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 George Kittle deserved to reset the tight end market ...
We've witnessed the NFL trend toward using more hybrid players on both sides of the ball, and now we're seeing some of those unique playmakers receive well-earned rewards for their game-changing ways.
Teams have been featuring safety/linebacker hybrids and outside linebackers/defensive ends (a.k.a. edge players) more predominantly on defense in recent years. Offensively, the tight end position, in particular, has become the biggest mismatch spot on the field, with offensive coordinators aligning basketball-like athletes out wide to take advantage of their superior movement skills in space. The shift toward more athletic players at the position has enabled guys like Zach Ertz, Travis Kelce and George Kittle to become marquee stars.
And now they're being paid like it!
The Chiefs signed Kelce to a four-year, $57 million extension on Friday, which made him the highest-paid player at the position (in average salary per year) … until the 49ers made their new agreement with Kittle official hours later.
I've been anxiously awaiting Kittle's contract, to see how San Francisco would reward its crossbreed tight end for his vast array of skills as an A-plus blocker, pass catcher and playmaker. The All-Pro is a rare find at the position as a traditional Y with receiver-like ball skills and running ability AND offensive tackle-ish blocking skills. So it wasn't a huge surprise to me when my colleagues Ian Rapoport and Michael Silver reported on Thursday that the team had agreed to a five-year, $75 million deal with the two-time Pro Bowl selectee that resets the market at the position with an average salary of $15 million per year.
As a pass catcher, Kittle has amassed the most yards by a tight end through his first three NFL seasons (2,945) – yes, that's more than Hall of Famer Mike Ditka (2,774) and four-time All-Pro Rob Gronkowski (2,663) had at that point in their careers. Kittle also ranks sixth in receiving yards (2,430), 11th in receptions (173) and second in yards after catch (1,541) among all pass catchers since 2018, per Next Gen Stats.
Think about that. The fourth-year veteran – a fifth-round pick in 2017 – has developed into one of the best all-around players in the league, as evidenced by his lofty ranking (No. 7) on the Top 100 Players of 2020 list, which was voted on by NFL players. The stats and his peers' evaluations confirm his greatness as a playmaker on the field.
As a blocker, Kittle is head and shoulders above his peers at the position. The 6-foot-4, 250-pounder is a dominant force on the edge with a combination of size, strength, athleticism and technique that overwhelms defenders. He displays the physicality and toughness to move defenders off the ball while also showcasing nasty finishing skills at the point of attack.
Kittle's dominance as a run blocker keys the 49ers' rushing attack, which ranked second in the league last season. The unit averaged 4.8 yards per carry, 156 rush yards per game, and tallied 23 rush touchdowns with No. 85 in the lineup in 2019, according to Next Gen Stats. The 49ers mustered just 2.6 yards per carry, 60.5 rush yards per game and failed to score a rushing touchdown in the two games without Kittle last year.
Let that marinate for a bit. As you can see, the rush offense wasn't nearly as potent or dynamic when Kittle wasn't the field. His absence not only left a huge hole in the passing game but it derailed the foundation of the 49ers' offense: the running game.
Those factors certainly played a role in the All-Pro's contract negotiations. His deal will nestle up against the annual yearly averages commanded by top offensive tackles, with the exception of Lane Johnson ($18 million) and Laremy Tunsil ($22 million). The deal also puts Kittle's average salary just outside the top 10 of the league' s highest-paid receivers, placing him among the likes of Allen Robinson, Stefon Diggs, Davante Adams and Jarvis Landry.
Given Kittle's impact as a multidimensional force, the new salary is in line with what he should be paid. Although his annual averages will eventually be surpassed by the next wave of all-star tight ends that hit the market, Kittle's hefty contract could pave the way for other hybrids or "position-less" players to demand compensation that matches their overall value as football players.
TOP 5 GM-HEAD COACH DUOS: Bills belong
The best NFL franchises operate with a shared vision between the general manager and head coach. The duo sets the plan in place for how to build a championship contender and instructs staff members to help acquire and develop talented players who fit the mold.
The general manager focuses extensively on player acquisition, using the draft, free agency and the trade market to secure enough blue-chip players to compete with the heavyweights in the league. The best general managers will build for the future while at the same time reserving enough assets to make a pivotal move that positions the team for an immediate run at the title with the addition of a particular difference-maker.
Head coaches are expected to focus on the here and now. They take the players on the roster and place them in the best positions to succeed based on their individual talents. In addition, they work with the general manager to put the pieces of the puzzle together to win today while developing the team's young players to ensure long-term success in the future.
Given some time to survey the NFL landscape and assess the rosters of each team, including the young guys in the pipeline, here are the league's top five general manager-head coach duos right now:
The Ravens have been a postseason one-and-done in each of the past two campaigns, but the team is well-positioned to remain a title contender for the foreseeable future. Baltimore has drafted a league-best six Pro Bowlers since 2016 while also utilizing free agency (Earl Thomas and Mark Ingram) and the trade market (Calais Campbell and Marcus Peters) to add veteran leadership and experience. Harbaugh has taken the ingredients and baked a championship-caliber cake by being adaptable and flexible with the team's schemes (see: transitioning to a run-heavy attack with Lamar Jackson at QB). With a young, hungry core in place, the Ravens have a chance to own the AFC in the next few seasons.
