Marc Trestman continues his evaluations of the top quarterback prospects eligible for the 2024 NFL Draft with a breakdown of Tennessee QB Joe Milton and how he might translate to the next level.
Who Is Joe Milton?
With the 2024 NFL Draft a full season away, one of the more intriguing quarterback prospects is a 6-foot-5, 245-pounder who has yet to become a full-time starter.
Tennessee’s Joe Milton has started only nine games in his college career and most recently was a backup to last year’s third-round pick Hendon Hooker. During the 2022 season, Milton threw 101 passes, primarily in a second-string role, and I have watched all of them.
With only a small sample size, his 2023 season will be under even more scrutiny than normal.
Milton’s college career began at Michigan, where he played three seasons for Jim Harbaugh from 2018-20. After five uneven starts in 2020, he was replaced by Cade McNamara and transferred to Tennessee for the 2021 season.
In Knoxville, Milton initially beat out Hooker for the starting job but lost it after suffering an ankle injury. After Hooker tore his ACL against South Carolina in mid-November, Milton quarterbacked the final two games. He won Orange Bowl MVP, leading the Volunteers to a dominant 31-14 win against Clemson.
Aside from those final two games, Milton was primarily relegated to a cleanup role at Tennessee. But in these scenarios, coach Josh Heupel gave his backup quarterback a chance to develop, keeping his foot on the gas with an aggressive downfield passing attack that allowed him to show tangible assets.
Although Milton played in a pro-style system at Michigan, Tennessee can be classified as a pure college offense. The Volunteers featured only a handful of concepts, most from relatively basic shotgun formations. With the offense taking calls from the sideline, Milton – like Hooker – was not often tasked with running a huddle, changing protections pre-snap or calling audibles.
Milton has completed just 58.2 percent of his throws with 17 touchdowns and six interceptions. However, he has not thrown an interception in a Tennessee uniform and has completed 64.6 percent of his throws, even with an excessive number of deep balls.
A whopping 36.1 percent of Milton’s pass attempts were beyond 20 yards, more than double the SEC average of 14.2 percent.
What Milton Does Well
It was clear why coach Heupel used Milton as the designated deep ball thrower. While it is difficult to fully assess a quarterback’s arm strength without seeing him throw in person, it is clear Milton has elite arm talent.
In fact, of all the quarterbacks in the 2023 and 2024 draft classes I evaluated for The 33rd Team, Milton appears to have the strongest arm.
His tape is filled with deep, high-trajectory missiles that effortlessly explode out of his right hand. Those deep passes are often on target, hitting receivers with touch and accuracy, allowing them to catch the ball in stride — a perfect illustration: Milton’s 60-yard bomb on the last play of the third quarter against Akron.
The 23-year-old also shows accuracy to all field levels and is particularly consistent on throws over the middle. While his arm talent jumps off the screen, Milton also is well-coached and appears to process quickly.
He stands in the pocket with a strong base and prototypical over-the-top throwing motion and finish. His drops consistently time up with the route structure and depths of his receivers. And his staging of the ball is high and tight to the sternum, which minimizes his windup and gets the ball up and out quickly, leading to more consistent accuracy.
This ideal staging creates good ball security in and out of the pocket while he stays ready to deliver the ball at a moment’s notice.
Within the pocket, Milton is courageous and poised. He climbs the pocket or slides to a quiet area to complete a throwing motion when pressured. Milton will also work through his progressions and make full-field reads when afforded time.
He is a quick decision-maker and is clearly coached on many pass concepts to initially look away from his primary side to move the coverage.
In terms of pure athletic ability, Milton is a straight-line runner capable of outrunning defenders and strong enough to break tackles. He can evade and run through tackles when escaping and keeps his eyes upfield, ready to make things happen with his arm first.
How Milton Can Improve
Even with minimal playing time and a year to go, NFL coaches and scouts will be buzzing about Milton’s talents. He has the frame, arm talent, athleticism, accuracy and mental processing capability to be an outstanding NFL quarterback. Still, he also has room to grow beyond simply gaining experience.
Within the pocket, he is frequently in an unathletic stance, looking straight-legged with a narrow base and limited knee bend. That inhibits his maneuverability and limits his ability to use his athleticism to move inside or escape the pocket.
Another area of lower-half mechanics Milton can clean up is his tendency to overstride when stepping toward his target, leading to inaccuracy.
While his release is quick enough, Milton’s throwing motion can become more elongated than most of the other quarterbacks I have watched in the 2024 class, allowing defensive backs to clue and jump his passes. His excellent staging of the ball does help mitigate this issue.
Milton has a rocket launcher for an arm, but he can improve this offseason by working on changing ball speeds on short and intermediate routes. There is evidence of his ability to put touch on passes, but it is an area where he can work to deliver a more consistently catchable ball.
One of the most important things Milton must improve on to take full advantage of his athleticism is making more plays outside the pocket. He is athletic enough and adept at escaping the pocket, but overall, he did not make enough great plays once he broke contain with his legs or arm.
On multiple occasions, I observed poorly located throws on the run, costing him opportunities to create first downs or explosive plays.
Lastly, like many college quarterbacks, there are moments where Milton can get reckless with the ball. Taking care of the football is a signal-caller’s top priority. At times in 2022, he threw into traffic or took unnecessary hits when he should have slid or thrown the ball away.
Comparing Milton to Other Quarterbacks
This young man has the makings of an NFL prototype quarterback. With his size, athletic ability and excellent arm strength, Milton will likely receive comparisons to Cam Newton and even Josh Allen in the pre-draft process. There are subjective differences, but I expect it to be a starting point.
When comparing Milton to his predecessor, Hooker, it’s clear the two were well-coached, though they have different skill sets. Hooker was more sound mechanically and showed more consistent accuracy to win with timing throws from the pocket.
Milton has superior arm strength and was much more willing to leave the pocket and use his athletic ability to make plays, though he will need to improve in this facet to be dangerous outside the pocket.
This 2024 quarterback class is shaping up to be an excellent group with top-tier players such as Caleb Williams and Drake Maye at the top and potential first-rounders like Michael Penix, Bo Nix and Jordan Travis in the mix.
Among those players, Milton has the best size and arm strength. That truly elite physical profile will allow scouts to value his potential over his present-day abilities and sets the tone for his 2023 season evaluation.
Marc Trestman is a former NFL, CFL and college coach. After more than a decade as an offensive coordinator and quarterback coach in the NFL, he coached in four Grey Cups in the CFL, winning three over seven years with Montreal and Toronto before becoming head coach of the Chicago Bears. Follow him on Twitter at @CoachTrestman.