Mason Rudolph is Worthy of Being a First-Round Pick

When Marcus Mariota was coming out of the draft, the focus was on his system rather than his skill set as a passer. Mariota had deft feet, threw with touch, processed coverages and could consistently hit windows as a short and intermediate passer. He was more technically-refined as a passer than his more celebrated peer, Jameis Winston, despite the offense he played in.

Since Mariota, the draft hasn’t offered up a passer of his caliber.

Jared Goff and Carson Wentz followed the next season. Goff has major footwork concerns still today and rarely showed off an ability to set and reset in the pocket. His ball placement was wildly inconsistent too. Goff made some strides in his second season but he’s still more of an awkward than comfortable pocket passer. Wentz came out of college with major footwork concerns also. His feet didn’t move at all in the pocket, which led to him wildly overthrowing his receivers too often. Doug Pederson fixed Wentz’s feet during his second season, and then built an option-heavy offense that maximized his athleticism and pre-snap acumen.

Mitchell Trubisky was the first quarterback taken in last year’s draft. Trubisky had great feet and rare arm talent, but he was a raw athlete more than a refined quarterback. Trubisky is still figuring out coverages ahead of his second season in the league. Patrick Mahomes was a big arm with bad mechanics and no pocket presence. He’s very fortunate that he went to Andy Reid who is used to playing with a direction-less quarterback. Deshaun Watson was more nuanced as a passer than those who were chosen ahead of him, but he spent most of his final season abandoning clean pockets and throwing interceptions. DeShone Kizer’s footwork was fantastic and he showed off some ability to process defenses, but you never knew where the ball was going when he released it. You still don’t.

Because Andy Reid’s concepts are infiltrating the league at a rapid pace, it’s easier to have success with a narrow-skill set quarterback now.

Taking a big-armed, big-bodied athlete who lacks the ability to diagnose coverages or mitigate pressure in the pocket with subtle movements is okay now because you can treat that quarterback the way Reid treated Alex Smith. You can only ask him to execute simple passing concepts while relying heavily on option plays, screens and his ability to scramble. Reid designed his offense with the quarterback’s movement ability incorporated into both run and pass plays. Misdirection kept the defense off balance and made his quarterback proactive by design rather than reactive. Every team in the league could replicate that type of offense and be happy with a Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson or Josh Allen. Those who don’t use that type of offense should be more attracted to Mason Rudolph.

Any analyst who only focuses on the NFL draft and draft prospects is setting himself up for failure. To understand what is going to work in the NFL, you have to understand what works in the NFL. The great quarterbacks, the guys who sustain success for more than a decade, all have great feet and eyes. Drew Brees. Tom Brady. Aaron Rodgers. Peyton Manning. Even an Eli Manning, Philip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger. They’ve never needed a specific type of offense to be effective, though some fit better than others like with all players.

Focusing on arm strength and athleticism is easy. Pretty much anyone can measure it. It’s why the combine celebrates the guys who can sling the ball 70 yards downfield without ease.

Everyone at home can see it and understand it, so they can enjoy it. Having feet and eyes that work in concert with each other sets a quarterback up to always throw from a good platform. That’s far more valuable for dropback passers. The quarterbacks who keep their eyes up, who constantly set and reset in the pocket while feeling the pressure around them, are the ones who keep the timing of play designs and aren’t impacted by pressure. Non-Andy Reid offenses are designed with the idea of the quarterback being in the middle of the field. It stretches the defense from sideline to sideline, forcing defenders to cover more ground. The longer you stay in the pocket, in the middle of the field, the more stressful the coverage assignments for the defense become. When your instinct is to break the pocket, you shut down half the field and make it easier for defenders to jump routes.

You don’t have to be a great pocket passer to be a successful NFL quarterback, you’re just more reliant on your situation when you’re not one. Great pocket passers, the Bradys, Brees and Mannings, don’t have that highlight play arm strength, but they do have highlight-worthy technical precision.

Mason Rudolph doesn’t have highlight play arm strength. Marcus Mariota didn’t either.

Some quarterbacks are good deep passers, some quarterbacks are good short passers and some quarterbacks are good intermediate passers. Then there are guys who thrive at every level. In college, Rudolph excelled at every level.

He’s the rare passer who throws to specific spots.  There are three types of precision as a passer. The worst quarterbacks, think Blake Bortles and Jameis Winston, can throw to the right, to the left or over the middle. They throw the ball in the general area of their targets rather than to specific receivers or routes.

Then there are the quarterbacks who can consistently throw catchable balls, think Case Keenum and Nick Foles. Those guys take away big plays and yards after the catch but allow more talented receivers to make difficult adjustments at the catch point to cover for their poor placement.

But the best quarterbacks? The best quarterbacks throw the ball to spots. The best quarterbacks lead their receivers to space, throw their receivers away from tight coverage and hit them in stride when they’re running free downfield. Rudolph is a spot passer. He doesn’t have a huge arm but he throws with spectacular timing and anticipation to pries windows apart.

On this Third-and-15 play against Baylor, the offense is running four vertical routes in aggressive pursuit of the first down. Rudolph can see the deep safety rotating to the middle of the field at the snap. His fellow defensive backs are all square to their receivers, suggesting man coverage. Rudolph’s understanding of the coverage is going to allow him to release the ball at the perfect time to widen the window he chooses.

Rudolph recognized the safety rotation and brought his eyes to the left seam instantly. He releases the ball when his receiver was level with the underneath defender covering him. A key detail to this play was Rudolph’s high release.

The left side of Rudolph’s line is collapsing when he is at the top of his drop. Because of how quickly he diagnoses the coverage and releases the ball, he is able to release it from a clean pocket. But those defenders are close enough to him to get their hands up and knock the ball down or impact his delivery.

Because Rudolph is 6’5” and has a high release point with that great timing, there is never any danger of the defenders knocking the ball down. Because he’s poised, they don’t change the way he delivers the ball. His mechanics are sound.

Rudolph hits his receiver in stride 24 yards downfield. The ball is equidistant between the covering safety and the beaten defender underneath. It traveled at a high velocity with the perfect trajectory.

There is good reason to be concerned about Rudolph’s arm strength. He missed a few too many short out routes in college. Those were velocity issues that stemmed from him throwing outside the numbers from the far hash. On those types of throws, it’s all about velocity. It’s all about how quickly Rudolph can whip the ball away and how fast it is still traveling once it gets to the receiver outside.

It’s basically a 100 meter sprint. The ball has to beat the defensive back and reach the receiver before he gets to the sideline. Rudolph’s arm can’t sprint. But it’s damn good in the 400 meters.

When the route advances further downfield, the quarterback’s touch and timing come into play. Rudolph is able to anticipate windows and put the ball there long before his receiver has reached that spot on the field. His arm strength is no longer an issue because this isn’t a straight race between ball and defender. Anything from a comeback route to further afield is a throw he can comfortably make. His arm strength is no longer an issue because he thrives in the other facets of his skill set.

And it’s not like this is Kellen Moore you’re dealing with. Moore didn’t have an NFL arm so he never really had a shot at being an NFL quarterback. He couldn’t throw the ball downfield even when he threw with perfect touch and timing. Rudolph can sling it.

Rudolph sets at the top of his drop just outside the left hash mark. He initially looks to the middle of the field before quickly recognizing the one-on-one coverage to the top of the screen. The hash marks are wider in college so Rudolph has to throw the ball a further distance to get it to the same spot. In the NFL, the throw will be shorter but the defensive backs will be quicker.

This throw is Rudolph’s limit. He is standing at the 25-yard line and the ball arrives at the opposing 23-yard line. The receiver had to slow down slightly but it was still in front of him when it arrived. This was far from an overthrow.

A quarterback who can make that throw isn’t going to have arm strength issues throwing deep in the NFL. Rudolph didn’t always make throws that spectacular but he was a very consistent deep passer. He regularly hit his open receivers in stride but also showed off the precision to throw receivers open on backshoulder throws and other types of routes when they were tightly covered.

From the same game against Oklahoma, Rudolph faced a Third-and-8 where the defense was threatening to blitz. They lined up two defensive linemen and two outside linebackers with both inside linebackers roving around before the snap. Rudolph has a slot receiver that he can throw to if all six front seven defenders come after the quarterback.

On the near side of the field he has a deep route and an out-and-up on the wide side.

When Rudolph gets to the top of his drop, he has his eyes on the middle of the field. He can see the deep safety dropping down to double team his slot receiver, he can also see the linebacker dropping to the middle of the field. His slot receiver is now running into a crowd. The dropping linebacker tells Rudolph that there is only a five-man blitz coming. He can hold the ball, not for long, but long enough for his out-and-up route to develop.

Processing speed is hugely important for a quarterback. Rudolph’s processing speed set him up to locate his outside receiver early. Quarterbacks who lack poise rush to release the ball at that point, hoping to avoid being hit by the incoming pass rush. Rudolph doesn’t do that.

Rudolph uses the benefit of his quick processing to progress onto the next stage of the play. Once he has diagnosed the coverage, he has to attack it at the right time with the right throw. This doesn’t mean rushing the ball out as quickly as possible. It means holding the ball until the last possible moment before letting it go.

Despite being 6’5, Rudolph’s release is tight and quick. He doesn’t begin his motion until the defender is closing on him but he still gets the ball out quickly. He falls away from the defender to protect himself but not until he has released the ball. That means he has stepped into the throw properly and given his pass every chance to succeed.

A quarterback whose mechanics stay consistent against pressure is a quarterback who is set up to excel against pressure. The poise and mechanical aspects of this play make for a very promising pocket passer in the NFL.

The physical throw on this play isn’t great. It’s good. Good enough. But not great. The key element is that it clears the defensive back. Rudolph knew the defender didn’t have his eyes on the ball, so as long as he doesn’t throw it into his helmet, then his receiver should have a good opportunity to bring the ball in. The receiver rises up to make a play on the ball with the defender incapable of finding it.

Similar to the previous play, there was enough arm strength on this throw even if it wasn’t spectacular.

