The life cycle of a draft quarterback is a funny thing.
For evidence of this phenomenon, log onto Twitter right now and take a gander through #FootballTwitter. As someone who spends, well, an unhealthy amount of time perusing through various discussions on Twitter I can point you to the discourse playing out right now. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the rising junior commonly called the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck? Well, his stock is falling on #FootballTwitter.
This is what happens the second one draft ends. The next one begins. Which leads #FootballTwitter to start digging into some of the lesser-known names in an upcoming draft class. For the 2021 group of quarterbacks, that begins with Justin Fields. Fields is a transfer from Georgia who played extremely well for Ohio State last season. Some are bumping him above Lawrence.
But there is more. Carson Wentz was the first quarterback from North Dakota State drafted in the top five of an NFL draft, but there is a very good chance we see another very soon. Trey Lance, a rising redshirt sophomore (and therefore draft eligible) threw 28 touchdowns last season for the Bison and ran for 14 more, and he did that without throwing an interception.
His name is rising as well.
The summer scouting season is all about unknown (or lesser-known) quarterbacks moving up boards and analysts planting flags. I am as guilty of this as anyone, just take a gander through my timeline last summer for the words “Cole” and “McDonald.” It happens.
Brian Lewerke, a Michigan State quarterback and the most recent addition to the New England Patriots’ quarterback room, was another passer that generated some summer scouting buzz. After his sophomore season, Lewerke became a well-known prospect in scouting circles, as his combination of athleticism and arm strength had many intrigued for what awaited him as a junior, and potentially beyond.
There were some who preached caution, however.
Then his junior year happened, and things fell to pieces. He suffered an injury to his throwing shoulder and was in- and out-of the Spartans’ starting lineup. Lewerke managed to return to action for a road game against the University of Maryland. Your intrepid analyst was credentialed for that game, along with some other members of the scouting community as well as a handful of NFL scouts.
How can one describe an afternoon in the booth when the game ended with a final score of 24 to 3? A game where Lewerke was the leading passer for the victors by going 11 of 20 for 87 yards and an interception (and getting benched)? A game where Maryland passer Kasim Hill (now at Tennessee) was their leading passer with a stat line of 8 for 21 for 74 yards? A game that had the most “Big Ten” sequence of all time in the fourth quarter of a 17-3 game:
- Maryland fumbles just outside of the Michigan State red zone to start the fourth quarter
- Two plays later Lewerke throws his interception and is benched
- Maryland starts their ensuing possession on the Michigan State 43, gets down to the 37, and punts on 4th-and-18 from the Michigan State 37
- Michigan State’s backup quarterback gets intercepted on the next drive by, of all people, his new Patriots teammate Byron Cowart. Cowart returns that down to the goal line but fumbles, and Michigan State recovers it for a touchback
- Given new life, the Spartans run an inside zone running play and it goes 80 yards for a score.
At that point, I left along with another friend in the scouting industry, Kyle Crabbs. This was the second year in a row we attended a Maryland game together, and after seeing Minnesota and Maryland slug it out in 2017, we did not return to College Park during the 2019. My only regret from that game is that an unknown AFC East scout arrived midway through the first quarter, sat next to some other scouts, never took his jacket off or opened up his notebook, and left midway through the second quarter. He missed all the fun of that sequence.
I swear I’m getting to the film part. Maybe I’m just adding some color because I’m avoiding talking about Lewerke’s tape. Maybe I’m just taking advantage of some quiet time where I’m not having to home school the kids as the weather is nice for the first time of quarantine season and the kids are actually playing outside. Maybe it’s a little of both. I’ll let you decide.
Back when I studied Lewerke the past two summers, there were some things that stood out about his game. He was a true “dual threat” quarterback, who could contribute with both his arm and his legs. He moved well against pressure and threw well on the move. Lewerke also operated a “pro style” offense, and there are plenty of examples of him on film working under center, executing play-action fakes with his back to the defense, and generally doing the kinds of things schematically we associate with the professional game. He also showed the ability to adjust his expectations post-snap based on his picture of the defense before the play and any post-snap adjustments they made on that side of the football. Lewerke also showed some examples of the ability to run West Coast passing designs with good processing speed, such as Tosser (the term in the Patriots’ playbook for double slant).
On the negative side of the ledger, I had question marks about his ability to make timing and rhythm throws, especially with anticipation, something that is critical in New England’s offense. He also ran a high number of “one-read” designs, much more than working through full progression reads. His ball placement tended to dip when he was forced to get to his second or third read on a play, and overall there was a question in my mind of whether his process — which tended to be shaky — justified the results.
Some of those flaws actually improved over the past season. Take this play against Ohio State:
Prior to this play the inside trips receiver - and eventual target - motions across the formation to get into the trips on the left. Lewerke sees the cornerback trail him across the formation so he knows the Buckeyes are in man coverage. That makes this read and throw, on a go/out concept to the left, a wise decision. But he also makes this throw on time and in rhythm, with a bit of anticipation. An improvement over 2017/2018.
Another aspect of this throw is what Lewerke displays mechanically. In that part of the game he is very sound, with a good throwing base, a minimized — Spartan, if you’ll allow the pun — throwing motion, and a quick release.
We also mentioned concerns over his progression reads. This play from Tulsa is a good indication of what Lewerke can do in this area. The Spartans run a shallow cross concept, and Lewerke reads this from left to right and back. He opens to the single receiver side to give that route a peek, then comes to the dig coming from the right/the middle trips receiver, and seeing that throwing lane constricting he comes down to the shallow route from his tight end, working from the right back to the left:
Even better in terms of working through reads is this example, also from the Tulsa game:
The Spartans run a mirrored curl/flat design here, with a curl and a flat route to the right, the inside trips receiver running a sit route over the football, and a curl/swing combination back to the left with the running back executing the swing route after checking his protection responsibilities. Lewerke first reads the curl/flat on the right, but the corner stays in place over the flat route and the safety and slot defender take away the deeper curl. He then works to the third read, the sit route over the football, but the linebackers take that away. So the QB works to the backside of the concept and his fourth and fifth reads. The corner to that side faked a blitz and retreated under the curl route, while the safety is also constricting the throwing lane to that receiver. With his first four reads taken away, he goes to the checkdown, and his running back rewards his decision by scampering for the first down.
The final play I want to break down is this touchdown against Tulsa. This comes on a mesh/wheel design. The Golden Hurricane bring a Cover 0 blitz on this play, but watch how Lewerke identifies it, stays poised and takes what the defense gives him right away to exploit the pressure scheme:
When you hear analysts say “quarterbacks should want to be blitzed,” this is why.
Look, Lewerke went undrafted for a reason. Some of the weaknesses identified the past two summers of scouting him are present particularly his willingness to resort to his legs first before clicking and maneuvering around the pocket. Accuracy will dip when pressured, especially if there is a combination of progression reads and duress in the pocket. But as far as undrafted dart throws can go, the Patriots could have done a lot worse. Despite his flaws, his growth last season, coupled with what he already did well, tends to work in the NFL.