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 a move that could pay off in a big way for the reigning AFC champions ...
If a team wants to win consistently in the NFL, coaches must find ways to create favorable matchups for their finest players. Whether it's on offense or defense, the best coaches put their stars in optimal positions to make game-changing plays.
That's why I am excited to see how the Chiefs will utilize Chris Jones when the regular season opens in two weeks. After earning Pro Bowl honors as a disruptive interior defender, Jones is poised to log some snaps as an edge defender to take advantage of his superior size, strength and power.
"He is an imposing player inside," Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said earlier this offseason, per ESPN. "We all know that. ... Hopefully, we will gain something on the edge. When somebody changes a position, obviously the first part of it is the mental part of it. Chris is working through that. That's important when you change a position. It's just not that easy to pick up a whole new spot. There are some different things with a defensive end.
"He'll play out there a little bit. We'll move him back inside when we have to."
Jones has the seventh-most sacks in the NFL over the past three seasons (32), including 15.5 QB takedowns in 2018. He has emerged as one of the most destructive interior defenders in the game with an uncanny knack for winning with a combination of power and finesse that keeps blockers on their heels. With Jones also displaying exceptional first-step quickness and snap-count anticipation, it's no surprise he's registered 16.5 sacks since Spagnuolo took over as defensive coordinator (2019) from his defensive tackle spot.
That said, the Chiefs might need Jones' skills more on the edges with the team lacking a standout complementary pass rusher opposite two-time Pro Bowl DE Frank Clark and Clark's two offseason arrests forcing the team to "keep tabs" on his situation. Critical to Jones' move outside is the arrival of DT Jarran Reed, a free-agent signee from the Seahawks who will attempt to upgrade a pass rush that produced just 32 sacks last season (19th in the league) after registering 45 sacks (11th) in 2019. With Reed joining the lineup, the Chiefs have the flexibility to shift Jones around to get the best rushers on the field in obvious passing downs. In addition, the overall versatility of the unit will enable Spagnuolo to attack vulnerable blockers from all angles.
"Maybe it will come down to who we're playing and where maybe we can find a weakness and expose that weakness in the five offensive linemen," Spagnuolo said. "We've just got to get him used to playing the two spots right now and figure out the rest of it."
The Chiefs might lack the ability to emulate the four aces package that Spagnuolo famously created 14 years ago with a Super Bowl-winning Giants team that featured Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, Fred Robbins and Osi Umenyiora, but the defensive wizard could throw out a unique pass-rush combination that creates headaches for offensive coordinators around the league.
Don't be surprised if Jones leads a recharged Chiefs defense while posting enough sacks and highlights to snag votes as a sleeper Defensive Player of the Year candidate, which leads me to my next topic ...
DPOY: Top 5 sleeper candidates
With Jones' potential to dominate in mind, here are my top five sleeper Defensive Player of the Year candidates for 2021.
Linebacker Darius Leonard might garner the headlines as the Colts' defensive leader, but Buckner is the straw that stirs Indianapolis' defensive drink. The 6-foot-7, 295-pounder controls the point of attack as a long, athletic defender. Buckner's ability to crush the pocket as a pass rusher/run defender sets the table for Leonard and others to feast off errant throws (leading to interceptions) and run-throughs (leading to sacks and tackles for loss) created by his penetration. Given another year to settle into coordinator Matt Eberflus' hustle-and-flow system, the All-Pro could challenge Aaron Donald for the throne as the NFL's top interior defender.
If the Bucs complete a back-to-back run as Super Bowl champs, White will certainly play a key role in the team's success as one of the designated playmakers in Todd Bowles' ultra-aggressive scheme. White's exceptional combination of pass-rush skills and sideline-to-sideline range makes him a unique weapon for the Bucs to deploy on exotic pressures and traditional coverage. With the Bucs certain to face opponents who will be chasing points thanks to Tom Brady and Co., White could notch 10-plus sacks and a number of other highlight plays as the marquee defender in a pressure-based system.
