With the first-ever pick in the inaugural Alliance of American Football Quarterback draft, the San Diego Fleet selected Josh Johnson. A former University of San Diego football star, Johnson was drafted in the fifth round of the 2008 NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
For the majority of his NFL career, Johnson has operated as a second or third string quarterback and does not have much starting experience under his belt. Fortunately for him, all of this would change in 2018.
After an absolutely gruesome injury to Alex Smith and backup Colt McCoy suffering a broken leg, the Washington Redksins signed the 32-year-old Johnson to a contract for the remainder of the season. Johnson operated as the primary backup to Mark Sanchez, and many were confused as to why the Redskins chose to sign him over Colin Kaepernick and others.
Sanchez was, predictably, terrible in his only game as a starter and opened the gate for Johnson to showcase what he could do. Despite his team losing by almost thirty points, at the time, Johnson completed 11 of 16 passes for 195 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. He also ran the ball seven times for 45 yards and a touchdown.
This late-game performance was good enough for Johnson to be named the week 15 starter against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Going up against one of the league’s best defenses on the road, Johnson stood up to the task and led the Redksins to victory. In that game, he completed 16 of 25 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown, while running the ball nine times for 49 yards.
With the Redskins still in playoff contention, at the time, they named Johnson the starter for the remainder of the season. Although they lost their final two games and missed out on the postseason, Johnson’s play was impressive given the offensive weapons around him. He finished his 2018 campaign completing 57% of his passes for 590 yards, three touchdowns, and four interceptions. On the ground, Johnson ran the ball 23 times for 120 yards and a touchdown.
While the numbers do not stand out, Johnson managed games effectively and almost certainly ensured that he would get a chance to make an NFL roster in 2019. His contract is not technically up until March 13th at 4 pm EST, meaning that the Redskins have until after the AAF season begins to decide what they want to do with Josh Johnson. These circumstances likely mean that Johnson will not be returning to the San Diego Fleet for the 2019 inaugural season.
So, the question becomes, what do the Fleet have to work with instead?
The team currently has three quarterbacks on their roster, all of which were selected in the draft. All of three of them are in San Antonio right now with the Fleet and it is very likely that these are the three quarterbacks they will go into the regular season with.
As of right now, it appears that Mike Bercovici has taken the majority of the reps under center for the Fleet, with Philip Nelson and Alex Ross just behind him. These indications should come with an asterisk, however, as it is still fairly earlier into the month and the team has just started practicing.
It’s only fair to give credit where credit is due, however, and Mike Bercovici has looked really good in practices thus far. In 11-on-11 drills, Bercovici has taken the majority of snaps and has impressed while doing so. He’s made some pretty solid passes on the run, including a fantastic one to wide receiver LaQuvionte Gonzalez, and has always been a formidable pocket passer. Bercovici’s calling card has always been his arm, and rightfully so. The former Arizona State Sun Devil might have the best arm in the entire league, in terms of throwing the deep ball and how hard the football actually comes out of his hand.
With every player comes negatives, however, and Bercovici has his fair share. He sometimes tends to be a little too aggressive with his passes and tries too often to make something out of nothing. Bercovici also has turnover issues, as he fumbled the ball 11 times in 2015 while also throwing nine interceptions. As a quarterback, the absolute worst thing you can do is consistently turn the ball over. Bercovici does have a fantastic arm, as mentioned earlier, but the accuracy on deep passes is not quite there yet. In his senior season, he only completed 25% of passes that went more than 21 yards, meaning that there is definitely room for improvement in that department.
The biggest concern with Bercovici is his height. He stands at roughly six feet tall, which is obviously not an ideal size for a prototypical quarterback. While some have had success (Drew Brees and Russell Wilson), it is typically uncommon for quarterbacks of his size to even reach the NFL level.
In Bercovici’s case, the positives outweigh the negatives. He is a fluid passer and a talented enough athlete that he should go onto having a successful season with the Fleet. As of right now, he should be the favorite to earn the starting spot for the Fleet.
Although Bercovici should be considered as the “lead” option for the starting job, Alex Ross and Philip Nelson are not too far behind him. In fact, there is no clear cut favorite within this group. Any of them could be the starting quarterback come opening day, and this competition is far from over.
