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 an unconventional candidate for the league's most prestigious individual award ...
No wide receiver has ever earned Associated Press NFL MVP honors. In fact, since 2007, the only non-quarterback to take home the hardware was running back Adrian Peterson, who amazingly bounced back from a torn ACL/MCL in December of 2011 to join the exclusive 2,000-yard club in the 2012 campaign.
That said, this feels like a season where the award could go to a non-QB. We are not seeing the video game numbers we've become accustomed to at the game's most important position; no one is on track to reach even 40 touchdown passes.
Meanwhile, Tyreek Hill is enjoying a transcendent season, as he is currently on pace to finish with 132 catches for 2,098 yards and 17 touchdowns. That yardage total, of course, would shatter Calvin Johnson's single-season mark of 1,964 (recorded in the 16-game season of 2012) and give Hill the first 2,000-yard receiving season in NFL history.
With Miami currently holding the No. 1 seed in the AFC while ranking first in the NFL in total offense and second in scoring offense (just 0.3 points per game behind Dallas), it is absolutely time to include Hill in the debate over the league's Most Valuable Player.
While some might suggest Hill's quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, is worthy of the award as the director of the Dolphins' high-powered offense, No. 10 is the straw that stirs the drink in Miami. An electrifying playmaker with speed to burn and a diverse route tree that keeps defenders guessing, Hill is an unstoppable force on the perimeter.
The four-time first-team All-Pro averages 15.9 yards per reception while leading the league with 24 grabs of 20-plus yards and a whopping 604 yards after the catch. He also tops the board in receiving first downs (66) and boasts a lofty 73.2 catch percentage despite routinely facing double coverage and bracket tactics from opposing defenses. Hill's continued success against opponents doing everything they can to stop him is a testament to his individual greatness -- and Mike McDaniel's creativity as a play designer.
The Dolphins have revolutionized the passing game with exotic motions and unique player deployments that have enabled Hill to run unobstructed through defensive backfields this season. Moreover, the combination of the gamebreaker's presence and McDaniels' clever scheming has unlocked complementary parts of Miami's offensive attack.
Look no further than the success of running backs Raheem Mostert and De’Von Achane. The dynamic duo fuels the league's second-ranked rushing attack by feasting on the light boxes opponents favor in order to keep a safety over the top of Hill. The dilemma puts defensive coordinators in a no-win situation when facing Miami; few have come up with the correct answers to slow down the Hill-led juggernaut. As a result, Mostert (5.1 yards per carry) and Achane (9.5) each possess sparkling numbers, while combining for 1,362 rushing yards and 25 total touchdowns. In addition, the duo has totaled 13 runs of 20-plus yards, taking full advantage of defenses forced to spread out to neutralize Hill's potential to do serious damage on horizontal or vertical plays.
Despite the various efforts of defensive coordinators, their tactics have not slowed down Hill or the Dolphins' offense. The star wideout has topped the 100-yard mark eight times in 12 games and scored at least one touchdown in 10 contests. Hill has blown past defenders on go routes and deep overs and run around would-be tacklers on catch-and-run concepts in space. The rest of the offense has benefited from Hill's presence and dominance on the perimeter. Whether it is Jaylen Waddle (57/743/3) snagging passes on the back side en route to a third straight 1,000-yard season or the aforementioned backs sparking Miami's potent ground game, the unit's success is tied directly to Hill's playmaking potential as a terrifying scoring threat from anywhere on the field.
Not to mention, Hill has elevated the play of his quarterback with his spectacular feats on the perimeter. Tagovailoa ranks third in completion percentage (70.1), third in passing yards (3,457), second in yards per attempt (8.6) and second in touchdown passes (24), with Hill accounting for nearly a third of his completions and 43 percent of his passing yards.
As voters ponder which players are making the most significant impacts on their respective squads, it is impossible to ignore Tyreek. In fact, if the season ended today, I'd give Hill the MVP award, based on his numbers and contributions to the NFL's top offense.
Can the Chiefs' offense be fixed?
As I have said repeatedly in this space over the past few months, Kansas City has a Super Bowl-caliber defense that is good enough to spark a championship repeat. However, the Chiefs' offense is the worst of the Patrick Mahomes era, averaging 22.9 points per game, 362.6 yards per game and 1.7 giveaways per game -- the worst figures in K.C. since Mahomes took over as the team's starting quarterback in 2018.
This punchless offense looks nothing like the high-flying version that struck fear into defensive coordinators around the league in recent seasons. Moreover, the unit no longer dominates opponents with the aerial circus that made everyone fall in love with the improvisational gunslinger in the No. 15 jersey.
Though Mahomes still flashes the spectacular playmaking skills that have helped him snag a pair of MVP awards, the seventh-year pro has been let down by a receiving corps that's been plagued by a case of the dropsies. The Chiefs lead the NFL in drops (30), and their inconsistent pass-catching skills have been hindered by their inability to create separation from tight coverage.
While eight-time Pro Bowl TE Travis Kelce remains a dangerous weapon as a freestyle specialist, the Chiefs lack a proven playmaker in the WR room, and opponents have found ways to slow down the one-man show that spearheaded the title run a season ago. Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Kadarius Toney, Skyy Moore, Rashee Rice and Justin Watson have all auditioned for the No.1 job, but the results have been mixed from a group that has routinely disappointed in crucial moments.
