We’re Thinking About QB Ceilings All Wrong

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]It’s often said that NFL Draft prospects with raw physical tools have higher ceilings and lower floors in comparison to their more technically refined peers, who, for the most part, usually possess higher floors and lower ceilings due to a lack of superior physical traits to grow into.

This can easily be said of a raw EDGE defender like New Orleans Saints 1st round pick Marcus Davenport out of the University of Texas San Antonio. Davenport displays the physical traits of an excellent EDGE prospect, but needs to work on the nuances and technical aspects of the position. Davenport’s size, length and athletic profile are enticing to coaches who believe they can develop and mold the UTSA EDGE defender into a top tier pass rusher in the NFL. Those tools provide him with a potentially higher ceiling than most EDGE prospects, even if he’ll end up at a lower skill level without the needed development.

As evaluators, we seem to do the same with QB prospects in spite of the position demanding traits unlike the other 21 positions on the field. Evaluators tend to label QBs with raw physical ability as high upside players due to excellent arm strength and outstanding size for the position, things that can’t be taught or developed.

However, it’s my belief that it’s the mental processing aspect required of the QB position that determines the potential room for growth and development for a QB prospect, not their raw physical tools as conventional wisdom would have us believe.

Raw physical tools set the baseline floor for the QB position, they don’t determine the ceiling. One of the better examples I can provide is how a QB who possesses a good heater can overcome processing speed deficiencies due to how quickly they can fit the ball into tight windows. New Buffalo Bills’ and former Wyoming Cowboys QB Josh Allen, a high variance prospect due to his raw arm strength and relatively poor decision making, is a perfect example of how arm strength can act as a compensator for a lack of processing speed.

Arm strength and velocity can also be plenty useful in the red zone when the playing field begins to contract and space for receivers to separate is scarce. The Allen-led Wyoming offense ranked 2nd in Red Zone offense throughout college football with a 97.1 success rate converting 33 red zone scores on 34 red zone attempts.

This play is slightly outside the red zone area, but it’s one of the best examples of Allen’s arm strength making up for a lack of processing speed.

Wyoming calls a double post concept on this 1st and 10 play from their opponent’s 23 yard line. After the snap Allen fakes the handoff to his running back and gets his eyes downfield while beginning to climb the pocket. The inside post route draws the free safety towards the middle of the field allowing the outside post route to face single coverage while simultaneously gaining inside leverage. Allen recognizes the free safeties positioning and makes the right read by throwing a laser to the outside post, leading to the score.

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What’s incredible about this throw is how quickly Allen’s pass arrives to his target. Prior to the draft Allen performed a series of athletic tests for Soul and Science. One test that Allen particularly excelled at was “Load to Arrival,” which measures the load from hand separation to release to arrival of the ball – the QB’s target. Allen averaged a ridiculous 0.38 seconds Load to Arrival time which is on par with Tom Brady according to the segment. Allen’s raw velocity on his throws also impressed. The Wyoming QB’s fingertip speed, a good measure of ball speed, was measured at 74.3 MPH – the fastest launch velocity ever recorded by the Soul and Science crew.

Allen’s elite level velocity on his passes allow him to be a tick slower in the processing speed department than some of his peers who have quicker processing ability to anticipate throwing windows before they manifest. However, being a ‘see it and throw it’ type does have its downsides.

Wyoming finds itself down 18 and within striking distance at the Iowa 24 yard line on 3rd and 4 with enough time to get themselves back in the game if they get a quick score.

Allen rightfully senses pressure coming through the A-gap before he fully settles into his drop. However, he begins to retreat and takes an additional step backwards despite the defensive linemen being roughly 4.5 yards away from making any kind of play. By not displaying poise and pocket presence to stand in the pocket in the face of pressure, Allen misses an opportunity to throw the quick out to the top of the screen.

Had Allen possessed the necessary processing speed to recognize his receiver was open immediately out of his break the Wyoming QB could have stepped up and delivered the throw for a potential 1st down.

Instead, Allen is now forced to throw the quick out a moment too late off his back foot while fading away from his target.

Due to a lack of processing and anticipation on this throw in combination with poor throwing mechanics, the play results in the cornerback cutting underneath the route for an interception and a quality return, effectively ending any chance Wyoming had at making a comeback. It’s examples like this where Allen’s arm strength can get him into trouble as he sometimes relies on his arm talent too much.

