Draft season is all about making difficult decisions.
Kyler Murray had to make one of those this year, choosing between two sports. Now, a couple of months later, NFL teams will be having to choose between him and other star prospects in the draft he chose to enter, despite the much-discussed opportunity he had to enter the MLB instead. I don’t want this to be the drive of this article, so I thought I’d address it early, and then focus on the sport that he chose, and a sport he’s pretty damn good at.
There is something special about the Oklahoma QB. It becomes more and more common to see dual-threat speedsters entering the draft, but it also becomes less important (arguably) how well they throw the ball. People love speed, it’s overpowered in Madden, and it’s overpowered in college – but it isn’t overpowered in the NFL. When these elite running QBs rock up on Monday Night Football and expect to escape the pocket for some cheeky extra yards, they soon realise that the best players on the planet are faster and smarter than what they have faced before.
People seem to love player comparisons, and there is usually one standout which is agreed on. The common one for Murray seems to be Russell Wilson. This is definitely a fair assessment, due to his impressive mobility and concentration when extending plays. When you watch him for the first time, the thing you’ll immediately notice is his sheer speed, which he can utterly abuse opposition defenses with. It should be made clear though that he isn’t just a rushing QB, though. When he gets moving, he isn’t a tuck it and drop his head kind of runner. Like Wilson, he keeps his eyes down field, and decides whether he should throw or scramble, whilst escaping the pocket. This opens up for success either way; he’s able to rush as well as anyone, so that option is always there, but then he is also very good at throwing the ball whilst on the move. If the defenders all rush down to try and stop his scramble, he’ll drop the ball over their head to an open receiver. Being able to present a dual threat is good, but presenting a dual threat at literally every moment you are behind the line of scrimmage is where you can do some damage. Until he is legally not allowed to throw the ball forward, he will be ready to sling it.
This playmaking talent can cause trouble too, however. Last year I accused Saquon Barkley of being a player who will go for the hero-play and run three yards backwards for the chance to get fifty, when he could have taken two or three. We all saw how good Barkley is, and he genuinely can break a 50-yard rush at any moment, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Kyler Murray is like the QB equivalent of Saquon; he has a level of talent worthy of that comparison, but he also goes for the hero play. If you draft Kyler Murray, you have to like the talent enough to accept the simple fact that sometimes you’ll find yourself on 2nd and 20 or 3rd and 25. If you don’t mind that, and you’ll take it as collateral for the rushing yardage and the plays which he creates out of nothing, then he’s your guy.
Before I carry on talking about how good he is, it should be mentioned where his talent has placed him in the grand scheme of the 2019 NFL Draft. There are endless mocks popping up with him going at the #1 pick, owned by the Arizona Cardinals, for a start, and even failing that, Murray probably won’t make it past the fourth overall pick – this naturally changes the way in which we need to evaluate him. He isn’t a prospect you’re picking up for later, I’d even argue it would be wasteful to treat him that way. If you draft a QB in the first five picks of a draft, you want him to be your franchise guy, and you want him to be it now.
The Cardinals wouldn’t be a bad landing-spot for Kyler Murray, by any means, however it should be noted that Josh Rosen was branded ‘the most NFL-ready QB in the draft’ last year and he is now being shopped, so it is even more important for Murray to be ready straight away. The second team I could see him going to is the New York Giants. This would really annoy me, because drafting him one month after trading Odell Beckham Jr. would be such a Dave Gettleman thing to do, I don’t even think Dave Gettleman should do it. My point stands, though. In this analysis, I am evaluating him for what he can do now, what he needs to improve on, and realistically how soon those things could be fixed.
First-things first then, the one thing that you can’t coach: his body and his athleticism. Murray measured in at 5’10 at the Combine, and weighed in at 207 lbs, although that’s all he did there. That frame is bigger than people gave him credit for, and although we didn’t get to see an official 40 time, he is fast enough that we don’t need to. His athleticism is visible on tape, and you don’t have to take the other 21 players out of the equation to see it on show. This athleticism causes the first set of issues that the defense will have to deal with, his scrambling, extending plays and rushing for a first-down when you thought your coverage had stopped him. And once you get over the physical ability, you realise that his technique is just as terrifying.
With consistent and reliable mechanics, he throws the ball well and accurately, with underrated arm strength when required. He is significantly better when throwing the ball hard and zipping it in there, but there is some touch when he needs it. Murray’s best throws tend to come in between the numbers, however he is more than capable of putting it from the hash to the opposite sideline if it’s needed. One improvement that I really do hope to see is his anticipation when throwing. Sometimes he waits too long for the receiver to make it clear exactly where the ball needs to go, but it’ll be too late by then in the NFL. You throw the ball where it needs to be and trust your teammate to make it there before the ball (and the defender) does. As I have already mentioned, his accuracy and consistency don’t really fall off when he is on the run. However, he definitely does sometimes miss easy throws, even with a perfectly set base. No prospect is perfect, and sometimes it’s worth missing one or two easy plays for the ability to make ones you don’t expect him to. Something I have noticed is that the vast majority of these throws he misses are too high. This doesn’t necessarily mean anything about him as a player, but he is prone to this when there is pressure coming. My assumption is that when he shortens up his throwing motion to get the ball out faster, he just doesn’t quite get over the top of his throw as much – this is very coachable.
When you notice subtle things like this it can only be a good thing. It’s not a case of ‘Kyler Murray isn’t good at…’ or ‘he just can’t…’ but there are just more nuanced things that you have to really look for, that he could be better at – and there are some equally difficult to spot things he does well.
Something that goes unmentioned sometimes is Murray’s intelligence. The young signal-caller is smart, and often he makes plays that prove it in ways so simple that a casual viewer won’t realise how good they are. Against Kansas State, there was a play where his RB was in pass protection after a play-action fake and was helping out the left tackle. Murray had no reads downfield, and so he directed the back to disengage from the block. As the running back moved out into space, Murray threw him the ball for what turned into an 11-yard gain, literally out of nothing. It doesn’t seem like much when you see a play like this, but it demonstrated his awareness and concentration that he has in a unique and memorable way. As I said before, this isn’t something you would even realise at a first glance – you might even think the play was designed this way, but it simply wasn’t. Murray is a genuine master of improvisation.
That improvisation is a combination of quick thinking, calmness under pressure, and, often, a clear knowledge of what he is good at. I saw multiple plays whilst watching his tape where Murray either fumbled the ball or had it forced out of his hands, but he picked it up, didn’t panic and converted for a first down. Murray doesn’t throw himself into trouble by trying to pick up a dangerous ball, but he stays calm and if he thinks it’s possible that he could make a play, he’ll probably make it. His awareness of danger is one thing that some QBs lack. Any GM who’s scouting Oklahoma’s star will be very happy to see that he slides a lot. Once he has the yardage he wants, he is very effective in sliding [insert unnecessary baseball comment] to protect himself from any big hits, or sometimes step out of bounds if that is easier. Nobody wants their quarterback to be injured, and so knowing that he is so athletic is one thing, but it’s another thing to trust him to look out for himself once he’s reached the first down marker.
(I say no one wants an injured QB, but I do realise he may end up drafted to the same team who’s paying Sam Bradford’s salary, so who knows.)
Another less obvious strength is his work from play action. The power of running PA with Murray is that even once you’ve faked the run, you still have that option for him to scramble, which keeps the pressure on the front seven even when they realise it isn’t going to the RB. Most of the time, when you realise that it’s a play action fake, you can immediately bail back to coverage – to avoid leaving space behind them (the purpose of using PA in the first place). If the defense do that, however, Murray will simply run, if they don’t, he’ll dump it over their head to whoever has snuck open. I also noticed that he actually really likes throwing to his FB, especially on these play action plays. This is obviously schematic, but proves that he is more than comfortable at getting the ball to whoever is open.
I’ve made it clear by now, I think Murray is a brilliant player. This is by no means an easy QB to pick up and plug in, though. There are some things that really will need some work, and whoever is coaching him will need to focus on a few weaknesses. Murray’s footwork as a whole is good, but he has a bad habit of throwing off his back foot. This usually happens when he gets either too excited to throw the ball, or is worried by pressure, he will let it loose from a bad platform and often he will to underthrow his target. He only does it occasionally – and not always unsuccessfully, I should emphasise – but it always looks slower and less accurate out of his hand. Every time he does it, I feel like I’m about to see an interception, this will be even scarier when the defenses are so much better this coming season.
Murray also needs to work on his pre-snap reads, to become more consistent in pre-emptively working out what route will be open if the defense doesn’t switch it up on him. In the NFL, especially, these reads will take a lot of pressure off him after the snap. One play at Iowa State, in particular, disappointed me. Iowa’s defense is showing the most obvious man coverage you will see in your life, with a 3-3 Nickel look, against Oklahoma’s five-wide package from the seven-yard-line. This offensive formation would usually be telling that they have to pass, but because of Kyler Murray’s running ability, it isn’t that simple. The playcall from Iowa on defense is exactly what I’d expect before the snap (and therefore what Murray should expect) – man coverage on the five receivers, with one QB spy, one blitzer, and one hook zone/robber coverage depending on the preference of the coach. That translates, in English, to: Man outside, two people inside just watching the QB, and a four-man rush. To Murray’s right side, he has a switch concept, a corner route from the slot, and a shortened-up sluggo route from the widest man (his eventual target on the play). To the left side – where Murray doesn’t even look, I should add – we have the 3 receiver (nearest to middle) running a bubble route, the 2 running a slant, and the 1 on the outside running off an unlikely goal-line fade. There is a touchdown on this play if you make the right read. Play along at home. Who’s going to get open? Before the snap, you have off-man coverage with a couple of extra bodies in the middle of the field. Both of the high safeties are in man, the one to the right is heads up over 2, and the one on the left has an inside-shade of 3, both six-yards off.
