After the dazzling first season success of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin and Russell Wilson, many people have come to expect far more from rookie signal callers than they once did. As such, it may come as a surprise when it seems almost certain that in the wake of Kansas City trading for Alex Smith, the first overall pick will be used on a position other than the most important on the field, something that has happened just twice in twelve years. Dan Tiller breaks down the game of arguably the best quarterback entering the 2013 draft – Eugene “Geno” Smith of the West Virginia Mountaineers.
When Geno is on form, his short and intermediate accuracy is a joy to behold. His rhythm with very talented receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey shines through, as he seems to place it exactly where they need to carry on running without breaking stride, time after time, as well as putting it out of reach of defenders to throw his receivers open. He can fit it into small windows, weigh it up perfectly, and tear defences apart by dinking it downfield. However, when he’s not on form, while not a major issue, it would be too flattering to pretend he’s faultless. His talent is still clear to see, but if he can’t find his rhythm, he may be accused of trying too hard and neglecting touch for the sake of rifling it in, which in short passes doesn’t give the receiver an easy job, as the ball can bounce off the hands far too hard for a soft catch.
If you watch any Geno Smith highlight reel, you’ll see a number of jawdropping deep bombs dropping straight into a receiver’s hands. You don’t need to see full tape to realise that Geno can flash hyper-accurate deep passes, but just like with his short accuracy, there are days when he just doesn’t get going. While it’s uncommon to see wildly erratic balls come out of his hands, there are days where he makes it just too difficult for a receiver, or sometimes just too easy for a defender. The main reason for this is a tendency to float the deep ball just a little too much, with little zip on it, meaning it either gets caught in the wind and is deviated from its path, or it gives defenders time to stick to their guys and make a play on the ball.
I’ve seen several people praise Geno’s arm strength to the high heavens, but I’m not convinced that’s entirely accurate. In a strictly “intrinsic ability” sense, Geno’s arm strength is very impressive, but it isn’t at the level of the likes of Joe Flacco and Robert Griffin just yet. This appears to mainly be a question of mechanics – often when going downfield and particularly from outside the pocket, Geno’s footwork is at times sloppy, meaning his body positioning isn’t perfect and his hurl downfield is made on arm strength alone, without much help from proper body position. While the power he gets considering this is impressive, it leads to a lack of tight spiral on some balls, and in particularly windy conditions this can lead to inaccurate deep balls. I’m sure any decent NFL coach will help his mechanics to harness his natural arm strength, but as of now, it remains to be seen.
In the combine, Geno’s 40 time was far better than expected at 4.59, level with Cam Newton and only slightly behind Russell Wilson. His size is definitely not a problem – while Wilson and Drew Brees are doing their best to show height doesn’t matter, Geno’s 6’2”, while slightly under what scouts would ideally prefer, will throw up no problems at all, and while his weight of 218 may also be slightly under perfect, it wouldn’t take long on an NFL-standard fitness program to optimise – at any rate, he’s strong enough to survive big hits at his current weight. None of his body measurements threw up any real red flags. His vertical jump was among the best in his class – though essentially irrelevant – and his broad jump was a very impressive 10’4”, however this serves little purpose unless his playbook involves jumping forward from a standing start.
Smith’s pocket presence is one of my favourite parts of his game. He seems to have a natural ability to sense pressure and can move out of the way of sacks instinctively, avoiding the habit players like Blaine Gabbert develop of staring into the faces of onrushing defenders. Though he’s not particularly heavy, his strong body and good balance allows him to fight out of some would-be sacks to get the play off. He also maintains a good height inside the pocket to get plays over the top when pressure comes up the middle.
A lot of the time, Geno can be seen operating the Ben Roethlisberger tactic of move to throw, rather than move to run, but that’s not to say he doesn’t ever take off. If he sees the opportunity for an easy first down, he’ll more often than not go for it, and he does have ability while carrying the ball – by no means the explosive playmaking ability of Robert Griffin or Colin Kaepernick (Geno’s longest career carry is just 29 yards), but a very sufficient level of athleticism that the “modern quarterback” allegedly needs.
Smith has a lot of work to do on his decision making, as despite the occasional game where he doesn’t put a foot wrong, his wild inconsistency shows that he’s not yet got the top notch processor that the best quarterbacks do. Geno knows how to make reads – you regularly see his head flicking between his players checking them off – but it’s instead deciding when to make the pass or who to. His rhythm and comfort with studs Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, while often a blessing, can also lead to confident complacency as he trusts his receivers to get open a little bit too much, which can lead to holding onto the ball for too long and inviting himself into sacks. He seems at times, too keen to go for the deep ball, chucking it into coverage rather than dumping it off. His third down awareness is also sometimes questionable, with a few ill-advised screens to people short of the marker. Despite this, his willingness to make reads shows there’s NFL-level potential there, but when he gets rattled, his decision making becomes erratic and unreliable.
Geno’s raw numbers are astonishing. In 2012, he completed over 71% of his passes for 4,300 yards, 42 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. I don’t need to point out how astonishing that is. 2011 was similarly impressive on 65% passing with 31 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Clearly, production on the college level isn’t an issue for Smith, but a relatively simple scheme providing a lot of screens, and benefiting from brilliant receivers, means you need to take them with a pinch of salt, as you do with every college player.
Geno draws rave reviews from some for being a keen watcher of his own film – a tired compliment that applies to every QB in the draft, but still avoids a major red flag on his work ethic. He does, however, appear to show all the signs of a born leader. While he gets visibly upset on the sideline, this turns into passion rather than petulance – this just needs to be harnessed better to avoid desperation when it comes to making plays. With no character issues to date, and no legal problems, there seems to be little that NFL scouts would be terrified of with him.
All in all, I like Geno. He has a lot of issues to work on, mainly around the mental side of the game – the tools are there – arm strength, timing, accuracy, which are all tainted by his dramatic inconsistency. While his performance against Baylor (45-51 656 yards 8 TD 0 INT) was astonishing, he turned around a couple of weeks later with a nightmare against Kansas State (21-32 143 yards 1 TD 2 INT). If he can ensure that he retains his composure despite struggling performances, then Geno will surely have a very successful career. As it is, I think Geno’s talent is deserving of a top 10 draft pick, if not the #1 pick overall. While he certainly isn’t as good going into the draft as Luck and Griffin were, this shouldn’t be taken to mean he’s terrible. It’s quite unlikely he’ll end up the saviour of a franchise, but I’d place my bets on him being a very solid performer for years to come.