As we get closer and closer to the NFL Draft, a never-ending series of lists get posted by every football content provider under the sun ranking the top players at every position. Top 5 lists, mock drafts and big boards are all the rage this time of year. In this space, however, I want to look at these prospects a little differently.
So as April 30 approaches, let's take a look at these players from the mindset of how NFL franchises and scouting departments look at them and that's by figuring out how they fit on a football team, rather than just list the "Top 5 linebackers" or the "Top 10 wide receivers."
Think about the offensive line. You wouldn't just want to know about the top linemen in the draft. You'd want a list of the top tackles, the top guards and the top centers. All three positions typically have different measurables and responsibilities, so they should be categorized that way, right? And then the standards at each position change from team to team, as every franchise has certain needs and specifications for what they look for as they build their roster. Some teams prefer size and strength, others place value on athleticism and others just want tough guys at certain positions. So let's dig deeper, and look at some of the top players may fit once they find homes in the NFL ...
Quarterback has always been one of the hardest positions to project when transitioning from college to the NFL, and it has only gotten harder with the advent of the spread offense and all of its forms. It should be noted, however, that not all spread offenses are created equal. Some are run-based (like Oregon), others are pass-based (Baylor), some have a lot of NFL concepts mixed in (Maryland) and others not as much (Nevada). There are hundreds of schools all across the scope of the landscape.
The lines between what has historically been considered "pro style" and "spread" or "college style" have been blurred progressively as time has lapsed. More spread concepts are leaking into the NFL and have been very effective. Chip Kelly has proven that it works. Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks run more zone-read than anyone and have been to the last two Super Bowls. "Packaged plays" that every team in college implements are en vogue right now in the NFL (Grantland's Chris Brown did a great piece on this two seasons ago).
Consider also - as Josh Norris brilliantly put it in last week’s Journey to the Draft podcast presented by AAA - that no two quarterbacks are one in the same. Bo Wulf likes to say they're like snowflakes. If you look at the top quarterbacks in the NFL today, they have all have specific skill sets that are unique in their own way. Kelly proved in his first season with the Eagles that teams can win with two very dissimilar quarterbacks - with Michael Vick and Nick Foles - in the same season, so pigeonholing quarterbacks into "pro style" or "spread" coming out of school may not be the most accurate or fair way to describe it, but let's take a stab at it for the purpose of this piece. First up: Pro style.
Pro-style offenses are still prevalent in college, as a number of teams will still line up with the quarterback under center, with a fullback in the I-formation or in multiple tight end sets. Georgia, Alabama, LSU, Stanford, Michigan State and a plethora of other schools have been able to win games consistently using offenses that are much more like what you see in the NFL.
To put it simply, when you're looking at quarterbacks coming out of a pro-style system, you're looking at a quarterback who has done a lot of work under center (most NFL teams work more under center as opposed to the shotgun, though the Eagles are an exception). Working under center as opposed to in the gun gives quarterbacks an advantage with their footwork, so that their drops time up properly with different routes they will throw at the NFL level. These quarterbacks are asked to execute passing concepts that are seen throughout the NFL, and do a lot of work in a huddle as opposed to getting signals from the sideline on the move. You'll see more play-action, as they turn their backs to the defense to execute the run fake. When they turn back around, they are forced to process information at a quicker pace. These quarterbacks, because of the nature of the offense, tend to see more tight-window throws and therefore are forced to throw with anticipation, a necessarily skill to be in the NFL. Seeing a quarterback do all of these things in college make projecting them to the league a little easier. Who fits the bill this draft season? Let's start at the top.
