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2016 NFL Draft: Buyer Beware on Memphis Quarterback Paxton Lynch

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyContributor IJanuary 9, 2016

Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch (12) throws a pass during the first half of the Birmingham Bowl NCAA college football game against Auburn Auburn, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Butch Dill/Associated Press

The NFL playoffs are underway for several franchises, but that leaves the rest of the league with an eye turned toward 2016.

Some squads must rebuild from the ground up, and others are trying to upgrade specific positions so they can make a playoff push next year. One of the top needs for several of these teams is a quarterback. A franchise quarterback can be defined many ways, including as one being among the most elite of the NFL. This would be the top six or seven guys such as Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and players of that ilk.

My definition is a top-15 quarterback who can reasonably become a playmaker at the position to help win playoff games—and eventually a Super Bowl.

Since the elite signal-callers are so difficult to develop, NFL teams must project collegiate talent and decide if there is someone they can build a winner around.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

We’ve already broken down the game of California Golden Bears quarterback Jared Goff, and now it is time to look at Memphis Tigers quarterback Paxton Lynch.

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I studied Memphis' offense in all but three games to get a good feel for Lynch as a player and prospect. (The three games I didn’t chart were those against Missouri State, Kansas and SMU.) After tracking his progression from late 2014 to the end of his 2015 season, I concluded that franchises with a high draft pick should beware of Lynch.

We’re going to look at Lynch’s strengths, weaknesses and how he projects into the NFL. Let’s start with a broad view and then narrow down his specific traits.

Who Is Paxton Lynch?

Lynch is listed at 6’7”, 245 pounds and was a three-year starter for the Memphis Tigers. He was a 2-star recruit out of Trinity Christian Academy in Deltona, Florida. Although he drew some attention from the University of Florida, Charlie Weis’ departure from the program in late 2011 led the quarterback to sign with Justin Fuente and Memphis. 

With his height and thick, natural frame, the first obvious positive for Lynch is his size. He will face zero questions about his durability, as his build is similar to that of Cam Newton (6'5", 245 lbs) and Joe Flacco (6'6", 245 lbs) Physically, he’s NFL-ready.

Player agent Leigh Steinberg recently tweeted: "#THE AGENT Interesting @PAXTONLYNCH fact-his hands are 11 1/2 inches, longest ever for QB, extra gripping capacity on a rainy day."

Lynch was relatively unknown among many draft outlets until this season. I ranked Lynch as my third-best draft-eligible quarterback prior to the campaign, with the hope that he would take another giant leap in development.

He did so and now ranks as a top-10 prospect overall, according to ESPN draft experts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay.

Paxton Lynch Career Statistics
YearCompletionsAttemptsCompletion PercentageYardsYards Per AttemptTDsINTs
201320334958.22,0565.9910
201425941362.73,0317.3229
201529644366.83,7788.5284
Sports-Reference.com

Not only has Lynch improved his tape, but his production has taken leaps as well. His 8.5 average yards per attempt is impressive, and his average in the category has dramatically risen each season. He mastered the Tigers’ spread offense to the point where he is an efficient player who still creates opportunities.

 

Downfield Accuracy

BIRMINGHAM, AL - DECEMBER 30: Paxton Lynch #12 of the Memphis Tigers looks on against the Auburn Tigers during the Birmingham Bowl at Legion Field on December 30, 2015 in Birmingham, Alabama. Auburn defeated Memphis 31-10. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Imag
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Memphis used a spread offense based on concepts from Art Briles’ Baylor attack and Brigham Young’s 1970's West Coast offense. Fuente was part of the Texas Christian University offensive staff from 2007 until 2011 when TCU turned into a powerhouse. He also saw firsthand what a spread attack can do for a quarterback, as Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was a product of the system.

The West Coast principles co-offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey employed played a major role in Lynch’s success as well. Memphis liked to dink and dunk before spraying downfield on occasion. The Tigers relied on Lynch’s strong arm and quick eyes to get the ball out to the open man. When the defense started to creep up, the offense manufactured space by attacking downfield.

I charted Lynch’s passes to determine what percentage of his throws were reasonably catchable. This is subjective and does not align with traditional statistics because I’m looking to add context to those numbers. But it also helps us see where Lynch excelled and where he struggled.

I developed an accuracy chart for 2015.  

Most notable in the chart is how well Lynch attacked downfield. Memphis averaged just 4.1 downfield passing attempts in the 11 games I noted, but he was effective in throwing a catchable ball. His receivers had a 48.8 percent chance to reel in his 45 deep throws, which ranks second among the top four draft-eligible quarterbacks I charted this year.

The importance of the catchable-throws aspect is those attempts give the receiver a chance without asking him to make a one-handed, circus-style catch. There are some incomplete passes that are accurate, just like there are some inaccurate passes that end up being caught because of luck or due to an otherworldly receiver making an exceptional catch. Here’s an example.

