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2013 NFL Draft Rankings: the Quarterbacks

I was reading last year’s draft article in preparation for writing this year’s draft article.  Overall, I felt I was pretty on-point in my evaluations, although I clearly did not believe in Russell Wilson as a starting NFL quarterback, which makes a pretty accurate year look a lot worse than maybe it really was.  Draftink protip: you don’t want to be giving a scouting report on an offensive rookie of the year candidate in the same paragraph as one on Jacory Harris.

This year is obviously not the class last year was, and it doesn’t need to be.  I’m making one main change this year, which is that I’m not going to give a single draft comparable for each quarterback because looking back on it, I feel like it detracted from what I had to say on them.

There are three quarterbacks receiving first round grades from me in the 2013 NFL Draft.  I don’t feel as great about my grades in this class as I did about last year’s, but considering I had six QBs with top two round grades last year and five this year, it’s really not the barren wasteland for quarterbacks that some are making it out to be.  It’s just a mediocre draft where you have to do your homework on prospects, starting at the top.

*Non-bolded player = film study not complete

1. Geno Smith, West Virginia, Top 10 Grade

Revisionist history says that Robert Griffin III is awesome and was always awesome, and in most ways that’s accurate, but I think there’s something of a double standard going on here.  The Leach/Holgorsen Air Raid QBs are getting dinged up in the evaluation process for the general lack of success they’ve had in the pros, and some of the backlash against Smith stems from the total distrust of statistics generated by those systems.  I think the criticism is rooted in merit, to an extent.

Now, Art Briles is not an Air Raid guy, but in so many more ways, the offense that Robert Griffin ran at Baylor (like the one that Kevin Kolb ran for Briles at Houston) is even less rooted in modern NFL concepts than the air raid is.  NFL teams are running all the air raid plays already, although 1) they typically save them for third down and long, and 2) they emphasize the tight end in a way you don’t see in college.  What Briles system did was put Griffin’s arm and deep ball ability on display on a week to week basis.

The “tricky” evaluation when it comes to Smith is a matter of nuance: football teams are not as unique and diverse in the passing attack as the NFL would like to have you believe.  However, in spite of this, it sure seemed like observers had come around to Griffin at this time last year in a way they simply have not on Smith.  With that said, their passing profiles are not dissimilar: they have many of the same comparables.  You see Aaron Rodgers, Sam Bradford, and Philip Rivers when they play with confidence.  You see a lot of scrambling and reliance on athleticism when they aren’t getting a clear picture of the defense.

Griffin is a cut above Geno Smith because Griffin’s got a number of rare traits in terms of his decision making.  Griffin is just as lethal in the read option game as he is spreading you out and throwing it and it makes him impossible to defend, because the Redskins can attack you out of two back base personnel in any down and distance just as easily as they can spread the field five wide.  Geno isn’t that kind of player who can line up in the two back pistol on 3rd and 7 and give you the whole playbook as an option to pick up the first down.  He’s not Griffin or Colin Kaepernick.  But as a thrower of the football, he’s pretty similar, and is probably more advanced in basic pocket mechanics.  And I think that’s getting lost at times in his evaluation: he’s going to be a top ten passer in the NFL relatively soon.

2. Zac Dysert, Miami (OH), mid-first round grade
3. Tyler Bray, Tennessee, mid-first round grade

Okay, this is not only where my player evaluation separates a bit from conventional wisdom, but it’s also where my idea of where this QB class will be in four years deviates from what people are expecting.  Most evaluators have maybe one or two quarterbacks who they project as starters and everyone else as deep-roster development projects.  But after watching Dysert and Bray in great detail over the last few months, I project them both as starting quarterbacks in the NFL.

Zac Dysert is more of a late riser for me based on the fact that I didn’t pay a ton of attention to him early in the draft evaluation process.  It wasn’t that I thought he was limited in any way, but like most prospects there was a clear upside and a clear downside, and there wasn’t a ton of rallying support around Dysert as a player you can invest your team’s future in.

The crazy thing was that the more I watched Dysert, the more I saw a player who simply hadn’t grown into an improving physical skill set.  Dysert was always an efficient MAC QB through his four years as a starter, but it’s easy to overrate prospects who fit that build and I’ve been guilty of it many times in the past (like supporting Dan Lefevour as a day two draft selection).  But what stuck out about Dysert in 2012 is that he rarely left plays on the field and even the couple of plays that were left on the field, Dysert has enough room for improvement to be one of the highest upside players in the 2013 draft at any position.  Is that enough to overcome a sack rate that was over 8% in the MAC? We’ll see.  Dysert is not an elite athlete, but he’s one of the more athletic QBs in this class, and used a lot of different types of footwork in the passing game.  The passes almost always came out on time, which is not what you expect from players with high sack rates.  He was better on a play by play basis than Ryan Nassib, who will also be high on this list on the strength of a strong senior campaign.

I think a lot of people feel deceived in their evaluation of Tyler Bray by the conundrum of a player whose overall college production never matched the physical skill set.  To some degree, Bray earned the underachiever title that has been thrust upon him by the masses, but the tag better belongs on the Tennessee program.  Now, Bray does have bad habits that defensive coordinators picked up on when playing against him, and were about to use to keep Bray from winning consistently at the college level.  So as Bray transitions to the pros, that will be the most important thing for the team that drafts him, break him of his bad, gunslinger habits — at least the ones that can be attacked by defenses.

The argument for Bray isn’t as complicated as his detractors want to make it out to be, and it’s rather Parcellsian in nature.  There’s a limited handful of people on the planet that can do what Tyler Bray can do on a football field, make it look as effortless as he does, and under the conditions he works under, have some of the best college games by a quarterback in recent college memory.  The argument against Bray is that there’s few — if any — examples of players with his statistical profile and bad college habits who go on to achieve success in the NFL.  But what can’t be disputed (so it doesn’t get brought up) is that if you’re championing other quarterbacks like Mike Glennon, Tyler Wilson, or EJ Manuel, you’re taking an ability hit in trade for either college production or coaching polish.  Bray leaves some easy plays on the field because his mechanics are inconsistent and he’s robotic in response to quick pressure (the ball is coming out blind), but his college numbers still come out stronger than other draft eligible quarterbacks.

The reason I can’t rank Bray any higher than this isn’t because he’s not talented enough, but because like a lot of the players who I rate below him, he’s always going to be somewhat dependent on his environment to turn his abilities into pro-bowl production.  We saw at Tennessee how he was unable to crack the 60% passing glass ceiling in that environment, which is generally a negative indicator of future success (though Bray isn’t that far off…he’s essentially NC State Russell Wilson as a passer).  Bray could play and win immediately in a great environment, but if he’s drafted into a circus, we’ve got three college seasons to foreshadow how his pro career will end.

4a. Ryan Nassib, Syracuse, second round grade
4b. Matt Barkley, USC, second round grade

Nassib and Barkley must both play early in their pro careers to have value.  If you project six, seven, eight years down the road, it’s not hard to see either of these guys as journeyman backup/starter swingman who offer quality quarterback play, the ability to learn new systems on the fly and mentor other players.  But to achieve that designation in the NFL, both players must first provide value to the teams that pick them in the short term.  And that means they both have to win their way onto the field quickly.  The longer either Nassib or Barkley stays buried on the depth chart, the shorter their overall NFL career will be.  That’s not necessarily true in the case of Geno, Bray, or Dysert.

I like Nassib just a bit more than Barkley, but it’s too close to say more than there’s a 4a and a 4b.  Nassib went on the map for me in the season opener against Northwestern, when he was just chucking the ball all over the field getting his team back into a game they would eventually lose.  He’s not necessarily consistent down the field, but I like his throwing ability more than I liked Ryan Tannehill’s from a year ago.  He makes really quick decisions, offers a running element to his game, and maybe most impressively, combines the two skills of running and passing really well.

Nassib is not an elite thrower, however, and is more the kind of prospect that does a bunch of things well rather than excelling in one area.  Andy Dalton comparisons are inevitable, but the player I see most with Nassib is the Notre Dame version of Brady Quinn, who had great feet and a quick release with a non-elite arm that ran hot and cold (the Quinn who played quarterback for the Chiefs had a much different throwing profile than Quinn the first round draft choice).

