Elite QB Prospects 101
Being a backup basically stunk. I mean, you’re a football player, but you don’t really get to play. That stinks, right?
Well, here’s something that a lot of people don’t know about what it means to be a backup quarterback in the NFL: To make yourself valuable, you have to find other ways to contribute to your team. It’s a part of the job I really enjoyed. You need to be great at watching film. Seeing things on the field that nobody else sees. Articulating things to the young guys.
Over my nearly 13 years in the NFL, I think I got to be pretty good at all that. So when I retired last year and it came time for me to decide what to do next, I figured I would take everything I had learned from Gary Kubiak, Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, Jim Bob Cooter — and all the other great offensive minds I’d been lucky enough to work with — and put it to good use by becoming an analyst.
And what a great year to be analyzing quarterbacks ahead of the draft.
So here’s what I love — and in some cases what really concerns me — about the top five quarterbacks in this year’s draft.
When I watch a prospect’s tape, what I look for most is transferable traits — what things can he bring with him to the NFL and build upon to consistently play at a high level?
Lamar Jackson is a special athlete. There just aren’t a lot of people on earth who can do what he can do. And his athleticism absolutely translates to the NFL. He will easily be one of the top five athletes at the quarterback position the day he steps on the field.
But you can’t live on athleticism alone in the NFL, especially at quarterback. The hits wear on you over time, and it’s simply not sustainable. That’s a big concern for me with him. You have to be able to play the game from the neck up, too.
And I have seen some examples of Lamar doing just that.
Take a look at this play against Boston College. It’s a simple play. Louisville is in pistol formation. There’s a little play-fake and then the wide receivers are running posts. The quarterback’s job on this play is to read the safety and find the single coverage. The slot receiver drags the safety out from the middle of the field, leaving single coverage on the deep post down the middle.
There are a few things I love about what Lamar does on this play:
- He snaps his head around quickly after the fake and locates the safety
- He makes the correct read. (I do think the ball could have come out sooner, but he takes his time confirming his read and going through his progression.)
- He throws a great ball, putting it where his receiver can high-point it and make a play.
This is obviously a very basic read and not nearly as complex as what he’s going to see in the NFL, where defenses are much better at disguising coverages. But you’re not looking for him to be Tom Brady as a junior in college — and honestly, you’re not even going to try and turn him into Tom Brady once he gets to the league. That’s just not who he is.
I’ve heard some Deshaun Watson comparisons … but honestly, I don’t even believe he’s Deshaun Watson. Deshaun was light years ahead of Lamar Jackson as a thrower coming out of college. The fact that Deshaun was athletic enough to make plays with his legs was a bonus on top of his throwing ability and his understanding of how to play the quarterback position. Those two traits are what made Deshaun special.
I see a lot of Jake Plummer in Lamar Jackson — a guy who can create for himself and turn a broken play into something positive.
Lamar has shown tremendous throwing ability at times, but his athleticism is what makes him truly special.
Any team that drafts him is going to have to not only further develop the other aspects of his game — if for no other reason than to protect him from the inevitable injuries quarterbacks suffer when they take too many hits — but also structure their entire organization around him. Drafting a guy like Lamar Jackson means changing your entire offensive scheme. Your play calling. Even your personnel. You have to be all in on him.
I love him as an athlete, and I like him as a passer. But if I’m drafting a guy in the first round, I need him to be ready now — or at least soon. Lamar Jackson is much more of a developmental prospect. We won’t find out for at least two or three years whether or not he’s going to make it in this league.
Pro Comparison: I don’t love all the Mike Vick comparisons, mainly because … they feel a little lazy, you know?
I see a lot of Jake Plummer in Lamar Jackson — a guy who can create for himself and turn a broken play into something positive.
Look at this play from the Kentucky game last year:
Most quarterbacks are dead in the water on that play. Sacked. But Lamar avoids the rush. And so instead of taking a drive-ending sack on third-and-five, he turns the play into a first down and puts his team in field goal range. There’s definitely a lot of Jake the Snake in him on that play.
