The Coaching Perspective of the Draft’s Top Quarterbacks
BERKELEY, Calif. — It was the funniest scene of the pro day circuit.
There was Cal quarterback Jared Goff, tossing a few extra passes at the end of his much ballyhooed workout, and there was Browns quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton spraying water on Goff’s 9 and 1/8-inch hands, doing his best to simulate November conditions in Cleveland on a sunny day in NorCal.
Goff did fine with wet hands, but did it matter? Did he prove anything? The real evaluation happens behind closed doors, in interviews with Cal coach Sonny Dykes and his staff, and phone calls to coaches who worked with Goff and have since departed.
Tony Franklin, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Middle Tennessee State, has fielded inquiries from four teams digging into Goff’s history. The former Cal coordinator for all of Goff’s time at Berkeley says not one NFL scout, coach or team executive has asked him about Goff’s ability to secure the football with his hands, which are below-average in size for an NFL quarterback. They wanted to know how he studied, how he led and how he practiced.
But mainly, they want to talk football. Specifically, teams interested in quarterbacks want to know from college coaches exactly how much responsibility a prospect was afforded in an offense. It’s an underrated predictor of success for quarterbacks asked to start on Day 1. Experience in a pro-style offense is one thing; mastery of that offense is another.
Below you’ll hear from three coaches who worked closely with the top three quarterbacks available in the 2016 draft—Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Paxton Lynch (in no particular order). Each have been interviewed at length by NFL scouts, whose inquiries often reveal their team’s biggest concerns about each passer as he enters the league.
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THE QB: Jared Goff, Cal
THE COACH: Tony Franklin, offensive coordinator, Middle Tennessee
OFFENSE: Bear Raid
Franklin, 58, ran a perennial Top 10 offense at Cal for three seasons under Dykes before returning to Middle Tennessee, where he was the offensive coordinator in 2009. Franklin says the biggest misconception he’s had to address is the complexity of the Bear Raid offense, a branch off the Air Raid offense developed in the late 80’s by Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, which many football types believe affords the quarterback little opportunity to make pre-snap judgment calls. They couldn’t be more wrong, Franklin says.
“People think because we’re in this Air Raid family that there’s one or two progressions for the quarterback, which is really an insult because it’s nowhere near the truth,” Franklin says. “We give the quarterback an incredible amount of responsibility and (Goff) got more than any quarterback since I’ve been coaching.
“He probably had more on his shoulders before the snap than any quarterback in the NFL.”
Under Franklin, Goff had the ability to choose between the called run play and an alternate pass play, and vice versa, based on the alignment of the defense. Goff had the ability to audible individual routes on pass plays, and Franklin estimates he adjusted the protection scheme on about 10% of passing plays.
“He probably had more on his shoulders before the snap than any quarterback in the NFL,” a former Cal coach says of Goff.
Says Franklin: “The longer last season went on he started doing it more because I think he was tired of getting hit in the mouth.”
And while coaches declined to press Franklin on Goff’s 23 career fumbles (he had just four in 2015), they did want to know about the quarterback’s frame and ability to take hits (despite the fact he started 37 of 37 games). At 6-4 and 205 pounds, Goff is the leanest of the draft’s top five quarterbacks by about 15 pounds. Franklin says there’s a good reason for that: During his time at Cal, the coach put little emphasis on weight training for quarterbacks.
“You have to look at where he was and where he is,” Franklin says. “He probably weighed about 178 when he walked in the door. He was a pencil.
“I had a very limited quarterback workout; we called it the Drew Brees workout after learning about his shoulder surgery rehab. There was very little upper body weight training. I think that’s something he’ll get more into. Two years from now he’ll be 230 pounds.”
Aside from the physical and mental traits, scouts pressed Franklin on Goff’s leadership ability. Do his teammates like him? Goff came to Cal in 2013 as a four-star recruit out of nearby Kentfield, Calif., and was promptly handed the reins to the offense. “He was the golden boy, and he got more press than anybody from the beginning. He very easily could’ve been disliked by his teammates, but they voted him captain sophomore year.”
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THE QB: Carson Wentz, North Dakota State
THE COACH: Tim Polasek, offensive coordinator, NDSU
Polasek, 36, returned to North Dakota State to lead the offense in 2014 after a short stint at Northern Illinois. Carson Wentz passed for 3,111 yards and 25 touchdowns with 10 interceptions in his first season as a starter in 2014, utilizing vertical passing concepts popular in pro football and foreign to many college spread offenses.
During the pre-draft process, Polasek was quizzed on Wentz’s mastery of the offense and his pre-snap responsibilities. Like Goff, Wentz had the ability in an injury-shortened 2015 season to check to a prescribed run or pass play with an additional check the coaches simply called “Carson.” If Wentz recognized a trouble situation, he could spout any play in the book. Additionally, Wentz was required to call out the protection on every pass play, a job for most NFL centers.
“The NFL people have been blown away with what he’s had to handle protection wise,” Polasek says. “The quarterbacks he’s being compared to are not necessarily allowed to make checks or the right protection call. There’s going to be multiple times in a game where he checks from run to pass. He’s got situations that he has to get us out of otherwise I look really bad as a play-caller.”
However, the most popular questions Polasek faced concerned the level of competition: How good is the FCS, really? What has this kid really been exposed to?
“He torched our defense in practice since he walked on campus,” an NDSU coach says of Wentz. “The corner he picked on when he was a redshirt freshman was [current Jets starter] Marcus Williams.”
NDSU has won the last five FCS titles and has never had a losing season, and they currently boast five active NFL players, including Jets cornerback Marcus Williams, who picked off six passes in 2015. The same cannot be said for conference opponents like Missouri State and Southern Illinois. NDSU coaches have been using variations of the same anecdote to defend the level of play: Wentz schooled the best defense in the FCS on a daily basis in practice.
“He torched our defense in practice since he walked on campus,” Polasek says. “The corner he picked on when he was a redshirt freshman was Marcus Williams.”
From a physical standpoint, at 6-5, 237, Wentz checks all the boxes, but scouts have wondered about his mechanics. Several have noted Wentz’s tendency to hold the ball longer than necessary or hold the ball for a split-second too long when the open man appears.
Says Polasek: “Can he play faster? Yes. And I think he’s ready for that. There are so many times when he was like, can we make that five steps instead of seven?”
The truly thorough NFL teams, including one whose entire offensive staff has already worked out Wentz privately in Fargo in advance of his pro day today, have quizzed Polasek on Wentz’s character. Can he really be the consummate leader he’s being described as?
“They say, guys, there’s got to be something with his character. This guy can’t be perfect. But those questions have gone away,” Polasek says. “Carson does his best work while we’re not watching, and he’s not a nightlife guy. This is a kid who would be in his truck by 4 p.m. on Saturday and go hunt geese all weekend, and be in the office by 7 a.m. Monday morning and still get a 4.0 GPA.”
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THE QB: Paxton Lynch, Memphis
THE COACH: Darrell Dickey, assistant head coach, Memphis
Dickey, 56, accompanied Justin Fuente to Memphis in 2012, adopting the head coach’s TCU spread offense which fueled much of Andy Dalton’s success there. Lynch, a three-star recruit out of Deltona, Fla., in 2012, earned the starting job in 2013, displacing a popular senior quarterback.
Lynch struggled in his first season, passing for 2,056 yards in 12 games with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. But scouts particularly have been interested in how Lynch handled the transition off the field, with media and fans questioning Fuente’s decision and Lynch’s bonafides.
“There was a QB controversy, not so much on the team but with media and fans,” Dickey says. “And he just kept his head up and worked. When he had bad games, he responded like any other freshman. He got a little down in the dumps, but he would bounce right back. He handled it really well.”
“After Wentz and Goff,” says one NFL scout, “this is a great backup quarterback draft.”
Physically, the 6-7 Lynch has had his athleticism questioned. In addition to rushing for 687 yards and 17 touchdowns in three seasons, he ran a 4.86 40-yard dash and jumped 36 inches at the combine.
“When you have a 6-7 quarterback I think a lot of people go into the scouting process assuming the guy is a stiff, un-athletic, awkward, clumsy, pocket quarterback, but the opposite is true with Paxton,” Dickey says. “He was an excellent high school basketball player. I think what teams are finding out is that he’s a great athlete.”
One of the biggest reasons Lynch is considered in the second-tier of available quarterbacks—below Goff and Wentz, but above Christian Hackenberg and Connor Cook—is his limited experience with pro-style concepts and a lack of responsibility in the Memphis offense. Said one scout: “After Wentz and Goff, this is a great backup quarterback draft.”
Of the top three QBs, Lynch had by far the least responsibility in his offense, where plays are called in from the sideline without much room for interpretation.
“We didn’t do a whole lot of checking at the line of scrimmage, no reading blitzes and making protection adjustments, but he’s very capable of doing that,” Dickey says. “He could give a receiver a different route, but he didn’t have the freedom to do whatever he wanted.”
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Five things you need to know about the draft
1. At the moment, there are four teams in play to trade up to the No. 1 spot: Cleveland (as insurance against losing their preference of Goff or Wentz), San Francisco (No. 7), Philadelphia (No. 13) and Los Angeles (No. 15). And I don’t believe it will take the “king’s ransom” Titans GM Jon Robinson says a team will have to give up to move to No. 1. (Robinson later clarified his remarks, saying he did not want to give the impression the Titans were unwilling to move down). My hunch is that the deal will land somewhere south of the legitimate king’s ransom Washington paid for the right to draft Robert Griffin III—basically, three first-rounders and a second-round pick.
2. Never blame the coach. Per two personnel sources on two separate teams who have shown interest in drafting Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg, the quarterback has said all the wrong things in interviews when asked to explain his declining sophomore and junior numbers (a combined 28 touchdowns and 21 interceptions). Hackenberg has shifted blame to coach James Franklin, who took over in 2014 when coach Bill O’Brien departed for the Texans. Said one evaluator: “Despite the fact that it’s probably true, you don’t want to hear a kid say that.”
3. Winter Storm Selene is creating a problem for NFL personnel making the trek up to North Dakota State this week, where Carson Wentz is set to throw at his pro day Friday. Also coming up in the next seven days, Robert Nkemdiche and Laremy Tunsil will perform at Ole Miss on Monday, and Florida State cornerback Jalen Ramsey is expected to perform Tuesday. Tunsil, who has been in the conversation for the No. 1 pick, did not bench, run or jump at the combine, and plans to do so at his pro day.
4. Scouts I've spoken with have echoed Mel Kiper's evaluation of Laremy Tunsil this week. Said Kiper: “Tunsil is more the Orlando Pace type than he is the Eric Fisher type. Eric Fisher was forced up to the No. 1 spot... Tunsil, in any draft, would be an elite left tackle.” That could change after Tunsil's pro day, but it probably won't. If the Titans hold onto the top spot, I believe the choice between Tunsil and Jalen Ramsey will be an easier one than they would like us to think.
5. I think Robert Griffin III would like to avoid being a stopgap quarterback for a highly-touted rookie, if at all possible, when he signs his next NFL contract. The teams with an open door appear to be the Browns, Jets and Broncos. Provided he could win the job in New York, he'd have a much better chance of holding onto it there than he would in Cleveland or in Denver, with both teams apparently leaning towards taking quarterbacks on Day 1.
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Quote of the Week
“We’d be open to moving the pick. I think the statement I made the other day maybe got taken out of context a little bit with ‘king's ransom.’ ... The question was what would it take to move way back in the draft, which would take a lot of picks ... I think some heard that I wasn’t open to moving, or we weren’t open to moving the pick, which is not true.”
—Titans GM Jon Robinson, via ESPN’s Adam Schefter
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Stat of the Week
That’s Paxton Lynch’s passer rating vs. ranked teams in 2015, better than Michigan State’s Connor Cook (107.23), Penn State’s Hackenberg (106.18) and even Cal’s Jared Goff (104.24). Lynch’s 66.9 completion percentage against the three ranked opponents Memphis met this season also dwarfs the previously mentioned passers.
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