Friday, May 22, 2020 04:43 PM

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:

  • The top five tight ends in the league today.
  • Why LeBron James would have been a stud in the NFL.
  • What Aldon Smith’s return means for the Cowboys’ defense.

But first, a look at who Bucky predicts will win the 2020 NFL MVP …

I know it’s a bit early to make predictions for the upcoming season, but that’s how confident I am that Kyler Murray will win the league’s highest individual honor this year.

The 2019 Offensive Rookie of the Year will become the third straight second-year quarterback to take the award, following in the footsteps of Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson.

That bold statement might take some by surprise, but I’m calling my shot early and jumping on the Murray bandwagon before the Arizona Cardinals go on a worst-to-first run that makes the young QB1 the league’s next great quarterback.

The dynamic gunslinger joined Cam Newton as the only quarterbacks in NFL history with 3,500-plus passing yards and 500-plus rushing yards in their rookie seasons. Murray led all rookies in passing (3,722 yards) and completions (349) in 2019, with the latter mark the third-best by a rookie in league history (Carson Wentz had 379 in 2016 and Sam Bradford had 354 in 2010).

Think about that. Murray put up historic numbers on an offense that was adapting to a former college head coach/play-caller transitioning to the pro game while managing a roster littered with holes along the offensive line and limited in playmakers on the perimeter. If that’s not enough of a challenge, the electric QB1 needed to compensate for a leaky defense that finished last in yards allowed and 28th in points allowed.

How do you like that for context?

That’s a lot for any quarterback to overcome, particularly a first-year passer entering the league with just 17 collegiate starts. Murray relied heavily on his instincts, athleticism and improvisational playmaking ability as a rookie while flashing the discipline to play from the pocket. With a full offseason to fully master the Cardinals’ playbook and develop a greater understanding of NFL defensive schemes, the former No. 1 overall pick should become an even more dangerous playmaker in Year 2.

“When you watch the installs with him and you watch the plays from last year, you notice how far he’s come,” Kliff Kingsbury told reporters this week, per the team’s website. “There’s definitely a different confidence, a different level of command with the offense, and he feels it. Even though we haven’t been able to get on the grass, he definitely feels a lot more comfortable heading into Year 2, so I’m excited to get my hands on him whenever I can.”

In addition to more time in the system, Murray’s increased confidence almost certainly stems from the team’s commitment to upgrading the protection and playmakers around him this offseason. The Cardinals signed D.J Humphries to a lucrative deal (three years, $45 million) that kept the left tackle from hitting the open market. And the team drafted Joshua Jones in the third round to shore up the right side of the line. As for adding weapons, no team made a bigger splash than Arizona, when it traded for DeAndre Hopkins to give the team a No. 1 receiver opposite Larry Fitzgerald. The three-time All-Pro, who will be just 28 at the start of the season, is a sure-handed pass catcher with exceptional ball skills. He will expand the strike zone for Murray.

“To have a young quarterback, a guy you’re trying to build things around and bring in a piece like [Hopkins] is huge,” Kingsbury told reporters shortly after the trade, via the team’s website. “Everything I have ever heard about the guy has been top notch, his work ethic, his toughness. To add him to the roster, we couldn’t be more pleased.”

With Fitzgerald still regarded as one of the most dependable pass catchers in football, and Christian Kirk ideally suited to fill a WR3 role, the Cardinals have assembled a diverse set of playmakers on the perimeter to enable Murray to play like a pass-first point guard from the pocket.

Last season, Murray thrived as a quick-rhythm thrower, posting the 12th fastest time-to-throw average (2.73 seconds) and the eighth-fewest intended target yards (7.1) in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats. Those numbers reflect Murray’s ability to thrive executing a dink-and-dunk offense designed to neutralize the pass rush (and protect the offensive line) by getting the ball out of his hands and into the mitts of his playmakers.

That said, he still finished with the sixth-most passing yards on passes of 20-plus air yards despite pushing the ball down the field on just 11.5 percent of his throws (37th-fewest). Hopkins’ ability to come down with 50-50 balls, particularly on alley-oops along the boundary, could add a vertical dimension to the offense that leads to more explosive plays and, most importantly, points.

Plus, Kenyan Drake’s return gives the Cardinals some sizzle at running back. The fifth-year pro amassed 814 scrimmage yards in eight games (seventh-most among running backs during that span) after being acquired in a midseason trade. Drake displayed electric playmaking ability as a hybrid out of the backfield for Arizona.

Defensively, the Cardinals should be a stingier unit in their second season under coordinator Vance Joseph. The defense appeared to click down the stretch, holding opponents to 22.8 points per game over the final four contests as a young nucleus became more comfortable with the scheme.

With Chandler Jones, Patrick Peterson, Budda Baker and first-round pick Isaiah Simmons poised to enjoy banner years in a unit that should find itself regularly playing with a lead — and thus, in ideal positions to create big plays — the Cardinals’ defense should deliver better results in 2020.

The last two MVPs came out of nowhere to claim the award during their sophomore seasons. Each saw their team use the offseason between Years 1 and 2 to tweak (or build) an offense around their unique skill sets while upgrading the surrounding talent. With the Cardinals taking a similar approach with Murray, I expect the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year to add some more hardware to his collection at the end of the season.

TOP 5 TIGHT ENDS: Welcome to the club, Mr. Waller

After taking a look at the top edge rushers in the game last week, I spent some time this week evaluating tight ends around the league. After reviewing my notes and assigning grades based off my film study, here are my top five players at the position in the NFL right now:

George Kittle

George Kittle

San Francisco 49ers
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TE

The most complete player at his position in the NFL has amassed the most receiving yards (2,945) by a tight end during his first three seasons in NFL history. Kittle boasts the sixth-most receiving yards (2,430) by a pass catcher over the past two seasons and has the second-most yards after catch (1,472) by any player in the league during that span. The former fifth-round pick is also a devastating blocker with an impressive combination of strength, power and technique that enables him to obliterate defenders on the edges. Kittle’s relentlessness as a blocker keys a 49ers rushing attack that pummels opponents, particularly on runs behind No. 85.

Travis Kelce

Travis Kelce

Kansas City Chiefs
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TE

The first tight end in NFL history to post four straight 1,000-yard seasons is an unstoppable force on the perimeter. Kelce is a crafty route runner with the shake-and-bake and wiggle to separate from linebackers or safeties in space. As a jumbo-sized pass catcher with wide receiver-like movement skills, the eighth-year pro is a matchup nightmare for defensive coordinators.

Zach Ertz

Zach Ertz

Philadelphia Eagles
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TE

The NFL leader in receptions by a tight end through the first seven seasons of his career (525) has emerged as one of the best at the position thanks to his polished route-running skills and sticky hands. Ertz has led the Eagles in catches and receiving yards in each of the past four seasons while thriving as the team’s go-to guy in the passing game. No. 86 routinely wins his one-on-one matchups against linebackers and defensive backs by utilizing his wiggle and short-area quickness to create space against tight coverage. As a dominant pass-catching tight end with the capacity to play as a traditional Y or as a Flex playmaker, Ertz has quietly been the Eagles’ No. 1 receiving option for years.

Jared Cook

Jared Cook

New Orleans Saints
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TE

It’s uncommon for a player to emerge as an elite playmaker after he’s already been in the league for almost a decade, but Cook has joined the conversation after scoring 15 touchdowns over the past two seasons. The 6-foot-5, 254-pounder is a big-play specialist, as evidenced by his 16.4 yards per catch and 15 receptions of 20-plus yards in 2019. The 12th-year pro is a crafty seam runner with a knack for blowing past defenders on vertical routes. He routinely finds the soft spots in coverage and his monstrous frame enables him to expand the strike zone for Drew Brees. With the Saints’ offensive lineup featuring a pair of blue-chip playmakers (Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas) and a wily veteran receiver (Emmanuel Sanders), Cook will continue to torch defenses forced to play him straight up in coverage.

Darren Waller

Darren Waller

Las Vegas Raiders
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TE

Is Waller a one-year wonder? It’s possible, but based on what I saw from the 27-year-old during his breakout 2019 campaign, I think he has the skills to be a top-tier player in this league. The former college wide receiver is nearly impossible to defend with a linebacker or defensive back thanks to his size (6-foot-6, 255 pounds), speed (4.46 40), athleticism (37-inch vertical) and polished set of route-running skills. With the Raiders deploying him out wide and utilizing him as a super-sized wide receiver, the fifth-year pro has quickly become one of the most dangerous playmakers at the position.

WHAT COULD’VE BEEN: LeBron as an NFL player

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If LeBron James had accepted the Dallas Cowboys’ reported offer to join the team during the 2011 NBA lockout, he would have quickly emerged as the best tight end in football. In fact, the four-time NBA MVP would’ve played at a Hall-of-Fame level for the ‘Boys and earned honors at a position that’s rarely celebrated by the masses.

Before you roll your eyes and dismiss my claims as sensational clickbait, I want you to consider the success of basketball players-turned-tight ends during James’ era.

Tony Gonzalez was just inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after tallying 1,325 catches, 15,127 receiving yards, and 111 touchdowns during a 17-year career. Sure, the 6-foot-5, 247-pounder was a two-sport standout at Cal, but his basketball contributions were primarily as a sixth man. He averaged 6.4 points and 4.3 rebounds for his career.

Antonio Gates is a likely Hall of Famer with a resume that features 955 catches, 11,841 receiving yards and 116 touchdowns over 16 seasons. He made the jump to the NFL without any college football experience after leading the Kent State men’s basketball team to a 51-16 record over two seasons, including a MAC championship and an appearance in the Elite Eight. The 6-foot-4 power forward averaged 20.6 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game during his senior season on the way to earning honorable mention All-American honors for his work on the hardwood.

In James, you’re talking about a 6-9, 250-pound super athlete with a 44-inch vertical and a distinguished resume as a high school football player. No. 23 was a two-time all-state wide receiver at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School with 27 receiving touchdowns during his sophomore and junior seasons. James was viewed as a probable five-star recruit by well-respected college coaches, including three-time national champion Urban Meyer and Mel Tucker.

Considering Meyer’s reputation for developing NFL talent during his time as a coach and Tucker’s experience around five-star players at Alabama and Georgia, respectively, I’m willing to take their opinions to the bank and stand firm on my belief that James had all of the tools to be a dominant player at the NFL level. He’s a bigger and more explosive athlete than Gonzalez and Gates. He also has a refined set of basketball skills that would enable him to consistently win on post-ups or alley-oops in the red zone.

James is such a dynamic mover that he could easily play as a Flex tight end with a creative offensive coordinator aligning him in a variety of out-wide positions to take advantage of his superior size against linebackers and defensive backs. We’ve seen lesser athletes at the position dominate on the outside with basketball backgrounds (SEE: five-time Pro Bowler Jimmy Graham and his 74 career touchdowns).

Moreover, when we contrast James’ athleticism with some of the players dotting my top five tight ends list in this article, we can make a reasonable projection that he could rival their production, right?

That’s why I’m disappointed we didn’t get to see James join the Cowboys during the 2011 NBA lockout. It robbed the football world of a chance to see a potential all-time great at work. While many will scoff and snicker at the notion of James becoming a crossover star in the NFL, I believe he’s an athletic marvel with a set of skills that would have made him a gold-jacket player at tight end.

ALDON SMITH: Can he regain prowess in Dallas?

Can Aldon Smith rediscover his All-Pro game after a four-year layoff?

That’s the million-dollar question circulating throughout The Star after the Dallas Cowboys’ edge rusher was reinstated by the NFL earlier this week. The No. 7 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft was once considered the best pass rusher in the league until a series of transgressions, suspensions and legal woes forced him out of the game in 2015. With the ‘Boys in desperate need of a credible threat opposite DeMarcus Lawrence, Smith’s re-emergence could be the key to their title hopes.

I know that’s a lot of pressure to put on a 30-year-old who hasn’t played in a game in four seasons, but desperate times call for desperate measures in the NFL.

In Smith, the Cowboys are hoping to dust off the explosive pass rusher who amassed 42 sacks in his first 43 games of his career. The young No. 99 wreaked havoc on opponents with a combination of length, strength and power that overwhelmed blockers on the edge. Smith plowed through offensive tackles on bull rushes and worked with Justin Smith on an assortment of T-E stunts (defensive end and defensive tackle exchange responsibilities) to enable him to hunt the quarterback without obstruction.

The 6-5, 255-pounder (his weight at that time) would rag doll blockers at the point of attack with an array of overwhelming hand-to-hand combat maneuvers. In 2012, Aldon Smith’s combination of explosiveness and hand skills helped him notch 19.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. He was universally celebrated as one of the best pass rushers in football.

Smith hasn’t been that same player since his spectacular sophomore campaign. During his last two seasons in the league with the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders, Smith totaled only 5.5 sacks in 16 games. He didn’t display the same explosiveness, power and burst that made him a feared defender early on in his career. Blockers constantly stalemated Smith at the line of scrimmage by sitting on his finesse moves and stymied his power-based maneuvers with quick-set techniques.

Although he finished his brief run with the Silver and Black with 3.5 sacks (in nine games), the veteran took advantage of blown assignments and miscommunications to run unobstructed to the quarterback for his pass-rush production.

“When Smith was with Oakland, he was good but not elite,” an AFC executive recently told me. “He has natural ability to play on the edge with his length and natural power. He wasn’t as explosive and his finishing burst to the quarterback had dropped off, but he would flash on occasion. … You wonder how good Smith could’ve been if he was able to stay focused on and off the field.”

The Cowboys can only hope that a reunion between Smith and his original NFL position coach, Jim Tomsula (who joined the Cowboys’ staff this offseason), will help the veteran shake off the rust. He will need to lean on his fundamentals to help him overcome a loss of athleticism and explosiveness as an aging player. In addition, Smith will need to make energy, effort and hustle a bigger part of his game as he attempts to turn back the clock.

From a deployment standpoint, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan needs to figure out a way to maximize Smith’s talents as a power rusher who might have lost a step. He could put Smith on the move with stunts to help him use his momentum to overpower blockers at the line of scrimmage. Additionally, the constant movement could be a part of a series of misdirection tactics that create some free runs to the quarterback for the veteran.

Smith should use the move to Dallas to reinvent his game as a heavy-handed run defender off the edge. He has reportedly bulked up to 287 pounds, which could magnify his strengths as a player with a game built around his length, hand-to-hand combat skills and overall power. He set the edge well during his time with the Raiders and those skills could make him a viable option as an early-down defender.

The odds are against Smith regaining his All-Pro form as a pass rusher after a four-year layoff at this stage of his career, but the veteran could certainly emerge as a solid contributor in a situational role.