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 a defense so relentless it could rise all the way to the top of the league ...
News of Carson Wentz's foot injury has cast a shadow over Indianapolis' Super Bowl aspirations, but I believe the key to the Colts making a deep playoff run has always been the performance of a defense that could be the NFL's best.
The uncertain availability of the Colts' QB1 heading into the season undoubtedly puts more pressure on defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus' unit. Fortunately, I believe his defense is ready for the challenge.
Earlier this week, star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner set the bar even higher in 2021 after the D ranked in the top 10 in both points and yards allowed last season.
"Last year, throughout the year, we played some great ball games," Buckner said, per Jim Ayello of the Indianapolis Star. "For me, looking back at [the] 2020 season, it's consistency. For a point in time, we were the No. 1 defense in the league. And then we kind of fell off towards the end. That's because there were certain games where we let off the gas pedal a little bit, or [there was a] miscommunication, or a missed tackle here and there. And for me, it's just consistency. If we're consistent from start to finish, I believe we could finish [as] the No. 1 defense in the league."
I am not mad at Buckner for touting a defense that features a collection of ultra-athletic players surging to the top of the charts. The group plays with an urgency and aggression that pops off the tape when I study the film. In fact, the Colts play harder than any defense I have studied over the past year, and their commitment to hustle makes them a nightmare to face each week. While most teams preach running to the ball and giving maximum effort on every play, the Colts match their words with their actions on the field.
Adhering to the H.I.T.S philosophy that Eberflus preaches on a daily basis, the Colts are committed to hustling, intensity, taking the ball away and being situationally smart. Each defender must exert maximum effort on every play or risk receiving a loaf grade from the coach. The exacting standard forces defenders to raise their effort level or deal with the wrath of a coach and a unit that places a premium on out-working opponents at every turn.
"Hustle is something that's paramount to successful football no matter offense, defense or special teams," Eberflus said last December, per Mike Chappell of FOX59.
With the Colts also emphasizing turnovers, particularly strips (forced fumbles), the combination of effort and ball hunting gives offenses headaches. Every skill player must be on alert when the ball is in their possession or run the risk of losing the ball to a punch-out from a set of defenders chasing from every angle. The constant harassment not only tests the toughness and discipline of ball-carriers, but it creates a pressurized environment that makes some players wilt in critical moments.
From a personnel perspective, GM Chris Ballard has armed Eberflus with a stable of explosive athletes who have non-stop motors and ASAP attitudes. Buckner is the prototype on the frontline as a long, rangy athlete with size and strength. The 6-foot-7, 295-pounder is built like a basketball power forward but plays like a bull in a china shop on the field.
The Colts complement his freakish talents with an All-Pro linebacker who possesses extraordinary range and a nasty disposition in Darius Leonard. The fourth-year pro is a tackling machine and dynamic playmaker with a nose for the ball. He has collected 400-plus tackles, 26 tackles for loss, 17 QB hits, 15 sacks, seven interceptions and nine forced fumbles in 42 career games.
With Buckner and Leonard serving as the building blocks of a unit that outworks opponents at every turn, it wasn't a surprise to see the Colts add a dynamic athlete to the roster this offseason to help the defense go to another level. The team selected Kwity Paye with the 21st overall pick of the 2021 draft to upgrade the speed and athleticism on the frontline. The Michigan product is a relentless pursuer with explosive first-step quickness and burst. He could emerge as a double-digit sack producer playing opposite Buckner, who will command double-team attention from opponents.
With the Colts capable of pressuring the passer utilizing four-man rushes, Eberflus can dial up simplistic coverages that enable his second-level defenders to play fast in the back end. While the Colts skew heavily toward a zone-based approach with linebackers and defensive backs playing with their eyes on the quarterback, the team's increased utilization of man-to-man coverage has led to stickier coverage in key moments.
Indianapolis' combination of pass rush and coverage resulted in 40 sacks (tied for 12th) and 25 takeaways (tied for fifth) last season, including 15 interceptions and a league-high four pick-sixes. Moreover, it was a key to the team returning to the playoffs after a one-year absence. Given another chance to grow as a unit with more explosiveness added to the mix, no one should be surprised if the Colts' hustle-hard tactics make their defense the premier unit in football this season.
DAVANTE ADAMS: Pay the man!
If the NFL is really a what have you done for me lately league, it's time for the Green Bay Packers to open up the vault for Davante Adams. The eighth-year receiver earned All-Pro honors for the first time in 2020 after posting 115 catches, 1,374 receiving yards and a league-high 18 touchdowns. The outstanding performance marked the second time that Adams has finished a season with 110-plus catches and at least 1,300 yards. In addition, it capped off an impressive five-year run in which Adams scored 58 touchdowns in 71 games.
That is not only the kind of production that secures a legacy as an all-time great but it's also the type of résumé builder that typically results in a big payday. However, my colleague Ian Rapoport reported last week that Adams and the Packers broke off contract talks. Adams wants to be the league's highest-paid receiver and has said he doesn't intend to restart negotiations with the team during the season.
