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Setting the quarterback board: Ryan Finley makes plenty of sense for the Patriots

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Mark Schofield kicks off his series with a quarterback from a school the Patriots turned to recently to address a need at the position: Ryan Finley.

NCAA Football: TaxSlayer Gator Bowl-Texas A&M vs North Carolina State Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

While the main storyline coming out of Foxborough over the weekend was the retirement of tight end Rob Gronkowski, as any true New England Patriots fan will tell you, life goes on. With the 2019 NFL Draft fast approaching and the Patriots now having yet one more big need to fill come draft time, we can start to look at some of the quarterbacks that the Patriots might consider in the upcoming draft. This series will focus on a handful of passers who fit with New England’s offensive approach and might be available sometime on Day Two or Day Three. We’ll kick things off with a quarterback from a school the Patriots turned to recently to address a need at the position: Ryan Finley.

Biography

As with a few other passers in this class, Finley’s path to N.C. State was not a linear route. While a high school junior in the Phoenix, Arizona area, Finley took an unofficial visit to Boise State on a Wednesday and was committed by the weekend, accepting his first scholarship offer. Some Pac-12 schools, such as Arizona, Arizona State, California, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA were expressing interest in the young passer, but Finley was enticed to Boise State by coach Chris Petersen and the opportunity to run a “pro-style” offense.

Despite Peterson’s departure, Finely kept his commitment and enrolled at Boise State. Finley redshirted his freshman season but the following season he appeared in five games, completing 12 of 27 passes for 161 yards and a pair of touchdowns, along with one interception. Entering his sophomore season, he was in a quarterback contest with three other passers, all of whom were recruited by the a head coach, Bryan Harsin. After a strong spring performance, capped off by a solid outing in the spring scrimmage, Harsin named Finley the starter, beating out a group that included true freshman Brett Rypien.

We’ll get to Rypien in a few days...

Finley’s year as a starter ended abruptly, as he suffered a season-ending ankle injury after just three games. In those three games, Finley completed 46 of 70 passes for 455 yards and a single touchdown, against four interceptions. That injury paved the way for Rypien to take over the starter, and with Finley on track to graduate early, he decided to seek a transfer. Ultimately, he ended up with the Wolfpack, reuniting him with quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz. Drinkwitz held those positions with Boise State when Finley was named the starting quarterback.

Finley’s graduate transfer to NC State enabled him to play right away for the 2016 season with two years of eligibility remaining. However, the NCAA granted him an additional season of eligibility due to the fact that his ankle injury occurred after just three games.

He was named the starter for the 2016 season, and given the task of replacing former Wolfpack passer Jacoby Brissett, who was on his way to New England after being drafted by the Patriots. Finley completed 60.4 percent of his passes in his first season down in Raleigh, for 3.059 yards and 18 touchdowns against eight interceptions. In the 2017 season, Finley improved on those numbers, completing 65.4 percent of his pases for 3.514 yards and 17 touchdowns, with just six interceptions. He led the Wolfpack to a 9-4 record, including a win over Arizona State in the Sun Bowl. Finley was very efficient in that contest, completing 24 of 29 passes for 318 yards and a touchdown.

Rather than enter a crowded 2018 draft class at the quarterback position, Finley returned to Raleigh for his final college season with a stated goal of winning an ACC Championship. That goal did not materialize, as the Wolfpack finished 9-4 for the second-straight season, and ended their year with a loss to Texas A&M in the Gator Bowl. However, Finley’s production took another step forward this past year, as he completed 67.4 percent of his passes for 3,928 yards and 25 touchdowns, against just five interceptions. He had five games with three or more touchdown passes, including four in a victory over Louisville. Finley led the conference in pass completion percentage, passing yards and total yards, and was invited to the 2019 Senior Bowl.

Strengths

Finley is a refined, experienced quarterback who combines an efficient, conservative approach with the mental makeup of a veteran passer. He is active in the pre-snap phase of plays, often with the instructions coming from the sideline but not always - with his level of experience he was tasked with making some calls and adjustments at the line of scrimmage on his own. He is experienced running an offense from any alignment, whether under center, in the shotgun or in the pistol formation. Watching him you can see why the notion of playing in Petersen’s “pro-style offense” intrigued him. He run a lot of what we traditionally considered to be such designs, and shows good processing speed and mental acuity in those moments.

Finley displays good footwork in the pocket on his drops, including his release from the line when aligned under center. He is very clean mechanically, with a crips release and follow-through, with a good balance between lower body involvement and upper body torque.

Generally speaking, Finley does a good job identifying leverage advantage and alignment advantages in the pre-snap phases of plays, and then attacking the defense accordingly once the play has begun. Whether it is a matter of an overhang defender utilizing inside technique against a #3 receiver, or a cornerback playing with a very soft cushion, Finley has no qualms about taking what the defense gives him. He is a very conservative passer, who has no problem taking a checkdown when the opportunity arises.

Finley’s experience has enabled him to become a talented manipulator, with the ability to move defenders with his eyes and freeze safeties accordingly. He is a generally accurate passer, strongest in the short- and intermediate-areas of the field. IF you are looking for a quarterback who can deliver on anticipation throws and make full field reads, he might be the guy you are looking for.

We will talk more about the mental approach in a moment, but that is his strongest calling card as a quarterback. When studying players, some games or even plays stick with me. For Finley, his 2018 game against Syracuse is one such contest. While the Wolfpack lost that contest, the Syracuse defense offered a stiff test in terms of trying to confuse the quarterback at the start of plays. Finley, for the most part, responded well. Take, for example, this touchdown against the Orange from early in the game:

Before the play Finely (#15) sees a two-high safety look from the defense, and likely expects Cover 2 or Cover 4. The Wolfpack run a Mills concept, pairing a post route with a dig route. FInley aligns in the pistol and carries out a run fake, dropping his eyes from the secondary just after the snap of the football. As this happens, Syracuse rotates their coverage into a single-high look.. Finley needs to pick this up on the fly, after returning his field of vision downfield. Now with a single safety, Finley is tasked with reading his response to the coverage. If he stays over the top of the post route, Finley will throw the dig. If the safety collapses on the dig, Finley throws the post route over the safety’s head. Here, the safety stays on the dig, for Finely reads this on the fly and throws the post for a touchdown.

Here’s another look at Finley showing good processing speed in response to a rotated coverage look at the snap, while running another NFL concept. In the second quarter the Wolfpack face a second and eight, and finely against aligns in the pistol formation. N.C. State puts three receivers to the right, while Syracuse again shows two deep safeties before the play:

N.C. State runs the HOSS concept on this play, a staple of offenses such as New England’s. Remember, this is the play that the Patriots ran three-straight times in Super Bowl LIII, culminating with Gronkowski’s huge catch on the seam route to set up a first and goal. The outside receiver to the trips runs a hitch route while the #2 receiver in the formation runs a seam. Syracuse, as they did on the previous play, rotates their safeties at the snap and they run a combination coverage, using straight man coverage on the single receiver side and using a Cover 3 design to the trips side of the formation. Finley reads this perfectly, coming to the seam route with is the ideal read against Cover 3:

Finley’s execution on this play - running something that the Patriots often do - combined with his proficiency on timing and rhythm designs is a big reason why I half expect him to end up in Foxborough. N.C. State loved to run a three-receiver combination out of trips that put a post route on the outside, an out-and-up from the middle receiver and an deep out from the inside receiver. In this design they could isolate a talented receiver out of that third spot against a safety or even a middle linebacker. I talked to Finley about this design down at the Senior Bowl and you could tell that he loved the mental, schematic aspect of the game when he broke that play down for me. His proficiency on this design is something I broke down in detail in this video:

Here’s another look at Finley’s processing speed, coming off a play-action look with his back to the defense. The QB fakes both an inside handoff and an end-around, before opening to his right to read a post-out concept (a concept the Patriots call “Pout.”) Finley has his back to the defense while carrying out the fake, and comes out of it to immediately recognize the open receiver and drop in a deep ball:

Finley’s pass hangs a bit, causing the receiver to slow up a few steps, but it still goes for a touchdown. We’ll address the arm strength issue in a moment, but this is another example of processing speed from the QB. He takes his eyes off the defense while carrying out the fakes, but he comes back and makes an immediate decision. Running a concept that New England runs as well does not hurt.

One last play to look at shows Finley executing in the quick game while having to navigate another rotation in the secondary. This play comes on a 2nd and 2 situation, and the Orange show blitz with the linebackers up front, and put a single safety deep:

The offense runs the Ohio concept here, with the outside receiver running a go route and the inside receiver running a quick out pattern. Just prior to the snap, the single safety slides to his left, over the top of what will be the go route in the Ohio concept. Finley takes the shotgun snap and sees the defense drop into a Cover 2 look underneath. However, with the safety now using a very wide alignment, the go route is capped off and covered. Finley comes to the out pattern underneath:

This is an example of Finley making another timing and rhythm throw when the pre-snap look and post-snap look are varied. Despite the rotation in the secondary, he adjusts on the fly and makes a good read and throw to move the chains.

Weaknesses

The knocks on Finley come in a few manners, but ultimately get to the question of what his overall ceiling is as an NFL quarterback. We mentioned his conservative nature as a passer. While that might endear him to some coaches, who live by the phrase “you never go bankrupt taking a profit,” but it is hard as a QB to become more aggressive over time. Once you start to play the game in a risk-averse manner, it is difficult to dial up the aggression when it might be necessary to do so.

Arm strength is also an issue with Finley. He spun the ball pretty well down in Mobile, and that was a good sign for him, but on film there were occasions when throws to the boundary or deeper downfield would hang in the air on him. That might get to more of a scheme limitation with him than anything else, but it is certainly something to watch with Finley. He’ll need to show improvement in this area to raise his ceiling as a passer.

Finley’s ball placement does dip in two respects, first on more vertical throws and second when he is forced to respond to pressure. Now, the first aspect of this might get to the scheme limitation issue, but the second is a bigger issue. All quarterbacks are going to face pressure, and Finley has shown an ability to deliver on throws in scramble drill situations or when moved off his initial spot in the pocket. But when pressure forces a quicker throw from the spot, that is when you can see the accuracy dip on him.

If there is a play that perhaps sums his weaknesses up, it is this interception against Clemson University. N.C. State faces a first and ten just outside the red zone, and they run four verticals against a Tampa 2 coverage:

Now, I can understand Finley’s thought process here to a certain extent. He is looking to throw to one of the vertical routes to his right. The safety does buzz hard toward the boundary in this coverage, constricting the throwing window around the “turkey hole.” If Finley is going to throw that outside route - which he still can is it is open - he will need to deliver it with increased velocity before that safety arrives. However, he comes off it and tries to hit the inside vertical route, working against the dropping linebacker. Unfortunately, he does not get enough on the throw to get it over the LB, and leaves it too far inside, and it is intercepted. So instead on capitalizing on one of two opportunities downfield, Finley throws an interception.

Foxborough Fit

Now we can talk about how Finley might fit in New England. I think his skills and experience pairs well with a timing and rhythm offense like the Patriots’. We’ve seen examples here of his ability to execute on designs that the Patriots currently have in the playbook, which is a huge bonus. Another thing to consider is how well he handles those “back to the defense” type of moments. That would allow him to be successful in a more traditional play-action design where he is turning his back on the defense as he carries out the play-action fake, and then trying to pick up what the defense is doing as he comes out of the action. When you consider how often the Patriots run play-action, the fit makes sense as well. According to Football Outsiders New England used play-action on 31 percent of their plays last season, fourth-most in the NFL. In addition, the Patriots averaged 9.8 yards per play-action play last year, most in the NFL. A QB versed in that style of play makes sense for New England.

Now is also a good time to introduce the idea of the “Parcells’ Rules” for drafting a quarterback. While some might consider these to be outdated, there are some organizations that still rely on these when scouting QBs. These are the seven criteria that the venerable head coach would look to when considering a quarterback: Was he a three-year starter? Was he a senior in college? Did he graduate? Did he start 30 games? Did he win 23 games? Did he post a 2:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio? DId he complete at least 60-percent of his passes thrown?

Looking back at some recent Patriots drafted, you can see that New England puts at least some stock in the Parcells Rules. For example, Jimmy Garoppolo checked all seven of the boxes when he was drafted by the Patriots. He started the final eight games of his freshman season at Eastern Illinois and never relinquished the job. He graduated as a senior with a degree in Management. Garoppolo started more than 30 games while at Eastern Illinois, and led the Panthers to exactly 23 wins over his years as their starting quarterback. He completed 62.8 percent of his passes, and he had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 118:51.

Then a few years ago the Patriots drafted Jacoby Brissett, who checked some, but not all, of the Parcells boxes. Brissett failed to start 30 games, win 23 games, complete 60 percent of his passes or serve as a three year starter, but he was a senior and did graduate, he posted a better than a 2:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. So three of the seven boxes are checked. Perhaps most notably, however, was the input of the old head coach himself, as Parcells went to bat for the young quarterback personally.

In this class, Finley is one of two quarterbacks who checks all of the Parcells Rules boxes. He spent at least three years as a starter, started 42 games over his career with 27 wins to his credit. His touchdown-to-interception ratio is a notch over the 2:1, and he completed 64.2 percent of his passes. Finley graduated early from Boise State with a degree in psychology and is on track to earn two Master’s Degrees from N.C. State by the time he graduates this spring.

Plus, he’s a noted advocate of the TB12 method.

Bottom Line

Finley might not be the most exciting prospect in this quarterback class, but for the Patriots, he does make a great deal of sense. The scheme fit is present, and some of his strongest traits (processing speed, experience in a timing and rhythm system) mesh well with what New England values at the position. In addition, if the front offense still subscribes to the Parcells Rules, Finley checks those boxes. He might not have the huge upside or ceiling of the names near the top of the QB draft board, but if New England wants to go the more developmental route, Finley would be a player to keep in mind.