Josh Rosen drew criticism a few months ago when he stated that “I’d rather be a lower pick at the right team than a higher at the wrong team.” Some were quick to argue that Rosen was looking to avoid being picked with the first overall selection by the Cleveland Browns, but in reality Rosen was articulating the bitter truth of drafting quarterbacks.
For many of these incoming rookies, their landing spot, coaching staff and scheme fit will be much more important than any traits they bring as a professional. With that in mind, we can try and identify the best landing spots and scheme fits for the top five quarterbacks in this draft class.
The quarterbacks are listed in terms of the team’s current draft order.
Quarterback: Sam Darnold, USC
Team: Cleveland Browns
Offensive Scheme: Downfield, Vertical Passing Attack
With the addition of Todd Haley as the offensive coordinator, you might expect the Browns to favor a vertical approach on offense in the year ahead. Haley indicated after the move that he would structure an offense around the skill-set of his quarterback, but head coach Hue Jackson stated that Haley does believe in the downfield passing game, and the numbers bear that out. Only Deshaun Watson attempted more passes of 20-plus yards downfield (as a percentage of his overall throws) than Ben Roethlisberger in 2017.
So why would this fit make sense for Sam Darnold? In part because of some areas that Darnold still needs to develop as a quarterback. He may eventually become a more scheme-diverse passer than he is currently, but right now his footwork and lower body mechanics need refinement. That might not translate well to either a West Coast or an Erhardt-Perkins offensive system, two schemes that are predicated on timing and rhythm. That requires the footwork from the quarterback to be in sync with the route concept, and while Darnold is working to improve in this area, he is not there yet.
But Darnold's abilities can translate well to a downfield passing offense. He certainly has the arm strength to function in it, and he also brings the aggressive mentality that such an offense requires. While these plays often take longer to develop, his athleticism and ability to create outside of the pocket will help the Browns in this situation, should protection breakdowns occur up front when linemen are tasked with blocking longer into a play.
Putting it together, the fit makes sense, and Cleveland fans could look forward to plays like this down the field:
Here the USC Trojans run a three-level Flood Concept to the right side of the formation, a component of many vertical passing offenses. Darnold comes out of the mesh with his running back and rolls to the right, before making a pin-point throw on the move to the deepest route in the concept. His athleticism and downfield aggression make Darnold an ideal fit for a vertical passing attack.
Quarterback: Josh Allen, Wyoming
Team: New York Giants
Offensive Scheme: Play-Action Heavy
With Josh Allen’s impressive ability to throw a football, as well as his athleticism, one might think that he would be a fit for the previously mentioned team. While Allen might be a fit in Cleveland, there are some other offensive systems that would also mesh well with Allen’s skills and his experience playing at the University of Wyoming. While in Laramie, Allen played for Craig Bohl, who was previously the head coach at North Dakota State University before making the jump to the FCS level. While at NDSU, Bohl helped install the play-action, pro-style offense that would be run by Carson Wentz, and Bohl brought that approach with him to Wyoming.
Allen is a polarizing prospect to be sure, but when you watch him you do see that his best throws often come when he is operating under center, working through play-action, and then making downfield throws in the passing game:
With the Giants, Allen would come under the tutelage of Pat Shurmur. While the new head coach is a branch off the West Coast offensive tree, when you watch the Vikings offense from a season ago you can see how Allen would fit in Shurmur's scheme. The Vikings, according to Pro Football Focus, used play-action the second-most in the NFL, behind only the Los Angeles Rams. While Shurmur's roots are in the West Coast system, the Minnesota offense last season also incorporated elements held over from the guidance of Norv Turner, who favored a more downfield approach. That led to some plays in the passing game that attacked vertically, working off play-action:
As you can see on these two examples from 2017, the Vikings incorporated vertical passing concepts working off play-action to give Case Keenum some chances in the downfield passing game. On the second example, Keenum underthrew Stefon Diggs, and the pass was broken up. This style of offense would fit well with where Allen is as a quarterback right now, and given his arm talent, Allen won’t underthrow many of these plays.
Allen does need work and development, but he would get a chance to learn behind Eli Manning for a season or two, and he would find himself in a very friendly offense when it was time for him to take over the job.
Quarterback: Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
Team: New York Jets
Offensive Scheme: West Coast/Air Raid Hybrid
Last season new offensive coordinator John Morton installed a hybrid offensive system rooted in both West Coast and Air Raid offensive philosophies. That system propelled journeyman quarterback Josh McCown to his best season as a professional. Morton is no longer with the organization, but the hopes are that such an offense lives on under the guidance of new OC Jeremy Bates. Bates is a branch off the Jon Gruden/Mike Shanahan coaching tree, so his experience is more in a traditional West Coast offense, but this scheme should continue to be a part of the Jets’ offense in 2018.
Enter Baker Mayfield. One of the knocks on Mayfield as a professional prospect is that he played in the Big 12 (i.e., in a conference with minimal defense) and in a wide-open offensive system that gave him a lot of easy reads and throws. But that does a disservice to Mayfield as a quarterback. When you dig deeper into his game, you see that Mayfield does a lot of things from a decision-making, processing speed and play speed perspective that translate well to the NFL. When scouting players, you scout the traits, not their collegiate scheme. It’s Mayfield’s traits that will serve him well.
His ability to diagnose and react to a defense, forged in running a spread-based offense heavy with run/pass option designs, translates well to a West Coast/Air Raid hybrid. Some of the concepts will be familiar to him, and an offense that requires quick thinking, quick reads and quick decisions is tailor-made for Mayfield as a player. Plus, there will be schematic familiarity, something that helps any quarterback transition to the NFL. For example, here are the Jets running the Mesh Concept, an Air Raid staple, in 2017:
Now here’s Mayfield running the Mesh Concept on a Saturday afternoon:
This is a brilliant play design, that incorporates the Mesh Concept underneath while setting up a Flood/Sail Concept along the left side of the field. Mayfield has the Mesh available to him, but he takes the deeper throw for a big gain.
Mayfield might not have the schematic diversity of, say, Josh Rosen, but an offense like this is the ideal situation for him as a quarterback.
Quarterback: Josh Rosen, UCLA
Team: Buffalo Bills
Offensive Scheme: Erhardt-Perkins
Which brings us to the aforementioned Mr. Rosen.
The UCLA product might be the most schematically-diverse quarterback in this class. With his accuracy to all levels and his arm talent, Rosen can function in a downfield passing offense. His quick thinking and ability in the pre-snap phase translate well to a West Coast-based system. Looking around the list of teams that need a quarterback, and seem to be inching toward the top of the draft to grab one, the Buffalo Bills and new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll might be the ideal fit.
First, a few words on Daboll as an offensive mind. Last season he was the offensive coordinator for the Alabama Crimson Tide, but the bulk of his coaching career has been spent in New England with the Patriots. While in Foxborough, Daboll’s offensive mindset was shaped by the Erhardt-Perkins system, which is most known for its terminology but also has some core offensive tenants, such as timing and rhythm in the passing game, attacking the defense working off play-action, and focusing the passing attack in the short- and intermediate-areas of the field.
Because of his mindset, his crisp mechanics and footwork, his ability to quickly process defenses and his ability to make anticipation throws, Rosen is a perfect fit for this offensive system given these factors. You can see how he would translate to such a system on plays like this one from his days at UCLA:
That second play in the clip is a Mills Concept (or post-dig) and it is one of the deeper passing concepts that the Patriots use, as broken down by the great Matt Bowen in this piece. As you can see, Rosen has the ability to attack the middle of the field, work between the hashmarks and make these throws with great timing and placement. Those are hallmarks of what the Erhardt-Perkins system requires from the quarterback.
Quarterback: Lamar Jackson, Louisville
Team: New Orleans Saints
Offensive Scheme: West Coast Hybrid
As should be clear from the premise of this piece, the landing spot is critical for a quarterback’s development. That certainly goes for Lamar Jackson. Jackson will need a creative offensive mind to tap into his athleticism and skill-set, and an organization that buys into his potential as a QB.
Jackson comes from an offensive system rooted in the Erhardt-Perkins scheme, so the New England Patriots might make some sense. But while watching Jackson, his ability to quickly process on some concepts utilized in West Coast offenses, coupled with his very quick release, point to such a system.
Here are some examples:
That’s Jackson running both the Tosser and the Sticks Concepts, two route concepts associated with the quick passing game. On the first you see Jackson with very advanced ball placement, leading his receiver away from coverage and setting him up for yardage after the catch. On the second you see Jackson quickly resetting and firing on the Tosser Concept, showing off his quick release.
Enter Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints. Payton is a disciple of the West Coast system, having cut his teeth as a coach under Jon Gruden. But over the years, Payton has incorporated more components into the system, pulling from more downfield offenses to add a vertical element to the Saints’ approach. But Payton still relies upon the quick game with Drew Brees, as we can see here:
The first example displays Brees resetting and then throwing the quick slant, whereas on the second we see Brees deliver on a quick out that is paired with the double slants we see on the Tosser Concept.
For my money this is the ideal marriage of player, scheme and coach. Jackson has the processing speed and release that fits well with West Coast concepts, but he also has the arm and downfield passing ability to deliver on the vertical components Payton dials up. Finally, in Payton, he’ll find a creative coach who has already demonstrated a willingness to adjust his offensive philosophy to fit the talent on his roster.
As stated at the outset, finding the right fit for these quarterbacks is likely the most important factor in their development as professional players. Schematic familiarity, as well as coaching style, will be a determinative aspect of whether these quarterbacks live up to their hype, or end up falling short. Should these five quarterbacks end up in the organizations identified, fans of those teams should be confident that these rookies will live up to the high expectations they’ll face in the NFL.