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Allen’s lack of mental processing ability shows up in other areas of his game as well. It can also affect his pre- and post-snap reads of coverages. Here on 2nd and 10 to start the 2nd quarter, Boise State shows a Cover 0 look.

Allen identifies Cover 0 prior to the snap, but fails to check on the safety post-snap to confirm the pre-snap look. When the ball is snapped, the linebackers drop into zone coverage underneath and the safety lined up across from the left slot receiver rolls to play the middle of the field.

Allen does look to the middle of the field for a split second, but is still unable to recognize the rolling safety. Allen then proceeds to look to his right while performing a nice pump fake as he eyes his tight end – who simultaneously runs a strong stick-nod route to create separation between himself and the safety across from him.

Because Allen believes there to be no deep safety over the top he lofts a pass deep downfield, but the Boise State safety is able to range to his left and make the interception.

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On the other end of the processing speed spectrum is Houston Texans’ QB Deshaun Watson. In contrast to Allen, Watson uses his excellent processing speed as an equalizer for a lack of elite level velocity on his throws, which allow for his passes to routinely arrive on time. It was reported that Watson may not have the velocity on his passes to be a quality NFL starting QB coming out of Clemson. The Tigers’ starter apparently didn’t meet the requisite MPH threshold of 55 MPH when throwing at the 2017 NFL Combine, where he reportedly threw 49MPH. Somehow his lack of velocity on his throws in shorts held a significant amount of weight despite the 38 games of tape there was to study on him. Nonetheless, Watson performed at an MVP level in his short stint as the Texans starter before a non-contact ACL injury ended his majestic rookie season prematurely.

Watson’s stellar play in his first NFL season and in college was ushered by how quickly he was able to assess coverages and see throwing windows open down the field. No play perhaps exemplifies his ability to quickly recognize throwing windows develop and throw with excellent anticipation than this red zone pass.  

Up 14-7 in the 2016 ACC Championship game, Watson and the Tigers offense found themselves in a 3rd and 7 situation on the Virginia Tech 10 yard line.

Similarly to the last Josh Allen play breakdown, Virginia Tech lines up in a Cover 0 look in the pre-snap phase. After receiving the snap Watson eyes the safety to the right side of the field to check if Virginia Tech deviated from their pre-snap look. They do just that, as the safety drops and begins to eye the slot receiver to the right side of the field, signaling Cover 2.

After checking the coverage post-snap, Watson quickly determines that he’s not going to work the right side of the field. Going through his progressions Watson surveys the left side of the field, reading the strong safety to determine whether to throw the curl to Mike Williams (#7) or the post to Jordan Leggett (#16). The safety drops and sits on the curl route underneath, allowing Watson an open throwing lane to Leggett on the post with the middle of the field open.

Watson sees the opening and fires a well placed anticipatory pass through two underneath defenders, leading Leggett into the open portion of end zone.

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Quarterbacks that process coverages and anticipate throwing windows quickly are preferable to QBs who get by on their arm talent alone. In my experience evaluating the QB position, the former tend to make better decisions with the ball and are more successful in the pre- and post-snap phases in regards to making the right reads. This is likely due to the raw talented QB relying exclusively on their arm strength thinking they can fit the ball into any window no matter how tight the coverage. With this type of mindset it’s difficult to imagine much effort going into other aspects of the game to develop and refine important and even the minute details that can elevate good QBs to great ones. Details like tweaking throwing mechanics, drop back timing mechanisms and developing a high-level understanding of defensive coverages and their tendencies.

NFL decision makers like to point to arm strength as a sign that a QB can make all the throws necessary for Sundays – deep throws downfield that require plenty of arm strength. Yet, according to my colleague Mark Schofield, NFL offenses are relying more heavily on throws within 20 yards down the field. Throws less than 20 yards account for 85.8% of attempted passes by QBs in Mark’s charting dataset.

Additionally, Mark’s data also led to the conclusion that velocity isn’t necessarily a prerequisite to successfully push the ball down the field. Our Pied Piper of the anti-radar gun movement, Deshaun Watson, attempted the league’s highest percentage of passes thrown 21 or more yards down the field with deep balls accounting for 17.3% of his passes.

