The most interesting ongoing storyline about this year's NFL draft is the continued fundamental inability for pundits and team evaluators to reach a consensus at quarterback.
Each team obviously has a "different" draft board each year. It's based on team need, positional depth and a number of other factors management finds out along the way (personality, schematic fit, whether they say soda/pop, etc.). But, in most cases, top evaluators can talk to a few teams and get a generalized feel of how the draft will play out.
And they have done so again in 2014. Except at quarterback.
The Houston Texans have gone out of their way to keep their plans hush-hush, though the sentiment is they're deciding between a top quarterback and South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Whether it's Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater is anyone's guess.
It's not even really clear whether the Texans know themselves whom they like the most. Bortles and Bridgewater have already had their pro days (to wildly varying results), and Manziel's opportunity to be the prettiest girl at the pageant comes Thursday.
Fresno State's Derek Carr also hangs on the fringes of the first-round conversation, though the Texans' history with the Carr family probably rules him out at No. 1. Considering the amount of hits David took while in Houston, the Carrs might file civil charges if they took a second son, anyway.
With uncertainty still afoot—and Manziel's pro day looming as the possible crystallization of the quarterback hierarchy—let's take a look at the potential first-rounders and where they seem most likely to land. (For now.)
Blake Bortles, UCF: Houston Texans (No. 1 Overall)
Smart or not, perception after Bortles' pro day has him pegged as the most likely option for Houston. The former UCF standout flashed prodigious arm strength, a stark advancement in his footwork and outshined Bridgewater, whose disappointing showing was playing in everyone's mind as they watched on.
ESPN's Todd McShay, long a Bridgewater supporter, gushed on the network's broadcast and said he'd take Bortles No. 1 overall:
I don't care how many catches or drops or anything like that, I see a guy that clearly has raw physical tools present and is progressing towards a more finished product than what I saw from Bridgewater earlier this week. If I'm absolutely taking a quarterback, I'm taking Blake Bortles.
Many, most notably Grantland's Bill Barnwell, pointed out the folly of overrating a pro day or scouting combine performance. Pro days are especially misleading because of their scripted format and utter lack of environmental discomfort.
It's hard to know what Bortles, Bridgewater or Manziel can do against an NFL pass rush based on their collegiate tape. The speed and complexities of a pass rush, even in the SEC, pale in comparison. But it's totally impossible to see anything but raw tools when you take these kids out of pads, throw them in shorts and turn the draft process into a competition of who can make scouts do Tom eyes the best.
Bortles fits the quarterback prototype to a T. Listed at 6'5" and 232 pounds, the formerly unheralded signal-caller gives off Ben Roethlisberger/Joe Flacco vibes with his stature. He's also more nimble in the pocket than his 4.93-second 40-yard dash indicates and checks nearly every theoretical box you can want in a quarterback.
Houston hasn't indicated if it shares the sentiment, but Bortles' buzz has been building (alliteration!) for a while. Texans coach Bill O'Brien also saw what Bortles could do firsthand in college, when UCF traveled to Happy Valley and beat Penn State, and he seemed satisfied with his pro-day outing.
“I was very impressed,” O’Brien told reporters. “He made every throw I wanted to see, and he showed good footwork.”
It's wholly possible the smokescreen factory is in full force, and Manziel looms over this whole process. Local fans are certainly in his corner. In a poll currently running on the Texans' official website, 61 percent of responders say they hope Houston drafts the Texas A&M product.
That may happen. But, at the moment, the 7 percent in Bortles' favor are probably going to come away happy.
Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville: Cleveland Browns (No. 4 Overall)
The Jaguars are another possibility, but Gus Bradley's strange decry of Chad Henne as his Week 1 quarterback makes me think they'll go in another direction. Again, it's smokescreen season, so that could just be conjecture. But there's no real reason to name Henne your starter without meaning it, and teams don't take quarterbacks at No. 3 without expecting them to start.
That leaves Cleveland sitting at No. 4 and falling into the draft's best quarterback. Bridgewater has been so highly touted for so long that he's reached the unfortunate stage where everyone tries picking him apart.
His disappointing pro-day performance left teams a little cold to a guy they'd already begun teetering on. Where Bortles has the size, athleticism, arm strength, etc., Bridgewater has taken criticism for being a little small and only having an above-average arm on deep throws. This ignores years of excellence and making throws when it actually matters, but, hey, narratives be narrativin'.
The Browns, of all teams, are one of a few to have a level-headed outlook on the process. General manager Ray Farmer's decision to skip out on Johnny Manziel's pro day raised eyebrows, but it's been par for the course for the coaching staff. Neither head coach Mike Pettine nor his offensive staff have been at any of the pro-day workouts.
"A pro day of orchestrated throws, I don't know what that tells you," Farmer told Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com. "It's a piece of it that people blow up into this great thing. I went to a lot of games and practices this fall. I've seen them throw the ball.''
That lack of emphasis on pro days could help Bridgewater find a home. He's unquestionably the most impressive of the three top guys on film, displaying an innate sense of the moment and ability to avoid major mistakes. If that sounds unfamiliar to Browns fans, maybe it's because about none of those tools have been prevalent for years under center.
Equipped with two first-round picks, there's a school of thought saying Cleveland could get cute here. Take a high-level prospect at another position at No. 4 and perhaps wait for a Carr or even Manziel to drop to No. 26.
The last time the Browns pulled such a move, they ended up with Brandon Weeden. The previous time, Brady Quinn. Just buck the history and take the quarterback if you like him, OK, Cleveland?
Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: Minnesota Vikings (No. 8 Overall)
Manziel is easily the most difficult potential first-rounder to project at this point. Not only is his pro day still upcoming, but the buzz surrounding his name varies wildly depending on whom is speaking. He's a superstar one minute. He's a bust the next.
All that's clear is that people have OPINIONS about Manziel, and they're damned sure not afraid to express them.
Those entrenched stances are what make Manziel's pro day so unfortunately important. How he performs Thursday will shape the entire narrative from then until May 8. Struggle, and he might take a Tim Tebowian slide. Soar, and he's the formerly immature kid who finally "gets" what it takes to be an NFL quarterback.
Stupid as it is—Manziel will succeed or fail based on his on-field merits, not how he performs in shorts—those are the stakes in College Station, Texas, this week.
At the moment, Manziel's stock is still relatively high enough to keep him in the top 10. The Raiders are a fascinating possibility because of the perfect match between the club's rebellious style and Manziel's own brand of brashness, but trading for Matt Schaub is a pretty clear sign they're not looking for a developmental talent.
While Minnesota also made a move this offseason by re-signing Matt Cassel, there's no way the Vikings can go into 2014 with status quo at quarterback. The quietly aging Adrian Peterson lobbied for the Vikings to sign Michael Vick, advice they essentially ignored in favor of keeping Cassel.
Peterson is a running back making a handsome salary (an endangered species in the NFL), so it's unlikely you'll hear too many grumbles from his camp. But it's obvious new head coach Mike Zimmer has put his homework in on Manziel. Zimmer talked with former Vikings great Fran Tarkenton, an outspoken Manziel supporter, and seems at this point more concerned with his leadership abilities than on-field skills.
“It’s still going to come down to how we feel about how he’s going to be in the locker room, what kind of person he’s going to be, what kind of leader, and then go from there,’’ Zimmer said, per Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press.
It seems fair to say at this point Manziel is third on the quarterback hierarchy. A strong pro day could vault him back up to consideration at No. 1. A poor one could send him out of the first round entirely, as Carr becomes the consensus No. 3. No pressure or anything, Mr. Football.
Quick Derek Carr Note: Come May 8, Derek Carr will go somewhere in the first round. Pegging where and to whom is almost impossible. The most likely scenario is a quarterback-needy team inside the top 10 trades back into the second half of the first round and swoops in for Carr in the mid-20s. The Raiders, who have a "massive crush" on Carr, per David White of The Fresno Bee, are the likeliest option. But Cleveland at No. 26 is another possibility, as is Jacksonville, Minnesota, etc.
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