I am often asked how I evaluate college quarterbacks. Remember, there’s only one objective: project and transition to the NFL. On Sundays, quarterbacks must be able to pass the ball against sophisticated defenses designed specifically to challenge them. Passing the ball well demands particular and identifiable attributes. These traits are necessary for all quarterbacks to succeed at the NFL level. There’s no question that different players possess these characteristics in distinctive and varying degrees. The overriding point, however, is consistent play requires a tangible skill set that can be quantified.
Accuracy can be measured. The better term is ball location. It’s the primary factor that determines run after the catch for the receiver. Anticipation can be measured. The ability to pull the trigger before the receiver makes his break can be studied and calculated watching film. You can see it.
Pocket movement can be measured. You can analyze a quarterback’s capacity to move within an area that approximates the size of a boxing ring. The corollary, also quantifiable with film study: maintaining downfield focus while looking for a relatively quiet area to make a throw.
Pocket toughness can be measured. That’s the ability to throw effectively when a collapsing pocket has reduced functional space to deliver the ball comfortably. The willingness to make tight throws into small windows is another essential attribute that can be grasped from careful film evaluation.
Decision making can be measured. Watch enough film, and you understand route combinations and reading progressions based on the alignment of receivers, the defensive front and the coverage. You know where the ball should go within the precise timing of the play’s design. It may be the primary read or a secondary read, but there’s a defined sequence.
This raises another point, an addendum to decision making, but also reflective of the other points previously discussed. If you play the position properly, you will play within structure a large percentage of the time. Improvisation and sandlot play occasionally might look spectacular, but they are random and arbitrary. That’s not the recipe for success in the NFL.
All these traits are visible and discernible on film. They are the subtleties of quarterback play, the nuances demanded at the NFL level. It’s a highly disciplined craft, and the only way consistency over time can be achieved.
This explanation was a prelude to my film evaluations of the second tier of quarterbacks in the 2012 NFL Draft. I have already written about Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Ryan Tannehill. Now it’s time to focus on the consensus next group, a trio that, if recent history is the barometer, could be gone by the end of the second round.
Here are three snapshots of three quarterbacks, each with specific strengths and distinct limitations. Much more can be said, of course, but I placed them in the context of the attributes necessary to play NFL quarterback at a consistently high level. All three will become members of a very large quarterback fraternity of players who need to be coached and managed to maximize the skills they possess. They must be defined and enhanced by the methodology and the concepts of the passing game. That’s the way it works in the NFL.
Kirk Cousins: At Michigan State, Cousins played in an offense that featured NFL route combinations and progression reads. He operated effectively both under center and in the shotgun. At his best, Cousins was a timing and anticipation passer who was quick and decisive with his reads. He was a plant-and-throw quarterback, most effective when he could hit his back foot and deliver the ball on time, in rhythm. He was efficient in the play-action pass game, with the often overlooked ability to get his head around quickly after he turned his back to the defense. As a corollary, he executed well the boot-action game, showing accuracy on the move.
Extensive tape study also illustrated some significant concerns. Immediately evident was his inability to drive the ball at the intermediate and deeper levels. He was a touch passer without much snap to his throws. That must be accompanied by outstanding decision making and precise ball location. Cousins was not as consistent as he needs to be in both areas given his arm-strength limitations. He also needed functional space in the pocket to be efficient. He had a tendency to drift backward in response to pressure. Pocket movement is certainly an attribute he must work on in his transition to the NFL. His struggles in a “muddied” pocket, in the eye of the storm, must be cleaned up for him to become a quality starter.
For Cousins to be successful, he must be managed and manipulated by the schematics of the passing game and the play calling. At this point, and that’s the critical caveat, he’s primarily a pocket passer with neither great size nor the overall skills of a pocket passer. The specific concepts of the pass game and how he’s coached will be the determining factors in his development.
Stay tuned for Parts 2 & 3 of Greg Cosell’s “Other Quarterbacks” posts, coming later today!
For more thoughts from Greg Cosell, follow him on Twitter at @gregcosell.