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, considering Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and the most daunting QBs to face today ...
One way to spark a strong reaction from the football world is to insinuate that a superstar is a system player, someone who is elevated by the pieces around him and lacking the skills needed to succeed in any situation. Former Ravens and Jets linebacker Bart Scott recently did the honors, setting social media on fire after he said that he and others would rather face Tom Brady than Peyton Manning.
"I'd much rather go against Tom Brady every day of the week than go against Peyton Manning," Scott said last week on ESPN Radio's Bart & Hahn Show. "... I believe that's how everybody feels. Like, in the heyday, never ever have I said when I'm playing the Patriots, 'I'm so afraid of Tom Brady.'
"I lost as a No. 1 seed to Peyton Manning with the Baltimore Ravens. Peyton Manning gives you a different set of anxiety. ... With Tom Brady it was more about Bill Belichick, the entire team, the execution, them having a game plan."
While I believe there is a lot more nuance needed to fully understand the point Scott tried to make, there is something different about facing a player who is in the system compared to someone who thrives within the system. For instance, a quarterback who can operate outside of the play designs crafted by the offensive coordinators poses a bigger threat to the defense. Whether making plays on an impromptu scramble or firing a no-look pass across the field, the quarterbacks who keep defensive coordinators up at night are the ones who are able to make plays beyond the diagrams on the chalkboard.
In the mid-1990s, I had a chance to witness it firsthand when I played with the Green Bay Packers in the midst of Brett Favre's run to three consecutive MVP award wins. The Hall of Famer was the best player on the planet during that time and his improvisational skills kept defensive coordinators and defenders on their toes.
As No. 4's teammate, the presence of a magician at the position not only changed the way opponents defended us but it gave the team the kind of confidence that can result in rings and banners at the end of the season. The offense expected to score every time it had the ball with Favre in the huddle. From the coaches to the players, the goal was to score 30 or more points each week. Anything less than flawless execution and efficient performance drew the ire of the coaches, particularly Mike Holmgren, and created some tense moments on the sideline and in the locker room.
On defense, the emphasis was on getting the ball back to give Favre more chances to put points on the board. Whether we were up or down, the team's confidence was unshakeable due to the presence of a unicorn in the offensive huddle.
I'm certain Brady's teammates in New England and Tampa Bay feel the same way about TB12 in the huddle. I think Brady would be the first to admit, though, that he's never been the most athletically gifted passer around. There is something different about having a transcendent star at the position with the potential to make a play from anywhere on the field in a variety of ways.
Looking at the starting quarterbacks in today's league, there are a handful of quarterbacks who have the star qualities and blue-chip traits that led to sleepless nights for defensive coordinators and defenders around the league. The combination of IQ, athleticism and arm talent makes them a nightmare to defend, and it requires more than just the Xs and Os to slow them down.
Here are my top five scariest quarterbacks in the league right now.
Do not let a sub-par 2021 campaign -- by his incredibly high standards -- overshadow the fear factor created by former regular season and Super Bowl MVP. Mahomes has the capacity to shred defenses with a variety of laser-like tosses from inside and outside of the pocket. The sixth-year pro has dazzled the football world with his ability to throw the ball down the field, but 2022 could give him a chance to showcase a more disciplined and patient approach. With Tyreek Hill now in Miami, Mahomes might play more small ball and pick apart opponents with a barrage of passes thrown at short and intermediate range. If he continues to refine his approach while maintaining the fearlessness and efficiency (66.1% completion rate, 105.8 passer rating, 151:37 TD-INT ratio) that has made him so hard to stop, the Chiefs’ QB1 could go down as the scariest quarterback in NFL history.
Allen is a freak show at the position, possessing super-sized dimensions with A-plus arm talent and athleticism. It’s hard to find 6-foot-5, 237-pound quarterbacks with the capacity to throw the ball over the top of the defense or run through a defense on designed QB runs and impromptu scrambles. Allen has put up MVP-like numbers over the past couple years while emerging as one of the premier offensive weapons in the game. As a modern-day single-wing quarterback with a unique set of skills, opposing coaches must craft game plans that account for a dynamic runner and thrower at the position. With few defenses housing enough athletes, particularly at the second level, with the size, length and strength to get Allen to the ground, the stuff the box or fall back into coverage dilemma created by Allen’s skills make it hard for defensive coordinators to rest easy when prepping for the Bills.
