A Big Roll of The Dice at Quarterback
High-Profile Passers Have Their Shares of Ups and Downs
ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, MAY 3-4 - FILE - In these photos provided by the NFL, taken at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis in April 2014, NFL Draft prospects are shown. Top row from left are: Davonte Adams, Fresno State; Anthony Barr, UCLA; Odell Beckham, LSU, Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State; Blake Bortles, Central Florida and Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville. Bottom from left are: Derek Carr, Fresno State; Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama; Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina; Brandin Cooks, Oregon State; Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State and Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/NFL) NO SALES
With a record 102 early entrants declaring for this NFL draft, the depth of talent is obvious. Quarterbacks are no exception, with a trio of potential top-10 picks and another half-dozen or so prospects projected as viable mid-round options.
This ought to be an ideal scenario, then, for teams in this pass-driven league missing a long-term solution at the most important position in the sport.
So why isn’t taking a Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater or Johnny Manziel at the start of Thursday night’s proceedings a slam dunk?
While more media coverage is a factor in Bortles, Bridgewater and Manziel being poked and prodded to near-pulp, all of them left college early. Bortles brings the least experience out of Central Florida. Bridgewater, from Louisville, has shown accuracy problems. Manziel is relatively short, and his well-documented time and exploits at Texas A&M raised concerns about maturity.
“I don’t think they’re physically ready. I don’t think they’re far along mentally. I think they might be a work in progress for six months or a year,” said ESPN analyst and former NFL head coach Jon Gruden, considered a quarterbacks guru.
Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman, one of those executives under pressure to find the right guy, describing the predraft scheming as “torturous” in a recent interview?
“Nothing is a sure thing. There’s no Andrew Luck, no Peyton Manning. It is such a mixed bag with each player. Every one of them has positives. Every one of them has negatives. And if that’s the way you end up feeling, why don’t you just wait ‘til later in the draft and take someone with the first pick you’re sure will help you right now?” Spielman told SI.com.
Spielman could well have been trying to smoke-screen his desire to select one of the QBs with the eighth overall pick, but there was surely some truth to his explanation. With his own whiff on Christian Ponder (the 12th choice in 2011) and other high-profile busts on the radar of top decision-makers around the league, Spielman will be wary of taking a quarterback so high again — if there are significant questions about the player’s skill set.
There are seniors with more polish such as Derek Carr of Fresno State, Alabama’s A.J. McCarron or Zach Mettenberger of LSU. But if they’re consistently ranked below the top three, then they’ve got their own limitations. So here’s the multi-billion-dollar question, considering the context of the money-making entertainment machine that is the NFL:
Is this truly the hardest position on the roster to draft and develop successfully? Or are the mistakes simply more magnified because the profiles of quarterbacks are so high?
“It’s a tough position to play. So drafting it, getting it right? If anyone had the answer, they’d be doing it,” San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke said. “It’s a tough position. There is so much that goes on from a mental standpoint, a physical standpoint. It’s just a very difficult position to play. Some have mastered, some are at the level of trying to master it, and some never will master it.”
The cost of a first-round miss at quarterback is steeper than ever, given the critical nature of the job and the infrequency of opportunities to procure another one. The best ones are locked up with long-term contracts and rarely hit free agency, and if an established quarterback is available in a trade he will almost always be on the downside of his career.
“All you have to do is look at the playoffs. Quarterback play is a huge, huge part of winning playoff games,” Indianapolis general manager Ryan Grigson said. “We’re very fortunate and blessed to have Andrew Luck and what he brings to the table. Because great quarterbacks don’t come along all that often and if you don’t have one, you’re going to have to bolster every other facet of your team to be able to get on the level of a team that has a great one.”
Over the last 10 drafts, 28 quarterbacks have been taken in the first round, including 16 in the top 10 picks and seven first overall. Though Eli Manning (first, 2004) and Ben Roethlisberger (11th, 2004) account for two Super Bowl rings each, only four of the 28 first-rounders have won championships. Aaron Rodgers (24th, 2005) and Joe Flacco (18th, 2008) are the others.
Just 10 of the 28 have been picked for a Pro Bowl.
Here’s the flip side of the story: Most of the elite quarterbacks come from the top of the draft, so waiting for a Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Russell Wilson in later rounds is far from a tried-and-true strategy. Those are the only three Super Bowl winners of the last 10 who came after the first round.
“First and foremost, he has to be a ‘guy.’ He has to have the locker room. He has to walk into the meeting room and make the players know, ‘Hey, this guy’s got us. He’s got it.’ That character aspect,” said Seattle general manager John Schneider, whose selection of Wilson in the third round in 2012 helped spark the team to a title.
The environment in which the drafted quarterback enters has a lot to do with success, too. Teams that don’t have to force a player into action before he’s ready will often benefit from the patience. Quarterbacks with savvy offensive coordinators and position coaches can glean a lot about the game they didn’t gain in college.
Those teams still searching for the solution must keep spinning the wheel, feeling perhaps a little more pressure during the draft next week than those who have theirs.
“You’re going to make some mistakes,” Jacksonville coach Gus Bradley said, “but you hope it’s limited, and especially at that position.”