As the football world descended upon Indianapolis in February for the 2017 Scouting Combine, over 300 potential NFL players tried to show their future employers why they are worthy of a draft selection. However, the biggest buzz seemed to center on a player who was still in school, would not be attending, and was not even eligible for this year’s draft:
Love it. Sam Darnold was special as a RS freshman. There will be plenty of expectations for him as a sophomore in 2017. https://t.co/PjlW9wU3pq
— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) March 1, 2017
Sam Darnold, a redshirt freshman and the starting quarterback for the University of Southern California, was the most talked about player in Indianapolis, at least at the start of the combine.
This is a tale as old as time. Every draft cycle follows the same pattern when it comes to the quarterback position. Around the start of the college football season there are quarterbacks that many assume will be surefire first-round selections, who are destined for greatness in the NFL. But as they progress through their season, they make mistakes. They show flaws and the evaluation process begins to chip away at their armor. What does that lead to? Around the time the draft rolls around, the stories are written: “Wait until next year. Next year’s class is better. Really.”
Those are all stories written in this draft cycle, and there are many more just like them.
But this is not a new phenomenon. Look at this story from October of 2013, when an NFL scout told Sports Illustrated’s Peter King that as many as nine quarterbacks could receive first-round grades in the upcoming draft. Nine. That would put the 2014 quarterback class on par with the legendary class of 1983. The nine quarterbacks?
Aaron Murray, Georgia
Tajh Boyd, Clemson
Manziel and Bridgewater did come off the board in the first round. Mariota would as well, just a year later. But the first quarterback selected in 2014? Blake Bortles, who was not on that list.
Another prism for viewing this phenomenon is the mock draft process. Mocks are the necessary evil of the football media world. They are tremendous for clicks, people love reading and debating them, but beyond that, mock drafts are not terribly useful. The latest trend is the “way too early” mock draft, some of which start appearing as early as the day after the current year’s draft is completed. Some recent examples shall follow.
This mock, from June of 2011, actually nails the first quarterback off the board, Andrew Luck. The other first-round quarterbacks in this mock? Matt Barkley and Landry Jones. Missing are the two quarterbacks who actually were selected in the first round after Luck, Robert Griffin III and Ryan Tannehill.
This comes from April of 2012, and includes four quarterbacks in the first round. Barkley comes off the board here with the first overall selection. He’s joined by Tyler Bray (third overall), Tyler Wilson (sixth overall), and another repeat, Landry Jones (eighth overall). However the true 2013 quarterback class, widely regarded as one of the more disappointing in recent times? E.J. Manuel was the only first-round selection, picked in the 16th spot by the Bills. Geno Smith came off the board at 39 to the Jets, and Mike Glennon was picked in the third round by Tampa Bay. Barkley finally heard his name called in the fourth round, after two mocks – nearly two years apart – had him coming off the board in the first round.
This Sports Illustrated mock draft from September of 2013 has Bridgewater, Mariota, Hundley, Boyd and Manziel all coming off the board in the first round. Mariota and Hundley stayed in school, while Manziel was picked by the Browns at 22 and Bridgewater was picked with the 32nd selection in the draft. Again, Bortles is not mentioned here, and he came off the board at the third spot to Jacksonville. Boyd was not picked until the sixth round.
Friend of Pylon Matt Miller’s first mock draft for the 2015 class dropped in May of 2014. The first-round quarterbacks were Mariota (first overall) and Hundley (seventh overall – to Tampa Bay). To be fair, Miller stated at the outset that given the uncertainty over whether Jameis Winston would enter the draft, he did not consider the Florida State quarterback. Winston did enter, and was selected first overall – by Tampa Bay.
Chris Burke, another Friend of Pylon, debuted his first mock draft for the 2016 season in May of 2015. Burke’s first-round quarterbacks were Christian Hackenberg (sixth overall), Connor Cook (ninth overall), and Cardale Jones (seventeenth overall).
Jared Goff and Carson Wentz were the first two players selected. Joining them in the first round was Paxton Lynch, picked 26th by the Denver Broncos. Hackenberg was picked in the second round by the New York Jets (a pick viewed as a reach even in the second round) while Cook and Jones fell to the fourth.
This exercise isn’t intended to poke fun at some friends and good football minds, but rather to illustrate the point that so much can change from season to season in the football world. So when stories are written that “the next quarterback class is better” or that teams should “tank for [Player X],” fans should take those with a grain of salt. Quarterbacks rise and fall up and down draft boards over the course of a season every single year, and players that are considered surefire prospects at the early stages of the process usually – with some rare exceptions – do not pan out as expected. Why is that?
It’s because development is not linear.
This is a though that has been drilled into my head by two colleagues that I trust: Dan Hatman, Director of the Scouting Academy; and Shane Alexander, co-host of PylonU. From fans to writers to evaluators to scouts and yes, even to executives, people assume a linear progression for players, particularly quarterbacks. We look at them as a freshman, see them grow to a better player as a sophomore, and assume that each year they will take the same steps in their development. But that rarely takes place.
Remember, if you can, your own experience during those years of your life, whether you were in college or out in the world. Was your own personal growth the same from year to year? Or, like most people, did your own personal growth ebb and flow a bit? Some years you made some more progress, while in other years your development was a bit stagnant. Sometimes you may have even regressed a bit, whether it was a more demanding course-load, or a new challenge at work, or some personal problems placed some difficult hurdles in your path. For whatever reasons, people grow in different ways, and their glide path in life is never linear and it is never the same from person to person.
This is especially true when it comes to quarterbacks. A player can come on the scene and have an incredibly strong start to their career. But maybe they face a coaching change, and have to run a new offense. Then there are some problems around them, whether it’s a problem with the offensive line or protection schemes. Suddenly you’ve gone from a sure thing as a freshman to a “reach” in the second round. We can call this the Hackenberg. Maybe you’re another surefire prospect, mocked in the first round for a few different years, but your arm never quite develops to the level necessary to make the difficult throws that lie ahead in the NFL. We can call this the Barkley. Or maybe you explode on the scene early, and have some success in your career, leading your team to back-to-back National Championship games, winning the second time in a rematch against Alabama. But your growth from year two to year three did not quite match your growth from year one to year two, and that in part leads people to wonder about your potential at the next level. We can call this the Watson.
We can also flip this around.
One of the things that you can glean from this exercise is just how many players are not listed in these early mocks, who then rise up boards to hear their name called early in the process. Griffin III. Bortles. Tannehill. Goff. Wentz. Lynch. Players that were not even on radars come onto the scene and push themselves to the top of draft boards. Again, development is not linear. Maybe these players experience the big developmental burst at the right time. Maybe the teams around them come together at the right time, putting them in a position to enjoy success. Maybe things come together for them in a personal way, allowing them to dedicate themselves to their craft, which allows for some personal growth that translates to the field. Sometimes a player just catches fire at the right time, and it propels them to the first overall selection (the Goff) or the second (the RG3 / Wentz). That happens as well.
One more example to close the loop on this. Here’s a 2017 QB Watch List, from a writer some consider to be a quarterback guru:
Some of the names being bandied about for this draft class are there, to be sure. Deshaun Watson. DeShone Kizer. Patrick Mahomes II. C.J. Beathard. Brad Kaaya. Cooper Rush. Dane Evans. Chad Kelly. Joshua Dobbs.
One player not listed? Mitchell Trubisky. And not because I called him Mitch.
Circling back to the start. Darnold is the talk of the next quarterback class right now. But he’s a redshirt freshman. Josh Rosen is also considered to be a top prospect, but he regressed last season in a new offense and is battling some shoulder injuries. Josh Allen is a big kid with a big arm from Wyoming, but is raw and needs refinement. Lamar Jackson is an exciting player and has the ability to play quarterback in the NFL, but will he be given the opportunity? Luke Falk is another potential QB, but will face questions about the Air Raid offense he runs. Other names include Baker Mayfield, Mason Rudolph, and Logan Woodside. But they have questions as well, from style of play to accuracy to size.
Will those guys all be near the top this time next year? History tells us no.
Will there be another name to rise? History tells us yes.
So each draft season, when the pieces are written telling teams to wait on a QB. Or when moves are made such as signing Brian Hoyer or Josh McCown as a bridge to the next draft, take those pieces and moves with a grain of salt. Because the grass is not always greener on the other side of the draft cycle, in large part because development is not linear.