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How Bengals draftee Ryan Finley became a wildcard NFL QB prospect

Finley started three-plus years at two different programs, but he might have upside that hasn’t shown itself yet.

Original image: Getty.

Every time a school recruits a blue-chip QB, a decision about who starts looms over the program sooner or later. This is no less true at a disciplined Group of 5 power like Boise State than at a place like Alabama.

In 2015, Ryan Finley was the favorite to take over Boise State’s offense. He was a redshirt sophomore after spending 2014 backing up departing senior Grant Hedrick. But when Boise landed four-star Brett Rypien, a record-breaking high school QB from Washington state, and Rypien enrolled that spring, the typical forces were set into motion.

By the end of 2015, Rypien had taken over as Boise’s starter. Finley graduated early and transferred to NC State, where he became a three-year starter and now a draft prospect. Now he plays for the Bengals, who picked him 104th overall in the 2019 draft.

Here’s how Finley developed into an interesting option for Cincinnati.

In 2015, when Finley was Boise State’s starter to open the year, he had a hard time progressing through reads in the Broncos’ vertical pass game.

In Week 1 against Washington, he threw for 5 yards per attempt, no touchdowns, and an interception. The next week, against BYU, he moved up to 7.8 yards per throw and one TD, but threw three interceptions. That game showed the trouble Finley was having going from read to read and identifying his targets. BYU’s free safety, Kai Nacua burned him for it.

The first pick Finley threw to him:

And the second:

In both instances, Nacua sat on the deep hash until Finley’s eyes passed him by. Then he bailed to the solo-side WR, whom he knew Finley was going to force a deep fade to, and picked him off. Finley has always had a tendency to make a plan pre-snap, which is great, but he hasn’t always adjusted well after the snap. In this game, he’d throw one more pick to Nacua, trying to launch a ball up the seam to drive a last-minute comeback.

Finley made another start, but then he broke his right ankle. Rypien took over and played well, locking down the Boise QB job for the next three years. But NC State coach Dave Doeren hired away Boise offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz to install something like the Broncos’ offense in Raleigh, and NC State recruited Finley to come, too.

Because Finley had only played in three games before getting hurt, and he’d already graduated, he had three immediate years of eligibility.

At NC State, Finley learned how to use matchups to guide an offense, without doing much of the vertical passing Boise does.

He replaced future NFL QB Jacoby Brissett, while Drinkwitz replaced well-regarded coordinator Matt Canada. They proceeded to more or less match NC State’s previous offensive production, with Finley upgrading the passing attack.

Finley and Drinkwitz inherited TE/WR/RB/H-back Jaylen Samuels, who served as a mobile chess piece in finding matchups and leverage in the passing game. The matchup problems the Wolfpack could create guided how Finley operated the whole system.

At 5’11 and about 230 pounds with 4.5 40 speed, Samuels was a versatile wrecking ball that the Wolfpack used primarily like a flex TE in the slot over the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

They’d use his size and running ability to attack the seams:

On this play, Clemson had safeties all around Samuels on a dig route, but Finley was good at throwing with anticipation when he was locked in on his guy. It was easy to lock in with Samuels, who had a unique blend of speed and bulk that made him too quick for LBs but also too thick and strong for DBs to easily disrupt his routes or tackle him after the catch.

Similarly, they’d also move RB/WR hybrid Nyheim Hines around to create matchups, and Finley excelled working with him as well:

The LB has to pick up Hines out of the backfield and couldn’t handle him when he hit the inside move after showing a wheel route. Between Samuels and Hines, opponents had a hard time figuring out how to cover unique inside receivers with versatile skill sets.

The two backs were key parts of the NC State passing game in Finley’s first two years in Raleigh, though they worked in more traditional outside receivers in 2017. NC State was pretty efficient at moving the chains, but there were struggles to land bigger blows. Finley typically connected with the outside receivers by throwing well-timed hitches and comebacks when they faced off coverage as teams loaded up the middle of the field.

In 2018, Samuels was in the NFL, and NC State had to move back and forth between using blocking TEs to help the run game and four-receiver sets for a spread passing game. That makes it hard to dictate the terms of engagement to the defense, which can always match TE sets with run-stopping personnel and then add DBs as more WRs come on.

Without a hybrid like Samuels, Finley had to read coverages against defenses with fewer conflicts. He was able to put his top to receivers over 1,000 yards each, but they struggled against the better defenses on their schedule. Against Texas A&M in the Gator Bowl, Finley completed 19 of 32 passes at 4.3 yards per attempt with a touchdown and two picks. The second of those picks looked familiar, with Finley forgetting about a DB:

The Wolfpack still used motion to try to unmask the defense’s coverages, but because they were only using WRs, the matchups weren’t as stark. Finley thought he knew what kind of coverage he’d see after the snap, and he struggled to adjust when the Aggies didn’t match the Pack’s Levels route combination as he expected.

NC State never turned Finley loose to try a ton of deep shots.

He tended to live on underneath routes thrown with precision and some nice zip. Those made sense when Samuels was there, and deeper shots were hard to find when the Pack didn’t have a hybrid to force defenses to send help away from the receivers.

But he had to navigate some tricky risk/reward moves. His throws on timing routes were risky, as mistakes could lead to tipped passes and picks, while completions were usually just steady gains. That explains Finley never averaging less than 7.4 yards per throw in a year at NC State and never averaging more than 8.1.

It would have been interesting to see Finley get a chance to show his arm strength and anticipation off in a scheme that included more play-action shots or slot fades, like some of the more explosive spread offenses around the country try. He almost had one here:

But NC State didn’t put a big emphasis on those dimensions, and the Pack’s WRs didn’t always get the best release or show the best hands on deep throws. It would have been interesting to see how Finley would have developed throwing in the Boise State vertical game that helped Rypien go over 8 yards per throw all three years after Finley left Idaho.

So, NFL scouts have a QB that’s shown aptitude for reading defenses and fitting the ball into tight windows, but whose upside elsewhere is unclear.

And when Finley had to rely on more traditional matchups, the reading advantage he had with Samuels seemed to be lesser.

For now, scouts can hope for the best and assume that in a system with a good flex TE or run game, he’ll be able to get a good bead on defenses and fire off anticipatory passes.

Much of what Finley does well is subtle and relates to his ability to move through progressions and set his feet to throw accurate balls to the second or third read. But at the college level, that skill isn’t always that valuable. Boise State regularly has a downhill run game and speed outside to allow for easy reads and aggressive throws ...

... whereas NC State’s system with Finley was more methodical.

Now, we’ll learn more about how well Finley’s more grind-it-out path at NC State prepared him for the rough-and-tumble defenses of the NFL.