There wasn’t a lot of exciting football played this past weekend, but that actually gives me a lot of things to talk about in this Four Verts column. One team is, mercifully, going to get its starting quarterback from injury while another team in New York wishes it had its quarterback available.
Kyler Murray returning kicks off draft season
The Cardinals announced a significant landmark in their rebuild when head coach Jonathan Gannon stated that Kyler Murray will resume his role as Arizona’s starting quarterback this weekend, assuming his health remains on track to make that a possibility. It’s a huge success for Murray to get back on the field less than a year after tearing his ACL, but there’s also much larger implications for the Cardinals and the rest of the league.
Murray is currently one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL and has the talent to lead offenses for several years to come, but the Cardinals also find themselves currently possessing the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. A potential franchise quarterback and the ability to draft their own gives the Cardinals two premium assets that can shape the rest of the league.
The best-case scenario for the Cardinals is Murray reverts back into the quarterback that made the team comfortable giving him a five-year, $230 million contract. The hardest thing to find in the NFL is a franchise QB and Murray’s blend of physical ability, accuracy and age (he turned 26 in August) still gives him a shot to stay in Arizona for the long term. Even if Murray returns to form, it’s unlikely that the Cardinals would win a lot of games considering the talent that’s currently on the roster. According to RBSDM.com, the Cardinals rank 31st in expected points allowed per play (0.061). This is still one of the worst teams in the league, and Murray likely won’t be able to change that as he gets back into playing shape. The Cardinals have only one win for a reason.
Having Murray play well while still having a top draft pick in their pocket is the ideal scenario, but even if Murray struggles and the skid continues, they’ll be on track to replace him in the 2024 draft. Caleb Williams and Drake Maye are both worthy selections atop of the draft and would give their new regime a chance to build around a quarterback of its own choosing. The Cardinals would also have the flexibility to find a trade partner for Murray, allowing him to find a team that might be closer to a playoff run than the Cardinals. Those assets would allow the Cardinals to add talent around Williams or Maye and potentially hasten their rebuild.
Either way, the Cardinals are in a great spot to be stable for the immediate future, whether it’s with Murray or not. Murray becoming available would be a seismic move with a lot of teams currently needing a young QB to lead their squads. The Falcons, Giants, Jets, Raiders and Buccaneers are just a few teams that would have to consider a trade for Murray if he was to become available. A bidding war could return a haul for the Cardinals, which might be enticing in a world where Murray does play well enough to return to the levels of a bona fide franchise quarterback.
Murray’s return is the first domino to fall as far as the 2024 NFL Draft season is concerned and the next couple of months will have major reverberations around the league. Now, the waiting game starts to see exactly how effective Murray will be in his return.
Ravens’ defense playing at unforeseen level
The Ravens are doing what the Ravens have typically done during their (relatively) brief existence as a franchise: play face-eating defense.
Under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, the Ravens have arguably the best defense in football. They recently held the Seahawks and Lions, two of the more talented offenses in the league, to just nine combined points over eight quarters.
Baltimore’s secondary is balling out, Roquan Smith has established himself as one of the more important defensive players in the league and the Ravens have squeezed enough production out of their linemen to give them what feels like an impenetrable defense.
Watching the Ravens’ defense makes their prowess easy to spot, but the numbers they’ve compiled this season are otherworldly. According to RBSDM.com, the Ravens rank second in expected points allowed per play (-0.183), second in success rate (38.9%) and second in expected points allowed per play on third and fourth downs (-0.340).
Their scheme is amazing and the results can’t be doubted. The actual players who populate this defense are fascinating.
Smith gets a lot of hype for his role and deservedly so. If he can keep up his current play for years to come, he may end up in the Hall of Fame. He has been that good. Smith’s presence has helped turn around the career of Patrick Queen and the only other linebacker in the league who can rival him in overall impact is 49ers’ Fred Warner.
Kyle Hamilton is an incredibly unique talent at safety who has become a weapon in the slot despite being much bigger than most defenders who play in that area of the field. Defenders who are 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, can cover slot receivers and take on blocks as a blitzer are hard to find, and the Ravens have one.
Justin Madubuike has developed into one of the more explosive interior players in the league and the Ravens have pieced together an edge rush with the addition of Kyle Van Noy this season.
Every bit of this Ravens defense has been maximized to the fullest — and they didn’t even have the services of Pro Bowl safety Marcus Williams when they bludgeoned the Seahawks this past Sunday. This defense still has room to get better, a terrifying prospect for the rest of the AFC.
The only defense that can compare to what the Ravens have put together is Cleveland, who has also been stifling as a unit this season. This feels like a throwback style of football, but the Ravens have a quarterback from the future in Lamar Jackson, who is leading the way with MVP football. As long as everyone can stay healthy, the Ravens should continue to get better on defense and they have to be considered one of the NFL’s elite teams this season.
Jets need to make some tough decisions after Monday night meltdown
Oh, boy. Oh, boy, oh, boy. In a game where the Jets’ defense held the Chargers to just 191 yards of total offense, the Jets still lost 27-6. The defeat was jarring enough to shake the foundation of what they built this season.
The Jets’ defense held up their end of the bargain, as usual, but the unit was met with complete and total incompetence by the offense. There’s no way the Jets could have foreseen that they would lose Aaron Rodgers four plays into the season, but some of the other issues that have transpired aren’t shocking and it may end up in firings at the end of the year.
