In case you hadn’t heard, Tom Brady will be the Patriots’ starting quarterback in 2018.
There may not be a competition for the leading role, but one of the main storylines of Pats camp will be the backup quarterback competition between veteran Brian Hoyer and rookie Danny Etling.
The Patriots selected Etling in the seventh round of April’s draft, and although expectations are low, there have already been rumblings about Etling’s impressive showing at minicamp and his work ethic.
Even though nobody expects Etling to be the successor to Tom Brady, some have brought up the idea of him backing up Brady instead of Hoyer. After all, Etling is an unknown and seeing whether or not he has starter potential makes you think he’s worth protecting on the 53-man roster. Whereas with Hoyer, we already know who he is in this league. The Patriots have carried three quarterbacks in the past, but with a slew of roster battles at other positions, roster spots are going to be hard to come by in Foxboro, meaning its likely Hoyer or Etling.
Although it’s intriguing to go with the young prospect in Etling, after reviewing Brian Hoyer’s starts last season in San Francisco, it seems unlikely that Etling can close the gap between him and Hoyer in one offseason.
At LSU, Etling struggled with downfield accuracy, processing speed, and pocket presence, which explains why he was a seventh rounder in April (check out my thread on Etling that goes over those weaknesses:
#Patriots seventh-round pick Danny Etling has limitations as you'd expect but he sees the field well. Double-move from the WR. Etling reads the CBs hips and sees they have him beat. Anticipates the route and throws it with perfect timing and touch. pic.twitter.com/yGFRS0vGcB— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 30, 2018
As for Hoyer, although he wasn’t spectacular, when aided by Kyle Shanahan’s terrific schemes he showed the abilities of a polished NFL quarterback.
Below, I’ll take you through some of the things that Hoyer did last season with the 49ers that are well beyond where Etling is at this stage of his career, and barring a collapse in training camp, make him the best option to backup Brady in 2018.
One of my biggest concerns with Etling is his downfield accuracy. His ball placement is sporadic, and he has trouble controlling the football on passes downfield.
Hoyer, on the other hand, was surprisingly accurate last season, even on deep passes. In fact, Hoyer ranked 14th out of 41 quarterbacks in Pro Football Focus’ accuracy-plus metric and was the #1 rated quarterback in the NFL last season throwing into tight windows (that’s not a typo).
Hoyer threw a pretty deep ball last season. Showing off the necessary arm strength, timing, and ball placement consistently throwing the ball away from man coverage in a spot where his receiver could make a play.
To the short and intermediate levels, he threw with excellent touch and continuously led receivers into YAC situations.
He may not have been making big-time throws downfield like Tom Brady (19th out of 41 in big-time throw percentage), but his accuracy is better than the perception.
This is where Hoyer really separates himself from Etling. These next two plays illustrate what we are talking about when we say this quarterback is a “fast processor.”
The situation: 23-16 Colts in the 4th quarter, first and ten from the SF 11-yard line. As Kyle Shanahan so often does, the Niners put two backs in the backfield with fullback Kyle Juszczyk in the lineup and Hoyer under center. The Colts are in a two-deep safety look, and the safeties drop at the snap. Hoyer quickly realizes that it isn’t cover-2 but rather cover-4 with the outside corners bailing to stay over the top of the outside receivers. Hoyer knows that Juszczyk is going to leak out into the flat after bluffing a block, which will force the flat defender to creep up into that space. So where do Hoyer’s eyes go from there? Right to tight end George Kittle who’s running an out into the zone in between the flat defender and the boundary corner. Hoyer effortlessly completes the pass to the wide-open Kittle for a big gain. Hoyer knew where to go with the ball almost instantly based on the coverage.
Another crucial aspect to quarterbacking in the NFL is fast processing skills in the red zone.
The situation: 41-26 Rams in the 4th quarter, third and three from the LA three-yard line. First, the Niners motion a player into the backfield, which tips off man coverage to Hoyer when the Rams defensive back follows him. Second, the Niners run play action with Hoyer’s first read being the slant by the receiver alone at the top of the screen. The Rams sniff it out with a linebacker dropping into the passing lane. Hoyer doesn’t panic because he knows he has extra blockers, and calmly and quickly comes back to the strong side of the formation where he has either a corner route to the back or the end zone or a juke route underneath. He makes the right read and the easy pass for a walk-in touchdown. The timing on Hoyer’s progression is perfect which is why he’s able to hit Taylor perfectly in stride.
Throwing With Anticipation
You hear me talk about throwing with anticipation a lot when evaluating quarterbacks because it’s such an important skill to have if you’re going to play QB in the Patriots’ offense, and it’s something Danny Etling didn’t do with regularity at LSU. Etling had trouble pulling the trigger on throws where he didn’t see the receiver open before releasing the football, while Hoyer proved to be a very anticipatory thrower.
The situation: 23-9 Colts in the 4th quarter, first and ten from the SF 21-yard line. The Niners run a post/deep slant route out of the slot. The Colts drop their outside linebacker into an underneath zone, something that might fool some quarterbacks, and play a cover-2 zone behind that meaning the middle of the field is open. Hoyer sees the linebacker open his hips towards the sideline on his initial drop and knows that the safety isn’t coming down to take away the throw. Hoyer releases the ball before his receiver clears the linebacker underneath and throws it to the spot where his receiver is going for a 20-yard gain.
Throwing Under Pressure
Hoyer wasn’t otherworldly when facing pressure like teammate Tom Brady last season, but his 70.5 passer rating did come in above the league average as did his PFF grade. The biggest takeaway from Hoyer’s performance while under pressure was that he had a good internal clock and didn’t allow the pressure to affect his downfield accuracy, two things that plague Etling and many other young quarterbacks.
The situation: 27-13 Rams in the third quarter, first and ten from the SF 25-yard line. As they so often do, the Niners incorporate play action again here. Unfortunately for Hoyer, the play-fake gives Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald an extra second to deliver a vicious hit on the quarterback. However, San Francisco floods the Rams’ zone defense at the bottom of the screen with a clear-out route deep down the sideline and fullback Kyle Juszczyk releases into the flat. That leaves a gap in the zone similar to the George Kittle completion above for wide receiver Pierre Garcon. Hoyer, despite the pressure, realizes that Garcon is going to be open in that area based on the coverage and delivers an absolute dime on the sideline with the best defensive player in the league is burying him into the ground. Heck of a catch by Garcon as well.
The situation: 34-20 Rams in the fourth quarter, third and two from the LAR 17-yard line. One of Etling’s major weaknesses at LSU was his tendency to hold onto the ball in the pocket and not feel/see pressure coming from the defense. Hoyer was much better in that regard. Hoyer sees the blitz from the right coming pre-snap and knows there will be a free runner off the edge based on the blocking scheme. Instead of holding onto the ball while his routes develop downfield or panicking, he allows his running back as much time as possible to release into the flat and delivers a perfect pass to pick up the first down. The running back was likely his hot read on the play if the defense blitzed, which they did, and Hoyer knew when and where to go with the ball.
BONUS: watch Hoyer spin out of the immediate pressure and find an open receiver downfield for a first down.
As is the case for many quarterbacks, Hoyer’s numbers dramatically improved when the Niners used play action. Hoyer had a 95.1 passer rating and averaged 7.2 yards per attempt off of play action, and those numbers dropped to 66.8 and 5.7 without play action.
The situation: 14-7 Rams in the first quarter, second and ten on the SF 29-yard line. On the surface, this play looks like an easy throw to a wide-open Pierre Garcon for a significant gain. However, check out how many defenders Hoyer gets into the box as a result of the play action. The blocking scheme up front and the running back/fullback action plays a part, but that’s a terrific fake by Hoyer that has eight Ram defenders sucked into the line of scrimmage. Turns his back to the defense, extends the ball into the running back’s arms and there’s no underneath defender to drop into the middle of the defense to contest this throw to Garcon.
Whenever a team drafts a quarterback there’s always going to be buzz even if that quarterback was a seventh-round pick, especially when it’s Bill Belichick.
Add offseason tropes such as “he’s a hard worker” and “he has really impressed coaches,” and fringe roster players like Danny Etling quickly become players with a lot of potential.
As I documented in my Etling thread, there’s both good and bad to the rookies’ game. If you cling to the good, you can talk yourself into him eventually becoming the backup quarterback for the Patriots, and maybe a starter if you want to get crazy.
However, based on what I outlined above, Hoyer is on another level as a quarterback at this stage of his career, which is to be expected given his experience.
Ultimately, Etling may have similar physical gifts as Hoyer, but it would be shocking from this perspective if Etling closes the gap in the other nuances of the game enough for the Patriots’ coaching staff to feel comfortable with him as Tom Brady’s backup.
Now nobody is arguing that Hoyer is anywhere close to Tom Brady’s level, he’s not, and would be near the bottom tier of starting quarterbacks in the league.
But if Tom Brady does go down with an injury (knock on wood), Hoyer gives the Patriots the best chance to succeed without Brady, and it’s not particularly close at the moment.