The question for the congregation: Has the quarterback position in the NFL changed enough to impact the 2014 draft?
Most people's initial reaction is, yes, it has.
The two best teams in the NFL, the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers, each have quarterbacks that are associated with running, both by design and improvisation. Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick almost always feature a spectacular component to their games, often happening on third down. You constantly hear and read that the ability to extend plays and break down defensive discipline is now critical for NFL quarterbacks. It seems like a logical conclusion to draw from the evidence presented and the nature of the public discourse.
There's consistent talk from analysts about the pocket quarterback, the one who can't make plays with his feet, being phased out of the NFL by the speed and complexity of evolving defenses. It's the primary reason that Johnny Manziel is viewed by many as a high first-round selection. If you did not believe the quarterback position was changing, would you consider that a 5-foot-11¾, 205-pound player without top pocket skills would be in that discussion? Would Manziel have been in the conversation three years ago?
Are NFL teams, as they evaluate quarterbacks, currently disregarding players with the skills of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco? Everyone seems to suggest that you must create and improvise outside of structure, yet they will argue vehemently that you must be able to win from the pocket to be a consistent NFL quarterback. It presents a fascinating dichotomy.
There has always been a belief that quarterbacks who can throw well, and run and improvise are dual threats. That has rarely happened because playing quarterback from the pocket at a high level demands the mastery of many subtle traits that require constant repetition and laser-focused discipline. Traits like: dropping straight back on the midline to maximize pass protection, processing information before and after the snap, sensing movements within the pocket that can help defeat pressure and create completions, and exercising great anticipation skills that come from instant coverage recognition.
More often than not, quarterbacks who can beat you with their legs never had to grasp the nuanced details of pocket play. They could always trust their movement to make plays.
How many guys can do both at a high level? Those kinds of quarterbacks don't just drop out of the sky. Andrew Luck may well be the closest to that duality. He and Aaron Rodgers both can make plays outside the confines of the pocket, but their movement is not the first thing you think of; it's their throwing ability. They are pocket passers first and foremost, capable of using their legs when needed. (Cam Newton is the wild card, a physical freak with outstanding size and movement, still learning how to play consistently from the pocket as evidenced by missing too many routine throws with erratic ball placement.)
What's the balance as you assess NFL quarterback play, and by extension, the college players in the draft? Do you sacrifice pocket attributes in favor of movement and the concurrent ability to beat defenses by extending plays? Or do you believe that pocket skills still must be the starting point when evaluating what it takes to play on Sundays? That brings us back to where we started: are pocket passers not thought of as highly by decision makers? Will teams not draft pocket quarterbacks because they believe that player will be more of a detriment than an advantage? To simplify the conversation: Would NFL organizations rather have Matt Ryan or Colin Kaepernick?
This leads to two of the most intriguing quarterbacks in this year's draft: Zach Mettenberger and Tom Savage. Both are prototypical in the more traditional sense. Mettenberger is 6-foot-5, 224 pounds; Savage 6-4, 228. If you believe that the foundation for NFL quarterback play remains the pocket, then you will feel good about Mettenberger and Savage as they transition to the NFL. They are pocket quarterbacks with strong arms, each of whom can make any throw with minimal effort. When you watch play after play, game after game, you see throws that other quarterbacks, ones with lesser arms, can't make. In addition, they both ran NFL passing games with the requisite routes and reading progressions. Mettenberger's offensive coordinator at LSU was Cam Cameron, veteran of 14 NFL seasons as a quarterbacks coach, offensive coordinator and head coach.
Both Mettenberger and Savage exhibited the instincts of quality pocket quarterbacks: timing, anticipation, aggressiveness and toughness. Both showed the innate willingness to stand in the pocket in the face of pressure and deliver the ball. That's an attribute of pocket play that you don't see often from more mobile quarterbacks; they are much more reactive to pressure, both real and perceived. Again, the tradeoff: the Mettenbergers and Savages complete some passes others don't because they wait that extra beat; more athletic movers leave that throw on the field, but then might make a play leaving the pocket.
Structure versus improvisation. Which leads to more consistent execution over time?
Maybe that's not the question anymore. Maybe it's about making a few individual plays that change games. As long as you're not turning it over (and there's no better example than Wilson, who seemingly refuses to throw an interception) is consistent execution still the objective? Will the attributes and traits we have emphasized for years no longer be the ones that we focus on going forward? This may be the draft that answers that question, so don't be surprised if Mettenberger and Savage are both gone by the middle of the second round.