A Look Back: QB T.J. Yates of North Carolina

December 11, 2011 by  
Filed under Uncategorized

by Chris Kouffman


Quarterback T.J. Yates of the Houston Texans just won his third game as a Houston Texan, second as a starter, clinching the AFC South division title and a playoff berth.  Yates was a largely unheralded 5th round Draft selection out of North Carolina, a school which I’m to understand has never produced a quarterback that has thrown a touchdown in the National Football League…until now.

Houston Texans fans probably know who T.J. Yates is by now, but I think most of other NFL fans do not. As Yates caps off his third win, with two 4th quarter game-winning drives, the question people will soon begin to ask is, how far will this train go before it stops?  Can the Texans go far in the playoffs?  Do they have a quarterback-of-the-future that could see them attempting to trade Matt Schaub in the off season?

If one hopes to address these questions in any way, you can’t focus purely on who T.J. Yates has been in his three games as a Houston Texan.  There simply isn’t enough data.  You have to look at who T.J. Yates was as a college player, as well as who T.J. Yates has been as a pro, in order to plot a trajectory and get an idea of that infamous p-word, ‘potential’.

To that end, I have decided to post two scouting reports I drew up of Yates.  Between Simon Clancy, Richard Lines and myself, we drop a lot of scouting reports and a lot of player comments in a number of different places around the web, be they Miami Dolphins fan boards, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, or this here website.

The following scouting report was a done on 12/27/2010 for a Miami Dolphins fan board known as ThePhins.com and can be found in its original form HERE.  You will notice a lot of references to Pat Devlin of Delaware in the report.  This is not coincidental.  Pat Devlin and T.J. Yates were two quarterback prospects that resembled one another a lot on the football field, in that they seemed to operate heavily in dink and dunk offenses, with both players embracing the nuances of the position such a quick release, using eyes to draw defenders away from the target, and throwing with good touch and timing.  In the end, I preferred Yates heavily over Devlin because Yates was able to have success against much higher levels of competition, seemed to throw well when asked to make bigger throws, had a more accurate deep ball, was a better game manager especially in two-minute situations, and handled the pre-Draft process better.

I think that if the Miami Dolphins drafted T.J. Yates in the 2nd Round of the 2011 Draft, there would be a lot of boos. I would not be among them, and I would argue hard to soothe peoples’ anger over that. In my heart, he’s that caliber a prospect.

Background: He was not a super high recruit out of High School. He only played one year at Pope High School, but he’d been playing football since he was 4 years old. He was a multi-sport athlete. He averaged 18 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists as a backetball player. He threw for 2300 yards and 17 TDs, rushed for 300 yards and 7 TDs, and punted 34 times for 1237 yards in his one year at Pope High. He was rated the 60th prospect in the state of Georgia by SuperPrep. You know what I find funny? I’ll get to more about this later, but the players I wanted to compare him to are Peyton Manning and Chad Pennington. Sure enough, in his background, one discovers that he grew up near Indianapolis and his favorite team is the Colts, and he follows them closely to this day. It shows.

Surrounding Cast & Offense: This is a pro style offense, almost to its own detriment. It’s a play-action based system with a vertical passing game, rollouts, protections, double moves, delay routes, pump fakes, check down options, hot reads, cut-offs, option routes, screens, audibles, everything you might see at the NFL level or on the Miami Dolphins (except ironically, more detail and execution oriented). His offensive line is not particularly good at all. As Simon once put it, Right Tackle Mike Ingersol is the second worst offensive lineman he’s graded all year. Heading into this year, Yates had to be awful excited about having the likes of WR Greg Little, RB Johnny White, RB Anthony Elzy and TE Zach Pianalto. Too bad! Little got caught up in the huge NCAA violations snafu along with Marvin Austin, out for the entire year. Pianalto made it 6 games before getting hurt. Anthony Elzy was one of his top passing targets and made it 8 games before he got hurt. Johnny White made it 9 games before getting hurt. And let’s not mention the players on defense that have had to miss all or part of the year, due to the scandal. A defense that was supposed to be the best in the country has instead allowed 23 points a game. New targets have emerged for Yates, chief among them the deep threat Dwight Jones. Erik Highsmith is not a dynamic player, and the tight ends after Pianalto are just bodies. Yet, they are 7-5 and haven an upcoming Bowl game against the Tennessee Volunteers.

Throwing Skills: He doesn’t have a hot cannon like some of these players (Ryan Mallett, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert), but he doesn’t have to get a full follow-through in order to get juice on his 20-25 yard throws either. I would say his arm is somewhere in the viscinity of Andrew Luck’s. He can smoke the 15 to 20 yard ball, and launch the ball 60 yards vertically with high trajectory and good spin on a relatively painless wind-up and delivery. He regularly does so, and very, very accurately. He throws naturally, he doesn’t aim the ball on his short throws, or look awkward in any way. His comfort zone is between 15 and 25 yards, and he’ll opt for throws in that range within the offense on most of his throws. But as I mentioned, he mixes them up with 50 to 60 yard verticals, which are most often on the mark. I can watch Blaine Gabbert hit 1 of 7 deep vertical throws, where T.J. Yates even with players he didn’t necessarily know he’d be relying on, will hit on more like 6 of 7 deep verticals right in stride. His ability on the deep vertical is one of the more amazing aspects of his game. When he misses, he only JUST misses. He leads his receiver excellently. Speaking of leading his receiver, his passing offense is really very oriented toward hitting receivers on the move rather than receivers coming back to the quarterback. It’s more RAC-friendly. On the one hand this means that he doesn’t have a lot of tape of the kinds of throws Chad Henne is asked to make regularly, the comebacks and curls, etc. On the other hand, it shows how good his location is that he can get the ball to players on the move and run a more RAC-friendly offense, and those offenses are more successful in the NFL than Miami’s conservative passing principles.

Throwing Mechanics: Sometimes his ball will come out at about an earhole delivery, due to his focus on quick, three-quarters release. This is especially the case due to his focus on passes in the 15 to 25 yard range through the air. This is as opposed to Pat Devlin, who has the same quick release, but still gets the ball up over top even on the short passes. Yates gets his arm up on bigger throws, and like I said his release is quick and mechanically very sound. He steps into his throws, as [some] point out, he stays over his front foot. On his deep throws, his shoulder aiming is ideal.

Pocket Mechanics: This is the most fundamentally sound technician in the Draft at the quarterback position, overall. As I said before, it’s funny watching him and thinking, I’m watching a young Peyton Manning, he’s THAT obsessive-compulsive over the details and minutae…and then you find out he’s been a Colts fan all his life and keeps close track of them to this day. His fake and handoff mechanics go beyond “good”. To him, they’re at the level of an art. He sticks the ball out, ducks his head, and has a commitment to making his fakes and handoffs look identical. He takes the time and shows haste and commitment to faking after the handoff, whether it be faking like he still has the ball and he’s about to pass it, or faking an end-around handoff after the fact. He is a dropback passer that pops his head around quickly after the play fake, and his feet are in a real hurry to get back from center. He moves his feet quickly and doesn’t elongate his stride, which makes him more reactive during his setup. He uses the pocket and slides through it rather than running away from it, breathing well inside the pocket. I don’t sense issues with batted balls. At quarterback you want a guy that owns the football, and he owns the football. He is able to quickly get control of bad shotgun snaps, and on other shotgun snaps his ability to get control of the ball looks effortless. His manipulation of defensive players on screens is very good.

Offensive Command: His mastery of this fully pro style play-action vertical passing and screen offense is not quite at Peyton Manning levels, but you can tell that he is committed to being there the more he works at it. He makes every detail of the game his obsession, including things like a hard count with a subtle head bob, things of that nature. He regularly audibles, uses formation changes, motion, sets protections, and calls for hot reads and cutoffs. He runs the offense like a top, never runs into time issues, never seems to need a timeout. He seems particularly good at running the offense through the 2 minute drill. He executed one of the most impressive 60 second drills I’ve seen this season college or pro in his first game of the 2010 season against LSU. He started the drive with the ball at his own 27 yard line, 1:08 remaining with NO timeouts, and down 6 points against a top SEC defense. He methodically got the ball all the way to LSU’s 6 yard line before Zach Pianalto dropped two balls in the end zone to end the game, the second drop featuring Defensive Pass Interference that went uncalled.

