How to Identify an Elite Quarterback in the NFL Draft Process

Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse more stories
How to Identify an Elite Quarterback in the NFL Draft Process
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Picking a quarterback in the draft is the biggest decision a franchise can make.

In most instances, a quarterback makes or breaks your team. Don't have one? You need one. It's just that simple. Can't get one? Nonsense, there's always a way when there's a will. Yet, many teams end up deluding themselves into thinking their current passer is "good enough." 

Today's NFL doesn't accept "good enough" from the quarterback position, however. 

The best place to find top quarterback talent is at the top of the draft. Yes, I know that there are quarterbacks in the NFL who went later in the draft (New England Patriots' Tom Brady) or even after the draft (Dallas Cowboys' Tony Romo). Still, for every Brady and Romo, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of failed quarterbacks who didn't rise to the challenge in a similar way. 

Nevertheless, teams (and their fans) worry about the investment of such a high pick. Sure, it's easy to look at top-drafted quarterbacks like the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning, the New York Giants' Eli Manning, the San Diego Chargers' Philip Rivers, the Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford or the Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan, but the slings and arrows of busts like Vince Young, Jamarcus Russell and David Carr highlight the fact that even top college quarterbacks aren't a sure thing. 

Drafting a quarterback starts the clock on the job security of every decision maker in the organization. Sometimes, it's three years. Sometimes, it's less. Long time or short, if the quarterback doesn't pan out, most general managers and coaches rarely get the chance to make that decision again. 

What do those decision makers look for, and what can you look for, when picking out an elite quarterback in the draft process?

 

Size, Athleticism and Arm Strength

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Physical traits may not be the first thing that teams look at—nor the most important—but they can make or break a prospect more than casual fans or media think. We tend to look at quarterbacks like Brady and think that every quarterback can win with less-than-elite physical tools. 

While that maxim may generally be true, it tends not to be how evaluators actually look at prospects. 

Don't think of a quarterback's physical gifts like a sliding scale. As in, don't rate one guy an "A" and the next guy a "B" and think the quarterback with "A" tools should go first. No, that's not how it works, either. That's how teams end up with mistakes like drafting Young, Russell or the Jacksonville Jaguars' Blaine Gabbert. 

Instead, think of natural ability like a bar that needs to be cleared. Just like an amusement park with a "you must be this tall to ride" sign, NFL quarterbacks usually need to meet a general level of athleticism and arm strength. There's a lower bar for guys who just need to make a roster—guys like the Detroit Lions' Kellen Moore or the Kansas City Chiefs' Chase Daniel—and there's a higher bar for quarterbacks that are viewed as potential starters. 

If a team is drafting a quarterback at the very top of the draft, that second bar should be cleared with plenty of room to spare. If it isn't, the conversation must shift to how a quarterback can make up for the physical deficiencies, and a compelling argument has to be made that the quarterback can overcome them at the NFL level, where everyone will be bigger, faster and stronger. 

Let's start with size and take a look at the two best examples of guys overcoming their inadequate stature: the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson and the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees

Last year, a scout shared snippets from his scouting report on Wilson with me, noting that it read like a first-rounder, even though it had a middling grade (a number he wouldn't reveal). The question was not whether Wilson was good—everyone could see that he was. The question was if Wilson's skills would be able to shine in the NFL as they did in the Big Ten. 

Consider that question answered. 

Part of what helps mitigate Wilson's lack of size (and, to a lesser extent, Brees') is athleticism. Not every quarterback needs to have the track speed of the Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III, but quarterbacks that look like former Kentucky quarterback Jared Lorenzen don't tend to make it very long in the NFL, either. 

Again, this isn't to say that teams should line up every quarterback, have them run the 40-yard dash and then take the top finisher. Instead, you measure baseline athleticism on tape and at the combine to see if a guy can escape from pressure, help the team by rolling out or picking up a short-yardage first down, etc. If a guy can't do any of that—and there are plenty who can't, both in the NFL and the college ranks—he has to offer something above and beyond in another facet of the game to make up for it. 

Finally, there is arm strengththe most over-hyped, yet misunderstood, attribute in all of quarterback evaluation. 

When every other gun in the metaphorical quarterback holster is emptied, arm strength is still there. To put it another way, natural arm strength is the last thing a quarterback should be relying upon out on the field. But a quarterback who has enough of it can rely on it when everything else is taken away. 

Picture former Green Bay Packer Brett Favre. The play has broken down. Favre has rolled out and has two guys just about hanging on him as he makes a back-footed throw 30 yards through the air to a spot, and a receiver tracks it down for a touchdown.

Mechanics? What mechanics? Decision making? Eh, could have been better. Accuracy? Nah, he just heaved it up there. 

Still, he made the play, and that's because of arm strength. It's not the first arrow out of the quiver, but you sure are glad when it comes in handy. 

Remember, though, that there's a baseline. Don't have the best cannon in the NFL? That's fine, we'll still take you. Can't throw a 10-yard out route and things get a little dicey. It's where fans often overrate top college quarterbacks (especially those in spread and Air Raid schemes). It's fine not to have elite arm strength, as elite arm strength is often overemphasized, but there's a world of difference between "not elite" and "not NFL-caliber."

Finally, it's worth noting that arm strength can be developed in the NFL. Take a look at Packers quarterback Scott Tolzien for a great example of a guy who has developed a bigger arm in the NFL. Houston Texans quarterback Case Keenum is right up there as well. 

 

Arm Talent

Leon Halip/Getty Images

Let's assume our mythical quarterback prospect clears the higher physical-tools bar with ease and puts himself in the conversation to be a franchise-leading quarterback. This still leaves us with lots of work to do in deciding whether he's worth a top pick, or, even more to the point, whether he's even worth our time to continue scouting him. 

Here's the thing: For every quarterback that fails because they don't have the baseline physical tools, there's another guy who has the tools but fails because he simply doesn't have the arm talent to make tough throws or make them consistently. 

If you're paying attention, you should be thinking of former Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow.

Let's take a moment and dissect "arm talent," as it tends to be popular scouting jargon getting tossed around for which everyone has their own definition. 

First, arm talent means accuracy. Accuracy is a tricky notion in and of itself. Some scouts simply believe that accuracy is where mechanics and timing meet comfort in the offense. To some extent, that can be true. Most consider accuracy an almost natural, intangible gift. It isn't just about having a high completion percentage, because one must also look at things like ball placement, hitting a receiver in stride, etc. 

It takes chutzpa to walk into a board room and try to convince a general manager that a quarterback with a 60-plus completion percentage has poor accuracy, but with today's college offenses, it's often truer than not.

Arm talent is also a little bit of where mechanics and arm strength come together. We note that Stafford has arm talent, because he has the raw arm strength to make incredible throws from crazy arm slots—throws that often get him into trouble, but that's a different discussion entirely. We also note, though, that Brady has great arm talent because of the touch and the deftness of his deep throws. 

Is it a bit of a moving goal post? Sure, but seasoned evaluators know it when they see it. 

Top quarterbacks can have everything else in the world, but without top-flight arm talent, the team that drafts them is going to be disappointed. If arm strength is the last gun in the holster, arm talent is the first. It can be relied upon to make the two-yard screen pass just as much as the 10-yard out and the 30-yard go. 

It's what college coaches are looking for when they scout middle schoolers. It's what NFL scouts are looking for when they stop by random "Directional State University" or the Division III also-ran that hasn't put out an NFL prospect in 50 years. 

If there's arm talent, the rest can be worked on. 

If there isn't arm talent, the rest doesn't seem to matter.

 

Intangibles On the Field and Off the Field

Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Too often, intangibles are whittled down to the overly simplistic question: Is he a good guy?

If that's a team's benchmark for intangibles, that team would deserve to swing and miss on a quarterback prospect. Yet, on TV or online as we discuss these prospects, we always talk about "great intangibles," as if helping feed orphans is going to make someone a better football player. 

When scouts talk about intangibles, they start on the field. 

Escapability is an intangible, as is the extremely rare ability (at least these days) to extend a play and make something out of nothing. We talked a little bit about that ability with Favre earlier, but another great example is Pittsburgh Steeler Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben isn't a great athlete—especially after multiple injuries, surgeries and age have caught up to him. 

However, Roethlisberger can still pull plenty of rabbits from the ol' hat as well as any young speedster. 

In the same way, comfort in the pocket (or pocket presence) is an intangible. It can be trained and ingrained, but it doesn't come easily to all. Being able to stay in the pocket and make a big throw under duress is a great intangible to have. 

It's why Tebow's intangibles were lauded so much, and it had nothing to do with his faith or caliber of character. What coaches love(d) about Tebow was his work ethic and his big-game ability. They didn't trust him with a top pick because he was a good dude, rather, it was because they felt his on-the-field intangibles could make up for his deficiencies as he learned to be a better passer. 

We can go ahead and answer "no" to that question now. 

More and more, evaluators are having to ask, "Can he be coached?" Once upon a time, quarterbacks who lacked the acquired skill of things like basic offensive theory and mechanics were simply discarded. Now, however, top prospects seem to be lacking those characteristics all the time, as college teams move toward offenses that are meant to win at the collegiate level but not necessarily prepare a guy for life in the NFL.

An Early Look at How 2014 QB Prospects Rate
Quarterback School High Marks in Question Marks
Teddy Bridgewater Louisville Arm Talent, Athleticism, Intangibles Size
Derek Carr Fresno State Arm Strength, Arm Talent, Size Intangibles (Pocket Presence)
Blake Bortles Central Florida Athleticism, Size Arm Talent (Accuracy)
Johhny Manziel Texas A&M Athleticism, Intangibles (Big-Game Ability, Escapability) Size, Arm Strength, Intangibles (Mechanics)
Zach Mettenberger LSU Size, Arm Strength Health, Arm Talent, Athleticism

A lot of the mistakes that RGIII made this season were mental, not physical, errors. The excuse, of course, is that he was injured this past offseason and didn't have the time to run through these plays that he normally would have. But one would still expect a top quarterback to pick up the principal nuances of an offense a little quicker. 

Wilson, in Seattle, was once lauded for picking up the Wisconsin Badgers playbook and digesting the entire thing while the coaching staff was still deciding which plays to take out to cater to the transfer student. In the end, he ran a full complement of plays as a result of a rare ability above the shoulders. 

Yeah, that's just another instance that contributed to him making all of us look silly as well. Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll told me that it was one of the reasons that made it so easy to go with Wilson above Matt Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson, because they knew Wilson had command of the offense so quickly. 

Finally, if we're talking about drafting a franchise-leading quarterback at the top of the draft, we have to ask: Can he lead?

Not every team has a strong leader at quarterback. Teams can exist—and win—with leadership structured top-down through the coaching staff or with another charismatic personality on the team (see: Lewis, Ray; Urlacher, Brian). 

Still, if a guy is going to be the face of the franchise and not be a leader, it's setting a team up for all sorts of questions and drama if the wins aren't coming in short order. Carolina Panther Cam Newton wasn't a natural leader coming out of school, but he's quickly learned

Every pundit seems to have their own favorite quarterback trait that they lean on. In the end, however, it's the total package that is ideal. Failing that (and reality usually does), a prospect must be a good mix of natural and acquired ability, with both tangible and intangible traits that can be counted on in both good times and bad. Any trait that is inadequate needs to be offset by another quality that is off the charts. 

Drafting a top quarterback can be risky, but if the right prospect comes along, it can set a franchise on the path to success for a long time to come. 

 

Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter.

Load More Stories

Follow B/R on Facebook

NFL Draft

Subscribe Now

We will never share your email address

Thanks for signing up.