Extensive film study can explain a quarterback's mastery of offensive concepts and defensive coverage, but there is nothing like seeing a quarterback perform on the field when it comes to determining whether he has the goods to compete in the NFL. From assessing arm strength to determining leadership skills, evaluators can gain a lot of insight by checking out a quarterback with their own eyes.
That's why it was important for me to make the trek down to the Manning Passing Academy in Louisiana, where I would get the chance to see 40-plus college quarterbacks counsel young players and conduct after-hours workouts under the tutelage of Peyton and Eli Manning. Here are five things that stood out to me after three days of watching some of college football's best quarterbacks perform on the grass:
1) Johnny Manziel will make for the most fascinating quarterback evaluation in recent history. There is no disputing the spectacular playmaking ability of the Texas A&M standout, whose unconventional game and inferior physical dimensions will force scouts and coaches to rethink their traditional methods for evaluating the position. Most offensive coordinators in the NFL prefer big, strong-armed quarterbacks capable of executing a regimented system. Manziel, however, is a diminutive playmaker who is most effective when playing "sandlot" football from the pocket. He excels at finding receivers downfield following wild scrambles, and his ability to put pressure on the defense with his improvisational skills makes him nearly indefensible at the college level.
Of course, while freelancing is great when it produces big plays, offensive coordinators prefer consistency, which requires quarterbacks to display discipline and patience from the pocket. Moreover, most offensive play callers want their quarterbacks to work through a series of progressions before they flee the pocket, because doing so forces opponents to defend the entire field in the passing game (this also partially stems from ego-driven coordinators' desire for their schematics, and not the individual performance of their players, to get credit for offensive success, because they hope it will help them secure coveted head-coaching positions).
I talked to Manziel at the Manning Passing Academy before his headline-making early departure, and it's clear that he certainly understands the need to show scouts he can pick apart defenses from the pocket. He discussed handling SEC defenses bent on taking away his running lanes and forcing him to throw with precision from the pocket. By acknowledging the tactics he's likely to face this season, Manziel is already demonstrating the awareness expected of elite signal-callers. Most offensive coordinators favor a selective scrambler in the mold of Russell Wilson over a run-first playmaker like Michael Vick, so the development of Manziel's pocket-passing skills is paramount to his final evaluation.
Manziel's status as a "rock star" will also challenge the way coaches and scouts approach him. As the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, Manziel enjoys a cult-like following among fans, making him subject to endless rumors and speculation. This will force scouts to scour Manziel's background in an attempt to determine if he has the maturity to handle the scrutiny and expectations that accompany being a franchise quarterback. Given the constant buzz surrounding Manziel's every action, the process of building his profile will be an exhaustive one for evaluators.
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2) AJ McCarron is as pro-ready as they come at the position. The leader of the two-time national champions has been given the dreaded "game manager" label, thanks to his direction of Alabama's conservative offensive attack. However, a close examination of his overall game and physical tools suggests to me that he has all of the traits teams covet in a franchise signal-caller. After having a few casual conversations with McCarron at the camp, I believe he is a "team-first" quarterback obsessed with capturing rings rather than compiling impressive statistics. He repeatedly discussed doing "whatever it takes" to win as his primary responsibility with the Crimson Tide. He also cited the importance of preparation and work ethic as keys to keeping his team in contention for future championships. As a former scout, I must say that McCarron's words reflect the kind of leadership potential teams are looking for.
From a physical standpoint, McCarron also displayed the tools to be a franchise quarterback at the next level, showing off polished footwork and mechanics as a pocket passer in drills. Most importantly, McCarron demonstrated superb arm strength, rifling balls to all areas of the field with excellent velocity and zip. Additionally, he showed better-than-anticipated range and touch on deep balls, consistently hitting receivers in stride on vertical routes. One of the things I was concerned about after watching him on tape was whether he could thrive in a vertical passing game, but his throwing exhibition at camp dispelled that worry. Of course, going through a series of workouts in shorts and shirts isn't comparable to playing in a game, but he still certainly provided a glimpse of the natural talent that could make him a top prospect in the 2014 NFL Draft.
3) Stephen Morris might be the most talented quarterback in college football. I say that even while fully aware of the gifted passers across the college football landscape. The Miami signal-caller's natural talents made him stand out above the rest of his peers at the throwing exhibition at the Manning Passing Academy. Morris spins the ball with exceptional velocity and zip while showing a deft touch on intermediate and deep passes. Most impressively, he is deadly accurate, capable of making pinpoint throws to every area of the field. This was evident not only when Morris won the air-it-out competition by hitting a variety of moving targets, but also when he connected with receivers on a number of intermediate throws, particularly on deep comebacks and digs.
After cross-referencing the notes from my evaluation of Morris' game tape with my observations of his performance at the Manning Passing Academy, I believe he could rate as one of the top pure passers in college football. He is an outstanding rhythm passer who displays terrific anticipation, awareness and timing in the pocket. Although he only has one year of starting experience at Miami, Morris' remarkable physical tools and superb game-management skills could garner him high rankings on quarterback lists around the NFL.
4) Get ready for the Devin Gardner-Ryan Tannehill comparisons. NFL scouts love to compare college prospects to current pros based on playing styles, physical dimensions and backgrounds, and I expect evaluators to link Michigan's Gardner and the Miami Dolphins signal-caller based on their similarities as former receivers-turned-quarterbacks. Each player arrived at his respective school as a highly regarded quarterback prospect, but the presence of an established starter and a desire to take advantage of their athleticism led their coaches to put them on the field as wide receivers early in their collegiate careers.
For Gardner, the opportunity to play quarterback came in the middle of the 2012 season, when Denard Robinson missed time with an injury. The redshirt junior shined as a fill-in, completing 59.5 percent of his passes for 1,219 yards with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions in five starts. In addition, he added seven rushing scores (on 47 attempts) and totaled 16 receptions for 266 yards with four touchdowns.
Thanks to Gardner's tremendous production and impressive physical dimensions (6-foot-4, 210 pounds), scouts were already intrigued by his potential as a possible dual-threat playmaker at the next level. After watching him perform in workouts this weekend, I believe that fascination will grow based on his spectacular talents as a passer. Gardner displayed superior arm strength in drills, showing the kind of zip and velocity to rival big-armed NFL passers like Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick. Additionally, he demonstrated outstanding accuracy and ball placement in the throwing exhibition.
Of course, a workout doesn't fully simulate the challenges of making pinpoint throws under game pressure, but Gardner's strong showing in front of his peers, coupled with the impressive flashes displayed in game action in 2012, will have scouts paying close attention to him this fall.
5) Bryn Renner is the sleeper prospect to follow in the 2014 draft class. That the 2014 quarterback class is loaded with talent could prompt some teams to identify a few value picks early in the process. Renner could fall into that category based on his solid overall game and stellar production as a two-year starter at North Carolina. In 25 starts, the Tar Heels standout has passed for more 6,400 yards with a 54:20 touchdown-to-interception ratio while completing 66.7 percent of his throws. Not only do those numbers reflect his efficiency and effectiveness from the pocket, they speak volumes about his skills as a distributor in Larry Fedora's high-octane offense.
Ironically, Renner is thriving in a spread offense that masks several of his skills as a traditional pocket passer. As a result, scouts haven't been able to see his full repertoire of skills, leading some evaluators to rate him as a developmental prospect. After watching Renner work out in person, however, I believe that opinion could change drastically prior to the 2014 NFL Draft.
The way Renner tossed the ball around in drills showed me that he is a more advanced and polished passer than I had gathered from film study. With polished footwork and better-than-anticipated arm strength, Renner is capable of making all of the throws with zip and velocity. He eased my concerns about his arm strength and deep-ball range by showing excellent touch and accuracy on vertical throws in drills. In fact, I believe Renner's high-arcing deep balls were among the best vertical throws made at the throwing competition. That's a testament to his skills, considering the level of talent in attendance.
Although Renner will finish out his collegiate career in a system that features "dink and dunk" passes, the fact that he possesses the physical tools to shine in any scheme will could make him a highly coveted prospect when draft day rolls around.
» I found it interesting that McCarron and Manziel both said Brett Favre was the NFL player they most admired growing up. Each cited his "gunslinger's mentality" as one of the traits they emulated; their adoration of the likely Hall of Famer was obvious in their conversation. While Manziel's game might resemble Favre's improvisational style, I thought the revelation spoke volumes about McCarron's confidence as a playmaker.
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» Missouri's James Franklin will garner plenty of interest from NFL scouts searching for a dual-threat quarterback capable of executing the zone-read at the next level. The Tigers star produced a 3,000/1,000-yard season as a sophomore before slumping through a disappointing junior campaign riddled with injuries. At the camp, Franklin talked about using some of the leadership lessons learned from the Mannings to engineer a turnaround season. From conveying positivity in the huddle after poor plays to preparing better in the film room, Franklin believes an improved attitude can get him back on track in 2013.