We are told every year at this time, as if it's gospel, that NFL teams will draft quarterbacks early in the first round due to the transcendent value of the position. The reasoning being that if you hit the right one, you become an annual playoff and Super Bowl contender. Weaknesses throughout the rest of your roster can be camouflaged, your margin of error greater simply because of the quarterback.
In the 2013 NFL draft, that "platitude" did not hold. Only one quarterback (EJ Manuel) was chosen in the first round. The Bills traded up to take him at No. 16, marking the first time since 2001 that just one first-round passer was taken. That year Michael Vick was selected No. 1 overall (Drew Brees was the first pick of the second round). As recently as 2011, four quarterbacks were among the top 12 picks. Only one – Cam Newton – is an established starter (the other three were Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder).
Is there anything to ascertain from the 2013 draft, or was that an anomaly, a universal recognition in a given year that the quarterback class was subpar? And if so, what's one to make of the 2013 season in which the two best teams in the league – Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and division rival San Francisco 49ers – were quarterbacked by a third-round pick and a second-rounder, respectively. What impact will this have on the upcoming draft, if any?
You can make the easy argument that four of the top eight teams in this year's draft need a quarterback. Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings are the four, with the Tennessee Titans the wild card at pick No. 11, with a new coaching staff that may not feel that Locker is the answer. Are there four or five quarterbacks that will be evaluated as top 10-12 picks in this draft once teams finish putting together their boards? The answer is an unequivocal no.
I've already written about Johnny Manziel, so let's focus on Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles, two of the names that have been featured in many mock drafts as top 10 picks. Many in the media pegged Bridgewater as the consensus best quarterback as the college bowl season ended in early January. The phrase "most NFL ready" was often attached to his name. However, Bridgewater's high standing seems to have changed over the past few weeks. The reason is the nature of the process, not the meaningless concept of "rising" and "falling" that permeates the airwaves. Keep in mind that for the majority of NFL coaches, the NFL scouting combine in late February is their initial introduction to college players. It's often the first time they see them. Then, they start evaluating the film in depth, and draw conclusions based on comparative study and research.
They saw a number of attributes that transition well to the NFL, beginning with his relative poise and composure. Bridgewater was a comfortable player at Louisville. He never looked hurried or played too fast. He played with a rhythm and tempo that all quarterbacks will tell you is essential to consistent execution. They saw an offense that featured NFL route concepts and reading progressions, and a quarterback who had an excellent understanding of those concepts and progressions within the context of the coverage. The result was Bridgewater being decisive with his reads and throws.
Overall, NFL coaches saw the instincts of a pocket quarterback. Bridgewater played with discipline and patience in the cradle, with the innate willingness to stand and deliver in the face of pressure. That's critical for a pocket quarterback in the NFL. Bridgewater also showed the kind of subtle pocket movement that he must have at only 6-foot-2, with the need to find throwing lanes far more imperative. He was a fluid pocket mover who kept his eyes downfield, maintaining vision and focus.
Bridgewater will be a pocket player in the NFL, but he gives an offense the play-action boot pass game, and the movement when necessary to extend and create first downs, especially against man-to-man coverage.
Perhaps most impressive when studying Bridgewater, coaches saw a quarterback who was asked to do a lot at the line of scrimmage before the snap of the ball. He understood fronts and coverages, and where to go with the ball quickly versus the blitz. And he picked up his drop tempo when he read blitz, a subtle nuance of quarterback play. Bridgewater was a refined college quarterback running an NFL offense, and that certainly projects well to the Sunday game.
The issue, and it will be a defining one for many NFL coaches, is how Bridgewater threw the ball. He was a short-armer without the needed ability to drive the ball. He was a soft-tosser who threw the ball effectively in the short to intermediate areas inside the numbers, but struggled to make the more difficult throws outside the numbers. And he did not throw the deep ball well at all. He had to put a lot of body into those throws; as a result, he struggled with trajectory and accuracy. Bridgewater's throwing limitations were not a function of arm strength; they were more a result of his natural throwing motion. It was the reason many of his throws fell apart as they gained distance, and lost energy on the back end. Bridgewater doesn't spin it very well; too many passes came out wobbly. If you don't think that's a concern for NFL coaches, then you are not watching the NFL.
Let's turn to Bortles, a far more prototypical prospect at 6-5, 232 pounds. Make no mistake: size is an attribute for an NFL quarterback (if Manuel was 6-2, 205 pounds as opposed to almost 6-5 and 237 pounds, he would not have been a first-round pick). Bortles also showed many positives in his game at Central Florida. Like Bridgewater, he exhibited the comfortable instincts of a pocket quarterback with the ability to slide and move, reset and deliver, all while keeping a calm helmet and his focus downfield. There were times Bortles shed pass rushers with his big body, and then located receivers. Some have made the comparison to Ben Roethlisberger; it's not a reach, but Roethlisberger plays bigger and stronger than Bortles (and did so from the moment he came into the league), and as we'll get into shortly, Big Ben is just a better thrower in all areas.
Bortles has extensive experience with the read-option game, which stresses defenses and at times presents more defined reads and cleaner throws. He gives you movement and mobility in all areas: the run game, the ability to extend plays outside of structure and the designed boot-action pass game. He's not an explosive athlete, but he's efficient throwing on the run. But in the final analysis, Bortles will succeed or fall short based on his ability to execute and throw from the pocket; he's a pocket quarterback first and foremost as he transitions to the NFL.
That's the biggest concern for NFL coaches. Bortles is what we call a gripper – he squeezes the ball very hard as he works his delivery. It's difficult to turn it loose and rip the ball when you do that. Therefore, Bortles tends to push the ball rather than snap it and drive it. It shows up on throws that demand either velocity or distance, or both, and it is readily apparent on his deep balls. They hang in the air, and seemingly hit a wall the farther they get. There were far too many vertical throws in which his receiver had meaningful clearance from the defender, and Bortles significantly underthrew him. Some were complete, but that is not likely to happen in the NFL with better corners and safeties. The problem is exacerbated in cold weather.
Study the SMU game late in the season, in Dallas. It was 24 degrees, with the wind at 12 mph. Bortles had problems throwing the ball that day. It's something you must carefully evaluate if you're the Cleveland Browns or Minnesota Vikings (the Vikings will play the next two years outside at the University of Minnesota); not only their home games, but their divisional road opponents as well, which include cold weather cities like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago and Green Bay.
Many have pointed to Bortles' inconsistencies with his lower body mechanics as the reason for his seeming inability to drive the ball. There are two schools of thought. The first focuses on the concept of sequencing, beginning with your legs, and working through to your hips, then your shoulders, and finally your arm. That approach postulates that if you fire the first three in proper sequence, your arm will follow, and the ball will come out with velocity. The second philosophy stipulates that throwing starts with your arm position, your hands and your shoulders. If you're fundamentally proficient in those areas, your hips and legs will automatically snap forward, giving you the necessary torque and weight transfer that is required to spin it. When you hear the phrase "he can sit on his back foot and drive the ball," it's the result of the shoulders, hands and arm being the main triggers, not the lower body.
Bortles will improve his lower body mechanics with more coaching and more refinement. The larger question is whether he can alter the way he grips the ball; if that does not change, he will continue to struggle to make the throws that demand velocity and distance. In the NFL, you do not get many opportunities in a given game to hit deep balls; you can't miss those throws if you expect to be a top quarterback.
Bortles and Bridgewater: two prospects (that's the operative word) who present some positives, but will need to become better throwers to play the position at a high level in the NFL. Will they be high first-round picks in the 204 draft? My sense is Bortles has a much better chance than Bridgewater.