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Derek Stephens writes for NFL.com’s Blog Blitz, FieldGulls.com, is author/founder of thebluebirdherd.com and pro draft scout contributor NFLDraftScout.com and Lindy’s Draft Guide. He will be an occasional contributor to Hawk Blogger. Welcome aboard!
In evaluating the potential QB crop of the 2012 NFL Draft, one of the interesting, fun and relatively simple analyses to perform is to look at the previous year’s group at the same position, and try to project what order the selections would have fallen in had both groups been in the same draft.
Brian asked me to create a mock draft reflecting how I think the 2011 Draft may have gone if the 2012 QB prospects had been included in the pool.
It’s a round-a-bout way of comparing the two draft classes, but with the inserted twist of projecting which teams would have picked which players based on those teams’ philosophies and needs, had the whole pool of QBs between the two years been available at once.
For a draft geek like me, this was a pretty fun article.
First, a look at my pre-draft 2011 top-10 QB prospect rankings:
In my view, Locker, Gabbert and Kaepernick were taken way too high, and Mallett and Dalton dropped much further than they should have.
Cam Newton had the upside and intangible factor to go with once-in-a-generation size/athleticism/big-play ability combo that made him a non-reach, in my view, as the number one pick, although I didn’t have him rated the highest of the available QBs. Locker and Gabbert had clear decision-making issues and consistency problems throughout their college careers. Kaepernick was extremely unpolished as a passer, and played at a lower level of competition than the others.
Ponder and Dalton, on the other hand, displayed sound fundamentals, athleticism and consistent decision-making, which are the key traits I look for when projecting NFL talent at any position.
In looking at the potential 2012 class (I say “potential” because there are a number of underclassmen at the position who may/may not come out), here are my current QB rankings:
1. Andrew Luck – Stanford
2. Matt Barkley – USC
3. Ryan Tannehill – Texas A&M
4. Landry Jones – Oklahoma
5. Nick Foles – Arizona State
6. Robert Griffin III – Baylor
7. Brandon Weeden – OSU
8. Russell Wilson – Wisconsin
9. Kirk Cousins – MSU
10. Tie – Ryan Lindley – SDSU and Case Keenum – Houston
Andrew Luck is the clear front runner, with Matt Barkley a notch below. Both are smart, consistent passers who work with solid fundamentals and display a good understanding of defenses both pre and post-snap. Both guys have light feet, can avoid pressure, get the ball out quick and possess enough zip to make any and all of the throws.
While Luck is the clear frontrunner, I’m not as convinced that it’s by as large of a margin as some scouts, but hey, that’s nothing more than my interpretation watching the tape. Barkley does not have all the physical gifts that Luck does, but mentally and instinctively, they’re not too far apart in my view. Where Luck becomes really special is in his ability to make big plays in crucial situations with the game on the line, and do it with poise. It’s here where Barkley just isn’t on the same level yet, although he has definitely improved in how composed and poised he is under pressure.
As for the rest, Tannehill is a phenomenal athlete with good arm strength, improving accuracy, and the ability to buy time and make plays with his feet. He’s extremely dangerous outside of the pocket, and he is improving at a rapid pace, having barely started 10 college games at QB. He displays good poise and guts in the pocket, but the mental lapses do occur, and typically in bunches. With more coaching, considering the swiftness with which he has picked A&M’s pro style offense, he could become a starting NFL QB relatively quickly.
Landry Jones has a big arm, solid footwork, adequate accuracy and big-time toughness. He’s the prototype “pocket passer” of the group. Where he struggles is with his consistency from game to game. One week, you see a poised, pinpoint accurate signal-caller who appears virtually unstoppable. The next week, he could abandon his mechanics altogether, throw high and/or behind, hold the ball too long and lock on to receivers. He’s more on than off, though and there are obvious improvements being made mechanically. He could very well end up the second QB off the board in 2012.
Nick Foles has a big arm, and is more cerebral than he’s given credit for. After all, he has played a role in designing Arizona’s offensive plays, and is in full control of that group. His accuracy has improved and he’s getting the ball out quickly. Pretty agile/mobile for his size as well.
Robert Griffin III is a tremendous athlete who is still learning proper QB mechanics. He’s a smart football player though, who learns quickly and can make reads and adjustments at the line. He progresses nicely to a secondary target, and displays one of the better deep throws in the country.
Weeden is closing in on 30 years old, after trying to make it in baseball. One thing is clear though about Weeden – he has an absolute cannon for an arm, and all the confidence to go with it. This is also his biggest downfall though, as he’ll make bad reads or try to force a throw through too tight a space. He’s a bit heavy-footed and is a classic gunslinger, most effective inside the pocket.
Russell Wilson is one of my sleepers. Not that he lacks for attention. But as an NFL prospect, he’s been too quickly written off as a QB due to his shorter stature (5’11). I couldn’t care less. If a guy is accurate and consistent with good fundamentals, he has a chance to play NFL football, the QB position not excluded. Wilson is known mostly for what he does with his feet, but his strong accurate arm is often overlooked. He sets his feet, has a quick release, progresses through his options post-snap, consistently makes good decisions, and can lead his receiver. He’s smart, instinctive and deadly on the run, either throwing or tucking it.
Kirk Cousins is a good athlete with a good, but not great arm. He can make all of the short to mid range throws, and shows a respectable deep ball, but he struggles under pressure to the point of allowing his mechanics to fall apart completely when the rush is coming. He may be the most inconsistent QB of this group, and would probably crack this list’s top 5 if this weren’t such an issue. He’s mobile and a good thrower on the run.
Lindley, like Weeden, is the gunslinger type. He has a strong arm, and when he can set his feet, displays good accuracy to all areas of the field. His feet are heavy though, and he doesn’t move around in the pocket very well, leading him to throw off his back foot too often when under pressure. He’s not a guy who will buy a lot of extra time with a scramble, so he’ll rely more on his receivers and blockers to allow him to make plays.
Case Keenum is an extremely accurate, efficient QB with a knack for making big plays when they count. He’s smart, reads defenses, checks down and displays solid poise in the pocket. At 6’1, he’s a bit shorter than some scouts prefer so he could slip and be a value pick in the later rounds.
Combining The Two
It’s not often you get to mock a draft that has already happened, but hey…first time for everything, right?
Considering the draft grades that I had on last year’s QB crop, and comparing those grades to the ones I have on 2012’s assumed group, here’s a mock of where I figure the two groups would order out, had the upcoming draft’s group of prospects been available last April. Keep in mind, this is not necessarily going by overall scouted value/rating for each guy, but we’re also considering team need and philosophy.
How it may have gone:
1. Andrew Luck – Stanford – 1st pick overall (Carolina) – Carolina needed a franchise QB that could step in and start immediately. Cam Newton was the best available they felt, in 2011, but they wouldn’t have felt the same way had Luck entered. No doubt the Stanford star would have gone first overall.
2. Cam Newton – Auburn – 4th pick overall (Cincinnati) – The Bengals were clearly looking to hit the reset button at the QB position, and Marv Lewis has proven he’ll take chances on polarizing and controversial athletes. Newton’s athleticism would bring an element to that offense that has never been there under Lewis.
3. Matt Barkley – USC – 7th pick overall (Arizona) – Rather than trade their best defensive player away for a relatively unproven Kevin Kolb, here the Cardinals grab the second highest graded passer in the draft, and give nothing up in the process.
4. Ryan Tannehill – Texas A&M – 7th pick overall (San Francisco) – Jim Harbaugh may appear sold on Alex Smith for now, but it’s hard to believe that was the case in April. The aggressive move to trade up (and reach) for Colin Kaepernick was a clear indication that QB was a target, and the fact that it was Kaepernick, indicates that Harbaugh is looking for a strong-armed QB with plus athleticism. Tannehill is a much better looking prospect than Kaepernick, and his decision making and show of improvement leave him with a higher grade than Locker or Gabbert here.
5. Jake Locker – Washington – 8th pick overall (Tennessee) – The Titans were high on Locker before the draft and there had been talk of him going here for a while. They get their guy, and continue with their tradition of athletic QBs who can make things happen outside the pocket (McNair, Young).
6. Landry Jones – Oklahoma – 10th pick overall (Jacksonville) – The Jaguars reached for Gabbert with Newton and Locker off the board, and should favor the better arm and better poise of of the more battle-tested Landry Jones. Jones could easily have gone to Cincinnati at No. 4 overall as he fits the more traditional mold of the pocket passer that Lewis had in Carson Palmer for so many years.
7. Christian Ponder – FSU – 12th pick overall (Minnesota) – Nothing changes here, except that Ponder is the 7th QB off the board instead of the 3rd. He’s a good fit for what they’re doing in Minnesota and was highly underrated by media scouts going into the draft. A smart, athletic QB who’s worst enemy in college was the injury bug.
8. Robert Griffin III – Baylor – 16th pick overall (Washington) – The Redskins were high on Locker, but with him off the board here, they get another “plus” athlete with a “plus” arm and a better college decision maker who completes a significantly higher percentage of passes than Locker, in Griffin III. He’s raw and mechanically inconsistent, but the smarts, combined with a show of steady, rapid improvement make him too hard to pass on here.
9. Blaine Gabbert – Mizzou – 21st pick overall (Cleveland) – The Browns wouldn’t have been so convinced that Colt McCoy was their guy here, had Gabbert fallen to them at 21. Dalton was a consideration but Tom Heckert and Mike Holmgren probably felt that they already had something similar in Colt McCoy — an accurate, smart, timing-based passer with mobility and a strong leadership quality. Gabbert’s “plus” arm, prototypical size and underrated athleticism make him too tough to pass on here.
10. Andy Dalton – TCU – 46th pick overall (Denver) – John Fox has been successful in the past by combining a strong running game with an efficient passing game led by a smart, tough accurate QB (Delhomme) and Dalton fits the mold.
11. Colin Kaepernick – Nevada – 48th pick overall (Oakland) – Word on the street was that the Raiders were high on Kaepernick, and were ready to grab him here, had he fallen. Still a reach as far as I’m concerned as I have Foles, Wilson and Weeden rated higher.
12. Nick Foles – Arizona – 68th pick overall (Buffalo) – Much like the ‘Niners, the Bills weren’t as sold as they are now on their starting QB back in April, and would’ve jumped at the chance to bring on a big, athletic QB to compete for the starting job. At 68, Foles could prove to be a steal as he looks to have a lot of NFL starting QB qualities.
13. Ryan Mallett –Arkansas – 74th pick overall (New England) – Another pick that doesn’t change. Mallett was on Belichick’s radar and was targeted as a fit for the Patriots’ system early. He’s the best QB on the board at this point, and worth every bit of the 74th pick.
14. Russell Wilson – Wisconsin – 90th pick overall (Philadelphia) – Wilson is a good value grab here for the Eagles. Philly brings in a similar athlete to Michael Vick, knowing full well that Kevin Kolb is going to be shipped before the season starts. The hope would be to groom Wilson into, at the very least, a strong backup who can maintain the athletic continuity that Vick brings, should the oft-injured Vick be sidelined for any reason.
15. Kirk Cousins – Michigan State – 111th pick overall (Miami) – The Dolphins weren’t ready to give up on Chad Henne, but then again, at this point in the draft, there were no QB prospects with the upside of Kirk Cousins, who has first round talent but lacks the consistency. Cousins is more athletic than Henne and would be too hard to pass on here for a team that was certainly not settled at the position.
16. Brandon Weeden – Oklahoma State – 135th pick overall (Kansas City) – With Cassel looking like a pretty sure mainstay in KC as the starter, the Chiefs reach out and grab a gunslinger who has shown a penchant for learning quickly. Weeden is much more mature in age than the remaining QBs on the board, and his confidence would fit nicely within the Todd Haley system.
17. Ryan Lindley – SDSU – 144th pick overall (Houston) – Considering how frequently Matt Schaub gets hurt, the Texans need to develop a reliable backup who they could foresee starting a healthy number of games if necessary, without suffering a tremendous drop off in production. Lindley has the tools, and is the highest graded QB on the board here.
18. Case Keenum – Houston – 156th pick overall (Seattle) – With Seattle knowing that it would be going in a different direction at QB in 2011 following a failed pre-lockout attempt to sign Matt Hasselbeck, it grabs the smart, accurate Keenum here late in the 5th. Keenum is a leader who could step right in and compete for the No. 2 QB role with potential to start in the future, and is an immediate upgrade to a non-existent 3rd string QB.
19. Ricky Stanzi – Iowa – 160th pick overall (Chicago) – The Bears solidify QB depth behind Jay Cutler with a smart, tough leader in Stanzi. The big-stage, high competition level experience gives Stanzi the edge over Nathan Enderle (Idaho) here.
20. Nathan Enderle – Idaho – 165th pick overall (Baltimore) – rather than grabbing Tyrod Taylor in the 6th round, the Ravens jump at the chance to grab Enderle who is a more ideal fit for their system, and the best QB left on the board.
The indication here would be that 2012’s group of QB prospects have a stronger top tier of QBs, as well as a deeper bottom tier, with 2011’s group filling up a good portion of the collaborative middle tier.
There’s not nearly the drastic drop-off in talent for 2012 that we saw after Dalton in 2011, and even 2012’s lower tier features some starting-caliber talent that we didn’t see with this year’s group.
From a scout’s perspective and speaking technically, the 2012 crop definitely has fewer red flags mechanically and fundamentally within it’s top tier, and the level of pure athleticism at the position definitely trumps this year’s class. There’s considerably more arm strength in the 2012 group as well, and at least 7 of the top 10 graded QBs on my 2012 list have consistently won at a high level against top competition. 2011’s top 10 features only 4, maybe 5 who have done so.
Film study, statistical analysis and other factors like those mentioned in the previous paragraph, lead me to project that the 2012 QB class is definitely the stronger class of the two, top-to-bottom.