My Favorite Highlight
Maybe you could help me out. I can't remember which coach originally made the statement, but there's a well-worn adage that if the offense runs the ball for 4 yards on first down, they think they're winning (the actual wording is more colorful) but if the offense passes for 4 yards on first down the defense thinks they're winning. That basic philosophy became the basis for Tom Brady's "dink and dunk" system with the Patriots and helped revolutionize modern NFL offensive systems.
NFL draft season is full of flashy highlight videos. Huge hits by defenders, interceptions, sacks, acrobatic catches, long TD runs, 5 broken tackles by the RB on the same play. Have you seen that crazy one-handed catch Ricky Pearsall from Florida made? Amazing.
Here is my nominee for one of the best plays from the 2023 season. Are you ready for it? You should be sitting down right now. I don't want you to hurt yourself with the excitement. If you're waiting for a train at the station, backup so that you don't accidentally fall down onto the tracks. Here it comes.
Bo Nix throws a short pass to the RB for 5 yards.
Incredible, right? What amazing talent. Never seen anything like that in all my days of watching football. Is there any other QB in the entire country who could have made that play? NFL GMs will be getting into fist fights battling for the right to draft this player.
I've said before on TST that I consider Nix to be another Drew Brees. The purpose of this fanpost is to give a very concrete example of why I said this and why I believe that Nix will be a good NFL starting QB. It is important to note that Brees only played in a single Super Bowl his entire career. The Rams with a young Jared Goff went on the road and beat Brees and the Saints in a controversial NFC championship game. Brees had the critical INT in overtime of that game. Brees only has a 9-9 record in the playoffs with a good-but-not-great 97.1 passer rating. If we compared his playoff stats to the 2013 season (I'm doing this to account for statistical inflation where more recent QBs have better stats) Brees would be nearly exactly the same as Tony Romo. He'd be way better than some other guy named Matthew Stafford. If it weren't for that single Super Bowl win, our entire perception of Brees as a QB might be different today. He'd be a guy who had some impressive regular season numbers but who always fell short in the big games in the playoffs. Maybe we'd consider him to be on the same tier as Romo.
Whether Brees could "single handedly" drag a team to the Super Bowl is beyond the scope of our discussion. I think it is sufficient to say that if I thought I was getting another Brees, that QB definitely would be worth a 1st round pick. Whether I'd take him number one overall in a draft where there was another QB in the same draft who was the next Peyton Manning and a 2nd QB who was the next John Elway doesn't matter for where the Rams are picking in 2024.
To understand why I consider Nix's short passing play in 2023 to be a highlight, let's look at a sequence of plays from Jayden Daniels. Some mocks have Daniels as the number one overall pick in the draft. This set of downs happened in the Alabama game, the 9th game of LSU's season. Daniels got injured later in the game and Bama won 42-28.
Play One: LSU is facing a 2&12 on their own 47, trips WRs to the right. The inside slot WR (Malik Nabers) is running a deep corner to the right side of the field. The number 2 WR will run a deep over route to the left side of the field and when they cross it creates a natural pick. The far outside WR isn't really involved in the play.
Both of the deep routes are wide open. The 2 CBs run into each other. QB could throw it to the deep over going to the left or he could throw it to Nabers on the deep corner for a huge play. The deep S has his hips angled to run towards the deep over going to the left but he's so deep he could only help tackle after the catch, he has no chance at contesting the throw. Essentially, the QB can't go wrong, should be a huge gain no matter which WR he targets. This is what happens with LSU's scheme, so many very easy plays for the QB with manufactured huge space for the WRs, many chances at chunk plays with very easy reads for the QB.
Daniels isn't sharp with his dropback footwork, then when he gets to the top of his drop he takes an extra hitch and unnecessary hop, late with the throw. This shouldn't matter, because both WRs are so super wide open the QB doesn't need to be precise with the timing or the ball location, just drop it anywhere into the open area of the field and the WR could adjust for a long catch.
Daniels's pass, however, has terrible accuracy. The pass is way underthrown at the 15-yard line (just over 35 yards from LOS) and way too far to the inside. Instead of leading the WR to the corner where he could make an uncontested catch, the pass is so far inside that both the CB (the guy who ran into the other CB) and the S (the guy who was facing the wrong way and had to pivot back around to run towards Nabers) have time to recover and all 3 of those players run into each other at the catch point.
That is Day 3 draft pick level quarterbacking. The only way you could have had an easier look is if all the DBs fell down on that play. How do you manage to mess that up as a QB? Horrible.
Play Two: The very next snap, it is now 3&12 since we missed on that great chunk play opportunity. Since it is a long 3rd down, the defense is going to drop back into a zone shell, looks like Cover 3. The TE chip blocks then releases to the flat. Instead of throwing the ball with anticipation, Daniels waits until the TE is coming out of the break before he begins to wind-up for the pass. Simultaneous with the TE coming out of the break, the S is jamming Malik Nabers at the top of the WR's route and is standing flat-footed. If the QB had thrown the ball a split second earlier, this means the TE would have a "head start" to get YAC, since the S is momentarily caught up jamming the WR and won't be able to instantly react. This very small difference in timing results in S seeing the pass go underneath to the TE, pursuing to close down the TE at the sideline and knocking the TE out of bounds about one and a half yards short of the marker.
