Two of the NFL's top teams last season were built with an unintended but valuable advantage, one that minimized their salary-cap commitment at quarterback and created a surplus to spend on other positions. Is it time to fire up the copycat machinery?
The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, of course, won't always be so financially fortunate with Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, respectively. But as colleague Mike Sando wrote, there has never been more incentive for NFL teams to identify a young starter who is locked into his rookie contract for the first three years of his career. (Keep in mind that the Seahawks committed $16.9 million less in cap space to Wilson, purely as a function of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement, than their Super Bowl XLVIII opponents, the Denver Broncos, used for Peyton Manning.)
So as we look ahead to the opening of this week's annual scouting combine, I thought it would be worth advancing the conversation about this quarterback class and its capacity for providing candidates to fulfill that cap-friendly goal. I reached out to Steve Muench, who scouts college players year-round for Scouts Inc. and provides the evaluations you read on ESPN.com's Insider pages, to get an idea of where the class stands in this interim space between the college all-star games and the combine.
One of the broadest takeaways is that Scouts Inc. views the top of the class a bit differently than the conventional wisdom already forming. Their evaluators see Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater and Central Florida's Blake Bortles at the top, followed in a second tier by Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Fresno State's Derek Carr.
You're going to hear so much talk about those four quarterbacks in the coming months, but it takes only one team to like a debatable prospect for his "stock" to become irrelevant. My guess is that most NFL teams won't get a chance to draft Bridgewater, Bortels or Manziel because they'll be selected early in the first round. Carr might not be far behind, and so I want to focus on the next tier: Who does Scouts Inc. see as possibilities to become the next Kaepernick (the sixth quarterback selected in 2011) or Wilson (sixth in 2012) or even Nick Foles (seventh in 2012 by the Philadelphia Eagles)?
Let's run through a few of the candidates, using Mel Kiper's current top-10 ranking (see chart) as a rough guide:
School: Eastern Illinois
Muench: "He's a hot name for good reason. There are some things he needs to work on, especially his footwork in the pocket. But he's got a lightning-quick release, enough arm strength and a pretty decent frame (6-foot-3, 223 pounds). If there weren't concerns about the level of competition, he could be a first-round guy. We have him as a third- or fourth-round guy, but a lot of people are excited about him."
Muench: "If you're a team like Seattle, with a good defense and running game, and you need a guy to play well but maybe not elite, McCarron is probably the best example of that kind of player. You look at how many games he's won and how well he played in college. That speaks to something. The concern comes down to arm strength. He doesn't have the strongest arm. He will never be that vertical guy. But if you're looking for someone to play under those circumstances, to run your offense even if he is never an elite quarterback, I can see it for sure."
School: Virginia Tech
Muench: "He is a Kaepernick type in that he's very athletic and has a great arm. But in his case, there are questions about his accuracy, footwork and decision-making. I was at the Senior Bowl and the team sitting behind us was saying they would love to draft him and rebuild. You look at him and he's 6-5 1/2, he's 250 pounds and he has huge hands (10.6 inches), which is a big deal for quarterbacks. Teams with a good offensive system might want to take him and do what the 49ers did with Kaepernick. Use him as a backup for a year, year and a half, and then play him. He'll be the type who can make plays with his feet and be a powerful runner while he is learning the pro passing game."
Muench: "He tore his ACL [last fall] but mobility wasn't really an aspect of his game anyway. There are some who will say that his offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, made things easy for him and that he had a great supporting cast there. But he has an NFL brain, he's 6-5 and 240 pounds and he has maybe the strongest arm in this class. We have a third-round grade on him."
Those were the four candidates Muench gave me when we discussed this premise. I then asked about two other quarterbacks whom even casual college football observers would be aware of in this draft.
Muench: [Like Mettenberger, Murray tore his ACL last fall.] "He's tough and accurate, but people are going to look at his size. He's not even 6-1 and he's 200 pounds with smaller hands. What it will come down to for him is that this injury and his frame makes durability a legitimate concern. Some people see the frame and say, 'Russell Wilson,' but Russell Wilson is a far better athlete. He's a fourth-round talent."
Muench: "You're looking at a successful college player, but the scheme he played in raises a lot of questions about his ability to transition. You watch tape and see him having a hard time with his progressions and you wonder how much practice he's had doing what he'll have to do in the NFL. What he ran at Clemson is a package in the NFL, not an offense. You have to make plays in the pocket in the NFL, and that's a huge problem for Boyd based on what we've seen. I could see him as a late-fifth-round guy."
These evaluations are all subject to change as we move through the combine and into pro days. But at this point, most NFL teams have a strong base evaluation of players. They're now moving into the period of confirming or denying those initial thoughts. And we're off ...