Should we trust Hue Jackson on Cody Kessler?
“You’ve got to trust me on this one.”
That was the money quote from Hue Jackson. His Cleveland Browns had just selected Cody Kessler in the third round of the 2016 draft, a selection that was just as surprising as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers trading up into the second round for a kicker. It’s not that the Browns weren’t expected to draft a quarterback, they were, it’s that nobody expected it to be Kessler and nobody expected the USC prospect to go as high as the third round.
When most teams burn mid-to-late round picks on quarterbacks it’s not worth a second thought. Because of where Jackson is in his career, that’s not the case with Kessler.
Jackson is widely celebrated for his work with quarterbacks. He is the Browns head coach now because of his work with Andy Dalton last year. Jackson designed an offense around Dalton that perfectly catered to his skill set and set him up for success. Before becoming the offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals, Jackson got the most out of Jason Campbell in Oakland and a rookie Joe Flacco in Baltimore. He was the head coach of the Raiders when the franchise acquired Carson Palmer.
Even though the Raiders jettisoned Palmer and Jackson soon after, Palmer’s quality was always obvious and he has gone on to shine in Arizona with the Cardinals.
There is no question that Jackson deserves the benefit of the doubt, it’s something he got with the Robert Griffin III signing. Nobody was slamming the Browns for adding Griffin because they fear how Jackson can set the former second-overall pick in the draft up for success. Giving Jackson the benefit of the doubt for Griffin isn’t the same as offering blind trust for Kessler.
Kessler had some extremely impressive stats in college. Over his four seasons at USC, he threw the ball 1,261 times for 10,339 yards, 88 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. His completion percentage was 67.5 and his average per attempt was 8.2.
College stats can be very misleading, especially when the quarterback played with as many talented receivers that Kessler did throughout his career. What matters more for Kessler is the traits he showed. It would be easier to trust Jackson with this pick if it was Cardale Jones or another quarterback prospect who had very clearly defined strengths and weaknesses. With Jones, Jackson could solely focus on altering his mechanics or drilling him in whatever ways he could to improve his accuracy. It’s hard to know where to start with Kessler.
The first thing you notice about Kessler is that he struggles to physically throw the ball. His arm strength brings up flashbacks of Kellen Moore.
Kessler was constantly overthrowing open receivers at USC. His arm strength is so limited that he can’t comfortably push the ball 20 or more yards downfield. This means that he has to put in extra effort to get the ball there, becoming looser and losing control in the process. Overthrowing your intended targets can often be a sign of arm strength issues even though you would presume underthrowing is. That is the case because the quarterback overcompensates when trying to get the ball to the requisite spot downfield.
This lack of arm strength limits the areas of the field that Kessler can attack but it also impacts his accuracy on short and intermediate throws.
Despite his high completion percentage, Kessler’s ball placement isn’t a major positive. He struggles to rifle the ball with precision, instead floating it into his receivers on short and intermediate routes. These passes are often still catchable but they put a greater emphasis on the receiver’s ability to adjust than they should. In the above gifs, Kessler misses a wide open slant route because he can’t throw the ball with velocity so it travels wildly above the receiver’s head and he struggles to throw a screen outside the numbers as his pass travels with little velocity and arcs unnecessarily.
Even the simplest of NFL throws will be difficult for Kessler because of that arm strength.
If you have a weak arm as an NFL prospect, you need to already have established yourself as an intelligent technician. You can’t expect to be given time to learn the nuances of the game if you don’t offer physical upside to NFL teams. This is what makes the Kessler addition so confusing. Kessler doesn’t offset his limited arm with great pocket movement or awareness of coverages downfield. He is the complete opposite type of quarterback, a one-read passer who doesn’t feel pressure or execute the timing of his offense with any kind of consistency.
Against Washington last year, Kessler played one of the worst games you’ll see from a quarterback by repeatedly highlighting his potentially fatal flaws.
USC’s very first drive of that game came to an end because Kessler threw an interception. It was Third-and-10 and the young quarterback had time in the pocket. He didn’t take advantage of that time by moving his eyes or feet, instead he dropped back, planted his feet like they were trees burying roots in the ground while staring down his first read. An unfathomable amount of time passed in the pocket and Kessler continued to stare at his first read. He eventually panicked and flung the ball outside when a delayed rush began to penetrate the pocket.
The ball was nowhere near its intended receiver because the defensive back had been blanketing him in coverage.
Midway through the first quarter, Kessler should have had his second interception when he repeated his mistakes. He went through exactly the same process in the pocket, planting his feet and staring down his first option. Those actions led the defensive back to the ball and Kessler’s pass put it out in front of the defender for him to go and get it. Fortunately for the quarterback, he dropped it as he tried to catch it in stride and run back towards the USC endzone.
On both of those plays, you can see how slow Kessler is to recognize what he is looking at. It’s not just that he stares down his receivers, he doesn’t throw to them with good timing.
His coaching staff masked Kessler’s limitations by relying heavily on screens and simple concepts that put receivers in space underneath. Even on those plays Kessler struggled though. His passes to his receivers were regularly off target and late even when they were caught. On the play immediately after Kessler should have had his second interception against Washington, he was picked off on a screen play. He held the ball for way too long and lofted it high to a spot where the arriving defender could easily break on the ball for the turnover.
Kessler added another throw that was fortunate not to be intercepted during the third quarter of this game. Once again his mental process was extremely slow as he stared down his first read. This miss was made more glaring by the wide open slot receiver who was waiting for a simple catch at the first down marker. There was no need for the quarterback to heave the ball down the sideline but he is incapable of moving his eyes.
These traits don’t just lead to turnover opportunities for the defense, they also cripple the design of your offense.
On this play, the defense blitzes and the offense has the perfect play call to exploit it. Kessler has enough time to plant his feet and deliver the ball before he is hit by the unblocked defender. Instead, he holds the ball because he can’t anticipate either of his receivers who are coming open over the middle of the field. Furthermore, Kessler’s inability to throw with velocity means that he’s not comfortable rifling the ball to the receiver closer to the middle of the field because he has a defender on his back.
You need that velocity to fit the ball into your receiver in that situation at the goal line.
On this play, Kessler panics and runs out of a clean pocket while the defense blows a coverage on the back end to leave a wide receiver running free towards the endzone. His lack of poise covered the receiver better than any cornerback ever could have.
In the top half of the above image Kessler has already established himself at the top of his drop. The wide receiver down the right sideline is coming out of a double move and has already beaten the cornerback at this point of the play. Despite having a huge amount of time, Kessler doesn’t release the ball. Instead he holds it while he stares downfield until deciding to try and begin his throwing motion at the last second. He could only try to begin his throwing motion because he was hit as soon as he begun.
The only good thing he did on this play was maintain control of the ball.
It may feel very negative but those plays all come from the same game. It was overwhelmingly negative and it would be insincere to try and spin his display in any other direction. While Kessler had better performances last year, they weren’t significantly better. None of the games I watched made him look like he could be an NFL player in any way. He lacks arm strength, awareness, poise, subtlety and intelligence.
If Jackson can see something in Kessler that the rest of us can’t, he truly is a quarterback guru.