Reading Defenses: His ability to read the field is highly evident. He is not quite as adept at using his eyes to fake defenders as Pat Devlin, but he’s close, and he is right there with Devlin as far as taking in the whole field and getting down to his 3rd and 4th reads. He, like Devlin, is far more advanced than Blaine Gabbert in this regard. Except, unlike Pat Devlin, this guy is doing it against the likes of LSU, Florida State, Clemson and NC State, and that really has to count for something. One thing that he shows that I really like is the ability to stay on the same page and read the improvisation of his receivers. His receiver we’ll point somewhere, he’ll SEE IT, and he’ll make the throw. You wouldn’t think so, but it’s pretty rare for a quarterback to be able to see everything on the field and have the game be slow for him to where he can make those kinds of reads and decisions on the fly. He will play with a trust level in his receivers, throwing the ball and letting them make a play on it. The throwaway is very much in his arsenal, he does it regularly, he’s an unselfish player. He understands how to play the high-low game to victimize zone coverage and going back to the eyes, it’s one of the many details that uses and I have no doubt he’ll continue to work on it at the next level. I have noticed that he can be robbed underneath, and at times he can forget zone defenders coming from way over. Virginia Tech had a successful strategy to take away his deep ball and force some turnovers, and that was to have the defensive back on the back side bail all the way back and help with the deep vertical to the play side. He can also try and fit the ball into too tight a window, at times, relying on his arm too much. This is the sin of many a great, confident quarterback.

Timing & Anticipation: His timing and anticipation are about as good as it gets at this level. He throws the ball often before the player makes his break. He gets good timing on the ball even on 3rd or 4th reads, without necessarily hurrying through his progression or skipping open players. He shows good timing on screens to the runner.

Ball Location: He will go through pretty long stretches where his ball location on short routes is excellent, but then he can screw it up at times, as most of these guys do. He has much better ball location than Blaine Gabbert, from what I’ve seen. Pat Devlin might have better location, just because Devlin can go almost an entire game without throwing more than one or two off on the location. Again though I have to emphasize that his placement on the deep vertical is pretty damn special.

Under Pressure: This is his biggest weakness, really. He’s a safe decision maker under pressure, but he will also get sacked. He doesn’t have the physical prowess to step up and create on the move. This is not unlike Peyton Manning. If you get Peyton on the move, you’re putting him in a position where he’s a lot less effective. He’s up and down on the bootleg with pressure on his face. I’ve seen him take sacks and look a little questionable on it because he can’t create, but at the same time I often see him get his head around quickly and release the ball very quickly off the boot. If the guy is open, the ball is coming out catchable and timely. If he’s not, and there’s pressure right in his face off the boot, that’s where sack issues come into play. He also needs to learn to slide in appropriate situations. He may have an alarming number of the details right, but there are still other details left to be mastered.

Touch: His touch on short passes is natural, and on the deep verticals is downright perfect. The ball doesn’t sail, he gets the nose of the football down. If you want to see a deep passing CLINIC, then watch his game against Florida State this year. You will see what I mena. His combination of timing, footwork, and touch on the screen pass make him probably the most advanced screen passer in the Draft, and North Carolina commonly used the screen pass as a weapon. What is more of a question mark is his shoulder aiming, touch and accuracy on the kinds of passes designed to fit into the spaces between the zones. He doesn’t make a whole lot of use of the intermediate depth areas, so there isn’t a lot of tape of these kinds of throws.

On-Field Demeanor: He is very calm on the field, communicates well. I don’t see him angry, don’t sense selfish throws or selfish plays. He seems to get excited along with his players. I just don’t sense an issue this way.

Feet: Nobody is ever going to confuse him for a track star. When you get him out of the pocket and on the hoof, you’re more holding your breath than anything else, because you know that more often than not, the best you’re hoping for is a throwaway decision. However, his feet in the pocket are not at all leaden. They’re very lively, within the pocket. He can step up, into and through the pocket, finding passing lanes. He’s much quicker than Chad Henne in this way, because the feet match the speed of his mind, and he’s a quicker thinker than Chad Henne.

Overall: Peyton Manning is the name that keeps coming to mind as I watch him play. Not necessarily because he’s got Peyton’s talent, but because he’s got Peyton’s dedication to the details and the art of operating an offense on the field as a field general. As I said, I looked back at my initial notes on Yates and the name Peyton Manning popped up four times. Then I do some more background and discover Yates grew up around Indianapolis and is a big Colts follower to this day. That’s the definition of ‘not a coincidence’. I just got done telling another fellow draftnik it wouldn’t surprise me if T.J. Yates had been to Manning Camp. Sure enough I do some more checking as I write this, he attended Manning Passing Academy three years in a row 2008, 2009 and 2010. There, he taught 900 kids how to play quarterback. What exactly did Manning boys put Yates in charge of teaching in 2009? What else? Throwing the long ball. “You have to get a high release, wide base and get some air under the ball so the nose will be pointing down and land right where you want it. We put a bucket downfield and had the kids try to throw into it”. The reason you buy a T.J. Yates is the reason he’s the only QB I can think of that has been to three straight Manning Camps…commitment to the art of playing quarterback. He is committed to mastering every minute detail of the game, and quite frankly, he’s shown in 2010 a monstrous aptitude for getting those details right on an every-play basis. He makes mistakes and he gets careless, but that commitment to the art of playing quarterback was always present in 2010, every game. The release, the technique, the mechanics, fakes, hand-offs, eye use, understanding what a defense is doing to him, understanding what he wants to do with his offense, getting players on the same page with him.

We talk a lot about upside in the Draft game. The quarterback is a unique position, because it’s one where discussions of upside are not exclusive to the subject of a guy’s size, his arm strength, his inherent accuracy, or his feet. With a quarterback there is an upside associated with how much information a guy can process at one time. There is an upside in how dedicated a guy is at getting every minute detail of the position down. There is an upside associated with how hard a guy is willing to work in order to prepare each week for the game. Those are T.J. Yates’ weapons. They’re his tools. They’re the reason he should continue to get better, the same reason why even when everyone thought guys like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were maxed out by their fourth or fifth years in the league…they continued to get even better and better. I don’t know how good T.J. Yates will end up. What I do know is he’s really good right now, and even though I think you’re going to hear some people claim that his upside is limited, or he’s as good as he’s going to be, I can guarantee that he’ll get better…because he has the commitment to the details and the art of playing the game. Oh, and the size, arm strength, accuracy, all that? Not bad, either.

Never one to stop harping on a player that I’ve developed a liking for, I continued to post comments on Yates in several places as we digested his All Star, Combine and Pro Day performances.  I wrote the following update on 3/31/2011 for another Miami Dolphins fan board known as FinHeaven.com and the report can still be found in its original form HERE.

Evidently for whatever reason he was asked to throw 112 passes at his Pro Day…and he completed 110 of them.

You guys know me, you know I like Yates a lot. I consider him a guy that could absolutely become a franchise starter in the NFL.

I’ve been doing a lot of work on QBs and part of it is comparative work, putting clips up of similar throws from different players, which sort of highlights in your mind the difference between the players.

I have to say, Yates’ footwork is FREAK-ISH. I mean downright FREAK quality.

What I found when I did my studies of QB releases was that if you measure the release from the lead-foot up, and then from the throwing elbow up, you obviously get different time readings. One is the full motion and the other is just the arm motion only.

Across the board, I found that guys with weaker arms tended to have more discrepancy between foot-up and elbow-up release times. In other words, Ryan Mallett’s motion from lead foot-up would be something like 49 milliseconds, but his motion from drop elbow-up would be 43 milliseconds. But Andy Dalton, who has a much weaker arm, would be lead foot-up at 56 milliseconds (forget the exact numbers), and arm-up would be 41 milliseconds. The disparity between those (6 milliseconds and 15 milliseconds, respectively), would roughly correlate with strong-armed guys and weak-armed guys.

