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NFL QB prospects often get compared to active players. It’s a risky business.

NFL QB prospects often get compared to active players. It's a risky business.

Five years ago, the NFL did not know what to make of Josh Allen. His size and arm strength conjured limitless potential. His college statistics, particularly his completion percentage, suggested professional failure. He seemed smart and hard-working and came from a small town. He could not quarterback Wyoming into the upper tier of the Mountain West Conference.

In their attempts to project Allen, many scouts and analysts reached for a common tool: the player comparison. Allen was mostly likened to Carson Wentz (at the time a small-school success story) and Jake Locker (a historic top-10 bust).

Now, having piloted the Buffalo Bills’ rise from afterthought to contender, Allen has become a preferred talisman of quarterback-needy teams and draft experts. This year’s draft probably will feature four quarterbacks among the first dozen picks, perhaps even the first four. Two prospects, Kentucky’s Will Levis and Florida’s Anthony Richardson, have traits reminiscent of Allen’s: a dearth of college production coupled with mesmerizing size and athletic ability.

That Allen turned out to be nothing like Wentz or Locker has not deterred evaluators from using him as a tantalizing comparison point. Player comparisons are an embedded part of scouting reports, used to create mental frameworks. They provide comforting narratives, grounding unknown futures in the vibrant present. They also cloud and misguide, often creating false — but powerful and entrenched — impressions that can outweigh more objective measures.

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Player comparisons can be particularly imprecise and misleading for quarterbacks, whose success hinges less on noticeable traits than unseen attributes. Players of similar physical makeup or even similar playing style may have nothing in common when it comes to mental processing or competitive charisma, and draft history is littered with comparisons that damaged the teams that fell for them. Zach Wilson became the No. 2 pick in 2021 in part because the off-balance throws he made at BYU reminded some of Patrick Mahomes. No less an authority than Bill Walsh once likened parts of Jim Druckenmiller’s game to Drew Bledsoe’s and Jim Kelly’s. It should be noted that Walsh pleaded with the San Francisco 49ers to instead draft Jake Plummer — whom Walsh compared to Joe Montana.

Teams may be at risk of a similar mistake if they select Levis or Richardson with the belief they have found their version of Allen. The way Allen improved his accuracy while in the NFL is exceedingly rare, if not unprecedented. It is one thing to hope for that kind of success. It is another to bet on it. Comparing either player to Allen may be justification for mistaking an outlier for a lesson.

“Throughout the history of scouting, we kept waiting for a guy that didn’t play well in games, had flashes but had all these measurables,” former New York Giants vice president of player evaluation Marc Ross said. “And finally Josh Allen was the one to break through and actually develop and be the guy that, the tape wasn’t that great, and he turned out with the physical tools to develop. Now for there to be [five] years later the next Josh Allen, it’s probably not going to happen.

“Whenever you start ‘nexting’ someone — no, actually, there’s just the one. If I’m using percentages and using scouting and using common sense, there’s not going to be a next Josh Allen.”

The hard-wired need to compare

The urge to compare is deep-seated. “Basically, your brain is a little bit lazy, and it’s going to take the easiest path forward,” Montclair State psychology professor Ken Sumner said. Brains are hard-wired to sacrifice accuracy for quick decisions, an evolutionary remnant from when deliberation could mean the difference between staying alive or being a predator’s dinner.

To increase decision-making speed, humans use what influential psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky coined “heuristics,” or cognitive shortcuts. One heuristic is representativeness: the assumption that if something is like something else in one way, it will be like that thing in every way.

“He has this characteristic like this person over here, so I’m going to assume equivalency between those two — that’s a bias we have,” Radford University psychology chair Jeffery Aspelmeier said. “We use representativeness or resemblance to make judgments about likelihood and future probabilities. But they’re horribly flawed. You should be relying as much as possible on objective information, the actual data about that person’s performance, rather than making a future prediction about performance based on how much they remind you of someone else. Because you can be fooled into that based on superficial characteristics.”

The decisions that NFL teams make are anything but hasty and impulsive. Evaluations form over the course of months, if not years. They’re based on troves of statistical data, physical examinations, in-person interviews and mental testing. And yet teams remain prone to the pitfalls of comparison. Once it takes root, because of how the brain functions, a comparison can be difficult to shake.

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The instinct to compare can be so strong, psychology experts say, that it may influence a decision even if someone else is doing the comparing. So the hum within NFL media circles that Levis or Richardson could be the next Allen may infiltrate an unsuspecting front office, even one that attempts to guard against such evaluation.

“We’re just really bad at making use of objective information and really good at making use of representativeness and similarity,” Aspelmeier said. “We’re really bad recognizing when we’re doing it. And when we do recognize, we’re really bad at correcting for it. Even when people point it out to us and we say, ‘Oh, okay, we’ll adjust,’ we’re really bad at adjusting. Say someone else makes the comparison between Person X and Person Y. That’s going to influence our judgment more than we believe that it is.”

Trivial similarity creates the impression of meaningful similarity. NBA executive Daryl Morey famously told author Michael Lewis that he banned his scouting staff from comparing draft prospects to NBA players of the same race — and once he instituted that rule, scouts stopped making comparisons altogether. Without superficial prompting, the instinct to liken one player’s game to another’s ceased.

‘Everything is always unique’

Comparisons can be deployed to explain away the flaws of a player whom an evaluator champions. They allows the evaluator to fixate on one positive attribute while ignoring other facts. Wilson really did make some wildly impressive throws in college, ones that led NBC Sports analyst Chris Simms to say it “feels like I am watching Mahomes again.” But Wilson played against inferior competition, lacked Mahomes’s size and shared few of Mahomes’s intangible traits. Mahomes was the first quarterback to play the position this way, and it turned out Wilson would not be the second.

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“When Drew Brees just got into the league, every undersized quarterback for the next 10 years, if you liked him, he was Drew Brees,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “And it turned out none of them was Drew Brees. He was a one of one.”

The flaw in using Brees’s height as a comparison point for projection should be self-evident; Brees was short, but his height was irrelevant to his success. He thrived because he overcame his height with a collection of desirable traits. Comparing a short quarterback to Brees just because he is short is less assessment than wish-casting.

A comparison such as that is often the endpoint of confirmation bias. Those who believed in Allen saw him as Wentz, who at the time looked like a franchise quarterback. Those who didn’t compared him to Locker. “If you like a player, you compare his body to someone good,” Morey told Lewis. “If you don’t like him, you compare him to someone who sucks.”

Just as comparisons can inflate a prospect’s value, they also can be limiting. One obvious trait may obscure the totality of a quarterback’s skills. In its draft profile of Mahomes, who may retire as one of the best football players ever, NFL.com compared him to Jay Cutler. Sports Illustrated chose Matthew Stafford. NFL.com compared Jalen Hurts, who just became the highest-paid player in NFL history, to Tim Tebow.

Mahomes had an exceptionally strong arm, so many thought he would be like other quarterbacks with exceptionally strong arms. Hurts was more muscular than most quarterbacks and had a prolific college career, so he reminded evaluators of the most muscular quarterback with a prolific college career. These comparisons cloaked meaningful attributes: Mahomes’s massive production and uncanny ability to throw on the move, Hurts’s capacity to improve and his underlying intellect.

“All the great quarterbacks, you don’t compare them,” Ross said. “They kind of break the mold of who they are and what they do. … For the most part, those guys are unique people, unique players. Aaron Rodgers was the first Aaron Rodgers. Everything is always unique with one of these guys that goes out there and crushes it.”

Jeremiah, a former NFL scout, pushed back on the idea that comps are only bad. They come up naturally in teams’ draft meetings, he said, with the understanding that “there’s no apple-to-apple comparison. There’s no, ‘This is the exact clone of this player.’ ” He added: “Usually, it’s a range in there. It’s just a frame of reference when you are in the room. You’re trying to describe [a player] to people in the room that haven’t seen them yet, and that gives them a good visual of, ‘Okay, I can kind of see this person in my mind now that you are describing him.’ ”

Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, a former NFL scout and executive, said comparisons prevail more in media circles than draft meetings. In some franchises, scouts who deploy them are written off internally as too vague.

“If you work through the fall and you write [reports on] 400 players, you might only comp 25 of them,” Nagy said. “Every single thing has to line up. It can’t be just kind of a, ‘Oh, he kind of reminds me of this guy.’ The only reason you use a comp in the NFL, you’re trying to paint a really, really accurate picture for your head coach and your GM, who at the time they’re reading the report probably haven’t seen the player yet.”

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Using comparisons can be useful, Nagy said, for quarterbacks who played at the same school under the same coach. This year, C.J. Stroud’s college performance could be compared to and contrasted with recent Ohio State picks Justin Fields and Dwayne Haskins. Although Stroud has a different game, the conditions he played under at least provide independent variables.

Bryce Young, the probable first pick, has avoided an obvious link to a current quarterback. His slight frame, even more than his lack of height, is his most frequently noted drawback. He moves out of the pocket more often than Brees but less than Kyler Murray, another undersized passer. He played at Alabama, but his game does not resemble that of Hurts or Tua Tagovailoa. Young defies easy comparison.

“That’s probably a good thing,” Ross said, “because he’s going to be the first guy that’s going to be a great player that was a 190-pound quarterback.”

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