Essentially, it’s not enough to just fire fastballs downfield. Similarly to a pitcher in baseball, QBs must be able to take some velocity off their passes with good timing and touch. Without the feel for throwing the ball it’s unlikely a QB with rare arm strength will ever develop upper tier accuracy and ball placement to maximize his potential.

Allen’s rare arm strength in combination with his other adequate to solid traits should allow him to become a bottom third of the league starter. It’s his processing speed, inability to anticipate developing throwing windows, and lack of touch relative to other QBs that limits his ceiling as a QB prospect, as these skills are generally innate traits that are difficult to tap into if not originally present in a QB’s toolkit even when supplemented with an intense work ethic.

Yet QBs like Allen, who had the highest Relative Athletic Score of any QB drafted in the 2018 class with an elite RAS of 9.66, are just another data point in what has become a befuddling trend in the NFL Draft. Physical traits are commonly correlated with draft position in the 1st round of the draft despite how unimportant raw athleticism is in comparison to mental processing traits that are desired in the ideal QB prospect.

According to Kent Lee Platte’s RAS metric, only two QBs have been drafted in the 1st round that scored a RAS under 5.00 since 1987 – Jameis Winston (2015) and Baker Mayfield (2018). For those unfamiliar with RAS, 5.0 is the median RAS for draft prospects, which accounts for size, speed, burst, strength, explosiveness, agility and movement skills.

Below is a scatterplot illustrating the relationship between every QB that qualified for a RAS since 1987 and their Draft position.

When accounting for all seven rounds of the NFL Draft the graph results in a negative correlation between RAS and Draft Position. Yet, upon further investigation, there seems to be a tight cluster of data points forming in the top left corner of the chart which may be signaling something of significance happening early in the draft.

When narrowing the dataset to only QBs selected in the 1st round the results show a strong positive correlation between RAS and Draft Position, which supports the idea that athleticism in QBs is being highly valued at the top of the draft in round one.

To further emphasize how athletic ability is correlated to draft position regarding QBs – 96% of QBs taken in the 1st round have a RAS above the median score of 5.0. Furthermore, 66% of QBs taken in the 1st round have scored an elite RAS since 1987, which are RAS above 8.00.

However, this confounding misunderstanding of what innate traits apply to maximizing development and growth potential for QB prospects is not new. The most convincing anecdotal evidence in NFL history of QB ceilings being determined by mental processing traits rather than physical traits up until this point is none other than Tom Brady and his performance at the 2000 NFL Combine. The future five-time Super Bowl champion posted a 2.74 DYRAS, well below the median score, which more than likely played a role in how he was valued coming out of Michigan according to NFL team’s draft tendencies in the last 31 years.

In addition to the measurables, Brady visually didn’t conjure up thoughts of a future franchise QB in the minds of NFL evaluators. With his lanky frame and lack of muscle definition it’s easy to see that from a size standpoint, Brady wasn’t exactly the quintessential NFL quarterback prospect.

MANDATORY CREDIT: National Football League

In early March of 2017 Brady reflected on and shared one his pre-draft scouting reports highlighting his less than ideal stature as motivation for hopeful draft prospects leading up to the NFL Combine.

“Poor build, Skinny, Lacks great physical stature and strength, Lacks mobility and ability to avoid the rush, Lacks a really strong arm, Can’t drive the ball downfield, Does not throw a really tight spiral, System-type player who can get exposed if forced to ad lib, Gets knocked down easily.”

From what we’re given – there are no assessments of Brady’s mental processing ability in the evaluation. Additionally some of the assertions made by the scout are flat-out inaccurate. I have hindsight on my side, but after retrospectively studying Brady against Alabama in the 2000 Orange Bowl, it’s evident that he exhibited high levels of poise, pocket presence, functional pocket mobility and at the very least average to good arm strength with good spin while in college.

Michigan faced a 14-0 deficit with just over a minute remaining in the first half of the Orange Bowl. After being given the ball around midfield, Tom Brady orchestrated a drive behind a series of short passes to get the Michigan offense in position to score. Up until this point in the game Brady completed 11 of 14 passes for 50 yards.

Brady receives the snap from the shotgun with a clean pocket for him to throw from. The safeties are going to play to the boundaries, leaving the middle of the field open. WR David Terrell (#1) is going to run a post route from the slot. He releases to the outside which draws the safety to the boundary, allowing Terrell gain inside leverage on the post as he breaks inside.

