Why were NFL draft pundits so wrong about 2016's rookie quarterbacks?
- Draft experts tried to warn fans of the teams who drafted quarterbacks this spring that progress would come slowly, and yet Prescott, Wentz and more have all played like the real deal right away. How could we have all missed so badly?
On April 11, quarterback guru Steve Calhoun of the Armed & Dangerous Football Camp was a guest on SI Now. Three days later, the Rams traded up for the 2016 draft’s No. 1 pick, and about two weeks later, the Eagles made a similar move to grab the No. 2 spot.
When asked which of the draft class’s quarterbacks could step in and play right away for an NFL franchise, Calhoun had answered, “I think there’s quite a few, there’s at least three or four guys who have the opportunity to play Day One. Carson Wentz, Cody Kessler, Jared Goff, Dak Prescott.”
Goff and Wentz, sure. By that point, it had become rather obvious that a QB-needy team would swing a deal with the Titans to nab one of those players. With rebuilding Cleveland set to pick second but active in trade talks itself, the other prospect was not expected to fall far.
But Kessler and Prescott? At best, they—like the majority of the 2016 QBs, including Goff and Wentz in some people’s minds—were viewed as long-term developmental projects. If they could be serviceable backups, great. If they ever matured into starting NFL quarterbacks, all the better. The consensus was that they were not ready to be faces of the franchise out of the gate, nor were they drafted to fill those roles.
Circumstances changed. By Week 3, Wentz, Prescott and Kessler held their respective team’s QB1 slot; another rookie, Jacoby Brissett, made a spot start that same week for the Patriots. Together that weekend, those four rookies combined for three wins, 873 yards passing, five touchdowns and just one turnover (a Kessler fumble).
Even in a year full of surprises from the rookie QB class, up to and including Goff riding the pine for the first two months, Week 3 was a stunner. Almost no one saw it coming.
So what did Calhoun notice that so many missed?
Indianapolis. February. Carson Wentz takes the podium at the NFL scouting combine, in front of dozens upon dozens of media members. For any draft prospect, these press conferences can be daunting. For a kid from Bismarck, N.D., who played his college ball in the Football Championship Subdivision, who suddenly has the eyes of the entire league on him, it’s a veritable trial by fire.
Wentz owns the room. He bounces from question to question like a seasoned White House press secretary, covering topics ranging from the type of offense he ran in college to why he loves the state of North Dakota.
“I view every day just as an opportunity,” Wentz says. “I’m excited as heck to keep playing ball, for sure.”
It is a performance reminiscent of Derek Carr’s from the 2015 combine—the soon-to-be Raider dazzled with his professionalism, even staying beyond his allotted press-conference time to answer questions about his young son, who had battled health problems early in his life.
Believe it or not, those moments matter—quite a bit, in some cases. The combine is overwhelmed by talk of height, weight, speed, hand size and so on, but what happens elsewhere helps paint a significant part of the picture.
Everyone, from each of the 32 NFL GMs to any casual fan sitting at home, has access to extensive game tape these days. We all can see if a quarterback has a strong arm or can run outside the pocket. What’s often missing from such study is the so-called intangibles, issues like how a quarterback interacts with his teammates or how he responds to a loss or how he behaves when faced with adversity.
There is no surefire equation for evaluating quarterback prospects, because those unquantifiable variables will always exist.
“There’s always going to be a hole,” says Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller. “You can talk to everyone—coaches, teammates, opponents, scouts, but you’re never going to get a complete picture. It’s the same for me as it is for the Green Bay Packers. You try to do the best you can.”
That’s one thing for any of us on the media side of the evaluation process, who fire out rankings and mock drafts and try to assess as accurately as possible how impactful each rookie class will be. It’s another thing entirely for NFL front offices, where jobs live and die with draft successes or failures.
Nowhere is that pressure more evident than when a franchise has to find a quarterback.
