What are the Buffalo Bills getting in Josh Allen?

An advanced look into Josh Allen's strengths and weaknesses, all the while tackling the myths and truths of some of the accepted schools of thought about Allen as an NFL prospect.

On April 26, 2018, the Buffalo Bills did something that has never been done before in franchise history. For the first time ever, the Bills selected a quarterback in the Top 10 of an NFL Draft when they made Wyoming’s Josh Allen the seventh overall pick in 2018 — ending a year’s worth of speculation as to who would be the new face of the franchise.

For weeks, perhaps even months, Allen was treated as the albatross of the potential first-round quarterbacks. His completion percentage was a driving force for many and coupled with some of his poorer throws being put out there on a grand scale, it led to quite a few writing him off before he was even drafted.

Through the pre-draft process, in full disclosure, I had Allen rated as the fifth-best quarterback on my own personal rankings. I had watched six of his games closely, and although ranked fifth, I still believed that he was a bona fide first-round prospect with franchise quarterback potential.

However, since the Bills selected him in the hopes that he becomes the next big thing at quarterback, a further look was necessary. Over the past week-plus, I’ve gone back and re-watched 18 of Allen’s performances — nine from 2016, and nine from 2017 — all the while tracking, specifically, his misses and the reasons that the main sticking point for many came to be.

With what I found, I hope you’ll find an open mind into the window of a quarterback prospect that has legitimate potential, but also areas of refinement that will be necessary to get to the level that the Bills believe he can reach.

The Completion Percentage Conundrum

For most that paid attention before the draft, the completion percentage was a major talking point in regards to Josh Allen for much of the season. In 2016, he completed just 56-percent of his passes in 14 games, and then last year he completed 56.3-percent of his passes in 11 games. 

In between ESPN’s Mel Kiper, Jr. yelling out that stats are for losers to whoever that would listen, and Barstool using that to help launch the hilarious DraftJoshAllen.com, a conversation evolved — or at least it should have. Is Allen’s completion percentage a true representation of the individual player? 

Of the 18 games I reviewed, here were his stats — along with the totals at the bottom:

 

 

Josh Allen 2016 season at Wyoming -- Games reviewed by Joe Buscaglia
Josh Allen 2017 season at Wyoming -- Games reviewed by Joe Buscaglia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you can see, the totals and completion percentage closely mimic the results of his full season, which make it an accurate representation of what his full-season looked like.

However, when you actually go through each one of the throws and chart where his pitfalls were and figure out what made each play go awry, the numbers paint a much, much different picture. 

"...there is more to Josh Allen than a simple stat of a percentage that supposedly represents accuracy."

While there were still plenty of misfires to Allen’s name in both seasons, there were also plenty of reasons to see why the completion percentage could be a tad misleading. 

Using four main points to adjust the completion percentage in a more accurate picture — drops, throwaways, hurried throws, and the intended target falling during the route — I removed those incompletions and attempts from his stat packet for those games. 

The results, more closely defined:

Josh Allen 2016 season at Wyoming -- Games reviewed by Joe Buscaglia
Josh Allen 2017 season at Wyoming -- Games reviewed by Joe Buscaglia

Drops and offensive line breakdowns are going to happen, of course, but the important message here is that when Allen had the time or tried to make things happen, he was well over the vaunted 60-percent completion mark on those throws. 

He did exhibit signs of being more accurate than originally portrayed, but at the same time, he has some things he absolutely must correct. Many of them are related, which show signs of promise for a team — and we'll get into those shortly. 

However, it was first important to display that there is more to Josh Allen than a simple stat of a percentage that supposedly represents accuracy.

Truth or Myth: Josh Allen's teammates held him back in 2017

Myth... well, kind of. 

Much like the completion percentage was a popular stat for many, so was the point about his teammates being less than exemplary in 2017 as compared to 2016. The one thing that cannot be denied is that he lost multiple talented players from 2016 to 2017 in the form of running back Brian Hill, wide receiver Tanner Gentry, and tight end Jacob Hollister. 

The drop rate went up from 6.5-percent in 2016 to 8.4-percent in 2017 in the sample size I watched. The running efficiency went down dramatically from 2016 to 2017 with the loss of Hill, which led to an overall less efficient offense on a grand scale. 

Photo by Joe Buscaglia

However, to say that Allen was held back more in 2017 than 2016 is a bit of an overstatement, from a statistical perspective. Adding up all the drops, throwaways, hurried throws and plays where a wide receiver fell on his route and finding the rate in which things were (subjectively) out of Allen’s control, in 2016, the percentage of attempts out of his control was at 17.9-percent. And despite all the losses on the offensive side of the ball for the 2017 season, there was only a 0.3-percent jump up in the rate out of Allen’s control (18.2-percent). 

While the drop rate definitely increased and the loss of Gentry and Hollister was seen, the offensive line — or even, how Allen dealt with breakdowns in front of him — became more efficient.  I think the better question here is whether or not his teammates, to a large degree, had always had inferior talent levels in totality. To that, I would say that’s more of a fact than the initially accepted principle. Against just mid-level competition, Wyoming’s struggles were too great for my liking. 

While it wasn’t all the fault of Allen’s teammates and there remain things that he’ll need to work on, the factor of the talent surrounding him should not be ignored.

What does Allen need to work on?

No. 1 - Finding his inner Derek Zoolander

For those familiar with Zoolander, the book on him throughout the entire original movie was that he was unable to turn left at the end of the runway— or as they said, he wasn’t an ambiturner. That is until he gloriously busted out his new move, ‘Magnum,’ in which he turned left to help stop a throwing star and saved the prime minister of Malaysia. 

Courtesy: Getty Images

Yes, I’m aware of how insane this reads, but stay with me. Josh Allen needs to find it within himself to channel his own Derek Zoolander -- and here's why. 

Upon watching all 18 games that I reviewed, there was a significant trend his throws to one area of the field in particular, and it led to multiple opportunities for the defenders simply because he was doing something within his control that led to those opportunities. And it’s a throw he’s going to have to master in order to be a complete player. 

In true Zoolander fashion, it’s all about his throws to the left side of the field — and more specifically, on a throw that span 8-to-15 yards toward the boundary. 

Instead of stepping into the throw and taking advantage of that howitzer of an arm that he has, Allen brings his left foot all the way back, opens up his left hip, and basically throws the ball the same way a right-handed shortstop would when he’s quickly trying to turn two. 

In true Zoolander fashion, it’s all about his struggles on throws to the left side of the field.

On the throws that require zip (comebacks, out routes) in that area of the field, Allen relies on his arm strength too much and tries to aim it in by opening up his hip, and in turn inadvertently takes heat off the throw and reduces its accuracy. Take a look for yourself, this happened often and will be a task for the Bills to correct:

Example 1: The defender is nowhere close, but the throw is well behind the receiver.
Example 2: Opening the hip allows the defender to bat down a throw too far to the inside
Example 3: Opening the hip leads to what should have been an interception on a throw behind the target
Example 4: The defensive back sees the opening hip, breaks on the throw behind, and secures the interception. Allen then makes a play to force a touchback.

 

The most infuriating part is that when he’s throwing to his right side, he steps into it and zings in passes that not many quarterbacks can pull off. 

It is imperative that the Bills work on this very specific function of his game. If they do not, defenses and individual players will play this against him, likely playing a little off just to bait the throw. 

Considering the ball has less velocity when he throws from a base that features an opened hip, that gives the defender ample time to step in front and make a potential game-changing play.

No. 2 - More consistent footwork

Going along the same lines as that specific problem, Allen can throw some of the prettiest passes that you’ll ever see — and he can put them right on the money from a long distance. 

However, there are inexplicable times that Allen will have the time necessary to step into a throw, but for whatever reason, gets excited and hurries through the throw with improper footwork underneath him, and it creates either a turnover or a defended pass that comes very close to being a turnover -- if not an actual turnover.

Case and point:

 

The above video is a perfect example. He’s throwing to his dominant side — the right — but doesn’t have his feet set, which causes the ball to sail a bit, and gives Josh Jackson (a second-round pick of Green Bay) the chance to pick it off and return it a long way for Iowa. 

Whether it’s throwing left, or just keeping his feet underneath him, his footwork needs to improve — and it should be one of the main focuses of the Bills upon getting Allen into their building.

No. 3 - Mental processing

The footwork will be critical for Allen to fix, but they’ll also need to develop his mind for recognizing weaknesses in the defense both before and after the snap. 

There were plenty of times throughout both seasons where Allen had a man running wide open down the field that with a mediocre throw could have yielded a touchdown. Allen, despite going through his progressions in an apt manner many times, has shown a slight tendency to not seeing the bigger picture of the play that’s opening up. 

Take this one big play for instance. The receiver is actually wide open long before Allen recognizes him, and then a ball he chucks into the air on a 50-50 throw is brought down by the receiver. It didn’t have to be this way had Allen just spotted the lapse in coverage during his pre-snap read. 

Another frustrating aspect is watching a safety completely bait Allen into a throw by playing a bit off, and then striking at the precise moment. It also doesn’t help when it’s paired with an overthrow.

Here's what I mean:

 

There are specific examples of this many times in his college years, making for the other big part of his game the Bills must get to work on immediately. 

Still only 21 years old and learning the game, and with more experience against higher levels of competition, there is a level of optimism that the game will slow down for him from that perspective as he grows and matures. 

This is a huge part of his development, however, because that’s what separates the average from the great. 

