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Panthers surprising everyone with potent offense; Ryan Tannehill's a top-five QB

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:

But first, a look at a frisky team no one saw coming …

Carolina’s emergence as a contender in the NFC South is one of the most surprising early developments of the 2020 NFL season. Everyone expected the Saints and Buccaneers to be duking it out for top billing in the division, but not the Panthers, who own the same 3-2 record as New Orleans and Tampa Bay.

First-year head coach Matt Rhule arrived in Charlotte with plenty of fanfare, having fostered a reputation as a premium program builder at Baylor and Temple, but no one gave this roster much of a chance to compete in 2020. The key to Rhule’s first Carolina club? A high-revving offense directed by another man fresh up from the college ranks, former LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady. Despite the fact that Brady’s calling plays on his own for the first time in his coaching career, the 31-year-old rookie offensive coordinator already has the Panthers humming at a high level. In fact, Carolina’s currently on pace to finish with the highest total offense figure (399.6 yards per game) in team history. And the crazy part is that Brady’s doing this while largely operating without the team’s most dynamic weapon.

Think about that: The Panthers are operating at franchise-best levels — in passing yards per game (281.6), giveaways per game (1.0) and passer rating (101.3), as well — with first-team All-Pro playmaker Christian McCaffrey (high ankle sprain) having missed the past three games (all Carolina wins). At 24.4 points per game, the Panthers are scoring at a pace not seen since Cam Newton’s MVP season of 2015.

How are the Panthers producing at such a high level behind an inexperienced play-caller who was unable to fully implement his system during the COVID-19-abbreviated offseason? Better yet, how are the Panthers balling out without the best running back in football in the lineup?

The answer is simple: Carolina’s a tough-as-nails football team led by an underrated quarterback who knows how to maximize his gifted collection of pass catchers. Teddy Bridgewater is currently on pace to post career-highs in completion percentage (73.0), passing yards per game (292.0), yards per attempt (8.2) and passer rating (101.3). Picking apart opponents with pinpoint accuracy, Bridgewater has shown impressive anticipation and awareness as a distributor.

“Teddy is elite at knowing where to go with the ball,” Rhule said, via the Charlotte Observer. “He’s one of the best pocket-movement guys I’ve ever been around. … And he’s so smart. He has tremendous expectation and understanding of what we’re trying to do.”

As the point guard for the Panthers’ fast-break offense, Bridgewater excels at getting the ball into the hands of wide receivers Robby Anderson, D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel on the perimeter, as well as running back Mike Davis, who’s done a fabulous job filling in for McCaffrey. This quartet of catch-and-run playmakers possesses the wiggle, bounce and power to get through traffic. Brady takes advantage of their skills by featuring a horizontal-based offense that’s similar to the scheme that has helped Drew Brees thrive in New Orleans. Given that Brady and Bridgewater both spent two years with the Saints (crossing over in 2018), swiping New Orleans’ playbook is sensible, especially considering the quarterback’s success in the system as a temporary starter in 2019.

The Panthers’ new QB1 has picked up where he left off in New Orleans by focusing on getting the ball to the playmakers and getting out of the way. Whether he is hitting Anderson or Moore on a variety of short and intermediate routes or tossing the rock to Samuel or Davis out of the backfield (Bridgewater has targeted players aligned in the backfield on 22.5 percent office attempts, per Next Gen Stats, the third-highest rate in the NFL), the seventh-year vet is taxing defenses with his balanced distribution to all areas. This tactic has not only forced opponents to defend the entire field, but it has made No. 5 a nightmare to defend due to a quick-rhythm approach that neutralizes the pass rush.

And keep in mind: The eventual return of McCaffrey will add an explosive dimension to the offense that could vault the Panthers’ attack from good to great. Davis has performed admirably and put up some juicy fantasy football numbers (90-plus scrimmage yards and a touchdown in three straight games), but he’s not CMC. The electric playmaker’s return will add substantial spice to an offense that’s already rounding into form.

