The commonality among the Packers, Falcons, Patriots and Steelers is obvious. But look past their elite quarterbacks, and other trends emerge. Plus more on drafting RBs, a defensive evolution and the next Belichick

By Albert Breer
January 19, 2017

This all makes so much sense, now that we’re at the end of it.

In March, the Eagles gave injury-prone quarterback Sam Bradford a deal worth $36 million over two years. It was less than a week before the Texans handed Brock Osweiler—who started nine games before being benched in Denver—a four-year, $72 million contract. A month later, the Rams gave up two first-round picks, two second-rounders and a third to get Jared Goff, and the Eagles dealt two 1s, a 2, a 3 and a starting corner to acquire Carson Wentz.

And that was all four months before the Vikings flipped a 1 and a 4 to Philly to get Bradford, because their former first-round pick, Teddy Bridgewater, got hurt.

The lesson? There’s no price too high for a franchise quarterback. Just look at this weekend. Three of the four quarterbacks still alive to see this weekend’s conference title games are making in excess of $20 million per year, and the fourth isn’t by choice—and he may be the greatest football player of all-time.

This isn’t just us on the outside thinking it, either. The coaches and GMs for the other 28 teams felt it, too, when they looked at that bracket after last weekend and saw the final four we’re all looking at: Aaron Rodgers at Matt Ryan at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday, then Ben Roethlisberger at Tom Brady after that.

“They’re so hard to find,” one AFC head coach told me Tuesday. “If you go all in and make a decision that this is the guy, then you have to go get him. And then you have to support him, so he can be the guy you envision him being. If you go get a guy and you don’t support him—you don’t put what he needs around him, i.e. the right receivers, the right protection—then it doesn’t matter. It’s all gonna look bad.

“So it’s gotta be the right fit, the right coach, the right environment, it has to be the right everything. But you’ve gotta have a quarterback to win.”

Getty Images (4)

In this week’s GamePlan, we’ll look deeper at the idea of investing at running back, what sets Aaron Rodgers apart in Mike McCarthy’s eyes, Le’Veon Bell as a pass-game weapon, Keanu Neal as a trend-setter, a quarterback who thinks Kyle Shanahan could be Bill Belichick and much more.

We’ll start with the four teams still alive, their rosters, and what lessons other teams are taking from watching. Again, the most obvious: Find a franchise quarterback. As our coach above said, though, there’s more to it than that. And so to dive in a little deeper, I repeated an exercise I did in my column at this time last year, and looked closely at the makeup of each team’s 53-man roster. Here they are:

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Homegrown Players: 27 (20 draftees, 7 college free agents)
Outside Free Agents: 24
Trades/Waivers: 2
Quarterback Acquired: Drafted Matt Ryan with the 3rd overall pick in 2008.
Last Five First-Round Picks: S Keanu Neal (2016, 22); OLB Vic Beasley (2015, 8); OT Jake Matthews (2014, 6); CB Desmond Trufant (2013, 22); WR Julio Jones (2012, 6).
Top 5 Cap Figures: Ryan $23.75M; Jones $15.9M; DE Tyson Jackson $6.35M; G Andy Levitre $5.375M; Matthews $4.48M.

Homegrown Players: 44 (34 draftees, 10 college free agents)
Outside Free Agents: 7
Trades/Waivers: 2
Quarterback Acquired: Drafted Aaron Rodgers with the 24th pick in 2005.
Last Five First-Round Picks: DT Kenny Clark (2016, 27), S Damarious Randall (2015, 30), DB Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (2014, 21), DE Datone Jones (2013, 26), DE Nick Perry (2012, 28).
Top 5 Cap Figures: Rodgers $19.25M; OLB Clay Matthews $13.75M; CB Sam Shields $12.00M; OLB Julius Peppers $10.5M; WR Randall Cobb $9.15M.

