Undersized spread quarterback puts up huge numbers to return a former powerhouse to glory and plays the game with impressive toughness and a will to win. Sound familiar? It's the story of one Baker Mayfield, who has since gone on to play promising ball with the no longer hopeless Cleveland Browns in 2018 as the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. It's also the story of one Trace McSorley, who in his third year as the Penn State starting quarterback has re-written the school's passing records.
McSorley, who passed Christian Hackenberg on the school's leaderboard of all-time passing yards this weekend, has drawn some comparisons to Mayfield since the latter's meteoric rise to top prospect and Heisman Trophy winner.
But that's about the extent of the similarities. So let's go ahead and put this comparisons to rest.
A Year Of Big Changes
McSorley is a fun player, a tough competitor and the ideal triggerman for Joe Moorhead's spread offense. There's just one problem: Joe Moorhead doesn't work in Happy Valley anymore. Neither do 2018 2nd overall pick Saquon Barkley, 2018 2nd round selection Mike Gesicki and 2018 4rd round selection Daesean Hamilton.
And without that supporting cast, we've seen the worst of Trace McSorley as a passer. McSorley has regressed in just about every possible category.
Yards per game: 206.8 (274.6 in 2017)
Completion percentage: 54.1% (66.5% in 2017)
Yards per attempt: 7.3 (8.4 in 2017)
Touchdowns: On pace for 24 in 13 games (28 in 13 games last year)
Life is hard in Happy Valley without a stellar cast of experienced characters. Especially when considering how many plays were schemed to Barkley. And the strength of Mike Gesicki: winning 50/50 throws. And Hamilton's ball skills as well.
Conversely, in 2017 when Baker Mayfield and the Sooners experienced head coach Bob Stoops retiring, lost RBs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon plus WRs Dede Westbrook (a fellow Heisman finalist) and Geno Lewis, we saw the absolute best of Baker Mayfield.
Yards per game: 330.5 (305.0 in 2016)
Completion percentage: 70.5% (70.9% in 2017)
Yards per attempt: 11.5 (11.1 in 2017)
Touchdowns: 43 in 14 games (40 in 13 games)
Player Development Head In Opposite Directions
Entering 2018, McSorley was an effective athlete who found success using his legs. This season? The Lions are relying on McSorley to generate rushing offense at a greater rate than ever before. Trace is on pace to set a career high in rush attempts (171 in 13 games) and is just 44 yards away from setting a career high in rushing yards (currently 491, set in 2017).
Mayfield's running usage trended the opposite direction in Norman. After rushing 141 times as a redshirt sophomore in 2015, Mayfield's rushes dwindled to 78 carries in 2016 and 97 rushes during his Heisman Trophy winning campaign last season.
At the college level, that's perfectly fine. But when you're looking to project spread quarterbacks to the NFL level, the phrase "translatable traits" is one the bear in mind.
What are translatable traits? Processing the defense and effectively gauging man or zone coverage, throwing accurately to your receivers depending on the leverage of the defense and playing the game with precise intent.
It's what made Mayfield so special: he was a lethal passer and he was in control of the chaos approximately 98% of the time (or so it felt).
(NOTE: Let's not let revisionist history get the better of us already...this time last year I was a few weeks away from penning a similar long form article to do my part to dissuade the world that Baker Mayfield wasn't the next Johnny Manziel. The perception of Baker at this time last year was significantly less rosy than the charmed fan base you see in Cleveland would have you believe.)
And that, my friends, is where the biggest hurdles trips Trace McSorley. He's no where near that level.
Film Don't Lie
Watching McSorley on film in 2017, I had gone on the record stating I wouldn't draft him. Too many instances of relying on your skill players to make great ball adjustments will do that. It's not a (ahem...) translatable trait. And then there were the instances such as this one against Michigan from 2017:
Trace gets trapped by the pre-snap look of 2-man, when in actuality after the snap the defense throws him a curveball but squatting in the flat. McSorley is still holding the ball as the corner shifts his eyes back inside to key on a potential target in the flat.
No change in the decision of where to go with the ball despite this new information and the pass is intercepted. Are the instances of this shaky play in 2018 as well? You bet.
Ohio State (2018)
Now, this isn't a gaffe in predetermining a throw, but this is still a pretty egregious miss. It's an instance of height being a limiting factor for passers. With his offensive tackle walked back into his lap, McSorley struggles to get on top of this football and it sails on him vs. a single high safety and a ton of real estate into the boundary as his receiver works from the slot.
Now, I know...Mayfield was 6'1 as well, but we aren't comparing the two anymore and we're also not assuming any 6'1 quarterback can be that next unicorn who is immune to these issues. If Trace were, this ball is caught.
From this same contest, McSorley is later faced with a possession on the doorstep of his own end zone.
This is a frustrating play, because there are two opportunities to push the ball into a throwing window and get out of danger.
Progressions are reading this play from right to left. The goal is to work the short side of the field and hoping to get a quick throw to buy some real estate. But Ohio State's defensive alignment in the pre-snap shows stacked defenders over the TE (at the line) and LB20 is directly stacked overtop of his running back in the backfield.
Once LB20 gets width, McSorley needs to work fast and move through his progressions because he has two in-breaking patterns to his left to flood the middle of the field. His 2-strong receiver (WR10) has about 14 yards of cushion at the snap and if McSorley's eyes get off the flat quick enough he would feel the safeties have rotated as they try to replace their blitzing linebacker.
Instead, Trace is late coming to the middle of the field. Add in an inaccurate throw while either:
A. missing high to WR10 and nearly throwing an interception
B. missing behind WR1 and nearly throwing an interception
The chaos gets amplified when things are condensed inside the 20s. Trace here is a tick slow and wild with his throw on what could/should have been a brisk progression and a modest gain.
I present these critiques of Trace McSorley from this game before saying this: I thought this was, from a pro evaluation standpoint, one of Trace's better games. He threw the ball well in this game. McSorley made efforts to throw the ball away from defenders and protect his receivers, both while working from the pocket and on the move.
Several passes were batted down at the line in this contest. But in fairness to Trace, Penn State receivers dropped no less than four passes that were well placed. If I could get this version of Trace McSorley on a weekly basis? I'd rescind my "undraftable" statement from the summer...
Michigan State (2018)
Yeah well this ain't it. What's wrong with checking the ball down to your back here in the flat? What's wrong with a quick throw to WR Juwan Johnson to replace the blitz to your right?
If you've climbed this far into the pocket, it's time to commit to keeping the football. It's a reckless play on first down when there's no need to force the football. A poor decision from the pocket. The wildness would continue.
This is a routine throw into the short side of the field to a wide open receiver. It appears as though McSorley's pump fake pulls his feet out of alignment. He isn't balanced for this toss, but come on man! It's right there. TE Pat Freiermuth is 6-foot-5. You missed him by about 3 yards on a lay-up.
Good prospects can't miss these elementary throws, period.
The clips I bring to the table are visual examples of what I see to cause skepticism. The added context here? Trace McSorley once again threw a number of good throws in this game as well.
I can appreciate McSorley's maturation in keeping his eyes down the field in higher frequencies. Some of his best tosses come once he's able to build momentum and play into the line of scrimmage.
If I were an NFL decision maker, I probably wouldn't be the one to pull the trigger on Trace McSorley. But after charting the majority of his 2018 tosses I can better understand why someone might be willing to late in the Draft.
There's enough film on Trace to understand who he is as a player. It's clear that he's got some natural arm talent. But can you get him comfortable in your offense? Is he ever going to be the one to transcend your personnel and run it to it's optimal ability?
I don't see it. And for that reason, I am out.