Fear the Five-Star: A New Lens for Evaluating Quarterbacks in the NFL Draft

Paul ThelenContributor IIFebruary 21, 2013

PASADENA, CA - NOVEMBER 17:  Matt Barkley #7 of the USC Trojans reacts to his incompletion on fourth down during the first quarter against the UCLA Bruins at Rose Bowl on November 17, 2012 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Drafting the wrong quarterback can paralyze an NFL organization. 

But how can an NFL team identify a bust before drafting him?  

There isn't a singular process for identifying who will be a great, good or bad NFL quarterback. It's the most complex and difficult position to play in all of professional sports, as it requires cerebral and physical excellence. NFL personnel departments attempt to gauge the level and potential for this excellence via college game tapes, one-on-one interviews, private workouts and the NFL Scouting Combine.

Yet, even after all this thorough investigation and research, a team won’t know if their draftee will succeed in the NFL until he receives authentic NFL experience. 

What personal departments can evaluate with certainty is the chemistry consistent in successful quarterbacks currently in the NFL, so as to search for these elements in prospects.

The league shows the increasing importance of arm strength, athleticism and decision-making, and most remarkably the growing importance to have all three. History also displays the chemistry of quarterbacks who have not been successful and the traits that these players embody.

No two quarterbacks are identical, but when you dissect the pre-draft characteristics and history of NFL quarterbacks who have failed to perform up to expectation—or as they're more widely classified “busts”—one alarming similarity stands out among them. 

What do JaMarcus Russell, Matt Leinart, Chad Henne, Jimmy Clausen, Mark Sanchez, Vince Young, Blaine Gabbert and Trent Edwards all have in common? 

At first glance you would say that all of them were high draft picks who failed to reach or exceed great expectations in the NFL. This of course is an accurate response, but why have these players struggled when others have succeeded? They possessed excellence in some capacity, whether it was the accuracy of Leinart and Clausen,Young's leadership and athleticism or the arm strength of Edwards, Sanchez and Russell.  

There is a similarity among these quarterbacks that could be the diagnosis for their struggles in the NFL.

Each was a five-star recruit coming out of high school. 

Now, you're most likely questioning how collegiate recruiting rankings are relevant when evaluating NFL prospects. They are because they help narrate the path of the prospects. A five-star recruit enters college with superior talent in comparison to his lower-ranked contemporaries. Which ultimately, means their path to becoming a collegiate starter is far less rigorous than said lower-ranked players.

From the moment these quarterbacks step on campus, they know the starting job will be theirs in the near future. 

This predestined path is not an incentive for cultivating a strong work ethic. All of the listed quarterbacks' work ethics were criticized once they joined NFL. These quarterbacks failed, or in the case of Sanchez are failing, to improve their abilities.

None of these players failed because of physical flaws. They all came into the NFL with talent and the false notion that their talent could carry them as it did in college. Having such a notion isn't far-fetched, when you consider that each of these quarterbacks were told at the impressionable age of 17 that they were the best or one of the best quarterbacks in the nation.

These clamoring cheers were echoed once again when they were told at the NFL draft that they were superior.

Extrapolating further, each of these quarterbacks have also failed to overcome adversity. Given their privileges as college recruits, then as college players, these quarterbacks enter the NFL without the experience of dealing with significant adversity.

I’m not talking adversity in the sense of having a bad game or an injury. Rather the adversity to adjusting to the increased difficulty of the NFL.

Such as how Leinart cowered when the Cardinals brought in Kurt Warner for competition, or how Sanchez shrank under the speculation of his uncertain future with the Jets and the loom of Tebow. It's why Young couldn’t overcome the adversity of being criticized by coach Jeff Fisher, or how JaMarcus Russell and Jimmy Clausen failed to mentally adapt to reading NFL defenses.

These players lack the motivation to achieve greatness, because they don't realize their ability isn't enough until it's too late.

What’s possibly most concerning about looking at five-star rated quarterbacks once they reach the NFL, is how seldom they succeed at the next level. When general managers evaluate quarterbacks prior to the draft, they often voice concerns toward quarterbacks who come from distinct college schemes such as the spread offense.

This is a legitimate concern, but for every busted scheme quarterback—Pat White, Alex Smith, Vince Young, Rex Grossman—there exists complementary success stories—Robert Griffin, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin, Colin Kaepernick. So when a team considers drafting a scheme quarterback, they go in with the confidence of the player possessing a virtual 50-50 shot.

But with five-star players, the only success stories are Matthew Stafford and Andrew Luck. There have been only 12 five-star quarterbacks drafted in the first two rounds of the NFL draft since 2005. Two of those are Ryan Mallet and Tim Tebow, and based on their unclear futures we will eliminate them from the discussion.That leaves the eight listed failed quarterbacks above, and Luck and Stafford.

That’s a mere 20-percent success rate.  

Work ethic and response to adversity are necessary attributes for a good NFL quarterback. Often teams get trapped into praising the talent and ignore these undervalued traits. 

Just look at the current landscape of good NFL quarterbacks and you'll notice that so many of them faced tribulation before the NFL. Tom Brady had to compete against Drew Henson and overcome being benched at Michigan. Aaron Rodgers' path to the NFL required a stint playing in junior college.

Cam Newton had to combat off-the-field controversy at Florida, a stint in junior college and more controversy at Auburn. Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan were three-star recruits. Andy Dalton, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick were two star recruits.

Ranking high school players based on this one-to-five-star system only became available in 2002. Yet projecting how players who graduated high school before 2002 will fare isn’t impossible based on where they played in college.

Drew Brees, Jay Cutler, Tony Romo and Ben Roethlisberger certainly wouldn’t have found themselves ranked as five-star players. Sure, the Manning brothers and Phillip Rivers most likely would have, but even if you consider those three with Stafford and Luck, the numbers are mind-boggling.

Now all of this isn’t meant to criticize the skill and intelligence of college recruiters, for professional success is irrelevant to how a player preforms in college. Nor is it meant to declare that any quarterback who had to overcome adversity in college will become a good NFL quarterback. Instead, what it does is provide another lens for evaluating quarterbacks for the NFL draft.

A lens that is very intriguing considering the 2013 NFL quarterback class, as both Matt Barkley and E.J. Manuel were five-star recruits coming out of high school and will both likely be drafted in the first two rounds.