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The QB dance: How NFL teams develop imperfect quarterbacks

Most NFL teams can’t draft a guaranteed success at quarterback. So how do teams deal with developing a flawed prospect? 

INDIANAPOLIS — It’s not exactly breaking news that quarterback is the most important position in America’s premier sport. With that in mind, many teams have run into a similar problem during roster-building season of late: The quarterbacks they have are below average, and the upcoming draft and free agency classes appear to provide little in the way of an instant upgrade.

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What if there is no Andrew Luck in the draft, or Peyton Manning in free agency, and a team can’t recreate the enviable succession program the Colts engineered with those two stars? What if there isn’t an Aaron Rodgers-type project available to develop off to the side of Brett Favre’s overwhelming spotlight, decreasing the odds of a smooth switch from one future Hall of Famer to another?

Many of those teams have little choice but to take the best guy they can find and try to fill in as many of the blanks as possible.

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The 2016 draft’s quarterback class presents an intriguing—or frustrating, depending on your perspective—version of this dilemma in that none of the top prospects are slam-dunks. North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz faces questions about the complexity of his college offense and the quality of the competition against which he shined. Cal’s Jared Goff played in an air-raid offense, which will require some schematic transition, and you’ve all heard about his small hands by now. Memphis’s Paxton Lynch had some good tape against Ole Miss, but there are times when his field-reading ability seems a hair slow, and in the NFL, guys who were open in college simply aren’t anymore. Michigan State’s Connor Cook and Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg show physical limitations and maddening inconsistency on tape, and Mississippi State's Dak Prescott is still learning to grasp the intricacies of the position that hold the key to his NFL potential. It’s not Prescott’s fault the Bulldogs left him with an incomplete technical palette by pro standards.

On and on we go, and in those imperfect specimens, there are specific things every team needs to see. Coaches and general managers may differ when asked about the high-level aspects of those attributes, but the baseline is indisputable for every team.

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Redskins coach Jay Gruden got his current job on the back of his work as offensive coordinator with Andy Dalton in Cincinnati, and added to his credibility as a “QB Whisperer” by turning Kirk Cousins into an NFL-level starting quarterback. For Gruden, the key to forward evaluation is to split your brain and isolate the quarterback from his collegiate system while understanding that he's going to be a prisoner of it to some degree.

“We want to watch them in the pocket, mostly, want to test their arm strength, how they move the football team, how they handle key situations and third downs, red zone, pressure in the pocket,” Gruden said. “Decisions with the football, all that stuff in quarterback play is relevant when it comes to scouting young quarterbacks. But to envision them in your system, that’s hard to do because you can’t see them make all the throws, all the reads, and all the tough decisions quarterbacks have to make throughout their college quarterback career.”

So, you start from scratch—it’s O.K. if a guy has to sit for a while. Then it’s about finding the balance between seeing steady growth in a relatively pressure-free environment and getting the meaningful reps that help push a prospect from where he is to where he needs to be. Because if you rush an unready quarterback into the NFL cauldron ... well, you’re probably going to get fired, anyway.

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“The only way to learn is to play,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “I say that, we might draft one, and he’s going to hold a clipboard for a year. But I don’t believe in holding clipboards. You learn from practice. You have to get every snap. The trick with a young guy, especially if you’re going to sit him for a year, is getting him enough practice work to where he’s improving in your offense, not somebody else’s offense. When they’re sitting there and not playing, it’s very hard to develop them. You may take a rough year. Today you don’t get a year on your contract. You’re going to get your ass fired trying to get this kid developed.”

In order to get the most out of a longer developmental timeline, coaches must be sure of the answers to these questions: What are the base requirements for success at the quarterback position in the NFL? And more specifically, what can and cannot be taught?

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“There’s a lot of things that they have to have,” Gruden said. “Poise would be one of them. Great feel in the pocket is another. You can’t teach poise, and you can’t teach awareness in the pocket, so repetition can only get you so far with certain aspects of the quarterback position. That’s why it’s so hard to find the right one for everybody. You have the great arm and the great arm strength but there are certain things that have to be accomplished: quarterback leadership, poise, all those things that you can’t coach and won’t know until you throw them in there.”

And as Arians told me, without field vision, a quarterback will miss open throws no matter how strong his arm is—in the NFL, by the time you throw to the open receiver, he’s already covered. Throwing with anticipation and an heightened sense of route concepts is far more crucial in the NFL than it is in college, where an increasing number of spread quarterbacks are buttressed by first-read open routes and wider spreads in which receivers are less closely contested.

