The 2014 NFL draft is still two months away, but with the conclusion of the combine, teams' draft boards are taking shape. Though there is still time for evaluation and second-guessing, we should not expect players' stocks to fluctuate too wildly from this point on.
Thus, the race to be the top quarterback selected is more muddled than ever. Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel all have various claims to that title, and any one of the trio could go as high as first overall to the Houston Texans.
However, in light of his combine performance, it appears UCF's Bortles has seized a slight temporary lead.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller recently reported that the ex-Knight is the current front-runner to hear his name called first:
If the NFL draft were today, the Texans would take...Blake Bortles: That's what I'm hearing. http://t.co/1aZ8ObZnXT— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) February 20, 2014
Like many in the media, Miller also praised Bortles for being the only one of the Big 3 quarterback prospects to throw at the combine. Bortles did not set the world ablaze with his throwing drills, but with solid performances in the vertical jump (32.5") and broad jump (9'6"), he largely confirmed his status as a first-rounder.
But how high will his stock rise? At 6'5" and 232 pounds, he possesses the prototypical size that Bridgewater and Manziel do not. According to USA Today's Jim Corbett, Bortles helped his stock more than any other quarterback, but questions about his readiness could keep his stock deflated:
"Bortles was by far the best quarterback,'' former NFL quarterback Jim Miller, now a Chicago Bears and SIRIUS NFL Radio analyst told USA TODAY Sports. "Bortles is the real deal. ...He probably runs better than Ben Roethlisberger. I'm not going to say he's an Andrew Luck, but when tacklers are draped on him, Bortles can still deliver the football."
[Bill] Polian, now an ESPN analyst, said Bortles has the physical and mental traits requisite of a first-round selection. But he cautioned that the prototypical drop-back passer who threw for 3,581 yards with 25 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2013 could use a year of NFL development.
Bortles conceded Friday he is still raw when he said, "I need coaching. I need help. I think everybody in the game does.''
Indeed, the main criticism surrounding Bortles (besides his subpar collegiate competition) involves his shoddy mechanics, as little things like footwork and erratic accuracy on timing routes are reflective of a quarterback who needs a bit more polish.
However, he may also have a higher ceiling than either Bridgewater or Manziel.
NFL Films producer Greg Cosell highlighted Bortles as the best quarterback in this draft class, according to NFL.com's Dan Parr, citing his superior physical traits. Cosell is not alone in his opinion either, as post-combine mocks at places like OptimumScouting.com are moving Bortles up:
To decipher whether or not he could be worthy of the top overall pick, it's helpful to examine his performances in his few games against top-flight college competition. Last season, Bortles faced off against Jadeveon Clowney and South Carolina, going 25-of-36 for 358 yards with two touchdowns and two picks in UCF's narrow 28-25 loss.
Football Outsiders' Matt Waldman wrote a detailed breakdown of Bortles following the contest. In his film study, Waldman noted that despite occasional struggles maneuvering around pressure and making advanced reads against a highly athletic defense, Bortles is a quarterback with few bad habits and a solid foundation of tools to build upon:
I view Bortles as a player with lessons to learn, but “unlearning” a lot of bad habits isn’t one of them. He’d fit best on a team with a staff that sports a track record of success developing quarterbacks. It would be even better if he sat behind a veteran sold on aiding Bortles’ long-term development.
If the Central Florida quarterback lands in this type of situation, he has shown enough feel for the game that he can develop into a capable NFL starter. He has the upside to lead a team to the playoffs and carry that team in the fourth quarter of games.
Most teams near the top of the draft do not have a real track record of developing quarterbacks—hence the reason for their position at the top. Fortunately for Bortles, however, new Texans coach Bill O'Brien has earned his reputation as a quarterback guru, having developed Matt McGloin and Christian Hackenberg at Penn State.
Should the Texans take Blake Bortles first overall?
Bortles fits the mold of tall, traditional pocket passers that O'Brien has worked with before. The UCF product does have more natural athleticism and scrambling ability than someone like Tom Brady, who O'Brien coached during his time with the Patriots, but Bortles' main job will be mastering the subtler nuances of passing in order to maximize his ability.
With two months left until the draft, Bortles' time under the microscope may reveal enough flaws to dissuade the Texans from taking him first overall.
Still, for a team with the talent of a contender but without the quarterback to take it to the postseason, Bortles would represent a swing for the fences that could shift the AFC's long-term balance of power.
Combine results courtesy of NFL.com.