#1 best-selling author Mark Schofield reveals his list of the top quarterback prospects for the 2016 NFL Draft. Schofield, who wrote 17 Drives – a chronicle of the 2015 college football season – has ranked Vernon Adams as his 5th ranked prospect. Click here to look at all of his work on the 2016 QB class.
After an illustrious career at Eastern Washington University in the Football Championship Subdivision, Vernon Adams transferred to the University of Oregon for his final year of college football. While at EWU, Adams guided the Eagles to three consecutive Big Sky championships, as well as three consecutive berths in the FCS playoffs. As a sophomore in 2013, Adams led EWU to a 49-46 upset over then #25 Oregon State, a game in which he threw for 411 yards and four touchdowns, while running for 107 yards and two more scores. He twice finished second in the voting for the Walter Payton Award, given to the top offensive player in the FCS. He finished second in 2013, and second again the following year, when he completed 66% of his passes for 3,483 yards and 35 touchdowns, with eight interceptions.
Despite his work at Eastern Washington, Adams requested a release from his scholarship and transferred to Oregon for his final season. Because of an issue with one of his courses, his transfer went through late and there was concern over how he would handle the late transition to Oregon, despite running a similar offense with the Eagles. In his debut with the Ducks – against his former team nonetheless – he threw for 246 yards and two touchdowns, gaining an additional 94 yards on the ground. But he left the game with a concussion, and suffered a broken index finger on his throwing hand. The following week was his debut on a national stage against Michigan State, on the road in prime time. Despite his injuries, he threw for more than 300 yards and a touchdown, but threw two interceptions as well. He brought the Ducks back in the fourth quarter and had a chance to give Oregon the lead, but overthrew a vertical route with just over one minute left that might have won the game for the Ducks.
Adams missed three of the next four games, and saw limited action in a blowout loss to Utah. But when he was finally healthy, he returned to the starting lineup and put up very impressive numbers down the stretch while leading the Ducks to six consecutive victories. Against USC, he completed 20 of 25 passes for 407 yards and six touchdowns, in a game that did not go to overtime. The only blemish on the rest of the season was a triple-overtime loss to TCU in the Alamo Bowl. Despite missing three full games, Adams finished the season with 2,643 yards passing and 26 touchdowns, with six interceptions.
We can begin with Adams by discussing the notion of structure versus off-structure, and the importance of each to quarterback play and the evaluation of a position. To be successful at any level, particularly the NFL, a quarterback needs to have both aspects available to him. With respect to playing off-structure, it is easy to understand why. The route concepts and schemes might look easy enough to operate on Wednesday afternoon against the scout team, but come Saturday afternoon – or Sunday night – things will change in a hurry. The defensive line will show different looks, and bring pressure faster than anticipated. The secondary will roll its coverages more crisply, and break on throws better than expected. So a quarterback needs to be able to play outside the design of the play, to react to these changes and still execute plays. Whether it requires the ability to extend plays with your feet, improvise in the scramble drill, or recycle your progression reads, flipping back to your first read after going through the first five, a QB needs to find a way to make plays when things break down.
Adams does this very well. He can keep plays alive with his feet, using athletic ability and even play strength to stay upright in the pocket or get the edge, and find a target downfield. But he can also work through his reads from first to last, and back again, making a play late in the life cycle of a single snap that goes for a big gain, or even a touchdown. He was extremely adept at this while executing the mesh concept, and twice I have illustrated examples of him getting back to his first read on a play late in the snap for a touchdown, in two different games.
Also important, and the flip-side to this coin, is the ability to make plays on structure. To win from the pocket as it is sometimes called. The reason is, there comes a time in the life cycle of a quarterback, whether during his transition to college, or to the pros, or later in his NFL career, when he cannot get away with the things he used to be able to against defenses. Perhaps he was fast enough to run around against high school defenders, or Big 12 defenders, but the speed of the NFL defenses turns what used to be big plays into sacks. Perhaps Father Time has finally caught up with him, and times when the QB would break the pocket for big plays are now minimal gains. Can the QB still win from the pocket? Adams can do this as well.
When watching Adams, it is easy to get the impression that he is running around without a plan, but this is usually not the case. Whether he is simply working the scramble drill, or if he is just recycling through his reads, Adams improvises with a purpose. It is controlled chaos, and perhaps more difficult for a defense to stop than the playground atmosphere some QBs relied upon when they were on the field.
Whether improvising or not, Adams can work through his progressions and has the ability to identify the correct read quickly. Oregon gave him a number of mirrored passing routes to choose from, as well as letting him run the mesh concept, a scheme he thrived in, but in both examples Adams has the ability to either identify the soft areas of the defense pre-snap, or to find the open man as the play unfolds.
On film he displays enough arm talent to make plays at the next level. The measurement of his velocity at the combine was less than it appeared while watching him on film, but within the offense he was running at Oregon – and earlier at EWU – he was able to get enough zip on throws to challenge throwing windows and tight coverage. He can also throw the deep ball with touch, although there are times he puts too much loft on throws, allowing a beaten defender time to regain ground. He’ll need to zone in on this as he moves to the next level.
Mechanically, Adams is sound when throwing from a clean pocket. He generates a great deal of torque in his upper body when delivering the football, and this allows him to drive the football from sideline to sideline while in pocket. He throws very well when he is on the move, which is expected from a QB with his playstyle. He also likes to use pump fakes or his eyes to try and move defenders in the secondary, another aspect of his playing style that will suit him well in his professional career.
While he is very aggressive in the passing game – almost to a fault – there are times when he goes the conservative route and checks the football down to his running back out of the backfield. Again, doing this more would definitely help his transition.
There are times when he makes his mind up pre-snap with where to go with the football, and this leads to him staring down routes and giving the defense a chance to make a play. This only led to a few interceptions (or near-interceptions) in FCS and in the Pac-12, but in the NFL these instances likely go the distance – in the wrong direction. He will need to be cleaner with his field of vision and learn to move his eyes while in the pocket.
While Adams does climb the pocket at times, evading edge pressure and extending a play, there are times when he exits out the back door, playing right into the hands of a defense. When he does this, he can often still keep the play alive with his pure athletic ability, but this might not be as successful in the NFL.
In terms of timing and anticipation, right now he is more of a see it, throw it quarterback. In watching his film from the past two years there are not a ton of examples of him throwing a receiver open. He shows good timing and anticipation on limited designs, specifically bubble screens and wheel routes. But when asked to challenge the middle of the field, for example, he needs to be sure of what he is seeing before pulling the trigger.
In terms of decision-making, there are times when his thought process gets ahead of the play, and he misses an open receiver because he has already moved on from that option, before the play design expects him to, and this often gets him into bad situations. This play is an example:
The Ducks use an RPO design here, and run four verticals from a 3×1 formation. The inside trips receiver crosses over the middle, aiming for the other hashmark. After the snap Adams puts the football in the belly of his RB, and both linebackers crash forward. But rather than throwing the wide open seam route, Adams fails to pull the trigger. He gives up on the seam and drifts to his left and is eventually strip-sacked. He will need to be more patient at times in the pocket, and give plays the full time they require to develop.
Adams would fit best in a West Coast scheme that incorporates spread elements to the offense, similar to what Chip Kelly will be running in San Francisco, which he dubbed the “see-coast offense.” Adams himself stated during the Combine that he could run that offense already, and I would agree with this assessment.
While this is the “one play” section, I want to provide two examples of Adams here, one with him playing on structure, and one with him playing off, as these bring a more complete picture of his game. First, this throw against Michigan State, is an example of on structure. Trailing by 10 early in the fourth quarter, the Ducks face a pivotal 4th and 7 in Spartans territory. The offense has 11 offensive personnel on the field with slot formation to the left. The MSU defense, with 4-2-5 personnel, shows a double linebacker blitz up front and Cover 6 in the secondary:
Oregon runs a smash concept to the left. Bralon Addison (#2) begins the play in the slot and runs a short out to the sideline, while Byron Marshall (#9) runs a corner route. Marshall first cuts to the inside on his release, but then quickly breaks to the outside:
The goal is to set up a high-low over cornerback Darian Hicks (#2). The defender tries to split the difference between Addison and Marshall, sinking late underneath the corner route. Safety Montae Nicholson (#9) widens to the outside, keeping watch on Marshall’s corner route. Together, Hicks, and Nicholson constrict the throwing window. Despite the narrow throwing lane and the two defenders in the area, the Ducks face a fourth-down situation and the quarterback needs to pull the trigger, which Adams does – and he makes the play:
The quarterback places this throw perfectly, staying on-script and within structure in a pivotal moment. The Ducks scored a touchdown later in the drive, setting up a thrilling conclusion. When you consider the context to this play (first FBS road start, first prime-time FBS game, broken right index finger) this throw in this moment is all the more impressive.
Now, an example of what Adams brings to the table when working off structure:
When the ball is snapped Oregon has slot formation to the left and one receiver split to the right, with a second receiver in motion and on the wing to that side of the field. They run a Flat-7 design to the right, with the inside, motion receiver breaking to the flat while the outside receiver tries to run a shallow corner route. On the left side, they run a Tosser Concept, with two slant routes. Adams opens to the right and wants to throw to the Flat-7, but the defenders each get a good jam on the WR, disrupting the timing. Adams then pivots to the Tosser Concept side of the field, but doesn’t like what he sees. He then checks his RB in the flat to the left, but that route is covered as well. With the pocket breaking down, he buys time to the right, before finding his corner route breaking back to the middle of the field. Adams hits his receiver, and the Ducks convert this 3rd and 4.
One- and Three-Year Projection
Adams is a lightning rod in draft circles at the moment. Many evaluators believe he is worthy of a high draft pick, myself included. But every report coming out of the NFL right now is that he is likely a UDFA, and he himself indicated that he has not even visited with a team (or worked out for a team) since the Combine. So, here’s a possible one- and three-year projection:
Adams goes undrafted, or a team decides to take a flier on him late in the 7th round. He goes into a camp, but because of limited reps during practice and early in the preseason, he finds himself on the wrong end of a numbers game, and is cut. He goes to the CFL, where he ends up doing very, very well over the next three years.
Meanwhile, one (or more) of the teams that passed on him for a more “standard / polished” quarterback in this draft find themselves in a precarious situation when their starter goes down next year, and the player they drafted to be the backup fails to produce. This team (or these teams) are left rummaging through the scrapheap of other failed QBs while their fanbases wonder why a contingency plan was not in place. Three years from now, these franchises again try to address the QB position … and again reach for a more conventional model.
The NFL. Rinse, lather and repeat.
Now imagine for a moment a franchise actually drafts Adams sometime on Day 2 or early Day 3, and puts a plan in place for him to be successful, giving him reps in practice, placing him in an offense that suits his skill set. His ceiling in the NFL might very well be a backup QB. But as a threshold matter, QB2 is a pretty important position to begin with, as the Dallas Cowboys would tell you. But beyond that, I think even in his rookie season in the NFL (and if given the chance as outlined) Adams might not do enough to win the backup job outright, but he is the type of player (and has the type of playstyle) that can come off the bench in the second quarter of a game with the starter hurt or ineffective, and spark a team to a win. His athletic ability, improvisational skill and ability to play on structure are valuable to an offense in those scenarios. He might not be the guy year one that you turn to for an extended stretch, perhaps opting for a veteran option in that scenario, but for a one-game situation, he’s a viable option. Perhaps that’s his ceiling, a guy who comes off the bench for a game or two each season and guides his team to a win. What is that worth to a franchise? Maybe check with teams the past few years that could have gotten into the playoffs with one more win.
Vernon Adams can deliver wins for a football team. Whether that happens in the NFL or the CFL remains to be seen.