In our "Building the Roster" series' first installment, we looked at the top collegiate 4-3 defensive ends. Today, we look at quarterback prospects. Why jump from one side of the ball to the other? It's simple: early returns suggest that these will be two of the strongest, deepest positions in the 2014 NFL draft. In the post that introduced the series, I noted that QB, DE and OLB were the three positions that, at this juncture, were richer in comparison to recent draft years than other positions in the upcoming selection meeting. This led me to conclude that:
...potential positions of strength in 2014 correlate neatly with Dallas' positions of need. To wit: despite the infusion of talent onto the defensive side of the roster, our beloved 'Boys still have a soft spots at defensive end, where Anthony Spencer will once again be a free agent, and where they have not found an adequate back-up to (not to mention a replacement for) All-World
OLBDE DeMarcus Ware. And speaking of aging core players, what better time to begin the annual search for the guy to groom as Tony Romo's replacement than the potentially quarterback-rich 2014 draft?
As a result, we begin with edge rushers and quarterbacks before moving on to other, more normally stocked, positions of need: DT, OT, OG.
So, quarterbacks. Given Tony Romo's recent contract extension, it's unlikely that the team will spend a first rounder on a signal caller. That said, they will have gone two years without a developmental quarterback. That, combined with recent reports that Kyle Orton's arm seems to be sagging suggest that the time is ripe to groom a guy capable of being a long-term backup, a la the Redskins' Kirk Cousins, if not a long-term starter. With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the candidates. I've listed them in the general order in which scouts currently rank them. More than any other position, this is subject to change, so don't invest in the order so much as the scouting reports and the accompanying tape.
Note: I've confined this list to junior and senior candidates (juniors are marked with asterisks). As a result, this list does not include hotshot redshirt sophomores Brett Hundley, Johnny Manziel or Marcus Mariota.
*Teddy Bridgewater: As a true freshman in 2011, Bridgewater took college football by storm, completing 64.5 percent of his passes for 2,129 yards and 14 touchdowns, and adding another 265 yards and four touchdowns on the ground, enough to earn him Big East Rookie of the Year recognition.
In 2012, he emerged as one of the best quarterbacks in college football (indeed, Florida safety Matt Elam said that Bridgewater was the best quarterback his team played). Bridgewater completed 68.5 percent of his passes for 3,718 yards with 27 touchdowns and eight interceptions, and ran for 237 yards and a touchdown, carrying Louisville to an 11-2 season, capped by a Sugar Bowl win over Elam's Gators.
Here he is in action against Big East rival UConn in 2012:
As the tape suggests, Bridgewater has an impressive physical skill set and can be a legitimate dual-threat quarterback, a la Russell Wilson. He excels at escaping pressure with subtle, composed moves in the pocket. He keeps his eyes downfield while going through his reads and is comfortable throwing the ball on the run and from different platforms, delivering the ball with zip, accuracy and anticipation; he has the ability to "throw receivers open." Moreover, Bridgewater is reportedly a charismatic leader and positive presence in the locker room.
Although most of the preseason prognosticators are proclaiming that South Carolina's All-Universe defensive end Jadeveon Clowney will the first pick in the draft, Bridgewater has a real chance to be the first player taken if a quarterback-needy team ends up with the worst record at the end of the regular season.
Tajh Boyd: After a redshirt freshman season, Boyd became Clemson's starter in 2011 and turned heads, leading the Tigers to an 8-0 start with a 24-3 TD-INT ratio. Although he and the team faded down the stretch but, after defeating Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game, won the ACC and earned a spot in the Orange Bowl.
In 2012, Boyd continued to put up impressive numbers en route to being named the ACC Offensive Player of the Year. He led the Tigers to an 11-2 record while setting regular-season ACC records for touchdowns responsible for in a single game (eight) and season (41). He topped it off by engineering a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback victory over LSU in the Chik-fil-A Bowl; the game-winning drive included a superb fourth-down completion that kept Clemson's hopes alive. Witness:
Like Bridgewater, Boyd is a true dual-threat quarterback that excels when he's able to extend plays with his feet and, at 225 pounds, is a nightmare to bring down in the open field. He has a rocket arm capable of making all the requisite NFL throws, and ability to fit the ball in tight windows. At the top of the "con" column is the fact that he struggles with accuracy and consistency and tends to lock onto his first target. Also, since Clemson runs so quick hitches and bubble screens, Boyd has rarely been asked to drive the ball from the opposite hash across the field. So, he'll have to prove that he can operate in a sophisticated downfield passing attack.
