How Good Can Aaron Murray Be in the NFL?

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How Good Can Aaron Murray Be in the NFL?
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There's an old joke that goes a little something like this: "Do you know what the most important element of comedy is?"

...It's been a long time since NFL draft experts have disagreed this much about who the best available quarterbacks are. At the end of the college football season, Teddy Bridgewater was the consensus top signal-caller available; the next tier of passers like Johnny Manziel, Derek Carr and Blake Bortles were second-day prospects.

Lately, the script has partially flipped: Bridgewater's stock is sinking, while Bortles and Manziel are repeatedly floated as top-10 candidates and Carr a solid first-rounder. More obscure names are getting massive late buzz boosts, too.

Tom Savage went from third-day nobody to fringe first-rounder, according to many Twitter draftniks, including Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Media.

Might Aaron Murray, the SEC's all-time passing leader, be the next prospect to rocket up the charts?

"Timing!"

 

Bad Break, Bad Timing

At the tail end of his senior season at Georgia, Murray tore his ACL.

John Bazemore

As Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Dave Siebert, MD, wrote, Murray's "heartbreaking" injury prevented him from boosting his stock at the end of his senior year, standing out among a very weak crop of Senior Bowl quarterbacks or working out at the NFL combine. It was an awful time to suffer an awful injury, and there's little question it will cost him in his ultimate draft position.

However, less than six months after the knee injury (and subsequent surgery), Murray put on a solid show at Georgia's pro day, as Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Mike Chiari wrote. Combined with the miles of film available on Murray, NFL teams should know exactly what they're getting when they draft him.

So just what kind of a quarterback will they be getting?

We don't have combine-test numbers for Murray, and he didn't risk non-throwing drills at his pro day (at which he wore a knee brace), so apples-to-apples athletic comparisons like the 40-yard dash and short shuttle aren't available.

Instead, we'll have to rely on the measuring-tape basics and the excellent video cutups available at DraftBreakdown.com.

 

The Measurables

At 6'1", 207 pounds, per NFL.com, they won't be getting a statuesque pocket passer such as Bortles. Murray's lean, athletic build is similar to Bridgewater's, but Murray is slightly shorter and smaller.

Fortunately, Murray's athletic ability is on par with his slight frame. He's quick enough to adroitly escape the rush and was fast enough to be a credible threat on read-option plays. Defenses rarely respect his scrambling ability, and every once in a while he makes them pay. See this scramble against Tennessee:

DraftBreakdown.com

He's no Manziel, but neither Murray's agility nor speed will be a liability in the pros.

As a passer, Murray's arm strength is good enough but no better. He can throw 45-yard go routes, 30-yard outs and put good zip on short passes. Despite his big 9 7/8" hands, though, he doesn't always throw a tight, fast-spinning spiral. Deeper passes can wobble a little, and receivers who get behind the defense sometimes have to slow up a bit or come back to collect the pass.

His intermediate passes are the most worrisome. He can't really zip it on a line like you want; those deep outs take longer to get there than they should. Georgia receivers seemed to draw a lot of pass interference and illegal-contact calls, as aggressive SEC cornerbacks would routinely get to the receiver before the ball did.

The windows Murray has to throw in will be even tighter in the NFL, and that lack of zip could haunt him.

 

The Less Measurables

I like Murray's mechanics and footwork quite a bit. He has good feet, throws from a good base and has a quick, compact release.

The thing that stands out most is Murray's processing speed. He seems to make very accurate pre-snap reads and very quick decisions. Usually, they're very good decisions, though sometimes he has a little too much faith in his arm.

His throwing accuracy is good overall, especially down the seam and to the sideline. He has a particular knack for throwing curls and comebacks low, and out routes away (i.e., where only his receivers can get them).

One thing Murray does exceptionally well is throw on the move. Other quarterbacks take their eyes off the field while running, or their mechanics degenerate. Watch this pearl:

DraftBreakdown.com

Murray made his drop, set his feet, felt the rush, planted and took off—but he kept his eyes on the play, kept the ball ready to throw, found the open man and delivered a 45-yard strike. That's exactly what you want to see. Murray also made throws like that whether rolling out on designed boot action, running for his life or calmly stepping up in the pocket.

Another thing Murray really excels at is the end-zone corner fade. He has a natural sense of the touch, height, spin and arc needed to drop it where only his receiver can get it. Quite a few of his school-record 121 touchdown passes came on throws like those.

For as well as he moves, Murray shows little feel for the pass rush. That's concerning, because as a 52-game starter in the SEC, what instincts he lacks should have been drilled into him through practice.

There's no better example than the end of the Auburn game, where he had three seconds to throw a game-winning touchdown from just 20 yards out—and he broke down in the face of no pressure whatsoever, losing the game and getting himself absolutely crushed in the process:

DraftBreakdown.com

Here's the exact instant Murray chose to break down and run:

DraftBreakdown.com

He has a perfectly clean pocket, and his receivers aren't even halfway to the goal line. Yet, he plants and tries to shoot this gap in hopes that...what? He can extend a play that doesn't need extending yet? He can scramble through the entire Auburn defense? It's impossible to know what he's thinking here or why.

It's a little thing, but he also has a lot of balls batted at the line of scrimmage. Whether he's just not seeing his passing lanes clearly, or his combination of short stature and compact release give him too low of a release point, too many of his passes don't make it past the defensive linemen.

My biggest concern for Murray, though, is...wait for it...his poor sense of timing. On slants and crossing routes, he often throws behind his receivers. This forces them to twist back and catch on their inside hip or reach back to get it on their inside shoulder.

These are throws designed to lead the receiver and keep him running full speed, so he can slash through the second level of the defense for a lot of yards after the catch. If Murray can't learn to get these passes out in front of his receivers in the pros, that could be a big problem—especially in certain offensive systems.

 

The Totally Immeasurables

Gil Brandt, the NFL Media draft analyst, is one of the most important figures in the history of the draft, the combine, player evaluation and scouting. His take on Murray, published just before Georgia's pro day, is absolutely glowing:

To be a good NFL quarterback, you need to have three things to go along with your ability to perform as a player: mental quickness, dedication and leadership potential. Murray ranks at the top of the charts in these areas; in my evaluation of him, he scored as high as a player can in the three categories...

Back in November, I predicted that Murray would make some team very happy and be the steal of the draft. I still think that, when we look back on this draft a few years from now, we'll view Murray the way we view Colin Kaepernick or Russell Wilsona successful quarterback who should have been drafted much higher than he was.

As we've seen with Tim Tebow, Ken Dorsey, Jason White and many others, it's possible to be a great winner, a great leader, a great college quarterback and not have professional-caliber tools.

That's not Murray at all. He has enough of an arm, enough athleticism and enough experience against the highest caliber of college competition to give him a very high floor.

The question is: Where's his ceiling? Can he be an effective starter in the NFL?

There's one ultimate trump card in NFL quarterbacking, and that's making good decisions quickly. That's Murray's ace in the hole, and none of his shortcomings is so bad that this trait can't overcome them. He does a lot of things very well already, and a little coaching could help much of the rest.

Could the ACL injury have prevented Murray from working his way into the "Big Four" mix? He's much more NFL-ready than Carr, he has a much higher floor than Manziel and I think he's a better decision-maker than Bortles.

Steal of the draft? A franchise quarterback on the second day? It's certainly not impossible. 

Then again, if a quarterback-desperate team that passed on one of the Big Four reaches for Murray at the top of the second and throws him into the fire, the fact that he's built like a slot receiver could mean a quick and messy end to Murray's career as a starter.

Were he to go to a team with a stable, quality coaching staff, though, he could easily become an effective starter in his second or third season.

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