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Evaluating Draft Prospects 101: QBs

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Is Teddy Bridgewater the No. 1 quarterback prospect? Don't take our word for it; watch game film and determine for yourself what kind of NFL quarterback he'll be. Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images.
Is Teddy Bridgewater the No. 1 quarterback prospect? Don't take our word for it; watch game film and determine for yourself what kind of NFL quarterback he'll be. Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images.

Editor's Note: This week, we will launch a series of features designed to teach fans what to look for when watching game film and evaluating prospects at different positions. Through YouTube, DVRs, sites like Draftbreakdown.com and other digital technologies, fans have access to game broadcasts that they can utiize in ways similar to what scouts, coaches and GMs do with game film. It's important to see the intangible factors that unfold over the course of a game, to watch how players perform when they are under duress. Highlights provide a limited snapshot of talent and ability, and they often obscure the question marks and effort cues that NFL teams look for in the evaluation process. We will look at every position group between now and draft time and focus on some of the main things that scouts and GMs from the NFL look at in determining a prospect's draftability. Today, we focus on scouting QUARTERBACKS.

The drafting of a quarterback can make or break an NFL franchise.

The primary factor with most teams will be draft positioning and talent available. As you get into later rounds, factors such as the system of offense a team employs become more pertinent. Is it a West Coast or downfield attack? Are elements of the spread going to be a big part of the offense? Will the team operate from the line of scrimmage or in a no-huddle attack? Simply plugging in a QB with regard only to physical skills can be dangerous, (i.e. Jamarcus Russell).

When you are evaluating the quarterback prospects in the 2014 NFL Draft, these are the five factors you should look at: (the order of importance will be at the discretion of each drafting team.)

  1. Physical Attributes: Size, Athletic Ability, Speed
  2. Throwing ability: Includes Set Up/Mechanics, Arm Strength, Ability to get to the throwing point (drop back or on the move), Accuracy at all levels, Release, Timing, Touch
  3. Mental Awareness: Reading the defenders, Making decisions, Calling audibles, Awareness to avoid the rush and find throwing lanes.
  4. Leadership/Intangibles: Physically and mentally tough, do teammates have confidence in him?
  5. Production: Critical drives, Red Zone production, 4th quarter drives.

Physical Attributes

Some teams value size and speed more than others. The process traditionally has meant QBs needed to be 6-foot-3 to be able to see over an offensive line. The recent success of Drew Brees, Michael Vick and Russell Wilson, all of whom are 6-foot or shorter, has forced scouts and GMs to take a harder look at shorter prospects.

If a QB is not big structurally, then scouts will try and determine if he can take hits and is strong enough to bounce back from taking a shot. If he is short, scouts will determine how many balls are batted down at the L.O.S. Even tall QBs can be susceptible to this, so it’s not an assumption that can be taken lightly.

Athletic ability is valued from the standpoint of a quarterback's ability to get himself out of trouble in the pocket. Some QBs are nimble within the pocket and can avoid the rush. Dan Marino was great at this, though he may not have been looked at as athletic like Steve Young was. Some QBs can make big plays with their feet like Wilson, who scrambles to throw and will turn it upfield if his throw in not there. That's a different approach than someone like Robert Griffin III, who scrambles to run and takes chunks of yardage when its open.

It’s important to understand what scouts and GMs already know: Size and speed are not an indicator of athletic ability.

Throwing Ability

This may be the most scrutinized aspect of the quarterback evaluation process. Does the QB have an over-the-top release, or a three-quarters release? Has he worked under center or primarily from the shotgun?

Part of the mechanical aspect is predicated on the offensive scheme a prospect played in college. The setup in a spread passing attack is different than in a two-back pro-style attack. Some spread passing schemes are mostly quick or timing throws, where some attacks have more intricate pro-style route concepts. The comparisons of Geno Smith (spread at West Virginia) vs. Matt Barkley (pro-style at USC) fell along this line of evaluation. 

Another consideration is the ability to coach up these skills at the NFL level. Some players, if given the time to adapt, can be successful -- like Aaron Rodgers -- where other system QBs (such as Tim Couch) were not.

The importance of arm strength often depends on the offensive scheme employed. A west coast offense can utilize a quarterback with lesser arm strength than a vertical passing attack, which requires a stronger arm.

Arm strength is generally looked at as the need to make the tough throws across the field and into tight windows. One way to determine arm strength is to evaluate the flight of the ball: Does the ball tail off or start to “gyro” and wobble? Does it maintain a tight spiral? These are easy indicators of a strong arm to the naked eye.

The main question scouts want to ask is whether a quarterback is able to deliver the ball with accuracy and velocity. Can he deliver the ball under pressure and when he is unable to step into his throw? Accuracy is much more than throwing to a wide receiver and having him catch it. A critical part of the evaluation is the location of the ball for the receiver, does he have to work hard to make the catch or can the quarterback deliver a catchable ball in stride?

Scouts want to see if a quarterback has short- as well as long-throw accuracy. On deep balls, how much does the receiver have to adjust to the throw? Is he making the quarterback look good by catching an off-target pass? You can see this for yourself. Watch whether the wide receiver has to work to catch the ball or if the quarterback has allowed him to make the catch with ease.

Mental Awareness

This is the most subjective aspect of the evaluation process. What is the player's overall intelligence? Does he have vision of the field? Does he have poise under pressure? The decision-making skills of the quarterback are indications of his ability to read defenses, audible into plays and make quick decisions under pressure. 

One way in determining what a QB sees is how many times he throws a checkdown route -- that pass to the running back just beyond the L.O.S. fans get upset with because it was third-and-10 and the quarterback threw a 3-yard checkdown. Reality is he went through his primary reads, took what the defense gave him and hoped his back could make a play. It’s a good decision, certainly better than forcing a bad throw in an attempt to gain a first down. 

Many QBs are able to get up in the grease board during John Gruden’s QB camps, but when the bullets of the game are buzzing, it’s important to see how a player how is he performing, to observe his ability to adapt and adjust, and determine whether he can learn from his mistakes.

The tough part is that with the variety of offensive schemes at the college level the decision-making protocol for each offense is different. The timing in the pocket varies, the teaching of the reads differs. Scout and GMs need to determine whether they feel a QB can re-learn, in some cases, and adapt to a pro offense.

As an example, Jeff Tedford was a guru in developing QBs at the college level, though each of his QBs were products of a system different than what most NFL teams play. Tedford has coached six first-round quarterbacks over his career: Trent Dilfer, Fresno State (6th overall, 1994); Akili Smith Oregon (3rd overall 1999); David Carr, Fresno State (1st overall, 2002); Joey Harrington, Oregon (3rd overall, 2002); Kyle Boller, California (19th overall, 2003); Aaron Rodgers, Cal (24th overall, 2005). Only one of those players developed into a top-flight signal-caller in the NFL. Not because they did not have the ability, but each was thrust into the starting role before ever really adapting to a pro-style offense, which is different from what they learned under Tedford.

Quarterbacks also must have awareness in the pocket. The ability to see the rush, avoid pressure, and make accurate throws is arguably the most important aspect, but at times the least considered. It’s the QB’s knack to get himself out of trouble. It’s not the ability to run out of the pocket but the ability to side step, step up and make a throw. This aspect coincides with the set-up mechanics and arm strength, since the ability to throw the ball at various arm angles and on the run is a necessary skill in today'sNFL. Quarterbacks need to have the ability to make throws under duress since there are protection breakdowns that will need to be overcome.

Leadership/Intangibles

These attributes are considered differently across the NFL. The moxie, leadership, determination, toughness (both mental and physical) and the ability to motivate your teammates are attributes top quarterbacks possess, but they are not easily evaluated.

When you see an NFL QB who was not a first-round pick, the first thing that you hear about him are his intangibles. Teams are more willing to draft a QB on intangibles in later rounds than they are in the early rounds. Tom Brady and Russell Wilson did not have elite measurables but they had great intangibles.

Sometimes QBs who were part-time starters are diamonds in the rough while Heisman trophy winners fail to make a roster. How physically and mentally tough are these players? Do teammates have confidence in them? Each team will take a different look in determining the most sought-after traits, though this may be the one trait most overlooked when evaluating prospects. 

Production

These statistics are under constant scrutiny and are valued differently for each GM and franchise. The evaluation goes beyond yards, touchdowns and completion percentage. Certainly, that’s an important aspect of it, but those stats only tell part of the story.

NFL decision-makers want to know how the QB performs in big games. What is his Red Zone efficiency? What’s his fourth-quarter efficiency?

Quarterbacks are evaluated in their performances in big games. They are evaluated when the game is on the line or in attempting to lead a late comeback. Some players have a knack for bringing teams from behind. Joe Montana, John Elway and Brett Favre made their careers on comebacks.

Again, this is an evaluation that carries different weight with GMs and scouts based on the competition a quarterback has faced. Right or wrong, caliber of competition carries a lot of weight in the eyes of evaluators, and production numbers are adjusted accordingly.

The evaluation of the QB position can be a more subjective evaluation than other positions. The Raiders always held the physical abilities paramount during Al Davis’s tenure. Teams such as the Packers and Patriots have benefitted in cultivating the physical skills while harnessing the intangibles of their quarterbacks.

A team’s success is based largely on the ability to draft a quality QB. There are a lot of players who play the position, but there are not a lot of true No. 1 quarterbacks.