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Path to the Passer: How much does a strong arm matter?

This is the next in a series of in-depth features on potential quarterbacks for the Bills and how quarterbacks are evaluated. 

“He has a cannon for an arm.” How often have we heard or said that in the assessment of a college quarterback’s worthiness as an NFL draft pick? Hue Jackson, coach of the Cleveland Browns, used those exact words to describe the right arm of top prospect Josh Allen.

“I think (Browns General Manager) John (Dorsey) said it: He threw a ball that hit a guy in the sternum and you could hear it go, ‘Boom!’ ” Jackson told reporters. "I mean, he can really throw a football.”

At times, it’s as if no other trait matters. Find a big arm and your passing prayers are answered. Find a big arm and expect big success.

The Browns, who own the first and fourth overall picks in the draft that begins Thursday night, have seemingly been on an endless quest to be successful. Is Wyoming's Allen their answer? And if so, will too much credit have been given to the boom! effect?

“Early on in my scouting career, I thought that physical tool was everything,” Arizona Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim said at last month’s NFL meeting in Orlando, Fla. “Because it jumps off the tape. You see a guy with this rare arm strength and you get so excited, because it’s the thing that pops.”

Sure, it helps to have other desired qualities, such as good accuracy on all throws (something Allen, with a career completion percentage of 56.2, lacks) and touch on shorter ones. But show off the howitzer and conventional wisdom says NFL scouts and coaches will fall all over themselves to put you in one of their uniforms.

Those who actually evaluate talent in the league for a living, or have done so for any length of time, will tell you they need to see more. Much more.

Of course, they value arm strength. Their challenge is resisting the temptation to overvalue it.

“Just like anything, it’s one piece of the pie, one piece of the puzzle,” Buffalo Bills GM Brandon Beane said. “It may be a little bit more important here than a team who plays indoors, because of the weather you can get here. But at the end of the day, we’re not just going and ranking these guys by size and arm strength only.”

Then, again, they could if they wanted to because such numbers are readily available. At the NFL Scouting Combine, where virtually everything a college prospect does is measured, radar guns clock the speed of passes. Not surprisingly, this year’s fastest throws  – and the fastest recorded since 2008 – belonged to Allen. According to Ourlads.com, the top speed of passes to his left and his right was 62 mph.

Two of the other members of the so-called Big Four quarterbacks of the draft – Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and UCLA’s Josh Rosen – ranked second and third, respectively, at 60 mph (right)/59 mph (left) and 59 mph (right)/57 mph (left). The fourth, USC’s Sam Darnold, didn’t throw at the Combine.

A quarterback who can throw exceptionally hard, while possessing all the other important traits for the position, is extremely rare. History shows that such credentials have helped pave a path to a bronze bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Names such as Dan Marino, John Elway and Jim Kelly, from the NFL’s iconic draft class of 1983, readily come to mind.

The more realistic goal is to find a quarterback who, in addition to having everything else needed to excel at the next level, can at least meet a minimum standard for velocity. “You can’t have a guy that’s a noodle arm,” Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien said at the NFL meeting.

“The guy’s got to be able to make certain throws,” said Beane. “We can’t sit here and just say, ‘Hey, we’re only going to throw inside the numbers.’ He’s got to be able to get the ball to the sideline with something on it so we don't have pick-sixes going the other way.”

Once that’s established, there are many other boxes to check. The complexities of NFL defenses and the elevated talent of defenders make it imperative that the quarterback excels at not only comprehending everything he sees on the other side of the line, but also determining what’s real and what's not in terms of coverage. Anticipation is everything.

Beyond that, the questions that must be answered are: What kind of pocket presence does he have? What kind of leadership does he provide? How good are his study habits? Can he consistently and smoothly get the offense out of a bad play, based on what the defense is showing, and into a good one?

Does he have that sheer drive to be the very best?

“I don’t think there’s any position that’s more difficult to evaluate than quarterback, because of all the non-football factors,” O’Brien said. “Is arm strength part of it? No doubt about it. But it’s not the be-all and the end-all. To me, it’s more about accuracy, anticipation, timing. Does he have an understanding of the skill set of the guy he’s throwing to? Plus, the skill set of the guy he’s throwing against? I think there’s a lot more important factors than the velocity.”

Path to the Passer: QB consultants provide bridge to NFL for top draftees

“There are a lot of guys with big arms, but there are not as many with the anticipatory skill and all those natural instincts – the ball placement and ability to fit (the ball) in tight windows,” Keim said. “How many men walking this earth can regurgitate the play in the huddle – and some of these plays are long to regurgitate – to be able to get (the receivers) in the right adjustments from (hot reads and sight adjustments) and to be able to get the right protections? And you're also watching the play-call clock. And then you have to be able to call out the cadence. And then, all of a sudden, two people miss blocks and you've got to get the ball out and you've got to fit it in this small, little window. Not a lot of guys can do that, and to do it with consistency."

Keim remembers such a quarterback he once had with the Cardinals. His name was Kurt Warner, whose career also earned him a spot in Canton, Ohio.

“Kurt didn’t have the biggest arm, he didn’t always throw the tightest spiral,” the GM said. “But he had this rare anticipation and that made up for all those things.”

“A quarterback’s accuracy, ball placement and touch are more important, really, than just pure arm strength,” New York Giants coach Pat Shurmur said at the NFL meeting. “Certainly, the bigger, stronger guys that can throw the ball farther. But if you don't have a good decision-maker that has a sense of timing and can throw the ball accurately, arm strength, in my mind, is meaningless when you're trying to determine if you're going to pick a quarterback that's going to be elite.”

 

Path to the Passer: Draft's 'other' quarterbacks feel they have plenty to offer

Before the 1998 draft, a debate raged over whether the Indianapolis Colts should use the top overall pick on Peyton Manning or the other highly touted quarterback that year, Ryan Leaf. Leaf had more than enough arm strength. Manning’s arm left something to be desired.

Then-Colts GM Bill Polian, who previously filled the same role with the Kelly-led Bills, went with Manning. The move was the crowning achievement among many that landed Polian in the Hall of Fame.

The San Diego Chargers made Leaf the second overall selection. Their GM at the time, Bobby Beathard, will be inducted into the Hall in August … despite Leaf’s train wreck of an NFL career and trouble-filled life off the field.

“I might be able to throw it harder than you, but you might actually get the ball there quicker because you anticipated (better),” Beane said. “It’s knowing where to go with the ball. I can throw it as hard as I want, but (it does no good) if I don’t know how to read coverages and understand what they're in – Two Man or Cover One, Cover Three. It doesn’t help me to have a 75 mph fastball if I don't know where I'm going with it.

“You need to show me how quick you process, how quick you get back and how quick you get the ball out. You see these guys that do what I call throwing guys open. (The receiver’s) not even past his guy and (the quarterback’s) already dropping it in the zone for him to catch it. Peyton Manning did that to a T. Some of those O-lines he had weren’t the greatest, but he made them great. He figured out the defense and he got them in the right call and the ball was out.”

Manning wasn’t the only all-time great quarterback whose cerebral prowess served him well.

“When I started my career, back in Kansas City, it was Joe Montana,” former NFL GM and current SiriusXM NFL Radio analyst Mark Dominik said. “And you would say that he never had arm strength. But he was exceptional in terms of just the timing and the anticipation of when things are going to come open in the box and be able to deliver the ball.”

At least one NFL coach believes being an exceptionally hard thrower can actually stunt a quarterback’s development. Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers has long been convinced that big-armed passers usually don’t throw with much anticipation because they think it isn’t necessary for them.

“They play their whole life waiting to see guys open in a hole, and then they let it rip,” Shanahan said. “Guys who don't have that – and not a lot of guys do – they have to have more anticipation. They have to throw it earlier, they have to see it before it happens, so right when their receiver turns, it's in the window.”

Perhaps the strongest evidence of how meaningless arm strength can be in quarterback evaluation is this: According to Ourlads.com, Logan Thomas shares the second-fastest throw recorded at the Combine since 2008 with a 60 mph clocking in 2014. At the time, he was a quarterback at Virginia Tech.

Today, Thomas is a backup tight end for the Bills.

“Me, personally, I think a lot of people get sold on big arms,” said new Bills quarterback AJ McCarron, who confirmed questions about his arm strength when his fastest throw at the 2014 Combine was 53 mph. “You look at the history of quarterbacks in the NFL, there’s been a lot of great quarterbacks that haven’t had crazy strong arms. How many times do you actually drop back and throw the ball 60 yards? Very rarely.

“The game is played with timing and accuracy. You have those two things, you can be successful.”

The Cincinnati Bengals made the former Alabama star a fifth-round pick and he has spent the first four seasons of his NFL career as Andy Dalton's understudy in Cincinnati. That doesn't exactly make him the best walking advertisement for the brains-over-brawn QB argument.

The other quarterback on the Bills' roster is Nathan Peterman. The Combine radar gun measured his fastest throws, to his left and right, at 49 mph. The Bills made Peterman a fifth-round choice from Pittsburgh. His rookie season will forever be remembered for that horrific, five-interception first half against the Los Angeles Chargers in his first pro start.

How much importance do the Bills' current decision-makers place in having a quarterback with an ultra-powerful arm? So far, not very much.

But all of that could change by Thursday night.

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