Former LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger has a bright future ahead of him in the NFL. It might not be Timbuk 3 “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” bright, but after Mettenberger showed off his surgically repaired knee at his pro day on April 9, his draft stock is soaring.
Mettenberger completed 64.8 percent of his passes last season and threw for 3,082 yards and 22 touchdowns against just eight interceptions. The improvement he showed from 2012 to 2013 was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Headed into the final game of the regular season, Mettenberger was a fast riser and a potential first-round pick.
Then, with 6:40 to play in the fourth quarter of LSU’s final game of the regular season, Arkansas Razorbacks defensive tackle Byran Jones was folded into Mettenberger as he threw, and Mettenberger’s college career was over with a torn ACL.
Mettenberger missed the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1, and he was unable to perform at the NFL combine. But those are likely going to be the only major football events he’ll miss because of the nasty knee injury.
Just four months and 12 days (132 days) after Mettenberger’s knee crumbled under the weight of a huge defensive lineman, he went to work at LSU’s pro day. His performance was a resounding success.
LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron told ESPN.com reporter Mike Triplett that they could have taken it easy on Mettenberger and had him throw something like 50 balls. But Mettenberger had something to prove. He wanted to show he was physically able to handle a complete workout and had the mobility to erase any fears from NFL general managers.
Mettenberger, who had surgery on Jan. 2 to repair his left knee, threw nearly 125 passes and made every throw while wearing a helmet and shoulder pads -- the new trend started by fellow prospect Johnny Manziel last month.
The 6-foot-5, 224-pounder moved in the pocket and threw on the run at times. And he consistently showed off a big arm that many analysts consider to be among the strongest of this year's draft prospects.
There were signs of fatigue as Mettenberger threw all of those passes. But the arm strength was there, as was his ability to roll out from the pocket. While he said he was only 85 to 90 percent healthy, his pro-day performance should inspire NFL teams to take another look at the former LSU passer.
Mettenberger also noted that, at the very least, his miraculous comeback from knee surgery in such a short time should let NFL teams know he’s not going to miss much time.
"I think I showed that I'm not gonna start the season on a PUP list," Mettenberger said to the gathered media at his pro day, as reported by ESPN.com. "I think I showed that I'm gonna be healthy enough to practice and compete for a job. And by the time the season rolls around, I'm gonna be fully healed, no question."
So, Mettenberger is going to be healthy enough to go through most of the offseason workout programs leading up to training camp in the NFL. That’s fantastic for him, but where should a team place him on their draft board?
On the CBS Sports prospect rankings list, Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater make up the upper echelon of the quarterback draft class. Then there is a buffer group between Mettenberger and the top trio that consists of Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo.
CBS Sports has Mettenberger ranked as the sixth-best quarterback. Ron Jaworski of ESPN.com thinks that ranking is too low—he has him as the No. 2 quarterback in the draft.
“When you watch him on tape, this guy has an NFL skill set," Jaworski said of Mettenberger. "He's being coached right now by Scott Brunner, by the way—Scott Brunner was the coach who worked with Joe Flacco when he came out of Delaware. Very similar traits in Zach Mettenberger as Joe Flacco."
Brunner told USA Today NFL reporter Jim Corbett that he thought Mettenberger was a second-round type of draft pick who needed to fit into a particular system.
He's probably an early second-round type of guy... He's the type of guy you're going want to fit into a specific system. He's a pocket guy who is not going to be confused with an RG3 or Colin Kaepernick.
What type of system is Mettenberger built for? He’s a prototypical pocket passer with a great arm. The team that picks him up is going to have weapons in place on offense and an offensive line that can protect a passer. He will be able to help an NFL offense that can go vertical in a hurry, but moves the ball all over the place and at different depths.
Having a second-round tag on him, Mettenberger is likely going to be picked by two different types of teams:
- A team that needs a quarterback now, but passes on the position in the first round.
- A team that needs a quarterback of the future—a franchise that can draft Mettenberger and stash him behind a starter for maybe a year or two.
Option No. 2 is by far the better situation for Mettenberger. It would allow him to learn in the NFL without technically having to be on the job. And even though he’s so close to being completely healthy, a year or two as someone’s backup would give his knee more than enough time to fully heal.
There are teams from option No. 1 that could give Mettenberger a try. The Houston Texans and the Minnesota Vikings are two teams that might pass on a quarterback in the first round. The Cleveland Browns might as well. But all three cold use a guy like him.
There are also several teams from option No. 2 that could choose the second round as a time to draft the next starting quarterback for an aging starter. The New England Patriots are one of those teams, and the Patriots have already met with Mettenberger.
The Patriots would be a great choice. Who wouldn’t want to learn from Tom Brady? But the situation that might be best for Mettenberger is with the Arizona Cardinals.
On the field, the Cardinals offense runs through quarterback Carson Palmer. The 34-year-old passer still has gas left in the tank, but is a year or two away from handing the keys over to someone else. As weapons, Arizona features wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, two targets who know how to get open.
Up in the booth, Arizona’s offense runs through offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin and assistant head coach Tom Moore. But the mastermind of the offense is head coach Bruce Arians. The perfect attributes of a quarterback in an Arians’ offense are in someone who can thrown from the pocket, utilize the play-action and get the ball vertically down the field.
That sounds like Mettenberger; it sounds like a perfect fit.
Mettenberger is a 6’5” gunslinger with a 224-pound frame. He possesses the biggest arm in the draft and has experience (thank you, Cam Cameron) running a pro-style offense that benefits from the play-action pass.
In the Mettenberger-to-Arizona scenario, Palmer can keep the starting job in 2014, and possibly 2015, while Mettenberger lies in wait, sponging off Palmer and Arians, and to a certain extent Moore. Arians sure has a track record of developing young talent at quarterback.
As his quarterback coach, Arians worked with a young Peyton Manning with the Indianapolis Colts from 1998 to 2000. He spent eight seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers (as wide receivers coach and offensive coordinator) tutoring Ben Roethlisberger and was even in Indianapolis in 2012 to help with Andrew Luck.
If Arians could guide Mettenberger down the same path to success that Manning, Roethlisberger and Luck traveled, wouldn’t it seem like a perfect idea for the Cardinals to pick Mettenberger up in the second round with the 52nd overall pick in the draft?
Mettenberger has the tools to become an NFL starter, but given the proper time and training, he could become an elite pro quarterback, possibly the best of the 2014 draft class.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of 100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.