Matt Barkley would have likely been my fourth rated QB if he came out last year (after Luck, Griffin, and Foles), and it says something that he ranks in the same place in an overall weaker class.  I’m not entire sure what it says.  Barkley’s overall passing efficiency in terms of point and yard didn’t decline in any meaningful way in 2012 vs. 2011, but his turnover rate spiked, and maybe more concerning was how willing USC was to take the ball out of his hands on early downs.  That’s not what Barkley returned to school for.  There is a logical answer (which can’t be proven by an outsider — only suspected), which is that the Trojans were trying to compensate for a player who was playing hurt all year, even prior to the UCLA game where a hit ended his college career.  Barkley suffered a separated shoulder, but it’s unclear if he was 100% healthy prior to the UCLA hit, as well as it’s unclear if he’s 100% healthy now.

If/when Barkley is healthy enough where he can throw the ball like he did in 2011, then he’s really underrated throwing on the run, and makes really good decisions in throwing route concepts: that high turnover rate will regress in the pros — provided he will be healthy again.

6. Sean Renfree, Duke, third round grade

Renfree, a David Cutcliffe disciple at Duke, profiles best as an NFL backup quarterback, but should be drafted high enough where a QB needy team can start him in a pinch.  As a pure passer, he was excellent at Duke.  He lacks rare throwing traits, but makes up for it with sound accuracy, and performs well under pressure, which is what you want in a quarterback.  Lacks a couple of the characteristics in terms of growth of some of the players I have rated above him.  He’s likely not going to be a better thrower in the NFL than he was in college, where most of the players in this class at least have this potential.  The other risk factor here is he goes to the NFL and gets coached by someone who isn’t as detail-oriented as Cutcliffe, and his performance suffers.

7. Matt Scott, Arizona, third round grade

Sat the vast majority of his college career behind Nick Foles at Arizona on losing teams, so was very much off the radar heading into this season.  Was coached by Rich Rodriguez in his one season as a starter, and lead Arizona on a huge comeback against Nevada in their bowl game this year.  That performance may have put Scott on the radar of scouts, but it also was the top tape to grade Scott on: he’s not yet a consistent thrower of the football, but he’s got a lighting quick overhand release, and moves really well for a player of his slender build.  A true dual threat prospect in the NFL who has the arm to use the whole field.  He’s just an inconsistent down to down player with limited college tape to figure out why that may be.  Someone will take him in the middle rounds for his attributes.

8. Landry Jones, Oklahoma, fourth round grade

If Landry Jones had come out after his sophomore year, he would have been an interesting NFL projection at that point.  Right now, Jones’ flaws were too exposed over the last two years to put him squarely in someones future plans.  With that said, it’s worth pointing out that Jones has long been on the radars of NFL teams, and may go a lot higher than you would think.  He never showed the ability to make consistently good decisions with the football, which is perhaps emphasized by the fact that Oklahoma had a package to take him out on the goal line as a junior and senior.

Jones is heavily lacking in some of the movement-throwing skills that are a basic necessity for pro quarterbacks in the NFL…and really, Big 12 QBs to an extent.  From the pocket, he’s fine.  Not dynamic, necessarily, but does a good job seeing most of the field and throws down the field as well as he throws screen pass after screen past.  He’s not limited as a thrower, but his ability to handle pressure has long been questioned and probably emphasized by his inability to throw while moving.  Mechanically, he’s a bit inconsistent.  But three years from now, no one is going to remember his college career, at which point, you’re left with an interesting pro quarterback prospect who has the physical skill set to play at the next level and a ton of experience to go with it.

It may be ten years too late, but if you squint hard enough, you can see USC-era Carson Palmer here.

9. E.J. Manuel, Florida State, fourth round grade

Manuel has been a late faller for me, not because of anything on his tape, but just because I like a lot of other players a lot better.  Manuel throws the ball pretty well, but not as well as Matt Scott or Landry Jones.  He moves as well as anybody in this class, but this is overall a non-athletic QB class, and Manuel doesn’t move as well as some of the best prospects from other years like RG3 or Colin Kaepernick.  He has experience throwing NFL style route combinations, but overall is pretty cautious with the football.  He’s not a poor prospect, but he fits neatly into the concept of a NFL backup quarterback, where I think some of the other seconds and thirds in this draft show a trait here or there that reminds me of a pro starter.  Manuel’s calling card is his athleticism and NFL arm, and the NFL has a ton of those guys.  He might be the guy benefiting the most from the draft class hes in.

