The Pittsburgh Steelers learned the hard way last year the perils of backing up their star quarterback with two players whose combined age would qualify for an AARP card.
When Ben Roethlisberger went down to injury in a Week 10 game against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Steelers first turned to Byron Leftwich to keep their playoff hopes alive. The then 32-year-old backup played gamely against the Ravens in Week 11, scoring on a surprising 31-yard touchdown scamper, but couldn’t bring the team back from a three-point deficit.
A broken rib in the Baltimore game sidelined Leftwich for the next few weeks and put Charlie Batch in the starter’s spot. Lost in the celebration of his comeback win over the Ravens just days before his 38th birthday was a dreadful three-interception performance that contributed to a loss to the lowly Cleveland Browns. The lowlight came in the 3rd quarter when Batch bounced a pass off the back of a defender’s helmet when trying to hit a streaking Mike Wallace on a deep route.
A 1-2 record without Roethlisberger had the Steelers barely above .500 and watching their postseason hopes dissipate. The big quarterback rushed back for the last four games of the season but later admitted that he had not fully recovered from his various maladies. Roethlisberger struggled to regain his usual form, tossing late picks that cost Pittsburgh winnable games against the Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals. The Steelers limped to a 1-3 record down the stretch, finished 8-8 and watched the playoffs from home.
The team’s struggles without Big Ben highlighted an urgent need to acquire a backup quarterback during the 2013 offseason who can guide the team effectively when Roethlisberger is sidelined. Ideally, said newcomer also would have the potential to grow into a replacement for the incumbent when he is no longer playing at an elite level.
Though there are some quality quarterbacks available in free agency in 2013, it is unlikely that Pittsburgh will be able to afford them. The Steelers’ front office will struggle just to re-sign potentially critical free-agents-to-be like Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis.
So, as with several other team needs, Pittsburgh will have to turn to the draft to fill this hole for 2013 and beyond.
Though there are no Robert Griffins or Andrew Lucks in this year’s draft, there are several college quarterbacks projected to be picked between the second and seventh rounds. None is perfect. Some are tantalizing, big-armed monsters who have struggled with accuracy and decision making. Others are solid leaders who may not have the athleticism to succeed at the next level.
The trick for the Steelers will be to figure out which of them have what it takes to be at worst a solid backup and at best a future star.
The following is a list of college quarterbacks Pittsburgh should consider drafting, arranged from the worst to the best choice. They were ranked based on an analysis of the likelihood that each would be productive at the professional level, with extra consideration given to the round in which they will probably be picked. Better players slated to go in later rounds clearly have more value than underachievers taken in the initial rounds.
Given that all the players being considered for the NFL Draft put up big numbers in college, the evaluation of the Steelers’ potential quarterback picks focuses on how well they performed in certain critical situations such as third downs, fourth quarters and when playing from behind.
Also included are two quarterbacks whom the Steelers should avoid.
In nearly every NFL Draft there is at least one player at a key position whose measurables wow observers and boost them into the higher rounds. His performance at the NFL combine makes scouts and general managers forget his less-than-stellar performance where it counts most: on the field.
Mike Glennon might be one of those players in 2013.
The NC State quarterback’s height and cannon arm have made him one of the draft’s top prospects at the quarterback position, meaning he will probably only be available to the Steelers in the first round. Though blessed with physical tools that make NFL types drool, Glennon is too inconsistent a player for Pittsburgh to spend a high draft pick on.
For starters, the NC State quarterback hit less than 60 percent of his passes in 2012. A completion percentage that low from an NFL quarterback just doesn’t cut it, and a college signal-caller playing against weaker defenses should do much better than the 58.5 percent that Glennon managed last year.
When Glennon did complete his throws, too many landed in opponents’ hands. Future NFL draft picks tend to have relatively fewer interceptions per attempt than their peers in the pros, especially given the prevalence of low-risk shotgun spread offenses in college football, but Glennon’s 3 percent interception rate was one of the worst among quarterbacks projected to be drafted in the first six rounds. His first downs per throw were also among the fewest among NFL prospects.
More troublingly, the senior signal-caller appeared to get worse when his team needed him most. When NC State was trailing by one to 14 points last year, Glennon’s completion percentage fell to 57 percent, and his interception rate ballooned to 4.5 percent.
Could Glennon blossom into a productive NFL quarterback? Sure. By all accounts, he has the physical skills to do it. But if he struggled with accuracy and decision making in college, is it reasonable to expect him to improve in those areas against superior competition in the pros?
A first-round pick needs to be as close to a sure thing as possible, and Pittsburgh has enough needs this year that the team can’t afford to whiff on any of its draft choices. With that in mind, the Steelers should pass on Glennon even if he falls to them.
Like Glennon, Tennessee’s Tyler Bray is a big-armed quarterback who has all the tools NFL scouts look for in an early-round draft pick. Unfortunately, like his peer, the junior signal-caller was also frequently inaccurate and made poor decisions with too many of his throws.
Though Bray put up an impressive 8.01 yards per attempt and converted first downs on 3.7 percent of his throws, he failed to connect consistently with his receivers. Bray’s completion percentage was slightly better than Glennon’s, but at 59.4 percent, was still less than what should be expected from an elite college quarterback. His interception rate of 2.7 percent was also a step up from Glennon’s but did not rank him among the top quarterbacks in the draft.
What really makes Bray a stay-away for the Steelers, though, is his inability to come through in key situations. For example, when facing third downs with between four and nine yards to go, the former Tennessee Volunteer struggled to complete passes, connecting on a dismal 52.6 percent of his throws.
He also got progressively worse as games went on. Though he had one of the overall best quarterback ratings among elite quarterbacks with 146.26, Bray’s score dropped to 138.48 in the second halves of 2012 games and sank further to 129.86 in fourth quarters. Similarly, Bray’s completion percentage fell to 56.7 percent in second halves and plummeted to 52.8 percent in the last period of games.
With all this in mind, why is Bray a slightly less problematic bet for the Steelers than Glennon? In addition to his slight edge in several key measures of quarterback performance mentioned above, he is slated to go later in the draft. While the NC State quarterback is likely to be selected late in the first round or early in the second round, Bray probably will drop into the late second round or early third round. That makes him less of a financial risk for a team like the Steelers that needs to get value out of every pick.
Nonetheless, Pittsburgh needs someone who can step in as a backup now and should let some other team roll the dice on a long-term project like Bray.
Though blessed with NFL height and arm strength, neither Glennon nor Bray is particularly mobile. The same cannot be said of Matt Scott from Arizona. The senior quarterback clocked one of the fastest 40-yard dashes at last weekend’s NFL combine and showed why he may be the next in a line of recent dual-threat rookie quarterbacks.
As a quarterback known a bit more for rushing for 506 yards and six touchdowns than leading a dazzling aerial attack, Scott did not have the most jaw-dropping 2012 passing stats. His completion percentage was a little more than 60 percent, and his quarterback rating (133.51) and yards per attempt (7.26) were pedestrian by the lofty standards by which future NFL draft picks are judged.
What Scott did show in 2012, however, was consistency and the ability to up his play as games progressed and when the team needed him. His completion percentage and rating shot up in the second half of the Wildcats’ games last year, indicating that Scott got stronger as he threw more.
When Arizona was losing by two touchdowns or less and needed to throw to make up ground on its opponents, Scott also boosted his performance accordingly. He connected on slightly more of his throws and threw slightly fewer interceptions as a percentage of his total attempts.
Where Scott struggled (and what should worry the Steelers or other teams interested in taking him) was on third downs. When Arizona needed between four and nine yards to get a first down, its quarterback completed only 48.2 percent of his passes and earned the team a new set of downs a mere 30.4 percent of the time. Both marks were by far the worst among quarterbacks projected to be drafted in 2013.
Though clearly not more than an intriguing physical talent at this point, Scott looks like a potential bargain pick for a team willing to gamble on him later in the draft. NFLdraftscout.com predicts that the former Wildcat will be drafted somewhere between the fourth and sixth rounds, meaning the Steelers could roll the dice on his arm and legs without incurring a lot of unnecessary risk.
Jordan Rodgers, a senior quarterback out of Vanderbilt, is reputed to play with a serious chip on his shoulder. Anger over a perceived draft-day slight has spurred his older brother, Aaron, to a stellar career with the Green Bay Packers. Will it also be enough to push Jordan from a late-round selection to a productive NFL career?
To get there, Jordan may have to overcome more limitations than Aaron if he hopes to follow in his big brother’s footsteps. Blessed with neither size nor arm strength, Rodgers put up fairly unimpressive overall numbers in his last year at Vanderbilt. His 59.9 percent completion percentage, 2539 yards, 139.13 quarterback rating and 7.96 yards per throw do not distinguish him from the other top-level signal-callers in the 2013 draft.
However, being a successful professional quarterback isn’t just about throwing for lots of yards. It’s also about taking care of the football. Almost nothing correlates better with losing games in the NFL than turning the ball over. With only five interceptions in 319 attempts, Rodgers had the lowest interception rate of any quarterback projected to be drafted in 2013.
Playing quarterback in the NFL is also about leading a team to wins. And on that score, Rodgers did plenty to indicate that he might have what it takes to succeed in the NFL.
For starters, the quarterback led the Commodores to a winning season and a bowl game for one of the few times in Vanderbilt’s decidedly unstoried history. This was arguably a direct result of Rodgers’ ability to rise to the occasion when his team needed him to come through. His quarterback rating went up in the fourth quarter of Vanderbilt’s games, and he didn’t throw a single pick when the Commodores were trailing by two touchdowns or less.
Does this mean that Rodgers will equal his brother’s achievements in the pros? Not necessarily. But it does mean that it’s worth it for the Steelers to take a flyer on him in the seventh round (where he’s slated to go) and hope that he pans out.
Perhaps no quarterback prospect saw his draft stock plummet in 2012 as much as USC’s Matt Barkley did. A certain first-round pick after a great 2011 season, Barkley struggled a bit this past year and has slipped to late in the first round or possibly early in the second round. If he is available to Pittsburgh in the second, the Steelers’ front office should give serious thought to picking him. The former Trojan has the maturity and experience running a pro-style offense necessary to become a solid NFL quarterback.
Barkley’s disappointing 2012 campaign was somewhat inevitable, given how impressive his 2011 numbers were. In his junior season, he completed 69.1 percent of his passes and threw 39 touchdowns against only seven interceptions. It’s hard to imagine how the quarterback could have improved on a season of that caliber.
And as bad as this past season supposedly was, Barkley still completed 63.6 percent of his passes, averaged an impressive 8.46 yards per throw and posted a 157.6 quarterback rating—among the highest of any elite prospect. Though his interception rate (3.9 percent) was troublingly high for a potential first round draft pick, his decision making got better when it mattered. When the Trojans trailed by 1 to 14 points and Barkley needed to throw to bring the team back, the quarterback threw picks on only 2.4 percent of his passes.
Barkley did struggle later in games, posting second-half and fourth-quarter completion percentages and quarterback ratings well below his overall marks, but he was very effective in another critical situation: third downs. In likely passing situations (3rd-and-4 to 3rd-and-9), Barkley hit on 64.6 percent of his throws and picked up first downs on 37.5 percent of his attempts.
There is certainly enough about Barkley that is sufficiently worrisome to make him unsuitable for the Steelers’ first-round pick. As was mentioned previously, those selections need to be nearly sure things, and Barkley just doesn’t come with a guarantee like Griffin or Luck.
