Kyle Shanahan has a thing for “system quarterbacks” and it’s worked out quite well for the San Francisco 49ers head coach.
The 49ers offense ranks second in points per drive (2.33) since 2018, when Jimmy Garoppolo, a quarterback most would agree isn’t elite, started. But Garoppolo’s inability to make plays was a key factor in the 49ers’ 2019 Super Bowl and 2021 NFC Championship Game losses. Shanahan tried to remedy that in 2021 by trading up and drafting who they thought was a high-ceiling quarterback in Trey Lance, but he needed more developmental snaps than the 49ers could afford to give him.
Cue Brock Purdy, a find with the final pick of the 2022 draft. He may not have Lance’s ceiling, but his play was just a level above Garappolo’s and that was good enough to get the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game last season. Purdy could make all the on-schedule throws that Garappolo made with a little more deep-ball aggressiveness and much more playmaking ability. Maybe that level of quarterback play is all the 49ers need to get over their Super Bowl hump.
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In The Athletic’s annual quarterbacks tiers article, Mike Sando asks personnel around the league to put quarterbacks into four levels. Tier 1 is defined as a quarterback who “Can carry his team each week. The team wins because of him. He expertly handles pure passing situations. He has no real holes in his game.” These include Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Joe Burrow. Purdy was put into tier 4, “a quarterback could be an unproven player (not enough information for voters to classify) or a veteran who ideally would not start all 17 games.”
Shanahan punted on Lance, a quarterback with the physical skill set to become a tier-1 quarterback, in favor of the fourth-tiered Purdy. However, after how well Purdy performed last season, we have to reset expectations. Where is Purdy’s ceiling? Is he another system quarterback? To get the answers, I talked to former NFL QB J.T. O’Sullivan, Purdy’s personal QB coach Will Hewlett and scouts and front office members around the league.
Purdy and Garoppolo were nearly identical last season in about every metric such as expected pointed added (EPA) per dropback, EPA against the blitz, and off-target percentage. The difference is that Purdy was able to operate the offense within the structure at a similar level to Garoppolo as a rookie.
“Now the area where I feel like there’s just no ceiling on, at least no foreseeable cap to it is going to be the cognitive, tactical side of the game for him,” O’Sullivan said. “I don’t see why he can’t be top-five in the league every single year in terms of his ability to process, get guys in the right place, you know, make the right calls and decide on the right throws. And I think that balancing act you play there allows you to be not as efficient as other throwers or not as explosive as other throwers, but still make amazing throws and amazing plays because you know where to go with the ball and when to go there.”
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Purdy has the weakest arm on the 49ers roster right now but he can mitigate that with his ability to process and anticipate — two areas that he showed a lot of promise in his rookie season. He was also more willing to push the ball downfield than Garoppolo. Only 26.3 percent of Garoppolo’s throws had 10 or more air yards — Purdy’s percentage was 32.4 percent. Though he was more aggressive, the quality of those throws has to improve.
When we think of quarterbacks with weaker arms that were able to be elite, the first example that comes to mind is Drew Brees. There are some physical similarities between Purdy and Brees, but Brees was on another level when it came to accuracy and ball placement. Purdy ranked 29th in off-target percentage last season out of passers with at least 200 attempts. This is an area he has to improve on for him to ever break into the elite tier. Watching the film, most of his misses were on deep and outside passes, which could mean it’s an arm strength issue.
Three Brock Purdy TDs today! #FTTB
— NFL (@NFL) December 11, 2022
“With the setback, with the (torn UCL in last season’s NFC Championship Game), it was about getting back to where he was post-draft last year, and there’s still going to be progress through the season where he’ll continue to make improvements there,” Hewlett explained. “So I think there’s still another level of athleticism and throwing power that he’s going to be able to kind of capture. I think there’s still inefficiencies that — I mean, every quarterback has inefficiencies — but there’s things that he’ll still continue to work on that he’s going to get better at. Through his offseasons where he’ll just keep leveling up.”
