How Tom Savage Became the 2014 NFL Draft's Biggest Sleeper

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How Tom Savage Became the 2014 NFL Draft's Biggest Sleeper
Charles LeClaire/USA Today

Who is Tom Savage? According to Wikipedia, he's a famous author, a well-known painter and an English rugby player. Oh, and an American football quarterback.

Don't be ashamed if you're a football fan and you didn't know any of those Savages, even the one whose stock is gaining steam as he prepares for the 2014 NFL draft

The funny thing about Savage is that everybody has begun talking about the fact that nobody is talking about him, which is logically oxymoronic but also feels about right. That's because Savage is no Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel or Blake Bortles, but as we speak, whispers that he could be a draft-day steal are turning to roars. 

Why? It's simple, really. Savage is a 6'4", 228-pound fifth-year senior with a cannon for an arm. He's preparing to enter a quarterback-needy league at the ripe age of 24. His age, size and resemblance to the type of classic pocket quarterback many front offices still pine for make him a charming secondary option for those who won't or can't join the sweepstakes for presumed first-round picks like Bridgewater, Manziel and Bortles. 

Those guys have become overexposed. Books have already been written about the 21-year-old Manziel. The 21-year-old Bridgewater's pro day at Louisville was covered like a presidential speech. The 22-year-old Bortles' love life has already become tabloid fodder

Savage is older but still lacks experience. There are several reasons why he's projected by most experts to be a late-round pick, at best, but his biggest obstacle might stem from the fact he was the closest thing you'll see to a college football journeyman. Pittsburgh was his third school in five years.

Two transfers equates to two full seasons down the drain, which helps explain why Savage has yet to distinguish himself from a novelist who's been dead more than a decade. But the draft's extended and inescapable hype machine is beginning to get a taste for him, so let's explore the path that has taken Savage from rural Pennsylvania to New Jersey to Arizona to Pittsburgh to the 2014 NFL draft.  

 

That 13-year-old can "really rip it."

To properly introduce you to Tom Savage the football player, let's start in his hometown of Springfield, Pa., where the kid made an impression on one of the draft's most respected analysts before he was a high schooler. 

"I saw him throw the football in eighth grade," said NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock in a conference call earlier this year, per NJ.com's Dan Duggan. "Him and my son played on the same All‑Star Team in eighth grade and I was like, 'Wow, this kid for an eighth grader can really rip it.' "

Savage polished his game early, thanks in part to the fact he was always able to chuck it around with his big brother, Bryan, who wound up playing quarterback at Hofstra. And it helped that his dad, Tom Sr., instilled toughness in him from day one. 

From TribLive.com's Jerry DiPaola:

When Savage was growing up, he hurt his leg in a midget league game. Tom Sr. was seated by himself on a corner of the bleachers.

“I'm limping on the field, I look over to my dad and he gives me a little nod and I keep going,” he said.

He'd need that grit many times in the years to come, because Tom Savage could take a hit, and he'd take many of 'em. All the while, he was already becoming a stud under center. 

"When he was in eighth grade," Savage's high school coach, Danny Algeo, told Bleacher Report, "we knew he was something special."

 

Starting quarterback as a sophomore in high school

Two years after Savage left an impression on Mayock and Algeo, he was already the starting quarterback at Cardinal O'Hara High School in Springfield, making throws like this:

YouTube

As a 16-year-old, he was already 6'5" and 218 pounds, according to Joseph Santoloquito of the Philadelphia Daily News. He measured 6'4" at the combine, but that doesn't mean he shrunk. Pittsburgh also had him at 6'5". Let's call him 6'4.5". Regardless, before he could drive, Savage was taller than your average NFL quarterback. 

Before he was 18, Savage had already become one of the most sought-after quarterbacks in the country, drawing interest from Miami, USC, Notre Dame and Florida, according to the Daily News. Before he was a junior, he had already attended camps at Miami and Southern Cal, the second of which was hosted by then-Trojans head coach Pete Carroll. 

By the time his junior season at O'Hara was complete, ESPN Rise had selected him as an "Elite 11" quarterback nationwide, joining guys like A.J. McCarron, Aaron Murray and Tajh Boyd, all of whom are expected to be drafted in May. 

Savage's stats were never jaw-dropping, but you could see the physical ability from a very young age. The guy was a man among teenagers. 

"He's a once-in-a-lifetimer," said Algeo, who even used Savage at quarterback on occasion as a freshman. "He has tremendous poise."

 

Short stint at Rutgers

When Savage committed to Rutgers over offers from Georgia, Miami, Tennessee and Louisville, it was a big deal. NFL.com's Mike Huguenin writes that the signing was viewed as a "recruiting coup" for then-head coach Greg Schiano. 

Tom Luicci of The Star-Ledger called him "the most heralded quarterback recruit in school history," claiming before Savage's rookie season that his was "one of the most anticipated careers any Rutgers player has ever had."

It all seemed so promising. 

"I love Coach Schiano," Savage said when he signed a letter of intent with Rutgers on Feb. 4, 2009, according to Dave Caldwell of The New York Times, "and I was going to stay loyal to the program no matter what happened."

Then he went out and lived up to the hype as a freshman starter, winning eight games and earning team MVP honors. 

Rutgers fans won't soon forget this game-winning touchdown pass to Tim Brown in the final seconds against Connecticut: 

But that loyalty faded fast. Savage took a beating early in his sophomore season. Not only was he struggling on the field, particularly with his accuracy, but he also suffered bruised ribs and a hand injury in back-to-back weeks, enabling Schiano to make a permanent switch to Chas Dodd at quarterback. 

Savage's season concluded with just 521 passing yards and a completion percentage of just 51.8. He'd never suit up for the Scarlet Knights again. 

Two years after committing to Rutgers and one year after posting the best touchdown-to-interception ratio among the nation's true freshman quarterbacks, Savage decided to transfer elsewhere. After he engaged in an ugly battle with Schiano and the program regarding transfer opportunities being blocked by Schiano and the program, he wound up at Arizona. 

Many expected Savage to transfer to Delaware at the Division I-AA level, a la Joe Flacco. But he insisted on staying at the D-I level.

"I could do that," he told Algeo at the time, "but I really believe I'm a big-time quarterback so I want to stay at the big-time level."

Years later, Savage admitted leaving Rutgers was a mistake, according to Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

If he could have a mulligan for his college career, Savage said: “I would just stay at Rutgers, be patient, and earn my job back. Who knows? Maybe I wouldn’t be here.

“But looking back, one virtue I didn’t have was patience. I had early success and didn’t know why I had early success. I kind of made a mistake and left.”

 

Shorter stint at Arizona

In fact, after NCAA transfer rules forced him to sit out the 2011 season, Savage actually tried to return to Rutgers. When the Wildcats brought in Rich Rodriguez and his zone-read offense at the conclusion of Savage's idle 2011 season, he bailed on a program for the second time in 11 months, citing a family issue

But he was denied an NCAA appeal to return to Piscataway, according to Fittipaldo, so instead he walked on at Pitt, earning a scholarship and—after again being forced to sit out an entire seasonone final campaign to prove that he's an NFL-worthy pivot. 

 

Final audition at Pitt

In 2013, the college football nomad known as Tom Savage finally found his groove for the first time since he was a freshman All-American nearly half a decade earlier in Jersey. 

After throwing only 83 passes in three seasons and none since 2010, Savage completed 61.2 percent of his passes for nearly 3,000 yards, posting a passer rating of 138.2 on a mediocre Panthers team. 

In October, NFL.com's Gil Brandt called Savage "the best QB prospect you've never heard of," pointing directly to his 424-yard, six-touchdown performance in an unforgettable victory over Duke:

He showed that he could make every throw, connecting on deep passes, crossing routes, throwing out to the sideline, and checking it down to a running back. Perhaps most impressive, he was able to perfectly lead his receivers so they didn't have to slow down to make a reception.

Brandt added that Savage reminded him of Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman: 

Physically, when I see Savage, he reminds me of Aikman. He is well built at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds. He has a very strong arm and above-average accuracy on his throws. He is more of a pocket passer than someone who will beat you with his legs. Not a lot of prospects have the combination of size, arm strength, and passing ability that I see in Savage.

 

Gaining steam

You know that toughness we keep alluding to? It's possible that's why Savage wasn't gaining a lot of attention from mainstream draft analysts until recently. See, the guy was hammered time and again behind a dreadful offensive line at Pitt, but he kept playing through the pain. 

From TribLive.com's Jerry DiPaolo in late November: 

Savage has been sacked 40 times in 11 games, and that's only when the defense was able to get him to the ground or force him out of bounds.

“He's probably been hit on 60 to 70 percent of the passes,” [former Pitt quarterback Pat] Bostick said.

Yet Savage has thrown only eight interceptions in 333 attempts, two in the past seven games — and one of those ricocheted off Boyd's hands.

“I've seen his development amid some pretty tough circumstances at times (this season),” Bostick said, “which speaks to how he works at it.”

Savage didn't miss a start in 2013 despite suffering head, knee and rib injuries. How healthy was he? We'll never know. 

"I've made the mistake in the past, been banged up and came out of the game and, unfortunately, never got back in," he said in November, per DiPaolo, referring specifically to his Wally Pipp experience at Rutgers. "I'm not coming out unless my leg is hanging off. That's the way it is. I'll tell Doc to give me some medicine or do what I can."

Now, though, we've had a chance to see him in workouts and compare him to quarterbacks who had a lot more support at schools like Louisville, Texas A&M and Alabama. 

That has changed the way Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller views the soon-to-be 24-year-old: 

Miller expanded on that last week

Watching Tom Savage during the season, I wasn't blown away. But that's the trouble with TV broadcast viewing—you don't always get the full picture. On reevaluating him post-combine, you notice just how poor his pass protection was. That led to some of the bad habits seen in his footwork. All that said, his arm strength and pro-style background are very intriguing.

There's a blurry line that separates quarterbacks with durability issues and those who have simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. As we dig deeper on Savage, it's beginning to look as though he's been a victim of the latter. 

It seems Savage has never had much support, and that goes all the way back to his high school days under Algeo. 

"If you can't move very well in the pocket and you don't have a great offensive line, you're going to get beat up," Algeo told us. "I watched him his senior year when we had just a rash of injuries up front, and we played St. Joe's Prep and they killed the poor kid. Every play, he just got up. He's a lot tougher than people realize, mentally and physically."

As a junior at O'Hara, Savage broke a bone in his left foot but played through the pain.

"I knew deep down inside that I could seriously hurt it," he said at the time, according to ESPN.com's Jon Mahoney, "but I just really wanted to play."

A few weeks later, a blitzing defender knocked the 17-year-old out with a concussion, forcing him to the sideline for three weeks. But he returned again to lead the Lions to a playoff victory.

Injuries and a lack of support at O'Hara, at Rutgers and at Pitt might be the primary reason why Savage isn't currently mentioned in the same breath as Bridgewater, Manziel and Bortles.

But 14 years ago, nobody mentioned Tom Brady when discussing Chad Pennington. Twenty years ago, Heath Shuler and Trent Dilfer were the talk of the draft, not Kurt Warner. In 2003, Carson Palmer, Byron Leftwich, Kyle Boller and Rex Grossman were big shots; Tony Romo was not. 

Can Savage become the next Warner, Brady or Romo? At least there are no character concerns, his stock is rising and those transfers have become less of a red flag now that a more mature Savage has conceded that he never should have left Rutgers in the first place. 

Algeo has been watching, and he also sees constant improvement on the field. 

"He understands coverages now better than he did in high school," said Algeo. "Tommy will always work on his strengths, but he's such a coachable kid. He always took constructive criticism well and he's always willing to learn."

He's still raw and has to work on his accuracy and decision-making, but it's important to remember that he has only two full seasons under his belt. The overall package for a guy who claims he once threw a football 74 yards on a bet is beginning to sink in for draftniks, which could mean big things. 

"It hasn't been the smoothest of journeys," Algeo added, "but it's all gonna work out for him in the end."

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