The NFL and Distractions

Not for the first time this year the Baltimore Ravens are front and center with Colin Kaepernick. Early in the offseason, John Harbaugh made news when he said Kaepernick would be a starter this year and he’d have no problem signing him. Of course he completely undercut himself by never showing interest in signing him.

Now that Joe Flacco is sidelined for the short term, Harbaugh is again offering up disingenuous words. Despite Harbaugh being effusive in his praise of Kaepernick as a player and as a person, the Ravens signed David Olson. Olson has been playing in the indoor league between 9-5 jobs. He had one pass in college for -1 yard. But sure, he’s probably a better fit for the Ravens offense and what they want.

You would think this move is indefensible but a wide number of people have stepped up to the plate. Fox Sports and NFL Network contributor Peter Schrager suggested Kaepernick exists in a state of self-contradiction, a place where he’s too good to be a camp arm but not good enough to be on a roster. Former ESPN Radio Host Danny Kanell offered up the same excuse.

This is the place we’ve reached. People are entrenched. No matter what happens now we’re going to talk around what is blatant and use the NFL’s culture of always giving the teams the benefit of the doubt to do it.

NFL Network reporter Michael Silver decided to give credence to a Ravens source who claimed the franchise had heard from “numerous” fans about Kaepernick. There are many problems with this. For one, how many is “numerous”? Silver presumably enquired about this and didn’t just relay such a vague term and give it meaning. Numerous could mean 1,000, it could mean 20,000, it could mean two million. Or it could mean five.

Furthermore, NFL owners determine when to care about what fans think. When Ray Rice punched his wife, this very franchise stuck with him for as long as they could. They ignored the backlash and brought Rice into training camp. When Giants kicker Josh Brown beat his wife, the Giants gave him a contract extension and let him play five games after suspension. Brown was a kicker. A kicker! There wasn’t even a football argument to keep him.

NFL owners chose to give credence to fan complaints when it aligns with their own sensibilities.

If you write to them about how ticket prices are too high, they’re not going to pay attention. If you think the seats in the stadium should be wider, they won’t take your input. If Giants owner John Mara gets two million complaints about Eli Manning’s offseason merchandise scandal with people threatening to boycott the team, he’ll just ignore them. He knows that fans won’t follow through on that threat just like Steve Bisciotti knows fans won’t stop watching the Ravens if Kaepernick is on the team.

Yet Bisciotti and Harbaugh will leap into “distraction” mode.

“Distraction” is the term NFL coaches and executives use when they don’t want to explain themselves. The idea is that signing Kaepernick would lead to an increase in media coverage, that media coverage would then lead to players and coaches being asked about Kaepernick instead of being asked about football. (Let’s stop here for a second. The cliche-reliant, question-avoiding players and coaches of the NFL *want* to talk about football? Since when?)

The idea that NFL teams get more distracted based on who is on the roster is not based in any evidence. Every single team in the league gets huge media coverage. Every single team in the league requires its players and coaches to spend time with the media.

If this wasn’t true, why was Marshawn Lynch scrutinized so much for not talking to the media? Why was he fined so heavily? Lynch was the exact opposite of a distraction. He literally wanted to go to work, do his job and go home. But when Lynch tried to do that, he was turned into the story because of the presence of media combined with the expectation put on players to entertain the media.

No matter who is on your roster, reporters have stories to file and the rest of us media members have time slots to fill. Whether it’s Kaepernick or someone else, we’ll be talking about your team this year. You’ll be getting questions and the worst thing that will happen is those questions will change. But even if that happens, you’ll probably still give the same non-answer cliche that you were going to give either way.

The cruel irony of all this is that we’ve talked about Kaepernick for the last six months. Coaches and players are still being asked about Kaepernick while he’s not on a roster. The discussion or “distraction” is going to continue so long as he’s unsigned. If he signs for a team—at this point you have to be irrationally optimistic to think he will—then the coverage will intensify for a day or two before disappearing. That’s exactly how it worked through last year’s season.

NFL owners don’t want to employ Kaepernick. It’s not because of fan reaction. It’s because they don’t want to employ him.


How Dak Prescott Can Advance From Historic Rookie Season

Statistical regression is coming for Dak Prescott.

It’s inevitable.

Prescott’s rookie season was too far of an outlier for it to be repeated. Only four times in history has a quarterback attempted 400 passes and thrown four-or-fewer interceptions. Tom Brady is responsible for two of those. No other rookie quarterback ever threw that many passes and finished the season with a 67.76 completion percentage. Prescott was the 17th passer in history to accrue that completion percentage while averaging at least 7.99 yards per attempt.

The efficiency with which Prescott played last year was startling. Especially for a player who wasn’t expected to start after being selected in the fourth round. Statistically it was the greatest rookie season in the history of the NFL.

