By Matt Waldman
We can talk the semantics of perceptions all we want, but there’s a palpable sense that the rookie quarterback class of 2012 has a viable chance to become the best in recent memory. While there are a myriad of things that can happen to alter the promising career paths of Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, and Ryan Tannehill, the 2013 class of prospects is a letdown by comparison. That doesn’t mean it lacks the talent to exceed the lower expectations.
Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray is a great example. Compared to Wilson, Luck, Griffin, and Tannehill’s games -– which included a level of technical discipline and decision-making maturity uncommon for most rookie quarterbacks –- Bray is a more typical rookie prospect. His flaws are more apparent to the untrained eye.
More so than any quarterback in this 2013 class, Bray fits the gunslinger mold. The Clint Eastwood movie The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is the appropriate summation of what I see from the Volunteers prospect. Physically, he’s a franchise-caliber talent with the confidence to make big-time NFL throws. He still needs to develop the decision-making maturity and technical discipline that the headliners of the 2012 class displayed in relative abundance. The question is whether he’ll cross the divide between talent and production that all rookies must face.
I don’t want to underestimate the possibility that he’ll mature as a professional, but I have my doubts. On-field performance is the ultimate display of preparation. Right now, there are a lot of loose ends.
Bray’s performance against Georgia: 24-of-45, with 281 yards, two touchdowns, and three picks, was a great display of everything good, bad, and ugly about his quarterbacking. Georgia has an aggressive, 3-4 defense with NFL-caliber athletes like Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, Sean Williams, and Bacarri Rambo. These defenders have the strength, speed, sideline-to-sideline range, and football smarts to project Bray’s current game at the pro level.
I’m probably belaboring the point, but projecting a player’s performance at the NFL level is one of the most important facets of player evaluation. An accurate throw, a wide-open receiver, or a large running lane at the college level is vastly different in the NFL. This is one of the reasons why some have often been too optimistic about running back prospects from Wisconsin in the past 15 years. At the same time, some are all-too-quick to write off poor box score data from a player like Matt Forte, a player who I once watched average less than two yards per carry against a loaded LSU defense, but still delivered one of the most impressive performances I saw from a runner that year.
In my view, the more on-field adversity I can see that tests a player’s physical skill, emotional maturity, and football smarts, the better. Bray gets his share of adversity here. Physically, he’s capable. Conceptually, he’s not prepared. This is where his game falls apart most often.
Bray’s 22-yard completion on a 3rd-and-six with 5:10 in the first quarter is a great example of Bray’s arm talent. Tennessee is in a 2x2 receiver, 10 personnel shotgun set with the receivers tight to the formation. Georgia has both outside linebackers and one of its inside linebackers threatening blitz before the snap.
Georgia runs a zone blitz, dropping one defensive tackle while sending another on a stunt. Meanwhile, both outside linebackers attack the edges of the pocket. The secondary is playing Cover-2.
Bray takes a three-step drop and delivers a beautiful deep out just over the corner’s head to receiver Zach Rogers, 20 yards downfield. What I like about the throw is the rotation of Bray’s hips to generate power as he’s releasing the football.
His pass is high and to the back shoulder of Rogers, hitting him on the numbers at the Georgia 37-yard line. From the first angle, the play doesn’t appear as close as it actually is from the field-level shot.
If the wide receiver hadn't fallen down after the catch, the result might have been a 57-yard touchdown.
Arm talent isn’t the only reason why Bray has promise. Here’s a 62-yard play to the tight end on a seam route where Bray demonstrates a lot of the things you want to see from a prospect –- and none of them is his throw. The events that transpire between the exchange from center and the release of the ball are some of the most underrated sequences of quarterbacking: the drop, reading the defense, and efficient maneuvering in the pocket to buy time and still get rid of the ball with speed, power, and accuracy. The play begins in 11-personnel with receivers 2x1 in the final minutes of the third quarter.
Bray begins the sequence with a good play-fake to the belly of the back. This isn’t something I see Bray do as consistently well as shown on this play, which tells me he needs to become more mentally disciplined with executing the fine details of the game.
Another reason this play-fake looks more thorough than some of his I-formation fakes from center is that Bray is in executing a quick fake from the shotgun spread, which takes less effort to sell.
After he finishes his drop and doesn’t see his first read come open, he executes a hitch to climb the pocket, avoiding the edge rusher coming from his left. I wish he’d do this more often.
This is a good example of a passer maneuvering the pocket in the right way. Bray doesn’t bring the ball down and try to escape with his legs, nor does he drop his eyes from his receivers downfield. He’s demonstrating a good feel for the environment he’ll encounter regularly at the NFL level.
Bray finishes this sequence with a throw up the hash that covers 31 yards from release point to reception point, hitting the tight end on the back shoulder. The receiver gains another 31 on his own.
Here’s a decisive play against a five-man rush and double coverage on third-and-10 with 13:00 left in the game. Tennessee is in a 10-personnel shotgun set, with receivers 2x2.
His priority target is receiver Justin Hunter running the slant. It’s a route that Bray loves and has frequent success with. The Volunteers quarterback takes a three-step drop and slides to his right to avoid the blitz and find an open passing lane.
He then throws an on-time bullet 15 yards downfield to Hunter in tight coverage at the right hash.
Bray places the pass in a location where Hunter can turn to the ball and snare it with his hands at helmet level while also using his back to shield his coverage from the pass. The quarterback’s ability to take a short drop, avoid pressure, find the optimal passing lane, and still drill it into tight coverage on time is something that I’ve heard Greg Cosell praise Aaron Rodgers for during Green Bay's Super Bowl victory over the Steelers. Bray has a lot to do before he can approach Rodgers level of play, but the confidence in his arm and the ability to read, react, and maneuver into position to make a good throw are all promising aspects of this prospect’s game.
An NFL player I would stylistically compare Bray’s game is Jay Cutler, but I think Cutler is at the more advanced end of the comparison spectrum despite his struggles in Chicago. This first-and-10 completion for 12 yards from an 11-personnel shotgun set with 4:47 in the first quarter is something that Cutler does routinely.
Georgia sends five men to pressure Bray, dropping the outside linebacker into coverage. Bray takes three steps and delivers the ball with his legs splayed at equal depth in the face of the left outside linebacker’s rush, slinging the ball from an unconventional position.
The receiver dives for a ball placed low and away at the sideline for the 12-yard catch. This was a really well-thrown, off-balance pass just inside the strong safety. For a right-handed quarterback to make this play to his left without having to step into pressure is a promising indicator of Bray’s physical talent.
NFL starters often have to throw the ball from off-balanced stances or positions. Like Cutler, Bray has this type of skill. The downside to this specific talent is the tendency to rely on it too much, and this is where Bray’s game gets bad and ugly.
Here is another play where Bray is sliding to his left to avoid frontside pressure. This one doesn’t end as well. The play begins with 6:00 in the game from a 1x2 receiver, 11-personnel shotgun set. Georgia blitzes a cornerback to Bray’s right side.
Bray reads the blitz and slides to his left, delivering the ball to receiver Cordarrelle Patterson up the left sideline.
Bray’s intent is to throw a back-shoulder fade, but he delivers the ball high. Note the off-balanced position of his feet and hips as he’s beginning the release of the ball. There is no way that Bray can alter the momentum of his body at this point. He’s essentially leaning towards the sideline. The last time his feet were in a remotely stable position, his legs were in a wide stance at the end of his drop. A wide stance is a big culprit behind high throws. This is exactly what happens on this play.
A closer look reveals that Patterson tips off the defender at the end of his route.
Notice how Patterson raises his hands into a catching position well before the ball arrives, and even before he achieves full depth on the route. The cornerback spots this telegraph before Patterson even begins his break back to the football. This gives the defender the opportunity to get into a more optimal position than the receiver to attack the pass, shielding Patterson from cutting inside to the trajectory of the ball.
Although Patterson didn't do Bray any favors, the root issue of the turnover is the inaccuracy of the throw. Bray had time to step into this throw, but he failed to take that extra moment to ensure that he delivered the ball with good technique. When I see a quarterback failing to execute the little details of his craft when he has a chance to do so, it is worth noting. When adversity happens, technique discipline is one of the first things to break down. There are exceptions to the rule where quarterbacks rarely exhibit good technique and are effective starters, but they are few and far between.
