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 one team's expensive strategy for improving its chances in 2022 ...
Ask team builders across the NFL how they'd prefer to construct a roster in the salary cap era, and the overwhelming majority of them will tout the draft-and-develop model over the free-agent frenzy that requires teams to spend excessive money on players developed in other programs.
While the best personnel executives will utilize a mixture of the draft, free agency and the trade market to construct a championship team, there are significant economic and cultural advantages to relying on a homegrown approach. From the salary-cap savings that teams enjoy when nailing mid- and late-round draft picks to the continuity of having a core group of players who grow up together within the system, the benefits to developing your best players from Day 1 are plentiful.
That said, if you have not drafted well over the past decade, leading to a 42-119 record in that span, it is hard to become a competitive team without attacking the free-agent market and paying premium prices for NFL veterans.
This is why I can't disparage the Jacksonville Jaguars for spending $259.5 million, including $155.25 million guaranteed, on seven veteran pickups in the opening days of free agency:
- WR Zay Jones: Three years, $24 million with $14 million guaranteed.
- WR Christian Kirk: Four years, $72 million with $37 million guaranteed.
- TE Evan Engram: One year, $9 million with $8.25 million guaranteed.
- OG Brandon Scherff: Three years, $49.5 million with $30 million guaranteed.
- DT Foley Fatukasi: Three years, $30 million with $20 million guaranteed.
- LB Foye Oluokun: Three years, $45 million with $28 million guaranteed.
- CB Darious Williams: Three years, $30 million with $18 million guaranteed.
"We're trying to fix this thing long term, have a vision for the future as we build this thing out -- and right now, it's a combination of free agency and the draft," Jags GM Trent Baalke said Wednesday, via The Associated Press. "We hope to get this organization to the point where we're not relying on free agency as much. We're relying on our drafts and giving second contracts to those guys."
As the color analyst on the Jaguars' preseason game broadcasts, I understand the talent disparity between the AFC South cellar dweller and the rest of the league. This team not only lacked size, speed and athleticism, but the roster was devoid of blue-chip players and consistent playmakers on each side of the ball. As a general rule, it takes about 10 to 12 blue-chip players (players who are among the top 10 best at their respective position) to compete at a championship level, and it is hard to name a current Jaguars player who would meet that threshold.
Perhaps Shaquill Griffin, Josh Allen and Rayshawn Jenkins will be able to crack that list with better individual and team performance in 2022, but the Jaguars could not close the gap on the competition without significant upgrades to the roster via free agency. Head coach Doug Pederson undoubtedly knows that the team needed more blue-chip talent to field a competitive team next season.
Moreover, the Jaguars needed to surround their franchise quarterback with more playmakers to give him a chance to reach his potential. As a former No. 1 overall pick with prototypical size, athleticism and arm talent, Trevor Lawrence is exactly what coaches and scouts covet in a QB1, but the Jaguars' leaky production and pedestrian pass-catchers did not enable him to throw the ball efficiently and effectively to the perimeter.
The Jaguars might have gone a long way toward fixing the problem by signing five-time Pro Bowl guard Brandon Scherff to join an offensive line that kept Cam Robinson on a franchise tag and has a player with starting potential (Walker Little) in the bullpen. With more size, strength and skill at the line of scrimmage, the Jaguars have the potential to run the ball with James Robinson and Travis Etienne or throw the ball all over the yard with Lawrence tossing to his new targets on the perimeter.
Christian Kirk, Zay Jones and Evan Engram might have signed deals that raised eyebrows around the league but in Pederson's offense, they could thrive in their respective roles. I know that statement will garner some quizzical looks from observers who view me as a homer, but I played with Pederson in Green Bay, and that offense was built around B-plus receivers playing in a system that accentuated their talents.
In Philadelphia, Pederson won a Super Bowl with Nelson Agholor, Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith and Zach Ertz positioned in the key roles on the perimeter. Think about that. None of the aforementioned players were viewed as transcendent stars at that stage of their careers, but they were effective as a group. Their collective talents were good enough to rack up yards and produce points.
Kirk and Jones are polished route runners with versatile games that could make them interchangeable pieces on the perimeter. As veterans with experience playing inside and outside, Pederson could deploy either pass catcher as an "X" (split end), "Z" (flanker) or "E" (slot receiver). With Marvin Jones also on the roster, the Jaguars have an experienced trio of pass catchers to insert into a system that creates easy completions for the quarterback.
Despite the attention paid to Kirk and Jones due to their contracts, Engram could emerge as the focal point of the passing game due to his ability to play like a "Jumbo" slot receiver. As a tight end with receiver-like athleticism and skill, the one-time Pro Bowl selectee could become a mismatch option and seam runner as he steps into the role that helped Ertz emerge as a star in Philadelphia.
At the end of the day, we won't hear much about the cost of picking up the free agents if the crew plays up to its potential. In a bottom-line business, production matters, and the Jaguars' free-agent spending will be judged by their marquee players' performance in big games. If the wins come and the Jaguars close the gap on the competition in the AFC, no one will be fretting about how much it cost to get the job done.
Top five pass-rush duos
It is not a coincidence that pass rushers are flying off the free-agent board with team-builders desperately seeking to slow down the superstar quarterbacks that are dominating the league. While some evaluators still believe in the "shutdown" cornerback mythology that fueled some rebuilding efforts years ago, the old-school strategy of getting to the quarterback early and often with a collection of pass rushers continues to produce winning results on the field. And teams are willing to write big checks, or give up valuable draft assets, to acquire a premier pass-rushing talent to upgrade a defense that lacks championship-caliber firepower.
Given some time to assess the frenzy of free-agency activity around the league and the emerging pass-rushing tandems that are poised to dominate the league in 2022, I thought this was the perfect time to take a fresh look at the top-five pass-rushing duos heading into next season. Here are my rankings:
It is always a scary thought for the opposition when a team's top pass rusher is also the hardest-playing defender on the field. It is downright nightmarish for offenses when they have to line up across from a defense that features a pair of players with non-stop motors and premier pass-rushing skills. That's why the Raiders sit atop this list with Crosby and Jones joining forces as the bookends in a Patrick Graham-coordinated defense that places a premium on hustle and the desire to accentuate explosive pass-rushing skills. Crosby's sack production (25 in 49 career games) might not jump off the page, but don't let that fool you. The fourth-year pro is a war daddy off the edge with the potential to put up 15-plus sacks when fully unleashed off the edge in an aggressive scheme. Jones, who signed a three-year deal worth $52.5 million this week, has quietly been among the league's best pass rushers since entering the league in 2012, as evidenced by his 107.5 career sacks (leads NFL since 2012). Although Father Time threatens to slow him down at this stage of his career, the two-time All-Pro's experience and expertise as a sack artist should enable him to flourish on a defense that figures to have a chance to hunt QBs relentlessly after they're lured into shootouts against Derek Carr and Co.
Mack last recorded a double-digit sack season in 2018, but he remains one of the most feared pass rushers in the game and was certainly an excellent acquisition for the Chargers. As a rugged edge defender with a power-based game, he overwhelms blockers with a bull rush, long-arm maneuver and inside swipe while also utilizing his strength and power to dominate opponents as a run stopper. Bosa is a high-motor rusher with a technical game built on his superior hand-to-hand combat skills and counter maneuvers. He is the perfect complement to Mack as an aggressive defender with enough finesse to win with speed and shadowboxing tactics off the edges. With the Chargers' offense poised to light up the league like a pinball machine, Bosa and Mack could rack up ridiculous numbers against opponents forced to chase points in shootouts.
Watt is a disruptive sack master with a knack for producing splash plays off the edge. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year has 65 sacks over the past four seasons. He's also forced 21 fumbles over that span, utilizing a tomahawk chop that separates the quarterback from the ball. Heyward is a rock-solid interior playmaker with underrated pass-rushing skills. He has notched double-digit sacks twice in his 11-year career, but his disruption between the tackles doesn't always show up on the stat sheet. Opponents are forced to account for his whereabouts in pass protection, and that is a problem when Watt is wreaking havoc off the edges. As new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin starts tweaking the scheme to create more sack opportunities for his top playmakers, the AFC could see Watt and Heyward post monster numbers once again for a defense that should be more aggressive and scheme-diverse next season.
If you have not paid close attention to the Titans' defense, you are missing out on an emerging pass-rushing tandem with the potential to vault to the top of this list. Landry and Simmons are a disruptive inside-outside duo, providing speed, quickness, explosiveness and power. As a twitchy pass rusher with great anticipation, Landry, who recently inked a five-year extension worth $87.5 million, explodes off the ball with cat-like quickness. He flashes the body control to win utilizing a dip-and-rip maneuver to the outside or inside. Coming off a 12-sack season in which he finally put it all together on the field, Landry makes life easier for Simmons to wreck shop between the tackles. The 6-foot-4, 305-pounder wins with heavy hands while flashing a nasty disposition as he ragdolls blockers on the way to the quarterback. The Tennessee defense relentlessly attacks passers with a variety of line movements, stunts and blitzes, but the Landry-Simmons combination makes the engine go.
After Bosa missed all but two games in 2020 due to injury, this duo reunited in 2021 while re-establishing Kris Kocurek as the premier defensive line coach in football. The energetic teacher has equipped his prized pupils with enough skills and knowledge to whip defenders with a variety of maneuvers that make it nearly impossible to keep the 49ers' top pass rushers out of the backfield. Bosa, in particular, is a non-stop playmaker with an array of power moves and counters that keep blockers on their heels. After putting up 15.5 sacks coming off of a torn ACL, the 49ers' No. 1 pass rusher reminded everyone that he's one of the best in the business with the potential to wear the crown as a sack master off the edge. Armstead is a trash collector on the inside who feasts on Bosa leftovers in the pocket. The extra-large interior rusher gobbles up quarterbacks forced to step up in the pocket by utilizing an array of power moves to dismiss blockers at the line. With an energetic pass rush that wears down opponents, the play-making duo by the Bay is one to watch in 2022.
Who is Green Bay's next Davante Adams?
I know some of you readers are rolling your eyes at that question, but the Green Bay Packers' front office and coaching staff are undoubtedly huddling up in their team offices to determine how they are going to replace the production that walked out of the door when Davante Adams forced his way to the Las Vegas Raiders via trade.
While the devastation of losing a player many consider the top receiver in the game today understandably sent ripples through Titletown, the Packers did receive a first- and second-round pick in a 2022 NFL Draft that is deep in the WR department. Now holding a pair of 1s (Nos. 22 and 28 overall), Green Bay could select one of the top pass catchers in the class -- or even double down at the position on the draft's opening night. In many instances, this would be the conventional wisdom for a team that prefers a draft-and-develop approach, but the Packers have rarely fished in the first-round pond when looking for starting receivers. Sure, Javon Walker was selected with the 20th overall pick in the 2002 draft, but Green Bay has routinely competed for titles without expending prime draft capital on pass catchers.
In the past few decades, the Packers have been at their best when they've entrusted the WR1 role to a homegrown pass catcher who worked his way to the top of the depth chart after entering the league as a developmental prospect drafted outside of the first round. Back in my playing days with the Packers in the mid-1990s, Robert Brooks (Round 3, 1992) and Antonio Freeman (Round 3, 1995) started a trend as mid-round selections who developed into blue-chip playmakers for the team. Since then, Green Bay has watched the likes of Donald Driver (Round 7, 1999), Greg Jennings (Round 2, 2006), James Jones (Round 3, 2007), Jordy Nelson (Round 2, 2008), Randall Cobb (Round 2, 2011) and Adams (Round 2, 2014) become standout performers for the team despite being drafted outside of the first round.
Think about that. The Packers have enjoyed a 30-year run of offensive success without relying on a first-round receiver to carry the passing game. Given their track record with developmental wideouts, I would expect the Pack to bypass signing an expensive free-agent receiver and focus their efforts on identifying the perfect fits for their scheme in the draft.
While the first round could offer some intriguing options, the Packers have a blueprint that could lead them to look outside of the draft's Tier 1 group to find their next lead receiver. This deep WR class is loaded with candidates possessing different skills and size/speed ratios. Green Bay has routinely cast its lot with big-time playmakers who have punt- or kick-return experience. In an offense that features a number of catch-and-run concepts designed to take advantage of each pass catcher's running skills, YAC ability is a top priority. With Aaron Rodgers clearly capable of elevating the play of his receivers, the Packers could roll the dice and attempt to replace No. 17 with a youngster or two from the latter two days of the draft.
This approach will not make general manager Brian Gutekunst any friends in a fantasy football world obsessed with big names, but it is a recipe that has produced a lot of Pro Bowl playmakers who have helped the Packers consistently compete for titles over the past 30 years. Packers fans might not believe me, but if the team trusts the process, Thursday's eyebrow-raising trade will not impact another run at a title.