American Football

The 2018 NFL draft is all about the Quarterback position

For better or worse, the 2018 NFL draft will be defined in the years to come by the success or failure of its five quarterbacks. This is for a few different reasons; firstly, the truly elite prospects in the player pool play unfashionable positions for top end picks, such as safety, inside linebacker and offensive guard. Secondly, this is a crop of quarterbacks who have been ballyhooed since they were in high school, have won the Heisman (player of the season) award or have otherwise been hyped for multiple years as top picks at this point. Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, it has been demonstrated by the success of teams in recent years like the Eagles and the Rams that if you can nail a top 5 pick quarterback, that will set you up for success for their initial four year contract, with the option for a fifth if they perform well. This elite production at below average pay allows you to then build an excellent team around this young quarterback to allow them to succeed.

Further complicating matters in this case is that none of the five truly stands out from the others, for reasons both sensible and not. For example, it has been suggested that Lamar Jackson, winner of the Heisman two years ago, move to the position of wide receiver. Admittedly he has been over 1500 yards rushing for the past 2 seasons and also has over 3500 passing yards both of those years. His 57% passing completion rate is obviously suboptimal, however, he had the highest percentage of drops out of the five quarterbacks, with the worst teammates outside of Allen. His throwing motion obviously needs some tweaks, but he played in a system similar to those in the NFL, and wasn’t a running quarterback to the extent former first round pick Tim Tebow, who then washed out of the league, was in college. There is one rather simple reason that this move has been mooted: Lamar Jackson is African American, and does not run like he has a piano on his back like Jameis Winston. There is always a desire, starting in the college game even, to move athletic African American players down the spectrum of skill and to more athletic positions, regardless of their actual skill level.

Jackson has, for spurious reasons, always been viewed as a step below his fellow future first rounders Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield and Josh Rosen. These four all push different buttons for the NFL draft apparatus, some more meaningful for future success than others. Three of these are from California, a hotbed for young quarterbacks, with Mayfield from Texas, another recruiting hotspot. They have played in disparate schemes, with a variety of coaching situations, so  actually directly comparing them proves difficult causing inherent biases and intangibles to come into play.

Darnold is at this point going number 2 overall to the New York Giants. This is partly as he came into  the last college season as the presumptive number 1 overall and so just due to the major inertia of the draft complex there’s only so far his perception will fall. He went to a major quarterback producing programme in USC, no matter how poorly those players have gone on to perform, and has the look that the scouts are after. He hasn’t exactly set the world alight passing and had nearly as many turnovers as touchdowns in 2017, but he has faced the hardest competition of all of them and only started at quarterback at high school in his senior year. His mechanics are also somewhat questionable and inconsistent. So whilst he has been a natural in this position, the track record for quarterbacks this inexperienced is checkered at best.

Arm strength has always been overvalued in comparison to accuracy in the NFL draft as the perception is that you cannot teach arm strength but can teach accuracy.

Josh Allen is in many ways the most mystifying in that he is essentially going to go with whichever of the top two picks doesn’t get spent on Darnold. However, Allen seems to fill every item on the checklist other than an actual ability to play the quarterback position. He played at FCS, essentially the second division. For a quarterback to play at this lower level and still get drafted in the first round they should have been setting the world alight like Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers did at Miami (Ohio). However, Allen had pretty pedestrian numbers in 2017, after his best teammates left after the 2016 season. This exodus would not explain how precipitous the drop off was, and even his performance with these supposedly great teammates aren’t exactly mind blowing. The scouting apparatus has been taken in by his height and athleticism, standing 6’5 and being able to throw a ball the length of the field and even 80 yards off his knees. The problem with Allen is that he can throw it this far and hard, but not accurately to the people he’s supposed to be throwing it to. Arm strength has always been overvalued in comparison to accuracy in the NFL draft as the perception is that you cannot teach arm strength but can teach accuracy.

