For all of its recent success, the SEC has always struggled to produce quarterbacks at the next level. Programs like Alabama and Florida, always so prolific in college, rarely ever groom a quarterback who succeeds in the NFL.
Of the 32 projected NFL starters next season, only six—The Manning Bros, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton and Matt Flynn—played college ball in the nation's best conference. And of those six, one (Matt Flynn) has never actually started a meaningful game before, and three (Eli Manning, Peyton Manning and Jay Cutler) played before the SEC's dominant BCS title run.
It's a curious phenomenon, since SEC programs typically have their choice of the recruiting pool. They also have the added benefit of playing the best defenses. Shouldn't they also have the best group of alumni starting in the pros? Instead of, you know, a pool of notorious flops.
Let's take a look at the current crop of passers and see if they have the potential to buck that trend.
Here are the five SEC quarterbacks who will translate best to the NFL.
The sky's the limit for Mettenberger, but unfortunately, he hasn't quite managed to to get off the ground. His first season starting at LSU wasn't bad—not by any stretch of the imagination—but also wasn't what many had hoped for.
Mettenberger played his best game of the season against Alabama, throwing for 298 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. But he also ended the season with, perhaps, his worst game, throwing for just 120 yards and taking a barrage of sacks against Clemson.
Depending on how you define "LSU's most important game," he either excelled in or shied away from the big stage.
Still, Mettenberger has too many tools to ignore. He's 6'5'' with a strong, lively arm, capable of making every throw in the book. The addition of Cam Cameron at offensive coordinator will help his draft stock, too, since he will familiarize himself with a professional playbook.
If he improves upon last year's numbers, NFL teams will come calling. It would mean he got better in a highly translatable system. And so long as he dedicates himself in 2013, there's no reason that won't happen.
Davis was a 4-star quarterback prospect who got offers from Alabama, Auburn and Texas. He spurned them for Texas A&M, though, and now stands poised to succeed a Heisman Trophy winner.
Davis stands 6'2'' and weighs a muscular 206 pounds. A dual-threat player who is admittedly untested, Davis has the perfect skill set to thrive in Kevin Sumlin's offense. And if you don't think that's a skill set NFL teams value, think again:
Not that it matters much at this point, but #Eagles were also onto Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin after Chip Kelly's initial rebuke, I'm told.— Jeff McLane (@Jeff_McLane) January 23, 2013
Should Johnny Manziel opt out after this season—something that seemed likely even before his cryptic tweets—Davis should take over the offense as a redshirt sophomore next season. That's two years to impress scouts with his powerful arm and maneuverability in the pocket.
Davis can be exactly as good as he wants to be. All it will take is drive. And after having tutored under Johnny Football for two years, the work ethic required for greatness should be there in full.
Despite what cynics may say, A.J. McCarron is not "just a game manager" or "a product of the talent around him." He's a two-time national champion quarterback, and if you think he did nothing to earn that distinction, I suggest you go back at re-watch the Notre Dame game.
Even if he was a game manager, though, there are far worse things to be. We've seen quarterbacks on similarly talented offenses throw far more than three interceptions in a season. In his Alabama career he's thrown 49 touchdowns and only been picked off five times. Five times! That's once every 138 throws.
McCarron will be a high draft pick because he's enjoyed so much success, and he'll be a starting quarterback because he earned that success. His ceiling may be limited at the next level—don't expect him to make five Pro Bowls—but his basement is pretty high up.
At the very least, you're getting a rich man's Chad Pennington. And for an absolute worst-case scenario, that is not such a bad thing.
Murray doesn't get half the love he deserves. He's a four-year starter at a perennial SEC powerhouse who came within 10 yards of going to the BCS National Championship last year.
And he only stands to get better.
Murray's resume is stacked with experience, like a Wharton student who just finished his yearlong internship at Goldman Sachs. The SEC is our closest analogue to the NFL, and Murray has been navigating his way through it—quite successfully, I might add—since he was 19 years old.
He's never thrown for less than 3,000 yards in a season, and the past two years he's combined for 71 touchdowns to just 24 interceptions. All those numbers are trending upward, too, which suggests he'll post better stats in 2013.
His mobility never panned out like it was supposed to—247 Sports classified him as a dual-threat QB prospect back in the day—but Murray is fleet-of-foot enough to maneuver his way through the NFL.
Even if McCarron goes higher, Murray has a chance to be the better pro.
In one of his seminal works, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that success cannot be attributed entirely to talent. The most successful people, in every industry, are also aided by when and where they were born.
Johnny Manziel will be a successful quarterback in part because he's very good at football. But he'll also be successful because he was born in 1992, meaning he's the perfect age to capitalize on an ever-changing climate in the NFL.
Had Manziel been born 20 years ago, there's no way he'd get a shot at the next level. And even if he did, he wouldn't be any good. Six-foot-nothing quarterbacks weren't a thing in 1998 unless you were watching NFL Europe. They got swallowed whole by defensive linemen in a system that was stacked against them.
But now things are different. Now there's a spot for bite-sized quarterbacks with Johnny Football's specific set of talent. The success of Russell Wilson, the defection of Chip Kelly, the 5-yard illegal contact rule—it all suggests a paradigm shift at the highest level, and it's a shift that makes Manziel valuable.
His arm is still a work in progress, but Manziel is not Tim Tebow—some fluky college success whose skills don't translate. He's a quarterback bred to succeed in the football climate of 2013.
And succeed he shall.