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 how the Patriots will look to maximize Cam Newton's unique abilities ...
Bill Belichick's Patriots typically aren't very active in the free agency frenzy, letting other teams throw around big money during the NFL's edition of March Madness. Meanwhile, New England generally sits back and seeks value later in the offseason, long after the open market has produced its biggest waves. That was the case again this year -- though on Sunday, the Pats made quite a splash with the signing of Cam Newton.
New England acquired the 2015 NFL MVP on a one-year deal that includes just $550,000 of guaranteed money. While incentives could raise the total value to $7.5 million, the contract -- which has a base salary of $1.05 million -- is stunningly affordable for a 31-year-old quarterback as accomplished as Newton. This pairing of the six-time Super Bowl-winning head coach with the 6-foot-5, 245-pound dual-threat QB is absolutely fascinating. And the Patriots' unparalleled adaptability could result in the football world seeing the best version of the three-time Pro Bowler in 2020.
Some will scoff at that notion, based on Newton's recent spate of injuries. Fair enough. I have no way of knowing exactly what his current health status is. But neither do you. And most of the naysayers haven't paid close attention to Cam's evolution as a quarterback through the years.
Prior to suffering a shoulder injury that eventually required surgery, the veteran was enjoying an outstanding 2018 campaign that had thrust him squarely into the MVP conversation. During the first 11 games of that season, Newton completed 69.6 percent of his passes for 2,699 yards (245.5 per game) with a 22:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 103.7 passer rating, while also running for 417 yards and four scores. In that span, Newton showcased a game that was more refined from the pocket but just as dynamic and explosive when he took off as a runner.
Belichick certainly respects Cam's skill set and recognizes his potential as a unique playmaker at the position. The Pats coach has raved about Newton in the past and those compliments provide a peek into what attracted Belichick to the rare talent.
"I think when you're talking about mobile quarterbacks -- guys that are tough to handle, can throw, run, make good decisions ... -- I would put him at the top of the list," Belichick said prior to facing Newton in 2017, per USA TODAY. "Not saying there aren't a lot of other good players that do that, but I would say, of all the guys we played recently in the last couple of years, I think he's the hardest guy to (defend). He makes good decisions, can run. He's strong. He's hard to tackle. He can do a lot of different things. He can beat you in a lot of different ways. We saw that in the game in 2013. I would put him at the top of the list. I'm not saying the other guys aren't a problem, because they are. But he's maybe Public Enemy No. 1."
Considering those sentiments and how the team has previously adapted offenses around lesser talents like Matt Cassel, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett, it's highly intriguing imagining how Belichick, Josh McDaniels and Co. can exploit Newton's rare abilities.
I dug into the game tape to see how the Patriots' offense could transform in 2020. Here are three things I expect to see in New England's reconstructed, Cam-led attack:
1) Bringing back the old-school running game from heavy sets.
Before Tom Brady became the G.O.A.T., New England consistently relied on a run-centric offense with big bodies all over the field. This old-school version of the Patriots utilized 21 (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) and 12 (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) personnel packages to control the clock and punch opponents in the mouth. This approach enabled the squad to win three titles in four seasons in the early 2000s.
With Newton installed at quarterback, the team could turn back the clock to reconstruct a power-based attack that bludgeons opponents with a diverse, smashmouth running game. The combination of power runs (power, counter, isolations and "wham" plays), bootlegs and QB keepers will keep defenders in conflict. Linebackers and safeties will spend their time fending off lead blocks from fullbacks and H-backs, while edge defenders will have a hard time fully concentrating on running backs due to the threat of Newton escaping out the back door.
The conflict created by Newton's presence and the Patriots' power ground game will be enhanced if the team elects to feature more of those aforementioned 21 and 12 personnel packages. Two-TE sets, in particular, are problematic for opponents due to the extra gaps created in the running game. Whether it's a balanced set with tight ends aligned as bookends on each side of the line or a wing formation with the H-back beside the tight end, New England could challenge opponents to play "big-boy football" with overmatched personnel, while also forcing defensive coordinators to offset gap-control advantages created by various alignments.