Steve Spagnuolo's aforementioned plan to utilize Jones inside and outside on the front line could help the sixth-year veteran take his game up a notch in 2021, but the 6-foot-6, 310-pound pass rusher is an absolute load wherever he lines up. The Chiefs clearly know what a special talent they have in No. 95, having just given him a four-year, $85 million extension last offseason. Players across the league appreciate his beastly skill set, too. In the wake of his breakout 2018 campaign, Jones was ranked as the 36th-best NFL player by his peers in the Top 100 Players of 2019. While he dropped a bit to No. 52 in last year's voting -- despite racking up nine sacks in 13 regular-season games and then playing a major role in K.C.'s Super Bowl LIV triumph -- he shot back up to No. 34 this year. If he takes his game to another level in 2021, AP voters will be forced to take notice.
The Packers' CB1 could emerge as the league's premier cover corner in coordinator Joe Barry's zone-based system. The fourth-year pro is coming off his first Pro Bowl nod as a lockdown corner with suffocating skills in man coverage, but Alexander could add more turnovers to his stat line with Barry poised to feature a greater share of coverages that enable him to keep his eyes on the quarterback. Given more opportunities to sit back and read routes, Alexander could stockpile his mantle with game balls and NFC Player of the Week awards for his efforts as ball-hawking playmaker.
If James can stay healthy and head coach Brandon Staley features him in a role that maximizes his remarkable talents, the All-Pro safety could play his way into the DPOY conversation as the premier player on an elite defense. James could fill a variety of roles in the Chargers' new scheme: pass rusher, cover man and playmaker as a hybrid player in the secondary. Considering how Staley helped Jalen Ramsey elevate his game in a similar role with the Rams, James could dominate as a game-changer for a unit with the potential to rank among the top five defenses in the league.
BRONCOS: What's their ceiling with Teddy at QB?
I was not surprised to see the Denver Broncos name Teddy Bridgewater the starting quarterback heading into the regular season. The veteran is the perfect quarterback to help the Broncos make a playoff run under Vic Fangio.
From his superb leadership skills to his ultra-conservative game and winning pedigree, the eighth-year pro has the right combination of intangibles and skill to chalk up Ws for a team loaded with talent on each side of the ball. Bridgewater simply needs to distribute the rock like a pass-first point guard to his swift receiving corps (Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler and Noah Fant) that features an assortment of young, dynamic pass catchers with exceptional playmaking ability.
With the Broncos' emerging rushing attack poised to feature Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams running behind an improved offensive line, the savvy quarterback does not need to be a hero to be an effective QB1. If Bridgewater manages the game from the huddle to the line of scrimmage and makes sound decisions with the ball, the Broncos' supporting cast will do the work.
In the preseason, the workmanlike approach resulted in three touchdowns and a field goal in four drives under his direction (20 plays). Bridgewater completed 84.2 percent of his passes without throwing an interception or taking a sack. The offense's efficiency and effectiveness with No. 5 on the field is representative of how most defensive-minded head coaches want to play the game.
Remember, Fangio is a defensive coordinator at heart and likely believes games are often lost due to turnovers and mental errors (pre-snap penalties and blown assignments). As a result, he wants to minimize those factors and put the game on the shoulders of a top-five-caliber defense with a collection of five-star pass rushers (Von Miller and Bradley Chubb) and defensive backs (Justin Simmons, Kyle Fuller, Patrick Surtain II, Bryce Callahan and Ronald Darby) dotting the lineup card.
While Panthers fans might snicker at the notion of Bridgewater thriving as a QB1 given some of his struggles in Carolina last season, the Broncos are putting him in a role that is best suited for his talents. He thrived as a game manager for the Vikings and Saints (22-12 win-loss record) with playoff-ready rosters. He avoided costly mistakes and made enough plays in the passing game to keep the offense on schedule and the team on the winning track.
If Bridgewater follows the same blueprint that enabled him to succeed with other playoff-caliber teams, he could help the Broncos end their playoff drought in 2021.
JAGUARS: Dismiss new regime at your own risk
If you were on the Jaguars' bandwagon after the team hired Urban Meyer and drafted Trevor Lawrence with the No. 1 overall pick this offseason, I would not overreact to a couple of underwhelming preseason games. The exhibition season is not an accurate predictor of regular-season success, and it is way too early to determine if Meyer and Lawrence can lead a dramatic turnaround in Duval County.
Now, I understand the concerns circulating around the national media regarding Meyer's practice regimen, but we cannot judge the three-time national champion by a pair of exhibition games played with a number of players who won't make the final roster.
Sure, the first impression of the Jaguars on a national stage left something to be desired, and losing first-round pick Travis Etienne for the season was a painful bit of misfortune. However, I have watched this team practice, scrimmage and play in-person as the Jaguars' TV color commentator throughout the preseason. Let me tell you that this team is significantly more talented than the 2020 version that took the field. This year's team is bigger, faster and stronger with more athletes that fit the mold as NFL prototypes.
The Jaguars have upgraded the roster with a handful of veterans with solid resumes. Shaquill Griffin, Damien Wilson, Rayshawn Jenkins, Malcom Brown, Roy Robertson-Harris and others have contributed to winning programs. That experience will serve the Jaguars well as they organically grow into leadership roles.
That said, rumblings of disgruntled players complaining about Meyer's tactics have started to surface. Some players are reportedly unhappy with his "college-like" methods. Those sentiments could be fueled by players and opinionated observers who disagree with a non-traditional approach that is opposite of the methods utilized in the NFL over the past decade.
Considering the Jaguars' dismal record over the past decade, the naysayers should pause before weighing in on Meyer's program. This is a coach who has orchestrated quick turnarounds at every stop (SEE: Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State) with wins tallied in bunches shortly after his arrival. Although it might take him a little longer to reverse the Jaguars' fortunes, I would be all-in on a winner figuring it out instead of dismissing his chances after a few glorified scrimmages.
Meyer will eventually tweak the practice schedule and game plans to give his team the best chance to succeed. After chatting with him early in training camp, he assured me that he is learning the differences between the college and pro game. With more time and experience on an NFL sideline, I believe the ultra-competitive coach will figure out how to win.
Rome was not built in a day, so I don't expect a new head coach to turn around a program in two preseason games. Given time to implement a plan that has worked at every stop, the Jaguars' new czar will eventually build a winner in the 904.
PLAYER PREP: Analytics aren't new, but they're vital
Perhaps Tyrann Mathieu was simply offering up a few nuggets to the next generation of players entering the league, but these wise words should resonate with anyone looking to take their game to the next level:
And while Football Nerd Nation celebrated the freshness of Mathieu's tweet, which underlines the benefits of incorporating analytics into pregame preparations, I believe many players have been mining this fertile ground for years.
Back when I was playing for the Kansas City Chiefs in the late 1990s, Gunther Cunningham would pass out scouting reports loaded with analytical data. From handwritten QB heat maps and WR route trees to graphs highlighting the opponent's play selection in critical situations, the late, great defensive coordinator would provide pages of intel to help us prepare for games. In addition, secondary coach Kurt Schottenheimer would pass out more worksheets and receiver cut-ups to enable defensive backs to get ready for their individual matchups. With star cornerback James Hasty also personally asking me to chart plays and touches, the Chiefs organization was already committed to analytics under Marty Schottenheimer.
That's why Mathieu's comments are music to my ears, as a former Chief and defensive back. The veteran is simply sharing the kinds of trade secrets that enabled a secondary featuring Hasty, Dale Carter, Mark McMillian, Reggie Tongue and Jerome Woods (and myself) to suffocate opponents with stifling coverage. Moreover, the critical information gleaned from those analytical scouting reports helped produce a pair of Pro Bowlers (Carter and Hasty) and a ballhawk (McMillan) who finished as the runner-up in the interception race in 1997 with eight picks.
I discussed Mathieu's immense importance to the Chiefs' defense -- and thus, the need for Kansas City to re-up him on a long-term deal -- last week. Examining the All-Pro safety's game, it is easy to see how his detailed study habits translate to such spectacular results on the field. The veteran plays a step faster than his peers and always appears to be in the right place at the right time when the ball is tipped, overthrown or dropped onto the turf. Mathieu makes educated guesses based on information and film study, and young players should pick his brain to see how he has been able to continue to play at such a high level despite suffering a series of injuries and getting up in age.
Analytics are nothing new to certain teams and players, but they're more refined and accessible than ever before. This kind of data's an extremely valuable tool in the toolbox. It cannot be ignored.