I started my scouting career in 1981 working part time for the Buffalo Bills. In the 33 years since, I have found that evaluating quarterbacks can be one of the most difficult jobs a scout can do. With there being varied opinion on the top quarterbacks in this class, I thought that this was as good a time as ever to visit this topic.
Evaluating a quarterback can look easy, but there is so much more than just looking at stats. The college game is very different than the pro game. The vast majority of college offenses are some form of a spread offense, where the quarterback reads only half the field on a given play. What looks complex can be very simple when compared to what a quarterback is asked to do once he gets to the NFL.
Where Do You Begin
Where is the starting point? That is a good question, and I'm sure it varies from scout to scout. One of the first things I look for is if the prospect is capable of playing in the offense my team is currently running. Does he possesses the physical traits to play in that offense?
Most offensive coordinators want size. The ideal player would be in the 6'3" to 6'5" range with a good deal of athleticism. Athleticism means more than just speed; it's the player's quick feet, agility and body control.
Brett Favre was far from being a fast guy, but his quick feet in the pocket and his "feel" for pass-rushers enabled him to keep plays alive. Quarterbacks who can make plays with their feet are highly valued. Examples of these types of quarterbacks in today's game are Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson.
When we look at the quarterbacks in this year's class, the one who jumps out at me as having ideal size is Central Florida's Blake Bortles. When you look at his frame you see a prototypical NFL quarterback.
The player who is the most athletic and can make and extend plays with his feet is Johnny Manziel, who has excellent run instincts.
The "It" Factor
More so than size and athleticism are the intangibles and what many call the "it" factor. Some have "it," and some don't.
"It" is a combination of things, the first being instincts. To be a successful quarterback in the NFL, a player has to have outstanding instincts. He has to anticipate and understand things extremely well. Intelligence is important, but in my view, instincts are even more important.
There have been many great quarterbacks throughout the years who didn't have great natural intelligence, but their instincts for the game were off the charts.
Another part of the "it" factor is leadership and competitiveness. Most outstanding quarterbacks are great leaders and extremely competitive people. They hate to lose at anything. They have to believe, and they have to make their teammates believe that they can get the job done.
A quarterback has to be in total command! The shy, meek personality may have the physical traits, but he just isn't going to get his teammates to believe in him. That player will fail.
Several years ago, there was a quarterback in the draft who was highly touted by a lot of teams because of his physical traits. During the interview process, I talked to the player about his college career. His career started slowly, but by the time he was a senior, he had a very good collection of statistics and had won some big games.
During the conversation, he told me that as an underclassman, when he wasn't as successful, he would walk around campus with a hooded sweatshirt on and the hood up. He explained to me that he wore the hood up so no one would recognize him.
Right away, I knew this player wasn't for me. He couldn't think of himself as a winner, so how was he supposed to get his teammates to feel he could win? This player went on to be drafted in the first round but he failed, and I have no doubt that it was because he didn't have "it."
Looking at this year's class, I don't see anyone who obviously has a strong "it" factor, but Alabama's AJ McCarron would be close. He is a very good leader, he manages a game and is very consistent. Two national championships on his resume isn't bad.
Arm Strength and Spin
When looking at the physical traits of a quarterback, arm strength is one of the more important ones. If you are looking for a quarterback to play in Chicago, Buffalo or New York, arm strength can be more important because of the bad weather conditions. Players with weak arms are going to struggle in these places. Still, some players with average arms have succeeded because they spin the ball well.
What do I mean by spin? When the ball comes out of the quarterback's hand I look for a ball with a tight spin and one that doesn't flutter. A tight ball has a chance to "cut" the wind, but conversely, if a quarterback throws a loose ball, the wind can take it anywhere.
You have to remember: That quarterback's arm strength can improve. What you see coming out of college is not what you will see five years into the NFL. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning (before his neck injury) and Drew Brees all had stronger arms five years into their careers than they did when they were drafted.
While some of the top quarterbacks have good arms in this year's class, no one has a cannon. Derek Carr from Fresno spins the ball very well and can easily throw the ball 60 yards downfield.
After arm strength and spin, the next thing I look at is the player's release. Does he have a tight compact delivery where the ball comes out of his hand quickly, or does he have a long windup? How is his footwork at delivery? Is he a quick stepper or a long strider into the throw? If I determine that he has a poor delivery, then I ask myself if it is something that can be corrected with coaching. A coach can work months trying to correct a player's delivery just to have him, in the heat of battle, revert back to his old form.
Tim Tebow is a perfect example of the above. He worked months on tightening his delivery when getting ready for the draft. His release and delivery looked much better at his pro day, but when he got a chance to play during the season he went right back to his old windup delivery.
Playing from Under Center
What's difficult when scouting quarterbacks today is that you seldom see college quarterbacks taking snaps from under center. They seem to always be in a form of the shotgun. You may think that because a player plays the quarterback position he can of course take a snap from under center. That's not always the case; it's a learned trait that has to be practiced.
A few years ago at the Senior Bowl, the teams were practicing to play from a pro-set formation. On the first day of practice there were so many fumbled snaps from center that the coaches from both teams had to revert to a spread offense to play the game. All six quarterbacks in the game had done nothing but play in spread formations while in college.
When a club is thinking about drafting a quarterback who comes from a spread system, it is imperative to work him out before the draft to see if he can in fact take snaps from under center.
The most ready quarterbacks as far as having taken a lot of snaps from under center in this draft are Bortles and McCarron. Both played in a mostly pro-set offense. Early in the year, Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater was playing a lot from under center, but in the last half of the season, Louisville was a spread team.
Accuracy and Ball Placement
Accuracy is a key component when evaluating a quarterback. Accuracy can be defined by completion percentage, but in my mind, it is completion percentage and ball placement.
In the college game, the window to complete a pass is usually fairly big. In the NFL game, that window is much smaller. Quarterbacks with good ball-placement skills will consistently put the ball in an area where the receiver has a chance to do something after the catch. You also want the ball to be placed where the chance of interception is minimal. The back-shoulder fade is a result of this type of thinking.
In the games I viewed from this year, Carr had the best accuracy and ball placement of the top quarterbacks. Guys like Bridgewater and Bortles were all over the place when I looked at where they placed the ball.
When watching game tape of quarterbacks, you have to look at more than just his ability to make throws. You have to study how he performs in different situations. Does he make the big play when he has to? How many times does he make a first down on 3rd-and-long? How often does he sustain drives and put points on the board? What kind of points is he getting? Field goals or touchdowns? Does he make the players around him better? Is he a winner?
I could go on and on with this subject, but we don't have the space. My goal was to give you an idea of what a scout goes through when he evaluates a quarterback. It isn't a very easy job.