The flavor of Texas versus Nation week may well have been 6-4, 216-pound Tulane quarterback Ryan Griffin. NFL Draft analyst Dane Brugler was among several who believe Griffin’s stock is on the rise to the point that he should hear his name called in April. Compared to the Geno Smiths, Matt Barkleys, Mike Glennons, and Tyler Wilsons of this prospect class, the changing perception of Griffin’s draft grade seems like an afterthought. The fact that Griffin served as the front man for a 2-10 squad doesn’t help.
It’s one thing for a non-quarterback talent like Matt Forte, a Tulane alum playing for a routinely over-matched team to earn a high draft grade, but quarterbacks with losing records aren’t at the top of most draft boards. Still, we hear every year from the likes of those who study the game at the front lines that if the first trait you hear about a college quarterback is that he’s a winner and a leader it means that he can’t play at the NFL level.
Eric Crouch. Kellen Moore. Tim Tebow. Ken Dorsey. Kliff Kingsbury.
The list of winning college quarterbacks with no NFL game is long. It’s also filled with passers who possess NFL potential, but their college win-loss record dampens their reputation, lessens their exposure, and diminishes their draft stock. Based on the way reps are given to NFL quarterbacks in many organizations, the lower the draft pick, the less likely that prospect sees meaningful time to develop his game.
It’s a processes that skews the dynamic that the better NFL talent is at the top of the draft board. Don’t get me wrong, I believe if every team had open competitions among quarterbacks on NFL rosters that the higher draft picks would tend to perform better than the lower picks, but I believe it wouldn’t be as dominant an edge as the current data suggests.
The reason is that positional need and a prospect’s attributes away from the field appeal to draft-day decision makers just enough that skill and talent aren’t the only factors involved in a player’s evaluation. Sometimes these other factors are important, but I also believe they often mislead decision makers.
The Disconnect Between Evaluating and Draft Talent
Play fantasy football for any length of time and you learn there is difference between evaluating talent and drafting talent. One is about identifying who is worth picking. The other is about knowing when to pull the trigger. As much as the media likes to combine the two when they use on-air analysts like Mel Kiper, Mike Mayock, and Todd McShay, there are two separate skills that often generate more conflict than congruence.
This is a major reason why I don’t do mock drafts. I don’t interview prospects. I don’t have an organizational understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of evaluators. I don’t know the total football philosophy, teaching, and management styles of coaches or the inner dynamics of the players on every team. What I can see and understand is on-field behavior.
There is no greater example of the disconnect that can exist between scouting and drafting talent than at quarterback. Alex Marvez reports that NFL scouts and management are divided on the importance a quarterback prospect’s win-loss record. Marvez recounting of the Broncos’ inner debate of the merits of Jay Cutler, Matt Leinart, and Vince Young is a great example.
I evaluated all three players. Young was the most physically talented, but he played in an offense that did not require him to develop the craft of quarterbacking from the pocket. Leinart had a good start on the craft needed for the NFL game, but he lacked the physical talent. Cutler had the best combination of athleticism, passing skill, and mental toughness on the board.
I had Cutler as my top quarterback, Young No.2, and Matt Leinart as an overrated prospect – essentially tied with Bengals backup Bruce Gradkowski – at No.3. Read Marvez’s piece above and you’ll see that my perspective that the combination of physical talent, positional skill, and on-field behavior mirrors the takes of many NFL scouts. However, the 2006 NFL draft order for the three was Young first, Leinart second, and Cutler third.
It’s not much of a coincidence that Young’s team won the national championship, Leinart’s team won a national championship the year before and then faced Young’s team in the 2005-2006 title game, and Cutler was on a bottom-dwelling SEC team. Scouts are worker bees; they aren’t the major voices in most NFL war rooms. The general managers and executives are the ones who tend to place the greatest emphasis on win-loss record.
“In many respects, you’re going to be asking him to carry your team in the NFL,” [former Colts GM Bill] Polian told FOXSports.com. “If he can’t carry his team at the collegiate level, which is quite a bit lower in terms of the level of competition, what makes you think he can do it at this level?”
Polian makes a good point and it’s one that I think is lost on many – possibly Polian himself. I admit that may be parsing the words of the former Colts GM too finely here; Polian may believe that “carrying a team” is more than just a winning record. At the same time, I do think his response and Marvez’s report illustrates that win-loss record carries too heavy a weight in the warrooms of NFL teams.
Re-Thinking the “Winner” Concept
Greg Cosell, the producer at NFL Films, wrote a thought-provoking conversation starter about why he thinks the NFL culture needs to re-think the “winner” concept. I’m continuing that conversation here, because I believe Polian’s idea of “carrying a team” is the best place to start. If NFL executives do a better job of defining how a quarterback carries a team, they will do a better job of integrating talent evaluation into the draft-day process.
Returning to the 2006 NFL Draft of Young-Leinart-Cutler, we would later learn that Young – who many would say “carried” the Longhorns to a BCS title – lacked the maturity and work ethic to cross the great emotional divide between being a talented pro prospect and becoming a consistent, productive pro player. Leinart – a Heisman Trophy Winner – had many in the media drawing parallels to Tom Brady’s game, but he also had difficulties crossing the same divide as Young. Leinart and Young were on rosters with a lot of future NFL players.
The same can’t be said of Cutler. Vanderbilt’s notable NFL players from the Cutler era include Jovan Haye, Earl Bennett, and Jonathan Goff. Texas and USC’s list is staggering by comparison:
- Shaun Cody
- Mike Patterson
- Mike Williams
- Frostee Rucker
- Reggie Bush
- Deuce Lutui
- Steve Smith
- Winston Justice
- Ryan Kalil
- Terrell Thomas
- Fred Davis
- Chilo Rachal
- Sam Baker
- Lawrence Jackson
- Keith Rivers
- Sedrick Ellis
- Roy Williams
- Nathan Vasher
- Bo Scaife
- Derrick Johnson
- Dave Thomas
- Cedric Griffin
- Michael Huff
- Brian Robison
- Michael Griffin
- Aaron Ross
- Jamaal Charles
- Jermichael Finley
Cutler was also the subject of another intense debate during that 2006 NFL Draft. The Titans executives, coaching staff, and scouts each had different favorites. Owner Bud Adams clearly wanted Young. The scouts wanted Cutler. The coaches were split. Norm Chow, Leinart’s former offensive coordinator and the Titans coordinator at the time, wanted his former pupil. To the best of my knowledge, Fisher’s favorite has never been made public. However, it was divulged on draft day that then-Broncos coach Mike Shanahan called Fisher the night before and asked him about Jay Cutler. Shanahan told the media that Fisher believed Cutler had everything you wanted from a quarterback. The Broncos traded up for Cutler and while he has his flaws, he has been far and away the most successful of the 2006 class and still has potential for a better career ahead.
When I watched Young, Leinart, and Cutler, the player I thought who did the best job of “carrying” his team was Cutler – no contest. The reason is that I define the concept of carrying a team as putting players in position to succeed regardless of the level of competition or the data in the box score – including the scoreboard. Leinart had surrounding talent who routinely put the USC quarterback in position to succeed more than the other way around.
One of the big reasons I had Steve Smith as my No.3 receiver prospect in 2007’s draft class was that he demonstrated NFL-caliber athleticism, technique, and awareness in situations that his quarterback Leinart created when his execution was not NFL caliber. Smith carried Leinart as much or more in the passing game than Leinart carried Smith.
I’d argue more.
Despite great surrounding talent, there was no question that Young carried his offense at Texas. However, Young was thrust into a pro game that expected him to acquire and refine skills that were not the strength of his game. My buddy Sigmund Bloom has wondered how Young may have fared if his introduction to the NFL game was through a spread/pistol scheme that Robert Griffin has in Washington. I think it’s a fair question, but just six years ago the NFL was still fitting square pegs into round holes.
