Not much went as expected for the 2014 NFL draft's top quarterback prospects. Blake Bortles went far earlier than anyone imagined. Johnny Manziel went later. Teddy Bridgewater was thankfully sent a lifeboat that prevented him dropping from potential top overall pick in December to top overall pick of the second round.
The Jaguars shocked everyone—and probably Bortles himself—by taking the overnight sensation No. 3 overall Thursday night. Bortles' ascent has been noteworthy, largely because no one saw it coming. Never mentioned among the top quarterback prospects heading into the 2013 season, Bortles' prototypical body, skill set and brilliant junior campaign wound up making him the first player taken at his position.
Manziel and Bridgewater, considered the favorites early in the process, had to wait a lot longer.
Manziel's dip down the draft board became a running meme Thursday night that included a trending hashtag on Twitter, a brilliantly Photoshopped image and hours worth of running the same topics six feet deep into the ground. The whole damn world nearly fractured when the Dallas Cowboys were on the clock. Finally, mercifully, the Cleveland Browns—a team linked to Manziel for months—plucked him off the board at No. 22.
And in one of the night's best moves, the Minnesota Vikings followed in kind 10 picks later to trade up for Bridgewater. The Louisville product somehow became one of the most polarizing players in the entire class after drawing little beyond praise in his three collegiate campaigns.
Each of the three signal-callers walk into quarterback-needy situations where they have a chance to start Week 1. They also walk into situations where it's entirely possible they sit out most, if not all of 2013. Let's quickly take a look at the first-round trio and make a way-too-early assessment of where they stand.
Blake Bortles (QB, Jacksonville Jaguars)
It's a little concerning that the player least ready to be an NFL starter will have the most immediate pressure. Teams do not take quarterbacks No. 3 overall for them to sit out in today's NFL.
As the Seahawks, 49ers, Bengals and others have proven, the biggest market inefficiency is a rookie quarterback contract. Having a franchise signal-caller on your roster without an onerous, cap-sucking deal attached allows front offices to fill the roster with depth elsewhere. Signing the Michael Bennetts of the world would not be possible if Russell Wilson were not making pennies.
In that sense, I'm interested to see what happens with Jacksonville. On one hand, Bortles is decidedly not close to being an NFL starter at this point. His footwork needs a fundamental overhaul, and his throwing motion is a little slower than ideal. It's possible that Bortles could have some real trouble against an NFL pass rush if offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch and Frank Scelfo can't get to work and fast.
Right now—and, remember, we're still four months away from the season starting—the ideal scenario involves Bortles sitting a year behind Chad Henne. Henne isn't a star by any means or even a replacement-level quarterback. But he's a smart, veteran guy who can help Bortles along while providing fine stewardship for a team that has exactly zero shot at a playoff berth.
"It’s such an important position in this league and you want to do it right," general manager David Caldwell told reporters. "That’s what we’re about…We have to make it work. We can’t just throw him out there. We’ve seen what happens when that happens."
Therein lies the problem. The Jaguars are not talented enough to compete with the Colts atop the division or even the middle of the AFC for a Wild Card spot. Even with the improvements they made, bringing in USC's Marqise Lee and Penn State's Allen Robinson among others, they're probably the least-talented offense in football.
When a team has a rookie quarterback, isn't competing for a playoff spot and the current guy is only OK, that's going to lend itself to criticism. If the season is "meaningless," you'll get plenty of "why not just throw him in there?" narratives floating around Jacksonville. Caldwell says he's willing to let Bortles sit. We'll see if he means it when the team is 2-5.
Johnny Manziel (QB, Cleveland Browns)
For all of the narrative-driven entitlement Manziel supposedly feels, nothing has ever been given to him on the football field. He was a mildly regarded quarterback coming out of high school and then thought to be a non-factor when Texas A&M hired Kevin Sumlin. Jameill Showers was the overwhelming favorite to win the starting job Manziel's freshman year.
And, of course, you all know the rest of the story. One quarterback competition win later, Manziel is possibly the most famous face in college football history. First freshman Heisman winner. First this, first that and so on.
Manziel comes into the NFL with a decidedly higher profile but not a dissimilar situation. The Browns have an incumbent in Brian Hoyer who gave them three games of competent quarterback play before tearing his ACL last season. That's no small deal in Cleveland. Hoyer had been tabbed as the starter and likely would have won the job by default had Manziel not fallen to No. 22.
But Manziel is far from guaranteed the job. New head coach Mike Pettine told Mary Kay Cabot of the Northeast Ohio Media Group that the current plan is for Hoyer and Manziel to compete in camp to start Week 1. When Browns management texted Hoyer to tell him they were taking Manziel, his response was "bring it on."
That doesn't sound like a guy ready give up his gig. Manziel is in for a fight the way he was against Showers—and I expect the result to be the same. Mr. Football has been with the Browns for exactly 13 seconds and he already has more tangible attachment to management than Hoyer. The 28-year-old former Tom Bray backup was the longstanding crush of former general manager Mike Lombardi—not Ray Farmer, the man who took Lombardi's place.
"That's the reason I thought so highly of [Manziel] when I personally evaluated him,'' Pettine said. "I thought his ("it factor'') is at an extreme level, to the point where it's created Johnny football, the fact that he is all those things to an amazing degree. He's ultra-competitive, ultra-compassionate. He's a guy that he just finds a way.''
Manziel is going to have that job in Week 1. Because there's no other option, really. The Browns know what they purchased. They're prepared to go down in flames or hoist the Lombardi Trophy with Manziel at quarterback. There's little outside of becoming an entirely different (read: better) quarterback that Hoyer can do to stop the oncoming train.
It'll be a "competition," but one that's rigged from the start.
Teddy Bridgewater (QB, Minnesota Vikings)
To my mind, Bridgewater was the steal of Round 1. I evaluated him slightly above Manziel and significantly ahead of Bortles, and the former Louisville product is easily the most NFL-ready of the trio.
Bridgewater is an incredibly intelligent quarterback for someone his age. He understands how to make correct pre-snap reads and adjustments to his progressions by identifying oncoming blitzers. Manziel and Bortles had exponentially fewer of those opportunities within their collegiate systems and will have to make as many mental adjustments as physical.
Bridgewater is ready to play now. Questions about his arm strength and placement on deep passes came up after what by all accounts was a draft-defining pro day, but the college tape shows an NFL starter in the making. His arm is strong enough to make all the necessary throws, and if Peyton Manning's last two seasons taught us anything, it's that you can throw a few flutterballs if the placement is right.
The concerns about Bridgwater's ability to handle cold weather are interesting given the Vikings' short-term move to an outdoor playing facility. With a new, domed stadium in the offing as he enters his third season, though, it's not something that should be mentioned more than in passing.
“How consistent he is,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner told reporters when asked of Bridgewater's most impressive quality. “He’s not a peaks-and-valley guy. I think he’s a guy that comes out and plays at a high level through extended periods of time, and he does not have a lot of negative plays.”
There just isn't much here to dislike. Working with Turner, whose brilliance as an offensive coordinator is too often overshadowed by his not-so-brilliance as a head coach, is a godsend for a young quarterback.
Bridgwater also has a relatively clear path, with neither Christian Ponder nor Matt Cassel providing a long-term option. Cassel re-signed a two-year deal this offseason, so he should return and compete with Bridgewater in camp. Ponder, the team's 2011 first-round pick, has an expiring contract and might not be long for the roster if Minnesota decides to carry only two quarterbacks or makes another signing.
Cassel might get the majority of snaps early, but this is Bridgewater's job to lose.
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