Now more than ever, it's a young man's game at quarterback. At just over 23 years and four months, Patrick Mahomes in 2018 became the youngest player to win MVP honors since Dan Marino in 1984. Having just turned 23 when he picked up the award a year later, Lamar Jackson is the youngest MVP winner since Jim Brown in 1957. Leading talented offenses of their own, a coterie of quarterbacks capable of creative out-of-structure magic may be vying for the next MVP trophy. Houston's Deshaun Watson, Dallas' Dak Prescott, Philadelphia's Carson Wentz and Arizona's Kyler Murray represent a new wave, featuring arms strong enough for designed passes, legs quick enough for designed runs and quick-twitch athleticism necessary for second-reaction plays once the pass rush breaches the castle walls.
Assessing the recent 2020 draft class in light of the sport's evolution, one AFC executive concluded, via Bob McGinn of The Athletic, "The stationary guy in today's football, I don't know how he survives. At any position."
The stationary signal-callers seemed to stand dumbfounded in 2019, no longer possessed of the nimble feet and rocket arm necessary to escape trouble, bolster a diminished supporting cast and make jailbreak defenses pay for their sins of aggression.
Tom Brady suffered through the worst season of his legendary career. Drew Brees was outplayed by his backup's backup in the season-ending loss to the Vikings. Philip Rivers barely staved off a midseason benching for Tyrod Taylor. Eli Manning was finally tapped on the shoulder. Ben Roethlisberger lasted just two games before an elbow injury sent him to the operating table.
With the draft and the bulk of free agency in the books, let's examine the hierarchy of NFL offenses.
THE TOP FIVE
1) Kansas City Chiefs
What can a 24-year-old quarterback do for an encore when he just authored one of the most epic playoff runs in his sport's history? Even without a reliable backup plan, the Chiefs are the envy of the league at the game's most important position. We have to go back to Aaron Rodgers' prime years to find a quarterback with the arm talent, athleticism, improvisational skills and decision making Mahomes has displayed since he took the reins of Andy Reid's offense in 2018.
AFC West defensive coordinators were already checking under their beds for Mahomes before they turn out their bedroom lights at night. Now they have to contend with Edwards-Helaire, a runner-receiver hybrid conjuring up images of a young Darren Sproles and Priest Holmes. Throw in Super Bowl hero Williams and former Raiders scat back Washington, and this backfield is deep and multi-faceted compared to last year's edition.
The quick-strike offense plays off Hill and Kelce, a pair of perennial Pro Bowlers and the focal points of opposing game plans. Against all odds, the Chiefs maintained their depth this offseason, agreeing to new deals with Watkins and Robinson -- a pair of secondary receivers capable of sailing past 100 yards when the coverage is slanted toward Hill and Kelce. The speedy Hardman is an intriguing wild card after amassing 1,426 all-purpose yards as a rookie.
While Schwartz may be the best right tackle in football, the rest of the line operates at a high enough level with little fanfare to show for it. With Remmers on hand as a utility lineman and Niang drafted in the third round, this unit is in a better position to withstand a major injury in 2020.
2) Baltimore Ravens
Defensive coaches around the league are brainstorming new tactics to slow the reigning MVP, perhaps clinging to the Titans' game plan in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. That's easier said than done. Aided by an innovative coaching staff and an expanding arsenal of weapons at his disposal, Jackson is stating his case as the most electrifying dual-threat quarterback of all time.
The Ravens aren't resting on their laurels after boasting one of the most unstoppable rushing attacks the NFL has ever seen. As if their three-headed backfield hydra wasn't scary enough, they landed Ohio State star J.K. Dobbins, a dynamic back viewed by some draftniks as the top talent at the position in this year's class. It speaks to Baltimore's largesse that Edwards is rendered an afterthought on the heels of an impressive second season, which featured 711 rushing yards at 5.3 yards per attempt.
Andrews' emergence as a Pro Bowl tight end and Jackson's go-to target enabled the Ravens to deal former first-round pick Hayden Hurst to Atlanta for valuable draft capital. Brown streaked out of the gates as a DeSean Jackson clone, burning defenses with his deep speed, before disappearing in November and December. His 126-yard performance in the loss to Tennessee bodes well for a strong sophomore campaign. An athletic freak perfectly suited for the NFL's slot role, Duvernay is just the sort of chain-mover who should capitalize on Jackson's quick strikes between the hashes.
Stanley's emergence as a first-team All-Pro gives Baltimore a tackle tandem unrivaled by any outside of New Orleans. The interior is questionable, on the other hand, with the retirement of all-decade guard Marshal Yanda and the severe late-season knee injury sustained by center Skura.
3) New Orleans Saints
Still one of the league's most effective passers, Brees has left lingering doubts about his waning arm strength in each of the past two postseasons. In fact, jack-of-all-trades Hill was the best player on the field for the Saints in their upset loss to the Vikings, succeeding downfield where Brees failed. Fresh off laser eye surgery, Winston offers more upside than any backup in the league -- with the possible exception of the aforementioned enigmatic Hill.
Playing through high-ankle and knee injuries, Kamara struggled to break tackles and make the first man miss last season. When he's fully healthy, there may be no better mismatch in football than Kamara versus a safety or linebacker with open space to roam. Murray proved to be a fine fallback option, filling Mark Ingram's vacancy as the power-back complement.
Thomas is the most reliable first down in the league, armed with vice-grip hands and a power forward's physicality at the catch point. A trade deadline savior in San Francisco last year, Sanders will fill the sidekick role that has been a revolving door ever since Brandin Cooks was shipped out after an 1,173-yard season in 2016. Despite a few hiccups early, Cook came through as a big-time playmaker in the second half of the season. Drafted in the third round last month, the 6-foot-5 Trautman is an intriguing red-zone weapon.
Having assembled a deep, balanced roster, the Saints could afford to approach the first round of last month's draft with the idea of cherry-picking the best player available. That happened to be Michigan center Cesar Ruiz, who is expected to push veteran Warford for the starting job at right guard. Center is already manned by McCoy, who exceeded expectations as a rookie starter in 2019. Bookend tackles Armstead and Ramczyk are primed to enter each of the next handful of seasons as legitimate Pro Bowl candidates.
4) Dallas Cowboys
Leading the league's most efficient offense by Football Outsiders' metrics through the first half of the 2019 season, Prescott played well enough to keep his name on the periphery of the MVP discussion until the Thanksgiving debacle versus Buffalo. Should the franchise quarterback go down with an injury, the surrounding talent is strong enough to elevate newfound backup Dalton to the first postseason victory of his career.
At first glance, Elliott's 2019 numbers don't look much different than his first three seasons. Look closer, though, and you'll see a back who struggled to make defenders miss at the second level. The big plays dried up, which helps explain why he lost more than 22 yards per game from his 2018 performance. Pollard proved to be a fine change of pace, averaging an efficient 5.6 yards on 101 touches.
Although he tends to disappear for stretches, Cooper has been one of the finest route runners and boundary receivers since landing in Dallas as Prescott's No. 1 receiver. Would the Cowboys have shelled out $20 million per year for a new contract if they had an inkling that Lamb -- the sixth-rated player on their draft board -- would be free for the picking with the first round's No. 17 overall pick? It's an interesting thought. The suitably named Gallup is already one of the NFL's most promising second fiddles, recording 1,107 yards despite missing two games with a knee injury early in his second season. Prescott might miss future Hall of Famer Jason Witten's leadership, but Jarwin is a more athletic pass catcher with better run-after-catch skills.
Between center Travis Frederick's retirement and left guard Connor Williams' November ACL injury, the interior will have a different look in 2020. Veteran Looney held up just fine as Frederick's 2018 stand-in, which bodes well for new coach Mike McCarthy. A third-round pick in 2019, McGovern could slide into Williams' guard spot after missing his entire rookie season with a pectoral injury.
5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
If Brady goes down, the suddenly swank Bucs can kiss their ballyhooed coming-out party goodbye. If Brady stays healthy, we'll have a better idea how much his skills have eroded after languishing last season in a broken offense with precious little playmaking ability at his disposal. I don't buy the trendy notion that the 42-year-old has seen no noticeable drop off in arm strength and mobility. His passes outside the numbers tend to dive at the catch point, and he's too often a sitting duck in the face of pressure. That said, he has mastered situational football and maintains a preternatural feel for attacking the right area of the field at just the right moment. As the roster stands now, this is among the most talented pass-catching groups of his storied career.
Jones was one of the most improved runners in the league last season, exploding through holes and breaking a slew of tackles. The problem is pass protection, a task he wasn't trusted to perform with aplomb while Jameis Winston was under center. Now that Brady is running the show, that role takes on added responsibility for a quarterback with a long line of expert chip-blockers from Kevin Faulk to Danny Woodhead to James White. Vaughn is an interesting flier as a third-down pick, but don't be surprised if a savvy veteran is brought in to round out this group.
There were weeks last season when Evans made a run at Saints record-breaker Michael Thomas as the most dangerous big receiver in football. There were other weeks when Godwin made a run at Evans as the best all-around receiver on the roster. There may not be a better one-two punch out there. What can we expect from Gronkowski, fresh out of the WWE's squared circle? For the bulk of the 2018 season, he was outplayed by new teammate Howard, who was well on his way to a Pro Bowl berth of his own before a foot injury ended the younger tight end's season in November. With yet another Lombardi Trophy on the line, though, Gronkowski came through with game-changing plays against the Chiefs and Rams in the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl LIII.
This will be an interesting experiment, watching Brady behind an offensive line that too often had Winston scrambling into and out of trouble. Although Marpet is a top-tier guard and Wirfs is loaded with potential at right tackle, the other three positions tend to be hit-or-miss depending on the competition level.
THE NEXT FIVE
6) San Francisco 49ers
7) Cleveland Browns
8) Indianapolis Colts
9) Green Bay Packers
10) Atlanta Falcons
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