Peter Bukowski's piece on Josh Allen first appeared in our free draft newsletter Thursday. Sign up now to get insider draft information delivered for free to your inbox first thing every weekday morning.
Death, taxes, and the NFL’s love of cannon-armed quarterbacks.
Wyoming QB Josh Allen’s ability to make coaches and general managers around the league drool with his jaw-dropping arm strength doesn’t come as a surprise.
At his pro day, Allen made several throws of more than 70 yards in the air. It’s basically prospect porn for front offices who have long prized arm strength over all else. It could go down in infamous NFL lore with JaMarcus Russell as catnip for scouts and coaches who love a quarterback who shines in shorts, but not in pads.
The red flags are so numerous, they need their own color guard. Allen struggles with ball placement and accuracy, reflected in his troubling 56.2 completion percentage for his career. And as SB Nation’s Bill Connelly notes, efficiency isn’t a metric that tends to improve at the pro level. In fact, college statistics generally prove a ceiling for a player, not the floor. Allen’s success rate, a Football Outsiders' tool that measures efficiency, would put him only ahead of Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert as first-round quarterbacks drafted in the first round in the last 10 years.
Go even further back and Allen completed just 49 percent of his passes in junior college at Reedley, a level where a top-10 pick should be dominating. Completion percentage isn’t everything, but there is data to suggest a correlation between it and NFL success.
In three games against Power 5 schools – all losses – Allen completed just 48 of his 96 passes for 427 yards with 1 touchdown and 8 interceptions.
The history of NFL teams missing on quarterbacks with precisely these traits is infamous and well-documented. Teams know the score with these players. Allen’s flaws with accuracy are clear and obvious.
So why are teams still in love with him?
Allen has been seen as a top-10 prospect since this time last year, and even a scuffling senior season apparently hasn’t changed anyone’s mind. If anything, teams appear to be more in on Allen than ever before.
The answer may be more complex than it initially appears. Physical talent stands out. A 21-year-old, at 6-foot-5 and 237 pounds, who tested as an elite athlete for the position and can throw the ball a country mile, clearly fits the eye of NFL evaluators.
He impressed teams at the Senior Bowl with his improved footwork and accuracy, then again at his pro day with even more polish in his mechanics. But the problems may lie at a more foundational level.
Here’s former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky explaining what he sees as the fatal flaw in Allen’s game.
“When the ball is snapped, it’s almost like, ‘I don’t know what’s going on.’ It seems like he doesn’t have a plan or a process, and to get to the NFL level and not be able to do the little things – if you can’t do the little things, you can’t do the big things.”
In other words, reading coverages, making adjustments pre-snap, playing with feel, those are areas Allen comes up short.
On the other hand, that’s life with college football in some ways. Quarterbacks rarely call plays from the huddle (Allen did). They never play under center (Allen did). And even the advanced, experienced quarterbacks aren’t making full-field reads. Even someone like Deshaun Watson, who came into the league with tremendous experience, made mostly half-field reads at Clemson. Many, if not most, college quarterbacks aren’t making sight adjustments, changing projections, and making full-field reads at the college level.
Is Allen really so different from other top QB prospects?
We saw Jared Goff take off in Year Two under Sean McVay’s tutelage specifically because McVay was making audible calls at the line, much like teams do in college. This is a former No. 1 overall pick, a player the Rams gave up multiple firsts to get and who didn’t have the physical tools Allen possesses.
The answer could be as simple as saying, "Of course he’s flawed in some of the mental aspects of the game, but so are all of these quarterbacks. Baker Mayfield plays in an offense that won’t resemble anything close to what he’ll run in the NFL. Teams are going to have to teach them how to play anyway. Why not take the guy with the most upside?"
Former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah, now an NFL Network analyst, suggested last fall Allen is precisely that guy, the highest-upside player. This week, Jeremiah also insisted Allen helped himself considerably in the pre-draft process with teams. They’re going to put Allen on the whiteboard. They’re going to talk him through his process. Or at least we assume they are.
Remember, this is the same league that Johnny Manziel recently pointed out took him in the first round – traded up to get him – knowing he parties, doesn’t come in early, or put in the extra work watching film, and the Cleveland Browns selected him 22nd overall anyway.
Perhaps, as Bill Barnwell mentioned recently for ESPN, teams who love Allen are relying on pseudo-science and other more subjective cues like “it” factor.
One critical question may serve to damn and explain Allen in this process. If he’s so talented, if he’s worth the No. 1 overall pick, or a top-5 selection, why wasn’t he better? His critics will ask this question rhetorically, pointing to the mountain of data to suggest guys just don’t get much better than their college stats and those who do approach their efficiency in college tend to be the guys who were inefficient.
On the other hand, teams may look at Allen and say, “Well, his coaching wasn’t high level. His surrounding talent was laughably bad. And he didn’t play in pass-happy offenses like most of the top recent quarterbacks.” If they believe they can explain away the obvious flaws – and they may be right about those things and still be wrong about Allen – it leads us to an answer as to why NFL teams continue to be so infatuated with such an obviously flawed player.
What if he’d played at Tennessee? Or Penn State? Put him with the top coaches in the nation and surround him with talent. What could he be? Maybe he turtles under the added pressure of better defensive coaching and talent, but perhaps he thrives and excels. His performance at the Senior Bowl, showing his impressive arm talent, reinforces the notion his career narrative could have been quite different in a different situation.
Of the top quarterbacks in the draft, only Baker Mayfield was more efficient in the red zone than Allen, a key indicator for teams about a quarterback’s ability to take care of the ball and be situationally effective. To wit, Allen also completed passes at a higher clip on third down than Josh Rosen.
Lost in the rush to bury Allen has been the acceptance of his obvious gifts. Comparisons to Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert fall short because Allen has so much more physical talent than those players, but also because he’s faced these critics, the adversity of his college career and beyond with alacrity. Impressing NFL teams isn’t proof of his worth as a quarterback (Manziel proved that), but it should be evidence that he brings more to the table than just his virtuoso arm strength.
If most college prospects have this steep mental learning curve, then truly the aim of scouting should be to attempt to identify quarterbacks who can manage it. It’s possible now, more than ever, is the time to take a shot on a player like Allen because so few college programs run anything resembling an NFL offense. Andrew Luck isn’t walking through that door.
When we stop expecting college quarterbacks to be something they almost never are – ready to mentally handle the game right away – then banking on seemingly limitless physical upside makes much more sense. It’s not just that NFL teams love physical tools more than they used to, but rather that the difference in “readiness” for any group of college quarterbacks now approaches zero.
That doesn’t mean teams are right to love Josh Allen; he still could flame out. But viewed through that lens, the NFL’s shirking of historical red flags with Allen make more sense. And given the historical hit rate of quarterback evaluation, that reason may be as good as any.
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