With the NFL draft and free agency fully in the rear-view mirror, there are not too many glaring roster construction questions left around the league. Particularly when it comes to starting quarterbacks in the NFL for the upcoming season.
But one outstanding matter of business left to be determined is who will take the snaps for the Seattle Seahawks this season. With Russell Wilson now wearing Broncos’ orange, the Seahawks are currently looking at either Geno Smith or Drew Lock as their starting quarterback for the 2022 campaign.
That is, of course, unless a deal for Baker Mayfield or Jimmy Garoppolo were to materialize in the next few weeks.
Assuming the decision comes down to Smith or Lock, who has the inside track on the job?
Head coach Pete Carroll described both as “really impressive” at the conclusion of mandatory minicamp. But here are the traits that might both win Smith the job, but enable him to keep it throughout the fall.
Touch and trajectory as a passer:
(Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)
Studying Smith, one of the aspects to his play last season that stands out is his touch, trajectory, and even creativity as a passer. On more than a few occasions last season, his ability to “shape” throws – even starting at the release point – led to big plays for the Seattle passing game.
Take this play against the Jacksonville Jaguars from Week 8:
Even with two defenders bearing down on him, Smith is able to get this throw off by adjusting his release point and getting the ball over the two points of pressure, allowing Gerald Everett to deliver the 41-yard gain for Seattle, giving them a first down deep in Pittsburgh territory.
Smith’s ability to shape throws, using touch, trajectory or even his release point, is a trait that keeps options available to him even as coverage poses a problem for the concept or the pocket breaks down around him. While it might not be as flashy as dropping his arm angle, breaking the pocket and throwing on the move or performing a no-look throw, it can be just as effective.
Protecting his receivers:
(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
The ability of a quarterback to identify leverage threat downfield and deliver throws that not only give his receivers a chance to gain additional yardage after the reception, but at a more fundamental level give those receivers a change to first make the catch, is critical for effective quarterback play.
This is another area where Smith’s play from 2021 stands out. He has the ability to “blink” in front of a receiver, seeing potential threats to the play and placing throws in the appropriate spot given the coverage, the leverage of the nearest defender and even that defender’s ability.
Take this play from Seattle’s game against Pittsburgh last season:
This is a simple slant route on a third down, that the Seahawks complete to move the chains. But the placement of the throw is critical. The father of the West Coast offense, Bill Walsh, coached his quarterbacks to throw this route to the receiver’s frame, rather than leading him up the field, to avoid the danger of defenders lurking over the middle.
One of the many branches off the Walsh coaching tree, Brian Billick, took that instruction a step further. In one of his various playbooks, Billick instructed quarterbacks to throw slant routes “as low as possible” to protect the receiver and ensure the reception. Here, by putting the throw right on Metcalf’s frame, Smith ensures the reception and protects Metcalf from a big hit in the process.
Here is another example of timing and placement from Smith that protects his receiver, and gives him a chance to make a play after the reception:
On this second-down concept, the Seahawks roll out a creative variation of a standard route design often termed Double-China 7 or simply China. Tight end Will Dissly, aligned as the inside receiver in a trips formation, runs a deep corner route while the two outside receivers each run in-breaking routes at a depth of around five yards.
But the creative element is how the offense gets into a 4 × 1 formation to overload the offense, as Lockett comes in Orbit motion behind Smith, and releases to the flat on a swing route. That works to stress and overload the defense to one side of the field.
Yet, Smith’s placement and timing on the throw is critical. New Orleans drops into coverage area, and Smith throws the first in-breaking route to Freddie Swaim, putting it low to protect him from the lurking linebacker. Between the placement and the timing, Swaim is able to step around that defender and leave him behind, turning this quick five-yard throw into a 28-yard gain.
Smith’s ability to throw against leverage, and give his receivers chances to make receptions and pick up additional yardage even with talented defenders lurking, is a trait that will not only endear him to those receivers, but work to keep the Seattle offense on schedule this season .
Fight, not flight:
(Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)
“Does he fight, or does he give in to flight?”
That is how the issue of pocket presence was put to me by my colleague and friend Dan Hatman a few years ago. Hatman, who was a former NFL scout with the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, and now runs The Scouting Academy, viewed a quarterback’s pocket presence in terms of the age-old “fight or flight” response that all humans know well.
Simply put, quarterbacks that look to stay in the pocket and fight first, rather than give into that temptation to bail from danger, are going to be more effective passers for their offense over the long haul. Yes, there are always exceptions, as there are some quarterback with the ability to create explosive plays in those flight moments, but those types of talents are rare.
Although, with the trend towards athleticism at the position, those types of passers might be more common in today’s NFL. Perhaps that is a discussion for another time…
Still, for quarterbacks who lack the athleticism of a Kyler Murray, a Lamar Jackson or a Josh Allen, the willingness to fight in the pocket – and the ability to survive while doing so – is a critical trait to have.
And it is one that can serve Smith well:
Working out of the shotgun, Smith immediately brings his eyes to the tight end on the Stick route. But with that initially covered, the quarterback is forced to look elsewhere. As he does, the pocket starts to break down, but he again fights within the integrity of the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield. The result? He spots his tight end adjusting the route, and is able to hit Dissly for a 21-yard gain and a fresh set of downs.
Staying and fighting in the pocket is one of the toughest things for a quarterback to do. It flies in the face of all human emotion. Large men are coming to do you harm, and while instincts might tell you to run for the hills – as they told me so many times over the years – the ability to stay within the pocket, create space and keep the offense on structure is a tremendous skill for a quarterback to have. That keeps as many options in the concept in play for the quarterback rather than immediately cutting the field in half, forcing defenses to still defend “every blade of grass.”
If Smith can unleash that trait as much as possible, in tandem with the others discussed, he’ll not only earn the starting job in Seattle… but he’ll keep it.