Quarterback Traits: The Attainable Versus The Inherent

The NFL Scouting Combine is in the rear view mirror and as evaluators assemble their draft boards, it is important to think about how players may improve once they reach the next level. Some talents just comes naturally while others take years of fine-tuning. Ted Nguyen breaks down the quarterback traits and weighs the attainable versus the inherent.

Playing quarterback in the NFL is possibly one of the most difficult jobs in the world. Even though there are hundreds of thousands of kids that aspire to be a NFL quarterback, there are fewer than 32 that can do so at an elite level. The position requires a long list of skills and traits, many of which are unrelated to one another, and it is rare for a single player to possess all or even most of them.

For this reason, quarterback is also one of the most difficult positions to scout and project to the next level, evidenced by the many busts that have been taken in the first round. The rise of spread offenses in the college game has also added to the difficulty evaluating prospects by inflating stats and teaching quarterbacks different read systems than those used in the NFL.

Some traits and skills quarterbacks can work on and improve once they are in the league, while others are much harder or simply impossible to attain or develop. For simplicity’s sake, the former fall into the what we’re calling attainable traits and the latter into inherent traits.

Obvious examples of inherent traits are height and speed. Although athletes might grow slightly after they are drafted, the change is marginal at best. Similarly, players can do speed training, but they don’t significantly increase their speed – a slow quarterback will always be a slow quarterback.

An example of an attainable skill is footwork. For example, it is becoming more common for college quarterbacks to spend their entire college careers in the shotgun and never master traditional under-center dropbacks. Although some scouts see this as a red flag, footwork is an attainable skill that can be improved upon with hard work and practice.

Opinions vary on what is an inherent trait/skill and what is an attainable trait/skill, and the ability to improve might also differ from player to player. There may also be rare cases when a quarterback greatly improves on what is generally considered to be a inherent trait/skill – and obviously many players never improve in areas that are attainable for others. But this list of traits and skills is based on generally accepted observations of the majority of quarterback prospects. Also, this isn’t a complete list of traits and skills that scouts look for, but includes the ones that considered most vital.

Footwork

In the pre-draft process, you will hear a lot of pundits scrutinize how a quarterback throws the ball or his footwork, but the reality is that elite quarterbacks constantly work on their technique and footwork and even alter them throughout their career. A quarterback with excellent footwork and throwing technique is evidence of attention to detail and work ethic, but these aren’t permanent traits. The myth that spread quarterbacks are less equipped for the NFL because they are in shotgun and don’t have to learn traditional drop backs are unfounded because it is a skill that can be learned.

Verdict: Attainable Skill

Fluidity

Quarterbacks don’t necessarily have to be the best athletes on the field, but they must  be able to transfer their weight efficiently and effortlessly. Throwing the ball requires balance and the transferring of weight. It is not easy to drop back quickly and then suddenly transfer weight forward, but good quarterbacks are able to do this and maintain control. This trait is important because it affects timing, accuracy, and velocity.

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Jared Goff effortlessly transfers his weight from dropping back to throwing the ball without a hitch. His fluidity will translate to league and help him throw the ball on time and accurately.

Verdict: Inherent Trait

Throwing Mechanics

Although mechanics often receive heavy scrutiny, evaluators should keep their focus more on results than style. Philip Rivers has an unorthodox throwing motion, but it works for him – as he is one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the NFL and never seemed to worry about fixing his mechanics. However, there are prospects who could get away with bad throwing mechanics at the collegiate level, but would enjoy increased accuracy or velocity with some refinement to the throwing motion. Even elite NFL quarterbacks frequently tweak their mechanics. Early in his football life, Aaron Rodgers was coached to hold the ball high, next to his ear, which caused him to jerk his arm back and release the ball awkwardly. Once in the NFL, he needed to totally rework his mechanics; Rodgers now holds the ball much lower and his arm motion is smoother and more natural. This change took hard work and countless hours of practice, but it shows that changing throwing motions is achievable.

Verdict: Attainable Skill

Arm Talent

This is a loose term that refers to the ability to consistently make every type of throw. By this definition, arm talent would include arm strength because it takes arm strength to make deep passes to the sideline as well as passes far downfield. This does not mean that a quarterback has to have an elite arm, but simply that he has enough arm strength to make deep and intermediate passes. Arm talent also includes accuracy, because every type of throw includes proper ball placement. One aspect of arm talent that often overlooked is touch. Certain throws require taking something off or lobbing a pass over a defender. Even though raw strength is not a factor in touch, this is not an easy skill.

For a quarterback to have arm talent, he would have to have all three of these traits. A player like Colin Kaepernick might have an amazing arm, but struggles making touch passes; therefore, he does not have arm talent, he has great arm strength. Although he has tried to work on his touch, he has not shown that he can consistently make those passes – further evidence that arm talent is an inherent trait. Aaron Rodgers, on the other hand, can make every type of throw, from amazing Hail Mary passes, to pin-point sideline passes, to seam passes that barely get over the outstretched fingertips of a linebacker. He has arm talent – maybe the best arm talent in the world.

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Aaron Rodgers’ awkward ball carriage and footwork is on full display. Both have improved since entering the league, but you can also see his impressive arm talent that has translated into the pro game.

Verdict: Inherent Trait

Quick Release

Release time is a trait that is extremely difficult to improve upon. A quick release is critical since defensive players react when a quarterback begins his throwing motion, and in the NFL, every millisecond counts. If a release takes too long, the defense has more time to break on a pass. Tim Tebow had a trebuchet-esque release. Although he was a tireless worker and even enlisted the help of private quarterback coach Steve Clarkson, he was able to make his release at best only slightly more efficient. Although release time wasn’t Tebow’s only problem as a player, his case shows how difficult it is to shorten up release time.

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This Sports Science segment shows that Tebow’s release time did not improve throughtout high school, college, and the NFL.

Verdict: Inherent Trait

Reading A Defense

Reading defenses may be learned through film study and proper coaching. Although spread offenses don’t necessarily simplify reads for college quarterbacks, they do require quarterbacks to process less information than do NFL offenses. Not every spread offense is the same, so it’s unfair to assume that they all have the same level of complexity, or lack thereof. But there are many spread offenses that do simplify things for the quarterback. That does not, however, mean any given quarterback can’t learn to read complicated defenses and figure out a six-read progression. A quarterback who hasn’t been in a “pro” system might be behind the curve compared to a prospect that has run one successfully, but, with study and time, a young quarterback can certainly learn; what remains is to try to determine who can climb the learning curve and who can’t.

Verdict: Attainable Skill

Mental Processing Ability and Speed

Taking information and processing it quickly is something that is hard to improve by the age quarterbacks enter the draft. It is difficult for college quarterbacks to transition into the NFL because they are asked to process more information much faster and then translate that into physical action. If a prospect does not have that ability, then he will fail at making sense of pertinent information quickly enough to make a successful play. This is a difficult trait for NFL teams to evaluate. Scouts can learn about a prospect’s mental processing through watching film or conducting interviews and asking prospects to get up on a white board and diagram plays and progressions. The Miami Dolphins are attempting a progressive approach of evaluating mental processing ability and speed by administering a new test called the siQ (Sports IQ) with which they have found some success.The test shows an image of an offense and defense from an all-22 angle and includes a question. The amount of time it takes to answer a question counts against the final grade.

Although getting a prospect on the whiteboard isn’t completely telling of his mental processing speed and ability, Jameis Winston impresses in this session with former coach, Steve Mariucci:

Verdict: Inherent Trait

Accuracy Throwing From A Clean Pocket

If a quarterback prospect is inconsistent with his accuracy, there is a good chance that he can fix it with the help of good coaching and plenty of practice. Accuracy comes from great technique and footwork, both of which are attainable skills that can be developed.

Verdict: Attainable Trait

Accuracy Throwing From Different Platforms

Accuracy while throwing from different platforms, however, is more of an inherent skill. Quarterbacks are forced to throw from a different platform while they are maneuvering in the pocket to avoid a rush. When they move, they obviously have to use their feet and reset their base. Sometimes quarterbacks can’t set their feet and must throw from awkward positions. When this happens, they are throwing the ball with almost all arm, and this requires a natural feel for how to contort the upper body and arm while knowing exactly how much power needs to be put on the ball to account for not being able to create torque with the lower body. A quarterback can practice throwing from awkward positions or different platforms, but it’s not a skill that you see quarterbacks learn. Usually quarterbacks that can do this on a consistent basis have done it in college. The very best at this skill is Aaron Rodgers, as he displayed many times in his college film.

