NFL's generational talents under 25: Kyler Murray belongs in club

Print

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:

-- Why one up-and-coming player should embrace a role he doesn't seem to be enjoying.

-- A shift in strategy for one of the league's most explosive offenses.

But first, a look at which young players are deserving of membership in an exclusive club ...

* * * * *

I'm sure some NFL observers' eyebrows were raised earlier this week when Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim described the team's heralded rookie, Kyler Murray, as a generational talent in a story published by sports and pop-culture website The Ringer. It shouldn't come as a surprise that Keim views the QB in that light, though. Murray was clearly pegged as a transcendent star by a front office so enamored with his talent that it selected him with the first overall pick one year after trading up in Round 1 to select quarterback Josh Rosen 10th overall.

I understand it might be jarring for some folks to hear the generational-talent label being attached to a player who has yet to take a snap in a regular-season game, but remember who we're talking about here. Murray is the only athlete to be a first-round pick in both the Major League Baseball and NFL drafts. Think about that. We've seen Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson enjoy success in both leagues, but they were selected in sixth and fourth round of the MLB draft, respectively. Murray, on the other hand, was selected ninth overall by the Oakland Athletics in the 2018 MLB Draft. Evaluators in two separate leagues viewed him as a future star based on his unique set of skills as an explosive athlete.

When you take that into consideration, I believe he absolutely deserves to be considered among the elite talents to enter the NFL in this era. And that's part of the reason why I had no problem with the Cardinals' decision to draft Murray and trade Rosen to the Dolphins one year into his career. From a scouting standpoint, the draft's top five picks should be considered sacred ground reserved for players viewed as "gold-jacket" guys. This is what New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman alluded to when he talked about the type of player he wanted with the second overall pick in 2018. He opted for Saquon Barkley over Sam Darnold and a handful of quarterback prospects to the chagrin of those who wanted him to pick a QB, but Barkley has certainly lived up to the hype as a playmaker. Murray has the potential to do the same in an offense perfectly suited to his skills under head coach Kliff Kingsbury.

In the wake of Keim's comment, I believe it's the perfect time to look across the NFL and identify the young generational talents that I believe still have their best football ahead of them. For this exercise, only players younger than 25 years old were considered. Now, I'm not claiming to be a super scout, but some players jump off the screen in a singular way when I'm studying games.

Without further ado, here are the NFL players younger than 25 that I consider generational talents, along with Murray (listed in alphabetical order):

Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants
Age: 22
Drafted: Round 1, second overall, 2018
Dave Gettleman received a lot of flak for taking Barkley with the No. 2 overall pick instead of drafting one of the potential franchise quarterbacks that were still available, but it is harder to argue with that decision after watching No. 26 torch defenses as rookie. Barkley became just the third rookie in NFL history to surpass 2,000 scrimmage yards. Additionally, he became the unquestioned engine of the Giants' offense as the do-everything playmaker with the capacity to create big plays as a runner or receiver on the perimeter. With elite running backs expected to thrive as hybrids in today's game, Barkley's polished all-around skills make him the new prototype at the position.

Myles Garrett, DE, Cleveland Browns
Age: 23
Drafted: Round 1, first overall, 2017
The ultra-athletic pass rusher came into his own during his second season as he tallied 13.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in 2018. The 6-foot-4, 272-pounder routinely blows past offensive tackles with an explosive first step, and he's beginning to use his length to execute a variety of two-hand swipe and butt-and-jerk maneuvers to win at the line of scrimmage. Considering Garrett's athleticism (4.64-second 40-yard dash, 41-inch vertical jump, 128-inch broad jump and 33 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press at the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine) is still stronger than his technique, the Browns' star could be an all-time great when he puts it all together.

Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers
Age: 23
Drafted: Round 1, 17th overall, 2018
Don't let James' surprising draft-day slide cloud your opinion of his talents. The 6-2, 215-pound safety is every NFL coach's dream at the position. As a big, fast and physical defender with a high IQ and relentless competitive spirit, James can man either of the safety positions while also adding value as a quasi-linebacker in sub-packages. The Florida State product immediately transformed the Chargers' defense with his presence and his All-Pro recognition as a rookie is just the tip of the iceberg. That's why the news Friday that James will miss significant time with a stress fracture in his right foot had to be devastating for the Chargers and their fans. Whenever he's ready to play, I expect D-coordinator Gus Bradley to help James become the new standard at the position.

Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
Age: 23
Drafted: Round 1, 10th overall, 2017
The reigning NFL MVP is the new version of Brett Favre, with extraordinary arm talent and a gunslinger's spirit. Mahomes joined Peyton Manning as exclusive members of the "5,000/50 Club" as a first-year starter, exhibiting outstanding touch, timing and anticipation dropping dimes to Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce on the outside. Considering Andy Reid's reputation for developing quarterbacks and elevating their play through superb play-calling, Mahomes might go down as the GOAT when it is all said and done.

Quenton Nelson, G, Indianapolis Colts
Age: 23
Drafted: Round 1, sixth overall, 2018
Guards aren't supposed to be viewed as marquee position players, but the philosophy about the position is starting to change now that the league is seeing the value of Nelson's extraordinary skills as a mauler. Evaluators are searching high and low for big, rugged blockers with Nelson's temperament and finishing skills, but they are hard to find. The Colts' designated masher immediately upgraded the team's offensive line and provided Secret Service-level protection for Andrew Luck in the pocket. Moreover, Nelson's game and nasty demeanor helped the Colts shed the finesse label and earn respect as a blue-collar squad.

Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Age: 24
Drafted: Round 1, fifth overall, 2016
It's not easy to find a football player with world-class athleticism and all-pro football skills, but the Jaguars have the rare find on the roster with Ramsey. The 6-1, 208-pound cover corner is a former ACC indoor and outdoor long-jump champion who once had his eye on qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Team. As a football player, Ramsey is the prototype at the position as a long, rangy corner with flawless bump-and-run technique. He snuffs out wide receivers at the line of scrimmage, exhibiting all of the qualities that are normally associated with the premier shutdown corners in the game.

Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Dallas Cowboys
Age: 23
Drafted: Round 1, 19th overall, 2018
Whenever a draft prospect draws comparisons to a Hall of Fame inductee based on his athletic testing numbers and playing style, it prompts the NFL scouting community to take notice. LVE's extraordinary athletic traits (4.65-second 40, 39.5-inch vertical, 124-inch broad jump, 6.88-second three-cone drill, and 4.15-second 20-yard shuttle) not only put him in Brian Urlacher's athletic neighborhood but it helped evaluators envision the 6-4, 256-pounder patrolling the middle of the field like the Chicago Bears legend. When No. 55 started to make splash play after splash play for the Dallas Cowboys during his rookie season, the comparison appeared pretty apt with the young linebacker quickly emerging as one of the best in the game at his position. If he continues to gobble up running backs like Pac-Man devours power pellets, we might have to anoint him as a gold-jacket playmaker with all of the traits coaches and scouts covet in a new-school linebacker.

MINKAH FITZPATRICK: Dolphins' jack-of-all-trades should embrace role

I don't know if Minkah Fitzpatrick wanted his mother to cause such a stir with her Twitter post earlier this week regarding his role in first-year head coach Brian Flores' defense, but the second-year standout should take it as a compliment that he is being asked to do so many different things in Dolphins' defense.

Despite Fitzpatrick's mom's negative portrayal of No. 29 "being used to suit other people['s] skill set not his own," (and Fitzpatrick's apparent agreement with her take) the utilization of the ultra-versatile defender as a Swiss Army knife is a testament to his dynamic potential as a hybrid playmaker. This is the role the team envisioned for Fitzpatrick when it selected him 11th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft after a three-year career at Alabama showcased his talents as a safety, nickel defender and boundary corner.

Fitzpatrick is being counted on to elevate the play of his fellow Dolphins defenders with his multi-faceted game. Evaluators watched him raise the level of the Crimson Tide defense throughout a spectacular career that included four career pick-sixes. Considering Fitzpatrick's exceptional performance at the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine (4.46-second 40-yard dash, 33-inch vertical jump and 121-inch broad jump) that put his versatile talents on full display, the Dolphins were right to rate him as a top-15 talent and immediately insert him into the lineup.

"He's done a really good job," Flores said of Fitzpatrick following a joint practice earlier this week. "Obviously, it's never perfect for anybody, but he's a guy who we've used in multiple roles. He's taken to that and really learned them all at a pretty good level.

"I think it's a great opportunity for him and really any young guy. When people go down, it's a great opportunity. It really is, and Minkah's taking advantage of that. Again, we're moving him around. He's playing some strong safety, he's playing some linebacker, he's playing some corner. He's all over the place. That's a good thing. That's a really good thing."

Given that strong endorsement from Flores, I can't understand why Fitzpatrick and his mother are upset about No. 29 being asked to expand his game as a multi-faceted defender. Flores alluded to this plan in the spring when he raved about Fitzpatrick's versatility, so it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone paying attention to the Dolphins.

"Minkah's a football player," Flores said back in March. "I think his strength is that he can handle a lot of different positions. He's versatile. Free safety, strong safety, corner, Star, 'backer. You can do whatever you want with him. He's a guy we spent a lot of time thinking about how we're going to use him. I'm not going to give up the goods on how we're going to do that."

He continued: "I think my preference is to see what he can handle and see what he does that will help the team win. If that's multiple positions, then that's multiple positions. If that's one spot, then that's one spot. ... We try to find out what every player can do and how they can help us win. How can they improve the team? I think versatility is going to be very important, and he's a very versatile player. He was last year. We're excited to work with him."

When I played in the NFL, coaches and veterans would frequently hit young players with "the more you can do" tag line to encourage them to enhance their value to the team by playing multiple positions on one side of the ball while also juggling special teams duties. Whether it is playing safety, nickel cornerback and boundary cornerback or playing wide receiver, slot receiver and kick or punt returner, the players with longevity in the league are the ones capable of saving roster spots by filling multiple roles.

Moreover, the versatility enables the defensive coordinator to create a variety of personnel packages that befuddle opponents while also enhancing the individual skills of several players within the rotation.

"If you have a versatile defender who can fill multiple roles, you can disguise coverage and make the game messy for the quarterback and offensive coordinator," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "You want to make the game harder for the offense with deception but you also use your stud to create opportunities for others. ... Flores probably believes Fitzpatrick's versatility and overall game can elevate the play of the other guys when he takes on a different role."

To that point, Flores might view Fitzpatrick like the New England Patriots view Patrick Chung in the secondary. The 11th-year veteran will align over slot receivers and tight ends while also playing as a box defender on designated downs. In addition, he will blitz off the edges and occasionally roam the deep middle as a center fielder in single-high coverage.

In Miami, Flores could be positioning Fitzpatrick as a sub-package defender to enable Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald to play to their strengths. With McDonald ideally suited to play near the line of scrimmage as a quasi-linebacker on run downs and Jones best positioned as a center fielder, Fitzpatrick's assignment as the nickel back or "Star" (hybrid DB/LB) enables the Dolphins to keep three of their best defenders on the field in roles that should suit their respective games. They are still working through the transition period that's a part of learning a new system, but the change could produce great results with more patience and complete investment.

EXTRA POINT: Chiefs to add juice to workhorse vs. committee debate at RB

Many discussions regarding running backs and their value seem to become debates about the merits of featuring a single lead back vs. splitting responsibilities among a handful of runners. Although these types of conversations have taken place in meeting rooms around the NFL for years, the Kansas City Chiefs could become must-see TV for those that like to engage in this debate after head coach Andy Reid suggested his team would lean on a committee this year after hitching their wagon to a workhorse -- 2017 NFL rushing leader Kareem Hunt -- for almost two seasons before leaning on Damien Williams down the stretch last season.

"I did a little bit of that when I was in Philadelphia, a kind of running back-by-committee deal and we had some success with it," Reid said during an interview last week with SiriusXM NFL Radio. "We'll do that here (in Kansas City).

"We drafted a kid (at running back) and the other Williams (Darrel Williams) isn't bad either. We've got a couple Williamses, and then Carlos (Hyde), we've got a new little guy (Darwin Thompson) in there that runs around, so we've got a good nucleus of players that I think we're going to be good at that spot. They all have their strengths and we'll try to exploit their strengths."

I'm not surprised to hear Reid wax poetic about the benefits of a running-back-by-committee approach, particularly after reviewing his history in Philadelphia. In 2003, Reid's Eagles utilized a three-man backfield with Correll Buckhalter, Brian Westbrook and Duce Staley, who combined for 1,618 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns. Each runner amassed at least 460 rushing yards and thrived in their respective roles as complementary backs.

This approach worked well for the Eagles that season, but it likely sprang from Reid's experience during our time together with the Green Bay Packers in the mid-1990s. During that time, the team won a Super Bowl with Edgar Bennett, Dorsey Levens and William Henderson sharing duties in the backfield. The interchangeable games of Bennett and Levens, in particular, enabled Mike Holmgren to diversify his offensive attack with either runner occupying the lead role.

In Kansas City, Reid has assembled a collection of running backs with a diverse set of skills that come together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Damien Williams and Darrel Williams are hybrid playmakers with crafty skills as runner-receivers on the perimeter. As 220-pound-plus runners with rugged running styles and soft hands, each is capable of picking up the tough yards between the tackles while also scooting away from defenders on screen passes on the perimeter.

Hyde is a bruiser with a no-nonsense running style that makes him an ideal runner for short-yardage and goal-line situations, as well as the four-minute offense. Although he wasn't utilized much as a receiver last season, he tallied 59 receptions in 2017 during his final season with the San Francisco 49ers and flashes enough receiving skills to serve as a secondary option in the passing game.

Thompson, a sixth-round selection from Utah State, has been the talk of Chiefs camp. The 5-foot-8, 200-pound runner has flashed impressive strength and power as an undersized runner. Additionally, Thompson has caught the ball throughout camp and exhibited the kind of stop-start quickness that makes defenders cringe in one-on-one matchups. Considering Reid's deep and diverse screen package, Thompson's combination of skills could make him an explosive weapon off the bench.

The Chiefs became one of the most explosive offenses in football with a one-man show setting the pace in the backfield. With Reid putting the word out that he favors a different approach this season, the football world will get another case to examine in the workhorse vs. RBBC debate.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

Print

Headlines

The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop