The one question I'm asked most by readers, Twitter followers or prospective writers is, "How do you break down NFL prospects?" It is also one of the toughest questions to answer in a tweet or quick email exchange. Here, I'll go deeper.
Each position requires different criteria for scouting, but the method of scouting remains the same. Tape study, background checks and pre-draft workouts are all a part of the puzzle that makes up a player's pre-draft scouting report. But what goes into a deeper study of each position, and each player at that position?
Starting with quarterbacks, here is a position-by-position look at what it takes to scout players for the NFL.
The most important lesson I was taught in evaluating players was to trust film study. This becomes a tough thing to do each spring when players are running blazing 40-times and driving their "stock" up the board, but if you were to go back and look at rankings of a player post-season—based only on film—chances are that's where they should be ranked heading into the draft.
Watching a game isn't the same as studying tape, though, which makes this a tough endeavor for a part-time or hobbyist "scout." Even working at a major outlet like Bleacher Report, finding true game film on obscure prospects can be tough. To answer the second-most asked question, "Where do you get game film?"
Having worked in this industry for 12 years now—albeit most of it as an unpaid blogger—you make the right contacts to be able to call a school and ask for game film.
Once you have the film, what do you do with it? Here are the eight criteria I find most important when evaluating quarterbacks for the NFL.
Despite what some may say, accuracy is one of the few traits that I believe you cannot coach into a quarterback. You either have it or you don't, and it is the single-most important aspect to being able to play the position at a high level.
Accuracy is the ability to consistently deliver a pass to the right location. It sounds simple, but it's the basis for everything a quarterback does. Knowing where to put the ball so a defender cannot reach it is all you want from your passer each time he steps back to throw. How do you grade accuracy, though?
Many people will want to look at completion percentage to assess the accuracy of a quarterback, but this can be misleading. If a quarterback completes the majority of his passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage, he may have a high completion percentage, but poor intermediate-to-deep accuracy. This is why charting passes is so important.
In the image above, you see the four levels of the field—broken up by yard markers—and the three vertical planes—outside the left hash, the middle and outside the right hash. When charting a quarterback, this is my Bible. I'm placing an "X" for each incomplete pass and a "C" for every pass completed within each zone. By the end of the game, you have an accurate look at where a quarterback is throwing and can quickly do the math on his accuracy to each zone. It's much better than a number given to you by the NCAA that may not represent the true accuracy of the passer.
Can accuracy be coached?
Jake Locker and Tim Tebow are two examples of quarterbacks thought to have the athletic ability to be coached up in terms of accuracy, but to date that looks like a faulty theory. While having accuracy and no other trait won't produce a great quarterback, it's the one trait you cannot live without. Give a quarterback the other eight traits listed here and take away accuracy, and he's a low-level quarterback.
Seeing the field is the second-most important trait when scouting quarterbacks. If you can see the field and recognize your open receivers—and then use Trait No. 1 to get the ball there—you’ll live as an NFL quarterback.
When I look at elite NFL players—the basis of what we’re looking for in scouting prospects—I see Tom Brady reading the middle of the field and hitting option routes with impeccable timing. I see Peyton Manning reading coverage better than anyone in the game and adjusting his offense to threaten the defense. I see Colin Kaepernick reading the edge and knowing when to run and when to pass. That’s all vision.
Being able to effectively see the field and make the right decision coming off that vision is as important as anything outside of accuracy.
3. Leadership and Poise
In preparing for this piece, I spoke to several NFL scouts. One quote stuck with me throughout my writing—"I want a guy that can carry everyone's hopes." That's a classic statement to wrap up what leadership should be about.
Quarterbacks are leaders, and when the game is on the line, they are the ones carrying the torch and under the most pressure. Look at the best quarterbacks of all time and you see elite leaders. John Elway, Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Peyton Manning and others are all some of the best leaders you'll ever see in NFL history. They are also some of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game.
4. Arm Strength (Velocity)
Arm strength is impressive, but how important is being able to throw 70 yards in the air? Not very.
When looking at arm strength, I’m more impressed with velocity than distance. I want my quarterbacks throwing on time and with power to the underneath and intermediate areas. Being able to throw deep down the field is impressive in a workout, but most quarterbacks do not make those throws heavily in a game situation. Much more important is being able to thread passes between traffic and fit balls into tight windows over the middle.
Velocity isn’t everything, or an indicator of NFL success, but it does go far in showing how well your quarterback will be able to fit passes into windows over the middle if his accuracy, vision and mechanics are on point.
This is another area where our handy passing chart comes into play. Look at each of the games you chart from a quarterback and you will get a clear picture of his downfield and intermediate throwing abilities.
5. Pocket Presence and Escapability
NFL defensive coordinators spend hours upon hours scheming ways to try and get to the quarterback. That can all be thrown away by a quarterback with good pocket presence.
Pocket presence isn’t mobility; it’s the ability to see and feel pressure. Tom Brady is one of the slower quarterbacks in the NFL, but he’s able to feel and see pressure and step up in the pocket or slide away from pass-rushers to keep the play alive. Same for Peyton Manning. You don’t have to be a runner to be able to recognize blitzes and broken plays to stay away from pass-rushers. Does mobility help? Yes, but it’s not required for a quarterback to have that “it” factor when reading the defense and feeling pressure in the pocket.
The second part to pocket presence is the ability to move when you feel that pressure. Tom Brady is great at feeling backside pressure, but when a defense gets interior pressure, he can struggle to make plays due to a lack of escapability. On the other hand, Ryan Tannehill may not see the field exceptionally well at this point in his career, but he’s more athletic and is able to move away from frontal pressure.
Being mobile is becoming more and more important to NFL scouts when looking at quarterbacks. Thanks to Michael Vick, Aaron Rodgers, Colin Kaepernick and others, we are seeing an inundation of NFL teams who want a quarterback who can run.
The proof is in the interview sessions of the NFL Scouting Combine, where every quarterback in attendance was asked if he was able to run the ball outside the pocket.
One of the biggest knocks on Geno Smith heading into the 2013 NFL draft was his inability to anticipate routes. Some will call this “throwing your receivers open,” but essentially this boils down to being able to know when and/or where the receiver will be open and getting the ball there on time.
Looking at a prospect at the college level, this can be tough. Many colleges are throwing more and more to the edge and setting up bubble screens instead of going down the field and throwing more 15-yard ins. Add in the prevalence of option routes, and this makes scouting anticipation harder.
One benefit of the Senior Bowl and NFL combine is that you can see anticipation from quarterbacks who are unfamiliar with their receivers and are instead left to rely on their reads and play recognition to make plays. EJ Manuel couldn’t rely on knowing where his receiver would be at the Senior Bowl; he had to throw to where the receiver was supposed to be and bet on the player making plays. That led to Manuel being the Senior Bowl MVP and the only quarterback drafted in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft.
In the NFL, where every defender is big and fast, anticipation is underrated. Knowing where your receiver will be and playing with proper timing are what make an offense go. Passers are expected to throw their targets open instead of throwing to open targets.
Mechanics can be taught—just ask Aaron Rodgers—but ideally we find quarterbacks who are NFL ready coming out of college.
A proper throwing motion can be debated, but the basics are set.
- Throwing motion: The quarterback should throw with an over-the-top motion where the ball comes over the shoulder and is released here. The ball should not follow a trajectory under the shoulder—also known as "side-arm" delivery.
- Follow-through: The quarterback should step through his throw, swinging his back foot through the throw with his front foot pointed toward the target. The front leg should work as a foundation for the throw.
Outside of these two notes, mechanics can be debated. Some quarterbacks excel at changing their release point and motion—think John Elway and Brett Favre—but others should never vary from their release and motion points.
When looking at NFL quarterback prospects there used to be this baseline of size that each player had to meet—6’2” and 220 pounds. That was the bottom line for being a successful NFL quarterback, and there were few exceptions. Then Doug Flutie happened, which led to Drew Brees, which led to Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III being given opportunities as smaller quarterbacks.
One of the toughest lessons I’ve learned in my time as an evaluator is that size doesn’t always matter. Bigger is not always better (see: Russell, JaMarcus). When smaller quarterbacks like Russell Wilson show high-level arm strength, accuracy, vision, leadership and footwork, the fact that they are under 6'0" shouldn’t matter as much.
Finding out whether Wilson and others are the exception to the rule or a changing of rules is yet to be determined, but they are making the job of evaluating quarterbacks based on size much more difficult.
These are my criteria for scouting a quarterback. Is this a complete process? No, but it's as close as you can get to nailing down set factors when evaluating a prospect for the NFL. Experience, wins and production are also key factors, if not traits. Bill Parcells said it well when he wrote his four quarterback rules (via Smart Football):
- He must be a senior, because you need time and maturity to develop into a good professional quarterback.
- He must be a graduate, because you want someone who takes his responsibilities seriously.
- He must be a three-year starter, because you need to make sure his success wasn’t ephemeral and that he has lived as “the guy” for some period of time.
- He must have at least 23 wins, because the big passing numbers must come in the context of winning games.
These are good general rules, and of course there are exceptions, but Parcells' look at scouting quarterbacks is a strong base to work off of.
There will always be exceptions to every rule—the Russell Wilsons or Drew Breeses of the game—but take a look at the top 10 quarterbacks in the NFL and you'll see the majority of them excelling in each of these traits.