DO NOT trade Julio Jones; top positional battles; saving Sam Darnold

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:

— A preview of the top positional battles to watch

— Why the Panthers are feeling high on Sam Darnold

But first, let’s consider why it would be a major mistake for a certain would-be contender to part ways with its veteran star …

Don’t do it.

If the Atlanta Falcons are serious about emerging as a worst-to-first team in the NFC South, they must resist the temptation to trade away Julio Jones this summer. Despite dealing with a hellacious salary-cap situation heading into the season, the Falcons must keep their best player on the roster to maximize their chances of bouncing back quickly under new coach Arthur Smith and Co.

“They hired the wrong guys if they thought we were going to lower expectations, take our time, and rebuild,” Smith said, via Peter King. “That’s just not who we are. The expectation is to win now, build for the future, have plans.”

Based on Smith’s comments, the Falcons have every intention of being a competitive team this year, and that should eliminate any questions or concerns over Jones’ immediate future. The two-time All-Pro pass-catcher is unquestionably one of the best receivers in the game when he is on the field, and his mere presence makes the Falcons’ offense a nightmare to defend.

As a 6-foot-3, 220-pound playmaker with explosive speed and quickness, Jones puts defenders in a constant state of panic. Though he’s lost a step, the 32-year-old veteran receiver still plays with a suddenness that pops on tape. In addition, Jones combines his explosiveness with refined route-running skills and superb technique that enables him to counter the various tactics defenders use to try to slow him down.

As a result, Jones ranks as an all-time great, recording 848 receptions, 12,896 receiving yards and 60 touchdowns in his 10 NFL seasons so far, with a receiving yards-per-game mark of 95.5, No. 1 on the all-time list. Considering he posted six straight seasons with at least 1,300 yards prior to his injury-marred 2020 season, the veteran remains one of the elites at the position when fully healthy.

That’s why it is sensible for the Falcons to keep No. 11 in the fold, with Calvin Ridley emerging as a star and rookie Kyle Pitts joining the squad as an all-star-caliber talent at tight end. With three explosive playmakers on the perimeter, quarterback Matt Ryan could regain MVP-candidate status. Moreover, the Falcons could re-emerge as an elite offense with the NFL’s most dynamic pass-catching corps on the field.

And while the Falcons do need to address Jones’ exorbitant salary-cap number ($23.05 million, per Over The Cap) to balance out the books for 2021 and beyond, don’t think moving him represents an easy solution. If the team were to trade away Jones, who is under contract through 2023, after June 1, it would save over $15 million for this year — but it would also absorb a cap hit of $15.5 million in dead money in 2022, per Over The Cap. Given the relative “push” in terms of money saved, the Falcons would be wise to keep Jones and find a way to finagle cap room by extending or restructuring other contracts (see: Grady Jarrett, whose cap number for 2021 is $20.83 million).

The on-field benefits of keeping Jones outweigh the benefits of having a balanced checkbook, and the team should prioritize winning over everything else, particularly with Ryan looking locked in for the next few seasons. The former MVP needs a fully stocked supporting cast to perform at a high level, and it would be counterproductive for the Falcons to say goodbye to their most dangerous offensive playmaker, either in an effort to pinch pennies or acquire draft capital for the future. Yes, Ridley is making a strong push to join the ranks of the elite, coming off his first professional 1,000-yard season, but the Falcons are better off with a 1A-and-1B situation on the perimeter, with Pitts acclimating to the pro game as a hybrid Y on the field.

It is fun to speculate about trades involving superstars, but the Falcons need to send all prospective calls regarding Jones to voicemail and focus on keeping No. 11 around to ensure their chances of climbing out of the NFC South cellar in Smith’s rookie season.

TOP FIVE POSITIONAL BATTLES

The draft provides NFL teams with an opportunity to upgrade their rosters with blue-chip players with the potential to make an immediate impact. While most teams will pencil their top prospects into the starting lineup, there are others who will make the rookies earn their starting jobs through competitions. Whether those competitions are real battles with the coaches keeping score on every rep or faux competitions with the rookie given the inside track to the job, the faceoffs often make for an interesting watch for observers around the league.

