Every year there are prospects who seem to appear out of nowhere to become the darlings of the scouting world during the pre-draft process. Somehow these players who played mediocre to below average football for two to four years have suddenly improved their skill during February and March without playing a game; amazing!
I'm not talking about lower division players like Jimmy Garoppolo, the average football fan or media member doesn't think of them as a great prospect early on because they've never seen them play. The players I'm referring to are guys who played for well-known programs in big conferences and underachieved during their time on campus, but are now being promoted as top-notch prospects; the Jake Locker or Christian Ponder rule. Both Locker and Ponder were very average in college yet both were taken inside the top 12 of the 2011 draft. No surprise, Locker has been average in the NFL while Ponder has been awful. Usually the players with inflated draft status end up failing in the NFL for the same reasons they failed in college. If they were lazy in practice or didn't put in time in the film room in college, they probably won't break those habits when given big money and more free time.
Why does this keep happening every year? Is it the painfully long time between the end of the season and the start of the draft and the over thinking that comes along with the extra time? Are media members just searching for story lines to drive up web numbers during a slow part of the sports calendar? Is it the work of a media scout looking to make a name by campaigning for a player off the radar? The answer is all of the above.
The poster boy for undeserved promotion this year appears to be Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage. Did Savage lead his team to great success? No, Pittsburgh went 7-6 during the 2013 season and don't forget that Pittsburgh was his third school after transferring from Rutgers and Arizona before eventually landing with the Panthers. Does he maybe have an issue with honoring his commitments? Did Savage put up eye-popping numbers? No, not really. He completed 61% of his passes for 2,958 yards, 21 TD/9 INT during the 2013 season. Good numbers, but nowhere near great, especially considering that he played in the worst of the five power conferences. During his only other full season, with Rutgers in 2009, Savage completed 52% of his passes for 2,211 yards, and 14 TD/7 INT. Even more troubling is that he came up small against every good defense he faced last season. Savage only faced three top 20 defenses last year because of Pittsburgh's weak schedule, making the evaluation of a quarterback with limited tape difficult.
Tom Savage in 2013 with Pittsburgh against top 20 defenses:
- vs. Florida State (1st PPG/1st Pass): 15/28 53.6% completion, 201 yards, 1 TD/2 INT
- vs. Virginia Tech (11th PPG/8th Pass): 13/28 46.4% completion, 187 yards, 0 TD/0 INT
- vs. Bowling Green (5th in PPG/6th Pass): 8/13 61.5% completion, 124 yards, 0 TD/0 INT
His combined stats vs. the three good defensive opponents he faced: 52% completion percentage, 170 passing yards per game, 1 TD/2 INT.
The average defensive rank (points per game) of his other opponents last year: 60th.
That's a quarterback worth taking with the 33rd overall pick?
His meteoric rise up the prospect rankings clearly isn't due to team success or great stats, so what is it that has media draft analysts drooling? It's the classic trap of "he looks the part". Savage is listed as 6-4, 230 pounds; he fits the prototype. Scouts love his size, arm strength, and keep repeating that line "he can make every throw," the same things said about Blake Bortles who I also think is an overrated prospect with far too many holes to be drafted as high as he is projected. If those three things were the only three boxes that needed to be checked off to evaluate a quarterback prospect, we could all be pro scouts. Those same things were said about JaMarcus Russell, Blaine Gabbert, and David Carr; size and arm strength alone don't make a quarterback great. Players like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Andrew Luck were all knocked for a "lack of top-level arm strength" by the media experts; think they've all done OK in the league. Please, click on the link for each player I just mentioned on both sides of the arm strength issue and read the breakdown on their size and arm strength; it's a funny read.
...Alright, you're back, let's continue.
Similar to the mistakes NBA teams make on drafting centers, NFL teams often make mistakes on quarterbacks who look the part. Size and arm strength are a factor, but they're not at the top of the list of traits I look for in a quarterback prospect. I'd much rather see plus accuracy, a quick release, great throwing mechanics, timing and anticipation over being a see it/throw it passer, and the ability to go through a full read and manipulate defenders with the eyes and pump fakes. Those traits better predict future success at the NFL level in my opinion than size and arm strength.
- 1st play on the video he stares down his receiver from the snap and forces a pass into tight coverage but still completes the pass.
- 1:29 mark - Faces pressure, drifts back in the pocket and with nothing open, throws into triple coverage resulting in an interception, instead of taking the sack.
- 2:10 mark - Stares down his tight end, completes the pass despite not setting his feet and throwing falling back.
- 3:01 mark - On 3rd and 5 inside the red zone, Savage, with good protection, throws an awful pass into double coverage that should have been intercepted. Not sure what he saw on the pass; there was nothing open where he threw it to. However, there was an underneath receiver open on a slant that would have picked up the first down.
- 3:22 mark - Stared down his receiver, his pass was late and too far inside, safety read his eyes and picked off the pass. If the throw was on time and not led inside, it probably would have been a completion. Goes back my knock on his anticipation and being a see it/throw it passer.
- 5:42 mark - Faces pressure, doesn't hit his tight end/full back who ran a quick short route and was wide open. Instead hangs a ball up down the sideline that was nearly intercepted.
When you read breakdowns from scouts on the strengths and weaknesses of Tom Savage, it doesn't appear he possesses many of the traits a quarterback needs outside of size and arm strength.
Scouting report from Derek Stephens of CBS Sports:
STRENGTHS: Big, tall strong-armed gunslinger who can make all the throws from the pocket, with a quick, fluid throwing motion. Could have the strongest arm in the 2014 class. Consistent drop exhibiting light feet to slide and move within the pocket. Senses pressure to side-step or elude to buy time. Impressive strength to drag or shrug off bigger defensive linemen and break tackles. Not an elite athlete but has a quick enough first step to escape the pocket with better-than-average acceleration for his size.
WEAKNESSES: Will overpower shorter-range throws that call for more touch. Passes tend to hang when he throws on the run. Won with arm strength in college, staring down his target from the snap without repercussions. Must learn to read and move defensive backs to create openings. Played only one year at Pittsburgh after a couple of transfers (Rutgers to Arizona to Pitt) and body of work is limited.
Here's another scout's take from Jayson Braddock:
He's great eye candy for a coach who believes in fixing rough edges. The problem is that he's fools gold. He makes some amazing throws, but the inconsistencies are vast. You need a QB that you can depend on regularly. I would stay up at night if he was my franchise QB and I had to depend on him to convert a key 3rd and 6.
If a quarterback stares down his receivers and hasn't shown an ability to read a defense and look off defenders, I'm not taking him inside the top three rounds. Does Savage have upside and potential? Sure, but those two words are very dangerous and can get coaches and general managers fired. Savage may learn how to move defenders with his eyes and anticipate when receivers will come open instead of having to see them wide open before he releases the ball, but since he didn't show those abilities in college, I wouldn't risk a high value pick on him; certainly not number 33 overall like many have suggested. I wouldn't mind the Texans taking a project like Savage in the 4th round or later, but taking him or Logan Thomas for another example in this draft, over potential starters at other need positions in the first three rounds would be a mistake.