INDIANAPOLIS — The race for top quarterback in the 2014 NFL draft appears to be slimming down to a three-horse race.
You've got the front runner, or in horse racing terms, the speedball in Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, who paced the field as the favorite for the top pick in the draft for most of the college football season.
And then there's Blake Bortles, somewhat of the mystery horse in the field, whom you can't rule out as a fast finisher.
There's a lot to like about the Central Florida prospect, even though he really only popped up on NFL scouting radars as a top prospect during this past college season. The 6-foot-5, 232-pound Bortles throws and moves well, and he guided the Knights to a 12-1 season that included wins over Penn State (coached by now Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien), Bridgewater's Cardinals team and the No. 6 Baylor Bears in the Fiesta Bowl in which Bortles threw for 302 yards and three touchdowns, along with rushing for a surprising 93 yards and a score. The team's only loss was a three-point setback against South Carolina, which was ranked No. 12 in the country at the time.
The whirlwind past six months have landed Bortles at the NFL scouting combine as a top-tier prospect who is hoping to show he belongs with the big boys.
"Yeah, yeah, 100 percent I do," Bortles said. "That’s why I’m here, that’s why I’m invited. I believe that I can compete with any guy here, and that’s why I’m doing everything I’m doing. That’s why I’m throwing, that’s why I’m running, doing all this stuff.
"Why wait till pro day when you have an opportunity to make your first impression here in Indianapolis? I grew up watching this as a kid and dreamed of competing in it, why would I sit anything out and do any of that kind of stuff? [I am] just excited to be here and honored to be here, but definitely believe I belong here."
Bortles will work out Sunday with the other quarterbacks, and he chose to strut his stuff — after some deliberation leading up to the event — against a good crew, even though Manziel and Bridgewater will not throw until their respective pro days. That gives Bortles a chance, for a day anyway, to tilt the discussion in his favor if he performs well.
"My mind was always made up, it was just waiting on the right time to announce it," Bortles said of his decision to throw. "Getting information from a lot of people. But I want to compete."
That, however, is only one tiny piece of the puzzle. Bortles passes the eye test and has a year of great results on the field. He also moves well for a quarterback of ideal size, even in this Russell Wilson-loving world in which we live. Bortles also displays poise, accuracy, touch and the ability to engineer comebacks, as he did more than once this past season.
But Bortles still faces questions of his arm strength, his deep-ball placement and his throwing under duress. Still, he feels he could handle the pressure of being a top pick, even the top pick, which is owned by O'Brien and the Texans. Bortles said he doesn't plan to bring up the 34-31 victory at Happy Valley when he speaks with O'Brien.
"I don’t know if I’ll bring that up. But it was a great game," Bortles said. "Early in the year, faced some adversity in a hostile environment and really got kind of acclimated to playing in places like that. We did it again a couple times early in the year, like at Louisville and stuff of that sort. But that was a huge game that kind of kept the momentum rolling for our team this season.
With respect to Alabama's A.J. McCarron and the other talented and accomplished quarterbacks who will throw on Sunday, Bortles has a chance to bump his stock a little with a nice performance at the combine. And in a league where it could come down to splitting hairs and personal preference for teams seeking a quarterback high in the draft, that could be enough to put him in the conversation for the first pick.
That would be just fine for Bortles, who would be ready to handle that pressure.
"That’s the goal, the goal is to be the top quarterback prospect," he said. "That’s why I left college early, that’s why I came out, was to be the top quarterback prospect, and I believe I can do that."
But the race is far from over.
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