NFL Draft Trends: Quarterbacks

It’s easy to miss how good a draft really is when there’s a “can’t-miss prospect” involved. Last year at quarterback, it was none other than Stanford product Andrew Luck, who was receiving all of the praise. Scouts such as ESPN’s Mel Kiper, Jr. and numerous others were hailing Luck as a once-in-a-generation prospect. Put another way, his presence in the draft made the Indianapolis Colts part ways with one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Not far behind him was Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III who skyrocketed up draft boards after his Heisman Trophy-winning senior year. Now it’s easy to exaggerate how small the gap was between Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III as prospects now, but prior to the season, there was very little doubt as to who the best quarterback of the two was. Put yet another way, had Andrew Luck not been in the picture last season, would the Colts have parted ways with Peyton Manning? I don’t believe so (early on, Mel Kiper, Jr. didn’t even have Griffin among his top five quarterbacks for 2012). So with the perceived influx of quarterback talent in last year’s draft, it’s only natural that the 2013 QB class would be much less-touted. But the funny thing is, that wasn’t the case at all prior to the 2012 season. When pre-season mock drafts were released, the hype surrounding quarterbacks was again strong. First up, you had the top prospects who returned to school: USC’s Matt Barkley and Oklahoma’s Landry Jones. Both were considered first-round prospects before returning for their senior seasons. Then you had the players who most agreed were poised for a stock-boosting 2012 season: NC State’s Mike Glennon, Arkansas’s Tyler Wilson Tennessee’s Tyler Bray, and Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas. These five were considered the odds-on favorites to go in the first round. But what happened next was completely unexpected — all of them had lackluster seasons, draft-wise. Jones and Barkley both struggled to meet their team’s high expectations, while Bray, Glennon, and Wilson had issues with consistency. Thomas’s season was so bad, he had no choice but to return to Blacksburg for his senior season. But one quarterback, West Virginia’s Geno Smith, took advantage of this opportunity and shot to the top of mock drafts mid-way through the season. Granted, his second half performance was far from spectacular, but it still wasn’t enough to mitigate his draft stock at that point. From where we stand today, the 2013 QB class is shrouded in uncertainty. There isn’t exactly an indisputable #1, but Smith seems to be the first player taken in most mock drafts. 2013 Prediction But with all of that said, it’s still a near-certainty that at least one quarterback will go in the first round. In fact, At least one has gone in the first round of every draft since 1996. 1stRoundQBs The quarterback position is more valuable now that it’s ever been and that shows no signs of changing anytime soon. Take last year’s draft for example. After Luck and Griffin went 1-2, two other quarterbacks also went in the first — Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill went ninth overall. Oklahoma State’s 29-year old quarterback Brandon Weeden was also taken in the first. At quarterback, simply being the best of a bad situation will earn you a first round selection. So which quarterbacks could we see going in the first round this year?

Likely Candidates

Geno Smith (West Virginia): Questions are abound about West Virginia’s Geno Smith, but he’s still generally considered the top quarterback prospect in this year’s draft. While he isn’t exceptional in any area, ESPN’s Scouts Inc. give Smith above average marks in both accuracy and release/arm strength. First the accuracy (from ESPN Scouts Inc.):

Shows touch and timing. Highly accurate when he throws on balance, particularly short-to-intermediate. Shows ability to lead receivers to yards after catch. Also showed major improvement on fades in 2012. Shows ability to anticipate throws. Consistently shows on tape the ability to throw accurately off-platform.

Now release/arm strength.

Sudden, compact stroke. Has quick hands and can turn the double play on quick-hitting routes. Shows ability to change release points without sacrificing velocity or accuracy…. As for arm strength; he gets good zip on intermediate throws over the middle of the field and shows ability to deliver the deep ball down the middle.

But it isn’t all solid with Geno, especially the further he throws down the field.

But deeper sideline throws have been his Achilles heel on tape. He has always had a hunched over upper-body posture, which has led to some bad habits. Instead of generating rotational force with from his lower body and hips, his first movements have been to come up and over. That has led to inconsistent balance and weight transfer, while also taking away from the ball speed he is capable of generating.

Again, it should be noted that Smith’s 2012 production  for the first five games of the season was off the charts — 24 touchdowns to no interceptions. The quality of opponent should be mentioned here, but fantastic numbers all the same. Even his final eight games produced respectable numbers, but they looked worse considering his first five games and the fact that they finished the season 2-6. I believe that West Virginia’s incredibly bad defense doesn’t get enough credit for Geno’s struggles late in the season, but most scouts noticed a clear regression when studying his tape. But with that said, 2012 did much more good to Smith’s draft stock than it did harm. I’m hesitant to declare any of these quarterbacks a “lock” for the first round, but it would surprise me if Geno Smith is still on the board come pick No. 33.

Matt Barkley (USC): The enigma of the 2013 quarterback class. Much of this has to do with 1) his decision to return to USC for his senior season and 2) his original decision to attend USC back in 2008. It’s no secret that starting at quarterback for USC brings publicity no matter how good you really are. But after a disappointing 2012 season, scouts seem to be torn on that exact question. Before deciding to come back for his senior season, Matt Barkley was a trendy choice to go in the first round. Just last week, ESPN’s Adam Schefter said that one NFL GM believes that quarterbacks are going to “fall like logs” down draft boards, citing quarterback acquisitions by Arizona, Oakland, and Buffalo. This would explain why neither Kiper, Jr. or Todd McShay have Barkley going in the first (though McShay has him going first in the second round). Perhaps the most damning ranking of Barkley came from ESPN’s Ron Jaworski, who ranked Barkley as the sixth-best quarterback in the draft. But Barkley still does a lot of things well (from DraftCountdown.com): • Cool, calm and collected with superb pocket presence • Shows ability to slide and maneuver within the pocket • Accustomed to working under center in pro style system • Outstanding intelligence with extremely high football IQ • Excellent feel, awareness and understanding of game • Mature, hard working and is a respected team leader • A ton of experience against high-quality competition Matt Barkley’s intangibles, skills, and mechanics are widely regarded among scouts, similar to past USC quarterbacks entering the league, (specifically Mark Sanchez and Matt Leinart). While many would say that USC’s quarterback pedigree has been full of NFL busts, I’d level and say that they were overrated. Sanchez and Leinart were decent NFL starters until when you factor in their top 10 selections. Barkley seems to be a similar case. So when you hear of quarterbacks “falling like logs,” that’s music to the ears of teams such as the three mentioned earlier. Barkley’s draft value in the second round is still incredibly high — potential “steal” caliber (think Jimmy Clausen falling to the Panthers in Round 2 of 2010). Even if he doesn’t end up going in the first, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll last into Day 3.

E.J. Manuel (Florida State): The past few drafts have seen quarterbacks moving up draft boards in the final few days and this draft will be no different. This year, the likely candidate is Florida State’s E.J. Manuel. A five star prospect coming out of the Hampton Roads area, he’s been a full time starter for the Seminoles the last two seasons, putting up respectable numbers. While he has the measurables that scouts look for in quarterbacks and the mobility to make plays with his feet, he still has much work to do before starting in the NFL (from WalterFootball.com):

NFL sources who watch Florida State closely have told WalterFootball.com that Manuel is not a natural pocket passer. They don’t feel he is as accurate as his completion percentage indicates. They went on to say that Manuel is frustrating to watch because he has all the makings to be a special quarterback, but is not utilizing his full potential.  The scheme that the Seminoles run also came under criticism. The view is that it is extremely basic and does not have Manuel well-prepared to run an NFL offense. Our sources believe that Manuel too often looks to run when his first-read is covered rather than quickly looking to his second and third options.  As a passer, Manuel needs to work on his touch passes. He occasionally puts nice air under a ball, but too often throws everything on a line. Manuel needs to become a passer rather than a thrower.

ESPN Scouts Inc. offer similar criticisms about Manuel’s passing, specifically his accuracy:

Takes something off shorter passes but does not appear to be very natural for him, as there are far too many dirt balls when pressure forces him to quicken release. Misses within the strike zone frequently, which limits run-after-catch opportunities for WRs. Can miss by wide margins on some relatively easy throws for no apparent reason (majority were outside the numbers). Deep accuracy and touch are inconsistent.

Most scouts agree that Manuel’s appeal lies in his potential. He’s viewed as more of a developmental quarterback, not someone who can start on Week 1.

Ryan Nassib (Syracuse): Nassib is another tough one to peg. Any other year, it’s hard to imagine Nassib going before the third day. But with the pessimism surrounding this year’s QB class, he will likely hear his name called on Day 2. Or even better, according to some (from Sports Illustrated’s Peter King):

When I talk to teams leading up to the April 25 first round, I keep hearing both Nassib and Manuel as late-first-round prospects. Nassib in particular, and certainly more than Manuel. Gruden seems fascinated by both. The other day, one personnel man for a team not interested in drafting a quarterback this year told me, “No way if you want Nassib you think there’s a realistic chance he gets past 41.‘” That’s the overall slot of the Bills’ second-round pick. The Bills are coached by Nassib’s four-year college coach, Doug Marrone. NFL types think Marrone loves him some Nassib.

If King‘s sources are correct, that would make Nassib an early second-round pick, at worst. Another key to this speculation is the impact of former Syracuse and new Bills coach Doug Marrone. No doubt Marrone would prefer a quarterback that he’s already familiar with, but with so much chatter coming from Buffalo about Nassib, it’s hard to tell whether other teams have as strong of an interest in him. One person who seems to be high on Nassib as of late is NFL Films’ Greg Cosell, who called him the top quarterback in the draft (from Path To The Draft via Rotoworld):

 “I liked him overall more than Geno Smith. I think he’s a much more precise intermediate thrower. I think the ball comes out with a little better velocity at the intermediate level. And I think he’s a little more accurate. And I like his footwork a little bit better.”

That’s pretty high praise, especially coming from someone as respected as Cosell. When we get into the 20s of the first round, be on the look out for trades. As the anticipation builds, look for a team or two to move up and take their quarterback, a la Cleveland last season at 32 for Brandon Weeden. The value of quarterbacks can force teams to make rash decisions.

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