In the NFL draft, every team wants value. There's no position more valuable than quarterback; no position is so routinely overdrafted. Therefore, there's no rookie more valuable than a quality signal-caller picked on the draft's second or third day.
Look at the ten most efficient, effective quarterbacks in 2013, as measured by Pro Football Reference's Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt: Nick Foles, Peyton Manning, Josh McCown, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Tony Romo and Matthew Stafford.
Two were second-round picks. Three were third-round picks. One wasn't drafted at all.
Could Tom Savage someday join the list of middling quarterback prospects who rose to the NFL's highest levels?
A close look at the tape suggests that maybe—maybe—he can.
Under the Radar
While debates over the top quarterback prospects rage and re-rage on television, websites and social media, NFL scouts and evaluators are looking harder at second- and third-day guys. As NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah tweeted, Savage seems to be the cream rising to the top of that group:
The Tom Savage buzz is legitimate. His name keeps coming up when I talk to decision makers.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) April 8, 2014
To say Savage's path to this point has been long and winding would be an understatement. Bleacher Report NFC East Lead Writer Brad Gagnon told the tale, from catching the eye of NFL Media's Mike Mayock in eighth grade to frustrating transfers out of two different D-I programs.
Putting aside everything about Savage's precocious talent, and everything about his difficulty settling into a program, let's find out what kind of a prospect he is now.
Savage measured 6'4", 228 pounds at the combine. He's got the ideal height and frame that Blake Bortles has—and nearly every other quarterback in the 2014 class lacks.
The first thing that pops off Savage's DraftBreakdown.com cutups is his footwork. His drop, either from the shotgun or under center, is strong, quick, smooth and balanced. He sets his feet well, transfers weight well, and gives his upper body a strong base. He uses a full setup and release on each throw, which helps his consistency.
Here's a perfect example of how doing the little things right over and over makes a big difference, on an early 2nd-and-9 against Notre Dame:
Savage knows this is a quick screen, but he still takes the time to put his weight on his back foot, step into the throw, rotate his hips and shoulders and deliver with a full throwing motion. He throws the ball the same way whether he's throwing ten yards sideways or sixty yards downfield.
The result: He hits the receiver in stride, in the hands. That gives the receiver time and space to convert the first down. Recently, I broke down Derek Carr making an absolute hash of a similar play in a similar situation—largely because of his sloppy footwork.
A little play like that can quietly make or break a drive; one or two drives a game can make a huge impact on a team's season.
So yes, Savage delivers a quick, accurate ball on screens and dump-offs, showing nice placement and touch. On shallow slants, in-routes and out-routes, he effortlessly applies plenty of catchable zip. His placement on these short-range passes is a little inconsistent—but it seems like his receivers fail him more often than he fails them.
Since Savage is a fifth-year senior who only played one season together with an unimpressive group of pass-catchers, it's not surprising they weren't always on the same page. Of course, in the NFL, his timing windows will be much smaller—but his receivers should be bigger targets, with bigger catch radii with bigger hands.
All in all, if quarterbacks never threw farther than 10 yards downfield, he'd be as good as any in this draft class.
After that, things get complicated.
Does Savage have a noodle arm? Is he a Chad Pennington type, forever limited by his lack of downfield range?
Savage has a legitimate gun. He's able to zip the deep out and go far down either sideline with ease. However, his ability to consistently make plays downfield is hard to evaluate.
Pitt lacked explosive offensive weapons, so Savage wasn't asked to test defenses downfield very often. He hits those short crossing routes over and over again—but without All-22 or end zone angles, it's hard to tell if he's passing up big plays when he completes short gainers.
This could be a hard cap on his long-term potential. Anybody can hit screen passes and check-downs all day; if Savage won't go downfield, NFL teams will find someone who will.
When he did go downfield, he showed a disturbing lack of accuracy. He doesn't get a lot of RPMs on his spiral when he goes deep, so those passes don't gracefully drop in the receiver's breadbasket like Teddy Bridgewater's do. As a result, Savage's longer passes tend to sail high or fall short.
This issue got much, much worse under pressure—which was a problem, because he faced a lot of pressure in 2014.
Let's look at this awful interception against Florida State:
Once again, the lack of end-zone angle film makes this difficult. It's hard to tell exactly what he was thinking when throwing this pass, because his intended target sure didn't look open. Then again, he was likely thinking about his "pass protection":
It's to Savage's great credit that he had three unblocked defenders bearing down on him, and he had the stones to step into his throw and take a shot to the ribs. However, he didn't have time to complete his follow-through, so he ended up shorting it by five yards.
This resulted in an easy interception (circled in yellow), his receiver getting creamed (circled in red) and a long return (blocking in orange). Maybe it wasn't such a good decision to stand and deliver. Then again, what else could he do?
Time and again, poor pass protection forced Savage to choose between an ill-advised throw and throwing it away. It didn't help he didn't have a receiver he could trust to simply go up and get it, as Johnny Manziel did.
So, is the problem the scheme, the protection, the receivers or the quarterback? It might be a little of each.
The trick for NFL teams will be resisting the temptation to overdraft Savage, or putting pressure on him to play too soon. Any team with a pass-first offense, secure coaching staff and established veteran starter, though, should keep a very close eye on Savage after he falls through the second round.
If that's the kind of team Savage goes to, he could end up being one of the best value picks in the draft.