PITTSBURGH -- Former Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald most assuredly will be the Panthers player drafted the highest this year, but quarterback Tom Savage's star is rising so fast he could be the next in line.
Sure, Savage isn't likely to go in the first round during this year's NFL Draft May 8-10, like Donald, but he could be a second-day selection. With a strong performance at the NFL Combine and excellent followup at Pitt's pro day, Savage went from a likely third-day selection -- anywhere from Rounds 4-7 -- to the second day and possibly a late third-round pick.
How has this happened to a player like Savage? He certainly has the size to be an NFL quarterback at 6-foot-4 and 228 pounds, as well as the arm strength. But his lack of athleticism and intermittent accuracy issues could hold him back. Still, Savage has something that scouts love, and that's potential.
"I definitely want to bring toughness [to the NFL),'' Savage said. "You have to be that guy who can take a couple of hits and keep your eyes down the field and still make the big-time throws you need to make. Everyone here has big arms. You have to be accurate. You have to be a poised quarterback and be able to handle the pressure.''
Anyone who watched Savage play for Pitt knows that he has to be among the toughest quarterbacks in college last season. Playing behind the Panthers' leaky offensive line decimated by injuries and attrition, Savage was banged around from sideline to sideline and sacked 43 times. Virginia sacked Savage seven times in the fourth week of the season, while Virginia Tech dropped him eight times the next week. Later in the season, he was sacked five times at Navy and seven times at home by North Carolina just a few weeks later.
It's a wonder that Savage was able to finish the season. Actually, he wasn't, as Savage was knocked from Pitt's bowl game prior to halftime. However, after transferring from Rutgers to Arizona following his sophomore season in 2011 and in 2012 to Pitt and sitting out both those seasons, most scouts believe that Savage has not yet realized his potential. Savage's only year with the Panthers was solid. He was 238-for-389 passing (61.2 percent) and threw for 2,958 yards and 21 touchdowns with just nine interceptions. He also ran for three scores and threw just three picks in his final nine games in 13 starts.
A rib injury caused him to miss the second half of the Panthers' bowl win against Bowling Green. Savage was 8-for-13 for 124 yards to help Pitt secure a 17-10 halftime lead. The Panthers eventually won 30-27 on a last-second field goal. If not for the injury, Savage likely would have become just the fifth player in Pitt history to reach 3,000 yards passing in a season. His 2,958 yards passing rank fifth on the Panthers' single-season list.
"Watching him this (past) year, he's still a little bit all over the place,'' NFL draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "He's had some accuracy issues at times, but he can really push the football down the field. And he hasn't been in an offense long enough to learn. I finally got to see him this year (being) stabilized (and playing) in an offensive system for a (full) year. He's a big, strong kid.''
So, what does all this mean for Savage? He has been compared to Philadelphia Eagles starting quarterback Nick Foles, similar in size and stature going into the NFL Draft. Foles, 6-6, 243, was taken in the third round by the Eagles in 2012. Foles played at Arizona and was a rising star going into his draft. Savage also has compared by arm strength to more notable college players like Fresno State's Derek Carr and LSU's Zach Mettenberger.
If Savage can follow Foles lead into the NFL, he'll be set for the future. In any event, he'll certainly end up in some team's camp this summer, no matter where he is selected in the draft. Among other positive points for Savage, who will turn 24 just before the draft, is his one season in a pro-style offense under Pitt coach Paul Chryst.
However, that offense also did not play to Savage's strengths as a quarterback. And if he is selected by a team that more utilizes downfield passing and where he doesn't have to play immediately -- such as the Arizona Cardinals, Tennessee Titans, Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys -- Savage could be a valued pick in any mid-to-late round.