When discussing quarterbacks making the leap to the NFL, we often focus on traits like arm strength, pocket presence, deep accuracy, and downfield vision. However, the best signal caller can make all the throws. Mark Schofield has decided to eschew the usual build-a-quarterback and is instead intent on building the perfect route tree using the quarterbacks from the 2016 NFL Draft class.
With the draft on the horizon, and the work on the quarterback prospects nearing completion, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to build the perfect route tree using this year’s quarterback draft class. Bear in mind that this is a subjective exercise, but it helps to illustrate areas where each of these quarterbacks excels, and demonstrates what is the best means of executing each route. In part one of this series, we will examine the three common screen routes in the college game.
Swing Screen – Vad Lee, James Madison University
The swing screen is a staple of many college offenses. Often used in conjunction with read/option plays, the quarterback is tasked with throwing the football to a receiver bending away from him on a swing route toward the sideline. While a short throw, the pass needs to be made with accuracy, precision and timing, because the slightest mistake in placement can disrupt the flow of the play and lead to a loss of yardage. Given the frequency with which this route is run, there are many quarterbacks that throw it well, but Lee is the best. Here is one example:
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Prior to the snap the running back starts in motion toward the left side, where the Dukes have three receivers, including the tight end. This play can only gain yardage with a precise throw, which is what Lee delivers. As the receiver starts to bend toward the line of scrimmage and gain momentum, the QB takes the snap and quickly uncorks his throw to the swing route. The ball is thrown with velocity and leads the RB toward the line of scrimmage, and is placed perfectly to the chest of the target. Because of the timing, velocity and placement of the throw, the RB is able to make a football move after the catch, juke the defender and gain yardage after the catch. Given what can happen on these plays when the throw happens to hang in the air or make the receiver reach back for the ball this is perfectly executed from Lee.
Another screen play that is prevalent in the collegiate game is the smoke screen, where the target simply turns toward the middle of the field at the snap and waits for the football, sometimes taking one step down the field before turning and looking for the ball. As with many short routes, timing is critical here: the quicker the ball is in the receiver’s hands, the quicker he can try and pick up yardage after the catch – and the defenders have less time to break on the throw. Which is why Boykin is the best in the game at executing this throw, because of how he handles the timing issue:
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TCU empties the backfield, with two receivers to the left and a bunch split wide to the right. Boykin throws the smoke screen to Josh Doctson (#9), who is able to pick up a few yards after the catch. What is impressive about this throw is the quarterback’s mechanics on the release. Because getting the football in the receiver’s hands quickly is critical to the success or failure of this route, Boykin takes the snap and rather than bring the football up as he does with his typical throwing motion, he simply torques his upper body and throws this sidearm. The replay angle provides a great look at this, and shows how the QB looks more like Dustin Pedroia turning a double play than Tom Brady delivering a throw downfield:
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This design differs from the two previous routes because the receiver is moving toward the middle of the field as the play unfolds. Timing and placement are critical here as well, but the angle of the receiver makes this strictly a throw. There were many potential winners in this category, including Cardale Jones, but the California QB takes the prize with plays like this:
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Some of the traits that have Goff near the top of many quarterback boards are on display on this screen. First, he sells the route structure well by keeping his eyes downfield after the snap, and then sucks in the defensive front with some footwork in the pocket. At the last minute he peels his eyes to the outside to pick up Kenny Lawler (#4), working toward the middle of the field. Then Goff delivers a perfectly-placed throw with just enough velocity to allow the receiver to make an easy catch and then put a move on a defender after the reception. When all the parts are added together, the Golden Bears pick up nearly 25-yards on the play and are close to midfield.
In part two we will examine some of the shorter routes in the passing tree, including the hitch, the quick out and the slant, and will unveil perhaps one surprising winner.