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 team suddenly thrust onto center stage ...
What do you get when you combine a Super Bowl-winning head coach with a Super Bowl-winning quarterback? Inquiring minds in Denver are dying to know. According to Sean Payton, though, Broncos fans can expect a return to the postseason for the first time since Denver won the franchise's third Lombardi Trophy at the end of the 2015 campaign.
"I'm going to be pissed off if this is not a playoff team," Payton recently told Jarrett Bell of USA Today.
That, of course, wasn't the only notable quote from the widely disseminated USA Today piece. Payton took a massive shot at his predecessor in Denver, Nathaniel Hackett, calling the ex-head coach's 15-game stint with the Broncos "one of the worst coaching jobs in the history of the NFL." Payton's blistering criticism of the 2022 Broncos -- which extended beyond Hackett to "everybody else who watched it all happen" -- made serious waves across the NFL world, prompting a mea culpa from Denver's new coach one day after the article was published. But the toothpaste is out of the tube -- and the spotlight is now squarely on what Payton can accomplish in his debut season with the Broncos.
After just the second season of 12-plus losses in Denver's franchise history, can Payton truly orchestrate an immediate turnaround that ends the NFL's second-longest active playoff drought (seven years, trailing only the New York Jets' 12-season dry spell)? That answer, to be sure, largely revolves around how Payton jibes with his new quarterback.
Russell Wilson is coming off the most disappointing season of his professional life, having posted career lows in completion percentage (60.5), passer rating (84.4) and passing touchdowns (16). He looked nothing like the nine-time Pro Bowler who helped guide Seattle to the playoffs eight times. Now, to be clear, Hackett did appear to be in over his head in the big chair. The longtime offensive assistant looked overwhelmed by the responsibilities of managing a team while crafting an offense around a mobile playmaker who performs at his best when utilizing play-action and movement-based throws. But Russ wasn't blameless in the brutal campaign that saw Denver (5-12) finish dead last in scoring.
Enter Payton, who's widely considered one of the greatest offensive minds in football, and the intrigue around Denver was palpable long before the coach's headline-grabbing comments. Furthering the fascination: Payton's previous success in New Orleans with quarterback Drew Brees. When the legendary pair first linked up, Brees was coming off a severe shoulder injury, leading to serious questions about his football future. Moreover, Brees was still trying to crack the elite ranks after an up-and-down five-year tenure with the Chargers. Under Payton's watchful eye, Brees became one of the most prolific passers in NFL history, helping the Saints win their only Lombardi Trophy. Although Brees and Wilson possess different playing styles, the smashing success of that reclamation project in New Orleans could prompt the wily offensive architect to follow a similar blueprint in Denver.
In New Orleans, Payton surrounded Brees with a monstrous offensive line that excelled at moving defenders off the ball while providing an impenetrable pocket around the quarterback. Furthermore, the Saints relied on a grind-it-out running game sparked by a committee of backs who churned out yardage on an assortment of off-tackle runs that bludgeoned opponents over 60 minutes. Payton complemented the sturdy running game with an efficient aerial attack that featured high-completion passes directed to big-bodied pass catchers and speedsters on the perimeter.
From where I stand, it appears the Broncos have attempted to follow the script by first retooling an offensive line that struggled a season ago. The team surrendered an NFL-high 63 sacks in 2022, allowing defenders to treat Wilson like a piñata in the pocket. To reverse the trend, Payton added RT Mike McGlinchey and LG Ben Powers to a lineup anchored by Garett Bolles, the veteran LT who missed most of last season with a broken leg. With the unit aiming to maul and mash defenders in the running game, Wilson could thrive within a system that utilizes more play-action passes and bootlegs to accentuate his strengths as a mobile playmaker.
In addition to the upgraded personnel along the front line, Denver welcomes back bruising back Javonte Williams, who tore up his knee in Week 4 of last season. The third-year pro has shown serious promise as a physical RB1 when healthy, and his surprisingly quick return to action will enable Payton to build a punishing rushing offense around Wilson. The Broncos also signed an accomplished fullback in Michael Burton, who'll blow open holes in two-back sets. With free-agent addition Samaje Perine also adding some power and pop as a rugged runner in the rotation, the Broncos should see great improvement from last year's 21st-ranked ground game.
In the aerial attack, the Broncos have enough firepower to stretch defenses, even with another crushing season-ending injury for Tim Patrick. Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy have Pro Bowl-caliber games with complementary skills that diversify the Broncos' aerial attack. A big-bodied pass catcher in the mold of former Saints stud Marques Colston, Sutton could thrive between the hashes as a big slot in some packages. Jeudy is the spectacular route runner who could emerge as a true WR1 in Payton's scheme. The offensive wizard could utilize the former No. 15 overall pick as the chess piece to create mismatches all over the field. If rookie second-rounder Marvin Mims acclimates to the pro game as a crafty speedster with big-play potential, the Broncos have a trio of pass catchers with the skills to elevate Wilson as a playmaker.
With Payton poised to utilize the first half of the season as an evaluation period that enables him to tweak the system to accentuate Wilson's game, the 34-year-old quarterback could regain his swagger as he sparks a resurgence in the Mile High City that cements his legacy as a player and Payton's reputation as the ultimate offensive guru.
One thing's for sure: In the wake of Payton's candid commentary on the 2022 Broncos, the spotlight will shine extra bright on the 2023 Broncos, for better or worse.
The Chiefs' next star receiver?
If you haven't yet caught the buzz around Kansas City Chiefs WR Justyn Ross, let me introduce you to an offseason hype bunny who could take the NFL by storm in 2023.
Measuring 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds with long arms and big hands, Ross is a ball magnet who has the potential to dominate on the perimeter as a vertical playmaker/jump-ball specialist. The second-year pro has been going viral on social-media platforms with a dazzling array of acrobatic catches showcasing his ability to win contested balls.
Ross demonstrated similar star-making flashes last offseason after signing with the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent -- but then foot surgery wiped out his rookie campaign. Now he's earning rave reviews from coaches and players -- in part for how he bounced back from his lost season.
"Yeah, he's doing good. It was a redshirt year he probably didn't want to have," head coach Andy Reid said on Wednesday. "But he's done a nice job, he had a good offseason, and then he's worked his tail off here. He just needs to keep doing that. It's how you answer the bell every day and push through it, but he's got the right mindset to do that."
Initially a four-star recruit from Phenix City, Alabama, Ross immediately became a dominant playmaker for Clemson. He finished his freshman campaign with 1,000 receiving yards and an eye-popping average of 21.7 yards per catch, revealing his big-play potential on the perimeter. Ross combined for 301 receiving yards and three touchdowns in blowout wins against Notre Dame and Alabama in a historic College Football Playoff run that introduced the extra-large playmaker to a wider audience.
A fine sophomore season (865 receiving yards and eight scores) cemented his status as a blue-chip prospect, with Ross being well-regarded in scouting circles. And then a diagnosis of Klippel-Feil syndrome, a congenital spinal condition, derailed his collegiate career; Ross had surgery and missed the 2020 season. Despite posting solid numbers (46 catches, 514 yards and three scores) in his senior season while battling through a foot injury that eventually required surgery, the big-bodied playmaker went through the 2022 draft without hearing his name called.
Ross' opportunity to learn during his time away from the action in Year 1 seems to have helped him hit the ground running in Year 2.
"Yeah, he's had a good offseason]," [Patrick Mahomes said of Ross. "(He is) learning the offense fast -- you can tell he's been in the offense for a year now. Obviously, making big plays, he's getting more and more involved in those first-team reps, and so (he's) a guy that I have a lot of hope for that he can be a really good player in this offense."
While discussing Ross on Path to the Draft last year, I highlighted Ross' size, catch radius and proven ability to perform on the big stage, and I still believe in those traits. Considering how Reid (with his creative play designs) and Mahomes (with his spectacular ability) can elevate playmakers, Ross is in a perfect spot to emerge as a difference-maker for a team that would benefit from the presence of a steady WR1 who can complement tight end Travis Kelce in the passing game.
Don't overlook the Flores-infused Vikings
Minnesota's defense has fallen into utter disrepair in recent years, as evidenced by the Vikings' last three finishes in yards allowed: 27th in 2020, 30th in 2021 and 31st last season. This has led to plenty of personnel turnover; just this offseason, Minnesota parted ways with longtime franchise stalwart Eric Kendricks, as well as established veterans like Patrick Peterson, Za'Darius Smith and Dalvin Tomlinson. The overall ineptitude on that side of the ball has prompted many to dismiss the Vikes as serious contenders, regardless of the fact that they're fresh off a 13-4 campaign.
Despite all the shoddy play and roster attrition, though, the defense could flip the script in 2023 thanks to one significant addition to the coaching staff. With Brian Flores replacing Ed Donatell as defensive coordinator, I believe Minnesota can indeed be right in the mix as a conference dark horse. The reigning NFC North champions have been completely overshadowed by their division foes this offseason, but the Vikings' ability to create chaos on defense under Flores should enable the team to continue to win the one-score games that ultimately make or break an NFL season.
As a clever defensive architect with a bright mind and adaptable scheme, Flores has routinely confused offensive coordinators around the league with his aggressive pressure tactics. As the defensive play-caller for the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins, Flores used pre-snap disguises and post-snap bluff-and-bail tactics to befuddle offensive play-callers and quarterbacks. His vaunted Cover 0 scheme has produced countless sleepless nights for offensive staffs ill-equipped to deal with the constant mental and physical stresses created by the scheme. Whether it is the offensive line attempting to identify would-be rushers or quarterbacks trying to determine if defenders are playing man or zone, the constant chaos has enabled Flores to maximize the talent of his rosters while minimizing some of the deficiencies.
In Minnesota, the hybrid scheme must accentuate a pass rush with only one truly established presence (Danielle Hunter, who just agreed to a new one-year deal with the team) while creating opportunities for intriguing athletes with the tools to get it done off the edge (most prominently, free-agent addition Marcus Davenport). In addition, the multiplicity of the Vikings' pressure tactics could result in LB Jordan Hicks and S Harrison Smith producing splash plays.
Although the lack of experience in the defensive backfield could prevent Flores from fully attacking offenses with wild blitz tactics, the group (headlined by Byron Murphy Jr., Mekhi Blackmon, Camryn Bynum, Akayleb Evans and Smith) features the collective football IQ and versatility to play various techniques to challenge the aptitude of quarterbacks attempting to diagnose the scheme on the fly. Moreover, the group's intelligence could allow Flores to push the envelope with exotic disguises and pressure packages that disrupt the flow and rhythm of the offense.
Flores definitely has a type when he's building his defense.
"Tough, smart, disciplined and physical," Flores said during his introductory press conference back in February. "I'm big on versatility -- guys being able to play multiple spots. And in order to do that, you've gotta get them coached up in those multiple spots."
After watching the defense work as a unit while covering Vikings camp for NFL Network's Back Together Weekend, I can tell you that it is easy to see why Flores' schemes create headaches for opponents. From the constant movement and steady pressure to the attention to detail and fundamentals, Flores' charges play hard, fast and physical, from snap to whistle.
Minnesota's defense became a huge thorn in the franchise's side over the past few years, but now the Vikings have a new architect who can craft game plans that overwhelm opponents. Assuming Kevin O'Connell, Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson and Co. hold up their end of the bargain on offense, Minnesota cannot be discounted in a top-heavy NFC.