"Put on the game tape," Teddy Bridgewater told ESPN.
That's how he's answering a flash mob of critics, who've appeared over the last few weeks to cast aspersions on his NFL-readiness and drag down his draft stock.
A presumptive No. 1 overall pick throughout most of the 2013 college football season, and the consensus best-available quarterback through at least the NFL combine, Bridgewater's stock has taken a sudden, dramatic tumble.
Back during the combine, NFL Media's Mike Mayock called Bridgewater the "most NFL-ready" quarterback in the draft and touted him as an appealing No. 1 overall pick, per NFL.com's Mike Huguenin.
Mayock's latest attempt at positional rankings, released April 28 on NFL.com, has Bridgewater tied as the fifth-best quarterback.
What on Earth happened to drop Bridgewater's stock so low—and do NFL teams really think so little of him, or are the extra weeks before the NFL draft causing paralysis by analysis?
The Court of Opinion
The combine was the tipping point for Bridgewater's stock. It wasn't a poor performance that hurt him, though; it was a lack of one. As I wrote at the time, by not throwing in Indianapolis, Bridgewater missed a perfect opportunity to prove he's the best passer in the class.
He opened the door for Blake Bortles, who "stood out" from the middling prospects who chose to throw at the combine, per Jim Corbett of USA Today. Further, lesser-known players like Jimmy Garoppolo may have gotten a little closer look from scouts; Mayock now has Garoppolo ahead of Bridgewater.
Bridgewater's decision to place all his eggs in his pro day basket backfired when he had a poor showing. Mayock declared it an "average at best" performance, per Huguenin.
In fact, Bridgewater's in-person lack of arm strength and accuracy forced Mayock back to his game tape to re-evaluate.
"I went back and watched a bunch more tape and compared him to the rest of the guys in the draft," Mayock told NFL.com's Daniel Kim. "And like it or not, I've come to a conclusion -- if I was a GM in the NFL, I would not take him in the first round of the draft."
Wait, didn't Bridgewater insist to ESPN his tape answers all of the questions about him? Yes, he did.
"The game tape speaks volumes because I'm in live action," Bridgewater said. "I'm out there making reads, going through progressions, redirection protection, signaling hot routes, getting the offense in and out of the right play. Looking at those things, I think those things outweigh the pro day."
There's an old football cliche, "The eye in the sky don't lie," that was made for situations just like this.
Very few have access to real college game film, the kind with end-zone and All-22 views. The folks at DraftBreakdown.com, though, have created cutups of the broadcast film for many, many prospects, including Bridgewater.
Bridgewater knows his strengths. No prospect in this class more thoroughly understands and executes a pro-style offense. He makes great pre-snap reads and adjustments, quickly goes through many progressions when needed and makes good decisions quickly and consistently.
But can he wow? Is he athletic enough to escape the rush or make plays with his feet? Can he be dynamic enough to make game-breaking plays?
Bridgewater's not fast enough to run for over 2,000 yards like Johnny Manziel did in two seasons at Texas A&M. He doesn't have the frame to shrug off defenders like Bortles or the arm to effortlessly flick it 60 yards like Derek Carr.
Unlike any of three, though, Bridgewater is a complete, polished, NFL-ready passer. His footwork and mechanics are rock solid, and it shows in his consistent accuracy. He can zip intermediate passes; he can throw screens and fades with touch. He places the ball well, especially on crossing routes—something most of the quarterbacks in this class don't consistently do.
He's quick and sure in his pocket management, quick and smooth when stepping or sliding to avoid the rush. He doesn't let his mechanics or focus break down when he moves, either, allowing him to find the open man and deliver an accurate pass.
He also does the little things very well. Here's a great example, where he looks off a safety on a 3rd-and-8 against Rutgers:
The play is designed to confuse and attack the single-high safety, with a short- and intermediate-depth crossing route in front of crossing corner and post routes. Shortly after taking the snap and making an initial read of the field, Bridgewater locks in on the crossing tight end:
Then, he pulls the trigger, looking for all the world like he's going to throw to the tight end. Instead, he turns past his release point and fires a strike down the near seam—just as he's about to be crushed by a defensive tackle.
The extra time the safety spent frozen, waiting on the underneath route gave the real intended receiver the chance to turn it upfield for big, big yardage. Bridgewater's no-look throw leads his target just right, hitting him in the hands in stride. These are the throws Manziel can't consistently make even when he's staring his receiver down.
Unfortunately for Louisville, the Rutgers corner laid out and made a tremendous ankle tackle to save the play:
Even so, Bridgewater did his job here. He knew the design of the play, how to execute it most effectively and he wasn't afraid to stand tall in the pocket and take a hit to make it happen.
Witnesses for the Defense
I'm far from the only media analyst to watch the tape and conclude Bridgewater stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller has had Bridgewater at the top of his draft board throughout his evaluation cycle, without wavering. "He's my top-rated passer and top-ranked overall player," Miller wrote in his April 10 Scouting Notebook. "Call it crazy or stubborn, but this is my guy."
NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah actually seems to be warming up to Bridgewater.
On January 30, per NFL.com's Dan Greenspan, Jeremiah said Bridgewater didn't "have a 'wow' characteristic" that would induce teams to spend a high pick on him. On May 1, though, Jeremiah told CBS Radio Bridgewater will be the best quarterback to come out of this class.
"I think he’s going to hit the ground running," Jeremiah said, "and I think when you look down the line three or four years from now, I still think he’ll be the top guy."
Sports Illustrated's Doug Farrar did a little soul-searching in his final evaluation of Bridgewater and came away with the same conclusion.
"The more I go back and rewatch Bridgewater tape," Farrar wrote, "the less willing I am to drop into the seemingly common perception that he has some abnormally low ceiling, and that he’ll top off pretty quickly in the NFL."
When it came to pro day concerns, Farrar was blunt and accurate: "Any NFL executive who will throw multiple scouted games out the window based on a shirt-and-shorts session, whether positive or negative, is probably on his way out the door."
One of the big problems with projecting the NFL draft is trying to get it "right." It's assumed that doing the same work NFL teams do and coming up with the same answers they come up with validates the evaluation—so an exceptionally well-done mock draft will correctly predict all the picks, right?
If Bridgewater falls into the second round, that won't make Mayock right and Miller, Jeremiah and Farrar wrong. Bridgewater could still pull a Russell Wilson and play at a high level right away for a good team—like, as ESPN's Chris Mortenson tweeted, the Cincinnati Bengals:
Even if the Bengals aren't really interested in drafting Bridgewater, other teams are. His short-term floor and long-term ceilings are just too high to keep drafting seriously flawed prospects ahead of him. All it takes is for one team to see what I, Miller, Jeremiah, Farrar and many others have seen on tape for Bridgewater's name to be called.
Those who passed on Bridgewater because they didn't weigh his college game film as heavily as small hands, skinny knees, face-of-the-franchise potential and other silly non-football stuff?
They won't need to watch much of Bridgewater's NFL game film to realize they were wrong.
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