Carolina has quietly entered the conversation as a playoff contender behind an offense that has more pop than expected. With Bridgewater and Co. finding a groove and McCaffrey expected back by month’s end, is it possible these underdogs could make a wholly unexpected run at the NFC South title?

DINK AND DUNK

Ryan Tannehill: Elite QB? It’s high time to put some respect on Tannehill’s name as a top-five quarterback. The Titans’ QB1 started to change the narrative surrounding him after capturing the 2019 Comeback Player of the Year award, but he deserves to be considered as one of the top quarterbacks in the game today, given the strong resume of work he’s put together over the last year in Tennessee.

In 14 regular-season starts with the Titans, Tannehill has guided the Titans to an 11-3 mark with 3,602 pass yards (257.3 per game), a 31:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 116.6 passer rating, while also running for an additional 258 yards and five scores. Compare that to Patrick Mahomes’ production over his last 14 games: 11-3 record, 3,674 pass yards, 28:6 TD-to-INT ratio and 102.3 passer rating, with 266 yards rushing and four scores. Considering all the verbal bouquets scouts, coaches and observers toss at the 2018 MVP/reigning Super Bowl MVP, the football world needs to give Tannehill his due as an elite player.

That’s hard for some skeptics who are still hung up on his inconsistent play in Miami, but the former No. 8 overall pick’s streakiness might’ve been a byproduct of questionable teaching and instruction from his former Dolphins coaches. That’s not a direct shot at Adam Gase alone, but it is hard to ignore the significant improvement in production and performance from Tannehill since his relocation to Nashville. He has played at an A+ level as a Titan, and his ability to thrive as a playmaker has propelled Tennessee into title contention.

If we are judging quarterbacks based on their individual accomplishments and team achievements, Tannehill must be included among the elites at the position.

Is Chase Claypool the Steelers’ next great receiver? I don’t know if Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are culinary wizards, but they certainly have discovered a recipe that transforms underrated prospects into Pro Bowl-caliber playmakers. Like master chefs in a five-star restaurant whipping up signature dishes, the Steelers’ brain trust has been able to identify wide receivers with a few blue-chip ingredients and develop them into high-end players.

From Mike Wallace to Antonio Brown to Emmanuel Sanders to Martavis Bryant to JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh has a long history of turning non-first-rounders into stars. Seeing how Claypool just took the football world by storm with four touchdowns against the Eagles, it looks like the Steelers are whipping up another masterpiece at the position.

The 6-foot-4, 238-pounder with 4.42 speed is already making explosive contributions as a complementary playmaker on the perimeter. Claypool, who was drafted midway through the second round back in April, is averaging 20.1 yards per catch while displaying exceptional straight-line speed as a vertical threat. In addition, he has flashed rugged running skills with the ball in his hands. Although he displayed some of these skills at Notre Dame, the guys suddenly looks like a superhero in a Steelers uniform.

His quick transformation begs the question: What’s the secret to developing wide receivers? How are the Steelers able to do it year after year with Day 2/3 picks?

The Steelers’ success developing non-first-rounders comes down to selecting wide receivers with hard-nosed games built on toughness, physicality and at least one blue-chip skill (size, speed, athleticism, route-running skills, hands). The team has a proven formula for developing receivers on the practice field and working them into the lineup. Part of their accelerated development can also be attributed to playing with a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger not only provides constant feedback, but he can help them understand how the pieces of the route-concept puzzle fit together. This clarity leads to better chemistry and instant production from young pass catchers.

It is too early to anoint Claypool as a Pro Bowl candidate, but the Steelers’ rookie wideout certainly looks like a star in the making.

Raheem Morris gets another chance. Owners and general managers who might be looking for a qualified head-coaching candidate for the 2021 cycle should pay close attention to Morris’ 11-game audition with the Falcons. The former Buccaneers head coach is the most qualified candidate in the pool, and his star should rise after observers take a closer look at his resume.

