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, why the debate about where Lamar Jackson belongs in the QB hierarchy should come to an end ...
Like it or not, it's time for all of the football world to acknowledge Lamar Jackson is one of the top five quarterbacks in the NFL.
Yes, the former MVP might have an unorthodox playing style, but that certainly doesn't take away from my appreciation for his talents as the league's most explosive player.
That's why I am growing increasingly frustrated by the naysayers suggesting the fourth-year pro is akin to a wait-and-see project when it comes to his market value. While I understand the lofty standard created by Patrick Mahomes as the first player to crack $40 million in average annual salary, Jackson absolutely belongs in that exclusive club.
Let's just take a look at what No. 8 has accomplished by the age of 24, with his rookie deal due to expire after next season. Jackson owns a 31-8 mark as a starter and he's led his team to the playoffs in all three of his seasons. He has flourished as the director of a creative, run-based attack that utilizes the quarterback like a tailback in the Single Wing offense. Jackson has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons -- no other QB in NFL history has two seasons with 1,000-plus rushing yards.
Sparked by Jackson's rushing prowess, the Ravens have averaged 195.1 rush yards since 2020 (most in the NFL) and they've had the NFL's top rushing offense in each of the last two seasons. Baltimore currently ranks No. 1 in rushing offense again with 440 rush yards over the first two games of the 2021 campaign. They've weathered a storm of injuries at running back, just as I said they would a couple weeks ago. Jackson leads the team with 28 carries for 193 yards, which is the most rush yards by a QB through a team's first two games since 1950.
I know what you're thinking: but the NFL is a passing league! It's true. Jackson must be able to throw the ball around the yard efficiently to keep the Ravens' offense on schedule. Well, the fourth-year pro has a career passer rating of 101.9 (just 7.6 points off Mahomes' mark) and a 70:20 TD-INT ratio. Sure, you can nitpick his preference for throwing inside the numbers. Jackson has his flaws, and yes, he's yet to lead his team beyond the Divisional Round of the playoffs (funny, I don't hear the same critiques about Matthew Stafford, who is still searching for his first career postseason victory in Year 13). Overall, it is hard to argue with the results from the young passer.
Given how his numbers measure up against those of his peers (SEE: fellow member of the 2018 draft class Josh Allen; 89.7 passer rating, 70:32 TD-INT ratio), contract negotiations between the Ravens and their QB1 should be easy. A deal that ranks just above the six-year, $258 million extension Allen inked last month should serve as the floor for Jackson's next contract.
Keep in mind, Jackson is a one-man wrecking crew who puts the offense on his back. He has never played with a Pro Bowl wide receiver. He is the straw that stirs the drink and observers should add bonus points to his total score for the heavy lifting that he is asked to do each week. Although, the load might be a little lighter this week against the Lions' 31st-ranked scoring defense, as long as an illness doesn't keep the QB1 on the sideline.
Anyhow, Jackson's stature as a truck (scouting vernacular for a player who carries his team) makes it easy for me to pencil him in as a top five quarterback. He finds a way to lead his team to wins while showcasing an electric game that tests the speed, athleticism and discipline of defenses around the league.
In a quarterback-driven league where winning signal-callers get all of the credit and all of the dough, observers should give Jackson his flowers as a premier talent worthy of cashing a big check down the road.
JUSTIN FIELDS: How to set him up for success
The Windy City finally will get a chance to see its franchise quarterback of the future take the field as a starter on Sunday. Although Justin Fields' stint as QB1 could be short-lived if Andy Dalton recovers quickly from a knee injury, the football world is waiting to see what head coach Matt Nagy does with his new weapon in the Bears' matchup against the Browns, who boast a top-10 defense entering Week 3.
Measuring 6-foot-3, 228 pounds with 4.4 speed and A-plus arm talent, the first-round pick out of Ohio State is a dual-threat playmaker. He has the potential to execute a traditional pro-style offense from the pocket or add some sizzle to the scheme with his ability to take off on designed QB runs and option plays.
Fields won back-to-back Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year awards and passed for 5,373 yards with 63 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 22 career starts for the Buckeyes. He added 867 yards on the ground and 15 rush touchdowns as a part-time runner. Although critics harped on Fields' processing skills and turnover woes after disappointing games against Indiana and Northwestern last season, his performance against Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal showcased his promise .
With the Bears, Fields has shown glimpses of his immense talent in spot duty in Week 1 and for two-plus quarters last week while filling in for the injured Dalton, but Sunday's game provides Nagy and Co. with an opportunity to build a comprehensive game plan around the 11th overall pick of this year's draft.
After studying Fields' play this preseason and last week against the Bengals, I came away impressed with his timing, patience and discipline inside the pocket. He works through his progressions, identifying his primary and complementary options before relying on his athleticism to get him out of trouble when the play breaks down. While Fields has been fooled by post-snap coverage changes and exotic blitz designs, the rookie deserves credit for making decisive throws to pass catchers on the perimeter. He fires off lasers to receivers on the boundary, executing deep comebacks and hinge routes at intermediate range. Fields' ability to hit receivers on the move inside the numbers on square-ins and deep-overs adds an explosive element to the offense. With the rookie also capable of dropping dimes on go routes and post routes, Nagy could incorporate more vertical throws into the game plan this week.
The coach's new call sheet should also include more plays that showcase Fields' athleticism and running skills. Nagy would be wise to dial up more bootlegs, sprint-outs and designed QB runs to put the former Buckeye on the move. Having a dual threat who can make plays on the move should enable Nagy to feature some trendy college concepts. The Bears do not need to treat Fields like a running back, but they should use the threat of his running skills as a way to force defenses to play 11-on-11 football. If Chicago can force opponents to play straight up on early downs, David Montgomery could find more room to run between the tackles.
Nagy has said that Dalton remains his starter when healthy, but Week 3 gives the Bears a chance to give the football world a sneak peek of what their offense can be with Fields in the saddle. The game plan for utilizing his talents will let us know a lot about Nagy's creativity and potential to elevate a five-star player.
COWBOYS' DEFENSE: Parsons the new X-factor
When the Dallas Cowboys came on the clock at No. 12 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, social media platforms predictably lit up with pick advice for "America's Team." And to many of the armchair general managers, Micah Parsons was not a prospect worthy of Dallas' selection.
The 6-foot-3, 246-pounder did not appear to fill an immediate void for a team that desperately needed a cornerback or offensive lineman to upgrade a roster that fell short of playoff expectations in 2020. The thought of adding an off-ball linebacker to a lineup that already featured a pair of recent Pro Bowlers at the position induced eye rolls from hardcore Cowboys followers.
Jerry Jones and Co. didn't care. They saw a dynamic talent and turned in the card.
With the dip in production from Jaylon Smith and the checkered injury history of Leighton Vander Esch, the Cowboys nabbed the Penn State product to upgrade the speed, athleticism and playmaking ability of the linebacker corps. Moreover, Jones believed Parsons was the "best defender" in the draft.
Two weeks into the 2021 season, Jerry's assessment looks pretty good.
Parsons flashed dominant skills as a sideline-to-sideline LB menace in Week 1, then shifted outside to wreck the game as an explosive edge rusher in Week 2. That latter outing, in which Parsons filled the void left by defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence (foot injury) and Randy Gregory (reserve/COVID-19 list), was particularly eye-opening. Despite manning the edge for the first time since his high school days, Parsons harassed, battered and bruised Justin Herbert in the pocket, recording one sack, one tackle for loss, four QB hits and eight pressures. The first-year standout exploited overmatched right tackle Storm Norton, showing off an impressive repertoire of pass-rush maneuvers based on his supreme athleticism.
The dazzling display has prompted some observers to suggest a full-time move to defensive end for Parsons, but that would prevent the Cowboys from maximizing his talents as a multi-dimensional playmaker with pass-rush skills as well as hit, run and chase ability.
