While the 2013 NFL draft drew record ratings and went off without a hitch, one of the biggest storylines radiating from Radio City Music Hall was that something was missing—the two best prospects in all of college football.
And it wasn’t because they decided to skip out on the festivities, either. They were true sophomores, players only two years out of high school, and thus ineligible to make the pilgrimage under the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement.
Nearly every sports fan—no matter how laissez-faire they are in their fandom—knows of the first player, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. He’s arguably the most famous defensive end in the world, a human highlight film that makes you want watch All-22 film until your eyes bleed.
The other top prospect isn’t as well known in the mainstream yet. But the fervor around Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is starting to pick up, and it’s only going to spike even higher between now and next April.
The hype has already started. NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks named Bridgewater his top player to watch this fall—ahead of Clowney. While that may be jumping the gun a bit, the Louisville quarterback's rise to the top pick in 2014 already began with his sophomore campaign.
Last season was already a bit of a coming-out party for Bridgewater, who came to Louisville as arguably the most highly coveted recruit in school history. After his freshman season saw him understandably have some first-year blues—specifically in regard to interceptions—Bridgewater made the type of strides you expect from a future star.
The 6’3” signal-caller from Miami threw for 3,718 yards and 27 touchdowns against eight interceptions last season. He completed an impressive 68.5 percent of his passes en route to finishing seventh in the nation with a 160.5 quarterback rating. He showed toughness in playing through multiple injuries and put up star-worthy numbers despite being surrounded by a “meh” supporting cast.
Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson spoke with ESPN’s Travis Haney about his quarterback’s development.
"There's not one normal throw in there," Watson said. "The game for him has become slow. It's pickup basketball at the Y."
It’s easy (and understandable) to degrade Bridgewater’s performance as being of lesser importance due to playing in the Big East. But he also came through against Florida in the Sugar Bowl, throwing for 266 yards and two touchdowns against one interception in a 33-23 Cardinals win that shocked the college football world.
The Cardinals (and Bridgewater as a result) are only supposed to ascend higher in 2013. ESPN’s Mark Schlabach has Louisville as his No. 4 team in the country in his latest Top 25 rankings. And with a schedule filled with shrug-worthy non-conference opponents and the regular slate of Big East Division I also-rans, it’s very possible that Louisville could go undefeated next season.
A (possible) national championship game pedigree with pro-ready everything? That’s instant salivation material for NFL scouts.
Still it’s almost impossible to say Bridgewater—no matter how fantastic of a season he has in 2013—will overtake Clowney as the “best overall prospect.” Clowney would be a Chief if he were eligible this year, or Kansas City would have acquired a king’s ransom for his rights and taken a top tackle elsewhere. There hasn’t been a defensive player with such a complete package of skills in a very, very long time.
Perhaps Bleacher Report NFL draft lead writer Matt Miller put it best in March:
If you Google "Jadeveon Clowney" there's a picture of Mario Williams. That's an insult to Clowney.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) March 21, 2013
Barring a catastrophic injury, the opinion inside and outside of football (rightfully) won’t change.
What we have to distinguish is that Bridgewater doesn’t have to be the best player in the draft to be taken No. 1 overall. He just has to be good enough for teams to justify the selection—be one of the five best players in the whole draft while playing the most important position on the field.
History points in Bridgewater’s favor. Quarterbacks have been taken No. 1 overall in 10 of the past 13 drafts, and rarely have these signal-callers been considered the draft’s top player. And with the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement restricting the exorbitant salaries being gifted to these top prospects, that number may only shoot up in the coming years.
Not having a quarterback go No. 1 was a large part of why Thursday’s festivities felt underwhelming. We’ve seen years where the running back crop dries up and the Tavon Austins of the world become the top receiver taken. But folks have become accustomed to debating whether Quarterback X is truly a franchise guy prior to that young man shaking Roger Goodell’s hand.
That buildup didn’t happen this year. And the lack of enthusiasm about this year’s quarterback class is perhaps the biggest factor pushing Bridgewater and the excitement about him to the forefront.
Of the teams that most needed a quarterback heading into the 2013 draft—Cleveland, Buffalo, Jacksonville and New York Jets—only one (the Bills) completely took themselves out of the running for next year's crop.
One could say drafting Geno Smith in the second round takes the Jets out, but their investment is relatively minimal. If they love a quarterback, they're taking him—especially if a new coaching staff takes over.
With questionable quarterback situations in Arizona (Carson Palmer) and Philadelphia (Michael Vick, et al.) also looming, as many as five teams could be looking for a franchise quarterback next April. The first thing you learn in high school economics is supply and demand. If five teams need a quarterback and one of them lands with the top pick, Bridgewater’s odds look awfully nice.
It also helps that Bridgewater is a fantastic prospect.
Bridgewater gets the reputation as a mobile quarterback, but he’s more sound on his feet in a traditional sense than in your passer-of-today imagination. The read-option may have been somewhere in the Louisville playbook last season, but it was rarely (if ever) brought out on Saturdays.
To put it another way, Bridgewater is way more Andrew Luck than Robert Griffin III. While he’s admittedly taking up his young protege, Watson glows about Bridgewater’s understanding of the game.
"No doubt," Watson said. "There's no doubt in my mind that's what he is. Conceptually, he understands the game of football. He gets it. You don't run across guys like him in your career very often."
It’s that amalgam of talent—the above-average athleticism, the accuracy, the poise—that makes Bridgewater a top talent. But he’s going to need to improve much in the same way he did from his freshman to his sophomore year, to avoid the pitfalls of everyone calling him a star without him actually earning it.
If Bridgewater does ascend, his wait at Radio City Music Hall next April might last but a mere 10 minutes.