Still just 44 years old, Morris has three years of head-coaching experience with a 10-win season on the books. In addition, he has extensive experience as a defensive coordinator with play-calling duties and he served as the assistant head coach/wide receivers coach for a Falcons offense that shattered records on the way to Super Bowl LI. The last nugget is significant because it validates Morris’ football IQ, adaptability and overall understanding of the game. He is one of the few coaches with real experience on each side of the ball, and that understanding should make him a top-notch problem solver on game days. Moreover, the diverse background provides him with a perspective that should result in excellent complementary football tactics and execution from his squad.

When you look back over the annals of history for head coaches with similar pedigrees, the one who best fits Morris’ description is Tom Landry. The Hall of Famer cut his teeth on the defensive side of the ball as a defensive coordinator with the New York Giants, but he was the offensive mastermind as the head coach of the Cowboys. While I’m not ready to proclaim Morris a potential 200-game winner, I firmly believe his experience as a high-end coach on both sides of the ball (and as a previous head coach) should make him a front-runner for one of the coaching vacancies during the next hiring cycle.

COVER 2

1) The DK Metcalf experiment is paying off for the Seahawks. Whenever I turn on a Seahawks game and see No. 14 hauling in another deep ball, I’m reminded of the lesson I learned from scouting the former Ole Miss star prior to the 2019 NFL Draft. While properly evaluating a player’s strengths and weaknesses is crucial, instead of nitpicking each prospect’s flaws, you should focus on the prospect’s best qualities and how a team’s system or developmental plan can accentuate those traits to get the most out of a player.

In other words, scouts should pay closer attention to what a prospect CAN do instead of harping on what he CAN’T do.

Looking back at Metcalf’s game tape from his time at Ole Miss, he checked the boxes as an HWS (height-weight-speed) prospect with big-play potential. As a 6-foot-3, 228-pound pass catcher with sub-4.4 speed, he torched SEC defenders as a vertical playmaker in an offense that featured fellow 2019 second-round pick A.J. Brown as the No. 1 receiver. Despite sharing the marquee with Brown, Metcalf finished his collegiate career with 67 catches for 1,228 receiving yards and 14 scores in 21 games. While injuries plagued him in college — his final season was cut short by a neck injury and he received a medical redshirt as a true freshman after breaking his foot — his average of 18.3 yards per catch and touchdown-to-catch ratio (one score every 4.7 catches) suggested that he was a dominant big-play weapon when healthy.

That sentiment should have been confirmed by Metcalf’s performance at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine, where he clocked a 4.33-second 40-yard dash to go with a 40.5-inch vertical jump and 11-foot-2 broad jump. Those numbers validated his overall explosiveness, but his times in the 20-yard shuttle (4.5 seconds) and three-cone drill (7.38 seconds) were dismal. Skeptics said the lack of change-of-direction ability he showed in those events would hinder his chances of becoming a high-end playmaker. Instead of focusing on his blue-chip traits (size, speed and explosiveness), many folks dwelled on what he didn’t do well and Metcalf fell all the way to the last pick of the second round before Seattle ended his draft slide.

Fast-forward to today, and it looks like he was a tremendous value that late in the draft. Metcalf has been exactly who we thought he was as a prospect before the nitpicking began: a big-bodied pass catcher with exceptional speed and athleticism.

The Seahawks have showcased his blue-chip traits by featuring him extensively on go routes, post routes, slants and hitches/hinges (at various depths). Those routes have minimal stop-start requirements, which enable Metcalf to thrive as a straight-line athlete on the perimeter. As a result, the second-year pro has been able to torch opponents by playing to his strengths as an athlete. Metcalf made 58 catches for 900 yards (15.5 average) and seven touchdowns last season as he acclimated to the pro game. He has turned it up in a big way this season with an average of 22.5 yards per catch (22 receptions and 496 yards) and five scores through five games. My colleague Nick Shook recently anointed Metcalf the best deep threat in football right now due to his ability to rack up yards on deep targets (throws of 20-plus air yards). He’s amassed an NFL-high 296 yards on seven deep receptions this season with three deep-target touchdowns.

