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Matthew Stafford is the NFL's best QB; Justin Tucker for MVP?!
Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
» Where does Mike Evans stand among the game's best receivers?
» A kicker for MVP???
» The move that's unlocked Khalil Mack's pass-rushing prowess.
But first, a look at the top player at the league's most important position ...
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Matthew Stafford is the best quarterback in the NFL.
It might take a while to get used to the thought of Stafford sitting atop the list of elite signal callers in the league, but it's time to give the former No. 1 overall pick his due as the top playmaker at the position today. The Detroit Lions QB has been sensational in every way the past two years, and no other quarterback in the league can match his feats as a field general in this span.
The eighth-year pro has completed 67 percent of his throws since the beginning of the 2015 campaign and boasts a 51:18 touchdown-to-interception ratio over these past 27 games. When digging deeper into the numbers, Stafford's performance is simply sensational by any measure. Since Week 10 of the 2015 season, he has guided the Lions to a 13-6 record, while completing 68.1 percent of his passes with a 38:7 TD-to-INT ratio. He has averaged 259 passing yards per game and posted a 103.9 passer rating during that stretch.
While the 28-year-old has always been able to ring up big numbers as the director of a pass-happy attack, he has become a better game manager while retaining some of his gunslinger's mentality. Stafford has avoided the silly mistakes and turnovers that plagued his game throughout the first six years of his career and become a true field general as the Lions' QB1.
"He's always been a playmaker with a strong arm," an AFC secondary coach told me. "But now he has a presence about him ... He has that 'it' factor that all of the great ones have."
That "it" factor the coach cites is frequently referred to as the "clutch factor" in meeting rooms. Evaluators are constantly searching for quarterbacks with the combination of grit, poise and confidence to thrive in high-pressure situations. Stafford has flashed that ability since his rookie season -- as evidenced by his 24 career fourth-quarterback comebacks (most in NFL since 2009) -- but he has taken it up a notch this season.
The Lions sit atop the NFC North at 7-4. In each of Detroit's seven wins, Stafford has engineered a fourth-quarter comeback, displaying exceptional confidence and composure in critical moments. From managing the offense in two-minute situations to making pinpoint throws on pivotal downs, Stafford has shown skeptics that he clearly understands how to play winning football at the position.
After watching his team stumble out of the gate to a 1-3 record this season, Stafford has been phenomenal in the past seven games. He has guided his team to a 6-1 mark while completing 66.8 percent of his throws with a 12:1 TD-to-INT ratio. Most impressively, Stafford has posted a 102.9 passer rating as the director of an offense that's still adjusting to the loss of a perennial Pro Bowl WR (Calvin Johnson).
Without a true No. 1 wideout on the field, Stafford has become more systematic with his approach. Instead of force-feeding the ball to Megatron, he has started to trust the reads within the scheme and hit the first receiver who comes open. It sounds so simple, but it's hard for an ultra-competitive gunslinger with exceptional arm talent to rein in his game and keep the offense on schedule. Big-armed quarterbacks, in particular, are prone to making "hero" throws, so it's hard to convince them to settle for checkdowns when vertical routes are taken away.
"Quarterbacks are paid a lot of money to make big-boy throws," a former, long-time NFL defensive coordinator told me. "It's hard for them to consistently dump the ball off to a back or safety valve when they want to push the ball down the field.
"As defensive coordinator, you're hoping they eventually lose their patience and discipline and force the ball into coverage, which leads to a pick off a tip or overthrow."
Considering how many NFL DCs subscribe to this philosophy, the elite quarterbacks are capable of playing "small ball" when the coverage takes away the deep ball or a primary receiver. They are willing to spread the ball around the field and move the team in a "connect the dots" fashion to chew up first downs on the way to scores. Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers have routinely killed opponents with a host of "paper cuts" (short throws) that eventually make the defense bleed. Moreover, they are patient enough to wait for the right opportunity to take a shot when a defender moves out of place or takes the cheese on an underneath route.
Since Jim Bob Cooter took over as Lions offensive coordinator midway through the 2015 season, Stafford has shown better patience and discipline as a playmaker from the pocket. Part of his success can be attributed to a system that creates mismatches for playmakers through formations, motions and shifts. In addition, the scheme features an assortment of quick-rhythm routes and concepts that allow the quarterback to get the ball out of his hands swiftly from the pocket. So, yes, Cooter definitely deserves credit for crafting game plans that have helped Stafford get into a groove.
That said, Stafford's unique talents continue to fuel the Lions' offense. He is talented enough to squeeze the ball into tight windows when Detroit's stable of WR2s can't separate from coverage. And he has enough athleticism to use his feet to buy time or run around on the perimeter to create big-play opportunities to his running backs and tight ends on improvised scramble tosses.
With the Lions also lacking a steady running game to balance out the offense and alleviate some of the burden on Stafford, the Detroit QB's play is reminiscent of the work Brady, Brees and Rodgers have done with limited resources throughout the years. At a time when we are nearing a changing of the guard at the position, it is time to recognize Stafford as the new sheriff in town.
ASK THE LEAGUE: Is Mike Evans a top-five wideout in today's NFL?
Since entering the NFL as the seventh overall pick in 2014, Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Mike Evanshas flummoxed opposing teams with a rugged game that overwhelms defenders on the perimeter. After watching the third-year pro torment the "Legion of Boom" in a spectacular performance (eight catches for 104 yards and two touchdowns in Tampa's 14-5 win over Seattle) that forced the rest of the league to take notice, I thought I would reach out to a few industry folks to get their take on the young superstar's game. Here's my question and their responses:
Do you believe Mike Evans is a top-five receiver?
NFC secondary coach: "He definitely has the potential to be a top-five receiver. He has the mental makeup to be a great one. Plus, he is a big, physical playmaker who plays strong in traffic. ... He's a matchup problem in the red zone and he's developing chemistry with (Jameis) Winston. I think those guys can be a special combination for a long time."
AFC pro personnel director: "I haven't always been impressed with him, but he has taken it up a notch this year. He's killed cornerbacks with size, strength and ability to win at the ball. Those traits separate him from others at the position. ... I still don't like his route-running skills, but his size and playmaking ability is rare."
AFC pro personnel assistant: "He definitely should be considered as part of that elite group. I'm not quite ready to name him a top-five receiver, but I like his ability. You have to appreciate a big man that plays big and makes plays. ... He's not the cleanest route runner, but you can't deny his playmaking ability."
It's amazing how quickly Evans has developed into one of the top receivers in the game. The 23-year-old recently joined an exclusive club of playmakers when he became just the fourth player in NFL history to start his career with three straight 1,000-yard seasons (joining John Jefferson, Randy Moss and A.J. Green). Considering the legions of pass catchers who have come and gone in this league without accomplishing such a feat, Evans should be in the conversation as a top-five wideout on the strength of his numbers alone.
Not only has the 6-foot-5, 231-pound pass catcher totaled 215 receptions, 3,277 yards and 25 touchdowns in just 41 games, but he has snagged 53 receptions of 20-plus yards while averaging 15.2 yards per catch. That's outstanding production for a big-bodied receiver forced to defeat an assortment of double-coverage tactics from opponents each week. Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I repeatedly spotted defenses rolling coverage in his direction (Cover 2 or quarter-quarter-half) or leaning the safety to his side to protect a corner walked up to press Evans at the line. When opponents attempted to play the third-year pro straight up, I frequently spotted a linebacker or safety buzzing underneath him as a curl/flat defender. Thus, Evans rarely faces a lot of one-on-one coverage on the perimeter, which makes his production even more remarkable.
From a scouting perspective, Evans is a big, physical playmaker with exceptional hands and tracking skills. He is a natural pass catcher with extraordinary upper-body strength, which allows him to routinely wrestle the ball away from defenders on 50-50 balls. As a route runner, Evans lacks a little polish and precision, but he makes up for it with sheer strength and power, particularly when he faces press coverage. He has mastered the art of snatching defenders at the line to create separation early in routes. Evans complements his pull-through maneuver by "stacking" defenders (receivers works to get directly in front of defenders on a vertical release) within the first 10 yards to prevent defenders from closing the gap before the ball arrives.
With Evans displaying the strength, power and acrobatic catching skills to consistently win one-on-ones with defenders draped all over him, Winston has started to throw more jump balls to the talented WR1 in key situations. Although the tactic is clearly not a textbook strategy, the Buccaneers have torched opponents with an "alley-oop" game built around a basketball-like athlete with exceptional ball skills.
If Evans continues to torch opponents despite facing double coverage designed to slow him down, it's only a matter of time before he is recognized as a consensus top-five receiver by his peers and coaches around the league.
JUSTIN TUCKER: An MVP candidate at ... kicker?!
At a time when kickers are under more scrutiny than ever, it is quite possible that the NFL's Most Valuable Player is a strong-legged assassin with a penchant for splitting the uprights with rainbow kicks from long distances.
While I'm sure that statement drew some eye rolls and snickers at first glance, I truly believe Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker deserves serious consideration for the league's top honor based on his production and performance this season. The fifth-year pro has nailed each of his 27 field-goal attempts, including seven from 50-plus yards, and is a perfect 15-for-15 on extra points.
Think about that.
With some of the game's most dependable kickers struggling to nail 33-yard PATs, Tucker is perfect from point-blank range or long distance. Thus, the Ravens are virtually guaranteed at least three points whenever they reach the opponent's 35-yard line. For a team that's only scored 17 offensive touchdowns, Tucker's ability to put points on the board makes him the Ravens' most important offensive weapon.
Tucker leads the team with 96 points and ranks third in the NFL behind fellow kickers Matt Bryant and Dustin Hopkins. Although we've grown accustomed to seeing kickers at the top of the list, Tucker accounts for 44 percent of the Ravens' scoring output and he should be viewed as a top offensive player based on his contributions. Considering how coaches value playmakers at a premium, John Harbaugh and the rest of the league should treat Tucker like a franchise quarterback, running back or wide receiver.
Oh, I know that sounds crazy based on the stigmas frequently affixed to kickers for their perceived quirkiness, but Tucker openly discussed why kickers should be viewed in the same light as elite offensive specialists during an appearance on "The Dan Patrick Show."
"I lot of people have this stigma that kickers aren't real football players," Tucker said. "If you look at every team in football and look at the box score of each of their games and added it all up, the kicker is probably the leading scorer. In a game where points win, you want a guy scoring points. ... As the game evolves, you will definitely see the kicker being a more integral part of the game."
After hearing Tucker's comments, I decided to place a few calls to some of his former college coaches at Texas to get a better perspective on how he was viewed by the staff during his time in Austin. One of his coaches described him as an "ultra-confident competitor" with remarkable focus and intelligence. He went on to rave about his ability to handle pressure without shrinking in big moments. Another coach raved about his "swagger" and his "football player" mentality. He told me that Tucker always carried himself like one of the guys and he was athletic enough to be a functional player at a skill position (wide receiver/defensive back) on the perimeter.
"He did everything that we asked all of the position players to do," said former Texas Associate Athletic Director of Strength and Conditioning Jeff "Mad Dog" Madden. "He worked as hard any player that we had here, but he was also smart and technical when it came to his craft. ... He understood the mechanics of kicking, but he didn't overthink it. He simply lined up and made big kicks."
There's something to be said for a kicker with rock-solid confidence and a blue-collar mentality. Tucker displays it in spades and the self-assurance has made him one of the league's most dependable scoring options at a time when his counterparts are struggling to simply make PATs. Coming off his 11th career game with at least four made field goals (most in the NFL since 2012, when Tucker entered the league) and riding the sixth-longest made streak in NFL history (34 in a row), Tucker is money whenever he steps onto the field.
In a league where playmakers and scorers are held in high regard, particularly on playoff teams, Tucker deserves strong consideration for the league's top honor. While I'm fully aware that Mark Moseley (1982) is the only kicker to walk away with the MVP award, I think Tucker should have a chance to join him if he kicks the Ravens to the AFC North title.
NEXT GEN STATS: The secret to Khalil Mack's success
Having watched Khalil Mack re-emerge as a dominant force for the Oakland Raiders over the past six games, I'm convinced that "scheme fit" is the most important part of player evaluation. While every NFL coach is capable of assessing a player's talent, the best coaches are able to put a guy in a position where he can maximize the strengths of his game.
As the only player in NFL history to earn All-Pro honors at two positions in the same year, Mack is unquestionably one of the best pass rushers in the game. He has amassed 28 sacks in 43 career games (including nine so far in 2016), exhibiting a combination of athleticism, physicality and violence that makes veteran quarterbacks squeamish in the pocket. Mack's vicious assault tactics have made him one of the game's most feared edge players. From his devastating bull rush to his explosive "butt-and-jerk" and two-handed swipe maneuvers, Mack attacks offensive tackles like a bull in a china shop. He simply overwhelms edge blockers with his rugged game.
Despite his tremendous success as a pass rusher, the 6-foot-3, 250-pounder isn't quite a "plug and play" rusher capable of getting home from anywhere on the field. Now, that's not a dismissal of his immense talents as a player, but his power-based style isn't necessarily conducive to thriving as a blind-side rusher. Before you come at me sideways with a barrage of tweets calling me unflattering names or suggesting that I don't know what I'm talking about, I want to clarify what I mean when I suggest his game isn't built for the blind side.
For years, teams would place their top pass rusher at RDE/ROLB to allow him to attack from the open side. Most offenses feature right-handed quarterbacks and thus operate with a "strong right" premise. (With most quarterbacks preferring to throw to the right side of the field, the teams routinely align the tight end or passing strength to that side.) Consequently, defensive coordinators elected to position their most explosive and productive pass rusher on the back side of the formation to provide him with plenty of one-on-one opportunities against a left tackle. This prompted most defensive coordinators to place their quickest and most explosive pass rushers on the back side, which is why "speed" rushers (pass rushers with electric first-step quickness) are routinely positioned on the defensive right to take advantage of the space on the open side.
From an offensive standpoint, the presence of speed rushers led many teams to place their most athletic offensive tackle on the left to neutralize the explosive rushers on the open side. In addition, they would place their "road graders" (big, physical offensive tackles adept at run blocking) on the right to fortify the preferred running side. Thus, defensive coordinators needed to position big, physical edge defenders at left defensive end to set the edge against the run with a possible double-team (right tackle and tight end) in place on every play.
"It makes sense to put a dominant power rusher on the left, especially against teams who believe the right tackle should be a better run blocker," an AFC West scout told me. "With more teams using spread offenses, both tackles need to be better in pass protection. If they don't have a legitimate guy on the right, a talented pass rusher can exploit him all day long."
When I looked at Mack's game as a collegian at Buffalo, I viewed him as a power guy with size, strength and athleticism to be a solid edge player on an elite defense. Although I didn't view him as a speed rusher in the mold of Von Miller, I thought he could be a difference maker or a cornerstone player on a team with other established playmakers.
Looking back at the assessment, I clearly underestimated Mack's ability to rack up sacks off the edges. He has a become a far more disruptive pass rusher than I imagined, but I believe the Raiders have enhanced his pass-rush skills by aligning him at LDE/LOLB in key situations. This is something that I originally noticed last season in the midst of a remarkable six-game run (11 sacks from Week 10 through 15) that catapulted him into superstardom. Studying his five-sack performance against Denver, in particular, it is not a coincidence that four of his takedowns occurred when he aligned on the defensive left. He is able to utilize his explosive strength and power to bully right tackles off the edge. Moreover, he is a superior athlete to the right tackles he faces, which allows him to mix in an occasional finesse move to complement his power-based game.
Fast-forward to this season. The Raiders treated Mack like a five-star pass rusher on the strength of his monster 2015 campaign. They moved him around at various spots on both sides of the line to take advantage of his skills as a power rusher. According to Next Gen Stats, Mack nearly split his time evenly on the right and left sides of the line during the first five games of the season. Here's a look at the numbers ...
When Mack aligns on the defensive left:
Week 1: 59.7 percent of plays, 5 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 2: 64.5 percent of plays, 0 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 3: 43.4 percent of plays, 0 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 4: 52.2 percent of plays, 2 tackles, 1 sack.
Week 5: 39.1 percent of plays, 1 tackle, 0 sacks.
When Mack aligns on the defensive right:
Week 1: 40.3 percent of plays, 2 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 2: 35.5 percent of plays, 0 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 3: 56.6 percent of plays, 2 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 4: 47.8 percent of plays, 4 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 5: 60.9 percent of plays, 2 tackles, 0 sacks.
As you can see, Mack didn't register much production during the opening potion of the season from either side. The decision to flip-flop him certainly didn't yield big results. Mack only registered 18 total tackles and one sack during the first five games and was a relative non-factor on a defense that underperformed.
Thus, I understand why the team elected to make a few subtle changes to help their standout find his groove. Starting in Week 6, Mack began to primarily align on the left side of the defense and the move clearly helped him find his niche as a pass rusher, as you can see here:
When Mack aligns on the left:
Week 6: 53.6 percent of plays, 4 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 7: 59.3 percent of plays, 1 tackle, 1 sack.
Week 8: 74.0 percent of plays, 5 tackles, 2 sacks.
Week 9: 97.8 percent of plays, 3 tackles, 2 sacks.
Week 11: 53.5 percent of plays, 3 tackles, 1 sack.
Week 12: 86.0 percent of plays, 6 tackles, 1 sack.
When Mack aligns on the right:
Week 6: 46.4 percent of plays, 3 tackles, 1 sack.
Week 7: 40.7 percent of plays, 2 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 8: 26.0 percent of plays, 2 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 9: 2.2 percent of plays, 0 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 11: 46.5 percent of plays, 0 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 12: 14.0 percent of plays, 0 tackles, 0 sacks.
He has recorded at least one sack in six straight games, with seven of his eight sacks coming from the defensive left. Most impressively, Mack has totaled three forced fumbles from his LDE/LOLB position and they occurred during the weeks (Weeks 8, 9 and 12) when he logged the vast majority of his snaps on the left.
Remember, Jack Del Rio positioned Julius Peppers at LDE when he was the defensive coordinator with Carolina to help the rookie notch 12 sacks and claim the 2002 Defensive Rookie of the Year award. He also played a part in moving Von Miller to LDE/LOLB when the Broncos signed DeMarcus Ware as a prized free agent in 2014. While old-school coaches and evaluators rarely align premier pass rushers in that spot, savvy defensive wizards have been able to exploit favorable matchups against right tackles.
Based on Mack's production and disruption from the left, I believe the Raiders have not only found the All-Pro's sweet spot on defense, but they've helped quickly transform their defense into a much more effective unit. During Oakland's five-game winning streak, the Raiders have slashed their points- and yards-allowed figures.