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Mailbag: How Much Can We Learn About Rookie Quarterbacks From Two Starts?

What history tells about early starts from first-round QBs. Plus, how real are the Panthers and Cardinals, are the taunting penalties here to stay, will the Giants clean house and more.

Lots of questions of questions this week, and with more games, we have more information to go on than a few weeks ago …

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From Peter Krogshede (@PeterKrogshede): Looking back in 20 years, will Mac Jones be the best QB in the 2021 NFL draft?

Peter, I think it’s way too early to answer that question. And since I know everyone hears that all the time, I’m gonna set up a little game for all of you. Let’s see how this works …

Quarterback 1: 32-for-53, 435 yards, 2 TDs, INT, 91.3 passer rating

Quarterback 2: 34-for-67, 357 yards, TD, 5 INTs, 54.1 passer rating

That’s Week 1 and 2 of their rookie year for two quarterbacks drafted the same April, four picks apart in the first round. The first one’s team was 2–0, the second’s team was 0–2. The first quarterback? Mark Sanchez. The second? Matthew Stafford. And here’s another one …

Quarterback 1: 41-for-62, 532 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs, 95.6 passer rating

Quarterback 2: 24-for-48, 319 yards, TD, 2 INTs, 61.0 passer rating

The first quarterback here is Sam Darnold, in a 1–1 start for the Jets. The second is Josh Allen, who was 0–2 in those games for Buffalo. And if you want more, consider than among the five 2012 rookie quarterbacks who started their openers, Robert Griffin III had the best Week 1 passer rating (139.9), while Russell Wilson posted a 62.5 rating, Andrew Luck was at 52.9 and Ryan Tannehill was at 39.0. You could say, then, maybe Brandon Weeden’s 5.1 rating actually was predictive—but then he posted a 114.9 rating in Week 2.

The bottom line is what we’re getting now is a glimpse at what a guy might become with every good play, and what you’d be worried about with every bad play. And each quarterback is on a different team, with different circumstances around him. Some are on teams trying to win now, others are centerpieces of rebuilds. Some will get better coaching than others. Some will enter situations that fit them better than others.

But if you really want an answer to your question, I still think Trevor Lawrence is going to be the best of the five quarterbacks, when we get that far down the line and have the benefit of a couple of decades of hindsight. Jones has been really good, no doubt, and the best of the five through two weeks. He just doesn’t have the generational upside Lawrence does.

From Matt Ramas (@matt_ramas): Did we learn more about the Saints losing or the Panthers winning?

Matt, I think we’re learning about a Panthers team that is finding its footing—and has a very real identity, and the kind of rugged one that Matt Rhule’s been looking to build over the last two years there. Naturally, the path there for Carolina has come through the lines of scrimmage, and when you look at the makeup of the Panthers’ groups on each side of the ball, we probably shouldn’t be surprised by it.

• On defense, the Carolina front features an eighth pick (Derrick Brown), a 13th pick (Haason Reddick), a 16th pick (Brian Burns) and a 38th pick (Yetur Gross-Matos).

• On offense, the Panthers don’t have quite the same line of high draft picks, but there’s a right tackle (Taylor Moton) and center (Matt Paradis) the team invested deeply in, and former first-round pick Cam Erving, who’s making $5 million per year, stopgapping left tackle.

So clearly, there’s ability there. And even if there’s still work to do on the offensive side, the work has already allowed them to play a physical brand of football. Which brings us to the second piece of the equation: Rhule, Joe Brady, Phil Snow and the staff have harvested the talent. And they did that the old-fashioned way. As the team’s new quarterback, Sam Darnold, explained it to me the other day, the summer was tough by design.

“The way that we practiced during training camp, we had two joint-practice weeks early against Indy and Baltimore, and I feel like that helped us a ton, to be able to practice against those teams, really veteran teams, teams that know how to practice,” Darnold told me. “That really helped us, and we had a hard training camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina. I think that kind of gave us our edge a little bit.”

