There have been hundreds of great college quarterbacks that have made their mark and then disappeared once the NFL came calling. Arguably the toughest position to make a transition to the next level, being a successful quarterback in both college and the NFL is extremely rare. Not because there are only 32 starting jobs, but because you need certain traits to separate yourself from the rest of the pack.
Tim Tebow, Matt Leinart, and Mark Sanchez are just some of the recent great college quarterbacks who have struggled to find their way in the NFL. Once you begin tapping into guys such as JaMarcus Russell, David Carr, Eric Crouch, and Ryan Leaf, you quickly realize the success rate isn't great at this position.
So what does a college quarterback need to have in order to succeed at the next level? What can help a great quarterback transform into an elite player in the NFL?
Here is the fine line between being a good collegiate quarterback and an elite NFL starter.
Mental Aspect of the Game
Regardless of what position or sport you play, there is a good chance you can carve out a solid career just off of your physical traits alone. This isn't the case if you are hoping to play quarterback professionally. The mental aspect may in fact be more important than all of the talent you can actually see on the field. The mental part of the game for a quarterback includes poise, work ethic, leadership and intelligence.
Out of those things, leadership may be the most important for a quarterback. A signal-caller is the face of the offense, the team and usually has the most say next to the head coach. The team looks to the quarterback for answers and most of the time follows the lead of that position. If a quarterback doesn't have that leadership trait, veterans in the locker room will simply walk all over him and his career won't last long. He must gain respect of the team or all hell will break loose.
Cam Newton ran into a sophomore slump last season, but what really caught my attention was the press conference above. He accepted little blame on a recent loss, put majority of the responsibility on the head coach and said that he can only control what he can control. Wrong. A leader at quarterback would have kept these feelings "in house" and tried to figure out what he can do to make the team better. Leaders accept responsibility and move forward. They don't throw guys under the bus and pretend they are bigger than the team.
Poise can almost fall into the same category as leadership. The great ones never get rattled, and they don't let the frustration show. Now a sidelines fight like this one is going to happen once in a while, but the great quarterbacks don't carry that back onto the field. An elite quarterback doesn't fold under pressure or cave into moments of stress. They are able to keep things together for the sake of the team.
Intelligence should be high on a quarterback is well. No, I'm not talking about the Wonderlic test. There is a difference between knowing the game of football and knowing an answer to a multiple choice question he will never see again in his life. While it wouldn't hurt for him to be able to breakdown the impossible math problems, he must be highly intelligent when it comes to the game of football. He will be given a playbook that is as thick as a Chicago deep dish pizza, and he will be expected to know everything in it.
Not only should he be aware of what he has to do, but he must know the job of his running back, receivers and offensive line. If that wasn't enough, the quarterback also has to be responsible for making adjustments, calling audibles and reminding guys what their job is. Besides being the pretty boy, there is a reason why quarterbacks make all of the big bucks. It is because they are basically a second coach out there on the field.
Another thing a quarterback should have is a high work ethic. It takes a lot of work to become great and even some of the quarterbacks that are locks to become members of the Hall of Fame still put in legendary workouts to this day. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers all put the work in consistently to become the players they are today. They also spend more time studying film than they do with their families, which makes them students of the game. This is why defenses have a hard time stopping them, thanks to spending countless nights in the lab.
When most look at a quarterback, they pay attention at all of the physical traits and what he can do with his arm. However, the mental makeup is probably more important than all of those things. If a quarterback is smart and has a relentless work ethic, there is a chance he can become elite once joining the NFL.
When actually on the field, pocket presence makes a world of difference when discussing elite quarterbacks. It helps that the player already has it because it is something that can be extremely difficult to teach. Avoiding pressure and knowing what to do when a defender gets close is almost like a sixth sense. This is something that you either have or you don't because learning it could take a mighty long time.
This shouldn't be confused with mobility. Sure, an athletic quarterback such as Robert Griffin, Michael Vick, or Russell Wilson should be able to buy himself more time just by simply rolling out of the pocket with his scrambling ability. However, even guys who aren't much of a threat running the ball need to show remarkable pocket presence.
Here you see Manning looking down field, while the strong-side defensive end is coming off the edge. The Broncos quarterback must step up into the pocket to buy himself more time and avoid getting sacked.
