Former QBs provide offenses with mismatches
College QBs once bristled at being asked to switch positions in the NFL. Now, the increase of three-receiver sets has started a trend.
With the Steelers, Stewart was "Slash," a quarterback who could line up at wide receiver and running back. At the time, he was a novelty. Though some pushed him to be more receiver than quarterback, Stewart resisted and was wise in doing so. He was good enough as a quarterback to lead the Steelers to a couple of AFC title games and was a member of Pittsburgh's Super Bowl XXX team.
|“||I don't think you go out on scouting trips now looking at quarterbacks and thinking how to make him a wide receiver. With good athletes, though, it works out.”|
|—Texans GM Charley Casserly|
Still, you wonder what would have happened had Stewart devoted all of his attention to being an NFL receiver. He was big enough to be an asset to West Coast offenses as a flanker and he had the speed to be a dangerous, deep-threat split end. At the age of 33, he's had a good career -- a 48-34 record as a starter and 77 touchdown passes in 10 seasons.
When Stewart entered the NFL in 1995, college quarterbacks bristled at suggestions to change positions. Those suggestions were considered disrespectful. "What?" they said, "I'm a quarterback."
For Stewart, timing was everything. In the mid-1990s, the NFL was starved for quarterbacks. Teams grabbed quarterbacks from NFL Europe and pushed them into starting lineups and held onto aging quarterbacks until their last breaths. A talented guy like Stewart was able to stay at his preferred position.
A decade later, an interesting trend has developed and most personnel offices are just starting to pick up on it. The quarterback position is stronger than ever. Colleges are producing big, mobile athletes who can throw and run. And since all of these athletes aren't suited to play quarterback in the NFL, several are being converted to wide receiver.
Jaguars first-round choice Matt Jones is the splashiest headliner of that trend. As an NFL quarterback, Jones wouldn't have the arm strength to survive in the NFL. The Jaguars gambled his 4.4 speed and tall, powerful body could cause matchup problems against cornerbacks in the slot, and they were so right. Jones is dangerous as a receiver everywhere. In the opener, coach Jack Del Rio even put him behind center to run a couple of trick plays.
Jones isn't alone. The list of ex-college quarterbacks who made the transition is impressive. Among the leaders are Anquan Boldin of the Cardinals, Ronald Curry of the Raiders, Antwaan Randle El and Hines Ward of the Steelers, Drew Bennett of the Titans, Patrick Crayton of the Cowboys and Arnaz Battle of the 49ers. Credit the development of the three-receiver offense as one of the reasons for their opportunities.
With teams spreading the field with receivers, coaches are looking for matchup problems. Defenses sometimes put their best corners in the slot, but often assign the cornerbacks who lack the speed to run man-to-man against slot receivers.
The development of slot receivers is one of the hottest trends in the NFL these days. Offensive coaches drool over the shifty nature of Brandon Stokley of the Colts and how he works his way free for Peyton Manning. With offenses going to three and four receivers more than 60 percent of the downs, a good slot receiver is almost a starter.
Who better to work the slot than an ex-quarterback who understands the routes. The minute Jeff Blake spotted Boldin in the receiver's first training camp, he knew a star was going to be born. Boldin, a former Florida State quarterback, is fast, but he has good size at 6-foot-1, 218 pounds. Plus, he's smart. Blake, with the Cardinals at the time, was amazed how Boldin would weave through zone defensive schemes and position himself in the perfect spot for the quarterback to see him.
"You can see in high school and college that often the best athlete ended up at the quarterback position because the coach could get the ball in his hands more," Colts general manager Bill Polian said. "For teams that used the option, you needed a superior athlete to make it work. Some of those athletes may not make the transition into the NFL as a quarterback but you'd like to find a way to get those best athletes a place in the league."
You can see where this trend is heading. More teams are loading up on assets for three-receiver sets. The Lions have three first-round choices at the position. The Jaguars have used their past two first-rounders to add to Jimmy Smith to complete their three-receiver packages. Arizona's Dennis Green has two first-rounders (Larry Fitzgerald and Bryant Johnson) and a second-rounder (Boldin) to attack defenses in three-receiver schemes.
Not every team can commit a first- or second-rounder on a wide receiver and that is where creativity comes into play. It's pretty hard these days to get away from having at least a couple of first-day draft choices at wide receiver, so to come up with the third, it's not a bad idea to develop a former college quarterback.
Look at the bargains already established -- Battle (sixth round), Crayton (seventh), Curry (seventh) and Bennett (undrafted). Battle and Bennett are No. 1 receivers on their teams. Bennett already has an 80-catch season to his credit.
Battle was supposed to be Notre Dame's next star quarterback coming out of Shreveport, La. He got the cherished No. 3 jersey which had been given to Ralph Gugliemi, Rich Mirer, Ron Powlus and Joe Montana. But Battle didn't have Jarious Jackson's arm strength and sat around waiting.
"I knew that I could be on the field somewhere because I was really a football player, not just a quarterback," Battle said. "I could run. I could hit. I could do a lot of things. I thought just standing there was not doing me any good."
Though he started his junior year at quarterback, he ended up getting two seasons at wide receiver for Notre Dame, making it easier for him to fit into the NFL and learn. After wearing Montana's number at Notre Dame, Battle is running routes from Jerry Rice's fabled flanker position for the 49ers.
Bennett came out of UCLA knowing his 6-foot-5 body wasn't going to make it as a quarterback. So he tried at wide receiver. Remembering that a lot of college quarterbacks are among the team's best athletes, Bennett had to be creative with his talents. The Titans gave him a chance and a $3,000 signing bonus.
Bennett knew he had to draw attention to himself. Bennett had 4.5 speed and a 42-inch vertical jump but limited college experience at receiver. Early in his first camp, he was asked to do a crackback block on Jevon Kearse. The Freak avoided the hit. Bennett worked hard and before long learned how to use his skills at his new position.
"I don't think you go out on scouting trips now looking at quarterbacks and thinking how to make him a wide receiver," Texans general manager Charley Casserly said. "With good athletes, though, it works out."
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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