Going Ballistic: Recapping a Week in Mobile

All that is left down in Mobile is to play the game. The 69ths Senior Bowl kicks off Saturday afternoon, but the bulk of the work is behind us, so it is a good time to take stock of some of the goings-on down in Alabama. A bleary haze of BBQ, Miller High Life specials (more on that in a moment) and endless drills has come to a conclusion, and now the real fun of draft season begins. Perhaps there is no better way to try and recap the week that was than by using quotes to help guide the way. This is something I have done before with draft classes and both “Silicon Valley” and “Game of Thrones,” but it’s time to move to the big screen. Here is a look back at Senior Bowl Week, with a little help from the minds behind “Top Gun.”

Commander Mike Metcalf (“Viper”): You think you will be on the plaque?

Lieutenant Pete Mitchell (“Maverick”): Yes, sir.

Viper: That’s pretty arrogant, considering the company you’re in.

Maverick: Yes, sir.

Viper:  I like that in a pilot.

Baker Mayfield, University of Oklahoma

Mayfield was a late arrival to Mobile and as of the time of this piece is still a question-mark for the game, as his mother is dealing with some health issues that obviously have the quarterback’s attention divided between Mobile and home. But upon his arrival for the first North team practice, it was clear that Mayfield is your alpha-dog quarterback. High energy level, constantly trying to pump up other players, including fellow quarterback Josh Allen, and he certainly gave off that “field general” vibe during practice sessions. It was reminiscent in a way of Carson Wentz two years ago, whose personality also stood out during the practice week. Some might mock that, but for a position where leadership is more important than we sometimes realize, it matters.

Now, is there an arrogance to Mayfield? Yes, and perhaps even a chip on his shoulder the size of Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. We saw it when he was carrying around the “pretenders” sign after Lee Corso’s comments, or when he planted the flag at Ohio State. We also saw it after one of the practice sessions this week, when Mayfield was asked during a media scrum why he was the best QB down in Mobile. His answer? “I’m a winner.” Then he walked away, leaving the rest of us looking for the mic he just dropped.

So here’s my position on Mayfield. Much like Viper, I love confidence, even arrogance, in a quarterback. You have to play the QB spot angry at the world and with the utmost confidence, because it is a position that does not lend itself to success from the timid. So the fact that Mayfield has this arrogance to him is fine by me. It has gotten me into trouble before (see Cook, Connor) but I’m confident enough in Baker as a quarterback to double down now.

Here is the other thing I saw from Mayfield this week: An advancement of understanding in the passing game. During the practice session on Day One, Mayfield looked to throw a wheel route and, on the fly, turned it into a back-shoulder throw in a split-second decision. Why would he do that, when most quarterbacks try and lead the receiver? Because Mayfield knew where the closest defender was and didn’t want to lead him to contact. That’s a quick decision that showed an upper level of understanding of coverage, route design and execution. Does Mayfield have flaws? Yes, and some of them were covered in this recent piece from the great Matt Waldman. But I’m much more willing to take the chance on Mayfield being able to refine his flaws, than some of the other quarterbacks in this group.

Speaking of which…

Viper: Gentlemen…You’re the top one percent of all naval aviators. The elite. The best of the best. We’ll make you better.

Josh Allen, University of Wyoming.

Early in the Day Two practices, Josh Allen dropped into the pocket during one-on-ones and threw a perfect deep ball to Michael Gallup, the wide receiver from Colorado State. It was one of those splash-type throws that Allen can deliver, that wow crowds and hace offensive coaches daydreaming of Allen making those throws on an NFL Sunday.

When Josh Allen gets drafted in the top five of this draft, that throw is likely part of the highlight reel that airs along with the selection.

Now whether he should be drafted in the top five of the draft, or in the first round at all, is a different question altogether. My issues regarding Allen coming into this season are well-documented. He has elite arm talent, there’s no question about that. But the other aspects about playing the quarterback position, such as touch, feel, placement and anticipation, were lacking coming into the 2017 season. His 2017 tape did not show much development, at all, in those areas. That held over the course of Senior Bowl Week as well. Zebra Technologies was on site, and put chips into the footballs. It probably comes as no surprise that Allen posted the best velocity number during the week, hitting over 66 MPH. But with Allen, everything happens at 66 MPH. Still. On those reps where he tries to use touch, he struggles. A prime example was a corner route to Mike Gesicki in one of the earlier practices. It was in a one-on-one drill and the defender was on the tight end’s back hip, so Allen needed to use touch to throw over the defender.

The pass overthrew Gesicki by about 10 yards.

Which means that there is still work to be done, so you’re betting on his NFL coaching making him better. How often does this really happen? I’ve made the Nuke LaLoosh comparison with Allen before and I’ll stick with it, and it brings up the question of who is going to be his Crash Davis? (Or his Cmdr. Mike Metcalf, if we stay with this analogy). Who’s going to make Allen better? Will that happen in the NFL?