The most glaring issue: Zach Wilson has been a complete whiff of a draft pick and one of the most ineffective quarterbacks in the league.
He struggles to run plays within the structure of what’s called, his pocket presence leads to more sacks than necessary and he misses more than a professional quarterback should. All of this was true last year, yet the Jets walked into the season with Wilson as Rodgers’ backup.
Wilson has struggled to be just a competent backup QB who can be a steady, if unspectacular, player. Instead, he’s a source of negative plays and doesn’t appear to be improving in a meaningful manner. Perhaps his contract, which makes him one of the highest-paid backups in the league due to his draft slot, is part of the reason why the Jets handed him the backup job. His play never warranted that and now they’re stuck with the consequences.
The offensive line was a huge issue as well that the Jets didn’t really address. They took Wisconsin center Joe Tippmann in the second round of this draft to add depth and starting talent to the line. Outside of that, not much else.
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The plan for this team was to roll with 38-year-old Duane Brown, Mekhi Becton, Max Mitchell and Billy Turner. That was the plan! Becton is by far the Jets’ best talent at offensive tackle and his play has been up-and-down this season, although he has gotten back to being a promising player at either tackle spot. Alijah Vera-Tucker has been someone they’ve plugged in at tackle in a pinch, but he suffered a season-ending injury that took away one of the Jets’ quick fixes to their offensive line woes.
Again, this was the setup that they entered the season with, something that just about everyone was saying would be a weak spot. Their spotty performance this season isn’t surprising.
Wide receiver doesn’t get much better either outside of second-year wideout Garrett Wilson, who is one of the most talented WRs in the league. The players outside of him have struggled to make an impact, most notably free-agent acquisitions Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb, who have played the most wide receiver snaps outside of Wilson. Lazard and Cobb almost certainly would have played better with Rodgers under center instead of Zach Wilson, but the production they’ve put forth all season isn’t going to cut it.
The Jets didn’t put together enough pieces this offseason to make this a unit that can sustain itself outside of Rodgers’ presence. Zach Wilson isn’t good enough, the offensive line isn’t good enough and the wide receivers outside of Garrett Wilson also are not good enough.
None of this is surprising given what was thought of these players prior to this season. Rodgers being out for the season was a death blow no one expected the Jets to overcome, but his absence has really laid bare how bleak the Jets’ offensive setup is. Even the decision to not make a move at quarterback at the trade deadline is an indictment given the fact that Josh Dobbs led the Vikings to a win on the road against the Falcons and he didn’t even know his teammates’ names!
Whether it’s general manager Joe Douglas’ fault, head coach Robert Saleh’s fault, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s fault or a combination of all of them, this offense isn’t talented enough to help out a defense that’s undeniably championship level. If the trend of nonexistent offense continues, someone will have to answer for it after the season, whether Rodgers returns to the team or not. Their current situation isn’t tenable given the lack of progress made on that side of the ball.
It’s just not the Bills’ year
Sometimes the wind takes you in a direction you weren’t prepared to sail. That’s what’s happened to the Bills and their Super Bowl expectations this year. The Bills (5-4) dropped another game this past weekend, losing 24-18 to the Bengals. If the playoffs were to start today, the Bills would be in the eighth spot in the AFC, narrowly missing the playoffs. That’s certainly a failure for what they set out to accomplish this season, but this Bills’ season shouldn’t cause widespread panic yet. File this under the “s*** happens” category of failures.
Some teams can survive losing a key player on one side of the ball. Very few teams can survive losing three key players on one side of the ball, which is exactly what happened to the Bills’ vaunted defense. Cornerback Tre’Davious White, linebacker Matt Milano and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones have all been lost for the season. Those are three of the best players on their defense and three of the best players at their position in general when healthy. It’s unreasonable to expect that everything would stay the same after that happened. Factor in the normal injury situations from week to week and it’s easy to see how a talented team can quickly be whittled down to parts it wasn’t expecting to rely on.
Josh Allen and the offense are still good, even if things have seemed disjointed. According to RBSDM.com, the Bills are still third in expected points added per play (0.137) and first in overall success rate (51.7%) — and that’s with some of the inconsistencies in Allen’s supporting cast. Allen, wide receiver Stefon Diggs and offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey have been positives for a unit that, at times, doesn’t look otherworldly dominant, but is still one of the best offenses in the league.
Unfortunately, football is a team sport and the Bills don’t have the horses on the other side of the ball to consistently win this season. That’s the part where they’re unlucky in a way that every team faces from time to time. A concern for them is what happens after this season ends because they have holes to patch up and they need to get better in the draft.
Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer have been one of the best safety duos in the league, but at some point the Bills have to get serious about their replacements. The safety position is one of increased importance in Sean McDermott’s defense and the Bills will need to find at least one more high impact starter in the near future to begin the process of replacing those guys. They’ll also need to find a young cornerback after missing on the Kaiir Elam draft selection in 2022.
This season may be a wash, but that was mainly due to things out of the Bills’ control. Their games against the Bengals, Patriots and Jaguars probably look a bit different with a healthy roster. Sometimes, it ain’t your year.
The Bills still have a shot to make the playoffs as long as Josh Allen is healthy, but a sustained playoff run seems out of reach right now. How the Bills respond in the offseason will be fascinating to watch.