Josh Rosen has been billed as a top-tier NFL prospect for years. He was the second-ranked national recruit in the 2015 class, according to Rivals.com, after throwing for 8,473 yards with 90 touchdowns during his career at St. John Bosco High in Bellflower, California. He was named UCLA’s starting quarterback as a true freshman, and went on to complete 60.9 percent of his passes for 9,340 yards with 59 touchdowns in his three years with the Bruins. Rosen has long looked the part of a prodigiously gifted passer with a future bright enough to make you squint.
He declared for the NFL draft in January, and perhaps right on cue, that’s when the inevitable nitpicking started and questions about Rosen’s other traits began to arise. Reports surfaced that he was sometimes difficult to manage in college and occasionally butted heads with coaches. His history of speaking out on various social issues and his interests outside of football supposedly worried evaluators about his commitment to the game. And in a plot point straight from Draft Day 2: The Browns Are at It Again, concerns emerged as to whether Rosen’s affluent upbringing and prickly personality might alienate him from teammates. Not helping matters is former UCLA coach Jim Mora, who was asked Monday on NFL Network which QB he preferred with the first overall pick. “Because of fit, I would take Sam Darnold if I were the Cleveland Browns,” Mora said. “That blue-collar, gritty attitude. I think his teammates will love him.”
Let’s ignore for a moment that Darnold, like Rosen, grew up in Southern California near famed surf town Dana Point. And let’s brush aside the fact that plenty of cerebral quarterbacks with interests beyond their day jobs have thrived in the NFL. Rather than legislating for the hundredth or so time how stupid most of these arguments tend to be, let’s bring the focus back to what should truly determine Rosen’s draft position, and what made him a sought-after quarterback since he could legally drive: The guy can flat-out play.
Without fail, every scouting evaluation of Rosen mentions his history as a virtuoso young tennis player. This is often brought up as a negative — the idea being that Rosen’s background playing an individual sport points to his me-first tendencies. Watch Rosen in the pocket, though, and it appears those days on the tennis court served him well.
Rosen’s footwork and mechanics stand out right away, even compared to the other top-flight QB prospects in this draft. At UCLA, he consistently stayed under control, kept his balance, and delivered the football with precision. A significant chunk of his tape looks ripped directly from a quarterback fundamentals video. A number of other high-end college passers over the years have enticed teams with size, arm strength, and mobility, but have come with unrefined habits in the pocket. With Rosen, coaches know exactly what they would get in that regard.
The way Rosen deftly navigates the pocket to find solid throwing platforms opens up a few different aspects of his game. Although he isn’t a running threat (Rosen ran a 4.92-second 40-yard dash at the combine; the official scouting term for that is “really slow”), he’s capable of escaping pressure, especially off the edge. By climbing the pocket and regaining his balance, Rosen is able to make strong throws to secondary reads late in downs. He may lack the skill set to extend plays in the traditional sense as more mobile quarterbacks can, but Rosen can still hit on last-ditch throws by virtue of reestablishing command even after he is pushed off his initial spot.
That tendency becomes dicey when Rosen gets more ambitious. In UCLA’s 44–23 loss to Washington in late October, Rosen routinely tried to conjure big gains after plays broke down, and the results were ugly. He finished just 12-of-21 for 93 yards, and was sacked four times before being forced to leave the game in the third quarter. Rosen was later diagnosed with a concussion, one in a series of injuries that affected his college career.
At 6-foot-4, Rosen has the height of a prototypical NFL quarterback, but his wiry, 226-pound frame is far from ideal. Plenty of QBs have found success in the league without featuring the build of a professional weightlifter, yet the concern with Rosen is that he seemingly invites physical punishment. His penchant for milking all he can from a given play, even after it devolves into a mess, is maddening considering how well he plays within structure. One of the keys with Rosen’s development may be an NFL coach’s ability to save the young quarterback from himself, in contrast to the situations surrounding recent draft hits Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson.
When Rosen stays inside the structure of a given play, he can be devastating. Within the first seven and a half minutes of the Bruins’ 28–23 loss to USC last November, Rosen connected on two perfectly placed deep balls that provide a glimpse of how pure a thrower he can be. The first came on a first-and-10 from UCLA’s 21-yard line with 10:29 remaining in the first quarter. Rosen executed a play fake to his running back before setting up in the pocket and uncorking a picturesque throw to wide receiver Jordan Lasley about 40 yards down the field.
The bomb to Lasley is a telling example of several traits scouts should love about Rosen. The QB’s movements are ideal for hitting big completions on play-action, as his expert footwork allows him to quickly gain balance after feigning a handoff, and he snaps his head around after committing to the fake. Rosen surveys the entire field, stands tall despite knowing he’s going to take a hit, and delivers a beautiful throw.
The other element Rosen showcased throughout the USC game was an understanding of how to lead receivers into open areas of a defense. Rosen doesn’t have a rocket arm, and that can get him in trouble when he tries to heave it deep, giving defenders time to make up ground. At times, though, Rosen’s brain compensates for this deficiency. On the throw to Lasley (and more than a couple others against USC), Rosen used his knowledge of coverages and leverage to put the ball in a sea of space. He hits these types of throws with regularity, particularly in the intermediate areas of the field.
Rosen’s most impressive throw against the Trojans came on a third-down, play-action pass to tight end Austin Roberts. Before Roberts could even make his break from the slot, Rosen placed a ball to the outside, directly into his receiver’s outstretched hands and out of the cornerback’s reach.
This was Rosen at his finest: His ball placement is excellent, he has an uncanny ability to tailor his throws to different levels of a defense through a combination of zip and touch, and he’s able to drop passes over linebackers when needed. In certain scenarios, he can even rifle throws into tight windows because he rarely throws off his back foot.
A laser beam from Rosen to Roberts in the first quarter against USC illustrates two factors that arise when evaluating his game. First, this was a perfect throw that wound up on the ground, which was a notable issue for the 2017 Bruins. In the first two-plus quarters of a 47–30 loss to Arizona in October, UCLA dropped five passes and let a sixth catchable ball hit the turf. Second, this was the sort of cannon shot that occasionally results in Rosen’s biggest mistakes. His ability to fit throws like the one below into tiny windows gives him the confidence to take chances in the intermediate area of the field, and that can lead to head-scratching interceptions.
As with any college passer, it’s tough to know which of Rosen’s negative traits are symptomatic of his own faults or of his surroundings. In UCLA’s offense, he had a knack for trying to do too much, taking risks instead of settling for available throws. Yet it’s possible he’ll be more willing to play within the system and structure of an NFL offense that has superior receiving talent. Some college QBs have so many stars on their supporting casts that projecting them in the NFL requires imagining them navigating a worse situation. If Rosen ends up on, say, the Giants offense with Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard, and Evan Engram, the opposite will be true.
Rosen exhibited a handful frustrating habits in college, but he’s clearly a preternaturally gifted passer with advanced footwork and mechanics. That sounds like a combination of tools any coach would covet in a quarterback.