If QB had executed his job with more precision, this play likely goes for a 1st down, despite it being a very short pass on a long 3rd down. That small difference means it is now 4th down instead of 1st down.
Play Three: After not picking up the 1st on the previous 2 plays, LSU now faces a 4th&1 and they decide to go for it. Thomas the WR comes down in short motion pre-snap and this causes Terrion Arnold to call out a switch, taking the other WR stacked in front of Thomas. The switch means the inside CB has to cover Thomas in man, and the slot CB doesn't have outside leverage as Thomas runs a short flat route beyond the marker. This should be a very easy 4th down conversion for a 1st down.
For the 3rd play in a row, Jayden Daniels messes it up. Instead of placing the ball on the outside shoulder or hip of the WR, the pass is too far to the inside on the inside hip of the WR and the CB breaks up the pass, Alabama gets the ball on a turnover on downs.
I know Jayden Daniels can rip off an exciting 50-yard TD run. Those make for great highlights. In a football game, there are situations where we don't need that, all we need is one yard. The reason Daniels makes me nervous as a 1st round pick is he hasn't proven that he can consistently get you that "1-yard" type of play.
Justin Fields is a dual threat QB who had 1,143 rushing yards in 2022. He had nearly exactly the same number of rushing yards as Kyren Williams did for the Rams in 2023 as a Pro Bowl running back. Fields has taken a crazy high number of sacks, so his career ANY/A is only 4.77 yards. That is so terrible that it would have been 28th in the NFL in 2023 with only these QBs scoring worse: Josh Dobbs, Mac Jones, Sam Howell, Ryan Tannehill, Zach Wilson and Bryce Young. After drafting Fields 11th overall (Fields was widely mocked as the 2nd overall pick in his draft) Chicago now is facing a decision to draft a different QB and possibly try to trade Fields. Without hindsight, if Fields and Daniels were in the same draft class, which of those 2 QBs would you take higher?
Ahead of the Chains
Bo Nix visually looks like a backup QB. He's short. He doesn't have a thick, strong build. He doesn't have a cannon for an arm. Why would this guy be any good?
There are a ton of plays from his tape that I could use to illustrate, but I'm just going to use one and explain why I'd put it on a "scouting highlight tape" for Nix, even though if you saw it you'd think it was a completely "nothing" play that must have slipped into the video by accident.
It is a 1st down snap. The defense pre-snap has both safeties deep, showing either quarters or maybe Cover 6. After the snap, the defense inverts the coverage on one side of the field, with the S dropping down and a different DB rotating back into the safety's spot. Then, they only rush 3 and drop one of the DL into zone coverage, so they have 8 defenders in zone. It appears to be just a basic Cover 2, but they tried to disguise it and are flooding the underneath zone with an extra defender, compressing the space to try to discourage short throws.
Nix's footwork in his drop is clean and efficient. He has a very quick release with a compact throwing motion, his shoulders properly aligned to his target. As QB gets the snap, he reads the deep S, confirming the coverage. As soon as QB hits his back foot on the drop, bam, zero hesitation, not wasting any time reading routes that aren't going to come open, he throws the ball to the RB running an angle route out of the backfield.
The pass comes out so fast that the ball has already left the QB's hand as the zone defenders are finishing their zone drops. This means the pass happens at the point where there is maximum separation between the RB and the nearest defenders. Accuracy and ball placement are perfect, hitting the RB in stride and helping YAC. The defense tackles the RB after a gain of 5 yards.
If you're not paying attention to the details, you might assume that this was just a mundane, boring play, but understand what just happened. The defense has an extra guy in the zone, so if the QB got confused by the odd inverted coverage rotation, got spooked by the dropping DL or otherwise hesitated throwing it to the RB, the zone defender could have driven on that route and gotten a PBU or make an immediate tackle at the catch point and limited it to about a 2 or 3 yard gain.
Instead of it being 2nd&7, the next snap is now 2nd&5. Oregon runs the ball on 2nd down and picks up the first down. That very small difference in the outcome of the 1st down play impacts the play calling options on 2nd down, giving the offense the advantage.
Nix consistently makes these types of plays in his games, yet so many other college QBs I study repeatedly mess up exactly the same type of situation over and over. They are too late to throw the ball, the pass is off target, they don't throw it at all and try to scramble, they don't see the RB and throw the ball away or eat it for a sack. If it is so easy to make this very short throw, why doesn't everyone do it?
These "nothing" plays aren't really as easy as they look and when a QB prospect does it so well and consistently that he makes it look easy, that's exactly why you should be interested in drafting him. It means that QB has put in the work to sharpen his craft and mentally knows what he's doing.
Five-yard passes don't make for much of a highlight video, but they can reveal the necessary play traits to be a successful NFL quarterback.