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 one draft prospect turning heads across the league ...
It is a little premature to stack the prospect board for the 2022 NFL Draft class, considering we don't know which underclassmen will seek early entry, but general managers and scouts are finalizing their thoughts on the top seniors in this class.
For entertainment purposes, it's always better when a few franchise-caliber quarterback prospects sit near the top of the board, but that just isn't the case with the '22 class. That said, team builders would be quick to point out that pass rushers, cornerbacks, offensive tackles and pass catchers are also essential pieces of a championship squad. The modern NFL is a pass-centric league, so every move is done with the game's most important position in mind. Whether aiming to protect, supplement or disrupt, a personnel maven's No. 1 priority is to impact the quarterback on every play.
Given all of that, talent evaluators across the league are paying close attention to the emergence of Michigan edge defender Aidan Hutchinson as a potential No. 1 overall pick.
If you have not checked out No. 97 in the maize and blue, you are missing out on a dominant pass rusher with the size, strength, motor and skills to be an elite defender at the next level. After showing great potential as sophomore starter for the Wolverines in 2019, Hutchinson's 2020 campaign was limited to just three games by a season-ending ankle injury. In 2021, though, the senior has taken his game to another level. With three sacks last Saturday in Michigan's monumental win over Ohio State, Hutchinson now owns the school's single-season record with 13 QB takedowns. His boffo performance against the Buckeyes -- Pro Football Focus credited him with a whopping 15 QB pressures, the most in a single game since PFF started charting college in 2014 -- thrust the Wolverines squarely into the national title chase. And in a wide-open Heisman Trophy race, Charles Woodson's alma mater suddenly has another defensive player in the conversation for college football's top individual honor.
Checking in at 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds (school measurements), Hutchinson boasts the kind of explosive attributes that earned him the No. 2 spot on Bruce Feldman's 2021 "Freaks List," an annual celebration of the premium athletic marvels at the college level. Per Feldman's reporting from last summer, the big-bodied pass rusher posted some impressive testing numbers, including a 4.64 40-yard dash, a 36-inch vertical leap and a jaw-dropping 6.54 three-cone drill. The freakish athleticism certainly pops when reviewing Michigan tape, as does Hutchinson's raw will to compete. It is hard to find gifted pass rushers who play as hard as he does from snap to whistle on every play. He is a relentless competitor with a non-stop motor, and his energetic approach wears opponents down over the course of a 60-minute game.
Of course, if Hutchinson were simply an Energizer Bunny winning on sheer effort and desire, he would warrant consideration as a solid prospect. But the 21-year-old could be the top player in this draft class because he is a skilled pass rusher with an array of athletic moves that make him a nightmare to deal with on the edges. Hutchinson is capable of turning speed into power with hesitation bull rushes, while also flashing arm-overs and two-handed swipe maneuvers that showcase his agility, balance and body control. With the Michigan standout also displaying an ultra-quick first step and an explosive closing burst, he possesses enough tools in the toolbox to wreak havoc on opponents as a designated pass rusher from either side.
Against the run, Hutchinson plays with leverage and flashes enough strength to hold the point against maulers on the edge. He plays bigger than his size, yet possesses the quickness and agility of a smaller man. The unique combination of size, strength and explosiveness is problematic for offenses, as the Michigan star plays like a three-down defender on the edge.
Studying Hutchinson's game over the past few seasons, it is easy to envision the "Michigan Man" thriving on Sundays in a manner similar to former Ohio State star Joey Bosa. Hutchinson is not quite as refined as the 2016 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and three-time Pro Bowler, but they take care of business off the edge utilizing a variety of maneuvers that make them tough to contain in one-on-ones. Hutchinson provides persistent pressure and steady production that will appeal to scouts seeking a No. 1 pass rusher with a consistent game.
