When the Buffalo Bills traded up to select Josh Allen with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft, it was a move that simply made too much sense.
Last year, the widespread belief among NFL fans and pundits was that the Buffalo Bills were tanking. Why else would you ship two young, budding stars away for draft picks? The notion of Buffalo being a seven-win team, let alone a squad that would make the playoffs, was laughable.
But Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane’s consistent approach and commitment to establishing a culture that was truly authentic – with defined characteristics and traits they believed were necessary to succeed – resulted in something amazing to witness. The team bought into the message, coming together as a team and embracing their status as underdogs.
This was a team composed of players deemed expendable by their old clubs or overlooked throughout the draft process. The Bills’ season seemed more like a feel-good movie of overcoming obstacles and brotherhood than what’s typical from most NFL teams.
So when Buffalo traded up to select Josh Allen – the most polarizing quarterback prospect in several years – with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft, it was almost laughable at the obvious connection. For 18 seasons, the Bills were the butt of every joke among media types, fans, and analysts alike.
They were lovable losers, the team that would build itself up, or sign a big name that looked great on paper, but ultimately find a way to fail. Allen can do things other pro passers dream of. He has the talent to potentially be one of the greats. But he also has some flaws that could lead to his unraveling.
The Prospect vs. The Player
Allen was such a divisive prospect because, to NFL executives, scouts and coaches, his raw ability is flat out incredible. He’s roughly 6-foot-5, 232 pounds with a ridiculously strong arm that launches missiles to any part of the field with a simple flick of his wrist. He’s athletic and can extend plays with his feet, as well, leaving decision-makers believing they can coach him up into a star.
But to draft analysts and media members, his flaws are simply too strong to outweigh his physical attributes. Sure, he can sling it further than Uncle Rico, but that can be a blessing and a curse. Allen seemed to rely on his strength too often, knowing that he could make any throw needed, and his mechanics got downright ugly.
His delivery was wildly inconsistent, throwing the ball from multiple angles, often throwing off of his back foot or jumping and leaving the ground altogether when delivering a pass. This resulted in too many erratic and off-target passes that resulted in him finishing with a completion rate of 56.3-percent, an alarming number. Sixty percent is the baseline completion percentage that is viewed as acceptable, and not only was Allen well below that, but he also posted that mark playing in the Mountain West Conference.
The 2018 draft class was loaded with intriguing talented passers that had pedigrees of success. Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson were Heisman Trophy winners that were electrifying dual-threat playmakers that put up gaudy, video game-like statistics throughout their careers, while Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold were prodigies that were highly recruited from an early age.
Allen, on the other hand, was a two-star recruit that didn’t have any FBS scholarship offers coming out of high school and attended Reedley College before transfering to Wyoming.
It’s common to cherry pick stats when debating or validating a player’s value. However, that’s incredibly tricky when it comes to Josh Allen. The 21-year-old’s 56.2-percent completion percentage is the lowest of any first-round quarterback since Jake Locker and finished 32nd and 73rd in passer rating in two years as a starter.
What the numbers say
SB Nation’s Bill Connelly’s opponent-adjusted Passing S&P+ grades every FBS offense on efficiency, explosiveness and more, and Wyoming ranked No. 119 out of 130 teams. In 2016, Allen threw for 3,203 yards (8.6 yards per attempt) with 28 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He lost two players on offense to the NFL, leaving him with an extremely talent-poor roster in 2017, when he completed just 56.3-percent of his passes for 1,812 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions, averaging just 6.7 yards per attempt.
Those who support Allen point to his lack of surrounding talent as a reason for his poor statistics, but playing in the Mountain West Conference, opposing defenses weren’t much more talented.
The average defense he faced had an 82.8 ranking against the pass, and just nine opponents ranked in the FBS’s Top-60. Here’s a look at the opponents faced by the 2018 class’s top passers.
|QB||Avg Opponent Pass D||Top-10 Pass D||Top-30 Pass D||Top-60 Pass D|
He played two Power 5 opponents in 2017, completing 50 percent of his passes for no touchdowns and three interceptions, averaging 3.7 yards per attempt with a 119 rating, in losses to Iowa and Oregon. In 2016, Nebraska was the only Power 5 team Allen faced, and he threw one touchdown and five interceptions.
Carson Wentz came from North Dakota State and is often pointed to as validation for a quarterback being able to translate from a non-Power 5 conference to the NFL and enjoying success. However, he posted a 153.9 passer rating and 8.3 yards/throw.
Of the 12 previous non-Power 5 conference quarterbacks taken in the first round, Patrick Ramsey, J.P Losman, Joe Flacco, Paxton Lynch, and Josh Allen were the only ones with a college passer rating below 138. Among top-100 draft picks since 2005, Allen joined C.J. Beathard, Connor Cook, Christian Hackenberg, Jake Locker and Andrew Walter as the only passers to complete less than 58 percent of their passes since 2008.
Stats are for nerds
Mel Kiper Jr. was a staunch supporter of Allen throughout the draft process, and on a conference call he told members of the media that ‘stats are for nerds’ when asked about his subpar completion rate, explaining that ‘he [was] a winner.’ Kiper was impressed with Allen’s unreal arm talent and knowledge of NFL passing concepts. Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph didn’t play in traditional NFL offenses, while Allen took snaps under center and shouldered more responsibility on offense.
He was pressured on 41 percent of his dropbacks, the fifth-most of 47 draft-eligible quarterbacks last season. Lamar Jackson was pressured 36 percent of the time, Sam Darnold 31 percent, Josh Rosen 29 percent, Baker Mayfield 28 percent, and Rudolph 23 percent.
Can Josh Allen defy history?
Quarterbacks who have previously put up similar college statistics and possess the same physical attributes as Allen have rarely enjoyed success when they got on an NFL field. Below is a look at some big-time prospects drafted in the first round, despite completing less than 60 percent of their passes.
|Notable 1st-Round QB sub-60%||Pct||Yds||Y/A||AY/A||TD||Int||Rate|
Take a look at this write up on Kyle Boller, a 6-foot-3, 233-pound passer with a cannon for an arm. It’s oddly similar to the coverage Allen received throughout the draft season.
Boller showed he belongs with the big boys at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. Then at the combine, Boller and his agent, Mike Sullivan, gambled brilliantly. Having displayed his arm skills at the Senior Bowl, Boller focused on his athleticism at the combine.
The 6-3, 235-pounder wowed scouts with a 4.59 clocking in the 40. He also had the second-best shuttle among all QBs, and registered a 35-inch vertical jump.
His 100-throw display caught the attention of the 15 teams that attended the workout. Cal coach Jeff Tedford (more about him later) made sure Boller left nothing to the imagination as the quarterback made every throw in the book.
He put an exclamation point on the workout when he took a knee at the 50 and launched a pass that sailed over and between the goal posts 60 yards away, drawing applause from all the NFL scouts and coaches in attendance.
“Physically, he’s got all the tools — a huge arm, great athleticism and great feet,” said 49ers coach Dennis Erickson, who coached against Boller in the Pac-10 “Overall, when you look at his career you see a 50-percent passer,” said a scout.
Sound familiar? Here’s Allen launching a 50-yard pass through the goalposts from his knees during Wyoming’s Pro Day.
Jake Locker’s NFL.com Draft Profile reads just like Allen’s.
An extremely gifted athlete, Locker’s production does not match his talent. He possesses a cannon for an arm, but he is not an efficient passer. At this point, his greatest asset is his athleticism and it is unclear if he will ever be a starting quarterback at the next level. Also, Locker has a history of injuries due to his aggressive style of play. Overall, Locker has all the physical tools and a team will likely take a chance on him in the first round despite his inconsistent production.
Even legendary coach Bill Walsh, the architect of the San Francisco 49ers dynasty had this to say about the player who became one of the biggest busts in NFL history, Ryan Leaf, over Peyton Manning.
