Welcome to Bleacher Report's NFL1000 Scouting Notebook, our weekly series where we use the power of the 17-man NFL1000 scouting department to bring you fresh insights into the game and explain some of the more interesting (and potentially controversial) grades we give players every week.
Let's start this week with a deep dive on quarterback Sam Bradford's outstanding Week 5 performance against the Houston Texans.
The All-22: Sam Bradford's Big Day
by Cian Fahey, NFL1000 Quarterbacks Scout
Sam Bradford has been the best quarterback in the NFL this season.
It would be easy to paint Bradford as just a passenger on a great Minnesota Vikings team, a team that relies on its defense as the foundation of its success. It would also be disingenuous to do that.
Bradford has been just as important to the team's success as the defense has been. The Vikings could beat the Tennessee Titans with Shaun Hill under center, but they wouldn't have beaten the Green Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers and New York Giants. The Houston Texans game would have become an actual contest, too.
With Bradford as the starter, the Vikings offense has scored 17, 22, 24 and 31 points. Those aren't huge numbers, but it's the difficulty of what he's doing to elevate his teammates that makes him so valuable. Without a quarterback consistently playing at an elite level, the Vikings wouldn't be sustaining drives, protecting the football or scoring as much as they are. Bradford's impact can't simply be measured by holding up his numbers against other starters across the league.
Bradford's first three games were extremely impressive. His most recent outing against the Texans was one of the best displays of quarterbacking you're ever likely to see.
On the first drive of the game, Bradford threw a 36-yard touchdown to wide receiver Adam Thielen using a pump fake to draw cornerback Johnathan Joseph out of position before hitting Thielen in stride deep down the right sideline. That wasn't his most impressive play on the drive, though.
His most impressive play came two plays previous when he connected with Thielen for 23 yards and a first down on 2nd-and-12. The Vikings spread the field with five receivers and left Bradford alone in shotgun. The Texans showed a double A-gap blitz but dropped one linebacker out for a five-man rush.
Bradford knew that he had six blockers in to account for those five rushers, and running back Jerick McKinnon made a great blitz pickup to give him some time in the pocket. Bradford still had to throw this ball with anticipation to get it out before the rush arrived because his right tackle crumpled in his matchup.
As the above shows, Bradford releases the ball before Thielen has entered his break and while Joseph is facing the wrong direction. Throwing the ball at this point masks his right tackle getting beaten and makes it impossible for Joseph to play the ball.
That's not all, though. Rewatch the video. Look at where Bradford is on the field. He throws this ball from the far hash on his own 33-yard line. Thielen catches it outside the numbers on the opposing 41-yard line. This was an outrageous display of arm talent and anticipation.
When we talk about a quarterback elevating his supporting cast, these are the plays we should be talking about. He threw Thielen open and masked poor pass protection by releasing the ball early. Bradford didn't need to see his receiver come out of his break. He understood the coverage and knew the route. That's high-quality quarterbacking.
Bradford made this kind of play repeatedly throughout this game.
On this play, left guard Alex Boone doesn't pick up the double-team with his center, giving the defensive tackle a free run at Bradford.
Bradford recognizes the defensive back playing underneath coverage to the left side is looking at his tight end. He instantly knows there is nobody covering running back Matt Asiata in the flat because he understands the play design and coverage. Asiata gains 23 easy yards, and Boone's blown assignment doesn't matter because of the quarterback's quick diagnosis, instant release and toughness to stand in against the hit without flinching.
The final play of the first quarter saw Bradford face a 3rd-and-7. He got the defense to unveil its blitz before the snap. Once he saw the blitz, he motioned wide receiver Jarius Wright into a tighter alignment.
Wright ran a crossing route that Bradford threw to for a first down. He threw the ball side-armed as an unblocked defender pummeled into him after working through a stunt. Bradford was obliterated on this play. The sound of the hit was picked up by broadcast microphones, and the crowd reacted in unison. He got up, shook it off, and moved on.
Whether it was instantly diagnosing blitzes to connect on precise deep throws…
…holding the ball just long enough to deliver against pressure for big gains…
…or attacking tight windows with pinpoint passes, Bradford wasn't going to be stopped last week.
The Vikings paid a premium price for a premium quarterback, and Bradford is a premium quarterback. This is the first time in his career that he has had wide receivers who could consistently catch the ball. He doesn't even need great protection or great receivers; he just needs an offensive coordinator who sets him up for success and receivers who won't ruin plays in ways he can't cover for them.
He's the best quarterback in the league on an unbeaten team. Sam Bradford, you're the unlikely NFL MVP at this point of the season.
The All-22: Lorenzo Alexander's Sack Renaissance
by Doug Farrar, NFL1000 Lead Scout
Every NFL season sees its share of unexpected stars. One of the more curious stories in 2016 is that of Buffalo Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who leads the league with seven sacks in five games, including three against the Los Angeles Rams last Sunday.
It's a pretty great story for a 10-year career journeyman who had never amassed more than 2.5 sacks in a season before and has played with three different teams without much distinction (Washington, Arizona, Oakland) since 2008. If rookie pass-rusher Shaq Lawson hadn't undergone shoulder surgery after the draft, Alexander wouldn't be doing this—he had made three starts from 2011 through 2015 and was a core special teamer at this point in his career.
But Bills head coach Rex Ryan had to go with what he had, so he set the 33-year-old veteran, who signed a one-year, $885,000 contract in April, on enemy quarterbacks. The extent to which he's been able to do that this season is a rousing testament to Alexander's versatility and Buffalo's coaching staff in using that versatility in intelligent ways.
Ryan and brother Rob, the team's assistant head coach, have turned Alexander into a Swiss army knife pass-rusher not unlike Seattle's Michael Bennett or Green Bay's Mike Daniels, capable of firing off from any gap or position. And when you look at Alexander's seven sacks this season, that's what immediately stands out—Alexander isn't getting any of those sacks from one static place.
The diversity with which the Ryan brothers deployed Alexander against the Rams last Sunday is quite impressive.
On his first sack of Case Keenum, which came with eight minutes, 51 seconds left in the third quarter, he lined up with his hands off the ground between right guard Jamon Brown and right tackle Rob Havenstein. Outside linebacker Lerentee McCray (56) took Havenstein, which left Brown alone to block Alexander.
Brown outweighs Alexander (57) by 85 pounds (330 to 245), but you wouldn't know that here, as Alexander gets great leverage right before the sack—he first takes a step toward Havenstein, forcing Brown off his optimal base, and then he just pushes Brown out of the way to get to Keenum.
In football, they call this "old-man strength."
Alexander's second sack came with 2:36 left in the third quarter, and here, he's aligned with edge-rusher Jerry Hughes (55) on an overload blitz to the defensive left side.
Overload blitzes have long been a Rex Ryan favorite, and you can see why here—linebacker Preston Brown (52) is Havenstein's assignment, Jamon Brown takes Hughes, and center Tim Barnes (61) has a one-on-one with defensive tackle Kyle Williams (95). That's a mismatch for most centers in the league, and Alexander simply rips through the open gap for the easy takedown as Brown flares outside to deal with Hughes.
You may wonder why Keenum didn't adjust the protection, taking his running back to the overload side. He may have been upended in that regard by the fact that Alexander was moving between different gaps pre-snap; one of the reasons defensive coordinators love to have moving linemen pre-snap is that it throws off and delays protection calls.
On his third sack of the day, Alexander was lined up on the defensive right side between left tackle Greg Robinson (73) and left guard Rodger Saffold (76). Saffold does a pretty good job of pushing Alexander out of the play at first, but Alexander recovers and just burns around the edge on a tremendous effort play.
"Tremendous effort" is not something that could be said of Robinson's attempt to prevent Alexander from skirting the left edge. Robinson gets caught up in a twist with Alexander and McCray and simply can't recover in time. Another example of great play design accentuated by outstanding player effort.
But my favorite Alexander sack of the season (so far) was his takedown of New England's Jacoby Brissett in Buffalo's Week 4 upset win over the Patriots.
Pre-snap, Alexander is outside on the left slot—so far outside you can barely see him from the end-zone angle. He's ostensibly covering tight end Martellus Bennett (88), but he hands Bennett off to the safety and hangs out in the curl/flat area reading whether Brissett will run or not. As the designated spy, it's his job to take off after Brissett if the occasion arises, and the closing speed on this play is really impressive.
