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Let us consider the AFC East quarterbacks, shall we?
Call them the young guns and it fits because Josh Allen just turned 25 in May and he’s the elder statesman, with Tua Tagovailoa at 23, Mac Jones turning 23 next week, and Zach Wilson only 22 years old.
Call them the future of four storied franchises because each could be around for more than a decade, if the first-round picks their teams invested in them pay dividends.
Call them heirs to a grand legacy because, think of it:
— Buffalo Bills fans believe Allen might already be better than Jim Kelly, who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
— Miami Dolphins fans believe Tua could finally fill the void left by Dan Marino’s retirement 21 years ago.
— New York Jets fans dream of Wilson being this generation’s Joe Namath — minus the cool fur coats and panty hose.
— And in New England, my goodness, some people on Tuesday were comparing Jones — his game (which they’ve only seen in the preseason), his arm, and, yes, his mobility — to Tom Brady.
These youngsters are going to provide the media with a lot of interesting storylines. They’re already providing their fans with great hope. They’re just hard to ignore.
But allow me to put away the pom-poms and be prophetic for a couple of minutes.
One of these four, you see, clearly does not belong in a comparison with the other three. One of them stands out.
One of them is already much better and it’s going to be hard to catch him.
Josh Allen is obviously that one.
Lumping him in with Tua and Wilson and Jones is just, well, wrong for reasons that stretch beyond his greater game experience.
And this is where we must agree this exercise is merely for fun. It’s not hard news. It’s an analysis of a comparison that really shouldn’t exist. Because Allen is beyond compare with the other three.
This is my ranking of these players today:
Wait a second.
OK, now …
Yeah, a lot of Dolphins fans are going to be upset. But not as upset as they’ll be when they’re still waiting for Tagovailoa to be in the same company as Allen and he never will be.
Allen is elite.
His tools are elite. He has the second- or third-best pure arm talent in the entire league behind Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes. His arm strength is without match. And, unfortunately for the rest of the AFC East, he has done great work patching the holes in his game.
Remember his questionable accuracy? He completed 69.2 percent of his passes last year. In the preseason finale, he completed 9 of his first 10 passes en route to a 20 of 26 day.
But here’s the scary part: People who have watched him almost every day this summer say he’s jaw-dropping good like that all the time in practice.
Did I mention he’s 6-foot-5 and 237 pounds and can move like a running back?
Did I mention within that supremely athletic frame is a student of the game who has learned not only to read defenses but to deceive defenses with his eyes?
The idea that game recognizes game speaks loudly about Allen because he was fourth among the quarterbacks in the NFL’s Top 100 players, as selected by other NFL players. He trailed only Mahomes, Rodgers and Brady among quarterbacks and was listed as the NFL’s 10th best player overall.
This is not an argument because there is no comeback beyond, “Oh yeah?”
The debate can only begin when deciding where to locate the three other guys on the list of AFC East QBs.
I went with Jones because, well, it’s either him or Tagovailoa. And in deciding, I took the word of Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith, who were both asked by reporters and teams doing draft due diligence whether they preferred Jones or Tagovailoa.
And both outstanding Alabama receivers, asked to pick among two outstanding Alabama quarterbacks, preferred Jones.
I’ve only watched Jones from afar and recognize he’s a rookie who will have rough moments in 2021. But Bill Belichick, who spent 20 years coaching Brady, picked Jones to be his starting quarterback on Tuesday.
It wasn’t because Belichick had no one else. Jones beat out Cam Newton.
Newton put up a solid fight, completing 66.7 percent of his passes and posting an 82.2 quarterback rating in the preseason. But Jones completed 69.2 percent of his passes and had a 97.4 rating.
Remember the Play 60 commercial from nearly a decade ago in which a kid tells Newton he’s warming up his arm so as to replace him? No, that kid was not played by Mac Jones.
But Jones played that kid’s role this preseason.
So what, right? That doesn’t make Jones any better than Tagovailoa or Wilson.
But size does.
Tagovailoa, who spent the offseason trimming body fat and getting leaner and stronger, is still only 6-foot and 217 pounds.
He’s never going to be 6-5 like Allen. Or even 6-3 like Jones.
And he is never going to have an arm that scares anyone.
Tagovailoa has elite accuracy. That’s true. And given time to throw, and read, and process the defense and the play, he’s going to do damage.
But, friends, how long before some defender does damage to him?
The Dolphins this season are going to try to get the football out with quickness. That’s to protect Tagovailoa behind a young, unproven offensive line.
But there will invariably be moments when Tagovailoa needs to get the ball downfield. There will be plays he needs to wait to let receivers come open.
And I simply don’t believe he’s built to withstand the punishment of those moments over multiple 17-game seasons.
One more thing about Tagovailoa: He has a sort of weird delay mechanism to his passing. It’s as if his brain sometimes has to deliver the message when to throw the football once and then again to his arm. So sometimes a pass comes out late.
The process is late.
This was a flaw last season. And it remains a flaw now.
We never saw that flaw at Alabama because Tagovailoa only had to make one read and typically throw to a wide open receiver who was soon to be drafted in the first round.
That’s not the case anymore.
Now, Tagovailoa has to go through his progression, often come off the first read, and move on quickly. And he’s still not doing it quickly enough often enough.
That doesn’t necessarily show in preseason games against second-team defenders. But Tagovailoa won’t be facing second-team defenders in the regular-season.
Maybe you disagree. It’s your right because this is America.
But the Dolphins have been hedging their bets.
The Dolphins, you see, have been one of the teams in the Deshaun Watson trade sweepstakes. That bit of melodrama wasn’t immediately going to result in Watson getting dealt to Miami.
And Dolphins coach Brian Flores will articulate publicly, as early as Wednesday afternoon, that Tagovailoa is his quarterback to seemingly close the door on Watson for now.
But that doesn’t change the fact the Dolphins were interested in Watson and talked to the Texans about trading for Watson on multiple occasions. They did that.
No matter how committed they might say they are to Tagovailoa now, this offseason and even during this training camp, they held conversations with the Texans that could have resulted in them replacing Tagovailoa.
Does any of this mean Tagovailoa won’t succeed? Of course not.
He’s going to be fine, if he stays healthy. He’s probably going to be good.
But elite? I haven’t seen elite from him before, and I don’t think I’ll see elite in the future.
Most analysts with a platform say quite the opposite.
But many people within the NFL I speak with agree with me. Last year, some told me they preferred to play against Tagovailoa instead of Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Am I out on a limb by myself on this? No doubt.
Kind of like I was out on a limb by myself when I told the Dolphins Josh Rosen wasn’t it and wasn’t going to be it, and openly questioned his acquisition in a press conference.
How about Wilson then?
He’s scary to look at in that he’s 214 pounds and built kind of narrowly. His durability is going to be tested, especially on the Jets — who have a poor offensive line, and a poor running game, and a poor defense, and will ask Wilson to throw a lot to keep them in games.
But there’s a kind of moxy to Wilson that bleeds into his game. So he makes some plays and improbable throws that really impress and make one understand why the Jets picked him No. 2 overall.
Wilson can move both inside and outside the pocket, which is the reason his preseason passer rating while under pressure was an outstanding 94.4.
But he is, of course, a rookie and the youngest of the young guns.
This season is going to be an uphill climb for Zach Wilson. He’ll soon find out that the preseason is not real NFL football.
“He’s going to get a whole set of looks coming up, the speed of the game is going to change, the way teams attack from a defensive perspective is going to change,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said this week.
“So his ability to learn and process and slow the game down as quickly as he can is going to be what matters most. We like where he’s at. His process and how he prepares has us very confident in the fact he’s going to be able to absorb all that information and execute it at a high level.”
That’s all good. But the Jets are in for a rough year.
So is their rookie quarterback, who right now is the fourth-best of the AFC’s four young quarterbacks.