The time is upon us. It is one month until the 2013 NFL draft. As is always the case, there is only one position that generates unbounded passion and emotion: quarterback. Perhaps that is even more indisputable this year given the lack of that one, or two special talents like Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III. With the field more wide open, as it were, the debate only intensifies as to who is the best NFL prospect among a larger group. For some, only one or two quarterbacks are part of that conversation; for others, that discussion must include six or seven.
Pro days only magnify the process, and amplify the fervor. Geno Smith completes 60 of 64 passes at his session, and you would have thought by the extensive coverage that he had just won the Super Bowl. Landry Jones completed 66 of 70 at his pro day (one day before Smith’s), and you wouldn’t even have known that it happened. It’s a fascinating dynamic. Somehow watching quarterbacks throw in T-shirts and shorts to receivers they know well in a controlled environment with carefully scripted passes is seen as a meaningful measurement of future NFL success. One value of a pro day, as far as I’m concerned, is to observe a quarterback throw live, to see how the ball naturally comes out of his hand. That’s significant, because in the NFL, contrary to what many might tell you, arm strength matters.
Yet, there’s more to it than that. Snapping off throws with comfortable drops into the pocket and no pass rush pressure is not the same as delivering strikes in a muddied pocket with bodies around you in the cauldron of a collapsing pocket. If you are primarily a pocket passer, you must be able to do that in the NFL, or you will not be able to play at a high level consistently. Make no mistake, whatever offense you run in the NFL, even if it features a high percentage of shotgun and multiple receivers, you still will face critical game circumstances in which you must stand and deliver. That’s the reality.
Therefore, it’s singularly important to evaluate college quarterbacks based on what they will have to accomplish on Sundays, not solely on what they achieved on Saturdays. I remember evaluating eight or nine games of Blaine Gabbert coming out of Missouri a few years ago. He had a strong arm, could make any throw. He ran a true shotgun spread, with a high percentage of 1 step drop passes that diminished the likelihood of any pressure. There was only a small sample of deeper drop throws in which the pass rush was a factor. I studied those very carefully. Those would be litmus test examples of what he’d have to do in the NFL. Gabbert was very poor in those situations; his footwork broke down, he fell away from his throws, he simply could not function effectively. That was an immediate red flag as I transitioned him to the NFL. Unfortunately, it’s only been exacerbated in Jacksonville, and it will likely prevent him from being a quality starter.
Let’s advance the discussion to Geno Smith, now being talked about as a top 10 selection in the draft. There was much to like in the 500+ plays I scrutinized, and also some issues that need to be cleaned up. There’s no question Smith has an NFL arm; it’s not a gun but it’s strong enough to make every throw. Remember, though, he predominantly ran a shotgun spread offense at West Virginia. Why is that important to mention? Because spread passing offenses, in the college game with the wider hash marks, provide a large number of easy throws that inflate completion percentage. That’s not Smith’s fault -- it just means that any dialogue about Smith that begins with statistics is not relevant to any meaningful evaluation.
Keeping in mind that no quarterback enters the NFL a finished product, I found Smith to be a work in progress. He showed positive attributes that project well. I particularly liked his willingness to pull the trigger on tight window throws at the intermediate levels. That’s a necessary trait to be a top NFL QB. Just look at Andrew Luck in his rookie season. Luck never showed hesitation or uncertainty; he let it loose. You have to play that way in the NFL.
In addition, I saw the kind of pocket movement that’s absolutely essential for a pocket quarterback. Smith was able to avoid pressure, move within an area that approximates the size of a boxing ring, maintain his downfield focus, and then re-set and deliver. That’s another trait that is a precursor to success in the NFL. He also showed the ability to execute boot action and make accurate throws on the move, both to his right and to his left, a much more difficult throw. As a corollary, Smith showed functional mobility. He can make plays with his legs if need be, but it’s important to recognize and understand the key distinction: while Smith has mobility to run when necessary, he’s a pocket passer first and foremost. That’s what he must be in the NFL if he is to become a high level quarterback.
The more I watched Smith, the more I saw some problems that need to be addressed. Returning to the earlier discussion about pocket toughness, and the innate ability to make difficult throws when functional pocket space has been reduced, I found myself constantly noting that I will be anxious to see how Smith deals with pressure once in the NFL. There were numerous times I felt he perceived pressure that was not really there, and as a result, over-reacted and broke down in the pocket. Again, it was not a large sample, but that’s the reason I watch every play with a remote and rewind as many times as I feel is necessary. In addition, there were times Smith drifted backward in the face of pressure. That tendency must be eliminated as quickly as possible. It’s the absolute worst response a quarterback can have when he senses the pass rush. These are all factors that must be taken into account in the complete evaluation of Smith.
Smith was also very erratic with his lower body mechanics. At times he transferred his weight well, stepped into his throws and delivered with velocity and accuracy. Other times, he did not transfer his weight effectively. That led to a decrease in velocity and poor ball location. There were too many routine throws that Smith left on the field with scattershot accuracy. In addition, and this was a real problem in my tape study, there were a number of throws that demanded velocity that hung in the air and lost energy on the back end. I don’t believe that’s a function of arm strength; my sense is it is more the result of inconsistent lower body mechanics.
Keep in mind all this is coachable and teachable. Smith has been working with Chris Weinke, one of the best quarterback instructors in the business. My guess is he will improve in all areas that require better fundamentals, but no matter how much work Smith and Weinke do leading up to the draft, there remains an element of trust, a leap of faith. You’re extrapolating, you’re projecting. Of course, that’s what happens with every player at every position, but it always generates far more discussion with quarterbacks. Smith’s concerns are not trivial and insignificant. The team that drafts him will not know until they see him in an NFL game with better overall athletes, speed that he’s never seen before, and much more to digest and isolate mentally, whether he has improved his throwing base and weight transfer. Some quarterbacks show considerable development at a rapid pace, while others never change, regardless of how well they are coached.
One final point with Smith, and this is the one that most troubles me. Quite honestly, I do not know if this can be rectified or not. Some I have talked to say yes, others no. It’s what I call "slow eyes." Smith consistently took an extra beat to pull the trigger on well defined throws that were there. It was particularly noticeable, but not limited to, play action, which provides more clarity and definition for the quarterback since it’s almost always an either-or read. If it’s an anticipation issue, that’s something that must be looked at very closely. I thought back to Matt Ryan when he came out of Boston College in 2008. He threw with outstanding anticipation; he had an intuitive feel for delivering the ball before receivers came out of their breaks. That was one reason I felt very good about his transition to the NFL. Smith did not show that attribute on film. It must be evaluated carefully. It’s not something that can be overlooked.
Overall, Smith is a talented natural passer. He throws a beautiful ball. But as I’ve detailed, there are some significant concerns as he transitions to the NFL. He’s best described as a prospect, nothing more, nothing less. He may well be drafted in the top 10 a month from now, but that’s not really pertinent to any reasonable discussion of his attributes.
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