Purdy has made strides in becoming a more efficient and explosive passer since college but he needs to continue that trajectory and the UCL injury was a setback. There’s a chance we don’t see the off-target percentage on downfield and outside throws improve much this season because he was spending this offseason rehabbing. Though this offense isn’t built on the deep ball and outside throws, the ability to punish defenses when they don’t respect it has been lacking in this offense.
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“The things that jumped out to me just this preseason off the top my head was a couple of the throws where you’re trying to stretch the field vertically and outside the numbers deep,” O’Sullivan said when asked where Purdy needs to improve most. “And then just potentially at the footwork for that and the technique for that matching up with how polished he looks and comfortable in the short and intermediate stuff. If that polish and consistency can then translate to the deeper balls and the balls outside the numbers, I think then you’re looking at really a comprehensive, robust passing game that they potentially haven’t seen ever matched with the aggressiveness and the decisiveness and the playmaking ability that he showed all last year in a kind of a short, pretty awesome sample size.”
Another trait that raises Purdy’s ceiling is his ability to create outside of structure. Purdy was more willing to scramble and go off-script than his predecessor. On throws in which the quarterback held the ball more than 2.5 seconds, Garoppolo’s EPA per dropback was minus-0.8 (ranked 27th). Purdy’s was 0.7 (ranked 12th).
“I think his athleticism is underrated,” Hewlett said. “They see the movement and the elusiveness but he’s got the elite 10 split time. It’s like, people don’t get how effective he is there. It’s like an NFL running back-type explosiveness.”
— NFL (@NFL) January 14, 2023
Purdy isn’t going to be used on option plays anytime soon but his quick twitch helps him get away from the pass rush to buy time and occasionally scramble. There isn’t a ton of room in this offense for playmaking because receivers usually get open quickly, but when things break down, Purdy’s athleticism adds another layer defenses have to account for. However, his thirst for the big play can be detrimental. According to Pro Football Focus, among qualifying passers, Purdy ranked 17th-worst in turnover-worthy play percentage. He has to temper his aggressiveness with discretion. He was lucky to get away with some ill-advised throws last season that could have cost the 49ers.
Turnover luck may swing in the other direction in the following season. Sustained success is difficult in the NFL and Purdy showed signs of volatility in college. O’Sullivan thought there was a notable drop-off in play from Purdy’s junior to his senior season.
“I remember breaking down a full game from his junior year thinking there’s a lot of Sunday-type throws, Sunday-type understanding of football going on with it. People inevitably will still comment on the video saying, ‘Oh you were right on with him,’” O’Sullivan said. “I can tell that they didn’t go back and then watch the senior films that I did. It probably has more to do with the context and their program than anything because his film almost looked like he like regressed or didn’t play as well that last year.”
One of the dangers of anointing a quarterback after a short sample size is the threat of regression. Also, Purdy has to prove he can stay healthy. Getting hurt in his first season doesn’t mean that he’s injury-prone but as a smaller quarterback, you have to prove that you can stay healthy in the NFL.
Opinions of Purdy’s ceiling around the league are less optimistic. Scouts don’t believe they were completely wrong in their assessment of him and think he is a product of the team around him.
“To me, he’s a guy you’d give a big contract to eventually because you ‘have to,’ not necessarily because you’re winning games because of him. Long way of saying he has tier 3 ceiling,” one front office member told me.
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The 49ers committed to Purdy because they like how his baseline play fits into Shanahan’s system but that baseline could be volatile. We don’t have enough information based on a small sample size. There seems to be a pathway for him to become a tier 2 type of quarterback if he continues to progress but it’ll depend on getting his processing ability to an elite level, improving his arm strength and accuracy on outside and deep throws, and cutting down on turnover-prone plays. His improvement might not matter much if the 49ers offense is able to operate at an elite level with how he played last season, but can you imagine that version of Purdy going toe-to-toe with Mahomes? Where Purdy’s ceiling is and if he is actually able to get there might determine whether the 49ers can win a Super Bowl this season and into the future.
(Photo: Michael Zagaris / Getty Images)
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