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:
— First impressions of DeVonta Smith.
— The Cowboys’ shrewd handling of their QB1.
— The BIG advantage in Baltimore.
But first, a look at one move that MUST be made …
As AFC representatives in each of the past two Super Bowls, the Kansas City Chiefs enter the 2021 season as conference favorites. But if the Chiefs want to continue making trips to the game’s biggest stage for years to come, they need to lock up Tyrann Mathieu — and they need to do it now.
The 29-year-old safety is not only one of the top defensive playmakers in the league, but he is the heart and soul of a unit that has ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense during each of his two seasons in Kansas City. A first-team All-Pro selection in both of those campaigns, Mathieu is a true ballhawk with exceptional instincts and awareness, leading all NFL safeties with six interceptions in 2020. In addition, the ninth-year pro has emerged as a dynamic leader for the defense, with his superb communication skills and football acumen raising the collective IQ of the unit. In my conversations with Chiefs defensive coaches over the past couple years, they raved about Mathieu’s leadership skills and work ethic. He is considered an all-in type of guy and his presence on the defense has helped the unit complement the hyper-explosive, Patrick Mahomes-led offense.
With all that in mind, it should be a no-brainer for the Chiefs to give Mathieu an extension to keep him in K.C. beyond this season. Andy Reid’s squad has dynastic ambitions, and No. 32 should be an integral part of that plan. As the quarterback of Steve Spagnuolo’s defense, Mathieu sets the tone for the unit’s play. That responsibility should not be overlooked when the Chiefs weigh the pros and cons of committing to a soon-to-be 30-year-old safety.
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That said, Mathieu also needs to understand the landscape of the safety market and Kansas City’s salary cap situation. This year’s cap decrease, due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on 2020 revenue, has altered team-building plans across the league. In Kansas City, Mathieu appears to be caught up in a numbers crunch.
“The landscape is super tricky,” Chiefs GM Brett Veach said this week from Chiefs training camp, per ESPN.com. “We’re at a $30 million (salary-cap) deficit from what we thought, and next year it’s $15 million. Right now, some things are out of our control just because of the cap reductions this year and next year. If you look at our books for next year, we’re going to be over by a bunch.
“Right now, we’re counting Orlando (Brown) on a (franchise) tag, but we think he’s going to play well, and we’re going to extend him, and that opens up space. Restructuring (with other players) opens up space. Some guys moving on will open up space.”
Mahomes, for one, knows how crucial the Honey Badger is to the Chiefs’ success. Earlier this offseason, the star quarterback waxed poetic about Mathieu, stressing that he wants the safety in Kansas City “as long as I’m here.” And to be clear, everything coming out of Veach’s mouth expresses a similar sentiment.
“We like to think that we’re going to find a way to get this done,” Veach told SiriusXM NFL Radio on Tuesday. “And he knows we love him, and we know he wants to be here. And right now, for him, and for us, I think it’s just a timing thing. But there’s not a guy in this league I respect as much as him for the way he goes about his business. And, you know, listen, a lot of these guys, and a lot of these teams — I think we saw the franchise-tag period come and go, and no one got done. And there have been a couple of deals, but a lot of these bigger deals haven’t been done for the same reason. Different players handle it in a different way. And just like you’d expect from Tyrann, just complete class. I mean, the guy is special. We love him. And we’re certainly going to work our tail off to keep him here.”
Mathieu himself could actually end up benefiting from the team’s purported “timing thing” in a financial sense. Now that the ink is dry on Jamal Adams’ new contract with the Seahawks, NFL executives are poring over the details to assess the new market value for the elite hybrid defensive backs across the league. The three-time Pro Bowler’s four-year, $70 million extension includes $38 million in guaranteed money. The deal makes Adams the league’s highest-paid safety in average annual value (AAV) at $17.5 million, easily surpassing that of the Broncos’ Justin Simmons ($15.25 million), with Budda Baker ($14.75 million), Eddie Jackson ($14.6 million) and Kevin Byard ($14.1 million) next in line. While Adams didn’t crack the coveted $20 million mark that represents the pay rate for elite players at premium non-quarterback positions (wide receiver, pass rusher, cornerback), this is a big step up in safety compensation. And while the position was long undervalued, it’s about to see an influx of big-money deals.
As documented by my colleague Gregg Rosenthal earlier this week, 2022’s prospective free agent class is littered with talented safeties. In addition to Mathieu, Jessie Bates, Marcus Williams and Marcus Maye are in the final year of their respective contracts. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James are currently set to hit the open market in 2023. Adams’ megadeal changes the math for all safeties, but especially the ones who are utilized in hybrid roles that are difficult to duplicate. This kind of payday for Adams — who dominates games as a box safety, having just set a DB record with 9.5 sacks last season — makes it easier for representatives of elite Swiss Army Knife defenders to push for deals that reflect their clients’ rare skills and production. Mathieu’s game is different than Adams’, of course, but they each possess unique talents that are both highly impactful and nearly impossible to replace.
Adams’ deal was just the beginning. The clock is ticking on a bunch of safeties getting PAID, inherently upping the ante at the position. So the longer Kansas City waits to lock up Mathieu, the more his price tag could increase. That’s why I think it’d be wise for the Chiefs to be as proactive as humanly possible when it comes to getting a deal done, instead of waiting until after this season. Kansas City should pony up now and keep the defensive leader in the fold long term.
With Mathieu holding significant leverage in this equation — based on his leadership, production, play-making ability and lack of an heir apparent — the Chiefs should make re-signing Mathieu the top priority over any other contract situation on the team.
DeVONTA SMITH’S DEBUT: Yup, his game translates
DeVonta Smith just logged his preseason debut, but upon first blush, it sure looks like he is more than capable of filling the role as the Eagles’ No. 1 receiver.
That statement doesn’t surprise some folks, considering Smith was the first wideout to win the Heisman Trophy in nearly three decades and came off the board with the 10th overall pick in April. But personally, I had my reservations about Smith making an immediate impact due to his underwhelming size and strength. With the physicality, speed and tempo of the pro game, I had concerns about Smith creating consistent separation against top defenders. Sure, the Alabama product lit the football world on fire last year with 117 catches for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns (!) in 13 games, but dominating as a collegian is vastly different than owning NFL defensive backs. As a 6-foot, 170-pounder with a slender build and a long stride, I wasn’t sure how the lightweight playmaker would transition into the NFL, especially considering he didn’t showcase blazing top-end speed.
But after watching the first-round pick’s first NFL game action Thursday night against the Bill Belichick’s Patriots, it appears his game does indeed translate to the highest level. Seeing Smith work at Alabama was like watching an artist paint a masterpiece, and the rookie’s artistry is still on full display in Philly.
OK, so No. 6 finished the night with just 19 yards on a pair of receptions, but he dazzled as a route runner on the perimeter. Smith possesses the shake-and-bake to slip past defenders in press coverage with a variety of one-on-one maneuvers that would make NBA All-Star Trae Young proud. The slim wideout complements his streetball press-release game with explosive stop-start quickness at the top of routes, consistently putting cornerbacks on their heels. Smith has a unique ability to run full speed into a stop without losing balance or body control when he re-directs out of his breaks. On Thursday night, the 22-year-old’s 10-yard gain on a catch-and-run following a spectacular move on a “jerk” route showcased his exceptional quickness, burst and body control.
Keep in mind: Smith’s still working back from a knee injury suffered at the start of training camp. If the rookie can win at less than 100 percent, imagine how he could torment defensive backs when he returns to full health.
From a critical standpoint, Smith had a few failed connections that would be scored as drops by a harsh grader. Although Smith was hit and hassled on the plays, the Eagles should expect their No. 1 receiver to make those grabs in key situations.
Overall, though, Smith definitely flashed enough talent, skill and potential to encourage Eagles coaches to build their intermediate passing game around his skills. He’s not the biggest guy on the field, but Smith is a dynamic pass catcher built to thrive as a chain mover on the perimeter.
DAK PRESCOTT: Cowboys playing it smart with QB1
After watching the Cowboys’ 2020 season unravel in the wake of Dak Prescott’s season-ending ankle injury, I am not surprised head coach Mike McCarthy is taking every precaution to ensure his QB1 will make it to the starting line ready to go in 2021.
Despite the wishes of the franchise quarterback, who is always itching to get his reps in, he’s unlikely to play this preseason as he continues working his way back from a shoulder strain that popped up early in training camp.
Considering the Cowboys’ struggles without No. 4, it is a wise decision to keep their $40 million man on the bench during preseason games. Although there are some benefits to playing in an exhibition game for a quarterback — the opportunity to improve chemistry, timing and execution, for example — those things are not worth the risk of injury. It’s important to remember that Prescott and Co. have spent many hours this offseason re-establishing the rapport that helped him average 400-plus passing yards (422.5) with a 9:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his four games last season.
In addition, I believe the Cowboys’ commitment to competitive drills and simulating game action during practice will be beneficial to the QB and the team. While attending training camp practices in Oxnard, California, I noticed Dallas devoted multiple periods to situational football, particularly the two-minute drill, third down and red zone. With McCarthy pitting the starting units against each other, Prescott was able to rehearse key situations in an ultra-competitive environment before being confined to mental reps due to the shoulder injury.
“At the end of the day, I trust the practice process,” McCarthy told reporters earlier this week. “… The tempo of how we practice, the cadence variations, and the emphasis of the game situations, I feel really good about what we’re able to get done in this environment as opposed to relying on preseason games. I’ve always felt the preseason games were primarily for the development of your young players. I do know this is our first year going through training camp.
“I think, ideally, if everybody was healthy and everything went smooth, we may have gone to a more traditional [approach], play 10, 15 plays in the first game, played a quarter in the second game, played the first half in the third game. Those things were all discussed, but camp doesn’t always go the way you’d like it to go.”
McCarthy wants his franchise quarterback to play fast, free and fearless when he takes the field for the NFL Kickoff game against the Buccaneers on Sept. 9, but he is wise enough to protect Prescott from the unnecessary exposure to a big hit in a meaningless preseason contest. While this conservative mindset might leave Dak feeling frustrated at times, the move could help America’s Team get off to a fast start with a healthy signal-caller in place.
RAVENS’ O-LINE: Is bigger better?
There is a reason why boxing promoters do not pit heavyweight against middleweights in title fights. The toll of absorbing a barrage of shots from a heavier fighter would force a smaller pugilist to tap out. I do not know if John Harbaugh is a boxing aficionado, but he has assembled a mammoth offensive line with the capacity to pummel opponents into submission through an assortment of George Foreman-like body blows that zap the life out of defenders.
Per ESPN’s Jamison Hensley, this is the Ravens’ projected starting front:
LT: Ronnie Stanley (6-6, 315)
LG: Ben Cleveland (6-6, 357)
C: Bradley Bozeman (6-5, 325)
RG: Kevin Zeitler (6-4, 315)
RT: Alejandro Villanueva (6-9, 320)
The massive quintet would give Baltimore’s offense an extra-large feel at the point of attack as the Ravens continue to pound opponents via a run-centric scheme that features a variety of pin-and-pull power runs with Lamar Jackson and others take turns running between the tackles. For a team that has led the NFL in rushing offense in each of the past two seasons, the thought of a bigger and better front line should scare opponents.
Remember, the Ravens will likely have different starters at four of five O-line positions compared to Week 1 of 2020, with Stanley as the lone holdover at left tackle. After starting at left guard over the past two years, Bozeman is now working at the pivot. Meanwhile, the team added Villanueva and Zeitler in free agency and Cleveland in the draft, while trading away disgruntled RT Orlando Brown Jr. Although the unit could take some time to develop the chemistry needed to dominate elite opponents, Baltimore’s commitment to a ground-and-pound approach should eventually enable the offensive line to flex its muscles with bigger bodies controlling the line of scrimmage.
If the Ravens’ super-sized front can bully all comers, Harbaugh’s squad could be better positioned to make a deep postseason run.
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