Lynch maximizes the leverage his receivers create on deep passes. On the play below, watch as Lynch perfectly places his pass to the outside shoulder of his target. The Cincinnati cornerback does a good enough job working the receiver to the sideline, but the pass was indefensible. The catch wasn’t easy to make, but the excellent pass made it possible, even with great coverage:

Draftbreakdown.com

Despite his size, Lynch does not have an overly powerful arm. We’ll touch on that more later.

But he has a good enough arm to hit any throw as long as he’s in rhythm. When he plants and drives the ball, he can put serious torque on his passes.

Draftbreakdown.com

Some of this stems from his massive hands. With an incredible 11.5-inch hand length, Lynch can control the football as you or I could a Nerf mini-football. When everything goes reasonably well mechanically, Lynch is capable of hitting tight windows with proper timing and placement.

Hitting deep out routes is a massive positive for Lynch and the offense he’ll join. Memphis rarely tried these, which is probably more due to his receivers lacking the skill set needed to execute this play. Lynch’s above-average accuracy on intermediate and deep routes complement his excellent underneath throwing talent.

 

Comfort in and out of the Pocket

What separates Lynch from big, stiff signal-callers such as Flacco and Ryan Mallett is his athleticism. It’s rare to find men of Lynch’s stature playing quarterback and not in a basketball frontcourt. His ability in the pocket or to extend plays outside of the pocket will cause evaluators and coaches to drool over his potential.

Similar to Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, Lynch can thrive in an offense that begs defenses to bring pressure. Since Lynch can brush off rushers, he buys time for receivers to spring free. He’s not a run-first player when the pocket breaks down, but he’s absolutely capable of gaining chunk yardage when he escapes the tackle box.

DraftBreakdown.com

But just because Lynch can run doesn’t make him a running quarterback. As seen above, he has a natural feel for the chaos around him. He doesn’t panic often and will rarely force bad passes. The above clip helps show his patience and eye level as he tries to give his receivers the chance to come free.

Even when facing better competition, Lynch sticks out via his athleticism. For example, he was masterful on the move against Ole Miss. This helps on third-down scramble drills that he will face in the NFL.

DraftBreakdown.com

Offensive coordinators who are looking for a moldable talent to challenge how a defense prepares will also enjoy his red-zone capabilities. Lynch is a decent pocket passer in the red zone but really excels on the move. Changing his launch point is smart because he draws the linebackers toward him as soon as his legs start churning.

Mechanics on roll-outs is an area where Lynch showed improvement from the start to the end of the season. He began the year taking a flat, almost horizontal, line to the weak side of the field. This was an issue, as Lynch doesn’t have a strong enough arm to execute without his lower body helping to create torque.

DraftBreakdown.com

As we can see against Auburn in the December 30, 2015, Birmingham Bowl (among other examples late in the season), Lynch bows out more and works upfield when he’s preparing to throw. The result of his pass is a more accurate and timely throw, but he also had the chance to run if he wanted to.

The dual-threat aspect adds layers to defenders’ decision-making processes.

 

System Transition

While Lynch has intriguing strengths, his weaknesses emerged as the season progressed. As defenses adjusted to Memphis’ offensive attack, Lynch was unable to adapt and his performance dipped. That's evident, per Lynch’s accuracy chart from before and after Week 11.

You’ll notice an excellent overall number of a 79 percent catchable-passes rate prior to Week 11. He had just one interception and three other interceptable passes. His efficiency and ability to protect the ball is a critical part of his projection into a more complex NFL system.

But things changed down the stretch. The quality of opponents improved on a weekly basis, and the Tigers’ simplified offense bogged down and became more run-centric. Memphis’ playmakers weren’t getting wide open anymore, and Lynch struggled to adjust.

Remember, this accuracy chart has nothing to do with actual completions, but rather, it isolates the performance of just the quarterback. If the pass is accurate, it is tallied so, regardless of how the receiver plays the ball. There is no doubt Lynch did not respond well when defenses took away the easy reads he previously had.

The big issue with Memphis’ and Baylor’s offense is how they are based around pre-snap reads. This exposes Lynch to some bad habits and poor decision-making. New York Jets and former Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty talked about his struggles adjusting to the NFL. Lynch will likely have similar issues.

Putting too much stock into one play isn’t fair, but one sequence can tell a story. In Lynch’s case, he repeatedly struggled with making the right decision in packaged plays such as the one above against Temple.

Let’s dig into this story.

DraftBreakdown.com

We see the offense aligned with trips receivers on the top of the screen, another split on the near hash and one on the outside numbers. Pre-snap, the numbers don’t make sense to go to the trips screen, so Lynch rules out his first read without looking there post-snap. But he forces the throw to his slot receiver, who was smothered by the time the ball was released.

DraftBreakdown.com

Since Lynch didn’t bother to read the defender’s first steps, he nearly throws an interception. This was avoidable since the outside receiver is open with about six yards of cushion on a curl route. That was the correct read.

We have another example of his getting stuck on his pre-snap read, this time against Auburn. Below we see a should-be interception, which could have been the third against Auburn, including dropped interceptions. 

