Ranking the Top QBs in the 2014 NFL Draft: How We Rank

By Lance Zierlein
March 21, 2014

In part one of a four part series, Lance Zierlein provides his baselines and benchmarks for which he judges the Top Three QBs in the 2014 NFL Draft: Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater.
Ranking the Top QBs in the 2014 NFL Draft: How We Rank

This is Part 1 of Lance Zierlein's Assessment of the Top Three Quarterbacks in the 2014 NFL Draft. Assessing: Johnny Manziel » | Blake Bortles » | Teddy Bridgewater »

With every NFL draft a heightened importance is placed on the quarterback position because, as we all know, trying to win a Super Bowl without an upper-echelon quarterback is pretty hard to do.

Quarterbacks get dissected like no other draft prospects.  By the final couple of weeks before the draft, it seems as though the only things we begin hearing about most quarterbacks are the negatives as opposed to what they do well.

However, when you consider the relatively low hit rate at the quarterback position in the first round of the NFL draft, you can understand the jaundiced eye that is cast in that position's direction.

  • "Blake Bortles isn't ready yet."
  • "Johnny Manziel can't make NFL throws from the pocket."
  • "Teddy Bridgewater is too slight and had a bad pro day."

Maybe these comments will end up being validated and maybe they won't - time will tell.  We do, however, know that projecting QBs from the college level to the pros has become harder with the college game being played completely differently than the pros.

NFL teams have turned to analytics programs like STATS Ice to help them with projecting, developing and attacking quarterbacks.  “Our QB Launch Point and Passing Stance analysis help personnel executives and coaches determine a QB’s strengths, weaknesses, and development opportunities for incoming QBs”, said STATS Ice creator and STATS Sports Solutions GM John Pollard.  “With an increased emphasis on the passing game, defensive schemes are tailored to both pressure the QB while defending the big play.  Teams are using our data to not only find ways to attack NFL QBs, but also to identify which college QBs are likely to fit into their offensive schemes.”

Teams are using our data to not only find ways to attack NFL QBs, but also to identify which college QBs are likely to fit into their offensive schemes.

STATS Sports Solutions GM John Pollard

Today we are going to try and combine the requisite elements that today's successful, NFL quarterback has to possess along with player data to see if we can create a more focused assessment of Bortles, Manziel and Bridgewater.

Elements of Success

There was a time when quarterbacks could be statues in the pocket and still be elite.  There was also a time when many NFL teams used 7-step drops.  We don't see either happen very often nowadays.

Strong arm?  Those days are gone too.  Sure, having a strong arm can help with certain throws, but what most teams want to see is functional arm strength which is another way of saying "can make all of the NFL throws".  Here are some core elements of success for NFL quarterbacks.

1. Toughness and Poise

Let's be clear on this one.  There have been plenty of QBs who have been physically tough who didn't show a great deal of poise when needed.  The two are not always inter-linked.  Guys like Manning, Brees, Rodgers, Roethlisberger and Brady have all shown a combination of toughness AND poise and they all have Super Bowl rings.

2. Accuracy

It is very rare, indeed, to hear any GMs or head coaches talk about arm strength over accuracy anymore.  Passing games aren't ruled by verticality any longer, they are ruled by accuracy.  Accuracy (as we define it in this space) is the ability to throw short and intermediate throws with consistent accuracy.

3. Instincts or "Feel"

This appears to be a fairly nebulous term upon first glance, but NFL evaluators have a like-minded understanding of what constitutes "instincts" and "feel" for a quarterback.  Whether it is a quarterback sliding away from blindside trouble in the pocket or anticipating throwing windows on an intermediate "Dig" route.  Quarterbacks who display good instincts within a game are usually able to make plays and avoid costly turnovers at a greater rate than QBs who don't show that same feel for the position.

4. Leadership

Leadership can be seen  on the field, but it is more than just a QB yelling at his guys on the sideline or imploring them in the huddle when they are behind.  Any QB can do these things, but the real tell-tale sign is whether or not teammates respond to these QBs.  Do they buy into the QB during the offseason work including in camp?  Do they consider this QB a "be about it" player or a "talk about it" player.  When players believe in their leader (the QB), they tend to play at a higher level more consistently because that QB sets the tone for the team.

Quarterbacking Skills to Consider

Three of the four "Elements of Success" could be considered subjective and difficult to measure with accuracy being the only element where everyone can come to a reasonable consensus based on the data.  How you actually use the data in your assessment of accuracy is another topic but we will delve into that when we analyze Manziel, Bortles and Bridgewater later on.

Let's take a look at some of the skills that are necessary in today's NFL game:

1. Ability to make NFL throws

Arm strength certainly matters a great deal in this category, but it is worth noting that there is a sliding scale for arm strength relative to a QB's anticipatory skills and release.  Around the league, there is an understanding about the cutoff for arm strength for a QB to be able to make NFL throws.  The closer a QB is to the cutoff line, the earlier in the route a QB has to throw the ball.  If the arm is below average and the QB doesn't get rid of the ball early enough, then he won't be able to make NFL throws without giving up too many interceptions.  Joe Montana and currently, Peyton Manning, have below average NFL arms, but their understanding of their schemes and ability to get rid of the ball early in the route and still complete passes at a high percentage is what helped them in their careers.  As one NFL personnel man puts it, "Any ball over 15 yards - he has to have anticipation and enough velocity."

2. Ability to throw with accuracy on the move

This can be a measure a QB's ability to scramble and make plays and/or a QB's ability to roll-out and throw with accuracy in both directions.  Some offenses will take advantage of the bootleg game in play-action or they will simply roll their QBs out of the pocket.  In these offenses, it is critical to be able to hit targets with consistency.  Obviously there are some offenses that don't ask their QBs to roll outside of the pocket much (Tom Brady), so this skill is more important in some offenses than in others; however, accuracy and an ability to make throws after scrambling out of the pocket has become more and more important in today's NFL.

3. Mobility

There was a time when "The Statue" could make it in the NFL as a QB, but it is getting harder and harder for those QBs to be successful in the NFL.  Defensive coordinators understand not only how to generate pressure from all angles via blitz packages, they also understand the tendencies of QBs and will make defensive calls that are designed to confuse the QB and slow his progressions.  Once this happens, havoc can ensue and QBs who are able to slide around in the pocket (pocket mobility) or get outside of the pocket and keep their eyes downfield have the ability to make plays and extend drives.

Moving Forward

I’m not going to pretend to get into the mind of every NFL GM and tell you how they would view these QBs instincts and leadership.  I believe those are very subjective areas, and I don’t have enough background information on each of these QBs to put my name on a final judgement in those areas. I will, however, use the eyeball test and data comb through the other areas discussed for each of the “Big Three” in this draft.

Continue on to study Lance Zierlein's assessment of Johnny Manziel »

This is Part 1 of Lance Zierlein's Assessment of the Top Three Quarterbacks in the 2014 NFL Draft. Assessing: Johnny Manziel » | Blake Bortles » | Teddy Bridgewater »