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 some suspect evaluations from the preeminent football video game ...
As a former scout and avid gamer, I appreciate the grand annual undertaking that is the Madden NFL player ratings. By studying game film, analyzing statistics, perusing scouting reports and even reviewing NFL Scouting Combine performances, the Madden team scores players on dozens of attributes, ultimately coming up with an overall rating on the 0-to-99 scale.
Basically, the folks at Electronic Arts assemble a scouting department, simulating what offseason life is like for NFL coaches, executives and scouts. No grading system is perfect, but I respect EA's process. In fact, I respect it so much that I'm here to seriously critique the final product.
Throughout this week, EA has been rolling out player ratings for Madden NFL 23. Four players have received the highest mark of a 99: Las Vegas Raiders WR Davante Adams, Los Angeles Rams DT Aaron Donald, Cleveland Browns DE Myles Garrett and San Francisco 49ers OT Trent Williams. I don't really have any issues with those ratings, but some others raised an eyebrow.
Poring over the ratings and thoroughly examining each of the traits and characteristics assigned to each player, I believe the Madden NFL 23 team has some misevaluations. I have been in the scouting business long enough to know that every player assessment is subjective, but that's what makes this process so fun. As a scout in an NFL organization, you're tasked with going to the front of the room and defending your report before your peers in the building. Questions are asked, doubts are cast and full-on disagreements are voiced. Similarly, when EA drops its ratings to the world, we're all here to pick 'em apart.
So, without further ado, here are five egregious ratings in Madden NFL 23:
The former league MVP played far better than most people realized last season, as the severely short-handed Falcons could've finished much worse than 7-10. Ryan routinely kept his team in games without an established No. 1 in the receiving corps or a true workhorse RB in the backfield. Not to mention, Atlanta's offensive line finished at No. 27 in Pro Football Focus' rankings. So while his decade-long streak of 4,000-yard passing seasons came to an end, "Matty Ice" performed admirably in difficult circumstances. Now the veteran QB has moved to a better team with superior offensive personnel. With Jonathan Taylor by his side and Indianapolis' offensive line up front, Ryan could easily play at an all-star level and guide the Colts back to the top of an underwhelming AFC South for the first time since 2014. Moreover, the opportunity to collaborate with Frank Reich could enable the 37-year-old to remind the football world of his greatness as a dart thrower from the pocket. An 81 rating, which ranks 15th among quarterbacks, is just too low.
Few running backs in the league can match McCaffrey's all-around skill set, but the 26-year-old playmaker hasn't been on the field much since his 1,000/1,000 campaign in 2019. McCaffrey has missed 23 games over the past two seasons while dealing with an assortment of injuries that have prevented him from showcasing his extraordinary talents as a runner/receiver. So at this moment, a 96 rating -- the second-highest mark among all RBs, trailing only Derrick Henry -- just isn't right. Availability's a crucial ability.
Why is the most dynamic playmaker in football today not slotted somewhere among the top 10 receivers? With an 89 rating, Deebo ranks behind guys like Amari Cooper and Tyler Lockett. Sure, Samuel's route-running might not be as precise as some others, but the first-team All-Pro's combination of RAC (run after catch) ability and positional flexibility makes him one of the few unicorns in the NFL today. With 1,405 receiving yards, including the second-highest YAC (yards after catch) figure in the league (780), he's clearly a force to be reckoned with in the passing game. Then you add in the 365 yards and eight touchdowns he provided on the ground, significantly impacting the game as a wingback-like playmaker on the perimeter. Samuel's versatility and explosiveness separate him from others at the position, but the Madden evaluators failed to give him extra credit for his unique talents.
Despite collecting the third-most sacks (27.5) in the NFL over the past two seasons, the Pro Bowler didn't even crack the top 20 among edge rushers, receiving a grade of just 85. Maybe it's because his game lacks sex appeal. As a high-motor pass rusher with violent hands and crafty moves, Hendrickson wears down opponents with a relentless approach. Bottom line: Hendrickson deserves more props as a blue-collar, blue-chip stud.
The Madden rankings might value lockdown coverage skills over play-making ability, but turnovers have an enormous impact on the outcome of games -- and no one takes away the ball more routinely than Diggs, who just led the league with 11 interceptions in his second season. Still just 23 years old, Diggs boasts exceptional instincts, awareness and ball skills. Although his critics point to the yards he allows, today's NFL game is about taking the ball away on defense. Diggs' ability to come up with timely interceptions played a key role in the Cowboys' resurgence a season ago.
Kyler gets PAID! Now what in Arizona?
The negotiating process seemed to get prickly at times, with Kyler Murray scrubbing references to the Cardinals from his social media accounts and his agent issuing a strongly worded statement detailing his case for a new deal heading into Year 4 of his rookie contract. But on Thursday, Arizona ownership committed to the 2019 Offensive Rookie of the Year for the long term, handing him a five-year, $230.5 million extension (including $160 million in guarantees).