David Fales, San Jose State: Fales was a junior college transfer and has all the tools you are looking for in a quarterback. He had a great junior season and could see himself get more national attention this year.
Fales is cut from different cloth than our first two candidates. He began his career at Nevada but decided to transfer because he felt he didn't fit the dual-threat role that the Wolf Pack asked of their quarterbacks. He bounced around for a while, spending two years at a JC and briefly landing at Wyoming before transferring to San Jose State for the 2012 season, when he started every game for the Spartans, completing 72.5 percent of his passes for 4,193 yards with 33 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Fales is probably best suited to a Bill Walsh style offense that emphasizes multiple options and asks him to make quick decisions in the short-to-intermediate passing game. He consistently makes correct reads and delivers a catchable ball; he had a high completion percentage in every outing (admittedly inflated by a lot of quick, short passes). Fales is especially impressive delivering back-shoulder throws. He's intensely competitive and, in his first year in San Jose, emerged as the team's clear-cut on-field leader.
He throws with good touch and anticipation, but has a lack of arm strength, especially on throws of 15 or more yards. And there's the problem: Fales has a bit of a gunslinger mentality and too often struggles to fit the ball into tight spots because he can't zip the ball into a closing window. He also struggled to recognize blitzes, which will be a death knell at the NFL level. Moreover, he inflated his statistics against lesser competition; his worst game came against Stanford, the one legitimate defense the Spartans faced:
While Fales exhibits a sound understanding of defenses and has shown the requisite toughness to excel in the NFL, he needs to prove that he can drive the ball down field and into tight windows to be a high first round pick.
Aaron Murray, Georgia - Murray has been a very productive SEC quarterback, starting since his freshman year, when he threw for 3,049 yards while completing 61 percent of his passes with 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions. In 2011, he followed this up by completing 59 percent of his passes for 3,149 yards with 35 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. In 2012, Murray completed 64.5 percent of his passes for 3,893 yards with 36 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Murray is tough, athletic, and has an NFL arm, delivering the ball quickly with an efficient, over the top release. Because of his arm, he's a bit too confident that he fit the ball into tight windows; too often he'll opt for longer, more difficult throws when he has open receivers on shorter routes. As a result, while his touchdown numbers have jumped each year, he has also suffered double-digit interception totals the last two seasons. Moreover, Like Foles, Murray struggled against better defenses. A good example is the Bulldogs tilt versus Alabama, seen below:
The big knock on Murray is his height (6'1"), which causes scouts to wonder if he can see the field over hulking NFL linemen. At the same time, Murray has a quality arm, flashes the ability to be a good game manager, and has won in the super-competitive SEC. Expect to hear a lot of Drew Brees comparisons as pundits discuss Murray leading up to the 2014 draft.
Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech - Many people thought Thomas would have declared early for the NFL draft, but he decided to go back to school after a disappointing junior season. This stands to reason, as Thomas was one of the 2012 college football season's biggest disappointments, completing only 51 percent of his passes for 2,976 yards with 18 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
Thomas needs to do a ton of work to develop as a passer. He has to significantly improve his accuracy along with developing pocket presence. Thomas has to get more patience and vastly improve his ability to read defenses. He generally looks to run if he doesn't see a receiver breaking open early.
Thomas possesses a similar skill set to that of Cam Newton. He is a big (6'6", 260 pounds), athletic signal-caller with a strong arm who set the school record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in 2011, running for 627 yards and 11 scores. This represented a significant drop-off from his first year as a starter, when Thomas completed 60 percent of his passes for 3,013 yards with 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, leading the Hokies to an eleven win season and trip to the Sugar Bowl. Below, you can see him in action in that bowl game against Michigan:
Thomas has the size, arm and mobility to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. He is capable of having a massive 2013 season to be a potential first-round pick. But there's still a lot of work to do; in VT's spring game, Thomas threw three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns.
