Whatever Josh Allen is going to be, he isn't that yet.
This is true of almost everyone in the NFL draft, but it seems especially pertinent to Allen, the 6-foot-5 Wyoming quarterback whose raw talent screams "No. 1 overall pick" even as his résumé gives pause.
Consensus is elusive when it comes to the top quarterbacks in the 2018 class. Some teams like the SoCal kids, Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold from UCLA and Southern California, respectively. Some prefer Heisman-winning Fortnite avatar Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma, with his pinpoint accuracy and in-your-face confidence. And Louisville's electrifying Lamar Jackson, who won the Heisman before Mayfield, is drawing all the good kinds of Michael Vick comparisons.
But in an informal poll of NFL decision-makers, a surprising number of answers came back like this one:
"I'd take Josh Allen," an NFC general manager said. "You just don't see that kind of talent come along very often."
Allen's going to be a high pick. His pre-draft visits have included the Browns, Giants and Jets, who pick first, second and third overall, as well as the Broncos (No. 5), Dolphins (No. 11) and Bills (No. 12).
The main reason is that his physical skills are undeniable. Watch the first quarter of Wyoming's Famous Idaho Potato Bowl victory over Central Michigan and you see touchdown passes that look as if they were fired from an Imperial Star Destroyer. He posted the top vertical jump and broad jump numbers of any quarterback at the combine, the second-fastest three-cone drill time and the third-fastest 40-yard dash (though Jackson didn't run the 40 or do the agility drills). Allen also was the biggest quarterback in Indy (6-5, 237 pounds) and had the largest hands of any quarterback there. He's a physical freak. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.'s thumbnail review of Allen is, "Rocket arm and freakish talent." Fellow ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said of Allen on NFL Live during Wyoming's Pro Day, "God doesn't make many of these."
The key thing to understand when it comes to the Allen discussion is this: The way NFL GMs and coaches view prospects is different from the way fans might view them. You might look at Allen and worry about him busting, especially if he goes as high as he's projected to go. But an NFL coach looks at Allen, sees the talent and convinces himself, "I can make something special out of that." Kind of the way baseball teams draft pitchers who can throw 100 mph even if they can't control it yet. They aren't always right, but that perspective is why teams so often draft traits and talent, even when it seems risky. And it's why Allen is likely to get picked very early next Thursday night.
"He definitely looks the part," a scout with an NFC team said. "But he's just really raw. So you have to figure out whether he can pick up the NFL-type stuff you need him to pick up, and how soon."
The phrase "NFL-type stuff" is a pretty big catchall basket. Allen has done plenty of NFL-type stuff in Wyoming's offense. Unlike a lot of college programs, Wyoming operates out of a huddle, lines its quarterback up under center, asks the quarterback to make protection calls at the line of scrimmage, things like that. Wyoming offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Brent Vigen, who coached Carson Wentz in his early years at North Dakota State, takes pride in the ways in which the Cowboys' program prepares quarterbacks for the next level.
"Some guys, taking a seven-step drop, that in itself is a major feat," Vigen said. "That's second nature to him. Taking a snap is second nature. Being able to do things at the line of scrimmage without looking at the sideline. So even though the language might be a little bit different, at least he's gone through those processes over and over again."
Allen: Doesn't matter where I get drafted
Josh Allen tells Marty Smith how the draft process has gone and how it doesn't matter which team drafts him.
Now, if there are question marks about Allen, and what he needs to overcome in order to be someone's franchise quarterback, they run deeper than that. One evaluator says he needs to be able to change speeds on the ball better -- that he throws as hard as he can too often and could work on touch throws. Another says Allen needs to refine his footwork -- that he relied too much on his strong arm and didn't incorporate his lower body into throws enough.
"I know I've got a lot of flaws as a quarterback," Allen said at the Senior Bowl, and when asked what he had to work on he said, "The accuracy, of course. Being able to put the ball where it needs to be put at any given time."
"I think he needs to be put in a situation where they're willing to coach him. ... But if he is forced into [playing early], what are the pieces around you? What's the defense like? What pressures are put on you to score points? All those things come into play." Wyoming quarterbacks coach Brent Vigen, on Josh Allen.
If you've been following the pre-draft coverage, you might not have heard as many negatives on Allen as you have on the other top quarterbacks. He has had a pretty smooth pre-draft process, earning raves for his performance at the combine and his pro day, and his face-to-face meetings have left teams impressed with his overall character.
But none of this year's top draft quarterbacks is a perfect prospect, and Allen is no exception. His completion percentage was 56 percent in 2016, his first full year as Wyoming's starter, and it barely went up (to 56.3 percent) in 2017. He struggled against top competition and didn't dominate lesser competition the way, say, Wentz did in college. And while his coaches say a lot of Allen's struggles can be explained by the drastic turnover the team underwent at positions like running back, receiver, tight end and center from 2016 to 2017, the negative numbers stand as evidence that he's not a finished product.
"Even though his [completion percentage] didn't change from '16 to '17, the way he threw the ball, the places he put the ball, the decisions he made -- I know those things improved," Vigen said. "Sometimes when you're chasing points in games and that's happening more than it should, you're not going to have numbers that reflect perfection and utopia. So the number is something that, you have to dig a little deeper than just seeing it on the surface. And I trust that the people making the decisions here coming up on April 26, they've dug as deep as they need to. But it's still a number there, and until he goes onto the next level and, I guess, dispels that myth, it'll still be there."
Former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky has been studying Allen, along with the other quarterbacks in this draft, as he transitions into an analyst role. He sees the "Wow!" throws. He respects the talent. He understands that Allen is going to be a high pick. But like several of the anonymous evaluators we surveyed, he's not sure he sees a franchise quarterback. And it's not the completion percentage that bothers him. Orlovsky said Allen often spends too much time staring down receivers, and that those bad eye habits take a lot of time and hard work to iron out at the pro level. Of greater concern, though, is what Orlovsky sees as Allen's lack of a consistent plan post-snap.
He points out one play against Iowa on which Allen calls the protection at the line, the entire line slides left, the right defensive end comes unblocked and Allen doesn't see him coming. Which means he called a protection (and it's great that he's calling his own protections in college, because not all quarterbacks do) and either didn't realize what would happen as a result or (worse) had no plan to deal with it.
"I've been with guys who shared those same qualities -- smart, can talk about it in the meeting room, can talk about it on the board, but in the game, when the brain has to speed up, can't do it," Orlovsky said. "Joey Harrington was like this. Josh Freeman was like this. Great guys, great talent, could get it in the room, on the board, in the meetings, but when you've got 20 seconds and you've got to do it for 65 plays and be perfect, they didn't have it.
"I've yet to be around a guy who flips that switch once he gets to the professional level. The reality is, if there was a quarterbacks coach who could do that for you in the NFL, he wouldn't be a quarterbacks coach."
Allen has a lot to overcome if he's going to make it as a franchise NFL quarterback, but he's equipped with some remarkable tools to help him do it. A lot of guys would love to have his problems and still be 6-5, 237 pounds with the ability to run. And if he does exceed expectations, it wouldn't be the first time.
A farm boy from tiny Firebaugh, California, who played baseball and basketball as well as football in high school, Allen didn't get any Division I scholarship offers. He ended up at Reedley College, near his hometown, and Wyoming's coaching staff found him there late in their 2014 season when they were playing in Fresno. He broke his collarbone in his first start as a Cowboy in 2015 and missed the rest of the season, so he didn't become a full-time starter until 2016.
"I'm the ultimate competitor," Allen said back in January in Mobile. "I'm not going to bow down to anybody. My main goal is to win. I'm going to do everything in my power to put the team in position to win the football game. I'm going to take everything with a chip on my shoulder still and go out there and compete."
He knows what he has to overcome, and he's overcome a fair bit to get here. And if this were only about how big and strong a quarterback was, they'd just have them all line up and heave and pick the guy whose ball landed the farthest distance away. So while Allen could well be the No. 1 pick in next week's draft, he's still a big question mark.
"Boy, I think they all are," Vigen said. "You step into a whole new world of speed in the NFL. Things are happening faster, you're immersed in a new culture. So I think for Josh, does he have the toughness and the ability to go out there and take some lumps? Does he have some resiliency? I think so. But I think it would serve him well to have a soft landing. I just don't know if that exists in this day and age."
There's the rub. If Allen's going to be the first player taken in the draft, or even the second, third, fifth or 10th player taken in the draft, there's going to be a segment of his drafting team's fan base that brands him "Instant Savior." If Cleveland takes him, the first sign of trouble for Tyrod Taylor will bring the first calls to play Allen. If the Giants take him, Eli Manning's first interception will send the cameras searching for Allen on the sideline in a baseball cap. If the Jets take him .... Sheesh, if the Jets take him, their fans are going to expect him to play right away, aren't they?
"I think he needs to be put in a situation where they're willing to coach him," Vigen said. "Because there's still room for growth as far as his understanding and how to apply it. I think, obviously, a situation where he could sit and learn, that would be the best for him. But if he is forced into it, what are the pieces around you? What's the defense like? What pressures are put on you to score points? All those things come into play."
Even if Vigen gets his wish, and Allen ends up on a team (the Giants?) where he doesn't have to play for the first year or even two, the pressure is coming for him eventually. When you get picked where Allen is going to get picked, and you're a quarterback, you're going to have to turn out to be a franchise quarterback, or else you're a bust. And there's more to being a franchise quarterback than just the franchise arm and the franchise frame.
"I remember one year, I was in Houston with Gary Kubiak, and he called me into his office," said Orlovsky, who spent 11 years in the NFL as a (mainly backup) quarterback. "He told me, '60 out of 65 plays, you're a good player in this league, but the other five, you do stuff I can't explain. And that's going to hold you back.' And that doesn't sound like much, but you realize as you go along ... the great players are 65 out of 65."
Can Josh Allen get to 65 out of 65? Can he overcome the young-player flaws in his game and forge his considerable gifts into a long-term, franchise-quarterback career? Some team's future may ride on the answer to those questions. Thursday night, we'll know which team that is. It'll be awhile before we know whether Allen is the guy his big right arm makes them hope he can be.