Commentary

NFL has little room for spread QBs

Originally Published: May 1, 2009
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Pat White/Graham HarrellUS PresswireSpread quarterback Pat White was drafted by the Dolphins in the second round, but Graham Harrell wasn't drafted and is still looking for a job.

In theory, the NFL draft is supposed to be about evaluation, not devaluation.

But try convincing former Texas Tech star quarterback Graham Harrell, or most of the other players who put up big numbers at the position while operating primarily out of the "spread" offense, of that fact.

Despite averaging more than 5,000 passing yards a season in his three years as a starter, throwing 131 touchdown passes and only 34 interceptions in that period, and completing 69.8 percent of his passes since 2006 (including 70.6 percent last season), Harrell went undrafted last weekend. He will spend this weekend in Cleveland, showing off his wares during an audition at a three-day minicamp and trying to impress Browns coaches enough to merit signing him to a minimum-salary NFL free-agent contract.

League scouts simply don't view spread quarterbacks through the same prism used to evaluate more conventional prospects at the position.

Over two days last weekend, 256 prospects were selected by NFL teams in the draft, and Harrell wasn't among them. The draft class included 12 quarterbacks, tied for the second-lowest total in the past 10 years, and Harrell's name still remained on the board after seven rounds. As an unsigned invitee to the Cleveland weekend minicamp, Harrell still doesn't have a contract offer.

Chalk it up to the spread offense, a system in which, NFL scouts insist, quarterbacks' passing statistics are inflated, and a scheme with which league talent evaluators still struggle to assess a prospect's physical skills. Like the run-and-shoot offense, from which it is considered a spinoff, the spread hasn't gained much traction or credibility with league scouts.

It is considered a gimmick offense, and the quarterbacks who operate in it don't fit snugly into the cozy pigeonhole that scouts prefer.

The equation is simple supply and demand: With schools demanding winning programs, university presidents wanting stadiums filled with fans, and everyone yearning for a high-octane offense, the popularity of the spread continues to multiply. And as it does, the supply of quarterback prospects considered NFL-ready diminishes.

The spread has an effect on other positions as well. Offensive linemen, for instance, usually line up with wider stances than the typical scheme would require. The staple play for a running back is the draw play, in which a guy usually hits air and encounters little initial resistance. Wide receivers typically catch the ball wide-open.

But nowhere is the impact in the draft more profound than at quarterback.

"It challenges the scouts' whole evaluation process," said Pittsburgh Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert, one of the league's premier personnel men in terms of defining draft-worthy talent, when asked about the draft ramifications of the spread attack. "It makes everything more difficult, because you don't see [quarterbacks] do some of the things we ask them to do in the NFL. You've got to look at a guy's physical ability and project how it might fit into a [pro-style] offense. And it's hard to make those projections. It's hard, too, for a spread quarterback to easily transfer his very particular skills set to our league."

That philosophy helps explain the leaguewide snub of Harrell, the lack of emphasis on spread offense quarterbacks in general, and the fact that only a dozen prospects were chosen at the NFL's most critical position. That's only one fewer quarterback than the number taken in the entire 2008 draft and is actually one more than selected in 2007. Notably, only eight quarterbacks were taken after the second round, four in the sixth round, and one in the seventh, when teams typically sacrifice a pick to add a "camp arm."

A few spread quarterbacks -- Pat White (West Virginia), Julian Edelman (Kent State) and Rhett Bomar (Sam Houston State) -- were chosen in the 2009 draft. There were, however, a lot more like Harrell who went undrafted.

Scouts tend to undervalue and underappreciate quarterbacks from the spread systems in the college game. They apply a sort of qualifier that diminishes the importance of the gaudy statistics generally run up in the spread offense. It's as if a quarterback's statistics in the spread offense aren't as legitimate as those posted by a quarterback in a pro-style offense.

Harrell's college coach, Mike Leach, was critical of the league's recent oversight of his quarterback. Leach pointed out that NFL teams are "notoriously bad" at identifying quarterback prospects, criticized staffs for their perceived deficiencies in coaching players at the position, and termed the reluctance of franchises to choose a spread quarterback a "pitiful cop-out." But Leach might be the guy crying in the football wilderness, because philosophies in the NFL aren't quick to change, and quarterbacks who run the spread offense might as well be wearing a scarlet letter.

They are, for the most part, shunned.

"It's not like asking a guy to learn a foreign language, because it's the same game," said Buffalo offensive coordinator Turk Schonert, himself a former NFL quarterback. "But because they come into the league so in tune with the esoteric techniques the spread requires, they haven't done a lot of the things [NFL] quarterbacks do. So even with something as simple as the normal snap [spread quarterbacks are rarely asked to play under center], they experience some adjustment problems."

Certainly, the bias against spread quarterbacks is a factor in decreasing the number of prospects.

White, who starred at West Virginia and twice rushed for 1,000 yards there, is one of the fortunate ones.

The Miami Dolphins grabbed White, projected by some clubs as a wide receiver and others as a potential safety, in the second round. He was the fourth overall quarterback to go off the draft board. While he might tinker some at wide receiver, Dolphins officials were quick to point out that White will not only run the "Wildcat" offense, which used to be a moonlighting job for star tailback Ronnie Brown, but also compete with second-year veteran Chad Henne for the primary backup job behind starter Chad Pennington.

In selecting the athletic White, who possesses great passion for the game, the Dolphins clearly were thinking creatively. Unfortunately for spread quarterbacks, other teams have been slow to follow Miami's lead.

"I think there are more negative perceptions of [the spread] than really exist," Harrell said. "But I know some people are still getting used to it … and in the NFL, that takes a while."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.