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2015 NFL Draft: Evaluating the quarterbacks

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Draft Phantom evaluates the top quarterbacks in the 2015 NFL draft, with one surprising inclusion.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

As I pen this article the Bucs are a vile 2-8, devoid of defensive secondary talent, mired in merry-go-round quarterbacks, an offensive line that is as coordinated as the Keystone Kops, and look like they have a legitimate shot at finishing with a top 5 pick. I knew it would be bad, especially early.I didn’t know it would be this bad.

After 10 games our gaze would be firmly fixed on the 2015 NFL Draft. I wrote a three-part article early last season with Tampa Bay 0-6 that mapped out a plan to get Tampa to the Super Bowl in 3 seasons. The Bucs didn’t follow much of my advice(except for taking Robert Herron with a day 3 pick) and while the fan base was ironically firmly behind firing Schiano and hiring Lovie Smith, my urging to take a quarterback high in the draft met with a 300-comment debate on moving on from Glennon.

I hope the time has come where we can have a discussion about not just getting "ok" at QB but getting someone we can really build around.

You can pick any offensive scheme you want, but if you don’t have a good QB it's really difficult to consistently score points. I don’t mean a competent QB who avoids mistakes and can deliver a ball into an NFL window. Lots of QBs can do that, including more than a few who currently sit on the pine. I mean a QB who makes plays, someone who makes the players around him better, and someone you can design your offensive scheme around. That really is the key: if you have a QB the organization believes in and who performs, you can select players and schemes that benefit what he does best.

Andrew Luck is fantastic but the first thing the Colts did after drafting him from Stanford was draft two tight ends in Colby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. The Steelers have given their great long-ball tosser tall, speedy outside receivers, and the Saints have surrounded Brees, whose best ability is intermediate ball placement, with plenty of after-catch creators. Not knowing who is going to be throwing passes over the next 5 seasons infects every personnel decision with added risk. Will our next QB be able to use these players to the maximum of their ability?

I hope the time has come where we have the central piece that can give us an offensive direction.

I am also, as many of you regulars know a huge fan of the NFL Draft. Ever since childhood I have been fascinated with its ins and outs. I’ve followed it intently as a passionate fan, amateur draftnik, learned lessons and tried to get better at the projecting the process. I’ve always tried to be objective, but in my heart I’ve longed for the QB class of 1983 or 2004. Both classes produced 4 starting QBs a piece in 32 picks, including Hall of Famers/Future Hall of Famers John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, Drew Brees along with starters Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, and Ken O’Brien.  If you count in Tony Eason and Matt Schaub, lower-end starters, both of these drafts produced 5 starters. I’ve missed that 2004 draft, I’ve dreamed of something that rivals 1983. This isn’t that class but I firmly believe there are three starters in this draft.

I also hope the time has come for us to not just draft a QB in round 1 as a "savior" but to understand that even great young QBs need players around them that maximize what they do.

Number 1 Overall: Marcus Mariota,

6’4" 211, Oregon JR(RS). And it's not close.

Strengths

Had he declared himself eligible last season he’s probably quarterbacking the Houston Texans right now. Mariota is a game-changer at QB. No NFL defense will be able to play the same against him as they do any other NFL quarterback. You lose pocket containment against Mariota and it’s a strong possibility that it's good night Irene.  While he is a running threat with great speed, Mariota knows how to protect himself: he slides and gets out of bounds, and the only hits you see him take are down at the goal-line and at the sticks.

His arm strength is definitely in plus territory and would rank him somewhere between 8-12 among NFL starting QBs. His field vision appears to be on the higher end of the spectrum as well, as Mariota is willing to attack either side of the field. Accuracy is in the above average territory on intermediate and short throws.  Deep ball accuracy is sufficient but will need work at the pro level.

Mariota also has a high football IQ. You don’t catch him not knowing where the first down marker is and he manages the game as a true field general. The best over-looked "pro translation" skill he has is the clean overhead release with a fast delivery. His ability to digest new offensive plays quickly is highly praised by the current and prior Oregon coaching staff.

Challenges

That single read offense he runs. It is not a pro offense and the adjustment period for Mariota could be quite lengthy. Not only does he have to get used to new terminology, working under center, and adjusting to the speed of the pro game, but now he has to speed up that clock in his head significantly while simultaneously analyzing the defensive coverage. That is not easy and its generally my #1 predictor of when a QB will fail.

