When an NFL quarterback comes through with an outlier performance in his rookie season, looking for the next version of that player is a fraught, though inevitable, exercise. Russell Wilson's ascent in 2012 prompted a host of "next Russell Wilson" comparisons, and with Dak Prescott's surprise season in 2016, teams and analysts will be looking for "the next" Dak.
Though it's impossible to get a direct correlation, it's quite possible that Cal's Davis Webb might have the tools and intangibles to have a similarly surprising turn at the next level. As Prescott did at Mississippi State, Webb proved that he could succeed with a questionable supporting cast. He had his share of weird throws, but to watch Cal tape from the 2016 season was to also see a lot of blown blocks and dropped passes. Also like Prescott, Webb went to the Senior Bowl and bagged MVP honors.
Webb, the son of a high school coach, started his collegiate career at Texas Tech, competing against Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield when both players were true freshmen. Mayfield got injured midway through the 2013 season, which allowed Webb to shine. But two years later, Webb's injury-riddled season cleared the way for Patrick Mahomes to take the job, which Mahomes—another highly ranked prospect in the 2017 draft class—kept.
When Webb transferred to Cal in 2016, he inherited an offense that was very much in transition. His top six receivers were new, and the Golden Bears had three new starting offensive linemen. Still, without much definition around him, Webb set several school records in his one season—many previously set by Jared Goff, the first overall pick in the 2016 draft. Webb completed 385 of 620 passes for 4,295 yards, 37 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.
And like Prescott, it may be Webb's game intelligence that sets him apart.
The next step is convincing NFL teams that he was more than a product of two Air Raid systems. To that end, he employed the services of Jim Zorn, the former pro quarterback and coach, with the plan of filling out Webb's palette with pro-ready concepts. Zorn works with Webb four days a week now—there's a morning throwing session, hours of tape study in the afternoon and another throwing session at night.
"The biggest thing is being more efficient mechanically," Webb told me. "In the offenses I've been in, we weren't under center much, so just being more efficient with my footwork in five- and seven-step drops under center to three-step drops in the shotgun. Holding the ball a little higher so my release is a bit quicker. I think I've gotten better at a lot of things. Obviously, Coach Zorn is a West Coast Offense guy, so I'm learning that system and the three-digit system, and just trying to have a foundation of that, so when I go to an NFL team interview, I have a pretty good starting point in what I want to talk about."
When it comes to the questions about his readiness for the NFL, Webb is more than prepared with the answers.
"Every time I'm in a private interview with teams, I have an opportunity to get on the board, and every team's been impressed with my football IQ. I had great coaches along the way, whether it was my dad in high school, or Kevin Atkinson in high school, to Coach Kingsbury at Texas Tech, to Jake Spavital and Sonny Dykes at Cal and Coach Zorn now. I've had great coaches in multiple systems and different ways of getting it done, so when I'm on the board talking defenses and personnel and coverages, they've been blown away, because there are different types of Air Raid offenses and spread offenses. I was asked to do a lot at both schools when it came to checking off at the line of scrimmage, getting us into the right play and being a good leader.
"I think teams have been impressed, and I do not think it's a knock on me because I've shown that I can go to the Senior Bowl and be under center. And every time I get a private workout, or when it comes to my Pro Day next Friday, it's another opportunity to show teams that I've gotten better since the combine. My footwork and accuracy and arm strength have all gotten better—so has my capability of learning new stuff. I think the potential is good, and that's what I'm striving for."
To that end, I wanted to approximate one of those team interviews, in which Webb and I would watch five of his plays, and he would explain to me what happened—good and bad. The original idea was to go for 15 minutes, just as the combine interviews with players do, but Webb's diagnoses of the plays went past what I expected. If there's one thing that stands out about Davis Webb as a football player, it's his feel and intelligence for the game. It's something he's taken very seriously for a long time.
"Since I was a D-team backup quarterback in seventh grade, I've loved the game," he said. "In eighth grade, I was a C-team backup. I've always gone through adversity in this game, and I've always overcome it. My middle school coach told me that I was probably a better hockey player than a football player, and that still drives me every day.
