It is the single most important position in football. It's the spot we all dream of playing when we're throwing the ball to ourselves in the back yard. It's where all the glory and all the blame run straight into each other.
Win and you're a god. Lose and you're out of town. Quarterbacks are the face of the franchise, on good days and bad days alike. And if you don't have a good one, your entire focus should be on finding one.
The 2014 class of quarterbacks is a good one—not quite 2012 good, but close. This class features runners and passers, as well as some who can do both. There are sure-things and major projects, but in each prospect there is the hope of a city and a franchise. The next Tom Brady could be in this class. The next Ryan Leaf could be in this class. But be sure, there's a lot of talent here.
What are teams looking for in a quarterback? Accuracy, most importantly, and from there it goes into personal preference. Some like them tall, and some like them fast. Some want them locked in the pocket, others want a guy moving around to make plays.
Scouting a quarterback is the hardest and most important job of any scout, and there are no guarantees. Here's a look at our "How to Scout" series, highlighting the methods used to evaluate the position. Let that be your guide as you are introduced to the 10 best quarterbacks in the 2014 draft class.
One of the most successful and productive quarterbacks in college football over the last four seasons, Georgia's Aaron Murray has to prove that he has everything the NFL wants at the position and isn't just another great college quarterback who doesn't quite fit in the pros.
Murray doesn't have ideal size (6'1", 208 lbs) or arm strength, but he does show great poise and touch. He's comfortable in the pocket and isn't rattled easily. He also shows good enough agility and athleticism to pull the ball down and pick up positive yards with his feet. Give Murray time in the pocket and he'll climb the ladder to release the ball with a pretty motion and arc. He understands spacing and can tear a defense apart by working underneath routes.
The downside—other than the size and arm strength issues—is his knee. Murray tore his ACL late in the 2013 season, and how ready he'll be for the upcoming NFL season is up in the air at this time. A quick rehab and a positive pro day workout could push Murray up the board, though.
David Fales was hyped as a potential first-round quarterback once the 2012 season ended, but as happens so often with quarterbacks, another year in college meant a brighter light shined on his abilities and performances. One year later, Fales looks like a solid quarterback prospect but not the franchise player many hoped he would become.
Checking out the San Jose State game film, you'll see a quarterback with accuracy, mobility and high-level intelligence. What you won't see is a big, rocket arm or a ton of velocity on passes outside the hashes (in fact, you won't see many passes outside the hashes at all). Fales moves well in the pocket, but he's on the short side (6'1") and will be knocked by some NFL teams who prefer either a bigger or stronger-armed quarterback.
But you can't discount his field presence, ability in the pocket and his touch-passing. Fales may not be a sure-fire franchise quarterback prospect anymore, but he does have the tools to project as a potential starter, or at least a high-level backup.
If you read these articles often, you have seen my transition from loving Tajh Boyd to being very cautious with his evaluation. Boyd has talent, and as a former quarterbacks coach, he's someone I would have loved to have seen in my practices. But how much of his talent is maxed out and how high is his ceiling?
Evaluating Boyd in the Clemson offense isn't easy. The team used him like a goal-line back in 2012 and 2013, which won games but didn't show off his passing ability in the red zone. With star wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins, too often Boyd was allowed to simply fire the ball deep or hit Watkins on a screen play. Again, that is a smart game plan against college defenses, but it doesn't highlight much in terms of raw ability from the quarterback himself.
Boyd, as mentioned above, has talent. He throws a pretty deep ball and has the athleticism to give you extra effort as a runner. He's also a bit shorter (6'1") than you'd like and doesn't always show consistency in his passing. However, if you can clean up his mechanics and improve his accuracy—something that's long been doubted as a coachable trait—then you have a prospect with a ton of upside.
Few college quarterbacks were able to accomplish what A.J. McCarron did at Alabama. A three-time BCS national champion (2010, 2012, 2013) and Heisman runner-up (2013), McCarron accomplished more than any other quarterback prospect in this year's class. And yet, the NFL isn't as warm on his abilities.
The biggest knock on McCarron is a lack of arm strength. That's not to say he can't throw a pretty deep ball (he does), but rather the concern is that his velocity severely lacks on intermediate throws and any pass pushed outside the hashes. Ask McCarron to throw a 15-yard out on a line, and he can't do it. Ask him to read a defense and get to his third progression or hold a free safety with his eyes, and he'll struggle, too.
McCarron will carry labels like "winner" along with him for the rest of his life, but the NFL doesn't always care about college wins or statistics—especially if you played with a who's who of the high school recruiting world at Alabama.
McCarron has his talents, though. His intermediate accuracy and timing are spot on, and he does put the ball up in the air on deep balls with nice touch and placement. But it all comes back to accuracy and arm strength with most NFL scouts, and those are the two areas McCarron struggles with the most.
LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger looks like he walked right out of central casting and put on a helmet and shoulder pads. He's 6'5", 230 pounds, and has the Georgia accent that every movie quarterback seems to possess. Looking the part is easy for Mettenberger; living up to the hype will be another story.
Few players in this year's class, at any position, have the raw tools that the big LSU passer possesses. He has the arm strength to throw it deep and hit routes on every plane. He's nimble enough in the pocket to slide and step up, and he'll also climb the pocket to find passing windows and then let the ball rip. He's fearless in all the right ways.
He's also yet to put all of that talent together for one great season. Mettenberger struggled in 2012 with inconsistency. With Cam Cameron bringing a pro-style offense to the team in 2013, he looked like that first-round arm was finally producing first-round production. Through the meat of the season, the senior was again inconsistent but showed the tools to be a starting NFL quarterback. And then he tore his ACL.
Mettenberger's status for 2014 remains in question heading into the NFL combine. A healthy Mettenberger could fill one of many early needs for a quarterback, but any doubts about his knee could cause his stock to plummet.
Be honest; when you read the name and No. 5 ranking, you wondered who the hell I was talking about, didn't you?
Jimmy Garoppolo isn't a well-known name for the casual NFL draft fan, or for the guy or gal who focuses heavily on their pro team throughout the year and then uses this time of year to learn about the top prospects in the upcoming lottery. You'll want to get to know the gunslinger from Eastern Illinois, though.
Garoppolo wasn't a priority prospect at the end of the season, but a strong showing at the East-West Shrine Game led to an invite to the Senior Bowl as A.J. McCarron's replacement. Garoppolo proved he belonged, showing up as the second-best quarterback in Mobile (right behind Derek Carr). The small-school quarterback quickly quieted any critics who showed up disappointed that the Georgia, LSU and Alabama quarterbacks weren't participating.
Watching Garoppolo play, it's easy to see some Tony Romo in him, or maybe even a little Drew Brees. He moves well in the pocket and then unloads with a big arm that allows him to make every throw on the field. Velocity and ball placement are there, too, and he'll do it from various release points to find a passing window.
Garoppolo might not be the most recognizable name on this list, but he's head-and-shoulders better than many of his more famous peers.
The best senior quarterback in the 2014 class, Fresno State's Derek Carr has a chance to be one of the first picks in the draft—that is, if teams don't over-think his last name.
Derek, you see, is the younger brother of David, the former No. 1 overall pick of the Houston Texans. The supposed savior of the expansion team, the older Carr struggled behind what is still the worst offensive line in NFL history and on a patch-work roster. His NFL career never reached the peaks many anticipated. The fear among some will ultimately be that the younger brother cannot be expected to exceed the older brother.
That is not something any evaluator can accurately predict, especially not before seeing what type of team Carr ends up on and what the early expectations are for him. What we can do, based on film study and workouts, is detail what type of talent he'll bring to the NFL—and he has lots of it.
Carr's arm strength is ideal for today's NFL. Even in super-windy conditions at the Senior Bowl, his passes were cutting through the wind and landing with a snap in the receiver's hands. Carr can push the ball with strength, but he also understands touch; not every pass comes in at 100 mph. He's also a hard-working leader, and we saw that when he stayed after every practice during Senior Bowl week to work with receivers on timing and routes.
That's what you want from the quarterback: accuracy, arm strength, leadership and experience. Carr has them all.
Johnny Football. Mr. Heisman. The next Steve Young?
There has been no shortage of hyperbole and clever nicknaming thrown around when talking about Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. Loved by many, hated by everyone else, the Texan plays bigger than his 6'0", 210-pound frame and has wowed the college football world in his short but brilliant career. Now, he's ready for the NFL.
The question, though, is if the NFL is ready for him.
Manziel doesn't fit into the classic metrics for quarterbacks. He's not 6'2"; he doesn't play primarily in the pocket; he runs too much; and he throws off his back foot all the time. But he makes plays—a lot of them—and they're NFL-level plays at that. Manziel may not be conventional, but he's really damn good.
From a scouting standpoint, Manziel is difficult to evaluate. He's the type of player that gets a general manager fired—either because they pass on him or because they draft him and he fails to transition to the NFL. But you have to take a chance on a player with his combination of speed, instincts, vision and accuracy.
And you have to acknowledge that he's a work-in-progress. Clean up his back-foot tendencies when throwing the ball and you have a passer with much better velocity and overall strength—and Manziel with a stronger arm is basically every scout's best friend.
Blake Bortles made a surprise visit to Radio Row at the Super Bowl and shocked everyone in attendance. Wasn't he listed at 6'3" by Central Florida? Try 6'5". Bortles' physical presence was dominating—but then again, so was his game film at times.
The hype for Bortles started late this year, but not because of any lack of talent on his part. In fact, no one thought he would leave Central Florida for the NFL after his junior year. But then Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley and Bryce Petty said they'd be back in college next season, and as a result there was a huge void for talented quarterbacks in the top of the draft. Bortles packed his bags and started training, and NFL teams took notice.
Go back and watch his last two years at Central Florida, and you'll see a player who reminds you an awful lot of Andrew Luck with a little Ben Roethlisberger mixed in. He's solidly built but plays with the speed to run away from defenders. Much like Big Ben, he's a monster in the pocket or on the move and is super tough to bring down once he gets moving. Big Blake has the athletic ability to make a defender miss or put his pads down and run them over, and NFL scouts love it.
But how's the arm? Oh, it's good. Bortles is a bit raw in terms of mechanics, but he's able to make plays with his arm whether standing in the pocket or on the move. He'll throw across his body with velocity and accuracy, and while he can be a bit brave with the football, more often than not he's making plays and not turnovers.
He's raw, and everyone knows that, but the ceiling on Bortles is over his head—and that's a long way up there.
The second highest grade I've given to a quarterback in the last decade, second only to Andrew Luck, Teddy Bridgewater is a sure-fire franchise player at the next level—or at least he should be.
Looking at the Louisville passer, it's easy to fall in love with his pre- and post-snap ability and presence. Ask Bridgewater to make a pre-snap read and change the play? He'll do it while the rest of the quarterbacks in college are looking to the sideline for a poster board with a picture of Marilyn Monroe on it to give them the read. Bridgewater makes his own reads, and he shows the high-level intelligence and recognition needed to step right into an NFL system.
Once on the field, Bridgewater can be whomever you want him to be. Need a runner? He's done it. Check out the South Florida game from 2012 and his 7.4 yards per carry average. Want someone to stand tall in the pocket and make big plays? Jon Bostic damn-near took his head off in the 2012 Sugar Bowl, and Bridgewater stood in there, took the kill-shot and completed the pass.
Oh, and Louisville won that game, even though everyone will tell you he's yet to beat a real defense. He knows where to put the ball so his guys can win, and he did that against Kentucky to get DeVante Parker in a situation to win a jump-ball in the end zone.
Go through the last two years, and you'll see examples of this over and over again: Bridgewater making plays with his feet, Bridgewater making plays with his eyes, Bridgewater winning with his arm, etc. That's what he does, and it's why an NFL team should be drafting him No. 1 overall.