I wrote in June that Josh Allen is the most physically gifted quarterback in the league. At the time, I stated that whether he develops into the best quarterback in the NFL is a question that remains to be answered. We might be getting that answer sooner than later. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds with a ball that jumps out of his hand, he is one of the most intriguing quarterbacks I have watched in my 42 years at NFL Films.
The seventh overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft and the third quarterback selected (behind first overall pick Baker Mayfield and third overall pick Sam Darnold), Allen this season has the Buffalo Bills in first place in the AFC East leading an offense that has scored the most points per game. Since his collegiate career at Wyoming, he has continued to progress and develop as a quarterback.
Allen entered the league in 2018 as a fastball thrower with scattershot tendencies who did not show a nuanced ability to make throws with pace and touch when needed. He was both unrefined and inconsistent in his execution and production while lacking the details and subtleties of the position.
NFL quarterback is a disciplined craft, and Allen played the position like a wild stallion. His ball placement and overall ability to throw the ball where he wanted to were definite concerns, and this was evident in his rookie season. Allen started 11 games in 2018, debuting in Week 1 when he replaced Nathan Peterman against the Baltimore Ravens. The flaws in his game were evident as his rookie season played out, and it resulted in a 52.8% completion percentage with 10 passing touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
However, his strengths certainly flashed at times, including during a Week 12 matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars when Allen made one of the best throws of the 2018 season. With the pocket collapsing and his space closed down on each side, unable to step into his throw, he delivered a pass 50 yards in the air for a 75-yard touchdown to wide receiver Robert Foster. And as soon as he threw it, he was sandwiched by two pass rushers.
It was a high-level throw that not many quarterbacks could make. It was a moment that reflected what he could become in a rookie season that was inconsistent at best.
The 2019 season began with more struggles for Allen, but he clearly got better as the season progressed, and so did the Bills as they made the playoffs. One of Buffalo’s biggest highlights was a Thanksgiving Day victory against the Cowboys in Dallas as Allen played with poise and composure and efficiency in a big road win.
The 2020 season continued Allen’s progression. In some ways, his improvement was both incremental and dramatic. You could see him slow down and play with more consistent poise and calmness in the pocket; he did not show the tendency to play too fast with a frenetic and at times chaotic feel to his play.
Perhaps most importantly, he now displayed the ability to throw with pace and touch, which is a trait that is far more necessary in the NFL than driving the ball with velocity. You cannot be consistent solely as a power thrower.
One throw that really stood out to me was a dig ball completion to Gabriel Davis on a Monday night in San Francisco. It was the kind of nuanced throw that demanded what I call firm touch: it needs some velocity because you are throwing it in the middle of the field where there are a lot of bodies, but it also requires a feel for layering and feathering the ball with touch because you must get it over the underneath defender in zone coverage. It was a perfect throw, with linebacker Fred Warner missing the ball by 3-4 inches as he leapt to try to defend it. That was a snapshot of Allen’s growth and development as a passer.
Two weeks later, against the Denver Broncos, in the fifteenth week of the 2020 season, Allen made two throws that grabbed my attention. The first was a seam seed to Jake Kumerow versus split safety coverage that resulted in a 22-yard touchdown. It wasn’t so much the velocity of the throw; we know Allen has a power arm (and believe me, I have stood next to him throwing a football, and it’s just different), it was more the precise ball location, placing it right on the hands of Kumerow.
Later in that same game versus Denver, Allen threw a 55-yard pass to Diggs on what was the best vertical throw of his career up to that point. And what jumped off the film were his mechanics on the throw: hips, shoulder, and arm all worked in conjunction with his strong base and good balance. A quarterback that too often had been random and undisciplined in his throwing fundamentals was now showing much more refinement and subtlety as a pocket quarterback.
This season, Allen’s development has continued, and in many ways, it may not be reflected statistically.
We know he is no longer a scattershot passer; his touch, pace and ball placement, especially in the short/short-to-intermediate passing game has become precise and consistent. Allen now plays with an innate calmness to his game. There is little sense of the randomness and freneticism that at times seemed to define his play in his first couple of seasons. He moves when he needs to, not unnecessarily without purpose. His running out of the pocket is a parachute, the last act, not the first.
We know he is an outstanding athlete for a man that big, but he now shows efficient pocket movement and has demonstrated the nuanced ability to slide and reset his feet to drive passes with velocity between underneath defenders. His pocket patience and proficiency in managing the pocket and making late-in-the-down throws have stood out this season; this allows him to wait for receivers to work into voids.
With his arm strength, he always gives the Bills pass game the ability to work one-on-ones outside the numbers on both sides of the field and he can make far hash-deep comeback throws with minimal effort. Allen is also much improved as a post-snap player: much more quickly recognizing disguised coverages with late movement by effectively eliminating what’s not there and isolating where to go with the ball within the structure and timing of the play design, allowing him to remain patient yet decisive.
I thought Allen’s overall growth as a quarterback was on full display In Buffalo’s victory over the Miami Dolphins last week. It was a game that demanded patience as the Dolphins pressure schemes, including a commitment to zero blitz and coverage, presented some problems for the Bills passing in the first half.
Allen could not attack at the intermediate and vertical levels due to the pressure and the off-coverage man. He allowed the game to play out at its proper pace, and in the second half, with an emphasis on no huddle to calm down the Dolphins pressure concepts, Allen and the Bills passing game began to break down Miami’s defense. His 19 yard touchdown to Diggs on 2nd-and-10 early in the fourth quarter was a big-time play, and it came against zero blitz.
Allen knew what he had before the snap of the ball; as soon as he saw post safety Jevon Holland moving up toward the line of scrimmage, he made the pre-snap decision to go to Diggs on the slant route versus Xavien Howard who was playing with a 10 yard cushion. It was pitch and catch, and the timing of the throw beat DE Emmanuel Ogbah, a first level defender, getting into the pocket unblocked.
I could certainly spend time talking about Allen as a runner in the designed QB run game, and that is a big part of the Bills offense, especially in the tight red zone, but Allen’s development as a pocket quarterback is far more important. That is what matters most in a league that still demands that quarterbacks beat you from the pocket. That trait, and the ability to do it consistently, with all the factors that go into it, will never go away. And Allen has made significant strides in that area. Will we soon be talking about Josh Allen as the best quarterback in the game? Stay tuned.
Aadit Mehta contributed to this story