Rookie QB Review: Sam Darnold
Rookie QB Review: Josh Allen
Rookie QB Review: Baker Mayfield
The Arizona Cardinals were bad in 2018.
How bad were they? The head coach, Steve Wilks, was fired at the end of the year, which was, incidentally, his first year on the job. OC Mike McCoy was fired in-season and replaced with QB coach Byron Leftwich, in a move critics described as "without impact." Starting QB Josh Rosen was traded away for pennies on the dollar that drafted him. General manager Steve Keim was...retained.
Steve Wilks was bad in 2018. He wasn't a well-regarded hire from the jump and never demonstrated much on-field innovation or player development, though he did seem like a respected leader. Mike McCoy was really, very, how-doggone-dare-you bad. He couldn't find concepts that worked with his personnel, beat an undead horse with antiquated schemes, and demonstrated little interest in building on those fleeting in-game success he stumbled upon during his tenure.
Josh Rosen was also bad in 2018. And that's where we're going to start, when it comes to a rookie review on Rosen's season: the end. By the end of his rookie season, we could conclusively call that season "bad," because it was. Among last year's rookies, Rosen had the worst figures in TD%, sacks/dropback, and adjusted yards/attempt -- only Josh Allen had a worse completion percentage. Of the 50 rookies who attempted at least 100 passes in the past 10 years, Rosen's Adjusted Net Yards/Attempt (which accounts for touchdowns, interceptions, and sacks) is 7th-worst. Only Blake Bortles took sacks at a worse rate.
In short: Rosen did not complete a lot of passes, did not pick up a lot of yards on those passing attempts, and lost a lot of yardage on a lot of sacks. These are all important ingredients in a stinker season recipe. (The Arizona Cardinals' jersey aesthetic also helps, but that's a different conversation.)
Now, the Cardinals weren't bad because Rosen was bad -- they were bad because everyone was bad. Rosen was sacked at a terrifying clip, but as Kyle wrote about earlier this week, Rosen was pressured within 2.5 seconds of the snap on 26% of his dropbacks for the Cardinals -- that is to say, Rosen was immediately pressured more frequently than 1 out of every 4 dropbacks.
Sacks are often a quarterback stat, but anyone with a couple of eyes can tell you when an offensive lineman is whiffing -- and the Cardinals whiffed a lot. By December 5th, all five of the Cardinals' Week 1 starting offensive linemen had been put on injured reserve -- and that last player to fall was D.J. Humphries, so it's not like pre-injury protection was sunshine and pancakes. The Cardinals started two practice-squaders for the last month of the season.
In that aforementioned piece, Kyle also mentions that Rosen's receivers generated separation 10% less frequently than the average NFL squad. Per Next Gen Stats, which measures separation at the catch point for wide receivers, Arizona's three most-frequently targeted receivers ranked 88th (Christian Kirk), 112th (Larry Fitzgerald), and 124th (Chad Williams) out of 125 qualifying wide receivers. Again from NGS, the same three ranked 57th (Kirk), 73rd (Fitzgerald), and 85th (Williams) in +/-YAC, which measures how well a WR produced yards after the catch relative to his respective routes and target depth.
All of these measures are codependent. Receivers can't really separate at the catch point without on-time throws and smart offensive coordinators, as well as quick feet and detailed route running; they can't generate YAC without accurate QBs and good play designs, as well as toughness and vision. So we can't be exactly sure what these stats tell us -- only what they point at.
And they're pointing out the toxic sludge that was the Arizona Cardinals' no good, very bad 2018 season. Bad talent, bad coaching, bad leadership, bad execution. Like the Patriots, only the exact opposite in every way.
I'm hammering home one point to make another: it was going to be hard for a rookie quarterback to be good in a vacuum, on that bad team, with all those big bad problems.
Consider the alternate universe: with the tenth overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the Arizona Cardinals select Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma. How good could we reasonably expect Baker Mayfield to be in Arizona? Sure, things were dysfunctional in Cleveland when Baker arrived -- but he had better receiving weapons, a better defense, and a better offensive design (especially after his coordinator switch). Sure, let's say Baker is just flat better at playing quarterback than Rosen is, so he would have done better in Arizona -- but would he have done well? I don't think so.
And Sam Darnold? Lamar Jackson? Josh Allen?! I don't think anyone is playing well in Arizona.
It circles back to rookie quarterbacks and expectations: we should expect rookies to be bad. Rookies quarterbacks are generally bad, and when they are bad, it means that they are probably good (Andrew Luck, Jared Goff) or probably bad (Blake Bortles, DeShone Kizer). Just let them be bad and start the process of making them better.
Rosen's badness came most clearly in the form of pocket management. He was very bad at it, in that he didn't do it, and when he tried to do it, it didn't go well.
As I said above, Rosen took a lot of sacks. He was pressured even more, and pressure tells the story of his poor offensive line; sacks can tell the story of his poor play as an individual. Rosen regularly wilted at the snarling maw of pressure, struggling to throw the football away or locate his checkdown when panicking. He accepted sacks because he has average escapability for the quarterback position, and because he lacks tackle-breaking strength or tackle-eluding quickness, he maximizes the issue of an offensive line that wanted for talent and for continuity throughout the season.
There are a couple of things that matter here. Firstly, we knew this about Rosen -- Arizona knew it when they drafted him, Rosen's fans knew it, and his detractors knew it. According to the 2018 Contextualized Quarterbacking, Rosen only scrambled on 2.4% of his dropbacks in his final season at UCLA, and only attempted throws on the move on 7% of his chartable passing attempts -- both are among the lowest in that class. The league is increasingly shifting to value mobile quarterbacks -- or at least, recognize the advantages of their escapability -- and in a class of athletic slingers, Rosen stood out like an immobile thumb.
