Rookie Scouting Portfolio writer Mark Schofield shares what he’s learned about quarterbacking in the NFL and how it will apply to his future evaluation of the position.
The wisdom of our elders is often wasted on our youth, but eventually, the lessons are absorbed.
As a father of two young children, I am entering that phase of parenthood where life is more about steering them away from mistakes and dangers through subtle guidance, rather than pure physical force. For example, if I’m cooking in the kitchen and one of them wanders towards the stove, no longer am I grabbing and pulling them away, but instead it is a subtle warning or two…before eventually grabbing and pulling them away because I’m also discovering that they are entering the phase where it’s more important to tune dad out than anything else.
This phase also has me sounding more and more like my own father and mother at times. Those moments snap me back in time, to years ago when they were telling me the same exact thing, often with the caveat that “you’ll be telling your kids this someday” or “this is how you’ll be running your house.” Of course, that was met with a shrug of the shoulders from me. What did they know?
Everything, as it turns out.
One such lesson that I eventually did absorb was something my father always said to me: “everything that happens in life is a lesson.” Win the big game? There’s a lesson to be learned. Lose the big game? More lessons. Get dumped by your girlfriend? Clearly, there’s something you can learn from it.
Unfortunately for me, it still took a bit too long for that lesson to sink into my stubborn skull. Had I applied that in an earlier life, perhaps I would have identified the things that I struggled with professionally, and become a better lawyer by learning from my failures as a litigator. However, I did not, and that failure put me on a path to a second career, which brings me here.
So in the end, maybe my slow recognition there was for the best.
But now in this second career, I have realized the wisdom of those words from my father and the importance of self-evaluation. Every season, every draft cycle, comes filled with lessons. Every two years I revisit my quarterback rankings from two cycles prior at Inside the Pylon, and I’ve learned along the way from what I’ve gotten right, but more importantly, from what I got wrong. Missing wildly on Dak Prescott, for example, taught me not to minimize the importance of competitive toughness when it comes to evaluating a draft quarterback.
Covering a sport that is constantly evolving requires constant improvement as an evaluator and a writer. In a way, lessons I learned as a lawyer tasked with satisfying “Continuing Legal Education” requirements are now applicable in this second life. Either you learn to keep pace with the times, or you get surpassed by those who do.
In that spirit, and with the 2018-2019 NFL season now fully in the rearview mirror, here are the things I learned this year, how I’ll be looking to apply those lessons going forward, and some questions I’ll be pondering in the draft cycle and season ahead.
Arm Strength Matters
We can perhaps call this the Josh Allen Rule.
Of course arm strength matters, but for me, it was always more of a baseline issue. Does the quarterback have sufficient arm strength and velocity to execute throws at the professional level? If the quarterback failed to meet that threshold, then there were concerns. For quarterbacks who met the threshold — but perhaps just barely — were their mitigating factors to their style of play that would still ease their transition? Factors such as processing speed and anticipation. Was their arm strength, or lack thereof, more of a scheme limitation? These were the various ways I worked through this part of the evaluation.
Then came Josh Allen, and his arm talent, and it might be time to recalibrate this a bit on the other end of the spectrum.
My expectations for Allen entering his rookie season were rather…low. Allen was not my favorite quarterback prospect last season and checked in at QB5 for me. While yes, he has a howitzer attached to his right shoulder, I wondered what else he brought to the table as he looked to transition to the pro game. Throughout his draft cycle, I compared him to two different fictional characters, as illustrated in my draft profile of him at ITP: Nuke LaLoosh and Happy Gilmore. Everything had to be a fastball. Every throw had to be hard, fast and 500 yards down the fairway. But if he ever learned to trust his catcher and throw a curveball, or to putt…
But watching him this season has led me to re-calibrate my thinking on arm talent, just a bit. Allen’s arm, as good as it is, has eased his transition a bit and given him perhaps an easier developmental path to NFL success than I thought. His arm is so good that his mind can lag behind in terms of development, and his velocity can erase mistakes and clean up gaps in processing. Now, I still wonder if that is a double-edged sword, and his arm talent perhaps holds him back in terms of his developing the mental side of the game. After all, if your arm can bail you out of almost any situation, then perhaps you rely on it as a crutch. But seeing his rookie season surpass my expectations has taught me that when looking at quarterbacks with a similar skill set, the arm might bump that projected floor up a bit.
The Non-Negotiables Still Matter More
I’ve also been thinking about how quarterback evaluation and QB play might come down to this question: What is his Trump Card? What is that one trait or skill that puts this quarterback above all others, that he can rely on when the going gets tough, and/or he can turn to bail him out of difficult situations? If a QB truly possesses such a trait, that will ease their transition. However, eventually they are going to need to develop other aspects of playing the position, and at the QB spot there are some traits, as we recently discussed with Tom Brady, that you can term non-negotiables:
Processing speed. Decision-making. Accuracy. Competitive toughness. Pocket presence.
A quarterback does not need to possess all of these at an elite level to be successful. But if a quarterback is deficient in one of them or all of them, life in the NFL might be a struggle.
