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Chris Jones headlines top 5 defensive tackles; plus, a WR trend and the Aaron Rodgers-Zach Wilson bond

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 position that could define 2023.

Back in my playing days in the mid-1990s, defensive guru Dick Jauron told me championship units on that side of the ball are strong down the middle, with hulking nose tackles and penetrating 3-techniques playing significant roles as run defenders.

In the years since, of course, the NFL has become a pass-happy league. Inherently, we've seen an evolution at the defensive tackle position, with defensive coordinators building game plans around interior penetrators possessing elite pass-rushing traits that enable them to take over the game as disruptive playmakers at the point of attack. Long overshadowed by their edge-rushing cohorts, defensive tackles are emerging as some of the most celebrated -- and highly compensated -- players in the game today.

In fact, you can make an argument that 2023 is shaping up to be the Year of the DT.

Fresh off a 2022 season that saw five defensive tackles reach double-digit sacks, we saw a flurry of blockbuster deals at the position. Among those who got PAID: Quinnen Williams (four years, $96 million), Jeffery Simmons (four years, $94 million), Dexter Lawrence (four years, $90 million), Daron Payne (four years, $90 million), Javon Hargrave (four years, $84 million), Ed Oliver (four years, $68 million) and Dalvin Tomlinson (four years, $57 million).

Furthermore, four defensive tackles came off the board in Round 1 of the 2023 NFL Draft: Jalen Carter (No. 9 overall), Calijah Kancey (No. 19), Mazi Smith (No. 26) and Bryan Bresee (No. 29). Considering the three previous drafts produced three first-round DTs combined, the league is clearly buzzing over interior disruptors at the moment.

And now, on the eve of the 2023 NFL season, the defending Super Bowl champions are facing one enormous (6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, to be specific) question: When will first-team All-Pro Chris Jones report for work?

With one year left on his current deal, Jones is currently holding out for a new contract. Earlier this week, he appeared to indicate on social media that he could sit out until Week 8. On Wednesday, Kansas City head coach Andy Reid provided an update that had to concern Chiefs Kingdom.

"There's been no communication, so I don't know what's gonna go (on) there," Reid said. "But whatever happens happens. If you're not there, the game goes on, right? That's how it works."

Now, to be clear, Kansas City GM Brett Veach said back in August that Jones "deserves a big contract." And the face of the franchise certainly knows the DT's value.

"I don't think anyone expected him not to be here now," Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes said Wednesday. "He's a vital part of this organization.

"I just try to stay out of it and tell Chris that I love him, and that whenever he does come back, he'll be welcomed with open arms. We know that he's preparing himself so that whenever he does go back, he can be that dominant player that he always has been."

Mahomes ain't lying: Jones is absolutely crucial to Kansas City's title defense. And he is at the forefront of this DT revolution.

Obviously, Aaron Donald has established himself as the gold standard at the position. A Pro Bowler in each of his nine NFL seasons, AD has also earned first-team All-Pro honors seven times and won three Defensive Player of the Year awards. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer, one of the greatest defensive players ever. But in his age-31 season last fall, Donald posted a career-low five sacks over 11 games.

Last November in this space, I predicted the then-28-year-old Jones was about to knock Donald from the contemporary DT throne. He ultimately tied career highs in sacks (15.5) and quarterback hits (29), while notching a personal-best 44 tackles during the regular season. Then he helped carry the Chiefs to a second Super Bowl title in the past four years.

Long story short: Jones does indeed deserve a new contract. Seven defensive tackles currently make more than the $20 million Jones is due in the final year of his current deal. How many of them are better than No. 95 in red? Well that brings me to the broader topic here today ...

Given all the attention surrounding defensive tackles this year, this feels like the perfect time to rank the top five players at the position RIGHT NOW.

Chris Jones
Kansas City Chiefs · Age: 29

In addition to earning his second ring, Jones finished last season ranked as PFF’s top interior defensive lineman, and nothing he has put on tape suggests that his reign will be temporary. With ability to apply consistent pressure from the 3-technique position OR power his way to the quarterback from the edge, Jones’ versatility makes him an unstoppable force at the point of attack. With Patrick Mahomes and Co. poised to light up scoreboards once again, thus forcing opponents to play catch-up through the air, Jones is set to rack up sacks and splash plays in bunches. If, of course, the contract stalemate comes to an end. 

Aaron Donald
Los Angeles Rams · Age: 32

Yep, Donald has relinquished the DT crown -- at least for now. But don’t put it past him reclaiming the No. 1 spot with a bounce-back campaign. After all, he’s still the G.O.A.T. at the position -- and remains one of the most feared defenders in the game today. At age 32, Donald still possesses “take over the game” ability, utilizing a rare combination of strength, power and quickness to overwhelm opponents at the point of attack. Although his sacks and pressure rate dipped in 2022, the veteran remained an efficient pass rusher (40 pressures on 396 pass-rushing attempts, per PFF) despite injuries and a lackluster supporting cast. 

Quinnen Williams
New York Jets · Age: 25

The ultra-athletic defensive tackle has come into his own as a game-wrecking defender at the point of attack. Now, it took a little time for the 2019 draft’s No. 3 overall pick to assert his dominance, as he totaled 15.5 sacks and 32 quarterback hits over his first three seasons. But he took a quantum leap as a playmaker in 2022, recording 12 sacks and 28 QB hits in a first-team All-Pro campaign. Williams’ ability to crush the pocket as a one-man wrecking ball sets the table for a defense that has emerged as an elite unit.

DeForest Buckner
Indianapolis Colts · Age: 29

Since 2018, only Aaron Donald and Chris Jones have more sacks than Buckner’s 44 at the defensive tackle position. Don’t let the Colts’ failures over the past couple seasons overshadow the excellent work from this 6-7, 295-pound force of nature. The extra-long defender continues to display elite one-on-one skills with various maneuvers that keep blockers on their heels. Having missed just two games (one to injury, one to a positive COVID-19 test) over his seven-year career and posted at least seven sacks in each of the past five campaigns, Buckner is an absolute rock on the defensive front.

Daron Payne
Washington Commanders · Age: 26

The heaviest player in these rankings at a listed 320 pounds, Payne is a rare specimen as a pass-rushing nose tackle with elite skills as a sack artist (SEE: 11.5 QB takedowns last season). Payne and Jonathan Allen -- who played together at Alabama before joining forces in Washington -- are interchangeable disruptors with the capacity to play over the center (0- or 1- technique) or either guard (3-technique). As a power rusher with elite quickness and exceptional hand skills, Payne routinely overwhelms blockers with shock-and-shed maneuvers while displaying enough wiggle and burst to slither through cracks on designated movement rushes. Though he must put up big numbers again in 2023 to shed any “one-year wonder” sentiments, the sixth-year pro deserves his flowers as an ascending player. 

TREND WATCH: Does size matter at WR?

One thing I noticed during the first few weeks of the 2023 preseason: Smaller-framed rookie wideouts -- all checking in at under 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds -- are making an outsized impact on games.

The Ravens' Zay Flowers (5-9 1/4, 182), Texans' Tank Dell (5-8 3/8, 165), Chargers' Derius Davis (5-8 3/8, 165), Colts' Josh Downs (5-8 3/4, 171) and Patriots' Demario Douglas (5-8 1/4, 179) have all popped up in viral videos on social media. Perhaps it is the combination of exceptional stop-start quickness, balance, body control and burst that has made each of them a nightmare to guard in space, particularly on option routes and crossers that enable them to utilize their speed and quickness to evade defenders. With more teams utilizing catch-and-run concepts designed to put the ball in the hands of pass catchers on the move, the smaller playmakers are taking advantage of their superior athleticism in the open field.

And that group of "Mighty Mites" has been complemented by an additional collection of slender rookie wideouts turning heads in the preseason. The Vikings' Jordan Addison (5-11 1/8, 173), Packers' Jayden Reed (5-10 7/8, 187), Giants' Jalin Hyatt (6-0 1/8, 176) and Broncos' Marvin Mims Jr. (5-10 7/8, 183) have flashed throughout training camp, with observers offering rave reviews on each playmaker.

The trend could be attributed to the success of undersized pass catchers in recent years. DeVonta Smith (6-foot, 170) and Jaylen Waddle (5-10, 185) have combined for 26 total touchdowns and three 1,000-yard seasons since entering the league in 2021. Their success as non-prototypical playmakers follows a path blazed by Tyreek Hill (5-10, 191) and Stefon Diggs (6-foot, 191) as perennial 1,000-yard receivers. Just last year, Garrett Wilson (6-foot, 183) claimed the 2022 Offensive Rookie of the Year award as a mid-sized playmaker on the perimeter.

Another factor: The return of the prototypical slot receiver has opened the door for Flowers and Co. to make their mark on the league. Offensive coordinators are increasingly putting shifty guys in the slot to take advantage of the safety/linebacker hybrids populating the field, and quarterbacks are racking up completions on low-risk throws to those smaller pass catchers.

As more teams turn to borderline 6-footers to anchor the passing game, the football world is starting to realize bigger is not always better when classifying playmakers.

How Wilson can burgeon Rodgers' legacy

After watching three episodes of Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the New York Jets, I have to say I've been impressed by Aaron Rodgers' apparent influence on the organization as a franchise quarterback and mentor.

The four-time MVP has been a model citizen and leader for a team in desperate need of an influencer with a championship pedigree. From Rodgers' nurturing of the Jets' young wideouts to his positive impact on Zach Wilson, we've seen the 39-year-old share his sage wisdom with teammates. His influence on Wilson, in particular, has resulted in the former No. 2 overall pick playing the best ball of his NFL career this preseason. Through three preseason games, Wilson has completed 26 of his 38 passes (68.4%) for 258 yards and a score. Most impressive, the third-year pro has played with more confidence and conviction as an athletic gunslinger. Rodgers' influence on Wilson's game has shown up in his reduction in careless throws, as he has routinely opted to take the checkdown or safety valve instead of forcing the ball into traffic.

With a long track record of efficient play, Rodgers is able to stress the importance of ball security to his protégé. Wilson is seemingly hanging on his every word and subscribing to his preparation blueprint. It's clear to me that Rodgers has demonstrated exceptional leadership skills by modeling MVP-like behavior for the young quarterback to see.

Perhaps Rodgers always embraced the mentor role behind the scenes during his time in Green Bay and we didn't have Hard Knocks there to capture it. But we know the veteran has made it a point to connect with his teammates in New York. From attending sporting events with Sauce Gardner to scheduling lunches with teammates in the Jets' cafeteria, Rodgers has invested in the team, and the impact is reflected in how players respond to him when he is around them.

As a young player with the Buffalo Bills in 1994, I vividly remember hanging on Jim Kelly's every word as he attempted to teach me the finer points of wide receiver play. The eventual Hall of Fame inductee's willingness to share his knowledge and wisdom with me strengthened our bond as I attempted to make him proud with my production and performance.

As Rodgers commits to helping Wilson become a great player with the capacity to guide the franchise for what he hopes is a very long time, he is making a legacy play that could erase what I would describe as some leadership missteps that overshadowed his exit from Green Bay. Perhaps by mentoring Wilson, Rodgers' sage guidance will be emulated by his teammates in the future.

Though I have been critical of Rodgers in the past due to what I perceived as selfish behavior, the new-and-improved leader who has been showcased on Hard Knocks could help the Jets succeed now and after his career comes to an end, with Wilson there to take the baton as a rebuilt franchise quarterback.

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