Derek Carr, Fresno State; Carr comes form NFL bloodlines; his brother David was the number one overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft and is currently the Giants backup quarterback. Derek has steadily improved over the course of his collegiate career. As a redshirt sophomore in 2011, he completed 63 percent of his passes for 3,544 yards with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions, meriting Second-Team All-WAC selection. He raised the bar as a junior, completing 67 percent of his passes (he holds the Fresno State record for highest career completions percentage) for 4,104 yards with 37 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Carr boasts prototypical size for an NFL quarterback, standing tall in the pocket with a nice release point. He throws the ball with enough velocity and has the arm strength to make throws to all areas of the field. On multiple occasions during the 2012 season, Carr showed the ability to put touch on his deep passes and enough accuracy and touch to make back shoulder throws down near the goal line.
The other side of the coin is that his game breaks down when he's subjected to pressure. Carr struggles to diagnose the blitz pre snap and, when the pocket breaks down or he feels pressure, has a tendency to throw the ball of his back foot while fading away from the rush. He also stares down his receivers too often and throws the ball into crowded areas of the field. Want proof: here he is opposite SMU in the 2012 Hawaii Bowl:
Carr is an impressive talent with and NFL arm and the size and athleticism to be an NFL quarterback. But his mental game needs a lot of work; he needs to learn how to progress through his reads and keep his eyes downfield in the face of pressure. If he cannot overcome the mechanical breakdowns that occur with defenders in his face, Carr's career is likely to resemble that of his brother: mere journeyman.
The Best of the Rest:
A.J. McCarron, Alabama: Like former Tide signal callers John Parker Wilson or Greg McElroy, McCarron is not a dominant passer, but he is intelligent and avoids the things that lose games. He lacks an elite arm, but has all the other tools you are looking for in an NFL quarterback. He certainly is a winner; in 2012, the Crimson Tide repeated as National Champions with McCarron under center, when he completed 67 percent of his passes for 2,933 yards with 30 touchdowns and three interceptions. Of course, he has benefited from a tremendous running game and dominant, star-studded defense. Because Alabama lost three offensive linemen, its starting running back and top tight end to the 2013 NFL Draft, the upcoming campaign should provide a more accurate gauge of McCarron's NFL standing.
Zach Mettenberger, LSU: Mettenberger spent one season at Georgia before transferring to Butler (Kan.) Community College, where he played the 2010 season before enrolling at LSU in 2011. He has ideal NFL size (6-5, 230, 4.87 forty) and physical tools and, because of these, was expected to light up the SEC on his way to the draft's first round. But he started the year flat and gained traction only at the end of the season, punctuated by a 298-yards, two touchdown performance against Alabama. He'll need to pick up where he left off to be a prime candidate next April.
Stephen Morris, Miami: Morris might have the best arm on this entire list; he can sling it, and is capable of making the most demanding NFL throws. Morris had a solid season in 2012 and, like Mettenberger, cam on late; in Miami's final three games he threw nine touchdowns and no interceptions while completing more than 60 percent of his throws. Like the LSU product, he'll have to extend this late-season surge to catch the attention of NFL scouts.
Keith Price, Washington: Another QB plagued by inconsistency last season. Scouts remember the 2012 Alamo Bowl when Price went toe-to-toe with Robert Griffin III in a shootout loss. Although that game set the Huskies QB atop a lot of draftniks "to watch" lists heading into last season, he failed to capitalize; his completion percent, yards and touchdowns dropped while his interception total went up. He'll need to show that his stellar bowl performance wasn't a fluke.
*Devin Gardner, Michigan: In replacing Denard Robinson as Michigan's starter at the end of last season, Gardner showed plenty to be considered a legit NFL Draft prospect. Moving to quarterback from wide receiver, Gardner displayed an NFL arm and a solid grasp of the offense. That said, Gardner's throwing motion and footwork need further refinement, but scouts will be seduced by his rich array of natural tools.
Okay, BTBers; there's the early list. Any candidates that you'd like to see wearing a Cowboys uniform (and a headset) on Sundays in 2014? Anybody you absolutely DON'T want to see?
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