Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Here are a few of the topics explored in this edition:
But first, a look at one first-year head coach's polarizing practices ...
As one of the youngest head coaches in the NFL, Joe Judge is a very compelling figure heading into his first season in the big chair. But hearing the reports coming out of New York Giants training camp, I'm a little concerned about some of the 38-year-old's old-school methods.
All of this evokes memories of previous Patriots assistants-turned-head coaches. And although hardline methods didn't produce great results for Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels and -- at least so far -- Matt Patricia, Judge is clearly attempting to recreate the kind of take-no-prisoners environment that's helped Bill Belichick win six Super Bowls in New England.
Now, a tough, hard-nosed culture isn't exactly foreign to Big Blue. In fact, Belichick himself cut his teeth coaching the Giants under Bill Parcells in the 1980s, when New York was unquestionably a no-nonsense operation. And Tom Coughlin brought a similar feel to Gotham in the new millennium. The Giants collected four Lombardi Trophies during these two coaching regimes, so it's not hard to find Judge's inspiration here. The young coach is attempting to re-establish a blue-collar culture with a series of throwback tactics that are routinely utilized by high school and youth football coaches across the country.
Here's the thing, though: This antiquated approach only works at the NFL level if players believe the coach is being authentic as a leader and if his methods directly spawn team success.
While Judge is challenging his charges to earn his respect by becoming more disciplined and detail-oriented, the first-time head coach is the one who needs to earn the respect of his team through his actions. He needs to connect with his players, particularly the young guys, and encourage them to embrace the commitment, accountability and trust that's needed to play at a championship level. Moreover, Judge must convince his players that all of this will positively impact the bottom line when it comes to wins and losses.
With a background as a trusted assistant under Belichick and Alabama coach Nick Saban, Judge can point to his experiences on five championship teams (three Super Bowl titles with the Pats, two national championships with the Crimson Tide). But players will observe his actions to see if they align with his words. For instance, Judge's emphasis on preparation and organization can lead to buy-in from the players if the team sees him providing answers on game day that can only be gleaned from watching immense amounts of film or putting together detailed scouting reports. If Judge is able to accurately predict how an opponent will attack in a specific situation and provide an effective counter, the players will believe their coach will always have solutions to their problems.
Players will also pay close attention to Judge's game day demeanor and behavior. He must exhibit the same discipline, self-control and attention to detail that he demands from his guys. If they see an overly emotional coach berating officials and drawing unsportsmanlike penalties, they will have a tougher time heeding his words when he attempts to correct them for mental errors. Giants players will do their best to make the necessary adjustments, but his words will ring hollow if his actions don't match the values he emphasizes.
That's why it is important for Judge to be 100 percent authentic. He must model the behavior that he wants to see from his players. From his actions as a tough, hard-working competitor to his belief in the value of painstaking preparation, Judge must earn A+ grades in those areas if he expects the Giants to follow suit. Most importantly, he has to convince his players that he genuinely cares about them -- and that his methods will not only make the team better, but help everyone become better players. New-school players will conform to demanding standards if they understand the why behind actions and they can visualize the individual and collective benefits of their sacrifice.
If Judge's old-school methods are a real reflection of himself and his beliefs, he can turn the Giants around by utilizing a blueprint that's helped the franchise win big during previous regimes. If not? Well, talk to Mangini, McDaniels, et al.
DINK AND DUNK
A Patriots platoon at quarterback? Is Bill Belichick really looking to follow in the footsteps of Hall of Fame head coach Tom Landry at the game's most important position?
The thought of a two-quarterback system is unheard of in the modern NFL, but Landry reached back-to-back Super Bowls (winning one) while rotating Craig Morton and Roger Staubach at QB1 for significant parts of the 1971 and '72 seasons. And after the Patriots rotated snaps between Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer early in camp, Phil Perry of NBC Boston asked Belichick on Wednesday if New England could start the season with a platoon system at quarterback. The coach didn't exactly shoot it down.
"It might (benefit the team)," Belichick replied. "Look, I always say, I'll do what I think is best for the team, what gives us the best chance to win. So, whatever that is, I would certainly consider that. If it's run unbalanced line, or double unbalanced line, or 23 personnel. Whatever it is. If it helps us win, then I would consider anything."
I love Belichick's willingness to do whatever it takes to win, but a full-time platoon system in 2020 just isn't feasible. There aren't enough reps in practice to sufficiently prepare multiple quarterbacks to execute a voluminous game plan. And the constant switching could disrupt the rhythm and flow of the offense, with each signal-caller utilizing a different cadence and playing style. Yes, the multiplicity would certainly give opponents a lot to think about while preparing to face the Patriots, but it could also prevent Belichick's team from reaching its potential if the players aren't on the same page with the quarterback. From the receivers needing to adapt to each quarterback's ball spinning differently to the offensive line adjusting to the varying depths of drops and scrambling patterns, this would all create unnecessary challenges for the team.
Now, even if Belichick seriously has been considering this approach, Stidham's emerging hip injury might nip it in the bud. The second-year QB is limited at practice, and NFL Network's Mike Giardi reports that it will be several weeks before he's back to 100 percent. You'd assume this gives Newton a significant advantage in the QB competition. At the end of the day, this might be for the best.
In theory, the utilization of a QB platoon sounds intriguing, but trying to actually execute such a system would introduce more drawbacks than benefits in today's game.
Dez Bryant, Baltimore Raven? Credit the Baltimore Ravens for kicking the tires on former All-Pro wide receiver Dez Bryant. Yes, Bryant hasn't played a single Sunday since 2017. Yes, his game was seemingly on the decline during his final days in Dallas. And yes, he tore his Achilles in 2018 during a brief comeback attempt with the Saints. All that said, the 31-year-old Bryant might be an ideal fit as a role player for the Ravens.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder could be the big-bodied physical presence Baltimore's offense needs on the perimeter to complement a receiving corps loaded with speedsters. Bryant excels at doing the dirty work in the passing game as a possession receiver. He is at his best running in-breaking routes, particularly slants and digs, but also shines as a 50-50 ball specialist on back-shoulder fades along the boundary. And as a willing blocker with size and strength to bully defensive backs on the perimeter, he can add a dimension to the running game. He has enough size to crack linebackers and safeties to seal the edge on outside runs. Bryant's perfectly suited to play as the "big" receiver in the Ravens' jumbo sets with multiple tight ends on the field against a goal-line-type defense.
Keep in mind: The Ravens wanted Bryant back in 2018, but the receiver declined a multi-year contract offer shortly after his release from the Cowboys. This time around, the veteran could come in on the cheap and give Baltimore more bang for the buck as a playmaking specialist on the perimeter.
The blueprint for these 'Boys. If the Dallas Cowboys re-emerge as title contenders under new coach Mike McCarthy, it will happen via a complementary football formula that meshes their offensive approach with defensive and kicking-game philosophies. The veteran head coach, who went 125-77-2 and won a Super Bowl during 13 seasons in Green Bay, tipped his hand on how America's Team will play this year when he talked to the media after the team signed Everson Griffen last week.
"We all understand the priority of what pass rushers bring to your football team," McCarthy said, via the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "We want to be explosive on offense, put points on the board, and then we really, really want to put our pass rushers in position to pin their ears back. That is part of the way we look to attack this season. You can never have enough good pass rushers."
McCarthy's offense certainly has explosive potential in Year 1. CeeDee Lamb's unexpected availability to Dallas in the draft at No. 17 overall allowed the Cowboys to add a five-star playmaker to an attack that already featured a pair of 1,100-yard receivers (Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup), a two-time rushing champ Ezekiel Elliott and a highly decorated offensive line.
All of that collective firepower should encourage offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to be more aggressive in the early stages of games. The 'Boys will aim to put foes in early holes, thus forcing them to chase points -- and allowing defensive coordinator Mike Nolan to unleash his pass rush against one-dimensional offenses airing it out in catch-up mode.
This is why Dallas loaded up on pass rushers in free agency, to give Nolan a deep and talented bullpen to tap into. Everson Griffen, Aldon Smith and Demarcus Lawrence are a formidable trio -- not to mention, Randy Gregory could eventually enter the fray, too. Meanwhile, athletic off-ball linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are both capable of adding some spice as second-level pass rushers.
If McCarthy can keep the offense humming at a high level, the Cowboys' upgraded pass rush should be a big part of the team's winning formula this season.
Don't sleep on Rams rookie Van Jefferson: Looking for the next wide receiver to become a household name after entering the league outside of the first round? Check out the Los Angeles Rams' Van Jefferson. The 57th overall pick from April's draft is already earning rave reviews from his teammates and coaches for his polish and playmaking ability.
"Van has been really good, man," Rams QB Jared Goff said this week. "He's been really good. I say that cautiously because you never want these young guys to get too far ahead of themselves. But he's been really impressive and done a good job. It reminds me a lot of when Cooper (Kupp) was a rookie, and he was just so far ahead of where a rookie kind of should be. He's done a great job. He's really picking things up fast. He's obviously extremely athletic, but I think his ability to be able to pick up the offense mentally and understand the little intricacies of it has been really impressive, and I'm excited to play with him."
Jefferson's maturity, high football IQ and refined game shouldn't come as a surprise, based on his pedigree and experience. Van is the son of New York Jets wide receivers coach Shawn Jefferson, who played 13 seasons as a wideout in the league before becoming a highly respected teacher of the position. In addition, Van spent five years at Ole Miss and Florida refining his skills before becoming a pro.
As an older rookie (24) with 45 collegiate games under his belt, Jefferson enters the league as a polished route runner with superb instincts developed through intense repetition. Moreover, he brings a pro-like approach that meshes with the culture of the Rams' WR room. With Robert Woods and Kupp regarded as A+ technicians possessing versatile games and high football IQs, Jefferson joins a unit that wins with craftsmanship instead of raw explosiveness on the perimeter.
Considering Sean McVay's affinity for "11" personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) and a dynamic passing game, Jefferson's quick acclimation to the pro game could make the rookie pass catcher a pivotal part of the Rams' retooled offense. Woods, Kupp and Jefferson will not only pose problems for defenses without three high-end cornerbacks in the secondary, but they will make life easier for Goff, who's looking for a bounce-back season in 2020.
1) Kenny Clark: New deal spices up trend. When Kenny Clark agreed to a four-year, $70 million contract extension with the Green Bay Packers last week, it seemed to barely register a blip on the national radar. However, astute observers will view the signing as a continuation of a trend in which interior pass rushers are being valued at a premium. Just look at the deals signed this offseason by the Chiefs' Chris Jones and Colts' DeForest Buckner as evidence. Both players joined the $20 million club in average salary per year.
Clark's new deal, which averages $17.5 million per year and runs through the 2024 season, rewards him for posting six sacks in each of the past two seasons as a playmaking nose tackle in Mike Pettine's ultra-aggressive defense.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film from the last two seasons, it is easy to see why the Packers ponied up big bucks to keep the Pro Bowl selectee in the fold. The 6-3, 314-pound former first-round pick is a powerful run stopper with exceptional initial explosiveness at the point of attack. Clark crushes blockers at the line of scrimmage with a series of old-school bull-rush/forklift maneuvers. He creates immediate penetration on running plays while also displaying enough athleticism and range to track runners down on plays designed to attack the edges.
As a pass rusher, Clark's unique combination of strength, power and athleticism enables him to take advantage of lumbering interior blockers. He flashes enough quickness to win with an arm-over, but he is at his best mauling blockers with an assortment of power moves. With 16.5 sacks over the past three seasons, he has emerged as one of the most disruptive nose tackles in the game.
The $70 million contract extension is not only a recognition of Clark's growth as a playmaker -- it shows the rest of the football world that the Packers believe they've secured the services of a highly coveted five-star interior pass rusher for the next five seasons.
2) Cordarrelle Patterson: Bears making wise move. The best offensive coaches in the NFL find creative ways to get their best players the ball every week. So I understand why Chicago's Matt Nagy is planning to use Cordarrelle Patterson at running back more this season. The three-time All-Pro kickoff returner is one of the most explosive playmakers in football, with a knack for finding seams and creases when he has the ball in his hands.
Patterson has led the league in kick-return average three times, posting in excess of 31 yards per return in each of those respective seasons. In addition, his average of 7.6 yards per rush is second-highest among players with at least 100 rushing attempts since the AFL-NFL merger (1970). Think about that. While the sample size is small (103 career rushing attempts), Patterson is posting historic numbers when he runs the ball and has enough size (6-2, 238) to rival some of the heftier RB1s thriving in the league. Although toting the rock on fly sweeps and reverses isn't exactly like running downhill on an assortment of powers, isolations and counters, Patterson's combination of size, speed and explosiveness makes him an intriguing option as a back.
The eighth-year pro gave the football world a glimpse of his talents as a runner when he carried the ball a career-high 42 times for the Patriots in 2018. Patterson amassed 228 rushing yards (5.4 ypc) and a touchdown while helping the team capture a Super Bowl title.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film from that season, Patterson primarily ran on the edges when he touched the ball in the backfield. He burst through holes on outside zones and sweeps, but rarely carried the rock on downhill runs like power-Os or isolations. Despite his limited repertoire, Patterson's combination of speed, burst, vision and balance enabled him to create chunk plays on traditional runs. He's shifty enough to make defenders miss in space. He also displays enough balance and body control to run through arm tackles in the hole.
These are the traits Patterson has always displayed when he has been given reps at running back, whether it was during his college career or in the limited opportunities he's received as a pro. He has dazzled when given a chance to tote the rock from the backfield.
On a Bears team looking for more juice from its offense, Nagy's plans for Patterson are simply about creating more opportunities for one of his most explosive players to make a greater impact.
Star turn in South Beach? Keep an eye on Miami Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki as a candidate for the biggest breakout of 2020. The third-year pro is coming off a solid sophomore campaign in which he amassed 51 catches for 570 receiving yards and five touchdowns. He finished third in end-zone targets among tight ends last season, per Pro Football Focus. He should see his opportunities increase with new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey favoring spread formations, particularly empty sets with tight ends deployed in various spots.
As a natural mismatch player due to his size (6-6, 250) and athleticism, Gesicki could align out wide or play as a big slot receiver against overwhelmed linebackers and defensive backs. Gailey doesn't mind featuring the tight end when he has a potential all-star at the position with a unique set of skills (see: Tony Gonzalez's 96 catches, 1,058 yards and 10 touchdowns during the 2008 season with Gailey as the Chiefs' offensive coordinator). While I'm certainly not ready to proclaim Gesicki a gold-jacket guy, he's a former volleyball standout with the kind of athleticism that's easy to showcase in a wide-open passing game. Don't be surprised if that leads to a massive jump in production for the 2018 second-round pick.