Previewing the Combine: The Quarterbacks

Previewing the Combine: The Quarterbacks

The annual rite of passage is upon us: The NFL Scouting Combine. In just over a week over 300 hopeful NFL players will descend upon Indianapolis to participate in perhaps the world’s strangest job interview process. For the quarterbacks, the process is relatively simple. They’ll take to the podium and address the media, they’ll go through the measurement process and everyone will partake in the annual hand size debate, and hopefully all of them will throw at Lucas Oil Stadium. For these 17 QBs, each enters the Combine hoping to demonstrate that they have the necessary traits to excel in the NFL. However, what each needs to accomplish in Indianapolis might be different from QB to QB. Here is a look at the 17 quarterbacks headed to Indianapolis, and the most important place – or body part – for them at the Combine in my mind.

Before you ask, the quarterbacks are tiered and roughly ranked. The first group are quarterbacks I’d expect to start as rookies. The second group are the QBs I’d imagine would be looked at to take over in year two. Group three are the more developmental type guys, with spot-starter upside. Then in group four you have the projects, quarterbacks who will need a bit more work (and one that is already being looked at for a position switch). The rankings are not final, but are pretty darn close to final, with just a few games left to watch on each QB.

Tier One – Rookie Starters

Dwayne Haskins – 20 Yards or More Downfield

In a year with a number of interesting quarterback evaluations, Haskins might be the most intriguing. His process is often fantastic…up to a point. My notes on him are littered with phrases such as “good read,” “good decision,” “love the thinking here,” but then there is often a failure on the execution end of things. A prime example is a play against Purdue University, on a 1st and 10 in the first quarter. Ohio State dials up a Yankee Concept variant and Haskins’ reads the play perfectly, and throws an adjusted corner route to the right side that is wide open.

And he misses the throw.

So I’ll be watching his ball placement, particularly on throws in the vertical passing game. My concerns with Haskins center on his response to pressure – something you cannot exactly simulate at the Combine – and how he fares in terms of ball placement on downfield throws. Some crisp execution there will help assuage, but not eliminate, those fears.

Kyler Murray – The Scale

Honestly, you could put Murray’s weigh-in on pay-per-view and people would fork over the $49.99 to watch.

Murray’s height and weight might be the biggest question of all as we enter Indianapolis. Because let’s face it, even if Murray hits the upper end of expectation on the scale, he will still be an outlier. As we know, General Managers are a risk-averse bunch, and drafting a quarterback who checks in at 5’9” 180 pounds is a decision that doesn’t just get you fired…it might find you out of the league if he does not pan out. This is something that Louis Riddick touched upon recently on ESPN:

If Murray hits the upper end of expectations, and comes in at 5’10” and 200 pounds, he remains an outlier, but in the Russell Wilson mold, not the Doug Flutie mold. Of course, it only takes one team to believe in Murray’s talent – and there is a ton of talent – but the bigger he is, the more comfortable this risk averse lot will be with drafting him in the first round.

Drew Lock – Where the Feet Hit the Turf

Lock entered this season with high expectations, having been crowned the preseason QB1 by Mel Kiper as soon as the 2018 draft was finished. Lock had some rocky moments early in the season but as the year wound down he had some impressive games, such as his outing against Florida, his final two regular season games (at Tennessee and against Arkansas on a wet and raw afternoon), and his bowl game against Oklahoma State. Lock also turned in a solid week down in Mobile at the Senior Bowl, and enters the Combine for many as QB3 behind the first two quarterbacks.

If there is an area I will be focused on, it is his footwork. Lock has a powerful arm, and as I outlined recently given how Josh Allen’s arm strength eased his transition into the NFL, I’ll be more open to power armed quarterbacks in the future. But his footwork still needs work. Too many of his throws, even in the vertical passing game, mirrored fallaway jumpers, the kind you’d expect to see during a pick up game at the local gym. His footwork was improved down at the Senior Bowl, and that’s what I’ll be focusing on when he’s working out at the Combine.

Tier Two – Starter Upside

Brett Rypien – The Meeting Rooms

Now we’re having some fun.

Longtime readers of Inside the Pylon probably are not surprised at seeing Rypien this high up the list. He first made an appearance on this site back in 2015, when I broke down a fake fumble play he executed as a freshman. Rypien then popped up in the First Sound series back in 2017, and throughout his career he has been a quarterback I’ve been keeping a keen eye on.