This is actually how the Patriots have played down the stretch in recent years, with Brady spending more time under center. (New England ranked fourth in offensive snaps from under center in 2019, per The Athletic.) The team will likely rely on that formula going forward with Newton's athleticism and running skills adding a whole new dimension to the offense. The constant threat of the bootleg or quarterback keeper will create more running room for Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead between the tackles.
If the Patriots are able to get their young tight ends up to speed despite this highly abbreviated offseason, the team's throwback offense could be quite problematic for opponents used to seeing the TB12-led attack of the past two decades.
2) Unleashing Newton on designed QB runs, zone-reads and RPOs.
Despite Newton's injury history, the Patriots will undoubtedly aim to take advantage of his athleticism and running skills on this one-year deal. The NFL record holder for career rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (58) is a dynamic dual-threat with a jaw-dropping combination of size, strength and power. As a punishing runner with uncommon explosiveness for a quarterback, Newton is a nightmare playmaker when he's healthy and on his game.
The Patriots could take advantage of Cam's unique skills by implementing a number of collegiate-like concepts. McDaniels can start by adding a handful of designed quarterback runs to the playbook that'll capitalize on Newton's effectiveness as an inside runner. The hulking physical specimen has over 4,800 career rushing yards and a 5.1 yards-per-carry average through nine seasons. He's accounted for nearly three rushing first downs per game (367 rushing first downs through 125 games) via a variety of quarterback powers, counters and sweeps, particularly in short-yardage situations. In the red zone, Newton's rushing prowess makes him the ultimate scoring threat. As he awaits the snap in the shotgun, he has the potential to execute some variation of the triple-option on every play. The Patriots will be able to incorporate a number of RPOs (run/pass options) or read-option concepts designed to take advantage of his skills.
Sure, New England will need to determine how often to utilize the quarterback running game, based on Newton's injury history, but the mere threat of him holding the ball on a quarterback keeper or power is enough to create big plays for the running backs on the perimeter. After watching the Baltimore Ravens enjoy extraordinary success with a read-option power game in 2019, the Patriots could follow the blueprint. The implementation of some read-option run concepts should help Michel, White and Burkhead amass more big runs in 2020. The attention on Newton will undoubtedly lead a couple of defenders to pause whenever he sticks the ball in a running back's belly on a read-option or designated "give" play (hand-off). The hesitation will not lead to bigger creases between the tackles, but an overaggressive edge defender could allow Newton to race around the corner for a big gain.
In the passing game, RPOs could open up the field for New England's receivers to rack up yards on slants, quick outs and bubble screens against undisciplined defenses. The cheap yards accumulated on these plays will add another dimension to the passing game, while also helping Newton post an efficient completion percentage.
3) Feeding Mohamed Sanu and N'Keal Harry as key playmakers on the perimeter.
The Patriots' much-maligned receiving corps has been cited as the offense's weakest link, but Newton's arrival could help the unit thrive in a re-tooled passing game. Sanu and Harry, in particular, should benefit as big-bodied pass catchers with huge strike zones. These two were considered disappointments in 2019, when both averaged fewer than 9 yards per reception, but their numbers should improve if the team adds slants, skinny post ("Bang-8s") and digs to the playbook to cater to Newton's game.
Studying Newton's 2018 pass chart, per Next Gen Stats, he was quite effective working the intermediate areas of the field (11-to-20 yards); he posted a passer rating above league average when targeting each area (left, middle and right) within the range. Newton's efficiency as a mid-range passer should mesh well with the big-bodied, possession receivers. Sanu and Harry are at their best doing the dirty work along the boundary and over the middle of the field. That should be good news for Newton, based on prior connections with Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess during his time with the Panthers. Although each super-sized pass catcher lacked elite speed and explosiveness, Benjamin and Funchess averaged 14.5 and 13.9 yards per catch, respectively, during their time with the Patriots' new QB1. I'm not suggesting Julian Edelman will take a back seat to the big-bodied pass catchers, but Sanu and Harry's superior size should help an inaccurate passer rack up completions on play-action throws along the boundary or between the numbers.
The Patriots' passing game could look drastically different with Newton at the helm, but Sanu and Harry should reap the benefits.
