Improved Accuracy From Jameis Winston Will Skyrocket A Loaded Buccaneers Offense

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are one of the more interesting teams of the offseason.

After finishing with a 9-7 record in 2016 under new head coach Dirk Koetter, greater expectations have been placed on the team, who has been busy this offseason. The signing of DeSean Jackson for three years, and the selection of Alabama tight end O.J. Howard in the draft highlighted this stretch.

Adding these two players to a team that already has Mike Evans and Cameron Brate has made Tampa Bay’s receiving corps one of the league’s deadliest, if not the deadliest. 3rd round receiver Chris Godwin also has the potential to step up at the WR3 position, which would even boost a loaded unit even further.

It’s safe to say that Jameis Winston, entering his third season, has plenty of toys to throw to. Known as one of the league’s most aggressive passers, Winston’s downfield accuracy was surprisingly low in 2016, ranking near the bottom in the 2016-17 Deep Ball Project. Even in an offense with a loaded cast of receivers, his accuracy likely won’t be masked due to the aggressive, vertical passing attack Koetter employs. And behind a sub-par offensive line, Winston will need to take big steps in his accuracy by himself to take Tampa Bay to the next level.

If he does, the Buccaneers are easy playoff contenders and will employ a top 5 passing offense at the very least.

This article will take a look at the Buccaneers’ passing offense as a whole, not just Winston. Key players that will be discussed will include Winston, Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Cameron Brate, O.J. Howard, and Chris Godwin.

So let’s get things started.

Jameis Winston

Winston is a very talented quarterback that when at his peak can do things very few quarterbacks are able to accomplish in the NFL. He generally reacts to pressure very well, and is a consistent anticipation passer. Winston is also the first quarterback to pass for 4,000+ yards in his first 2 seasons, mainly due to his aggressive style of QB play.

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Winston’s movement in the pocket is magnificent. He reacts well to pressure and will keep his eyes up to find any open receivers. On this play, Winston makes subtle movement in the pocket, then shifts his body right, where he fires a beautifully placed pass over a defender and into the hands of Mike Evans. His vision and arm strength allow him to deliver a smooth throw with smooth processing.

Where Winston really thrives however is outside the pocket. Through 2 seasons, he has proven he is extremely comfortable with making movement and escaping defenders on unstructured plays. Few quarterbacks in the league do it as well.

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Since Winston is a quarterback that keeps his eyes downfield, he has been a red zone threat outside the pocket. The two plays above are excellent examples of how Winston combines aggressiveness with patience and anticipation, never giving up on the play and firing at the last minute to the open receiver.

The 2nd play might be the most impressive I’ve seen from the third year starter. He rolls out of the pocket and hops backward, and launches it to Evans after noticing him turn away from a defender. It’s perfect awareness and it’s a play very few quarterbacks would attempt. Most would give up on the play and throw the ball out of bounds.

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Winston’s body also makes him tough to take down on the run. This play provides the best instance, where the quarterback breaks a tackle, buying him even more time. He uses it to his advantage, jump cutting at the right time and throwing to an open receiver. Like the rest, it’s a fantastic play from the quarterback.

When Winston is on, he’s on fire. We’ll get to his accuracy later in the article, but let’s move on to the other role players in the Bucs offense.

 

Mike Evans

Mike Evans is a borderline top 5 wide receiver. At 6 ft. 5, he not only provides height, but a wide frame, making him a favorable target for Winston. His ball skills are transcendental, capable of making adjustments on the dot and making his quarterback’s accuracy look better. His 12 touchdowns in 2014 and 2016 are both franchise records, and his 96 catches from 2016 are the most from any Bucs receiver since Keyshawn Johnson back in 2001. (Fun fact: Johnson only caught one touchdown from that season.)

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Evans provides value everywhere on the field, and is deadly on vertical routes and on inaccurate passes. These two plays are difficult for the receiver to make. Evans’ box out ability allows him to make an fantastic touchdown catch in the first GIF, and in the 2nd he bails out Winston’s accuracy, something he’s been doing the last 2 years.

Evans’ size, speed and hands make for one of the league’s most exciting receivers, and then the Buccaneers went out and paired him with another one of the league’s top downfield monsters.

DeSean Jackson

Former legendary WR Reggie Wayne recently provided a great insight on DeSean Jackson’s value, calling him “a fast deep threat with rare home-run ability.”

Jackson is a sensational vertical receiver, capable of getting downfield quickly and creating massive separation. This has rarely been realized because of the quality of quarterbacks he’s played with, but he gets his best quarterback since Michael Vick in 2010, as well as standing alongside Mike Evans.

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With the Redskins, Jackson provided a massive security blanket for Kirk Cousins in an offense that was already loaded with security blankets. His value to the team is huge and will be in future years for both Washington and Tampa Bay.

On this play, Cousins’ accuracy is terrible. The pass is position behind and wide of Jackson. It would be impressive enough to dive and make the catch. Not many receivers are able to make a play on it and keep going.

Jackson makes an outstanding adjustment on the pass like it was nothing and makes it look easy. He breaks a tackle and jogs to the end zone for a miraculous touchdown.

Jackson’s ability isn’t just limited to being a downfield threat though. He is as much of a threat on short/intermediate routes, and provides yards after the catch, impressive routes, and refined footwork.

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This play is another instance of Jackson bailing out his quarterback’s accuracy. The decision by Cousins is good, but the accuracy is way too low. Jackson’s approach to the ball, concentration, and footwork are all impossible. To get a handle on this pass without letting hit the ground while keeping his feet in makes this one of the best catches I’ve seen from 2016.

Alone, the Evans and Jackson duo is perhaps the most terrifying in the league, but the Buccaneers added a few tricks with a few more receivers of note.

 

Cameron Brate

Cameron Brate proved to be one of the best tight ends when he broke out in 2016. Undrafted out of Harvard, Brate took the starting job from Austin Sefarian-Jenkins for good, and became one of Winston’s most valuable targets in the process.

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Like Evans and Jackson, Brate is an excellent route runner with a strong catch radius and frame. The technique he displays in his ball skills, routes, and adjustments on inaccurate passes make it hard for me to believe this guy was undrafted. This is the work of a guy that looks like a 5-year veteran.

The first GIF provides an impressive route and adjustment from Brate. He is very explosive in Koetter’s vertical offense, and as shown in the 2nd GIF, provides a big cushion to be thrown to. Brate’s advanced techniques allowed him to catch 8 touchdown passes in his first season as the starting tight end.

 

O.J. Howard

Another explosive tight end in the Bucs offense, Howard was drafted out of Alabama in the first round. He is a very talented receiving tight end and an excellent blocker, which will expand his reliability in Tampa Bay.

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Howard didn’t make as many outstanding adjustments on throws in college like fellow rookies Evan Engram and David Njoku, but he is still a dangerous YAC option. The play above displays his shiftiness, as he is able to make a move and cut to the outside corner, where he is easily able to get the first down.

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Another factor Howard will bring to the Bucs offense is power. Or more power. Either way, his toughness plays a role in his ability to get yards after the catch, as shown in the play above. Pairing him up with Brate will give the Bucs two really talented tight ends to throw the ball to in 2017.

 

Chris Godwin

A third round pick out of Penn State, Chris Godwin provides the Buccaneers with another talented young receiver. As well as having an amazing last name, Godwin has the potential to be a dangerous WR3 for the team.

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Godwin provided good routes in college, but it’s his ball skills that are the most impressive. He makes an outrageous one handed catch on a pass behind him. It’s one thing to catch the ball with one hand, and it’s another to do it while adjusting your body when the throw is behind.

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The big thing I need to see more of from Godwin is better consistency on contested catches. He had a few plays last year where he failed to win on tough plays at the catch point. The above play is an example of when he won. Granted, the pass was tipped, but his concentration allows him to catch the ball and sprint for the end zone without breaking a sweat. As a whole, Godwin’s explosiveness downfield makes perfect sense in Koetter’s offense,

 

Other Players

The offense is already stacked at this point, and the Bucs have a few more skill players worth mentioning.

Doug Martin is obviously the big one, but he’s suspended for the first three games of the season, so we could see rookie Jeremy McNichols get some valuable playing time.

McNichols is a very talented back who combines powerful bursts with explosive running ability in space. If he makes the team, he could provide these assets.

Charles Sims missed a lot of time last season, but is a speedy receiving back, and one that could help what was an injured run game from 2016.

Adam Humphries is a decent slot receiver with good speed, but he’ll likely compete for the WR3 spot along with Godwin at the most.

 

Concerns With Winston

We come back to Winston, this time discussing a major flaw of his, which is his accuracy. For as many things as he does right, Winston’s accuracy is downright horrible at times, often not being in the same area as the intended receiver. This is what stalled the Bucs offense at times in 2016, and if it’s not improved, it could continue to stall them this year.

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There’s plenty of examples of Winston completely missing receivers, but for this article we’ll focus on two great examples. The first throw, above, is an atrocious miss. To overthrow a 6 ft 5 freak in Mike Evans is an achievement in of itself, and it’s something Winston has done way too much in his career. As productive as Evans has been, he would benefit much more from far more precise accuracy on downfield throws.

Anyway, you’ll notice that Winston’s release is a bit high on this throw. The mechanics on the release look unnatural, the footwork is sloppy, and it’s no surprise that the pass itself is wobbly. The entire process is uncomfortable to look at.

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The 2nd throw, above, is as much of a disaster for different reasons. Winston’s inaccuracy left too many downfield plays on the field, and several touchdowns as well. He performed much better later on in the game, but this was a sign of how awful his accuracy can be. Outside the pocket, his mechanics look much more comfortable. Outside, while he’s able to step up in the pocket, his accuracy isn’t clear-cut.

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While Winston’s aggressive style of play is a blessing, it can also be a curse. His ability to process reads as a result is madly inconsistent. The play above is more of a terrible decision than anything else. Winston misreads the coverage completely, firing an interception straight to the safety.

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As good as Winston is outside of the pocket, he can also be too aggressive for his own good. I’m all for quarterbacks being aggressive, but there also has to be a perfect balance of aggression and awareness. This play illustrates the wrong way to do it. Winston does a great job of buying time, but the play is pretty much dead. He should’ve thrown the ball away to set up a field goal.

Instead, the pass is nearly picked (the defender didn’t have possession in bounds), almost costing the Buccaneers valuable points. Winston was very fortunate to escape with just an incomplete pass.

 

Conclusion

While Jameis Winston has accuracy and decision making issues, he does do a lot of things right. His pocket movement, play outside the pocket, and patience are all terrific. Winston gives the offense many chances for success, but as previously stated, it’s his job to improve his accuracy in an offense that stresses vertical routes behind an offensive line that creates stress.

At this point I’m repeating myself. The Buccaneers’ opportunity for success is tremendous, ask anyone. The passing game is unbelievably loaded, with Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Cameron Brate, O.J. Howard, and Chris Godwin offering tons of potential on paper, and the offense as a whole is one of the most exciting units in football.

We should anticipate great things from the Buccaneers offense in 2017. If Winston takes the next step, we should anticipate even greater.

 

Featured image via defpen.com

Deshone Kizer Has A Shot At Ending The Cleveland Browns’ Quarterback Curse

 

The Cleveland Browns’ historic quarterback carousal has gone round and round, never seeming to end.

Since the team’s return since 1999, they’ve been highlighted by the lack of a franchise quarterback. The closest Cleveland has seen to one was Tim Couch, and he was doomed from the start with a lack of talent around him. Derek Anderson’s 2007 season was the only year in the team’s expansion era that saw a QB selected to the Pro Bowl, and that turned out to be a fluke. Lakewood’s Brian Hoyer was supposed to be the hometown hero after not being Brandon Weeden in 2013, but his 2014 season wiped any hope away.

From bad quarterback to bad quarterback, the Browns have had nothing to show at the position, which is the biggest reason why they’ve failed to make the playoffs since 2002.

So with me singing the praises of how good the supporting cast on offense is for the 2017 team, it only feels appropriate to discuss how a good quarterback would take the team to the next level now that it has plenty of pieces on offense.

And wouldn’t you know it, the Browns drafted Toledo’s own Deshone Kizer this year in the 2nd round.

The Notre Dame prospect was one of the more discussed quarterbacks leading up to the 2017 draft, but was the fourth QB taken after the first 3 were grabbed as a result of teams trading up. To get a promising prospect in the 2nd round without giving up anything is great value for the Browns.

With word coming out that Kizer has been the most promising QB in Browns’ training camp, one wonders if he’ll get the starting job right away. As a Clevelander, I can tell you this; There are a lot of people who want him to sit for 2017 and learn the position while Cody Kessler starts.

The big issue with Kessler is that he generally lacks poise. He’s a very shaky player under pressure, often dropping his eyes panicking. This caused much of the pressure and sacks he ran into his rookie season. His mobility allows him to buy time outside of the pocket for some impressive plays, but he’s not subtle with his movement, and his arm strength is lacking.

But Kessler’s achilles’ heel comes from how he handles pressure.

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The above two plays are sacks created by Kessler. You can see in both of these GIFs that his vision and poise are limited. He never puts himself in a comfortable state of mind where he can wait in or out of the pocket and deliver the throw. In the first GIF, he doesn’t see in the interior pressure, while in the 2nd, he fails to see exterior pressure.

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This sack is the worst I’ve seen Kessler take. He doesn’t sense pressure coming around him and runs into his own sack. His pocket movement isn’t natural; He should have climbed the pocket instead of staying like a statue in his spot. If he had climbed the pocket and still took the sack, that would’ve been much more acceptable.

Ultimately, having a QB learn by sitting doesn’t make any sense, and it doesn’t in this case when Kessler is a flawed quarterback himself.

Besides, what good is it to sit and learn when the best learning comes from actually playing on the field? You get better by practicing, not sitting on the field and watching from an angle that isn’t the same as the QB on the field. This narrative exists because quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers sat behind Brett Favre, a Hall of Famer. Philip Rivers sat behind Drew Brees. Steve Young sat behind Joe Montana. All Hall of Famers. The Browns have had experience with this when they sat Johnny Manziel behind Brian Hoyer for his rookie season, and that turned out well.

Before I get carried away though, let’s get back to Kizer. If reports of his rise are true, he could very well be the quarterback that ends the Browns’ QB curse and take the team over the hump. After he was drafted, I sat down and watched his 2016 season, coming away impressed with what I had seen.

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Kizer brings something to the table that Kessler does not: Consistency in the pocket and under pressure. With Kessler, he drops his eyes when faced with pressure, and you don’t know whether he’ll make subtle movements or run into a sack. With Kizer, you get someone that constantly keeps his eyes downfield even when faced with heavy pressure.

On this play, Kizer is faced with an unblocked defender up at him. The receiver in the flat is open while this is occurring. The QB notices this and focuses his attention on that. He’s tripped up, but steps up in the pocket, keeping his eyes on the receiver, and fires a pass. It’s not the most accurate throw, but it’s a sensational play under heavy pressure because of Kizer’s concentration.

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The best QBs in the pros focus on maximizing the results of the play however they can. This doesn’t just include scrambling out the pocket; A lot of times it involves taking hits you know you can’t avoid if you want the play to succeed. On this play, Kizer does just that. What makes this work is that he doesn’t anticipate pressure. This has no effect on his mechanics, allowing him to complete a tough pass while taking a crushing blow.

The Browns’ offensive line won’t put Kizer under as much pressure as he was in college, so for a QB to exhibit this quality under it is magnificent.

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Kizer’s pocket movement is sensational. He is a smart quarterback who understands how to create subtle movements to avoid tacklers. On this play, he glides left of pressure while keeping his eyes downfield. This allows him to hit the shallow crossing route while putting himself out of harm’s way.

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Going further into his movement, Kizer also has terrific footwork. This was one of his biggest selling points going into the draft (Derrik Klassen raves about it all the time), and you’ll get no rebuttal here. When using your feet, it’s obviously important that they’re pointing in the direction where you want to throw the football. It won’t always be as easy when you have to make movements in and out of the pocket. With Kizer, his feet are consistently smooth.

On this play, the QB spots an open receiver downfield. He’s able to sidestep a tackler using small movements. This allows him to stay in the general area without going too far out of it. His poise is excellent, and he lofts a great pass into his receiver’s breadbasket.

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With many college quarterbacks, you get guys that require their first reads to be open. These tend not to be players that throw with anticipation, instead requiring receivers to create separation on their own. With Kizer, you get a guy that does not panic when his first read isn’t open. As shown on the play above, he keeps his composure and surveys the field, firing a beautiful dart across the middle of the field after sidestepping pressure.

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Lastly, Kizer has good arm strength to work with. His talent allows him to control the speed of which he’s throwing so he can attack tight windows. This has helped elevate his teammates in Notre Dame when facing those regards. Compared to Kessler, there’s a lot more room to work with in his arm.

While Kizer does do a lot of things beautifully, his accuracy could be a major flaw if it’s not improved. It’s true that Kizer’s accuracy can be really bad, but in an offense with plenty of safe throws a couple of talented receivers, it’ll be a bit easier for the QB to develop his precision.

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These two plays were the biggest strikes I had of Kizer’s film. He reminds me of Jameis Winston in that when he misses, he can miss horribly. That he has taken the biggest leap in training camp would suggest that his accuracy is being trained upon, but I take training camp with far less credentials than the regular season or even preseason.

 

Conclusion

Despite criticisms of his accuracy, Deshone Kizer is an otherwise wonderful prospect. His footwork, play under pressure, arm strength, pocket movement, and overall poise are all excellent and a dream come true for the Browns if he starts from day 1. He’s with a really good supporting cast on offense, one with a great coordinator in Hue Jackson, a great run duo in Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell, and behind one of the best offensive lines in the league.

If his accuracy improves, Kizer could be the franchise quarterback Browns fans have waited so long for. Outside of it, he does everything right, which will allow him to have more room to improve on his flaws while working in a quarterback friendly environment. I think he should start in Week 1, but time will tell if that is guaranteed.

But for what it’s worth, the Browns have drafted a really exciting prospect at the quarterback position, one that has the best shot at ending the team’s curse that I’ve seen as a fan.

 

Featured image via Fansided.com

The Cleveland Browns Have Built One of The NFL’s Best Supporting Casts For A Quarterback

The Cleveland Browns have been the laughing stock of the NFL since their return to the league in 1999. With two fluke winning seasons in 2002 (with the only playoff appearance in the team’s return) and 2007 (barely missing out on the playoffs despite a 10-6 record), the team has been haunted by a never ending curse of bad/washed out quarterbacks, inept front offices, poor coaching, and a focus on washed up veterans that provide “potential leadership” instead of embracing a full rebuild.

In 2016, that changed.

When Sashi Brown took over as the general manager, he wasted no time in establishing his presence, letting tackle Mitchell Schwartz, center Alex Mack, and WR Travis Benjamin walk to the Chiefs, Falcons and Chargers respectfully. Browns fans had ripped this move, but in the long run it actually paid off. Allowing the two linemen and receiver to walk freed up a load of cap space for the Browns to use for the following offseason.

Brown also shook up the draft for Cleveland, trading the team’s #2 pick to the Eagles in exchange for Philadelphia’s 1st round, 3rd round and 4th round selections from 2016, as well as the team’s first round selection in 2017 and their 2nd round pick in 2018. This set up the stage for many trades to come for the team.

Sashi made additional noise trading for Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins, then signing him after the season with a four-year, $50M contract extension.

But it was during the free agent year of 2017 and the draft that the Browns attracted serious attention. The team signed Rams receiver Kenny Britt, linemen JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler in free agency, and bought a 2nd round pick from the Texans on the condition of being the team that had the displeasure of letting Brock Osweiler waste away on the roster. The trade was heavily compared to a basketball trade and was praised for its unconventional technique.

The team drafted Myles Garrett with the #1 overall pick as expected, before trading their 2nd first round pick to the Texans in addition for more picks. They went on to select Jabril Peppers and tight end David Njoku in the first round.

All things considered, it’s been a hell of an offseason for the Browns. Sashi Brown thus far has exceeded any expectations I had of him when he was first hired, and his methods of trading and signing go against the traditional norm of NFL culture not just because he wants to do it different, but because he’s used actual logic and reasoning behind his trades. Because of him, the Browns have successfully entered a full, actual rebuild, going after fresh, young talent and making trades/deals that make sense.

While the Browns may not make the playoffs in 2017, what they have made is one of the best offenses for a quarterback to play in thanks to their coaching and front office. Regardless of whether Deshone Kizer, Cody Kessler, or Brock Osweiler (maybe not) starts, all 3 will be in a heavy QB friendly environment that gives them excellent pass protection and a good slab of weapons to throw to.

Below, we will analyze the key parts of the Browns offense and why it is so QB friendly.

Hue Jackson

I’ve already written on head coach Hue Jackson before, so you can find more information there. But he’s the key ingredient to the Browns’ future. While the team went 1-15 in 2016, it was primarily based on the lack of talent on offense, incompetent quarterback play, and one of the absolute worst defenses in the league.

Jackson’s scheme and play calling allowed the Browns to stay in games they weren’t supposed to be in, and got them a Christmas miracle with a win over the Chargers on Christmas Eve.

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In Cincinnati, Jackson was known for diversifying an already loaded offense that played at its peak in 2015. He was able to get the most out of Andy Dalton because his protection schemes kept the QB safe and gave him plenty of easy, open throws.

In Cleveland, while the offensive line was not as good in his first year, he was still able to provide the same friendly environment with less talent. On this play, Jackson calls for a play action pass off a jet sweep. The movement of the back and linemen creates misdirection, baiting the defense into going after the back. Gary Barnidge runs across the line of scrimmage and is left completely uncovered, allowing Robert Griffin III to make an easy throw for the first down.

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On this play, Jackson calls to motion in the outside receiver behind the slot receiver. This is smart because the secondary can’t communicate this in time. This leaves one guy to guard two guys, resulting in the outside receiver being completely open. The QB is given an easy target and a first down.

When people point at the Browns’ receivers not being up to league standards and preventing them from having a loaded offense, from an abstract point they’re right, but Hue Jackson at the helm makes up for this. Give me a great offensive line and a coach that can provide a QB friendly environment over a loaded receiving corps and a coach that doesn’t help the quarterback out. With the former, you’re guaranteed more openings and easy throws for the QB.

A healthy and fully improved offensive line will help the Browns, especially with Jackson calling the shots. He’s one of the best coordinators in the league and provides the beginning of what is to come for the Browns offense.

Next, let’s check out the running backs. The Browns have one of the best and most underrated duos in the league, with two backs that are young and have wide skill sets.

 

Isaiah Crowell

Isaiah Crowell’s development since year 1 has been substantial, as he’s gradually shown better footwork and running ability into tight gaps. While he’s been provided with quality run blocking, he hasn’t been the product of it, as he’s been able to make runs on his own as well.

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This play shows Crowell’s athleticism. The right tackle blows his protection, noted immediately by the back. He stops and cuts back outside before showing burst, shuffling his feet and crossing past the first down marker. Crowell shows off an impressive burst after grabbing the football, helping him on this run.

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Here, Crowell provides an example of how he’s able to run through tight windows. Before going up the middle, he lowers his head, protecting the ball, and is able to glide through the gap and cuts through the open space.

 

Duke Johnson

As one of the most exciting receiving backs in the league, Duke Johnson has been a gem for the Browns. He is a gifted route runner and extremely dangerous after the catch. He finished with the 4th most receiving yards of any back in the league in 2016 (514), finishing only behind David Johnson (879), Le’Veon Bell (616), and James White (551). His 53 catches were also 6th most out of all receiving backs.

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On this play, Johnson cuts inside to the first down marker. His awareness allows him to spot two defenders coming up against him the second he catches the ball. Once he sees this, he is able to make a sensational cut, avoiding the tackle and advancing the the field position.

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On third downs, Johnson is your safest bet. Not only is he fast and nimble, but he is also tough to bring down because of his slippery nature and his quick vision. An example is shown on the play above.

The combination of a healthy Crowell and Johnson will be lethal in 2017 behind the healthy line. They create enough plays on their own that they can give the Browns offense multiple dimensions to work with.

While the team doesn’t have the best group of receivers, they have some pieces that are definitely worth watching.

 

Kenny Britt

Kenny Britt is the Browns’ big free agent prize, and he’s a really good wide receiver (as illustrated in this article). With the Rams, he never had a good quarterback (Sam Bradford was out for the season in his only year with Britt) or a WR friendly offense. He gets the latter in Cleveland, and could potentially get a good QB to play with if Kessler ever develops or Kizer takes command of the starting job.

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In signing Britt, the Browns have replaced Terrelle Pryor with someone who is a bit more balanced and every bit as a threat at the catch position. Britt provides a huge frame to work and great strength, making him ideal for downfield throws and yards after the catch. On this play, Britt is held, but is able to break away from the guy guarding him. He bounces off tacklers and stays on his feet, bulldozing his way into the end zone for the touchdown.

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Britt is also a strong red zone option thanks to his footwork and body. On the above play, he’s able to box out his defender like a tight end, attacking the ball while making sure his feet stay in bounds. The combined concentration on the catch and his position allow him to score the touchdown.

 

David Njoku

Myles Garrett is the guy that’s gotten most of the draft buzz for Cleveland, but it’s David Njoku, drafted in the first round out of Miami, that gives them a potential superstar at the tight end position. It’s true that Njoku is lacking in blocking, but in today’s league filled with receiving tight ends (and with a great offensive line), it’s not that big of a deal.

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Like Britt, Njoku provides a cushion at the catch point, and in this case, he is a tight end! In Miami he was extremely dangerous partially for these reasons. The above play is one of the most impressive catches I’ve seen from any tight end in college. Njoku only gets one foot in (it counts as a touchdown due to the college football rules), but the concentration and ability to stay in bounds are both remarkable.

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On this play, Njoku shows his toughness, breaking through a tackle and bullying his way into the end zone. He’s a dangerous receiver and will be able to bring yards after the catch and contact to the team.

Britt and Njoku have been the two big additions to the receiving group, but the Browns have two other receivers that could potentially breakout.

 

Other Receivers

Corey Coleman

Corey Coleman’s rookie season was cut short thanks to injuries that kept him out during the middle of the season. He’s not great at the slot, but played well in Hue Jackson’s offense when on the field, and showed flashes of explosiveness.

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Here, Coleman does the step jab on Janoris Jenkins and gets open easily, leading to the score. Coleman is fast and can afford to be schemed open in Jackson’s offense. He just needs to stay on the field so we can see what he can become.

Ricardo Louis

Ricardo Louis is another receiver both the Browns and Browns fans have been excited about in the offseason. He had some bad drops in his rookie season, but he is a talented receiver.

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This play shows Louis’ shiftyness after the catch. His experience on the field was limited due to the amount of reps he got, but it offered some positives. He has a good frame to work with and can potentially be a YAC weapon. We’ll still need to see more from him, but at this point he should get more opportunities in his second season, especially since the Browns reportedly liked the improvements he made.

 

Linemen

Finally, we look at the bread and butter of the Browns offense: The offensive line. For a team that hasn’t had much success since its return, it’s been able to completely rebuild its offensive line in just a year, something competing teams like the Seahawks and Vikings have struggled to do.

In free agency, the Browns made two big splashes that have revamped their offensive line, signing center J.C. Tretter from Green Bay and right guard Kevin Zeitler from Cincinnati. Tretter is 26 while Zeitler is 27, so both players are young enough to play for the Browns while they continue to rebuild while also offering veteran presence.

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Both Tretter (#73 in the first GIF) and Zeitler (#70 in the 2nd GIF) are athletic linemen that will patch much needed areas for the line. Tretter gives Cleveland a legit center while Zeitler gives the team much needed depth at the right guard position. These two pieces will be vital to what will likely be one of the top offensive lines in the league.

Future Hall of Fame left tackle Joe Thomas needs no introduction. He’s been the league standard in each of his 10 seasons in Cleveland, and shows no sign of slowing down. Left guard Joel Bitonio will return after a foot injury kept him out for the season last October. He signed a 5-year extension with the Browns in the offseason, and is one of the league’s top left guards when healthy. John Greco provides depth at the right guard position as well.

The one unproven is the right tackle position, where Shon Coleman and Cam Erving will battle it out, but the Browns have filled enough holes at the line where they should be one of the league’s most dominant units once again.

Conclusion

The Cleveland Browns have built one of the best offenses for a quarterback to take over. With an excellent, revamped offensive line featuring Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio, JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler, a QB friendly scheme with efficient playcalling from Hue Jackson, a dynamic RB duo of Isiah Crowell and Duke Johnson, and a receiving corps featuring Kenny Britt, Corey Coleman and David Njoku, the Browns will put little pressure on their quarterback while giving them weapons to throw to.

As far as the overall team goes, the defense clearly still needs work and the team still needs established QB play before talk of the playoffs can begin. The front office understands this. This will be year 2 of the rebuilding process for the Browns, and they have done a phenomenal job of doing so. The team made plenty of crucial signings and draft picks in the offseason, drastically improving the quality of the team and adding more pieces all around.

Sashi Brown and the front office have done wonders managing the team. The Browns have avoided mistakes of the past by making logical steps for a true rebuild, collecting young talent and bringing in veterans with smart, reasonable deals. The best part is that they have added loads of draft picks for future drafts, with plenty of cap space for the 2018 season.

This is not a 10-12 win roster, but it definitely won’t be an 0-16 or 1-15 team. As the offseason continues to unfold, the Browns have looked like one of the least dysfunctional teams in this span in a time where other teams are shooting themselves in the foot with scared, illogical moves. If Kessler develops or Deshone Kizer takes the starting role, this group will look even better.

It’s been a long time since Browns fans have seen the playoffs. As a Browns fan myself, I’ve waited for the opportunity to see my team host a playoff game for the longest time. It’s one of the things that’s on my bucket list. It’s not likely that it will happen this season.

At the rate this team is rebuilding, however, we won’t have to wait long.

 

Featured image via dawgpounddaily.com

 

Why Cam Newton Was Still A Great Quarterback In 2016

Cam Newton was the best quarterback of 2015. Winning MVP and carrying the Carolina Panthers to their first Super Bowl appearance since 2003, Newton’s level of play guided the team to a 15-1 record and their third consecutive NFC South title.

Expectations for Carolina and Newton were about the same in 2016, but then, everything came spiraling out of control. With injuries to key players and a much tougher schedule, the team finished 6-10 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

Newton’s numbers have also been scrutinized. Putting up the league’s lowest completion percentage (52.9%) while throwing for 3,509 yards, 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, this for many was enough to drop the QB out of the top 5 or top 10 discussions. In addition to fans and analysts citing that Newton has to show improvement for the Panthers to make it back to the Super Bowl, this sets up the idea that he had a major regression last year.

The NFL is populated by analysis that is rooted heavily in raw statistics, so from their perspectives it makes sense to suggest Newton did not have a good year. With these stats, however, it’s critical to point context into why they happened, which is a mistake many stat buffs make.

For instance, Newton’s accuracy has always been brought up, but this is usually done without context. The Panthers run one of the most aggressive passing games in the league, regularly pushing the ball downfield and calling vertical routes religiously. Research tells us that every QB will see their accuracy decrease on long passing in comparison to short passing.

The issue is that when you play behind an injured, beaten up offensive line and throw to receivers that cannot catch, create separation, run the correct routes or win at the catch point, your completion percentage is of course going to suck. That’s not to say that Newton is the most accurate passer in the game, but his accuracy is better than people think it is. In the 2016-17 edition of the Deep Ball Project, Cam’s accuracy on throws of both 16+ and 20+ air yards was 8th for the year. This came despite a league worst completion percentage.

To explain why Newton’s downfield accuracy was so good in 2016, it’s appropriate to start with a more obscure method of analysis; Looking at his receivers. The Panthers have one of the worst receiving units in the NFL, as stated previously, and have consistently ruined big plays from their quarterback. This is not relatively new (It’s happened for the last 3 years as far as I can tell), but along with the injured offensive line, caused Newton’s stats to crumble.

Famed Irish NFL analyst Cian Fahey stated in his 2017 QB Catalogue that Newton experienced the 2nd most failed receptions (throws the receiver should have caught) of any team in 2016 with 59 failed receptions (only behind Aaron Rodgers who according to Fahey witnessed his receivers leave 67 catches on the field). Newton lost 845 yards on these passes, also 2nd to Rodgers’ 875. (Fahey also noted that Newton’s accuracy percentage dropped below 70% in four of the last five games of the season, and he had an accuracy percentage of less than 60% in 3 of those 4 games. That was critical in making his overall completion percentage and the accuracy percentage Fahey gave him look far worse than they would have been with a healthy Newton.)

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Kelvin Benjamin was a part of the legendary WR Draft Class of 2014 (a class that includes Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant, Jarvis Landry, Brandin Cooks, Allen Robinson, and UDFA Allen Hurns), but he’s heading closer to bust territory at this rate. Despite his size, he’s a receiver that lacks discipline in every area that counts. Above, Newton fires a catchable pass to Benjamin. Benjamin creates little separation on the play, and when he does get his hands on the ball (theoretically), he can’t get himself to haul it in.

The pass needed a good play from the wide receiver to complete it, but at the same time it was still an accurate pass. Benjamin’s inability to separate and soft hands botches this opportunity.

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Ted Ginn is notorious for his poor ball skills, and in 2016 proved no different. Where in 2015 he went on a 2nd half stretch where he was able to minimize the amount of drops he had, they came back full force the next year.

On this play, Newton fires a perfect pass that should be a trip to the red zone if caught at the very least. For some odd reason, Ginn keeps waving his hand up long after Newton fires it as if he was making a fair catch or was Randy Moss. He drops the pass, the sun is hot.

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This pass to Ed Dickson triggers the same result. It’s a beautifully thrown ball that bounces off the hands of Dickson, wasting a touchdown. It’s a theme that followed the Panthers from week 1 until week 17.

Combine that with Newton playing through injuries in the 2nd half of the season, and the 2016 Panthers were an utter disaster.

Despite these setbacks, Newton’s quality wasn’t that far off from his MVP season in 2015. In fact, it actually was great for a large part of the season.

