By now, anyone that has visited the site more than once or knows me well knows that quarterbacks are my niche. They’re infinitely more interesting than any other position; quarterback is the greatest position in all of sports. I, being 17 years old and having never seen college games of some of these players I am about to highlight, decided to scrounge the internet for old games of former quarterback prospects.
The goal is to determine what teams thought they had, was it justified to take them where they went based on that and did they become all that they could be. As I said, I have never seen some of these players’ college film before, so I am going in with a fresh pair of eyes and clean mindset, hoping to pick out universal traits for prospects that turn into successful professionals.
Aaron Rodgers, Cal, 2004 (24th overall, Green Bay Packers)
Going in, I knew that some of the knocks on Rodgers were that “he was too robotic” and that he was just another Jeff Tedford quarterback. Those were stupid knocks. When watching Rodgers, it may appear that, to some degree, he is robotic, but it is not because he is being forced to do certain things and looks as if he is free of thought. Rather, Rodgers appeared robotic because he knew exactly where the open play was going to be before the it happened.
That, coupled with smooth, balanced footwork and a high holding point (was that really a knock?), it did sort of look like Rodgers may have been a robot or a puppet. Within the structures of the system, he was excellent and made all the plays he needed to. Where it seems people got him wrong was that it was so clear that he was not robotic because of how well he thrived when the fabrics of the system wrinkled.
Rodgers was not phased by rushers or by his first read being blanketed. He quickly and calmly made the appropriate decision, found the open man and threw a strike. Both as a stand-still passer and on the move, Rodgers was able to fit any throw because of his incredible arm. What was most impressive about it is that he did not have to generate lower body power like so many quarterbacks do. He could lock his shoulders and fire at will, generating an absurd amount of torque through his upper body.
Everything about Aaron Rodgers evoked a sense of composure and the ability to succeed on any given down. He always seemed to know where he was going, and if that was taken away from him by the defense, he had the poise to keep a clear mind and move onto the next best option. Props to Mike Sherman and the Packers organization for realizing what he could become despite already having Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre on the roster.
Matt Leinart, USC, 2006 (10th overall, Arizona Cardinals)
Matt Leinart is the epitome of a realization that I had recently.
“I think a key thing about football evaluation is realizing that these guys aren’t robots. Now, I know everyone knows that at a surface level, but we disregard that when we are actually watching. It’s hard not to. And I still suck at not doing it, but I see the way guys like (Matt) Waldman break down the game, and it’s so evident that it’s so much more than a game.” (Yes, I’m really quoting myself here. I’m being “that guy.”)
On the surface, Leinart was a clean prospect. A sufficient arm, ability to get around the pocket and find places to throw from, very good ball placement and plenty of college awards and honors. He kept his feet under him, allowing him to easily make throws. He could throw crossers, posts, moving targets out of the backfield, slants; you name it, Leinart would and could throw it.
The problem was, despite how prototypical he appeared, Leinart wasn’t a robot and he had human flaws. In the midst of pressure or outside the fabrics of the offense, Leinart showed pause. He didn’t seem confident enough in what he was doing when it wasn’t exactly according to script. A glaring example of his hesitation possibly cost him a national title. With 8 seconds left in the Rose Bowl, Leinart drops back to pass. Quickly, he realizes none of his options are open, but instead of killing the play and getting back to the huddle for another play, he scrambles around, the clock runs out and Mack Brown’s Texas Longhorns storm the field.
Something within Leinart just couldn’t click when he seemed to need in most in games, thus helping end his career in the NFL. Could the right coach have ripped it out of him? Maybe, but then again, it’s just as likely that he simply didn’t have the natural sense of urgency to succeed. It’s hard to chastise the Cardinals for taking him where they did because of how promising he appeared in so many areas, but his lack of urgency and on-field independence could have been identified.
Matthew Stafford, Georgia, 2009 (1st overall, Detroit Lions)
There were a number of things that made Stafford so appealing. In short, he appeared moldable. Not that he necessarily needed to be fixed a lot, but he was barely 21 years old by his draft day and had/has one of the best, if not the best, arms that I have seen in my lifetime. He was the kind of player that looked clean and had some polish, but you look at him and say, “wow, this guy could be something special.”
