I'd love to be done talking about Combine numbers.
Did Kyler Murray inflate his height, as was so astutely rumored? Well, a fourth of an inch won't change my evaluation on him, so I don't particularly care. Will D.K. Metcalf's agility numbers make him a huge first-round bust? If he just hadn't run the drills, we wouldn't be talking about this at all; but instead, we're a week removed, and still here bickering.
And just when our guard is lowered -- when we think we've underlined and highlighted and feverishly circled every Combine result that we'll debate ad nauseam over the next two months -- the QB ball velocity numbers get released.
And we're suckered in by their newness, immediately firing off takes that we neither mean nor actually deliberated.
Anybody's who has watched the 2019 quarterback class would not have expected the numbers to fall this way, but guess what: nobody who watched the 2018 quarterback class expected those numbers to fall that way, and nobody who watch the 2017 quarterback class expected those number to fall that way, and nobody who...
I'll leave off there.
Because ball velocity always produces surprising results, we have to be very careful with how we use it. Velocity was first tracked at the 2008 NFL Combine, so we still don't know what to do with the numbers. There are some interesting statistical correlations off of the small sample size -- Hayden Winks of Rotoworld, for example, found that faster velocity measures at the NFL Combine were correlated with lower interception rates.
That sort of correlation makes sense, at first glance. The ability to zip the ball with greater velocity implies the ball arrives to the target quicker, which makes it harder for defensive backs to close on the (accurate) throw. Good deal.
But the problem comes when we look at the velocity measures as a catch-all representation of arm strength. The numbers simply don't make any sense. Brett Rypien and Will Grier do not have the strongest arms in the class -- those belong to Tyree Jackson and Drew Lock...right? Why are the numbers upside-down from what we expect?
As is often the case with new methods of measure, we must use caution and discernment when translating the result to on-field play. Ball velocity as a measure of arm strength assumes a lot of things, and indiscriminately ropes a variety of on-field processes into one number, one exercise.
Let's start at what matters: what is arm strength? Why is arm strength valuable? When scouting, those are the most important questions: what is the trait, and why does it matter?
Arm strength speaks to the natural throwing talent of the quarterback, and can manifest itself in a ton of different ways. When a thrower drives the ball into a tight window on a crosser; laces it into the seam; launches it deep; zips it to a quick-breaker -- all of these throws require arm strength, and can be used as evidence to support the claim that a quarterback has a "strong arm."
As such, we need to understand the demands of different throws, and what they reveal about a passer. Even more so, we have to interpret a quarterback's belief in his own arm talent by the throws he chooses to make/avoid. No better example of that than on this throw from Drew Lock.
Seam ball here from Lock, and he's quickly put off tempo by the pressure from his right. He'd likely look to get this ball out a little sooner and in front of the safety, but as it is, the window tightens, and he has to get this thing upfield and over the top of the safety.
Most quarterbacks would put more air under this, letting the receiver run under it further down the field, and creating more of a contested catch situation with the trailing corner. But Lock has great faith in his arm strength, and his ability to keep this throw down and on time while still keeping it away from the safety's range of influence.
This is a player who trusts his velocity, his ability to put the ball on a rope, 40 yards down the field -- and this is where Lock garners the Matt Stafford comparisons. Both have the ability to keep throws low and hot, carrying a ton of velocity deep down the field.
The ability to drive the ball into tight windows is regularly used as an example of arm strength, but it actually isn't heavily conditional on ball velocity. As we see with the Lock throw, Lock isn't gearing hard into that throw; really cranking the football. His mechanics are clean, natural, and over the top -- having ideal hip rotation, shoulder snap, and triple extension of the elbow can contribute just as much to ball velocity, if not more, than natural arm strength.
Boise State's Brett Rypien is a great example of this. Rypien does not have the natural arm strength that Lock does, and he often has to gear more lower body power and whip his arm faster when he's looking for velocity at the intermediate levels.
However, we have to acknowledge once again: arm strength does not make tight-window throws. It helps, but it doesn't solve the matter entirely.Tight window throws require anticipation to see the window before it develops, a quick release and clean mechanics to get the ball out with zip but without telegraphing the throw, and enough arm strength to drive the football.
This throw has good mustard on it, though it's nothing to write home about. What's far more interesting is Rypien's timing in the pocket, snappy release, and great ball placement. This throw bisects the underneath and deep defenders, leading the wide receiver to the safest place for the throw to arrive. Rypien isn't jamming the ball in between two closing defenders; rather, he's driving the ball to arrive on time, releasing it before they begin to close.
