#1 best-selling author Mark Schofield reveals his list of the top quarterback prospects for the 2016 NFL Draft. Schofield, who wrote 17 Drives – a chronicle of the 2015 college football season – has ranked Cody Kessler as his 7th ranked prospect. Click here to look at all of his work on the 2016 QB class.
Cody Kessler is another one of the senior members of this class looking to find a home in the NFL. The California Gatorade Football Player of the Year as a senior in high school, he decided to stay in-state and enrolled at the University of Southern California, redshirting during his freshman season. As a redshirt sophomore he won the starting quarterback job in preseason camp, and turned in a solid first year as a starter, leading the Trojans to a 10-4 record and a berth in the Las Vegas Bowl. In that contest Kessler completed 22 of 30 passes for 345 yards and four touchdowns, as USC defeated Fresno State. This season also marked the first of two in-season coaching changes Kessler would experience in college, as Lane Kiffin was fired after the fifth game of the season, and replaced with Ed Orgeron on an interim basis. When it was announced USC would go elsewhere with their search, Orgeron resigned prior to the bowl game, and the team was coached by Clay Helton.
Steve Sarkisian was hired prior to the 2014 season, and declared an open competition for the quarterback spot. Kessler retained his job, beating out Max Browne and Jalen Greene for the job, and turned in a very impressive junior campaign. He completed 70% of his throws for 3,826 yards and 39 touchdowns, with only five interceptions. He threw six TDs against Notre Dame in the season finale, the most surrendered by the Irish in a single game in the program’s storied history. The Trojans finished with a 9-4 record, including a victory over Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl, and the program seemed on the cusp of a breakthrough in 2015.
However, that breakthrough did not materialize for USC. After starting the season with wins over Arkansas State and Idaho, the Trojans endured a rough-four week stretch with a loss to Stanford, and after defeating Arizona State the team suffered back-to-back losses to Washington and Notre Dame. After the loss to the Huskies, it was announced that Sarkisian would take a leave of absence on October 11, 2015, but he was fired the next day. Helton took over the role of interim coach yet again, but the season was well off-track. USC managed a four-game winning streak after the loss to Notre Dame, earning a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game. But a loss to Stanford saw them return to the Holiday Bowl for the second-straight year, where they lost to Wisconsin. Despite the turmoil and upheaval, Kessler turned in another strong statistical season. He completed 67% of his passes for 3,536 yards and 29 touchdowns, with only seven interceptions, and he ended his career with over 10,000 yards passing and 88 TDs to his credit, and only 19 interceptions.
Kessler is an experienced, poised quarterback who can beat a defense in a number of ways, none of which are flashy but they all manage to keep the chains moving, extend drives and eventually find the endzone. He is calm and poised in the pocket, with the athletic ability to slide around and find open areas to reset his feet and execute a throw. When faced with a blitz he is able to remain calm in the cauldron and exploit advantages in the secondary, whether by simply getting the football out to his hot read or by biding his time to find a soft area behind the blitz. He is well-versed in operating from under center or in the shotgun and pistol formations, and shows solid footwork on his drops regardless of his starting position. Whether it is a 1-, 3-, 5- or even 7-step drop, Kessler moves with fluid steps and usually hits the desired depth on each.
Watching Kessler handle pressure it is easy to respect his ability to keep his eyes downfield and continually scan for an open receiver. There is sometimes a rare occasion where he drops his eyes or shows he is influenced by pressure around him or at his feet, but on most instances he does a very good job of maintaining composure and working within the play to find a receiver. He is the poster child of what Matt Waldman identified (and I co-opted) as “flow within structure.” When external factors disrupt the timing or structure of a play, Kessler is very skilled at responding to the stimuli, adjusting his plan and remaining as true as possible to the design of the play in question. Whether it is adjusting his approach to throwing a screen pass, or climbing the pocket back right to the line of scrimmage before finding a target downfield within the structure of a play, Kessler walks that fine line between controlled chaos and mayhem very well.
When it comes to simply throwing routes, Kessler is a quarterback who thrives on using timing and anticipation to complete passes. He makes very quick decisions, particularly in the short passing game, and on many of these throws his footwork and release is timed up very well – if not ahead of – the route and break by his receivers. He puts his receivers in position to pick up yardage after the catch on many of his passes, but getting the ball out quickly and putting the football right on a receiver the instant after his break, preventing the coverage from converging on his WR. He is generally accurate, particularly on shorter routes.
A big question mark surrounding Kessler is his arm strength. It was sufficient for him at USC to challenge small throwing windows in the shorter areas of the field, but when facing tougher throwing lanes in the intermediate- and deep-passing game, his arm lacks the pure velocity to challenge those situations and enjoy success. Even with years of film available, it is tough to point to a play where he drives the football into a tough throwing window with velocity on a throw greater than 20 yards. He will need to find a way to add velocity to his passes during his transition or, as is more likely, be utilized in an offense that thrives on the shorter passing game with the occasional deep shot, which he can deliver with touch and accuracy.
While he is generally accurate, his precision with throws can wane in the face of pressure, or when he is on the move. His second throw of the game against Arkansas State is a good example of his accuracy dipping when he is rolling to one side of the field. There are also times when Kessler stares down routes, and this is exacerbated when he finds himself in quicksand.
The Washington game, particularly the first three plays, is a good example of Kessler struggling against the flow of a game and fighting quicksand. On his first passing attempt of the game he is flustered, cannot find an open receiver, and takes a sack. On the second passing attempt, he stares down a route along the sideline and throws an interception. On his third passing attempt, USC runs a spot concept and he forgoes the open snag route over the middle to throw the checkdown to his running back in the flat, a safer throw. However, the play is read well by the defense and goes for a big loss, nearly a safety. He recovered from this start, but this is an example of how when things go wrong, they can spiral on him a little bit. Kessler needs to right the ship faster when he is in the NFL.
Given his prowess in the short passing game, in terms of his timing and anticipation, as well as his quick-decision making on these throws, Kessler projects best to a West Coast system. When you add in the current limitations he has in terms of challenging deeper throwing windows with velocity, it would seem this style of offense fits his skill-set perfectly.
On this play against Arkansas State, USC has Kessler in the shotgun with 11 personnel on the field. The Trojans have two wide receivers in an inverted slot formation on the right, and another inverted slot left with tight end Taylor McNamara (#48) on the inside and WR Darreus Rogers (#1) outside. Fullback Soma Vainuku (#31) stands to the right of the quarterback.
The Red Wolves deploy a nickel package showing Cover 6. The defense puts the Cover 2 side of this scheme to the right side of the offense, placing the cornerback in press alignment over the outside receiver. Nickelback Charleston Girley (#13) lines up in a linebacker’s alignment, just to the outside of the left tackle:
The Trojans employ a spot concept to the left. The fullback runs a swing route, while the tight end executes a corner route. Rodgers runs the quick hitch, starting to the inside on a slant then hitting the breaks and finding a soft area in the coverage:
The progression on this play asks the quarterback to first look to the swing route in the flat, then to the snag route, and finally to the corner route. Kessler first looks to the running back on the swing in the flat. But as you can see from the image above, Girley has identified the deep motion and is breaking on the fullback before the snap. So the quarterback abandons the swing route and moves to his second read, Rogers on the snag route:
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This is well done from Kessler. Moving from his first read to his second quickly and showing great ball-placement and timing. The throw is coming out just as Rogers is settling into the underneath zone. The timing and placement of the pass put the WR in position to secure the football and turn upfield after the catch, before defenders can close on him. When Kessler is in rhythm he can use anticipation and timing to mitigate his arm strength, and puts receivers in position to pick up yardage after the catch.
One- and Three-Year Projection
Current Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett was able to coach Kessler at the Senior Bowl, and a part of me wonders if Garrett sees himself when watching the USC QB. With his experience and the ability to make throws with timing and anticipation, his ability to work through reads and make quick decision with the football, and the fact that he didn’t make a lot of mistakes in the passing game while in college, Kessler is a QB who likely challenges for and even wins the backup job as a rookie, depending on where he lands. He reminds me very much of Colt McCoy, the former Texas Longhorn currently the #2 behind Kirk Cousins in Washington. Kessler projects to be a high-end backup / spot starter in the NFL, who can come off the bench and give the offense perhaps 80% of what the starter can. There is tremendous value in a having a #2 like Kessler, and even if he tops out as a long-term backup / spot-starter, I believe he will enjoy a long career in the league. In the right situation and with some development, it would not surprise me in the least to see him become a mid-level starter in this league. But even his floor has value to an NFL roster.