Darnold then cautioned that it’s still early, and that’s true. But the early numbers to back up the point are good. In Week 1, Carolina sacked Zach Wilson six times, held the Jets under three yards a carry and were very balanced run to pass (27 to 36). In Week 2, the Panthers knocked around Jameis Winston, sacking him four times; held the Saints to fewer than 3 yards a carry; and had a near 50-50 run-pass split with more than 38 minutes of possession.

Long story short, I had the Panthers making the playoffs before the season started, and now I’m wondering whether I had them seeded high enough. I think they’re for real.

From Matt (@GreenBay_SB56): When is this taunting penalty crap going away?

Matt, usually with rules changes or emphases like this, it takes a month or so before officials have a real handle on it, enough so to make calls more consistent leaguewide. And right now, I think the application of the rule really is the issue. It’s totally fair to ask, as a lot of people have, why Jared Cook’s little stirring display that happened to be in front of an opponent got flagged and Lamar Jackson’s somersault into the end zone didn’t.

It sucks seeing the inconsistency happening, of course, but the referees deserve some time to achieve consistency with it from crew to crew. And while we’re waiting for things to settle, it probably makes sense to look at a few of the reasons why we’re here.

Bottom line, the NFL felt like its own loosening of the celebration rules led not just to more celebrating, but celebrating at an opponent’s expense, which led to more confrontations. And based on the above evidence (all from the back half of last season or the playoffs), it’s totally fair to believe that.

I just think they have to get to where everyone knows what’s in bounds and what’s not, because it sure doesn’t feel like the players really know. If it takes a couple of weeks for them to find their way there, then I get that.

From TrueBlueNYG (@NYGunderground): What is it going to take for John Mara to realize his team needs a complete makeover?

True Blue, I’ve heard at a few points over the last half decade that Mara’s hot over the state of his football operation. So I’d imagine another disappointing season (the Giants have the fifth-longest playoff drought in the league, having last made it in 2016) will lead to more change in the team’s ranks. The question is at what level.

As it stands, I think coach Joe Judge is safe. The Maras really like him, and the team’s taken steps forward under his leadership. I also think it’d be difficult for the family to stomach another coaching change. Consider this: From 1931 to 2015, from Steve Owen to Tom Coughlin, and through 85 seasons, only one coach (Ray Handley) didn’t make it into a third year. If Judge were fired, he’d be the third consecutive coached fired after just two seasons. The Giants pride themselves on organizational stability, and this would not be that.

Could change happen in the front office? Yes, I think it’s possible. But the question then would be, if GM Dave Gettleman were to take a step back, or step down, whether the next hire would be a doubling-down on Judge—with a GM who has a background with him (like Tennessee’s Monti Ossenfort) coming in—or a fresh start. Or an internal promotion, with someone like Kevin Abrams or Chris Pettit moving up.

And then, there’d would be the question of whether there are simply too many Giants lifers in the building, people who have worked there and nowhere else (it’s something that’s been raised in Pittsburgh in the past, and something that led to a bit of house-cleaning in Jacksonville with the arrival of Urban Meyer).

Fact is, if things don’t get better, there’ll be plenty of questions for the Maras to answer.

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From The NFL fan (@theoneNFLfan): How are you feeling about the AZ Cardinals?

A lot better than I thought I would, to be honest with you—they just took down two consistent contenders, one on the road, in the season’s first two weeks. And in doing, I think you’re seeing one of Kliff Kingsbury’s offseason goals come to life, the kind of thing that’s always a good sign when it comes to projecting early season success.

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Kingsbury felt like the difference between 7–9 last year, which the Cardinals were, and making the playoffs lied in the details. It’s part of why Arizona imported grizzled vets like J.J. Watt, A.J. Green and Rodney Hudson, and it was a theme through camp. Specifically, it was trying to rid the team of an attitude where the Cardinals might screw something up in practice and then figured they could fix on gameday. It meant, over the summer, being sticklers for details in walkthroughs, and resulted in more accountability across the board.