Brady quickly diagnoses the coverage and releases the ball before Terrell breaks across the safety’s face. Brady’s pass is thrown with very good anticipation and good velocity to hit Terrell in stride for six prior to the end of the half.

Athleticism and the ability to scramble are nice tools for QBs to avoid pass rushers, but having only functional mobility in the pocket works just as well for those without plus athletic gifts. In spite of what the scouting report indicates, Brady has displayed the functional pocket mobility to avoid the rush and not take a sack since his time in Ann Arbor.

Brady lines up under center for this play on 2nd and 8 early in the 3rd quarter. As he readies to receive the snap the Alabama ILB (#11) begins to lean in showing blitz. Brady is unable to make a pre-snap adjustment and carries out the play action fake. The fake leads Brady into the LB’s blitz path and he’s forced to use his functional mobility to shed the blitzing LB and sidestep a DL before throwing the ball away downfield.

We’ve seen Brady avoid the rush with a similar sidestep maneuver throughout his career in New England as well.

On the very next play Alabama sends a corner blitz on 3rd and 8. Here, Brady is able to process the blitz better from the shotgun and quickly recognizes that he has his hot WR Terrell on the outside facing single coverage. Brady displays strong poise in the pocket and steps into his throw. This could have been placed better as it is thrown behind his receiver. Yet, Terrell makes the catch and avoids two tacklers for a touchdown to tie the game at 14.

Brady isn’t the only example of a QB who fell in the draft due to a perceived lack of a tangible traits. Drew Brees and Russell Wilson fell to the 2nd and 3rd rounds respectively because of their size despite strong athletic profiles and great processing ability. To an extent Deshaun Watson also dropped, but because of arm strength concerns.

It’s a quandary as to why this phenomena exists with all the information NFL teams have on how important mental traits are to the QB position. There may be some inherent cognitive bias we as evaluators have towards conspicuous traits like arm strength. It’s certainly enticing to watch Josh Allen effortlessly throw a ball 80 yards down the field at his pro day and reminisce about past NFL greats with similar arm talent. Yet, it’s important to realize how rare it is that type of throw takes place in an actual game in today’s NFL. After all, only 10.2% of attempted NFL throws travel 21 or more yards down the field.

Another possible explanation could be because raw physical traits are more tangible than mental ones. It’s easier to measure and communicate a player’s athletic ability than it his mental processing. Nevertheless, a good evaluator will gather information on every aspect of a players game to clearly paint a picture of the prospect’s overall ability. Like Greg Cosell once said, “All intangibles manifest themselves on the field in tangible ways.”

Moving forward when evaluating QB prospects it’s best to keep in mind that their ceilings and room for growth are not reliant upon how far and hard they can throw, but how quickly they can process vast amounts of information in a short span of time.

RAS Data courtesy of Kent Lee Platte

QB Charting Data courtesy of Mark Schofield

Check out more of his work here, including a look at Baker Mayfield’s Touch and Torque, how to mask deficiencies along an offensive line

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One thought on “We’re Thinking About QB Ceilings All Wrong

  1. Surprised there are no comments here.
    I’ve just found this article while looking for precisely this subject.
    Accurately predicting QB success is the drafting holy grail and it’s obviously a multi-faceted task. Nevertheless, it should be obvious that physical traits alone aren’t a guarantee of anything, and that some other factor is more significant.

    Understandings of intelligence likely factor in. I would imagine a book-smarts vs. instinct debate happens frequently. Regardless of how each individual QB’s mental processes work, an ‘end-results’ approach looking at overall ‘processing speed’ might be most important. Although more understanding along those lines might prove valuable.

    The combine tries to test physical traits, it’s not inconceivable that a mental test for QB’s, if one could be devised, could prove useful. It would at least make sense that prospects are evaluated mentally as well as physically.

    Just our of curiosity, have you taken a look at the crop of college QB’s currently under the spotlight – Tua, Hurts, Burrow, Fromm etc.

    Fromm stands out as intriguing because he seems to be the one doing the most with the least physical gifts, suggesting he’s a smart QB – but is his lack of elite physical traits going to be too much to overcome at the NFL level?

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