The differences show up on tape in a quarterback’s pure processing speed. Oregon’s Marcus Mariota may have been helped by his system, but his ease with the faster elements of his offense that would transfer well to any pro team. Put simply, Mariota had the internal hard drive required to execute Oregon’s concepts from pass to run, and he was able to merge that with what the Titans taught him.

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“The reality is, he understood his offense and executed it at a really high level,” Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN’s NFL Matchup told me about Mariota. “Which led me to believe, without knowing him personally, that he’s smart, receptive to coaching and can practically apply what he’s taught. You have to see a college quarterback execute his concepts. We know that there are many college concepts that are not prevalent in the NFL, but that doesn’t concern me if I see the player executing it at a high level.”

Helping that player transition to a different system at the next level is the responsibility of the coaching staff, of course. At the 2012 combine, Panthers coach Ron Rivera talked with me about how offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and then-quarterbacks coach (now offensive coordinator) Mike Shula merged elements of the Auburn spread attack Newton ran in college with what Carolina required at the next level. It made Newton’s transition to the league far more seamless than it would have been if the team insisted on retrofitting Newton into a predetermined paradigm. Four years later, and as Newton has developed into one of the game’s best quarterbacks and most compelling weapons at any position, Rivera reflected on the importance of easing that transition.

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“Credit to what Mike Shula does and what he believes in, and what his coaches believe in: this guy has a specific skillset,” Rivera said of Newton. “And why make him do something that’s not advantageous to us? He’s really developed into a quality passer, he stands tall in the pocket, and at the same time, his ability to get outside the pocket and move around ... I think using his ability to run as a threat helps our rushing production, so that’s a big part of it. Kudos to what Mike and the staff do, and the way they prepare these guys. It's about playing to [Newton’s] strengths as much as anything else.”

So, what of these quarterbacks?

In an instance of irony only the combine could provide, Hackenberg wrapped up his podium session with the media late Thursday morning just as Texans coach Bill O’Brien was getting ready for his own turn with the media. O’Brien, of course, was Hackenberg’s coach at Penn State in 2013, which has many speculating that Houston will fill their current quarterback-light roster with Hackenberg, perhaps in the first or second round of the draft.

Not so fast, O’Brien said.

“I think that Christian’s a very talented guy, but there’s a lot of talented quarterbacks in this league. To stand up here and answer whether a guy has starting ability, I mean it is very, very difficult to start at quarterback in this league...and so I think it’s more about evaluating the talent, looking at the skill set, thinking about what your team needs, what type of offense your team runs, who fits it the best and you kind of go from there.”

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Hackenberg saw a decreased production in the final two years of his collegiate career, all likely in part to a change in systems when transitioning to Penn State’s current coach James Franklin, a decline in his offensive line and the loss of his top target Allen Robinson after 2013. But the man himself said that it fell on him to make up the difference.

“Having to change systems was huge for me as well,” Hackenberg said. “Being able to pick that up and translate things and see what crosses over. Overall, the entire experience was a huge positive for me. There was a ton of adversity. But it was stuff you’re going to deal with at this level. You see it year in and year out. Changing systems. New coaches. New personnel. So it was a great experience for me, having the opportunity to do that at 18 and 19 years old, it’s only prepared me for the rest of my career.”

Prescott admitted that the reps he took under center at the Senior Bowl were the first he’d taken through high school or college.

“I almost feel more like a big-time quarterback from under center so it’s something I’m embracing and having fun getting comfortable [with],” Prescott said.

If you think that’s not a big deal in an era when NFL teams like the Eagles, Chargers, Bills and Dolphins run their offense out of the ’gun at least 75% of the time, there’s the opinion of John Elway, who, as the Broncos’ EVP, has watched the development of Arizona State alum Brock Osweiler. Despite the advent of more explosive shotgun-based offenses throughout the game of football, there’s still a required place in some minds for the traditional player, and Elway still wants to see those things.

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“When Brock came out of college, he was a guy who was in shotgun a lot, and spent a little time underneath [under center],” Elway said. “I think what we’re seeing is quarterbacks coming out of the shotgun a lot more than we were in my day, and really, even 10 years ago. That’s the biggest adjustment for guys coming out—these kids have not been under center. To go through the drops and the reads and the progressions from under center is the development side the young kids have to have now, because you’re going to be under center in the NFL. Not only the rhythm side of it, but the vision side of it—what you can see from under center is different than what you can see in the shotgun. You can see better in the shotgun, and you have to get used to some of your vision not being as great.”

Of course, when you have a slam-dunk quarterback, it’s much easier to look at the stuff that needs fixing. But most draftable quarterbacks fall short of that vision, which keeps NFL teams scrambling to discern what can be taught, and what comes naturally.