It was perhaps the best pro day workout noted draft expert Mike Mayock had ever seen. The ball shot from the quarterback's hand immaculately, and zipped downfield on a perfect rope over and over. Every throw was made, and there was little doubt that the kid throwing the ball had a rare gift.
The date: March 14, 2007. The quarterback: LSU's JaMarcus Russell(notes). The Oakland Raiders selected Russell with the first overall pick in the 2007 draft, and Russell ate his way out of the league within a couple of seasons.
Other allegedly elite quarterbacks -- Kyle Boller(notes) and Alex Smith come to mind -- have torn it up at their respective pro days, only to fade into anonymity when they hit the NFL level. It's an important thing to remember as we round into two of the more hyped pro days in recent memory. Both Auburn (Cam Newton, Nick Fairley) and Arkansas (Ryan Mallett, D.J. Williams(notes)) hold their pro days on Tuesday, and it's already been confirmed that all 32 teams will flock to the Auburn campus to watch Newton and Fairley, two players who may be top 10 picks -- and Newton could go first overall.
Mallett and Williams don't have the same marquee niche, but many believe that both players can help NFL teams sooner than later. The question for the two quarterbacks is, how much can they help themselves and answer the questions that remain about them?
For Newton, the primary issue is the one that came up at the NFL scouting combine -- he struggled with accuracy on simple out routes, looked far too rudimentary and measured in his dropbacks, and made it very clear that he's still getting the hang of the pro-style throwing mechanics. He can probably put a bit more air in his overall draft stock if he can make the throws me missed in Indianapolis, but not if he just goes with the scripted throws he did in his pre-combine workout at a San Diego high school.
"I really didn't need to see the workout, nor do I need to hear about the workout because I can tell you what that workout entails," Mayock said of that scripted session. "I've watched five of his game tapes, he's got a classic over-hand delivery, he's got a big arm. You and I in gym shorts at the local high school can throw pretty accurately, so I would guarantee you he would look great in a pair of gym shorts, he would throw with accuracy and arm strength. His mechanics are very good, but I would also [offer] one cautionary note, and that is the best pro day for a quarterback I ever attended was JaMarcus Russell. That same day, even though I admitted it was the best pro day I ever saw, I also said I wouldn't take him in the first round. For me, it's not about him throwing in shorts; it's about a lot of other things."
Things like the ability to follow directions under pressure, which USC's Mark Sanchez(notes) definitely displayed during his pro day on April 1, 2009. After his scripted workout, according to Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com, Sanchez was asked by Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan to make several more throws, which he did.
First, there were several quick horizontal throws to the receiver (wide receiver screen type) so that scouts could see his complete throwing motion from the left and right sides. He was also asked to throw several vertical go-routes -- throws he had not attempted during his earlier throwing performance. The first few passes were a bit deeper than Turner could get to. After putting too much air under his first three, Sanchez nailed the final three, including two deep down the seam to the tight end.
In the end, Sanchez was taken by a New York Jets team that traded up to get him, and his willingness to go outside the box definitely raised his cache in the eyes of coaches, scouts and personnel executives.
When Mallett does his drills for the assembled masses, those same NFL analysts would be wise to ask Mallett to step outside the script. Mallett is as impressive as any quarterback in recent memory when standing still from a standard dropback and throwing the ball, but his accuracy falls into question when he throws on the run. He wasn't asked to throw from a rollout at the combine; it's one of the idiosyncrasies of the combine process that there are throwing drills and footwork drills for quarterbacks, but the two concepts don't meet. Even in a prescribed setting, Mallett could put minds at ease if he can hit his receivers downfield when asked to hit the jets out of the pocket.
Another important aspect of the pro day experience is the time the teams spend with the draft prospects; it's why the teams who are able to spend more time with Newton and Mallett ask the hard questions that need to be asked. From there, it's back to the team facilities to turn on the game tape and either confirm or throw away what the pro days tell the people who are in charge of those all-important selections. And with the exceptions of private workouts at team facilities (which may not even exist this year if there's no new CBA in place by the time those workouts generally start in early April), these pro days are the last time teams have a direct line to the players who may very well be asked to take the reins into the future.
Of the two quarterbacks this year, Newton will have the most eyes on him -- his throwing session will be televised by the NFL Network and ESPN3.