May 23, 2016
Early projections for the 2017 NFL draft started popping up almost immediately after the conclusion of this year’s version. And a few favorites have already emerged for the top pick in 2017.
Obviously the edge goes to quarterbacks, which has put Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Miami’s Brad Kaaya near the top of most early draft boards. ESPN.com’s Mel Kiper Jr., for example, ranks Kaaya No. 13 overall and second among quarterbacks behind Watson.
At this stage of the draft process, it’s important to remember that these projections are based off a combination of what the player has accomplished to this point in his career and whether he’s shown steady growth.
In 2016, for example, Carson Wentz was viewed as a developmental mid-round quarterback prior to the start of the season—partially due to a lack of experience—but he quickly ascended the rankings as he continued to produce at a high level and gave scouts a larger sample size to evaluate.
He went No. 2 overall to the Philadelphia Eagles.
On the flip side, Christian Hackenberg was hailed as a future top pick, but when his growth stalled, he ended up falling into the second round, where he was selected by the New York Jets.
With this in mind, understand that neither Watson nor Kaaya is a first-round quarterback prospect right now. But if they continue their steady development, both quarterbacks have the potential to establish themselves as elite prospects over the course of the next 11 months.
Last week, I dissected Watson’s areas for improvement, and now it’s time to give Kaaya the same treatment.
When watching Kaaya during the 2016 season, focus on these two areas to see if he is demonstrating the growth necessary to live up to his preseason rankings.
A common criticism of Kaaya throughout the draft process will be his limited arm strength, but that is an oversimplification of the issue he faces.
Kaaya‘s arm strength compares reasonably well to that of Jared Goff, who was just selected No. 1 overall by the Los Angeles Rams. Like Goff, Kaaya clearly has the ability to make every throw on the field, but he needs to adjust his approach in certain areas to make up for the fact that he doesn’t have elite zip on his ball.
On this play against Florida State, Kaaya provides an excellent example of how his limited awareness on the field exacerbates the issues created by his modest arm strength.
Kaaya is throwing to Stacy Coley, one of his primary deep threats. While he completes the pass, Coley is forced to turn and backpedal to wait for the ball to arrive. A more appropriately placed ball would have led Coley down the field, giving him the ability to continue running for a likely touchdown.
While it can’t be seen in the frame provided, the first mistake Kaaya makes is waiting too long to see that Coley has gained a step. Like many young quarterbacks, Kaaya is more comfortable throwing to the open man rather than recognizing the man who will be open in a step or two.
Since Kaaya waits until Coley has already run past the Seminoles defender, he then lacks the arm strength to lead Coley down the field.
A more experienced quarterback would recognize that Florida State’s single-high free safety look ensures that Coley will be locked in man coverage if Kaaya leads him toward the sideline (which he eventually does). But what he doesn’t recognize is that this defensive look also would have allowed for an earlier throw with very little risk of a turnover due to the lack of safety help over the top.
This was a common mistake by Kaaya during the 2015 season, but it’s also an area that can be easily fixed with more experience. Coley is one of the returning receivers for Miami this season, which will further help Kaaya‘s development as the two get on the same page and continue to develop their timing.
If Kaaya can improve his awareness and simply pull the trigger more quickly on these types of throws, he will make fewer attempts that give the appearance of a weak arm—even if his arm strength remains the same.
Another area for Kaaya to work on this season is his decision-making under pressure.
Kaaya‘s strong accuracy allows him to get away with a lot of questionable decisions under pressure at Miami, but he’ll need to continue to develop in this area to succeed against NFL competition.
The play below shows Kaaya‘s tendency to feel pressure and rush the throw to simply get rid of the football. On this particular play against North Carolina, Kaaya appears to see the pass-rusher coming from his right side and unloads to the closest receiver, which ultimately results in an interception.
On this particular play, the frustration with Kaaya‘s decision is compounded by the fact that he had a wide-open receiver at the top of the screen in position to gain an easy first down. But in a rush to release the ball, Kaaya never looks in his direction.
This play also demonstrates Kaaya‘s issue with handling the constant pressure he faced due to shaky offensive-line play at Miami.
Kaaya ultimately releases this ball in plenty of time, but North Carolina was consistently in the backfield during this game, and Kaaya likely saw the defensive end get a good jump off the snap and assumed he needed to make a quick decision.
Unfortunately, Kaaya‘s offensive line may not be significantly better in 2016.
But he will need to learn to overcome the line’s shortcomings and not exacerbate the problem by feeling pressure when it isn’t quite there yet.
This article may feel like too much negativity aimed at a top prospect—especially to Miami fans—but keep in mind the intent behind this piece. No prospect is perfect at this stage of the NFL draft evaluation process. So it’s important to understand what weaknesses a prospect is dealing with in order to best interpret their growth throughout the season.
These are two areas of Kaaya‘s game in which he needs to continue to show development—and he’s certainly capable of doing so during the 2016 season.
It’s also worth noting that Kaaya doesn’t have to be perfect in these areas to prove his NFL value. These are common issues for young quarterbacks, and NFL teams don’t expect perfection.
If Kaaya shows steady growth this season, NFL teams will be comfortable investing an early pick in him in 2017 under the assumption he can continue to learn in the NFL and eventually play at a high level in the league.
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