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, examining two rising teams preparing to overturn the status quo in the NFC North ...
There's a revolution brewing in the NFC North.
The division has been dominated in recent years by the Packers and Vikings, who have combined to take first place in 11 of the past 12 seasons. But with Aaron Rodgers on his way out in Green Bay and Minnesota making a series of cap-driven adjustments, a path to the title is opening for the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears.
Before you @ me to question my roster-evaluation ability, remember that the Lions and Bears have executed several moves to upgrade their lineups while enhancing the ability of their blue-chip players to make an impact. In the NFL, games are routinely decided by the performance and production of the best players on the field, and the frequent cellar dwellers in Detroit and Chicago have positioned their studs to flourish in 2023.
The Bears, in particular, are ready to make a worst-to-first jump behind the spectacular skills of quarterback Justin Fields. In his second pro season, he broke 1,000 yards as a runner while flashing exceptional playmaking on an offense that lacked premier talent on the front line and perimeter. As a proverbial one-man show, Fields was forced to rely extensively on his athleticism and running skills to produce first downs and touchdowns instead of carving up opponents from the pocket on passes and bootlegs.
Chicago added Chase Claypool via trade last season, but the team still needed a true No. 1 receiver to help Claypool and Darnell Mooney anchor the passing game. Enter D.J. Moore, acquired from Carolina as part of the Panthers' deal for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. Moore is a polished route-runner with sticky hands and big-play potential, and he'll make the Bears more dynamic on the perimeter. With three 1,000-yard seasons on his résumé and a career yards-per-catch mark (14.3) that confirms his explosiveness as a playmaker, Moore can help take this offense to another level.
Though the loss of running back David Montgomery to free agency (he signed, coincidentally, with the Lions) could impact the rushing attack, the addition of D'Onta Foreman gives Chicago a potent combination on the ground, with the big-bodied ball-carrier complementing Fields on power runs and read-option plays. If general manager Ryan Poles can add a few pieces to the line with the bevy of picks he snagged from the Panthers, the offense could propel the Bears back into playoff contention.
It should also force opponents to chase points against a defense that can employ a bend-but-don't-break approach, with young defenders slotted into key roles. Don't expect head coach Matt Eberflus to stop tinkering on that side of the ball, with a couple of new additions on the second level (Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards) bringing the speed and athleticism to control the game as run-and-chase defenders.
In Motown, the Lions are positioned to make another playoff run this season after their furious finish to 2022 fell just short. Head coach Dan Campbell unlocked Detroit's potential as a gritty, hard-nosed squad that outhits and outworks opponents at every turn, reflecting the beat 'em up approach Campbell touted during his introductory press conference two years ago.
Jared Goff's re-emergence as a top-10 quarterback might have generated headlines, but offensive coordinator Ben Johnson's creative scheme meshes a dynamic passing game with an old-school rushing attack that punches opponents in the mouth. The combination of physicality and finesse enabled the Lions to chalk up wins last season.
Still, the defense needed more help to get the team over the hump. The backfield, in particular, needed more cover corners and ball-hawking safeties to play the nose-to-nose style preferred by defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn. As Cameron Sutton, Emmanuel Moseley and C.J. Gardner-Johnson settle into their roles as designated playmakers, the Lions' ultra-aggressive defensive play-caller should be able to unleash Aidan Hutchinson and James Houston on an assortment of blitzes and pressures designed to keep opposing quarterbacks on the run within the pocket.
The relentless pressure should result in more turnovers and splash plays (sacks, tackles for loss and QB hits), which should in turn result in more opportunities for an offense that looked unstoppable under Goff's direction.
As a former scout, I am fascinated with the different approaches the Bears and Lions are taking in an effort to reach the same playoff destination. While the Bears are utilizing every draft asset and trade chip available to help Fields become a dominant young force, the Lions are hitching their wagon to a former No. 1 overall pick with Super Bowl experience.
There are various ways to build a playoff contender -- and the NFC North's changing of the guard could provide team builders with a couple of new blueprints to follow soon.
Why two veteran CBs have aged so well
Father Time is supposed to be undefeated in the NFL, but a couple of former All-Pro cornerbacks are turning back the clock as all-star-caliber defenders thriving in the twilight of their careers.
As two of the premier corners of the last decade, Stephon Gilmore and Patrick Peterson, both 32 years old, are still blanketing opponents and swiping passes on the island. They dominated opponents utilizing their superior physical gifts as youngsters and now collect wins on the perimeter due to their exceptional football IQs, instincts and diagnostic skills, which has caused two NFL teams to prioritize the vets and their skill sets this offseason.
By combining their experience and expertise with refined technical skills, both Gilmore and Peterson have improved as players despite losing some speed and athleticism. While the loss of athleticism certainly poses a challenge when covering some of the elite pass catchers on the perimeter, they have mastered the nuances of the position to make their jobs easier in coverage.
For instance, they pay close attention to the alignment of the receivers to anticipate the potential routes that could be in play, based on where the ball sits on the field. The adherence to the hash-split rules (defenders can anticipate routes based on the width of the receiver's alignment compared to the ball's position) enables Gilmore and Peterson to jump routes on the perimeter when receivers fail to mask their intentions.
In addition, the veterans will also utilize various tricks to cut off receivers by taking a direct path to the break point. The keen understanding of angles and releases enables Gilmore and Peterson to eliminate unnecessary steps in coverage. Moreover, learning through repetition helps them anticipate routes and throws in their area.
Reviewing Gilmore's 2022 season, it is not a coincidence that he thrived in the Indianapolis Colts' defense under Gus Bradley's direction. The wily defensive architect features a zone-based system with hybrid man coverage techniques. Gilmore's ability to play man or zone utilizing a "bail" (defenders side shuffle from a press alignment) or "shadow" technique took away the layups for opposing quarterbacks while enabling the veteran cornerback to stay on top of vertical routes. With the Colts also mixing in some "2-Man" (two-deep, man-to-man with trail technique) to allow the veteran to undercut routes due to safety help over the top, Gilmore was able to make his fair share of plays on the perimeter.
Peterson was also impressive in coverage in the Minnesota Vikings' zone-based scheme. He was free to play with vision due to some walked-off alignments and deep-area assignments given to the corners. Though Peterson was comfortable playing nose-to-nose in critical moments, his ability to play from depth enabled him to make more plays on tipped or overthrown balls due to his vision and positioning. He made five interceptions in 2022, his most since 2012, when he had a career-high seven.
With each former All-Pro displaying outstanding instincts, awareness and ball skills as zone-based corners, the duo has shown the football world that old dogs can learn new tricks to remain at the top of the game.