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 top players in a banner year for one position ...
Traditionalists might hate the way the pro game has evolved, but it has become absolutely imperative to feature a star receiver on the perimeter. The blue-chip wideout is an essential component of a championship-caliber offense.
It's not a coincidence that most of the teams in the postseason tournament feature elite talents outside. Just look at the playoff picture and you see the likes of Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, A.J. Brown, Ja'Marr Chase, Cooper Kupp, Deebo Samuel, Amari Cooper and Mike Evans, among others. This is a marquee position squarely in the spotlight as the race for the Lombardi Trophy truly begins.
But this has also been a banner regular season for the position, with Kupp threatening Calvin Johnson's single-season yardage record, Chase rewriting the rookie record books and Samuel redefining the role altogether.
Long story short: I believe this is the perfect time to survey the landscape and determine which wideouts are truly the cream of the crop. This is no easy task, given all of the explosive athletes currently manning the position. But making a list of elites requires some hard decisions and crushing omissions.
After taking some time to dig into the tape, I present the top five receivers in the NFL right now:
Adams is like a Pigskin Picasso with his brilliant artistry as a route runner and playmaker, leading the football world to fawn over his talents. The Pro Bowl pass-catcher is second in the league in receptions (117) while averaging nearly 100 receiving yards per game (99.9). This coming after a 2020 campaign in which he scored a whopping 18 touchdowns in 14 games. Considering No. 17 is essentially a one-man band in the Packers' passing game, it is hard to rate any receiver above Adams at this point.
It is rare for a primary slot receiver to sit at such a high perch on a list like this, but Kupp is making a run at the No. 1 spot in a season that could see him win the receiver triple crown. No one has accomplished that feat since Steve Smith Sr. back in 2005, but Kupp heads into Week 18 as the league leader in catches (138), yards (1,829) and touchdowns (15). The former third-round pick has emerged in Year 5 as an unstoppable force due to his spectacular route-running ability and open-field running skills. The Rams' No. 1 playmaker is a unique combination as a possession receiver and big-play threat, which makes him a bit of a unicorn at the position.
Jefferson has earned elite status as a playmaker after shattering Odell Beckham Jr.'s record for receiving yards by a player within his first two seasons (2,909 and counting). He is a dynamic route runner with exceptional stop-start quickness and burst, as well as a deep trick bag of releases to create separation from defenders on the perimeter. The second-year pro is a master at getting open and making plays against single and double coverage, which makes him a prototypical WR1 in a league built on the passing game.
The third-year pro is a throwback to a different era in which wingbacks were considered the marquee players on offense. A playmaker with five-star talents as a receiver AND running back, Samuel is the league's premier offensive weapon on the perimeter. That is the only way to describe a wideout with 1,300 receiving yards, six TD catches, a 17.9 yards-per-catch average ... and another seven touchdowns on the ground! Samuel's combination of splash plays as a receiver and runner separates him from others as one of the true blue-chip playmakers in the game today.
It did not take Chase long to make his mark as an impact player in the league. The No. 5 overall pick has already locked up the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, but he should be in play for an All-Pro spot, based on his dominance on the perimeter. Chase is averaging a league-best 18.1 yards per catch while posting 1,429 total receiving yards and a whopping 13 scores. He has torched elite defenders at every turn. Remember back in the preseason when he dropped a few balls and everyone freaked out? Yeah, that was rich.
Will Matthew Stafford give away the Rams' title hopes?
Sean McVay might not admit it, but he must be worried about his QB1's turnover woes in recent weeks.
Heading into Sunday's regular-season finale against the 49ers, the Rams sit atop the NFC West at 12-4, boasting a five-game win streak. But Matthew Stafford has turned the ball over three times in each of Los Angeles' last two victories, raising eyebrows around the league and leading to concerns about the 13th-year veteran's ability to shake the turnover bug heading into the postseason. Considering Stafford has never won a playoff game (0-3 career record with a 4:3 TD-to-INT ratio and 87.8 passer rating), it is fair to wonder if his quarterbacking style jibes with single-elimination play.
By a number of metrics, Stafford's first year with the Rams has gone swimmingly. He ranks in the top three among NFL passers in yards (4,648), touchdowns (38), yards per attempt (8.2) and passer rating (103.5). But he's also tied for second with 15 interceptions -- and an NFL-worst four of those picks have been returned for touchdowns, all since Week 9. Such miscues have catastrophic potential, particularly in playoff battles that are routinely one-score affairs. If Stafford can't eradicate the kind of YOLO throws into tight coverage that can result in these momentum-swinging plays, Los Angeles won't be able to achieve the ultimate goal: winning Super Bowl LVI in the friendly confines of SoFi Stadium.
That said, it is hard to dismiss Stafford as a potential hero for the Rams, based on his propensity for delivering clutch plays with the game on the line. The truth is that the former No. 1 overall pick is kind of a Jekyll-and-Hyde playmaker, with last week's comeback win over the Ravens serving as Exhibit A. Stafford dug a hole with three ghastly turnovers ... only to lead the Rams to a 20-19 victory by completing his last 14 passes. On his 42nd career game-winning drive (tops in the NFL since Stafford entered the league in 2009), the 33-year-old completed all six of his throws for 70 yards, including the scoring strike to Odell Beckham Jr.
Can McVay convince his handpicked franchise quarterback to curb his turnovers while retaining the aggressiveness that made him an MVP candidate in the first half of the season? It's a delicate balance. Better yet, can Stafford play winning football with the pressure mounting on him to prove that he is an upgrade over his predecessor in L.A.?
Say what you will about Jared Goff and his shortcomings, but he guided this team to a Super Bowl appearance three seasons ago. If Stafford can't lead the Rams to the promised land, his tenure in Los Angeles will be viewed as a failure, plain and simple.
Why Mike Vrabel is the Coach of the Year
If Coach of the Year is given to the head coach who best navigates adversity and trying circumstances to win at a high level, Mike Vrabel should win the award in a landslide based on his work this season with the Tennessee Titans.
Green Bay's Matt LaFleur and Cincinnati's Zac Taylor certainly deserve recognition for their teams' impressive runs, while Bill Belichick has done an admirable job once again in New England. But Vrabel has found a way to guide the Titans to the AFC’s No. 1 seed entering Week 18, despite missing three of their best offensive players for significant chunks of the season. Reaching that plateau would've been hard enough had Tennessee been fully healthy, but to accomplish the feat with the two-time reigning rushing champ Derrick Henry sidelined for half the campaign, and the team's all-star pass-catchers, A.J. Brown and Julio Jones, missing 11 combined games, is truly remarkable.
Henry was averaging 117.1 rushing yards per game at the time of his injury and still ranks sixth in the league with 937 total ground yards despite playing in just eight games. The star running back was viewed as a one-man show in Tennessee, the bedrock of a run-heavy offense that pounded opponents into submission on an assortment of powers and isolations between the tackles. However, the Titans have been able to cope without their workhorse by relying on a capable running back-by-committee approach that has featured a rotation of cast-offs to get the job done.
D’Onta Foreman, Dontrell Hilliard, and Jeremy McNichols, who have played for a combined six teams in 11 seasons, have sparked a Titans rushing attack that has almost mirrored the production delivered by the 2020 NFL Offensive Player of the Year:
- Henry (Weeks 1-8): 219 carries, 937 yards, 4.3 yards per carry, 10 TDs.
- Foreman, Hilliard, McNichols (Weeks 9-17): 193 carries, 908 yards, 4.7 yards per carry, 5 TDs.
In addition, the trio has produced 21 runs of 10-plus yards in Henry's absence, compared with 20 for "The King."
There's no doubt Henry's a dominant force when healthy, but the minimal dip in production is a testament to the coaching staff's ability to develop the backups while tweaking the game plan to assimilate new players into the lineup.
The Titans needed to make similar adjustments to the passing game without Brown and Jones available for parts of the season. For an offense that relies heavily on play-action passes, not consistently having the two big-bodied receivers could have spelled disaster for Ryan Tannehill and the Titans' aerial attack.
Although the veteran quarterback's production dropped without his WR1 and WR2 on the field, the emergence of Nick Westbrook-Ikhine and Chester Rogers as serviceable alternatives steadied the passing game in their absence. With tight ends Anthony Firkser, Geoff Swaim and MyCole Pruitt quietly making an impact in the red zone (four combined TDs), Tennessee's coaching staff deserves a standing ovation for finding ways to manufacture offense.
The work Vrabel has done with the defense also sets him apart from others. The Titans have held each of their last four opponents to less than 20 points after struggling to get stops consistently earlier this season. The unit's improvement has been so profound that the team currently ranks sixth in points allowed per game (20.6). Tennessee's run defense, in particular, deserves a ton of credit for keeping the team rolling, going from 12th in rush yards allowed from Weeks 1-8 (before Henry's injury) to No. 1 in the NFL from Weeks 9-17.
The Titans not only survived the kind of obstacles that routinely derail contenders, but they rose up to the top of their conference. This is a true credit to Vrabel. He's earned a walk across the stage at NFL Honors in February -- if, of course, he's not preparing for the Super Bowl.
The Jordan Davis question: How high do you draft a true NT?
Next Monday's College Football Playoff National Championship between Alabama and Georgia will feature a number of blue-chip prospects garnering immense interest from scouts representing all 32 NFL teams. And one player, in particular, will be impossible to miss.
Checking in at 6-foot-6 and 340 pounds (per school measurements), Georgia senior Jordan Davis is a destructive force at the point of attack as the Bulldogs' designated run stopper. No. 99 combines extraordinary size with exceptional strength, power and quickness to control the line of scrimmage as a true nose tackle manning the A-gaps (between the center and guard). He swallows up blockers as a power player with long arms, heavy hands and a strong anchor. He also displays impressive agility and athleticism for a man of such size. This was evident in Georgia's New Year's Eve beatdown of Michigan, when Davis chased down Blake Corum on an outside run, dropping the Wolverines' speedy back for a loss. With few defensive tackles capable of matching Davis' skills as a run stopper, NFL defensive coordinators will covet his presence as an early-down defender.
That said, run-stuffers do not warrant serious consideration at the very top of the draft board in a league that skews heavily toward the pass. Defenders with the capacity to disrupt the passing game are all the rage. That's just not Davis' game. He has two sacks this season and seven total in his four-year career at Georgia.
While nose tackles are important to the fabric of many NFL defenses, they're not generally viewed as marquee draft stocks. Yes, elite defenses are strong down the middle, but team builders do not want to drop a top pick on a defender who fails to register sacks, QB hits, pass breakups or interceptions. Consequently, first-round nose tackles are rare in today's NFL. That said, two recent examples spring to mind: Vita Vea and Dexter Lawrence. Vea was taken 12th overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2018 NFL Draft. One year later, the New York Giants nabbed Lawrence at No. 17. Both have been productive players at the NFL level -- in fact, Vea's a crucial piece on the reigning Super Bowl champions.
So, could Davis be the next NT to hear his name called on the draft's opening night?
Well, Vea and Lawrence both had more pass-rush production (pressures + sacks) than Davis at the college level. They also showcased a higher level of endurance, which is no small thing when it comes to such BIG prospects. According to Pro Football Focus, Vea averaged 41 snaps per game in his final season at Washington. Lawrence logged 36 snaps an outing during his last year at Clemson. Davis? He's playing just 24 snaps a game this season. Granted, the Dawgs' defense is absolutely loaded with talent, so playing time for everyone's at a premium. But still, evaluators will wonder if Davis needs to be kept at a strict pitch count for maximum output.
At the end of the day, I could see Davis being graded as a mid-to-late first-round pick on most boards, though it wouldn't be shocking to see him fall to Day 2. He's an immovable object against the run game, and frankly, there just aren't many human beings walking the planet with his mix of size, strength and agility. But given that today's NFL is undoubtedly a passing league, run-stuffer value just isn't what it used to be.