“Every owner, GM, coach knows that position is critical to their success,” says Dan Hatman, director of scouting development at The Scouting Academy and a former NFL scout for multiple franchises. “The beauty of working for a team and studying the college process is that more often than not you’ll generate additional questions film can’t answer. Then you go to that [player’s] coaching staff, interview him directly, whatever mechanism you have available. ... When you’re going film only, you’re going to be limited in that holistic grading.”
Therein lies the explanation for why something as simple as a combine press conference can hold water in the draft process. NFL teams want to see prospects perform well on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium during that week, but front-office personnel will tell you that it’s everything else—the medical checks, the one-on-one interviews, the play diagrams up on a whiteboard—that drive a prospect’s value.
Even those elements only take an evaluation so far.
“I had the opportunity to work with Russell Wilson his rookie year during the lockout,” says Calhoun. “I’d been a fan from afar but to be able to work him out ... he absolutely crushed it. I had him work out with [former University of Washington and current CFL QB] Keith Price; he’s looking at me like, ‘Dude, it took four years to master all this stuff. Russell comes out in two hours and crushes it.’ That’s when I knew he’s going to be really good. He’s able to process information, able to really ask questions and just has that laser focus.”
This is why the NFL has so much trouble pinning down future stars at the quarterback position—why each off-season we have to talk about the five or 10 or dozen teams that have a need at the game’s most important position. Because for all the analysis that goes into finding that next superstar, there still is a factor of “you’ll know it when you see it.”
Which doesn’t help much when a team cannot see how its draft pick will perform at the NFL level until he is thrown into the fire.
Eric Galko is the founder of Optimum Scouting and the scouting director for the Dream Bowl, a postseason college all-star game. As he drives to his next information-gathering pit stop, though, he is thinking like an NFL general manager.
The Rams traded two first-round picks (2016 and ’17) plus a handful of other second- and third-rounders to Tennessee for the chance to draft Goff. The Eagles’ package for the No. 2 pick opened with their 2016 and ’17 first-round picks (they later reacquired one of the latter by dealing Sam Bradford). The Texans handed Brock Osweiler $18 million per year, the Redskins slapped a franchise tag worth nearly $20 million on Kirk Cousins.
And then the Browns and Cowboys quietly found potential long-term starting QBs in the third and fourth round of the draft.
“What I think it should do is that this whole QB contract market should get turned upside down,” Galko says, “because you can take a QB in the second through fourth round every year. If you hit even once, not only do you have a Dak Prescott, you’re saving millions of dollars per year on a quarterback.”
Part of the rub here, of course, is that neither Prescott nor Kessler nor, in truth, any of the 2016 QBs were drafted to start right away. There is an alternate timeline where Teddy Bridgewater, Tony Romo, Jimmy Garoppolo, Trevor Siemian and either Robert Griffin III or Josh McCown stay healthy, and the rookies haven’t seen the field save for the preseason and the occasional mop-up duty.
That a small handful of first-year quarterbacks have been able to step in and hold their own points to another meaningful disconnect: The media breaks down talent in the grand scheme of the entire league; each individual front office looks only at how Player X fits its system.
“The NFL can reject a guy and say, ‘We don’t want this guy for this reason,’” Galko says. “For people who cover the draft, you can’t just say, ‘That guy sucks.’ I wasn’t a big Jared Goff guy, but some guys on our staff were—I can’t just take him off our board because I wouldn’t draft Jared Goff. That’s the trap we fall into sometimes.”
We had the same level of disagreement here at SI when setting our draft board. I lobbied for Goff as the top QB, while Doug Farrar, now at Bleacher Report, sat on Team Wentz. In the end, Goff landed at spot No. 14 on our Big Board, Wentz at 34. Farrar then gave the Eagles an “A” grade for their Wentz selection and the Rams a “B-” for taking Goff.
Does that mean Doug was right and I was wrong? So far, yes. Long-term ... maybe. We don’t know yet whether Goff is any good, nor for how long Wentz, Prescott and Kessler can maintain any positives they’ve thus far displayed.
So much of the early returns have come because of the very specific situations in which those quarterbacks landed. What if the Rams had taken Wentz instead? Would the Eagles still have felt compelled to trade away Sam Bradford, thus clearing the way for Goff to take over?
“Off the tape in college, I liked Goff above Wentz,” Hatman says. “But once the trade happened, I would rather be the QB in Philly than in L.A.”
Or how about if the Cowboys had nabbed, say, Connor Cook in the third round instead of using a fourth-round compensatory pick on Prescott? Would we now be talking about Cook the way we’re talking about Prescott, or would the Cowboys have a journeyman veteran holding down the fort until Romo returns?
“You just never know for sure,” Cowboys executive VP Stephen Jones said in an interview with 105.3 FM earlier this month. “Everybody says, ‘Boy, y’all were sure smart to get Dak in the fourth round.’ If we’d known Dak was going to be doing what he’s doing now, we sure wouldn’t have waited until the fourth round to pick him.”
The NFL is a copycat league, so there no doubt will be efforts to replicate this draft class’s victories—the hunt for another FCS high-riser like Wentz or a proven college star like Prescott. There’s never going to be a straight point-to-point comparison.
It depends on the player. It depends on the situation. It all has to come together just so for there to be any positive outcomes on the field.
“We as coaches here at our office, we had our thoughts of which team was a good fit,” says Randy Hedberg, Wentz’s quarterbacks coach at North Dakota State and a 1977 NFL draft pick by the Buccaneers. “We all felt that Philly was a good fit because of the staff—good fit, had a staff with coaches familiar working with quarterbacks. You never know, with a young quarterback. ... Having kind of gone through it, you also want an offensive line with some veterans and a good defense. I think that’s what the Eagles had going on.”
“Everyone’s trying to mimic that success,” Miller says. “They’re going to keep looking for that prototype: size and athleticism, no b.s. attitude. I think Wentz was a lot like Andrew Luck—all he cares about is football. Kind of dorky, kind of nerdy. But I don’t know that the mold has changed that much. GMs, scouts, fall in love with players.”
The three quarterbacks often mentioned at the top of the 2017 draft class are Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Miami’s Brad Kaaya. The prospect who has undergone the biggest rise since the season’s start, however, is North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky.
Pro Football Focus recently named Trubisky one of college football’s four “breakout” draft prospects this season. CBSSports.com analyst Dane Brugler, who each year produces one of the most comprehensive draft guides available, just handed Trubisky to Chicago at No. 4 in a 2017 mock draft.
Trubisky has started eight games in his North Carolina career.
Is that enough of a sample size for NFL teams to start formulating an opinion of him? Will they feel better by season’s end when, if he stays healthy, Trubisky likely will have 13 starts under his belt?
“Mitch is an interesting kid, because you watch film and say holy s--t, this is it, big arm and good athlete,” Miller says. “Then you’re reminded he’s only started a few games in college. You want to see it as long as possible to see if it’s the real deal. ... That’s still the thing I really value in a college QB. I just want to see you get better every year. You should just see continued progress and not regression. With Trubisky, I want him to stay [in school] because I think he has some first-round traits.”
But the flip side is that those first-round traits might get him drafted in ... well, the first round—if he chooses to bypass his final year at North Carolina to test the NFL waters.
Trubisky is arguably the prime example right now of how the 2016 class could spin the NFL forward. No matter how he performs down the stretch for the Tar Heels, his game experience will be limited coming out of the season, and odds are any mechanical worries will still be there.
Still, teams eyeing quarterbacks will wonder what he might be capable of in the right system, with a summer’s worth of pro coaching.
