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Feleipe Franks is the most criminally underrated QB in the 2021 NFL Draft

A quarterback this talented is almost never available as late as Feleipe Franks is projected to be available.

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Alabama v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Let’s get your questions out of the way first. Yes, the Green Bay Packers already drafted their “quarterback of the future,” but it’s a bad idea to settle on one guy as your heir apparent. Remember, it’s never a bad idea to draft a quarterback.

And yes, there are all sorts of problems with Feleipe Franks, which we will get into momentarily, but those problems serve to create a huge opportunity for a team like the Packers or any team seeking a high-upside project late in the draft. The fact of the matter is that Franks may not even be that much of a project, and he has as much upside as any quarterback in this class. He’s a weird, interesting prospect, and once you put his various issues into the proper context, it’s actually quite surprising to see him frequently mocked in the 6th or 7th rounds of the 2021 draft. Scouts have all sorts of issues with Franks, but his underlying statistics tell a different story,and there is reason to believe that because of his unusual path through college football, scouts may be taking a less-than-objective view of him as a prospect. Let’s deal with some of those issues.

The Case Against Franks

Franks was a highly touted recruit out of Wakulla high school in Crawfordville, Florida, and chose Florida over several other schools. Following a redshirt year, Franks started almost immediately and struggled as a freshman, throwing just 9 touchdowns against 8 picks while leading Florida to a disappointing 4-7 season. Florida was hardly a juggernaut, but they had gone a solid if unspectacular 9-4 the previous season, and there is no way to spin 2017 as anything other than a step back back for the program. Fortunately, Franks managed to turn it around as a sophomore, upping his completion percentage from 54.6% to 58.4% and, more importantly, increasing his yards per attempt from 6.3 to 7.6. Florida went 10-3, ranked 10th in pre-Bowl season polls, and finished the season by crushing Michigan in the Peach Bowl. That said, Gainesville was still generally unhappy with Franks as his completion percentage, while improved, was still relatively low and his play remained inconsistent.

Franks got off to a good start in 2019, though his stats are heavily buoyed by a good performance against underwhelming Tennessee-Martin after struggling against Miami in the opener. In the third game of the season, Franks suffered a catastrophic injury against Kentucky dislocating and breaking his ankle. Kyle Trask replaced him and the rest is history, from a Florida perspective.

Scouts are fairly uniform on the Flaws in Franks’ game. While he possesses elite physical skills, he can be careless with the ball, he struggles on short throws, and he struggles under pressure. In their 2021 draft guide, PFF wrote:

“His 61.7% on-target rate for passes targeted less than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage ranked 58th out of 78 qualifying quarterbacks in 2020. He was so much better at taking good chances with the football downfield, and it showed in his numbers. The same buckshot accuracy we saw from him at Florida was still there, however. Franks still struggles when forced to throw anything other than a fastball and he crumbles when facing pressure.”

That’s consistent with the appraisal of Ty Dorner of SIS:

“On short-to-intermediate passes, he has moments where he can put the ball right on his receiver and others where he misses his spot. Usually, this results from inconsistent footwork. His build makes it tough for him to use consistent footwork getting away from center. If his first read isn’t open, he gets antsy and begins to sense false pressure, scrambling or throwing from unorthodox positions to get rid of the ball.”

And finally, it’s simply a fact that Kyle Trask came in after Franks was injured and lit it up. His 66.9% completion percentage and 8.3 Y/A were a drastic improvement over anything Franks had accomplished, and Trask built on that success for a sensational senior season, averaging almost 10 yards per attempt and completing 43 touchdowns to just 8 interceptions. When your backup comes in and blows your stats out of the water, it does a number on your prospect status. Franks transferred to Arkansas for his senior season, leading the Razorbacks to a 3-7 season in a tough SEC.

So, scouts don’t like Franks’ accuracy or his poise under pressure, he suffered a severe injury, he lost his starting job to a quarterback who, frankly, played much better, and he has more losing seasons under his belt than winning ones. Why are we talking about this guy again?

The All-Important Context

I think the single biggest mistake Franks made in his college career was in deciding on Florida in the first place. The Gators were still in the midst of an offensive downswing started by former coach Will Muschamp, who stepped down in 2014. His replacement, Jim McElwain, owns a special place in Gator lore as one of the program’s worst modern coaches, and in retrospect he was especially poor with quarterbacks. McElwain made his reputation at Colorado State, putting together a few nice offensive campaigns, but his philosophy just didn’t work in the SEC.

In 2015, incumbent starting quarterback Will Grier tested positive for PEDs and was suspended for the season, which was completed by backup quarterback Treon Harris. The following season, starting quarterback Luke Del Rio (yes, Jack Del Rio’s son) was lost to an injury midway through the season, which was finished by backup Austin Appleby. Finally, in 2017, Franks brought some stability to the program, though he was occasionally yanked for Del Rio and backup Malik Zaire.

McElwain’s tenure is filled with rotating quarterbacks getting hurt or suspended, and when they did play, not being very effective. Harris, Del Rio, and Appleby all posted stat lines roughly equal to or worse than Franks’ freshman and sophomore campaigns. In that context, Franks doesn’t look quite as bad.

This brings us to our first important caveat. McElwain was fired for cause during the 2017 season due to some scandal involving an apparently false claim of having received death threats and some other bizarre comments about the University’s commitment to him. He was replaced by Dan Mullen, who remains the current head coach at Florida. Mullen, in contrast to McElwain, seems to actually know what he is doing, and Franks’ improvement from Freshman to Sophomore can be credited at least in part to escaping McElwain. A bad coach can stunt a players’ development. Feleipe Franks had some bad coaching.

Kyle Trask didn’t have to work under McElwain at all, instead starting his career with Mullens and benefitting from that superior coaching. But Trask had another advantage over Franks, because Mullens wasn’t just a better coach; he was also a better recruiter. In his freshman campaign, Franks had no NFL talent to work with outside of his freshman teammate Kadarius Toney. Toney is an excellent NFL prospect, but Franks had him as a freshman and sophomore while Trask had him as a junior and senior. And Toney was about all that Franks did have, as no other legitimate NFL talent existed on the 2017 Florida Gators.

In 2018 they added Van Jefferson to the receiver rotation, a good match for Franks’ deep throwing, but Mullens’ recruiting didn’t reach its full potential until 2019, when, in addition to Jefferson and Toney, tight end Kyle Pitts cracked the starting lineup and gave Florida outstanding weapons at every major pass-catching position. Pitts is thought to be one of the best tight end prospects ever, and is currently expected to go in the top 10 in the 2021 Draft. Trask lost Jefferson to the NFL last year, but a standout season from Trevor Grimes in 2020 adequately replaced his production while Toney and Pitts continued to dominate. So Feleipe Frank also suffered from poor recruiting.

At Arkansas, Franks took over for quarterbacks Nick Starkel (Junior, 53.6%, 6.4 Y/A) and Ben Hicks (Senior, 47.4%, 5.4 Y/A). Arkansas isn’t good, and in 2019, under Starkel and Hicks, they went 2-10, averaging 21.4 points per game. With largely the same talent outside of quarterback, the offense improved drastically under Franks, jumping to 25.7 points per game. Franks completed a career high 68.5% of his passes at 8.9 yards per attempt, 17 touchdowns, and only 4 picks. Receivers Treylon Burks and Mike Woods were the big beneficiaries of Franks’ big arm, averaging 16.1 and 19.3 yards per completion, respectively, while leading the team in receptions.

Arkansas is an SEC bottom-feeder and simply doesn’t have the talent to compete with the big boys, but their 3-7 record in 2020 shouldn’t obscure the fact that they were a much better team than they were in 2019. Still, Franks’ record at Arkansas, and the fact that he had to transfer at all for another opportunity, don’t paint a positive picture in the eyes of many.

The Numbers Behind the Numbers

I run QBOPS every year just to see if any unheralded prospects pop. Last season it picked out Utah’s Tyler Huntley as an overlooked gem. Huntley went undrafted and wound up on the Ravens where, due to the general weirdness of 2020, he ended up playing in a playoff game and looked pretty competent doing so.

This season, QBOPS basically agrees with scouts and draft pundits on the elite quarterbacks of this class. Good NFL quarterbacks usually put up a QBOPS slash line of .400/,600/.1000, and this season we have:

(Note: For those unfamiliar with QBOPS, it is a simple statistic, combining a quarterback’s completion percentage and yards per completion, scaled to baseball’s OPS statistic. 1.000 and above is great, .900 and above is good, .800 and above is average. It is essentially a dumbed down version of CPOE, however CPOE is not freely available for college quarterbacks.)

And there’s Franks, plain as day, hanging out with the elite. But it’s not just me and my made-up statistic that have noticed there is more to Franks than meets the eye.

Sports Info Solutions also has their own version of CPOE, called pComp +/-. This takes a quarterbacks actual completion percentage and compares it to a predicted completion percentage based on a number of factors including depth of target, horizontal distance traveled, pressure, coverage type, and a host of other factors. Franks is 5th in pComp +/- in this draft class, but his number is essentially identical to Trask and Zach Wilson, and clearly in the upper tier. But where Franks really shines is, surprisingly, precision throws.

In addition to contextualizing general completion percentage, SIS also tracks “On-Target throws,” defined as throws that do not force the receiver to adjust to the ball or slow down. Basically, it tracks how often quarterbacks hit receivers in stride, right in the hands. In terms of On-Target Percentage, Franks was second only to Mac Jones:

SIS goes one step further though with On-Target +/- which uses the same concept as pComp. They take the quarterback’s actual On-Target% and their expected On-Target%, and calculate the difference. This helps to even things out between deep passers, who face a higher level of difficulty delivering the ball with pinpoint accuracy, and check-down artists delivering shorter throws. With this additional context, Franks is still elite in his class.

And look who’s #1 on this list: the guy who replaced Franks at Florida, Kyle Trask!

Pro Football Focus saw much the same thing using their Adjusted Completion Percentage.

So, issues with Franks’ accuracy may be overstated by scouts. When actually putting some rigor to the data, Franks is right there with the upper tier of this draft class.

Pressure and the Pros

The other big criticism of Franks is that he doesn’t deal with pressure well, and watching his tape, scouts do have a point. However, I’m not sure how much weight I would put into this piece of data. Just last season, Justin Herbert was similarly dinged for his performance under pressure. PFF’s Anthony Treash wrote of Herbert:

“Though if the clean pocket collapses, Herbert becomes increasingly volatile. Among 129 qualifying quarterbacks this season, Herbert ranked 124th in negatively graded play rate under pressure. You can see his panic in a collapsing pocket, an area where a first-round quarterback really shouldn’t be losing his poise. He’ll try and create outside of the structure but will toss up some desperation heaves and, in turn, produced the 47th best accurate-pass rate among 66 qualifying quarterbacks.”

But Herbert turned things completely around in the NFL as a rookie, posting one of the best performances under pressure of the 2020 season. In fact, the more I read about Franks, the more he reminds me of Herbert. Like Herbert, Franks possesses elite athleticism and one of the best arms in his class. Like Herbert, the offenses he played in did little to showcase that underlying talent. And like Herbert, he seems to struggle under pressure. The two also share similar grades on their depth of target splits, showing better efficiency on their deep passing while struggling with their short stuff.

There is solid evidence to support the idea that an NFL coaching staff can fix whatever is wrong with Franks. The Chargers did essentially the exact same repair job with Herbert, and Buffalo managed to fix similar issues with Josh Allen. And Franks’ athletic ability is no joke. It wouldn’t have been surprising if he lost a step after the ankle injury, but his RAS put that concern to rest.

For anyone doubting his elite arm strength, scouts are essentially united in their praise, and he owns the longest throw ever charted by PFF, a Hail Mary against Tennessee in 2017.

Get Feleipe Franks

Most of what went wrong with Franks was out of his control. While he has plenty of bad tape out there, he really did turn things around at Arkansas — which, to the program’s credit, made much better use of that giant arm than Florida did. While his conventional stats won’t blow anyone away, Franks was shockingly accurate as a senior, and that kind of improvement is worth noticing.

Aside from his improvement as an accurate passer, his raw tools leave room for additional projection. The deep game is there already, and if an NFL staff can tap into his considerable mobility, and get his short throws under control, Franks has star potential. It’s ridiculous that he’s being projected in the 6th and 7th rounds, as this type of talent is never available that late.

If he happens to be available sometime on day three of the 2021 Draft, the Packers should pounce.