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:
-- Ranking the top five Batman & Robin duos in the NFL.
-- How the Cowboys are making savvy use of CeeDee Lamb.
But first, a look at what's at stake in 2021 for a young QB who's running short on time to break out ...
If Daniel Jones is unable to play at a high level for the Giants in 2021, he will never be the guy in New York.
Excuse my brutal honesty, but it takes three years to determine whether a quarterback can really play in the NFL, and this is Year 3 for Jones. He heads into a make-or-break season with an 8-18 career record as a starter. Considering his losing record, propensity for turnovers (league-high 39 giveaways since 2019) and inconsistent play, it's hard for me to pencil him in as the Giants' QB1 beyond 2021 right now.
Keep in mind that the team holds a pair of first-round picks in the 2022 draft (its own and the Chicago Bears' selection) and the upcoming quarterback class could feature some intriguing options that offer Joe Judge and Co. an upgrade at the position. It's also important to note that the team will have to make a decision on whether to pick up the fifth-year option on Jones' rookie contract next spring.
With so many decisions riding on Jones' play in 2021, the former sixth overall pick must show out or someone else could be taking over as the Giants' QB1 a year from now.
To the Giants' credit, they have thrown their support behind the young quarterback. Judge seems to be heaping praise on Jones at every turn.
"We have confidence in Daniel, he's a player that we want to work with going forward with this team. He's shown us a lot of improvement, there's a lot of things. I can go on and on about how we respect him and like him and how the locker room responds to him, but the simple answer to that is no, [our stance on Jones has not changed]," Judge told reporters prior to the start of free agency in March.
The public support was followed by a flurry of moves that added more firepower to the Giants' offense. They signed Kenny Golladay to a four-year, $72 million deal to fill the No. 1 receiver role. The team also added an electric playmaker via the draft in Kadarius Toney, who joins a group of pass catchers that includes Evan Engram, Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton. With two-time Pro Bowl selectee Kyle Rudolph also joining the squad after a successful run with the Vikings, the Giants figure to have a more dynamic offense than the pedestrian unit that ranked 29th in passing yards last season.
With an improved supporting cast, Jones should be able to surpass the 3,000-yard mark and 20 touchdown passes after tallying just 2,943 pass yards and 11 TD passes in 2020. The increase in production should also coincide with fewer turnovers and sacks taken as the Giants rebuild their offense around a balanced approach that features Saquon Barkley as the centerpiece. Barkley, the former No. 2 overall pick, is making his way back from an ACL tear that limited him to two games last season and robbed the Giants of their most dynamic offensive player. If he returns to form as an All-Pro-caliber playmaker, the G-Men will be able to lean on the diversified attack that utilizes the threat of No. 26 to set the table for the rest of the weapons on the perimeter. The mere presence of Barkley in the backfield will enable the team to feature more play-action passes and deceptive tactics to create bigger passing lanes for Jones down the field.
Now, the jury is still out on whether offensive coordinator Jason Garrett can put together an offensive plan with enough innovation and variety to take advantage of the talent at his disposal. The former Cowboys head coach has had a year to shake off the rust from his lengthy layoff as a play-caller to build a better plan for an offense that averaged just 17.5 points per game (second-fewest in the league).
You read that right. The Giants averaged the equivalent of two touchdowns and a field goal in a league that has made life easier on offenses through rule changes over the years. Part of the blame for the scoring deficiency falls on the play-caller, but a lot of it is on the quarterback. The league's elite QBs have the capacity to make plays even when the scripted offense fails. Moreover, they are able to uplift a sagging offense with their superpowers inside and outside of the pocket (SEE: Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert).
To this point, Jones has not shown enough consistency to view him as a special player and I can't give him a pass for his pedestrian passing production last season. If he fails to impress as a third-year starter with an upgraded cast around him, I believe it will be time for the Giants to move on from their young QB1 and find a better option in the 2022 draft.
2021 SEASON: Top 5 Batman & Robin duos
The summertime sports calendar certainly produces interesting conversations with all eyes on the NBA playoffs. NFL general managers, scouts, and coaches will check out postseason hoops to see how the championship-caliber teams are constructed while also appreciating how stars can work with complementary games.
For instance, the Milwaukee Bucks' emergence as a title contender has fueled discussions regarding the need to have a superstar player and an elite sidekick to win at a high level. Although the conversation surrounding Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton operating as a Batman & Robin-like tandem has led to a debate about which all-star is really the Bucks' closer.
In the NFL, a Batman-Robin pairing can position a franchise for championship success when the stars play like an elite tandem between the lines. The challenge of dealing with a pair of blue-chip players within a position group creates headaches for opposing coaches attempting to craft game plans that neutralize the opponent's primary weapon while also containing the elite complementary player.
Given some time to survey the league and identify the top playmaking duos dominating their respective positions, here are my top five Batman-Robin combinations in the game:
The most explosive pass-catching tandem in the NFL can be an unstoppable force on the perimeter. Kelce and Hill are each legitimate No. 1 options with the potential to take over the game at any point. Kelce, a three-time All-Pro, is the first tight end in NFL history to post five straight 1,000-yard seasons, including a 1,416-yard campaign in 2020. Not to be outdone, Hill has topped the 1,100-yard mark in three of the last four seasons while emerging as the NFL's premier big-play threat. The explosive playmaker has averaged 14-plus yards per catch in each of those four seasons while tallying 41 receiving touchdowns during that span. With Patrick Mahomes displaying his superpowers as the QB1, the Chiefs will continue to terrorize the league with their version of the Super Friends on the perimeter.
It is rare for a team to feature a pair of backs with the potential to claim the league's rushing title, but the Browns could put Chubb or Hunt on the podium by the end of the season. Chubb claimed the silver medal in 2019 with a 1,494-yard effort that showcased his skills as a nifty bruiser between the tackles. Despite a dip in production due to injuries a season ago, he topped the 1,000-yard for the second time and cemented his status as one of the league's top runners. Hunt earned a gold medal as the 2017 rushing champion (1,327 yards) and ran for 841 as the super-sub behind Chubb in 2020. Considering the individual and collective skills of the Browns' running back tandem, it is hard to find a better combination in any NFL backfield.
Playing great defense in today's NFL is all about forcing turnovers. With that in mind, the Ravens' defense will always rank among the game's best units as long as Peters and Humphrey are leading the way as ball magnets in the secondary. Peters is a turnover machine with 31 career interceptions and nine forced fumbles in six seasons. Although he will give up an occasional play as a fearless gambler, the veteran routinely makes up for his mistakes with a timely interception that changes the momentum of the game. Humphrey is the best ball puncher on the perimeter since Charles "Peanut" Tillman helped the Bears' defense wreak havoc on the league years ago. The All-Pro finished 2020 with a league-high eight forced fumbles and 2.5 sacks as a slot/outside corner with superb instincts and awareness. These two former first-round picks give the Ravens the league's best turnover producers in a defensive backfield.
Tom Brady certainly deserves credit for his role in changing the Bucs' culture, but Todd Bowles' defense also played a huge hand in bringing another Lombardi Trophy to Tampa Bay. White and David sparked the unit's impressive play with their ability to control the game as sideline-to-sideline playmakers. White is a unicorn at the position. He shows a knack for getting to the quarterback (nine sacks last season) while also displaying solid instincts and awareness in coverage. David is the ultimate sidekick as a speedy run-through player with a nose for the football. The veteran's experience and expertise combined with White's explosiveness gives the Bucs a disruptive linebacker corps that is a nightmare to face on Sundays.
The Rams could likely pair anyone with the three-time Defensive Player of the Year and earn a prime spot on the list. But Floyd's emergence as a double-digit sack artist shouldn't be ignored. The sixth-year pro notched 10.5 sacks in 2020 playing opposite No. 99 in a defense that relied heavily on frontline play. With Donald keying the effort of last season's top-ranked defense with his relentless effort and dominant pass rush skills (85.5 career sacks), the Rams' dynamic duo deserves a spot on this list.
CEEDEE LAMB: Return-game impact key
Coaches frequently discuss the importance of the kicking game but few are willing to put their star players on special teams. That's why I love Mike McCarthy's plan to utilize CeeDee Lamb as the Cowboys' primary punt returner once again this season.
"We made it clear when I hired John Fassel [as special teams coordinator] that special teams were going to be a priority here," Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy told reporters last month, per Jon Machota of The Athletic. "I don't view players graduating from special teams. ... You like to be able to see your players do more than one thing. It's something that we talk about a lot in player acquisition. What are the two things he can do? Obviously, his offensive and defensive role, but what part of special teams can he contribute? And hey, you need more than one returner, too. We understand that. It's a long season. It's a longer season."
While the thought of putting an emerging star and valuable pass catcher on the field as a punt returner will make some observers queasy, the return game should be treated as another offensive play, and thus, should feature a dynamic, game-changing threat.
That might sound like coachspeak on the surface, but the kicking game typically represents the biggest expected exchange of yards from any single play, with field position often swapping 40-plus yards when boot meets ball. With rule changes on kickoffs reducing the number of big returns in recent years, the Cowboys are attempting to take advantage of the hidden yardage available in the punt return game by deploying Lamb.
As a rookie, No. 88 ranked 11th in the league (min. 20 returns) with an average of 7.2 yards per return on 24 returns with a long of 27 yards. If he pushes his average to 10-plus yards as a sophomore, Lamb is giving the Cowboys' offense a free first down. Moreover, he is putting the offense in a better position to score with improved field position.
From a development standpoint, the punt return role gives Lamb a chance to contribute while occupying the WR3 spot on a unit with five-star playmakers at each of the skill positions. The 6-foot-2, 198-pounder can add a few touches to the stat line as the Cowboys' primary punt returner while sharpening his tools as an open-field runner.
As a scout with the Seattle Seahawks, I frequently heard head coach Mike Holmgren suggest former punt returners have the potential to become dangerous playmakers due to their toughness and running skills in traffic. Based on his experiences with the likes of John Taylor, Robert Brooks, and Antonio Freeman with the 49ers and Packers, he believed punt returns were the perfect training ground for a young player to develop skills that could help him become a Pro Bowl receiver.
McCarthy also watched former returners emerge as all-star-caliber receivers during his time with the Packers. Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb played key roles as return specialists as youngsters before becoming playmakers in the passing game. Cobb, in particular, provided a spark in the kicking game before earning his way into the rotation as a key contributor.
"I've gone through it before. Randall Cobb would probably be the last player that I went through it where he started out primarily as the returner and then as he grew and his numbers grew, you start looking at pitch count and things like that," McCarthy said. "I don't see us there with CeeDee. But at the end of the day, we'll have more than one returner."
As McCarthy continues to look for ways to help the Cowboys make a playoff run, I believe he's making a wise decision in utilizing Lamb as a punt returner to help him continue to develop his game in Year 2.