I thought that Ryan Mallett would go in the first round of the NFL Draft back in 2011 when he left Arkansas and declared after his junior season. I thought the strong-armed gunslinger would probably go to a quarterback-needy team and start right away and probably become a big star. It didn't happen that way. Jake Locker went off the board eighth to the Titans, Blaine Gabbert went 10th to the Jaguars, Christian Ponder went 12th to the Vikings, and Mallett fell out of the first round completely. Two more quarterbacks (Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick) would be taken in the second round and he wouldn't hear his name called until the third round, 74th overall. He'd head to New England as the latest in a line of understudies to Tom Brady.
That fall into the third round might have been Mallett's best possible outcome, considering the success first-rounders from 2011 had after being thrown into the fire early on in their careers. Instead, Mallett sat behind Brady for three seasons before being traded to Bill O'Brien's Texans during the preseason. He got his first NFL start this past Sunday, leading Houston to a win over the Browns on the road.
So, how did he look? Is he the long-term answer for Houston at the most important position in football, a position that not even J.J. Watt can play (I assume)?
Well, as the Houston Chronicle points out, Mallett joins 16 quarterbacks over the last five seasons to be 25 or older at the time of their first NFL start. Only San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick has panned out of those "developmental" players, so the odds aren't exactly in his favor. That said, he could be another outlier.
Poise, leadership, command of the huddle, decision-making
It's tough to really know what Mallett is like as a leader just by watching game tape, but obviously, an NFL quarterback has to have some intangibles that go into becoming the general of the offense. This goes to demeanor, communication, confidence, command, decision-making, reactions to adversity, the list goes on, and generally speaking, just being able to throw the ball isn't enough. Texans' head coach Bill O'Brien commented after the game that Mallett -- who originally fell into the third round in part because of maturity and character concerns -- did all the things a quarterback should be doing, in that sense.
"What I had seen at practice I saw in the game -- the huddle command, the ability to get us into the right play at the line of scrimmage, his poise on the sideline, his communication with his teammates on the sideline," O'Brien said. "I had him down for two poor decisions. When you throw the ball whatever it was, 30 times, and you only have two poor decisions, that's not bad for a first start. Those were the things that I had seen in practice, and it was good to see that in a game."
On tape, Mallett seemed comfortable at the line of scrimmage and did a good job of pointing out protections to his teammates and getting everyone on the same page. His comfort in the offense was apparent too in the quickness in which the ball was coming out as well. According to Pro Football Focus, Mallett released the ball on average at 2.06 seconds after the snap, which was the quickest of any quarterback this week. That speaks to decisiveness and confidence in his reads, particularly in that he went 20 of 30 on the day.
Mallett seemed at ease in an up-tempo offense -- probably in part because of his education under Bill Belichick with the Patriots, who've been known to cycle in and out of up-tempo, no-huddle looks on offense -- and that's what the Texans did against the Browns.
"He does a good job of understanding when we're going fast," said O'Brien in the postgame presser. "He tries to take a pre-snap picture of what he sees and he can process that pretty well. He did a lot of that in college with Bobby Petrino at Arkansas, and then obviously in New England he did a lot of that in practice. Coming here, we're trying to get our offense into a better rhythm and he helped us do that."
Houston ran 84 plays -- which is a relatively high number, especially for an offense that ran the ball as well as they did this week.
Throughout the game, Mallett connected with quick strikes outside, on slants, and up the seam after quick three- and five-step drops.
Schemes like this:
And this play:
The accuracy is there. The timing with receivers is there. The quick game was working, mostly, though he does need to be careful when teams start anticipating things, like on this play:
Importantly, when the Texans got out of some of the quick-game passes, he did show the ability to step up and climb the pocket on longer drops -- like on this play:
That's just one play, of course, but you like his ability to keep his eyes downfield while resetting and sliding, not panicking, not looking at the rush, and just allowing the play to develop. Bill O'Brien described this particular play in depth here.
The vertical passing game
The one obvious attribute that Mallett brings to the table, in particular over Ryan Fitzpatrick, is arm strength. There's no denying that he can put some velocity on the football, and the Texans weren't shy in asking him to let his arm out a little bit in his first start. This pass on Houston's second drive was probably his prettiest. He connects with DeAndre Hopkins for 41 yards, and it's effortlessly placed inside the corner and over the top of the safety here.
There were a few times where I thought Mallett's accuracy was affected by his footwork. He's a gangly 6'7 so you'd expect some sloppy or heavy footwork at times, but he just needs to be careful about weight distribution and not relying too much on his arm to make throws. His first throw of the game was a good example of this.
After a pump fake, Andre Johnson runs a wheel route. Mallett throws off his back foot and off balance with pressure in his face, though, and the pass is underthrown and probably too far inside. Johnson dives and can't come up with the ball. You could maybe chalk this up to jitters.
Houston's run game has historically been the foundation of their offense and while Gary Kubiak is gone, some of his tenets remain with the current staff. In this one, the Texans ran the ball an absurd 54 times for a cool 213 yards so when you're a run-first team that the opposing defense is having trouble stopping, having that vertical element to complement the run game can be huge. Houston turned to play-action quite a bit in this game and with Mallett's arm, it will continue to be a huge piece of the equation.
This was Mallett's only pick on the day, but in terms of process, I like the call. Mallett could've probably taken a little air off the throw and led the receiver outside a smidge, but overall this is just a really great defensive play by Joe Haden.
Regardless, with Mallett's arm, Houston can really do some things in the vertical game on play-action, in theory.
Again, it was just one game, but if you're a Houston fan, I would have to think you're excited about Mallett's prospects in this offense (despite what Desmond Bryant might think). I thought he had pretty good accuracy on his throws apart from a handful near the boundary that ended up slightly inside, but the timing was there, the velocity was there, and the command of the offense was apparent.
I think that Mallett will still need to work on his footwork -- it's going to be a constant battle with his tall, lanky frame -- but it seems like O'Brien put him in a place to succeed by giving him well-defined reads that allowed him to get the ball out quickly, plus giving him a few chances to air the ball out downfield. The vertical attack is where Mallett could shine, and this talent seemed to help open things up for the Texans run game, helping rookie Alfred Blue run for 156 yards.
Fans and analysts that thought Mallett was a first-round talent back in 2011 have been pining for a chance to see what he can do at the helm of an NFL offense, so bottom line, it's exciting to see what he'll do.