Aaron Murray is breaking SEC records this season, but is he a future NFL starting quarterback?
Georgia senior quarterback Aaron Murray is in his fourth consecutive season as one of the best passers in college football. He is one of the most prolific passers in college football history, but his collegiate success may not necessarily translate into a prolific career in the National Football League.
Murray furthered his place in college football history on Oct. 5, breaking the Southeastern Conference record for career passing yards when he eclipsed 11,600 career yards in Georgia’s 34-31 overtime victory against Tennessee.
Following Saturday’s game versus Missouri, Murray also has 112 career touchdowns, five short of former Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel’s conference record. He is also less than 100 yards short of breaking former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow’s SEC record for total offense.
NFL scouts—or at least those who play scouts in the media—have had their eyes on Murray since 2011. He was eligible for the 2012 NFL draft after his redshirt sophomore season but has returned for two more seasons since. His continued record-breaking success has certainly kept him on the NFL radar as a quarterback prospect to watch.
Two more years of collegiate experience and rewriting the record books, however, have not necessarily helped his draft stock. He is in 2013 what he was in 2011: a productive passer who demonstrates the skills to make NFL-caliber throws but is limited physically and needs to continue improving in making decisions and going through his reads.
Murray isn’t the early first-round prospect some may think he is because of his collegiate accolades and production. That’s not to say he isn’t an NFL prospect. He could emerge as a successful starter in the right system. But where he fits in what could potentially be a deep quarterback class in the 2014 NFL draft could be anywhere from the second round to late on Day 3.
Where should Murray ultimately be selected and where does he rank among the quarterback prospects in the 2014 NFL draft? A closer look at the strengths and weaknesses of his game can give us a better idea.
Why He Has Been Successful in the SEC
Murray’s record has more to do with his volume of starts (47 consecutive) than it does anything spectacular in his game, and nonetheless, projecting quarterbacks to the NFL based upon collegiate production is inaccurate. Still, his consistent success in college football’s toughest, most defensively strong conference is indicative of Murray’s caliber as a player.
Murray does not wow in any one area, but there are many things he does well as a pocket passer.
He is a mechanically sound quarterback who has a compact delivery, an efficient release and clean footwork. He consistently aligns his body to his throwing target.
Murray demonstrates the intermediate ball placement to make the throws that will be required for him to be a successful NFL quarterback. He does a good job leading his receivers on crossing routes over the middle and can zip the ball between tight coverage windows. He puts good touch on the ball at the intermediate level by putting the ball where his receiver can make a play on it.
He is also more than adequate at placing the ball on intermediate throws to the sideline. The following media (courtesy of Draft Breakdown) from the Tennessee game demonstrates Murray’s accuracy at its best on a 15-yard comeback completion to wide receiver Chris Conley.
Murray’s ability to extend passing plays outside of the pocket with his movement skills is another strength of his game. He does a very good job keeping his shoulders squared to the target while rolling to either side of the tackle box, and he can quickly set his feet on the run to make an accurate throw.
As Murray is a true pass-first quarterback and not a dual-threat, he is almost always looking to make a downfield pass even when he runs away from pressure outside of the pocket. This allows him to come up with big plays throwing on the run, such as his eight-yard touchdown pass to running back Todd Gurley versus South Carolina.
With two pass-rushers, including South Carolina star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, chasing him on the right side of the field, Murray was forced to keep his feet rolling right toward the sideline, but he kept his eyes downfield and shoulders squared toward the end zone simultaneously.
Murray gave Gurley just enough time to break free and get open running toward the right side of the end zone, then roped an accurate pass under pressure, leading Gurley properly to make the reception away from coverage.
Limited Physical Attributes
Murray’s limited size, athleticism and arm strength are all reasons why his collegiate success may not translate to a prolific NFL career.
Listed at 6’1” and 208 pounds by Georgia’s official athletics website, Murray is shorter and smaller than the prototypical NFL quarterback.
Murray does a solid job driving the ball deep when he has time to step into his throws, but his limitations as a downfield passer are evident when he is under pressure. He frequently underthrows passes of 15 yards or more, and even when he does get his passes as far as they need to go, they tend to float to their target and lack the zip needed to consistently hit deep targets at the next level.
The combination of limited height and arm strength gives Murray trouble against pressure in the pocket. His tape shows a noticeably high number of passes batted down by defenders at the line of scrimmage, a consequence of his release point being too low and not being able to generate the zip on the ball to keep it above the line of scrimmage while maintaining the velocity to drive his pass to the target.
Against NFL-caliber defenses, this problem is more likely to lead to turnovers, such as it did when he was intercepted earlier this season by LSU defensive tackle and potential early-round NFL draft pick Anthony Johnson.
Murray can make up for his limitations to some extent with his ability to move outside of the pocket and throw on the run, as he can set up closer throws by having receivers get open to his side of the formation. His athletic limitations, however, will make it more challenging for him to roll away from pressure against bigger, faster defenders at the next level.
While he has quick, efficient feet, he does not have the speed to run away from many defenders. His window of scrambling time at the next level will be shortened significantly, and he is not going to beat NFL defenses as a runner.
The following play versus South Carolina demonstrated his athletic limitations.
He did a good job rolling away from pressure and getting out to the corner to turn upfield, leaving him a wide-open right side of the field that a faster quarterback may be able to take advantage of and run through for a big gain.
In Murray’s case, however, the pass-rusher trailing him was able to catch him from behind. Murray ran through that diving tackle attempt, but his subsequent lack of burst kept him from hitting that lane quickly enough, and the right side of the defense collapsed around him to hold him to a two-yard gain.
Murray is near the top of the list of draft-eligible quarterbacks in collegiate production, but his limited physical attributes limit his developmental potential, which is likely to push him down NFL draft boards.
Must Maximize His Skill Set
Having great athleticism or arm strength is not a prerequisite to being a successful NFL quarterback, but to make up for it, a quarterback must do the little things well.
With four years of experience in a pro-style offense, Murray is certainly one of the most NFL-ready quarterback prospects in the 2014 draft class. That said, he is more mistake-prone than one would expect from a signal-caller with as many starts as he has.
Murray has thrown 35 career interceptions, including two in the fourth quarter of Georgia’s disappointing 41-26 loss Saturday to Missouri.
He seems to predetermine his reads more often than he should. Murray often stares down his target for the duration of a play. Not only does that allow defenses to read his throws and make plays on the ball, but by failing to consistently go through progressions, Murray often misses openings downfield and instead locks into a shorter throw.
While his confidence to fire intermediate passes between tight windows can be a good thing, it sometimes backfires when he tries to force a throw and gets intercepted as a result. At times, however, he seems to just be locked in on his target and fails to recognize coverage breaking to the ball.
Murray makes some questionable decisions on crucial downs. He too often locks on to short throws that fail to convert when a first down is needed rather than looking for throws long enough to move the chains.
The most memorable questionable decision of Murray’s career, however, may have come in last year’s SEC Championship Game versus Alabama. Murray had just connected with tight end Arthur Lynch on a 26-yard gain over the middle. But he needed to hurry to the line and make a play quickly with his offense at the 8-yard line trailing by four with less than 20 seconds to play.
The right sequence for Murray would have been to spike the ball on first down, which would have likely left him two chances to take a shot at the end zone. Instead, he allowed precious seconds to tick off the clock before throwing a pass that was tipped by Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley at the line of scrimmage and caught short of the end zone.
While Murray is good at moving outside of the tackle box, his pocket presence is another issue in his game. He does not naturally flow around the pocket with his feet, tending to stay in place until he decides to take off out of it. As a result, he does not elude pressure in the pocket well.
Where Should Murray Rank Among QBs in 2014 Draft Class?
Murray may have hurt his draft stock by returning to school for his senior season, and that’s not because of any regression in play. While a thin pool of available quarterbacks may have moved up the draft board in 2013, a strong quarterback class could move him down in the 2014 draft.
Clemson’s Tajh Boyd is the top senior quarterback prospect in the draft class, while LSU’s Zach Mettenberger—who started his career at Georgia with Murray before being dismissed from the team in 2010—appears to be his top competition among seniors. Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and UCLA’s Brett Hundley are all likely to be very high draft selections if they declare as underclassmen, while Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel could also factor into the first-round conversation.
Where should Aaron Murray be selected in the 2014 NFL Draft?
All six of those quarterbacks have more promising physical tools than Murray and are performing at a very high level for their college football teams, putting them in tiers above Murray.
The Georgia quarterback’s game will be picked apart to determine where he factors into the next tier of quarterbacks, which also features a crowded group of players including Miami’s Stephen Morris, San Jose State’s David Fales, Alabama’s AJ McCarron, Fresno State’s Derek Carr, Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo and Cornell’s Jeff Matthews.
All of those quarterbacks face significant questions that could keep them from being early-round selections, yet all have the potential to rise up the draft boards and/or ultimately end up as NFL starting quarterbacks.
That said, the two most comparable quarterbacks are Murray and McCarron. Both have flourished in pro-style offenses in the SEC, but their physical upside limits their ceilings.
Murray has arguably the lowest floor of the group, but if the top of the quarterback class pushes most or all of that group into the middle rounds, Murray could be passed over in favor of some of the other quarterbacks who have greater developmental potential.
Where quarterbacks are drafted tends to depend more upon the flow of the draft board and team needs than any other position, making it difficult to project where Murray will ultimately end up, but his skill set should warrant a selection between the third and fifth rounds of the 2014 draft.
All video courtesy of Draft Breakdown. All screen shots derived from Draft Breakdown videos with all illustrations added by the author.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report.