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:
— The three biggest points of intrigue for coaches and players when it comes to the NFL schedule.
But first, a look at 10 candidates to break through in a big way in Year 2 …
If you ask scouts and coaches when the majority of players make the biggest jump as professionals, they will often point to the period between their first and second year in the league.
The cumulative effect of a full year of world-class training and a commitment to maximizing their talents helps some players go from a mixed-bag rookie year to a great Year 2.
As I watch young players find their games at different times of their respective careers, the process reminds me of watching popcorn kernels pop in a kettle simmering over intense heat. It takes some kernels a little longer to pop than their counterparts. The same can be said for players around the league, with circumstances impacting their development on and off the field.
Given some time to take a look at the 2021 NFL Draft class, here are my top 10 candidates to emerge as stars in Year 2.
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After spending a year in the midst of chaos under Urban Meyer, the former No. 1 overall pick should blossom as a sophomore with Doug Pederson at the helm. The Super Bowl-winning head coach and respected quarterback guru has upgraded the talent around Lawrence with an experienced collection of pass-catchers (Christian Kirk, Zay Jones and Evan Engram) joining veteran Marvin Jones on the perimeter. In addition, the Jaguars strengthened the offensive line to give No. 16 more clean pockets to throw from while collecting completions in a quarterback-friendly scheme. With better players and coaches around the Jaguars’ QB1, Duval County could see All-Pro-caliber flashes from Lawrence in 2022.
If you haven’t paid close attention to the Chiefs’ defense, you probably missed out on a rookie sensation who is poised to become a household name in 2022. The young tackling machine quickly emerged in Steve Spagnuolo’s defense with his instincts, awareness and play-making skills repeatedly showing up on tape. With Bolton flashing All-Pro ability as a sideline-to-sideline defender who logged 112 tackles as a first-year starter, the football world could soon find out about the league’s next great linebacker.
The decision to trade Marquise “Hollywood” Brown leaves a huge void in the Ravens’ receiving corps. He added a big-play dimension at his position with his speed and explosiveness. Although Bateman is more of a chain-mover than a home run hitter, he is a natural WR1 with sticky hands and crafty route-running skills. He should excel as the complementary playmaker opposite Mark Andrews and the Ravens’ rookie tight ends (Charlie Kolar and Isaiah Likely).
Gus Bradley’s defense thrives when he is able to feature explosive bookend pass rushers in the lineup. Yannick Ngakoue’s arrival enables the Colts to play the former Pro Bowler opposite a young, athletic defender with outstanding burst. As a speed rusher with an explosive first step and excellent body control, Paye should see plenty of one-on-one matchups with opponents focused on neutralizing Ngakoue and DeForest Buckner at the line of scrimmage. If the second-year pro takes advantage of his opportunities, he could post a double-digit sack season as the third option on a disruptive front line.
As the eighth overall pick in the 2021 draft, Horn was expected to thrive as a shutdown corner on the island. The ultra-athletic defender possesses all of the tools to stymie wideouts on the perimeter, but he failed to fully display his talent due to a foot injury that ended his rookie campaign after just three starts. With Horn fully recovered from the injury, the football world will finally get a chance to see the long, rangy corner blanket WR1s in a pivotal year for Matt Rhule and the Panthers.
The departure of Christian Kirk and six-game suspension for DeAndre Hopkins will create more opportunities the second-year receiver, especially early in the season. While the Cardinals added Marquise Brown to the mix, they will still need Moore to play like an all-star slot receiver who enables Kyler Murray to operate like a blackjack dealer slinging cards from the pocket. With his speed, quickness, and open-field running skills posing problems for defenders in space, Moore’s production could skyrocket in an expanded role for Arizona.
It’s hard to find a quarterback with a more improved supporting cast than Wilson. The Jets have beefed up their offensive line and added more perimeter playmakers to help Wilson make a major jump in Year 2. With a young collection of talented pass-catchers (Elijah Moore, Corey Davis and Garrett Wilson) and runners (Michael Carter and Breece Hall) adding more explosiveness to the unit, the excuses are off the table for the 2021 No. 2 overall pick if he fails to put up solid numbers for Gang Green this season. Considering how Wilson has flashed at times in the Jets’ quarterback-friendly system, it is easy to see why the buzz is building in the Big Apple.
The Bills’ 2021 first-round pick looks like a natural as a slick pass rusher off the edge. Rousseau, who logged four sacks in his rookie campaign, is a crafty technician with quick hands and an evolving array of rush moves. Although the second-year pro is far from a finished product, he should benefit from playing alongside a future gold jacket candidate in Von Miller. The three-time first-team All-Pro’s presence will guarantee Rousseau a number of one-on-one matchups in key situations, while also providing him with a mentor to pattern his game after. Despite the difference in their playing styles, the knowledge and insight gleaned from watching the all-star every day should help Rousseau take his game up a notch in 2022.
Despite the football world looking toward the Packers’ rookie wideout class to replace the production that walked out of the door when Davante Adams was traded to Las Vegas, the team could see Rodgers emerge as a key contributor as a first-time starter with slot receiver potential. As a punt returner with outstanding balance, body control and vision with the ball in his hands, Rodgers should shine as a catch-and-run specialist in the Packers’ quick-rhythm passing game. If the second-year pro takes another step in his development as an inside-outside playmaker, Aaron Rodgers could quickly make No. 8 a key contributor in three- and four-receiver sets. Given how the Packers have repeatedly drafted and developed all-star wideouts selected outside of Round 1, it is time to pay close attention to the third-rounder who could blossom in 2022.
New defensive coordinator Patrick Graham has a knack for meshing creative schemes with high-end talent. Deablo is a hybrid safety/linebacker with solid instincts and thumping ability. The second-year pro could take on a role as a sub-package specialist that enables him to thrive as a box-area defender. Don’t be surprised if the 2021 third-round pick becomes a key piece of a defensive puzzle that confounds offensive coordinators in the AFC West and around the league.
What do teams want to know when the schedule is released?
The official release of the NFL schedule is celebrated inside and outside of locker rooms around the league. The matching of opponents and dates provides coaches and players with an opportunity to make individual and collective plans that should help everyone thrive heading into a postseason run. Given some time to talk to some friends around the league, I’ve collected a few questions that are routinely asked and answered when the final copy of the schedule is posted on the wall in the locker room:
When is the bye week? Coaches and players must treat the 17-game regular season as a marathon. Decision-makers must build out a plan that enables the team to continue improving throughout the season while also taking into account the wear and tear from practices and games, to ensure the health and safety of the players. The bye week provides coaches with a chance to recommit to fundamentals; it also allows players time to rest and recharge before the stretch run. Whether coaches give players the entire week off or plan out a series of practices focused on the basics of the game, the handling of the bye week is critical to the success of a championship-caliber team. With players also intent on mapping out plans to help them play at their best in the final month of the season, the placement of the bye week is one of the first things players look at.
When do we play our marquee opponents? The NFL is loaded with competitive people who are obsessed with seeing how they stack up against the best. Coaches want to play the heavyweights in the league early in the season, to help them assess their squads and make the necessary tweaks to maximize their potential. These measuring-stick contests are critical to the team-building process for organizations chasing rings. Top players want to face blue-chip opponents, to see whether they rank among them. Whether it’s a young player eyeing a showdown with a decorated veteran or an elite, established player eager to face another top dog, many in the locker room will circle dates on the calendar.
What does the stretch run look like? Every team wants to hit the postseason playing its best ball. Dispatching a handful of key opponents in November and December builds the kind of momentum that can result in a championship run. The NFL routinely places key divisional games in the final month of the season. Coaches and players pay close attention to the late slate, to see how they should plan out their practice schedules and prepare so that their team will peak when it matters most.
Installation calendars are designed to help coaches methodically add plays and evolve the scheme throughout the year, while practice schedules are crafted to help players stay fresh and healthy down the stretch. Coaches and players are intent on playing their best football in January and February. Although it takes careful planning and a few lucky breaks to pull it off, the best plans are put together after coaches take a close look at the schedule, particularly the final portion.
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