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. And to conclude this year's class of prospects, here's the report on a player who seems to have a lot of people confused -- but whose tape doesn't lie.
No. 1: Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater
Bio: There are times in life when one simply has to turn off all the noise and focus on what you can control. And in the 2014 pre-draft process, no player has had to learn and re-learn this more than Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. When he finished his 2013 season with 303 completions in 473 attempts (a 71 completion percentage) for 3,970 yards, 31 touchdowns and just four interceptions, he was thought to be a universal top-five prospect. Since then, and especially after Bridgewater's sub-par pro day, his stock has been dropping precipitously in the cottage industries of mock draft and overall draft speculation, to the point where some well-respected draftniks have said that they wouldn't even take him in the first round.
"I would say in general, tape is worth about 85 percent of an overall grade, and the rest of the process is set up for red flags, and to go back and watch more tape to try to confirm what you saw or didn't see," Mike Mayock of the NFL Network said a few days ago. "I saw about four of his tapes prior to the combine, and I really liked him. I thought he had a chance to be a franchise quarterback from what I saw on the tape. ... Except you've got to see the quarterbacks throw the ball live. I've never seen a top-level quarterback in the last 10 years have a bad pro day, until Teddy Bridgewater. He had no accuracy, the ball came out funny, the arm strength wasn't there, and it made me question everything I saw on tape because this was live.
"I went back and watched a bunch more tape and compared him to the rest of the guys in the draft," he said. "And like it or not, I've come to a conclusion -- if I was a GM in the NFL, I would not take him in the first round of the draft."
Bridgewater said that the decision to forego his throwing glove affected his pro day accuracy, but the larger point is this -- if a pro day can so negatively affect one's perception of a player, is that player's tape as incandescent as it needs to be?
Let's throw the paralysis by analysis out the window and go back to the tape.
Strengths: Of all the quarterbacks in this class, Bridgewater has the best and most comprehensive command of the little things that help signal-callers at the next level. He is a true multi-read quarterback who doesn't have to rely on his first option. He takes the ball cleanly from center, and his footwork on the drop is clean and variable -- that is to say, he can drop straight back or seamlessly head into motion throws. And on the move, Bridgewater runs to throw. He keeps his shoulders squared and his eyes active, allowing him to make some difficult deep and intermediate throws on boot-action left, when he's throwing across his body on the run. And when under pressure in and out of the pocket, he still looks to get the ball out -- he'll elude and throw his way out of trouble (again, for the most part). In a general sense, Bridgewater is a very resourceful player -- he looks to make the most of what he's got. Sees the field peripherally -- Bridgewater has a good sense of converging coverage, and he understands the timing of the throw. And though his deep ball is nothing to write home about, he does have a nice arc in his deeper timing throws when he needs to.
Mechanically, there's nothing that really beguiles Bridgewater on a consistent basis -- he's generally decisive, he has a very quick overhand release (used to have a problem with sidearm, but he's clearly working on it) and he uses his lower body to gain velocity. Even when he's throwing off-angle from weird spots, he's trained himself to keep proper mechanics, which is something you can't yet say about Johnny Manziel.
Weaknesses: Bridgewater's desire to make plays on the move occasionally results in needless sacks, as he will at times hold onto the ball too long. Occasional mental and mechanical lapses will lead to erratic throws, and though too much has been generally made of this in the media, it's an issue that his NFL coach will have to clean up. This is especially true on his deep passes, which will sail wildly at times. And though he's functionally mobile, he's not a true runner -- he's going to make a difference as a quarterback, not a slash player.
Conclusion: The more I go back and rewatch Bridgewater tape, the less willing I am to drop into the seemingly common perception that he hads some abnormally low ceiling, and that he'll top off pretty quickly in the NFL. Most of his deep ball issues can be fixed by the kinds of coaching and strength training that all kinds of quarterbacks (Drew Brees and Tom Brady come immediately to mind) have benefited from in obvious ways. And yes, he played at about 190 pounds through the final bit of his 2013 season, but showing up weighing 214 pounds at the combine was a definite statement. And yes, he really blew it at his pro day ... but let's be real here: Any NFL executive who will throw multiple scouted games out the window based on a shirt-and-shorts session, whether positive or negative, is probably on his way out the door.
Is Bridgewater the perfect collegiate quarterback? No. There are clearly things he needs to work on, which is true of just about every quarterback prospect. But when it comes to combining innate skills and developmental potential in an NFL view, it's hard for me to put anyone above Bridgewater. He already has a lot on the ball, and with time and patience, he could be the kind of quarterback that defines a franchise.