Finding the Fit: Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills
As teams often do, the Buffalo Bills went in the complete opposite direction at quarterback after getting rid of their previous starter. Tyrod Taylor had been the Bills starter for the past few seasons at well below market value for the quarterback position. Though not a top tier player, Taylor was highly efficient, careful with the ball, and provided rushing value. He was consistent, even if he often left a little something to be desired. Taylor was the Bills’ Alex Smith.
Josh Allen was drafted to shift the tone from Taylor’s steady, safe style of play. He is the antithesis of Taylor. Even at first glance, Allen’s 6-foot-5, 240 pound frame towers over that of the 6-foot-1, 220 pound vet. Allen was blessed with booming arm strength and a level of mobility that relies on explosion and strength, whereas Taylor sports good-not-great arm strength and a quicker, twitchier style of movement. Beyond physical attributes, the two play with completely different passing mindsets. The aggressive, sometimes reckless style of Allen looks nothing like Taylor’s more calculated and conservative approach.
However, change itself is not inherently good. Allen has to become than Taylor for the dramatic shift in player composition to mean anything. It may be exciting to get a new style of quarterback in the mix, but if he is a lesser player, the team and its fan base will end up where they started: yearning for a new quarterback. This may become the case for the Bills with Allen.
The Josh Allen Skill Set
The appeal with Josh Allen is more about what he could be, rather than what he is or has ever been. Allen has the physical traits and athletic ability to be a top tier quarterback, but there is precious little about his collegiate profile or skill set to suggest he can actually, uh, play quarterback well. He is a project of the highest order and one of the most glaring cases of an incomplete first-round quarterback since Jake Locker in 2011 or EJ Manuel in 2013.
Let’s start with success rate at the college level. In short, success rate measures a play’s success by how much yardage is gained given the situation (e.g., gain 50 percent of yards to go on first down, 70 percent on second down, and so on). Per SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, a quarterback’s collegiate success rate is the ceiling for their professional potential, and the best a professional quarterback should hope for is to come with in about two percent of their collegiate success rate.
Allen posted a 43.3 percent career success rate at Wyoming. According to Connelly, even if Allen can come within roughly two percent of his 43.3 percent success rate, he would still land firmly around Ryan Mallett territory (40.8 percent) and below Brock Osweiler’s NFL success rate (43.9 percent). Dating back to 2010, none of the 38 players who qualified for Conelly’s study have posted a higher NFL success rate than their college success rate. Allen would have to be a statistical outlier to even be more productive than Osweiler in the pros. To compare Allen to his peers, the other four first-round quarterbacks in the class scored between 46.6 percent (Josh Rosen) and 54.8 percent (Baker Mayfield) in college success rate.
Numbers never mattered much to Allen’s proponents anyway, though. According to some, Allen’s teammates dragged him down so much that his statistics can’t reliably measure his actual talent level. Yes, Allen’s supporting cast was suboptimal, particularly in 2017, but absolving Allen of that much blame for piloting the 119th-ranked (out of 130) passing offense per S&P+ is a bridge too far. Allen himself was very much part of the problem in at Wyoming.
Allen’s over-aggression is often excused as him needing to be the one to make a play. To some extent, that bears truth, but there are plenty of examples of Allen pulling the trigger in objectively bad situations. Allen did not post an exceedingly high interception rate in college because he had fantastic arm talent for the Mountain West and an offense that catered to short passing, but many of Allen’s interceptions were easily avoidable.
Allen’s first interception versus Iowa is an example of misunderstanding situational football and giving up the ball when he did not need to. To set the scene, Wyoming is faced with 3rd-and-4 early in the 4th quarter, already trailing 21-3. Wyoming has to score on this drive and each of their following drives to even have a chance. A turnover here is an absolute no-no.
Not long after the ball is snapped, Allen is spooked by a defender pushing through the interior left side of the pocket. Rather than feel out the pressure or look to scramble, Allen immediately directs his attention to the out route toward the far sideline. Allen franticly rears up to throw and ends up releasing the ball from an uncomfortable platform, leading to a slower throw with less accuracy. The ball sails too far inside of the intended target and the cornerback easily slides in front of the pass for an interception. Maybe Allen needed to make a desperate play given the score, but even so, Allen’s process was disastrous. The play had a slightly more than zero chance of being completed, and Wyoming would have been better off running another play on fourth down.
Inaccuracy plagued Allen’s collegiate career. Per my own charting of 10 quarterbacks from the 2018 draft class, Allen finished with the lowest adjusted accuracy and accuracy under pressure. Additionally, he scored the lowest accuracy percentage in three sections of the field: before the line of scrimmage, 1-5 yards, and 11-15 yards. Even the easiest throws on the field were a struggle for Allen, and he did little to make up for it through intermediate passing. Allen didn’t make up for it down the field either. He posted the third-worst accuracy percentage beyond 20 yards in the class.
Poor throws such as these litter Allen’s film catalog. His flashy deep throws and scrambles are exciting, no doubt, but when a quarterback can not support his sizzle with any steak, the end result is Jake Locker or Paxton Lynch. The flash quickly becomes false hope.
Therein lies the conundrum with Allen, however. Quarterbacks have been viewed as toolsy, incomplete projects before, but it has been some time since one possessed physical tools akin to Allen’s. He has the strongest arm out of college since Cam Newton. To go along with the arm, Allen sports a sturdy frame of a power rushing threat and a menace to bring down in the pocket. The imaginary payoff for Allen taking major developmental steps would be great.
Of course, this theoretical implies that potential is a purely physical measurement, which is not the case. A stronger arm and functional athleticism opens up doors for quarterbacks, though. Threading just one or two more throws on the sideline per game can make the difference, as could the threat of an option, allowing the offense to pick up a few more crucial yards on the ground. To walk away from Allen’s collegiate profile with hope, one must hope the Bills’ coaching staff will clean up the simple parts of his game to unlock the greater parts of his skill set.
Allen’s Fit in Brian Daboll’s Offense
Brian Daboll spent nearly two decades in the NFL before trying his hand as a collegiate offensive coordinator under Nick Saban at Alabama last season. Prior to that, Daboll served as a professional coordinator with the Browns (2009-2010), Dolphins (2011), and Chiefs (2012), followed by four seasons as an assistant and tight ends coach for the Patriots.
Alabama ran an 11- and 12-personnel spread-option offense under Daboll, with a foundation of RPOs (run-pass options), designed quarterback runs, and hard play-action. Daboll recognized that quarterback Jalen Hurts was best served with running threats as the core of the offense and traditional passing concepts filling in the gaps. The same is likely to be true with Allen in Buffalo.
Allen is already familiar with Daboll’s style of offense, but Wyoming ran more spread concepts from the ‘gun. They were not a strictly under-center offense, but rather a sort of hybrid. In turn, Allen was asked to execute a fair number of designed quarterback runs, as well as RPOs from time to time.
Take these two plays, for example. The first is Alabama’s offense running a one-back power RPO with a deep slant as the passing option. In the second play, Wyoming runs a strikingly similar play, with the key difference being the running back’s alignment on the other side of Allen.
Here, Daboll’s Alabama offense is running a play that mimics some of what Allen did at Wyoming. The two examples here are not exactly the same, but the core principle of the quarterback being a power running threat is consistent. Daboll often used Hurts as a pseudo running back, not a perimeter threat. Allen possesses a skill set geared toward the same style of downhill, aggressive running. The frequency of plays like this will drop in Buffalo, but expect Daboll to sprinkle in Allen as a between-the-tackles runner.
As for traditional passing concepts, Daboll prefers to attack the sidelines. His offenses have regularly featured isolation routes in the 11- to 20-yard range and further down the field. Attacking in this manner stresses arm strength and timing as the boundary becomes a faux defender.
In this example, Calvin Ridley is the only wide receiver split off to the right side of the formation. A tight end is also aligned to that side of the formation, but he does not run a route any deeper than five yards, whereas Ridley is sprinting down the field. The play’s success hinges on Ridley creating separation on his own, plus the quarterback throwing on time and with velocity toward the boundary. As he often did, Ridley got open by a wide margin in this example and gave the quarterback an easy throw.
Slot fade is a more deliberate isolation concept than the last play. In the previous play, the wide receiver is expected to make room for himself through precise route running. Here, on the other hand, space is create by the concept itself and the receiver is tasked primarily with outrunning his opponent and tracking the ball in the air.
The design of slot fade uses a stop route on the outside to force the outside cornerback to hang near the line of scrimmage, thus opening up room toward the sideline. The slot receiver stems vertically then angles toward the open space down the sideline. The throw can be placed over the top or to the receiver’s back shoulder, depending on the cornerback’s coverage. Unless the quarterback leaves too much air under the ball, it is normally quite difficult for this pass to be intercepted because the quarterback can comfortably lead the ball away from the defender. Teams all over the NFL ran this concept last year, most notably the Philadelphia Eagles.
Though lacking consistency, Allen does flash rather amazing ball placement down the sideline on occasion. The velocity Allen can summon makes it easier for him to complete passes on the sideline before the wide receiver runs out of bounds. Consistency to this area of the field for Allen will have to come through better timing and processing speed. He has the arm talent to make it work, but too often he pulled the trigger a tick too late, resulting in inaccurate passes due to poor timing.
To add some flare to the offense, Daboll will make use of pre-snap motion. Motion across the formation can set up a number of different things. It can create split-zone action, get a wide receiver already moving to generate quick yards-after-catch opportunities, or even become a third option in a triple-option play. Motion, or even the threat of motion before returning a player to his initial alignment, can force the defense to show their hand or cause hesitation once the ball is snapped. Alabama often used motion in their RPO and option concepts under Daboll.
The Bills Took a Major Risk With Allen
The selection of Josh Allen was questionable. Allen would have been a risk in the first round even as the fifth quarterback taken. To be drafted ahead of Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson made the move much more perplexing. Trading up for Allen also cost the Bills left tackle Cordy Glenn, as well as two second-round picks. Altogether, the Bills not only took a risk on a project quarterback, but gave up three valuable assets that could have been used to build a team around him.
Trading for and selecting Allen is even further troubling considering the team shipped off Tyrod Taylor. Taylor is not a special passer, but he was earning well below market value for starting-caliber quarterback play. There is no guarantee any rookie from this class will become a better quarterback than Taylor, and Allen is especially unlikely do so according to his college success rate. The Bills had better believe (or hope) they have the right coaching staff and tools to turn Allen into anything other than what his college profile suggests he will be: a bust on the level of Brock Osweiler or Jake Locker.
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