"I love football, and ever since the seventh grade, I've had these fifty index cards next to me, watching college games on Saturday and NFL games on Sunday, I would draw up plays and schemes. I would give them to my dad on Sunday night, and hope that he would put them in the game plan for his team on Fridays. Sometimes they did. If it was a good idea and I really thought through it—if I had a reason for it instead of just drawing it up—my dad would ask me questions about the plays, and I learned early on that it doesn't matter what you draw up if you don't understand it."
It wasn't just his dad who was impressed—Cal head coach Sonny Dykes let Webb run team meetings, and he was named a team captain at his second school very quickly.
"I would break down film through the week, and make a 40-50-play cut-up for my receivers and running backs the day before the game," Webb recalled. "I would run that meeting, it would be about 30 minutes long, and I would make sure that we were all on the same page. What I was looking for, how we were going to be successful against whatever defense we were facing, and we came out of those meetings more confident and looser and ready for Saturdays."
And with that, here's Davis Webb's understanding of five plays that helped define his final collegiate season.
Play 1: vs. Washington, 1:52 left in the first quarter
Bleacher Report: I wanted to start with this throw, because it's an accurate deep throw, and it's a bit of a misnomer to say that you were just checking down all the time at Cal. Per Pro Football Focus, you completed 36 of 102 passes over 20 yards in the air for 1,186 yards, 18 touchdowns and five picks. On this play, it looks like you're reading man coverage to the back side, and that's a nice dart to Demetris Robertson over Kevin King. What was the coverage here, and what were your reads?
Davis Webb: Washington, they're unbelievable in the secondary. They have a chance to have three guys drafted in the first 50 picks with Kevin King, Budda Baker and Sidney Jones. They're loaded on defense, and Coach [Chris] Peterson has done an incredible job with them. They're going to man you up, especially when you're throwing the ball 50 times a game. That's something a lot of Air Raid offenses have difficulty with, press-man coverage, because you do throw the ball quick and try to get your guys open in space.
But we would call this from the front. This is an even front, obviously, because the center's uncovered. This is a "42" personnel with Cover-11 or Cover-1. It's a man-free concept. Washington has two great corners. As you can see to the bottom of the field, the corner [Sidney Jones] is press-bailing, and Sidney Jones is one of the best at that. That's something I picked up early in the game—you can see that his eyes are kinda toward me at the beginning of the play, so I know he's press-bailing. I know I don't have a great chance of taking a fade route down the bottom with our receiver Chad Hansen down here.
But up top, it's one-on-one, and we have a chance to win. Demetris Robertson is one of the best players in the country. You have to see his release, and make sure to hold the safety, because it's man coverage in the middle of the field, and the ball's on the right hashmark. He already has a bit of a getaway to the left side if you can hold [the safety] with your eyes for a count. You have to make sure you get the ball up and down so he's not a factor. Throw an accurate ball so your guy can catch and run.
If [Robertson] isn't there, you have to go to your slot guy to the left side—he's running a little stop route right there. He should push it a little deeper, but he's open and he does a good job coming back to the football.
This play is a half-field read—we don't have time to go all the way down to the right, because Washington has a great defensive front. That was the play, right there—it was a 2x2 four verts play, and Demetris did a great job getting open, and making a play after the catch.
B/R: So, you're reading to the back side the whole way?
Webb: Yes, sir. We tempoed into this play and got a look that we liked, checking out both sides. I felt that Sidney was going to be in a press-bail situation, and he was, and I was able to hold the safety for a count. Then, it's just trusting Demetris past the curl.
B/R: What's the route combination to that side called?
Webb: We have three different types of four verts—with the regular four verticals, it's a mandatory outside release by the outside and inside guys. But if it's a different type, like in this situation, it's called option. The outside receiver has a two-way go, and he felt that the best release for him was inside. [Robertson] re-stacked him, got [King] back on his tracks, and gave me the ability to throw him to grass [throw him open], and catch-and-run.
B/R: You throw an easy deep ball—obviously, mechanics are a big part of this.
Webb: I take a lot of pride in the deep ball—I can throw it 75 yards in the air with ease, and I work at it. I take the weight room very seriously, and that allows me to throw the ball vertically like we did at Cal this past year.
Play 2: vs. USC, 13:55 left in first quarter
B/R: This looks like a pretty similar read to Robertson deep, and the throw is good, and there's a drop. What's your internal dialogue when drops happen, and what did you tell Robertson after this play? What is your internal reaction when this happens, and how tasked are you by yourself and your coaching staff to not convey any emotion at that point?
Webb: It's the first drive of the game, and we kinda got backed up to start. It was the third first down, and we had been talking all week about going after USC's field cornerbacks. This is a 3x1—another four verts type of play. We were moving the football well, and we had them right where we wanted them. This was the exact coverage we wanted. We actually switched Demetris Robertson to the slot as the No. 2 receiver in a 3x1, and moved the inside receiver to the outside.
We have a different type of look here—it's not really a four verts look. The No. 3 receiver runs the crossing route to get the middle safety's attention. Robertson, the No. 2 receiver, has a rail route, as we call it. He pushes it vertically as long as he can. It's Cover-1, but the cornerback falls off, as you can see. Our outside guy, the No. 2 receiver who we flipped in the formation, has a six-yard under route. So if they do bail off, like they did there, I have the opportunity to hit our outside guy for a good completion—maybe a first down. Demetris runs by him, I trust it, the ball comes out pretty well. It could have been thrown better—I think most people call that a drop, but Demetris made plenty of plays for us in this game.
We had to punt at the end of this drive, so I got with him on the sideline and said, "Hey, man—you're going to make a big play for us. Make sure you're ready." I told him to trust me that we'd have more of those opportunities in this game, and we did. I don't know off the top of my head how many catches he had in that game (nine for 92 yards), but he had plenty more, and made a couple of big catches for us down the sideline. So, he made up for it and he's a great player. Drops are part of the game. Bad throws are part of the game. It's about how you respond, and he responded very well. I was proud of him, because he was a true freshman, and most guys would let that get them down, but he did not.
B/R: You also had pressure to the back of the pocket to your front and back side, but you stepped up well to make the throw. How much do you work on pocket awareness, and the ability to shift subtly in the pocket without just bailing?
Webb: You can definitely feel that. USC is loaded with good players, and they're well-coached by Coach [Clay] Helton. The defensive end gets a good jump on the snap count, forcing me to step up a little bit. I had a nice, clean pocket from my interior linemen. I wish it had gone another way, but there's also plenty of throws I wish I had back.
You definitely practice that in drills—it's something you have to do as a quarterback, to stand in the pocket when you know you're going to get hit and deliver a ball for a first down or a touchdown. That's something I really enjoy, and I'm continuing to get better at that.
Play 3: vs. Stanford, 14:56 left in the second quarter
B/R: This looks like a classic improv play where you're running around and waiting for an opening after the play breaks down. What was the original concept of this play, and in the completion, how much are you directing your receivers; i.e., "If I roll right, you go right or run a comeback." How much are those scrambles designed in your offense?
Webb: Yeah, we practice scramble drills. The easiest way to put it is, when you're [the receiver is] deep, you go short, and when you're short, you go deep. That's the Football for Dummies way to put it, but there's so much more to it. The No. 1 rule for the receiver in the Air Raid offense is, "Do not confuse the quarterback." You don't want to be running all over the place like a chicken with its head cut off; you want to find grass [open field], and do it with a purpose.
Our running back here [Tre Watson] does a great job finding grass. He's pushing it vertically, he's in the progression, and it's a throwback to begin with. We ran this play against Oregon about four weeks before, and hit the running back for a touchdown, but I have an opportunity here to take the crossing routes.
They were covered up pretty good—Stanford has a great defense—so I go to my running back. The linebacker falls off and covers him pretty good—he knows that's a play we like to run—and our running back does a great job. He sees me scramble and comes back down to the football, giving me a nice, clean target to hit. Scramble drills are a lot of fun, because defenses don't know what you're doing, and we work on it so much, we have an idea where the grass is and where to find holes in the coverage.
B/R: So, if the linebacker hadn't sussed that out to the backside, and you're still rolling to that side, what would the play have been?
Webb: It's a naked bootleg, so you have the single receiver up top, and he gets taken away pretty quickly. Then, we have our two crossers—the slot receivers coming across. And the "Z" [right outside] receiver running a skinny post—a drag post, is what we call it. So, those are my second and third options, but I'm off those options and onto the running back at that point. He's running what we call a sneak route, and he has the capability to wheel up, as you see there. He hit it for a touchdown in the Oregon game, so we're looking for that right now. They take both crossers away, and the running back is covered, so I have to scramble around. My eyes are downfield looking for the crossers, but they don't get there in time, and the running back comes back to the ball, and gets the first down in the rain.
B/R: So, when you roll left and see that your left-side vertical receiver is covered, your reads when rolling right are to the crossers and then to the back?
Webb: You're going outside receiver up top, slot crosser, outside crosser, and they're both taken away, so you have the running back. You're really reading the slot crosser and having a feel for the outside guy, but it is a throwback to the running back. We had a good feel for it, and they did a good job switching off and playing good defense, but it's hard to defend us when we know what we're doing on that scramble drill.
Play 4: vs. USC, 3:07 left in the first quarter
B/R: Here's a similar play out of the pocket and maybe outside of structure, but with a less positive ending. Is this a throw you'd like back? What might you do differently here if you had a mulligan?
Webb: We tempoed into this play—we love this play. We had been talking about this play all week to this coverage, but we did not expect having the nickel defender (Leon McQuay III, No. 22) blitz, and the running back doesn't pick it up. From a protection standpoint, we don't pick the blitz up, and that's something we need to do.
You can see that it's a terrible throw—it's not what we wanted to have happen. Looking back, you can see that my footwork is a bit sporadic, but you're going to have that at times. You're going to have to make off-balance throws, but there's no need for it. I can stay in the pocket and take a little side-step to the right, get my feet set and throw a back-shoulder to that wheel route. Because he is open at one point, but the ball hangs in the air too long, and the defender is allowed to make a play on it. That's something I wish I had back, but that's football—it's about the next throw. You make a bad one here, you make up for it and that's what I try to do.
B/R: You're obviously right in that quarterbacks have to make accurate throws off-balance and off-plane—how do you adjust so even when you're physically off-kilter, you're able to be accurate and consistent?
Webb: Yeah, you work on it all the time. But people in the media might say that all off-balance throws aren't mechanically sound. That's not true. Just because you don't get your feet set—you still have the capability to make a lot of throws. You just don't want to make a living doing it because it is inconsistent.
But in the game of football, it's very rare that you're going to take a three-step drop, hitch and throw. There's going to be stuff coming at you. Your left guard will step on your front foot, there's gonna be a blitz, someone will fall down…you have to make plays with your feet. But here, you can tell that my back foot is not set, and I have no jump on the football, you know? There's no ball speed, and I allowed the ball to hang up. So, if I have an opportunity to have a better platform from my back foot, and really step into this throw, a better ball-speed throw, you have the chance to have a completion here. But I don't, because I'm off-platform and my mechanics are bad, and it turned into an interception.
Play 5: vs. Washington, 14:23 left in the first quarter
B/R: I wanted to ask you what you were seeing on this near-interception. Was there a miscommunication?
Webb: This was the first drive of the game, and we wanted this look pre-snap. It's a little hard to see because of the angle, but it's the look we wanted all week. You see a single-high safety, though you can't see him here because he's so deep, and it's a good [offensive] play concept. They just have a great call defensively—we really felt that cornerback would stick with the receiver on the switch route, and we'd be able to make a good throw to the corner. He dropped the pick, but it's really…you take the corner route down to that hitch route, up top to the No. 2 receiver switching off.
The outside receiver is trying to run a drag route, and take the nickel defender away from that. You want to make sure you go through your reads, and you see that cornerback bailing, you smoke it to the curl route outside. But that stuff is going to happen; you just want to make sure you limit that and make sure it's not a habit. They do a great job of not taking the bait with that curl route outside, and they stick to the outside guy. I was lucky it didn't get picked off, but you live to play another down, and you make up for it the next play.
B/R: It's funny that people think of you as a check-down guy when you have the obvious check-down here, and you don't take it.
Webb: [Laughs] Yeah. That was one play, man.
B/R: Last question: What separates you from the other quarterbacks in this draft class? Why should a team want Davis Webb as its franchise quarterback?
Webb: You ask any quarterback, and they're all gonna say the same thing—they feel like they're the best quarterback in the draft, and what I feel separates me from other guys is my work ethic and my love of the game. But I think my projection as a quarterback is very good—I think five to 10 years from now, I think I'm going to be a lot different than I am today. I'll be a lot better, and a lot more mechanically efficient, and have the capability to run an NFL offense. So, I think my projection down the road is very high, and I think that's what separates me—the potential is very good, and I'm going to work every day to get better.
All quotations were obtained first hand.