Which receivers were truly most effective with the ball in their hands last season? We look at the leaders in YAC+ for 2014 and the last nine years.
21 Sep 2013
By Matt Waldman
The most glaring example of the difference between a good college player and a good NFL player is at the quarterback position. It’s also the position where draftniks and football evaluators have one of the loosest working definitions for the term “developmental prospect.” I’ve seen this term used to describe players judged as undrafted free agents who would be best served looking for work with the Canadian or Arena League just as often as I’ve seen it as a label for a second or third-round prospect.
But it was only a few years ago that the NFL draft had nearly twice the number of rounds, which explains why a third-round player and an undrafted free agent can have the same label. Considering that NFL scouting is still rooted in mid-20th century practices (I’m not talking about some teams’ uses of iPads and databases to track and store information, but the actual concepts and techniques they use to assess players), it shouldn’t be a surprise.
Georgia’s Aaron Murray is a quarterback I’ve seen projected by my colleagues at CBS as a third-round prospect and top-100 player, but whose game matches my working definition of a developmental player. The Bulldog’s four-year starter exhibits sound fundamentals, base accuracy in the passing game, and enough awareness to lead a winning football team in one of the best conferences in college football.
However, Murray also epitomizes the skills gap between big-time college passers and the pro quarterbacks fighting for remaining rosters spots in the NFL. This week’s Futures profiles Murray’s comfort zone and where his inner demons lurk. If the Georgia quarterback can expand his ability to translate what he’s learning in the classroom to what he does on the field, he could have a career as a capable backup. However, I think the third-round grade is an optimistic assessment.
A good way to explain this is a quick look at Murray’s former competitor for the starting job when they were freshmen: Zach Mettenberger, who played at a local high school no more than 20 minutes from the UGA campus. Mettenberger was the prototypical pocket passer in terms of size and arm strength and I thought he was the better prospect. After he was arrested on alcohol, disorderly conduct, and obstruction of justice charges during spring break of his freshman year, it didn’t matter – he was booted from the team and Murray earned the job.
I haven’t studied Mettenberger in depth since then, but I’m not the least bit shocked that Cam Cameron’s system is bringing out the best in the LSU quarterback and reviving his draft stock. Mettenberger has the physical skills and prototypical size most NFL teams covet and I wouldn’t be surprised if Mettenberger’s classification as a developmental player also earns the accompanying tag of “future starter”.
Murray’s developmental label might warrant starter consideration, but I think the fit is more team-specific for the 6-foot-1, 208-pound quarterback. Russell Wilson, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers’ skills are proof that quarterbacks between 5-foot-10 and 6-foot-2 can succeed as NFL starters, but they are currently exceptions to the rule. I think Murray’s upside is more along the spectrum of Alex Smith and Jeff Garcia as the best-case scenarios with Bruce Gradkowski as a more realistic aspiration: quarterbacks who perform best in the classic version of the West Coast Offense predicated on short passing, rhythm, and movement.
The Positives: Athleticism and Rhythm Passing
When Murray can drop, set, and throw in rhythm his accuracy and placement of the football is sound.
Both of these designed rollouts are good illustrations of Murray’s skill with the play fake and short accuracy on the move. He’s quick, thorough with the play action, and rolls outside with good pace, and delivers the ball with a quick release and at a spot that the receiver can make the catch away from any oncoming defender, but still turn up field for a bigger gain.
On the first play, Murray doesn’t waste any time getting rid of the ball. His sightline is clear to the receiver and he gets the ball to the target with time to turn up field and assess his situation. The second play requires a little more patience from Murray because of the linebacker. He does an effortless of job of drawing the linebacker to him just enough to open up the fullback and still have a passing lane to deliver the ball.
Murray also demonstrates good accuracy and placement of the ball from the pocket when the play is in rhythm. Here’s a completed slant versus an inside linebacker’s blitz.
The Georgia quarterback reads the inside linebacker’s blitz before the snap, receives the ball, and executes a quick set, step, and throw. Once again, the ball is placed on the receiver’s back shoulder so he can protect the target from the oncoming defender. Perfect.
Here’s another short throw requiring a three-step drop, hitch, and delivery in a busier defensive zone.
Once again, the quarterback delivers the ball with good placement to the back shoulder of the receiver.
The best throw I saw Murray make in this Clemson game was a second-and-13 dig route into the thick of zone coverage where he had to place it over the shallow zone and away from the oncoming safety in the deep zone to give his receiver a chance to secure the ball and protect him from the defender.
This is another three-step drop that includes a play fake. Murray also has to wait a half-beat after his hitch for the receiver to come open and the passing lane to clear. While it’s not the classic 1-2-3-hitch-throw rhythm, you can see by the patter of Murray’s feet that he was able to maintain a rhythm to release the ball with accuracy.
Murray also has the baseline arm strength to play in the NFL. Here’s a 15-yard out from the opposite hash that has enough velocity to do the job.
One of the reasons I believe Murray fits more in the talent spectrum of Garcia-Gradkowski is that I still need to see more plays where he can deliver a high-velocity throw when his feet aren’t set. So far I haven’t seen him demonstrate the power to thread the needle when pressure paints him into a corner where his choices are limited to throwing the ball away or making that bull’s eye throw in a tight window.
Another reason is that in order for Murray to become a quality NFL starter without that kind of arm to deliver off-balanced throws in tight windows down field he’ll have to demonstrate the acumen for the game that rivals Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. These classic pocket passers still excel when the plays don’t develop in a straightforward way and they have to exhibit patience and accuracy.
Here’s a play where Murray demonstrates a necessary baby step towards becoming an effective pocket passer. This is a third-and-two where Murray must make a quick adjustment in the pocket to sidestep interior pressure to find an open passing lane.
The way he slides and sets his feet is with good pace and placement so he can still release the ball fast and with power. This prevents an attempt that is likely deflected, if not worse.
If Murray can deliver these types of passes with greater consistency – especially when the established rhythm of the play dissipates – he could develop into a reliable pro quarterback with starter potential. Right now, there’s too much evidence that he struggles in this aspect of quarterbacking to have this kind of optimism.
The Negatives: Accuracy and Awareness
When the pass-by-numbers feel dissipates, Murray’s accuracy goes south. Here’s a third-and-two pass where he wants to deliver the ball after a three-step drop and hitch, but the coverage forces him to wait.
The presence of the two shallow zone defenders and the official forces Murray to hitch multiple times. The quarterback loses that rhythm of the play and you can see he rushes the throw as he feels the pocket constricting to his left.
Watch any of the plays in the previous section and Murray’s release is fast but not rushed because of the rhythm he’s in. On this attempt, Murray rushes his release and the ball is thrown into the ground too far from the receiver.
Here’s another throw from a tight pocket where Murray rushes the release. The end result has a better outcome because the receiver makes the reception, but it’s still not a pinpoint throw.
Murray feels the pressure closing in after his three steps and foot patter, and rushes the throw. While he has to wait for the underneath zone to clear, the placement forces the receiver to leave his feet to make the catch. Given the pocket constriction, I can see how one might debate that any quarterback would have had a difficult time making a pinpoint pass here. However, there is ample evidence of easier throws where Murray needs to demonstrate pinpoint accuracy and thus far he’s inconsistent, at best.
One of his favorite throws – the back-shoulder fade - is a good example.
This play develops in rhythm, including a nice play fake. However, Murray places the ball to the inside shoulder when there was a great deal of room to the outside to err towards the boundary. Instead, Murray gives the defensive back an equal opportunity for the ball.
The greatest knock on Murray is his difficulty playing at a high level against top competition. If you judge him by wins-losses, he’s failing. If you use his overall box score production, Murray has been good.
I chose neither. In the NFL, the difference between a quarterback putting his team in position to win and lose a game is often 2-3 plays. The quarterback can make some excellent throws throughout the contest, but if he fails on those 2-3, the team loses. Think Christian Ponder.
Every week the Vikings quarterback makes notable throws with touch, placement, and accuracy in situations with a high degree of difficulty. And more weeks than not, he underperforms on 2-3 plays that makes his team’s job more difficult.
For Murray, his line between success and failure has a lot to do with awareness and focus. As you can see, the rhythms of executing his tasks are when Murray’s most effective. The more the opponent impedes his focus on his small tasks, the more the disruption clouds his ability to see the overall picture. This sack is a good example.
Murray should know that the running back is wide open in the flat, but the pressure up the middle and a lack of space for him to create within a set confine disrupts his ability to execute. He freezes well before the pressure arrives.
Murray’s strengths and weaknesses are a good example of effective management. In my former life as an operations manager it was important to understand the work styles of the managers on my team. There are two basic ends of the spectrum: task-oriented managers and creative managers. Both had strengths and weaknesses.
Give them a job and a process than task-oriented managers will perform these steps every day as directed. Over time, they’ll slowly refine steps in the process until it’s perfect. They’re reliable, predictable, and love the routine.
However, give those task-oriented managers an obstacle outside the bounds of their process and they struggle. Change flusters them until they are told how to specifically handle it with black-and-white processes. In a crisis they are more prone to boneheaded errors on rudimentary tasks because they can’t grasp the context of the situation that’s changed.
Christian Ponder, Mark Sanchez, Matt Ryan, and Matt Schaub are examples of task-oriented managers. Ryan and Schaub are the most evolved of the three because they are prepared enough to know how to respond in a greater variety of situations that fluster the likes of Ponder and Sanchez. Yet, they still lean more on a methodical style of play.
I’d say Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees also fit this style, but they are so prepared that even plays that seem improvised are products of obsessive planning. It doesn’t mean they aren’t creative, but they know every corner of the box they create in and can do such impressive things within those tight confines that their comfort zones seem wider than they really are.
Creative managers struggle with the fine details that task-oriented leaders love. They make careless mistakes. They get bored with routine. Sometimes they take unnecessary risks. But give them room to develop something new and they thrive.
They’ll invent new ideas, processes, and solutions that can increase productivity and efficiency. They inspire teammates to perform better. And in a crisis, a well-trained manager of this style will handle it like it was just another typical day at the office.
Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Stafford, Brett Favre, and Jay Cutler are examples of creative managers. These creative passers need firm boundaries to prevent them from overindulging in reckless behavior; they excel in situations where the task-oriented quarterbacks would have no chance of success. All four I mentioned here are mobile players with big arms, but I think Michael Vick and Steve Young are great examples of quarterbacks who are task-oriented managers.
Vick tends to falter most when he isn’t prepared for a solution outside the black and white confines. As his speed and quickness has deteriorated from fastest offensive player in the NFL to above average, this has become more apparent. Young was a great scrambler, too, but he was a much better as a by-the-numbers player in rhythm with the West Coast System.
Murray is a task-oriented quarterback with skills that meet the baseline for a shot at the NFL. He’ll need to demonstrate a greater range of comfort and management of compressed pockets and more awareness of the field around him when the rhythm of his tasks dissipates. Otherwise he’ll have issues executing with accuracy and efficiency.
Murray will have the best chance to succeed with a team operating a short-passing, rhythm-based attack. A strong ground game will be important if he’s to succeed in the vertical game because his arm strength isn’t special and he needs room in the pocket to deliver an accurate ball.
He would be most effective in an offense that moves the pocket and uses misdirection to give the quarterback room to set and deliver the ball because I doubt his accuracy will every be top-notch against tight, man-to-man coverage. Because Murray needs a well-structured box for him to produce at a high level, it means I have doubts he fits the mold of an NFL starter in today’s climate where there is high turnover with offensive systems and personnel.
His developmental tag is less about mechanics and more about handling situations on the field. This will be problematic if a team expects him to grow into a starting role within 2-3 years. I’m not one who grades players by draft position, but based on his task-oriented playing style, I’ll be surprised if Murray is selected before the fifth round.
8 comments, Last at 10 Mar 2014, 8:55am by jkd_dude