Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III? Eli Manning or Philip Rivers? Vince Young or Matt Leinart? Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf? Making the right decision on which quarterback to draft can be the difference between a Super Bowl ring and mediocrity—but in some cases it works out either way. Or doesn't at all.
In the 2014 draft class, once again we have that debate at the top: junior Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville or redshirt sophomore Marcus Mariota of Oregon?
Draft classes are often defined by the potential of the quarterbacks available, and in the 2014 class we have two top-five players with instant-impact ability.
Which player grades out as the better of the two?
Accuracy is the backbone of the position, the single most important aspect of playing quarterback in the NFL. For most quarterbacks, you either have it or you don't.
Rarely can accuracy be taught at the pro level. While you can refine ball placement with better mechanics and timing, you're only refining the ability that's already there. Like my high school football coach used to tell me, "You can't polish a turd." That's my motto with quarterback accuracy.
Bridgewater and Mariota play in two wildly different offensive systems, which can make it tough to compare their traits.
That's where charting comes into play.
Every time I sit down to evaluate a quarterback, I chart his throws. That's as simple as drawing out a box on paper and marking passes. I look at completions, incompletions (QB's fault), drops and roll-outs. By doing this you can erase the on-screen scheme and look at the raw data around which throws a quarterback can and can't make.
When charting Marcus Mariota, I wanted to get a good look at his arm against a solid defense. The Washington game from this current season was the best defense he's faced to date this year, so it was a natural fit.
|Marcus Mariota vs. Washington|
|20+ yds||D||I X||D I I|
|11-19 yds||D||I I||I I I I I|
|0-10 yds||I||I I||D I I X|
|LOS or behind||I I I I I D||I I I I|
|Total||3 drops, 6 catches||1 inc., 5 catches||2 drops, 1 inc., 13 catches|
|Oregon vs. Washington game film|
The stat line will show you that Mariota went 24-of-31 on the day, but by charting his throws we see that five of those passes were good throws his targets dropped. That makes Mariota's day an outstanding 29-of-31 with two bad throws credited to the passer. That's the kind of accuracy NFL teams can't ignore.
Ball placement on a consistent, crisp basis is the requirement, and Mariota shows that both from the pocket and on the move.
Bridgewater, like Mariota, has the arm to spread the ball around to every quarter of the field. Where he and Mariota differ is in the talent around them. Louisville doesn't have the All-Star talent on offense that Oregon can boast—something that makes Bridgewater's job that much more difficult.
Much like scouting Mariota vs. Washington, I wanted to see Bridgewater against a top-tier defense. The best option is going back to 2012 and looking at his play against Florida. The Gators defense was (and is) loaded with NFL talent at every level, so it gives us a great look at Bridgewater against a high-talent team.
On the day, the box score has Bridgewater as 20-of-32, but the film shows something different. Instead of a solid 20 completions on the day, had his receivers not dropped two passes and run two timid routes, Bridgewater would have been 24-of-32. Quite a bit different.
It has to be noted that this was the game in which Jon Bostic knocked Bridgewater's helmet off on his first throw of the game. He played exceptionally well regardless of the hit or the previous injuries to his ankle that he was struggling through.
As you'll see in the chart, Bridgewater can struggle with deep accuracy. The Florida game saw him miss on five deep passes, but so far in 2013 he's been much improved here. Throwing over the top to DeVante Parker and the Louisville wide receivers has been the biggest area of growth for Bridgewater, as he's had time to become more comfortable in the timing and positioning of his wide receivers.
But to judge the two head-to-head, Mariota is the better downfield thrower.
What I like about both quarterbacks is that they use the entire field. Both Mariota and Bridgewater throw to every quarter of the field instead of favoring the middle or safe checkdowns to the flats. That shows me complete confidence in their arm strength and accuracy.
The two quarterbacks have to be graded differently here thanks to the schemes used. Bridgewater, for the most part, is making his own pre-snap reads and adjustments, while Mariota gets some of his information from the coaches on the sideline.
In that area, Bridgewater has a huge advantage.
He's clearly ahead of Mariota in terms of seeing the defense, making a read, adjusting the line or play call and then attacking. He's also had a full year of experience more than the Oregon signal-caller.
If you've heard talk that Bridgewater isn't smart enough to handle an NFL offense, forget it. In fact, it's quite the opposite. The junior quarterback's best asset is what he's able to do mentally. Before and after the snap, Bridgewater is calm, cool and collected in making an analytical decision on where to go with the football. I call it maturity at the position, and his levels are off the chart for a college quarterback.
Bridgewater's mistakes come from trying to do too much, not from missing a read or making a poor decision on where to go with the football. You won't see him overlook a cornerback squatting in the flats. The highest grade of any Bridgewater characteristic is for his vision and intelligence on the field, hands down.
