NFL draft: Andrew Luck, Justin Herbert and suspicion over prospects' book smarts

I woke up Sunday, as I suspect many did, still trying to process the Andrew Luck news.

And in an effort to examine the story from an NFL scouting lens, I thought back to something I read a few days earlier — a story that I thought then had nothing to do with Luck — and wondered if there might be a connection.

I hope there isn’t. But the NFL has a way of conflating players’ personalities, intelligence and interests that made me fear it’s inevitable on some level.

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Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel was the common thread here. He wrote an enlightening piece about the Luck he knew — the erudite, unlikely star who stayed at Stanford an extra year, despite the NFL’s clarion call as an eventually first-overall pick. It brought me back to the story Thamel wrote a few days earlier about another quarterback with rare gifts and academic interests.

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Oregon’s Justin Herbert might not be the NFL’s next Luck-level, can’t-miss prospect. But it also wouldn’t be shocking if he ascends to that level as a player with a strong senior season. All the traits of stardom have been on display, with consistency (along with some unsure-handed receivers) the biggest thing holding him back.

Herbert is rated as our 2020 NFL draft QB1 entering the season, just a tick ahead of Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. Others will enter that mix. It could be a fairly bountiful crop at the position next spring. Let the parsing begin this Saturday.

Will Oregon QB Justin Herbert be knocked by portions of the NFL for his academic interests? (Getty Images)
Will Oregon QB Justin Herbert be knocked by portions of the NFL for his academic interests? (Getty Images)

How Justin Herbert might be labeled next year

It’s hard not to look at Herbert, who took Biology 212 (touted as “one of the hardest classes on campus”) this year over leaving early for the NFL, and see how he might be viewed differently — and now through a post-Luck lens — during the run-up to the 2020 draft.

Especially after fighting through a broken collarbone and a shoulder injury the past two seasons. What happens if he gets hurt again in a significant way this season?

No, NFL scouts will not hate Herbert because he’s book smart. That’s far too ham-handed a suggestion. Saying Luck is smart and Herbert is smart, and Luck retired early, ergo so will Herbert ... well, that’s about the most linearly flawed logic imaginable. Talent tends to trump everything in the end more often than not, or at least it should in cases such as these.

But viewing Herbert as the dreaded smart player with outside interests is a very realizable fate. And though that reputation could cost him as little as a single draft slot, that might be the kind of ridiculous tiebreaker that could haunt a franchise for decades. Imagine the Bengals or Dolphins or whomever passing on a potential franchise QB for fears he might one day prefer to split an atom for spits and giggles.

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It’s not that NFL scouts don’t value intelligence in prospects, especially in quarterbacks. But it’s not a stretch to suggest that they want the right kind of smarts, the type that come with obsessing over breaking down defensive schemes and making lightning-fast decisions. Intelligence outside of that sphere is cast with doubt in some decision makers’ minds.

I ran this theory past a senior-level NFL scout and former GM. Was I nuts to fear this happening?

“I wouldn’t say [Herbert’s intelligence] a bad thing,” the scout said. “It is something to delve into deeper to find out how committed [and] dedicated he is to football — one piece of a complex puzzle.

“But when you are a future top QB, everything will be scrutinized and picked apart.”

Touted as a can’t-miss prospect, Luck wasn’t really subjected to that level of scrutiny coming out in 2012, even in a semi-manufactured Pepsi Challenge with eventual No. 2 overall pick RG3. But we’ll be hearing plenty about the scholastic Herbert with the predictable level of suspicion about what that says of his NFL future. As if someone who likes tough bio classes can’t also love and be devoted to making football his first vocation.

You laugh now. But you know it’s coming.

Josh Rosen is a good recent comp

This was a fate Josh Rosen suffered coming out of UCLA. As Thamel reminded me smartly via text this week, “Every situation is different.” He’s absolutely right about that: Herbert is not Luck, and the 2020 NFL draft won’t be a replica of the 2012 draft. But it didn’t take long for the pre-draft vultures to swarm around Rosen and his elevated levels of intelligence, and that was before Luck announced his retirement.

Yeah, that was a fun cycle to endure.

Rosen slipped to the 10th pick in the draft, but he was the fourth QB taken. We sized up Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Rosen and, to a lesser extent, Lamar Jackson for months. Weighed their football strengths. Assessed their temperaments and characters. Weighed each of their “football guy” quotients endlessly. Tried to quantify their desire and toughness. Rosen — the son of Ivy-educated, successful parents — spoke openly about politics, his desire to earn his MBA and his goal to “own the world.” Some NFL folks didn’t think that fit their world to a tee.

Josh Rosen was actually knocked for his intelligence and for his outside interests in some corners of NFL. (Getty Images)
Josh Rosen was actually knocked for his intelligence and for his outside interests in some corners of NFL. (Getty Images)

Sure, Rosen ended up the 10th pick in the entire draft. But nearly half a dozen QB-needy teams passed on him for others. And the team that took him, the Arizona Cardinals, already has dealt him for quarters on the dollar. Even amid unique circumstances that prompted the deal, it was eye-opening and very rare when you scan decades of NFL transactions.

Perhaps the pre-draft suspicion on Rosen the player proves to be accurate. He’s currently battling for the Dolphins’ starting job, and it might be years before we know how good he can be. But the pre-draft psychoanalysis always felt unfair and misguided. After all, the player he’s competing with for the starting job now is the Harvard-educated Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is entering his 17th NFL season. Intelligence does not always equate to athletic apathy.

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Rosen’s comments on Luck this week struck a proper balance of reverence for Luck’s intelligence, skill and also the heavy-lies-the-crown decision he was forced to address, likely far sooner in his career than he imagined.

“That was a tough one. Personally, I loved Andrew Luck,” Rosen said. “Growing up, that was my guy. Going to Stanford, and I looked up to him as an architectural engineer — a really smart guy, did everything right. And I was a Peyton [Manning] fan coming out as well, so to see sort of Andrew follow in his shoes was pretty cool.

“... Maybe once it all officially settles down, I’d like to give some more thoughtful comments. But [Luck is] probably one of my favorite players, and I was really bummed that he felt so tortured inside as to where that he needed to leave the game in order for those demons to go away.

“I hope he’s OK. I hope he’s with some good people, some good family. It’s tough for the game of football and him.”

Football, injuries and love lost

Luck loved football before injuries robbed him of football’s joy. The same, though, could be said of Rob Gronkowski, whose dewy-eyed news conference on Tuesday hit on the same themes as Luck’s talk on Saturday did. Certainly, no one is going to call Gronk soft — or, fair or not, view him as some millennial distracted by some higher intellectual calling.

It’s fair to say that if scouts roundly conclude that Herbert isn’t passionate about football, it should be a red flag for NFL teams. That applies to any prospect, and we’re in an era now when early retirements are becoming commonplace. Teams always choose the guy who — all else being equal — will display a willingness to sacrifice himself for them.

It's not a wild stretch to suggest that Andrew Luck's early retirement could have an effect on how scouts view other highly intelligent QB prospects. (Getty Images)
It's not a wild stretch to suggest that Andrew Luck's early retirement could have an effect on how scouts view other highly intelligent QB prospects. (Getty Images)

The problem here is separating football DNA from the unknown. Wasn’t Gronk the ultimate football guy? What about Patrick Willis and Chris Borland? Arguing that Luck wasn’t devoted three years ago when he was urinating blood the day after a game would have gotten you laughed out of the room.

Circumstances change. Damage often is cumulative. The mind — scholarly and spartan ones alike — can handle only so much. Each case, as Thamel said, is different.

But assuming that fellow brainiacs Rosen or Herbert might be more prone to follow Luck’s path to an early retirement is the kind of vaporware futurism that needs to be scrubbed from scouting. Scientists will tell you that you don’t go into conducting an experiment with a specific outcome expected. That’s tainted methodology.

Maybe Herbert truly loves football. Maybe he doesn’t. It will take diligent, unbiased work to determine that. No arguments here: Figuring out the person is far tougher (and maybe just as important, if not more) for scouts than it is for them to assess the talent. We heard that time and time again from NFL talent evaluators in our “Why They Got Into Scouting” series this summer.

All we ask is that Herbert, along with any other prospects for whom education is important, is given a fair shake in his pursuit of his football dreams.

But it’s inevitable. If this has happened before Luck’s announcement, it almost certainly will occur after it.

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