Apr 292015

Continuing my “series” about quarterback evaluations in the NFL (see here, here, here, and here), I will choose the quarterback who may not possess every attribute to be considered a top prospect, but who possesses the essential qualities of a professional pocket quarterback.

To summarize some of what I have written in previous posts: the ideal quarterback prospect in terms of draft evaluation is big (both tall and well built), athletic, has great accuracy and arm strength, has experience and production in a pro style offense, is a leader, and presents no off the field concerns. In other words, he is Andrew Luck. Andrew Luck is a once every 10 or 15 (if not more) years prospect. Neither Jameis Winston nor Marcus Mariota fulfills every one of those categories, but their combination of assets makes them likely top five draft picks (though some of this is due to a combination of the scarcity of quarterback prospects and the importance of the position; in a perfect world, in my opinion, neither would be selected until later in the round, because each comes with some concerns – system and arm strength for Mariota, off the field problems and interceptions for Winston. This does not mean that both can’t become solid NFL quarterbacks).

Not all of those attributes are required, however, to become a serviceable or even great NFL quarterback. Tom Brady fell in the draft because he was not well built, was slow, and was not considered to possess an elite arm. Drew Brees was too short. Aaron Rodgers was slight of build, a Jeff Tedford “system” quarterback, and not athletic. Joe Montana was slight of build and weak armed. The list could go on.

Who, then, fits the bill of a quarterback prospect who does not possess all of the “top prospect” traits, but who may possess enough of the important ones?

Oregon State’s Sean Mannion.

Sean Mannion is not an electric athlete. He is a pure pocket passer. His 5.14 40 yard dash is not terrible, but he will not make his living with his legs. His statistics were not good last year – his touchdown to interception ratio was only 15-8. He is not considered a top prospect.

But what are his strengths?

Mannion started for four years in an offense that ran many pro concepts. Unlike many college quarterbacks, he took many snaps from under center. He made NFL reads and audibles at the line of scrimmage, and is accustomed to three and five and seven step drops. He has a strong arm. He is forced to be a pocket quarterback, because he has no other option (much like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, he has never and will never have the ability to win at a high level with his legs). When he had NFL talent to throw to – such as Brandin Cooks in 2013 – he thrived (throwing for 37 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in 2013).

Of course, the fail rate at quarterback is too high to say that Mannion will succeed as an NFL quarterback. The odds are against him. However, when you strip away traits that have been shown to be unnecessary to becoming a great quarterback (top athleticism, for one), Mannion stacks up favorably with every quarterback in the draft. The chances are never good for a quarterback to succeed in the NFL, but Mannion’s possession of essential quarterback traits puts him on even ground for success (given the opportunity) with any quarterback in the draft.

One of Mannion’s most productive games from 2013, against an always tough Utah defense:

Apr 202015

By now, it is clear to those who follow the draft that the (on the field) evaluation between Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston hinges in large part on whether one believes that Mariota can be accurately evaluated as a professional quarterback, due to his operating Oregon’s “college” offense. Winston, on the other hand, is considered more of a known entity, due to his operating a “professional” offense that allows evaluators to see him make “professional” reads and throws.

I use quotation marks for “college” and “professional” because the line between college and professional offensive systems is increasingly blurry. I find the use of such terms to lack nuance, and believe that “college” is used in an incorrectly negative way. I do not agree with the notion that quarterbacks running “college” offenses will necessarily struggle in the NFL, and I disagree that “college” offenses are lesser than “professional” offenses. I believe that “college” offenses are often smarter and more efficient than “professional” offenses, and that creating a system that is simple to learn and that can defeat any defense takes at least as much intelligence and creativity as does building a complex, gameplan-oriented “professional” offense.

Having said that, evaluating a quarterback who has only operated out of one style of offense is inherently difficult when projecting him to play in another style of offense – and this is the difficulty in evaluating Mariota for teams who do not wish to adopt an offense similar to what Mariota ran at Oregon and what his former coach – Chip Kelly – runs with the Eagles.

Put aside, as well, the debate as to whether professional teams should adopt quarterback friendly offensive schemes to fit the skills of their quarterbacks (see here, here, and here for speculation on the future of quarterback play in the NFL). This post only seeks to clarify why the evaluation is difficult for one who seeks to draft Mariota and use him in a traditional, “professional” offense.

The following videos (produced by draftbreakdown.com, a great resource for studying more than the highlights of college prospects) of Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston in the Rose Bowl playing against each other display these differences.

Mariota against Florida State:

Note, from the outset, Oregon’s reliance on quick screens. These passes are not a staple of professional offenses, but make up a significant portion of Oregon’s attack. As you continue to watch, note how many times Mariota takes quick drops from play action fakes. 0:23 is a great example. Mariota executes a play action fake, then snaps his feet and bounces in the pocket. There is no drop, and his pocket is clean. None of these elements are helpful to NFL evaluators. Evaluators want to see a quarterback take a drop from under center (Mariota almost never did so) or – at the least – to make a full read progression, and they want to evaluate him from a collapsing pocket. Oregon’s offensive style and prodigiousness makes finding such plays difficult. Mariota throws on the play to a receiver crossing with room behind the linebacker level. Again, while such a throw does happen in the NFL, it is not considered a timing pass that can accurately display Mariota’s ability to make NFL throws into tighter windows that close faster than in college. Though he misses the throw here, this is the type of concept (crossing routes behind linebackers who are held by run fakes) that Mariota and Oregon thrive on. As you watch the film, keep track of how many times Mariota starts in a similar fashion – play fake, set feet, quick throw (screen or otherwise). Or – three step drop, quick throw. NFL evaluators have fewer plays on which to evaluate Mariota making “professional” throws and reads, and fewer plays equals more uncertainty. Uncertainty is not what many scouts want when drafting a quarterback high in the first round.

Winston against Oregon:

Winston, on the other hand, crosses off many of the boxes (on the field, that is) for a top quarterback prospect. Big, well built, strong arm, good enough athlete, high scholastic intelligence (again, ignoring off the field and maturity issues), and – related to this conversation – makes “professional” throws from a “professional” offense. Though he also operates from the shotgun in spread formations for a high percentage of his plays (much more than the public perception seems to recognize), the evaluator can see him taking drops, setting in the pocket, and reading a full field. A much lower percentage of Winston’s throws are quick, “automatic” reads. A high percentage of Florida State’s passing plays require taking a drop, reading a progression, and delivering with timing. Anyone who watched Tom Brady in the Super Bowl knows that running a large portion of one’s offense from shotgun, spread formations is no longer just a college phenomenon. Starting at 6:51, we see two successive plays that illustrate why evaluators see Winston’s game translating to the NFL. On both throws, Winston takes a drop (albeit from the shotgun), is patient, and completes an anticipation throw to a receiver in a deep middle zone. On both throws, Winston began his throw before the receiver had broken to the inside. These plays illustrate anticipation throws that are so common in the NFL – Winston knows the route, knows where the receiver will be breaking, and knows that the defense will not be in that spot because of their zone drop concepts and their lack of momentum towards that location. Both throws show arm strength, accuracy, coverage recognition, and anticipation, all of which are considered vital to success in a “professional” offense. Evaluators will have more difficulty finding and judging these types of throws in Mariota’s game.

One key point, however, is that even though Winston operates an offense that has him making complex, “professional” reads, the offense is not a “traditional” professional offense, as much of the popular dialogue in the media would lead one to believe. In fact, a high percentage of Winston’s throws come from the shotgun. He does not consistently make 5 and 7 step drops from under center. While Mariota’s Oregon offense was certainly further removed from a “professional” offense, Winston’s Florida State offense still requires projection to a traditional “professional” offense.

Either way, the two videos illustrate the challenges for evaluators in comparing Mariota to Winston. Mariota is asked to execute an offense that requires many predetermined throws and creates a multitude of open targets that often do not require a great deal of anticipation to hit. Mariota executes the offense to near perfection, but it requires an evaluator to project his growth in a “professional” offense. Winston is asked to execute an offense that – while often from formations similar to that of Oregon – requires him to make full field reads and anticipation throws that more closely mirror “professional” concepts. Winston’s touchdown to interception ratio is far worse than Mariota’s, but an evaluator has less to project – for better or worse – when analyzing his game.

May 082014

Stockpiling draft picks in the NFL forms the basis for successful franchises such as the New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, and San Francisco 49ers. It is where team building, the salary cap, and probability intersect.

There are downsides to stockpiling picks. The extra draft picks are acquired by trading down in the draft or a previous draft (thus forfeiting a chance at a theoretically better prospect), or by trading a veteran for a draft pick (thus losing a proven entity), or by acquiring compensatory picks (which are given out by the NFL when a team loses a valuable free agent).

Why would some of the best franchises in the NFL consistently trade higher picks for multiple lower picks, trade veteran players, and let solid NFL players walk in free agency?

First of all, these teams have chosen to build through the draft, and not free agency. This has value that cannot be analyzed by thinking in terms of video game football, i.e. acquiring the most talented players possible. Instead, these teams seek to draft players who fit their program personality wise, and who fit their schematics athletically. This allows the teams to mold an “impressionable” rookie into their system, which has a greater chance for success than asking a veteran from another system to do so.

Once the drafted players are on the roster, another evaluation process occurs. These teams will constantly analyze which of their young players, do, in fact, fit the structure of the team both on and off the field. While they can learn about a free agent’s reputation on and off the field, it does not compare with their ability to know and analyze their own players.

This is vital in regards to the salary cap. Generally speaking, a team can extend the contracts of their own players for less money than if those players reached the open market. Signing a contract early is beneficial for a player, because it is a violent sport where injury can ruin a career at any moment, and it is valuable to sacrifice a chance at the free market in order to gain guaranteed money and eliminate the risk of losing everything because of injury. The team wins by keeping costs down; the player wins by getting financial security earlier.

Some of the multitude of draftees that these teams have will not re-sign. But these teams still rely on players being productive on their rookie contracts, because it is a cheap source of labor which keeps costs down so that the desired former draft picks can be extended, and the team can remain under the salary cap.

This is why probability is so important. It is impossible to “get it right” on every draft pick. Having more draft picks increases the probability that a few of the draft picks may end up being “keepers” on the roster.

Some will get cut before training camp. Some will contribute during their rookie season and beyond. A few from each draft class will get contract extensions to stay with the team. THESE players are as sure a bet as there can be in the NFL – the team has had years to scout them as players and as people from within their own locker room.

After years of this steady building and stockpiling of draft picks, the extended players from various draft classes make up the team.

In essence, these teams have the best of both worlds: they have found players who they KNOW fit their system, and they can keep those players on the roster for cheaper than their fair market value would dictate. The increased picks also allow the teams to more freely choose the best player available in the draft – instead of focusing on need – because there are more picks to address needs later in the draft. This gives another advantage in fielding the best players possible to fit their system and resign at value.

Aside from team building, stockpiling draft picks does give a team the opportunity to move up in the draft should they want to. The 2013 49ers are a great example – they identified a player they wanted to get, traded up 13 picks in the first round to get him (which they were able to do because of their excess draft picks), and drafted Eric Reid, an immediate starter at safety who solidified their defensive backfield and went to the Pro Bowl his first season.

Stockpiling also means better picks in later drafts. In 1995, the Cleveland Browns – with both head coach Bill Belichick and executive Ozzie Newsome having influence – traded the #10 pick in the draft to the 49ers, who selected receiver JJ Stokes. In return, the Browns/Ravens received 4 draft picks, including the 49ers’ first round pick in 1996.

In 1996, with their own pick at #4, the Ravens chose the best player available, a left tackle from UCLA. They were criticized, because they already had a solid starting left tackle – Tony Jones (who would go on to a pro bowl and to start for two Denver Bronco Super Bowl champions). The player they selected, however, became arguably the best left tackle of all time – Jonathan Ogden.

But the Ravens were not done. With the 49er’s draft pick – #26 – they again drafted the best player available. This time, they selected Ray Lewis.

Belichick and Newsome had witnessed the virtue of patience in 1995, that led to drafting two hall of fame players in 1996, which set the Ravens franchise on a path to success that has not yet ceased. It is not surprising that the Patriots (under Belichick) and the Ravens (under Newsome) continue to build through the draft.

And in support of the theory of stockpiling draft picks in order to increase probability of success, Belichick’s Patriots would later receive four compensatory selections in the 2000 draft to compensate for the losses of linebacker Todd Collins, punter Tom Tupa, defensive tackle Mark Wheeler and offensive lineman Dave Wohlabaugh in free agency. This gave his team four extra chances at selecting a contributor, even if the chances of a late round draft pick lasting in the NFL are slim. Few people took note of pick 199, their compensatory selection at the bottom of round 6. With that pick, they selected Tom Brady.

The stockpiling draft pick system also perpetuates itself: Because these teams let free agents walk, and do not build extensively through free agency, they often receive compensatory picks which help them to stockpile draft picks.

The process can be slow, but it is the recipe for a healthy, system driven NFL team with a group of players who are more likely to be unified in sharing the vision of the coaching staff. Such cohesiveness is an intangible – and necessary – element of winning football, which is one reason why famous “free agent splash” teams (the recent Washington Redskins being a prime example) so often struggle to find consistent success.