Oregon's senior transfer quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. flew under almost everyone's radar this year -- until Saturday. In the East West Shrine game, he went OFF, throwing 6-9 for 191 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in limited time to lead the West to victory.
That includes the longest touchdown pass in Shrine game history, 93 yards to Purdue's Danny Anthrop after Adams bought several seconds of time with his trademark elusivity.
Adams also threw two red-zone bullets, including a beautiful 10-yard timing pass to Geronimo Allison, and ran twice for 18 and 6 yards. He was named MVP of the game, and for a time was trending worldwide on Twitter at #5.
"Why haven't I heard of this guy?" you might be asking yourself. Well, he played his first three years (plus a redshirt season) at tiny FCS Eastern Washington University before transferring to Oregon for his final year of eligibility. Then he failed a math final which he couldn't retake until August 13th, two weeks before the season began. In the first game against his old school EWU, Adams broke a finger, which caused him to throw erratically in a 3-point loss to #5 Michigan State the following week. Then he missed a month while his finger healed.
He was strong for the rest of the season, including impressive wins against USC and Cal (where he outplayed top prospects Cody Kessler and Jared Goff). But when he finally regained the national spotlight in the Alamo Bowl against TCU, he suffered a head injury and left the game in the second quarter. Oregon led 28-0 when he left the game, and lost 47-41 in triple overtime.
The 49ers were the only team NFL.com listed as talking to Adams before his standout performance, so presumably they are well aware of his charms. Should they draft him?
Here are the pros and cons as I see them. I should note that I make no claim to be an draft expert or scout, though I did cover Adams from the Autzen Stadium press box for 3 of his games this year. He was super fun to watch.
Adams has an incredible ability to escape pass rushers and buy time to make a play. He is often compared to Russell Wilson, also 5'11," but may actually be better at escaping pressure.
That elusivity starts with his footwork. Adams' feet are constantly moving, which enables him to bounce off of would-be tacklers and reset himself for throws downfield.
3. Eyes downfield
Unlike many mobile quarterbacks, such as RGIII and Colin Kaepernick, who like to run as soon as the pocket breaks down, Adams has a great knack for keeping his eyes downfield and finding a receiver who gets open. USC cornerback Adoreé Jackson summed up what it was like to try to defend those extended plays:
"It felt like they went on forever."
4. Field vision
Even as he dodges rushers, Vernon had a remarkable knack for finding the man who gets open in Chip's system. Given his lack of height, I have to think this comes from an intuitive understanding of where receivers in Chip Kelly's system will end up. Much taller QBs such as Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford were not nearly as effective playing for Chip in Philadelphia.
Adams also uses his eyes to look off defensive backs, and throws accurately and quickly, at least on shorter throws. (Some still question his long range arm strength.)
Watch any interview with Adams and you can see the shrewdness in his eyes. While he did fail the math test that set back his entry into Oregon, he also picked up Chip Kelly's system with amazing speed once he was allowed in. Part of that intelligence is his knack for avoiding contact. He slides very effectively to avoid unnecessary hits. He puts into practice Chip's mantra for quarterback running: "Touchdown, first down, get down." In other words, don't run a yard farther than you need to and avoid hits.
Adams is only 5'11, by his own admission. There are a couple NFL QBs of that size who have succeeded, notably Russell Wilson, but not many in recent years. And Chip Kelly is a big believer in sticking to his measurables, though he picked the similarly sized Mike Vick over Nick Foles (6'6", 243) in an open competition when he started in Philadelphia. I watched that competition, and everyone agreed that Vick simply outplayed Foles. It was only an injury to Vick, the fastest quarterback to ever play in the NFL, that gave Foles his opportunity. But once he got that chance, Foles literally put himself into the Hall of Fame by playing at a record-setting pace for the last 8 games of the 2013 season.
Adams is barely 200 pounds, which raises serious concerns about his durability when NFL-sized defensive lineman will be doing their best to sack him with extreme prejudice. Noted QB scout (and Oregon Ducks watcher) Bruce Feldman notes: Despite his shrewd play, Adams has taken off on some ill-advised runs, including the play against Eastern Washington where he finger was broken on a late hit.
3. Hand size
Chip Kelly focuses on several measurables, and hand size is a key one. Adams has very small hands, at 8.75" compared to about 9.5" for an average NFL QB. Russell Wilson, while no taller than Adams, has much larger hands (10.25, a full inch and a half larger). Then again, Logan Thomas has huge hands (10.75") and where has it gotten him?
Even in college, was injured twice in his one year at Oregon, missing part or all of several games. It won't get any better against the bigger and much faster tacklers in the NFL.
While Adams is clearly a gifted athlete, he carries sickle cell trait. That was a factor in him missing the road game at the University of Colorado, which has a mile-high stadium.
Given all of that, where does Adams stand for the draft? Before today he was considered a late (5th to 7th round) pick, possibly even a UDFA. He would be a steal for San Francisco at that level, given that he's already a proven success in Chip Kelly's legacy system, largely unchanged at Oregon.
Today's great performance, if combined with a solid combine, might move him up to 3rd or 4th round, and frankly he would less of a solid bet at that level. For all his skill, there are solid reasons to think Adams is not rugged enough to survive as a starting NFL quarterback.
I see his ceiling as a potentially great backup quarterback -- not rugged enough to risk for 16 games a year, but plenty smart and focused enough to be ready to come in on short notice, and talented enough to win a tough playoff game against a strong opponent. That would be worth a fifth round pick maybe, but not a third or fourth.