I also think he could pan out a lot like Kordell Stewart, who spent his first couple of years learning as a backup and then relied on his superior athleticism while he continued to develop as a starter.
The ceiling is high for Lamar Jackson, if he finds the right situation.
Best Fit: I really like him to the Buffalo Bills, mainly because of Brian Daboll, who is the new offensive coordinator. He’s coming from Alabama, where they ran a spread offense. If Daboll brings that to Buffalo — along with what he learned during his time with the Patriots — Lamar Jackson could be a great fit.
Listen, this is not a personal attack on Josh Allen. I don’t even know the kid. But there’s a lot of talk about him being in play for the No. 1 pick, and I just don’t see it. Before I can consider him as a potential No. 1 pick — or even a top 10 pick — I need somebody to give me a reason other than he’s big and he throws it far. I mean, Bradley Chubb, the defensive end from NC State … he’s big, and I bet he could throw a football pretty far, too. Does that mean you’re taking him No. 1 to be your quarterback?
There’s just a massive, massive difference in the NFL between being a thrower and playing quarterback. You have to understand the game. You have to understand defenses. You have to understand the problem the defense is presenting you with and identify the opportunities.
Let’s look at the tape.
On this play, Wyoming is in empty protection, meaning that the running back is going to release and only the five offensive linemen will be doing the pass-blocking. There are a few hot routes here for Josh to consider, but we’ll focus on just one.
At the top of the screen, the Will linebacker is going to blitz.
When he does, the running back is going to curl out into the flat. Josh should recognize this immediately and hit the running back on the hot route for an easy completion.
Instead, this happens:
Josh looks completely surprised by the blitzing linebacker, even though this is as simple a hot read as you’re going to find. The running back recognizes it — look how quickly he turns and calls for the ball. But Josh is caught off guard, and it turns into a busted play, setting up a third-and-10.
This kind of thing shows up a lot when I watch Josh Allen on tape — where he looks surprised by simple blitz packages or coverages. This makes me wonder if he’s going to be able to process information at the next level, when the game is moving even faster and defenses are even more cleverly disguised.
There are things you can teach a quarterback when he gets to the NFL. For instance, I don’t love Josh Allen’s eyes. I think he has a bad habit of staring down receivers.
Look at this play against Boise State:
It’s a double move to the tight end, and as soon as the ball is snapped, Josh’s eyes lock in on the tight end and never move. His eyes tell you exactly where the ball is going, and that makes for an easy pick for the safety coming over the top.
I believe that can be fixed. It won’t be easy — it’s going to take time. Old habits die hard. But it can be done.
But I don’t think you can just take a guy who seems to struggle with elementary blitz concepts and hot reads and teach him how to decipher NFL defenses overnight, or even over a couple of seasons. It’s like taking a kid, giving him Spanish 101, and then moving him to Mexico and expecting him to speak like a native.
How are you going to teach him what it has taken other quarterbacks a decade to master? And even if you can, how long is that going to take?
It’s like taking a kid, giving him Spanish 101, and then moving him to Mexico.
I love his size, like everybody does. And I love his arm. He can throw it on a rope. But unlike Ben Roethlisberger, or Tony Romo, or Steve McNair — other guys who dominated at smaller schools and then dominated in the NFL — when did Josh Allen ever dominate in college? He didn’t face the kind of competition that the other quarterbacks on this list faced, and they all dominated. And for me to take a guy from a small school in the top five or even the top 10, I need to see that he dominated.
Josh Allen simply didn’t.
Pro Comparison: Josh Freeman — a guy taken strictly for his size and arm power. Freeman had some success, but the wheels eventually fell off. Let’s hope Josh Allen can avoid the same fate.
Best Fit: I really like Arizona. There would be no rush for him to play right away and he would get to take the time he needs to work on the parts of his game that he needs to improve on before he’s asked to go lead a team.
