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:
— Inside an emerging trend among nickel corners.
— The element DeSean Jackson brings to Eagles’ special teams unit.
— A look at one team’s fascination with the triple-option offense.
But first, a look at the top five players who SHOULD get new deals this summer …
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The month of June is typically reserved for vacations on the offseason calendar for coaches and players, but decision makers are still at work attempting to get some big money contracts done before the start of training camp. The bean counters are haggling with agents to determine the real value of several players who are seeking contract extensions.
Although the franchise tag is always an option for some of the guys seeking new deals, the majority of teams would prefer to sign their best players to long-term deals that provide some roster stability and continuity. Several teams have already locked up their superstars this offseason, with the most recent being the New Orleans Saints, who earlier this week signed pass rusher Cameron Jordan to a three-year extension worth up to $55.5 million. Other playmakers who put pen to paper this offseason include quarterbacks Carson Wentz (four-year, $128 million extension with the Eagles) and Russell Wilson (four-year, $140 million extension with the Seahawks).
After surveying the landscape for players who are eligible for new contracts in the coming months, here’s my list of the top five players who should get extensions this summer.
1) Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys: Say what you want about No. 4’s perceived role as a game manager, but the 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year has guided America’s Team to a pair of NFC East titles and a 32-16 record as a starter. Although Prescott has certainly leaned on the talents of a two-time NFL rushing champion (Ezekiel Elliott) and a Pro Bowl wide receiver (Amari Cooper) to elevate his game, he has posted comparable numbers to the NFL’s latest $30 million man (Wentz) and surpassed Kirk Cousins’ accomplishments as a starter. With Jimmy Garoppolo, Derek Carr and Matthew Stafford touting resumes with fewer accolades on the ledger, the Cowboys should pay No. 4 market value for his services as a QB1.
2) Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons: The old NFL team building handbook would advise executives to avoid paying big bucks to 30-year-old players, but because Jones is such an exceptional playmaker, the Falcons should break the rule to keep No. 11 in the fold. The veteran wide receiver has tallied at least 1,400 receiving yards in each of the last five seasons while exhibiting a combination of size, strength and speed that coaches and executives covet in a WR1. As an explosive playmaker with home run potential, Jones is not only capable of scoring from anywhere on the field, but he sets the table for his teammates by commanding double coverage at all times. Considering how his talents also elevate Matt Ryan, you could make the case No. 11 is the Falcons’ real MVP.
3) Bobby Wagner, LB, Seattle Seahawks: Pete Carroll might as well give the "quarterback" of his defense a big-money contract after paying Wilson handsomely as the Seahawks’ QB1. As the leader of the defense, Wagner is not only traffic cop for a young defense that’s attempting to create an identity, but he is unquestionably the unit’s top playmaker. Carroll has referred to No. 54 as a potential Hall-of-Fame candidate, which sheds a little light on how the coach values Wagner’s disruptive presence at the point of attack. With the coach throwing away the team’s leverage with those kinds of comments, it is only a matter of time before the Seahawks break the bank for their All-Pro linebacker.
4) Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints: Don’t let the presence of a savvy play-caller (Sean Payton) and an elite quarterback (Drew Brees) overshadow Thomas’ brilliance as a playmaker. The big-bodied receiver has made a living bullying defenders between the numbers, exhibiting sticky hands, superb ball skills and exceptional strength winning 50-50 balls. While some have attempted to peg Thomas as a system player thriving in a scheme that elevates pass catchers, No. 13 is a premier player with a knack for moving the chains and scoring touchdowns. With back-to-back 100-catch seasons on his resume, it is time for the Saints to pay their WR1 the money he deserves.
5) Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Houston Texans: It is uncommon for a team to let a young pass rusher with A-level skills and solid production hit the market. That’s why I believe the Texans, who placed the franchise tag on Clowney this offseason, will eventually write the check to No. 90 to retain his services for the next few seasons. Sure, he has some durability concerns based on his injury history, but there aren’t many edge rushers with his combination of raw speed, strength and explosiveness. As Clowney continues to refine has game as a pass rusher, he could exceed the expectations that come with being a $20 million man.
NICKEL CORNERS: Compensation finally matching production?
If you haven’t noticed, the NFL is turning into a league full of specialists, and decision makers are beginning to pay top dollar for elite role players. The slot corner or nickel corner, in particular, is viewed as the 12th defensive starter on most teams, and recent signings of Justin Coleman (Detroit Lions) and Kenny Moore (Indianapolis Colts) only confirms the emerging trend in war rooms.
Coleman, a fifth-year pro with 19 passes defensed and two pick-sixes over the past two seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the Lions to handle nickel duties for Matt Patricia’s squad. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound cover corner displays an exceptional combination of instincts, awareness and ball skills roaming between the numbers. He is comfortable shadowing slot receivers with cat-like quickness while also showing enough courage and toughness to mix it up against the run.
"Playing nickel corner takes special skills," a former NFL defensive coordinator recently told me. "You need the quickness and agility to handle shifty slot receivers while working through all kinds of traffic over the middle of the field. You also need to be tough enough to handle the run support duties when teams attempt to run the ball against a light box. … Some scouts view it as a ‘throwaway’ position or a stash spot for little guys, but most defensive coaches will tell you the nickel corner should be the most complete defensive back on the team."
The Lions’ new CB3 was pegged as an ideal nickel corner as a collegian at Tennessee following a solid career and a handful of spectacular performances in pre-draft workouts (4.53-second 40-yard dash, 3.98-second 20-yard shuttle drill, 37.5-inch vertical jump, and 10-foot-4-inch broad jump) that highlighted his natural traits for the position. Coleman excelled in a sub-package role for two different teams, which is a testament to his versatility and adaptability as a defender.
Moore, a former undrafted free agent from Valdosta State, has emerged as a key defender for the Colts as their nickel corner. No. 23 has not only started 20 games over the past two seasons but has picked off four passes with 16 passes defensed during that span. As an explosive athlete with A-plus quickness, movement skills and agility, Moore excels at maintaining hip pocket positioning on receivers, particularly on option routes and crossers between the numbers.
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While this certainly comes as a surprise based on his entrance into the league as an undrafted player who failed to make the New England Patriots’ roster, he certainly flashed intriguing traits during a pro day workout at Valdosta State, where he reportedly clocked a 4.47 40 time with a 6.86-second three-cone drill, 40.5-inch vertical jump and a 10-foot-7-inch broad jump.
Considering how Coleman and Moore have ascended to the top of the position as twitchy athletes with outstanding instincts and ball skills, scouts will begin to check off specific boxes when looking at nickel corner prospects down the road. Slot defenders must display outstanding lateral quickness and movement skills in coverage while also flashing a knack for getting their hands on the ball. Additionally, the premier nickel corners will also display solid tackling skills and run support ability as edge players.
"It’s all about putting guys in the right roles," said the former defensive coordinator. "Everyone can’t play inside (slot corner), so when you find one who can do it, you need to keep him."
With the league trending towards more specialization, we are finally seeing the compensation match the production at nickel corner.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) DeSean Jackson will add some sizzle to Eagles’ return game. I loved hearing Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson say earlier this week that DeSean Jackson will reprise his role as a punt returner this season. Although teams don’t typically use star players on special teams (because of the risk of injury), the three-time Pro Bowler is one of the most dynamic playmakers in NFL history. So why not let him loose on returns?
As the Eagles’ primary returner his first four seasons in the NFL, Jackson scored four return touchdowns and averaged 10.6 yards per punt return. Even now, as he enters his 12th NFL season, the 5-foot-10, 175-pound speedster is arguably still the Eagles’ most explosive offensive player, so it’s sensible to give him as many big-play opportunities as possible. Because field position directly correlates to a team’s scoring percentage, I believe more teams should follow the Eagles’ lead and feature high-end playmakers as returners. While I don’t believe you need to use star players on every return, I certainly believe in putting them in a "DH" role (designated hitter), which could give the unit a spark when needed.
When I played for the Green Bay Packers under Mike Holmgren, he essentially treated punt and kickoff returns as offensive plays and he wasn’t afraid to send a high-end player back to receive a kick if he didn’t have an A-level player already at the position. Doug Pederson was my teammate on some of those Packers squads, which is why I’m not surprised by this recent reveal from the Eagles head coach.
"DeSean is an exceptional player and he’s special and very electric with the ball in his hands," Pederson said after a recent minicamp practice. "There are times when we’ll use him when maybe you need to get that one punt return that can flip a field and maybe put you in field-goal position or score a touchdown at the end of the game to win.
"We’ll pick our spots with him, but even talking with DeSean, he’s excited for that opportunity as well."
Sure, it’s been a while since DJax regularly lined up deep on punt formations. But the burner has shown as recently as last season that he still has the juice to generate big plays, posting 13 catches of 20-plus yards and five of 40-plus with the Bucs in 2018. Considering returning punts is somewhat second nature for Jackson — he set the Pac-10 records for punt return touchdowns in a single season (four) and in a career (six) while at Cal — there’s no reason to believe Jackson can’t step back into this role without missing a beat.
2) Ravens doubling down on triple-option offense? At the beginning of May, I referred to the Baltimore Ravens’ offense as the Army of the NFL because of the team’s radical shift to a run-heavy, option-based offense with Lamar Jackson at quarterback. And if you need any more proof of the team’s fascination with the triple-option, look no further than their recent visit with coach Paul Johnson.
The former Georgia Tech, Navy and Georgia Southern head coach, who attended Ravens practice last week, is viewed as one of the godfathers of option football, and his input certainly could help offensive coordinator Greg Roman add another dimension to the Ravens’ offense. Although Johnson isn’t necessarily a proponent of running the option from shotgun formations based on the timing between the quarterback and running back at the mesh point, he certainly has enough experience and creativity building an option offense that he could help the Ravens maximize No. 8’s talents as a dual-threat playmaker.
Whether it involves adding a wrinkle or two to the Ravens’ formation menu and pre-snap motion packages or tweaking the blocking schemes to create different "read" players at the point of attack, Johnson’s experience and insight could help Roman expand his playbook to create more big-play opportunities from option looks and play-action passes. Moreover, Johnson could also help Roman switch his mentality to a four-down mindset, that is, committing to calling the game with the intention of using all four downs to move the chains.
In theory, the Ravens would view any fourth-and-2-or-less situation as an automatic go-for-it down. That approach alone would encourage Roman to stick with the run on second-and-long (7 yards or more) and third-and-medium (4 to 6 yards) situations.
Finally, I believe Johnson’s commitment to an "if-then" approach could prompt Roman to build an offensive call sheet with some ready-made answers to the various defensive schemes the team could encounter, particularly after the Los Angeles Chargers seemingly stymied the running game with their seven-defensive back look.
"You know it is a copycat league and teams are definitely going to look at that film and steal a few ideas," a former NFL defensive coordinator recently told me. "You want to see if Roman has an answer for the scheme after the playoff debacle. If he has some answers, he probably won’t see the scheme again, but he must be able to show opponents that he can handle those fronts and coverages going forward."
Now, I don’t know if Johnson’s visit and film session will have any long-term impact on how the Ravens will proceed with Jackson at quarterback, but I applaud them for tapping into his knowledge in any case. Baltimore certainly has the kind of weaponry (Mark Ingram, Justice Hill, Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst, Willie Snead, Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin) to thrive with option-based principles baked into the scheme.
With the rest of the league opting to lean heavily on the passing game, I appreciate that the Ravens are really committed to building a throwback offense that pummels opponents with the running game.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.
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