Perhaps the most physically promising quarterback in the 2014 NFL draft, Blake Bortles could be selected as early as the No. 1 overall pick, but the Central Florida quarterback might need time to develop to avoid becoming one of this year’s biggest draft busts.
Since CBS Sports’ Dane Brugler wrote in early January that “it shouldn't shock anyone” if the Houston Texans select Bortles with the first overall selection, he has become a popular choice for the top spot on many mock drafts around the Internet.
ESPN’s Todd McShay (subscription required for full draft) and NFL.com’s Charles Davis are among those who have followed Brugler in projecting Bortles to the Texans. PlayTheDraft.com, a website that determines player draft stocks from submitted mock drafts, ranks Bortles as the draft’s No. 2 player behind South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
It isn’t hard to see why many are falling in love with Bortles’ potential.
At 6’5” and 232 pounds, he has ideal size for an NFL quarterback. He has a strong arm, which he shows not only with the great zip he puts on his intermediate passes, but also in connecting on deep balls as far as 55 yards downfield, such as he did on this in UCF's Oct. 26, 2013 game versus Connecticut:
A good athlete who can run through and bounce off contact, Bortles has big-play ability with both his arm and his feet. The UCF quarterback has the physical tools NFL scouts covet in a quarterback, and he combines it with the moxie to make things happen. He doesn’t shy away from taking hits or throwing the ball deep downfield under pressure, but he displays confidence in his receivers to make plays on the ball in the air.
In the highlight seen in the following Draft Breakdown cut-up, Bortles has his faith rewarded for trusting his receiver to make a play on a risky deep ball during UCF's Sept. 14 game versus Penn State:
Bortles’ combination of size, arm strength, athleticism and audacity has drawn him comparisons to Ben Roethlisberger. But if he is going to lead an NFL team to Super Bowl championships, he has to make strides in correcting a number of fundamental flaws.
How Bortles Must Improve for His Play to Match His Hype
While Bortles has all the physical traits necessary to be a star quarterback, he doesn’t always have the mechanics needed to take full advantage of his attributes.
Though the UCF quarterback can truly launch the ball deep when he steps up into his throw, he doesn’t consistently drive his deep balls to their targets. Footwork issues are the biggest reason for his deep-ball inconsistency.
Bortles has a tendency to throw passes off his back foot rather than transferring his weight through to his front foot. This has a noticeable effect when he throws the ball deep, as it can cause his passes to wobble in the air long enough for a defensive back to make a play on the ball or for his throws to sail away from their intended targets.
All in all, the quarterback has inconsistent and sloppy footwork. While he typically does a good job squaring his shoulders and upper body to his target, his footwork is not always aligned as well, which can make a big difference when trying to fit throws between tight windows, as Bortles will be expected to do against NFL defenses.
While his footwork issues could be fixed by coaching, it will be easier said than done for Bortles to break his habits, especially when throwing under pressure.
If he cannot do so, he might struggle throwing the ball downfield at the next level. Faster, more technically sound NFL defensive backs will be able to close more frequently on hung-up deep balls and leave him less room for error on deep throws that might veer away from their targets.
The following interception thrown against Penn State is just one example of Bortles' footwork leading to a poor throw and a playmaking opportunity for the defense:
Bortles’ upper-body mechanics are fairly solid, but as Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller noted in the video below, the UCF quarterback does have a somewhat elongated release:
In his junior season for the Knights, Bortles had a strong completion percentage of 67.8 percent. But that statistic can be somewhat misleading in regards to his accuracy. He is typically precise on short throws, which the statistic reflects, though he sometimes rushes into screen passes and throws them high or in the dirt as a result.
Throwing downfield, however, he has been less consistent. In six games charted from his 2013 season, he completed just 50 percent of his passes beyond 10 yards downfield.
Bortles threw 16 interceptions between his two full seasons as a starter at UCF, a very reasonable amount considering the number of risky downfield throws he attempts. That said, he sometimes tips off play-hungry defenders by staring down his reads, and he doesn’t always seem to see defensive backs breaking in on the ball.
At the collegiate level, Bortles has largely been able to get away with his fundamental flaws, though he's still made some ugly mistakes. In the NFL, he will have less room for error, especially as opposing defensive coordinators pick up on his shortcomings and look to exploit them.
Is Bortles Worth the Risk of a High Draft Pick?
That is the question the Texans must ask themselves in determining whether they should draft Bortles to potentially become a much-needed franchise quarterback. Should Houston go in another direction, that question will subsequently be asked by any quarterback-needy team that ends up in a position to potentially draft him.
This is not to say Bortles is the only potential bust among the projected first-round quarterback selections in this year’s draft. Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater might be the safest choice at the position, but Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel must become a more comfortable pocket passer who can get the ball out of his hand faster, while Fresno State’s Derek Carr must improve his accuracy and decision-making under pressure.
Bortles might have the highest ceiling of any of the 2014 draft class’ quarterbacks, but his floor might also be the lowest of the top four quarterback prospects. While he has the potential to be one of the NFL’s best playmakers if he can improve his mechanics and accuracy, he could also flame out of a starting role quickly if he fails to make the necessary adjustments.
In his March 6 Scouting Notebook for B/R, Miller explained how the flaws in Bortles’ game make him a concerning player to draft early.
“What if Bortles' footwork doesn't improve? The answer is scary. He's a low-level NFL quarterback,” Miller wrote. “As much as any one player in this draft, the UCF junior has loads of potential but is equally scary in that if he doesn't improve at the next level, he won't live up to his draft stock.”
Nonetheless, Bortles isn’t going to be drafted high because of the player he is now, but rather the player he could become.
With five teams in the top eight picks potentially looking to draft first-round quarterbacks, it is likely that one of them will be intrigued enough by Bortles’ potential to make him an early-first-round pick. If so, that team will be rolling the dice on one of the draft’s most imperfect top prospects in hopes of turning its fortunes around quickly by landing a star quarterback.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.