For the first time since his arrival in Westwood, Chip Kelly will enter the upcoming season without quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson on the roster. DTR has been here all five years of the Kelly tenure, and barring injury has been the starter every year as well–save for less than half of Kelly’s opening game. DTR and Kelly have had their fates tied together, and they both have evolved greatly since that opening game back in 2018.
Like Kelly, DTR began as a liability his first two seasons, started to turn the corner his third year, and finished as mostly an asset his final two years. He is currently UCLA’s all-time passing leader. Although he was unable to get the Bruins over the hump, he was one of the most important and influential players on Kelly’s teams and will leave the program with a ton of respect from fans and teammates alike.
But college football careers don’t last very long by design, and with no eligibility left, DTR will inevitably try his hand at the NFL.
Projecting players from college to the NFL is an incredibly difficult task. It’s also a massive industry, with tons of resources devoted to draft guides, mock drafts, player evaluations, combine coverage, and much much more. NFL teams are ultimately taking a gamble on any prospects, hoping that with the right coaching, they can grow into productive players for their respective teams.
But it’s hard to make it in the NFL. Less than two percent of NCAA football players will eventually make it to the NFL. That number increases when you narrow it down to D1 athletes, but not by much. The NFL is a different game than college football, and being a great college player does not mean that you will make it to the NFL. So not making it to the NFL is in no way a bad thing or a personal indictment. Having a great college career is in and of itself enough to be proud of.
As someone who has watched Dorian Thompson-Robinson his entire career in Westwood–and someone who was surprised and very impressed by his improvement–I still do not think that he will make it to the NFL, at least as a starter. Here’s why.
The Case Against Dorian Thompson-Robinson
As I mentioned earlier, the NFL is a different game than college, and that’s not just hyperbole. Not only are the athletes different, but the rules are different, as is the way the field is set up. NFL players are bigger, faster, and stronger. Schemes are more complex, and there is less schematic diversity in terms of what you can run. With the hash marks much closer together, the game is less about exploiting spacing. And a lot more responsibility falls on the shoulders of the quarterback.
Because of all these differences, especially for the quarterback, you cannot just project a player to the NFL based on stats and wins in college. You have to look at traits and attributes. A natural place to start is height and weight. Typically the more size, the better. DTR is 6’1” and 205 pounds. It’s good that he’s above 6 feet and 205 pounds. But he’s still a little shorter and lighter than you would prefer.
Height is important in the NFL because you need to be able to see over massive offensive linemen. In recent years, some people started to think that height may not as important for a QB. But recently, that idea may not be holding as much water as one may have initially thought.
When it comes to short quarterbacks, Drew Brees is an anomaly. There won’t ever be another quarterback with his height that plays the way he did. Russell Wilson had a ton of success by compensating for his height with great escapability, but as he has gotten older and his mobility has waned, he hasn’t been able to play as efficiently from the pocket. Baker Mayfield looked the part his rookie year, but things have fallen apart since then. Kyler Murray is far from a proven product.
All three of these guys have trouble seeing over the middle of the field. Bryce Young will be a fascinating test in this regard, as he seems to be an excellent prospect outside of how small he is. Then again, Aaron Rodgers is 6’2”, so not everyone needs to be 6’4”. But point is, DTR is shorter than ideal.
The reason why weight is concerning is that you need to be able to absorb hits from defenders. When you’re a mobile quarterback, like DTR is, the risk is even higher because you’re putting your body in harm’s way more often. DTR will likely bulk up a bit before the combine, but he has a small frame that may not support the bulk. That will be a concern.
The other part of physical attributes is speed and arm strength. Here, DTR fares better. Scouting reports put him at either 4.64 or 4.78 40-yard dash, but anyone who has watched UCLA over the past four years knows he plays faster than that. He is speedy and elusive in the open field, and that will be an asset at the next level as the position is moving increasingly toward dual-threat athletes.
When it comes to arm strength, DTR also fares well. I’m not sure I would call him a natural or effortless thrower, but he gets plenty of zip on the ball and does so with a relatively quick release. Arm strength shouldn’t be an issue at the next level.
But being a good thrower is about more than just arm strength. Perhaps the most important is accuracy. In the NFL, you need to be able to put the ball not just in a general area, but in a precise location where your guy and only your guy can catch it. Here, DTR can be ‘hit or miss.’ There are times he places balls phenomenally, but you also see moments where his ball location is off.
On top of that, you need to be able to throw with timing, pace, tempo, and with touch. This is another area where DTR struggles, as he’s a bit of a one-speed thrower. He struggles to take something off the ball when throwing to receivers running shorter routes. That can make it hard for receivers to catch, leading to tipped balls and interceptions.
When you combine one-speed throwing with ball placement that is slightly off, the potential for those tipped interceptions increases even more. And while DTR is capable of lobbing the ball if the route is predetermined, he is, for the most part, a “see it, throw it” passer rather than a true anticipation passer.
Next, we get into what I consider to be an incredibly important and overlooked aspect of quarterback play: footwork and mechanics. In the NFL, if your feet are doing the right thing, the ball will follow. If your footwork is erratic, your ball location will be off. And while you are seeing more and more guys make phenomenal off-platform throws–Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Kyler Murray, etc–true consistency at the quarterback comes from doing the right thing on every snap, from having repetitive mechanics.
This is an area where I think DTR struggles. He has a bad tendency to throw solely with his upper half, sometimes while falling backward and off his back foot, and it gets particularly worse under pressure.
He also has the bad habit of moving backward under pressure, which will get you killed in the NFL. Pretty much anyone can have good mechanics in a clean pocket, but whether those mechanics hold up when you have bodies around you is what really separates great quarterbacks from the rest. DTR has always struggled mechanically in this area, and it’s a big reason his accuracy is hit or miss. Although he has a good arm and a quick release, his throwing motion does not seem natural to me. This is an aspect of mechanics that I think can lead to accuracy issues.
But footwork is not just about how you deliver the ball, it’s also about everything leading up to the throw–your dropback and set, and how your feet sync with the timing of the routes. Chip Kelly’s offense was mostly quick game or misdirection out of the shotgun, so we didn’t really see DTR having to hold the ball for too long, to work through 5 and 7-step drops, or to execute play action or straight dropbacks from under center. It’s a similar problem that Hendon Hooker is going to face, although his offense was even more remedial.
Now, to be fair, the straight NFL dropback game from under center is not nearly as prominent as it was a few decades ago. The NFL has largely embraced the gun / RPO game that you see in college, as very few college QBs actually run a true “pro-style” offense, a term that is increasingly hard to define. But that doesn’t mean that footwork in the NFL is entirely moot. It also doesn’t mean DTR can’t learn it, just that we haven’t seen much of it up to this point.
Progression reading is another aspect of NFL quarterback play that is different than college. DTR did show some improvement in progression reading throughout his time in Westwood, although progressions seemed to happen much faster in Kelly’s quick game offense than they will with some of the longer developing routes DTR will see at the next level.
I will also add that, given DTR’s tendency to get injured, we saw a variety of backup QBs get reps in Kelly’s system over the past five years, and in my opinion, almost all of them tended to have a better sense of timing than DTR. This is mainly because they were mostly pocket QBs, so they had to grow up playing that way.
That doesn’t mean they were better QBs than DTR, but it leads me to believe that being a precision quarterback is not DTR’s style. He was more of an explosive play guy, a boom-or-bust guy. Often, those “busts” would result in negative plays, as many UCLA fans I’m sure are familiar with. That will be another negative when it comes to DTR’s evaluation, although aggression is generally a good thing if you can keep it under control.
It may seem like I’m being too harsh on DTR, but the NFL draft is a gauntlet! Most players won’t make it, and I’ve seen a litany of productive and talented college quarterbacks not even be able to get through training camp in the NFL. Just because you see the occasional rags-to-riches success story in Tom Brady or Brock Purdy does not mean that you can be a project at quarterback and have high odds of becoming a starter. Those two are outliers.
It’s possible that DTR, being a good and likable kid, and having some positive traits, could make it to a roster as a backup. Maybe someone can think that they can make use of his mobility to win a few games with an option-style offense if needed. But it’s also possible that DTR could be asked to change positions, like Quinton Flowers, Logan Thomas, and Denard Robinson were. No, I don’t think that will happen, but it is possible. Let’s not forget that DTR came out of high school as a wide receiver.
At the end of the day, all of this is in the eye of the beholder. Everyone values traits differently. I’m a timing, rhythm, and footwork guy, which is why I liked Josh Rosen so much coming out of college, and we all know how that turned out. There are many different ways to win in the NFL, and all it takes is one team that sees potential in DTR to give him a chance. I hope they do, and I’m rooting for him.
But as good as DTR has been for UCLA, as much as he improved throughout his college career, and as much as he’s done for this program, my evaluation of him with regard to his NFL future has remained relatively consistent. DTR is an athletic kid with a solid arm and an aggressive mindset. But his lack of size, his deficiencies in accuracy, timing, footwork, touch, mechanics, and decision-making, and his overall lack of experience in / feel for NFL-style play, make it unlikely that he will become an NFL starter.
And one more thing I forgot to mention: Chip Kelly’s offense elevates pretty much any QB that plays in it. That also has to be taken into consideration when evaluating DTR. How much of what DTR accomplished was essentially plug-and-play? Some? Half? Most? Yet another complicating factor.
At the end of the day, I think it’s too much for DTR to overcome. Nonetheless, he’s been a great quarterback for UCLA, and I hope he is able to prove me wrong and become successful at the next level. If he doesn’t, he’ll have nothing to be ashamed of. He’ll always be appreciated here in Westwood.