By Steve Silverman
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The NFL draft is more important now than it ever was in the past.
A decade or more ago, teams could go into the draft and select a player who was going to be given time to develop, particularly at the quarterback position. It didn’t matter if that player had to sit on the bench a year or even two before he was inserted into the lineup and expected to produce.
Those days are long gone. Only two or three teams have the luxury of waiting for prospects to develop. The Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, the San Francisco 49ers and the AFC champion Broncos should once again be elite teams in 2014, whether they get top-of-the-line rookies in the draft or not.
But don’t expect any of those teams to sit on their laurels. John Schneider and Pete Carroll were able to turn the Seahawks into a powerhouse by bringing excellent young players into the fold for the past three seasons, and that formula is not likely to change very much. They know that drafting top youngsters will assure that their big-name players take nothing for granted.
The 2014 draft is deep, and teams will find starters through the midway point of the third round. While big names like Jadeveon Clowney, Greg Robinson, Justin Gilbert, Taylor Lewan and Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix are all going to be celebrated before the first half of the first round is over, most NFL decision makers are obsessed with the quarterback position.
This year’s group features five signal-callers that could be selected before the end of the first round, although there is a chance that number may only reach three.
However, don’t think for a second that this year’s quarterback class is not special. While it may not be quite up to the level of the Class of ’83 that featured Dan Marino, John Elway, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason, Ken O’Brien and Todd Blackledge, it has great talent.
Here’s a look at the top five quarterbacks:
1. Blake Bortles, Central Florida (6-foot-5, 231 pounds, 4.93 40-yard dash) – Bortles has everything the scouts are looking for in a quarterback — the size to see over the rush, the instincts to know where it’s coming from and the athletic ability to run away from trouble and throw the ball on the move. Bortles is a student-of-the-game type who responds well to coaching and should be able to step in and play and then make progress for his first three years.
Bortles has good but not great arm strength, and while he has been compared to the Colts’ Andrew Luck, he does not throw the ball with that kind of velocity. However, he does throw it hard enough to get the ball deep and in an excellent position for the receiver to catch the ball. He looks like a solid quarterback who could one day become a star.
2. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M (6-foot, 209, 4.68) – Manziel is the most controversial quarterback in this year’s draft. There are a number of scouts who are concerned with his lack of size and arm strength. Some coaches would never draft any quarterback who is less than 6-2 on general principle, and that’s because they have learned that smaller quarterbacks are at a major disadvantage.
However, smaller quarterbacks from past generations have always been denigrated, including Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton. The original “Scrambling Man” was despised by his first head coach, Norm Van Brocklin, but Tarkenton never let anyone’s doubts or fears bother him. Russell Wilson, another small quarterback, is also doing fairly well. Manziel, is smart, athletic, gutsy and active and knows how to keep plays alive. He will have to get rid of the ball much sooner in the NFL than he did at Texas A&M, but he will be prepared for that. Manziel has a chip on his shoulder and is ready to prove all his doubters wrong.
3. Derek Carr, Fresno State (6-2, 214, 4.69) – Most scouts have Carr as the fourth-best quarterback of the class, but he has a chance to become the best of the bunch because of his arm strength and athleticism. Carr can throw the ball deep down field and put a ton of pace on it. He is obviously most comfortable stepping up into the pocket and letting it rip, but his arm strength is best demonstrated when he is under pressure and can still put plenty of MPH on the ball when throwing off of his back foot.
Carr is also surprisingly agile and athletic. He has the quickness to avoid the rush and make big plays with his feet. Carr’s accuracy on his medium-depth passes was a bit of a concern at Fresno State, but he has excellent technique and should be able to improve in that area quickly.
4. Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville (6-2, 215, 4.79) – There are very few weaknesses to his game, and the best part of it may be his overall understanding of how pro-style defenses will try to attack. Bridgewater is very smart, understands the intricacies of the position and throws a very accurate ball. Some scouts are a bit down on him because he did not put on his best show at his pro day, but he has responded consistently in the face of real competition.
Bridgewater has good but not exceptional arm strength. He also has a release point that’s a bit low, but that is balanced out by his ability to find the ideal throwing lanes and then letting go of the ball in a decisive manner.
5. Jimmy Garoppolo, Eastern Illinois (6-2, 223, 4.97) – Garoppolo has shot up the board since the start of the 2013 season. That’s to be expected because it was hard for most scouts to feel confident in their analysis of a quarterback from an FCS school who was not playing against elite competition. However, Garoppolo has excellent fundamentals and he knows how to put extra zip on his throws when he needs to get the ball to the sidelines in a hurry.
Garoppolo seems to have the confidence needed to make the step up to the NFL and contribute quickly. He may not have ideal size, but he will find the lanes and throw the ball with zip and accuracy. He projects as a middle-to-late second-rounder at this point, but it seems more likely he will be selected by the early part of the second round. It would not be a complete shock if a team traded either up or down to take him late in the first round.
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