Matt Waldman’s RSP Boiler Room: QB Nick Fitzgerald (Miss St.), and Winning from the Pocket

Matt Waldman’s RSP Boiler Room examines a play from Mississippi State Nick Fitzgerald’s film to explain why winning from the pocket is a vital part of NFL quarterbacking. 

If you’re a 6’5, 230-pound monster of an athlete who stiff-arms defensive ends to the turf and outruns safeties in the open field, you can be a starting quarterback in college football. You may tear up the NFL Combine with your raw physical tools and earn a bump in media buzz. You may even earn playing time and help your team win if the offense is desperate enough to repurpose its offense to your athletic might.

However, if you want to earn a career as an NFL quarterback you must win from the pocket in the NFL.

Many of you are blurting out player names in your head at this moment. Lamar Jackson does not qualifyhe is good in a pocket. Tim Tebow? Not so much.

This scramble to the left sideline by Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is an excellent example of why what’s “good enough” for the college game isn’t always the case for the NFL.  Fitzgerald earns a first down on this play but instead of taking 2-3 dozen steps on this run, he could have move two steps to his left and led his receiver for 2-3 dozen more yards than he gained as a runner.

This is a common issue with quarterbacks with underdeveloped pocket skills. It doesn’t matter if they’re accurate when they choose to throw the ball — we often mistake accuracy from the pocket as “pocket skills.” It’s one skill but it doesn’t encompass all of them.

The most important skills from the pocket are the ability to anticipate how your routes will play out against the defense, which means identifying where the open space will be and then efficiently manipulating the defense to keep that space open.

Athletes at the quarterback position — no matter how tantalizing their physical skills, how many games they won in college football, or how “aw-shucks” their personalities may be — cannot win this way on a grand scale in the NFL.

What’s fascinating to me about this statement above is that theoretically, I believe quarterbacks like Tebow could win in the NFL on a grand scale if pro organizations opted to make them replaceable and less costly. However, it would also change the way organizations would value personnel and the unintentional effect of this model would the vast majority of wide receivers and tight ends who would not want to play for a team of this type.

It’s not the way I’d want to build an offense, but I think it could be done. Since we’re dealing with a different reality, a quarterback like Fitzgerald has a lot to learn if he wants an NFL career at this position — at least if this play is indicative of his game.

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3 responses to “Matt Waldman’s RSP Boiler Room: QB Nick Fitzgerald (Miss St.), and Winning from the Pocket”

  1. Hi Matt,

    This isn’t necessarily related to the video above, (sorry) it’s more a question about your process.

    I’ve been a fan of yours since 2012 and I found your Film Room and Podcast about defining your process extremely interesting (I’ve listened to the Podcast three times). I’ve also seen the steady evolution of the RSP.

    I’m just curious if you ever revisit old evaluations. For example, your “Studying the Asterisk” article on Russell Wilson was my first exposure to your work. Now that you have players like Mayfield and Murray as top (or projected top) overall picks, has your process changed to not question height as much? Did it ever take height into account? If Russell Wilson was coming out of Wisconsin today, would he have a higher grade for you?

    I’m just curious where Wilson (who fell to the third round and you compared to the Godfather) would rank today compared to some of the more recent QBs you’ve evaluated.

    • Thanks for writing, John. I never valued height as a skill or anything worth measuring. Barring there is a player whose height is truly an extreme — and not merely a statistical outlier due the NFL reinforcing an untested notion that arbitrarily assigned 6’2” (or whatever number they have settled on) as its cutoff—I never thought it sensible manufacture some pseudo correlation to height.

    • I haven’t gone back but I would be surprised if Wilson did rank among the top 2-4 QBs that I have studied, if using the RSP’s current eval criteria.

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