The insanity of NFL draft season claimed another victim in 2014. The Minnesota Vikings will be reaping the rewards for years to come.
Teddy Bridgewater's poor Pro Day and subsequent chatter about his private workouts helped damage Bridgewater's draft stock during a time of year when groupthink dominates. In a poll of 17 personnel folks by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel released before the 2014 draft, eight chose Johnny Manziel as the best quarterback prospect. Two chose Bridgewater. How many of those guys would take Bridgewater now?
We'll try to answer that question in our series ranking the class of 2014 by position. Millions of words are spilled evaluating college prospects every April, but we rarely get a chance to dive into Game Rewind, isolate a player's pro tape and see how they stack up.
Chris Wesseling did an incredible job breaking down the boffo wide receiver class. Let's look at how we'd draft the class of 2014 quarterbacks now:
The Highest Floor
- Teddy Bridgewater has an old man's game in the best way possible. He's crafty and composed. He's the pickup basketball player who doesn't wow you with his physical skills, but keeps running the point for the winning side.
In a league in which the best quarterbacks win before the snap, Bridgewater showed more sustainable traits than any of his rookie classmates. He was accurate, especially on in-breaking routes. He was very calm in the pocket despite poor pass protection. By December, he had cut down on his mental mistakes and started to throw more beauties. His season had an arc to it; you could see his weekly improvement. With the help of Norv Turner, the Vikings' offense looked professional. Bridgewater led the way despite a shaky receiver group.
Bridgewater's five-game closing December sprint was often brilliant and showed his floor as a mid-range NFL starter like Alex Smith or Andy Dalton. Teddy's arm strength and deep ball accuracy are open questions that could limit his ceiling, but Bridgewater is off to a great start. He has the potential to develop into an upper echelon distributor in the mold of Drew Brees. It would be a surprise if he's not still starting in the league in eight years.
Has a chance
- Blake Bortles made the type of rookie mistakes that can be corrected. He also made five plays nearly every game that few other starters could pull off. His numbers were absolutely dreadful, rivaling the worst rookie seasons in QBR since 2006. The tape told a different story. He looked so much better on film than guys like Jimmy Clausen, Blaine Gabbert and Alex Smith as rookies.
Jacksonville planned to give Bortles a redshirt season and must have wondered if they were doing permanent damage by playing him behind a depressing offensive line. No rookie quarterback dealt with more quick pressure or inexperience around him. Too many plays and games were over before Bortles did anything wrong. While Bortles' mechanics fell off late in the year, his decision-making improved. His athleticism came to the forefront. He never lost his aggressiveness and his coaches put more on his plate as the year wore on. That's a great sign.
There are concerns, of course. Some of those sacks were on him and he was often fooled by defenses. Short, touch passes were far from routine. Still, Bortles showed off a bigger arm and even more athleticism than I expected. He looked like Cam Newton at times. He could improvise and throw well on the move. He performed well in the two-minute drill. A lot of the "tough-to-find" traits are there. The flash is there. Bortles has potential to make a huge leap in Year 2 by improving the basics and getting a little help from his teammates. His ceiling could still be higher than Bridgewater's, but he's far from a sure bet.
- Can you play effectively in 2015 without ever leaving the pocket? Zach Mettenberger is determined to find out. More than any recent rookie quarterback, Mettenberger planted his feet and barely moved. He was reminiscent of Kerry Collins, and we think that's a compliment.
The Titans' offense was a mess, and it's difficult to tease out Mettenberger's potential amidst such chaos. But we liked him the more we watched because he was aggressive and tough. Mettenberger is not afraid to go for deep shots and he completed a ton of big-time throws. He has a huge arm and is not afraid to take a hit. He showed off more than a fastball, mixing up his throws with touch and anticipation. Mettenberger went for it on third-and-long. He must have led the league in pretty passes that were dropped or just missed. He dealt dimes when protected. And while Mettenberger could occasionally look clumsy, he made subtle moves in the pocket to buy time.
One of the personnel executives in last year's Journal-Sentinel poll amazingly chose Mettenberger as the top quarterback in the 2014 class. Mettenberger wasn't selected until the sixth round, but that evaluation looks a lot less crazy now. He looks like the type of starter who winds up starting games for multiple NFL teams. On tape, he didn't look any less talented than the rest of this top five. Some coaches around the league told NFL Films' Greg Cosell that they'd take Mettenberger over Jameis Winston. We could find out next week if Ken Whisenhunt is one of those coaches.
- I watched more Derek Carr games than anyone on the list because I wanted to see more. He got a lot of credit early during the regular season for not being David Carr or JaMarcus Russell. The touchdown-to-interception ratio was misleadingly great at 21:12. His leadership skills were lauded. But the flashes of quality throws and real potential on the field were too rare.
Everyone points to Carr's supporting cast. They ignore that he was protected better than any of the rookies above. He settled too often for dump-off passes and was sometimes hesitant to pull the trigger on open receivers. The season appeared to wear on Carr, with some ugly performances down the stretch during which he looked gun-shy in front of the pass rush. The Raiders' offense was too often overwhelmed and barely operational.
There are plenty of tools to like. He can move and has a big arm. He showed toughness and an ability to go to his secondary read. Carr has a chance to stick, but he didn't show a lot of special traits as a rookie. And it will take something special to turn the Raiders' offense around.
- It was hard not to like Jimmy Garoppolo's performance during the preseason and 27 regular-season throws. Based just on that body of work, he belongs a lot closer to Bridgewater on this list than Manziel. Despite an occasional read-option play or called quarterback run, there wasn't a lot of flash to Garoppolo's game. There was quiet effectiveness.
The Eastern Illinois product was decisive and accurate. The word "competent" was written in the notebook a few times. He occasionally could create something out of nothing versus free rushers and he was too willing to take a hit on scrambles. We need to see a lot more, but he looked like a guy who could be in the NFL a long time.
- Johnny Manziel was eventually viewed as the consensus top quarterback on most draftnik boards, and the most talented QB of the crop. Many still saw him going in the top-five picks until late in the process. That feels like a very long time ago.
The Johnny Football persona was at odds with his tentative play. Every decision was a beat late. He pump-faked often, and left the pocket early. His trademark improvisational skills were muted.
It's hard to divorce Manziel's struggles on the field with the personal problems that he has started to address in rehab. We can only evaluate what we saw in games, and what we read about his practice performance. It all screamed of a player who was not ready mentally, and not talented enough to make up for it. Manziel lost the faith of some teammates and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan wasn't fooling anyone in his outings.
In fairness, we only saw a very small sample size. But imagine if we knew a year ago that Manziel would struggle this much with all aspects of NFL life. All the red flags were planted. To put it another way: What would teams give up for Manziel right now? A mid-to-late round pick sounds about right.
December made the difference
I keep dorky, made-up stats that are better kept to myself. Going into December, there was very little separation between the top four quarterbacks. And then Bridgewater took off. ProFootballFocus had Bridgewater rated as their best quarterback in the final month of the season. While I wouldn't go that far, his five-game run was easily the best stretch by any rookie all season. Carr, meanwhile, cratered. His worst games came in December as he started to look overwhelmed.
My trusted friend Chris Wesseling is very down on Mettenberger, and I have one theory. Mettenberger had a terrible performance in his first NFL start, and played just as poorly in his final start of the season. A bad first impression and poor last impression is going to leave a mark. Mettenberger's four-game run in between, however, was very promising. And his final game was played through a separated AC joint in his shoulder. Manziel knows about bad first impressions. His start against Cincinnati was the worst by any quarterback all season. He didn't finish another start.
Eight most surprising things I learned
- Draftniks excoriated any writer who suggested Bridgewater was athletic, noting that he's going to win from the pocket. That's absolutely true, but his athleticism and arm were undersold. He's not going to rack up rushing yards, but scrambling became a big part of his game down the stretch. He can make defenders miss and pull off some nifty plays to avoid pressure. That's huge for a quarterback who always seems to know where his secondary receivers will be.
- It was crazy to see Manziel look so slow. One of his "Welcome to the NFL" moments came when Carolina Panthersnose tackleStar Lotulelei prevented Manziel from getting to the edge on a third-down scramble. Later that game, Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly beat Manziel to the sideline on a called run. Manziel was hurt on the play and missed the remaining six quarters of the season.
- It was surprising how hard you had to squint to see Carr's potential. It's there somewhere, but he's still such a projection. There isn't a big difference between him and Geno Smith at this stage.
- It was amazing how often the snap exchange was a problem with Carr, whether he was under center or in shotgun.
- I knew Bortles could run, but I didn't expect him to look that good as a runner. He made J.J. Watt look silly on a 22-yard scramble, and pulled off other similar plays.
- Bortles was strangely at his worst in garbage time. Perhaps that comes from not taking what the defense gives him. That helps explain his poor overall numbers.
- Bill Belichick said he believed the turning point of the Patriots' championship season was the second half against Kansas City, when the team didn't lie down during a blowout Week 4 loss. By that logic, Garoppolo was nearly as valuable at backup QB in 2014 as Drew Bledsoe was in 2001.
- I didn't expect to like Mettenberger so much. But it was uncanny how quickly the Titans trailed by big margins, making it difficult to evaluate.
The hardest skill to evaluate
The most important skill for a quarterback is the most impossible to judge: their mental game. The game is going to slow down for young quarterbacks, but not every player turns into Philip Rivers before the snap. Which one of these quarterbacks above will take the biggest mental leap in Year 2? Which one will diagnose defenses the quickest and process that information while going through reads?
Bridgewater is ranked first here in large part because he appears to have the highest ceiling in this department. But I'm not smart enough to know if Mettenberger is ahead of Bortles or Carr in this department.
What rookie had the most to overcome?
Degree of difficulty was taken into account with these rankings. They all played in poor situations, but Bortles had the biggest uphill battle. His pass protection was embarrassing and gave him no chance too often. He was playing with a group of rookie receivers as green as he was. That's one reason why he could make the biggest jump in Year 2. Mettenberger had a similarly difficult path. It was crazy how often he was trailing by three scores, and how poorly the right tackle position protected in Tennessee. Bridgewater and Carr weren't in great spots, but Bridgewater had Norv Turner. Carr had surprisingly good pass protection.
Calling all franchise quarterbacks
The class of 2013 quarterbacks could be a wash unless Geno Smith or Mike Glennon turn things around. If the group above doesn't come through, the NFL will be looking at a shortage of youth at the position following the great 2012 class. Bridgewater looks like a long-term answer and the four guys below him here all have a chance to stick, with Bortles having top-10 upside. Carr and Mettenberger are talented enough to get a lot better.
It doesn't appear the next great superstar quarterback has been drafted over the last few years, but this is a position that is notoriously difficult to evaluate after one year. This list is bound to look different a year from now.