I am not ready to declare the 2021 NFL draft one filled with Quarterback riches quite yet. There are many variables to be considered that most of us on the outside don’t know. What we do know is that the physical skills of Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields. Mac Jones and Trey Lance are evident to most NFL evaluators. Arm strength, release points, ball trajectory are all things we can see on tape and in person when we watch them live. What most of us don’t have access to, that NFL teams do have, is the character sources, the background information from coaches, what college coaches are asking each to do on a particular play or how he responds internally when “things don’t go well”. We need this information to complete our evaluations.
All of these combine to help determine the answer to one of the most important questions when evaluating an NFL QB. Can he process?
What separates the good from the great as an NFL quarterback — the toughest and most critical position to play in professional team sports? To achieve at a high level, the person must have the ability to gather enormous amounts of information in a timely fashion, calculate it within a window of time that allows him to react to it, anticipate what might or might not happen next, AND also be instinctive enough to know what he might be seeing is not true, a disguise, a fake or just window dressing and abort.
The person playing this position must also do all of these things while being the only man on the field who can’t protect himself, knowing the goal of the 11 men in different colored jerseys are trying to take his head off. In simplest terms, that’s why these men are paid $40 million a year. There’s also the physical skills that are required for this job description.
Let assume one has the arm strength to make all of the throws. Next is his ability to process information, the one characteristic that is most sought after when evaluating a quarterback’s play. It’s also the hardest thing for some to identify because processing on a chalk board or in the classroom is far different from when he is standing in the pocket with a clock ticking in his head of sometimes less than seven seconds before something implodes. Quantifying the “speed of the processor” takes the evaluation to an even higher level. Ask Apple, IBM, Dell or Intel -- the speed of the processor matters. Let’s break it down.
I often get asked what’s the thing that most people don’t know about playing the position of quarterback? My answer is always that it is the amount of information that these guys can take in, whether it's before they step into the huddle, after they break the huddle, before the snap, or during the play. Calling the play, in the huddle is the easy part. They then must do a recalculation of the results after the play. They must do this over and over until everything is like a finely tuned machine. Never mind the physical toll it takes on the body, this is also mentally exhausting and one can’t cut corners or guess at it.
Before we even get to the “on the field stuff”, one must dig deep to find the answers to a quarterbacks’ thirst for the knowledge and the work ethic that is needed to have a chance to succeed at this position. We often hear about QB’s having a rare work ethic. I’m not talking about lifting weights or throwing passes with receivers on the practice field- these are givens. We hear about his drive and tireless focus and the ability to embrace the week in and week out mental grind over a long season and I want to know about is his willingness to be first in the office every day and last to leave. I want to know, how much work he puts in while “working in the dark of a film room or classroom. This set of disciplined standards has to equal that of a coach.
All of these factors are what gives a team a chance to succeed on Sundays. The quarterback has to be willing, disciplined and capable of learning in a systematic approach with weekly game plans and also in the offseason. The amount of information downloads these guys are required to handle during a week of preparation is crazy. A normal mind would explode and some players frankly are just not capable of handling this. They take countless mental reps of everything they see on film and in conversations with coaches during each week. Its why the great ones want and need every rep during practice. It’s why it's often said on telecasts that the backup QB gets no reps during the week. What is committed to memory early in the week must become natural and second nature by game day. The mind must be free to process on game day. It is a mental grind on these guys at the highest level. You just can’t roll the ball out there and play the game as we did when we were kids.
I have always subscribed to the notion that the professional game is very different from the college game in that pro QB’s don’t just get to call a play in the huddle, execute the play, and then go back and call another one. The way the clock is running on Sundays (no stoppage after a first down, etc.) has an effect on the number of possessions, number of plays, etc. It's way fewer than in college. In the NFL game, you may get 10 possessions and 65 offensive plays. I’ve watched many tapes/video on a school visit to a college where a college offense using spread formations will run 95 plays (sometimes 50-55 in one half). Some programs don’t ask their QB’s to process much information at all and just run the play called. In the NFL, if you wait to make adjustments and process information between series or at halftime, it’s too late. As a result, there is much more responsibility put on the QB to figure things out on each and every play.
Pre-snap: The quarterback must take the play from the sideline that is communicated to him through an earpiece in his helmet. He may have to flip or reset the formation, depending on the hash mark where the ball is spotted and/or tag the play with a predesigned motion or shift. The quarterback must then relay this information to all of his teammates if they don’t huddle. He then must adjust the play to an anticipated front after the defense aligns, then check the depth of the linebackers to set pass protections, and get a read on what the pre-snap coverage alignment looks like in the secondary. In most cases, he has to count bodies in "the box" and communicate with his offensive line accordingly to orchestrate protections versus possible stunts and blitzes from the defense. The quarterback has to make sure everyone is on the same page and has the correct blocking assignments, while always anticipating worst case blitz scenarios, hot reads, or sight adjustments. Remember, that ball hasn’t been snapped yet.
Post snap: The quarterback must field a shotgun snap with his eyes looking downfield while also following players in the secondary that are moving in order to determine where the ball will go, or if the pass routes that were called in the huddle are going to need to be adjusted to something else because the coverage has dictated that. The quarterback must do all of this while anticipating the break of a receiver and the window in which he might come open. The ball has to come out of his hand on time. The ability to “get the ball out” is paramount in the NFL and happens much quicker than in college. If that primary target is not going to be available, the quarterback must quickly decide when to abort and go to options 2 or 3. Keep in mind that the clock is ticking in his brain, telling him when he must get the ball out as he feels, but doesn't see the pass rush from the defense. I often say that the pocket is not for everyone. Now you understand why?
The quicker a QB’s release is, the longer he can take to make a decision and still get the ball out. Philip Rivers was the best I’ve ever been around at first deciding where the ball is going and then getting the ball out of his hand. I think his side-arm, almost underhand, delivery at times helped him with that. A quick release buys a quarterback more time to think. In the NFL, the windows are tight and decisions have to be made fast and accurately. DB’s close on plays way faster than in college. If one struggles to process, he can’t make decisions in a timely enough fashion in this league. Trust me.
In order for an NFL passing game to operate at its highest level, all of this has to happen without waiting for a sideline discussion with coaches between series. What I’ve outlined is a fair amount of information to take in, process, and then spit out. A player's physical skills determine if a quarterback is capable of making all the throws (getting the ball from point A to point B) at the NFL level, but it’s his ability to collect all of this other information that determines his level of success.
As an evaluator, this is one of, if not the, hardest things we are tasked with in the NFL. I find that the physical skills are much easier to analyze and discuss, however, being able to decipher a player’s ability to process (what’s going on in their minds) and judge their instincts under pressure is all second and third level stuff for both the player and for the evaluator. All of this information will go a long way toward determining if a player will succeed at this position, especially if physical skills are similar to another player at this position.
For all of the things I’ve mentioned, some think drafting a QB is a bit of a crap shoot. I think you just have to dig deeper and do more homework on quarterbacks than at any other position before you pick one.