Drafting to Win vs. Drafting Not to Lose
The change in mentality is still slow because present decisions seemed to be reinforced by past history. There’s an urgency for teams in need of a quarterback to select one in the first round despite the fact that the failure rate remains high. ESPN’s Mike Tirico asked Bill Parcells during his inaugural Draft Confidential special in 2011 why teams continued to draft quarterbacks in the first round despite the failure rate and the Hall of Famer said that every other team is doing it, and the fear of not getting one drives you to do the same.
Former NFL.com and NFL Network analyst Chad Reuter, a talent evaluator with economic training who has provided analysis to NFL teams, gives even better explanation of this dynamic:
The fear of not finding a quarterback certainly comes into play for most teams. Let’s face it, coaches without a strong quarterback are probably going to be looking for work sooner than later. I have a mathematical background so I have a bit different way of looking at this problem that a lot of coaches and football guys like Parcells may not. My research into drafting quarterbacks reveals a second-round prospect’s chances of becoming a solid starter is around 20 percent, maybe a little higher for earlier picks in the round. But the likelihood of a second-round pick at another position becoming a true difference-maker is probably 50-50 at best.
So, if you value a QB 3-4 more times than a typical position player it is understandable to me why people will take that 20 percent chance on finding a quarterback . . . If somebody says, “I’ll flip a coin and I’ll give you $100 if you guess correctly,” you expect a value of $50 because you have a 50-50 shot of getting it right. If someone else says, “If you cast this die, and you roll a one then I’ll give you $400,” then that expected value will be $66.66 (1 out of 6 x $400). The math of it makes sense for teams that believe the QB is worth the chance.
That’s not exactly what Parcells was saying, but that’s what most coaches would tell you if they had the mathematical background.A 20 percent hit rate in the second round isn’t very good, but it continues to get worse and worse as the draft goes on. The Bradys — and even the Hasselbecks — come few and far late in the draft. So I can understand why teams take the chance.
The math makes sense to the degree that it explains the results of the current decisions that NFL teams are making. However, that math doesn’t tell why a second-around prospect has less of a chance being a difference maker than the first-rounder or why the Bradys and Hasselbecks are rare. The standard explanation is that better talent tends to be drafted earlier than lesser talent.
The problem I have with this explanation is that the teams experiencing success often have game changers who were exceptions to the rule: Tom Brady, Kurt Warner, and Russell Wilson are three examples. The greater the exception, the more dramatic the advantage. Playing the percentages may keep a team from making draft-day mistakes that compound with each pick, but it can also keep a team from winning big.
Organizations often use the data “not to lose.” The problem with making these decisions based on this data is that when a team fails on these “not-to-lose,” first-round quarterbacks it has committed to a three- or four-year process of giving a player a chance and/or a huge sum of money. Considering the career span of the average NFL player is still around three years and also the approximate length of a team’s playoff window, missing on a high-round quarterback and playing out the string of “appropriate development time” is a huge setback.
Based on what I believe about Matt Barkley and Mike Glennon’s game, selecting them in the first two rounds of the 2013 NFL Draft will be a decision two teams will make “not to lose.” They fit all the safe bullet points in terms of physical potential, system, and basic skills at the position. Neither possess the slam-dunk, early-round skills, in-game performance, and potential to put their players in position to win on as consistent a number of snaps as I value. The problem with making these decision based on this data is that when a team fails on this “not to lose” early-round passer is that it has committed to a three- or four-year process for a lot more money than taking a lower-round talent with equal or greater potential, but less marquee value.
Teams also miss on additional talent that can be parlayed into acquiring a quarterback. Trades for marquee quarterbacks may be rare, but you can’t tell me that the Vikings and Broncos talent weren’t a draw for Brett Favre and Peyton Manning. Quality attracts quality.
Considering need is fine, but I believe a team should always build on talent. If the talent fits the need – great, but the most important skill that evaluators and executives may need to develop is how to resist the pressure of succumbing to need over talent and fooling themselves into thinking they haven’t.
Whether I’m right or wrong about Barkley or Glennon is not the point. The disconnect between scouting and drafting is apparent and it will continue even if Russell Wilson’s selection and open opportunity to earn the job in Seattle is a potential glimmer of change. However, Wilson was a winner at N.C. State and Wisconsin. Marvez’s piece shows that there is a belief if the quarterback isn’t succeeding when it comes to the bottom line then it’s a red flag for his NFL potential.
Fascinating that on the one hand football is the ultimate team sport, but no individual is more celebrated and coveted in any sport than quarterback. NFL team and personnel believe that you can’t win without one, yet there are plenty of superstar passers who lacked the surrounding talent to get the job done. It’s not a one or the other proposition.
Why Ryan Griffin is a More Appropriate “Not to Lose” Option With “Draft to Win” Characteristics
Tulane’s Ryan Griffin is the example of a talented quarterback lacking the surrounding talent to elevate his draft status. Unlike Jay Cutler, Griffin lacks the mobility to make big plays with his legs or the extraordinary arm talent to make pinpoint throws from corners that defenses paint him into. Griffin is a classic pocket passer.
Some say that the pocket passer is dying in the NFL. I think that’s a melodramatic statement. A truer reality is that the NFL is becoming more open minded to schemes that allow mobile quarterbacks to continue using their skills within a complementary offensive framework. Pocket passing isn’t dying as much as its monopoly is breaking up.
Griffin may never get the opportunity as a late-round pick to thrive like the marquee names of his 2013 draft class, but I think Griffin – even with his flaws – has shown enough that if he were at USC, Maryland, or Arkansas, “earning a draft pick” wouldn’t be a part of the conversation this late in the process. What Griffin’s game displays that’s as good or better than the likes of Barkley or Glennon is his in-game acumen, pocket presence, maneuverability, and accuracy down field.
These are skills that if you read some of the commentary from those reporting at Texas v. Nation, it sounds as if Griffin vastly improved in these areas since the end of the season or displayed skills he hasn’t shone before. This notion that Griffin is a surprise to those who truly study prospects is inaccurate. Brugler studies players year-round, I doubt his reporting was based on being “surprised,” as much as following what he’s heard from scouts. I think many of those surprised by Griffin were those who overlooked the Tulane quarterback because he plays on a struggling team and isn’t at the top of the draft day radar.
Here are five plays that demonstrate how Griffin’s skills aren’t isolated to the effects of some magical elixir he imbibed from the Great Gazoo.
Pre-and Post-Snap Reads
The game I’m using features Tulane against the University of Houston. Because the Cougars built an early lead, Tulane abandoned the run early and they only tried one play action pass the entire game. The commanding lead also gave Houston the opportunity to blitz Griffin, which creates a good environment to observe a pocket passer under duress.
Tulane uses a short passing game – a lot of 10 and 20 personnel shotgun with swing passes to backs and short perimeter routes to receivers complemented with crossing routes. However, Griffin is also effective as a deep passer. His first foray down field in this game came on 1st and 10 from the Houston 41 from a 1×2 receiver, 20 personnel shotgun set with 13:01 in the half.
Houston’s initial alignment is two safeties high, but late in the pre-snap phase the safeties rotate to a single-high look. Griffin notes this change and as he takes the snap and drops back, he looks to the opposite hash where the safety is creeping up.
This is a good post-snap read and Griffin understands that the rotation of the safety from the right flat to the middle gives his single receiver running a streak up the right flat a one-on-one opportunity that is the quarterback’s best chance to hit a big play. Griffin finishes a decent, three-step drop from the gun and delivers the ball 38 yards down field from his release point to the receiver’s reception point at the Houston 10.
It’s not as apparent as the future shots will make it, but Griffin throws this pass short. The receiver is already turning his shoulders back to the quarterback as he’s tracking the ball and it’s this shoulder turn that is a sure sign that the ball is late or under thrown. I’ll show why the short throw is not an issue of anticipation, but first let’s continue to examine the end result. Griffin’s throw is not only forcing the receiver to slow his stride, but it’s giving that safety the angle to break up the pass that a better throw would otherwise prevent.
As the ball arrives behind the receiver, the safety knocks the ball away from the WR’s grip. If Griffin throws this ball 2-4 yards further down field, the receiver catches the ball in stride behind both the corner and safety, and has a strong chance of scoring. The issue isn’t the timing, but the distance. However, you’ll see later that arm strength isn’t Griffin’s problem. On this play, it’s his feet.
The pass should have arrived somewhere between the six and eight yard line for the receiver to continue his pace down field, run through the arrive pass, and catch it in stride beyond the defense. Although this is a mistake that costs Tulane a touchdown, Griffin comes back to the same receiver on the very next play and finds him on a slant for 26-yard play.
Griffin reads the safety working towards the box and hits the receiver on the slant breaking behind the defender – the same receiver he under threw the play before. What I like about this play is the eye control to manipulate the defender.
Better yet, Griffin’s shoulders and knees are pointed to the back, further selling the swing pass. A beat later, the ball is out of Griffin’s hand and the safety has reacted to the back, opening a window behind him for the ball to reach the slanting receiver.
Pocket Presence and Footwork
Although Griffin’s feet weren’t in great position to throw the touchdown at the top of the second quarter, this 2nd-and-even pass with 1:55 in the third quarter from a 2×2 receiver, 10 personnel shotgun set is all about a players ability to climb the pocket and keep his feet in position to make an accurate throw down field.
Griffin finishes a five-step drop as the right defensive tackle stunts around right end and the left defensive end work around the left tackle. The receiver slot right is still covered at the hash. After Griffin’s first hitch, the quarterback’s feet are spaced at an appropriate width to deliver the ball with distance and power.
Better yet, Griffin feels the pressure from his blind side, climbs the pocket with two hitch steps and maintains good width with his feet to deliver the deep ball.
Although Griffin’s foot width as he delivers the ball is nearly as wide as the previous deep throw, the fact that he finished his drop with a narrow foot width gives the quarterback more control as he hitches forward and begins his release. The ball travels 50 yards from Griffin’s release point to the receiver’s reception point – a 41-yard pitch and catch for a 51-yard score.
The Tulane receiver lost the ball from a punch-out at the seven, but recovers it in the end zone for the touchdown. Great throw from Griffin, who maneuvers the pocket and keeps his feet under him.
I also like that Griffin has the maturity to know when to buy time and when to throw the ball away. On the first play of Tulane’s initial possession of the fourth quarter, pressure up the middle flushes Griffin left and forces the quarterback to throw the ball away. On the next play – a 2nd-and-10 pass with 14:09 left in the game from a 2×2 receiver, 10-personnel – Griffin feels pressure once again, but this time has room to hang in the pocket and make a play.
After a five-step drop, Griffin has two shallow crossers working open and an intermediate cross developing as both edge rushers get around the corner.
Griffin lacks an elite arm, but he has a starter-caliber arm right now with room to improve that arm strength as he adds more weight to that 216-pound frame that was listed at 206 pounds at the beginning of his senior season. This deep ball on a 2nd-and-three from the Tulane 41 with 10:55 left is a good example. Tulane runs a 10 personnel shotgun set with receivers 1×3 and Griffin’s target is the outside receiver on the trips side.
The Tulane quarterback hits the receiver in the hands 50 yards down field, but the receiver drops the ball because he lays out for it early. If the receiver runs through ball rather than leaps for it at the 47 he probably catches this in stride.
If I’m seeing these skills from Griffin it’s likely another NFL team likes what they see from the Tulane product. Griffin will have to do a better job of reading man-under and other variations of zone. He’ll also have to curb his desire to power the ball into tight spaces or over linebackers in coverage who have good drop depth. None of his issues are fatal flaws. The only one may be his win-loss record and the mountain he may have to climb as a late-round pick or free agent.
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