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 Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, who you may have heard of. Let's skip the preamble and head right to the tape.
Pros: As advertised, Luck is the most pro-ready quarterback to hit the NFL since Peyton Manning came out of Tennessee. Not only does he possess all the physical characteristics required of the position, he also commands a freakish amount of the "little things" that make the greatest quarterbacks who they are. Luck reads defenses at a preternatural level - so well that notorious quarterback control freak Jim Harbaugh trusted him implicitly with that aspect of the game. His mobility, which is his most underrated asset, shows up in his ability to break out of a pass rush and bail for a first down, and his total command of the rollout game. As he showed during his Pro Day, Luck is refining his boot action repertoire so that it rivals anyone's in the NFL, and he's a great thrower on the move. Moreover, Luck displays an expert touch at timing his rollouts with the routes his receivers are running -- it sounds like a little thing until you see lesser quarterbacks try and do it, and look very uncoordinated as a result. Luck's combine athletic tests were on par with Cam Newton's, and while he doesn't quite flash Newton's explosive athleticism and power, he's going to be one of the better functionally athletic quarterbacks in the NFL.
Unlike most mobile collegiate quarterbacks, Luck also has it completely together in the pocket. He doesn't get flustered when he has defenders in his face, he'll stick in the pocket and take the hit to make the throw. Understands the multi-read game, play action, and play fakes. Did his thing in a more conservative offense than the spread-style stuff you so commonly see, and probably would have put up bigger numbers in other systems. Adjusts to receivers getting re-directed or otherwise out of their predetermined routes -- on three different occasions at his Pro Day, Luck adjusted as his receivers slipped on the turf, re-cocked, and made the completion. Can make stick throws to any level, but is especially conversant with the intermediate area -- anything from 8-15 yards from the line of scrimmage. Throws well across his body, even on the run. Can make 20-yard stick throws off his back foot -- even in weird positions, Luck's mechanics are so well-developed, he'll find a way to make it work. In football parlance, he "throws his receivers open" -- that is to say, he throws the ball with outstanding anticipation where his man, and not the defender, can catch it. Obvious film and gym rat with a ridiculous work ethic -- you simply can't get this good at this many things without working very, very hard.
Cons: Those who ding Luck for not having a "big-time arm" (take a bow, Phil Simms) have a point, but they're also missing a much larger point. Luck can't get the ball 40 yards downfield with a flick of the wrist like some quarterbacks can (Robert Griffin III possesses this rare ability), but those passes aren't what builds the modern NFL passing game. More and more, it's about quick reads, command of the playbook, and getting the ball out with timing and anticipation. Let Kyle Boller throw the ball 70 yards downfield from his knees. Andrew Luck will throw the ball 20 yards from a standing or running position with robotic consistency, and he'll kick your ass.
Oh, and he could do with a little help on the whole beard thing. He looks like Dinty Moore. Other than that, it's tough to find flaws.
Conclusion: The term "pro-ready" is misused with quarterbacks more often than it is misused with any other position. Any kid who takes the majority of snaps under center gets that designation, as do a lot of people who haven't played in pro-style offenses and just look the part. Andrew Luck is that rarest of all collegiate signal-callers -- he is actually pro-ready, and he's only going to get better. You've heard all the hype about the playbook acumen, the extraordinary discipline, the desire to get better and all that good stuff -- but to me, the most intriguing thing about Luck is that I don't believe he's hit his ceiling.
Luck didn't throw a lot of deep balls because that wasn't the way the offense was set up, and he didn't always have deep receivers. We've seen tons of quarterbacks come into the NFL, get a good look at a professional conditioning program, and see a major spike in their arm strength. Luck is already good enough to play in the pros, and he was probably good enough to do so the year before he became eligible for the NFL draft. In 2010, I compared him to the MVP-level version of Rich Gannon. When he got even better in 2011, I did something I've never done before -- compared him over and over to my second-favorite quarterback of all time (John Elway, another Stanford alum, still has the top spot).
To put it simply, Andrew Luck is an endangered American idea -- the overhyped entity who's actually as good as people say he is.
Pro Comparison: Steve Young, San Francisco 49ers
More Shutdown 50:
#3: Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama | #4: Morris Claborne, CB, LSU | #5: Matt Kalil, OT, USC | #6: Melvin Ingram, OLB/DE, South Carolina | #7: Fletcher Cox, DL, Mississippi State| #8: Michael Brockers, DL, LSU | #9: Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State | #10: David CeCastro, OG, Stanford | #11: Stephon Gilmore, OG, Stanford | #12: Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor | #13: Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama| #14: Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina| #15: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A & M| #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,