As second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson jukes defenders off TV screens and into his ever-expanding MVP highlight package this season, a rookie is following his lead as a potential cornerstone of the NFL's next generation of passers.
Cardinals signal-caller Kyler Murray has so far put together a debut campaign even better than Jackson's 2018, accurately slinging the ball with his NFL-caliber arm while also tearing apart defenses with the foot speed he used in college.
If Murray's development continues along this franchise-altering path, then Arizona stands to benefit in the same way Baltimore has with Jackson. On Sunday, hours after Jackson helped the Ravens demolish the Texans, Murray put together another impressive performance in a 36-26 loss to the NFC West-leading 49ers. He completed 24 of 33 passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 67 yards and a score.
Rookie Murray vs. Rookie Jackson
VIDEO: Murray's top plays vs. 49ers
Several things tie Jackson and Murray together: Heisman honors, over-the-top doubts from some fans and analysts and atypical dual-threat talent.
At Louisville, Jackson averaged 23 passing touchdowns and almost 17 rushing touchdowns per season. In his one season as the starter at Oklahoma, Murray threw 42 touchdown passes and ran for 12 scores.
Jackson was widely disrespected by teams that did not see him as a quarterback at this level and instead wanted him to play receiver or running back. He fell to No. 32 in the 2018 draft. While Murray was selected No. 1 overall by the Cardinals this year, he, too, caught a wave of premature doubt, in his case for his smaller-than-average frame and perceptions that he lacked maturity and intelligence.
So far, neither quarterback has allowed those slights to affect their play.
Jackson went 6-1 last season after taking over for Joe Flacco, but he floundered in an ugly playoff loss to the Chargers. That setback seemed to fuel him to get even better in the offseason, and he is now a front-runner for league MVP.
MORE: SN's QB power rankings
Has the fact that Murray began the season as the No. 1 quarterback on the depth chart given him an advantage over Jackson, who was eased into his starting role? Probably the opposite. He had a less-established coaching staff surrounding him to ease the process. Despite that, Murray has mostly avoided turnovers and careless mistakes. Through 11 games (and a 3-7-1 record), he has thrown five interceptions and fumbled twice (none lost).
His game management skills were on display Sunday against perhaps the best defense in the NFL, when he again avoided committing a turnover. In a key moment in the fourth quarter, he offered a glimpse into his ability to make home-run plays with a go-ahead 22-yard run to cap a 78-yard drive.
Over time, Murray will have more opportunities to throw the ball deep downfield, much like Jackson has gotten in Baltimore this season.
Kyler the Creator is making big plays against one of the NFL's best defenses. pic.twitter.com/OeCcPsoIhH
— Sporting News NFL (@sn_nfl) November 17, 2019
As with any young quarterback, concerns remain. Murray could certainly be held back by his coaching staff, supporting cast and division. Rookie coach Kliff Kingsbury is no John Harbaugh — at least not right now. Leading receiver Larry Fitzgerald is 36, and there is no clear heir to his playmaker throne. Christian Kirk is possibly that future star, but it's unclear how he would fare as a top wideout target. The NFC West is extremely tough on offenses, and it will continue to adjust to Murray in the coming years.
Still, Murray has done almost everything in his power to validate Arizona's faith and reach heights few rookies touch. He didn't choose football over baseball to be a mediocre quarterback. He made that choice to be special.
Right now, he is absolutely special.