You might have heard about this, but Tyrod Taylor is playing like a good starting quarterback for the Buffalo Bills this season.
Following Thursday night's win in New York, Taylor is leading the league in completion percentage, is seventh in touchdown percentage, fifth in yards per attempt, and fifth in adjusted yards per attempt. These are numbers you would expect to see from a first-round, franchise quarterback, yet Taylor was a minor free agent signing this past offseason, a former sixth-round pick who had never started an NFL game in his four pro seasons.
Draft analysts like to talk about "project" quarterbacks each year. You know the type: they are usually good athletes with an extraordinary trait, but that have a clear flaw or two to their game, as well. That extraordinary trait that makes people take notice - whether it's a cannon arm, amazing speed, or the will to win at all costs - is what yields that "project" label. Yet despite the focus on finding project quarterbacks, Taylor's situation stands out as unique, because it's so rare to see a player sit untouched on a bench for several years and earn a starting job later.
In recent memory, the only other quarterbacks to claim that opportunity are Matt Cassel and Ryan Mallett. Cassel parlayed seven years of backing up bigger names into a successful 2008 season in relief of the injured Tom Brady, which led him to more starting stints and a big contract. Mallett spent three years in New England, as well, before being traded to Houston, where he was given a few chances to take the starting job (never mind that he slept through them).
There are other "experiments" set to complete in the next couple of years.
Peyton Manning is playing comparatively poor football this season and may be nearing the end of his career, leaving Denver to decide the fate of their backup, Brock Osweiler. A 6'7", 245-pound quarterback with plenty of arm talent, Osweiler has been dutifully sitting on the bench behind Manning for all four years of his career, with only 30 regular season passes to his name. If Manning retires, Osweiler is set to graduate to the starting job, and the league will find out if the combined tutelage of Manning, former offensive coordinator Adam Gase, and current head coach Gary Kubiak will have sculpted Osweiler into a quality starter.
In the case of New York Giants quarterback Ryan Nassib, the situation is a little murkier. Nassib has one year remaining on his rookie contract, and has only attempted five passes playing behind the durable Eli Manning. With the starter locked into a new contract, there's a good chance Nassib elects to try for an improved role as a free agent in 2017.
The success or failure of players like Osweiler and Nassib will add to the rhetoric surrounding whether Taylor's hot start in Buffalo has been a result of nature or nurture. All of them have been placed in relatively stable positions with good coaching and the opportunity to sit behind intelligent veterans. They have barely seen the field at this point in their careers, and they stuck around as longer-term backups, not overly worried about escaping camp with a roster spot each year. If they come in and show accuracy, maturity, and the ability to read the field, it might encourage a shift in how teams handle their newly-drafted quarterbacks.
On the other hand, they may flame out altogether (and for that matter, it's not too late for Taylor to do so, even after his early success). Not every project quarterback will pan out, even in a short term with low expectations. The highly athletic Logan Thomas was a fourth-round pick in Arizona, and sat behind starter Carson Palmer for just one season before he was released. He's now on another team's practice squad.
What is it about Taylor that has enabled him to develop the way he did? As a prospect, he was noted as a hard worker who continuously improves, and had a strong arm and quick release. He was also the best athlete in his quarterback class, with good mobility in the pocket. While his accuracy was scattershot due to undeveloped mechanics and a desire to throw on the run, he also flashed an impressive eye for ball placement downfield. Sure enough, what stands out watching Taylor play today is his impressive deep ball touch, his pocket mobility, and the consistent accuracy, supported by improved throwing mechanics. It certainly helps that he is playing in an offense designed by Greg Roman, who is comfortable scheming plays with moving pockets, deep routes, and familiar reads.
When scouting quarterbacks, if we want to believe in the development of a project player, we need to keep these important traits in mind to be realistic about identifying the diamonds in the rough. Taylor's mechanics were inconsistent, but he showed an awareness and understanding of where the ball needs to be placed for a receiver to catch it in stride. Thomas, on the other hand, had an excellent arm, but couldn't read a defense or throw the ball where it needed to go on most plays, and that doesn't look like it can be taught.
Where do you think Taylor sits in the grand scheme of project quarterbacks? Does his success show that players like Osweiler and Nassib should be good quarterbacks once their number is called? Or is he a special case that we might not see again for another 10 years? Is Taylor going to change the way you evaluate quarterback prospects? Maybe you are still waiting for teams to figure out Taylor.