Look at Super Bowl LIII, and Jared Goff’s performance, and tell me pocket presence does not matter. Or processing speed. If Goff gets the ball out a half-step quicker on that throw over the middle to Brandin Cooks, we’re talking about Wade Phillips’ defensive game plan going to Canton, and not the one from Bill Belichick/Brian Flores. If the young QB fares better in the pocket and under pressure, then his throw to Cooks in the fourth quarter is not underthrown, and we are perhaps talking about Cooks’ future Hall of Fame candidacy and not that of Julian Edelman. These things matter, and matter in a big way. 2018 yet again confirms that.
The Three-Year Developmental Window is Broken
In the upcoming Pro Football Weekly Draft Magazine, there will be a column from yours truly about the continued expansion of “college style offenses” in the pro game. In putting this piece together I talked to former scouts and players, quarterback coaches, and other members of the media. One major thread from each conversation was this point: The three-year developmental period for quarterbacks is no more.
And it comes down to a simple reason.
Look at this year’s crop of playoff teams. Of the twelve, seven of them currently have a starting quarterback on their rookie deal: The Kansas City Chiefs, the Houston Texans, the Baltimore Ravens, the Los Angeles Rams, the Dallas Cowboys, the Chicago Bears, and the Philadelphia Eagles. Yes, the Eagles have an asterisk attached but the point remains. Under the current collective bargaining agreement, the relatively low cost of a rookie quarterback is perhaps the biggest competitive advantage a team can have. If you can get that rookie QB and get him to play at least at a minimum level of competence, you can then acquire a ton of resources to put around him to build the roster and make a run at a Super Bowl in that window. Now look at the other five playoff teams: The New England Patriots, the Los Angeles Chargers, the Indianapolis Colts, the New Orleans Saints, and the Seattle Seahawks. Those are the teams on the other end of the spectrum. Teams that found that elite-type quarterback and are now holding onto him for dear life. But one of those teams, the Seahawks, set this trend when they drafted Wilson and were able to build around him, leading to a Super Bowl victory.
But that brings us to the idea of the three-year developmental window for QBs. If an organization is going to squeeze every bit of competitive advantage out of that rookie QB deal, they cannot wait three years for the QB to develop. Those days are over.
So the question becomes: How do you get that rookie QB to play at a competent level during that window? Unless you’ve been lucky enough to draft a generational talent…such as Andrew Luck…you’re going to need to find a different way.
Enter the rise of the “college offenses” in the NFL.
If you don’t have the time to get your rookie quarterback to learn what might be a more complex offensive system than he was running in college, then you let him run as much of his college offense — or a reasonable facsimile thereof — as possible while still doing enough to confuse NFL defenses. Look at how Matt Nagy used Mitchell Trubisky. Look at how Sean McVay helped Goff. Even Patrick Mahomes, as talented as he is, was running some concepts that Andy Reid pulled out of the Texas Tech playbook.
The NFL is a copycat league, and right now the pattern seems to be “find someone who stood next to McVay in line at the salad bar and hire them.” But in reality, it should be the Reid model. Sit down with your young quarterback (or your veteran QB, as Reid did with Alex Smith) and find designs from their college system that they like to run. Incorporate them as much as you can into the playbook. Profit.
Again, it all comes down to money.
Having learned some lessons, here are some quick thoughts on how I’ll be re-calibrating my thinking as he head into this draft season, and into the year to come.
Adjusting the Velocity Floor
Now, the 2019 quarterback class comes with its own set of question marks, and there will be plenty of time to work through those riddles. But as I look ahead to this group I will be more willing to entertain the idea of a strong-armed passer having a higher floor than I would have considered just a season ago. This, again, we can call the Josh Allen Rule.
So, Drew Lock and Tyree Jackson, you might be the first beneficiaries of this corollary.
Both those passers seem to have the ability to drop the hammer, as it were, and make some throws with impressive velocity. In years past that alone would not have been enough to get me excited – and as we’ll be discussing in the weeks to come, it still might not be enough – but Allen has provided enough of a roadmap for me to be at least open to the idea of an easier developmental path for players with this kind of skill set.
Rethinking Scheme Fits
Scheme fit, landing spot and coaching influence used to be the final part of any draft evaluation. What offensive system would be best for this quarterback? What will they need from a coaching and development standpoint? To be honest, it also allowed for some careful…okay we can call it hedging. “In the right system he can flourish, but…” is a phrase I relied on heavily. But it was often very, very true. Look at the top of the 2016 NFL draft. Goff is picked first, and Carson Wentz second. That is how I ranked those quarterbacks. But if you had asked me the morning after that first round which QB was in a better spot, it was Wentz. Going to Philadelphia under Doug Pederson, Frank Reich, and John DeFilippo was an ideal landing spot for a young QB, as opposed to, well, we don’t need to name names…
Scheme fit was also a big piece of the puzzle. We can leave the “system quarterback” debate for another time, but some QBs are better suited for a West Coast system, for example, than others. Bruce Arians will have a different ranking of quarterbacks than, say, Andy Reid.
However, for two reasons the scheme fit component to evaluation needs to be rethought. First, the NFL has evolved to a point where there are very few offenses that can be definitively be put in one bucket or another. Every offense is running some Air Raid stuff, or some West Coast stuff, or some two- and three-level reads in the downfield passing game. Adapt or die.
*Glances in the general direction of Mike McCarthy.*
In addition, for the reasons just discussed, teams are going to be relying more and more on “college style” offenses to maximize that window. Meaning NFL offense might finally be moving to the point where, instead of trying to fit square peg QBs into the round holes of “this is my offense and we’re running this because it works and I’ve been coaching for years dagnabbit,” we’re finally moving to a world where coaches will tailor their offensive schemes to their players, starting with the QB. What was the first thing Freddie Kitchens did when taking over as the Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator? Sit down with Baker Mayfield and get on the same page with him in terms of what to call and which plays to incorporate into the system. How’d that work out?
So in terms of viewing a scheme fit for draft quarterbacks, it still matters, but perhaps not as much as in years past. If they’re handled the right way, the team will adapt to them, and not the other way around. So it will become more of a “here’s what he does well, and how he can be successful early in the NFL” type of analysis, rather than some hard and fast rules in terms of West Coast versus Air Coryell and so on.
Questions for 2019
Answering questions – or at least trying to – often leads to more questions. Here are some that will be on my mind in the weeks and months ahead.
Is the Developmental QB the NFL’s Dodo?
If the three-year development window for quarterbacks is…well…out the window, what does that do for the concept of the developmental quarterback?
Part of the fun each draft season was identifying a few “developmental quarterback” throughout the process. Players that lacked the kinds of ceilings that get you drafted early, but might have a nice floor or some traits that you can work with, provided they get the right landing spot and a chance to learn. Cardale Jones. Logan Woodside. Maybe Easton Stick and Brett Rypien this year.
But as we just discussed, if teams are doing their developing on the fly now, under the terms of the new CBA and in the new economy of the NFL, what happens to these players? What is the incentive to truly take the time to develop a Day Three quarterback when, by the time you might have developed them to the point they can step in as a starter, they’re closing in on time for a new contract? Might as well take a swing on a Day One type prospect and see if it pans out.
So will the “developmental QB” go the way of the Dodo? Or do the AAF and the XFL provide the kind of lifeboat for these players? Might we finally see some sort of developmental league for the NFL emerge that gives quarterbacks such as these a way to grow, develop, and emerge a year or two down the road ready for the prime time lights? That’s something I’ll be paying particular attention to.
What is the Next Paradigm Shift?
Someone who considers themselves to be something of a wise football mind posited in writing back during the regular season that Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense represented the kind of paradigm shift that the NFL badly needed as it tried to usher in the new era of offensive football. More college-type concepts. Throwing the ball as much as possible. Viewing things in a new light. The argument was that Mahomes represented the final shove into NFL2020.
Then Bill Belichick beat him twice, and in the Super Bowl against another supposed modern offense Belichick rolled out a 6-1 defensive front – something that you probably remember from Pop Warner – and crafted a defensive game plan for the ages.
Was that wise football mind right? Is the paradigm shift upon us?
Probably not, as I’m an idiot.
Joking aside, where is the league headed in a schematic sense? Are we seeing the paradigm shift to more of a wide-open, spread/Air Raid league that resembles the Big 12? If so, how far does that go? But the person to watch in all of this is, as you might expect, Belichick. If the league is becoming more of a Big 12 clone, then defenses will try and adjust as well. Get more athletic. Smaller. Faster. But of all of the things he is known for, Belichick’s penchant to zag while the rest of the league is zigging, from season-to-season or even week-to-week, is perhaps his best trait as a coach.
Think of the way the Patriots evolved this season, into a team that became a run-focused, 21 offensive personnel team that featured rookie Sony Michel running behind fullback James Develin. They drafted JaWhaun Bentley, someone who looked to be a dinosaur of a two-down thumper at linebacker, during an offseason when everyone within 500 miles of Gillette Stadium was screaming that they needed to be more athletic at linebacker. They rolled out a 6-1 in the Super Bowl with safety Patrick Chung aligned as a defensive end on one side, and linebacker Kyle Van Noy at the other DE spot often across from Cooks and/or Robert Woods.
The league might be getting faster and more athletic.
But Belichick seems to be zagging.
The final thing to look at down the line is this: The current CBA is set to expire after the 2020 season, and all indications are that the next negotiation might be tough, and to expect a lockout. How does the looming expiration of the CBA impact decisions made on and off the field? Will we see an influx of college players leaving school early over the next draft cycle or two, to try and get into the league before that happens? Will teams alter how they approach decisions given a pending work stoppage? WIll your local Home Depot be staffed by a bunch of out-of-work football writers like me, making do during a lockout?
Fun times ahead.
And more lessons to be learned.
Thanks, Mom and Dad.
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