Saturday, March 10, 2012

2012 NFL Draft: Quarterbacks

Before we begin this round up, it's important to note once again that this is just my initial impressions based on what I've seen so far. I'll probably come back for a second look in depth at some of the more prominent individuals at a later date. If you're wondering why this is taking so much longer than last year, it's because my work schedule this year is so much more hectic, which is pressing the demands on time. As a result I may, with regard to the remaining groups, focus more on the high end prospects.

- Andrew Luck, Stanford: Before I even begin to talk about Luck, we need to caveat this whole speech. See, the very reason that I started this blog is because I was sick and tired of listening to some of the bile and hyperbole that gets thrown around the Internet and on TV by certain pundits, professional writers, bloggers, and analysts.

Enter Andrew Luck. Luck is by no means a bad quarterback, that much should be obvious to everybody. But by the same token, Luck is being given far too much credit. Many fans will already be familiar with this and thankfully a lot of people realise that Luck is perhaps being built up in the media a little beyond what he's actually capable of.

I'm not sure though if fans realise just to what extent that is the case. I watched one play for example against USC and compared it to the ESPN broadcast, where the commentator went on a loving monologue about how Luck was victimising this defender and intentionally doing this and that etc, when really he looked more like he was just going through his standard reads. Like normal.

This happens all the time in football. Everytime Peyton Manning steps up and calls something out to his line, he's tagged as having changed the play. How do you know that? Manning, like all quarterbacks, has to occasionally use fake audibles (fake calls) in order to keep the defense guessing. He's not always changing the play everytime he speaks, but commentators blindly credit him as doing so on every occasion.

Luck has the same problem, or rather, the same benefit. He's constantly being credited for things that a logical study of the game would suggest he's not actually doing. This goes back to an article I wrote a while back about how quarterbacks are always given credit for "dropping the ball into the receivers lap" on deep passes, when anyone with a modicum of understanding as to how these things actually work in reality knows that quarterbacks tend to just drop the ball in the approximate location of the receiver (within a few feet) and the receiver usually makes the final adjustment to secure the catch.

On that note, I have to say that I think Luck is over rated. It's hard for me to say something like that because I do think Luck is a very talented quarterback and his future in the NFL looks reasonably promising given the right situation and the right coaching.

He does have - shock, horror - some weaknesses though. The two primary ones that I've seen have been 1) that he's very much a short passing quarterback and 2) that he often makes some very poor decisions under pressure.

Addressing number one first, this was a big knock that I had on Blaine Gabbert (among many knocks) from last year. Luck has a good completion percentage largely because he routinely dumps the ball off to underneath receivers and is very disinclined to push the ball downfield. When he does attempt passes of over 10 yards, his accuracy is highly questionable (as in, very inconsistent).

That's not a bad thing in and of itself. Montana and Young made careers with the 49ers out of protecting the ball, finding the open receiver and letting receivers rack up the yards after the catch. Tom Brady has been doing it that way for the last few seasons. The trouble is that approach a) is very dependent on the quality of the receivers and, b) is a method that sometimes struggles when playing from behind.

Addressing point two, under pressure Luck has a tendency to just flick the ball out in an almost blase (I don't have one of those fancy e's with thing on it), shovel pass manner and sometimes throw bad passes up for grabs into dangerous spots. Rather than just eat the sack or throw the ball out of bounds he tries to make a play happen where there clearly isn't one, and if not punished for it, then often comes very close to being.

That combination - for me at least - throws up some serious questions that need answering. Can Luck carry a team single handed, without a sterling receiver corps? Can he put up enough yards on a team that has a poor running game? If he's drafted by a coach who wants to push the ball downfield (it's almost certainly going to be the Colts), can he get by without giving up too many takeaways? How will he cope under the relentless pressure of an NFL pass rush? When you consider that last year he got somewhat rattled by all the media attention surrounding him, how will he cope with being a first round pick and the "face of a franchise"?

Working in Lucks favour are a number of positive attributes. He does have a surprising turn of speed with his feet. His footwork when dropping back and moving in the pocket is excellent. Mentally he avoids pressure and works around the pocket very well. His conservative style means he doesn't turn the ball over much. His vision downfield is pretty good. I noticed he can throw the ball from any position in his hand, that is to say that he doesn't need the laces under his fingers like many quarterbacks. He's pretty accurate over short distances and he's known for being hard working.

All of these things present a coach with a very useful, very flexible player to work with who can probably start week one with the right offense in place. His prospects for technical development are - in my estimation - slightly above average for quarterbacks coming into the league. But the decision making under pressure and conservative style are nagging issues.

I think in order to succeed Luck will need a coach who understands his limitations and builds the offense around him. Someone like a Mike Martz is probably no use to Luck. He needs a slightly less ambitious offense that gives him good protection, plenty of options and is built to attack the opponent piece by piece, play by play, in a slower, more methodical fashion, with some nippy slot receivers.

So do I think Luck will make it big in the NFL? As always with young prospects, it's very hard to tell. He has a lot of raw tools in his favour to work with, however I just can't see him matching up to the hype that has been surrounding him for this last year. People expecting Luck to be the second coming of Peyton Manning are in for a sharp shock.

I'd place him more in the bracket with guys like Kyle Orton and Jay Cutler, in that I think with all the right set up then he could be successful, but he's not the kind of quarterback who is going to bring everyone else up to his level and he's not going to win games single handedly. His first season will tell us an awful lot about him, much of it quite surprising to many I'm sure.

Of course with the media the way it is, expect the pendulum of hype to swing wildly from "Golden Boy" to "Bust", which after just one season will absolutely be just as undeserved.

- Robert Griffin III, Baylor: Now this, this ladies and gentlemen, is an over rated quarterback. I don't just mean like Luck in the sense of "he's good, but not THAT good". I mean in the sense of "he's really not that good, and certainly not THAT good".

The trouble is that Griffin is being compared to Newton as a runner and to someone like Vick or Favre as a passer. Neither of which are even close. Griffin doesn't look as fast as Newton in pads, and he's not even on Newtons level when it comes to agility and cutting ability. He runs with the ball held in a precarious position and has built a certain reputation for fumbling the ball.

As a passer, Griffin is probably comparable again to someone like Blaine Gabbert. Huge chunks of Griffin's yards in college are attributable to screen plays. The remaining bulk of his yardage comes from throwing deep to wide open receivers, who he routinely under throws.

I was warming to Griffin slowly back at the end of last year but since then he's regressed as a passer and I've heard just some of the most unbelievable garbage spoken about this kid, including one assessment that had him touted as the best deep passer to enter the NFL in the last 15-20 years. I honestly don't understand where some people form these God awful opinions from.

Griffin lacks any real pocket presence. I'm not just talking about running with the ball, I'm talking about missing receivers who are what we might call "NFL open" in favour of holding the ball and running around hoping something will come up. Even then, his ability to throw on the run is chronically over rated. His passing on the move is barely adequate.

Griffin reminds me a lot of Colin Kaepernick, except he's faster than Kaepernick but Kaepernick throws the ball better. Honestly I don't see Griffin living up to anything close to the hype. His physical attributes may get him by to some degree, but his passing ability is going to hold him back. I think if you remove Kendall Wright from that 2011 Baylor team then Griffin would have seen his yardage and pass completion percentage plummet.

Honestly I think Griffin has benefited from the Cam Newton hype of last year. People have seen what Newton's athletic ability can do for a team, coupled with an extraordinary set of passing numbers (that still only won 6 games and in my opinion will not be repeated) and now people are clamouring for more of the same, hoping that Griffin will combine athleticism with accuracy to make a winning combo.

The talk of the NFL is that the Redskins are planning to trade up with the Rams to take Griffin second overall. I think it would be another disastrous personnel move by the Redskins. Griffin -  and I'm going to stamp a definitive answer on this - will not succeed at the next level. He is not the quarterback everyone thinks he his. He's going to make a nice packet of money off that first contract but is not likely to still be a quarterback in the NFL by the start of the 2015 season.

**I've just heard that the talk about the Redskins has become firm action. They've given up their first round pick this year, plus their first round picks in 2013 and 2014, plus their second round pick from this year in order to nail down the Rams second pick overall, likely so they can draft Griffin.

What. A. F**king. Terrible. Trade. That is honestly one of the worst trades I've seen in years. Griffin has just been given some damn huge shoes to fill and his hyperbolic reputation just keeps growing. Jesus. This is going to get real ugly, real quick for the Redskins. In other news, the Rams have just booked themselves a Super Bowl berth or two by the end of the decade.

- Ryan Tannehill, Texas A&M: What to say about Ryan Tannehill? Basically it strikes me that Tannehill is being considered a first rounder in this years draft for no other reason than the fact that this is simply a weak crop of quarterbacks.

Tannehill isn't terrible and to give him a bit of credit, he had a fairly poor receiving corps in college. Passes bouncing out of receivers hands - and not because of any exceptional amount of zing on the pass - was a common sight for the Aggies in 2011.

Tannehill also faces an uphill battle in that he spent the early part of his career at Texas A&M as a wide receiver. It wasn't until 2010 that he was called upon to lead the offense and as a result his game experience is somewhat limited.

In a bizarre twist of fate, that same inexperience that might put off some teams could actually be the very inexperience that hooks another team to him. There is a possibility that someone watching Tannehill's tape sees an average quarterback whose decision making is ok, whose fundamentals are ok and who has a decent turn of speed when escaping the pocket and decides that he would make a nice multi-year project behind an established starting quarterback. Certainly there is some merit in that.

Me personally? I just don't think Tannehill has that certain "X Factor" that the high level quarterbacks all seem to have. He's not bad, pretty average, run of the mill. And that's part of the problem. He doesn't really excel at anything. He has no one thing that you can pin on him and say "that attribute will keep him employed until he develops properly".

It's not all doom and gloom. Tannehill - like every young quarterback - will have the chance to develop himself with NFL coaches and maybe in a few years time we'll see him leading some team out. But he's not first round pick material and I'm a little dubious about just how far he can go. Still, I've been wrong before (yes, plenty of times, thank you for that) and it normally happens with players who I have a so-so opinion about, like Tannehill.

- Brock Osweiler, Arizona State: Jesus Christ, I feel like I'm writing a review for the movie "American Pie". Brock Osweiler? I ask you now, is there a legitimate name out there for a football player that could sound any more appropriate as the name of an stereotypical American quarterback? Question is, what is Mr. Osweiler like on the field?

To be frank ("I did it Myyyyyyy Waaaayyyy!") I think you'd have to be an idiot to draft Osweiler. His throwing motion and footwork are horrible. He's clumsy, inaccurate for the most part and has benefited greatly from the scheme that he's in. A lot of people are touting his size and arm strength, but that's nothing when you consider his lack of anything resembling natural athletic ability.

Osweiler looks like he might have already his ceiling as far as quarterback play goes, and if that's true then I feel sorry for him, and my early sympathies go out to the team that draft hims. Sorry Brock. Maybe there's a movie career with your name on it? I don't think there is a football one.

- Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma State: Riddle me this, riddle me that, why in the hell would you draft a quarterback who will be 29 years old before he even steps on the field for you? The answer is... because... he's actually... pretty good.

Yes, Weeden actually can play. In fact, I'd probably say Weeden is one of the more "pro-ready" quarterbacks in this years draft. Even if you remove Justin Blackmon from that offense, I think Weeden would have done well. He stands in the pocket well, moves about well, and can throw pretty much any pass that an NFL team would expect him to.

The problem is his age combined with the fact that he still has a few things to learn. Take for example the whole Justin Blackmon issue. Right there he had one of the best wide receivers in the country at his disposal and in my opinion a truly can't miss pick in this years draft (more on that when we get to the receivers post).

Blackmon would routinely get free from single coverage and/or put himself in a position where he was easily going to win any jump ball. Weeden however had a lot of trouble finding him and in the NFL you have to remember that matchups like that are a huge part of a successful offense. You have to get the ball to the playmakers and Weeden really struggled with the concept of making Blackmon his number one target.

That's something that comes with time in the NFL and that's precisely what Weeden doesn't have. He is literally the kind of prospect that needs to come in day one, season one, and start. From that point he has three, maybe four years to make it all happen in all honesty.

The ideal team for Weeden then is someone that has all the pieces in place and just needs a good passer to bring it all together. Perhaps Miami's offense, if they miss out on Peyton Manning, would be a good fit. Whoever it is has to understand that Weeden is not a project for the future. You have to be confident that you can clean up all the subtle weaknesses in his game within one or two years while building the rest of your squad.

For that reason I have to say that I personally wouldn't be all that interested in Weeden. Someone will be though and in that regard I wish them well. We really will have to wait and see where he lands. With an offense that is otherwise complete, or near to being so, Weeden could have an excellent chance to succeed. But if he lands somewhere that has a lot of building to do, then I'm afraid I think the future is bleak.

- Kirk Cousins, Michigan State: Frustrating is probably the word that I would use to sum up Kirk Cousins. Frustrating because there is a lot of potential but also a lot of problems.

On the one hand Cousins can make some great throws downfield. But on the other he's a little too cocky at trying to push the ball into double and triple coverage at times when the odds are clearly against a completed pass. One the one hand he can throw basically any pass that an NFL team would ask him to, but on the other hand he made a lot of throws underneath and took easy dump offs.

Sometimes he makes really good decisions, sometimes he makes some terrible ones, especially under pressure. He's pretty accurate with most of his passes, but he also stares receivers down quite a bit. Pfffff (that's the sound of me taking a breath and then forcing it out through closed lips, in that kind of slightly annoyed, slightly despairing fashion that people sometimes do).

Ultimately I think Cousins fits the word "project" pretty aptly. He's got a lot of raw materials to work with as a passer. All he really needs is the mental coaching. He needs to be shown on film that this pass is a good idea but that one is bad, this coverage is good, that coverage is bad, throw this pass, don't throw that one, etc.

If he can take a chunk of humble pie, listen to his coaches, listen from some experienced hand at quarterback and learn how to make better decisions the ball in is hands then Cousins has long term potential. If he starts week one for somebody then I think he's going to make a lot of mistakes and that could get him rattled due to the steepness of the learning curve.

- Nick Foles, Arizona: Bingo!

There's always one in every draft. Like the rising of the sun, taxes, and corrupt politicians, it's inevitable. At least one quarterback will always slip through the hyperbole cracks and end up as a relatively speaking unknown, unwanted prospect, normally for no more apparent reason than he plays for a smaller school.

I present to you then Nick Foles, of the Arizona Wildcats, who I can confidently say to the best of my knowledge is the only quarterback I've seen so far who has experience throwing almost the full range of passes that an NFL team would expect and has plenty of experience firing passes into tight windows.

Foles is not perfect, obviously. Under pressure he, like many of these other quarterbacks, has a tendency to just hike the ball up in order to avoid a sack. Some of his passes can end up a little behind receivers, though still catchable, which suggests to me that he's trying to protect the receivers just a bit more than is really necessary.

His career was basically spent in the shotgun which could cause some issues with handling under center snaps (though he has taken a few in game) and like with all spread quarterbacks coming out of college it might effect how quickly he learns to read more complex, compacted defenses.

Generally though Nick Foles is about as ready for the big dance as any quarterback in this class. His movement in the pocket is excellent, his technique is excellent, and broadly speaking he's an accurate quarterback who was sometimes let down by a less than stellar receiving corps.

If I had to pick a guy and say "this is the kid we want to build around for the next 3-5 years", then I think Foles would be that guy. To me he'll have the lowest learning curve of anyone I've seen and he'll need the least amount of corrective coaching. Projected to go in the mid to late rounds, possibly even undrafted, I think Foles will be something of a steal.

- Russell Wilson, Wisconsin: Damn, now we're talking! History has taught me to not be that surprised that the further I start to go down the list of young players, the more likely I am to find someone I'm really impressed with. It appears from looking around the Russell Wilson's only problem is that he's 5'11. Literally that's the only knock I can find on him.

To me personally that's a silly reason to down grade a quarterback. Two words; Drew Brees. I'm not saying that Wilson is the equal of Brees, obviously not, just that Brees has shown that height when related to quarterbacks is a strongly over rated measure. Let's not forget as well that Brees played behind a Wisconsin O-line that contained some seriously big dudes.

He only has one season of experience at the top level of college football, but I've long since abandoned that as having any real meaning. If the guy can transfer up and play well at the elite level of college football for one season, that's probably more of a good thing than a bad thing.

Wilson has a lot of experience under center, he's very mobile both in the pocket and rushing downfield, he has more than enough arm strength, has thrown a fairly complete route tree of passes, is pretty accurate (though is anticipation and ball placement are both a little sketchy) and just generally I have trouble picking faults with him.

Arguably Wilson has the potential to be one of those rare quarterbacks who successfully combines tremendous athletic ability on the move with great pocket passing skills. I'm tempted to say that Wilson will go on and have a career such that people will look back and say "he should have been a first rounder" but you never know exactly what the future holds. Still though, excellent quarterback prospect.

- B.J. Coleman, UT-Chattanooga: Just...... how in the hell did Coleman make it onto anybody's list? This kid is chronic and no coach could seriously expect to develop him into a usable quarterback in the next few years. If you had no other choice then ok, at least he's actually played quarterback, but there are so many other options that Coleman would just be a wasted pick.

- Case Keenum, Houston: Options like Keenum, who is probably this years most high profile "is he or his he not, a system guy?" type quarterback. Or in other words, has Keenum's huge numbers in college been the product of the offense system or his natural abilities? Maybe even playing in such a weak conference?

The answer is likely a little bit of all three. Some of the defensive efforts that Keenum has faced have been tragic, to put it mildly. He's also been the benefactor of many, many passing attempts and some wide open receivers.

Still, there is an argument to say that he has shown the ability to hit wide open receivers and he certainly has done that, along with making a lot of deep passes. Keenum will probably go undrafted I suspect and then from there someone will bring him into camp with the theory of finding out how much was raw ability and how much was the system.

History suggests that he'll be out of the league before the start of the 2013 season, rightly or wrongly.

- Austin Davis, Southern Miss: This is a system QB. Hasn't shown much that will attract anybody to draft him. Unlikely to succeed at the NFL level.

- Chandler Harnsih, Northern Illinois: Take the two above, rinse, repeat. Against his only really tough opposition, Wisconsin, he was merely average.

- Kellen Moore, Boise State: It would be tempting to put Kellen Moore in the same boat as the three above, but I'm not going to do that. Why? Because, my poor grammar aside, I have three reasons why I think Moore will succeed at the next level.

First is that while he played in a spread offense, it wasn't one based so much around trick and/or unusual plays that he wouldn't see at the next level. The offense was a little more "standard" if you will and yet was a lot more diverse than many.

Second is his decision making, which was generally very good indeed and importantly it was often very rapid, a very helpful advantage in the high speed environment of the NFL. Thirdly, Moore made many, many passes into tight windows, a key skill for NFL quality quarterbacks.

All these things might have to be tempered by his slightly weak arm and lack of ideal size that scouts will look for. On that note if I was betting man then I'd bet that Moore will go undrafted, but will be picked up by someone and that someone will like what they see out of Moore. He might have to wait his turn, but Moore certainly has the potential to one day be a starter in the NFL.

- Ryan Lindley, San Diego State: Lindley has a huge advantage over a number of the other quarterbacks this year, in that he played in a much more "pro-style" offense. That is to say that he spent a lot of time under center, threw a very complete and diverse route tree and faced a multitude of defensive pressures similar to what he'll face in the NFL.

To top it all off, Lindley is just plain good. I've heard the odd remark about his accuracy but I think some of that is just down to butter fingered receivers. Personally I think his accuracy is pretty good. Combined with his showings under pressure in bowl games I think Lindley might actually tease a team into taking him in the first round.

Will he be worth it though? Certainly the running theme in this article is that you can never tell, but yeah, I think Lindley will do ok. His deep passing still needs some work and his footwork can be a bit clumsy, but other than that Lindley is a good quarterback who has solid potential at the next level. I'd be happy with him.

- Jordan Jefferson, LSU: Due to his suspension early in the 2011 season and his performance in the BCS National Championship game the likely hood is that Jefferson will not be drafted until late, if at all. Personally I think that's a mistake and a shame, as Jefferson has shown throughout his career that he can handle tough games and make big plays. One bad showing should not completely erase all the good.

The good of Jefferson has been an ability to make quick decisions, find his big play receivers, throw excellent deep and intermediate passes, and his ability to throw accurately on the run. His down side has been that sometimes he's a little too eager to escape the pocket when I feel he could have hung in there sometimes and made the pass, along with the occasional erratic decision.

Broadly speaking though I think Jefferson is under rated because of some of the turmoil that has surrounded this last season. Just don't forget that he's played to a very high level previously in some very big games. Jefferson to me has a lot to like about him as a pro prospect and I think whoever gets him at a bargain price has got themselves a very interesting young quarterback to work with who may yet have a bright future in the NFL.

- Darron Thomas, Oregon: Another system guy really. Against flimsy defences the Oregon Ducks ripped people to pieces, but as soon as they came up against more stout opposition such as Auburn in the BCS Championship game last year their offense had a much tougher time. Thomas doesn't have a bad accuracy rating, but throwing screens and to wide open receivers will do that for you.

- John Brantley, Florida: Hahaha. No.

- Jacory Harris, Miami: Undrafted all the way for Jacory Harris, but don't count him right out. Harris wasn't a stellar quarterback throughout his college career, but some of the best ones aren't. What Harris did do well was throw the football, a lot of the time from under center in a very much pro-style offense. His footwork is really good and he's pretty accurate down the field.

Don't expect Harris to stun coaches in camp with his ability, but if you hear his name called as a starter one Sunday in the next 3-4 years, you shouldn't be surprised. In fact, you should probably get a little excited, especially if he plays for your team.


- Dan Persa, Northwestern: Not bad at all. Again might be considered a "victim" of the spread offense, but don't discount Persa out of hand. He can throw some decent passes and has thrown a wide range of routes in college. Mobility is a little sketchy, but he's accurate and has an arm that will attract some NFL scouts. Could go late, might go undrafted, but I imagine someone will give him a shot somewhere, and rightly so.

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