Welcome to NFLTR Review, ladies and gentlemen. Teams are ramping up and starting padded practices next week, which should appreciably increase the amount of real football we can see. And we’re less than a month away from the NFL’s season-opening Thursday night game between the Chiefs and Texans.
Until then, we have another loaded issue to help pass the time:
- Why 2020 is a crucial year for the 2018 class of quarterbacks
- A look into our crystal ball at what the future holds for Packers QB Aaron Rodgers
- Huge movement on the tight end market and what it means for the Eagles
Make or Break: QB Class Of 2018
Five quarterbacks were taken in the first round in 2018; Browns QB Baker Mayfield, Jets QB Sam Darnold, Bills QB Josh Allen, Dolphins QB Josh Rosen and Ravens QB Lamar Jackson. In 2020, all five enter pivotal third season, though some admittedly have more to prove than others. Jackson’s in a much different place than Rosen, obviously, coming off an MVP year as Rosen falls to third-string on his second team. But all five still have a lot at stake as they add a third data point to define their young careers.
Here’s a look, in reverse order of how they were drafted:
Unlike the rest of the list, Jackson has already proven he’s one of the game’s brightest young stars following a brilliant 2019 season. Just like he did at Louisville, Jackson ran circles around NFL defenses and led the league in touchdown passes, dealing a double blow to the detractors. He shattered Michael Vick’s record for rushing yards for a quarterback and was only the second-ever unanimous MVP.
The crossroad Jackson faces now is about how close he’ll get to the massive potential he showed last year. He made huge strides in his game from Year 1 to Year 2, including improving his completion percentage from 58.2 to 66.1 percent, and there’s still room for his game to improve. Jackson has spent this offseason working on his passing deep and outside the numbers where he wasn’t as effective in 2019. If he improves as dramatically in that area as he did after his rookie year, he’ll continue to be cheat code.
Of course, there’s still the playoff monkey on his back. Jackson is 0-2 so far in his two playoff appearances, but that’s not unusual. Many of the greats in the sporting world have faced this. Michael Jordan didn’t make the NBA Finals with the Bulls until his seventh season. Patrick Mahomes winning a Super Bowl in his third season is an anomaly, but it’s one Jackson will look to match in 2020.
With first-round QB Tua Tagovailoa coming in and veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick as the projected starter, that leaves Rosen as the third-string quarterback as he goes into his third season. Quite a steep fall for the former No. 10 overall pick.
Unfortunately for Rosen, there’s no preseason for him to show off any progress he’s made to induce another team to pony up a pick. So Rosen’s best shot is to focus on improving in practice, be ready if his number is called in 2020 and go into the final year of his rookie contract with as much positive press as possible.
When Allen was drafted by the Bills, he was seen as a polarizing prospect with huge upside but potentially fatal flaws. As a rookie, those flaws were on prominent display as Allen completed an abysmal 52.8 percent of his passes and tossed just 10 touchdown passes to 12 interceptions. He was terrific as a runner, though, with eight scores and over seven yards per attempt.
Like Jackson, Allen made tremendous strides in his second season, raising his completion percentage six points and playing smarter, especially after a Week 4 loss to New England. He finished the year with 20 touchdown passes and just nine interceptions, adding another 510 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground.
But in a road playoff meltdown to the Texans, all of Allen’s bad habits came roaring back on national television. He lost a fumble in the fourth quarter, his completion percentage was back down to the low 50s and the frenetic decision-making that scared evaluators coming out of college came back with a vengeance. The “highlights” included an ill-advised lateral attempt on a scramble near the end of regulation while Buffalo drove for a game-tying field goal, then again in overtime on a deep heave to double-covered fullback Patrick DiMarco — on second down.
Heading into 2020, the Bills are poised to seriously challenge for the AFC East crown for the first time in decades. There aren’t many weaknesses on the rest of the roster. The biggest question in Buffalo is whether Allen is capable of taking another step as a quarterback to make the team a contender, or if he’s going to be another obstacle to overcome like he was in last year’s playoffs. There’s already a precedent for a contending team declining their quarterback’s fifth-year option after taking a step back in year 3, look no farther than Chicago. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Allen could be facing competition in a contract year in 2021 if he can’t take another step this year.
Two years in and it’s still not exactly clear what the Jets have in Darnold. Injuries haven’t helped the situation. Darnold missed three games with a sprained foot as a rookie and another three games last year with mono while also battling through a sprained thumb and a toenail that had to be removed. The supporting cast in New York has also been suboptimal, especially on offense. When contrasted with the division rival Bills, one team has clearly done a better job of building around their first-round signal-caller.
However, Darnold has also been inconsistent. He didn’t hit the ground running as a rookie and was never really able to take off in his second season with just marginal improvements from 2018 to 2019. He’s still incredibly young, he was just 20 when the Jets took him third overall, but when compared to other members of the 2018 class, Darnold hasn’t shown that one outstanding attribute that could propel him to NFL success.
Staying healthy should be one of Darnold’s priorities in 2020, but many of the same issues from his first two seasons are still in place. He has five new starters on the offensive line who have limited practice time to build chemistry. His receiving corps is still unproven and the jury is firmly out on his head coach/play-caller Adam Gase given his lackadaisical offensive record across two different teams.
There are three ways this plays out and two of them are bad. Ideally, Darnold transcends his situation and takes a leap in his third year. Even if the Jets finish with a losing record, if Darnold makes appreciable strides, GM Joe Douglas can continue building around him with confidence. But if Darnold takes a step back and regresses, then it puts quarterback on the table for New York with a likely high draft pick in a potentially loaded class, especially if a new head coach comes on board.
The third scenario, which I’ll dub the Nightmare Scenario, is Darnold continues his current trend — some momentary flashes sandwiched by a lot of inconsistency on a bad team — leaving the Jets still uncertain if he’s a franchise quarterback as they make crucial decisions on Darnold’s fifth-year option and probably another high draft pick. Can they say no to Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence if Darnold has another year like 2019 and they get the top pick? What about if they pick third or fourth and Ohio State’s Justin Fields or North Dakota State’s Trey Lance are staring them in the face? There’s not a lot of easy answers in this scenario but it could be where the Jets find themselves next year.
The No. 1 overall pick in 2018, Mayfield looked like he had a bright future following his rookie year. Mayfield’s charisma revived the Browns and he had 3,725 yards passing, 27 touchdowns and 14 interceptions en route to a 7-8-1 record for a team that had one win combined the previous two seasons. After the Browns added WR Odell Beckham, Mayfield was pegged as a player poised to leap into the upper echelon at his position as he led the Browns back to relevancy.
Instead, 2020 was another abject disaster in Cleveland. Browns HC Freddie Kitchens proved to be in over his head and Mayfield regressed — hard. His completion percentage fell under 60 percent, his YPA dropped, his interceptions soared to 21 while his touchdown passes dropped to 22. The Browns limped to a 6-10 record and Mayfield’s competitive swagger that endeared him as a rookie got him into trouble as he spent more time sniping at critics in the media.
Now, Mayfield has his third head coach in as many seasons, which is less than ideal for a young quarterback. The early returns for Kevin Stefanski have been positive so far at least and his offensive system based on the zone running game and play-action passing should be an excellent fit for Cleveland’s offensive personnel. It should also help protect Mayfield, who needs to focus on making better decisions both on and off the field. Cleveland’s history of dysfunction is well-earned, but the Browns are getting a lot less hype this offseason and that could put them in a better position to succeed in 2020.
Like the other QBs in the class aside from Jackson, Mayfield’s fifth-year option isn’t a slam dunk. However, if he plays more like he did as a rookie, he should have the chance to continue building with Stefanski. While he might not end up being as big a superstar as some thought after 2018, Mayfield can still take a step toward a long and fruitful starting career in Cleveland with a good 2020 season.
Big Picture: How Will This Play Out For Aaron Rodgers?