Mariota gets to be the exception to the rule, not because I want him to be, but because I didn’t want him to. Over three seasons playing in Eugene he’s gotten significantly better each time out, his physical tools allow him to compensate, and his competitive nature will eventually be able to win out. He could be a bigger, faster version of Russell Wilson with better arm strength and that’s terrifying. On the downside he could be a faster, healthier version of Sam Bradford.

How to help him develop

Spoon-feed the offense to him. Bring him along slowly like Seattle did where you are asking the QB to make a few pro style reads the first game, then a few more, then a few more. As crazy as it sounds with so many other holes, I would strongly consider getting him another tight end receiving target. He’s used to some multiple-tight-end sets at Oregon and those are easily transferable to the modern pro game. Jeff Heuerman, Nick O’Leary or EJ Bibbs & Maxx Williams later on would all provide a nice one-two TE punch. His center Hroniss Grasu would make a good late 2nd/early 3rd round pick for someone and give him some stability.

Which offensive coordinator would be most helpful?

Carl Smith.  Currently the QB coach in Seattle and has been groomed to take over as OC for awhile, the Seahawks have expected lose Darrell Bevell to a head-coaching position. Smith hasn’t been an offensive coordinator since 2005-2007 with the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he was not a fan favorite (few offensive coordinators are). However during that time the Jags made the playoffs twice (1-2 in the postseason losing both times to the Patriots) and his teams averaged 22.5, 23, and 25.6 points per game during his tenure. I think he’d be ideal for another shot and considering he’s now had success with Byron Leftwich, David Garrard, Matt Leinart (USC), and Russell Wilson I think he’d be ideal to help Mariota.

Bottom Line

Mariota is the best athlete in this draft.  He’s the best in terms of maturity and squeaky-clean off the field. He’s among the top 10 in terms of positional play and he’s gotten better every season at Oregon. He is also highly competitive and a dynamic game changer at QB wherever he lands.

#2: Jameis Winston

6’4" 235lbs SO(RS) FSU

Strengths

Winston plays in a modified pro system under Jimbo Fisher and has a plus arm combined with tremendous natural feel for the game. His delivery motion is fairly lean but a bit elongated delivering overhead or ¾ depending on the situation. It's "clean enough" to play at the pro level. Jameis can make any throw on the field, he will also produce a half dozen or so "wow" throws a game that very few people on the planet can make. He’s got exceptional pocket mobility, his feel for rushers is the best since Luck came out and he moves so effortlessly to where he can get his feet set when he throws it's hard to adequately describe in words at time.

Jameis makes really challenging throws look simple. He can read defenses and makes in-game adjustments more rapidly than any other QB in this draft. His deep passing is nearly elite in terms of touch. He can slow down a bit on some of his dump off passes to backs but is still more than adequate. On the field he displays good leadership skills and command of his offense.

Challenges

Oh boy! I’ll start with the two on-field areas that needs the most improvement. First off his ball placement on short and intermediate throws within the hashes needs to be more consistent. The other area of on-field play is his over-confidence in his ability. Every game there are two or three throws he certainly should not make. The off-the-field issues are well-chronicled from a rape allegation (never charged but called before a student review board) to stealing crab legs to shouting obscenities about women in the student union (following said rape allegation). Winston has made poor choice after poor choice.

How to help him develop

I actually think Lovie’s brand of "fatherly discipline" would help Winston. Position-wise we’ve got some big ball-catchers already, but I would recommend finding a bigger set of slot receivers. If he slips, Devon Funchess of Michigan would be a prime pickup at the top of round 2 and play a unique hybrid TE /WR function for Tampa. His old buddy Rashad Greene would thrive between Jackson and Evans and is currently a 2nd-round guy. We need to fill right guard for whomever we draft, but Josue Matias and Tre’ Jackson from FSU would fit well, as would Arie Koundijo from Alabama or Jarvais Harrison from Texas A&M.

Which offensive coordinator would be most helpful?

Freddie Kitchens, the former Crimson Tide QB has been a TEs and RBs coach in the NFL since 2006 before becoming the Cardinals' QB coach in 2013. He’s "on the rise" and highly discipline-focused. Kitchens' career has survived for 8 seasons in the desert as he’s well-respected and highly likeable. Having seen Ken Wisenhunt, Bruce Arians, and Tom Moore, Kitchens has worked 8 years under some of the best offensive minds in football and gotten along with well multiple different personality types.

Bottom Line

Jameis throws some of the best passes with the most natural feel for the game I have seen since Todd Marinovich played for the Trojans and that’s what scares me, though I don't want to compare Jameis' issues with a heroin addiction. Had Marinovich had his head screwed on right, the Raiders with Marcus Allen, Marinovich, and Tim Brown could have had people talking about how the Cowboys with all that talent won only 1 or 2 Super Bowls. Winston has that sort of top side talent, will he make it or pull a Lillo Brancato?

#3 Garrett Grayson

6’2" 220lbs SR (RS) Colorado St.

I’ve been honestly holding this right up for 3 weeks hoping Grayson would do something to lower my opinion of him. If anything it's gotten worse because he’s been fantastic. More to the point I’m probably best-known for calling Mike Glennon a career backup before he ever played 4 full games, calling Blaine Gabbert a 6th-round pick, and placing EJ Manuel 4th among QBs in his draft class. It's easier to be critical of "consensus" than breaking tradition and saying "This guy could be the real deal" far ahead of everyone else. When it comes to Grayson,as of the writing of this Kiper doesn’t have him top 10, Scouts Inc. has him exactly 10th, CBS has him 7, I am here to say they are all wrong, it's lonely saying so, but this is what I see.

Strengths

When I saw him two years ago I dismissed him pretty quickly as just a good college QB without the passing velocity to have success in the NFL. The fundamentals were there, but he was an unrefined Kellen Moore and his frame was too skinny. That’s changed! His arm is even stronger than it was his junior year and he’s added upper-body muscle.  I wouldn’t call his a "plus" arm like Winston's, but it's above average and when combined with his other abilities that is total game-changer on Grayson.

His deep ball is the best of any QB in this class. He doesn’t need an elite receiver out there to hit it (just a fast one or blown coverage). It's on time, it's got touch, and it's accurate. A good deal of his passing yardage comes from hitting WRs 38-42 yards downfield. This isn’t as common in the NFL game, but when you can hit them they can be game-changers. The increased velocity has also given him greater precision over the middle of the field.

Short and intermediate routes over the middle are on a rope now and he’s particularly adept with TEs over the middle. His screen passes have touch as well. His mobility is what I would call functional-plus (picture a younger Josh McCown). He doesn't have great lateral agility, but he’s a long strider and sprints well. He’s also deliberate so if you lose middle contain on 3rd-and-5 he’s going up the middle on you without hesitation.

He plays in a modified pro-style system, run by former Crimson Tide OC Jim McElwain, so it's a pro-style route tree mixed with some spread concepts. Grayson makes all the line protection calls (about 75-80% of college QBs get these from the sideline). He’s competitive, having had to win the starting job three times at Colorado State: once as a freshman, again as a sophomore when McElwain became the head coach, and again as a junior coming off of an injury. He also has saved his best performances for his best competition, leading the Rams to an upset victory over Washington State in the 2013 New Mexico Bowl.

That earned him an invite to the Manning Passing Camp (along with Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Brett Hundley, and Sean Mannion) where he mentored young high school QBs and got mentored by the great one himself. He’s beaten "Power 5" conference teams Colorado and Boston College on the road (leading comebacks in both games), handled the best two Mountain West defenses (Utah St. and Wyoming) and played "ok" but not great on the road against Boise -- in fairness he didn’t have the ball often as CSU got outrushed 324-28.

Challenges

His biggest challenge is accuracy on throws towards the boundary: 5-yard outs, deep outs, etc. I am hoping this is a by-product of not always having good arm strength, but where he used to "float" the ball out there (leaving it vulnerable to interception) now he’s gunning it towards the wrong shoulder. I’ve also never seen a "good QB" decide to consistently rush the bubble screen -- its maddening to watch him do it because the ball placement is everywhere.

Obviously the level of competition is a bigger adjustment factor here, but that’s a matter of time. He has two different release points: one almost sidearm, the other at 3/4s. The lower delivery point is going to lead to some balls batted down at the line. He also does have some injury history. He’s played through a groin pull and shoulder injury but missed time his sophomore campaign with a broken clavicle.

