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Film Room: Why Drake Maye is the Perfect QB for Alex Van Pelt

After years of subpar quarterback play and months of painstaking speculation, the Patriots have their future face of the franchise in North Carolina’s Drake Maye.

Reports since the draft indicate New England would’ve been happy with any of the draft’s top three passers, but for my money, no one was a better fit for the rebuilding franchise known for inclement weather.

Maye offers ideal size at 6′ 4⅜”, 223 lbs, and he complements that with rare arm talent and exceptional athleticism. The former Tar Heel can make any throw from any platform with appropriate velocity. He can even flick touchdown passes with his left hand!

Despite his youth and inexperience, Maye consistently showed an understanding of how to attack defenders’ leverage and exploit various types of coverage. Though he’s often criticized for drifting in the pocket, this tendency, more often than not, showed Maye’s awareness of pressure and made up for poor protection. He’s also willing to stand in the pocket and take big hits if it means completing a throw.

Most of Maye’s damage comes from inside the tackles, but he can also create magic outside of structure and as a ball carrier.

His running ability doesn’t come up often, but Maye was UNC’s leading rusher in 2022, with his 56 explosive rushes (10+ yards) since 2022 ranked 3rd among FBS quarterbacks. He has a great feel for when to scramble and is at his best going downhill, showing sneaky elusiveness and the contact balance to run through arm tackles. He can also factor into the run game and does a nice job sliding to avoid big hits, though he’ll put his shoulder down or even hurdle defenders to pick up extra yards.

Maye’s talent and underrated football IQ are undeniably impressive, but he’s also a work in progress. This was reflected by how drastically different his position rankings were leading up to the draft.

When looking at raw stats from last season, Maye was the least efficient prospect among this year’s 1st-round quarterbacks.

That said, he was also operating on a higher level of difficulty than his peers, tasked with carrying a UNC offense short on talent or schematic advantages.

While Maye suffers from shaky accuracy, an occasionally hasty internal clock, and moments of over-aggressiveness, he was clearly the driving force behind UNC’s success. He was also named the ACC’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2022, which was arguably a more accurate depiction of what he can be as a pro.

The hope is that former quarterback, coach and current Patriots offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt can use his unique experience to help Maye become the best he can be. But how well do the two complement each other’s strengths?

I went through years of quotes, stats, and film to find out.

MENTAL MAKEUP

As many scouts will tell you, talent sets a prospect’s floor, but character and mental makeup set their ceiling.

When the Patriots’ quarterback plan was still a mystery, Van Pelt described his ideal quarterback as “smart, tough, and a leader,” before mentioning any physical traits.

I mean, obviously, there’s accuracy in the pass game and mobility and decision-making. There’s a lot that goes into it. But at the end of the day, that role is such an important role, not just for the offense, but for the team as well,” Van Pelt explained during his introductory press conference. “So a guy that’s a true leader that can come in and really get the job done really understands his teammates and gets the best out of those guys.”

After selecting Drake Maye number 3 overall in the 2024 NFL Draft, de facto general manager Eliot Wolf mentioned how Maye elevated the players around him at UNC. Shortly after, when asked about Wolf’s comments, Maye’s response was exactly what you’d want to hear from a franchise cornerstone.

I think [elevating the players around you is] a huge part of being a quarterback. You’re the face of the team. They look to you, and my responsibility is to get to know the guys personally,” Maye said. “I think that’s the biggest thing: genuine relationships. That’s kind of what I feed off of. I get to know the guys truly because you may not be able to handle different guys the same way.

One guy, you might be able to get on him a little bit, yell at him, or be a little hard on him. I had some receivers that I could do that with, and some of the offensive linemen, it was more kind of gentle, friendly and just picking them up. So, just get to know the guys personally. I think that’s the biggest thing, and just be one of the guys. I think going in there as a top-three pick rookie, I think you kind of – just stay humble.”

An NFL scout told The Athletic‘s Dane Brugler that Maye will “need time before he’s ready to lead an NFL room, but he’ll get there.” Understanding his role and the importance of staying grounded will provide a solid foundation for the 21-year-old as he learns from coaches and veteran players.

Competitiveness is another box Maye checks with flying colors. The youngest of four brothers in a family of accomplished athletes, competition is in Maye’s DNA. NFL Network‘s Cameron Wolfe reported that the night before the draft,  Maye dominated his brothers during a 4-on-4 basketball game in a Detroit gym, with no one holding back on the future 3rd overall pick.

Head coach Jerod Mayo said that toughness is what influenced him to go with Maye when watching tape.

“One thing about Drake, and we kind of talked about it this past year, they also had some holes on offense, and the thing that most impressed me about him, he would get smashed and just get right back up,” Mayo said after taking the quarterback. “That’s the same trait — you had a guy like Tom Brady — not saying that he’s Tom, but just that mentality. Same thing with Joe Burrow. Those guys just keep getting back up and continuing to play at a high level, and that was like the aha moment for me.”

By all accounts, Maye has the competitive toughness and leadership ability New England covets at quarterback. He also showed impressive decision-making for a two-year starter.

According to PFF, Maye’s 1.9% turnover-worthy play rate was 7th-lowest among FBS quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts. His 111.1 passer rating on “next read” throws was also tied for 6th among FBS passers with at least 25 such attempts, and he was willing to check down or throw away passes when necessary.

As one would expect from a young player with limited experience, Maye is still a project (more on that later). However, he seems to have the neck-up qualities that New England covets at the position. With time and effective grooming, Maye should maximize his otherworldly potential.

But how will that potential fit into Van Pelt’s scheme? And what can we expect from New England’s first-year offensive coordinator?

SCHEME FIT

After being drafted, Maye gave a glimpse into what New England’s offense could look like when asked if he’d previously met with Van Pelt.

“Yeah, I got to meet Coach [Van Pelt]. We met for the first time at the formal interview at the Combine. He was asking the questions,” Maye explained to reporters. “Then, I went up there for the 30 visit; we went through some of the film, outside zone scheme. He likes to throw it around; he did some play-action stuff with [Aaron] Rodgers back in the day in Green Bay, so I’m looking forward to being in that offense.”

Van Pelt was Aaron Rodgers’ quarterbacks coach from 2014-2017. In their first season together, Rodgers won his second MVP and earned Pro Bowl nods the next two seasons. During their time together, Rodgers ranked 5th in big-time throws and big-time throw rate, and he attempted the 10th-most deep passes.

Van Pelt and then-Packers head coach Mike McCarthy overlapped at the University of Pittsburgh, where Van Pelt played quarterback from 1989-1992 and McCarthy served as a graduate assistant from 1989-1991. Both were heavily influenced by Paul Hackett, who became the head coach at Pitt four years after serving as a 49ers assistant under the legendary Bill Walsh.

“I’ve been blessed to have so many great coaches in my lifetime,” Van Pelt told Patriots reporters. “Really started off for me with Paul Hackett at the University of Pittsburgh, who was Joe Montana’s coach, West Coast guy, taught me everything I know about quarterback play.”

Walsh’s West Coast offense was built on timing-based short passes, which controlled the pace of games and served as extensions of a diverse run game. To generate big plays, the offense used play-action passes designed to fool defenses by simulating runs.

Disciples of Walsh’s tree have tailored the system to fit their own preferences and personnel, with Hackett’s version putting a heavier emphasis on the ground game and run-fakes.

Van Pelt provided insight into this offensive philosophy when being introduced as the Browns’ offensive coordinator in 2020.

If you are running the ball well with the guys that we have…the play-action is a huge part of the game, explosive gains, completion percentages and everything that comes off of that. Play-action will be a big part of what we do. It is something that I have always believed in. I was taught a long time ago by Paul Hackett who emphasized play-action and the art of it, or the lost art of it.”

Back in March, Van Pelt said he’s largely remained faithful to his mentor’s teachings.

“Not a lot of spins,” Van Pelt said when asked how his core philosophies have changed since his time with Hackett. “I mean, there’s, there’s some stuff obviously we do different. But the drill work that I did in college, that Joe [Montana] did when he was with Paul is the same one that Aaron Rodgers did, and that all the quarterbacks I’ve worked with [do]. … The play-action pass game, the ball handling, the fakes that you make, and then all the little details that go into that was a huge piece that I took away from him.”

Rodgers was deadly on the outside zone fakes Maye alluded to from his 30 visit.

This type of play-action is typically associated with bootlegs, which are also present in Van Pelt’s scheme. But more often, these plays simulate a bootleg before having the quarterback reset at or near the original hash, making it easier to throw over the middle. In Green Bay, this misdirection gave Jordy Nelson time to beat safeties and outside-leveraged corners on “dino” routes, allowing Rodgers to take the top off the defense.

At UNC, Maye rarely passed from under center or turned his back to the defense, which can be tough for quarterbacks if the coverage changes post-snap. That said, his limited play-action dropbacks from pistol looked eerily similar to Rodgers.

Maye’s most exciting traits as a passer are his arm talent and deep ball. Despite throwing 96 deep passes, which tied for the fifth-most in the FBS last season (no plays included), Maye’s 47.7% accuracy rate on such throws trailed only Sam Hartman (59.2%, 64 attempts) and Jordan McCloud (48.1%, 61 attempts) among quarterbacks with at least 60 such attempts.

While he wasn’t selling fakes as wholeheartedly as Van Pelt will ask him to, both Maye and Rodgers showed a knack for delivering haymakers between the hashes.

Maye’s ability to consistently attack the middle is uncommon for a young quarterback, as these throws require anticipation and timing that some passers simply lack. But when asked about his go-to concepts, Maye told reporters he can do it all.

“I think throwing up from over across the middle. I think I’ve got to see it well. I’m a big 6’5″ dude back there. Whether it’s a seam shot, big dig, corner routes, corner-post, anything across the middle of the field, I feel like I can make all the throws.”

The stats back Maye’s claims, as he was the only one of this year’s 1st-round quarterbacks to complete at least five deep passes to five different routes.

When Patriots bridge quarterback Jacoby Brissett played under Van Pelt in 2022, he ranked 4th in deep attempts during a 12-week stint as Cleveland’s starter. Much of this success came off of play-action.

Another big-armed passer, Brissett’s aggressive style forced defenses to respect each level of Cleveland’s zone-beating “flood” concepts. He would often throw deep and outside to corner routes, both from stationary and moving pockets.

These same types of throws can be found in Maye’s college tape.

Whether it was passing up easier options for more lucrative rewards or exploiting holes in coverage, he wasn’t limited to the short and intermediate options Patriots fans have grown accustomed to.

Empty formations, which can simplify quarterbacks’ reads by spreading out the defense, are another Van Pelt staple where Maye has a track record of success.

Green Bay was top-10 in empty formation snaps during each of the coach’s final two seasons in Green Bay. This was also the case during his last two seasons in Cleveland, with only the Dolphins recording more empty snaps in 2023.

When asked about the Browns’ empty use after a preseason game last season, Van Pelt briefly touched on the idea behind this strategy.

“I think obviously [Deshaun Watson’s] strengths are when you get people spread out, his ability to move in the pocket and create when things don’t work out, or if he decides to take off with the ball, that gives you more space to do so. But we’ve always been a pretty heavy empty formation team before him.”

The ability to beat perfect coverage could make Maye a nightmare to defend at the next level, especially from these spread looks. In addition to attacking downfield when opportunities presented themselves, he often used his mobility to buy time for receivers or make plays himself by tucking and running.

Van Pelt’s affinity for big plays combined with Maye’s fearlessness and talent should lead to fireworks in Foxboro. But to maximize that potential, the young quarterback must prove he can do the little things consistently.

AREAS FOR IMPROVEMENT

Most of Maye’s glaring weaknesses can be ironed out with experience.

Like Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen in their early years, he tends to force plays instead of taking what defenses give him or living to fight another down. Those superhero efforts often work in their favor, which is what makes those players special. However, Maye will need to learn what he can and can’t get away with in the NFL. That will come with on-field reps.

Maye can also be guilty of holding onto the ball, rushing through reads, and overstriding when drifting from pressure. These shortcomings should temper themselves with time and confidence in his supporting cast.

Those concerns are unlikely to keep him off of the field, but poor mechanics and erratic accuracy might.

Van Pelt’s West Coast scheme may place a heavier emphasis on the run and play-action, but rhythmic dropback passing is still a staple. Unlike most offensive coordinators, who focus primarily on scheme and matchups, Van Pelt uses a specific style of footwork. One example is how he asks quarterbacks to start with their left foot up when in shotgun, an unnatural stance for most.

“It is my opinion [starting with the left foot forward] helps in the three-step game, the quick game,” Van Pelt explained back in 2020. “There is more rhythm and it is not as robotic. It is more fluid. I have always used the term that I want the feet to be like Mozart and not like Metallica if that makes sense.

The beauty of the West Coast offense is the synchronicity between quarterbacks and their receivers. Each step in a dropback indicates where a passer should be in his progression, requiring detail and consistency on both ends.

“You have to be at the right place at the right time every time as a receiver,” Van Pelt went on to say. “Freelancing is not a big part of the system. I think there are times that you will do that to get a little creative, but the quarterback needs to know when those times are and things need to time up. The footwork, the timing of the feet, and where you are in the progression is a big part of the system.”

Timing and accuracy will be major areas of focus for Maye. UNC’s Air Raid offense was far less structured than what he will run in the pros, which contributed to inconsistent mechanics and lots of ugly misses.

Maye’s eyes and hips were often out of whack, forcing his lower body to catch up and throwing off his process. He also tends to heel-click and throw from a narrow base, which hurts his balance.

Among this year’s 1st-round quarterbacks, only Michael Penix Jr. exceeded his 19.6% uncatchable throw rate, and Maye was the only player in that group to complete fewer than 65% of quick passes at 59.6%.

These stats are troubling, and overcorrecting a quarterback’s mechanics can do more harm than good. But at the end of the day, consistency is the goal, and Van Pelt’s system should provide much-needed structure. Many coaches also believe footwork is the easiest thing to fix in young quarterbacks, and New England’s offensive coordinator seems to agree.

“Ryan Finley came in as a rookie last year, and I thought [my style of footwork] helped improve him once he got the footwork down,” Van Pelt said following a two-year stint as the Bengals’ quarterbacks coach. “He struggled a little bit in the spring with it, but after the summer and we came back from training camp, it was a lot better. … Hopefully, the muscle memory over the course of time won’t allow [bad habits in high-pressure moments] to happen. That is what we are shooting for. Yes, it can happen. Yes, it does early on.”

If Maye adjusts as quickly as Van Pelt thinks he can, the rookie should finish this season as New England’s starter.

Based on this comment after the quarterback’s pro day, where he repeated a throw he missed earlier in the session, the odds are in Maye’s favor: “That’s the perfectionist in me. As the youngest brother, I never want to give people the satisfaction that I’m comfortable with failing.”

Taylor Kyles

Taylor Kyles is the lead NFL Analyst for CLNS Media covering players, schemes, and tendencies through a New England Patriots-centric lens.

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