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:
— One offense that’s on the mend and absolutely terrifying.
— Mike Zimmer’s plan to improve Minnesota’s secondary.
But first, ranking the league’s top pass-catching tandems …
The evolution of the NFL into a passing league has made it imperative for elite offenses to have at least two marquee players on the perimeter. Personnel executives have embraced the multi-playmaker trend in recent years with teams like the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills and, most recently, the Tennessee Titans acquiring all-star talents to upgrade their receiver corps.
The acquisitions not only add a different dimension to the passing game but the presence of a dynamic tandem out wide forces defensive coordinators to alter their tactics, particularly if the offense also features a top talent at running back. When playing against a team that boasts such an embarrassment of riches, defensive play-callers often must choose between prioritizing defending the run or eliminating one of the multiple passing-game threats.
That’s why the Titans made acquiring Julio Jones a top priority following the departures of Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith as free agents. The addition of a seven-time Pro Bowl receiver to complement an emerging all-star pass catcher (A.J. Brown) gives the Titans a pair of dangerous weapons on the outside to alleviate some of the pressure on Derrick Henry to carry the offense. Tennessee’s offense now features three heavyweights at the skill positions (Jones and Brown both weigh 220-plus pounds; Henry is listed at 247 pounds), creating a nightmarish scenario for defensive coordinators.
“I mean, defenses, you’re really going to have to pick your poison,” Jones told reporters earlier this week. “If you to stay in the box, put nine in the box. A guy like Derrick Henry in the backfield, you got to respect him. So then, that’s when me and A.J. go to work outside. Then if you only got eight in the box, Derrick gonna go to work in the backfield. Great offensive line, things like that. Scheme, stuff like that. I mean, you just gotta pick your poison at the end of the day.”
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While the Titans will clearly pose quite a dilemma to defensive gurus around the league, they’re certainly not the only team with a pair of pass catchers that can wreak havoc in 2021. With more teams opting for dynamic duos in the passing game, I thought this was the perfect time to survey the NFL landscape to rank my top five pass-catching tandems in the league. Here is my list:
Credit Andy Reid for developing a pair of middle-round picks (Kelce: Round 3 in 2013; Hill: Round 5 in 2016) into the most dangerous pass-catching duo in football. Both Hill and Kelce are capable of taking over a game at any time. Hill is a big-play specialist with explosive speed and quickness. He can tally yardage and points in bunches, as evidenced by his three seasons of 1,100-plus yards over the past four years and his 47 career receiving touchdowns. Kelce is arguably the gold standard at the tight end position as a dynamic player with strong hands and polished route-running skills. The ninth-year veteran is the first tight end in NFL history to post five 1,000-yard seasons, including a 1,416-yard campaign in 2020. Considering Kelce has scored at least 10 touchdowns in two of the past three seasons, it is easy to see why the Chiefs put up 30-burgers like they’re a fast-food chain.
With Brown and Jones each weighing in at 220-plus pounds, the Titans have a pair of big-bodied playmakers with the capacity to knock defenders around at the top of routes. Jones, entering his 11th NFL season, is the NFL all-time leader in receiving yards per game (95.5). He is the rare WR1 with big-play potential and chain-mover capabilities. Brown is a dangerous pass catcher with sticky hands and rugged running skills. He quietly posted 11 touchdowns in 2020 (tied for fifth-most in the league) while also shining as a YAC (yards after catch) specialist. With a lineup featuring a trio of heavyweights at the skill positions, the Titans’ offense suddenly has knockout power.
The Seahawks’ pass-catching tandem’s complementary games fit together like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Metcalf is the ultra-explosive deep-ball threat with a ridiculous combination of size, speed and strength that makes him a nightmare to defend on the perimeter. The third-year pro earned Pro Bowl honors after putting up 1,303 yards and 10 scores in 2020. Lockett is a sneaky playmaker. He has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns while tallying 28 receiving touchdowns over the past three seasons. If Russell Wilson adapts quickly to a redesigned offense under new coordinator Shane Waldron, the Seahawks’ playmaking duo could emerge as the league’s most feared combination.
TB12 inherited an impressive set of pass catchers when he hopped aboard the pirate ship a year ago. Evans and Godwin are all-star-caliber playmakers with size, strength and leaping ability. Each specializes in coming down with 50-50 balls in crowds while also displaying solid catch-and-run skills. Evans is the anchor of the passing game as a big-bodied receiver with big-play potential as a vertical threat. The 6-foot-5, 231-pounder overpowers defensive backs with his NBA power forward-like body and post-up skills. Godwin is a crafty playmaker with a polished game that mixes finesse and power. The fifth-year pro has all of the tools to thrive as a WR1 but is comfortable and productive occupying the sidekick role in Tampa.
The thought of defending Minnesota’s pair of polished route runners will cause plenty of sleepless nights for defensive backfields around the league. Jefferson took the league by storm, posting an all-time rookie record 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns on 88 catches. He nearly wrestled the Offensive Rookie of the Year award from Justin Herbert while emerging as a top-10 talent at the position. Thielen is one of the most slept on scoring machines in the league with 29 touchdowns over the past three seasons, including 14 scores in 2020. The 30-year-old is no longer a lock to make all-star teams but he’s a four-star performer on the perimeter for the Vikings.
COWBOYS’ OFFENSE: Fireworks season in Dallas
It’s hype season in the NFL, and Dallas WR Michael Gallup had a pretty bold assessment of the Cowboys’ offensive outlook.
“I think the sky’s the limit for us,” Gallup said on NFL Network’s Good Morning Football earlier this week. “We said that last year. Obviously, we had some injuries on the team and stuff like that. We’re already running out the gate right now, it’s just OTAs. I think we can explode. We can do what we need to do out here on the field and just kill it. I don’t see anybody stopping us.”
Strong words, but honestly, he’s right about the offensive potential of “America’s Team.” The Cowboys aren’t just teeming with talent at the skill positions, but they have a monstrous offensive line that can return to being one of the NFL’s top units with better health luck in 2021.
Given the surplus of playmakers, Dallas could become the NFL’s version of the Brooklyn Nets. Mike McCarthy has a “Big Three” in Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and Amari Cooper, who boast explosive scoring potential on par with James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. In addition, the Cowboys have an all-star collection of complementary threats (see: Gallup, CeeDee Lamb and Tony Pollard) with the skills and big-play ability to punish opponents intent on slowing down the offense’s primary playmakers. Cooper is dealing with an ankle injury that could keep him out at the start of training camp but it is not viewed as a major injury, per my NFL Network colleague Ian Rapoport.
With offensive tackles Tyron Smith and La'el Collins returning to health on an offensive line that remains an effective people-mover unit, the Cowboys can pummel opponents with a Zeke-led ground-and-pound approach or opt to let Dak and Co. shred defensive backfields with a quick-rhythm passing game. At age 25, Elliott has two rushing titles under his belt, with three of his five NFL seasons ending in 1,300-plus ground yards. Yes, last year was his least-productive campaign as a pro, but there were a number of limiting factors in play, including the season-ending ankle injury to Prescott. Speaking of whom, Dak averaged a whopping 422.5 passing yards in the four games he was able to finish last season. That’s impressive production from a quarterback worthy of being included in the top-five conversation, but it also shows the Cowboys’ perimeter weapons can really make it happen when given ample opportunity.
Looking at the Cowboys’ 11 personnel package, the thought of defending three high-end receivers with a bruiser (Elliott) or blazer (Pollard) in the backfield is downright scary. Opponents are unable to play “plus one” defense and utilize double-coverage tactics to neutralize Cooper, Lamb or Gallup in the passing game. With tight ends Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin also flashing credible skills as seam runners, Dallas can light up scoreboards in a number of ways.
With a clean bill of health for the Cowboys’ five-star quarterback and his bookend bodyguards, it is easy to see why Gallup views his squad as an unstoppable force.
VIKINGS’ DEFENSE: Can Zimmer fix the secondary?
Mike Zimmer found that out the hard way after watching the Vikings’ defense plummet to the bottom of the charts last season with a bunch of newbies and novices in the defensive backfield. The grizzled defensive wizard watched ball after ball fly over the top of the secondary while his young defenders acclimated to the pro game.
The Vikings finished 29th in scoring defense (29.7 points per game) and 27th in total defense (393.3 yards allowed per game) on the way to the second losing record in Zimmer’s seven-year tenure. The 7-9 mark kept the Vikings out of the postseason and prompted the veteran head coach to revamp his defense in the offseason.
While the additions of Dalvin Tomlinson and 2020 opt-out Michael Pierce will fortify a frontline that was also without Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks for parts of the year (Danielle Hunter also missed last season and it’s unclear if or when he’ll return to the team), the retooled defensive backfield will give the Vikings a chance to re-emerge as a top-10 defense. Patrick Peterson, Mackensie Alexander and Xavier Woods come on board to add experience, expertise and playmaking ability to a unit that features a perennial all-star in Harrison Smith.
With more veterans in the lineup at key spots in the secondary, the Vikings can get back to playing the multiple fronts and coverages that give quarterbacks problems. In addition, the Vikings can expand the call sheet to feature more checks and adjustments to counter some of the clever tactics utilized by creative offensive play-callers.
“The number one thing that we want to do on defense is we want to play fast,” Zimmer said during a press conference back in March. “We want to play physical. We don’t want to be thinking. And the offenses lately have been getting us to think because we’ve had to adjust here and adjust there and do this and do that, and some of these things [are] just too hard to implement during the season. Some of it is big changes and some of it is minor tweaks.”
Zimmer’s desire to play faster would force him to simplify with a younger set of defenders, but the collection of veterans in the secondary will enable him to skip a few steps in the teaching phases. The individual and collective experience of Peterson, Alexander, and Woods could prompt Zimmer to be more creative and exotic with his pre-snap disguises and post-snap coverage. In addition, the presence of more seasoned players will allow the Vikings to shift their emphasis from teaching schemes to focusing on fundamentals in practice.
While older players might lack some of the speed and athleticism of their younger counterparts, their wisdom and experience enable them to play faster due to quicker reactions. Given the importance of defending every square inch on the field, the extra step could be the difference between a completion and an interception.
In a league in which most games are decided by eight points or fewer, the Vikings’ decision to add a few veterans to the secondary could help them get back on track in 2021.
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