Cosell’s Take: The quarterback paradigm

Greg Cosell
Shutdown Corner

Quarterback evaluation is a fascinating process. One can easily make the argument that the process of studying and analyzing college quarterbacks says more about the person doing the evaluating than it does about the quarterbacks themselves. Bill Walsh told me years ago that when he received a quarterback breakdown from a scout or a coach on his staff, the first thing he did was to consider the evaluator. Walsh first wanted to understand the method and manner by which the individual went about the evaluation, and what that person looked for as he transitioned the player from the college game to the more rigorous NFL game.

It’s a captivating point, one that I’ve never forgotten. It was the starting point as I began my own process of evaluating quarterbacks. Using the NFL as my foundation, since the objective is to project college quarterbacks to Sunday football, I began to develop a template by which to assess what it takes to play the position well at the NFL level. I continually noticed specific attributes and traits that were clearly demanded to perform consistently well. These characteristics were tangible, identifiable and quantifiable. Different quarterbacks possessed them in distinctive and varying degrees, but at some level, they were necessary to have.

[Podcast: Cosell evaluates the 2013 draft class QBs]

You study enough film in fine detail, you learn to distill the subtle nuances of quarterback play. Think about it this way: what makes a quarterback good, or great in the NFL? He must be able to do certain things. And those things are all manifested in physical ways that are evident from comprehensive analysis. It’s all there on the tape. Even though we frequently focus on what we perceive to be intangibles, which by their very nature are indefinable, the reality is you have to make throws, often in difficult situations against challenging defenses. You need definitive traits to do that.

First and foremost, a quarterback must be able throw with accuracy -- or, as I’ve always believed to be the more descriptive term, precise ball location. If you can’t do that, you have no chance to be a quality NFL quarterback. You can see that on film. It’s measurable. The more I watched Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib as his senior year progressed, the more it was evident that ball location was a positive as he transitions to the NFL. One further point: receiver run-after-catch is almost always a function of the quarterback’s ball placement.

Again, think about the NFL. How many times do you see the top quarterbacks make decisive throws in critical situations with the pocket collapsing and with bodies around them? You must be able to stand and deliver in a muddied pocket. That’s an absolutely necessary attribute. That’s why size is a trait, although it’s never talked about that way. Taller, stronger quarterbacks can respond to the pocket closing down far better than shorter, lighter quarterbacks. Visualize Ben Roethlisberger or Andrew Luck. Both are big, physical men who can wait in the pocket as long as it takes to make a throw.

We know, of course, that size by itself does not automatically correlate to success. Tyler Bray of Tennessee is 6-foot-6 and 232 pounds, yet he reacted poorly when the pocket was squeezed. His mechanics broke down, he rushed his movements, and he had a tendency to fall away from his throws. All this negated his big arm, the strongest in this draft class. Bray is what I call a functional space passer. He needs room to step and throw. His inability to react well to pressure, in addition to his scattershot accuracy, were clear red flags as you project him to the NFL.

E.J. Manuel is another big quarterback, almost 6-foot-5 and close to 240 pounds. That is, without question, a plus as you project him to the NFL. One reason is Manuel is a good athlete with the ability to make plays outside the pocket, and in this new era of football, run the read option. That cannot be overlooked in any evaluation of him. But we know that the read option is not a defining attribute of high level NFL quarterback play. His ball location was erratic -- he made some outstanding throws but missed many routine ones. He was somewhat mechanical as a passer, not smooth and natural. He was a bit of a pusher, with high elbow position and an overhand delivery. Can that be changed with coaching? Some will say yes, others will insist that he will never be a natural thrower with precise accuracy.

What about arm strength? It’s one of the most talked-about traits in any discussion of quarterback evaluation. All I know is this: in just every NFL game, there are throws that demand a strong arm. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a quarterback not pull the trigger on throws that are there because he knows he can’t make them, or he’s just not comfortable turning it loose. The element always overlooked by those who minimize arm strength is the willingness of quarterbacks like Joe Flacco, like North Carolina State’s Mike Glennon, to spin it on tight window throws at the intermediate and deeper levels. Few recognize that, because there is no quantifiable means by which to evaluate throws that are not made by quarterbacks with lesser arm strength. The only way you can identify it, and thus quantify it, is through methodical scrutiny of every play on the coaching tape.

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Glennon does not have Flacco’s arm but he’s an easy thrower with very good velocity. And he’s 6-foot-7. What he can do, and this returns to the concept of muddied pockets, is sit on his back foot and deliver with power. Again, as I’ve watched the NFL over the years, quarterbacks must be able to do that. Are there exceptions? Certainly. But as a general rule, if you cannot drive the ball down the field, or are not willing to do so, it’s very difficult to be a high level NFL quarterback.

This is why Jim Harbaugh replaced Alex Smith with Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick provided so many more passing dimensions with his strong arm. It’s why USC’s Matt Barkley will struggle to be anything more than a mid-level starter in the NFL. He just does not have enough arm. His ball tended to hang and lose energy on the back end, even on 18-25 yard throws. As much as I like Nassib, and while there’s no question he has a live arm when he can set, plant and hitch, I’m not certain he has a power arm when forced to sit on his back foot and drive it.

As I said earlier, quarterbacks possess different traits in idiosyncratic ways. If you’re not a power thrower, then you must compensate with great timing and anticipation, and you must be precisely accurate (as already discussed). Those attributes are magnified for those with lesser arms. Barkley occasionally showed those characteristics but not consistently enough. They were not entrenched in his play. In addition, he did not show the pocket movement that is also essential for pocket quarterbacks in the NFL. That’s a trait you can quantify. You can analyze a quarterback’s facility to move within an area that approximates the size of a boxing ring. The corollary, also discernible with film study, is the ability to maintain downfield focus while looking for a relatively quiet area of the field to throw. No one exhibits that attribute better than Tom Brady.

Barkley was not very athletic in and around the pocket. He’s not very light on his feet. In fact, the longer he had to stay in the pocket, the less comfortable he became. He had a tendency to rush himself, to play too fast. Overall, he’s an average athlete without the kind of lower body explosiveness that you’d like to see, the kind that defines a quarterback like Drew Brees. When you look at the attributes that define consistent quality quarterback play in the NFL, you struggle to isolate them with Barkley. He’s shorter than you’d like at under 6-foot-3, he has average arm strength, and he’s a bit of a slow twitch athlete. He’s not as strong a prospect as Mark Sanchez was when Sanchez came out of USC in 2009.

Another trait that is unmistakably measurable is decision-making. Watch enough film, and you’ll understand route combinations and reading progressions based on the alignment of receivers, and the defensive coverage. You’ll know where the ball should go within the precise timing of the play’s design. It may be the primary read, secondary read or check down, but there is a defined sequence. Glennon was very strong in this area. You saw NFL route combinations in North Carolina State’s offense, and he had an excellent feel for recognizing and reading coverages.

Keep in a mind this is a snapshot of what it takes to play quarterback at a consistently high level in the NFL. 300-page books have been written about the quarterback position. Always remember one thing when you evaluate and transition quarterbacks to the NFL: it all comes down to the ability to make throws. Passing the ball consistently well demands particular and identifiable attributes that can be measured through film study. Some of the traits are obvious, some are more subtle. But they are tangible. That’s the bottom line.

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