INDIANAPOLIS — The NFL scouting combine’s throwing session is, for many quarterback prospects, an annual confirmation of what they do well.
That’s why the results of Thursday’s prime-time throwing session at the 2020 combine are to be taken with the right grain of salt, not overweighed in the final grade for players. (For one, the possible QB1 and QB2, LSU’s Joe Burrow and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, did not participate. Burrow skipped throwing, and Tagovailoa still hasn’t been cleared medically to throw.)
So Oregon’s Justin Herbert — a possible top-10 pick — having as strong a session as he did on Thursday is nothing if not predictable. He’s a body-beautiful QB prospect who passes the eye test with ease; the combine’s friendly conditions are exactly where you’d expect him to shine.
Herbert throws a pretty deep ball. His drops are tight and confident. This is why Herbert is easy to appreciate. Where his forecast becomes murky is with the inconsistency and lack of daring throws he’s shown over three seasons, but coming off a strong Senior Bowl week, he continued that steady stock simmer with a nice workout.
The night proved more valuable to Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts, who put on a show. Hurts spun the ball easily, delivered on-time and on-target throws and had crisp and clean footwork in his drops.
Hurts looked more refined in these drills than he did at times in college. His passing mechanics and effectiveness improved sharply in his one season at Oklahoma after three at Alabama. Hurts has holes in his game, such as hanging onto the ball too long and not anticipating windows quickly enough, but his mechanics display in Indy showed a prospect who can pass a lot of QB coaches’ muster in a lot of ways.
A shift in what matters most for QBs
After all, the league is changing. Robo-QBs are out. Innovators and creators are in.
Check out what Kansas City Chiefs general manager Brett Veach told Yahoo Sports’ Terez Paylor this week about what the “Patrick Mahomes effect” might have on QB evaluations.
“If you play in a system in college that typically doesn’t translate, it doesn’t mean anything anymore — it doesn’t mean anything,” Veach said. “Because you know what? [Teams] see what these guys can do, and instead of running traditional NFL offenses, [they say] we’re gonna run college offenses, we’re gonna do what Lamar did — we’re gonna bring back a run-oriented veer offense, and we’re gonna make him a thrower in regards to what we do.”
Still, mechanics matter. That’s why what Hurts did Thursday is a confirmation of his skills as a playmaker, even if the clock in his head needs to be sped up. You know another decent quarterback who had that issue his rookie year? Tom Brady.
Hurts ran a 4.59-second 40-yard dash (at 222 pounds) earlier on Friday, confirming the athleticism we saw as a runner in college. That combination still fascinates, and Hurts’ confidence is infectious. He explained Tuesday at his combine media session how he believes he’s a transcendent player, unworried about whether every team can see it.
“That’s not my job. I control what I can control,” Hurts said. “That’s my preparation. It’s how I handle all these different things thrown in my direction. The reality is, it’s just for me about getting better every day, not worrying about all the noise. Just playing ball.
“I don’t think there’s a ceiling on my game. ... I would say the sky’s the limit, but I don’t think that’s even the limit. The dynamic ability I have, able to make every throw, get nasty and bend my legs if needed, but it should be fun. I’m looking forward to it.”
Feeling the Love
And then there was Jordan Love. The Utah State QB, who has faced questions about his inconsistencies during a disappointing redshirt junior season, mostly threw the ball well. NFL Network’s Kurt Warner thought Love was “up and down” in his throwing session, but Love started strong and delivered enough high-end, pretty passes to remind everyone why the statistically unimpressive QB could be such a closely studied and highly regarded prospect.
Love has a loose, elastic arm. He threw decisively with not a lot of wasted motion in his delivery. This is what got scouts excited about him in 2018 when Love nearly beat a very good Michigan State defense in East Lansing and compiled a 32-6 TD-INT ratio (with much better skill-position talent than he had in 2019).
“Different teams ask me who I’d compare my game to, and I’d say that too, as well, just as far as arm strength and playmaking ability,” Love said this week. “I mean, I’m not saying I’m Patrick Mahomes at the end of the day. But I love his game, I love watching his game, and obviously, that’s something I’m trying to implement in my game, as well.”
Let’s be fair: Love is not Mahomes. That’s an unfair comparison for any quarterback, but the developing irony is that Love could end up going as high — or higher — in the draft than Mahomes, the 10th overall pick of the 2017 NFL draft.
That’s been the buzz this week at the combine, as Love rates among the more fascinating QB prospects this season. That Love helped solidify his standing in Indy also is worth an asterisk: The hometown Indianapolis Colts, currently picking No. 13 overall in Round 1, appear to be enamored in his upside and projection.
Herbert is a very high-floor player who also likely will land in that upper QB tier along with Burrow, Tagovailoa (assuming the good medical reports keep rolling in) and Love. And Hurts, with his nice week here, appears to be counterbalancing an uneven Senior Bowl week.
It was the kind of performance in Mobile, Alabama, that evoked memories of Russell Wilson’s week down there in 2012, when Wilson struggled to throw consistently in a structured practice setting under the watch of the Minnesota Vikings coaching staff. That week eight years ago, the QB buzz was all about Kirk Cousins and Brandon Weeden. Wilson was considered a “Senior Bowl loser,” believe it or not.
Hurts is not Wilson, but the same rules applied: That setting wasn’t going to be the place where Hurts was most naturally going to thrive. Herbert, yes. Hurts, no.
One is a highly tuned, programmed thrower. The other is a creative, off-script playmaker. Love would fall somewhere between Herbert and Hurts on that scale, style-wise.
But all three did what they needed to do Thursday night. It might have firmed up high first-round landing spots for Herbert and Love and possibly a Day 2 selection for Hurts, even if he’s not for everyone. He’s going to have won over some team enough, we suspect, to take him somewhere in the first 100 picks.
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