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Philosoraptor’s corner: What does a franchise quarterback look like?

Can we assemble a list of traits to help identify franchise quarterbacks?

Syndication: The Enquirer Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

If there’s one storyline that will dominate the New York Giants 2022 season, it’s the “quarterback question.”

There are sure to be narrative threads that we follow throughout the season. How will Brian Daboll fare as a head coach? What will the offensive scheme look like under Daboll and Offensive Coordinator Mike Kafka? Will the Giants’ secondary prove to have the ability and depth that Wink Martindale’s schemes require? How will highly-drafted rookies Kayvon Thibodeaux and Evan Neal play?

But the quarterback question is foundational to all of those other questions. After all, the NFL is a “Quarterback Driven League,” and more-so now than at any point in the past. In the past we referred the QB as a “cornerstone” position, but that’s underselling the position’s importance to the modern game. Everyone else on the field and sideline depends on the quarterback to do his job at a high level.

  • Offensive linemen need the quarterback to accurately diagnose pressure packages, navigate the pocket, and get the ball out on time.
  • Receivers and tight ends need the quarterback to accurately communicate the play, diagnose coverages, and get the ball out on time — and accurately. They also need the quarterback to not lead them into big hits and expose them to injury.
  • Running backs need the quarterback to make the right call when audibling, so they aren’t running into the teeth of the defense for no gain.
  • The defense needs the quarterback to take care of the ball so they aren’t defending too many short fields. They also need the QB to engineer sustained drives so they aren’t playing too many snaps.
  • The defense also needs the QB to score touchdowns to keep pressure on the opposing offense. Forcing opposing quarterbacks to throw the ball more gives the pass rush that many more opportunities to make game-changing plays like sacks or turnovers.
  • The coaches need the quarterback to execute their schemes and game plans correctly. Frankly, poor quarterback play gets coaches fired.
  • Position coaches and pro personnel scouts need the quarterback to do all of the above jobs well so they can accurately asses the players on their own team.
  • The owner needs the quarterback to be the Face Of The Franchise. A reliable leader who gives the team a chance to win, hope to the fanbase, and ultimately, a reason to sell tickets.

The passer who can do all of those things at a high level is the player around whom owners, GMs, and coaches want to build their franchise.

You know, the much-sought after “Franchise Quarterback.”

As Mark Schofield said before the 2022 NFL Draft, the NFL as a whole had a watershed moment at the end of the 2022 Divisional Round playoff game between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs.

In that game, fans were treated to a showcase event from two of the league’s best young passers, Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes. As those two quarterbacks dazzled with their athleticism, arm talent and ability to create on- or off-structure, fans of the other 30 teams started to ask themselves this simple question:

Does our team have a quarterback who can do that? And if not, do we need one?

That weekend we all saw the absolute chasm between a “quarterback you can win with” and a “Franchise Quarterback.” Players like that don’t just always give you a chance to win, but they give your team options for playing and attacking the opposing team that lesser quarterbacks just don’t.

The question that Schofield posed is the question the Giants are asking themselves now. Do they have a Franchise Quarterback who can do what Mahomes and Allen did? Because if they don’t they need one, or they won’t get over the hump.

The trouble is that players of that caliber are downright rare. There are 64 starting and backup quarterbacks in the NFL, and probably another 40 (a very rough guesstimate) between teams that carry three QBs on their roster and practice squad quarterbacks. Of those 100 or so quarterbacks, only about six or eight can do what Allen and Mahomes did — including those two.

If the Giants are looking for a Franchise Quarterback, it would be helpful for us to identify what that looks like. Obviously there is no one formula for identifying a Franchise Quarterback — Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, and Pat Mahomes are all very different players — but there are traits that many Franchise Players share.

Physical traits

We can divide the evaluation of any football position into two sides: The physical and the mental side. Evaluations almost always start with physical evaluations because it’s just easier. All a scout or coach needs to do is look at a tape measure to see how tall a quarterback is, how big his hands are, or how high he can jump. Likewise, a stopwatch can tell you at a glance how fast he is or give a pretty good idea about his agility.

Size

One of the first lines you’ll read in a scouting report for a player who has the potential to be a Franchise Quarterback is some variation on “... has prototypical height and weight.”

But what does that mean? Well, according to Mock Draftable, the average size of a quarterback at the NFL Scouting Combine is 6-foot-3, 222 pounds. Teams have shown a heavy preference for quarterbacks who are tall and solidly built.

Does this mean that tall, muscular quarterbacks are inherently better than “undersized” passers?

No. And in fact, the NFL’s obvious preference for big quarterbacks might not have much to do with play on the field. The reason commonly given is that taller quarterbacks are better equipped to see the field, and thicker quarterbacks better able to shrug off hits.

Prior to the 2018 NFL Draft, Baker Mayfield had this to say about concerns regarding his height,

“I’ve never really been able to see over the guys,” Mayfield told Sports Illustrated. “I just trust where they’re at and what I see in the defense. Nobody sees over the 6’8” left tackle. Even Josh Allen, [UCLA’s Josh] Rosen and [USC’s Sam] Darnold can’t see over that guy. You’re seeing concepts, and understanding timing. If you see the guy open, you’re late. You have to anticipate it.”

As for the desire for bulk biasing teams toward bigger quarterbacks, the most common reason given is that it helps them “hold up to the punishment” of playing in the NFL. But this is another one of those areas where common sense and reality don’t really line up.

Football Outsiders did a study back in 2018 of all injuries in the 2016 and 2017 seasons to see if size equated to “body armor” for NFL players. Contrary to expectations, they found that (almost without exception) smaller players within position groups were less likely to get injured.

For the quarterback position, the injury rate was fairly static from 210 pounds to 230. However, the injury rate jumped by 50 percent from 230 pounds to 250 pounds. The highest rate for quarterbacks was still only about 15 injuries per 1,000 games or practices (which Football Outsiders terms “athletic exposures”), but that’s still a noticeable jump. And we have some subjective evidence to back up what Football Outsiders found. Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton, and Andrew Luck were each among the best quarterbacks in the NFL for significant parts of their respective careers. However, each of Roethlisberger, Newton, and Luck were plagued by significant injuries throughout their careers.

Size could encourage bigger quarterbacks to take on hits directly, while smaller QBs are more likely to avoid them (and have the lateral agility to do so.)

The unspoken reason is, of course, that scouts and decision makers have a lot riding on their draft picks. It’s easier to defend a failed quarterback pick if he “checked the boxes” for height and weight, than if the GM went with an outlier and was wrong.

Personally I believe that size isn’t a skillset, at least within a reasonable range. Just like we can see a wide variety of body types be successful at running back, wide receiver, and even cornerback, we can see “undersized” quarterbacks succeed and big quarterbacks fail.

Drew Brees and Micheal Vick both measured 6-foot-1 at the Combine. Baker Mayfield was 6-foot, ⅝-inch. Russell Wilson is 5-foot-11, while Doug Flutie and Kyler Murray are both 5-foot-10. Meanwhile Brock Osweiler, Ryan Mallett, and Mike Glennon are all 6-foot-7, and Josh Freeman is 6-foot-6. Their height certainly didn’t make them better equipped to play in the NFL than the group of undersized quarterbacks.

Unfortunately, the NFL’s long standing insistence on size thresholds makes it difficult to accurately say what kind of advantage size may offer. We can pontificate about “common sense,” but after a certain point that might just be repeating a selection bias.

It’s probably most accurate to say that size is a tool. Height likely does make it easier for a quarterback to survey the field. Likewise, bulk can make it easier for a quarterback to shed tackle attempts or fight off would-be sacks.

But while size is a useful tool to be sure, but it shouldn’t be qualifying or disqualifying for a prospective quarterback. At least within reason.

Athleticism

Athleticism has always been seen as a nice bonus for an NFL quarterback. Even before the rise of the “dual threat” quarterback and the NFL’s acceptance of athletic passers as a bona fide threats in their own rights, athletic quarterbacks were valued. Decades of highlight reels have shown Fran Tarkenton, Steven Young, and John Elway hurting defenses with their legs, or Joe Montana, Brett Favre, or Donovan McNabb extending plays.

But up until recently, athleticism wasn't viewed as a prerequisite for elite quarterback play. Nobody in their right mind would confuse Tom Brady, Peyton and Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, or Matt Stafford with an elite (by the NFL’s standards) athlete. In recent years, however, NFL offensive coordinators have gone to school on the college game. Modern offensive minds have incorporated athletic quarterbacks’ physical traits into their schemes and game plans. From incorporating quarterback runs in designed keepers, package plays, and read-option plays, to making rollouts and half-field reads offensive staples, to allowing quarterbacks to use their mobility and improvise.

Embracing quarterback athleticism has helped power the NFL’s recent offensive explosion. While a “pure pocket passer” is certainly still viable (just ask Tom Brady), the options that quarterback mobility afford offenses make it too great an advantage to ignore. We can’t say that a Franchise Quarterback necessarily needs to be a dynamic athlete in the modern NFL, but it’s certainly a useful tool and trait.

Arm talent

“Arm talent” is a major focus of every quarterback scouting report. Every passer needs to be able to throw the ball (obviously), and how well they’re able to do so is one of the traits that’s immediately recognizable on tape. The phrase “arm talent” is something of a catch-all that’s used to describe a few traits that quarterbacks can show. A quarterback’s ability to reach down the field, use unconventional arm angles, throw on the run, and deliver an accurate, catchable pass all fall under the heading of “arm talent.”

Arm strength

It’s incredibly common to read scouting reports that liken a quarterback’s arm to various pieces of artillery. Phrases like “he has a rocket arm,” “he has a cannon attached to his shoulder,” or “he’s able to rifle the ball downfield” are all very familiar tropes when talking about potentially elite quarterbacks.

And arm strength is undoubtedly important. As with a quarterback’s size and athleticism, having a strong arm gives the quarterback — and the offense as a whole — a number of options. Having the range to attack all areas of the field, to be able to throw a 50- or 60-yard pass off of play-action on a second and short is a big advantage for an offense. Likewise, arm strength allows the quarterback to generate enough velocity to fit the ball into tight receiving windows before defenders can make a play on it. That allows the quarterback to play more aggressively and advance the ball when they might otherwise be forced to throw it away.

But is titanic arm strength a prerequisite for a Franchise Quarterback?

In an ideal world, having more options available is always better. But practically speaking, arm strength is important but also overrated. As with size and athleticism, we have seen big-armed quarterbacks flop spectacularly. JaMarcus Russell may have been able to throw the ball the length of the field from his knees, but that didn’t help him in games. On the flip side, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning were never really hindered by arms that could best be described as “mediocre at best” in their respective primes.

Most passes in the modern NFL are pretty short, only 5-7 yards downfield. So does that mean arm strength is largely irrelevant? Just a thing for highlight reels that’s about as useful as an F1 car in a crowded city?

Again, the truth isn’t going to lie at the extreme, and a Franchise Quarterback is going to have to do more than just execute the bare minimum.

Analytic studies suggest that the most valuable passes are about 15 yards downfield. That’s the range where passes are most likely to result in points (either on that play or soon after), while also maintaining a low chance of turnover.

So that gives us a solid baseline for what is “enough” arm strength when we’re looking at quarterbacks. They need to have enough arm strength to throw the ball 15 yards in the air with enough velocity to challenge tight windows. That’s a far cry from 75-yard passes that make announcers (and everyone else) shout “WHAT!?”. However, being able to routinely access that valuable 15-yard range will allow a quarterback to play efficiently and make the most of every snap.

Again, that’s not the ceiling, or even a target for quarterbacks. That’s the least a Franchise Quarterback should be able to do.

Arm flexibility and off-platform throws

The next area that falls under the heading of “Arm Talent” is the quarterback’s ability to make unconventional throws.

While a quarterback would love to be able to sit in the pocket with perfect protection and the time to survey the field. However, we know that ideal situations rarely materialize. At the very least, quarterbacks will routinely need to navigate the pocket and flow away from pressure. Occasionally the QB needs to escape the pocket and scramble away from pressure. Some play designs also call for the quarterback to roll out on naked bootlegs to get away from pressure and create half-field reads.

All of those scenarios need the quarterback to be a versatile and adaptable passer. Quarterbacks may need to alter their arm angle to throw around defenders who get their hands up to clog passing lanes. Quarterbacks also find themselves in situations where they aren’t able to set their feet to throw. Whether that’s on the move in a bootleg or outside of the structure of the play on a scramble drill, a quarterback needs to be able to throw accurately even if he isn’t able to align his feet with the target.

Patrick Mahomes is famous for his ability to not only deliver a pass to anywhere on the field, but do it in the most adverse circumstances. We’ve seen Mahomes alter his arm angle from a full over-the-top delivery to a three-quarters release, to a full side-arm throw. He’s also fully capable of throwing accurately on the move, making amazing throws while running from defenders.

It isn’t fair to directly compare many QBs to Mahomes, however having the ability to execute when things are going wrong is core to what makes a Franchise QB. They may not need to have an arm like Mahomes or Matt Stafford, but the ability to throw off-platform is common to the best quarterbacks.

Accuracy and precision

The final traits that fall under “arm talent” is arguably the most important. That is, of course, the ability to throw the ball accurately. It doesn’t matter how strong a quarterback’s arm is or how far he can throw the ball if he’s missing his targets by a dozen yards or putting the ball in jeopardy.

Accuracy is often represented by completion percentages, but these can be misleading. Most college offenses use a very high rate of short, quick passes. Bubble screens can be a good way to get the ball in an athlete’s hands to pick up easy yardage. However, they don’t reveal much about a quarterback’s ability.

A 70 or 80 percent completion rate might look phenomenal on paper, but if the overwhelming majority of those passes only travel 10 feet downfield or less, that completion percentage looks less sterling. This brings us to the idea of “NFL Throws,” that is, throws that are more like the high-difficulty passes quarterbacks are expected to complete at the NFL level. Passes like deep out routes or fades.

This also brings us to the concept of precision with respect to passing. This is a step beyond simple accuracy and completion percentage — after all, a receiver making a circus catch to snag a pass down around his ankles or two feet behind him is still a completion. Franchise Quarterbacks need to be able to precisely place their passes to put their receivers in the best position to succeed. Whether that means placing the ball such that the receiver is lead toward open field, fitting the ball just inside the sideline on a deep fade, or putting the ball where only the receiver can make a play on it, a precise quarterback can be crucial to receivers playing up to their full potential.

While completion rates are readily available, this is one of those areas where player evaluation is as much (if not more) art than science. Completion percentage in the context of yards per attempt is a handy guideline, but watching tape is still more instructive.

Final thoughts

There’s no sure way to find a quarterback capable of being the face of the franchise and leading the team for a decade or more. If there was, there would be far fewer quarterback busts. We can look at the best quarterbacks around the NFL and look for common traits, and that can be very instructive. But one of the things that jumps out when comparing top quarterbacks is how much variety there is. Teams prize certain traits, such as size, highly but quarterbacks of a variety of shapes and sizes can be successful.

The traits that appear more universal is the ability to attack far enough down the field to maximize efficiency, as well as the ability to deliver an accurate pass and allow skill position players to play up to their full potential. Likewise, being able to do so in adverse circumstances is also a useful trait.

Next time we’ll take a look at the intangible traits that many of the top quarterbacks in the NFL share. After all, the quarterback position is as much cerebral as it is physical. Those intangible traits can have as big an impact on whether a quarterback can be a top tier player as the physical traits.