Friday, February 23, 2024

‘This kid’s pretty special’: Why Billy Napier believes Anthony Richardson can make it

Must read

So much to like.

So much to question.

So much unknown.

Start here: Anthony Richardson might be the most physically gifted quarterback prospect in NFL history, a 21-year-old blessed with a tight end’s build (6 feet 4, 240 pounds) and a wide receiver’s speed (4.43-second 40-yard dash) who happens to have a rocket launcher for a right arm. Splice together the right highlights and he plays like cheat code, a Madden concoction that can oftentimes feel unfair: Four times last season, Richardson darted out of the backfield at Florida and ran for touchdowns of 60 yards or longer.

Quarterbacks aren’t supposed to do that.

Well, quarterbacks aren’t supposed to look like this and do that.

When Richardson grips an NFL football, The Duke almost looks like one of those miniature Vortex balls, the ones designed to fly 50 yards through the air. Richardson can accomplish that — with a real one — with a mere flick of the wrist.


Florida head coach Billy Napier talks with Anthony Richardson before a game in September. (Kim Klement / USA Today)

Billy Napier saw it the first time he was on a practice field with him last winter, a few months after he’d arrived in Gainesville as the Gators’ new head coach. Richardson was coming off a knee injury, cleared only for non-contact work. But he could throw. “The ball just jumps out of his hand,” Napier said this week. Awed at what he’d seen after just one practice, Napier called his brother on his drive home that night.

“This kid,” he told him, “this kid’s pretty special.”

Indeed. Richardson’s college film can dazzle. But at this point, six weeks ahead of the NFL Draft, Richardson’s a better prospect than he is a quarterback. The concerns are valid, and plentiful, and something NFL talent evaluators will wrestle with in the coming months: What to make of all those physical gifts, all those jaw-dropping highlights, while acknowledging the sobering truths that come with them, starting with Richardson’s glaring inconsistencies throwing the ball and the fact he started only 12 games at Florida?

Can his accuracy improve at the NFL level? Because it’ll have to.

Is he mature enough to handle what’s to come? Because it’s going to be a lot.

And what’s he like behind the scenes?

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Florida’s Anthony Richardson details ‘life-changing’ week at NFL Scouting Combine

In a lengthy conversation Wednesday, Napier peeled back the curtain on Richardson’s lone season as Florida’s starter and answered questions on what teams can expect from him at the next level.

The film

No doubt, he has a cannon.

“No limitations where the ball can go,” Napier said. “Sideline to sideline, all parts of the field, outside third — no issue.”

Richardson’s mechanics can be smooth and compact, even effortless at times. They can also be erratic. What he often struggled with at Florida was his footwork, which was routinely sloppy, especially when he faced pressure late in downs. This typically led to his most consistent miss: high. He sailed too many balls. He also had a tendency to put too much heat on short throws, making life difficult for his receivers.

These are certainly things with which a lot of young quarterbacks struggle. Before the 2022 season, Napier noted, Richardson had seen only 221 offensive snaps in college, all in a reserve role. And his first year as a starter coincided with Napier’s first in Gainesville. That not only meant a new head coach but also a new offensive coordinator and a new playbook. Those are significant factors in Richardson’s evaluation.

Napier has been speaking to NFL general managers, coaches and scouts over the past few months, stressing to them that, above all else, Richardson needs repetition. He is still in his quarterbacking infancy, a one-year college starter who’s in desperate need of time on task. Put simply, he requires reps. Lots of them. “He needs continuity in system and staff. And, you know, provide a routine for him,” Napier urged. “He’s gonna do the work.”

At Florida, the staff had players’ schedules scripted down to almost every waking moment, “every part of their lives,” Napier said. He suggested that whichever NFL team lands Richardson in April do the same, creating an environment that offers structure for a young pro who, the moment he is drafted, will have the long-term hopes of a franchise hoisted upon his sturdy shoulders. Colts GM Chris Ballard has often hinted at this: Once a player is drafted, it becomes the team’s responsibility to create an environment suited to his development. The Colts, who have the No. 4 pick in next month’s draft, are also open to the idea that a rookie quarterback should sit for a year (or longer) until he’s ready to play. Richardson, almost assuredly, needs to watch and wait.

His pocket presence also has to improve, some of which can be alleviated with cleaner footwork. Richardson doesn’t always throw with anticipation — a must in the NFL — and he struggled against zone coverage last season. Hidden amid all the highlight plays from him in 2022 are not only missed throws but also forced throws. (Gators receivers dropped a few, as well.) Also, Richardson was often too quick to bail on his progressions, in favor of scrambling out of the pocket.

But he did cut his turnovers down over the second half of the season (his touchdown-to-interception ratio was 12-2 over his final six starts) and, Napier noted, had more command at the line of scrimmage than most probably realize. Before each snap, Richardson had audibles at his disposal (run-to-run, run-to-pass) that he could check into, and once he identified the defense’s mike linebacker, he could change the protection.

“Basically, the keys to the car,” Napier called it. “I think there’s a ton of carryover (to the NFL). … He’s intelligent enough to do that, and he did it at a high level.”

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

On Anthony Richardson, a QB forged in fire and the NFL Draft’s most intriguing prospect

Florida also increased Richardson’s responsibilities as the season progressed, and his play improved.

