Commentary

NFL teams wary of undergrad QBs

The top four-rated QBs this spring are skipping their senior collegiate seasons. History tells NFL teams to be wary of early-entry QB draft candidates, John Clayton writes.

Updated: February 23, 2009, 3:45 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- The fascinating part of the 2009 NFL draft isn't just that the four top-rated quarterbacks are underclassmen. The fascinating part will be how quickly the NFL can accept four quarterbacks who skipped their senior seasons.

Judging college quarterbacks is harder than ever. The spread offense totally has changed the college game. Thanks to the spread, quarterbacks operate out of shotgun formation. They complete higher percentage passes to a more diverse group of receivers. Completion percentage is as much a byproduct of the scheme as it is the quarterback, because there aren't enough good corners to line up on the pass-catchers.

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Most scouts agree there isn't a Matt Ryan in the 2009 draft, but many of those scouts downgraded him in the 2008 selection because his completion percentage dropped from 61.6 to 59.3 during his senior year. They failed to recognize the Boston College receiving crew simply wasn't good enough.

Ryan ended up winning 11 games as the Atlanta Falcons' rookie starter. He seems like the best quarterback prospect to come into the league since Peyton Manning in 1998.

Matthew Stafford of Georgia, Mark Sanchez of USC, Josh Freeman of Kansas State and Nate Davis of Ball State are the top quarterbacks being evaluated at the scouting combine that started this week in Indianapolis. The list of draft failures of quarterbacks who skipped their senior seasons is long and expensive.

Ryan Leaf heads the list. He was all-world coming out of Washington State, appearing to be another John Elway. His immaturity and unwillingness to adapt cost the San Diego Chargers millions, and sent fear into every franchise considering drafting a quarterback who didn't stay to play a senior season.

Tim Couch, Heath Shuler, Tommy Maddox and Andre Ware are just a few more of the names that send chills down scouts' spines as they contemplate Stafford, Sanchez, Freeman and Davis.

Davis, Freeman, SanchezIcon SMIBall State's Nate Davis (left), Kansas State's Josh Freeman (center) and USC's Mark Sanchez (right) hope to show NFL teams they have nothing to fear when investing in early-entry QBs.

The league was spoiled for a few years because there once was a trend among quarterbacks to play four collegiate seasons. Peyton Manning did it. His brother, Eli Manning, stayed. So did Philip Rivers, Drew Brees, Donovan McNabb, Carson Palmer and so many others.

Their loyalty and maturity made decision-making a little easier. Those quarterbacks who stay for a senior year polish their games. Their completion percentage improves dramatically, and NFL franchises aren't rushed into judgment. General managers set their scouts' agendas during the summer, and if they need quarterbacks they have a full fall to evaluate games, do proper interviewing and psychological testing. The NFL teams can watch the best quarterback prospects play against future pros in the East-West Shrine Game or the Senior Bowl.

Evaluating underclassmen is like cramming for a final in college. Underclassmen don't declare for the draft until mid-January. Then the clock starts. Scouts who were focused on seniors have to go back and study the tape on underclassmen entering the draft.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
AP Photo/John BazemoreGeorgia QB Matthew Stafford, another junior entering the 2009 draft, did not plan to throw for scouts at the combine.

Teams have three months to make the most difficult decision a franchise must make. The ultimate success of a team is dependent on the play of its quarterback.

Thanks to the spread offense and the success of Ryan and Baltimore Ravens starter Joe Flacco as rookies, conventional wisdom is thrown out the window. The easiest transition was having the first-round quarterback sit during his rookie season. Carson Palmer and Steve McNair were success stories from franchises that resisted the temptation to rush prospects who entered the league as the highest-paid players on their team. Try talking an owner into investing a $60 million contract on a rookie who's going to carry a clipboard. It isn't easy.

Ryan and Flacco's successes threw organizational patience out the window. They led their teams to the playoffs as rookies, and under first-year head coaches, at that. Once again, the pressure will be on to rush quarterbacks into service.

The college success of the spread offense also made an easy evaluating tool less relevant. For years, teams looked back at the success and failures of college quarterbacks and found completion percentage a big factor. Football Outsiders' David Lewin broke down the final two college seasons of the quarterback and found that a combined 59 percent completion figure was a good guideline for study. The final two years were critical, because quarterbacks who play as freshmen and sophomores have skewed stats.

For a while, the combined 59 percent completion figure during the final two college seasons was like a Mendoza line. Those above that mark were successes. Those who were below were failures. Peyton and Tom Brady, McNabb, Palmer, Chad Pennington, Rivers and so many other success stories completed at least 59 percent of their passes in the span of their final two seasons.

Leaf, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, Patrick Ramsey, J.P. Losman, Kyle Boller and so many others were among the many collegians who did not exceed the 59 percent-accuracy mark in their final two seasons combined. They have been NFL failures.

Heath Shuler, Ryan Leaf, and Tim CouchGetty ImagesHeath Shuler (left), Ryan Leaf (center), and Tim Couch (right) entered the NFL with great expectations, even though each bypassed his senior college seasons. Their vagabond pro careers give teams caution when scouting early-entry quarterbacks.

Now, even the Theory of 59 is outdated. Stafford, Sanchez, Freeman and Davis all completed a combined 59 percent of their passes or better during the final two seasons. Had they stayed in school for a senior year, their stats would be even better heading into the pros. If you use the Theory of 59, every quarterback in the draft except Rhett Bomar would be projected success, because Bomar is the only draft quarterback with less than a 59 percent completion rate. Still, this theory is a good evaluating tool, because accuracy is often more important than strong arms when looking at quarterbacks.

Teams will have to break down every pass and determine the completion percentages of throws longer than 10 yards to project the success of these quarterbacks. Of course, the NFL game has changed in many ways to give all of these underclassmen hope. With officials calling fewer than 1.7 holding penalties per game on average, quarterbacks can complete 65 percent of their passes working out of three- and five-step drops. They even have enough time to get to their third and maybe fourth reads on some throws.

Stafford, by the way, plans to run but not throw this weekend at Indianapolis. The Detroit Lions are seriously considering him for the first pick in the draft, so Stafford doesn't want to scare them by having a bad throwing day to receivers he just met. He'll do his throwing on the Georgia campus under his terms.

Maybe it's fitting that the class of 2009 is one in which teams have to use a hurry-up strategy to get to know the quarterbacks of the future. The NFL is going to more no-huddle, hurry-up offense. This weekend at the combine is the first real chance teams can get to know the 2009 quarterbacks of the future. The draft is a little more than two months away.

It's a hurry-up pace for a no-huddle league. Fitting.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer