It's not a coincidence that the majority of coaches and general managers who were displaced from their jobs on "Black Monday" were tied to underachieving quarterbacks. The proper identification and development of a franchise signal-caller has always been a critical component of any successful long-term strategy for an organization. However, the instant impacts of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson, coupled with the emergence of Cam Newton and Andy Dalton as viable franchise playmakers, have made it even more important for decision makers to identify the right leaders for their respective teams.
This year, the playoffs will feature six quarterbacks in either their first or second NFL seasons. This postseason inclusion of so many young signal-callers will fuel the notion that a team must have a franchise QB in place to have a chance at a ring, as well as the idea that top teams build and develop their rosters around the play of the quarterback.
Given the importance of selecting the right guy and crafting a plan to ensure his success, scouts and coaches already are looking ahead to the 2013 draft class to see which players have the tools to rejuvenate a franchise and guide it back to prominence. Unfortunately, this year's class lacks the star power of 2011 and 2012. General managers and coaches will have to dig deep to identify the right guy for their respective organizations. Most importantly, they will need to adapt their plans and personnel to suit the strengths of their young quarterback.
Here is a look at the top five senior quarterbacks who will be available in the 2013 NFL Draft. I've also specified what I believe organizations must do to help them enjoy immediate success at the next level:
1) Geno Smith, West Virginia
Smith was one of the game's hottest quarterback prospects after a sizzling early-season run saw him put up ridiculous numbers directing the Mountaineers' high-powered attack. Smith dazzled scouts with his arm strength, accuracy and touch while displaying exceptional poise in the pocket. However, Smith faltered down the stretch against the tougher defenses of the Big 12; scouts started to have concerns about his ability to find his secondary options in the route progression when opponents take away his primary receiver with blanket coverage. He struggled to consistently identify the open receiver in games against Oklahoma, Kansas State and Texas Tech, a trend that continued in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl against Syracuse. Although Smith completed 66.7 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and zero interceptions, he was sacked three times and repeatedly looked confused when the Orange took away his No. 1 option. As a result, Syracuse blew out West Virginia, 38-14.
Plan for success: To capitalize on Smith's outstanding skills as a quick-rhythm pocket passer, an NFL offensive coordinator would be wise to incorporate several spread concepts. Bubble screens, slants and various seam throws are staples of the Mountaineers' offensive package, so using those routes as a foundation should help make Smith comfortable. In addition, the utilization of a play-action vertical passing game from the shotgun would create the big-play opportunities that Smith feasted on while directing Dana Holgorsen's offense.
2) Matt Barkley, USC
When Barkley elected to return for his senior season, many expected him to win the Heisman Trophy, lead the Trojans to a national championship and make a compelling case to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Barkley started the season like a house on fire, tossing 10 touchdown passes against only one interception in his first two games. He displayed poise, awareness and anticipation from the pocket while directing the Trojans' version of the West Coast offense. Barkley impressed scouts with his balanced distribution to multiple receivers and running backs, suggesting that he could defeat opponents by simply connecting the dots in the passing game. However, things started to unravel in a Week 3 loss to Stanford, with Barkley appearing to crumble under the intense pass rush from the Cardinal. He repeatedly made poor decisions against the blitz, resulting in a pair of interceptions and several negative plays. In addition, Barkley's lack of athleticism and questionable arm strength stood out as possible deficiencies at the next level. Those flaws continued to show up throughout the season, with Barkley tossing 15 interceptions, including nine in his final four games. Poor decision making and sub-standard physical tools were already spawning questions about Barkley's capacity to become a franchise quarterback in the NFL when a shoulder injury in the Trojans' Nov. 17 loss to rival UCLA sparked concern about his health and durability, particularly when he couldn't return for the Sun Bowl.
Plan for success: Barkley certainly is not a blue-chip talent based on his physical tools, but he has the capacity to develop into a franchise player, thanks to his exceptional anticipation, awareness and football IQ. Barkley is successful because he understands how to win the pre-snap phase of the game, and he gets the ball out of his hands quickly. From a schematic standpoint, Barkley lacks the big arm to play in a vertical passing game, but he is a superb game manager capable of stringing together completions on short and intermediate throws. Coaches who employ versions of the West Coast offense will appreciate Barkley's skill and willingly fit him into an offense that favors "dink and dunk" over the long ball. A team located in an area where weather could play a factor late in the year would likely harbor concerns about Barkley's arm strength. A franchise in a mild or warm climate would put Barkley in the best environment to succeed.
Pro comparison: Chad Pennington
3) Mike Glennon, North Carolina State
Glennon has generated significant buzz in the scouting community as a gifted pocket passer with A-plus arm talent. He has impressed scouts with his ability to make any throw to any area of the field with zip and velocity. In addition, Glennon shows exceptional arm strength, touch and accuracy on vertical throws. This combination of traits has thrust Glennon into the conversation as one of the top quarterbacks in the 2013 draft class. However, scouts have been reluctant to put him at the top of the board due to concerns about his decision-making under duress. Throughout the course of his career, Glennon has shown a propensity for throwing the ball to the other team when pressured, a trait that continued to be an issue in his senior season. Glennon finished the year with five games of two or more interceptions, including a three-pick debacle in the Music City Bowl loss to Vanderbilt. While Glennon earned positive marks for guiding the Wolfpack to a stunning win over a heavily favored Florida State squad in the middle of the season, the fact that he failed to perform well down the stretch leads to more questions about his poise under pressure. With a dismal bowl performance overshadowing the positives of Glennon's game, it is hard to get fired up about a mistake-prone playmaker taking over the reins in 2013.
Plan for success: There is no denying Glennon's natural talent as a classic drop-back passer. He can spin it better than most players in the game with exceptional zip and velocity. In addition, Glennon can push the ball down the field regardless of the conditions, because of his extraordinary arm strength and touch. To maximize Glennon's strengths, a coach has to be willing to feature a vertical passing game that places a premium on taking shots to outside areas of the field, exploiting one-on-one coverage on the perimeter. Interested teams should also have a legitimate speedster or two in the lineup to provide Glennon with a long-ball option on every play. Glennon could be a viable option for a team in need of a franchise quarterback if that team is willing to follow the blueprint used by the Baltimore Ravens to develop Joe Flacco.
4) Tyler Wilson, Arkansas
Wilson was expected to blossom into a standout pocket passer under the tutelage of Bobby Petrino in 2013. NFL scouts hoped to see Wilson combine his outstanding physical skills with better footwork and fundamentals in his second full season as the Razorbacks' starting quarterback. But Petrino lost his job in April thanks to a well-publicized scandal, and his departure certainly affected Wilson's development.
While Wilson performed admirably for the Razorbacks amid the chaos (completing 62.1 percent of his passes for more than 3,300 yards with 21 touchdowns against 13 interceptions), he didn't appear to take another step in his development as a player. He continued to display sloppy footwork in the pocket, which greatly contributed to his spotty accuracy and ball placement. Scouts will spend a lot of time studying the 2011 tape to see Wilson at his best. However, the fact that he slightly regressed this season is understandable, given the circumstances. In fact, some evaluators might show some leniency in their grading and withhold their final evaluation until they examine his progress over the course of the week at a college all-star game. Given Wilson's talent, potential and performance in difficult circumstances, he is the quarterback in the class who most intrigues scouts and coaches.
Plan for success: Wilson looked like one of the top quarterbacks in this draft class heading into the 2012 campaign, based on his rapid development over the course of his junior season. He displayed all of the physical tools that scouts covet in franchise quarterbacks (outstanding arm talent and anticipation) as well as experience in a pro-style system, and evaluators expected him to continue improving as a playmaker from the pocket. To set the table for Wilson's success as a pro, a franchise must surround him with a coaching staff that stresses the fundamentals of playing the position. Wilson would also benefit from playing in a system designed to get the ball out of his hands quickly on an assortment of short and intermediate passes. Although Wilson has the ability to push the ball down the field, he was at his best directing Petrino's quick-rhythm system and could emerge as a legitimate franchise quarterback in a scheme that plays to his strengths as a quick decision maker.
5) E.J. Manuel, Florida State
Manuel is arguably the biggest enigma of the 2013 quarterback class. He is chock full of blue-chip traits (size, athleticism and arm talent) but has been maddeningly inconsistent throughout his career. Manuel's up-and-down play continued in 2012 when he followed some spectacular performances (against Clemson and Boston College) with a few stinkers in key games (against North Carolina State and Florida). He has shown poor judgment under duress; scouts question his ability to read the field based on some pedestrian mistakes he's made with the ball. However, Manuel has also provided moments of brilliance as a dual-threat playmaker, including his dazzling performance against Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl (26-of-38 for 291 passing yards with one touchdown, plus six rushes for 26 yards and another score). While evaluators are instructed to keep positive and negative performances in perspective, the fact that Manuel has been all over the board throughout the course of the season will lead scouts to question whether he can play at a winning level on a weekly basis in the NFL, despite his immense talent and potential.
Plan for success: Manuel has played in a pro-style offense at Florida State, but concerns about his ability to execute full-field reads should prompt coaches to give him a simplified playbook that allows him to process information quickly from the pocket. In addition, Manuel needs to play in a system that utilizes movement to capitalize on his athleticism and running skills. Bootlegs and roll-outs would task Manuel with reading just half of the field while also giving him the run/pass option to avoid negative plays. While some would suggest that it is impossible to simplify the game in this manner, the systems run in Houston, Washington and Seattle provide terrific examples of how the stretch-bootleg combination can be used by coaches to help their quarterbacks succeed.