Welcome back to the Four Verts column! This week, it’s all about youth. One young quarterback can forever be remembered as a vital piece of NFL history, one team needs to make a youth movement at quarterback, the No. 1 overall draft pick is being misused and Georgia has another monster in the making on defense. Let’s dive in.
Joe Burrow for MVP?
Joe Burrow is back and so are the Cincinnati Bengals.
After a slow start, Cincinnati has caught fire. The Bengals have won six of their past seven games, sit at 8-4 and now have a chance to run away with the AFC North after a knee injury to Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. Cincinnati's offense has been so good recently that it’s fair to ask if Burrow can end up in the MVP race, especially after outdueling Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs again.
Since Week 6, when the Bengals' hot streak began, Burrow ranks fourth in expected points added per play (0.295) and first in success rate (57%) among all 30 quarterbacks with at least 150 plays, according to Ben Baldwin of The Athletic. Over the Bengals’ past seven games, Burrow has thrown 16 touchdown passes to just three interceptions and is averaging 8.6 yards per pass attempt. Cincinnati's supporting cast makes life easier for Burrow or any quarterback, but the orchestrator deserves a ton of credit.
Mahomes is still the favorite for MVP, which is fair and correct when looking at the totality of their seasons although Burrow has undoubtedly climbed the ranks and established himself as an MVP candidate. It’s not just that Burrow is playing well — the context of the Bengals' season and where they started needs to be taken into consideration to fully respect the work he's done here. Burrow has continually proven his value to this team and has been a driving force for its success, outside of that one week Joe Mixon summoned the spirit of Walter Payton and scored five touchdowns.
Burrow is playing lights-out football and Zac Taylor has finally become a better game prep head coach who has been able to scheme advantages against defenses. If the Bengals can get the monkey off their back and light up a terrible Cleveland Browns defense this weekend, Burrow will have a compelling case for MVP from a gambling and real-life perspective. The season ends with games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens. Those are four solid-to-great defenses that will test how far the Bengals have come.
It’s reasonable to believe that the Bengals will have some success against even good defenses. If they can stay hot over that final month — and continue to stack wins — Burrow will have a strong case to be named the Most Valuable Player in the league.
Burrow is already a great quarterback. Now, with another month of effective play, he can become an immortalized piece of NFL history.
Falcons are right to look toward the future
The fallacy of being “in the hunt” for the playoffs tricks teams every single year and the Atlanta Falcons had been current victims of the ever-intoxicating postseason race. However, it was time to get real. With four games left, the Falcons are 5-8 and decided it's time to start looking at the bigger picture of the rebuild as they move on from the Matt Ryan and Julio Jones era.
Marcus Mariota’s skills have helped the Falcons outperform their overall talent, but he’s also not remotely close to being their quarterback of the future. In most cases a team like Atlanta would have to ride this out and figure out what’s next in the offseason, but they opted to find out if they have their future quarterback in Desmond Ridder, who will reportedly start going forward.
Betting on a third-round draft pick to be the franchise savior is a tough wager that not many teams can reasonably make. But Ridder’s preseason was promising enough that the Falcons decided to kick the tires on the rookie. Of course, there’s no guarantee that Ridder will be that guy. He could be terrible, but that’s something Atlanta needs to know as well.
The Falcons needed to take a step back, look at the big picture and enter the information-gathering phase for the next few years. Arthur Smith has, for the most part, been a great offensive coach in Atlanta. He has revitalized a running game that has been dead since the Falcons’ trip to Super Bowl LI and creates opportunities in the passing game that Mariota isn’t able to capitalize on.
Quarterback is a position the Falcons haven't really had to address in quite some time. Outside of 2007 and this season, the Falcons had Ryan entrenched as the franchise signal-caller. Starting Ridder is one step closer to regaining that level of stability at the game's most important position.
If Ridder is good, that’s great. The Falcons have their quarterback on a cost-controlled contract and can aggressively upgrade the rest of their roster. If not, they at least know they need to explore avenues to add a quality starter to their roster.
You did the right thing, Falcons. You’re 5-8. You ain’t winning no Super Bowl even if you do miraculously make the playoffs. Have fun hosting a game against the Cowboys in the wild-card round!
The only reason this was a debate is because the rest of the NFC South is unserious as well. That shouldn’t have been a driving factor in deciding who to start, and thankfully it wasn't.
Jaguars need a new plan for Travon Walker
The Jaguars made a bold decision when they selected Georgia defensive lineman Travon Walker with the first pick of the 2022 draft. It was a risk, but a justifiable one the more Walker and his potential were examined.
Walker was a multiyear starter for one of the top defenses in college football. He destroyed the NFL scouting combine, running a 4.51 40-yard dash at 270 pounds. His lack of production certainly made his projection to the NFL murky, but his tape showed a player who can make an impact early from a variety of positions.
The Jaguars are missing what made Walker such a key part of Georgia's defense. Yes, he made some plays off the edge where the Jaguars have been playing him for the majority of his rookie season, but he can do a whole lot more — and would probably be more effective.
Basic stats don’t tell the whole story as Walker has been more disruptive than his Pro Football Reference page might suggest. But 2.5 sacks and four tackles for loss is undoubtedly underwhelming for the first overall draft pick. That failure mostly falls on the Jaguars for how he’s being deployed.
What made Walker such a unique draft prospect is that he’s one of the rare 270-pound guys who can play on the interior with force. Usually defensive ends get blown off the ball when they’re forced to play against guards and centers. That’s not the case for Walker. His strength and physicality at the point of attack opened up multiple options for Georgia’s defense. Even Jordan Davis benefitted from Walker’s presence by freeing up one-on-one blocks against college offensive guards. Alignment wise, Walker can be used very similarly to how the Seattle Seahawks used Michael Bennett: keep offenses on their toes by putting this highly skilled athlete all over the field.
The Jaguars are using him as just a standup edge defender, which is where he was the least effective at Georgia — particularly as a pass rusher. According to Pro Football Focus, Walker has 18 snaps at defensive tackle compared to over 600 on the edge of the Jaguars' defense. That’s a bad plan. It's not taking advantage of Walker’s best trait: being able to detonate offensive lines from myriad alignments.
Walker was always going to be a project for whatever team drafted him, but the Jaguars are still delaying his development by not using him where he can create the most damage based on his skills. An athlete of Walker’s caliber is a strong bet to eventually become a solid edge rusher, but he has the potential to be an All-Pro if the Jaguars can be more creative with how they use him.
It can’t be worse than what they’re doing now. Nobody is making an impact out there.
Jalen Carter is the future of NFL defensive linemen
It’s crazy to say this, but anyone who has followed the Georgia Bulldogs knows this to be true: their all-time great, national championship-winning defense didn’t even lose its best player for the 2022 season. Five Georgia defenders were selected in the first round of the draft, but the most dominant player it had on that defense is still at Georgia and still cracking heads.
Defensive tackle Jalen Carter looked like the most talented defender for Georgia last year and has continued that reign of dominance this season.
Carter certified his legendary status in college football during a sack in the SEC championship game when he celebrated with one arm while literally carrying LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels in the other. This is who Carter has been all season, and he has a chance to somehow be even better in the NFL than he has been at Georgia.
Georgia’s defense is great, but it doesn't always play the same style as NFL teams. Along the defensive line especially, Georgia plays a more patient style, letting its five-stars sit, eat up gaps and suffocate offenses one play at a time. Carter excels at this facet of defensive line play, but his true value will probably be unlocked in the NFL. There are pro teams that take a more conservative approach to how their defensive line plays, but a lot more teams are willing to let their defensive tackles be upfield penetrators to chase negative plays in the backfield.
That’s where Carter is going to make his bread in the NFL. Carter’s athleticism, aggression and array of pass-rush moves makes him the ideal three-technique in the NFL. Let him sit right between the guard and tackle, and let him pin his ears back. It’s hard to find the total package that Carter has, which is why he’ll end up being one of the top picks in the 2023 draft.
Carter has the tools to be an impact, Pro Bowl level defensive tackle from the first day he steps onto an NFL field — and the NFL might be a better fit for his talents than college.