Editor's Note: This article uses figures that can be found in Greg Peshek's piece, which highlights QB metrics for the top four passers in the class.
Perhaps no person is improving their evaluation more quickly than Blake Bortles. Some have gone so far as to predict that Bortles will be the first overall pick. At 6’4’’, 230 pounds with a strong arm and speed to boot, Bortles passes the “look” test. The question is does his game match the measurables?
Bortles’ first adjustment – like his counterparts such as Johnny Manziel – will be to a pro-style system. George O’Leary’s Central Florida offense is a fairly typical college spread. The Knights operate mostly from the shotgun, with a run game based around zone read and ample amounts of wide receiver screens. A team drafting Bortles should mix in spread concepts, such as the San Francisco 49ers do with Colin Kaepernick or the Seattle Seahawks with Russell Wilson because Bortles is effective running the football and will ease his transition, but Bortles must adapt to pro-offenses.
The biggest adjustment is with the passing game. Much of Central Florida’s passing game is based off the zone read run threat. While Bortles does not throw as many screens as Derek Carr, nearly half his throws were under five yards, with 23% coming on screens. And Bortles’ vertical throws frequently come off fake screens.
By comparison, Bortles has relatively few repetitions making the middle of the field, intermediate throws that are the backbone of the modern conceptual passing game. And Bortles success with intermediate throws is mixed. Nearly 40% of Bortles’ throws occurred between 6-20 yards, split evenly between 6-10 yards and 11-20 yards. That is more than every highly regarded draft counterpart except Teddy Bridgewater. But Bortles’ completion rate on 11-20 yard throws is 64.29% is tied with Carr for lowest amongst his elite draft-eligible peers.
The upshot is that Bortles’ game as a drop back quarterback remains a work in progress. No game better exhibited Bortles’ potential – but also his room for development – than the Knights’ 52-42 victory over the Baylor Bears.
For Bortles, it was a tale of two halves. The first half demonstrated the areas where Bortles must improve. His primary first half contribution was with his legs off zone read. The Knights’ passing game was almost entirely screens or vertical routes. Bortles often seem harried in the pocket. He too often threw off his back foot, leading to his elbow dropping and causing inaccuracy. He also made several questionable decisions, none more so than panicking and throwing an off-balance screen pass right to a waiting defender.
But if the first half was a cautionary tale, the second half was a display of Bortles’ enormous upside. Bortles’ pocket presence was far better. He stepped into his throws and delivered well-placed balls in those crucial intermediate zones.
For example, Central Florida utilizes one of its favorite drop back concepts, levels. The concept creates a hi-lo stretch upon an underneath cover 2 hook to curl defender. But the route combination is also effective against man coverage, which is how the Knights utilized the play against Baylor.
With “levels,” the outside receiver runs a five-yard in route with the inside receiver running a 10-12 yard square in. The quarterback reads low to high, looking first to the easy throw and then the deeper square-in. Here, Bortles executes levels with precision. He steps into his throw in the face of an on-coming rusher and delivers an accurate, catchable ball.
Bortles must consistently make this type of play to succeed in the NFL, namely working from the pocket to exploit the intermediate passing game. Yet Bortles has every measurable, including the arm strength to make any throw on the field, providing the potential for a long-term NFL career.