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 why Cam Newton and the New England Patriots are a perfect match …
Say what you will about Cam Newton’s flamboyant style and eccentric fashion choices, but the former MVP embodies the Patriot Way.
That certainly wasn’t the expectation from many when the veteran quarterback signed a one-year deal to rehabilitate his career under the direction of Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels. Skeptics pointed to his demonstrative celebrations as selfish acts that wouldn’t work in New England’s locker room. Naysayers questioned whether the former first-team All-Pro would be able to conform to the discipline and attention to detail demanded by a coaching staff with the loftiest of standards.
By all accounts, though, Newton is not only meeting the Patriots’ standard, but going above and beyond.
“I can see why he had the kind of success he had at Auburn and Carolina,” Belichick said earlier this week on SiriusXM NFL Radio. “Talking to people who were with him there, the things they said about him at Auburn and at Carolina from a decade ago or 2-3 years ago or even last year, it’s all the same, and it showed up here: He’s an extremely hard worker. Nobody works harder than Cam does. He’s here early, he stays late and he works very hard. Some players like to work on things they’re good at, like if you’re strong on the bench press you just throw more weight on the bench. But Cam works on things he’s not at good at and tries to improve on a daily basis and that’s something I really respect about him. That’s not easy for players or really any of us to do. We’ll get something we’re not really good at or it’s not our strength and you spend extra time on it, when our natural tendency is to do things we’re good at. So he works extremely hard in all areas.”
That’s significant praise coming from a six-time Super Bowl-winning head coach with a knack for putting players in the best position to succeed. Belichick has repeatedly turned cast-offs and misfits into productive players, while also utilizing the same recipe to transform discarded stars into premier playmakers at their respective positions. From Randy Moss to Rodney Harrison to Darrelle Revis, just to name a few, Belichick has been able to coax masterful performances out of elite talents who were dismissed in previous environments.
That’s why we should expect Newton to return to prominence in 2020. Sure, the 10th-year pro is on the wrong side of 30 and injuries might’ve robbed him of some of his superpowers. But he remains one of the most dangerous players to defend at the position as a big, physical dual-threat with a combination of arm talent and athleticism that keeps defensive coordinators up at night.
Despite an abbreviated offseason program and a training camp that didn’t feature any preseason games, Newton should thrive in the Patriots’ offense, working under a coaching staff that holds everyone on the roster to the highest standard when it comes to attention to the detail and preparation. The former Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall pick will receive constant feedback on his footwork, fundamentals, ball security and situational awareness. In addition, he will get clear and concise instructions on what’s expected from him and his teammates on every play. This level of scrutiny is important for all players, including superstars who’ve been allowed to develop bad habits without corrections.
For Newton, the Pats’ fundamental focus and their overall adaptability should lead to more consistent performance. He will play in an offense that’s designed for his unique set of skills. Whether it’s a QB-centric running game or a movement-based passing game that features more play-action throws and bootlegs, the design of the offense will fully suit his game.
Considering how well New England has crafted game plans for lesser talents like Jacoby Brissett and Jimmy Garoppolo, the newly designed offense around Newton could boggle our minds when it debuts next week. Moreover, a revitalized Newton could quickly remind us why he was once considered the best football player on the planet just a few years ago.
DINK AND DUNK
Leonard Fournette’s impact on Tampa Bay’s offense. Perhaps Bruce Arians really sees Ronald Jones II as the Buccaneers’ RB1, but signing Leonard Fournette was all about getting the Bucs a workhorse back with the potential to change how defensive coordinators defend the team’s star-studded lineup.
Since entering the league as the No. 4 overall pick in 2017, Fournette has topped the 100-yard mark in eight of the 14 regular-season games in which he’s logged at least 20 rushing attempts. And that doesn’t include a pair of narrow misses (28 rushes for 95 yards against Pittsburgh in 2018, 24 rushes for 97 yards against Tennessee in 2019) that would’ve pushed his totals to “Most Wanted” status in defensive coordinator circles.
Remember: Every defensive coordinator in the league is obsessed with stopping the run. They will utilize loaded boxes to neutralize legitimate running threats in the backfield at the risk of leaving their cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage on the outside. Despite his up-and-down production in Jacksonville, Fournette faced loaded boxes on 47.8 percent of his snaps in 2017, 39.1 percent in 2018 and 34.7 percent in 2019, per Next Gen Stats. Against the Buccaneers, employing loaded-box tactics will expose defensive backs to one-on-one coverage against a pair of Pro Bowl pass catchers (Mike Evans and Chris Godwin) and three of playmakers at tight end (Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate). With Tom Brady utilizing the play-action passing game to lure defenders to the line, the mere presence of Fournette upgrades Tampa Bay’s offense.
Who is Darian Thompson? The news of Dallas releasing safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has reignited the Earl Thomas conversation, but the team has a little-known player with impact potential in Darian Thompson.
The fifth-year pro isn’t a household name, but he possesses all of the traits needed to excel in a Mike Nolan defense that’s intent on forcing more turnovers in 2020. The 6-foot-2, 211-pounder is a former third-round pick (71st overall by the New York Giants in 2016) with 21 career starts and 43 total games played. He is a center fielder type of safety with the athleticism, instincts and ball skills to create turnovers. Although he only has one interception on his NFL resume, Thompson entered the league as the Mountain West Conference’s all-time picks leader with 19, breaking Eric Weddle’s mark.
The young veteran showed flashes during a four-game stint as a Cowboys starter in 2019. Thompson registered 23 tackles in those starts, including an 11-tackle performance against the Bears that included a sack and another tackle for loss. If he can give Dallas that kind of production in a split-safety scheme that showcases safeties with well-rounded games, Thompson will make Cowboys fans forget all about their pining for a former All-Pro who isn’t a great fit for the squad.
Marcus Davenport: Now or never! The Saints’ apparent “all-out blitz” for free agent Jadeveon Clowney’s services is an indictment on Marcus Davenport’s development as a disruptive playmaker.
The 2018 first-round pick was drafted to be a dominant edge defender opposite Pro Bowler Cam Jordan, but he hasn’t played to the standard set by the Saints when they aggressively traded up to take him 14th overall. The 6-foot-6, 265-pounder has registered 10.5 sacks in 26 career games with four forced fumbles and two pass breakups. That’s decent production, but you don’t invest a pair of No. 1s for a solid player. That’s why the clock is ticking on Davenport to become a blue-chip player for New Orleans.
Last year, Davenport flashed in late November, racking up three sacks in a two-game span against the Panthers (Week 11) and Falcons (Week 12), but a foot injury prematurely ended his season. When right, Davenport displays promise as a power rusher with a high-revving motor. He attacks with heavy hands and hustles hard to get to the quarterback.
That said, Davenport is more of a straight-line pass rusher with a one-dimensional approach. The University of Texas-San Antonio product is capable of rushing from an upright position or in a three-point stance, but he relies on his fastball at all times. And with a fastball that doesn’t consistently light up the radar gun — to extend the metaphor — Davenport isn’t a strikeout king capable of mowing down the side with pure gas.
Until Davenport develops a more well-rounded arsenal, the Saints will look to further fortify the pass rush on a roster that’s supposed to seriously contend for a title this season.
1) Yannick Ngakoue’s QB-hunting prowess: Digging into the Vikings’ new pass-rushing power duo. I can’t wait to see what Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer does with a pair of young, athletic pass rushers at his disposal. Minnesota’s recent acquisition of Yannick Ngakoue for a 2021 second-round pick and a conditional 2022 fifth-round selection gives the grizzled defensive architect a disruptive edge defender opposite Danielle Hunter.
“Our philosophy defensively has always been, we want guys that can cover and guys that can rush — whether that be linebackers or defensive ends or defensive tackles,” Mike Zimmer said to reporters following the trade. “The way the league is now with spread offense, I think those things are important.”
The one-time Pro Bowler notched 37.5 sacks and 14 forced fumbles in four seasons with the Jaguars — and most importantly, he did it while exhibiting a high-energy, relentless playing style that enables him to create consistent disruption in the backfield.
On the All-22 Coaches Film, the 6-2, 246-pounder displays impressive initial quickness as a long-strider off the ball. He combines his patented speed rush with a nifty dip-and-rip maneuver or a quick swipe to evade blockers on the way to the quarterback. Although Ngakoue’s pass-rush repertoire is limited, he is a consistent presence in the backfield due to his effort, energy and relentlessness. The fifth-year pro simply outworks blockers at the point of attack, and his persistence frequently results in second- and third-effort sacks.
Ngakoue’s ball awareness and takeaway skills separate him from others at the position. Since entering the NFL as a third-round pick in 2016, he’s registered the fourth-most forced fumbles in the league utilizing a violent tomahawk chop that dislodges the ball from the quarterback. The veteran has a feel for seeking out the ball, and it shows up repeatedly on tape.
As a run defender, Ngakoue is a C-level player who can be exploited by teams intent on running directly at him. That said, the NFL is a passing league, and high-end pass rushers are coveted at a premium. Both just 25 years old, Ngakoue and Hunter are a young, athletic set of bookends with “take over the game” potential.
With Hunter occupying the lead role due to his robust toolbox and impressive resume (back-to-back seasons with 14.5 sacks), Ngakoue could thrive as the complementary rusher on the back side.
2) Why Joe Mixon was worth paying. If you haven’t paid close attention to the Bengals over the past few years, you probably raised an eyebrow when news of Joe Mixon’s four-year, $48 million extension scrolled across the ticker of your TV screen. You probably didn’t realize the fourth-year pro has quietly become one of the top five players at his position — and arguably the most complete running back in the game.
I know that’s lofty praise for someone on a team coming off a 2-14 finish, but the film doesn’t lie: Mixon is a blue-chip talent with the potential to be an all-timer. Measuring 6-1 and 220 pounds, the former second-round pick is the kind of prototypical RB1 coaches covet in the modern NFL. He’s big, fast and physical, with elite traits (balance, body control, quickness, strength, power, burst, soft hands and route-running skills) as a runner and receiver.
As a ball-carrier, Mixon is a creative downhill runner with wiggle and power. He displays a unique combination of strength, power and finesse as a rugged runner with light feet and ballerina-like body control. Mixon has the capacity to evade defenders in the hole with explosive jump cuts or slip-and-slide maneuvers while also dropping the hammer on potential tacklers at the end of runs. As a fierce finisher with make-you-miss ability, he is a nightmare for defenders to face when he has the rock in his hands.
In the passing game, Mixon exhibits some Le’Veon Bell-like receiving skills. He is not only a natural pass catcher with soft hands, but he is a polished route runner with refined receiving skills. Whether it’s by catching the ball out of the backfield on swings and screens or running routes from out wide in spread formations, Mixon has the potential to create and exploit mismatches on the perimeter. Although he has averaged just 36 catches per season, he could easily surpass the 50-catch mark as a bigger part of the game plan.
Investing in running backs has been viewed a risky proposition in some circles, but the Bengals’ commitment to Mixon signals their belief in his talents and potential as one of the elite running backs in the league.
Is the sun finally setting on “All Day”? Adrian Peterson will go down as one of the best running backs in NFL history, but I can’t imagine another team giving him an opportunity to carry the load after he was released by Washington on Friday. Despite amassing 14,000-plus rushing yards over 13 seasons, the 35-year-old is a one-dimensional back with diminishing skills.
Peterson has played with four teams, including three over the past three seasons, and he doesn’t offer much as a rotational player at this stage of his career. Sure, he can fill a role as a short-yardage/goal-line specialist or as a “four-minute offense” grinder, but is he ready to take a back seat when he’s been the RB1 more or less for his entire career? That’s not an easy adjustment for a superstar who is destined for Canton following an illustrious tenure — remember his squabbles with Sean Payton in New Orleans as a part-time player?
With Peterson offering little as a receiver out of the backfield or as a special teams’ contributor, I don’t see how he could be viewed as a valuable commodity, despite possessing a spectacular resume that has earned him the utmost respect in league circles.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.
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