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Why Josh Allen is Worth a Top Five Pick

A closer look at Wyoming QB Josh Allen and why he is worth a top five pick

At this time of year, the nature of “take” driven draft coverage leads to polarization of views on prospects at the most important position on the field. It also happens to be the one we can project with the least reliability. There is also a valid and irresistible urge to push back against old school NFL thinking that is narrow and doesn’t embrace and update for new information. These two factors have converged and driven the analysis of Josh Allen’s game to emphasize the negative. When I examined his game closely, I saw flaws, but not to the same magnitude as advertised, and I saw strengths that he was not commonly given credit for in scouting reports.

Allen’s Flaws

There are multiple readily apparent flaws in Josh Allen’s game. His accuracy is first and foremost listed among those by most analysts. He tends to miss 3-5 throws a game because of accuracy. Occasionally he will put too much on a short pass and miss high or behind the receiver on a short throw. More often, he will miss long on downfield throws, and even have the ball sail in a way that is very dangerous when throwing over the middle.

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Allen’s accuracy is not a fatal flaw. He still consistently connects on short throws to keep the offense on schedule, and usually is accurate enough to give his receivers run after catch opportunities. He doesn’t shine in this area like Baker Mayfield, but he is at worst functional when it comes to accuracy on high percentage throws. He will miss throws downfield, and sometimes those misses turn into turnovers, but he also converts similar throws to the ones he misses and hasn’t displayed an inability to throw deep with accuracy. Allen’s accuracy concerns could be Blake Bortles-esque if they become the defining element in his game, a worst case scenario. They could also be like accuracy issues that sometimes plagued Donovan McNabb, Brett Favre, or Cam Newton, a necessary evil to harvest the value of a sometimes inspired playmaking quarterback who at their best defies defenses best efforts to neutralize them.

Much has been made of Allen’s poor completion percentage, but a closer look at his play reveals that completion percentage also reflects the distorted risk/reward equation for a quarterback that is putting an overmatched team on his back. Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck are accurate passers, but they were well below 60 percent in their rookie years. Favre and McNabb both had at least five seasons under 60 percent and it took McNabb six seasons to get over 60 percent. The question is if a quarterback provides enough splash plays and added value in the passes they complete to compensate for the additional accuracy lapses. Allen’s poor completion percentage also reflects a style of play that puts the offense squarely on the shoulders of the quarterback and doesn’t benefit from much in the way of skill position talent. Allen makes his share of aspirational, low percentage throws in attempts to jumpstart the offense.

Allen’s desire to sometimes abandon a pocket that still has integrity is another flaw that stands out. It’s not that he’s overwhelmed in the pocket. Progressions are fast and reads are quick after Allen takes the snap. He plays with urgency, but isn’t rushed or lacking calmness in his processing. Allen can create functional space in a crowded pocket and harness his arm talent to effectively deliver the ball with bodies around him, or even on him. Much like another quarterback who has completed his share of passes while defenders are trying to bring him down, Ben Roethlisberger, Allen appears to just be more comfortable attacking the defense by extending a play outside of the pocket than hanging in the pocket until the alarm goes off on his internal clock.

About that clock… when Allen is in the pocket, he exhibits a tendency to hold on to the ball for too long and get too comfortable when he should expect pressure at any moment. This is another quality Allen has in common with early career Roethlisberger.

This doesn’t worry me too much when I project Allen because the pocket passing game isn’t too big for him and he has shown that he can harness his arm talent to create results from the pocket. He just seems to like the terms of facing the defense outside of the pocket better once he exhausts his reads. Baker Mayfield exhibits this at times, too. Allen can get away with this, or even like Carson Wentz turn it into a confrontation that the defense loses in key situations like third or long. Allen is athletic and instinctive enough avoiding the rush to create a lot of space and time to consider options, and he sometimes delivers downfield eerily accurate touch passes and small window throws on the move.

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Allen’s biggest flaw stems from trying to do too much. More than inaccuracy or a penchant for playing outside of structure, Allen will make decisions and play the game with an approach that turns attempts to create something out of nothing into plays that create negatives out of nothing, especially in the death throes of a loss. This will have to be ironed out of his game or it could lead him down the track of a loss of confidence and loss of trust by his teammates and coaches. Allen plays with mental toughness and should benefit from players that convert more often on the other ends of throws and coaches who understand better how to leverage the stress he can put on defenses, but to me this is the hottest zone on the bust risk map in Allen’s profile.