Secondly, it reiterates the replaceability point, wherein we consider alternate universes. Should any other 2018 first-rounder been selected by Arizona, they likely would have helped hide the offensive line issues in Arizona. This is where talent acquisition and schematic choice must mesh with current talent and self-scouting, like little cogs in a clock. If you're going to draft Josh Rosen, he's going to need a better offensive line than most NFL quarterbacks, because he lacks escapability.
Now, pocket management is not just a measure of escapability -- and often, those ideas aren't even diametrically opposed. Escapability can breed poor pocket management (see Griffin III, Robert) in that it tempts mobile QBs into breaking pockets that are generally clean, thereby limiting their passing offense and frustrating their wide receivers and offensive linemen. Pocket management looks like Tom Brady and Matt Ryan just as much as it looks like Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson, in that small adjustments and a strong vestibular sense allow immobile QBs to hang ten in the chaos of a collapsing pocket.
This was something Rosen had at UCLA. He also had it at Arizona at times -- but far more frequently than I recall, he grew skittish and overly instinctive in the pocket, fearful when moving beyond his first read or managing incoming pressure. Take three plays from the Falcons game late in the season: two incompletions, one interception, all the result of a mismanaged climb of the pocket.
Rosen is what you might call a hitch-and-throw QB, in that he's at his strongest when he can hit a 3- or 5-step drop, hitch into his first read, and deliver. Seems dumb to say, right? Isn't every QB? Not really. I'd argue that his comrades Sam Darnold and Josh Allen are both better players outside of that construct. If you can't be a good hitch-and-throw QB, you'll struggle to execute timing concepts, deliver the football in stride to your receivers, and manage the pocket as it breaks down.
That's why these reps are so concerning. Rosen has an open receiver on that third throw, but he's late to the route concept because of the pressure, so he has to crow hop into the pass to try and add velocity to make up for the lost time. The receiver idles as the corner closes, and the pass is broken up
I wanted to circle this rep because it isn't necessarily poor pocket management -- Rosen does a good job working around the pressure and into his throw -- but it highlights how just a little pressure is enough to put a pure hitch-and-throw QB behind his process and subsequently out of his comfort zone. Players such as Darnold and Allen would feel more comfortable eating this ball, breaking the pocket, and looking to create outside of structure. Rosen tries to stick to the primary idea here, despite the fact that he knows he's late. There just isn't much else he is capable of doing.
What made Rosen such an enticing prospect coming out -- and let's be clear: Rosen was my QB1 -- was that he had the physical tools to self-correct when he was late. The best "pure pocket passers" or "hitch-and-throw QBs" have the blend of ball placement and velocity to attack tight windows, throw receivers open, and create within structure even when the defense wins a rep. Those rare "Well, there's nothing you can do about that" plays illustrate this idea.
On a key third down with an opportunity to take the lead in the fourth quarter, Rosen is late to the isolation route from Christian Kirk on the backside. In order to complete this pass, he needs to lace a zinger in there, outside of the corner's reach, to hit that closing window. And he does, because he's an objectively splendid thrower of the football. There's more to quarterbacking than that, assuredly -- but Rosen slings the pill well.
The final question to answer belongs to the Miami Dolphins, really -- but we can try to answer it for them: what does it look like when Rosen is on time? I've told you all about how he was knocked off-script, and how he was the author of his own problems at times, and how he can self-correct because he's talented. So what does it look like when it's right and easy?
The Cardinals hardly know, because they never really unlocked that. Again, that fault belongs to a lot of people, including Rosen, to varying degrees. However, when we pick and choose our Rosen reps, we can see how quickly he gets the ball out, how accurately he does so, and how he can retain his sense of rhythm and placement even when pressure strikes quickly.
That last sequence of plays against the Vikings? That's their first drive of the fourth quarter, Week 6. All game long, the Cardinals offense puttered its way to 10 points with heavy 12/13 personnel sets, play-action boots, and deep shots on 2- or 3-man route concepts. Suddenly, on this drive, they put Rosen in the gun, with 11 personnel and spread sets. They walked down the field like it was Tuesday afternoon.
From a scouting perspective, these are Stefon plays: they have everything. Loaded base and full-body power, quick and easy throwing motion, placement relative to coverage, variety of speeds, willingness to step into pressure. It's all there, and it's what you wanted when you drafted the next Eli Manning, the next Matt Ryan. A virtuoso from the pocket.
Rosen wasn't good in 2018, but the things that he was good at for UCLA -- the things that made him my QB1 and a Top-10 pick in the league -- are still there. Unlike most bad rookie QBs, Rosen gets the opportunity for a hard reset in Miami, with a new offensive coaching staff (that comes from a rather promising tree, when it comes to hitch-and-throw QBs), new offensive weapons (I've heard DeVante Parker is looking good in camp, gang!), and a new offensive line (which can't be worse, right?).
The simple truth is we don't know anything more about Rosen than we did when he came out, and given the track record of selecting and developing quarterbacks in the NFL...well, we didn't really know that much when he came out, either. Rosen's outlook is occluded by his transiency just as his current career is by the trash heap of the Arizona Cardinals' 2018 season. Anybody who says they know how Rosen's Dolphins stint will go is a scurrilous and condemnable liar, a huckster and charlatan of false hope and ominous portents.
Except for me. I think he'll be good.