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 the early returns on a highly polarizing No. 1 overall pick ...
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The biggest challenge for NFL evaluators is determining whether a prospect is an ideal fit for the team's scheme. For a media scout, the lack of information and insight from each organization can make it difficult to play the mock draft game when attempting to match top prospects with pro franchises.
In the 2022 NFL Draft, the surprising rise of Travon Walker to No. 1 overall created quite a stir in media circles, with many observers obsessing over the Georgia product's sack production instead of focusing on his intriguing traits as a super-sized defensive playmaker with positional flexibility.
With the Jacksonville Jaguars' pass-rush need, the pre-draft debate between Walker and Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson dominated discussion in the days leading up to the top selection, as analysts weighed each prospect's pros and cons.
After Jacksonville turned in the card for Walker, questions ensued about the 6-foot-5, 272-pounder's relative lack of college production and how the Jaguars planned to maximize his skill set. What was the thinking behind spending the draft's No. 1 overall pick on a raw prospect?
"For us, it was just the potential, the upside," Pederson said last month on The Rich Eisen Show. "As coaches, we're privy to a lot of film and a lot of conversations that a lot of people don't get, and a lot of information. And part of our job is to gain that information. And we just felt at the time, and even sitting here today, that the best for our organization was Travon Walker.
"When you look at his body of work at Georgia, from Day 1, the day he got there, they moved him all up and down that defensive front. He's a very versatile player. There's a lot of unique things that he can do along the defensive front. And for us, we feel like he's going to be a good outside edge rusher with Josh Allen and KC, K'Lavon Chaisson, and these guys that we have, and Jordan Smith. He just adds to that room. And it's a position that we addressed in the draft and we're happy and we're excited and we can't wait to get him in here."
After spending a few days in Jacksonville this week watching the team conduct OTAs, I understand why Walker was the Jaguars' choice at No. 1. The massive edge defender is an intimidating presence as a stand-up player in a 3-4 defense. Moreover, he is an explosive athlete with heavy hands and a non-stop motor. Walker's pass-rushing tools are unrefined, partly because, in UGA's defense, he wasn't routinely asked to just pin back his ears and hunt quarterbacks. As Pederson noted, though, the 21-year-old's rare natural gifts offer immense upside.
With the Jaguars capable of putting Walker and Allen on the edges while deploying a variety of interchangeable big bodies on the inside, Jacksonville has assembled a monstrous front line with the size and versatility to pose problems at the point of attack. If new defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell brings over some of the concepts he taught in Tampa Bay as a coach in Todd Bowles' attacking scheme, the Jags could mix in some five- and six-man blitzes with simulated pressures (four-man rushes with a second-level defender involved in the pass rush) to keep opponents guessing at the line of scrimmage.
While most of the pressure concepts will impact the passing game, Walker's size/strength combination could enable Jacksonville to shut down the run on early downs. Looking at how the rookie could be deployed in a dynamic 3-4 scheme, it is possible that Walker gives the Jaguars a Jadeveon Clowney-like disruptor off the edge. Although the three-time Pro Bowler has failed to record double-digit sacks in any one season, he has been a destructive force as a run defender, logging three years with at least 16 tackles for loss. Walker could evolve into a similar threat with his run-stopping acumen overshadowing his pass-rushing skills -- and it's certainly not out of the question that he significantly develops that latter discipline at the NFL level, especially given more opportunity to simply explode off the edge.
I understand this might not sound like the kind of polished gamechanger many expect to be taken No. 1 overall, but the rookie's explosiveness, versatility and disruptive potential could help the Jaguars' defense exceed expectations in Doug Pederson's first season on the job.
Fangio fashion: NFL's hot defensive trend
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Vic Fangio should be sitting around with rose-colored cheeks. Ironic, considering Fangio is currently unemployed after his January dismissal as head coach of the Denver Broncos. But the veteran defensive architect's scheme is red hot across the NFL right now. And while he's set to take in the 2022 season from home, Fangio will be able to watch numerous teams deploying variations of his defense to stymie premier offenses.
It's hard to replicate ingenuity without knowing the intimate details of the process, but that won't stop Fangio's disciples and imitators from trying to reproduce his defensive success. While his Broncos teams went just 19-30 over the past three seasons, the defense wasn't the problem. In fact, Denver allowed the third-fewest points in 2021. After watching the defensive mastermind stump a number of well-respected, creative offensive minds -- including Sean McVay, Andy Reid and Mike McCarthy/Kellen Moore, among others -- a growing number of NFL teams are hoping the system will produce similar results in different locations.
I took some time this week to dig into the film and break down the scheme, looking to deduce why so many others are attempting to implement it. Here are a few thoughts:
1) Stopping the pass is the top priority.
Fangio's defensive approach throws old-school principles out of the door. Instead of focusing on shutting down the run on early downs, the defensive wizard places a premium on eliminating the deep ball and forcing opponents to drive the field by stringing together long marches. Considering the odds suggest that something will go awry with the offense running more plays (penalties, missed assignments, turnovers), he's willing to "die a slow death" in a pass-happy league. Fangio and his disciples will concede minimal gains through the air or on the ground in hopes of eliminating explosive plays (passes of 20-plus yards). If opponents are unable to pick up chunk yards with deep passes, the numbers generally favor the defense benefitting from an offensive miscue that eventually results in a giveaway or punt.
2) Post-snap movement confuses the quarterback and befuddles the play-caller.
The two-high shell is a pre-snap staple of Fangio's defense. His teams routinely park a pair of safeties at 10-to-12 yards off the line of scrimmage in a Cover 2 (two-deep coverage) or Quarters (four-deep matchup zone) look, before spinning to a variety of coverages after the snap. The "toy soldiers" approach challenges the diagnostic skills of quarterbacks by forcing them to decipher what coverage the defense is in while retreating from an oncoming pass rush. In addition, the strategic pre-snap depths of the secondary defenders not only prevent opposing quarterbacks from anticipating coverage, but they test the awareness of the perimeter players. In an offense that features route conversions based on coverage, the muddy waters will lead to some blown adjustments and missed connections. Moreover, combining post-snap movement with matchup-coverage principles (defenders switch receivers on crossing routes) creates confusion and inefficiency from the offense (SEE: Denver's 30-16 win in Dallas last November).
3) Containing the ground game with lighter boxes is crucial.
Although stopping the run is not the No. 1 priority of the defensive plan, Fangio and his disciples want to neutralize the ground game while utilizing lighter boxes. Instead of employing a "plus-one" defense that adds an extra defender to the box to outnumber blockers at the point of attack, he will insert a secondary defender into the run defense from depth in a variety of sub-packages with five or six defensive backs accompanying three- or four-man fronts. Whether it is a safety flying into the box after keying the tight end's blocking path or a cornerback triggering quickly on a post-snap read, Fangio expects his defensive backs to be in the mix on running plays. He factors that into the equation when assigning gap responsibilities that force RBs to bounce to the edges to find running room. The scheme utilizes "spill" tactics (defenders clog inside gaps) and "wrong-arm maneuvers" (defenders attack the inside leg of approaching blockers) to force the ball to the edges, with swift defenders chasing the ball down from the inside out. With more defensive backs on the field in a variety of sub-packages, the "spill" approach takes advantage of the superior athletes in the game. While run-heavy teams will attempt to pound the ball right at all of the "little guys" on the field, offenses operating from spread formations have a tougher time running to the perimeter against athletic units built to run and chase from sideline to sideline.
4) Red-zone efficiency is a must.
The philosophy of this system forces the defensive play-caller to place a premium on red-zone execution. If a team is willing to concede yards between the 20s utilizing a bend-don't-break approach, it is imperative to force opponents to settle for field goals in the red area. With less field to defend and one additional "defender" (the end line) in play, Fangio's scheme will force quarterbacks to make more tight-window throws in a condensed area. The constant switching in matchup coverage neutralizes some of the concepts that would pick apart man-to-man while also creating a picket fence at the goal line with defenders reading the eyes of the quarterback. To defeat the coverage, quarterbacks and receivers must operate at a high level, with the play-caller designing plays that put playmakers in ideal windows. Given the challenges created by scheme and personnel, the red zone has been a graveyard for offensive drives against Fangio's defense.
Fangio's scheme has become the talk of the town in NFL circles, with more and more coaches looking to incorporate some of the tactics into their game plans. While the philosophy is sound and the approach works with the right personnel, it is hard to run someone else's scheme without intimate knowledge of the hows and whys behind his play calls and play designs. With more disciples and imitators taking on the challenge, we will quickly find out who knows how to bring Fangio's X's and O's to life.
Who will be the Seahawks' new QB1?
The thought of Seattle replacing Russell Wilson, a quarterback with nine Pro Bowl appearances and one Super Bowl title to his name, with either a journeyman or an underachieving youngster has no doubt made some "12s" around the Pacific Northwest queasy. It would be fair to question the Seahawks' chances of re-emerging as a playoff contender in the near future behind Geno Smith or Drew Lock.
I'm not going to suggest the team won't take a step back without No. 3. But Seattle's fortunes are better than some would think. Sure, Smith and Lock have provided us with enough lowlights to inspire doubt about their ability to lead the team as a QB1, but this version of the Seahawks' offense might be good enough to survive with a "trailer" at the quarterback position.
Before you @ me suggesting that I have lost my mind, or that I'm drinking the Pete Carroll/John Schneider Kool-Aid, remember that a throwback approach fueled the Seahawks' emergence as perennial playoff contenders in the early 2010s. Those teams relied on a punishing running game and an opportunistic aerial attack that complemented a dominant defense. Today's group has enough talent to win like that, too.
Yes, Seattle finished with a losing record last season (7-10) for the first time since Wilson was drafted in 2012. But it is important to note that the team was in the hunt until the final weeks of the year, with its playoff chase derailed by a number of one-score losses (five, to be exact). I am not ready to proclaim this an A-level squad on either side of the ball, but with better luck and improved play from a rebuilt offensive line, it is possible that the Seahawks exceed expectations in a scheme that places a premium on the running game and an efficient play-action passing attack.
The weapons are certainly in place, with DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett excelling as big-play specialists to support the efforts of Rashaad Penny and Kenneth Walker III on the ground. The quarterback simply needs to deliver a competent performance for the offense to make enough plays to take games into the fourth quarter.
A look at each quarterback reveals enough promise and potential to suggest Smith or Lock could get the job done in the right situation.
Smith, a ninth-year pro with 34 career starts, has played well for the Seahawks when given a chance. While filling in for an injured Wilson last season, the 31-year-old former second-rounder completed 68.4 percent of his passes, with a 5:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 103.0 passer rating.
Despite the small sample size, it is hard to dispute Smith's efficient numbers when you study the tape. He averaged 7.4 yards per attempt while operating in a managerial role for a team that increasingly relied on the running game. While critics will point to his paltry per-game mark from his three starts (190.3 passing yards) as a cause for concern, that is presumably not very worrisome for a team that wants to get back to a more conservative approach that will reduce the number of turnovers and miscues from the offense.
In the 25-year-old Lock, who came over from the Broncos as part of Wilson's trade to Denver, the Seahawks have a young gunslinger with a live arm and dynamic movement skills. A second-round pick in 2019, the fourth-year pro can make every throw in the book while operating from the pocket or on the move. Considering Lock's physical tools would have placed him near the top of the list in the 2022 draft class, the Seahawks are willing to roll the dice that he could emerge as the team's QB1 with a better scheme and supporting cast accentuating his play.
That said, the young quarterback must display more consistency as a playmaker. Lock's Broncos tenure was littered with flashes followed by silly decisions and turnovers. In 2020, when he made 13 starts, Lock logged a league-high 15 picks to go along with eight fumbles. If he can curb the blunders while displaying more maturity as a starter, he could emerge as a viable long-term option for a team that has been at its best with a "cheap" option at the position who understands and embraces the role of manager.
The Seahawks open the 2022 season on Monday night, hosting ... Russell Wilson's Broncos. That'll be fun. But who starts under center for the home team? If the game were tomorrow, I'd expect the team to go with Smith as the starter, based on his success running the Seahawks in 2021. However, Lock's talent and potential make him a better option for a team that is looking to re-emerge as a playoff contender in the NFC. If the young quarterback dazzles throughout the preseason, with a few highlight plays showcasing his A+ arm and impressive movement skills, I think Carroll and Co. will roll with Lock this year.