MOBILE, Ala.— With our baseline day behind us, it was time to let the QB evaluation process truly unfold Wednesday at the Senior Bowl.
Over the course of two practices, watching six different passers, I found myself thinking of a completely different sport. Tennis. Not football, but tennis. Not because the Australian Open is underway, as much as I would like to be there for that event, but because of something I once learned about that sport.
I’m lucky to be family friends with Craig Tiley, formerly the men’s tennis coach at the University of Illinois and now currently the CEO of Tennis Australia. Our wives grew up together and we have spent many hours at tennis events such as the US Open watching the sport. I’ve learned a ton about tennis from Craig and Ali, and I remember watching one early round pairing featuring Rafael Nadal with Ali, my wife Rachelle, and I. To me, an uninformed observer rooted in football and “momentum,” I remember thinking that an upset could be in the making as Nadal struggled early.
Ali quickly set me straight. This happens all the time in the early rounds, she told me, the unranked players look good at the beginning but eventually the talent, athleticism and stamina from the elite players takes over in the end.
Nadal cruised to victory that humid August day out at Flushing Meadows.
Now what does that have to do with quarterbacks? Well today, it seemed like the talent rose a bit to the top.
We will begin with the North team practice, under the direction of the Detroit Lions. Again an...interesting practice to observe from a conceptual standpoint. But it was watching this practice in particular that had me thinking about the hard courts of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. While Jordan Love had an up-and-down day on Tuesday, he seemed to turn things on a bit on Wednesday. It started early just throwing routes versus air, when he threw a perfectly placed curl route to Chase Claypool, leading him toward the sideline and the boundary shoulder. On a curl route a bit later, the ball just popped out of hand perfectly and you saw the velocity.
Love later in practice during the cornerback/wide receiver 1 on 1s connected with Southern Methodist WR James Proche on a pristine comeback route, and with Denzel Mims from Baylor on a beautiful deep ball.
During the skeleton portion, Love showed some of the timing and rhythm that was missing the day before, on this comeback route:
Love finished the day strong during the team portion. He had another good deep ball to Mims where the receiver adjusted very well to the throw, and Chicago Bears fans might want to know that Dayton TE Adam Trautman was wide open on a post route as well. Love closed it out with this touch throw working off play-action:
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Not that the day was picture-perfect from Love. He did miss on a seam route and was slow on some other reads. But it was certainly a strong showing from the Utah State product.
Anthony Gordon entered the week as perhaps a favorite of the Bears’ fans looking to see Mitchell Trubisky pushed in training camp, and while his performance was better than we saw from him on Tuesday, he still is a bit of a roller coaster. Early in practice he showed better velocity on a dig route to Quartney Davis from Texas A&M and later on the same route design to Trautman. He also provided the first “giggle-worthy” moment of the day. When working off a play-action rollout, he used a swim move with the football in his hand to escape pressure and then ripped a crossing route through multiple defenders for a completion. He certainly is fun to watch.
But then you had moments like this. I must say that this video warrants a NSFW tag, given some audible disappointment you hear in the background:
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Gordon’s up and down week continues.
Shea Patterson closed out the roster today, and while he was better than I was expecting Tuesday, things perhaps evened out a bit for him on Wednesday. He started well, with a good post route throw and then a great seam route to Charlie Taumepeau, the Portland State fullback, but then he started to struggle. He missed badly on an out route to Mims and then underthrew on two different vertical routes during the skeleton portion. One his strengths yesterday, the timing and rhythm game, seemed to be off on Wednesday. He did have a beautiful deep ball to Antonio Gandy-Golden which was dropped, but this was not Patterson’s best outing.
As with the Tuesday practice for the South squad, Justin Herbert remained the class of the group. But Jalen Hurts is impressing me in one particular area, and it has me wondering a bit about a potential scheme fit for him in a moment.
We will start with Herbert, who continues to demonstrate impressive arm strength as well as the ability to make some throws with good timing and rhythm. Early in the practice he threw a perfect post pattern off play-action to Collin Johnson from Texas (another receiver who is faring well this week in Mobile) and then followed that up with a great out route to Cincinnati TE Josiah Deguara and a perfect corner route to LSU’s Stephen Sullivan.
Then during the CB/WR 1 on 1s, Herbert ripped a perfect out route to Jauan Jennings from Tennessee, and what happened after the throw might highlight some of what Herbert told the media on Tuesday. The quarterback went right over to his wide receiver to hype him up after the play, perhaps showing some of that leadership that Herbert wanted to display this week. Herbert also showed the ability to anticipate on an out route to Johnson during this portion of the practice.
During the skeleton session, one of the things Herbert displayed that might also be big for him in the pre-draft process: The ability to work through reads. He made a few full-field reads during this portion of practice, showing that processing speed and decision making that he did not have a chance to show much of in Oregon’s offense.
During the team portion, Herbert flashed the arm strength, with a tremendous throw on a slant to Jennings, and also showed his athleticism, throwing on the move here:
It is probably safe to say that Herbert has been the best of the passers so far this week.
But now let us talk about Hurts for a moment. One of the areas where he continues to stand out is in the vertical passing game. He also connected with Sullivan on a deep corner route, and during the 1 on 1 portion of practice, he dropped in a great bucket throw to Florida WR Tyrie Cleveland on a go route that was just placed perfectly. He also connected with Cleveland a bit later on a go route, and during the skeleton session he hooked up with fellow Gator receiver Van Jefferson on yet another 9 route.
The point? Hurts might fit well in a vertical-based passing offense. That has me thinking about Tampa Bay. Obviously there are free agency dominoes to fall, but I am warming to the idea of Hurts in a Bruce Arians system.
As for a fit in a Matt Nagy system, well, that might be a tougher needle to thread. Hurts still has a long, looping throwing motion at times, and the processing speed might not mesh with where Nagy wants his quarterback to be.
Colorado’s Steven Montez rounds out the group, and he struggled today. Montez threw two bad balls during the skeleton session on back-to-back plays. First, he missed poorly on a seam route and the throw was easily intercepted. Then he failed to feel the underneath coverage on a dig route and was lucky that the linebacker only tipped the football into the air before it fell incomplete. Montez was lucky it was not his second interception of the session.
He did have some decent throws, such as a post route to Ohio State WR Austin Mack that was made with good pace and placement, as well as a seam route to Antonio Gibson, the running back from Memphis. He saved perhaps his best throw of the day for near the end of practice, connecting with Jefferson on this deep ball:
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But his inconsistency this week - something that plagued him at Colorado - might put a dent in his draft prospects.
With one day left in the practice week, Bears fans might be wondering: What have we learned about potential options for Chicago in the middle rounds of this draft? I still think from a schematic standpoint, Gordon is the cleaner fit for Matt Nagy’s offense, over Jalen Hurts. (I think we can safely assume both Herbert and Love will be of the board before Chicago is on the clock). But I have been more impressed with Hurts than Gordon this week, at least so far.
Something to remember, however, is this: While the practices matter, they are just a small portion of the evaluation puzzle. It is very, very easy to overreact to the practices. It is just a sliver of the entire body of work.