In the weeks before the 2016 NFL Draft, many expected the Cleveland Browns to end up with a potential franchise quarterback. However, those predictions were based on the team selecting in the No. 2 overall position with quarterbacks Jared Goff and Carson Wentz available for selection. After trading out of that prime position for a bevvy of lower selections, the Browns still tabbed a quarterback, but with the No. 93 overall selection in Round 3 when the Browns wrote Cody Kessler’s name on their draft card.
While the pick was initially panned by many analysts, WFNY felt it was important to reach out to one of the more respected NFL Draft quarterback gurus to get an expert opinion on what Kessler might provide inside the confines of a Hue Jackson offense. InsidethePylon‘s Mark Schofield was gracious enough to take the time to respond and provide his analysis in detail.1
Mark Schofield: Kessler certainly has an advantage due to the offensive scheme he ran at USC, his experience, and the route concepts that the Trojans ran, and that I believe the Cleveland Browns will implement as part of their offense under Hue Jackson, which we will get to in a minute. The term “pro-style offense” is a bit of a tough one to pin down these days with so many offenses using different components of different schemes, including incorporating spread elements. So when evaluating quarterbacks, I tend to focus on their traits at the position and try to project how what they do well will translate to the NFL game.
When you watch Kessler and that USC offense, you see a quarterback who is very adept at operating both under center and in the shotgun. He can make very quick decisions in the short passing game, and makes throws with timing and anticipation. His footwork is usually right in synch with – or ahead of – the receivers in the route structure, so he can get the ball out quickly and ahead of time, putting his WRs in position to turn, make the catch and get yardage after the reception. All core components of a West Coast scheme.
Schofield: I think so, and I think this fits well with the draft philosophy the Browns displayed last weekend. They seem to have placed a great deal of stock in collegiate production. Being careful with the football is important, and having those very solid TD:INT ratios would catch anyone’s eye.
Schofield: This gets to one of the difficult aspects in evaluating players, particularly quarterbacks, from the outside looking in. We rarely get the chance to sit down with these players to pick their brains, get a feel for their mental composure, and uncover their thought process away from the field. But from a distance, when you see a quarterback go through the twists and turns that USC went through during Kessler’s career, particularly his senior season, you have to appreciate how he was able to handle the turmoil.
Any rookie coming to the NFL faces a bit of real-life uncertainty. In many cases they have been the Big Man on Campus their entire lives, but now they’re having to go out on their own, in many cases to a new city, and figure out some real life things. Things like paying rent, dealing with obligations away from the field that take some getting used to for anyone leaving college and entering the workforce. When you add trying to learn a new playbook and deal with the transition off the field, it can be a bit daunting. So perhaps Kessler’s background in coming from this turmoil helps in that regard.
Schofield: Scheme fit is and was such an important aspect of Kessler’s transition to the NFL. I have no personal knowledge of this, but I would imagine some coaches such as Bruce Arians, who favor a more downfield, vertical passing game, had Kessler far down their board. His arm strength at the moment is not suited for a more vertical passing game. This is one of many reasons I thought he projected best to a West Coast passing scheme. He attacks shorter routes with precision, as well as using timing and anticipation, to throw quick outs, curls, slants and other shorter routes extremely well, all while putting his receivers in position to pick up yardage after the catch.
If he is placed in such a system that focuses on attacking those routes in the passing game, he has enough to deliver the occasional deep shot down the field, particularly when working off of play-action. This is another aspect of the West Coast scheme that fits him. He can throw the deep ball with touch and general accuracy, but if you ask him to challenge a defense by throwing the deep out route from the left hashmark to the opposite sideline, that is not his strong suit.
Schofield: This is another area where both his level of experience, and the offense he ran at USC, help him and will likely ease his transition. In all of my film study I rarely – if ever – noticed him open up to one side of a field or the other and questioned the decision based on the coverage scheme I was seeing. Many progression reads start to one side of the field or the other based on the coverage in the secondary.
Here is an extremely simplified example: Imagine the offense is in 11 personnel with three receivers to the right and a single receiver to the left. Depending on the play the QB might first read his progressions to the right if he sees Cover 2 or Cover 4, but might open to the left if he sees straight man coverage, or perhaps Cover 1, to try and get a one-on-one matchup on the backside. I honestly don’t recall – and don’t see such an example in my notes – of Kessler opening up to one side of the field or the other and me questioning that decision. Now, I don’t have the playbook so I can’t be positive, but to me that shows he has a great understanding of a defense in the moments leading up to the snap of the ball.
Schofield: Again, he seems very solid in this area, even when under pressure (which we’ll get to). There can be times when he is perhaps too conservative, and this tends to happen when things are going poorly, but on most occasions he can work through receivers, make his reads, and make the right decision. This red zone smash route is one example. There are others that I have written about that we will get to as well.
Schofield: If hitting a baseball is the toughest thing to do in sports, then playing QB is second-toughest. Ted Williams argued that hitting is the toughest, and I won’t sit here and argue with the Splendid Splinter, but having some experience with both I know just how tough they are. One of the toughest aspects of playing QB is just how fast everything happens, with guys on the other side of the football trying to cause you physical harm.
Staying “calm in the cauldron” is something I describe as the ability of a QB to not panic when under pressure, or when facing the blitz, and to go through the offensive design and make a play with the football. It can be easy to, in the face of pressure, panic and throw the ball away, or break the pocket and try to escape with your feet, or to immediately check the ball down and just plain get it out of your hands: I know, I’ve been there. Kessler excels at this, particularly in his ability to keep his eyes downfield while the pocket breaks down around him, and make a play in the passing game. This article displays just two of the many examples of Kessler showing this ability. It’s hard to keep looking for a receiver when you are trying to avoid a sack – and stay healthy – but that’s the job of a quarterback, and that’s a task that Kessler does very well.
Schofield: This gets us into the ideas of on- versus off-structure, and I’ll just hit those ideas for a moment. A quarterback plays on-structure when he’s making plays from the pocket within the strict design of an offensive play. It doesn’t look flashy and it doesn’t cause you to jump off the couch with excitement, but these are the throws on 3rd and 8 that keep drives alive in many cases. Now, playing off-structure are those moments when the pocket or the play breaks down and the QB “needs to make something happen.” Think of Johnny Manziel or Vernon Adams, running around and finding someone late in the play for a huge gain. Those are the plays that get you jumping off the couch and spilling your drink.
Now, some evaluators (and I’d bet some coaches) often prefer one to the other. As a matter of full disclosure, I like to see quarterbacks excel on-structure. The reason for this is that in the life cycle of every quarterback, there comes a time when you cannot get away with the wild and crazy plays you used to pull off before. Maybe you’re transitioning to a higher level of play and the players around you are just faster, so you can’t get the edge like you could a year before. Maybe Father Time is catching up to you. Whatever the reason, if you can’t pull off the off-structure stuff like you could previously, can you do enough on-structure to keep the offense moving?
But there’s also a mix of the two, which Matt Waldman described as “flow within structure” in a video he did on Kessler, and is a term that I saw as well when evaluating the QB. That’s when you do enough “off-structure” to extend the play, but still operate within the design of the play and execute as necessary. Kessler does that, very well. In this video piece I take you through one such example of the QB facing a pocket that breaks down, and he has the opportunity to perhaps gain some yardage with his legs. But he keeps his eyes downfield and returns to his progression reads late in the play, pulling the trigger at the last moment before crossing the line of scrimmage, and throwing a touchdown. That’s flow within structure. The ability to keep a play alive yet still run the offense as designed, making little adjustments as necessary to execute the play.
Schofield: I think the main aspects have been covered. I cannot stress enough Kessler’s ability to make well-timed, anticipation throws. A perfect example of this comes from this piece, illustrating how Kessler can throw the quick hitch route. The ball is out before the receiver even makes his break, so when the WR turns the ball is on him and he can make the catch and get upfield before the defense even has a chance to react. That leads to YAC – and wins games in the NFL.
