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  • Writer's pictureNicholas Vichinsky

Hendon Hooker Prospect Analysis: A Hook

Updated: Apr 16, 2023


Every year around this time, I get a little excited about the NFL draft. I listen to NFL big-wigs (rightfully so) discuss quarterbacks that they fall in love with. Bryce Young, CJ Stroud, Will Levis, and Anthony Richardson have separated themselves, in their eyes, from the rest of the pack this year. These individuals take up most of the media attention surrounding the number one overall pick. Their measurables are undeniable and these athletes certainly deserve their praises and high draft picks. However, to me, Hendon Hooker has the potential to be the steal of the draft.

Physically, Hooker ranks in the 95 percentile of QBs in the draft, measuring closely, with the top prospect CJ stroud. What’s more, mentally, he is known for his leadership and his football intelligence. This is a cliche, but NFL execs and simple football fans across the nation can see small personality traits that need maturing in CJ Stroud and Will Levis - such as facing adversity or in-pocket decision making. This is not the case for Hooker. Since transferring from Virginia Tech two years ago he has been the staple piece for Tennessee’s transformation back into a powerhouse in the SEC. The tone was set by him. Really, this is the only way to measure QB leadership: What is the success, performance, and climate like once he got there? No transformation was had by Kentucky with Will Levis, and CJ Stroud and Bryce Young inherited keys to college football’s mansions. This shows the ability to lead, to buy-in, and to transform an offense.

One of the things that makes Hooker a legit case study is his calm pocket demeanor. In working with QBs, one of the biggest factors limiting a QB's success (accuracy, awareness, etc.) is his ability to deliver a throw from the pocket. From the snap, Hooker is almost static in the pocket - in a positive way. He gets to the top of his drop and has statue-like positioning. What this allows a QB to do is to survey the field without “shaky field vision”, readjust feet to the throw, and the climb the pocket. In a NFL in which speed and disguise are a growing strategy, footwork is more important than ever. The best sample of this footwork is delivered in his game against Alabama (2022).

Take this example (seen here (0:38)). Hooker’s simple, calm footwork allows him to take a one-step drop, climb the pocket, and deliver a sideline ball. The throw, a bit under-thrown, is placed to draw a penalty. It was the quick, calm, and simplistic play-style that saves the sack and grants "another day". A second example shows that the footwork can do for his throws, timing, and precision. In this example(2:18), Hendon takes a one-step drop, sets his feet, checks off his first read, and delivers to the second. Again, this is almost a static adjustment that allows him to put the ball on the numbers. Compared to a Will Levis - or frankly any other top ten QB - who has a little bit more of the traditional “bounce”. This bounce, psychologically, speeds up the mind and game. Hooker’s ability to set the tone and pace of this throw with his feet is a defining factor of his game - in some ways reinventing what QB coaches believe about drops in general.

Outside of his footwork on drops, he is also mobile. Hooker displays the improviser tendency when options are covered. Again, this is not his first instinct. He would much rather prefer to throw, but when options are locked (analysis of these options will be discussed in a bit), Hooker will make the defining play of the offense. The Athletic interviewed multiple defensive coordinators about Hooker’s ability, many highlighting his ability in both the air and the ground game as a problem to defend.

“For the first time since RG3 at Baylor, we’re seeing a quarterback that can not only hurt you with his arm, but if the choice concepts aren’t there, he can kill you with his legs,” the first opposing defensive coordinator told me (The Athletic Mike Kuchar).

Obviously, the counter to this argument is that he is coming off an ACL tear. He did not participate in the combine or pro days and so his knee health is still in question. This is a valid argument. According to National Library of Medicine Study 92% (11/12) of QBs who underwent ACL surgery were able to return to the field fully recovered (Erickson, Harris, et. al, 2014). Not only that, but the study also highlighted that, between the control study and those reconstructed ACL players there was very little defining difference (Erickson, Harris, et. al, 2014). I will also mention here that Hooker will not go number one overall. Hooker needs time to heal. This is a "steal" argument not a "number-one-overall" argument.

Experts who have Hooker dropping in the second, usually point to the fact that Hooker is a “one-read” QB. Hooker, in facing this criticism, has stated, “I can’t help that defenders can’t guard my receivers… The way we run our offense… those are all grown man throws I’m not throwing any five-yard outs. I’m throwing big boy balls.” Here, Hendon brings up two impressive keys about himself. One is that the ball has to go to play makers - and his play makers are open. This does not mean his offense is simple, it means he accomplishes what offense is designed to do. That should not be a mark against Hooker. Secondarily, the point can be made that in Heupel’s system on every play is a triple option play, simultaneously. This means multiple reads, in different parts of the field. On any given play, there is a run read key, a QB keep read, a post snap RPO read, and an “access” read that can be thrown given a pre-snap or post-snap read. Together, this leads to 5 reads (at least) on every play. Yes, reads are different from progressions but quick offensive reads, like in Heupel's scheme, are not so different from progression it's just a skill that needs to be adapted. Another thing to consider is that offenses in the NFL are forced to adapt to the college game more frequently. Take, for example, his draft comp Geno Smith. One of the "weaknesses" of his game was that he took most of his passes from the shotgun and a pass heavy offense. Now, the game is almost exclusively done in a shotgun, pass heavy, offense - hence (possibly) a part of his recent success. Coaches in the NFL realized good coaching is molding a scheme to a player, not the other way around. We see this now with RPO concepts. It is not so much multiple progressions anymore as much of multiple read types.

Heupel's scheme, undoubtably, is a part of Hooker's success on the field, but critics still question the reality of his numbers. Critics point to his inflated numbers as a “system” statistic - again a part of this is true. They consider the simple-complexity of the offense too much for any college defense to be able to contain. That the high completion percentage for Hooker (69.6%) is a result of two NFL caliber receivers and an ability to reroute the ball to any concept given the look on the field. Most importantly critics claim the truth of his numbers lies in the 33.6% of his 10+ yard throws that were considered “uncatchable” - resulting in an “inaccuracy” at downfield attempts.

To this there are partial truths, but an overwhelming explanation. The offense uses the whole field as space (Fig. 1). From the figure, the estimated throw to a far side receiver, on any 10+ yard route, is at least 36 yards - this isn’t simply a 10 yard pass. This is more similar to the average NFL attempt on 10 yard plus connections as the hashes are closer together. What this results in is a clearer picture of Hooker's potential success in the NFL. Not to mention, this is not the full picture for Hooker's 10+ yard completions. In Tennessee’s offense this can be accomplished horizontally as well in “access routes” and other receiver screens to the far side (think, far hash to sideline). Simply put, even Hooker's "dink-and-dunk passes" are considered 10+ yard throws. Hence, the 33.6% doesn't not take into consider all 10+ yard targets.

So while the offensive system is used as a counter against Hooker, the offense actually accomplishes two things in Hooker’s benefit. One, simple throws are not simple - in Hooker’s words “they are big boy throws”. Two, a 69.6% completion percentage, considering the type of throws, was good enough to finish 7th all time in NCAA. Even his "high percentage uncatchable throws" weren’t inaccurate enough to ruin his overall completion percentage or his big play ability - Tennessee's offense was ranked #1 this past year in big plays. This was also achieved with 100 less attempts and completions than his average opponent - giving a higher inaccuracy ratio, less room for error - and more production in less attempts.

Overall, Hooker has the ability to make the difference. While he is one of the older guys in the draft he comes with a wide range of skills that aren’t seen often - fully displayed in his success in the most prolific college conference. The misunderstandings are a mix of narrative and this narrative can be easily rerouted to explain some of these misunderstandings about his game. He runs a system that is complex but user friendly, he takes advantage of the big play, adds the extra scrambling dimension to his game, and, on long throws or not, is the 7th most accurate passer in CFB history.

Best Fits:

  1. Detroit Lions: I think this would be a great fit for Detroit, especially if he falls to the second. He would get to sit behind Jared Goff while he fully recovers from the ACL. He will be brought in with a team revamped with weapons and Detroit will have their long-term answer and QB.

  2. Las Vegas Raiders: I think this would be a great option. Jimmy G has played that transition role his whole career and would be a great mentor to Hooker. I like the thought of McDaniels utilizing Hooker's ability, and I like the offensive weapons.

  3. Minnesota Vikings: Again, a young talented team, offensive HC, and a feeling of readiness to move on from an aging QB - in which he can learn and develop for a year.

  4. Tennessee Titans: For a lot of the same reasons I like Detroit, I like Tennessee. You have a talented roster with a smart HC. He can work behind Tannehill for a year and Malik Willis does not look to be the long term answer for them. A based running game and young receivers will help long term.

  5. New Orleans Saints: I wouldn’t say no to the Saints. They have a stacked receiving core and an addition of Jamal Williams gives a strong ground attack. They have a good history of sustaining a high achieving QB. The only thing to dislike about this is the inexperienced coaching core.


Cited Work Links

5. Erickson, B. J., Harris, J. D., Heninger, J. R., Frank, R., Bush-Joseph, C. A., Verma, N. N., Cole, B. J., & Bach, B. R. (2014). Performance and return-to-sport after ACL reconstruction in NFL quarterbacks. Orthopedics, 37(8), e728–e734. https://doi.org/10.3928/01477447-20140728-59


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