The widespread use of no-huddle, spread offenses with limited reads in college football has complicated the jobs of NFL evaluators.
But for Jeff Christensen, a private quarterback coach for many NFL, college and high school players, it’s been good for business.
“The whole [college offense] thing is just interesting,” said Christensen, who coaches Kirk Cousins, Ryan Tannehill and Jimmy Garoppolo, among others. “I guess I shouldn’t complain because it’s made what I do kind of valuable.”
He’s in demand because quarterback is the most valuable position in sports, and projecting the true value of them has become increasingly difficult.
Regardless of physical talents, college success and intangibles, many quarterbacks won’t successfully transition to the NFL.
What does this mean for the Bears?
They’re among a boatload of teams who have thoroughly examined this year’s quarterback class. The Bears need one even though they signed Mike Glennon.
Mitchell Trubisky, Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes all possess traits that entice the Bears, who have the third overall pick. So do others.
But all the quarterbacks require time. Deciding which one can transition the quickest and when to grab him is a predicament all QB-needy teams face.
“It’s the same sport but two different games,” said Phil Savage, the Browns’ former general manager. “It is a really a difficult leap.”
Jon Gruden’s popular “QB Camp” series on ESPN, which features the best quarterbacks in the draft, includes work on snap counts for good reason. Many college teams clap their hands, point to the ground or stay silent.
“They don’t use a snap count,” said Gruden, who coached the Raiders and Buccaneers. “So just teaching them a dummy snap count, a hard count [and] how to utilize the pre-snap to get the information you want, it’s extensive. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s huge.”
So are footwork and fundamentals, which are Christensen’s specialty. He sees widespread problems because of the widespread use of the shotgun formation.
NFL teams use shotgun, but quarterbacks still have to play under center. Many of them struggle with dropping back, which affects their accuracy and efficiency.
“Many of them haven’t dropped in eight years because they were in shotgun in high school and they were in shotgun all the way through college, so it’s a perplexing problem,” said Christensen, who runs Throw It Deep Academy in the western suburbs.
“A whole quarterback’s life is based on the rhythm and their vision based on knowing when the ball is supposed to come out and that rhythmic feeling they get with their feet.”
For some quarterbacks, the NFL is too late to adjust, and the organization doesn’t have enough time to work with them.
At all levels, Christensen said he sees quarterbacks who are “massive over-striders,” whose torso “flies way up in the air” and who lose balance when having to change directions.
All of it hurts their throws and timing.
“Those are kids you just understand that shotgun did a lot of damage to them,” Christensen said.
NFL teams adjust their offenses to ease the transition for quarterbacks. The Titans did that for Marcus Mariota, who played at Oregon, one of the innovators of gimmicky offenses.
But in the NFL, quarterbacks must know and do more. It’s why predicting NFL success based off college success is problematic.
Watson might be a national champion and a natural leader with amazing intangibles, but his actual responsibilities were limited in Clemson’s offense. He didn’t read the whole field.
“You see in college football, a lot of these guys look to the sideline,” Gruden said. “The coach is holding up a board and they point to a picture, and he gets the signal.”
Clemson has that. Watson’s NFL team won’t.
“It’s a lot of catch, rock and throw,” said NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former scout. “All the thinking is taking place on the sideline or it’s taking place before the snap.
“The biggest adjustment is, in the NFL, your pre-snap look versus what happens as soon as the ball is snapped, it completely changes.”
In this case, Trubisky gets through his progressions “a bit smoother” than others, Jeremiah said.
“That to me is the biggest challenge,” he said. “[It’s] getting these guys to react and making the decision after the snap because it changes at the next level.”
Part of their struggles is the result of too much shotgun. As Christensen points out, the quarterback literally has to take his eyes off the defense to catch the snap.
“A lot of times you’ll lose people on the defense with your eyes,” Christensen said.
The information gained from operating under center still is immense. The quarterback has a longer look at the defense.
“That whole concept of how to read full-field coverages in college has just been completely wrecked,” Christensen said. “And you combine that with the fact that these guys don’t know how to drop back and they don’t know how to take a snap.”
In Gruden’s opinion, Nate Peterman is the most NFL-ready quarterback because he played in a system at Pittsburgh that has more NFL characteristics. Many others think the same.
But Peterman, who played for the Bears at the Senior Bowl, won’t be the first quarterback drafted.
According to Christensen, seven or eight colleges truly run pro-style offenses.
“It makes it really hard for these talent evaluators to evaluate talent,” he said.
It’s why there is an emphasis on meeting quarterbacks during the draft process. Board work is important, but so is finding out whether the player is willing to put in all the work required to adjust, learn and succeed.
“You have to have the foresight, the confidence and certainly the coach in place to help get this done,” Gruden said. “But there’s some talented young arms entering the draft this year.”
FOR THE RECORD
With the Bears looking at quarterbacks in the draft, here’s what some experts are saying about the six best:
Mitchell Trubisky, North Carolina
“Ironically, he might be the most ready to play quarterback in this class. And he’s only a one-year starter. Like his pocket awareness. Think he has good feet and quick release. Don’t think he’s got a ceiling as high as some of the other guys, but I think he can become a solid NFL starter.”
— NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock
Deshaun Watson, Clemson
“His body of work impressed me the most. He was in back-to-back national championship games. He beat the best teams in college football. I love the poise that he plays with. He plays his best football when they’re behind and all the chips are on the table.” — ESPN analyst Jon Gruden
Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech
“Mahomes is a pure gunslinger. Makes a lot of mistakes. Technique breaks down, throws interceptions. But every single play something either really good or really bad is about to happen. I think he’s an exciting talent. I like the fact that he’s an athlete. He was a high school baseball player that was drafted.” — Mayock
DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame
“Would I use a first-round pick on him? Probably not. I don’t think the body of work is complete. I think there’s some things he’s got to resolve in terms of end-of-game situations, winning. There’s some things where I think he’s a little rough around the edges. But from a talent standpoint, he’s got a lot of ability.” — Gruden
Nate Peterman, Pittsburgh
“He’d allow us to do just about anything in a game plan. He throws the ball pretty darn good. He’s athletic and very, very sharp. He’s a lot like Andy Dalton to me. I’d probably go with Peterman if I had to play him in a few months.” — Gruden
Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee
“There are four things that Dobbs exhibits. He’s smart, he’s tough, he’s athletic, and he has arm talent. When you watch him in the Senior Bowl, he got better each and every day. You begin to believe that he is going to transition pretty quickly and smoothly into the NFL.” – NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks