Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today's installment covers:
But first, a look at one QB draft class that could eventually be considered among the all-time groups ...
It's early, but the 2020 quarterback class has the makings of an all-time group. In Year 3, Joe Burrow (Pick No. 1 in 2020), Tua Tagovailoa (No. 5), Justin Herbert (No. 6) and Jalen Hurts (No. 53) are all playing at a Face of the Franchise level.
Although this young pack of passers obviously needs to flourish for a number of years before cementing itself as a game-changing collection, it has the early potential to eventually challenge the celebrated QB classes of 2004 (Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger), 1983 (John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and Ken O'Brien), 1971 (Joe Theismann, Archie Manning, Jim Plunkett, Ken Anderson and Lynn Dickey) and 1957 (Len Dawson, Sonny Jurgensen, Jack Kemp, John Brodie and Milt Plum) for all-time NFL supremacy.
And the fun part about this particular class is that the quarterbacks come in all different shapes, sizes and playing styles. These varying skill sets -- and each of the four quarterbacks' winning records this season -- show that there's more than one way to skin a cat at this position in the modern NFL.
But what is the current pecking order within this well-rounded quartet of QBs?
After taking some time to thoroughly evaluate each of the four players -- assessing talent, growth potential and blue-chip traits -- here are my updated rankings for this exceptional quarterback class. And to accentuate the diverse strengths within the group, I'm highlighting one definitive attribute that makes each signal-caller special: a superpower!
HIS SUPERPOWER: Arm talent
The Chargers' QB1 is the new prototype at the position as a super-sized playmaker with exceptional physical tools and arm talent. Checking in at 6-foot-6 and 236 pounds, Herbert possesses the size and athleticism to make plays inside and outside of the pocket, while also displaying the arm strength and range to make any throw with timing, velocity and/or touch. As a flame thrower with MLB pitcher-like control, Herbert has an ability to thread the needle between defenders; this separates him from others at the position. And his uncanny penchant for throwing guys open at intermediate range makes him extremely difficult to defend when utilizing simple tactics. Having already piled up the most completions (839), passing yards (9,350) and touchdown passes (69) through the first two seasons of a career in NFL history, Herbert deserves to sit atop this list.
HIS SUPERPOWER: Processing
The No. 1 overall pick has been better than advertised. While Burrow's rookie campaign was cut short by a torn ACL/MCL, in Year 2, he led the Bengals to the Super Bowl. The 2021 NFL Comeback Player of the Year set single-season franchise records for passing yardage (4,611), passing touchdowns (34), passer rating (108.3) and 300-yard games (six) while leading the NFL in completion percentage (70.4) and yards per attempt (8.9). Burrow's pinpoint accuracy as a quick-rhythm thrower is reminiscent of a pass-first point guard distributing the rock on a 3-on-2 fast break. The 2019 Heisman Trophy winner's ability to anticipate open windows and deliver dimes to pass catchers working through traffic is rare for a young QB at this stage of his career. Burrow plays the game like a 10-year veteran while also displaying the swagger, confidence and cool of a five-star playmaker accustomed to winning at a high level. Given his success transforming Cincinnati into a title contender, Burrow deserves his flowers as a premier player at the game's most important position.
HIS SUPERPOWER: Intangibles
The Eagles standout shows how a QB1's "it" factor can truly lift a franchise. Despite entering the league viewed as a developmental prospect, Hurts has emerged as a top MVP contender by utilizing his athleticism, toughness and leadership skills to lead Philadelphia back into serious title contention. He commands the room, engendering belief from all of his teammates. And his game's not too shabby, either. As a dynamic runner with outstanding strength, power, balance and body control, the third-year pro has become an unstoppable offensive weapon while directing an offense that features myriad designed quarterback runs and option-based plays. Hurts' magician-like ball-handling skills, rugged running ability and sneaky elusiveness have put defenders in a bind on the perimeter. The 6-1, 223-pounder is the only quarterback in NFL history to post 4,000-plus passing yards and 1,000-plus rushing yards within his first 20 career starts. As a dynamic dual-threat playmaker with an improving game from the pocket, Hurts has proven to defensive coordinators that he has the capacity to win with his arm or legs. Considering the Eagles advanced to the playoffs in his first season as a full-time starter and currently hold the NFC's top seed in Year 2, Hurts' winning pedigree and unique skills clearly helped the team improve from good to great in a short span of time.
HIS SUPERPOWER: Release quickness
It took a few seasons -- and a new coach who truly set him up for success -- but the Dolphins' QB1 is playing like the guy many envisioned when "Tank for Tua" became a thing in the cultural zeitgeist during his final season at Alabama. Tagovailoa leads the NFL in passer rating (115.7) and yards per attempt (9.0), distributing the ball like a Las Vegas casino dealer dispensing cards at the blackjack table. Tua's fast hands and lightning-quick release enable him to excel on RPOs and quick-rhythm throws in Mike McDaniel's explosive offense. In addition, Tagovailoa's spot-on accuracy and ball placement help Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle run away from defenders on a variety of catch-and-run concepts on the perimeter. Although it has taken four offensive coordinators and a pair of head coaches to unlock the young gunslinger's NFL potential, it is now easy to envision Tagovailoa succeeding for many years to come as a Drew Brees-like passer. With McDaniel fully taking advantage of his skills as a quick-rhythm passer, the Dolphins' emerging star could eventually surpass his 2020 draft mates as the gem of the class.
WHAT ABOUT JORDAN LOVE?
Love was the fourth quarterback selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, coming off the board with the 26th pick in Round 1, but he's only managed to make one start in his first two-plus pro campaigns. Granted, it's kind of hard to crack the starting lineup when you are stuck behind a four-time MVP, but Love's day could be coming soon. He has shown gradual improvement in limited action. In fact, just this past weekend -- in Green Bay's 40-33 loss at Kansas City -- Love came in for an injured Aaron Rodgers and looked comfortable and confident under the bight lights of Sunday Night Football. Entering the game in the fourth quarter, Love completed 6 of 9 passes for 113 yards and a touchdown, guiding Green Bay to 10 points on two drives. Love's natural arm talent rates near the top of the scale, but the youngster must exhibit better judgment and ball security when he has a chance to play as a starter.
When will that day come? Well, let's see how the rest of this season plays out in Green Bay. With the Packers at 4-8, playoff elimination looms right around the corner. If that happens, Love could get an extended look in the starting role. Rodgers himself expressed "an open mind" to that possibility just this week. A QB1 trial run could further cement Love as the Packers' quarterback of the future -- or, if Rodgers remains in this for the long haul, it could garner trade interest around the league. Unless Green Bay's about to tear off a prolonged win streak to close out the regular season and sneak into the playoffs, taking a long look at Love could benefit the Packers greatly, one way or another.
The scariest team in the NFL right now
If you're looking for a rising contender with the pieces to form a championship puzzle, keep your eyes on the masterpiece that Kyle Shanahan is putting together in the Bay Area. Once sitting at 3-4, the San Francisco 49ers have won four straight games to jump into the No. 3 seed in the NFC playoff picture. Given Shanahan's offensive wizardry and the plethora of explosive playmakers at his disposal, the 42-year-old coach could transform San Francisco's attack into an unstoppable force by the end of the regular season.
When dual-threat running back Christian McCaffrey was acquired in a midseason trade, the former All-Pro joined a lineup that already featured a collection of hybrids with big-play ability. Pass catchers Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle gobble up YAC (yards after the catch) on the perimeter, and Shanahan's system creates chunk gains on the ground. The 49ers can overwhelm opponents with a lineup that resembles a 4x100-meter relay team, with a collection of athletes capable of taking the baton around the track.
McCaffrey is poised to run the anchor leg for the squad as a versatile runner-receiver with explosive speed, quickness and shake-and-bake. Despite missing parts of the prior two seasons due to an assortment of injuries, the 26-year-old veteran is still one of the most dynamic offensive players in the game. McCaffrey -- who, in 2019, became just the third player in NFL history to log 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in a single season -- changes the way opponents must defend the 49ers. If an opposing defensive coordinator were to stuff the box utilizing a variety of "plus-one" fronts, the 49ers could take advantage of the one-on-one coverage on the perimeter, which would undoubtedly result in Samuel, Aiyuk or Kittle breaking free across the field. If a defense were to fail to place enough bodies near the line of scrimmage, McCaffrey would find plenty of room to run between the tackles as the centerpiece of a creative ground game designed to attack that spot on the field. Elijah Mitchell is set to miss significant time with an MCL sprain, but when healthy, the second-year back is also capable of grinding it out on inside runs. The 49ers have a combination of speed and power that creates problems for defenses attempting to hide shoddy tacklers in space.
Studying the game tape, it is apparent that the collective work of the wideouts, tight ends and running backs leads to the late-game knockouts delivered by the team. The group simply overwhelms opponents; few defenses are capable of matching their physicality and toughness for 60 minutes.
As impressive as their collection of skill-position players is, the Niners are really built to knock out foes with haymakers delivered by Trent Williams and Co. The nine-time Pro Bowl tackle spearheads an offensive line that mashes and mauls at every turn. The 49ers routinely move defenders off of the ball like they're rearranging furniture in a new house. The unit wins with the kind of extreme physicality that leaves a lasting impression on foes, and few opponents want to deal with that in a one-and-done scenario in the playoffs.
Defensively, the 49ers impose their will on opponents by relying on an energetic front that bullies overmatched opponents in the trenches. Nick Bosa is the ringleader, demonstrating a relentless motor and non-stop pursuit from the edges. With 11.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss in 10 games this season, the veteran sets the table for Charles Omenihu, Samson Ebukam and Drake Jackson to contribute as complementary rushers. Although there is not an established standout in that trio, the unit has provided enough pass-rush production to complement a linebacker corps and secondary that is flourishing under second-year coordinator DeMeco Ryans' direction.
Fred Warner and Talanoa Hufanga, in particular, have solidified the middle of the field as one of the best linebacker-safety tandems in the game. Elite defenses routinely rely on a five-star Mike linebacker and safety (strong or free) to control the middle of the field. The 49ers have the capacity to shut down the field between the hashes and force opponents to work outside the numbers against a defense that features enough speedy athletes to chase down the ball in a hurry. Given San Francisco's excellence at tackling in space, the sideline-to-sideline tactics frequently result in negative plays and minimal points for opponents. Hence, this unit ranking No. 1 in scoring and total defense.
Considering how the 49ers are beginning to play complementary football behind an ultra-physical offense assisting a stingy defensive unit (which is also set to get defensive lineman Arik Armstead healthy and back in action for the first time since Week 4), the Bay Area bullies are rounding into form as the kind of title contender that no one wants to face down the stretch.