Indiana State’s motto acknowledges itself as ‘The Crossroads of America’. Which path will Indiana native, Tommy Stevens, choose to pursue in the NFL?
Hailing from Indianapolis, Thomas (‘Tommy’) Stevens is a 23-year-old, 6ft 5in, 108kg quarterback. Before his selection during the 2020 NFL Draft as the 240th overall pick by the New Orleans Saints, there was little media buzz attached to Stevens’ name. The decision by the Saints head office to trade up their 2021 6th round pick to secure Stevens has been received with a mixed reception. Debate online has tended to revolve around Stevens’ inability to tie down a starting quarterback role during his college career, or simply viewing him as a Taysom Hill 2.0, utility player clone. Rather unfortunately, Stevens’ has also been subject to bleak prophecies after being gifted the number 2 jersey, formerly owned by Saints’ hall of famer, and infamous back-passer, Aaron Brooks.
Currently, Tommy Stevens is an unknown entity with media outlets struggling to analyse what was a stop and start college career plagued with quarterback positional battles and recurring injuries. Stevens is an intriguing player, however, and may prove to be a diamond in the rough. Although it is highly unlikely he will hit the field as the Saints QB during the 2020-2021 season, especially following the recent signing of Jameis Winston on a one-year, $1.1 million deal, there may be other gaps that Stevens can plug if willing to throw his hat in the mix. Assuming a variety of roles throughout his four-year college career at quarterback, running back, receiver, and even defensive back, Stevens truly finds himself at a crossroads as to which path to forward his career in.
Stevens’ athleticism cannot be understated. Scaling an imposing 6ft 5in and 108kg, Stevens has no right to possess the speed and agility he has exhibited in college matches, and most recently, his impressive Pro Day numbers. Clocking in a blisteringly fast, 4.49sec, 40-yard dash, it ranks as the fastest recorded from a QB in the 2020 NFL Draft, as well featuring in the top 10 all-time QB dashes. Clocking in ahead of Russell Wilson (4.53), Cam Newton (4.56), and Deshaun Watson (4.66), it is evident Stevens is blessed with the wheels to scramble effectively as a mobile quarterback. When considering Stevens’ fleet-footed speed in addition to his power, exemplified by his 34.5″ vertical jump and 19 bench press reps, it is more accurate to refer to Stevens as a wrecking ball on the ground.
Graduating from Decatur Central High School, Tommy Stevens was viewed as a dual-threat three-star prospect (according to 247Sports, ESPN, Rivals and Scout). Despite being regarded as the number five player in Indiana, holding two-time all-conference, all-area and all-county selections, Stevens never generated any major waves nationally as evidenced Rivals placing Stevens at the 18th ranked dual-threat quarterback. As will become apparent, Stevens’ skills do not start and end at quarterback. Achieving a 2014 All-State selection as a defensive back, recording 25 tackles and 2 interceptions over 11 matches during his senior year, Stevens’ versatility has been evident long before his college career.
Simply put, Stevens’ college career never really lifted off the ground. Following three years of playing backseat to Trace McSorley at Penn State, a transfer to Mississippi State to re-join former Penn State offensive coordinator, Joe Moorhead, laid down the foundations for Stevens to take the reins as a starting QB. What transpired, however, was a string of injuries that forced Stevens to miss career-defining matches against the likes of LSU and Auburn, as well as receiving stronger than expected competition from freshman QB Garrett Shrader.
It is important to note that Stevens was not left to rot on the side-lines during his chequered college years. Moorhead pursued every possible avenue to utilise Stevens’ multifaceted talent, often choosing to run a 2-QB system as a means of employing Stevens’ running prowess during late down-and-yardage situations. Similar to high school, the positioning of Stevens as a running back, tight end, receiver, and defensive back underlines his value as management attempted to maximise his time spent on the field.
During recent years there has been a noticeable shift within the NFL as offensive schemes have chosen to incorporate more run-pass option (RPO) plays.
RPO Simplified: A run-pass option play involves a QB reading the movement of a pre-determined defender to decide between handing the ball to his running back, throwing a quick pass to a receiver, or scrambling himself.
College football, however, has long-integrated the more experimental play calling that RPO represents. Moorhead’s dedication to applying RPOs is reflected in his comments made to SBNation in 2018, “I would say 85 to 90 percent of the runs we called had a second phase or a tag”. Moulded within a QB-centred and highly innovative offensive scheme, it becomes clearer to understand Sean Payton’s logic of how easily Stevens could piece himself into a similar jigsaw in New Orleans.
When assessing Stevens’ suitability as a potential NFL QB, the elephant in the room cannot be ignored. Tommy Stevens has never been fit enough to play a full season of college football, at Penn or Mississippi. In fact, Stevens has suffered a string of injuries that would have earned him a personal hospital ward: separated shoulder, high-ankle sprain, broken rib and a punctured lung. Career longevity within the NFL is a fine balance between possessing the required skill level, and the ability to remain involved on the field. Having the fastest 40-yard dash or the strongest arm is of no use if you cannot be relied upon to regularly play matches.
Standout performances in the handful of college matches played, however, points less to Stevens’ lack of ability and more towards a recurring theme of injury. You need not look further than only the second game of the 2019 college season for a clearer representation of the risks and rewards that Stevens represents. Utilising his arm, Stevens masterfully guided Mississippi State to a 14-0 opener against Southern Mississippi. Leading 61yds and 81yds scoring drives, completing all 9 attempted passes and scoring 2tds, Stevens was on fire and seeking to finally make a name for himself. It was a shame then, when he had entered the medical tent before the half-time whistle. Scrambling out of the pocket, Stevens took a hit which caused his shoulder to separate. The blockbuster physicality of Stevens proves to also be his undoing, an unfortunate catch-22 for the athletic QB reliant upon using his feet.
That is not to say that Stevens was electric every time he featured. One worrying performance that cannot be blamed solely on an injury, however, came up against the powerhouse Crimson Tide defence. Alabama (11-2, Citrus Bowl winners), who claimed the 20th ranked total defence (out of 130), held Stephens to only 82 passing yards as he completed just 12/21 passes (57.1%cmp). Whilst an injury to Alabama’s star QB Tua Tagovailoa garnered the media headlines, Stevens’ inability to unlock Alabama’s cover-3 defence with his arm left Mississippi State falling to a heavy 38-7 defeat. One silver lining was Stevens’ success in reverting to pounding the turf, leading Mississippi’s running game with 10atts, 96yds, and a long of 46yds.
Furthermore, Mississippi’s lone scoring drive involved a key Stevens carry for 27yds. Bleeding Alabama for 188yds on the ground, their second-highest allowed during the 2019 season is commendable (only OLE Miss accrued more, generating a mammoth 279yds rushing). It is debatable though, if Stevens will so easily find gaps and large stretches of turf in the NFL where the opposing defenders are more physical and conscious of the scramble. Even if Stevens continues to find success on his feet, he nevertheless remains at risk of absorbing hits from larger and stronger professional athletes. If his body struggles to cope at the college level, it does not bode well for his future with the bigger boys.
Modest media coverage attributed to Stevens since the draft has tended to focus only on his final performance for Mississippi State. Filling in for an injured Garrett Shrader, Stevens was blessed with one last opportunity to prove his worth before the draft in the Music City Bowl against the Louisville Cardinals (8-5). Rising to the challenge, Stevens capped off the season with a commanding performance: 17/26 passing (65.4%cmp), 221yds, 2tds; and 17 rushes for 71yds, 1td. Directly involved in 43 plays, his highest number of the season, Stevens remained fit enough to showcase his skill set in a meaningful match in front of 2.2million viewers on ESPN.
Interestingly, the Music City Bowl (30/12/19) was held a full month after Stevens’ last match (Ole Miss, 28/11/19), and suggests that the time spent recovering allowed a fully fit showing. Granted, this was against a Cardinals team that was ranked 102nd on total defence, and had opted for an all-guns-blazing approach as reflected by their 24th ranked total offence.
Contrary to media opinion, Stevens provided his most impressive performance during his Mississippi State debut against the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (11-3, LendingTree Bowl winners). Once again, it is important to reiterate that Stevens had just returned from a full off-season of rest. Performing uninhibited by injuries, therefore, more accurately reflects his actual ability. Finishing the season with the 47th ranked total defence and 21st ranked passing yards allowed, the Cajuns represented an imposing defence who had restricted teams to an average of 192yds per game. Despite a seemingly poor 67.5 QB rating, Stevens completed 20/30 passes (66.6%cmp), accumulating 236yds and 2tds, for an average yards per completion of 7.9.
It would not be a Stevens performance, however, without highlighting his talent on the ground: 11att, 37yds, and 1td. Whilst a 4yd rushing touchdown is nothing to get excited about, Stevens’ ability to carry an offensive unit is. Stevens’ rushing touchdown was simply the climax to what had been an 11-play, 82-yard drive, during which he effectively managed the clock during the final four minutes before half-time.
Overall, Stevens represents an enigma to NFL coaching in the sense that he is an unknown quantity at quarterback, with limited game-tape of a college career that has been blighted by injuries. There is little doubt that if Stevens accepts his role as a utility player at the Saints, and most importantly manages to remain healthy, that he will be able to feature in some capacity within Sean Payton’s offence. Questions remain, however, over Stevens’ future as a quarterback. During an interview with USA Today, Stevens set clear his desires of eventually assuming a franchise quarterback role as he stated “I think my best football is still ahead of me as a passer and as a quarterback“. Stevens’ sentiments are further solidified by Moorhead’s vocal support, telling The Dispatch that “there’s a lot of value in Tommy as a pure quarterback… the one thing he lacks is experience”. With a lengthy stint in the Saint’s practice squad looming, Stevens has a dream chance of absorbing expert knowledge from a future hall of famer, Drew Brees, and the flawed yet explosive, Jameis Winston. Providing no more niggling injuries arise, Stevens will have a full season to hone his craft and hopefully have a chance in the near future where he can shine at the highest level.