There are intriguing prospects but no sure things in the 2017 QB class. We project the best pro systems and NFL teams for this year’s top passers
Let’s be honest: 2017 doesn’t offer the most enticing draft class of quarterbacks. The six best QBs all need to sit and learn early in their pro careers. That almost never happens anymore. In fact, since 2006, only three drafted quarterbacks sat out their first season and then went on to start at least 30 games for the team that drafted them: Colin Kaepernick (58 games for San Francisco), Chad Henne (31 for Miami) and Kirk Cousins (41 and counting for Washington). Yikes.
Projecting how quarterbacks will fare in the NFL is becoming increasingly difficult. The chasm between college and pro offenses is wider than ever. It stems largely from both leagues having such limited on-field practice time. College coaches can only teach their quarterbacks what works in college. That means lots of spread formations and one-read throws. When those QBs reach the NFL, they’re not prepared to execute the multi-read concepts that are necessary to counter more complex defenses. They need to sit and learn. Except there’s no time because the 2011 collective bargaining agreement reduced practice hours so drastically that teams can only give reps to starters.
This is a problem for the 2017 quarterback crop. After studying the class and considering the scouting reports from venerated draft analyst Greg Cosell of NFL Films, it’s clear there’s talent, but it’s talent that will need time to blossom. Here’s a look at the six most notable QBs and the NFL situation that would best suit them.
Mitchell Trubisky, North Carolina
From a pure throwing standpoint, Trubisky is similar to Kirk Cousins. He has a quick throwing motion and good but not great arm strength. The concern is that Trubisky might compare more to the Cousins of four years ago than the one of today. There are some kinks in his mechanics. When throwing he has a tendency to lock his front leg, which can affect accuracy. Many coaches believe you can’t correct this glitch; you can only work around it. Trubisky will also sometimes needlessly change his arm angle and feet upon release, which causes a ball to lose energy near the end of its journey.
Trubisky’s chance to overcome these issues hinges largely on his poise in the pocket. Which is where the optimism kicks in. Though mechanically unrefined throwing from a muddied pocket, Trubisky has shown the willingness to do so. He doesn’t fear getting hit. This is a crucial prerequisite to quarterbacking in the NFL, where pockets are often messy. What can delay a quarterback’s growth is having the mobility to escape the pocket. A passer often becomes reliant on this (see Vick, Tebow, Kaepernick, Griffin, Manziel and so forth). Trubisky is athletic and can make exceptional plays on the move, outside of structure. But this must be a facet of his game, not its foundation.
With Trubisky, the system will be especially crucial. He is a better out-of-pocket talent than Cousins, but he still must be an offense’s cog instead of its fulcrum. The complicating factor is that Trubisky is utterly inexperienced playing from under center; every snap he took at North Carolina was from shotgun. In today’s NFL, about 60 percent of snaps are from shotgun. But teams whose systems tend to incorporate a quarterback rather than feature one do so by building their passing game off their running game. Which means their quarterback must play from under center.
An example is 49ers’ new coach Kyle Shanahan’s zone play-action scheme. Trubisky would have an arduous learning process there. A better fit would be Buffalo, where new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison will likely run a remedial version of Shanahan’s scheme for Tyrod Taylor. The upside with Dennison’s scheme is that it often puts the quarterback on the move by design, via rollouts and bootlegs. That’s a good way to smooth Trubisky’s developmental process. When a QB is on the move he’s reading only half the field; pocket mechanics aren’t a factor, and he can rely more on his athletic instinct. That’s where Trubisky thrives.
Deshaun Watson, Clemson
Comparisons will be made to Marcus Mariota, but stylistically the more apt comparison is to Dak Prescott (especially for their similar throwing motions). The question is whether Watson can be as accurate. More finesse than power, he’s better on touch passes than fastballs. Clemson’s offensive system did not demand many fastballs, so Watson’s sample size is small. But the subtle hitch in his delivery and his tendency to separate his feet upon throwing (as opposed to firmly planting his back foot) suggest he’ll never be a high-velocity thrower.
When you consider Watson’s refinement on touch passes, another comparison could be made to Russell Wilson, perhaps the best touch passer in football. He and Watson have different skill sets, but they approach the game in similar ways. Watson, who is very mobile, has Wilson’s tendency to break down and leave the pocket. At times, he’ll do this too early, which harms an offense’s rhythm. But late in his college career, and especially in the win over Alabama for the national title, Watson showed a much more refined sense of pocket poise than Wilson ever showed in his first few NFL seasons. There’s something to build on.
Whoever drafts Watson will take his mobility into consideration. This is where the discussion gets interesting. Not having Russell Wilson’s solidness or Cam Newton’s size, Watson’s body won’t survive the rigors of eight to 10 rushing attempts a game. Can he prosper as just a decent-armed pocket passer who sometimes runs around? That has worked for Prescott, but Prescott also plays behind the NFL’s best offensive line, is accompanied by the NFL’s best running game and has a true No. 1 receiver in Dez Bryant, which regulates coverages and makes the field easier to read. There’s zero possibility Watson will fall into such ideal circumstances.
Not physically gifted enough to take over NFL contests the way he did at Clemson, Watson will have to maximize the opportunities of whatever system he’s in.
The challenge is identifying the most appropriate system. The Seahawks keep Russell Wilson in the pocket on quick-timing throws but leave room for him to run around on other dropbacks. The team that drafts Watson must be willing to reshape its offense in this fashion. One possibility: the Jets. Their new offensive coordinator, John Morton, who has never been an NFL play-caller and is a bit of a mystery, comes from the Saints and may run a variation of Sean Payton’s scheme. That would not fit Watson. But with the entire offensive lineup in flux and the coaches and front office presumably on the hot seat, the Jets, instead of enduring the pains of a long-term system installation, might be incentivized to settle for whatever approach yields the best immediate results. They drafted Christian Hackenberg in the second round last year. Taking Watson would give them a different style of quarterback and thus, the ability to go in a new direction should the outlook on Hackenberg sour. And though it shouldn’t matter, Watson would galvanize Gang Green’s disenchanted fan base.
The Jets shouldn’t take Watson at No. 6 overall—that’s too high. But if they could trade down, or if he’s on the board in the second round (39th overall), that would be intriguing.
Deshone Kizer, Notre Dame
Unlike most of this draft’s QBs, Kizer gained experience with pro-style passing concepts in college. Notre Dame’s system often had receivers’ routes intersect and correlate. One concern, though, is that Kizer was a beat late on many of his reads. He didn’t always appear to see and anticipate things clearly. You can get away with this in college, where the field is more spaced out and the defenders are a tad slower. But in the NFL, slow vision lowers your ceiling.
Inevitably, a few coaches will believe that they can teach Kizer to read the field more promptly. Those coaches will be titillated by the 21-year-old’s raw arm. As a thrower, no QB in this draft looks the part more than Kizer. He throws with arm speed and conciseness, which translates to velocity. Physically, he can challenge defenses at the intermediate levels. The burning question is whether Kizer can be more consistent. His accuracy vacillates too much for a player with his talent. In the pocket, he’s tough but has an occasional tendency to drift around lazily, which leads to mental and mechanical breakdowns.
Kizer would fit best in a system where complex route combinations help define the quarterback’s reads based off the coverage. No team is better at this than Washington. Would Washington consider drafting Kizer as a replacement for the soon-to-be very expensive Kirk Cousins in 2018? Another team that creates defined reads from intricate route combinations is Cleveland under Hue Jackson. Kizer may not be the safest QB in this draft, but given his experience at Notre Dame, he’s the one most ready to play right away. The Browns wouldn’t take him at No. 1 and probably not at No. 12. But what if they traded back from 12 to get him later in the first round? Or what if he’s still on the board when they open the second round with the 33rd overall pick? This would be a nice fit, especially when you consider that Kizer also has enough mobility to provide an occasional zone-read dimension to the rushing attack, which Jackson would capitalize on.
Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech
Players such as Mahomes make the draft difficult. He has the arm to be a big-time NFL QB. His delivery is quick and compact, and he throws with velocity and precision. Athletically, he moves well, especially when he’s in sandlot mode outside the pocket.
Mahomes’s problem is a glaring lack of refinement. That sandlot mode is his default approach, which is alarming because Texas Tech ran a timing-based spread passing game. Mahomes has keen vision at the deeper levels once a play breaks down. However, he has poor vision when the play isn’t broken down. He rarely throws with timing and anticipation.
Pure sandlot quarterbacking does not translate to the NFL. Projecting how it might amounts to guesswork.
That’s the first concern with Mahomes. The other is that his arm, which can tantalize, is too often sabotaged by erratic fundamentals. This stems from that sandlot approach. Mahomes will move needlessly in and out of a clean pocket, breaking down a well-constructed play. His accuracy isn’t as consistent as his skills say it should be. This includes deep balls, which he sometimes struggled with (the Oklahoma game) and other times used to dominate (the Baylor game).
So how do you identify a good NFL fit for an unstructured quarterback who routinely breaks down his own plays? You find a tightly managed, quick-strike passing scheme that won’t let him break down. And, since Mahomes already had that at Texas Tech and still played willy-nilly, you find a coach who will hold him accountable.
The best fit: the Los Angeles Chargers. First-time head coach Anthony Lynn can speak to players. More importantly, he’d let offensive coordinator and passing game guru Ken Whisenhunt handle Mahomes. Under Whisenhunt, Mahomes would have to play on time and from the pocket. Also, sitting for a few years behind Philip Rivers—who turns 36 in December—would be a great way to expose Mahomes to the most disciplined of professional quarterbacking.
Davis Webb, Cal
Webb played in Air-Raid offenses at Texas Tech and his one year at Cal. In that scheme, the QB is always in shotgun and many of the plays have only one read. Projecting these guys to the NFL is extra challenging. However, Webb had ownership of his offense and, working with former Redskins head coach Jim Zorn this offseason, he has developed a growing understand of a variety of systems. He has a prototypical NFL build. Having the size to play tall in the pocket, however, doesn’t mean you have the toughness to. The jury is still out on Webb in this regard, though he at least shows a willingness to hang in less-than-ideal pockets. He must get better with defenders in his face.
Webb’s lower body mechanics need polishing. That’s not atypical with Air-Raid QBs. His accuracy occasionally waivers. This is not glaring, though, and can maybe be cleaned up in the right system.
Exactly what is the right system? One line of thought says it would be spread-oriented, similar to what Webb ran in college. Spread concepts are becoming more common in the NFL. Another line of thought says you should bank more on Webb’s size and upside. He doesn’t have the snappiest throwing motion, but it’s an efficient one. And, when he’s on, his ball location can be tremendous, including at the deeper-intermediate levels. That suggests he’d fit a more traditional drop-back passing game. No scheme makes better use of guys like this than Arizona’s. Head coach Bruce Arians’s system is built on multi-receiver route combinations at the 15-to-18-yard range (and beyond). In Arizona, Webb would have a lot to learn about multi-progression reads, but he’d have time to do so behind a great role model in Carson Palmer.
Chad Kelly, Ole Miss
When you watch Kelly on TV, you notice his efficiency. He gets the ball out promptly and within the rhythm of the offense. When you put on the coaches’ film, you notice that this happens mostly just on the plays where the coverage and read are defined. That’s not uncommon; in college and the NFL, many formations and passing concepts are built with the intention of forcing the defense to reveal itself early. A quarterback’s life becomes easier. But Kelly’s system at Ole Miss was extreme. It was markedly simpler than what he would ever run in the NFL. Most likely, Kelly will have a learning curve when it comes to multi-receiver reads.
At 6’2”, Kelly doesn’t look big in the pocket, but he doesn’t play small. He hangs in there when the landscape gets messy. The better your arm, the easier this is to do. Kelly’s arm is good but not great. His short passes (no more than nine yards) have zip. However, you don’t see a lot of velocity at the intermediate levels. And his deeper throws yield mixed results. Some are great; others are just imprecise enough to make you wonder what would happen if he were challenging an NFL defensive back.
You find yourself wondering this a lot because Kelly is very willing to attempt difficult throws. There’s a fine line between having a gunslinger’s mentality and being reckless. That’s especially true when you have arm limitations. Brett Favre walked this line and became a Hall of Famer. Ryan Fitzpatrick walked it and became a journeyman. Talentwise, Kelly falls closer to Fitzpatrick than to Favre. The last interesting facet of Kelly: he throws with good anticipation. Maybe too good, in fact, presenting the question of whether he predetermines some throws. He could get away with that at Ole Miss. In the NFL, those become interceptions.
Kelly needs a system that plays to his early-in-the-down decisiveness and naturally curtails his risk-taking. In other words, a scheme that gets the ball out quickly. Adam Gase has been one of the best with this. As the Bears offensive coordinator in 2015, his three-step timed passing game harnessed Jay Cutler, maybe the league’s most frustrating wild stallion. Would Gase’s Dolphins consider drafting Kelly as a fallback option to Ryan Tannehill? How about Gase’s old offense in Chicago? Dowell Loggains, Gase’s close friend and current Bears offensive coordinator, runs a variation of Gase’s scheme. Would the Bears see Kelly as a developmental backup (which he’ll have to be, given that he just underwent wrist surgery and won’t be able to throw for three months) behind the newly signed Mike Glennon? A situation like that would be Kelly’s best shot.
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