The term "franchise quarterback" is loosely applied in the football world, but there are only a few signal callers that fit the criteria when scouts break down their games. These quarterback prospects are transcendent stars who exhibit the critical traits required to lead a franchise to the winner's circle -- arm talent, leadership skills, football IQ and clutch factor.
In the current media landscape, we tab any quarterback with a hint of potential as a franchise guy, but scouts hold quarterbacks to a higher standard, with an emphasis on performance in big games used as the predictor of performance at the next level. That's why scouts make it a point to watch quarterbacks perform in rivalry games, conference championships and bowl games to see how they play when the pressure and intensity mirrors an NFL game.
After watching Teddy Bridgewater -- who declared he intends to enter the 2014 NFL Draft on New Year's Day -- close out his career in superb fashion in the Russell Athletic Bowl, I'm not only convinced that he is a franchise player, but he is the crown jewel of the 2014 quarterback class. While I know that several anonymous scouts have reportedly voiced opinions counter to that assessment, I believe Bridgewater will be the next great quarterback to enter the NFL. Here's why:
The speed and explosiveness of defenders in the NFL make it imperative for a quarterback to display enough agility and elusiveness to escape pressure in the pocket. Although the elite quarterbacks aren't expected to be dynamic or explosive runners, the ability to extend plays with their feet or pick up first downs on timely scrambles gives the offense an added dimension.
Bridgewater is a classic pocket passer with underrated athleticism and movement skills. He capably flees the pocket when protection breaks it down and can improvise throws downfield. Against Miami, Bridgewater exhibited outstanding athleticism in making plays outside of the pocket. He executed a few read-option and bootleg plays to pick up first downs with his legs. Additionally, he tormented the Hurricanes with a spectacular scramble toss to Damian Copeland that showcased his elusiveness and agility. From avoiding multiple defenders in the backfield by reversing field multiple times to tossing a superb touch pass over Copeland's shoulder, the Houdini-like exhibition confirmed Bridgewater's athleticism and movement skills. Most important, he showed the football world that he is far more dynamic than some suggest when discussing his game.
Franchise quarterbacks are capable of making every throw in the book with zip and velocity. Although extraordinary arm strength isn't required, elite players at the position have the ability to throw a fastball through tight coverage. Additionally, they have a variety of pitches in their repertoire that allow them to throw with touch when required.
Looking at Bridgewater's performance against Miami, I saw a franchise quarterback capable of making every throw in the book. He repeatedly threw darts to Davante Parker on "Bang-8's" (skinny post), while also showing excellent touch on post-corners to Michaelee Harris. Additionally, he connected on a handful of throws on vertical routes that showcased his arm strength and range. While a few of his deep ball tosses were slightly underthrown, Bridgewater made enough accurate throws to dispel any concerns about his arm strength. If he tightens up his footwork and consistently incorporates his lower body into his throws, Bridgewater's arm strength can improve at the next level.
The greatness of a quarterback is revealed in his ability to thrive in a chaotic pocket. Franchise players exhibit quiet feet with pass rushers in close proximity to deliver accurate throws to receivers all over the field.
Watching Bridgewater play throughout his career and in the Russell Athletic Bowl, I've always been impressed with his poise and courage under duress. He will stand tall and deliver with a rusher in his face; he doesn't flinch after taking a big shot in the pocket. Against the Hurricanes, Bridgewater exploited their blitz tactics by consistently identifying and hitting the hot read in the route progression. This rendered the Hurricanes' aggressive pressure tactics useless and allowed the Cardinals to march up and down the field.
When Miami opted to play soft coverage (Cover 4) on the perimeter, Bridgewater picked apart the underneath areas to keep his offense in manageable situations. This "connect the dots" approach doesn't resonate with some fans, but NFL coaches covet quarterbacks with superb judgment and management skills. Bridgewater fits the bill with his patient attack; it shows in his efficiency and consistency guiding the Cardinals' offense.
Elite quarterbacks exhibit exceptional football intelligence and awareness. Astute signal callers capably orchestrate pre-snap shifts and motions, while also making checks and adjustments based on the defense's reaction. To handle these responsibilities, a quarterback must excel in the film room and take that information to the field.
Bridgewater has earned high marks for his preparation throughout his time at Louisville; it shows in the way he manages the game for the Cardinals at the line. Watching him direct Louisville's pro-style offense, I was impressed with his mastery of the team's intricate pre-snap movement game. He efficiently signaled to his designated movers when to shift, yet maintained his vision on the defense to spot a potential weakness in the coverage. This not only helped the Cardinals excel in the passing game, but it resulted in a few positive plays on the ground when executing a "check with me" scheme.
After the snap, Bridgewater showed tremendous awareness, anticipation and judgment manipulating coverage down field. He routinely moved defenders out of windows with his eyes to set up big plays on the backside. Looking at his 26-yard touchdown to Parker, Bridgewater identified and moved the free safety out of the middle of the field to hit the seam route in the end zone. The subtle head fake created space down the middle, leaving enough space for Bridgewater to fit in a dart against tight coverage.
With franchise quarterbacks at the NFL level consistently exhibiting those skills, Bridgewater is well ahead of the curve at this point.
It's not always fair, but quarterbacks are judged by their ability to win big games. Bridgewater could leave Louisville with a 22-3 record over the past two seasons, showing remarkable poise and confidence under pressure. Skeptics will point to a soft schedule inflating those numbers, but standout performances against Florida (2013 Sugar Bowl) and Miami will squash some of the complaints about his ability to win against teams chock full of NFL-caliber talent.
In both of those games, Bridgewater was the best guy on the field, particularly against the Hurricanes. The 6-3, 205-pound quarterback was on his game from the start despite taking a safety that put the Cardinals in an early hole. He responded by torching the Hurricanes with a brilliant performance that showcased his potential as a playmaker in a pro-style offense. From his dart-like tosses to Parker on intermediate routes to his rainbow throws to Copeland and Harris, Bridgewater looked like the quintessential playmaker NFL coaches covet at the position.
With a career resume that features a several spectacular performances in this vein, I believe Bridgewater is primed and ready to excel at the next level.
I've been a Bridgewater fan since watching him tear up the Florida Gators in the 2013 Sugar Bowl. I thought he exhibited franchise quarterback traits in that performance; he has continued to build upon those characteristics throughout his junior campaign. Although there are concerns about his slender build, I watched Aaron Rodgers overcome the same issues coming out of Cal (Rodgers measured 6-2, 205 during his final season with the Golden Bears) to become one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. With Bridgewater displaying similar traits as a playmaker and leader, I believe he should be the crown jewel of the 2014 quarterback class -- and Johnny Manziel is the only other quarterback capable of challenging his spot at the top.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.