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 the one of the most alluring rosters in the NFL today ...
Is the summer of 2023 ring season in South Florida? With the Miami Heat and Florida Panthers simultaneously vying for championships in the NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Finals, respectively, Miami is currently the sports capital of America -- a development only furthered by international soccer icon Lionel Messi shockingly joining MLS club Inter Miami CF. And although we're about a month and a half away from training camp, the hype is rapidly building for the city's NFL team.
Football fans inside and outside of Miami are buzzing over the Dolphins' prospects as a dark-horse title contender, given their spectacular offensive firepower and a talented defense that's now led by one of the game's best minds. The AFC looks absolutely loaded heading into the 2023 season, but the Fins have an undeniable sex appeal as a potential breakthrough team.
Given Miami's success in Mike McDaniel's debut season -- when the Dolphins went 9-8 and made their first playoff appearance in six years -- it is easy to see why this team has received so much offseason juice. In a league where offense sells, the Dolphins have assembled an Olympic-level relay team on the perimeter with the explosiveness to run circles around any defense. At wide receiver, Miami boasts the devastating duo of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, who just combined for 3,066 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns, terrorizing opposing defenses on an assortment of vertical routes and catch-and-run plays. In the backfield, the Fins house Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson and rookie De'Von Achane, all of whom can weave through traffic like sports cars on the Autobahn. And in the wake of Minnesota's release of Dalvin Cook, Miami has been widely considered as a strong potential landing spot for the four-time Pro Bowler. This would obviously take the RB group to a whole other level. Regardless, with big-play potential at every turn, the 2023 Dolphins will be an absolute nightmare to defend -- so long as the trigger man can stay on the field.
With Tua Tagovailoa under center, Miami has the perfect pass-first point guard to direct a fast-break offense that overwhelms opponents with speed and tempo. In McDaniel's RPO-based system (a wide-zone rushing scheme with various quick routes packaged into concepts), Tagovailoa plays a simple cat-and-mouse game with a designated defender put in conflict due to the formation, run-action and complementary routes. With defenders forced to pause while reading their run keys as a speedster flies up the field, Miami can routinely produce chunk gains on high-percentage plays. As a result, Tagovailoa finished 2022 as the NFL's leader in passer rating (105.5) and yards per pass attempt (8.9), while also posting a nice 25:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
All that said, Tua's injury history and durability issues are major concerns for a team that relies heavily on its point guard. If Tagovailoa is unavailable, the Dolphins would be forced to hand the ball to a wild-card gunslinger with a streaky game (Mike White). While Tua has become a polarizing player in the social media world, there's no debating that Miami is a much lesser team without him in the lineup. In regular-season games started by the former No. 5 overall pick last season, Miami went 8-5 and averaged 25.5 points. Without him, the Dolphins went 1-3 and never eclipsed 21 points.
Long story short: Miami's offense MUST keep No. 1 upright.
Defensively, the Dolphins have created excitement this offseason by trading for cornerback Jalen Ramsey, signing underrated linebacker David Long and spending a second-round pick on CB Cam Smith. However, the unit's biggest addition is new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. The wily defensive architect has a knack for befuddling quarterbacks and stymying offenses with simulated pressures and split-safety schemes. Fangio has found a way to consistently pressure opposing signal-callers with his clever schemes and obsessive attention to detail. As the Dolphins transition away from a blitz-heavy unit under Josh Boyer (and Brian Flores before him), Miami will focus extensively on eliminating big plays (deep passes) and suffocating the ground game. The static two-deep shell frequently shown by the Dolphins will mask various coverages and four-man pressure concepts that will tax offensive players' diagnostic skills and communication ability.
From a personnel standpoint, the reunion between Bradley Chubb and Fangio will not only lead to better production from the veteran defender, but it could help third-year pro Jaelan Phillips blossom into a Pro Bowl sack artist. This edge-rushing tandem features complementary games, with Chubb (power) and Phillips (speed/finesse) enhancing each other's skill sets. And with emerging stud Christian Wilkins commanding attention on the interior, the Dolphins could wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines.
In the secondary, the addition of Ramsey gives the Dolphins an elite cornerback duo, with Xavien Howard positioned on the opposite side. Though the versatile Ramsey could slide inside to play the star position (nickel corner/safety) at times, the combination of two stellar cover corners on the perimeter will enable Miami to seamlessly shift from man-to-man to zone coverage to diffuse high-powered offenses. Not to mention, undrafted nickelback Kader Kohou might've been the most pleasant surprise on last year's roster. As Fangio experiments with Jevon Holland's role as a Swiss Army Knife in the secondary, the Dolphins' spectacular defensive versatility could pose serious problems, with the veteran defensive play-caller implementing a few wrinkles to keep quarterbacks guessing.
If games were played on paper or through a Madden simulator, Miami could be the team to beat. Still, it's hard to dismiss the Dolphins' chances of wrestling the division crown away from the Buffalo Bills and doing some major damage in January. Although the New York Jets have become a trendy AFC East team to watch, as well, the Dolphins have a stacked roster with Super Bowl potential. If Tua stays healthy, Miami's sporting dominance could extend deep into the winter.
Wilson + Rodgers = Top-five wide receiver
We're still a few months away from the height of fantasy football drafting, but I have a statement that could be of interest to you fantasy fiends out there:
Don't be surprised if Garrett Wilson establishes himself as a top-five receiver in Year 2.
That's right. With Aaron Rodgers' joining the New York Jets, the 2022 Offensive Rookie of the Year very well could be on the verge of superstardom. Gang Green's offense has explosive potential, and Wilson is poised to become Rodgers' new target of choice. I see him making the same type of leap that we saw last season from another pedigreed player at the position.
At this time last year, I was telling everyone within earshot that CeeDee Lamb was about to emerge as a top-five wide receiver. In fact, I expressed that very feeling in this space. And despite an injury-abbreviated, underwhelming season from Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott, Lamb still finished fourth among NFL receivers in catches (107), sixth in yards (1,359), tied for fourth in touchdowns (nine) and tied for third in catches of 20-plus yards (24). This placed him squarely in top-five territory -- and if Prescott returns to Pro Bowl-caliber form in 2023, Lamb could throw his hat in the ring for the No. 1 spot.
Wilson made quite an impact in Year 1, leading all rookies with 83 catches and 1,103 receiving yards while also scoring four touchdowns. Impressive numbers for a rookie, no doubt, but they're all the more striking when you consider the 2022 Jets' quarterback situation. New York cycled through a ragtag quartet of passers, with Zach Wilson, Joe Flacco, Mike White and Chris Streveler all logging starts. In 2023, Wilson will be catching passes from a four-time MVP.
The 2022 NFL Draft's No. 10 overall pick has immense potential as the focal point of an offense. Although he checks in at a hair under 6 feet tall (and 192 pounds), Wilson is a spectacular route runner with excellent stop-start quickness, balance and body control. Consequently, he has no problem creating separation against elite corners on the perimeter. And his underrated speed (4.38 40-yard dash at the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine) enables him to stretch the field as a vertical playmaker on an assortment of go routes, deep overs and posts against one-on-one coverage.
It's a collection of skills that reminds Rodgers of a certain six-time Pro Bowler who spent eight years catching balls from No. 12: Davante Adams.
"Obviously Garrett, you know, he's a talented guy," Rodgers said last month on The Pat McAfee Show. "I threw him a pass today and just kind of turned and was like, 'Wow.' His ability to kind of get in and out of his breaks ... there's another [No.] 17 I played with for a long time who does it better than anybody. The explosiveness in and out of breaks, the 17 here, is pretty similar."
High praise -- and it's not hyperbole. Wilson has flashed enough blue-chip potential to warrant consideration as a truly elite playmaker. With a gigantic upgrade at the quarterback position, Wilson is set to take a big leap forward in 2023. And seeing how he already produced at an award-winning level as a rookie, fantasy footballers should definitely view him as a high-end WR1. The 22-year-old has take-over-the-game potential -- and he could take a spot among the top five receivers.
Problem with defensive head coaches?
"There is a different mentality, from my career, when you play for an offensive head coach that wants to light up the scoreboard and outscore the opponent," Smith said. "There's a different mentality you have, especially as a young quarterback versus a defensive head coach, when really the (coach's) mentality is, 'Hey, don't screw up, don't turn the ball over, don't put us in a bad situation.'
"That's a huge difference in a mentality and a mindset for a young quarterback, especially if it's a bit rocky to start."
It is easy to understand the former No. 1 overall pick's viewpoint, seeing how he blossomed into a quality signal-caller under the tutelage of Jim Harbaugh and Andy Reid following some early-career struggles with the defensive-minded Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary at the helm. While some of Smith's development could be attributed to learning from his mistakes as a young starter, Harbaugh and Reid were able to tap into parts of Smith's game that he showcased during his time as a spectacular dual-threat playmaker at the University of Utah. As Harbaugh and Reid built the scheme around Smith's talents, the offensive gurus taught the veteran how to play winning football. From the elimination of turnovers to clever handling of game flow, Smith operated like a high-end game manager, making three Pro Bowls in Kansas City. Although that style of play is preferred by defensive-minded coaches who obsess over turnovers and managerial mistakes, they don't always know how to teach it. Smith benefitted from working with a pair of offensive brains that understand how to coach the position and develop young players.
Fast-forward to today, and you see plenty of young quarterbacks who benefit from playing for coaches who know how to tinker with their schemes and simplify the game. For instance, Trevor Lawrence has quickly become a borderline-elite player with Doug Pederson at the controls. The Super Bowl-winning head coach arrived in Jacksonville last year and worked diligently with the passer to polish his footwork and master game-management tactics. In addition, Pederson collaborated with Lawrence to ensure the Jaguars' QB1 had a game plan that featured his favorite concepts in various formations, thus changing the picture for the defense while keeping the passing game simple for his young quarterback.
Part of Lawrence's success is due to Pederson surrounding the franchise face with a handful of coaches possessing extensive quarterbacking experience. Jacksonville's QB-friendly coaching staff is in the process of maximizing the 2021 NFL Draft's No. 1 overall pick. It's a completely different story for the player selected one pick later.
Zach Wilson's first two NFL seasons certainly didn't go as planned. The No. 2 overall pick in 2021 has struggled mightily, prompting the Jets to trade for Aaron Rodgers and put Wilson's career on ice. During his SiriusXM NFL Radio rant, Smith pointed the finger at New York's defensive-minded head coach.
"Yeah, Robert Saleh, you're a great defensive mind and coordinator, but, like, you have no idea how to develop a quarterback. The coordinator you hired (Mike LaFleur) never called plays," Smith said. "So that's a completely different animal. And as much as you think you're prepared to handle that development of a young kid, you're just not."
Smith's comments struck a chord with me. On the Move The Sticks Podcast, Daniel Jeremiah and I routinely discuss the importance of "The Three Ps" when developing young quarterbacks: play-caller, protection and playmakers. The Jets failed in all three areas during Wilson's rookie year, and while they upgraded the playmakers in Year 2, the other two Ps remained lacking. And Wilson's failure (thus far) has provided the football world with another example furthering this broader narrative around defensive-minded head coaches.
Now, we have seen defensive-minded coaches help quarterbacks play well as young starters. Bill Belichick didn't do too badly with a sixth-round pick by the name of Tom Brady. That said, Belichick's work with first-rounder Mac Jones has been a tale of two seasons: In Year 1, Jones led the Patriots to the playoffs and made the Pro Bowl; but Year 2 was a nightmare, with Jones significantly regressing following Belichick's strange decision to install the defensive-minded Matt Patricia as New England's offensive play-caller. With Bill O'Brien retaking the reins as Pats offensive coordinator this year, maybe Jones will get back on track.
At the end of the day, the play of young quarterbacks is not necessarily determined by their head coaches' background. But it's absolutely crucial to nail the green signal-caller's surroundings when it comes to play-caller, protection and playmakers. When the head man concentrates on the three Ps, his coaching background doesn't have to be a crippling hindrance.