Five NFL rookies I can't wait to watch in Week 1; why T.J. Watt is worth $112 million
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:
— Why T.J. Watt’s record-setting contract makes sense.
— How Larry Fitzgerald changed team-building.
— Can the Ravens survive a staggering raft of injuries?
But first, a look at five rookie debuts you shouldn’t miss …
It happens every year just prior to the NFL season opener. As I sit in the comfy chair in my home office, watching the pregame festivities, I start to feel the butterflies buzzing around my stomach in anticipation of the opening kickoff. This is accompanied by the same sensations of rubbery legs and sweaty palms that I routinely experienced as a returner awaiting a kick.
As a player, I eventually learned how to deal with the anxiety that spawns from the anticipation and pressure, but there is nothing like playing in your first NFL regular-season game. It feels like your heart’s racing at a million beats per second and you are unable to catch your breath. Watching Dallas and Tampa Bay kick off the season on Thursday night — with the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers edging out the Cowboys in an instant classic — I was taken back to the evening of Sept. 26, 1994, just prior to making my NFL debut for the Bills in a Monday Night Football game against the Broncos. Although my first pro experience did not take place in the regular-season opener, the anticipation and angst I experienced returning four kicks for 51 yards still resonate with me to this day.
That’s why I felt like I could relate to what Cowboys LB Micah Parsons, Bucs edge Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and the other active rookies were experiencing Thursday in Tampa. Yeah, it’s not quite the same reliving your glory years on the couch, but I loved every minute of watching these newbies go on one hell of a thrill ride, from basking in the realization of a lifelong dream to turning on the “alpha dog” mentality that fuels competitive fire.
The overall experience has me pumped to watch more rookies making their respective debuts this weekend. After perusing the Week 1 schedule to pinpoint some intriguing matchups and storylines, I’d like to spotlight five rookies whom I’ll be closely monitoring on Sunday:
at Buffalo Bills, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
The No. 24 overall pick (and highest-picked running back in April) could emerge as the Steelers’ most important player by season’s end. Harris will get a chance to prove his worth as a hybrid RB1/WR2 type in the season opener against a stingy defense loaded with tough, hard-nosed players. The Alabama product flashed Le’Veon Bell-like versatility as a collegian, but the big back needs to do it on the big stage to add some much-needed balance to Pittsburgh’s offense.
at Houston Texans, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
The No. 1 overall pick makes his debut against a Lovie Smith defense that will test his patience and discipline as a passer. The Texans’ two-deep scheme will limit big-play opportunities and force Lawrence to connect the dots from the pocket. If the rookie handles Houston’s simplistic scheme without issue, he should be ready for bigger challenges down the road.
vs. Seattle Seahawks, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
The ultra-explosive edge defender appears to be a perfect fit on a Colts defense that emphasizes effort and energy. Paye’s twitchy game and relentless spirit could make him a nightmare to block, especially with opponents forced to focus on DeForest Buckner in the middle of the line. With plenty of opportunities for Paye to get after the passer, the football world will quickly discover if the Michigan product is simply an A+ athlete or an up-and-coming force off the edge.
vs. Miami Dolphins, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)
All eyes are on No. 10 to see if he can step in and fill the void at QB1 created by Tom Brady’s departure in 2020. Jones has demonstrated impressive poise, confidence and leadership skills for a rookie starter. Moreover, he has displayed the football IQ to operate the Patriots’ offense at a high level, whether running the two-minute drill or operating in “turtle” mode (slowing it down) in preseason games. With the speed and intensity expected to rev up in the regular season, Jones must prove to the skeptics that he is capable of getting the Patriots back on track as a playoff contender.
at Kansas City Chiefs, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)
A surprising draft-day slide to the back half of Round 2 has certainly fueled JOK’s fire, as evidenced by his dominant preseason performance. The rookie defender created chaos and disruption all over the field in those glorified scrimmages, but if this Cleveland defense is going to live up to the hype, the Browns need to see the hybrid playmaker dominate between the lines in real games. JOK has been expected to transition to the NFL like a blue-chip prospect from Day 1. Let’s see if he plays up to the standard in the regular-season opener.
T.J. WATT: Why megadeal was a no-brainer
You gotta love seeing a dominant player get the money he deserves for his spectacular efforts. That is why I am giving the Steelers a standing ovation for inking T.J. Watt to a four-year, $112 million deal that includes $80 million of fully guaranteed dough.
For a franchise that has employed countless game-wreckers on the outside, Watt epitomizes what the Steelers view as the standard, as a high-energy defender with a knack for producing splash plays. From sacks to tackles for loss to forced fumbles, the back-to-back first-team All-Pro is a force of nature pushing Aaron Donald for the title of NFL’s top defender. Since 2018, Watt ranks second in sacks (42.5) and tackles for loss (49) — with Donald ranking No. 1 in both — while leading the league in QB hits (98). Moreover, Watt’s 49.5 sacks rank as the sixth-most by any player in his first four NFL seasons. Considering the impact of the others on the list — Reggie White (70), Derrick Thomas (58), J.J. Watt (57), DeMarcus Ware (53.5) and Dwight Freeney (51) — the Steelers OLB has the makings of an all-time great at the position.
With that in mind, it was imperative for the team to get this deal done, thus beginning the process of solidifying a nucleus that features a collection of young, dynamic defenders with non-stop motors and explosive playmaking skills in Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and third-year pro Devin Bush. With Watt locked up at $28 million annually, the team can focus on getting a deal done with Fitzpatrick — who’s currently under team control through 2022 — to ensure the continued presence of at least one blue-chip defender on every level over the next few seasons.
If the Steelers are able to keep Watt, Fitzpatrick and Bush together, the defense should be able to play at a high level with a cast of complementary defenders pitching in. Remember, the Steelers have routinely built top defenses around pass rushers, inside linebackers and safeties. Watt’s deal gives Pittsburgh a chance to follow a familiar formula.
LARRY FITZGERALD: WR changed scouting game
Well, it doesn’t appear Larry Fitzgerald will be returning to the field any time soon — if ever again. After saying he just didn’t “have the urge to play right now” back in August, the 38-year-old reiterated that mindset earlier this week.
“I miss the interaction with my teammates, but I’m in a good place,” Fitzgerald said on his SiriusXM Radio show with Jim Gray. “Spending time with the family, playing a little golf, doing a little travel, a chance to spend some time with people you never really get a chance to spend time with at this time of year.
“The desire to play at this time is the same as it’s been. I’m very comfortable with that. But you never know what tomorrow holds. Right now, I’m very content. I’m very content.”
If Fitzgerald fails to regain his zest for the game and ultimately does hang up the cleats for good, well, he certainly left an indelible impression on the football world, particularly among evaluators. The 6-foot-3, 218-pounder changed the way scouts value skills over prototypical athletic traits. At his best, Fitzgerald was a craftsman with extraordinary hand-eye coordination and ball skills. He is the most natural pass catcher that I have scouted, and his hand strength is legendary. It is rare for pass catchers to catch every ball in their hands, but Fitzgerald never cradled the ball or utilized a “body catch” technique to make contested grabs in crowds.
While those traits certainly have impacted how scouts analyze receivers, Fitzgerald’s remarkable performance during the 2008 playoffs helped alter how evaluators view pass catchers in the team-building pecking order. The 11-time Pro Bowler shattered all postseason receiving records with 30 catches, 546 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in a run that resulted in the Cardinals nearly winning the team’s first Lombardi Trophy. Fitzgerald’s spectacular run showed the football world that a wideout could function as the driving force of a championship-caliber offense. Prior to that point, the engines of NFL offenses were quarterbacks or running backs. With Fitzgerald dominating the game on the outside, it sparked the imagination of coaches and executives around the league that it is possible to build a championship team around a receiver.
Perhaps No. 11’s success is one of the reasons why pass catchers have surpassed runners as the most important non-quarterback playmakers. Team builders have discovered that it is easier to depend on perimeter players than grinders. Moreover, scouts and executives have determined that an elite wide receiver could anchor an offense with the league trending toward a more pass-centric approach.
If we have truly seen the last of Fitzgerald on the field, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer leaves a legacy that has significantly impacted the scouting world.
RAVENS’ RB INJURIES: No need to hit panic button
The injury bug has ravaged Baltimore’s depth at running back, but I’m not expecting the team’s vaunted ground game to skip a beat. While the season-ending injuries suffered by J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill will force the organization to reshuffle the deck at the position, the key to these Ravens’ rushing attack has always been Lamar Jackson.
The threat of defending the 2019 MVP on a variety of runs enables RBs — yes, even unheralded ones or former stars who are past their prime — to scoot through seams and creases created by anxious defenders overreacting to the quarterback’s every move. Teams have to deal with Jackson’s speed, quickness and burst on a myriad of option plays, which makes the Ravens’ running game extremely difficult to stop.
Coordinator Greg Roman utilized pre-snap motion and shifts on 70 percent of the Ravens’ offensive snaps last season. The mix of power football and dizzying eye candy with Jackson playing the hidden-ball trick has enabled backs to have tremendous success running between the tackles. Baltimore has rushed for 3,000-plus yards in back-to-back seasons — something no other team has done in NFL history — with the unit averaging 191.9 and 206.0 rush yards per game, respectively. Jackson topped the 1,000-yard mark in each of those seasons, leading the team in rushing both times.
The Ravens have signed a few veterans in recent days — Le’Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray — to stockpile the RB room with proven players. But the team could also roll the dice on one of the young players on the roster. Whether it is former undrafted free agent Ty’Son Williams or Trenton Cannon, the 204th pick of the 2018 draft, the Ravens head into their Week 1 matchup against the Raiders with the potential for a player with a very limited résumé to play a leading role.
In most instances, that should lead to doubts and concerns about the running game finding a rhythm. But with Jackson really operating as the Ravens’ RB1 (while also handling his QB1 duties), the Baltimore rushing attack should be just fine, even with horrible injury luck striking the backfield before kickoff.
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