Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today's installment covers:
But first, let's dig deeper on one team that could be surprisingly competitive -- and one that could fall flat ...
It has begun!
The 2022 NFL season officially kicked off with the Buffalo Bills' win over the reigning Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams on Thursday night. With the rest of Week 1 set to unspool on Sunday and Monday, we are about to find out, after seven months of hype, which teams are for real -- and which are faux real.
With that in mind, I wanted to spotlight one team that deserves more love, and one team that might be getting too much.
SUPER BOWL SLEEPER: New Orleans Saints
Yes, I failed to mention the Saints as one of my choices in the Super Bowl draft that we conducted on a recent episode of the Move the Sticks podcast. But the team of Who Dat Nation looks like a title contender on paper. New Orleans boasts a star-studded defensive lineup that features certified ballers at every level (see: Cameron Jordan, Demario Davis, Tyrann Mathieu and Marshon Lattimore), and their individual and collective talents should enable defensive coordinator-turned-head coach Dennis Allen to throttle explosive offenses around the league.
Offensively, the Saints have the firepower to light up scoreboards as an Air Raid attack -- and they can also overwhelm opponents with a ground-and-pound approach that operates behind a beefy O-line. With dual-threat running back Alvin Kamara entrenched as the centerpiece of an offense that also features receivers Michael Thomas and Jarvis Landry, the Saints will force defensive coordinators to make hard choices when determining whether to load the box or sit back in coverage.
The return of quarterback Jameis Winston (who re-signed on a two-year deal this offseason) from an ACL tear and the addition of rookie receiver Chris Olave give the offense an added dimension, making it possible for the deep ball to re-emerge as a part of the game plan. If the Saints' QB1 can take care of the ball and avoid the major miscues that have overshadowed his career, Allen's squad could sneak into Super Bowl LVII as a dark-horse contender.
PAPER TIGER: Denver Broncos
My takes on Russell Wilson and Co. have surely crushed my Q rating in Broncos Country, but when comparing Denver's roster to those of the Chiefs, Chargers and Raiders, it is hard for me to believe this is the best team in the AFC West. Yes, the acquisition of a quarterback with a shiny, Super Bowl-winning pedigree certainly enhances the Broncos' playoff chances. But the difference between a good team and a great one is significant in the NFL -- and I'm not sure Denver has quite closed that gap yet.
While the Broncos' star-studded defense features a collection of playmakers (Bradley Chubb, Justin Simmons and Patrick Surtain II) in marquee spots, the unit will need to adjust to a new defensive coordinator, Ejiro Evero, running a variation of ex-head coach Vic Fangio's scheme. Even taking into account the similarities between Evero's system and Fangio's, the lack of play-calling experience from the first-time defensive leader could impact the performance of a unit that played lights-out football under his predecessor.
Offensively, Wilson's experience and playmaking skills are a welcome addition to a unit that has not fielded an elite QB1 since Peyton Manning's days in Mile High Stadium. The nine-time Pro Bowler has reached the playoffs in eight of his 10 NFL seasons. Wilson utilizes his athleticism, football IQ and poise under pressure to repeatedly pull rabbits out of the hat at the end of games.
However, at 33, the veteran has shown signs of slowing down as a runner (he posted a career-low 186 rushing yards with the Seahawks in 2021), and the jury is still out as to whether he could transition into a full-time pocket passer, based on how he has traditionally played the game as an electric off-script playmaker.
Observers have raved about the Broncos' supporting cast, particularly their young wideouts, but Courtland Sutton is the only proven all-star in the group. Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler have flashed potential, along with running back Javonte Williams and the Broncos' offensive line. But a scenario in which this relatively green crew flourishes immediately in Year 1 of head coach Nathaniel Hackett's tenure sounds like its pulled straight from the scripted pages of a Hollywood movie. Tim Patrick's ACL tear is no small setback, either, especially given all the reporting about the instant rapport he forged with Wilson over the summer.
Perhaps Wilson's arrival can completely reverse the fortunes of a franchise that has not made a postseason appearance since winning Super Bowl 50. But the odds suggest it will take more than a season for this team to realize its championship dreams, with so much change and inexperience taking place at key positions.
FIVE GUYS YOU SHOULDN'T COUNT OUT
The quip by former Atlanta Falcons and Houston Oilers head coach Jerry Glanville that the NFL stands for "Not For Long" was delivered to a referee, but it also applies to the speed with which players can go from heroes to zeroes in this league.
The football world often seems quick to dismiss good players when they register a subpar season or appear to struggle between the lines. While injuries or an improper scheme or cultural fit can impact a player's production, coaches, scouts and fans tend to hold a recency bias when it comes to evaluating players.
