With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Right up to the draft, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Texas A & M quarterback Ryan Tannehill, seen by most evaluators as the next man up behind Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III at the quarterback position in the 2012 draft class. However, Luck and RGIII didn't have to start their collegiate careers as a receiver like Tannehill did -- the Aggies took the Big Spring High School quarterback and made him a pass-catcher for his first two years. When Jerrod Johnson struggled in 2010, the move was finally made, and Tannehill was able to establish some pretty interesting records -- not only did he set single-season school marks for yards (3,744), attempts (531) and completions (327) in 2011, he's the only player in FBS history to post a 400-yard passing game and 200-yard receiving game ... AND the only player in FBS history to total more than 4,000 passing yards and 1,500 receiving yards in a career.
That's all well and good, but what happens when you stick the kid in the NFL soup? When a quarterback has just 19 starts at the collegiate level, and that lack of experience shows up pretty glaringly on tape, it's a bit tougher to separate the tools that will allow him to succeed from the mistakes that could doom him against better defenses if he's not handled the right way. In every draft, there are safe picks, and there are boom-and-bust risks. Ryan Tannehill, through no fault of his own, is very much the latter.
Pros: Tannehill's athleticism shows up on just about every play -- he's agile in the pocket and has great escapability. Not a bailout thrower by any means; he'll stand in the pocket, step up, or roll right before just tanking the pass play and running out of trouble. Has no seeming loss of accuracy whether rolling left or right; most of his sailing throws seem to be a function of mechanics. Well-versed in boot-action concepts and the short passing game; Tannehill would seem to be a natural fit in any West Coast offense as a result, especially in one where play-action is a strong aspect (Houston) or there's heavy shotgun (Philadelphia). Primarily a shotgun quarterback, but Tannehill can run a game from under center. He's a little edgy in his dropback at times, but he's better at this part of the game than some people think.
Has a nice play-fake that he'll most often use to freeze defenders before taking off from the pocket on designed run plays. Resourceful, tough player who will flash out of multiple offensive concepts and formations. Legitimate receiver at the college level, but he always attended quarterback meetings until he finally got a shot. Team leader; teammates respect and gravitate toward him. Coached in NFL concepts by Mike Sherman, former Green Bay Packers head coach and current Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator. Not a default spread-offense washout; there 's enough to see of an embryonic pro skill set to believe that Tannehill will eventually succeed in the right NFL situation. Missed the combine due to a foot injury, but looked great at his Pro Day. Has been working with performance coach Chris Weinke, who facilitated mechanical fixes for Cam Newton and Christian Ponder last year.
Cons: Heavy first-read thrower who locks onto the primary target far too often; Tannehill will need to learn the art of the head fake and he does not possess what Ron Jaworski calls "EYE DISCIPLINE!" While he's a better thrower on the run than in the pocket, the sideline routes that tend to be the mobile quarterback's best friend can be a real adventure with Tannehill at times -- he'll sail throws wild high for no apparent reason even when he doesn't have people in his face.
Will throw from different arm angles and slots, and not always to his own benefit. Throws with a lot of sidearm and three-quarter delivery stuff that works for Philip Rivers and few others at the NFL level -- he doesn't have the consistency throwing to all areas to make an idiosyncratic delivery work for him at this point. Has the arm to make all the throws, but occasionally struggles with anticipation on deeper throws -- at times, he'll flat-out miss the target. Tends to "finesse" intermediate throws; doesn't seem to have an understanding of his own velocity and the ability to time it in conjunction with the route tree. Doesn't yet have the ability to adjust when receivers are re-routed by coverage.
Conclusion: When you're evaluating a quarterback prospect with a low college start count, you have to decide what your goal is. Is it to encapsulate his collegiate career, or to project what he will be able to do in the NFL, and what will most likely be coached out of him in a big hurry? With Tannehill, the hype outstrips the actual performance because NFL evaluators are trained to look more at what the player can be than what he is now. In that sense, his raw physical tools -- athleticism, arm strength, toughness, and the ability to run a nebulous offense -- are seen more than the inevitable effects of inexperience.
Had Tannehill played quarterback throughout his time at Texas A & M, many of the things you see on tape would have been ironed out by now -- you'd see a more refined sideline shot and backdoor fade, the play selection wouldn't have been so limited, and there would be a better overall body of work to see and project. In a way, Tannehill's lack of experience is an advantage -- in an NFL more desperate for elite starting quarterbacks than ever before, teams will see Tannehill as high-class raw clay that can be used to mold the ideal signal-caller. All the basic traits are there -- by all accounts, Tannehill is a tough, team-first, real football player with great physical attributes.
Like Locker, who one former (and fortunately deposed) Washington coaching staff wanted to move to safety at one point, Tannehill would be best served biding his time and learning the NFL behind a veteran. If he goes to Cleveland or Miami with the fourth or eighth picks, and the "veterans" in front of him are Colt McCoy or Matt Moore, that prospect becomes much more dicey. If a team meets Tannehill halfway with the playbook as the Carolina Panthers did with Cam Newton and the Denver Broncos did with Tim Tebow, maybe there's a chance for some first-year fireworks.
Make no mistake -- Ryan Tannehill is a top-10 prospect in the NFL because what he could be, not what he has done. Even at a position where you're a batting champion if you're guessing half-right, that's a pretty risky way to go.
Pro Comparison: Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans
More Shutdown 50:
#16: Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College | #17: Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame | #18: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama | #19: Mark Barron, S, Alabama | #20: Cordy Glenn, OL, Georgia | #21: Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa | #22: Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford| #23: Devon Still, DT, Penn State | #24: Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama| #25: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State| #26: Nick Perry, DE, USC| #27: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska | #28: Dontari Poe, DT/DE, Memphis | #29: Whitney Mercilus, OLB/DE, Illinois | #30: Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson| #31, Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson| #32: Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford| #33: Bobby Massie, OT, Mississippi| #34: Andre Branch, DE/OLB, Clemson | #35: Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama | #36: Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse| #37: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech| #38: Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall| #39: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State | #40 : Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers| #41: Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina| #42: Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska| #43: Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska| #44: Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina | #45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State| #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia| #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami| #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State| #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU | #50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy