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The inexact science of drafting quarterbacks, and what it could mean for the Steelers

Drafting a QB might seem like an easy decision for NFL organizations, but it is far from it.

NFL Combine - Day 3 Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Like many of you, I tuned in to the NFL Combine last week with an interest in some of the offensive players the Steelers might target in the upcoming draft. This year, my eyes were glued to the quarterbacks. The Steelers’ quarterback situation is unsettled with Ben Roethlisberger nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career and backup Mason Rudolph far from certain to succeed him. Last week, I wrote about the possibility of the Steelers selecting Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts and pairing him with recently-signed QB coach Matt Canada to usher in a new era on offense. This particular scenario may not come to fruition, but it stands to reason the Steelers kicked the tires on a few QB prospects in Indianapolis in their quest to find the heir to Big Ben.

The million dollar question, of course, is which prospects? Who might they see as a potential franchise quarterback within their reach? Hurts? Georgia’s Jake Fromm? Washington’s Jacob Eason? Or are they content to bypass a quarterback this year and see how Rudolph develops? It’s a question with huge implications for the future of the franchise.

The problem is, finding a legitimate franchise quarterback in the draft is far from a sure thing. Of the 56 quarterbacks drafted in the 1st round between 2000-2018, only about a dozen turned out to be “franchise” quarterbacks, meaning players who were Pro Bowlers and/or led their teams to sustained success. This group includes guys like Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Philip Rivers.

Beyond them is another dozen or so who had some success but whose careers were marred by injuries, inconsistent play or franchises that couldn’t properly support them. Jay Cutler. Chad Pennington. Sam Bradford. Ryan Tannehill.

The majority of first round picks fall into a third category, one that ranges from players who had a moment or two but were generally ineffective (Mark Sanchez, Marcus Mariota) to guys who were colossal busts (JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Johnny Manziel). This third category outnumbers the first and second, and it isn’t close.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, players like Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott and Tom Brady were improperly evaluated coming out of college as well. Prescott, a fourth round pick, is a better-than-average starter for the Cowboys. Wilson, taken in round three, is one of the best in the league. And Brady, who famously lasted until the sixth round, is arguably the GOAT. NFL teams don’t just miss on the quarterbacks they do take; they miss on the ones they don’t take as well.

A study conducted by Pro Football Reference shows just how difficult it’s been for pro teams to judge college quarterbacks. PFR charted the probability of all draft picks between 1980-2014 of producing more approximate value than the median for their draft slot. The breakdown of that study by position group is listed below:

What the chart shows is that quarterbacks tend to under-perform as compared to other players taken in a similar draft slot. To be specific, a quarterback drafted with the 10th pick in the first round typically did not do as well in his first five seasons as, say, the running backs or defensive linemen taken there in other drafts. Any definition of what constitutes a “bust” is relative to both expectations and performance and thus subjective. Still, by just about any metric, it remains more difficult to project how a quarterback will translate than almost any other position.

This leads us to a broader question. Namely, what makes it so hard to evaluate quarterbacks when forecasting their transition from college to the pros? Here are some factors that contribute to that difficulty and some thoughts on what the Steelers might consider as they hunt for their next Big Ben.

  1. College emphasis on tempo

So many college programs are employing an up-tempo, no-huddle philosophy these days that it’s become more of the norm than the exception. This is problematic for pro evaluators for several reasons.

First, the emphasis an up-tempo scheme places on pace greatly reduces the complexity of offenses, from the verbiage of the play calls to the read progressions a quarterback is required to learn. This forces pro teams to teach things that were once considered basic when college offenses more closely resembled their NFL counterparts.

Take play-calling. Anyone who has tuned in to the XFL the past couple of weeks has likely heard a coach relaying a play to his quarterback over the live mic the league uses to allow viewers an inside peak at the game. Current XFL coaches like Jim Zorn and Kevin Gilbride are veterans of the NFL coaching ranks and their play calls demonstrate as much.

In Saturday’s game, Zorn radioed in the following call to his quarterback: “Double Right F-Right 21 Ace Y-Dodger.” Here’s that call broken down:

Double Right was the formation. F-Right signaled motion. 21 was (I assume) the pass protection. And Ace Y-Dodger was the route combination (a double slant from the inside receivers to the post-motion trips side with fades from the outside receivers).

Kind of confusing, right? The trend in college is to simplify that verbiage as much as possible so teams can play fast. One-word calls that package formation, play call, play direction, pass protection, snap count and whatever other information is necessary into a single term, like “Bulldogs,” is all the rage. They allow a quarterback to relay one word to his linemen as they stand over the ball rather than the word soup NFL coaches prefer.

By using these one-word calls, it’s not uncommon for college teams to take as little as fifteen seconds from the time the ball is spotted to end one play until it’s snapped to start the next. That sort of tempo forces defenses to simplify, reducing the amount of information a quarterback must process.

Here is an example of a one-word play that long-time coordinator Noel Mazzone used while at UCLA. It’s a Stick-Draw concept out of a trips formation with a bubble screen to one side and a choice route to the other. If the quarterback wanted the strength to the left, he would call “UCLA.” If he wanted it to the right, he’d call “Bruins.” Once aligned, the play design looked like this:


The quarterback has some simple pre and post-snap reads that dictate his actions. First, he looks to the single-receiver side to see if he has a one-on-one match-up he can exploit. He can signal any route to his receiver based on the leverage of the defender (big cushion = hitch; empty alley = slant). If the QB doesn’t like the single-receiver side, he will check the bubble. If it’s not properly defended, he will immediately throw there. If neither look is good, he will snap the football and make his post-snap read — in this instance, the Mike linebacker. If the Mike covers the H-back on his stick route, the QB will hand the ball off on the draw to the tailback. If the Mike sits inside, the QB will throw the stick.

Because of the tempo these plays create and their emphasis on simple reads, quarterbacks don’t have to diagnose full-field coverages, worry about pass protections or consider coverage disguises. The throws they are required to make are remedial: stick and bubble to the trips side, hitches, slants and fades to the single receiver. A one-word play package like this is an ideal way to simplify the decision-making process for the 20 year-old kid running your college offense.

Now consider the play Jim Zorn relayed to his quarterback in Saturday’s XFL game. Here’s the call again: “Double Right F-Right 21 Ace Y-Dodger.” On this play, the QB must first relate all of that verbiage to his teammates. Then he must make sure everyone is properly aligned. Then he must signal the motion, knowing the defense is going to change structurally in some way to adjust to it. This is especially tricky when running slants into the middle of the field. If the defense checks into something the quarterback does not recognize, throwing here is dangerous. All of this, and the ball hasn’t been snapped yet.

Bottom line: the thought process on this concept is far more involved than on the single-word package Mazzone utilized. It also requires far more teaching for professional coaches once their young quarterbacks reach the League.

2. “Open” in the NFL versus “open” in college

Another adjustment quarterbacks have to make coming out of college is to account for the speed at which they must make decisions. This is true of every position group because the NFL is faster in every area. No one has more information to process than a quarterback, however, and because his decisions have the greatest impact on the outcome of a game, they are the most crucial.

The worst defensive back on an NFL field is far superior to the typical safeties or corners college quarterbacks encounter on a weekly basis. There just aren’t as many weak links or obvious match-up advantages for professional offenses to exploit. Because of this, coverage is much tighter in the NFL. Pro quarterbacks don’t get the huge windows to throw into that they do in the Big 12. Pass rushers are faster too, leaving them less time to process information. And because the NFL is less tempo-driven, defensive schemes are more complex as well. As a result, young quarterbacks have to re-condition themselves to understand what “open” means.

This was problematic for the Steelers’ Mason Rudolph as his 2019 season progressed. Once defenses got a read on what Rudolph could and couldn't do, they adjusted their schemes accordingly and the picture got muddier for the young QB. He seemed to hold the ball too long, unable to make quick decisions.

