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:
— His No. 1 edge rusher in the 2021 NFL Draft.
— One receiver prospect who could be the next Justin Jefferson.
But first, a look at Alabama QB Mac Jones’ draft value …
The first round of the NFL draft is generally reserved for superheroes. And the prospects with the most extraordinary physical gifts are viewed within the scouting community as top-10 talents due to their ability to transform franchises.
With that standard in mind, I just don’t understand why Mac Jones is being hailed as a potential top-five pick in the 2021 class.
Perhaps the Alabama quarterback is a secret member of The Avengers, operating like Tony Stark as Iron Man. If you’re not familiar with the Marvel Comics character, Stark becomes a superhero after creating an electromagnetic, armored suit that grants him superpowers. Watching Jones’ meteoric rise up the charts, I believe some observers have made the Heisman Trophy finalist the Iron Man of the draft.
While I’m not issuing a complete dismissal of Jones’ talents as a pinpoint passer with nice timing, touch and anticipation, he significantly benefited from playing behind an NFL-caliber offensive line with first-round talents at wide receiver and running back. The Crimson Tide offense was the armored suit that elevated Jones’ game, and scouts need to keep his production in perspective when gauging his talent.
Now, of course, many of the other quarterbacks in this class played alongside five-star talents, but Jones lacks superpowers as a player himself. What happens to Tony Stark when you take away his suit?
The 6-foot-3, 217-pounder doesn’t display A-grade arm talent or athleticism between the lines. Jones lacks the speed, quickness and running ability to extend plays or create big gains outside of structure. Moreover, he is confined to the pocket as a statuesque signal-caller built to throw traditional dropback passes behind a fortress.
To his credit, Jones is an outstanding rhythm passer with the capacity to string together completions on short and intermediate throws. He tosses a catchable ball with pinpoint accuracy and a deft touch, despite the fact that this wasn’t always needed in Tuscaloosa. Obviously, he isn’t to blame for his receivers’ ability to get open — wide open — but scouts should note the consistent separation and space gained by ‘Bama receivers at the top of routes. This led to fewer tight-window throws that challenged Jones to fit the ball into the mailbox.
Comparing Jones’ skills to those of Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields and Trey Lance, there is a drastic difference between the Alabama standout and those other projected first-rounders. Jones is nowhere near the athlete of Fields or Lance, and he lacks the magical arm talent to compete with the quartet in a game of H-O-R-S-E. Although football isn’t the Olympic decathlon, the modern NFL’s elite quarterbacks are able to deliver “wow” plays with their arm talent and athleticism.
Think about it this way: How many times have we seen Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers make a jaw-dropping throw with the game on the line? What about Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen utilizing their legs to create critical plays as runners?
If we hold Jones to that standard when it comes to quarterback play at the NFL level, the Alabama standout falls short. Far short. He is incapable of winning a shootout as a gunslinger forced to play sandlot football.
With those concerns in mind, I don’t know why Jones is being viewed as a first-round prospect, much less a potential top-five pick. The top of the draft should be reserved for superheroes; Jones’ lack of superpowers should keep him out of that range.
Some are comparing Jones to Joe Burrow and Baker Mayfield, two recent No. 1 overall picks who don’t offer elite arm talent or exceptional athleticism. First of all, those two are outliers based on raw talent. Also, Burrow is a superior athlete to Jones. And Mayfield, well, his career plight confirms my belief in the need for elite prospects to possess superpowers. The Browns’ QB1 helped his franchise hit the 2020 postseason after settling into a system that featured the running game and play-action passing attack, with a stout O-line in front of him and some five-star weapons by his side.
Jones will need a similar supporting cast to thrive at the next level. He must play behind a talented offensive line that keeps him protected and enables him to throw from a clean pocket due to his limited mobility. And he will need to play with dynamic pass catchers who enable him to dink and dunk with a variety of catch-and-run concepts.
Given the “system quarterback” feel I get when I evaluate Jones and his traits, I just cannot issue a first-round grade and tout him as a franchise player. The Alabama standout will likely hear his name called in Round 1, but his game and his lack of superpowers could predictably make him an overrated prospect when we review the 2021 draft in a few years.
MY TOP EDGE RUSHER: Who’s No. 1 in the 2021 class?
The 2021 class of edge defenders is full of unknowns and unproven prospects. But if I had to pick which pass rusher will emerge as the most consistent sack producer from this year’s group, I’d throw my confidence behind Jaelan Phillips.
The 6-foot-6, 260-pounder has all of the tools defensive coaches covet in a pass rusher. From his outstanding quickness and burst to his refined pass-rush maneuvers and hand-to-hand combat skills, Phillips plays the game like a 10-year veteran on the edge. He racked up 8 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss as a junior at The U, where he closed out his college career after two years at UCLA. Phillips joined the Hurricanes after briefly retiring from football altogether due to several serious injuries, including multiple concussions. His durability remains the most pressing concern for some evaluators.
While scouts are still sorting through the details from his time with the Bruins, there is no denying Phillips’ talent and potential as a playmaker. As one of the top recruits in the 2017 recruiting class, Phillips has always been lauded for his unique combination of size, speed and explosiveness. He dominated the camp scene as a teenager, and I watched him flash his impressive array of skills at The Opening finals in 2016.
Fast forward to Phillips’ 2020 campaign, and his talent and potential off the edge have become even more impressive. He is a polished technician with the physical tools and IQ to play games with blockers. While his physical tools are certainly impressive, as evidenced by his remarkable performance at Miami’s pro day (4.56-second 40, 36-inch vertical and a 10-foot, 5-inch broad jump), it is Phillips’ tactical awareness and savvy that separates him from other prospects in the class.
The Miami standout’s work on the edge reminds me of how Nick Bosa and T.J. Watt wear out defenders with crafty techniques and maneuvers. Phillips has mastered the art of setting up blockers with a variety of moves and counter tactics. He’s like an MLB pitcher peppering the plate with a mix of fastballs, change-ups and curves, keeping batters confused and off balanced. He’ll be able to apply these same skills in the NFL, which is why he should have immediate success at the next level.
Considering how hard it is to find young pass rushers who possess the physical tools, technique and intelligence needed to win – and not just the sheer talent — Phillips is the best pass rusher in the draft and my choice as the No.1 edge defender in the class.
RASHOD BATEMAN: The next Justin Jefferson?
The discussion around the 2021 wide receiver class has centered exclusively on the talents of Ja’Marr Chase, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, but hardcore draft fans and fantasy footballers should keep an eye on Rashod Bateman, as an underrated pass catcher with the potential to pop immediately at the next level.
The Minnesota standout checks off all of the boxes as a No. 1 receiver with his capacity to play out wide or in the slot while displaying outstanding speed, burst and explosiveness as a crafty route runner and playmaker. The sure-handed Bateman catches everything within the strike zone while also making the spectacular catch look like a routine play. He displays A-plus hand-eye coordination and snatches balls in traffic prior to absorbing (or avoiding) big shots as he works between the hashes.
Despite measuring just 6-foot-3/8, 190 pounds at his pro day (well below his listed size of 6-2, 210 pounds in the Golden Gophers’ football program), Bateman’s playing style is like watching Justin Jefferson go to work on the perimeter. He utilizes every trick in the book and consistently finds a way to get open against man or zone coverage. Bateman’s combination of exceptional stop-start quickness and savvy route-running techniques make him a difficult guard on the perimeter, particularly as he moves around to take advantage of favorable matchups.
Prior to Minnesota’s pro day, I was concerned about his top-end speed and overall explosiveness due to his playing tempo as an exquisite route runner. I couldn’t determine if he had an extra gear to run away from defenders on vertical throws or catch-and-run concepts. Sure, he racked up a number of explosive plays as the premier receiver in the Big Ten, but it’s a lot harder to separate from NFL defenders who possess track star-like speed and burst.
After clocking a 4.39-second 40-yard dash along with an impressive set of jumps (36-inch vertical and 10 feet, 3 inches on the broad jump), Bateman alleviated those concerns and put the spotlight back on his dazzling play-making ability and creative route-running skills. If he lands with a team that showcases his unique skills as an inside-outside playmaker, Bateman could outshine his classmates and emerge as one of the crown jewels at the position early in his career.
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