Manning not only stepped up, but he also kept his eyes down field the entire play. He did a great job of standing tall in the pocket and delivering a strong throw, even with another defender coming in for the hit. He never took his eyes off of his receivers and was able to avoid the pressure by having terrific instincts.
Feeling the pressure, avoiding it and then willing to continue to stand in the pocket knowing that you are going to get hit in the chops is only half the battle. You have to be able to do all of these things without actually seeing the defenders, as the quarterback should always have his eyes down field looking for an open man.
This can be taught, but the elite quarterbacks already have it and use it to their advantage each and every time a defender inches close to them.
Poor decision making will get a quarterback benched quickly at any level. Protecting the football and limiting turnovers is something you are taught at the elementary stage and it holds true in the NFL.
A quarterback must be able to see the field well, see what the defense is giving him and make the proper decision with the football. Finding the open receiver is key, while forcing the ball into traffic isn't exactly ideal. I would much rather have the quarterback that takes advantage of the five-yard open receiver every play than the guy who forces the ball down field in hopes of a big play happening.
A perfect example of what not to do is the video above. It is a four minute video of Jay Cutler throwing the ball into a team meeting on a continuous basis. Some would say that his offensive line doesn't help out much, but throwing the ball up for grabs every chance you get is not the answer. His receivers had no chance of catching the football and Cutler should have either taken a sack or found somebody who was open. Believe me; if there are three or four players around one receiver, somebody was open on the play.
You also have the boneheaded plays that would drive any coach up the wall. Eli Manning is under pressure, was running for his life and was about to take a sack. But instead of counting his losses and trying again on the next play, he switches the ball to his left hand and flings the ball forward into the end zone. In case you are wondering, Manning is right-handed.
This play of course resulted in an interception and probably should have warranted a benching. Foolish decisions like this can be fixed with more experience and a little coaching, but by the time a guy reaches the NFL, plays like this shouldn't be taking place. Quarterbacks have to be disciplined and know when and when not to take chances.
A high turnover margin and poor decisions not only separates the good from the elite quarterbacks, but it also plays a part in who has a job and who doesn't.
Any Elite QB's in this Year's Class?
I see potential in this year's class, but that doesn't mean I would spend a first-round pick on any of them. I am a big fan of value when it comes to the NFL draft, and it is hard to see any quarterback in the 2013 draft class being worthy of a top 32 pick. But everybody and their mother knows that there will be at least two signal-callers drafted on the first day.
With that said, I really think E.J. Manuel fits into the mold of today's NFL. He has the size (6'5"), athletic ability and the strong arm to develop into a solid quarterback. If he is ever going to take that next step, he must work on his delivery, accuracy and decision making. Although based on true potential and upside, Manuel may be worth the gamble and there is sure to be some team out there willing to pull the trigger earlier than expected.
Another guy who is pretty much a lock to be the first quarterback taken is Geno Smith. He is athletic, has the field vision, and he has great accuracy to make all of the throws. One of the underrated parts of his game is the fact he is a smart quarterback and has a tremendous work ethic. You can tell that he is willing to learn and get better overall. Any time a quarterback is willing to put that work in and iron out the wrinkles, he has a chance to become a great player.
Some of the sleepers would include Tyler Wilson, Landry Jones, and Tyler Bray. However, I'm not sold on any quarterback in this draft class and would make a pick at another position, even if my team needed a starting quarterback. Reaching and hoping is not the formula for draft success.
What We Learned
Quarterback play is as much mental as it is physical. Randy Moss was a Hall of Fame receiver, and he only gave it his all on half the plays. Allen Iverson was one of the greatest basketball players, and he didn't like showing up to practice. Other players in various sports have proven not to be the brightest crayon in the box, but were able to survive off of a skill set they were born with. Quarterbacks aren't so lucky.
Pick whichever quarterback you think is elite and the intelligence factor screams at you when watching them play. Sure, having great arm strength, being accurate and having jaw-dropping mechanics help shape a great quarterback as well, but it is the little things that make a quarterback elite.
Pocket presence and decision making also help play into the equation as well but the mental aspect is critical to the success. While other positions could get away with being a buffoon, it is what is underneath the helmet that helps separate the good college quarterbacks from the elite NFL prospect.