UCF QB Blake Bortles


Photo by Bram_app via Flickr.

Photo by Bram_app via Flickr.

QB Blake Bortles is a tall glass with water at the halfway mark, but is it half-full or half-empty?

Last year, I broached the topic of comparing a quarterback prospect – E.J. Manuel – to a half a glass of water. Some saw the Bills quarterback as half-full, others half-empty.

Blake Bortles is also one of those “glasses of water” in this year’s 2014 quarterback class. The 6-3, 23o-lb. quarterback has the physical skills of an higher-functioning NFL starter and he flashes the feel and conceptual talent to develop into one.

The Central Florida Knight’s junior season has excited the media and divided the scouts. Is he a top prospect because of what he is and what he could become or is he a developmental project with few guarantees? Where and when Bortles goes in April nobody knows. Since I don’t make round projection a priority in my analysis of talent, I have only a passing interest.

However, I do care about talent, potential, and team fit. Like Manuel, I view Bortles as a player with lessons to learn, but “unlearning” a lot of bad habits isn’t one of them. He’d fit best on a team with a staff that sports a track record of success developing quarterbacks. It would be even better if he sat behind a veteran sold on aiding Bortles’ long-term development.

If the Central Florida quarterback lands in this type of situation, he has shown enough feel for the game that he can develop into a capable NFL starter. He has the upside to lead a team to the playoffs and carry that team in the fourth quarter of games. Yet, if his development becomes a case of mostly self-directed study, Bortles could create knots in his game that become more difficult to untie later.

What’s compelling about Bortles is his athleticism, a feel for managing the chaos of the pocket,  flashes of pinpoint accuracy, and budding conceptual skill at manipulating defenses. Bortles most prominent struggles occur in three areas: complex coverage schemes common to the NFL, executing accurate throws outside the hash, and making consistent and mature decisions with regard to placement of targets.

I’ve seen a comparison or two between Bortles and Jake Locker. I’m not sold it’s the right stylistic choice, but I haven’t arrived at one I like yet. Physically they are similar athletes, but there are notable differences.

Locker often threw bad passes with good mechanics and footwork. It was the aspect of his game that concerned scouts.

Bortles often throws good passes with mediocre footwork. Locker had a running back mentality far more often than Bortles and the UCF quarterback has a better feel for the pocket that should help him develop into good NFL passer with the right team environment.

I have more to study of Bortles, but based on his performance against South Carolina – a defense filled with NFL-caliber athletes that incorporates coverage schemes that Bortles will encounter in the NFL – I believe Bortles has a better feel for the game as a quarterback than Locker even if he still has much to learn.

When examining Bortles’ footwork, I see a quarterback who may not be as experienced as his fellow prospect Derek Carr, but Bortles often appears more patient and poised with his mindset. If I were to draft a quarterback from this class who has the potential to remain calm during the chaos, Bortles would be on my short list.

Accuracy

Bortles delivers in the short game with the accuracy and placement on the move of a basketball point guard. He’s capable of making plays under duress. Here is a 2nd-and-5 play with 1:57 in the first quarter from a 1×2 receiver, 11-personnel set with Bortles working from center at the Central Florida 6 versus South Carolina’s four-man front, its corners tight to the ends, and its safeties 10 yards deep.

At the snap, Bortles gives a quick jab of a play fake towards the back heading to the right. As the quarterback turns left he’s face to face with the right defensive end in the end zone. Bortles reacts fast and throws a jump pass to the tight end on the drag route while taking a hit to the chest.

The ball arrives on time to the tight end, hitting the receiver in stride two yards behind the line of scrimmage. The throw gives the receiver room to turn outside the right hash with the safety only a half a yard behind. The placement is the difference between a completion for a loss and room for the tight end to break the safety’s tackle and get the first down.

This is a risky type of decision that could have resulted in mayhem and it’s the type of choice that some scouts and personnel men will dislike. However it’s also a display of athleticism, accuracy, and a willingness to take punishment to win a play.

Bortles also executes these skills well in the screen game and a screen game is a good fit for an athletic (but not game-breaking) runner who can draw a defense to him. Brees and Brett Favre are examples of quarterbacks with excellent screen games.

Where Bortles’ accuracy falters in the short and intermediate game is a specific set of throws outside the hash or from one end of the hash to the other. This 1st and 10 at the UCF 50 early in the second quarter is a good example.

The offense is in a 1×2 receiver 11 personnel pistol versus South Carolina’s nickel look with two safeties deep. The “setup” on this play is the single receiver on the left side motioning across the formation to the right – it’s the eye candy for the defense so Bortles can make a deeper throw to the same side.

At the snap, the receiver swings to the right flat and Bortles stares down this route with his feet pointed towards his shallow receiver. After baiting the shallow zone into the short look, Bortles turns down field and delivers the ball from the 44 of the Knights to the Gamecocks’ 35 to the receiver crossing the right hash. Bortles’ throw is too high and the receiver tips the ball skyward in an attempt to highpoint it.

The reason is Bortles’ feet. They are too wide after his initial turn from the short route to the down field route. The wide stance causes the ball to sail. Bortles has to be more precise with his turns or make a post-turn adjustment with his feet to throw from a more balanced stance.

Here’s another wide-stance throw that sails in the third quarter from a 2×1 receiver 11 personnel shotgun set.

Bortles takes a three-step drop, turns to his left and the step he takes towards the receiver during his release is too long and widens his base. The receiver still makes the catch, but the ball sails from the right hash to the left sideline.

Once again, this is a footwork issue and the shorter-faster the drop, the more precise the footwork and the body position as to be. We laud the inherent athleticism of a great juke, spin move or lateral cut to avoid a defender, but the discipline, precision and detail of drops and quick turns to deliver an accurate football requires a similar form of athleticism found in high-end ball room dancing competitions. It’s no coincidence that some NFL wide receivers have performed well in that ballroom dance series in ABC.

Several quarterbacks would fare well, too. When the FOX play-by-play crew quoted Sean Payton saying that Drew Brees was the finest “foot athlete” he’s ever seen, it wasn’t surprising. Brees’ accuracy is among the best in the NFL and he also moves more than most of his peers – even set plays. Matt Ryan also excels at the quick game that requires precision timing and accuracy.

If Bortles continues working on his feet, he has the athleticism and base accuracy to execute this type of passing game if paired with a fine route runner like Roddy White. The key will be honing his feet to remain balanced with multiple turns and steps during this brief span between snap and throw. Based on his ability as a runner and improviser, I see enough from his footwork that there’s an opportunity to maximize this skill if he’s dedicated to the NFL like a career and not like he won he won the lottery.

Eye Manipulation

When a quarterback exhibits the skill to use his eyes to hold or bait the defense, it’s often a product of a passer’s comfort with the play, the opposing defense, and his physical skill to execute. Here’s a dig route Bortles hits in stride with good rhythm and an easy throwing motion. It’s a 2nd-and-11 pass with 0:46 in the first quarter from a 1×2 receiver pistol at the 15 of UCF.

Bortles drops looking to the middle and then turns to the single receiver side at the right flat towards the running back peeling to the flat before returning to the receiver on the dig. The integration of his eyes and feet to got form left to right,  change the depth of his target to the right, and then make an effortless delivery of the ball to the receiver in stride and with good velocity is all quality work.

Here’s a 2nd and 13 with 5:28 in the half with UCF in a 2×1 receiver 11 personnel set with the runner and tight end to the single receiver side. South Carolina is employing another 4-3 look with the weak side linebacker playing inside shade of the slot receiver. Bortles’ work here flashes his potential as a player who can learn to layer multiple techniques in a short span to manipulate a defender on quick-hitting plays.

The quarterback executes a one-step drop, turns right, pumps to the back in the flat (or resets the ball if you don’t believe it was actually a pump), and then hits the receiver low and inside up the right sideline. This is savvy play manipulation with the eyes, the action of the ball, and the feet to give his receiver the chance to earn 12 yards under the corner.

Where Bortles gets dinged by NFL scouts is his skill recognizing defenses that employ hybrid man/zone concepts before the snap. This type of defensive scheme that varies where it uses man and zone on the same play in an attempt to trick the quarterback is common in the NFL. The athleticism and flexibility of South Carolina’s defense is a reason I chose to study Bortles’ performance in this game.

The Gamecocks intercept Bortles for the first time using this hybrid concept on a 1st and 20 pass with 1:28 in the half from a nickel look with the corners off the outside receivers between 5-7 yards. When Bortles comes to the line in a 2×1 receiver 11 personnel alignment, the quarterback reads the safeties and sees a defensive alignment that looks like pure zone. He does not note the potential impact on the cornerback coverage when the safeties change their positions just before the snap.

As a result, Bortles thinks he can look off the safety to his left and then turn to the right and deliver a route between the zone. The corner, now playing off-man, breaks on the route and cuts off the receiver for the interception.

One of the many reasons Peyton Manning is great is his skill at baiting a defense into revealing its coverage much earlier in a play than it wants. In fact, it’s often the last second before the snap that reveals the greatest clues of what a defense is doing. For Bortles becoming a competent player will be a matter of study and drilling (easier said than done).

Pocket Managment

South Carolina’s defense has presented a strong test for a quarterback’s pocket skills well before Clowney ever set foot on the Columbia campus. The Gamecocks tested Bortles’ skill to maneuver the pocket and find the open man down field several times in this game.

Bortles won some and lost some if you count the end result, but the overall process that he demonstrates to address the pressure is impressive. His skills in the pocket project well  in the NFL if he can get better with his feet and improve his recognition of coverage.

This sack by Kelcey Quarles on 3rd and 3 with 13:54 in the half is a good example of a bad result, but a good process. Bortles comes to the line in a  2×1 receiver 11 personnel formation versus Carolina’s 4-3 look with both safeties inside the hash 10 yards deep.

The quarterback takes a three-step drop and Clowney comes roaring outside the left tackle. By the end of Bortles’ drop, Clowney is two steps away. This is the point of the play where Bortles shares something in common with the best NFL quarterbacks in the pocket.

I noted Sunday on Twitter that Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, and Brees possess a common trait when it comes to eluding pressure from the pocket and it’s not something I have discussed before: They wait as long as possible before executing the first move to avoid the defender. They bait the defender with their stillness, draw him in, and then explode with a turn or dip to ensure the defender has no time to alter his angle to them.

Bortles has this maneuver down pat. On this play, the quarterback is looking down the middle at the end of his drop and waits until Clowney’s approach is too close to alter. Once Clowney reaches that point of no return, the quarterback spins left of the defensive end’s approach, leaving Clowney with nothing but a desperate shot at grasping Bortles’ jersey.

As a quick tangent, Bortles displayed the speed later in this game to escape Clowney to the left flat and throw the ball away. It was a display of speed and quickness that not many NFL quarterbacks will possess.

Back to this play, because there’s more to see. As Bortles spins free of Clowney’s angle, he turns into the second defensive end’s trajectory and is in this end’s face. To compound matters, the defensive tackle on the left side is coming free and closing fast.

Bortles’ sudden spin is enough to get loose from Clowney and in bang-bang succession Bortles makes the second defensive end miss by turning away from the pressure. Throughout it all, the quarterback still manages to keep his arm in position to throw.

If you suspend any thought about the outcome of this play and look at his work avoiding two defensive ends in succession while keeping his arm in a position to deliver the ball, that’s the takeaway despite and anti-climatic ending for the offense.

Here’s nice display of climbing and then sliding – a 2nd and 10 from a 2×1 receiver 11 personnel pistol with 13:56 left from the 25 of Central Florida. Bortles faces a nickel look with two safeties split at the hashes.

He drops five steps, feels the pressure off the right side from then end, climbs, and then slides to his right. His eyes are down field the entire time. He throws the ball from the right hash to the receiver on the comeback at the right sideline seven yards down field. The receiver drops the ball, but the movement from Bortles is noteworthy.

This 1st and 10 pass of 30 yards from release point to reception that splits the defenders up the seam with great accuracy is also a fine display of pocket management. Bortles comes to the line with 6:47 in the half from a 1×2 receiver 11 personnel pistol with the back to the right and the tight end at left end versus a nickel look with two safeties deep split at the TE and slot man.

Bortles takes a five-step drop while looking to the middle. As pressure comes from right end, the quarterback hitches to the left, sliding away from the end and splits the zone up the seam to his receiver on the deep cross. The receiver gets his hands on the ball, but the safety over top delivers a hard hit on the airborne receiver, knocking the ball lose, and incurring a personal foul penalty.

Technically, this is an excellent throw. However, it’s not the type of target that Bortles should make unless the game is on the line and no other choice but to place his receiver in harm’s way. A more optimal decision would be to place the ball to the back shoulder and give his receive an opportunity to protect himself.

Accuracy is the basic part of the equation, but placement is advanced section of quarterbacking. This next play should have been a touchdown, but the lack of mature placement results in Bortles’ second interception.

This is a shotgun set on 2nd and 10 with 6:58 left versus South Carolina’s nickel. One safety is 10 yards off the line in the flat, the other occupies the deep middle. But as I mentioned about last-second movements that reveal the true nature of the coverage, the shallow safety begins a deep drop to change his depth to 20 yards just prior to the snap.

Bortles takes a five step drop looking to the middle and then the left. He makes the read based on the safeties but doesn’t see the deep drop by the middle linebacker that completes what is really happening with this pre-snap safety rotation.

Bortles targets his receiver down the middle seam and this linebacker’s drop beats the throw. Although Bortles likely misread the coverage, he could have beaten it anyway if he throws the ball to a more optimal spot of the field – over the linebacker to the back of the end zone (just as the analyst explains on the broadcast).

As with the 30-yard pass leading his receiver into the teeth of the secondary, Bortles attempts to thread the needle on this potential touchdown rather than lead his teammate to open territory.

Flashes of Integration (View Play and Replay)

This 73-yard touchdown is a good example of Bortles combining several of these skills into one positive result. South Carolina opts for a 3-3-5 look with the strong safety at linebacker depth between the defensive end and slot left receiver. At the snap, the safety in the middle of the field drops to his zone and the defensive back on the right plays man on a receiver while the defensive back on the left appears to play zone.

Bortles looks to the middle during his three-step drop, hitches a step to slide past Clowney’s pressure off the edge, and delivers the deep cross under the high safety at the Central Florida 44. It’s a high throw, but not so high that the receiver can’t highpoint the target in stride, turn up field and gain 55 after the catch.

Overall, I was impressed with Bortles’ performance against the Gamecocks. It was far from perfect, but even Andrew Luck struggled making reads and maneuvering pressure at the college level (see Oregon and Oklahoma State). Bortles isn’t the slam dunk prospect that most think Luck was, but I like his feel for the game.

If I had responsibility picking players for an NFL team, Bortles makes my shortlist of first-round candidates based on what I’ve seen thus far and would remain there at least until I interviewed him. I believe he’s closer to what the Titans are hoping they’ll see consistently from Jake Locker.

For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, download the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio.The 2014 RSP will available April 1 and if you pre-order before February 10, you get a 10 percent discount. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece.

Categories: 2014 NFL Draft, Players, QuarterbackTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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