One of the hardest things to do in sports is separate coach and scheme from player talent. It is something that is hard to see actual evidence of, as most of the work in this area is done behind closed doors. This is why it is so hard to project trades, free agents and draft selections.
When projecting NFL talent for the NFL draft, scheme, and talent around each player has to be separated completely. On top of that, the hash marks make the strong side of the field wider, making it easier to isolate matchups. The open field combined with a more spread out pool of talent makes speed a much more valuable weapon in this college than the NFL. Thus, good coaching can make any old fast guy an elite college football player.
This adds into making it much tougher to evaluate quarterbacks. There are not 32 good quarterbacks in the world by the standards of the NFL. There is not going to be 120 good quarterbacks in the NCAA. Teams use the open field and speed advantages to give their quarterbacks simple reads and decisions to get their play makers the ball in plus advantages. This cannot happen as consistently in the NFL as it does in college.
That is why Riley Ferguson is a tough project coming into the NFL draft. Ferguson played in one of those offenses that catered to throwing a lot of passes, but taking the tough decision making and pressure of being a quarterback away. It is a college offense.
So, when trying to project Ferguson as a passer in the NFL plays where he stands in the pocket, makes reads, and handles pressure have to weighted because they come in a small sample size, but are the protectable traits.
Passes like the one below do not happen in the NFL. That play style was bread and butter for Memphis. The play action gets the edge linebacker to freeze just enough for Ferguson to roam outside. In the NFL, that linebacker hits Ferguson well before he throws that pass.
Even if he doesn’t there is almost no chance the receiver is going to have that much space when watching how the slot cornerback read that play. The linebacker got caught in traffic by play action and was late to getting over to defending the tight end, who motioned across the line. The cornerback, who is watching the play action in the back field notices this player instead of thinking that if the outside cornerback behind him took the slot receiver that he just passed off, no one has the outside receiver. In the NFL, the slot corner sees the quarterback running his way and shifts left to defend the receiver that would have been his duty anyway. Ferguson is not getting that respect against faster linebackers. Play action, the idea of a running quarterback, and the wide field allowing four routes to be run on that side make this play. That is scheme.
Playing from the pocket Riley Ferguson does have some arm talent to try to build on. His wide receiver, Anthony Miller, and his ability to create separation is another wrinkle making it tough to evaluate Ferguson, but Ferguson delivers a deep strike about 50 yards down the field where only his receiver can get underneath it.
Below, he shows off his ability to anticipate and put a ball on his receiver who is turning for it to land right in his hands for a touchdown. There was a bit of pressure in his face but he stood in and made the pass.
Still, there are clear decision making issues when it comes to him playing from the pocket. His ability to handle pressure is not strong, and his ability to make the correct reads down the field and progress through receivers is not where it should be, mainly because of the offense he is in.
In the play below you can see he has no other plans with this ball at all. There are four guys there and there could have been eight. However, he is working from a clean pocket and has the ability to extend the play. This quick and forced nature of pulling the trigger will ensure him to never see the field at the next level.
Below is a third down incompletion with a short lead when trying to upset UCLA. Ferguson has his guy and he knows it. But, he is too quick to pull the trigger. From the first view, you can see the running back coming under the middle to clear out the linebacker he is throwing over.
Ferguson is dealing from a clean pocket and should have all of the time in the world. When the linebacker follows the running back, the receiver he is targeting will have all kinds of space over the middle. However, Ferguson jumps the gun, throws it behind his receiver to boot, likely due to the added difficulty of the linebacker, and the Tigers have to punt.
This is not to say that Ferguson cannot make the transition, but he will have to spend a lot of time during his first year learning to play from the pocket. Even at that point it will take preseason, and reps of some sort to see how he mechanically can transfer his game.
The arm talent gives you something to buy into, and it is a shame he wasn’t put in a position where his game would translate to the NFL. Still, it statistically put him on a national radar and will have a team ready to invest some time in the project of Riley Ferguson.