DraftBreakdown.com

This short-side throw is late, but it was always well-covered, as we can see below:

Youtube.com

The screenshot is to highlight what Lynch should have seen before he starts his throwing motion. The red circle shows the cornerback in Cover 2, and he is clearly following the outside receiver upfield. With the safety roaming over the top, there is no reason Lynch should throw this pass. Also factor in that he had a wide-open slot receiver who could have been off to the races with an accurate target.

Lack of Nuance

While the successful quarterback doesn’t have to have perfect mechanics or a tight spiral on every throw, there is a certain level of nuance needed on a consistent basis. Aspects such as stepping into throws, reading leverage and working through progressions are incredibly important. Lynch struggles with his lower body quite often despite his experience.

Draftbreakdown.com

As mentioned earlier, Lynch has a good but not great arm. He is unable to compensate for poor footwork, which can be said for all but a small handful of NFL quarterbacks. The margin for error rises when the ball flutters to the far side of the field.

This is a constant issue for Lynch. He is an effortless passer who can push the ball downfield, but when the windows shrink, he needs to put extra mustard on his throws to give his receiver time to create after the catch. If he steps into his throws and leads with his pivot foot, his accuracy will increase.

Draftbreakdown.com

Watch Lynch’s pivot foot on the video above. He whips his front hip open to the sideline, and the ball comes out wobbly. This will be a pick-six in the NFL, as the defender was given way too much time to react. The ball was unpredictable as it left his hand because his lower body was not aligned to his target.

His horizontal step to the sideline with his leading foot is a habit that must end immediately. His throws cannot be late and to the wrong shoulder in the NFL with any regularity. Every quarterback makes mistakes, but poor ball placement and below-average velocity are two things that will crush his success at the pro level.

 

Where He Can Improve

Lynch’s footwork must be the first area of improvement. While he is a natural at the position, there were many missed opportunities that can push Lynch to franchise quarterback if he can convert them. Hitting wide open receivers in stride on intermediate routes is, at times, an issue for Lynch, and it has everything to do with his lower body.

Shoring up his footwork will also aid his arm. Lynch’s hands can be a good thing, but they are also a negative at times. He has an over-the-top delivery, with his hand almost palming the football when he throws. This creates extra spin on the ball when Lynch is trying to throw too hard without his base aligned.

A new system may also bring challenges for Lynch. He did show a functional knowledge and understanding for leverage and positioning of his receivers and the defenders. But there is room for improvement with situational football. An example can be found on the third down below:

DraftBreakdown.com

On 3rd-and-4, Lynch happily took the covered slot receiver for three yards, even though he was the most covered man in his progression. The zone-based defense had hoped for this, and the two underneath linebackers quickly smothered the receiver.

Here's how the play unfolded:

DraftBreakdown.com

Had Lynch recognized the zone coverage, the correct read was his streaking receiver, highlighted with an orange outline. The cornerback has overcommitted to his zone and turned his back to the receiver. With just one safety single high over the top, Lynch easily could have completed this for chunk yardage and a first down.

It’s a play like this that should cause concern for just how far Lynch is from becoming a viable starter in the NFL.

Projection

BIRMINGHAM, AL - DECEMBER 30: Paxton Lynch #12 of the Memphis Tigers looks to pass against the Auburn Tigers during the Birmingham Bowl at Legion Field on December 30, 2015 in Birmingham, Alabama. Auburn defeated Memphis 31-10. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Lynch has the size that scouts dream of, and his breakout 2015 campaign was encouraging for his outlook. He shows a natural comfort in the pocket that most quarterbacks can only fantasize about. His best plays strike up images of a young Roethlisberger.

Lynch's upside is significant, and it's why he’s been projected as a top-10 pick. But we cannot overlook the obvious weaknesses to his game, either. He’ll need at least a year to refine his footwork and then adjust to an NFL playbook. The jump from the AAC to the NFL is steep.

Finding the best fit for Lynch is relatively easy, but he has a major buyer-beware sticker on his projection. Taking Lynch in the top half of the first round sets a high expectation that he will be a franchise quarterback at some point in his rookie contract. While he may get there, don’t expect that climb to come until the latter part of a five-year deal.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 21: Paxton Lynch #12 of the Memphis Tigers warms up prior to the game against the Temple Owls on November 21, 2015 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

In comparison to recent prospects, Lynch falls between Ryan Tannehill and Brock Osweiler. Tannehill and Lynch both excel on short and intermediate passes, and they use their mobility. But Tannehill improved quickly despite limited experience in college, and he seems to be, at worst, an average NFL quarterback. Osweiler has struggled when he’s played, but he needs more time to prove whether or not he can develop.

The top-10 hype on Lynch is simply too much. Dallas, with the No. 4 pick, is the only team drafting that high that should even consider him. The Cowboys offer a rare situation in which Lynch can develop. But it might be wiser to draft Goff, who is clearly the better quarterback prospect.

Lynch has franchise quarterback potential, but it’ll take a few years. If he’s afforded the time, he can greatly reward an organization. But the growing pains he will have may resemble those from his collegiate experience, which quickly peaked once things started clicking.

All stats used are from sports-reference.com.

Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. 

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