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:
— Early returns on Lamar Jackson? Quite positive — just ask John Harbaugh.
— Why Dak Prescott’s in line for a $100 million contract.
— The truth about Rob Gronkowski and the Patriots.
But first, a look at how the Giants are putting Eli Manning in position to rise again …
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The New York Giants will have the most explosive offense in football — IF Eli Manning plays at a Pro Bowl level.
Now, I know we haven’t seen the two-time Super Bowl MVP perform like that since 2015, but the 37-year-old field general has all of the weapons in place to help the G-Men return to prominence this season.
“We have some players, we definitely have some players,” Manning said, via the New York Post. “Again, on paper is one thing, but you have to be able to do it on the field and you have to have everybody come together. That’s why it’s a team. It’s not four or five guys who make a difference, it’s all 11 and more than that sometimes, both sides doing their parts to find ways to come together as a team to win football games.”
While I understand Manning’s attempt to downplay the Giants’ talent on the offensive side of the ball, it is hard to ignore the potential of a unit that will feature Saquon Barkley, Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram on the perimeter and a rebuilt offensive line that’s suddenly solid with Nate Solder and Will Hernandez in place. Although questions remain about Ereck Flowers’ role on the squad, New York can put him at his natural position (right tackle) and hope he plays up to his first-round draft pedigree at that spot.
That’s why I’m bullish on the team’s chances of going from worst to first behind an electric offense in a topsy-turvy division. But again, this relies on No. 10 holding up his end of the bargain. The 15th-year pro doesn’t have to play like a top-five player at the position. He really just needs to complete a respectable percent of his passes and consistently get the ball into the hands of the team’s top playmakers on the perimeter. If Eli can efficiently play pitch-and-catch with the explosive athletes on the outside, the supporting cast is good enough to carry him to the winner’s circle. Sure, that’s the definition of a “trailer” — as opposed to a “truck” — in quarterback parlance, but the majority of veteran passers need help as their skills decline due to age. Don’t believe me? Just look at how Drew Brees’ game has been enhanced by the arrival of Alvin Kamara and the continued ascension of Michael Thomas as a top-flight pass catcher.
The Giants acquired quite a weapon with the No. 2 overall pick. Barkley’s a versatile RB1 in the Le’Veon Bell mold, boasting size, speed, route-running skills and sticky hands. Thus, Manning has a hybrid playmaker in the backfield who can alleviate some of the pressure on him to carry the offense. Eli can target the rookie on six to eight passes a game, which is a huge advantage for any quarterback.
Remember, defensive coordinators will commit double-coverage to OBJ. He can score from anywhere on the field, and that threat will force defensive coordinators to sell out to keep the big-play specialist under wraps. That means one-on-one coverage for everyone else — a scary proposition for opponents, considering how dangerous Shepard and Engram have proven to be in the slot. (Yes, I know Engram is listed as a tight end, but he is really a jumbo slot receiver with a game that’s more like a “Z” than a “Y”.)
With that kind of personnel at his disposal, Manning should be able to rack up completions and first downs by simply taking what the defense gives him in each coverage. Sounds simple — almost too simple — but it really is as straightforward as that when you’re playing with superior talent on the perimeter. Manning just needs to let his guys work and the scoreboard will start to ping like a pinball machine.
That brings me to coaching, and how Pat Shurmur’s brilliance as a play designer could enhance Manning’s game in the twilight of his career. The longtime offensive assistant has confidence in his star quarterback and he will build the scheme around his QB1’s strengths as a rhythm passer.
“I believe in Eli. Again, ‘vote of confidence,’ that goes into the ‘buy in’ category for me,” Shurmur told The MMQB. “You take whatever you want from that. What I know is that Eli is going to be the very best Eli he can be, and we believe in him.
“The other thing I’ve learned about quarterbacks that’s super important — as long as they’re your quarterback, even if you have stretches where you’re angry with them, they need to know you believe in them. Eli needs to feel that we believe in him, because we do.”
Such unconditional support means more than the Xs and Os. With that bullish backing enhancing Manning’s own self-belief, I would expect No. 10 to maximize whatever he has left in the tank.
“It helps,” Manning said, via the team website. “Obviously, when you feel that the coaches and the GM and everybody is excited about working with you, has your back and looking forward to good things. Obviously, I have to prove that and do that every day and get on the field and make sure I’m making the right decisions, protecting the ball, making good throws and learning this offense quickly. I think we’re off to a good start, but we have a lot of football left.”
The Giants haven’t been touted as playoff contenders due to the lack of belief in their quarterback, but the team’s upgraded supporting cast could help the two-time Super Bowl champion lead his team on another improbable run at a ring.
LAMAR JACKSON’S FIRST IMPRESSION: Rookie creating buzz in B’more
When the Baltimore Ravens sent out smoke signals indicating their interest in Lamar Jackson prior to the 2018 NFL Draft, I thought the potential marriage between the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner and the team was a match made in heaven. The Ravens not only had a front office in place that would recognize and appreciate his spectacular talents as a dual-threat playmaker, but they had a crew of coaches capable of putting together a plan that would elevate his game as a pro.
Now that Jackson is indeed a Raven, it appears that initial intuition was correct. And Joe Flacco better be on his game this fall.
Based on reports floating out of Baltimore during last weekend’s rookie minicamp, the Ravens are already “in the laboratory” cooking up schemes that will help their quarterback of the future make an impact whenever he steps onto the field.
“We’re going to always try to get our players making plays for us,” head coach John Harbaugh said to the assembled press. “And Lamar is a guy who can help us win games.”
While there’s no disputing Jackson’s talents as a mobile playmaker — he amassed 3,500-plus passing yards and 1,500-plus rushing yards in each of his final two seasons at Louisville — there were plenty of questions about his ability to make accurate throws and play the game from the pocket after he failed to complete 60 percent of his passes in any of his three collegiate campaigns. Skeptics questioned his pocket-passing skills and some even suggested that he would need to make a position switch to have a legitimate shot of carving out a career as a pro.
“The thing I was really impressed with is I thought he was accurate,” Harbaugh said last week. “You read the reports … but he’s a naturally talented thrower. He has natural arm talent. That’s something that I think people were questioning. To see him out here throwing the ball naturally and very accurately, I thought it was a big plus.”
Looking at Harbaugh’s assessment of Jackson’s passing prowess, I believe it matches up with his performance on tape. At Louisville, No. 8 was a pinpoint passer on short and intermediate throws between the numbers, particularly on in-breaking routes (skinny posts, seams and digs). He flashed outstanding touch, timing and anticipation on those throws, while also displaying A-plus arm strength firing the ball into tight windows. Jackson also showed outstanding range and touch on vertical throws. He was one of the best deep-ball throwers in the 2018 class. His ability to throw the ball over the top of the defense makes him a challenge to defend in the backfield.
From a critical standpoint, Jackson struggled as an outside-the-numbers thrower at Louisville. He frequently missed receivers on out-breaking routes along the boundary and his inconsistencies on those throws routinely showed up on tape.
Speaking to Ravens officials following rookie minicamp, Jackson’s strengths and weaknesses as a passer showed up throughout the weekend, as he dazzled as a deep-ball thrower down the seams but had some struggles connecting with receivers on out-breaking routes. Despite those hiccups, he earned positive reviews for his overall performance as a passer, which is good news for a team looking to fully capitalize on his explosiveness as a mobile playmaker.
As a student and leader, Jackson also earned strong reviews for his work over the weekend. He received glowing marks from his head coach and made a strong impression on the staff.
“As good as any rookie we’ve had that way,” Harbaugh said, via the team website. “He’s very smart; he studies, very sharp, has a nice presence on the field. I think we all feel that he handled himself very well that way.
“All of that is A, A-plus. He has great demeanor. He has a great face, attitude is really good, smart, studies real hard, locker room stuff. I think it’s all good.”
With Jackson starting to check off the boxes as a potential QB1 during rookie minicamp, I think it is important to remember offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and assistant head coach Greg Roman have extensive experience nurturing athletic quarterbacks, having collectively worked with the likes of Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, Jeff Garcia, Steve Young, Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor over the years. The lessons learned from those experiences will not only help the Ravens build a playbook that suits Jackson’s skills, but they will allow the coaches to concoct a developmental plan that helps the young QB grow as a passer/playmaker from the pocket.
