History says there will be an elite quarterback available to the Buffalo Bills today when they make their first pick in the NFL draft.
The challenge: Which one or two quarterbacks in the 2013 class are going to become outstanding pros?
NFL scouts and analysts say the challenge – which has been daunting ever since the forward pass was invented – has become even greater in recent years.
The spread offense that dominates college football puts a priority on quick throws out of the shotgun formation. Those don’t provide a clue about whether a quarterback has the full skill set to make the tough, downfield throws required to be a great pro.
”Years ago it was a heck of a lot easier when everybody was in the I-formation, and five-step drop and play-action,” said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock. “A lot easier to evaluate. Now it’s much more projection based. Can this kid, once we get him in the classroom and on the field, become what we need him to become?”
The Bills are expected to make their decision on who is the class of the 2013 class over the next two days. If they don’t take a QB with the eighth overall pick today, they are likely to take one either later in the first round or early in the second round Friday.
Conventional wisdom says Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib will wind up with the Bills. He played for Bills coach Doug Marrone the past four years and worked under Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett the past two. Hackett’s father, Paul, is a long-time coach who tutored Nassib this winter.
Most of the spring, draft analysts have rated Nassib outside the top 50 prospects. Most analysts also say this year’s QB class pales in comparison to last year’s, which saw instant starters Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Ryan Tannehill taken in the first eight picks and Seattle’s phenominal Russell Wilson taken in the third round.
However, it’s rare that somebody in a QB class doesn’t turn out to be a high-quality NFL starter. Only five times in the last 23 years has a draft not produced a big NFL winner. Those down years were in 1990, ’96, ’97, 2002 and ’07. The 1996 draft was the only one in the last 24 years in which a QB was not selected in the first round.
Since 1990, 56 quarterbacks have been drafted in the first round. Of that group, only 25 could be classified as a big success in the NFL, and that’s counting five players taken in the last three drafts (Sam Bradford, Cam Newton, Luck, Griffin and Tannehill), for whom the jury arguably still is out.
Historically, the bust rate on first-round quarterbacks is about 50 percent. Why so high?
“The speed of the game, No. 1,” said former NFL coach Jon Gruden, the ESPN analyst. “You never know how a player is going to adapt to the speed of the game. The windows are so much tighter. Third down and red-zone passing – those are very difficult to evaluate.”
“How much can they handle right away?” Gruden said. “Some of these quarterbacks struggle with adapting to a new system, from the snap count to the terminology to the audible system. They struggle significantly when they don’t get the reps that they’re accustomed to getting in college. I think those are the big things that are the hardest things for a young quarterback.”
Most top college quarterbacks have known nothing but success their entire athletic lives. The ability to adapt and learn, while at the same time projecting an image as the leader of the organization and handling the pressure of being an NFL quarterback, are elements that are hard to predict.
Top-three overall picks Jeff George, Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith and JaMarcus Russell fell short largely because they didn’t have the intangible, off-the-field characteristics required to succeed in the NFL.
“It’s the toughest position to evaluate,” said Chuck Cook, Bills director of college scouting. “Just look at the Seattle quarterback, Russell Wilson. It’s the intangibles that you can’t see. It’s the ‘it’ factor. It’s the hardest thing to get. Joe Montana was a third-round pick. You don’t ever know completely what you’re getting.”
The task for Cook and his NFL counterparts has gotten more difficult because of the kind of offenses many college teams are running.
Mayock offers a detailed explanation:
“I chart every quarterback. I start with throws between 0 and 10 yards off the line of scrimmage, 11 to 20 yards and 21-plus. I’ll chart every throw. For a high-level quarterback, it’ll be a minimum of five games and sometimes beyond that. The biggest difference between now and even five years ago is a lot of times in these spread offenses, 90 percent of the throws are between 0 and 10 yards.”
“When you talk about the screen game, you’re mostly talking about bubble screens and tunnel screens and stuff that happens right away off the throw,” Mayock said. “So if 90 percent of the throws are within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, you’re only seeing 10 percent that might be typical NFL stick-type throws. An 18-yard in? An 18-yard comeback? What kind of deep-ball accuracy does the quarterback have? So that becomes a challenge.”
