisioned him being featured as a pro during the lead up to the 2016 draft, when I likened Ramsey to -- yep, you guessed it -- Charles Woodson.
With Ramsey already enjoying success as a hybrid defender and expressing a willingness to follow the path that helped Woodson prolong his career and earn legendary status, don't be surprised if the Rams star one day enters the G.O.A.T. conversation as a secondary defender.
NFL TREND: The rising cost of right tackles
The recent megadeals handed out to Ryan Ramczyk and Taylor Moton signal a significant shift in the way right tackles are viewed in the NFL. The league's pass-happiness has made it essential for elite offenses to feature two bookend tackles with superb pass-blocking skills. Thus, the days of right tackles being viewed as second-class citizens by evaluators and team builders are coming to an end.
While the left tackle spot has always been considered a marquee position, given the importance of protecting a right-handed quarterback's blind side, the trend of defensive coordinators aligning premier pass rushers at left defensive end (SEE: Khalil Mack, Von Miller, and Chandler Jones, among others) has made it imperative to feature a more athletic and skilled blocker at RT.
Lane Johnson has been viewed as the gold standard at the position, with an ultra-athletic game that reflects his evolution from high school quarterback to offensive tackle at Oklahoma. The three-time Pro Bowler shadowboxes premier pass rushers like a world champion fighter with knockout power. The Eagles recognized and rewarded Johnson for his stellar play with a four-year, $72 million extension in 2019 that set the bar for elite right tackles at $18 million annually.
Ramczyk recently upped the ante with a five-year, $96 million deal that rewards his status as a platinum member of the right tackle club. The stalwart has allowed just 10 sacks and 10 QB hits since 2017, per Pro Football Focus, while displaying a blue-chip game as a run and pass blocker. He's the most complete player at the position today. And Ramczyk's average salary of $19.2 million per year closes the gap between left and right tackles on the priority sheet.
Moton is an unheralded name to many fans, but scouts -- particularly those with the Panthers -- respect his game. The fifth-year pro was the only tackle with zero QB hits allowed among qualified players with 450-plus pass-protection snaps in 2020, per PFF. In addition, Moton is one of just four offensive tackles with 3,000-plus offensive snaps since 2018, allowing just 10 sacks during that span. Although his game still needs some polish, the 26-year-old's consistency, reliability and availability made it easier for the Panthers to lock him up as a franchise player. The former second-round pick has made 48 straight starts as a dependable starter facing stiffer competition off the edges. As a reward, the Panthers handed him a four-year, $71.25 million contract that includes $43 million in guaranteed dollars -- third-most among right tackles and seventh-most among all tackles -- with a $17.8 million average that puts him right behind Johnson as the third-highest-paid right tackle.
With right tackles receiving money that places them near the $20 million club, the league is fully acknowledging the importance of having a blue-chip player on the quarterback's front side.