Analyzing Skylar Thompson, Sam Howell and the rookie quarterback class

A common theme emerged last spring.

This was a bad class for rookie quarterbacks.

Perhaps that vision has changed. In recent weeks, we’ve seen rookie quarterbacks take to the field and, in many cases, they have exceeded expectations. Kenny Pickett is pushing for the starting job in Pittsburgh, Malik Willis’ play seems to translate well to the NFL, Desmond Ridder looks set to handle the starting job in Atlanta and Sam Howell is pushing Carson Wentz in Washington.

Even players who participated in later rounds, or even weren’t drafted, are making a strong case for roster spots.

Let’s dive into the rookie quarterbacks who have seen significant playing time this preseason and highlight what they’ve done well and where they still can improve.

Carolina fans, unfortunately Matt Corral, who missed the season with an injury to Lisfranc, is not part of the discussion here due to his limited action.

Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh Steelers

(Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports)

The No. 1 quarterback selected in the 2022 NFL draft is pushing hard for a starting job as the regular season approaches.

Kenny Pickett came off the board in the first round last April, the only quarterback in the class to have his name heard on the first night of the draft. While the Pittsburgh Steelers have a couple of veterans on the roster, including Mitchell Trubisky, whom they added this offseason, Pickett has shown that his game will translate to the NFL.

Where does it stand out? With your mental focus. Take your first preseason drive. On that opening drive, where he hit his first five passes of the game, Pickett capitalized on some concepts that gave him crisp reads and shots. But this play, a wheel route for running back Jaylen Warren, stands out:

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Pickett knows he is going to throw this wheel route before the ball is snapped, and the reasons why begin on the other side of the field. The Steelers have two receivers on that side, but the presence of three defenders is one of his first pre-snap indicators on the play. With the safety walked right behind the slot cornerback, “capping” him, Pickett can anticipate some kind of pressure is coming from the edge.

If that slot corner blitzes, then the safety capping him will likely be responsible for the inside receiver in man coverage, given his alignment. Now when Pickett brings his eyes to the other side of the field and he sees the opposite safety walked down in the box, either he is going to rotate to the middle of the field as the post-safety, or he’ll stay down in the box over the tight end in man coverage, which could mean Cover 0. If he rotates deep, then the two linebackers will now be responsible for the running backs in man coverage.

So Pickett can expect man, and he can expect some kind of pressure.

Right after the snap, that is confirmed when the slot corner blitzes, the safety to that side picks up the inside receiver in man coverage, and the safety retreats deep. That means Warren is matched up against a linebacker, which leads to the quick decision from the quarterback, and the near-touchdown.

Another example comes on this play from Pickett’s outing against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He finds tight end Pat Freiermuth on a route up the left seam, and lets this go before the tight end even starts to clear the second level defenders:

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This is another good example of Pickett winning with his mind. Due to the pre-snap alignments in the secondary, he has a good idea that Jacksonville is in zone coverage. Despite the Jaguars bringing pressure, he knows where to train his eyes, knows that the tight end is going to find space behind the linebackers, and throws Freiermuth open.

If there is an area where Pickett needs to improve, it is with pocket management. This was an issue for him in college, if he knows where pressure is coming from pre-snap he can navigate the situation, but if that changed post-snap, then he can be inconsistent in how he responds.

Take this play from the preseason finale against the Detroit Lions:

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There is a window to hit the crossing route early in the down, but when some pressure flashes in front of him, Pickett starts to move around in the pocket, and ultimately scrambles outside of the pocket and makes a late throw, which falls incomplete.

However, Pickett has played well, and the Steelers face a tough decision regarding whether to name him the starter for Week 1. He has certainly made his case. Whether he begins the season under center or not remains to be seen, but Pickett’s performance this preseason indicated he’ll be ready when his name is called.

Desmond Ridder, Atlanta Falcons

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

While there are questions about the entirety of their roster, the Atlanta Falcons look to have a good problem on their hands, as both veteran Marcus Mariota, and rookie Desmond Ridder, seem ready to handle life under center in the NFC South.

For Ridder, the positives are very much in line with his pre-draft evaluation, as he — much like Kenny Pickett — looks ready to handle the mental aspects of playing in the NFL. One of the arguments for Ridder as the top quarterback in the 2022 NFL draft class began with his ability to decipher defenses and break them down with his mind. Anticipation throws, adjusted expectations when the defense rolled their safeties, and smart decisions with the football were staples of his career at Cincinnati.

This early completion, from his NFL debut, is a prime example:

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This concept is very similar to how Kyle Shanahan and other teams run their Dagger design, with the inside receiver running a through route instead of a straight vertical, and the outside receiver banding his dig route by angling outside a bit before cutting towards the middle. Ridder reads this concept perfectly, as the Lions drop into a two-high coverage. He knows a linebacker is going to try and match the through route, getting underneath the first receiver to split the middle of the field, and as such he brings his eyes and his feet to the dig route, making an anticipaiton throw as the linebacker sticks on the through route.

Ridder had success on Dagger concepts in his first preseason game against the Lions. Near the end of his second preseason game against the Jets, Atlanta dialed up another Dagger concept for the rookie, which he executed to perfection:

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Once more, you see Ridder’s ability to execute a play-action design, snapping his eyes around while coming out of the fake to pick up the coverage, and make the right decision with the football. And when it comes to the timing, and anticipation, look at the state of play when Ridder lets this ball go:

Now, one of the concerns about Ridder coming out of Cincinnati was ball placement. Which is why you might have noticed your Twitter timeline melt down when Ridder hit on this throw against the Jets:

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This is an incredible throw. Ridder comes out of the mesh with the running back, and spots a linebacker dropping to try and pick up the tight end crossing the field. With the linebacker retreating, Ridder knows he has a chance to be aggressive with the throw, and takes his shot. The rookie puts this into the proverbial shoebox, leading to a 17-yard gain.

Ridder got the start in Atlanta’s preseason finale, and his first throw leads us to an area he needs to improve:

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This is the same Dagger concept highlighted earlier, only now Ridder has to navigate pressure in his face while making a decision. Instead of taking a checkdown, or throwing this away, he attempts a back-footed throw on the deeper post route which is off target, and intercepted.

Not something you want to replicate.


Malik Willis, Tennessee Titans

(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

When the Tennessee Titans drafted Malik Willis in the third round last April, they knew they were adding an athletic quarterback.

That athleticism translated almost immediately to the NFL. In his first preseason action, Willis showed what he can do with the football in his hands. Facing a 2nd and goal from the 7-yard line, the Titans move the pocket. They call for a sprint-out design with Willis rolling to the right, with a switch release concept that gives him a pair of receivers to choose from.

However, the Ravens generate multiple points of pressure as the play unfolds, and Willis has to navigate threats on the right edge, the  backside and even through the interior.

He does so with the athleticism he displayed during his college days, spinning away from the pressure and finding a way into the end zone:

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There was also this long run in his game against the Arizona Cardinals:

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However, this play does highlight something he needs to learn: Protecting himself. On one hand you love the competitive toughness, as he ends this play fighting for a few extra yards. But a 45-yard run that ends with the quarterback walking back to the huddle is probably a more positive play than a 50-yard run that ends differently.

The biggest question facing Willis coming out of Liberty focused on playing from the pocket. This is something quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara talked about earlier during training camp. Willis has shown growth in this area. Take this play from his debut against Baltimore.

Tennessee runs a three-level concept to the right side, with a post, an out route, and the running back releasing to the flat. Watch how Willis navigates a bit of pressure in his lap and then throws the out route on time, layering it over the underneath defender despite being unable to completely step into the throw. Then watch the end zone angle, where you can see how he moves his eyes from the middle of the field and the post route towards the boundary, confirming the coverage and holding defenders in place:

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These are the kinds of plays that the Titans and their fans want to see from him, and he delivered in a big way on this snap.

Then there was this touchdown from this weekend to fellow rookie Treylon Burks, where the rookie quarterback hung tough in the pocket, adjusted the arm angle, and made the necessary throw for the score:

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But then there are moments like this one, which led to his benching against Baltimore:

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It goes for a 17-yard gain, but to borrow a phrase from the first “Top Gun” — and go see “Top Gun: Maverick” if you have not done so yet — it is probably an example of what not to do…

This is a fairly common RPO design, and on this play the linebackers, and the playside safety, slide down in response to the run action. The quick Glance route from the receiver is open, and with the second-level defenders sliding down, there is a window to hit that throw. Instead, perhaps not trusting his eyes, he turns to his athleticism and creates with his legs.

And his night ended early.

