Here's a plan for the Bills to get the most out of Josh Allen, and it involves Cam Newton
When creating a scheme for Allen, the Bills should look to a quarterback head coach Sean McDermott knows well
Despite being the most physically-imposing quarterback to enter the NFL in some time, the Wyoming product joins the league with three major flaws to his game. That combination led to Allen being one of the most polarizing signal-caller prospects of the last decade, but he was still a top-10 pick.
The moment his name was announced by Roger Goodell, I was confused as to why the Bills decided to take a risk on such a dicey project at quarterback in this draft of all drafts, and I'm skeptical it will work out for him in Buffalo.
My concerns with Allen are as follows:
- Lack of consistent accuracy
- Habitually leaving the pocket at the first sign of pressure
- Tendency to "overextend" plays while improvising, frequently throwing off-balance into precarious situations
I don't think the first two elements of Allen's game can be "coached out of him" at the level NFL. The last element could be, but it won't be easy and would likely eliminate some of the positive plays he makes outside the pocket due to his impressive athleticism and otherworldly arm.
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For Allen to lead a successful team in western New York for the next decade, the Bills should not waste time and energy trying to fix his faults but -- ready? -- fully embrace them while highlighting his strengths, most namely his rocket arm and athletic talents at 6-foot-5 and nearly 240 pounds. Essentially, Buffalo needs to be content with a boom-or-bust passing attack.
Allen isn't the next Newton, yet he's as close to Newton physically as we've seen from a quarterback prospect since the former Heisman trophy winner was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft. That fact probably had a lot to do with why Beane and McDermott traded up for Allen.
The Cam Plan
The majority of today's NFL is based in the West Coast offense which, by simplest definition, is a quick-strike, horizontal passing game that emphasizes yards after the catch and leads to higher completion rates.
Allen -- and Newton -- are not WCO quarterbacks. Their big arms and sporadic accuracy make them much more useful in a vertical-based offense, which is becoming less popular by the year in the NFL.
With a passing offense predicated on downfield throwing, quite obviously, comes more big plays but lower completion rates. Newton's been in a vertical-based offense his entire pro career besides 2017, and the Panthers just hired Norv Turner, one of the last men standing in the NFL with Air Coryell roots who loves the deep shot, as their offense coordinator.
Take a look at the shift in completion percentage across the league over the past 20 years.
|Year||Number of starting QBs under 60% completion||Number of QBs above 63% completion|
Outside of what seems to be an outlier year in 2007, this table illustrates a clear trend in professional football, one that indicates the NFL as a whole has prioritized the higher completion rates that come with the WCO and drifted away from the boom-or-bust concept of the vertical-based passing offense.
Set to enter his eighth professional season, with a regular season MVP and Super Bowl appearance on his resume, Newton is widely considered a superstar.
The Bills should aim for Allen to be similar to what Newton was from his second NFL campaign to his fourth, and his figures in those seasons may surprise you.
(I purposely left out Newton's rookie year when he completed 60 percent of his throws at a hefty 7.8 yards per attempt and included back-to-back 400-yard outings to begin his career because Allen doesn't have the pocket presence to be that type of passer right away, like Newton was.)
|Cam Newton||Completion %||Yards||Yards Per Completion/Rank||TD/INT|
In 2012, per Pro Football Focus, 13.0 percent of Newton's attempts were made 20-plus yards down the field, the 10th-highest figure among qualifying quarterbacks. The following year, that number increased to 13.5 percent, the 7th-highest in the NFL. In 2014, 12.1 percent of his throws were 20 or more yards down the field, the 11th-highest rate in football.
Aggression down the field was the key element of Newton's first six seasons in the NFL. A 2016 Football Outsiders article studied the average air yards of the 21 quarterbacks who had four years of starting experience from 2006 to 2015.
From 2012 to 2014, Newton averaged 9.72 air yards, the highest figure of any of the quarterbacks featured in the study. And he's only had two of seven years in the NFL with a completion percentage above 60 percent.
The Bills should impart those general philosophies on offense with Allen.
(Also, Newton has been a fixture in Carolina's designed run game, and at 6-5 and nearly 250 pounds with 4.56 speed, he's been a short-yardage force. Allen isn't quite as heavy or fast -- 237 pounds and 4.75 -- yet he was utilized as a runner intermittently during his career at Wyoming and that should be part of what the big signal-caller brings to the field in Buffalo.)
Allen has an accuracy problem much more than a ball-placement issue, and I categorize those weaknesses differently.
Former Bills first-rounder EJ Manuel had a ball-placement issue, meaning the vast majority of his throws that were technically accurate enough for his receivers to make a catch were typically a little too high, too low, behind, or too out in front of their intended target.
Allen will throw five strikes in a row with pinpoint accuracy, then launch a pass three yards over a wideout's head. That style is most manageable in a system with lower completion percentage expectations in the first place.
In 2017, a whopping 67 percent of Allen's passing yards came through the air, not after the catch, per Sports Info Solutions.
Here's how that stacks up with the other quarterbacks picked in the first round of the 2018 draft:
- Baker Mayfield: 49 percent
- Sam Darnold: 53.1 percent
- Josh Rosen: 50.5 percent
- Lamar Jackson: 54.0 percent
Allen almost assuredly won't be a 60 percent (or higher) passer in the NFL. The Bills shouldn't try to make him into one. They should accept he's going to turn the ball over and miss open targets at higher-than-league-average rates due to his inherent flaws.
But he'll also make throws of which very few quarterbacks are capable and will significantly threaten defenses deep with his arm. Coupled with a steady dose of the ground game and a strong defense -- two other Carolina staples -- Buffalo can get the most out of Allen and his high variance.
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