Let's get this out of the way immediately - I am not writing this article in the hopes to convince anybody that Cody Kessler is an elite talent nor am I writing this because I believe (as we sit here today) that Cody Kessler is the answer to Cleveland's quarterback drought. I'm writing this because having watched none of his film leading into the draft, I was pleasantly surprised at what I did see each time I turned on new tape last week. And I'm writing this because Cody Kessler appears to have a decent skill set that we all hope can be further developed under coach Jackson's tutelage.
All that considered, I'd be lying if I told you that I didn't scratch my head after the pick. Rewind to that Friday, I had planned to go camping that weekend so by the time the 3rd round was underway I was busy unpacking, setting up camp and sitting on Makua beach with a cold refreshment looking out at the ocean for dolphins. When I heard my Browns app "bark" on my phone I realized I had missed some picks and needed to catch up. I walked over, checked my phone and delivered the following comment, dripping with sarcasm, to my buddy and fellow Cleveland fan: "Dude, we seriously just drafted USC QB - Cody Kessler in the 3rd round, our QB prayers have been answered!"
Needless to say, I was shocked at the pick. Kessler was a player I hadn't even considered for Cleveland. So after watching both of his 2014 games twice (at Draftbreakdown) I tweeted this video, along with a few others:
Just a few answers to the questions I got on Twitter:
Yes, this clip was vs. Colorado.
No, USC can't change the PAC-12 teams they play every season.
No, I wasn't focusing on the opponent.
Yes, I focused on the situational traits and decisions I demand from a starting NFL QB.
No, I wouldn't consider this series of throws elite, but I would say that it shows his ability to do some nice things and maintain his accuracy and eyes down the field.
Yes, "the struggle was real" - As I watched his game tape, I struggled to accept that what I was watching was somehow "good" or at the very least "intriguing". Nonetheless, in Kessler I feel that there's a "refined lump of clay" that needs to be further detailed and honed.
If you haven't read it already, The OBR's Hayden Grove wrote a 3 part series about Cody Kessler's path to Cleveland via USC. It's a must read - Part I | Part II | Part III - and a great look into who Cody is as a leader as well as his strong ties to Derek Carr:
"I kind of put my head down, kept my mouth shut and worked as hard as could," Kessler said. "I ended up becoming a three-year starter when I wasn’t supposed to."
"I remember (Pro Football Hall of Fame RB) Marcus Allen was a guy that came in and kind of looked me in the face and said, ‘I don’t care if you’re a sophomore or what year you are. This is your team. You’re the leader, and you’ve got to be a captain,’" Kessler said. "I took that and kind of ran with it."
Following that meeting, Kessler led USC to a 5-1 record and finished with 2,968 yards, 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions, earning his spot as USC’s starter for the next two seasons.
Overcoming adversity / Leadership - although never able to settle into one playbook or head coaching style among Lane Kiffin 2013, Steve Sarkisian 2014/15 and Clay Helton 2015 - still earned starting job all 3 years and team captains honors in 2014 and 2015
Target Improvement Areas
Deep ball accuracy
Delivery within the pocket
Operating under pressure
* Interesting metric-only note - Kessler's athletic comp shares a 70% match with Drew Brees *
You'll notice I didn't put velocity on this list even though it seems to be a popular belief that Kessler has a weak arm and that he struggles to push the ball down field. Kessler's arm can be described as an average NFL arm. In fact, his velocity - 55mph - is the exact same velocity as Russell Wilson and Joe Flacco, while Marcus Mariota and Cam Newton both threw 56mph. I'm not saying Kessler has similar skill sets as any of these aforementioned guys, what I'm saying is that his throwing velocity is in the same ballpark as some who have had NFL success driving the ball to all levels of the field.
Which begs the question: do QB's with more velocity necessarily have more success? Certainly, you'd like a QB who can push the ball down the field in a hurry and fit it into tight windows when needed, but for me, it's not a requirement. Here's an intriguing article from RotoViz (if you don't subscribe you may only get this one "free read") that attempts to explain if there is any correlation between arm strength and NFL success; not to mention our very own NotThatNoise wrote an excellent breakdown of the Myth of Quarterback Velocity.
Kessler vs. Wisconsin
1. On the first play of the game Kessler is under center, play action fakes to the RB, settles into his drop in a clean / big pocket, and scans the field. He stays up on his toes and kinda double pumps, then hits a 30yard throw to Schuster along the boundary. The route is defended well and the pass is broken up however it is delivered on target, in stride and in a place that only the WR can catch it. I like the placement of this throw.
2. 3rd Down - Shotgun formation / 10 Personnel - avoids the stunt / pressure from the B-Gap and the potential sack from fellow Browns rookie Joe Schobert by stepping up in the pocket, shaking off the jersey grab, staying squared with eyes up field and delivering an accurate pass for a first down.
3. Pistol formation / 21 personnel - This pass is very similar to the pass at the end of the game that nearly put USC in game winning field goal position (more to come on that later). This is one of those deep passes that you'd like to see Kessler throttle down about a 1/2 step. Perhaps an NFL receiver is able to haul this pass in, but the fact remains that this pass is just a tad ahead of where you'd like the ball and illustrates the accuracy struggles Kessler has downfield. He's throwing this ball from a clean pocket with no pressure, but ultimately, Schuster can't bring it in even with a diving effort, although it does hit his hands.
4. 3rd Down - Shotgun formation / 11 personnel - Wisconsin is going to rush 5 on this 3rd and short attempt. They're able to pinch the pocket and get pressure on Kessler from both sides which causes him to step up and then roll to his left. What I like is his ability to step up here, keeping his eyes down field while delivering a catchable ball, on target, along the sideline. The outcome is a drop, but Kessler's pocket presence and delivery on the run is nice.
5. Shotgun formation / 10 personnel - To me, this was a smart play from Kessler. It appears as though the play call is a bubble screen to the WR, but before Kessler can set and square up, he's starring at a LB coming through the A-gap pretty much untouched. While Kessler needs to improve his speed in the pocket, he's able to avoid the initial angle from the defender, stepping forward and protecting the ball (shifts his body between the ball and defender), and then fights to throw the ball away before he's sacked. In the NFL, he'll need to step up more quickly and won't have the luxury or ability to shrug off or hold off LB's who are clinging onto to him - doing so may 1) not be possible and 2) may leave him open to getting the ball stripped. That being said, the RB's first responsibility is the fake handoff, which pulls him across Kessler's face and leaving a clean lane to Kessler. That being said, in pass pro USC RB's were pretty bad overall this game, especially in the 2nd half.
6. 21 personnel / Under center - Here you see Kessler on play action, reaching the back of his drop and immediately climbing the pocket. Again, his footwork and speed will need to improve at the next level but his ability to step up with his eyes down field and deliver the ball all the way across the field to the come back route along the boundary, on target and on time, is on display here. Great throw.
7. 4th Down / Shotgun formation / 11 personnel - Kessler scans his first read on the right side to the WR motioned across the formation. He read the safety help over the top, man to man, then comes back across to the middle and takes what the defense gives him. He delivers a strike to the shallow cross on target and in stride to his RB who is ahead of his man in coverage and nearly on the first down yardage at the point of the catch. After the RB escapes the immediate poor tackling from Wisconsin, he's able to bust the big gain down the side line.
Here's the end zone view of the same play:
9. Pistol formation / 11 personnel - Next play, in the red-zone, Kessler fakes the handoff, and turns for the bootleg to the right side, his first read appears to be #38 coming across the formation into the flat, but he's blanketed well in coverage. Before Kessler can extend the bootleg, he has immediate pressure that he avoids while trying to buy time to find an open receiver. Nobody is open. The best part about this play is that he throws it away. He doesn't try to make a play that's not there, or force the ball, he regroups the offense for another attempt which on first down is a very smart play.
10. 3rd Down and Goal / appears to be 22 Personnel / Shotgun formation - Here we see Kessler getting the play in from the sideline late. It's great to see him communicating and getting his squad organized and the snap off before the play clock expires. This was an opportunity for Kessler to stand firm in the pocket and but he doesn't. He drops back in response to "phantom pressure" on the edge and tries to "buy more time" that's really not needed. Maybe it's him not feeling like he can drive the ball over the DL, or maybe it's just him reacting to pressure that was contained, but I want to see him stick in the pocket better here. Sure, on the back end he delivers a pass that's on target, albeit short of the end zone, but I'd like to see him stand in the pocket and process the play vs. moving back for no reason.
11. 4th and Goal - Goal-line personnel / under center - OK, so they were short on 3rd down but have decided to go for it vs. kicking the field goal. What I love in this play is the leadership from Kessler and the execution coming out of the huddle. You see the WR is already lined up wide, and Kessler gets his entire OL and the rest of the personnel group to the LOS very quickly (designed) and snaps the ball before the defense can make any calls or adjustment. This may not seem like much, but I like his poise and ability to execute this play on the goal line down 10 points. Basically, it's an intangible that's good to see because it's expected.
12. This was his worst throw of the game, and it may have been one of the only blatantly bad throws / decisions I saw. While his WR didn't help his completion percentage with drops, I am not sure if he was just quickly moving through his progressions and missed the defense, or if it just took too much time, or if he was waiting for a throwing window that had already passed, but whatever he saw, this was a bad decision and a bad throw to make, especially since he's so late to release the ball.
13. Pistol Formation / 12 personnel - Here's your 40yd bucket throw, across the field, along the sidelines for the big gain on first down. Kessler stands in the pocket and delivers early / in rhythm and on target with pressure barreling down on him from the blindside.
14. 2nd and 11 / Shotgun formation / 12 Personnel - Great way for Kessler to start the 4th quarter. Gets to the back of his 3 step drop (from shotgun) and moves off his first read and comes back to the left side of the field. At this point he's feeling pressure and climb up then out of the pocket to avoid pressure (his eyes are still up field, scanning the defense) delivering a strike while on the move (to his left) through the defense for a first down. Great play here from Kessler.
15. 3rd and 1 - 11 Personnel / Under center - Nothing major here, just the willingness to run the "QB keep" and eek out the first down while protecting the ball. This is a very "NFL QB" type of play, diving if / when needed in short yardage situation. This will never be something he excels at or that we would rely on, but seeing it executed is something you have to credit him for, regardless of how simple it is.
16. 11 Personnel / Shotgun formation - Kessler settles nicely and smoothly into his 3 step quick drop, sets his feet and see his first read while simultaneously recognizing the MLB has flowed across the formation, unblocked, and is stepping up to close on him. Kessler scrambles outside the pocket to his right, using a stiff arm to narrowly escape the sack, then quickly re-sets and throws off his back foot 25 yards upfield along the boundary. The pass is a good 4 or 5 yards short, causing the WR to stop hi route and bend down and dive to complete the catch. The under throw left a wide open 30 yard YAC TD run on the field. I'll gladly take the first down completion and the 25 yard play, but I'd much rather have the better throw and the TD on Sundays, especially if the WR is wide open.
17. 3rd and 4 / 11 personnel / shotgun formation - Kessler grabs the snap and before he can even reach the back of his 3 step drop, looks off his first read to the right and back to the middle / left side of the field. Nothing is there either and the pocket is pinching but not necessarily breaking down. Kessler probably makes the right call to roll out to the right to avoid the collapsing pocket. On the move, Kessler delivers a strike to the boundary for a first down.
18. 3rd and 4 / Red Zone / Shotgun formation / 12 personnel - Kessler takes the snap and rolls right on a designed play. His initial read to the roll side is covered, and so with no pressure and good OL play, he's able to set his feet and scan back across the field to the corner route, which is covered. Kessler re-sets and reads the other half of the field again, everyone is still covered. He's able to wait and step up again due to good blocking and no pressure, which allows him to step up and deliver an on target pass for the TD to the WR. The pass is definitely high, but catchable.
Here's the all-22 replay view from the live broadcast:
20. 2nd and 14 / Pistol formation / 21 personnel - 3 step drop here, feet set and squared up in the pocket. The first read is the boundary throw and it appears he never comes off that read. The throw is into tight coverage but is ahead of the WR to where only he would be able to make the catch. I think the ball is catchable, and is placed well given the coverage, but it's still not an easy catch to make. Again, here is an example of deep ball accuracy and / or the chemistry with his WR leaving much to be desired.
21. 2nd and 4 / Shotgun formation / 10 personnel - Here we see time starting to tick down in the 4th quarter. This is a designed play for Kessler to catch the snap, set, pivot and throw the slant. And he does. The problem I have with this (regardless of the result) is that I'd like to see a bit of a quicker release as that window at the next level is gonna shrink a lot faster then it did on this play here. Nonetheless, first down!
22. 1st and 10 / 1:51 left / Shotgun formation / 10 personnel - Here we see a combination of "oh shit" moments. First the C gets blown up and left behind as #48 (who by the way had 3 sacks on three consecutive plays earlier in the half) fly passed him and the RB, to get a straight line at Kessler. At this point in his drop, Kessler's feet are set, with his eyes up field still. Luckily the LB's angle is too steep, and he passes Kessler who still needs to step up in the pocket, and does. Forcing him to climb, throw on the move and then jump over his C still laying on the ground. The result is an interception due to pressure and what appears to be a tipped pass. You can't expect Kessler to make up for poor blocking like this with his athleticism at the next level, but he manages to keep the play alive and keep his eyes up field. My guess is that if the pass wasn't tipped, it's probably not an INT, but a catch along the sideline.
23. Next possession, 1st and 10 / Shotgun formation / 10 personnel - Wisconsin rushes 4, dropping two LB in coverage with the weak side safety over the top. The WR who catches the ball comes from the slot at the bottom of the screen, and runs a deep route, perhaps a post or out route. Kessler is able to quickly set his feet after a 3 step drop from the snap, and deliver a strike across the field to the boundary for the first down. He avoids the pressure from the A-gap and the edge with his quick decision here. Most importantly, the throw is on target and in stride, allowing the WR to get out of bounds to stop the clock.
24. 1st and 10, 35 seconds left / Shotgun formation / 10 personnel - Kessler have a quick, 3 step drop from the snap, sets his feet and quickly delivers on an target pass across the field to the boundary for a first down. Move the chains and stops the clock.
25. 2nd and 10, 25 seconds left / Shotgun formation / 10 personnel - another quick 3 step drop, Kessler waits for the 10 yard out route to develop and then delivers the ball across his body to a location where only his WR can catch it, especially given the coverage is so tight. I believe this ball was caught for the first down.
26. 2nd and 10 following the replay / Shotgun formation / 10 personnel - Wisconsin rushes 5, including #48 who again is free up the middle. Kessler is able to shift to avoid him but has to throw the ball away to avoid the sack. And because he's still inside the tackle-box, Kessler's throw to the sideline is still within range of the WR, but safely high and out of bounds. I'll take that type of a smart play under pressure.
27. 3rd and 10, closing seconds / 10 Personnel / Shotgun formation - This is the play. Kessler gets the play call in from the sideline, communicates the call and the keys to his WR and OL, then hurries the snap as he knows where he wants to go with the ball immediately due to safety location. The throw is right on the money, across the field, 30 yards - in and out of the hands of Smith along the boundary. I think a more seasoned NFL WR is able to run under this pass and get out of bounds. As much love as Smith gets, he's reminds me of Will Fuller with this drop.
It's pretty clear from this view below that this was a drop. In and out of the hands of Smith. This is a must catch. Assuming USC can beat the line crew down field, they had 5 - 7 seconds to spike the ball and stop the clock.
28. 4th down, 7 seconds / shotgun formation / 10 personnel - SO the big question here is WHAT was the play call. But regardless of what it was, this is just a bad pass. IF the play call was an out-route to the first down marker to try to get into FG position with 2 or 3 seconds left, then it was a terrible throw, not even getting to the first down marker, which on 4th down is imperative. IF the play call is a hail-mary, which is more than likely, then Kessler electing to not throw it up and go for the out route and not give his team a shot to win is a concerning decision. Either way, it's a bad play and poor choice from Kessler. Even if the probabilities are slim, you gotta give your team a chance to win - either for for the 10 yard stick throw or toss the hail-mary.
I think Kessler put his team in the position to win this game, but they didn't pull through. Ultimately though, the decision on the last play is something every team can do without, especially with the game on the line. When looking at the entire scope of work in this game, there are some intriguing qualities and throws that we see from Kessler, but work will be needed to improve his confidence to operate from within the pocket. What I see when I look at Kessler is a carbon copy of Andy Dalton both physically as well as mentally.
Listen, we all want him to be a "diamond in the rough" QB for us and we're all cheering for him to become more than a back-up, if he's to succeed I believe he needs time to develop and improve. My hope and expectation for him over the next year can't be said better than this:
On the plus side, Cody Kessler has ginormous hands. 10 7/8".