This is intuitive! I measured intermediate pocket passes with pocket rhythm. Guys with naturally weaker arms need their feet more to get the torque to drive the football, and it would only follow that would increase the time from when they start up with their lead foot and then start up their arm motion.

The exception? T.J. Yates. I don’t think people accuse this guy of having a big arm, although sometimes you have to wonder when you see him throw the ball 55 or 60 yards thru the air with perfect ball placement on a vertical while on the run. But Yates had the SMALLEST discrepancy between foot-up and arm-up motions….of any QB I measured. His feet just move that fast and his weight transferrance is that efficient. He can shuffle and reset his feet inside the pocket, and then throw the ball like boxer punch, quicker than any player in this draft.

And he’s ACCURATE. He’s accurate short, and he’s accurate deep. The problem is, in his ultra-conservative offense, you didn’t see him throw a bunch of those intermediate sized 25 to 35 yard throws (thru the air, as the crow flies). You have to put together reams of tape to isolate enough of those throws to get a good sense for his accuracy. Luckily, nobody’s ever accused me of being lazy, when it comes to Draft stuff. I’ve found that on those throws he has what I consider requisite accuracy, which is about 80 percent hitting the WR’s hands.

And did I mention, he probably has THE most accurate deep ball in the Draft? Even more accurate than Newton or Mallett. When he played basketball, he was a star 3-point shooter. It shows in his deep ball as he drops that ball right in the bucket with great placement, timing and arc. I don’t know why [some seem] on a crusade against high-arc deep balls. From what I’ve heard, especially from [Miami Dolphins cornerback] Sean Smith, quarterbacks are more prone to high-arc on their deep balls in the NFL, and hitting the outside shoulder, than in college.

He’s a little over-aggressive, as [some have] come to say, “The REAL T.J. Yates” shows up every now and then”. [They are] referring to how in 2009 and prior, Yates did throw some interceptions.

He’s an excellent game manager. That’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing. He manages the clock. He manages situations. I don’t know if there’s a quarterback in this Draft that I would take over him if I had less than 2 minutes remaining with no timeouts and I needed to drive 50 or 60 yards to either get a touchdown or field goal to prevent losing the game. That’s saying a LOT.

His dedication to the details is PHENOMENAL. Many times I mentioned in my initial scouting reports the name “Peyton Manning”…and as I did background on him, I found that he grew up and still is a diehard Colts fan, and has attended Manning Camp three consecutive years. What was he in charge of teaching the kids at Manning Camp? What else? THE DEEP BALL.

But you’re talking a four year starter that has been thru ALL the ups and downs, kept fighting, fought thru adversity, all the hate mail, etc…and got BETTER. A guy that is accurate short, accurate intermediate and REAL accurate deep, a guy that is naturally aggressive but was harnessed by a conservative offense, a guy with FREAK footwork, the quickest release in the Draft, a dedication to the smallest of details, extremely hard worker, a leader, great game, situation and time manager…and this guy is so under the radar it’s sickening.

Yeah, I’ve put Ponder above him. That hasn’t always been the case. I do think physically Christian’s top line is just higher as he’s got more athletic ability and experience throwing the intermediate ball more often. You don’t know if Yates is going to be a risky thrower when he has to throw more aggressively again. That’s the danger.

But I see Yates as like another Trent Green, similar footwork, similar effective deep ball.

So there you have it.  Patting myself on the back?  Unabashedly, yes.  But I’m also giving a valuable background in Yates as a collegiate football player and Draft prospect.  Put simply, I don’t truly believe that any good pro quarterback comes from absolutely nowhere.  They may come from an undrafted background, as did Tony Romo and Kurt Warner.  They may come from the 6th round, as Tom Brady did.  But in each case, someone somewhere saw a gifted passer with a promising future.  I am far less inclined to buy into the short-term success of a quarterback, if absolutely NONE amongst those whose opinions I value on the subject, saw anything in the guy whatsoever.  If that were the case, I would be more inclined to chalk the short-term success up to chance, and wait for the clock to strike twelve on Cinderella.

That could very well happen with T.J. Yates.  He is, after all, a rookie.  He does, after all, have significant weaknesses.  However, he’s not a guy that absolutely nobody saw coming, and I think that’s important to note.

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