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A few years ago I wrote a piece for the Pro Football Weekly draft guide. Titled “Draft Spotlight on Quarterback Development,” the article dove into how NFL teams have done away with the traditional model of quarterback development — letting them sit and learn for a year or two — and thrust them onto the field as soon as possible. We all know the “why:” The economics of today’s NFL make the cost-controlled quarterback a valuable asset. But I wanted to get into the “how.” If you are playing a QB early, how do you best go about that?
I spoke to a number of very smart people for hte piece, including Ted Nguyen from The Athletic, quarterback coach Tony Racioppi, writer Seth Keysor who covers the Kansas City Chiefs (and saw the rise of Patrick Mahomes) and former NFL scout Dan Hatman who now runs The Scouting Academy. All gave great insight. But perhaps the most pertinent piece of advice came from former NFL safety Matt Bowen, who told me this:
“If I am an offensive coordinator in the NFL with a young QB, I am making a visit to his college head coach to learn their playbook and the schemes that I can then use in the NFL to have the QB ready as a rookie.”
We often talk about “scheme fits” when projecting quarterbacks, but part of that discussion should not focus on what the NFL offense they step into runs, but rather how that NFL offense can cater plays and schemes to what that rookie has done, and can do well.
To that end, I have come up with a route concept for each of the “big five” quarterbacks in this class: Justin Fields, Mac Jones, Trey Lance, Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson. All of these designs incorporate routes and combinations that they have run, and run well, during their time on campus.
In an effort to standardize things a bit, and perhaps be a bit more explanatory with the terminology, I have used descriptive, West Coast-influenced terminology for each route design. But I have also included some more generic terms for each concept.
Trevor Lawrence: "Circles" or "Carnie"
(Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)
If I were coaching Trevor Lawrence I would want to call plays that catered to his arm strength as well as his ability to read and throw against leverage in the secondary. During his time at Clemson Lawrence demonstrated his ability to put the football where it needed to be based on the coverage on a consistent basis. Pairing that with his velocity, even in the downfield passing game, can lead to great results. Here is a design I would want to have on the call sheet:
I've termed this X 717 Slot Choice A Check-Sit although some offenses might call this Carnie or Circles. Working from left-to-right Lawrence has the circle-7 route from the X receiver on the left, a flat route from the tight end, another circle-7 from the Z receiver on the right, and then the choice route from his slot receiver. If the safeties are split -- "middle of the field open" -- then the slot will try and split between them. If there is a single-high look, the slot receiver will stay up the seam. Lawrence can alert that route early in the play and take a shot if he likes it, otherwise he can work the concept to the right side of the field. If the corners are playing off, the Z and the X can flatten a bit on their routes. A reason why this is a great design for Lawrence is because he has shown the ability to drive the ball on those corner routes, giving him the ability to stress defenses along the boundary. This throw against Ohio State, with pressure in his face, is a great example: [video width="1280" height="720" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/04/LawrenceCornerRoute.mp4">[/video] And here is Lawrence running a very similar design down in the red zone against Georgia Tech, showing good placement on that corner route as well as a great read given the coverage: [video width="1280" height="720" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/04/LawrenceCircle-1.mp4">[/video] His ability to throw towards the boundaries with velocity and placement is one of his better traits, and this design will allow his offensive coordinator to stress defenses at multiple levels of the field.
Zach Wilson: "Post-Out" or "Pout"
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
While studying Zach Wilson, some of my favorite throws of his have come when he is running "Post-Out" or "Pout," A concept that pairs a post route with a deep out pattern to one side of the field. This is a great design that gives the quarterback options against almost any coverage. It might be best against Cover-4, because the cornerback will be forced to cover the post route putting the safety in a tough position against that deep out pattern from the slot receiver, but it can also work against single-high or man coverages. So here is a design I would dial up for him:
Here Wilson has the X receiver on a go route which is his alert. If he likes the look pre-snap or right at the snap, he can take a vertical shot. But then I want him working the concept quickly in the down. The outside, Z receiver gives him the post route while the slot receiver runs the sail/deep-out. The tight end releases to the flat. Backside the running back is initially the protection, but will release if not threatened. Here's Wilson running this concept against Houston, to the right side of the field: [video width="1280" height="720" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/04/WilsonPOUTHouston.mp4">[/video] Houston looks to be running Cover-4 to that side of the field, and you can see how this route combination creates two different leverage advantages for the offense. The cornerback is playing with outside leverage, and that gives the boundary receiver room to the inside on the post route. The safety has to handle the out route from the slot receiver, who also has a leverage advantage working to the outside. Here is another example of Wilson working this route combination: [video width="1280" height="720" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/04/WilsonPOUTNorthAlabama.mp4">[/video] This time he throws the post route, but you can see once more how this route structure stresses the leverage of defenders. The safety has to work to the out route, and the cornerback is out-leveraged against the post route, which Wilson finds downfield. Wilson reads this concept well, and if I am his offensive coordinator next season, I am giving him every opportunity to work this combination each week.
