The Inauspicious Origins of the QBs at the Top of the Draft: Wentz, Johnson, and Lynch
Carson Wentz, Matt Johnson and Paxton Lynch are not your usual top QB prospects. All three come from non power conference teams, and will have a lot to prove in the NFL.
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The NFL is a league of convention and conventional wisdom, but the foremost article of faith also happens to be the truest—quarterback is the most important position in the sport, and maybe in any other. It makes sense, then, that it's also the hardest position to evaluate in sports, both because the position is so complex and because the demand for great quarterback play is so intense that teams get desperate. Every team would love to find a player in this NFL draft who could guarantee long-term competitiveness as Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, or Tom Brady have done for their teams over the last decade. The trouble is that no one has quite figured out how to tell those guys from everyone else.
While Cal's Jared Goff did his thing in the Pac-10, the other anointed quarterbacks of this NFL Draft—Carson Wentz of FCS-level North Dakota State, Paxton Lynch of non-BCS Memphis, and Bowling Green State University's Matt Johnson—have all arisen as potential franchise quarterbacks despite comparatively inauspicious origins. Each played their college ball in very different leagues and in very different offensive systems, but all will need to do the same things if they're going to make it in the NFL.
You already know what these are—the best NFL passers see the field and assimilate information at supercomputer rates, process it quickly and calmly despite the threat of both grievous bodily harm and nasty @-messages on Twitter, and are able to anticipate the action presciently enough to see the field as it will be, rather than how it is. That's before the technical stuff—the ability to "come to balance" quickly and accurately lead receivers, and the skill and arm strength to throw a strike even if they have to reset for a throw to the second or third receiver in their progressions—and intangibles like leadership and toughness are taken into account. Anticipating whether a 22-year-old will display enough of these attributes, let alone all of them, isn't any easier than it sounds.
But, like everyone else, we can watch some game tape and do our best. Here's a look at what Wentz, Lynch, and Johnson did in college, and at how they improved and where they could still stand to gain. We can't know just yet whether what they did in college football's non-power conferences will translate when they play with and against the best of the best in the NFL. We never can. But we can at least get familiar with what they did at their relatively obscure schools.
If only because he's been talked about as a possible number one pick for some time now, Wentz's story is fairly well known at this point. As a 5'8 freshman in high school with massive brothers, he hoped to one day be at least six feet tall. Then he sprouted up to 6'5 as an upperclassman; his first season as a starter was his senior year in high school, long after any scouts would have taken much notice of a kid from Bismarck, ND.
So Wentz did what so many other late-blooming football players in the upper Midwestern flyover states do. He went to FCS juggernaut North Dakota State and won a bunch of football games. Wentz won a national championship each of the five years he spent on campus.
The dominant Bison offense is a "power-coast" system, meaning that it's built around a power running game and the west coast passing system. Lots of scouts feel comfortable projecting Wentz to the NFL because they have seen him lining up under center and executing familiar NFL concepts. Two things stand out in reviewing Wentz's bullying of FCS-level defenses. One is that the FCS' level of complexity is higher than a casual fan might expect. The other is that Wentz's mastery of the Bison process is supreme.
In conferences like the Big 12 or SEC, schools run systems that are designed to be simple enough for schools to plug-and-play amazing athletes and let them play fast. The FCS level tends to feature more complexity in terms of schemes, coverages, and even disguises. There aren't as many great athletes, but there are lots of smart, hard-working players, and similarly smart coaches who work to leverage the talent they have with complex tactics. No doubt it'll be an adjustment for Wentz when he's facing safeties that can cover ground like they do in the NFL, but it will be a bigger adjustment for quarterbacks that haven't seen the sort combination coverages that Wentz has already picked apart.
The Bison offense was filled with checks and motions designed to let Wentz find and target the weak spots in defenses. As a senior he was running the system to perfection before breaking his wrist and missing most of the playoffs. In NDSU's passing game, Wentz deftly identified man coverage match-ups to target and then threw with anticipation to slow but sure-handed receivers. He was brilliant at putting the ball where only his receivers had a chance to make a play. But leading explosive NFL receivers into open grass will likely be an adjustment.
Wentz's ability to see the whole field and process info quickly isn't super clear, since the Bison offense generally allowed him to zero in on opponents after the snap. At 6'5 and 237 pounds, with 4.77 (40m dash) speed and 4.12 (20m shuttle) quickness Wentz has elite physical attributes, and he knows how to use them to buy time to throw on the run. When the Bison running game was stalling, they could always call in some quarterback runs and watch Wentz physically dominate the competition as the lead back on their power plays.
A best-case scenario for Wentz is that he proves capable of mastering an NFL system and understanding how to attack NFL defenses while adding some off-schedule production with his athleticism. The mental part of that seems well in hand. The rest of it... well, that's where we guess.
The popular story about Lynch's recruitment is that "everyone assumed he'd just end up at Florida," which is the kind of bogus line you hear when schools and recruiters are embarrassed that they missed on an obvious talent. Lynch didn't end up at Florida, and went to Memphis because they were one of only two D1 schools— Florida A&M is the other—to offer him a scholarship.
Once in Tennessee, head coach Justin Fuente molded Lynch as he had done with the similarly overlooked Andy Dalton at TCU. Lynch has the arm strength you'd expect from a 6'7, 245 pound athlete, but he also has enough quickness to survive in the pocket in five-wideout sets and add a little to the Tigers' spread run game. Those tools, when plugged into Fuente's knack for spreading out defenses and creating stress points all over the field, made for some magical numbers—4,000 yards of total offense, a 28-4 TD to INT ratio, and an upset victory over top-rated Ole Miss. That kind of magic.
Unlike with Wentz, Lynch didn't execute an offense in Memphis similar to the ones he'll be asked to run in the NFL. What he did do in Memphis was read and threaten the whole field with his arm, which will absolutely translate in a pro-style system. The Memphis spread also included real route combos and progressions not too distant from what he'll do in the NFL. But Lynch can make strong, accurate throws both inside and outside the pocket, and without a ton of time to set his feet, and those are essential NFL survival skills.
Paxton Lynch will likely go later in the draft than Wentz, who's getting first overall buzz, which means he's likely to land in a spot where he can learn to translate his tremendous physical gifts within a pro-style system of attacking defenses. In a few years, scouts may once again be coming up with lame excuses for why they didn't realize the 6'7 athlete with a rocket arm would end up being pretty good.
Of these three, Johnson is the hardest to project to the NFL both because of his non-ideal physical attributes—he's 5'11, 210 pounds—and the fact that he played in a spread-option offense at Bowling Green that is not a great approximation of what he'll be asked to do in the pros.
This offense is probably one of the most misunderstood systems in sports. The underlying philosophy is "spread to run," but the system is designed to force defenses to vacate the box at the risk of getting shredded in the passing game by endless receiver screens and deep vertical shots. It's a vindication of Madden-style tactics—"just spread 'em out and throw it deep a lot!"
Whereas NFL-style West Coast passing concepts are designed to create leverage in order to get yardage in chunks, the passing game in this system will go at you, over and over, until you start backing off defenders—at which point it runs the ball down your throat. The quarterback doesn't even use dropback footwork in this offense, and is instead taught to position himself in the middle of the pocket and be ready to come to balance at any moment, rather than in rhythm with the receivers' routes. And those receivers are often running option routes into open grass, which means precise timing isn't a fundamental part of the offense. The goal is to be flexible, and to respond to what happens after the snap as quickly and decisively as possible.
And Matt Johnson executed this system really well. He threw for nearly 5,000 yards as a senior, with 46 TDs and only eight interceptions, and displayed a quick release and the ability to scramble, whether to buy time or pick up yards. Johnson was more quick than fast and not explosive or powerful enough to run through tacklers, and was often taken down by arm tackles that Ben Roethlisberger would have blown up.
Because he lacks the physical gifts or pro-style system mastery of a classic NFL quarterback prospect, Johnson requires a little more projection. His quick processing and quicker release fit into the pro game; the question is whether that will be enough to make him effective. The good news is that those are arguably the most valuable skills an NFL QB can have. But the other stuff will give many teams pause. But what Johnson does well—the quick reads and accurate throws under pressure and other not-so-little little things—should get him into a camp as either a late round pick or a free agent for a team looking for found money.
If Johnson is the longest shot of the three, he's not alone in having a big adjustment ahead. One of them might be the solution a pro team desperately needs. Or two, or none. If it's any consolation, no NFL team knows this any better than we do.