There is a direct correlation between quarterback play and winning games in the NFL. Teams with elite quarterbacks or superb game managers routinely find their way to the winner's circle, while others struggle to compete at a high level. Although there are several other factors that contribute to a championship formula, the way to win games consistently in the NFL is to identify, develop and support a franchise quarterback.
As a former scout, I will be the first to tell you that the identification of a quarterback with the necessary physical and mental characteristics to guide a team ranks as the most challenging aspect of that mission. While a signal-caller might exhibit the physical traits needed to play the position, the lack of leadership skills, intelligence or poise renders his ability useless in the ultimate team game. Conversely, a noodle-armed passer with outstanding intangibles has little chance of succeeding in a game governed by explosive athletes on both sides of the ball. That's why the draft is so tricky for evaluators tasked with finding the right quarterback for their respective teams.
Given the challenges that coaches and scouts face over the next few months researching the 2014 quarterback class, I thought I would bring back the Quarterback Tracker to monitor the progress of the top signal-callers in the draft. This list will fluctuate based on workouts and conversations with scouts across the league, but it's a good starting point for those interested in the most important position in the game. Now, I know there will be plenty of disagreements based on my rankings, so feel free to voice your opinion to me via Twitter (@BuckyBrooks). Debates routinely happen in the war room, so I welcome extended discussion on the quarterbacks in this class.
Without further ado, let's take a look at my Quarterback Tracker heading into the NFL Scouting Combine next week:
1. Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville
The buzz has inexplicably cooled on Bridgewater's prospects as a franchise quarterback, but naysayers are overlooking a polished pocket passer with an exceptional high football IQ. Few college quarterbacks enter the NFL with as much experience directing the show at the line of scrimmage. From executing checks and adjustments based on the defensive front or coverage to hitting receivers on hot routes to nullify a blitz, Bridgewater has played the game like a pro since his arrival at Louisville. With Bridgewater also exhibiting above-average arm strength, accuracy and touch, there are a lot of traits that suggest he will be a stud at the next level despite his slender frame.
2. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
The improvisational wizard is unquestionably the most electrifying player at the position, but it Manziel's growth as a pocket passer that has prompted teams to view him as a legitimate franchise quarterback. The former Heisman Trophy winner improved in every major passing category (passing yards, touchdowns and completion percentage), while displaying better poise and anticipation from the pocket. Additionally, Manziel continued to torment defenses with his outstanding speed and athleticism to produce game-changing plays on the perimeter. Given the challenges athletic quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III have presented to NFL defenses, the time is right for Manziel to enter the league as an explosive dual-threat playmaker.
3. Blake Bortles, Central Florida
There is no doubt that Bortles is an intriguing prospect with exceptional physical dimensions, athleticism and arm talent. He looks like a prototypical franchise quarterback when he steps onto the field, and his ability to guide Central Florida to a BCS bowl game validates that opinion in the scouting community. Although Bortles' game is definitely not as polished as some of his counterparts on this list, the fact that he has all of the requisite qualities scouts look for at the position could make him the first signal-caller chosen on draft day.
4. Derek Carr, Fresno State
Carr has been soaring up the charts with a bullet following an exceptional senior campaign that saw him put up ridiculous numbers while guiding the Bulldogs' offense. Carr exhibited the kind of arm talent, anticipation and touch that scouts covet in a passer, while also displaying the athleticism and movement skills to be able to make pinpoint throws on the run. Although his pocket poise can be skittish at times, Carr has made dramatic strides in this area over the past year, suggesting his best football lies ahead of him. With teams desperate for quarterbacks with franchise potential, it's quite possible that Carr hears his name called early on draft day.
5. AJ McCarron, Alabama
Quarterbacks are judged by their hardware, yet few observers give McCarron credit for his role in guiding the Crimson Tide to multiple national titles. Instead of praising McCarron for distributing the ball efficiently like an effective point guard, observers have routinely questioned his ability to lead a team to big wins on the strength of his right arm. Sure, arm talent is certainly part of the quarterback evaluation, but most offensive coordinators value judgment, leadership skills and football IQ over arm strength. Factor in his understanding of situational football and game management, and McCarron's value is likely higher than most expect based on his physical tools.
6. Zach Mettenberger, LSU
Mettenberger is a classic drop-back passer with exceptional physical tools and talent. Mettenberger blossomed in a pro-style offense directed by former NFL head coach/offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. The dramatic improvement over the course of the season will not only encourage NFL coaches to take a harder look at Mettenberger, but it could prompt a wily evaluator to use an early pick on the 6-foot-5, 235-pound flamethrower despite his late-season ACL injury.
7. Jimmy Garoppolo, Eastern Illinois
The college all-star game circuit has vaulted Garoppolo into serious consideration as a potential franchise quarterback. Scouts walked away impressed with his athleticism, quick release and decisiveness after spending two weeks studying his game at the East-West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl practices. Although practice performance must be kept in perspective, the fact that Garoppolo's play against elite competition matched what scouts viewed on tape has prompted some to tout him as a future starter in the league.
8. Tajh Boyd, Clemson
Boyd's disappointing performance at the Senior Bowl has plummeted his stock in the eyes of some scouts, but astute evaluators will place a greater emphasis on his entire body of work from an illustrious career at Clemson. Boyd put up exceptional numbers directing one of college football's most explosive offenses, exhibiting above-average arm talent and athleticism running a spread-option attack. Additionally, Boyd displayed outstanding leadership and poise in key games against LSU (2013) and Ohio State (2014), suggesting he is comfortable on the biggest stage. While his detractors will point to his less-than-ideal physical dimensions and lengthy wind-ups as concerns, the fact that he nearly shattered every passing mark in the ACC will help his cases as a developmental prospect at the next level.
9. Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech
A "boom-or-bust" prospect with exceptional physical dimensions and athleticism. Thomas has all of the tools that scouts look for in developmental players at the position. Although he has been maddeningly inconsistent throughout his time at Virginia Tech, the fact that he is such a special athlete will entice several teams to keep him in consideration as a mid- to late-round possibility.
10. Aaron Murray, Georgia
Murray lacks ideal size and arm talent, but scouts are smitten with his leadership skills and intangibles. He single-handedly carried the Bulldogs' short-handed offense, displaying terrific anticipation, awareness and poise. Additionally, Murray showed better than anticipated athleticism and movement skills by routinely making pinpoint throws on the run. Although a lengthy recovery from a torn ACL could limit his availability in the offseason, Murray's overall game could make him an ideal backup as a pro.
11. David Fales, San Jose State
There's always a place in the NFL for smart quarterbacks with superb management skills. Fales falls into that category with an efficient game that is ideally suited for a west coast system. While Fales lack the arm talent to fully stretch the field, he is a terrific quick-rhythm passer who excels at getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers on "catch-and-run" passes. If a team is searching for a young, developmental passer with intriguing potential, Fales could be one to target in later rounds.
12. Brett Smith, Wyoming
The sneaky athletic Smith didn't earn a combine invite, but scouts are well aware of his skills as a playmaker. The Wyoming standout excels at improvisation, yet displays enough poise and discipline to pick apart opponents from the pocket. Although he still needs to refine and harness his skills, Smith flashes enough ability to merit some consideration as a developmental player.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.