"I'm not gonna get too far into details about the numbers and all of that stuff, but I like to say that I've outperformed my last contract or my current contract," Adams told reporters on Wednesday. "I'm going to keep elevating. At the end of the day, however it pans out, it pans out that way and I'm going to think long and hard about how everything goes. At this point, like I said, I'm here for my teammates and I'm really excited to be back. I told you guys before -- I'm a man of my word and I'm ready to play."
To Adams' point, he has certainly outplayed his contract based on his production as the Packers' No. 1 receiver. He is clearly the team's most explosive playmaker on the perimeter and his ascension as a premier receiver should result in a huge raise. Surveying the league, Arizona Cardinals WR DeAndre Hopkins sits at the top of the food chain with a $27.5 million annual salary that reset the wide receiver market last year. Now, the devil is in the details when it comes to contracts, as the Packers reportedly view Hopkins' average salary as closer to $20 million annually. Regardless, Hopkins' deal made the mid-$20 million mark the new target for elite receivers in today's game, and the Packers can forget about receiving a hometown discount from Adams.
Given those factors, the Packers should expect to pony up at least $25 million annually in a long-term deal for a receiver who has averaged 103 catches, 1,252 yards, and 12 touchdowns over the past three seasons. The four-time Pro Bowl selectee's standing as one the game's best was reinforced again recently with his inclusion in the Madden video game's 99 Club.
Considering how the Packers recently appeased their disgruntled MVP quarterback with a reworked deal, team president/CEO Mark Murphy and Co. should take a proactive approach and give Adams the blockbuster deal that he deserves.
DINK AND DUNK
The improved aspect of CeeDee Lamb's game. Keep an eye on the young Cowboys wide receiver as a "super" sophomore with breakout potential. The No. 17 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft has been the star of the Cowboys' training camp as a spectacular playmaker transitioning into a bigger role as an interchangeable weapon on the perimeter.
With Amari Cooper sidelined while recovering from offseason surgery, Lamb has taken his game up a notch while splitting time between the slot and out wide. Watching the 6-foot-2, 198-pound pass catcher at practice this week, I believe he has refined his route-running skills to better complement his acrobatic pass-catching prowess. The improved patience, timing and burst of his break has enabled him to more consistently separate against tight coverage without playing sandlot football on the grass. Moreover, the polished technique has made him a tougher matchup on the perimeter, allowing offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to become more creative with his personnel deployment and schematic designs.
With the Cowboys welcome Dak Prescott back to the lineup, Lamb's improvement could help one of the most explosive aerial attacks become more dynamic this season.
Steelers rookie Najee Harris worthy of the hype. I am not the least bit surprised to hear the glowing reports on Najee Harris at the Steelers' camp. The first running back selected in the 2021 draft has been as good as advertised as a hybrid playmaker with RB1/WR2 potential.
The 6-foot-2, 229-pounder is a freak show at the position as a big man with nimble feet and soft hands. He reminds my Move The Sticks podcast partner Daniel Jeremiah of Matt Forte, and that comparison hits the mark when you look at Forte's unique ability to impact the game as a runner and receiver.
In Pittsburgh, Harris will remind Steelers fans of Le'Veon Bell based on his crafty style as a playmaker. He can align out wide to run routes like a wide receiver or punish defenders between the tackles on old-school power plays. The combination of Harris' scheme and Matt Canada's unorthodox scheme could jump-start a Steelers offense that struggled down the stretch in 2020.
If Harris masters the nuances of the playbook early in the season, the former Alabama star is my pick to walk away with the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
To invest or not to invest in Stephon Gilmore? Bill Belichick has a decision to make on Stephon Gilmore, who reported to training camp despite his discontent with his current contract. But if I am Belichick, I would let the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year play out his deal without offering an extension or restructured agreement. Despite Gilmore's exceptional play throughout his tenure with the Patriots, the team should pause before investing in a near-31-year-old cornerback coming off a quadriceps injury that prematurely ended his season and landed him on the PUP list to begin camp. The combination of age and a hint of decline would make it hard for me to pay top-of-the-market prices for the two-time All-Pro.
I know I might be in the minority when it comes to my view on Gilmore at this stage of his career, but the Patriots' preferred man-to-man coverage tactics lead me to let him walk instead of committing to more years. The wear and tear of running up and down the field in games and practices eventually leads to diminishing returns, and I would prefer to avoid paying big money for a depreciating asset.
Plus, the Patriots have a young star in the fold in J.C. Jackson -- currently occupying the CB2 spot on the roster. The fourth-year pro has shown promise as a lockdown defender with 17 career interceptions, including nine in 2020. With Jackson capable of stepping into the No. 1 role as a 25-year-old, I would commit to the younger, cheaper player and find a 2022 replacement for Gilmore in the draft or free agency.
That is how the Patriots moved on from Ty Law, Darrelle Revis, Aqib Talib and others in the past, and that is exactly how I would move on if I was running the team today.