Ask Mike Leach any question and no telling what the answer is going to be. But ask Leach about what makes a good quarterback and he’ll consistently go on about the importance of accuracy.
Mike Leach: Most important characteristics of QBs
“You can’t develop people into being accurate after 17-18. In the 4th-6th grade he’s the guy that can take the snowball & hit the stop sign”
2. Good Decisions
3. Quick Feet
5. Strong Arm
+Elevate play of others pic.twitter.com/Yh6mPzC14r
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) March 3, 2019
Accuracy isn’t the only thing that matters for a quarterback, but it is the hardest thing to change. Inaccurate quarterbacks at one level don’t magically improve at the next. We’ve seen this consistently as prospects have gone from college to the NFL.
Josh Allen’s big arm is only as useful as how often he can put the ball on his intended receiver and because of that, he was statistically one of the worst deep passers in the league last season. Allen is just the most recent example of a big-armed prospect whose accuracy limited how impactful that arm could be in the NFL.
As numberFire’s Jim Sannes showed recently, the most common thread between mid-to-late round hits at quarterback come from quarterbacks who had accuracy but were knocked for a lack of arm strength.
An accurate quarterback still needs other tools but it might be the best tool to build off when evaluating performance, so let’s evaluate that. We can start by taking a look at how this year’s quarterback class performed in accuracy to each level of the field. The below chart shows on-target and completion percentages on short (1-10 air yards), intermediate (11-19), and deep (20+) throws, as well as how often each quarterback threw to those depths and the rate of total throws that passed the line of scrimmage (LoS).
Clearly, there’s a lot to take in here, so let’s go through some of the takeaways by quarterback.
Joe Burrow Is Quite Good
There’s only so much left to say about Joe Burrow at this point. He was trusted to throw on first down more than any college quarterback in recent history (and given how there’s more passing now, probably ever) and for good reason.
Burrow was first in on-target percentage at each level of the field and was only barely beaten out in completion to the intermediate area. With LSU, Burrow worked in a quick-strike offense, but there were few difficulties when the play needed longer to develop. Burrow had over half of his attempts come between 1 and 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, which is a high rate but those short throws took the place of negative air yard throws many other quarterbacks made instead.
The ability to put the ball in a good spot on a deep pass is also a positive and underrated trait for Burrow. His 74.4% on-target rate on 20-plus air yard throws is second among college quarterbacks with at least 50 such attempts in a season since 2017, per SIS charting. Only 2017 Baker Mayfield (75.0%) was higher and 2018 Kyler Murray (70.1%) was third.
Tua, also pretty good
For some reason, there’s been a question recently about who will be the second quarterback drafted in this class. Some of that comes from Tua Tagovailoa’s health but there have also been some reports that some evaluators around the league prefer other options in this class to Tagovailoa. Especially by this measure, it’s hard to see why that would be the case.
If there’s a question about Tua’s play when healthy, it could come from the talent he had around him. Tagovailoa played this past season with two wide receivers who are going to be drafted in the first round and two others who will probably be first-round selections next year.
That raises a potential question about how much that accuracy will translate to the NFL when the talent level is closer and the passing windows are smaller. But still, there hasn’t been a lack of big throws throughout Tagolaivoa’s career and the smartest offenses in the NFL are embracing space and not forcing their quarterbacks into tight window throws.
While Alabama relied heavily on play-action and RPO’s (44.4% of Tagovailia’s attempts came on such throws in 2019), Tua was a good enough processor to wait for the open receiver and not force a ball when an opening wasn’t there — the quarterback had just as big a hand at creating those wide-open throws. His quick processing on those RPOs also helped out his teammates and the accuracy to put the ball in the right spot helped set up some big plays in tight windows too.
Justin Herbert Doesn’t Really Stand Out
Justin Herbert’s numbers leave a lot to be desired for a prospect viewed as the QB3 in this class by most. In 2019, Herbert was slightly below average on short throws and slightly above average on intermediate throws. He also was one of the worst deep passers in the league, with a sub-50% on-target rate.
Oregon’s scheme didn’t do many favors for Herbert when plays were designed beyond the line of scrimmage. Only 34% of Herbert’s throws were from 1-10 yards beyond the line, which was the lowest rate in the class (although he did have one of the highest rates of throws behind the line of scrimmage). Herbert had the second-highest rate of throws to the intermediate range, which helped because that’s where he was relatively more accurate, but an NFL team could give Herbert some easier throws in that 1-10 range to not make him force deep throws at a high rate.
The biggest red flag here comes on the deep ball. Herbert is the prototypical tall quarterback with a big arm, but arm strength only does so much if the deep passes aren’t catchable (see: Allen, Josh). Herbert didn’t get the benefit of throwing deep to wide-open receivers as often as Burrow or Tagovailoa, but he also wasn’t helping his receivers out much either.
Herbert can also run hot and cold in a given game, like this two-play sequence from Oregon’s season opener against Auburn. On the first throw, Herbert stood in a clean pocket, wound back, and airmailed a deep pass to his wide receiver. Then on the next play, he had a designed rollout to his right and threw a strike down the sideline on the run.
Jordan Love 2018 vs 2019
There might not be a more puzzling evaluation than Utah State’s Jordan Love. On one play, he’ll throw a deep strike on the run against LSU…
Then on the next, he won’t see a cornerback on an out route and the defender can easily jump the receiver’s route for an interception. While throws like the former stand out, the latter plays are more frequent. But there’s a chance even after reading those last two sentences, you’re still thinking about that LSU throw.
Because of Love’s big arm and highlight plays, he’s been compared by some, irresponsibly, to Patrick Mahomes. The difference between Mahomes and Love as college prospects is that Mahomes was completing wild throws most evaluators didn’t believe he could pull off in the NFL (that was proven to be false). Love, on the other hand, spent 2019 attempting wild throws he wasn’t able to pull off in college.
During Mahomes’s final season at Texas Tech, he had an interception rate of just 1.7%. Love threw an interception on 3.7% of his throws from a clean pocket last season, per SIS. If you eliminate Love’s three three-interception games from his 2019 season, he still finished with a higher interception rate than Mahomes did in his final college season.
Love’s problems weren’t just on the wild shots. He significantly regressed in the quick game, both in accuracy and decision making. Some point to Love’s 2018 as a better reflection as what he could be a prospect, but that only really helps in the short area. He was on-target for 86.5% of those throws in 2018 (which would place him favorably with Anthony Gordon in this class for 2019) but that fell off a cliff to 76.2% in 2019. Love’s on-target percentage actually went up compared to 2018 on intermediate and deep throws but he was still well below average in those areas.
Jordan Love, 2018 vs 2019
|Year||1-10 OT%||11-19 OT%||20+ OT%||1-10 Comp%||11-19 Comp%||20+ Comp%|
Jalen Hurts Should Be Taken Seriously
Near the top of every category above is Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts. Hurts is the latest in the Lincoln Riley factory of quarterbacks, but he’s not viewed as a prospect at the caliber of Mayfield or Murray. While he rightly isn’t, he still has a number of traits that should interest NFL teams.
The Riley system is now a double-edged sword for quarterback prospects. They get to look great and throw up huge numbers in college but they’ll be viewed as beneficiaries of the system. That’s part of the discussion about Hurts’s potential pro prospects.
Hurts can be a slow processor (shown by his average on-target rate in the short game) and has been knocked as a see-it-throw-it quarterback, which means he’s waiting to see the receiver open instead on anticipating and throwing. That works because Oklahoma receivers are typically getting open themselves. In the NFL, those open windows close faster and a pass that got off a tick slow for a big play in college can easily turn into an interception in the NFL.
But Hurts has flashes of anticipation across his film and when he does throw it, he’s been fairly on-point. Hurts is still a better processor than, say, Love, who can make quicker decisions that have more often turned out to be the wrong one. Hurts also has the added benefit of mobility which can get himself into and out of trouble, but is a trait that has served as a safety net for young quarterbacks over the past few seasons in the NFL. His ability to throw accurately on the run only helps that mobility become a positive at the next level.
Tyler Huntley, Day 3 Target
Every year there’s a Day 3 quarterback to fall in love with. It’s a different player for different groups and there’s no consensus on that player this year. Some love Cole McDonald, the wild Hawaii quarterback who shows plus accuracy until he’s asked to throw the deep ball. Some love Washington State’s Anthony Gordon, who rocked the short game for Mike Leach’s offense but was spotty on other throws.
One prospect who stands out from the numbers above but has not been discussed often enough (he wasn’t even invited to the combine) is Utah’s Tyler Huntley. Huntley had a standout senior season at Utah, which came after he broke his collarbone in November of 2018.
Huntley’s on-target rates on are par with Tagovailoa’s to all levels of the field and he wasn’t working with the same quality of receivers, though he also saw worse defenses in the PAC-12 (though, they were the same defenses faced by Justin Herbert).
It’s easy to see why Huntley could be overlooked, he’s a smaller quarterback from a run-heavy offense, who has around a baseline-level arm. But like we mentioned at the top in the numberFire article from Jim Sannes, prospects believed to have a weak arm but are otherwise accurate are the types of late-round picks who hit more frequently than more toolsy players.
While Huntley might not have a huge arm, he was one of the most accurate deep passers in college football last season. And while performance against pressure is highly variant from year-to-year, Huntley’s process in handling pressure is hard to ignore. He has some fun throws on tape too:
He might not be the star in this class, but in an otherwise weak class after the top-two prospects, a quarterback with Huntley’s profile should be the type of player smart NFL teams target on the third day of the draft.