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 a non-controversy in New England ...
When the Patriots' players chose to be introduced together ahead of Super Bowl XXXVI, I understood they were making a decision to emphasize the team over the individual. But Bill Belichick's reluctance to formally announce a designated offensive or defensive coordinator or primary play-caller among his assistant coaches heading into the 2022 season takes the organization's team-first approach to another level.
At a time when NFL assistants can be so well known that it seems some are running their own public relations campaigns to become the next "hot" candidate for a major job, the Patriots appear to be challenging their coaches to check their egos at the door and focus their efforts on improving the performance of their players and units between the lines.
Yes, the Patriots have not yet named Josh McDaniels' replacement at offensive coordinator following his departure to become head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders. But the fact is, they seem to be staying true to an old-school, consistent approach that has not only helped them remain title contenders, but which has also provided assistants with prime job opportunities throughout the NFL.
And it's hard to dispute the success of a program in which coaches commonly cross-train at various positions while working their way up the ladder. Whether coaches begin their careers as scouts (SEE: former New England assistant and Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, now on staff in Pittsburgh) or coach multiple positions during their coaching journey with the team, they are given a chance to understand every aspect of the game.
Exposure to multiple positions and different sides of the ball increases a coach's individual football IQ -- and it provides the team with valuable depth throughout the coaching staff. The approach is similar to how the Patriots have routinely cross-trained their players for decades. Think of former linebacker Mike Vrabel logging a few snaps at tight end, or slot receiver Troy Brown filling in at nickel cornerback, or the countless role players who moved around to fill a void for a few weeks. The Patriots covet versatility, and they prepare both players and coaches to handle multiple roles.
It's surely not a coincidence that the Patriots' current coaching staff features four former players with experience playing under Belichick in New England (Brown, Jerod Mayo, Vinnie Sunseri and Billy Yates). In addition, the coaching staff also includes several young members who have coached multiple positions with the organization. Most of the staff started out as coaching assistants before graduating to bigger roles after a few seasons.
The apprenticeship path enables the Patriots to thoroughly train their coaches in their system, which ensures consistency when it comes to the techniques and methods that are taught to their players.
Given the Patriots' success over the past 20-plus seasons operating in this manner, the concerns regarding the ambiguous nature of coaching staff titles are overblown. New England has an established way of doing things under Belichick, and that will not change, no matter who's calling plays. The Patriots operate as a team in all respects, and their coaching staff will make a collective effort to get it right on game day.
Take this description of his own role by Joe Judge, who left the Patriots to serve as head coach of the Giants and returned to Belichick's staff this year upon the conclusion of his two-season run in New York:
"I am working with Mac (Jones), along with all the skill group on offense," Judge said. "I'd say all of us are working collectively as a coaching unit with the entire offense. So that's the most direct and specific answer I can give you on that. ... It's been a main emphasis for us as a coaching staff, we want to make sure we can coach all the players and that nobody is out there with a lack of knowledge in the offense."
Judge, listed as an offensive assistant, is expected to work closely with the quarterbacks, but he could assume the role of offensive play-caller or share responsibilities with Nick Caley (tight ends/fullbacks). Then there's Matt Patricia, whose first Patriots tenure included multiple coaching jobs on each side of the ball, culminating in a six-season stint (2012-17) as the team's last official defensive coordinator. Now tasked with helping on offense (specifically, the line) as a senior football advisor, the former Lions' head coach is a prime example of how the team cross-trains coaches to help create contingency plans for coaching departures or emergency situations.
On defense, the titles and responsibilities of Mayo and Bill Belichick's son, Steve Belichick, have been a topic of public discussion. But anyone hung up over these details fails to take Bill Belichick's influence into consideration. As one of the greatest defensive minds in football, he is surely a big part of the game-planning and play-calling process; it does not really matter which assistant coach holds the placard or talks to the green-dot defender (designated communicator) between snaps.
Looking ahead to the 2022 season, the versatility, flexibility and adaptability of the Patriots' coaching staff will continue to make this team a viable threat in the AFC. While losing McDaniels will certainly have an impact on quarterback Mac Jones after a promising rookie season, the Patriots' system will not change. Whoever ends up calling plays will simply tweak the scheme to accentuate the strengths of the individuals on offense.
This franchise excels at making in-game adjustments due to its superior preparation. The approach to coaching is part of a long-range plan that will enable the team to be a dark-horse contender, regardless of the mystery surrounding the roles and responsibilities of the staff.
NFL's top five cornerbacks
I am not a boxing aficionado, but contrasting styles make the sport interesting. The same can be said for evaluating football players, particularly cornerbacks, in a pass-happy league that rewards playmakers with the potential to impact that passing game. Team executives have opened up the checkbook for passers, pass catchers, pass rushers and playmakers with blue-chip talent and impressive résumés.
At cornerback, money has landed in the pockets of defenders with lockdown skills or sticky hands. Over the past few seasons, we have seen elite cornerbacks command "quarterback" money with deals hitting the $20 million mark. Green Bay's Jaire Alexander is the latest to receive a massive payday, signing a four-year, $84 million extension earlier this week that made him the top-earning corner in the league in annual average salary at $21 million per year. While that kind of money should be reserved for cornerbacks with complete toolboxes, the NFL is rewarding players with five-star skills in a key area.
Whether it is shutting down an elite receiver with suffocating press coverage skills that make it nearly impossible to separate down the field or displaying outstanding instincts and ball skills as a "clue" corner with his eyes affixed to the quarterback, the best cornerbacks in the game must toss shutouts or take the ball away at an alarming rate.
With that standard in mind, here is my list of the five best cornerbacks in the game:
The "OG" when it comes to the current generation of lockdown corners still sits atop the list, despite some playoff struggles leading to concerns about his top-end speed. Ramsey is a versatile defender who displays the capacity to excel inside or outside in a zone-based scheme that enables him to maintain vision on the quarterback. Although the All-Pro corner is still capable of mauling receivers at the line of scrimmage by utilizing a variety of bump-and-run tactics that challenge the toughness, athleticism and skill of elite pass catchers, the veteran defender allowed a few passes to fly over his head in the playoffs when he could not stay stride for stride with wideouts streaking down the field. Ramsey will need to address the mental lapses or fundamental errors that exposed his vulnerabilities in the postseason, or he could lose his spot on the throne.
If the $100.5 million deal signed by the fifth-year pro came as a surprise, you likely haven't paid close attention to Ward's emergence as a five-star playmaker on the island. The Browns' No. 1 corner routinely throws blankets on top of the opponent's best receiver by utilizing a variety of shadow techniques. Ward's athleticism, footwork and technique make him hard to shake, and quarterbacks have a tough time stringing together completions when targeting No. 21 's side of the field.
Cornerbacks with elite ball skills and sticky hands are coveted at a premium in a league where the overwhelming majority of games are decided by turnovers. Jackson has 25 career interceptions, including 17 over the past two seasons, during which he stepped into the CB1 role as a member of the New England Patriots. The former undrafted free agent is a rare find as a ball-hawking corner with A+ man-to-man skills utilizing a variety of techniques. Jackson's ability to find the ball on late reactions is uncommon, and it is one of the reasons why he makes this list.
The dynamic defender just signed a lucrative extension for his spectacular work on the island. Despite playing in only four games in 2021, Alexander continues to build an impressive résumé as a lockdown corner. The 5-foot-10, 196-pounder is a rare find as a corner with the athleticism, polish and instincts to throttle receivers in press coverage, while also displaying the vision and ball skills to steal picks or knock down balls in zone coverage. With Alexander also showing the ability to play inside or outside with solid tackling skills and sneaky blitz ability, the Packers' CB1 is quietly becoming the gold standard at the position.
The ultra-aggressive ballhawk is a two-time NFL interception leader, with a total of 27 in his career. Howard's combination of dazzling footwork, sticky hands and impressive ball skills makes him a nightmare to target on the perimeter. Measuring 6-1, 201 pounds, he has enough size and length to challenge big-bodied receivers at the line of scrimmage and in 50-50-ball situations. With Howard also displaying disciplined eyes and solid tackling skills in space, the Dolphins' No. 1 corner is a five-star playmaker on the island.
Where is Cowboys CB Trevon Diggs?
Despite leading the league in 2021 with 11 interceptions, the third-year pro does not make the cut due to the boom-or-bust nature of his game. Diggs surrenders too many big plays and must reduce his burn rate to earn a spot among the elites. Although I love his ball skills and play-making ability as a "clue" corner with outstanding vision, he must display better discipline and awareness in coverage to earn an A+ grade as a cover corner.
Saints' high-flying passing game reborn
If the New Orleans Saints' offensive lineup looks as good on the field as it does on paper, Who Dat Nation will spend most Sundays playing Louis Armstrong's version of "When The Saints Go Marching In" after watching a big-play bonanza from a revamped wide receiver corps.
Fueled by the arrivals of free-agent signee Jarvis Landry and 11th overall draft pick Chris Olave, and by the return of Michael Thomas, the Saints suddenly have a dynamic and explosive collection of wideouts that will test the depth, talent and skills of defensive backfields around the league. With Marquez Callaway, who was the team's No. 1 receiving option in 2021, and Tre'Quan Smith also contributing as the fourth and fifth options in the rotation, the Saints can roll out dynamite "10" (one RB, four WRs) and "11" (one RB, one TE, three WRs) packages with Alvin Kamara in the backfield.
The Pro Bowl running back is a big-play machine with an electric set of skills as a runner-receiver. He is a do-it-all playmaker with the potential to score from anywhere on the field when deployed in the backfield, in the slot or out wide. The Saints' ability to surround him with three legitimate threats will not only create more room for him, but it will put defensive coordinators in a bind when determining which players to double team or bracket in key situations.
If the defense attempts to neutralize Kamara or Thomas, Landry could wear out slot defenders on option routes over the middle of the field. In addition, the doubles directed toward No. 41 and No. 13 will leave a backup cornerback singled up against Olave on the outside. Given the Ohio State standout's big-play potential and impressive résumé as a scoring machine, the Saints have a built-in answer to some of the tactics they will face down the road.
The Saints' offensive improvements should enable offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael to build game plans around quarterback Jameis Winston's strengths as a deep-ball passer. Olave possesses the speed and acceleration to take the top off coverage while also creating space for Thomas, Landry and Kamara to go to work against underneath. Callaway is the wild card of the group as a crafty playmaker with sticky hands and outstanding ball skills. The third-year pro will give Carmichael another option to take advantage of matchups against opponents' fourth and fifth defensive backs.
While Carmichael will likely need some time to put the pieces of the puzzle together after taking the call sheet from Sean Payton, Winston and the Saints' aerial attack has enough firepower to light up the scoreboard in the Caesars Superdome this season.