Development is a never-ending process for players in the National Football League. You either get busy getting better, or you get busy on a second career. For younger players that process begins with setting a baseline, a starting point from which to track their development as they start out in the NFL. Five quarterbacks were selected in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft, and though only Sam Darnold will be a starter Week 1, it is very likely that we will see most, if not all, of them at some point this season. Let’s take a look at one area where each QB needs to improve as they develop, and one trait each enters the league with that just could be their trump card.
Baker Mayfield, No. 1 overall, Browns
Developmental Trait: Making Assumptions
When the Cleveland Browns made Mayfield the first overall selection, it was a true outside-the-box type of decision. Mayfield certainly does not fit the mold of a traditional NFL quarterback, given his height and his experience operating in a wide-open offense in the Big 12. However, the former Heisman Trophy winner displayed both the competitive toughness and the velocity that made him attractive to many suitors in the NFL.
One of the things that scouts and evaluators (myself included) loved about Mayfield was his eyes. He was very adept at looking off safeties and other defenders before making throws during his time at the University of Oklahoma, and that was something he brought with him to each of his pre-draft workouts. It was very interesting to see Mayfield on the field at Ladd-Peebles Stadium during Senior Bowl practices, looking off imaginary defenders even when throwing routes vs. air. That is a good trait to have as a quarterback, as you need to constantly try and get defenders out of position.
But what is that old expression about making assumptions?
Mayfield tries to throw a crossing route here to Derrick Willies (#84), but the pass is intercepted by Avonte Maddox (#29) of the Philadelphia Eagles. The mistake Mayfield makes here is one of assumption. As the play begins, he confirms that the Eagles are in man coverage, and he assumes that because of the route design Willies will be able to run away from Maddox as he works across the formation, thanks to the traffic underneath.
But what Mayfield never sees, perhaps because he is looking off defenders by peeking to the left and away from Willies before the throw, is LB Nathan Gerry (#47). The reserve linebacker does a good job of jamming Willies as he cuts over the middle, getting the receiver off his path and preventing him from reaching for the throw. The pass sails over the receiver’s head and into the waiting arms of Maddox.
Also, making mistakes like this in the red zone, on third down, don’t make coaches happy.
Trump Card: Pocket Movement and Toughness
Mayfield was viewed with skepticism by some in NFL circles because of his height, or lack thereof. The track record for quarterbacks shorter that 6-foot-1 is not the greatest, and part of that is because of the difficulty shorter quarterbacks face when trying to scan downfield and make throws. There is also some difficulty on the other end, as receivers are sometimes slow to pick up where the ball is coming from if they cannot see the quarterback standing in the pocket. At least, that’s what my college receivers told me. They were probably just being nice, in a way, because I wasn’t very good and they didn’t feel comfortable saying that. What were we talking about?
Back to Mayfield. He deftly dismissed the criticism pre-draft, pointing out that he was throwing behind the massive Orlando Brown (who stands at 6-8) and still found a way. Though that is a nice answer, what is even more impressive is how well Mayfield moves in pockets and finds throwing lanes:
This is a fantastic job of a quarterback keeping his eyes downfield, sliding in the pocket with quick feet, and finding a throwing lane. Here is another look at it:
As Mayfield displays here, the ability to create space and windows starts with the feet, and the rookie QB does a tremendous job on this example.
Developmental Trait: Shedding the Hero Role
Sam Darnold — like most of the quarterbacks we will discuss — experienced the full gamut of the Draft Industrial Complex over the past 18 months or so. He was the “talk of the 2017 scouting combine,” when the NFL world seemed to be down on QBs like Deshaun Watson, Mitchell Trubisky and Patrick Mahomes, and were more excited about the rising redshirt sophomore. But during that redshirt sophomore season, Darnold struggled with fumbles and turnovers, throwing 12 in the regular season and one more in the University of Southern California’s bowl game. That made some wary about his potential transition to the NFL.
If you go back and study those 13 interceptions — as I have — there are some common themes. One is his footwork, as there are times when his feet are not properly set and it causes a lack of velocity and accuracy. Another is his penchant for trying to put too much on his shoulders and trying to play the hero role. It is much easier for a young QB to become less aggressive and learn to live for another down, so Darnold is starting at a good point, but the process has to begin:
This is a fourth down play against Washington from Week 2 of the preseason. I understand that it is fourth down, and throwing the ball away is not an option, but this is a good example of Darnold forcing a throw when there are safer decisions. He never sees the underneath defender, who tips this and creates the turnover, and passes up the fullback in the flat, which has a better chance of success. Finally, look at the footwork on this play. He never truly gets his feet set on the throw, and while the footwork does not play a role in causing the turnover, it remains an issue for him as he begins his rookie season, which begins Monday with him becoming the youngest rookie QB since the merger to start in Week 1.
Trump Card: Processing Speed
To his credit, Darnold might be ahead of the game from a mental perspective. Although we cannot make many conclusions about teams from a schematic standpoint based on preseason games, it does seem that new offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates is installing a West Coast heavy system. That requires quick reads and decisions from the quarterback, as well as getting the ball out of the hand on time, in rhythm and putting it where it needs to be.
Darnold checks all of those boxes on this one play against Washington:
On this third-down play, the Jets run two different West Coast concepts, one to each side of the field. To the right they implement a slant/flat combination, while on the left they run three slant routes at the defense. Pre-snap, Washington shows a Cover 2 look with both safeties deep. Darnold intends to work the slant/flat combination to the right, which is a decent decision depending on how the outside player and the inside player play the routes. But right before the snap, the safety to that side of the field screams down toward the line of scrimmage and jumps the flat route. Darnold immediately sees it, flips his eyes to the left and delivers on a slant route in the perfect spot to move the chains.
For those of you saying “perfect spot, that throw was low,” here’s a page from Brian Billick’s 1999 Baltimore Ravens playbook, showing the slant/flat route combination:
Look at “QB Note 5:” “Keep throw as low as needed.”
Darnold is the only rookie of the group to earn a starting spot, and reads like this are a big reason why.
Developmental Trait: Listen to Crash
A summer ago, when Josh Allen hype was truly beginning to build, I made an interesting comparison for Allen on the Locked On NFL Draft podcast. I compared the University of Wyoming quarterback to Nuke LaLoosh, pitcher for the Durham Bulls in the movie “Bull Durham.” An area where I wanted to see improvement in Allen was with touch, or feel, on throws. There is absolutely no denying his arm talent — as we will talk about in a second — but whenever Allen needed to take something off throws, accuracy would dip. Corner routes, or routes underneath when he needed to fit the ball around defenders and feel those throws, for instance, were often an adventure. So, I went with LaLoosh, another player with a million dollar arm but with a need for learning the finer things.
My desire to see Allen develop in this area continues to grow when I see throws like this:
Allen still needs to learn the change-up. This is a well-designed slant/swing combination with the slant route working to create a rub on the linebacker to free up the running back on the swing route. Allen needs to make this throw, whether by taking some velocity off the pass to give his back a chance, or by placing it better. But putting the afterburners on this throw just leads to an incompletion. If Allen learns the finer points, and starts making better throws when he needs to use touch and feel, his career could take off.
Trump Card: Arm Talent
All that being said…
There is a very good reason why Allen approaches every throwing lane like it is a nail, and his howitzer of a right arm is a hammer. It’s because of his elite arm talent. Allen’s is as fully described, and he can deliver throws to all levels of the field with impressive velocity. His first NFL throw came on a deep vertical route that he nearly launched out of New Era Field.
Arm talent and velocity can over be overrated when it comes to QB play, especially in today’s era of offenses where the majority of throws are made within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage. But there are moments when having those extra RPMs can make a difference, and Allen’s first NFL touchdown pass was certainly one of them:
Allen fits in a vertical route between a Cover 2 cornerback and the safety rotating over from his spot on the field. It comes in the red zone as well, where the field is more compressed and the throwing lanes are even smaller. But on this throw, Allen’s arm plays a huge role. He even double-clutches but still drills it into the pocket. He is still trying to figure things out (and his arm might be a double-edged sword that makes learning touch and feel a lengthy process) but having that right arm as the ultimate trump card might be a benefit to him when he starts seeing live action.
Developmental Trait: Pocket Feel
It is a big difficult to get a read on Josh Rosen, who was limited in the preseason by a thumb injury and attempted fewer than 30 passes. But we can start by looking back at his pre-draft process and one of the bigger knocks on him: Mobility, or a lack thereof. Many critics of Rosen pointed to the fact that he lacked the athleticism of some of the other quarterbacks in this group, and in an age where many defensive ends can chase down running backs and wide receivers from sideline to sideline, athleticism is becoming a more valued trait at the QB position.
The response to that criticism was always one rooted in Rosen’s feet. Myself and others argued that Rosen’s footwork was going to be the best path to NFL success for him. When assembling the perfect draft quarterback, it was Rosen’s feet that were selected.
But he’ll need to do a better job at feeling pressure and moving those feet than he does here:
If Rosen does a better job of feeling that backside pressure, he has time to step up in the pocket and avoid it, and create enough space to make a throw. But he doesn’t, and it leads to the throw coming under duress and resulting in a minimal gain. Developing that feel for the pocket comes with time and repetitions, and Rosen should get there, eventually.
Trump Card: Timing
In his limited preseason action, Rosen did demonstrate a good understanding of timing on route concepts, which might come in very handy when operating Mike McCoy’s offensive system. From a mental standpoint, Rosen was a pretty solid quarterback as a prospect, and demonstrated often on film a good understanding of coverage schemes and how to attack them in the passing game.
This play is a good example of just that:
The Arizona Cardinals run a four verticals concept on this play against the New Orleans Saints. The defense is in a Cover 2 shell on this play, and Rosen wants to throw the inside seam route to the right side of the field. Because of the presence of the safety lurking over the top of the route, Rosen needs to get this out in a hurry, and put it in a spot where he leads fellow rookie Christian Kirk (#11) without putting him in harm’s way. Rosen speeds up his process on this play, making a very quick read and decision, and places the throw in a spot to protect his teammate. In addition, he does a very good job of looking off the safety just long enough to create some space for his receiver.
Provided Rosen’s thumb injury is progressing, he can use reads and throws like this to be successful whenever he is pressed into action.
Developmental Trait: Making Assumptions, Redux
Perhaps it is an offset of adjusting to life in a bigger pond, but many young quarterbacks find that plays they could get away with in college, will not fly as a rookie in the NFL. We broke that down at the start of this piece when looking at Baker Mayfield, and we can conclude with Lamar Jackson and the same type of mistake. Jackson was fun to watch this preseason, and he is showing signs of development as a pocket passer (which should not be surprising given that he was effective as a pocket passer at Louisville, despite some of the narrative around him). But there is always room for improvement.
Jackson’s first NFL interception came on another play when a young quarterback assumed he could take advantage of something in the defense, until reality shocked him back to earth. On this play against the Chicago Bears in the Hall of Fame Game, the Baltimore Ravens run a play-action passing play. Jackson fakes the handoff to the deep back in the I-formation, and his first option is the fullback on a seam route over the middle. Should that be covered, he has a comeback route to throw to along the left sideline. Jackson makes the classic mistake of assumption:
Prior to the play the cornerback over the comeback route aligns with an inside shade across from the receiver. Seeing that, Jackson believes that he can put this throw toward the boundary and the pre-snap leverage advantage that his receiver has will work in Baltimore’s favor. However, there are two mistakes that come on this play: First, Jackson hangs on the FB seam route too long. Unless the linebackers really crash down on the run action, he needs to come off this route immediately. He gives the FB seam route too long of a look, which delays him getting to his second read. Then, he doesn’t put the football toward the boundary enough, which allows the defender to jump the route.
Sometimes, you need to get burned to learn not to touch the stove. Jackson got burned here, and it’s a mistake he can learn from.
Trump Card: Athleticism
I know it is the easy answer. As it was with Allen and his arm talent. But Jackson’s athleticism brings another element to this Ravens’ offense that could make it a dangerous unit to face, whether this year or in the future. It should not come as a surprise that Jackson’s first passing play in the NFL was a designed rollout against the Bears in the Hall of Fame Game, although Jackson made the decision to tuck the football and run with it. But the Ravens have shown a willingness to get Jackson on the move, let him attack the edges, and use his legs as a true weapon in their offense.
Of course, he’ll need to learn to slide and protect himself better, but that will come with time.
His athleticism also makes Jackson so dangerous in the zone read aspect of today’s offenses:
On this play from Jackson’s outing against the Miami Dolphins in Week 3 of the preseason, he meets his running back at the mesh point and reads the defensive end. Seeing the end scrape down on the potential inside run, Jackson pulls the football and keeps it around the right end. In the open field Jackson is as dangerous a runner as they come, and a few seconds later the rookie is in the end zone. Having that element to his game makes a Jackson-led offense very difficult to defend.
Other than Darnold, time will tell when we see the other four first-round passers on the field. But all of them have areas to work on as they adjust to life as NFL quarterbacks. Thankfully, each of them has at least one trump card that could ease their transition to life on the game’s biggest stages.