Derrik Klassen is a film breakdown expert for Rotoworld and Football Outsiders. He took the time to chat with The Big Lead about why he was drawn to breaking down film, college quarterbacks he’s watching this year, his favorite performances from Week 1 of the NFL season, and more.
Liam McKeone: Hi, Derrik, thanks for taking the time today. In your own words, how would you describe your journey from when you first wanted to be in sports media to where you are now?
Derrik Klassen: There really was no set plan, is maybe the weird thing. I think some people in this industry can probably say the same. For me, it was maybe 2012, 2013, my sophomore year of high school. I had just quit playing soccer at the time for my high school, and I decided I needed to do something that’s kind of productive. I had always been pretty good in English class and I loved football. So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just start writing for random free websites that will host me.’ So I just started doing that. Mainly NFL Draft content at first, actually, not even the NFL itself or college football. I started mostly with NFL draft stuff and it developed from there.
I developed this niche for really liking quarterbacks and offensive scheme stuff and just over the years it kind of developed to, you know, you get to one-small paying job, then the next job pays a little bit more and you get a little bit bigger platform and it all built up to where I’m at now at NBC’s Rotoworld. It’s kind of crazy to me now because I don’t think, you know, four or five years ago I would’ve thought that I would actually turn this into a job. At the time, it was just a hobby and a couple years in I realized, ‘Oh wait, I think i can do this for the rest of my life.’
McKeone: What was that early process of just trying to find sites to write for like?
Klassen: I really had no idea what I was doing, to be honest. I just looked around at pretty much any website I could find that obviously wasn’t paying writers, but were willing to host newer people trying to get their voice out there. I just emailed or direct messaged or whatever a handful of editors and said, “You know what, I can write about this, this, and this topic,” mostly NFL draft stuff at the time. I was fortunate enough that a handful of them let me do that, and it just kind of went from there. It was just a matter of asking enough people and trying to get my name out there and just putting my head down and doing it.
McKeone: It seems natural for young, aspiring sports writers to gravitate towards Bill Simmons-type columns. Why did you end up gravitating towards film breakdown instead?
Klassen: Right, I think that’s the interesting thing about media. There’s a niche for everyone. Just at The Ringer, for example: Kevin Clark is a fantastic story writer, and then they have guys like Robert Mays and Danny Kelly who are more like the film breakdown guys. [All three] are excellent at what they do and they provide completely different things. For me, a lot of my attraction to football is that it’s very much like a chess game. There’s so many moving pieces. To be able to calculate them, both pre-game, putting together your gameplan, and if you’re a quarterback, being able to calculate those things on the fly was just so fascinating to me.
It was always really interesting to see, you know, how is it that Bill Belichick was able to hold the Rams to not even a touchdown in the Super Bowl? That type of stuff was always a little more interesting to me than the story-telling aspect of football. I gravitated to that because I always thought the back-and-forth chess match was another level that we don’t really see in other sports.
McKeone: How did you hone your skills when you first started doing film breakdowns?
Klassen: At first I was just watching a lot on my own, not even necessarily looking up resources and stuff. But when you start to watch more as you’re first getting started, you realize, ‘I don’t understand this coverage’ or ‘I’m not understanding this route concept’ or ‘Why did this team do this?’. You start seeking out as many resources as you can, whether that’s looking up playbooks– there’s plenty of free playbooks online. Not 2019 NFL playbooks, but stuff from the early 2000s and all that. Or like Matt Walden, for example, his website is chock-full of really good insight on team and player analysis and stuff like that.
It comes down to understanding what you don’t understand, then really making an effort to find how you can crack the code on some of that stuff. With football, there is an infinite amount of stuff to learn. Even Bill Belichick and those guys are constantly learning and changing the way that they do things. If they have more they can keep learning, there’s obviously more for me to keep learning. So it’s a matter of learning what you don’t know and trying to find a way to learn it.
Five Big Things
McKeone: Who stood out the most out of the young NFL quarterbacks in Week 1?
