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Draft prospects from spread offenses face bigger adjustment

April 16, 2015

The spread offense doesn’t just cause problems for college defensive coordinators. It also messes with people who evaluate draft prospects.

Back in the late 1990s, when Phil Savage was the Baltimore Ravens’ director of college scouting, he and other talent evaluators would give a cursory look at prospects from schools using what then was the emerging spread offense.

“You’d shrug your shoulders, move on and say, ‘Hey, we can find players coming out of more pro-like systems — unless the player was an exceptional talent,’ ” Savage said.

Nowadays, there’s more tolerance in the pros for the spread, which of course, has proliferated in college football. Some NFL teams show spread tendencies. But the pro-style offense still rules.

“My theory was that the spread game would have some far-reaching effects on the evaluation of personnel,” said Savage, now the executive director of the Senior Bowl. “It really is a lot more tedious now than ever before.”

In the spread, four or even five receivers are lined up across the field, with the quarterback taking snaps out of the shotgun and throwing quick passes. There’s one running back or tight end in the typical formation. The zone-read option is a common running play, with the quarterback deciding to hand off or keep the ball depending on how the defensive end reacts. Plays are signaled in from the sideline as the offense lines up.

The pro-style offense puts two or three wide receivers and one or two tight ends on the field. One or two running backs line up behind the quarterback in the base alignment. The QB takes the snap from under center or in the shotgun, and a huddle is most often used.

“Same sport. Different game,” Savage said.

Spread quarterbacks moving to the NFL must learn to pass from the pocket. If working from under center, that requires them to look at the entire field while dropping back five or seven steps. The QB must more deeply analyze, or read, what the defense is doing before deciding where the ball should go.

In the spread, the quarterback’s reads are simpler because he gets the ball out quickly or throws on the run. He might only read a half or quarter of the field.

“A lot of times, the quarterbacks at Auburn or Oregon never takes a snap under the center, and they never call a play (in the huddle),” NFL Media senior analyst Gil Brandt said. “As trivial as that seems, it’s like (2001 Nebraska Heisman Trophy winner) Eric Crouch going from an option offense to the National Football League. It’s pretty hard to do.”

Halfbacks must adjust to running behind a fullback and understand how to navigate through more complicated blocking schemes. They also must run through more contact and congestion, and they’re required to be more proficient at pass protection, especially against the blitz.

Tight ends in the spread are akin to slot receivers, and they often run flowing routes to the post or corner. In the NFL, a tight end must be a rugged blocker and run more precise patterns, with significant responsibilities over the middle.

Wide receivers in the spread pad their statistics with yards after catch in the open field on quick passes and screens. As with tight ends, precision means everything in the NFL. If a play calls for a receiver to run a 9-yard out, he can’t cut it off at 8 yards or go 10; he must be in sync with the quarterback’s timed passes.

An offensive lineman who works exclusively from a two-point stance in the spread must adjust to a three-point stance for drive blocking in the NFL. He also will be required to pull more, or leave his position, to provide extra blocking on power runs. Instead of using slide pass protection, a type that has all five linemen working as a unit, a lineman must be adept at one-on-one pass blocking, too.

That said, many players successfully transition to the pro-style offense.

“The athlete we have today is so good and smart and has been so well-coached that with the techniques, they can adjust to different things really quickly,” Brandt said.

Though some spread has trickled up to the NFL — think Seattle with Russell Wilson, Carolina with Cam Newton, and Philadelphia with anybody at QB — it’s doubtful the pro-style offenses will go away. Maybe the biggest reason is that the spread leaves quarterbacks more vulnerable to injury.

“If you’re going to put $20 million into the quarterback,” Savage said. “You can’t risk losing him to a hit on the shoulder or a hit below the knee on a zone-read play.”

Another factor is that defensive players are bigger, stronger and faster than in the college game. Those elite defenders can chase down quarterbacks who are on the run.

“Ultimately,” Savage said. “You have to win from the pocket.”


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