Overstating the value of systems—offensive or defensive—becomes almost impossible when evaluating draft picks. What did that player do in college, and what will he be asked to do in the pros?
For defensive and offensive line, few technical differences exist other than speed and strength—rush passer/jam run and run block/pass block—so the point is largely moot. Yet skill positions are given so many assignments that they could do something slightly different on almost every play of a game. These slots are also where the glamor lies, so the Bust Microscope is most prevalent as well. However, the only historical record we have of a prospect is him doing X, Y and Z in college; what if his pro team is going to ask him to do A, B and C?
Usually, such considerations are bowled over by the logic, “Well he was the best player available!” But isn’t this like agreeing to date a girl for three years because she was the best looking at the bar? Yet, maybe she obsesses over her samurai sword collection and makes statues of famous Naval battles from dead animals she finds in the woods while foraging for mushrooms. In other words, she might not be your type.
So for this year’s first round, who were our hottest picks that—barring massive overhauls by the teams that drafted them—may not be in the right system?
To me, Blaine Gabbert going to the Jacksonville Jaguars is the poster child. This pick floored me more than the reaches for Jake Locker or Christian Ponder (And don’t get me wrong, those picks floored me. This is why we need mics in team’s situation rooms so other teams could have smarmily remarked, “Oh, we’re doing the third round first this year?”).
Think of Gabbert’s selection this way: Ever since Mark Brunell left, what word seems most apt to describe the Jags offense? Smashmouth, run-heavy, grind-out? Any of those, right? We love clips of Maurice Jones-Drew barreling through linebackers.
Then you look at footage of Gabbert at Missouri, and he looks like Maverick managing a squadron of fighter planes buzzing around the field. Every clip is him behind that spread offense, shotgun formation, distributing the ball here, there and everywhere. Yet, you take him to task on his footwork and delivery speed during running plays, as Jon Gruden aptly did, and he starts to look a bit like a fish out of water.
Many want to dismiss the importance of a quarterback’s role during a running play (just get out of the way!) but nothing could be more dangerous. His speed to the handoff point, the way he takes the center transfer, the way he places the ball into the tailback’s waiting chest and the replicability of all those mechanices, to set up play-action, is beyond crucial.
Any idea what team was third in the NFL in rushing attempts last season? Yup, the Jags with 512. Any idea what team was second to last in the NFL last year in passing attempts? You got it, Jacksonville at 469 to Chicago’s last place 466. Any idea how often Missouri ran the ball? 38 percent of the time!
So the logic extends: Well duh, this is why they got a top quarterback, genius.
Yeah, but Gabbert’s game is not Jacksonville’s. Again, Missouri only ran the ball 38 percent of the time. And even if they do spread out the offense—and how many offenses oscillate between up-the-gut runs and big spread-receiver formations?—who is he throwing to? The Jacksonville receivers are bad. Mike Sims-Walker is made of paper mache and Mercedes Lewis, the tight end, was the team’s second leading pass catcher. Mike Thomas is “alright” but it’s not like he’s drawing double coverage. This is a team that is built to run. Period.
In other words, just because Gabbert’s good doesn’t mean he’s right for the job. Ben Roethlisberger slid right into the helm in Pittsburgh—a team in 2004 that was facing a similar situation as Jacksonville—because that was the style of football he knew. It’s not like he was relearning the position, he was just relearning a playbook.