This post continues our series analyzing pundit takes on Carolina Gamecocks who are set to be taken in this year's NFL Draft.
Today we're talking about Connor Shaw. Shaw recently spoke with the St. Louis Rams, who may be interested in taking a sleeper quarterback in the later rounds. The Rams aren't looking for an immediate replacement for Sam Bradford, who has been effective when not injured, but they may want to stockpile talented quarterbacks in the event they choose to unload Bradford's contract in coming years.
Let's see what Nolan Nowrocki of NFL.com had to say about Shaw. Shaw is rated as the sixteenth-best QB in the draft by Nowrocki, who gave Shaw a grade of five. For comparison's sake, Blake Bortles is Nowrocki's top QB with a grade of 6.22.
1. "Fine touch and accuracy."
Definitely agree. For just one example, watch Shaw place this fade route to Shaq Roland in just the right spot, at just the right time, and with just enough air under the ball.
2. "has make-it qualities that could eventually surprise."
This is another correct assessment. I'm about to look at the negative assessments, but what you have to remember with Shaw is that he worked his butt off throughout his career and made discernible improvement every season. He eventually evolved from a fairly one-dimensional running quarterback to a dynamic field general who could do it all. There are some elements of his game, such as his durability and arm strength, that may never quite meet NFL standards. In those areas, it's hard to improve on one's God-given attributes. However, for the parts of his game that he can improve on, such as his understanding of scheme, I wouldn't bet against his ability to do so. It's rare to see someone improve over time as a football player as consistently and thoroughly as Connor Shaw did during his college career.
3. "Played in a non-traditional, gimmicky offense featuring many simple reads and has a tendency to birddog his primary target...played in a high-percentage, dink-and-dunk passing game that has not translated well to the pros."
Who said there's nothing new under the sun? This is definitely the first time I've read Steve Spurrier's offense referred to as exhibiting "simple reads" and being a "high-percentage, dink-and-dunk" scheme. Nowrocki is right that Shaw's high percentage partly reflects his tendency to take the high-percentage pass, but he's wrong about why. The issue wasn't that Carolina was running the Air Raid but rather that Shaw often took the check down to the tailback or tight end instead of pushing the ball down field. The truth is that Spurrier's passing scheme is fairly elaborate and requires challenging reads and most of all excellent timing, much like the typical pro-style offense. Did Shaw always thrive in maximizing production in the passing game? No, particularly not in his first two years. However, he's been working in a NFL-like passing offense his entire college career, and if he continues to make progress in trusting his understanding of the scheme and in his arm to make the throws, he can continue to improve his production passing the ball, just as he did in 2013.
If you're curious about how Spurrier's scheme translates to the NFL, you should read this Chris Brown article on the subject. Since the article was published, Spurrier has updated his scheme to incorporate more shotgun and read-option concepts, but his traditional down-field passing routes remain part of the scheme and thus part of Shaw's experience base. If anything, what Shaw would have to adapt to in the NFL wouldn't be no longer passing in a "high-percentage, dink-and-dunk passing game" but rather having to spend more time under center as opposed to in the shotgun.
4. "Average arm strength -- does not generate velocity on the move and comes up short on the deep ball."
This comment--particularly the part about velocity--is fair. Shaw's velocity on intermediate passes that need to be zipped into tight holes was one of the parts of his game that was lacking. One illustration that jumps to mind is the pass intended for Bruce Ellington at the 44 minute mark in this footage of the 2012 Vandy game. Ellington produced excellent separation, and with a little more zip on the ball, this is an easy touchdown, one that might have made this game a bit more comfortable to watch than it ended up being. Shaw doesn't get the right velocity on the throw, though, and the Vandy CB bats down the pass.
Shaw's distance on deep balls isn't as bad as Nowrocki suggests, but the ability to throw long over the top of the defense doesn't always indicate the ability to put velocity on intermediate throws.
In his defense, Shaw's velocity did seem to improve in 2013 after a productive year in the weight room. The 2013 Vandy game featured some excellent intermediate passes of the sort Shaw would have either underthrown or simply chosen not to try altogether in previous years. That said, Shaw is never going to be elite in this category.
5. "Can be too jittery vs. pressure and quick to tuck and run."
This assessment is true, but only to an extent. Shaw certainly showed a tendency not to trust his arm to fit the ball into tight windows. He too often failed to get the ball out when he should have and instead took off running at the first approach of pressure. Oftentimes, he was able to negate the consequences of this strategy by picking up decent chunks of yardage with his feet, but against faster defenses, those yards on the edge were harder to come by. I think of the 2012 Florida game as one where Shaw's tuck-and-run approach cost us; Shaw failed to get the ball out when we had open receivers at times during the game, and he wasn't able to earn yardage on his feet against Florida's elite defense.
Like many of his flaws, though, this is one that Shaw got better at over the course of his career. In 2013, Shaw only rarely had those moments where you were cursing him for not getting the ball out. He had several very impressive games in which he shed the "running QB" moniker and did his best work with his arm, culminating in a 300+-yard passing performance against Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl. I wouldn't bet against his ability to keep improving in the NFL, given his penchant for being coachable and learning from mistakes.