Reappraising the 2018 NFL Draft's hyped QB class; plus, Ben Roethlisberger for MVP?
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 veteran QB who isn’t getting his due in the MVP conversation.
— The John Stockton of the NFL.
— A running back who might hold the key to the Patriots’ playoff hopes.
But first, a reappraisal of one of the most highly anticipated quarterback classes in draft history …
The Philadelphia Eagles’ decision to sign Carson Wentz to a long-term extension prior to the 2019 season should serve as a cautionary tale for general managers contemplating new contracts for young quarterbacks.
That four-year, $128 million extension, which seemed like a bargain for an MVP-caliber field general at the time, suddenly looks like an albatross around the neck of the franchise. Wentz’s durability concerns and on-field regression have led to much debate over whether the Eagles selected the right quarterback when they locked up the former No. 2 overall pick instead of keeping Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles in the fold.
In Year 5, Wentz leads the NFL in giveaways (16) and has five games with two interceptions on the stat sheet. In addition, he ranks as one of the worst passers in multiple categories (including passer rating, where his 73.1 mark sits at 31st among 33 qualified quarterbacks) and looks nothing like the signal-caller who was widely hailed as the MVP front-runner in 2017 prior to his season-ending knee injury.
While hindsight is always 20/20 in these situations, decision-makers must study the rise and fall of Wentz. Higher-ups on other teams must determine how Philadelphia’s approach should inform their own when it comes to a young quarterback nearing a potential payday. Evaluators must carefully assess a QB’s performance over the past three seasons, while also projecting how much improvement could be realized in the coming years. Although this process is certainly subjective and impacted by many surrounding pieces — including pass catchers, offensive line and coaches — the big money doled out to franchise quarterbacks makes honest evaluation a critical part of the championship puzzle.
With that in mind, I believe it’s the perfect time to look at the 2018 quarterback class — one of the most hyped groups in memory — and assess what could be in store for each of the five first-round products. Continue building around the young QB1 or move onto a different plan at the game’s most important position? That’s the question. After digging into some tape and re-examining resumés, here’s my take on each signal-caller:
Resumé: The top selection from 2018 is starting for a 6-3 Browns team vying for the franchise’s first playoff bid in 18 years, but his individual play has been going in the wrong direction over the past two seasons. After a spectacular rookie campaign that prompted comparisons to Drew Brees, Baker has fallen on hard times. Since 2019, he is tied for the third-most giveaways (30) in the league. While he is on the verge of becoming just the fourth Cleveland quarterback to have seven-plus wins in a season since 1999, Mayfield hasn’t performed like a premier player capable of putting the franchise on his back.
Biggest concern: No. 1 overall picks are expected to exhibit special traits. As a mediocre athlete with average arm talent and ability, the third-year pro is a game manager who needs to operate with a five-star supporting cast within a system that elevates his play. In 2020, he has every conceivable weapon at his disposal, but his production falls short of the standard for top quarterbacks.
Long-term extension? Wait and see. The Browns are in the thick of a playoff race — not exactly a common occurrence since the turn of the millennium — with Mayfield at the helm. Although he lacks blue-chip ability, he has made some strides as a game manager on an offense that relies heavily on a dominant running game that pummels opponents. The 25-year-old has made a few plays in each game to keep the offense afloat, but GM Andrew Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski should see if there are better options available before handing over a big check to No. 6.
Resumé: To be fair, the USC product hasn’t been dealt a winning hand since entering the league. He’s been a victim of his circumstances, with a subpar supporting cast, patchwork offensive line and inferior coaching. That said, Darnold has been an inconsistent playmaker, owning a resumé littered with losses, turnovers and underachievement in the Big Apple.
Biggest concern: Darnold’s durability is questionable, and his inconsistency’s downright problematic. He currently owns the lowest passer rating among qualified quarterbacks at 65.9, and his overall lack of production as a starter is quite disconcerting. Although he hasn’t been afforded enviable surroundings, as noted above, Darnold has failed to post inspiring numbers over his 32 starts, with just four career games of 300-plus passing yards and three games of three-plus passing TDs. For a quarterback who was expected to reverse the fortunes of the franchise, Darnold simply hasn’t shown the special traits traditionally associated with true franchise quarterbacks.
Long-term extension? No. Despite the lack of weapons and the dysfunction around Darnold, it is hard to reward him with a lucrative extension based on his play. The former No. 3 overall pick has shown flashes of brilliance, but they’re just too few and far between. Currently sidelined by a shoulder ailment, Darnold could be back in action next week and will have a chance to show off his talents and potential down the stretch. That said, the 0-9 Jets are currently on track to nab the No. 1 overall pick. It’s quite difficult to imagine the Jets passing on Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence, should he choose to enter the 2021 draft.
Resumé: The Bills’ rise to the top of the AFC East is directly tied to Allen’s emergence as a blue-chip quarterback. The third-year pro has come into his own this season, exhibiting electric playmaking skills as a runner and passer on the perimeter. Allen has already posted five games with 300-plus yards in 2020, including a pair of 400-yard gems that showcased his growth as a passer. With 22 rushing touchdowns in 38 career games, Buffalo’s QB1 has quickly become one of the ultimate dual-threat weapons at the position.
Biggest concern: Despite Allen’s growth as a passer, he remains something of a wild card due to his judgment under duress. The ultra-confident gunslinger will make some egregious errors that lead to costly turnovers in key moments. With his accuracy issues also contributing to some of his miscues, Allen’s streakiness as a passer is a bit of a concern to evaluators projecting his ceiling as a franchise player.
Long-term extension? Yes. The Bills are vying to take over the post-Tom Brady AFC East, with Allen playing lights-out at the position. He gives Bills Mafia the rough and rugged leader they’ve coveted since Jim Kelly’s retirement, while adding a running dimension to the playbook that makes Buffalo’s offense even more potent. Considering how much he has grown since entering the league as a cannon-armed wild man out of Wyoming, the Bills should continue to bet on No. 17’s potential as a QB1.
Resumé: Rosen’s already on his third team after being unceremoniously dismissed by the Cardinals and Dolphins. He is attempting to rehabilitate his career as a practice squad quarterback in Tampa Bay, soaking up lessons from Tom Brady in meetings and on the practice field.
Biggest concern: Scouts wonder if Rosen is a viable option as a developmental starter after watching him flounder with a couple of organizations. He is a statuesque passer without the athleticism, anticipation or timing to succeed without an A+ supporting cast. It is hard to build around immobile passers in today’s NFL, with so many teams thriving with athletes at the position.
Long-term extension? No.
Resumé: The reigning MVP has guided the Ravens to a pair of playoff berths since taking over as the starter in the second half of his rookie season. Jackson has shattered a host of records as a dual-threat playmaker with explosive athleticism. Although his numbers are down in 2020, particularly his passing yards per game and passer rating, Jackson continues to dazzle as one of the league’s most frightening offensive weapons. With 25 wins in 31 regular-season starts, No. 8 has lifted the Ravens to heavyweight status among title contenders.
Biggest concern: Jackson’s playoff failures — see: two one-and-dones with serious individual struggles — loom large when comparing him to the elites at the position. He is arguably the most dynamic offensive weapon that we’ve seen at the position, but questions about his passing skills and postseason play create some hesitation from observers pondering his long-term potential.
Long-term extension? Yes. It is easy to nitpick Jackson’s game due to his unconventional playing style and lack of playoff success, but there’s no disputing his production or overall impact on the Ravens. Just look at his .806 winning percentage. Although his passing numbers aren’t up to 2019 standards this season, he still boasts a 14:5 TD-to-INT ratio. Not to mention, he’s currently on pace for 932 rushing yards. Oh, and the Ravens aren’t too bad at 6-3. With all that in mind, Baltimore should slide the check across the table to Jackson and lock him up as the face of the franchise for the foreseeable future.
DINK AND DUNK
Give Big Ben respect he deserves in MVP race: It’s amazing to me that the quarterback from the league’s only unbeaten team seems to rarely be mentioned as an MVP candidate. I certainly understand why players like Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers are getting the most run in the discussion right now, but I hope all award voters will dig into Ben Roethlisberger’s performance before sending in their ballots. The two-time Super Bowl champ is playing some of the best football of his career while transitioning from home-run slugger to contact hitter aiming for a league-leading batting average.
After building a Hall of Fame-worthy resumé as a spectacular improvisational playmaker with a playing style that bordered on reckless at times, Roethlisberger has become a surgeon from the pocket in directing the Steelers’ quick-rhythm passing game in Year 17. The veteran is completing almost 67 percent of his throws (66.8%, to be exact) with a 22:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 103.0 passing rating. He has posted a passer rating of 100 or better seven times this season (tied with Mahomes for second-most to Rodgers’ eight).
While those numbers are impressive, it is his mistake-free play that elevates him to MVP-candidate status, in my opinion. He has posted a career-high seven clean games (zero giveaways) this season in a league in which most games are decided by the turnover battle. Only Mahomes has more such games in 2020.
Part of his success can be attributed to the Steelers’ decision to feature a quick-rhythm passing game. Big Ben has a quick-pass rate of 67.4 percent (highest by any QB since 2016, per Next Gen Stats) and an average time to throw of 2.31 seconds (fastest of any QB since 2016). It also helps that the Steelers have surrounded the veteran with a stable of explosive pass catchers who possess dynamic running skills and playmaking ability in space.
From Chase Claypool to JuJu Smith-Schuster to Diontae Johnson to James Washington to Eric Ebron, each of the Steelers’ perimeter playmakers has the capacity to turn short passes into big gains. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has enabled Roethlisberger to showcase their individual and collective talents by utilizing empty formations to stretch the defense and exploit favorable matchups. Moreover, the no-back formations enable Pittsburgh’s QB1 to identify potential blitzes and attack the vulnerable areas of the defense with hot routes and sight adjustments before the pass rush can get home.
Given his experience and effectiveness in diagnosing coverages, it makes sense that Roethlisberger is exceling in directing a quick-rhythm passing game from empty sets. He leads the NFL in pass attempts (72), completions (55) and pass touchdowns (8) while ranking second in pass yards (478) and fourth in passer rating (124.7) on quick passes (less than 2.5 seconds) from empty formations. The onslaught of catch, rock and fire throws has resulted in Claypool (373), Johnson (316) and Smith-Schuster (298) ranking among the top 15 pass catchers in receiving yards on quick passes.
Although the reliance on quick throws means we’ll see fewer splash plays from the Steelers’ offense, it has helped Big Ben become a more efficient passer who avoids the turnovers that lead to losses. His game might not have the sizzle of his younger competition for the throne, but the results speak for themselves. As the leader of the league’s only undefeated team, the 38-year-old’s efficient play deserves MVP-level respect.
Tua is NFL’s version of legendary NBA point guard. Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa doesn’t have a basketball background, but he’s distributing the rock like Utah Jazz great John Stockton. Seeing the 6-foot, 217-pound quarterback spread the ball around to Dolphins playmakers with outstanding precision, anticipation and timing reminds me of watching Stockton, the NBA’s all-time assists leader, run a flawless pick-and-roll with Karl Malone.
Stockton had a knack for getting the ball to his teammates in prime scoring position as he guided the Jazz to the playoffs in each of his 19 seasons. Tagovailoa could make a similar impact as a rhythm passer playing in a system that prominently features quick passes and play-action throws. Chan Gailey’s QB-friendly scheme accentuates the rookie’s strengths while enabling him to play like a pass-first point guard running the fast break.
The Dolphins’ QB1 has the sixth-fastest time-to-throw average (2.54 seconds) and the fourth-highest play-action percentage (34.6%) in the league (among passers with at least 75 pass attempts), per Next Gen Stats. In addition, he has faced the fifth-lowest QB pressure percentage (18.5%).
With Tagovailoa shredding opponents that are unable to generate pressure (66.7 completion rate, 6.7 yards per attempt, 5:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 111.0 passer rate when not under duress), the Dolphins’ offense has a rhythm and flow to it that perfectly complements its stingy defense. If he can continue to manage the game as an efficient distributor, the Dolphins will become regulars in the NFL’s postseason tournament.
Might Harris run the Pats to the playoffs? The Patriots have quietly discovered their identity as a run-heavy, power football team over the past few weeks. While the decision to build around the running game isn’t a surprise with Cam Newton installed as the starting quarterback, the emergence of Damien Harris as the lead back has given the running game a much-needed boost.
The second-year pro has topped the 100-yard mark in two of the Patriots’ last three games. He is one of just five players with 400-plus rush yards and an average of five-plus rush yards per carry since Week 4. Considering Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, Ronald Jones and Kyler Murray are the other players in that group, the Patriots’ new RB1 should be considered a legitimate threat as a workhorse runner.
Checking in at 5-11, 213 pounds, Harris is a hard-nosed back with a blend of strength, power and body control that enables him to run through contact at the point of attack. He combines his rugged running style with enough wiggle to make defenders miss in the hole. That combination of power and finesse meshes well with a Patriots offense that forces opponents to play within a phone booth.
Harris has excelled against stacked boxes (eight or more defenders), averaging 5.6 yards per rush (fifth-most among running backs, min. of 20 rushes against stacked boxes). In addition, Harris has gained 10-plus yards on 21.6 percent of his runs against stacked boxes (third-highest in the NFL), exhibiting a knack for finding creases in traffic. He’s showing the stamina, durability and toughness to handle the rigors of a heavy workload as the Patriots’ lead back.
As the Patriots embrace a run-heavy offensive identity that’s helped them win two games in a row and emerge as a top-five rushing team (161.1 rush yards per game, third-most in NFL), Harris’ breakthrough as the lead back could help New England sneak into the playoffs as a ground-and-pound machine.
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