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Evaluating the quarterback position: Accuracy, placement can be different things

We continue breaking down traits that evaluators look for in quarterbacks

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

Now that we’ve covered some of traits important to the quarterback position, such as arm strength, competitive toughness and processing speed, we can move on to one of the more important traits in my mind: Accuracy. As with each of the previous traits discussed, there are layers to this portion of the evaluation. General accuracy is one component, but the other is ball placement. As we are about to see, there is a critical distinction.

General accuracy refers to the ability of the quarterback to put the football on his target in a spot where the receiver can catch the ball. As we hear many draft cycles, proponents of a certain player might point to his completion percentage as evidence that the quarterback is an accurate passer. While this might satisfy the general accuracy portion of the analysis, not all accurate passes are properly placed.

When it comes to ball placement, the criteria here is that the quarterback must consistently put the spot in the most advantageous place for a wide receiver to pick up yardage after the catch. This takes into account the route concept, the coverage, and the leverage of the nearest defender. Does the quarterback lead his target to safety? Does he put throws where only the receiver can catch them? Does the quarterback place the throw in a position to protect his receiver? Some passes might look inaccurate at first glance, but upon further review they are placed well given the route concept and the defense.

For example, in most West Coast systems slant routes are coached to be thrown “as low as needed,” as indicated in this Baltimore Ravens playbook from Brian Billick:

As you can see, the coaching point for the quarterback here is to keep the throw as low as needed, to protect the receiver from any defenders lurking in the middle of the field.

In a similar vein, Bill Walsh instructed his quarterbacks when throwing the slant route to place the throw right on the frame of the receiver, rather than leading him into danger.

A great way to outline the distinction between general accuracy and placement is to look at some throws. Last year against the Buffalo Bills, Mitchell Trubisky struggled with his ball placement. Take, for example, this throw on a quick screen design from Trubisky (No. 10) to running back Taquan Mizzell (No. 33). Look at the throw from Trubisky, and more specifically where he places this pass:

Horizontal screens like this, or tunnel screens and smoke screens, are difficult throws to make because the ball has to get out quickly. But as a quarterback you need to put this throw to the receiver’s upfield shoulder, to give him a bit of momentum toward the line of scrimmage. Instead, Trubisky puts this throw low and behind Mizzell, forcing the receiver to make a twisting adjustment to the pass and stopping any momentum he has downfield. The running back manages to pick up 5 yards thanks to some quick moves after the reception, but this is an example of poor placement from the quarterback. It goes in the book as a completion and pads the completion percentage, but the placement leaves a lot to be desired.

In a similar vein is this checkdown from Tyree Jackson (No. 3) against Eastern Michigan.

This is a third-and-1 play. The Bulls run an all-curls concept, and Jackson does a good job working the field from left to right and, seeing the receivers covered, coming to his check down. But the throw is to the back shoulder of the running back, forcing him to make an awkward twisting catch and preventing him from getting a full head of steam upfield. The result? Defenders rally to the ball-carrier and stop him short of the first down marker. Jackson is more generally accurate than precise right now, and even on short throws like this the ball is catchable and on the frame of the target, but not in the right spot to lead to yardage after the catch. That is something he will need to refine.

Let’s contrast these attempts with a throw from Brett Rypien from Boise State. Yardage after the catch is the goal when teams run quick game or West Coast designs, and the quarterback’s placement plays a huge role in whether a quick game concept goes for a big gain, or the receiver is immediately tackled. Or sometimes it is more subtle, with the quarterback simply moving his target away from lurking danger in the form of an underneath defender.

This throw from Rypien (No. 4) on a quick game concept is a prime example:

Boise State runs a Stick variant on this fourth-and-3, and Rypien makes the right read for the situation. But he throws this to the inside shoulder of his target on the quick out route on purpose. If he leads the receiver, he will lead him right into that defender with outside leverage. A great understanding of situation and coverage.

This next play, from Auburn University quarterback Jarrett Stidham, is another example of a quarterback taking coverage and defensive leverage into account when placing a throw. On this play from Auburn’s game against the University of Georgia, we can see Stidham (No. 8) first active in the pre-snap phase of the play, adjusting the protection and checking with his running back to make sure that he is on the same page. Then, the Bulldogs bring late pressure, sending both the slot cornerback and a safety off the right side of the offensive line. (It is hard to tell if this is a mistake or if both defenders are tasked with blitzing on this play). Regardless, Stidham spots this and immediately throws to that area of the field:

Perhaps more impressive than the recognition here is the placement. Stidham knows that the underneath linebacker is lurking, so he puts this throw on the back shoulder of his target, to get him to throttle down and protect him from that defender. This is exactly what Billick and Walsh had in mind when throwing an in-breaking route such as a slant. By putting this on the back shoulder of his target, Stidham shields the receiver from the linebacker lurking underneath. A very good play all around from the quarterback.

A final quick word on placement vs. accuracy. The distinction goes out the window the deeper down the field you get. In the short and intermediate areas of the field, ball placement is the goal. Once you get into the vertical passing game, general accuracy is really all you can ask for from the quarterback. If the QB throws a deep post or a go route, then the goal is to just put the ball in a spot where the receiver can catch it, and not worry so much about placing it on the right shoulder or in the perfect spot. Therefore, the accuracy vs. placement question also has a scheme component to the analysis. If you know that the quarterback in question is more of a vertical passer, or the offense you are scouting for is a vertical passing attack, then the emphasis is more on the accuracy side of the ledger, than the placement side of the ledger.