However, completion rate is one of the statistics that translates the best, and overall the name that springs to mind most with Allen’s profile is Jake Locker. Locker was a University of Washington product that went 8th overall in 2011 to the Tennessee Titans. After producing a 54%completion rate in college he was drafted highly due to his physical tools and athleticism. He ended up only producing precious little before retiring at the end of his rookie contract, with a 57.5% completion rate, a hair under 5000 yards and only starting 23 games out of a possible 64.

Baker Mayfield is in many ways the antithesis of Allen, his case is almost entirely based on his actual production. He won the Heisman this past season after throwing for 4627 yards at a 70.5% completion rate after throwing for over 3700 yards the prior two years each. The knocks on him are his stature (at 6’1 he is taller than record breaking NFL passer Drew Brees and Super Bowl winning quarterback Russell Wilson) and more importantly, that his passing stats came in an Air Raid scheme in the defensively lacking Big 12 conference. Whilst these are overplayed for multiple reasons, the defence in the Big 12 is better than advertised and he still performed exceptionally in a system that favours passing numbers. The biggest issue may be his attitude, he has a chip on his shoulder which is admirable, however, this could potentially get the better of him if he continues to work hard and play hard, or if this chip grows and takes over. The failure in the NFL of Johnny Manziel, who played for the same coach at Texas A&M as Mayfield did starting his career at Texas Tech with a similar stature and attitude, does not help matters. This is despite Mayfield actually being dedicated to football and only showing a fondness for alcohol.

These issues are written off by those who don’t see this as a problem, or as more of a problem with traditional coaches like Mora who tried to effectively cage the most transcendent quarterback of his generation in Michael Vick.

Josh Rosen is then the hipster equivalent of Allen. He also does not have such great statistics in college despite having a lot of obvious potential. However, the more analytically inclined/those who pay more attention to the college game, are much more willing to explain these away with Rosen than with Allen’s shortcomings. Rosen also has prototypical size, at 6’4 without being skinny, an excellent arm whilst being technically sound. However, he had a different offensive coordinator every year at UCLA, with a significantly below par offensive line as well as playing as a true freshman. So it is easier to focus on the positive tools for the former five star recruit, especially given that he is also extremely smart and thoughtful with teammates who love him. This intellect is bizarrely what holds him back with scouts. This dates back to when he was part of ESPN’s “Elite Eleven” in 2014 when the bizarre question of whether Rosen, who gave up an extremely promising tennis career to play a team sport, really loves the game first cropped up.

The issue with Trent Dilfer, who runs this camp, was essentially that Rosen would not unthinkingly accept what a coach told him to do. This idea that Rosen wants to know why is not unreasonable, and understandable coming from someone who first played an individual sport. Even Rosen’s college coach, Jim Mora, has said that Darnold would be a better fit for Cleveland at number 1 and described Rosen’s questioning nature as being that of a millennial (all these players are obviously millennials). These issues are written off by those who don’t see this as a problem, or as more of a problem with traditional coaches like Mora who tried to effectively cage the most transcendent quarterback of his generation in Michael Vick. It is also seemingly refuted by the love he receives from his teammates.

All of these players could obviously find success at the next level, with varying degrees of likelihood. The key thing really is what team and coaching staff they go to. Darnold needs to go to a team that can work on his fundamentals and doesn’t put him under too much initial pressure. Jackson needs to go to a team that can put the tweaks in with his throwing motion and is willing to use him to exploit his skill set completely, and not put the limits on him that have been put on Marcus Mariota, for example. If Allen is to live up to the hype he needs to go somewhere with a good quarterback coach where he doesn’t need to start for at least a year to work on his mechanics and accuracy. Mayfield needs a coach who is willing to utilise a more progressive philosophy schematically and isn’t afraid of his personality. Rosen needs a younger, if not literally then mentally, coach who doesn’t try to be a traditionalist who is willing to talk to him as a peer and not a pawn. Whether these players go to these types of teams and coaches is very much up for debate.

 Callum McPhail

Featured Image courtesy of The U.S. Army via Flikr. No changes were made to this image. Image license found here. 

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