Updated: May 12
Kyler Murray's performances during his rookie season revealed a skill set of a potential star. His charting mirrored that of Lamar Jackson, suggesting that he will be the best quarterback from the 2019 rookie class.
Lamar Jackson's rookie season was very impressive.
It wasn't obvious that he would become a superstar as early as 2019, but the signs were there. He was the most likely out of his class after his rookie season. Jackson was the 16th-most accurate passer in the league with the 29th-ranked interceptable pass rate (seventh-worst out of all qualifying quarterbacks). His charting numbers were better than his fellow rookies in every measurement. But on their own, they didn't suggest greatness.
The greatness only became evident when they were viewed through the prism of his skill set. Jackson was an exceptional pocket passer who could mitigate pressure and read full-field progressions like a 10-year veteran. His athleticism was a complementary element of his skill set, something he could turn to when the situation called for it.
Jackson was by far the best rookie quarterback in 2018. Kyler Murray was by far the best rookie quarterback in 2019.
By charting data alone, Murray was the best rookie quarterback in the NFL since 2015.
Now he finds himself in a similar position to Jackson. His rookie season was a success, but he has to take a step forward to become one of the league's better starters. It's unlikely he moves right to the top as a second-year starter the way Patrick Mahomes and Jackson did.
He can realistically hope to become a top-10 or top-13 starter though.
Comparing Murray and Jackson is easy because they entered the league in consecutive seasons and because both are impressive athletes. Their similarities aren't as pronounced as the surface analysis suggests though.
Whereas Jackson has been a patient, precise pocket passer since he stepped in the NFL, Murray is more likely to follow the Russell Wilson route to success. Jackson's ability to work within the confines of the pocket is spectacular. He only relies on his athleticism to create big plays when it's the best option. Wilson has built his career on excelling outside of structure, while being just good enough within the pocket to be effective. Pete Carroll has kept him in a rigid, run-oriented philosophy because of that.
Kliff Kingsbury's spread offense is the opposite of Carroll's preferred approach. A huge emphasis on screens and option runs gives Murray clarity. He has the freedom to bail from the pocket and create unstructured plays whenever he chooses, the same way Wilson does. He can generate big plays inside and outside of structure, the same way Wilson does.
Like Wilson, Murray has a spectacular arm. He showcased that by hitting nine of his 14 passes that travelled further than 30 yards downfield during his rookie season.
That's an illogical rate of accuracy. Dak Prescott was 60% accurate on throws that travelled further than 20 yards downfield, he was the most accurate deep passer in the league last year.
Murray's arm talent is his greatest quality. It's paired with poise in the pocket and an ability to make good decisions relative to the coverage he's attacking. His 3.1% interceptable pass rate is inflated by how many screens he threw. He threw 105 screens in 16 games, Aaron Rodgers was second with just 91 and nobody else reached 85. So if we take Murray's 105 screen passes out of his total pass attempts, his interceptable pass rate would drop to 3.9%.
Even while letting every other quarterback keep their screen passes in their totals, Murray's 3.9% interceptable pass rate would rank 14th in the league. That's exceptionally good for a rookie.
Good decision-making isn't just about avoiding interceptions. Murray's outlook is so positive because he throws with timing and attacks the leverage spots between/away from defenders.
This is a routine play. It's not a highlight-reel play or anything spectacular. Christian Kirk runs a crossing route, his stem brings him behind the two linebackers in the middle of the field before he breaks in front of the deep safety. Murray splits the two linebackers and throws the ball slightly high to make sure the nearest linebacker can't undercut it. His timing isn't perfect here because he doesn't hit Kirk in stride when he could have, but this is the type of throw he makes regularly.
Good timing and understanding of where to throw against specific coverages is the foundation of any successful quarterback's passing profile.
If we stick to the same quarter of the same game and a throw to the same receiver, we get another idea of Murray's understanding of leverage. This time it's a vertical route rather than a route breaking across the field. Kirk is running downfield against press-man coverage. He doesn't win early in the route so Murray exploits the technique of the defensive back with a backshoulder throw. He understands that the defender can't look back for the ball and Kirk can. Therefore, Murray lays the ball perfectly behind the cornerback's head for the completion.
The above play has been slowed down slightly to make it easier to see the ball arriving relative to the defender.
Having a generational arm only has the anticipated impact if the quarterback understands how to maximize his arm talent. Matthew Stafford is a great example of a quarterback who has a generational arm but who has never fully harnessed its quality. This play from Week 10 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is again a fairly unspectacular play. What's important here is how Murray recognizes the hole in the coverage and where he places the ball. The cornerback outside is playing zone so he lets the receiver release past him outside. Murray recognizes the defender has sat too shallow, opening a crack for him to throw over him.
Throwing over the cornerback is the easy part. Fitting the ball in before the safety is the difficult part.
The safety wants Murray to lead his receiver further upfield. The allure of gaining more yards can bait quarterbacks into making that throw. That's how safeties get interceptions or highlight-reel worthy hits on receivers. Murray understands the positioning of the defenders so he clears the cornerback while placing the ball on his receiver's outside shoulder.
He forces his receiver to adjust and move away from the safety to protect himself and the ball.
Murray's arm allows him to make any throw. He can make throws most quarterbacks can't attempt. He has a greater margin for error with his timing because of the velocity his passes carry. This touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers is the quintessential example of the value of his arm talent. He's throwing this ball deep from the far hash. The safety has a good break on the ball and was never out of position. But the combination of velocity and ball placement beat him.
Perfect offense beats perfect defense every time.
The huge arm can be a detriment for quarterbacks who don understand its limits. Murray's arm doesn't have any limitations. So long as he's attempting a throw that is physically possible of being completed, he's got a chance of making it work. Thankfully for him (and Cardinals fans), he doesn't appear to have that reckless mindset. He's an intelligent quarterback who understands how to maximize his opportunities by acting and reacting to what the defense does.
This is a simple concept executed to perfection. Kingsbury calls a fake screen to the right side with a slant route and vertical sideline route complementing it. Murray fakes the hand-off then executes a quick pump fake to the screen. The cornerback covering Larry Fitzgerald in the slot jumps the screen, leaving Fitzgerald to run his slant unperturbed. Murray looks to that route for a split second but sees the safety come down and the linebacker drop into the passing lane. He very quickly resets then reloads to hit Kirk deep downfield for the touchdown.
Again, this is a monstrous throw because it comes from the far hash and goes deep outside the numbers on the opposite side of the field.
Manipulating coverages is typically the last thing a quarterback learns in his development. It requires a high level of poise and awareness to execute at NFL speed. On this Third-and-14 play against the Tamp Bay Buccaneers, the defense only rushes three after the quarterback. Murray appears to recognize this, staying in position to let the routes fully develop. The key to understanding what Murray does on this play is to watch #53 toward the bottom of the screen. Murray uses a pump fake to move him out of the passing lane.
Once that linebacker vacates his position, Murray has a clear route to his receiver past the first down line. He still has to beat the defender coming from the opposite side of the field with his arm strength.
Having a huge arm is one thing, having a huge arm that generates such velocity with a quick release is a whole other problem for defenders. It's so difficult to break on Murray's passes because the ball comes out instantaneously and is immediately at top speed. Fitting the ball into this window would be a huge challenge for even the stronger-armed quarterbacks in the league.
Recognizing three-man rushes is as important as being able to beat blitzes. Baker Mayfield couldn't handle three-man rushes so much so that he threw an interceptable pass on 15.6% of his dropbacks against three-man rushes while being accurate just 40% of the time.
Murray has to improve against the blitz. He wasn't notably poor against the blitz, he was a typical rookie for the most part. He showed off the ability to react to blitzes and locate the right receiver. He was also baited into bad throws at times by defensive coordinators. He should develop in that area because his poise and ability to understand when to hold the ball and when to catch-and-release within the pocket was consistently on show.
In Kliff Kingsbury's offense, Murray shouldn't have been sacked as often as he was. He was taken down 48 times. Part of that was his relative youth, part of it was his ineffective offensive line.
As he develops mentally, Murray can evade sacks with his athleticism.
During his rookie season, Murray showed off an ability to react to free rushers from his blindside, frontside and in tight spaces. He can throw from either flat and he keeps his eyes up when he's forced from the pocket. Plenty of quarterbacks through NFL history have taken more sacks than they should have while making up for it by evading free rushers to create big plays. Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson are the best examples from recent decades.
Both Wilson and Roethlisberger had great success without great offensive lines in front of them. Wilson had a strong line at the start of his career, Roethlisberger had a strong line during the latter stages of his career.
Addressing the offensive line over the coming years will be the Cardinals' biggest priority. After trading for Kenyan Drake and DeAndre Hopkins over the last 12 months, the Cardinals have bolstered their skill position players enough to give Murray a chance to accelerate his development next season.
Making the playoffs would be a big achievement for the Cardinals. They're still a ways away from being an equal of the San Francisco 49ers in their division, but they're on the right track and appear to have the right quarterback.