NFL next generation icons: Sauce Gardner, Arch Manning

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick cannot be trusted.

Not when it comes to projecting the end of their respective careers.

Brady said for years that he wanted to play in the NFL until he was 45 years old — and then retired (albeit for 30 days) at 44. Now it’s hard to believe America’s Most Eligible Bachelor will stop here. Belichick once told NFL Network, “I won’t be like Marv Levy and coaching in my 70s.” Now he is 70 and admittedly regretting those words.

So, yes, it’s entirely possible Week 1 of the 2027 season pits a 75-year-old Belichick coaching against a 50-year-old Brady. But, assuming Brady, Belichick and 38-year-old four-time MVP Aaron Rodgers — who seems to be having the least fun of anyone in the NFL these days — are retired by then, who will be the face of the NFL in five years?

Here is a list of names that came up when that question was posed to various football sources, along with their ages during the 2027 season:

Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes (32): A case could be made that he already has supplanted Brady as the face of the NFL, especially when his NFL peers and countless quarterbacks rising through feeder systems imitate his no-look passes. He is due the biggest single-year cash payout ($59.95 million) on his 10-year, $450 million contract in 2027, and it still feels as if he might be underpaid by then. Whether he is racking up MVPs but stuck on one Super Bowl win like Rodgers or threatening to chase down Brady’s record of seven rings, he will be a big story.

Ravens QB Lamar Jackson (30): Two factors work in Jackson’s favor. First, he plays the position like no one else. Second, he could change the financials of NFL free agency, if he is willing to take his contracts year-to-year until getting a fully guaranteed offer. The problem is Jackson’s running style leaves him susceptible to an injury that could rob him of his speed, and then he probably would be just as likely to be out of the league in five years as he would to be the face of it.

Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens passes during the first half against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on September 11, 2022 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Lamar Jackson’s unique style at quarterback, and his upcoming free agency, could make him a symbol inside and outside the NFL.
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Bengals QB Joe Burrow (31)/Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa (29)/Chargers QB Justin Herbert (29): It’s still almost impossible to name one of the three Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks in the 2004 draft class — Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers — without mentioning the others. This trio — drafted No. 1, No. 5 and No. 6, respectively in 2020 — could be headed down the same path with the added perk that they all are in the AFC, setting up playoff rivalries. Burrow already has one Super Bowl appearance, and Tagovailoa is surging up 2022 MVP ballots. All five of the above quarterbacks seem to relish stardom more than the Bills’ Josh Allen.

Cowboys LB Micah Parsons (28): Many young pass-rushers have been cast as the next Lawrence Taylor, the way Parsons is in his second season. Eventually, the comparisons fade because L.T. didn’t just put up stats and wreck games — he also revolutionized schemes. Parsons takes “complete pride in being the most versatile player in the NFL,” defending the run, rushing the passer and dropping in coverage from the box or the edge. He is the kind of talent who could force NFL rule changes on either side of the ball — to keep his body healthy and/or to keep scoring up.

Vikings WR Justin Jefferson (28): Odell Beckham’s life was never the same after his incredible one-handed catch for the Giants in 2014. Is Jefferson — who just made a better catch in a bigger spot — about to elevate from Pro Bowler to A-lister for Hollywood parties (alongside his Instagram model girlfriend) and endorsements? “JJettas” already is in Beckham’s company for the fastest start to a receiver’s career. Playing in Minnesota, Randy Moss made his last name into a verb meaning to jump over defenders. How does, “That receiver JJettas’d the ball from the sky!” sound?

Jets CB Sauce Gardner (27): Cool nickname? Check. Big-market exposure to his swagger? Check. Rare talent? Check. Gardner is the favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year and already has joined the conversation of top cornerbacks (NFL-high 13 passes defended). Future Hall of Fame Darrelle Revis didn’t build “Revis Island” until his second season. The 6-foot-3 Gardner is lankier than the prototypical cornerback, so he could change the way scouts see the position. It’s only going to become more of a pass-happy league, and Gardner sticks out as the antidote.

Rams head coach Sean McVay (41): Even though the bloom has come off McVay’s rose a bit with the Rams’ 3-6 start, he still has done more (58 regular-season wins, Super Bowl ring) by age 36 than any coach in NFL history. But he has indicated he’s not a coaching lifer. Television networks already showed a willingness to break the bank to sign him. If he leaves the sidelines for a booth, he will be rumored as a candidate for every head coach vacancy until he returns. If he never does, do you think a great analyst can’t be a face of the NFL? Check out John Madden’s video games and catchphrases.

Rams head coach Sean McVay on the sidelines during the Rams-49ers game on Oct. 3, 2022.
With a Super Bowl ring and TV networks interested in him should he leave the sidelines, Rams coach Sean McVay is likely to be an NFL presence for years to come.
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Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney (57): It is expected NFL owners will back off college candidates for a bit after the Urban Meyer and Matt Rhule flameouts. But more college coaches than ever are interested in ditching the NCAA transfer portal and NIL headaches for the NFL. Swinney has long resisted the pull, but his 10-year, $115 million contract extension signed earlier this year includes no buyout if he leaves for the NFL. Maybe that’s a sign that he wants to try his hand before retiring. There’s room for a coach to be a megastar when Belichick retires.  

UNC QB Drake Maye: Buzz in the scouting community is that the big-armed dual-threat Maye — who isn’t eligible for the draft until 2024 — is a better prospect than both Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, the much-typed pair atop the 2023 draft class. Cue tanking allegations. By 2027, Maye should be entering his fourth season: Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson, Burrow, Mahomes, Colin Kaepernick and Jared Goff have all been to Super Bowls within their first four years.

Texas QB commit Arch Manning (22): You can almost hear it now: “With the No. 1 pick in the 2026 NFL Draft …” Arch could join his grandfather Archie (No. 2 pick in 1971) and uncles Peyton (No. 1 in 1998) and Eli (No. 1 in 2004) as the fourth Manning quarterback taken near the top of a draft, whether it’s when he’s first eligible in 2026 or in 2027. There is one top-ranked QB in every national recruiting class. This year it’s Arch. No. 1 doesn’t become an NFL star — never makes it to the NFL or is just a mediocre NFL player — more often than he does become an NFL star. But few of those have Arch’s pedigree.

What’s the catch?

With Jefferson’s grab fresh in mind, here is my list of the best NFL catches of all time:

1. David Tyree, Giants vs. Patriots, Super Bowl XLII, Feb. 3. 2008: Dubbed the “Helmet Catch,” Tyree jumped like he was going for a basketball rebound, pinned the ball to his helmet and held on while safety Rodney Harrison tried to snap him in half. The 32-yard gain, which started with Eli Manning escaping a surefire sack, converted a third-and-5 and set up the winning touchdown in the greatest upset in Super Bowl history.

2. Justin Jefferson, Vikings vs. Bills, Nov. 13, 2022: An incompletion or interception would’ve meant a loss for the Vikings. But Jefferson contorted his body at a 45-degree angle with an outstretched Gumby arm. He ripped the ball away from a defender who had two hands on it and secured it with just one hand — not even tucking it to his body — to convert a fourth-and-18 that set up a wild final two minutes and overtime in a win.

3. Franco Harris, Steelers vs. Raiders, AFC Divisional playoffs, Dec. 23, 1972: More luck than skill, but incredible nonetheless. A fourth-and-10 pass with 22 seconds remaining caromed at a weird angle when target John Fuqua and safety Jack Tatum collided. Harris scooped the redirection before the ball hit the turf — and before the Raiders knew what happened — and ran for the winning 44-yard touchdown on a play nicknamed “The Immaculate Reception.”

4. Odell Beckham Jr., Giants vs. Cowboys, Nov. 23, 2014: Ever since this date, every receiver practices one-handed catches without reprimand from coaches who previously would’ve said they were showing off. As his jersey was getting pulled for a penalty, Beckham leaned back to one-hand stab a pass thrown way over his head and landed in-bounds in the front corner of the end zone for a score. The Giants still lost, though.  

5. Antonio Freeman, Packers vs. Vikings, Nov. 6, 2000: With the score tied in overtime, cornerback Cris Dishman had two chances at an interception, but he batted the ball from one hand to the other to Freeman’s shoulder as he lay on the turf. Freeman rolled over to pin the ball to his stomach, got to his feet and ran to cap off a 44-yard touchdown. “He did what!?” “Monday Night Football” announcer Al Michaels exclaimed.

Honorable mention: Seahawks’ Jermaine Kearse in Super Bowl XLIX; Steelers’ Lynn Swann in Super Bowl X; Patriots’ Julian Edelman and Falcons’ Julio Jones in Super Bowl LI, Steelers’ George Pickens on Sept. 22, 2022.

College team to scout

The only matchups between top-25 teams are in the Pac-12 — No. 10 Utah at No. 12 Oregon and No. 7 USC at No. 16 UCLA — and all four teams already have been highlighted in this space. No. 8 Alabama has not, with two games remaining (Saturday against Austin Peay and Nov. 26 against Auburn). A trip to the SEC Championship Game is unlikely — as is a berth in the College Football Playoff — so opportunities are few to see its top players before possible bowl opt-outs.

Here are some thoughts from Matt Miller, publisher of and a draft analyst for ESPN, on two projected top-five picks from the Crimson Tide and another first-rounder:

DE Will Anderson: “He’s a threat to go No. 1 overall. Some of it will depend on the team, but he’s also just that good. There might be teams that say, ‘The 2024 quarterback class is going to be so good that let’s get this sure thing — Von Miller 2.0 — to build our defense around, and we can be OK with a stopgap quarterback for one more year.’”

Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. (31) runs back an interception for a touchdown against Louisiana-Monroe during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
With 32.5 sacks in three seasons, Alabama’s Will Anderson has the potential to go No. 1 in next year’s NFL Draft.

QB Bryce Young: “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen — maybe Joe Burrow — his poise in the pocket, where he just feels pressure so well. It’s pretty rare for a guy who is probably 5-foot-11 to see the field as well as he does. People want to compare him to Kyler Murray, and I don’t get that. They are not built close to similar, and Kyler does not play well within the pocket. Bryce is the opposite: He plays well within the pocket, and he’s not a super athlete who is going to pick up a ton of yards running.”

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young (9) throws the ball during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Mississippi State, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Bryce Young’s sense of calm in the pocket should serve him well in the NFL.

DB Brian Branch: “He’s going to fit as a nickel safety, like Tyrann Mathieu or Antoine Winfield, but he’s bigger than those guys as a legit 6-foot, 200 pounds. I’ve been told he’s the mastermind of their defense. Nick Saban trusts him with everything. Teams feel more comfortable with his character than some others. You know exactly what you are getting.”

Parting thoughts

1. The sudden resurgence of Ravens pass-rusher Justin Houston — who has three straight multi-sack games and 8.5 sacks in six games, just one season after a career-low 4.5 — has put the 2011 NFL Draft class back in the spotlight.

Since 2000, there have been three draft classes to produce multiple players with 100 career sacks: two in 2002, two in 2003 and five in 2011. All five — Miller (123.5), Cam Jordan (112.5), Houston (110.5), J.J. Watt (107.5) and Robert Quinn (102) — remain active. Chandler Jones (2012) and Aaron Donald (2014) are the only other 100-sack pass-rushers drafted since 2007.

justin houston
Selected 70th overall in 2011, Justin Houston has more sacks than all but two of his draft classmates.
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From that 2011 quintet, Houston was the only non-first round pick (No. 70 overall). Two other first-rounders from that draft class — the retired Ryan Kerrigan (95.5) and Cam Heyward (71) — are no slouches, either.

So, there is more than one way to evaluate a draft class. Because, from a quarterback standpoint, 2011 is regarded as one of the worst classes ever, with top-12 picks Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder each throwing 50 or fewer career touchdown passes.

2. The old Jimmy Johnson-created points chart for determining the value of draft picks estimates that the No. 1 pick (3,000) is about five times more valuable than the last pick of the first round (590). That makes trading away and acquiring future first-round picks such a risky game.

Four of the top nine picks in the current 2023 draft order were traded: No. 4 from the Saints to the Eagles, No. 7 from the Broncos to the Seahawks, No. 8 from the Rams to the Lions and No. 9 from the Browns to the Texans.

Russell Wilson is sacked by the Colts' Yannick Ngakoue.
Russell Wilson has not elevated the Broncos to the extent the franchise expected in trading away five draft picks for the former Seahawks star.
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In all four cases, the team dealing the pick certainly expected to be a playoff (if not championship) contender, thus shipping off a worse pick. Why isn’t that the case? Point to the main asset in three of those deals: the struggles of quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Matthew Stafford and the absence of suspended quarterback Deshaun Watson. The Saints just made a bad trade in a picks swap.  

3. It’s Rutgers-Penn State week, which means my Twitter account is flooded with ridiculing responses to the coldest take of all time, published during my time as a Rutgers beat reporter. Before he was … the NFL’s leading rusher so far this season, the 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year and the No. 2 pick in the draft after an All-American career at Penn State, Saquon Barkley committed to Rutgers as a high school recruit. He ultimately flipped.

In the first half of the third game of his freshman season in 2015, I wondered aloud on Twitter whether there would be room for Barkley in the “loaded” Rutgers backfield — then ranked No. 16 in the country by national college football analyst Phil Steele. By the end of the night, after Barkley ran for 195 yards and two touchdowns, I was well on my way to looking like a fool.

Seven years later, the tweet still brings out fresh anger in Penn State fans before the annual game against Rutgers.

I consider it a karmic reward for never pressing “delete” that the tweet is the basis for my professional relationship with Barkley. We first laughed about it just a few weeks after he was drafted to the Giants — in my first season covering the team on a daily basis. We laughed about it again this week as he hosted a “Fansgiving” dinner on the 50-yard line at MetLife Stadium for fans who won a contest through Courtyard by Marriott.

Here’s a cool postscript I just learned: The interim Rutgers head coach that night in 2015 was Norries Wilson, the running backs coach who was the first to offer Barkley a college scholarship. As the teams met after the game to shake hands, Wilson told a still-naive Barkley that he always believed he could be a great player. Barkley still considers that reaffirming chat “one of my coolest moments on a football field,” despite all he has accomplished since then.