- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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The first domino dropped one year ago.
Following the hiring of head coach Joe Philbin, the Miami Dolphins wanted a fresh start at quarterback and drafted Ryan Tannehill with No. 8 overall pick. Tannehill quickly developed, had a respectable rookie season and went 7-9 as a starter.
A year later, both the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets followed suit by drafting highly touted quarterbacks. The Bills took former Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel with the No. 16 overall pick in the first round, and the Jets drafted Geno Smith of West Virginia with the seventh selection of the second round, No. 39 overall. The Dolphins, Bills and Jets are all chasing the New England Patriots and future Hall of Famer Tom Brady in the AFC East.
Will the quarterback youth movement work in the division? The AFC East blog talked to an NFL scout this week to get his perspective on each quarterback's strengths, weaknesses and long-term chances for success.
Geno Smith, Jets
NFL scout: "I met him at the combine and he had a real good demeanor. I don't know him under pressure, but he seems like the kind of guy teammates can buy into. He can get streaky. I've watched him in games where you feel no ball is going to hit the ground. Other games I've watched and he missed easy throws by two yards, and you’re like, ‘You’ve got to make that throw.’ The good NFL quarterbacks can get to their second and third options, and Geno has some learning to do with that. But that can come with experience. I think he has upside. But sometimes he came off as a system quarterback where he has predetermined throws. You can do that only to a certain extent in the NFL. If he comes out early and has success, teams will start taking away his strengths and make him play to a weakness. That's where he has to develop. But the ability is there. The accuracy issue he sometimes has is a concern, because some of those incompletions in college are picks in the NFL. He’s not going to play any D-II schools in the NFL. You’re playing the best of the best every week. Even teams that are 2-14 have [athletes] out there. In this league, he’s going to have to be conscientious every play. He needs to be mentally alert."
Analysis: Several interesting things stand out about this scouting report on Smith. First, the scout liked Smith’s demeanor, which was a subject for debate for weeks leading up to the draft. Second, it’s obvious that Smith must shed his reputation as a system quarterback. Smith played in a unique system at West Virginia that included a lot of quick passes and easy reads, which is not the norm in the NFL. Smith also had quality weapons. His two starting receivers – Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey – were drafted in the first and third rounds, respectively, by the St. Louis Rams. You wonder if those players boosted Smith's stock or vice versa. In the eyes of this NFL scout, Smith has potential but needs to refine his game in several key areas.
EJ Manuel, Bills
NFL scout: "When you stand next to him, he's a big man. He’s a physically imposing figure for the quarterback position. He can make plays with his legs, but Manuel really is a passer first. While he made throws at all three levels, he would also miss throws he shouldn’t miss. That’s a concern with him. But the guy completed 68 percent of his passes – that’s pretty good. He’s just going to have some yips where you say ‘What was that?’ I compare him to Jason Campbell, but Manuel can do more as a runner. I think the kid can be an efficient passer and manage the game. He can do the read-option. He’s tough and played with pain. He’s not just a good character guy; he’s a sterling character guy. So I can’t say I’m surprised that Buffalo really likes him -- Manuel has some tools to work with. In the Florida game, he turned it over. That game he didn’t play well, but I don’t have concerns about him in big games. A lot of times he’s going to put your team in position to win. He can compete from Day 1, and I think he’s a possibility to be a Day 1 starter. I wouldn’t be surprised at all. But they got good competition in that way. So if he’s not ready, that’s fine. They’re in a good position where they can develop him. If you look at Buffalo, they’re making their team in the mold of the [Pittsburgh] Steelers. They have running backs, a 3-4 defense and now they have their big quarterback. I like what they’re building."
Analysis: The Manuel pick at No. 16 received a lot of criticism in the media. But the pick was not as much of a surprise for this NFL scout, who was complimentary of Manuel. In fact, the scout said he personally graded Manuel as the highest-rated quarterback this year, followed by Smith and Mike Glennon of NC State. It turned out that was the order of quarterbacks taken off the board. Glennon went in the third round to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Campbell comparison is interesting. Campbell has lasted eight years (and counting) in the NFL after being drafted No. 25 overall in 2005, but he never developed into a franchise quarterback. Manuel has more athleticism and a higher ceiling. Character also is important in a quarterback, and Manuel checked out extremely well from this scout's perspective.
Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins
NFL scout: "The thing you like about him is he’s big, can make all the throws you want and he has mobility. The biggest thing for him is getting acclimated to the NFL game. As a rookie quarterback, I would say he was above average. Making the throws isn’t an issue for him. The major thing is improving the accuracy, and I think he will going forward. I think he can be a top-15 quarterback, I would say. But how much time is he willing to put into learning defenses and knowing what he sees when he gets under center? It’s all about work ethic at this point in his second season. With all that said, Tannehill can definitely be successful, no question. With Miami adding all these pieces, I don’t see anything stopping him from being successful except himself. The thing is he’s got to be accurate, and he has to make good decisions. That’s the two things I look for as a scout. When you look at his stats, it didn’t really reflect what I saw from him on Sundays. The guy can play, and his ability to be efficient within the scheme is there. I don’t see any impediments to his success. Mike Sherman had success with Brett Favre in Green Bay and Joe Philbin with Aaron Rodgers. These things are very important. Those two know how to make things comfortable for a quarterback. Everybody there is behind the quarterback to be successful, and I think he can."
Analysis: Of the three young quarterbacks, the scout said Tannehill has the most potential to be a franchise building block. But Tannehill has a one-year head start in the NFL and played well most weeks last season. That has a lot to do with it. I saw a lot of the same things with Tannehill last season. He has good arm strength, and he also possesses mobility as a former college receiver. The Dolphins added some read-option plays for Tannehill late in the season. The scout brought up a very good point about Tannehill being coached by Sherman and Philbin. Both have been around future Hall of Famers and know what a franchise quarterback looks like. Tannehill is in a fortunate spot to learn from both coaches. Miami also proved it is behind Tannehill 100 percent by boosting his supporting cast. The Dolphins were aggressive in free agency and signed receivers Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson and tight end Dustin Keller.
From this scout’s perspective, all three quarterbacks have potential for promising futures. That is good news if you're a fan of the AFC East. Brady is signed with the Patriots through the 2017 season. Therefore, the young upstarts in the division will compete against Brady for the foreseeable future.
Brady can't dominate the division forever. Several years down the line, one of these three players could take over as the top quarterback in the AFC East.