"There's a lot to develop here," Cowboys DC Dan Quinn told reporters this week. "He's got a long way to go. He can run and hit like you know what. That's his superpower. And he's got rare speed and physicality to do that. I want to make sure that we're always featuring that part of his game."
Quinn's acknowledgment of Parsons' otherworldly ability indicates the rookie's role will just continue to grow. The crafty defensive play-caller has already utilized a handful of exotic packages with Parsons deployed at various spots to take advantage of his skills as a pass rusher and speed linebacker. With Parsons immediately shining at multiple spots while displaying five-star talent, the Cowboys know they have a superstar in the making.
"My hat's off to him," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones told 105.3 FM The Fan on Monday. "At the end of the day, he just has some rare freakish physical tools and a very instinctive football mind -- whether that's playing linebacker, whether that's coming off an edge, he just knows how to play the game of football. Package that with, like I said, his freakish physical tools, that makes for the makings of a great football player. He seems to answer the bell at every corner. Very pleased with how he played. He met -- and exceeded -- all expectations.
"One of the things he brings is the versatility. Teams not knowing where he's going to line up creates issues."
After two weeks, the football world has quickly discovered the problem Parsons poses as an electrifying talent with a unique skill set.
JOSH ALLEN: Assessing the QB's early struggles
Perhaps Josh Allen is simply getting off to a slow start due to the talented defenses the Bills have faced to open the season, but the 2020 MVP runner-up is playing sub-standard football at the moment.
In Year 4, Allen is completing just 56 percent of his passes while averaging a measly 5.3 yards per attempt with a 77.9 passer rating. Those numbers represent a significant decline from his magical 2020 season, when completed 69.2 percent of his passes, averaged 7.9 yards per attempt and posted a sparkling 107.2 passer rating.
While some observers will point out that Allen's 2021 production is closer to his output from his first two NFL seasons (56.3% completion rate, 6.6 yards per attempt and 78.2 passer rating in 2018-19), the Bills certainly hope he rediscovers the game that prompted the franchise to hand over a six-year, $258 million extension in August to keep the Pro Bowl quarterback around long-term. The athletic gunslinger has helped the franchise re-emerge as the top team in the division and a viable contender in the AFC. Moreover, Buffalo has engineered one of the league's most explosive offenses since 2020. The Bills have averaged 30.7 points per game and 280.3 passing yards per game during that span, with Allen playing point guard like Russell Westbrook collecting triple-doubles.
Allen's dazzling combination of skills has made him a difficult playmaker to defend, particularly when he is sizzling as a passer. In 46 career games, the 6-foot-5, 237-pounder has tallied 25 rushing touchdowns to accompany his 70 touchdown passes. He is a dynamic threat on the perimeter with the size, speed and skill to create headaches for defensive coordinators crafting plans to stop No. 17.
Last season, opponents blitzed Allen often, but the feisty quarterback made them pay for their high-risk, high-reward tactics. Despite throwing a league-high 203 passes against the blitz, he posted a 106.5 passer rating with 14 touchdowns and two interceptions. This year, Allen has struggled against pressure tactics despite seeing fewer blitzes. He has posted a 55.0 passer rating against the blitz while facing blitz pressure on just 14.8 percent of his dropbacks (the lowest figure in the league). He's also seeing more zone coverage.
In my appraisal, Allen's struggles stem from his lack of anticipation and timing as a thrower. Against zone coverage, it is important for quarterbacks to throw receivers into open windows with defenders keeping their eyes on the passer. With more eyes on the ball, the windows close faster due to split-second reactions of defenders tracking the quarterback's head movements and running in that direction. Allen is forced to be more precise against zone than man coverage.
For a quarterback with a history of accuracy issues, the precision required against stout zone defense might be too much for him at this time. Perhaps Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll can script in a few more zone-busting concepts that make it easier for his young signal-caller, but Allen must continue to grow in this area or he will face more teams with zone-based game plans.
A two-game sample size is not quite enough to sound the alarms in Western New York, but the Bills need to keep a close eye on their franchise quarterback to see if they can help him regain his MVP-like ways after some early-season struggles.