INDIANAPOLIS — It’s Saturday, and we’re in the 22nd row of Lucas Oil Stadium’s mostly empty Section 138, just above the 45-yard line. Ohio State coach Ryan Day is looking down on his quarterback, Dwayne Haskins, who took just 14 collegiate starts to get here and is now on deck.
West Virginia’s Will Grier is up, throwing out-breaking routes off three-step drops.
“I just saw [Haskins] throw those slants—it’ll be interesting to see how this one comes out,” Day says. “I think he’ll throw the ball good. He plays catch. When you watch a quarterback throw, does he just play catch? Or does it look hard? Does it look natural? I think they’ll see here that he’s really natural, the ball comes off his hand really good.
“Guys really work themselves up over these throws. There’ll be some nerves in there. But once he gets himself into a rhythm, he’ll go. Once he gets himself into that rhythm, he’s as good as I’ve ever seen.”
“As you’ve ever seen?” I ask.
“Oh yeah,” says Day.
Haskins is up, and the first ball’s out. He flips his wrist. The ball jumps off his hand and finds Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin on the sideline. As Day said, it looks easy.
Second one gets to Marshall’s Tyre Brady. And his third throw, the last before he goes back into the quarterbacking line, is just a bit outside of Ole Miss’s A.J. Brown, evidence of the lack of timing between a passer and receiver who don’t know each other very well.
“It’s just effortless, see what I’m saying? Ball comes out of his hand, on time,” Day says, as the ball makes its way towards Brown. “He’s just playing catch. He’s not letting it rip either. He’s making sure he’s accurate with it, doing a good job.”
A month ago, Haskins was the presumptive first quarterback off the board, before Kyler Murray Mania wrapped its hands around the neck of the 2019 NFL draft. And Haskins may still wind up being the first quarterback taken. But Murray’s presence has, at least for now, made Haskins’ introduction to the NFL a sidebar.
So we’re going to re-introduce you to Haskins. And what Day explained as Haskins threw wasn’t hard for anyone watching to grasp: He’s as natural a passer as you’ll find. As I sat with the Buckeyes coach for the workout, I learned about the type of player, and person, his quarterback has become over the last two years.
It makes him different from most college quarterbacks in 2019. We’ll explain.
We’re loaded in this week’s MMQB. And we’re going to get into …
• The Antonio Brown situation, and the team that seems to be the most likely landing spot for him, if the Steelers have their way.
• Kyler Murray’s quiet combine weekend.
• The craziness of the 40 times posted over the last few days.
• How the Cardinals’ free-agent activity could tip us off on what they plan to do with the first overall pick.
• A couple about-to-be franchise-tagged pass rushers who could garner interest on the trade market—and whether their teams would move them.
• Nick Foles and the Jaguars.
And there’s a lot more than just that for you to dig into here, as we head into the final day of this year’s combine—the defensive backs wrap things up on Monday morning.
But we’re starting with Haskins, and why some teams might really like what he brings to the table.
This really started two years ago. Haskins was coming off a redshirt year. Day was returning to the college level after spending two years as Chip Kelly’s quarterbacks coach, first with the Eagles, then with the Niners. And he was coming with the idea to incorporate sophisticated pro-style passing-game concepts into Urban Meyer’s offense.
“I met with Urban, and it was something we’d talked about,” Day said. “And this was kind of my dream, to be in this situation and have a first-round draft pick. And when I talked with Dwayne when we first got there, this is what he wanted to be—a Heisman Trophy winner and a first-round draft pick. I didn’t think it’d happen that fast. But it did. And it’s a tribute to everybody on the offense.
“We got really good receivers, you got Parris [Campbell], Johnny [Dixon] and Terry [McLaurin] here today—they did a great job of bringing this passing game together. Our whole staff on offense did a good job of it. But it is, I’m proud to say, a very cutting-edge offense, and the passing game is very much pro-oriented.”
Haskins sat behind three-time captain J.T. Barrett for a year, and learned what Day wanted. And what Day wanted was for his quarterback to do NFL things, something asked of fewer and fewer college quarterbacks these days.
