Is it the talent or the system?
That's the question NFL scouts routinely wrestle with when evaluating quarterbacks directing prolific spread offenses. While the impressive production compiled by some signal-callers in the college game is indicative of their remarkable physical tools and talent, there are plenty of quarterbacks posting ridiculous numbers on the strength of clever schemes, spacing and complementary talent. Thus, it can be challenging to project a quarterback's potential at the next level despite a spectacular resume that features a lopsided touchdown-to-interception ratio and a host of 300-yard games.
Looking ahead to the 2015 class, the quarterback that could be the most difficult to evaluate is Baylor's Bryce Petty. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound redshirt senior is coming off a spectacular campaign during which he tossed for 4,200 yards and finished with an impressive 32:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Most importantly, Petty guided the Bears to an 11-2 record and the Big 12 title.
The Bears' rise to the ranks of the elite thrust Petty squarely into the Heisman Trophy discussion and piqued the interest of scouts looking for a potential franchise quarterback to build around. Given the interest surrounding Petty's game, I thought I would take a long, hard look at the Baylor senior to see if he is an A-plus talent or product of Art Briles' high-octane offense. Here's what I discovered:
If you ask any NFL offensive coordinator what he desires at quarterback, he will quickly tell you that he wants a polished pocket passer with enough athleticism to survive in the pocket. With a league full of explosive pass rushers attacking the pocket from all angles, it is imperative for the quarterback to have enough mobility to avoid big hits in the pocket. Looking at Petty on tape, I see an average athlete with adequate movement skills and agility. He maneuvers well within the pocket, displaying the agility, balance and body control to avoid rushers. Additionally, Petty displays mobility to execute rollouts and bootlegs to either side. Although he isn't a classic running threat, he displays enough running skills to challenge the defense on the perimeter as a selective runner. Thus, he is fully capable of executing the zone-read, as evidenced by his 14 rushing touchdowns last season in the Bears' spread offense.
With more NFL teams mixing in some zone-read concepts to complement variations of a west-coast offensive system, Petty's athleticism and agility will keep him in the mix for teams in need of a versatile playmaker at the position.
It's not a requirement for a quarterback to possess A-plus arm talent to play in the NFL, but the top signal-callers in the game are capable of making pinpoint throws to every area of the field with reasonable zip and velocity. Although most offensive coordinators would prefer a talented passer with exceptional arm strength and range, most would opt for an accurate passer with outstanding timing and anticipation as the signal-caller to build around. Petty is a streaky passer with average arm talent. He capably makes throws to every area of the field, but he doesn't fire the ball with tremendous zip or velocity. As a result, Petty's balls frequently die at the end of deep throws or fall short of the mark on tosses near the sideline.
Part of Petty's problems with his velocity and ball placement can be attributed to his sloppy footwork and mechanics. He doesn't consistently step into his throws, leading to his passes sailing on intermediate routes. Although he strings together a series of completions on occasion, Petty fails to post a high completion percentage against top competition because he is unable to fit the ball into tight windows with dart-like throws. Thus, it is hard to expect him to become an efficient passer at the next level until he works through his mechanical flaws. If Petty diligently works on his footwork, balance, body control and overall transition at the top of his drops, he can deliver more forceful and accurate throws from the pocket. Most importantly, he will show NFL scouts that he is working on his game and making strides to be an effective pocket passer capable of picking apart defenses with a host of throws.
The top quarterbacks in pro football thrive within a chaotic pocket. Elite signal-callers feel rushers in close proximity, yet are able to consistently deliver accurate strikes to receivers downfield. Given the speed and tempo of the pro game, scouts closely monitor the poise and composure of signal-callers under pressure to see if they have the courage and composure needed to excel at the next level. Looking at Petty's game on tape, I came away impressed with his poise under pressure. He didn't flinch when rushers got to him in the pocket; Petty continued to stand tall and didn't wilt when opponents brought blitz-pressure from various fronts and alignments.
Of course, Petty plays in a scheme that's designed to take advantage of aggressive tactics with a host of bubble screens, quick routes and crossers. The quarterback is instructed to fire the ball to the designated receiver shortly after the taking the snap, which limits his exposure to hits in the pocket. Petty executes the quick game as well as anyone in the college game, which is why he completed 62 percent of his passes and rarely turned the ball over in 2013 despite facing immense pressure within the pocket.
When Petty is asked to execute intermediate and deeper routes against pressure, he continues to display poise and composure within the pocket. He keeps his eyes down the field despite rushers slipping through cracks and does a decent job of getting the ball out of his hands before defenders get to him. Now, the constant harassment does affect his rhythm and effectiveness from the pocket, but his courage and composure remain intact when facing heavy pressure.
Studying Petty's performance against Oklahoma and Texas Tech, I didn't see a change in his demeanor when facing heavy pressure. He continued to deliver the ball on time at the top of his drops and appeared to identify the correct receiver on nearly all of his throws. However, I must admit that I was disappointed with his accuracy and ball placement against each team, as he struggled hitting open receivers on fades and deep sideline routes against the blitz. Although some of his woes are expected against a "feast or famine" approach, Petty's less-than-stellar numbers in those games (13 of 26 for 204 pass yards with 3 TDs vs. Oklahoma; 17 of 31 for 335 pass yards with 3 TDs vs. Texas Tech) will encourage more teams to come after him with the blitz. How well he handles the aggressive tactics could play a major role in his final grade.
Most NFL offensive coordinators expect the quarterback to be able to run the show from the line of scrimmage early in their careers. A savvy play-caller will incorporate hot reads, sight adjustments and audibles into his game plan to give the signal-caller enough options to succeed against any tactic. In addition, NFL coaches will design "pure progression" passing routes designed to take the quarterback to the open receiver in a sequential order. If the quarterback quickly works through the progression based on the reaction of the defense, he will eventually find the open receiver and pick apart the defense utilizing the entire field.
At Baylor, Petty plays in a simplistic spread offense that features a number of play-action "pop" passes, bubble screens, switch routes and crossers designed to get the ball into the hands of explosive playmakers on the perimeter. Petty executes the fake, takes a one- or three-step drop and delivers a dart to the primary receiver behind the second level of the defense. The combination of ball fake and route design allows the quarterback to quickly read one defender and make a decision based off his reaction. While Briles deserves a ton of credit for implementing a quarterback-friendly system that exploits collegiate defenses, the scheme doesn't prepare the quarterback for the pro game, which is why some spread quarterbacks struggle transitioning to complex passing concepts at the next level.
Watching Petty closely on tape, I saw him compile a ton of yardage on "pick-and-stick" throws to his primary receiver. He rarely got to the second option in the route, leading to questions about whether he can execute full field reads (quarterback works from one side to the other based on coverage) or level progressions (quarterback works from high to low based on coverage) as a pro.
Thus, Petty will need to be a blackboard wizard in meetings to convince evaluators that he is fully prepared to handle the complexities of executing a pro offense that's far more advanced than his collegiate scheme.
When I worked as a scout for the Seattle Seahawks, I was taught to pay close attention to how well a quarterback performs in third-down, red-zone and two-minute situations. Elite quarterbacks thrive in those moments because they understand the urgency and execution that's needed to deliver positive plays. Last season, Petty rarely faced a critical situation as the leader of the Bears' high-powered offense. The Bears topped the 50-point mark eight times in 13 tries, including four 70-point outings that showcased their remarkable offensive talent and overall explosiveness. Consequently, Petty was rarely challenged in a "do or die" situation and scouts enter the fall wondering if he has the goods to get it done with the game on the line.
Looking for clues to Petty's clutch factor, I noticed that he didn't fare well against better teams in the conference (Kansas State, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State) and struggled against one of the premier defensive minds in the game (Gary Patterson, TCU). He failed to complete better than 60 percent of his passes in any of those contests and looked nothing like a standout at the position. Although he guided his team to wins in every instance except Oklahoma State, the consistent misfires make me wonder if he can take his game to another level when needed.
Petty has been hailed as a potential franchise quarterback in some circles based on his outstanding production as a first-time starter, but I can't jump onboard after conducting a four-game film study (Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Kansas and Iowa State) that left me questioning his overall talent and potential. While I certainly respect his production and management skills as the leader of the Bears' offense, I saw a quarterback who greatly benefitted from a clever offensive system and supporting cast loaded with future NFL playmakers. Petty didn't exhibit the arm talent, accuracy and playmaking ability I would expect from a franchise quarterback; I would need to see dramatic improvements in his mechanics and overall play to place him in the conversation with Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston and Brent Hundley as the top quarterback in the 2015 class.