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Davis Webb could test developmental QB strategy

Can he become an NFL QB while sitting and watching?

NCAA Football: UCLA at California Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Draft and develop. That’s the plan a few teams in the league took at quarterback during the 2017 NFL Draft. While some, like the Chiefs, invested many high picks in the process, others like the Steelers and New York Giants hope a mid-round pick can become the future of the position.

The Giants used their third-round pick on Cal quarterback Davis Webb. Instantly he was hailed as the heir apparent to Eli Manning. With the market price of trading up for a quarterback early, the Giants were probably right in not going after Patrick Mahomes, as was rumored during draft night, to get a top-tier talent. But the selection of Webb could put a true test on how far the development of a young quarterback on the sideline can go.

Webb comes from an Air Raid offense at Cal and the history of quarterbacks from those systems excelling in the NFL is not great. But this is a different time and an evolving NFL. Teams are spending more time in the shotgun and more spread offense principles are getting sprinkled into the pro game. In 2016 the least shotgun-heavy team spent 40 percent of the time in shotgun, which is close to where the most shotgun-heavy team in the league was in 2006 (44 percent). The game is evolving. Last season the Giants ran 71.5 percent of their plays from the shotgun and that ratio was even higher for Eli Manning’s pass attempts -- 87.8 percent of which came from shotgun.

While there are many spread principles that have made their way into the NFL, there are still drastic differences from a college spread to a pro offense. But the biggest concern for Webb is how he played within that offense.

By physical traits, Webb has everything a team would look for in a quarterback. He’s big at 6’5” -- 89th percentile for quarterbacks -- and has a rocket arm. If you’re building the prototype quarterback starter kit, those are steps one and two.

Webb has the ability to sling it and wasn’t shy in doing so during the 2016 season. Per Pro Football Focus, Webb had 102 deep attempts last season, which was the most among this year’s draft class. Though because he threw so often -- 620 attempts -- his deep attempt rate of 16.5 percent doesn’t stand out as much against the pack. It’s similar to those of Mitchell Trubisky (16.9 percent) and DeShone Kizer (16.8 percent) who threw far less often overall.

Sometimes Webb connected on the deep throws, like this one against Utah:

But more often, they were misses, like this interception later in the same game.

On those 102 deep attempts, just 36 were completed. Five of his 12 interceptions also came while throwing the ball downfield. Without a lot of success going deep, Webb and the Cal offense relied on shorter passes. That led to an astoundingly low yards per attempt figure in 2016. Of the 10 quarterbacks drafted in this class, only Iowa’s C.J. Beathard had a lower yards per attempt (6.4) than Webb’s 6.9. That figure isn’t very airy or raidy. Mahomes, who replaced Webb as the Texas Tech starter, threw for 8.5 yards per attempt in his air-raid offense. It wasn’t just the first-round talent who were far above Webb. Joshua Dobbs of Tennessee, drafted 135th overall to Pittsburgh, averaged 8.3 yards per attempt.

During the 2015 season at Cal, eventual first overall pick Jared Goff had 8.9 yards per attempt in the same offense Webb ran. The top five Golden Bears in receiving yards during 2015 also left with Goff, but Webb still had an NFL-caliber receiver in Chad Hansen (drafted by the Jets in the fourth round) during his 2016 season. Even with that turnover, a full two-yard drop in yards per attempt is striking. Among the full 2017 quarterback class, the average yards per attempt was 7.7. Seven of Webb’s 12 games in 2016 were under that mark.

Depending on the statistic, Webb’s game against Oregon was either one of his best or one of his worst of the season. In a 52-49 double-overtime win over the Ducks, Webb threw for five touchdowns and no interceptions. That’s great. On the way there, he threw 61 times for just 325 yards, which comes out to 5.33 yards per attempt -- his second-worst individual game of the year. That’s less great.

The touchdowns were sprinkled between screens, underneath routes, and check downs. And none of those touchdowns came from particularly far down the field. A few of them were also schemed wide open throws. Below is a cut of all five touchdowns from the game:

During the game, Webb also missed three big plays, two of which could have been touchdowns, due to the inability to place the ball where the receiver could keep himself in-bounds. While there were many quick throws, Webb was shaky and inaccurate on other plays that featured pressure.

Some of the throws were so pre-determined, he almost threw a costly interception on a simple screen that would have been an easy pick-six had it been caught.

All of this was against one of the worst pass defenses in college football. Oregon ranked 110th against the pass by S&P+ last year. Aside from the Ducks, most of Webb’s worst games of the season came against the best pass defenses. Below are Cal’s 2016 opponents ranked by S&P+ against the pass, as well as how Webb performed in those games:

Opponent S&P+ Pass D Comp Comp% Yards Y/A TD INT
Opponent S&P+ Pass D Comp Comp% Yards Y/A TD INT
Washington 5 23/47 48.9 262 5.57 1 3
USC 13 34/53 64.2 333 6.28 2 1
UCLA 23 32/48 66.7 301 6.27 2 0
Stanford 26 34/57 59.6 393 6.89 2 0
Utah 28 22/35 62.9 306 8.74 4 1
Oregon State 32 23/44 52.3 113 2.57 0 1
Texas 38 27/40 67.5 396 9.90 4 0
San Diego State 44 41/72 56.9 522 7.25 5 3
Hawaii 91 38/54 70.4 441 8.17 4 0
Arizona State 96 32/56 57.1 478 8.54 5 2
Washington State 104 34/53 64.2 425 8.02 3 1
Oregon 110 42/61 68.9 325 5.33 5 0

Webb’s worst game came against Oregon State, but he reportedly suffered a hand injury in the first half and played through the remainder of the game. The Oregon game was Cal’s next, but there was a bye week in between and there were no reports of the injury hampering Webb or the offense against the Ducks.

The closest Webb came to playing an NFL defense last season was against Washington. The Huskies had the fifth best pass defense in the nation by S&P+ and three members of the secondary were among the first 50 picks of the 2017 draft. In the game, Webb tied a season high with three interceptions. The picks were late in the game while Cal was trailing big, but they weren’t really throwing up 50-50 balls, they were some bad reads and throws.

There was also this play early in the game that easily could have been picked off. With the trips set to his left, Webb expected man coverage, but instead the secondary stayed in zone. So when his slot receiver ran past the slot corner, Webb thought he had a wide open downfield shot and let it rip. But the route and throw drifted to the outside where Kevin King was waiting with Budda Baker trailing underneath. King was able to get his hands on the ball, but was not able to hold on as he went to the ground.

With the outside corners backing off, Webb had an easy completion for the first down on third-and-3 with the outside receiver before the slot corner could have closed in. But Webb’s read of that slot corner was only to decide whether the deep pass would be open.

Webb talked about this play and a few others with Doug Farrar of Bleacher Report before the draft. In the plays discussed, Webb often talks about the look he was prepared to see pre-snap. It’s no question he’s a dedicated worker in the film room and he comes into each game heavily prepared for the opposing defense. It’s something that does stand out about him. It also makes it curious the Giants’ coaching staff did not meet with Webb before he was drafted, instead only selecting him based off film. Webb, though, profiles as the type of prospect where the opposite would be more likely.

Read through the piece with Farrar and it would be hard to not come away impressed with Webb’s understanding of the game. But it’s clear that his preparation doesn’t always translate when things shift during the play. That’s where Webb is going to have to develop the most. It’s also the type of adjustment that might not be able to be made by sitting for a few years. The practice reps will be important and so will learning the concepts of both pro offenses and defenses. But the speed of the game along with post-snap adjustments might not come to full effect until Webb steps on the field in a game.

At the moment Webb is still far away from being a capable NFL starter. He’s a developmental prospect and the Giants have said nothing to dispute that. But the parts in Webb’s game that need to be developed aren’t always the things that can be learned off the field. The plan is for him to sit and wait, which is also what we’ll all have to do to see if this is a strategy that’s going to pay off.