TOP FIVE 'STARTING FIVES': Which group is No. 1?
The uptick in offensive production in recent NFL seasons has been fueled by rules changes that have made it easier for offenses to play fast-break basketball on grass. And play designers are more committed than ever to taking advantage of their playmakers' talents by building diverse offenses that create favorable matchups all over the field.
On a recent Move The Sticks podcast episode, Daniel Jeremiah and I discussed the importance of building an offense with speedy playmakers to take advantage of opponents by getting "five guys out" (five eligible receivers) on the field running routes. I've recently heard other analysts, including ESPN's Dan Orlovsky, discuss how "starting fives" impact the game.
Given some time to pore over a little tape and study the rosters of all 32 teams, here are my top five "starting fives" (five skill players) heading into the 2020 season:
RB: Nick Chubb
RB: Kareem Hunt
WR: Odell Beckham Jr.
WR: Jarvis Landry
TE: Austin Hooper
The Browns have assembled an All-Madden Team on the perimeter with a collection of five-star playmakers surrounding Baker Mayfield. OBJ and Landry are sure-handed pass catchers with outstanding running skills in the open field. Hooper is the designated seam runner with slick route-running skills and sticky hands. Chubb and Hunt are high-end RB1-types with the potential to take over as inside-outside runners with sneaky skills in the passing game. In a redesigned offense that places a greater emphasis on balance and efficiency under head coach Kevin Stefanski, the Browns' starting five could become the most dominant unit in football.
WR: Mike Evans
WR: Chris Godwin
TE: Rob Gronkowski
TE: O.J. Howard
TE: Cameron Brate
Tom Brady is stepping into a situation that could enable him to put up numbers comparable to his 2007 MVP campaign (68.9 percent completion rate, 4,806 pass yards, 50 touchdowns, eight interceptions, 117.2 passer rating). Evans and Godwin are arguably the league's best 1-2 punch on the perimeter with a collective combination of size, speed and athleticism that makes them so hard to contain. Gronkowski, Howard and Brate are a formidable trio at tight end with a collection of interchangeable skills that will drive defensive coordinators crazy when Bruce Arians unveils a variety of 12 (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) and 13 (1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR) personnel packages. If Brady has still enough gas in the tank to play at a high level, the Buccaneers' offense should light up scoreboards.
RB: Alvin Kamara
WR: Michael Thomas
WR: Emmanuel Sanders
TE: Jared Cook
ATH: Taysom Hill
Sean Payton has given Drew Brees a collection of toys that could help the veteran passer claim his first MVP and second Lombardi Trophy. Thomas was a one-man wrecking crew for the Saints a season ago as the ultimate No. 1 receiver, and Sanders' arrival gives him a credible sidekick at the position. Cook can dominate the middle of the field as a crafty vertical threat with size and alley-oop ability. Kamara is an electric hybrid playmaker with extraordinary talents as a runner and receiver. He overwhelms linebackers and safeties in space as a pass catcher, yet flashes enough power and pop to handle the dirty work between the tackles in the running game. Hill, the utility man with QB2 duties, rounds out the Saints' unit. As a Wildcat QB/H-back/WR with explosive strength and power, he makes things happen with the ball in his hands and defenders must account for his whereabouts on every snap.
RB: Clyde Edwards-Helaire
WR: Tyreek Hill
WR: Sammy Watkins
WR: Mecole Hardman
TE: Travis Kelce
The Chiefs have surrounded Patrick Mahomes with an Olympic-caliber relay team of sprinters on the perimeter. The 2018 MVP has the fastest collection of pass catchers in the league at his disposal with each playmaker displaying A+ speed, explosiveness and burst. Hill, Hardman and Watkins can fly with exceptional stop-start quickness and acceleration. Hill is the headliner as the team's No. 1 playmaker, but Hardman and Watkins are capable complements with big-play ability. Kelce is a shake-and-bake wiz as a route runner with soft hands and outstanding ball skills. He consistently wins against linebackers and safeties with his agility, but also flashes impressive post-up skills in the red zone. Edwards-Helaire is somewhat of a mystery at this point, as a 2020 first-round pick still waiting to take part in his first NFL camp, but his pass-catching skills could round out a unit that features dynamic weapons at every spot.
RB: Ezekiel Elliott
RB: Tony Pollard
WR: Amari Cooper
WR: Michael Gallup
WR: CeeDee Lamb
The Cowboys' starting five is highlighted by a three-man weave featuring a two-time NFL rushing champ and a pair of 1,000-yard receivers. Elliott sets the table for the offense as a rugged downhill runner with explosive strength and power. He also adds some sizzle to the aerial attack as a patient pass catcher in the screen game. Cooper is the undisputed No. 1 receiver, but Gallup's emergence as a legitimate threat has given the offense a potent 1-2 punch. Pollard has shown flashes of being an electric change-of-pace back with outstanding 0-to-60 acceleration on the perimeter. Lamb has yet to get his feet wet as an NFL rookie, but he could be Dallas' best receiver by the end of 2020.
MATT RYAN: Falcons QB1 is king of the NFC South
Perhaps Matt Ryan has been influenced by Atlanta native/rapper T.I. and his albums over the years, but I'm not mad at the former MVP for proclaiming himself the king of the South.
"I think currently, yeah, I'll go with myself," said Ryan during a recent interview on the Pardon My Take podcast when asked if he was the best quarterback in the division.
Guess what? He's right. Ryan is the best quarterback in the NFC South in 2020 -- and it's not even close.
Before you light up my Twitter mentions with Tom Brady memes and Drew Brees GIFs, I'm well aware that the Bucs and Saints' QB1s have had distinguished careers as gold-jacket players, but we're not talking about a lifetime achievement award. The crown should be awarded to the quarterback with the best skills at the position right now, and it's clear that Matty Ice is that guy.
The four-time Pro Bowl quarterback throws with outstanding touch, timing and anticipation, while also displaying pinpoint accuracy. He routinely threads the ball through the needle on tightly contested throws, while also displaying the range to utilize every area of the field. Although Ryan's arm wouldn't grade out as an A+ in a bullpen session, he has more than enough arm strength to make every throw in the book as a 35-year-old quarterback still in his prime.
From a numbers standpoint, Ryan is coming off a year in which he posted 11 300-yard games, which is tied for the third-most such games in a single season in NFL history. He surpassed the 4,000-yard mark for the ninth straight season, which is the second-longest streak in NFL history (Drew Brees holds the record with 12) and the longest active streak. Given that his 2019 campaign was considered an off year by his standards, the Falcons' QB1 is positioned for a bounce-back season that should see him reclaim his spot as a top-five quarterback.
Don't believe me? Just look at how well Ryan has done when he's been supported by a strong running game throughout his career. Whether it was Michael Turner during his early years or Devonta Freeman more recently, the former MVP has always been at his best when he has a credible threat behind him to set the table. The presence of a dominant rushing attack alleviates the pressure on Ryan to carry the offense while also adding a dimension to the Falcons' play-action passing game.
Reviewing Ryan's MVP season of 2016, it's not a coincidence that he had the fourth-fewest passing attempts of his career while directing an offense that ranked fifth in rushing yards. The balanced run-pass ratios kept the defense in flux and enabled Ryan to pick apart opponents with his pinpoint passing.
Enter two-time All-Pro Todd Gurley, who agreed to a one-year deal with the Falcons this offseason after being released by the Rams. It's quite possible that Ryan will lean on No. 21 as he tries to re-establish himself as one of the league's premier quarterbacks. Despite the concerns surrounding Gurley's knee, he is a significant upgrade over his predecessor (Freeman fell off last year) and his ability to command attention as a hybrid will only make the game easier for the veteran passer.
If defensive coordinators elect to utilize more plus-one fronts to slow down Gurley, Ryan will pick coverage apart targeting Julio Jones or Calvin Ridley on the outside. If the opponents sit back in two-deep coverage, the veteran can hand the ball to Gurley or attack the underneath areas of coverage with checkdowns and screens to the 2017 Offensive Player of the Year.
With another season in Dirk Koetter's system under Ryan's belt, the stage is set for the Ice Man to put any lingering doubts to rest as to who wears the crown among QBs in the NFC South in 2020.