So Haskins learned to go through full-field progressions. He learned to set protections. He learned advanced route concepts and how to manipulate the defense. Which meant that, by the time he’d take the reins from Barrett, he was ready to unleash the kind offense Day spelled out to Meyer at that meeting in January 2017, and to grow that offense as he grew as a quarterback.
“Early on, a lot of [protection calls were] on me,” Day said. “He’d look over and I’d help him out. But as the season went on, if you watch the rivalry game, I mean he checked almost every protection, and [the blockers] picked it up. They never got home one time on him. He did a really good with that. And hats off to him, because he picked it up as it went on. He got more and more comfortable with that.”
By the end of the year, Day says, he had himself a quasi-NFL quarterback. And as we sat in the stands, the coach thumbed through his mental Rolodex for a couple plays that proved that out.
The first was against Northwestern in the Big 10 Championship Game. It was third-and-20 with 1:28 left in the first half, Ohio State up 17–7. Haskins took a shotgun snap, looked left, gave a subtle pump fake, then pivoted right and cut loose a strike into the hands of McLaurin, who was isolated on Wildcats DB Greg Newsome. The safety help was a good 15 yards away when McLaurin hauled in the 42-yard dime down the left side of the end zone over Newsome, and there was a good reason why.
“He knew what he had there, and he really looked off the safety, and did a great job of coming back to [McLaurin] and delivering the ball,” Day explained. “He and McLaurin were really on the same page on that play. It was really a savvy veteran throw, I thought.”
The second play was in the Rose Bowl against Washington. Ohio State was up 7-3 with 12:32 left in the second quarter. Haskins was in an empty backfield, three receivers to his left, two to his right. After he took the shotgun snap, you could see Haskins looking to the two receivers to his right, then to his slot, K.J. Hill, before coming back to Dixon, who was split left and coming back across the field.
Haskins found a hole between three defenders and fit the ball in to Dixon for a 19-yard touchdown.
“That was the fourth read in the progression,” Day said. “He went through the progression, we have a combination into the boundary, and he kind of worked his way across, and then found the backside dig. I mean, that was the fourth read in the progression. Most guys can’t get through two. He got to the fourth one. That was really good.”
As his quarterback was developing through the season, Day came to grips with something else that was going on. Some in Ohio State’s program had a pretty good feeling from the start of the year that Haskins might declare. And Day knew that Haskins had “always known he was going to be in this situation, that’s always been his deal. He’s wanted to play in the NFL.”
What he didn’t know was that Haskins would play so well—and, in particular, in the final three games before the Rose Bowl—that the decision would become progressively more academic.
“We’re supposed to get three years with him, and we only get one,” Day said, smiling now. “But at the end of the year, when those three games happened, Maryland, Up North [Michigan] and Northwestern, 1300 yards and 14 touchdowns, every time he threw it I’m like. ‘Yes!’ And then, ‘Sh--! Here we go again.’ Then I see [Mel] Kiper’s Top 5, and I’m like, ‘G--damn, get Kiper out of here.’”
Haskins didn’t wind up winning the Heisman, but he was a finalist, finishing with 4,831 yards and 50 touchdowns and giving a college football blueblood the kind of quarterback it had never had before. And the other goal Haskins set when he and Day talked two years ago—to be a first-round NFL draft pick—was in sight too.
Now the quarterbacks are throwing deep, which is where Haskins is really in his element. A couple of the other QBs put a little juice on the ball, and send liners down the sideline and to the inside of the receivers, which Day explains would be picked off in the NFL: “The corners are too good—they’ll play the ball there.”
Haskins could put it on a rope if he wanted. Instead, he sends each one high—above the line of suites in the stadium—and to the receiver’s outside shoulder. He’s been taught all this stuff with the NFL in mind, which probably also explains why in interviews over the previous few nights, NFL teams came away impressed.
“The good news is, for two years, he’s been in an offense where it’s going to translate into the NFL, because it’s very NFL-oriented,” Day said “Protections, progressions, route concepts, everything. Being an NFL quarterbacks coach for a couple years, in that room, you’re able to talk about what it means to have protections and defensive structure. He has experience with that. He has exposure to it.