Of course that needs to come with a caveat. The evolution of NFL offenses and the changing rules mean that it’s easier than ever for quarterbacks to put up big numbers. Furthermore, Prescott played behind a great offensive line with a good set of receivers in an offense that relied heavily on the run to set up the pass. When he did throw the ball there were a large percentage of plays that set up easy completions for him with smart route combinations or hard play fakes.

Nick Foles’ presence still hangs over super-efficient quarterbacks like a bad five o’clock shadow.

Foles threw 27 touchdowns and two interceptions in 2013. Like Prescott, he played behind a great offensive line. Like Prescott, he had a great running game. Like Prescott, his coach was scheming receivers open for easier throws. Unlike Prescott, he was constantly throwing the ball to defenders and missing wide open big plays.

The black-and-white nature of sports—every game has a winner and a loser—means that evaluation often takes on an ‘if you’re not one you’re the other’ tone. Prescott wasn’t the greatest rookie quarterback in the history of football. He also wasn’t Nick Foles.

Foles had an interception rate of 0.57 percent during his outlier season. He had an interceptable pass rate of 5.43 percent, he threw a pass that should have been intercepted once every 18 attempts. Prescott’s interception rate last year was 1.06 percent, his interceptable pass rate was 2.62 percent as he threw a pass that should have been intercepted once every 38 attempts.

Only 10 percent of Foles’ interceptable passes were caught whereas almost 40 percent of Prescott’s were.

Prescott was right at the league average for the percent of his interceptable passes that were caught. Only five quarterbacks had a better interceptable pass rate than Prescott. He wasn’t relying on luck to avoid turning the ball over. He benefited from playing in a good situation but the primary reason for his success was his decision making and poise in the pocket.

It’s easier to be a productive quarterback playing from clean pockets but it still requires patience and an ability to process what is happening in front of you so you can react accordingly. A quarterback who gets time in the pocket but stares down one receiver or rushes his decision to throw/scramble is wasting opportunities to attack the defense. He’s also more likely to run himself into sacks and lead defenders to the ball for interceptions.

From as early as the first preseason game, Prescott was showing off an ability to diagnose the pass rush instantly at the snap. If the defense blitzed, he knew to get rid of the ball and was able to find his hot route. If the defense rushed four or fewer, he understood that he had to hold the ball in the pocket to give his receivers time to run their routes downfield.

When he was pressured, that ability to react accordingly didn’t go away.

Prescott obviously got more clean pockets than most quarterbacks during his rookie season but he wasn’t reliant on clean pockets to be effective. He made plays against pressure, especially when his line was missing starters because of injury early in the season, and showed off an ability to sit alone in shotgun while correctly setting protections to counter potential blitzes.

That poise is the starting point for Prescott’s success. It’s what allowed him to build out a wide skill set, establishing a foundation from which he can develop his proficiency as a passer. After his rookie season Prescott is already a good passer but he’s a better quarterback than he is a pure thrower. Prescott is already advanced at mitigating pressure in the pocket with his movement, at delivering the ball against arriving hits, at diagnosing coverages and at cycling through progressions.

He doesn’t need to get better in the areas that typically improve with greater experience. The only way Prescott can make major strides forward as a player is by becoming a different type of thrower.

Charting for the Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue revealed Prescott as the quarterback with the 11th-highest accuracy percentage in the league. His 75.6 percent was 8.2 percent behind the most accurate quarterback and two percent above the league average. Overall accuracy percentages are useful for highlighting how effective a player was in his specific role. The problem is every quarterback has a different role.

To get an idea of Prescott’s ability as a passer we have to dive a little deeper into the charting.

Prescott’s accuracy was remarkably consistent. He ranked ninth, 10th or 11th in five of the six yard depth ranges. His outlier depth, 11-15, was only slightly below the 63.53 percent league average. The results make it clear that Prescott isn’t a limited passer by depth. He isn’t the type of player who struggles to consistently complete short throws or hit deep routes.

He doesn’t close off the field to let the defense be more aggressive on underneath throws.

Whenever a smart, technically-refined and poised quarterback plays behind a high-quality pass-blocking line with a great running game, he will consistently find wide open receivers. Prescott’s play combined with the benefits afforded to him by his situation meant that he could often avoid attacking tight coverages. He didn’t play with an aggressive mindset, he was much more likely to take the higher percentage play to Jason Witten or Cole Beasley underneath rather than search out the big play to Dez Bryant in tighter coverage.

As a rookie Prescott completed the passes you expect a quarterback to complete at an exceptionally high rate. He kept the offense ahead of the down-and-distance, complementing the strong running game with smart plays.

That is where the style of thrower matters as much as the accuracy of the thrower. Prescott didn’t throw a high percent of his passes behind the line of scrimmage, his passes concentrated past the line of scrimmage to short and intermediate routes. 52.5 percent of his passes travelled to the 1-10 yard range, 11th most in the league, while 23.32 percent of his passes travelled to the 11-20 yard range, eighth most in the league.

Prescott was willing to take shots downfield and he could rely on his intelligence and timing to attack windows over the middle of the field. He has a strong arm but didn’t show off a particularly wide range of trajectory control during his rookie season. Prescott can fit the ball into tight windows downfield but it’s not something he excels at.

His skill set combined with his situation meant that Prescott didn’t need to play with an aggressive mindset. As a thrower he didn’t need to attack tight windows. He took calculated shots downfield at times and, encouragingly, looked good when doing it.

If he is to take a step forward in his second season, Prescott needs to diversify the passing game by taking on a more aggressive approach while showing off greater trajectory control. For as good as the rookie was at setting protections and calling full-blown audibles from five-wide sets, two hugely impressive things for someone so young, the Cowboys’ passing game as a whole was still somewhat limited.

According to this year’s Football Outsiders Almanac, the Cowboys ran on first down 58 percent of the time last year. That was first in the league by three percent and more than 10 percent above the league average. It makes sense for a team with Ezekiel Elliott and a great offensive line to run the ball on early downs but the Cowboys also led the league in running while trailing in the second half of games and ranked in the bottom five of the league for shotgun/pistol plays.

Play action passing was a huge part of the Cowboys offense.

The Quarterback Catalogue revealed that Prescott had the second-highest play action percentage at 18.11 percent but only gained 21.94 percent of his yards off of play action, fifth most in the league. Prescott had by far the highest percentage of play action plays where he left the pocket by design (hard play fakes) yet the offense still struggled to create big plays. Prescott’s reluctance to be aggressive with his deep threats in these situations needs to change.

Because of their quarterback’s mindset and the structure of the offense, the Cowboys were tied for the third-fewest passing plays that gained 20-or-more yards last year. Altering that mindset and showing off a greater ability to make higher-degree-of-difficulty throws will allow Prescott to create more big plays which will be integral for offsetting the inevitable blemishes that will come from his efficiency regressing.

Even if Prescott only adds more mistakes and doesn’t take those steps forward, the offense around him and the width of his established skill set should still allow the offense to be one of the better units in the league.

The Cowboys offense is able to dictate the play to opposing defenses every week. That makes Prescott’s job easier because the offense can determine which matchup they want to attack depending on how the defense lines up. If they come out in base personnel and drop a safety into the box, Prescott can use a hard play fake to take a shot downfield into distorted coverage or find Ezekiel Elliott with a matchup advantage outside. If the defense comes out in a nickel package, the Cowboys can rely on Jason Witten and the offensive line to run the ball easily.

A slow transition to an offense that features more shotgun formations—Elliott can run from shotgun and pass protect brilliantly—will take place so long as Prescott shows growth with his touch passing, anticipation and aggression.

Ironically, Tony Romo is the ideal foil for Prescott to study as he continues to develop. The Cowboys will hope to replace with Romo vs Dak debates with Prescott emulating the elements of Romo’s play that made people clamour for him last season even while the team was winning. Development is always difficult to predict but Prescott having a wide skill set already established will allow him to work on specific things more than trying to improve his whole game.

While it’s not always indicative, the quarterback also made more of the types of throws he needs to get better at over the second half of his rookie season. If that trajectory sustains Prescott will be the biggest name in the NFL sooner rather than later.

The Direct and Indirect Benefits of DeSean Jackson

Devin McCourty allows you to do a lot. McCourty isn’t Earl Thomas but he’s probably the closest thing the NFL has to him. When Bill Belichick wants to play aggressive man coverage with only one safety deep, he knows McCourty can handle it. When Belichick wants to feature a Cover-3 heavy gameplan to matchup to his opponents in a specific way, he knows McCourty can handle it. If the defense needs someone to disguise a blitz by covering the most ground from alignment to assignment, McCourty can handle it.

When Austin Hooper caught the Falcons’ second touchdown in the Super Bowl, McCourty was nowhere to be seen. Hooper ran down the seam, beating Patrick Chung in single coverage, while McCourty followed Julio Jones infield. McCourty and Eric Rowe shared the responsibility of covering Jones. Matt Ryan knew they were going to double Jones before the ball was snapped, he knew when he motioned Taylor Gabriel from one side of the field to the other and McCourty didn’t react by dropping deeper or moving wider.

It’s rare that teams will double team a receiver. The Patriots do it more than all other teams combined. When people talk about one receiver being better because he’s always double teamed it’s a quick way to spot who hasn’t actually watched what they claim to have watched.

Still, the indirect benefits of playing with a great receiver do exist. By creating mismatches the best receivers in the league break schemes and gameplans. When Odell Beckham is alone on the narrow side of the field and his three teammates are on the other side, you can’t just leave him in single coverage and focus on the wider side of the field.

Isn’t that right, John Harbaugh?

When you have a talent like Beckham you typically have to tip your coverage towards him rather than away from him. In the above play, the Ravens drop a safety down to cover the tight end so they can move their linebackers to the wider side of the field. Had they not dropped a safety down they would have been forced to keep one linebacker on the tight end, creating space over the middle of the field for the slot receivers to run into. If the defense did everything it did above but the safety stayed in the middle of the field or on Beckham’s side, Eli Manning would have had huge space to throw to vertical routes against one-on-one coverage to that side of the field.

Beckham is a nightmare because he runs every route you need him to, he can make adjustments to deep balls downfield and he can catch short routes before taking them to the endzone from 60 yards away.

The direct benefits a quarterback has throwing to Beckham are greater than any other quarterback in the league right now. The indirect benefits a quarterback has throwing to him are right up there too, but he’s not the best in that area. No, that mantle belongs to DeSean Jackson.

It’s not a coincidence that Jackson was part of the offenses that bloated Nick Foles and Kirk Cousins’ statistical output. He dramatically alters the offenses he plays in because of his quality.

Jackson isn’t just a speed receiver. He’s not just a guy who runs 40 yards downfield in a straight line on every play. He is a more nuanced route runner than given credit for and he can make tougher receptions in tight coverage. His presence on the field didn’t limit Jay Gruden’s play calling in any way. It did limit the opponents’ play calling.

Only eight quarterbacks in the league threw a higher percent of their passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage than Kirk Cousins last year. 53.15 percent of his passes went to that range, six percent higher than the league average. The Washington offense is a quick throw one. It spreads the field with receivers so the quarterback can diagnose the play before the snap and get rid of the ball immediately after the snap. Against that kind of offense you want to squash the field. You want to be aggressive outside and take away the quick throws, force the quarterback to hold the ball when he doesn’t want to hold the ball.

A few teams did this successfully last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers most notably. They did it by only rushing three players after the quarterback and flooding the field with an eight-man zone.

The Steelers couldn’t be aggressive against the Washington offense because of Jackson. If they tried to play press across the field to stop the quick slants and YAC-specific route combinations, Jackson would have had an opportunity to create a free release and burn them downfield. If they dropped one safety into the box and kept one deep, the quarterback would know that Jackson was getting a free release and could be hit in a coverage that was easier to anticipate.

According to Football Outsiders, Washington ranked 27th in the league in terms of how many stacked boxes they faced. This means that teams were constantly keeping two safeties deep against them, freeing up the space over the middle of the field and stressing the linebackers more in coverage on underneath routes. Jackson’s presence is a big reason for that. It’s the only way to prevent him from running wide open deep downfield every week.

When the defense is forced to keep multiple safeties back it does a couple of things. It means there are fewer coverages that the quarterback has to be concerned about but it also means the defense can’t be creative with its blitzing. Against Washington you can’t show single coverage to Jackson before having a defender come from a different area of the field to drop deeper than him, he’ll beat your defender to the spot and be gone by the time you do it. You also can’t just sit one defensive back 10 yards off the ball from the beginning of the play, he’ll beat them with his route running or even still with his straight-line speed.

All-out blitzes are completely off the table.

Take this play against the Chicago Bears in Week 16. The Bears attempt to disguise their all-out blitz with a corner coming off the edge and both safeties moving forward. The blitz pickup is excellent, giving Cousins time to see Jackson enter his break in his route. Jackson stayed disciplined with his stem, pushing towards the cornerback sitting off of him before breaking back infield. This prevented the cornerback from jumping his route.

Jackson’s speed is such that he can reach back for the ball and stop immediately as he catches it without the defender ever getting near him. From there he runs downfield for a 57-yard gain.

Even when you keep two safeties back, Jackson will still get open.

This play against the Eagles is a perfect example of the direct benefit that comes from playing with Jackson. He uniquely elevates quarterbacks when they’re trying to push the ball downfield. Cousins completely misses this throw but Jackson has beaten the cornerback so badly that he has time to slow down and locate the ball. He should have been continuing down the middle of the field to track the ball there. Instead he is forced to turn towards the opposite sideline as the ball flutters over his head.

Jackson’s ball skills to locate and catch the ball, especially without going to the ground, are spectacular but he never gets that opportunity if he doesn’t beat the cornerback as badly as he does. The cornerback is too focused on trying to recover the ground he has lost to look for the ball or disrupt Jackson at the catch point.

He emphasizes his quality by staying on his feet against contact before trotting into the endzone.

Although he eclipsed 1,000 yards last season in an offense that spread the ball around to different receivers, Jackson was still significantly held back by his quarterback. Cousins was accurate on 41.67 percent of his deep throws last year, 16th in the league. He was accurate on 45.16 percent of his throws to Jackson and Jackson caught three inaccurate deep passes such as the one shown above. He was accurate on only 39.02 percent of his deep throws that didn’t target Jackson.

Washington had a very talented offense last year and Gruden’s philosophy maximized Jackson’s impact by stretching the defense in every possible way. With Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder and Jordan Reed complementing Jackson, they had four receivers who could get open deep, get open underneath, create yards after the catch and adjust to inaccurate passes at the catch point.

In Tampa Bay, it’s much less likely that Jackson’s impact will be as significant.

Jameis Winston was accurate on 30.51 percent of his deep passes last year, only five quarterbacks were worse than him. Furthermore, remember Cousins’ percentage of passes thrown to five yards? 53.15 percent, ninth in the league if you don’t remember. Winston threw 33.84 percent of his passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage, only Cam Newton threw fewer passes to that level of the field. Peculiarly, Winston’s percent of deep throws wasn’t that high either. He threw 11.22 percent of his passes further than 20 yards downfield, 14th in the league, instead focusing most of his passes into the 11-20 range, where he ranked first in the league with 33.06 percent of his passes going there.

The four vert offense that Dirk Koetter relies on means Winston is pushing the ball downfield all the time. He’s asked to hit intermediate routes that are harder to hit and in turn harder to create yards after the catch from. 34.89 percent of Winston’s yards came after the catch, only Matt Barkley had a lower number.

Jackson opening up the field for his teammates isn’t going to matter if his teammates aren’t capable of or set up to take advantage of that space. Opposing defenses won’t face the same quandary that they faced when Jackson was in Washington.

That doesn’t mean Jackson can’t help Winston, it just means that Winston will be more reliant on the direct benefits rather than the indirect benefits that come with having Jackson in your offense. If that is to happen he will need to refine his accuracy and stop missing wildly on deep throws so Jackson at least has a chance to adjust to the ball in the air.

The NFL’s Overlooked Superstar Quarterback

Quinton Spain probably isn’t a name you know. Spain is a guard for the Tennessee Titans. He’s played a little bit over his two years in the league, starting more games than he sat in 2016, but even for guards he’s not a known name. Spain became the star for a fleeting moment during the Nashville Predators recent run to the Stanley Cup Finals. When the Titans offensive line got together to chug beer and hold up dead catfish in the stadium, Spain was standing front and center. Right there between Jack Conklin and Taylor Lewan the way he is on the field. Shirtless, covered in beer, not the way he is on the field. Everyone noticed Spain. You couldn’t miss him. Not everyone noticed the guy off to the left, standing uncomfortably while waving a towel and wondering how long it was all going to last.

Marcus Mariota had rarely looked so out of place in Tennessee.

It’s unusual for any quarterback to be overshadowed by his offensive line, normally it works the other way around. It’s especially unusual for it to happen at a hockey game. If there was one quarterback it was going to happen to though, that was Mariota. The former Oregon prospect is a reserved character. He’s so reserved that when he was coming out of college one GM claimed Mariota’s red flag was that he had no red flags — a reach bigger than Randy Moss in the corner of the endzone. After his offensive line went viral, Mariota revealed that he has never taken a sip of alcohol in his life so the idea of him chugging a beer shirtless is even more absurd than whatever that GM was talking about.

During that draft process Mariota was pushed into the background by Jameis Winston. Winston went first overall in the 2015 draft, Mariota went second. Winston was considered a generational talent after a stellar couple of seasons at FSU. Mariota was widely regarded as a system quarterback who would struggle to transition to the NFL. He received lazy comparisons to Colin Kaepernick and other running quarterbacks simply because of his physical profile. Mariota can run. He’s obviously an excellent athlete. That doesn’t mean it was the most significant or even a significant part of his skill set.

Rather than compare Mariota to a quarterback such as Kaepernick, he should have been compared to a Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger. He shared Brady’s quick release, outstanding ability to diagnose coverages in an instant and his precision on short/intermediate routes. He shared Roethlisberger’s ability to function effectively both inside and outside the pocket, extending passing plays and giving them every chance to succeed rather than dropping his eyes to run himself into trouble. The aesthetics of Mariota’s physical skill set distorted the view of his quality as a passer, setting the tone for how he would be covered early in his career.

Since entering the NFL, Mariota has proven his quality as a passer.

As early as Week 2 during his rookie season Mariota was making exceptionally difficult plays from the pocket. For Dorial Green-Beckham’s 13-yard touchdown against the Browns that week, Mariota initially looked to his left where he had two receivers covered tightly. He shuffled his feet, turned his shoulders and came back to the other side of the field as the pocket around him began to tighten. Mariota subtly moved backwards while pump faking to draw a linebacker out of the passing lane he wanted to attack. An edge defender arrived to hit Mariota as he began to release the ball. The quarterback’s release was so quick that the ball wasn’t affected. His mechanics stayed strong, he absorbed the hit and delivered the ball in perfect time to a perfect spot for Green-Beckham to catch the ball in the back of the endzone.

The now 23-year old threw 19 touchdowns to 10 interceptions while averaging 7.6 yards per attempt during his rookie season. Those numbers didn’t do his performances justice. Mariota played behind one of the worst pass-blocking lines in the league that season. He was regularly working from condensed pockets, buying time with subtle movements while keeping his eyes downfield. Without his quick release and poise in the pocket the Titans passing game wouldn’t have been functional. To compound those issues his receivers constantly left completions on the field. Mariota lost a completion on an accurate throw because of receiver error once every nine attempts that season. No other quarterback lost a completion that often and when adjusted for receiver error his yards per attempt lept to 8.9, the sixth-best adjusted yards per attempt in the league. Not only were his receivers ruining plays by dropping balls, they also struggled to get open. Relying on Harry Douglas, Dorial Green-Beckham and Justin Hunter meant that Mariota was constantly throwing receivers open with precision and anticipation into tight windows.

Jameis Winston was supposed to be the generational talent from his draft. He was supposed to be the guy who elevated everyone around him and played with consistency. Mariota did all of that without the major accuracy issues and turnover problems that Winston has had to this point in his career.

The Titans should have embraced Mariota’s obvious strengths after his rookie season. They should have set him up in a quick-passing, shotgun-heavy offense that featured three, four and five receivers as much as possible. Mike Mularkey has never emphasized those things. Mularkey has always relied on misdirection, heavy-set personnel packages and deep drops in the pocket that come with slow-developing, vertical releases for the receivers outside. It’s an offense that doesn’t give Mariota three or four options to attack the coverage on every play and it’s an offense that doesn’t let him get rid of the ball quickly. According to Football Outsiders, the Titans ranked second in the league in run percentage during the first half, fourth in the league in run percentage when trailing in the second half and used heavy packages on 43 percent of their plays, more often than any other team. 23 teams used shotgun/pistol formations more often than the Titans did. 26 teams used empy sets more often. Mularkey’s offense attempts to minimize the quarterback’s impact and responsiblity. It puts a greater emphasis on the design of the play and the execution of the supporting cast than the quarterback’s ability as a passer.

Despite his own scheme working against him, Mariota was even better during his second season.

Tajae Sharpe and Rishard Matthews struggled to create separation on Mularkey’s vertical routes. With more bodies staying in protection, they were regularly running into crowds so Mariota was forced to throw receivers open into tight windows at every level of the field.

He was still an above average passer to each level of the field except past 20 yards. Dak Prescott was the only quarterback 25 or younger to have better accuracy percentages than Mariota. Prescott’s numbers were enhanced by the types of throws he attempted and the conditions he played in. He could sit in the pocket and wait for wide open receivers. He rarely aggressively attacked tight coverages because he didn’t have to. Furthermore, Prescott threw the ball short at a much higher rate. 39.8 percent of Mariota’s passes travelled further than 10 yards downfield (fifth in the league), whereas 32.47 percent of Prescott’s passes travelled that far (18th).

Only three quarterbacks had a deeper average depth of target than Mariota’s 9.78 last season. A big reason for that was the team’s reluctance to throw screen passes. 6.21 percent of his attempts were screen passes and only 39.49 percent of his yards came after the catch. 28 quarterbacks benefited from more yards after the catch.

The only time Mariota really struggled last season was during the first four weeks. Even then he was still making spectacular plays. In Week 2 against the Detroit Lions he was accurate on 80.65 percent of his passes. One of those accurate attempts came late in the fourth quarter when he hit DeMarco Murray down the seam for a 22-yard gain against tight coverage. Mariota was hit as he released the ball but still threw Murray open to the perfect spot on the field. That play set up the game-winning touchdown for Andre Johnson when Mariota diagnosed the coverage instantly by recognizing the linebacker turning his back to the quarterback over the middle of the field. Recognizing the linebacker’s movement allowed Mariota to fit a touch pass between two defenders to a spot where only Johnson could catch it even though the receiver was completely covered. Those two plays were of the highest degree of difficulty for a quarterback. They were the types of plays Mariota made repeatedly after the first month of the season.

