Monday, March 02, 2015

2015 NFL Draft: Quarterbacks

Ohhh yeah, it's that time of year again! And I'm back to analyse this years crop of draft hopefuls. Now in previous years sometimes I've been able to get them all done before the draft, sometimes not. We'll see how we get on this year, it's a bit of a late start so I might have to finish the study post draft. At some point in the off season I'd also like to go back and look at my history of draft analysis, some of which is good and some of which has been not so good.

Now when it comes to quarterbacks this where I'm most confident. For example in the year that Russel Wilson and Nick Foles came out, only one person I know was touting them to the hills and back, and only one person I know had a bad word to say about Blaine Gabbert, and that was me! 

So what do I look for in a quarterback? Well seldom are two quarterbacks the same (just look at Wilson vs Foles) and as such each quarterback should be judged on his own merits, but generally I'm most interested in:

- Deep ball accuracy,
- Range of passing,
- Pocket presence/movement,
- Decision making,

I say deep ball accuracy because it's very easy to make short passes. Most NFL backups and free agent quarterbacks can hit short passes, screens, things like that. Hitting deeper passes is much more difficult, such as hitting a 15 yard deep out pattern. Please note though that when I say accuracy I mean the ability of the quarterback to deliver the ball to the receiver in a catchable position. If the receiver then drops the pass that's his problem, not the quarterbacks.

Range of passing simply means the ability to hit all the "NFL throws", such as post patterns, deep outs, seam routes to tight ends etc. The more types of throw a quarterback can make the better. NFL offenses are quite complex and the coaches seldom have enough time to sit down and work with a quarterback to teach him the passing tree completely from scratch.

Pocket presence/movement encompasses two things; the smoothness of the footwork - both in the drop back and moving around the pocket - and the ability to keep your eyes downfield while moving to avoid pressure.

Decision making encompasses many, many issues, but foremost among these are the decisions that the quarterback makes about where to throw the ball and how he responds to being pressurised in the pocket. It's very common for example for young quarterbacks to make poor choices such as throwing the ball deep into traffic instead of just eating the sack.

Finally I should note that a players position on this list has nothing to do with my opinion on them. They're ordered the way they are because that's how the list I'm working from is ordered. Nor do I give out what I believe to be pointless numbered grades. It's ridiculous I think to try and summarise your opinion of a player in such a manner. I will normally try and give the most thorough written appraisal that I can and unlike most of the media pundits I always try and give a definitive, unambiguous statement about whether I like the player or not.

And with all that out of the way lets jump right in.

Jameis Winston, Florida state
Let's get the football side of things dealt with first.

Last year I saw bits of Winston incidentally while watching other players and initially I was quite impressed. I'm not sure what happened this year but I'm not that impressed any more. The problem with Wilson is primarily three fold; he's not that accurate when throwing over 10 yards from the line of scrimmage (LOS), he makes a lot of poor decisions, forcing throws into windows that he simply can't make, and he stares down his receivers chronically.

To me that's a combination that cannot work in the NFL. Sure, he might have some good games here and there, make some nice throws now and again. Lots of quarterbacks do. But quarterbacks are not paid to occasionally have good games and show a bit of promise. They're paid the big bucks to try and lead their team to a Superbowl title. I cannot see Winston doing that. He's not consistent enough and he makes far too many mistakes.

When you couple that with the string of off field issues that demonstrate a pattern of poor decision making then I'm afraid for me I'd have to pass on Winston. I just don't see the point in drafting him because I don't feel like he'll ever develop into a good enough quarterback.

On a side note, Florida State freshman receiver Travis Rudolph looks pretty handy.

Marcus Mariota, Oregon
The other big name in this years quarterback crop and one that is drawing praise for his physical gifts, predominantly his speed. 

In some regards that's true, he is a very athletically talented individual. His speed, as demonstrated at the combine, is wide receiver class and should hold up in the NFL. What I don't understand is why the NFL scouting community and the TV analysts have not picked up on the trend with regard to athletic quarterbacks in gimmicky college systems. This is Blaine Gabbert, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton all over again.

Now the comparison isn't identical, I'll admit that. Whereas Gabbert used to crumble under the slightest pass rush Mariota has the speed and elusiveness to escape and extend the play. And compared to Griffin and Newton, Mariota has slightly better accuracy. But you can still see a little bit of all of them in him, and not the good bits.

You can see the same gimmick offense that Gabbert used to run. Sure, Mariota is a bit more accurate at distance than Gabbert was, but the offense still contained huge numbers of screens and dump offs, with no much in the way of NFL style throws. You can see the same vulnerability to injury as Griffin, given that Mariota is another tall, slender quarterback without enough meat to take a persistent pounding. And you can see the same eagerness to run and to throw hail mary passes down the field that Newton has.

None of these are traits that are conducive to winning NFL games on a consistent basis. Like Winston, Mariota will probably win the odd game here and there purely through a combination of luck and a few good passes. But not consistently enough to be a top quarterback I feel. Mariota is not Russell Wilson, who is a passer first and a runner second. He's more in the Griffin/Newton mould and I suspect his career will take a similar tangent. He'll get drafted high, get paid well for a few years, produce little, then eventually end up as a back up or out of the league. 

Not for me thanks.

Brett Hundley, UCLA
If this is supposedly the third best quarterback in this years draft then we have some serious problems, though I suspect that like normal there will be a selection of much better players to come.

No surprises then given that opening that I don't like Hundley. He never really threw that many deep passes and the ones he did were often under thrown and inaccurate. His arm is so weak he has to put everything he has into the throw just to get it moving more than 40 yards. He hit a lot of 10 yard hooks and some screens, but other than that his range of passing is very poor and he looks incapable of making the more difficult throws at the next level.

Just to cap it off he has a horrendous tendency to abandon the pass after one or two reads and look to run. His eyes come straight off the receivers and he just starts charging away, head down, normally right into a sack or an insignificant gain. As you might have guessed I would absolutely pass on Hundley. I wouldn't want him on my roster even as a back up. I just hope it gets better than this or this is going to be a long few days for me.

Garrett Grayson, Colorado State
Thank god for that!

Sort of. Grayson is certainly a hell of an improvement over Hundley even if he does have his own problems, one of which was an offensive line that couldn't block a doorway. This meant that in a lot of games he barely had enough time to read the field, let alone pick out a decent pass. But when his offensive line wasn't falling over or getting skinned alive for speed by the defense, then actually Grayson was really good.

He made some really, really nice throws deep down the field. We're talking the kind of throws where he puts it just over the head of one defender and just in front of another, into a really tight window where only his receiver can catch it. Some really impressive stuff. Sometimes he tried to stick it into windows that were just a little too tight, but this didn't happen that often.

Athletically he doesn't really have the ability to escape pressure and even when he did get out his accuracy went down quite a bit while he was on the move. If he's going to make it in the NFL it will be as a pure pocket passer. And in that regard I think he probably has a great shot. Clearly he'll still have to deal with pressure, just like every other quarterback, but I think he'll get more opportunities to shine than he did at Colorado State and that's where his deep passing accuracy will really come to the fore. His aim and his touch on those throws is just so sweet at times I have to believe that he'll be able to pull it off at the next level.

He does have some other issues, for example he has a tendency to stare down receivers at times and you do have to wonder if on some of his sacks whether he couldn't have just stepped up and perhaps kept the play alive a little longer, but broadly speaking I think the positives outweigh the negatives. Supposedly he's projected as a third or fourth rounder by most media outlets, which is probably a fair mark if only because of some of the uncertainty that surrounds him and because I suspect there will be better overall players at other positions still on the board. 

I would however be tempted to go higher. Hell, if Winston and Mariota are considered top ten picks then Grayson must be to, but more realistically I think you would still get value in the second round.  If you pushed me one way or the other to say "can Grayson be a starting quality quarterback in the NFL, a guy that might get us to the Superbowl?" then I would say yes, yes I believe he can be.

Bryce Petty, Baylor
Would not waste the phone call even if he slipped into free agency.

Petty has an amazing arm. It seems like he can just flick his wrist and the ball goes flying down the field like a bullet. It's a pretty amazing feat of athletic ability. The problem is everything else, most notably accuracy. On screens and quick throws he's ok, and that right there tells you everything you need to know. "OK" at throwing the ball less than 10 yards. That is not the makings of an NFL quarterback.

Against weaker opposition I saw one game where he missed four wide open receivers and only hit a fifth because the receiver stopped running to catch the ball, then had to race away from the closing defender. Against a more competent opponent he completed just one pass beyond 10 yards from the LOS. To me it is utterly ridiculous that Petty is considered to be any kind of prospect at the NFL level, let along a top 5. He represents a lot of what is wrong with the scouting community.

Sean Mannion, Oregon State
It's crazy that Mannion is widely considered to be behind Petty in the rankings. Someone has to be pulling my leg. I swear. It has to just be TV analysts and the like trolling the fans for fun. Because there is no way, no way on Earth that Mannion is behind Petty, or Hundley, or Winston. It's utterly laughable that anyone could consider those three to be better prospects.

This kid is good. His accuracy is normally very good, though on some of the deep patterns the accuracy was often just a hair off. That has to make you wonder whether in the NFL the larger, more athletic receivers would be able to jump just that bit higher and reach out just that little bit further in order to make the grab? Sometimes on shorter patterns he has a tendency to not follow through properly with his throwing motion leading to the ball going low, but that's not such a huge issue because normally the ball will still be delivered safely, it just means that sometimes he misses out on bigger gains because the receiver has to stoop down to catch the ball, which in turn slows down their pattern and allows defenders to close. In general his ball placement is perhaps a little bit below the NFL average.

Mannion has good awareness of the field, his ability to read the coverage and pick out the right receiver is pretty impressive. The offense he played in was a pro-style system that mixed shotgun and under center in a roughly equal blend, with some formations spread right out and others very tight. That should make his transition to the NFL much, much easier. The coverage and blitz looks he saw in college will be much more representative of those he'll face at the pro level compared to many of the other quarterbacks on this list.

His arm strength is not great, so tight windows will become more of a problem, especially as NFL defenders will close those windows at a much faster rate than the typical teams that Oregon State played. Mannion is not especially mobile, so he's not going to be threatening anyone with his nifty feet, and his ability to keep a play alive and extend it is very limited. Sometimes he also seems to have a habit of checking down to his safety valves just a little too quickly.

Broadly speaking though I like Mannion. I would love for someone who is a top scout or top draft analyst to explain to me why Mannion is not more highly rated. Whatever his faults, he utterly wipes the floor with guys like Hundley and Petty. It's not even close, not a little bit. He is head and shoulders above them. I would say that Mannion is a mid round guy that still needs some work. At the very least he should make a capable back up and potentially with the right coaches and the right receivers he could be a decent starter in the NFL.

Blake Sims, Alabama,
I think the thing that immediately stands out watching Sims is a reaffirmation of my analysis last year that A.J. McCarron was the best quarterback of that draft. At the time everyone was saying that McCarron was the beneficiary of playing for Alabama and that made him look better than he really was. I think now people are perhaps realising that it was Alabama that was the beneficiary.

That's not to say that Sims is necessarily bad, he's just not that good. He could probably be a serviceable back up, someone who would sit on a practice squad and develop into that role over time. He has some good traits such as his impressive speed and elusiveness that allows him to avoid pressure and make plays with his feet.

