Ranking The Quarterbacks
It is not enough to need a quarterback. In order to justify drafting one in the first round -- especially with a high pick -- you have to find the right one. Because you are going to be married to that pick for the rest of your career.
The question heading into the 2014 NFL Draft is, Who is going to flinch first?
In truth, there really are only two teams who need to draft a quarterback with an eye toward having him start on Opening Day: Houston and Cleveland. The Browns have two of the first 26 picks in the draft (No. 4 & 26), the Texans two of the first 33 (No. 1 & 33); it's safe to bet that they will each pick a quarterback in one of their first two trips on the clock.
But that doesn't mean they need to take one with their first selection. If neither team has a quarterback with a top-5 grade, then the more responsible move would be to pass on the passer the first time around and take one with their respective second picks.
If Houston and Cleveland don't jump first, who might?
There are several teams positioned to start the season with a veteran quarterback, but who clearly need to come away with someone who could be developed into the future franchise QB. Jacksonville (No. 3) has Chad Henne, Oakland (No. 5) has Matt Schaub, Minnesota (No. 8) has Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel. Tampa Bay and Tennessee both have young quarterbacks (Mike Glennon and Jake Locker, respectively) and might not feel an immediate need to take a quarterback, certainly not with their top-10 pick.
Then there's Cincinnati, who has Andy Dalton -- one of only three quarterbacks in NFL history to throw for more than 3,000 yards in each of his first three seasons (Peyton Manning and Cam Newton are the other two). Dalton played well enough in the regular season to lead the Bengals to three straight playoff appearances, and he's played so poorly in three straight playoff appearances to worry Cincinnati fans that he might not be the winner they want.
And, of course, there's Denver, New England, New Orleans and Arizona. Manning is 38 years old. Tom Brady will be 37 when the 2014 season starts. Drew Brees turned 35 in January. And Carson Palmer, 34, is the baby of the group. Right now, there are backups in place. But if their teams weren't sold on the long-term prospects of Brock Osweiler, Ryan Mallett, Luke McCown (who is only 2.5 years younger than Brees) and Drew Stanton, then this could be the draft when they look to the future.
There is no shortage of projects available this year, prospects who could develop into solid NFL quarterbacks down the road, if they're not thrown to the wolves before they're ready and then broken in the process.
Not all of these teams is going to come away with a starting quarterback of the immediate or even near-term future. But if they make their decisions based on value instead of the intensying factor of need (especially when the names start coming off the board), a good number of them could wind up adding the right quarterback at the right point in the draft.
1. Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville: Ever since his Sugar Bowl performance against Florida two college seasons ago, Bridgewater has been in the NFL's crosshairs. His accuracy, the efficiency of his mechanics, his ability to read defenses, make the right decision and deliver the ball to the right receiver in the right place . . . these traits all hinted at NFL success, if not stardom. Bridgewater played through the entire 2013 season under the scrutiny unique to any potential No. 1 overall pick, and he gave no fuel to skeptics, having another strong season in a pro-style offense. Bridgewater came out of the regular season at the top quarterback prospect in the draft. Then came the Combine, when his slide from the top spot was started by a tape measure: 6-foot-2, 214 pounds. Not ideal size. Looked skinny in the eye test. Then he had the audacity of throwing a few incomplete passes during his Pro Day, where critics count and Tweet the number of times the ball hits the ground. In truth, there has been nothing you could have seen in the offseason to knock Bridgewater from the top spot -- if you had him there to begin with, as I did. All those comparisons between Johnny Manziel and Russell Wilson are ludicrous; the real comparison is between Bridgewater and Wilson. Both are less-than-ideally sized, possess terrific leadership traits, can run an NFL offense from Day One, make the rights reads and accurate throws. Wilson is more solid than Bridgewater, and will run more than Bridgewater will be asked to. Still, that's the appropriate comparison to make, and it speaks to why Bridgewater should be the first quarterback taken in this draft.
2. Blake Bortles, UCF: In the eyes of anyone who thinks Bridgewater looks too small, Bortles sure looks the part. He's a quarterback cut from Central Casting: 6-5, 232 pounds, who looks imperturbable in the pocket, standing tall and delivering strikes. That's not to suggest that Bortles is a statue; he can throw on the move, his eyes always downfield, and he delivers the ball with strength and accuracy. Plus, he's sturdy enough to take a shot in or out of the pocket. There's a ton to like about Bortles. What was surprising to see is that his arm strength is not what you'd expect from a quarterback his size. His passes downfield can float a bit, and his short throws wobble at times. The same can be said of Peyton Manning's throws, though Bortles isn't quite on that level in terms of reading defenses; as a decision-maker, he's not yet on the level of Bridgewater or other more experienced passers in this QB class. He may have a greater upside than Bridgewater, and he could be the perfect pick for someone like Minnesota, who could sit him behind Cassel and Ponder initially and ensure he's up to speed before getting his shot to play.
