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Summer School: Evaluating the quarterback position — processing speed

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Mark Schofield will help us understand the traits teams evaluate when looking at quarterbacks

NFL: New York Giants-Rookie Minicamp Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Summer is a perfect time for learning. The quiet period after the NFL draft and before the start of training camps is ideal for studying playbooks, performing initial evaluations on the next crop of players, and learning more about the game that we spend so much time obsessing about throughout the year. Here at Big Blue View we’re putting together a whole host of articles this summer on just that. One series will be dedicated to studying and evaluating the quarterback position.

Evaluating prospects can be done in a variety of ways. The method I was taught mirrors the approach utilized by NFL teams: A trait-based analysis. I learned this via The Scouting Academy, a program founded by Dan Hatman, a former NFL scout who learned under NFL minds such as Dave Gettleman himself. This approach tasks evaluators with examining each prospect in terms of a number of different traits, both position-specific (such as accuracy for a quarterback) as well as more genetic traits (athleticism or competitive toughness).

In this series we’ll look at the position-specific traits for quarterbacks and identify them, using some film examples to illustrate them and how they translate to life in the NFL.

The first trait we will start with is processing speed. Stated plainly, this trait involves how quickly the quarterback can decipher and diagnose what the defense is doing, and then make the right decision with the football. The faster a quarterback is with his reads, the better chance for the offense to exploit the defense.

When evaluating the quarterback position it is important to remember that it is unlike most other positions on the field. When looking at a running back, or a wide receiver, you take a “snap to finish” approach, looking at the player during the totality of the play. However, quarterbacks are tasked with responsibilities from the moment the team leaves the huddle, lending the evaluation process to more of a “huddle to finish” timeframe.

This means that you cannot ignore the quarterback and what he does at the line of scrimmage, before the ball is snapped. Some pertinent questions include: What does the QB do at the line? Is he involved pre-snap, in terms of moving players and adjusting protections? Does the QB adjust to and/or identify defensive shifts, blitzes and other schematic alignments? Does the QB do this on his own, or is it coming from the sideline? Diving into these questions and trying to answer them uncovers how well the QB identifies information and processes it prior to the snap.

Dwayne Haskins provided some compelling examples of a quarterback in the pre-snap phase identifying potential blitzes and pressure packages, and adjusting his offense in response. This first example shows the complexities of playing QB at a high level. Before the snap Haskins identifies the MIKE, then when the Boilermakers show blitz, he spots it and changes the protection:

After that, he hangs in the pocket in the face of a Cover 0 pressure package and makes the right read:

But then he just misses the throw.

Putting aside the execution on the throw, here we see a quarterback active in the pre-snap phase, identifying the potential blitz before the play and changing the protection.

Perhaps the biggest test of a quarterback’s processing speed comes when his pre-snap expectations are challenged by a defensive rotation once the play begins. It is one thing to identify the defensive scheme pre-snap and then execute correctly, when you know what is coming from the defense. It is another to execute when the defense actually flips the script as the play begins, challenging your pre-snap understanding of the play.

This is another example from Haskins and Ohio State’s game against Purdue. On this fourth down play, the Boilermakers show a blitz package before the play. In response, Haskins adjusts the protection and slides the tight end into a wing to help in pass protection, anticipating a blitz. The blitz does not come, but Haskins still throws a rope on a quick post route for six:

Even though the defensive play call does not line up with what Haskins is expecting from the defense, the QB is able to read the defense on the fly - processing the new information available to him quickly - and throw a strike for a touchdown.

This next play is an example of a quarterback seeing one coverage look from a defense before the play, and then having to adjust on the fly to a different coverage as the play unfolds:

Before the play Ryan Finley sees a two-high safety look from the defense, and likely expects Cover 2 or Cover 4. The Wolfpack run a Mills concept, pairing a post route with a dig route. Finley aligns in the pistol and carries out a run fake, dropping his eyes from the secondary just after the snap of the football. As this happens, Syracuse rotates their coverage into a single-high look. Finley needs to pick this up on the fly, after returning his field of vision downfield. Now with a single safety, Finley is tasked with reading his response to the coverage. If the safety stays over the top of the post route, Finley will throw the dig. If the safety collapses on the dig, Finley throws the post route over the safety’s head. Here, the safety stays on the dig, and Finely reads this on the fly and throws the post for a touchdown.

Now, it’s one thing when the defense rotates their coverage in this manner, spinning the safeties at the snap to telegraph their coverage as the play begins. But identifying a trap coverage is a much more complex read for a quarterback. When the QB can identify such a coverage shift and adjust his approach on the fly, you want to make note of that. Enter Daniel Jones. One of his best plays from the 2018 season came in one such situation. On this third down against the Virginia Cavaliers, Duke runs a go/flat concept to the left side of the formation. Jones wants to throw the flat route to his slot receiver, but the cornerback traps this from the boundary, leaving the vertical route open along the sideline:

Again, this is great processing speed on a quick game concept. Jones picks up the trap on the slot receiver and immediately comes to the vertical route along the boundary. What makes this difficult is that the adjustment/shift from the defense comes well after the snap, not before it or right after it as we have seen from the previous examples. That drastically narrows the window of time available to the quarterback to decipher the defense and adjust his approach. With such a compressed timeframe available to him, the fact that Jones is able to make the right read and decision is a powerful endorsement of his processing speed.

A final way to view the processing speed question is through the prism of progression reads. When a quarterback is able to work through multiple reads on a play, whether half-field or even full-field, you can appreciate how they are working through the various options available to them in their mind, ruling routes either in or out based on the coverage and then making a decision with the football. Interestingly enough, despite all of the negativity often associated with how the Air Raid offense trains quarterbacks, these systems do task the QBs with making full-field reads on a number of different designs.

Here is an example of this in action. On this play the Washington State Cougars run a variation of the Y-Cross concept. In its basic form, Y-Cross has a go route on the backside from the X receiver, then the crossing route, then a curl route as the final read. This variation pairs the go route with a smoke screen look. Watch as Gardner Minshew pumps on the smoke screen to try and open up the go route. When that is covered, he works from the go to the crossing route, to the frontside curl route, and finally to the checkdown:

As Minshew scans through his reads, his fet stay under him perfectly, keeping him in as close to perfect throwing position as possible. The way into the mind of a quarterback is through his feet. If a quarterback’s feet are slow as he makes his reads, it will cause problems when the QB finally decides to pull the trigger. Minshew’s ability to keep his mind and feet paired is a huge bonus for him.

The ability of a quarterback to diagnose what the defense is doing, and then quickly make the right decision with the football, is a critical element of quarterback play. As such, it is an important trait to evaluate during the scouting process.