- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Tape used to be the one thing that never lied about a prospect. Now, general managers watch tape with increasing confusion. The trend in college of spreading receivers across the field and turning quarterbacks into runners is making evaluating those quarterbacks more difficult.
Years ago, scouts struggled to project quarterbacks because many were throwers trapped in running offenses. Now, college quarterbacks are playing a different game than what they will experience in the pros. Scouts don't know what they're seeing.
"You're not seeing the NFL type of game as much," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "You're seeing four- and five-wide receiver spreads. You're seeing quarterbacks running options. You're seeing quarterbacks throwing the ball more east and west than north and south. What you're not seeing as much is quarterbacks working behind two-tight end offenses with a back and facing eight defenders in the box."
Spread options aren't going away, and while this evolution is creating quarterback prospects able to do more things in passing offenses, it is hampering their preparation for the NFL. More and more, scouts look at tape and see quarterbacks taking their first running steps after they accept a shotgun snap.
That style fits the CFL more than the NFL, and as creative as offensive coaches might be in the NFL, defenses have too many fast athletes to be beaten with a steady diet of quarterback options. Ultimately, teams have to line up in conventional sets, run the ball and work the play-action game with quarterbacks. That's NFL football and it will always be NFL football.
But finding a quarterback ready to take over an offense is the most important decision an organization can make. To win a Super Bowl, a team must have a quarterback who can win against Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. The days of winning despite the quarterback are gone. Teams with the best quarterbacks seem to be the higher-seeded teams during the playoffs while teams with poor quarterback play tend to draft in the top 10 after 10- or 11-loss seasons.
The problem is rookie quarterbacks since 1998 only complete 53.35 percent of their passes. Their quarterback ratings are usually in the 60s. Less than 20 percent of rookie quarterbacks post winning records. You have to obtain a good quarterback to win, but chances of their winning as rookies aren't good.
On the flip side, franchises can be their own worst enemies as far as overevaluating. The $64 million question in 2007 is whether Brady Quinn will be the Matt Leinart of 2007. Leinart came out of a pro system at USC. He was surrounded by top NFL offensive prospects and matured in the pro styles taught by head coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Norm Chow.
The Raiders and Lions passed on Leinart, even though many felt he was the most prepared of the three top quarterback prospects of 2006 (including Vince Young and Jay Cutler). Leinart fell to the Arizona Cardinals at No. 10, and many now believe they will be playoff contenders with Ken Whisenhunt calling the plays in 2007. The Raiders and Lions draft No. 1 and No. 2 and don't have that young quarterback to develop.
Quinn comes out of Notre Dame claiming he's the most prepared quarterback in the draft. He started learning the West Coast offense under Tyrone Willingham early in his college career. Then he grew even more under the brilliant offensive mind of Charlie Weis. Quinn loves the mental aspects of the game, and he has worked hard on the fundamentals.
"Anytime you have a coach that's able to come from the NFL and have as much success as [Weis] had bringing along a quarterback like Tom Brady, you have to look at that as a gift from God," Quinn said at the scouting combine in February. "As far as looking at the offense you're going to run, preparing yourself for the NFL, I'm just [fortunate] that somebody was able to take [me] every step along the way of how things are going to work."
Despite that, the Raiders, Lions and possibly the Browns are thinking about letting him slide. If that happens, it's doubtful he would get past Minnesota at No. 7. Quinn doesn't get it. In an area in which quarterback prospects are coming out of systems foreign to the NFL, he is an NFL-groomed quarterback, and yet his stock is falling.
"I've been through the adversity. I've gone through losing
seasons. I know what it feels like to lose, but I know what it
feels like to win," Quinn recently told The Associated Press. "I know what it's like to go through that transition.
"[Quarterback prospect JaMarcus Russell] obviously is a big kid with a strong arm. But I'm a big kid with a strong arm and much more. I'm not as big as him. I'm a little leaner. But I've played four years, started the past four years and been through a lot. Every step of the way, Notre Dame has prepared me better than I think I would have been prepared at any other university."
Cardinals fans looked at Leinart's landing as a gift from the football gods. He finished 4-7 in 11 starts, but Whisenhunt figures to build him from a 56.8 completion percentage in 2006 into the 60s this season. For a team that finished 0-5 in games decided by five points or fewer and has the league's easiest schedule, Leinart's improvement could be the difference between a 5-11 season and 9-7.
No one understands the readiness issue of quarterbacks more than Whisenhunt. He was involved in Ben Roethlisberger's rookie conversion from Miami (Ohio) to the NFL in 2004. Like Leinart and the Cardinals, Roethlisberger was a gift to the Steelers. He joined Pittsburgh at a time when MAC quarterbacks were making quicker conversions into the NFL than college quarterbacks playing in conventional systems. Byron Leftwich made a successful conversion from a shotgun offense at Marshall, winning five games and throwing 14 touchdown passes as a rookie with the Jaguars in 2003. Chad Pennington was another Marshall success story.
"To his credit, Ben did a lot of work before that draft on his five- and seven-step drops after playing out of a shotgun in college," former Steelers quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple said. "What you are seeing now is that high schools are going more into spread sets, so you aren't seeing quarterbacks in conventional offenses. You rarely see a quarterback in high school or college anymore working with a fullback. They are in shotgun all of the time."
Surrounded by a strong running game, a great offensive line and solid receivers, Roethlisberger went 13-0 as a rookie and completed 66.4 percent of his passes. Of course, he also had the advantage of joining a team that had playoff-caliber talent.
Young was a different story. He was selected by a Titans team that went 4-12 the previous season. At Texas, Young worked almost exclusively out of the shotgun. The plan was for Young to sit for at least the first half of the 2006 season, but an 0-5 start gave coach Jeff Fisher second thoughts. The organization knew Young had the potential to be effective as a rookie.
Even though Young was known more for being the best mobile quarterback to come into the league since Michael Vick, at 6-foot-5 he rarely had trouble spotting and hitting receivers downfield. He also displayed a great ability to complete the short pass in the middle of the field, proving he could effectively move the chains with his arm as well as his feet.
Though his 51.5 completion percentage wasn't great, Young went 8-5 and earned Rookie of the Year honors. Fisher took a wait-and-see approach with Steve McNair, letting him develop in practices before giving him the chance to play, and McNair became a Pro Bowler. Young went to the Pro Bowl with hard work and a little bit of luck.
"There is no perfect approach [to developing a young quarterback]," Fisher said at the owners meetings. "To me, the bottom line is you play him when he's ready and when that is, it varies from player to player and scenario to scenario. You have to have a good offensive line and a running back so you can run the football. It makes sense to me to give a quarterback an opportunity if he is digesting the system and is comfortable with what he's doing. But Peyton Manning was 3-13 his rookie year."
Ideally, Fisher prefers letting a quarterback sit his rookie year. With coaches generally having a three-year window to win games or lose their jobs, few coaches drafting in the top five are willing to gamble on a rookie quarterback, particularly now as they come out of systems completely different from the NFL. Ready or not, the science of evaluating draftable quarterbacks is getting tougher.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Finding NFL-ready QBs coming out of college is tougher than ever. That's what makes the case of Brady Quinn's stock slipping even more puzzling, writes John Clayton.