Ranking the NFL’s top five playmaker groups; plus, a theory on the trading frenzy and an overlooked coach

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:

— Why did this year’s trade deadline spur so much action? A sea change in team building.

— The rookie head coach who deserves more love for a striking start.

But first, a look at the most potent playmaking posses in 2022 …

As a rookie with the Buffalo Bills in 1994, I stepped into a K-Gun offense that would fit right into the modern NFL. QB Jim Kelly, RB Thurman Thomas and WR Andre Reed headlined a unit that torched opponents by utilizing tempo, receiver-heavy formations and superior playmaking ability.

When I arrived in Buffalo, the Bills were fresh off a fourth straight Super Bowl appearance. Although the organization never hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, its explosive offense not only revolutionized the game, but it provided the next generation of team builders with a blueprint on how to construct a championship-caliber attack for a more wide-open league.

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Surveying the NFL landscape today, it is apparent that the league is dominated by teams loaded with offensive playmakers — guys who can make special things happen with the ball in their hands. While we know a franchise quarterback is typically needed to compete for the title in today’s high-octane game, a roster stocked with electric game-breakers can transform an average quarterback into an all-star at the position.

So, which offense currently boasts the most prolific pack of running backs, wide receivers and tight ends? Which quarterback is flanked by the most dangerous supporting cast of point scorers?

Two months into the 2022 NFL season, here are the top five playmaker groups.

Kyle Shanahan certainly had plenty of weapons at his disposal prior to acquiring Christian McCaffrey, but the addition of the five-star playmaker to a lineup that already features ultra-versatile talents like Deebo Samuel, Kyle Juszczyk and George Kittle could make this unit impossible to defend. With CMC immediately showing his big-play chops on San Francisco as a triple-threat with scoring potential as a runner, receiver and passer, opponents must pay close attention to the backfield while neglecting the rest of the explosive players on the perimeter, a group that also includes Brandon Aiyuk. Considering Samuel, Kittle and Juszczyk have routinely shown the capacity to dice up defenses from their respective positions, the 49ers have the ability to really stress opponents with favorable matchups all over the field.

It is not a coincidence that Mike McDaniel has quickly transformed the Dolphins into an offensive juggernaut after spending his formative years working with Kyle Shanahan. The former 49ers assistant has elevated the play of his young quarterback by surrounding him with a dynamic set of playmakers. Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle are the most explosive pass-catching tandem in the league. With their speed, quickness and burst, opponents are tasked with defending every blade of grass, from sideline to sideline and end line to end line. This stretches the field out, creating space for Mike Gesicki in the passing game and Raheem Mostert (as well as new trade acquisition Jeff Wilson Jr.) on the ground. With Tua Tagovailoa growing increasingly comfortable in the system, the Dolphins have started to light up scoreboards around the league with a high-octane offense that’s a nightmare to prepare for.

Credit general manager Howie Roseman for surrounding Jalen Hurts with a dream team on the perimeter. The Eagles’ emerging franchise quarterback has played at an MVP level in 2022 by efficiently distributing the ball to a diverse group of playmakers with complementary games. With A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith taking turns making plays on the outside, Dallas Goedert controlling the middle of the field and Quez Watkins providing the occasional splash play, the Eagles have the capacity to win with efficiency or explosiveness in the passing game. As Miles Sanders and Hurts continue to torment opponents with an option-based running game that forces defenders to pause at the point of attack, Philadelphia’s offense creates chaos with its creativity, variety and overwhelming talent.

Do not let the Bengals’ slow start overshadow the immense talent and potential of a group that features three high-caliber pass catchers and a blue-chip running back. Now, Ja’Marr Chase’s hip injury gave me pause when considering whether to include Cincinnati in this ranking at this very moment. He’s clearly the straw that stirs the drink. But seeing how the Bengals have chosen to not place him on injured reserve, it appears he could be back in action sooner than initially expected. And once he does return, the playmaking quartet of Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon provide the kind of explosive capability that can fuel a Super Bowl run. (Remember last season?) Whether it is Chase and Higgins blowing past defenders on vertical routes, Boyd moving the chains on catch-and-run plays or Mixon bullying opponents between the tackles, the Bengals’ diversity makes them a challenge to defend as a high-powered offense. If Cincy’s offensive line holds its own at the line of scrimmage, it is hard to deal with Zac Taylor’s squad.

Maybe Russell Wilson misevaluated the playmakers around him in Seattle. The NFC West leaders are flourishing with journeyman Geno Smith at the helm due to the dynamic playmaking ability of DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and now rookie sensation Kenneth Walker III. Metcalf and Lockett are all-star-caliber pass catchers with the ability to blow past defenders on vertical routes. In addition, each playmaker is capable of turning a short gain into an explosive play on a catch-and-run concept. With Walker adding a different dimension to the offense as a hard-nosed runner with electric speed and quickness, the Seahawks’ old-school offense has become a headache to defend in a pass-happy league.

One explanation for trade deadline frenzy

Perhaps we should credit Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead for the frenzy that took place at the NFL’s record-setting trade deadline. The architect of the defending Super Bowl champs radically changed the way the football world views draft picks when he utilized a bold strategy that sacrificed the team’s future first-round selections to acquire a host of blue-chip talents who helped L.A. capture the Super Bowl LVI title.

The visionary opted to value proven players over draft picks as he built the Rams into a title contender, then doubled down on his unorthodox approach by wearing an “F— them picks” T-shirt at the team’s Super Bowl parade.

As a former Green Bay Packers player and Ron Wolf disciple, I grew up in a team-building environment that valued draft picks at a premium. With the goal of building a homegrown squad developed on the practice field over time, the franchise had a chance to go on a sustained run. Moreover, it was an enticing economic model: draft, develop and re-sign your own players, quite possibly getting something of a “hometown discount.”

The old-school team-builders believed in the premise because it was a low-risk approach that fell in line with the conservative nature of the league at that time. Fast-forward to 2022, and team-builders are far more aggressive with their tactics. Perhaps it’s due to this generation growing up playing Madden NFL and fantasy football, as they are comfortable with swapping players and rearranging rosters in pursuit of a championship.

OK, while I’m (kind of) joking about video games and fantasy football, it does really seem like the younger generation of general managers, personnel executives and scouts are very comfortable swapping picks for players, possibly due to the instant-gratification world in which we live. Organizations and fans alike want results immediately — and are less likely to wait on a full rebuild to come to fruition.

Although we can still debate which approach is the proper way to build an NFL team in the salary cap era, it is hard to argue with the success that the two most recent Super Bowl champs — the Rams and Buccaneers — have enjoyed with quick-fix philosophies. Granted, large portions of each roster were acquired through the draft, but both utilized the trade market to add blue-chip talents to occupy key roles. Whether it was Rob Gronkowski teaming with his former quarterback to give the Buccaneers an upgraded red-zone offense in 2020 or Jalen Ramsey, Von Miller and Matthew Stafford transforming the Rams’ roster, the decisions to trade away picks for marquee talents paid huge dividends for these two organizations.

In a league full of copycats, we are seeing more decision-makers swap picks for proven players in hopes of making a run. Though it might take some time for us to determine whether the risks made before Tuesday’s deadline were worth the rewards, the league-wide shift to a more aggressive team-building approach is part of a trend that is here to stay.

The COY candidate hiding in plain sight

Raise your hand if you expected the Minnesota Vikings to immediately emerge as contenders under first-time head coach Kevin O’Connell. It’s Week 9, and the 6-1 Vikes hold a four-game lead in the loss column over the rest of the NFC North. Nobody saw that coming.

While I am in the cluster of football observers who were uncertain about Minnesota’s potential coming into this season, I am not surprised the team is flourishing under the direction of a head coach with exceptional communication skills and leadership ability.

As a former counselor with O’Connell at a series of prep football events (Elite 11) in the early 2010s, I watched him work closely with young quarterbacks in a camp environment near the end of his playing career. Although working at a quarterback camp obviously is not the same as leading a NFL team, the job requires a combination of savvy communication, patience and teaching skills. That’s how you get high school players to master schemes, footwork and fundamentals. And that’s a transferable skill that makes it easier to guide a group of ambitious professionals in 2022. From utilizing various teaching tactics to helping inexperienced players understand complex concepts to whispering sweet nothings in the quarterback’s ear to build up his confidence, the experience of coaching high schoolers helped O’Connell learn how to relate to today’s players. I really believe that.

Just look at how he helped Justin Jefferson take his game to another level in his third season. After some early-season struggles in which the Pro Bowl pass catcher did not get enough touches, O’Connell made a concerted effort to feed the WR1 a slew of targets throughout October. The Vikings’ play-caller scripted in some easy touches on screens, quicks and isolation routes to keep the wideout engaged in the game. In addition, O’Connell incorporated some motions, shifts and different alignments to put Jefferson in a prime position to get the ball against any coverage.

With his top playmaker happy and engaged, the offense has clicked despite a schematic makeover. Part of the attack’s success is certainly tied to Kirk Cousins’ steady play over the first half of the season. While the raw numbers might suggest otherwise — Cousins’ pass yards per game, yards per attempt and passer rating are down from 2021 — the 11th-year pro has made enough critical plays to help his team win five straight games. And here’s the vital part: O’Connell has thrown his support behind his quarterback at every turn. This is a drastic departure from how his predecessor treated the quarterback, but it could certainly pay off for the rookie head man, with a more confident QB1 willing to heed his coach’s advice because he feels the love and support. Given the importance of the head coach-quarterback dynamic, O’Connell’s communication skills and relationship-building tactics have created a trust between players and coaches that is essential to a team’s long-term success.

Beyond the intangibles and schematics displayed by the first-time head coach, O’Connell’s overall management of the team has really stood out to me. The first-time head coach has leaned on a veteran defensive coaching staff to handle the other side of the ball, enabling him to focus extensively on building a top-notch offense. By entrusting the defense to coordinator Ed Donatell and relying on the sage advice of assistant head coach Mike Pettine — who brings unique experience as a former head coach and defensive coordinator — O’Connell has been able to balance the game-management duties required of a head coach without faltering as a play-caller.

The Vikings have emerged as a surprising contender due to the rock-solid leadership of a rookie head coach who has shown maturity beyond his years. That’s why it’s confounding that his name doesn’t crop up when people talk about early Coach of the Year candidates. The COY conversation has mostly revolved around guys like second-year Eagles coach Nick Sirianni, fellow rookie head coaches Brian Daboll (Giants) and Mike McDaniel (Dolphins), veteran Seahawks skipper Pete Carroll and even second-year men Arthur Smith (Falcons) and Robert Saleh (Jets). Somehow, O’Connell just gets completely lost in the shuffle. This is wrong. With the season nearing its midpoint, O’Connell is in strong position to claim a division title in Year 1. Give this man some more love!

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter.

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