That's the question that I've been wrestling with since my colleague, Gil Brandt, began to rave about the potential of the Pittsburgh standout last fall. The wily evaluator likened Savage to a young Troy Aikman after watching him toss six touchdowns against Duke, and said he expected Savage to emerge as a top-50 prospect by the end of the draft process. Not to be outdone, Mike Mayock called Savage the "wild card" of the 2014 QB class, citing his prototypical size and superior arm talent as traits that could make him a steal in the draft.
With my colleagues and several other analysts raving about Savage's talent and potential, I thought I would dig into the tape to see if his game matches the hype. Here's what I discovered:
Savage is a classic dropback quarterback with exceptional physical traits for the position. He has a big, sturdy frame and body build that's in line with the quarterbacks that have traditionally manned the position in the NFL for years. Additionally, Savage has big hands, which should allow him to "grip it and rip it" in poor weather conditions.
From an athletic perspective, Savage ranks as a marginal athlete. He lumbers a bit when moving outside of the pocket and doesn't exhibit the speed or quickness to escape defenders in the pocket. Although he flashes enough mobility to execute the bootleg or a movement-based passing game, Savage is a non-factor as a runner. He lacks the speed to run away from defenders in pursuit, and isn't elusive enough to make tacklers miss in space. Thus, he isn't a threat to leave the pocket unless the pressure forces him out of his comfort zone.
Here's a chart to put his measurements and drill results from the NFL Scouting Combine in perspective:
Savage has one of the strongest arms in the draft. He capably makes every throw in the book with zip and velocity, particularly the deep-out from the opposite hash. He fires the ball to the outside edges of the field with excellent pace, yet the ball doesn't overpower receivers working back to the quarterback. On deep throws, Savage can throw the ball 60-plus yards, but lacks the accuracy and touch to drop the ball down the chute. He routinely misses the mark on open receivers on go-routes and posts, but Savage hasn't learned how to change the speed or trajectory on his vertical throws. As a result, he routinely fails to cash in on big-play chances when he catches the defense out of position.
Savage's accuracy woes also show up on short and intermediate throws. He struggles placing the ball in the receiver's strike zone, especially on in-breaking routes in congested areas. Given the importance of making tight-window throws at the next level, Savage's inconsistency in this area is a concern.
Savage's limited athleticism and movement skills make it imperative for him to shine from the pocket. He must be able to feel rushers in close proximity, while keeping his eyes downfield to deliver accurate strikes. Studying Savage on tape, I question his poise and judgment under pressure. Although he makes a handful of heroic throws under duress, Savage repeatedly makes poor throws that result in turnovers. Of course, those misfires are expected when the pocket breaks down immediately, but you would like to see Savage display better composure when the game gets muddied. Additionally, he holds onto the ball too long in certain situations, leading to costly sacks and negative plays.
Now, I won't place all of the blame on Savage for the Panthers' dismal sack totals, but he has to display better awareness of the pocket breaking down and get the ball out of his hands before the rush arrives to avoid placing his team in a long-yardage situation. While I will certainly give Savage credit for his courage and toughness -- he takes shots while delivering throws -- he must show better poise and awareness amid chaos to become an effective pocket passer at the next level.
Savage enters the NFL with experience playing in multiple pro-style systems from his time at Rutgers (2009-10) and Pittsburgh. Thus, he is well aware of setting protections and identifying hot reads within a progression. These concepts are staples of most NFL offensive schemes, so he is one step ahead of the competition due to his exposure to advanced offensive tactics.
Breaking down Savage's play from his final season at Pittsburgh, I came away encouraged by his overall knowledge of the West Coast offense. He appeared to have a firm grasp of the basic concepts featured in coach Paul Chryst's system. It's even more important that he showed the awareness and discipline to find his second option in the progression when the primary target was taken away by coverage. Now, I must admit that Chryst deserves a lot of credit for crafting a quarterback-friendly scheme that featured an assortment of bunch formations with crossers and various quick reads, but that's what good coaches do at the next level, as well.
If Savage's interviews and chalk talk sessions confirm his mastery of the West Coast offense, he should earn high marks for his football intelligence from scouts and coaches around the league.
Coaches are always looking for quarterbacks who possess the "it" factor. Though this trait can't be quantified, you can get a feel for whether a player has it by looking at his performance in big games or key moments. Savage showed glimpses of being of a clutch performer during his final season at Pittsburgh. He led the Panthers to a bowl game despite playing with an inexperienced set of pass-catchers. While their inexperience routinely led to drops in key situations, Savage displayed poise and leadership skills by encouraging his teammates in those moments. Better yet, he showed evaluators that he is capable of taking his game up a notch with strong performances in wins over Duke and Notre Dame.
In fact, I would suggest that he played at a high level the last seven games of the season, with a 10:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 64.1 completion rate. With those numbers compiled against seven bowl-eligible teams, Savage deserves solid marks for his big-game moxie and clutch traits.
Normally, I don't include this category in my evaluation, but I must make mention of Savage's status as a double-transfer and how it could impact his perception in draft room. As a highly touted quarterback prospect coming out of high school, evaluators will question Savage's decision to leave Rutgers after losing his starting job to an unheralded player during his sophomore season. He will need to convince coaches that he possesses the mental toughness needed to endure competition at the position in a stressful environment.
It's even more important for him to show coaches and scouts that he has lost the sense of entitlement that might have accompanied his celebrated status as a five-star recruit in high school. With a track record that suggests he could pack it in at the first sign of adversity, Savage must make a compelling case in front of evaluators to squelch any concerns about his competitive makeup at the next level.
Savage is certainly an intriguing prospect based on his physical tools and arm talent. He looks like the traditional dropback passer that has long thrived in the NFL, and his experience working in a pro-style offense puts him ahead of the competition in several aspects. From a playing standpoint, Savage is nowhere near ready to compete for a starting job in the NFL. He is erratic with his accuracy and ball placement. He needs to work on controlling the velocity on his ball to make it easier for receivers to catch his passes. Additionally, Savage must develop better footwork and mechanics in the pocket to make up for his lack of athleticism and mobility. Given the work Savage needs to do to become a potential starter, he will earn developmental grades (Rounds 4-7) on most boards and enter the league viewed as a probable No. 3 quarterback as a rookie.