With that said, he should be employed as an NFL quarterback for 6-8 seasons, and the NFL is generally moving in a direction where his skill set is more valuable.  Can come off the bench and will complete passes in the NFL.

10. Tyler Wilson, Arkansas, fifth round grade
11. MarQueis Gray, Minnesota, fifth round grade

After Manuel, we get to the part of this list where we’re looking at players whose upside is between a number two and number three on an NFL depth chart.  With Wilson and Gray, as well as a couple of other guys on this list, you are looking at prospects that will be 24 year old NFL rookies, and you will know within a year whether you have a player who can hang around on an NFL roster fighting and clawing to get a couple of NFL starts, or someone who spends a year or two on practice squads before moving on to do something else. Wilson and Gray are tragic figures at their universities, tough customers whose greatest attribute is their ability to pop right back up and keep throwing with hardly any performance dropoff.  That was mostly on display for Wilson against SEC opponents this year, as you had to find the Big Ten network to see Gray play this year.  I think Gray has the better arm, but Wilson might be the more athletic of the two in the functional mobility/throwing on the run category.  Gray added a running element in the open field, with some ability to make Big Ten defenders miss him when running.  Wilson throws a better ball, Gray’s offense asked him to run first.

Either Wilson or Gray would be stretched as an NFL starter, but both can handle the rigors of a long season at the position.

12. Colby Cameron, Lousiana Tech, fifth round grade
13. Mike Glennon, North Carolina State, fifth round grade
14. Collin Klein*, Kansas State, fifth round grade
15. Brad Sorenson, Southern Utah

I put an asterisk by Collin Klein because I think he’s a fifth round talent who will not play a single snap of quarterback in the NFL.  I think he’ll get drafted as a quarterback, but might spend a year listed as a quarterback (plus) on a roster before playing receiver or tight end in the NFL, and I think he’ll play well.  As an aside, I opted not to list Denard Robinson with the quarterbacks, but he’s on the fringe between third and fourth round prospect for me right now.  I really like him.

Colby Cameron is a bit lacking in terms of his physical stature, but understands his limitations and throws a very catchable ball.  He won’t have an issue completing passes in the NFL on command, but benefitted greatly from knowing where Quentin Patton was, and getting him the football based on the defenses look.

Glennon looks like a big time prospect based on his arm and throwing ability, but the more I watched of him, the bigger the gulf got between his raw abilities and those of Tyler Bray.  If you just watch their throwing highlights, they look like identical players.  Then you watch more, and more, and more, and Glennon looks less and less long for the NFL.  Now, with that said, down here in the fifth round, he rated near a bunch of players who lack his throwing ability, and it would mean that if he was drafted this low, there would be some real potential of outperforming his draft status and getting on the field early, not unlike Ryan Lindley with the Cardinals last year (for what its worth, Glennon is simply a better thrower than Lindley was last year).

16. Ryan Griffin, Tulane, priority undrafted free agent projection
17. Alex Carder, Western Michigan, priority undrafted free agent projection
18. Jordan Rodgers, Vanderbilt, priority undrafted free agent projection

I really like Alex Carder, but you have to go back a couple of years to find the film that I thought made him a legit pro prospect.  His profile as a MAC quarterback makes him a decent value on a full year tryout basis, but probably not quite enough to get him drafted.  He’s a dual-threat prospect in the NFL with a unique throwing motion and a competitive streak.

Jordan Rodgers is not really a pro prospect in most senses of the term.  He will be in an NFL camp, and perhaps a seventh round pick in the NFL because his brother is Aaron Rodgers, but there’s not a whole lot here to work with.  He might be a better prospect than Jordan Palmer was coming out of UTEP, however, and Carson’s brother was in the league longer than you remember him being in the league.

19. Ryan Katz, San Diego State, UDFA
20. Matt McGloin, Penn State, UDFA

21. Matt Brown, Illinois State, UDFA
22. Graham Wilbert, Florida Atlantic, UDFA
23. Ryan Radcliffe, Central Michigan, UDFA
24. James Vandenberg, Iowa, UDFA

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