There's been a lot said and written about the quarterback class for the 2014 NFL draft, but the one thing we know for sure at this point: there's a lot we still don't know about this class. It's assumed that with Marcus Mariota's decision to return to Oregon next season, the lineup has Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel up top. But that's if those players declare, and both are still on the fence. Fresno State's Derek Carr is the most appealing senior prospect on most boards, and the name gaining traction as much as any quarterback prospect in recent weeks is UCF's Blake Bortles.
The American Athletic Conference's Offensive Player of the Year for the 2013 season, Bortles has addressed any questions about how he'd fare against tougher competition by putting up solid performances in wins over Penn State, Louisville and Connecticut. Bortles really hit the national radar when the Knights ruined Louisville's chance for a perfect season with a 38-35 win in a game where they had been down 28-7 in the third quarter.
"I said, 'Let's get some two-minute calls ready,'" Bortles said of the final drive, which ended with a two-yard pass to Jeff Godfrey with 23 seconds left in the game. "We knew we were going to have to go two-minute ... Our offensive line did a great job, and our receivers did a great job of getting yards after the catch."
The NFL has taken notice. In this week's MMQB, Peter King spoke with one team that sees Bortles as potentially the top quarterback in this draft class, unless it's Manziel. Based on what I've seen, it's easy to deduce that Bortles possesses many of the attributes needed for the next level ... and the finishing work won't take too long.
Pros: Throws on the run very well, using optimal mechanics -- when bailing out of pressure, keeps his eyes downfield until he needs to run and maintains his upper-body carriage on the move. Has a comprehensive command of a complex and multi-faceted option offense, primarily out of the pistol formation. Reads blocks and uses his strength and agility as a runner to make big gains. A very strong player who has no trouble completing short passes under pressure, and even when in the grasp of a defender. Runs to throw unless it's a designed quarterback running play, but can extend a play either way.
Has good overall throwing mechanics -- Bortles avoids side-arming even when under pressure; he's clearly been trained to keep his arm slot consistent. Generally, has an overhand throwing motion that makes him taller than his 6-foot-3 frame when getting the ball out over the outstretched hands of linemen. Will shorten his delivery on the run and doesn't have too many "moving parts" -- it doesn't take him an inordinate amount of time to set and throw. Doesn't shrink with bodies around him -- he doesn't add to the confusion when the pocket has broken down. Has an embryonic sense of how to take the right amount of zing off the ball for timing throws like slants and fades and certainly has the velocity to make most deeper throws asked of him. When his mechanics are aligned, he's a plus-thrower to all areas of the field.
Has good discipline as a thrower under pressure -- Bortles would rather take the sack than throw up a duck to avoid the takedown and this is a primary reason for his low interception total. Might be dinged by some NFL teams because he so rarely takes snaps from under center, but this is not the issue that it used to be among professional teams. He doesn't appear to have any overwhelming footwork issues when he has to drop from under center, for what it's worth.
Cons: Bortles is generally asked to make one quick read, and maybe a second if the first read is covered. Will need work on processing receivers across the field, using his eyes to manipulate defenders, and checking back-side open targets. At times, will overtly telegraph his throws by turning his upper body to a target before throwing. Must learn to throw more consistently with anticipation -- at this point, he's a "see it/throw it" quarterback who occasionally leads his targets into big hits and can't always navigate tight coverage spaces. Still learning to set his feet on longer throws, and he's not as accurate as he needs to be as a result. Will sidearm the occasional swing or screen pass to get a lag timing, but this isn't an overwhelming issue.
Bortles struggles with disguised coverages and cornerbacks who jump routes -- that's a side effect of the "see it/throw it" idea. He must have a clear picture in front of him, and clear pictures are rare in the NFL. Occasionally trips over himself when he's trying to re-establish himself with a foundation on the ground after running. Generally speaking, his footwork could be more precise.
Conclusion: If Bortles comes out for the 2014 draft and passes on that extra year in college, he'll be a bit of a developmental prospect. However, that's not a negative -- he'll just need to be with a team that understands how close he is to mastering certain aspects of the position at the levels required for the NFL, without pushing him into the arena too soon. I could see him going in the middle of the first round in the upcoming draft, and with another season to refine his skills, he could look more and more like the best quarterback in his draft. I wouldn't put him at that spot this time around, especially if Teddy Bridgewater declares for the 2014 draft, but he's got all the raw tools to be a great NFL quarterback -- and he's further along with the little things than some might expect.
Pro comparison: Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans. Bortles is a better thrower in the pocket than Locker was coming out of Washington, and he isn't as athletic as a pure runner, but the two players have very similar physical structures, and the ability to make every throw with some caveats. There are also elements of Colin Kaepernick and Ryan Tannehill in Bortles' game.