What a difference a year makes.
Last draft season, many observers were convinced that Andrew Luck's return to college deprived the 2011 draft class of its only elite quarterback prospect. Fast forward one Cam Newton Rookie of the Year award and 12 months later, and a large chunk of informed analysts believe Luck should be challenged for the top quarterback ranking by the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner.
The departure from consensus opinion does not stop there, as some feel the only two quarterbacks worth first-round selections will be drafted with the first two overall picks. Opinions are all across the board on Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill and Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden. Sure, fewer teams need quarterbacks compared to last offseason, but it is not farfetched to predict that four signal callers will be drafted on day one. With the Eagles, Chiefs, and other seemingly quarterback-secure teams entering the rookie discussion in an annually unpredictable draft, anything can happen.
As rookie quarterbacks continue to earn playing time sooner each year, it is probable that at least four of the players broken down here will start a game in 2012.
1. Andrew Luck, Stanford
College Experience: Fourth-year junior
40 Time: 4.67
Comparison: Rich Gannon
2011 Stats: 288-of-404 (71.3%) for 3,517 yds (8.71 YPA), 37 TD/10 INT; 3.2 YPC, 2 TD
Draft Prediction: Colts, No. 1 overall
Positives: Luck has fantastic pocket movement, consistently stepping up when facing outside pressure or flowing laterally against interior blitzes. He handles free rushers like a pro by immediately escaping the pocket or delivering a quick throw. One of the few stud QB prospects that is already comfortable from center, Luck's drop steps are very mature and coordinated with proper footwork. It is often overlooked, but Luck consistently delivers crisp passes with sound placement after working through progressions, even in limited space to operate. He is comfortable with anticipation routes after graduating from Stanford's traditional pro-style offense, consistently delivering passes in a catchable area before the receiver's head is turned. Luck protects the ball very well when moving in confined areas, covering it with both hands and dipping his shoulder to evade contact. His motion is incredibly smooth, with no hitches and a top-to-bottom release. Rather than sticking only to open options, Luck gives his receivers the benefit of the doubt if they have a step on the defender in close coverage or in mismatch situations. He isn't going to kill you on the run, but Luck uses his athleticism effectively, climbing the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield or taking the yards the defense gives him. He consistently tests defenses vertically, taking calculated shots in the deep sections of the field.
Negatives: It has been widely discussed that Luck lacks elite arm strength, and while that may or may not be the case, he certainly could follow through more often since some passes are shortarmed. He is a bit cautious in terms of velocity on short to intermediate routes, choosing to take off a few clicks to guide a pass to its target rather than firing a bullet. Luck could also improve his downfield trajectory, as some passes have too much arch. He struggles the most when a quick-hitting play is covered, whether it be a screen pass or an initial target after a three-step drop. Luck tends to panic more than usual in these situations, forcing a throw or losing coordination in his lower body.
Outlook: Luck is not a perfect prospect, but I firmly believe he is in a class of his own in this year's signal-calling crop. In fact, I would put Luck in the "rare" category of draft prospects, a title recently held by only Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh. Luck truly is beyond his years in terms of development by having more play-calling responsibility than numerous starting quarterbacks in the NFL -- with outstanding results. Luck might make it look too easy, and even boring at times with a smooth throwing motion and well-placed throws, but those skills will translate into consistency. Luck may not possess of the upside of Cam Newton or Robert Griffin III in terms of maximizing athletic potential and using it at the quarterback position. However, there is no doubt Luck's game seamlessly translates to NFL competition. Indianapolis will be a tough year-one landing spot, but Luck will instantly become the best player on the Colts' offense.
2. Robert Griffin III, Baylor
College Experience: Fourth-year junior
40 Time: 4.41
Comparison: Michael Vick
2011 Stats: 291-of-402 (72.4%) for 4,293 yds (10.7 YPA), 37 TD/6 INT; 3.9 YPC, 10 TD
Draft Prediction: Redskins, No. 2 overall
Positives: The Heisman winner dominated the Big 12 while showing dramatic improvement from the 2010-2011 season. Griffin is most lethal outside the pocket, keeping his eyes up to stretch defenses laterally then unleashing outstanding vertical bucket throws that always seem to be placed perfectly on the receiver's outside shoulder. Despite rare athleticism, Griffin is a passer first with high intelligence and a great grasp of the game, which has previously been a downfall for dual-threat quarterbacks. Griffin is still a dangerous runner and unafraid of getting skinny between the tackles. He always seems to get the ball out quickly, allowing the receiver to run in open space after the catch. Griffin is very active in the pocket after an initial read, effectively moving zones and spies at the second level to open up passing lanes. In the majority of times he faces edge pressure, Griffin is unafraid of stepping up into the pocket despite inevitable contact. This kind of poise is frequently overlooked, but Griffin is prepared to take a crushing hit if it means buying an extra second for his receiver to separate. The fast-hitting spread offense is common in college, but no one ran it better than Griffin. His timing was crisp despite a furious pace and many drives ended in the endzone after only five or six snaps because of Griffin's willingness to challenge defenses vertically.
