You can win with Jalen Hurts if you put his talent to use

By BRYCE ROSSLER

It’s going to happen. It remains to be seen who. But on Thursday night, some NFL GM is going to invest a first-round pick in a flawed quarterback. 

Usually, it’s some wild-eyed, strong-armed archetype who lacks a command of both ball placement and the nuances of the position. These players are full of untapped potential according to the evaluators who are full of excuses as to why ‘their guy’ never produced in college. Teams seem willing to bank on development of traits that have typically proven to be difficult to iron out, and have been equally unwilling to take chances on talented, albeit productive college players whose usage at the amateur level does not resemble that of the traditional NFL passer. 

Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts is one such player whose unique skill set will give him an opportunity to succeed in the NFL, but it will take the right set of circumstances to maximize his talents. Hurts appears unlikely to go in the first round and it is difficult to envision an organization immediately building around a quarterback who is not a top pick, but it is not difficult to see the value he can bring to a team.

Designed Quarterback Runs and RPOs

If a team wants to win with Hurts as a starter, it will need to optimize his talents as a runner. This is not to say that he’s a glorified wildcat quarterback or that he can’t win throwing. There is no honor in winning exclusively as a dropback passer. Some teams have found considerable success employing their quarterback as a designed runner. Lamar Jackson, Cam Newton, and pre-injury Robert Griffin III all come to mind as legitimate dual threats who were used extensively and to great effect in the run game.

In 2019, we saw Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley maximize Hurts’ vision, elusiveness, and power to the tune of 0.26 EPA/Carry on designed runs, which ranked 5th among QBs with at least 50 attempts. Although the Sooners had a diverse option game that featured the traditional zone read, power read, bash, GT read, and Riley’s patent-pending counter speed option, Hurts also had his number called on QB Power, QB Counter, QB Draw, and QB Lead. Some of these concepts were married to the Run Pass Option (RPO) game, another area that Hurts thrived in.

16% of Oklahoma’s offensive snaps featured some sort of RPO element in 2019. The Sooners ranked third in the country in RPO success rate (58%), thanks in part to Hurts’ pre-snap identification of numbers and leverage advantages and post-snap decisionmaking.

Intermediate and Deep Passing

Hurts did some of his best work as a passer when addressing the intermediate areas of the field. He ranked first in Total Points/Attempt (0.77) on throws between 10 and 19 yards downfield among 94 quarterbacks with at least 50 such attempts. For reference, Trevor Lawrence was second while averaging 0.74 on just five more attempts (78). Furthermore, Hurts’ on-target rate of 95% was second-best in the country when targeting seams, digs, and crossers in this sweet spot (minimum 15 attempts). 

Some NFL quarterbacks have made a living on these kinds of throws. For example, Jared Goff (64) and Tom Brady (56) had the first- and second-most attempts on these throws in the 2018 season when their teams met in the Super Bowl. Hurts was also more than competent at attacking downfield. His on-target rate of 67% on his 54 throws at least 20 yards downfield was good for seventh-best among 128 eligible QBs (minimum 25 attempts). He ranked fifth among that same group in pComp+/- with +12% (this stat measures a quarterback’s completion percentage compared to his expected completion percentage).

Last Word

Hurts’ path to success as an NFL starter will depend on organizational fit and schematic flexibility from the coaching staff. 

In my estimation, this would be a team that 

1) is willing to leverage its quarterback in the run game

2) is comfortable incorporating RPO concepts into their quick game

3) carries several staple plays which target the intermediate areas of the field 

4) has a penchant for shot plays, particularly off play action

Coach Riley was willing and able to do all these things for Hurts and it worked well most of the time. NFL offenses are a far cry from the offenses seen in the Big 12, though, and it remains to be seen whether Hurts will land with the right team. If all the stars align, he could end up being a steal for a team, regardless of when he is drafted.

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