Homegrown Players: 37 (27 draftees, 10 college free agents)
Outside Free Agents: 10
Trades/Waivers: 6
Quarterback Acquired: Drafted Tom Brady with the 199th overall pick in 2000.
Last Five First-Round Picks: DT Malcom Brown (2015, 32); Dominique Easley (2014, 29); DE Chandler Jones (2012, 21); LB Dont’a Hightower (2012, 25); OT Nate Solder (2011, 17).
Top 5 Cap Figures: Brady $13.76M; Solder $10.32M; Hightower $7.75M; DE Jabaal Sheard $6.81M; TE Rob Gronkowski $6.62M

Homegrown Players: 30 (23 draftees, 7 college free agents)
Outside Free Agents: 21
Trades/Waivers: 2
Quarterback Acquired: Drafted Ben Roethlisberger with the 11th overall pick in 2004.
Last Five First-Round Picks: CB Artie Burns (2016, 25); OLB Bud Dupree (2015, 22); ILB Ryan Shazier (2014, 15); OLB Jarvis Jones (2013, 17); OG David DeCastro (2012, 24)
Top 5 Cap Figures: Roethlisberger $23.95M; ILB Lawrence Timmons $15.13M; WR Antonio Brown $11.88M; C Maurkice Pouncey $10.55M; DL Cam Heyward $10.4M.

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Clearly, the Falcons aren’t built like the Packers, the Steelers’ construction is different than it was with their most recent (drafted-player heavy) title teams, and the Patriots’ high percentage of homegrown talent belies the fact that half of their first-round picks since 2012 are on other rosters. But when other teams look, they do see a few commonalities.

First, the teams have strong leadership, and that’s beyond just the quarterbacks—there are characters here (i.e. Martellus Bennett, Antonio Brown), but there’s character too. None of the four is overrun with knuckleheads.

“I do think the scouting departments now, the GMs are listening to coaches on what they need,” said an NFC head coach. “We’re the ones with these players all the time. And you don’t have to get the most talented player. If you’re always holding your breath, and he’s a ticking time bomb, that’s a problem. You have to be careful. You want quality people, guys you can rely on.”

Beyond that, the teams are built with purpose. The Patriots found Chris Hogan, the right kind of outside receiver for their offense, at a cheap rate. The Falcons plucked Keanu Neal to be Dan Quinn’s next Kam Chancellor. The Steelers brought James Harrison back to play a very specific role. The Packers have gotten far more out of the previously frustratingly talented Jared Cook than other clubs.

Those acquisitions worked because there was vision for what players would do. These aren’t collections of talent. They’re mosaics with each piece tying into the next.

“Talent doesn’t win; talent in right places, coached right, motivated right gives you the best opportunity,” said the AFC head coach. “The most talented player might not be the best guy for your football team. The right fit is the right guy for your team. Nobody does that better than Belichick.

“It’s not about talent with him, it’s about fit. You can be the most talented guy, you might not fit what he wants to do, and he’s gonna pass you by. The teams [remaining], I don’t think they really care about what other teams think.”

• THE TALE OF TOM BRADY AND JOHNNY FOXBOROUGH: Jenny Vrentas dives deep into how Belichick coaches his star quarterback

An NFC GM reinforced the point, saying, “It’s pretty clear with those four teams, if you have philosophical alignment, you can win.”

And the third factor that was pointed out repeatedly to me: the teams generally can run the ball, and have defensive identity. The Packers, because of their injury issues, are the exception on both counts, which speaks to what Rodgers has done the past two months.

The Patriots and Falcons were both in the top quarter of the league running the ball. The Steelers were ranked 14th, but no one’s been better carrying the mail since Veteran’s Day than Le’Veon Bell. And that, as their rivals see it, is no mistake.

“Outside of Green Bay, they all have the ability to run the ball,” said an AFC GM. “And if you’re able to run it, it makes the quarterback that much better. If Matt Ryan has a run game like that one, he’s a top-five quarterback every year. If he has to throw it 50 times every week? Any quarterback’s gonna have a hard time if that’s the way it is.”

So having a good locker room mix, a roster built with a purpose and a run game to take the heat off the quarterback matters. But it’s hard to get away from the central theme. Getting it right at the most important position is the starting point, and generating the right environment for that guy is next.

The flip side is there, too, with how disastrous it can be to force it with the wrong guy. (Surprise! Brock Osweiler’s name came up repeatedly).

“There probably isn’t a price too high, but you have to be careful selling the farm to get one piece,” said the NFC coach. “You have to be careful. You don’t want to just go get the best available. Look at Houston.”

Of the Texans, the AFC coach says, “The coach saw, ‘This guy isn’t gonna get us there.’ And then, eventually, the coach was right. He was right. So now they have a huge investment that’s killing them. And they have a decision to make.”

Something for everyone to remember in a few months when we’re all sorting through names like Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins, Tony Romo, Mitch Trubisky, DeShone Kizer and DeShaun Watson—with the temptation being the payoff now being reaped by the four franchises left standing.

• HOW AARON RODGERS RAISED HIS GAME: Andy Benoit on how the Packers QB has merged his sandlot style with newfound timing and rhythm, thanks to Jared Cook’s emergence

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The immediate success of Ezekiel Elliott, coupled with a loaded running back draft class, could lead to an early run at the position in April.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

1. The running back class to come. Ezekiel Elliott’s rookie season is done, but it’s fair to say that the Cowboys wouldn’t go back on spending the fourth overall pick on the Ohio State All-America. It’s also fair to say that the Elliott payoff could help guys like Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook in April. And if you dig a little deeper into the Cowboys’ logic in drafting Elliott that high, you can certainly see why other teams would adopt the concept.

“We were pretty convicted on Zeke. I give our room credit,” Cowboys COO Stephen Jones said. “The two quarterbacks were gonna be gone, but after that we didn’t know who might be there. And we just really decided on a strategy where if we could put together an offense like we had two years ago, that it would help Tony [Romo]. Turns out, it helped a rookie quarterback instead, which is huge. And between the offense line and Dez [Bryant] and [Jason] Witten, if we could possess the ball with a dominant offense, it would help our defense, based on who we might get with the defensive pick. We really felt like he was the guy. We studied the running back situation. And one of the things we came up with, usually these backs have their most productive years in the first four or five years. It certainly starts to head down after that, so if you’re gonna pick a great one and you’re gonna pay him a little bit, you might as well get his best years. And [Elliott’s] versatility, running, obviously he’s a great runner of the football, but on top of that he’s very physical with his pass-protection, and certainly a capable receiver out of the backfield. We just felt he was a complete back. And we felt like he was the right guy for us.”

There’s no question backs have been devalued the past few years. But think about that—Zeke helped Dak Prescott assimilate, took burden off Witten and Bryant, boosted the team’s pass-protection, gave it another option in the pass game and changed the terms on which the Cowboys played defense almost every week. All that, and at a price of $5 million per year, which is less than a backup QB makes these days. Take that, and what Le’Veon Bell is doing in Pittsburgh, and you could certainly see why it’ll make sense to some team drafting high to spend that pick on Fournette or Cook, the two players at the top of a loaded class of tailbacks.

2. Le’Veon Bell atones for his mistakes. The Steelers obviously weren’t pleased with Bell over the off-season, when a missed drug test meant he’d start the season suspended for the second straight year. His talent was one reason for the staff to stand by him through that. But another was the work he put into improving, and the pounding he’s willing to take, signs of his commitment to those around him. “To come back from a pretty severe injury [in 2015] and carry the kind of load he has can’t be overstated,” said one Pittsburgh staffer. “He’s great to work with—smart, takes coaching very well, and is always looking for that little detail that can make him better. He soaks up all the coaching points and brings them to life. … He’s improved everywhere. He practices hard. Even after a 35-touch pounding, he’s out here ready to go. And he’s got great confidence in his abilities, but he’s still willing to learn.”

That, in particular, has continued to show up in Bell’s ability to run routes and become Ben Roethlisberger’s second option in the passing game, which the Steelers had hoped a younger player like Sammy Coates would become. Bell’s 75 catches over 12 games project to 100 catches over a full season, a mark only three backs (Larry Centers, LaDainian Tomlinson and Matt Forte) in NFL history have hit, which is pretty insane when you consider that Bell also has rushed for 1,172 yards over his past eight games. And as for that part of it, credit not only Bell and the offensive line, but also Mike Tomlin for taking an old-school approach to training camp. The day I was there in August, they were knocking the crap out of each other like it was 1995, and the head coach explained it to me like this:

“It’s a necessary part of the team-building process for us. We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what others do. We want to have a winning edge. Physicality is still as much a part of the game of football as it’s always been, from my perspective. That’s why we take our approach to team building. We got 90 guys out there, many of which are new, we’re trying to evaluate them. When you play with that level of intensity, and tackling at times, it eliminates a lot of speculation and provides clarity.” Add it up, and it’s easy to see why after a sideways start to 2016 for Bell, he’s become so central to all that the Steelers are.

• LE’VEON BELL BREAKS FREE: The best running back in the AFC is also the best rapper in the NFL. Just ask Snoop Dogg

3. Keanu Neal is another sign of defensive evolution. It was about five years ago that it seemed the “box safety”—the Rodney Harrison or Steve Atwater type—was starting to go the way of the leather helmet, with rules changes and spread-out offenses and sophisticated passing games making the enforcers obsolete. As it turns out, the NFL just needed time to figure out how to use them.

The results say that’s happened, and one such outcome will be on display on Sunday when Falcons rookie Keanu Neal lines up against the Packers offense. And there are other prime examples in Arizona (Deone Bucannon), Los Angeles (Mark Barron), Jacksonville (Jonathan Cypien), Washington (Su’a Cravens), Detroit (Miles Killebrew) and, of course, Seattle (Kam Chancellor). You can even look at the Jets’ drafting a smaller linebacker like Darron Lee last year and see his that role isn’t all that different from the one Bucannon plays in the defense that Todd Bowles used to coordinate. “Kam’s rare, but people are looking,” said one AFC personnel exec. “Take what happened on Saturday. New England got Dion Lewis manned up on [Benardrick] McKinney, and it was lights out. S--- like that was happening with the bigger safeties, too, because offenses were gaming them. So now, you go with more athletic guys at safety, but also have safeties playing at linebacker.”

Now, the roles here aren’t all the same. Bucannon and Barron are playing a true linebacker role more often than Chancellor or Cyprien are. But the fact is that the hybrid with safety/linebacker flexibility is once again in demand in pro football. In fact, that’s part of the reason why LSU’s Jamal Adams is so highly thought of going into draft season, and part of the curiosity surrounding just what some team will do with Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers. So keep an eye on Neal on Sunday. Your team might just be on the lookout for someone like him in the spring.

4. What sets Rodgers apart. Packers coach Mike McCarthy asked me: Do you have an MVP vote? I told him I didn’t, but I knew where he was going—that his guy, Aaron Rodgers, deserved the nod. And this was before the ridiculousness of Rodgers’ last six quarters of playoff football. “I can only go by the guys I see,” McCarthy told me. “And I think Matt Ryan—because we played against Matt—has been great. But I think what Aaron does with his feet, I mean, they’ve all got great numbers. Him, Brady, Ryan, they all have great numbers throwing the ball. But he’s got four or five rushing TDs, 350 yards rushing. Just look at first downs that he creates with his feet. He’s different.”

So I looked it up. McCarthy’s memory was spot on—369 yards, a 5.5-yard-per-carry average, and four touchdowns. And the first-down aspect of it was interesting too. Rodgers tucked the ball the ran it 67 times in the regular season, and picked up 25 first downs, an efficiency rate of 37.3 percent that ranks near the top of the league. Against Dallas, he picked up a second-and-11 with an 11-yard run, and a second-and-1 with a five-yard run (which helped set up the first of Mason Crosby’s two field goals in the game’s final two minutes). And, of course, we saw his feet on display on the 35-yard dart to Jared Cook that, basically, won the game for the Packers. I, by the way, voted for Brady for MVP in The MMQB poll. But as far as what McCarthy said to me … Point taken.

• THE OTHER SIDE OF THE PACKERS WIN: Robert Klemko details the important play that was overshadowed by Rodgers’ throw

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The Browns defense, which ranked 31st in total defense in 2016, will be expected to take a significant step forward next season.
Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images

• It may seem like Browns coach Hue Jackson had a quick hook with defensive coordinator Ray Horton, but it’s important to remember here how this is a critical offseason for the team. They’ll be moving a boatload of players Year 1 to Year 2, and bringing in another robust rookie class. And so my read on this is that the availability of Gregg Williams gave Jackson an opportunity to double down on his own beliefs. In many ways Williams is the defensive version of Jackson—an experienced, aggressive leader who builds strong relationships with players but coaches them hard. In the end, to me, it seems like the idea of being able to align the staff and the teaching was too good an opportunity to pass up.

• Staff moves this week in Houston are proof positive that Bill O’Brien valued the job that his coaches did this season. Linebackers coach Mike Vrabel, going into his fourth year as an NFL assistant, turned down the 49ers coordinator job last year, drew interest from the Redskins and Chargers to work in that capacity this year, and even had a head-coaching interview set up with the Rams before they moved on Sean McVay. Bottom line, O’Brien had to give the highly-regarded Vrabel this shot, promoting him to defensive coordinator. And so the job then was to keep Romeo Crennel on board after Crennel’s unit led the league in total defense this year (without J.J. Watt), which O’Brien was able to accomplish. On the other side of the ball, yes, offensive coordinator George Godsey was thrown overboard, but the rest of the staff remained static. So there’s a fairly unified front on that side of a football operation now that has fences to mend in the coming months.

• Remember the chaotic end to Mike Shanahan’s time in Washington in 2013, with the coach and quarterback Robert Griffin at war, and the owner choosing to whack Shanahan as a result? Sitting there on that staff was offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and tight ends coach Sean McVay. Three years later those two are poised to be the two youngest head coaches in the league, and coach against each other in the NFC West. And those two have remained advocates for one another. In fact, when McVay was asked by Niners who he’d hire if the choice wasn’t him, he told the brass it’d be Shanahan.

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1. Georgia State WR Robert Davis (NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, FS1, 4 p.m. ET): This is the time of year when prospects from lesser known programs start to distinguish themselves, and Davis is one who’s done that during practices in California. “I didn’t scout him, but he’s strong and he looks like he runs really well,” said an AFC scout who’s been working practices and said Davis has stood out. “He’s been explosive and consistent catching the ball. He’s just a little stiff.” The two-time first-team All-Sun Belt pick caught 67 balls for 968 yards and five touchdowns, and had eight catches for 93 yards and a touchdown against Wisconsin. A cousin of Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, the 22-year-old has plenty of size (6'3", 220 pounds) and may be a good 40 time away from becoming a more well-known name ahead of the combine.

2. Drake TE Eric Saubert (East/West Shrine Game, NFL Network, 3 p.m. ET): We mentioned last week how loaded this year is with tight ends, so making a move up the draft board won’t easy for guys at that spot. But according to those on the ground in Florida, Saubert has turned heads. At 6'5" and 251 pounds, he’s more of a new age, move-type at the position. And the production—he’s a two-time FCS All-American—is there, albeit at a lower level of competition. “He looks solid,” said an AFC college scouting director. “I’m not blown away, but he’s a good athlete with good hands and he’s fast enough, but a little undersized.” Again, he’ll be fighting for draft position in a stacked group, and still has questions to answer on his ability as a blocker, but based on the buzz out of these practices, he’s off to a good start.

• DESHAUN WATSON, EVALUATED: A Super Bowl coach and two NFL quarterbacks break down the Clemson star as a draft prospect

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Kyle Shanahan is expected to take the 49ers’ job once the Falcons season ends.
Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I had a conversation a few weeks back with Bears quarterback Brian Hoyer, as part of an effort to gather more player perspective on Kyle Shanahan from guys who worked in close quarters with the Falcons offensive coordinator. And Hoyer said he felt like Shanahan was a lot like another coach he worked with.

That coach: Bill Belichick.

So now that we know Shanahan is about to get the wheel in San Francisco, I circled back this week with Hoyer, a free agent-to-be. And I’ll let Hoyer explain why he had that visceral reaction when he first got around Shanahan in 2014 in Cleveland, where Hoyer started 14 games for the then-Browns offensive coordinator.

“For me, you just know those two, when you see them in the building, they’re constantly thinking about football,” Hoyer said on Tuesday. “That’s the one thing I really admired about Kyle. You knew when he was there, he was putting the work in, that’s all he was focused on. He might walk by you in the hallway, and you’d say, ‘Hey what’s up, Kyle?’ and he’d keep walking.

“But that was because he’s working on third down or he’s worried about the red area. To me, his total commitment, his mind, he’s always thinking about it. That’s why I made the comparison. Bill was the same way. You’d see him in the hallway, ‘Hey Bill,’ and he’d just look up, and nod, and keep going. You knew he had so much he was thinking about.”

• HOW THE FALCONS DEFENSE GOT SO GOOD SO FAST: Andy Benoit examines how a few midseason tweaks paid off in Atlanta

Another thing that ties the two together, per Hoyer, is that both are perfectionists and relentless.

In New England, Belichick’s M.O. is to build such a broad understanding of the opponent that he can narrow the focus—and simplify the game—for each individual player, allowing the player to play fast. And that’s a benefit Hoyer said he saw playing for Shanahan, too.

“There’s nothing fake about that, he wants everything be to perfect,” he said. “We’d be going over game plans and he’d be like, ‘I have it studied to a point where I pretty much know what they’ll call on third down. Just trust me, don’t worry about the percentages, I’ll take care of that. I just want you to execute the play.’”

And here’s the interesting part. Based on their conversations in 2014, Hoyer knew the Atlanta offense would explode this year.

Shanahan used to tell Hoyer, “You need a big-time, playmaking ‘X’ (split end) in this offense.” He has Julio Jones now. Hoyer says, “Kyle always wanted a guy who was really, really fast.” He has Taylor Gabriel in Atlanta. Hoyer remembers how Shanahan wanted pass-catching backs. Enter Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.

Most of all, Hoyer recalls how the Browns offense crumbled after Alex Mack was injured in 2014, because Shanahan’s offense puts the ‘mike’ calls and the protections—responsibilities he had as the quarterback in New England and Houston—on the center. So Atlanta signed Mack in March.

Clearly, it’s all come together for Shanahan this year, which is why his first shot at being a head coach is waiting on the West Coast. But if you ask Hoyer why he thinks Shanahan will kill it, it’s the vision he had ahead of the Falcons’ big year, and how it came together like the 37-year-old swore it would.

So now, Shanahan carries that vision with him to his next career step, and we’ll all get to see how that plays out. But if you ask Hoyer, he’ll tell you he feels like the Niners have a real chance now, in large part due to what he saw work the years he spent in Foxboro.

“It’s in his DNA, it’s what consumes him,” Hoyer said. “He’s proven that, as far as being an offensive coordinator, he can produce a lot of great things. That experience, how long has he been in the league? He’s coached in the league since he was 24, 25. So he’s got a lot of coaching experience. Like players learn so much from playing in a game, it’s probably the same. Then, you become a head coach.”

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