Viper: Maverick. I flew with his old man. Tell me, if you had to go into battle, would you want him with you?

Lieutenant Commander Rick Heatherly (“Jester”): I don’t know. I just don’t know.

Luke Falk, Washington State University

I honestly do not know what to make of Luke Falk at this point.

One of the best parts about attending the Senior Bowl is the ability to study players with other smart people, bounce ideas off them, and use the analysis from other smart people as a way of cross-checking your own work. Mobile was filled with smart people watching these practice sessions, and two people whom I trust and value when it comes to quarterback study are the aforementioned Mr. Waldman, and Benjamin Solak, from NDT Scouting.

According to Matt, “Falk was quietly as consistent and productive as any quarterback here. He was decisive, on-time, and did good work from the pocket. He has long-term starter potential.”

According to Benjamin, “Luke Falk’s going to struggle to stick on a roster.”

Looking back at my notes, Falk certainly struggled in the early going, particularly on Day One. In the seven-on-seven session on Tuesday, Falk was 0 for 3 on his reps. He missed Durham Smythe on a corner route, and then overthrew Braxton Berrios on a crossing route during that session. He was shaky to open Wednesday’s session as well, missing Berrios again on a post route. But when he was in team drills, or able to throw routes closer to the line of scrimmage, he was able to deliver with good timing, rhythm and placement. The vertical game might be a weak part to his game, but he seems able to function in a West Coast-based offense, one that perhaps also incorporates spread and/or Air Raid concepts that he knows well. That might not be sexy, but it might keep him employed in the NFL in some capacity for the next ten years. My goal now in trying to decide where I finally stand on Falk is to review him through that lens, and to see if what he does well will provide him with enough staying power.

Jester: That was some of the best flying I’ve seen yet. Right up to the part where you got killed.

Tanner Lee, University of Nebraska

I have actually used this quote before to describe a player, in my breakdown of Allen’s 2017 interceptions. But it is also applicable here. For the first two thirds of the North practice Tuesday there was some unease in the stands. The much ballyhooed showdown between Mayfield and Allen was being upstaged by, of all people, Tanner Lee. He made a good read and decision on a Levels Concept, he made a great throw to start the seven-on-seven drills, and it caused me to write in my notebook “Are we selling Tanner Lee Short?”

Then he locked onto an in-breaking route from the slot from the snap, never moved anyone with his eyes, and linebacker Nick DeLuca cut under the route for an easy interception. It would not be the last one he threw that day, or during the week.

Lee is Allen-lite. He has a strong arm and can make impressive throws in the downfield passing game, but what we saw on tape with him was confirmed this week in practice. He still locks onto routes and makes mistakes with his eyes, leading to mistakes with the football. He remains a very high-variance quarterback, who can impress at one moment and lead an entire assemblage of media personnel to wonder if he’s the best quarterback of the day, and who then makes a series of mistakes that leave the same personnel wondering if he even belongs in Mobile.

Maverick: You don’t have time to think up there. If you think, you’re dead.

Kurt Benkert, University of Virginia

In Top Gun, Maverick suddenly finds himself defending his actions in a training mission to Charlotte Black (“Charlie”), a civilian instructor portrayed by Kelly McGillis. In response to Charlie asking him what he was thinking, Maverick provided this response, which translates well to playing the quarterback position, and the speed at which you need to play.

You can learn a lot about a quarterback in “no-throw” or even “late throw” situations. Sometimes you learn good things, but other times you uncover some flaws. When a quarterback is late with a throw, even double-clutching on a throw, in one-on-one drills, you wonder about their processing speed and whether they trust their own eyes.

At one point during one-on-one drills, Benkert dropped to throw a dig route. He clutched, then clutched again, and was very late to throw the route. His hesitation and lateness with the throw allowed the defender – who was beaten on the play – to recover and break on the football, causing an incompletion. This was a theme of his week in one-on-one situations, and he struggled in those drills and it leaves me wondering if he can trust his eyes at all. If you’re late on these throws when there are no other distractions to impact your thought process and field of vision, you might always be late with your decisions and throws.

Benkert had some moments in team drills, where he threw some good seam routes and seemed to be a more consistent quarterback, but again his throws and reads were always a bit late. That, and some inconsistent ball placement, have me wondering about his ceiling in the NFL.

Charlotte Black (“Charlie”): Excuse me. So you’re the one?

Kyle Lauletta, University of Richmond

After Allen and Mayfield, which signal-caller would try and stand out as perhaps the third-best QB of the group? There were many contenders, but for my money the University of Richmond product may have done the most to help himself this week in Mobile. Coming into the Senior Bowl, I wanted to see if Lauletta’s arm and processing speed could translate to a faster game coming from the Football Championship Subdivision. Lauletta showed immediate that he belonged, as he opened team drills on Tuesday with a perfectly-timed, rhythm throw along the boundary with sufficient velocity and processing speed.

