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2018 QB spotlight: Josh Rosen and the power of play-action

Here is one of the things that makes Josh Rosen an attractive prospect

Texas A&M v UCLA Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The New York Giants have the second overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. More likely than not, that pick will be used on a quarterback to find the eventual successor to Eli Manning. There’s a solid group of quarterbacks in this draft class, but no obvious top prospect. Because of that, we’ll take a look into a few aspects of the quarterbacks and how they might fit with the Giants.

Previously: Baker Mayfield

Today we’ll continue with a quarterback routinely mocked to the Giants with the No. 2 overall pick, UCLA’s Josh Rosen.

This year’s quarterback class is going to be a Rorschach test on how evaluators rate traits of the position. For those that value production, there’s a guy. Prefer athleticism? Definitely a guy for that. Rather your quarterback look the part? Yup, guy for that too.

Even as there’s differing values placed on the most important parts of what makes a successful quarterback, just about everyone is going to agree Josh Rosen is the best passer of the group. That doesn’t necessarily mean best quarterback, but Rosen has the arm and anticipation to be accurate to all levels of the field. He’s mechanically sound, which makes him stand out in a group that includes the funky delivery of Sam Darnold, the need to create passing lanes from Baker Mayfield, and the occasionally narrow strides from Lamar Jackson.

Rosen has the cliche ability to make all the throws and there’s nowhere that’s more apparent than off play-action — an increasingly important tool in bringing along young quarterbacks to the NFL.

Smart coaching staffs in the NFL have increased the rate of play-action to create easier reads for young or backup quarterbacks. Sean McVay helped turn Jared Goff around by heavily implementing play-action in the Los Angeles Rams’ offense. In Goff’s rookie year under Jeff Fisher, the Rams used play-action on just 16 percent of their passes, which ranked 26th in the league per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders. Under McVay, the Rams used play-action on 28 percent of their passes — the highest rate in the league — and Goff averaged 8.9 yards per attempt on those throws.

Similarly, the Philadelphia Eagles went heavy play-action with Carson Wentz for the majority of the regular season and even heavier with Nick Foles. The Eagles ran play-action on 26 percent of their passes in the regular season — tied for second-most — and had some type of run-action on 21 of Foles’s 48 passes (48.8 percent) in the Super Bowl.

On the other side, the Cleveland Browns did little to help out their rookie quarterback thrown into the fire. Cleveland ran play-action on 15 percent of its passes, the fourth-lowest rate in the league last season.

Teams should run play-action more and the more progressive offenses will, especially since there’s little data to suggest a good or efficient run game is needed to run play-action well. Simply, the best way to have a good play-action attack is to perform play-action well.

Whichever team drafts Rosen should make sure to include a heavy dose of play-action in the offense to both set up easier reads and put the quarterback in a position to do what he’s done best — surgically deconstruct a defense.

Rosen’s anticipation works perfectly when paired with a play-action pass. He can see the field and know which route will eventually get open. Against Stanford, Rosen froze a safety (2) with the run-fake and had the ball waiting for his receiver once he was clear behind the defender.

Take a closer look at where the receiver was when Rosen started to release the ball — not yet past the safety.

Then where the receiver and the ball meet — well past the defenders with plenty of room to run.

Another place Rosen excels with play-action is his ability to turn his back to the defense on the fake from under center. Using play-action from shotgun is not an inferior use of the strategy, but having a quarterback able to turn his back to the defense then reset to throw is an added wrinkle that helps in the sell of the fake. It’s something Matt Ryan struggled with in his first season under Kyle Shanahan in 2015, but mastered during his MVP season in 2016.

Rosen already has this down and still adds his accuracy and anticipation — especially to the intermediate parts of the field — on top of it. Below is a play against USC, a defense that ranked ninth against the pass by S&P+ in 2017. Rosen sold the fake on a third-and-8, turned back around to find his receiver crossing the field from his right to left, and placed the ball right before a safety came in to make a hit.

If that ball is thrown earlier, the receiver doesn’t have enough separation from the cornerback. If it’s thrown later, that safety is there to knock that ball out and potentially turn that into a more dangerous play.

Play-action can also open up shots down the field and Rosen isn’t afraid to take them. Here’s Rosen against Arizona State — again under center, back turned to the defense, and a deep throw past the hands of a diving defender right in the hands of his receiver.

Rosen isn’t particularly mobile — though UCLA did run a few successful read-option keepers near the goal line this season — but he can still use the run-pass option (RPO) without the quarterback run option, which makes it closer to the professional version of the concept.

How he’d fit with the Giants

In Minnesota, Pat Shurmur was a big proponent of using play-action with Case Keenum. The Vikings used play-action on 26 percent of their passes attempts and averaged 8.7 yards per attempt on those throws — despite being below average in run efficiency (18th in rushing DVOA).

Pairing Rosen with Odell Beckham, Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram, and a pass-catching running back in an efficient play-action system would make an immediate impact on offense. Rosen has the skills to succeed outside of that, but the ability to run and excel with play-action will give the team and quarterback a way to ease into the pro game and still have a path to production on the field. This should be the case for all young quarterbacks in their transitions, but with Rosen it could be a dangerous weapon from the start.

  • Video from Sam Gold of Field Gulls