Maybe it's all still Ryan Leaf's fault. But the specter of the Leaf debacle in San Diego, which launched 15 years ago this spring, dramatically crystallized the arm versus head debate that's such a critical component of every quarterback evaluation in the NFL these days. This year's poster child in that department appears to be Tennessee's Tyler Bray, whose throwing talent easily is considered the class of this year's quarterback crop, but whose maturity, work ethic, consistency and on-field judgment are inspiring widespread critiques.
The team that drafts Bray likely knows it isn't going to get a polished and ready-to-play prospect who will follow the trend established by instant stars like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton and so many other glamor QBs of recent vintage. But they might get a passer whose upside potential and eventual production will dwarf those quarterback prospects whose development are considered further along at the moment. Bray will require some patience, but the eventual payoff could be significant.
Who's interested in the former Vol, who skipped his senior season at Tennessee to turn pro, even though he just turned 21 in late December? An NFL source told me the Eagles are the latest team to have him in for a visit or private workout, with Bray in Philadelphia Monday night and Tuesday. The Steelers, Bengals, Bills and Eagles are among the teams that have been confirmed to have met with Bray, and I'd put Pittsburgh at the top of the list of teams intrigued by his pocket passing skills. Most projections have him going in the third or fourth round, but depending on how much quarterback activity there is above him, Bray is considered a late-rising prospect who could crack the second round in certain scenarios.
There's little doubt about Bray's potential based on his arm strength and ability to make any throw required in the NFL. He has the consensus biggest arm in the draft, and at 6-foot-6, 230 pounds (almost 20 more than he played at for the Vols), he's got the size to throw over any NFL offensive line. But some teams are wary of his questionable maturity level and leadership intangibles, and he has some of the same issues to overcome as Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett did in 2011, when he was taken 74th overall in the third round by New England. Bray is an obvious talent, but teams are trying to figure out the rest of the equation and determine if he's worth investing in.
In fairness, Bray's three seasons in Tennessee require some explanation. Recruited by Vols head coach Lane Kiffin, who left Knoxville for USC before Bray ever got to play for him, Bray was instead matched with Derek Dooley, and one of the worst defenses in the SEC. Tennessee went just 5-7 last season, as Dooley was fired at the end of the season, with Bray opting to not return to Tennessee to play for just one year in a new system for a new coach and coordinator.
Bray's 69 touchdown passes for 7,444 yards and 28 interceptions in three seasons against top quality SEC competition got him noticed, but so did his tendency to have issues with his pocket presence, accuracy, and patterns of inconsistency. In a conference call this week, ESPN analyst and noted quarterback guru Jon Gruden summarized the prevailing opinion about Bray, citing both his bountiful potential and his needed development.
"There's a lot of refinement that needs to take place,'' Gruden said. "He's got to learn how to manage some situations better. He's got to deliver at crunch time. He's got to polish his game ... I think his preparation needs to increase so he can be all that he can be.''
But Gruden raved about Bray's "rare ability to throw the football,'' noting that "a lot of what he did at Tennessee I think is overshadowed (by) their won-loss record.''
The team that drafts Bray ideally should be looking to develop his game and work on his maturity level and leadership potential for a couple years before expecting him to challenge for a starting job. Having just turned 21, he'll only be 23 as the 2015 season approaches, and that's why a place like Pittsburgh makes so much sense, where life beyond Ben Roethlisberger, 31, is still several years down the road.
For the right team, one willing to both groom Bray and let him grow up some, his skill set has to be attractive. Like Mallett in New England, playing behind Tom Brady, we don't yet whether the Patriots' investment will pay off in either eventual production or the return that a possible trade elsewhere could bring. But there seems to be growing interest in Bray as the draft nears, and the native of Kingsburg, Calif., in the state's rural Central Valley region, realizes he has work to do in convincing teams that his off-field judgments are improving.
Asked at the NFL scouting combine what he has tried to impress upon on NFL decision makers, Bray said: "That I've grown up. There a lot of questions about maturity and off-the-field decision-making. I just want to move past that and get to the on-the-field stuff. I did it to myself. If I had never been a part of it, I wouldn't have to answer for it. It's time to move forward. I came here to show that I've learned from my mistakes.''
In July 2012, Bray was cited for vandalism for throwing golf balls and beer bottles out of his apartment and onto cars, and there was also a reckless boating charge that year that was later dismissed. His immaturity issues in addition have raised questions about his leadership potential on the field, with some criticizing his poor body language and demeanor. They are comments that remind many of the negatives that have often been aimed at Jay Cutler, another former SEC quarterback in Tennessee with a big arm, questionable leadership skills, and a losing program to contend with in college.
Bray has struggled at times with the natural leadership expectations that come with the quarterback position. His personality is to be a little aloof, a little reserved, and he's from a small town of about 6,000, where his somewhat sheltered upbringing seemingly didn't prepare him well for the scrutiny level and attention that came his way playing in the high-stakes, football-rabid SEC, starting at the age of 17. It also didn't help that Bray lost his biggest sponsor at Tennessee in Kiffin, and there are those who believe Dooley has scapegoated him to some degree with NFL teams, in an effort to explain his own coaching failures with the Vols.
Unlike Colin Kaepernick, who hails from the same region in California as Bray and has some similar, soft-spoken personality traits, the ex-Vol is not a mobile quarterback who will slide easily into an offense featuring the NFL's read-option craze. Bray is strictly a pocket passer, but he must improve on his discipline and elusiveness within the pocket and his ability to sense and escape pressure. Roethlisberger, for being one of the biggest quarterbacks in the NFL, is of course one of the best at the valuable skills of improvisation.
But in the right structure, with the right guidance from a stable and patient franchise, Bray has a chance to mold an NFL future for himself. Teams will always give an arm of his skill and ability an opportunity. What he does with it, and if the rest of his game develops, will be the fascinating part to watch unfold. The NFL remains wary of the next Ryan Leaf. But there are other examples that bear mentioning.
As one NFL observer mentioned to me in critiquing Bray, in 1991's draft, there was another strong-armed quarterback from a small, rural town, whose intangibles were questioned more than his obvious physical talents. That prospect fell to the second round, didn't play at all his rookie season, and wound up getting traded away in his second year. But things worked out quite well, and Brett Favre went on to a Hall of Fame career. The arm versus head debate still is very much alive for NFL quarterbacks, but the story doesn't always end the same.