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, a look at two GIANT decisions on the horizon ...
The New York Giants have been one of the NFL's biggest surprises in 2022. Completely overlooked entering the season, the G-Men have raced out to a 6-1 start behind a rock-solid offense and an opportunistic defense.
While I wrote about Don "Wink" Martindale's "organized chaos" defense in this space a month ago, Big Blue's offense has been far more effective than anyone anticipated over the summer. Spearheaded by QB Daniel Jones and RB Saquon Barkley, the Giants' creative scheme features a mix of power-based runs, read-option plays, designed quarterback keepers and misdirection play-action passes. Giants head coach Brian Daboll and offensive coordinator Mike Kafka deserve high praise for building an offense around the strengths of their top players, while also minimizing the deficiencies of the group.
When I briefly chatted with Daboll prior to the Giants' Week 7 win at Jacksonville, he stressed the importance of putting his players in positions to do what they do really well. While most NFL coaches talk about adhering to that premise, the proof is in the pudding in New York, as the Giants' success is directly tied to the scheme matching the talents of Jones and Barkley. And that's where this situation gets interesting, seeing how Jones and Barkley are each currently set to hit free agency in March.
Daboll and new GM Joe Schoen declined to exercise Jones' fifth-year option this past offseason, while Barkley is playing on the fifth-year option right now. But considering how critical a role these two 25-year-old's have played in the Giants' best start since 2008, the franchise has to find a way to keep them both in house beyond this season, right? Let's take a look at each player individually, starting with the signal-caller.
The offense has been tailored to accentuate Jones' skills as an underrated dual-threat playmaker with a high football IQ and adequate passing skills. Jones has been dogged by doubters since the moment he went No. 6 overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, but the quarterback boasts prototypical size (6-foot-5, 230 pounds), and he displayed underrated playmaking skills throughout his time at Duke. Jones finished his career in Durham as a three-year starter who piled up 8,201 passing yards, 1,323 rushing yards and 69 total touchdowns (52 pass, 17 rush) in 36 career starts. Playing under the direction of David Cutcliffe at Duke, Jones operated an offense that blended traditional runs with zone-read plays and RPOs to take advantage of his athleticism. In addition, the Blue Devils implemented a variety of dropback concepts and movement passes that featured simple reads for the quarterback despite a complex appearance.
Studying the Giants' game tape this season -- Year 1 for Daboll and Co. -- it is apparent New York has blended some of Jones' favorite college concepts into the game plan. The fourth-year pro is completing a career-best 66.7 percent of his passes thanks to a call sheet featuring more quick-rhythm throws and RPOs. In addition, New York is incorporating more designed QB runs to take advantage of Jones' running skills. The reigning NFC Player of the Week rushed for 107 yards and a touchdown on just 11 carries vs. the Jaguars, picking up chunk gains on a variety of keepers and scrambles. On the season, Jones is averaging a career-high 49.0 ground yards per game -- for comparison, that's higher than Jalen Hurts' average (48.8). Jones' scheduled and impromptu runs have added a dimension to Big Blue's offense that forces opponents to commit a defender to spy the quarterback on a regular basis.
The Giants will call some intermediate and deeper throws on traditional drops, but Jones has become a winning quarterback due to the team putting him in his comfort zone. With concepts that are friendlier to his skill set, the young field general has drastically cut down on his mistakes and turnovers. Over his first three NFL campaigns, Jones racked up 49 giveaways, averaging just over 16 per season. Nearly halfway through this season, he has two picks and two fumbles.
Taking all that into account, yes, I believe the Giants have to keep Jones on board as the QB1, with the wins piling up and the team gaining confidence with No. 8 under center. From a contract standpoint, it is hard to pinpoint the sweet spot for a mid-level quarterback still growing into the position. Considering the going rate for elite quarterbacks has now eclipsed $40 million per year -- with Aaron Rodgers even surpassing the $50 million mark -- the Giants might want to consider utilizing a tag option to find the right price point for the fourth-year vet.
According to PFF, applying the exclusive franchise tag to Jones would cost the Giants a projected $45.5 million. That's too pricey for this player. But the non-exclusive franchise tag (a projected $31.5 million) and transition tag (a projected $28 million) could serve as more realistic starting points for any negotiation. Whether the team elects to pay Jones on a year-to-year basis or sign him to a short-term extension (three years or fewer), the going rate suggests that New York's QB1 will earn around $30 million annually if he stays with the team.
But the Giants also need to determine how to keep Barkley in the fold, as the 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year has re-emerged as a superstar at the position. In 2022, the dynamic running back shows no ill effects from the series of lower-body injuries that significantly diminished his production over the previous three seasons. Currently ranking second in the league in rushing yards (726) while averaging 5.1 yards per attempt and 103.7 rush yards per game, Barkley has produced six runs of 20-plus yards. The explosiveness and big-play ability from the 6-foot, 232-pound runner have prompted Giants coaches to show more patience with the running game when it gets off to a slow start. Instead of abandoning the ground attack if opponents have Barkley under wraps in the first half, New York continues to feed the five-star playmaker and wait for him to eventually break out.
Against the Jags, Big Blue's most explosive offensive weapon followed that script to another 100-yard day. After hitting a wall of defenders for most of three quarters, Barkley broke free in the fourth quarter for a series of runs that salted away the game and put him over the century mark. Witnessing this from the sidelines as the Jaguars' radio field analyst, I was taken back to my playing days when we used to go up against Barry Sanders. The Hall of Fame back would follow up a series of negative runs or minimal gains with a long-distance touchdown scamper that instantly changed the momentum of the game.
With Barkley looking like a transcendent player once again, the Giants must determine how to keep the offensive engine at the right value. The fifth-year pro is playing on a $7.2 million fifth-year option, which was added to the four-year, $31.2 million rookie contract that he signed as the second overall pick in the 2018 draft. As a two-time 1,000-yard rusher well on his way to a third four-digit campaign, Barkley is worthy of a lucrative second deal with New York. That said, it's impossible to completely ignore his past injury woes and workload (1,017 touches in 51 career games, just under 20 touches per game) as the team's feature back. Despite Barkley's electric showing so far this season, you have to factor that history in when thinking how he'll perform over the next 3-to-5 seasons.
That said, I sure wouldn't allow this big a game changer to just walk out the door. Surveying the landscape, Barkley and the Giants might want to consider the contracts of Derrick Henry (four years, $50 million) and Nick Chubb (three years, $36.6 million) as starting points. The $12 million-plus annual compensation is a substantial raise from his option number, but spreading it out over multiple years would not lock the team into salary cap hell.
According to Over the Cap, the Giants currently project to have the third-most salary cap space in the NFL, so the franchise will have the money to keep Jones and Barkley in the building.
The Daboll/Schoen is off to a smashing start, in no small part due to the fine play of the team's QB1 and RB1. Consequently, New York's front office has to come up with a financial plan that keeps the band together for the next few years.
NFL's top five game wreckers right now
To play great defense in the NFL, teams must have at least one game wrecker at the line of scrimmage. With offenses often emphasizing the passing game, an elite D features a disruptive pass rush.
Whether utilizing a powerful bull-rush maneuver to knock an O-lineman back into the lap of the quarterback or blowing past blockers with a speed rush or finesse maneuver, the most destructive defenders can ruin a game plan with persistent penetration off the edges or up the middle. In addition, these chaos creators have a knack for knocking the ball loose when they have an opportunity to hit the quarterback or running back in the backfield.
As a defensive back for most of my NFL career, I had the opportunity to watch Bruce Smith, Reggie White and Derrick Thomas single-handedly take over games with disruptive skills. Although their playing styles were vastly different, the impact that each Hall of Famer had on the game certainly influenced how I evaluated and graded players as a scout.
With the season nearing the midway point, this seemed like the perfect time to pop in some tape and evaluate which front-seven defenders are wreaking the most havoc at the line of scrimmage. Here are my top five game wreckers in the league right now.
The ultra-athletic pass-rushing extraordinaire is a unicorn as an elite stand-up linebacker who also flashes All-Pro-caliber skills as a defensive end. The 2021 Defensive Rookie of the Year has followed up an impressive debut season (13 sacks, 20 tackles for loss, 30 QB hits and three forced fumbles) with a spectacular second-year campaign that reflects the evolution of his game. Parsons' eight sacks, nine tackles for loss, 14 QB hits and two forced fumbles through seven games suggest that the second-year pro is already a better version of the five-star playmaker who dominated the league in 2021. From his refined technique to his improved instincts and awareness, the Cowboys' top defender is playing the game at a different speed than his contemporaries. Parsons' disruptive ability as a movable chess piece makes life miserable for coaches and players tasked with neutralizing No. 11 in big spots.