As an athletic quarterback, Willis needs to learn how to walk that fine line between using your athleticism as a weapon, and using it as a crutch. However, the fact that Willis led all players in rushing yards during the preseason might make that a tougher line to walk.

Bailey Zappe, New England Patriots

(Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)

A year after drafting Mac Jones in the first round, the New England Patriots turned around and added another quarterback, drafting Bailey Zappe out of Western Kentucky in the fourth round.

The move surprised some, but not all. The Patriots often add talent at the quarterback position, and during the Tom Brady Era they drafted a quarterback in roughly half of their drafts. Even when Brady was at his peak in New England, they were adding players like Ryan Mallett and Jimmy Garoppolo.

Zappe’s pre-draft strengths — accuracy and decision-making — were on display in his preseason action. Take this completion from Zappe’s outing against the Carolina Panthers, as he holds one safety in place with his eyes before throwing the post route to the left:

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Then there was this play from Friday night, as Zappe works a two-receiver concept. He will open first to the dig route coming from the left, and when he does not like how that looks, he comes to the deep curl route — perhaps a “cop” route — on the right:

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What stands out here, beyond the decision, is the footwork. Rewatch that play and pay particular attention to how Zappe keeps his feet under him, first when reading the dig, and then how he gets in position to throw the deeper curl route along the right side of the field.

In terms of what he needs to improve, Zappe has to do a better job at identifying, or anticipating, danger. This was an issue on each of the interceptions he threw during the preseason. On this play against the New York Giants, he fails to see the danger presented by the middle linebacker, who gets right into the throwing lane for the turnover:

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Then on this sprint concept against the Carolina Panthers, Zappe leads the cornerback right to the football, and the Pick-Six:

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For some Patriots fans, this one play might be a synopsis of how their offense has looked all preseason.

Sam Howell, Washington Commanders

(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

The biggest big of information we received regarding how the league felt about this rookie quarterback class came shortly after the Scouting Combine. After Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard spoke at length to the media about Carson Wentz, leading many to believe the team would outright release Wentz, the Washington Commanders turned around and traded for Wentz.

Despite sitting just outside the top ten in the draft.

Washington did not address quarterback in the draft until the fifth round, when they added Sam Howell. A year Howell was in the QB1 discussion, but faded as evaluators turned their eyes to Malik Willis, Desmond Ridder and Kenny Pickett.

Still, as our friend Doug Farrar argued, Howell has certainly outplayed that fifth-round designation. Where he has impressed is with his mind. Howell’s pre-draft evaluation focused on his arm talent — particularly in the vertical passing game and along the sidelines —  but he has been able to work through progressions and attack the middle of the field.

In his first NFL action, Howell stood out against the Carolina Panthers. On this play he opens to his right to read out a Flood concept, but gets to the backside dig route on-time and in-rhythm:

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Or take this example from the final preseason game. Against the Baltimore Ravens, Howell works this Dagger concept and hits the dig route, showing the ability to navigate the underneath defenders and throw into the secondary window:

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An area where Howell certainly needs to improve is with his pocket management. This is something head coach Ron Rivera himself has noted.

“I think one of the things that he has learned is trying to hang in a little bit longer in the pocket,” Rivera said. “One of the things talking to him about is that he is short on some of his five-step drops, he stays very close to the line, and he needs to play a little bit deeper. If he got deeper, it would help the offensive line.”

Howell agreed with this assessment when asked if the dropback process is different in the NFL than it was in college.

“Yes, it really is, and I’m getting more comfortable with it, but it is something that I need to work on. It really goes to hand-eye coordination, but also with the rest of your body, as well.”

Howell was sacked nine times this preseason, and while some of those can be put on the offensive line, not all of them can. Learning to get the proper depth on your drops is a process for all quarterbacks. Even on three-step drops, you need to get yourself as deep in the pocket as possible. On this sack against Baltimore, Howell keeps himself too close to the line of scrimmage, leading to a sack:

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This is a three-step drop from the shotgun. Howell gets about three yards of depth with his drop. As noted by Steve Axman in his book “Coaching Quarterback Passing Mechanics,” on three-step drops, inches matter:

Any extra depth, even if it is only inches, can be of the utmost importance to the three-step drop action. The problem with the three-step drop action is that the quarterback sets up much closer to the line of scrimmage and his offensive line. Since the quarterback must still throw over the top of the blocks of his offensive linemen and the rush of the defense, any increased depth, even inches, can be extremely helpful.

The inches we need in life are all around us…

Skylar Thompson, Miami Dolphins

(Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports)

There is a case to be made that Skylar Thompson has been the best of the rookie quarterbacks.

A pretty strong case, actually.

One that maybe we could have seen coming.

Thompson has connected on 36 of his 48 passing attempts this preseason, for 450 yards and five touchdowns, without throwing an interception. That is good for an NFL passer rating of 138.4, which is the best number from any quarterback this summer.

Thompson’s arm talent has stood out this preseason. Take this completion on a seam route to wide receiver Erik Ezukanma:

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Thompson is working between dual seam routes, the one from Ezukanma out of the left slot, and the other from tight end Cethan Carter along the right side of the field. With the Las Vegas Raiders in Cover 3, those seam routes are bracketing the safety in the middle of the field. Thompson holds that safety with his eyes, before layering this throw to Ezukanma, over the linebackers and in front of the safety breaking on the ball.

Ezukanma was also on the other end of Thompson’s best throw of the Raiders game, this deep corner route against Cover 2:

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This throw comes with a high level of difficulty, as Thompson has to navigate essentially three defenders: The safety playing over the top, the curl/flat defender underneath, and the sideline. With the Dolphins running a Flat-7 Smash concept, with the tight end releasing to the flat, the cornerback will stay low, but once he sees Thompson target the corner route, he’ll break on that throw.

So Thompson has to get it over the cornerback’s head, but drop it down before the safety arrives, and before Ezukanma runs out of bounds. He does that perfectly.

It is hard to find any major mistakes from Thompson’s preseason performance. Like all rookie quarterbacks, he will need to get faster with reads and decisions, particularly when facing pressure. On this sack against Tampa Bay, the defense brings the house, and Thompson waits perhaps a beat too long in the pocket, eventually running out of time:

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That said, Thompson has, in the minds of many, done more than enough to make the roster in Miami:

Brock Purdy, San Francisco 49ers

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Brock Purdy was the last quarterback drafted in the 2022 NFL draft, and earned the title of “Mr. Irrelevant” as he was the last player picked in the entire draft.

But his play this preseason has some making the case that Purdy should stick on the 49ers’ roster, which would render him anything but irrelevant.

The Iowa State product saw action in all three preseason games for the 49ers, completing 30 of 50 passes for 346 yards and a touchdown, along with an interception. He has shown decent command of Kyle Shanahan’s offense, along with an ability — and willingness — to attack in the middle of the field:

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On this play against the Minnesota Vikings, Purdy makes a throw on an in-breaking route with perfect timing and anticipation, getting it on the receiver so he can turn the 15-yard throw into an explosive play:

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Whether Purdy indeed sticks on the roster might come down to how the 49ers handle Jimmy Garoppolo. But if he is looking for an area to improve, similar to Bailey Zappe, he’ll need to get better at anticipating danger. On this interception against the Texans, he fails to account fully for the underneath coverage, and gets burned as a result:

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Anthony Brown, Baltimore Ravens

(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

We close things out with Anthony Brown of the Baltimore Ravens. Brown began his college career at Boston College before transferring to Oregon, and was an undrafted free agent signing by the Ravens this past spring.

Brown saw action in all three games for the Ravens this preseason, completing 35 of 47 passes for 464 yards, three touchdowns an an interception. He also had five rushing attempts for 22 yards and a touchdown.

He flashed some ability in the downfield passing game this preseason, hitting on some impressive vertical shot plays. On this connection with Binjimen Victor, Brown airs it out deep downfield with touch and accuracy:

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He also showed an ability to quickly read a safety rotation, and take advantage of new opportunities. On this play against the Arizona Cardinals, he sees two-deep safeties before the snap. But right as the play begins, the defense rotates into single-high coverage. Brown reads it perfectly, hitting a seam route on the left side of the formation for a touchdown:

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If anything, Brown just might need more time to get on the same page with his receivers. On this interception from the Arizona game, Brown holds onto the ball a bit longer than he should, and makes the throw to the outside as his intended targets turns towards the middle of the field:

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With Lamar Jackson and Tyler Huntley in the fold, the Ravens have their top two quarterbacks in place. But Brown has shown enough this preseason to perhaps stick on the roster, or at least hang around on their practice squad. The team released Brett Hundley in the middle of August, giving Brown a chance to show more of what he can do.

He might have made the most of that chance.

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