There was little Brock Purdy could do wrong during his remarkable ascension in the second half of the 2022 season. The final pick in last year’s draft showed a hugely impressive command of the offense and appeared near-faultless as he helped the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game.
On track to recover from elbow surgery in time for Week 1 of the 2023 season, Purdy will have designs on continuing the upward curve that was interrupted by his injury in the Conference Championship game.
Yet, it would be naive to think everything was perfect for Purdy after he assumed the reins from Jimmy Garoppolo.
Indeed, for all his prowess in running the offense in an extremely composed and confident fashion, making second-reaction plays and quickly developing an impressive rapport with his stable of weapons, there are three areas in which he can clearly improve.
The speed with which Purdy built an understanding with the likes of George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel was very commendable. Still, he has work to do in his second season in hitting them with consistent accuracy.
Purdy completed 67.1 percent of his passes as a rookie. However, according to Next Gen Stats, his expected completion percentage was 69.
He had teammates for company in the minus column in Completion Percentage Over Expectation (CPOE). Garoppolo had a CPOE of minus 2.1, completing 67.2 percent of his throws when expected to complete 69.3.
But Garoppolo’s average time to throw was 2.66 seconds. Purdy, in part because of his willingness to extend the play, had an average time to throw of 2.84 seconds.
Purdy’s second-reaction upside gives the 49er offense an ingredient it lacked with Garoppolo under center, and San Francisco’s receivers are experienced at adjusting to off-target throws. However, if Purdy continues to hold the ball and his accuracy remains below-par, that is a recipe for a potential downturn.
If Purdy can improve his percentage of on-target throws, that could give head coach Kyle Shanahan more confidence to lean on him in situations where he has historically favored the run.
Early down passing
It is hardly new information that the Shanahan 49ers are not a pass-heavy team on first and second down.
Per rbsdm.com, last season the 49ers ranked 25th in pass rate (47.9%) on first and second down, excluding plays in situations where one team had a win probability under 20 percent.
When they did throw the ball on early downs, though, they were fifth in Expected Points Added per dropback.
With Purdy under center, the 49ers’ pass rate on early downs jumped to 48.3 percent, 17th in the NFL, yet the Niners were only 11th in dropback EPA per play on such plays across that five-week span. By contrast, they were second in EPA per play running the ball on early downs in that period. See McCaffrey, Christian.
Still, regardless of who was under center, the 49ers were a top-12 offense by EPA per play throwing the ball on early downs last year.
And, across his five starts and the game in which he replaced Garoppolo in Week 13, Purdy was efficient passing on early downs. Removing the win probability filter, Purdy was sixth in EPA per play among quarterbacks on early downs.
But it should be remembered that EPA is a reflection of the offense as a whole rather than a barometer by which to judge quarterbacks. Driving that point home is Purdy’s early down CPOE of minus 3.1. He completed 69.1 percent of those passes when expected to connect on 72.2.
The Shanahan offense can excel throwing the ball on early downs because of the space the 49ers head coach can get his playmakers into. It would be even more dynamic in those situations with a bump in accuracy from Purdy.
With McCaffrey and the stable of backs Shanahan at his disposal, combined with the 49ers’ efficiency running the ball on early downs in the stretch run last year, there’s an argument he does not need to shift from his run-heavy tendencies. Strides from Purdy on those plays could help to change his thinking.
With Shanahan’s prowess for putting players in space and the 49ers’ weapons being blessed in creating yardage after the catch, Purdy didn’t necessarily need to take a lot of shot plays last season.
Purdy doesn’t have an elite arm, but he clearly has the ability to complete accurate downfield passes.
Last season, he threw three touchdown passes that traveled over 20 yards in the air. The problem is that he attempted only nine such passes during his time on the field in the regular season, according to nflindex.com.
Jauan Jennings wide open on the deep over vs. C3.— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) June 14, 2023
Threat of Kittle underneath and Aiyuk deep, and Purdy going through both those reads, creates a huge void for Jennings to run into. pic.twitter.com/WdcBfm6ue6
The only other throw of that distance he completed was a 28-yard connection with Jauan Jennings against the Raiders, which served as an excellent example of Shanahan’s ability to get players open at all three levels of the defense.
Part of San Francisco’s reasoning in drafting Trey Lance was to give the 49ers a player capable of completing those low-probability downfield throws.
Purdy has surpassed Lance and will almost certainly get the nod as starter, but, if he is to be their long-term solution at the position, then the 49ers may have to live with the deep ball being a largely untapped element of the offense.
Completing four of only nine attempts of 20 yards or more does not inspire confidence that Purdy can develop into an effective deep-ball thrower.
Still, he will have plenty of opportunities to change the narrative and add another dimension to the offense by pushing it downfield more often and with more success.
Shanahan’s acumen for getting players into the open field has made his offense arguably the most difficult to stop in the NFL. Purdy growing into a quarterback who can connect regularly on shot plays could further weaponize his head coach’s play-calling prowess and make an already dynamic attack even more devastating.