It took some time for the braintrust to reverse the franchise's fortunes, but a series of shrewd moves and clever scheming have the 49ers looking like perennial contenders in the NFC. Fueled by a D-line loaded with former first-round picks, the 49ers punch opponents in the mouth on defense. Offensively, Shanahan's wizardry and timely play-calling has enabled the 49ers to run roughshod over opponents with a potent ground game sparked by castoffs and misfits at running back. The development of the team's complementary weapons, including All-Pro tight end George Kittle, has added knock-out power to an offense that routinely wins with body blows.
The 'Hawks operate under a high-risk, high-reward premise when it comes to team building. Schneider isn't afraid to pull the trigger on a blockbuster deal to acquire a five-star talent to boost the roster (see: trades for Jamal Adams, Jadeveon Clowney and Sheldon Richardson). Although some of their bold moves haven't moved the needle on the field, the aggressive acquisition tactics are part of a go for broke strategy that fits Carroll's upbeat and energetic personality. The ultra-positive head coach blends newbies into the fabric of the team while nurturing young players along the way. With Tyler Lockett, DK Metcalf and Chris Carson flourishing as homegrown stars for the Russell Wilson-led offense, Seattle's exceptional developmental model and bold acquisitions yield big results (one Super Bowl title, two NFC championships, playoff berths in seven of the past eight seasons) in the Pacific Northwest.
The defending Super Bowl champs have their eyes on establishing a dynasty with most of the team's blue-chip players locked in for at least the next few years. Veach deserves a lot of credit for not only playing a pivotal role in Kansas City's decision to draft Patrick Mahomes in 2017 but for finding a way to keep him in the fold for the next 12 years, as well. In addition, he's surrounded the former MVP with a track team on the perimeter and an emerging defense that played well down the stretch last season. Reid is a visionary with the imagination to put the pieces of the puzzle together on the field. From developing the quarterback to orchestrating the Chiefs' high-powered offense, the grizzled coach is the mastermind behind the team's success.
The Bills are a reflection of the blue-collar mentality embraced by their general manager and head coach. Beane has crafted a roster loaded with talented worker bees who complement each other well. From utilizing the draft to land talented youngsters like Josh Allen and Tremaine Edmunds to inking Cole Beasley and John Brown as key free-agent signees to trading for Stefon Diggs, the savvy evaluator has quietly assembled a roster featuring a bunch of hard-nosed players. McDermott is the perfect leader of the squad as a detail-oriented teacher with a clearly defined plan to take over the AFC East. After ending a 17-season postseason drought and securing playoff berths in two of the past three seasons, the Bills' old-school blueprint has returned the team to prominence.
XAVIER RHODES: Can CB rebound in new scheme?
Can you actually teach an old dog new tricks?
That's what the Indianapolis Colts are attempting with former first-team All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes. After thriving as a lockdown defender for most of his seven-year tenure with the Minnesota Vikings, the 6-foot-1, 218-pounder is seeking to regain his all-star form in a different scheme that requires him to utilize another set of techniques on the island.
"This one is more zone, eyes to the quarterback," the 30-year-old Rhodes said, per the Indianapolis Star. "That's going to be the main difference for me, is being able to play looking at the quarterback, rather than looking at the man."
The transition from playing extensive man coverage to a zone scheme is a difficult one for most corners. The footwork and fundamentals utilized to shadow a receiver in tight man are vastly different from what's required to excel in zone coverage. Instead of playing basketball with receivers on the perimeter, Rhodes will spend more time backpedaling or utilizing a side-shuffle/bail technique that'll enable him to maintain top-down positioning (cornerback stays on top of the receiver to eliminate deep throws). Not to mention, Rhodes will keep his eyes on the quarterback instead of his assigned receiver, to see when and where the ball is thrown. The ability to see the ball leave the quarterback's hand enables the CB to break quicker on throws and increase his chances of coming down with an interception on tipped or poorly located passes.
Under Matt Eberflus, the Colts are a zone-based defense, with Tampa 2 and three-deep zones featured prominently in the game plan. The simplistic scheme is plucked straight from the pages of a high school playbook, but the straightforward tactics test the discipline and patience of opposing quarterbacks.
While Indy's defense generally lives and dies with the zone scheme, the Colts will mix in some tight man coverage, particularly on short-yardage and medium situations (third-and-5 or so).
"We are going to do both," Rhodes said, via the Indy Star. "Where I came from, they were able to do both, too. So you just have to know where your help is at and know if you're on an island or not."
Rhodes makes a key point about understanding where he fits in the schematic puzzle. In man, it is critical for defenders to know where their helpers are positioned to ensure they play with the proper leverage on the receiver. For instance, in Cover 1 (Man-Free), the free safety is aligned as a deep-middle defender. Thus, slot defenders will play on the receiver's outside shoulder to A) take away out-breaking routes by alignment and B) funnel the pass catcher toward the post defender on vertical routes. In zone coverage, defenders also need to understand their cohorts' assignments. The defense casts a net around the ball to limit yards after the catch and eliminate big plays on deep throws down the field. The scheme requires cornerbacks to tackle well in the open field, which is one of Rhodes' biggest strengths as a player.
"I mean, my play is physical, so I'm not only going to cover in a physical way, but I'm also gonna tackle in a physical way," Rhodes said, via Colts.com. "And the defensive schemes I've been playing, and especially this one and the one I did before, corners had to tackle."
The Colts' zone-heavy scheme requires cornerbacks to play a role in run support, particularly on the back side of slot formations. Against nub formations, Rhodes could align in the box matched up with the tight end. With opponents intent on running the ball to the strength of the formation (Y-side), the veteran will need to be a force defender at the point of attack.
"We have to become linebackers," Rhodes said, per the team website. "There's gonna be times you're going to see me in the box here. So there's going to be a time where I'm gonna have to be physical and play as a linebacker or come down and set the edge to the run."
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film from Rhodes' past few seasons, I couldn't help but notice that the veteran has lost some of his quickness and explosiveness. He's not only a step slower down the field, but his reactions at the line aren't up to par for a player once considered one of the best at the position. As a result, Rhodes finished the 2019 season as one of the most penalized corners in the league, thanks to his excessive grabbing and holding.
That said, the move to a zone-based scheme could help Rhodes rediscover his magic as a standout starting corner. The eighth-year vet has an opportunity to play in a simplified system that will enable him to focus extensively on his fundamentals in practice, while allowing him to rely on his experience to decipher route combinations. With a lighter load mentally and physically, Rhodes could re-emerge as a Tier 1 player after being mired in a two-year slump.
DRAFT: Impact of Big Ten, Pac-12 postponements?
The COVID-19 pandemic altered the draft process for the 2020 class, but the 2021 NFL Draft will be unlike anything we've seen before in the scouting community. The potential lack of in-person visits already posed a huge challenge in obtaining background information, but the postponement of fall sports by numerous college conferences -- particularly, the Big Ten and Pac-12 -- threatens to leave huge chunks of 2021 prospects without a season of on-field development.
While the Big Ten and Pac-12 are both looking at a potential spring season, at this point, it's impossible to know whether that'll actually take place -- and if so, who'll take part in it. Any loss of games not only robs players of the opportunity to show off their improved skills, but it prevents them from acquiring the requisite football knowledge and wisdom that can only be gained through game day experiences. Sure, the players will work with their private coaches and trainers to refine some of their physical tools, but there's nothing like playing real football between the lines. Prospects need to play games to fully understand the nuances of this sport, while also displaying their talent and potential.
Postponements in the Big Ten and Pac-12 will significantly impact the 2021 draft, based on the established pipelines from those conferences to the pros. Over the past five drafts, Power Five conferences have accounted for 72.9 percent of players draft, with the Big Ten and Pac-12 comprising a healthy portion of that percentage. In April's draft alone, the SEC produced the most picks of any conference with 63, but the Big Ten (48) and Pac-12 (32) respectively finished second and third. So, combined, the Big Ten and Pac-12 accounted for 80 of 255 picks -- 31.4 percent of all players selected.
Now, NFL teams will obviously continue to snatch up top athletes from the Big Ten and Pac-12, but the prospects could be underdeveloped (again, depending on what actually comes of a spring season). From a technical standpoint, in particular, the prospects may not have as many game reps to refine their skills, which will put the onus on NFL coaches to spend more time developing fundamentals early in the youngsters' pro careers.
On the scouting front, the loss of the fall season will force evaluators to spend more time studying 2018 and '19 game tape. Scouts will have to evaluate what's available and attempt to make projections on how prospects will continue to grow at the next level. In addition, scouts will really have to lean on their contacts at schools when it comes to researching each prospect's background and football character. Typically, that's where the in-person visits come into play -- evaluators closely observe a prospect's physique, body language and interpersonal communication skills in practices and games. How do they interact with teammates? This stuff's vital intel. Scouts also usually get a better gauge on a prospect's movement skills, athleticism and developmental potential when they're on site. Without those in-person opportunities, scouts will need to spend more time chatting with coaches and support staff to fully understand a player's physical and mental makeup.
I recently asked a handful of general managers and personnel directors about the challenges of evaluating players during the pandemic. They echoed everything mentioned above, stressing that relationships with college coaches and administrators will play a critical role in putting the finishing touches on scouting reports.
Looking at the current landscape, it reminds me of my own scouting experience in the early 2000s. Back then, the draft didn't feature nearly as many early entries as it does today. Consequently, you could never get anyone on campus to talk about underclassmen before they declared. So when a redshirt sophomore or junior did toss his name into the hat, we were way behind the eight ball in terms of eval, and it was very difficult to catch up. Thus, scouts were forced to make long-term projections with limited access to coaches for background information. In addition, evaluators didn't always have an extensive body of work from which to determine a prospect's potential. This forced us to rely on our eyes and imagination in order to come up with a round value grade.
Depending on what happens with -- and who plays in -- a potential spring season, the evaluation of the 2021 draft class will likely be defined by each team's willingness to roll the dice on potential over production like never before.