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Paxton Lynch Separating Himself as 2016 Draft's Top QB, but Not Elite Prospect

Justis Mosqueda@justisfootballFeatured ColumnistDecember 5, 2015

Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch (12) warms up before the start of an NCAA college football game against Navy Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

When you watch film of a football player, it reveals part of his character. Not in the sense that you're able to tell if he's a good father, husband or son, but that his strong or underdeveloped aspects can usually be attributed toward something in his background.

For my money's worth, Paxton Lynch of Memphis is one of the more interesting watches from the 2015 college football season for that very reason. I'm not the only one who seems to think he's fascinating, either, as he's been the talk of the NFL draft world since his Tigers beat Ole Miss, the one team to beat Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide squad in the regular season, in mid-October.

In a recent piece for ESPN, Mel Kiper, who essentially created the draft industry, was quick to bring up Lynch when asked which players took a step forward this year.

I think Paxton Lynch wins this in a runaway. Nobody is saying he's a sure thing, and I really think he could use time on an NFL bench before he's ready to start games, but he has elevated his stock and plays well enough against good defensive competition. He was not projected as a possible top-10 pick before the year started. Not even close.

What Kiper stated was a reoccurring thought I had while watching Lynch. He's talented, but he's just not ready this very second. Still, the quarterback thirst in the NFL is so strong that it's hard to imagine even a green passer with franchise-changing potential will make it out of the top five. Despite saying Lynch "could use time on an NFL bench," Kiper still listed the Memphis product as his second-overall prospect in November.

The CBS Sports team has also hopped onto the bandwagon, as both Rob Rang and Dane Brugler currently have Lynch mocked as the second-overall pick, coming off the board to the Cleveland Browns. If you think a quarterback is a 10-year starter for you, by all means rank him first overall on your board, but situations matter in the NFL, and I think gone are the days when a Carson Palmer can be taken early and redshirt for a season.

To truly understand why Lynch became who he is today, we must dig all the way back to his prep career. As a senior in Florida, he was generating some recruiting buzz, but a knee injury cost him a good chunk of his final season at Trinity Christian Academy.

According to 247 Sports' Steve Wiltfong, the University of Florida nearly offered Lynch a scholarship after he returned to the field post-knee injury, but when Charlie Weis took the head coaching opportunity at Kansas, he was left empty-handed.

Per 247 Sports' recruiting timeline, Lynch took a visit to to Memphis one week before National Signing Day. They were a last-second savior for his FBS dream, after they were able to catch onto the hype generated in a postseason high school all star game.

He was listed as a 6'5", 215-pounder in high school, as a true "running quarterback." His story almost reminds me of Brett Favre's: A southern scrambler with tools who managed to get a mid-major offer despite his ecology and made huge strides while in college.

Memphis' official site claims a two-inch, 30-pound gain in Lynch's frame, while NFL Draft Scout, which I believe is the best resource in projecting combine measurements, has him listed just over 6'5.5" and 230 pounds. Either way, it's evident that he hasn't just grown on film, but that he physically filled out during his collegiate career.

Now, when breaking down a quarterback, there's really three categories in which everything fits in. There are internal traits,Β upper body traits and lower body traits.

Internal Traits

To me, the most important aspect of quarterbacking is what a prospect can do in third-down type of situations. Throws into the flat, speed outs and crossers are generally going to be open on early downs. While it's important that you are able to hit them, at some point, your offense is going to go off the rails. Your running back will just get back to the line of scrimmage on second down or your receiver will drop a ball.

It's third and seven, what're you going to do now? The reason why quarterback is the most important position in the sport is simple: You have to clean up everyone else's trash, and no one is going to make excuses for you if you can't get it done.

You can tell by the way that Lynch plays, he's a competitor. He's not a player like Alex Smith, who refuses to look over 15 yards, even if his receiver is flying downfield untouched. Lynch wants to make a big play, but is also careful enough with the ball that he's not forcing it. If you were a fan of Marcus Mariota last season, he's going to be right up your wheelhouse.

Take this play against Houston for example. It's early in the first quarter in a top-25 matchup with Memphis up a field goal on the 11-yard line in a third-and-seven situation. Lynch stands tall, scanning the field for about four seconds before a rusher gets loose, which he responds to by running. This is the difference between he and a scrambling prospect like Jake Locker or Brett Hundley, though: He keeps his eyes up.

He bails to the left side of the field, pulls up when he's clear, pumps to force an isolated defender make a move in space, then pulls down the ball again, running for a nine-yard gain and a first-down conversion. Lynch has what many would call the "it factor" for big plays, but when you break them down individually, he's just displaying incredible awareness.

Against Ole Miss, he had an even more drastic example of "it factor." On a 3rd-and-16 standing four yards away from a safety, Memphis called up a four-by-one empty set. Lynch had a wide open man in the left flats, but knowing he had to get 16 yards to move the chains, he disbanded the structure of the play. When pressure showed, he rolled to the left, found a spot to settle, worked his shoulders across the field and hit his man about 12 yards deep.

His receiver then made some moves in space, converting the first down for a gain of more than 30 yards. If a cliche "system quarterback" was in that very situation, he most likely throws it into the flat for a gain of about 10 yards, which sounds good isolated, but would have resulted in a 4th-and-6. Heightened awareness, competitiveness and ego are the most underrated aspects of quarterbacking in the NFL, and Lynch has displayed those factors over and over.

Honestly, Lynch might end up being knocked by his system, since teams will realize that about a third of his passes are thrown behind the line of scrimmage, but that's not his game. From a mentality standpoint, he's much closer to a Cam Newton, a late-in-the-down, load-up passer, than a quick-strike Ryan Tannehill, who he is being compared to often.

This Memphis system isn't developing him when his offense line can't hold up for three seconds against a three-man rush. Another issue with the Tigers' offense is their pre-snap reads. Lynch has shown he can make reads and is better the more time he has to hold onto the ball.

Ole Miss took advantage of Memphis' number-counting pre-snap read screen system a couple of times. On this play, they moved a defender across the formation right before the start of the play and blitzed the slot defender at the bottom of the screen. Why? They knew that the ball would go to the bunch trips side on the boundary if they disguised what they were doing late, since these plays don't have in-play reads.

The result was a loss of yards, while Memphis' slot receiver on the left had about an 11-yard cushion between he and the man who could have made a play. When the Tigers opened up the field for Lynch, he thrived with intelligence, but it was just so easy to pick apart a majority of Memphis' opponents that they didn't choose to often. This is why his game against the Rebels was so important in my eyes.

Does he show the potential to run an NFL system? Absolutely. Will it take time to get used to playing in a tradition quarterback role? Absolutely.

Upper-Body Traits

How do you measure arm strength? Is it the distance that a quarterback can make the ball travel? You wouldn't say "I have a really powerful car, look how far it can go," would you? Be it velocity or distance, Lynch has proven he scores above average in both categories.

One way we can get an easy read on college quarterbacks is to see how they throw to the far sideline. In the college game, the hashes are wider, which means you need more of an arm to get the ball across outside the numbers. So a pass like this, thrown eight yards vertically, may not seem like much, but when you realize he threw that ball 100 feet to the left, it's impressive.

Lynch doesn't make the ball spin off his hand like a bullet often, just because his offense is typically based off of short passing plays or deep throws in which he has to throw the ball over a defender's head, but there are moments in which he flashes a rocket arm. He's good, not great, in both distance and velocity throwing.

The only thing that limits him is the fact that his long frame makes it hard for him to have a compact release in a traditional style. When he has to get the ball out quick, either by design or by pressure, it comes out like Philip Rivers' throws. This isn't a big deal, as he's come from a wing-T offense in high school and a layup spread offense in college. Why would mechanics have been stressed on him at either stop? It's up to an NFL team to get him right. Again, it's going to take time.

As mentioned previously, Mariota and Tannehill comparisons are abundant whenever Lynch's name get brought up in the draft community. There's one difference between those two and the potential 2016 first-overall pick, though: Their deep ball.

Mariota's one flaw was always putting it over defenders' heads, while Tannehill couldn't develop a deep passing relationship with Mike Wallace, who was known to be one of the best home run receivers in the league when he joined the Miami Dolphins. In Mariota's rookie year with the Titans, we've seen plenty of miscalculated throws of more than 20 yards by the former Oregon Duck.

Lynch can throw the ball into a bucket, even though his footwork isn't pretty. He almost reminds me of Aaron Rodgers in the way he disregards footwork and simply focuses on if his shoulders are in the right position. He's not just a high variance passer, either. Memphis doesn't ask him to throw that ball often, but he made an identical deep balls against Cincinnati, with one coming off of play-action.

One of the most, if not the most, impressive play I saw from Lynch was when he completed what was basically a one-route concept with max protection off of play action in a diamond-backfield formation. The Tigers had 46 seconds left in the half and the pass had a margin of error of about a yard, but Lynch made the far-hash throw look routine. He's more of a play-maker than he's being given credit for. While he has a skill set similar to Mariota, his playing style is much closer to Jameis Winston's.

The other throw which left me in awe when watching the Memphis-Ole Miss broadcast was his touchdown in the early third quarter. The Tigers were already up double-digits against the No. 13-ranked team in the country, but Lynch and co. smelled blood. There was action, he rolled left, threw from the 40-yard-line and his accuracy and arm nailed a throw in the front corner of the end zone. If you can't see the "arm talent" that the Deltona, Florida product has, you're blind.

Lower-Body Traits

This is where most of the negatives I have on Lynch come from. To be fair, this is where most of the negatives I give college quarterbacks come from. Unless you're playing at a Big Ten school, it's hard to find a passing offense in which passers even "have" to possess correct feet on the majority of their throws.

Too often, Lynch's feet are parallel to the line of scrimmage when he's throwing deep. This is the same issue Jay Cutler has been fighting his entire NFL career. The bright side is this: When he's throwing deep off of action, when he's actually asked to put weight into a throw, he can put it on a ropeΒ with quality footwork. Like Kiper said, he has plenty of potential, but he's not being asked to run plays that project to the NFL often. When he does, though, he ends up on the weekend's highlights.

Mobility is clearly a strength of Lynch. He's able to extend plays which many quarterbacks would have either thrown away or taken a sack on. His first-quarter touchdown against the Rebels, when a defender was breathing down his neck and he threw a perfectly-placed ball on the sideline for his fullback after holding the ball for five seconds comes to mind. Eighty percent of NFL passers can't make that play.

I do think some are painting a poor picture of who he is, though. He's not Russell Wilson, Michael Vick, Aaron Rodgers or Johnny Manziel. He's not a passer who is going to juke someone in the open field or turn his shoulders and change direction on a dime. The size difference between he and those passers is huge, and it's why he compares most to Colin Kapernick as a runner. When he's rolling left and has to turn right, it takes him an extra couple steps to get aligned, since his frame is so long.

The good thing about his leg length is he seems to have it in control when he's linear. He shouldn't have an issue over-striding in the pocket in an NFL offense, as he's shown quick feet to setup before. He just needs to get plugged into a system which asks him to physically setup from his feet up.

Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

Recap

Lynch isn't a victim. The Memphis program has clearly improved him as a passer since he started as a redshirt freshman. With that being said, he's not an ideal "NFL quarterback" out of the gate.

Mentally, he's sharp and competitive. Hopefully, he'll be a player who can one day make calls at the line of scrimmage. Jameis Winston, according to NFL Networks' Ian Rapoport, has done so as a rookie. The issue is, as of right now, some of the plays being called for Lynch to execute don't even have a post-snap read.

As far as his arm is concerned, he possesses a B-grade arm. It's nothing to write home to Mom about, but he's not going to be limited by it. Mechanically, since he wasn't asked to efficiently get the ball out in a second at either the high school or college level, other than on screens, he needs to tighten up his release.

His footwork is a mess, but a mess with plus upside and a story behind it. All of his flaws are fixable, but if he's thrown into the fire, he might be a disaster from the jump. Ruining a quarterback's confidence is the worst sin the NFL consistently commits. If you want to develop a taller Tony Romo, take Lynch, but you're going to have to put in the elbow grease, just like the Cowboys did.

My biggest fear for our Memphis passer is that he ends up somewhere like Cleveland, where there doesn't seem to be a power structure and someone in the building is always in "win now" mode to keep their job, forcing young players into non-ideal situations.

In a lot of ways, how the NFL treats the quarterback position reminds me of a scene in the movie Idiocracy, when Luke Wilson's character is telling humans from the future that they need to water their crops for plants to grow, while they sit around and use circular reasoning to deflect his suggestions.

Almost every quality quarterback in the league has been developed on the bench. Rodgers, Tom Brady, Rivers, Palmer, Romo and Drew Brees were all products of sitting and learning. Even Ben Roethlisberger wasn't baptized Week 1 of his rookie year. The answer to solve the NFL's problems is simple: Spend time and effort on a young passer with talent. Lynch can be that guy, but he can't be your savior in 2016 like Peyton Manning, Winston or Andrew Luck were coming out of school.

Front offices and coaches look at young passers as job security, and realize that they can't win without one, so they might as well swing when they get a chance at one, even if a proven plan isn't in place. I just hope that 6'7" redshirt junior actually gets the nutrients he's going to need to thrive in the NFL, instead of a franchise which responds, "Water? Like out the toilet?"

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