'Mark and Matt': The Golden Boy QB Race

Henry NicholsCorrespondent IApril 24, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 22:  Quarterback Mark Sanchez of USC runs the 40 yard dash during the NFL Scouting Combine presented by Under Armour at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 22, 2009 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)

“Mark can run a naked bootleg and hit his receiver in perfect stride 40 yards downfield.

Matt can fire a laser 60 yards into his man’s breadbasket with a corner on his hip.

This April, they’ll battle it out in the Big Apple for the first quarterback slot in the NFL Draft.”

In an aesthetic rivalry eerily similar to the “Dan and Dave” ads from the 1992 Olympics, junior QBs Mark Sanchez (USC) and Matthew Stafford (Georgia) are poised to take New York’s ‘Green Room’ by storm this year during ESPN’s draft coverage. They’re simply the prettiest pair of potential franchise cornerstones since Achilles and Hector battled it out in (the other) Troy.

Both young men, depending on your definition of the concept, serve as prototypes for the modern drop-back passer. Whereas Sanchez was the No. one-ranked “pro-style quarterback” in Rivals’ database in 2005, Stafford held that distinction in ’06. They have ideal size, are patient with their reads, possess elite pro-level arm strength combined with uncanny accuracy. While Stafford arguably has the most raw tools for a field general since Peyton Manning, Sanchez evokes a bit more Tom Brady with his mental polish, feathery touch on passes and mobility inside and outside the pocket.

But just as decathletes Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson collectively disappointed that hyped summer in Barcelona, “Mark and Matt” are also virtual doppelgangers on the downside as well. Both underclassmen disappointed their relatively affluent families and well-regarded coaches by declaring a year early. Both run hot and cold, prone to fits of erratic decision-making that cost their teams shots at national title contention. Both were surrounded at elite programs by an all-star cast of skill-position talent and protected by some of the best offensive linemen the scouting sites had to offer. Both players, for their abundance of natural riches, are nowhere near as polished as two of the QBs who could rightly be in their shoes but opted out: Colt McCoy (Texas) and Sam Bradford (OU).

Surely, in a year where the “cerebral signal-caller” is en vogue thanks to NFL Rookie of the Year Matt Ryan’s emergence in Atlanta, Heisman winner Bradford’s stunning withdrawal from draft speculation opened the door for Sanchez to capitalize on his Rose Bowl MVP-winning performance. The stars seemed to align perfectly for Sanchez, despite playing only one full season as a full-time starter. Pete Carroll was noticeably upset at Sanchez’ press conference to announce his decision, perhaps thinking the best was yet to come for Sanchez’ burgeoning Trojan legend during his last year of eligibility.

Stafford’s discrepancies in talent perception are even more glaring; as a third-year starter for the preseason No. 1-ranked team, he could not carry his Bulldogs past the SEC East (Florida) or West (Alabama) champions…or even underdog rival Georgia Tech in the season finale. While Stafford threw 250 more yards than Sanchez and they shared the same number of interceptions (10), Sanchez threw nine more touchdown passes (34) than Stafford (25) in roughly the same number of attempts. While Sanchez seemed to thrive on the big stage this season, Stafford faded under the spotlight at critical junctures.

Yes, this is truly a bizarro year for the NFL quarterback crop. All three Heisman finalists and the past two winners (including Florida’s two-time national title-winner, Tim Tebow) return to their textbooks while also-rans (in terms of production) are allowed to hog the draft headlines. Sanchez crosses an eligibility barrier that even USC Heisman winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart dared not pass. Stafford leaves Bulldog fans without the steak promised by the enormous amount of sizzle his arrival generated.

Still, Sanchez and Stafford are heads-and-shoulders (okay, not literally) above fellow early-entry junior Josh Freeman (Kansas State), generally regarded as the Bronze Medal-winner of the QB race in most pre-Combine draft prognostications. Freeman’s utter lack of accomplishment at the collegiate level is matched only by his ego, as he claimed he was the best QB in a cannibalistic Big 12 last year. In fact, he may not have even ranked in the top half of the conference’s QBs. Compared to Freeman’s feeble talk-to-walk ratio, Sanchez and Stafford look like…well, Brady and Manning.

2009 NFL Draft: QB Rankings

1. Mark Sanchez, USC
6’2, 227 lbs.
Mission Viejo, CA

2008 Stats: 241-of-366 (65.8 completion percentage), 3,207 yards, 34 TDs, 10 INTs

Pros: Combines a pro-style QB’s field vision and accuracy with dual-threat mobility, particularly while evading pressure in the pocket and on bootleg passes; possesses plus NFL-level arm strength, prototypical mechanics and can make every throw; takes well to coaching; is a cerebral leader whose intangibles and physical tools mesh well; shows adept pocket awareness; displays an increasingly feathery touch on his passes that makes catches easy for receivers; comes from a pro-style system under former NFL coach Pete Carroll that has produced three straight NFL draft picks at quarterback, including two first-rounders in the past decade; is increasingly astute in his decision-making; shows excellent game management, balancing the running and passing games well; would have been a Heisman front-runner if he hadn’t foregone his final season of eligibility.

Cons: Slightly injury-prone, suffering a dislocated knee-cap prior to the season-opener as well as other mild set-backs during his career; tends to be streaky, scoring TDs in bunches and piling on during routs; started at quarterback with a gaudy cast of heralded playmakers and failed to beat out incumbent John David Booty in first three years; despite playing with arguably the most talented team in college football, failed to lead the Trojans to a national title game between his two years of production; seems to be coming out early to maximize his draft position.

Best-case scenario (with a comparable style of play): Tom Brady, Patriots

Worst-case scenario: Alex Smith, 49ers

Analysis: While possessing a similar set of gaudy tools to talents like Matthew Stafford and Josh Freeman, Sanchez is much more mentally-prepared to enter the NFL than those two, thus vaulting him to the top spot in our list. Though the most ready of the three to absorb an NFL playbook and lead a team, Sanchez had been somewhat injury-prone during each relevant season at the collegiate level and would most likely flourish on a team where he could immediately compete for a starting job and be protected by a solid line. Sanchez is used to playing with good receivers and though he makes the players around him better with his poise and ball placement, he needs a team with a plus array of play-makers in order to not feel immediately overwhelmed by the talent transition. The cold, hard truth is that if Sanchez had played for more than one season as a starter at the college level, he’d be hailed as one of the most complete QBs to come out in years.

Should go: No. 4 overall, Seattle Seahawks

Will go: No. 10 overall, San Francisco 49ers

2. Matthew Stafford
6’2, 225 lbs.
Highland Park, TX

2008 Stats: 235-of-383 (61.4 completion percentage), 3,459 yards, 25 TDs, 10 INTs

: A cannon for an arm rivaled only by improvisation virtuosos Brett Favre and Jay Cutler; surgically accurate on deep balls; Dan Marino-like quick release that helps him avoid sacks in a pinch; nobody throws a faster ball downfield; typically very good at body placement on his throws to receivers, i.e.-far shoulder; follows through on passes with authority; durable and can take big hits; willing to take the sack; patient with his reads; checks off well but needs to learn to progress through his reads faster for the NFL level; usually finds the open man if defense gives him a seam.

Cons: Seemed to only incrementally improve each year in college, never progressing his in-game performance by leaps and bounds like Sanchez did last year; seems to force the ball into tight spots, but even some of the best quarterbacks (Favre, Steve Young) are knocked because of this and manage to carve out splendid careers; is not as ideally tall as once thought to be, checking in at 6’2 at NFL Combine; focus can slip at times, leading to critical errors in judgment and overall inconsistent play relative to many other top college QBs; displays undisciplined footwork, sometimes leading to imprecise throws on otherwise easy plays; lack of any noticeable mobility or lateral quickness.

Best-case scenario: Troy Aikman

Worst-case scenario: Drew Bledsoe

Analysis: While it’s true that Stafford may be the most physically gifted drop-back passer to enter the draft this decade, he’s still missing a lot (much of it tangible) between the ears. True to his Dallas roots, he gives off an aloof vibe similar to Cowboys star-but-not-savior QB Tony Romo. Ergo, natural, vocal leadership doesn’t seem to be his forte. In many ways, his situation coming out of school is reminiscent of former No. 1 overall pick from Kentucky and franchise bust Tim Couch; a gifted statue passer who needs a solid support structure in which to thrive long-term. Stafford, as much as any QB prospect this decade, needs an experienced mentor and the luxury of a “redshirt” year before competing for the starter’s job. He never performed at the truly elite level of which he was expected to in college and his lazy mechanics and lack of mental urgency could get him into hot water in the NFL. In fact, if the Lions select Stafford with the first pick to lead a pretender cast of League misfits in Detroit, it very well may be the most sure-fire recipe for disaster and bust-status in modern draft history. Nevertheless, this scenario is virtually assured as the Lions are still looking for the second-coming of Hall-of-Famer Bobby Layne...and in a telling omen, Stafford attended the same exact high school.

Should go: No. 8 overall, Jacksonville Jaguars

Will go: No. 1 overall, Detroit Lions

3. Josh Freeman
6’6, 248 lbs.
Kansas City, Mo.

2008 Stats: 224-of-382 (58.6 completion percentage), 2,945 yards, 20 TDs, 8 INTs

: The body of a defensive end: tall, athletic, and surprisingly nimble; is still growing into his body but has been comfortable enough to put up big numbers at both the prep and major D-1 levels; did not play with the surrounding talent of some others in this class and still led his team to a bowl his freshman year; can step up in the pocket and throw the deep ball; savvy ball placement on intermediate and crossing routes; can run very well for someone of his size and his agility makes you wonder if he’s related to Terrelle Pryor; shifts comfortably between different formations; strong build.

Cons: Poor instincts in evading the rush; sloppy footwork leads to poor throws leads to turnovers; inconsistent on short routes; needs to put more mustard on long passes and display a bit more touch; doesn’t always follow through fundamentally on throws; poor ball protection habits in pocket; still learning how to manage the game, especially on third and fourth downs; panics too easily and makes boneheaded plays under duress.

Best-case scenario: Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers

Worst-case scenario: John Navarre, Indianapolis Colts (2007)

Analysis: Freeman seemed to make the odd decision to enter the draft early in part because of Ron Prince’s firing at K-State and also to take advantage of a pretty weak senior class. As a result, he himself puts the exclamation point on an early-entry class that is second-to-none in overall talent but has been disappointing in production. Freeman is a poor man’s Stafford in that he needs even more time to grow into his the position mentally and will likely require two or three years as an understudy before making a Jason Campbell-like position to The Show. Overall, Freeman has a lot of potential but needs time to grow and work out the kinks in his game so he doesn’t get eaten alive by playmaking defenses in the NFL.

Should go: 2nd round, Kansas City Chiefs

Will go: 2nd round, Kansas City Chiefs

Best of the Rest (in particular order):

Nate Davis, Ball State (2nd round)
Graham Harrell, Texas Tech (3rd round)
Rudy Carpenter, Arizona State (4th round)
Rhett Bomar, Sam Houston State (4th round)
Pat White, West Virginia (5th round); WR
Cullen Harper, Clemson (6th round)
Stephen McGee, Texas A&M (6th round)
Brian Hoyer, Michigan State (6th round)
Jason Boltus, Hartwick (7th round)
Hunter Cantwell, Louisville (7th round)
Chase Daniel, Missouri (7th round)
Chase Patton, Missouri (7th round)
Curtis Painter, Purdue (7th round)
Tom Brandstater, Fresno State (undrafted)
Chase Holbrook, New Mexico State (undrafted)
John Parker Wilson, Alabama (undrafted)

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