Alex Ross, to me, is one of the more intriguing prospects in the entire league. He was wildly undervalued going into the AAF, as the Fleet selected him with the last pick in the draft, and many believed Ross would not have a chance to make the roster. Fast forward a few months and the former Coastal Carolina star may be well on his way to earning a starting job.
Just like Bercovici, Ross stands at a little over six feet tall and was viewed by many as undersized to play the quarterback position at the next level. What he lacks in height, however, he easily makes up in talent. While attending Coastal Carolina, the Georgia native cemented himself as the greatest offensive player in Big South Conference history.
An All-American in 2015, Ross threw for 9,918 passing yards and 72 touchdowns, both of which are conference records. He didn’t turn the ball over much, holding a touchdown to interception ratio of three to one. Ross also adds some versatility to his game with his ability to run the ball, as he carried the football 391 times for 1,564 yards and 19 touchdowns. Thus far in practice, Ross has looked good when forced to move out of the pocket and throw on the run. He is extremely poised in the pocket and is not afraid to stay in the pocket and throw the ball under pressure.
The concerns with Ross are very similar to those of Mike Bercovici: height and accuracy. While Ross did complete 65% of his passes in college, he lacks a good touch on the football when attempting to throw it deep. He does not have the arm that Bercovici does and should not be asked to throw it deep as often as Bercovici should, but the accuracy on these throws is crucial and does need improvement. He does have a little bit of a height advantage on Bercovici, but Ross is still severely undersized for the modern-day NFL quarterback. Despite this being something he cannot control, it will be something a knock on him for the remainder of his football career.
When I first wrote my quarterback breakdown article, I pegged Ross as a dark horse to be the starting signal caller for the Fleet come opening day. My prediction may not come true, but as of right now it is essentially a two-horse race between him and Mike Bercovici for the starting job. This is easily the most important and exciting positional battle taking place in training camp right now.
Although Bercovici and Ross are currently getting all the spotlight, Philip Nelson should not be counted out by any means. The 25-year-old was the Fleet’s third-round pick in the draft and could make a name for himself before training camp ends.
For starters, he already has the support of the coaching staff. Back in his East Carolina days, Nelson participated in the NFLPA, where he was coached by both Mike Martz and John Kitna. After the game, Martz said that Nelson had the makeup to be a starting quarterback in the NFL, and Kitna was also really impressed by him.
Of the three quarterbacks currently fighting for this job, Nelson is the least productive of the bunch. His college numbers are not impressive by any means and he doesn’t really have the track record that Bercovici and Ross do. While this is all true, Nelson is not a pushover. He is not as good of a passer as the other two, but he isn’t a bad one by any means. In his final season at Minnesota, Nelson showed some mobility by running the ball 93 times for 364 yards and six touchdowns. Yes, this was five years ago, but Nelson is still fairly young and there is a reason to believe that some of that athleticism is still left in the tank.
Just like his two counterparts, Nelson stands roughly at six feet tall and is too small to play quarterback at the professional level. There are some turnover concerns with him, as he only threw 11 more touchdowns (33) than interceptions (22) in college. Typically when you hand someone the reins to your offense, they should be able to win you games with their arm. Nelson just does not appear to have that, as he is a game manager at his absolute best. With official practices just starting, Nelson certainly still has a chance to earn the starting spot over Mike Bercovici and Alex Ross. At this point, however, the track record and talent alone of Bercovici and Ross should more than likely block him from reaching the top of the Fleet’s quarterback depth chart.
The good news for all three of these guys, however, is that all of them will more than likely make the roster. The Fleet should carry three quarterbacks going into the season, and with Josh Johnson likely not returning, these three are the only ones on the roster and should travel with the team.
From a prediction standpoint, this is extremely difficult to decide. Bercovici and Ross are neck-and-neck right now, and while Bercovici might be the favorite, this one is up in the air. While I believe Alex Ross is an intriguing quarterback prospect and may have some untapped potential in him, Mike Bercovici is my pick to be the starting quarterback come February 2nd against the San Antonio Commanders.