Welcome back to the Four Verts column. Hopefully you’ve had a more restful holiday season than Derek Carr and the Las Vegas Raiders. While the Raiders potentially hit the reset button on their team, there are a handful of other AFC clubs that appear to be set for the future. First, we say goodbye to one of the best players in NFL history.
J.J. Watt leaves the game as one of the best to ever suit up
I don’t always use the first person for the Four Verts columns, but I would like to for this one. J.J. Watt announced that he was going to retire after the season, bringing one of the greatest careers in NFL history to a close. Watt will be an easy first-ballot Hall of Famer in a few years, securing his gold jacket and spot in Canton long ago while he was racking up Defensive Player of the Year awards with the Houston Texans.
Here’s how I describe Watt’s importance to my generation of football players and football consumers: I played on the defensive line all throughout my playing days and there were two guys whom all of us tried to emulate — Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt.
They are the standard for dominant, hand-in-the-dirt defensive linemen in this era of football. I spent hours watching YouTube videos of Watt and his ability to affect plays without making a tackle. The block destruction, swim moves, the timing on pass breakups and interceptions near the line of scrimmage.
At his peak, he was a flawless player. Watt’s peak was so damn good that he’s a surefire Hall of Famer despite not really playing at that level since 2018. Watt had 69 sacks in a 64-game stretch from 2012-2015, including 20-sack seasons in 2012 and 2014. Also in 2012, Watt managed an insane 39 tackles for loss.
Longevity matters to a degree in debates on who is better between Watt and Donald, but Watt’s peak stretch of play seriously might make him the best defensive player of all time. He is absolutely in that Reggie White and Lawrence Taylor tier 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 of it. Watt’s work with charity 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 any real slip-ups or controversies away from the field.
Salute to Watt, a player who encompassed everything possible as an elite defensive lineman and gave to others during his time away from football. It’s hard to leave a better legacy than the one he did.
AFC playoff race looks incredible
Hopefully this isn’t a jinx, but the current AFC playoff picture is shaping up for a kick-ass tournament on its side of the NFL. All seven teams that are currently in line for a playoff spot have spent portions of this season being must-watch teams. The Bills, Chiefs, Bengals, Ravens and Chargers have already clinched their spots for the postseason. For now, the Jaguars and the Dolphins are in the driver's seat to make it, too. If the current AFC playoff field stands, here’s what the opening weekend would look like.
No. 1 Buffalo Bills: Bye week
No. 3 Cincinnati Bengals vs. No. 6 Los Angeles Chargers
Fan me. That sounds incredible, especially if the Dolphins can hold the course and Tua Tagovailoa can get cleared in time for the playoffs. Tyreek Hill against the Chiefs. A rematch between Trevor Lawrence and Lamar Jackson, one of the most exciting games this season. Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert facing off as Burrow tries to advance to another Super Bowl while Herbert makes his playoff debut.
All seven of those teams have high levels of watchability and elite talent to keep these playoff games close and compelling. There’s no Panthers or Buccaneers muddying up the playoff field. All of these teams are good in the present and have intoxicating hopes of greatness for the future.
There is an interesting shift here from where the NFL has been over the past decade or so. All of these AFC teams have franchise quarterbacks that are 27 years old or younger, and just about all of them have had sustained stretches of elite play at some point in their careers. The idea that this is just the start of a new highly competitive era in the AFC adds to the intrigue.
The Titans, Jets, Steelers and Patriots are all on the outside looking in. Getting Kenny Pickett and the Steelers or the Jets’ defense into the playoffs could be fun, 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 show the talent and depth of the conference.
Fingers crossed that everyone stays healthy the rest of the way.
Raiders' season couldn’t possibly have gone worse
The Raiders, man. What a season, meant in the absolute worst way possible.
The Raiders went all-in on top end talent to try and close the gap between themselves and the Chiefs by trading for Davante Adams, signing Chandler Jones and re-signing Maxx Crosby. Even though the rest of their roster was a little flimsy, 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 top teams in the NFL.
