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Bradford vs. Clausen, and why McCoy is still tops in this draft class

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At this point, it seems safe to define that the first two quarterback selected in the NFL Draft–the only two that will be selected in the top half of the first round–will be Notre Dame’s Jimmy Clausen, and Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford.  The natural question: who is better?

The natural answer: it depends.

Here’s what you need to know.  In a true vacuum, the best quarterback in this draft class is Jimmy Clausen.  That’s true if I know absolutely nothing about the team I am supposed to be advising.  Clausen would have been the best prospect in the 2009 draft as well, and is worthy of the first overall pick in most years.  One could say that Clausen is destined to be successful at the next level–but that’s really missing the point.

Clausen, who left Notre Dame after a wildly successful junior year, is not destined for anything.  Look no further than his career at Notre Dame: as a freshman, he was greatly overwhelmed and out talented and got absoultely creamed behind a sieve of an offensive line.  The team greatly improved the following season, but Clausen really didn’t.  He got his first taste of college success in the first half of the 2008 season, but the team collapsed down the stretch and Clausen struggled against top competition, even while having the best offensive line he would have at ND.

In 2009, Clausen finally enjoyed a breakout year, leading the nation in passing efficiency at the mid-way point of the season before being part of another late ND collapse.  Jimmy Clausen wasn’t really a major reason for the decline, but he does seem to have a few major flaws as a passer, namely if you take away the deep ball, he hardly has shown any ability to move the chains and sustain longer drives.  He is not, contrary to the belief of some, a one year wonder because even though he only has one strong year, the year itself was quite predictable based on his statistics from prior seasons.

Clausen is the type of quarterback who can ride on the coattails of other elite offensive performers, while using his experience at the position, he’s good enough to salvage a mediocre performance from offensive scraps, as he did with his personal statistics on a terrible team in 07, winning all three of NDs victories that season.  That’s the salvaging part.  2009 was Clausen with a superior offense, his true value to a team with some elite talent around him.  2008, on the other hand, represents Clausen’s downside to potential NFL employers.  With a running game, and with a strong OL, and top receivers, and the best defense of the Charlie Weis tenure, Notre Dame went…6-6, and Clausen threw 25 TD and 17 INTs, completing only about 60% of his passes.  It seems safe to suggest that Clausen is a guy who lives off the talent around him, with the rare exception of a situation where all the talent on a team is on defense, and then he won’t be bamboozeled quite as badly as Mark Sanchez was for the Jets this year.

The bottom line with Clausen is that 80% of potential NFL employers will be a lot like that 2008 Notre Dame team relative to it’s competition.  With some extreme exceptions at either end of the spectrum, Clausen projects as an average to slightly above average player.  That’s valuable enough to justify a top five pick…but teams with the ambition necessary to turn teams that are picking in the top five into championship contenders, those are the teams that will pass on Clausen and look for someone better.  Clausen is safe, proven, comes with a (relative) pedigree, and his strengths and weaknesses are well understood coming out.  No analyst is going to project him below the second round.

Sam Bradford, on the other hand, represents very much of what Jimmy Clausen does not.  Here’s a man who was wildly successful at the college level in consecutive years.  Every statistic for Bradford jumps right off the page.  Touchdowns.  He threw a college TD more frequently than once every 11 attempts.  In this class, only Tim Tebow and Tony Pike are remotely close to that figure.  Interceptions.  Bradford was intercepted less frequently than once every 50 attempts.  Only Tebow is anywhere near that number.  Sacks.  Bradford was sacked less frequently than once every 35 attempts.  Only cross-state rival Zac Robinson is anywhere near that figure in this class.  Bradford’s numbers are just so excellent in every way.

But the catch is huge.  Bradford got injured so early and so badly in 2009 that, combined with the decision to leave Oklahoma with a year of eligibility remaining, Bradford accrued less than 5% of his total value after the midpoint of his college eligibility.  The only other first round pick in history to accomplish the same amazing feat is Rex Grossman.  Grossman ends up being one of Bradford’s nearest comparables in any analysis.  To be fair to Bradford, Grossman failed in the NFL in part because of an inability to complete his passes, and Bradford completed 67% of his passes at Oklahoma.  There’s no way to project Bradford as a low efficiency passer in the NFL given those college statistics, so there’s little worry about him becoming an epic bust.

But NFL teams don’t want to spend top draft picks on questionable decision makers, either, and there’s not a whole lot of film of Sam Bradford under duress.  And what film does exist on Bradford under duress is of him as a freshman, and won’t be all that relevant to the grand scheme of things.  Combined with his injury concerns, and inability to throw for scouts coming off offseason surgery, the team that takes Bradford is going to be very much in the dark regarding his true potential.

The good news with Sam Bradford is that the only real path down the road to Bustsville is through a right shoulder that never really heals.  If teams are prudent in listening to the advice of their medical staffs, there’s hardly a ton of downside here.  A team may very well find out that Bradford is a terrible decision maker off of play action when he gets to the league, but then instead of having a franchise quarterback, you’re left with a quick decision maker who you might have to throttle back at the end of games with leads if he develops a Favarian turnover propensity (a la Grossman).  The “floor” on Bradford looks something like Jon Kitna, so if the arm is okay, you’ll get something average looking out of him at worst, and a franchise signal caller at best.

Bradford simply didn’t turn the ball over much in college though, and unlike Clausen, he never had to grow into his role as OU quarterback.  It always seemed to come naturally to him.  But that apparance may have just been being in the right place, in the right time, with the right team, and his season-long arm injury as a 4th year junior opens up all sorts of questions that neither I nor Sam Bradford can really adequately answer until after the draft.

Either would have been the best QB in last year’s draft (not if they had come out then, but if we compare them now to Sanchez and Stafford at this time last year), but neither would have been a top ten pick in either 2006 or 2008.  It’s an average looking class at the top, but a stronger quarterback class in the middle.  Earlier, I said, in a true vacuum, you would take Clausen.  This is because of his college career path “ending” with his best year (though my formula marks a “zero” for quarterbacks who leave their Senior seasons on the table; technically, that is their true ending value, per my formula).  Bradford gets a really low grade for his injury plagued senior year.  In finance terms, Bradford would be considered the higher risk-higher return investment (you wouldn’t invest in him at the price if you didn’t have a much higher return on him than Clausen).  In scouting terms, it’s known as “boom or bust” potential.  I don’t like to think about it in scouting terms, because if you take a QB at fourth overall and you get a league average player, have you really taken a bust?  I don’t think Bradford will bust, rather, I think any weighted average probability matrix suggests that his return will be neck and neck with Clausen, and that Clausen is the sounder investment.

But what if you are a team like Washington or Buffalo or Seattle who can’t really protect the passer, and already have a competent incumbent?  Exactly why would a team like that be after Jimmy Clausen?  They can’t protect him will enough right now to get a good return on his play as a rookie, and his peak value may not be all that much higher than either Jason Campbell or Trent Edwards (with Hasselbeck, his peak value is in the past, obviously).  Adding Sam Bradford makes a lot more sense for those teams because if you consider it reasonable to project his college performance to carry over through this lost year and into the NFL, you’re getting a high-efficiency, high-return type that offers you something you aren’t getting in Clausen.  Sure, if everything goes right developmentally with Clausen, you’ll get a franchise player out of him, but you’ll need to strive to be the type of dominant offense that say the 2000 Vikings, 2006-9 Saints, or 2005 Bengals were to make him that franchise player.  The Bradford formula for success is a lot simpler: draft him if you believe that his 2009 injury season was a complete fluke, and that he would have light up the scoreboard if he was healthy.  That’s way simpler than building around Clausen, the better prospect, isn’t it?  All you have to do is…be right.

Once a player is drafted, he ceases to be a prospect anymore.  Clausen has more draft value, but Bradford is the more accomplished college player.  Knowing the difference is critical for an NFL GM, and since theres no such thing as an NFL vacuum, knowing where your team stands is critical for making the right choice.

Ultimately, Bradford vs. Clausen is a particularly interesting draft debate between two solid-looking prospects, but it’s hard to see either being the most successful quarterback from a very deep class.  Historically speaking, the best quarterback in a draft class comes from the top (two-three) quarterback debate less than half the time.  This seems like one of those years.  I wouldn’t bet against Dan Lefevour, Colt McCoy, or John Skelton this year, but the class is SO deep, that the eventual best quarterback might end up being left off my top ten list.  Right now, Bradford, Clausen, and McCoy sure seem like the three best quarterbacks in the class (you can take them in any order, even McCoy first), but it’s not heavy at the top.  McCoy will be heavily reliant on a strong system and the coach/playcaller/quarterback relationship, Clausen will be reliant on the entire talent around him, and Bradford needs good health and to not take a pounding into the turf to make the adjustment to the next level.

McCoy tops Bradford and Clausen in this class, in my mind, only because there is no scouting error with him.  If a team exists that can give him exactly what he needs to be successful, systematically, he’s the surest thing in the NFL draft since 2004.  If that team doesn’t exist, then he’s going to flounder around as a backup in this league.  But he’s no worse of a prospect just because the team that can win with a winner doesn’t exist.  He’s the best prospect because of his college success, and the more talented types will find homes either with a team that will make them successful, or with a joke of an organization that offers nothing but struggles.

McCoy hardly has to worry about what Bradford and Clausen do from a team-building standpoint, which makes him the top dog from a projection sense.


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