The league has certainly taken notice of Metcalf’s impact as a big-play specialist, with his teammate Jamal Adams favorably comparing the second-year pro to Megatron (aka former Detroit Lions great Calvin Johnson). While I’m not quite ready to hand him All-Pro accolades, it is time to appreciate Metcalf as a dominant playmaker with a unique game.

2) Is Jalen Ramsey the Rams’ version of LeBron James? This question will probably lead to a few chuckles and some eye-rolls at first glance, but the comparison between the outstanding cornerback and the NBA legend is certainly one that piqued my curiosity after Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley likened Ramsey’s versatility at the star position in the team’s defense to James’ role for the Lakers.

“Jalen Ramsey is a natural player at star,” Staley said this week, per Sports Illustrated. “I think that anybody that knows his game going back from when he was in high school knows that this is what he’s capable of doing. I see him like a LeBron James is used on the basketball court, where he’s a position-less player. He plays some point guard, he plays some three, he plays some four, he guards fives and he’s what his team needs to be in that particular game in order for them to be successful.

“It’s a position that kind of combines several different skill sets,” Staley said. “You’re a little bit of a corner, you’re a little bit of a safety, a little bit of a linebacker — inside linebacker and outside linebacker because you’re kind of a rusher, too.”

While that’s a heady comparison for any player, the effusive praise from Staley doesn’t surprise me, given how I viewed Ramsey as a prospect coming out of Florida State in 2016. Ramsey’s a world-class athlete (former ACC long-jump champion and All-ACC honoree as a jumper/sprinter) with a high football IQ, and I saw flashes of Charles Woodson in Ramsey’s game as a versatile defender in the secondary. He had a knack for making plays from multiple spots as a Seminole.

Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, it is easy to see his evolution from shutdown corner to Swiss Army Knife with the Rams. Staley deploys Ramsey wherever he’s needed, and the three-time Pro Bowl selectee’s versatility gives the defensive architect options when crafting a game plan designed to slow down an explosive offensive weapon. Moreover, Ramsey gives Staley a five-star playmaker to build around.

I don’t know if Ramsey (and Aaron Donald) will bring L.A. a title like James (and Anthony Davis) just did, but the do-everything defender certainly has his defensive coordinator crafting schemes that could make the Rams a dark-horse championship contender this season.

HAIL MARY

The time for sleeping on Le’Veon Bell is over! In fact, I won’t be surprised if he re-emerges as one of the NFL’s most dangerous offensive weapons with the Chiefs, who are signing Bell after his release from the Jets this week. Despite the former All-Pro’s disappointing run in New York, Bell will now be in the perfect spot to showcase his talents.

I know that many folks scoff at that notion and point to the 28-year-old’s dismal production since the start of last season as proof of his demise, but this is the HAIL MARY section, people.

My confidence in Bell’s resurrection stems from the Chiefs’ scheme and play-caller. Andy Reid’s system features running backs prominently in the game plan on a variety of isolation routes and screens. I still believe Bell is one of the best in the business at catching the ball out of the backfield. In addition, the veteran is a premier route runner with the ability to make plays on isolation routes from a wide alignment in empty and spread sets.

The Chiefs have sparingly utilized empty formations this season, but Bell’s arrival could change things. The no-back formations will add another layer to the playbook for an offense that already drives defensive coordinators crazy and they’ll give Patrick Mahomes the ability to quickly identify coverages prior to the snap. Considering how the former MVP torches opponents when he is able to read their mail, the Chiefs could utilize Bell like the queen on the chessboard to dictate the terms to their opponents.

The naysayers will continue to suggest that Bell has lost a step and is no longer the creative runner who dominated the game during his time with the Steelers. I can’t disagree with those points, but the Chiefs aren’t asking Bell to be the player he was back in those days. They will utilize Bell as an RB2/WR, and that role will enable him to continue to thrive as an older playmaker at the position.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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