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Will Grier offers the Cowboys loads of potential as a backup quarterback

Cowboys backup is a perfect learning position for Will Grier.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Indianapolis Colts Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys wrapped up their final cuts of preseason on Monday, but the backup quarterback competition was far from resolved. Cooper Rush survived cuts that Garrett Gilbert and Ben DiNucci did not, but it was widely expected that Dallas would bring in someone else via the waiver wire. On Tuesday, they did just that, claiming former Panthers quarterback Will Grier.

It is expected that Rush will remain on the roster for the time being, and likely be active against the Buccaneers in the season opener, while Grier familiarizes himself with the offense. But in the long run, Grier has the tools and potential to become the top backup to Dak Prescott.

Grier originally committed to play at the University of Florida as a four-star recruit out of North Carolina. After redshirting his first year on campus, Grier ended up becoming the starting quarterback for the 2015 season after an extended competition with Treon Harris that lasted into the first game of the year. The offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for that season was none other than Doug Nussmeier, current Cowboys quarterbacks coach; this connection was first noted by Bobby Belt on Monday, and he ended up being right on the money with the call.

Grier’s first year as the starting quarterback ended abruptly, though. He was suspended for a year after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. He finished the season with six games and five starts under his belt, totaling 1,202 passing yards on a 65.6% completion rate with 10 touchdowns and only three interceptions. But the suspension ultimately led Grier to transfer to West Virginia.

After sitting out a year per transfer rules, Grier became the starting quarterback and quickly began to flash in head coach Dana Holgorsen’s Air Raid attack. In 2017, Grier threw for 3,490 yards on a 64.4% completion rate with 34 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. The next year, Grier hit on a career-high 67% of his passes (while also recording a career-high in passes attempted) to go for 3,864 yards, 37 touchdowns, and eight interceptions.

Grier then entered the 2019 NFL Draft, where he was selected in the third round by the Panthers. He appeared in two games his rookie year, starting both of them. It didn’t go very well: Grier completed 53.8% of his passes for 228 yards with zero touchdowns and four interceptions; Carolina also lost both games. Under a new coaching staff in 2020, Grier was inactive for all but two games and never saw the field in those two games anyway. This preseason, Grier hit on 70.9% of his passes for 222 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions before getting cut at the deadline.

To say Grier’s NFL career has thus far been a disappointment is a bit of an understatement. It would be easy to dismiss his impressive college numbers as both a byproduct of the Air Raid offense and facing Big 12 defenses each week, and to some extent that’s right. But Grier also displayed some things at West Virginia that suggest he can do more than what he’s shown thus far.

Leading up to the 2019 draft, Josh Hermsmeyer of FiveThirtyEight penned an exceptional article aimed at determining which metrics for quarterback play are the best indicators of success at the NFL level. As a result, Hermsmeyer developed a regression model designed to pick out players that are likely to meet or exceed the NFL average in yards per attempt of 7.1. The model used seven different quarterback metrics that Hermsmeyer found translated well from college to the NFL: QBR, completion percentage over expectation, average depth of target, touchdown rate, passing yards per game, yards per attempt, and a passing metric that Hermsmeyer himself developed called PACR.

Setting all the math aside, Hermsmeyer found that, when applied retroactively, it accurately predicted the yards per attempt figures for quarterbacks such as Russell Wilson, Jameis Winston, Deshaun Watson, Jared Goff, Kirk Cousins, and even Kellen Moore. The model also accurately predicted poor results from the likes of Geno Smith, Blake Bortles, and Paxton Lynch. It was not without error, but the model was fairly successful for such a high frequency position.

So when Hermsmeyer then applied this model to the 2019 quarterback class, it produced some intriguing results. For example, it didn’t like Daniel Jones at all (Jones has averaged 6.6 yards per attempt through two seasons) and felt similarly about Drew Lock (who has also averaged 6.6 yards per attempt and just lost his starting job to Teddy Bridgewater). Meanwhile, it gave Kyler Murray the best probability of meeting or exceeding the league average in yards per attempt (he’s currently sitting at even seven through two seasons) and Grier the second-highest probability behind Murray.

Considering Grier is averaging 4.4 yards per attempt currently, the model seems to have missed big on him. Still, the model liked Grier because his college production peaked in certain measurements that historically translate well to the NFL in critical ways for quarterbacks, suggesting that Grier may still have great potential. And a closer look at Grier’s film reveals one fatal flaw that resulted in him falling to the third round despite such gaudy statistics: mechanics. Zac Shomler of Strong Opinion Sports had a particularly enlightening breakdown of this issue:

These mechanics issues for Grier were not unlike the ones that plagued Dak Prescott for much of his early career. Sure, Prescott played at a much higher rate, but there were still occasional throws that were just off. It wasn’t until Prescott’s 2019 season, when he dedicated time to improving his mechanics with quarterbacks coach Jon Kitna, that the quarterback took that next step in capitalizing off the talent that had made him so successful in college.

Grier now gets the opportunity to work directly with Prescott on a daily basis, and that could be the best case scenario for him. Grier’s college profile was that of a naturally talented quarterback being held back by poor mechanics. He’s regarded as smart and reliable, so a meaningful improvement in his throwing mechanics could help him take that next step. Right now, Grier is admittedly still a low floor/high ceiling player, as he was coming out of college. But that’s better than what the Cowboys otherwise have in that backup spot right now, making this addition an upgrade.