Stafford’s arm allowed him to make throws that 95% of quarterbacks at any level of football could not make. Whether his feet be planted, he was on the move or throwing off of his back foot, Stafford’s velocity was unreal, almost seeming to let him throw to what would be a “covered” receiver for most passers and make them “open” enough to catch the pass. His accuracy was a bit up and down as some passes would just get away from him, but there were definitely moments of touch and superb placement.
Generally, Stafford did a good job of keeping his feet under him and adjusting to the throw. Though, he was a passer who was able to operate well enough when forced to throw from odd platforms. More than anything, the biggest issue with Stafford was that he had a tendency to put too much confidence in his arm. While it worked sometimes, it hurt him just as much as it helped him. If you watch current day Stafford, it does not take long to see that this is something he did not fix and is ultimately what is holding him back from being the great player that he could be.
To this point, Stafford has not lived up to his draft slot, but at the same time, it is tough to say that he’s been a disappointment. A player like Stafford would go first overall almost every time, as he should. The arm, decent polish and youth made Stafford so appealing and it is no wonder he was drafted where he was.
Sam Bradford, Oklahoma, 2010 (1st overall, St. Louis Rams)
What seems to have drawn people to Sam Bradford is how “safe” he appeared. Clean feet, a solid arm and a clear-minded thinker within the structure of the offense. But that’s just it: “within the structure of the offense.” When things were going well and Bradford had a clean pocket, the Heisman winner prospered. Though, when any sort of pressure cracked down on him, whether that be pass rushers or having to convert a critical 3rd/4th down, Bradford didn’t live up to the moment.
Bradford’s accuracy and ability to seldom turn the ball over were impressive, no doubt, but there were some warning signs that may have been thrown aside. Bradford looked a bit uncomfortable when he faced pass rushers. He didn’t seem to know how to handle the situation and displayed hesitation. Possibly more concerning was that Bradford did not play that well when forced to operate on his own. He’d get a bit panicky, often throwing off his back foot or out of bounds instead of maneuvering around defenders and finding a receiver.
To add to that, Bradford’s arm was/is not good enough for him to be able to do much without throwing from a solid base. Without the power he can generate from pushing off the ground, Bradford’s arm tended to fall a bit flat or leave passes to hang high for too long.
It was not outlandish to think that maybe Bradford could mature and learn to handle things more appropriately on his own, but when that is the quarterback’s biggest issue, it would be better to find a more independent player than that. Bradford could and still does operate very well when the situation is ideal, but he was a timid player and that alone makes him a sort of “desperation” looking pick from St. Louis.
Blaine Gabbert, Missouri, 2011 (10th overall, Jacksonville Jaguars)
Prior to diving into Gabbert’s games, I assumed that there would be a couple of traits that somewhat justified him being taken where he was and that maybe, just maybe, it was the franchise that failed Blaine instead of him failing the franchise. I was wrong. Aside from a stunning arm and the occasional flash of rhythmic footwork, Gabbert was a horrendous player.
His movements were frenetic and unbalanced. At the top of his drops, Gabbert would almost “squat” and create a very acute angle with the ground, then jump himself back up. Movements like that, especially at such a critical point like the top of the drop, can mess with timing and the balance of a passer when they go to make the throw. On top of that, when Gabbert threw, it was as if he threw like he didn’t want to throw the football. His body moved away, his knees bent awkwardly low and he didn’t appear to have much confidence in what he was doing.
Of course, the biggest Gabbert knock of all was apparent, as well: “seeing ghosts.” Gabbert bailed clean pockets on what seemed like a once-per-drive basis. Furthermore, Gabbert was so afraid of defenders getting near him that he refused to slid up through muddied pockets and often took sacks in which he had a decent chance of avoiding. Simply, he refused to sit still when he needed to or get into a more ideal spot when he needed to in order to make the necessary throws.
There was very little to Blaine Gabbert’s game that suggested he was worth even a 5th round pick, let alone the 10th overall pick. Then again, lest we not forget that Blaine is The Real American.
Cam Newton, Auburn, 2011 (1st overall, Carolina Panthers)
In the best way possible, there hadn’t been a quarterback prospect quite like Cam Newton in a long time. 6’5″, 250 pounds, a 4.56 40-yard dash time and an absolute rifle for an arm. At the same time, there was concern over what he would develop into due to his loose play and Auburn’s offensive system being a bit different than a pro-style offense or even a “normal” spread offense.
