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An In-Depth Review of Jaguars' Gardner Minshew’s 2019 Season: Blending the Film and Data

How successful was Gardner Minshew's 2019 season, and what could it mean moving forward?
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Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew II had an unbelievable rookie year. The 2019 sixth-round draft pick entered the season backing up $88 million signee Nick Foles, but was thrown into action in Week 1 after Foles fractured his clavicle. Minshew went on to start 12 games, winning six, and quickly became a fan favorite along the way.

Minshew played well enough last season to keep the starting job for another year. His sophomore performance will have a lasting impact on both his own career and the organization’s future, as the 2021 offseason figures to be pivotal for Jaguars decision-makers.

After watching all 556 of his dropbacks and examining his advanced statistics, it’s clear that Minshew needs development in certain areas if he is destined to be Jacksonville’s franchise quarterback.

To start, Minshew showed the ability to diagnose coverages before the snap. On many plays, Minshew would settle on a specific player to target based on the alignment of the secondary. Minshew successfully connected on a lot of slants, outs, drags and flat routes after quick-to-intermediate dropbacks when the defense played as Minshew expected.

(clips via NFL Gamepass)

Minshew’s efficiency on first read throws was commendable. Per Pro Football Focus, his 57.1% accuracy on such throws was above league average and his 0.04 Expected Points Added (EPA) per play was positive.

The problems for Minshew arose when he moved on from his first read. His accuracy dipped below average and his EPA per play was negative on second and third reads, as well as on checkdowns and scramble drills. Minshew’s PFF grade dropped from 77.0 on first-read throws to 54.3 on non-first-read throws, the ninth-largest decrease in the league.

Often times, Minshew took too long to move on from his first read when it wasn’t open, which resulted in chaotic pocket movement. He tended to put his head down and force scramble drills rather than keeping his head up and continuing to scan the field, even with viable pockets. Minshew actually invited more pressure by trying to escape the pocket than he would have by using sound footwork within the pocket.

Roughly half of Minshew’s throws took 2.6 seconds or more, per Pro Football Focus. On those dropbacks, his on-target rate, EPA per play and passer rating all declined while his sack rate, pressure rate and turnover-worthy play rate all rose compared to his throws that took 2.5 seconds or less.

Jacksonville’s offensive line certainly wasn’t great, but it wasn’t a liability either. It ranked 24th in both ESPN’s pass block win rate metric and PFF’s team pass blocking grade. Minshew ranked 23rd in time in pocket (2.4 seconds) but sixth in time to throw (2.9 seconds), which indicates that he took a long time to get rid of the ball. Because he failed to throw the ball quickly, many of the quarterback pressures against him were as much his fault as his offensive line’s, which goes in line with the concept of pressures being a quarterback stat.

Minshew’s reluctance to throw the ball resulted in many scramble drills. On such plays, just 26.7% of his throws were accurate (compared to the league average of 42.5%) and he generated -0.07 EPA per play (compared to the league average of 0.04) according to PFF. 

His broken plays naturally produced a few exciting highlights, and those are typically the ones that are remembered as a result of the Von Restorff effect. But there were many more plays that ended on the opposite end of the spectrum, as evidenced by the fact that he had a higher rate of turnover-worthy plays (6.5%) than big-time throws (4.9%) on scramble drills. Additionally, Minshew wasn’t very efficient when he chose to run on scramble drills, as he ranked 24th in EPA per scramble rush despite leading the league in scramble rate.

When Minshew chose to check down instead of scrambling, his efficiency was still subpar. He generated a below-average 61.7% on-target rate and -0.02 EPA per play on checkdowns.

Typically, these numbers wouldn’t be too concerning because those types of plays aren’t ones that quarterbacks make often (as opposed to true downfield pocket passes). But this isn’t true in Minshew’s case, as he easily paced the league in percentage of dropbacks that resulted in a scramble drill or checkdown (17%).

Specifically, Minshew ranked second in scramble drill rate and third in checkdown rate (including first in third down checkdown rate) among 35 qualifying quarterbacks per PFF. Meanwhile, he ranked dead last in rate of first read throws, which was his only efficient area of play.

