Josh Rosen is the most polished quarterback in an NFL draft class filled with raw, unadulterated, could-be, might-be prospects.
Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson, Sam Darnold and Josh Allen will all get first-round consideration. They all have the ability to move around and make plays out of structure. Some evoke the most vapid of scouting terms — upside. All have flashed within NFL concepts.
Only Rosen is ready to orchestrate an entire NFL system from the jump; he’s an on-script guy, not a freelancer.
At UCLA, he ran as close as you will see to an NFL scheme in college — with some pace-and-space goodness sprinkled in along the way. And I’m not just talking stylistically. Sure, he took some snaps under center (a ludicrous thing for people to harp on) and the team ran a heavy dose of “11” personnel, the NFL’s grouping of choice. But all of the top prospects had NFL elements within their offenses.
Only Rosen orchestrated a full audible system, in which he was able to set and reset protections, flip from one play to another, or change the formation and play call entirely. It was his show.
Rosen’s fall Saturdays served as a non-stop advert of what he can immediately offer a franchise on Sundays. There’s little schematic projection involved. Let’s go into the Film Room to look at the good and bad of the most refined quarterback prospect in the country.
Rosen, a former tennis whizz, transfers a bunch of skills from the court to the football field. His feet are light and active. They’re constantly buzzing. He uses subtle movements to help navigate a cluttered work space:
Those slippery feet aren’t just for show. He’s able to make moves in a nano-second that open up passing lanes that otherwise wouldn’t be there.
Rosen isn’t the top “off-platform” thrower in this class (making throws from awkward platforms and body positions). Yet he has a habit of eluding long-striding edge rushers with a quick-step dance routine that allows him to deliver an accurate ball even when he takes a wallop:
Subtle movements are unnerving for defenders, particularly those tasked with sitting in zones. They’re reading body language. They start with the eyes, and even though they’re supposed to stick there, you best believe they get caught up in shoulder feints and sudden movements.
Rosen is a maestro at manipulating defenders with his eyes (we’ll get to that later). But these short jab steps are equally effective.
He’s not fidgety, either. There’s a difference. A big difference, in fact. These movements are purposeful. He knows he may have to adjust his body to a different target or evade a pass rusher at any moment – far more likely given the guys protecting him.
Rosen is a pocket shuffler. Others bob and weave like a boxer, keeping a play alive until they scamper away or find an open teammate. Rosen likes to adjust the radar of defenders by a fraction.
At high speed, it feels like a world of difference. They can see still him. It looks like he’s in the same spot, but for some reason he’s now out of range:
It’s advanced stuff. Those little manipulations make way for bigger movements when necessary. He is an adept boot-action quarterback, a necessary quality in any modern QB:
He’s athletic enough to force that unblocked defender to sit down. Run plays becomes a series of 1-on-1 battles, a win for the offense. And if that defender loses contain, Rosen can take off himself or spin the ball from awkward arm positions to find an open guy.
It’s a combination of pocket mobility and awareness Tom Brady would be proud of. It leads to some stupidly good stick, slide, climb, throws (moving to his left!):
He isn’t as twitchy as Mayfield, or as threatening in the open field as Jackson. And he doesn’t have the gazelle-like stride of Darnold. But Rosen has the strength and vision to shake off defenders when necessary.
He does an excellent job of churning his feet, lowering his strike zone to absorb hits, then keeping those eyes downfield to search for an open guy:
There’s an innate feel to his game. He coordinates the entire thing from the line of scrimmage.
Some of it is simple but effective, like his mastery of the pickup-and-flick-it box RPO:
Rosen reads the box and picks between a run or pass play based on the defensive formation. If he sees off coverage, he picks the ball up and wings it to his outside guy, regardless of the play call. Easy yards.
The quarterback’s form — the way he jumps into the throw to aim at his target rather than just throwing it independent of his body position (like Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Phillip Rivers) – is identical to the chief pickup-and-flick-it guru, Drew Brees.
(As one Twitter use kindly pointed out to me, it’s the exact same form as a tennis forehand. Both Rosen and Brees were tennis aces as young pups.)
Rosen won from the neck up in college. He had to. He couldn’t get by on raw physical traits; his teammates wouldn’t allow it.
He was surrounded by a rotating cast of mediocrity at UCLA. Too often he was left to fend for himself as a beleaguered offensive line had it handed to them by bullies on the other side of the ball.
Rosen played on survival instincts. He had to get better at moving in the pocket to avoid pressure, creating a sixth sense for when pass rushers were careening in. He became a more delicate mover in the pocket, taking shorter half steps rather than slide in the traditional sense.
The ball had to come out a beat quicker, too. And he had to find a way to buy extra time for himself and his receivers, moving and manipulating defenders with his eyes:
Rosen would shift an underneath defender one way, then rip the ball in behind them. Few NFL starters do it better.
He’s at his best, though, moving safeties off their spot. Be it a single-high, two-deep, or a spinning safety, Rosen is able to adjust their depth or get them biting on ghosts.
It doesn’t get more brilliant than this:
Watch him flash his eyes to his left as he hits the top of his drop. Such an acute movement forced the near-hash safety to widen his positon. Just enough space was vacated for his receiver on the deep-over. Even with the pocket collapsing around him, and hands in his face, Rosen delivered the ball to his guy for the touchdown.
Opponents liked to constrict the field against Rosen’s UCLA side, play with a two-deep or four-deep shell and force difficult throws — such as the one above. Rosen wouldn’t tolerate it. He’d flash his eyes one way, then work back the other, flinging a dart between a pair of sprawling defenders.
He’s a natural post-route thrower. He loves it. It’s his best throw. He’s among the top quarterbacks I’ve evaluated at hitting that route, regardless of its depth — a handy trait as college sides shift to more split-safety looks.
Collegiate quarterbacks often fall victim to power throwing. They do not mix up their trajectories or velocity. They rely on altering the rhythm of their drop to buy time, and they drive almost all throws. The infamous “bucket” throw — dropping a ball over the top of linebackers and in front of defensive backs — eludes them.
Rosen is happy to deliver whatever the defense dictates he must.
What stands out above all else is his anticipation. He’s happy to deliver the ball in rhythm, before his receiver breaks:
He improved every year at throwing to landmarks and letting his receivers go get it. Again, some of this was survival instincts; he didn’t have all the time in the world to sit back in the pocket and survey things. The ball had to be out, or his body would feel it.
College is filled with see-it-throw-it quarterbacks. It doesn’t work like that in the pros. Throws must be anticipated. It’s get-it-out-or-get-hit stuff. Rosen had plenty of practice in school.
He has that game management gene, too. Most in college don’t. It feels like a slur in modern football, but it’s not.
Rosen, for the most part, takes what he’s allowed. He pairs those sparkling feet with his innate sense for pressure to avoid blitzes, and gets the ball out hot:
That’s a mental win, not about arm talent or physical tools. He reads the game well, and solves a problem that keep an offense chugging.
The fake spike at the end of the Texas A&M game is the stuff of folklore now. But dig through Rosen’s tape and you find a bunch of examples where he’s two and three steps ahead of everyone. He loves to catch teams while subbing, an Aaron Rodgers specialty:
Situational awareness to the max.
And remember, he did all of this while being surrounded by a smorgasbord of incompetence during his final season at UCLA. There’s a reason — well, a bunch of them — why the school is paying Jim Mora $10 million-plus to not coach its football team:
- UCLA averaged 3.8 yards per rush attempt, 97th in the country
- Rosen was pressured on 30 percent of his dropbacks in 2017, and completed 69 percent of his throws, per ProFootballFocus.
- Darnold, Allen and Mayfield had a combined 57 passes dropped by receivers in 2017. Rosen had 43, per CFB Film Room.
- If you think those numbers are because Rosen was throwing the ball more, here are the drop percentages, per ProFootballFocus: Allen, 7.84 percent; Mayfield, 9.49 percent; Rosen, 11 percent. Lamar Jackson’s was an absurd 12.4 percent.
I lost count of how many drops were utterly egregious, as if his teammates were working against him.
What Rosen put on film under those conditions was little short of magic.
Run through each game and you quickly hit a checklist of the nuanced stuff that makes pro scouts salivate: What about an in-rhythm throw, with the ball put out in front of a receiver so that he can get that delicious YAC?
Better still, what about a full field progression, with Rosen quickly getting to his checkdown and moving on with the game?
Oh, and what about making sure the offense gets from a bad play to a good one?
Check (there’s one of those drops!).
That’s Sunday football right there. (He also was the best play-action thrower in the country in 2017.)
Rosen marshaled the Bruins’ entire passing game. There isn’t another prospect in this class that can boast that. Jackson and Mayfield had a decent amount of pre-snap control to flip from one play to another, but nothing compared to Rosen, who essentially operated an NFL scheme — in terms of the quarterback’s responsibilities, not down-to-down concepts.
For all the good, there can be some shake-your-head bad. It’s starts with poor decisions — particularly over the middle of the field, where arm arrogance rears its ugly head.
Rosen is a rhythm-based player. Hit the back foot, get the ball out on time, move on with the game. That’s the plan.
Every now and then he goes into a freelance role he wasn’t born to play. He ranked 24th among draft-eligible quarterbacks in turnover-worthy throws in 2017, per ProFootballFocus.
He would be overly aggressive and make some dumb choices. Too often he attempted to squeeze the ball through the tiniest holes, a recipe for interceptions.
Some decisions can be explained away by frustration. He was pressing. His team was bad. The game was on his back. He put extra mustard on balls he that should have been change-ups:
Sure, that’s a poor route and a lazy catch attempt, but it’s a misplaced throw. The only thing worse than being late over the middle is missing high, wide and hard over the middle. Defenders gobble that up.
Other decisions were flat-out terrible. He struggled with roving defenders who started closer to the line of scrimmage before they sunk into a middle hook zone. And there were difficulties against “hole” defenders in three-safety sets or Tampa-2 defenders who dropped to a similar depth.
There’s some Jameis Winston to his game. He has all the velocity in the world, and a brain that is a step ahead of everyone else on the field.
