With the 2014 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to start getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that, as well. And to that end, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke have assembled their own definitive Big Board, consisting of the players they feel deserve to be selected in the first two rounds.
The SI 64 -- which can be found in its entirety here --uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class and why they’re slotted as such. This spot on the list belongs to one of the few players outside our top 10 that could still wind up being taken with the first selection of the 2014 draft.
No. 15: Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
Bio: It's hard to say when the "Aha!" moment came for NFL scouts regarding Blake Bortles. Maybe when he fired three touchdown passes to help UCF win at Penn State last September. Maybe when Bortles fired a late touchdown pass to lead the Knights past Teddy Bridgewater's Louisville team on the road. Or, perhaps, it hit with authority during the Fiesta Bowl, where Bortles rolled up 300 yards and three TDs in an upset of Baylor.
"When you have success of that magnitude, beating a school like Penn State, that's kind of been a perennial powerhouse for however many years ... and we’re UCF, who hasn’t been around very long and just got out of Conference USA, and you go up and beat Penn State in Penn State, that’s a huge task," Bortles said. "That’s a huge accomplishment, so it definitely drew some attention, and we were able to keep that rolling throughout the year."
The 6-foot-5, Ben Roethlisberger-esque Bortles finished the season with 3,581 yards passing, 25 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. Those numbers actually were not far off from what Bortles posted as a sophomore in 2012: 3,059 yards, 25 touchdowns, seven interceptions.
That UCF team, though, scored its biggest wins over the likes of East Carolina and SMU, while suffering two losses to Tulsa before winning a very low-profile Beef O'Brady's Bowl game over Ball State.
Separating out team success from a quarterback's abilities is one of the tougher assignments for NFL scouts, who will do their best to look beyond Bortles' wins and losses. Still, his rise just so happened to correlate with a breakthrough season for the young UCF program. Bortles' impact on that improvement cannot be understated.
"I wasn’t very highly recruited," Bortles said. "I had four offers. Two were to play tight end, two were to play quarterback. So I was very grateful to Coach [George] O’Leary and UCF for giving me that opportunity. I wanted to repay him every way I could."
For all his collegiate success, Bortles is very much viewed as a work in progress. The prospect of molding him into the next great NFL quarterback is one of the driving factors behind his rising draft stock over the past few months. Conversely, even O'Leary said in February that he does not see Bortles in the same class as an Andrew Luck -- that Bortles, and every other QB in this year's draft class, will need time to ease into a starting job.
"I think a franchise quarterback comes out once every 10 years, and he came out last year in Luck," O'Leary told MaD Radio. "Blake has all the things you're looking for in a quarterback as far as size and mental capacity to handle a lot of things. But that first year is tough because those guys are moving a lot faster than the college guys."
Of course, a year ago no one viewed Bortles as a contender for the No. 1 overall pick. He did not waste any time altering that perception.
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Strengths: Almost every pro-Bortles argument you hear will start with his size. Even though the Seahawks just won a Super Bowl with the comparatively diminutive Russell Wilson running the show, many teams still want QBs who fit Bortles' 6-5, 232-pound build. He takes advantage of that height, keeping his eyes downfield and using a steady release to avoid having passes swatted at the line. Bortles also moves better than one might expect, both inside and outside the pocket.
Touch is there, especially in intermediate windows and to the sideline. Bortles really has no issues stepping up and resetting to throw, or sliding to his left or right and throwing with zip. Intangibles all are there, at least if his interviews and comments by his former teammates/coaches are to be believed -- all of the latter speak glowingly of Bortles. He was not rattled by any situation, from road games at Ohio State and Penn State to the BCS bowl stage against Baylor.
Weaknesses: Decision-making needs to improve, as his INT numbers (16 total over the past two years) easily could have been higher. Sometimes drifts into a gunslinger-style approach, attempting to thread the needle, and he does not necessarily possess the arm strength to pull off all of those gambles. Can float some deep balls, too, a problem most noticeable when a pass rush rattles him. UCF's offense will slow his adjustment to the NFL; it did not require him to make a ton of progression reads.
O'Leary's comments about Bortles as a pro QB will be taken with a grain of salt, but we cannot dismiss completely Bortles' college coach doubting his abilities to start as a rookie: remember, O'Brien (whose team has the No. 1 pick) has worked with O'Leary, so he is likely to pick the UCF coach's brain.
Conclusion: There is an understandable and clear priority placed on quarterbacks in the draft. Is Bortles the best overall prospect? No. Is he worthy of the No. 1 pick, if Houston believes he's the best QB and the best fit for their scheme? Probably.
Such is the dilemma with Bortles, who has the physical attributes, skill and upside to warrant a top-20 selection -- hence his spot at No. 15 overall in our SI64 -- but who is not as NFL-ready as Teddy Bridgewater and may not be as exciting a prospect as Johnny Manziel. The team that drafts Bortles can count on him to help lead a playoff push in 2016, '17 and beyond ... but might need someone else to do the job in 2014.
NFL player comparison: Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers (1st round, 2004; Miami, Ohio)