Matt Rhule's unorthodox brilliance fueling Panthers' rise; Daniel Jones playing like franchise quarterback

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 one upstart organization making waves early this season ...

Despite dropping their first game last week in Dallas, the 3-1 Carolina Panthers remain one of the most surprising teams in the early goings of the 2021 NFL season. And much of their success revolves around a defense that heads into this Sunday's game against the Eagles ranked third in both yards and points allowed.

It's not surprising to see Matt Rhule prioritize building a championship-caliber defense as the foundation of Carolina's turnaround, given the blueprint he used to elevate Temple and Baylor at the college level. The 46-year-old coach utilized an outside-the-box approach to put more speed on the field to help his undermanned programs quickly close the gap and eventually surpass competitors in the American Athletic Conference and Big 12. Rhule turned track stars into defensive backs, safeties into linebackers, and second-level defenders into edge rushers. While we are accustomed to seeing underdog college programs incorporate unorthodox methods to gain relevancy, it's rare for an NFL team-builder to take a different path when constructing a defensive juggernaut. But Rhule's bucking that trend, taking a radical approach to building a top-notch defense loaded with young, athletic defenders possessing complementary skills. From drafting all defensive players in 2020 to trading for marquee names with blue-chip traits to signing familiar faces with successful track records under this coaching staff, the Panthers have left no stone unturned in their effort to field a lineup with dynamic defenders on every level.

Back when Rhule was still at Baylor in 2019, the coach joined Daniel Jeremiah and me on the Move The Sticks Podcast, outlining his approach to rebuilding the Bears football program. He not only discussed the importance of putting speed on the field, but also how his coaching staff would take chances on athletic prospects with the physical traits to blossom at the next level.

With the Panthers, Rhule caught the attention of team-builders around the league in his very first draft, as Carolina became the first franchise in the common draft era (going back to 1967) to spend each of its picks on defensive players. And this initial harvest has already proven plentiful. Safety Jeremy Chinn and defensive tackle Derrick Brown both made the PFWA All-Rookie Team last season and continue to be impact starters in Year 2. With 2020 classmates like DE Yetur Gross-Matos, DT Bravvion Roy and S Sam Franklin (an undrafted free-agent signee last year) also serving as role players, the team's youth movement has upgraded a roster that already featured speedy incumbents like DE Brian Burns, CB Donte Jackson and LB Shaq Thompson.

Rhule continued to add explosive pieces to the mix this past offseason, signing LB Haason Reddick in free agency and drafting CB Jaycee Horn and DT Daviyon Nixon. The Panthers' collection of athletic playmakers clicked at the start of the season, with defensive coordinator Phil Snow dialing up exotic pressures that overwhelmed quarterbacks and pass protectors around the league. Through Week 4, Carolina led the league in pressure percentage (37.1) while ranking second in blitz percentage (40.9), per Pro Football Reference. With all of this disruption, it's no wonder Carolina's tied for second in sacks (14), with Reddick (4.5 sacks) and Burns (3) leading the way.

The explosiveness of Carolina's front line has certainly helped fuel the Panthers' resurgence behind Snow's aggressive tactics, but the team's coverage has also played a significant role. Carolina's holding opposing quarterbacks to the fifth-lowest completion percentage (58.7) while allowing the second-fewest passing yards per game (156.5). The defense's air-tight coverage is certainly impressive, but it is the solid tackling from the secondary that really stands out to me. The Panthers have allowed the second-fewest yards after catch in the NFL, which is critical for a defense that faces more quicks and screens from offenses attempting to counter pressure tactics.

In the wake of Horn breaking his foot, Rhule and GM Scott Fitterer didn't sit around and feel sorry for themselves. Instead, they traded for a recent top-10 pick (C.J. Henderson) and a recent Defensive Player of the Year (Stephon Gilmore), restocking the cornerback position with talent. Gilmore, in particular, could be a huge difference maker for Carolina. Although the 31-year-old's game might be in decline, his football IQ and experience could elevate the playmaking potential of the entire defensive backfield. With four Pro Bowl nods and a Super Bowl ring, Gilmore's a proven commodity with A+ instincts and awareness. Following the Gilmore trade this week, Rhule was asked why the Panthers keep piling up CBs.

"It allows us to put more guys in the box and go be aggressive," Rhule said, via USA TODAY. "We try to have position-less players. Like Chinn, to me, Haason Reddick, Brian Burns, Morgan Fox. Those guys have been position-less players."

I love Rhule's vision and his assertiveness. Despite ranking near the top of the charts in most defensive categories, Carolina keeps making moves to upgrade talent across the roster, focusing on building a championship squad with the capacity to play position-less football on defense.

"We had packages last game where we played with five d-linemen and one linebacker. You saw us last year in three D-linemen," Rhule said. "So we wanna give different looks to the defense and also take advantage of the guys that we have. I think the position-less player is important. But at the end of the day, for us to win, you have to be able to play man and get off the field on third down. So as many guys as we have to cover, we'll take 'em."

Rhule continues to think differently. And considering how quickly he's transformed the Panthers from last-place afterthought to first-place upstart, team-builders around the NFL should pay close attention to the unorthodox methods that have made Rhule a master turnaround artist.

DANIEL JONES: Giants have a true franchise QB

It might be hard for some draft analysts to admit, but Daniel Jones is a franchise quarterback. In fact, he is showing signs of emerging as a potential top-10 player at the position. This is probably an unpopular take outside of New York, but the third-year pro has started showing all-star potential as a playmaker, and the rest of the league is on notice.

Jones is posting the best numbers of his career (66.7 percent completion rate, 296.0 pass YPG, 4:1 TD-INT ratio and a 98.3 passer rating) while joining Lamar Jackson and Jalen Hurts as the only players with 1,000-plus passing yards and 150-plus rushing yards, per NFL Research. He has seemingly resolved his turnover woes as one of just two quarterbacks (alongside Kirk Cousins) with one interception on 140-plus pass attempts. Jones has just five giveaways over his past 10 games and has shown more attention to detail with his ball security.

Despite a 1-3 record, the Giants should be encouraged by Jones' stellar play this season. He is coming off a 400-yard performance against the Saints that showcased his skills as an underrated dual-threat at the position. Jones played a clean game with an assortment of pinpoint throws and timely runs that kept the Saints' defense off balance. (His interception came on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half.)

With Jones putting up another eye-opening performance against the Washington Football Team (249 passing yards, 95 rush yards, two total scores) back in Week 2, the 24-year-old is clearly playing at a high level in 2021. Although the sample size is small, the strong play from Jones in his second season in Jason Garrett's system suggests he is growing exponentially as a player.

Part of his improvement can be attributed to the upgraded cast of playmakers around him. The Giants added Kenny Golladay to serve as the No. 1 receiver in the passing game, with a first-round pick Kadarius Toney filling in as a big-play threat on the opposite side of the field. Sterling Shepard occupies the "chain mover" spot when healthy, giving Jones a trio of pass catchers with the skills to thrive in the designated roles. Throw in Evan Engram and Kyle Rudolph, and the Giants have a solid collection of pass catchers around their QB1. Not to mention, the offensive line has been playing better than last season -- particularly second-year left tackle Andrew Thomas.

That said, Saquon Barkley is the most important piece of the puzzle, and the explosive hybrid running back is rounding back into form, knocking off the rust following a season-ending ACL injury one year ago. Barkley has three scrimmage touchdowns in his last two games, while also averaging 5.5 yards per touch (40 touches for 220 scrimmage yards).

Jones has been a polarizing player since Dave Gettleman surprised many by taking the Duke quarterback sixth overall in 2019. And entering the season, this was viewed as a crucial year for the young signal-caller. Well, from my viewpoint, Jones' play has confirmed the QB1's status as a franchise player worth building around.

CORDARRELLE PATTERSON: Full potential realized?

After watching Cordarrelle Patterson emerge as the Falcons' No. 1 offensive threat in the first month of the season, I am blown away by head coach Arthur Smith's imagination and clarity in creating a hybrid role for the runner/pass catcher/kick returner.

Patterson has tallied 354 yards from scrimmage with five scores (tied for the league lead) on 45 touches in four games. He's the only player since the 1970 merger with 100-plus rush yards, at least one rush TD and four or more receiving TDs in his team's first four games of a season, per NFL Research. The 30-year-old has also added 170 yards on seven kickoff returns as the team's designated multi-dimensional threat. 

While it's not a surprise to see the four-time All-Pro kick returner crushing it as a special teams demon, the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder is suddenly opening eyes as a big-play specialist masquerading as an RB1 for the Dirty Birds, giving their offense a much-needed boost in Smith's first year on the job. 

"He's making an impact, and it's fun to work with guys like that," Smith recently told reporters. "Allows you to be creative. He can handle it."

Patterson's performance this season is exactly what scouts around the league envisioned when evaluating the former Tennessee star prior to the 2013 draft. He was coming off a spectacular season with the Volunteers in which he racked up 1,858 all-purpose yards (154.8 per game) and scored 10 touchdowns (five receiving, three rushing and one each on kickoff and punt returns). His impressive display of speed, power and explosiveness with the ball in his hands stirred up excitement in evaluators looking for a player who could score from anywhere on the field.

The Vikings spent a first-round pick (No. 29 overall) on the speedster with plans to feature his play-making skills as a wide receiver/kick returner. However, he was viewed as an underachiever as a position player in four years with Minnesota and bounced around from the Raiders (2017) to the Patriots (2018) to the Bears (2019-2020) with offensive coordinators failing to fully tap into his potential.

Something different is happening with the Falcons, though. Patterson has found a niche as a hybrid RB1 in Smith's scheme. The innovative play-caller has deployed the veteran as a traditional runner in the backfield -- where he's lined up 70.3 percent of the time in 2021 compared with 41.1 percent in his previous two seasons, per Next Gen Stats -- while also moving him around the formation to take advantage of his skills as a pass catcher.

Snagging screen and swing passes to win against linebackers and defensive backs on the perimeter, Patterson is flourishing in an offense that features packages built around his talents. His ability has certainly impressed the Falcons' QB1.

"He's a stud," Matt Ryan told CBS Sports. "He really is. I mean, he's like a throwback kind of player from another generation where he does everything. He plays special teams for us, covers kicks, is a running back, runs the ball between the tackles, catches the ball out of the backfield, we'll line him up outside and he can run routes. He's incredibly competitive and physical, and he's been awesome to play with. I've really enjoyed him being a part of our team, and the energy that he's brought, I mean, you can feel it. He provides a spark for everybody, and it's been fun to be a part of that."

The Falcons have found a way to finally unlock the potential that captivated scouts nearly a decade ago, giving the football world a chance to gain a full appreciation for Patterson's unique game. Smith's new challenge will be finding ways to make sure his versatile weapon stays hot when the defense doesn't have to account for Atlanta's No. 1 wide receiver, as Calvin Ridley will miss Sunday's game against the Jets in London.

BRANDON STALEY: This guy gets it!

Today's NFL is viewed as a pass-heavy league based on the prolific production we're witnessing from throwers and catchers, but still, coaches value the running game as an essential part of a winning formula.

That's why Brandon Staley's comments regarding the importance of running the football were music to my ears. The Los Angeles Chargers' first-year head coach eloquently outlined why the running game still has a place in a pass-happy league.

"What I think that the running game does for a quarterback is it gives you some breathers," Staley told reporters Wednesday. "You don't need a good running game to be a good play-action team, but what you need the running game for is the physical element of the game. There's a physicality to the game that's real, right? If you're just a passing team, there's a physical element to the game that the defense doesn't have to respect. And that's the truth. Because the data will tell you that you don't need a run game to play pass. You don't need that. But what the running game does for you, it brings a physical dimension to the football game.

"And what the running game does that the passing game does not, is the running forces the defense to play block and to tackle. That happens on a run play: You must play blocks and you must tackle. In the passing game, those things don't need to happen, right? You don't have to play as many blocks. And you may not have to tackle based on incomplete or not. So what the running game does is it really challenges your physicality and that's why I think the run game is important to a quarterback. It's literally going to allow him to have more space to operate when you do throw the football."

Staley makes so many great points in his explanation, but the comments regarding physicality stand out to me. Despite the league-wide shift toward a pass-centric approach, the game is built on blocking, tackling, toughness, effort and turnovers. The teams that dominate those areas of the game are often the last ones standing at the end of the season.

That's why the Chargers' head coach embraces the running game and all that comes with it. Staley understands that his team must be able to play old-school football to knock off some of the heavyweights around the league. Moreover, the Chargers need to run the football to take some of the pressure off Justin Herbert.

The MVP candidate has shown glimpses of being able to put the team on his back as a five-star passer, but the Chargers can make the game easier on their superhero by forcing opponents to respect the running game. If Austin Ekeler and Co. are good enough to warrant some added attention, Herbert will face fewer two-deep zones and loaded coverages. This will open up the field for Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, and create more big-play opportunities.

The Chargers are good enough to make a playoff push behind a franchise quarterback with elite arm talent, but Staley's commitment to the running game and traditional football could make L.A. a championship-caliber squad when all is said and done.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter.

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