However, spending a second-round pick on an accurate quarterback who is a proven leader, who has played in a high-pressure media environment and who can run a pro offense is a considerably better proposition. If by some chance Barkley falls to the Steelers there, the team should not hesitate to take him.
Given that the Steelers have won two Super Bowls in the past decade with a quarterback from Miami of Ohio, might it make sense for the team to look for its quarterback of the future from the same school? Especially considering that the guy who broke Ben Roethlisberger’s career completions and passing yards records may be available in the fifth round of the draft?
It might indeed.
Though former RedHawks quarterback Zac Dysert doesn’t have Roethlisberger’s size or arm strength, he has shown enough promise to make him an intriguing late-round pick. Despite playing with a less-than-inspiring supporting cast, the senior quarterback completed 62.9 percent of his passes and posted a quarterback rating of 136.06 in 2012. More importantly, he maintained this strong play during the second halves and fourth quarters of the games he played last year, posting essentially the same numbers in those higher-pressure situations.
Where Dysert really shone, however, was when the RedHawks were losing. When his team trailed by two touchdowns or less, Dysert improved his accuracy—hitting on 65.1 percent of his attempts—and reduced his interceptions—throwing them on only 1.3 percent of his passes. Both rates ranked among the best posted by quarterbacks slated to be drafted in 2013.
The senior signal-caller also did well at converting third-down attempts. When Dysert threw the ball on third down with four to nine yards to go, Miami of Ohio picked up a new set of downs 47 percent of the time.
Dysert is not a pick that is without risks. Certainly, the competition he faced was nothing like what Bray saw in the SEC, what Barkley saw in the Pac-12 or even what Glennon saw in the ACC. But given the strength of his performance at the collegiate level, his upside far outweighs the risks associated with a fifth-round draft pick.
Normally, players who move up draft boards based solely on a spectacular performance at the NFL Scouting Combine are players whom smart teams avoid drafting. The universe of people who can run fast, jump high and bench-press 225 pounds an astounding number of times is a lot bigger than the universe of people who can use those skills effectively on a football field. NFL history is littered with college prospects who came out of nowhere thanks to fantastic measurables, got drafted too high and then disappointed at the next level.
At first glance, Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel would appear to be just such a prospect. The Virginia Beach native had a relatively disappointing season defined by a terrible performance in a loss to Florida but blew almost the entire field away at the combine. Among the quarterbacks present, Manuel ran the second-fastest 40-yard dash time (4.65), posted the highest vertical (34”), leapt the second-farthest in the standing broad jump (118”) and completed the 20-yard shuttle run in the second-fastest time (4.21 seconds). Not bad for a man who stands 6’5” tall and weighs 237 pounds.
His performance last weekend has scouts and general managers salivating over his athleticism and may significantly improve his draft position. The risk that he will be drafted too high based on last weekend has certainly jumped up. However, unlike many combine “freaks” from years past, Manuel can actually play football.
In a supposedly “down” year in 2012, Manuel completed an astounding 68 percent of his passes and earned a quarterback rating of 156.03. His 8.76 yards per throw were among the best posted by signal-callers projected to be selected in the 2013 NFL Draft. The former Seminole picked up first downs on about one-third of his passes and posted a respectable, if not great, 2.6 percent interception rate.
Though his numbers for the second halves and fourth quarters of 2012 games were slightly worse than his stellar overall statistics, they still matched up well with those of his peers. With completion percentages exceeding 64 percent in the later stages of contests, Manuel was still more accurate than most other quarterback prospects in those situations.
The former Florida State Seminole also struggled somewhat to complete passes on third downs, but he still managed to pick up a first down on 47.8 percent of his attempts with between four and nine yards to go.
If Manuel’s workouts push him into the first round, then he probably isn’t worth it for the Steelers to take. Though an intriguing physical talent, he’s no Robert Griffin III. However, given that Manuel is the rare prospect who offers both a big upside and proven play on the field, he certainly merits a look if he falls to Pittsburgh in the second or third round.
Sometimes it doesn’t pay to have a long and successful college career. While players who burst onto the scene and declare for the NFL Draft all within a span of 12 months come and go before anyone can pick apart their games, those who string together several successful years get to enjoy watching the pro scouting machinery find miniscule faults in everything they do. Sustained excellence can be numbing if there is not constant improvement, and staring at something too long can expose flaws that would otherwise be too minor to matter.
Landry Jones, the standout quarterback for Oklahoma, may have become a victim of his own success. The senior completed a highly successful four-year run in which he completed nearly 64 percent of his passes, averaged more than 4000 yards in the air each season and threw 30 touchdowns per year. And yet many doubt that Jones has what it takes to succeed in the pros.
A closer look at Jones’s 2012 numbers suggests, however, that the former Sooner is a good bet for a team like the Steelers, especially if, as projected, he is still available in the third or fourth round.
The quarterback hit on 66.1 percent of his throws and picked up first downs on nearly 40 percent of his attempts. More importantly, very few of his throws (2 percent) landed in the other team’s arms. Though, like Manuel, his numbers dropped off slightly later in games, Jones’ completion percentages (around 64 percent) and quarterback ratings (approximately 135) would be the envy of most of his peers.
Boding well for his career in the NFL, Jones also excelled when it mattered most. Throwing on third downs with between four and nine yards to go, he picked up a first down an astounding 52.2 percent of the time.
More importantly, he played almost as efficiently as possible when Oklahoma trailed by two touchdowns or less and needed him to be at his best. In those situations, Jones boosted his completion percentage to a terrific 68.1 percent and cut his interception rate down to 1.7 percent.
Coming back for his senior season may have hurt Jones’ draft stock, but it may prove a boon to teams like the Steelers who are looking for quality quarterback at bargain-basement prices. If, as expected, the former Sooner drops to the third or fourth round, Pittsburgh would have a golden opportunity to grab someone who has a proven track record of success to back up Big Ben.
Just as mediocre quarterbacks on excellent teams tend to get an unjustified boost in the eyes of NFL scouts and general managers (see Leinart, Matt), good players languishing on unspectacular teams tend to get written off as incapable of leading clubs to victories at the next level.
It is arguably harder, though, to excel on a team that doesn’t have top-drawer talent. And that’s exactly what Ryan Nassib has done during his college career at Syracuse.
Playing on an Orangemen team that has gone 72-95 since Donovan McNabb left in 1998, Nassib has still managed to complete 62.4 percent of his passes in each of the past two seasons and average 24 touchdowns over the same time span. Thanks to his leadership, above-average mobility and passing skills, two of his school’s five post-McNabb winning seasons came with Nassib guiding the team’s offense.
What made Nassib special in 2012, though, were not his standard numbers (which were very good). Instead, it was his ability to come through for the Orangemen in every situation that required strong quarterback play.
The signal-caller was superlative on third-down throws when his team needed between four and nine yards for a first down, connecting on 63.2 percent of his passes and picking up a new set of downs 47.1 percent of the time.
Nassib was even better in the second halves of games. He completed 68 percent of his throws in the last 30 minutes of contests, a clip that included a 63.8 completion percentage in fourth quarters. His quarterback rating jumped nearly 20 points to 161.74 during second halves—putting him near the top of this category among NFL-bound quarterbacks.
The Syracuse quarterback also excelled when his team was down. When trailing by between one and 14 points, Nassib became more accurate (completing 65.5 percent of his passes) and more discerning (posting an interception rate of 1.3 percent).
Thanks in part to Syracuse’s lackluster recent history, Nassib projects to go no higher than the second round, making him arguably the best value pick for the Steelers. If he falls to the third or fourth round and Pittsburgh pounces on him, they could end up with the steal of the draft.