Redefining the Pro-Style Quarterback

The evening of February 4, 2018 marked a watershed moment for many casual football fans. Super Bowl LII saw the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots play four quarters of pristine offensive football, the likes of which had never been seen at the game's highest level. The numbers were mind-boggling for an NFL contest: 74 points and 1,151 total yards with only one sack and one punt between both teams. The seemingly indomitable Tom Brady passed for 505 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions- and lost.  

More than the raw stats, it was the ease with which both teams moved the ball that jarred the populous. The game's defining moment was was a fourth down trick play that was conceived at a prep school in South Carolina and popularized by a college program.

While Super Bowl LII may have signified collegiate offensive concepts and strategy going mainstream, these ideas have been marinating in the NFL for some time. The Patriots have been running a no-huddle offense with one-word play calls for years. 58% of the the snaps taken during the 2017 NFL season were from the shotgun. Ten teams took over two-thirds of their snaps from the gun. 

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid (who is the mentor of Eagles coach Doug Pederson) is a noted proponent of college scheme integration at the pro level. 

Andy Reid is right. Smart front offices and coaching staffs-and the ones that aren't getting fired- are adjusting their plan and schemes to optimize the skillsets of the league's talent supply, which matriculates from the college game. 

This evolution is evident among the NFL's most prized commodity: first-round quarterbacks.  

For much of its existence the recruiting industry has classified high school quarterback prospects as either pro-style or dual-threat. The distinction was conceived in the early 2000's at a time when a stationary drop-back passer was seen as more of a fit for the pro game as opposed to one with running ability. The line has since blurred, if not vanished with spread offenses being the root cause. The idea of a "drop-back passer" at the college level has veered towards archaic. 

While the pro-style and dual-threat categories still exist in their original form, the NFL has adjusted to the times. An inspection of recent NFL drafts shows us that those classified as dual-threats are the new norm and there is decreasingly less "pro-style" about a quarterback who struggles to move. 

Five quarterbacks are projected to be taken in the first thirty-two picks of the NFL draft later this week, making twenty-seven first-round signal callers selected in the first since 2010. Brandon Weeden predates the internet recruiting era and is thus excluded for this exercise.

  • Of the 26 first-round quarterbacks, 16 (including 6 of the last 8) were ranked as dual-threats as high school prospects. 
  • 10 of the 16 dual-threats were ranked as four-stars or higher according to the 247Sports Composite.
  • 4 of the 10 classified as pro-style ranked as four-stars or higher (Josh Rosen, Jared Goff, Andrew Luck, Blaine Gabbert).
  • Half of those ranked as pro-style came from college offenses classified as heavy uptempo spread schemes (Baker Mayfield, Goff, Paxton Lynch, Gabbert, Sam Bradford).
  • The Air Raid offense, often considered among the most collegiate of schemes, accounts for 4 of the last 11 first-rounders.
  • At least 12 (some stats are unavailable) of the 26 first-rounders rushed 12 or more touchdowns as high school seniors.
  • 5 of the last 8 first-rounders rushed for at least 13 touchdowns as high school seniors.
  • 9 are Heisman Trophy Winners (accounting for every Heisman QB since 2007). 7 of those 9 were ranked as dual-threats (all but Mayfield and Bradford).

The group of high school quarterback prospects from the 2019 cycle serves as an example of this pro-style/dual-threat paradigm shift and the ensuing confusion. 

Nineteen quarterbacks are currently ranked as four-star prospects according to the 247Sports Composite (12 pro-style, 7 dual-threat). Ten of the nineteen measure sub-6'2" including four of the top six pro-style prospects. Most do not project as dynamic run threats at the college level at this point. 

Florida State commit Sam Howell is ranked as a pro-style prospect and is a prolific passer and runner at the high school level. Last season saw Howell rush for more yards (1,594) than nearly any dual-threat prospect. He is a stocky 6'1" and does not test as a great athlete. However from an on-field skillset and playing style aspect, there is not much less dual-threat about Howell than Auburn commit Bo Nix, the top-ranked quarterback of that grouping. 

Spencer Rattler looks like the most skilled passer of the group at this juncture. The Oklahoma pledge has a snappy quick release, outstanding ball placement, is an advanced ball handler and even takes some snaps from under center in his high school offense. Ranked as a pro-style quarterback, Rattler is sub-6'2" and is not a major run threat. 

This murkiness persists as you move down the 2019 quarterback group and is among the reasons why most feel it is a considerable down year at the position. The abnormally high number of prospects from areas that lack top high school football or inferior private school leagues is also a major factor. Following a group of truly elite quarterback prospects in the 2018 cycle doesn't help the perception, either. 

Two prospects that best fit the NFL's desired athletic and physical profile for the position are Garrett Shrader and Easton Dean, both currently ranked as three-star dual-threats by the 247Sports Composite. Shrader, who is committed to Mississippi State, is among the best in a combine setting and translates that athleticism to the field. He has desirable size (6'4.5", 200), arm strength, lower body fluidity and is a twitchy mover but is recovering from a labrum tear and plays in a private school league. An Iowa State pledge, Dean is a three-sport athlete who has plus size (6'6" 220), movement skills and arm strength. He is from a remote area of Kansas and attends a small high school that has 518 students. There is a slim chance Dean will share the field with any FBS prospects at the high school level. 

History indicates there is a high probability that the 2019 cycle will yield first-round quarterbacks. The lack of bonafide elite prospects at this juncture coupled with the accelerated nature of quarterback recruitments increases the odds of future top picks coming from off the grid, more so than normal.

As always, the senior season will be key in projecting future success even with the varying levels of competition throughout this group. It is still possible that consensus top quarterbacks won't emerge, forcing a high variance of opinions and creating a scary or intriguing situation given one's point-of-view. 

Regardless of what happens, one thing is certain: it is past time to retire "pro-style" and "dual-threat."

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