Given Jackson’s own experience working with a pro-style play caller at Louisville (Bobby Petrino), the NFL world could see the Ravens’ version of Frankenstein by the end of the 2018 season.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) Dak is going to get PAID. This is going to make the Twitterverse explode, but Dak Prescott is about to be a $100 million man.
Say what you want about No. 4’s sophomore struggles, but there’s no disputing his stature as the Dallas Cowboys’ franchise quarterback and one of the promising young signal-callers in the league. While the football world debates whether Prescott is a “truck” (QB carries the team) or a “trailer” (team carries the QB), the 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year is set to break the bank at the end of the 2018 season. After all, he’s already a two-year starter with a 22-10 record and a division title on the resume.
“Yeah, you know at that position, it kind of is what it is,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said Wednesday, via the Star-Telegram. “You kind of, when the time comes, [expect to pay him]. I know Dak is going to have a good year this year. I hope it’s up there. It’s going to be as he deserves. He was a fourth-round pick. No one deserves to get paid fairly more than he does.”
Jones is right about Prescott deserving a hefty pay raise after giving the Cowboys solid performance and production while playing on a modest fourth-round deal that’s scheduled to pay him just $630,000 in base salary in 2018, according to Spotrac. Dak’s cap hit ($725,848) ranks 61st among NFL quarterbacks and 38th among players on the Cowboys’ roster.
Let that marinate for a second. A young quarterback with Pro Bowl credentials and a winning resume is making less than the majority of QB2s in the league. Moreover, Prescott is one of the lowest-paid players on the Cowboys’ roster despite being arguably the most important player on the squad.
That’s why it’s only a matter of time before Prescott becomes a $100 million man. The 24-year-old’s accomplishments not only put him in the mix for a lucrative deal, but you could make the argument that he’s in line for a payday that pushes him near the top of the food chain for quarterbacks.
Don’t believe me? Just look at Prescott’s numbers compared to those of two newly rich QBs and Carson Wentz, a fellow 2016 draftee who was a leading MVP candidate before tearing up his knee last December:
Dak Prescott: 65.2 percent completion rate, 6,991 pass yards, 45:17 TD-to-INT ratio, 95.5 passer rating, 22-10 W/L record.
Jimmy Garoppolo: 67.3 percent completion rate, 2,250 pass yards, 12:5 TD-to-INT ratio, 99.7 passer rating, 7-0 W/L record.
Case Keenum: 61.9 percent completion rate, 8,771 pass yards, 46:27 TD-to-INT ratio, 86.0 passer rating, 20-18 W/L record.
Carson Wentz: 61.5 percent completion rate, 7,078 pass yards, 49:21 TD-to-INT ratio, 88.8 passer rating, 18-11 W/L record.
Considering the money that Garoppolo (five years, $137.5 million) and Keenum (two years, $36 million) signed this offseason, you best believe Prescott is going to break the bank.
“We all see what some of the other guys are who aren’t Aaron Rodgers, who aren’t Matt Ryan [are getting paid],” Jones said. “He’s going to do well. We certainly know that’s going to happen. We’ve got that planned in our budgeting for the salary cap.
“I just want Dak to go out and be MVP this year of the NFL. That’s what I want. Then, we’ll deal with that.”
2) No, Gronk isn’t hanging ’em up (stunner). Remember when Rob Gronkowski was reportedly considering retirement? Come on, you have to recall when the rumor mill was churning like crazy, suggesting Gronk was going to leave Foxborough to pursue a career in Hollywood or the WWE.
Well, all that noise went out the window after Gronk met with Bill Belichick to discuss the future. The All-Pro tight end confirmed he’d be back in action, and now NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reports that the Patriots are willing to restructure his contract for 2018.
So, yeah, it appears Gronk’s fledging dirt-biking career was — surprise, surprise — more of a contract stalemate. And I don’t blame him for that. But I also understand the position the Patriots are in.
Last season, the Patriots agreed to put in a three-tiered incentive package that upped his base salary of $5 million to $10.75 million if he reached certain marks. Based on that deal, Gronkowski needed to hit 90 percent play time, 80 catches, 1,200 receiving yards or earn All-Pro recognition to max out his incentives, but he could also upgrade his salary at lower tiers with solid production ($8.75 million with 80 percent play time, 70 catches, 1,000 yards or 12 touchdowns; $6.75 million with 70 percent play time, 60 receptions, 800 receiving yards or 10 touchdowns). With Gronk getting the All-Pro nod needed to max out his deal, he was able to surpass Jimmy Graham as the highest-paid tight end based on cash value.
With Graham signing a three-year, $30 million deal (including $11 million in guarantees) with the Green Bay Packers this offseason, Gronkowski certainly wants to land a contract or extension that pays him above the $8.91 million he’s currently slated to earn in 2018.
New England is right to acquiesce to Gronk’s desire to have a little more cheese added to the burger. The NFL’s best tight end is also the Patriots’ top deep threat, and Tom Brady leans on him in critical situations.
“He is the Patriots’ go-to guy,” an ex-AFC scout told me. “Brady trusts him with the 50-50 ball because Gronk has a knack for coming down with it, and that’s invaluable to a quarterback.
“As their best deep threat and red-zone weapon, he is the key to their passing game because he sets the table for everyone else.”
While there’s no disputing Gronkowski’s importance to the team, it is hard to reward an oft-injured player who has played fewer than 400 snaps in two of the team’s last five seasons. Thus, it is sensible for the Patriots to continue to sign the soon-to-be 29-year-old to a series of “pay as you play,” incentive-laden deals that force the five-time Pro Bowler to earn his money on the field.
3) How the Colts are looking to fix an eternal problem. I don’t know if Andrew Luck will return to form in 2018, but he will play behind the Indianapolis Colts’ best offensive line in years. Now, that’s not necessarily saying a lot, based on the beating No. 12 has taken throughout his tenure. But you have to give a tip of the cap to second-year GM Chris Ballard for investing in the trenches to help the Colts’ protect their prized possession.
The Colts’ top decision maker has poured a ton of resources into the offensive line this offseason, spending two of the team’s first three draft picks on guards (Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith) and recently adding a veteran offensive tackle (Austin Howard). The moves were not only done with the protections of Luck in mind — they were part of a plan to become a more physical team at the point of attack. To win in a division loaded with defensive bullies (see: the front lines of the Jaguars, Texans and Titans), the Colts have to be able to go toe to toe at the line of scrimmage.
“I had some frustrating moments last year where I just thought physically we did not match up against teams, especially within our division,” Ballard said, via CNHI Sports Indiana. “I mean, these are young guys. They are young players, and they are going to have to grow and work and become NFL players. But they will. They all have talent. They all have been producers at their schools and played a lot of football, and they will get up to speed.”
Given the talent and experience of their top picks, it is possible the team trots out a pair of rookies in their starting five when the season opens. Nelson has immediate Pro Bowl potential, as a road grader with exceptional strength, power and nasty. He excels at moving defenders off the ball and his finishing skills will set the tone for the rest of the line. Smith is just as nasty on the field, with a game rooted in physicality and toughness. He will provide the Colts with another masher at the point of attack and help improve a running game that lacked muscle between the tackles. Moreover, he gives the Colts another big-bodied blocker capable of moving defenders off the ball, which is critical to establishing a solid running game against rugged teams with destructive defensive tackles in place.
With Howard joining the squad as a veteran edge blocker, the Colts potentially added another starter to the mix. The ninth-year pro has 88 NFL starts under his belt, including 16 games with the Baltimore Ravens in 2017. The former undrafted free-agent signee will compete with Denzelle Good for the right tackle spot — and serve as a solid backup if he’s unable to unseat the fourth-year pro.
“My experience has been you are not looking for five starters — you are looking for eight or nine starters on the offensive line,” first-year Colts head coach Frank Reich said, via CNHI Sports Indiana. “That’s usually the way it rolls in a year. You want that depth. You want that competition. That group is so close-knit that when you get that level of competition, I just think it brings that physicality to the offense that you want. So, you’re looking for eight or nine starters.”
Given the impact of the Colts’ O-line play on the performance of Luck and the running game in a division regarded as one of the most physical in football, Ballard’s commitment to the front line could help Indianapolis emerge from the AFC South cellar.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.