Time’s up. (Both for people playing at home, and also for Kyler Murray who has got two seconds left on the play clock and is about to throw an incompletion).
And the winner is… well, should have been, the bubble route.
The goal-line-fade outside occupies the corner, the slant from the 2 receiver takes his defender with him, and creates a natural rub, over which the safety who is in man coverage on the bubble route has to scrape with even more depth than he already had. At the moment Murray set his feet with the ball – with his eyes firmly set on the right side of the field – the bubble route is open, with two defensive backs running away from it on their own man-assignments, and the safety who is tasked with stopping it is now seven-yards off of the line of scrimmage, and still inside the hash marks, avoiding a rub. This should be a TD all day long.
I’m not trying to look smart, and I’m not trying to make Kyler Murray look stupid, but this play is a demonstration of where the pre-snap read showed him everything he needed to know. They ran exactly what it looked like they would, and the play-design worked brilliantly to get somebody open against that look, but he missed it, and then threw the ball too high [told you], then got drilled by the linebacker he should have seen was blitzing (to be fair, the left tackle played this rep with the patience and intelligence of a toddler, and it should have been picked up, but it shouldn’t have mattered).
I knew I was good, but damn. On the next play, guess the playcall. They line up in the same formation again. They tell the 1 and 2 receivers to block, and they throw the bubble. Touchdown.
Told ya so.
It’s really not great that Murray missed a read that was so open that his coordinator immediately told him to do the same thing again, but actually throw it to the right guy. What’s so frustrating when he misses pre-snap reads is that in the NFL they won’t give him that look again – or if they do, they’ll do it on purpose, then do something completely different after the snap.
If in a few years we have a Kyler Murray with the athleticism he has, the arm talent he has, and a well-coached and mentored understanding of NFL defenses, with better reads before and after the snap, he could be a truly elite dual-threat QB. Think Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson levels of playmaker.
There are some plays where Murray just straight up doesn’t see something post-snap, but these are rarer. Without going into the level of detail I did on the last play, there was one throw early against Texas where he threw an absolutely awful interception straight down the throat of Brandon Jones at free safety. The defense was in an unapologetically obvious Cover 1, and Jones was stood literally 25 yards off the ball (it was 2nd and 23), and Murray threw the ball at him as if he didn’t even see him. The coverage should have been so obvious, but if anything, that made the Oklahoma quarterback so comfortable that he just forgot the single-high defender was there, it was frankly embarrassing. In the NFL it’s inexcusable to not know exactly where all 11 defenders are at all times, simple as that. Honestly, if you can’t read and consistently establish where weaknesses are against a defense which is so basic and telegraphs itself pre-snap, you’re going to have a hell of a time trying to decipher the intentional misdirection and post-snap rotations of the NFL, it could get ugly.
One thing which I think will be a gift and a curse stems from the coaching he received at Oklahoma. Lincoln Riley is a very good coach, and the playcalling was often instrumental in giving Murray easy reads. The key, from what I have seen, though, seems to be that Riley is incredibly successful when seeing what the defense did on the previous play, and then combatting it – as I explained earlier when his QB didn’t see the right read. When Murray missed it, he just called a play to beat the same coverage and it worked perfectly (because they got the same look). This happened on many occasions and was really helpful for a young player who can have a second chance to execute, once their HC spotted something. This won’t happen in the NFL, though. This ‘get out of jail free card’ won’t work when the defensive coordinator is switching up the coverage every single play, showing you one thing and then moving out of it. There won’t be any mulligans in the big leagues, and Kyler Murray needs to become more consistent in making his reads in real-time and exposing the weaknesses as they happen. NFL coaching will definitely help this, and I imagine that most coaches will be prepared to key him in on what he’s looking for and what he needs to be prepared for when he’s game-planning for the next weekend. The simple thing is this: An NFL franchise quarterback needs to recognise and expose weaknesses or mistakes when they happen, because they won’t happen often, especially not in back-to-back plays.
One thing is for sure: no matter where Murray goes, he has truly elite upside and the potential to absolutely dominate. He is worthy of Lamar Jackson-level hype, but with better passing on top. If he lives up to the Russell Wilson comparisons, a team will be very lucky to have him, and – as long as his coaching is patient and not too short-sighted – he should undoubtedly be a franchise QB.
I expect him to go to the Arizona Cardinals with the #1 pick, but for the sake of considering potential landing spots, he would also be a great asset at the Giants or the Raiders. Whoever gets him, I can’t wait to see him on the biggest stage.
Spend up on him, take Murray at the first chance you get, and if he strikes out, there’s always next year.