Brooks: Best fits for top prospects
In advance of the 2014 NFL Draft, Bucky Brooks is examining potential landing spots for high-profile players in this class. READ
I arrived at that opinion after studying the Louisville star in the fall. I continue to believe he is the most polished signal-caller in the draft despite a disappointing showing at his pro day on Monday, which has led many to wonder about his talent and potential at the next level.
I certainly understand the reservations about Bridgewater's game after watching him misfire on a number of passes at his personal workout, but I've learned that a player's DNA is revealed on the game tape. I'm willing to believe Bridgewater will succeed as a pro because he has consistently demonstrated the core traits needed to thrive as an NFL quarterback.
Studying Bridgewater over the past two seasons, I believe he is a deadly accurate pocket passer who exhibits exceptional judgment, poise and leadership skills on the field. He's thrived on the biggest and brightest stages throughout his career, displaying the kind of moxie, toughness and confidence needed to excel at the NFL level. I saw it first-hand at the end of the 2012 season, when Bridgewater dismantled a Florida defense that featured a handful of future pros (five Gator defenders were selected in the 2013 NFL Draft). He completed 20 of 32 passes for 262 yards and two scores in that Sugar Bowl win -- against a defense that led the country in passing efficiency. This was the same defense that blanketed fellow 2014 quarterback prospects Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger in their contests that season.
Bridgewater continued to display his leadership and impressive pocket-passing skills throughout the 2013 season. He completed 71 percent of his passes while throwing 31 touchdowns to just four interceptions. He topped the 3,500-yard mark for the second straight season and improved his completion percentage for the third consecutive year. Most impressive: Bridgewater posted those numbers directing a pro-style offense featuring complex concepts that are staples of NFL playbooks. Thus, evaluators were able to see him perform and execute in an offense that isn't built around bubble screens and "now" throws on the perimeter. Scouts have also watched him direct an offense from the line of scrimmage, utilizing audibles and "check with me" calls to put his unit in an ideal play. Given the importance of winning the pre-snap phase in the NFL, Bridgewater's experience gives him a leg up on the competition.
Bridgewater certainly isn't a flawless prospect. He doesn't display A-plus arm strength, and he has a tendency to lob his deep throws outside the numbers. Although he got away with it at the collegiate level, NFL defenders are too fast and too athletic for that to continue.
Bridgewater's slender frame and weight are also seen as a concern. He weighed 214 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine, but played near the 200-pound mark last season. Naturally, scouts wonder if he can withstand the pounding NFL quarterbacks take, considering the struggles other signal-callers with similar frames have faced. To be fair, Aaron Rodgers played at 203 pounds during his final season at Cal, so weight isn't necessarily a barometer of durability or toughness.
Overall, Bridgewater isn't in the same class as Andrew Luck or Cam Newton from a pure talent perspective, but he is certainly a franchise quarterback candidate based on his combination of physical and mental skills. I gave him the same grade that I put on Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers when I watched them during their final collegiate seasons. I wrote back in October that I believe Bridgewater's playing style closely resembles Rodgers' game coming out of Cal, and Bridgewater's pro day performance hasn't altered my opinion.
But it might alter those of NFL executives. If his disappointing workout leads to a dramatic slide down draft boards, I wonder if we will revisit Bridgewater's evaluation a few years down the road and wonder how so many missed on a franchise quarterback.
NOTE: The franchises that follow are those that would best utilize Bridgewater's talents, regardless of draft position or how the rest of the pre-draft process plays out.
Houston Texans (No. 1 overall pick)
First-year head coach Bill O'Brien has a chance to rebuild the Texans franchise with his quarterback of choice. Based on his previous success with the New England Patriots and Penn State, O'Brien prefers a cerebral playmaker with exceptional judgment and accuracy. Although Bridgewater's miserable pro day performance has led to concerns about his accuracy, the Louisville star has shown repeatedly on tape that he's a pinpoint passer with great timing and anticipation. Additionally, he is a bright mind with a ton of experience directing the game from the line of scrimmage. With a supporting cast capable of alleviating the pressure on him to carry the offense, Bridgewater could be an effective point guard for a Texans team that should re-emerge as a Super Bowl contender.
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Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 3)
The Jaguars are in desperate need of a franchise quarterback after whiffing on Blaine Gabbert in the 2011 draft. Chad Henne is a capable placeholder, but the team needs a young quarterback to build around. Bridgewater is best suited in a scheme featuring a ton of rhythm throws at the short to intermediate range. With coach Gus Bradley searching for a quarterback with the moxie and leadership skills to inspire a downtrodden franchise, Bridgewater could spark the Jags' return to relevancy.
Cleveland Browns (Nos. 4 and 26)
A young quarterback's success depends on the effectiveness of his supporting cast. The Browns have Pro Bowl players Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron on the perimeter, and added bruising running back Ben Tate -- who has 1,000-yard potential -- in free agency. Given Bridgewater's ability to effectively manage the game from the pocket, while efficiently distributing the ball to playmakers on the outside, he could be a perfect fit for the Browns -- a franchise looking to hit the ground running in 2014. Of course, Brian's Hoyer's presence could postpone Bridgewater's first NFL start, which is a better thing for the star quarterback and franchise's long-term viability.
Minnesota Vikings (No. 8)
Matt Cassel is penciled in as the Vikings' starter next season, but that won't prevent the team from drafting a young quarterback to develop for the future. Bridgewater would be the ideal candidate to develop in offensive coordinator Norv Turner's system. As a precise pocket passer, Bridgewater excels at throwing timing routes inside the numbers off dropback and play action. Additionally, Adrian Peterson's presence guarantees single coverage on the outside, leading to big-play opportunities in the passing game. Bridgewater can step in and give the Vikings a Philip Rivers-like signal-caller to build their long-term plans around.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 7)
The Bucs are unlikely to take a quarterback early in the draft based on their recent moves, but Bridgewater makes perfect sense with former Cal coach Jeff Tedford onboard as the team's offensive coordinator. The wily coaching veteran has a knack for maximizing quarterback potential, dating back to his time in the college ranks. Additionally, the similarities between Bridgewater and Rodgers could make it easy for Tedford to build an offense that accentuates Bridgewater's strengths as a player. Given the big-time quarterbacks who occupy the stage in the NFC South, I could see Bridgewater enticing Lovie Smith and his staff on draft day.