When you boot up Rudolph’s college highlight film from Oklahoma State, you see a lot of stuff that looks like this:

How often did Rudolph see those same cushions in 2019? Rarely. As a result, he was forced to throw the football into much smaller windows.

Take this play from the November game in Cleveland. It’s 3rd and 3 in Cleveland territory late in the first quarter. The Browns play press cover-1 and bring pressure. Rudolph has tight end Vance McDonald on a crossing route if he gives him the ball immediately. McDonald is not wide open but he does have inside position on the safety who is covering him. If Rudolph puts the throw on his body, McDonald will likely shield the defender and make the catch for a first down.

Rudolph peeks at McDonald but fails to pull the trigger. Instead, he comes off to his second read, Diontae Johnson, who is running an outside hitch. By this time the edge rusher has collapsed the pocket and is in Rudolph’s face, forcing an errant throw. The drive stalls and the Steelers have to settle for a field goal.

Whether Rudolph can catch up to the speed of the NFL game and adjust his decision-making accordingly remains to be seen. Many young QBs never learn to do this, hampering their opportunity to succeed.

3. Intangibles

Finally, there are the so-called intangibles for which to account. Pairing the right quarterback with the right system or coaching staff can be crucial (Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, for example, where offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s background as a high school and college coach gave him experience with the read-option). The mental toughness of a player and his ability to respond to adversity is another factor. A player’s maturity and how he handles fame and fortune figures in as well.

No intangible may be more important for a young quarterback, however, than leadership. Quarterbacks must be alpha males capable of leading other alpha males. In college, this is not as difficult since players are roughly the same age and are in an environment (the college campus) that overwhelmingly treats them as rock stars. But an NFL locker room is filled with grown men, most of whom are not easily impressed. How a 22 year-old handles veterans who may resent the money and attention he commands often goes a long way towards determining that QB’s success. Roethlisberger impressed his veteran teammates in Pittsburgh with his toughness as a rookie. Patrick Mahomes is said to have dazzled with his athleticism but also his infectious optimism. Even lesser players like Alex Smith, whose selection in San Francisco was controversial with Aaron Rodgers the local favorite, won over his teammates by working hard and being professional. The ability of a young quarterback to handle the mantle of leadership may be the ultimate intangible.

Of all the factors the Steelers will consider in their search to inevitably replace Roethlisberger, I hope leadership is near the top of the list. Ability matters, of course. But among those upper echelon candidates, leadership can be just as important.

Take the case of Johnny Manziel. Few people doubted Manziel’s ability. He was a scrappy, gifted player. However, considering how he conducted himself in college — the arrogance, the immaturity, the tendency to behave like the spoiled rich kid he was — it is mind-boggling that the Browns believed Manziel would be a great leader for their franchise. That’s why the Browns are the Browns, I suppose.

Their most recent high pick at the quarterback position, Baker Mayfield, has some Manziel tendencies as well. He is brash, outspoken and cocky. That style can work in some situations — some people respond well to a fiery demeanor — but it can also be incendiary and off-putting. It requires a person with a special blend of talent and personality (Brett Favre?) to make it work. Is Mayfield that guy? I have my doubts.

What about Mason Rudolph? What kind of leader might he be? Rudolph seems to have impressed his teammates with how he came back from the Earl Thomas hit and the Myles Garrett incident. If their comments to the media are any indication, they seem to have his back. If anyone in the Steelers’ locker room believes that Rudolph called Garrett a racial slur, they haven’t expressed that belief publicly. If Rudolph plays well, no one will care either way. If he doesn’t, the Garrett incident could loom larger. These are the types of intangibles that sometimes determine whether a young quarterback sinks or swims.

In the end, selecting a quarterback in the draft is one of the most inexact sciences in all of football because playing quarterback in the NFL requires such a different set of skills, both mentally and physically, than it does in college. With up-tempo schemes continuing to grow at the college level, the challenge for NFL teams is not likely to get easier any time soon. Let’s just hope the Steelers can solve the riddle before Big Ben calls it a career.