Arizona Cardinals: Is John Skelton the Future at Quarterback?

Luke Bunger@LukeHBCardsCorrespondent IIIJanuary 22, 2011

As the draft approaches, many people have begun to speculate whether drafting a quarterback could be in the cards for—pardon the pun—the Cards.

Others are looking around the league for disgruntled and free-agent passers who could fit into the Cardinals system.

Few, however, have taken much time to consider the players the Cardinals already have under contract.

You can see why. The Cardinals tried out four men under center throughout the year—Derek Anderson, Max Hall, John Skelton and Richard Bartel—and started preseason with a fifth, Matt Leinart.

One after another each started, struggled and was replaced.

While I will not again rehash a poor and disappointing season, it should surprise no one that the Cardinals have made securing a quality quarterback priority one for this offseason. 

One thing is for sure, a new face will be starting under center for the Cardinals in 2011. However, the question needs to be asked as to whether the Cardinals have a future franchise quarterback on the roster or whether they need to find one in the draft.

For the Cardinals coaching staff and management, answering this question will be key to determining how they draft, who they seek in free agency or how much they need to give up to secure the services of a starter in trading.


The Leading Candidate: John Skelton

There was no shortage of candidates for starters on the Cardinals roster in 2010; however, chief amongst them was John Skelton, the Cardinals' fifth-round pick in that year's draft.

Though Skelton was not taken until late in the fifth round, he was actually only the sixth quarterback selected overall that year. Skelton had a lot of positives coming into the draft—prototypical size, a huge arm, decent mobility and did I mention his huge arm? But a poor performance in the combine, questions about his consistency and accuracy and sheer lack of game tape—given his coming out of a small school—meant that his stock was much lower than it could have otherwise been.

Although the Cardinals liked him enough to trade up for him in the draft, they knew that he would be a mid-to-long-term project, and even went so far as to push undrafted rookie, Max Hall, ahead of him in the depth chart following preseason.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt made no bones about it. Skelton was considered the future in Arizona, but starting him in 2010 was not an option.

So well tipped—if you believe what the press was told about him—was Skelton, in fact that the Cardinals didn't want to risk damaging what they perceived to be their franchise quarterback before he was ready.

"It's tough," Whisenhunt had been quoted as saying about Skelton. "He is a young guy, hasn't gotten a lot of reps and you run the risk of damaging a young player when you put him in there to play. I have very high hopes for John and his future and his time is going to come to play."

However, in spite of the fans' cries, and perhaps sensing that the 2010 campaign was already out of reach, Skelton was not promoted to starter, in favour of keeping him healthy.

That is, until injuries to previous starters Hall and Anderson forced Coach Whisenhunt's hand.


John Skelton Ends Season 2-2 as Starter

In spite of the coaching staff's clear misgivings about Skelton's preparedness, in his four games starting, Skelton actually made a decent case for his continued employment in Arizona.

While his arm and physicality were every bit as good as reported, his accuracy, timing and grasp of a pro-style offense were nowhere near as bad as some had been led to believe.

Let's not kid ourselves, to assume he could have led the Cardinals to a .500 record across the course of a full season would have been a high expectation, but Skelton showed promise.

Though he threw only two touchdowns, and completed less than 50 percent of his passes, unlike Anderson and Hall, he threw only two interceptions in his four starts, and was sacked, and fumbled the ball much more infrequently too.

He looked poised and composed, and, although he suffered a few missteps, and occasionally appeared to mix up plays in his head, Skelton appeared to have the tools necessary to succeed at a professional level.


What Looked Good

Skelton was not perfect, but as we already said, there was a lot of good to find in his performances.

Though Skelton was known for his big arm and physical presence, drawing numerous comparisons to Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco, this was not his most impressive asset in his starts with the Cardinals.

Though he had barely practiced with the first team, and Fordham is about as far from an NFL-style offense as it is possible to run, Skelton looked in control of the team. He played with the poise and presence of a much older, more experienced quarterback.

He did not let external things affect him too much, and remained calm and professional drive after drive.

Throughout 2010, the Cardinals appeared to suffer most of all from a lack of self-belief. When the game was close, or the Cardinals were up, they looked very good, regardless of who was calling the plays.

When they went down by more than a score, however, the team appeared to implode. The players' heads dropped, mistakes crept in and games quickly became bloodbaths. Nowhere was that more apparent than in the eyes of Derek Anderson and Max Hall.

Skelton, however, seemed immune to this particular failing. A dropped pass, a sack, even an interception, they didn't seem to phase him. He came back every drive with his head on straight, ready to play.

He appeared to learn from his mistakes. Though he made nearly as many as the other quarterbacks who started in Arizona, significantly he did not make the same mistakes more than once or twice.

His big arm was on full display at times, and he was able to get the ball out quickly and heave it down the field; he was also successful completing short passes.

Though his accuracy was questionable, a significant number of the incompletions can be put down to unfamiliarity with the playbook and outright drops by his receivers.


What Needs Improving

In spite of the positive signs, Skelton is not the finished article yet.

His accuracy is a concern, and the sheer speed at which the ball is delivered will need to be dialed down on occasion.

Skelton is not inherently an inaccurate quarterback. I know it is hard to believe given his numbers, but he really isn't. Anyone who doubts this fact need only watch his Smartspeed test on Sport Science.

The biggest problem he faces is the simple fact that the vast majority of receivers are not used to catching the sort of balls he delivers. His spiral is very tight, and ball speed is almost unparalleled. This can be great on deep balls, but on short routes, the sort that the Cardinals appear to prefer to run, the timing and understanding between himself and his receivers needs a lot of work.

As previously mentioned, he also seems to have a little difficulty keeping his playbook in check. On more than one occasion he appeared to be looking for receivers in areas of the field completely devoid of any of his players.

Some of his play-calling left everyone but himself scratching their helmets. At times he seemed to call plays that only exist in the Fordham playbook, or in his own head.


The Intangibles

There are some things you just can't quite put your finger on. The sort of things that mean that one player will succeed while another—sometimes otherwise indistinguishable player—will fail. Perhaps you could call it the Manning/Leaf factor.

Whatever the case, Skelton has these positive intangibles in spades.

I'm not sure why, but the fans warmed to Skelton in a way that they never did to Derek Anderson or even Max Hall.

People believed in Skelton; they rallied around him. The players, coaches and fans were all vocal about their support for him.

And again, his stats don't explain it. Anderson's stats were, almost across the board, better than Skelton's and yet, almost without fail, you won't find a Cardinals fan who prefers Anderson to Skelton.

Whatever it is, the way he stands in the pocket, the way he carries himself on the sideline, the way he addresses the media and fans, the way he watched an undrafted rookie overtake him on the depth chart and didn't complain about it, his work ethic or anything else, Skelton just looks the part.

Every time I see him, I see a player who looks like he can lead an NFL team in a way that many other players do not.


The Outlook

In spite of all of the positives, all of the intangibles and everything that makes you want him to be a success, Skelton is not ready to play in the NFL yet.

He has a great attitude, fantastic work ethic, and some pretty exciting tools at his disposal, but he is at least another year away from leading the Cardinals, or any other team yet. 

He does have the skills to develop into an NFL franchise quarterback, but it will take a lot of hard work before that happens. He is certainly raw around the edges, and will need to remain patient before he gets his chance to really lead an NFL franchise.

He is a diamond in the rough, waiting to be molded and polished into the franchise player he can become, and that is a very good thing. Yes, he has a long way to go, but he gives you the feeling that he can get there with a little time and belief.

I do believe he is closer to being a starter than anyone else in the current draft class. With Andrew Luck out of the picture, current top QB prospect Blaine Gabbert, Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton and Ryan Mallett, all feel similarly rough around the edges. None feels like the polished article that Andrew Luck would have been, and all three prospects look like they will take at least as long to develop into a starter, as Skelton will.

Ideally, Skelton needs a year or two playing under an experienced quarterback, to mentor him before handing him the keys to the offense. He needs time, and the support of the staff, which fortunately he appears to have. He also needs to be given permission to make a few mistakes along the way. He appears to have the emotional capacity and maturity to not let them affect him too much, which will mean that he has the opportunity to learn a lot from them.

He can, fortunately for the Cardinals, develop into a franchise quarterback, and should be given the chance to do so, before the Cardinals seek out the services of another young quarterback.

The Cardinals should be looking to improve in a lot of areas in the draft, but quarterback should not be one of them.

They should seek out the services of a veteran quarterback, ideally with the experience to act as a mentor for Skelton, until he is able to develop into a starter.

But I suspect that we have not seen the last of John Skelton, and I for one, am excited about that fact.


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