Given some time to survey the landscape for the most intriguing battles as we look forward to mandatory minicamps and training camps, here are five competitions to monitor ahead of the 2021 NFL season:

1) Patriots quarterback: Cam Newton vs. Mac Jones. After missing the playoffs with a sub-.500 record in 2020, the Patriots are hosting a quarterback competition between a former NFL MVP and a Tom Brady-wannabe. Although the odds would suggest Newton, who will turn 32 next week, is facing an uphill climb to retain his hold on the QB1 role following a disappointing season in which he posted an upside-down touchdown-to-interception ratio (8:10), we can’t forget the veteran did tally 12 rushing scores as the focal point of a power-based offense that has added some playmakers at tight end (Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry) and wide receiver (Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor). Jones, selected 15th overall in the draft, is a “connect the dots” passer with a polished skill set that ideally suits the Patriots’ system. Despite his inexperience (only 17 career starts), the Alabama standout seems well-positioned to win the job if he can quickly acclimate to the speed and complexity of the pro game. The rookie will get his chance — but Bill Belichick will make him earn it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Newton ends up winning out after showing he can play better in Year 2 in this system.

2) Cowboys linebacker: Micah Parsons vs. Jaylon Smith or Leighton Vander Esch. Perhaps the Cowboys will find a way to feature Parsons, Smith and LVE as the starters in their 3-4 scheme, but it is only a matter of time before the 12th overall pick becomes the centerpiece of the defense. Parsons is an ultra-explosive athlete with exceptional instincts, awareness and pass-rush ability. He adds a dimension to the defense with his playmaking skills, and it will be hard for the veterans to fend off the youngster in a battle. That said, Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn might come up with a few packages that enable Parsons to complement what Smith and LVE do as tackle-to-tackle defenders with big thump ability. It is worth noting that the team declined Vander Esch’s fifth-year option, meaning the Cowboys are not committed to him beyond 2021, which is also the last year of guaranteed money on Smith’s current contract. And Dallas doesn’t lack for depth at the position, having drafted another linebacker, LSU’s Jabril Cox, in the fourth round.

3) 49ers quarterback: Trey Lance vs. Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo hasn’t been unsuccessful with the Niners, compiling a 22-8 record as a starter, but Kyle Shanahan still opted to trade up for Lance at No. 3 overall to enhance the team’s odds of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in the near future. CEO Jed York recently said the team would be OK with Jimmy G. remaining the starter for the next two seasons if he plays at an NFL level, which suggests the focus with the rookie will be on developing him rather than expecting him to win the job immediately. Still, Garoppolo’s suspect injury history and inability to cash in on on-field lottery tickets (wide-open throws) mean it is only a matter of time before Lance takes the field, and it is worth tracking his progress. Lance’s explosive running skills could transform the 49ers’ running game from good to unstoppable while he manages the offense as a low-risk caretaker (he logged zero interceptions in his one full season as a starter at North Dakota State) with a diverse game that is an ideal match for how Shanahan wants to play in 2021 and beyond.

4) Jaguars running back: Travis Etienne vs. James Robinson. The Jaguars’ returning 1,000-yard rusher was a nice find as an undrafted rookie free agent last season, but he’s going to have a tough time keeping the 25th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft from snatching his job. Etienne is a touchdown waiting to happen with the ball in his hands, and his big-play ability will add a new dimension to the Jaguars’ offense as coach Urban Meyer breaks in rookie Trevor Lawrence at quarterback. Given his explosiveness as a one-cut runner with the capacity to take it to the house on runs between the tackles or on the edges, the Clemson product has more juice than Robinson on the ground. Moreover, Etienne is a more dynamic playmaker in the passing game, with the route-running skills to excel as a pass catcher in the backfield or out wide.

Robinson will carve out a role as a rotational player, but the Jaguars’ RB1 job is Etienne’s to lose when the team convenes.

5) Bears quarterback: Justin Fields vs. Andy Dalton. The Bears’ social media team may have anointed Dalton the team’s QB1 in the offseason, but head coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace apparently had different plans, with Chicago trading up to draft Fields at No. 11 overall. The Ohio State standout is an upgrade as an athlete and playmaker with A-plus traits as a runner and thrower. Although the 33-year-old Dalton’s experience (10 NFL seasons), winning pedigree (74-66-2 record) and superb management skills will make him an attractive candidate as an early-season starter, the Bears must consider the benefits of providing on-the-job training for their future franchise quarterback. Fields will not only learn from every practice and game rep, but the front office and coaching staff will have a better idea of how to build up the team around their young star once they see him in action. Dalton might open the season as the Bears’ starter, but the team needs to hand the baton to Fields as quickly as is feasible to build a bridge to the future.

PANTHERS: Nature vs. nurture and Sam Darnold

If you ask evaluators what matters most in the development of the quarterback, the conversation routinely leads to a debate over talent versus environment. But it’s not necessarily an either/or scenario. Franchise quarterbacks need to possess blue-chip talent — and they also must be surrounded by premier playmakers, protection and an A-plus play-caller to thrive.

In the case of Sam Darnold, we’ve seen enough from the 23-year-old to know the talent is there. But when it comes to the three Ps, the young signal-caller has rarely been exposed to even one facet, let alone the trifecta. That shouldn’t be the case in Carolina, however, as the franchise seems to understand how important these factors are to the development of young quarterbacks. The Panthers’ commitment to providing all three could help Darnold finally realize his potential as a pro.

“We’re just trying to build the whole team, and I just believe in Sam, I believe that he deserves the opportunity to go out and play with us,” head coach Matt Rhule recently said on the Rich Eisen Show. “Now, we just have to make sure Sam’s a great player for us.”

The vote of confidence is a bit of a surprise for a quarterback with a 13-25 career record and the worst passer rating in the league since 2018 (78.6). But the belief in the former No. 3 overall pick stems in part from his untapped potential. It’s not that long ago that NFL scouts and personnel executives were painting Darnold as an elite quarterback prospect. The USC standout was lauded for his gunslinger mentality, clutch playmaking ability and winning pedigree.

Despite an up-and-down three-year stint with the New York Jets, Darnold flashed enough talent to prompt Rhule and the Panthers to not only dump their starter (Teddy Bridgewater), but bypass potential QB1s early on Day 1 of the draft.

“We were sitting there one day on defense, and I can’t remember (exactly) what we were watching, we were watching a cut-up, and Sam was playing on the other side of the ball, and a couple times he made some throws, and Phil Snow, our defensive coordinator, was like, ‘Man, that kid looks like Matt Stafford.’ And so, we put a couple games on — and this is the defensive staff — and they were all like, ‘You know what, every game we watch, he makes a couple of big-time plays, and there has to be some meat on the bone there,’ ” Rhule said. “So, kind of went through the process and kept watching him and going back and watching him in college and watching his pro day and then going back and watching his first year in a different offense and the second year and his third year. When the compensation was enough where we didn’t have to give up what we thought was too much that [it] would hurt our team and a chance to get him here, we’d watched so much tape on him that we saw enough shining moments.”

As a young scout, I was taught by my mentors to grade the flashes, because if a player can do it once, he can do it again in the right situation. The Panthers are banking on an upgraded supporting cast — a pair of 1,000-yard receivers (Robby Anderson and D.J. Moore) and a member of the exclusive 1,000/1,000 Club (Christian McCaffrey) — creating easier big-play opportunities for the quarterback. In addition, the Panthers used the draft to add a several more weapons (WR Terrace Marshall, WR Shi Smith, RB Chuba Hubbard and TE Tommy Tremble) and upgrade the offensive line (OT Brady Christensen and OG Deonte Brown).

With offensive coordinator Joe Brady poised to dial up productive play calls, the Panthers believe the fourth-year pro will flourish in his new environment.

“After getting him here, talking to Robby Anderson, who played with him (the receiver was with the Jets in 2018 and ’19 before joining the Panthers in 2020), talking to other guys who played with him, there’s not many guys who’ve been his teammates who say anything bad about him,” Rhule said. “Like, they all have believed in him and believe that he can be good. Hearing some of his former coaches talk about him, they believe that he can be good and so I’ve always been kind of a nurture vs. nature guy, I think people have to be in the right situations and, you know, hopefully a change of scenery is what he needs.”

Considering how the Panthers have gone all-in on the Sam Darnold experiment, we will find out quickly if the former first-rounder can realize his potential in a new environment.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter.

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