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By no means is this an exhaustive treatment or examination of Allen’s flaws. There is a lot more well-written and reasoned pieces out there about the flaws in Allen’s game. These stood out most to me and deserve the most attention.

Allen’s Strengths

Allen is cartoonishly depicted as arm strength and size with nothing else holding him together, but in reality he is a quarterback who can play the game with nuance and inspiration to amplify the impact of his gifts.

Arm strength has been a big part of discussion of Allen both good and bad, and it should be. Allen’s arm strength isn’t just for performing stunt throws, it has a lot of applications in his game. He gets the ball to the sideline from the opposite hash fast enough to make the defender a beat behind in his attempt to corral the receiver after the catch. Allen can get the ball downfield from suboptimal platforms and cramped spaces, and on the run. Allen’s deep ball can unlock the value of a receiver with long speed. The bottom line is that Allen’s arm strength forces the defense to defend the entire field and gives him more ways to test the defense at multiple levels and in multiple modes to find the soft underbelly. It’s not just for show.

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Arm talent is an overused term, but it applies to Allen’s ability to vary arm slots and releases, throw with touch, velocity, and/or distance depending on what the play calls for, and ability to make throws with suboptimal mechanics and platforms.

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In addition to arm strength and talent, a combination of size and athleticism that maps very close to Carson Wentz jumps out right away and fits in on Sundays. He finds ways to shed would-be sackers that have him dead to rights a la Roethlisberger. While Allen’s alarm clock can fail to go off, he more often senses pressure in time to load up a strategy to elude or shrug off the pressure, and succeeds. It’s not as flashy as the big throw while scrambling, but Allen also often shows just enough escapability and strength to throw the ball away on the way to the ground, saving a big loss of yardage. That size, functional strength, and mobility will matter a lot more against NFL pass rushers. Allen can extend plays, and he has the arm and aggressive mentality to make big plays while scrambling. This factor will change the outcome of plays in the NFL, although there will be times that Allen’s decision will make the sack he avoided a better result. This will also change the way defenses prepare for him and force them to continue to defend the entire field when Allen is flushed out of the pocket, in addition to accounting for his ability to gain yards as a runner outside of the pocket.

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Play action passing and pump fakes are two ways for the defense to be manipulated to expose easier passing lanes. Allen is among the best in the class in both categories. Allen displays mental synchronicity with what he’s going to see after he turns his back to the defense and is patient while still thinking big. Pump faking comes naturally to him and indicates another facet of an active, aggressive mindset when engaging the defense.

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Allen isn’t as smooth quickly processing and delivering as Josh Rosen in progressions, but he functions more than well enough to bring a playbook to the field and lock in the easy gains. He’s easily athletic and tough-minded enough to mix in a few read option runs a game and be a goal line runner. He can threaten the whole field both in and out of the pocket. Third and long is no longer the death knell of a drive - Allen’s constellation of abilities, traits, and mindset makes him more formidable in the higher degree of difficult situation.

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Is Allen Worth a Top Five Pick?

The new reality of quarterback economics dictates that if a quarterback is worth a first-round pick, he’s probably worth a top five pick. Even a simply adequate starting quarterback such as Sam Bradford or Case Keenum is to get is going to get 18-20 million dollars per year on the open market. In the rare event that an above average starter hits the market, we saw this year that a fully guaranteed contract setting the top of the market will be in order. Nick Foles will surely get a contract that will make him one of the highest paid players in the game.

On the other hand, the 2011 CBA set rookie contracts so low, even in the top five, that players selected in the first round are among the cheapest starting options at their position in the league. That effect is amplified for quarterbacks because even average starters get paid more than the elite players at other positions. A rookie starter at quarterback gives a team a four-year window of massively increased cap flexibility. This added advantage offsets the additional bust risk of early-drafted quarterbacks compared to other positions.

If Allen’s accuracy and overaggressiveness causes him to make too many mistakes, big and small, his career could easily follow the trajectory of Blake Bortles, who still got 18 million dollars from Jacksonville for 2018, and the Jaguars were still able to make it within one play of the Super Bowl with Bortles as their quarterback, in part because of the players they were able to acquire with the additional cap room.