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:
— Five big-bodied receiver prospects who could make major waves.
But first, a look at the emerging market for an intriguing free agent at the game’s most important position …
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Drew Brees‘ decision to “make another run” at the Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints in 2020 was met with excitement from Who Dat Nation. But the veteran signal-caller’s continued presence in NOLA essentially assures backup QB Teddy Bridgewater will hit free agency. And while the exact dollar figure Bridgewater will command on the open market became a hotly debated topic this week, there’s no question that the one-time Pro Bowler will have suitors.
So, let’s take a closer look at one of the hottest quarterbacks available this offseason …
It is uncommon for a 27-year-old quarterback with just 34 career starts to be viewed as a hot commodity, but Bridgewater is in a unique position as a young winner with a solid resume. No. 5 sports a 22-12 career record, including a 5-0 mark while filling in for the injured Brees this past season. In Minnesota, he guided the Vikings to an NFC North title as a second-year starter and would’ve logged a postseason win if not for a missed chip-shot field goal.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, Bridgewater is a traditional dropback passer who is at his best operating a quick-rhythm aerial attack. He is an efficient thrower with B+ arm strength who compensates for his lack of pop with outstanding touch, timing and anticipation. Bridgewater routinely drops dimes on short and intermediate throws, with the ball released well before his intended receiver makes his break. Whether he’s tossing quick outs, hitches and stick routes from shotgun sets or throwing in-breaking routes (digs and curls) following flash fakes while retreating from under center, Bridgewater is comfortable directing a ball-control offense that features a variety of high-percentage passes.
In the movement game, Teddy displays enough athleticism to be a credible threat on sprint-outs, roll-outs and bootlegs. Although he isn’t a dynamic or explosive runner on the perimeter, he flashes some elusiveness and escapability on the move. Bridgewater’s mobility and throwing skills on the run would enable him to play in an offense that features stretch-bootleg concepts prominently in the game plan (SEE: teams like San Francisco, Denver and Minnesota) and provide an offensive coordinator with more options as a play designer.
From a critical standpoint, Bridgewater’s overall game makes him better suited to function as a managerial quarterback instead of a gunslinger. As a high-percentage passer with good accuracy and ball-placement skills, he plays the position like a pass-first point guard running a 3-on-2 fastbreak. He capably finds the open man on the perimeter and allows him to go to work, but he’s not an impromptu playmaker with the skills to create big-play opportunities inside or outside of the pocket. As a result, Bridgewater needs a strong supporting cast and a creative play designer to perform at a high level.
Despite that sentiment, Bridgewater grades out as a potential mid-level starter with enough talent and intangibles to lead a playoff team in the right situation.
As I touched on above, the thought of paying Bridgewater $30 million annually set the Twitterverse on fire this week. But if the right situation arises, I could see him landing in the $25 million range, based on the established market. Nick Foles signed a four-year, $88 million contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars a year ago as a low-to-mid-level starter. In addition, Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins and Derek Carr are compensated within the $25-$27 million range despite ho-hum resumes that didn’t feature any postseason wins when they were signed. With inflation and a new CBA in the works, it’s not hard to imagine Bridgewater inking a deal way higher than some people seem to believe is possible. The overall dollar value will obviously depend on whether he finds a match as a team’s bona fide QB1 or not. Even if he signs with a squad to compete for a starting job — or be a QB2-plus — Bridgewater should make good money.
New Orleans Saints: Despite Brees’ commitment to 2020 and Taysom Hill‘s pleas to become a franchise quarterback, the Saints could still offer Bridgewater the best long-term situation on the market. Brees’ extended injury absence last season gave Teddy a mini-audition where Sean Payton was able to see how the Saints would fare with No. 5 running the squad. Welp, New Orleans won every game he started. Moreover, that stint provided Bridgewater with an opportunity to see how he would benefit from playing with a stellar supporting cast in a scheme that perfectly suits his skills as a quick-rhythm passer.
New England Patriots: If Tom Brady leaves the Patriots, Bill Belichick could target Bridgewater to be his new QB1. The veteran quarterback is a high-IQ player with an understated personality that fits into the Patriots‘ locker room. As a player, Bridgewater’s game not only meshes well with the team’s scheme, but Josh McDaniels could entrust the cerebral quarterback with some at-the-line responsibilities that would help New England continue with the “check with me” system that’s befuddled opponents for years. Considering how the Patriots have dominated with a complementary football approach that requires excellent management skills and situational awareness, Bridgewater could be the perfect signal-caller to usher in the post-Brady era in Foxborough.
Carolina Panthers: If Bridgewater wants to operate in an offense that has a Saints feel, he could take his talents to Carolina and play for ex-Saints offensive assistant Joe Brady. The offensive wizard turned Joe Burrow into a college football legend by running a scaled-down version of the Saints‘ offense. Brady could team with Bridgewater to create an updated version with the Panthers. As a pinpoint, quick-rhythm passer with a keen understanding of coverages, Bridgewater could thrive in an attacking scheme that’s designed to put the ball in the hands of playmakers on the perimeter. If the Panthers move on from Cam Newton, Teddy might be a solid answer to their quarterback question.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Bridgewater likely wants to be a QB1 at this stage of his career, but the Steelers could be willing to pay big bucks for an insurance policy that could keep their playoff hopes afloat if Ben Roethlisberger fails to return to form or struggles with injury. Bridgewater not only would significantly upgrade Pittsburgh’s QB2 spot, but he could help the Steelers play old-school football with a ball-control offense complemented by a hard-hitting defense. Considering Bridgewater’s superb management skills and his ego-less approach, the Steelers could sign the veteran to give them a high-quality transitional quarterback to hold down the QB1 spot after No. 7 hangs up the cleats.
Chicago Bears: General manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy have given young quarterback Mitch Trubisky multiple votes of confidence, but the Bears would be wise to follow the Titans‘ lead and bring in a veteran with starting experience to add some competition to the QB room. While Trubisky might win the initial training camp battle, Bridgewater could get the nod in the middle of the season and parlay a successful stint into a bigger payday in the Windy City or elsewhere.
JORDAN LOVE: Is the Utah State product the next Mahomes?
No, I’m not ready to proclaim Jordan Love is an MVP-caliber player. But Patrick Mahomes‘ impressive run as a young starter could prompt some executives, scouts and coaches to give the Utah State product a mulligan for his disappointing 2019 season.
I know that statement might lead to some quizzical looks from draftniks, but Love will undoubtedly benefit from Mahomes’ transformation from a collegiate sandlot playmaker to the NFL’s ultimate QB1. In a copycat league where decision makers follow trends and steal blueprints from winning teams, evaluators will look at how Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs took a chance on an ultra-talented, raw passer and reaped the rewards when he blossomed into an all-world playmaker in the right environment. Mahomes’ emergence as the top quarterback in football will lead some scouts to value talent and potential over performance in evaluation process.
Don’t believe me? Just look at this clip from the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine following Mahomes’ performance:
Sure, I was clearly dead wrong in my assessment of his potential, based on what I saw from him at Texas Tech. That said, my evaluation actually fell in line with a number of scouts smitten with his raw talent but uncertain on how it would translate to the NFL. Well, it translated pretty darn well.
Given Mahomes’ resounding success as a sandlot player, the rest of the NFL will be more likely to take a flier on the next quarterback prospect who flashes similar traits. That’s why Love remains in the first-round discussion despite posting pedestrian numbers during his final campaign at Utah State. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound quarterback completed 61.9 percent of his passes for 3,402 yards (at 7.2 yards per attempt) with a 20:17 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2019. Those numbers pale in comparison to the efficient production Love recorded as a redshirt sophomore, when he completed 64 percent of his passes for 3,567 yards (at 8.6 yards per attempt) with a 32:6 TD-to-INT ratio. Although evaluators would prefer to see those numbers posted in reverse order, with the spectacular season capping off his college career, I believe some scouts will give Love the benefit of the doubt and judge his entire body of work when computing his final grade.
I know we rarely discuss the importance of tracking a prospect beyond his final season, but I learned from Hall of Fame executive Ron Wolf that you should dig deeper when assessing quarterbacks. He discussed the importance of understanding how a QB’s environment impacts his performance. In Love’s case, the 2019 season brought a whole new coaching staff and new scheme to Utah State — not to mention, a healthy chunk of brand new offensive starters. That kind of knowledge can provide an evaluator with enough perspective to put a big grade on a prospect despite the production failing to match his talent.
In studying Love, there’s no disputing his exceptional arm talent and athleticism. He is a remarkable passer with unlimited range and improvisational skills. Love can make every throw in the book, from a standstill in the pocket or on the run to either side. At his best, he is a pinpoint dime-dropper on an assortment of vertical routes (go route, post and deep over) that enable him to throw the ball over the top of the defense. On short and intermediate throws, Love displays adequate skills as a rhythm passer. He generally gets the ball out of his hands quickly and shows the ability to paint the corners of the strike zone. Although he is a little streaky with his accuracy and ball placement, some of his woes could be attributed to undisciplined footwork and sloppy mechanics. As a five-star talent with remarkable physical tools, he tends to rely on his natural gifts and fails to pay attention to the details when it comes to the fundamentals. These are correctable flaws, but Love must submit to the coaching to smooth out his game.
Love also needs to work on his management skills, ball security and situational awareness as a QB1. In 2019, he played too much “hero ball” for the Aggies and his gambling ways resulted in several costly turnovers. Given the correlation between turnovers and wins, the team’s 7-6 record — a big step back from Utah State’s 11-2 mark in 2018 — falls on Love’s shoulders due to his reckless approach. Sure, he didn’t have a bunch of A-listers around him, but elite quarterbacks are committed to playing winning football at all times and they refuse to let circumstances alter their approach.
