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 an intriguing young quarterback who's really starting to look like a keeper ...
It's hard to find a franchise quarterback in the NFL. That's why teams must be careful not to undervalue anyone who flashes QB1 potential early in his career.
In Philadelphia, Jalen Hurts had his moments last season as a rookie, but he went 1-3 in a four-game starting stint and entered the 2021 campaign with plenty of skeptics. The choir of critics isn't quite as loud now that the 2020 second-round pick is beginning to showcase the kind of talent that could allow him to become an effective, long-term starter with the Eagles.
The second-year pro has displayed the intelligence, athleticism and management skills needed to lead a winning team. Just a game out of the final NFC wild-card slot at 4-6, the Eagles have won two of their last three contests by relying heavily on a run-based offense that plays to the QB's strengths. Moreover, I believe Hurts has the it factor that often separates the good ones from the greats at the position.
I am not suggesting Hurts is a top-five quarterback at this stage of his career -- he's not -- but he reminds me a lot of a young Dak Prescott, who is an MVP candidate for the first-place Cowboys in Year 6. I mentioned this comparison throughout the pre-draft evaluation process for Hurts based on their similar physical attributes (Hurts is 6-foot-1, 223 pounds; Prescott measures 6-2, 238) and playing styles.
As a rugged quarterback with the size, strength and willingness to embrace the physicality of the pro game, Hurts is a dual-threat playmaker who can execute designed quarterback runs and zone-read/power-read concepts in the running game. In addition, he flashes some improvisational skills as a scrambler when traditional pass plays from the pocket break down due to pressure or tight coverage on the perimeter.
Hurts' legs have helped Philadelphia's running game become one of the best in football, and a heightened commitment to the ground attack has fueled the team's improved performance of late. The Eagles rank third this season in rushing offense at 144.3 yards per game, and they lead the NFL with an average of 208.7 yards per outing since Week 8. Philadelphia has three players ranked in the top 11 in rushing yards over this three-week span, with Hurts (186) joining Jordan Howard (211) and Boston Scott (186) on the list. In Weeks 1-7, Philly had 96 carries by RBs, the fewest of any team in its first seven games since the 2014 Jaguars. The Eagles have 91 rush attempts by RBs since Week 8, which is the second-most in the league.
While Hurts ranks second only to Lamar Jackson in rushing among QBs this season, it would be a huge mistake to cast him as a run-first quarterback who is only capable of succeeding with his legs. In fact, since making his first career start in Week 14 of last season, Hurts has posted the second-best touchdown-to-interception ratio (19:9) over that span of any current rookie or second-year starter (Justin Herbert is first with a ratio of 27:8). Considering Hurts has amassed 4,000-plus scrimmage yards (3,220 pass; 903 rush) and 27 total scores during that time frame, it is hard to dispute his production at the position.
That said, the young QB1 still needs to become a more refined player from the pocket. Hurts tends to miss a handful of routine throws each week, and his propensity for fleeing the pocket -- particularly to his right -- limits the Eagles' passing game. Some of his issues could be resolved with improved play designs that fully tap into his skills as a movement passer. How about adding in more play-action passes that make the game easier for him in the pocket?
The increased utilization of those concepts will help Hurts become more efficient in the passing game while catering to his skills as a mobile playmaker. Eagles coach Nick Sirianni has attempted to blend in some concepts from the Oklahoma and Alabama playbooks that worked for Hurts in college to ease the transition, but building on those play designs is essential to helping the 23-year-old reach his potential as a QB1.
With the Eagles currently holding three picks in the first round of next year's draft, GM Howie Roseman will have options to consider when it comes to the quarterback position, between spending a pick on a signal-caller and exploring opportunities to trade for a veteran. However, given the recent success of the Eagles' offense after a renewed commitment to the running game with Hurts featured as the centerpiece, it appears the team has a potential franchise quarterback in house. Hurts is a promising young player who has made strides in all areas over the past two seasons. If he finishes strong down the stretch, the Eagles would be wise to hitch their wagon to No. 1 as their QB1 for 2022 and beyond.