Mariota’s skill set is so wide and advanced that he didn’t have major weaknesses to work on after his rookie season. His only real weakness is his deep ball, something Mularkey tries to emphasize. That meant his second season was about developing greater consistency and adding layers to things he was already doing at a high level.

Throwing receivers open against tight coverage against impending hits is something Mariota does better than all but one quarterback in the league: Aaron Rodgers. There are a few more quarterbacks who are better than him at cycling through progressions to find soft spots in different coverages, they are all older, less mobile, future hall of famers who have been in the league for more than a decade. Mariota is catching up to those guys in terms of manipulating defenders to create throwing lanes from the pocket. You could see very clear examples of him moving linebackers with his eyes against the Chiefs and the Packers.

Having a quarterback who can do all of that from the pocket consistently and make plays with his feet when he’s forced out of the pocket is hugely valuable. Even when Mariota breaks the pocket his instinct isn’t to run. He keeps his eyes up to exhaust every passing option before crossing the line of scrimmage. He is a reluctant runner. This means he gives plays every chance to succeed instead of running for four yards when there’s an open receiver 40 yards downfield. He doesn’t leave pockets without good reason to and he doesn’t predetermine his decision to pass or run. Everything about Mariota’s skill set sets him up to react to what the defense does and punish them for it.

Even with Mariota’s skill set, playing in that type of aggressive passing game with a limited supporting cast should have led to more turnovers.

Mariota only threw nine interceptions last season — he threw 26 touchdowns — and his interception percentage was exactly two, the 12th-best rate among quarterbacks with at least 400 attempts. It wasn’t luck. Mariota only threw 17 interceptable passes. A lowly 3.77 percent of his attempts were considered passes that should have been intercepted. In simpler terms: he should have been intercepted once every 26.53 attempts.

Only 11 quarterbacks had a better interceptable pass rate than Mariota. None of those players played in a scheme that was as aggressive as his and Prescott was the only one from the 25-and-younger club.

Even with his low interception total, Mariota was actually unlucky rather than lucky. On average each quarterback had 39.72 percent of his interceptable passes caught last year. 52.94 percent of Mariota’s interceptable passes were caught.

A quarterback who takes care of the ball while getting the most out of every play by attacking the defense in different ways and elevating his teammates is what every team in the league desperately wants. If Eric Decker can regain his health and Corey Davis erases the concerns about his speed to stretch the field, the Titans will have recievers who can create their own separation and adjust at the catch point for the first time in their young quarterback’s career.

That will help the Titans move closer to the playoffs.

It will help Mariota move closer to the spotlight.

It will help us acknowledge that he is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL…

…and the best young quarterback in the NFL.

Dak can’t match his precision into tight windows or his anticipation throws on intermediate routes. Winston can’t take care of the ball while creating opportunities for his receivers the way Mariota can. Wentz….Wentz shouldn’t even be mentioned in this conversation.

Even the recently-minted Derek Carr doesn’t have a broad enough skill set or consistent enough track record to challenge Mariota as the best young quarterback in the NFL.

Roster Construction, Derek Carr and Measuring the Value of a QB Contract

During the 2013 season, Russell Wilson accounted for 0.6 percent of the Seahawks cap space. Three of the team’s key additions that year — Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Percy Harvin — combined for 10.9 percent of the cap. The Seahawks won the Super Bowl that year. Bennett and Avril were key pieces of the defense all season long while Harvin made big contributions in the Super Bowl.

In 2016, Wilson’s cap hit accounted for 11.9 percent of the cap. Bennett and Avril are still on the roster but Pete Carroll and John Schneider have been forced to cut corners elsewhere.

No team in  the league spent as little on their offensive line as the Seahawks did last year. Even doubling their $6.3 million allocation wouldn’t have moved them off the bottom. The same is true this season. The Seahawks aren’t as far behind this time but they have still only allocated $15 million to their offensive line. Amazingly, Luke Joeckel accounts for almost half of that. [Numbers courtesy of Over The Cap]

While it’s not an ideal situation for the Seahawks to be in, it’s one they have chosen for a reason.

The Seahawks kept their defense in tact and prioritised putting weapons around Wilson because the quarterback doesn’t need ideal conditions in the pocket to be effective. He’s not the type of passer who will drop back and deliver the ball on time every play. Wilson is at his best when the play breaks down and he can create off the cuff, threatening the defense underneath with his feet while keeping his eyes up to punish them with precision deep passes if they move too soon.

It’s not necessarily that Wilson makes his offensive line better. He does allow the offense to function without a competent offensive line though.

The true measure of a contract is how it fits in your roster construction. Paying a quarterback more than $20 million per season should only be done when that quarterback is allowing you to save money elsewhere. He can do that by elevating his teammates. That’s going to be difficult for Derek Carr.