It is still quite early in this process, and the overall draft board will change as underclassmen declare their intentions. But at this time, with Hutchinson preparing for Saturday night's Big Ten Championship Game against Iowa, the game-wrecking Wolverine certainly looks like a top-five prospect with the potential to surge to No. 1 with a strong showing during the pre-draft circuit.
Bills can survive loss of Tre'Davious White
It's hard to replace a Pro Bowl defender at any position, but it's especially difficult to come up with alternative plans to make up for the loss of an all-star cornerback with shutdown capabilities.
The Buffalo Bills' Super Bowl hopes hinge on their ability to continue to play great defense without Tre'Davious White on the island. White suffered a season-ending ACL tear in Week 12, and his absence sends head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier back to the drawing board to replace a seemingly irreplaceable player. White was holding opposing quarterbacks to a 50.8 percent completion rate and a 58.9 passer rating when he was the nearest defender in coverage in 2021, ranking fourth- and second-best among defensive backs with 50-plus targets, per Next Gen Stats.
As a versatile cover corner with an expansive toolbox, White was capable of blanketing receivers in man or zone coverage while utilizing a variety of techniques to get the job done. From his patient bump-and-run style to impressive awareness and diagnostic skills in zone coverage, the veteran was the perfect CB1 for the Bills' multi-faceted scheme. He could match up with No. 1 receivers as a travel corner or lock down his side as a traditional CB playing in a basic scheme.
"He's a matchup guy. It's hard to find those guys in our league," Frazier told reporters earlier this week. "But he's allowed us to do some things on defense because of his ability to eliminate other people's number one receiver. So there's some big shoes to fill."
The loss of a top-five player at a marquee position will undoubtedly force the Bills to make some strategic tweaks, but I do not expect to see Frazier radically overhaul his defense. The Bills have become the No. 1 defense in football by keeping things simple while creating the illusion of complexity, and I would expect them to continue to mix up their coverage and pre-snap disguises to test the discipline, awareness and diagnostic skills of the quarterback.
With Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde patrolling the middle, the Bills have a pair of experienced safeties with the capacity to help Levi Wallace and Dane Jackson handle increased responsibilities at cornerback. Although Wallace and Jackson have played well in their respective roles, the veteran presence at safety could enable Frazier to protect one of the corners if they struggle against a top-flight wideout on the perimeter.
In addition, the Bills will likely focus on adhering to the principles that have helped them play great defense to this point. They will keep everything in front of the defense and rally to the ball like a pack of wolves to limit the yards after each catch. If the secondary continues to tackle well while playing smart, hard-nosed football, Buffalo's defense will remain a top-tier unit without a Pro Bowl corner in the lineup.
Dolphins' rookie class fueling revival
The best organizations consistently nail their top picks in the draft. Players selected within the first two rounds, in particular, are expected to emerge as starters and key contributors early, before eventually comprising the foundation of the team. This leads us to the Miami Dolphins, who spent their first three picks this past April on wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, edge rusher Jaelan Phillips and safety Jevon Holland. The trio, like this team as a whole, has really started to come on over the past month.
After kicking off the season with a win over the Patriots in New England, the Dolphins dropped seven straight games, making Miami one of the league's biggest disappointments at midseason. But Brian Flores has rallied his troops to four straight wins, thanks in no small part to the Fins' top three draft picks.
Waddle, the No. 6 overall selection last spring, has given the offense a spark as the designated playmaker on the perimeter. The 5-10, 182-pounder not only leads the Dolphins in receptions (77), receiving yards (759) and touchdown grabs (four, tied with RB Myles Gaskin), but he paces all rookies in catches and ranks behind just Ja'Marr Chase in receiving yards. In fact, since Week 6, Waddle ranks second in the entire NFL in receptions (50) and third in receiving yards (528). Considering he's snagged at least eight balls in three of the past four games, Miami's budding No. 1 receiver is coming into his own as a key contributor on offense. He's fresh off a nine-catch, 137-yard, one-touchdown day highlighted by an explosive, 57-yard catch-and-run. Clearly, Waddle's presence has been a huge boon to his former Alabama teammate, Tua Tagovailoa, who's posted triple-digit passer ratings in each of the past three weeks.