His footwork is inconsistently good, as he still "sets up" at times like he’s a weak armed QB. Only other concern is his adjustment phase when McElwain took over. Grayson nearly lost the starting position he’d earned as a freshman because learning the playbook was reportedly a challenge for him. It didn’t happen and after the Manning Camp he gave an interview where he stated that in his younger days he didn’t put enough work into film and playbook study (High School and Freshman year as college) I’ll take him at his word since McElwain trusts him to make line checks and run the two minute drill, but it's something to keep in mind. He also needs to do a better job "showing" the ball on play-action fakes.

How to help him develop

Don’t call a bubble screen until he nails that down. There are children in the stands and some of those throws are downright ugly. I watched him put one on a frozen rope a yard above and behind the WR when he rushed it. Teach him to slide, as he doesn’t run often and he tries to get down but he’s going head first. Get this young man a pass-catching RB like Duke Johnson or Jeremy Langford. Adding AJ McCann in round 2 to provide pass protection at RG and pull on those screens would be helpful.

Which offensive coordinator would be most helpful?

Rob Chudzinki , Currently "Special Assistant" at Indianapolis, after his unceremonious exit from Cleveland. That’s a good spot for the brilliant but interpersonal-skills-challenged offensive guru. Chud rubs everyone else the wrong way in ownership groups and coaching staffs, and he’s not coached more than 2 years for any pro team since breaking into the league in 2004. There is no denying his talent though, with Cam Newton a rookie he had the Panthers (who had finished at the bottom of the rankings the year before) in the top 10 in yardage. His Cleveland offense in 2007 finished 8th with Derek Anderson. He can strategize, call signals and takes great advantage of his TE’s.

Bottom Line

Grayson is not so much a sudden riser as a late bloomer. You don't even need to see the velocity change, you can look at his arm size and definition and see the physical transformation he's undergone. Now at 23 he's more mature physically and mentally. He's got the ability to throw "strikes" on target and to throw a great deep ball on time with accuracy. Now he needs an organization behind him to help put it all together at the next level.

Everybody else in one fat sentence

4. Connor Cook JR(RS) Michigan St. - Leaning towards going back to school and should, his footwork is still too inconsistent to transfer to the pro game, in another year he could earn a spot in the first round but right now a day 2 guy.

5. Bryce Petty SR(RS) Baylor - Very mobile and good arm strength but the footwork is really bad. When you add that to the scheme change he's going to have problems transitioning and likely needs some "pine time" before being a competitive starting QB candidate.

6. Shane Carden SR E.Carolina - Smart but with a frail build, Carden has a great deal of passing precision but doesn't come from a system resembling a pro-style offense and does not come with the elite physical skills you want to make that conversion.

7. Brett Hundley JR(RS) UCLA - According to reports he thinks he's ready for the NFL but he's not. Hundley has no feel for opponent blitzes whatsoever. While I was a fan of his early on, he's regressed and needs to refine his game.

8. Dak Prescott JR(RS) Miss St. - Win that national title, but he's currently not NFL-caliber in terms of passing precision. He needs to refine his throwing motion before he's ready, and needs to play with a more steady base.

9. Sean Mannion SR Oregon St. - Lacks the ability to move in the pocket, he throws a pretty ball with a good pocket around him but pressure bedevils him and he's likely a long term backup.

10. Jerry Lovelocke SR(RS) Prarieview A&M - All the physical skills every NFL team could want but mental acuity and level of competition are major concerns on a guy who is more of a thrower than QB at this point.

11. Cody Fajardo SR(RS) Nevada - Very lower-end in terms of development. Not precise with his delivery and limited upside, but sufficient athleticism to have a few cups of coffee in the NFL.

12. Tyler Heinicke SR Old Dominion - Going to be a fine QB coach some day, but arm strength is functional-minus, leaving him in clipboard-holder-at-best status.

13. Brandon Bridge SR(RS) S. Alabama - He's worth developing if you're patient, with a plus arm and functional mobility, but the level of competition and slower read-progression make him a multi-season project.

Final Note: I’ve removed all the "really insane" options on the staffing.

I do hope you've enjoyed the article and hope that next year.... all of you are asking me about back-of-the-first-round prospects who can make a difference.