DeShone Kizer and Diverging Traits
The draft is a repetitive entity. Every draft process is engulfed in narratives that parallel previous years while teams repeat terms and prospects fall into the same categories. It can become monotonous, especially when it comes to coaches and GMs who transparently push the importance of character or integrity while pushing the Joe Mixons and Tyreek Hills up their boards.
Every once in a while something intriguing comes along. DeShone Kizer fits that description this year.
Kizer was a quarterback at Notre Dame for the past two years. He played in 25 games before leaving for the NFL at 21 years of age. On the whole Kizer’s play in college was uneven. He showed off the level of inconsistency that most college quarterbacks show off, the few exceptions are either star prospects or set up in simplistic offenses that don’t stress their whole skill sets.
Diverging traits are what make Kizer intriguing.
If throwing the ball wasn’t a requisite part of being an NFL quarterback, Kizer would be one of the best prospects the NFL has seen in years. It sounds funny but a lot of being a successful quarterback has nothing to do with throwing the ball. Kizer can be slow to process coverages at times but in general his timing with his receivers and decision making is excellent. He will sit in clean pockets and pick apart coverages or get rid of the ball instantly when the defense is more aggressive.
Nothing about what Kizer does is predetermined before the snap and confusing him isn’t easy. Even if the defense’s play design works to perfection he has the ability to buy time or make a last second adjustment that creates space within the pocket.
All of that begins with his footwork.
In complete contrast to Patrick Mahomes and his frenetic feet, Kizer always shows off settled footwork. Whether in a clean pocket or reacting to pressure, he doesn’t waste motion. His right tackle is beaten too easily in the above play. Kizer immediately has a defender bearing down on him. Instinct doesn’t tell him to move as early as possible or try to turn and run away. His instinct allows him to stay calm.
Kizer doesn’t let the defender know that he can see him coming. Instead he stays in his stance before moving at the latest possible moment. That draws the defender in and forces him to commit to his aggressive tackle attempt.
Working in a phone booth (phone booths are things people used back when people didn’t have cell phones, kids. They were small spaces hence the reference), Kizer shifts his weight without straying too far from his throwing stance and keeps his eyes downfield at all times. He stepped through the space in front of him while adjusting his upper body to avoid the tackle attempt.
His feet were settled with his weight evenly distributed as he released the ball.
Everything a quarterback does on the field begins with his feet. It determines how he throws the ball, how he reacts to pressure and where his eyes can go. Footwork naturally determines weight distribution and helps to direct your shoulders in specific directions. Kizer’s footwork is a pinnacle trait.
A pinnacle trait is when a quarterback does something consistently at a level that few of his peers can match. They act as a foundation of a player’s success and reach such heights that they elevate weaker areas of the player’s skill set. Tom Brady’s ability to diagnose defenses at the snap is a pinnacle trait because of how fast he processes information and how rarely he misreads what is in front of him.
Brady’s processing ability puts him one step ahead of the defense on every snap. Kizer’s footwork sets him up in comfort when chaos descends.
A crucial element of footwork is having the ability to set and reset once you’ve been moved off your original spot. This requires balance and awareness but also the ability to transition from an explosive action to a stable foundation. The result of the above play is a sack but for Kizer it’s a hugely impressive play within the confines of a collapsing pocket.
The defense’s blitz works perfectly as both Kizer’s center and running back allow the linebacker a free run at their quarterback. Kizer immediately recognizes the defender’s presence, squaring to him to draw him in before making an aggressive jump cut into the one pocket of space that was available to him. Kizer immediately looked to square his shoulders to the line of scrimmage and reset his feet.
Because his left guard was being pushed into his lap, this movement in the pocket created no actual reward for the offense. From Kizer’s perspective he gave the play every chance to succeed. He extended it within the pocket. Had his protection held up better after initially missing the blitz pickup, he would have given himself a chance to throw the ball downfield.
Offensive line play in the NFL is bad right now because offenses are stressing the passing game more than ever before. Players designed to run block are being asked to pass block more than 30 times a game. Unless you play for the Oakland Raiders or Dallas Cowboys, facing pressure and playing from condensed pockets is inevitable. To function in those situations you need to show off subtle movements and awareness.
The above play might not look like much on first glance. Kizer drops back, holds the ball for a moment before delivering the ball accurately downfield from a relatively clean pocket. Watch it again. This time focus solely on his feet.
Kizer catches the ball on the hashmarks. His feet are directly over the middle of the painted lines on the field. He settles at the top of his drop still on the paint but shifts over slightly before releasing the ball from inside the painted lines. Kizer’s eyes never dropped but he sensed the arriving pressure from the left-side defensive tackle. His subtle shift put him into the cleanest area of the pocket and allowed him to deliver the ball without any obstruction.
Had Kizer not made that subtle movement, he would have had to deliver the ball against arriving pressure or he would have been sacked. The painted lines highlight what can often be hard to see.
This subtlety permeates through Kizer’s play and reveals itself in different ways. In the above gif, Kizer gets to the top of his drop and immediately has an edge rusher penetrating the pocket from his left. The best way to negate his presence would be to step up but the offensive line has also allowed a defender to penetrate up the middle. Kizer has nowhere to go but his routes need more time to develop.
So his receiver has enough time to clear the underneath coverage, Kizer adds a step backwards to his original drop.
Not only did Kizer have to show off awareness to know how to react to multiple points of pressure, he had to do it in such a way that he would still be able to throw the ball. Kizer moved backwards but kept his weight distribution even and his eyes downfield. He found the perfect window between his receiver being open and the pass rush’s arrival.
The subtle movements are typically tougher to make so it’s not surprising that Kizer is comfortable making more decisive movements to escape pressure.
In the first of the two plays above Kizer is forced off his spot and has to rapidly climb the pocket. He doesn’t get to run straight forward through wide open space, instead he is forced to react to the defender waiting near the line of scrimmage. Planting his foot to redirect back towards his right doesn’t deter him. His eyes stay downfield and he delivers the ball to his receiver on the move for a first down.
The second of the two plays is similar to some of the plays he made within the pocket. He waits until the last moment before breaking into a sprint out.
The timing and balance that Kizer shows off when he’s forced to make more aggressive movements is what stands out most. His mechanics releasing the ball on the move are generally good, but even when they are not he has arm strength to make difficult throws.
Kizer has a skill set that would allow him to be immediately comfortable in an NFL offense. He’d react to pressure well and make the right reads more often than not while delivering the ball on time to his receivers. He might not complete a pass though.
The trait diverging from Kizer’s footwork is his accuracy. If he was even an average passer he’d be a sure-fire first-round pick and a likely top-10 pick. Unfortunately, Kizer is a wild passer who will miss wide open receivers regularly at different levels of the field.
The only consistent positive about Kizer’s accuracy is that he thrives in the redzone. In the redzone he fits the ball into tight windows consistently. Many of the passes he makes in the redzone are so spectacular that it’s hard to reconcile that it’s the same quarterback who routinely misses easier throws further afield.
Selling Kizer is easy if you believe that accuracy can be coached. You point to those redzone plays and talk about the mechanical alterations you can make to him releasing the ball. That’s a first-round prospect.
Dropping Kizer is easy if you believe that accuracy doesn’t change that much. You point to his inability to make routine throws and talk about the wide open big plays that he couldn’t hit. That’s a mid-round prospect.
Kizer isn’t your typical NFL prospect. 90 percent of him is a great prospect, the other 10 percent could make that 90 irrelevant. NFL teams tend to draft developmental quarterbacks based on how strong their arms are. They essentially search for the guy who can throw the fastest incompletion. Kizer makes more sense as a developmental player because if you can correct that one issue you have a starting caliber quarterback at worst. Regardless of how you perceive the coachability of accuracy, correcting that one issue is easier than teaching a 10 percent prospect everything he can’t do.
Chances are Kizer will be drafted higher than he should be and forced into a situation where he can’t develop. The NFL doesn’t have a development league so there is no clear path to success for the former Notre Dame quarterback. It could be worse though, he could still be listening to Brian Kelly.