A strange divide seems to be forming between how the NFL community views Rypien (after all, he did not get a Senior Bowl invite) and how the draft community seems to view him. Many other evaluators, after getting a chance to study him, put him in this range. Rypien might end up being example of a player that the two camps view wildly differently, but he should not be. When you study him you’ll see a QB executing in the pre-snap phase, and then delivering in the post-snap phase. You’ll see a quarterback doing the little things that are necessary to succeeding as a quarterback. The process is sound, and the results tend to be as well.

For me, his most important place in Indianapolis is the meeting room, when he gets a chance to sit down with teams. His years of experience, his veteran presence and his mind for the game will come through during those sessions. If you are a team that needs to perhaps replace a veteran starter in the next few years, still believes in the “Parcells’ Rules,” and appreciates a smart, accurate quarterback who is active in the pre-snap phase and can operate a timing and rhythm-based offense, Rypien is the quarterback you want.

*Stares at Bill Belichick.*

Will Grier – The Podium

Will Grier was one of the two quarterbacks I was most excited to see in person down in Mobile.

His week, however, did not live up to expectations. But there was one moment that still sticks in my mind, and why I’m still somewhat high on him: A post-practice media scrum on Tuesday, when he answered every question shot his way with confidence, almost arrogance. Yes, he’s the best quarterback in his class. Yes, he has the best arm in this class. Ask anyone he has played with. Ask anyone he has played against.

Of course he is throwing at the combine.

That’s pretty arrogant, considering the company’s he in.

I like that in a quarterback.

Yes, his workout will matter, and I’ll be watching for cleaned up and tightened mechanics, but Grier’s confidence should shine through when he is at the podium. It might rub some the wrong why, but quarterback is a position that you cannot play scared, and I’m confident that more than a few coaches and general managers will see the same thing from him that I do.

*Stares at Jon Gruden*

Daniel Jones – His Targets

In contrast to Lock, Jones left Mobile behind with a little work left to do. I thought that Senior Bowl week would have been a potential break-out party for the Duke University quarterback, given his skill-set and the way the week was set up for him. Studying Jones this past summer and again this fall, he seems to me to be a perfect West Coast passer. His processing speed and ball placement on quick game concepts is his strength. His ball placement on routes such as hitches and slants is usually ideal, and tends to put his receivers in position for yardage after the catch. Down in Mobile he’d be playing for Mr. West Coast himself, the aforementioned Jon Gruden.

But the week did not live up to the expectations I had set for him, and now he enters the Combine with more work left to do.

I’ll be watching the ball placement. First, on the quick game concepts, to see if it still matches up with what I saw on film. Second, I want to see the ball placement as he works deeper down the field. Is he going to be limited schematically, or is there room for growth with him? Jones is getting some first round buzz (which, frankly, I’m not sold on) but a decent showing in Indianapolis might ease some concerns.

Jarrett Stidham – The Meeting Room

Yes, this is a year of difficult quarterback evaluations, and Stidham is no exception.

After his 2017 season, I thought that Stidham might be in a position to rise up boards with a solid 2018 campaign. However, that was not exactly what happened, as he and Auburn struggled during the regular season. Stidham did turn in a solid performance in Auburn’s bowl game, but there were still question marks in front of him as he entered Senior Bowl week.  Yet even with the question marks, you could see that Stidham was in position to rise down in Mobile. Getting away from the Auburn offense and getting a chance to run Kyle Shanahan’s system for a week was going to be a help. Stidham throws a nice ball and can make anticipation throws, so the controlled environment of Senior Bowl practices would suit his skills.

That’s exactly what happened. Stidham looked very good down in Mobile, and had one of my favorite throws of the week during a seven-on-seven session Wednesday when he moved the underneath hold defender with his eyes and threw away from his reaction. Now he looks towards Indianapolis not as a Day Three quarterback, but as a QB who has likely played his way into Day Two.

In my mind, the meeting room is his most important place in Indianapolis. He’ll need to work through with potential employers how things went down at Auburn, how he tried to work through the down season, and he’ll need to build off his week in Mobile and demonstrate that he can operate a more complex offense than the one he was running in college. These are all things that he can do, and similar to the Senior Bowl, do not be surprised if come March we’re hearing his name rise more and more.

Tier Three – Developmental Upside

Tyree Jackson – His Left Leg

As Benjamin Solak of The Draft Network told me down in Mobile, “..but when you have the hammer.”

Solak is right, Jackson certainly has the hammer. On arm talent alone he might be the most impressive quarterback in this class, and his tape is filled with some “how did he do that?” kind of passes. But Jackson is raw, both from an execution standpoint and a mechanical standpoint. It begins with his front/left leg. For taller quarterbacks, they tend to overstride a bit, which locks their front leg as they step into a throw. When that front leg locks, or straightens, it breaks up the throwing chain between the upper and lower body, almost working against the quarterback as kind of a brake.

I wrote about this earlier with DeShone Kizer.

Jackson has that same aspect to his throwing motion. So I want to see if he’s shortening up his stride with the lower body. Because when a QB locks up that front leg you see a dip in velocity, and you also see some inaccuracy. If Jackson cleans that up, well…

Ryan Finley – The Radar Gun

I know, I know. I’m “Mr. Ignore the Radar Gun.” Or “Mr. Velocity Does Not Matter.” But I’m easing off that position a bit, and generally speaking, there are thresholds that quarterbacks need to meet if they are going to be successful in the NFL. Ask Kellen Moore, for example.

But I digress.

Finley is a quarterback in this class that I do like, and he’s a surefire candidate for the “long term backup/spot starter” role that every class seems to have, and that some teams look for when it turns to Day 3 of the draft. I think the processing is good, I think his execution is solid on most designs, and I love him in a timing and rhythm based offense. N.C. State loved running a three-receiver concept out of trips with a post route from the outside receiver, an out-and-up from the middle receiver and an out route from the inside receiver, and Finley would throw that out route perfectly each time right in rhythm. Talking to him down in Mobile about that concept, you could tell he loved throwing it.

Headed into Mobile one of my bigger concerns with him was the velocity factor. Would he meet the threshold? He seemed to spin it pretty well down at the Senior Bowl, so I will be curious here to see if my eyes and the radar gun match up.

Gardner Minshew – 20 Yards or More Downfield

Minshew had me at air quotes.

Perhaps my favorite moment of Senior Bowl week was asking the Washington State quarterback about Mike Leach’s offense, and what aspects of it prepared him for life in the NFL. He entered into an answer about four- and five-progression reads and full-field reads that was music to my ears, but then he shifted into talking about how Leach’s system was much more of an NFL offense than the “college, pro-style offenses that you hear about.”

Complete with air quotes. I nearly fainted.

Watching Minshew, particularly his feet, and you see evidence of exactly what he is talking about. Take the Mesh concept, an Air Raid staple. When you see Minshew run this design you see a perfect marriage of mind and feet. His feet are under him the entire time as he works from the wheel to the crossers to the sit route to the backside post or curl. Always in throwing position, always ready to strike. A guy like me eats that stuff up.

Now Minshew showed some limitations as well down in Mobile. Throws downfield into tighter windows were more of an adventure than they were in Leach’s offense. So that is what I’ll be watching for: When he needs to drive the ball downfield, will the passes be crisp, on time and well-placed? Is there a schematic limitation to his game? I still think there are some teams that would value a quarterback with his skills, even with a schematic limitation to it, but I want to see if there is more.

Jordan Ta’amu – 20 Yards or Less Downfield

In terms of games that were just plain fun to watch this year, Ta’amu’s game against Southern Illinois is right up there. Ta’amu seemed to channel this inner Daryle Lamonica, and put on a clinic in downfield passing with multiple bucket throws in that contest.

In contrast to guys like Haskins and Minshew, I want to see how Ta’amu fares in the shorter areas of the field. Mississippi’s offense was a heavy vertical system, which made some sense given the weapons at his disposal, but as we try and project him into the NFL I want to see if there’s a way to expand his scheme fit beyond a Coryell system or not.

If he is more of a vertical passer than anything else, then I’m looking at you, Carolina Panthers.

Clayton Thorson – Where the Feet Hit the Turf

A lot of the things I’m waiting to see from Thorson – or the areas where I still have concerns – are things that cannot be tested or simulated at the Combine. There are times when he seems too conservative with his decisions, such as a first quarter throw against Notre Dame in 2018 when he threw the hitch late on a Smash concept when the corner route was open. There are times when he pauses or takes an extra beat or hitch with the football, which leads to the ball coming out later than it should. He is also inconsistent against pressure, which is obviously something that cannot be tested in Indianapolis.

But something that we can observe is his footwork. Another area of concern I have with him is his ability to make accurate throws in those “set/reset/throw” moments. When faced with pressure and forced to move off the spot, you can see Thorson’s ball placement dip. I want to see fluidity from his footwork. Now, some of this could be due to his recovery from an ACL injury, so there might be some uncertainty in his part when it comes to his lower body. It is something we see from quarterbacks as they try and come back from these knee injuries (see Wentz, Carson) so when Thorson is throwing in Indy, I’ll be watching his feet.

