NFL teams without a legitimate franchise quarterback tend to wind up with high draft picks, and those teams often look for that elusive player that can step in and become the next Andrew Luck. But in recent seasons, that has not gone so well. From last season's draft, only Teddy Bridgewater can be said to have panned out as a workable first-year starter, ranking 15th of all quarterbacks according to the rating system used at Pro Football Focus.
This year doesn't look like a good one to find an immediate starter at the position, either. In the very early position ranking at CBS Sports, the only two draft eligible quarterbacks that receive first-round grades are Oregon's Marcus Mariota and FSU's Jameis Winston. Winston is thought to have the most NFL compatible set of tools, but has well-publicized character concerns that, in the wake of the Johnny Manziel experience with the Cleveland Browns, have to give all teams pause. Mariota has some issues concerning whether he has the accuracy to hit the small windows required in the NFL.
Something that has driven the problems in finding NFL-level talent coming out of college is the way the college game has evolved. The spread, hurry up, no-huddle offense does not translate well to the NFL, despite Chip Kelly's attempts to install it with the Philadelphia Eagles. It is a system designed to handcuff the defense, giving the passer open targets on quick reads, with an option to take off and run. There just are not many college offenses that stress the ability to stand in the pocket, work through progressions, and beat the defense with accurate throws that is still the best way to pass the ball in the pros. This makes it extremely hard to evaluate a quarterback from college video. Additionally, the quarterback who does have the right tools probably has not been coached to develop the ones that the NFL requires.
My fellow FPW Gary Morris recently took a look at the challenge facing the Dallas Cowboys in finding an eventual replacement for Tony Romo. Shortly after he posted it, I was having one of my periodic Cowboys discussions with one of our regular readers, Royce Brown. (Royce is one of the legion of loyal lurkers who doesn't comment around here but who still comes to BTB for all his Cowboys news and info, and who lives close enough for us to meet and talk face to face.) He spurred me to think about how things have changed for quarterbacks in the NFL, and whether the idea of finding an immediate starter is really viable anymore.
Tony Romo was not expected to be an immediate starter. This is not surprising given that he was a UDFA from a small school. But it allowed him time to hone his skills and learn the pro game. The fact is that players like Luck who can come in and start immediately are a very rare breed, and even then will still need a couple of seasons to be the kind of player that can lead his offense into the playoffs.
It may be that the old way is the best. Once, almost all quarterbacks followed the path that Romo did, coming in and sitting behind the current starter while the coaching staff molded them. But with the increased salaries and the restrictions of the salary cap, this creates a conundrum for teams, as Gary pointed out in his article. Developing your own quarterback on the roster presents a delicate timing situation. With the need to pay a player enough in his second contract to keep him, the team has to have that player ready at the right time to take over the reins so as to not tie up too much precious cap space. Otherwise the team faces the risk of losing the player they have groomed to someone in need of a starter or they might have to see the rest of the roster suffer because of the cap while paying the next starter to sit on the bench.
It is a problem that has no easy or certain answers. The Cowboys have Dustin Vaughn on the roster, but only the coaching staff has any idea what he represents. He could turn out to be the next Romo, but that has to be a long shot. From our perspective as fans, we just have to hope that the team gets it right. We may be facing a period of years when the Cowboys have to keep trying to find that player that can take over when Romo is no longer able to lead the offense successfully. We hope that is still several seasons in the future, but the harsh reality is that no one knows. The team has to plan for all contingencies. That may mean using one of the precious draft choices to select someone who looks to have that right set of tools, then trying to figure out where they can keep him. There are obvious questions about whether Brandon Weeden is really who you want as the primary backup. Would the team be better going with Vaughn as the number two? Could they successfully stash a developmental QB on the practice squad, or would he be signed away before he could make the PS ala Matt Moore?
As daunting as this quandary looks, this may be the gauntlet that NFL teams will have to negotiate to find their quarterbacks in the future. The raw material coming out of college is going to need some serious refining to play at an NFL level. Teams are going to find a way to do that without just becoming a resource for other teams who don't invest their own draft and salary cap assets in the process.