Talk about a tough act to follow. The 2013 draft class of quarterbacks must not only establish itself as more than the mystery it currently is, but it must also succeed the type of quarterback cabal we've never seen before. And that 2012 class, featuring Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Ryan Tannehill, Nick Foles, and Brandon Weeden -- all either meaningful or outright franchise-changing starters in their inaugural NFL seasons -- stripped the NFL of the need to be patient at the position.
That's bad news for a group of signal-callers who don't seem to be ready for prime time in the same way. While several quarterbacks coming out in the 2013 NFL Draft have estimable skills, enough questions surround each one for the consensus to be this: It's the wrong year to need a quarterback, and if you do, you'll be cobbling one together out of spare parts. The situation is not quite that dismal, but when the scouting combine starts up next week in Indianapolis, several NFL teams in desperate need of help at the position will be looking long and hard for one or two diamonds in a whole lot of rough.
"Over the last several years, we've had defined quarterback play at the top, and we still talk about them ad nauseam," Mike Mayock of the NFL Network recently said on the Rich Eisen Podcast. "Everybody laughed at me last year at this time. I was trying to tell people Ryan Tannehill was not only going to be a first-round pick, but he might be a top 10 guy. And that's what happens with these quarterbacks. And I don't know who the best quarterback is yet, and I don't know if there's a first-round quarterback. Yet I hear all these people talk about Geno Smith going No. 1. So I'm fascinated. This is going to be, by far, the most confusing quarterback draft we've had in years."
Last year, neither Luck nor Griffin threw at the combine, but they didn't have to. Everyone knew they were going 1-2 in the draft, and their college film was full of spectacular moments. This time around, both of the top-rated quarterbacks -- West Virginia's Geno Smith and USC's Matt Barkley -- will have to give it their all on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium. Because as much as both players have had their moments, both still raise a lot of questions. It was problematic that neither Smith nor Barkley went through the process of Senior Bowl week, the trial by fire that has improved the draft stock of many quarterbacks in recent years (Joe Flacco, Christian Ponder, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson), but things are what they are -- Barkley was recovering from a shoulder injury, and Smith's absence from that particular process is one that NFL teams will want explained.
"It’s just one of those decisions, one situation, where I wanted to go and pretty much solidify that and shut everyone up," Smith recently said of his decision to throw at the combine. "My agent, coaches, and people close to me held me back on that. They can’t really hold me back from going out and throwing; that’s one of my strong suits and I believe that you do well when the lights are on. The combine is a perfect opportunity for me to go out there and showcase my talents. I’m aware that other quarterbacks may not have thrown, but those are their decisions. It’s not to say that they are not competitors themselves, but it’s just something that they came to the conclusion of — with their team of agents and people close to them. In my case, I made this decision and I told everyone that I’m tired of this speculation and I’m ready to go out there and try to end all of that.”
Smith is the one thrower in this class that checks the most boxes from an upside perspective, but the two halves of his 2012 season leave concerns. Perhaps they shouldn't.
In his first six games of the 2012 season, Smith's numbers were absolutely off the charts -- 196 completions in 260 attempts (a 75.4 completion rate) for 2,274 yards, 25 touchdowns and no interceptions. His alleged fall from grace in the last seven games of the season is something Smith will be asked about quite a bit in Indy, but if you take Smith's second-half numbers (173 of 258 for 1,931 yards, 17 touchdowns, and six picks) and subtract his 8-touchdown circus against Baylor's joke of a defense, his first five games and seven final contests aren't that different.
Beyond that, Smith has the ability to make all the throws required in the NFL, and that includes the bad ones. Footwork is a concern, but that was the case for Cam Newton in 2011, and after sessions with quarterback performance gurus Chris Weinke and George Whitfield, Newton turned that around. The hope is that Smith can do the same.
Barkley faces his own issues. The medical will obviously be of paramount importance for him, and when he's asked to make those post and seam throws from 25 yards and out, evaluators will want to see crisply-thrown balls on a rope. While he receives high marks for his mobility, accuracy, and overall game intelligence, some would like to paint Barkley into a "game manager" corner. It's possible that Barkley's most frequent and obvious issue -- an inability to make stick throws in tight windows -- will stick with him after the combine, and in an NFL that favors athletic marvels over system quarterbacks with lower ceilings, Barkley might be on the outside looking in.
He regressed statistically in 2012, going from 39 touchdowns and seven picks in 2011 to 36 touchdowns and 15 interceptions last year. Some might give him a mulligan because USC's offensive line fell apart and Lane Kiffin proved to be a less than astute playcaller at the best of times, but others might say -- rightfully -- that any quarterback with targets like Marqise Lee and Robert Woods should have a much higher baseline.
"I'll tell you where I am with him," Mayock told Eisen about Barkley. "I'm confused, because I watched a lot of his tape a year ago, and the two things I knew were that he didn't take sacks and he didn't throw interceptions. And this year ... man, the tape is different. He can make every throw and he's got a good but not a great arm; he's smart; but he makes a bunch of bad decisions and throws, which is what I thought this kid wouldn't do."
None of the six quarterbacks that did compete at the Senior Bowl in 2013 were able to carry the day as some of their predecessors have. Florida State's E.J. Manuel was the only one of the six who looked able to create any sort of rapport with the receivers he had in a way that transferred from practice to game conditions.
Syracuse's Ryan Nassib, who some have pegged as a first-round talent, continued the problem he had on game tape -- he sails many of his longer throws, though he was probably the best of the six at throwing with pressure in his face. Arkansas' Tyler Wilson buttressed his completion percentage with an alarmingly high percentage of dink-and-dunk throws. Oklahoma's Landry Jones was unspectacular in practices, and completed just three of nine passes in the game. Miami (OH)'s Zac Dysert put up decent numbers by throwing a bunch of screens to Oregon running back Kenjon Barner after the South team had put the game away, and its defense was playing not to lose. Dysert often looked over his head in practice. North Carolina State's Mike Glennon had his moments, but was obviously flustered too often by pressure.
The underclassmen provide no relief. Tennessee's Tyler Bray is the only non-senior quarterback invited to the combine, and he was invited to perform in the "throwing quarterback" role -- in other words, he'll be lobbing up passes for the receivers and running backs, as opposed to going through his own drills with Smith, Barkley, and the rest. Bray has a cannon arm, but an odd delivery and very inconsistent accuracy. And with this class, Bray may wind up doing more than first imagined.
Mayock may have best summed up the quarterback prospects in this draft class when Eisen asked him if there was a hidden gem this time around. Is there a Russell Wilson, who can fall to the third round and throw 29 touchdown passes in his first NFL season?
"I don't have him. And trust me, I'm looking for him."
Those responsible for re-stocking the position at the NFL level can only nod in sad agreement, and hope that the combine provides some manner of separation.