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Monson: What to make of Paxton Lynch's NFL potential

Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch (12) plays against Mississippi in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

With the 2016 draft season underway, Sam Monson opens up his Analysis Notebook once again to share an in-depth evaluation of one top prospect each week. This week, we’ll explore the strengths, weaknesses and bottom-line scouting report for Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch. 

In no particular order, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz are the top two quarterback prospects in this draft, and there is a significant drop after both players. However, the consensus third prospect in the pecking order is Memphis QB Paxton Lynch. At just under 6-7 and around 245-pounds, Lynch has the prototypical size NFL teams are looking for, but his tape shows some concerns that keep him separated from the big two QBs in this draft, and the offense that Memphis runs has its own challenges when it comes to his evaluation.

Just four routes (bubble screens, out routes, hitches and gos) account for 52 percent of the attempts Lynch had this past season and this offense provides every bit as many problems for QB evaluation as the Baylor-style spread offenses that people rail against.

Lynch was just a two-star recruit coming out of high school, and there is something to be said for his constant improvement and development which still may be far from finished. It will need to be, because he was just our seventh-graded passer in the nation this past season and right now is a player whose potential is the driving force behind his draft stock rather than his current production.

What he does well

When you watch them play, Paxton Lynch reminds me a lot of Joe Flacco. Both are big, tall quarterbacks with a big arm and sneaky athleticism. Where they differ though is in the types of throw that each makes well and struggles with the most. In fact, they flip those. While Joe Flacco’s deep ball is perennially late and underthrown, Lynch’s is one of his biggest assets.

On passes that traveled over 20 yards in the air, Lynch was accurate on 51.8 percent of them. That was fifth in the nation and would have led the NFL last season where the competition is tougher. Flacco by contrast was accurate on just 37.2 percent of those passes.

Lynch completed 25 passes on go routes this season for 675 yards and eight touchdowns without throwing a single interception. His passer rating when throwing to that route was more than 30 points higher than the FBS average.

These go routes aren’t just deep heaves to receivers with a cornerback trailing in their wake, but can be touch passes against tight coverage. Take this example against Cincinnati this past season:

Paxton 1

This throw was from the far hash mark against a corner who is never in poor position at any point in the route, but Lynch just trusts his arm and ability to place the ball where he needs it. This is one of those plays where they say “a great throw beats great coverage” and shows high-level timing, accuracy and touch, not to mention the pure arm strength required to get the ball there from the far hash.

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When you look at Lynch’s passing map, everything in the deep quadrants of the field is positive. He was able to show arm strength, touch and accuracy on his deep passes all season and it has undoubtedly been one of his strengths as a college player.

He won’t be confused with Cam Newton anytime soon from an athletic standpoint, but Lynch was a valuable part of the rushing attack at Memphis, gaining a total of 339 yards this past season. Only 20 of those rushes were scrambles, and if you weed out the kneel downs he averaged 4.4 yards per designed carry. Given his size he was also a useful weapon for the Tigers when it came to the QB-sneak play.

The new breed of super athletic quarterbacks in the NFL have begun to change the game, and while not every team will have a Cam Newton, Lynch is athletic enough to find a role in the run game at the next level even if it is just the occasional keeper from a read-option look, or to make some plays happen when scrambling.

What he struggles with

The first issue with evaluating Lynch isn’t really something he struggles with as much as just isn’t asked to do within the offense: go through a progression. You can be a dozen snaps into a Memphis game before you see Lynch have to work to a second read. Their offense is often either one-read, or roll out plays that involve just a half-field read on a route combination working that side of the field. Even on these plays Lynch is essentially just reading one thing that takes him to the open guy in the combination.

This isn’t to say he can’t do it. There are plays in his tape where he comes to a second or third read and delivers an accurate pass, but it is an incredibly small part of his game and projecting how he will take to it at the NFL level is extremely speculative.

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This play against Auburn in their bowl game is a typical Memphis play. Lynch rolls out, and is working only half the field to begin with, but in reality with the outside receiver running off the cornerback he only has to read the reaction of the slot corner to determine which of the other receivers he is throwing to. Though there are in theory three receivers in patterns to that side of the field, it is in essence a single-read play.

The first thing Lynch genuinely struggles with that is actually a function of his play rather than the Memphis scheme is on intermediate passes, particularly outside of the numbers. If the deep ball was the first Flacco/Lynch reversal, then this type of pass is the second. For all Flacco’s struggles with the deep ball, intermediate passes outside of the numbers are his strength, but right now they are Lynch’s biggest weakness. On those passes he posted one of the worst accuracy percentages in the nation and some of his worst passes of the season came on these plays, even if they weren’t necessarily punished by interceptions.

Whereas on the deep ball Lynch has good timing and accuracy, all too often on these sideline passes he is late and behind the receiver, inviting defenders back into the play where they should be beaten.

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Take this play against Tulane as a good example. This throw is there to be made, but it just comes out of his hand too late, and less than ideal throw location – behind the receiver – only adds to the issue, allowing the cornerback to break it up and almost pick it off.

As the video shows, the ball isn’t incredibly late, but late enough to cause problems in a game of inches and split seconds.

This particular play just showed poor anticipation from Lynch, who knew the pass pattern and needed to throw the ball before the receiver came out of his break, not wait until he had done so before putting it in the air, because the break is what generates the separation. Quarterbacks at the NFL level are dealing with incredibly small windows that don’t stay open for very long, and this is precisely the type of throw they need to be able to make.

Lynch can make those passes, but right now there are too many that he doesn’t.

The bottom line

The top two QBs in this class are head and shoulders above the rest, but Paxton Lynch has a good chance to stand alone as the third guy. He has all of the physical tools that NFL teams love, and while his offense makes a comprehensive evaluation and projection to the NFL tricky, there is much to like. The issue is how much of a question mark projecting him into a pro-style system is, and how confident can any team be in doing that?

When one adds in the troubling accuracy and anticipation on intermediate throws – the NFL’s bread and butter – there are enough questions about Lynch to keep him well away from Goff and Wentz. It'll perhaps make him a later-round player, even if the position he plays will likely dictate he is drafted higher.

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