I’m trying to find a reason not to like Baker Mayfield … and it’s hard. He’s by far the most intriguing quarterback in this draft. He’s obviously fantastic in space and he’s extremely creative. His accuracy is very impressive, and he’s a significantly better thrower than people give him credit for. I’ll say this: He’s the best deep-ball thrower in this draft.
But I’ll also say this: The height concern is a real thing.
There are definitely ways for him to work around it, just like Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and others have. And that brings me to what I think is — if I’m a general manager — the most important thing I need to know about Baker Mayfield before I draft him.
Can he make football an obsession?
I’ll give you an example of what I mean….
Guys like Russell Wilson and Drew Brees do some very specific things that the average fan doesn’t see — things that enable them to compensate for their lack of size.
One of the most important is that they change their launch point.
If Baker can be as obsessive as Drew — about his craft, about his body — he does have Drew Brees-type upside.
What I mean by that is, they change where they set up in the pocket to throw the ball. Since they don’t have the height of a Matt Ryan or a Joe Flacco to see over the line, they move laterally in the pocket to find passing lanes between the protection. But they don’t just do it on the fly. They do it by design. The offensive line coach and the offensive coordinator work together to find the best launch points for specific plays. So on any given play, they might need Baker to set up in the front-side A gap — that’s between the center and guard on the strong side. And that’s how the offensive line will slide their protection — to create that launch point for the quarterback.
This sounds like a small thing to consider. But it’s another element added to what’s already the most complex position in sports. You’re already processing so much information in a split second. Now, you need to think about where you’re setting up on a given play instead of doing a straight drop like most guys.
The reason guys like Russell Wilson and Drew Brees have been able to do this is because they are absolutely obsessed with their craft. They’re obsessed with those details. Obsessed with perfection.
Is Baker Mayfield wired that way? I don’t know.
Am I going to bet against him?
I think you’d be stupid to.
Pro Comparison: Everyone seems to say Russell Wilson, but I think Russell is a much more dynamic athlete. I mean, he plays for the Yankees in the offseason. His athleticism is pretty unique.
I’m hesitant to compare Baker directly to Drew Brees just because Drew is a future Hall of Famer who has absolutely mastered his craft. But I do see a lot of similarities. I would definitely say that if Baker can be as obsessive as Drew — about his craft, about his body — he does have Drew Brees-type upside.
Best Fit: The Jets’ offense is custom-made for a guy like Baker. Offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates comes from the Mike Shanahan tree, and he’s very familiar with setting up different launch points for a quarterback and moving the pocket, which I believe Baker will need.
I also think the Saints would be a great fit. They’re already built around a quarterback of Baker’s size and style, and Sean Payton knows how to handle a quarterback. Not to mention Baker would have the added bonus of learning from Brees on and off the field.
NFL brains, NFL arm.
I’m not talking about upside. I’m talking about right now, today.
Josh Rosen has both.
Just look at this play against Memphis last year:
Looks great, right? He throws an accurate ball, on a rope, right between two defenders to take the lead in a shootout on the road. There are so many things I love about this play by Josh Rosen.
But the two things I really want to focus on happen before he throws the ball.
This play is basically an all-go. The two outside receivers run go routes, the tight end comes across the field on a seam toward the numbers and the inside receiver at the bottom of the screen runs up the seam a couple of yards outside the hash. Rosen’s key is the safety. Now, a lot of times on a play like this, the ball is delivered late because the quarterback has to wait for the safety to commit before making a decision. So there’s usually an extra hitch in his step to buy that extra split second before committing and delivering the ball.
But with Rosen, there’s no hitch. No wasted time, no wasted motion. He takes the snap, keeps perfect rhythm throughout and throws a dart down the seam.
What I love about that is his ability to read the defense, his urgency in the pocket and his trust in what he saw. I love the decisiveness. That’s the mark of a guy who’s ready for the next level.
I could go on all day with plays just like this one, where Josh Rosen just looks like an NFL quarterback. I mean, sometimes, when you see the real thing, you just know. When I watch Josh Rosen, I know he’s the real thing.
I’ve heard a lot of people question whether or not he loves the game of football. I don’t question that for a second. If you think this guy doesn’t love football, go watch the game he played against Texas A&M, where he basically got knocked on his butt the entire game — he was pressured on nearly half his dropbacks and was hit on 25% of them.
And every time he got whacked, he got up.
Not because somebody told him to, but because that’s what he’s supposed to do.
That’s what he does.
Then he led his team back from a 34-point deficit late in the third quarter, and he had the stones to fake a spike with under a minute left in the game and deliver a perfect touch pass to the corner of the end zone for a game-tying touchdown.
Gimme a guy like that any day of the week.
Pro Comparison: I see a lot of Matt Ryan in Josh Rosen. Both play with fantastic rhythm in the pocket and are very bright. They also both have a little ego to them, which is a good thing.
Best Fit: Josh Rosen has never had the opportunity to learn from somebody in front of him. He was the man in high school. He was the man at UCLA. That’s why the New York Giants are probably the best possible fit for him. He could learn from Eli Manning what it takes to handle the good and the bad, on and off the field, in a place like New York. And Eli has probably handled New York better than anybody, besides maybe Derek Jeter.
Josh Rosen is ready to play in the NFL now. I just think he needs to learn how to conduct himself as an NFL quarterback.
He would learn that from somebody like Eli.
If I’m a general manager and I’m going to take a quarterback at No. 1, he needs to be a guy who changes the game for me every week. He has to have traits that I can’t coach.
Sam Darnold is that guy.
There are three specific things I can pinpoint that I really love about Sam Darnold. The first is that he possesses something I like to call “magical sloppiness.” Think Ben Roethlisberger, or Tony Romo — guys who can throw accurately even when the play breaks down and they can’t set their feet, or they’re flushed out of the pocket, or when it just looks ugly … but it still works, you know? Those plays where the coach is on the sideline like, “No, no, no, no, no, no …………… YESSSS!!!”
It’s really the ability to take a play when the defense does everything right — they sniff out your play and defend it perfectly — and you, as a quarterback, still find a way to win that play.
There is a great example of this from USC’s game against Texas last year. Here’s what the play looked like at the snap:
Sam Darnold is going to fake a quick little one-step hitch to number 21, highlighted at the bottom of the screen. That’s designed to draw those three Texas defenders up and allow Darnold to hit either the tight end up the sideline or the wide receiver up the seam.
But Texas stays back and doesn’t bite on the fake. They play it perfectly, and all of Darnold’s options are covered.
So he gets magically sloppy.
He gets flushed out of the pocket, his footwork gets a little messy and he gets reckless with ball security.
But then he steps up and throws a perfect ball on the run for a touchdown.
This ability to take a broken play, improvise and turn it into something positive — his magical sloppiness — is the first thing I love about Sam Darnold. And it’s probably the thing I love most. You just can’t teach it.
The second thing I love about Darnold is his ability to judge angles and the speed at which different guys run routes. That combination is essential to a quarterback’s ability to anticipate and throw into tight windows, and coaches don’t have drills for that. You either have that or you don’t.
The third thing I love about Sam Darnold is his ability to be accurate with bad feet. I alluded to this earlier, but a lot of guys need to have perfect feet to be accurate. I was one of them. I could throw dimes when my feet were perfect. Most guys can.
The problem is, in an NFL pocket, more often than not, your feet aren’t going to be perfect. So if you can be accurate with bad feet, it gives you a tremendous advantage against a good pass rush.
It’s just another uncoachable trait that Sam Darnold has. And that’s why in this draft, if I were a general manager, I’d be fighting to get him.
Pro Comparison: Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo — the other “magically sloppy” quarterbacks.
Best Fit: The Browns would be crazy not to take this guy No. 1.
Thanks for reading.
For more draft breakdown, follow me on Twitter @danorlovsky7.
I still think end zones ?.