“So for him, coming in and having some of these conversations with the coaches, I’m sure he was able to talk in their language because of what we do on offense.”
Of course, Haskins isn’t perfect. He ran 5.0 in the 40 and, accordingly, he needs to work on getting better at moving in the pocket. Like any young quarterback, he could always see the field faster. Then there’s the fact that he only really played one year of college football. “He just hasn’t played a lot, so he doesn’t have all those experiences, and he hasn’t learned from mistakes he hasn’t made,” Day said.
But after spending time with Day, it’s impossible to miss how proud he is of how far Haskins has come. Maybe even more than the stuff you can’t teach (“His arm talent is ridiculous,” Day reiterated), it was what they did teach that the coach thinks will set his quarterback apart.
“We’re really proud of that, honestly,” Day said.
Whether or not that makes Haskins the first quarterback taken remains to be seen. Murray’s damn good, and any decision between the two—because they’re so differently stylistically—will probably come down to the drafting team’s taste.
What seems clear is that Haskins is about as ready for the NFL as a 14-start quarterback could be. And that, combined with the talent he brings, sets the ceiling pretty high.
“If he continues to develop, if he’s afforded an opportunity to work through and learn, grow, then I think he could be one of the best to ever play the game,” Day said. “He has that ability.”
It’s hard to predict whether any kid that age will even get close to that level. Too much can happen.
But it is safe to say that Haskins has got one heck of a head start.
And speaking of head starts, let’s hit a trio of big water-cooler topics from the combine:
Where will Antonio Brown land? His March 17 roster bonus, worth $2.5 million, is looming. His interviews with ESPN’s Jeff Darlington and Lakers star LeBron James on HBO only further antagonized the Steelers. And then there’s this very fair question: How many teams are actually willing to take Brown on, knowing how volatile he is and that he might demand a new contract? I’d say there probably aren’t many. The Steelers have eyed up the Raiders since this situation first became inflamed, because the Raiders have three first-round picks, and a coach who loves veterans and has stated that they need a No. 1-type at receiver. I’m not sure how serious any others in the chase are. We’ll know soon enough.
Murray very quiet. His first press conference in an NFL setting notwithstanding, Kyler Murray was silent over most of his time in Indy, which meshes with what those around him say about him: He’s introverted and private. And in that way, he’s very different from the guy he succeeded as OU quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner, Baker Mayfield. But in another way, Murray is a lot like Mayfield. Both guys are unapologetically themselves. Both guys have some defiance to them. Both carry the little-man chip on their shoulder. Murray’s pro day, by the way, is a week from Wednesday, which also happens to be the first day of free agency.
Speed everywhere. Mississippi State pass rusher Montez Sweat posted the fastest 40 time ever by a defensive lineman, at 4.41. LSU linebacker Devin White and Michigan linebacker Devin Bush joined him in the 4.4s. Alabama’s 303-pound defensive tackle, Quinnen Williams, posted a 4.84. And seven receivers ran in the 4.3s, which is how many got into that range in the previous three years combined. For the record, I have no idea why this happened. But it’s been entertaining to watch.
1. The most important stuff at the combine is the stuff you don’t see on TV. To that end, per a number of NFL coaches and execs, some prospects who helped themselves this week in the interview room (with the acknowledgment that some defensive backs are still going through the process): Haskins, Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson, TCU linebacker Ty Summers, BC guard Chris Lidstrom, Michigan linebacker Devin Bush, LSU linebacker Devin White, Iowa tight ends Noah Fant and TJ Hockenson, Alabama OL Jonah Williams, NC State center Garrett Bradberry, Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins. Also, Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, Alabama’s Quinnen Williams and Kentucky’s Josh Allen were who teams thought they were (to borrow a phrase). The three—who I believe would be an NFL consensus 1-2-3 right now—checked the boxes they needed to in Indy.
2. On the flip side, interviews did not go well for Florida pass rusher Jachai Polite. I heard from a handful of teams that he was, in a word, erratic. Things didn’t go much better with the media when the interview process was raised to him. On the Niners, he said, “They just bashed me the whole time.” On the Packers, he said, “They were bashing me. … They were trying to figure out my character. That’s their job. They’re supposed to do it. I’m not being a crybaby or anything.” Polite then said of the Packers, “When they turn on the film, bad plays.” This isn’t the end of the world, of course. Polite is considered by plenty of teams to be a first-round talent. But it does mean he’s got some ground to make up.
3. In January, 103 players declared early for the draft. A few of them, at least, will never play in an NFL game, which highlights how common it is for guys to make mistakes with that decision. Kentucky linebacker Josh Allen went the other way. He could’ve come out last year and gone in the second or third round of the 2018 draft. Instead, he stayed, put on about 30 pounds of muscle, then put on a show during the 2018 season with the Wildcats. He’s now a top-10 prospect. “It was just the best opportunity for myself and for my family to grow,” Allen told me the other day. “Everybody’s different, but if you look at me, just had a child, me and my fiancée now are just finding out who we are. So it was just the best situation for me and my family to come back and be great, and have life money. I’m chasing life money, not regular money.” And how much did returning change everything? “Three-sixty … a hundred … a thousand degree turn? I don’t know,” he said. “I grew physically, mentally and spiritually. I’m glad I came back.”
4. During the combine, you’ll always stumble into a few interesting stories. Here’s one: I had someone tell me that the SEC title game was the “Jordan Flu Game” for Alabama running back Josh Jacobs. He was that sick, apparently. So I tracked Jacobs down on Friday and asked about it. “It’s crazy because most people didn’t know I was that sick,” he told me. “I had flu-like symptoms, I had to get four IVs, was light-headed and everything. That’s the reason I didn’t carry the ball as much as I should have. I had eight carries for  yards, something like that. That was the reason why. I couldn’t physically get the energy up.” As Jacobs continued, he explained that, “it was a couple days before, but the symptoms were before that. And then it hit me hard. I was like, I gotta go see a doctor. And they were really debating on if I was gonna play or not. But I wasn’t gonna let them not let me play. If you saw me on the sideline, they always brought the oxygen machine over to me, as soon as I got off the field.” Jacobs said afterward he hoped it “shows what the games mean to me.” I’d say it’s safe to say it does.
5. Free agent business hasn’t been as brisk as it used to be in Indy, and there are a couple reasons why. The first is timing. The combine used to end 48 hours (or so) out from the start of free agency. And that meant deals were being agreed to here, and teams would go home, draw up the paperwork and sign players when the clock struck midnight on the new league year (back when it actually started at midnight). Now the combine ends nine days before free agency starts. And teams have the tampering period to drill down numbers. That’s made it tough for teams and agents to get to real numbers in Indy—deadlines make deals, and the combine isn’t close enough to the deadline anymore. So what’s the upshot of all these meetings over the course of the combine? Agents leave here knowing what sort of interest teams have in their free agents, and where those players might be on their priority list, which lets them know whom to call over the week to follow.
6. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t anything interesting to come out of these meetings, of course. Here’s one nugget: The Cardinals appear to be in the market for a veteran backup quarterback. On the front end, that could land Mike Glennon on the chopping block. On the back end, I’d pay attention—if it does happen—to what style of backup quarterback they bring in, because it could give us a tell into their plans re: Josh Rosen/Kyler Murray. And I can tell you one guy they’ve kicked tires on is Seattle’s Brett Hundley, which will only add fuel to the Murray-is-going-No. 1 fire.
7. Chiefs DE/OLB Dee Ford is in an interesting spot—cruising for the franchise tag and, absent a deal getting done in Kansas City, potential trade bait going forward. So I’ll give you what I know. The Chiefs are comfortable having Ford play on the franchise tag, whether it’s the $15.443 million linebacker number, the $17.128 million defensive end number, or somewhere in between (should there be a fight and settlement or arbitration). They also know that, by letting him go to free agency this year or next, they’d probably wind up with a third-round compensatory pick, which sets a floor for compensation. Would the guys who drafted him five years ago (John Dorsey in Cleveland, Chris Ballard in Indy) make a run at him with a second- or third-round pick and a big contract? It’s a question worth asking. And I wouldn’t rule anything out with Jadeveon Clowney. The Texans are going to tag him, and would be fine with going forward on the one-year tender. But they’d listen to offers for him like the Chiefs will on Ford.
8. If I’m betting, I’d absolutely take the short odds and put Nick Foles in Jacksonville like everyone else. But for the reasons I detailed above, I’m not writing that down in ink, yet. I think the Redskins and Dolphins could be heard from in the Foles discussion. And I know the Jaguars weren’t going to trade for Foles had the Eagles tagged him. Jacksonville likes him, and OC John DeFilippo, who was Foles’s QB coach in Philly in 2017, would love to have a familiar face taking snaps. The larger question is how far the Jags will go financially. Add that up, and it’s hard to peg Foles’s market a year after Case Keenum got a two-year deal at $18 million per that guarantees him $7 million this year if Denver cuts him, and Sam Bradford did a one-year deal in Arizona that could’ve maxed out at $20 million.
9. I wouldn’t rule out Adrian Peterson re-signing with the Redskins as soon as this week. A couple of teams have shown preliminary interest in the veteran who turns 34 later this month, which is what could push things along and get Jay Gruden and company some insurance for the returning Derrius Guice early in the offseason.
10. The Bengals’ quiet addition of ex-Bucs defensive coordinator Mark Duffner to their staff is worth mentioning, just because it gives head coach Zac Taylor a solid sounding board and new defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo a resource. The 65-year-old Duffner becomes the only coach on Taylor’s staff with head coaching experience at any level of football.
… OF THE WEEK
“Do I have both my testicles? And I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know why you have to ask.’”
Texas CB Kris Boyd, on the craziest question he was asked in Indy. This isn’t the craziest question in combine history. But it might be the most out-of-leftfield. (Unless Team X here knows something I don’t know.)
Some context on DE Montez Sweat’s 4.42 at 260 pounds:— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) March 3, 2019
Amari Cooper 4.42
Julio Jones 4.42
Odell Beckham Jr. 4.43
A.J. Green 4.49
Michael Thomas 4.57
Antonio Brown 4.57
In a weekend full of freakish displays of athleticism, Sweat’s performance was as bonkers as it gets. And while he still has to answer for getting thrown out of Michigan State, I do know thata the people who’ve been around him seem eager to vouch for his character now. So after this and a very solid Senior Bowl week, I think Sweat is right in the mix to sneak into the Top 10 picks.
And this was the craziest video of the weekend. A bunch of guys had impressive 40 times the last few days—Bush, White, D.K. Metcalf, and so on. But Quinnen Williams getting into into the 4.8s in the 40 at his size (303 pounds) is nuts, as is watching the big man rumble.
D.K. Metcalf’s gonna decide for you whether or not that tweet is funny.
S/O to …
The coaches subcommittee, which recommended to the Competition Committee this week the addition of a video official to the NFL’s crews this fall. Love it. This one is clearly coming from the Department of Common Sense. The idea that you or I or anyone else has access to this amazing technology that allows us to see every single play from a ton of angles in clear, crisp high definition from our couches, but that same technology isn’t being used to ensure that the NFL gets calls right, was asinine from a time far before Nickell Robey-Coleman. And I’m glad someone sees that.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
Non-NFL items for the week (taking the space of Six for Saturday, as we move into draft season).
1. LeBron James has already walked off the court with time left on the clock and weirdly thrown a ball off the back of the backboard on an inbounds pass this month. This month is three days old. And I think LeBron’s smart enough to know what he’s doing here, and how it’ll be received. Which means things aren’t great for the Lakers.
2. Kyler Murray took a beating for his comment on new Phillie Bryce Harper’s 13-year, $330 million deal. I’ll stick up for him here. It took Harper nine seasons as a pro and seven in the bigs to get that deal. If Murray goes first overall, he’ll make more than $33 million in his first four years. If he’s great, he’ll then get a blockbuster second deal either before or at the end of those four years, in all likelihood. And there’d probably be a third deal after that. So the average per years, which is what Murray cited, isn’t irrelevant.
3. Advice: Don’t do the math on how the length of Harper’s deal relates to you. (I did and figured out I’ll be in my 50s at the end of it.)
4. It’ll be interesting seeing if a college football proposal drawn up this week to strengthen the NCAA’s targeting rule is adopted. Under the proposal, a player incurring his second targeting penalty of a season will be forced to miss the rest of the current game, and the entirety of his next game. The rule certainly would affect how players who already have one play, and could alter seasons as a result of stars getting a second call.
6. “Abducted in Plain Sight” is definitely the most effed up documentary I’ve ever seen, and it may be the most effed up thing I’ve ever seen. If you haven’t, you should watch it. I promise you’ll only want to see it once.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
There’s a new metric some teams have started to believe in more in evaluating college quarterbacks, and it’s actually one that you and I can look up just as easily any analytics department could: pass attempts. The idea is that, as a prospect, you have to have seen things, from blitzes to coverages and everything in-between. And, the thinking goes, to see a lot of things, you have to play a lot of ball.
It’s important this year in particular, because Kyler Murray and Dwayne Haskins both enter the draft as one-year starters, one year after which all five first-round quarterbacks were multi-year starters. And it’s fair to ask how significant a strike against them that is.
So I figured we’d run down the list and see where all the first-round quarterbacks from this decade shook out across the collegiate pass attempts spectrum. Here are the results, in order of most passes to least:
Jared Goff, Cal: 1568
Baker Mayfield, Texas Tech/Oklahoma: 1497
Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech: 1349
Deshaun Watson, Clemson: 1207
Paxton Lynch, Memphis: 1205
Robert Griffin, Baylor: 1192
Josh Rosen, UCLA: 1170
Marcus Mariota, Oregon: 1167
Jake Locker, Washington: 1147
Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville: 1142
Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma State: 1103
Lamar Jackson, Louisville: 1086
Andrew Luck, Stanford: 1064
Tim Tebow, Florida: 995
Matthew Stafford, Georgia: 987
Christian Ponder, Florida State: 965
Blaine Gabbert, Missouri: 933
EJ Manuel, Florida State: 897
Sam Bradford, Oklahoma: 893
Blake Bortles, UCF: 891
Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: 863
Jameis Winston, Florida State: 851
Sam Darnold, USC: 846
Ryan Tannehill, Texas A&M: 774
Josh Allen, Wyoming: 649
Cam Newton, Florida/Blinn JC/Auburn: 628
Carson Wentz, North Dakota State: 612
Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina: 572
Mark Sanchez, USC: 487
Haskins threw 590 balls at Ohio State. Murray, between A&M and OU, threw 519. So they’d be in the bottom four here, and the struggles of the other one-year starters on this tally (Tannehill, Sanchez, maybe Trubisky) won’t inspire great confidence in either guy going forward.
When I asked ex-Raiders exec Joey Clinkscales about this last week—he was part of a Jets scouting department that moved up to take Sanchez fifth overall in 2009—he conceded that a lot of projecting has to be done. And if you’re going ti swallow hard and take a guy who might only have 13 or 14 college starts on his résumé, you should go forward with a full understanding of what you’re taking on.
“We all want a guy that’s played a lot, that has a lot of experience under his belt when he walks in the locker room from a leadership standpoint, so he can lead grown men,” Clinkscales said. “Usually, a guy that has 12, 13, 14 starts under his belt, there’ll always be questions—A, Why hasn’t he started more? Who was in front of him that beat him out?
“Now you can go back and look at Oklahoma, you can look at Ohio State, and maybe you can understand the reason why those kids [Murray and Haskins] weren’t on the field more. Once you have that question answered—B, Tell me about this guy’s leadership. Is he the right kind of guy? Some of those things you may have questions about in both these guys.”
This, of course, isn’t closing the book (or opening it) on anything. The bottom of that list indicates evidence that pass attempts are a factor in how a prospect plays out in the NFL. On the other hand, being near the top doesn’t guarantee much (see: Weeden).
So that’s where we can drop the two best quarterbacks of 2019 in. Both look like they can play in the NFL, albeit in very different ways. But to make it, each would be an outlier.
Check the Monday Afternoon Quarterback column for a wrap-up of the final day of the combine and a look at the week ahead.
Question or comment? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.