The problem is when he throws the ball. Short distances, good. Intermediate distances, hmmm, 50-50. Long throws... let's not talk too much about that. And that's really the crux of the issue with Sims. He's not great, he's not bad, he's middle of the road. He does some things well and can put some drives together, without really shining or being the sort of guy who you want to put the ball in his hands with 2 minutes left to go. Has something to offer, but it's not a huge amount. If he went undrafted I'd consider giving him a call, but that depends on who else was on the market.

Taylor Heinicke, Old Dominion
You haven't experienced fun until you've tried to get hold of a copy of Old Dominion's offense! But was it worth it?

Meh, not really. Heinicke is quite inconsistent and he played on a frankly terrible team running a gimmicky offense. He made the odd nice throw, but most of his passes beyond dump offs were off target. He managed the quite remarkable feat of consistently over throwing wide open receivers as well, which is always good for a laugh. All in all, not worth the time.

Shane Carden, East Carolina
50 shades of Blaine Gabbert, racking up the yards running a dink and dunk, gimmicky offense. Not worth the time I don't think.

Brandon Bridge, South Alabama
Having watched Bridge throw the ball five yards in front of a wide open receiver I had that sinking feeling in my gut. "Here we go again" I thought. Then two or three plays later he pinged a beautiful shot down the field, 50 yards or more from QB to receiver, and hit his man perfectly in stride, with fantastic ball placement. It was a thing of absolute beauty.

And thus we have the dilemma that is Brandon Bridge. One minute he's missing an easy shot to a guy on a hook pattern, the next he's splitting the safeties like a pro to pick out a guy on a post pattern. It's absolutely infuriating! I'm glad I don't have to coach Bridge because he would drive me absolutely insane. But I love him anyway. Not enough to draft him I don't think. Maybe if he was still hanging around there late and there was nothing more appealing on the board then you might take a shot.

He has that raw talent, that kernel of core skills on which to build. The accuracy and strength to hit pretty much any throw that the NFL would ask him to make. He can read defenses and pick out the right guy. He can extend plays with his legs (being 6'5" helps). There's so many good things about Bridge. But the errors and inconsistency will kill him, and at the minute I don't think he can put it all together sufficiently to stay on the field as an NFL starter.

For that reason he's a project. He's a guy that will need work. And you wouldn't want to bet it all on this one guy. In time though, if those positive traits can be harnessed then I think Bridge is a decent long term prospect. I'd want to find a way to get him on my team.

Cody Fajardo, Nevada
Not for me thanks.

His throwing motion is awful, it's like a baseball pitch. He's not that accurate and has a major lack of arm strength. The offense he ran appeared to be very much a specific, simple system, one that I think will hold him back in the transition to the NFL. He doesn't even look like a back up. He looks like a kid playing against adults. Me personally I'd pass on Fajardo.

Hutson Mason, Georgia
Not sure why he's even being considered? It seems like every throw he makes is behind the receiver and he just appears like he's constantly panicking and rushing. Waste of a roster spot.

Anthony Boone, Duke
At one point I watched him throw 5 or 6 incomplete passes in a row. What was most worrying about this was they were a mixture of short, intermediate and deep passes. The offense he ran was a bit gimmicky, lot's of short passing and screens. Just generally not that impressive. I'd pass.

Taylor Kelly, Arizona State
We'll deal with the problems first. Kelly is tall and skinny, so unless he puts on a bit of muscle you're always going to be holding your breath anytime he takes a big shot. He played almost his entire career in the shotgun/pistol, so he only has a limited experience of under center offense (he did a bit). The offense was one of those that I hate where sometimes they would come up to the LOS and then have to look back to the coach who makes any adjustments. I don't like that because it takes some of the decision making out of the quarterbacks hands and I think it can have an effect on the quarterbacks confidence. Finally sometimes his deeper passes lack a bit of zip, so there's a question mark whether he could make some of the tighter NFL throws.

On the plus side he is generally very good. He is pretty accurate and really excels when throwing on the run, even if not being that athletic. He did make some NFL-esque throws and that's what makes me wonder whether he'd be able to hit these in the NFL. I think even though his offense in college was somewhat limited, he has the talent to convert and be able to make all the passes on a more developed route tree that would be expected in the pros.

He's a bit jittery in the pocket, partly because his offensive line was not strong enough to hold up to some of the more aggressive pass rushes, which meant that he was rushed far more often than he was allowed to sit comfortably and throw. This I suspect is one of the reasons that his coaches called so many plays that required him to move, because it gave him the chance to keep his distance from some of the better rushers.

Overall though I like Kelly. I highly doubt he'll get drafted, so it's probably going to be a case of getting called into someones camp for a tryout. And in the long run I think Kelly is good enough to at the very least fight for a backup spot. He's another one of these guys that will take a bit of time to learn his craft at the next level, but I think he has the raw tools to make that happen and to be a success in the long run with the right coaching. 

Dylan Thompson, South Carolina
The big knock on Thompson right now, the one that seems to have got everybody on a downer about him, is his footwork. And it's true that his footwork is shocking. Just, shocking. Sometimes he drops back properly, but more often than not he goes into this weird sort of hopping movement, a bit like Peyton Manning in the pocket except he's doing it as part of his dropback. It's really bizarre and really very unorthodox (and slightly comical).

And I don't care one bit about that. I like to learn from my mistakes, and I made a big mistake back in 2011 when I backed quarterback Christian Ponder to do well based on the quality of his footwork and technique. I'm also reminded of comments made by Bill Walsh about the danger of over-coaching players; if the player can perform to the standard required then there is no point pushing too hard to change a technique area that isn't "textbook" (or words to that effect).

That's why I don't care about Thompson's appalling and inconsistent footwork. To me it would be ridiculous to write off what is clearly a talented kid just because he doesn't move his feet the way the coaching DVDs say he should. It sounds an awful lot to me like a scout speak cop out, designed to cover someones butt in case Thompson doesn't pan out at the next level.

And there are some reasons why he might not. He does make some bad throws now and again, many of which though seem to stem from a miscommunication between him and one of his receivers. He played almost the whole of last year in the shotgun and so may find it difficult to transition to an offense where he spends more time under center. 

Making that transition harder could be the fact that he's only a one year starter, having had to sit and wait his turn for the opportunity to shine. You can see an element of that lack of experience in how he handles pressure. Behind an O-line that really seemed to struggle with the pass rush all season long he often found himself hurried into throws or on the run, something which he never really seemed comfortable with, not least because he doesn't have the speed to be racing away from defensive linemen. He needs to learn how to hang in there and make the throw, even if it means taking a hit.

But credit where credit is due he was really good. Though he's only been starting this year, he's been in what is effectively an NFL system under Steve Spurrier, just all out of the shotgun. His deep passing isn't always the greatest in the world, but he does have quite a bit of zip on his throws, he can put touch on those long lobs, and his ball placement is probably the best I've seen so far.

And in a nutshell, I think he has a lot of potential. Sometimes it can feel a bit like he's just managing the game and not taking control of it, but he made a pretty wide range of passes and generally was a good decision maker. He's a little raw still, the product of so much time on the bench, but if he's this good after just one year as the starter I'd be really intrigued to see where he can go three years from now.

For that reason I'm going to throw my hat into the ring and back Thompson. He may ultimately prove to be one of those quarterbacks like a Matt Ryan, someone who makes a bunch of decent throws but never seems to be able to pull it all together when it matters, but I think he has a much better than average chance to go on and be successful. Something of a project, but a project with a great amount of promise I feel, one that if it was down to me I'd be willing to invest in. I think his potential ceiling is very, very high.


And that pretty much rounds up the quarterbacks. Not a classic year for quarterbacks by any means but I think there's some guys in there who have promising futures in the NFL.

Next up is the running backs. If you liked this post then please share it and leave a comment below. See you next time.

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