As the draft gradually approaches and the Houston Texans get closer to being officially on the clock, they face many questions with the No. 1 selection. In deciding whether to draft a quarterback, the Texans have to ask themselves: Is Blake Bortles the next Ben Roethlisberger?
Before you skip down to the comments to give your answer, here's mine: "Sometimes."
It's an easy comparison to make. They're both 6'5". Their broad-shouldered, thick-torso frames weigh in at 232 (Bortles) and 241 pounds (Roethlisberger). They're both surprisingly elusive for their size. They're both good at picking apart defenses from the pocket—but even better at improvising. They both led their traditionally unremarkable schools from non-power conferences to one-loss, Top 10 seasons in their senior years.
Yes, there are games where Bortles absolutely takes over, looking every bit the part of a franchise quarterback. There are also times when he displays worrying habits or flaws. Every once in a while, he has a truly bad game that makes you wonder if he'll be able to succeed at the NFL level.
On the whole, Bortles absolutely deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel and Derek Carr as a prospect sure to go in the draft's first three rounds.
The notion that he's a lock to be the first off the board, as a league source told Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union, isn't one derived from watching his film. A team that takes Bortles at the top of the draft could get the next Roethlisberger, or it might get the next Blaine Gabbert.
Regardless of when and where he's selected, Bortles just wants to get started. On his way to a meeting with the Texans, the QB told James Palmer of CSNHouston.com, "I just can't wait to get wherever and learn and get after it. I enjoy competing and I enjoy winning so I definitely look forward to it."
That's the type of attitude Houston, and any other team in the league, can appreciate.
The Great Bortledini
The defining feature of Roethlisberger's game, besides his innate size and strength, is his borderline-magical ability to feel the rush, escape from it, extend the play and make things happen.
Bortles has pulled many rabbits out of his hat. Here's a fantastic example (video courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com):
Bortles pumps to throw a quick screen but loses his grip on the ball. He quickly spins around, catches his own fumble midair, eludes two defenders who had him dead to rights, rolls out, finds an open man downfield and hits him in stride for a 39-yard touchdown strike.
Here's another stunning illusion, this time against Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl:
Bortles pumps, slips, falls, catches himself, pops back up and fires to the far sideline, about 35 yards downfield.
This screenshot highlights what's magical about that play. Seven frames (about one-third of a second) before this screenshot, Bortles' left hand was on the ground. Now he's in passing position:
Somehow he fell, got up and saw the man on the far sideline call for the ball. Then he got a nice-looking pass off, on target, before the defense could clamp down. That's a full-body feat of strength, balance, athleticism, field reading and throwing ability.
These are the kinds of plays you love to see a quarterback make, where he creates something out of nothing. Then again, he started from "nothing" on each play because of his mistakes.
Of course, Roethlisberger's critics might point out he gets himself into hot water sometimes. But Roethlisberger can execute offenses efficiently enough to win from September to January. Can Bortles do the same?
One of the striking things about Bortles is that his offensive supporting cast at the University of Central Florida mimics the way the Steelers have always supported Roethlisberger.
Bortles' receivers were nearly all over 6'0" and 200 pounds, some with legitimately scary speed. Bortles also worked with a big, athletic tailback in Storm Johnson, much like the ones with whom Roethlisberger has typically shared a backfield. Also like the Steelers, Central Florida's offensive line didn't give Bortles much protection.
Bortles was constantly hassled by opposing defenses, as Central Florida relied on his size, athleticism and playmaking ability to overcome opponents' front sevens and get the ball to his weapons in space. This can make him hard to evaluate; if he's constantly running for his life against Akron, how can you project how he'll play in the NFL?
Nevertheless, there are a few of Bortles' traits that stand out, over and over again.
Nothing Up His Sleeve?
Mechanically, Bortles isn't every-down sound like Tom Savage nor an all-over-the-place mess like Derek Carr. His footwork is generally solid; he drops back and plants well. If he's not throwing right away, he generally keeps on the balls of his feet, ready to move.
There are a couple of issues with his delivery, both of which are concerning—and both of which are symptoms of his lack of overwhelming arm strength.
Bortles has a somewhat elongated windup and slow-ish delivery. It isn't nearly as bad as Tim Tebow's was coming out of Florida, but you can see Bortles reach back and "heave" on most throws more than five or 10 yards downfield.
Let's take a closer look at a throw that came against UConn for an example:
At first, Bortles does everything right. He goes through his reads, stays on the balls of his feet and stays ready to throw. Then, he sees a receiver getting open behind the defense:
He steps into the throw like he should, but it's a really big step, and his weight doesn't quite transfer like it should. He's leaning back out of the throw—like he's trying to throw the ball over the roof of a house, not down a football field.
It's no surprise the ball softly arcs instead of zips, and the spiral isn't fast or tight. The receiver is forced to look over his shoulder and slow down. Having cleanly beaten his man by several steps, the receiver must wait so long for the ball to get there that the defender catches back up and makes the play.
This should have been an easy touchdown—and a quarterback blessed with more natural arm strength, like Teddy Bridgewater or Derek Carr, could have easily made this throw.
When Bortles is not at his best, he has a bad habit of sailing crossing-route passes high and behind. This could be another symptom of his slower release. Unlike Manziel, whose over-the-middle struggles seem borne out of field-reading issues, Bortles is very quick to identify the open man.
One clue to a quarterback's ability is the position his receivers are in when they catch the ball. Are they standing still, facing upfield and waiting for the ball to get there? Are they getting blown up by field-crossing safeties who've perfectly timed their arrival? Are they leaping for passes thrown out of reach?
Too often for Bortles, the answers to those questions are "yes."
The Grand Finale
As a quarterback, the most important skill a quarterback can have is making good decisions quickly.
Bortles doesn't have a cannon arm, doesn't always place the ball where he wants it and doesn't always protect the football very well. Nevertheless, he has the ability to read defenses, see the field and find the open man, even under duress.
No quarterback's game is perfect (Roethlisberger's certainly isn't). Most of Bortles' issues are correctable with coaching and development. There's no question he has the size and mental makeup to step into pressure situations and perform.
For Bortles to have a Roethlisbergerian start to his NFL career, though, he must join a team that already has weapons that can do damage after Bortles delivers the ball. It's no wonder his name's been floated in connection with the Texans at the No. 1 overall pick, even if he's not the best passer in the class.
If Bortles is asked to make magic all by himself, though, it's hard to see him doing well in his big-stage debut.