He must become a better mental processor of the game or else he’ll follow a similar track that those with superb physical traits have done time and time again. They are more reactive than not, and the game of chess with the defense becomes one-sided — which is half the battle for defensive coordinators.

 

No. 4 - Seeing ghosts

One of the things that make Allen so dynamic is also something that holds him back a bit, too — a football replica of a true double-edged sword. 

Allen is fantastic at getting out of trouble and minimizing negative plays for the most part. He’ll take some sacks of course, but usually, he’s able to escape long enough to throw the ball away. 

However, this also leads to a problem — and it may have something to do with a lack of trust in the offensive line. Rather than standing tall in the pocket, Allen ‘sees ghosts’ sometimes, and drifts further away from the pocket and sometimes leaves it entirely. 

A prime example of this was in his final college football contest against Central Michigan. Allen, without any pressure in his face, abandoned his drop immediately and it crushed any potential of the play. After the shotgun snap, Allen tucked the ball and didn't give a throw down the field any more thought because of thought pressure, without any actual threat to bring him down:

 

Now, again, you don’t want to curtail this completely because he can make some great things happen with his legs — or at the very least, gives the team a chance to escape a broken play by throwing it out of bounds. 

However, there needs to be a balance found between the two within Allen’s game. He must have a better feel for pressure to maximize the potential air yards he can achieve in the NFL. If he’s quick to leave the pocket, that’s going to leave a lot of plays on the field. 

Part of what makes Ben Roethlisberger so spectacular is his ability to bounce off defenders, and then to reset and crush the soul of the defense through the air. 

Allen has the contact balance (as you’ll see and read in a bit), but isn’t nearly as well-versed to reset and calmly find a target down the field. For him, it often turns helter-skelter — which isn’t always a bad thing if it’s a controlled chaos.

What makes Allen such a dynamic prospect?

No. 1 - Arm strength, of course

You didn’t honestly think I’d start with anything else, did you? 

Allen has the best arm I’ve ever seen in person. It’s an effortless motion that has the ball flying off his hand and getting to the intended receiver with as much zip as I can remember. 

He has an uncanny ability to make jaw-dropping throws look routine — which to a lesser degree was something I really admired about the game of Patrick Mahomes back in 2017. 

When Allen steps into a throw, it is a thing of beauty — and he can fit it in between multiple defenders:

 
Josh Allen at the 2018 Senior Bowl, throwing the ball between three defenders

On top of that, while he has his problems throwing it to the left side of the field due to inconsistent footwork, when he drops back and steps into his throws to the same area to his right side, the difference between the two is truly incredible.

The first pair of plays below (in the first video, one after the other) are from the far hash mark — which is wider in college — and is on a rope to his receiver heading toward the sideline, only for both wideouts to drop a gimme of a reception. The second video, a thing of beauty where Allen steps into it and drops a 30-yard throw on a frozen rope over a defenders shoulder into the receiver’s chest — only for him to miss the opportunity:

 
 

These are just the controlled throws. 

The jaws will really be on the floor when we get to the throws on the run, and what his arm really makes possible.

No. 2 - Anticipatory throws

While Allen does have some work to do and sometimes trusts his arm too much to make up the difference, he’s also exhibited a significant tendency to throw the ball with anticipation — which will be of quite a bit of importance as he develops as a quarterback in the NFL. 

In these examples, keep an eye on where the receiver is when Allen cocks his arm back. These are just two plays where you see Allen midway through his throwing motion, about to throw a strike right at the top of the receivers breakdown. 

This was important at Wyoming because his receivers didn’t gain a ton of separation, which meant that he had to gain an edge where he could and that split second where the receivers break can create separation between him and the defender creates a window to throw to. 

Take a look:

 
 

In the NFL, the receivers are more talented and quicker, but as are the defenders and he’ll need to continue to develop this trait into a full-blown habit to make the most of his opportunities.

No. 3 - Strength and balance through contact

If you’ve read or listened to some of the stuff I’ve put out there during the pre-draft process, I’ve mentioned that Josh Allen does a Ben Roethlisberger-esque thing, but is still a bit removed from harnessing it in a similar manner to what Roethlisberger does. 

His ability to bounce off defenders calmly reset himself in scanning the field, and to deliver an accurate pass is what has helped shore up his eventual place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

Here’s just a reminder of what makes Roethlisberger so special:

 

And that’s where Josh Allen comes in because he shows the rare ability to do the very same thing — only he’s not as consistent in the ability to reset calmly in scanning the field. 

However, there are flashes — and they make you wonder if he can make that become more of the norm as he grows as a quarterback and matures.

It starts with his natural build, at 6-foot-5 and 237-pounds, Allen has the strength to keep bigger defenders from taking him down. Though his balance is a severely underrated facet of his game, because it allows him to escape situations that will remind you of the things Tyrod Taylor used to do in Buffalo — except Taylor is much faster than Allen.

A pair of examples of Allen doing his best Big Ben impression:

 
 

This is a clear advantage in his game that he had over any of the other quarterbacks that were drafted in the Top 10, and could infinitely help his progression as an NFL player.

No. 4 - A legitimate running threat

A player with Allen’s size shouldn’t be able to move as well as he does, but it’s an incredibly important part to his game and helps an offensive coordinator devise a much more creative game plan to keep the opposing defenses off kilter. 

While Allen’s pass attempts went down on a per game basis from 2016 to 2017, he was still quite involved in the overall offensive game plan because of his legs. In that Boise State game from 2017 the passing offense was having a rough go of it, so that’s when Allen started to take things into his own hands and carried the ball for 82 yards. 

That's an extreme example, but when Wyoming was at their best, they paired Allen’s running and escapability with designed RPOs (run-pass options) to help complement the passing offense — and to try and hide the usual talent disparity. 

And it’s true, too, that when Allen gets into his highest gear, he moves a lot faster than you think a player his size should be able to.

 
 

The fact that Allen has already been versed in the current flavor of the NFL — RPOs — and that GM Brandon Beane pointed to that after they drafted him, it would be fair to expect that offensive coordinator Brian Daboll involves that into his upcoming offense, and for whenever Allen hits the field for the first time.

The delicate balance between recklessness and controlled chaos

This final section is perhaps the most perplexing, because while you can tell that Josh Allen tries to take a page out of Brett Favre’s book when in clutch moments, it also leads to some truly terrible decisions. 

That’s why the Bills must help rein in Allen’s tendency to make those inadvisable throws, while still encouraging him to do what truly makes him unique.

First, these are the types of throws that will make a coach and fan base want to rip their collective hair and eyebrows out. All of these feature throws where he thinks that, because of his arm, he can get away with throwing across his body. 

The second example against New Mexico, he gets away with it on a ball that should have been intercepted, but the receiver made an unbelievable catch. The third was in the very next week, where Allen — full of confidence in throwing across his body — tried to capture the magic again and was predictably picked off. The third is just to reinforce that this is a bad habit of his:

 
 
 

Alright, now that’s the unfortunate part of his risk-taking — and perhaps something you should get comfortable with from time to time. Above all else, Allen looks to make a big play — which is a distinct departure from what the Bills had encountered the last three years with the more conservative Tyrod Taylor running the offense. 

The reason why you don’t want to rip the Favre tendencies out of Allen’s game is that when he has the ball in his hand late, there is the feeling that anything is possible because he can make just about any throw within reason.

 
 
 

I saved this for last because that’s the most special part of his game. The belief that he can always bring his team back, and do anything within his power to do so. 

This will wind up being the single-most redeeming quality that Bills fans will so — probably in preseason this summer — and think to themselves that he really could end up being the player the Bills have been waiting for over a long period of time.

Final Thoughts

Who stands to benefit the most from Josh Allen?

As compared to past years, the players that will get the biggest boost will wind up being the wide receivers. Over the past three years, the receivers have been mostly an afterthought — and that’s certainly a problem because eventually, as we saw, teams were able to predict what the offense would do next. 

That line of thinking, whenever Allen hits the field, will be just a distant memory. He will repeatedly give his receivers chances and is not afraid of a tight window throw — even if it means a turnover is on the horizon. 

Of the Bills’ current personnel, I could see Kelvin Benjamin’s style of play meshing quite well with Allen. While he doesn’t have the long speed to take advantage of Allen’s arm, Benjamin’s ability to win contested catches time after time will likely turn into a go-to for Allen when he’s in need of a play down the field. 

Is Allen ready to play right now?

It’s close, but I don’t think he’s ready to play right away — at least not until he shows the consistency in three distinct areas. 

He must, above all else, show improvement in his footwork. They don’t need to rip down all of his technique and start over but when throwing left he can’t open his hip as much, and then he must learn to always keep his feet underneath him.

After that, he must make strides in identifying weaknesses in a defense both before and after the snap — which is more likely to come with time on the job than anything if it is. 

Lastly, he has to learn the difference between reckless risks and risks worth taking. That isn’t as much of a prerequisite before he gets on the field, and there will likely be growing pains, but that will have to be something he learns as time goes on. 

Considering his competition for the quarterback job in A.J. McCarron and Nathan Peterman, along with his ability, I would not be surprised in the slightest if he winds up starting before we’re halfway through the 2018 season.

However, they cannot rush him in the one or two areas I explained. He must show a level of improvement before entering the lineup, or else the possibilities of bad habits to overcompensate for other areas has the potential of becoming the norm — and that’s the last thing the Bills would want in such a huge investment. 

Allen is a prospect that has all the potential in the world, and if the Bills do it right and his physical and mental processes develop, he has the potential to become the franchise savior they’ve been waiting for since the turn of the century.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia