Evaluating Quarterback Prospects, Mitchell Trubisky and DeShaun Watson

Evaluating prospects for the NFL draft should be a humbling undertaking. You are trying to predict something that by its very nature is unpredictable. You can get everything right in what you are saying at the time and still be wrong because something completely unforeseen happens in the player’s career. Sometimes it’s as simple as a great player going to the wrong team, the wrong scheme or the wrong coaching staff.

Yet despite the constant failures that come with being a draft analyst, there are plenty of people who will try to teach you how to scout. As if there is some formula that works perfectly.

Michael Lombardi is one of those people. Recently Lombardi wrote his seven rules to finding a franchise quarterback on the Ringer. The article primarily focuses on mental attributes and the aesthetics. Most of what Lombardi said sounds great until you realize it can’t actually be used to proactively identify franchise quarterbacks. It relies on catchphrases and tries to examine elements of the person rather than the player.

In the NFL we tend to use winning as evidence for everything. The “winner mentality” or “leadership” monikers are fit retroactively based on how successful each quarterback’s team is. No quarterback who plays on losing teams is considered a great leader because we don’t actually evaluate leadership, we evaluate winning and use it as evidence for leadership. It’s why DeShaun Watson is getting this year’s “great leader” tag.

Aaron Rodgers is a leader. His team always makes the playoffs so he’s a leader. It doesn’t matter that former teammates have called him a bad leader once they had departed Wisconsin.

In reality, we have no idea if Aaron Rodgers is a good or bad leader. Even if we understood his personality, we couldn’t even be sure if his personality fit with the specific locker room he exists in. NFL locker rooms are all made up of different people even though we tend to reference them as one single entity. What we can say about Rodgers is that he is the best quarterback in the league, by far

What we can say about Rodgers is that he has a great skill set. His feet show off great balance both inside and outside of the pocket. He has a strong arm with a quick release and the precision to throw into tight windows. He’s patient when given time in the pocket but knows how to beat blitzes with quick throws too. Pressure doesn’t force him to drop his eyes from the coverage and athletically he is a scrambling threat and play extender. He has a great skill set and he plays consistently to it.

Lombardi’s article didn’t deal with any of that. It didn’t offer any specifics about what to look for in a player’s skill set.

You can’t follow rules when it comes to quarterback scouting. NFL quarterbacks succeed in different ways and for different reasons. Anyone trying to teach you hard rules or trying to tell you exactly what you need to look for is showing off a lack of self awareness at best and an unearned arrogance at worst. That’s especially true when talking about intangibles.

Intangibles are literally called intangible. They offer negligible predictive value because it’s largely impossible to identify traits and those traits are more likely to change as the person ages. We can take the extreme examples, when a player commits a heinous crime for example, but interviewing prospects and using those few minutes, under circumstances where the person knows whats coming, to project a personality is reckless.

So how do you go about watching prospects and projecting them forward? How can someone help if they can’t offer seven rules to scouting quarterbacks?

Best thing I can do is tell you what I do. My approach is explained in one sentence that I’ve already written in this article. “He has a great skill set and he plays consistently to it.” The first thing you’ve got to do with any prospect is figure out what he can do. Does he throw the ball accurately enough to succeed against the speed of NFL coverages? Those windows tighten a lot quicker in the NFL than they do in college. Once you figure that out you’ve got to figure out if his strengths and weaknesses can lead to consistency in the NFL.

Having a huge arm isn’t that valuable to me. My reasoning is simple: it’s not that valuable in the NFL. If I know you can throw the ball far and hard but you’re not accurate or making good decisions, I can’t build a playbook around you that results in an efficient offense. Being accurate and making good decisions is 90 percent of a quarterback’s success in the NFL.

It doesn’t matter if you like to run, if you’re a great athlete, if you’re a bad athlete or if you can only work inside the pocket. Being accurate and making good decisions is 90 percent of your success.

Typically these things are tied to your feet and your eyes. The relationship between your feet and your eyes tells you a lot about how a quarterback projects to the NFL. A quarterback who can’t move his eyes without moving his feet is going to run himself into a lot of pressure and disrupt the timing of the play designs. A quarterback whose feet don’t create balance or are rooted into the ground will have a tougher time throwing the ball accurately.

Everything NFL quarterbacks do starts with the feet. Pressure is inevitable for NFL quarterbacks. Only a few exist behind great offensive lines right now, Dak Prescott and Derek Carr are the exceptions. Being able to move within a condensed pocket to evade pressure while keeping your eyes downfield is integral to sustaining success.

Cam Newton has become one of the best quarterbacks in the league at managing muddy pockets. He has had to because the Panthers don’t give him any schematic help or good protection. The play shown above is a relatively simple play for Newton to make at this point of his career. He feels the left edge collapsing but times his movement and controls his balance while stepping up in the pocket.

He’s hit immediately after releasing the ball but still delivers a strike down the middle of the field to his receiver. Stepping forward is the easiest movement for a quarterback to make in the pocket but how tight this pocket is makes the play impressive.

In the DeShone Kizer article, I marvelled at his footwork because of how he excelled in so many different ways within the confines of the pocket. Kizer’s footwork is special. His feet are always balanced and patient but he knows when to make decisive movements. His eyes don’t drop when he moves his feet and he can keep the timing of the play in tact while mitigating pressure in a condensed pocket.

As you can see in the above play, pressure doesn’t force him to focus on his first read or keep his eyes on one side of the field. He can move his eyes without taking his weight to one side or moving his feet frenetically.

Kizer has everything you want from a quarterback prospect when it comes to managing the pocket and making decisions against arriving pressure. His poise is what will get him drafted relatively high up this year. The problem with Kizer is he’s excruciatingly inaccurate. Kizer’s lack of accuracy prevents him from being a top-10 caliber prospect.

The top-10 caliber prospect this year is Mitchell Trubisky.

Trubisky’s feet are fantastic. He puts them in constant motion but maintains his center of gravity so he is always in position to deliver the ball accurately downfield. He’s a much more accurate passer than Kizer with the ability to take advantage of his eye level. Trubisky still needs to show off better ability to read defenses but his footwork and awareness of what is happening around him in the pocket will act as a foundation for consistency in the NFL.

The two plays above capture his comfort working within the pocket and breaking outside of it.

As someone who uses specific plays to underline points, a constant complaint I receive is “you can pick and choose plays for any quarterback to make him look good or bad.” That’s not actually true. It’s really hard to make Aaron Rodgers look terrible with a few gifs and it’s really hard to make Brock Osweiler look great with a few gifs. But regardless, this highlights the other aspect of how I evaluate quarterbacks.

Having the ability to do something is different from it being a valuable trait. Trubisky’s feet are a valuable trait because they are consistently evident. When he is asked to make subtle movements in the pocket or make use of the time he is given in the pocket he does it more than 80 percent of the time. If you flip over to DeShaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes (who I wrote about in detail here), you will find two quarterbacks who primarily do the opposite of Kizer and Trubisky.

It’s hard to win in the NFL with a quarterback who wastes snaps. Andy Dalton, Blake Bortles and Alex Smith are some of the worst offenders when it comes to this. Tyrod Taylor and Russell Wilson are too but they offset the plays they waste by creating outside of structure more often than other quarterbacks. Wilson and Taylor are great examples of players who have some very specific flaws but those flaws exist in the minority of their performances. The 90+ percent of what they do on the field outweighs the other 10 percent.

Despite the winning(/leadership) and production that Watson had in college, his performances and his skill set don’t project well to the NFL. Even looking past the obvious accuracy concerns and propensity for terrible turnovers, his footwork sinks too many plays before they begin.

Watson is very similar to Carson Wentz from last year. When he first settles in the pocket the ball has to come out or the the timing of the play will be ruined. He is more likely to run himself into trouble than he is to set and reset his feet to find an open receiver or make a good decision scrambling/extending the play into the flat. In the above gif he covers all of his receivers by running out of a clean pocket before the routes can develop.

There was no reason for him to leave the pocket. He didn’t even have to set and reset his feet, he could have just held his position and he would have had a couple of yards of space on each side.

Because Watson doesn’t have settled feet, or in turn poise with his eyes, he needs to offset those negatives with great positives to be worthy of a high draft pick. He’s not a precise passer and he doesn’t diagnose coverages instantly or with consistency so that leaves athleticism. He’s not a great athlete either. Watson ran a lot of power up the middle at Clemson. He could do that against college athletes but you need to be as big as Cam Newton to do it in the NFL.

If Watson tries to run power plays like that in the NFL he’ll be injured pretty quickly. He lacks the eye level and ability to throw outside of the pocket that makes Russell Wilson so dangerous and he doesn’t possess a big arm to push the ball downfield.

Watson might be successful in the NFL but he doesn’t enter the league with an established foundation that his coaching staff can build an efficient offense around. His development will be about turning him into an NFL-caliber quarterback rather than refining the edges of someone who is already an NFL-caliber quarterback.

Speaking generally, quarterbacks don’t change much. You can make small, gradual developments over the course of your career. From paying close attention over the past decade or so, the relationship between their feet and their eyes doesn’t change.

For that reason it’s a huge part of what I look for in prospects.

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