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year is off to a slow start by his standards, but he remains one of the most feared defenders in the game. As a relentless playmaker with a non-stop motor and dawg mentality, Donald's combination of speed, power and skill make him a nightmare to deal with at the line of scrimmage. Blockers are unable to match his talent and intensity, and it typically makes for a long day for quarterbacks in the pocket. With four sacks and six tackles for loss through six games, No. 99's subpar seasons are all-star campaigns for most defenders.
PFF's highest-graded defender through Week 7 is a destructive force between the tackles as a 6-6, 310-pound playmaker. Jones' superior size, strength and quickness overwhelm interior offensive linemen tasked with blocking him in one-on-one situations at the line of scrimmage. As Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo dials up blitzes and line stunts designed to force opponents to single-block Jones, the Pro Bowl defender routinely whips opponents with a mix of finesse and power maneuvers that elicit oohs and aahs from coaches and players who appreciate No. 95's dynamic game. With five sacks, six tackles for loss and a pair of forced fumbles through seven games, Jones' fan club is growing by the minute.
Credit Bill Belichick and Co. for unlocking the seventh-year pro's playmaking ability after signing him to a four-year deal in 2021. Since joining the Patriots, Judon has amassed 21 sacks in 24 games while also adding 40 QB hits and three pass breakups. As a versatile defender with explosive pass-rush skills from a three-point stance or stand-up position, the three-time Pro Bowler has the capacity to rush from a variety of alignments while utilizing a handful of finesse and power maneuvers that keep blockers guessing on the edges. Considering how impactful Judon has been for the Patriots since his arrival, it is impossible to compile a list of the league's current top game wreckers without including this ultra-versatile defender.
If you are surprised by Crosy's inclusion on this list, you probably have not spent enough time studying No. 98's game. The fourth-year pro is a high-motor defender with a relentless spirit and exceptional competitive stamina. Crosby outworks and outlasts blockers on the edges while overwhelming opponents with a variety of power maneuvers. The energetic defender is a Tasmanian devil between the lines, and few blockers are capable of dealing with his power and passion at the line of scrimmage.
The book on new Colts QB1 Sam Ehlinger
Despite my shock over the timing of Matt Ryan's benching, I am not entirely surprised the Indianapolis Colts (3-3-1) are handing the ball to Sam Ehlinger as the team's new starting quarterback, beginning on Sunday against the Washington Commanders.
The 2021 sixth-round pick is a new-school quarterback with a combination of arm talent and athleticism that will enable the Colts to incorporate some collegiate concepts that can mask the team's shaky offensive line play while accentuating Jonathan Taylor's skills as a workhorse runner.
While I am not ready to proclaim Ehlinger as the next Josh Allen or Lamar Jackson, the 6-1, 222-pounder is a heavyweight runner with the "plus" size, strength and running ability to make plays with his feet on the perimeter. At Texas, Ehlinger was a touchdown machine, with 33 rushing scores in four seasons. He not only found a way to blow through cracks and creases at the line of scrimmage, but he also displayed a knack for picking up the first down or touchdown when his number was called.
Keep in mind, Allen has been a prolific goal-line and short-yardage converter from Day 1 in the NFL, thanks to his superior size and strength. Ehlinger can immediately help the Colts' red-zone woes with his running skills. Indy coach Frank Reich could lean into his new QB1's skills by adding some read-option plays and designed QB runs to the playbook. With opposing defenses forced to defend the quarterback as a runner, Taylor should have more room to run between the tackles, as the D's "plus-one" advantage will be negated.
As a passer, the second-year pro flashed improving skills from the pocket throughout the 2022 preseason. Ehlinger connected on 24 of his 29 pass attempts in August with four touchdowns and a 147.8 passer rating. Although those numbers are inflated due to the competition faced in preseason games, Ehlinger displayed intriguing playmaking skills inside and outside of the pocket. From his ability to throw darts on the move after executing bootleg fakes to his flawless execution of play-action passes and RPOs, Ehlinger looked right at home on an NFL field. He handled the pressure well with quick releases or impromptu scrambles to move the chains. While some will dismiss his preseason production as insignificant, the Colts' coaching staff can certainly build out a game plan that enables him to play to his strengths as a dual-threat playmaker.
If Reich is willing to tweak and revamp his offensive scheme to accentuate Ehlinger's talents, the young playmaker could jump-start the offense like Jalen Hurts did for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2021 with his exceptional athleticism and intangibles. Though Ehlinger is not quite as athletic as the Eagles' QB1, he certainly brings toughness to the field as a rugged quarterback with supreme confidence.
Given the state of the Colts as an underwhelming team without an offensive identity, the insertion of the young quarterback could help Reich get Indy back on track in a winnable AFC South.