All that’s paying dividends now in how solid the Cardinals have been situationally. They’re in the top 10 in the league in third-down offense and defense, and in red-zone offense—which means they’re extending their own possessions, stopping their opponents and converting on their opportunities. That’s just a small snapshot, and it doesn’t carry over to every category (the Cardinals have an even turnover ratio, which is one area they can improve in), but I think the coaches would tell you being better situationally is about the details.

Then, of course, there’s the talent on hand. Maybe it’s too early to call anyone an MVP candidate, but Kyler Murray’s off to the kind of start that would land him on that watch list. DeAndre Hopkins is DeAndre Hopkins. Chandler Jones might be the best defensive player in the league through two weeks. Budda Baker’s one of the most versatile safeties in the game. Isaiah Simmons is coming around. There are really good players here.

All in all, I’m cautiously optimistic that Arizona’s going to be a real factor in the NFC West.

From Cortney Whitehouse (@cortneyw22): How many years are the Falcons looking at before they are competitive again?

Cortney, I think they are a really good offseason away. To me, fixing it rides on what happens up front. On offense, next to longtime left tackle Jake Matthews, they’re starting four high draft picks still in the first three years of their careers. On defense, they’ve got work to do. But if that group of young O-linemen (Chris Lindstrom, Matt Hennessy, Jalen Mayfield, Kaleb McGary) delivers, and they can shore up the defensive front around Grady Jarrett over the next year, I think they’re in business.

The skill group on offense has foundation pieces in Kyle Pitts and Calvin Ridley. The back seven on defense has Deion Jones, A.J. Terrell and a pair of promising rookie safeties. So I really don’t think they’re that far away.

In fact, to me, if you look at it, this is sort of like where the Saints were when they drafted their ridiculous 2017 class (Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, Alvin Kamara, Trey Hendrickson). New Orleans then had some older guys who were still really good players, the shell of what could be a team, and needed to get a lot better around them. They did, and won the NFC South the next four years in a row as a result.

Guess who was there for all of that? That’s right, new Falcons GM Terry Fontenot. So yeah, I’m saying there’s a chance (in 2022).

From David Roland (@DavidRo66809066): Is there any chance Miami tries to sign some veteran offensive linemen?

David, I think it’s certainly possible, based on how this year’s gone so far—the Dolphins started rookie Liam Eichenberg at left tackle, his position at Notre Dame, in Week 1 in Austin Jackson’s spot, with Jackson down due to COVID-19 protocols, Then, in Week 2, Jackson returned, Eichenberg went to the bench and the group allowed six sacks and the run game was held to 3.6 yards per carry. And now, another shakeup is incoming, with Eichenberg coming back into the lineup as a starter, only at guard.

The bottom line is this: Miami traded the best left tackle in football, in Laremy Tunsil, at 24 years old. Yes, they got a monster haul from the Texans for him. But having Tunsil would’ve made building the line out a lot easier. Instead, they hit the reset button, and since then they’ve sunk three top-45 picks, and five total picks, over two drafts into the position. And that’s added to having taken starting center Michael Dieter 78th in 2019.

It’s fair, after all that, to expect this to be a solid, ascending group, and we still haven’t quite seen that yet. And the tinkering tells me that, yes, if the right veteran comes around, they’d be open to adding at the position.

(I also don’t think it helps that they’ve churned through three line coaches in three years, because continuity in personnel and scheme is so important at those spots.)

From Tavarius (@1Tavarius): What is the situation with Trey Lance? Why does Kyle Shanahan refuse to play him when Jimmy Garoppolo is limited?

