Shedeur Sanders has flaws in his game that need fixing to be truly considered a first-round NFL Draft talent

(Bruno Rouby/Yahoo Sports)
(Bruno Rouby/Yahoo Sports)

The quarterback position, at every level of football, is going to have some semblance of heavy weight and a bright spotlight on it. It is one of two positions to, on a typical play, touch the ball (along with the appropriately named center). Even a play that requires nothing more than a handoff to a running back requires some effort on it, whether it’s the QB using their voice, receiving the football in some capacity or at least moving their feet in a preordained way. Think of what Matt Saracen went through.

It’s not just the physical requirements — the height, weight and arm strength — of the position that grow higher. As the levels rise, the spotlight gets bigger, as do the asks and baseline requirements (along with every other position in sports but I'm focusing on the gunslingers here). Playing quarterback, and playing quarterback well, require more than a strong arm. Deepening the understanding of the position helps speed up, and clean up, the physical side. Understanding pass protections, route footwork, adjustments, and coverage rules (and rule breakers) lead to speeding up the mental checklist, which speeds up footwork, which speeds up the time to throw. This trickle-down effect leads to that “anticipation” word that gets thrown around too much. It's the anticipation of not only where the quarterback’s teammates are going to be but also where defenders are going to move to before they even do it. Getting the throw off with touch and well before the catch point creates room for error, new ways to push the ball down the field and that tasty cake-like "layering" of the ball that opens up new angles and opportunities on a passing play.

When studying Colorado QB Shedeur Sanders, the physical attributes are easily apparent. He has good size (6-foot-2, 215 pounds), is a solid athlete and viable runner. He can crank up his arm strength and fire throws over the middle and down the field.

Sanders throws a beautiful deep pass, and can drop the ball in when he has his feet right and his process does not feel disrupted. That last point must be emphasized because it shows up often when studying Sanders, which I have to emphasize means studying Sanders to this point in time, before his next (and likely final) season in Boulder commences.

(All data in this breakdown is via TruMedia unless otherwise noted.)

Those two throws in the embedded tweets above are the flashes in Sanders’ game. He can drive on throws and he even shows good ball placement on underneath passes.

The frustrating part when studying Sanders is you seldom see him work throws in the intermediate parts or past the sticks when in rhythm. Colorado’s offense, especially as the 2023 season went along, often felt off-kilter, an explosive play sandwiched between a quarterback under duress and pre-snap penalties. Sanders was sacked on 10.2% of his dropbacks in 2023, a high number compared to the FBS quarterback average of 6.1%. It's a mark that only three quarterbacks drafted in the first three rounds have topped in a single season — Jayden Daniels, Will Levis and Malik Willis.

Sanders ended up taking sacks at an unsustainable rate for consistent success in 2023, which was often attributed to Colorado’s poor offensive line that was patchworked together with players from the transfer portal. And while the Buffaloes’ line was nowhere close to an elite unit, it was not the horror show it was often depicted as.

Sanders was pressured on 36.8% of his dropbacks in 2023, well above the national average and something that tracks with Colorado’s personnel up front. But the hit rate for defenses when Sanders was under duress was higher than others who were pressured around the same amount. Let's look at comparable penultimate seasons for recent top draft picks. Drake Maye was pressured on 37.1% of his dropbacks in 2022 and was sacked on 7.7% of his dropbacks, a figure that’s a touch too high but more palpable when looking at his pressure to sack rate of 18.3%. It's a metric that has some correlation for quarterbacks jumping from college to the NFL. Caleb Williams was pressured on 33% of his dropbacks in his first year at USC in 2022 but was sacked only 5.7% of his dropbacks, leaving an easily tolerable pressure to sack rate of 16%.

Sanders’ pressure to sack rate of 25.3% in his first season at Colorado puts him in the red flag territory of players like Justin Fields and Sam Howell (that's something I touched on in my study of Jayden Daniels).

Some of this was on Colorado’s offensive line, especially against opponents like Nebraska and Oregon, which put the Mandible Claw on Colorado’s protection plans with their blitz packages. But some of this was on Sanders’ ability to create and operate when under duress.

Taking sacks isn’t the end-all be-all. It's more about how a quarterback mitigates potential sacks and creates positive, or at least neutral, plays instead of an outright negative one. A sack doesn’t have to be a drive ender if the quarterback or offense can create explosive plays to overcome it. Sanders sprinkles in throws down the field with good ball placement to open up the offense, but all too often he is instead working the ball underneath. That's fine in ball-control situations, but it would often lead to a suffocating feeling with Colorado, and a fear that one negative play would throw the emergency break on an offense trying to get up to the speed limit.

Sanders will pepper throws and give his teammates room to work throwing underneath, but he defers to throwing the low option on “high-low” concepts the majority of the time. That approach leaves yards and first downs on the field for a safer and easier answer. In simple baseball talk, it's an attempt to make contact and scrap out a single rather than tilting the shoulder back and letting the bat fly.

This type of style can work! But, with Sanders, it’s to the extreme. His average air yards to the sticks was -1.6 yards in 2023. Only Bo Nix, a quarterback I saw as more of a third-round talent, had a lower single-season number (and he had two of them) of any FBS quarterback drafted in the first three rounds since 2020. When combined with Sanders’ propensity to take sacks, it can lead to a lot of uphill drives and an unsustainable path to success.

(Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports)
(Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports)

And back to those sacks, because they weren’t entirely on Colorado’s offensive line.

Sanders has a few things to clean up this next season, something he hopefully can do with another year of experience. When reviewing 2023, Sanders’ eyes would come down during the pass rush and he would drift backward in the pocket. If his first read wasn’t cleanly open, Sanders would constantly go into chaos mode — and not with overwhelmingly great results.

Stepping up into the pocket, into the teeth of the defense, is like a boxer leaning into a punch. Drifting backward is a habit all quarterbacks have to break. It's non-negotiable and a damning trait in the NFL. It creates easier angles for edge defenders, the best athletes on the entire field, to run around offensive tackles. It also creates more difficult throws, disrupts timing, adds distance and gives defenders time to close on the football.

Even the threat of pressure had a tendency to unravel Sanders’ operation. When he was confident with his pocket and what the defense was about to do, he stood and delivered. When he started to guess because his first option was taken away or he felt like a pass rusher was about to instantly win, the negative plays and stalled drives started to mount.

While Sanders threw only three interceptions in 2023, he still has negative plays to shore up in his game. And even those interceptions indicate some of his lack of target aggression, another area for improvement. The lack of a quick trigger on his throws would also cause him to be a hair late, something that could get compounded by his elongated throwing motion that doesn’t allow him to tap into his arm strength. When throwing on quick-game concepts, that longer motion and split-second delay would cause frequent batted balls (2.8% of his passes were batted down; no NFL quarterback drafted in the first three rounds since 2020 broke 2%) and to more contested catches because of the additional time for defenders to recover. That elongated motion also speaks to how rigid and robotic Sanders can look when throwing, which can lead to consistent mechanics but narrows the lane of success because it doesn’t tap into looser and more creative arm angles.

There is also the game operation component that Sanders and Colorado will hopefully clean up in 2024. Last season, Colorado’s offense suffered from 29 false starts, 10th-most in the country according to PFF, sometimes on back-to-back instances. Remember what I said that even on run plays, the quarterback has something to do? Cadence is often a good indicator of how clean the quarterback (and general offense) operation is.

Again, this was all reviewing Sanders in his first year at a new program with new play-callers (emphasis on plural) and dozens (hundreds?) of new faces. But for Sanders to be considered a top-five or even a top 32-type of NFL Draft prospect, he has to have a firmer grasp of the other aspects of the position. He has to develop answers for the problems defenses present, answers from scheme and physical standpoints. Sanders needs to unlock more creativity and look less rigid in his movements and operation.

It's about playing quarterback rather than “football thrower,” anticipating not only throws but how to get those attempts off. Those are plays Sanders might have to drift in the pocket, shortcut to secondary and auxiliary answers, or hang until the last moment to find that late explosion down the field.

All players and prospects, no matter how good they are or how highly they are regarded, have room for improvement. Based off just 2023, Sanders has way more under construction heading into the 2024 season than what has been sold off his play so far.