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 why nobody should discount the new-look Patriots in this season's Lombardi Trophy chase ...
The mass exodus from New England this offseason has prompted some observers to view the Patriots as also-rans in the AFC, but I would hold off on dismissing the team's chances as a title contender in 2020.
Free agency departures and COVID-19 opt-outs have indeed taken a heavy toll on New England's roster. But despite the losses of Tom Brady, Marcus Cannon and a handful of blue-collar defensive starters (including Dont'a Hightower, Patrick Chung, Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy), the Pats remain a formidable foe due to a defense that shouldn't skip a beat in spite of the attrition. That sentiment might surprise folks expecting the NFL's No. 1 defense to fall apart, but Bill Belichick's D could be even better in 2020 with a cast of young defenders stepping into the new roles.
After taking some time to study the 2019 unit's All-22 Coaches Film, while also digging into my scouting reports on New England's newcomers, here are three reasons why the Pats will once again field an elite defense this season:
1) The Patriots don't need stars to dominate.
Despite the presence of reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, the Patriots' defense is largely a collection of blue-collar guys who thrive in skill-specific roles. As a masterful tactician and evaluator, Belichick has a keen eye for identifying his players' best individual traits and placing them in roles that perfectly suit their talents. And actually, Gilmore is a fine example of this.
Belichick swiped Gilmore from the AFC East rival Bills in free agency back in 2017. He coveted the former No. 10 overall pick's man-to-man cover skills and his high football IQ because they would enable the Patriots coach to return to the Cover 1 scheme that he prefers. Although Gilmore had shown flashes of elite playmaking potential during his time with the Bills, Belichick helped the veteran become a blue-chip defender by putting him in a position to do what he does best as a bump-and-run specialist. He rarely asks the veteran to play zone coverage or sit back and shadow from a distance, which allows Gilmore to focus extensively on perfecting his skills at the line of scrimmage (footwork, jams, trail technique, hash-split recognition and finishing skills). This emphasis on fundamentals and attention to detail has helped Gilmore become a true NFL star, but Belichick's rudimentary approach has also enabled a revolving door of castoffs and misfits succeed as role players in New England.
Van Noy, an early second-round pick of the Lions in 2014, was viewed as a potential bust a few years into his NFL career. Then the Patriots acquired him in a midseason trade in 2016, and he became a critical piece of their championship puzzle after Belichick placed him in a role that enabled him to tap into his versatility as a crafty edge defender with pass-rushing skills. Belichick employed the skills that KVN displayed at BYU to maximize his talents and his contributions to New England's defense, helping the franchise secure a pair of Super Bowl rings during his tenure in Foxborough.
With a new cast of characters poised to take the field in 2020, Belichick will spend the preseason drilling the fundamentals (tackling, pursuit, taking the ball away) and evaluating his players' skills while contemplating ideal roles for every member of the team. Like a handyman determining which tools are necessary for the job, the six-time Super Bowl-winning head coach creates a few different packages and personnel groupings to put his defense in an ideal position to force the opponent to play left-handed in critical moments.
The 2020 Pats' defense might lack the sex appeal and sizzle of some of the other units at the top of the charts, but New England's collection of fundamentally sound, blue-collar defenders will simply get the job done by flying to the football and making solid tackles.
2) The replacements are ready to step up.The Patriots have a handful of young players in the bullpen with the potential to uphold the unit's lofty standards. Over the past three drafts, the team has plucked an assortment of edge defenders, linebackers and safeties ready to step into bigger roles in 2020. The loss of four defensive starters who logged significant defensive snaps -- Van Noy (814 snaps), Collins (813), Hightower (723) and Chung (642) -- makes it imperative for the newbies to quickly settle in and play at a high level.
Chase Winovich and Ja'Whaun Bentley should lead the charge as young players poised to break out. The duo should slide into the starting lineup as playmaking linebackers in the team's hybrid 3-4/4-3 defense. Winovich, in particular, should be ready to contribute as a pass-rush specialist coming off a rookie season in which he tallied 5.5 sacks in just 291 defensive snaps. The high-motor edge defender flashed violent hands and relentless energy pursuing quarterbacks as a sub-package weapon. The Michigan product should add more juice to the defense with his energetic style and playmaking ability. Bentley is ideally suited to take over for Hightower as the signal-caller and interior thumper between the tackles. The 6-foot-2, 255-pounder is a heavy-handed downhill player with outstanding instincts and awareness. He has shown the potential to control the tackle-to-tackle box in limited action, but he must do it over a 16-game stretch as the MIKE linebacker for the Patriots.
The 2020 draft class should supply New England with a number of young role players with the potential to step into the starting lineup by the end of the season. Kyle Dugger, the team's top 2020 pick at No. 37 overall, is a do-it-all safety with playmaking ability and big-time cover skills. He should be the best athlete in the defensive backfield from Day 1 and that explosiveness could prompt Belichick to match him up with tight ends or slot receivers in man coverage.
Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings were drafted in the second and third rounds, respectively, to add some pop and punch to the lineup. Uche is a dynamic athlete with the potential to play as an off-ball linebacker or as a situational edge rusher on passing downs. He has a versatile set of skills that makes him an ideal match for the role vacated by Van Noy. If he quickly acclimates to the pro game, he should upgrade the Patriots' lineup with his speed and athleticism. Jennings is an old-school linebacker with the heavyweight measurements (6-foot-3, 259 pounds) to take on some of the job responsibilities that previously went to Hightower. As a beefy edge defender with a hard-nosed playing style and heavy hands, he can bully blockers on the perimeter against the run. Jennings is a power-based pass rusher with a limited repertoire, but he will collect a handful of clean-up sacks on effort and hustle.
The Patriots' youth and inexperience have some outsiders doubting the defense, but the infusion of athleticism and energy could make the unit more dynamic and versatile this season.
3) New England's defensive simplicity yields big results.The secret sauce to the Patriots' success has been their ability to do simple things well. Belichick doesn't attempt to daze or confuse opponents with complex coverages and exotic blitzes. He opts for a simple scheme that places a premium on execution over trickery.
Studying New England's suffocating defensive effort from 2019, I was amazed by the simplicity of the team's scheme. The Pats are a man-to-man team with a weekly game plan that prominently features man-free coverage (Cover 1). Although Belichick will utilize a few different versions of the coverage, the scheme is essentially a four-man rush with five defenders in man coverage aided by a low-hole defender and a post safety. The low-hole defender could be a linebacker or safety, based on ideal matches, but the premise of the coverage remains the same: The Patriots take away the middle of the field and force opponents to throw the ball outside of the numbers. Those low-percentage throws make it hard for quarterbacks to string together completions, routinely putting the offense behind the chains in key moments. In addition, the sticky coverage eliminates the layups (quick slants, bubble screens and stick routes) that are available in zone and makes opponents earn their yards on every pass attempt.
When I've asked opposing coaches how the Patriots are able to succeed with such a simple coverage scheme, I've had multiple defensive coordinators tell me their attention to detail, discipline and mastery through repetition enable them to win without tricking opponents. The Pats have seen every conceivable tactic from offensive coordinators, and their preparation against the gimmicks gives them a decided advantage on game day. Basically, they know how the offense will attack them by reducing the number of coverages that they employ, and that makes each game come down to simple execution.
With the Patriots committed to playing fundamentally sound football in all areas, it is hard to consistently beat them at their own game. And that won't change with a handful of new players in the lineup.
JAMAL ADAMS TRADE: A title-winning move?
Is Jamal Adams the final piece to the Seahawks' championship puzzle?
That's the question observers around the football world are asking after Seattle acquired the All-Pro safety in a blockbuster trade. The Seahawks shipped a pair of first-round picks, a third-rounder and safety Bradley McDougald to the New York Jets in exchange for the disgruntled playmaker.
The reactions on Twitter scorched the 'Hawks for mortgaging their future for one player, particularly one who doesn't play a marquee position. Most observers view pass rushers and cornerbacks as the essential pieces of a championship defense, based on their ability to directly impact the quarterback. But what if I told you that safeties, particularly box safeties, are undervalued in the team-building process?
Just look around the league for the growing number of hybrid defenders occupying safety/linebacker roles. From Derwin James to Tyrann Mathieu to Adams, you're seeing more teams utilize box safeties as valuable pieces on the chessboard. Creative defensive coordinators are featuring more "big" nickel/dime defensive packages with a couple of defensive backs acting as linebackers to combat the spread offenses and athletic quarterbacks who are dominating the league.
"The strong safety position is becoming more and more important in this game," Pro Football Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian told me on a recent episode of the Move The Sticks podcast. "The more we see the athletic quarterback and the option become a part of the game, which didn't exist five or six years ago, we now have to have a player in the secondary who can either run the alley or play near the line of scrimmage.
"He must be able to cover in zone, cover a slot in man and press a slot, if necessary, and absolutely take the quarterback or pitch and be able to tackle Lamar Jackson or Cam Newton in space in order to play solid defense. ... Now it's 11-on-11, instead of 11-on-10 like it used to be."
The five-time Pro Football Writers of America Executive of the Year brings up great points when discussing the value of a strong safety. The presence of a box defender with enough versatility to make his mark as a run stopper and cover man is a valued commodity. I witnessed it firsthand in 1996, with LeRoy Butler earning first-team All-Pro honors for the Green Bay Packers as hybrid safety/nickel back for the Super Bowl XXXI champions. Butler finished that season with 87 tackles, 6.5 sacks and five interceptions playing in a newly created role by the late Fritz Shurmur. Butler would align as a high safety on early downs, then play near the line of scrimmage on passing downs as a part of a nickel package that featured myriad blitzes, pressures and exotic coverages. The crafty utilization of Butler drove opponents crazy as they were unable to identify him as a potential rusher due to his various alignments and coverage responsibilities in a multi-faceted defense. This creative approach left an impression on me, and I'm sure that it also impacted a young personnel executive in that Green Bay office: John Schneider, the Seahawks GM who just traded for Adams.
With Schneider having watched Butler's dominance in a critical role on a championship team, I'm sure he values the strong safety position more than some team-builders in the league. Schneider witnessed Butler's impact on those mid-1990s Packers teams and likely jotted notes on how a playmaking safety can add a dimension to a defense. He also watched Charles Woodson earn Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2009 as a Swiss Army Knife in Green Bay's secondary. The impact and versatility displayed by Adams, who plays the game more like Butler than Woodson, likely earned him high marks in Seattle's war room when the trade was discussed amongst scouts.
Pete Carroll's undoubtable influence on the trade shouldn't be understated, either, based on his scheme preference and experience with top safeties. Kam Chancellor certainly comes to mind when pondering Adams' potential role with the 'Hawks, but Troy Polamalu could be the veteran coach's point of reference when he looks at Adams. The Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee thrived as a strong safety under Carroll at USC before making his mark as a dynamic playmaker for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The four-time first-team All-Pro and 2010 Defensive Player of the Year obliterated opponents as a box defender. Polamalu harassed quarterbacks on timely blitzes, chased down runners all over the field and made a handful of critical interceptions on instinctive reads on the way to earning a gold jacket for his efforts.
Guess what? Adams has more tackles, sacks and the same number of takeaways as Polamalu piled up through the first three seasons of his career:
Adams through his first three seasons: 273 tackles, 12 sacks, six forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and two interceptions.
Polamalu through his first three seasons: 237 tackles, six sacks, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and seven interceptions.
Adams is the perfect fit in Carroll's scheme, as a box safety in a defense that primarily features single-high coverage. Seattle's run defense was shredded last season, as the 'Hawks attempted to employ more split-safety looks (Cover 2 and Cover 4). In 2020, Seattle will return to the scheme that fueled the team's defensive dominance in the 2010s. Adams will play as the low defender lurking near the line of scrimmage with a variety of responsibilities ranging from blitzing to robbing short crossers to matching up with tight ends and slot receivers. He will impact the game as the Seahawks' designated enforcer and bring back the intimidation that's been missing since Chancellor's retirement.
Sure, the cost of acquiring a blue-chip playmaker entering his prime robs the 'Hawks of valuable draft picks, but the team has traditionally picked in the 20s. And Seattle's recent No. 1 selections (Germain Ifedi, Rashaad Penny and L.J. Collier) haven't exactly set the world on fire anyway.
With Adams poised to give the defense a five-star playmaker to play alongside Bobby Wagner in the middle of the field, the Seahawks' new safety could indeed be the piece that brings another Lombardi Trophy to the Pacific Northwest.
WASHINGTON QB BATTLE: Three-man competition?
The Washington Football Team was expected to hold a quarterback competition between 2019 first-rounder Dwayne Haskins and offseason trade acquisition Kyle Allen for the starting job, but Alex Smith's miraculous return from a life-threatening leg injury could alter Ron Rivera's plans this season.
The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback has been fully cleared by his doctors to resume football activities, but is currently on the active/physically unable to perform list after not passing his team physical earlier this week. Should he prove to Washington's medical staff that he's indeed healthy, he could emerge as the front-runner for the team's QB1 job.
"If [he's cleared], I think this is a guy that becomes part of our equation," Rivera said Tuesday, via Nicki Jhabvala of the Washington Post. "That's the truth of the matter."
Smith -- who can be removed from the PUP list at any time -- still faces long odds to regain his Pro Bowl form after enduring 17 surgeries and a lengthy rehabilitation process from a broken tibia and fibula in his right leg suffered in Week 11 of the 2018 season. But after overcoming such long odds just to put himself in this position, there's certainly reason to believe he'll continue to battle his way back onto the field.
Smith's potential return would come at an opportune time for a franchise seeking to change a losing culture that has included just four playoff berths in the past 20 seasons. With spotty quarterback play and a lack of leadership contributing greatly to the team's overall woes, Smith could be the right guy to resurrect the franchise. The 36-year-old has evolved into a great quarterback with an efficient playing style that consistently produces wins.
Critics will point to his conservative approach as a potential impediment to a team's championship aspirations, but Smith's methods lead to wins, as evidenced by his .680 winning percentage (75-35-1) with three different franchises (San Francisco, Kansas City and Washington) since 2011. His efficient brand of football has led to a 142:48 TD-to-INT ratio and two 100-plus passer rating seasons during that span, including his league-leading 104.7 mark in 2017. And while he's probably not going to lead the league in touchdown passes, Smith does take superb care of the ball (seven straight seasons as a starter with fewer than 10 interceptions) and that gives his team a chance to win each week.
Given all that, it's easy to see why Rivera would give a healthy Smith an opportunity to reclaim his job. The veteran quarterback is not only a five-star leader with a winning pedigree, but he is the perfect mentor to nurture the young quarterbacks in the team's quarterback room. Colin Kaepernick, Patrick Mahomes and Haskins have all cited Smith's willingness to share information and insight as crucial to their individual development and success.
If Smith is healthy and able to return to action, he can also lead by example with his play. Despite the likely loss of some of the athleticism that made him dangerous on the perimeter, he is a versatile playmaker capable of delivering pinpoint passes from inside and outside of the pocket. As a potential threat to scoot out of the backdoor on bootlegs and naked passes, Smith forces defenders to stay home, which opens up the running game. In addition, Smith's outstanding play-action passing skills could enable Washington to exploit overaggressive defenses intent on slowing down Adrian Peterson and Derrius Guice. The veteran thrived with his previous teams when complemented by a strong running game; he could do it again in Washington with a potent ground attack at his disposal.
My optimism for Smith's return hinges on his ability to execute basic football movements without limitations. He must be able to set up in -- and maneuver around -- the pocket without issue. If he can, I'd opt for the less athletic version of Smith over the team's other options thanks to his experience and leadership skills.
THE REAL MVPS: Follow the money ...
The NFL is clearly a passing league, which is why pass rushers are quickly becoming the most valuable players on many teams.
Don't believe me? Just check out the top players based on average annual salary and you'll find eight pass rushers making $20 million or more. Von Miller is sitting just outside the bubble at a little over $19 million per year.
To be fair, pass rushers will never surpass quarterbacks when it comes to importance (or compensation), but the rising salaries reflect how coaches, scouts and executives view pass-rushing defensive tackles and edge defenders. In recent weeks, we've witnessed the Chargers' Joey Bosa (five years, $135 million with $102 million guaranteed), the Browns' Myles Garrett (five years, $125 million with $100 million guaranteed) and the Chiefs' Chris Jones (four years, $85 million with $60 million guaranteed) ink blockbuster deals at rates that were considered "quarterback money" as recently as 2018 (SEE: Jimmy Garoppolo's five-year, $137.5 million deal).
In football, negotiators typically operate under the premise that a player's production and impact must match his compensation when it comes to making deals, which is why sack production, quarterback hits, pressures and overall disruption are valued at a premium in a passing league. Run stoppers have a harder time convincing decision-makers to hand over big checks (SEE: free agent Jadeveon Clowney, who has long been rock solid against the run but has never posted a double-digit sack season and managed just three in 2019). Although winning against the run on early downs sets the table for pass rushers, the game is all about knocking down the quarterback and/or disrupting his rhythm.
The Super Bowl-winning executive also mentioned to me that championship-caliber defenses must have at least two pass rushers, and the elites might put three on the field in critical situations. He told me that the old theory of having a pair of edge rushers has been tweaked to feature an inside and an outside pass rusher on the front line.
"In this day and age, you have to be able to rush from the inside," Polian said. "You can put two F-16s off the edge and it won't make any difference. [The quarterback] will just step up or slide around. You have to have someone to get up under the quarterback's feet.
"No quarterback likes pressure under his feet."
With that mind, it makes sense that we are seeing more pass-rushing defensive tackles crack the top-earners list. Aaron Donald raised the bar when he inked a six-year, $135 million contract in 2018. At the time, that made him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year has cemented his status as a game changer with 72 career sacks (he's recorded at least 11 in four of six seasons), including an NFL-best 20.5 in 2018. He's also posted 173 QB hits and 15 forced fumbles in a half-dozen pro seasons as a destructive force on the inside.
Jones is not quite in Donald's class as a playmaker, but the 6-foot-6, 310-pound defender has tallied 24.5 sacks and 49 QB hits over the past two seasons (29 games), exhibiting dominant pass-rushing traits at the point of attack. The Chiefs' defense relies on his disruption to key a unit that played opportunistic football on the way to claiming the Lombardi Trophy this past February.
As for the deals recently signed by Bosa and Garrett, they're the latest example of teams valuing high-end pass rushers at a premium. Despite coming off just the second season in which he started all 16 games, Bosa signed a record-breaking deal (most guaranteed money for a defensive player) on the strength of an 11.5-sack campaign that earned him his second career Pro Bowl nod. The fifth-year pro has registered 40 career sacks in 51 games. Most importantly, he teams with Melvin Ingram to give the Chargers a pair of blue-chip pass rushers to harass AFC quarterbacks -- including Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes within the division -- all over the field.
Garrett's contract came as a bit of a surprise in the wake of the ugly incident that brought his 2019 season to a premature end. He served a six-game suspension after striking Mason Rudolph with the Steelers QB's own helmet during a dust-up at the end of the rivalry game. This obviously overshadowed the former No. 1 overall pick's second consecutive season with double-digit sacks and his steady improvement as a playmaker. That said, as a premier pass rusher with 30.5 sacks and 65 QB hits in three seasons, Garrett's flashes of brilliance warranted a big payday.
It's another reminder that the league has evolved into a place where evaluators view sack artists as MVP-caliber players in the team-building process. The proof is in the green being committed to Bosa, Garrett and Jones in recent weeks.