Welcome back to the Four Verts column! The NFL is entering the final stretch of the regular season, which is a great time to look ahead. The Jaguars finally found their franchise guy, the Broncos and Saints wish they could find their quarterbacks, and a new crop of head coaches is about to pop up.
Trevor Lawrence is, statistically, turning into the guy everyone's been waiting for
Trevor Lawrence has arrived. This is the player that the Jaguars and their entire fanbase have been waiting for since they joined the NFL in the 1990s. There have been spurts of quality play from Jaguars quarterbacks since their inception, but none of them have shown the promise that Lawrence has. They’ve taken their swings on guys like Blaine Gabbert and Blake Bortles, but Lawrence is starting to show that he can be the crown jewel of the franchise — and maybe end up being the best player in Jacksonville's brief existence.
The flashes of Lawrence's greatness have always been there, even when the Jaguars were anchored by Urban Meyer treating them like a college football team. It was a tough situation for Lawrence, or really any rookie quarterback, to thrive in, but on the field he still looked like he could wind up being That Guy. The statistical performance wasn't quite matching the eye test and there was good reason to believe that he could explode with new head coach Doug Pederson as the orchestrator of his young career.
That moment is here, right now. Lawrence is currently playing the best stretch of football of his career and has firmly moved into the category of quarterbacks that teams can win because of, rather than just with. He's been able to put a shaky Jaguars supporting cast on his shoulders and carry them to victories with a combination of throwing prowess and general athleticism. He's smooth as hell in the pocket, has a live arm and his decision-making has really improved lately.
According to Ben Baldwin of The Athletic, Lawrence has ranked fifth in expected points added per play over the previous four weeks of the season (0.265) among the 35 quarterbacks with at least 60 plays in that timespan. He's been accurate, decisive and has had some clutch moments like the Jaguars' last-second win over the Ravens a few weeks ago. He's not the best quarterback in the NFL, but he's certainly turned into someone worth building around for sustained success.
The Jaguars took Lawrence's development a step further when they traded for Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who should be eligible to play for the team next season after being suspended a year for betting on the NFL. When he was on the field, Ridley showed that he could be a true No. 1 wideout. They should have a fairly high draft pick as well, unless they're able to catch the Titans and win the AFC South.
There have been some hiccups along the way, but the Jaguars have a chance to be one of the premier teams in the NFL over the next decade if they can just continue to surround Lawrence with quality talent that will let him ascend to the next plane of greatness. Pederson appears to be right guy to lead Lawrence on this journey, and his own special talent is already starting to sustain itself in big ways.
NFC South doesn’t need a playoff team
A proposition for the NFL-watching world: Let's change things up a bit as far as the postseason is concerned. The current setup of allowing every division to be represented by their winner has become outdated, and the 2022 NFC South is the encapsulation of what the NFL needs to change.
Not a single one of these teams are playoff-caliber and that’s OK. What’s not OK is subjecting the “football” these teams are playing to hard-working people across the world that love to watch the playoffs.
The Buccaneers are the best team in the NFC South and they're fresh off of a 35-7 beatdown at the hands of the 49ers. Tom Brady's squad leads the division with a 6-7 record and an offense that's been tough to watch for the entire season. The Panthers and Falcons are just a game out of first place contention with 5-8 records on the year. The Saints are only two games out of playoff contention with a freaking 4-9 record.
Not a single one of these teams even has a prayer of reaching the Super Bowl. As things stand right now, one of these teams is likely going to end up bringing the Cowboys into their stadium in front of a whole bunch of fans. That’s not right, it’s not OK.
The NFL should keep the division setup for scheduling purposes. Intra-divisional rivalries are still a compelling part of the NFL season, even if the teams that populate those games are no good. What needs to change is the fact that there are games with stakes featuring teams that can’t capitalize on their positions. So, let’s just take the top seven teams from each conference and roll them into the playoffs. It’s that easy.
Ask yourself: do you really want to live in a world where this Carolina Panthers team or this Atlanta Falcons team is taking up one of the precious postseason spots? Of course not. Reform can begin now. Vote for Charles McDonald to become the next NFL Commissioner.
What a year for trades involving a first-round pick
The Rams might be the only team that doesn't regret trading their upcoming first-round pick for the 2023 NFL draft. Winning an elusive Super Bowl trophy is probably worth a couple years worth of losing and bad play. There's a real-life benefit towards winning the Super Bowl that should be considered when talking about the loss of draft picks and being stuck in cap hell. Sean McVay, Matthew Stafford and the other Rams with legacies on the line were immortalized in NFL lore thanks to winning that game, so won't be worried as much about the Lions having their first-rounder this year.
The Saints and the Broncos? Oh boy, they have to be absolutely kicking themselves right now. At least from the jump, the Broncos' plan made sense on paper. They thought they had a Super Bowl-caliber defense and added one of the best quarterbacks from this era of football to their roster. It was a plan that was supposed to vault them into the ranks of the bonafide contenders, but that just has not happened. Not even close. The Broncos have had one of the worst offenses this century of football has seen and currently sit at 3-10 on the season. According to Tankathon, if the NFL draft was held today, the Broncos would be sending the second overall pick to Seattle in exchange for Russell Wilson. Yikes! They're stuck with Wilson for the next few years so all they can really do is hope and pray that he can regain the powers he once held that made him a force on offense.
What the Saints did is just inconceivable. They ended up going all-in on a roster that everyone, except them, knew was not ready to make a real run towards the playoffs. In their quest to take Chris Olave in the first round of this year's draft, they ended up trading a first-round pick for next year's draft. It appears that they got the talent evaluation correct on Olave, but they paid a huge price for him. The Eagles own the Saints' pick this year, which is currently slated to be fifth overall.
The Saints have put themselves in a position where they likely have to run it back with this setup next season. They’ll have to get creative to find a new starting quarterback, but hey, at least they’ll have a supremely talented wide receiver to throw the ball to.
Trading first-round picks worked for the Rams, but the Saints and Broncos (and the Browns to another degree) are showing that the grass isn't always greener on the other side. The risk can still be worth taking, but it'll be interesting to see if the other teams around the league become a bit more apprehensive with these big time trades. The Seahawks, Lions and Eagles have to be pinching themselves right now.
Who needs a head coach and who might the candidates be?
The season is almost over, which means the dark day known as Black Monday will only get closer and closer. A few head coaches will end up losing their jobs. Panthers head coach Matt Rhule and Colts head coach Frank Reich have already been let go this season and a few others could join them. Here are a few other teams that could be looking at a new head coach.
Denver Broncos: See the previous section. Watch the Thursday night game against the Colts. Or really just about any Broncos game this year. Nathaniel Hackett doesn't appear to be the guy to coach this team past this season and the Broncos need to improve rapidly to get Russell Wilson back to playing productive football.
Arizona Cardinals: Kliff Kingsbury received a contract extension this year, but things have been trending down for too long in Arizona without any real sign of progress over the past year or so. To be fair to Kingsbury, general manager Steve Keim should be sent on his way as well if Kingsbury does get the boot.
Houston Texans: Hey man, sometimes the game is the game. Lovie Smith was set up to fail this season for a team that didn't even really want to hire him in the first place. The Texans are lucky that NFL coaching jobs are extremely coveted and they're likely to have the first pick in the draft because otherwise this would be a stay-away situation. They're on the brink of having their third head coach in as many years.
New Orleans Saints: This is probably a dark horse option here, but Dennis Allen hasn't really worked out. He's a great defensive mind and play-caller, but at the same time, he's failed the Saints as a head coach. Maybe the Saints can get Sean Payton back in the door with a little coaxing, but so far it appears that Allen has been a decisive downgrade for them.
There will undoubtedly be a team or two that surprise and make some cuts at the end of the season, but those seem like the clearer options for teams that will be looking for a new head man. Here are a few candidates to keep in mind as the coaching carousel picks up over the next two months in the NFL.
DeMeco Ryans, 49ers defensive coordinator: Ryans has arguably been the best defensive coordinator in football since he took over for Robert Saleh last season. Two years of elite production will get him hired by someone looking to bring their defense into the modern age.
Shane Steichen, Eagles offensive coordinator: Jalen Hurts has outperformed the expectations of many this season and Steichen will get a huge chunk of credit. He'll probably end up leading someone's team next season.
Ejiro Evero, Broncos defensive coordinator: Ejiro Evero is a first-time defensive coordinator, but he's the only piece of the Broncos coaching that actually works. Evero has done a great job keeping the Broncos defense engaged and productive during what has been a lost season.
Dan Quinn, Cowboys defensive coordinator: Dan Quinn has been on these lists for a few years now and he has another strong case to re-enter the head coaching ranks after leading Dallas' defense to another top season.
Jonathan Gannon, Eagles defensive coordinator: Gannon leads what has been one of the best defenses in the NFL this season. Production usually gets people hired to head coaching positions and Gannon has been one of the best.
Lou Anarumo, Bengals defensive coordinator: It's funny that Anarumo finds himself on this list because he wasn't even the Bengals' first or second option when they were looking at defensive coordinators. Still, he's done a fine job as and should get a serious look at head coaching gigs after the season.