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:
» How hybrid running backs are changing the game, on and off the field.
» One recent retiree who's a no-brainer first-ballot Hall of Famer.
But first, a look at Earl Thomas' future -- specifically, where that could be ...
* * * * *
The contract negotiations (or lack thereof) between the Seattle Seahawks and Earl Thomas continue to make headlines. Earlier this week, the three-time first-team All-Pro safety posted an Instagram message urging the team to either extend his deal or trade him to another team:
Now, I certainly understand Thomas' desire for a new contract, based on his exceptional production and performance throughout his career, but the Seahawks hold all the leverage in this situation, particularly with the 29-year-old playmaker entering the last year of his deal.
Fair or not, the team can hold Thomas hostage for the next few years by using various franchise tags to retain his services beyond 2018 -- if the Seahawks so desire. That's why the veteran's bold proclamations and stern ultimatums will continue to fall on deaf ears in 'Hawks headquarters. Seattle coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider know they have the hammer, and there is only so much Thomas can do before he begins losing money through fines and missed game checks. The veteran already skipped out on the team's mandatory minicamp in June â?? he could be fined $84,435 for his absence -- and he'll face more monetary hits if he misses training camp practices.
If Thomas takes his holdout into the regular season, he must report to the team by midseason to avoid his contract potentially tolling to 2019. So, ultimately, the veteran can only hope Seattle decides to sweeten his deal with a contract extension or flip him to another franchise as part of a trade that nets the Seahawks a Day 1 or Day 2 pick.
From a business standpoint, it really doesn't make sense for the team to deal away one of its best players and team leaders. As the prototypical center fielder, Thomas is the ideal safety to play in the post in the Seahawks' Cover 3 scheme. He still has the speed, quickness and range to cover from numbers to numbers as a deep-middle player. He also possesses the instincts, anticipation and awareness to run the alleys as a run defender. Thomas' impact as an all-purpose playmaker elevates the play of the unit and makes it challenging to move the ball on the 'Hawks.
With Thomas also displaying excellent communication skills and a high football IQ, it's obvious why Carroll would want to keep him around during the team's rebuilding phase. Sure, the 'Hawks probably don't want to pay him top-tier money ($12 million-plus) in a soft safety market, but the ultra-optimistic coach would love to have the veteran around to anchor the next version of the "Legion of Boom."
"He's a Seahawk," Carroll told reporters days before the draft. "I don't know what everyone's talking about.
"He better be there (at training camp). He's on the roster. We're counting on him."
Despite Carroll's emphatic words about the safety throughout the offseason, it is possible Thomas' antics have become such a distraction that the team would consider moving on. If the 'Hawks were to part ways with Thomas, I'd think the most likely scenario would be that they'd wait for an injury to prompt an inquiry or sit tight until the trade deadline in the middle of the season to auction the safety off to a motivated bidder. The prospect of adding a designated playmaker to a team in the middle of a playoff push could up the ante and help the Seahawks secure the valuable draft pick that they reportedly covet in a deal. That said, you never know with these things -- maybe Seahawks brass has had enough of Thomas' public pleading and will receive an enticing enough offer sooner than later.
With that in mind, here are five teams to watch in the potential Earl Thomas trade sweepstakes:
Dallas Cowboys: If Jason Garrett is looking for an ideal mentor for his young secondary, Thomas would be the perfect fit as a perennial Pro Bowl player with exceptional leadership ability and communication skills. In addition, the veteran would give the team a numbers-to-numbers playmaker with the instincts, ball skills and hands to create turnovers in the Cowboys' "see ball, get ball" scheme. Given Thomas' previous relationship with Kris Richard -- the Cowboys' passing game coordinator and defensive backs coach -- the marriage between No. 29 and "America's Team" looks like a match made in heaven.
Los Angeles Chargers: Gus Bradley's defense could use a center fielder-type to top off a defense that looks championship-caliber on paper. Thomas would not only provide the team with a rangy playmaker in the middle, but he would partner with Derwin James to give the unit a "Legion of Boom" feel in the secondary. Thomas' communication skills and playmaking ability would enhance a defensive backfield that also features ball magnets Casey Hayward and Jason Verrett on the corners.
San Francisco 49ers: It's uncommon for teams to deal players to other teams within their division, but the 49ers could present an offer that's too enticing to pass on. With Thomas in the fold, the 49ers would have an experienced safety with a knack for playmaking between the hashes. Thomas' ball skills and communication ability would accelerate the development of the team's young cornerbacks, while also giving Richard Sherman a trusted partner in the back end.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Tampa completely revamped the defense this offseason, after failing to get consistent stops in 2017 and finishing dead last in total D. Having already upgraded the pass rush and coverage at corner, the Buccaneers could view Thomas as the cherry on top. The six-time Pro Bowler would give the unit a playmaker in the middle to eliminate the deep ball over the top of the defense. Moreover, Thomas' presence would discourage quarterbacks from attacking the middle of the field, leading to more low-percentage throws directed toward the sidelines. In a division featuring three MVP-caliber quarterbacks, the Buccaneers could significantly benefit from adding an elite center fielder.
Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals don't have an obvious need at safety, but the team could use another veteran leader to help the defense play at a championship level. Thomas' ball-hawking skills and toughness would add some sizzle to the defense, while his championship pedigree would come in handy in any playoff action. Given Marvin Lewis' winless postseason record, the addition of a strong leader like Thomas could help him earn a "W" in January.
Do we pay the position or the player?
That question -- raised by Le'Veon Bell's representatives following his failed contract negotiation with the Pittsburgh Steelers -- is one that NFL executives and agents will certainly debate in the coming years, with a handful of marquee running backs vying for new contracts that reflect their value as elite offensive weapons on their respective teams.
While the general devaluation of the running back position is nothing new, the emergence of hybrid playmakers at the position will soon reset the market and change how the marquee, game-changing talents are valued by general managers, scouts and coaches in the near future.
Now, I know that statement will make some traditionalists in the scouting community cringe, but the individual and collective performances of guys like Todd Gurley, David Johnson and Bell will challenge league executives' thoughts on the position. How do you properly compensate the top playmakers at running back, particularly when they are big backs with exceptional skills as runner-receivers?
For the past decade or so, general managers and scouts have viewed running backs as replaceable commodities that can be found throughout the draft or in the free-agent market. Numbers crunchers don't value what special players bring to the position -- despite defensive coordinators continuing to build game plans around stopping the run and containing backfield playmakers, while offensive play designers keep expanding the job description of the RB1s around the league. I've heard reports of running backs being asked to learn the "F" (slot receiver), "X" (split end) and "Z" (flanker) positions -- on top of their regular duties. In addition, they are meeting with receiver coaches and spending parts of their individual practice periods learning the nuances of the WR position.
Stop and think about that: Some teams are asking for their RB1 to master the skills of the normal position, while also learning a new position on the fly. With the running backs also tasked with learning how to block in pass protection, the elite hybrids are more than earning their paychecks as multi-faceted playmakers.
"Elite running backs have to be able to run, block and catch in today's game," an AFC running backs coach told me. "If you can't contribute in the passing game, it is hard to make an impact as an every-down player. ... The stars at the position not only make an impact as receivers, but they can take over the game without touching the ball as runners."
To that point, Bell, Gurley and Johnson deserve VIP status, based on their performance and production as runners and receivers. Bell's career average of 129.0 scrimmage yards per game is currently the highest mark among qualified players in NFL history, ahead of Hall of Fame inductees Jim Brown (125.5), Barry Sanders (118.9), Walter Payton (111.9), Marshall Faulk (108.8) and LaDainian Tomlinson (108.6). Gurley earned 2017 Offensive Player of the Year honors after leading the league with 2,093 scrimmage yards and 19 total touchdowns. Johnson missed almost the entire 2017 campaign with a wrist injury, but nearly joined the ultra-exclusive 1,000/1,000 Club (1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season, something only Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk have accomplished) when he emerged as a superstar at the position in 2016.
Now, generally speaking, when today's average fan thinks about running backs, the mind immediately goes to the position's short shelf life. People think about mileage and perceived injury risks, and invariably lump every running back into the same bucket of risky business. But the aforementioned hybrids are different. They're special, as big-bodied runner-receiver types with size, hands and route-running ability. Those traits are significant, due to NFL coaches' desire to keep versatile RB1s on the field on every down. Unlike some of the scat back types that excel primarily as receivers (see: Christian McCaffrey, Tarik Cohen, Dion Lewis), Johnson, Gurley and Bell are bangers who also happen to have polished receiving skills. That's why scouts far and wide were so fascinated by Saquon Barkley during the run-up to the 2018 NFL Draft.
"It's hard to find a big back that can do it all," the AFC running back coach said to me. "If you have a special one, you better keep him because there's no guarantee that you'll find a couple of guys who can handle the job."
With that in mind, we should re-examine how running backs are classified, particularly when they are used extensively as pass catchers. And yes, I'm including myself when it comes to the need for re-examination.
Earlier this offseason, I wrote in multiple pieces about how the Steelers would be wise to just let Bell walk, as opposed to overpaying him on a long-term deal. Now, in my defense, part of my rationale was that Pittsburgh has a series of important players who'll need new money soon (including Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert), so they have to allocate limited resources in the best possible manner. Also, given that the 2018 draft was deep at RB, I thought the Steelers could at least throw some draft capital at the position as some type of insurance. (They didn't.)
But here's the honest truth: I've changed my thinking when it comes to big-bodied hybrid running backs. Yes, just in the last few months. The more I ponder guys like Bell, Gurley and Johnson, the more convinced I am that they hold unique value.
Last season, there were 14 running backs with at least 50 receptions, and some of those guys were essentially slot receivers (McCaffrey, Duke Johnson, Theo Riddick and Tarik Cohen) that were featured prominently in their teams' game plan. That's why Bell, Gurley and Johnson deserve top-tier money that really reflects their value as RB1s and WR2s.
Remember, the highest average annual salary for a running back, according to Spotrac, tops out at Devonta Freeman's $8.25 million figure. The highest annual average for a wide receiver? Antonio Brown's $17 million mark. Eleven wideouts are currently making at least $14 million annually, and 22 make more than the highest-paid running back. With WR2s like Randall Cobb ($10 million), Donte Moncrief ($9.6 million) and Marqise Lee ($8.5 million) included in that group, I can see why Bell, Gurley and Johnson are griping about being underpaid based on their production and responsibilities as hybrids.
But it's not just the WR market that has premier running backs looking sideways -- the crazy money doled out to marginal quarterbacks is just as startling. No disrespect to Sam Bradford ($20 million per year), Ryan Tannehill ($19.25 million), Case Keenum ($18 million), Blake Bortles ($18 million) and Andy Dalton ($16 million), but each makes more than Bell's salary on a franchise tag ($14.54 million). Do we really believe any of those guys are better players or more impactful than No. 26? Moreover, I don't even know if any of those aforementioned guys can be considered the "engine" for their respective offenses -- i.e., the guy that makes everything go. When I think about it in that context, I can easily make the argument that the Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills, Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, Chicago Bears, Jacksonville Jaguars and Kansas City Chiefs are among the teams that lean on their RB1s to drive the bus, instead of the designated QB1.
That's why it's dangerous to simply pay guys by their position, instead of what they're actually bringing to the table as playmakers. Bell, Gurley and Johnson are brand names and they deserve to have salaries that match their production on the field. Now, I know skeptics will point out the risk in giving out a big payday to a running back, but hybrids should age gracefully as they compile touches on the perimeter on passes that put them in more 1-on-1 situations, instead of the 9-on-7 matchups that exist in the running game.
With the NFL continuing to evolve into a passing league, the pay scale for hybrid playmakers with elite skills and production should more closely match the job description.
1) Revis truly changed the game, on and off the field. With four-time first-team All-Pro CB Darrelle Revis announcing his retirement this week, I believe the true shutdown corner deserves a tip of the cap for changing how observers view the position, on and off the field. No. 24 not only set the standard for play as the premier cover corner in the game during his prime, but he showed the next generation of players how to parlay elite performance into big checks.
The seven-time Pro Bowl selectee signed contracts totaling $291 million during his 11-year career, which is considered "quarterback money" in locker rooms. At a time when few position players could earn that kind of money despite exceptional production and performance, Revis repeatedly took hard-line stances to make sure that he got the coin that he deserved as the best player at a marquee position. Whether it required a lengthy holdout prior to signing his complex rookie deal or sitting out 36 days waiting for a renegotiated deal that put him above the $16 million mark when it was unfathomable for a cornerback to make that kind of money, the astute cover corner was the best big-money contract negotiator in football. Revis pulled it off again when he signed a six-year, $96 million deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and again when he turned a one-year, $12 million deal with the New England Patriots into a five-year, $70 million contract with the Jets.
Despite his stellar reputation as a shrewd businessman, Revis obviously should also be revered for his on-field exploits. He was the most technically sound corner that I've seen in the past 20 years, and his highlight reels should serve as teaching tape for aspiring CBs hoping to play at an all-star level down the road. As one of the few cornerbacks capable of playing outside or in the slot using a variety of techniques (press, bail and off) to snuff out premier receivers, Revis made it easy to construct an entire defense around his talents. He could travel with a WR1 or WR2 to any spot on the field and hold his own in coverage without assistance from a safety or linebacker.
"We literally built the scheme around him," a former Jets defensive coach told me. "We would lock him on No. 1 or No. 2 and run a zone to the other side. We would 'cloud' away from him to double-team the other receiver, knowing that Revis would lock up his guy. We could also mix it up and play some zone because he was capable of playing off and jumping routes.
"His versatility and consistency as a player single-handedly helped us go to the AFC Championship Game in 2009 and 2010."
Let that marinate for a minute: In a league where quarterbacks are categorized as "trucks" or "trailers," a prominent coach cited Revis as the guy who essentially carried the Jets to the cusp of the Super Bowl. That's why he demanded (and received) quarterback money when it was time to adjust his deal, and it is why the "shutdown corner" moniker should be reserved for transcendent stars or generational talents playing the position in a way that revolutionizes the game while also elevating the play of the entire team.
From a Hall of Fame standpoint, I think Revis' candidacy should be a no-brainer. He was the most dominant player at his position during his prime and there wasn't another guy capable of challenging his seat on the throne. Revis got so good that opposing quarterbacks just started to avoid him altogether. But when he was targeted, he certainly held his own. From Revis' first Pro Bowl season (in 2008) on, here's how some of the top receivers in the game fared against him:
Calvin Johnson: 4 catches on 9 targets, 0 TD.
Steve Smith Sr.: 2 catches on 10 targets, 0 TD, 2 INT.
Reggie Wayne: 3 catches on 10 targets, 0 TD, 1 INT.
Randy Moss: 9 catches on 19 targets, 2 TD, 1 INT.
Terrell Owens: 8 catches on 19 targets, 0 TD, 1 INT.
All in all, that's a 38.8 percent completion rate and a 2:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Yep, Revis did just fine against Canton-grade wideouts.
We should judge players, particularly Hall of Famers, by how they performed on the biggest and brightest stages. I believe No. 24 should be a first-ballot inductee for his work on the field and at the negotiating table.
2) Explaining the Rams' decision to immediately lock up Cooks. Much to the surprise of Rams fans patiently waiting for the team to lock up reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald on a blockbuster deal, Los Angeles just inked newcomer Brandin Cooks to a five-year, $81 million contract extension before he's even taken a snap for the team.
"Brandin Cooks has shown himself to be a class act on and off the field since the first day he joined our team," head coach Sean McVay said in a statement. "He's a proven professional in this league and signing him to a long-term contract was always our goal."
My surprise isn't a dismissal of Cooks' talents as a frontline receiver, but I'm a little shocked his new team made such a hefty commitment before his debut season in L.A. Despite racking up three 1,000-yard campaigns and 27 touchdowns -- while averaging 14.1 yards per catch -- during his first four NFL seasons, Cooks hasn't put up a yard for the Rams. We aren't exactly sure how he'll fit into this scheme, which has already posted big numbers without a household name on the perimeter. Now, that's not a slight to Robert Woods or Cooper Kupp, but neither is necessarily regarded as an A-level playmaker. The team's passing game is more systematic than player-driven.
That said, the system does call for a speed receiver with fine route-running ability and catch-and-run skills. After Sammy Watkins' departure, the team needed a long-term solution in this area. That's ultimately why the Rams valued Cooks at a premium, despite only having seen him perform in offseason workouts.
"Cooks is a more complete player than Watkins," a Rams official told me. "He is a better route runner and he has a little more position flexibility. ... He gives us an opportunity to create more mismatches on the perimeter. That should lead to more points."
To that point, Cooks has been miscast by some observers as a one-trick (field-stretching) pony. When I look at the tape, I see a legitimate WR1 with big-time playmaking ability in an offensive scheme with a history of elevating playmakers (see: DeSean Jackson under McVay in Washington). Cooks has 20 receptions of 40-plus yards in his brief career, including 18 over the past three seasons. That's the kind of production that catches defensive coordinators' attention and leads to fewer defenders in the box. Great news for Todd Gurley. In addition, Cooks' presence on the perimeter should prevent opponents from squeezing Woods and Kupp with exotic coverage tactics. This will enable Jared Goff to continue stringing together completions on easy throws to his No. 2 and No. 3 receivers at short and intermediate range.
But how do the Rams plan to negotiate with Gurley and Donald after tossing this chunk o' change at Cooks? Well, remember, the Rams have a Pro Bowl quarterback playing on a cheap rookie deal, which frees up significant cap dollars to lock up emerging stars on the team.
As the Rams look to dominate the NFC with their version of the "Big Three" (Goff, Gurley and Cooks), the decision to immediately lock up their new pass catcher could prove to be quite a wise investment when we look back at the move in a few years.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.