Jameis Winston, a two-year starter for Jimbo Fisher and the Florida State Seminoles, is considered by many to be a shoo-in for the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Winston has NFL size (at 6-4, 231 pounds), a strong arm and has a lot of the traits you look for in an NFL quarterback prospect. Every evaluator in the media from Greg Cosell to Daniel Jeremiah to Mike Mayock to Todd McShay has lauded Winston's ability to throw with anticipation, make tight-window throws, work inside the framework of the pocket and go through progressions as a signal-caller. Decision-making has been an issue (18 interceptions in 13 games last season), though some say that some of those interceptions may be considered as "good" interceptions because they came in situations where he was attempting to make a tight-window throw, something he will have to make in the NFL level. These kinds of debates can wage on for a while, so we won't begin to dive into that here.
Winston played for Fisher for three years in Tallahassee in an offense that has been conducive to producing NFL quarterbacks, though with very little success. Former Fisher quarterbacks include the likes of Christian Ponder, JaMarcus Russell, EJ Manuel, Matt Flynn and Rohan Davey. All were successful at the college level, but struggled (or at least to this point) building upon that success and developing into consistent NFL starters once reaching the league. Will that be the case for Winston? Time will tell.
Colorado State's Garrett Grayson is a divisive prospect, even in what most consider to be a subpar quarterback group overall. Some see the 6-2, 213-pound passer as slow-footed, with a jerky release and an above-average-at-best arm. Others see him as a smart pocket passer with functional arm strength with pro traits and the ability to throw with anticipation. Regardless, Grayson's résumé speaks for itself. A 32-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio as a senior helped earn him an invite to the Senior Bowl, where he was named the Practice Player of the Week as a quarterback. He followed that up with a good performance in the game, completing 8 of 15 pass attempts for 118 yards. Grayson put some of those pro-style traits on display that day ...
On this play, you see Grayson take the snap from under center (he spent a good amount of time under center at CSU), roll to his left, square up his body on the move and hit on a moving target on a crossing route just before taking a big hit. Was it perfect? No. There are some footwork issues that can be cleaned up and you can see the 3/4 release on that throw as well, but Grayson made a play on the move off play-action and delivered a catchable throw under pressure.
Another quarterback in that game, Oregon State's Sean Mannion, has similar traits when compared to Grayson, though many will say his weaknesses are just a little bit more magnified. Grayson has a stronger arm, and is probably a bit more mobile than Mannion, who started 43 games for Mike Reilly at OSU. At nearly 6-6, 229 pounds, Mannion shows the ability to work in the pocket and has been a good touch passer during his time in Corvallis, Oregon. He went down to the Senior Bowl and in the game put some of those skills to the test.
On this first down play, you see Mannion take the snap out of the shotgun, step up into the pocket, avoid pressure and deliver a catchable ball downfield to the tight end. Yes, the ball was dropped, but you see Mannion show the ability to execute a subtle move in the pocket, keep his eyes downfield and get the ball out. Now, it wasn't really a drive throw, there was a lot of air under it, but that's what you get from a touch passer like Mannion.
To close out the pro-style passers in this draft, let's look at Georgia's Hutson Mason and Colorado State-Pueblo's Chris Bonner. Mason, at 6-2, 207 pounds, is a one-year starter who saw some time in 2013 after the injury to Aaron Murray and took over this past fall for the Bulldogs. Like Mannion, Mason doesn't have the strongest arm, but has proven in just 15 starts that he can be accurate, throw with anticipation and work within a muddy pocket. Bonner, a true pocket passer at 6-7, 225 pounds, has a big arm to match his frame, but had just 27 starts at CSU-Pueblo and needs a lot of seasoning. Some of the physical tools are there, as he showed the ability to make some tight-window throws, but he can be a bit erratic as a passer and his mechanics can be a bit shaky at times. Notice that only five quarterbacks who fit the bill as a 'Pro-style' passer are being considered as "draftable" by most in the media.
As I alluded to earlier, the term "spread" offense is a pretty broad one, and dozens of offenses can fall under that umbrella. Without digging too deeply, and keeping in mind that not all of these offenses are the same, spread systems typically follow their namesake and work to spread defenses out horizontally across the field, making them defend every inch of grass. The idea is to take the yards the defense gives you, get the ball in your best players' hands and put them in a position to beat a (hopefully) less-gifted defender one-on-one in space. These offenses are typically up-tempo, feature half-field or one-read progressions for the quarterbacks and operate more often than not out of the shotgun.
These concepts are ones that are not common at the pro level, again, which makes the projection for these quarterbacks harder to do. Does it mean these guys can't play in the NFL? No, absolutely not. In fact, NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah brought up a great point in his most recent podcast (which is a great listen by the way, as he focuses on Marcus Mariota). Aaron Rodgers was a huge question coming out of Cal because his offense featured so many screens and quick-hitters that are not common to the NFL game. Obviously, Rodgers' transition has gone well for both himself and the Green Bay Packers. Still, for every Rodgers, there are more than a handful of successful spread passers who could not cut it in the NFL, and it comes down to the fact that the projection is harder to execute.
Marcus Mariota is one of the biggest names in this draft. Obviously, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner has received a lot of buzz in Philadelphia because of his relationship with Chip Kelly, but all signs point to him being a top-two pick in the draft. His combination of football intelligence, accuracy, athleticism, arm strength and decision-making make him very intriguing. All that considered, the big question is whether or not he can translate to an offense where he's asked to make some of those "pro-style" throws on a consistent basis week after week, drive after drive. With Winston viewed by most as a near lock for the top pick, there's a lot of intrigue around where Mariota may land, with a number of potential suitors. Where he ends up, and how he is then utilized on his new team, will be one of the biggest stories of the 2015 NFL season.
Thought of in media circles as a possible first-round pick as recently as last summer, UCLA's Brett Hundley has a strong physical skill set. The athleticism, arm talent, high character and work ethic make him a fascinating prospect. As is the case with many quarterbacks coming out of similar systems, however, there are major questions about Hundley's abilities in a muddy pocket. He was inaccurate at times, especially under pressure. There were mechanics issues. Many experts view Hundley as a project who will need at least a year or two to develop into an NFL passer, and even at that point it may not be a sure thing. Still, the raw talent is undeniable.
The offenses that Mariota and Hundley played in were different than the scheme that Bryce Petty had success with at Baylor. A 25-game starter under Art Briles (who helped Robert Griffin III develop into the No. 2 pick in 2012), Petty sports a quick release, a strong arm and sneaky athleticism to threaten defenses on the move. Petty admittedly said there’s going to be a tough learning curve as he transitions to the NFL, a curve that his former teammate, Griffin, knows all too well. Petty said that curve was more than apparent at the Senior Bowl, where he worked in a "pro-style" setting for the first time, but said that he's enjoying the process and taking his improvements one step at a time. Petty has shown flashes of big-time talent, but the question will be if he can put it together and turn into a quality NFL quarterback. Some of those flashes came at the Senior Bowl.
On this second-and-10 throw, Petty worked from under center (something he wasn't fully accustomed to), was forced to turn his back to the defense and had an open (by NFL standards) receiver on a post route. He failed to pull the trigger, broke the pocket by rolling to his left and squared his shoulders to the line of scrimmage while delivering a good ball on the run to that same receiver for a first down. This play is almost an encapsulation of where Petty is as an NFL prospect. There are flashes of talent, but he's still learning to see the field from the scope of a pro quarterback. His progression will be fun to watch, as long as he can stay healthy as well (injuries to his head, back and knee are all on his résumé).
One of the more fascinating prospects in this draft played his regular season games in Ladd Peebles Stadium (where the Senior Bowl is held), but failed to earn an invite to the game. Why would a big, strong-armed, athletic passer in a reportedly weak quarterback crop fail to be invited to the best all-star game in the land? Brandon Bridge flew under the radar a bit. A Canadian-born transfer from Alcorn State, Bridge had significant D-1 interest before settling in at South Alabama and started just 20 games, throwing 25 touchdown passes to 10 interceptions over that time. His accuracy was up and down (though there were more than a few drops from his wideouts on tape impacting his completion percentage), and his poise in the pocket was a question mark. Bridge instead ended up at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl all-star game where he put what many consider as one of the best arms in the class on full display.
That wasn't a huge downfield throw, but you can see the velocity and how the ball comes out of his hand. Bridge is an easy thrower of the football, and is able to drive it to all areas of the field without much of an issue (check out the 53-second mark of this video for proof of that). Can he put together all of the physical tools? If he can, Bridge could be a very interesting player down the road.
Another quarterback who has ties to the Eagles, Southeastern Louisiana's Bryan Bennett, played for Chip Kelly at Oregon before losing the battle for the starting job to Mariota back in 2012. Bennett transferred, and now the 23-year old is staking his claim as one of the bigger sleepers in the entire draft after putting his talents on display at the Senior Bowl.
At 6-2, 211 pounds, Bennett has a good arm and is an athletic passer who can make plays in and out of the pocket. His poise under pressure must improve, but he has the arm talent, footwork and release to mold into something down the line. On the play above, you see a touch throw down the sideline, an area I thought he improved greatly in from 2013 to 2014 at SE Louisiana. He doesn't have a ton of starting experience, but I am anxious to see if he can progress.
Bennett may not have a ton of experience (28 games started in college), but Old Dominion's Taylor Heinicke has plenty of it to go around (44 career starts). Heinicke mastered the spread system at ODU, resulting in 132 career touchdowns to just 16 interceptions. He showed the ability to be accurate, poised and mobile. On the smaller side at just 6-1, 211 pounds, he doesn't have the strongest arm and his transition to the pro game will be a work in progress, something that was apparent at the East-West Shrine Game this past January.
On this play, Heinicke shows some next-level traits, as he first looks to the concept to the top of the screen on his right before coming back to the middle of the field and an open receiver (former spread quarterback-turned-wideout Devin Gardner) in the back of the end zone. Heinicke, who showed the ability to go through progressions in college, is just a hair late pulling the trigger (notice the subtle hesitation before he throws), and his lack of arm strength allows the cornerback to make a play on the ball for an interception. Seeing the whole field and then trusting what he sees will be a point of contention for Heinicke, and most spread quarterbacks, and that was apparent on this particular play in the Shrine Game.
I wanted to throw this third division in at the end because, while "mobile" quarterbacks can come from a pro-style or spread offense, they have their own set of skills that make them both attractive as well as a risk. While there aren't any Michael Vick's or Robert Griffin's in this class, Alabama's Blake Sims displayed some (dare I say) Russell Wilson-esque qualities with his ability to threaten defenses on the perimeter with his arm and his legs. In his lone year as a starter (Sims actually spent time as a running back while waiting in the wings behind A.J. McCarron earlier in his career for the Crimson Tide), Sims showed the ability to process information quickly, not take chances with the ball, stare down the gun barrel and make throws under pressure and lastly beat defenders with his legs. The rub, of course, is his size (5-11, 218 pounds) and his arm strength, an issue that popped up at Alabama late in the season and again at the Senior Bowl. Can he overcome those issues in the right scheme? Or will a position switch be in order? That remains the question for Sims, who reportedly did some running back and wide receiver drills at his pro day after his quarterback workout.
Nevada's Cody Fajardo fits the bill as well as a movement passer because of his history in the shotgun or pistol and the threat he proved to be in the QB run game. One of the best athletic testers at the position at the Combine, Fajardo showed the ability to throw with touch and accuracy in the short game during his career with the Wolf Pack. Like Sims, arm strength is a question mark, but there are traits to work with and on a team that utilizes the quarterback in the run game, Fajardo could bring some value.
That wraps it up for the quarterbacks. Again, this position in particular is tough to split into "types" because pretty much every quarterback is his own "type" of player. Hopefully, you now have an understanding of each of these players, the types of systems they came from and some of the issues they will face as they look to transition to the National Football League.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.