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Mailbag: Do You Really Need a Mobile Quarterback to Win in the NFL?

Why great athletes are given more time to develop as QBs. Plus, questions on Trevor Lawrence, Carson Wentz, the rookie quarterbacks, Justin Herbert, Bill Belichick's successor candidates and more.

FLORIDA — The second leg of my training-camp swing is much shorter than the first, and we’re off to flying start. So from Jacksonville to Tampa, here we go …


From Rob O’Neill (@oneillr1): Thoughts on the “You need a mobile QB to win” in the NFL line? Looking back to 2000, I see one true mobile QB to win a Super Bowl (Mahomes), everyone else has been a traditional pocket passer.

Rob, this is a fantastic question, thanks for asking it. It’s something I’ve been talking about on radio and TV, and digging around on, for a while. And the idea I’ve been tossing around on this is quarterbacks have a finite time to cement themselves with their drafting teams, and it’s never been harder for a player at that position to adjust to the NFL that quickly, thanks to the simplification of college offenses, and complexity and speed of NFL defenses.

The evidence we’ve laid out in a good number of previous mailbags shows that, really, Year 3 is the big one for first-round quarterbacks. After that season, teams have to decide on their quarterbacks’ fifth-year options, and whether to extend them early. Evidence shows that, really, by then most teams have made up their minds, which gives guys that long to prove themselves.

Now, let’s look at the guys who’ve really broken out within that window. Since the 2011 CBA went in to create this construct, five quarterbacks have won Offensive Rookie of the Year: Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Dak Prescott, Kyler Murray and Justin Herbert. And in that timeframe, six quarterbacks on rookie deals have gotten MVP votes: Newton, Mahomes and Lamar Jackson won it; Josh Allen finished second last year, Carson Wentz finished third in 2017 and Prescott finished sixth as a rookie in 2016.

That’s 10 quarterbacks accounted for there. What do they all have in common? Every single one of them is an excellent athlete, and not just for the position. My feeling is that matters with the degree of difficulty racheted up on every quarterback, because these guys have the ability to make things right even when they go wrong—their athleticism becomes their personal escape hatch—and allow for their coaches to be more creative in easing the transition for college to pro (with scheme stuff defenses might not be ready for).

That doesn’t mean a more traditional pocket passer can’t make it anymore. Jared Goff got to a Super Bowl. Derek Carr’s been pretty good for seven seasons as the Raiders’ starter. I just think for guys like that, you really have to thread the needle to make it work—they have to learn faster than the great athletes at the position, because the great athletes at the position can create production in different ways, which buys them more time to develop.

Along these lines, it’ll be fascinating to see what happens with the two Alabama quarterbacks in the AFC East over the next few years—Tua Tagovailoa in Miami and Mac Jones in New England. To succeed, I think Tagovailoa needs to play, stylistically, like Drew Brees, and Jones needs to play like the Patriots’ quarterback from a couple of years ago. And I just think it’s harder to make it that way in the NFL than it used to be.

From Joe Morgan (@joe_morgan): Why hasn’t Urban named Trevor Lawrence QB1?

I promise we’ve got more on this coming, but the root of it is pretty simple—every inch of Urban Meyer’s program is centered on competition. And if he’s trying to tell guys like Marvin Jones, Brandon Linder, Josh Allen and Myles Jack that they have to continue to earn their spots, then he can’t exempt a rookie from that, no matter what sort of generational talent that rookie is.

The other thing here, I think, is that Gardner Minshew’s fighting his tail off to win the job, and Minshew’s very well-respected in the Jaguars’ locker room. So it absolutely makes sense to give Minshew every chance to shock the world and beat out Lawrence, even if, just rationally, it’s highly unlikely that happens.

I will say this—seeing Lawrence throw in person on Tuesday and then talking to people there afterward only confirmed everything I’ve heard on him for the last couple of years. So this isn’t about Lawrence’s having any sort of problem or anything like that. More so, it’s out of respect for the process that Meyer’s trying to put all the Jaguars through. And to be clear, I really don’t think it’s part of an effort to boost Minshew’s trade value.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Carson Wentz during the offseason

From Steve Cardenas (@Steve_Cardenas): Any chance of a QB controversy in Indy if Jacob Eason plays well and Wentz struggles when healthy?

Steve, I hesitated to answer this at all (no disrespect to you)—because the Colts felt really, really good about where Carson Wentz was when his injury happened.

In fact, I was there the next day, and here’s what GM Chris Ballard had to say: “You know how you walk out on the field and you can feel a player? I remember Quenton Nelson coming out and I could feel Quenton. You can feel Carson. You can feel the power in his body. There’s nothing he can’t do athletically, or at the quarterback position, that all the great ones can do. That’s what’s got us really excited about him.”

So I do think they felt good about him. And like I said, I considered that part of it. But Wentz didn’t play well last year, and it didn’t take long for injury issues to surface (whether the past is directly related to what happened with his foot or not), and so it’s probably a fair question to ask in the context of the possibility that Wentz misses time, or how the Colts’ 2022 draft-pick situation will be affected by his playing time (if Wentz plays 75% of the snaps, or 70% and Indy makes the playoffs, the Eagles get a first; if he doesn’t, it’s a second).

And right now, I’d tell you that I’m not totally sure the Colts would go with Eason over Sam Ehlinger at this point. Yes, Eason looked good in the team’s preseason opener. But there’s a reason why Ehlinger started to take first-team reps in practice from Eason, and my sense is it relates back to how quickly, and correctly, he sees the field after the snap. Ehlinger doesn’t have the arm talent Eason does. But if they trust him more to manage the game?

I still think it’d probably be Eason. But that I’m not totally sure should be an indicator that he’s not exactly about to unseat Wentz.

From Jeff (@1975Rams): Which “big names” are currently teetering on the roster bubble across the league? Appreciate your work day-in day-out.

From Irfan (@Irfannzo): Is Jimmy G willing to take a pay cut, and for example instead of making 27 mill, he makes 10 mill in order to stay with SF, whereas were he to test the open market, he might not even get 9 mill?

Irfan, the Niners won’t do that to Jimmy Garoppolo if he’s their starter, and I actually doubt they would even if he’s not. He’s been a good soldier throughout, and his number for 2021 (he’s owed $24.1 million in base salary and $800,000 in per-game roster bonuses) is far from outrageous. And the idea of having a first-round pick and an expensive veteran on the roster together is something John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan took to owner Jed York and got approval on before they even made the trade to get the third pick in the draft.

“That’s first and foremost,” Lynch told me after the draft. “Really that started crystallizing when we decided to make that trade. We want to make this trade, but we also have another ask. Jed was like, ‘Alright do it if you think that’s the right thing.’ I learned long ago that you don’t go to someone and say ‘Hey we do this, what about this, this and this?’ You need to have done all the homework. So we worked with [EVP of football operations] Paraag [Marathe] and made sure we could fit it in the cap. We said ‘Hey, this is our dream scenario, can we do this?’ So by the time we brought it to Jed, we had all the answers.

“But still that’s a big decision for an owner. And he backed it 100% because he wants to win. We felt that gave us the best chance to win. I think people sometimes get cynical and say why didn’t you commit 100% to that? Because you never know what’s going to happen. If someone came here and said, ‘We’ll give you six ones for John, Kyle,’ I’d tell you Kyle should trade me. And Jed should trade us both. But yeah, we were committed to that being the best thing for this situation.”

That approach is, of course, about giving Kyle Shanahan and the coaching staff the flexibility to redshirt Trey Lance. But it’s more than just that. It’s also about having depth—the Niners were stung by their lack of it at quarterback in two of the last three years. And so to properly serve what they feel like is a championship roster, they wanted to be as fortified as they could be at the game’s most important position, so if Garoppolo goes down again, or Lance’s involvement in the run game catches up with him, they’ll have answers.

Even if those answers are expensive.

From Matt Stamper (@Mattstamper1234): Curious your ranking of rookie QBs through the first preseason games. Fields seemed the best, Lance had one good play but did not impress after. Thoughts?

Matt, just a quick rundown on the five

• Trevor Lawrence’s talent was very obvious. Everything looks easy for him. The nitpick, which he voiced himself, is that he held the ball for a little too long. The Jags’ line could’ve been better too.

• Zach Wilson, to me, was probably the most level combination of comfortable within the offense, with some plays that really popped. But what the coaches liked most was his willingness to manage play-calls—evidenced by a throwaway on the game’s second series and a checkdown to Tyler Kroft on third-and-14, eschewing the big play for the right one.

• Trey Lance’s big plays were bigger than anyone else’s—and it was good to see the staff letting him throw out of his own end zone, and of course make a pretty tough throw on the 80-yard touchdown to Trent Sherfield. But his first preseason game wasn’t perfect. He was afflicted by a slew of drops and also took a few sacks he shouldn’t have.

• Justin Fields got off to an uneven start, and the big takeaway is he didn’t let it shake him at all. He was good in the two-minute offense at the end of the half, led 77- and 70-yard touchdown drives in the third quarter, and was in control in the pocket and out of it. One big thing—he mostly ran to throw, keeping his eyes downfield on scramble plays.

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• Mac Jones ran a very clean, Patriots-looking operation. The amount they put him in empty—on five of his 19 pass attempts—was a really good sign on how New England OC Josh McDaniels trusts him to adjust on the fly. In such situations, the quarterback is responsible for taking care of the extra rusher.

From Eric Perrmann (@EPerrmann): If the Bengals can be average on O-line in 2021, what prevents them from being a playoff contender in the AFC?

Eric, it’ll take more than just the offensive line, but the line is, of course, a good place to start. The Bengals feel good about tackles Jonah Williams and Riley Reiff, but they still have to sort through their options both experienced (Xavier Su’a-Filo, Quinton Spain) and less so with more upside (Michael Jordan, Jackson Carman). They get that shored up, they’ll run the ball better and be able to do a whole lot more to protect Joe Burrow.

But just as important is seeing improvement on the defensive side, and the speed at which the remade group has been playing at in camp is encouraging. Between Trae Waynes, Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton, Vonn Bell and a real rising star in Jessie Bates, the secondary is chock full of experience, with players who have played in winning programs. And the expectation is getting D.J. Reader back and flipping out Carl Lawson for Trey Hendrickson should give the team a little more juice up front.

Now, will it all come together at once? That’s a tougher question to answer.

But if it does, and the Bengals’ offensive line coalesces, I don’t think Joe Burrow’s getting this group to nine or 10 wins if out of the question.

Baker Mayfield smiles as he runs off the field

From CNLNGS (@SnakeI1818): Legit floor and ceiling for the Browns (no injuries) - go Bucks

Snakel, the ceiling is Baker Mayfield’s taking another step forward, Odell Beckham Jr.’s becoming what he once was and the linebacker situation’s sorting itself out. If all of that happens, I wouldn’t be shocked if this is a 13–4 team. The floor, I think, is if Mayfield’s ascension stalls, the Browns can’t run the way they did a year ago and the front seven of the defense doesn’t come around like they expect it to. Even then … I think they’ll be around .500.

I don’t want to jinx all my friends in Cleveland. But this feels like a very different time there.

From Nathan Sestito (@Nathan25Thomas): Patriots next coach after Bill Belichick retires??

Nathan, I have three candidates for you. The first is the obvious one: offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. His availability would be, of course, contingent on McDaniels’s not landing a head coaching job somewhere else. And I think he’s in an interesting spot right now to pump life back into his stock. If he can get Cam Newton turned around or get Mac Jones really going, I think he’s in the mix for jobs in January (as he should be).

My second candidate is Bill O’Brien, and yes I know things didn’t end great in Houston. But the Krafts really like him and, had Belichick left a couple of years ago when things weren’t great in the Patriots building, I believe O’Brien (then embroiled in a tug of war with then Texans GM Rick Smith) would have been a short-lister in Foxboro. And now he’s part of Nick Saban’s Coaches Revival Program. So I could see his going back home.

The third one is a little out of leftfield: Ohio State coach Ryan Day. Day’s a New England native. And to be clear, I don’t believe he has an interest in leaving Columbus any time soon. But NFL people think a lot of him and if, a few years down the line, New England were among his suitors, I can see where it might be hard for him to say no.

(UPDATE: After we published, I thought of a fourth who definitely should have been included—New England’s current linebackers coach Jerod Mayo. He’s only in his third year coaching, but has been in the play-calling mix from the start, and his nine seasons as the captain of Belichick’s defense gives him greater perspective than spending that time climbing the coaching ladder could have. Plus, he is close with the Kraft family. They helped him try a career in finance after he was done playing, and having that experience in business is something I’m pretty sure the Krafts would see as a plus.)

From Matt L (@cogator06): Are Miami fans overreacting about the offensive line?

No, Matt. The Dolphins have made a massive investment in that group. They’ve sunk seven draft picks into the line over the three years that Brian Flores and Chris Grier have been running the show. Austin Jackson, Liam Eichenberg, Michael Deiter, and Robert Hunt were all top-100 picks, and three of the four (all but Deiter) were picked before the midpoint of the second round. Meanwhile, over that period, they paid right tackle Jesse Davis and the since-traded Ereck Flowers.

They’ve also had three different offensive line coaches in three years and are still unsettled on who to play where, in part because of that upheaval.

Bottom line: It’s fair to expect results now. They traded away arguably the best left tackle in football (who just turned 27) two summers ago. They’ve had plenty of time to build it back up. Grier and Flores have done a really nice job with the team through three offseasons. But shaky offensive lines have sunk otherwise solid teams in the past. So progress is definitely needed here.

From DJ (@The_Sandman_OC): Do you see Justin Herbert taking an MVP-caliber leap this year with that reloaded and revamped offense? I predict top five in yards and TDs with 11 wins.

D.J., 100%. I love the revamped offensive line with left tackle Rashawn Slater and center Corey Linsley as centerpieces (and do not sleep on guard Matt Feiler), the sheer size that Mike Williams, Keenan Allen and Jared Cook bring is going to be a problem, and there’s a really solid sleeper of a rookie receiver there in Josh Palmer who will likely be a factor as well.

Combine that with a real logical approach to creating the right environment for Herbert from new coach Brandon Staley, and I think there’s a good chance the QB is a problem for everyone in 2021.

And sure, MVP sounds a little far-fetched. But consider that Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson won it in their second years, and Carson Wentz might’ve done the same if he hadn’t torn his ACL in December 2017, and it’s not that wild to consider that Herbert’s trajectory could play out similarly. Maybe I’m a little over the top on him. We’ll see.

From Major Hawk (@MajorHawk1962): In view of the market-setting Jamal Adams contract do you have any insight as to why Joe Douglas couldn't come to terms with Marcus Maye?

Major, I think it’s pretty simple—there was a basic disagreement in value. The Jets believed he was worth what his leverage would dictate off the franchise tag (set at $10.6 million), and Maye believed he belonged in the upper echelon of safeties (six safeties make $14 million per year or more). And honestly, that they were that far apart, and that Maye’s old teammate pushed the top of the market to $17.5 million per to become the seventh to break the $14 million threshold, tells me it’s going to be tougher to do a deal next year.

I can’t imagine Maye would be giving the Jets any sort of hometown discount at that point. And that means the Jets’ feeling on his value would probably have to change a lot for a deal to be done next March.

From Gary Langlais (@garylanglais): Which camp had the most comfortable bathrooms?

That’s a very personal question.

(But I do have to give the Lions’ equipment staff a huge shoutout for helping me with my laundry, since doing laundry is something that hangs over your head like a dark cloud on the camp trip—for several reasons.)

From Wisconsin Sports Rumen (@WISportsRumen): Did you go to Ohio State?

How’d you know that?

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