Ha! Not even close, bud. This has been the season from hell and now, Derek Carr’s time with the Raiders appears to be over and Josh McDaniels is going to be the head coach next year only because this franchise has had too much turmoil over the past few seasons. This is an extreme drop-off from where the Raiders thought they were going to be. This team almost beat the Bengals in the playoffs a year ago and now they’ve committed to starting former Patriots backup Jarrett Stidham the last two regular-season games. Carr is going to leave the team for the remaining two weeks in an obvious white flag wave on this season and, partially, this era of Raiders football.
What happens next will be interesting. If the NFL draft were held today, the Raiders would have the ninth overall pick, which might make it difficult for them to get the top quarterback on their board. They can't enter the 2023 season without making a major move at QB if this truly is the end for Carr and the Raiders. Adams will likely still be on the Raiders' roster next year, unless they’re willing to eat dead salary-cap space in a trade and fully commit to a teardown. Tight end 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 easier anytime soon. Patrick Mahomes is still Kratos from the "God of War" series. Justin Herbert isn’t very far behind from where Mahomes is on the ability to carry an offense. Denver still has a young, talented core on defense that’ll be tough to score on for years to come. The Raiders have to consider the possibility that taking this step to remove Carr from the roster will trap them even further in no man’s land over the next few years. As of now, this team is way far behind the Chiefs and Chargers.
Regardless of what happens with Carr, McDaniels and their other big-name pieces, this can’t be the 2022 season that the Raiders expected to have. It has been about as bad as a season can possibly go and it has altered 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 there’s a big-time NFL draft matchup happening when the Georgia Bulldogs take on the Ohio State Buckeyes. Of course, that’s to be expected when two programs who recruit at this high level face off. There’s a unique opportunity to watch several players who will be selected in the top half of the 2023 NFL draft directly face off against each other, particularly when it comes to the Buckeyes’ explosive offense taking on a rugged Bulldogs defense.
According to Tankathon’s preliminary NFL draft rankings, each of these teams have a handful of players projected to be selected within the top two rounds of the draft that are going to play in this game. For Ohio State it’s quarterback C.J. Stroud, offensive tackle Paris Johnson Jr. and defensive lineman Zach Harrison. Georgia’s projected top-64 picks are defensive tackle Jalen Carter, cornerback Kelee Ringo, offensive tackle Broderick Jones, tight end Darnell Washington and safety Chris Smith.
Carter and Stroud are the biggest names here, with each in contention 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 most prolific passers in the country over the past two seasons. Johnson likely won’t see many one-on-one opportunities against Carter in this game, but Johnson doesn’t need to go against Carter at this point to prove his worth as a prospect. He’s a bona fide left tackle prospect for the next level and projects as a Day 1 starter.
Stroud can buy himself a lot of goodwill as far as his draft evaluations go if he can pass this test with flying colors. Stroud has struggled at times when he has been asked to be the primary playmaker for Ohio State and Georgia head coach Kirby Smart is elite at forcing quarterbacks into mistakes. Stroud has a chance to settle in as the top QB prospect with a strong performance and, unfortunately, be the new face of the Texans.
The most crucial matchup between Ohio State’s offense and Georgia’s defense comes between Ringo and a wide receiver who isn’t eligible for the draft just yet: Marvin Harrison Jr. Harrison is so damn good that he would easily be a top-five pick in this spring's draft and is one of the best wide receiver prospects of the past decade. Size, speed, route-running, balance, ability to win at the catch point — there’s really nothing this guy can’t do. It’s unclear if Ringo will be shadowing Harrison for the game or if Georgia will keep Ringo on the left side of the field, but Harrison and Ringo battling will be a major storyline to Saturday's game.
These are the games that make the College Football Playoff and NFL draft so much fun. It’s an early preview at future NFL starters playing against each other in the biggest game, so far, of the season. There’s money, draft stock and legacies at stake here. Can’t ask for much more.