Five weeks until the playoffs! And that means moving pieces everywhere, which means a pretty nice variety of questions in this week’s mailbag. Let’s dive in …
From winger (@winger33333): What do execs think about Bryce Young? Lots of talk that he will be the No. 1 pick in 2023, but he seems awfully small listed at 6' and 190 lbs.
I figured, with Bryce Young’s having all but sewn up the Heisman (believe it or not, he’ll be the first Tide quarterback to win the award), this would be a fun question to kick off this week’s proceedings. And winger, I’ll say that you hit on the correct question: Is Young big enough? On Alabama’s athletics website, the true sophomore is listed at 6' and 194 pounds. His recruiting profile had him listed at 5' 11" and 197 pounds.
I can also tell you that I saw him in person last year, warming up next to Mac Jones before the national title game against Ohio State, and if you’d told me Jones was 6' 4", I’d have 100% bought it. Jones, it turns out, is barely 6' 2", and doesn’t look tall at all among NFL players. Which is to say I think the questions are legit.
That said, it doesn’t take too long watching Young to see the kid’s a baller. I asked an NFC scouting director Wednesday if Young looks as good as a prospect as Jones and Tua Tagovailoa did when they were in school, and a one-word answer came back: “Yes.”
Now, because he’s not draft-eligible until 2023, you won’t find an NFL scout who’s actually sat down and studied Young. But given all the prospects Alabama has on its roster, and the amount the Tide plays against in the SEC, evaluators have gotten more than a passing glance at him. And that glance has, indeed, led to some excitement.
“He’d be the first QB taken [if he was eligible to declare],” said our NFC scouting director. “He’s improved each week. Mature player who doesn’t force the ball, seems to take what the defense gives him. He’s good in-rhythm and shows the ability to make plays off script. Accuracy and arm strength are very good. He can anticipate and is improving his consistency.
“Also, Mac and Tua had more talent around them. Bryce has carried the offense at times this year.”
A second veteran evaluator added that Young has a “live arm for a smaller guy—and he is small when you get up on him. The ball jumps off his hand. You could see there was a difference between his arm and Mac’s arm when he got in games last year. Excellent poise. Sees the field well.”
Another exec, emphasizing, again, that he hadn’t studied Young, says he sees what the rest of them do—“undersized, athletic and competitive.”
Add it up, and at the very least, the 20-year-old will be positioned nicely going into what’ll likely be his final collegiate season next year, regardless of what happens in this year’s playoffs.
From Howard Blumberg (@hblumberg115): Is John Harbaugh Coach of the Year if the Ravens make the playoffs with how the team was dismantled with injuries?
Howard, I’d say we need to see how they finish, but Harbaugh’s got a case. He’s doing this without his top two tailbacks (a huge deal, based on how the Ravens’ offense is built), his starting left tackle, starting free safety (DeShon Elliott) and now he’ll go forward without his top two corners (he’s been without his No. 2 corner all year, and his No. 1’s now done for the year, too). They also had a rash of receiver injuries that made it hard for Lamar Jackson to build chemistry with a position group that was almost completely turned over.
And yet, if T.J. Watt hadn’t affected Jackson’s throw on the two-point conversion early Sunday night, the Ravens would be the AFC’s No. 1 seed today. As it stands, they’re even in the loss column with the Patriots, Chiefs and Titans for first place. Again, we’ll see if that stands. But for now, all things considered, that’s pretty good.
If he slips? Well, there are a bunch of really good candidates. Here are their cases.
Kliff Kingsbury, Cardinals: Arizona might’ve had the worst roster in football when Kingsbury was hired. Since then, he’s built a staff proficient in developing talent, helped Kyler Murray evolve into an MVP candidate, and now, less than three years later, has the Cardinals going into Week 14 with the best record in football. He also went 2–1 when Murray was sidelined, and the team won a game without him—only proving the strength of what he and his group have built.
Matt LaFleur, Packers: He was invaluable through an awkward offseason in managing his relationship with Aaron Rodgers, and with his bosses who were at odds with the quarterback. He also had the stomach to make a defensive coordinator hire that drew criticism and wound up being excellent, and has managed a raft of injuries to significant players like David Bakhtiari, Elgton Jenkins, Jaire Alexander, Za’Darius Smith and Aaron Jones. Oh, and he’s got the best winning percentage among active coaches (.771).
Mike Vrabel, Titans: They’ve hit a rut, no question. But before consecutive losses, to teams good (Patriots) and bad (Texans), Vrabel had the Titans atop the AFC, and he’s another one who’s handled more injuries than most teams can withstand, with hits coming hard at corner and the offensive skill-position players. One reason for their resilience? Vrabel’s built a very real identity into his team that it can lean on when things go haywire.
Bill Belichick, Patriots: You could make a good argument that no coach or executive in the NFL has gotten more right from March to December this year than the soon-to-be 70-something New England icon.
There are a few others who could wedge themselves into the debate (Zac Taylor? Brandon Staley? Frank Reich?) if their teams finish on a roll from here. But right now, I’d say those five, in no particular order, have the best cases.
From Houston “whatever” Football (@Houstonfootbal3): When will the massacre of the Texans end? Based on Nick’s comments this morning and your knowhow of NFL front offices, is it realistic to expect a new HC in place for 2022?
Houston, I think you really do need to give GM Nick Caserio time. The roster he inherited was in a bad, bad place. And that’s very evident in how you’ve got veteran stopgaps all over the place—guys like David Johnson, Rex Burkhead, Tyrod Taylor, Justin Britt, Christian Kirksey and Desmond King playing big roles. This was never going to be an overnight rebuild. Year 1 for the new guys, given a messy cap situation and lack of 2021 draft capital, was always going to be a slog.
So the expectation for this season was to lay a foundation with the types of guys Caserio was bringing into the building, and I do think you’re seeing the impact he’s made in how the team’s continued to fight through a bleak season. Ultimately, of course, the GM will be judged on how those players play, and obviously, because of the constraints the Texans had in the offseason and because it’s Year 1, it’s too early to get a clear read on his work there.
As for David Culley, I do think the veteran of NFL coaching was exactly what the team needed in the moment. Culley’s hired an experienced staff of teachers, and has navigated the Deshaun Watson saga professionally and in a way where it’s not been a day-to-day issue at all for his coaches or players, which not everyone could’ve done.
That said, I do think Caserio will eventually go and get his longer-term answer to coach the team. I’m not totally sure who that is, but I’d heard from a couple of people over the last couple of weeks that there is someone he’s had in mind since well before he became a GM. For what it’s worth, I didn’t sense there was much urgency on that, as if it had to happen this offseason.
From Jerrad Wyche (@JerradWyche): With Nagy and Pace likely out, Roman and Daboll’s offenses sputtering, who are the top candidates for the Chicago Bears’ vacancies this far into the season? Will Chicago be the hottest job openings this offseason for both a HC and GM?
Jerrad, I wrote this last week: If I’m the Bears, and Matt Nagy is out, my first call is to the Saints to see if I can get native son Sean Payton back to Chicagoland. Payton has a long-standing relationship with GM Ryan Pace, so it happening might take some back-channeling while the season is still going on, because of the draft-pick compensation that would be involved, and also because Pace’s future may wind up being tied to it.
It pains me to say this, because I don’t want my alma mater to lose him, but the next call would be to Ohio State coach Ryan Day, because of his background with Justin Fields, and because I think he’s going to be an excellent head coach in the NFL someday. I still think he’s of a mind to stay in Columbus a while longer—his big-ticket hire of Oklahoma State DC Jim Knowles is an indication of that—but it can’t hurt to ask.
And from there, I’m looking squarely at Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. I think what you’ve seen in New England the last four months has been an absolute clinic in how to bring along a young quarterback. The Patriots have insulated Mac Jones with a power running game, and a rugged defense, and as a result they’re rarely asking him to convert in long-yardage or play from behind, and he’s growing confidently as a result.
Also, if you really look at it, this isn’t McDaniels’s first time maximizing a young quarterback. He developed Matt Cassel, who didn’t start a game in college, into a starter who won a division title for another team. He developed Jimmy Garoppolo from FCS star into a quarterback who took another team to a Super Bowl. He developed Jacoby Brissett from raw third-round pick into a quarterback who’ll likely have a 10-year career. Add that to Jones’s rookie year, and that’s not a good track record with QBs. It’s a great one.
And if you want to go the GM route first? I’d check in and see if there’s a way to pry Cowboys VP of player personnel Will McClay out of Dallas. He’s fantastic, and capable of not just captaining a scouting department but being the lead guy for an entire operation, with his experience not just in evaluation but also in analytics and coaching.
From Justin Mason (@Masonjt24): Does Carolina move on from Rhule at season end? If so, what names you see connected to the job?
Justin, no, I don’t think Carolina’s moving on from Matt Rhule after this year—and I actually think that the mess at quarterback has clouded good work everywhere else. Rhule, ex-GM Marty Hurney in 2020 and new GM Scott Fitterer this year, have shored up much of that roster. The defensive front and secondary are in good shape. The offensive skill positions are taken care of. There are ascending players like Jaycee Horn, Derrick Brown and Jeremy Chinn in place. There are still issues (offensive line’s one), but progress has been made.
So if you can pick up a top lineman or two, you’ve created a really good situation for whoever the long-term quarterback winds up being.
Thing is, that makes it sound like it’ll be easy to land Deshaun Watson or Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson. It won’t be. It’ll cost a lot. They will have to want to come to Charlotte—something that was an issue in Carolina’s pursuit of Matthew Stafford 10 months ago. But I do think now, after two years of building, they have a lot to offer a star quarterback.
And after a bunch of half measures on reclamation projects like Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Darnold and Cam Newton, and missing on Stafford, and passing on Fields, it’d be surprising if this wasn’t the offseason that the Panthers went all-in on someone at the position. There’ll be a lot riding on it, for sure, especially with an owner, in David Tepper, who’s shown a not-so-mild obsession with finding a quarterback.
From L. E. D. (@lredeugene): Which coordinators or assistant coaches are the hot hires for next season?
L. E. D., let me say this: I think this cycle has a chance to be defined by the second-chancers, with guys like Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Cardinals DC Vance Joseph, Cowboys DC Dan Quinn, Rams DC Raheem Morris, Saints DC Dennis Allen, Bills DC Leslie Frazier and ex-Eagles coach Doug Pederson topping that list.
Remember, Bill Belichick and Mike Shanahan became Bill Belichick and Mike Shanahan in their second shots, so the concept has some good history.
Another thing that’s interesting about this year’s crop is you have a couple of names, in Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who’ve been in the mix for a few years. But neither of those guys are having their best years, and there are some names creeping up behind them—so expect some fresh faces on the market.
Among those to keep an eye on would be Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel, and also an outsized number of former NFL players. On that list: the 49ers’ DeMeco Ryans, Patriots’ Jerod Mayo, Colts’ Bubba Ventrone, Bucs’ Byron Leftwich and Rams’ Kevin O’Connell. All are capable as coaches, and the success Mike Vrabel’s had in Tennessee should help them.
From Rob Stern (@putt4_doh): When the league was moving to more nickel and dime D, the Pats went with a ton of 12 personnel with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Being able to exploit a trend is one of the things that makes Belichick the coaching GOAT.
Rob! You hit the nail on the head—this is what analytics is, too. It’s finding inefficiencies and exploiting them. And to illustrate that, I’ll pull out this quote from my Nov. 29 MMQB lede, coming from a rival executive.
“They’re gonna be a power-running team and throw the ball when they have to, play the hell out of the defensive line, two-gap everybody, set edges,” he said. “All these teams that want to be wide-zone teams? Cool. Just string it out to the sideline and f------ tackle them. … Go ahead and run your stuff into the sideline. It’s f------ awesome to watch. All these teams want to be light up front and get after the passer? Cool. We’re gonna run power at you, we’re gonna run duo at you, and we’re gonna make you stop it.”
And it’s not just the Patriots that are taking advantage of defenses with 240-pound ends, 220-pound linebackers and nickel packages as their base. It’s Indy. It’s San Francisco. It’s Baltimore. It’s Tennessee.
Anyway, we’re planning on jumping in on that topic in the GamePlan on Friday. So stay tuned for that.
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