The NFL draft community turns its head towards the home stretch of player evaluations and reviews as April 27 finally seems within reach. For Colts fans, this season consists of dreaming of the seemingly endless possibilities of rookie quarterbacks that could be dawning the blue and white in a few short months.
CJ Stroud has been one of the most often discussed possibilities at the Colts’ current draft position, however, there is still a lot of time for organizations behind the Colts to jockey their way into the top three and take one of the universally lauded top four quarterbacks.
While I think Stroud is a surefire top-10 pick, it is my belief that the general consensus on his pro readiness is overblown. I’ll add that the points I’m about to mention are tendencies that should be ironed out by NFL coaching with time, but they are current flaws nonetheless. Fans should not expect Stroud to come in and light the world on fire if he isn’t able to clean up his process between now and his first start.
Taking Issue with the Media Consensus
At this point, you know of the general media narrative regarding CJ Stroud. He’s a prototypically sized quarterback who has elite accuracy and ball placement but has historically struggled to create plays out of structure with his legs. However, in his final college game against the best defense he’d ever seen, the entire nation saw the Ohio State quarterback use those legs time and time again to give the Buckeyes a chance to win the game. Will one game be enough to convince scouts that CJ Stroud can create when things break down in the NFL? Probably not. Either way, Stroud answered the doubters with an emphatic performance on New Year’s Eve.
Stroud’s floundering “out of structure” is where I believe there has been an error in comprehension from the media’s flow of information to the public. Traditionally, out of structure refers to when the pass protection breaks down and a quarterback has to leave the pocket to extend a play. When watching CJ Stroud I never got the sense that he was magnificent in these situations, however, he was far from incompetent.
Take for example the Wisconsin game early on in the season. On a designed throwback play, Stroud made an off-platform, sidearm throw around an oncoming defender to hit his tight end for a touchdown.
The former Buckeye is average on designed rollouts and can hit receivers in stride while on the move. I also found him to be elusive inside a collapsing pocket, however, his playmaking ability after escaping was limited.
All of this refers to the traditional usage of in and out of structure where the former Buckeye is said to struggle the most. Yet this is not my biggest concern with Stroud, and where my original point about taking issue with the media dissemination of his strengths and weaknesses comes in.
Limitations in Processing
When CJ Stroud is said to struggle outside of structure, I think most pundits mean he struggles when the schemed route combinations to his first half-field read side aren’t open. In other words, Stroud struggles when he is asked to create outside the structure of the offense’s scheme.
Above is just one of several examples of Stroud not recognizing the backside safety in a traditional quarters coverage drop. This play underscores a worry I have with the Heisman finalist, in that he seems to have little experience identifying full-field coverages and getting to his third read when it is on the other side of the field. This is especially apparent when there is not an isolated backside comeback route, where Stroud knows based on muscle memory where his receiver will be and where to place the ball almost without looking. Here’s an example of this:
Ohio State has a two-man route combo with a check-down and a seven-man protection setup. Once the field safety caps his first read, Stroud knows he’ll have the backside comeback open as long as the boundary corner doesn’t squat and squeeze, which he doesn’t in this situation. Stroud’s ninja-like precision takes over here and he delivers an accurate ball that allows his receiver to get great yards after the catch (YAC).
In a typical spread offense with four receivers wide, good offensive coordinators will scheme route concepts to bring receivers from the backside of the progression across the field to the quarterback’s eyes. A lot of times, this is in the form of a slot dig route. When watching CJ Stroud, I found him struggling to pull the trigger on this route, or throw it after the window of opportunity had closed. Hence, when the first two reads in his initial half-field progression were covered, Stroud struggled to work off-script. Here’s an example of this later in “The Game”:
Ohio State’s offense has a lot of scripted and gadget throws designed to get their uber-athletic playmakers in space. The talent of the Buckeye receiving core made it so Stroud rarely had to work to his third read, to the point where he seems surprised when he has to look backside. His struggles in this area may be due to a lack of experience in being asked to work through full-field progressions and identify split-field coverages. Here is another example of Stroud throwing late across the middle against Notre Dame:
I think the reason the future first-round pick is tripped up in these situations is that he isn’t accounting for underneath defenders on the other side of his progression, which makes him second-guess the decision to drive the dig. Stroud can fix this by speeding up his decision-making process on whether the receivers are open or not to his first-half field read. Coming off of this faster to get to the third read would allow the timing of the routes to align perfectly and Stroud’s accuracy to take over. However, complex inverted coverages and simulated pressure packages that await in the NFL could make the former OSU quarterback’s learning curve a steep one.
If CJ Stroud can clean up some of these issues, he has all the tools to be a successful NFL quarterback. It goes without saying that a supportive coaching staff would make a world of difference in how quickly he develops and works through some of the current kinks in his game. The Colts would need to surround Stroud with an offensive staff that plays to his strengths early on as he grows, even if that requires a slightly predictable or watered-down offense. Additionally, the Colts should invest in a receiver that specializes in separation like UNC’s Josh Downs or Houston’s Tank Dell who could act as safety blankets to bail Stroud out of bad situations early on.
According to everything college teammates and coaches have said about CJ, he has the right “sponge” mentality to absorb critique and learn from it. That gives me hope that if the Colts were to invest a top-four pick in him, he would pan out into the next franchise quarterback this organization so desperately needs.