Defensively, Miami has turned it up a notch of late, giving up just 11.5 ppg during this four-game winning streak. Phillips and Holland have fortified the lineup as disruptive defenders, albeit in different roles.
Phillips, who came off the board at No. 18 overall, has shown impressive skills as a pass rusher with an outstanding combination of size, strength and skill. He is whipping blockers with his MMA-like combat skills and relentless pursuit quickness. In this past Sunday's 33-10 blowout of the Panthers, the Miami Hurricanes product logged three sacks, giving him 6.5 on the season -- that's a team-high total, second among all rookies behind Micah Parsons (10).
Holland has been impressive as a versatile defender in the secondary with unique hit, run and cover skills. Flores was certainly a fan of his game when Miami selected him 36th overall.
"Jevon was one of, honestly, my favorite players to watch," Flores said after Day 2 of the draft wrapped up, per USA TODAY. "Very versatile, played inside, played safety, punt return. I think you mentioned it -- a lot of ball production -- so we're excited to get him and work with him, and I think he'll be a great fit for our team."
Indeed he has been. With the Dolphins routinely dialing up all-out blitzes to pressure the passer, Holland consistently comes off edges to make plays. And the aforementioned ball production? Yup, he's supplied that, too. During Miami's four-game win streak, Holland has stuffed the stat sheet with two picks, two fumble recoveries, two QB hits and a sack.
These three rookie have helped revive a Miami season that suddenly has the Dolphins (5-7) back in the playoff picture, with two highly winnable games on tap against the Giants and Jets. This is how you build for the future.
Lincoln Riley + USC = Scouting glee
Scouts and general managers are expected to maintain an unbiased position when it comes to coaches and schools, but team-builders love seeing exceptional developmental coaches in environments that enable them to operate like scientists in a lab.
With Lincoln Riley leaving Oklahoma to take over the USC program, the scouting community is salivating over the prospect of college football's most respected quarterback developer working his magic in the country's quarterback hotspot.
While I'm sure Texas and Florida football fanatics will disagree with my hotbed assessment, we have seen a legion of quarterbacks make their way to the NFL after stellar youth and high school football careers in California. Considering the likes of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Jared Goff, Josh Allen and Derek Carr are among the current NFL signal-callers that hail from the Golden State, Riley will have his fair share of quarterback prodigies to work with as the head coach of the biggest college football brand in the West.
Don't believe me? Look at the top quarterbacks in the college game. The common denominator between Bryce Young (Alabama), C.J. Stroud (Ohio State) and Matt Corral (Ole Miss) is their California ties.
Say what you want about USC, but there is no disputing the pipeline the Trojans have created to the NFL. While most of the school's quarterbacks that went on to NFL careers were of the traditional variety, Riley's experience and expertise developing athletic playmakers like Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts into top draft picks and solid NFL starters will prompt evaluators to keep an eye on USC and the five-star quarterbacks who eventually make their way to Los Angeles. Scouts will also keep tabs on the elite skill players who land with the program, particularly running backs and wide receivers, based on Riley's reputation for churning out big-play threats with refined skills in the passing game. The seismic shift of the NFL to a passing league has made pass-catching running backs and big-play wide receivers hot commodities on draft boards.
Given USC's résumé and reputation for producing top players at these positions and the presence of a head coach with a knack for developing playmakers, the Trojans could re-emerge as the football factory that once prompted scouts to take multi-day visits to check out the surplus of talent on past rosters.
As a scout during the Pete Carroll era at USC, I remember spending a couple of days on campus to evaluate the deep collection of five-star players who eventually made their way to the league. With Riley poised to attract more NFL hopefuls to USC, the scouting community should already be making plans to spend more time soaking up the sunshine and evaluating talent in an iconic football environment.