As Week 1 continues, I thought this was the perfect time to identify five players who are poised to bounce back from recent downturns and remind the "what have you done for me lately" crowd of their all-star capabilities and impressive résumés.
The former All-Pro's injury-shortened 2021 campaign did not validate his status as a five-star playmaker or confirm his value as one of the NFL's top-paid safeties. With the Seahawks' defense (which ranked 28th overall last season and 31st against the pass) falling short of the standard established by the "Legion of Boom" during its prime, Adams' play has drawn the ire of those members of the "12s" who want to see more from the safety.
Adams is a dynamic pass rusher with 21.5 career sacks, including a record-setting 9.5 in 2020 -- he's a game-wrecker as a box safety with elite blitz ability and tackling skills. Traditional safeties are judged by their ability to take the ball away in the passing game, but Pete Carroll deploys No. 33 in the hybrid-linebacker role that Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu filled for him during their time at USC. He was held to zero sacks in 2021. But with Adams healthy (despite breaking a finger in July) and ready to assume more responsibilities as the leader of the Seahawks' defense following Bobby Wagner's exit for Los Angeles, the 2022 season should serve as a bounce-back campaign for an accomplished defender whose game deserves a little more respect.
Due to an ankle injury and surgery, Thomas missed much of 2020 and all of 2021. Perhaps the football world has forgotten in that span how the 2019 Offensive Player of the Year dominated the game when he was healthy and the focal point of the Saints' offense. Thomas is an unstoppable force as an extra-large pass catcher with strong hands and a physical game. The two-time All-Pro has three 100-catch seasons on his résumé, and he's topped the 1,000-yard mark in four of his five seasons in which he's played at least one game.
Considering Thomas has led the league in receptions (2018 and 2019) and receiving yards (2019), his presence makes the Saints' offense downright scary, with Jarvis Landry, Chris Olave and Alvin Kamara also on the perimeter. It's not encouraging to see him missing practice with a hamstring injury, but presuming he's able to return to form, the Saints' WR1 will quickly re-emerge as one of the top five receivers in the NFL.
Players' noteworthy accomplishments can fade from memory during a diminished or injury-plagued season. After being the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, Gilmore was celebrated as the NFL's ultimate CB1, with opponents reluctant to test him in the passing game.
Since then, though, a series of nagging injuries impacted his performance and forced him to become a football vagabond. Gilmore appeared in just 11 games in New England in 2020, then missed the first portion of last season on the PUP list, ultimately landing with the Panthers via midseason trade. A free agent this offseason, Gilmore ended up with in Indianapolis, where he should find a home in a scheme that accentuates his strengths as an A+ cover corner. Gus Bradley's hybrid Cover 3 scheme enables Gilmore to play with his eyes on the quarterback while maintaining "top-down" position on the wideout.
Given how well the Colts' scheme meshes with Gilmore's playing style, the All-Pro could rejoin the ranks of the elite at his position this season.
Do not let Engram's issues with drops (12 over the past two seasons, per Pro Football Focus) keep you from grabbing the Jaguars' flex tight end in the fantasy realm. Doug Pederson's history with tight ends suggests that the former Pro Bowler and Giants first-round pick could re-emerge as a key contributor in an offense that features a variety of shallow crossers and digs to tight ends and wideouts crisscrossing all over the field.
Engram is a unique weapon as a hybrid wideout/tight end with elite speed, quickness and burst. He can align out wide as a pseudo wideout to take advantage of linebackers and safeties in space. If Pederson can take advantage of Engram's skills like he exploited Zach Ertz's versatility, athleticism and ball skills in Philadelphia during his time as Eagles head coach, the Jaguars' new tight end could thrive as Trevor Lawrence's top target over the middle of the field.
It has been a while since we have watched Hunter take over games as a premier pass rusher, with injuries costing him all of 2020 and much of 2021. But offensive coaches around the league are surely well aware of the two-time Pro Bowler's quarterback-hunting prowess (60.5 sacks in 85 career games).
Hunter is a high-motor pass rusher with an array of pass-rush maneuvers that blend power moves with finesse movement skills. The standout edge defender has been a pass-protection destroyer when healthy, and he could quickly remind his opponents of his greatness this fall when he steps back onto the field as the Vikings' designated pass rusher. With Za'Darius Smith positioned opposite Hunter on passing downs, the terrifying tandem could pose problems for opponents lacking the talent to handle disruptive edge defenders with one-on-one blocks.
If Hunter is locked in, the Vikings' No. 1 pass rusher might even make a run at the league's sack title this season.
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