The four-time MVP is no longer the athlete he once was, but that does not make him a lesser threat at the position. Rodgers continues to torment opponents with a beautiful mind and mythical arm that enables him to pick apart defenses with exceptional pre-snap reads and post-snap throws. He routinely throws receivers open against tight coverage with pinpoint tosses while also showing the ability to toss rainbows over the top of the defense when defenders make a mistake in coverage. Rodgers always cashes the lottery ticket when the defense messes up, and his ability to identify the misplaced defender keeps defensive coordinators on edge. Despite the loss of an All-Pro receiver who made life easier for Rodgers in the pocket, the remarkable skills and efficiency of the veteran passer will enable the Packers’ offense to continue to thrive with No. 12 in the huddle.
The so-called slump from the former NFL MVP in 2021 has led some observers to have amnesia when recalling Jackson’s impact as a playmaker on the perimeter. After tallying a pair of 1,000-yard seasons as a rusher, defensive coordinators are well aware of his ability to take over the game on the ground. No. 8 is an explosive runner with superb ball-handling skills as an option quarterback executing a variety of power-read and counter-read plays. He has shown the ability to take it the distance as a runner from anywhere on the field and that forces opponents to pay extra attention to him in the box. With the fifth-year pro displaying enough proficiency as a passer down the middle of the field to punish opponents for overplaying the run, defensive coordinators have to pick and choose when to ratchet up the pressure against a quarterback who possesses the athleticism and arm talent to counter aggressive tactics.
It’s easy to see why Brandon Staley has so much confidence in his quarterback. Herbert has compiled gaudy numbers in his first two NFL seasons while displaying the IQ, athleticism, arm talent and swagger to develop into an all-timer at the position. Measuring 6-foot-6, 236 pounds with the ability to throw the ball out of the stadium or hit a bullseye on the dartboard, the third-year pro is the prototype at the position as a passer. Herbert can throw with touch, timing and anticipation or fire the ball through tight windows between the hashes. As a former three-sport star in high school with light feet, the big-bodied QB can make plays outside of the pocket, too. That underrated dimension to Herbert’s game makes him a weapon on the perimeter on zone reads and designed quarterback runs. Although the Chargers want to limit his exposure to big hits, the franchise quarterback possesses an array of skills that challenge the minds of defensive coordinators and the athleticism of defenders.
Iron sharpening iron in Green Bay
The best teams and players utilize the offseason program to significantly improve ahead of the season. While some observers dismiss the value of practices in T-shirts and shorts, the opportunity to learn and compete with teammates can pay huge dividends down the road.
In Green Bay, it appears the competition between defensive backs and wide receivers could help shore up a key spot on the roster.
Davante Adams left quite a void when he was traded from the Packers to the Raiders this offseason. Widely regarded as the top receiver in football, the two-time All-Pro posted three 1,300-plus-yard seasons in the past four years, topping the 100-catch mark in each of those seasons. He also scored 69 touchdowns over the past six seasons. Now, there is no receiver on the Packers' roster who logged more than 60 targets, 40 catches or 513 receiving yards last season. With No. 17 no longer in the lineup to serve as Aaron Rodgers' security blanket, the Packers need one of their young, unproven pass-catchers to quickly step in and produce at an all-star level.
Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander is determined to help foster that development.
"I'm going to make it as hard as I can for those guys because I know on Sunday it's going to pay off. Iron sharpens iron," Alexander said earlier this month, in comments to the Packers' site that were picked up by USA Today's Packers Wire. "However I can help to make them better, I'm going to do that."
Whether in minicamp and OTAs earlier in the offseason or when training camp begins in July, that will surely mean challenging the young receivers at every turn, providing a game-like intensity and competition on the perimeter, in one-on-one situations or team drills.
Christian Watson, the team's second-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, will likely be the biggest beneficiary of the competition. The 6-foot-4, 208-pounder was a big-play machine at North Dakota State, recording 57 plays of 20-plus yards in 180 total touches. The Packers need that kind of production on the perimeter, and they are counting on the rookie to deliver in a big way, perhaps even performing immediately as a starter despite his small-school background. The competition against Alexander and others might be tougher than what he could face on game day against the Packers' division rivals and conference foes.
"It only makes me better," Watson said, per the team's official website (via Packers Wire). "He'll tell me straight up exactly why he broke on my route, exactly which indicator I gave on the route, and I know if I get open then I know it was a great route for me."
The battles between wideouts and defensive backs have helped the team's young players develop quickly in the past (consider Alexander and Eric Stokes facing Adams in previous camps), and it could produce fireworks immediately from a young wideout with big-play potential.
"It's definitely a great experience to get to go up against him and him obviously coaching me up, even though I'm on the other side of the ball," Watson said.
Considering the presence of all-star cornerbacks throughout the Packers' defensive lineup, the daily grind could help Watson and others hit the ground running when the regular season begins.
Top 5 all-time TEs: Where Gronk ranks
After dominating for the last decade as the premier tight end in football, the clock is ticking on Rob Gronkowski's impending induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after announcing earlier this week he is retiring (again). In his 11 NFL seasons, he amassed 621 catches, 9,286 yards, and 92 TDs and cemented his status as an all-time great after coming out of retirement in 2020 to help Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win Super Bowl LV.
As a four-time champion with A-plus blocking skills, Gronkowski is a worthy gold jacket candidate based on his dominance on the edges in the running game. The 6-foot-6, 265-pounder routinely tossed around defenders like a nightclub bouncer dispatching unruly patrons. The four-time All-Pro's combination of size, strength and power not only overwhelmed defenders at the point of attack but also gave opponents problems in the passing game.
Gronkowski was a matchup nightmare anywhere on the field with the size and length to overwhelm smaller defensive backs and enough athleticism to run past lumbering linebackers. As a sure-handed pass-catcher with outstanding ball skills and underrated route-running ability, the Patriots' utilization of No. 87 on the backside of three-receiver sets created problems for defensive coordinators attempting to help defenders match up with him.
Given the advantages presented by Gronkowski, particularly in the red zone, it is not a coincidence that he and Brady have connected on the most touchdown receptions by a quarterback-receiver combination in NFL history. Gronkowski also ranks behind only Jerry Rice (22) with 15 career playoff touchdown receptions.
Although we have plenty of time to debate whether Gronkowski is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, I believe his recent retirement should instead lead to a discussion on his standing as an all-time great. After taking some time to examine the careers of some of the best tight ends to ever play, here is my top-five list:
1) Tony Gonzalez, Kansas City Chiefs (1997-2008)/Atlanta Falcons (2009-2013): The gold standard at the position racked up 1,300-plus catches and 15,000-plus yards as a dependable pass-catcher over the middle of the field. The former college basketball standout utilized his size, athleticism and hand-eye coordination to outmaneuver linebackers and safeties between the hashes. With 11 straight seasons of at least 70 catches and 16 years with 600-plus receiving yards, Gonzalez was a model of consistency as a dominant player at the position.
2) Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots (2010-2018)/Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2020-2021): Gronkowski revolutionized the game as a "Y" tight end with five-star skills as a blocker and receiver. He controlled the line of scrimmage like an All-Pro offensive tackle while running down the seams like a fleet-footed playmaker. The perennial Pro Bowler's talents kept defensive coordinators up at night attempting to craft plans that would neutralize No. 87's impact on the game as a blocker and receiver. Considering how Gronkowski impacted the game from the beginning to the end of his career, he deserves a spot near the top of the list.
3) Shannon Sharpe, Denver Broncos (1990-1999, 2002-2003)/Baltimore Ravens (2000-2001): As the O.G. of athletic tight ends in the modern era, Sharpe is on the Mount Rushmore of NFL players at the position. He created mismatches on the perimeter as a jumbo wideout playing in the slot, and opponents were unable find the right combination of personnel or coverage to limit his impact. As the first tight end to amass 10,000 receiving yards in the league while also snagging 60-plus catches in nine of his final 10 seasons, Sharpe is a legend as an ultra-productive playmaker with three Super Bowl rings on the résumé.
4) Antonio Gates, San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers (2003-2018): It is not a coincidence that one of the most prolific point-scorers is a former college basketball star. Gates applied the same skills that made him into a bucket-getter at Kent State to help him become a dominant playmaker as a tight end. The three-time All-Pro was a mismatch with the athleticism and movement skills to twist linebackers and defensive backs into knots while running routes on the perimeter. Gates' impeccable timing, soft hands and ball skills enabled him to win repeatedly in the red zone, resulting in 116 receiving touchdowns. Considering how points are coveted at a premium, any list of tight ends is incomplete without No. 85 on it.
5) Ozzie Newsome, Cleveland Browns (1978-1990): Before becoming a Hall of Fame-caliber scout and executive, Newsome was an all-star playmaker with a rock-solid game as a tight end. The sticky-fingered pass-catcher could catch a fly with chopsticks while navigating around traffic in the middle of the field. Although his modest numbers do not stack up in today's pass-happy game, he was the complete package as a tight end who could move the chains or seal the edges in the running game.