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:
— Three players flying up draft boards after dynamic showings at the NFL Scouting Combine.
— The prospect who could make a Derrick Henry-like impact at the next level.
But first, the case against QB upheaval for a team looking to reverse its fortunes …
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I don’t know if Ron Rivera and the Washington Redskins are seriously considering moving on from Dwayne Haskins to grab one of the top quarterbacks in the 2020 NFL Draft, but I believe walking away from Haskins after a seven-game stint as the team’s starter would be a colossal mistake.
Rivera recently told reporters that all options are on the table with the second overall pick, but I’ll say it again: If the Redskins decide to part ways with Haskins after a year, the team will eventually regret dismissing a franchise quarterback with the talent and potential to bring a Lombardi Trophy home to the Washington D.C. area.
I know that statement will be met with eye rolls, laughs and snickers from some folks, but I’m willing to go all in on the second-year pro after reviewing the All-22 Coaches Film from his rookie season. Haskins not only exhibits the arm talent, poise and confidence to be a franchise quarterback but his steady improvement over the course of the season suggests that his game will pop in Year 2.
It’s important to note that Haskins posted a 67.1 percent completion rate and 5:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his final three starts. In fact, he recorded a 120-plus passer rating in each of his last two outings (against the Eagles and Giants). Imagine what his production could be with a Pro Bowl-caliber offensive tackle protecting his blindside and a supporting cast around him that features more than a talented rookie WR1 (Terry McLaurin) and an aging RB1 (Adrian Peterson) defying the odds as an old runner.
To get a full measure of Haskins’ performance and potential, you have to go beyond the numbers. The Redskins’ QB1 looked comfortable firing the ball out to the perimeter on an assortment of quick-rhythm throws, particularly on slants, skinny posts and digs targeted between the numbers. Haskins repeatedly delivered the ball on time and on target, giving his receivers opportunities to run away from defenders in the open field. Considering the importance of YAC (yards after catch) to most offenses, Haskins’ accuracy and ball placement are critical to the team’s success.
As a classic dropback passer, Haskins is at his best when he’s able to set up from a clean pocket and deliver darts. He’s deadly accurate when given time, and his ability to carve up defenses following play-action fakes should make the run-action game a priority in the Redskins’ new playbook under coordinator Scott Turner (the son of longtime coach Norv). In addition, Haskins’ ability to identify open receivers in empty and spread formations gives Washington options when determining how to attack opponents who feature heavy pressure tactics.
From a critical standpoint, Haskins’ athletic limitations prevent the Redskins from doing some of the cutting-edge RPOs that are popping up around the league, but he’s dabbled with the speed option and utilized his legs to buy time within the pocket or scramble for first downs on broken plays. Although he isn’t a legitimate threat to take it the distance as a runner, he is agile enough to be utilized in a movement passing game that features bootlegs and half-roll plays. Now, Haskins needs to learn from the selfie incident that occurred last season and show more maturity. He also needs to live up to the work ethic expectations required of franchise quarterbacks. By all accounts, the reports on Haskins’ offseason work habits this year have been good and I’ve heard from sources within the building that he’s spent more time at the facility working on his game. Sure, it might just be part of a plan to make a solid first impression on the new coaching staff, but it should be viewed as a step in the right direction for a 22-year-old quarterback with only a year and a half of advanced-level playing experience (one-year starter at Ohio State; seven-game starter with the Redskins).
When I compare Haskins with the top quarterbacks available in the 2020 draft (Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa), I don’t know if you can rate either as a better prospect based on their collegiate resumes. Sure, Burrow is the toast of the town coming off a spectacular 60-touchdown season that culminated with a national title win for LSU, but Haskins had a 50-touchdown season at Ohio State after defeating Burrow in a hotly contested quarterback competition during the spring of 2018.
In fact, when I asked former Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer — the man who oversaw that QB competition — about Haskins and Burrow during an episode of the Move The Sticks Podcast in the fall, he suggested Haskins was the more talented QB while lauding Burrow’s leadership and work ethic.