As the week went on, Lauletta continued to be quick and decisive with his reads, flashed crisp and clean mechanics, and really stood out in the under center, boot-action passing game. His footwork in those situations was picturesque, and confirmed much of what prior tape study on Lauletta displayed. You get the sense that Lauletta could step in and run much of Kyle Shanahan’s offense now, between his proficiency in this aspect of the playbook, as well as his ability on timing throws at the short- and intermediate-levels of the field.

He proved that he belongs this week, and now we can start to picture where he ends up in terms of a scheme fit. A team to keep in mind: The New England Patriots. This is something that Nick Martin has been talking up for a while now, and having now seen Lauletta in person, perhaps he is the one to step in as the next in a long line of potential Tom Brady successors.

Commander Tom Jardian (“Stinger”): You were number two, Cougar was number one. Cougar lost it—turned in his wings.

Mike White, Western Kentucky University

As we just mentioned with Lauletta, there was an opportunity for a quarterback not named Allen or Mayfield to rise during the week. Mike White entered the week with perhaps the best chance to claim that mantle, but in my viewing, it was Lauletta who moved ahead of the Western Kentucky product.

There is a lot to like about White’s game. I think he has good feel and velocity in the quick game, and early in the week he made some nice reads and throws on comeback routes along the boundary as well as quick routes such as slants and flats. He is very effective when he can pull the trigger on his first read.

Where White still struggles is when his opening read is foreclosed due to coverage and he is forced to reset, extend and get to another progression. So while White was very good in one-on-one situations, throwing against air, and even in the red zone when the decisions are forced to be quicker, in team drills and even in seven-on-seven situations the decision-making process was slower than one would hope for.

The question I now have about White, and that will serve as the main focus of my further work and study on him, is one of scheme fit. Can he process quickly enough to operate in a West Coast-based system, or does ne need to be in a different style of offense that looks to stretch the field vertically more, and gives him some half-field, defined reads, to help him in the mental aspect of the game? For example, something akin to what Jay Gruden and Sean McVay did with Kirk Cousins the past few years, and what McVay brought out west to use with Jared Goff. Some half-field and/or mirrored reads, lots of designed throws to the backs, and quarterback-friendly progressions to ease his transition, might make sense.

Goose: The list is long, but distinguished.

Brandon Silvers, Troy University

Entering 2017 one of the quarterbacks I was most intrigued by was Brandon Silvers, out of Troy University. I liked his competitive toughness as well as his ability to anticipate and to move underneath defenders with his eyes, I thought those were areas where Silvers showed great promise.  This week he did show some of that, as well as the ability to work the middle of the field in the short- and intermediate-passing game. So there are still some things to like.

But what I could not get past this week was the length of his throwing delivery. It was much more elongated than it looked on tape, and that is going to be an issue for him as he looks to attack better defenses and tighter throwing windows. There is also a lack of consistency with his eventual arm slot and release angle, and that shows on throws down the field that are too often off the mark. Silvers might be a fit for a team that is at its core a West Coast offense, with some throws that look to attack the middle of the field, but right now he seems to be limited from a schematic point of view.

Maverick: We’re gonna have a good time.

Goose: Always

The Mobile Experience

Three years ago I made my first Senior Bowl trip, and each year is better than the last. Getting the chance to sit down with so many writers that I respect and picking their brains for a few minutes, getting their thoughts on different players, and talking through various moments or potential draft fits is an invaluable resource. I learn so much from interacting with all the other great minds out there, and it really helps shape my own work.

Then, of course, there are the takes in the stands and the late night jokes over an adult beverage…or beverages. It is odd in a way, meeting someone for the first time yet feeling like you’ve known them for years, but that’s the magic of the Twitter Era. But that is what Mobile offers each year, and it was a blast yet again. Too many people in here to mention and out of fear that I’d miss someone, let me just say whether it was just for a brief moment or an entire night out on the town, I treasured spending time with everyone down there.

Charlie: I’ll have what he’s having. Hemlock, was it?

Seriously though, Miller High Life drink specials are a good idea in theory, only. So is ordering them by the six-pack…

Maverick: I think I’ll go embarrass myself with Goose.

You could take the previous quote, swap in Michael Kist for Goose, and it would basically be a good portion of my time down in Mobile.

So now another Senior Bowl week is behind us, and we have the combine and all the rest of the Timeline Takes to look forward to. As always, it was a blast, and I truly did enjoy every second I got to spend with each of you. When I started down this second career path I could never imagine getting the chance to have an experience like this, let alone for three-straight years. It is all because of you, the readers, who have supported Inside the Pylon and my work over the years, and give me the strength and the drive to keep on going down this journey. I’ve gotten so many breaks along the way, and I could spend the rest of my days thanking everyone who has helped me along the way, so let this be a blanket thank you. To everyone. You’ve all played a part and I cannot thank you enough.

Now cue the Righteous Brothers…

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