A high scramble/checkdown rate is usually defensible if the quarterback’s time to throw is high because it probably means the quarterback was at least waiting to try to find an option downfield first. But as previously noted, Minshew spent more time moving around the pocket with his head down than he did looking downfield to uncork the ball.

There were also plenty of times when Minshew scrambled or checked down prematurely despite an adequate pocket and receivers running unfinished routes downfield. He left an uncountable number of plays on the field due to his conservativeness.

In each of the plays from the clip above, Minshew either looks towards a receiver running open but doesn’t pull the trigger or he doesn’t even bother looking downfield and checks down almost immediately.

Minshew doesn’t have to force passes downfield, but he should at least look to see if somebody might be open first. Checking down should be a quarterback’s last resort, not his first.

Minshew’s shy playing style is so frustrating because he’s proven that he can make these throws. On pass attempts 20-plus yards downfield last season, Minshew’s 51% target rate was outstanding compared to the league average of 42%, and as a result he ranked first in passer rating and third in PFF grade on such attempts- but his 11% deep throw rate ranked just 26th. Minshew will never be a true gunslinger due to his underwhelming arm strength, but he’s shown enough ability that he should take downfield shots more often.

Minshew’s conservativeness is evident based on the coverages he played against. According to Sports Info Solutions, when Minshew faced man coverage (Cover 0, Cover 1 or Cover 2 Man) he averaged a 61.5% on-target rate, 5.5 yards per attempt and -0.09 EPA per dropback. But against zone coverages (Cover 2, Tampa 2, Cover 3, Cover 4 or Cover 6), Minshew averaged a 77.9% on-target rate, 7.9 yards per attempt and 0.01 EPA per dropback. His completion percentage was a measly 43.2% against man coverage as opposed to 66.5% against zone coverage, and his average depth of target (aDOT) and sack rate also improved when playing against zone.

Minshew was comfortable finding open spots in zone coverage, but against man coverage he passed on decent opportunities in favor of scrambling or checking down often.

Minshew’s issues in throwing against man or into close coverage is obvious when looking at various advanced statistics: he had a 2.1% adjusted interception rate (25th-highest rate among qualifying quarterbacks per Football Outsiders); attempted an aggressive throw on 15.6% of his attempts (23rd-highest rate per Next Gen Stats); and 56% of his throws were to an open receiver (sixth-highest rate per PFF).

According to Next Gen Stats, Minshew had a 65.8% expected completion percentage, which is based on “numerous factors such as receiver separation from the nearest defender, where the receiver is on the field, the separation the passer had at time of throw from the nearest pass rusher, and more.”

Minshew’s expected completion percentage ranked 11th highest in the league, which makes sense based on his conservativeness as analyzed thus far. But his actual completion percentage was just 60.6%, which ranked 33rd. Minshew’s -5.2% completion percentage over expected ranked better than only Detroit’s David Blough last season.

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Minshew’s inability to convert on high-percentage throws was largely a result of inaccuracy. According to PFF, Minshew ranked 27th in accuracy rating and 33rd in accuracy-plus (highly-accurate throws) rating among 35 quarterbacks. He was better in terms of throwing catchable balls, albeit not by much- he ranked no better than 19th in on-target rate by PFF, Sports Info Solutions and Pro Football Reference metrics.

These accuracy struggles were likely a major reason that Minshew chose to be conservative rather than pushing the ball downfield more often. But ironically, his determination to avoid negative plays actually ended up leading to a fairly high number of negative plays. Minshew’s turnover-worthy play rate rose from 0.8% on throws less than 2.5 seconds to 5.3% on throws longer than 2.5 seconds, and it rose from 3.0% on non-scramble-drill dropbacks to 6.5% on scramble drills.

Minshew potentially was so cautious of making a mistake by throwing the ball that he would end up making a mistake with the ball still in his hands while in the pocket instead, as evidenced by his 13 fumbles (fourth-most in the league). Fumbles are typically at least partially a result of good pressure/poor blocking, but many of Minshew’s fumbles were also as a result of poor pocket awareness and failing to get rid of the ball on time.

To summarize thus far: When Minshew threw to his primary read and got the ball out quickly, he was an adequate quarterback. But when his first read wasn't open or he was simply uncomfortable making a tight throw, far too often he either checked down too early or scrambled too late, resulting in sub-optimal play outcomes and efficiency nosedives.

The short answer to this problem is that Minshew needs to be more aggressive throwing farther down the field, because that’s the most effective NFL offensive strategy and he’s proved that he can do it (when he chooses).

Unfortunately, that isn’t a lock to happen, as Minshew clearly doesn’t have the most talented arm, which was a big reason he was drafted in the sixth round. Minshew likely checked down and scrambled a lot despite being a successful occasional downfield passer because he was aware of his physical limitations, and he’s unlikely to stop being as selective as he was when he throws deep.

The good news for Minshew is that organizational turnover may help him out. This offseason, the Jaguars replaced former offensive coordinator John DeFilippo with Jay Gruden and added pass-catchers in Chris Thompson, Tyler Eifert, Laviska Shenault Jr. and Collin Johnson.

It obviously helps a quarterback to have talented wide receivers, and Jacksonville needs another consistent threat alongside D.J. Chark. But Jacksonville’s production (or lack thereof) from its running back and tight end units in the passing game last season was excruciating and doesn’t get as much attention as it should.

Leonard Fournette led the team in catches and paced the entire league in checkdown receptions, per PFF. If he had Christian McCaffrey’s skillset, then maybe checking down wouldn’t be as big of an issue for Minshew, but that’s obviously not the case. Among 48 running backs with 25-plus targets, Fournette ranked 28th in yards after catch per reception, 36th in yards per route run and 43rd in passer rating when targeted. Only LeSean McCoy had a worse EPA per target than Fournette (-0.19).

Minshew’s tight ends did him no favors either. The unit as a whole ranked 25th in receptions, 30th in yards per attempt and 23rd in passer rating when targeted among all team tight end groups per Sharp Football Stats. The biggest problem was the lack of consistency- no individual Jaguars tight end finished with even 20 targets, as the unit was the unhealthiest tight end group that Football Outsiders has ever graded (since 2001).

Fournette’s aDOT was just 0.13 yards downfield, and Jacksonville’s tight ends had a 5.04 aDOT. Chris Thomson and Tyler Eifert have had some difficulties staying on the field due to various injuries, but if they remain healthy, each should inject some much-needed juice into their respective position groups. Thompson, who played for Gruden for six seasons in Washington, ranked sixth in targets and eighth in yards per route run among running backs last season before injuring his foot in Week 6. Eifert, who played for Gruden for one season in Cincinnati, was subpar efficiency-wise but did play in all 16 games for the first time in his career last season.

Gruden’s presence should also help. The Jaguars ranked 31st in play action rate and 32nd in pre-snap motion rate last season according to PFF. Minshew was slightly better on plays with pre-snap motion- per Sharp Football Stats, his TD:INT ratio and passer rating improved while his sack rate dramatically declined. But Minshew’s performance on play action passes was lights out.

Minshew led the league in completion percentage and had the third-best passer rating on play action attempts, per PFF. On non-play action throws, his completion percentage worsened by 18.9% (!), most in the NFL, and his yards per attempt worsened by 4.4, sixth-most in the NFL. Minshew had the lowest individual play action rate in the league (14.2%) despite being one of the most sensitive and best quarterbacks at it. Play action passes are perhaps the most efficient play in football, so if Gruden increases that rate even just slightly, Minshew’s overall production stands to benefit.

Hopefully, Gruden will also increase Minshew’s rate of downfield throws since he was so successful at it. One of Gruden’s former quarterbacks, Kirk Cousins, had a similar situation- like Minshew, he was successful throwing deep, but didn’t do it nearly enough due to his conservative nature.

Through the first half of the 2017 season, Cousins ranked top-10 in adjusted completion percentage, quarterback rating and yards per attempt on deep throws but 26th in deep throw rate, per PFF. Gruden made a comment about Cousins wanting to throw downfield more often in a midseason post-practice interview, and Cousins subsequently increased his deep pass rate from 9.7% to 14.2% for the remainder of the season while maintaining efficient production.

Interestingly enough, Doug Marrone has also made comments regarding his quarterback’s downfield aggression. When asked about Minshew’s play outside the pocket earlier this offseason, Marrone responded, “I think when you schematically get outside the pocket and you have the ability to do that, you wanna make sure that you’re accurate and still pushing the ball vertically down the field... At the end of the day the thing I kinda look to increase is outside the pocket moving is, again, is just gonna concentrate on the accuracy and the reads of the quarterback.”

Marrone clearly hopes that when Minshew breaks the pocket in the future, he’ll keep his eyes up and look to make more passes downfield rather than tucking and scrambling. If Gruden designs more bootleg rollouts for Minshew so that he is able to schematically move outside the pocket, he could produce much better results as opposed to when he relies on his legs to escape pockets.

Gruden’s work with Cousins and Andy Dalton towards the beginning of their respective careers is commendable, and certainly a major reason for his hiring in Jacksonville. Minshew’s development as a passer is the primary task at hand, but Gruden also may be able to improve his efficiency as a runner. Despite Minshew’s clear athleticism, he had just 17 designed quarterback runs- Gruden could change that, especially near the red zone. Here is Cousins executing quarterback keepers for Gruden in Washington.

Gruden definitely shouldn’t be expected to produce anything close to a top-10 offense in his first season based on his middling track record, not to mention the lack of talent in Jacksonville. But if he just minimizes Minshew’s weaknesses and maximizes Minshew’s strengths, it will go a long way for both Minshew and the team as a whole.

Final Word

On the surface, Minshew’s rookie campaign was a wild success. Despite taking second-team snaps all offseason and playing for one of the losingest franchises in the league, the sixth-round rookie scrapped together six wins, the organization’s second-most in a single season in close to a decade.

But looking deeper, it’s clear that Minshew isn’t yet close to franchise-quarterback material. He does have several positive traits (first-read throws, deep passing, play-action passing, plus-athleticism) that could be maximized in the right system with the right coach. But Minshew’s negative traits (conservative passing, inaccuracy, lacking pocket awareness) are likely of keeping him from ever becoming more than a mid-tier starter.

Players like Alex Smith and Derek Carr are able to get away with conservative mentalities and checkdown tendencies because they are extremely accurate. Minshew possesses the habits (lots of checkdowns and scrambles) but not yet the traits (great accuracy and decision-making, low turnover rate) to be a game-manager at a high level. Even if he does develop those traits, his ceiling would still be capped by that style of play, just like it has capped the ceilings of Smith, Carr, and many fellow game-managers.

Those types of quarterbacks will get occasional Pro Bowl nods and rare MVP whispers but seldom succeed in the playoffs assuming they make it that far. Kansas City smartly realized its lack of potential with Smith at quarterback despite an excellent surrounding environment, and its gamble on a more aggressive quarterback has clearly paid off.

With a roster depleted of talent and a staff far past their expiration dates, Jacksonville’s primary focus in 2020 must be on its quarterback situation. Minshew played well enough to warrant another year as the Jaguars starter, and maybe he’ll make a significant sophomore jump towards being a more confident, aggressive passer and prove himself as a legitimate franchise quarterback. But the much more likely scenario is that Minshew continues to play conservatively and doesn’t show flashes of a higher ceiling.

Minshew has this season to prove that he possesses the legitimate potential to join the top tier of NFL quarterbacks. What he’s shown so far doesn’t inspire much hope that that is a serious possibility - which may seem harsh given he’s played just 14 career games, but considering his sixth-round pedigree and underwhelming arm talent, the odds aren’t in his favor. If Minshew in fact does not make a major jump, it’s critical that Jacksonville doesn’t settle for its Alex Smith and instead prays for its Patrick Mahomes in the 2021 NFL Draft.