West Virginia University’s Geno Smith, who many rate as the top quarterback in this year’s draft, is the perfect example of the newer evaluation challenge for NFL scouts.
Running the “Air-Raid” offense of coach Dana Holgorsen, Smith racked up huge numbers. He had 98 touchdown passes and 26 interceptions for his career. At one point in 2012, he had 24 TD passes and zero interceptions.
But, he threw 177 of 518 passes at or behind the line of scrimmage, including 112 screens, according to ESPN.
“The second thing that becomes a challenge is a lot of it is what coaches call ‘Catch, Rock and Throw,’ ” Mayock said. “You’re in the shotgun, you catch it, you take a rocker step – no footwork, just a rocker step – and the ball’s out. So you’re seeing a lot of quarterbacks that have never been under center in their lives and they’ll catch it and get rid of it.”
“Geno catches it and gets rid of the football,” Mayock said. “His footwork and posture and movement in the pocket is poor. Now you can’t ding the kid on that, because that’s what he’s been taught. His job is to win college games, not anything else. You can’t ding the kid for it. You just have to be able to try to evaluate beyond that.”
When it’s a third-and-long situation in the NFL, elite quarterbacks are able to stand in the pocket in the face of blitzes and deliver the ball downfield accurately against tight coverage.
The ability of New England’s Tom Brady to make the right decision on where to go with the ball in 2.8 seconds under pressure is one of the big things that makes him one of the great quarterbacks ever. It was very hard to decipher that ability when he came out of the University of Michigan, which is why he was a sixth-round draft pick.
“The ability to make a play under pressure in a clutch situation is a key identifier for a quarterback,” Cook said. “Poise. The ability to handle pressure. Those DBs in this league can close so much faster than they do in college. The windows close so much faster.”
“So how many throws really – under pressure – apply to the NFL?” Cook said.
Pro teams break down those throws to a greater degree than ever before.
“Third down with people in your face against the blitz? It is a reduced number,” Cook said. “But that body of tape of those snaps, you condense it down to those situations and you see how successful a guy was. We have rankings on all that. Under pressure on third down? Third and long? We break down all those situations and put a value on that.”
The top quarterbacks in this year’s draft – Smith, Nassib, Southern California’s Matt Barkley and Florida State’s E.J. Manuel – all appear to have good intangibles. Some analysts think Barkley and Smith are not well suited to playing in the elements in Buffalo.
“I don’t think Geno Smith makes sense in Buffalo,” Mayock said. “I saw him play in cold weather in the bowl game. I saw him play in cold weather at Iowa State, and I don’t see him fitting in an outdoor arena in Buffalo.”
ESPN’s Mel Kiper on Barkley: “He doesn’t have a great arm. But he’s got good enough arm strength in the right situation, which wouldn’t be Buffalo. It certainly wouldn’t be a cold-weather environment.”
How well do they respond in the face of pressure in the pocket? It’s probably a bit more of a concern for Smith and Manuel than for Nassib and Barkley. But Smith and Manuel both have more athletic ability than Nassib and Barkley.
Some view special athleticism as a requirement in a QB taken high in the first round, as former NFL star Kurt Warner said in assessing Nassib.
“I didn’t see on film this guy having the ability to do everything. He didn’t wow me when I saw him on film,” Warner told the NFL Network. “I want to see that wow factor from a guy I’m drafting in the first round, and I just didn’t see it from Ryan.”
The reality is none of the top QB prospects in this draft has seen the kind of pressure in the pocket, the exotic blitz packages or the tight windows in the scoring area that they will face in the NFL. The draft is about forecasting who will do it best.
“It is really, truly in the scouting world the hardest thing to evaluate – the quarterback position,” Cook said.
Continue to follow our intensive NFL draft coverage tonight, beginning with a live video show co-hosted by Tim Graham and Jay Skurski at 7:30 on BuffaloNews.com. We will have reports from Mark Gaughan and Jerry Sullivan at One Bills Drive, as well as an ongoing live chat.