One question Russell Wilson must answer; prioritizing Bucs' long list of free agents

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:

— How the Super Bowl champions should prioritize their long list of free agents.

— Will Carson Wentz re-emerge as an MVP candidate in Indy?

But first, there’s one question Russell Wilson must answer at this stage of his career …

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Let Russ Cook!

The movement popularized by the 12s has seemingly empowered Russell Wilson to challenge Pete Carroll and the Seahawks’ brass on the direction of the franchise. He has taken to the airwaves to demand more power and control on decisions ranging from coaching to personnel to style of play.

“I want to be involved. At the end of the day, it’s your legacy, your team’s legacy,” Wilson said earlier this month on The Dan Patrick Show. “It helps to be involved more. That dialogue should happen more often in my opinion.”

I understand Wilson is concerned about how he will be remembered as one of the game’s greats, but he needs to make a decision on whether he wants to follow Tom Brady’s path or trace Drew Brees’ footsteps. While each is recognized as a legend based on their impressive résumés, one is known as the ultimate winner while the other is considered arguably the most remarkable stat machine in league history.

That’s not a knock or dismissal on either career, but Brady’s G.O.A.T status is due to team success while Brees’ recognition as a future gold jacket recipient is more about his individual accomplishments.

For Wilson, he must decide what he wants at this stage of his career. If he is simply about chalking up stats and Ws, he shouldn’t have a problem with Carroll’s philosophical approach with the Seahawks. The coach has claimed college football national titles and Super Bowl championships with a conservative philosophy that revolves around an “it’s all about the ball” principle related to turnovers and ball security.

Although the low-risk strategy renders the quarterback a game-manager at times, it also has helped the Seahawks win 65 percent of their games with Wilson at quarterback. Before you @ me on Twitter touting No. 3’s fourth-quarter comeback numbers and his impressive list of game-winning drives, take into account that the Seahawks are consistently in a position to win games due to the team’s emphasis on ball security (low turnovers) on offense and ball-hawking (interceptions) or ball-searching (forced fumbles) on defense.

Considering the impact of turnovers on the outcome of games, Carroll’s sensible strategy has enabled the Seahawks to win 10 or more games in eight of the last nine seasons while also earning eight playoff berths.

Wilson’s supporters will suggest the quarterback is largely responsible for the team’s success. He has played at an all-star level since being handed the keys to the offense, and his spectacular improvisational skills have fueled the Seahawks’ dominance in the NFC. That is certainly a reasonable take from the quarterback’s camp. He has been a model citizen and an A-plus player for the organization over the past nine seasons.

Wilson has evolved into the offense’s primary weapon after starting his career as a game-manager complementing Marshawn Lynch and the Legion of Boom. He has thrown at least 30 or more touchdown passes in five of the past six seasons while routinely garnering consideration as an Offensive Player of the Year or Most Valuable Player candidate along the way.

That said, the Seahawks and Wilson haven’t reached the NFC Championship Game since he became the focal point of the offense in 2015. The Let Russ Cook movement has yielded somewhat mixed results when the Seahawks have let him toss it all over the yard. In his past six seasons, his three highest attempt marks (all over 546 throws) have also resulted in his three highest interception rates. The glorious start to the Seahawks’ pass-happy approach last season fell apart down the stretch. After averaging 34.3 points over the first eight games, the offense could only muster 22.8 points in the team’s final nine (including playoffs).

In addition, Wilson struggled against eventual playoff teams, with eight total touchdowns and nine giveaways in five games against the Rams, Bills and Washington Football Team. With a dismal performance against the Rams on Super Wild Card Weekend (11-of-27 for 174 pass yards, two TDs and an INT) serving as a reminder of what happens when the Seahawks deviate from their successful formula, it is not a surprise Carroll balks at letting Wilson have his way with the offense.

That sentiment won’t appease fans (or Wilson) who are quick to blame the team’s offensive line for No. 3’s failures and the punishment that he’s endured in the pocket over the years, but it is hard to block in pass protection for a quarterback who doesn’t play in rhythm. Sure, the improvisational plays are great when they work out, but Wilson’s tendency to hold onto the ball also makes him susceptible to big hits in the pocket.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting the Seahawks’ front office is free of criticism for the lack of talent along the offensive line. The team has struggled to put a consistent five in front of Wilson, and the lack of elite blockers makes the QB vulnerable in a division loaded with pass rushers. No. 3 has taken the most sacks of any NFL quarterback since 2017 (189).

But the deficiencies up front are part of the reason the Seahawks may be better suited to run the football and reduce their pass attempts. The increased use of the run game forces defenses out of Cover 2, Wilson’s kryptonite, making it easier for him to connect on chunk plays down the field and against single coverage on the outside.

While we are discussing Wilson and his legacy, it is important to note that he has also signed top-of-the-market deals on shorter terms. The big salary cap number is well-deserved for a quarterback of Wilson’s ilk, but it also prevents the ‘Hawks from adding weapons on both sides of the ball to alleviate the pressure on the quarterback. He wants to have his cake and eat it too, while pinning the blame on management for the team’s missteps.

Wilson has decided to shed the nice guy label and voice his concerns as his career is at a crossroads, but he needs to look in the mirror and determine if he wants to be about the “team” or “me” as he moves forward with the Seahawks.

FREE AGENCY: Prioritizing Bucs’ FA list

Bruce Arians has made it known that he expects his squad to go “for two” if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are able to keep their core together next season. Although it’s hard to pay everyone at inflated prices following a Super Bowl win, the Buccaneers have enough money to retain a handful of their free agents.

“We gotta keep our guys. You know, we gotta keep our guys. None of them want to leave, but it’s a business,” Arians said earlier this week. “Ownership, I think is going to give us enough money. We’re in good cap space to get all our guys back. If we get five out of six, I think we’ll have a great chance [to repeat].”

Bucs general manager Jason Licht and Arians must identify which players are essential to the roster and make it a priority to keep them in the fold to ensure the team has enough ammunition to fend off challengers to their throne. Given some time to study the All-22 Coaches Film and assess the team’s biggest needs, here are the five free agents who must return to One Bucs Place to give Tampa Bay the best chance to run it back in 2021:

The explosive pass rusher has been a disruptive force for the Buccaneers with 27.5 sacks, 53 QB hits, 30 tackles for loss and eight forced fumbles over the past two seasons. Barrett’s speed, quickness and burst create problems for opponents forced to play one-on-one against a formidable front line that pummels quarterbacks at every turn.

The one-time Pro Bowler teams with Mike Evans to give the Buccaneers a pair of No. 1 receivers on the perimeter. Although he suffered through the dropsies during the playoffs, Godwin is a dominant pass catcher with the potential to take over the game as a chain-mover and red zone threat with big-play ability. 

The veteran linebacker keys the Buccaneers’ defensive dominance with his stellar play beside Devin White. Like Pac-Man eats power pellets, the duo gobbles up ball-carriers as explosive sideline-to-sideline defenders with outstanding instincts and playmaking ability. Despite his advanced age (31), David is worth the investment as the leader of a defense who sets the tone with physicality and toughness. 

The grizzled vet still has enough gas in the tank to create havoc at the line of scrimmage with his bull-in-a-china-shop playing style. Although he lacks the stamina and endurance to dominate every snap of a 16-game regular season, Suh knows when to turn it on down the stretch, and that could be the difference in securing a rare back-to-back title. 

Tom Brady‘s security blanket is on the must-have list for Licht and Arians. The big-bodied tight end remains one of the best edge blockers in the game, and his ability to work the middle of the field gives TB12 a reliable outlet in key situations. 

What about Antonio Brown?

Brown is a luxury item on an offense that is loaded with stars. Although the four-time All-Pro is a crafty playmaker with big-play ability as a slot receiver, the Buccaneers have suitable replacements on the roster with Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson waiting in the wings. The team could opt to give their young wideouts more playing time instead of bringing back Brown or sign the veteran to another prove-it deal that comes at a team-friendly cost. With the leverage squarely on the team’s side, it is possible that Browns returns for a second season to occupy a role as the No. 3 receiver in a star-studded lineup.

CARSON WENTZ: Will he return to MVP form in 2021?

It is hard to imagine a quarterback who was unceremoniously benched last season emerging as an MVP candidate in 2021, but I believe Carson Wentz is well positioned to bounce back in a major way.

With the Philadelphia Eagles agreeing in principle last week to send Wentz to the Colts for a pair of draft picks, the sixth-year veteran lands in an ideal spot, where he can reconnect with coach Frank Reich. Philly’s offensive coordinator during the first two seasons of Wentz’s career, Reich has the capacity to help his pupil rediscover the ability that made him an MVP front-runner in 2017 before his season was cut short due to injury. 

Although the Colts don’t need Wentz to play at an MVP level to make a run at the Lombardi Trophy, the team’s new QB1 could fill up his trophy case by embracing a less-is-more approach that has fueled Indianapolis’ recent success.

“It is a critical position,” said Reich while discussing the quarterback spot during a press conference earlier this week. “You always have that healthy tension of, the quarterback position is really important, but the quarterback is just one man on the roster.

“We do believe we have the right roster, we have the right culture. Getting good quarterback play is necessary to win a world championship. And obviously here in this organization, the standard has been set, and I feel like we’ve gotten good quarterback play in recent years, in our three years here, as well. We need to continue to have that kind of play and continue to improve upon that kind of play for us to win a world championship.”

Notice how Reich stated that the Colts only needed good quarterback play to compete at a championship level?

He understands that the real title contenders in the NFL are not one-man teams led by a quarterback shouldering a heavy load. Sure, you need good play from the quarterback position, but it takes much more than that to reach the greatest heights possible.

This opinion runs somewhat counter to the quarterback-driven league narrative that is routinely floated when discussing championship-caliber teams, but the Colts will get the most out of Wentz and enhance their Super Bowl chances by utilizing him as more of a game manager than playmaker.

This is exactly how the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft thrived at North Dakota State, when he was part of a team that won five straight FCS national titles. Wentz thrived in a managerial role while directing a multifaceted offense that featured a hodgepodge of old school and creative concepts. He ran a traditional pro-style offense that blended power runs, play-action passes and bootlegs with a few zone-read and RPO concepts from shotgun formations. While it certainly helped that the Bison often built big leads, they were able to keep Wentz on a low pitch count (24.6 pass attempts per game as a starter) that alleviated the pressure on him to carry the offense. 

With the Eagles, Wentz was also at his best when he had a manageable workload. He earned MVP consideration in 2017 by putting up quality production (60.2% completion rate, 3,296 pass yards, 33:7 TD-to-INT ratio and a 101.9 passer rating) in a balanced offense that mixed in quick-rhythm throws, play-action passes and screens. The Eagles quietly ranked third in rushing (132.2 yards per game) that season while averaging almost 30 rushing attempts per game (29.5). 

Of course, Reich played a major role in crafting that attack as the Eagles’ offensive coordinator, which is a big part of why I believe he understands how to repair Wentz’s confidence now.

“Everybody loses confidence for a moment,” Reich said during his press conference. “… One of the ways to build confidence back is to go back to the basics. You go back to the fundamentals and technique. You go back to your basic schemes and you build it one play at a time.” 

That sounds like the right approach to me. Most importantly, the Colts have the personnel and scheme to play championship football with Wentz at the helm. The offensive line is considered one of the best in the business, although there is an opening at left tackle after the retirement of Anthony Castonzo. Their stable of young running backs (Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines) enables Reich to wear down a defense. With Wentz adding a dimension as an athletic passer, the Colts can expand their playbook to create more problems for defensive coordinators around the league. 

“The importance of running the football and having a dynamic play-action game that can get chunks down the field. There are different ways to do that. … If you get a quarterback who is more mobile, you can get more nakeds and more bootlegs, and he is a threat to run, he can make the play-action game look a little different.

“… We want to be able to dictate. It is like a boxer. … When you get in the ring, you want to set the tempo and the tone of the fight. Having a quarterback who can do that is really important.”

If Wentz embraces a managerial role with the Colts and resists the temptation to do too much at the position, he could quickly rebound from a disastrous year and re-emerge as an MVP candidate leading a contender.

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