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 the one division with a four-way tie for first place ...
The NFL regular season has reached the quarter mark, and longtime football observers are having a difficult time distinguishing contenders from pretenders.
Separation is hard to find in the current standings, with week-to-week consistency scarce. This is only Year 2 of the reduced, three-game preseason, and starters are taking fewer live game snaps with each passing August. Maybe this is leading to more mistakes, miscues and management errors in the opening stretch of the regular season. Whatever the case, Tom Brady is right: We have watched a lot of bad football over the past month, including Thursday night's stinker between the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos.
At the moment, the NFL is rife with mediocre teams attempting to find their identities and winning formulas. In fact, we came into this week with a whopping 15 teams at 2-2, the most such teams through Week 4 of a season in NFL history. And four of those squads reside in one division.
In the NFC West, every team enters this weekend in first place. The division crown -- which has been held by three different teams in the past three seasons, with the Cardinals last reigning supreme in 2015 -- is up for grabs, as each team sits at 2-2. Four perfectly mediocre, .500 marks. So, is the glass half full or half empty? Let's take a closer look at each squad and see if we can separate the wheat from the chaff.
GLASS HALF FULL: Kyler Murray is a dynamic playmaker with the capacity to overcome less-than-ideal circumstances to help the Cardinals win games. Operating without his WR1 during DeAndre Hopkins' six-game suspension, Murray has managed to keep the team afloat despite some faulty game plans that have forced him to play sandlot football for extended stretches. If Arizona can develop a more consistent running game that enables Kliff Kingsbury to utilize an increasingly balanced offensive approach, the Bird Gang has enough firepower to overtake its rivals as the top team in the division.
GLASS HALF EMPTY: Arizona's slow starts put an immense amount of pressure on defensive coordinator Vance Joseph to call the perfect game. The Cardinals have been outscored 66-16 in the first half this season. The lack of offensive production forces Arizona's defense to bring pressure early and often to keep opponents on their heels. Although the blitz-heavy tactics have been effective at times, the Cards do not want to live and die by the blitz against the top-tier quarterbacks remaining on the schedule. The secondary will eventually be exposed, with big plays putting the team behind the eight ball. With the offense sputtering and stalling, the high-risk, high-reward defensive tactics could backfire and leave Arizona on the outside looking in at the playoff field.
FINAL VERDICT: With the offense's uneven effort thus far, we've seen some tension between Kingsbury and Murray, most notably in the fourth quarter of last week's game at Carolina. At this point, with Arizona failing to field a top-10 scoring offense in any of Kingsbury's four seasons on the job, I have a hard time imagining the coach coming up with enough answers to help the Cardinals truly find their way on offense. This team wins when its best offensive players make big plays in big spots, but the top teams in the NFC have enough defensive playmakers to neutralize the Cardinals' stars in "gotta have it" moments. Without a series of schematic adjustments to make the offense more consistent on a drive-to-drive basis, the Cards' playoff hopes hinge on their stars routinely going above and beyond, and that's a tall order.
GLASS HALF FULL: This Hollywood outfit features enough star power to win games at the highest level. The Rams' highly accomplished nucleus (Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald, Bobby Wagner and Jalen Ramsey) has the talent and tools to take over games. However, with this top-heavy approach, the inconsistent supporting cast makes it hard for the team to win when their stars are having an off day. That said, there is not a better core group in football; these standouts' individual and collective talents are good enough to get the job done. Remember last season?
GLASS HALF EMPTY: The league has cracked the code on Sean McVay's scheme. Despite the offensive guru partnering with a five-star talent at quarterback, Los Angeles' offense is stuck in the mud due to the lack of balance and creativity in the team's game plan. Currently, the Rams rank 29th in scoring and 28th in total offense. The Stafford-to-Kupp connection has assaulted the record books, but teams are willing to live with the All-Pro wideout catching a bunch of underneath throws to take away the deep balls and big plays. The celebrated offseason addition of Allen Robinson has produced a grand total of 95 yards in four games. With the Rams unable or unwilling to consistently pound the rock behind a porous offensive line, opponents are dictating the terms, and McVay just has not been able to jump-start this attack.
FINAL VERDICT: The defending champs have more than enough talent to turn things around, but the Rams will need more role players to make contributions. Maybe McVay can find the right buttons to push and reverse L.A.'s fortunes, but the odds are stacked against a team dealing with a Super Bowl hangover -- and possibly a little complacency -- this season.
GLASS HALF FULL: The return of Jimmy Garoppolo to the QB1 role has helped the 49ers regain their status as true title contenders. Despite his shortcomings, the veteran quarterback simply knows how to win (SEE: 34-15 career record as a starter), and the team feeds off of his confident leadership. If Jimmy G can find his groove as a game manager-plus -- with a clutch gene -- San Francisco should have enough offensive balance to complement a defense that is scary good at the line of scrimmage. The Niners' Nick Bosa-led D can create scoring opportunities through splash plays (sacks, tackles for loss and takeaways), so the offense really just needs to provide moderate production for San Francisco to win big.
GLASS HALF EMPTY: Garoppolo has led the Niners to a Super Bowl and NFC title game over the past three seasons, but he has limitations that could keep the team from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. That's why Kyle Shanahan was rolling with Trey Lance -- and aiming for a higher ceiling of quarterback play -- before the QB's season-ending injury in Week 2. Garoppolo's accuracy woes and questionable judgment could prevent San Francisco from sustaining drives in close games against elite teams. While Shanahan deftly works around his QB1's deficiencies, the Niners will need Jimmy G to make a handful of plays in critical moments to potential reach the promised land.
FINAL VERDICT: Examining the offense, defense and special teams' potential, the 49ers are built to win a Super Bowl -- if they can get solid, timely play from Garoppolo. Shanahan is leading a potential juggernaut with the individual and collective talent to bully any opponent on the schedule. If the Niners find their way as an old-school team that relies on its defense and running game to bludgeon opponents, you can pencil them in as a premier title contender in the NFC. So, yes, at this moment, I view San Francisco as the front-runner to win the NFC West.
GLASS HALF FULL: Credit Pete Carroll for believing in Geno Smith as the Seahawks' starting quarterback. The journeyman has flourished as a playmaker in the Seahawks' offense, as evidenced by his NFL-best completion percentage (77.3) and sparkling passer rating (108.0). With Smith efficiently throwing the ball all over the yard, the Seahawks have averaged a robust 7.2 yards per attempt when running the ball against a light box (six defenders or fewer), per Next Gen Stats -- that ranks second in the NFL, behind only the Lions. As the Seahawks incorporate their playmakers on the perimeter (DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett) by utilizing play-action passes that mirror their top runs, the "run, run, throw" offense is working well for a team that was not expected to challenge for the division title.
GLASS HALF EMPTY: The Seahawks have plenty of holes on their roster that could prevent them from competing against some of the big boys in the NFC. The team lacks an elite pass rusher, and safety Jamal Adams' season-ending injury robbed the secondary of its top playmaker. With the 'Hawks also struggling against the run, the defense is a major liability, ranking 31st in yards allowed and scoring defense. Carroll can mask deficiencies with a smoke-and-mirrors approach at times, but it is hard to fool elite coaches week in and week out.
FINAL VERDICT: The Seahawks are a feel-good story in the early stretches of the 2022 season, with Pete and Geno defying the odds to sit in a tie for first place. This NFL odd couple has clicked as a head coach-quarterback combo, but the league will eventually figure out how to make the game more challenging for the journeyman signal-caller. Without a strong defense to back him up, Smith's eventual struggles will be hard to overcome when the division race heats up down the stretch.
The spectacular rise of Rashan Gary
One of the challenges of scouting top NFL prospects is determining whether to value physical tools over production. While old-school scouts tend to lean toward prospects with the prototypical traits (height, arm length, bulk, athleticism and explosiveness), I have been around evaluators who suggest that production -- specifically sack numbers for pass rushers -- should factor heavily into the scouting report. That last sentiment weighed heavily on my mind in my eval of one particular prospect a few years ago.
While studying Rashan Gary prior to the 2019 NFL Draft, I could not envision the Michigan product emerging as a premier pass rusher in the pros after totaling just 9.5 career sacks over three years in Ann Arbor. Although he was the consensus No. 1 overall player in the 2016 high school recruiting rankings (by 247, Rivals and ESPN) and earned All-Big Ten honors in his final two seasons as a Wolverine, it seemed like the hype outweighed the actual substance.
Maybe I should have known better, based on my time with the Green Bay Packers and Hall of Fame executive Ron Wolf. The Al Davis disciple always coveted prospects with prototypical physical dimensions because he believed great coaches could teach players with outstanding tools how to play the game effectively. This was an old tactic utilized by the Raiders back in the day, and Wolf brought that philosophy to Green Bay when he was appointed general manager in 1991.
Current Packers GM Brian Gutekunst spent his formative years working as a scout under Wolf, and he certainly relied on the philosophy when selecting Gary with the 12th overall pick in 2019. He gushed over the 6-foot-5, 277-pounder's traits -- Gary posted some impressive numbers at the NFL Scouting Combine, including a 4.58 40-yard dash and 38-inch vertical leap -- and did not appear bothered by his underwhelming production.
"He's got premier speed off the edge," Gutekunst said after drafting Gary. "He's able to bend the corner. He plays with length and power. He's also going to be able to kick inside and rush inside. So I don't think you can ever have enough of those guys."
Gary's early-career production reflected that of his Michigan days, with seven sacks over his first two seasons. He had somewhat of a breakout campaign in 2021 with 9.5 sacks.
Now in 2022, the Packers' top executive looks like a prophet, with Gary evolving into a disruptive force at the line of scrimmage. The fourth-year pro has five sacks in four games as a Swiss Army Knife at a point of attack. Gary's athleticism, versatility and disruption have made him a problem for opponents to deal with in pass protection, and the Packers are taking advantage of his skills at every turn.
With defensive coordinator Joe Barry willing to take advantage of Gary's skills on the edges, Green Bay has been able to unleash a dynamic pass rusher who has helped the defense become the best unit on the championship-caliber team.
Cowboys' D playing up to past glory?
The golden era of the 1970s Dallas Cowboys preceded the viewing window of today's younger NFL fans, but I remember my dad popping on the TV to watch Hall of Fame defensive tackle Bob Lilly, Hall of Fame defensive backs Mel Renfro and Herb Adderley and five-time All-Pro Chuck Howley. Those guys spearheaded a defense that went to multiple Super Bowls.
While I am not ready to say the current Dallas D is in that same realm, it is hard to deny the unit's dominance and emergence as a juggernaut in 2022. Heading into Week 5, the Cowboys were ranked third in points allowed per game (15.5), sixth in yards allowed per game (308.5) and fifth in passing yards allowed per game (171.0). As evidenced by their ranking in sacks (tied for second, with 15) and QB pressures (tied for third, with 50, per Next Gen Stats), they are built to defend the top offenses in today's pass-happy NFL. Featuring a premier pass rush and air-tight coverage, Dallas punishes and suffocates opponents.
Much like their 1970s forebears, these Cowboys defenders, who have powered the team to a 3-1 start despite the absence of injured quarterback Dak Prescott, are capable of single-handedly driving a playoff push, prompting linebacker Micah Parsons to make an eye-catching declaration.
" 'Doomsday,' " Parsons told Yahoo Sports this week, "is back."
Although I have grown accustomed to hearing exceptionally confident takes from the Cowboys' star defender, I am not mad that Parsons referenced the nickname given to the Cowboys' defense of the '70s while discussing "the standard" he wants to set for a unit that, in recent seasons, played in the shadows of Dallas' Prescott-led offense.
The defensive lineup is loaded with blue-chip playmakers at key positions. Parsons, the 2021 Defensive Rookie of the Year, is joined by Demarcus Lawrence, Dante Fowler Jr., Anthony Barr and Dorance Armstrong on a front that has been harassing quarterbacks with a variety of twists and games at the line of scrimmage. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has cleverly mixed four-man rushes with occasional blitz pressures to keep quarterbacks from getting comfortable in the pocket. The constant harassment and punishment have led to mistakes and miscues from opposing quarterbacks unwilling to stand in against the pressure.
In the secondary, the Cowboys have assembled a collection of instinctive ballhawks with outstanding speed, quickness and skill. Trevon Diggs leads the way, but he is joined by Donovan Wilson and Anthony Brown as the designated playmakers in the backfield. With the ferocious pass rush prompting hurried throws from the pocket, the Cowboys have been able to clamp down on receivers with top-down positioning and zone eyes. As a result, Dallas has been able to keep the ball in front of the defense and limit the big plays in the passing game.
Considering the obvious correlation between big plays and points, it is not a surprise to see the Cowboys sitting near the top of the defensive rankings, with their pass rush and coverage working in unison. If Quinn can continue to push the right buttons with his budding all-stars playing as a cohesive unit, Dallas could emerge as a dark-horse contender behind a defense that deserves a catchy nickname of its own.