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:
-- Five free agency moves that raised an eyebrow.
-- What are the Raiders doing with their offensive line?
But first, a look at New England's bold effort in the first wave of free agency ...
I don't know if Bill Belichick is a movie buff, but his approach to rebuilding the New England Patriots this offseason has me thinking of a silver-screen classic from 1985: Back to the Future.
Like Marty McFly hopping in the DeLorean to time travel back to the 1950s, Belichick is taking his roster back to the early 2000s. The six-time Super Bowl-winning head coach has recommitted to constructing the ultimate complementary football squad. With an aggressive start to free agency, New England has scooped up a collection of players who'll give the team the ability to play smashmouth football on offense, thus supplementing a veteran-laden defense that'll stymie opponents with its size, strength and versatility.
The thought of the Patriots reclaiming their throne might make the rest of the football world queasy, but opponents better prepare for an old-school offense that specializes in power football with a potent play-action passing game that challenges defenses at every turn. New England's new "12" personnel package is quite enticing, with Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith inking hefty deals to respectively occupy the "Y" (traditional tight end) and "H" (move or pass-catching tight end) positions. With the Patriots also beefing up the offensive line -- SEE: the returns of Trent Brown (via trade) and Ted Karras (free agency), in addition to the re-signing of David Andrews -- they should be able to pummel opponents with a between-the-tackles running game that forces defenders to put on their big-boy pads when facing Cam Newton and Co. The team's intent to own the middle of the field on the ground and through the air is part of a tried-and-true blueprint that has worked since the Vince Lombardi era.
New England is taking it up a notch by committing to two-TE personnel groupings that will create a conundrum for defensive coordinators attempting to determine whether to play base or nickel on early downs. If the opponents opt for their regular formations with three or four linebackers on the field, the Patriots can spread the field to exploit linebackers tasked with guarding talented tight ends in space. If opposing defenses trot out sub-packages with a bunch of defensive backs on the field, the Pats will tighten up the formation and lean on the power running game. This is the kind of stuff that keeps defensive coordinators up at night -- the thought of trying to defend powers, counters and isolations produced out of myriad two-tight and pseudo two-back formations with a small defensive lineup. Throw in the QB running game with Newton plunging between the tackles on QB powers and read-option plays, and the Patriots can present numerous problems with diverse game plans that feature a mix of college and pro-style concepts.
While skeptics will snicker at anyone who suggests New England's passing game can be explosive with the 31-year-old Newton throwing the rock, the team also added a few more weapons on the perimeter to enhance the aerial attack. Last season, the Patriots' receivers ranked tied for 27th in receptions (168), 30th in receiving yards (2,063), 32nd in receiving touchdowns (4) and 29th in receiving first downs (104). Meanwhile, the tight ends ranked dead last in receptions (18), receiving touchdowns (1) and receiving first downs (8), and 31st in receiving yards (254). Given what Newton had to work with, it's not all that surprising that he ranked 35th out of 35 qualified passers in passing yards per game (177.1), 28th in passer rating (82.9) and became just one of five qualified passers since the 1970 merger with a 65-plus completion percentage and fewer than 180 passing yards per game.
The lack of playmakers on the perimeter certainly contributed to Newton's struggles as a thrower, but judging the former MVP strictly on his passing prowess fails to account for his significant impact on the offense as a runner. With 12 rushing touchdowns, Cam tied former Patriot Steve Grogan for the second-highest single-season total by a quarterback. (Newton holds the all-time record, having notched 14 ground scores as a rookie in 2011.) Not to mention, Cam's 592 rushing yards accounted for 25.2 percent of New England's ground production. Although Newton's no longer the dynamic running threat that made him one of the most feared offensive playmakers in football during his prime, the 11th-year pro still has enough in his legs for New England to utilize a multi-faceted running game similar to the creative ground attack that's allowed the Lamar Jackson-led Ravens to emerge as legitimate contenders.
If the Pats' offense returns to form with a run-heavy, ball-control approach that minimizes the risk of turnovers, New England can play "make them beat you" football. The weekly goal is to avoid the costly errors that lead to losses (turnovers, big plays allowed and pre-snap penalties), forcing opponents to win without assistance. New England's revamped defense is better positioned to adhere to this premise in 2021, with a host of veterans joining the squad to upgrade the collective talent, athleticism, versatility and football aptitude of the unit. The return of Kyle Van Noy (free agency) and Dont'a Hightower (2020 opt-out) enhances a lineup that'll feature new signings Matt Judon, Davon Godchaux, Montravius Adams, Henry Anderson, Justin Bethel and Jalen Mills.
The influx of veterans will encourage Belichick to return to the mix-and-match approach that helped the Patriots befuddle opponents for years. In addition, the team's decision to upgrade the middle of the defense with beefy tackles and sturdy linebackers will make the unit a beast to run against. With Judon adding speed and explosiveness to the edges, the Patriots have a defense that is constructed to deal with power or finesse offenses.
Bottom line: The Patriots can return to the blue-collar blueprint that initially sparked a two-decade run of dominance. Watch out, NFL.
FREE AGENCY: Five surprise signings
The free agency frenzy always spawns a non-stop news cycle that makes it hard to keep up with the comings and goings around the league. Although it is easy to fall into the fantasy football trap of expecting every signee to produce with his new team, that's just not how free agency works. That said, when a pairing doesn't work out, it doesn't necessarily mean the player's a bum. Sometimes he just doesn't fit into his new environment, whether due to his playing style, role or scheme fit.
Given some time to review the list of transactions around the league, I wanted to spotlight some moves that raised an eyebrow, at least to me. Here are five free-agent signings that stand out as big surprises:
The 38-year-old gunslinger has become the league's favorite feel-good story as a streaky passer with a knack for putting up numbers while playing with a devil-may-care attitude. Although the Dolphins eventually handed the reins to No. 5 overall pick Tua Tagovailoa, Fitzpatrick played pretty well last season in Miami, showcasing his swagger and playmaking ability. Still, while his carefree approach worked in his favor in 2020, Fitzpatrick can be a turnover machine at times, with a reckless style that can compromise his team's ability to consistently chalk up Ws. That's why the WFT's decision to sign the vet raised eyebrows around the league. While Fitzpatrick might upgrade the passing game with his fearless mindset, he could also derail the reigning NFC East champions' hopes for bigger things in 2021 with his careless turnovers.
The energetic pass rusher tallied 13.5 sacks as a rotational defender for the Saints. That number is a remarkable total, considering Hendrickson logged just 53 percent of the team's defensive snaps. That said, the high-motor 26-year-old won't have a spectacular all-around defender like Cameron Jordan at his side to command attention from the opponent. As the No. 1 pass rusher on the Bengals, Hendrickson must set the table for others with his disruptive skills while also collecting 10-plus sacks as the D-line leader. That is an unfamiliar role for a former third-round pick who has spent his entire career playing as a complementary player on the defensive line.
Joe Douglas is intent on upgrading the personnel around the quarterback to help the Jets become a more explosive offense in 2021. The addition of Davis is expected to boost the passing game, but the former No. 5 overall pick has never cracked the 1,000-yard mark and has yet to prove himself as a viable WR1. In addition, he faced a lot of one-on-one coverage due to the Titans' run-heavy offense with Derrick Henry in the backfield. Not to mention, he benefited greatly over the last two seasons playing opposite explosive playmaker A.J. Brown. Without those factors impacting the coverage, it is fair to wonder if Davis is ready for prime time as a No.1 receiver in the passing game.
Green made the Pro Bowl in his first seven NFL seasons, but he is coming off of the worst year of his career. At age 32, Green averaged a career-worst 11.1 yards per catch and finished with a 45.2 percent catch rate (47 receptions on 104 targets). That sub-50 percent catch rate reflects an aging receiver lacking the speed and burst to separate from defenders. Perhaps Green will wind the Fountain of Youth in the desert, but the Cardinals are counting on the veteran to turn back the clock and fill the void opposite DeAndre Hopkins.
After banking on a youth movement at cornerback in 2020, Mike Zimmer is hoping Peterson's experience, expertise and guile will help the Vikings play better defense this year. Although the eight-time Pro Bowler has been one of the league's premier cover corners over the past decade, his play has greatly declined on the perimeter in the last couple seasons. Peterson's loss of speed and athleticism has led to more penalties (led NFL with 14 flags thrown) and big plays surrendered. Considering he also allowed 50 completions on 75 targets, per Pro Football Focus, the Vikings could still have an issue on the island with Peterson on the field.
RAIDERS RESHUFFLE: Why break up a stout O-line?
Perhaps Jon Gruden believes in a addition by subtraction when it comes to building the offensive line, but I don't understand how the Las Vegas Raiders are expected to close the gap on their divisional rivals with a completely revamped front. The team has jettisoned C Rodney Hudson, OG Gabe Jackson and OT Trent Brown -- all via trade -- despite finishing eighth in total offense this past season.
Moreover, the Raiders blew up their offensive line despite watching Derek Carr play some of the best football of his career. The three-time Pro Bowler posted career highs in passing yards (4,103) and passer rating (101.4) while taking just 26 sacks. Considering Las Vegas' front also helped Josh Jacobs post back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons, the dismantling of the unit is perplexing for a team attempting to build a contender in an ultra-competitive AFC.
That's why I'm dying to see how Gruden and Co. remake the O-line. Will their vision give the Raiders a better opportunity to win? The recent cast-offs played well for the team throughout their respective tenures, and their on-field chemistry shouldn't be ignored. The unit consistently controlled the line of scrimmage. Las Vegas' trench dominance on offense was one of the biggest reasons why the Raiders were in playoff contention for most of last season.
With that in mind, it doesn't make sense for Gruden to suddenly dismantle the quintet. Sure, the unit was one of the most expensive in the league, but the performance and production matched the compensation.
From Brown and Jackson's dominance as road-graders to Hudson's effectiveness in the pivot, Las Vegas' massive O-line played to the standard between the lines. The decision to break up the band only weakens the strength of the team. Without a five-star line in front of an impressive cast of backfield weapons, the Raiders will continue to spin their wheels while failing to gain ground on their division rivals.