Sure, he was taken in the fourth-round of the NFL Draft and he’s got areas of opportunities for improvement, but Aidan O’Connell is quite the system fit for the Las Vegas Raiders.
Of all the mid-round and developmental-type prospects at the quarterback position in the 2023 NFL Draft, none profiled as a Josh McDaniels signal caller more than O’Connell. Let’s run down the list for the Purdue product: Accurate, intelligent, quick processor, quick release, and can put touch on the ball. All traits that meld well with Raiders head coach and chief play designer and caller McDaniels.
Las Vegas general manager Dave Ziegler felt exactly that way after watching the game film O’Connell put forth at Purdue.
“I watched him at the end of October, and I walked down to Josh McDaniels office – he wasn’t going to see him for another three or four months – and said, ‘When you watch this kid, this is going to be a guy that you like.’” Ziegler began during the post Day 2 draft press conference. “So, I think a lot of the things that he did at Purdue, some of the things that he showed – there’s areas to grow into, but he showed a lot of the things that we wanted from the quarterback position. And then when we got to meet him and spend time with him, he confirmed a lot of the let’s say ‘neck up traits’ that we look for.”
‘Neck up traits’?
“A lot of things; I’d say the one thing about quarterbacks that you don’t get to see if you’re just watching tape, or if you’re just watching games is, I’d say, over 50 percent of their success rate is really about what they’re made up from the neck up,” Ziegler explained “Intelligence, ability to process, those types of intangibles, leadership. And we felt like he has a lot of those different intangible qualities that we think are really, really important to have any chance to be successful in the league at quarterback.”
Those intangible qualities Ziegler noted are vital for O’Connell. As the league evolves and the requisite for a quarterback to be equal parts pocket passer and runner — dual threat — is on the rise, Las Vegas is bucking that trend in the Purdue signal caller. The 6-foot-3, 213-pound O’Connell is the antithesis to the new-age quarterback. But he goes to an offensive-minded head coach who works well with the pocket gunslinger types.
“Obviously, he’s had success with guys who aren’t the dual threat or the big run-option quarterbacks,” O’Connell said during his introductory press conference regarding what stuck out with McDaniels’ system. “And so, obviously he’s a great offensive mind and I’m just excited to get there and get the playbook and start learning. I just love to learn about football. I love to talk about football. So, excited to pick his brain, as well as the other coaches.”
O’Connell is immobile in a sense that he won’t win a game with his legs — unless the opposing defense has a complete breakdown (even Payton Manning scored on naked bootlegs where the opposition forgot about him) — but he’s fluid in the pocket when needed to avoid the rush and moves well in play action. This is where his quick-decision making and quick release is imperative.
“I think it’s just something I try to do,” O’Connell said when asked about his quick release being reminiscent of all-time great Tom Brady. “I know it’s one of my strengths and something I try to do as best I can. It’s kind of what got me a chance to play at Purdue. And so, I’ve tried to work on that as much as possible and work hard to make sure my strengths are honed in and I’m doing what I need to do.”
O’Connell is smooth at anticipating throws and firing the ball to get his receivers open. That’s due to his strong mind, accuracy, and ability to generate both velocity and touch.
While O’Connell does have appealing strengths for McDaniels, the areas of opportunities (as Ziegler noted) are apparent. For his quick processing, there comes a stubbornness to O’Connell’s game where he looks into his first read and telegraphs his throws. This allows defenders to simply watch his eyes and then read and react. O’Connell didn’t do much eye manipulation where he forced defenders to either stay in one place or move them off his intended target.
O’Connell is also a true gunslinger in which he’ll dart throws into crowded areas. This is good to give your weapons a chance to make a play, but it also gives the defense the same opportunity. His ability to stare down the barrel to make throws in the face of pressure can be admirable, but it leaves him open to take shots and his throws are off when he feels the rush coming his way. O’Connell also wasn’t asked to read the entire field at Purdue, either, and that may stunt some of his ability to do so in McDaniels’ scheme.
Helping facilitate O’Connell’s development are two quarterbacks ahead of him on the roster that are both steeped in the McDaniels’ way: Jimmy Garoppolo and Brian Hoyer. He goes into a quarterback room in Las Vegas that’s accustomed to how the head coach wants the position to be played and can soak all the knowledge in while playing a reserve/developmental role in Year 1.