How Young Quarterbacks Are Redefining the Scouting Process

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How Young Quarterbacks Are Redefining the Scouting Process
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Colin Kaepernick's emergence in San Francisco speaks to the youth movement at the QB position

Across the NFL young quarterbacks like Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III are experiencing success and helping to transform losing teams into winning ones.

In decades past, the prevalent theory in scouting the quarterback position revolved around drafting and sitting the player for one, two or three seasons, dependent upon how fast a learner the kid was. Allowing the player to then learn underneath the incumbent starter, master the current offensive system and further mature as a person within the locker room, quarterbacks generally were well prepared for the NFL style of play.

With 19 of the 32 current starting quarterbacks in the NFL coming out of the previous five draft classes dating back to the 2008 NFL draft, and 12 of those 19 being selected in the last two drafts (2011 and 2012), gone is the notion that it takes a year or more to develop a starting NFL quarterback within an offensive system. To put it into perspective, how young quarterbacks are redefining the scouting process, over a third of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks have come from the last three drafts.

Looking back on the failures of top 2007 quarterback selections Jamarcus Russell and Brady Quinn, we can truly see where the Raiders’ and Browns’ respective mistakes served as a learning tool for teams around the league. Instead of drafting a quarterback and molding him to fit “your” system, NFL front offices have now begun to retool their teams' offenses to best suit the quarterback they’ve selected.

Director of Scouting for Optimum Scouting, Eric Galko, shared these sentiments and more, over the phone when I asked him about the topic of young quarterbacks in the NFL. Galko stated, “Teams are no longer drafting quarterbacks to fit their system; they’re drafting a quarterback and fitting their system around the quarterbacks skill set.”

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Mike Mccoy and Tim Tebow going over a play call during the playoffs

The way Mike McCoy adjusted his offense to Tim Tebow’s tough running ability midway through the 2011 season to enable the Broncos an chance at a playoff run, Galko said, was just one of the many instances where offensive coordinators have successfully altered a philosophy to better suit the skills of a young quarterback.

Two perfectly handled situations that have played out with quarterbacks selected in the second and third rounds of the 2011 and 2012 NFL drafts, can be seen in Cincinnati and Seattle, where TCU redhead Andy Dalton and the former MLB draft pick Russell Wilson have blossomed into winning NFL quarterbacks.

In both circumstances, each team accurately identified the strengths and weaknesses of their quarterbacks and adapted the offensive system to highlight such strengths and mask those weaknesses.

This truly is the winning formula and the path with which teams can now be expected to follow in the drafts to come, as the need for a franchise quarterback has become paramount in a quarterback-driven league.

Quick examples across the NFL of teams adjusting their philosophy entirely to improve the success rate of their young quarterbacks;

—Washington Redskins’ head coach and offensive coordinator, Mike and Kyle Shanahan, have shifted their offensive scheme to incorporate Baylor concepts that Robert Griffin III successfully executed at the college level—including the inverted veer and zone-read rushing game, quick screen passing game and deep vertical shot plays.

—For the Miami Dolphins, Ryan Tannehill’s transition was greatly helped through the hiring of his former head coach at Texas A&M and the integration of A&M's offensive verbiage into its own offensive scheme. Already knowing protection schemes, play calls, etc., Tannehill stepped into a favorable situation.

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RG3 and Alfred Morris running the zone read

—The Tennessee Titans and San Francisco 49ers, after giving a season for Jake Locker and Colin Kaepernick, respectively, to develop behind veteran starters, have maximized both players’ athletic potential by moving the pocket and allowing both to do what they’ve done throughout their respective football playing careers: extend plays with their feet, throw on the run and attack the deep half of the field with their tremendous arm talent.

—The Carolina Panthers eased Cam Newton into the NFL by giving him quick reads in the passing game, designed quarterback runs and vertical concepts to fully utilize the former Auburn quarterback’s “plus” arm, “plus” movement and “plus” improvisational skills.

—The Minnesota Vikings drafted Christian Ponder from Florida State, recognizing his polish in terms of footwork and mechanics and understanding of NFL route concepts, and centered their passing offense on Ponder’s efficiency in the short-to-intermediate levels. By asking Ponder to do what he did throughout his career at Florida State and meshing the college and pro games fluidly with one another, Minnesota, like the other teams listed here, quickened the adjustment period and raised the potential success rate of their new franchise quarterback.

The new rule of thumb to live by as a talent evaluator, scout, or personnel decision-maker in the NFL is to draft a quarterback and build the system around him.

Gone are the days where teams will draft a quarterback and force-feed their offense onto the young rookie. Needing to win games right away and minimize the huge learning curve that rookie quarterbacks face in their first few seasons at the NFL level, teams should wisely take part in this growing trend of offensive adaptation to the personnel within the offense.

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At this stage in a player’s career, teams cannot change what a player does or does not do well; strengths and weaknesses will remain, regardless of the preparation or offseason training work, and the focus of coaches in the NFL today is primarily winning now, not tomorrow.

Where NFL coordinators have now adjusted is in the way they formulate the offense: Evolving and adapting to personnel is key for survival. NFL coaching staffs, by simplifying and capitalizing on a given prospect’s strengths as a player, can extend their shelf life and improve their offensive efficiency.

Obviously there will be players who, upon entering the NFL draft, already possess a developed mind for the game and an awareness for NFL concepts, and those such players do not require as much adjustment from the coordinator. However, alterations still should be made to best accommodate and accentuate a given quarterback’s best traits as a passer.

Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 NFL draft, is a prime example of a player who had experience within an NFL-style offense. The Stanford system that Luck played under featured complicated passing reads, pre-snap responsibility at the line of scrimmage and similar jargon to what he would be experience at the NFL level. As such, Luck has been tasked with more difficult reads, responsibilities and decisions behind center and been able to remain successful despite the heavy plate of responsibility. 

Looking forward to the upcoming 2013 NFL draft class—with none of the quarterback prospects separating himself from the pack—an argument can be made for any arrangement or ranking near the top. By adjusting an offense to best suit the player, rather than reshaping the player to fit the system, NFL teams in this draft have a chance to still exit the draft with successful quarterbacks. 

Regardless of the consistency level or lack thereof in a crop of quarterback draft class, success or failure ultimately lies in the hands of offensive coordinators and NFL coaching staffs. Teams have done a much better job in recent years of isolating particular skill sets, focusing on player strengths and modeling an offense around such strengths. With that in mind, the Kansas City Chiefs’ top-rated quarterback will likely be different than, say, the Buffalo Bills. 

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Bengals OC Jay Gruden working with Andy Dalton

For those of us outside of the NFL who cover the NFL draft, this adapting function teams have begun to use in setting up quarterback prospects for success, has made the evaluation of the position that much more volatile and difficult to predict or project. 

With the way the NFL has adjusted its approach to the position, it has become even more important for draft analysts to adjust their approach as well. What now must be done in evaluating the quarterback position is to pinpoint the player’s best attributes, determine what offensive system best suits his skill set, place the player in an ideal situation and determine which player would be most valuable or successful, given optimal circumstances. 

Personnel makeup and coaching staffs, among other factors play a vital role in shaping the top of the draft board for teams in need of a franchise signal caller; nevertheless, the formula for success is certainly drawn up and in full display across the NFL landscape. In short, teams will adjust or the prospect will bust.

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