Against Iowa State, Rudolph had a play against a three-man rush late in the game where he set and reset his feet over and over again to create time and negate the pass of the defensive end pushing his way into the backfield from his right side. It was a very impressive play that showed off awareness of the rush that most quarterbacks in the NFL right now don’t possess.

That awareness of the rush was something he showed off consistently. It was highlighted on this play against Virginia Tech.

The defense is trying to bait Rudolph into a bad throw. At the snap they had both safeties deep. One on the right side offense already, the other was facing that direction and moving from the right hash mark. Rudolph recognized the pre-snap action and sent his eyes to the right seam immediately. Rudolph sees the blitzing cornerback and his open receiver, but he also recognizes that his receiver isn’t looking back for the ball. If he throws it now or holds onto it any longer, the defense will have successfully baited him.

Rudolph brings his eyes back to the middle of the field. He has edge pressure from his left, so stepping up would be ideal. An unblocked linebacker has found his way into the pocket though, so that’s not an option. With that edge pressure, he can’t stay still or move to his left. Rudolph wants to find the receiver on the opposite side of the field, that receiver has been left in single coverage, but he doesn’t have an easy route to do so.

He very smartly gains depth without dropping his eyes. Staying front facing instead of turning.

The footwork Rudolph shows off to escape the multiple pressure points is spectacular. It’s like a post move in the NBA that creates a clean route to the basket. But that’s not where the impressive footwork finishes. Rudolph knows where the ball is going at this point, but he again doesn’t rush. He accelerates to create some space before turning his hips and shoulders to set his feet and throw. He can’t go into a full throwing motion because of the pursuing defender behind him, but his quick set is enough to get the first down.

That’s not the play of an athlete who needs to learn how to play the position or how to feel the pocket. That’s a natural passer. Someone who does instinctively what others hope to learn from constant repetition.

Few quarterbacks in the NFL show off the kind of timing, awareness and comfort that Rudolph shows off. It’s reminiscent of Tom Brady. While he has a long way to go before that comparison can become anything more than just a comparison of specific traits, it’s extremely promising for his transition to the NFL.

You can find consistent examples of Rudolph’s outstanding processing ability.

Two of his best came against Texas Tech and Oklahoma. Against Texas Tech, he got to the top of his drop with pressure coming off his right side. He stepped up to evade it while his eyes bounced from receiver to receiver on the front side of the play. He came off his covered receivers in perfect time to locate a back-side crossing route. When he hit the receiver in stride downfield, he continued after the catch for a big play.

That was an impressive play, but the Oklahoma play was simply spectacular. It was Third-and-20. Rudolph was alone in the backfield. He made a hard pumpfake to his left as soon as he caught the ball before bringing his eyes back up. The Oklahoma defense only rushes three, so Rudolph has to hold the ball. He searches for his slot receiver but multiple defenders follow the quarterback’s eyes there. There are eight defenders in coverage, so Rudolph can’t just come off his first read to find someone else. Instead, he keeps his eyes to the same initial spot before resetting backwards in the pocket to buy more time. That movement gave his offensive linemen better leverage and bought time for his receiver to come open in a small window.

Rudolph hit him in the hands with an impressive throw about 17 yards downfield, but the receiver punched the ball into the air and it was intercepted. Although his starting receivers were reputable players at the college level, Rudolph’s skill position players let him down like that way too often. The quality of his service was greater than the quality of his supporting cast.

He did generally get good pass protection. Rudolph elevated that protection with great pocket movement, that quick release and his decision making. He elevated everyone on that offense by executing the scheme with such precision.

The concern for Rudolph is where he winds up in the NFL. It’s not that he needs a particular scheme to be effective, it’s that he’s not being billed as a top-tier prospect. He could wind up sitting behind an established starting quarterback. That will delay his development and limit his opportunities to prove himself before his rookie contract runs out.

Kirk Cousins and Jimmy Garoppolo just got paid huge money despite entering the league under those circumstances, so it won’t be career defining for Rudolph. It’s just a significant challenge because of how NFL decision makers operate. Being a top-10 pick means you have to make major mistakes for your franchise to give up on you. Blake Bortles literally got extended this offseason for being the reason the Jaguars didn’t make it to the Super Bowl just because he was a top-10 pick. Had Bortles taken Jacoby Brissett’s route to the NFL, he’d have been out of the league very quickly.

That’s the biggest threat to Rudolph. He goes somewhere, plays a couple of games here and there as a backup, but never gets a real chance to grow within an offense. Never gets a real chance to develop through his mistakes on the field. Nathan Peterman is likely going to suffer that fate after his debut in Buffalo, though Peterman never really showed off a skill set that suggested he was going to succeed either way.

The irony of all that is Rudolph would probably be the best rookie starter if handed the starting role from the outset.

Rudolph has the potential to be great. He’s already excellent in all the areas where a quarterback can’t be taught. He has the potential to get better in the areas where a quarterback can be taught. He doesn’t have major consistency concerns like others in the class and he’s not raw by any measure. Will he ever have the strongest arm in the league or lead the league in rushing? No, probably not. But he shouldn’t ever need to.

***This article is an extract from the Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue 2018***

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