Developing a quarterback has become the elephant in the room in the NFL.
There is no position in the league that teams miss on with more frequency than QB.
If you talk to 10 personnel evaluators around the NFL, you might get 10 different answers on how to develop one. But one thing is for sure, there are reasons why some teams fall below the Mendoza line when evaluating them.
One of the biggest reasons why teams continually miss on their evaluation of the quarterback position is because of the people coaching it. There simply are few who are really qualified to do it.
“You know, (Former San Francisco 49ers head) coach (Bill) Walsh told me in 1984 when I was picking up his dry cleaning that the hardest position to evaluate is the quarterback and it was even hard to coach,” former NFL executive Mike Lombardi said.
Lombardi knows that it takes a certain kind of coach to develop a player at the position.
“So I think the same holds true today. I think there are very few people that have expertise in evaluating the quarterback and even fewer that have expertise in coaching the quarterback. A lot of guys do it, but there is a unique expertise. How do the New England Patriots develop Matt Cassel when he didn’t even play at USC? I think that’s something you have to look at,” Lombardi said.
The Philadelphia Eagles are one of the few teams who have done an outstanding job year after year of developing quarterbacks.
From the start of Andy Reid’s tenure as head coach, the team has successfully developed Donovan McNabb (first-round pick — 1999), A.J. Feeley (fifth-round pick — 2001), Kevin Kolb (second-round pick — 2007) and as of late, Michael Vick (free-agent signing).
“I think there are certain things we’re looking for in quarterbacks and that comes from the head coach (Reid), comes from the offensive coordinator, our quarterbacks coach, to be successful in our offense. You want them to be smart, you want him to be athletic, you want him to be accurate, you want him to be able to get the ball out (of his hand),” Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said. “It’s hard to evaluate quarterbacks. We go back and we bring those guys to our head coach and he’s got the expertise that really brings it to another level in making the evaluation.”
Philadelphia, like some other teams do, will study how teams develop a quarterback.
“We study what everyone else is doing. If we miss on a guy, miss a quarterback, we go back and look at why we missed on this guy as opposed to guys we’ve had some success with,” Roseman explained.
For every Matt Ryan, well, there’s a Ryan Leaf or a JaMarcus Russell.
The scouting process isn’t just about watching coaching tape. Teams spend thousands of dollars on background checks on players.
The biggest bust in NFL draft history probably is, you guessed it, a quarterback — Leaf.
Leaf, who was selected No. 2 overall in the 1998 NFL draft by the San Diego Chargers, was an outstanding prospect on game tape, but he couldn’t handle the pressure of the job from Day One. However, no one knew leading up to that draft that he had no self confidence.
Because of Leaf’s failures and issues which became known as his career progressed, that has caused teams to look deeper into many players’ past.
“Well, let’s put it this way,” one personnel executive said this week about Leaf’s failure. “It made you reevaluate how you go about looking into a kid’s past, how far you’ll go.”
These days, teams will go back to elementary school to get information on a player if they have to. Some personnel sources said the Chargers didn’t go back far enough in Leaf’s past to determine what kind of character he had. Had they done so, they might have seen some of the red flags.
Like Leaf, Russell’s career has been short. Leaf’s NFL career ended after just four seasons.
Russell, the first selection overall in the 2007 NFL draft by the Oakland Raiders, was a gifted passer. So gifted, that he seemed to be the consensus No. 1 selection that year.
But, as various personnel sources said, talking to Russell made you wonder how much he loved the game.
Russell only played for the Raiders for three seasons and has not signed with a team since he was released in May of 2009.
Had the Raiders seen the warning signs during the interview process leading up to the draft, it’s possible they might have selected former Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson instead, who is known in scouting circles not just for his outstanding talent, but for his outstanding character. Johnson went No. 2 overall to the Detroit Lions and he has become one of best players at his position in the NFL.
Unfortunately, teams are allowed 15 minutes of interview time with each player during the Combine. Is that really enough time to think you feel good enough about that player?
That’s why teams bring players in to their team complex for private visits before the draft.
College Scheme vs. Playing Experience
There is no greater example of the difficulty in evaluating a quarterback than Cam Newton, who only has one year of starting experience at the Division-I level.
“Experience always helps. I don’t care if you’re in your position out there, if you’re in my position up here or if you’re a player, experience helps. The more times that you have played in big situations, in front of big crowds and in big games it helps you,” Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey said in response to FOXSports.com’s question on how to develop a quarterback who has only one year of starting experience.
While playing experience is important, Newton played in a scheme in college which really didn’t feature a pro-style offense.
“I don’t think developing the one-year guy is as big as developing the guy that has not been in a typical pro-style type of offense. I think when you’re trying to change a guy’s thought process into a certain mode that’s a little harder to me than it is to take a guy that’s a one-year guy,” Gailey explained. “A one-year guy that had been in the pro-type offense, to me he’s going to understand and be further along than the guy who was one-year in a non-traditional style pro offense. I think that’s the best way to answer it.”
More and more college teams are going to spread-offensive schemes, so teams have a hard time projecting how those quarterbacks project to play at the next level.
Arm Strength vs. Accuracy
Perhaps the two biggest physical attributes for a quarterback are arm strength and accuracy. If you have a strong arm, but not accuracy, it’s hard to be a starting quarterback at the NFL level. But if you have arm strength and accuracy, you’re looking at a franchise quarterback — see Aaron Rodgers.
But it’s not necessary to have a strong arm to be a great quarterback.
Peyton Manning and Drew Brees don’t possess what NFL personnel evaluators would call strong arms, but their accuracy is off the charts.
Manning carries a career 64.9 percent completion rate while Brees carries a career 65.2 percent rate. Anything over 62 percent is considered very strong.