What do you call a fifth-round rookie WR with real expectations? Tajae Sharpe, and there may not be another player like him in NFL history. Tennessee's poor history of developing wideouts has led to a rare opportunity that Sharpe can seize this season.
05 Jan 2011
by Doug Farrar
Instead of the usual playoff previews and NFL wrap-ups, I thought Cover-2 from now through April might serve as an attempt to create a scouting library of the top draft prospects. We'll start with the quarterbacks -- two today and two more (Ryan Mallett and Blaine Gabbert) later this week. And after we go position-by-position on the marquee guys, we'll dig deeper to analyze some unsung talent.
Since I'm not a draft expert by any stretch of the imagination, I brought along a friend for this one: Rob Rang, senior draft analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, whom I've known for the better part of a decade. I trust Rob's analysis on this subject as much I trust anyone's, and he's been kind enough to add his elevated take to my ruminations.
Also, we're including starts and completion percentage for each quarterback, for those interested in the Lewin Career Forecast. This isn't really a stat analysis piece, but the numbers are there to satisfy curiosity.
When talking about Andrew Luck, it's difficult to stay out of the realm of hyperbole. You're about to read Rang compare Luck to a player I never imagined I'd hear in the same breath as a redshirt sophomore. Trent Dilfer believes Luck to be the best quarterback prospect he's seen since John Elway -- not the best Stanford prospect since Elway, but the best overall since the great number 7.
Elway, who's now in charge of the Denver Broncos and would hold the chip with Luck's name on it should the Carolina Panthers pass with the first overall pick, recently gave his own assessment on his weekly radio show in Denver. "I'll tell you this," he said, "I think Andrew Luck is the best football player in the draft, without a doubt. If that were to happen, then you're going have to have some very serious conversations of exactly which direction you want to go, whether it's with Tim (Tebow) or take a guy like Andrew Luck. To me, barring injury, he's going to be very successful in the NFL."
And then there was the take of Jim Harbaugh, the former NFL quarterback and Luck's college coach: "Andrew is the real deal," Harbaugh told the Associated Press on Sunday. "He is the best player I've ever been around, and he's even a finer young man. There's nothing about him where I say I wish he could do this, or I wish he didn't do this. He is just like my wife: He is perfect. You wouldn't change a thing about him."
Like his Pac-10 counterpart Locker, Luck faced a Top 10 S&P+ pass defense in his postseason game when Stanford took on Virginia Tech eighth-ranked squad in the Orange Bowl. Unlike Locker, Luck put the defense he faced through the shredder.
It didn't start that way, though -- the Cardinal went four-and-out and three-and-out on their first two drives, and Luck showed less accuracy on the run that I would like to see. Rolling right on a three-linebacker blitz at the end of the second drive, Luck had an engraved invitation to hit his intermediate receiver in stride and threw a gopherball instead. However, when forced to roll left earlier in the drive, Luck tucked the ball in and ran instead. He's not going to force a lot of throws, though his future NFL quarterbacks coach will most likely ask him to find a balance that doesn't include running upright into defenders.
And for a big-armed guy, he doesn't have any trouble timing screens and swing passes -- that will put him ahead of the game at the next level. The safety near the end of the first quarter was a fluke play; the ball Luck was trying to throw away was deflected by a defender and flew back into the hands of a Stanford lineman (Side question for Ben Muth: You ever run a tackle eligible?) in his own end zone. But the play showed that Luck will use his physicality to extend passing windows beyond the point of defensive pressure.
On the second-quarter drive that produced Stanford's first passing touchdown of the day, Luck impressed me with his ability to take quick drops and fire short passes accurately into very tight windows. The more I watch him play, the more I feel that he will not be overwhelmed by the speed of the NFL. He'll have to adjust him timing on a few things, and the complexity of NFL coverages will throw him for a while, but Luck is comfortable on the field. You get the sense, that as much as anyone, he was born to do this.
The first touchdown was to tight end Zach Ertz on a post pattern of about 18 yards. Luck blazed the ball right to Ertz above the defender, proving his ability to make the longer stick throws crucial to NFL success. The second touchdown was to a wide open Coby Fleener downfield, but the throw did show Luck's ability to sell play action and throw deeper with touch and timing. No issues there. Touchdown No. 3, again to Fleener, was an up-and-out that had Luck again throwing deep with enviable touch.
The fourth and final passing score was another long pass to a wide-open Fleener -- a perfect combination of a two-back, three-tight end set formation lulling a defense into man under, and Luck's play action knocking that defense out. Again, great touch and accuracy downfield, though two of his four touchdowns were about as complicated as pre-game warm-ups due to coverage lapses.
Luck's touch with the long pass is where the Matt Ryan comparisons begin, though the similarities don't really line up for me. I think he could be that Manning type of player that Rang sees. Right now, he reminds me a lot of Rich Gannon -- a tough, mobile player who can do things in the pocket and wills things out of an offense that other quarterbacks may not.
It's very clear that Luck possesses the skills most important to quarterback success at the NFL level. He's comfortable in the pocket and in motion, he runs well while still keeping his eyes on his targets, he has the right kind of compact motion that won't require much tinkering, and he can clearly make all the throws he'll need to make.
But that's what the game tape tells. What has me looking forward to this NFL Combine more than any other I've attended is the buzz around Luck -- what he says and what others say about him. Once in a while, you get a player whose measurables and intangibles meet in perfect harmony. Luck's starting to look like that guy.
Rob Rang: Andrew Luck has remarkably advanced technique for a redshirt sophomore. When dropping back, he shows good balance and fluidity, keeping his eyes downfield and quickly identifying the defense. He quickly scans the field and rarely forces the ball into coverage. Luck has an efficient over-the-top release, yet shows the ability to change his throwing slot, as needed. He possesses a strong arm, though it is not a rocket. Besides his ability to quickly decipher coverages, Luck's best attribute is his rare accuracy.
Where most quarterback prospects are content to hit their receivers in stride, Luck shows the remarkable ability to lead his receivers to the opening -- pushing wideouts upfield, turning them around when the safety is closing, placing the ball low or high so that his target has the best chance to make the reception. Like most passers, Luck's accuracy suffers when he's on the move, but he's shown the ability to square his shoulders and fire accurately while on the run. There is only one quarterback I've scouted with Luck's combination of intelligence, accuracy and size -- the previously incomparable Peyton Manning.
Right now, Jake Locker is a beautiful mess. He's got as many raw tools as any draft prospect quarterback I've seen, but the in-game skills -- the arm, accuracy, and consistency -- are still underdeveloped. It's a bad place to be for a fifth-year senior, especially one who took a pass on the 2009 Draft, in which he would have been picked in the top five. Instead, he returned to Montlake to finish a commitment he made to head coach Steve Sarkisian, who took over for the historically inept Tyrone Willingham. It wasn't until Willingham finished out his 2008 season as the lame-duck face of an 0-12 team and Sarkisian was brought on board that Locker had a chance to do two things -- get an education in a pro-style offense, and win.
He's done the second thing first, helping (more than leading) the Huskies to a Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska that stands as the pinnacle of a very impressive program turnaround. The move from a hybrid spread offense that had him using his wheels far more often to the birth of a pocket passer who could take off has taken more time. When Locker faced the Cornhuskers for the first time this season on September 18, he completed four passes in 20 attempts for 71 yards, a touchdown and two picks. Nebraska beat up on Washington, 56-21, and questions about Locker's pro-readiness continued.
Even in the rematch, he really didn't answer those questions. Against Nebraska's shutdown secondary (fifth in the nation in S&P+ pass defense), he was boxed in by a game plan that had his receivers giving away outside position on sideline routes, as opposed to the comebacks and crossing patterns that may have given the offense a better chance. (Then again, I'm still not convinced that Washington receiver Jermaine Kearse can beat press coverage.) As a result, he had to make some throws that, even if they were right on target, were going to be risky. And there were times when, even on short passes, his receivers were locked in zones and areas, and he had to throw the ball away. Locker also shook off a helmet-to-helmet hit from safety Austin Cassidy in the second quarter that, in Locker's words, looked worse than it was.
In the Holiday Bowl, Locker didn't complete a pass until early in the third quarter, when he got one off to D'Andre Goodwin for 26 yards out of an I-formation variant of the Pistol. Goodwin ran an out from the slot, finally got separation, and Locker's throw was right on target. One thing that saves Locker as a pro prospect is that his delivery and release are both basically pro-ready. He doesn't wind up, and he can get the ball out quickly. The back-door fade to Kearse in this year's Apple Cup showed what Locker can do as a pure passer.
The next play was a play action keeper in which Locker picked up a 25-yard touchdown run by pinballing through several Nebraska defenders. Here's where you see the combination of size and athleticism that once had Willingham wondering if Locker should be a safety instead (seriously -- never let this man coach again). The maturation that was expected to happen under Sarkisian never really did.
And as Rang writes below, that's what makes analyzing Locker's NFL prospects so frustrating. He's almost the inverse of the Colt Brennans, Graham Harrells and Timmy Changs of the world; the guys who put up stupid numbers in offenses designed for passing production with little thought to the next level. Running through the acid bath of the Willingham era, stuck with undraftable offensive teammates for the most part, and ultimately a victim of his own regression as a passer, Locker presents an NFL prospect in fits and starts. What Locker does have, and what I believe will have him zooming up the boards from the Senior Bowl to draft weekend, is -- and we're back to this again -- the stuff you can't see.
Generally speaking, it's tough to get me buying into the intangibles argument at the expense of more obvious measurables. I understand their importance, and I'm a big believer in those things, especially at the quarterback position (Exhibit A: Manning vs. Leaf), but it's always good to be watchful for those who use intangibles to forward flismier arguments.
Seahawks safety Lawyer Milloy is not one of those people. In the interviews with Milloy that I've heard or conducted, I don't think he's ever talked another player to (and certainly never above) his actual skills. It's not denigration, but more the byproduct of the high standards that Milloy holds for himself. So, after the Holiday Bowl win, I figured I'd get the unvarnished truth, UW alum or not.
"I wish him the best," Milloy told me. "Obviously, he's going to have to fine-tune some things, especially in the passing category. But as far as leadership and athletic ability, he has everything it takes to be a successful NFL player for a lot of years. I definitely see all the intangibles there. Defenses are a lot more complicated (at the NFL level), and this offseason will be crucial for him, but that's one thing about him being under Sark (coach Sarkisian). Sark was tutored by Pete Carroll, and just the things he's done for the program, I know Jake's going to get the best preparation possible leading into the draft, and hopefully, he gets into the right situation."
I think that's the key for Locker. Had he come out as the first overall pick last year (and I don't think that would have happened -- the Rams would have taken Sam Bradford either way), it would have been an unmitigated disaster. He's nowhere near the scheme-transcendent quarterback Bradford was. If Mike Shanahan had taken him with the fourth overall pick, with everything that's gone on this year in that Redskins disaster, Locker would probably be in the fetal position by now.
If he gets with a team good enough and with depth at the quarterback to groom him as the project player he is (or present him in a limited Tebow-style package), there may be something special on the other side. What intrigues about Locker, and what makes that development idea worth the gamble, is the occasional glimpse into the future.
Someone's just going to have to take a multi-million-dollar shot on the fact that the other assets will arrive over time. Right now, that's all we've got.
Rob Rang: Jake Locker is the most frustrating quarterback prospect I've scouted in more than 10 years in the profession. Physically, he has the skills to warrant a Top 10 selection. Locker is experienced in the pro-style offense, demonstrating the quick feet and balance necessary in dropping back from center. He has a over-the-top release and a very strong arm. Locker's accuracy is maddeningly inconsistent, however. He's developed some bad habits running for cover behind a porous Washington offensive line, panicking when his first reads are covered and throwing off his back foot. Surprisingly for a four-year starter, Locker doesn't read defenses as well as scouts would like, too often putting the ball up for grabs.
For all of his faults, however, Locker has made some of his most impressive throws in critical situations, coming through with clutch passes in upsets over USC, Cal, and most recently against Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. Throws like those have forced scouts to wonder how successful he might be if surrounded by more talent. Of course, Locker's most impressive physical attributes are his speed and power as a runner. Besides his rare running ability, Locker's toughness and leadership are the kind NFL decision-makers fall in love with during interviews. He reminds me of Donovan McNabb.
80 comments, Last at 20 Jan 2011, 12:12pm by Misfit74