I also drew the task of writing this week’s power rankings, and while doing so something jumped out at me: There are a lot of good teams this season. In other years there have been times when you feel like filling out the top 10 is a stretch, but post–Week 4 in 2021, there were several teams I wanted to put higher but couldn’t because there were worthy teams ahead of them. It may be a combination of great QBs playing longer than ever (see: Brady, Tom) while the wave of young stars is shaking up the standings (see: Herbert, Justin). But it’s certainly made for an entertaining first month of the season—and a QB-heavy column this week.
1. Brandon Staley’s aggressiveness is part of the Chargers’ identity. Going for it on a fourth-and-9 helped the Chargers defeat the Chiefs at Arrowhead last week, and Staley’s aggression again paid off in Monday night’s win against the previously undefeated Raiders. While a first-quarter fake punt was sniffed out (albeit only by an incredible play by Hunter Renfrow), the Chargers twice converted fourth-and-short plays near midfield. The first conversion, a 6-yard pass to Jared Cook, was on a drive that ended with a punt. But the second one, a 13-yard pass also to Cook from the 50-yard line, kept alive L.A.’s fourth-quarter drive after the Raiders’ missed field goal. The Chargers’ lead had been cut to seven at that point, but that drive ended with a touchdown to put L.A. back up by two scores with just more than five minutes to play. The safe decision would have been to punt the ball away and ask the (excellent) defense to stop the Raiders. But Staley knows what he has in Herbert, and didn’t think he could be stopped on both third-and-2 and fourth-and-2. He was right, and that confidence has become a big part of why the Chargers are such a dangerous team right now.
2. Kyler Murray has been playing like an MVP. He’s making the offense go, whether it’s his ball placement or his ability to escape when his protection breaks down. Or his little shake of a free blitzer on his run to convert a third-and-16, setting up the TD that would give the Cardinals a 21–10 first-half lead and essentially break things open in their victory over the Rams. He has had help from a solid defense that took the ball away two times and held L.A., who had been averaging more than 30 points per game, to 20. But Murray has been elevating the offense, and the team, beyond its scheme and roster. He’s allowing the offense to do things it would be unable to do without him. And, notably, so far this season he’s been able to stay healthy while doing so.
3. The “what if” game for the Dolphins with Justin Herbert is excruciating. Part 1 of the Dolphins’ rebuilding strategy was to amass draft picks. They did that. Part 2 was to use them on the right players. On the art of leveraging the draft haul, as Jimmy Johnson likes to say, “Getting picks is not the answer. Picking the right players, that’s the answer.” The Dolphins won too many games in 2019 to get the top pick in '20, but at pick No. 5, they had their choice of any QB not named Joe Burrow. They went with Tua Tagovailoa, a completely sensible and largely favored selection at the time. (In fact, if the draft slots had been reversed, and the Chargers had been at 5 and the Fins at 6, it’s very possible L.A. would have taken Tagovailoa.) But the way it worked out, the player taken one spot behind the Dolphins’ pick continues to look like the jewel of the class. And the main knock on Tagovailoa, that he is injury-prone, has already shown up, as he’s been sidelined since Week 2 with fractured ribs. The '20 QB draft evaluations will serve as an interesting case study for teams, particularly when it comes to projecting players beyond their college systems, as well as evaluating prospects whose personalities don’t fit a perceived traditional “franchise QB” mold. Both were supposed knocks on Herbert. But as the Dolphins’ offensive struggles stunt their season, they surely can’t help but wonder, What if?
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4. The Patriots are thinking of the long term with Mac Jones. That’s been evident in how Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels have brought along the rookie QB so far: Not sink or swim but rather steady steps into the water once he proves he can handle it. That’s what they did in camp, slowly giving him more reps as training camp progressed. And that’s what they’ve been doing with their early-season game plans that have largely sought to minimize risk. Gary Gramling brought up this point on The MMQB podcast, but there was a play on the Patriots’ next-to-last drive that might have factored into Belichick’s decision to try the 56-yard field goal on the final possession rather than go for it on fourth-and-3. It was the second-and-goal play, when Jones rolled right and then threw back to the left, intended for Jonnu Smith, but the ball hit Bucs linebacker Devin White’s hands. The morning after the loss, Belichick also referenced that the Patriots had converted only 2 of 9 third downs (22.2%) in the game. “It really wasn’t much of a decision there,” Belichick said. Not at this point in time. Because of the Patriots’ success over the past two decades, and Tom Brady’s instant success in Tampa Bay, there’s a natural impatience for New England’s post-Brady rebuild. But the best argument for granting Jones the same time to develop as we would any rookie QB is that the best coach in NFL history is doing so.
5. The first-round QBs are getting better. Week by week, snap by snap. (That reminds me of "The Garden Song" that my friend’s 4-year-old son, Charlie, loves to sing. Apt message, too.) It’s impossible to be truly ready for the speed of the professional game and the complexity of NFL defenses until you just play. Practice and preseason only can help so much in preparing you. But this week we saw “wow” plays like Trevor Lawrence’s juking TD run and Zach Wilson’s 53-yard TD pass. We saw Justin Fields have a much-improved outing after the coaching staff committed to running an offense that prioritized his comfort. Mac Jones has looked the best out of the five first-round quarterbacks, which perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise because he entered the best situation (for many of the reasons detailed in the above item). But these quarterbacks were drafted as high as they were because they have the potential to make the situation they’re in better. It just doesn’t happen right away.
6. Trevon Diggs has outplayed his draft slot. Watching the second-year Cowboys cornerback rack up five interceptions in the first four games of the season, it’s hard to imagine he lasted until the second round of the 2020 draft. Beforehand, Mel Kiper Jr. predicted that Diggs, once projected as a first-round pick, would slide to the second round, telling reporters that Diggs’s “inconsistency” in college was one reason, and that he was a work in progress. Diggs missed four games his rookie season with a foot injury but finished the year with 14 passes defensed, showing his nose for the ball (though only three of those turned into interceptions). This year, he’s turned those chances into more picks, and in doing so has also played a huge role in turning around the fortunes of the Cowboys’ defense. It’s hard to believe he was the eighth cornerback drafted last year, after players like Jeff Okudah (on IR after a rough rookie season), C.J. Henderson (traded) and Jeff Gladney (cut after being indicted for felony assault).
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