“He is gifted, in just a natural throwing motion that is so quick,” Walsh reportedly said in his evaluation. “With a flick of his wrist, he can get the ball just about anywhere he wants. He is a good competitor, amazingly agile and smooth and graceful in his movement as a big man can be. He handled the Washington State offense beautifully. In a sense, it was an aerial circus.” Mike Shanahan, then the coach of the Super Bowl-winning Denver Broncos, said the “excellent” Leaf was “a big, strong kid with unbelievable arm strength. He’s played in a system very similar to a lot of NFL teams. That cannot be underestimated.”
Why Allen can be an outlier of epic magnitude
Josh Allen has been under fire for over a year. The stats are against him. History is, too. But there’s a reason he was held in such high regard by those around him and the decision-makers in NFL front offices, and big-time analysts that are paid a pretty penny to analyze draft prospects, some of which played the position.
Mike Mayock made some quality points when discussing Allen’s pro prospects.
“He has the biggest arm I’ve seen since JaMarcus Russell and JaMarcus Russell was a bust,” NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said. “What I think differentiates this kid is his football IQ, passion, work ethic, and I see a difference between 2016 and 2017 and I can see a difference between 2017 and the combine and then again to the pro day. With tall quarterbacks especially, footwork is critical and most tall quarterbacks struggle early accelerating everything.
Erik Turner masterfully broke down Allen’s mechanics and footwork in a recent column.
Reasons for hope
While the stats above are depressing, there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic that Allen can grow into a successful quarterback.
Matt Ryan, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford are three recent examples of quarterbacks that completed less than 60 percent of their passes during their collegiate careers but went on to be top-tier passers at the NFL level.
|Matt Ryan||Boston College||59.9||9313||6.9||6.5||56||37||126.2|
Stafford is likely the best comparison to Allen at the moment. At Georgia, Stafford played three seasons and posted a 57.1 completion percentage but was ultimately selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NFL draft. He threw 51 touchdowns and 33 interceptions with the luxury of having A.J. Green, Orson Charles and Brandon Pettigrew among his top receiving options.
Stafford had an arm like Allen’s and his mechanics were erratic, too. His aggressive, gunslinger mentality matches that of Allen and, while he still can make some head-scratching throws, Stafford has been one of the NFL’s most prolific passers over the last several seasons.
I love Matthew Stafford. pic.twitter.com/NptVWdUNDn
— Russell Brown (@RussNFLDraft) May 19, 2018
“You coach him properly and he can be spectacular. I compare him to Matthew Stafford, Brett Favre. Stafford had his critics, too, because he was only 57 percent coming out of Georgia. People said he should be a second-round pick, he’s a thrower, not a pitcher. I heard the same things about Matthew Stafford when he went No. 1 and he should have gone No. 1, he’s had a heck of pro career and he’s been at 66 percent the last three years in the NFL.”
As a rookie, Stafford’s accuracy issues were a problem, completing just 53.3 percent of his passes while throwing for 2,267 yards, 13 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. But a decade later, he’s a 62 percent passer that’s thrown for more than 34,000 yards with 216 touchdown passes. He’s thrown over 4,400 passing yards in four seasons and is one of the most exciting players to watch. Ironically, the Lions’ offense is based on short, timing patterns, which goes against the idea that a huge arm is necessary or correlates to immediate success.
Allen absolutely has every opportunity to grow into a premier quarterback.
Not only can Allen make the ideal 22-25-yard pass from the far hash, but he does so with velocity, as shown below.
Here, he eludes pressure extends the play and makes a completion on the run.
Jim Bob Cooter understood Stafford, and Michael Rosenberg highlighted this in a fantastic piece for SI.com
Cooter provided a structure that works for Stafford, but the freedom to change plays within it. All those years, the arm had played a trick on everybody: It hid his brain. Stafford is a lot more like Peyton Manning than people realize. He loves having control. Giving him less to do had been a mistake. He thrives with more. In Cooter’s offense, he routinely goes to the line with multiple plays and picks one based on what he sees.
Allen certainly has a lot of work ahead of him. But like the Bills team that had low expectations a year ago, Allen has the talent to defy the odds and emerge as a premier quarterback if the coaching staff can mold this piece of clay into a beautiful work of art.
Buffalo always finds a way to make things interesting, and Allen’s development will be a process worth watching.