• As the quarterback position continues to evolve and a ‘trickle-up’ effect takes hold, Deshaun Watson and Alex Smith showed how spread college passers can have immediate and long-term success in the NFL
By Albert Breer
October 10, 2017

NFL teams have been trying to project quarterbacks from college spread offenses for over a decade now, and coaches have tried just about everything to make it work.

The Redskins imported the Baylor offense for Robert Griffin III, and the Niners brought in Nevada’s pistol for Colin Kaepernick. The Panthers built in spread concepts for Cam Newton, and the Broncos turned their offense upside-down to make it work, short-term, for Tim Tebow. There were fits and starts; some experiments worked while others didn’t.

And then came Sunday night’s Chiefs-Texans game, and it was all there for us to see.

On one side, one of the first college spread QBs to be drafted high—Kansas City’s Alex Smith—was playing in a classic pro-style offense that’s been radicalized over the last two years with all kinds of spread concepts that fit his skillset. On the other side, Houston rookie Deshaun Watson, just getting his feet wet, had his coaches doing all they could to put him in position to compete in his first NFL season. We saw the template for what the finished product should look like playing against the blueprint for how to get started.

“Teams are more open-minded to evaluating spread QBs, and they aren’t killing them as much based on the offense,” said one AFC college scouting director. “We still need arm strength, accuracy and good decision making. So the core traits we look for haven’t changed. I think it’s maybe causing some people to stop being so close-minded about the position, though.”

Before the season, we wrote about the rise and fall of the zone-read in the NFL, and how the option game has since settled into its place as a complementary element of the modern NFL offense. That, too, can explain how breaking a young quarterback into the league has changed over the years, with coaches as open as they’ve ever been to embracing the trickle-up of football schematics.

In this week’s draft column, we’ll take you through a couple coaching names to watch, another Bosa, why Saquon Barkley’s worst day was still a pretty good indicator for scouts, and which quarterback has a shot to become this year’s version of Mitchell Trubisky. But we’ll start with the question of the spread quarterback, and what that background means as far as having a long NFL career. Among this year’s presumed top quarterbacks, USC’s Sam Darnold, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph and Washington State’s Luke Falk come from schemes heavy on spread elements.

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And, again, all the answers seemed to be there in plain sight in Houston on Sunday night. Want to take it to another level? Well, how about this: When Jordan Palmer, the man who trained Watson for the NFL draft, was asked by front-office types in March and April for a comp on the Clemson star, he never hesitated.

“Every single time I said Alex Smith,” Palmer said on Monday night. “They’re the same size, same speed, same quick release. Both have pretty strong arms, but not the strongest in the league. Neither guy is 6' 5", and both are really intelligent and phenomenal people. And they both came from productive spread offenses, and were runners up for the Heisman.

“The difference is, Alex is more polished mechanically, and Deshaun has no scars—he’s won big games, played great all the way through. Alex got beat up a little more.”

The evaluators who gave Sunday night’s game a look saw the same. Watson’s development is still very much a work-in-progress, and he’s showing a tendency to tuck it and run when he comes off his first read. His accuracy dissipates when he goes deeper into his progressions, and he put a lot of 50-50 balls up in the direction of DeAndre Hopkins, who was targeted on 12 of his 31 throws. There were some designed runs, and more rollouts off play-action to cut the field in half.

Bill O’Brien is now running a Texans offense this is, in essence, working to buy his quarterback time to develop as a pocket passer, which is still a necessary of part of the NFL game. And that’s where the evolution has to come for Watson. Palmer trusts it will, because of O’Brien, who was the reason why he and Watson “always wanted to get him to Houston.”

Smith knows what Watson’s about to go through, because he went through it big-time during his eight years as a Niner. Coming from Urban Meyer’s Utah spread, where he was an option quarterback, Smith had six offensive coordinators in his first six NFL seasons. Then Jim Harbaugh arrived, and OC Greg Olson installed spread elements to make the QB comfortable. Smith led San Francisco to an NFC title game appearance that year, before losing his job in 2012 to Colin Kaepernick, after which he was traded to the Chiefs.

By the time he dove into working with Andy Reid there, Smith had become a fully functioning pocket passer. And where Roman, Harbaugh and Co. used spread concepts to help facilitate that growth, Reid flipped it around and added spread concepts—thanks to ex-Nevada coach Chris Ault, who was hired as a consultant—to highlight Smith’s athleticism and supplement his more traditional system. The result has been perhaps the NFL’s toughest offense to game plan for and defend.

That brings us back to how this roadmap might affect the way the pros evaluate college quarterbacks. Consider what one veteran personnel director said over the phone, in referencing Watson’s fast start: “Maybe you’d shy away now from the QB you think has potential and go with the quarterback with a track record of success. Just look at the players that have had minimal success or experience in college compared to the players who had experience and success.”

In other words, maybe a team would be emboldened to take someone like Watson. The Texans sure are glad they were. And on Sunday night, they got a pretty good look at what happens once a player like that in the right situation could become down the line.

Frederick Breedon/Getty Images


1. I’m going to go deeper on this at some point soon, but given how the churn of coaches has affected the NFL market, I have to wonder when some team makes a really hard run at Alabama’s Nick Saban, who’d re-enter the league with a much stronger reputation than he came in with in 2005. Yes, he’s 65—a few weeks younger than Pete Carroll and a few months older than Bill Belichick—but his ability to set up a program and build a staff should be attractive, and I don’t think there’s any reason he couldn’t coach until he’s 70. All you have to do is look at what the Tide is doing this year to see his energy for the job.

2. If you want a younger name than Saban, keep an eye on Vanderbilt’s 43-year-old coach Derek Mason, who served for a year under Jim Harbaugh and three under David Shaw at Stanford, and was the Vikings assistant defensive backs coach for three years on Brad Childress’ staff. Vanderbilt is a tough place to win, and this year hasn’t been the breakthrough that some expected, but there are NFL types that like him.

3. Nick Bosa, Joey Bosa’s little brother, is just a true sophomore at Ohio State, but he already has the look of a Top 10 pick—and he’s not even starting for the Buckeyes yet. Because Ohio State returned both its starters at defensive end, Bosa is coming off the bench, and he’s still posted four sacks. He was borderline unblockable against Maryland on Saturday.

4. The top player on our Big Board, Saquon Barkley, had a largely frustrating afternoon at Northwestern—the Wildcats were geared up to stop him and, for 42 minutes, pretty much did. At that point, the Heisman candidate had just 12 carries for four yards, and two catches for nine yards. But count what he did without the ball as another win for him. He protected, he worked as a decoy, and he set up quarterback Trace McSorley to control the game. It’s something scouts will take notice off. And the 53-yard touchdown he wound up scoring to salt things away late in the third quarter wasn’t bad either.

5. West Virginia lost to TCU, but junior receiver David Sills continues to be one of the better stories in the country. Long known for being the quarterback who committed to Lane Kiffin and USC as a seventh-grader, his winding road has led him to a second stint in Morgantown, this time as a receiver, and he had seven catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns against the Horned Frogs. The 6' 4", 203-pounder has now gone for over 100 yards in three of his last four games, with eight touchdowns in that stretch. Dana Holgerson sold him on coming back to WVU as a receiver by telling him he had an NFL future at the position.

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1. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
2. Bradley Chubb, EDGE, N.C. State
3. Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama
4. Sam Darnold, QB, USC
5. Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame
6. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
7. Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
8. Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia
9. Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson
10. Connor Williams, OT, Texas

Because only four guys on the list actually played this weekend, we have very little movement. Roquan Smith moves up a spot after a terrific SEC title game . . . And I’ll give Sam Darnold a little love, because of the way he’s handled a tough year and come away with a Pac-12 title . . . Connor Williams, by the way, has announced he’ll skip the Texas Bowl against Missouri to prepare for the draft.

Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

Top of the Class:

1. Sam Darnold, USC (17-24, 325 yds, 2 TDs, 0 INTs v. Stanford): The Trojans were hit hard by graduation before the year and injuries during it, and so Darnold deserves a lot of credit for guiding USC to its first conference title since the Pete Carroll era. He, in many ways, became the program’s margin for error as so many young players worked through growing pains. We’ll see whether or not he comes out. This much is for sure: Everything people have said about him as a player and a person showed up this year.

2. Josh Rosen, UCLA (DNP): The true junior still has questions about his personality and durability to answer, but few believed he was ever staying in 2018. The arrival of Chip Kelly probably seals his departure, since Kelly’s offense is a less-than-ideal fit for him. Interim coach Jedd Fisch has said he expects Rosen to play in the Cactus Bowl.

3. Josh Allen, Wyoming (DNP): It’s a foregone conclusion that Allen will declare after this, his redshirt junior season. The only question left there is whether he’ll play in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (yes, that’s the name of it) against Central Michigan. Allen gets points, as Darnold does, for getting the Cowboys through a rebuilding season. And if you add his off-the-charts tools to his uneven play, you get one of the 2018 draft’s most polarizing prospects.

Helped Himself: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State (12-26, 211 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs vs. Wisconsin): Barrett didn’t look great throwing the ball against Wisconsin—he missed on a pair throws that would’ve been long touchdowns that could’ve blown the game open, and his unsightly pick-six in the first half kept the Badgers in it. But he played just six days after having arthroscopic surgery to address a meniscus injury that he’s played through all season, and he carried the ball 19 times. Barrett’s toughness and leadership precede him as the only three-time captain in Buckeyes history. And a night like Saturday night should, at least, pique the curiosity of NFL teams and give him a shot to win a roster spot in training camp.

Hurt Himself: Jarrett Stidham, Auburn (16-32, 145 yards, TD vs. Georgia): The redshirt sophomore picked the wrong week to turn in his worst statistical effort of the season, as the Tigers were held to a single touchdown in their SEC title game loss to Georgia. The good news is that, for most of Auburn’s stretch run, he flashed tools that have caught the eye of evaluators, and now we know that Gus Malzahn is staying, which should help push Stidham’s development forward.

Kelly Kline/Getty Images

The Heisman Ceremony (Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPN): So Baker Mayfield is the winner over Stanford’s Bryce Love and reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville. And as a reference point, Ohio State’s Troy Smith had the largest margin of victory in Heisman history, having taken 91.63% of the vote in 2006, a mark that Mayfield could best. Got it? We’re good? O.K., so here’s the other thing I’m watching in the coming days: Prospects deciding to skip their bowl games to prepare for the draft, like Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette did last year. We’ve seen three(!) Texas players do it already. Two of the three are expected to go on Thursday (OT Connor Williams) or Friday (LB Malik Jefferson) of draft weekend, whereas S DeShon Elliott may have a tougher road.

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