Klassen: Well, I think Lamar Jackson is the easy one because he had five touchdowns. But I’ve been a really big Lamar Jackson supporter for a long time. I thought he was the best QB coming out of that class. I had him and Baker Mayfield as 1A and 1B. You could have sold me on either one, but I was a really big fan of Jackson. I thought people were way too hard on his accuracy. I think the people who say he couldn’t read the field were not able to read the field themselves and understand what Jackson was doing. I think he’s going to be a fantastic player. I was really excited to see him play well.
As for Sam Darnold and Josh Allen, not too great. Mayfield was probably the weirdest performance out of all those quarterbacks. For three quarters, he was pretty good, then he threw three pretty egregious interceptions, all for different reasons. Two of them were pretty blatant coverage misreads and one, he straight-up missed his receiver, threw it a little behind him. I know he left the stadium with a little bit of an injury, but those first two interceptions of misreading the coverage don’t really have anything to do with injury.
McKeone: As a film breakdown expert, what do you look for while watching quarterback film?
Klassen: One of the biggest things for me is making sure the quarterback has a consistent process. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s an exact rule book for how to play the position and every guy has to play it this way. There’s a handful of ways to go about playing the position, but it’s a matter of making sure you play your way consistently. Russell Wilson, for example, is a bit of a chaotic quarterback at times, but the way he consistently plays within his skill set and is looking to accomplish the same thing in every game on every play is really important to making his chaotic skill set work. Whereas we have a guy like Dak Prescott, who’s a little bit different. He’s not chaotic at all, but he’s very consistent in that if this throw is open, he’s going to find it just about every time. He’s going to take the easy yards, he’s not really going to make many mistakes.
When you’re looking at draft prospects coming out of college, you want to look for that consistency and making sure their process is the same, they’re not making egregious mistakes all over the place. They’re really taking what their scheme gives them and understanding what their scheme is trying to do and playing to that consistently. Mentioning Jackson, I think that was something he did extremely well at Louisville. That Petrino offense is not really unique to run, and I think he did such a good job of understanding what the offense wanted from him and how to execute that.
McKeone: Your average fan could tell you arm strength and accuracy are important, but what are other attributes that you see as crucial for quarterbacks?
Klassen: Another big one is the way these guys play under pressure, that’s huge. Technically, effectiveness under pressure in the NFL is actually inconsistent in terms of the way that guys produce, but there’s still a level of quarterbacks being able to handle themselves under duress in the pocket, they got pass-rushers coming after them, or in situational pressure– long third-downs, 2-minute warning, down in the 4th like Deshaun Watson did this week.
Stuff like that, showing that guys can play in that environment and can really keep their wits about them, regardless of how dire a spot they might be in, is really important. I just mentioned Waston and that was probably his calling card coming out of college. It didn’t seem like any moment, any play, any opponent was too big for him, and I think that’s a really big reason why he’s as successful as he’s been so far.
Klassen: They are both fantastic. I think I like Trevor a little bit more right now. Both are great, but Trevor, for now, has a much better arm. The way he can attack down the field is super impressive. He had a throw this week vs. Texas A&M. He was rolling to his left, and when he pulled up to throw the ball and as soon as the ball left his hand, it looked like he was lofting it out of bounds for a throwaway, because he was very clearly under pressure and that would have been a fine decision in the moment. But he ended up lofting it to the barely-front corner of the end zone, and throws like that, rolling against his body, there’s maybe five quarterbacks in the NFL who can do that, let alone in college.
That type of stuff is super impressive to me. Even though his numbers this year aren’t very good so far through two games, if you look at the way he handled the Clemson system– and it looks like they’ve expanded it a little bit, which makes sense, because he’s a year older now– but a lot of his accuracy, the way he handled the pocket and can make really subtle movements to keep himself away from pressure, I think he just looks like an NFL quarterback right now. Whereas Tua, I think he’s going to be a very good prospect, but looks more like an NFL quarterback still in development, if that makes sense.
McKeone: What other college quarterbacks are you keeping an eye on that might be flying under the radar?
Klassen: It kind of depends. If you ask the NFL Draft community, Jordan Love is no longer under the radar, but he’s a really interesting quarterback prospect. His arm is really good. He’s a pretty good athlete, he’s not quite Lamar Jackson or anything, but he’s going to be plenty fine to pick up 300 or 400 yards in the NFL. He’s got some issues staring over the middle of the field and firing into traffic in a way he probably shouldn’t, but that might be something he could clean up and I guess that’s the hope if you think he’s a first-round prospect.
The other… The top two headed into this year were probably Justin Herbert and Tua, but I’ve actually been a big fan of Jake Fromm from Georgia. I mentioned consistency in these guys as prospects earlier, and I don’t think anyone in this class resembles that more than Fromm. He’s so good at taking the right play, leading his receiver perfectly to set up free yards after the catch, just not making mistakes and keeping the offense ahead of the sticks. I think he just has the perfect skill set to be an NFL quarterback. Maybe his arm strength isn’t exciting and he’s not super mobile, but just the way he commands his offense is incredibly impressive.
Five Little Things
McKeone: Who has been your favorite player or players to break down film of?
Klassen: Being that I’m a quarterback guy, the three that stand out to me, whether it be right now or over the last few years, would be Cam Newton, Lamar Jackson, and Deshaun Watson. For a little bit of different reasons. The way they play the game is so much fun. Newton, for example, I don’t know if I’ve really seen arm talent quite like his ever, and he’s probably the best athlete to have ever played the position. He has such a unique skill set. In terms of a runner, there’s never been a more valuable quarterback than him. Granted, Jackson might change that, but for now, Newton still has that title. I mentioned how much I like Jackson earlier, same thing with Watson. I think Watson in particular is just… I don’t know exactly what it is, but I don’t think there’s a more exciting and energetic football player in the NFL, and he was the same way in college. That’s why he was so much fun to watch. I think he’s been every bit as impressive in the NFL as we could have hoped.
McKeone: You mentioned you were high on Jackson while the media as a whole was pretty low on him heading into the draft. Which player were you not as excited about that the rest of the draft community loved?
Klassen: Probably my biggest miss in that regard was Carson Wentz. I thought Wentz was a third-ish round prospect. I thought he was okay and maybe you could develop him, but it was still probably a long shot. But the Eagles took a chance on him and they put an incredible staff around him, put a really good offensive line and wide receivers around him, and he’s developed… Really, he’s had one of the best developments I’ve ever seen. He’s been fantastic, and he’s a legitimate top-10 quarterback, so that was definitely my biggest miss so far.
McKeone: Who are your go-to film breakdown experts right now?
Klassen: I mentioned the guys at The Ringer, those guys are probably my favorite. Charles McDonald, he’s at SB Nation right now, not only is he brilliant in terms of football stuff, but he has a very fun spin on the way he produces content and watches the game. It’s not just this boring, ‘Sports are sports, we have to take it seriously.’ It’s very much like, ‘This is a game, this is stupid, but enjoy that this is stupid.’ So he’s one of my favorites right now.
McKeone: What’s something you know now that you wish you knew back when you were starting off?
Klassen: If anything, it would be that back then… I wish I knew what my direction was going to be so maybe my path would have been a little bit easier now. With the way I started out, like I mentioned, I didn’t have any sort of plan. So it took a few years of trying a handful of different things to see what I even liked, so maybe if I had started out on exactly what I’m doing now, I might’ve accelerated my development or career path a little bit… I still think it’s all trial-and-error, though.
McKeone: What’s one thing about this job that you feel other people don’t know?
Klassen: I don’t know if this is exactly answering the question, but one of my favorite things about this job is when you go to stuff like the Senior Bowl down in Mobile, Alabama, or the NFL Combine, just being able to meet up with so many of these other writers and reports that you respect is… It’s such a rewarding experience. Obviously you know these people on Twitter, you read their stuff online, and you can kind of interact with them there. But it’s so much different when you actually get to meet these people and put a name to a face, really know these people as people instead of a page online. That’s one of my favorite parts about this job, and it’s really rewarding.