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 team's latest effort to fill a multi-year hole ...
Finding a true franchise quarterback is the hardest thing to do in football. If you don't believe me, just ask Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich and general manager Chris Ballard, who've been looking for an answer at the game's most important position since Andrew Luck's shocking retirement back in August of 2019.
Over the last three years, the Colts' brain trust attempted to replace No. 12 via free agency, the trade market and a couple Day 3 stabs in the draft, but repeatedly struck out in these attempts to find a field general with the "it" factor to get it done. Until this past Monday, that is.
By sending the Atlanta Falcons a third-round pick in exchange for Matt Ryan, the Colts finally resolved their biggest issue and re-emerged as contenders in an AFC loaded with talented quarterbacks.
The 36-year-old former league MVP is still at the top of his game, and his consistency and dependability set him apart from his predecessors in Indy. While Ryan fell just shy of the 4,000-yard mark this past season -- finishing with 3,968 -- he accomplished that feat in the prior 10 years straight. And that occurred while leading an offense that featured a revolving door of playmakers and play-callers. Despite the constant change, the veteran annually led Atlanta's attack with steady play from the pocket, allowing the Falcons to field a top-10 offense for six straight seasons from 2014 through '19. While the offense fell off over the last two years, Ryan finished as a top-15 passer in NFL.com's QB Index in each campaign.
"I've long admired Matt for his steady, methodical approach to the game," Reich said shortly after the trade was announced. "He is one of the most productive quarterbacks in the league and has spearheaded numerous fourth quarter game-winning drives. Matt will be a fantastic representative for our organization."
"Matty Ice" initially earned his nickname at Boston College, routinely displaying a cool demeanor in the clutch while lifting the Eagles to back-to-back seasons of double-digit wins -- something the program hadn't accomplished since the days of Doug Flutie. Ryan has continued to thrive in key moments at the NFL level, piling up 33 fourth-quarter comebacks and 42 game-winning drives. Most importantly, he joins the Colts intent on winning a championship with a new squad.
"You talk about Tom Brady or Peyton (Manning) or any of those guys, they've had times where they've had to transition -- and both of them have had tremendous success with that," Ryan said during his introductory news conference on Tuesday. "In the back of my mind, that's what I'm thinking about right now. This opportunity that I have for the rest of my career to catch that spark and go.
"I'm coming into a building that has been set up extremely well and a roster that has been set up to win, and they've done a great job of putting that together. I am so fired up to get to work and be able to get on the field with these guys and try to do my part to help this team win as many games as we can."
To that point, the Colts are ready to compete for the Lombardi Trophy, with Ryan joining a lineup that features a rock-solid offensive line and reigning rushing champion Jonathan Taylor. While left tackle remains a question mark, generally speaking, the Colts have an offense in place that enables them to play a blue-collar brand of football that works in the postseason. Sounds like what Atlanta had with Ryan as a rookie starter back in 2008, when the Falcons made the playoffs behind a stout offensive line that enabled Michael Turner to finish second in the league in rushing with 1,699 yards. Meshing Ryan's efficient passing with a ball-control approach allowed the Dirty Birds to make the tournament for the first time in four seasons.
Fast-forward to 2022, and a wiser, more experienced Ryan could guide Indianapolis back to the postseason after a crushing finish to the 2021 campaign, when the Colts stunningly lost to the lowly Jaguars in Week 18 to throw away a playoff bid. No disrespect to Carson Wentz, but Ryan represents a significant upgrade at the position for Indy. The four-time Pro Bowler is a deadly-accurate passer with a chessmaster mind that allows him to stress the defense with disciplined counter-tactics. Ryan will rack up completions on underneath throws to keep the offense on schedule against a defense utilizing umbrella-coverage tactics, but he's plenty capable of pushing the ball down the field when opportunities arise.
Although his game is far more effective when surrounded by blue-chip talent on the perimeter, Ryan can still produce with a marginal supporting cast due to a disciplined approach from the pocket. That's key for his new situation in Indy. While Michael Pittman Jr. just logged a 1,000-yard campaign in Year 2, the rest of the receiving corps is quite unproven. Sure, the Colts could utilize free agency (reunite Ryan with Julio Jones?) and the draft to add more weaponry to the arsenal, but Ryan has already proven that he can win games with a strong running game and rugged offensive line.
