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The Secret to Finding a Franchise Quarterback Part 3: Quarterback Room Design

The Secret to Finding a Franchise Quarterback Part 3: Quarterback Room Design

The day before the Broncos’ 2020 Week 12 matchup versus the Saints, Kendall Hinton, a wide receiver on Denver’s practice squad, trotted onto the field expecting an ordinary Saturday walkthrough. A blurry 24 hours later, he was warming up for his first NFL start at quarterback against the NFC’s top seed.

It was a ‘you-cannot-make-this-up’ story only made possible by the unprecedented realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this case, backup quarterback Jeff Driskel tested positive days before, which, once coupled with a violation of the league’s social-distancing policy, rendered the rest of the team’s quarterbacks (Drew Lock, Brett Rypien, and Blake Bortles) ineligible for the game as high-risk close contacts.

With the quarterback depth chart depleted, Hinton was actually the team’s third option. Initially, they submitted requests for the league to permit them to sign their offensive quality control coaches to the roster for the game; neither had ever played in the NFL, nor had played organized football within the last eight years, for that matter. Fortunately, for both those young coaches and their medical insurance providers, those requests were denied.

And so, it became the Kendall Hinton game. It was a gutsy performance that will be remembered forever thanks to the Hall of Fame enshrinement of his game-worn wristband.

Although there wasn’t another instance of bizarre circumstances to rival the Hinton show, this sort of situation became normalized throughout the league over the previous two seasons. Many teams lost their primary and secondary signal-callers for a week or two due to positive COVID-19 cases, which further underscored the need for depth at the quarterback position.

Teams tend to look to secure that depth in the later rounds of the draft. In the final edition (see Part 1 and Part 2) of this quarterback draft research series, the fifth through seventh rounds of the previous ten drafts were analyzed to identify patterns among the successful draftees.

As the draft moves into its final rounds, the process of delineating the hits from the misses becomes highly subjective, particularly because it is common for players to find their footing and reach their backup ceiling on a second or third team.

So, in this sector (rounds 5, 6, and 7) of the draft, a “hit” here is a player who became a serviceable backup, whether a #2 or #3, for multiple seasons. All other players were designated as “misses,” except for those who received the “jury’s out” designation. Again, this exercise is less about splitting hairs in a debate of individual cases and more about ascertaining the “why” behind those who panned out and those who didn’t within a collection of similarly talented players.

Data

Hits

Jury’s Out

Misses

Discussion

Interestingly, the same themes that revealed themselves in the earlier rounds of the draft were present in the later rounds. The development environment reigns supreme, and the evidence is abundant. Brett Hundley had both staff stability and a mentor in Aaron Rodgers. Nate Sudfeld got the time to be developed in Philadelphia. Trace McSorley owns a skillset that is compatible with both the Lamar Jackson system in Baltimore and the Kyler Murray system in Arizona.

Whether a team is hoping to find its franchise quarterback, secure its primary backup, or take a flier on a late rounder who can develop into a depth piece, the development environment will dictate whether the selected player reaches the envisioned ceiling.

That said, there were a few concepts that jumped out from this analysis with predictive power specific to quarterbacks drafted in the tail end of the draft. These concepts are discussed below.

Themes

The Apprentice Model

What do Leonardo Da Vinci, A.J. McCarron, Benjamin Franklin, and Trevor Siemian have in common? Probably very little. Probably literally only one thing. But that one thing is a very big thing, a thing to which they can all attribute much of their career success. The commonality these men share is that they began their careers in apprenticeships.

While McCarron and Siemian may not quite measure up with the movers and shakers of historical prominence in Da Vinci and Franklin, they were all beneficiaries of time spent working as apprentices under masters from whom they learned their trades of choice. It’s true. The model that produced two of the world’s renowned polymaths is also particularly effective in the development of backup quarterbacks.

As aforementioned, Brett Hundley learned under Aaron Rodgers. In addition, both A.J. McCarron and Jeff Driskel learned under Andy Dalton; David Fales learned under Jay Cutler; Nate Sudfeld learned under Carson Wentz and Nick Foles; both Trevor Siemian and Zac Dysert learned under Peyton Manning.

With established starters in place, these developmental backups could simply focus on learning the ropes from individuals who had mastered the day in, day out process of arduous, fastidious work required of a professional quarterback. Even if these backups lacked the ability to eventually ascend beyond a backup ceiling, they had the great fortune of cracking the code of how to prepare like a professional, equipping them with the tools for careers in support roles.

After all, the job of the backup is to be prepared. That is what their team drafted them to do, and, by placing the backup in a room with a veteran who knows the trade, the team can basically hedge its bet.

Time On Task

While the focus of this research has shelved the discussion of traits like decision-making, accuracy, etc. due to the inherent subjectivity involved in the evaluation of them, one trait that simply couldn’t be ignored among the late round hits was that of the number of starting seasons.

All of the hits drafted in the fifth through seventh rounds were three-year starters in college. The only exceptions were Gardner Minshew, who started two and a half seasons, and Jeff Driskel, who missed one season due to a leg injury. Those years may have come at different schools, but the fact remains that every one of them had at least three starting seasons during their collegiate careers.

The reason this point is so compelling ties into the practice time conversation in Part 2. These developmental backups will seldom receive live practice reps after training camp adjourns. The limited reps available must be allocated toward preparing the starters each week of the season. So, it is vital for the backups to have sufficient processing speed upon entering the league because they won’t get the live reps needed to continue to improve it.

When backup quarterbacks enter the game, the hope is not for them to win it. The hope is for them to not lose it. To take care of the football by making the right decisions. Processing speed accounts for so much of good decision-making, and that processing speed is enhanced only by playing the game.

The successful backups spent a lot of time on task prior to their NFL careers, and it was that fact that appears to have had a sizable effect on their ability to stick in the league for multiple seasons.

Mind > Body

Every team has desired size measurables for every position. From height to weight to arm length to hand size, there are both desired and minimum sizes for every position, and these targets are based on the historical data of the sizes of the players who had successful careers at their respective positions.

Quarterback is no different, and for good reason. Each and every play, there are freakishly athletic predators on the defensive side of the ball who are paid, in some cases, well over $10m per year to hunt signal-callers. The key to neutralizing the modern passing game is to put the quarterback on the ground.

With this in mind, teams favor bigger-bodied passers with the mass to withstand the inevitable blows that will be taken over the course of a long season. Durability is critical at the game’s most important position, and the projection of a player’s durability can be conflated with his size.

Looking at the late-round hits, though, the underwhelming size begged the question of whether size is as important for backups as it is for starters. Brandon Allen, Gardner Minshew, and Trace McSorley are all undersized, yet have become fixtures in their respective quarterback rooms. Perhaps the reason for that is they were able to make up for their minus size with plus intelligence.

After all, the daily responsibilities of a backup quarterback are more in line with those of a quality control coach than they are of a player. Their job is to provide support and guidance to the starter; when they find themselves in the game, the priority is damage control over playmaking. If a team is going to compete for titles, its backup quarterback will play sparingly, and, thereby, won’t be taking many hits.

So, upon consideration of the physical size of the hits, it appears that teams can reduce the emphasis placed on size when looking for backup quarterbacks. At this position, the backup adds substantially more value in the meeting room than he does on the field. Therefore, it is mind over body.

Conclusion

In its totality, this research showed that NFL quarterbacks, whether they be starters or backups, are developed more than they are found. By breaking down the draft into three subsets, comparisons between players of equally graded talent levels could be made.

In the league’s eyes, the players within each subset were expected to have similar careers, yet some flourished while others floundered. As we’ve discussed at length, the development environment was always the separator.

The biggest takeaway from the analysis of the late rounds in light of the context of the early and middle rounds was that there is a definite art to designing the ideal quarterback room. In addition to the right blend of interactive personalities and similar skill sets, there is an inverse approach to this process.

If a team has a young starter, it should also have a proven backup, or two, in the room to provide support and guidance. Conversely, if a team is going to draft a young backup, it must have a proven starter who can prevent the backup from being forced into action too early while providing an example to emulate from the standpoint of professional work habits.

It can be argued that the quarterback room is the most important room in the building. Its construction should be treated as such.