Futures: UCLA QB Brett Hundley
By Matt Waldman
I'm so happy that I'm a married man. Atop the list of reasons why is the obvious: I love my wife. However, the fact that I no longer have to experience the "first date" is vastly underrated -- at least when it comes to my personal life.
Professionally, a first look at quarterback's tape is a lot like a first date. In one afternoon or evening, there can be joyful sparks, painful awkwardness, flashes of intuition, and a great deal of over-analysis.
My first date with Brett Hundley's tape encompasses all of these things. Some speculate that the UCLA signal-caller passed up an opportunity to be a first-round selection in the 2014 NFL Draft when he decided to return to school this season.
He may earn that status in 2015, and after studying one game I see why some teams will value Hundley that highly. Beyond the immediate considerations of Hundley's potential, though, the quarterback's tape raises larger questions for me about the position.
It is said that you can't teach size, athleticism, and, to a vast extent, arm strength. Many teams also say that you can't teach a player's feel for the game. I call this the "IT Factor," and I define it as a player's integration of his position-focused techniques and how well he processes the game unfolding before him. But if teams don't believe they can teach the "IT Factor," then why do they continue spending early picks on physical talents lacking refined mental and conceptual acumen for the game year after year?
I think one of the answers to this question is that the "IT Factor" is difficult to spot. Even the best football personnel evaluators mistake it for production or athleticism, or they psychologically project the performance of the surrounding talent onto the player himself. There's no single combination of skills that unlock the winning formula of the "IT Factor."
Another trio of questions also relate to Hundley, but also include many other quarterbacks past, present, and future: how does one forecast the potential of a player whose execution of techniques and concepts appears shaky but is still on point and savvy? Will this player be capable of more refined work in the NFL? Bill Walsh said intuition and instincts must be there for a quarterback to warrant high expectations for future development, but do you take a quarterback whose instincts are often good in the first or second round, even if his confidence in those skills doesn't appear to be rock-solid?
For me, the answer is no, in theory. In practice, however, a quarterback's match with a team is a fitting marriage metaphor, and the demand for a good quarterback is often as strong (and potentially dysfunctional) as holy matrimony. NFL teams have shown a tendency to compromise like a man or woman who "settles" for a spouse because they have been taught to think their healthy expectations are unrealistic.
Likewise, some teams behave like the once-burned, twice-shy person whose standards have become too high. They end up rejecting prospects who share similar surface characteristics with former players who hurt them, because fear has dissuaded them from being open-minded and diligent.
Hundley's Virginia tape raises many of these questions that I often think about as I enter my 10th season of formally evaluating quarterbacks. Hundley's work warrants serious consideration as a first-round prospect, but will a second, third, or fourth date help me see if those "IT Factors" he flashes will translate to the pro game?
Excellent First Impression
There's nothing like a great first impression. Against Virginia, Hundley hits the wide-open big play -- something that the best NFL quarterbacks often fail to do when huge plays break open and early-game adrenaline gets kicked up a few notches. Brett Favre often airmailed wide-open vertical targets during the initial series of games.
Not only is Hundley's first pass against Virginia accurate, but the Bruins quarterback negotiates the pocket with aplomb to generate room for the throw. What I like most is Hundley's feel of the pressure coming from his right. Hundley climbs the pocket to escape both a twist from the right edge and a defensive lineman's interior pressure, and he does it while keeping his eyes downfield on his progressions.
Hundley looks right during the initial drop, but he does a great job of turning his head to the left while sliding from the pressure to his right. He makes a good first impression with his poise in the pocket, and looks even better with a narrowing escape hatch thanks to the interior and the left edge closing in. The bodies around Hundley don't affect his climb of the pocket in rhythm, and his throw is another reflection of that good timing.
Quarterbacks and wide receivers often over-think a wide-open throw of this type. They often hesitate or rush processes that should be ingrained, but that doesn't happen here. The ball arrives early enough for the receiver to maintain a reasonable stride, and the ball is placed well away from the safety coming from the middle of the field to help. It's a well-thrown 44-yard pass that covers 39 yards from the line of scrimmage. The play gained a total of 53 yards on a secondary read in a progression.
Equally Strong Parting Impression
The last play from Hundley on this Virginia cutup offers an equally strong parting impression for entirely different reasons. With an eight-point lead, Hundley looks down the barrel of the gun and fires his own shot past the closing pressure, hitting his receiver, who is working back to the ball.