3. Derek Carr, Fresno State: There's a part of me rooting for the story here: "With the first pick in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft, the Houston Texans select . . . " It would make for great irony to see Carr wind up with the same franchise that once made his brother, David, the first draft pick in its history. David Carr went to an expansion team with no offensive line, no running game, no receivers. If Derek wound up in Houston, he'd be going to a team that suffered an epic collapse, but certainly not a roster that would suggest the worst record in the NFL. Some people (maybe even some writing this very article) picked the Texans to go to the Super Bowl last season. So, Carr wouldn't be getting himself into an unwinnable situation, where he could run the risk of being sacked 76 times, as his brother was in 2002. Storyline aside, Carr has distinguished himself from his brother's legacy, even at Fresno State, and established himself as a legitimate NFL quarterback propsect. Carr may be the best pure passer in this draft -- he can make every throw in the book, from the pocket and on the run. It's just that he makes some confounding mistakes. It's not necessarily something that can pegged to when he's under pressure or circumstantial to particular game situations. The guy attempted more than 1,600 passes in his college career; a few were bound to be clunkers. Carr averaged less than an interception per game throughout his career; NFL coaches would accept a pick a game from a guy ready to step into the league and throw it 40 times a game.
4. Zach Mettenberger, LSU: There are lots of ways a quarterback can take a major step forward in his development from one college season to the next. Some grow physically, adding bulk or arm strength. Some grow emotionally, learn to stop panicking in adverse situations and cut down in interceptions accordingly. In Mettenberger's case, his growth was pure quarterbacking. In his one season under the tutelage of Cam Cameron, Mettenberger's understanding of offensive football exploded. He became familiar with concepts that had been foreign to him. He began to understand what the defense was trying to do to him and learned to make the right decisions. Sure, it helped having Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry as his receivers, but having Mettenberger as their quarterback enabled both of those prospects to blossom in Baton Rouge. There had never been any question about Mettenberger physically. He's 6-5, 224, and possesses the strongest arm in the draft. The questions had always been about his mentality and his makeup, and no prospect grew more over the last year than Mettenberger in those areas. All indications are that he became a film junkie prior to the 2013 season. He might be the perfect pick for Denver late in the second round; they could stick him in a film study session next to Manning for a year or so and see what he's really capable of learning.
5. Johnny Manziel: Texas A&M: An entire library can be stocked with pieces I've done criticizing Manziel as an NFL prospect. Just this once, allow me to focus on all the things Manziel can do for as long as he's able to stay on the football field. He can make most short and intermediate throws with command, putting good zip on throws and delivering the on target, particularly to the boundary. His escapability is legendary; the situations he was able to extract himself from in college were otherworldly. Defenders seemed to have him penned in, only to have Manziel escape, buy time and, almost always, make a play; watching the defense try to stop Manziel often felt like watching someone try to catch a fish with his bare hands. And then there are the intangibles. In this regard, he is top of the class. He's fearless, undaunted by the defense or game situations or external expectations. Johnny Football will forever by a mythic figure in college football's folklore, almost entirely because of his unassailable confidence. He made play after play after play, got his teammates to make plays for him, and showed the kind of brazen leadership that magically leads to championships. Sounds like the kind of quarterback you'd want for your team, right? And he would be, if only he weren't 5-11, 207 pounds and play the game the way my 8-year-old son crosses the street -- without any awareness of the very bad things that could happen to him. The sad irony is that his unwillingness to quit and live to play another play is exactly what will put him in harm's way against a defense composed of people far bigger, faster and more mean-spirited than the college kids he sidestepped for the Aggies.
6. A.J. McCarron, Alabama: A 6-3, 220-pound quarterback with pocket presence, experience under center running a pro-style offense and a championship ring for each ring finger . . . what's not to like about that pedigree? And yet McCarron still hasn't found himself atop any team's quarterback wish list. There really is a case to be made for McCarron being the most NFL-ready of the quarterbacks in this class. He ran Alabama's offense the way you would expect from a senior leader -- he was confident, composed and a more-than-capable passer. He's no Manziel, but he'll keep plays alive in the pocket, and he's decisive and accurate on the short and intermediate routes. McCarron seems like he'd be a good fit for a team that runs a West Coast offense (or a derivative thereof). At his best, he's Andy Dalton; they're simiar stylistically, and I suspect McCarron wouldn't reject the success Big Red has enjoyed his first three NFL seasons (regular seasons, at any rate).
