Welcome back to the Four Verte column. Hopefully you had a quieter holiday season than Derek Carr and the Las Vegas Raiders. While the Raiders are potentially hitting the reset button on their squad, there are several other AFC clubs that look set for the future. First, we say goodbye to one of the greatest players in NFL history.
JJ Watt leaves the game as one of the best to ever suit up
I don’t always use first person for Four Verts columns, but I would for this one. JJ Watt announced his retirement after the season, ending one of the greatest careers in NFL history. Watt would be an easy first-ballot Hall of Famer in a few years, securing his gold jacket and spot in Canton long before he was racking up Player of the Year honors with the Houston Texans.
This is how I describe Watt’s importance to my generation of footballers and football fans. I played defensive line all my playing days and there were two guys that we all tried to be like, Aaron Donald and JJ Watt.
They are the standard for dominating, dirty defensive linemen in this era of football. I spent hours watching YouTube videos of Watt and his ability to affect plays without taking a single step. Block destruction, float moves, timing of pass splits and interceptions at the line of scrimmage.
At his peak, he was a flawless player. Watt’s peak was so good that he’s definitely a Hall of Famer, even though he hasn’t played at that level since 2018. Watt had 69 sacks in 64 games from 2012-2015, including 20-sack seasons in 2012 and 2014. In 2012, Watt managed an insane 39 tackles for loss.
Durability is somewhat important in the debate of who is better between Watt and Donald, but Watt’s peak game could seriously make him the best defensive player of all time. He’s absolutely right up there with Reggie White and Lawrence Taylor when it comes to the most dominant players in NFL history.
As elite as he was on the field, he was even more incredible off it. Watt’s work with philanthropy is well known, and he played a major role in helping Houston recover from Hurricane Harvey in 2017. It’s hard to reach that level of stardom without having some real slip-ups or controversies off the field.
Cheers to Watt, a player who embodied everything possible as an elite defensive lineman and gave to others while away from football. It’s hard to leave a better legacy than he did.
The AFC playoff race looks incredible
Hopefully this isn’t a fluke, but the current AFC playoff picture is shaping up for the NFL’s own tournament. All seven teams currently in line for a playoff berth have spent part of this season as must-watch teams. The Bills, Chiefs, Bengals, Ravens and Chargers have already clinched their spots in the postseason. For now, the Jaguars and Dolphins are also in the driver’s seat to make it. If the current AFC playoff field holds, here’s what the opening weekend looks like.
#1 Buffalo Bills. Goodbye week!
No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs vs. No. 7 Miami Dolphins
No. 3 Cincinnati Bengals vs. No. 6 Los Angeles Chargers
No. 4 Jacksonville Jaguars vs. No. 5 Baltimore Ravens
Worship me. That sounds unlikely, especially if the Dolphins can hold the course and Tua Tagovailoa can make the playoffs in time. Tyreek Hill vs. the Chiefs. The rematch between Trevor Lawrence and Lamar Jackson is one of the most exciting matches of this season. Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert face off as Burrow tries to advance to another Super Bowl while Herbert makes his playoff debut.
All seven of those teams have the high viewership and elite talent to keep these playoff games close and compelling. No Panthers or Buccaneers muddying the playoff field. All of these teams are good in the present and have intoxicating hopes for greatness in the future.
There’s an interesting shift here from where the NFL has been over the past decade. All of these AFC teams have franchise quarterbacks 27 or younger, and nearly all of them have had elite games at some point in their careers. The thought that this is the start of a new highly competitive era in FFA adds to the intrigue.
The Titans, Jets, Steelers and Patriots are all on the outside looking in. Kenny Pickett and the Steelers or the Jets defense could be fun to make the playoffs, but the seven teams currently in the field have the most potential for excitement. The AFC is entering a golden era, and these playoff teams showcase the talent and depth of the conference.
Fingers crossed that everyone stays healthy the rest of the way.
The Raiders’ season couldn’t have been worse
The Raiders, man. What a season that meant it in the worst possible way.
The Raiders piled on top talent in an attempt to close the gap between themselves and the Chiefs by trading Davante Adams, signing Chandler Jones and re-signing Max Crosby. While the rest of their roster was a little lackluster, there was reason to believe that their core of good-to-elite talent would overcome that and allow the Raiders to be one of the best teams in the NFL.
Ha! Not even close, duck! It’s been a season from hell, and now Derek Carr’s time with the Raiders is over and Josh McDaniels will be the head coach next year simply because there has been too much turmoil in this franchise over the last few seasons. This is it extreme away from where the Raiders thought they would be. This team nearly beat the Bengals in the playoffs a year ago, and now they’ve committed to starting former Patriots backup Jarrett Stidham for the final two games of the regular season. Carr is set to leave the team with two weeks remaining this season and, in part, in an apparent white flag wave in this era of Raiders football.
It will be interesting to see what happens next. If the NFL draft were held today, the Raiders would have the ninth overall pick, which could make it difficult for them to land the best quarterback on their board. They can’t go into the 2023 season without making a major move at QB if this is truly the end for Carr and the Raiders. Adams will likely still be on the Raiders’ roster next year unless they want to eat up some dead salary cap space in a trade and commit completely to the slump. Darren Waller and wide receiver Hunter Renfrow have contracts that are much easier to move, but do the Raiders want to start from scratch here?
The AFC West isn’t going to get any easier anytime soon. Patrick Mahomes is still Kratos from the God of War series. Justin Herbert isn’t far behind where Mahomes can run the offense. Denver still has a young, talented core on defense that will be tough to score on for years. The Raiders have to consider the possibility that this move to remove Carr from the roster further traps them in no man’s land for the next few years. This is the team as of now way lags far behind managers and licensees.
Regardless of what happens with Carr, McDaniels and the rest of their big name creations, this may not be the 2022 season the Raiders were hoping for. It was about as bad as a season can get, and it changed the future of the entire franchise.
Mini NFL Draft Preview. Ohio State’s offense vs. Georgia’s defense
The College Football Playoff kicks off this weekend, and a top NFL matchup is underway as the Georgia Bulldogs take on the Ohio State Buckeyes. Of course, that’s to be expected when two programs this highly recruited face off. It’s a unique opportunity to watch several players who will be selected in the top half of the 2023 NFL draft go head-to-head, especially when it comes to the Buckeyes’ explosive offense taking on the Bulldogs’ tough defense.
According to Tankathon’s NFL preseason rankings , each of these teams has several players projected to be selected in the top two rounds of the draft slated to play in this game. For Ohio State, it’s quarterback CJ Stroud, offensive tackle Parris Johnson Jr. and defensive lineman Zach Harrison. Georgia’s projected top-64 picks are defensive tackle Jalen Carter, cornerback Kelly Ringo, offensive tackle Broderick Jones, Darnell Washington and safety Chris Smith.
Carter and Stroud are the biggest names here, each vying to be the first overall pick in next year’s draft. Carter has been the most destructive force in college football since returning from an ankle injury, and Stroud has been one of the nation’s most productive pass rushers over the past two seasons. Johnson likely won’t see many opportunities against Carter this game, but Johnson doesn’t need to go against Carter at this point to prove his value as a prospect. He is a bona fide left tackle prospect at the next level and projects as a day one starter.
Stroud can earn himself a lot of goodwill as far as his draft grades go if he can pass this test with the utmost. Stroud has struggled when asked to be Ohio State’s primary playmaker, and Georgia head coach Kirby Smart is elite when it comes to holding back mistakes. Stroud has a chance to establish himself as a top QB prospect with a strong performance and unfortunately be the new face of the Texans.
The most important matchup between Ohio State’s offense and Georgia’s defense is between Ringo and a wide receiver who has yet to enter the draft; spring draft and is one of the best wide receivers of the last decade. Size, speed, route running, balance, ability to win at the point of capture. there really isn’t anything this guy can’t do. It’s unclear if Ringo will shadow Harrison for the game or if Georgia will keep Ringo in left field, but the battle between Harrison and Ringo will be the main story for Saturday’s game.
These are the games that make the College Football Playoff and the NFL Draft so much fun. It’s an early preview of the NFL’s future starters playing against each other in the biggest game of the season so far. Money, a draft stock, and a legacy are at stake here. Can’t ask for much more.