With a little more than three minutes left in a tie game, facing a second-and-10 at Missouri’s 25-yard line, Drew Lock dropped back and scanned the field left to right for an open receiver. He ran through his progressions, but all four options were covered. With pressure coming, he escaped the pocket to his right and then stepped up and looked left for his running back, Tyler Badie.
Badie had originally been pass-protecting. He cut-blocked Purdue linebacker Cornel Jones, and seeing that Lock had extended the play, quickly got up off the ground and ran left into space. Just as Lock looked to Badie, Jones was back on his feet and had an arm wrapped around the Missouri quarterback’s waist. But Lock shook him while throwing and somehow stayed on his feet as Badie took the ball 20 yards for a first down.
This was the key play in the drive that set up Missouri’s game-winning field goal to beat Purdue on Saturday, and scouts took note of Lock’s poise as he kept his eyes downfield in a pressure-packed moment when the game was on the line. That play is a microcosm of what Lock needs to show in his senior year: better pocket presence and the ability to quickly move through his progressions. Though Lock led the SEC with 3,964 passing yards and 44 touchdowns last season, he decided to return for his senior year because he didn’t feel ready to play in an NFL offense, and Missouri had hired a new offensive coordinator, Derek Dooley, who came from an NFL job as the Dallas Cowboys’ receivers coach. “I wanted to be able to speak to NFL teams on a higher level than I thought I’d be able to speak to them at that time [of the 2018 draft],” Lock told AL.com in August. “What better way to be able to do that than [play for] a guy like coach Dooley that sat in on those meetings and had decisions and helped decide who they thought they should draft? That was huge in me coming back.”
NFL evaluators are taking note of Lock’s maturity and patience in making his reads this season. Had the 6' 4", 220-pound Lock panicked from the Purdue defense’s pressure—taking the sack or throwing the ball away—it would have been a missed opportunity. “The one thing that I am looking for this year that I haven’t seen, or would have liked to see more of in previous years, is his poise and pocket presence under pressure,” says a veteran NFL evaluator who has studied Lock. “The thing that really separates the good from the really good to even elite quarterbacks are the ones that can stand back there, know that it is coming and be able to just slow the game down and deliver the ball when you know that is going to happen, because it is going to happen.”
In Lock’s three games this season, the scout says he’s noticed an improvement in the quarterback’s patience in the pocket. In the second game of the season against Wyoming, Lock showed off his poise and arm strength. On one play, he stood calmly in the pocket and threw a 28-yard touchdown strike to receiver Emanuel Hall on a corner route.
As a true freshman, Lock was thrown to the wolves when he was forced to start Missouri’s final eight games in place of the suspended Maty Mauk. He played behind a weak offensive line that allowed 25 sacks. The evaluator thinks that jarring Welcome to college football experience might have set back Lock’s pocket presence. “The offensive line didn’t do a good job that year, he got battered a little bit,” says the scout. “I think maybe playing really early when he wasn’t expecting to play, that affected him. I don’t know how many people would really want and be willing to stand in a pocket and let people run at you and hit you in the face, there is a human instinct to not like that.”
But even as he was beat up on the field in his first collegiate season, there were still signs of true potential. “There would be throw where it was like, O.K. there it is,” the scout says. “He was able to make throws that not a lot of kids his age would make, far deep out from the opposite hash, the ability to drive the ball into a tight window.”
For Lock’s previous two seasons at Missouri he played in Josh Heupel’s Air Raid offense, a system that, historically, hasn’t translated well to the NFL. This year, in Dooley’s blend of a pro-style scheme with elements of the spread, Lock is being asked to go through more progressions, and execute plays that are a little more complex, like ones with combo routes.
“The fact that he is going through progressions, like third, second-third, half-field, cross-field, things like that, those are things that not a lot of quarterbacks in college are doing,” the scout says. “Half the time—especially in those spread offenses—it is just pitch and catch, the defenses aren’t as complex, the quarterbacks are catching the ball and throwing right away and they don’t even have to think about it.”
Last January, before Lock had made a decision on the draft, Missouri kept the quarterback in the loop during the process of hiring Dooley. “When Coach Heupel decided to take the job at UCF, for Drew, obviously that raised his antenna,” says Justin Hoover, Lock’s private quarterback coach. “Hold on a second, now what? I am either going to have my third offensive coordinator in my career, or should I bounce out of here? I think [head coach] Barry Odom recognized how vulnerable a kid could be in that type of situation and he was able to address it and say, O.K., you are going to be involved and caught up to speed on this process... Once it was Coach Dooley, he was able to say, I know for a fact that with this NFL background, this is going to be some language and terminology that is going to help me moving forward.”
The veteran scout thinks Lock made the right decision to stay at Missouri. Lock didn’t receive a first- or second-round grade from the NFL’s draft advisory council last offseason, and was wise to join a shallower quarterback pool and the chance to improve on his standout junior season. “He obviously would have been drafted last year, but he made the right decision to come back this year because if he puts up another year like he did last year, he could be a pretty significantly high pick,” the scout says.
Lock has rarely taken snaps from under center during his college career, but he works on that and footwork in his dropbacks with Hoover. “As the private QB coach, my goal is to supplement what you are not getting at your school,” Hoover says. “Since you are based out of the gun, you need to get under center and throw a rhythm five and throw a speed out. If you can be on time and in rhythm from under center, think about how easy it is on your feet when you are out of shotgun.”
The veteran scout isn’t hung up on Lock’s lack of experience under center. It’s more common than not that college quarterbacks have minimal experience under center, and more NFL teams are implementing shotgun and pistol snaps as they adapt certain college concepts.
The biggest knock against Lock is his accuracy. Last season, Lock completed 57.8% of his passes (better, in fact, than his first two seasons, and raising his career mark to 54.5%). He drew some comparisons to Josh Allen, who completed 56.3% of his passes at Wyoming last season, and is known primarily for his big arm, just like Lock. Completion percentage is an important number that evaluators discuss and make note of, but not without the bigger picture. “Drew does like to push the ball down the field for long throws,” the evaluator says. “Those are less likely to be more completed than the 10- and 12-yard passes. We looked at it; there was a receiver there who dropped the ball quite a bit. [Completion percentage doesn’t] give you credit for throwing a catchable ball.”
Through three games this season, Lock has completed 69.0% of his passes, a huge improvement, but it should be noted the tough SEC competition is still to come. Up next? No. 2 Georgia. Lock is 0-3 against the Bulldogs in his career, and has a reputation of playing well against bad teams but struggling against good teams—he’s 0-6 with a 9-to-11 TD/INT ratio against ranked teams over his career. A strong performance against Georgia could send his draft stock soaring.
SENIOR BOWL SCOUTING NOTEBOOK
Former longtime NFL scout and current Reese’s Senior Bowl Executive Director Jim Nagy shares the matchups he’s monitoring this week…
Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald vs. Kentucky LB Josh Allen
This is a big season for Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald, and it got off to red-flagged start with a one-game suspension (violation of team rules). However, in the two games since sitting out Week 1 versus Stephen F. Austin, Fitzgerald has shown exactly why he is such an intriguing NFL prospect, passing for 397 yards, rushing for another 266, and accounting for 8 total TDs.
From a scout’s perspective, Fitzgerald is a difficult player to stick a grade on or feel convicted about at this point because he has the size and athleticism that every team is looking for but his overall passing skill-set remains raw. From a physical standpoint, there might not be a better-looking QB in the nation than Fitzgerald. He’s tall (6' 5") with long arms and an athletic build—exactly what most football people think an NFL quarterback should look like.
The unique thing he brings to the table as a scrambler and runner is the size factor. He is not going to dance and dodge like most athletic QB and he runs through as much contact as he avoids. Last week against the University of Louisiana, he had a couple of tough runs where looked fully back from the ACL injury he sustained in the Egg Bowl last November.
Right now, the thing that has NFL scouts most concerned is his overall accuracy. Over the past couple months, I have had the opportunity to see him throw live twice, first at the Manning Passing Camp back in June and then again in early August during fall camp, and both times I came away with more glass half-full than half-empty feelings. The ball does not come off his hand clean all the time and his placement, even just throwing routes on air, was still hit-or-miss, but there are enough flash throws that keep you interested.
Fundamental QB play starts with footwork and Mississippi State offensive coaches say Fitzgerald is working hard on his foundation to improve his accuracy. If he can continue to get his lower half cleaned up, Fitzgerald will take the next step as a passer. Come draft time next spring, there will undoubtedly be plenty of QB coaches or offensive coordinators around the league pounding the table to work with someone with Fitzgerald’s tools.
If Kentucky has any chance of slowing down Fitzgerald this week they will need to tackle well, especially on the edges where Fitzgerald does most of his damage on RPOs and true read-option runs. The Wildcats defense is led by true senior OLB Josh Allen. I have not seen Allen in-person yet but the scouts that I’ve talked to say he is an absolute specimen. Allen has packed on roughly 15 pounds of muscle since last season and the added weight has changed how scouts are projecting him.
A year ago, many evaluators that went into Lexington felt like Allen was just a sub-downs DPR (designated pass rusher) but that has all changed since he dedicated himself to getting heavier. Off ’17 tape, more than one scout described Allen as a “finesse” linebacker so adding mass and power to his game should help him shed that label.
The one knock scouts have is that some feel like his potential outweighs his production at this point in his career. While most love all the physical tools, some want to see a more consistently active and involved player.
Based off what I’m hearing, Allen should get drafted somewhere in the first three rounds of next April’s draft, mainly because of the versatility. Teams could plug him into any system (3-4 Jack or Buck, 4-3 Sam or Will) and he has the length and athleticism to cover or rush off the edge.
Playing in the Reese’s Senior Bowl is a great showcase for highly athletic players like Allen because all the 1-on-1 drills are designed to highlight the physical traits. To that point, Denver Broncos All-Pro Von Miller was a more highly rated prospect at Texas A&M but he solidified himself as a top-five pick by athletically dominating the competition in Mobile.
OTHER MATCHUPS FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY
North Dakota State QB Easton Stick vs. Delaware S Nasir Adderley: While he doesn’t have the same physical tools as his predecessor, Carson Wentz, scouts are still intrigued by Stick because he’s a gamer and a winner. Adderley might be the top FCS prospect on the Senior Bowl radar.
Georgia C Lamont Gaillard vs. Missouri DT Terry Beckner Jr.: There are couple of big-time matchups in the game (Missouri QB Drew Lock vs. Georgia CB Deandre Baker) but we’ll go with likely Senior Bowl players Beckner Jr. versus Gaillard. Take your eye off the ball and focus them in the trenches when Georgia has the ball.
Virginia Tech T Yosuah Nijman vs. Old Dominion DE/OLB Oshane Ximines: Both of these players are getting buzz among scouts on the East Coast. We had a chance to see Ximines last week at UNC-Charlotte and he was impressive. The athletic Nijman will probably be a Combine standout and he is putting it all together on the field.
Buffalo WR Anthony Johnson vs. Rutgers CB Blessaun Austin: Austin’s status for Saturday’s game is TBD because of a knee injury but if he plays it will be a good matchup on the perimeter with Johnson, who makes plays on a weekly basis for Buffalo.
Louisville WR Jaylen Smith vs. Virginia S/CB Juan Thornhill: Interesting matchup here between two players with good downfield ball skills.
Stanford LB Bobby Okereke vs. Oregon RB Tony Brooks-James: The Senior Bowl has seen Stanford twice already this year and Okereke’s speed and athleticism are obvious when you see him play live. He will have his hands full in space with the speedy Ducks running back.
Texas A&M DTs Kingsley Keke and Daylon Mack vs. Alabama interior OLs Ross Pierschbacher and Lester Cotton: The Senior Bowl will be at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday and the binoculars will be focused on these four senior players on our watch list.
TCU vs. Texas: A couple intriguing matchups; Texas OT Calvin Anderson against TCU edge players Ben Banogu and L.J. Collier. Texas CB Kris Boyd against explosive TCU WRs KaVontae Turpin and Jaelan Austin.
Minnesota LT Donnell Greene vs. Maryland OLB Jesse Aniebonam: This is an interesting contrast in styles between the powerful Greene and the mostly finesse yet highly athletic Aniebonam. The Terps’ Buck linebacker suffered a broken ankle in the ’17 season-opener but he had nine sacks in ’16.
Michigan State RB L.J. Scott vs. Indiana S Jonathan Crawford: The Spartans need to get bruising RB Scott, who has only 103 yards (3.4 avg) through two games, rolling against the Hoosiers this week. Look for the hard-hitting Crawford to be in the box a lot on Saturday.
WHAT I’M WATCHING
All times Eastern…
No. 2 Georgia at Missouri, noon (ESPN): See above for why Drew Lock is interesting. Both SEC teams are 3-0 and though not at juicy as Alabama’s quarterback drama, Georgia’s quarterback duo of true sophomore Jake Fromm and true freshman Justin Fields has been fascinating to watch.
Tulane at No. 4 Ohio State, 3:30 (BTN): This game won’t be much of a contest, but it is Urban Meyer’s first game back on the sidelines following his suspension.
No. 7 Stanford at No. 20 Oregon 8 p.m. (ABC): There are lots of great players in this matchup. On the defensive side, keep an eye on Oregon defensive end Jalen Jelks and outside linebacker Justin Hollins. For Stanford’s D, watch linebackers Bobby Okereke and Joey Alfieri. Bryce Love is also expected to return to the field this week (as noted last week, he impressed scouts the first two games of the season).
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