Cam Newton’s been able to carry bad offenses for his entire career in the NFL because he’s one of the league’s top quarterbacks. When he won the MVP, it was during a season where Carolina played a soft schedule. This allowed the supporting cast to look better than it actually was, but Newton’s high quality play remained unchanged, just with monster stats.

It’s an outlier for the quality of the offense around Newton, but not for Newton himself. With something like the Steelers’ offensive line and receivers around him, he’d consistently put up massive numbers every year. That’s not a strike against a great QB like Ben Roethlisberger, that’s just showing how he’s been able to have a good supporting cast, which is what the Panthers need to do with Newton.

But before I get too carried away, let’s take a look at why I think Newton was still a great quarterback in 2016, looking at what truly defines him as an underrated great.

Newton’s ability as a run threat is obvious. As a dynamic passer and runner, his ability gives the Panthers offense multiple dimensions to work with. He is quite known as a runner, and he’s also one of the best passers in football.

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As previously mentioned, Carolina runs an aggressive passing offense that encourages pushing the ball downfield, and this is because of Newton’s playing style. He is one of the league’s hungriest QBs in terms of further pushing the ball, aggressively attacking tight windows with precision passing and throwing receivers open even when they aren’t.

In the first play above, Newton works a pocket that gets more condensed as time goes by. While his mechanics are awkward (he doesn’t really step up), it doesn’t matter because of how strong Newton’s arm is as well as the accuracy of the throw. The pass is sensational, leading his receiver to a spot where he can make a catch without being contested with, all while the ball is thrown over everyone’s heads. Newton’s anticipation allows him to be aggressive without constantly being punished, and similar results happen in the 2nd play.

One of the more defining aspects of Newton’s style is in his arm. The range at which he throws as well as the maximum velocity and precision he has on downfield passes give him an otherworldly quality.

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Newton is gifted at throwing 50-60 yards downfield without the need to step into his throws. He is rare in that while his mechanics and footwork are sloppy, they don’t really harm him, as he is comfortable from these angles and consistently throws with accuracy downfield. On the play above, the way Newton throws suggests an awkward desperation pass, but further inspection reveals that his feet were pointing at the place he was throwing Ginn open. The pass is thrown without Newton stepping in and is on time, resulting in an incredible touchdown throw.

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I consider this play one of the five best throws of the 2016 season. As Newton’s pass protection decreased until a small circle surrounded him, he climbed up the pocket and fired in the back corner of the end zone to Ginn. While it was initially ruled incomplete, the replay revealed that it was a touchdown pass, and the ruling was changed. The pass is sensational not just because of the delivery and accuracy, but because of the pocket Newton was working with.

And when it comes to working with condensing pockets, Newton is one of the best, if not the best, quarterbacks at handling them.

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Like all other great quarterbacks, Newton’s quality of play thrives under pressure. He’s always looking down the field to give his receivers a chance to make a play even if the pass protection sucks. On this play, the Saints’ front 7 pushes the pocket into Cam, but he keeps cool in spite of this. He isn’t even phased by as he makes multiple reads before moving to his right to find a wide open receiver. He gets the pass off before getting thrown to the ground.

Newton is one of the more notable examples of mobile quarterbacks in the NFL. His peak mobility isn’t at the level of Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson or Matthew Stafford, but it’s still quite good.

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This play was offset by a holding penalty on Carolina, but it still shows the intelligence and movement the QB makes under pressure. He’s able to break free of a tackle and climbs up the pocket, choosing to release the ball right before taking a shot to the head (a penalty should have been called).

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Newton’s mechanics may not be “normal”, but they remain about the same when the pressure closes in. His movement is terrific; he’ll make subtle movements to ease himself away from pressure and maximize the results of a play. This play combines most of Newton’s traits. He’s able to sidestep an edge rusher, makes quick reads surveying downfield, and fires a precise rocket to his receiver that gets there before the defender does.

It’s indicative of how Newton has played in the NFL.

 

Conclusion

Cam Newton is still a top 10 quarterback, and his 2016 season, while not on par with 2015, was still a great year. His declining stats were based on the health of his offensive line, the vertical offense he plays in, and the horrible quality of the receivers he throws to.

The Panthers drafted Christian McCaffrey in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft to try and ease the pressure on Newton. McCaffrey was a sensational running back in college, and offers some of the most exciting play I’ve ever seen at the college level. His efficiency was tremendous and suggests he can dominate at an NFL level instantly. They won’t rush him behind Jonathan Stewart, an excellent and underrated back in his own right.

The team also drafted Curtis Samuel to help at the receiving end. Samuel is talented, and could be the #1 receiver for the Panthers by the end of the year.

These two players should be able to offer Newton some much needed help, as well as the return of several linemen. Expectations shouldn’t soar too high though, as the offensive line and receivers will still be a problem for Newton. What is important is that he’ll be healthy to start the year.

Whatever the case, Cam Newton is a terrific quarterback that is far too underappreciated. What he lacks in being the most accurate passer in the league he makes up completely with his peak level of play. He makes Carolina stay in games each year and gets the most out of a limited cast of receivers.

Carolina must do all they can to insure that they don’t waste the career of one of the most talented quarterbacks to ever step into the league.

 

Featured image via vibe.com

 

 

 

Sam Bradford vs. Teddy Bridgewater: The Battle for Minnesota

It’s a surreal time to be a Vikings fan.

Following franchise quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s devastating leg injury that kept him out for all of the 2016 season, the Vikings traded for temporary franchise quarterback Sam Bradford from the Eagles in order to stay competitive for the year. While they failed to make the playoffs for a 2nd year in a row (meaning they didn’t make it like they did in 2015), Bradford helped guide the team to an 8-8 record despite constant injuries and arguably the worst offensive line in the league. He threw 20 touchdowns to just 5 interceptions and his 71.2 completion percentage is an NFL record.

Following the 2017 season, the team will face a tough decision regarding the quarterback position. Earlier this year, the Vikings declined to pickup Bridgewater’s 5th year option, and he’ll most likely miss the 2017 season as well. When 2018 comes, will they return to Bridgewater or continue to roll with Bradford?

Debates between these two quarterbacks can get intense in the state of Minnesota. One side feels Teddy is the true franchise quarterback, while the other feels the team should continue to roll with the healthier quarterback in Bradford.

My take is that I think both quarterbacks are really good and undeserving of the scrutiny they’ve gotten outside of Minnesota. So for this article, I’ll do a comparison between both quarterbacks, highlighting what areas they play their best in and which is better in certain areas.

Without further delay, let’s compare both of the quarterbacks in selective traits.

 

Decision Making

Sam Bradford

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Bradford is a poised passer despite his reputation as a checkdown machine. The reason he’s like that is due to the lack of quality of the offensive lines he’s been behind, making it impossible for the routes to develop in time for him to get rid of the ball. This forces him to check it down to get the most amount of yards possible.

#8 is a smart decision maker though. Unlike Teddy, though, he’s put in an offense that requires him to make quick decisions, and in 2016 he succeeded on that end. On the play above, Bradford looks off his receiver (#82), causing the defender guarding him to move along Bradford’s eyes. Once the QB sees this, in the snap of a finger he turns back to his receiver, plants his feet, and fires a strike that allows to ball to be delivered safely.

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Above, Bradford immediately turns to his left after the snap after noticing a receiver creating separation downfield. His quickness processing the play and his vision allow him to throw a dime outside the numbers. He is exceptionally quick when throwing outside the numbers, making it easier for the Vikings to run vertical routes even if the offensive line can’t hold up.

Teddy Bridgewater

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In stark contrast to Bradford’s quick decision making, Bridgewater has played in a offense that allows him to be more patient. This is partly due to his advanced athleticism in comparison to Bradford. His movement in the pocket is more nimble and fluid, allowing him to make decisions on the fly.

On the play above, Bridgewater sees that none of his routes are open, so he moves around the pocket in an attempt to find an open receiver. This instead creates an open gap at the middle, which Teddy sees and takes advantage of. This allows him to hurdle his way into the end zone for the touchdown, showing off his patience in the process.

With this said, Teddy has shown some plays where he releases the ball quickly.

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On the play above, Bridgewater makes an aggressive move firing this pass into a tight window. The closest Lions’ defender at the catch point isn’t looking, and Teddy knows this beforehand (he’s too busy guarding another receiver) and fires a perfect pass to his receiver. He does an excellent job of diagnosing the coverage and finding his receiver.

Winner: Teddy Bridgewater

Both Bridgewater and Bradford are excellent decision makers, but while Bradford is able to make quicker decisions downfield, Bridgewater is able to make more decisions on the fly, so he barely gets the edge in this category.

 

Arm Strength

Sam Bradford

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I’ve talked a lot about arm strength recently, so this is redundant, but still needs to be said.

Sam Bradford’s arm strength is phenomenal. He is capable firing rockets and throwing from any angle/position of the field, and is also capable of processing the long ball throws quickly. The above play is a perfect example. With anticipation, Bradford fires an absolute laser that is right on the money to his receiver.

A decent amount of quarterbacks could make that throw, but can’t do it as consistently or as accurately as Bradford.

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Bradford is an anticipation thrower. He usually does a great job of finding the open receiver and locking on to a spot where he can catch the ball without interference, and for a QB with limited mobility, that’s crucial.

This throw combined with the arm strength is unreal. He notices one of his receivers has an angle in traffic, and Bradford uses that to his advantage. He’s able to direct his receiver away from said traffic by placing it only where he can make the catch. The pass rockets through the tight window and is right into the hands of the intended target. It’s a beautiful throw and a perfect example of Bradford’s arm talent.

Teddy Bridgewater

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Bridgewater’s arm strength doesn’t make him a big downfield passing threat, but from time to time he does have enough zip on his passes. On the play above, for example, he shows he’s capable of executing a strike on the run with this first down completion. His arm strength isn’t great, but it is quite good, and it has decent control on all aspects of the field.

Winner: Sam Bradford

Bridgewater simply can’t compete in this area. Bradford’s arm talent is one of the strongest in the NFL and is far advanced in comparison to Teddy’s. This additionally makes him a superior downfield passer as well.

 

Play Under Pressure

Sam Bradford

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Sam Bradford has a reputation for being a “deer in the headlights” in the pocket. This is strange, because in 2016, I thought he showed extreme awareness in the pocket, and what better time to show awareness than when under pressure? The Vikings offensive line is perfect practice for pressure plays.

In spite of his limited mobility, Bradford is great under pressure. The collapsing protection doesn’t affect his mechanics, as he’s able to concentrate and stay disciplined on the play. The throw above is electrifying. Bradford’s footwork makes a slight adjustment when he sees pressure, without the awkwardness or stumble. Unless you’re a deadly accurate quarterback, you cannot backpedal in these situations, because it will affect the accuracy of the throw.

This throw is fantastic not just because Bradford gets hit the second after releasing, but because of the placement as well (more on that later). It’s well out of reach of the defender’s hands and far enough that Stefon Diggs can make a play on it. It’s an awesome, awesome play under pressure.

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On this play, a linebacker goes undetected and rushes up the middle to drill Bradford. The QB sees a player open cutting across the field on a shallow crossing route. He uses his eye movement to direct traffic away from the spot he’s throwing to and side arms it to his receiver just as he gets hit. The pass is perfect, and proves that Bradford is a wizard under pressure. With an offensive line that doesn’t give him any time to react, his reaction is a lot better than it’s given credit for.

Teddy Bridgewater

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Bridgewater is also a master under pressure. His advanced mobility allows him to create plays under pressure, like Bradford helping to make the offensive line look so much better. On the above play, Bridgewater doesn’t waste any time stepping up in the pocket, as he recognizes pressure immediately. The space he’s in becomes more and more condensed as he climbs up, yet he’s somehow able to get the pass off to an open receiver. It’s an excellent play made even more impressive considering this was his first career game.

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This might be the most impressive play of Bridgewater’s career, and it’s similar to the throw Andrew Luck made in the 2014 wild card game against the Bengals. He climbs up the pocket once the protection collapses, scrambling before finding a receiver to throw to. Despite being tackled to the ground as he’s throwing, he doesn’t lose his concentration, and is able to get a breathtaking throw off before his knees hit the ground.

Winner: Both Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater

Both quarterbacks play really well under pressure in their own ways, so this time this category results in a tie.

 

Accuracy

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Bradford’s league leading completion percentage last year was not a fluke. He is one of the most deadly accurate passers in the NFL, and shows precision from any range whether the window to throw is tight or wide. In the 2016-17 edition of the Deep Ball Project, he was the most accurate downfield passer on all throws of 16+ air yards, and inside the top 5 on throws of 20+.

On this throw, Bradford attacks a tight window with the same degree of anticipation he’s always had in his career. The window is tight but Bradford’s strength and early release under pressure allow for a perfect pass.

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This throw has Bradford leading his receiver in stride away from a potential interception. It’s thrown with enough velocity and early enough that all 3 defenders around the ball can’t make a play on it. The ball makes it safely as the receiver runs out of bounds.

Teddy Bridgewater

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Bridgewater is also a really accurate quarterback. He is able to display near flawless accuracy on all types of short and intermediate passes.

On the pass above, Bridgewater throws right as his receiver is about to turn the corner on his route. Doing this allows the pass to be delivered perfectly in stride so that the defender can’t reach it. Had he released the ball later, the receiver may have caught it out of bounds, so his timing succeeds here.

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The accuracy on this throw is insane. Bridgewater understands the degree of difficulty the completion of the pass would take, so he lofts it just high enough so that his receiver can make a play without screwing him over, and high enough that the defender can’t lay a finger on it. It’s a terrific throw.

Winner: Sam Bradford

Bridgewater may be a monster at the short and intermediate level, but Bradford combines that with much better downfield accuracy, so he takes this category.

 

Movement

Sam Bradford

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Bradford’s mobility is extremely limited, but he is capable of making small movements in the pocket to help better position himself. With that said, he has shown a couple of moments where his mobility suddenly becomes like Bridgewater’s, such as the spin move above. Here, he is able to extend the play and fires right when he needs to a receiver on the sideline. The pass is tight but perfectly thrown.

Teddy Bridgewater

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When he was on the field, Teddy Bridgewater was one of the more mobile quarterbacks in the league. He can consistently juke out defenders and play aggressive from outside the pocket.

Above, Teddy shows off the spin move as new Panther tackle Matt Kalil displays his lack of protection. He senses the pressure and spins at the last moment, surveying downfield to find a target that can escape coverage. He extends the play until he’s at the line of scrimmage, where every defender is far enough for him to throw safely to a receiver.

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This is also a great play. Bridgewater rushes out of a clean pocket, but in a rare exception it’s excused because he is able to detect an open target. He rolls out of the pocket and makes a comfortable sideline throw on the run, where his target is able to make the catch. A great throw rolling out.

Winner: Teddy Bridgewater

Bridgewater wins this one easily, as he is much more mobile than Bradford is, who is limited to subtle movements inside the pocket for the most part.

 

Health

Before Minnesota, Bradford’s previous 3 seasons saw him struggle to stay on the field. He didn’t even play in 2014 due to an injury suffered against the Browns in the preseason. So seeing him play every game he was assigned (He didn’t play in week 1 because the coaching staff didn’t want to rush him as he was recently traded to the Vikings) under the worst line he’s played behind was of course completely unexpected.

With Bridgewater still recovering from his leg injury, this one is easy.

Winner: Sam Bradford

 

Conclusion

Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater are both really good quarterbacks in my opinion, and have much more to their skill sets than people will give them any credit for. Only being able to choose one quarterback to keep is extremely tough, and the Vikings will eventually have to answer that question after the 2017 season, providing that both quarterbacks are healthy by then.

Ultimately, I have to give the nod to Sam Bradford. Bridgewater is the superior quarterback on broken plays, but Bradford provides a better fit for the vertical style of offense the Vikings want to run. His arm strength and quick decision making allow him to process reads further downfield, and unlike Teddy, he’s healthy for a change.

Again, coming to this opinion was difficult for me to do. Both quarterbacks are great under pressure, at decision making, and at accuracy. But Bradford provides the better skill set for downfield throws as well as durability, and it’s unclear if Bridgewater will ever be the same quarterback he was when he comes back.

Right now, this is Bradford’s job to lose, and if his 2016 season is of any indication, and as long as he stays healthy, it will be nearly inconceivable for him to lose it.

 

Featured image via startribune.com

Marcus Mariota Is The Best Young Quarterback In the NFL

It’s been heavily debated as to who the best young quarterback in the league is, with Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Derek Carr, and Dak Prescott generally are in these debates. With so many different answers, no one’s really agreed on who the top dog is.

You’ve already seen my answer by clicking this article.

Marcus Mariota is a sensation. Through two years in the NFL, he’s evolved into one of the game’s great quarterbacks, becoming someone who has not only met his potential, but exceeded it. Though his 2016 season ended like the last with an injury, Mariota established himself as one of the league’s young stars, and because of him many have predicted that the Tennessee Titans would clinch the AFC South in 2017.

At 23 years of age, few quarterbacks in the league have progressed as quickly as Mariota has. He has traits that future Hall of Fame veterans have in just two years of experience, and is ahead of the curve against his peers.

For this article, I will explain what makes Marcus Mariota stand out as the game’s best young quarterback, then explain why I think he has the edge over Winston, Carr, and Prescott. So let’s get this started.