Schofield: Quick answer? Yes.
Right when the selection was made I was a bit curious to see how the fit would work. But then I took some time this weekend to go through Cincinnati’s 2015-2016 season and watch some of their offense, and having gone through that I’m confident enough that Hue Jackson implements enough West Coast elements in the offense that Kessler can implement at an early state. Even some of the deeper elements that Jackson used last year in Cincinnati, such as four verticals, are concepts that Kessler can run and have even been highlighted in these answers.
He has enough arm strength to hit open receivers running down the field, and experience in these concepts, so that if Jackson asks his rookie QB to execute the West Coast plays, while incorporating enough vertical concepts that Kessler can do to keep a defense offense, this marriage should work. But if Kessler is asked to consistently hit the deep out against man coverage, or to throw 15-18 yard dig routes between defenders, that is not the best fit for what he does well, and this could end badly.
Schofield: Due to the offense he ran, what he was asked to do within it, and the qualities above, Kessler reminds me a bit of A.J. McCarron whom Hue Jackson had developed and coached with the Cincinnati Bengals. Is that an apt quarterback comparison? What might be a better one?
I think that is a very good comparison. Watching the Bengals on tape post-Andy Dalton’s injury gives you a good flavor of how Kessler might operate under Jackson. Watching Kessler I always got the feeling I was watching a more talented Colt McCoy. He might not blow you away watching him, but he runs the offense well and does not make a ton of mistakes.
Schofield: Working backward, I think he was certainly worth a third-round selection, and I’m not just saying that because I had a third-round grade on him. Even if his ceiling is that of a long-term backup/spot-starter in the NFL, that has value in this league. Here is a thought exercise for you: Take a 53-man roster and then rank every position from 1 to 53 in terms of value. Where would back-up quarterback rank? Now, it probably varies from team-to-team depending on their roster, but for most you’re probably talking about the 25th most important player on the roster. If you can get someone who can serve in that role for the next four years – or more – with a third-round pick, don’t you make that move?
Put it another way: Look at the 2015-2016 Dallas Cowboys and ask yourself how important QB2 is.
So even if Kessler’s ceiling on the Browns is that of a long-term backup/spot-starter, he has value and brings value to Cleveland. Now, if he gets to work under Jackson for a few seasons, and gets to run a West Coast scheme that fits his traits best? Perhaps his ceiling is a little higher.
Schofield: I was high on Kessler, perhaps higher than most, so it might not be a surprise that I’m more optimistic about this fit than others. But that’s the tricky part about quarterback evaluation. If playing the position is difficult, trying to evaluate the position from afar is downright impossible. NFL teams get it wrong every year and they have access to information that we on the outside could never dream of obtaining. But even with those caveats, from where I sit I am high on Kessler the quarterback, and am optimistic on his long-term future with the Browns.
What is Inside the Pylon and who is Mark Schofield?
As most NFL Draft nerds know,2 InsidethePylon is an incredible resource of information with many authors who dive into the game tapes break down the film and walk the reader’s through not only what they believe about prospects, but the actual footage which led them to these beliefs. The in-depth breakdowns are done in a way that can help a beginner understand the nuances of the game, while providing incredible insight to even the most attuned college football follower. Mark Schofield is their quarterback expert who was a four-year letter winner at quarterback and situational wide receiver (ala Braxton Miller) at Wesleyan University. The former lawyer is now a best-selling author on college football including his latest book 17 Drives: College Football’s 2015 Season, One Game At A Time that details the narrative of the 2015-2016 college football season through the story of 17 individual drives. When he isn’t writing compelling books, he is breaking down film to share about quarterbacks.
If you are interested in following the NFL Draft closer, then you really should be following both InsidethePylon and Mark Schofield on twitter as well. Cleveland fans will just have to forgive him for living in the state of Maryland (hey, no one is perfect.).