7. Jimmy Garoppolo, Eastern Illinois: It's not impossible for a small school quarterback to make the big-time jump to the NFL. Guys like Joe Flacco (Delaware), Kurt Warner (Northern Iowa), Phil Simms (Morehead State), Doug Williams (Grambling) have won Super Bowls. But make no mistake -- there's a transition for all quarterbacks making their leap to the next level, and it's a longer leap for those leaping from FCS than FBS. Garoppolo's two biggest assets are his release and his decision-making. The former will help him in the NFL, when defenses are going to be on him faster than he's used to. The latter remains a work in progress, simply because he hasn't seen the kind of wrinkles defenses are going to throw at him now -- with athletes at every position superior to any single player he faced in the Ohio Valley Conference. That said, he's had ample opportunity to meet with teams and impress upon them that he can grasp complex offensive concepts and recognize defensive schemes designed to trip up even experienced NFL quarterbacks. As impressive as Garoppolo was at the East-West Shrine Game, the Senior Bowl and at the Combine, it was in those closed-door sessions talking Xs and Os and going to the white board where Garoppolo won over the imagination of whatever team is going to give him his shot on Day Two.
8. Tom Savage, Pittsburgh: The closer we get to the draft, the hotter the interest in Savage. That kind of late spike in draft stock worries me. It's usually because someone is overreacting to a Combine or Pro Day workout, or because the rest of the quarterback class is slipping and people are scrambling to find an appealing second option. That's not to suggest that Savage isn't a promising prospect. He has an NFL arm, and he makes throws all over the field. He's 6-4, 228 and is confident in the pocket; don't expect anyone to be designing runs for Savage. To me, he's a notch below the other big quarterbacks in the draft (Bortles, Mettenberger, McCarron), in part because of some questionable decision-making and in part to occasionally lazy mechanics, both of which jumped off the screen when watching his game against Florida State. No, it's not surprising that a quarterback would look shaky against the eventual national champs. There were plenty of times he couldn't step into his throws, and he threw up some ugly looking passes. But there were times he wasn't pressured where he simply didn't set properly, and his throws sailed, lost velocity and basically became interceptions waiting to happen. I don't think Savage will be ready to step in as a rookie, but I do think he has the arm to be successful at the next level -- if given the time to mature as a quarterback. Which is why I think he won't be taken before the late third round, at the earliest.
9. Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech: There may not be a more intriguing prospect in the entire draft than Thomas. Had he come out two years ago as a redshirt sophomore (as Manziel is doing this year), Thomas might have been the third quarterback taken in the 2012 draft, right behind Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. Instead, he stayed -- as he should have -- and has not looked nearly as confident or competent since. Physically, Thomas is everything you look for in a quarterback: 6-6, 248, ran a 4.61 40-yard dash (fastest among QBs at the Combine), posted the best vertical jump at the Combine, the best broad jump at the Combine. He has a big arm, too; Thomas can make all the throws, and has an economical release that enables him to stand in against pressure until the last possible second. But then there's the footwork. Thomas' fundamentals deteriorated over the past two seasons; sometimes he releases with his feet parallel, instead of striding into the left one, and sometimes he opens his feet too much, like a batter stepping into the bucket. My theory is that Thomas never had to worry about his footwork growing up, that his big arm made every throw he needed to make. For some reason, he didn't respond to whatever they tried to coach him to do at Virginia Tech. If he turns out to be coachable, Thomas might be the mid-round steal of the draft (might the Broncos or Patriots or Saints or Cardinals take him on as as developmental project?). If he can't improve his footwork, he might just become the mid-round stead of the draft as a tight end. Thomas was, after all, the No. 1 tight end prospect in the country coming out of high school.
10. Aaron Murray, Georgia: There are other quarterbacks worthy of top-10 consideration: Clemson's Tajh Boyd, Ball State's Keith Wenning, South Carolina's Connor Shaw and Miami's Stephen Morris (who still leaves me befuddled). But Murray did enough in four seasons as Georgia's starter to show the scouts what he can do as a passer, and he answered at his Pro Day any questions about his recovery from a late-season ACL injury. There might not be a more mechanically sound quarterback in the draft than Murray . . . when things are good. Under pressure, on the move, in critical situations, against the best opponents, he struggled to make positive plays consistently (and made negative plays too often). At 6-1, 207, he's bigger than Manziel, and he managed to find passing lanes from the pocket throughout his career. Murray has a quick release and an above-average arm, and both his football IQ and experience making decisions in a pro-style offense will appeal to coaches. He's probably a Day Three pick and probably makes an NFL team as a backup with starter potential down the road.