Since the Packers made the shocking move to trade up in the first round to select QB Jordan Love, Rodgers has made no bones about his feelings on the matter, in his own Rodgers way. But Green Bay’s starting quarterback is correct when he says this pick likely ends his dream of playing his entire career with the Packers and puts a ticking clock on his time with the franchise. Rodgers has four more years left on his contract but it’s almost a certainty he won’t play it out in Green Bay.
So how will this unfold for Rodgers? In 2020, not a lot will change. He’ll still be the unquestioned starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers and one of the most feared and respected quarterbacks around the NFL. There are a few signs the Packers will be hard-pressed to win 13 games again, but they still should contend for a berth in the playoffs.
Now the first potential fork comes in the 2021 offseason. To shed Rodgers, either via trade or release, Green Bay would need to take on over $31 million in dead money. That would obliterate the NFL record for single-year dead money hits set this past offseason when the Rams accepted $21.8 million in dead money to trade WR Brandin Cooks.
However, it would free up $4 million in cap space and the Packers are in decent shape compared to other teams as far as financial commitments in 2021. If Love is wowing the team in practice or spot duty like Mahomes was during his redshirt rookie year, Green Bay could move on from Rodgers as soon as this offseason. Rodgers’ level of play in 2020 is a factor but probably not as important as whether Love is ready or not. It also wouldn’t be surprising if the Packers quietly tested the trade market to see what Rodgers could fetch. A first-round pick would take some of the edge off that dead money.
If the Packers think Love needs to marinate a little longer — and this is a good time to mention redshirt seasons are outside the norm in the modern NFL for one season, let alone two — then they could bring back Rodgers for the 2021 season when he’ll be 38 years old. In 2022, moving on from Rodgers goes to just $17.2 million in dead money and $22 million in savings. At this point, Love would have to be really struggling behind the scenes for Green Bay not to take the out, especially because the team will need to make a decision on his fifth-year option following the 2022 season.
While anything can happen in the NFL, all indications point to Rodgers suiting up for a different team no later than 2022. As to who that team might be, there likely will be very few teams not interested in a future Hall of Fame quarterback. But the division-rival Bears stand out as a possibility due to their perpetual need of a quarterback and the way it played out when Rodgers’ predecessor, Brett Favre, made sure to end up back in the NFC North when Green Bay moved on. However, Rodgers would need to either negotiate an out into his contract as part of a trade to a different team or wait until 2024 when he’ll be 41 to hit unrestricted free agency to go to Chicago, as there’s no way Green Bay would trade him inside the division.
There’s a lot that will happen between now and 2022 to change the landscape for that offseason, but if we limit ourselves to looking to next offseason for potential trade partners for Rodgers, the Raiders are a strong possibility. Adding a savvy veteran like Rodgers is a classic Jon Gruden move and the two have some similar football roots. If Raiders QB Derek Carr can’t get it done with a much-improved roster in 2020, Las Vegas can cut bait with just $2.5 million in dead money.
If QB Drew Lock busts, Broncos GM John Elway could try to recreate the success he had with Peyton Manning by going after Rodgers. While landing in the same division as the Chiefs isn’t ideal, both Denver and Las Vegas have teams that are on the rise and would be elevated to Super Bowl contenders with Rodgers on board. Green Bay also isn’t scheduled to play the AFC West again until 2023, which is a nice little cherry on top even if it’s not the most important factor.
San Francisco also makes some sense. Rodgers grew up a 49ers fan and the team flirted with the idea of making a run at Brady after QB Jimmy Garoppolo came up short in the Super Bowl. The 49ers also infamously passed on Rodgers at No. 1 overall when he came into the league, so this would be a chance to rewrite the script. But it’s not hard to imagine Green Bay having qualms about dealing Rodgers to the team that crushed them in this past year’s NFC Championship. And while there’s a lot of coaching overlap between the two teams right now — Packers HC Matt LaFleur’s brother, Mike LaFleur, is San Francisco’s run-game coordinator and was blocked from interviewing with Green Bay this past year — it’s unclear if that would be a positive or negative for Rodgers.
Ultimately, as a Panthers fan who just watched the franchise’s best-ever quarterback say his goodbye, all I can say for Packers fans is to enjoy every last minute Rodgers plays. It won’t last forever.
This Week In Football
- Negotiations were crawling along with the 49ers and TE George Kittle until they weren’t. Talks heated up Wednesday and news finally broke Thursday that Kittle would sign a five-year deal that moved the average tight end salary up by almost 40 percent to $15 million a year.
- Mere hours later, the Chiefs locked up TE Travis Kelce to a four-year extension worth $14.25 million per year that keeps him under contract for six more years. This is great news for Chargers TE Hunter Henry, who was the former market-leader on the franchise tag at $10.6 million.
- It also sets the parameters for the Eagles with TE Zach Ertz, who was set to be a free agent after 2021 just like Kelce. It’ll be interesting to see what Philadelphia decides to do after not being able to lock up Ertz for $12 million a year last season. The team has Dallas Goedert behind Ertz who would start for most teams and a tricky cap situation to navigate in 2021.
- The Bills also joined the extension party, signing HC Sean McDermott to a six-year extension and inking LT Dion Dawkins to a four-year deal at $15 million per year. Next up: Bills GM Brandon Beane, who should be bound with McDermott for years to come. On the player front, Bills LB Matt Milano and CB Tre’Davious White are next on deck, with White a candidate to reset the market at corner.
- We heard from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and QB Dak Prescott for the first time in months and both said all the right things. Prescott said he expected to sign an extension at some point and the negotiations haven’t soured his feelings on the team. Jones reaffirmed the team’s belief in Prescott as a franchise quarterback while blaming the pandemic in part on their reluctance to give Prescott “generational” dollars.
- I would still bet on Prescott signing with Dallas at some point but it’s worth pointing out two things: his price is probably only going to go up from here, both with the franchise tags and as more quarterbacks like Deshaun Watson sign their deals. And Prescott doesn’t sound like someone who’s afraid to bet on himself and go year-to-year on the tag if he has to.
- After little movement for months, Jaguars DE Yannick Ngakoue fired his agent and had a conversation with GM Dave Caldwell. It’s unclear what exactly it all means but it’s at least action where there had been mostly quiet before.
- In his comments this week, Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff indicated he and HC Dan Quinn are on thin ice in 2020. That’s not shocking after they barely survived a 1-7 start last year but it’s something to keep an eye on if Atlanta doesn’t make the playoffs.
- Washington cut bait with RB Derrius Guice after learning about charges of domestic violence, including felony strangulation. Domestic violence doesn’t often stop NFL teams from signing talented players but Guice’s inability to stay healthy might.
- A pair of veteran defensive linemen signed deals this week, including DE Everson Griffen in Dallas and DT Mike Daniels in Cincinnati. The Cowboys needed another edge rusher to help take pressure off their secondary, while the Bengals needed to reinforce the interior of their defensive line after injuries and opt-outs.
- The Bengals took another hit in the secondary when CB Trae Waynes tore a pectoral muscle while weight-lifting with the team. Cincinnati gave Waynes a three-year, $42 million deal to start but will have to live without him for the first month of the season.
Check This Out
As the season shifts into gear, the amount of quality football content should increase dramatically. Here are a few things that caught our eye:
- The Athletic’s Dane Brugler does a draft series going through the top seniors and underclassmen for the 2021 class. With college football looking like an increasingly unlikely prospect, draft insight might be harder to come by this year.
- Derrik Klassen (QBKlass on Twitter) has written for a number of different outlets and most recently has helped with Football Outsiders’ Almanac. He writes on his own about how defenses try to attack the zone running scheme the Rams and others employ and why it’s not a simple solution.
- Sports Illustrated’s Jenny Vrentas dives into how Lamar Jackson redefined the quarterback position not just for himself, but the generation that will follow him.
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