What about the redshirt sophomore at Oregon?
Mariota isn't asked to make the decisions before the snap that Bridgewater is, but that doesn't mean he's a puppet on the field. On the contrary, what makes Mariota so dangerous is his quick thinking when the ball is in his hands. Whether it's on a read-option, play-action pass or a simple dropback, Mariota is often asked to make multiple reads on any given play.
Making the right one is what allows the Oregon offense to roll like it does.
In due time, Mariota may catch up to Bridgewater, but this is the one area where Louisville's quarterback is notably ahead of the Oregon product.
3. Arm Strength/Velocity
There's this idea that college teams don't ask their quarterbacks to make "NFL throws." I have no idea what that means.
NFL teams have been adopting a spread-out college style of play over the last decade. Watch Peyton Manning or Tom Brady on Sunday, and you see them making the same throws to the same routes that Mariota and Bridgewater are throwing on Saturday.
Now that we've completely disregarded that tired statement, what kind of throws can these two make?
Everyone wants to look at arm strength and think of making big, strong throws down the field. Those are good, but velocity on short throws is just as important. I'd rather have the quarterback who throws with authority on timing routes and connects at a high percentage than the big-armed quarterback who has a poor accuracy rating.
Mariota has the stronger arm of the two, but he's no Colin Kaepernick if we're grading fastballs. Mariota and Bridgewater are both notable for how catchable their passes are, and with that you usually lose a little velocity.
That said, one great thing about the Oregon offense is that it asks Mariota to throw to space a lot and hit wide receivers as they come open. To do that efficiently, he has to drive the ball in hot—and he's doing a great job of it this season. Delivering the ball on time over the middle takes velocity, and Mariota does that as well as any quarterback in the nation.
You'll never hear anyone rave about Bridgewater's arm strength, but it's definitely good enough.
He's similar to Aaron Rodgers in that regard. You'll see that Bridgewater tends to float the ball on deeper passes. Sometimes, this works greatly to his advantage as he drops the ball right over the head of the receiver into his arms. Other times, he's just missing and it's an overthrow.
This is one thing I've noticed big improvement on over the last year, but it's definitely his weakest point right now.
4. Pocket Presence and Escapability
Mariota plays on the move as well as anyone. For a big quarterback, he's incredibly mobile and light on his feet. And being mobile doesn't just mean running for big yards, although he can do that too; it's about moving in the pocket to evade a pass rush or open up passing lanes.
Mariota is more of a new-age quarterback in that he's mobile enough to keep the play alive in the pocket, but he's also very dangerous outside the pocket as a runner. That makes him a more complex, dynamic quarterback; the defense must respect his arm and keep a defender (or two) around to contain his running ability. He's very Kaepernick-like in this area.
Bridgewater is able to run—look at his 74 yards against South Florida last year as proof of that—but he's also very cautious and smart in the pocket. He's the anti-RGIII when running the football, as he looks to slide and protect his body. That's the type of smarts we want from a mobile quarterback.
Maybe the best thing about Bridgewater: Even after Bostic destroyed him early in the Florida game, he didn't become panicked in the pocket. He never started fading away from the line of scrimmage on throws or tossing back-foot passes. He stood in tall, strong and fearless.
With Bridgewater you get cautious mobility, again similar to Rodgers or Andrew Luck in his ability to run and the way he treats using his legs.
The ideal mechanics for a pass go something like this:
The ball is held at a height even with or above the middle of the torso or as high as the jaw. When throwing, the ball comes up to the ear or slightly higher. The feet are shoulder-width apart, balanced and light.
The quarterback begins to rotate his shoulders to the target, with an end goal of his front (lead) shoulder pointing at the intended target. The off hand (left if the quarterback is right-handed) comes off the ball as the front (lead) foot starts to pivot. The back foot begins to pivot at the toe and come off the ground to power the throw. The player's weight transfers to the front foot as the front knee rotates and points to the intended target. The off hand comes off the ball as the dominant arm comes to a 90-degree angle.
Finally, in a fluid, quick motion, the ball is pushed forward at an acceptable height of jaw level to slightly above the head. The back leg follows through and lands in front of the weight-bearing foot. The throwing hand whips through and ends with the hand open, palm down and limp at the wrist pointed at the intended target.
And all that happens in one second.
Quarterback mechanics don't have to follow that exact script, but the closer to that the better. What we don't want are big deviations.
A quarterback who throws the ball from a shoulder height (like Philip Rivers) not only increases the risk of damage on the joint, he opens himself up to batted-down passes and strip sacks as the ball is held lower. A hitch or jerky movement in the delivery—like Tim Tebow—can cause a loss of velocity, tip off the defense as to where the ball is going and slow down delivery of the ball.
When looking at Marcus Mariota and Teddy Bridgewater, I see no issues. While their throwing motions are not the same, both are acceptable.
Bridgewater is picture-perfect when throwing the football. His front foot, knee and shoulder always align to the target. He has a loose, easy throwing motion that sees the ball come out right at eye level. He's always balanced in the pocket and doesn't throw with his weight on his back foot—which means he's stepping through throws.
A quarterback who steps through throws is a more accurate quarterback.
Mariota has a naturally wide base when in his motion. He has a classic 90-degree arm when throwing and uses his front hand to counter-balance his throwing motion.
With Mariota's motion, you get a longer release due to his longer arms, but it's not a slow motion in any way. His follow-through is perfect with a snapped wrist and pointed foot-knee-hand after the throw.
Quarterback size evaluation has changed dramatically in the last few seasons.
There used to be this rule that quarterbacks had to be at least 6'2" to succeed in the NFL. Drew Brees came along and was thought to be an outlier, but then we saw Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III (just a shade over 6'2") and Michael Vick starting in the NFL and playing pretty well. That's opened the door for shorter quarterbacks who are mobile enough and smart enough to find passing windows.
But what about Bridgewater and Mariota?
Mariota comes in at 6'4" and 211 pounds. That's up from the 185 pounds he weighed as a high school senior. It's safe to assume the 19-year-old Mariota can and will put on more weight as he matures. There are no concerns about his size, whether it be height or weight.
How about Bridgewater? He's clearly tall enough at 6'3", but some think he's too thin to handle the beating an NFL quarterback will take at 196 pounds. Currently, there is not a starting NFL quarterback listed under 200 pounds, making this a legitimate worry.
When he arrived at Louisville he was only 185 pounds, so there is evidence that he can bulk up. Once placed in an NFL weight program, it's likely we'll see Bridgewater up closer to 215 pounds. That will definitely be a focus of his agent and trainer in pre-draft training.
But how much does it matter, really?
In 2012, Bridgewater showed incredible toughness and durability. He absorbed a kill shot from Jon Bostic, played with a broken ankle and did all these things while not letting it affect his play. Shouldn't on-field toughness matter more than a few pounds?
For some teams, it will (and should). And for any who worry about his weight, Bridgewater is one summer and a few cheeseburgers away from putting on as much weight as a team would like.
7. Pro Readiness
A big gripe of mine with the 2013 quarterback class—guys like EJ Manuel, Geno Smith and Landry Jones—was how often they threw at or behind the line of scrimmage. This makes it tougher to evaluate accuracy, decision-making and mechanics because the quarterback is throwing to a pre-determined read and isn't asked to step and throw up the field.
With Teddy Bridgewater, you won't see this. Against Florida in the 2012 Sugar Bowl, the team threw behind the line of scrimmage four times.
And unlike many young quarterbacks, Bridgewater is asked to make pre- and post-snap adjustments and line calls.
Mariota, on the other hand, plays in a wide, spread-out scheme that tries to take advantage of speed and space. He'll throw the ball behind the line of scrimmage on screens all day if the defense can't stop it.
Against Washington, Oregon coaches had him throw 10 of his 31 passes behind the line of scrimmage. That matters, but it would matter more if his downfield throws weren't on the mark. They are.
We can over-think things like pro readiness in today's game. College offenses are starting to mirror what we see in the NFL with space-attacking routes, tons of screen passes and dual-threat quarterbacks exploiting the defense in any way possible. That's what Mariota brings to the table.
And any quarterback who can have a 17-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio on 165 attempts is showing that he's ready to deliver the ball on target.
When looking at two excellent quarterback prospects, it's easy to become overly picky and start to focus too much on what they can't do or where their struggles might be.
Scouting Bridgewater, we can look at his downfield inaccuracy at times and over-analyze one trait instead of looking at his intelligence, composure, accuracy and vision. With Mariota, evaluators can become panicked because he plays in an unconventional offense and miss his accuracy, arm strength and running ability.
What matters most is the big picture. What can these quarterbacks do now, where can they improve and what does the end result look like?
Marcus Mariota is an unfinished product as a redshirt sophomore, but the traits and abilities present now make him an upper-tier prospect. He's currently my No. 3 overall player eligible for the 2014 NFL draft, behind only Jadeveon Clowney and Bridgewater.
That said, given time to develop, Mariota could be better than Bridgewater. The steps he's taken from 2012 to now are remarkable, and if he can continue to improve at this rate, he's going to enter Andrew Luck territory as a prospect.
Teddy Bridgwater, right now, is the second-best quarterback I've scouted, ahead of RGIII, Matthew Stafford, Sam Bradford, Philip Rivers, Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers. Of course, we're talking about him as a draft prospect, so there are no guarantees, but his pre-draft grade is at an elite level.
My top-rated quarterback and No. 2 overall player, Bridgewater is a franchise-level, blue-chip quarterback prospect.