Cover-2: QBs of the 2011 Draft Part II
by Doug Farrar
Since we last talked about draft-eligible quarterbacks, Stanford's Andrew Luck threw a major wrench in the works by deciding to stay in school despite the departure of head coach Jim Harbaugh. That move took the obvious top player off the draft board, threw the selection order into a tizzy, and set every other quarterback up one slot. Today, we'll look at the two quarterbacks who may benefit most from Luck's decision.
This time, in addition to my yammering, we have two actual draft experts ready to chime in on the prospects -- Rob Rang and Chad Reuter from NFLDraftScout.com -- plus our very own Missouri expert, Bill Connelly.
Once again, Lewin Career Forecast numbers (career starts and completion percentage) are listed for those curious, but this analysis is based on scouting, not stats.
Arkansas Quarterback Ryan Mallett
(Career: 29 starts, 57.8 completion percentage)
One of the many aftereffects of the Rich Rodriguez hire at Michigan was that quarterback Ryan Mallett decided to transfer and sit out a year rather than play in whatever sort of speed option attack RichRod was bringing to the team. When he finally started for Bobby Petrino at Arkansas in 2009, it was a perfect match -- Mallett obliterated several school passing records, leading the SEC in passing yards and touchdowns. He kept the stats up in 2010, increasing his interception total from seven to 12, but also moving his completion percentage from 55.8 to 64.7 and slightly increasing his yards per attempt.
However, when moving from stats to game tape, the view isn't so conclusive. Mallett's two primary NFL measurables -- his 6-foot-6 frame and cannon arm -- must be seen as positives in a bigger picture. Several factors are working against him, and he'll have to overcome them through the pre-draft analysis process if he is to keep a pole position in a fairly stacked draft class of quarterbacks now without a sure-fire leader.
Andrew Luck's decision to stay in school may have moved everyone else up a peg, but Mallett's perceived deficits -- his clumsiness on the move, his struggles to throw short and intermediate passes consistently, and his reported personality issues -- will bite him either way unless he ocercomes them quickly. Add in the fact that other Petrino prospects like Brian Brohm washed out at the NFL level, and you've got a very large quarterback with a great number of questions surrounding him.
I had watched Mallett several times in the last two seasons before finally putting the microscope on his Sugar Bowl performance against Ohio State. The Buckeyes ranked third this season in pass defense S&P. Actually, they ranked behind only behind Boise State and TCU, so if you're on the Gordon Gee side of things, Mallett was going up against the best "real" pass defense in the nation. Ohio State's defense was also second-best in S&P in passing downs (defined as second down with eight or more yards to go, or third down with five or more yards to go).
Mallet's first throw in the Sugar Bowl was an unfortunate portent of things to come -- out of play action, he fired the ball a bit high but catchable downfield to Joe Adams, who didn't get the jump on the ball he needed to bring in the catch. On second down, he took a shotgun snap out of five-wide and moved up in the pocket around pressure better than I expected. Mallett threw a quick ball to Julian Horton out of a quick in route out of motion ... and Horton dropped a catchable ball. Mallett's throws arrive in a hurry, but that excuse would only fly in a scouting combine situation; his own receivers should be used to the heat. On third down, he took the ball in a three-wide shotgun and appeared to whiff on catching the pressure coming out of Ohio State's 3-4 front with moving linebackers. He threw a wormburner to D.J. Williams to end the series.
After Ohio State scored its first touchdown, the Razorbacks went with three straight running plays to get some semblance of drive consistency going. Mallett's first complete pass came with about 10 minutes left in the first quarter. He hit Williams wide open with a clean pocket for what seemed like a touchdown, until the refs came up with the "wrist down" rule they may have wanted to save for the BCS Championship. Another setback, and Mallett just shook it off. On the next play, he threw a nice little rainbow fade to Adams for a 17-yard score.
In a general on-field sense, my impressions of Mallett didn't change much based on his Sugar Bowl performance. I think he will struggle, and mightily at first, against the NFL's more advanced coverage concepts. He's good at beating coverage if he's not pressured, and he can move a bit in the pocket and make a play if the route is simple, but what I don't see from Mallett is the ability to evade pressure and fire throws consistently into coverage. He wasn't a spread quarterback at Arkansas per se, but he padded his career stats with as many wide-open flat routes as anyone at Hawaii or Texas Tech.
