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Crabbs | Finding NFL throws in the Spread Offense era

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Scouting Notes

Crabbs | Finding NFL throws in the Spread Offense era

The continued shift of college teams to spread attacks makes evaluating Quarterback play more challenging than ever. There are, of course, a number of examples of spread QBs thriving at the NFL level: Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota and Cam Newton to name a few. The ability to identify those Quarterbacks who have the strongest chance of translating into the NFL style of play is to look for NFL caliber throws.

This concept is fairly straight forward and simple. But what does a NFL throw look like? It could be a 50/50 throw to a big bodied receiver in tight man coverage. It could be a beautifully placed vertical throw, dropped between the trailing corner and the Safety scraping over the top to protect deep, or it could be a tight window throw; a ball thrown with intent to a spot to beat coverage.

These last throws are what I intend to showcase here: being capable of throwing spot throws against both man or zone is essential at the NFL level. Having the mental acumen and anticipation to do so suggests there are deeper workings of a NFL Quarterback, as compared to a point and shoot style passer or a “touchdown to check down” manufactured approach.

The inspiration for this showcase came watching QB Quinton Flowers from South Florida. In the play below, Flowers passes on a spot throw to the sideline; a throw that should have been made easily. Instead, Flowers keeps the ball, doubles back and throws a deeper strike for a touchdown.

This is a perfect play to show the disconnect between NCAA and NFL passing games and how the box score can very easily lie.

As Flowers rolls left, yes; there is a zone defender squatting at the 20 yard line. But that defender’s momentum is carrying him up the field as he carries the vertical step up the hash mark. And the receiver has clearly established separation whilst working back to the line of scrimmage.

I was stunned this ball wasn’t thrown. But Flowers shows the gift that mobile QBs can offer; a big play while holding the ball and making things happen. The problem with passing on these throws is sustainability. An open comeback route put into the boundary will be there nine times out of ten, with an occasional drop. But holding the ball that long? And hoping no defenders drop off to challenge a deeper throw? That’s a dangerous way to cut your teeth.

Here’s an illustration of a great “man beater” from Lamar Jackson.

The safety sitting on the top hash makes this read very elementary. As the Safety steps forward, Jackson knows right at the snap he’s going to have a 1 on 1 situation on the boundary. He’s able to make Virginia pay with tremendous touch; handing the Cavaliers a loss in ACC play last year on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy.

But Jackson’s film resume is littered with missed chances as well. Below, Jackson’s afforded the chance to hit another play in 1 on 1 against Florida State but fails to chance the trajectory of the ball; which enters too flat, allowing the defensive back to intercept the pass. Consistency is just as important as initial presence in relation to these throws.

Every NFL pass must be made with proper touch, trajectory, pace, decision making and trust in the receiver. The consistency component is why I like a lot of what I see from Oklahoma State passer Mason Rudolph. Although he’s stationary for the delivery, look at the similarities for the route between this throw and the initial non-throw from Quinton Flowers.

It looks like pitch and catch, because it should. WR James Washington works his way back into the line of scrimmage and Rudolph’s target is to a spot, *not* directly to Washington at the point of release. Just like the Flowers play, Rudolph is facing a receiver working back to the line with established separation and a squatting defender on the hashes that could challenge an inaccurate throw.

Rudolph not only puts this ball on the money, he does it with timing. This is a great example of the rhythm you hope to see from a passer at his targets in the NFL.

To bring this conversation full circle, spread quarterbacks have found success at the NFL level. Tennessee Titans QB Marcus Mariota is a notable one. Although Twitter has disabled the video functions from the play I referenced back in 2015; thanks to archives we can still appreciate this peek through the keyhole.

Here is archived video of the throw:


A sight throw puts this ball right in the chest of the MIKE linebacker, who begins to scrape and take away the throwing lane. A spot throw puts this ball over the outstretched arm and into the waiting arms of his TE between the second and third levels of the defense. It’s one of numerous throws Mariota put on display week in and week out that made me feel confident enough in his abilities to have him as my 1st overall player in 2015.

Sure, there are going to be easy throws, screen passes and a good deal of wide open targets. It’s the nature of the system! But can you find the examples of these “NFL throws” in a spread Quarterback’s film? I found numerous throws in Mitch Trubisky’s 2016 season, including a blitz beating throw on 3rd and long.

This is a man beater but again, this is a spot throw. Trubisky built great chemistry with WR Ryan Switzer, so if there was a receiver on the field I’d expect to see in sync on a speed out vs. a blitz, it’s him. The placement on the throw is perfect and Trubisky holds the ball for as long as he can before getting blasted in the pocket.

An NFL throw.

Trubisky actually had a Cover 2 zone beater against Miami later in the year which I shared in-season also. Another thing to note on this ball is the trajectory. It’s akin to what was mentioned regarding Lamar Jackson’s deep toss into the end zone, but here the ball needed to be flat. A lofting throw will hang too long and let the defender work back into position to challenge.

Instead, the ball zips hard into a soft spot between the two defenders up the sideline.

It’s going to be impossible to find more than a handful of traditional “pro style” passers in any given NFL Draft class these days. Instead, teams are going to have to filter through Spread Quarterbacks and find the hidden gems amidst the easy throws. And when the throws are there, how consistent do these Spread Quarterbacks hit them? On a weekly basis? If that’s the case, it’s probably worth tossing the spread offense narrative out the window.

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Kyle Crabbs

Kyle Crabbs is the founder/Director of Scouting of NDT Scouting Services, a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and the lead NFL Draft analyst for the FanRag Sports Network.

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