By Matt Waldman
Due diligence is a vital part of player evaluation. Victor Cruz, Tony Romo, Joe Horn, and Priest Holmes were the beneficiaries of this phrase as applied to scouting. While the transformation from relative anonymity to stardom is sexy reading, there are far more examples of due diligence yielding valuable role players who excel as special teamers, reliable reserves, or heady backups in hard-to-fill positions.
Ask around, and the 250-word blurb/500-word "feature" Internet perspective on quarterback prospects in this year's draft is that beyond Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, and a vocal niche admiration for Brett Hundley, the class is a collective dud. It's group-think like this that can make suckers out of us all.
Romo, a star at Division I-AA Eastern Illinois in 2003, was an undrafted free agent among a class that had four first-round picks at the position and six before the fourth round. Although top overall pick Carson Palmer often performed to expectation early on, the rest of the 2003 class was a disappointment, typical of most rookie quarterback crops.
Byron Leftwich, the seventh overall pick, had the grit, the arm strength, and the smarts. He also had the windup of a jack-in-the-box with a sticky tripwire. The methodical bludgeoning of his game transformed him from starter with promise to career backup. During the waning seconds of a close fourth-quarter loss for Jacksonville, fans could sing Pop Goes the Weasel as a cue for the edge rusher's hit, Leftwich's sickly contortion, and the ball squirting loose to end the game.
Kyle Boller, the 19th overall pick, could throw a ball through the goal post from midfield on one knee. I can put my palms together in what looks like a gesture of prayer, wiggle them, and make a farting noise. Neither one translates to good quarterback play.
Then there's Rex Grossman -- yes, Grossman was the 22nd pick overall in 2003 -- who, technically speaking, piloted the Bears to the Super Bowl. But like Tom Cruise before Tom Skerritt straightened out his on-screen daddy issues in Top Gun (is there a movie where Cruise doesn't have daddy issues?), Grossman never saw a crazy risk he wouldn't take.
Third-round pick Dave Ragone was the NFL's Offensive MVP as the starting quarterback of the Berlin Thunder. (I failed to qualify it was NFL Europe, didn't I?) So it goes.
Jon Gruden's third-rounder Chris Simms tried to leave his spleen on the field, which is never a good idea. Of course, many a Gruden-led quarterback has fantasized about getting Chucky Dave Chappelle's Wrap It Up Box for his verbose terminology. I suppose handing over a freshly hewn internal organ might have done the trick.
Brady and Romo illustrate the benefits of due diligence. The fact that they earned roles as backups was a coup -- what came later has been a success beyond wildest expectation.
CSU-Pueblo quarterback Chris Bonner deserves similar due diligence. The box score scouts and major program label whores will be underwhelmed, but the physical skills, conceptual feel for the pocket, and bad results-good process that I've seen on tape make Bonner one of the better senior passers that few are talking about.
Managing Interior Pressure
Many of the best NFL quarterbacks have difficulty with interior pressure. So when I see a collegiate passer display consistent skill at avoiding defenders up the gut, resetting his feet as if nothing happened, and delivering the ball with accuracy, he earns a second -- and third -- look. Bonner's display against West Georgia won't convince the label whores, but those are the people who would have dismissed Romo at Eastern Ililnois and that Warner kid from Northern Iowa.
The first example is a third-and-long in the first quarter versus a nickel look and corners giving 7 to 10 yards to the receivers. Bonner begins with a five-step drop. Interior pressure working outside the guard reaches the pocket as the quarterback reaches his final step.
Watch how Bonner reduces his shoulder, climbs the pocket, and steps into his throw.
The ball has good zip, thanks to Bonner's follow-through, which features an efficient delivery over the shoulder and ends with the back leg coming around to generate power. Although the targeted receiver was his sole read, Bonner displays patience and skill to buy time so he can afford to wait for the break downfield.
This isn't the only positive display against interior pressure. Bonner faces another third-and-long against nickel where he encounters pressure at an even earlier point than the previous play -- after a three-step drop.
Bonner slides from the pressure and resets his feet to deliver the ball. Unfortunately this one necessary step is the difference between the pressure reaching Bonner and the quarterback delivering the ball without getting hit from behind. The contact alters Bonner's pass and forces a near-interception.
This is where context is so important in scouting. It would be easy to look at data results and chart this play as "hit while throwing" or "dropped interception," when Bonner delivered the pass in less than three seconds and avoided interior pressure. The final result was bad, but the process was mostly good.
The final step to reset his feet to throw the ball cost Bonner that split second, but he wouldn't have been able to make the throw otherwise. What's most important about this play to me is that his effort to manage interior pressure is something that he replicates as a common behavior with his game, not just a one-play phenomenon.
During the same half of football, Bonner climbs from pressure between right guard and right tackle after a five-step drop on third down.
What's particularly impressive with Bonner's movement here is how he adjusts his 6-foot-7 body into a tight space after avoiding the initial pressure. Although the linebacker deflects the target, Bonner displays poise within tight spaces. This is rare even among a majority of NFL starters.
Bonner's tall frame and over-the-top release are positives for draft technophiles, but they'll only translate as such if the quarterback can develop more touch on his passes. Too many of his passes are line drives where something off-speed with a little more arc would be better.
This kind of repertoire is vital for the red zone. Bonner overshoots a third-and-goal in the first quarter off a three-step drop that he delivers from the 11.
Bonner does a fine job of stepping through the throw, but for a pass where he's looking at the receiver all the way, he needs to drop this ball into the receiver.
Here's a five-step drop with play action from the I-formation. Bonner also lacks the trajectory to transform this 33-yard gain on a 49-yard throw into a long touchdown.
It's impressive that Bonner turns his back to the defense during the play fake and then resets his feet as well as he does when reorienting to the line of scrimmage. However, just as a bad result can have a good process, a bad process can have a good result. Bonner's pass travels 49 yards in the air, but the trajectory requires full extension from the receiver to make the catch rather than allowing him to make the reception in stride.
Most teams would be satisfied with a vertical passer who hits his target even if he cannot give his target a chance to continue running, but it still isn't optimal. It's also a pattern of his game at every range of the field.
Here's a short throw to the fullback in the third quarter. Bonner executes a partial bootleg off play action and fires the ball too high for the receiver on this second-and-short late in the third quarter.
It would be convenient to say that Bonner's height is part of the problem. But is an inch from Joe Flacco's height -- if he's truly 6-7 -- really the issue? Ryan Mallett is another tall quarterback with a rocket arm, but one of his strengths is dropping the ball into the bucket with touch.
If Bonner wants a shot in the NFL, he'll have to become a consistent producer. While managing interior pressure is a rare big-ticket item, touch and trajectory are everyday tools that he must wield with minor hiccups, at best.
The Quick-Power Game
Bonner can do good work immediately in plays with quick sets off misdirection that require high-velocity throws. Matt Ryan lacks a rocket arm, but he's excellent at hitting the backside slant and skinny post off short play-action drops.
Bonner displays similar potential, but with more arm strength. This 13 personel set with a receiver single right at the top of the second half is a good example.
Note the quick turn and setting of position off the play-action extension of the ball. This type of reset allows Bonner to hit the backside receiver up the seam like I have seen Ryan do with Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Harry Douglas with regularity for the past three seasons.
This third-and-long pass late in the first half requires a quick turn towards the runner to imply the play fake and a quicker reset to deliver the slant.
Bonner executes both well, putting the ball on-target in a tight window, but the receiver drops the football.
Aggression with Room to Refine
I'm often asked, What is the most important skill that a quarterback needs to succeed in the NFL?. This is almost an impossible question to answer. Quarterback is among the toughest positions in sport because it comes with a long list of skills an athlete must perform with competence, if not excellence, to achieve lasting success. Distilling what makes a good quarterback down to one quality runs counter to what makes the position so demanding.
Of course, I'll continue to get this question as long as I'm writing about football. We're all seeking the magic elixir of knowledge in one area or another. When it comes to quarterbacking, the most important skill isn't really a skill as much as it is a state of mind: a healthy sense of aggression.
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Presuming the quarterback has the physical skills and smarts to execute the demands of the position, the one thing that separates the best from the rest or turns a promising option into a dud is how healthy his sense of aggression is as a passer.
Russell Wilson had the worst 55 minutes or so of his pro career two weeks ago, but that didn't dissuade his aggressive mindset from attacking when the opportunity was there. Talk about randomness, luck, and tick marks on spreadsheets all you want, but you're hiding from a major element of football (and life) if you deny the emotion of the game (and life) and how it manifests in decision-making. Seattle remained aggressive throughout the game. Green Bay was too cautious. Some teams play to win. Others demonstrate strategies that are more akin to playing not to lose.
Bonner plays to win. It doesn't always work out, but his aggression is on full display in a game where the box score (10-7) looks like a conservative contest.
This third-and-long deep post over West Georgia defenders is a good example. It's a play where Bonner has to make the decision to go deep off a three-step drop or risk a late throw that will give his opponents time to recover.
Although the cornerback cuts off the inside lane of the receiver at the 4-yard line, the ball still arrives over the top and could have been caught in the end zone. Bonner executes this play after reducing his shoulder from interior pressure and climbing the pocket, which only adds to the urgency that Bonner displays. He knows he has this opportunit,y and the only way he'll exploit it is with an aggressive mindset. It doesn't work out, but he gives his receiver a chance to make it happen when many quarterbacks would hesitate and miss.
One of the downfalls of Bonner's aggressive nature is that he'll lock onto a player too early. This three-step drop under pressure yields an accurate throw into a tight window.
Bonner reduces the shoulder, climbs the pocket, and steps through the throw to hit the crossing route 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. What's worth noting is that Bonner had a wide-open receiver at the right flat near the numbers. This receiver also had better position to earn yardage after the catch. While the rhythm of the play was fast, Bonner had time to see this second read and act on it. Big-armed quarterbacks often display this mentality, and it's a habit Bonner must break.
This third-and-short in the fourth quarter from the opponents' 24 is another display of staring down a receiver with overconfidence in the arm.
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This week's analysis isn't here to convince you that Bonner is a vastly underrated prospect who should earn draft day consideration on the same level as Winston, Mariota, or Hundley. Bonner has some of the tools to develop into a much better player than his current stock suggests, which makes him worth getting to know as a late-round project who will have to prove to a team that he has the work ethic and quick processor to develop fast. It's a bigger "if" than the top guys, but big arms combined with size, aggression, and pocket presence require due diligence.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for download now. The guide covers 164 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you're a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 -- 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece. Take a video tour of the RSP.