Richardson bristled at the “project” label at the NFL Scouting Combine earlier this month — “I don’t even know what that means,” he said — and interviewed well with teams. “I would say every quarterback that transitions from college football to the NFL is a project, right?” Napier said. “I mean, this is the absolute most difficult thing to do in all sports, right?

“Anybody that calls him a project, I think that’s just fuel to the fire for him.”

First-year Colts coach Shane Steichen is confident that if you can improve a quarterback’s mechanics, you can improve his accuracy. He did it in Philadelphia with Jalen Hurts. “Part of it, too, is the scheme you put them in,” Steichen explained. “Don’t make them think too much. Simplify the offense to build it around the quarterback.”

The person

As a youngster, Richardson pedaled his black mountain bike around Gainesville, his hometown, with his younger brother, Cory, sitting atop the handlebars. It was big brother’s job to make sure Cory got to and from school. Mom was busy, juggling multiple jobs to support them.

A decade later, Richardson was the star of his hometown team, miles from where he grew up.

“He’s done a great job of managing what comes with the spotlight,” Napier said, “(and) not allowing that to affect who he is.”

The transition to the pro game, and the pro lifestyle, has been challenging for several young quarterbacks in recent years — undoubtedly overwhelming for some. Is Richardson ready for the attention? The demands? The change that occurs when football becomes a full-time job?

“I think he got a lot more comfortable as the season went with how to truly be a professional, right, relative to what does Sunday to Saturday look like?” Napier said. “Anthony was very diligent. I think he embraced that. And I thought he got better at that each week.”

There are also the enhanced expectations and responsibilities that come with being an NFL quarterback. After an early-season loss to Kentucky — maybe Richardson’s worst performance of the year — he broke down in tears in the locker room. With dozens of NFL scouts on hand that day, Richardson finished 14-of-35 for 143 yards and two interceptions. Florida lost by 10.


Kentucky linebacker Jordan Wright talks trash to Anthony Richardson after an interception during their September matchup. (Kim Klement / USA Today)

After finally fighting back the tears, he decided to face the media, something that wasn’t required of him.

Richardson sat in front of the microphone and owned it. All of it.

The reporters wanted to know: Why was it so important to him to face the music? Plenty of college athletes would have declined. His coach had left the decision up to him.

“I wanted to just let everyone know what’s going on,” Richardson said. “We lost, and I feel like it’s completely on me. A lot of people say it’s not, but I feel like it’s on me. I played terrible. I didn’t do anything that would’ve helped my team. I take full responsibility for the loss.”

Before the game, he’d assured his defensive teammates “I got you,” vowing he’d put up points for them.

But after he missed some throws early, his poise slipped. He never recovered.

“My confidence got shot,” Richardson admitted that day. “It affected my receivers poorly, you know, missing them wide open. So I know their confidence probably went down as well. I didn’t help my O-line. I didn’t help my running backs. I didn’t help the team.”

Accountability matters to NFL execs, especially when it comes to the franchise quarterback, the position that receives so much of the blame when things go poorly. When asked where Richardson needs to grow the most in the coming years, Napier pointed to his leadership. “Having conviction with his voice, speaking with clarity, his ability to lead an organization, to be kind of the standard bearer for the entire organization,” the coach said.

It’s a transition every young quarterback grapples with as they enter the league. “This is a one-year starter, right, that’s going to walk into a room full of NFL veterans,” Napier said. “Ultimately, the consistency is key. And I think that’s another part of his transition.”

The upside

Whichever NFL team selects Richardson in April will be betting on his considerable upside, not just the obvious and enticing physical traits. He’ll need to continue improving as a passer. Ballard believes quarterbacks, no matter how much they can create with their legs, still have to win from the pocket.

Steichen put it like this: “You have to be able to throw it, cut it through the wind and those sorts of things. But again, accuracy is one of the biggest things. I think when it’s third-and-8, you gotta be able to stand in the pocket and deliver a strike with a guy barreling down your chest. I think that says a lot about a guy’s toughness. I look for that on tape.”


Anthony Richardson impressed at the NFL Scouting Combine, but it remains to be seen how that will translate to being an NFL quarterback. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

Richardson made some of those throws at Florida. He missed plenty, too. His 53.8 completion percentage ranked 13th of 14 SEC starters last season. The windows are undeniably smaller on Sundays. Defenses aren’t just faster, they’re smarter.

“Ultimately,” Napier said, “at the next level, you’re going to have to make your money with your arm.”

That will be what reveals Richardson’s long-term competence as a pro: if his ability as a quarterback can catch up to his ability as an athlete. So much remains unknown, and that’s what teams will wrestle with over the next six weeks. One league scout compared Richardson’s explosive ability to that of Lamar Jackson, but he urged caution. There’s still so much he needs to get better at.

“A freak QB who has tools to make an impact like Lamar because he’s such a special athlete,” the scout said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But he’s coming from a very simple offense and (has) limited experience.”

Twelve starts, to be exact. Napier is anxious to see how it plays out. The kid who wowed him on day one with rare arm talent is intent on showing the league there’s more to his game.

Which NFL team is willing to roll the dice? Because one will, and then it’ll be up to Richardson to prove it right.

Florida’s coach has a message for them.

“You’re getting a phenomenal athlete that has character and that’s extremely bright. Really, if you get the right group of skilled players around this guy, you’ve got a chance to have a special unit.”

(Top photo: James Gilbert / Getty Images)

Latest article