Considering how well Murray, 24, has performed as the team's starter since Arizona drafted him first overall in 2019, it certainly makes sense to build around him. As one of just two players with 10,000 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards in his first three seasons (the other being Cam Newton), the fourth-year pro is an electric playmaker with dynamic dual-threat skills. He torches opponents with his feet and arm, as evidenced by his 70 passing touchdowns and 20 rushing scores throughout his career.
Murray has steadily improved as a passer and playmaker each season. He finished 2021 with career-best numbers in completion percentage (69.2), passing yards per game (270.5), passing yards per attempt (7.9) and passer rating (100.6), ranking within the top eight in the NFL in each of those respective categories.
Don't let the upward-trending passing numbers overshadow Murray's electric skills as a runner; defensive coordinators are certainly aware of his big-play potential on the edges. According to Pro Football Focus, Murray ranks second among quarterbacks with 64 explosive runs (runs of 10-plus yards) and in rushing yards before contact (746) since 2019, behind only the Ravens' Lamar Jackson in both categories. With Murray's dynamic skills posing a serious challenge for opponents ill-equipped to deal with his speed, quickness and arm talent, the Cardinals have been able to light up scoreboards around the league whenever No. 1 has been healthy.
Critics frequently point out that the Cardinals have faded in each of the past two seasons. Injuries to Murray certainly contributed to those slides. Moving forward, though, he must be able to put the team on his back down the stretch, even when nagging injuries pop up throughout the year.
When a quarterback enters the $40 million club, he is expected to mask his team's biggest flaws, from personnel to the scheme, with his performance and production. That is the standard for quarterbacks receiving "elite" pay, and Murray must rise to the occasion for Arizona to maximize its potential with him at the helm.
Murray also must embody the role of unquestioned franchise player by following through on the team's desire, per a February report from NFL Network's Mike Garafolo, for him to "take a step forward" in areas like "maturity, body language on the sideline, having a bigger voice with his teammates and leadership." Murray must ensure his actions match his words as he builds relationships with his teammates on each side of the ball. He has to earn the respect of everyone in the building.
Murray certainly has the potential to join the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Josh Allen as a top-five player if he lives up to his potential this season. If he can continue to grow as a passer while evolving into an A+ playmaker from the pocket, the Cardinals will see this deal as a good bargain in a few years.
Saints make case for NFL's best D in 2022
Ah, the eve of training camp -- that time of year when NFL players make bold predictions for the coming season. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson joined the party last week on NFL Network's Good Morning Football. Asked if New Orleans owns the NFL's best defense, the defensive back didn't hesitate.
"Of course -- I mean from first level, second level, third level," Gardner-Johnson said. "I mean, you got Cam (Jordan) and the front to pop it off -- Shy (Tuttle), Marcus Davenport. Then you got Demario (Davis) in the middle calling all the shots. ... You saw what they were doing last year with ... Pete (Werner), (Kaden) Elliss, all those guys in the middle. Then the back end, bringing in the Honey Badger (Tyrann Mathieu). We just had a Super Bowl safety, two-time Super Bowl safety (Malcolm Jenkins), now we are bringing in another hometown hero, won a Super Bowl, Pro Bowler. So he knows, and we know what to expect. We're just going to go out there and dominate and take advantage of the opportunity. 'Cause all this talent, why not? Can't waste it."
While Gardner-Johnson has been known to run his mouth, the fourth-year pro truly might be onto something. In 2021, New Orleans ranked in the top five in several defensive categories, including points per game allowed, rush yards per game allowed, opposing passer rating and red zone defense. This season, the Saints not only have enough blue-chip players to compete at a championship level, but their creative schemes should enable the talent to overwhelm opponents.
This week, I spoke to a pair of former Saints defensive backs, Malcolm Jenkins and Jairus Byrd, and they could not stop singing Dennis Allen's praises as a defensive play-caller. Each lauded the new head coach's intelligence, communication skills and creativity, while also pointing to his leadership ability as a major factor in the defense's success.
Jenkins, in particular, raved about Allen's preparation and his process for getting the defense ready to play. The former safety, who recently retired after 13 NFL seasons, discussed Allen's ability to adapt and adjust to his personnel while simultaneously attacking the opponent's biggest weakness. With a playbook that features myriad blitzes and coverage packages, opposing quarterbacks and play-callers are unable to get a clear read on what the Saints will do each week.
To utilize a multi-faceted approach, Allen must have enough Swiss Army Knives at his disposal to maximize the unit's versatility. From a defensive backfield that houses a number of cornerback-safety hybrids (P.J. Williams, Alontae Taylor, Mathieu and Gardner-Johnson) to a linebacking duo offering edge-rush potential and blitz ability (Davis and Werner) to a front featuring pass rushers possessing the ability to attack from an upright position or a three-point stance (Jordan and Davenport), the Saints' personnel enables Allen to spin the wheel when it comes to dialing up pressures and blitzes from any angle.
With a collection of players possessing the intelligence and versatility to bring his Xs and Os to life, Allen's Saints have a chance to make Gardner-Johnson sound like a prophet by the end of the season.