I do not see the pro-style ability to make repeatable stick throws in a hurry. That probably sounds weird when we're talking about a strong-armed quarterback, but that's the difference between the first and second string. Two people with the same tools, but the expert knows how to use his under duress just as well has he does when pressure is minimal. The amateur struggles when asked to perform more trying situations. When I watched Mallet, I kept thinking of Aaron Rodgers, and his ability to perform even better under serious pressure. That's why he had the league's highest DVOA when hurried last year, and though I haven't seen the charting stats this year just yet, I imagine Rodgers will be right up there again in 2010. Your Derek Andersons and Joe Flaccos -- and that's where I'd put Mallett's medium-to-upside -- not so much.
What did come out of the Sugar Bowl, and what I think might save Mallett's professional prospects if he can get the gawkier aspects of his mechanics under control, is how he handled adversity from a mental perspective.
After all the drops in this game, my first thought was that it would be unfair to rate Mallett's performance in that context. But given his reputation as a guy whose mercurial personality might keep him from success at the NFL level, it was actually more important in his case to see how he would recover. Did he press? Did he get all pouty, throwing his receivers under the bus with (ugh) "body language"? Did his mechanics fall into further disarray?
In that regard, I was very impressed by Mallett's ability to stay within himself and keep the game going. He kept the offensive concepts going, he didn't let his mechanics fall apart, and he didn't isolate or exclude this or that receiver based on frustration. These things will earn the respect of coaches and teammates in the NFL, especially if he goes to a bad team where he's dealing with receivers who react to his passes with stone hands and demand the damn ball on the next play (Yes, I'm talking about you, Bengals). There's still a disconnect between the arm and the total quarterback when it comes to Ryan Mallett, but I walked away from that evaluation more impressed with his intangibles than I ever expected.
I like Rang's Drew Bledsoe comparison and wonder, as Rang does, if that type of quarterback can survive in today's NFL. Were I in charge of an NFL draft board, I'd probably rate Mallett last on my list of obvious first-rounders, but I'm not overly impressed by big arms in an isolated sense. But the professionals I know think Mallett has an excellent chance of being drafted too highly. To me, he's even more polarizing than Jake Locker. Mallett could be the next Joe Flacco, or the next Dan McGwire, and I wouldn't be surprised either way.
Rob Rang: Mallett may possess the strongest arm of any quarterback in college football. He possesses a surprisingly fluid release considering his long limbs. To his credit, he has shown significant improvement in his footwork over his career, though this remains a concern. Mallett loses considerable accuracy when forced to move his feet. Perhaps his greatest strides have come with improved poise, as he's been much better in 2010 at keeping his eyes downfield even as the pocket collapses around him.
Mallett may be able to transition to a pro-style offense after starring in Bobby Petrino's shotgun attack at Arkansas. Of concern is the fact that Mallett possesses good, but certainly not elite downfield accuracy. Receivers too often have to adjust to his passes -- a fact that is hidden somewhat in Petrino's wide open offense but may be exposed in an pro-style scheme. Some scouts have also questioned whether Mallett has the leadership to run an NFL huddle. Optimists believe that Mallett's big arm and competitive spirit can make him the next Drew Bledsoe, a true dropback, cement-footed passer. Pessimists wonder if the game hasn't changed so much since Bledsoe starred with the Patriots think that Mallett winds up closer to Derek Anderson.
Missouri Quarterback Blaine Gabbert
(26 starts, 60.9 completion percentage)
It's possible that no player in this draft class will benefit more from Luck's decision than Gabbert, who started to hit the radar when he declared for the NFL draft despite a series of performances down the stretch that seemed to scream, "Stay in school, kid!" In his last five regular-season games, Gabbert completed 53 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and four picks. He played better in the Insight Bowl against Iowa, throwing 57 times and completing 41 passes for 434 yards and a touchdown, but the two picks (Bill describes one of them very well in his evaluation) continued the watchwords.
His game against Iowa was full of the kinds of throws into patterns and route groupings you'd expect -- a lot of quick-timed integrated short stuff designed for after-catch fun (and the first five-receiver bunch I've ever seen -- what do we call it when it's one more than a diamond formation?). But two throws on Missouri's first drive stood out to me, and had me adding Gabbert's name to the top level of quarterbacks in this class. With third-and-19 from the 50-yard line, Gabbert took the ball in an empty-backfield, 3-on-2 receiver set, stood up with pressure in the pocket, and fired a great throw 26 yards downfield to Jerrell Jackson for the first down. On the next play, Gabbert threw a 19-yard sideline shot to Jackson with a defender closing in. The question I had about Mallett -- the ability to consistently throw into tight windows under pressure -- doesn't come up with Gabbert. It's clearly one of his best attributes, though his offense doesn't always set up for it.
As much as I wonder how Mallett will do without the schematic advantages presented by the Arkansas offense, I'm not similarly concerned about Gabbert. Putting an immediate ding on a guy because he played in a shotgun offense makes less sense these days when the number of shotgun snaps in the NFL has tripled in the last decade. For example, if the Lions were to draft Gabbert to backup Matthew Stafford, he would be going to an offense than ran shotgun on 64.4 percent of its total plays. He has many of the attributes that must be in place for a successful transition -- he appears comfortable in three, five, and seven-step drops (he has a nice bounce on his final drop step that seems to propel him forward and give a good set position), he's aware of pressure but doesn't crumble when it's around him, he's a functional passer on the run, and he has the size needed to take the hits any mobile quarterback will take in the NFL.
The fact that Gabbert's going to have to get under-center mechanics down doesn't really worry me. Gabbert's center had enough Mike Pouncey Shotgun Moments in this game to get me on board with the idea that whatever happens in that backfield, Gabbert has that rare ability to be in control and command. We're back to intangibles here, and I'm very aware (especially when writing for the FO readership) that many people use the intangibles term when they're simply faced with something they can't accurately describe. But when it comes to quarterbacks, we know that the things you can't see might be more important than at any other position.
With Gabbert, the positive reports I had heard from others were confirmed. The numbers he put up near the end of his college career give me pause, but I wonder if we aren't dealing with a Matt Ryan situation in which the numbers in his last collegiate season don't really tell the whole story. I don't think he's a high first-round talent based on skill set, but he might be the best of an iffy bunch.
Chad Reuter: Gabbert was one of the top quarterback recruits in the nation, yet chose to stay near home to run Missouri's spread offense after the departure of Chase Daniel. The Tigers' offense has shown the positives of Gabbert's game: a live arm that he uses to spray the ball between and outside the hashes, solid full-field accuracy that is not Bradford- or Luck-like but certainly stands up next to any other quarterback in this class, a very quick release from the pocket or on the run, and the athleticism and toughness to eat up yardage on the ground if defenses choose to sell out in their pass rush.
Some scouts would argue, however, that the offense has also limited his progress. His focus is almost entirely on one primary target, or at times, one side of the field. This has prevented him from learning what to do when pressure comes and how to go through progressions before running or throwing the ball away. Of course, he'll also need to work on his drops and reads coming out from under center.
However, there are few quarterbacks running the traditional pro-style system in college football. And frankly, teams like the Patriots use the shotgun formation on 50 to 60 percent of their offensive plays and continue to spread defenses horizontally and vertically. Scouts can easily project Gabbert as a first-round talent and potential long-time starter with next-level coaching, based on his physical traits and mental fortitude.
Bill Connelly: Most of his attributes are pretty obvious. He's built like an NFL quarterback, he has the arm of an NFL quarterback, and he has a high football IQ. He puts in the work, doesn't come with any of the prima donna tendencies you sometimes expect from a five-star recruit (look past the long hair -- it's as prim donna as he gets), and he is a tough competitor. He was more than happy to throw less and hand the ball off more in November when it became clear that Missouri's defense could win games on its own. After the regular season was over, he declared that he had 10 perfect games and two terrible ones ... because Mizzou went 10-2. No matter his injuries, you have to tie him down to keep him off the field. He has all the tangible qualities you would want from a big-time quarterback -- and quite a few of the intangibles as well.
Almost all of his cons come in one department: instincts. Missouri fans used to Chase Daniel and his incredible feel for the pocket were a little thrown when Gabbert lacked that same feel. He leaves the pocket too early sometimes and, when doing so, he often flees right into the path of a defensive end who was being blocked perfectly by a tackle. He doesn't suffer from the "I can make that throw" stubbornness that has afflicted many cannon-armed quarterbacks, but there is no question that he suffers the occasional lapse in judgment. Case in point: the pick-six he threw in the fourth quarter against Iowa. After three-and-a-half quarters of near perfect accuracy and decision-making, he rolled to his left and decided to lob a pass to a receiver who was blocking and expecting him to run. The pass was picked and eventually returned for the touchdown that decided the game. Gabbert was injured in high school and served as Daniel's understudy as a freshman, so he just hasn't quite had the reps that some of the other top quarterbacks have amassed by this point. In the right situation, with a good quarterbacks coach and some patience, he could put together a very strong pro career after a year or two of a learning curve.