Greg Cosell's NFL Preview: Breaking down the rookie quarterbacks

Greg Cosell
Greg Cosell's NFL Preview: Breaking down the rookie quarterbacks

The NFL regular season officially kicks off on Thursday when Green Bay travels to Seattle to take on the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks. Shutdown Corner will be previewing everything to come all week, capped off by our awards and Super Bowl predictions on Thursday. 

Let’s start our look at some notable rookie quarterbacks with Cleveland’s Johnny Manziel because he’ll be a seminal player in many minds. That’s because he’s a classic example for the question: What is the quarterback position in the NFL right now?

When quarterbacks who played in spread offenses in college like Manziel did at Texas A&M, they have almost no understanding of pocket play – three-step drops, five- and seven-step drops, the play-action passing game. And in the NFL the routes time up with the drops. Spread quarterbacks have no grasp of that, and it’s not their fault. They weren't asked to do that in college. And the more a spread quarterback was a runner in college, the more the issue is exacerbated because they tend to rely on their legs. Those quarterbacks usually perceive pressure and react to jersey color more than pocket quarterbacks.

You can do some things to take advantage of a quarterback’s mobility, but what’s an acceptable level of pocket play in order to play quarterback at a reasonably high level in the NFL?

At this point Manziel is solely a movement player, with read-option concepts and play-action bootlegs. There is no sense of timing and rhythm to Manziel’s play in the pocket; it’s random and arbitrary. There was a great example of how this affects the Browns in the fourth preseason game against Chicago.

On the second play of the third quarter, the Browns ran a deep corner/crossing route combination against a Bears defense with eight in the box and a single safety deep. And that’s "Route Concepts 101," a basic concept to beat that defense. Because this was the second play after halftime, it’s a good bet they talked about it at halftime, anticipated the coverage and called the play to beat it. The crossing route was wide open with Manziel in a clean pocket, but he stayed on the deep route too long then broke down in the pocket. He ran around and made a late and inaccurate check down to the fullback for an incompletion.

How do you feel if you’re Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan? You called the right play against the coverage and it didn’t get executed. As a coach, how do you structure an offense when you can’t anticipate free-wheeling and random plays? How do you game plan? How do you practice? You’re a coach working 16, 17 hours a day studying tendencies and putting a game plan together. What level of confidence can you have that the plan will be executed?

Manziel has good speed, but it's not great like Michael Vick. He has good short-area quickness and maneuverability. And he has better than average arm strength, but not a really big arm. And now we’re back to the subtleties of playing quarterback. There are mechanics, balance and footwork. He doesn’t have any of those when he plays. And it’s not his fault, or unexpected, because it’s all new to him. But he doesn’t play in the confines of the offensive structure at this point. Will that change? Nobody knows. It’s too soon. But he’s got a long way to go.

Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles

Bortles is a big physical kid and I thought in the preseason he did everything he was asked. He understood everything the Jacksonville Jaguars wanted him to do.

He’s a little bit of a quirky thrower but he does have good arm strength. He’s not in the Joe Flacco/Matthew Stafford category, but he can throw it. You saw that on a 57-yard touchdown to Marqise Lee last week.

He was actually way late on that throw – he should have hit Lee sooner. But he waited and then he threw downfield flat-footed with people around him. And he got it there.

NFL people will say that a quarterback needs to make throws when his lower body is not involved because of people around him in the pocket. And that throw by Bortles to Lee was all from the waist up.

Through the preseason, Bortles showed mental ability to recognize coverage before the snap, audible and make the right throw to the right receiver. He worked effectively out of a muddied pocket, standing tall and strong. He showed the ability to avoid the rush and reset with both movement and strength. Now, I have no problem with what the Jaguars are doing, starting Chad Henne to start the season. Theoretically no rookie quarterback is ready to play Week 1 but there’s nothing not to like based on what Bortles did in the preseason.

Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater

Bridgewater is refined and advanced in the subtleties of the position. He’s got a good sense of progression reading because he played a pro-style offense at Louisville. So Bridgewater gets all that.

I don’t know if the physical gifts are enough to be more than a mid-level quarterback. The ball doesn’t come out with a lot of juice, especially on intermediate routes, which are a staple of Vikings coordinator Norv Turner’s offense. I’m going to be interested to see the throws he can make when his lower body can’t get into it. He flicks the ball more than he drives it. But he has the instincts of a pocket quarterback.

Bridgewater is along the lines of an Andy Dalton. Does a franchise need a superstar QB to win a Super Bowl? That’s the question in this era. I don’t see Bridgewater as one of those kinds of guys, though that doesn’t mean he can’t be a quality starter.

Oakland’s Derek Carr

Carr had choppy footwork at the start of the preseason (he came from a spread offense at Fresno State) but I think it got better. That leads me to believe he’s a player who, just looking at the tape and not being there, looks as if he is being coached well and is receptive to it. And he’s way better with people around him in the pocket than I thought he’d be. That was the knock on him coming out of college.

He showed that on a 27-yard pass to Mychal Rivera in last week’s game against Seattle. It was designed to be a three-step drop timing throw, but the defense took that away. So Carr navigated the pocket, kept a downfield focus and had a good aggressive throw with good ball location. That’s NFL quarterbacking.

Carr, who will start in Week 1 vs. the New York Jets, has a snap, compact delivery on short to intermediate throws, and has excellent velocity. He has very quick feet on rollouts and an aggressive mentality. And on a 36-yard touchdown to Denarius Moore against Seattle he also showed understanding of coverages, then patience and poise. He knew what he had pre-snap and delivered the ball with touch and accuracy.

Tennessee’s Zach Mettenberger

I liked Mettenberger coming out of a college, and he looked good this preseason (he led the NFL with 659 passing yards).

Mettenberger will always throw balls that should be thrown. If you know the route combinations against certain coverages, and if you know where the ball should go in those situations, then you know Mettenberger throws the ball where it should go. It comes out in the proper timing and rhythm of the play. You rarely watch Mettenberger and say, “The ball should have come out there and didn’t.”

And he’s good against pressure in the pocket, feeling it but not seeing it, so he’ll wait and make throws that runners wouldn’t. And he has shown great anticipation. In the second preseason game he threw a 64-yard touchdown to Justin Hunter, and if you look at the moment he started to pull the trigger you’d say, “Who’s he throwing to?” But he knew where to go with the ball. He was decisive with his reads and throws, which he showed all preseason. That’s what it takes to play in this league. At some point in the NFL you’re going to have to make throws.

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NFL analyst and NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell watches as much NFL game film as anyone. Throughout the season, Cosell will join Shutdown Corner to share his observations on the teams, schemes and personnel from around the league.