Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today’s installment covers:
— A former top-three pick emerging as a force in Detroit.
— How Arthur Smith has helped one Falcon reach full potential in Year 10.
But first, a look at the emergence of a franchise quarterback …
If you are a regular listener of the Move the Sticks Podcast, you have undoubtedly heard Daniel Jeremiah and I discuss the importance of “the three Ps” when it comes to developing quarterbacks: play-callers, playmakers and protectors.
Having played on teams with Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Brett Favre — as well as Rich Gannon, a few years before he won league MVP — I can tell you that it’s nearly impossible to find a quarterback who can perform at an elite level without great players and coaches around him. Although we romanticize the notion of a franchise passer elevating the entire team’s play, the truth is that even the most talented signal-callers need the three Ps. Just look at what’s going on right now in Jacksonville.
The evolution of Trevor Lawrence is the latest example of a naturally gifted QB realizing his potential with the support of a savvy play-caller, quality playmakers and rock-solid protection. With that foundation around him in Year 2, Lawrence once again resembles the “generational talent” who had NFL scouts and executives swooning by the end of his freshman year at Clemson. In fact, the 22-year-old has started to showcase the tremendous upside that spawned Andrew Luck and John Elway comparisons during a pre-draft process that unsurprisingly ended with him going No. 1 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. And Lawrence’s rise, of course, has been a huge part of Jacksonville’s surprising 2-1 start.
Currently in my third year as a Jaguars analyst (and first as a sideline analyst on radio broadcasts), I have watched Lawrence’s transformation from the field level. And I can tell you — without any reservation — that the second-year pro looks nothing like the overwhelmed rookie who was tasked with putting an entire franchise on his back before he’d had enough time to understand how to be a pro. While most top picks step into difficult situations, it is hard to imagine any quarterback flourishing amid the chaos that surrounded Lawrence a season ago. From Urban Meyer’s disastrous coaching tenure to the lackluster talent around him, No. 16 just did not have enough support to play the game at a high level in his debut campaign.
Enter Doug Pederson and a veteran NFL coaching staff, and Lawrence suddenly looks like a new-and-improved player in 2022. He is receiving detailed instruction from proven quarterback developers (SEE: offensive coordinator Press Taylor and quarterbacks coach Mike McCoy) while playing in a system that is tailored to the strengths of his game.
As a gifted passer with plus arm talent, athleticism and football character (work ethic, intelligence and instincts), Lawrence has the raw tools to thrive in any system, but he is at his best directing a quick-rhythm offense that meshes quicks, screens, movement passes and traditional dropbacks. At Clemson, he played in a scheme that featured a number of “catch, rock and fire” concepts designed to get the ball out of his hands quickly, and he needed to have some of those plays baked into the game plan in order for him to find his rhythm as a passer.
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Pederson brought in a version of the West Coast offense that he has tweaked and refined from his time as a player under Mike Holmgren and Andy Reid. The quarterback-friendly system features a handful of base concepts that can be executed from multiple formations and personnel groupings. By keeping reads the same for the quarterback while incorporating different players into concepts, Pederson makes the offense appear complex to defenses and simple to his trigger man. You can’t pull that off, though, without the right weaponry in the passing game.
The lifeblood of Pederson’s aerial attack is Jacksonville’s veteran receiving corps, which offers the experience, versatility and adaptability necessary to run these concepts. Marvin Jones Jr., Christian Kirk, Zay Jones and Evan Engram are interchangeable pass catchers with the route-running skills and overall awareness to align anywhere on the field. With each player comfortable playing in the slot or out wide, the Jags have the ability to change the picture for the defense while keeping Lawrence comfortable with his reads.
Despite widespread lampooning of Jacksonville’s offseason spending spree on pass catchers, Kirk (four years, $72 million), Zay Jones (three years, $24 million) and Engram (one year, $9 million) have provided immediate return on investment. Through three games, Lawrence has evenly distributed the ball to an experienced quartet of pass catchers:
- Christian Kirk: 18 receptions for 267 yards (14.8 yards per catch) and three TDs.
- Zay Jones: 19 receptions for 173 yards (9.1 ypc) and one TD.
- Marvin Jones Jr.: 11 receptions for 104 yards (9.5 ypc) and one TD.
- Evan Engram: 12 receptions for 83 yards (6.9 ypc).
With Jacksonville utilizing a number of quick passes, screens and bootlegs, Lawrence has been able to become a more efficient and effective passer. His completion percentage (69.4), passer rating (103.1) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (6:1) are all significantly better than his rookie figures (59.6 completion percentage, 71.9 passer rating, 12:17 TD-to-INT ratio). This immense improvement has sparked a Jaguars offense that currently ranks seventh in scoring (up from dead last in 2022) and sixth in total yards (up from 27th). The Jags have nine drives of at least 10 plays, which is tops in the NFL. They’ve also converted four fourth-down conversions (tied for third), surrendered just two sacks (tied with the Chiefs for No. 1) and controlled the ball for an average of 34:35 minutes per game (tied for second). Jacksonville wears down opponents with a “half-court offense” that challenges the discipline and awareness of defenders.
As the Jaguars’ offensive line has jelled, with a mix of veterans and newbies coming together, the protection and overall physicality of the unit has played a key role in Lawrence’s development. Defenses must respect Jacksonville’s ruggedness, particularly in the James Robinson-led ground game, which opens up the field for play-action passes. In addition, the offense’s physical mentality has helped Lawrence play with the edge of a franchise quarterback.
Given his success as a championship field general at the high school and collegiate levels, Lawrence entered the league knowing how to win — but he needed to be placed in an environment that set him up for success. Pederson’s experience as a Super Bowl champion (player and coach) has provided the young quarterback with a mentor who knows what a true contender must look like between the lines.
With the new head coach placing the three Ps around a talented young quarterback with five-star tools, the Jaguars head into a big Week 4 game at Philadelphia as an upstart squad in first place of a winnable division. The season is young, but Jacksonville’s future looks exponentially brighter than it did one year ago.
Okudah is who we thought he was
In the scouting world, it’s widely believed that it takes three years to determine whether a player is a baller or not. Regardless of draft pedigree, that’s how long most prospects need to fully showcase their talents and potential as pros.
The emergence of Jeff Okudah as an elite cover corner in Detroit this season is a testament to that scouting truism.
Okudah’s rookie season (two passes defensed, 47 tackles in nine games) was truncated by multiple injuries and coincided with the final year of Matt Patricia’s tenure as head coach. Okudah’s second pro season was ended by a torn Achilles in Week 1 last year.
This season, though, the former Ohio State standout has become exactly what many expected when he was selected with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
The 6-foot-1, 202-pounder is evolving into a lockdown specialist who excels at playing old-school, bump-and-run coverage in a man-to-man scheme. Going into Week 4, Okudah had spent more snaps in press coverage (81) than any other defender in the league, per Pro Football Focus, and his sticky coverage has helped the Lions’ defense become more competitive this season. Okudah has surrendered just 6.7 yards per reception (tied for fifth-fewest in the NFL heading into Week 4) in press coverage on 10 targets.
This is a significant change from Okudah’s rookie season. In just three games, he’s already nearly matched the number of snaps he played in press coverage in nine games in 2020 (110). He’s also significantly increased the percentage of coverage snaps that are played in press, pushing that figure from 43.8 percent in 2020 to 65.3 percent this season.
Given his success in bump-and-run, the Lions have deployed Okudah as a “travel” corner, assigned the opponent’s top receiver. Per Next Gen Stats, against the Vikings in Week 3, Okudah matched up against Justin Jefferson on 78 percent of Jefferson’s routes. In Week 2, Okudah aligned opposite Washington’s Terry McLaurin on 57.8 percent of McLaurin’s routes.
Okudah did not travel in Week 1 against the Eagles. Still, he held his own against A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith as the left cornerback in the Lions’ scheme.
Studying the output from each of the aforementioned pass catchers against Okudah, it is easy to see why buzz is building about the 23-year-old as a star on the island. Per NGS, Jefferson, McLaurin, Brown and Smith were each held to two receptions or fewer when Okudah was in primary coverage, with most of their completions coming on wide receiver screens or pick plays. The utilization of pick plays and rub routes to create separation from Okudah suggests that the young cornerback is dominating his matchups on the edge and forcing offensive coordinators to create space for their top wideouts.
I reviewed my notes on Okudah from watching him at Ohio State, and I loved his skills in man-to-man coverage. He displayed impressive technical skills in coverage and possessed the tools to flourish as a Stephon Gilmore-like defender on the island.
On a Move The Sticks podcast shortly after the 2020 NFL Draft, I doubled down on that assessment when I projected how the then-rookie would play in Matt Patricia’s system. Here’s what I said at the time:
“The Detroit Lions are a team that lives in man-to-man coverage. Jeffrey Okudah a guy that can play man as well as anybody, but he can do it in a variety of different ways. The thing about it with Okudah … I don’t know if Stephon Gilmore is what I call an A+ athlete, meaning he’s going to check off all of these high-level boxes as an elite athlete when it comes to speed, explosiveness, leaping ability, and I don’t think Jeffrey Okudah is that.
“But what both guys are, they are very detailed and thorough technicians. When you watch them, it is like watching clinic tape. They’re tough, they’ll tackle, they’ll do those things. That is always going to give Okudah a chance to be a high-level player. I liked him a lot. It’s tough, because I don’t know if they have enough pass rush for him to hold up on that island all by himself in that division, but I think they got a good one. We’ll just see how Matt Patricia is able to integrate him into the lineup and put him in a position to succeed.”
Injuries prevented Okudah from realizing his potential early in his career, but the third-year pro has finally found his way on the perimeter. He has regained his confidence after some early struggles, and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn has put his star cornerback in a position to succeed as a CB1 by allowing him to play to his strengths.
With more man-to-man responsibilities and press coverage calls, the Lions have found a way to unlock the potential of a former top-three pick.
Cordarrelle’s metamorphosis is complete
Sometimes it takes a while for a player to find his place in the league. Whether it is playing for the right coach or playing a position within a scheme that best suits their talents, the overwhelming majority are system players who need to be in the right environment to flourish on the field.
Cordarrelle Patterson is the perfect example of a system player finding the right coach, scheme and team for his talents. The former All-Pro kick returner and gadget playmaker has become a standout RB1 for Arthur Smith in Atlanta. The 10th-year pro is NFL’s third-leading rusher with an average of 100.7 rush yards per game and two scores. Patterson returned to practice Friday after missing the prior two days with a resting player/knee designation, and he’s officially listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns.
“Practice was good,” Patterson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It felt good to be back out there with the guys. I miss them boys. I miss being out there with them.”
Averaging 6.2 yards per carry through three weeks, Patterson has become a ground-and-pound specialist after spending most of his career as a utility player without a clearly defined role. Sure, the 2013 first-round pick has played as a hybrid receiver-running back for the Minnesota Vikings, Las Vegas Raiders, New England Patriots and Chicago Bears, but he has become a borderline star as the feature back for the Dirty Birds.
It’s possible Patterson’s success as a running back in Atlanta is due to Smith’s decision to utilize him almost exclusively in the backfield. According to Next Gen Stats, the veteran has aligned in the backfield on 81.8 percent of his snaps this season, after lining up as a running back on 63.5 percent of his offensive snaps in 2021 with the Falcons. The increased utilization as a running back is part of a trend that began during the 2020 campaign (72.8%) with the Bears.
Patterson’s explosiveness as a runner was showcased in a spectacular effort against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 3. He rushed for a career-high 141 yards on 17 carries with a score just two weeks after logging his previous career mark (120 rush yards in Week 1). While the stat sheet certainly reflected his impact, it was how he dominated the game between the tackles that stood out during film study.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder is a hard-nosed runner with enough speed to turn the corner on perimeter runs. As a former wide receiver, Patterson shows more thump than expected as an aggressive finisher on inside runs. The combination of strength, power and toughness from the veteran is a bit of a surprise considering he primarily played on the edges for most of his career.
Smith clearly spotted something in Patterson when he brought him to Atlanta on a one-year deal in 2021 and placed him in the backfield as a unique offensive weapon. Last season, Smith featured him as a mismatch option with the potential to create headaches in the passing game, but Patterson has become the primary ball-carrier for the Dirty Birds this year after re-signing with the team in the offseason.
“He’s playing really good football,” Smith told reporters earlier this week. “He’s still a valuable piece. And I think we can still move CP around if we need to.”
After bouncing around the league for nearly a decade attempting to find a perfect role for his skill set, Patterson has landed with the right coach and team to showcase his talents. With more opportunities to dazzle as an RB1 in Atlanta, the Falcons’ top offensive weapon might earn all-star honors at a position that few envisioned for the former All-Pro kick returner.
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