 

What Makes Marcus Mariota Stand Out

Mariota’s 61.6 career completion percentage is misleading. He plays in a vertical offense that doesn’t fit his skill set, calling for many downfield passes instead of a heavy focus on the short/intermediate range, which is where he’s truly dangerous.

Mariota is the one of the most accurate passers in the league. He’s capable of threading the needle into tight windows with relative ease, and he expanded upon this in his sophomore year.

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Mariota’s arm talent does not stand out, but to make up for it, he has a quick, smooth release that has the ball seemingly out of his hand as soon as he plans to throw it. On this throw, Mariota does so as soon as he sees an opening. He is comfortable with throwing receivers open and doesn’t need them to create openings for him to release the ball, making him a master of controlling traffic.

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Of any quarterback I’ve ever watched, Marcus Mariota goes through his reads the quickest. His process in this stage is not human, as he’ll cycle through his reads at lightspeed until he finds the most comfortable route. On the above play after moving out of the pocket, Mariota cycles through his reads in just 2 seconds before finding a guy he consider open. He makes a perfect throw without breaking a sweat. It’s like how Tom Brady is able to pick apart the open receiver with the flip of a switch, though Mariota has more athleticism and can do this on the fly.

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Mariota also has the ability of Philip Rivers to manage the pocket under pressure. He’s often stereotyped as a scrambling quarterback when he’s the exact opposite, and that comes from playing in a “spread offense” in Oregon. Sure, he had plenty of running plays, but also show cased in that offense that he was a pocket passer with a cool, collective poise.

Like Rivers, Mariota has a quick throwing motion and can handle pressure without altering his mechanics. Above, the Titans’ offensive line doesn’t pick up pressure, and the QB is surrounded by swarming defenders. An experienced QB under pressure would be able to make this issue secondary and focus on the task of completing a pass. Mariota doesn’t flinch at all, and his pass makes it to his receiver just before he’s hit.

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Continuing a look at him under pressure, the play above is terrific on the part of Mariota. He simultaneously sees a defender about to smash him and DeMarco Murray open. Keeping his eyes up, he evades the defender at the right time and fires to Murray in a spot where the guy guarding him can’t reach because of where his momentum is carrying him. The touchdown pass as a result is perfect.

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Mariota’s mechanics are among the fastest in the league, if not the fastest. Whether protected or unprotected, his delivery and footwork are always smooth and his poise never seems to break down when the protection does. The above play features good protection, but it’s enhanced by Mariota’s pocket movement and release. He’s able to catch Delanie Walker with an opening, and climbs up, jumps, and throws across his body to where Walker can make a clean, uncontested catch with no one guarding him. A great play from the quarterback.

Mariota would be good enough with these traits alone, but he has a special talent that truly ascends him into a top 10 quarterback; his eye movement.

Marcus Mariota can read defenses perfectly fine, but he goes a step beyond and is able to move defenders with his eyes to create openings for his receivers. This allows him to throw “no look passes”, where he’s not even looking at the place he’s throwing to, but it doesn’t matter because the passes arrive on time and in stride.

It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, so let’s look at some examples.

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At first, this seems like a brutal mistake from the safety in the middle, but at closer glance, you can see Mariota staring directly at him. He’s in his zen like trance where he notices one of his receivers has separation on his man, but he knows that he can’t simply just throw looking at the spot he wants, otherwise it’s an easy interception. Combining his quick release, Mariota fakes out the defender by turning his head as he releases the ball, making the defender look like a clown and making the completion look easy in the process.

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On this play, the defensive back (#49) thinks Mariota is staring down a receiver and that he has easy pickings for an interception. In reality, Mariota is actually staring down the defensive back. He falls for the QB’s trap, as he throws a receiver open with a perfect pass and delivery. This comes from the Chiefs game where coach Mike Mularkey made several questionable decisions including a botched two point conversion attempt. Mariota truly carried the team in the 4th quarter and helped pull an upset at one of the deadliest opposing arenas in the league.

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This last play is Mariota’s best throw of his career, and one of the best throws I’ve ever seen. He’s able to control the momentum and movement of two defenders this time, and impossibly threads the needle between both backs for an improbable touchdown. For any other active QB, this wouldn’t be open. For Mariota, he creates route openings with his eye movement and fits the ball perfectly into areas most quarterbacks wouldn’t dream of attempting. This pass is otherworldly as a result.

 

What About the Other Young Quarterbacks?

So I’ve made my case for why I think Mariota is the best young quarterback in the league, but why not Jameis Winston, Derek Carr, or Dak Prescott? Below, I’ll explain for each quarterback.

Jameis Winston

Jamies Winston is a truly gifted athlete. His ability to manage pockets, extend plays to the point where he squeezes the last amount of juice out of them, poise, and arm strength are all first class. The problem is that his accuracy is terrible. He constantly misses receivers by miles and lacks the consistent touch that Mariota has, even if his accuracy is better. I actually found that while Mariota wasn’t a good deep passer, Winston was even worse. 

Winston does so many things right, but if his accuracy was even mediocre, he’d not only be the best young quarterback in the league, but also a top 5 guy.

Derek Carr

Many people think Derek Carr is a top 10 or top 5 quarterback. NFL Network recently put him 11th on their annual list of the top 100 players in the league (as voted by actual players). I’m not one of those people. As I’ve stated in the past, Carr’s career progression has been impressive, but his mechanics and play under pressure simply can’t compete with Mariota’s. This is strange considering the excellence of the Raiders’ offensive line in comparison to the above average offensive line of the Titans. In addition, his receivers and scheme give him so many more chances to create plays, with Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree constantly creating separation and making Carr’s job a lot easier.

Carr is clearly a better downfield passer, but he also has struggles with releasing the ball, as he often fires prematurely in clean pockets when he needs to let routes develop or buy time with his protection. He’s a good, but not great, quarterback at this stage of his career.

Dak Prescott

Out of any quarterback compared to Mariota, the rookie is the one I would put closest to. I’ve found Prescott’s ability under pressure (despite the Cowboys OL) and his pre snap ability to be much more advanced than Carr and his accuracy to be a big step up from Winston. When compared to Mariota, I have him as the 2nd best young quarterback in the league. Still, Prescott doesn’t have the level of MM’s ability to anticipate openings, and he’s not as accurate.

Still, for rookie standards, Dak Prescott was sensational, but he has a long way to go before he’s on Mariota’s level in my mine.

 

Conclusion

Marcus Mariota is a great quarterback already. The problem is will it be enough under Mike Mularkey? The coach received praise for guiding Tennessee to a 9-7 record after winning just 3 games the previous season, but this was really because of the run combo of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry and Mariota’s ability to carry a flawed team out of tough situations.

The problem with Mularkey’s coaching is that he calls too many vertical plays without spreading out receivers. It limits the amount of options Mariota has, and leads to failed plays or interceptions. He also is too attached to the idea that Mariota is a scrambling passer instead of a pocket QB (though to his credit, as the season went on more plays asking Mariota to play in the pocket were called) that he is. The 4th quarter of the Chiefs game was a perfect example of Mariota transcending bad coaching into a win for the Titans.

Fortunately, Mariota has a fine offensive line, but the receivers are a different story. We know Delanie Walker is great, but Tajae Sharpe was a disappointment in his rookie season, and Rishard Matthews, while explosive, is also inconsistent with catching. Harry Douglas can’t separate or show off ball skills, so his presence for the most part has been useless. The team has added Eric Decker and Corey Davis in hopes of upgrading the receiving corps, so we shall wait and see how that goes.

Regardless, Marcus Mariota’s level of play is sensational for a guy entering his third season. He’s deadly accurate, extremely quick with his reads and mechanics, can handle pressure and move around the pocket like a pro, and plays the game of turf chess where he moves defenders with his eyes and creates openings for his receivers. He’s a special player and a top 10 quarterback, and as long as he stays healthy, he’ll continue to go that route.

That all adds up to Marcus Mariota being the best young quarterback going into the 2017 season.

 

Featured image via nashvillesportsnetwork.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Colin Kaepernick Is A Good Quarterback And Deserves To Start

By now, Colin Kaepernick’s kneel down during the National Anthem in 2016 has been imprinted inside every football fans’ heads. Done to protest what he felt was the oppression of blacks and people of color, his decision to kneel for the anthem has been met with both praise and criticism.

Front offices turned on Kaepernick completely, disgusted at how he would even kneel down and not stand up for the most iconic American symbol. Even when he got his starting job back from Blaine Gabbert later in the season, it was clear that the 49ers weren’t going to keep him after the season. He opted out of his contract with San Francisco in March, making him a free agent.

From then on out, he’s gotten very little interest from teams. From Roger Goodell saying the league’s lack of interest was football related, to Spike Lee prematurely congratulating Kaepernick on a gig with the Seahawks that he was never offered, to teams like the Jets signing Josh McCown over him, it’s been a rough year for what once was a football sensation back in 2012.

Some applaud Kaepernick for taking a stand against the system and its corruption. Others feel he did it for attention and to get his starting job back. One thing is certain: You can’t bring up the former 49ers quarterback without getting a polarized reaction from whoever you talk to. Some people think he isn’t even good enough to be a backup, and MMQB writer Andy Benoit wrote that he saw 15 backups that were better than Kaepernick.

Take my word for it. Colin Kaepernick isn’t a backup quarterback. He isn’t a third stringer. He isn’t even a guy that can make the practice squad. He’s a starting caliber quarterback.

When he took Alex Smith’s job in 2012, he was one of the most exciting players to watch. Featured in San Francisco’s run heavy read option offense, Kaepernick took full command and led the team to a Super Bowl appearance, as well as another NFC title appearance the following season. And when it comes to postseason stats, Kaepernick has actually done really well in January.

You can say that Kaepernick never played as good as 2012 for the next 3 years, but looking deeper, I don’t think you can say the same about 2016.

A Look At Kaepernick’s 2016 Season

It’s true that the San Francisco 49ers went 2-14 in 2016, 2nd to the Cleveland Browns for the worst record in the league. Head coach Chip Kelly was fired after one season with the team, and Kaepernick went down with him. The general consensus is that Kap has gotten worse since 2012, to the point where he couldn’t be a functional quarterback.

Taking a look at it myself, I found I was coming away from it with the opposite feelings. Colin Kaepernick’s play was not only a step up from previous seasons, but was actually a pretty good year overall, and that’s not even looking at the 16 touchdowns to 4 interceptions.

You won’t see Kaepernick referenced as one of the game’s elite passers. He’s not a top 5 or top 10 quarterback. What he is is a borderline top 15 quarterback as a starter, a good passer that can explode in a run heavy system. The problem was that in 2016, his supporting cast was bottom of the barrel. The offensive line kept giving up pressure, the run game was almost nonexistent, and his receivers were among the worst in the league, creating zero separation and leaving plenty of plays on the field.

With that said, Kaepernick experienced growth in 2016. No longer was he just a run exclusive quarterback. He was doing things he showed in brief spurts in past seasons. His pocket movement evolved to the point where it’s become a strength instead of a glaring omission. Instead of making one read then panicking if it wasn’t open, he showed greater patience and more instances of him progressing through his reads. He was showing legitimate development.

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This play would be an anomaly from previous seasons, but in 2016, it was some I was constantly expected Kaepernick to do. Here, Kap notices his initial read is not open, so he uses subtle pocket movement to create space for him to to throw, allowing him to get the pass off to his receiver. At first it looks like an inaccurate pass, but his receiver stops running for some strange reason, even though the pass would’ve hit him in stride had he kept running.

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From the same game, this is a very impressive play that continues to show the growth Kaepernick experienced last year. The right edge rusher (Kaepernick’s right) gets through the cardboard cutout attempting to block him. In past seasons, this might be a situation where Kap would run completely outside of the pocket while dropping his eyes. Here, that’s not what happens. Kap recognizes that one of his receivers has the edge on a defender, so he keeps his eyes up, evades the edge rusher, and stays in the pocket, firing an accurate pass to the open receiver for a nice gain.

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Kaepernick has always been a guy willing to hold on to the ball, but as these two plays against the Buccaneers show, he combined that patience with a more technical and refined style of play in the pocket. On the first play, Kap pump fakes to create an open lane for him to throw. The distraction allows the receiver to get open and make the catch on the quarterback’s throw.

The 2nd throw illustrates perfectly how far Kap’s vision and movement have improved. When the pass protection starts to break, he keeps his eyes downfield and moves slightly outside the pocket, picking apart an open receiver with a strike.

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This last example comes against the Dolphins. Kaepernick’s first read isn’t open, so he surveys the field, simultaneously climbing up the pocket while locking his eyes up. He evades one defender and climbs up, firing a perfect strike in stride to an open receiver. These are plays people think inferior quarterbacks do better than Kap. Those quarterbacks have an inability to keep calm when the first read is blocked and run themselves into pressure and make stupid decisions like turning the ball over or throwing to the wrong receiver. Kap’s improved pocket presence has transcended what was once a limitation for him.

Kap is a polarizing subject and always has been, but what has always been universally accepted is that his peak arm velocity is sensational. It might be the best I’ve ever seen out of any quarterback. Take the 50+ yard throw against the Saints in 2014 for example.

This was a masterful throw. To have that amount of velocity from that far while doing it on 4th down with the game on the line is legendary. But Kap’s velocity has usually been uncontrolled, as he’s rifled it fast for most of his career.

In 2016, while that didn’t really change, his increase in subtle pocket movement allowed it to be less of an issue.

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On this play, Kaepernick embraces a common theme from this article: patience, keeping his eyes downfield, and escaping pressure to pick apart the open guy. Here, he does that and rifles a touchdown pass on the other side of the field to an open receiver.

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Kaepernick’s vision comes on display here along with his arm strength. He does an excellent job making small movements in the pocket to escape pressure while (shocker) keeping his eyes downfield. He throws a rifle across his body to the other side of the field in a similar way to the Saints game from 2014. This can’t hold a candle to that play (nothing can), but it is still a terrific play nonetheless.

It’s fun seeing Kaepernick use his arm strength to his advantage, and in 2016 he displayed plenty of said advantages. But the footwork wasn’t the only improvement, as Kap showed more plays where he progressed through his reads.

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Here, Kaepernick does the unthinkable; he does multiple reads on the same play. Crazy, isn’t it? This play isn’t spectacular, but it shows that Kaepernick is taking better care of the football while maximizing the results of a play.

But while Kaepernick has become a better pocket passer, he hasn’t lost the art of buying time and being a magician on unstructured plays.

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This play is risky, but displays vintage Colin Kaepernick. None of the receivers are open when the 49ers need a first down, so Kap rolls out of the pocket and buys time. He’s able to outrun everyone until he has no room left, and just at the last second, he lofts a pass just over a Pats’ defender’s head and into the arms of his receiver where only he can catch it. Some people have said this play was dangerous and should’ve been picked, I think it’s a risky play that ultimately paid off.

He also still has a few magical running plays up his sleeve.

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Conclusion

These are all plays analysts choose to ignore to push a narrative, a narrative that Kaepernick can’t start in the NFL. Is it just a coincidence that Kaepernick was said to contribute to a decline in NFL ratings in 2016 and now no team is interested in him? That Goodell continues to say his lack of interest is football related? Or that teams are signing horrible quarterbacks like Josh McCown and Ryan Fitzpatrick (the latter of which divided his locker room in 2016 and blatantly said he could care less about mentoring the young quarterbacks on the Jets) while ignoring a quarterback that has evolved his play and has widened his skill set? To me, it doesn’t sound like a coincidence at all.

The pushing aside of Colin Kaepernick isn’t because of QB evaluation. It’s because he goes against their mindset and what front offices personally believe in. The NFL is close minded. This is a league that is okay with players hitting their girlfriends, committing assault of any kind, being constant off field headaches, playing abysmal in the system, committing arson, or just being dirty players. As long as you stand for the National Anthem, most of these teams will give you a chance if you’re talented or cheap enough. And maybe, just maybe, if you play football the right way.

This is the same NFL that has teams calling Kaepernick a distraction and a bad role model yet ignores his charity work and that the only time he’s kneeling for the anthem is, well, during the anthem. If you’ve noticed, there doesn’t seem to be any protesting or running on the field during the middle of a game, not one instance. So where does the distraction part come in? Here’s a secret: It doesn’t. He’s not on a team because owners are scared that if they sign him, fans won’t tune in to watch them. I think that’s pretty clear.

This is a country that claims to be the United States of America, yet can’t even agree on a single issue on or off social media. Kaepernick’s protests have provided zero exceptions in that regard. But what is agreed upon is that those who have actually given his 2016 a chance generally think it was a good season. No longer was this the work of a run only quarterback, this was the work of quarterback that developed into an improved pocket passer.

Sure, Kaepernick has flaws. His accuracy is decent, but it’s not league leading. His downfield accuracy isn’t all that. But he’s not the same running exclusive quarterback people think he is. That Kap is still unsigned shows just how outdated the NFL’s methods of analysis is, because at 30 years old, while his running ability may soon decline, his growth as a passer gives him the chance to extend his career even further. But no one wants to look into that.

There aren’t 15 backups better than Kaepernick. He is not an on field distraction or a bad role model. He is not one of the worst passers in the league. Colin Kaepernick is a good quarterback and deserves to start in the NFL.

 

Featured image via 15minutenews.com