Another notable factor: In Indianapolis, Ryan gets to play with the kind of imposing defense Atlanta hasn't featured in years. Led by Pro Bowlers Darius Leonard and DeForest Buckner, the 2021 Colts allowed the ninth-fewest points in the NFL while racking up the second-most turnovers. And the trade for Yannick Ngakoue earlier this month gives Indy a welcome boost in edge pressure. (More on that acqusition in this next section of this notebook.) With extra possessions and favorable field positions, Ryan and Co. should be able to put plenty of points on the board.
After watching the Rams and Buccaneers hoist Lombardi Trophies in back-to-back seasons following blockbuster quarterback acquisitions, Ballard and Reich added Ryan to hunt a ring of their own. And I'm here for it.
ROSTER REPAIR: Five perfect scheme fits
When it comes to free agency and the trade market, the key is determining which players fit best within your scheme. While a player's production with another team certainly can catch an evaluator's eye, the best scouts and coaches dig a deeper into the film study with a matchmaker's mindset. From playing style to football IQ, prospective targets must exhibit the traits that are critical to your program. Considering how many football marriages fail due to improper fit or role (SEE: big-money signee Kenny Golladay in Year 1 with the Giants), the ability to accurately project how a player will perform within a particular scheme is absolutely critical.
After taking a few days to study the flurry of activity over the past couple weeks, here are five perfect scheme fits:
Few organizations value safety play more than Baltimore. With an all-time roster that features the likes of Rod Woodson, Ed Reed, Eric Weddle and Earl Thomas, the Ravens clearly seek center fielders with range, anticipation and ball skills. Williams fits the bill, as a ball-hawking safety with outstanding movement skills and instincts as a deep-middle player. Emerging as one of the better defensive playmakers in the game over his first five seasons, Williams has racked up 15 interceptions and 38 passes defensed. As he joins a Ravens defense that is looking to reduce the explosive plays allowed in the passing game, Williams has a chance to become the next legend to hold down this job for Baltimore between the hashes.
After watching his defense struggle against the run in 2021, Brandon Staley lured his former pupil away from the other Los Angeles team to help shore up the Chargers' front. Joseph-Day's presence as an active run defender with strong hands and a sturdy base should eliminate some of the easy run-throughs at the line of scrimmage while creating more playmaking opportunities for the linebackers and safeties. Moreover, the veteran's strength, length and quickness make him a disruptive playmaker at the point of attack with the potential to create chaos between the tackles. After the Bolts ranked a disappointing 29th in scoring defense in 2021, the arrival of Joseph-Day should help Staley turn things around in Year 2.
It is hard to find wide receivers willing to embrace doing the dirty work on the perimeter in a run-centric offense. Woods is one of the best team guys in the business; his blue-collar playing style is a perfect fit for a Titans offense that revolves around Derrick Henry and a punishing running game. From cracking edge defenders to digging safeties out of the box to running complementary routes away from an established No. 1 receiver, Woods has always excelled in a do-everything role, and his sacrifice enables his teams to win within a selfless culture. With the Titans looking to take the next step as a title contender, the addition of this veteran receiver adds leadership and championship experience to a lineup that needed a little seasoning.
Sometimes a player and coach can develop a connection that produces magic on the field. That is what happens whenever Gus Bradley has a chance to build a defense around Ngakoue's explosive skills as a pass rusher. The veteran has posted at least eight sacks in each of his seasons with the Colts' new defensive coordinator (eight as a rookie with the Jaguars in 2016; 10 with the Raiders in 2021), and those numbers could surge with Ngakoue positioned as the No. 1 edge rusher in Indy. As a high-motor player with exceptional first-step quickness and snap-count anticipation, Ngakoue is an ideal fit for a scheme that emphasizes playing "fast and free" on the edge.
If you look back at Doug Pederson's history as a head coach/offensive coordinator, it is not a coincidence that he has always had a blue-chip tight end at his disposal. Whether it was Travis Kelce during his time with the Chiefs or Zach Ertz with the Eagles, the Jaguars' new head coach understands the value of having a dominant playmaker in the middle of the field. Although injuries and dropsies have impacted Engram's production, the one-time Pro Bowler is a matchup advantage as a "jumbo" slot receiver with NBA power forward size and sprinter's speed. He has the capacity to align anywhere within the formation to dictate coverage or exploit a favorable matchup. Given Engram's skills and how Pederson traditionally utilizes the tight end, the Jaguars' new "Y" will make some fantasy owners happy when his numbers explode in 2022.
PRO DAYS: Assessing top QB prospects
As much as I love covering pro days, the majority of QB-prospect evaluation is completed through game-film study and interviews. While there is certainly value in watching a quarterback perform in a throwing session with no defense on the field, it should play a relatively minor role in determining whether a player's arm strength, movement skills and overall talent will translate to the next level.
Given some time to review my notes, here are my thoughts on each of the top quarterbacks who participated in a pro day this week:
Pickett, my top-rated quarterback in the 2022 draft, put up a solid performance during a 56-throw workout in front of scouts on Monday. He is deadly accurate on short and intermediate tosses but lacks A+ arm strength and range. His deep throws tend to float and flutter, but he makes up for his lack of pop with high-arcing passes that are released early in routes. Given that we've seen other QBs (Peyton Manning, Chad Pennington and Drew Brees in his later years) succeed with the tactic, I do not believe Pickett's arm strength will be an issue in the NFL if he continues to master the art of getting the ball "out and up."
Overall, Pickett's best qualities are his experience (49 college starts) and expertise running an offense that featured plenty of pro-style elements. He is a winner with a knack for making plays inside and outside of the pocket. Although he is not regarded as an elite athlete, Pickett moves well and displays enough elusiveness to be a factor on the perimeter as a ball-carrier. As the game trends toward requiring a more athletic playmaker at the position, Pickett's mobility and impromptu throwing skills should enable him to succeed at the next level, despite the continued conversation about his hand size.
The buzz continues to build around Willis' outstanding athletic traits and arm talent. Measuring 6-foot-0 1/2, 225 pounds, he is built like a running back but tosses the rock like an MLB pitcher.
During his workout at Liberty on Tuesday, Willis dazzled scouts with his big arm, making a series of "wow" throws that captured the imagination of coaches looking for a quarterback with the potential to expand the playbook. He throws the ball at an outstanding pace, and his fastball has more than enough RPMs to cut through high-traffic areas. However, Willis must learn how to better change speeds and trajectories with his throws. He needs to become more of a surgeon than a butcher as a passer, and how well he refines this part of his game could determine whether he carves out a lengthy career as a QB1.
Overall, Willis has intriguing tools that could make him a star at the next level. Plus, he is an engaging person with great communication skills and leadership ability. He is raw and will need some time to develop in the NFL, but if he is able to put it all together on the field, the Liberty standout has the potential to emerge as the top QB from this year's class.
The ultra-competitive gunslinger finally showcased his skills for scouts at the Ole Miss pro day on Wednesday. Corral moved around well and showed no ill effects from the high-ankle sprain injury that cut short his Sugar Bowl appearance and kept him from performing at the NFL Scouting Combine.
As a passer, Corral displays quick hands transitioning from fielding a snap to making a throw. His quick reactions remind me of a shortstop or second baseman turning two on a double play. Corral throws the ball with plenty of zip and velocity after a compact windup. Although he missed the mark on a handful of throws at his workout, I believe the redshirt junior has the capacity to develop into a high completion percentage passer (65% or better) with more attention to detail on his footwork and fundamentals.
On the move, Corral can make every throw in the book utilizing a variety of arm angles, which will enable him to work around defenders at the line of scrimmage. The combination of his middle-infielder hands, quick release and overall athleticism should serve him well when he ventures outside of the pocket on bootlegs and scrambles.
Overall, Corral is a blue-chip prospect with the arm talent and tools to succeed as a long-term starter. He will need to tighten up his game to maximize his potential, but the Ole Miss standout could light up an offense that features RPOs and an assortment of quick-rhythm throws that enable him to play fast and free from the pocket.
Don't sleep on Ridder's potential to surge up draft boards after scouts spend a little more time digging into the tape of his games and workouts. He possesses all of the traits that coaches covet in QB1s -- football IQ, athleticism, arm talent and a winning résumé -- while also having the impromptu playmaking skills to turn bad play calls into big plays.
Following a strong combine performance that showcased his explosive athletic traits, the Cincinnati standout put on a solid throwing exhibition in front of coaches and scouts on Thursday. Ridder's accuracy and ball placement were on point. He displayed the requisite velocity to make big-time throws outside of the numbers, too. With the mobile passer also tossing darts on the move, he showed scouts that he could be an effective weapon in a movement-based passing game that features bootlegs and sprint-out plays.
Overall, Ridder has crushed the pre-draft process. After leading the Bearcats to the first ever College Football Playoff berth for a non-Power Five team, he's earned high marks for his performances at the Reese's Senior Bowl, combine and pro day. Ridder might be the rare highly decorated QB prospect who has been underhyped leading up to the draft.