Welcome to what will be a 5-week breakdown of the current crop of NFL Draft quarterback prospects for the 2020 Draft, which is now under a month away, with the first round scheduled for April 23rd.
Each week, I’ll be doing analysis of a particular one of what I feel are the top 5 quarterback prospects entering the draft, counting down backwards until the week (maybe even day) of the draft. I was hoping to release this one last week, but with a little delay, here it is, and I will have another one up later this week. Without further ado, we will begin with a quarterback with one of the most unusual yet productive and successful college careers in recent memory:
QB Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma. Sr. 6’1”, 222 lbs.
Hurts is the only quarterback that holds the honor of taking two college programs to the College Football Playoff, Alabama and Oklahoma, twice reaching the championship game as a member of the Crimson Tide, while leading the charge on a 12-2 Big 12 championship season as the signal caller for the Sooners. Although a Heisman finalist in his senior campaign, the consensus around Hurts is that he projects as a backup with a chance to become a starter in the NFL, a third-to-fifth-round caliber talent.
By the Numbers
Hurts’ career as a passer can pretty much be split into two; his two years at Alabama spent in a rigid Nick Saban offense, then a year in what has proven to be quarterback paradise under Lincoln Riley in Norman. At Alabama, Hurts finished his career as just under a 63% passer, completing 62.9% of his throws, good for 5,626 yards and 48 touchdowns to only 12 interceptions. While somewhat impressive, the completion rate leaves some to be desired, and is indicative of what many feel is a problematic level of accuracy as a passer. One can look no further than Jalen’s former backup Tua Tagovailoa, a passer who is rated at or near the top of most draft boards, who posted a 69% completion clip the year after he replaced Hurts (2018), who completed only 60.4% of his throws in 2017. His career mark of 62.9% is also a bit generous, as it includes a year of what amounted to mop-up duty or small gadget packages of plays (outside of putting the Superman cape on in the SEC championship against Georgia). In his two years as a starter at Alabama, he completed only 61.8% of all passes. There was, however, an uptick in efficiency in his final season, as he hit his mark on 69.7% of his passes as a Sooner. However, it must be noted, that this is only half (maybe less than) Hurts’ game. He carried the ball as a runner 614 times for 43 touchdowns as well, racking up 3,274 yards, nearly 1,300 of which (1,298) came in his lone campaign in Norman. Contrary to stereotyping of Riley’s wide-open spread offense, Hurts actually threw the ball more in his freshman season at Alabama than he did in his senior season at Oklahoma, albeit in one more game, and carried the ball more as a Sooner than in any season as a member of the Crimson Tide.
Backers of Hurts will point to one statistic in which he led the Big 12 as well as all FBS passers at large in 2019: yards per attempt. Hurts averaged 11.3 yards per dropback, leaps and bounds better than his 7.5 and 8.3 marks he posted his two years as the point man at Alabama. While many will point to the quarterback haven of Oklahoma and the lack of strong defenses in the Big 12 (it must be noted that former Sooner QBs Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield led the nation in the same statistic in their final seasons), which is fair, but it is also true that no other passer had higher than 8.3 yards per attempt in the same conference on the season. Also worth noting is that he edged out projected-first-pick Joe Burrow, and was right on his heels in adjusted yards per attempt (which accounts for touchdowns and interceptions) and passing efficiency rating, finishing second in both categories.
The Oklahoma Effect
Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma has become Heisman U, with Sooner QBs taking home the most famous individual award in college sports in 2017 and 2018, and with Hurts finishing 2nd in 2019. It could also aptly be named First Pick U, with Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray being the first player taken off the board in the 2018 and 2019 versions of the draft. It is interesting to see that, while there is a difference, it is not an outlandish one, between Hurts’ senior season as a passer compared to Murray’s Heisman-winning campaign and Mayfield’s last two seasons at the helm, via College Football Reference.
It is evident that Murray and Mayfield were a bit more prolific as passers, but one can see the similarities in volume, rating, yards per attempt and even completion percentage. As mentioned, though, passing is only half of Hurts’ game: Mayfield was a serviceable rushing threat during his time in Norman, but not the runner that Hurts and Murray were. A comparison of their production on the ground in their lone full seasons at OU:
It is apparent that while Hurts was a more productive runner, mostly through volume, that Murray was more explosive. As far as traits go, it is hard to see a whole lot of parallels between Murray and Hurts, besides maybe being a little bit shorter than what is seen as prototypical for NFL QBs (Murray especially) (and maybe that they both wore number 1 at OU), one could argue that the production is close enough to wonder why Murray and Mayfield were both first picks and Hurts is projected to last by many until the third day. Both (Murray and Mayfield) have shown flashes of high-level NFL play, and the NFL game is becoming more and more like what is seen on Saturdays as well.
Perhaps another chip in Hurts’ corner is the dearth of protection left by Murray’s class of linemen, in which 4 Sooners were taken before the 5th round in the 2019 NFL draft. Center Creed Humphrey projected as a first-to-second round pick in this year’s draft before opting in to stay for his senior campaign in Norman. The lack of protection was made up for by a surplus of pass-catching talent, namely All-Big 12 and projected second-round receiver CeeDee Lamb. Hurts’ receivers were the most surehanded corps of any draft-eligible QB, dropping only 1.8% of all passes, according to Pro Football Focus.
It does not take a rocket scientist to know that at Oklahoma, Hurts, as well as Mayfield and Murray were surrounded by premier offensive talent, much better than every team that they played in their Big 12 schedule, and that as an offensive coach Lincoln Riley is perhaps the best schemer and playcaller in recent memory, able to squeeze massive production out of anyone who can throw the football off the broad side of a barn. Hurts may be the first true test case, the first quarterback in which his translation to the pro game under Riley’s system is being severely questioned. To be determined.
The Truth Is In the Tape?
The first Hurts game I watched was the first meeting against Baylor, in which he helped dig Oklahoma a 28-3 hole, before storming back to a 34-31 victory. In this game, Baylor had major success early with man-to-man blitzes and a lot of pressure, as well as some timely disguise into zone, resulting in three sacks and a fumble, and a bad one at that. He also threw a woeful interception on what was either a miscommunication, a terrible underthrow or both, a rare misfire when he had a clean pocket (he led all college passers in passer rating with a clean pocket at 144.6, according to Pro Football Focus). Hurts came back with 3 touchdowns in the second half, finishing 30/42 for 297 yards and 4 touchdowns, as well as an interceptions, and 114 on the ground on 27 carries.
I also watched the Playoff semifinal against LSU, to see what he and the Oklahoma offense would look like against an elite level defense, but it was mostly a boat race after about a quarter and a half. Hurts finished with only 217 yards through the air and a touchdown, as well as 2 scores on the ground on 14 carries. He also threw an interception on what was a fairly poor trick play, as it took too long to develop. It was hard to gather much from this game, as it was pretty much over before it started, the Tigers taking a 28-point lead after 21 minutes of game time.
I finished with what was Hurts’ best statistical performance of his senior season, a 49-31 win against Houston in his first start as a Sooner, racking up 508 yards and six touchdowns through the air and by ground, as well as what was a 42-41 win against Iowa State, and his win in the Red River Rivalry game against Texas, in which he combined for 366 yards and 4 touchdowns.
I also did watch some of Hurts from his time at Alabama, perhaps most notably the National Championship games against Clemson and Georgia, both of which showcased what made Hurts a starter as a true freshman at one of the most dominant college football programs of our lifetime, as well as his limitations that ultimately led him to the bench in favor of Tagovailoa.
Some things that stood out, or I saw that kept popping up:
While the knock on Hurts has been the accuracy and efficiency as a passer from the pocket, I don’t see anything that looks out of place from a mechanics and footwork standpoint, outside of throwing with a base that is too open to his target (his leading left foot/shoulder too far to the left of his target), especially to the flat areas of the field, sometimes causing the ball to flutter and come out with a lot less velocity. He has a stroke that looks pretty fluid and natural, without much wasted motion. He isn’t like some college quarterbacks that aren’t ‘natural passers’ where there is a lot of technique to be taught.
Being a signal caller in Lincoln Riley’s offense makes him hard to evaluate. There are lots of guys open, often with lots of room to run. Riley is also lightyears ahead of many college coaches in the running game as well, as a lot of Hurts’ big chunk plays on the ground come from actions that totally bust the defense, letting him run into the second level, often with a guard as a convoy, for easy, easy yards (Here is ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky breaking down said pet play).
As a runner, I think that Hurts has almost everything you would like, except for breakaway speed. He doesn’t run himself into tackles, letting his blocking develop pretty well for the most part, and has some patience when the play requires it. He is a very good one-cut runner, as although not incredibly elusive, once he gets his shoulders downhill he gets through the gears pretty quickly, and has some serious power. Arm tackles in college didn’t work, nor will they in the NFL.
While Hurts, by the numbers, was one of the most prolific deep ball throwers in college football last year (he had just under 1,200 yards on ‘deep’ throws, throws made 20+ yards down the field, on 19.7 yards per attempt, both top-7 among FBS QBs), I wasn’t very impressed with a lot of his balls downfield. Specifically, he doesn’t get them up in the air enough, often throwing the long ball a little too flat. The great deep ball throwers in the NFL are able to bring the rain on the deep ball, able to drop it in from the sky to make completions in good coverage, see Wilson, Russell or Rodgers, Aaron. Hurts does nothing of the sort, and while able to hit open targets down the field, he makes very few contested completions in those areas. I think his arm strength is fine, but not good enough to be a real threat throwing it down the field at the next level.As we said earlier, Hurts had a great corps of receivers as well, namely Lamb, who did his share of heavy lifting on deep throws (here is a good example).
Some of Hurts’ best throws came outside the numbers, often to out-breaking receivers with a little bit of touch, but with enough pace to arrive on-time. He can lean on throws over the middle when he wants to with good velocity, but oftentimes at the expense of accuracy, but is often on the money when throwing on-rhythm outside. Here and here are some good examples. I also really liked what he did in the red area of the field as well, and his ability as a running threat, both moving the pocket and as a runner, especially downhill, will make him a player with threatening potential in that area.
NFL Fit and Projection
I don’t think that Hurts has the talent to be an explosive NFL starter, able to put an offense on his back and carry them with his arm and his legs like some of the elite ones do. He isn’t quite fast and twitchy enough as a runner (although his Combine 40-yard dash of 4.59 is faster than DeShawn Watson and Josh Allen, both players who can be a threat with their legs), or accurate enough as a passer, rarely if ever throwing guys open or making plays deep in his pocket progression. His style of play is also a choppy translation to the NFL, as while in college he did a lot of his damage on outside throws, he doesn’t quite have the gun required to make those throws consistently on Sundays, and will have to compensate by being effective on throws inside, which is a weaker point in his game. I do think, more so than some others, that he could be an effective starter at the pro level, however.
His path to doing so, in my opinion, will be dependent on the coaching staff he is paired with, as well as some improvement in his nuance as a passer. While I think it could take some time, and is harder to teach than most think, I think that the potential is there. Watch how he looks off the defense and delivers a strike on this play against Baylor in the red zone. If he can make more plays like this, he’s got a real chance to succeed. The NFL is a long way from the Big 12, though, especially when armed with the best coach, best receiver and best offensive line in the conference. Concerns that he was a product of college quarterback heaven at Oklahoma are justified, and he certainly is not can’t-miss as a prospect. I would be hesitant to bet against him, though. He is able to make plays on and off-rhythm, and his leadership and guile in big spots is unquestioned. Winning the starting job at Alabama as a freshman, and later Oklahoma, is nothing to sniff at, and neither are his relentless leadership and work ethic (however, knowing how this process goes and the cosmic levels of overthinking involved, I bet there is a team that thinks he works too hard), seen on Instagram going to lift weights Saturday nights after Sooner victories.
Best-case career comparison: Dak Prescott With More Speed
Hurts develops some more of the secondary skills that accompany top-level NFL passers, and brings elite toughness, leadership and work ethic to the table in a Pro Bowl career, furthering the revolution of college quarterbacks in the NFL.
Worst-case career comparison: Colt McCoy
While a legend in the college ranks, Hurts doesn’t quite have what it takes in the League, unable to truly hurt teams with his arm down the field, but is able to have a nice career as a backup, sticking around longer than most by being a great locker room presence.