The vivid memory is seared into my brain.
The scene? Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala. The setting? The 2016 Senior Bowl. It was my first year attending the unofficial kickoff to draft season, and my main reason for traveling to Alabama at the end of January was to get an up close look at North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz.
The Wednesday afternoon practice was one of those days at Senior Bowl practices you might see people griping about on your Twitter timeline. The day was overcast and raw, with some rain in the area. The wind coming in off the bay was a bit raw, and as a result the crowd was rather thinned out. Of course the unwritten rule about the Senior Bowl is that most people are en route home by Thursday morning, but looking back at this day now it seemed many had gone by Wednesday afternoon due to the conditions.
But there I was, standing in the eastern-facing bleachers, with the drizzle falling down making it tough to take any notes. It would be another 24 hours until I discovered my usual spot, standing in the north bleachers facing south in the end zone, a spot I still utilize to this day.
The teams were going through 11-on-11 drills, and I was becoming irate.
Why? Because in addition to the weather conditions, the quarterback currently taking the snaps was refusing to throw the football, and instead was tucking and running every chance he got. I had not traveled to Mobile to see people scramble, I wanted to see what they could do as passers. Same for everyone else in attendance.
That quarterback? Brandon Allen from Arkansas.
Now obviously a lot has changed since then. I now have a favorite spot to stand during Senior Bowl practices, and Allen is the surprising choice to start at quarterback this week for the Cincinnati Bengals against the New York Giants. He gets this opportunity in the wake of the devastating knee injury suffered by rookie quarterback and first-overall selection Joe Burrow.
The move is surprising in that the Bengals have another Senior Bowl veteran on their roster in Ryan Finley, who was a participant in the 2019 contest. Finley actually started a few games last year as a rookie for Cincinnati. Instead, Zac Taylor turns to Allen, who was on the Bengals’ practice squad until this week.
Coming out of Arkansas, here is what I had to say about Allen in terms of his strengths as a quarterback:
In addition to his experience in the SEC, running the Arkansas offense for three seasons with increasing effectiveness is a major strength. Allen is experienced operating under center and in the shotgun. He was very adept at running the Razorbacks schemes, which included a number of well-designed throwback concepts and a good percentage of play-action throws, where Allen made very confident decisions with the football and some quick reads of the defense.
He is also very comfortable against pressure, and is not quick to panic in the pocket when facing the blitz. Allen is generally accurate in short and intermediate range, and is very good at throwing on the move, especially on designed rollouts working off play-action. He also shows decent footwork on his drops from center or on shotgun plays, and his footwork often times up well with intermediate routes such as out routes or curl patterns.
In terms of the best scheme fit for him:
Given the offense he ran at Arkansas and the schemes which he was most successful implementing, Allen fits best in a West Coast scheme that allows him to attack the short and intermediate areas of the field. In addition, these offenses will play to his strength of working on play-action throws.
Then finally, my one- to three-year projection on Allen:
There is a fine line between being careful with the football, and playing conservative. Allen straddles this line but perhaps crosses it toward the conservative side of the ledger. The QB had a chance to display a more aggressive nature down in Mobile during Senior Bowl week, but too often would simply tuck the football and run during team drills, rather than challenge the secondary. When he did, he then threw some tough interceptions. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if a quarterback is too afraid to challenge a secondary on a Wednesday afternoon, what will he do on Monday night? Given these reservations, Allen’s ceiling is likely a long-term backup in the NFL, given the right scheme fit and some patience from the coaching staff.
Allen did get a chance to start three games last year for the Denver Broncos, guiding them to a 1-2 record in those three starts. Having rewatched and charted those games, a few things stand out.
First, the scheme fit analysis is largely borne out in the numbers. By my charting Allen completed just 4 of 15 passes in the 10-20 yard windows last year, struggling to connect in the intermediate windows. He also missed on all six of his passing attempts in the 5-10 yard range to the right side of the field. The bulk of his completions - 30 of the 39 completions to be exact - came either behind the line of scrimmage, or within five yards of the line of scrimmage and between the hashmarks.
He did hit on four throws in the downfield passing game, three against the Minnesota Vikings and one against the Buffalo Bills. On this first downfield connection with Courtland Sutton, Allen comes out of a play-action fake and uncorks a deep corner route that the wide receiver comes down with:
Then there is this vertical route along the left sideline to Tim Patrick:
Later in the game he connected with Sutton again on this vertical route along the right seam. This might be my favorite play of his:
What stands out about this play is not so much the throw (we’ll get to that in a minute) but the pocket movement. Allen does a good job at clicking and climbing in the pocket in response to pressure off the left side, and keeps his eyes downfield to make this throw.
The final completion we’ll look at is this deep in cut from Sutton against the Bills, again working off play-action:
This is a nice rhythm throw off the play-action fake and a half-roll from Allen, hitting his receiver in stride with good placement.
What stands out to me about these throws? The arm strength. Three of these require an adjustment from the receiver, either moving to the inside on the straight vertical to Tim Patrick or slowing up on both the seam and the corner from Sutton. Even the dig route to Sutton against the Bills has to be thrown with arc to get it to the receiver.
So, what can the Giants expect on Sunday? If past is prologue, lots of throws near the line of scrimmage, some schemed shot plays downfield that likely require an adjustment from the receiver, and perhaps a scramble or two.