DeShone Kizer's Long Road to Green Bay
Fresh off the complete failure of an athletic quarterback with a spread offense background to save their 2017 season, new Packers general manager atoned for his predecessor’s errors at quarterback by trading for...an athletic quarterback with a spread offense background.
DeShone Kizer isn’t a carbon copy of Brett Hundley. He’s a little taller (6-4 to Hundley’s 6-3), a little thicker (235 pounds to Hundley’s 226), and not quite as fast (4.83 in the 40 to Hundley’s 4.63). But the similarities and shortcomings in their respective games are close enough that some fans may be understandably leery about Kizer’s presence behind Aaron Rodgers.
The Packers’ interest in Kizer runs deep, dating back to the 2017 Draft. Whether they truly considered taking Kizer with the first pick in the second round or if their preferences were an effort to scare up trade demand for the pick or for Hundley we’ll never know, but it confirms that the Packers have been watching him for some time. And now that he’s set to square off with Hundley for the Packers’ top backup job, it behooves us to know a little more about Kizer, his history, and the player he could become.
A multi-sport high school phenom
DeShone Kizer was the kind of high school quarterback that makes prep sports fans swoon. In his pre-college days, Kizer was nearly the same size he is now, and he combined that size with big-time athleticism and a rocket arm to become what the Toledo Blade called “the most talented high school quarterback Toledo has ever produced.”
“Never before has a Toledo signal-caller shown the complete variety of physical and mental attributes that Kizer displayed, showing steady improvement during a three-year career that coincided with an overall record of 34-6 for the Fighting Irish,” gushed the Blade in naming Kizer its 2013 high school player of the year.
“At least in my time involved with high school football in the Toledo area, we haven’t seen a quarterback like this,” said 14th-year Central head coach Greg Dempsey (130-37 record, two state titles). “We’ve had a chance to watch one of the best in the country. What’s amazing is that he has that physical ability, but he became such a student of the game in becoming what you saw out on the field.”
Dempsey never runs out of superlatives in discussing Kizer’s abilities.
“He’s such a great athlete for his size,” Kizer’s high school coach Greg Dempsey said. “You’re seeing what NFL quarterbacks look like in a high school kid, physically.
Kizer definitely gave high school defenses an up close and personal look with what an NFL-caliber athlete could do. He regularly extended plays with his legs, making time for his receivers to work open downfield before delivering strikes from any arm angle.
And if he didn’t want to run around defenders, he just ran away from them.
Kizer used that athleticism on the hardwood, too, maneuvering confidently around the basketball court as a point guard equally comfortable driving to the hoop or spotting up from long range.
Kizer was also an excellent baseball player. Though his fastball topped out in the mid-80s, he didn’t pitch, saving his arm for football. Instead, Kizer roamed the outfield and hit cleanup.
His multi-sport interests may have prevented him from gaining the big-school attention that tends to go toward quarterbacks who devote themselves to football year round, but Kizer considers his diverse athletic background a plus.
“I think that was one of the best things that ever happened to me, to play three sports,” Kizer told FootballScoop.com. “It allowed me to create athletic ability that it takes to be able to adjust on the fly when you’re playing at this high level. And two, I’m learning more about the quarterback position every day than I ever have."
Thrust into the spotlight at Notre Dame
After redshirting during his 2014 freshman season in South Bend, Kizer entered the 2015 season second on the Fighting Irish depth chart. When starter Malik Zaire was badly injured in the second game of the year, Kizer took over for the balance of the season. He completed 210 of 334 passes for just under 2900 yards and 21 touchdowns, including a 39-yard game winner against Virginia.
Kizer added another 10 touchdowns and 525 yards rushing and seemed well poised to enter the next season as Notre Dame’s unquestioned starter.
Even as a redshirt sophomore, Kizer quickly attracted attention from NFL scouts. Lance Zerlein of NFL Network was especially enamored:
My comparison for Kizer, a redshirt sophomore, is still a work in progress, but from a size and diversity of talent standpoint, he reminds me of the late Steve McNair. While McNair was more of a game manager in the pros, he was a gunslinger at Alcorn State. McNair had a very pedestrian yards-per-attempt average (6.9) in the pros, but "Air McNair" had the ability to push the ball down the field, especially coming out of college. Kizer has that same arm strength to attack down the field and can make winning throws on the move.
What really stands out to me is the mental makeup and toughness of Kizer in comparison to McNair. McNair was extremely difficult to rattle and Kizer appears to operate with that same confidence and calm. While McNair could beat teams with his legs, he looked to win from the pocket and I believe Kizer has that same trait.
But despite a solid season, Kizer wasn’t immediately named the starter for the Fighting Irish, a portent of the conflict to come in his second season.
Throughout Kizer’s hit and miss 2016, head coach Brian Kelly repeatedly and publicly criticized Kizer. At various times, he called Kizer’s play “below standard” and “unacceptable” and said it might be better if Malik Zaire would share Kizer’s starting role, among other run-ins. And after Kizer decided he’d rather control his own destiny than wait on Kelly’s whims, Kelly criticized that, too.
