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:
-- Five one-year contracts that could pay MAJOR dividends.
-- One rookie who could lift a team back into Super Bowl contention.
But first, a look at a concerning trend at the game's most important position ...
Pro Football Hall of Fame executive Ron Wolf caught a lot of flak for his recent comments on Aaron Rodgers and the drama-heavy nature of quarterbacks around the league, but I applaud the Green Bay Packers' former general manager for saying what needs to be said about the temper tantrums that we have seen from some of the league's elite quarterbacks of late.
"There is a huge change, and it started with Russell Wilson," Wolf said Monday on The Wendy's Big Show with LeRoy Butler, Gary Ellerson and Steve "Sparky" Fifer. "Then went to (Deshaun) Watson, and now we got Rodgers. And it appears that today's quarterbacks want to be more than quarterbacks. In my time, they were hired to play the position (of) quarterback. That's what they're being paid for and that's what they're being paid to do. These guys, they want to pick the coach, pick the players -- it's an interesting dilemma."
I know that we have romanticized this position and all that it entails, but quarterbacks are still players and should not be making personnel decisions for the front office. Sure, they should be encouraged to provide input, but certainly shouldn't have final say. Despite the notion that the NFL is undergoing an NBA-like empowerment movement with the players having a more prominent voice in personnel matters and transactions, it's still my belief that the NFL is a team-centric enterprise with the name on the front of the jersey valued more than the names on the back.
Before you @ me suggesting that I'm just sipping the corporate Kool-Aid, I'll point to some recent Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks whose teams were clearly built outside of their purview. Take Tom Brady for example. You know, the seven-time champion who just hoisted his fourth Lombardi Trophy in the past seven seasons? Although the Buccaneers added a few TB12 friends -- most notably Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown -- they were the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. The bulk of the Buccaneers' core was already in place. Brady was the final piece, not the fundamental building block. And whether it was Mike Evans and Chris Godwin on the perimeter of an offense bolstered by a homegrown offensive line or a dynamic defense with a monstrous front and a swift linebacking corps, the Buccaneers hoisted the Lombardi Trophy as a team. This was NOT a one-man show -- far from it.
I know that opinion does not fit the narrative that exists in a media landscape with quarterbacks-turned-broadcasters dominating the booth, but the best teams win championships. The QB1 is a piece of the puzzle, albeit a big piece. I understand why quarterbacks are the highest-paid players on most teams, with contracts that eat up significant chunks of the salary cap, but the big-money deals have clouded how we view QB1s and how they view themselves in the team hierarchy.
Wolf's frustration stems from three high-profile quarterback dramas over the past five months. First, Watson became "extremely unhappy" with the Texans for failing to involve him in the team's GM hiring. (Though, obviously, Watson is facing far bigger concerns off the field at the moment.) Next, it was Wilson conducting a media tour to point out all of the errors of the Seahawks' ways. (Yes, just this week, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll claimed this is "old news" -- we'll see about that.) And over the past month, we've seen Rodgers stage a quiet protest in Green Bay while cronies carry out his message.
"All three of these guys have signed long-term contracts, and they're under contract," Wolf said this week. "So I'm sure, at that time, there wasn't anybody holding a gun to their head saying, 'You have to sign.' But now, they're not happy. They're not happy with the team they signed a contract with.
"We've got a lot of divas playing in the league right now."
Wolf's viewpoint on how a number of quarterbacks operate in 2021 matches my own: They want all of the cash and power, but none of the responsibility and accountability that comes with it. When the team fails to advance to the Super Bowl, the quarterback and his supporters point to the lack of help around him. Yet, the quarterbacks making the most money also restrict a team's ability to surround him with premier talent. That is part of the reason why we rarely see the most highly compensated quarterbacks winning the season's final game. It is extremely challenging to build up the other parts of the team while paying the quarterback top-of-the-food-chain money. To do so, the team must knock it out of the park in the draft, where a franchise can benefit from cheap labor with big-time production potential. While these teams can also fill holes with veterans playing on minimum contracts as yearly rentals, the bulk of the roster must consist of younger players playing on their original rookie contracts.
And while we're talkin' contracts ... How much of this drama revolves around the almighty dollar? While many analysts and observers offer myriad reasons for the discontentment from the disgruntled quarterbacks, I think the real issue behind their bruised feelings could be contractual. It's never a bad idea to follow the money, is it?
Remember back on that wild first day of the 2021 NFL Draft, when the Rodgers news kicked into overdrive? NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported on that Thursday that the quarterback and the Packers had been negotiating a contract for weeks, and at times during the negotiations, Rodgers had been unhappy. Per Rapoport, Rodgers wanted a long-term extension with contractual security, but did not want a restructure.
Fresh off his third MVP campaign in a Hall of Fame career, Rodgers still has three years left on his existing contract -- as does Wilson. But the old heads have been surpassed on the annual salary front by the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott and Watson, who all now average at least $39 million per year. Oh, and Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson are poised to join the $40 Million QB Club in the very near future. I believe all of this is relevant information when it comes to the turmoil surrounding Rodgers and Wilson.
I also believe that Ron Wolf speaks the truth: Some franchise quarterbacks think they should run the franchise -- and that, as the Hall of Fame GM said, is quite a dilemma.
ONE-YEAR RENTALS: Five that could really pay off
The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted more teams and free agents to opt for short-term deals that fit under a reduced salary cap structure, offering players a chance to bet on themselves this season.
For players, a one-year deal puts more pressure on them to perform at a high level, but teams usually welcome the opportunity to take advantage of a one-year rental with upside. If the player performs at an all-star level, he could help the team achieve its 2021 goals while giving coaches and executives an opportunity to test drive the car before making a decision on whether to make a long-term commitment.
