Now that the 2012 NFL draft is in the can, it's time to take the Shutdown 50 scouting format forward and get a closer look at some of the surprising and fascinating selections from this year's draft -- the guys we missed in the original 50, but who could be impact players now or down the road. Our next entry: Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden, selected 22nd overall by the Cleveland Browns.
Overview: As you may have heard, Weeden played baseball for a while and came to college football a bit late, which means that he was a 28-year-old senior draft prospect. You will hear that Weeden's age is a positive, because it gives him a maturity other rookies don't have. You will hear that Weeden's age is a negative, because he'll be 29 when his first NFL season starts, and if he's not ready right away, the clock is already ticking at an accelerated rate. The data on quarterbacks entering the league at a later age is about as conclusive -- Chris Weinke (29) and John Beck (26) were past the aggregate when they started their NFL careers, and the results were not spectacular. Warren Moon started his NFL career at that age due to the idiocy of scouts and personnel executives in the late 1970s, and he tore it up in the NFL after winning five straight Grey Cups in Canada.
So, age ain't nothin' but a number with Weeden -- most likely, it's not a decisive indicator of success or failure. A hard look at his senior tape is far more revealing, but we'll start with the stats, because they're pretty darned impressive. In 2011, Weeden blasted through the Oklahoma State record books with 4,727 passing yards, 37 touchdowns, and a completion percentage north of 72 percent. Add in his performance in the Cowboys' win over Stanford in the 2012 Fiesta Bowl, and an impressive Senior Bowl week, and it would appear that Weeden is ready to beat the age curve and hit the big time. What does the film say?
Strengths: Weeden has great command of the offense out of shotgun right after the snap -- he sells play action well, rolls out from different backfield sets, and targets one-read half-side passing schemes with great consistency. Reads blitzes well and gets the ball out quickly under pressure. Good touch thrower in the abstract -- he isn't always accurate when he takes a little off the ball, but he gets the concept. Good enough arm to zing it downfield on posts and go routes, and will place the ball well against wider zones. Sells play action well enough out of the shotgun to have defensive backs cheating up or looking back, which allows him to further exploit this strength. Gets set quickly to fire out in shorter patterns.
Weaknesses: The most glaring issue with Weeden's play overall could really set him back at the NFL level is that he's what I call a "zone thrower," which means that he's often throwing to gaps and areas without a great deal of anticipation or adjustment. That's fairly common with spread quarterbacks, but Weeden's problem is that he will tend to throw to that area even after his primary receiver (usually Justin Blackmon) has been redistributed by aggressive press coverage. You will also see him struggle against more advanced defenses (Stanford, for example) who disguise their coverages.
Will need to work on his footwork from under center -- again, a common issue with spread QBs, but it's out there. Weeden is a good quarterback when facing a blitz, but I wonder how he'll fare against the zone and cluster blitzes he'll face in the NFL -- when he's got a lot of defenders in an area, he's far too bold about throwing to that place regardless. Throws off his back foot far too often and doesn't exhibit the pure velocity to make up for it.
Conclusion: Like Andy Dalton, who came out of TCU in 2011 with some serious questions about his ability to transition from a two-read spread offense to the complexities of the NFL, Weeden possesses the intangibles required to do just that. There are quandaries all over the tape, but there's also no question that Weeden works his butt off and comes to the game with the intelligence you want for the most important position in the game. The differences are these: Dalton was 24 when he started his first NFL game, and that four-year gap is the length of one entire rookie contract. Dalton benefited greatly from the presence of A.J. Green -- not only does Weeden lack a playmaker of that caliber on the Browns' roster; he's also losing a major help in Blackmon. Weeden will have the serious advantage of Trent Richardson in his backfield, which is a major upgrade ... but he needs to learn to play a full game under center with a team that only went shotgun 33 percent of the time in 2011 (24th in the NFL).
Even if we assume that Weeden's age gives him some sort of football-related maturity advantage, that's going to be negated by the fact that his NFL career will need to ramp up fairly quickly -- and there's a quicker cap on the other side. Warren Moon was able to play well into his early 40s, but he was also one of the best quarterbacks ever to play football at any level. He just happened to come up in a era when a lot of people were dumb enough to believe that you couldn't succeed in the NFL if you were a few shades darker than Dan Pastorini. Weinke and Beck fell victim to their own eventual ceilings, and while there are things about Weeden's play that prompt encouragement, there's also more than enough to make one wonder if his ultimate fate trends to the Weinke/Beck side of the equation.
NFL Comparison: Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals