Wyoming’s Josh Allen is the most divisive prospect of this draft season. The gigantic quarterback has the tools NFL teams crave: Size, mobility and a huge jump-out-your-seat arm that has to be seen to be believed.
Sounds perfect, right? Not so fast.
Allen is a classic traits vs. production prospect. His performances in 2017 were, to be kind, wobbly. He completed just 57 percent of his throws, averaged less than 7 yards per attempt, threw just 16 touchdowns in 11 games and showed the scary signs of early draft pick flops: arm arrogance, erratic decision making and perilous pocket awareness.
Advocates proclaim his impossible-to-teach traits will win out. Allen was surrounded by inferior talent, they say. Stick him on a roster with fellow pros and watch him soar.
Detractors point to an ever-growing line of quarterback prospects with outrageous physical gifts, who struggled with the most essential part of playing the most important position in sports: throwing the ball to your own guys.
As always, the truth lies somewhere in the gray area in-between. Every prospect is different. And, contrary to popular opinion, growth is not linear. Guys develop at different rates, and circumstances dictate that far more than those who’re asked to evaluate players often like to believe.
This week, Senior Bowl week, has been as important for Allen as any prospect will have this draft cycle. He is not the product of a media hype machine, he is legitimately in play to be the first overall pick. But he isn’t a ready-to-go franchise changer like Andrew Luck, Cam Newton or Carson Wentz. This week is his chance to put himself in front of NFL coaches, showcase his development and tease what he might become.
Allen has put some good, bad and downright ugly moments on tape. Let’s go into the film room to break it down.
We have to start with Allen’s arm, which is now approaching near-mythic status.
If the tape left any doubt that Allen has the most explosive arm in recent memory, the Senior Bowl’s radar gun obliterated it. He clocked in at an absurd 66mph, per NFL.com’s Gil Brandt. That’s the highest figure recorded for a prospect — by a lot, in fact. For comparison, the previous highest was 60 mph by Logan Thomas at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine.
However, numbers alone don’t quite do this justice. Allen has a whippy, baseball-like delivery. He can deliver the ball from all kinds of arm angles, generating uncommon torque on the ball.
The ball leaps out of his hand, getting on DBs a beat quicker than they’re used to, particularly when they’re in-phase along the sideline.
Arm power falls way down the list of importance for successful quarterbacks. Yet it intoxicates NFL evaluators, no matter how long they’ve been around the sport.
Allen has visceral, holy bleep power. It’s the kind that makes you do that little flinch on your own couch. The kind that opens up a playbook. He makes far hash to boundary throws (the most arm taxing throws in the game) look like he’s just slinging the ball around at a local park:
Quick outs and deep outs were a constant part of the Wyoming offense. He’s as good an out-ball thrower as you will ever evaluate, when everything is in sync.
They weren’t vanity throws. Modern college defenses are now running a series of coverages that attempt to keep four defenders deep at all times, condense the field and double team the slot receiver (often the most effective route runner on the offense). The best way to combat the suffocating style is to spread the field post-snap; condense the field yourself through a pre-snap alignment and attack the sidelines.
Double stacks and condensed formations (receivers inside the numbers) were bountiful throughout Allen’s collegiate career. Things were easy for the quarterback: read the leverage of the corner, whip the ball towards the sideline. Those throws took advantage of his natural gifts.
His delivery can be funky at times, but he compensates for it with raw, unadulterated velocity. Elongated releases aren’t great, they allow defenders to read a throw and break on the ball early – at least, that’s the traditional line of thinking.
Evaluators now stress the so-called “load-to-arrival” time. In layman’s terms: How long does it take from the moment the guy decided to pull the trigger to the ball arriving?
A guy with a compact, quick release, with a slightly weaker arm, can get the ball to arrive at the same time as a guy with a rocket launcher who has an elongated release.
Part of the infatuation with the power Allen generates is that he can do it from any base or arm angle. He’s at his best throwing on the move. That’s when his inner baseball player comes out (he claims to have been a mid-90s mph pitcher in high school). That stone-skipping style makes rolling to his right easier. Sideline throws look effortless:
It’s an easy, repeatable stroke, one born of survival instincts.
He was routinely forced to move “off-platform” and bail out of the pocket at Wyoming due to inadequate protection up front. That forced him to find ways to just get the ball where it needed to go, conventional mechanics be damned.
All too often that failed him. Allen became sloppy on throws where he needn’t. But on rollouts and plays in which the team moved the launch point, he was used to mixing up his arm angle or platform, enabling him to hit tough throws like deep comebacks with a simple flick on the wrist.
Allen grades out as high as imaginable in the “arm power” category. NFL sides should know better by now than to fall in love with a quarterback at the top of the draft because of his arm. But Allen is able to make throws others couldn’t even dream of.
It’s hard for a quarterback coach, offensive coordinator or general manager not to find themselves besotted by the unending possibilities of a guy who can seemingly drive a cover-2 beater, on a rope, at will:
It’s the main reason why he’s being considered at the top of draft boards ahead of more well-rounded talents.
It’s not just the arm, though. It’s his all-around athleticism that has personnel folks intrigued. He may not be as natural an athlete as someone such as Josh Rosen (a former tennis whiz, which shows on the field), but he has uncommon speed for his build — 6-foot-5, 240 pounds.
Add to that his strength in the pocket. He’s big and stout, evoking a young Ben Roethlisberger. He will toss oncoming rushers out of the way when he deems it necessary and it’s time to make a play:
I mean, how?
Unteachable traits excite scouts. Allen has a bunch of them.
His blend of mobility and arm power is a perfect fit for the raft of boot-action heavy teams littered throughout the NFL. He’s a good straight-line mover and effective enough on bootlegs to force the backside defender to sit the play out — his main responsibility.
And he’s had experience running creative option wrinkles. The Cowboys dabbled with power-read stuff, channeling classic Cam Newton-Gus Malzahn elements to unleash Allen as a downhill, power runner:
Aren’t 6-5 guys supposed to be statues?
The jet-read was often the design of choice, but they’d tinker with a split-back design, too.
It’s like any other power read, albeit with a motion man displacing the running back in the “veer” action, and the backfield giving two lead blockers rather than one.
The Cowboys ran the set with an up back and an offset back. A frontside defender is left unblocked on a “hold/fold” read. If the defender shoots toward the backfield, Allen would hand the ball off to the motion man with lead blockers out in front. If the defender bit on the motion, Allen would pull the ball himself and follow behind a pulling blocker.
On the example above, the defender set wide to stave off the jet sweep. Allen pulled the ball and followed the pulling guard. The guard, as well as the rest of the line, did a masterful job of blocking the play (one of the rare times in 2017). They played with perfect positional leverage, angling their bodies to the right point, rather than attempting to run the defenders off the ball.
Combining boot-actions with power-reads is the kind of offensive artillery we’ve seen Cam Newton and Carson Wentz dazzle with at the pro level.
Allen isn’t as powerful or quick a runner as Newton, nor is he as reckless as Wentz. But his ability in the run game cannot be understated. He turns the game into an 11-on-11 matchup. When you pair that with his arm, a defense is forced to defend ever blade of grass on every play. Any option is available. No play call is too fanciful.
If that’s not enough to get pro play callers excited, how about we pull up some play-action tape? NFL coaches love to assess old-school turn-the-back play-action throws as part of the QB grading process. It helps show field awareness, pocket mobility, decision making and usually involves a full-field read, as oppose to the more common half-field reads at the college level.
Modern pace-and-space offenses have lost the old-fashioned art of play-action throws. Now, teams utilize run-pass options. The quarterback sticks the ball in the belly of his running back and reads an individual defender before deciding whether to hand the ball to the back, or pull the ball and throw it himself. His eyes are downfield, evaluating the defense, at all times.
RPOs are better. They are the future, and present. But they’re also limited. They read one player, and if the defense can correctly bluff that read, or the quarterback misreads it, the play is dead (there’s also the issue with linemen downfield in the NFL). Play-action throws are more difficult, but they give multiple options and can be better disguised. The league still prefers complexity overly simplicity, which may become predictability – a cardinal sin.
There aren’t a great number of top quarterback prospects who’ve had to take a snap, under center or from the gun, turn their back, sell a fake, then turn around and re-scan the field. It’s a tough skill.
Allen is one of them. Some his play-action tape is excellent. He reads the field well and is decisive:
It’s one of the few times he’s truly in a rhythm drop. It shows. He’s crisper and cleaner in the pocket. He doesn’t rush things.
Some of his best throws come on traditional play-action concepts. This may be his most impressive of 2017:
Wow. There are more audacious throws from his 2017 catalog, but they aren’t exactly repeatable.
The throw above is a classic stick, slide, climb throw. It’s Allen playing within the structure of his system and executing at the highest level: He hits the top of his drop, scans the field, buys more time by shuffling and climbing in the pocket, then rips a seam ball splitting the safety and corner. You can’t do it any better, and plays like that are Allen at his best.
And yet, for all the highlight throws and “wow” plays, Allen is maddeningly inconsistent.
Like all quarterbacks with a great arm, he falls prey to arm arrogance. He believes he can complete any and every throw regardless of the platform or situation. Usually because he’s completed it before.
The problem, however, is that it leads to mechanical breakdowns. Guys get sloppy with their footwork. They have no need for trivial matters like tying their eyes to their feet; their arm will do all the work. Just sit back and watch this!
All too often that results in misplaced throws. Or, worse still, short arming a throw when it was there to be made, purely due to laziness and arm arrogance:
That’s a horrific throw and a terrible turnover. Allen’s body weight was moving backwards. He released the ball off his back foot, while his aiming shoulder was planted to his side and his throwing shoulder was pointing toward Iowa’s midfield logo.
It gets worse:
That’s all arm, no mechanics.
His receiver ran a poor route. But there was enough leverage on the corner for Allen to give his receiver a chance to make a play. Someone with Allen’s skill set should be elevating the play of those around him.
Much has been made of Allen’s completion percentage the last two seasons. He completed just 56 percent of his passes in both seasons.
Completion percentage isn’t the best representation of accuracy. It’s more of a team stat: What was the play call? How did the line protect? Did the receivers gain separation? All of that gets bundled together and spit out into a number that the uninitiated ascribe solely to the quarterback.
The numbers must be used in conjunction with the tape. It would be easy for defenders to point to the style of system he played in (many low percentage throws) or his supporting casts.
But these explanations wreak of confirmation bias. True, a pump-and-dump style system would have inflated his numbers. But he was not as hamstrung by his teammates as some suggest.
Again, the truth is in the gray areas.
Allen’s drop percentage was 7.84 percent in 2017, per ProFootballFocus. That total puts him 20th among draft-eligible quarterbacks. It’s a figure that pales in comparison to Baker Mayfield’s 9.49 percent, Rosen’s 11 percent, and Lamar Jackson’s 12.4 percent (Yeesh, can we please get Lamar some help?).
Yes, many of Allen’s throws came from muddy pockets. His protection was poor. But it was not much worse than either Jackson’s or Rosen’s.
Allen was pressured on 39 percent of his dropbacks in 2017, per ProFootballFocus, completing 52 percent of such throws; Rosen was pressured on 30 percent of his dropbacks and completed 69 percent of his throws; and Jackson was pressured on 34 percent of his dropbacks, finishing with a 66 percent completion percentage under pressure.
Certainly, Allen wasn’t surrounded by an all-world cast. Wyoming just didn’t have a lot of speed on the field. His receivers and backs routinely let him down even when he was able to move and create magic despite the best efforts of his porous offensive line. The most egregious example:
You can’t ask for more than that from Allen. He avoided the sack, moved around in the pocket and somehow unfurled the most audacious of throws 40-yards down the field while running forward. Of course, his receiver bobbled the catch.
Still: The convenient narrative that Allen’s supporting is the main reason for his poor completion percentage is off base. His own sloppy mechanics are to blame.
He’s a power thrower, not a consistently accurate quarterback. He can make precise throws, and he’s dabbled with more nuance — making specific throws against certain coverages depending on the leverage of defensive backs — rather than just winging the ball on each and every play.
Yet he remains an all-together raw passer with tons of work ahead of him. He fails to regulate his velocity, relying too much on ripping the ball through tight windows rather than taking some speed off the ball to complete a sideline throw, or give his guy a chance to go get some yards after the catch on quick timing or intermediate patterns.
And it doesn’t quite end there. Allen has been lauded by some as playing in more of a “Pro Style” system than other top prospects in recent years. Indeed, the most common comparison is to the system Carson Wentz ran due to the mutual connection of the coaching staff.
There’s no doubt that the system has more carryover than many pace-and-space spread option schemes. But Allen was not operating a carbon copy system to the one Wentz so expertly orchestrated.
Take a pre-snap shot, and they’d look the same: There’s plenty of heavy personnel groupings (21 12, and the now “pro” 11 personnel); snaps from under center; condensed formations; stacked receivers and more. Even post-snap, they run largely the same route combinations.
But there was a big difference in responsibilities both pre- and post-snap.
Allen, like many of this year’s top quarterbacks, namely Lamar Jackson and Josh Rosen , is able to flip the strength of the offensive formation, or kill one play at the line of scrimmage and flip to another (run to pass or vice versa).
That’s some level of pre-snap control. But it’s nothing compared to an NFL quarterback, or Wentz at North Dakota State.
Wentz was given full control of the Bison offense. He was effectively an offensive coordinator on the field: Setting and resetting protections; continually getting into the right play (switching to any play necessary in the playbook); running the offense in the no-huddle; and correcting mistakes.
Then there’s the small matter of the post-snap differences. Neither played in a timing offense – a prerequisite for success in the NFL. That’s a skill Wentz has developed during his time in the NFL (and still needs to improve). Crucially, though, Wentz operated a system of full-field reads having to jump through three, four, even five progressions to get to his check down. It was pro stuff.
Allen, however, has used more half-field reads. It’s not a single read system, but it cuts the field in half to make things easier on the signal-caller. You routinely see him lock in on one-half on the field and wait for someone to come open:
There’s no thought of resetting his feet and working the other side of the field. It’s not baked into the system. He reads a key (usually a safety) and then jumps to one side of the field.
Some of that was necessary given the quarterback’s supporting cast. The ball had to be out of his hands quickly. Limiting options helps that. But it doesn’t aid his development moving to the next level.
Wyoming’s system, stylistically, has some transitive elements. But the lack of anticipation, rhythm-based throws is striking. This isn’t a well-rounded quarterback who’s versed in west-coast principles, if not the verbiage.
Allen is a big-armed thrower who’s been asked to play “see it, throw it” football for three seasons.
In that regard, his post-snap assignments are no different than guys labeled “spread-option” quarterbacks. In fact, many of those spread-option systems feature more timing drops and West Coast elements — the Lincoln Riley-Oklahoma-Baker Mayfield system for instance. Lining up under center doesn’t make someone more of a pro style quarterback when the pre- and post-snap assignments don’t mimic the pro game.
(Aside: While we’re here, I’d like to point out that, on average, NFL teams were in the shotgun 58 percent of the time in 2017 and only under center 42 percent of the time. Detroit was in the gun on 76 percent of its snaps. )
For the ugly stuff, we return to Allen’s lower body mechanics. That powers most everything that fell under the “bad” section.
His sloppy mechanics are infuriating. When everything maps up – his plant foot, eyes, feet, aiming shoulder – we’re greeted to majestic moments:
But it’s infrequent. More common place is the erratic mechanics that lead to those overthrows. Easy designs that should be an extension of the run game – and juice his completion numbers – get away from him as he gets lazy:
There’s never any excuse for overthrowing a simple switch screen.
There is no easy fix. It’s not like there’s one issue. There’s a bunch: He uses an inconsistent base, sometimes it’s too wide and he slips, sometimes it’s too narrow and he climbs up on throws; he takes hop steps; he doesn’t climb into, and drive, throws; and, as mentioned, he doesn’t tie his eyes to his feet in order to look at where he’s throwing.
He will often end up in a position in which all four limbs are pointing in opposite directions, as if they’re working against, not with each other.
Fixing those mechanical defects is a massive project.
It took Aaron Rodgers three years to go through a full mechanical tear down and rebuild. Rodgers’ issues pale into insignificance when measured against Allen’s. He will need the right coaches, and an organization with patience. Yet in this football ecosystem, no one gets three years to sit and learn. You get one, max.
It will take a staff with guts and confidence to think it can correct such fundamental flaws in 12 months.
Coaches always think they can fix players. A staff will talk themselves into the project. The dividends could be franchise altering. Life changing, for a coach.
They will convince themselves that by fixing those mechanics, everything else will fall into place: The accuracy concerns will go away; there will be no need for arm arrogance; and the footwork tweaks will instil so much West Coast rhythm that the Lord of the Dance himself will be jealous.
That’s a huge ask.
Being inaccurate is one thing. Pairing it with poor decisions is a recipe for turnovers.
Allen makes some absurd decisions. There are throws that even Brett Favre thinks are a little too reckless. Arm arrogance rears its ugly head again. He releases throws super late, into double coverage, because, well, why not?
Somehow, he completes that throw above. It’s a fearless demonstration of arm strength, and he puts it in a decent spot. But it’s all too late. It’s a fun college throw, it’s a turnover at the next level. A good safety reads that and breaks on the ball at the proper angle.
He needs to learn when a play is dead. It’s a problem many struggle with in college (see: Deshaun Watson).
Some plays come from frustration. His side is getting beat up and he wants to make a play. That’s understandable, but still an issue.
These aren’t small issues. For every astonishing throw, there is a decision or throw that renders it all null-and-void.
In my mind, the league and its decision makers (some owners and media members included) have succumbed to a collective case of Carson Wentz-itis. Everyone is looking for that next under-the-radar prospect whose traits, both tangible and intangible, launch him from smaller school prospect into an MVP candidate.
But here’s the deal: Those guys don’t come around very often. Wentz was an outlier.
The Allen-Wentz comparisons are easy. They’re both big, they can both move and they both played for the same coach – in what some perceive to be the same system. But it’s a lazy one. I don’t view them in the same stratosphere as prospects.
Allen is more akin to Patrick Mahomes II as a prospect. Mahomes was a non-rhythmic thrower with footwork concerns. Yet the former Texas Tech quarterback was also blessed with stunning accuracy. And while he was an unconscious thrower, he was a superior decision maker to Allen.
The Allen conundrum is one that will have reverberations for years to come. Not only with the individual franchises and characters involved, but how the sport as a whole views the evaluation process.
The NFL is a league that demands ruthless efficiency down in and down out, on and off the field. The league’s systems are built atop rhythm: hit the back foot, get the ball out, play the next down. It’s a league that often leaves coaches paralyzed with fear. Turnovers are considered a football crime.
Here’s a quarterback who teases so much, but whose tape and numbers are the antithesis of what the league expects on Sundays.
Yet the league cannot kick its obsession with that intoxicating cocktail of size, arm power and mobility – even when the flaws are so jarring. It will be too much for teams at the top of the draft to pass up come April. Just think what Allen might become.
It’s how teams end up taking JaMarcus Russell first overall, Blake Bortles in the top 5, and EJ Manuel in the first round – banking on a change that never comes and ultimately sinks seasons and costs folks their job. It’s also how teams catapult themselves into Super Bowl contention by taking unpolished players who become gems, such as Wentz, Newton or Roethlisberger.
Allen is the next in line. He will be a top-10 pick in April. He may be the first overall pick. He could transform the fortunes of a franchise, he could be an all-time flop. Both paths are there in the tape if you look hard enough. At this point, it’s just easier to find the latter one.