Early returns on Detroit’s draft class has earned some middling reviews from the national pundits, but one pick garnering few words and even less airtime is Detroit’s selection of Brad Kaaya with the 215th overall pick in the NFL Draft.
Just after 2016’s NFL Draft, Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke had Kaaya pegged as the No. 1 player off the board to the Cleveland Browns in the 2017 NFL Draft. Things didn’t go as well for the former Hurricane as many expected, but that withstanding, Detroit getting Kaaya as late as they did on Day 3 was unanticipated. Projected by both CBS and NFL.com to be between a third and fourth-round selection, Kaaya instead lasted until the very end of the sixth round and saw eight other quarterbacks get drafted ahead of him. Whether it be Pro Football Focus (6th), Inside the Pylon (7th), or virtually any other major NFL Draft publication, no one had Kaaya ranked in accordance to where he was actually taken among this year’s crop of quarterbacks.
The announcement of Dan Orlovsky’s departure in February seemed to anoint Jake Rudock the new backup quarterback in town, but Detroit’s selection of Kaaya during last weekend’s draft has put that transfer of job security into question. Lions GM Bob Quinn met with the media on Saturday after the draft had concluded and made mention of a competition for the No. 2 quarterback position:
“I think we had a really good feel for what kind of player we got and what kind of guy that can really learn an NFL offense in an accelerated fashion,” said Quinn of Kaaya. “Thought it was a good value pick and (Kaaya’s) going to come in and compete with Jake (Rudock) and see how it goes.”
At this point, Kaaya is one of the more NFL-ready quarterbacks of this draft class; he played in a pro-style offense, worked from under center and made throws off of play-action. Quinn said that part of what made Kaaya appealing was playing in that NFL system in Miami, and that the evaluation of a player like him requires “less projection” considering they’ve seen him do things he’d be expected to execute as an NFL quarterback.
Kaaya possesses adequate arm strength, great touch on his deep balls and can make a lot of NFL throws. However, his accuracy can be shaky, especially when making intermediary throws beyond 10 yards. When opposing defenses bring extra defenders and he feels pressure, Kaaya is prone to taking sacks or missing throws. When he’s under duress and has to ditch the pocket, Kaaya’s out of his comfort zone—those throws predicated on rhythm and timing—and he becomes even less effective throwing on the run.
Kaaya’s fit with Detroit
During Saturday’s draft coverage, Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network made mention of Kaaya’s polish from the waist down after Detroit made the pick on Saturday. He spoke highly of his clean footwork and ability to set up in the pocket: “He’s very accurate underneath when things are on time and in rhythm.”
Since offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter took over in the second half of the 2015 season, Detroit’s offense has gradually become even more so about rhythm and timing. A West Coast-style offense, Cooter’s route tree has Lions receivers running a lot of horizontal routes not far removed from the line of scrimmage. For Kaaya, this should best maximize his talents; he was one of the most accurate quarterbacks on throws between 6-10 yards in college football a season ago—he finished in the top 10 in adjusted completion percentage at that depth according to Pro Football Focus.
With Matthew Stafford at the helm and Cooter’s new offensive philosophy, Stafford’s adopted a new, more efficient identity. In 2016, Stafford finished 12th in completion percentage when the average depth of his target was between 0-9 yards:
Some context here. Via our data @PFF— Brett Whitefield (@BrettWhitefield) May 1, 2017
Stafford Comp % by target depth ranks:
Behind LOS- 18th
20+yds- 15th https://t.co/q11cPILKBb
Detroit’s offense attacks opposing defenses in a “dink-and-dunk” manner, utilizing short and quick throws en route to having the most sustainable offense per drive in 2016—the Lions finished first in both time of possession per drive (3:10) and plays per drive (6.66). But it certainly doesn’t keep Matthew Stafford from showcasing his big-time arm strength when it’s time to take advantage of a defense overcommitted to stopping the short stuff.
Stafford goes DEEP.— NFL (@NFL) October 23, 2016
And @MarvinJonesJr makes the play...
52-yard @Lions gain. #WASvsDET https://t.co/cIzZkvzy2X
Kaaya’s aforementioned touch when throwing the deep ball would be an asset if called upon. In 2016, Kaaya finished in the top 10 amongst quarterbacks in deep pass adjusted completion percentage with at least 70 attempts—the play at the 1:15-minute mark is a skill he could use at the next level:
Brad Kaaya highlights ➡️ https://t.co/0ltZWDOwY3 #OnePride— Detroit Lions (@Lions) April 29, 2017
Check 'em out! pic.twitter.com/XrnIWZqdjT
Camp battle brewing
Detroit carried only two quarterbacks on their 53-man roster for the majority of 2016 until Rudock became a wanted commodity. This year, it looked like the Lions would be sticking to those numbers with Stafford and Rudock members of the game-day roster, but after drafting Kaaya, plans may have changed.
Rudock didn’t do much on the field during the preseason to impress from a physical standpoint. His arm strength is average at best, and his throws don’t carry much zip across the field. He struggled making his way through progressions, but he did end up making safe and smart decisions by checking it down to his safety valves. When it came to throwing the ball 10 yards or further down field, Rudock struggled to put the ball into areas with accuracy, or connect with receivers with any type of consistency. After all was said and done, though, Rudock’s sound mechanics and ability to play near the line of scrimmage was what made him valuable to the Lions, especially in Cooter’s offense.
Kaaya brings those same refined mechanics to the table, and he’s shown the ability to thrive with the underneath stuff. He’s more polished out of college than Rudock was after one season under Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, and he doesn't turn 22 until the start of this season—Rudock turned 24 back in January. Physically, Kaaya possesses a bigger frame, a slightly stronger arm than Rudock, and a host of intangibles that made him such an intriguing prospect before he failed to take the leap many scouts were expecting him to make in 2016. Kaaya knows his stuff when it comes to the X’s and O’s of football, and some of that comes with being a product of three different head coaches in as many years while at Miami. The experience Rudock gained in a season with the Lions is valuable, and familiarity is definitely a score for someone trying to make the same team he played for a year ago, but familiarity is something Kaaya has going for him, too. Having the guy who recruited Kaaya to play at Miami—Lions current tight end’s coach Al Golden—on staff helped glean a lot of valuable insight according to Quinn.
I’ve seen plenty of profiles on Kaaya say they don’t see him being anything more than a solid or “good” career backup, and regardless of how you feel about what his potential is or if he even has much room for growth, the Lions don’t have a player that elicits much confidence at the backup quarterback on their roster. The Lions could decide to carry all three guys on their 53-man roster should they decide to cut Michael Burton—a player whose position has clearly become expendable in this offense.
During last season’s training camp, the Lions were short on intriguing camp battles at more than just one or two positions; this summer should be filled with them, but one thing I do know is this: Detroit’s backup quarterback position is definitely up for grabs, and Kaaya will have every chance to earn it.