Tier Four – The Dice Rolls

Easton Stick – Outside the Hashmarks

Stick is a quarterback who caught a lot of buzz headed into the East-West Shrine Game and then…it tapered off. His week down in Tampa was largely underwhelming, so he heads to Mobile with some work left to do.

He is another interesting study in this class because I have had two different “put the pen down” moments with him, on opposite ends of the spectrum. Studying his 2018 game against North Alabama left me wondering about him, particularly when he was late to throw a route to the flat on a Flat-7 Smash concept and it was nearly intercepted for six the other way. But then you see him make an anticipation throw on a dig route in the middle of the field against South Dakota State, and you wonder if this is the true Easton Stick. (Sadly, that play came off the board due to an offensive pass interference penalty, but the execution was there!)

I do want to see Stick’s velocity on throws to the boundary. He projects in my mind as a more West Coast-based passer, but even on some quick game concepts to the boundary you would see throws tail off and droop as they got towards his  target. Can he deliver those throws with enough RPMs on them or not? That’s what I’ll be looking for.

Kyle Shurmur – Where the Feet Hit the Turf

New York Giants head coach Pat Shurmur will be pulling double duty out in Indianapolis, as a head coach of a team looking to perhaps draft a quarterback with the sixth-overall selection, and as a dad of a quarterback looking to get drafted. That might make for a fun story or two…

When it comes to Kyle, I’ll be watching his footwork. Studying him over the past two years it was…inconsistent. Both when moving around in the pocket, creating space from pressure and when dropping into the pocket to begin with. There are some other mechanical issues with Kyle, such as a loop/dip to his throwing motion, but my eyes will be trained on his feet.

Trace McSorley – The Meeting Room

Trace McSorley is a great college quarterback. I’ve relayed this story before but it merits reconsideration. When I attended the 2017 Big Ten Media Days before the 2017 college football season Indiana head coach Tom Allen told me that when facing Penn State – an offense with Saquon Barkley and Mike Gesicki – that you had to stop #9 first. Allen, a defensive-minded head coach who had some success slowing down Barkley, viewed McSorley as the “straw that stirs the drink.”

I got a chance to ask McSorley about that down in Mobile and his answer did not really surprise me. He viewed it like Spiderman, in the mold of “with great power comes great responsibility.” McSorley was a great college QB, but can his game translate to the NFL?

He’ll need to convince NFL coaches and GMs of that fact, and for him the biggest stage is in that meeting room, sitting down with these decision-makers and showing them that he can run the kinds of offenses he’d be asked to run in the NFL. McSorley is a tough kid and I’m not one to bet against a QB with competitive toughness, but the path does seem steeper for him than others. Those meetings are a big chance for him.

Jake Browning – The Radar Gun

One of the more enjoyable aspects of draft season is working through evaluations in a collaborative manner. Whether formally or informally, bouncing plays and ideas off other people and drawing upon the knowledge of the men and women in this industry is always helpful.

I had one such moment recently studying Browning’s 2018 game against California. Early in the contest he faced a middle of the field open look from the defense, and a post route was wide open, splitting the safeties. He did not pull the trigger. Finding this confusion, I made a quick video of the play and shared it with some people, asking this question: “Why are we not throwing the post here?”

The first response? “Because he does not have the arm to make that throw.”

It was a humorous response and I moved on to study the rest of the game. As is sometimes the case other things pop up (you know, little things like eating lunch and picking up the kids from school) and I eventually returned later that night to the California game and Browning. Wouldn’t you know it, later in the game Browning saw the same look from the defense and sure enough, he tried to throw the post route in the middle of the field.

The pass only made it to the linebacker underneath.

I do wonder if Browning is going to meet the arm strength threshold.

Nick Fitzgerald – The Bench Press

This is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but when you enter the combine as a quarterback and indications are that the league is viewing you as a “Taysom Hill” candidate, you have to think that your days as a pure quarterback are drawing to a close. When studying Fitzgerald one of my notes on him read “more Tebow than Mariota.” In my mind, he was more of an athlete playing quarterback than an athletic quarterback.

So hearing that the league views him as a utility-type player, and maybe a position switch is in his future. If he’s facing an NFL career as a tight end or an H-Back, let’s see those reps at 225…

 

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