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17

Changes Under Center

by DJ Boyer on Dec. 17, 2013

Shuffling at the top of the board of the NFL Draft is common. In the months leading up to the draft you have slight movement from week to week. By the end of the season you have All-Star games and workouts where changes can occur day to day. In the days leading up to the draft the changes can be rampant and you often see differences hour to hour.

Queue the 2014 Draft where the above movements are already apparent with a few key decisions about eligibility being made and the unpredictability of the injury bug falling on others. Fans have seen projections where 4-6 quarterbacks are being taken in the first round and as many as 9-10 would be off the board by the third round. While we are already seeing some shuffling going on, we will be sure to see more over the next few weeks. Let’s breakdown some of the categories of the quarterback prospects and where they currently fall.

 

The No-Brainers:

Teddy Bridgewater out of Louisville has been seen as the top prospect in a variety of polls and projections. Bridgewater is a junior who has yet to declare but it has seemed like a foregone conclusion all year that he would. Bridgewater has responded with 3,523 yards with 28 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions while completing over 70% of his passes. These are wonderful numbers but his team seemed lackluster and workmanlike throughout the season. If you are looking at a player who is being talked about as a potential top pick, you want to have a feeling that he is far and away the best player at his position, while also being wowed by his ability and play. That has not been the case with Bridgewater who has looked tentative and erratic during key spots in games or in games where there is a lot of attention. As the season wore on and more and more scouts were present at Louisville games, Bridgewater became more erratic and his accuracy has come under scrutiny. Yet Bridgewater helped himself with some great 4th quarter play late in games (most notably against Cincinnati). Bridgewater may still be the top pick through attrition but he is not a slam dunk.

Marcus Mariota (2015) spent the first half of the year leading a high flying Oregon attack that was making big play after big play and not being challenged. Mariota was being hyped as the Heisman front runner and had a string of over 300 passes to start the year without an interception. Uncanny accuracy and the ability to run the football gave Mariota seemingly everything a scout would want to go along with a 6’4” frame. A couple of losses and a strained MCL later, and Mariota saw his Heisman hopes crash to earth. Mariota still posted 30 touchdown passes while running for another 9 on the ground while throwing only 4 interceptions and completing 63% of his passes. He is also only a redshirt sophomore and a few weeks ago announced he would be returning to Oregon for his junior season. Mariota has a constant pipeline of talent coming through Eugene and he is on pace to earn his degree after his junior season.  

Suddenly a huge gap exists at the top of the board with teams like Houston, Minnesota, Cleveland and maybe even St. Louis all looking at quarterbacks and having selections in the top 10.We have Bridgewater listed as the only “no-brainer” coming out, although his status as elite or a franchise quarterback is not as polished as teams would want. The workout at Louisville will answer many of the questions about Bridgewater as he will likely decline participating in drills at the Combine.

 

Second Tier:

Tajh Boyd, starts the second tier, as the quarterback who was seen as being right behind Bridgewater on many boards when the season began. Boyd is mobile and very durable, a four-year starter at Clemson, giving you one of the most experienced signal callers at the college level. Boyd threw for over 11,000 yards at Clemson and over 100 touchdowns to just 29 interceptions, but his stock slipped a little bit this season. Boyd has shown long bouts of inconsistency. When Boyd is off, it is unbearable to watch and he seems to have a hard time making adjustments. Being just 6’1” isn’t going to turn a lot of teams on at the NFL level. Boyd was grading out as a second rounder by season's end but this uncertainty at the top may push him back up the boards and into a first round pick once again.

Johnny Manziel is doing all of the right things right now and all of his actions seem to indicate he wants to make the jump to the NFL. Manziel came under so much off-the-field fire that it overshadowed his play early in the campaign. No quarterback at the top of the board has a wider array of assessments about him than Manziel. Despite winning the Heisman and putting up similar numbers in 2013, there are detractors. The argument that you will hear the most is that his 6’0” 205 pound frame may not be suited for the NFL. Watching Manziel on tape you see an alarming number of throws where he lets big receivers like Mike Evans just go up and get the ball, bailing him out quite often. While many questions surround his play he has won enough and been so consistent that someone should take a first round flyer on him if he indeed declares as expected.

A.J. McCarron is seen as ol’ reliable. Alabama quarterbacks have this stigma attached to them where they are “game managers” and not true NFL quarterbacks that can beat you with their arms alone. Hurting McCarron and enhancing that game manager mentality is the play of a few recent Alabama quarterbacks that preceded him, Greg McElroy and Brodie Croyle. McCarron seems to have more tools than the aforementioned signal callers but is still not viewed as a sure-fire NFL franchise leader. McCarron relies on accuracy and uncanny touch versus having amazing size or a “cannon” for an arm.

Derek Carr is the epitome of playing in the shadow of others, but one hopes that is not the case for him. Big brother David was the star at Fresno State a decade ago and his efficient senior season pushed him all the way to being the #1 pick overall by the Houston Texans. Derek has put up monster numbers and he is now being looked at as a top 10 overall pick. Carr has shown the natural progression you look for in each of his three seasons as a starter. Improvements in accuracy (62.6, 67.3 and 70.1), yardage (3,544, 4,104 and 4,866) and touchdown passes (26, 37 and 48) are trends that NFL teams like to see. Carr is a little lean but at 6’4” height is far from being a concern. Memories of brother David and playing weaker competition will be a question mark though for Carr heading into May.

 

On the Fence:

Brett Hundley is a classic example of seeing his draft status “yo-yo” throughout the season. Next to Johnny Manziel, no freshman impressed more than Hundley last season, and like Manziel he is draft eligible as a redshirt sophomore. Hundley had a respectable year but he laid a couple of goose eggs consecutively against Oregon and Stanford and the talk became about how Hundley should return to UCLA for his junior season. Now with the high profile injuries and the surprising decision by Mariota, Hundley is now back in the mix for 2014. He reportedly wants to turn pro, where he is currently projected as a 2nd rounder. Hundley and his camp need to decide if that status is good enough for him, or if he should come back where he could be picked in the top half of the first round in 2015. Hundley is a great dual threat and one of the most versatile quarterbacks at the NCAA level. He has good size but a very thin frame, so teams will have to decide whether perceived durability issues and adding 10-15 pounds of muscle will inhibit his running ability.

Blake Bortles may be the most interesting story. No question the 6’4” 235 quarterback is seen as a sure-fire potential quarterback, but many feel he needs to come back as a senior where he could challenge to be a top 10 selection. Now with Mariota coming back and the emergence of 2015 eligible Jameis Winston, Bortles might come out this season where he could be the 2nd quarterback off the board. He was the American Athletic Player of the Year, even besting 'no-brainer' Teddy Bridgewater. Bortles moves around the pocket well, is durable, and will do enough to get some rushing touchdowns at the next level. He has above average arm strength and shows high intelligence on the football field by throwing balls away to avoid sacks and putting balls where only his receivers can get them. Bortles went largely under the radar this season and many in America fail to realize just how good Blake Bortles is. Central Florida defeated Louisville and Penn State this season as they won the conference and made a BCS Bowl game. The only loss was by 3 points to South Carolina in a game where they led at halftime. Not sure if it will be 2014 or 2015, but America will know Blake Bortles sooner or later.

 

 

The Injuries:

Aaron Murray was an absolute rock at Georgia who quieted some detractors by playing well in big games this season. Murray is the SEC all-time leader in yards passing, touchdown passes, completions, and total offense. Murray started all four seasons and is the only quarterback in SEC history to throw for at least 3,000 yards in four years. Murray was projected as a 2nd-3rd round pick but the dreaded ACL tear late this season will push him down the board. Murray has optimistically set Georgia’s Pro Day as his targeted return but he will most likely still be limited even if he is able to participate.

Zach Mettenberger has always been viewed as a diamond in the rough and the luster on that diamond showed in 2013. Mettenberger helped his draft status more than any other quarterback near the top of the board as he was seen in the 4th-5th range when the season started. Before his ACL injury, Zach was talked about as a first rounder who would likely be the 3rd or 4th quarterback off the board. Mettenberger showed continued progression throughout his tenure at LSU and his 6’5” 235 pound frame seemed to be the prototypical size NFL teams want to see. But Mettenberger also has an MCL sprain and once that heals the ACL surgery will take place. Mettenberger could still go as high as the third round but this injury obviously leaves a huge gap on the draft board.

 

Lurking:

Stephen Morris saw his draft stock go through the roof in the preseason. Many of the quarterback camps saw Morris come away shining and as the talk of the scouts and executives. Morris looked like a 2nd rounder but the season didn’t prove as kind. Morris has thrown for nearly 2,900 yards and 21 touchdowns but he has been intercepted 13 times and he battled a host of nagging injuries. Morris looks like a 4th or 5th rounder right now but with impressive workouts and constant reminders from his agent regarding his preseason performances, Morris can see that stock rise again.

Jimmy Garoppolo is the 2014 candidate we see each year of a Championship Subdivision quarterback that puts up monster numbers and gets the scouts talking. If you want big numbers how about 5,050 yards and 53 touchdowns. Garoppolo has done this, impressively raising his touchdown count (31 to 53) while cutting down on interceptions (15 to 9). At 6’3” size isn’t a huge concern and the Eastern Illinois product does have former alum Tony Romo to show NFL teams that players from this school can succeed at the NFL level.

Jeff Mathews is another Football Subdivision quarterback who was a four year starter at Cornell. Mathews did not have the benefit of many weapons around him this season, when he threw for 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, because the offense was so unbalanced. Cornell’s leading rusher finished with less than 400 yards on the season. Mathews has good size at 6’4” and has proven to be very durable throughout his career. His leadership qualities are apparent as soon as you watch film on him. He looks like a late round selection but could move up if multiple teams are very high on what he brings to the table.

David Fales started the year like a lamb and ended like a lion. Fales is a fifth year player who started at Nevada before going through the JUCO ranks and playing at San Jose State for a pair of seasons. Fales looked like he was pressing and trying to do too much early in the season but he saved his best performance for last. Fales threw for 537 yards and 6 touchdowns taking down the previously unbeaten Fresno State Bulldogs. Fales is not a huge running option but he throws well on the run and had nearly 4,200 yards as a senior. Fales looks like a 3rd or 4th round prospect right now but his ability to move with the football and throw on the run could push him up farther than many expect.

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It will be fun to watch how the annual quarterback shuffle plays out and which teams trade up to land a future leader. I don’t see the number of franchise-type quarterbacks that we saw two years ago when there was Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, and even Russell Wilson (which teams overlooked at the time). Yet from the standpoint of sheer number of NFL ready prospects who will spend at least 7 years on an NFL roster, this may be one of the richest drafts we have seen in the last decade.