The off coverage from the cornerback indicates that this isn't a reckless decision. If the ball is delivered well, the corner has little chance of jumping the route for a pick-six. However, throwing the comeback in the face of pressure does have some inherent risk, because the potential to sail this throw increases the likelihood of a turnover.
The outcome is good, but I like the confidence, courage, and athleticism Hundley showed here, regardless of the result. Hundley identifies the open man, delivers the ball into oncoming pressure, and generates a target with zip and accuracy. His receiver makes the catch, turns upfield, and effectively ends this contest with a first down and a long gain into Virginia territory in the closing minutes.
In these two plays alone, Hundley displays enough poise in the pocket and arm strength to get your attention. This is in lieu of a box score that has a "zero" in the touchdown column.
When charting Hundley's 20-of-30, 242-yard performance, I noted that his receivers dropped seven very catchable passes. Virginia's pressure packages, which included a lot of twists and stunts from 3-3-5 and 2-4-5 alignments, sacked Hundley five times, but in my judgment Hundley held the ball too long on only one of those plays. Even good NFL starters are guilty of doing this at least once a game.
Learn to Exhibit Maturity over Heroism
The aforementioned sack came on second-and-long with 14:48 in the second quarter. Hundley faces a 2-4-5 alignment, executes a three-step drop, and hopes for the shallow cross to break open.
When the inside linebacker's drop obscures that first read, Hundley finishes his drop with a turn to the right where he has the running back alone in the right flat on a swing pass.
The mature decision is to take this pass within the rhythm and structure of the play, but Hundley forgoes this option and takes a sack.
There's no reason the running back shouldn't gain at least 3 to 5 yards and set up a manageable third down. This shorter, but boring decision, would have given the UCLA offense a broader range of plays that it could run.
What reinforces this decision is the natural timing of the routes with a quarterback's drop. Hundley finishes his drop and naturally turns to this outlet pass, but opts to shrug it off like a young pitcher not trusting the call of his catcher at the plate.
Hundley gets too ambitious and turns to the opposite side of the field, hoping to find a more substantial opportunity. It was a greedy move. Freeze the tape at the 3:28 mark and note the location of the receivers and defenders on Hundley's left versus the runner that the quarterback eschewed on the right.
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There's no doubt the running back on Hundley's right was the better throw, even if we can't see the slot receiver running a deeper route out of the frame. By the time Hundley concludes the left side wasn't open, he has been wrapped up by the edge rusher.
I like that the UCLA quarterback feels the pressure and nearly escapes, but he never should have been in this position. Hundley's decision-making here kills drives, and it's a symptom of my oft-discussed Hero Syndrome (see my Futures on Jameis Winston and Amari Cooper).
Despite this immaturity, Hundley's aggressive decision-making is not an irreparable lack of feel for the way the game unfolds. He's saw what was available, but simply over-thought it.
It wasn't a wooden reaction against the flow of the game borne of impatience or fear. Although a poor choice, it was a conscious, aware decision. Still, some players never mature enough to avoid this temptation, and it begs the questions I raised about quarterbacks and the "IT Factor."
Refinement Necessary, But Is It Likely?
Hundley's game reveals additional question marks concerning his ball placement under pressure. When the bodies are flying around the pocket, he's forced to not only hit the target, but to read the pressure, find an escape hatch, and determine which passing lane can lead the runner to open field.
A broader topic of discussion from this play below is that good NFL starters complete multiple, difficult steps in a situation and finish the play. Consistent execution of these multiple-step scenarios often spells the difference between an early-round prospect who fulfills expectations as a long-term starter and a career backup drafted too early.
I want to see more scenarios like this second-and-long dig route, because Hundley's decision to make his receiver's job harder on this play could be a telling indicator of his NFL ceiling. Hundley does a fine job looking off the deep safety to his left during a three-step drop. As he sets his feet, Hundley reads the shallow and deep receivers to that side before turning to the middle and delivering the ball with strong velocity to that dig route breaking a yard beyond the first down marker.
Hundley's placement forces the receiver to turn towards the trailing defender for a leaping catch into contact. If Hundley had delivered the ball over the linebacker's drop, he would have hit the receiver in stride, leading his man to open field ahead. The question that I cannot answer definitively is whether Hundley -- or any quarterback -- could or should have tried to deliver the ball directly over the linebacker in this situation.
Although this was one of the cleaner pockets Hundley had in this game, there wasn't much time for him to switch from the second to third read, determine the best throwing lane, and deliver an accurate ball. During that flash of time, Hundley has a difficult set of circumstances: does he lead the receiver to the open left flat and risk the linebacker in shallow zone making a play on the ball? Or does he throw the ball behind the linebacker and force the receiver to turn towards the trailing coverage to make the play?
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Another possibility is that Hundley didn't even see these two throwing lane options. What we do know is the Bruins quarterback threw the ball behind the linebacker and made the receiver's job more difficult.
I would have preferred to see Hundley put the ball over the linebacker. The decision not to do so is either a reflection of his accuracy (if you think he tried and failed) or his confidence in his placement (if you think he made the choice to work behind the shallow defender).
If forced to pick one, I think Hundley's feet were a little wide as he turned his body from left to the middle and his release was rushed to avoid the edge pressure, which caused the ball to sail and land behind the receiver's break.
There's enough ambiguity with this pass that it could be unfair to criticize Hundley's work as a trend. However, on another play I saw Hundley fail to place a swing pass in position for the runner to work downhill. It was a situation where I have seen good pros view the field in a split-second with a wider perspective and made this nuanced placement decision when the bullets were flying even faster than what Hundley faced in this game.
Living with ambiguity during the scouting process is important, because one needs patience to collect enough information to make a sound decision. Still, one has to eventually realize that no one as "perfect information," and at some point a hard, definite call with whatever data is available must be made.
Patience Balanced With Aggression Does Have Its Benefits
Though I question Hundley's finer points of decision-making and execution, it's evident he displays an intelligence for the game.
There are still gaps in his decision-making when veering away from the structure of the play that you won't find in more mature players, but Hundley is not a rash player.
Late in the pre-snap process of the play below, the safety outside the right hash climbs to 7 yards' depth, and the linebacker off left guard blitzes when the play begins. Hundley executes a quick play fake and immediately faces a defender bearing down in the pocket.
Hundley eludes the first wrap, but still gets sacked as he loops to the right flat. However, the initial decision to run is wiser than it may first appear. Watch Hundley look to the left slot after the play fake and pull the ball down.
The fact that Hundley pulls the ball down just before the pressure arrives is notable. Rewind the play, and it becomes more evident that Hundley could have expected his slot receiver to make a blitz adjustment and settle under the coverage on a quick break up the seam. The receiver was not on the same page as Hundley, but the fact that one can see this went through Hundley's mind is a good sign in his favor of some pre-snap/post-snap diagnostic skills.
Another aspect of Hundley's game that draws me in can be seen during this second-and-long late in the third quarter against A-gap pressure. UCLA uses a 3x1 receiver 10 personnel set where the first read is a quick throw to the middle trips receiver sliding outside at the snap as a target to counteract any quick pressure. It's the backdrop for the series of mini speed chess games that are a part of football.
Hundley takes the quick drop from the gun, looks right, and spots the slot defender reacting quickly to the first read setting up at the sideline. Many quarterbacks, even pro prospects who scouts often like, are so glued to the "sheet music" of the play that they'll try to force this throw.
Even though there are other options on this type of play call, young quarterbacks often lack the patience to buy time to allow that next route to develop. If they show enough sense not to force the ball, they tuck and run.
Hundley does neither despite edge pressure coming free from the right. He sets his feet and waits for his secondary receiver to release from his blocking responsibility for the primary route and work up the right. (As a quick note, the second receiver earns space up the sideline thanks to the deep route of the third receiver.) Despite a pocket that's constricting fast, Hundley stands and delivers a strike from the Virginia 41 to the 17, and the receiver gains another 10 yards to the 7, setting up a touchdown run from Hundley to extend the lead to nine.
This week's Future's may not deliver a definitive answer about Hundley, but I'd rather not fake strong takes for the sake of stringing along readers for manufactured storylines when everyone who takes a thorough approach to their evaluation process is coping with ambiguity at this point of the draft season with its fair share of prospects. Hundley is one of mine.
He's one of the most enjoyable players I have watched thus far, but being entertained by a fine college player is different than believing said player is a future franchise option. I see evidence, but that's as far as I'm willing to go at this point.
For more on Hundley, join Matt Waldman and Eric Stoner for two Google Hangout episodes of the RSP Film Room.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for download now. The guide covers 164 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you're a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 -- 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece.