Finding the Fit: Josh Rosen and the Arizona Cardinals

Anyone who follows college football has had their eye on Josh Rosen for years now. He was a five-star recruit and the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the 2015 recruiting class, per 247Sports. As is the case with every five-star quarterback, fans and analysts alike hoped Rosen would become the starter at UCLA as a freshman and flash his talents. Unlike most other cases, though, Rosen actually won the job with ease. Rosen made it immediately clear he would be the future of UCLA football for the next few years.

Rosen’s first game as a college starter is almost folklore among the draft community. UCLA was faced with Virginia in Week 1, a team who had brought in a handful of elite defensive recruits the year before and were primed to give the freshman fits in his first start. To their dismay, Rosen played out of his mind, torching Virginia for 351 yards and three touchdowns on 35 attempts. Of course, the rest of Rosen’s season (or career, for that matter) did not go as smoothly, but from that game on it was evident he was primed for a career beyond the collegiate level.

The Josh Rosen Skill Set

A key part to Rosen’s success is his nimble footwork. Like Drew Brees, Rosen has a background in tennis from his high school days. Tennis is all about balance, constantly resetting one’s base, explosion in tight areas, and generating torque from sudden platforms. All of those traits translate to playing quarterback and have helped shape Rosen’s footwork patterns. More so than any other quarterback in the 2018 class, Rosen can carefully tie his footwork together with passing concepts. He can also maneuver tight spaces within the pocket and manipulate his throwing base while still generating proper velocity.

Here is a simple example of Rosen comfortably tying his feet with his eyes. Rosen initially opens to his left and sets his feet to throw the short curl near the left hash. The route ends up covered, though, and Rosen is forced to look elsewhere. Rather than make a jumpy movement in the pocket like, say, Sam Darnold might have, Rosen methodically rotates his frame to the dig route over the right hash with a few consecutive, smaller footwork resets. Rosen is able to more carefully get his feet and frame in perfect position to make the throw, which were absolutely necessary in this case as a USC defender was ready to blast him as soon as he threw the ball. Despite the incoming blitzer, Rosen made the throw in part because he had made precise movements in the pocket when going through his progressions.

This clip is slowed down to better show how smooth Rosen’s footwork is. There is no pressure on this play, but Rosen’s careful footwork is no less impressive. After dropping back, Rosen takes one hitch step to prepare to throw his initial read. Though it is tough to tell from this broadcast angle, the route was likely covered. In perfect transition, Rosen uses his next hitch step to reset his feet and frame toward the left hash. Rosen throws almost as soon as his feet are set and completes another ball for a UCLA first down.

Stable footwork, unlike booming arm strength or daring speed, is not something that ends up on highlight reels. Rather, footwork is the key that unlocks a quarterback’s skill set so that he can succeed on a down-to-down basis. Footwork can come in all different styles, from the strict pitter-patter style of Peyton Manning to Aaron Rodgers’ jazz-like flow, but good, consistent footwork is almost always the basis of quality quarterback play. Rosen certainly checks that box.

For Rosen specifically, smooth footwork best enables him to attack the intermediate parts of the field. Many quarterbacks either do not have the arm strength or the confidence to regularly test tight windows in the 10-to-20-yard range. Not only does Rosen have the arm talent and confidence to do so, but his footwork makes it easier to control the ball and fit passes into the most difficult of windows.

In both of these plays, Rosen tests tight windows on the opposing half of the field. He stands tall in the pocket, understands when he needs to pull the trigger and where to put the ball, and delivers perfect throws for chunk gains. These type of throws are what separate good quarterbacks from their peers. Most NFL caliber quarterbacks can hold their own in the short area of the field and take deep shots when opportunities arise, but it is the quarterbacks who can attack in the mid-range that truly give defenses fits. Again, Rosen checks the box.

However, with Rosen’s confidence comes over-zealousness. He had a habit of making questionable throws while at UCLA, particularly in dire situations, be that when under pressure or when playing with a deficit. To some degree, it is noble of Rosen to be willing to make plays when he feels it is absolutely necessary, but there also comes a point where aggression and anxiousness must be tempered. Rosen has to better understand when to just take the yards available to him or throw the ball away and move onto the next down.

The argument could be made that Rosen’s reckless tendencies were the result of a poor team that often put him in unfavorable positions. UCLA’s defense regularly put the offense at a deficit and UCLA’s offensive supporting cast was sub-optimal, to say the least. While all that may be true, that does not change the decisions Rosen made in tight situations, nor does it change the possibility that those habits could be ingrained in Rosen’s DNA now. Rosen’s late-game interceptions versus Memphis, for example, shed light onto how his urgency to make a play can sometimes lead to disaster.

Rosen is not the first high-caliber prospect to struggle with this. Jameis Winston battles with the same Superman syndrome. Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford also had issues with interceptions and reckless throws coming out of college, and even early in their pro careers, but have since grown to be safer and more calculated with the ball. Where Rosen falls on that spectrum is yet to be seen.

In general, Rosen has a baseline skill set that suggests NFL success. Quality mental processing, reliable footwork, and the ability to threaten the intermediate range is a good trio of tools that Rosen can frame his game around at the pro level. If Rosen can better tame his over-aggression and allow his high-end traits to shine, the Cardinals will have struck gold.

How Rosen Fits Into Mike McCoy’s Offense

First, let’s start with Rosen’s offensive background. Rosen had a new offensive coordinator in each of his three seasons at UCLA, but all three offenses were some variation of West Coast or “Spread Coast.” Rosen had some seasons that revolved around being under center with 12/22/21 personnel packages, while others offenses were 11-personnel shotgun offenses, yet they all mostly focused on short timing and spacing concepts, as well as play-action.

Mike McCoy’s offense leans toward the latter style of 11-personnel and shotgun formations. Per Football Outsiders, McCoy’s Denver Broncos offense last year ranked 11th in 3+ wide receiver set usage (68 percent) and were 13th in shotgun/pistol formation usage (64 percent). McCoy’s offense also ranked eighth in play-action (24 percent). At the very least, Rosen will have some familiarity with the pseudo-spread, play-action brand of passing offense and that should aid in his transition to the league.

Where McCoy’s offense will stray from Rosen’s comfort zone is the focus on deep passing. At UCLA, most of Rosen’s offenses favored the short area of the field and used play-action to generate space for crossing routes, dig routes, and other intermediate routes of that nature. Passes that traveled 25, 30, 35 yards in the air were not at the core of his offenses, particularly toward the end of his college career. My personal quarterback charting data for Optimum Scouting found that Rosen threw beyond 20 yards less often than the other four first-round quarterbacks — throwing beyond 20 yards just 10.43 percent of the time.

That being said, McCoy’s use of vertical stems is not always about deep passing. McCoy often uses vertical stems to create 1-on-1’s on the boundary, stretch the field for underneath routes, or enable explosive receivers to make sharp cuts over the middle. Most of these concepts are best unlocked by quarterbacks with sharp processing, ample arm talent, and the confidence to pull the trigger into tight windows. Rosen meets all three requirements.

Here is an example of how McCoy tries to use vertical stems. The two wide receivers to the left take vertical stems to about 15 yards. After about 15 yards, the slot receiver takes a diagonal path toward the free safety, while the outside receiver makes a sharp cut toward the area the slot receiver had previously been. With the slot receiver occupying the safety and pulling coverage toward him, there is a pocket inside the zone coverage where the outside receiver can break to. Quarterback Trevor Siemian completes the pass this time, but buy and large, McCoy’s offense last season lacked quarterbacks who could consistently execute on these aggressive routes.

The marriage of McCoy and Rosen should result in properly-executed aggression. With running back David Johnson carrying a heavy load, both on the ground and through the air, McCoy can form the rest of the offense around vertical passing concepts with the likes of J.J. Nelson, Brice Butler, Chad Williams, and rookie Christian Kirk, while Larry Fitzgerald provides a stable all-around safety blanket for Rosen. Aside from a poor offensive line, Rosen is in a decent position to perform well as a rookie.

Derrik Klassen

Derrik Klassen covers 4-3 OLBs for Bleacher Report #NFL1000, is an NFL Draft Analyst for Optimum Scouting and a QB connoisseur and take haver. You can follow him on Twitter @QBKlass

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