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:
— Something that has become clear in Las Vegas following Jon Gruden’s abrupt departure.
— Will Kyle Shanahan ever actually become an elite head coach?
— One pass rusher who’s set for a BIG payday next offseason.
But first, a look at two rookie pass catchers taking the league by storm …
The evolution of the NFL into an air show has put a premium on pass catchers come draft day. In today’s game, the presence of a blue-chip wide receiver or tight end can truly change an offense. Which is why we saw a pair come off the board within the top five picks this past April.
Following a quarterback binge in the first three selections of the 2021 NFL Draft, the Atlanta Falcons chose TE Kyle Pitts at No. 4 overall and the Cincinnati Bengals nabbed WR Ja'Marr Chase at No. 5. Six months later, these two are quickly becoming household names across the NFL. The five-star playmakers have not only lived up to the billing, but they’re giving defensive coordinators sleepless nights.
How do you craft a game plan to neutralize the impact of a pass catcher with the capacity to dominate all over the field? From playing out wide to thriving from the slot, Pitts and Chase have shown the ability to win against some of the game’s best cover men. Just look at this past Sunday, when Pitts beat first-team All-Pro Xavien Howard for a crucial 28-yard gain in Atlanta’s game-winning field goal drive at Miami, while Chase burned Pro Bowler Marlon Humphrey to a crisp throughout Cincinnati’s blowout win in Baltimore. This kind of success from a pair of top-five pass catchers will only further the notion that top prospects at receiver/tight end deserve consideration in the highest draft slots, alongside premium positions like quarterback, edge rusher and offensive tackle. Not that every draft class will offer two playmakers like Pitts and Chase, though. These two are rare.
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After a relatively ordinary start to his rookie season, Pitts has come on like gangbusters in the Falcons’ past two games. This started when Calvin Ridley didn’t make the Week 5 trip to London due to a personal matter, thus elevating Pitts to Atlanta’s No. 1 option in the passing game. Without his star WR1 in the lineup, Falcons coach Arthur Smith took the opportunity to feature his hybrid pass catcher as a jumbo “X” receiver (split end) on the back side of the formation. The result? Pitts posted his first 100-yard game as a pro, displaying an array of talents that validated his status as one of the most ballyhooed tight end prospects in memory. Targeted 10 times in the 27-20 win over the New York Jets, Pitts logged nine receptions for 119 yards and his first NFL touchdown.
Ridley returned to Atlanta’s lineup following a Week 6 bye, but Pitts remained the driving force in the passing game, turning eight targets into seven catches for a whopping 163 yards in the 30-28 win over the Dolphins. Watching the tape, you can see how Smith is really beginning to build the offense around his uniquely talented 21-year-old. The crafty play-caller aligned the 6-foot-6, 246-pounder in the slot and out wide in a variety of traditional and spread sets, with one goal in mind: creating mismatches in space. Matt Ryan repeatedly exploited those favorable matchups by targeting Pitts on deep balls and in-breaking routes that enabled him to box out defenders with his big frame. The veteran quarterback clearly enjoys playing with his new toy.
Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, Joe Burrow has reunited with the receiver who helped him win a Heisman Trophy and national title in his final season at LSU — and the results have been nothing short of spectacular. According to NFL Research, Chase is just the fifth player (and only rookie) in the last 35 years with 750-plus receiving yards and a yards-per-catch average of 20-plus in the first seven games of a season. The other four members of this club either have a gold jacket (Jerry Rice accomplished the feat in 1989, Isaac Bruce in 2000) or should be receiving one in the future (Steve Smith did it in 2011, Julio Jones in 2016).
Chase has been particularly effective as a home run hitter. The rookie leads the NFL in receiving yards (354) and receiving touchdowns (four) on deep passes (20-plus air yards, as defined by Next Gen Stats), while ranking second in deep-ball receptions (8). This isn’t surprising to anyone who watched Chase at LSU, where his downfield pass-catching skills were evident. But the rookie has also shown transcendent play-making ability with the ball in his hands. Chase ranks fourth among receivers in yards after catch (287, per NGS), utilizing an imposing combination of size, strength and power. He runs through arm tackles in traffic and finds a way to make at least the first defender miss in the open field. Against the Ravens last Sunday, Chase took a quick slant over the middle, absorbed a hit and spun through two more would-be tacklers before sprinting to the end zone for an exhilarating 82-yard touchdown.
As a route runner, Chase is better than advertised, with a variety of stems and releases that put defenders on their heels. This is one of the reasons why he has instantly become the most prolific weapon on an offense that already included established playmakers in Joe Mixon, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. If Chase can continue to anchor the passing game as a true WR1 polished beyond his years, the Bengals will be able to attack opponents in various ways, with its bevy of pass-catching options taking turns running through the middle of the defense.
We’ve come to expect immediate contributions from rookie pass catchers in recent years, but it’s still extraordinary to see a pair of newbies imposing their will on opponents like Pitts and Chase have. With Halloween on tap Sunday, these are two new nightmares for NFL defenses.
DEREK CARR: Raiders must re-up QB
Is Derek Carr an elite quarterback?
Raider Nation has been grappling with that question for most of Carr’s eight-year career. Although the veteran has earned three Pro Bowl nods, his NFL tenure has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride, with Carr putting up strong numbers but lacking in the wins department. However, this could be changing right before our very eyes in a trying season for Las Vegas.
Entering this year with a 47-63 career record as a starter, Carr had failed to lift the Raiders into consistent contention. Sure, he played at an MVP level while guiding the Raiders to a playoff berth in 2016 under Jack Del Rio, but the former second-round pick never quite reached that level with Jon Gruden. Despite improving his completion rate, passer rating and yards per attempt during his first three seasons with Gruden, those numbers were empty calories with the team going 19-29 without a single winning record from 2018-2020. Simply put, the Gruden-Carr Raiders just weren’t winning enough.
But the quarterback started off this year as a man on a mission. During the Raiders’ 3-0 start, Carr averaged 401 passing yards and two touchdowns per game. Then came two Las Vegas losses and Gruden’s shocking resignation. The quarterback — and the team — could’ve come apart. That has not been the case, though. In fact, Carr has impressed me more than ever before, carrying the Raiders to the top of the AFC West standings with some inspired play. In wins over Denver and Philadelphia, Carr surgically dismantled the opposition, completing 80.3 percent of his passes at a robust 10.9 yards per attempt. He averaged 332 passing yards per game, posting a 4:1 TD-to-INT ratio with a 127.0 passer rating.
The numbers are certainly impressive, but it is his leadership skills and command of the team that have stood out to me the most. Carr has become the face of the franchise since Gruden’s abrupt exit, exhibiting an alpha personality that many did not know existed.
“When Coach Gruden would walk a room, all eyes are on him,” Carr said this week, via ESPN. “When we lost that, someone has to fill that void. It’s not only me, but obviously as the quarterback and leader and I’ve been here awhile, I was like, I got to take that part of what I do to another level.
“I’m just trying to do everything I can to encourage, uplift and motivate the guys to keep going in every situation.”
For all of the gaudy numbers people highlight with top quarterbacks, the position is really about leadership, toughness and performance in the clutch. Players respect tough-minded field generals with the ability to take their games to the next level when needed. Carr has demonstrated those skills at various points in his career, but he has really put on a QB1 clinic in the wake of Gruden’s departure.
Considering how well Carr has managed this situation while playing A+ football, the Raiders need to make a long-term commitment to their quarterback. Carr’s current contract runs through next season, with the QB set to make $19.8 million in 2022. That’s a steal for a veteran quarterback playing at this level. Las Vegas obviously has time to work out an extension, but the Raiders would be wise to get something done sooner than later. The escalating price for a true franchise quarterback will continue to rise, especially with a guy like Lamar Jackson about to cash in.
If the Raiders are really committed to excellence in this post-Gruden era, Las Vegas needs to break the bank to keep this MVP-caliber quarterback around.
KYLE SHANAHAN: Bloom off the rose?
Typically, there is nothing I enjoy more than breaking down the San Francisco 49ers’ offensive tape. It’s an opportunity to study the creative schematics from one of the best minds in football. However, I am beginning to wonder if Kyle Shanahan will ever become an elite head coach.
It is hard to call someone with a Super Bowl appearance an underachiever, but that 2019 campaign has been the outlier in Shanahan’s San Francisco tenure. In fact, that’s the only season in which Shanahan’s 49ers have posted a winning record. We’re in Year 5 now, and San Francisco has stumbled out the gates to a disappointing 2-4 mark. All in all, Shanahan is 31-39 as the Niners’ head man. While I can appreciate his savvy as a play-designer who created a system that became the envy of the league, I cannot give Shanahan a pass on the W-L front. Not when two of his disciples, Sean McVay (49-22) and Matt LaFleur (33-7), are enjoying exceptional success utilizing variations of his scheme.
Fair or not, the offensive guru’s record falls well below the line, and it is hard to ignore the facts after four-plus years. With a roster that has been hailed as one of the best in football throughout his tenure, Shanahan has been unable to field a consistent winner. Sure, injuries have contributed to the 49ers’ failures, but other teams have found ways to reach the winner’s circle without some of their A-listers on the field (SEE: Baltimore under John Harbaugh). Through clever scheming and excellent game management, it is possible to knock off opponents with the other units (defense and special teams) leading the way. The head coach must be willing to change the approach to give his team the best chance to win with the players who are available on that day.
To that point, the 49ers’ record with (24-11) and without (7-28) Jimmy Garoppolo also leads to questions about Shanahan’s management skills. How can San Francisco generally succeed with Jimmy G (who is seemingly on his way out the door, by the way), but fail miserably with any other quarterback under center? Is Shanahan capable of winning a series of games with a less-than-ideal starter or is his success driven solely by the play of the 49ers’ QB1? And what happens when Jimmy’s play falters, like it has this season?
Well, theoretically, San Francisco came into this season prepared to weather any injuries or struggles from Garoppolo. Trey Lance was handpicked by Shanahan and Co. with the third overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft as the 49ers’ quarterback of the future, possessing dynamic traits as a true dual-threat weapon. Quite a bullpen option, right? Yet when Lance was forced into action this month by a Garoppolo injury, it appeared as though the offensive wizard did not have a clear plan for maximizing the rookie’s skill set. Part of Lance’s struggles can be attributed to inexperience, of course, as he’s still just 21 years old and lacked significant high-level college experience coming out of North Dakota State. But the 49ers certainly did not put him in the best position to succeed with the game plan or play calls. That has raised eyebrows around the league, based on Shanahan’s reputation as an offensive guru. If he is incapable of crafting a plan that helps his young quarterback thrive, how will the 49ers ever close the gap on their division rivals with all-star quarterbacks already in place?
The disappointment surrounding Shanahan also extends to the development of the team’s young players, particularly on offense. A number of young wideouts have been on the head coach’s yo-yo when it comes to roles and playing time. From Dante Pettis to Brandon Aiyuk, some of San Francisco’s promising young playmakers through the years have failed to carve out consistent roles despite flashing immense talent and potential. Perhaps it is on the players, but the 49ers’ revolving door at some positions suggests the coaches and front office are not on the same page. At a time in which player acquisition and player development must match, the lack of direction is a problem that has kept San Francisco from fielding enough depth to overcome any injury issues.
When the 49ers landed Shanahan after his successful run as the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator — he was fresh off a Super Bowl appearance sparked by an MVP quarterback under his tutelage — the football world thought San Francisco had acquired a Bill Walsh-like innovator who could revive the franchise in the big chair. But 70 games into the Shanahan era, the jury is still out on whether the Niners have a top-notch head coach or just another offensive coordinator with a loud whistle that signals he is in charge.
HAROLD LANDRY: Contract-year breakout
There is always a team willing to pay big bucks for a pass rusher who can rack up double-digit sacks. That’s why the Tennessee Titans need to be prepared to write a big check to Harold Landry or watch the former second-round pick leave for greener pastures after this season.
If you have not paid close attention to Tennessee’s defense, you have missed Landry displaying an array of pass-rush moves that have made him one of the most disruptive defenders off the edge this season. The fourth-year pro has 7.5 sacks, 13 quarterback hits and eight tackles for loss in seven games, including four straight outings with at least one sack. The energetic defender has found a way to blend a combination of speed, quickness and karate maneuvers to whip blockers at the point of attack. Landry will also complement his speed rushes with a dip-and-rip move that showcases his superb balance and body control as he turns the corner. The Titans free up Landry to utilize his superpowers as a speed rusher by enabling him to attack from a stand-up position or with his hand in the dirt off the edge.
Reviewing my scouting report on Landry from his days at Boston College, I am not surprised at his success as a pro pass rusher. Although he has not fully blossomed into the Von Miller-like force off the edge that I envisioned, he has certainly shown flashes as a disruptive defender with a non-stop motor and solid pass-rush skills.
Looking at the 2022 free-agent market, Landry could be in line for a payday that matches Trey Hendrickson’s contract with the Bengals. The fifth-year pro inked a four-year, $60 million deal after notching 20 sacks over four seasons with the Saints, including a 13.5-sack effort in 2020.
The Titans still have a little time to decide whether to extend Landry or let him walk, but the price tag is going up with each sack registered by No. 58 in a breakout season.
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