With the vast majority of the top free agents having signed a contract by now, I believe this is the perfect time to survey the landscape to see which guys playing on one-year deals could provide the biggest impact this season. Here are my top five to watch:
The 2019 NFL passing yards leader could parlay a successful stint with Who Dat Nation into a lucrative payday with the Saints or another quarterback-needy team. Head coach Sean Payton has said he's anticipating a competition between Winston and Taysom Hill to become Drew Brees' successor, but I expect Winston to be the QB1 with Hill serving in the gadget role he's played in the past. Winston adds a different dimension to the Saints' offense as a deep-ball thrower with unlimited range. He will push the ball down the field more than his predecessor, but he must avoid the costly turnovers that plagued him with the Buccaneers. If Winston curbs his giveaways while leaning into Payton's creative play designs, the former No. 1 overall pick could finally realize his potential as a franchise quarterback.
The big-play specialist forces opponents to soften up their coverage as they try to defend the length and width of the field against his speed. Not surprisingly, Fuller finished sixth in the league last season with an average of 16.6 yards per catch. He also scored eight touchdowns in his 11 games (missed the last five due to a suspension that will be complete after Week 1 of the 2021 season) while acting as the Texans' No. 1 receiver. In Miami, the speedster will loosen up the coverage to create more room for DeVante Parker, Jaylen Waddle and Mike Gesicki to operate between the numbers. Moreover, the veteran's explosiveness as a deep threat and catch-and-run specialist could help Tua Tagovailoa find his way as a quick-rhythm passer.
The two-time Pro Bowl selectee reunites with former Bears DC Vic Fangio to give the Broncos a legitimate CB1 on the perimeter -- and an accomplished veteran to mentor first-round pick Patrick Surtain II. Fuller enjoyed the best season of his career under Fangio in Chicago with a league-best seven interceptions and 21 passes defensed in 2018, earning first-team All-Pro honors. With Bradley Chubb and Von Miller heating up quarterbacks off the edges, Fuller could regain his all-star form as one of the premier cover corners in the AFC.
Coming off a breakthrough year with the Cardinals, Reddick reunites with his college head coach and defensive coordinator. Matt Rhule and Phil Snow, who coached Reddick at Temple, will tap into his versatility to upgrade a pass rush that registered just 29 sacks last season (tied for 23rd in the league). The former first-round pick notched 12.5 sacks, 16 quarterback hits and 50 pressures in 2020, flashing a non-stop motor and impressive first-step quickness. Playing for a couple of coaches who understand his game and how to maximize his talents, Reddick could rate as the bargain of the free-agent class when we review this signing at the end of the season.
The biggest boom-or-bust player in the NFL could re-emerge as a difference-maker for the Browns playing opposite Myles Garrett. Clowney's combination of strength, power and explosiveness makes him an A+ run defender with the potential to create chaos off the edge as a pass rusher. Although he failed to post a sack in eight games with the Titans last season and recorded just three QB takedowns the year before in Seattle, the three-time Pro Bowler could collect a number of garbage sacks with opponents intent on keeping Garrett in check on passing downs.
STEELERS: Is rookie RB Najee Harris the savior?
It is rare for a rookie to save a perennial contender from falling off its lofty perch, but if you listen to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Najee Harris might be the answer to the team's Super Bowl prayers.
I know Steelers fans might expect Ben Roethlisberger to be the one cited to guide the Steel City to its seventh title, but the team's playoff hopes hinge on whether a rookie running back can play at a Pro Bowl level reminiscent of what Pittsburgh got from the position in Le'Veon Bell's glory days. The Alabama product has similar skills as an RB1/WR2 talent, and his ability to create explosive plays as a runner and receiver will add a much-needed dimension to an offense that has lost its luster in recent years.
"I think as a defender, we're most excited to have him," Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward said of Harris on NFL Network's Good Morning Football earlier this week. "Having a guy like that that can tote the rock 30 to 40 times a game really puts an ease for the defense. He can do multiple things. I think the investment in our offense this offseason has been huge."
The skeptics did not like the Steelers spending a first-round pick on a running back in the 2021 NFL Draft, but the addition of an elite playmaker in the backfield will help the team play complementary football, particularly near the end of the season when teams are making a playoff push.
"I think we lost a lot of gas as we went down that stretch," Heyward said. "I think our balance between our offense and defense wasn't great. We weren't getting off the field as much we were earlier in the season, and then our offense couldn't sustain drives. You compound all that together, and it wasn't a great success. Going forward, I think we can continue to keep growing."
Offensive balance is critical for a team with an aging quarterback under center. Despite Roethlisberger putting up solid numbers in his 17th pro season, the Steelers should not expect the 39-year-old passer to continue carrying the offensive load.
"We know he's an explosive quarterback that can throw the ball all over the field," Heyward said of Big Ben. "But I think around (him), we've just got to be complementary, whether it's on offense, defense, special teams. Ben's still got the goods. Anyone that tells you otherwise, they haven't really looked at football. You give that guy a good running game and tell him he doesn't have to throw the ball 50, 60 times, he's going to be that much more dangerous, and I think we're looking forward to that. It's going to be pretty good longevity-wise if he wants to keep playing."
Insert Harris into the lineup and the Steelers, who ranked dead last in rushing last season, have a three-down back with big-play potential when the ball's in his hands. At Alabama, he displayed outstanding balance, body control and burst as a runner and spectacular skills as a route runner in the passing game. With Big Ben better suited to play small ball at this stage of his career, the addition of a versatile, big-bodied back with soft hands gives the Steelers' offense another dimension.
For a team that jumped out to an 11-0 start before the wheels fell off at the end of the 2020 season, the Harris pickup could help the Steelers make another run at a title with Big Ben in the twilight of his career.