HAASON REDDICK: Proving breakout was no fluke
For the overwhelming majority of NFL players, the No. 1 factor in determining whether they are successful or not is how well they fit within their team's scheme. Most players hate being labeled as "system" guys, but there are only a handful of transcendent players who do not need to play in schemes that enhance their skills as a playmaker.
That's why we should not be surprised that Haason Reddick is continuing to ascend as a top-notch playmaker in Carolina after reuniting with head coach Matt Rhule and defensive coordinator Phil Snow, who coached Reddick during his collegiate career at Temple.
Reddick currently ranks fifth in the NFL with 9.5 sacks after breaking out with 12.5 sacks a season ago with the Cardinals. Considering he is well ahead of that pace through 10 games, it is apparent that the Panthers' coaching staff's familiarity with the ultra-versatile hybrid defender has helped them put together a plan that enabled him to flourish as a pass rusher this season. It's been a remarkable turnaround over the past season and a half for Reddick, a first-round pick in 2017 who had just 7.5 sacks in his first three seasons combined.
"Guys, do you know Haason went to Temple as a corner?" Snow said this summer, per the team's official website. "And then we used him at linebacker and then we put him at defensive end, and then he really flourished.
"He's got some unique abilities, and we've got to utilize that. Some things he does well and some he doesn't, so I've got to put him in positions that can really flourish."
After reviewing the All-22 Coaches Film, it is apparent that Snow's experience with Reddick has helped him maximize the veteran's talents as an edge defender.
As one of the fastest pass rushers on the field (Reddick clocked a 4.52 -second 40-yard dash at the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine), he utilizes a variety of speed-rush maneuvers from a two-point stance to slip past blockers on the edges. The Panthers set him up for success by featuring "creeper" pressures, a term coaches use to describe the tactic of using a few second-level defenders to attack the quarterback while some down linemen drop into coverage. The unorthodox four-man pressures give the illusion of a blitz but are traditional rushes with max coverage (seven defenders) to take away hot routes and sight adjustments. Since Reddick is a hybrid defender with the ability to rush the passer or drop into coverage, the Panthers are able to utilize "prowler" techniques (defenders stand up and walk around the box before rushing the passer or dropping back into coverage) to confuse the quarterback and disrupt the pass protection.
The disguise and constant movement create some free runs to the quarterback for Reddick and Co. when the offense blows an assignment due to a misread or miscommunication. The clever utilization of traditional rushes and five-man blitzes as complements to the creative pressures have made No. 43 a more difficult rusher to contain opposite another speedster in Brian Burns.
The Panthers inked Reddick to a one-year, $6 million deal in the offseason, and it's looking like one of the best bargains of the offseason. With a little more than half of the season in the books, the fifth-year defender is showing all-star potential under coaches who know him best, and that could lead to a big payday for him in 2022.
Why does Kyle Shanahan absolutely OWN Sean McVay?
It is always fascinating to watch matchups between teacher and pupil in the NFL. The shared thoughts, ideas and schematics make for an interesting chess match on the gridiron, particularly when Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay meet in a battle of innovative offensive minds.
While most would expect these contests to go back and forth with each coach claiming a fair share of wins, the 49ers' head coach owns his counterpart based on his five-game winning streak over the Rams.
Perhaps Shanahan simply knows how to manipulate Aaron Donald and Co. with his creative pre-snap shifts and motions before punching the Rams in the mouth with a power-based running game that tests the physicality and toughness of the unit. That is why he could boldly stand in front of his players and tell them he wanted to run the ball at least 40 times in a prime-time matchup that turned into a lopsided win.
Think about that. A coach of a sub-.500 squad believed he could run the ball at will against a team that's considered a top Super Bowl contender. The competitive arrogance suggests Shanahan knows he owns McVay and the Rams, and he calls the game with an aggressive mentality that reflects his confidence.
After watching the 49ers play their best game of the season against the division rival, I am wondering why this version of the team -- and play-caller -- has not been on display more this season. The 49ers who showed up on Monday night could go toe to toe with any team in the league.
On offense, in particular, the combination of scheme and personnel poses a problem for most opponents. San Francisco's 21 personnel grouping features four hybrid players (Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle and Kyle Juszczyk) with the capacity to align anywhere within the formation. With each playmaker capable of filling multiple roles or playing different positions (SEE: Samuels at tailback or Juszczyk at tight end), the Niners can bust up defensive plans by presenting a variety of looks from the same personnel package.
While the multiplicity and versatility of the 49ers' personnel are problematic for opposing defenses, it is the challenge of defending Shanahan's diverse running game that gives defensive coordinators sleepless nights. The team runs an assortment of zone concepts and pin-and-pull plays that are enhanced by the constant pre-snap shifting and motions that divert the eyes of defenders. With Elijah Mitchell and others attacking downhill like bulls released from the pen, the old-school runs are just as effective as ever in the Bay Area.
That's why I would not dismiss San Francisco's chances of getting back on track after a confidence-building win over a rival and coaching colleague. Shanahan's continued dominance of McVay might be the spark the 49ers needed to rediscover their offensive superpowers this season.
Packers could hit Super Bowl with elite ... defense?
Please do not make the mistake of viewing the Green Bay Packers (8-2) as a one-man show whose hopes hinge solely on the performance of a three-time MVP. While that narrative has hung over this franchise for years, the Packers are legitimate title contenders this season due to a championship-caliber defense that is rounding into form under new defensive coordinator Joe Barry.
I know we aren't used to discussing the defense as the driving force of a team that has been quarterback-centric for three decades, but this D has the potential to make the old-timers crack a smile when watching them play. Yes, Green Bay is playing the kind of defense that would make the greats of the Vince Lombardi era nod in approval.
Heading into this week's game in Minnesota, the Packers rank third in the NFL in scoring defense (18.0 points per game), total defense (309.9 total yards allowed per game), passing defense (202.7 pass yards per game) and opposing passer rating (82.4). If that's not impressive enough, the Packers have allowed just 34 total points in their last three games, with strong performances against some of the NFL's top quarterbacks. Over the past three weeks, Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson combined for a 56.4 percent completion rate, one passing touchdown, four interceptions and a 59.7 passer rating against the Packers. Green Bay's 11.3 points per game allowed since Week 8 ranks first in the NFL, reflecting the dominance of a unit that has keyed the team's surge to the top of the NFC.
Considering the Packers have played great defense without the services of several defensive stars, including Za'Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander, it might be time to pencil in the NFC North leaders as the front-runners to represent the conference in Super Bowl LVI. I am not overhyping the Packers based on short-term success, but this franchise has fielded a top-three scoring defense in each of its four Super Bowl-winning outfits, including the 1996 team that I briefly played on.
While this year's squad does not have the star power of those Super Bowl winners, the Packers are winning with a collection of athletic, blue-collar defenders playing fast and free on the perimeter. Rashan Gary has emerged as a stud this season with 5.5 sacks and 19 quarterback hits (tied for fifth-most in the NFL). The 2019 first-round pick has found his way as a pass rusher and his playmaking ability has given the unit a boost.
De'Vondre Campbell has enjoyed a breakout campaign as an underrated free-agent signee who is paying big dividends. The sixth-year pro has 88 tackles, two forced fumbles and a pair of interceptions in 10 games, consistently showcasing the versatile skills he has flashed since entering the league in 2016.
With a host of young defenders (Chandon Sullivan, Eric Stokes and Darnell Savage) playing well in the secondary, Green Bay suddenly has a deeper and more talented defensive backfield to challenge elite offenses around the league. That's why Barry and defensive backs/passing game coordinator Jerry Gray should receive their flowers for the work they have done to clean up some of the issues that plagued the unit in recent years. Instead of playing the extensive blitz-man coverage that was preferred by former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, the Packers are incorporating more zone coverage to limit explosive plays and increase turnover chances for the defense. As the unit keeps more eyes on the quarterback and the ball, the turnovers have started to come in bunches, allowing the wins to stack up: Green Bay is 8-0 when it wins the turnover battle.
The Packers are always included in the Super Bowl discussion with Aaron Rodgers capable of turning in an MVP-caliber performance in the playoffs, but it is time for the football world to recognize Matt LaFleur's squad as a potential champion due to a defense that is playing lights-out football in Titletown.