Carr just became the highest-paid player in the NFL. He plays on an offense with a dominant offensive line and dynamic wide receivers. That offensive line features the expensive contracts of Kelechi Osemele, Rodney Hudson and Gabe Jackson. That receiving corps features the expensive contract of Michael Crabtree and the soon-to-be expensive contract of Amari Cooper.

Nowhere on offense is the team saving money because of the quarterback. None of the pieces around Carr need to be elevated, instead they are setting the quarterback up with a perfect situation to thrive.

That is how Carr can justify his contract.

The Raiders are going to have to save money on the defensive side of the ball. That means the team’s identity will be similar to the New Orleans Saints team that last won a Super Bowl. Sean Payton and Drew Brees led a team with an offensive identity where the defense only needed to be a complementary unit that lived off of turnovers. With Drew Brees as your quarterback that was a viable approach. Carr needs to prove that true of himself.

Carr needs to consistently take advantage of the situations his offense puts him in. His offense needs to be one of the most consistent, most efficient, most explosive units in the league year in and year out.

Becoming a more accurate passer should be Carr’s first priority in 2017. Carr’s overall accuracy percentage of 70.94 percent ranked 25th in the league last year(via the Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue). He was only slightly more accurate than Trevor Siemian, Carson Wentz and Blake Bortles.

Overall accuracy percentages can be misleading because each quarterback doesn’t throw the ball to the same levels of the field at the same rate. Carr was a top-10 passer on throws behind the line of scrimmage and ranked an impressive 14th on throws where the ball traveled further than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage.

The problems for Carr came in the 1-20 ranges. Carr ranked 26th in the 1-5 yard range, 32nd in the 6-10 yard range, 28th in the 11-15 yard range and 26th in the 16-20 yard range.

Explaining the discrepancy between Carr’s short/deep accuracy and the other levels of the field is relatively easy. The big concern about Carr coming out of college was his footwork and how he reacted to pressure. He has a huge arm so it’s relatively easy for him to flick the ball to receivers in either flat without setting his feet. When he’s pushing the ball downfield there is less requirement for touch and timing, he can let the ball fly aggressively.

Throwing to short and intermediate routes past the line of scrimmage requires more placement, touch and timing because you are throwing into the thick of the coverage. Your footwork becomes more important on these throws because you have a much smaller margin for error.

On this play against the Denver Broncos in Week 9 Carr was lucky to avoid an interception. This is a difficult throw to make but it’s one he has the arm talent to make. Not only does he need to arch the ball over the trailing defender, the ball has to hit a moving window down the sideline where the receiver can catch the ball before going out of bounds.

It’s not that Carr missed this throw. Few quarterbacks can make this throw in the first place. It’s that he missed the throw by a huge distance. The ball should at worst reach the defender trailing his intended target.

The key for the result on this play is Carr’s left foot. When he plants it initially his left foot is in front of his right. He should be keeping that left foot ahead of his right to step into the throw and release the ball with authority. Instead his left foot begins to move backwards and by the time he releases the ball his weight is on his left foot but is pushed backwards before leaving the ground.

Carr faces very little pressure. On this occasion Von Miller was able to get close to him but he never hit him and he could only reach to try and disrupt the release of the ball.

Miller’s presence alone impacted Carr’s comfort delivering the ball. He had an opportunity to step forward if he didn’t feel like he could cleanly release the ball. That is an element of Carr’s play that is too common. He rushes to get rid of the ball instead of making use of the time he is given. On this play, his inability in the pocket led to the ball arriving significantly short of its intended destination.

Carr can fix some of his accuracy with better footwork, but his accuracy even when he sets his feet lacks the requisite timing and placement to be an upper-echelon player.

45.85 percent of Carr’s passes travelled between 0-10 yards past the line of scrimmage last year. 24 quarterbacks in the league threw more passes into that area of the field. The Raiders have receivers who can get open quickly and they spread the field with four and five receivers on a regular basis last season. Carr should have been able to work the short and intermediate routes more often than he did to get the most out of the diverse talents around him.

The Raiders have a new offensive coordinator, Todd Downing, but he’s a carryover after being the team’s quarterbacks coach previously. If Downing simply retains the principles and scheme of Bill Musgrave Carr’s skill set is unlikely to broaden.

Making that offense work against bad defenses is possible, the Raiders did it for the most part last year, but it makes winning games against good defenses immeasurably harder.

Save for hitting on defensive prospects at an unprecedented rate in the draft, the Raiders will be a team that is overly reliant on its offense moving forward. That means Carr can’t just be Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco or even Matthew Stafford. He will need to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league, consistently playing to his potential each week.