“His mechanics are really hit or miss,” Galko says. “His footwork, it seems like he’s purposely not doing it right to test himself. But the kid is confident in the pocket, under pressure, in the red zone, and he’ll let the ball fly out of his hands off one foot, 40 yards downfield. He’s had to be somewhat efficient—the numbers are a bit wrong because he’s had a few dropped interceptions—but I’ll take a chance on that guy in the second through fourth rounds. Maybe he’ll never be as good as the top guys, but he has a chance to be damn good.”
When the raw talent is evident like it is with a player like Trubisky, can the NFL solve the rest of the formula?
“I had a young QB with me,” Calhoun reminisces, “and we went up to USC to see Cody [Kessler]. I told this kid, ‘Watch how the players react around Cody.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ and I said, ’You’ll see it.’
“So then we were hanging out with Cody, and a couple of teammates are standing maybe 100 yards away across campus. They started yelling over, ‘Hey, Cody!’ Then they ran over just to say hi to him.
“If a scout could see that,” Calhoun says, “that’s the intangibles.”
Calhoun has the advantage of working up close with many of the game’s future stars at quarterback. Kessler trained with him starting at the age of 12. He sees others, like Prescott, at the prestigious Manning Passing Academy.
NFL teams spend an abundance of resources on scouting at the college level, from area scouts up through their general managers. They do not really get any extended one-on-one time with prospects until after the college season ends—the Senior Bowl, the combine, formal visits before the draft. So, the hunt for those coveted positive intangibles is limited in many ways to a two-month window from February through April.
The challenge is even steeper when it comes to uncovering a player like Wentz, whose college games were not available across the country live on ESPN or CBS each week.
“That’s where the area scouts really separate themselves,” Hatman says. “No one’s patting you on the back for finding a guy who can play at Alabama. You come back from Troy or [North Dakota State] and say, ’I’ve got a guy,’ and you’re right? Your boss looks and says, ’Huh, maybe you’ve got the chops.’
“There will be conversations about trying to get that prospect earlier. ... When GMs and college directors really start working, that’s where it starts flowing to the public, and by that time we’re at the Senior Bowl.”
The process will not be markedly different moving forward. Teams and draft analysts have been in their 2017 books since almost the moment the 2016 draft ended. The road still has all the signature stops: the start of the college season, bowl games, all-star games, combine, private workouts. The question is what, if anything, can be gleaned from how relatively smooth the transitions for Wentz, Kessler and Prescott have been.
“I don’t know that they’ve changed how I will evaluate QBs,” Miller says. “They’re gonna give people more of an imagination because you can see where you can take [a prospect] as a player.”
“The fluctuation in market value will be impacted next year,” Hatman says. “We create the narratives. The piece that’s interesting to me: Of the teams, of [Wentz, Kessler and Prescott], not a single one had an offense built for them in the off-season. All had QBs taking No. 1 reps to be starters ahead of them. The coaches then put in things to match their skill set, for their success.”
There is no satisfying solution here, no degree of certainty with which the 49ers or Browns or Bears could draft a quarterback near the top of the 2017 draft and know, beyond any doubt, that he is going to be great.
“Guys in the top 15 picks, a team thinks, ‘We’ve got to make it work with this guy,’” Hatman says. “If there's a guy with a pulse, he’s going that high. Everything after top 50, though, you’re not expecting a starter. New England, for example, been taking shots at QB, and now they have Garoppolo and Brissett.”
Calhoun had a hunch about Kessler and Prescott for reasons that went beyond what could be measured easily. A reminder, too, that he mentioned Goff as a QB that could start early. Just because that assertion has yet to pan out does not make his guesses about the other rookies any less correct.
Each individual case is a snowflake.
“I can definitely see it from a young age, the amount of time that I’m around them, not only am I out on the field working on mechanics but I have them in the classroom, up on the board and understanding defenses and protections,” Calhoun says. “You can definitely see those guys where you say, ‘O.K., he has a chance.’
“I never say, ‘He’s going to make it and be great,’ but just that he has a chance to play in the NFL. Then it comes back to circumstances.”
As we’ve seen this season, those circumstances can change in a heartbeat.