Negatives: Despite committing himself as a pass-first quarterback, I still would not call Griffin a true pocket-style thrower. At least not yet. Griffin rarely started from center and it shows in his drops off the snap. His initial steps are ideal but when the first read is covered, the athlete in Griffin often takes over. His steps begin to lack purpose and coordination, with choppy footwork or a single long stride to the next read. These inconsistent movements also materialize occasionally when the pocket closes around him, with Griffin dropping his eye level to check out the pass rush, flashing discomfort in tight spaces. With that said, Griffin has really improved the way he resets after those chaotic instances, though he could do better in feeling backside pressure. I would stop short of saying Griffin has pinpoint accuracy on intermediate routes, but he consistently places passes in a receiver's catch radius, only occasionally missing high. It's nitpicking, but I am not a huge fan of how Griffin holds the ball before his throwing motion; it is very Troy Smith-esque with bowed arms.
Outlook: I had more concern about Griffin's future before the Redskins traded up. A team should craft its offensive style to fit the quarterback's skills, but I would have questioned Griffin's future if forced to solely work in the pocket. There is no doubt he works well on the move and makes exceptional throws, but it is tough to overlook the moments when his footwork gets chaotic -- focusing more on the closing pocket than downfield targets. Griffin's fit in D.C. could not be better. His sometimes-erratic movements may become an advantage under the Shanahans, who prefer mobile quarterbacks in order to stretch the defense. It is going to be a fun ride watching a player with Griffin's mix of athleticism and mental capacity develop in an offense that fits his talents like a glove.
3. Ryan Tannehill, Texas A&M
College Experience: Fifth-year senior
40 Time: 4.62
Comparison: Ben Roethlisberger
2011 Stats: 327-of-521 (62.3%) for 3,744 yds (7.19 YPA), 29 TD/15 INT; 5.3 YPC, 4 TD
Draft Prediction: Dolphins, No. 8 overall
Positives: Behind only Luck, Tannehill possesses the best poise and pocket movement in this year's class. Tannehill stands calmly between the tackles, evading pass rushers like a seasoned veteran. The Texas A&M offense showcases skills that project into an NFL offense, requiring the quarterback to drop from center and read route progressions that include anticipation throws. Tannehill did this remarkably well. No receiver group in the country let its quarterback down more last year than Tannehill's, consistently dropping routine catches while losing the majority of 50/50 balls. Tannehill unabashedly put them in playmaking situations, but was rarely rewarded. Faith in his surroundings and short-term memory will aid Tannehill in the pros. He flashes multiple anticipation throws in every game and shines on intermediate comeback routes along the sideline. It all starts with Tannehill's compact motion, quick release, and comfort in a closing pocket. Don't sleep on his running ability, but the former quarterback-to-receiver-to-quarterback convert is without a doubt a pocket passer by nature.
Negatives: Tannehill made only 19 quarterback starts after amassing 112 receptions and 1,596 receiving yards at receiver. Whether his play directly impacted the results or not, Texas A&M lost a handful of games last season despite late fourth-quarter leads. Tannehill's release is not the ideal, top-to-bottom motion that coaches covet, though it is consistent and generates plenty of velocity. Tannehill flashes his immaturity when reading progressions, making a couple of poor throws into disguised coverage in each contest. Some throws are rushed due to backside pressure, and Tannehill does have a tendency to hold onto the ball a bit too long when moving laterally with his eyes downfield.
Outlook: Despite common perception, Tannehill is neither a project nor raw. His command and control of the pocket rival top prospects in previous classes. I do not see the multitude of poor reads and throws others seem to perceive. In fact, the way in which Tannehill succeeded at receiver while attending both position meetings and instantly flashing mature quarterback qualities is stunning. After viewing 12 of Tannehill's 19 starts, he ranks as my eighth overall player, and I'd bang the table for the Browns to draft him with the fourth selection. Tannehill may ultimately land with college coach Mike Sherman, who's now the offensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins. Sherman, of course, helped shape the game of Aaron Rodgers, with whom Tannehill shares a similar playing style. It will not take Tannehill three years to develop, though, and I'd wager he starts early and finds success much sooner than others project. He has every trait that a quality QB must possess and graduated from an offense that used many NFL principles. If you cannot get over the facts that he was a successful receiver, has a relatively limited number of quarterback starts, and his team relinquished late-game leads, I implore you to dig below the surface.