Everyone has an opinion about the NFL draft's most polarizing player, but UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen has his own story, and he's sticking to it
By Michael Silver | Published April 23, 2018
SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Josh Rosen reclines in his metal chair on a semi-crowded Starbucks patio, tugging on the strings of his hooded Billabong sweatshirt as he talks about his problem.
"Everyone hates me," Rosen declares, offering half a smile, but making it clear he isn't playing for laughs.
Rosen, the former UCLA quarterback who is one of the top prospects in the 2018 draft, knows he carries a stigma that has followed him from social media posts to draft meetings in NFL facilities across America -- but that, in and of itself, isn't necessarily an insidious issue. The hyper-confident 21-year-old can live with being cast as a brash and cocky kid with a privileged background and sharp mind that sometimes veers beyond the confines of the football field. He's cool with the critics who crush him for expressing unpopular opinions or drawing attention to himself in ways that athletes, especially in his chosen sport, are strongly encouraged not to. He's got an edge, and it pisses some people off. He gets it. That is not the problem.
Rather, it's the people who cast him as an aloof, cold-hearted jerk that make his head want to explode -- and who, on this overcast Orange County afternoon in late February, occupy his thoughts as he confesses to caring about his infected image, or at least one element of it.
"I don't know, everyone kind of likes to be liked," Rosen says. "I don't really care as much about the media stuff, but what hurts me on the inside is when people will meet me, and I'll talk to them, and they'll be like, 'God. You aren't a dick!' Or, 'From what I understood, you're kind of an a-hole, but ...' I'm like, 'I don't know what to say to that.'
"I try to be as good of a person as I can be. I try to be a generally kind person. I mean, if I was running for the presidency, I'd probably run a campaign on, 'Be kind.' It just kind of sucks -- my friends having to defend me to their friends. I mean, you can go around the UCLA campus and ask someone, 'What do you think of Josh Rosen?' and you can put your money on the fact that you're gonna get a bad response. That kind of stinks. I mean, it sucks."
The premise boggles the mind, given college kids typically tend to treat the star quarterback like, you know, the Big Man on Campus, or at least as a source of school pride. Rosen may not have lived up to the "Chosen" label bestowed upon him when, after a stellar high school career at nearby St. John Bosco, the prized recruit arrived in Westwood and almost immediately shot to the top of the depth chart, becoming the first true freshman quarterback in school history to start the season opener. He was unable to achieve his own lofty goals, which included guiding the Bruins to a national championship or Rose Bowl, or even a victory over crosstown rival USC. That said, he played at a flagrantly high level during the 2 1/2 collegiate seasons for which he was healthy, setting school records with 17 career 300-yard passing games and, as junior in 2017, a season-long average of 341.5 passing yards per game, the latter figure putting him atop a conference that also featured the Trojans' Sam Darnold, another strong candidate to be drafted first overall. And Rosen began his junior season in legendary fashion, bringing the Bruins back from a 34-point second-half deficit to stun Texas A&M.
Simply put, the 6-foot-4, 218-pound Rosen can spin it -- and, on paper, has everything NFL teams seek in a franchise quarterback, at least until they get down and dirty with the psychoanalysis.
"His natural mechanics as a pure passer are arguably the best in this class," says a general manager of an NFC team. "He's a talented player who's incredibly smart and will need to be challenged in every aspect."
Adds a personnel executive for an AFC team who has scouted Rosen extensively: "He's really a special passer. He makes all the throws from the pocket. He makes you go 'wow' at least two to three times a game. He has pinpoint accuracy and can adapt to any system you want. And he'll stand in there and throw it and take a shot right under the chin if he has to -- that's hard to find. Of all these quarterbacks coming out, he's the most ready. You don't really have to do anything except teach him the system."
One AFC coach says Rosen's "football IQ is off the charts," while an NFC coach says, "I'm just not sold on the fact that he truly loves the game."
A personnel executive for another NFC team adds: "If you're just evaluating them as passers, he's clearly the best, and it's not close. The way he gets the ball out, the way he spins it, the accuracy ... he's the guy. So, if people aren't putting him at the top, there's obviously something else going on, which makes you wonder."
And amid the noisy and nosy walkup to the draft, there's a whole lot of wondering going on -- publicly and privately -- about Rosen's perceived flaws, with some of the concerns relatively mundane (escapability, durability) and others full of conjecture and intrigue (likability, undivided allegiance to football).
For those reasons, the projections about Rosen range from No. 1 overall, with the Cleveland Browns poised to select a quarterback of the future, to an Aaron Rodgers-style slide into the latter half of the first round.
"It will be interesting to see if he slides," one AFC personnel executive says. "He's a really impressive kid -- really, really intelligent and did a really good job in interviews. I love his arm, his accuracy and his football IQ. But he's not everybody's cup of tea."
To some skeptics, Rosen's striking ability to spin it could also extend to his reputation-rehabilitation efforts as he subjects himself to the scrutiny of numerous NFL teams. Yet it's more accurate to say Rosen, rather than attempting to burnish his image, is intent on projecting the real him, with a goal of finding an employer whose powerbrokers are down with the program.
"I'm not gonna be someone I'm not," Rosen says, "because I don't want them to draft someone who's not me, and then I have to try and fill that role. I'm gonna be me, and hopefully a team falls in love with me."
Says UCLA tight end Caleb Wilson: "He's not gonna be fake or pretend to be someone he's not. I think people talk bad about him because he doesn't conform to what the public wants, to what everybody's supposed to say. If he believes something, he's gonna speak his mind, and there's substance behind it. He's not just gonna say the right things and conform, just to meet somebody's standards. That's one of the things that earned my respect."
Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Bryce Treggs, a former Cal star who has known Rosen since elementary school, grew close to the quarterback when they were teammates at St. John Bosco, and also vouches for his authenticity.
"He's not gonna change for anybody," Treggs said. "But that's good -- you want your quarterback to have a personality, and that's something his (future) teammates are gonna respect, that he's gonna show his true colors and not conform to what some people think a quarterback should be."
If Rosen seems acutely aware of the scrutiny, well, he's used to it.
"The watching and observing of him -- and his abilities, his passion, his competitiveness and his ambition -- started a really long time ago," says Rosen's mother, Liz Lippincott. "He's always felt watched; literally, since he was on the tennis court when he was 5 years old. He didn't realize how different his drive, competitiveness and ambition were at a youthfully inappropriate age.
"Most 5-year-olds don't want to go out there and wipe somebody off the court, and people noticed and were taken aback. I think maybe that affected him in terms of how he relates to people. Ever since elementary school, he always cared about how to make friends, and how to have friends. It's just a process of self-awareness through the years that is still evolving."
Growing up in Manhattan Beach, an idyllic and reasonably low-key surf town about five miles southwest of Los Angeles International Airport, Rosen had a propensity for attracting attention.
"He used to get in trouble in elementary school a lot," Lippincott says. "He was the biggest kid in the class, and certainly the most athletic and physical, and he was always trying to do fun and funny things with his friends. And he was always the one to do those things with the most gusto. So, guess who would get noticed by the teacher on the playground? In the classroom, he'd be eagerly waving his hand and could hardly sit still, and he'd get himself in trouble for blurting out a question, when he was basically trying to learn.
"So, he did feel singled out. He's a big personality that takes up a lot of space, and he had to grow into himself."
As a kid, Rosen says, "My friends and I used to run around Manhattan Beach, before it became all bougie, living a chill life and doing stupid kid things."
One infamous example: "I broke my left arm when I was 8, at a friend's house, when we were jumping off a balcony and throwing down dunks."
The episode forced Rosen, already a highly successful player in the junior tennis ranks, to develop a one-handed, slice backhand. Growing up in a household that included another standout tennis player -- older sister Beatrice, who would go on to become a two-time All-American and win a pair of Division III national team titles at Emory University -- he was constantly competing for sibling supremacy. (Rosen's younger sister, Lydia, is an accomplished rower as a high school junior.)
Josh's competitive fire on the court was palpable, but it made for some awkward interactions outside the white lines.
"Your friends are your enemies, and your enemies are your friends," Rosen says. "Even your doubles partner, you're on the same team, but you might have to play each other in the singles draw. And it's just weird. Because you're supposed to turn on this killer instinct, go into Black Mamba mode, but you don't want to disrespect your friends. I didn't really like that part of it. You're playing this other dude and you're getting into it, and then your parents are on the sidelines having fun (with the opposing player's parents) and you're like, 'Are we going to lunch together after this?' And in the end, you only get to celebrate with your parents."
Says Lippincott: "He wanted to beat every person 6-0, 6-0. But his difficulty was, he wanted to be friends with those people. It wasn't that it was hard to go out and beat his friends; it's that it was hard to make friends with the people he'd go out and beat."
And Rosen wasn't merely beating slouches: One conquest, around the time he was 12, came at the expense of a fellow Southern Californian named Taylor Fritz, who is currently the world's 65th-ranked player.
"I remember playing him at the SoCal Sectionals, and he absolutely destroyed me in the second round," Fritz recalls. "He was a really big kid compared to all the other guys at that age, with huge shoulders, and he had a massive serve, and he just killed me. I remember my mom asking his mom, 'How is he so big?' I think he was drinking Muscle Milk at the time, and I was like, 'S---, I guess I'll have to start doing that.' He was a nice guy -- very fair, a good sport -- and I wish he'd stuck around longer."