It's 2016, and a veteran NFL scout puts on the tape of Wyoming at Nebraska, the second game of the season, to check out Wyoming's center, who is a draftable player that year. The Cowboys trail the Cornhuskers 38-17 in the fourth quarter.
Wyoming redshirt sophomore quarterback Josh Allen drops back to pass and promptly throws his third of five interceptions that day. Huskers safety Nathan Gerry plucks the ball out of the air and dodges Wyoming offensive linemen as he runs toward the center of the field. Gerry looks to turn and run up the middle, but Wyoming's No. 17 comes speeding toward him and makes the tackle.
Hold on a minute. The scout pauses the tape. No. 17? That's the quarterback?
He rewinds to catch Allen barreling down the middle of the field to wrap up Gerry. After the play has been whistled dead, Gerry hands the ball to Allen. Allen, picking up on the disrespect, chucks the ball back at Gerry. The refs flag Gerry (not Allen) with unsportsmanlike conduct. Later in the game, Allen throws another interception and hustles to push the Nebraska player out of bounds.
At this point, early in the 2016 season, the scout had never heard of Allen. His team is in the quarterback market. He takes down notes. Big, athletic quarterback. Rocket arm. Pissed, tough guy.
"If I see a guy throw five picks in a game, I am probably done with him," the scout says now. "I didn't even know who he was, but that caught my eye and I said, 'Who is this guy?'"
Four years later, Allen is very much the same passionate and unpredictable quarterback. He was flagged for a rare quarterback facemask penalty in Week 3 when he grabbed a Los Angeles Rams linebacker and pulled him down while also using him as a human shield to protect himself from a blitzing Jalen Ramsey. But he also looks to be a much-improved quarterback.
In his third NFL season, he's running less (20.2 rushing yards per game vs. 52.6 in '18 and 31.9 in '19). Instead of bailing out of plays and scrambling when his first read is covered, he's trusting his passing and knowledge of the offense and waiting for routes to develop. His completion percentage has skyrocketed. In his first two seasons, he completed 52.8 and 58.8 percent of his passes. This season, he's at 69.3 percent.
Allen's ascendance this season has been one of the NFL's leading storylines, blending with storylines about athletic quarterbacks and the Buffalo Bills as a whole. After facing deserved criticism the last two years for his tendency to make big mistakes, Allen has changed minds. The NFL world now realizes he might actually be good, and his success on top of that of Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson fuels the ever-developing debate on what kind of college quarterback should go highest in the draft.
What do the scouts whose predraft assessments made Allen such a polarizing prospect—boom or bust—make of the wide respect he's receiving now and its influence on upcoming drafts? Are they surprised by his play this season, or did they really see this coming?
B/R talked with six NFL scouts who evaluated Allen for the 2018 draft. They all said they aren't surprised by his success—with some credit going to the Bills franchise itself. There was less agreement on what his improvement means for the next crop of college quarterbacks.
"He wasn't a run-first guy who out of nowhere just showed up [as a passer]," says one scout whose team drafted a quarterback that year. "He was always talented. He just needed some time in a new offense to feel comfortable. ... His confidence has grown in his arm and throwing ability, and he's making plays."
"I'm not surprised how he's playing," says an NFC executive. "I think his accuracy issues in college were similar to Matt Ryan's. [They] threw a lot of INTs because they played with inferior teammates, so they tried to do too much and win every game by themselves."
Another executive agrees it was realistic to think Allen could improve his accuracy with NFL talent to throw to. And the Bills got better in that area this season when they traded for Stefon Diggs in March, giving Allen a true No. 1 receiver.
After struggling to complete passes of 20-plus yards as a rookie (30 in 12 games, 29th in the league) and last year (47 in 16 games, 14th), he already has 22 through five games this season, fourth-best in the league and putting him on pace for 70 over 16 games. Pro Football Reference shows his "bad-pass percentage" decreasing from 25.7 to 20.3 to 12.5 over the three seasons.
Even his biggest haters, the football analytics crowd, have changed their tune and recognized his giant leap.
Two of the scouts pointed out that Allen needed to go through a maturation process, which he seems to have done since last season.
"There is an adage that you can't fix accuracy or throwing mechanics on QBs," says one West Coast area scout. "There are glaring examples that prove and disprove this theory, but overall, I'm more inclined to agree with the unfixable-throwing-mechanics part than with the accuracy part. With improvements in footwork, and greater calm in the pocket, accuracy can be improved."
In two seasons as the starter at Wyoming, Allen's completion percentages were 56.0 and 56.3 (albeit without the benefit of the popular collegiate spread offense that pads passing numbers with screen passes).
"Accuracy was his knock coming out, but he was a top-15 pick getting off the bus, too," says the West Coast scout, referring to Allen's physical build (6'5", 237 lbs.).
Allen's physical traits—rare arm strength, impressive size and an ability to run—meant that his less-than-impressive production in college wasn't a huge concern. His elite traits ensured he'd be a high draft pick and worth taking a chance on, similar to Mahomes and Jackson (also drafted because of athletic traits and not because they seemed most ready for an NFL-style offense).
In the 2018 draft, there were two "NFL-ready" QBs who bracketed Allen at No. 7: Sam Darnold at No. 3 and Josh Rosen at No. 10. With Mahomes, Jackson and Allen having proven better picks than Darnold and Rosen, are teams changing the way they think about drafting quarterbacks? Will the physical traits take precedent over college production and NFL "readiness?"
The scouts had mixed reviews on this question.
"I think it has [changed] already," says the scout whose team drafted a quarterback in Allen's year. "The true pocket passer is not desired truly. College offensive lines aren't taught to block like they did in the past with all of the spread offense and such, and you need to be able to move to be effective. There are exceptions, but [the pocket passer] is not ideal anymore I don't think."
"You have seen our league change," says the scout who recalled the Wyoming-Nebraska tape. "The league wouldn't want guys getting hit the way Lamar or Pat gets hit—or Josh. You would never want to do that 10 or 15 years ago, but there has been an evolution. It's working."
Two of the scouts said it's still a case-by-case scenario, and drafting based on athletic potential is not for every team. "A lot depends where a guy ends up, and what their vision is for him," says the West Coast scout.
Part of Allen's success this season is based on where he ended up. One scout gave credit to Buffalo for developing him and putting a plan in place around him. The Bills have kept their coaching staff stable. Head coach Sean McDermott and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll have been with Allen his entire career, and quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey is in his second season working with him.
Buffalo has injected a heavy dose of play-action passing this season. Allen has attempted the second-most passes off play-action in the league, behind only Rams quarterback Jared Goff. He thrives in play-action situations and leads the league with 726 yards on such attempts.
Of course, there's more progress yet to be made by Allen.
On Tuesday night, the Tennessee Titans outplayed the Bills in every phase of the game. Allen, the AFC's Offensive Player of the Month for September, was 26-of-41 for 263 yards and two touchdowns. He threw his second and third picks of the season.
The final pick was the first interception this season that was really a result of his own poor decision-making. (His first interception was a bad call by the officials, and on his second, the ball was deflected off a receiver's shoulder pads.) Allen was without his No. 2 receiver, John Brown, and the Bills offense struggled without him as an option.
Allen's penchant for turnovers may never be entirely fixed, but scouts think he will continue to trend in the direction of making more good decisions than bad.
"I don't think you are ever going to cure that from him," says the scout who recalled the Wyoming tape. "Is he going to be a pinpoint-placement accuracy guy all the time? No. But is he going to make enough throws to win games? Yes. This kid has fought the analytics people who want to evaluate just based on numbers."
The Bills have another nationally televised test ahead: Monday Night Football against the defending Super Bowl champs. Allen will need to bounce back from the Titans loss to get back into the MVP conversation and show he can sustain his improvement in 2020.
Kalyn Kahler covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow her on Twitter for NFL musings and thoughts: @KalynKahler.