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Replay: Patriots Unfiltered Wed May 29 - 04:00 PM | Thu May 30 - 09:55 AM

Film Review: Analyzing Jayden Daniels's Fit With the Patriots 

With the 2024 NFL Draft on the horizon, we are reviewing the top quarterbacks in this year's class and their fits in New England. 

LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels (5).
LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels (5).

Over the last 30 years, the Patriots have built their offense around a stationary pocket passer.

Save for the one year with Cam Newton, who wasn't at the peak of his former MVP powers anymore, New England's offense hasn't benefited from a mobile quarterback. It seems silly to lament that their QB1 wasn't a runner when the GOAT mastered playing from the pocket. Still, you always envy what you don't have.

Schematically, the quarterback being a dangerous rushing threat allows the offense to truly play 11-on-11 against the defense: the defense has to account for the quarterback in the passing game, and there are box count advantages in the run game, which we saw on some levels with Newton.

In its simplest form, football is a game of numbers. Let's say the defense is a neutral box against 11 personnel. Traditionally, that means there are seven defenders against six blockers on any given run play, with the running back accounting for making the extra defender miss. Add a mobile quarterback into the equation, and the offense can now block six guys with two potential ball carriers. That unblocked defender can only take either the back or the QB. As a defense, we have a problem.

On a pass play, the defense may want to play two-man to take away in-breaking routes on third down. Who is left to account for the quarterback when five receivers go into the pattern with split safeties over the top? Unless you're using a three-man rush with a spy or a four-man mush rush, sacrificing pressure on the quarterback, the answer is nobody – you'd better find a different coverage.

As a defensive-minded head coach, Jerod Mayo knows firsthand what it's like to design a game plan for mobile quarterbacks who have often given the Patriots defense problems. With a chance to draft one himself, it must be intriguing for Mayo and personnel chief Eliot Wolf to select reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jayden Daniels.

Daniels enters this year's draft following a stellar final season at LSU, where he put up an insane stat line: 3,812 passing yards, 1,134 rushing yards, 50 total touchdowns (10 rushing), and only four interceptions. As a runner, Daniels has breakaway speed projected in the 4.3 range in the 40-yard dash with eight runs over 15 yards in 2023. He also has impressive three-level accuracy as a more mechanically sound thrower than past quarterbacks in his mold.

However, some trends are causes for concern as Daniels tries to translate his explosive playing style to the next level, while his size is also part of the discussion here. After weighing in at 210 pounds at his Pro Day, there are question marks about Daniels being able to stay healthy, especially if he continues to put his body at risk as a runner.

Daniels's elite mobility and foundational skills as a passer make him a lock top-five draft pick. Despite having warts like any prospect, his talent is enticing for New England to change how they play offense completely.

Let's dig into the film to illustrate what makes Daniels a worthy selection with the third overall pick:

When breaking down top prospect Drake Maye in a previous post, there were three non-negotiables in my evaluation of these quarterbacks:

  • Elite physical traits (arm talent) to be a high-end playmaker in and out of structure. Must be an athlete at the position.
  • Generates easy velocity on throws from congested pockets or off-platform. Passers who need to put all their weight into throws to hit NFL-sized windows need not apply.
  • A baseline level of mental processing and instincts. You want him to know how to play quarterback. Not just a big-armed athlete (no Zach Wilson's, please).

Daniels doesn't check all these boxes in a prototypical quarterback sense as Maye does. However, he's an elite athlete with a solid grasp of how to play the position (box three). His high-end traits in some aspects of my non-negotiables might outweigh areas where he falls short.

To tell Daniels's story, we have to start with his mobility. Still, make no mistake: Daniels is an accurate full-field processor with enough arm talent when coupled with his athleticism. Although his arm talent isn't elite, it's not a major deterrent if he plays on time, which he often does.

Strength I - Elite Mobility on Designed Runs and Scrambles

First, Daniels's rushing ability is game-changing. He can flip the field on designed runs and scrambles, making defenses account for his legs every time his offense snaps the ball.

Starting with designed runs, Daniels accumulated 529 yards on 41 designed runs. Those schemes were often zone reads, but LSU also ran QB draws out of empty and run-run-pass options. In many ways, their run game resembled what the Eagles do with Jalen Hurts.

Here, you can see Daniels's straight-line speed once he's given a clear path to the edge. With the Tigers running a zone-read, the read defender to Daniels's left crashes, so he keeps the ball. Daniels gets a great block from his receiver and is gone for an 85-yard touchdown run.

Daniels also ran Philly-style run-run-pass options. In those schemes, the quarterback runs a read option and an RPO in one. He'll make a read to either keep or give the ball to the back and then he has a pass route he can throw the ball to as well. Above, you can see the gravity Daniels has on the goal line. The read defender has to respect Daniels's ability to turn the corner, leading to a walk-in touchdown when he hands it to the back.

Along with designed runs, Daniels led the nation with 721 rushing yards on scrambles on 55 attempts, 200 more yards on scrambles than any other quarterback in the FBS last season.

In this play, Florida's defense appears to be in a match zone where they carry vertical routes while the left side ends up being zone. The coverage leaves only one linebacker in the underneath coverage. Daniels influences the linebacker to jump the back, takes off, and goes untouched to the end zone. Wowzer.

Although he needs to focus more on self-preservation, Daniels will be a top-tier runner as soon as he steps on an NFL field. He could be the best running quarterback in the league someday.

Strengths II - Deep Ball Accuracy, Full Field Progressions, and Efficient Mechanics

What makes the Heisman Trophy winner a special prospect is his mobility. However, that shouldn't discount what is a very solid foundation as a passer for the 23-year-old.

Daniels's advanced age and the five seasons he played in college are often painted as a negative because he's closer to being maxed out in his development compared to Drake Maye (21.6) and J.J. McCarthy (21.2). However, the positive spin is that Daniels's 55 starts in college allowed him to develop as a passer, both mentally and mechanically. The LSU product has an efficient release, and his eyes, shoulders, hips, and feet are routinely in sync within the throwing hallway.

As a result, Daniels led the class with a +0.53 expected points added per drop-back and registered a +5.5 completion percentage over expected. His three-level accuracy in the traditional box score stats translated to a stellar 72.2% completion rate. Furthermore, Daniels posted a class-leading 63.3% adjusted completion rate on passes over 20 air yards.

Daniels's clean mechanics really show up when he's progressing through his reads. We mustn't resort to stereotypes with Daniels. Although he could be a tick faster through his progressions at times, Daniels will go from first read to check-down whenever necessary.

This concept here was routine for the Tigers during Daniels's final season. During his drop, Daniels will read the smash-fade concept to the two-receiver side of the formation, where he can throw his patented slot fade if he likes the matchup. LSU would then give him a backside dig route as a secondary option if the defense takes away his intiial read.

In this example, Auburn plays a split-safety coverage where the defense is three over two to the field. Daniels comes off the covered smash fade side, resets in the pocket to bring his lower body with his eyes, and throws from a balanced base to the dig route for a completion.

Here is a similar full-field progression read by Daniels from a 3x1 formation. The defense is in a two-man coverage where the deep-half safety helps over the top of the slot fade. When Daniels comes to the backside dig, it's being bracketed on the other side. As mentioned earlier, here enlies the challenge of playing this type of coverage against Daniels. The linebacker can either cover the check-down or contain Daniels in the pocket. This time, the linebacker opts to spy Daniels, who calmly checks it down to the running back for an explosive play.

Along with progressing through his reads smoothly, Daniels will gladly take shots downfield outside the numbers. Above, LSU gives Daniels a pass-pass option. He can throw the quick screen to his right or, if he likes the matchup, take a shot to the slot fade. When the safety stays in the middle of the field, Daniels works the one-on-one, dropping it perfectly in the bucket.

Daniels also flexes great accuracy by controlling his downfield throws to keep the ball out of danger. The next play is one of the best reads and throws we saw on film from this draft class.

At the snap, the Florida State defense rotates into a cover two-invert scheme where the field corner falls into the deep half as the backend rotates into a split-safety structure. Daniels sees the outside corner at the bottom of the screen rallying to his landmark with his hips pointed inside, away from the sideline. Due to the corner's body positioning, Daniels knows he can attempt this far-hash throw to the vertical route, and he wisely places the ball on his receiver's back shoulder to make it an even further path for the corner to contest the catch point – that's special.

If the Patriots draft Daniels, they'll be getting a capable passer who is far more than a one-trick pony overly dependent on his running ability. Daniels's tape has plenty of NFL throws.

Areas of Concern

As we'll do with all three quarterbacks in the conversation for the third overall pick, now we must discuss weaknesses that give you some pause about Daniels's projection to the pro level.

The first area of concern is that Daniels weighed in at 6-3, 210 pounds at his Pro Day. The projected top-three pick isn't rail thin, but he's light for a quarterback with a lanky build. Since 2000, only 11 of the 90 quarterbacks to start 16 or more games have weighed 210 pounds or less (12.2%). The most notable ones are Drew Brees, Kirk Cousins, Kyler Murray, Michael Vick, and most recently, Bryce Young in his rookie season. It's also worth noting that Lamar Jackson was 216 pounds at the 2018 combine.

Most expected Daniels to be lighter than 210 pounds, suggesting he bulked up from his playing weight specifically to weigh in at his Pro Day. According to reports, Daniels's playing weight at LSU was closer to 200-205 pounds. Although it's not unheard of for a 210-pound quarterback to stay healthy for an entire season, Daniels must preserve his body better by sliding or getting out of bounds when the journey is over.

The other area of concern, which might be more damning for Daniels, is his alarmingly high pressure-to-sack rate and low volume of throws between the numbers. Daniels is an electric scrambler but doesn't look to pass when he extends plays outside the pocket. Instead, Daniels looks to take off running when he gets into playground mode.

Along those same lines, Daniels took a sack on 24.5% of his pressured drop-backs. Daniels's pressure-to-sack rate, a tough metric to improve on as a pro, would be the worst mark of any first-round quarterback since 2019. In particular, these problems arise because Daniels passes up open throws to the intermediate middle of the field. Daniels only attempted 9.3% of his passes to the intermediate middle, ranking 163rd out of 196 qualified college quarterbacks since 2019, per TruMedia.

The film backs up the data. In this play, LSU runs a flood concept with the vertical route clearing the sideline for crossers. With the boundary corner carrying the vertical, there's a coverage bust where two defenders take the short crosser, so Daniels should layer this throw into the deeper option. Instead, he doesn't pull the trigger and eventually takes a sack when he looks to scramble. This is one of many examples.

Daniels's lack of throws between the numbers could be chalked up to a scheme thing and nitpicky given that he threw 40 touchdown passes in 2023: maybe LSU's scheme wasn't designed for Daniels to attempt those throws? What difference does it make? Yahoo Sports's Nate Tice had a great explanation of why this is concerning in his write-up on Daniels:

"Think of a quarterback who doesn't throw over the middle like a basketball player who can't shoot three-pointers; he better have other aspects of his game to overcome that lack of spacing he creates with his inability to threaten the defense," Tice wrote. "Always throwing to the outside means you are betting on your outside wide receivers to win over and over again, something that's a safe bet when you have two projected first-round talents out there, but it's a little bit different when you don't have a clear matchup advantage every week."

Although things could improve, the Patriots don't currently have outside receivers that present matchup advantages like the Tigers did with Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr. last season. The fear is these trends could sink Daniels if his receivers aren't consistently winning on the outside.

BOTTOM LINE

Daniels is an electrifying talent whose mobility will take over games, while his passing ability is more than adequate with proper support.

However, the truth is that he falls somewhere between Jalen Hurts and Justin Fields in the passing game. Daniels is prone to shying away from throwing to the middle of the field, and his lack of aggressiveness as a passer led to an alarmingly high pressure-to-sack rate in college.

Going back to the data, Fields's pressure-to-sack rate of 23.6% is the highest among the first-round quarterbacks since 2019 (until Daniels is drafted). Fields is also the only quarterback with a lower percentage of intermediate middle throws in college than Daniels at 8.1%, so there's a lot of overlap in their passing profiles.

While evaluating Fields, I missed warning signs with another quarterback who only attacked certain areas of the field and invited pressure. Fields's timing issues led to his demise in Chicago, but the flip side is Hurts. In an outstanding environment for a quarterback, the Eagles have masked Hurts's limitations by giving him rock-solid protection and elite receivers.

Along those same lines, the best system fit for Daniels would be an offense that resembles the Eagles option and shotgun-heavy attack with isolation routes that allow receivers like A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith to beat single coverage on third down. Although offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt could adapt his scheme, historically, his offenses are built around shot plays off under-center play-action and more rhythm-based throws on third down.

Assuming the Patriots coaching staff will figure out how to build the scheme around him, Daniels will be just fine as a distributor in a shotgun-heavy passing system. Plus, he's a more dynamic runner than Fields and Hurts, which could be the ultimate trump card that forces defenses to defend him similarly to Lamar Jackson.

New England can build a productive offense with Daniels as the centerpiece, making him worthy of the third overall pick.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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