There are also moments where a player can lose his common sense among the myriad of skill techniques and reads. This first-and-10 play-action pass from a 21-personnel I-formation, 1x1 receiver set with 7:59 in the half underscores the difference between a player like Bray, who has physical skills that could rival Aaron Rodgers, and Rodgers, who is far more consistent at making the minor adjustments that result in major plays like the one I mentioned Cosell raving about earlier.
The design of this play is for Bray to use play-action to set up and find Hunter on a deep streak up the right sideline. Georgia sends a corner blitz from the left side and the right-side corner covering Bray’s intended target gives Hunter a 10-yard cushion at the right sideline. The textbook play is to throw into the blitz because there should be an underneath cushion for Patterson to settle in the left flat.
Hunter is running a double move in the right flat to set up his break downfield. Across the field, Patterson is looking back to the quarterback to indicate that he’s settled into the open zone in response to this corner blitz. Although you cannot see it in this shot, Bray has his back to Patterson all the way. After examining another angle of Bray’s drop, he never really turns to the backside receiver. It’s Hunter all the way, which heightens the urgency for Bray to make a mature decision with this lone option.
Hunter tries to make the defender bite on the hitch-and-go, demonstrating some hip bend and a turn back to the passer, but the corner doesn't bite at all. With 10 yards of depth to begin the play, he watches Bray drop from center. Bray only gives the slightest hint of a play-fake to the halfback and it is wholly ineffective.
Even if the running back has to peel outside the fake to address the blitzing corner, Bray’s early extension of the football could have forced enough hesitation from the corner to give Hunter an opportunity to get vertical separation.
The 10-yard cushion and the safety’s refusal to bite on the double move aren’t events that awaken an idea in Bray to change the placement -– or better yet, the target -– of his pass. With the luxury of hindsight, this would have been the perfect opportunity for Bray to adjust the throw so that the ball arrived short of the intended target. This would give Hunter a chance to work back to the ball since the only coverage is over the top.
Instead, Bray doesn’t adjust his intended placement. Hunter has to work hard to defend the pass in a situation where the cornerback has the angle. Fortunately for the Volunteers, Hunter does a fine job of leaping over the top of the defender and tipping the ball away.
When a quarterback like Bray has pocket maneuverability, arm strength, and confidence, one of the bad habits that can show up is the quarterback tipping off his intentions. This third-and-6 interception with 12:45 in the first half is a prime example. Tennessee is in a weak-side trips, 11-personnel shotgun set, facing a four-man rush from Georgia.
Bray drops from the gun looking to the trips side all the way.
He brings the ball down once, hitches to the left, and releases the ball down the middle on a 20-yard cross.
Inside linebacker Alec Olgetree tips the pass and Georgia gets the rebound for the interception. The end-zone view reveals that Bray stares down this throw all the way.
Once Bray slides left to get an open passing lane for this cross he’s eyeballing, Ogletree breaks across the middle. This is actually even before Bray clutches the ball to further tip off the route. Actually, Bray clutches the ball twice on this play. Here’s the shot just after the second time Bray brings the ball down. You’ll see the Vols passer is trying too hard to squeeze the ball in to a receiver running through a tight zone of four defenders. With Ogletree reading Bray all the way, there’s just too much working against the passer to make this choice.
This is an egregious error on Bray’s part and he’ll have this happen a lot more if he sees an NFL field early in his career. Ogletree, a former safety, has the NFL range to make a play on this ball. Starting NFL linebackers may not all share his athleticism, but they have a better grasp of the game –- at least today -– and they will eat Bray’s lunch on a play like this one.
I routinely watch Peyton Manning disguise his intentions on crossing routes. A good example is a crossing route to Reggie Wayne in Super Bowl XLIV. Manning looks to Wayne, looks away from Wayne, and then comes right back to the receiver. Likewise, a good NFL receiver running a route will add a third wrinkle to the story to force a defender to second-guess the outcome. Ogletree never slides across the field to the outer edges of his zone responsibility if Bray disguises his intentions. It would have given the young quarterback a fighting chance to squeeze a pass into this tight zone.
At this point, Bray has been getting by on arm talent and the occasional inspired play. He might have some impressive moments that tease an NFL organization into thinking it can develop him into a franchise quarterback. At this point, Bray’s on-field performance doesn’t reveal a player who has the level of preparation that separates him from his peers at the position. We’ll see how that perception changes in the coming weeks. I don’t think it will –- the eye in the sky doesn’t lie.