Rice has shown the most promise, as a first-year playmaker with 52 receptions, 591 yards and five scores. At this point, the second-round pick has come the closest to establishing himself as the second option in the passing game, exhibiting reliable route-running skills and dependable hands from the slot. Checking in at 6-foot-1 and 203 pounds, Rice displays the balance, body control and elusiveness to turn short throws into first downs and touchdowns, displaying enticing ability in space. Although he has dropped several easy targets (six total drops through 12 games), Rice has surpassed MVS, Toney and Moore to earn Mahomes' trust. At a time when the Chiefs are looking for more production out of their aerial attack, Rice's potential as a catch-and-run specialist should encourage Andy Reid to continue featuring the rookie prominently in the game plan.
To jump-start the Chiefs' offense, Reid could lean more on his versatile backfield. Unfortunately, RB1 Isiah Pacheco has been ruled out of Sunday's game against the Bills due to a shoulder injury. Hopefully, this is just a one-week absence to get the second-year pro closer to full strength, because I think Kansas City could really ride the hard-charging back down the stretch. Pacheco leads the Chiefs with 779 rushing yards and six touchdowns on the ground, but he averages just 14.7 carries per game. Though he also averages nearly three catches per game to push his touch count to around 18, I believe the Chiefs' offense flows better when Pacheco finishes with at least 25 opportunities each week. Given Reid's creativity with the screen game and various routes with the running backs featured as top options, the Chiefs could elevate their offense by showcasing Pacheco as a runner/receiver to alleviate some of the pressure on the wideouts to produce on the perimeter. So, again, I'm hoping a week of rest will put the 5-10, 216-pounder back in position to carry the load.
If Reid also taps into the pass-catching talents of Jerick McKinnon and Clyde Edwards-Helaire to diversify the passing game with more RB-centric plays, the Chiefs can turn back the clock to rely on an inside-out approach that helped the team win nine games without a wideout scoring a single receiving touchdown in 2014. The decision to rely on tight ends, running backs and a slot receiver to anchor the offense would also reduce some of the stress on the Chiefs' offensive tackles to hold up in pass protection. Despite paying big bucks for Jawaan Taylor and snatching up experienced veteran Donovan Smith on a team-friendly deal, the Chiefs' edge blockers have struggled in isolated matchups against explosive pass rushers, particularly when Reid calls deeper routes. Relying on a quick-rhythm passing game with screens mixed into the plan would slow down the pass rush and enable Mahomes to quickly get the ball out of his hands.
In addition, the increased utilization of quicks and screens would allow Kansas City to utilize a dink-and-dunk aerial attack to supplement a running game that needs to get untracked down the stretch. With defenders forced to run side to side while facing a downhill running game with a mix of tempo (no-huddle, quickened pace), Reid can make conditioning a factor in the second half, when pass rushers need to chase Mahomes in critical moments.
If the Chiefs can reinvigorate their offense with a few tweaks that exploit the more reliable aspects of the current roster, the defending champs can make another deep postseason run by employing a complementary approach that masks the offense's flaws while enhancing the play of an elite defense.
Is Mike Evans a first-ballot Hall of Famer?
Mike Evans' 162-yard day against the Panthers in Week 13 wasn't just another monster effort from the Bucs receiver -- it also pushed him across the 1,000-yard mark for the 10th straight time in his 10 NFL seasons.
That's an entire decade of 1,000-yard campaigns! The list of others with 10-plus seasons of 1,000 receiving yards is not long, limited to two of the greatest receivers in league history: Jerry Rice (who did it 14 times) and Randy Moss (10). Both were first-ballot Hall of Famers.
Will Evans someday follow suit by entering Canton as quickly as possible?
Let's first consider the fact that the 6-5, 231-pounder has accomplished otherworldly levels of production while dealing with a revolving door at quarterback, catching passes from Jameis Winston, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh McCown. After benefitting from a three-year stint with Tom Brady at the helm, Evans is back to pulling rabbits out of a hat, with Baker Mayfield installed as the team's QB1. No disrespect to the former No. 1 overall pick, but Evans' playmaking skills have elevated the journeyman's play.
Next, consider that Evans has dazzled mostly without the help of a potent running game -- other than a single top-five finish in 2015, Tampa has ranked 24th or worse in rushing yards in each of the nine seasons heading into 2023. This season is no exception, with the Bucs currently ranking 30th on the ground.
Tampa's rush game does not lure opposing safeties closer to the line of scrimmage. Attacking down the field against defenses that can position their safeties in the parking lot is a challenge -- and yet, Evans has continued to reel off big plays (with 17 catches of 20-plus yards this season) and touchdown catches (10), suggesting he is a human cheat code at his position.
The four-time Pro Bowler is too big, fast and athletic for most defenders, and his ability to win the 50-50 ball makes him unstoppable in one-on-one or two-on-one matchups. As Mayfield has quickly discovered, the odds of No. 13 coming down with the ball are tilted in the Buccaneers' favor whenever a pass is tossed in his direction. Little wonder that Mayfield's passer rating when targeting Evans (112.6) easily outpaces his mark when targeting any other Bucs player this season, per Next Gen Stats.
"I don't know what more you can say," Bucs coach Todd Bowles said after the win over Carolina. "He's been like this for 10 years now. You know he's getting the ball and everybody's trying to stop him and he makes plays over and over. It's a credit to him, his work ethic, the way he approaches the game. Unbelievable."
The NFL rewards consistency and dominance, and we are in an era where numbers matter. Evans' jaw-dropping résumé -- which also includes 91 receiving TDs, highlighted by five seasons of double-digit scores -- should stand the test of time, making him a lock to earn a gold jacket. And in light of his recent ascension to an exclusive pass-catching club inhabited by a pair of G.O.A.T.s, I think Evans is destined to breeze past the velvet ropes in Canton as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.