CHICAGO — Musings, observations and the occasional insight from the final day of the NFL’s big field trip to the Windy City, where we’re talking quarterbacks as the league’s annual draft wraps ...
• The third day of the NFL draft was well under way and the fourth round was still unfolding, but already it had become apparent that UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley would be one of the biggest losers of this year’s proceedings. After a record-setting career with the Bruins, Hundley opted to skip his senior season at UCLA to turn professional this spring.
The only problem with that plan was that the league opted to all but skip Hundley in the selection process, making him wait until Saturday’s lowly fifth round to hear his name called. When he did finally go, 147th overall to the Green Bay Packers, Hundley was just the sixth quarterback taken, a virtual afterthought in a draft that was led off by passers going No. 1 and No. 2 for only the sixth time in league history.
Hundley’s precipitous slide was even more pronounced than the one experienced two years ago by another celebrated Los Angeles-area college quarterback, USC’s Matt Barkley. At least the Eagles and ex-Oregon head coach Chip Kelly rescued Barkley by making him the first overall pick of the third day, to lead off 2013’s fourth round. In Barkley’s case, he probably stayed in school a year too long; after being considered a potential No. 1 overall pick in 2012, he injured his throwing shoulder that fall and turned in a so-so senior year.
The inverse reality might have come to pass for Hundley. Could he have fared any worse in the draft by returning to UCLA for his senior season in 2015, then putting his name in the hat for the 2016 draft? In a particularly galling twist, even USC cornerback Josh Shaw was selected two-thirds of the way through the fourth round, by the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 120.
Shaw, of course, was the Trojans' cover man who fabricated an elaborate story last summer about injuring his ankles when he jumped off a balcony in order to save a drowning child in a pool. As it was later revealed, he lied to cover up the fact that he jumped off that balcony after an argument with his girlfriend (I’d like to say you can’t make this stuff up, but evidently Shaw can).
On the surface at least, Hundley has to be hoping there’s a pretty well-known blueprint for him to follow in the NFL. It was 10 years ago that another California quarterback lasted longer than expected in the draft, then went to Green Bay and bided his time behind a Packers' great, eventually developing into one of the league’s best QBs. But that’s where the similarities probably end between the Aaron Rodgers and the Brett Hundley stories, because Rodgers "only" fell to 24th in the first round in 2005, not the 147th slot in the fifth, and aging Packers legend Brett Favre was a heck of a lot closer to the end of his career at that point than Rodgers is now.
When you add in that Green Bay thinks very highly of recently re-signed backup Scott Tolzien—veteran Matt Flynn remains a free agent and is no longer in the Packers’ quarterback plans—Hundley likely initially projects to Green Bay’s No. 3 developmental QB role, albeit on a team known for often carrying just two passers on its active roster. So at the moment, Hundley is more Troy Smith than Troy Aikman.
Which probably isn’t quite what the redshirt-junior envisioned when he declared for the draft in January, after going 29-11 as the team’s starter, becoming the first Bruins' quarterback to win at least nine games for three consecutive seasons, and setting school records for both touchdown passes (75) and total yards (11,481). Hundley was never thought to be a clear-cut first-round prospect, but he did enter this year’s draft season as a candidate to go as high as the second round, becoming the third quarterback taken after Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, who went 1-2 to Tampa Bay and Tennessee, respectively.
Instead, while Hundley lingered on the board, the second-tier quarterbacks taken ahead of him were Colorado State’s Garrett Grayson by the Saints in the third round (75th overall), Oregon State’s Sean Mannion by the Rams in the third round (89th) and Baylor’s Bryce Petty, who went to the Jets earlier Saturday, at No. 103. Teams reportedly liked much about Hundley’s skill set, but questions about his accuracy in the NFL, and a penchant for not being able to function well in a "dirty" pocket under heavy pass rush apparently scared off some suitors.
Hundley is the first UCLA quarterback taken anywhere in the draft since the bust-worthy Cade McNown went 12th to Chicago in 1999. But from the vantage point of Saturday afternoon, Hundley’s call to enter the draft this year doesn’t look like it paid off. Green Bay once was known as a team that loved to develop quarterbacks and then trade off its surplus, seeding the rest of the league with quality passers. But for now, Rodgers remains in his prime and Hundley’s path to a starting job seems distant at best.
• Meanwhile, Bryce Petty's early career outlook appears much rosier over in New York, with a Jets team that hasn’t had much stability at quarterback since Joe Namath left for Los Angeles in the mid-to-late ‘70s. If the former Baylor star quickly shows he’s a nice fit for offensive coordinator Chan Gailey’s offense—far from a given with Petty’s background in a spread offense—you could envision him at least competing for the starting job along erstwhile incumbent Geno Smith and veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is in the midst of rehabilitation from last year’s mid-December broken leg with Houston.
Petty doesn’t have to play early with the Jets, of course, and more likely he’s only a real starting option in 2016. But given that New York’s quarterback situation remains so fluid, no scenario can be ruled out if Petty develops more rapidly than expected. The Jets were obviously motivated to go get him, because they traded up one slot from 104 to 103 with Jacksonville, reportedly because the ever-QB-needy Browns were also negotiating with the Jaguars for that pick. For the cost of a measly seventh-rounder, 227th overall, New York won that bidding war and landed Petty, a 6'3", 230-pound prospect who threw for a gaudy 62 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions in his four seasons at Baylor.
Petty is seen as a product of the Bears’ spread-offense system, but he has this much in his favor in New York: Gailey will be coordinating an offense that has some elements of the spread incorporated into it, so his transition to the NFL may not be quite as challenging as many foresee. And the bar in New York is set low at quarterback, given that the Jets new management tandem of general manager Mike Maccagnan and head coach Todd Bowles didn’t draft Smith in 2013’s second round, and have no particular loyalty to the starter who has gone just 10-18 in his first two seasons in the league, flashing inconsistency all the while.
Petty landed in a particularly good spot because, as always, there’s opportunity for a quarterback in Jets-ville. Fitzpatrick is at best a short-term answer, and Smith may never produce enough to make the job his own.
• Who really knows how long Drew Brees, 36, has left as one of the league’s elite quarterbacks, but the Saints taking Colorado State’s Garrett Grayson in Friday night’s third round seems about the right price to pay for a potential starting replacement with a rather indefinite timetable of apprenticeship ahead of him.
The Saints had a hefty collection of picks at their disposal this year and it seems wise to invest a second-day selection on a quarterback, given the rather remarkable reality that New Orleans hasn’t selected a passer in the draft’s top three rounds since some guy named Archie Manning went second overall in 1971, behind Stanford’s Heisman Trophy winner, Jim Plunkett.
The Saints did a little smokescreening about their interest in Petty, calling a misdirection play in the QB market, then took Grayson with Petty still available, with head coach Sean Payton calling the ex-CSU Ram "the one" New Orleans wanted. "If he wasn’t available, we probably would have gone without drafting a quarterback," Payton said.
• The somewhat surprising quarterback development was the Rams choosing Oregon State’s Sean Mannion in the latter third of round three, at No. 89th overall. Relax, Rams fans, that’s Mannion, not Manning. One letter can make such a world of difference.
Mannion will be cast in a developmental first-year role, but with the renovated Rams' quarterback depth chart featuring the newly acquired Nick Foles, backup Austin Davis and third-teamer Case Keenum—no murderer’s row there—who knows how things may shake out in what could be the franchise’s final season in St. Louis? Foles has been injury prone and is the final year of his contract, as is Davis.
Too bad the Rams couldn’t acquire second-year Saints receiver Brandin Cooks as part of the Mannion pick, because throwing to the dynamic Cooks in the Oregon State offense helped put Mannion on the map in 2013. (And to think New Orleans was seemingly ready to deal almost anyone on its roster earlier this off-season).
At 6'6", 229 pounds, Mannion has superb NFL size, and one of his positives is he’s coming from a pro style offense that figures to require less of a transition to the NFL than many quarterback prospects face these days—see Petty, Bryce, and Mariota, Marcus. Quarterback has been a bit of a revolving door position of late in St. Louis with Sam Bradford’s litany of injuries, but Mannion is now poised and well-positioned to join the merry-go-round.