Sage Rosenfels is a former 12-year NFL quarterback who writes, does radio, and podcasts about the NFL and college football.
“It’s rarely as good as it seems and it’s rarely as bad as it seems.”
That advice was given to me by Gary Kubiak, my head coach during my time with the Houston Texans. As a former quarterback, he understood the precision it takes to succeed at the position. Though every signal-caller is judged by the fans, media, coaches, and teammates, nobody is harder on a quarterback’s performance than the quarterback himself.
Through Week 1 of the preseason, the NFL’s rookie quarterbacks had some outstanding performances, as well as a few they wish they could forget.
Though I was the third-string quarterback going into the game, and I’d gotten minimal team and seven-on-seven reps during the first two weeks of training camp, I was called upon to play the entire second half. Let’s just say my performance wouldn’t have left anyone thinking I’d make the roster that season, much less last for 12 years in the league.
Quarterbacks don’t arrive in the NFL under equally favorable circumstances. Some play for teams with essentially the same offense they ran in college, while others are simply trying to get the play called correctly in the huddle. The development process can take years, so initial preseason performances should be taken with, not a grain, but a giant block of salt.
As an analyst, I am not in the huddle or film room with these quarterbacks. I don’t have all the information. They’re often playing with the third offensive line, and the majority of their skill-position players won’t make the roster. But I can judge how comfortable rookies look in the pocket, the accuracy of their throws, their ability to create when things break down, and the strength of their arms.
None of these QBs proved to me that they can’t play in the league – and none of them looked like an immediate Pro Bowler, either. Let’s keep in mind that this is the first game of the preseason, and it’s easy for NFL fans and media members to jump to extreme conclusions based on these initial outings.
Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago Bears
Bears fans have been searching for a quarterback to fall in love with since Jim McMahon was “throwing the pill all over the field” in the 1980s. And to the average Bears fan’s untrained eye, Trubisky showed enough in his first preseason game to crown him a future Hall of Famer.
To the trained eye, he was still pretty darned good. Trubisky’s obviously talented: He has a strong, accurate arm; moves well; and is extremely accurate on the run.
I loved the game plan from offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. He started Trubisky with a play action out of a slot formation (two receivers to one side and two tight ends to the other). Once both corners went to cover the Bears’ receivers, this signaled to Trubisky that he had man coverage. Helping a young quarterback identify the defense before the snap makes it easier for him to go through his reads with proper footwork.
Trubisky threw 25 passes and completed 18 of them, and his performance was actually better than those stats. For the first 15 passes, Loggains called plays that didn’t make Trubisky hold the ball in the pocket and deal with the pass rush. Chicago called multiple play-action and bootleg plays.
On every one of these, Trubisky had great technique, went through his reads in the correct order, and was accurate on a variety of throws. This kid can throw on the run better than many of the league’s veteran starters.
When the Bears weren’t moving the pocket, Loggains called three-step and quick five-step passes to get the ball out of Trubisky’s hand. Again, he made the right reads and was accurate on these throws.
Not until later in the game did Loggains call deeper drop-back plays, which are the most demanding for an NFL quarterback. Trubisky showed great pocket awareness, as well as accuracy and decision-making, during these plays.
When the pocket wasn’t clean, or when Trubisky had taken his third “hitch” in the pocket, he impressed me with his athleticism, gaining positive yards and first downs with his feet.
Of the few negatives from his first game, the easiest to spot is the fact he had multiple balls knocked down by the Broncos‘ defensive line. Quarterbacks who have an issue with their passes getting batted down are the same throwers who stare down their receivers for too long. This is common for young players, but it’s something to keep an eye on as his preseason, and career, continues.
Overall, I was extremely impressed. Trubisky showed why he was the first quarterback off the board, despite having the least college experience.
Patrick Mahomes II, Kansas City Chiefs
If my son was a quarterback, I’d love for him to be drafted by an Andy Reid-coached football team. Throughout his coaching career, Reid’s done a fantastic job of developing quarterbacks, maximizing their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses.
Mahomes is the most gifted thrower drafted in 2017, but he was in an unorthodox offense at Texas Tech. To get Mahomes comfortable, Reid had him in the shotgun formation for the vast majority of his throws. The quarterback was rarely under center in college.
Mahomes’ first three pass plays were a bubble screen, a regular running-back screen, and another bubble screen. Obviously, Reid wanted to get his quarterback a few completions to build his confidence.
After the easy start, Mahomes got mixed results. His footwork is poor, something that should be corrected over time. The Chiefs’ West Coast offense demands precise footwork to match up with the pass patterns that are designed, but Mahomes still has the “see it and throw it” timing that usually doesn’t work in the NFL.
Mahomes also forced a slant throw into good coverage near the goal line. That could have been a catastrophe for the quarterback and the wide receiver, whose health was very much at stake on the play.
The rookie did make a solid throw with good timing to a receiver over the middle, which demonstrated his arm strength and accuracy. Then, on the very next play, he displayed a lack of proper progression footwork.
Mahomes showed he can play, but needs to work on a ton of mental and physical skills. Luckily, he has one of the best technicians in the league to copy at every practice in Alex Smith. If Mahomes can eventually harness his arm strength and playmaking ability – like he showed on a broken play for a touchdown – to the discipline of Smith’s footwork and decision-making, he could be great.
Rght now, he’s exactly what most coaches and analysts thought he was before the draft: talented and raw. It could take weeks, months, or even a couple years before Mahomes is a legit starting quarterback.
Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans
Head coach Bill O’Brien didn’t ease his rookie quarterback into the action. Though his first preseason pass play was a simple bootleg, which got Watson out of the pocket for an easy completion, he spent most of his time in the shotgun and looking to get the ball deeper downfield.
Unlike the Bears and Chiefs – who used bootlegs, play action, three-step drops, and screens to get their rookies comfortable – O’Brien called more complex pass plays than Trubisky and Mahomes had to deal with. Even after that original bootleg completion, the Texans immediately went no huddle, which demands quick thinking and communication from a rookie quarterback.
Watson responded well. He had great pocket awareness, and didn’t force balls into coverage. He saw, and executed, multiple blitz situations by the Carolina Panthers. He even completed a pass on a well-disguised corner blitz, something many veterans can miss.
Because of the deeper pass patterns, Watson held the ball for long periods. This caused him to buy time in and out of the pocket, which highlighted his decision-making. He threw a flat-footed – and accurate – 67-yard bomb to a wide receiver with one-on-one coverage. In the red zone, he threw the ball away multiple times, while giving his receiver, and only his receiver, the chance of making a play.
Watson’s biggest mistakes came on missing seam throws three separate times. The players were all open, though the coverage was tight on two of them. These are some of the most important, and commonly called, throws in the NFL.
Overall, Watson showed he can handle the complexities of the NFL game, and has the physical skills to compete at the pro level. O’Brien gave his quarterback a tougher test than the other two first-rounders, and Watson’s solid performance passed.
DeShone Kizer, Cleveland Browns
Kizer played in a Notre Dame offense with a lot of concepts that are used in the NFL. Before watching the Browns play the Saints in the preseason opener, I imagined Kizer would initially succeed because of his familiarity with these concepts.
Like the Bears and Chiefs, the Browns started their rookie with an easy completion, a screen pass. As the game progressed, Kizer took the majority of his snaps from the shotgun, which is where most of these rookies spent their time in college. On most of his throws, Kizer showed a strong, accurate arm. His footwork, timing, command of blitz adjustments, and ability to manipulate defenses with his eyes was also impressive.
He played best in the fourth quarter, when both teams have their worst players on the field. This means Kizer was going against a poor defense, but he was also surrounded by lesser players on offense.
I like watching rookie quarterbacks who rise to the moment at the end of preseason games. These moments don’t have real consequences, but they’re an opportunity for the “it” factor to reveal itself. Kizer led two scoring drives late in the fourth quarter to pull out the win, making a couple clutch throws when his team needed it most.
As an example of what a fan may see as a great play versus what a veteran quarterback or coach may see on the same play, I’d like to break down the game-winning touchdown pass from Kizer, a 45-yard go route to his left. Faced with a fourth-and-2, the Saints brought an all-out blitz.
Despite the Browns leaving seven blockers in to protect, the Saints had eight players rushing the quarterback. During a regular-season NFL game, in which the “varsity” is playing, that extra rusher would get to the quarterback quickly. The quarterback would not have enough time to take his drop, use a full hitch, and throw a deep ball while standing in a clean pocket.
But because it’s the preseason, Kizer faced an undisciplined eight-man rush that allowed him to take his time and make an accurate throw.
I liked what I saw out of Kizer through one preseason game, and head coach Hue Jackson must be happy with that performance too. Kizer was fairly accurate, had great footwork, and led his team on key scoring drives. The quarterback competition is wide-open in Cleveland, so he could be the starter in a month – or he could still be the third-stringer.
C.J. Beathard, San Francisco 49ers
Nothing about Beathard‘s performance surprised me. He ran Kyle Shanahan’s offense without a problem, and took more snaps from under center than most of the other quarterbacks on this list. He bought time to create a play downfield, something he did at the University of Iowa, and found his receiver for a touchdown. The throw worked out well for the 49ers, but also showed Beathard’s lack of big-time arm strength.
Shanahan’s very high on his rookie quarterback – he thinks Beathard could be a Kirk Cousins type. If that ends up being the case, the 49ers found a steal in the third round. Beathard will receive a ton of playing time over the next three weeks. Brian Hoyer will be the starter, but Beathard needs to be ready to play sooner rather than later.
Josh Dobbs, Pittsburgh Steelers
Dobbs‘ performance was the poorest of the players I analyzed, and his first throw was one of the worst I saw all weekend. It was inaccurate, but should have never been thrown in the first place – he tried to fit a pass into double coverage and was intercepted.
Later, Dobbs threw another interception versus a blitz. Rookie quarterbacks rarely see defensive linemen dropping into coverage on blitzes. Dobbs didn’t see the Giants defensive end and threw it right to him. That rookie mistake should be a great learning experience for Hobbs, who did rebound to throw some accurate deep balls later in the game.
His arm is strong, but he’s obviously still getting used to the complexities of the NFL game.
Davis Webb, New York Giants
Despite a solid first game, Webb didn’t separate himself in the three-man competition to be Eli Manning‘s backup. He only completed half of his passes, but ran the offense efficiently. He’ll play much more as the preseason continues, which will give the Giants a better idea of whether he’ll be the No. 2 or 3 quarterback this season.
(Photos courtesy: Action Images)
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