Against the Cardinals in Week 3, he got Carson Palmer on a sack by blowing past left guard Mike Iupati and center A.Q. Shipley on a multigap stunt. In Week 2 against the Jets, he forced a fumble as a pure edge-rusher by beating left tackle Ryan Clady around the arc and punching the ball out of Ryan Fitzpatrick's hand. And against the Ravens in his regular-season debut for the Bills, Alexander fought through three Baltimore blockers from the edge, careening through the gaps, to take Joe Flacco down.
You get the idea—he's getting pressure from everywhere, and it's pretty impressive for a 33-year-old whose career arc seemed to be on the decline to reset the narrative this way.
Rex Ryan has said that Lorenzo Alexander is an ideal "X linebacker" for him—that "kind of hybrid linebacker, defensive end type guy," as he told the media Monday in a transcript acquired from the Bills media department. It's become clear that after a long run as an afterthought, Alexander has found a special role in his 10th NFL season.
Scouting Spotlight: Keanu Neal Shines in Falcons Defense
by Mark Bullock, NFL1000 Safeties Scout
The Atlanta Falcons raised a few eyebrows when they picked Florida safety Keanu Neal with the 17th overall pick of the NFL draft back in April. While his talent was clear to see, many believed that 17 was too high for Neal. But Neal has settled into life in the NFL seamlessly and looks like a great fit in head coach Dan Quinn's defensive scheme.
Quinn installed his version of the Seahawks' 4-3, Cover 3 scheme. Neal fits ideally in the Kam Chancellor role as an in-the-box safety who acts almost as an extra linebacker at times. In this role, he can support the run defense and drop into underneath zones when in coverage. That maximizes his skill set.
Here, the Broncos run an outside zone play to their left. Neal walks up into the box and has to fill the extra gap created by the fullback.
Neal does far more than just fill the gap. He attacks the fullback, staying low and getting under his pad level. Neal explodes up, standing up the fullback and stopping his momentum. From there, Neal has control of the block. He gets his hands inside on the chest of the fullback and then manipulates the block to position himself to the outside. That forces the running back to cut further inside toward the "Mike" linebacker, who makes the tackle.
While Neal performed well against the run, he stood out more in coverage. Against the Panthers, Atlanta asked Neal to match up in man coverage against tight end Greg Olsen for large parts of the game. He was solid, but he looked much better when the Falcons put him in underneath zone coverages last Sunday against the Broncos. He has a great feel for zone coverage, with strong awareness of his surroundings while still being able to keep his eyes on the quarterback.
On this play, the Broncos use their tight end on a hook route to force the underneath zone defenders deeper into their zones. They then bring the slot receiver on a spot route underneath. Neal is lined up at a seven-yard depth with hook zone responsibilities.
Neal reads the tight end route as he drops to his zone landmark. As Neal opens his hips inside, he spots the slot receiver working across from the far side. Neal quickly makes an adjustment and breaks on the slot receiver. He arrives just after the ball but gets his hand to the catch point and knocks the ball loose for the pass breakup.
This play was called back due to a holding penalty from an offensive lineman, but it's still an excellent play from Neal that displays his zone coverage instincts. Later on, Neal had another play that demonstrated his intelligence in coverage.
This time, Neal lines up directly over the tight end. The Broncos run a curl/flat route combination with their tight end and wide receiver.
Initially, Neal works out to the flat with the tight end. But he then realises that the tight end is only running out to the flat, and he can always break down underneath if the ball is checked down to him. So Neal sinks back, getting in the throwing lane of the curl route on the outside, helping out his teammate on the coverage. Broncos quarterback Paxton Lynch never looks to that side of the field, but Neal would have taken away the curl route had Lynch worked to that side of the field.
Taking away the deeper passes and being able to react and break on underneath routes is precisely what zone coverages are designed to do. Neal does an excellent job in underneath zone coverages to force the checkdown, but what's been even more impressive is how quickly he closes the gap to those underneath checkdowns and the hits that he lands. Late in the game, the Broncos attempted to run a quick two-minute drill, taking checkdown options underneath.
Here, the Broncos look to hit receiver Emmanuel Sanders on a curl route from the slot.
Neal is the "buzz" defender in Cover 3 buzz, meaning he works down from the safety position to fill the hook zone in the middle of the field. Sanders breaks off his route about 10 yards away from Neal, but Neal reads the route well and closes the gap quickly. He lands a hit just after the ball arrives, getting his hand on the ball to knock it out and force the fumble. He's unfortunate that the ball bounced straight back to Sanders, who recovered it, but that shouldn't take anything away from the play.
The Falcons have found a vital role for Neal, and it has allowed him to adapt to the NFL without skipping a beat. He still has a way to go before he can get close to the level Chancellor plays consistently in a similar role. But if Neal continues with this level of performance, then he can develop into a tone-setter on defense for Atlanta.
Scouting with Schofield: The Importance of Receiver Blocking
by Mark Schofield, NFL1000 NFC Receivers and Tight Ends Scout
We've talked a lot about hands, route running and ability after the catch so far with the Scouting with Schofield videos, but those are three of the four traits we grade receivers and tight ends on each week. The fourth is blocking.
In today's NFL, more and more teams are asking their wide receivers to play pivotal roles as blockers in the running game. As a result, we are seeing some great individual efforts each week in this capacity.
This week, some players turned in some great games as blockers, even when contributing in big ways in the passing game. In this week's video, I wanted to highlight some plays from Larry Fitzgerald, Lucky Whitehead, Corey Brown, Cameron Meredith and Anquan Boldin to illustrate just how effective wide receivers can be even without the football in their hands.
Whether it's executing a crack block on a toss play, blocking on the backside of a zone running play or just finding work downfield before the whistle, blocks like these can help turn short gains into huge plays.
Ask the Scouts
Each week, our scouts post particularly notable—and sometimes controversial—grades based on their comprehensive film study. While most are easy to explain, some deserve a closer look. We've posed questions on the following grades from Week 5 to give you a more detailed look into our process.
Question: Green Bay's offense has been spikey overall this season, but after their Sunday night win over the Giants, you (Duke) ranked left tackle David Bakhtiari first overall and right tackle Bryan Bulaga first overall, and Ethan ranked right guard T.J. Lang third among guards and JC Tretter third among centers. Give us your take for the positions you rank as to why these four guys were so special against the Giants.
Side question: Based on your evaluation, since the line did so well, what was the issue with the offense overall—especially consistency in the passing game?
Duke Manyweather, NFL1000 Offensive Tackles Scout: Bakhtiari was ranked first overall, and honestly, I believe I graded Bakhtiari a little low in pass protection! Bakhtiari simply put out clinic tape versus Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon in pass protection. It didn't matter if it was a one-on-one situation, exchanging line games or picking up pressures, Bakhtiari gave no ground.
In the run game, he was equally as impressive in all facets of the game, showing good strength, power and explosion at the point of attack. He also showed his ability to stay on blocks and be a nuisance to defenders—there were times where it looked as if Giants defenders simply quit halfway through the play.
Bulaga's performance at right tackle was also impressive. Bulaga was clean in pass protection, showing great patience and punch timing, but also showed he could expand his "set-points" once he was moved off his initial spot.
In the run game, Bulaga mauled everything in sight. There is a specific backside scoop between him and Lang as the ball was run left that sticks out in my mind. Lang posted the 3-technique, Bulaga overtakes, and his power at this time pushed the combo seven yards up the field, picking off the linebacker who was folding over the top. It also forced the backside safety to work through traffic to attempt to be in position to have a decent pursuit angle. It is the small details that often get overlooked that truly make a difference in the line.
As far as the offense, I can't really speak on why they are sputtering at times. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has missed some throws over the last four games that would have changed things; he even missed a few versus the Giants. One key factor is that the Packers had some success on the ground versus the Giants, grinding out 147 yards. When you can establish the run, it makes everything else easier on the line.
Ethan Young, NFL1000 Guards and Centers Scout: Green Bay had one of the most dominant performances in pass protection I have ever seen at the NFL level. There were several plays that seemed like Rodgers could have stayed in the pocket as long as he wanted. When the Giants were able to finally start collapsing the pocket, Rodgers showcased his top-level pocket movement, creating even more time. That is a lethal combination.
So if the offensive line isn't the problem, why isn't the Packers offense (specifically the passing game, which is last in raw yardage) better? I believe it is a schematic issue.
Green Bay had players running routes in the exact same area of the field way too often Sunday night, which isn't ideal for spacing purposes. The Packers have faced good secondaries this year, but Green Bay has good enough personnel to overcome that. If the Packers start attacking every area of the field, things will open up in the passing game.
Question: You have Atlanta's running back duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman ranked sixth and seventh, respectively, this week after the Falcons beat the Broncos. We know how dynamic Atlanta's offense is right now—what specific attributes do each of these backs bring to the table?
John Middlekauff, NFL1000 Running Backs Scout: Julio Jones and Matt Ryan get most of the credit for the Falcons' current success, but the two star running backs are a major reason why they are 4-1 and just dominated one of the better defenses in the NFL in the Broncos.
Despite being a smaller back (5'8", 205 lbs), Freeman is one of the better inside runners in the league. Led by one of the most physical fullbacks, Patrick DiMarco, the Falcons can really run the back between the tackles. Freeman's exceptional ability to squeeze and press the smallest of holes with his elite short-area burst allows him to get to the second level before you can blink.
He has the hips and wiggle to make you miss in the hole or the power and low center of gravity to run through arm tackles or hesitant defenders—a physical back for a smaller player. His north-and-south style allows him to get extra yards. He is sixth in the NFL in rushing through five games despite only 20 yards in Week 1. He helped gash the Broncos up the gut Sunday with his relentless, physical downhill style.
Coleman might be one of the more underrated players in the NFL. He is the do-it-all chess piece for the Falcons. His ability to catch the ball and versatility to line up anywhere make him a big mismatch for defenses. You can find him anywhere from the backfield to the slot to even outside as a receiver.
Coleman is a savvy route runner who has a natural feel for working open in space against slower defenders. He has excellent hands and is second on the team with 17 catches. He excelled against Denver with four catches, 132 yards and a touchdown, proving to be a tough cover for the Broncos linebackers. His play speed Sunday was impressive.
These two players complement each other perfectly, and together, they're a major reason why everyone should take the Falcons seriously.
Question: No surprise that Vikings safety Harrison Smith is in this week's top 50, but where did Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo come from, and why is he so highly rated this week? Is this the best safety duo in the league right now?
Mark Bullock, NFL Safeties Scout: Sendejo often flies under the radar because of his safety partner, Smith. Smith takes all the plaudits, and rightly so, because he's a fantastic safety.
But Sendejo is a versatile guy like Smith, which allows head coach Mike Zimmer and the Vikings to really get creative with their roles and muddy the coverage for the opposing quarterback. If they want to use Smith as part of a blitz package one week, they know they can trust Sendejo as the single-high safety. Likewise, if they want Smith in coverage, Sendejo is equally adept at playing in the box.
This week, he stood out against the Texans playing deep with Smith moving around in various assignments. He did a good job staying over the top of routes and giving his corners confidence he had their backs.
On one play, the Texans ran a stick-and-nod route, which beat the defender in man coverage. However, Sendejo read the route perfectly and broke quickly on it to bail out his teammate's mistake. The ball was overthrown in the end, but Sendejo was in position to contest the catch.
Later on, he did an excellent job rotating down from deep to cover the slot on a third-down slot corner blitz. Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler read the blitz and quickly dumped it off to the slot receiver on a hitch route. Sendejo broke on the throw and closed the gap quickly, landing a big hit to make the tackle short of the first-down marker.
In terms of Smith and Sendejo being the best safety duo in the NFL, I'm not sure I would commit to that. They're certainly up there and in the conversation. Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward with the Broncos are both good safeties and complement each other well. They have more defined roles, whereas Smith and Sendejo will switch roles from game to game or even snap to snap.
Cowboys safeties Byron Jones and Barry Church are also worthy of a mention, especially as Jones continues to improve and develop in his second season. The Packers could also make a solid argument with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett, with Micah Hyde filling out a solid group in Green Bay. So to say for certain Smith and Sendejo are the best duo is perhaps a stretch, but they're definitely in the mix and certainly in the top five, if not higher.