Geno Smith is tall, fast and a top NFL quarterback prospect. He got much of his college experience in an unconventional spread offense and enters the draft with a lot of upside but a lot of questions about how quickly he can adapt to the pro game.
He's also African-American.
To understand why Smith is the best quarterback prospect in the 2013 NFL draft class—and the only one with a chance to be selected near the top of the first round—you have to understand that talent is more than skin-deep.
Of Books and Covers
Football fans of a certain age (north of 30) grew up seeing very, very few African-Americans play quarterback. Those they saw were often deployed as do-everything offensive weapons, their athleticism used to give defenses fits. African-American college quarterbacks weren't groomed to be pro-ready passers, and those with the talent to play on Sunday often weren't allowed.
Those who excelled in college were frequently switched to other positions. A generation ago, a player like Smith—were he even allowed to play quarterback in college—would almost certainly have been switched to defensive back in the NFL.
Things have changed, to an extent. Depending on how the offseason shakes out, a quarter of NFL teams could have an African-American quarterback starting for them in 2013.
Despite the questions surrounding his game, It's likely that Smith will be one.
According to a 2010 study by the University of Central Florida, 67 percent of NFL players in 2010 were African-American. Compared to the rest of the positions, eight or nine starting quarterbacks out of 32 still represents a major imbalance.
It's been more than a quarter-century since Doug Williams, the first African-American drafted in the first round as a quarterback, became the first to win a Super Bowl. There hasn't been a second.
Our brains are interesting things. They're hardwired to recognize familiar patterns, and sometimes we see them even when they aren't there. It's all too easy to look at Smith and see a stereotypical "black quarterback."
Pro Football Weekly senior editor Nolan Nawrocki recently evaluated Geno Smith and had profoundly negative things to say about his field-reading, decision-making and overall character. Here is a small sample:
A cross between Akili Smith and Aaron Brooks, Smith is a gimmick, overhyped product of the system lacking the football savvy, work habits and focus to cement a starting job and could drain energy from a QB room. Will be overdrafted and struggle to produce against NFL defensive complexities.
As I've explained before, it's not necessarily overt racism that guides scouting services to sort high school quarterbacks into "pro-style" and "dual-threat" prospects primarily along racial lines, nor is it necessarily prejudice that prompts scouts and evaluators that come down hard on college quarterbacks who don't fit the old "golden boy" archetype.
When scouts, media draft analysts, fans and other evaluators scout players, they have memories and an understanding of what kinds of players are successful at each position. They know what a great quarterback prospect has always looked like, and Geno Smith doesn't look like that.
When I look at Geno Smith's film, I don't see Akili Smith. I see a talented, naturally accurate passer who sees the field well and executes a complex offensive system at a high level. Given his lack of a cannon arm and there-when-you-need-it athleticism, Geno Smith looks more like Alex Smith than Akili Smith.
So Geno Smith doesn't look like Peyton Manning and he doesn't play like Robert Griffin III. But his talent is obvious and his upside tantalizing.
Smith does have outstanding athleticism. He's 6'3", 218 pounds and boasts a 4.56 40-yard dash time. Unlike the "athletic quarterbacks" Smith will inevitably be compared to, though, he won't have to be coached not to break down and run. His first, second, third, fourth and fifth instincts are to make the next read and get rid of it.
When pressured or after he's finally exhausted all his options, Smith can and will run. But instead of scurrying for yardage like Mike Vick, Smith usually scrambles to get away from the rush and find an open man.
When things went as expected as they did here against Kansas, Smith did a beautiful job sitting in the pocket, using his eyes and delivering a catchable ball:
He shows excellent field-reading skills and knows what the progressions are, whips through them quickly and makes good decisions. If this is Smith's "gimmick," it's a damn good one.
Black or white, tall or short, fast or slow, cannon arm or peashooter, this is the skill every NFL quarterback must have, and Smith has it. He understands what the offense is trying to do and how the defense is trying to stop him.
Smith isn't a can't-miss prospect.
He's tall, but he's not massive; his lean build could and perhaps should carry more weight. Smith will take lots of punishment this season if he's drafted as highly as many expect. He can elude the rush nearly as well as Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but he doesn't have the beef to shrug off tacklers like Big Ben can.
Smith can put both zip and touch on short- and medium-range passes. He also shows an outstanding knack for placing the ball for receivers going over the middle. However, Smith is a little more wild when he goes for the sidelines.
His deep ball has a pronounced flutter, especially when going down the numbers or wider. When Smith starts pressing, he'll go for the home run more often and throw a lot of balls high and behind. As CBS Sports' Rob Rang noted at the NFL Scouting Combine, Smith's poor technique resulted in several unimpressive throws on a day he really needed to impress.
Watch Smith's game against Kansas State. As the Mountaineers offense fell behind, Smith pressed. He threw very poor deep balls, two of which were picked off:
Smith needs to correct his poor footwork. He has a sloppy dropback and doesn't properly set his feet, step up or transfer weight from back to front like he ought to. This is robbing him of accuracy and velocity downfield.
Smith has confidence in his arm, but like the Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford, that confidence (and lazy mechanics) gets him into trouble. Smith could suffer a rash of interceptions in his rookie season as he adjusts to the ability of NFL defensive backs.
Judge Him by the Content of His Ability
Smith's biggest problems can be addressed with coaching, as his greatest assets can't be taught.
If an NFL team drafts Smith to play the role of "black quarterback" and installs a bunch of designed runs or read-option plays to maximize his athleticism, it will be missing out on the excellent passing talent Smith is—and maybe even putting him on IR.
If the team that drafts Smith chooses to develop his talents as it would any other franchise quarterback prospect, it could quickly have one of the best young arms in the NFL under center.