Welcome to this week’s Four Verts column. We’re living in the present and the future as the NFL moves past the midway point and starts to hunker down for playoff pushes. Josh McDaniels lost to Jeff Saturday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are back, Mike McDaniel might be the best play-caller in the entire NFL and the 2023 quarterback class has prominent questions to answer.
It’s incredible that Josh McDaniels had the bravery to come back to work this week. Well not actually, because no one would throw away that salary, but losing to Jeff Saturday is the ugliest sore on what has been a hideous season for the Las Vegas Raiders. The 2022 campaign has been an absolute failure for a team that entered it with Super Bowl aspirations and a talented passing game duo in Derek Carr and Davante Adams. If the 2023 NFL draft were to be held today, the Raiders would have the second overall pick with a 2-7 record.
This team's postseason hopes are undeniably lost unless they’re met with divine intervention that suddenly allows them to field a functional defense and a consistent offense. While this team has pockets of elite talent, the overall quality of this roster is weak and they are closer to a team that needs a top draft pick to start to restock. That puts them in a precarious position as far as their future is concerned.
Carr signed a three-year extension prior to the season, but that contract is filled with funny money that makes it possible for the Raiders to move on this offseason. With a potentially top-two pick in what looks like a two-man quarterback class, that option has to be considered. This season’s failures are not totally on Carr, but it would be a chance for McDaniels to get his own guy into the building and potentially lengthen his tenure with the Raiders. Team owner Mark Davis gave McDaniels a vote of confidence (read: doesn’t want to pay to fire him) and now McDaniels has an opportunity to test how long that leash is this offseason.
Starting over with C.J. Stroud or Bryce Young is an option that McDaniels and the Raiders might find appealing, and Carr should have enough suitors of his own that a trade might be possible. Las Vegas has a lot of work to do this offseason and a retooling or rebuilding is essentially inevitable with how its season has gone to this point.
The Raiders basically have two paths they can walk: run it back with Carr one more time or take a swing at one of the quarterbacks in the draft. If they opt for No. 1, drafting Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson or Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter would be huge boosts to a defense that just allowed Matt Ryan to have a career-long run this past weekend.
The future is murky for the Raiders, but the present has a clear, undeniable truth: This season is over. Now, it’s up to Mark Davis and Josh McDaniels to get this roster and organization moving back in the right direction.
Mike McDaniel has been a godsend and the Dolphins are terrifying
A whole lot of head coaches have been birthed from Mike Shanahan’s tree, but Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel might be the true prodigy as an offensive play-caller.
McDaniel's offense has been nothing short of electric this season. Having superstar wide receivers like Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill, and an improving quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa has certainly helped, but McDaniel has been great in his own right. There can be an adjustment period when an offensive coach gets with a new team, but the Dolphins have hit the ground running.
The Dolphins are tied for second with the Kansas City Chiefs averaging 6.4 yards per play on offense this season. They also lead the league in net yards per attempt by a mile with a mark of 7.9 — the Chiefs are second at 7.3. Not only is this Dolphins' offense generating explosive plays on the regular, they’re also avoiding negative plays in the passing game. Tagovailoa leads the league in expected points added per play (0.425) and success rate (54.7%) among all quarterbacks with at least 160 snaps on the season.
They’ve been that good — and there doesn’t appear to be a way to slow them down for the rest of the season. Hill and Waddle have otherworldly skills, but McDaniel has gotten them to play at a level that neither of them really have before. Hill is on pace to set the single-season record for receiving yards and Waddle has emerged as a No. 1 wide receiver that’s masquerading as the second option in the Dolphins' offense.
What are defenses supposed to do? If they play man, cornerbacks are going to end up playing one-on-one coverage against receivers they’re undoubtedly slower than. If they play zone, Tagovailoa and his receivers have shown a chemistry and talent level that lets them break zone before and after the catch en route to huge chunk plays through the air.
Having talent sets the floor for an offense, but the coaching sets the ceiling. The Dolphins were likely to have a good offense this season based on the players they have in uniform, but McDaniel's presence has elevated them to a new level where even the best defenses need to fear them.
With an offense this good, the goal for the Dolphins should be to win the Super Bowl this season. The Bills have taken a bit of a nosedive over the past couple weeks and now the Dolphins control their path toward winning the AFC East. That’s wildly impressive for a first-year head coach, and the Dolphins have to be thrilled with the results they’re seeing so far.
It might be a stretch to call McDaniel the best play-caller in the NFL, but it’s not a stretch to say he’s been the best play-caller this season. How McDaniel continues to develop this and his tendencies throughout the duration of his time with the Dolphins will be fascinating to watch because what he’s doing in Year 1 is already next-level.
Bucs look like a real team again
It took a trip abroad for Tom Brady and the Buccaneers to start playing like a real team again, but they finally looked closer to the team that fans thought they were getting prior to the season. The Bucs took down a quality Seahawks team to tighten their grip on the woeful NFC South and get one step closer to hosting a playoff game.
There are aspects of this team that still look shaky, but they’re back on the right track after a mostly impressive win against Seattle — minus the whole “let’s throw a pass to Tom Brady against maybe the most athletic cornerback in the NFL” part.
Let’s start with what’s working for the Buccaneers. The defense is still playing up to its standard. According to Ben Baldwin of The Athletic, the Bucs rank ninth in expected points added per play (-0.036) and success rate (42.7%). Keeping Todd Bowles has been a blessing for the continuity on that side of the ball. The Buccaneers' defense has been the reason why they’ve won games while the offense struggles. Once again, this defense has been well-rounded against the run and pass, and this should continue to be a strength for the rest of the season. Slowing down the Seahawks is no easy feat, but the Buccaneers were able to in fairly emphatic fashion until the end of the game.
Brady hasn’t been the best version of himself this season, but he’s been better recently and has had to work with some tough circumstances. The offensive line has been shaky, the receivers have been limited and Leonard Fournette hasn’t been able to get anything going on the ground. This probably isn’t the scenario Brady envisioned himself in when he decided to come back and play at age 45, but this is the reality of the situation. He’s carrying a bigger load on offense than he has needed to the past couple of seasons.
This past week, Julio Jones was back making plays, Chris Godwin made an impact and Mike Evans still played his role well as the gravitational force of the Buccaneers' passing game. This is a shift that changes their outlook. This isn’t to say they’re Super Bowl contenders all of a sudden, but a deeper playoff run is starting to feel possible.
At least the NFC South was fake fun for a few weeks. If the Buccaneers can capture the form they played with against the Seahawks, they’ll grab that easily.
Should we be concerned about the 2023 QB class?
The 2023 draft class was projected to have a handful of quarterbacks who looked like they had the potential to save NFL teams. Alabama's Bryce Young, Ohio State's C.J. Stroud, Kentucky's Will Levis, Florida's Anthony Richardson and others had media and scouts buzzing about their pro prospects — especially coming off of a quarterback class where Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett was the only first-round selection.
Right now, the perception of this quarterback class seems to have fallen a bit. Or at least, people are asking more questions.
Young and Stroud are still expected to go at the top of the draft, but even their projections have inspired debates. Young has all the skills necessary to be seen as an elite prospect, but people are going to be concerned about his size. The recent struggles of Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield and others might scare some teams off smaller QBs, but Young has everything else needed to be a franchise signal-caller at the next level. The playmaking is there in droves, and his draft stock will almost solely be based on how teams perceive his size affecting him.
Stroud looks like a talented passer, but there are rightful questions about how he performs in less-than-ideal circumstances. Stroud didn’t really start using his legs as a weapon until recently this season, but he has the ability to take off and hurt defenses to a degree. He can play like a statue quarterback even though he has the physical skills to play a looser brand of football. The worry with Stroud is that he’s being propped up by the insane receiving talent around him (Marvin Harrison Jr. would be a top-three pick if he was in the draft today), but he executes at a high enough level that he’ll hear his name called early in the 2023 draft.
Beyond that, the QB class has dimmed. Levis entered the season as another top option along with Young and Stroud, but he hasn’t played well in what will be his final season with Kentucky. His downfall hasn’t totally been on him as his supporting cast has dropped off in skill level, but teams would like to see more from a quarterback who was projected as a top-five pick prior to the season; getting dunked on by Vanderbilt is never good for anyone’s draft stock.
Richardson finds himself in a similar situation where he has all the physical tools in the world, but has not elevated Florida in the way evaluators were hoping. However, in the case of Richardson, his physical attributes still might be enough to get him drafted in the first few picks of the first round. It’s hard to find guys who can throw as hard as MLB pitchers while having the speed of a defensive back in a linebacker’s body. He’s a special physical talent that teams will inevitably drool over.
As a whole, the 2023 quarterback class has lost hype as the 2022 season has played out, but these guys will still be in demand — there are just more questions about how they project than there were prior to the season. Young looks to be the best of the bunch, but the NFL can be a tricky beast when it comes to quarterback evaluations.