Josh Norris

Preseason Positional Rankings

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Senior Signal Callers

Monday, August 06, 2012

Just a few weeks remain until the 2012 season kicks off, with practices beginning the first full week of August. In preparation, I will share preseason positional breakdowns of the top seniors I have evaluated at each position, along with short rankings of non-senior prospects and a small list of other players at the position I will be evaluating next. I guess this can be called a series, since a new position will (hopefully) go up a few times per week leading up to kickoff.

I have withheld my evaluations on non-seniors for multiple reasons. I understand these draft-eligible prospects usually generate the most attention, but I feel prospects in their final season deserve our attention right now. We have no clue which juniors will forego their final year of eligibility in January and enter the Draft. And although juniors may make up the top layer of the prospects at certain positions, the senior class generates the depth and even diamonds in the rough.

After previewing projected offensive tackles and interior linemen, today I offer glimpses at this year’s senior quarterback talent. Now, more than any other position, I consider quarterback prospects’ final season of games as their true resume. It is in those games that I really study the details; which throws each prefers to make, how they react on specific down and distances, and other positive or negative tendencies. For those reasons, the short preseason evaluations you read below are merely general first impressions. By no means will this list lock into place when games kickoff, but instead I consider these a nice starting point. But do not withhold feedback, I would love to hear from you on Twitter.

Likely starters:
Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson (6’2/220) - An absolute gunslinger, Wilson loves to stretch defenses vertically while understanding spacing on underneath routes for his receivers to run after the catch on crossing patterns. The Razorback plays with moxy, and potentially reckless abandon for his body, stepping into contested throws and getting the ball out to the correct read at all costs. Wilson sports quick feet when he needs them to evade, and patience when appropriate, especially when moving laterally to help his receivers get open. Some may nitpick that his spiral is not consistently tight downfield or that most of his passes come from the shotgun set, but Wilson overcomes these blemishes by locking his eyes downfield while having the sense to feel the pass rush around him without averting his gaze. In order to improve, Wilson needs to cut down on poor decisions and overthrows. Many would consider a repeat of last season as a sign that the senior has reached his potential. That should not be the case, because if Wilson can overcome the loss of an offensive-minded head coach and three receivers to the NFL, his talent is as good as advertised. His touch and well placed throws (especially down the seam), coupled with his fearless nature, make Wilson my top rated senior quarterback prospect heading into the season.

USC’s Matt Barkley (6’2/218) - Plenty of questions exist regarding Barkley’s height and arm strength, but most of all evaluators will attempt to distinguish and isolate his talents outside of USC’s offensive scheme. Barkley has mastered the offense, and although he might not make the same pre-snap calls as Andrew Luck, Barkley is asked to make reads and diagnose the defense before the ball even moves.  The Trojan is polished, specifically on underneath passes but flashes exceptional placement to the receiver’s outside shoulder downfield. In his final collegiate season, Barkley needs to shows skills that transcend his offense, specifically testing windows between the numbers. At the same time, Barkley has a tendency to fall off his back foot, and despite offseason reports mentioning improved velocity, a lot of the zip and placement is lost without a balanced base. In a game where fans seem to ask about velocity and arm strength, Barkley shines with touch and placement. He will not fit in every offense at the next level, but with how well he deals with plenty of movement around him, Barkley will be considered an early starter.

Talented, but not there yet:
West Virginia’s Geno Smith (6’3/214) - Smith does not fit in the typical pre-Holgorsen Mountaineer quarterback mold; there is no doubting that he is a passer first. Smith utilizes his run after catch targets very well, leading them in stride and getting the ball out quickly. The senior is not limited to his first read either, but I do see him stick to one side of the field on a majority of throws. Smith utilizes his shoulder on a lot of throws, attempting to generate more zip, but is known to sail throws along the sideline. Against interior pressure, especially as the game winds down, the Mountaineer’s footwork tends to drift, especially when asked to buy that extra sliver of time. What draws me to believe in Smith is his onfield attitude. It is difficult to deny his competitiveness, specifically on the run, where he can pick up what the defense gives him. There are excellent flashes with Smith where he stands tall in a closing pocket and quickly releases his throw if his receiver gets a step on the defender. The lack of natural velocity is a bit worrisome, especially on ambitious vertical throws.

Miami (OH)’s Zac Dysert (6’3/214) - I said in this piece that Dysert was the best quarterback you have yet to hear about, but his lack of publicity will likely change once the season kicks off. Yes, Dysert sports a big arm with an excellent top to bottom release, but above all the senior’s confidence stands out. It starts with his footwork, where Dysert is comfortable from center and exudes composure. When forced to  step up in the pocket due to outside pressure, he dips his shoulder naturally and when rolling out, Dysert keeps his eyes downfield with enough velocity to avoid having to set his feet. Quarterbacks with NFL talent should be able to throw with anticipation outside the numbers, but between the hashes is the differentiator. Dysert flashes in this area, fitting passes into tight windows with timing, but will need to show it more consistently. The RedHawk  can reach his ceiling because he is unafraid of potential results, meaning he steps up into closing contact and/or takes calculated downfield risks into tight coverage on second and third reads.

Florida State’s EJ Manuel (6’4/245/4.59) - The Seminole just could not stay healthy last season, repeatedly hampered by a shoulder injury. For Manuel, it all comes down to stringing flashes into consistency during his senior season. He is off target when attempting to stretch the field just as often as his big vertical arm hits receivers for a big gain. The same inconsistencies appear when forced to deal with pressure, showing instances of side stepping or climbing the pocket to evade just as frequently as turning his back and abandoning early. Even on short throws, Manuel’s placement could be improved. He just is not polished, including a lack of anticipation, and there are legitimate questions if he ever will be. But due to his natural talent, Manuel can get by on being an edgier, grittier, less traditional passer. He is a risk taker, and I like that, preferring to test vertically when in doubt rather than to his checkdowns. If he puts it all together, Manuel can work his way up to third on this list, but he could just as easily wind up eighth and be coined as a project.

Oklahoma’s Landry Jones (6’4/230) - A veritable punching bag in the draft analyst community, it seems that Jones’ arm talent is often overlooked. Also overlooked is his lack of redzone snaps, due to Blake Bell entering the game in goal to go situations. Another quarterback burdened with an elongated motion, the Sooner is light on his feet when dropping in the pocket and starts games by going through multiple reads. He is an excellent timing passer, bouncing off his back foot and firing a nice ball to targets when everything runs smoothly. However, Jones has a tendency to fade off of his back foot when faced with pressure, resulting in lost velocity and his windup style causes issues in closing spaces. The senior is an excellent prospect in a clean pocket, but against pressure, specifically free rushers, Jones panics. If he does not take the next step this season (by literally stepping into pressure) his evaluation will suffer. Jones’ footwork and motion in trash need to be comparable to his effectiveness in workable space.

Backup talent or Spot Starter:
N.C. State’s Mike Glennon (6’4/225) - There have been plenty of positive evaluations on Glennon this summer, and some are even expecting a breakout season. I am not quite on board. The second year starter has a big arm and flashes downfield ability, but that comes with a dropping motion. Above all, I question how Glennon deals with pressure and if, because of his lack of mobility, he can improve on it. I do not mean stepping up in the pocket when facing edge rushers (which he does), because all quarterbacks that sniff an NFL roster, especially with his height, should do this. Instead it is the interior pressure that I worry about; basically quarterbacks’ kryptonite. Glennon sports a stiff lower body, especially when short steps are necessary to avoid pass rushers. Along with the stiffness he drops his eye level to the defensive line and looks for an open area to reset, where he usually targets checkdowns. Glennon shows flashes and keep his velocity at all times along with showing necessary finesse, but poor decisions are too often made in a confined space.

Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib (6’2/229) - Nassib has an unorthodox style to him, sometimes appearing nonchalant in his footwork and movements, but this may speak to his level of comfort from center rather than a disinterested attitude. The senior makes a few overthrows even in short patterns, usually in situations where his release is too early on timing routes. Despite his questionable size, Nassib stands up in the face of pressure but could improve by removing a small hitch in his drops. The Orange quarterback has some Jeff Garcia to him in terms of animated movements and solid timing passes while getting the ball out quickly when it needs to be, but the velocity may be adequate at best. However, I would like to see Nassib show consistent stability when forced to look off of his first read instead of escaping and resetting outside of the pocket.  

Fringe NFL roster:
Arkansas State’s Ryan Aplin (6’1/205) - Aplin sports an odd release, never extending his arm throughout his motion. It may be one factor in his sporadic ball placement on both short, intermediate, and downfield targets. However, Aplin does come with some velocity, but not enough finesse. This one read passer scrambles when forced to improvise, dropping his gaze to oncoming rushers, and utilizing pump fakes that could be seen as indecision rather than attempting to manipulate the defense. I question if Aplin has the composure needed to stay in the NFL, enough that he can learn to sit in the pocket and survey the defense to make a necessary read. Instead I see a jittery risk taker when he thinks he is forced to improvise.

Vanderbilt’s Jordan Rodgers (6’1/208) - A former junior college transfer, Rodgers is basically this year’s version of Austin Davis; a player with solid mobility in the pocket and accuracy but lacks in desirable arm talent. The Commodore gets by with sticking in the pocket and leading his receivers very well, but as soon as he looks like he could stick on an NFL roster, Rodgers flashes ineffectiveness in a closing pocket while lacking the arm strength to test downfield in those situations. Again, his placement between the numbers and on the sideline is great, but beyond composure, Rodgers is a limited passer. In order to make an NFL roster as a third quarterback, Rodgers will have to handle interior pressure better and show the aptitude and attitude that will make decision makers want to keep him around.

Preseason Junior Quarterbacks:
1. Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas
2. Tennessee’s Tyler Bray
3. Georgia’s Aaron Murray
4. Washington’s Keith Price
5. TCU’s Casey Pachall
6. Missouri’s James Franklin

Senior Quarterback Prospects On Deck:
Southern Utah’s Brad Sorensen
Duke’s Sean Renfree
Washington State’s Jeff Tuel
Arizona’s Matt Scott
Texas Tech’s Seth Doege

Josh Norris is an NFL Draft Analyst for Rotoworld and contributed to the Rams scouting department during training camp of 2010 and the 2011 NFL Draft. He can be found on Twitter .
Email :Josh Norris

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