Get it right, and you see some beautiful anticipatory throws. But it also leads to miscommunication, and some awful plays when everyone isn’t on the same page.
Even that beautiful post throw got him in some trouble. There’s a time and a place for such artistry. Rosen dug into that particular bag of tricks too often. Teams sat on it, dropping a defender into his preferred spot:
Issues grew in the second half. As games got tight and he pressed more, he forced more:
Woof. That’s an unacceptable throw in a big spot.
All the calm and game-management skills that you see early on must carry over throughout the game.
Still: It’s correctable. They’re lapses in concertation muddled with arrogance. There remains a greater body of good than bad, even under pressure (and he was pressured a bunch).
There are legit concerns about his size and health. Rosen is slight. He’s yet to fully fill out his frame and it’s fair to wonder whether he can pack on much more weight, even in a professional strength-and-conditioning program.
He took some vicious hits behind that offensive line in college. His Bruins career was littered with different injuries: longstanding leg concern; damaged nerve in his shoulder; hand injury (not to mention any nicks that didn’t keep him out of games).
Things aren’t going to get easier once he becomes a Melvin Ingram-Joey Bosa sandwich.
There’s also a wild card: concussions. Rosen missed multiple games in college with head injuries. There’s real intrigue about how Rosen feels, physically and mentally, about the impact of concussions.
The medical checks and interviews at the combine will be the biggest part of Rosen’s pre-draft process.
The Attitude Question
It’s a line of inquiry you will be sick of by the time the draft rolls around. But it’s still a question on the minds of many evaluators: Is Rosen too smart? Is he entitled? Does he love football? The NFL is no place for a renaissance man, so they believe.
Here’s how a conversation I had with an AFC general manager earlier this month regarding Rosen started: “It’s a tough one,” he said. “[I would] love his personality at any position other than quarterback.”
Huh? We rational folk know such a notion is nonsense. Great pioneers in all manner of industries have had (deep breath) hobbies. They’ve even managed to speak eloquently on a wide range of issues from time to time.
But we’re not dealing with rational people here. We’re dealing with personnel evaluators in the National Football League, a workplace that preaches toughness, toughness, toughness, until fourth-and-short saps all semblance of courage out of the stadium.
Outside forces have driven a narrative that Rosen is not a true “football guy.” He may — shock, horror — have interests outside of football. He’s articulate, not a footballing Neanderthal. He may wonder aloud about the damage the sport is doing to him and others in real time. And he’s want to express his opinion on different matters, inside and outside the football world.
None of that stops him hitting an out route.
If a team does not connect on first down, it is not because Rosen speaks about student-athletes getting paid. If a team fails to convert on third down, it is not because Rosen had a hot tub in his dorm room. If a team loses, it is not because Rosen questioned the SAT requirements at Alabama.
It might be because the team doesn’t have enough talent. It might be that the team is coached poorly. It might because the opposition is better. It might be because Rosen isn’t the first-in, last-out, spend-every-waking-breath-studying-tape type that you need to be at the most important position in sports.
Only one of those is in Rosen’s control. No one at UCLA ever questioned his work ethic. Some around the team believe the last two years of struggle have humbled a once-cocky freshman.
Rosen’s freshman issues, such as they were, ranged from rearranging lawn ornaments to political Instagram posts. How will the adults in the big league cope?
“I’m not going to f‑‑‑‑‑‑ get in trouble for drugs or anything like that,” Rosen told SI in a 2016 profile. “I don’t want to be this crystal-clean guy with perfect responses. I’m not going to pretend to be 50. I just want to be happy and enjoy the experiences I have and take advantage of every opportunity I’ve been given.”
Winning football games does not have to come at the expense of personality.
To demerit a prospect for being too smart is the height of NFL draft lunacy. Accept the fact that Rosen wants to talk about different and difficult issues. Understand that he may need different buttons pushed than other players or quarterbacks.
Football has long had the same power structure. Anyone who questions the established order is deemed a charlatan or trouble maker (pour one out for Sashi Brown and Paul DePodesta).
But, what if, go with me for a second, the same top-down structure isn’t best for every organization and doesn’t get the most out of every player? What if the quarterback is smarter than the quarterbacks coach? Should the structure not then be akin to a partnership? Or, better still, the coach serving at the behest of the quarterback?
Rosen’s manner will challenge the belief system of some teams. Old-school scouts will be put off by his aloofness to outsiders — an attitude, this writer believes, is guarded, rather than condescending. If he challenges the coaching, maybe it’s because that coaching ought to be challenged.
Players should be seen and not heard, that’s the mindset. Any words are distractions, and distractions are kryptonite to success.
Gibberish. Rosen is going to be excellent. He will convert third downs that the merry-go-round of shut up-and-nod quarterbacks won’t.
Even Trent Dilfer, Rosen’s most notable critic, has turned around on the prospect.
“I have nothing but good things to say about him,” the Elite 11 coach and former NFL quarterback told ESPN in September. “I’ve grown to appreciate how he’s aware of his impact, his words, his influence, and he’s aware of his talent and how good he can be.”
Rosen is going to help a team win big, quickly, provided he remains upright. Discarding that over some notion of what a quarterback should be would be a historic mistake.