Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Evaluating College Quarterbacks to the NFL: The Eagles Quandry

I heard it said numerous times over the last 20 years: “Projecting College Quarterbacks to the NFL is an inexact science”.  This mantra has been repeated by many scouts, coaches, and TV analysts.  Some say it as a cover for incorrect prognostications, some say it because they are just not sure about a specific prospect, and others say it because they heard others say it so they repeat it.  The truth is that there are some objective factors to consider when projecting from college to the professional arena for Quarterbacks.  The real problem is the coaches and environment those players come from then go to after they leave college.

What tends to be overlooked when evaluating the Quarterback position is the commonalities versus the difference between Professional and Collegiate American Football.  The first major similarity between both levels are the Quarterback must be accurate, keeping the opportunities for the opposing defense to force turnovers down to a minimum.  Accuracy is more than just about throwing the ball to the right spot or the open player, it’s also about communicating to the team about what the QB needs to execute the play on hand.  The second element is arm strength, since the man throwing the ball needs enough juice behind the throw to get it to his receivers.  If the Quarterback does not have enough arm strength he runs into two major problems: giving defenders more time to attempt to break up the pass attempt and forces the receiver of the pass to wait on the ball, potentially putting them in the position to have to change their planned route on that play in order to adapt to the throw.

The major difference between the two levels of play come down to what, in any area of life, separates the good from the great: the mental aspect.  In college, players who are talented can be great because the talent they play against is diluted compared to the Pro game.  As a result, if that player happens to be the best athlete on the field, then success is more of a sure thing for that player and his team.  But on the Professional level, having talent is never enough because everyone at that level is talented.  In the National Football League (NFL) are the best of the best Football players whose jobs depend on them perfecting their skills.  So for the Pro QB, the cerebral aspect of the game is more important since they have to spend hours upon hours preparing to execute on game day and deal with numerous obstacles on and off the field.  The great Quarterbacks have to outthink their opposition, out work them, and have the competitive fire to push through adversity.

Evaluating how a player projects to the next level is layered; while it is not an exact science, there are elements about who the player is and knowing what they can and can’t do that transcend everything else.   This is where the rubber meets the road for many coaches, scouts, and TV analysts.  This issue with projecting Quarterbacks from college to the Professional ranks is embodied in the Philadelphia Eagles Quarterback situation.  This past offseason the Eagles traded away starting QB Nick Foles to the St. Louis Rams for Sam Bradford.  A couple months later they signed former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow to compete for one of the backup Quarterback positions, with the assumption Sam Bradford would be the starter in 2015.

With the Eagles QB Depth Chart four players deep (most teams usually have 2-3 Quarterbacks during the season on the roster), all of these players have unique backgrounds and attributes.  Three of the four are former 1st round Draft Picks (Bradford, Sanchez, and Tebow) while three of the four passed for over 8,000 yards in their careers and threw for over 80 career Touchdowns (Bradford, Barkley, and Tebow). 

Let’s quickly profile each player:

-Sam Bradford (University of Oklahoma: 2007-2009; #1 Overall Pick in 2010 NFL Draft by St. Louis Rams)
Positives: Sam Bradford is one of the most awarded and talented college Quarterbacks of the last 20 years of college football.  In the year Sam won the Heisman Trophy (2008), he threw for 4,720 yards and 50 Touchdowns.  An accurate QB in college, Sam Bradford only threw 16 interceptions and had a completion percentage of 67.6 percent for his college career.  He has a great throwing arm and excellent work ethic to match his talents.  Bradford was able to maximize his abilities with his high Football IQ and commitment to helping his team win games.
Negatives:  Since college, Sam Bradford has had health issues including Shoulder, ankle and knee injuries that have taken him off the field numerous times.  Of his four seasons coming into 2015 NFL campaign, He has only been healthy enough to play through two of them.  When Sam has been healthy, he has put up solid statistics, but his completion percentage is a bit of a disappointment compared to his college numbers.  In the NFL, Bradford has a career average 58.6 completion percentage; that is almost a ten percent drop from college.

-Mark Sanchez (University of Southern California 2006-2008; #5 Overall Pick in 2009 NFL Draft by New York Jets)
Positives: Mark Sanchez capped a top tier season in 2008 at USC in which he was the top Quarterback in the PAC-10 Conference with becoming the Jets 1st round pick and quickly being appointed the starting job.  With above average arm strength, what was considered Mark’s real strength for playing the QB position is his high Football IQ and work ethic on/off the field. 
Negatives: Mark Sanchez only had one season as a starting quarterback at USC, a lack of playing experience that hurt him when he got to the NFL.  Never the most accurate quarterback in college, those issues multiplied at the NFL level where with the Jets he finished two seasons with more interceptions than touchdowns (2009 & 2012).  Mark’s only above average arm talent has also held him back with his inability to squeeze passes into tight openings for his receivers consistently or throw the deep pass with accuracy.

-Matt Barkley (University of Southern California: 2009-2012; 98th Overall Pick in 2013 Draft by Philadelphia Eagles)
Positives: At USC Matt Barkley had a stellar career with three straight seasons with a completion percentage over 62 percent and a minimum of 26 passing touchdowns.  He showed the pocket presence in college that is necessary at the NFL level; his ability to read defenses and be poised under pressure was evident.  With good arm strength, above average accuracy, and a high Football IQ, Matt Barkley looked ready made to be a solid NFL QB.
Negatives: Matt Barkley was drafted by a team (Philadelphia Eagles) who were not looking to develop him to be the Quarterback of the future; they selected him because his skill set was expected to work well within Head Coach Chip Kelly’s offense.  Barkley has looked inconsistent during preseason and regular season games.  At times he has shown he can execute a team’s offensive game plan with precision, other times he has looked flustered under heavy defensive pressure.  The reality is that unless Matt Barkley is on a team that believes they can develop him to be their future starter, he will never get the number of opportunities on the field he needs to grow into a successful QB in the NFL.

-Tim Tebow (University of Florida: 2006-2009; 25th Overall Pick in 2010 Draft by Denver Broncos)
Positives: While at Florida Tim Tebow had a career that places himself as one of the greatest college players of all time.  Aside from winning two national titles and a Heisman Trophy, Tim also threw 88 career passing touchdowns and ran for 57 career rushing touchdowns.  Tebow has a strong throwing arm that he displayed at both the college and pro levels when throwing the deep ball.  Also, he is a very good athlete and ultra-competitor willing to do whatever it takes to help his team win.
Negatives: Tim Tebow has two major issues as a Quarterback that he has yet to overcome.  The first is his inconsistency on short and intermediate passing plays.  Either he has trouble making the throw accurately or, takes too long to pull the trigger on the throw in a timely manner.  Secondly, Tim has never been truly coached to be a Quarterback in the style of the NFL’s game.  Tim was in a triple-option, run first offense at Florida in which he was not asked to read defenses or make quick decision throws.  In the NFL teams have tried to build washed down offensive game plans to work around his short comings.  Up to this point I have not seen any coaches instructing or working with Tebow on how to read defenses and work through the progression of different options during a called offensive play.

So with each of these Quarterbacks on the Eagles roster, there are reasons why they have not had major success at the NFL level and also reasons why they could be successful at the NFL level.  Whether it is injuries (Sam Bradford), inconsistent play (Mark Sanchez), not being put in a position to be successful (Matt Barkley) or lack of coaching and instruction (Tim Tebow), there is always an explanation for why a player’s career has gone as it has over time. 

Now no one could have predicted Bradford would sustain ankle and knee injuries in the NFL but the Rams could have put a better constructed offensive line in front of the rookie Quarterback in order to allow him more protection.

 We knew that Sanchez only played one full season as a starter in college, so it’s not an unrealistic stretch to think he probably needed time to develop before being “thrown to the wolves” in the NFL.  The Jets could have signed a veteran Quarterback to start at the beginning of Sanchez’s career, allowing Mark to learn how to be a pro and buy time for him to further develop his craft.

What if Matt Barkley would’ve been drafted by the Washington Redskins, Arizona Cardinals, or Houston Texans instead of the Eagles?  He would’ve been drafted to teams that are influx at the starting Quarterback position with offensive minded Head Coaches who would look to develop Barkley, giving him ample opportunities to show what he can do at the NFL level.

Tim Tebow is a hardworking, ultra-competitive athlete who wants to help his team win.  Instead of building an offensive game plan to mask his below average throwing mechanics and underdeveloped cerebral Quarterback skills, coaches should have worked with him to improve those weak areas.  Tim has been stereotyped and quantified instead of developed and properly coached. 

In summary, an individual with enough football knowledge watching a Quarterback in college can make honest assessments about a player’s strengths and weakness along with how those positives and negatives would translate against higher level competition.  Too many times teams and coaching staffs attempt to force a player to fit their system instead of giving that player the tools needed to be successful.  Quarterbacks need receivers to throw to, an offensive line to block for him, and coaches who will develop a game plan to help him to fully utilize his skills while improving his weak areas. 

Often in the NFL Quarterbacks are burdened with “saving” or “resurrecting” a franchises, the hopes and dreams of a team and fan base are put on that players shoulders.  Instead of building a team that can execute the coach’s winning formula, too much is invested in one player.  That one player needs others around him to be able to execute on each play in order for the Quarterback to have the chance to move the offense in a positive direction in order to score.

Look at all the great Hall of Fame Quarterbacks:
-Bart Starr played for one of the greatest coaches of all-time (Vince Lombardi) and on one of the most talented teams in NFL history (1960’s Green Bay Packers).
-Terry Bradshaw had the luxury of throwing the ball to two future Hall of Fame Wide Receivers (Lynn Swann and John Stallworth) and was coached by a Hall of Fame Head Coach (Chuck Noll).
-Joe Montana was drafted and coached by one of the greatest offensive minds in NFL history (Bill Walsh) who built a team for Montana to win with (1980’s San Francisco 49ers).
-John Elway lost numerous Super Bowls before he had a 2,000 yard rusher at Running Back (Terrell Davis) and a future Hall of Famer at Tight End (Shannon Sharpe); only then did he win two titles with the Denver Broncos

Of those four QBs I listed above, Elway had the most pure talent, Bradshaw had the best deep throw ability, Montana had the highest football IQ, and Starr was an ultra-competitive leader.  Yet none of those superlatives meant nothing without being in the right situation to allow them to be successful.  Whether the Eagles start Bradford, Sanchez, Barkley or Tebow this season there is a constant variable: it is up to the coaches to put them in a position to be successful in order for those players to overcome their weakness and best utilize their strengths.

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