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Verdict: Inherent Trait

Eye Manipulation

The ability to manipulate defenders into moving by looking in a one direction with the intention of throwing away from that look is a skill that can be developed. Learning how to move defenders by looking them off is a skill that could be learned once a quarterback becomes more versed in reading defenses and knowing which defender he has to move. If a prospect is able to use eye manipulation on a consistent basis in college, it is a sign of maturity and he should be graded up. However, if a prospect doesn’t, it doesn’t mean that he won’t be able to learn how to do it when he gets to the NFL.

Verdict: Attainable Trait

Poise In The Pocket

This is the ability to remain calm in the pocket with eye discipline (keeping eyes downfield rather than on the rush) and calm feet (not maneuvering to escape unnecessarily). It is not easy to remain calm with huge defensive ends and tackles smelling blood, but all great quarterbacks have a feel for where the rush is coming from while still giving their full attention to reading the secondary and finding open receivers. This trait is extremely hard to improve if a prospect does not show it in his college film, because the game gets much faster and more complicated in the NFL. If a prospect does not show great poise and feel in the pocket in college, then it is highly unlikely he’ll learn this trait in the NFL.

Verdict: Inherent Trait

Clutch Factor

The ability to make good decisions and big plays when the game is on the line is inherent in some passers. Quarterbacks are made famous or infamous based on their two-minute drives. How does a prospect handle the pressure of having to win a game with the last drive of the game? The NFL is a competitive league and many games are decided by a touchdown or less, which means the game may be put into the quarterback’s hands. You want a guy who is able to handle the pressure. Some quarterbacks are better equipped to handle that pressure and focus on what matters, while others will wilt under it. If a college quarterback isn’t making plays when the lights are brightest, it is extremely hard for him to start when he reaches the NFL where the pressure is even greater.

Verdict: Inherent Trait

Decision-Making

When is it appropriate to be aggressive and go for a big play, and when should he just throw the ball away? A quarterback has to make hundreds of decisions in a game that add up and ultimately determine the outcome. Some argue that a quarterback can get better at decision making as he gains more experience. Others insist that a reckless quarterback will not change his ways and reel things in when he has to.

Verdict: Hung Jury

Work Ethic

Playing quarterback in the NFL is one of the most difficult positions in all of sports because it requires a marriage of immense mental processing and physical performance in a game full of instantaneous contingencies. Mentally mastering the complicated game of football requires hours of studying and film. A quarterback has to spend more time than anyone mentally preparing for the game. Afterward, he must translate that into physical reality on the field by working on his technique and practicing his timing with the entire offense. Then he has to work on a contingency plan if things don’t go the way he expects. All of this preparation takes a unique dedication that NFL quarterbacks must possess to succeed. Also, work ethic is the trait that can help a quarterback to improve upon attainable traits coming out of college. Work ethic doesn’t automatically change when you hand a guy millions of dollars; scouts have to be thorough in their background checks to evaluate a quarterback’s work ethic. If there is a question about a player’s work ethic, that should be a major red flag.

Verdict: Inherent Trait

A quarterback considered a first round talent should have most, if not all, of the natural traits/skills. If he grades out poorly in his attainable skills/traits, he might be a prospect that a team will consider sitting for a year or two before playing. His evaluation should be based on how highly his nature traits/skills are graded.

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One thought on “Quarterback Traits: The Attainable Versus The Inherent

  1. Someone needs to send this to the Browns so we don’t miss on another QB. This is a great read, Falk seems to be the safer pick to me if the browns get a vet so we can bring him along. Darnold would probably be a fine pick as well but it’s a little harder because he scrambled for his life all season long. Not sure who was more clutch this past season or who had the better receivers which I think plays into it. They both can make all the throws but for sure Falk seems to be the more polished at this point, it will be interesting to see what the Browns do at the coaching position this season. I think it could be one of those years the job could be really coveted.

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