Although both players’ games have continued to evolve and grow since that battle, I’m inclined to lean on the opinion of a three-time national-champion coach with intimate knowledge of each player. With the outcome of their competition in mind, I don’t know if the Redskins can guarantee Burrow is an upgrade over the incumbent at the position. Plus, Burrow won’t even be an option for Washington with its top pick (No. 2 overall) if the Bengals take him with the first overall selection.
In considering Tagovailoa, the Redskins would need to ponder the risk-versus-reward scenario in drafting a player with an extensive injury history. There’s no denying Tua’s talent, but the former Alabama standout has suffered a spate of lower-body injuries (both ankles, knee and hip) that lead to concerns about his durability. A major milestone in his recovery from the hip injury that ended his 2019 season might be just a few days away, as he said last week at the NFL Scouting Combine that he’s expecting to be cleared by doctors for full-speed workouts on March 9.
Sure, Tua could be a left-handed version of Drew Brees, but injuries could prevent him from ever reaching his potential if those woes follow him into the league. Given the current state of the Redskins franchise, can it afford to roll the dice on a prospect with that type of injury history?
That’s why I would stand on the table in pre-draft meetings and urge the team to proceed with Haskins as the franchise quarterback. Doing so would allow the Redskins to use their draft capital to attack the roster’s biggest holes. From the lack of a young, A-level pass rusher to the need to identify a blue-chip left tackle (if Trent Williams does indeed depart after receiving permission to seek a trade) and add playmakers on the perimeter (tight end and wide receiver), the Redskins will have to acquire more high-end players at several spots to close the gap on their division rivals.
If Rivera is committed to getting the Redskins back to title contention, he should move forward with No. 7 as the team’s QB1 and let him grow into being the franchise quarterback many envisioned when his name was called on Draft Day last year.
NFL SCOUTING COMBINE: Three prospects who helped themselves
If I were a general manager searching for some hidden gems to target on draft weekend, I’d spend some time scouring old recruiting lists to identify a handful of five-star recruits who’ve fallen through the cracks during the pre-draft process. Although the star system is far from perfect, I’ve been around the high school game long enough to know that the guys who earn top honors display spectacular promise at camps and in games to pique the interests of evaluators projecting their potential. And I’ve also seen enough of these players fail to maximize their impact at the college level, due to poor coaching, flawed deployment, personal issues or a host of other factors. Thus, the rare ability could still be there — it’s just untapped.
When I’ve asked recruiting experts about what it takes to earn five-star status, they’ve told me that it’s a mix of raw talent, unique athleticism, immense potential and on-field dominance. While recruitniks will pore over game tape to help them make their long-term projections, the camp and 7-on-7 circuit also play a major role in the evaluation process. With the athletic testing numbers viewed as the final piece of the puzzle, it’s not a coincidence that most five-star recruits are explosive athletes with exceptional physical traits that tease and tantalize scouts at every level.
"It’s a projection," said Greg Biggins, national recruiting analyst for 247Sports. "You’re looking more at high-level athletic traits, physical upside over production, but that matters, too.
"We also look at things like multi-sport athleticism and track times. … We also look at competitiveness, toughness and how much passion they have for the game."
Given that criteria, I’m not surprised seeing a trio of former top recruits re-emerging as buzz-worthy draft prospects following strong performances at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Mississippi State LB Willie Gay Jr., UCLA CB Darnay Holmes and Michigan WR Donovan Peoples-Jones crushed the athletic testing portion of the workout and displayed intriguing potential in positional drills. Although each of their performances seemingly came out of the blue, a quick review of their SPARQ testing numbers from their high school years confirms their blue-chip athleticism.
Let’s start with Gay, who was actually a high four-star recruit, but we’re kinda splitting hairs there. In high school, he posted a SPARQ rating of 128.22 on the strength of a 4.53 40-yard dash, 39.2-inch vertical jump, 4.26-second 20-yard shuttle and 39.5-inch power throw. In the Class of 2017, he was the No. 2 overall player in Mississippi and No. 3 outside linebacker in the nation, according to 247Sports, boasting a dynamic skill set that made college coaches drool.
Although Gay never realized his potential at Mississippi State (just six starts in 31 games) and enters the NFL with some character concerns (SEE: eight-game NCAA suspension due to academic infractions, as well as an apparent dust-up with the team’s quarterback), he posted enough splash plays as a disruptive blitzer and sideline-to-sideline playmaker over his three-year career to captivate the imagination of a defensive coordinator looking for an athletic linebacker with upside.
Fresh off an impressive showing in Lucas Oil Stadium (4.46 40-yard dash, 39.5-inch vertical leap, 11-foot-4 broad jump, 4.3 20-yard shuttle), Gay has caught the interest of defensive coaches as a developmental player with impact potential.
"Gay is an intriguing prospect due to his speed, quickness and burst," an AFC linebacker coach told me. "I don’t know if he can get the guys lined up as a ‘Mike,’ but he can definitely carve out a role as a nickel linebacker. It’s hard to find guys with that kind of speed. Plus, he’s flashed a little bit as a blitzer."
Holmes was a highly acclaimed recruit out of Calabasas High School (Calif.). Possessing dynamic playmaking ability as a two-way standout, he dazzled recruiting analysts with his 128.91 SPARQ rating, which was highlighted by a 4.32 40-yard dash. 247Sports ranked Holmes as the No. 4 player in California and No. 3 cornerback in the country (behind a pair of Ohio State commits, Jeff Okudah and Shaun Wade).
At UCLA, Holmes looked like a five-star player early on, as young starting cornerback for the Bruins. Reviewing his game footage from his freshman and sophomore seasons, he could mirror and shadow receivers on the perimeter with his exceptional athleticism and quickness. Additionally, Holmes was an A+ competitor with a feisty temperament that enabled him to hold his own against big-bodied pass catchers on the edge.
In his junior year, Holmes didn’t look like the same player, as he attempted to play through a lower-leg injury that clearly affected his game. He couldn’t mirror and match pedestrian receivers and he lacked attention to detail with his fundamentals, resulting in inconsistent performance on the perimeter.
That said, Holmes looked like a top-tier player at the Senior Bowl. He held his own against some of the top pass catchers in 2020 draft class and exhibited intriguing traits (high IQ, instincts, ball skills and man-coverage ability) as a slot corner. Holmes looked like a natural playing as a nickel, displaying the smarts and toughness to be a consistent playmaker at the next level.
"Holmes might be the best nickel corner in the draft," an AFC secondary coach told me. "He has a knack for playing inside — and that’s hard to find.
"I like his toughness and competitiveness. He’s a good one."
The UCLA standout followed up his strong Senior Bowl campaign with a spectacular workout on the turf at Lucas Oil Stadium. Holmes clocked a 4.48-second 40-yard dash while impressing evaluators with his textbook footwork and fundamentals in positional drills. He is an easy mover in space and his explosive transitions (break and drive, turn and go, speed turns) make it easy to envision him thriving as a sub-corner in a man or zone-based scheme.
Back in 2015, Peoples-Jones became the first underclassmen to win the Nike Football Ratings Championship with a 149.49 SPARQ score. The five-star recruit was the No. 1 wide receiver in the Class of 2017, per 247Sports, with Tee Higgins and Jerry Jeudy at Nos. 2 and 3. DPJ impressed scouts with his size and explosive athleticism as a big-bodied playmaker at Cass Tech High School in Detroit.
At Michigan, Peoples-Jones didn’t live up to the hype as a game changer at the position, but he did flash enough playmaking ability to intrigue scouts as a height-weight-speed prospect. The 6-foot-2, 212-pounder amassed over 2,100 all-purpose yards and 16 touchdowns in three years as a receiver/punt returner for the Wolverines.
DPJ bullied smallish defenders on the outside with his size-strength combination, while exhibiting outstanding ball skills and hand-eye coordination. He routinely came down with acrobatic grabs on back-shoulder fades along the sideline and impressed evaluators with his sneaky running skills in the open field. He has a knack for breaking tackles in traffic while also flashing surprising breakaway speed and burst for a big receiver.
Peoples-Jones’ combination of skills not only makes him an intriguing option as an outside receiver, but NFL coaches have also suggested a potential role as a big slot.
"He was a big-time recruit coming out of high school with outstanding talent," an AFC wide receiver coach said. "He has all of the physical tools to be a top receiver, but he didn’t put it together at Michigan. If he gets with the right program that allows him to play to his strengths as a player, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be a solid starter in the league.
"He has the tools, but he needs to know how to use them."
Watching Peoples-Jones work out in Indy, it was easy to fall in love with his potential. He is an explosive athlete (4.48 40, 44.5-inch vertical leap, 11-foot-7 broad jump) with soft hands and outstanding ball skills. Although he isn’t a polished route runner at this point, Peoples-Jones’ potential as a vertical threat and red-zone weapon could make him an enticing option for a team looking to add size to its receiving corps.
BOSTON COLLEGE RB AJ DILLON: Derrick Henry-like impact?
The NFL’s seismic shift to a pass-happy league has made it hard for big backs with old-school running styles to carve out a niche in the league, but teams looking for a classic workhorse with rushing-leader potential in the 2020 NFL Draft should cast their eyes on former Boston College standout AJ Dillon.
The 6-foot, 247-pound bruiser not only possesses the size and strength to handle the workload as an RB1, but he is an explosive athlete with enough speed to take it the distance from anywhere on the field.
Prior to last week’s NFL Scouting Combine, there wasn’t a lot of buzz attached to Dillon’s name despite an outstanding career resume that featured three straight 1,000-yard seasons and 38 rushing touchdowns. Skeptics questioned whether the big-bodied runner had enough juice to be a credible home-run threat in a power-based offense. Although Dillon had popped a few big runs during his three-year tenure at Boston College, he was viewed as more of a banger with a tough, hard-nosed style that made him ideally suited for a short-yardage and goal-line role as a pro.
However, after putting on a spectacular showing at the combine, scouts are beginning to reconsider their opinions based on Dillon’s athletic testing numbers, which were nearly identical to reigning NFL rushing champion Derrick Henry’s numbers at the event in 2016:
Dillon: 6-foot 3/8, 247 pounds; 4.53-second 40-yard dash; 41-inch vertical jump; 10-foot-11 broad jump; 23 reps on the bench press.
Henry: 6-foot-2 5/8, 247 pounds; 4.54-second 40-yard dash; 37-inch vertical jump; 10-foot-10 broad jump; 22 reps on the bench press.
With those numbers in mind, I decided to give Dillon’s tape a second look. After doing so, it’s easy to envision the Boston College standout thriving as a bulldozer in an old-school offense that features a fullback (21 or 22 personnel) or multiple tight ends with a "dot" back (12 or 13 personnel). He exhibits good balance and body control in traffic, flashing surprising agility/movement skills for a 247-pound back. Dillon combines his subtle wiggle with a rugged temperament that enables him to mix finesse and physicality when he reaches the second level.
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Studying Henry’s 2019 campaign, I saw the second-team All-Pro runner tease and torment defenders with his combination of size and strength. He ran over opponents in the hole before running away from the pack when he reached the secondary. The fear of being pummeled by Henry altered the way defenders tackled, particularly defensive backs, in the open field and enabled the Tennessee Titans to bully opponents with a no-nonsense running game.
In Dillon, I can envision him having a similar impact on an offense that’s committed to grinding it out between the tackles. He’s capable of punishing opponents with a series of runs up the gut that leave the defense battered and bruised. Although Dillon’s running style might require more patience from an offensive coordinator seeking to strike quickly against a defense, the cumulative effect of dealing with a rugged back with size, strength and power eventually leads to big plays at the end of games.
Considering how the Titans beat opponents down the stretch behind Henry and his punishing running style, I believe there are teams ready and willing to bring in the Boston College bruiser after a scintillating performance that raised eyebrows around Lucas Oil Stadium last week.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.
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