Pre-Combine Quarterback Thoughts
The 2018 NFL Scouting Combine is just around the corner, a time when the professional football world descends upon Indianapolis to pursue dreams and consume St. Elmo’s Cocktail Sauce by the gallon. For many positions, the testing drills can result in dramatically improved draft stock, just ask Byron Jones or John Ross. But when it comes to the quarterbacks, it is often what happens away from the field – but not always – that has the most impact. In the return of Check With Me, Mark Schofield has some thoughts on what he’s watching at the Combine, and wades into the Josh Allen debate once more.
The Most Important Places in Indianapolis for the Top QBs
Sure, the passing drills will be covered live and will be scrutinized ad nauseum. But for many quarterbacks in this class, what happens on the field is dwarfed by the importance of what happens either on- or off-camera, with one exception. Heading into the Combine here are the most important places for the “Top Five” quarterbacks in this class – at least in my mind.
The Interview Podium for Josh Rosen
On-the-field, Josh Rosen might be the cleanest quarterback prospect in this class. Rosen is mechanically sound, accurate to all levels, has sufficient velocity to make every NFL throw and is in my mind the most scheme-diverse quarterback in this group.
So why is he not the sure-fire QB1?
Welcome to anonymous scout season, where red flags pop up in the most inopportune times. With Rosen the concerns center on two factors. First, a more legitimate concern, is his injury history. Rosen missed time with a shoulder injury while at UCLA when his sophomore season ended early. Then, he suffered two concussions, which has raised another set of concerns.
But the other worries surrounding Rosen stem from his willingness to be more vocal about issues away from the field itself. Rosen’s commentary about players playing in bowl games, about hoping he gets picked by the team that is the “best fit” and not simply early in the draft – which raised some ire in Cleveland – as well as his desire to use football to make money, have been viewed as serious character concerns.
Because after all, why should a college student look to maximize his future earnings in a chosen profession? But I digress.
Plus, and it does bear mentioning, there’s the greater-than-zero chance his choice of attire while golfing elicits an angry Presidential Tweet before the draft, and potential NFL employers probably don’t want their first-round QB in a war of words with the President.
So for Rosen, the most important part of Combine Week for him is that moment he steps to the podium in Indianapolis. His comments have done nothing to sway my evaluation of him, but I’m not the one looking to hand him a multi-million dollar contract and make him the face of my organization. NFL owners are, and they tend to be an old-school lot. They’ll be watching what Rosen says closely this week.
The Interview Suite for Baker Mayfield
Similar to Rosen, Baker Mayfield faces some concerns over his behavior and maturity level as we head into the Combine. Between his pre-season arrest, the gesture made on the sidelines against Kansas and his willingness to push back at any criticism or slight (whether perceived or real) has ruffled some feathers and drawn an unfortunate comparison to Johnny Manziel.
For me, Mayfield’s unchecked ire and fury when playing the quarterback position are a plus. I view it this way: If you were to meet Tom Brady on the street, how many minutes would it be until Brady mentioned that he was a sixth-round pick? Sometimes the greatest athletes need that proverbial chip on their shoulder to drive them. For another example, look at Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech. This is not to say that Mayfield is destined to become one of the greatest to play the position, but he will always be, in his mind, a walk-on. That inner fire is going to drive him in the NFL as it drove him in college. Sometimes that spills over, but in the long run I believe it will benefit him.
But again, we are dealing with an old-school lot here as we talk about Mayfield moving to the NFL. So in those interview sessions, when he sits down with an entire staff and front office, Mayfield will need to sell himself and his maturity. Like Rosen he will need to convince an ownership group that he can be the calm face of a franchise, and is worth handing the keys to. I believe he is, but I’m just a guy with a laptop and some coffee…
Where Sam Darnold’s Feet Meet the Lucas Oil Turf
Darnold is one of two quarterbacks in the Top Five that I believe can help himself on-the-field. The USC product was the talk of the Combine once before – last year – when everyone in Indianapolis was already looking to the day when he would be a sure-bet at the top of the draft. But Darnold’s play this year did not live up to the lofty expectations set at his feet, and he has some work to do to prove that he is the best quarterback in this group.
For me, that begins with his feet. Darnold’s loopy throwing motion has caught the attention of many scouts, but the young QB has shown that through above-average arm strength and the ability to make anticipation throws, he can eliminate concerns with the upper-body mechanics. Darnold is one of the more advanced passers in this class when it comes to anticipation throws, and that serves as the great equalizer when it comes to throwing motion concerns. Plus, passers in the NFL, such as Russell Wilson, Carson Wentz and Blake Bortles have made similar motions work, to varying degrees. So that is not a huge concerns for me right now.
What remains a concern, and is something I highlighted when I broke down Darnold’s interceptions this season, is his lower body mechanics. Darnold is often seen stepping in the bucket with his lead foot, and opening up his lead hip too early, causing a drop in accuracy and velocity. That is an issue, especially when coupled with the upper-body windup. This is why Darnold’s pre-Combine work has featured footwork in large part:
— Jordan Zirm (@clevezirm) January 31, 2018
When Darnold hits the field at Lucas Oil, I will be watching his feet. He has the raw talent to perhaps overcome these mechanical flaws, but I would feel much better about him as a prospect if he started to clean this up. I’ve often maintained that I do not care how a football gets to its target, as long as it gets to where it should be, when it should be. But since Darnold’s lower-body issues have impacted his play on the field, and led to interceptions, it has become an area to watch.
The Whiteboard for Lamar Jackson
“I don’t think that Lamar, the Louisville kid’s in that discussion, in fact there’s a question that he may be, he might be a receiver.” –Bill Polian
I’ve long maintained that Jackson is a quarterback in the NFL, and can be a good one early in his career in the right offensive system. But there are those who believe that due to his athleticism, size and style of play he is best suited to play another position. I do not agree, but these are the circumstances facing Jackson as he enters the Combine.
I believe the tape speaks for itself, and the advances and strides Jackson made as a passer over the last two years scream upper-level quarterback prospect. Are there flaws he needs to fix? Sure. We can start with his throwing base, which is often too narrow and leads to accuracy issues. Detractors also point to his willingness to run, and make the assumption that when he gets to the NFL he will bail on pockets too quickly and will not give plays a chance to develop. Now, when I broke down the six interceptions he threw in the regular season last year, on one of those he passed on an easy running opportunity to make a throw. Again, I believe these concerns are unfounded.
But another concern raised with Jackson is his offense. People point to Bobby Petrino’s system and believe that it is set up for high completion percentages and easy throws for the quarterback. It has elements of that, but it is also a “pro-style” offense rooted in Erhardt-Perkins designs. When you read Petrino’s Louisville playbook you see the multiple reads, progressions and conversions the quarterback is tasked with making on each play. That’s why I believe Jackson can do well on the Whiteboard when meeting with teams, walking them through concepts he ran in college and showing them that from a mental standpoint, he can operate in an NFL system. That would go a long way toward convincing future employer that he actually can play the position he was born to play.
Josh Allen’s Passing Targets
The Wyoming quarterback is the other top passer who can really help himself during the on-field sessions. Josh Allen looks every bit the part of a franchise NFL quarterback. Ideal size, great athleticism, and the ability to throw a football a country mile. But my concerns with Allen have always centered around the other things it takes to play the position. Allen is a thrower, not a passer, right now. Whenever he needs to use touch, feel, timing and anticipation to complete a pass, buckle up because the ride could get bumpy.
What I’m watching for from Allen is the accuracy, even throwing against air. He does everything at a million miles per hour right now, and he might continue to do that at the Combine. But I want to see him dial things back, and show more feel for making the throws he is asked to make. I’ve been waiting to see these things from him since, well, since forever. I did not see them in great abundance last year, I did not see them in Mobile, and I’m still waiting.
Three Sleeper QBs Who May Rise (Or Continue to Rise)
Lauletta was well-known in draft circle long before the Senior Bowl, but the University of Richmond quarterback became more of a household name over the course of a week in Mobile, Alabama for the Senior Bowl. In my mind, he was the third-best quarterback there, behind Mayfield and Allen, and others rated him even higher after the week. Then, Lauletta went on to throw three touchdowns in the game itself, and now has himself firmly in the mix for a Day 2 selection.
Lauletta might face some scheme limitations when transitioning to the NFL, as he does not have a power arm suited for a more vertical-based passing attack. But he could run most NFL offenses quickly in his career. He has a very clean and crisp release, throws well on the move, is accurate in the short- and intermediate-levels of the field and is a very smart quarterback. He played for four different offensive coordinators in college and has a great understanding of route concepts and designs. He’ll be great when meeting with coaches and working through Whiteboard sessions. Put all of that together and Lauletta’s draft season rise likely continues.
When I studied Chase Litton last summer, I came away very intrigued with his raw talent. His velocity, both from clean pockets as well as throwing off-platform, really stood out watching him on tape. I also appreciated the instances when he identified pre-snap leverage advantages and quickly exploited them after the play began. Like many quarterbacks there were issues I wanted to study more, such as staring down routes and running a somewhat limited playbook, but I was certainly intrigued.
It did surprise me when Litton declared for the draft, because I thought one more year in college would propel him toward the top of the next crop of quarterbacks. But now that Litton is in, it’s time to see how he can perform given this opportunity. I think the Combine is the perfect environment for him to make a little noise. His arm talent should serve him well in throwing drills, and he’ll get a chance to convince scouts and evaluators that he can step in and run an NFL offense. He probably has to wait until Day 3 to hear his name called, but I think Litton is a QB who can get himself in a position to hear his name called with a solid performance in Indianapolis.
J.T. Barrett seemed destined for the designation of “great college quarterback” who would never pan out in the NFL as his final collegiate season wound down. He ran Urban Meyer’s offense fairly well, won a ton of games at Ohio State and was a clear leader for that team. But when studying him on film you saw some flaws to his playing style. His processing speed was not as quick as it needed to be. He would make curious decisions with the football. He lacked consistency as a passer.
But Barrett seemed to help himself at the East-West Shrine Game. He had by many reports a very solid week of practice and at the end of the week was awarded the Pat Tillman Award, given to the player who “best demonstrates sportsmanship, intelligence and service.”
As the Combine can help players in a variety of ways on-the-field, we’ve seen that it can help players away from the field as well. Barrett might be that kind of player. It does seem like his personality and character will be impressive to NFL evaluators, and he might be in a position to impress upon future employers what he could bring to an organization. That might be enough to get him into an NFL camp come this summer.
One Upper-Tier QB Who May Fall
Rudolph put up impressive numbers during his time at Oklahoma State, and was invited to the Senior Bowl where it was expected he would push Mayfield and Allen as perhaps the best quarterback in Mobile. But a foot injury sidelined Rudolph from participating in the practices and the game itself. He should be ready for Indianapolis and will get a chance to finally put his talents on display for evaluators up close.
The issue with Rudolph is one of floor versus ceiling. He is an experienced quarterback and you could make the case that Rudolph has one of the highest – if not the highest – floor in this class. But the floor and the ceiling might be very close to each other. I’ve often felt underwhelmed watching him. He’s a good quarterback and was very successful in college, but I always came away wanting more. Now, that might just be one guy’s misguided opinion, and that’s fine. I know that Rudolph does have people in his camp and there are evaluators who think he’s one of the best quarterbacks in this class. But part of my reaction to watching him was the sense that he could show more velocity, and that he could be an even more impressive passer than he showed on tape. So my concern is that during throwing drills, others walk away with that same impression. He’s good, but couldn’t he be better? And if so, what is holding him back?
Hopefully for his sake he balls out in Indianapolis and makes me eat the take.
Josh Allen: Will vs. Should
As a parent of two young children (Owen, six and Simone, four) I spend a lot of time trying to teach lessons. It’s becoming tougher and tougher with Owen who is really starting to develop his own personality.
A recent exchange with Owen went something like this: After suffering a splinter to the bottom of his foot, an injury obtained while flailing around while barefoot in his bed, I caught him later that night trying to open one of his dresser drawers with a bare foot. When I noticed that, I reminded him of his current injury and asked why he thought opening another wooden drawer was a good idea.
“Because I can, Daddy.”
“Yeah, Owen, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”
In the past few days the Josh Allen debate has been renewed, in the wake of two developments. First, Mike Mayock released his pre-combine Top Five at each position and Allen was listed as QB2, behind Darnold. Then, Pete Prisco with CBS released a mock draft with Allen coming off the board with the first pick. Two separate football minds, both with an avalanche of sources in and around the league, putting Allen high.
But it comes down to a “will he” versus “should he” debate now, I think. This is something Matt Miller advanced during a taping of Stick to Football down in Mobile. Allen will go early in the draft. I’m not sure that’s open to debate any longer. The issue now is whether he should.
From where I sit, taking a quarterback early requires that his developmental curve is a shallower path from his current abilities to his potential as a passer. I still believe that Allen faces a steeper developmental curve to his potential as a QB than most other quarterbacks in this class, for the reasons outlined earlier in this piece. The raw talent is undeniable and the potential is limitless. But you’re betting on development happening in the NFL. It does not always happen in the NFL. Perhaps we have become spoiled over the past season with Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. Last summer those guys were left as busts in the league, Goff to a larger extent. But look what happened this past season. Goff took that developmental leap and played extremely well, and Wentz was an MVP candidate before getting hurt and his team won the Super Bowl.
But look what it took. Goff needed a QB-friendly coach in McVay. Wentz had three QB-friendly coaches in Doug Pederson, John DeFillipo and Frank Reich. There’s a reason those last two names are on to bigger jobs: Because of what they helped do with Wentz.
But it doesn’t always pan out that way. For every Goff there’s a Locker. For every Wentz there’s a Gabbert. JaMarcus Russell. Joey Harrington. Matt Leinart. Brady Quinn. Brandon Weeden. The list goes on. Development does not always happen at the NFL level. It’s even tougher when a young quarterback who might need some time is thrust into the top of the draft and a situation that might be a difficult landing spot.
Allen is talented, and he could be an amazing quarterback in the NFL is his talent is developed properly. I want to see him succeed and I want to see him become the QB he can be. But he needs the right landing spot to realize that potential. Will he be drafted early? Yes. Should he? I would argue no, because that might put him into a difficult situation with unreasonable expectations. Where would I like to see him fall? Later in the first round, to a team that does not have an immediate need at the position, and I feel much better about him realizing that potential.
“Now Mark, couldn’t you say that about any quarterback?”
To some extent, yes. Landing spot and scheme fit matter so much more than we’d like to admit. Sure, when you read that in a draft profile you might think there is some hedging going on, or that the author is engaging in some CYA, but it does matter. Again, look at Goff and Wentz. But it matters more for some than it does others. I’m not as worried about that with Rosen as I am Allen, because Rosen is more scheme-diverse and the developmental path is much shallower, so I believe he could succeed in most environments. I don’t have that same level of confidence in Allen. Because time and time again we’ve seen QBs enter the league needing that seasoning, and the NFL failing to handle things the right way. The cycle repeats itself again, and again, and again.
Much like Owen, who minutes later was on his bed, wildly flinging around that leg in the direction of his wooden nightstand, asking to get another splinter. Let the cycle repeat itself anew.