The quickest way to transform the fortunes of an NFL franchise is to draft a transcendent star quarterback. History is littered with examples of superstar quarterbacks orchestrating impressive turnarounds for struggling franchises, particularly those drafted with the No. 1 overall pick.
Look no further than the dramatic improvement of the Indianapolis Colts under Andrew Luck. The second-year standout immediately returned the franchise to prominence, while shattering NFL rookie passing records for yards, attempts and 300-yard games. Most importantly, Luck led the Colts to the most wins (11) by a No. 1 overall pick in his rookie season in NFL history.
With Luck's impact fresh in the minds of every NFL general manager and scout, the football world tuned in with great anticipation to see Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater perform on a big stage against Rutgers. Although the Scarlet Knights entered the game lightly regarded on the national scene despite a 4-1 record, the fact that the team routinely produces NFL-caliber talent on defense (Rutgers had five defenders drafted in 2013) suggested that Bridgewater would be tested in the pocket as a thrower and decision maker. Moreover, the national attention that surrounded the game would provide evaluators with an opportunity to see how well Bridgewater handled the spotlight that could accompany his arrival as a potential top pick in the draft.
Given the pressure and expectations that were riding on Bridgewater's performance on Thursday night, I thought I would take a close look at his play to see where he stands at this point of the season. Here are my thoughts:
The recent influx of athletic quarterbacks to the NFL has led more teams to covet agility and movement skills at the position. Most offensive coordinators in the pro game would opt for a polished pocket passer over a dynamic run-first quarterback, but the speed and explosiveness of the NFL defenders makes it hard for immobile quarterbacks to function within the pocket. Bridgewater is a good, not great athlete. He is nimble and elusive within a short area, and has enough speed to flee the pocket when it collapses for a positive gain. However, Bridgewater is not an explosive runner in the mold of Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick. Sure, he is more than capable of executing some of the read-option concepts that have popped up in the pro game, but Bridgewater is a thrower with just enough athleticism and quickness to threaten opponents on the perimeter. Against Rutgers, Bridgewater frequently displayed his nifty footwork eluding rushers in the pocket for positive gains on scrambles. Additionally, he completed a few passes on the move that showcased his mobility and passing skills. With most NFL playbooks, particularly those deeply rooted in West Coast offensive passing concepts, featuring an assortment of sprint-out and movement-passing plays, Bridgewater's athleticism will fit perfectly at the next level.
Bridgewater displays outstanding arm talent as a pocket passer. He grades out near the top of the scale in arm strength (I watched him zing it in person at the 2013 Sugar Bowl against Florida), and is capable of making every throw in the book with zip or touch. Additionally, Bridgewater throws a tight spiral that rarely wobbles in-flight. Factor in his superb ball placement and touch, and it is not often the Cardinals' receivers are forced to snatch passes outside of the strike zone. Against Rutgers, however, Bridgewater was not nearly as accurate as he appeared on tape. He missed a handful of touch throws at intermediate and deep range, including a potential touchdown down the boundary on the left. Although I don't know if the weather or wind conditions played a part in his misfires, I was certainly surprised to see Bridgewater blow a few layups down the field. To his credit, the standout junior did show tremendous anticipation, touch and trajectory on a few post-corner tosses to the sideline, including a 34-yard scoring strike to Kai De La Cruz in the second quarter.
Additionally, Bridgewater displayed exceptional natural arm strength by tossing accurate throws to the outside portion of the field while falling away from the rush. While his footwork on these tosses was certainly not textbook, the fact that he was able to deliver a pinpoint pass to Michaelee Harris on a deep post-corner with a rusher in his face reveals a lot about his courage and arm talent.
The ability to win the game at the line of scrimmage separates elite quarterbacks from their peers at the next level. Top quarterbacks have the ability to make checks and adjustments prior to the snap to ensure the offense is consistently in the best possible play. Bridgewater rates off the charts in this area, according to scouts and colleagues that I've spoken with in recent weeks. He routinely walks to the line with two or three play calls at his disposal in the Cardinals' "check with me" system (the quarterback will change the play or the direction of the play call based on the defensive alignment). Against Rutgers, Bridgewater routinely "killed" the original play call to get the Cardinals in the optimal play. This was apparent very early in the game when he routinely made a throat slashing gesture at the line, while barking out an audible to each side. Interestingly, Bridgewater consistently checked to running plays in these situations to take advantage of the light boxes that the Rutgers' defense employed at the outset. This helped the Cardinals get off to a strong start on the ground, which led to big-play opportunities later in the game off play-action. In addition, Bridgewater's super football intelligence allowed the Cardinals to effectively handle some of the blitz pressures employed by the Scarlet Knights. With Bridgewater exhibiting the intelligence and awareness to handle extraordinary responsibility at the line, NFL coaches will covet his advanced mental skills at the next level.
The top quarterbacks in the NFL thrive amid the chaos of the pocket. Elite passers have the ability to maneuver around rushers, while maintaining vision down the field. This skill not only requires courage and confidence, but it takes a level of awareness that some passers fail to acquire. Bridgewater certainly exhibits all of the characteristics to thrive as a pocket passer as a pro. He never appears rattled or flustered facing pressure, and his ability to bounce back from big hits or poor plays is a testament to his confidence and cool demeanor. Against Rutgers, Bridgewater never blinked in the face of pressure despite taking a few big shots in the pocket. Although the Scarlet Knights recorded two sacks in the game, Bridgewater was seemingly unfazed by the pressure, as he routinely delivered accurate throws to his receivers with rushers in close proximity. This is certainly an encouraging sign to NFL evaluators that understand how frequently quarterbacks must throw with defenders near their feet in the pocket. Most importantly, Bridgewater's toughness and unflappable demeanor suggests that his game will not change if he takes a beating from the defenders.
The majority of NFL games are decided in the fourth quarter, with a top quarterback making a handful of critical plays with the game on the line. To determine if a prospect is capable of succeeding in those moments, scouts pay close attention to how well quarterbacks handle third-down situations, two-minute drills and late-game conversions. Bridgewater has performed well in these moments throughout his career, and continued to exhibit clutch characteristics against Rutgers. He was superb on third down (he completed 8 of 10 pass attempts on the critical down), and masterfully directed the Cardinals down the field at the end of the first half. Although he tossed an interception in the end zone, Bridgewater's ability to manage the clock and situation provided scouts with a glimpse of his brilliance as a playmaker.
In addition, scouts were able to see how well Bridgewater handled adversity with the Cardinals surprising locked in a close game in the fourth quarter. Bridgewater navigated the situation well by connecting on a few critical throws, including a 6-yard score that put the game on ice. While some observers likely walked away from the game disappointed in Bridgewater's output, the fact that he was able to make critical plays in the clutch despite being off his game says a lot about his poise and confidence under pressure.
Bridgewater put on a solid performance against Rutgers despite being slightly off his game. He didn't exhibit his trademark accuracy at all times, but it's easy to see his burgeoning potential as a franchise player. He is not only a superior passer with exceptional talent, but he has all of the football intelligence and intangibles needed to handle the tough situations that pop up in games. As a player, Bridgewater reminds me of Aaron Rodgers coming out of Cal (I gave Rodgers and Alex Smith bottom-of-the-first-round grades in the 2005 draft when I covered the West Coast for the Carolina Panthers). He is slightly built with a strong arm and extraordinary mental traits. If he continues to progress on his current path, there is no reason why he should not excel at the next level as a franchise quarterback.