JaMarcus Russell might be the biggest flop in NFL history, but I'm certain he will be on an NFL roster in 2013.
I know that statement will draw the ire of Raider Nation, based on Russell's disastrous tenure in Oakland, but he is too young (27) and too talented to not receive another shot in the league.
Checking in at 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds (having recently shed 50 lbs), Russell is a rare find at the position with exceptional physical dimensions to match superior arm talent. He can make every throw in the book with relative ease. In fact, few NFL quarterbacks can rival his natural ability as a passer. While some observers will scoff at that notion, citing his erratic performance as a starting quarterback, there was no doubt that he was the top quarterback prospect in the 2007 NFL Draft, regarded as a first-round talent across almost the entire league.
Of course, Russell's lack of maturity, off-field baggage and suspect work ethic kept him from fulfilling his promise in Oakland. He didn't exhibit the core traits of a franchise quarterback and his disrespect for the preparation process ultimately led to his demise. However, some teams will point to the lack of organizational stability as part of Russell's problem and question the Raiders' overall development strategy for the young quarterback.
Given those factors and the fascination with Russell's talent, I'm convinced he is well on his way to re-entering the NFL as a legitimate quarterback prospect. My bullishness on this matter is fueled by three key NFL truths ...
Why Russell is getting another look
1) Blue-chip talents always get multiple chances in the NFL.
As bad as things played out on the field for Russell, the fact that he was the first overall pick in the 2007 draft guarantees him a few more opportunities in the NFL. General managers, coaches and scouts will want to assess Russell's talent in person, based on the high grades most evaluators placed on him during the pre-draft process. Although most decision makers won't readily admit their previous affinity for Russell, I know for a fact that the former LSU standout was rated as a first-round talent on nearly every draft board in the NFL, having spoken with several front office executives over the past few days. Scouts viewed him as an upper-echelon prospect with remarkable physical tools and potential. While some expressed concerns about his work ethic and immaturity, Russell's talent level made him well worth the risk in the minds of many evaluators.
This is why I'm confident Russell will get a few opportunities to revive his career if he takes care of business in workouts. Teams will always bring in former Round 1 selections to see if a change of scenery will unlock their potential. Remember, Ryan Leaf had several opportunities in the NFL, despite being regarded as one of the biggest busts in league history. After flaring out with the San Diego Chargers, Leaf went on to start three games for the Dallas Cowboys, and spent time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks before walking away from the game for good.
Joey Harrington, Tim Couch, Vince Young and Matt Leinart were also given several chances in the NFL, despite abysmal performances in their initial stops. David Carr is entering his 12th NFL season -- yes, the same David Carr who fell on his face with the Houston Texans after going first overall in the 2002 NFL Draft.
2) The lack of quality quarterbacks in the NFL.
It's so hard to find a quality quarterback in the NFL that evaluators will take a look at any signal-caller with a decent amount of talent and/or football intelligence. Just look at the list of backups on NFL rosters, and you can understand why teams are beginning to line up for a chance to work out Russell. While guys like Chase Daniel, Jim Sorgi, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Charlie Whitehurst and Tarvaris Jackson are good enough to get a team out of a game alive if the starter goes down, there are few coaches willing to designate any of those guys as long-term solutions.
That's why Russell remains an intriguing option. Whereas the aforementioned guys lack physical attributes to emerge as legitimate franchise quarterbacks, Russell has everything scouts covet at the position from a skills perspective. He is the imposing physical specimen traditionalist prefer at the position, as well as a standout deep-ball tosser with the arm talent to make every throw in the book. Throw in his underrated athleticism, quickness and mobility, and Russell remains a big-time talent with the potential to develop into a serviceable starter in the right system.
3) Quarterback gurus love tackling a reclamation project.
The NFL is full of egomaniacs in the coaching ranks, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Offensive coordinators are widely viewed as "gurus," so the thought of developing Russell will appeal to many who believe they have the magic touch with quarterbacks.
When I was a scout with the Seahawks, Mike Holmgren strongly believed in his ability to develop quarterbacks on the practice field. He thought his system was conducive to maximizing the talents of any quarterback, particularly a cerebral playmaker with above-average arm talent. As a result, we brought in a number of quarterbacks (Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Jeff George and Leaf) who failed at previous destinations. Holmgren was undeterred by their failures and focused on rebuilding their mechanics and mentality. Dilfer was the only signal-caller of that group who succeeded with Holmgren in Seattle, but this illustrates the coaching arrogance that permeates most meeting rooms in the NFL.
As I look at Russell's situation, I believe an offensive coordinator with a similar mentality will convince his general manager and personnel department that his system of developing quarterbacks will help the former No. 1 overall pick maximize his talents. He will put a plan in place to reconstruct Russell's footwork and fundamentals on the field, while placing a heavy emphasis on the development in the classroom. The Philadelphia Eagles used this approach with Michael Vick after his incarceration, and it helped solidify Andy Reid's reputation as quarterback guru. (Vick won the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award in 2010.) With other coaches looking to earn similar recognition, the thought of transforming Russell into a franchise quarterback is enticing.
What Russell must do in workouts
Russell already has a workout scheduled with the Chicago Bears on Friday. And I assume more teams will follow suit. When it comes to earning a training-camp invite, here are four keys for Russell:
1) Show up in outstanding physical condition.
Evaluators expect potential signees to show up for workouts in tip-top condition. If a prospect shows up in great shape, it speaks volumes about his self-discipline, work ethic and commitment. Most importantly, it lets the scouts and coaches know that a prospect is ready for the rigors of training camp and the regular season.
For Russell, his reported 50-pound weight loss reveals a dramatically improved work ethic from his playing days in Oakland, when he suited up at nearly 300 pounds. Additionally, the improved physical condition will allow him to fully tap into his immense talent and potential as a classic drop-back passer. Russell's commitment to improved conditioning and stamina should allow him to shine in many areas, from flawlessly conducting three-, five- and seven-step drops to displaying consistent footwork and fundamentals.
In addition, Russell needs to display better-than-anticipated movement skills. Although he was never considered a runner at the position, he routinely displayed agility and elusiveness while fleeing the pocket. Check out the video clip just above, with Russell scrambling up the middle for a 15-yard gain.
2) Be accountable for past transgressions.
Russell's on-field performance with the Raiders was not up to par, but most evaluators harbor greater concerns about his character and work ethic. He was not regarded as a diligent worker, so he must address those concerns in conversations with team officials during visits. Additionally, he must explain his reported transgressions with illegal substances and how he has worked through those issues. Decision makers will hold him accountable.
3) Impress in the classroom.
Russell's poor development in Oakland largely can be attributed to his inconsistent work habits in the classroom. He didn't commit to improving his game through film study and game-plan preparation, which led to poor performance on the field. Additionally, shoddy preparation fueled the notion that Russell lacked the ability to effectively read defenses or understand the combination of fronts and coverages opponents disguised in the pre-snap phase. These skills are necessary to play the position on Sunday. Russell paid little attention to the details, resulting in his demise.
To change the perception of his study habits, Russell must impress coaches and scouts with his knowledge in the classroom. By demonstrating a clear mastery of offensive and defensive concepts, he can show off an improved football IQ. Russell has to display growth in the classroom by being on point with his X's-and-O's. If he can win the tactical battle on the white board with coaches, Russell will put to rest some of the biggest questions facing his NFL rebirth.
4) Dazzle scouts and coaches with arm talent.
When it comes down to it, scouts simply want to see how much juice Russell has left in the tank. He is one of the most gifted passers to enter the NFL in the past 20 years, but a lackluster work ethic prevented him from displaying his natural talents. However, scouts familiar with his game from his time at LSU rave about his natural arm strength and solid mechanics. He can make every throw with zip, velocity and touch -- without exerting tremendous effort. Watching some of Russell's best throws from his tenure in Oakland, I'm blown away by his superior arm strength, particularly on deep balls. In the video clip above, Russell shows off his impressive arm strength on a 57-yard touchdown pass to Louis Murphy. On the play, Russell exploits the void in the middle of the field on fourth-and-15 with a pinpoint, teardrop toss on a post pattern. If Russell can connect on a handful of these throws in a workout, he definitely will pique the interest of a quarterback coach fascinated by the prospect of working with a big-armed thrower boasting an impressive skill set.