“You come to Notre Dame to get a degree and you come to Notre Dame to play for championships,” Kelly said. “Two years of college does not get you that. I was merely saying that he could benefit from being in school for another year. He could benefit because he could get his degree, and he would benefit because he would be part of a great story -- and that is bringing Notre Dame back to national prominence.”
Setting aside that Kizer was at Notre Dame for three years, not two, Kelly conveniently seemed to forget that the person who would probably have benefitted the most from Kizer’s continued presence in South Bend was Kelly, not Kizer. Kelly would get another year (or two) of solid quarterback play, while Kizer could have continued to work on a finance degree that would be of exactly no use in the world of professional football.
From boom or bust prospect to bottom-dwelling starter
For their part, NFL talent assessors seemed to somewhat agree with Kelly’s assessment, if for different reasons. Nearly every evaluator praised Kizer’s big play ability leading up to the draft, but also expressed concern over accuracy and other positional nuances.
Kizer “ has knack for playmaking on the move” but also showed some wasted movement in his throwing motion, wrote Justis Mosqueda for Bleacher Report. He “can make all the throws that an NFL quarterback needs to make” but also “will make the occasional poor decision and force a throw” wrote Greg Gabriel for Pro Football Weekly. And doubling down on his Steve McNair comparison, Lance Zerlein offered that Kizer had “the arm talent and willingness to challenge safeties on both intermediate and deep throws” but “may not have eyes or compact release to spot and hit flashing targets.”
Kizer had no such doubts. He considered himself the top quarterback in his draft class and said so.
“No one else can do what I can do. And I’ve truly figured out in this (draft) process, if I can maximize all my potential in every aspect of the game – this is bold – I do have the ability to be the greatest quarterback to ever play. Imagine taking (Tom) Brady’s intellect and Brady’s preparation and putting it on a guy with Cam Newton’s body. Why can’t I be the greatest? The only thing stopping me from it is me. That’s what’s driving me now.”
But Kizer wasn’t drafted with the other quarterbacks near the top of his class. Despite some flirtations from the Packers, Kizer lasted all the way until pick number 52, well into the second round.
The Browns being what they are, Kizer quickly earned the starting job, but his rookie season was all but a lost cause. Despite his confidence, Kizer was abysmal his first year as a pro. He led the NFL in interceptions with 22, threw just 11 touchdowns, and completed a sorry 53.6% of his passes.
As in Notre Dame, Kizer also attracted scrutiny for entirely imagined reasons. Kizer was among several Browns who found themselves under scrutiny from an (apparently bored) press corps after they were spotted on Snapchat at a bar. They weren’t doing anything at the bar that would be considered unusual. They were just there. Even Browns coach Hue Jackson was mystified by the micro-controversy.
"I don't see any harm in that because guys are out and talking and having a little fun,” Jackson said. “I don't see anything wrong with that."
That’s not to say there weren’t highlights. The Packers got an especially good look at Kizer’s abilities in their December trip to Cleveland, during which several throws showcased the Notre Dame product’s big arm and occasional accuracy.
A second chance with the Packers
Maybe the Packers were intrigued by what Kizer showed that day. Maybe it only confirmed what they’d believed since the spring. Whatever the reason, Brian Gutekunst took the opportunity to ship malcontent cornerback Demarious Randall to Cleveland for Kizer, giving Green Bay another shot at filling their backup quarterback role with an athletic, albeit raw, prospect.
So now that Kizer is in Green Bay, what does he need to improve to make the trade worth it?
To start, Kizer needs to get his throwing motion sorted out.
Many evaluators cited Kizer’s inconsistent throwing motion prior to the draft, none more comprehensively than Mark Schofield for Inside the Pylon.
The entire piece is worth exploring for anyone who hopes to better understand how throwing a football really works, but in short, Schofield believes Kizer’s main issue is that his upper and lower body are out of sync when he throws, leading to some flaring of his back leg and passes that tend to dive when they get close to their target.
This mechanical issue is not fatal by any means for Kizer’s prospects as a quarterback. Every QB has a slightly different throwing motion, and in that sense, quarterbacks are like snowflakes: No two are alike. If you study Tom Brady or Peyton Manning – two of the greatest to play the game – they each have an ever so slight flare of the right leg as they throw. But that back leg comes forward as well, and does not flare out to the right so dramatically. Even with this flaw to his release, Kizer is still a very impressive collegiate quarterback with some traits NFL scouts will be drooling over when he decides to enter the draft. If he adds some refinement to his mechanics, they’ll be drooling even more.
Getting those mechanics under control will be the primary charge for Mike McCarthy and Frank Cignetti Jr., the new quarterbacks coach in Green Bay. If they can do so, Kizer might be able to reach his immense promise.
Kizer’s football journey is at a bit of a low ebb right now. He was a football legend in Toledo and a respected (if somewhat embattled) starter at Notre Dame, but things have gone downhill since then. In Green Bay, Kizer has a chance to be the quarterback people have always believed he could be. It would be a coup for the Packers if he did.