The NFL draft is a crapshoot at the best of times. and when ranking and evaluating the "easiest" of positions (whatever they may be). More than any other position, quarterback is the most difficult to assess. About once every five years, you get a scheme-transcendent quarterback, who could drop into any of 32 teams and succeed. Oklahoma's Sam Bradford is probably the last one to project that way, and it's safe to say that there is no quarterback in the 2011 draft class who will give what Bradford will give the Rams from a pure skill set perspective.
And that means one very simple thing — as much as it's about base attributes (both tangible and intangible), you have to point your scheme in the direction of your next franchise quarterback. This is especially true of those quarterbacks who come to the NFL with skills that pretty much maxed out in college — the ones who didn't have the rocket arm and ridiculous mobility to blow away college defenders. In cases like these, such players will have to prepare more, be more intelligent, and luck out enough to get in the right system. It's the toughest way to go, and for the guys who do make it in the NFL with relatively limited skills, it's a constant fight.
You would think that one fighter would recognize it in another, which leads us to the curious case of Trent Dilfer's quarterback evaluations.
Now, before we get into specifics, I want to make it very clear that I have a great deal of respect for Dilfer as a player and a person. He is a tough guy on and off the field who was drafted sixth overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1994, but really didn't live up to that grade. More than anything, Dilfer had to be a student of the game, a total grinder, and a mentor to younger quarterbacks to make it through 13 years in the league.
He was the "winning quarterback" on the Baltimore Ravens' only Super Bowl run, but that had about 10 million times more to do with the fact that in the year 2000, Ray Lewis probably had the greatest single season a linebacker ever had. In a nutshell, Dilfer is a good guy who loves football and used his toughness and intelligence to go beyond his innate physical abilities. It's only natural that he would see that in others and lead that way when picking his favorite draft-eligible quarterbacks, but there's such a thing as taking that bias too far.
Exhibit A: Before the 2010 draft, Dilfer suggested that not only was Bradford not the best player in the draft class, he wasn't the best or most ready to make an impact right away (he gave that honor to Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen, who was taken in the second round by the Carolina Panthers and just lost his job to Cam Newton after just one season). Nor was Bradford going to be the best quarterback in four years, according to Dilfer — that honor would go to Texas' Colt McCoy, who was selected in the third round by the Cleveland Browns and actually showed a lot more than Clausen did in his rookie year. But Bradford, who was taken first overall by the St. Louis Rams, was the slam-dunk unanimous Offensive Rookie of the Year despite injuries to just about every receiver on his roster.
Why was Bradford better? Because he didn't just have the freaky physical skill set — he also had the work ethic and intelligence of the less-talented quarterbacks, despite Dilfer's pre-draft assertion that Bradford hadn't been sufficiently "challenged" in college. And that's a terribly important lesson -- it's an enormous mistake to assume that just because a player has a skill set that puts him above the fray, it doens't mean that he doesn't work his butt off. But if you're looking at one type of guy, you may miss that.
Exhibit B: Dilfer's really interesting love for the quarterback potential of TCU's Andy Dalton. Very much like Clausen and McCoy, Dalton is a player with limitations that he will have to overcome with on-field toughness, off-field playbook work, and the right scheme. Selected by the Cincinnati Bengals in the second round, Dalton was Dilfer's pet before and through the draft — he bashed one of his old teams, the Seattle Seahawks, for not taking Dalton in the first round despite that fact that based purely on tape, Dalton looked like a prospect with anywhere from a second-round to fourth-round grade. After Dalton was selected, Dilfer basically intimated that the Bengals had won the draft, and he continued his promotion of the Dalton Ideal the day after the kid was drafted.
"Andy Dalton carried the burden of the TCU program," Dilfer said during ESPN's Sunday draft coverage. "The bright lights were on them every week — people wanting them to lose. And he didn't flinch — he never flinched his entire career. And the stories you heard from the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin — how it was like an NFL team against a 1-AA team — and he sits there and says, 'Bring it on!' And he ran that show all day long. And that tells me more than any workout in shorts, and how the ball spins."
Well, there's a bit of revisionist history there. As TCU rose up from underdog school to legitimate BCS, they were led by a defense that paced the NCAA in value and effectiveness for three straight seasons. Hmmm. A "winner" who was actually led by his defense. Sound familiar? TCU's home unis even look a bit like the ones Dilfer wore for the Ravens in that Super Bowl year. Dalton was unquestionably a good college quarterback who helped his team win, but there are issues. First, he played in a spread offense in which he frequently rolled right in part to cut the field in half and decrease the complexity of his reads.
Second, (and this is a comparison Dilfer has made), the comps to Drew Brees are pretty weird. They work on the surface because Brees isn't a big guy and he played in a pseudo-spread at Purdue, but if you watch Brees and Dalton make deep post and seam throws, you'd think they were playing different sports. Brees is perhaps the best deep seam thrower in the NFL today, and Dalton doesn't seem to have the arm to make those deep throws with the velocity that gets the ball to the receiver before the cornerback closes on the route.
And if that's evident in college, imagine what it will look like for Dalton in the NFL, where the windows are about 10 times smaller.
Again, this not intended to bash Dilfer or Dalton specifically — it's more to illustrate that when it comes to player evaluation, we all come to the table with our own biases. Dilfer seems to gravitate to the guys who would rate an "O" on the NFL's letter grade system -- a competitive overachiever who falls short in certain vital athletic areas. As veteran NFL personnel man Tony Softli once told me, "There is a place in the NFL for a player like this that is smart, aware, has good character, is tough and productive, but just lacks the athletic skill set."
However, it's also true that the best players in the personnel game are conversant with the entire alphabet. You have to be able to evaluate players who don't fit your "type", or your board is going to have more talent gaps than any other, and you probably won't have a job for very long.
Dilfer isn't responsible for such things — his job is to analyze the game in an overall sense, not to break things down for a particular team. But for anyone watching tape and trying to understand what's important, it's a good idea to take yourself out of your own comfort zone as much as possible. Fixating on types isn't a good idea, no matter why you're watching that tape.