System be damned, Newton showed signs of what would make him a successful NFL quarterback. In the midst of pressure, both by rushers and game situations, Newton had no problem rising to the occasion. When the pocket closed in on him, Cam bobbed and weaved to find space. Granted, he took off running more often than would normally be desired, but there was a sense that he knew exactly what he was doing.
More than anything, it seemed like the mix-up or confusion with Cam was his decision making. While many dubbed him as a poor decision maker that would struggle in a multiple read pro-offense, that was not the case. Rather, Newton was seldom exposed to multiple reads because of the structure of Gus Malzahn’s offense, thus leading many to think he simply couldn’t do it. There were instances in which Cam went from his first read to second to third, shuffling his feet accordingly for each progression and making a deadly throw to finish the play. Newton, in this aspect of quarterbacking, is a perfect example of volume scaring people without fully understanding the context.
Designed runs, a system that forced him to throw deep often and a loose play style lead a lot of smart people to being scared of Cam Newton as a prospect. I won’t lie, that is all fair, to some extent. Players with those traits don’t often turn out well (and were even huge talking points for the more recent Johnny Manziel), but Cam’s poise, arm strength, unappreciated mechanical polish and functionality when the offense was broken would have allowed me to look past his “warning” signs and put faith in him as my franchise quarterback.
Andrew Luck, Stanford, 2012 (1st overall, Indianapolis Colts)
Just as I expected to see, Andrew Luck was everything one could desire from a top flight quarterback prospect. Athletically, he was a faster Ben Roethlisberger. He had/has a very good arm, flourished in a pro-style offense in which he showed the ability to read the field quickly and efficiently, displayed stunning ball placement and showed the poise and composure to carry an offense when a play, or even a game, fell apart. His style of play was the perfect marriage between careful attention to detail and aggressive play-making.
In the pocket, Luck was a precise, nimble mover with an innate ability to keep himself clean and find room to deliver a throw. His feet were constantly resetting, not because he was frenetic, but because he was quickly moving from read to read and making sure his feet would be under him at all times. If needed, Luck could extend plays, either to create time for a throw or to take off and make a play with his feet. No play seemed like it was too much for Luck.
As a passer, Luck showed that he could dominate in every fashion. From the pocket, on the move, deep routes, short routes, throwing to the sideline- it didn’t matter, Luck could throw any route from anywhere and do it well. He was leading receivers and throwing them open at such a young age, it was truly incredible. Granted, he crossed the line between confidence and recklessness a few too many times, but he did so many other things well that it would have been very easy to brush that under the rug.
Much like I felt when looking back on Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck gave off a vibe that he really was too good for the college level and that he was already a professional quarterback. He was so advanced in most everything he did. Couple that with his stunning athleticism and you have the bonafide No.1 overall pick that he most certainly deserved to be.
Russell Wilson, Wisconsin, 2012 (75th overall, Seattle Seahawks)
Even many of those who missed on Russell Wilson will tell you that his tumble in the draft was strongly related to his height. At just under 5’11”, Wilson was unlike just about every successful quarterback in the NFL except for Drew Brees. Despite his listed height, Wilson played as tall as he needed to.
Wilson had a quick, high release that both made it tougher for defensive linemen to get a hand up and raised his release point, making him “taller.” Not only that, but Wilson did a marvelous job of creating time and finding throwing lanes for himself. Many questioned whether or not he could see downfield, but it was so evident in his play that he could.
Wilson was (and still very much is) a safe, yet aggressive player. He does not like to force bad situations, but at the same time, if Wilson sees even the slightest glimpse of an opportunity, he takes it. Far more often than not, this worked out for the NC State transfer at Wisconsin. A large part of that success can be rooted in two things: his ability to move defenders and his slicing arm.
Wilson’s running prowess was clear, but he also used it more efficiently than many other running quarterbacks. Wilson would escape the pocket looking for a throw, and many times he was able to draw linebackers or zone defensive backs out of position in order to make that throw. At the same time, Wilson displayed flashes of very good understanding of where the space for a throw had to be and creating that space with his eye movement (i.e.: holding a safety). In order to make these throws, Wilson had booming arm strength, even more impressive than that of fellow 2012’er Andrew Luck. He could fit any throw with ease and threw some of the more difficult NFL routes (corners, “bang-8s,” etc.) with ease.
Russell Wilson wasn’t quite the prospect Luck was, but that is no slight to Wilson. If Wilson had not been overlooked for petty height bias, he would have been a top ten pick because he had all the traits necessary. Whether or not you think he is a product of Seattle is another story (he’s not), but his early NFL success is unheralded.
Robert Griffin III, Baylor, 2012 (2nd overall, Washington Redskins)
Even at the time of his draft day, before his professional career, Griffin at No.2 overall was too sweet. Athletically, he was a quick-twitch wide receiver playing quarterback, allowing him to bob and weave around the pocket. But at the same time, RG3 displayed a smooth, strong arm that allowed him to hit any throw, even if his receiver looked covered.
The misconception about RG3, in hindsight, seems to be that he was a VERY raw player, but it does not seem that he was. Did he have work to do? Sure. More work than guys like Luck and Wilson? Sure. But Griffin made clear efforts to keep his feet under him, find passing lanes and go through multiple reads on a given play, if necessary. He certainly needed to tighten up the corners and work out some kinks, but for the most part, Griffin was a mechanically and fundamentally clean prospect.
Where Griffin was flawed was his handling of situations requiring too much of him. While he was very athletic and could dodge any defender, he gave of a sense that maybe he wasn’t as comfortable as he looked. He was a bit frenetic, looking jumpier in his movements than most successful NFL passers. It worked for him at the college level, but when projecting him to the professional level, I’d have been a bit weary of that.
Also, the Heisman winner had a tendency to force throws out of panic or feeling as if he just had to make a big play. Sometimes, maybe he did have to, but there were many plays where he threw an ugly pass into traffic when he could have simply thrown the ball away and killed the play. Unlike Wilson, who also ran around quite a bit, RG3 had a reckless gene that other dual-threats like Wilson didn’t, making him a liability as often as he was a blessing.
In his entirety, Robert Griffin was an exciting prospect that got overdrafted because of a handful of athletic traits and solid fundamental polish. Now, Griffin still should have been a first round quarterback, but to have selected him at 2nd overall, after a blockbuster trade-up, was questionable from day one.
Ryan Tannehill, Texas A&M, 2012 (8th overall, Miami Dolphins)
Before Johnny Football, there was a receiver-turned-quarterback named Ryan Tannehill who gave life to College Station. Tannehill came in and revitalized the offense, from an on-field standpoint. As raw as he was, Tannehill had a couple of traits that could have hinted at his NFL success.
Namely, Tannehill’s sense and handling of pressure was veteran-like. He hadn’t been back at quarterback for long, but the young passer seemed natural at identifying oncoming defenders and avoiding them, all while keeping his eyes down the field. Tannehill could move up, around and out of the pocket in order to buy time fort himself and extent the play. That, more than anything, was his ticket to success.
The issues in his early game were largely related to experience and, though I’m not sure I’d have projected it, he has cleaned a lot of those things up in the NFL. Prior to throwing, Texas A&M Tannehill was not self-aware of his positioning in the pocket to make throws as easy as they could be. Essentially, he did not know how to find lanes or move defenders. He was largely relying on a one-read system and hoping that his guy would be open enough for him to make the throw.
But even then, Tannehill’s overall ball placement wasn’t great. Bad? Not by any stretch, but, especially deep, Tannehill didn’t show the same ability to lead receivers that a lot of other high end quarterbacks did.
I won’t lie, I’d have missed on Ryan Tannehill. An early 2nd round grade is about where I’d have had him and he would not have been a guy I wanted to start in his first year, but because of his pocket presence and improvement through experience, Tannehill has become a top 10 quarterback (and honestly, one of my favorites in the league).
The quarterbacks who seemed to rise above the rest have a few universal traits. Confidence, poise, and the ability to thrive within the structure of the offense as well as when it breaks down. To some extent, you could also add “athletic ability” to that list.
Conversely, those who came up short displayed hesitation and a lack of confidence when things were on their shoulders. They didn’t have it in them to show up, compete and “figure it out” in any given situation, even if everything they did was careful and by-the-book.