MOBILE, Ala. — Confidence.
There are many traits and personality types that go into constructing the ideal professional quarterback. Some may focus on the physical, such as arm strength or athleticism. Others may focus on the mental side of the position, and discuss processing speed or decision making. However, it is virtually impossible to construct an NFL quarterback without including a healthy dose of confidence. Getting to know some of these quarterbacks down in Mobile for the 70th Senior Bowl, you learn quickly that these players are not lacking for this personality trait.
For Gardner Minshew out of Washington State, part of that confidence comes from his offensive system. Minshew spent last season in Mike Leach's Air Raid system, and while that offensive scheme has traditionally created productive collegiate passers without much NFL success, that trend is starting to change. Not only are quarterbacks from these systems entering the league and having success, such as last year’s first overall selection Baker Mayfield, but more NFL teams are using these systems. For Minshew, Leach’s offense gave him a three-word advantage over some of the other passers in this group: “full-field progressions.”
When asked about his favorite passing concept to run under Leach, Minshew spoke glowingly about the Y-Cross design.
“I kinda liked how we ran our Y-Cross at Washington State," he said. "It’s a full-field read that had a bunch of options; it had a beater for every coverage. It was something that we had a lot of success with.”
But Minshew took it a step beyond that, when I asked him about Leach’s offense and how it prepared him for the NFL draft process.
“[Full-field reads] is something that we did a good bit was read the full field and we had a lot of five-man progressions, which a lot of teams, even pro-style teams in college, are only reading half the field. So, there’s a lot of ways that our offense prepares players for the league and that’s why you see so many young quarterbacks right now having so much success from that system.”
It was when Minshew looked me in the eyes and used air quotes when saying “pro-style” that will likely stick with me from that encounter.
But if you thought Minshew was the only quarterback down in Mobile with confidence, you would be mistaken. West Virginia’s Will Grier capped off his first practice session by meeting with the media and declaring himself the best quarterback in the 2019 draft class.
“I don’t understand some of the things that have been put out there," Grier said. "I mean, I’m the best quarterback in this class. I think my arm talent is there and my play will speak for itself.”
When asked a question about his arm strength, or perhaps a lack thereof, Grier was pointed in his response: “I’m confident in my abilities ... ask my receivers, ask the guys at Florida, ask the guys I’ve played against if my arm strength was a problem. It doesn’t necessarily make me mad, I think my play speaks for itself. That’s part of why I’m here: I hope people can see my arm strength out here.”
That question prompted a quick follow up about whether he would be throwing at the combine.
South Practice Recap
Before diving into how these quarterbacks fared at Ladd-Peebles Stadium today, it is important to set some expectations. Tuesday’s practice is all about setting a baseline of performance. These quarterbacks are now executing a new offense with unfamiliar receivers, running backs and tight ends, so there is a feeling-out period. For example, if a quarterback misses on a vertical route, either by leading the receiver too far or underthrowing him a bit, that is not necessarily something to downgrade a player for, because there is this adjustment period. How these QBs fare going forward is what you measure.
Then there is the fact that it was a bit cold, rainy and raw down in Mobile.
Now let’s take these quarterbacks in alphabetical order and break down their Tuesday.
Will Grier, West Virgina
Grier’s confidence in the post-practice scrum might have glossed over some of the missed throws he had, but there were still positives to take away from his opening workout. At the outset you could see the ball pop out of his hands well when making his throws, which points to the arm strength issue perhaps being graded in his favor.
During the one-on-one session, he overthrew wide receiver Tyre Brady from Marshall on a post route but came back and had two impressive throws — first on a comeback route to Anthony Johnson from the University of Buffalo working off play-action, and later a curl to Clemson’s Hunter Renfrow. Both throws were made with very good timing and rhythm, which is an area of his game that could use some refinement. His best throw during the seven-on-seven portion of practice came on a speed out when he correctly identified the off coverage and got the ball out quickly.
What might lead some to believe that Grier had a poor day was the two throws at the end of practice in the team session that he missed: First on a crossing route on a play-action boot concept, and second on another play-action concept, this time a double-post route, that he missed high.
Tyree Jackson, Buffalo
The first thing that stands out about Jackson is his size. He measured in at 6’7,” and you can tell that he is a, well, large human being. This, however, poses some difficulties for a quarterback, as his size and length leads to mechanical issues, particularly in his lower body. There are times when taller quarterbacks tend to overstride with their lead step, which causes their lead leg to stiffen and straighten, resulting in inconsistent ball placement as the upper and lower parts of the body fall out of sync. Even with these mechanical issues, he can still make some splash throws, such as the deep vertical route he threw to Gary Jennings from West Virginia during the installation period.
Another issue to watch with Jackson this week is his processing and play speed. Jackson’s arm talent is a bit of a double-edged sword right now. He makes throws to all levels of the field with impressive velocity, but because of this ability he sometimes waits a bit too long to pull the trigger. On a post route to tight end Dax Raymond from Utah State during the one-on-ones, he drilled in a perfect throw but it came late, and the defender was able to close down the separation. NFL defenders might close fully and break up this throw, so Jackson will need to get faster.
But despite his flaws and hesitancy, he has tremendous raw talent. The question facing his future is whether he’ll have the chance to develop these traits in the NFL, a league that has a quarterback graveyard filled with talented players that were never given the chance to develop.
Gardner Minshew, Washington State
Minshew’s focus on full-field progression reads is one of those traits that shows up both on film and even on the practice field, as it did today at Ladd-Peebles. On his game tape you can see him work through these full-field, four- and five-receiver concepts, but what stands out most is his feet. As he works from sideline to sideline scanning a play, his feet are in perfect synchronization with his mind and his eyes, keeping him in the ready position to make a throw once he finds an open target. This was on display early and often during his practice, from the installation period through the team portion of practice.
During the one-on-one portion of practice, two throws stood out — first a deep ball to Deebo Samuel from South Carolina that he dropped in the bucket, and later a Bang 8 Post route that he threw to Brady with good velocity and placement. If you wanted a live example of his footwork today, you could point to a rep he had during the seven-on-seven portion when he ran a Sticks concept, with four curl routes and a checkdown to choose from. As Minshew worked through all four curl routes and then finally to the checkdown, you saw his feet working in concert with his mind, scanning his options while remaining ready to strike.
Jarrett Stidham, Auburn
If there was a way to place a bet on what quarterback might rise the most this week, you could place money on Stidham and be in a good position to collect. Now, part of this might come from a starting point, as Stidham’s final season at Auburn did not exactly live up to expectations. But down in Mobile, with the chance to throw to some new receivers in a different offense, Stidham has the opportunity to distance himself from the tape he put on display this season. That potential was on display today, as he made a number of impressive throws on corner routes, whether during the one-on-one or the seven-on-seven portions of practice.
He ripped a pretty good out route to running back Bruce Johnson from North Dakota State during the one-on-one portion of practice, as well as a perfect corner route to Foster Moreau, a tight end from LSU. However, later in practice he was a bit slow with some decisions, both in the seven-on-seven portions as well as the team part of practice. He also missed a chance to hit an open dig route during the team portion. Despite these misfires, Stidham still put himself in a good position to start the week.
North Practice Recap
Ryan Finley, North Carolina State
For Finley, “consistency” is the focus of the week. During the post-practice scrum, he stressed that “being consistent during all three days” was his main goal for the week. Studying his film there was one route concept that I had noticed that he seemed to excel at throwing, a three-receiver concept to a trips formation with the outside receiver running a post, the middle receiver running an out-and-up, and the inside receiver running an out route. When I asked him about it you could see and hear Finley perk up:
“Yep, yep, run that a lot. That’s a great play. That’s just kinda getting one of our best players on a "Mike" linebacker or on a safety coming down so that’s a matchup that we love every time.”
While that concept seems to mesh with the idea of Finley being more of a timing and rhythm passer, I was surprised at the velocity he was able to dial up on some short and intermediate routes. One of the things that Senior Bowl week does each year is send you back to the film to take a second or third look at particular traits in a player, and right now Finley’s velocity might be something I revisit in the upcoming weeks. There were some nice rhythm throws, such as a play-action over route he threw early in practice, but you also saw him dial up the velocity as practice went on, on some deeper out routes as well as some routes in the quick game. I was impressed with Finley’s day.
Drew Lock, Missouri
Lock came into this week perhaps wearing the mantle of “QB1” down in Mobile, and there were moments today when it seemed as if that mantle was warranted. He had some impressive throws early during the installation periods, such as a corner route, as well as a deep over route off of play-action that he drove into the receiver with good velocity and placement. During the one-on-one portion of practice, he dropped in a picturesque throw on a vertical route to Ohio State’s Terry McLaurin, and that fits well with his expectations, as he seems to be a quarterback best suited for a vertical passing attack.
But I was also impressed with him mechanically, at least in terms of his upper body. On film, you can see his release point vary from time-to-time, but Tuesday, Lock’s release point seemed more consistent, and quicker to boot. Speaking of quickness, an issue that popped up on his film was his hesitation at times in the pocket. It did not seem to pop up during practice, but it is something I’ll be watching for as the week rolls on. His best throw of the day might have been one of his final ones, a play-action crossing route that he delivered from an awkward platform, but with very good velocity and placement.
Daniel Jones, Duke
After Lock, Jones might be the quarterback here that people are most excited to see, given some of the first-round buzz that he has received in recent weeks. Entering this week, I was curious to see how Jones fared down the field. Watching Jones on film, I spy a quarterback that's best, if not exclusively, suited to a West Coast passing offense. His decision-making and ball placement are at their best when he is running quick game concepts.
When looking to go downfield today, however, the results were mixed.
Early in practice, he threw a wheel route to a running back that hung up a bit, as well as a vertical route during one-on-ones that seemed to drop off short of the intended target. But as practice wore on, he started to improve in the downfield game. He delivered a strike on a deep out route to McLaurin (that the receiver hauled in with one arm in an impressive effort of his own) and also dropped in a corner route with impressive touch during the seven-on-seven portion of practice. (If it seems like I might be harping on the corner routes, it is with good reason, as these throws often require a quarterback to appropriately balance velocity, placement and touch, and as such are a good test of a QB’s skill). Jones also delivered on a deep out on a Sail concept during seven-on-seven, as well as a deep crosser on a Yankee concept play during the team portion.
Trace McSorley, Penn State
The Penn State product flashed some of the reasons why he earned a spot on this roster early in practice. During the installation periods, McSorley flashed sufficient velocity on a few throws, including a Bang 8 post route that he delivered with both velocity and precision placement. He also flashed some touch as well, on a deep over route during the installation period. When practice turned to the one-on-one portion, he was at his best throwing quick game routes, including great timing and velocity on a slant route, where his footwork was tied perfectly to the receiver’s route and break, as well as a deeper comeback route that was delivered with a bit of anticipation to it. Often during these practices you can hear a groan come up from the crowd (and I confess to being guilty of groaning from time to time) when a quarterback checks the football down. During seven-on-seven, McSorley was forced to check the football down, but it was the right read, and he made the decision quickly and the throw to running back Karan Higdon from Michigan, turning into a very successful play.
Remembering that this is just a baseline day, the quarterbacks I came away most impressed with were Minshew, Jackson, Lock and Finley. Minshew’s footwork on Tuesday matched what I saw on film, and his ability to work full-field is clearly something he will continue at the NFL. Jackson’s arm talent and prowess in the vertical passing game is something that will continue to draw attention, and with good reason. Lock came into this week needing a solid performance, and he seemed to step up his game a bit with the eyes on him. Finally, I’ll admit to being impressed by Finley's performance, and anytime a player makes you want to revisit his film, it is worth mentioning.
The Buzz at Ladd-Peebles
One of the best parts about Senior Bowl week is catching up with writers and evaluators from around the country, or even from around the world, such as the case with Matty Brown of Field Gulls, who came over from England, or Seth Galina, who covers LSU for SB Nation but made the trip down from Canada. Being a quarterback guy, most of my conversations focused on the quarterbacks that people were most excited to see in Mobile. There were a fair amount of responses for Grier, Minshew and Lock, as well as a number of people excited to see Jackson’s potential in person, as well as what Jones can deliver. Jackson’s raw ability seems to be catching more and more attention, and while people do wonder if he’ll get the opportunity to develop into a well-rounded quarterback, many believe that if given the chance, he could.
Many discussions in the stands center on a quarterback who is not here: Kyler Murray. There seems to be a growing consensus at least among those in the media world that while Murray’s talent might make him worthy of a first round pick in a vacuum, the number of extenuating circumstances around him might see him slide a bit. From his size to the potential baseball career, is this the type of situation that would give a general manager the confidence to pull the trigger on him in the first round?
Outside of the quarterback position, some receivers that are generating buzz down in Mobile include Samuel and McLaurin, who were already mentioned, as well as Andy Isabella, from the University of Massachusetts. Isabella measured in at just under 5’9” and 186 pounds, so there might be some concerns about his ability to work on the boundary, but he showed some shiftiness and quickness in person that he displayed on tape. Definitely a player to watch, and yes, the New England Patriots are a team often linked with him in conversation, given their affinity for shifty slot receiver types.