Justin Fields: "Levels Plus"
(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
Like the other passers at the top of the class Justin Fields is a scheme-diverse quarterback that I would trust in any system. In thinking of designs for him to run, I wanted to find concepts that could cater to his ability to push the ball downfield, while also giving him progression reads that stress the defense underneath. Here is a route combination that in some systems is termed "Indy," but I think could be described as "Levels Plus:"
I am terming this X 986 Slot Shallow A Check-Flat, and Fields on this play has both the alert on the backside (X on the go route) and then a nice little combination on the frontside. If he does not like the alert look to X, he can then work the tight end on his option/post route to the levels look from the slot and the Z receiver. The tight end will base his route on the coverage. If the defense is in a single-high zone look, he will stay up the seam. Should the secondary be in a split-safety look, then the TE is splitting them on a post. If, however, the defense is running man coverage then I want the tight end simply running from the man defender. In Ohio State's offense Fields was tasked with reading and throwing a lot of option routes, even deeper ones down the field like the tight end runs here. He certainly can attack between the numbers on throws like this with his arm talent, and on this touchdown against Indiana he is working a similar option route in the middle of the field: [video width="1280" height="720" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/04/FieldsPostIndiana.mp4">[/video] Some might ding Fields for "staring down this post route" but he knows presnap that he probably has a touchdown given the coverage. Indiana keeps the middle of the field open, so once his receiver crosses the defender's face, Fields can drill in the post route for the score. But if the QB does not like the look from the tight end's option route, he can then work the pair of in-breaking routes from the slot and the Z. This combination is very similar to a route that Ohio State has in their playbook, which you can see Fields operate here: [video width="1280" height="720" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/04/FieldsIndiana6.mp4">[/video] Fields is trying to work the two inside routes, but the coverage -- and in particular a "rat" dropping off the line -- take away those reads. So late in the down he comes to the outside receiver on his in-cut, for a nice read and throw. If I were lucky enough to coach Fields I would want to give him opportunities to attack in the vertical passing game, and the choice/post from the tight end gives him that chance. But I also want to give him reads and progressions that he has run before and can execute at a high level and -- pun unintended -- this levels design accomplishes that goal.
Mac Jones: "Over and Fade"
(Gary Cosby-USA TODAY Sports)
There are a number of things that Alabama quarterback Mac Jones does well and are reasons why he might be one of the first players drafted come next week. One of them is deciphering a defense in the presnap phase, easing his decision-making process once the bodies start flying. Another is his use of touch in the vertical passing game, particularly on fade routes from his slot receiver. Finally Jones is also adept at throwing into secondary windows against zone coverages. Given that, I wanted to come up with ways to cater to those strengths of his, and came up with this design:
I'm calling this X 992 Slot Cross A Check-Swing, and there are a number of elements that pair nicely with what Jones does as a passer. Of course you have the X receiver on the go/alert, and if he likes that look before the snap he can certainly take a deep shot. But there is also the slot-fade route from the Z receiver on this play, and this is a pattern that Jones throws with touch and anticipation. This throw against Mississippi State is a prime example: [video width="1280" height="720" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/04/JonesSlotFade.mp4">[/video] Jones drops this ball into a perfect spot, and it should have gone for a touchdown. But if the defense is playing off coverage and the two vertical routes are not an option in his mind, then he can work the crossing route from the slot receiver coming from left-to-right. On this play against Missouri the crossing route from the outside comes open in that "secondary" window against zone coverage, and Jones hits it for a solid gain: [video width="1280" height="720" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/04/JonesCrosserZone.mp4">[/video] But he can still work that route against man coverage. If he does not like the matchups from the alert/go or the slot-fade, then he might just get one he likes on the crosser. That is exactly what happened on this play, also from the Missouri game: [video width="1280" height="720" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/04/JonesCrosserMan.mp4">[/video] Also, kudos to Jones for hanging in the pocket with Nick Bolton bearing down on him... The final element to mention is the option route from the flexed tight end. That player will sit down against zone coverage or run from man coverage. If nothing else, that gives Jones a solid checkdown option. If I were coaching Jones I would want to implement designs that cater to where he excels, and this route design gives him a number of options that he has run, and run well, during his time at Alabama.
Trey Lance: "Post/Curl/Flat"
(AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
We conclude with North Dakota State passer Trey Lance. Like the other four quarterbacks, coming up with a route combination for him was a joy. I wanted to find a design that put him in familiar territory, like with the other quarterbacks, and provide a few different ways to stress the defense. Here is a call that would be at the top of my play-sheet:
Astute observers will note two things. First, this is the only play of the five that starts with the QB under center. Not that operating from that alignment is pivotal to quarterback play today, but Lance is quite experienced at operating under center so this is a chance to design something with that starting point. Second, this is the first play with dual running backs, as this design has the offense in 21 personnel. Lance ran a ton of 21 personnel at NDSU, and as we work through this, you might start thinking about what he could look like in a Kyle Shanahan offense... Working off of play-action Lance is reading the concept to the right side of the field. His alert is the tight end, whose route will convert based on the coverage. If the safeties are split, he will attack between them on the post route. However, if the middle of the field is closed due to a single-high look, then I want him flattening his path a bit and crossing the face of the high safety. (This is a tweak from the more traditional seam route you see in playbooks against MOFC coverages, although I would not be opposed to running that as well). Basically, I want to give him a chance to make this kind of throw: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/04/LanceVideo4.mp4">[/video] This throw -- from his first college start -- is an example of Lance hitting his tight end on this kind of route with great placement and a good understanding of leverage. If Lance does not like that look, then he works the curl/flat design between his Z and his fullback. This combination also caters to his ability to throw routes with anticipation such as the curl route, as Lance does on this example: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/04/LanceVideo1.mp4">[/video] But we can also work him outside of the pocket a bit on this design, giving him the option to hit the fullback in the flat or even stress the defense with his legs. On this play Lance shows that athleticism before hitting his fullback in the flat: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/04/LanceVideo1-1.mp4">[/video] (One can easily picture this design with George Kittle on the post/option, Brandon Aiyuk on the curl and Kyle Juszczyk on the flat route. I'm not saying, I'm just saying...)