Timing and arm strength are intrinsically tied to one another. Typically, timing is a product of the quarterback's drop: his feet are tethered to his reads, and his mechanics are tethered to his feet, and accordingly, his ball velocity is conditional on his footwork.
But footwork isn't always clean, and in spread-style offenses, drops are sometimes not even utilized. Duke's Daniel Jones deals with this problem: in the Cutcliffe offense that Duke ran, Jones was so frequently reading through the mesh to the RPO game, and was regularly asked to make quick throws from odd angles.
Even with his feet misaligned, Jones found a ton of success attacking overhang/underneath defenders, with a variety of arm slots and releases that allow him to drive the football hard on short-breaking routes.
Watch Jones' hips and feet. He gets absolutely nothing from them on this throw, but he still has to place this ball in front of the spying linebacker, with enough velocity to get it to the receiver before the window closes entirely.
The catch isn't easy, but the ball placement is great -- and it was only achievable because Jones had the requisite arm strength from a 3/4ths arm position to jam the ball in there. Sidearm releases typically lead to power drain, especially down the field, but in the short areas, the ability to throw from a lower arm slot can shorten your throwing motion and thereby your release speed, and accordingly the football arrives earlier.
Some arm strength, of course, can't be fabricated or bolstered via mechanical and mental avenues. That talent especially shows up on two throws: when attacking deep down the field or throwing into the sideline from the opposite hash. As the crow flies, they're the longest throws you'll find on a football field, and they've been used by scouts for a long time to determine who has natural arm talent.
Tyree Jackson has natural arm talent.
I don't know what to tell you about this throw that you can't already see for yourself.
Remember what we said above? That the throws a player is willing to attempt can tell you as much about his arm strength as his on-field velocity? Jackson is a basket-case when he attempts this throw and a genius when it lands complete, simply because most quarterbacks lack the gas in the tank to launch that rocket -- and not only does Jackson have the arm strength, he has the stones.
Jackson had a lower ball velocity than NC State QB Ryan Finley, but you and I both know that Finley is never attempting this throw. He does not have the arm strength, in terms of the air and distance he can put under a ball, to try this. Maybe if he hitched twice into it and prayed real hard -- but Jackson threw this puppy on the move, so he didn't even get a ton of lower-body power on it.
This is the most common conception of arm strength, but it's easy to forget: over 90% of passes aren't traveling more than 20 air yards down the field. While it's sick that a player like Jackson, Josh Allen, or Patrick Mahomes can reach 65+ yards down the field, in-game, on the run...what is valuable about that trait? How much does that matter, when it comes to constructing an offense for them to run?
Just as offenses don't regularly ask their quarterback to throw 60+ yard bombs, so are offenses asking their quarterbacks to make opposite hash throws with decreasing frequency. Opposite hash comebacks and outs require tremendous arm strength, in terms of keeping the ball low and hot over a great distance, as well as great placement to protect the throw from being played on by the defensive back.
Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham has one of the best arms in this class, and has a beautiful throwing motion and release. It all clearly comes naturally to him. Accordingly, Stidham regularly threw out-breaking routes with success at Auburn, and was occasionally tasked with reaching the wide sideline.
You can see how difficult this throw is. Stidham cheats inside in his drop to shorten the throw, and leaves it a little high, though he's cognizant of getting it over the top of that underneath defender.
Unlike some of the throws we saw earlier, this ball is late -- a result of Stidham's adjusted drop to inch closer to that far sideline throw. Stidham waits until he sees the receiver's break to throw, but he's still able to yam the ball into space given the velocity he's able to generate -- and by leaving it high, he makes it more difficult for the secondary to play on.
Natural arm talent can work as such, for Jackson and Stidham -- it created something out of the nothingness of a broken play for Jackson, and for Stidham, saved him when he was late getting to the route. This is the true value of "arm strength" -- the ability to drive the football, or hang it out deep, can help players create or repair plays that less physically gifted quarterbacks would be forced to surrender.
But arm strength's first value, its anecdotal value -- the ability to get the football where it belongs, when it belongs there -- is actually conditional on a bevy of factors. Some are traits, like natural accuracy and mental processing; others are skills, like mechanics and anticipation. Ball velocity numbers at the Combine -- one radar gun on a handful of pad-less throws to stationary targets with no defense -- can't begin to encapsulate that complexity.
That's why, at the end of the day, there are problems we just have to come back to the eye test to solve. Ball velocity as a metric has some interesting correlations in its nascent years, but as a signal for arm strength, and the assumptions that come with it, it is woefully lacking.