That said, it is quite possible that a new environment with a nurturing coaching staff could get Love back on track in the NFL. Mahomes blossomed under Reid’s tutelage, and plenty of coaches believe they have the Midas touch when it comes to quarterbacks. If Love goes to the right team with a true teacher in place at quarterback coach or offensive coordinator, he could emerge from the 2020 QB class as a star.
New Orleans Saints: Imagine what Sean Payton could do with Love’s exceptional arm talent and dynamic movement skills. Love would give the Saints‘ offense a different dimension as a deep-ball thrower while benefitting from a supporting cast (starring Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara) that would enable him to simply connect the dots from the pocket. And with Brees back for 2020, Love could learn behind one of the best to ever do it.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Bruce Arians is a bombs-away proponent with a scheme and team that could help Love maximize his talents as a gunslinger. Love would be encouraged to push the ball down the field to a talented group of pass catchers possessing size, speed and immense playmaking ability. With Mike Evans and Chris Godwin emerging as the NFL’s most explosive 1-2 punch at wide receiver, Love could quickly regain the form that made scouts salivate over his potential in 2018.
Las Vegas Raiders: Jon Gruden has enjoyed his greatest success with veteran quarterbacks, but Love’s talent could take the Raiders‘ offense to another level. The Utah State standout is more willing to push the ball down the field than the team’s incumbent starter (Derek Carr); if he can do a better job controlling his risk-taking, Love could help the Raiders close the gap on their AFC West rivals.
2020 NFL DRAFT: Under-the-radar guys with WR1 potential
On the “Move The Sticks” podcast, Daniel Jeremiah and I frequently suggest teams should build a receiving corps like a basketball team, with the unit featuring a diverse set of playmakers in the lineup. We’ve pointed out that the elite offensive units typically feature the following: a burner (speed/vertical threat), chain-mover (possession receiver) and a red-zone weapon (big-bodied pass catcher).
That said, I believe every team needs a No. 1 receiver to build the aerial attack around, and it’s becoming more apparent that the pass catchers occupying the WR1 spot on most squads are power forward types with size, length and outstanding leaping ability. Examining the top 10 receivers in receptions from 2019, this notion of bigger bodies dominating on the perimeter is proven true.
Based on data from the NFL Media Research team, the average dimensions for the league’s top wideouts: 6-foot-1 1/4, 208 pounds, 9 3/4-inch hands, 4.55-second 40-yard dash, 6.85 three-cone, 36-inch vertical jump.
Think about that. Julian Edelman was the only wide receiver among the top 10 pass catchers listed under 6 feet tall. Plus, his 5-10 3/8, 195-pound frame is more conducive to play in the slot where quickness is often valued over size.
On the outside, it is all about the big-bodied pass catchers with rugged games built on strength, power and physicality. The power forwards embrace contact down the field and their superior size enables them to come down with 50-50 balls along the boundary. This is why you’re seeing the likes of Michael Thomas (6-3, 212), Keenan Allen (6-2, 211), Julio Jones (6-3, 220) and Allen Robinson (6-3, 220) dot the list of reception leaders. And big-bodied WRs like DeVante Parker (6-3, 216) and Kenny Golladay (6-4, 214) crack the list when it comes to the top 10 in receiving yards.
Quarterbacks are increasingly targeting big receivers on the perimeter due to their ability to expand the strike zone with their length and leaping ability. The alley-oop game is a fixture in most offensive schemes, and teams are seeing the value in having a post player or high flyer positioned on the outside.
Looking ahead to the 2020 NFL Draft‘s wide receiver class, there are a number of power forwards poised to make their way to the league, and their size could make them immediate impact players. Here are five guys to watch:
Michael Pittman, USC: The 6-4, 220-pound pass catcher plays like a bull in a china shop on the perimeter. He mauls defensive backs with the ball in his hands, and his overall physicality makes him a nightmare to defend in one-on-one matchups.
Quintez Cephus, Wisconsin: It’s uncommon to tout a 6-1 receiver as a post player, but Cephus’ strength, physicality and toughness make him a hard guard on the perimeter. He punishes smaller defenders in the running game while utilizing that same physicality and toughness to bully would-be tacklers in the open field.
Tyler Johnson, Minnesota: If you didn’t catch Johnson’s domination of Auburn in the Outback Bowl, you might want to YouTube it to see the 6-2, 205-pound pass catcher have his way with an SEC defense. Johnson dominated Big Ten competition with his punishing playmaking ability but also flashed enough finesse to win with skill in space. With back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and a host of head-turning highlights on the reel, Johnson could be the sleeper WR1 you need to get to know before the draft.
Denzel Mims, Baylor: The Bears‘ WR1 should be known as the “Bone Collector,” based on his ability to punish overmatched defensive backs on the perimeter. He is a rare pass catcher with the capacity to win with power or finesse, and he put it all on display at the Senior Bowl. Considering how more teams are looking for pass catchers with alley-oop skills, Mims could be a high-prized commodity on draft day.
Antonio Gandy-Golden, Liberty: The former gymnast turned pass catcher is an acrobatic big-play machine. He specializes in coming down with 50-50 balls, but his underrated running skills could make him a star at the next level.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.