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Ravens QB, Cowboys LB head changing-of-the-guard situations

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Stars can't burn forever. Eventually, every stud player will fade. And while it can be distressing to watch greatness bend to the unyielding forces of time, such moments of transition can also give way to flashes of light and optimism as youngsters rise up to replace their aging forebears.

Below, I've evaluated seven potential changing-of-the-guard situations around the NFL, where one up-and-comer is positioned to potentially take the baton from a veteran. I've grouped the pairings into three categories: 1) the future is now, in which the young player has firmly supplanted the veteran; 2) in progress, in which both players are roughly equal, with an imminent transfer of power looming; and 3) on the horizon, in which long-term trends point to a shift two or three years down the road, though the veteran is on top for the moment.

THE FUTURE IS NOW

Lamar Jackson and Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens quarterbacks: The Ravens have won three straight since Jackson stepped in for the injured Flacco, salvaging their playoff viability in a season that had threatened to go off the rails. Jackson is not nearly as capable a passer as Flacco, with a passer rating of 67.0 and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 1:3 in that span. But the rookie obviously brings a lot to the table as a ball-carrier, having rushed for more yards (265) in his three starts than Flacco has in the past four-plus seasons (250 from 2014 to '18). It should be noted that the Ravens are a good team, with the No. 1 ranked defense providing a serious boost to whomever is starting at quarterback. But Baltimore has clearly found success retooling its offense to take advantage of Jackson's unbelievable athleticism. While the passing numbers have been abysmal in Jackson's tenure, the Ravens rank fifth in the NFL in total offensive yardage from Week 11 to Week 13, with 1,185. It's not clear if Baltimore will hand the starting job back to Flacco when he returns (the veteran, who is dealing with a hip issue, practiced on Wednesday), but I feel that Jackson has clearly staked his claim to the position in the long term, and I would not be surprised if Flacco -- who is still a decent quarterback but carries a hefty cap figure into 2019 -- does not start another game in Baltimore. If Jackson can learn to improve his aerial game, he will be an exceptionally dangerous quarterback.

Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee, Dallas Cowboys linebackers: It's probably no coincidence that the Cowboys caught fire when Vander Esch began his second stint in the starting lineup this season, in a Week 10 win over the Eagles. From Week 10 to Week 13, Vander Esch has racked up 39 tackles, second-most in the NFL in that span, and Dallas has won four straight, vaulting into first place in the NFC East. Ahead of this year's draft, I felt Vander Esch would be a pretty good player based on what I'd seen of him in his one year starting at Boise State, but I wasn't sure what to expect beyond that, given the relative lack of competition he faced at the college level. Well, he's leapt far beyond pretty good, proving to be a dominant force -- he's all over the field, making plays from sideline to sideline, like a bigger and taller version of Luke Kuechly. Vander Esch also has surprisingly advanced recognition skills for someone who played eight-man football in high school. We'll see what happens when Lee returns from his latest hamstring injury -- owner Jerry Jones said this week that Lee would start again. Ultimately, though, Lee is likely playing his final season in Dallas, as the 32-year-old two-time Pro Bowler looks more suited for a reduced role on the defense, while Vander Esch has placed himself in the conversation for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Bradley McDougald and Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks safeties: McDougald started alongside Thomas in all four games Thomas played in this season, and he is actually only one year younger (28) than the six-time Pro Bowler (who is 29). But in his second season in Seattle, McDougald has really stepped up in the secondary following Thomas' season-ending leg injury, proving he's ready to carry on the Legion of Boom tradition after Thomas presumably departs in free agency this offseason. The three-year extension McDougald signed last offseason is looking like a bargain for Seattle thus far. He's second on the team in tackles this season (66), third in passes defensed (seven) and tied (with Thomas) for first in interceptions (three). McDougald makes a lot of plays. He's tough and can key and diagnose in space. He could play either strong or weak safety; you even get the sense he could be effective at cornerback if need be. I don't know how Seattle keeps finding these guys, but they've unearthed another good one in a player who went undrafted and was once cut by the Chiefs and allowed to walk by the Bucs. As for Thomas, he's still capable of playing, though I'm not sure he'll get the money he seems likely to be looking for.

Dee Ford and Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs pass rushers: As I discussed last week, Ford is enjoying a banner year at the right time, with his rookie contract set to expire. I think he'll get the franchise tag at the very least this offseason, with his injury history somewhat complicating his prospects at a long-term deal. Ford ranks eighth in the NFL with 10.5 sacks, while Pro Football Focus credits him with 64 pressures, third-most in the league. Houston, by contrast, has just four sacks (tied for 67th) and 30 pressures (tied for 60th). While Houston still has some good seasons left in the tank, he's a far cry from the player who piled up 43 sacks from 2012 to '14, including a league-high 22 in 2014 -- that's the second-most in the NFL in that span, behind only J.J. Watt.

IN PROGRESS

Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen, Minnesota Vikings pass rushers: Hunter is on pace for a career-high 15 sacks in Year 4, and he's generated 55 pressures, according to PFF, good for sixth in the NFL this season. The former third-round pick has swapped places with Griffen in the Vikings' defensive hierarchy, with Griffen's on-field output limited by his absence for portions of the year due to a mental health issue. That said, when Griffen is fully available, he is still an eight- or nine-sack kind of player, and while I see Hunter inching ahead of Griffen this season, they're still pretty much neck-and-neck as of right now. It's worth wondering if salary-cap considerations will lead the Vikings to move on from Griffen -- the fact that Griffen will turn 31 this month does not work in his favor. But the gap between this two players in terms of peak ability is not that big yet.

Christian Kirk and Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals wide receivers: Kirk unfortunately landed on injured reserve after suffering a broken foot in Week 13. But before his season ended, he showed all the earmarks of being Josh Rosen's top target for years to come. For just the fourth time in 15 seasons, someone not named Larry Fitzgerald was poised to lead the Cardinals in receiving yards, while Kirk also is just five targets behind Fitzgerald for most on the team (Fitzgerald has 75 targets to Kirk's 70). In fact, Kirk and Fitzgerald had almost identical stats through Week 13, with 47 catches, 508 yards and five touchdowns for Fitzgerald and 43 catches, 590 yards and three touchdowns for Kirk. The rookie has the kind of deep speed that Fitzgerald no longer possesses at 35. Kirk is a talented, tough receiver who will catch the ball coming across the middle. The torch has not yet been fully passed because a) Kirk is hurt and b) Fitzgerald can still contribute on a meaningful level. But Kirk has shown he can be the man whenever Fitzgerald decides to hang 'em up, whether that's after this season or not.

ON THE HORIZON

JuJu Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers: Brown has been far and away the top receiving option in Pittsburgh, if not the entire NFL, for the past six seasons. From 2013 to '18, Brown has a jaw-dropping 8,876 receiving yards, 663 catches and 64 touchdown catches -- that's 6,855 more yards, 522 more catches and 47 more touchdown catches than the next-closest Steelers wide receiver in that span. (He also leads the entire NFL in all three categories in those seasons.) However, Smith-Schuster is currently on pace to become the first Steeler to outpace Brown in receiving yards (1,472 for Smith-Schuster, 1,370 for Brown) since 2012. The 30-year-old Brown is still performing at an elite level, and some of Smith-Schuster's performance can no doubt be attributed to the fact that Brown demands so much more defensive attention. Brown is clearly still the focal point of the passing game, with 1.35 more targets per game than Smith-Schuster. But Smith-Schuster is an emerging talent who should pull closer to Brown in terms of ability next season and could surpass Brown by about 2020 or so.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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