Tavarius, I’d listen to what Shanahan has said on this—and if you look back, he’s been pretty honest publicly with what he’s said about his quarterback situation. My feeling is that he was honest in the aftermath of the win in Philadelphia, as well, in saying that he’s using Trey Lance situationally, and that makes it hard to predict or forecast how many snaps Lance is going to get in a given week.

So let’s take the Eagles game. The Eagles have one of the NFL’s best defensive fronts, with a true game-wrecker inside in Fletcher Cox. The Eagles also have a new defensive coordinator in Jonathan Gannon, whose roots in the league are with Mike Zimmer. He happens to be one of the more difficult defensive coaches to prepare for in football. And the game was on the road, a 1 p.m. body clock game, and it wound up being close throughout.

Now, I’m not saying that Shanahan wouldn’t have thrown Lance out there if there were a situation that called for it. But I can absolutely see where, if the idea here is to continue to acclimate him and build up his confidence, the coach might be a little slower on the trigger in putting him in the lineup.

And that really underlines the reality here that, as of now, how much or how little Lance plays is truly a week-to-week thing. And it probably will be for as long as the Niners keep winning and Garoppolo continues to play well.

From Michael Haddad (@mhaddad715): Which of the four AFC East teams has the most upside potential for the next five years?

Michael, it’s Buffalo, and right now I still don’t think it’s particularly close.

Josh Allen got MVP votes last year, and he’s still just 25. Stefon Diggs, Tre’Davious White, Tremaine Edmunds, Dion Dawkins, Dawson Knox and Ed Oliver are all 27 or younger. The coach and GM aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Allen’s making the bank that he is now certainly does change the equation some. But Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane have shown us that they can draft and develop, which is the key to building around an expensive QB.

Now, I think there’s reason for hope in the other three places too. But there are also a lot of “ifs” attached to the promise of those teams. If Tua Tagovailoa delivers. … If the Dolphins’ offensive line comes together. … If Mac Jones is the guy in New England. … If Bill Belichick and his staff can break out of their draft slump. … If Zach Wilson comes around. … If Joe Douglas can get Robert Saleh the pieces he needs to run his defense. And you can keep going.

Anyway, that’s really the difference. With the Bills, you’re largely dealing with what is. In the other places, you’re working with what might be.

From Kyle El Flying saucer (@k3lst0n): Do you believe Deshaun Watson will play football again? If yes, when and for who?

Yes, Kyle, I think he’ll play football again. But it might be in 2022. And I still see the four teams I’ve identified for a while here—the Broncos, Dolphins, Eagles and Panthers—as the ones to watch, but if he stays on the Texans’ roster past the trade deadline, and into the new year, it’s not hard to see where other suitors could potentially emerge.

For example, might the Giants be intrigued, if Daniel Jones struggles? What about the Colts, if Carson Wentz keeps getting hurt? Could the Saints or Steelers be in a place to do something in February or March? And, for that matter, will Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson also be available at that point? What will the draft class look like?

There’s a lot for everyone to figure out.

Now, I don’t want to trivialize the other, much more serious legal matters at hand. But from a football standpoint, I think it’s become pretty clear that the Texans are comfortable with where they are right now, and O.K. with riding out the rest of the year with Watson. If they do something before then, I’d think it’d be one of the four teams I listed on the other end of such a deal. If they wait, it’s way more wide open.

From Moose Block (@moose_block): Likelihood of Nick Foles being traded to the Colts?

Moose! I think unless Carson Wentz is down for an extended period of time, that won’t happen. And this is just me talking (or writing), but I think a big part of it is doing everything you can to have Wentz in the right place to succeed. Fact is, the ghost of Super Bowl Nick Foles has been following Wentz around since February 2018. So I’m not sure, especially now with the injuries he’s got, the best thing for Wentz would be to have the real Foles in-house.

And that’s not to say Wentz and Foles have a bad relationship. They don’t. But there’s just too much history there, and because of it I think acquiring Foles would probably work to undermine the investment they just made in Wentz.

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